Topher Brink was the one responsible.
No matter what anyone said, he was responsible for what had happened, and he understood that all too well. The indisputable knowledge that she was the way she was because of him ate at Topher every time he caught a glimpse of her.
Everyone he knew had tried to console him, convince him that what had happened was only an accident.
That it wasn't his fault.
But Topher knew that they – DeWitt, Dominic, the handlers - didn't believe the litany of platitudes they kept spouting at him.
It didn't matter what they said; the truth was always in their eyes.
When they looked at him, sympathy pouring out as thick and sticky as honey, Topher would look beyond the surface. He'd look through the globs of pity into the depths of their irises. And no matter who or what, he always saw the same things.
And worst of all… blame.
Whenever someone would look at Topher with those terrible eyes and their false reassurances, he would have to fight the urge to close his own eyes or look away. He didn't need to see their thinly veiled contempt hidden behind their shining irises, and he didn't need to hear their empty words, because Topher already knew what they refused to say aloud.
Topher Brink would always know that he was the one responsible for her…
Dr. Claire Saunders
Topher hadn't made the choice. He hadn't even been asked how he felt about it. In fact, he thought that Darla would have hated what was going to happen.
Seven days after it had happened, Topher still hadn't been told a thing about what had happened to her. So when DeWitt had called him into her office a week after Alpha's attack, he'd been expecting an update on Whiskey. And even though she was just an active, just another doll, he'd thought DeWitt would have told him something about what had happened to her.
But she hadn't. No one had. And he didn't even know if she was still alive.
In her office, he'd sat quietly (for once) in front of her desk, hands folded in his lap and staring at his white knuckles as his heart pounded in anticipation. Even though he'd thought about it a million times in the past week, Topher realized that he hadn't really prepared himself for the worst, but as the palms of his hands began to sweat, he'd realized that that was what he was doing.
It wasn't until DeWitt spoke that Topher let out a breath her hadn't realized he'd been holding. And what he heard coming out of his boss's mouth caused his breath to hitch in his throat, making his head swim. Whether it was from holding his breath or from sheer shock, he wasn't sure. But either way, he'd forced himself to take a few deep, steadying breaths to try and calm himself.
"Topher. Are you listening? I said-," DeWitt's voice, thick with impatience, cut through the haze of his thoughts instantly.
"I heard what you said." His voice was blank, empty, but his eyes were burning holes into the woman before him.
Of all the scenarios that had just run through his over active imagination, this hadn't occurred to him. And as Topher's mind reeled in the wake of the specifics of DeWitt's request, he couldn't help but think, "This is the worst that could have happened."
With all of the details of the assignment swirling around in his mind, Topher pushed himself out of the chair and moved towards the door. He was ready to leave, to get out of her office. But before he left, he looked at his boss once again. Her eyes, cold and hard, making him feel like a very small child who'd just done something wrong. When he spoke, Topher's voice was a barely controlled whisper. "Can I, umh… Can I see her first?"
At his request, DeWitt's eyes softened fractionally before returning to the emotionless gaze he'd come to associate with her. "Of course."
When she started moving towards him, file in hand, Topher thought she was going to take him to some secret infirmary he didn't know about. And the thought of seeing Whiskey caused his heart to stop beating for a second before it started pounding again, this time at full speed.
It wasn't until DeWitt opened the folder in her hands and pulled out an eight by ten glossy photograph and held it out to him that he realized they weren't going anywhere. And as he took the photo his stomach plummeted to his knees. In retrospect, he realized that it had probably been for the best he didn't see her and his boss had known that.
He figured that he should have been grateful for her foresight, but he wasn't.
Picture in hand, Topher turned away from her to look at it. The girl in the picture looked pleasantly blank despite the angry red cuts that marred her petite features. The slices ran over her lips, forehead, nose, and cheek and were covered in a thick, clear ointment that had caught the reflections of the camera's flash.
And even though the marks and gashes were obviously too deep to ever fully heal, Topher couldn't help but think that she was still beautiful. Whiskey, the soon-to-be Dr. Saunders was merely a pale echo of the woman he once knew, but he loved her still. No matter who she was or how she looked.
His eyes were trained on the floor as he turned his back to DeWitt's office. His eyes weren't wet; he wasn't crying, but Topher could feel the tell tale burning at the back of throat, and he didn't trust himself to look into his boss's eyes.
It wasn't that he considered the woman a friend; she'd made it very clear, more than once, that she was employer and he employee. No more. No less. But sometimes, he swore that there was a glimmer of something more in the way she would look at him.
And if he were to look up and see that now, Topher didn't know how he would react.
"You… You'll have the imprint in an hour." He felt the picture slip from his grasp as DeWitt took it back, but he still didn't look up. "Calm. Sweet. Doctor." His back to her, Topher finally turned the handle of her office door. "Did I forget anything?"
"No. That's all." She sounded sad, apologetic, and Topher found himself wanting to turn and see if it really was his boss speaking or someone who just sounded like her. But he resisted the temptation. "You can fill in the rest as usual."
Fill in the rest. In other words, give her personality. Make her a real girl.
"The rest" had always been Topher's favorite part of designing an imprint. When it came time to designing the active's personalities he had always worked in human idiosyncrasies like a master painter works in oils. It was where he got to play and experiment, got to make the dolls into people instead of just walking, talking robots. But the thought of doing that to Whiskey one last time made him feel sick, the acidic taste of bile burning the back of his throat and threatening to come up if he didn't swallow.
Taking a deep breath, Topher forced the vile liquid back down to his stomach. As he did so, he promised himself that, of all the personality traits he'd give the new Dr. Saunders, the most dominant would be her hatred for him.
When Topher sat her down in his chair to officially make her a doll, she was already gone.
Once vibrant and full of mischief, her eyes slid in and out of, not focus or consciousness, but… humanity. For a moment, she would look at him with an apology in her eyes. But just as he would try to speak to her, something just behind her chocolaty irises would shift or click, and she'd be looking at him with the polite, vapid stare of an active.
And the moments he saw the change happen, witnessed it up close and personal, were always the worst. It was like something inside Topher's chest broke whenever he saw her, felt her slip away and into the near catatonic state that would be known as Whiskey.
It was like watching a loved one die a slow death as an alien creature took over their body right in front of your very eyes. And it was an alien creature that you would then be forced to see every day whether you wanted to or not.
And Topher had been watching her slip away for weeks, the new doll-like personality slowly slipping in and taking over her mind and body.
Looking down at the woman sitting in his chair, the chair he'd used to take and give identities so many times before, Topher wished she'd look at him one last time with recognition in her eyes.
But she wasn't there.
And she never would be again. Instead, when he looked into the large brown eyes of girl he loved, all he saw was pleasant curiosity, and it broke his heart.
Unable to stand the vacant gaze any longer, Topher had walked over to his computers and slipped in the cartridge that would wipe away what was left of her ravaged mind. Normally, he would have started out by doing a final check to make sure that her own identity, personality, memories, and feelings were perfectly preserved on two cartridges of their own. But by the time he gave up and accepted that what was happening was unstoppable and permanent, there wasn't enough left of her to save. By then, she was nothing more than a few fragmented memories of foosball and cookies.
Looking back, Topher realized that he'd been watching her melt away before his very eyes for months. At first, it was just little things, things that could easily be explained away by stress or forgetfulness. Showing up an hour late when they were supposed to meet. Forgetting where she'd left her keys. Common things that he should have noticed. Things he'd never forgive himself for missing.
It wasn't until weeks after they'd begun their experiments that he realized something was seriously wrong. The moment she looked at him with eyes completely devoid of anything resembling the girl he was friends with, Topher knew something was very wrong. The shock ran deep into his bones, causing his blood to run cold.
As she looked at him with the vacant stare of an active for the first time, he couldn't stop himself from whispering, "This wasn't supposed to happen."
Just as soon as the words had slipped out of his mouth, she began to blink furiously as if trying to bring something into focus. And when she spoke, her sweet voice sounded dazed. "Sorry, Toph. Totally spaced there for a second. Now, what were you saying?"
Topher stared at her, swallowing hard, gasping for air like a fish out of water. "I just… umh, was wondering what you wanted for lunch."
"Hmmmm….." Her lips were pursed together, and her eyes were looking towards the ceiling as if she were deep in thought. But Topher knew better, knew she was pulling the face just for him. And despite himself, despite what he'd just seen, Topher laughed. "Pineapple pizza, no ham-," here she'd stopped and poked him in the ribs as if to emphasize some point or other, "and grape juice. In fact, I think there are still some juice boxes in the refrigerator." She smiled brilliantly at him before walking off in the direction of the dining area none the wiser about what had just happened.
But Topher knew. And he would always remember that at that moment he'd realized he was losing her. And that they'd both been terribly, terribly wrong.
And because of that, he would give her anything she wanted, even Hawaiian pizza without ham despite the fact that he really wanted the ham. He would give her whatever she wanted, because it was all he could give her. There was no way, as smart as he was, to give her back what she was losing.
To give her back herself.
Oh, he would try. Topher would try everything he knew, and he'd try to come up with some brilliant new theory or equation. But deep down, Topher knew it was useless, that what was happening to her was permanent, but he had to try. He couldn't just sit idly by while she disappeared piece by piece before him.
Later, when all of the pizza, including every last little string of cheese attached to the cardboard box, was gone, Topher picked up their trash and carried it out of his office instead of just dropping it in his tiny trashcan. And when she asked why, Topher lied, saying that he was going to the larger can in the kitchen. But really, he was going to see DeWitt. And the moment he was out of sight of his office door, he stuck the empty pizza box into the hands of the nearest active. November merely smiled, accepting the carton as if it were a precious gift.
The moment DeWitt's door appeared before him, Topher burst through, a fever of hysteria and panic ready to burst forth. He didn't bothered knocking, but then again, he never did. He was lucky that no one was in the office other than his boss. Not even Dominic.
Before she could speak or even acknowledge his presence, Topher was pacing back and forth in front of her desk, hands pulling at his blond hair. And as he paced, he just barely noticed his boss's head following him like a cat watching a ball bounce back and forth between two people.
"Topher, will you please quit your insufferable pacing? You're making me nauseous." DeWitt's voice was a dangerous mixture of impatience and aggravation that caused him to stop dead in his tracks and turn to look at her with wide eyes. He vaguely took in the stack of files and half-eaten salad sitting on the desk in front of her.
"It's happening, and I don't know what to do. There's… I… I don't know…" Topher threw his arms in the air just before resuming his pacing again, this time mumbling to himself as he did so.
"Are you sure that the deterioration is permanent?" To Topher, DeWitt's question sounded detached, almost to the point of boredom, and that was enough to cause him to look at her instead of the floor as he paced. Her hands were folded underneath her chin, and she was watching him with an eagle eye. "Topher, are you absolutely positive?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I mean…" The words fell out of his mouth in an angry deluge that he accented by pushing his shaggy hair violently out of his eyes. "I haven't really run any tests… She doesn't… I don't want her to know until she has to."
His nervous energy seemed to have finally run out, and his thighs were trembling slightly from the exertion of his furious pacing and adrenaline. And at that moment, Topher wanted nothing more than to collapse onto the carpeted floor of his boss's office and bury his head in his hands. But he was pretty sure that she would frown on such behavior in her presence. So he dropped into the chair in front of her desk instead, laying his head back and pressing the heels of his hands into his eyelids as he did so. When tiny starts erupted behind his eyelids, he spoke again, this time in a tired voice. "But yeah, I'm absolutely positive. Totally, completely, couldn't-be-more-positive-if-I-were-a-giant-plus-sign positive."
When DeWitt didn't respond, Topher dropped his hands and lifted his head so he could look at her. The moment he saw the look of apology in her eyes, he knew what was coming, and he couldn't stop himself from pleading with her. "No… I can't…"
"I'm sorry, Topher. But if what you're saying is true, then Miss Morgan is already gone." She stopped and sighed a sigh that held the weight of the world in it. "At least this way she'll still be around."
"Please, just let me try some things first…" Topher's eyes met DeWitt's, and he knew, deep down, that she didn't believe he could do anything. But she'd let him try anyway.
"Ha! I win! Again!" Darla's voice was positively triumphant as she threw her arms in the air and jumped up and down. "Though I didn't really expect anything different!" When Topher tossed a handful of popcorn at her, she only laughed harder. Not finished with her teasing, she pulled a stray piece of the cheese corn out of her brown hair and popped in her mouth mockingly. "Play again? I promise to go easy on you." She winked at Topher from across the foosball table, and he could tell that she was trying really hard to hold back another laugh.
Leaning forward on the edges of the table, Topher considered the girl across from him with her large brown eyes sparkling in anticipation. He knew that if he played another round of foosball with her, he'd lose. No contest. After all, he always lost that particular game to Darla "Whiskey" Morgan. But when she looked at him with that chocolate gaze, he couldn't say no.
"Fine. But afterward, I want food. It's been almost half-an-hour since I last ate." As if to emphasize his point, Topher's stomach let out a loud growl that said, "See! The stomach can not be denied." Darla just rolled her eyes in response.
"Whatever. But I want Chinese today. You always want gross stuff when we order pizza." Darla's nose was scrunched up in disgust as if she were picturing the "gross stuff" in her mind. The image quickly distracted Topher from retrieving the tiny ball. Of all her expressions, and she had many, that was one of his favorites.
"Toph, what are you doing? Get the ball! You can't put off the inevitable by pretending you don't know where it is." Darla sounded impatient but amused, and from the expression on her excited face, Topher knew she hadn't caught him staring at her. One of these days though, she would. It was inevitable. But for now, his secret was still safe.
Three more games of foosball later, all of which he lost, they were spread out on the floor of his office surrounded by white Chinese food cartons, packets of soy sauce and fortune cookies. Darla was laughing boisterously, a piece of orange chicken held between chopsticks poised before her mouth. She was sitting with her legs cross Indian style a few feet away from him.
"Chopsticks are really not that difficult." Darla quit smirking just long enough to pop the chunk of juicy meat into her mouth. Unable to talk, she held out her hand, the now empty sticks resting expertly between her fingers. She made them open and close a few times, making Topher think of a duck with a very long, very skinny bill.
"Don't care. I prefer to eat my food the proper way. With a fork." As if to emphasize his point, Topher speared a piece of broccoli and stuck it in his mouth.
"You're just bitter, because you couldn't get the hang of it when I tired to show you how to use them." Darla looked at him with mischievous eyes over the top of the carton in her hands.
"Not bitter. I just prefer to eat off of something with four, or even three, prongs." Topher waved his plastic fork in the air. "This is far superior to your little sticks." Making a show out of what he was doing, Topher stuck the utensil into his own box stabbing another chunk of broccoli, a piece of beef, and a peapod all at once. "Like I said, far superior." Topher stuck the food in his mouth all at once, his cheeks bulging out like a chipmunks.
Darla merely shook her head. "I still say you're bitter."
Truth be told, Topher couldn't care less about not being able to master the noble art of eating with chopsticks. And he didn't really care about forks either. But whenever he thought about either, he thought about the time Darla had attempted to teach him how to use them.
She'd been teasing him about his chosen method of eating when out of the blue, she'd scooted across the floor to sit next to him, pushing fortune cookies and soy sauce packets aside as she did so. Darla had moved so close to him that her knee brushed against his thigh and her elbow bumped his. It was the closest they'd ever sat together, and the nearness had caused his hear to beat painfully against his ribs.
When she'd grabbed his hand, a pair of chopsticks balancing on her knee, she hadn't been gentle or kind. Instead, she'd practically manhandled him, her tiny hands pushing and pulling his into the proper position. By the time she'd finished, Topher had had a cramp in his palm and a pair of bamboo strips shoved between fingers that simply refused to cooperate.
But none of that had mattered because Darla's hands had been wrapped around his, and she had been looking into his eyes, smiling and laughing. And everything had felt so right, so perfect. Perfect to the point where he'd felt like he could finally tell her the truth about how he felt. There had even been a tiny part of his brain whispering about leaning forward the two inches it would take to press his lips against hers.
But the moment Topher had decided to make his move, Darla had pulled away, sliding back to her original spot on the floor, leaving his aching hand feeling cold and abandoned.
"Oh!" Darla's exclamation pulled Topher roughly out of his memories. When he looked over, her large brown eyes were wide and excited. "I had an idea!" She didn't even wait for him to respond before continuing on. "Know how DeWitt has been talking about some new type of spy active?"
Topher merely nodded, his curiosity piqued.
"Well… I had a thought." Darla popped another piece of chicken into her mouth, barely chewing before she swallowed she was so excited. "How about an active who is like... two actives in one?"
Topher looked at her, eyebrows raised, waiting for more of an explanation, his food long forgotten.
"Ok, here. Say we imprint someone to be Joe Normal. But… We give them another imprint. A hidden imprint that can only be activated with code words like… blue quack or zombie goose." Topher found himself nodding along as Darla leaned toward him conspiratorially. "And when they heard their code word, they'd bust out some awesome power." Her eyes were shining with excitement by now. It was clear that she knew she was onto something. "And we could call them 'sleepers,' because their super-secret spy powers would be sleeping."
It was brilliant. So brilliant Topher was surprised he hadn't thought of it himself. But just as he was starting the calculations in his mind, the plans came to a screeching halt. "But DeWitt said there wasn't any more money in the budget for test subjects right now since we designed the new chair."
"Not a problem. We can experiment on me." Topher felt his face fall in shock as denial began to form an objection on his lips. Darla, who had been staring at him, weighing his every reaction, cut him off before her could speak. "Topher Brink, you're a certified genius. And so am I. So… I trust you." Darla merely shrugged as if what's she'd just said was an every day profession. But Topher was shocked into submission, his eyes locked on the woman he loved. "So, really… What could possibly go wrong?"
Squeeka Cuomo's Notes
- This was originally written for" ldkirby" as part of the lj ficathon "doll_ficathon". I hope you like it! I had a great time writing it. :D
- The prompt I chose was: "Topher knew Whiskey somehow before she became a doll, and feels responsible for her becoming one, whether he really is or not."
- Quack: I wouldn't be able to do this without you. Thanks so much for all of your help.
- Reviews are love.