When Claire dreams, she remembers it like a possession. A ghost invades her body, lifts her arm, and fires. She hears the gunshot like a distant echo and sees Topher's stricken look like an aged film reel, sepia-toned and grainy. The head snaps backward and lolls to the side in slow motion, frame by frame, and the blood settles like snow.
One night she wakes up suddenly standing at the foot of the stairs – hand on the railing, poised to climb – and realizes this isn't something that can simply be ignored or shaken off. She blinks away the dazed feeling and finishes the journey to the second floor.
Topher is visibly alarmed when she relays the information, and it's clearly taking him a great deal of effort to keep from outright panicking. "It's probably just residual," he mumbles, "a random memory thread. Nothing out of the ordinary. Those get reported all the time." He brings his hand to his chin and then lets it fall again, rubbing his palms together anxiously. "But I should probably check. Just to be sure."
It's one of the more unconvincing attempts at reassurance she's ever heard. "You think the thing that killed her is still inside me," Claire says dully.
"No!" he replies, a bit too emphatically. "It's just that altering a preexisting personality without damaging the integrity of the whole thing has always been kind of a twitchy process, and to do it a second time when I wasn't the one to make the first change…" He trails off, making a vague gesture with his hand. "I think it's worth checking up on."
She eyes the chair over his shoulder, through the frosted glass. Then she lets out a soft sigh. "All right," she agrees. Claire has grown accustomed to people meddling with her mind.
Topher doesn't find anything. At least, he doesn't find anything to indicate an active sleeper ready to be triggered. He does find other signs of Boyd's hand in her programming, lingering traces of the alterations he made, the ones too finely ingrained to ever be fully removed. It irritates Topher in a way that he knows is irrational, as though tampering with the near-perfection of his Dr. Saunders imprint was the worst of Boyd's betrayals.
In the end, after going over the entire build about a dozen more times, he loads the data back into the wedge unchanged and reimprints Whiskey.
Claire wakes up, visibly tenses at the sight of the imprint room, and then relaxes slightly as the memories slide back into place. "Well?" she asks.
Topher shrugs. "You're fine," he says. "No sleeper data. No assassin triggers. That's all gone, wiped clean away." He runs a hand through his hair, betraying his still very present sense of unease. "I mean, there are still some artifacts I can't entirely figure out, but I'd know a sleeper if I saw one. It's just residual memory, retaining something beyond the wipes." He sighs, "There's been a lot of that going around here, lately."
Claire can't decide if he's more desperate to convince her or himself. "So, you didn't change anything?"
"Nope." He circles around behind her to remove the wedge from the chair and manages a bit of a smile. "You're still the unabridged Claire Saunders."
The dreaming doesn't stop. If she's as unaltered as Topher says (and she'll always have her doubts coming out of that chair), she supposes that makes sense.
The sleepwalking doesn't stop either. Always to the stairs, climbing up and up. Claire manages to wake herself every time before she gets too far, but she's convinced she knows what the destination is.
One night, on a whim, she sleeps on the couch in Topher's office. She never moves once.
Topher walks past the next morning and sits at his desk without noticing her. The clack of the keyboard wakes her up. When she starts to shift and sit up, he jumps and nearly knocks his chair over. With his back pressed against his desk he stares at her, eyes wide, and Claire can just imagine him mentally cataloguing every time she's shown up in some unexpected place and the aftermath of each instance. Finally, he swallows and asks, "What are you doing here?" and almost manages to sound calm.
Claire shakes her head, still feeling a little dazed from the unexpectedness of an uninterrupted night of sleep. "Just...trying something," she mumbles. "I had a thought I wanted to test." She reaches down to slip her shoes on. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
"Right," Topher laughs nervously. "Um, what sort of thought involved…" He gestures to indicate some combination of Claire and the couch.
She glances up at him and then looks off to the side. "I keep trying to come up here when I sleep, I guess to act out the memory." She stands up and straightens her skirt, getting ready to leave. "When I slept here, I never even got up."
Topher's face contorts in an interesting way while he considers that information. "So, that…" he begins, then shakes his head and makes another face. "What does that mean?"
Claire sighs. "I don't know."
Topher flinches but manages not to react any more strongly than that. Claire is here in his space more often than not nowadays, but she's so quiet that he forgets about her presence. He slowly turns his chair to face her. "What?"
She's tracing a finger across the faded, barely-there bloodstain on the cushion beneath her, staring down at her own hands. "About her," she adds by way of clarification. "I'm sorry." She knows Bennett Halverson's name, of course, but whenever she tries to say it, especially to him, the sound gets stuck in her throat, and her is all she can ever manage.
Topher has gotten to the point where he can think about the incident without grief instantly overtaking his expression, so he just looks puzzled instead. "Haven't we had this conversation before?" he asks.
She looks at him finally and says, "I remember it now."
He holds her gaze for a long moment, trying to figure her out, but eventually he's the one to look away and shift awkwardly, pretending it didn't happen. "It wasn't your fault," he mumbles. "You weren't you. You didn't have a choice."
Claire rests her arms on her knees and her chin on her hands. "You keep making my excuses for me." Her voice drops on excuses, like she's speaking a taboo word, and the whole thing comes out like an accusation.
"I killed Boyd," Topher spits out suddenly, a new confession to add to their list of worn out ones, the catalogue of all the things they've done to each other. Because he knows Echo may have handed over the grenade, but that was just the body. He'd already pulled the trigger on the mind by then.
Claire shifts on the couch, and Topher looks up at the sound. She's drawn her legs up and settled her head against the armrest, because here is the only place she can rest without her own personal madness driving her to wander. She looks simultaneously too much like Bennett with the life drained out of her and altogether too human and alive. Her chin lifts until she's staring at Topher again, and this time he doesn't look away.
"You didn't have a choice," she breathes, letting her eyes slide shut.
A new dream, this time. A memory, real. Boyd's hand warm against her cheek, safe and comforting. She leans into the touch and smiles, because this is a dreamworld and she can ignore the ugly truths much easier here. He kisses her softly, presses his lips to her forehead, and gently whispers in her ear, "I'll come back for you." Then he draws away. She repeats the words silently to herself.
Another voice, sharper but farther away, "Dr. Saunders? Doc - Claire!"
Claire jerks awake suddenly and blinks until she can see. It's a dark room – the server room, she realizes – and she's standing in front of Topher's bed. As her vision clears, she sees that he looks panicked and utterly terrified; his eyes are wide, pupils dilated, and he's holding his hands up in front of himself defensively. It takes another moment for her to realize why: her arm is held straight out in front her, and she is holding a gun aimed at Topher's head.
She drops the weapon instantly, and a split second later remembers that's not a wise thing to do, but it hits the ground with a harmless clatter. Claire backs away quickly, stumbles, and sits down hard on the floor. "What - ?" she starts, but Topher cuts her off.
He's panting from the fear but manages to say, "What the hell?" in a strangled voice. With the immediate threat gone, he slowly lowers his trembling hands.
Claire shakes her head rapidly, staring at the gun near her feet. "I don't…I don't know." She chokes back a confused sob. "I don't…remember…I had a different dream," she realizes suddenly. And she remembers the words in her head, so nice that she said them out loud in a half-conscious daze, and then nothing.
She slowly reaches out and picks up the gun, and if Topher flinches as her fingers brush the metal, she ignores it. With a practiced ease she shouldn't, couldn't have, she maneuvers it between her hands and checks the clip. "It isn't loaded," she says blankly, and then she lets it slide back through her fingers to the floor.
Something's very, very wrong with her.
The alarming incidents multiply and eventually become one too many incidents, and she can't do this anymore, this fearful mistrust of her own mind and body.
She curls her hands into fists around the fabric of Topher's shirt and shakes him, demands, "Take it out of me, please!"
Topher lifts his hands and leaves them hovering over her shoulders, conflicted by the desire to push her away and the fear of touching her. "I don't know if I can," he insists. "If something's triggering you, it's buried way down. Even if I find it, I don't think I could remove it without…something bad happening."
She lets her head drop, resting heavily against his chest. "Take it out," she repeats, a soft, shuddering whisper now.
He bites his lip and lets his arms drop, defeated. "Okay," he says. "I'll try."
The machine whirrs to life, and the blue light fills the room.
He thinks he's going crazy, losing it a little more every time he puts her in the chair.
She feels calm these days.
Things are missing, of course – she knows because Topher told her things are missing (and hasn't he been forthcoming lately?) – but it doesn't seem so troubling to her.
There are things she can't remember: why the Actives are gone, what the new bloodstains mean, why the glass windows are still broken. There are things she almost knows: how Echo changed, when Topher got so quiet, that people she used to trust are gone (though exactly who is a mystery to her). Sometimes people answer her questions, but usually they don't.
She feels like it should bother her more, but it just doesn't. Whenever Claire tries to access those parts of her memory, other things rush to fill the gaps. Things like "I can do my job better from here" and "The Dollhouse is safe" and "I try to be my best."
She catches Topher at the edge of her vision most days, watching her uneasily. When she confronts him about it, purely out of curiosity, he just shakes his head and refuses to answer. "Are you scared?" he asks out of the blue.
Claire smiles automatically and replies, "Not anymore." A contentedness flows through her body.
Everything's going to be all right.