Adelle glanced up from the stack of papers in front of her as Claire entered her office. The doctor didn’t have an appointment, but that didn’t stop her from stalking purposefully towards Adelle’s desk.
“Yes?” Adelle asked piercingly, arching a thin, elegant eyebrow at Claire.
“I want to know the truth,” Claire demanded without preamble, her voice calm though her body was tense. Some undefined but powerful emotion burned brightly behind her eyes brown eyes, and Adelle knew better than to try an evasion tactic.
“Ah,” Adelle drawled, linking her fingers together before she leaned forward to rest her elbows on her desk. “I see.”
She smiled at Claire faintly and then extended her hand towards one of the chairs on the other side of her desk.
Two hours earlier …
Claire released a sigh as Echo grabbed hold of her hand, but a small smile touched her lips despite the annoyed sound. Echo was very tactile, even for an Active, but she was being especially handsy that session.
Claire breathed in and out deeply and surrendered her hand over to Echo. She wouldn’t be able to carry on with the tests she was running until Echo managed to focus, and like a child, Echo wouldn’t focus until she gotten to explore whatever it was that had caught her attention.
Besides, Echo was only so tactile when one of her assignments had been difficult. Echo couldn’t consciously remember anything that had happened to her after the treatments, but her body still carried around the signs of stress for a few days afterwards, and it made her do things like stand a bit too close to people, and try to hold their hands.
“Where did you get this?” Echo asked, her finger lightly trailing across a faint scar that lay between Claire’s thumb and index finger.
Claire looked down at her hand, her eyebrows coming together as she tried to summon a memory of where the mark had come from. The scar was faint, just a thin, curved line of skin paler than that on the rest of her hand. It was an old wound, it was set in and completely comfortable on the patch of skin it had claimed years before.
Claire had absolutely no memory of how she got the wound. There was not even the faint tickle of a memory.
“I don’t know,” Claire murmured uneasily, her eyes losing focus for a moment.
The scar was a blank spot in her mind, and it was disturbing her more than it should have. People didn’t remember everything. Memories faded. The scar looked like it had come from a deep scratch, but perhaps it hadn’t. Perhaps it had just been a minor, unnoteworthy wound whose infliction wasn’t worth remembering. Not remembering shouldn’t have been a cause for concern. People didn’t remember everything. Memories faded. The problem was that as time wore on Claire was discovering more and more blank spots in her memory.
“That’s okay,” Echo said comfortingly, picking up on Claire’s distress and trying to help.
Echo was sweet that way, always trying to help. Before some desperate circumstance had forced her to sign five years of her life away to The Company, Claire suspected that the woman Echo was had been someone who was always trying to make a difference, always trying to solve other people’s problems. Claire was certain she was the friend everyone went to when they needed a shoulder to cry on.
Echo’s memories of the woman she had been were gone, but something of that personality remained.
Claire smiled weakly at the Active, appreciating the attempt to cheer her up, no matter how ineffective it was. It was nice that someone cared enough to try and comfort her, though it depressed her immensely that it was an Active, who would forget their conversation in a few days, who was offering the comfort.
“I don’t remember how I got these,” Echo said, drawing Claire out of her thoughts.
Echo’s head was bent down when Claire looked at her, and Claire followed her eyes down to Echo’s hands. The backs of her knuckles were cut and scabbing over. Claire knew that she had gotten the wounds from scaling a rock-face without the proper equipment and then desperately running through the forest for hours, but Echo didn’t know that. She couldn’t. They had taken the memory from her.
Echo’s hands were bloodied and bruised. But when she thought about how the wounds were inflicted, all that was there was a blank spot.
Claire gasped and drew her hand away from Echo as a terrifying half-formed thought entered her brain. Her heart began to pound beneath her breast and she felt hot and tingly as a surge of panic shot through her. It couldn’t be, she thought. But she knew that it could be. She had been in this place long enough to know that they were capable of anything. No. No, I remember, she thought, shoving her hand protectively into her pocket as Echo gazed at her curiously.
Claire squeezed her eyes shut and turned away from Echo, walking slowly towards the back of the room.
Remembering didn’t mean anything. Making memories was what the Dollhouse specialized in. In his clean, polished, flashy laboratory of horrors, Brink spent all day whipping up personality composites so convincing, that even when you knew what the Actives were and what had been done to them, that it was hard not to see them as the person they were at that moment and treat them accordingly. The imprinted personalities were so incredibly, so completely, so perfectly real. The Actives were tailored for the clients who bought them, but the people they became weren’t perfect. The imprinted personalities had flaws. They had likes, dislikes, preferences, stutters, visual impairments, anything and everything needed to simulate being a complete human being. Without the treatments, an Active could go on to live a long life with an implant without ever suspecting that they weren’t who they had been programmed to be.
A sharp pain pierced through Claire’s head and she swayed, her hands shooting out to grasp onto anything she could to help her remain upright. However, before she could grab onto anything, a pair of small, but strong hands grasped her, and she found herself being led over to the bed she had just been examining Echo on.
“You almost fell,” Echo said once Claire was seated and feeling a bit steadier.
“Yes,” Claire replied absently as she drew her legs onto the bed as well. She lay back and stared up at the ceiling as various Actives did all throughout the day. She wasn’t in danger of falling and injuring herself at the moment, but her head was still pounding and she felt like she was going to be sick, or pass out, or possibly both.
“Are you unwell?” Echo asked pressing her hand to Claire’s forehead, feeling for her temperature though Claire suspected Echo didn’t realize that’s what she was doing. It was simply something she had done to Echo earlier which the woman was mimicking in an attempt to diagnose what was wrong with Claire, like Claire had used it to diagnose her.
“I think so,” Claire said, only paying the slightest bit of attention to what Echo was saying.
“Shall I call someone?” Echo asked looking down at her with very serious, very concerned eyes.
“No,” Claire said, not wanting to deal with another human being at the moment. “I feel better now,” Claire said in a light, almost chipper tone as she forced a large smile onto her face. “Thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome,” Echo said smiling back, looking very pleased with herself. She liked to help. “Shall I go now?” Echo asked, apparently satisfied that Claire was indeed feeling better and that her work there was done.
“If you like,” Claire said softly, making sure to keep the smile on her face, even as a thread of dread worked through her at the thought of being alone.
Echo was good company. She was attentive, and could be talkative if encouraged, but she lacked the ability to lacerate a person with pointed questions, and insightful observations. Echo was company that Claire didn’t have to worry about, which was just the type of company she needed at the moment. She wanted someone who’s hand she could hold, but who she could distract with a laser pointer when she needed a moment to think.
“I’m going to swim now,” Echo said pleasantly.
“Have fun,” Claire replied lightly, even though she wished the Active would stay. “Wear your goggles,” she added, knowing that Echo would forget the reminder before she made it anywhere near the pool. Echo’s eyes were sensitive to the chlorine and she always ended up back in Claire’s lab to get eye drops after she swam.
“Okay,” Echo agreed easily, and then she was heading towards the door, her eyes wandering over everything she encountered as she practically glided out of the lab.
Claire closed her eyes once Echo was out of sight, and focused all of her attention on breathing in and out, until she felt her heart begin to beat more slowly and felt the pounding in her head begin to subside.
I’ve been working here too long, Claire thought trying to relax her body. She kept her eyes closed and remained prone on the bed. It’s made me paranoid. I’m being ridiculous, she told herself.
It was just a scar. It was just a physical sign of some random, meaningless thing that had happened to her years ago. It was something that she couldn’t remember because it wasn’t worth remembering.
It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t.
Only she couldn’t shake the fear that maybe it did mean something. Maybe it explained why even though she remembered growing up in Los Angeles, and even though she frequented – or had frequented until three months ago – places she had memories of visiting often in the past, she never ran into anyone she knew. Maybe it explained why there was a small bump on her ear flap where a piercing had closed over, even though she had no memory of ever having her ears pierced. Maybe it explained why some mornings she woke up, and was genuinely surprised to find that she didn’t have bleached blonde hair, and that she was wearing a proper pair of pajamas instead of a ripped t-shirt when she looked in the bathroom mirror. Maybe it explained why, even before Alpha’s attack, she would suddenly find herself crying and not know why it had started.
“Nobody told me it was nap time? Can I join you?” a playful voice asked from the direction of the door.
Claire recognized Brink’s voice and opened her eyes, preparing to turn to him and tell him to get lost, however Topher had turned up the lights in the lab when he entered and when Claire opened her eyes she found a bright light focused down on her.
Claire gasped in surprise and pain and drew back, closing her eyes as she did, trying to shut the light out. But bright, pulsing orbs throbbed behind her closed eyelids and her head began to pound again.
Claire breathed in deeply as a big flash of light flashed behind her closed eyes, and she saw herself lying on a bed very much like the one she was presently lying on. Only in her mind her arms were bare, and instead of being dressed in a suit, she had on a pair of casual drawstring pants like an Active, and she had on a thin tank on top. Someone was holding her hand, and as the light above her began to fade, she was able to make out the silhouette of a dark-haired woman with long hair standing beside, looking down.
‘Did I fall asleep?’ Claire heard herself ask, with the same dreamy and distracted quality to her voice that all of the Actives had.
‘Only for a little while,’ came the soft, smooth, accented reply.
Claire’s eyes flew open and she scrambled off of the bed, her chest heaving as her eyes opened unnaturally wide.
“Doc?” Topher asked, his voice rising questioningly as he took in Claire’s panicked expression. “You’re looking a little crazy in the eye-al area.”
Claire blinked until she was able to focus on him, and then she breathed in and out deeply a few times until she was certain she could reply without shrieking hysterically or breaking down in tears.
“I’m fine. You surprised me. What … ah, what is it?” Claire asked, angling her head down so that her hair fell across her face.
“Fine – the way I understand the definition of the word – looks very much not like you do at the moment,” Topher said gently, despite his sarcastic response.
“Never the less, that’s how I am,” Claire responded moving over to the side of the lab to give herself the appearance of having something very pressing to do, even though Topher had walked in on her lying on her ass doing absolutely nothing moment’s before.
“Okay,” Topher sing-songed. He clearly didn’t believe her, but he was smart enough to realize that she didn’t want to talk about whatever it was, and that to bother her about it would only end up getting him on her shit list. “Lunch?”
“Excuse me?” Claire asked turning around to face him despite herself.
“It’s the midday partaking of food. I was wondering if you’d care to join me,” Topher said as suavely and gallantly as he could manage, which was difficult seeing as he was neither.
“Thank you … for asking,” Claire began dropping her gaze from his though she remained facing him. “I’d love to, but I’ve got … things.”
“Pressing things?” Topher asked lifting his eyebrows. “They looked pressing,” he continued glancing over at the bed Claire had been laying on a few minutes before.
“They’re pressing now,” Claire responded as kindly as she could while also making it clear that lunch, with her, that afternoon, was not going to happen.
“Right,” Topher said clearly picking up on her mood. “Of course, well, lovely chatting with you,” he continued, bowing gentlemanly before turning to head towards the door.
“Another day,” Claire said softly as he made his way towards the door.
She really wasn’t trying to be rude. She just couldn’t handle small talk over celery sticks at the moment. Topher was one of the few people around that seem non-pulsed by her scars or didn’t treat her like she was made of glass because of the way she got them, and she didn’t want to push him away. He was almost a friend, and she needed those.
“Sure,” Topher said stopping in the doorway and turning to face her. His tone was more genuine than it had been a few seconds before, and she was glad that she had spoken. She’d hurt his feelings before, but taking a rain-check had smoothed things over a little. “See you later, Doc,” he continued a moment later, and then he was gone.
Claire moved over to the corner of the room where a long, thin mirror hung on the wall and stared at her reflection. These days she avoided looking in the mirror as much as possible, but she needed to see herself now.
Standing there, she imagined herself with slightly shorter, bleached blonde hair, and wearing a pair of torn up jeans with a black t-shirt with an earring sticking out of the top of her ear. It took a moment for the image to solidify in her head, but when it did a spike of recognition washed through her and her heart clenched powerfully in her chest.
Claire stumbled away from the mirror, walking unsteady until her hand touched the back of her chair which she collapsed into.
People didn’t remember everything. Sometimes memories faded.
And sometimes they were wiped.
Claire took a seat across from Adelle and met the Director’s green eyes. Despite her unannounced entrance, and her indecorous greeting, Adelle was calm and composed, and even though Claire didn’t really want to be soothed, she was.
It had always been like that between them, though she wasn’t sure why. Most people were terrified of Adelle Dewitt, but Claire had always found it very comfortable to be in her presence. From the moment they had met, Claire had liked Adelle.
It was the strangest thing.
“Everything’s alright,” Adelle murmured gently, warmly gazing at Claire as she spoke.
“Now that you’re here,” Claire responded as a comforting wave of warmth flooded her.
“Do you trust me?” Adelle asked, elegantly standing before she moved around her desk so that she was standing beside Claire. She took Claire’s hand in her own and automatically Claire squeezed it, suddenly needing the contact more than anything else.
“With my life,” Claire replied rotely, looking up at Adelle dotingly.
The sun was streaming into the office from the large floor-to-ceiling windows that made up the two back walls of the office, and the light streaming in was lit Adelle up from behind so that all Claire could make out was a dark-haired silhouette.
“Come with me,” Adelle said gently, her voice lifting slightly as she spoke, giving her words a hint of question as she helped Claire to her feet.
“Of course,” Claire responded smiling over at Adelle once she was on her feet. “Is it time for my treatment?” Claire asked as Adelle led her towards the door, her step faltering for a second once the words were out of her mouth. Her eyebrows scrunched together, and she turned towards Adelle questioningly, suddenly confused and uncertain.
Something was wrong, but she didn’t know what. A treatment will make the confusion go away, she thought. But she didn’t get treatments, did she? A treatment will make the confusion go away, she thought again. Trust her. Trust her. A treatment will make the confusion go away.
Claire grasped Adelle’s hand, scared and confused as strange and yet somehow familiar thoughts ran through her head.
“Don’t worry,” Adelle said lifting her hand to Claire’s cheek where she stroked the scared skin she found there with an incredible tenderness. “I’ll take care of you. Relax,” she breathed out. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
“I never do with you around,” Claire responded without a thought, the words flowing naturally from her lips as if she had said them hundreds of times before.
Claire relaxed. If Adelle said it, it was true. She trusted Adelle unquestioningly.
Adelle smiled down at Claire, careful to keep her eyes trained on her as she held Claire’s hand gently in her own.
“I don’t know what triggered it or when. Take the day away, then sedate her and have someone take her home. She spent the day in bed dosing on and off, watching the Discovery Channel, learning about aqueducts and the evolution of Greek theater and such,” Adelle said to Topher though she kept her eyes on Claire, and spoke it a soft tone of voice completely at odds with the words she had just spoken.
“I don’t know anything about aqueducts,” Topher responded in a peevish tone of voice from where he was hunched over his computer. He couldn’t create memories of something he wasn’t familiar with, unless he was imprinting an entire personality.
“In the city of Rome, they totaled over 416 km, and supplied water to large cities across the empire. It was a standard of engineering that was not surpassed for more than a thousand years,” Adelle responded irritably. “Are you quite happy now? She need not be expert on the subject Mr. Brink. She only needs to think that it was on in the background while she was napping.”
“Do you have any interesting factoids on Greek theater?” Topher asked knowing that what Adelle said was true. He just didn’t like messing with Claire’s head. She was his friend … kind of. It seemed wrong … somehow. Plus, she wasn’t going to remember their lunch date.
“The Greek term for mask is proposa. The masks were made of organic materials, but were not permanent objects. No matter what a work of art they were, they were always retired to the altar of Dionysus after performances, and new ones created for future plays,” Adelle replied distractedly, her eyes focused on Claire’s trusting and open face as she spoke.
“Why doesn’t it surprise me that you know that?” Topher muttered under his breath as he typed. “Okay, we’re ready to begin,” he said in a regular tone a moment later, looking over his shoulder to see that Adelle had Claire’s hand clutched in her own, and was looking down into her eyes. “You don’t need to do that. You two are already locked together.”
Adelle looked over at him and released a long suffering sigh. “I know I don’t have to. I prefer to. Is that a problem?” she asked staring at him unblinkingly.
“No, no. Not at all,” Topher responded throwing his hand up in the air innocently before he turned back to his computer.
If it had been anyone but Dewitt who’d said that he would have cooed about how cute that was, but she was his boss, and more than a little scary. Adelle Dewitt was, as they say, not a woman with whom to fuck. He was fairly confident that he could take her in a bout of fisticuffs. He was a man after all, not a manly one, but a man nonetheless. Dewitt’s power came from the fact that she could take away his toys, and needling her was not worth risking that.
“Here we go,” Topher said punching a button.
The lights around Claire’s head began to burn, and Adelle squeezed her hand as Claire’s eyes rolled back, and her body arched, as the last twenty-four hours was sucked from her brain.
The Next Day …
Claire rubbed her eyes tiredly. Even though she had spent the entire previous day in bed she still felt like ten miles of bad road. Food poisoning was the worst. She felt stronger than she had the day before, but she wasn’t completely recovered. She probably should have stayed home another day, but she didn’t want to spend another minute let alone another day in bed watching the Discovery Channel. Laying around never made her feel better, she preferred to work and distract herself from whatever hurt.
“It’s good to see you on the mend, Dr. Saunders.”
Claire turned, a smile automatically coming to her face as Adelle Dewitt came to a stop beside her.
“It’s nice to be on the mend,” she said truthfully, not needing to relive the unpleasantness of the day before ever again.
“I know you’re probably absolutely swamped, but if you could find a few minutes later there’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” Adelle said pleasantly, her eyes scanning the main floor of the Dollhouse where the Actives where some of the Actives were going through their daily yoga routine.
“Of course,” Claire replied, hesitating for a second before turning to face the Director. “Is something wro …”
“Oh, no, nothing of the sort,” Adelle interjected, as she turned to face Claire. “Just a few points that need clarifying before I take your funding request to the board.”
“Oh,” Claire said, relaxing again. “I have a session with Lima in ten minutes. But I should be able to come up to see you after that.”
“Wonderful,” Adelle said smiling again, drawing a small smile from Claire as well, and then she turned and made her way back to the doorway that would take her to the offices that existed above the Dollhouse.
Claire watched her go feeling much more relaxed than she had been before Adelle had shown up.
She shook her head and then started for her office.
It really was the strangest thing.