They sit there for a long time on the floor of his makeshift bedroom, neither talking nor looking at each other. When he hears Claire sigh and shift, Topher risks a quick glance at her. She has let her arms drop and tucked her legs under herself, but she still does not seem inclined to get up and leave. Or to acknowledge his presence any further.
Topher opens his mouth and closes it a few times with no words forming. "How did you figure out I don't like rodents?" he finally manages, even though it was not what he had intended to say. "I definitely didn't imprint you with that knowledge."
She lets out a huff of breath that could almost be a laugh. "You always find a reason not to visit the labs, even when they're testing something you should be interested in. I assumed it wasn't moral outrage over the animal testing that keeps you away." She shrugs slightly. "There's a lot of yourself you don't hide very well. Your fear of the dark is also obvious."
"I'm not afraid of the dark."
She gives him a blank look, facing him again for the first time. "During the second blackout – the one Echo didn't cause – you followed me around until I went into my office and then refused to leave until the lights came back on. And whenever I walked more than a few steps away, you started moving things around on my desk so I had to come back over and stop you."
"…Okay, yes, but fear isn't exactly the right word. Let's say it…puts me on edge. I have a healthy respect for it. And, by the way, the first blackout ended with Echo coming out of the shadows and pointing a gun at me, if you'll recall."
She sighs and brings her knees back up, resting her arms on them. She prefers that small barrier being there. "Most of our fears have a logical base, Topher. We rely on our sight for almost everything. We make judgments about our safety in a given situation. The dark damages this ability and makes us panic. Rats carry deadly diseases, get into food, and kill off livestock. During the time of the Bubonic Plague, it was beneficial to want them far away. Everyone has these fears; they're natural, and most of us learn to handle them." She brings her hands together under her chin and leans against them, muffling the rest of her speech. "Then there are the irrational fears. People, open spaces, sunlight. Human beings need these things to thrive, but some of us are still afraid of them. It's unnatural. People don't understand these fears or where they come from or why they exist. Agoraphobia doesn't help a person survive. It keeps them from living," she finishes, her voice shaky and bitter.
Topher looks slowly down and away from her again, that sense of guilt that was briefly quelled quickly rising up again. After a long moment of staring at the floor tiles and thinking, he says, "But people still get over it." He makes a vague gesture with his right hand. "They take a pill, or go to therapy, or just bribe the zookeeper to let them spend the night in the reptile house by the Burmese python cage. People are conquering fears left and right. Problem is most people are afraid of that confrontation, too."
She does not respond this time. The silence settles back over the room, and Topher is unwilling to break it again. He leans back against the corner of his cot and lets his eyes slide shut. It is several minutes before he hears movement, and when he turns his head to look, Claire is already standing. She walks away without a word, one hand brushing the wall as though she needs the support. Topher watches until she is out of view, and then he climbs onto his cot and tries for one or two more hours of fitful rest.
In the morning, he logs into the system to tamper with the security feed from the server room. He thinks about infestations, and the amount of time between calling the exterminator and having the problem fixed, and what it is like to wake up at midnight with a rat on your pillow. Classical conditioning, associating the startle response with the stimulus. Another way of programming the brain, less direct than his, more permanent. But it can still be wiped away.
Across the building and through the glass panes, Dr. Saunders paces around her office, packing a small bag, pausing to take a bracing drink or glance his way.
Topher is not surprised that evening when he overhears Boyd's report to DeWitt that the Dollhouse is now short one staff member.