Spoilers: Upto 1x08
Summary: Something is wrong with Topher. There's being a workaholic and then there's using it as an excuse. Claire/Topher – can be taken as friendship alone or with UST if you like and there's a bit of character angst for them both.
A/N: Kindly betaread by rodlox. Written for challenge 10 at dollhousefics using prompts “trust” and “difference”.
Glancing up, she's surprised to find Topher entering her office at quarter to five p.m. with a serious face.
“Is something wrong?” she asks, standing up, already anticipating the need.
“Yes,” he says precisely.
She waits, expecting an explanation to follow but he stands there sternly like he expects something from her instead.
“I need your reports for Sierra, Cameron and Klein. Especially Cameron,” he replies coldly, reciting the names with the implication that each unfinished report is another disappointing fact.
“Is that all? You had me worried. I'll get them to you tomorrow morning, asap, I promise.” Claire smiles warmly, sitting back down, smooths her hands over her skirt as she does so and feeling silly for being on edge.
“I need the report now.”
There's a hard impatient tone lingering underneath his request, making it more of a demand. It surprises her because she wasn't aware he bothered to read any of her reports, regardless of the requirement to do so.
“I don't have them now.”
“I can wait.”
“Right, you can wait, but apparently not until tomorrow morning.”
“I need them now. I have work I ought to be doing, work that I want to do and I can't. Because of you,” he accuses, sounding more desperate by the second.
“Why is it so important for it get done tonight? Did Ms. DeWitt ask you to?”
“No, but unlike you, I consider it part of my job to anticipate what she wants me to do, not flail around until it's so obviously necessary.”
Claire really doesn't have the patience to endure his smart-alec antics most of the time, especially not when she's so close to being done for the day and despite her rising concern she finds herself snapping back a sharp reply
“So that's a no then?” she asks defensively – a challenge to his arrogance could be just what he needs to get him off his high horse about the damn reports.
“If you must have an answer to your question, then yes, she did not ask specifically for me to do this now, but I intended to until I noticed the lack of the reports.”
She was tempted to ask him why it was important again, however it was clear he'd belittle the repetition and she wouldn't get anything out of him on the subject. In which case, never mind the why, it wouldn't matter if he would give in to her request.
“You were in before me, and Ivy, this morning, weren't you. When did you last sleep? Why don't you take the night off, Doctors orders. I'm sure Ms DeWitt would support my estimate that you need rest. ”
“I don't feel like it,” he said, expression shifting to outright annoyance to match the petulant tone he was using.
Did anyone listen to her in this place? Days like this made her wonder.
She got up, walked round the desk and stood close enough she could make out how bloodshot and tired his eyes were. At a guess she didn't think he'd slept in the last 24 hours. The adrenaline of this argument and the absolute drive to do his work were probably the main things keeping him standing – she wasn't going to get sense out of him being polite, he'd assume her a pushover and keep hammering on until he got what he was looking for.
“And I don't like being accused of performing inadequately, especially when you'll note I'm doing exactly what you pointed out is necessary, anticipating her desire to have an employee not collapse of nervous exhaustion.”
“No,” and he turned around, stalking towards his office.
Not letting him get away with enigmatic responses was only part of the reason Claire ran after him in pursuit, catching up with him at the door, grasping his arm, which caused him to swing round abruptly. Claire could easily read his emotions: a mix of surprise and fear was evident on his face, likely from the fact that she'd come after him. She hadn't been expecting it herself, not any of this.
“What's wrong?” she questioned quietly, dropping all the anger she'd felt moments ago as she appealed to him for an answer.
“Not here. Let me go,” he pleaded under his breath, eyes flicking between her and the view over the balcony. She let go and peered towards where his line of sight had fallen, seeing what troubled him; the dolls all staring up curiously at where she and Topher are, attracted by the noise their exchange had caused and not realizing how it made people feel to be watched unashamedly. Claire swallowed hard as she felt Topher brush past – escaping - nervous of what she'd stumbled into and aware she'd possibly just made a difficult situation worse by pushing the issue. Requiring delicacy didn't mean she was letting the matter go as lightly as him asking her to drop it though.
Topher had sought shelter in the empty imprint room. He was pacing the floor, occasional glances to the repaired chair and Claire knew what this was about; trust, a betrayal. Not simply a betrayal by a person – Echo, Caroline, his creation, the mix of the two – but of what he expected from the Dollhouse, what it meant to be here.
Topher practically lived in the Dollhouse, he was a workaholic by anyone's standards but he'd almost died in here the other day. The Dollhouse was proven for a second time as not safe and this time it encroached on his space, his relationship with his work, his life. Being here was probably meant to be proof to himself he was okay, getting back on the horse, but he clearly wasn't okay. He was working harder and longer to exorcise the thoughts out of his mind, except being here more was going to make the problem worse, like a negative feedback loop.
“Topher, go home.”
It was a simple request this time and he looked every bit like he wanted to comply. Unfortunately, the problem was...
“This is home,” he said, standing there in defeat, resigned to it being the unfortunate truth.
“This office can't be your only home, not any more,” she walked across to him, reaching out with a gentle hand on his arm that this time he did not shirk, “It's not healthy, it's not safe.”
“I know it's not safe, don't think I don't, I did nearly die right there,” he pointed emphatically to an unremarkable spot on the floor about a meter away, “Or worse, my brain could have imploded in that chair, what a waste of my talents that would have been too.”
“That's why you need to go home. This place can never be safe, don't let it be safe, you'll be disappointed one day, like I was.”
“You still came back though.”
He stared into her eyes without blinking like he was searching hard for an answer, as if that would let him figure out why she had returned to a place that had hurt her. For him it was just a threat, a terrifying what if, but for her it had happened and still her she was.
“Yes, I came back. For the nine to five, for my patients, for myself.”
She wanted to say more, to admit it was so she could maybe get over it or to give it meaning and stop it happening again. Yet she couldn't voice those thoughts, and they were left implied.
“You still live in the company apartments. Have you even left the compound since your...injury?” He didn't give her enough time to reply, only a pause before he filled in the blank himself, “I know you haven't! I checked the logs. How's that healthy, hmm?”
He shifted his weight and she folded her arms. Lit was like a sudden standoff was happening where neither wanted to let go control. Every question answered was never fully explained and it was parried with yet another question
“Yes, you're right I do live here, but not in my office, and no it's not healthy, but it's...necessary.”
“I get it, you don't want to face the world yet. No pun intended,” and seeing her reaction he added “Really.”
She tenses at that, looks away for a moment, unable to face one person let alone the world. Of all the things he could have said she hadn't expect him to hit it right on head. Topher was tactless, sure, but she should have realized he was at least observant despite lacking good sense when expressing anything but the pure facts.
“I think our world here is enough to have to handle for now,” she replied almost diplomatically, when she could turn back to him.
She wasn't in the mood for a deeper discussion about herself today. Thankfully he took the hint to lose the focus on her, which she was grateful for considering she hadn't been merciful enough to ignore his demons. In fact, he took it as a natural end to their inadvertent dalliance in understanding the others psyche, forced cheer applied to emphasize the return to normality.
“You're probably right. On all counts. Don't quote me as saying that though; I'm not allowed to be wrong. Part of the job description, it's tough at times but someone has to do it.”
They're so close and the conversation has drawn wry smiles from them both. It's highly unusual for them to have a conversation for more than a minute, let alone agree on a subject, however tenuous this is. Claire doesn't know what's gotten into her, she finds herself reaching round and pulling the man into a firm hug. He clearly doesn't know how to react, his arms flailing at his sides at first, before he chooses to return the random display of affection.
She takes a deep breath. She's actually enjoying the embrace, having a warm body to hold onto. Soft skin brushes against her cheek as he relaxes into the hug and the extra contact jars her from her oddly content state, making her flush with unexpected interest. Alarms bells ring in her head - definitely time to break it off.
“Okay, that's enough of that.”
“Shame,” he replied laconically like it was beneath him to want it, and somehow also cheekily, a quick lip over his lips as he turned to make himself busy with anything else.
She stands idle watching him fretfully moving about equipment for a minute, wondering if this conversation has been enough to make a difference.
“In the future, I don't want to see you here if Ivy has left – use that as your cue, okay. “
Topher is back to one words answers and not looking at her, which doesn't exactly fill her with confidence that they'd made a break through after all.
“Promise me you won't stay long tonight. Any night. ”
Topher stops what he's doing and looks over his shoulder to reply.
“I promise I won't.”
The way he says it, unblinking and directly addressing her, makes her believe he's genuine, he means it. Of course meaning it isn't always adequate because intention doesn't always lead to doing as you mean to, however much you mean it. As she leaves she hopes and prays, please let that be enough.