Title: A Rose And Its Thorns
Author: Amethyst Blizzard
Rating: PG-13-ish, nothing bad
Summary: A present left for Topher is an unwelcome one. Pre-Vows, foreshadowing ensues.
Disclaimer: Joss is boss. If only…

But he that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose. – Anne Bronte

He stares at it now, the masterfully delicate presentation threatening a dangerous persistence from her he feels he isn't ready for. His finger pokes at the frayed cardboard along the edge of the small box, and he traces the construction until his finger reaches the dip of a hard corner. The pad of his index curls unconsciously with the sudden movement, and his finger slips off the edge and into the box. He retracts the finger quickly, careful not to let it fall into the tangle of black and red petals she has left for him.

Topher swallows hard and pinches his eyes closed for the moment; he feels control slipping away from him, and the nausea this causes upsets not just his stomach.

The box itself is small and rectangular in structure, barely noticeable amongst the assortment of clutter already about his desk, and is coated with a sheet of decorative floral patterns atop an unabashed pink background. The present is what is arranged inside the box, made ever more obvious by the lack of a lid to hide the surprise. A single black rose, complete with stem and thorns, rests on a bed of waxy red rose petals, folds of a deadened flower defeated on top of a graveyard of beautiful blooms. The thorns are sharp, and he dares not manoeuvre his way through the tangled garden for fear of stabbing himself.

The ebb and flow of her cruel torture plays on his nerves, and though the first few weeks came and went with only secret looks and brief, unsettling moments of silence, the last month of enduring her games is now wearing Topher down.

He gathers his composure and steals a glance towards her enclosed office, tightly secured and sectioned off from the rest of the House, and he catches no sight of her through the blocks of windows. She does this often, Topher muses. She hides.

There is a flaw in his design, and Topher doesn't know how to fix it.

Claire Saunders is designed to be kind, to be efficient, to look after the Actives at all costs. She is loyal and graceful, precise and genuine, strong-willed and questioning. There is a need for her to be the way she is. She is not, however, designed to be cruel and sardonic, calculating and cunning, deceptive and destructive. She is not designed to play games; she is not supposed to have obsessions.

And this, Topher decides, is an obsession.

He looks back at the box, stares deep into the bed of flowers, and breathes a shaky breath. The black rose, as Topher understands it, is a representation of Claire herself, as she understands it; a rare darkness among all the blossoming beauty, a scarred and broken version of the bright flowers around her. A thorn in the side of the Dollhouse, damaged and blackened, useless and frail, but still so dangerous.

Topher exhales audibly, though the absence of any single body around him defeats the purpose of the loud sigh. As he breathes back in, he captures the entangled smell of the roses, ripe and pure and strong with a tinge of burgeoning staleness. He feels himself unable to crush the box, and along with it the single complete black rose and its ruby, fragmented companions, and throw it all into the nearest trashcan, though he knows that if only he could do that, the sights and the smells of her most recent game would disappear. So it remains in him to be susceptible to her new game, and let the cruel torture affect him the way she desires.

He wonders curiously what else she is planning for him, and how far she will let it escalate before stopping, if she ever will stop it. Another curiosity crosses his mind, and this one makes him look over to her office again; he finds her walking past the frosted windows, a quick flash of white. Topher tilts his head and follows her, through each block of glass, until she disappears from his view, perhaps slipping into her chair and continuing to write her reports. He wonders if she enjoys torturing him, if she truly gains pleasure from her actions, or whether she acts simply out of spite for him, doing what she must to break him down, to make him feelpathetic and small under her command.

For a split moment, he contemplates confronting her, running down the stairs in a fevered fit of anger and passion – if he has any – and bursting through the sliding glass doors, demanding an explanation. But this is their game, and however much Topher tries to deny it, he is the one who began it all. By creating her, designing her, allowing her to make her own decisions and evolve as a person, he is responsible for the parts of her that view him as something to hate, something to revolt against, something to punish.

With a final glance in her direction, and without another glimpse of her, Topher gathers the box in his hands, the unwrapped present of promised danger and obsession, and pushes it deep into the bowels of the lowest drawer beneath his desk. The single black rose disappears from his view, as do the many crimson petals that cushion the full flower and its thorns, and Topher is released from having to see the physical representations of her plaguing mind games. He closes the drawer and breathes deeply, the lingering perfume of the rose petals permeating the canals of his mind, triggering thoughts and images of her. Topher pushes these away as well, her presence an unwelcome one in his mind.

Her games will persist, he knows, but they will not last. Topher knows an endgame is imminent, and he is left to wonder in secret what this will be. But until then, he will do nothing to stop her, to deter her, or to even encourage her; oddly, he feels he deserves this punishment from her, and he will suffer quietly through her trials because he knows, someday, she will reach her limit, and it will all end. He hopes.

A/N: Done. This was written way before the latest Dollhouse revelation(s), but it's quite interesting and a little unnerving to read through it knowing what we now know about Claire/Whiskey and what she does in "Getting Closer"…creepy. Reviews are lovely and appreciated :)