Topher's stomach roiled again as bits and pieces of Nolan splashed into the orange-red liquid in the bathtub. Maybe it was a blessing that he hadn't managed to eat anything after DeWitt gave him the order to send Sierra to Nolan; his stomach didn't have anything left to give up, which meant he could get done with this task all the faster if he didn't have to actually stop to empty his gut anymore. He still didn't understand why Boyd couldn't do this -- wasn't that his thing? Topher had been trying to do right by Sierra -- no, Priya -- so why did he feel like he was being punished?
For that matter, why had everything gone so horribly, horribly wrong?
"Did you think one moment of conscience would make up for living for years without one?" asked the half-melted face of Nolan, bobbing in the acid.
He screamed himself right into wakefulness -- thank God. Well, if there was a God. Topher wasn't too sure on that, and -- what time was it? His eyes found the radioactive-green readout of his alarm clock: 5:45 am. Yes, not-quite-six in the am was far too early to be looking for God. Any god.
"Topher? Topher! Are you all right?" Ivy's voice came down the hall a few beats ahead of her.
Topher had thought that a long hallway was better than a door -- it took longer for uninvited guests to get through, therefore giving him more warning -- but now he was thinking his sleeping space could still use a door as well. At both ends of the hall.
He wiped his hair from his brow with a shaking hand, and the air on his damp skin made him shiver. "I'm fine!" he snapped, then took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Sorry, sorry, I'm ... I just had a nightmare is all. Go ahead and run an equipment check, and I'll be there in a bit. 'Kay?"
"Uh ... sure ..." she replied, nodding while eyeing him warily. Thankfully she did better this time at following orders than usual, scurrying off without such delays as, oh, pressing him for the details of his nightmare out of some morbid curiosity. If she had been DeWitt, it would have been another story entirely -- Dewitt would have pressed him, and it wasn't like he could order her to go away ....
Grabbing a change of clothes, he made his haphazard way down the stairs and over to the employee locker room, with its showers -- the ones the Dolls used were a little too lacking in privacy for his liking. He knew there were no cameras in these showers, though. And at this time of day, the employee locker room was, blessedly, invariably empty.
He flinched when he turned the water on. Flinched! Memories of blood-stained porcelain and hot, almost scalding water on his hands flooded his brain; he shook his head violently, as if he could shake the thoughts away like water drops. He hurriedly turned the water off.
"Get a grip, Topher," he hissed at himself. "And stop talking to yourself ...."
Well, he needed a shower -- his nightmares had seen to that. But that sound .... He'd started trembling, and even with the shower off now, he was still shaking. And ... maybe hyperventillating. A little.
Thankfully, he remembered the ear plugs he kept in his locker, for when he used the Dollhouse pool -- he couldn't hear a thing with them in! Problem solved! He managed to revel in his genius for about two seconds before he remembered that his genius was what had gotten him in this situation in the first place ....
Finally getting the shower going, he just stood under the heat for a minute or two, hoping to relax the tension that the night's activities had left in his neck and shoulders. Maybe he would take advantage of the Dollhouse masseuses later .... He almost fell asleep on his feet, tired as he was -- he'd gotten maybe an hour of actual unconsciousness at best. But even now, he couldn't leave his eyes shut for long; his mind filled with visions of blood if he did. (Why oh why couldn't it ever be sugar-plum faeries? He wasn't sure what they were, but they sounded nice.) Alas, this particular time, opening his eyes proved no better than having them closed: blood swirled in the water, and it took him several seconds to realise he wasn't hallucinating -- his nose was bleeding. The sight and smell was too much; it was almost a shame there was nothing left in his stomach, seeing as this was probably the most convenient place to be sick. There was simply no satisfaction in dry heaves.
Getting his stomach and nose back under control, he dried himself, put a towel around his waist, and got his electric razor out of his locker. He leaned against a sink, careful not to look at the drain (how long before the sight of one wouldn't make him want to yawn in a spectacularly technicolour fashion?), and turned on the razor. But the vibration and the sound reminded him too much of the feel of the bone saw as he'd used it on Nolan; he threw it hard against the floor in frustration.
As he stared at the shattered remains, he wanted to be sick for an entirely different reason now, which he supposed was refreshing.
"Sorry, Dad," he whispered as he gathered up the pieces. The appliance, a birthday gift with which his father had taught him to shave, was the last piece of evidence he'd ever gotten that his dad had even the slightest bit of parental affection for him, saw him as a son and not just a commodity. Looking at the fragments, Topher knew he couldn't fix this any more than he'd been able to fix whatever had been wrong in his relationship with the man who'd given it to him. His throat tightened, this happenstance being the last straw on the back of a camel-load of unfortunate recent events. Unable to throw the remains away, he gently laid them at the base of his locker and quietly, morosely, closed the door. He leaned his forehead against the cool metal, finding it oddly soothing. He didn't even realise that he was crying until the first sob escaped painfully from his throat, followed by a deluge. It was oddly fitting that the only shoulder he had to cry on was actually a cold, personality-free locker.
Panting and trembling again, he considered skipping the shave, but then worried the hawk-eyed DeWitt might notice and be reminded of the events of the day before -- the ones she knew of, at least. And the more she dwelled on it, on Topher's belligerence and Sierra's unexpected return, the better the chance she might figure out what had really happened. Best not to act out of the ordinary, he decided. He resolved to go borrow another razor from the Dolls, until he remembered the cameras; someone might notice and wonder why he needed to use one of their razors. Then he remembered that lady-killer Simmons often used a razor before leaving for the day (wanting to look his best before "cougar"-hunting, Topher supposed), and never bothered to lock his locker ....
Praying that no one would catch and tattle on him -- Simmons was a big guy -- Topher used his towel to open the locker (last night's activities had made him paranoid about leaving fingerprints). He had to sift through a mountain of belongings, including a jock strap (ew) and a first aid kit. (Really? With the infirmary right there?) At last, he found it. The razor was one of those old-fashioned kind, the sort where you actually had to screw in a blade. Retrieving a fresh blade from a box Simmons kept in the locker, Topher made a mental note to talk to the man about leaving sharp objects within easy access of the Dolls -- then erased said mental note when he remembered he wasn't supposed to be scrounging around in the man's stuff in the first place.
The handler's can of shaving cream was nearly empty, so Topher had to go with a water-only shave. Of course it only took one stroke before he nicked himself.
Great. More blood.
He again considered just skipping it, but forced himself through it, considering it practice for the things he would have to force himself to do the rest of the day. The rest of his life.
After all that had happened with Sierra, the idea of programming another person now filled him with revulsion. Amazing how, despite the fact that nothing had really changed (Priya's situation had always been what it was, even if he hadn't been clued in on it), his perspective had been irrevocably altered, his world turned upside-down. Once upon a time, he'd thought the idea of being a doll would be freeing, allowing people to forget their sins and become their best; as far as he was concerned, it wasn't just some line they fed the Dolls. He knew first-hand how certain happenstances could paralyse you, make it difficult to function; Madeline had known it too, and at least a handful of other Dolls. But now ....
How many volunteers weren't really volunteers at all? How many clients were really just clients and not psychotic perverts like Nolan, or worse? How many others had Topher helped rape? How many more people would he ruin, if he kept doing his job?
But what choice did he have? He couldn't just quit. Being banished to the Attic might not be so bad -- at least he couldn't hurt anyone then -- but what if he were instead made into a Doll himself? On the surface, that didn't seem so bad either, but what if he was made to kill? Even if he never really knew he was doing it, how could he risk letting them use him that way? Maybe Nolan had deserved what he'd gotten, but what if Topher was made to kill an innocent? The Rossum Corporation had already proven that they had no qualms in that regard. No, letting them wipe him, tempting as it sounded, would be as careless as Simmons leaving his razors where Dolls could reach them ....
So he would keep going as he was, as best he could. "I try to be my best," he mocked himself. He dreaded facing DeWitt, though; Topher wasn't much of a liar, especially to her. Oh, he could keep a secret -- that is, he could not talk at all about something ever. His family had been old pros at ignoring the elephants in a room -- and there had been a fairly large herd of elephants! Like his parents, Topher was a master at misdirection, at changing the subject. But unlike them, if asked a direct question, he couldn't tell a lie; he could only change the subject or not speak at all. So if DeWitt pressed him and he couldn't successfully get her sidetracked, even if he said nothing ... well, she was smart, would figure it out. Especially since she knew him, knew his body language -- just like he knew hers. The slightest downward curve of her lip, the slightest tightening of her eyes, spoke volumes to him, could make him toe the line like nobody's business -- and he would wager that it worked the other way around, that she could read him like a book. And if DeWitt grew suspicious enough to realise there was an unsolved equation here, and put two and two together, Priya might still get sent to the Attic. Maybe him and Boyd, too, and while he could see some appeal in that fate for himself, Topher didn't want that for Boyd because he was pretty sure Boyd wouldn't want that for Boyd ....
Don't borrow trouble, his mother had cautioned him once, and, being one of the rare moments where she actually cared to bestow some motherly advice, it had stuck with him. Besides, it wasn't like he could do anything about his predicament. All he could think to do was go back to looking at the world the same way he had just twenty-four hours earlier, like the Dolls were all volunteers and he made them be the best people they could be. For all he knew, maybe it was even true for some of them. The only difference now would be that he would never allow Sierra to be sent on engagements of a romantic nature again. Surely DeWitt would agree to that? Especially now that Nolan was gone?
Topher took deep breaths and thought soothing, zen thoughts. He then pretended to himself that doing all that had worked, that he was serene and not just compartmentalising, and went back to the task at hand. Cleaning and removing the blade, he put that in his locker rather than throwing it out, just in case he might ever need it again, then returned the handle to its owner's locker. He gasped as he closed the door; for a moment, his hand had seemed covered in a red a few shades darker than the locker was painted. Blinking, the image was gone.
Wonderful; now he was Lady Macbeth? He almost wished he had some of Rossum's drug left -- at least then, if his past exposure was any indicator, he'd be a happy sort of fruit-loopy ....
Turning back to the sinks and the mirror, he splashed some cold water on his face. Other than burning his newly-razor-burned skin, it didn't help much. He winced as he saw the dark circles under his eyes -- he looked like he'd been punched. Well, he supposed he had been -- sucker-punched by life because, as Echo had oh-so-helpfully pointed out, he just didn't pay attention. Then again, changing that fact was why he was in this predicament now. Then again, if he hadn't, Priya would have be Nolan's love slave for all eternity.
As if her situation now is really any better?
Topher glanced back at the handler's locker. Would the preening Simmons maybe have any make-up stashed in there ...?
~ * @ * ~
Adelle had woken up feeling like she'd been worked over with a cricket bat, but here she was at work ... still feeling like she'd been beaten up and left for dead. Bloody hangovers. There was something she should have Topher work on, the next and best hangover cure! Adelle braced herself through her morning meetings, hoping she hadn't given the okay for something she shouldn't have, and went down to check on the man.
Topher, a man? That would never seem normal, thinking of him as such. He was in his late twenties and she'd known him for four years now, and she still wanted to call him a boy. Of course, the way his lab was decked out like a clubhouse didn't help, but she didn't mind. She appreciated his playfullness and childlike enthusiasm most of the time; it made their work seem a little less awful than it could sometimes be. Truthfully, there were times when she visited him under the pretense of getting an update when really she just wanted cheering up.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere in his lab was palpably less cheery today.
Amazing how reality could change in an instant without really changing at all. Sierra was still a Doll, as she'd been for a year, yet now, thanks to gaining one vital piece of information that they hadn't previously been privy to, both Adelle and Topher could hardly live with that fact, even though yesterday they'd been proud of their work. Another example: none of Topher's usual childish accoutrement's were missing from his work/livingspace, nothing had been repainted, everything was the same -- except Topher's attitude, and that made all the difference. Oh, he smiled and greeted her, but Topher was no actor. His smile was taut as a bowstring, his eyes having completely lost their usual mischievous gleam, gone all dark with brooding.
And was that ... makeup under them?
It broke her heart to see him try so hard. She wanted to tell him that it was okay to be upset over what had happened, but unfortunately it wasn't okay. Not for either of them, not if they wanted to stay out of the Attic -- or avoid a worser fate. They needed to keep everything business as usual, maintain the status quo. Problem was, Topher had, until now, seemed to think himself sheltered here and, knowing something about his personal history, she had never discouraged that way of thinking. Besides, for the most part, he had been sheltered from the horrors of the outside; Adelle certainly hadn't imagined something so vile was going on as Priya's situation! But today, Topher looked much more like the man he was considered to be when one used physical age and social markers; it seemed that the previous day's experience had aged him, inside and out. She found herself wishing she could turn back the clock twenty-four hours, feeling like a mother whose son had just undergone something truly traumatic for the first time.
He probably wouldn't appreciate that analogy, though.
She could tell that her callous treatment of him the day prior had wounded him; he was more guarded around her now. Normally when she touched him, he leaned into the contact; yesterday, he had grown tense under her fingers, and today he actually, albeit subtly, leaned away! He radiated resentment and raw misery, his every word tinged with barely-veiled sarcasm. She wondered how long it would take to be forgiven, relieved that he at least wasn't letting it affect his work. He did his job without arguing or questioning her; only those who really knew him (which was basically just herself and Ivy and maybe Langton) would be able to tell at all that anything was really wrong. She wished she could praise him, but then what would she say? Thank you for not being difficult in spite of what I made you do? For that matter, she reckoned he would be behaving much worse if Sierra were still with Kinnard now.
Hell, she was half-surprised Topher hadn't just let the woman go, although she supposed he knew full well that Rossum would find out somehow and send him to the Attic. He might feel bad -- certainly, Adelle felt bad herself -- but that didn't mean they should sacrifice themselves for Priya -- especialy as Priya would likely have been caught and brought back anyway. Topher was damn lucky Adelle had managed to keep the whole "Dr Saunders up and leaving"-thing under wraps, what with there not being anyone at Rossum to wonder about her as Kinnard would have wondered about Priya if Priya hadn't been sent to him. Sad as it was, no one waited for the woman who was once Whiskey and now Claire ....
Adelle resolved to slip Langton another bonus in his paycheck, once she came up with a suitable excuse to use for in the paperwork; knowing Langton's background, she doubted very much that Kinnard ran off so much as was made the star of a more permanent disappearing act. Hopefully no one at Rossum would make note of Langton's involvement in the investigation and recall his personal history, one that involved making people go away on a regular basis. Maybe it was wrong that Priya was now trapped in the Dollhouse, but it was better than being trapped with Kinnard, surely?
"Thanks for the treatment, pal! I'll be seein' ya!" a now-imprinted Echo told Topher, bumping the programmer's shoulder companionably with her fist, causing him to flinch.
"Later," Topher told her with a half-hearted wave.
Adelle noted the way Ballard watched Topher, and warning klaxxons sounded in her head. She'd forgotten about Ballard's being a profiler; he might notice things amiss in Topher's behavior even more easily than Adelle herself! She would have to make sure Ballard was never alone with Topher, at least until things blew over, lest the ex-FBI agent should start asking questions ....
"Hey, would you bring me back a burrito from that corner deli?" Ivy asked Topher after Ballard and Echo had left.
Adelle was non-plussed by this. "Wait, you mean Topher's getting his own lunch? Outside? Did hell freeze over?" she quipped.
"Something like that," Topher muttered as he pulled the imprint wedge from the Chair. Then he seemed to realise she had heard that. "I, uh, just need to get some air," he said with as much pleasantness as he apparently could muster, not meeting her eyes. "I'm fine," he added, rightly anticipating her next question.
Which translated into he wasn't fine at all, but didn't want to talk about it any more than she did.
"Well, if you're going out, maybe you could bring a burrito up to my office when you get back," she suggested, code for "If you change your mind about talking, you know where to find me." Not that she expected he would take her up on the offer -- in fact, she rather hoped he wouldn't, as talking about feelings rated right up there with getting a mammogram on her list of Things She Knows She Should Do But She'd Rather Not -- but it was important to make sure he knew she wasn't unsympathetic or angry. She wasn't sure that had come across very clearly yesterday, what with her alcohol-induced haze ....
He nodded non-commitally. Satisfied that this meant no, he wouldn't be paying her a visit, she patted him on the shoulder, feeling a twinge of regret as he pulled away. She hit the button for the elevator, relieved when it opened immediately.
"So does this mean you'll get me the burrito or not?" she heard Ivy ask Topher as the door closed.
~ * @ * ~
Some of the phobias Topher had programmed into Dr Saunders were ones Topher himself was personally familiar with, though to a much lesser extent. He didn't usually have panic attacks, could go out if he wanted to, he just wasn't really comfortable with crowds. While social situations could make him feel awkward and anxious, they didn't generally paralyse him. His major issue with being out and about was more a matter of getting endlessly frustrated with the stupidity of the average person. Today was a perfect example: was it really that difficult to grasp leaving the pickles off his burger? First the clerk apparently hadn't heard him, despite his speaking very slowly and clearly, as there was no sign of his wishes on his order ticket. When he pointed this fact out, the cashier, rolling his eyes, told the cook to leave the pickles off. But when Topher sat down to eat, he found his burger had pickles after all -- and was missing the cheese. He brought the food back up to the counter, where he was told he would have to wait a few minutes for a new burger, as they had a large order at the drive-thru. The cashier was unmoved by the force of logic, ie the fact that Topher had been first and it was their fault he'd had to return to the counter in the first place, so his corrected order should be first as well. The manager was nowhere in sight. Realising that he wasn't really all that hungry anyway, Topher tossed the burger against the cashier's chest, telling him to forget it, then poured his cola onto the counter and stalked out.
Normally situations like this would have him wishing he had the cashier in his Chair so he could programme some manners into the guy, but this time, the moment the thought began, Topher shoved the thought aside, feeling sick for entertaining the notion at all. Nolan had basically done just that with Priya, making her think the way he wanted her to, without free will -- and using Topher to make it happen. The problem with having the ability to alter how and what people thought was that anyone could use it for any reason they saw fit, petty or otherwise. And while certain situations seemed like it was obvious what was the right and wrong way to behave, Topher wasn't sure he was the best judge -- especially after what DeWitt had said to him yesterday about him having been chosen to work at the Dollhouse in the first place because he had no morals ....
Topher took a deep breath, letting it out in a heavy sigh as he focused on his next task. He hadn't been lying about needing fresh air -- well, perhaps a change of scene was more accurate, as the air in the Dollhouse was a hell of a lot fresher than the air in LA -- but he'd had another reason for going out for lunch: namely, replacing his electric razor. So a few moments later, he found himself walking into one of those pharmacy-slash-convenience stores, trying to figure out what aisle category his quarry fell under. After a couple of wrong guesses, he just decided to wander up and down the rows, dodging little old ladies, people with colds (despite his efforts, one guy managed to sneeze right in his face), and small children with oblivious parents, and hurrying past items like personal lubricant and tampons. How could anyone buy stuff like that without dying of mortification? Those seemed like mail-order items to him. Like porn! Maybe they could rent out Dolls to buy embarrassing personal items for people. Hell, wasn't this part of why the Dolls existed? So people could do all sorts of embarrassing things and then wipe their partner's memory of the event after?
Priya had certainly seen the mind-wipe as a blessing. Topher still wished he could do it to himself. Then again, Priya probably had a lot of moments in her life worth remembering, and now she couldn't, and yes, Topher felt awful about it -- far more than he'd ever though even possible. But still ... for himself, there were a lot of moments in Topher's life that he'd rather forget, especially now, and he was having a hard time thinking of things he wanted to remember ....
Finally, after half-heartedly geeking out over a couple of action figures, a few gadgets, and a video game -- and it said a lot that, in the end, he didn't grab any of them to buy -- he found the elusive electric razors. All eleven of them. Did there really need to be that many choices, half of them from the same company? Unsurprisingly, none were anything like his nearly-fifteen-year-old model. Sighing, he read each box, trying to figure out what made the expensive ones so special compared to their lower-priced cousins. Not that money was much of a concern to him, but if he was going to pay seventy bucks, the razor better do all the work by itself! Fifteen minutes later, he realised Ivy was probably starving, and he was keeping her waiting. He settled randomly on a mid-range model and got in line at the only open register.
Of course there was some sort of problem with every single transaction ahead of him, either with prices ringing up wrong or not at all, or with the customer changing their mind six times on whether they wanted to actually buy this item or that. And it was inevitable that two of the customers paid by check, which they wrote at the same speed as kindergartners first learning their letters. Topher called Ivy and told her to have a pick of anything in his fridge, as obviously they would enter into another ice age before he finally got out of the store he was in (and did she have to sound like she suspected anything she'd find in his fridge would probably be alive?). Finally, ten minutes after he got in line, he was one person away from the front of the line. So obviously the child of the woman at the counter just had to upchuck right then, barely missing his shoes.
It was a lucky thing Topher hadn't eaten.
He left the electric razor on a shelf and hurried out. As he left, the wail of a power-saw from a man remodeling the storefront next door assaulted his ears. Shaking, Topher hurried away from the sound, stopping just short of walking right in front of a car that was turning illegally. After it passed, he hurried through the crosswalk, desperate to get away from the all-too-fresh memories that his surroundings conspired to remind him of.
Across the street, he found haven in the shape of a park, green and serene.
Serene, save for the sound of flowing water, a sound that conjured images of a blood-filled tub and sink.
~ * @ * ~
Claire had been able to order everything she needed via the Internet. Even her groceries were delivered. She had emptied out the real Dr Saunder's accounts, then put a large amount of the money onto pre-paid credit gift-cards, so she could order things online without being traced. She lived frugally in a sublet, and stole Wi-Fi from the Internet café next door.
And yet here she was, forced to leave the apartment building because it was being fogged for bugs, of all things. She wasn't sure she wanted to go back, now.
She wandered, trying to find a café or store that wasn't crowded, but having no luck. The city sounds drove her, like a sheepdog herding a lost lamb, to a park where a fountain muffled the noise. There, she spotted a pair of benches surrounded on three sides by trees. There was only one occupant, sitting with his knees drawn up, feet on the bench. Wearing the hood of his jacket up, his face was buried against his legs. His arms wrapped around his head, the fingers of one hand fiddling with something on his opposite wrist. He rocked slightly in his seat. She sympathised with him, musing that she just might get into a similar position herself once she sat down. People tended to avoid those who seemed crazy, so hopefully passersby would give the benches a wide berth ....
The man was mewling; she could make out a word here and there. It sounded like he was begging for something to stop. She had to pass the occupant of that first bench to get to her own, and found herself slowing as she did; she hated seeing anyone suffer. Perhaps she was just programmed that way, or perhaps that was the way people were supposed to be -- she wished she knew which. She acted on the impulse, just in case. Stopping in front of the man, she had a better view of the thing on his wrist that he was blindly fiddling with: a silver bracelet.
Her sharp intake of surprise caught his attention, and he jerked his head up. His hood fell back, revealing eyes dark with fatigue and red from crying. And, well, wide with shock.
"Wha ... what are you doing here?" he asked hesitantly, wrapping his arms around his knees and lowering his eyes. "I ... thought you were in ... hiding or something?"
"Apartment's being fumigated," she said simply, a little gobsmacked herself. Really, the person she least wanted to see in all the universe -- well, save maybe Alpha -- was in the one refuge she had left? It was ... well, it was damn suspicious was what it was!
"Oh," he replied, still not looking at her.
She got the strong impression that he very much wanted her to leave, which likely meant he wasn't there to trap her or something. Well, if staying meant both having someplace not so terrible to wait till she could go home again and had the added bonus of tormenting him, who was she to complain?
"So what are you doing here?" she asked, sitting beside him -- albeit as far away as she could get and still be on the same bench.
"I ... um ... I was just--"
A high-pitched whine started up, startling them both; she saw a construction worker across the street, working a power saw. Having identified the sound, she relaxed and turned her attention back to Topher. She found him rocking again, this time his hands pressed tight against his ears. She couldn't hear him, but reading his lips, she eventually made out that he was saying "please stop", over and over. His eyes were squeezed shut -- and then he opened them wide, looking terrified. He started hyperventillating.
The doctor in her kicked in again, recognising symptoms that pointed to the possibility of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It wouldn't be the first time he'd shown them; Topher hadn't been in the best of shape after Alpha had gone nuts and started cutting people up either. So what had triggered it this time? She might have thought it was seeing her, but he'd already been out of his mind when she'd found him. And after he saw her, he had calmed down and hadn't start to lose it again until the saw had started -- but why? Alpha had used a knife, not a saw ....
She grabbed hold of his wrists and realised he was trembling. He was looking in her direction, but it was obvious that he wasn't seeing her.
"Topher. TOPHER!" she snapped. "Look at me."
Blessedly, the sounds of the saw stopped. His eyes darted, then he seemed to focus on her, looking confused.
"That's it. Keep looking at me. Listen to my voice, nothing else. There is nothing else. Look at me."
His breathing calmed as he slowly came back to himself. "I ... I don't want to look at you. You're ... you're part of it."
Now what the hell was that supposed to mean?
"You're one of the things I did wrong!" he elaborated, leaning his head against his hands. "Every time I try to help, I just make things worse! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" His face screwed up in anguish, and he quietly sobbed.
Damn him, it was hard to not hate him a little less after that.
But only a little.
The saw started up again, and Topher started to freak out again. Uncertain if it was the doctorly portion of her programming or some sort of instinct that overrode what programming Topher had used to make her hate him, Claire reached out and pulled him close, smoothing his hair. The saw stopped, and he relaxed -- marginally.
He pulled away from her as if she were a live wire. "S-sorry! Sorry ...." He got to his feet. "I ... I should, um ... go ...." He stood up and looked about, as if uncertain where to go.
What on Earth could have happened to shatter him like this, eliminate all cockiness? Had Alpha returned? Were the other Dolls in danger?
Was this worry for them all her own or her programming?
Did it really matter? Besides, her curiosity on the matter would kill her for sure, and staying here while she grilled him, with the saw setting him off every minute or so, was going to get on her last nerve.
"I'm going with you," she informed him, getting to her feet.
"No! Nonononono! You go back there, a-and DeWitt will never let you out again!" Topher protested.
She shrugged. "I'm miserable out here anyway."
"You were miserable in there!" he pointed out.
"At least I was miserable with a purpose, rather than aimlessly miserable like I am out here," she replied with a rueful smirk.
Topher looked despairing then, fresh tears glittering and on the edge of falling. He looked around helplessly, carding his fingers through his hair in frustration.
And then the sawing began anew, and he was on his knees. "God! Please stop it! Please!"
She wondered if bitter snarking was his gift to her or her own inherent talent, as she asked, "Talking to yourself, Topher? Can you answer your own prayers?"
The saw stopped again; apparently The Lord Oh My God could answer his own prayers.
She could tell her words had hit their mark, though, hard; he averted his eyes from her, shoulders hunched like a woeful, shamed child. Odd that she hated seeing him this way even more than seeing him act all self-important and god-complex-y.
She sighed. "Come on, before that saw starts up again," she told him, helping him to his feet and then leading him by the elbow.
~ * @ * ~
Thanks to the security monitors in the Dollhouse, Boyd had, over the course of the day, seen how dejected Topher was looking and felt sorry for the kid. Last night, he'd felt it was important for Topher to clean up the mess he had helped create -- or so he'd told himself. But now Boyd couldn't help but wonder if maybe there wasn't some small part of him that had been really been punishing Topher for putting him in such a situation, forcing Boyd to step back into a role he'd hoped he'd left far, far behind him. The ease with which Boyd had slipped those metaphorical shoes back on had unnerved him. But the thing was, it wasn't really Topher's fault that Boyd had been presented with those shoes again; it was Rossum and Kinnard's. True, Topher enabled them, but blaming him for what had happened was like blaming a city driver for hitting a deer just because he was driving; it would never occur to them to be on the lookout for a deer in the city, they'd be blindsided. It had never occurred to Topher that Priya had been anything but a mentally-ill woman; the kid had had every reason to think he was doing a good thing.
And Boyd had to give Topher props for listening to Echo; Boyd didn't think he would have, were he in Topher's situation. Because of Topher, Boyd now knew something important: Echo was more than just a Doll now. Boyd almost wished he could share that revelation with Topher, but Topher was in a bad position to know such a thing, too under Rossum's control despite his little act of rebellion. The fact that Topher had disobeyed DeWitt at all suggested that he was maturing, but the horrific end result of that disobedience might ensure that Topher would stay well behind the line of indiscretion now, for fear of what else might happen if he crossed it again ....
Realising now how rough the night had been on the boy, and knowing how useful it might be later to have Topher in his corner, Boyd, on his lunch break, bought something of a peace offering: a pint of chocolate mint ice cream from Topher's favourite stand, a place that Topher had, on occasion, asked Boyd to stop at on his way back from engagements. As Topher rarely went out himself, and Boyd had been the only handler to ever grant this request, Boyd knew it had been quite a while since the kid had been able to indulge in his favourite treat.
Thus, he was more than a little surprised to see Topher outside, walking on the sidewalk, as Boyd drove to work. His shock increased exponentially as he saw Claire Saunders on his arm. Boyd sped his car and parallel-parked up the street with almost super-human speed. He got out and hurried over to the sidewalk just in time for Topher and Claire to catch to him up. Both of them flinched when Boyd stepped into their path. Claire being jittery and not meeting his eyes, he understood; she'd told him about her agoraphobia and social anxieties. And, well, after the things Boyd had asked Topher to do, he supposed he understood Topher's being uncomfortable around him as well. But Topher looked ten times worse now than he had on the monitors, and Boyd didn't think it was just a matter of poor image quality on the screens ....
"You guys want a lift somewhere?" he offered. "Doesn't have to be the 'house ...."
"Well, we're going to the 'house," Claire informed him, holding her head up defiantly and even meeting his gaze.
"All right," he agreed, holding his hands up in surrender.
Topher's eyes fell on the ice cream container in Boyd's hand, and a hopeful look crossed his face, making him look a little closer to normal. "Is ... is that ...?"
Boyd smiled and held the pint out to him. "Yup. I was just on my way back from lunch and stopped for a cone. Remembered how much you like that stuff ...."
Topher granted him a sad but nevertheless sincere smile. "Thanks ...."
"No problem," Boyd nodded encouragingly, then turned back to Claire. "Hop in," he told her, opening the passenger-side door.
As if Mother Nature had been holding off for Claire and Topher's sakes but couldn't do it anymore, it started to drizzle.
After settling himself into the driver's seat, Boyd adjusted the rear-view mirror and caught sight of Topher hunched miserably in middle of the back seat, long fingers clenched tight around the lid of the ice cream. The boy looked pale as a sheet, and Boyd realised the kid was wearing make-up under his eyes. How much worse would Topher look without it?
"So ... you guys wanna tell me what's going on?" Boyd asked, eyes still on Topher in the mirror, figuring the kid would crack more easily than Claire.
"I think that's my line," Claire mused from beside Topher, behind the driver's seat. "You want to tell me why I found Topher in the park, freaking out like he has PTSD? He wasn't this bad after Alpha came back -- or even after Alpha flipped out in the first place. So I'm guessing something new happened after I left? Something to do with a saw?"
As Boyd watched, Topher turned his head away from her, his eyes clenched shut. Boyd felt another stab of guilt for what he'd made the boy do; he should have guessed that something like this would happen when Topher had looked so horrified last night. By the time they'd finished, Topher had been nearly catatonic. Still, when the boy went off with Priya, he'd seemed better, and Boyd had assumed he'd get over it. After all, between the two of them, wasn't Topher supposed to be the one with the clinical detachment? Wasn't that how he was able to do what he did, day in, day out?
Remembering how mortified Topher had been when Boyd had told him how to dispose of the body, Boyd realised now that he had been making an assumption -- a wrong one. He had ignored the signs because it was more convenient to treat Topher like he couldn't possibly care about people. But Topher himself had proven that he had empathy when he'd shown Boyd the brain scans comparing Topher's own brain with that of a potential serial killer -- Topher's scan had shown activity in the area of the brain that supposedly controlled empathy, while the killer's had not. And here Boyd was supposed to be the one who thought the Dollhouse and its attitude towards people was monstrous, but disposing of Kinnard had, in the end, been little more than an inconvenience to Boyd -- as had countless others Boyd had eliminated over the years. Boyd was actually far more upset at being involved than the act of disposing the body itself. And what did that say about him?
He didn't think there was enough chocolate mint ice cream in the world to make up for what he'd done to Topher, the conclusions he'd jumped to or the mental scars he'd apparently given the boy. But then, Topher probably didn't think there was enough beer in the world to make up for what he'd accidentally done to Priya, either ....
When Boyd met Claire's eyes, he didn't see her fear -- or her scars, mental or otherwise. All he saw was a doctor determined to find out what had happened to her patient. All of her patients. It was then that Boyd understood that he had another ally here in his efforts to protect the Dolls.
And so he answered her question.
By the time he was done, she, too, looked a bit pale, enough so that he couldn't help but notice the scars now -- both kinds.
"You still want to come back?" he asked her.
"I never said I wanted to come back," she replied. "But I need to."
He nodded, understanding. He would have left the Dollhouse his first day, but someone needed to stand between the Actives and Rossum; his replacement might not have cared so much. Seeing as Rossum hadn't even bothered with a true replacement for this second Saunders, and considering what went down with Priya, apparently the heads of Rossum fet the Dolls were disposable, easily replaceable. Did DeWitt feel that way as well? He didn't think so, but control of the Dollhouse seemed to be slipping away from her anyway, so maybe it didn't matter.
Or maybe their small army would grow by one more before long.
Boyd was about to turn the key to start the car when the rain started falling torrentially, drumming on the roof, surprising him. "Wonderful," he muttered; he hated driving in heavy rain.
A whimper from Topher drew Boyd's eye back to the rearview mirror; he saw the kid pressing the heels of his hands to his ears, grimacing, the ice cream pint resting in his lap.
"Topher, it's okay," Claire told the kid, undoing her seatbelt and turning to face him, gently trying to pry the boy's hands from his ears.
Seeing that something was seriously wrong, Boyd hurried out of the car and opened the back passenger door, sliding in on Topher's opposite side. He took hold of Topher's wrists and, not being so gentle, succeeded where Claire had failed. "Topher, what is it? Hey, come on, buddy, talk to me ...."
Topher opened his eyes but didn't seem to really see him. "The water runs, and all I see is blood! Eyes open or shut, there's blood and water, everywhere! I can't get away from it!" Tears started to fall, as if in homage to the rain outside.
Boyd looked to Claire, feeling helpless and more than a little guilty.
Claire cupped Topher's cheek, getting his attention. "Listen to me Topher. Water is everywhere, but blood isn't, okay? Water is ... is like the air -- it was there, but it has nothing to do with what happened last night. Do you understand? It was just there. In fact, it made the blood go away. Okay? Water is your friend. It washes away the blood. When you hear water, you'll forget it all -- it washes away the bad memories, too," she told him soothingly, hypnotically. "Picture the blood fading away until the water is clear, Topher. Picture it all clean and clear ...."
Boyd felt Topher relax, little by little, and let go of the kid's wrists, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder.
Topher nodded at Claire. "Thanks. That ... helped. A-a little."
"I wish I could tell you this would all go away overnight ...." she replied in that rueful way she had.
Topher looked stricken then. "I shouldn't have programed you with those memories. I'm so sorry," he told her, his voice breaking.
"Yeah, well, I won't thank you for them, but I understand how it would have been problematic if you hadn't -- I would have wondered why I had these scars and no memory of how I got them."
Boyd looked at her scars with new eyes. Had she gone through something like what Topher was going through now? He felt a flash of anger at Topher for making her go through that -- then it faded as he saw the regret in Topher's eyes. Topher simply hadn't been capable of understanding how terrible his actions had been, but he was learning now, and the remorse he obviously felt was a good sign that he was taking the lessons to heart. Being angry with him for past indiscretions would be like punishing an adult for things done in childhood, which in and of itself was almost like punishing a totally different person for the crimes of another. Boyd felt punishment was about preventing someone from doing something again, not about getting vengeance for what they'd done already.
Claire seemed to agree. "If you really feel badly about it? Just promise me you'll do what you can to minimise traumas when you programme the imprints."
"I'd rather not programme them anymore at all," Topher muttered.
Boyd was glad to hear the kid say that -- proud even -- but at the same time, it wasn't realistic. "The Dollhouse will go on even if you quit, Topher -- and your replacement may not care so much about the well-being of the Dolls. We need you to keep working, all right? Don't give Rossum a reason to get rid of you."
Topher sighed heavily and nodded. Boyd could tell that Topher would have a very hard time enjoying his work now; if Boyd had been more vindictive, had been interested in seeing Topher suffer for seeing people like toys, he might have been pleased. But who would want to hurt a child for being a child? Instead, he told the kid, "Now you'll be programming the Dolls for their own sakes, rather than the client's. Think of it as preparing them as well as possible for a war neither they nor you have any choice about being in. You just have to help them through this until we can maybe find a way to end it."
Topher looked hopeful then. "You think we can?"
"I think we have to," Claire said. "We obviously can't trust Rossum with these people's lives."
Boyd nodded; Topher did too.
"You ready to go back?" Boyd asked his companions.
"As I'll ever be," Claire and Topher said in tandem.
"Jinx!" Claire said quickly, grinning at Topher.
Topher stared at her in wonder, then grinned back, tentatively. "Does this mean you can stand the smell of me a little better?"
She gave him a lopsided smile. "Well, not that I picture us being BFFs anytime soon, but ... well, people can change their programming, under the right circumstances -- you should know that better than anyone."
"Touché," Topher replied ruefully.
Boyd wondered if she was speaking of him as the programmer or as someone who had just gone through a life-altering event.
~ * @ * ~
Topher had slept during that short ride in Boyd's car, and that time had been blissfully dreamless; he was too exhausted now, too drained to feel any distress or fear now, having trembled it all out in the park apparently. Now he just felt weak and somewhat nauseated. While he'd been out cold, they'd gotten a call for an impromptu engagement, a date for a special dinner, and Ivy had used one of their standard imprints ... on Sierra, as DeWitt hadn't specified what active to use and Sierra was free. Topher managed to rein his frustration in long enough to tell Ivy to go ahead home early, as they had no other treatments scheduled, and he only had one imprint programme to work on. As soon as Ivy was gone, he headed into the back room, grabbed his pillow, and screamed his frustration into it. Really, could he not leave this place for five minutes?
"She'll be fine," came Adelle's voice; he spun and found her in his doorless doorway. "I assume that's what this little tantrum is about?"
He nodded, looking away.
"Mind you, I was cursing into my scotch when I heard whom Ivy chose. But the engagement really is just a dinner date -- her handler has strict orders to bring her back as soon as the evening is over, well before the black van turns back into a pumpkin. And I've made a notation -- we can't keep Sierra from all R engagements, but I can at least forbid she be used for any sexual ones."
Topher said nothing. What did she want him to say? That it was okay to keep using Priya so long as sex wasn't involved? Despite the fact that she didn't belong there in the first place?
Adelle sighed; he felt her breath skirt across his back, and shivered.
He turned, curious at the note of pleading in her voice.
She looked sad enough that, out of pity, he couldn't bring himself to pull away when she reached out and brushed the hair from his eyes. He was still hurt by the things she'd said, and by what she'd made him do, but he'd missed this, the small, affectionate, motherly touches. They'd been rare in his childhood, but here in the Dollhouse, not a day went by where Adelle didn't make at least one token gesture like this. She'd spoiled the gesture utterly yesterday with the words she'd spoken, but now things felt ... normal? Maybe not, but right, at least. There was no cruelty in it this time. Finally looking into her eyes, it occurred to him that she'd taken a hard blow yesterday herself; he already knew she hadn't wanted to give him those orders, and he'd made it even harder for her by protesting. She had to put him in his place, make him feel as powerless as she'd felt, so that he would comply, so he wouldn't end up forcing her to send him to the Attic ....
"I promise you, I don't like what happened with Priya any more than you do," she told him softly, cupping his cheek. "If I could still believe in God, I'd pray with all my might that she's the only one we were misled about, that every other Doll truly came into this place willingly. And if you can think of some way out of this, some way to set Priya free -- truly free, no Rossum going after her -- I'm all ears."
He wished he had an answer to give her -- not just for Priya, but for her.
Adelle drew her hand away, leaving his cheek cold. She took his hand and squeezed; he squeezed back, telling her she was forgiven. She might have gotten herself into the Dollhouse, but once there, she'd become a doll of sorts as well, a puppet forced by Rossum to dance to their tune or go into the fire. Not much of as choice. he would look out for her like the rest of the dolls, find a way to free her with the rest ....
"So, I see Dr Saunders has returned," Adelle remarked. "Your doing, or Boyd's?"
"Hers, actually," Topher admitted. "She ... chose to come back."
Adelle nodded, and he knew she understood the difference. Even if he had doubted this, she proved it with her next words. "If she chooses to leave again, I won't stop her. But ... I'm glad she's back." Adelle then gave him a considering look. "You really do look exhausted. Why don't you take a nice nap?"
"I have an imprint to write," he protested, even though he wasn't eager to write it. It was just that, he might have slept nightmare-free in the car, but he wasn't sure his next attempt at rest would be so successful.
"I'm not in any hurry for that," she said, and he wondered if she was not-in-a-hurry the same way that he was, wishing it didn't have to be done at all. She reached into a pocket, then held out her hand, revealing a pair of pills in her palm. "From Dr Saunders -- she said you looked like you needed them."
He held his hand out, accepting the pills; remembering what Saunders had done for him in the car, he wasn't about to refuse any advice from her.
Adelle stood and ruffled his hair, bringing her hand down to brush his cheek; he reached up and put his hand over hers, leaning into her palm a moment, enjoying the contact, the knowledge that there were people who cared about his well being. Looking up at her, he wondered if those were tears glittering in her eyes, or if it was just the light. They exchanged wan smiles, and she left.
Swallowing the pills with a swig from a bottled water he kept by his cot, he leaned back and gladly traded wakefulness, with all its horrors, for oblivion.
~ * @ * ~
Claire liked the Dollhouse best like this: dimmed for the night, its residents mostly asleep, its employees gone home, save for a very few. Like this, its evil curbed, it was almost pleasant.
Of course, with the lights so low, it was all the easier to see when someone wasn't asleep. Like herself, with her desk lamp on as she caught up with files of all the engagements she'd missed the last couple of months. Like Topher, his own desk lamp like a lighthouse beacon.
She looked at her clock: 3:56 AM. She knew he'd taken the pills she'd sent up with Adelle; he should have been out for hours yet. (Did the guy have the constitution of an elephant or what? Probably too much Mountain Dew or coffee in his system ....) She hadn't told Adelle the details of his condition, as for all she knew, even if Adelle had guessed correctly that Kinnard was dead, the woman had no way of knowing that Topher had been involved. Adelle had no reason to know that Topher hadn't complied with the letter of her orders; the very fact that he'd been ordered to make a woman love her rapist was reason enough for him to be at least somewhat distraught, depressed without Addelle having any reason to think more of it. Claire was confident that she'd at least helped Topher overcome his PTSD being triggered by running water, and the likelihood of someone operating a saw in his vicinity or bleeding copiously was small. She'd work with him when she could, and hopefully those wouldn't be a problem at all, with time.
Deciding to pull rank on her maker for his own good, she headed up to the lab with another pair of pills. Not that getting him hooked on sleeping pills was a good idea, but the more rest he got now, rather than waiting until he'd gone without sleep for a week, the better his recovery would be.
She looked at her clock: 3:56 AM. She knew he'd taken the pills she'd sent up with DeWitt; he should have been out for hours yet. (Did the guy have the constitution of an elephant or what? Probably too much Mountain Dew or coffee in his system ....) She hadn't told DeWitt the details of his condition, as for all she knew, even if DeWitt had guessed correctly that Kinnard was dead, the woman had no way of knowing that Topher had been involved. Adelle had no reason to know that Topher hadn't complied with the letter of her orders; the very fact that he'd been ordered to make a woman love her rapist was reason enough for him to be at least somewhat distraught, depressed without DeWitt having any reason to think more of it. Claire was confident that she'd at least helped Topher overcome his PTSD being triggered by running water, and the likelihood of someone operating a saw in his vicinity or bleeding copiously was small. She'd work with him when she could, and hopefully those wouldn't be a problem at all, with time.
"I'm doing what you told me to," he replied as he stared at the screen and made a few more keystrokes. Then he glanced about, a conspiratorial look in his eye, and leaned towards her, gesturing for her to come close. "I'm adding something to all the imprints. A knowledge of self-defence, in case any of them is attacked or abused by the clients."
She pulled back, visions of Alpha filling her head.
"Oh, don't worry!" he told her hurriedly. "Nothing lethal, only defencive. I'm not turning them into time bombs or something -- I just want them to be able to protect themselves if they get in trouble and a handler can't reach them. If fact, while your here, you can help me! I want to give them all an understanding of first aid, too -- you can make sure I didn't forget anything important!"
Claire was surprised and pleased to see Topher taking what she and Boyd had said so close to heart, but he had that manic look, which wasn't very healthy for him. "That's ... that's great Topher, but it can wait until after you get some sleep. I mean, we're both tired, and people make mistakes more when they're sleep-deprived."
"No, no, it can't wait till morning. Look, we can shine it up tomorrow evening, but I'm not sending one more active out unprepared. Maybe we can't do perfect right now, but ... well, something is better than nothing."
"We don't give children guns for a a reason, Topher. Children need protection the most, but we don't give them more than they're capable of using. And unless you can take the time to check everything over very carefully, you might as well be handing a child a loaded gun. I don't think you're capable of checking things properly at the moment."
Just like that, the manic gleam in his eyes went out, his shoulders sagging. "When you're right, you're right," he conceded. "I just ... I wanted ...."
"I know, Topher," she told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. He started at the contact, looking up at her uncertainly. She gave what she hopped was a reassuring smile, but really, how reassuring could she be with the scars on her face? "It is a good idea; I'm glad you thought of it. And I promise I'll help you tomo--"
"Whoa, check out that face!"
Claire followed the voice and spotted Echo sauntering over.
Ballard followed after her, looking understandably surprised to see Claire. "Doc?" he asked, then shook his head. "Sorry, ah ... this imprint's a little lacking in tact. I suspect Topher put a bit of himself into this one."
Claire stifled a smile. It was probably true, but this was a bad time to point it out.
Case in point, Topher looked a bit green around the gills as he hurriedly got to his feet and grab Echo's hand. "Come on, let's get you a treatment," he ordered whomever Echo was right then.
"Okay, what is up with him today?" Ballard asked Claire in undertones.
Claire felt inexplicably defensive of the man she'd once loathed. "I thought you were an ex-FBI agent," she remarked. "Maybe you need some practice? Your deduction skills seem to be on the downslide." And with that, she left him gawking as she followed after Topher and Echo.
A short while later, Echo rose from the chair, and she and Topher did the usual post-wipe active/programmer-exchange.
And then, as Echo started to leave, she stopped and turned back to Topher. "You seem sad," she noted.
Topher didn't seem as startled by this as he ought to be, making Claire wonder what else she'd missed while she was away that wouldn't be in the reports.
"I am," he confirmed. "I ... I'm not my best. But I'm ... I'm working on it." And there it was: Topher addressing a doll as a person, rather than a cute robot that could talk. If Claire had any doubts as to his having changed at all, it was dispelled in that moment.
Echo, too, seemed satisfied with his answer, nodding at him once, then turning to leave again. Ballard seemed to want to ask Topher what he meant by that, but opted to go with Echo instead.
For a moment, Claire considered following them, but decided that, for the moment, making sure Topher got more rest was more pressing. She was sure she'd have plenty of opportunities to study Echo, now that she was back. Especially now that Boyd was head of security.
~ * @ * ~
As far as Boyd knew, Topher didn't have any major freakouts in the following days. He was perhaps more subdued than he'd been in the past, but he did his work diligently, and was as bossy and snippy with Ivy as ever -- maybe even more so. The handlers chalked his new less-vivacious personality to overwork, and the fact that Topher still wasn't sleeping fantastically -- Claire reported that she kept finding him staying up late, working on making the repetitive imprints safer -- only gave credence to the popular theory.
Remembering what DeWitt had said to him once, in reference to Topher, about how those who were in most need of human contact were the ones least able to reach out, Boyd had made a point of visiting Topher at least once a day; now he bumped it up to at least three times. This particular visit, Ivy was out to lunch and Topher was fully absorbed in his programming. Boyd considered this a good thing: the more he got done during the day, the greater the chance he might sleep at night.
"So what are you working on today?" Boyd asked him.
"I'm adding memories of every episode of MacGyver and Mr Wizard to all the recurring imprints," Topher replied, eyes glued to the screen.
"... You're serious?" Boyd asked, incredulous.
Topher sighed heavily and swiveled his chair to face Boyd.
"Not every person's gone through some fancy-schmancy school science program, but MacGyver and Mr Wizard are two shows that anyone could have been exposed to, regardless of their supposed background -- well, except maybe Kiki, who would have seen them and not understood a word -- but anyway, they taught how to use normal household items to do some pretty useful stuff. Stuff that could prove invaluable, considering all the trouble that say, oh, Echo tends to get into? Sure, they may never use any of it, but better to have it and never use it than need it and not have it, right?"
Well, Boyd couldn't argue with that.
"Now make yourself useful and get me more ice for my water, will you?" Topher suggested, turning his attention back to his work.
Rolling his eyes, bemused, Boyd grabbed Topher's glass and made his way to the freezer. Inside, he found something that made him stop short: the pint of ice cream he'd bought Topher. Curious that it hadn't been devoured already, Boyd opened it; it was full. Had someone else bought the programmer a pint?
Or was Topher not eating?
~ * @ * ~
"--and when I asked him about it, he said that he'd learned it on MacGuyver!" Simmons ranted.
Not that Topher could blame him; the Active Romeo was injured because the guy had, thanks to Topher's programming, tried something he'd learned on a TV show (well, thought he'd learned).
"I was just ... trying to give him some ... personality!" Topher lied, feeling as stupid as his excuse sounded.
"I guess you forgot to give him some common sense to go with it!" Simmons snapped.
"I ... yeah. I'll, uh ... I'll work on that," Topher promised as the handler stormed out.
Topher sank into his chair, putting his head in his hands, dejected. Every time he tried to do something helpful, it blew up in his face -- and this time almost took Romeo down with him, despite the Active's safety being why Topher had done what he'd done in the first place! Road to Hell and handbaskets and all that. He thought he'd caught everything, thought he'd managed to programme the imprints to know which parts of the show were good science and which weren't. Maybe Romeo hadn't remembered things correctly? There was something Topher hadn't taken into consideration -- the fact that while we had the memories stored, we couldn't always recall all of them. Maybe the Active had "forgotten" a vital piece of information? Or tried to make a substitution for a missing element and used something he shouldn't have? Once again, Topher hadn't though things through far enough -- it was one thing to know something, and quite another to know how to apply it.
He thought about his options: he could try to pinpoint the problem, rechecking all his data -- which could take days, maybe even weeks. in which time another accident could happen; or he could delete all the additional information he'd recently added, which would erase days of work. And if he did the latter, he had to decide whether to try again, or just leave the imprints as they were. And for that matter, should he leave the first aid information or erase that too? Here he'd thought he'd finished, but instead he'd just created even more work, and possibly put all the Actives in danger in the process!
"Topher, you're a menace," he muttered to himself.
Himself didn't disagree.
Figuring it was better to be safe than sorry, even if it meant quadrupling the work, he decided to wipe all the TV-show added information (and was infinitely glad he hadn't added the ER episodes yet). As the first aid information was from actual household first aid guides, and Claire had helped him with those, he figured those were safe to leave, but he pulled the self-defence stuff. Maybe he could get Boyd to go over that stuff with him ....
~ * @ * ~
"You can't be serious!" Topher found himself staring at Adelle like she'd grown another head. Or at least another face.
"I assure you, Topher, I am very serious. I wish I was kidding." She paced; if she'd had a tail, he was sure it would be twitching. "But once again, I have been reminded that we are here to do a job, and we can be replaced if we refuse to do it."
"But this ... this is different than, than ... than programming a call girl for one night!" he pleaded. "If we do it once, you know they'll ask us to do it again. And then when does it stop? Now, it's downloading a woman's self and then tinkering with it so she doesn't remember finding her husband in bed with another woman; tomorrow, it'll be programming politicians to pass legislation that Rossum wants passed!"
Adelle grimaced, rubbing her temple; Topher guessed she had the mother of all migraines coming on, because he was getting one himself. "I know," she said quietly. "And once again, if you have any alternatives to offer, I am all ears." She almost sounded like she was begging.
" ... I could ... programme her to kill her husband in his sleep, instead? They probably wouldn't be too keen on having us mess with non-Active's head then," Topher replied, more serious than not, save for he wasn't sure how the wife would get away with it. Maybe if he talked to Boyd ....
Adelle shook her head ruefully. "You don't know how tempted I am, but us getting sent to the Attic wouldn't help the Dolls in the long run."
"It always comes back to that," Topher grumbled.
"Look at it this way, Topher: once upon a time, a guy like this would have had his wife killed, rather than risk a divorce where she would get everything thanks to his infidelity."
" ... Is taking a chunk out of her memory and leaving her in that marriage really that much different?" he wondered.
And so he spent the afternoon working on the client's request, after a wedge with the woman in question's personality and memories had been brought to him. Apparently the woman's husband had tied her up after the "incident" -- Topher was to erase the memory of that as well, and make her think she'd spent the day in bed with a cold. He removed the requested memories, toying with idea of a few other changes he could make (making her interested in threesomes and then fixing it so she would fall in love with her husband's lover, for one, or making her a martial arts expert for in case this situation happened again, for another). Ultimately, though, he decided not to play God any more than he was required to in order to not be thrown into the Attic, and, like Adelle said, keep the woman from being murdered by her husband.
How had his life come to this? Well, the moment he accepted the job offer from Adelle, of course. He liked her, a lot, but he was wishing now that he had never met her.
And when had he stopped thinking of Adelle as "DeWitt", anyway?
~ * @ * ~
Topher finished his awful work with the client's wife in the late evening, around when the Dolls were typically put in their pods for the night. He was just in time to find a commotion downstairs, in the common area.
"What happened?" Topher demanded as they wheeled Juliet past him. The mottled black, blue, and purple of the Active's face and arms were especially grotesque in contrast with the brightly-coloured dress she wore.
Although the spattering of bright red spots down the front of it didn't actually belong there.
Before he knew it, he was kneeling, head between his knees, feeling like he was underwater -- sounds were muffled and he couldn't get enough air. And then fingers were at his back, making soothing circles.
"Come on, Topher, deep breaths," a gentle, British voice commanded; it just barely registered to him as Adelle's. "What's happening to him?"
"I think the blood must have reminded him of ... of that day. You know. When I got these?"
He looked up and found Claire gesturing to her scars, of course.
"Yeah," Topher agreed a little breathlessly. "Yeah, sorry .... I-I'm okay now." And he was, he realised. He stood up, a little wobbly but otherwise fine, especially with Adelle's hand still at his back. "So, uh ... w-what happened to Juliet?"
"She was attacked by a friend of the client at a party -- he was high on cocaine and tried to rape her," Adelle growled, clearly ready to hunt the assailant down and rip him to pieces -- a feat Topher could easily believe she could accomplish.
Normally Topher would be shaking in his boots when Adelle looked like this, praying never to be on the receiving end of her ire. Now, he only vaguely noticed the tension in her jaw, the taught lines of her, with a great deal of detachment; he was more concerned with her words than her body language.
Juliet had been badly beaten and nearly raped.
Something that might have been prevented if he'd left the self-defense programming in.
~ * @ * ~
After a restless few hours in his back room, Topher gave up on sleep. He couldn't stop the circular route of his train of thought: how he'd been fooled regarding Sierra's induction into the Dollhosue; what had gone down with Nolan and how that had scarred Priya and trapped her here; what nearly had happened Romeo because of what Topher had put in the imprints; what he'd done to do to that woman, the one who wasn't even a doll, today; what had happened to Juliet because of what he'd removed from the imprints. What he might be forced to do in the future. He didn't think he could take another day of this.
Feeling filthy, he tried a shower, replaying what Claire had said to him about water being cleansing, over and over. And it helped -- at least as long as he was in the shower. But the water couldn't erase his problems, the ongoing ones; stepping out of the shower meant stepping back into them.
The only way he could get out of it for good was if he were to somehow to become useless to Rossum -- not just in mind, but body. But how to do that? Jumping from the top of the building would do it, but if he chickened out mid-leap, the rest of the ride down would be terrifying. No, that didn't sound pleasant at all. It didn't help that it wasn't even that he wanted to die, just that he didn't want to be used anymore. He considered overdosing on something from the infirmary, but Saunders might catch him. A gun from the weaponry was out of the question; he hated guns, and would never be able to pull the trigger. Pondering, he banged his head lightly against his locker, as if that might joggle his thoughts into some sort of useful configuration.
And maybe it did.
He turned and opened his locker. The razor blade he'd borrowed form Simmons was still there; he hadn't been able to bring himself to go shopping for one again. It would be hours before the Dollhouse was active, before anyone would come into this room. While it wasn't exactly a quick process, it would probably take less time to bleed out, especially if he made multiple cuts. And a bloodless brain couldn't be resuscitated. Couldn't be read. Couldn't remember .... Couldn't be made to do horrible things ....
Then again, Topher, being a doctor, knew this method of suicide wasn't at all pleasant, was actually said to be quite painful. Well, so what if it was? Didn't he owe this to Priya? To all the actives? No matter what he did, no matter how much he wanted to help them, he seemed to always hurt them somehow. But he couldn't hurt them anymore if he wasn't around. Couldn't accidentally make another Alpha. Couldn't be forced, by circumstances or Rossum, to erase whom they were forever, essentially murdering them.
Besides, after draining Nolan's blood, this was oddly poetic.
His clothes on this time, he ran the water again; sitting in the heat would keep him warmer longer, lessen the pain. He hoped. Oddly, having made his decision ... he wasn't afraid now. Was relieved, really. No more having to make decisions he just wasn't equipped to make. Everyone would be safe from him now. With the precision he learned in medical school, he started with the middle vein of his left wrist.
He only made it a couple of inches when he heard the screams.
"Claire!" he cried out, scrambling as best he could to his feet. The floor seemed to roll under him as he saw the blood swirling in the water, the red rushing down his hand. His breath came short, dots of white dancing before his eyes.
And then there was gunfire. A shot went through the locker-room door, shattering the mirror. Topher hurriedly turned the water off, lest the sound draw the gunslinger in; all thoughts of wanting to die evaporated, now that his life was in danger. Now he was just trying to decide what to do -- if he went out to help Claire, he might get shot the moment he stepped out the door! A gunshot wasn't a pleasant way to go. And Topher wasn't much of a fighter.
All right, fine, he was a coward.
Also, he was bleeding pretty profusely, here -- he might as well leave a breadcrumb trail for the assailant ....
And then he remembered: Simmons had a first aid kit in his locker! As quietly as he could, Topher opened the locker and retrieved the clear box. He put a tourniquet around his upper arm, to slow the bleeding, dried the cut off as best he could, and covered the wound with butterfly bandages -- they'd have to do in lieu of stitches. A large square bandage went over that, and he finished it off by wrapping his arm tightly in gauze. Pulling his shirtsleeve down as an extra measure, he crouched low and pulled the door open, peeking out. He saw Claire crying into Boyd's shoulder as the man held her, smoothing her hair.
Satisfied that whatever threat had been eminent was over now (Topher doubted they would be just standing there, out in the open, otherwise), Topher took a quick moment to clean up his mess -- the blood spatters, the razor he'd left in the shower, the bandage wrappers, and the bloody towels all went into the trash, and the first aid kit -- what was left of it -- went back into the locker. (Hopefully Simmons wouldn't have cause to use it someday.)
He left the locker-room, pretending he'd been in the shower the whole time and hadn't heard anything.
"What's the hell is going on?" he asked the pair; he didn't have to fake looking alarmed. "One of the mirrors shattered in the locker-room, and it looks like there's a bullet-hole in the door!"
Claire was crying too hard to answer, and Topher felt like a grade-A heel for not coming out to help her.
"We had an intruder," Boyd answered, pointing to a wall.
Alpha was here was written in red on it.
Topher was promptly sick into the reflecting pool. Or he would have been, if he'd, you know, eaten more than a Twinkie that day -- instead, he just dry-heaved. Then he sat on the edge of the pool. It wasn't fair to have another sucky day so close on the coattails of the previous one ....
Then he had a thought. "Is Alpha still here?" he asked Boyd. "Did you shoot him? Tell me you shot him!"
"Yes and no," Boyd replied. "It was an active that did this -- Lima. He'd just been brought back, and ... well, his handler is dead. Lima told us he was Alpha. He shot at me, missed. I chased him through to one of the pod rooms, and found him over Echo's pod. He laughed at me, then shot himself."
"And Echo?" Topher whispered.
"Slept through it."
"Well, that's something. What about you -- you, uh, gonna be okay?" he asked Claire, wincing as he said it and realised what a stupid question it was.
"Not really," she said, laughing a little. "But thanks for asking," she added, smiling wanly. "Odd time of night for a shower," she remarked.
He shrugged. "Wanted to get some of the metaphorical filth off."
She nodded in understanding.
"What you told me the other day, in the car? About water being cleansing? .... It, uh ... it really helped. Thank you."
"Good," she told him, nodding. "I'm glad."
"Maybe ... maybe it would work for you?" he suggested.
She nodded again, thoughtful. "Maybe it would ...." She turned to Boyd. "Well. We better get that body taken care of." And with that, she and Boyd headed to the scene of the crime.
As he watched them walk away together, Boyd's arm comfortingly around Claire's shoulder, Topher wondered if Boyd was going to show Claire how to use a bone saw and sulphuric acid.
~ * @ * ~
Surprisingly, it wasn't until late the next evening that Adelle paid Topher a visit. He checked his arm, making sure the blood wasn't leaking through again; he'd woken up with his sleeve soaked, and some of his bedding. He'd also been a bit lightheaded, enough that he'd seriously considered going to Claire and confessing what he'd done.
"So. Any thoughts as to how Alpha did this?" Adelle asked. She looked as pale, as if she'd lost blood too. Well, maybe having your soul drained away, the way Rossum was doing to her, had the same effect. He appreciated the reminder that he had other people besides the Dolls to protect, to save.
"Three that I can think of. The first being that he's built himself another Chair. The second, that someone in another Dollhouse, someone with access to a chair, is helping him. The third, that Alpha can not only wipe over a phone, but imprint as well."
Adelle fell into the chair beside him. She wore a look that was equal parts horror and fascination; he'd seen the same look on his own face, at least when he'd been able to bring himself to look in a mirror. He knew being fascinated was bad, but he couldn't help it; the scientist in him was excited about the possibility! Thankfully, the human in him had the sense to be terrified.
"What do we do if it's the third possibility?" Adelle asked, barely audible.
"We let me work on this," he replied, eyes going back to his project.
"'This' being ....?"
"Finding a way to block his remote-wipe-and-imprint tech. Thing is, I've actually been working on this for a while now already and I ... I-I'm honestly not sure I can do it!" He leaned against a hand, feeling defeated yet again.
Adelle rubbed his back, and he felt like purring, amazed at how much better he felt. It wasn't even like she was massaging him or anything ....
"Well, if anyone can do it, it would be you," she told him.
He felt all tingly with that, and smiled bashfully. She beamed at him then, and he felt better than he had in a week.
Topher's phone rang then, startling them both. Topher answered it with his closest hand -- his left -- and winced as the cut flexed painfully. He hoped it wouldn't start bleeding again ....
~ * @ * ~
Two days later, Topher felt like hell warmed over, but he forced himself out of bed; it wasn't like he'd slept well anyway, and this was an imprint-free day, a rare thing indeed! It meant he could work uninterrupted, his concentration undivided. He'd even given Ivy the day off, and asked Boyd to make sure he stayed undisturbed. And for most of the day, he stayed that way. Even Adelle left him alone, apparently understanding that he was better off this way, at least today.
Thank god for Echo and her inquisitiveness.
~ * @ * ~
Adelle had been talking to Dr Saunders, seeing how she was and if she needed anything, when Echo wandered into the doctor's office.
"Topher is sick," Echo told them.
Adelle and Saunders blanked at each other in confusion. At first, Adelle thought Echo was making a disparaging remark about his character. "Good heavens, what has he done now?"
"I went to ask him when Sierra was coming back, and he didn't answer. He just fell down."
The women traded confusion for alarm and hurried out the door, passing Boyd on their way through the common area.
"What's going on?" he asked, following them.
"Something's wrong with Topher," Saunders told him.
Echo was right; they found him on the floor of the lab.
"Topher? Sweetheart, are you all right?" Adelle asked, gently turning him over. She brushed the hair from his brow and quickly pulled her hand instinctively from the heat. "He's burning up!" she told Saunders and Boyd as they knelt beside him.
Saunders laid the back of her hand against Topher's face. He shuddered under her touch, eyes fluttering and breathing laboured. Her eyes widened. "Get him down to the reflecting pool," she told Boyd, getting to her feet and hurrying to the stairs.
Boyd gathered Topher up in his arms, and the boy flopped about like a rag-doll. Boyd went carefully down the stairs, Adelle anxiously following after. When they reached the small pool, she helped lower their friend into the water. She imagined the rocks weren't too comfortable; maybe they could move him to the showers...?
Topher gasped. "Cold! It's cold!" he protested, struggling weakly for a moment before drifting into unconsciousness again. How had he gotten so sick? The Dollhouse was one of the most sterile environments there was, outside of a hospital ....
Saunders hurried over to them, bearing a couple of syringes and a black bag. "Hold these," she told Adelle, who quickly obeyed. "Help me get his top-shirt off," the doctor ordered Boyd next; he knelt in the water. It took some doing, what with the cloth being wet. When they got it off of his right arm, Saunders left the rest to Boyd while she pulled up the shorter sleeve of Topher's t-shirt. She then took an alcohol pad pack out of her pocket, opened it, and rubbed it against Topher's right shoulder. "Hold still a sec," she told Boyd as she took the syringes from Adelle, sticking Topher with one, then the other. "Something for the fever, and an antibiotic, in case he has an infection," she explained. She took a digital thermometer out of the bag next and took his temperature. "106.8" she revealed, a worried look in her eye.
Adelle felt like she had one of the pool's rocks in her throat.
Boyd had gone back to working the other sleeve off. "What the hell is this?" he asked, pausing a moment. There was a blood-stained bit of gauze around Topher's arm.
A glance at Saunders told Adelle that the woman knew nothing about it, hadn't treated him for anything. Boyd got the sleeve the rest of the way off and started carefully undoing the gauze while Saunders checked his heartbeat and blood pressure.
"His pressure's low, heart-rate's a bit high, but neither are dangerously so," the doctor reported.
By then, Boyd had gotten the gauze and a squarish pad beneath it off. Beneath the latter, they saw an angry red line, held closed by five butterfly bandages. The cut was obviously infected, and the skin around it was coated with dried blood.
"Is that ... is that what I think it is?" Adelle whispered, disbelieving. Had things truly gotten so terrible for him? She had certainly been upset over the events of the last week or so herself, but she hadn't been driven to such an extreme, not even close. She might not have been the one committing the actions, but she had still been the one who'd commanded them to be carried out, and doing so had taken its toll on her. But this ....
Saunders looked up. "Echo, can you get someone to help you bring some buckets of ice to the hot tub? And start filling it with cold water, okay?"
Adelle hadn't even realised Echo had been standing there, but she felt a wave of gratitude towards the Active, even as she was unsettled by how alert Echo seemed. If not for Echo, they might not have found Topher in time. For that matter, if not for Echo, they may never have known the truth about Priya, either ... but Adelle wasn't entirely sure that was a blessing.
Adelle reached into the chilly water and took Topher's hand, the heat of his skin making the cold bearable. She was surprised by just how much the thought of a world without Topher in it hurt -- as much as if he had been her own child. She gripped his hand hard, as though she could anchor him there, keep him from slipping away. For a moment, she felt his grip tighten around hers, reassuringly, then loosen a little as his breathing evened out. "That's my boy," she whispered.
~ * @ * ~
Within an hour, they had brought his temperature down to 104 -- which still sounded high to Boyd, but Claire assured them all that it was safe, that it was just his body was burning out the infection, the way it was supposed to. "It wasn't just the ... injury that brought this on," she reported. "He's malnourished, his bloodsugar's a bit low, and he's got a variant of the flu -- not the one we all got shots for, either. Add in the stress he's been under and a lack of sleep ...."
And PTSD, thanks to yours truly .... Boyd added to himself. Not to mention that he'd suspected Topher wasn't eating but hadn't said anything to anyone, letting himself get sidetracked. "System crash," he said aloud.
Claire nodded sympathetically.
"Will ... will he be all right?" DeWitt asked, trying -- and failing -- to maintain her British stiff upper lip. He could see the sheen of tears in her eyes, and, while sad for the reason, was happy to see them all the same.
Claire nodded. "I've got him hooked up with blood, antibiotics, chilled saline to keep his fever down and rehydrate him, and vitamins. With rest now and plenty of real food later, he'll be fine. I'm going to start making a point of making sure he eats a healthy lunch every day now," she added.
"Thank you, Dr Saunders," DeWitt replied softly, the faintest hint of a crack in both her voice and demeanor. The woman had had Topher's hand in a near-death grip since they'd settled him into the bed, and showed no signs of letting go any time soon.
Boyd was glad.
Claire nodded to Dewitt. "As far as the whole thing with him cutting his arm goes," Claire continued, "don't push him about the details, but let him know that you know and are there if he wants to talk. We all need to be there for him," she finished, looking at Boyd.
He nodded. Considering the part he'd played in helping Topher get into this predicament, he figured it was the least he could do. Besides, he was kind of fond of the kid.
"Nnn ... m ... Mom?" Topher asked DeWitt grogilly.
Boss DeWitt's masked slipped entirely then, leaving Adelle, a lonely, caring woman, beneath -- a woman who could, astonishingly, be moved to tears by a single word, so long as it was the right one. "No, darling, I'm not your--" She stopped, apparently thinking better of it. "I'm here, sweetheart."
Sensing that that was his cue to give them some private time, Boyd turned to Claire. "I think I'll go get that ice cream from his freezer, for when he wakes up -- uh, if that's okay?"
"It's okay with me, if it's okay with 'Mom'," she replied, grinning in her sweet, lopsided way.
"Anything he wants," Adelle said, smiling tenderly at the boy.
Anyone who didn't know them would easily assume, just then, that they were mother and son, Boyd felt.
"Don't go, okay?" Topher asked Adelle, his eyes just barely fluttering open.
"I won't, darling," Adelle promised.
As he left the room, Boyd prayed it was a promise that Fate would let her keep.