"So basically, Echo is off the charts, Victor and Sierra are still snuggling, and Tango has caught a cold and shouldn't work for another week," Topher summarized. "Somehow, none of this is actually news to me."

Claire was sitting with him in her office. (Hers? Was it even hers? Lately she couldn't stop thinking about the former Dr. Saunders…) It was a brief debrief meeting, the kind they only really had because Topher never bothered to read her evaluations of the actives' conditions when she sent him her reports. And so she had gotten in the habit of reserving the reports for DeWitt, who actually read them, and instead forced Topher to sit through the entire spiel vocalized.

Perhaps it would teach him a lesson.

Usually, it took around forty minutes to get through their agenda. Usually, Claire preferred to get it over with fairly quickly. It was necessary to impart the information to Topher—no matter how much she hated him, he was getting better at putting the actives' health first and he had more control over their engagements than she did by far—and she liked seeing him get bored before she did, but still it got on her nerves to be in a room for too long with him. With the man who of all people she hated most in the world, a man who wielded tremendous power over the lives and psyches of tens of people as casually as if he were boiling ramen, a man whose every action was repulsive.

The man who apparently had created her. For a given value of creation—certainly he hadn't breathed life into clay or made her out of thin air. But he had made her, and he knew her in ways that she had not realized until only very recently. It didn't make her feel more comfortable with him in the slightest.

Today, however, their meeting had run a little later than usual, and Topher was unusually restless. But that wasn't because of the time. Today, he'd been like that from the beginning of the meeting.

"So, if you're done giving me news that isn't actually news, I have some very important work to be doing," Topher said. "You know, with imprints and things." He didn't actually get up from his chair across from Claire, but he shifted uneasily.

"Not just yet," Claire said. "If you don't mind I'd like to hear your news first."

Topher laughed nervously. "You already heard it, remember? About half an hour ago." He'd talked for about ten minutes summarizing recent engagements. Claire hadn't needed even that much—unlike him, she actually read the reports he sent her.

"Topher, you've been on edge all week," Claire said flatly. "And DeWitt's been acting odd too." Warm and cold in turns, her eyes distant as she talked to Claire, and then suddenly oddly focused. "You're keeping a secret, but you aren't very good at it. If it's something to do with the actives, then I need to know."

Topher shook his head.

"Nothing to do with the actives?"

Topher nodded.

"But it's something else," Claire said. "And it's making you and DeWitt uncomfortable specifically around me. Which means it's something I really should know, and DeWitt thinks it's better if I don't, and you disagree."

"Hey," Topher interjected. "I never disagree with the boss woman."

"We both know you're capable of lying, Topher. You didn't mind lying to me for the first several months of our acquaintance, after all," Claire said.

She stood up. Topher responded better to those he considered slightly above him, as DeWitt had proved time and time again by now, and physical signs of dominance could sometimes be as effective as actual arguments. "You only get bad at lying when you feel guilty about it, which means this really is something I should know, which means it's something to do with me, probably with me being…" She swallowed. "Whiskey. Which means," she continued, as cool as ever, as if the name meant nothing to her. "That you should tell me."

"Wow," Topher said. "You know, when I gave you those basic profiling and deduction skills I never really meant for them to be used against me but I can't say I regret the experience. Whoo."

He couldn't stop seeing her as his masterpiece, his carefully patched together experiment, instead of as a fully functioning person like she was. Claire hadn't noticed it back when she didn't know about Whiskey, but these days he'd given up on being subtle.

He likes seeing you that way, some part of her whispered. He likes seeing you as his piece of art, his complex machinery. He's so arrogant it turns him on.

What's worse, it turns you on.

She gave him a level stare. "The news, Topher."

Topher instantly refocused. "Oh, sorry, of course. Um…" He trailed off. "I guess you really should know. But don't tell DeWitt I told you or she will murder me." He drew a finger across his throat with a squelching noise.

Claire was unamused.

"It's kind of hard to say," Topher said, getting serious. "How do I put this?" He rest his chin on his hands, elbows propped against the table. Claire restrained a comment on posture—why should she care? (Why had Topher made her care was the real question.) "Remember the whole Whiskey thing?"

"No, Topher," Claire said. "I just forgot."

"Hey, around here it's a legitimate question," Topher pointed out. "Well, before Whiskey, obviously, your body belonged to…someone else. A nice young woman. I can tell you about her if you want—"

"I don't," Claire said.

"Yes, well, the point is she gave us her body for five years for general use, signed a contract, blah blah blah," Topher said.

"I figured." If there had been special circumstances she was sure someone would have told her by now, since the Whiskey secret was already out. Besides, she'd never been much one for special circumstances.

"And, well," Topher said, hands fidgeting. "All that was about five years ago now."

Claire stared at him. It was a couple minutes before it processed.

She'd been scared, when she first learned she was Whiskey. Scared DeWitt would take away her brain and make her tabula rasa again, make her a blank slate active doll. Apparently she used to be good at it. Now, it had become her worst nightmare.

She'd been trying very hard to be a good doctor, to assert her personality as well, so that DeWitt would never even consider such a thing. She wanted them to see her as an individual.

It hadn't occurred to her (yet) that none of that would matter if her contract ran out.

"So what then?" Claire said. "How much time do we have?"

We. As if Topher were a part of this. He couldn't help her.

But he'd warned her, hadn't he? Maybe, a treacherous part of her whispered, he's on your side. He likes his pretty little doll, even with her scars and her bad attitude. It would make him very sad to give her back to someone else.

"Not long," Topher said briefly. His left hand gave one futile flap. "A week? A little more than a week? Not long."

Claire nodded. She might not even have that long, if they decided to run diagnostics on her or wipe her ahead of time to prep her for reintegrating her original personality. It depended on the active how long the process took, on a lot of variables. She'd helped with it time and time again and never felt particularly guilty about it. Of all the things they did here, returning bodies to their initial owners was one of the more innocent.

"And then what?" Claire said. "You just keep your contract to her? That's it?"

"That's generally it."

"I have a contract with you too," Claire said. "As a doctor. Doesn't that mean anything?"

Topher licked his lips. "Well, um, in your memories, I kind of made that contract up based on our standard employee forms. You've never actually signed anything." His fingers had started tapping on the table. "It doesn't exist."

Of course it didn't.

Claire's fists clenched slightly. She turned away. "Well, then. That's some news." She deliberately loosened her fingers. "I guess we're done for the day."

"I can—"

"Get out of my office," Claire hissed.

Topher hesitated, then stumbled out, not looking back.

/…/…/

Claire half expected DeWitt to show p and talk to her about it at some point. Somehow she'd always felt like she could trust her employer, no matter how many people they lied to. Probably that was part of her programming, although it might help that Topher trusted DeWitt too—trusted her far too much in Claire's opinion, far more than he should, but who could help it? He was an idiot. He trusted Claire too.

DeWitt didn't show up. Boyd Langton did.

"You need to get out," he said.

Claire gave him a long, hard look.

It was possible he was testing her. He was head of security, after all. (How did he know about this anyway? It wasn't a matter for Dollhouse security, the dismissal of one spare active.) He seemed sincere, just as he always did. And he had never trusted the Dollhouse implicitly, obeyed the system completely like Topher. Still. He had no reason to stick his neck out for her, for their tentative friendship of a few words spoken after check-ups on Echo. And this wasn't what she expected from him, somehow. He didn't seem like the kind of person who would tell you to run.

Should she run?

"What about her?" she asked, staring at the ground.

"Who?"

"You know," Claire said vaguely. "Her. The original. Whiskey Prime." She waved a hand hazily (and wasn't that Topher-esque?). "The real girl."

"I don't know her," Boyd said. "But she knew what she was getting into. And you never asked to be made and erased. I don't see why you should be."

There were a hundred protests on her tongue. They made and erased personalities every day, and she never felt all that bad about it. But Boyd's eyes on her were fixed and firm. He doesn't want you to die, she thought. And that was the first time she admitted it to herself. If she gave back her body, she would die. And she didn't particularly want to die either.

"I have nowhere to go," she said."I don't even know whether I have any family." Any family would be that woman's, anyway. Not hers.

"I'll help you," Boyd said. "But we have to leave tonight."

She nodded. Fine. "All right."

/…/…/

She dropped by Topher's office early that evening, walked in on him wiping Sierra. It looked more frightening to her than it ever had before: the brief flash of light, Sierra's wide and innocent eyes, Topher smiling down at her as benevolently as if she hadn't been someone else just a minute before.

"Did I fall asleep?"

"For a little while."

"Shall I go now?"

"If you like."

And as Sierra wandered peacefully out of the room, Topher pulled Claire into his private office, locking Ivy out. Ivy was saying something, complaining about how she never got to attend their sessions, something about how she actually worked there too, but the door closing cut her off.

"Does she know?" Claire asked quietly.

Topher shook his head. "No. No. She didn't even know you were Whiskey until it became common knowledge. She's not, well, she's not me and DeWitt doesn't really trust her yet. Stupid, but…" He blew out a breath. "How are you doing?"

"As well as I can," Claire said. She smiled bitterly. "I try to be my best."

"Don't we all," Topher said. He sat down on his spinning chair, the nice one pushed up to his computer desk, though now he had it pulled out all the way. "Look. I'm sorry I freaked you out the other day."

Claire raised her eyebrows. "I'd rather know if I'm going to the block."

Topher laughed breathily. "You aren't. Going to the block. I overreacted, totally overreacted. Like an idiot." He leaned forward in his seat, knees pulled up. "I can save you."

"Really?"

"Really really," Topher insisted. "It's so simple. I can't believe I missed it." He spun around once in his chair dramatically, then moved it closer to Claire, who was still standing. "We're still going to need a doctor, obviously. I'll just take your imprint, put it into one of the other actives, and, voila!" He waved a hand. "No erasing, no dying, no going away forever. You can just keep on working here in a different body."

Claire blinked. It was a solution she hadn't thought of. But of course it would occur to Topher, who worked with imprints every day, who saw souls as interchangeable.

"You've got this approved with DeWitt?"

"Well, no," Topher admitted. "They want to hire a new doctor, something about the blind treating the blind, but it's all stupid. Anyways I can talk her around."

His eyes were wide, hopeful like a little boy who might just be able to patch up his broken action figure. Topher was always the most blind when his intentions were the best.

Claire shook her head. "Which active would you use? Echo?" Echo was the best, and Whiskey had been the best. It would fit. But Echo always infected her imprints, and thinking of looking at the world through Echo's brown eyes made Claire sick.

"No," Topher said. "One of the others. Obviously she…"

"Who? Sierra?"

He would never allow it to be Sierra. Claire didn't know all the details, only the basics of Priya Tsetsang's background, but for some reason he cared about her even more than he cared about Echo. He was protective, even fond. And fond in a gentle way, a kind way, a very different way from the way he carefully admired Claire.

Not that you're jealous.

Topher stared at her. His mouth twitched. "Are you trying to be difficult on purpose?"

She didn't answer him. Instead she asked, "Do you see me as an imprint or as a person?"

Topher's mouth worked. He waved his hands agitatedly, in that manner that looked trivial to anyone who didn't know him and pathetic to anyone who did. "Imprints are people. I've been saying this the whole time. It's not my fault that everyone likes to complicate it."

"You actually believe that."

"I mean, they usually exist for a lot less time, unlike you. You've been around for long enough to evolve away from the imprint, in a way that is absolutely…" Topher trailed off. "Anyways, you've changed a lot from the original imprint. You're someone almost new, and you've developed a survival instinct and relationships. And we really do need you here. You're a better doctor than the original Dr. Saunders ever was—all due respect to the dead, of course."

Claire rolled her eyes. "That's why you want to save me?"

Topher froze in place, his mouth open, trying to speak.

"I'm human because I've changed? Or because I've been around for a while?" Claire leaned over him. "Because I'm unpredictable, is that it? Or does it only matter because the Dollhouse needs me, and imprints are supposed to fill needs?"

Topher shook his head. "I—you're different. They can't just—"

"Or maybe," Claire said, finally letting that part of her speak that she had kept silent ever since that night so long ago, that night in his room that had gone so horribly wrong. "Maybe you want to keep me here because I fill your needs too."

Topher cringed away from her. "I don't need you."

"You don't need me?" Claire said. She put her hands on his shoulders. "You don't need someone to knock you down a notch when you're feeling cocky? Someone who won't listen to your pseudo-intellectual bullshit? You don't need someone who half hates you but puts up with you anyways because she's patient and she knows what it's like to be unable to cope with a world where you don't quite fit? You don't need someone to question your decisions and challenge them, someone you respect? You don't need someone who sees you?"

And Topher shuddered.

"Come on," Claire said. "You know you like my basic profiling skills."

"I like them in moderation," Topher muttered.

"You don't want to save me," Claire said. "You only want to keep me, because you're selfish."

Topher shook his head. He reached up to push her off him—she really was very close now—but her hands were firm on his shoulders and she wouldn't let him. And he couldn't bring himself to push very hard. His hands fumbled as if he were hardly able to bear touching her. He's remembering, she thought to herself. He's remembering that night. Me in my little black slip, him in a threadbare T-shirt. He claimed not to like it but he did. He still does.

"You're smart," he said after a minute.

"Like dollmaker, like doll."

"I didn't make you so that I would like you," Topher said. "I made you to do the job." He shrugged awkwardly, her hands still heavy on his shoulders. "You just turned out very…likeable."

She squeezed his shoulders, lightly. "Do you feel guilty for creating me now?"

"I can protect you," he said, staring up at her. "I promise I can protect you."

She smiled. A lump was forming in her throat. Yes, this was the way he looked at Sierra, wasn't it? The same kindness, the same desperate need to protect, to own and shelter. He was good for Sierra. He made sure she was treated better than many of the other dolls, made sure she only got certain types of engagements, made sure her handler was good to her—not just the bare minimum, but actually good, like Boyd had been for Echo. He made sure she could spend time with Victor. He treated her like a younger sister, like someone he loved.

He was good for Sierra, but he would never be good for Claire.

"It's all right," she told him, gentler than she'd ever been. "I forgive you."

She straightened. He leaned forward as she stepped away, as her hands left him, his expression already bereft. Topher was a puzzle in many ways, but his craving for human connection, tactile and intimate, had never been a secret. Not to her.

"I came to say goodbye," she said. "We should do it properly."

"I'll bring you back," he said. "DeWitt will…I'll bring you back." Please don't leave me, his eyes are saying.

"We won't be able to talk later," she said. "So I wanted to do this in private. Please stand up."

He stood slowly, warily. She stepped back over to him. Gently, very gently, she kissed him on the lips. Then she backed away again.

He blinked. "I don't understand." And of course he didn't. She was the doll, she was the imprint, but he was the Pinocchio. Some things he never did quite understand.

She smiled. "You aren't a good boy, but you're learning. Someday you may really be a good man." She opened the door. "Goodbye, Topher."

/…/…/

It turned out Boyd's idea of a hideout was his own apartment, only a few blocks away from the LA Dollhouse. It made Claire skeptical, but he assured her that as the head of security he could redirect any search out for her, if they bothered to look all that hard. And sometimes hiding in the most obvious places was the most clever idea.

She wasn't sure she liked it, exactly. Staying in his apartment—which didn't have a guest room but he assured her she could sleep in his bed and he could use the sofa for now—had certain implications. Boyd wouldn't want to sleep on the sofa forever. She wondered if he'd buy another bed, or if what they were to each other, what he wanted them to be, would drift into place like he seemed to predict.

She lay awake in bed for a long time that night even after she'd settled in, exhausted but unable to sleep. It wasn't the thought of poor Whiskey's original mind that kept her awake. That woman had made her own decisions, and she had no right to make Claire's decisions too.

No, it was the thought of Topher's bright eyes, his determined declarations. Sure, he would save her. He would put her on a flash drive and connect her to someone else's head, and maybe someone else after that, and someone else after that. She could be his reincarnated lover, a million bodies and only one soul. She could be shapeshifter, mind roamer. She had evolved in this body, become a different Claire Saunders from anything Topher had foreseen. In another body, would she evolve again? How many different Claire Saunders could there be?

And he said he would protect her. Protect her from Rossum? Even in bed, Claire had to suppress a bitter laugh. With the way things were headed at that house, he'd be lucky to protect himself.

How would it be, she wondered, if she had decided to stay? Would she feel natural in the new body as she felt natural in this one? Would she have become something different to Topher or would they have stayed the same? What would he have wanted? What would she have wanted?

Things would have stayed the same, probably. The same banter, hating him and wanting him at the same time. Only maybe she would have occasionally slipped into his room at night when the world got too overwhelming, and stolen a kiss from his half awake lips, maybe asked him for something more.

Is that the happily ever after you wanted? She asked herself. Why do you keep wanting to cry?

Only, under the freshly washed sheets in Boyd's bedroom (he washed them because he knew she was coming, because he was prepared for this, should that be a good thing?) with the whir of a ceiling fan above her and a too-hard mattress under her and Boyd Langton just a couple rooms away where the serenity of the nighttime Dollhouse should be, she knew this was hardly a happily ever after either.

/.../.../

/.../.../

/.../.../

AN: You gotta feel bad for Claire. She gets a tough break in the series-and of course I only write her more angst. I find I somewhat ship Claire/Topher but I'm not a hardcore shipper. It may change.

Title is from "Hold Me Down" by Halsey. Reviews would be much appreciated.