Haunted – Lonely

"Happy birthday to you …"

Topher sat on the office couch, wrapped in his softest, most worn out blanket – late nights at the Dollhouse weren't all that uncommon, and tonight was just such a night. He smiled like a kid in a candy store as the light of the candle flames came into view, as Janice poked her head over the banister and grinned, carrying his birthday Twinkie carefully on a plate.

"Happy birthday to you…"

She hurried down the stairs…he knew she was just as eager as he was to get to the sugar. Of course, they'd both stuffed down enough sugar and carbs today to give themselves heart attacks, but…well, this was a special Twinkie. A birthday Twinkie. His birthday Twinkie. With three birthday candles.

Janice collapsed onto the couch beside him, still grinning. She knew today was special, too. He'd told her. He'd programmed it into her that today was special.

Don't think about that.

"Happy birthday dear Topher, happy birthday to you!"

She passed him the plate and he blew out the candles. One…two…three flames, all extinguished. She gave a little cheer, punching the air, before leaning in expectantly for her piece of the snack.

"So…" she said, giving him a sidelong glance and grinning sneakily. "…what did ya wish for?"

Topher rolled his eyes. "You don't really still believe in that crap, do you?"

She shrugged. "Stranger things have happened! C'mon, T-man, you can tell me. I promise…I'll forget it as soon as I hear it. If you want, I can even take a quick spin in your chair afterwards."

Don't think about that.

"…you really wanna know that bad?"

"Sure!"

"Well, then…" Topher smiled, and then carefully pulled the candles out. He tore the Twinkie in half, and held out a piece for Janice. She took it eagerly, but he could see that she was still waiting expectantly for his answer. She knew today was important to him, after all. He'd made sure of that.

Don't think about that.

"…if I really believed in this kinda thing…" Topher said thoughtfully, staring intently at his half of the birthday Twinkie. "And if I could really have any wish I wanted…I think I'd wish for midnight to never come."

"Good answer." Janice nodded approvingly, then laughed. "Hell, it's gonna take us forever just to plough through all the Star Wars movies."

"Which is why, my friend, God invented coffee." He smiled at Janice. She smiled back. "Seriously, though, Jan, I'm glad you could make it. You would not believe how agonizingly normal everybody is around here! I'm working with stuff and doin' things that would make Einstein hand in his beakers, but try to carry on a five minute conversation about the last BSG…"

Janice grimaced. "Ouch. Mucho sympathies, man."

"No sweat. I mean, you're here now. I feel like this is the first time I've really been…me in months."

"Well, that's all over now," said Janice, leaning back on the couch. "I can't believe we've been so horrible about keeping in touch. I mean, tonight's totally rocked! I'll come back soon, 'kay?"

Don't think about that.

And so, he didn't. Topher avoided thinking about what the morning would be sure to bring by smooshing his birthday Twinkie into Janice's face. She sputtered, clearly surprised, and he grinned, rubbing a bit more cream on her nose before popping it in his mouth.

"What are you talking about?" he asked playfully. "That's what you said last year. Face it, Jan, you have the attention span of R2D2."

Janice attempted to look indignant as she licked the cream off her face…but she didn't quite manage it. She was still smiling. "I may have the attention span of R2D2, but you're the one who just smeared most of your birthday munchy on my face. And lemme tell you something, dude…" She wiped a particularly large glob of cream from her nose and licked it off. "…you're not getting it back."

"Fine by me," said Topher around his mouthful.

He cast Janice a sidelong look, which she returned. They stared at one another for a second or so…and then they both burst into a fresh bout of laughter fueled by inappropriate starches, too much soda, and the company of one another.

"C'mon," said Topher, pushing himself up off the couch. "We're burning the midnight oil. I'll top off our fuel supply, you load up the Star Wars."

"You got it." Janice got up and headed for the DVD cabinet he kept underneath his computer…Topher would typically get rather twitchy and sweaty in anyone but him went near there, but Janice was all right. He knew she was.

Don't think about that.

They reconvened at the couch just as the DVD player was swallowing The Phantom Menace. Topher passed Janice a bottle of soda, a handful of candy bars, and a blanket of her own. Janice nodded her thanks without taking her eyes of the screen. Among others of the geek community, they'd both denounce the "new" Star Wars as a crime against the science fiction community, a monstrosity created by the money-grubbing beaurocrats of Hollywood, the spawn of Hell and a generally bad movie…but together, they could bask in the glow of pod races, Darth Maul, and Qui-Gon Jinn.

"And look at it this way," Janice said as the screen faded in over the swamps. "If we didn't get Episode One, we couldn't get Episode Two, and then we couldn't get that kick ass battle scene from Episode Three!"

"Truer words never spoken." They gave a mock-toast to the genius that was George Lucas, before settling down to watch.

And so they passed the next six hours. Janice occasionally had to shake Topher awake, and every time she did so Topher would pause the movie to refill on coffee. Janice never drifted off. She sat on the couch, enjoying the movie immensely. She laughed at the jokes he made about the many and varied scientific continuity errors and was always ready with one of her own. She was the most devoted sci-fi fan Topher had ever met…apart from himself, of course. Around her, he could make all the obscure inside jokes and strange references he wanted to, and she would always…always…understand.

The credits of Revenge of the Sith were only just beginning to roll when Topher saw the lights come on in the lobby downstairs. Janice noticed them as well as she turned off the television.

"Cool," she said, going to the window and watching as the Actives filed out of their respective pod rooms. "Sleepies are refreshed and raring to go."

Topher nodded. His birthday Twinkie suddenly felt a little heavy in his stomach. "Yep. Another day for the Dolls."

Janice promptly rejoined him at the couch. "Well, what's say we knock out A New Hope and then go catch some breakfast? From everything I've seen, you guys redefine yummy."

Topher was tempted to say "yes." He was so tempted to say "yes." But a deal was a deal. The sun had come up. His birthday was officially over. If he tried to take his perk beyond its boundaries, DeWitt would definitely be pissed at him.

Sofia saved him from the trouble of saying "no", however, by poking her head through the door. "Hello, Janice," she said, smiling at her. "And how was your night?"

Janice gave her new Handler a thumbs-up. "Sweet as a Slurpee." She slipped an arm around Topher's shoulder. "I'd say Topher and I had a pretty happy birthday, wouldn't you?"

Sophia nodded politely. It had been decided by Claire and Topher that a female Handler would probably be best for Sierra, what with the growing evidence that her psychological trauma from Hearn was going nowhere fast. "Well, I'm very glad to hear that."

"So just ask your guys down in the kitchens to cook us up some pancakes." Janice grinned ingratiatingly. "We got three more Star Wars to get through, don't we?"

Topher nodded, but found that he could only return Janice's grin half-heartedly. "Yeah. Yep. Good old Luke Skywalker." He looked up at Sophia, who looked back at him. The look on her face was not unkind. Topher got the impression that, if he hinted strongly enough, she would leave them alone long enough to get through one more movie…

No. When you worked in the Dollhouse, you quickly learned the difference between dreams and fantasy. Topher had always prided himself on knowing where the line was drawn and never crossing it, except for one day a year that had already come and gone. It certainly put him above and beyond most of the handlers and a good deal of the orderlies in this place. Topher knew his place, and had no desire to move beyond it.

Trying to make the move subtle enough to escape Janice's notice, he looked up at Sophia and shook his head. She nodded, and looked back at Janice. "That sounds like fun," she said, her voice ringing with mock-cheerfulness. "But I'd like to go ahead and get your Treatment out of the way before you get settled down. Does that sound all right?"

It certainly did. The mention of the word "treatment" by her Handler flipped the embedded switch in her head, and Janice nodded and pushed herself up to her feet. "Yikes. Almost forgot about that." She glanced down at Topher and smiled. "Be my chair-buddy?"

This time, Topher found he was able to properly return her smile as he got up from the couch. He did not hug her, because to Janice that would be even stranger than the movies they'd just watched. But he did oblige when she hip-bumped him. "You bet. Let's get the ball rolling, Jan."

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all.

Janice settled herself into the chair, and Topher took his place at the computer. Sophia stood in the doorway, watching the proceedings.

"What do you want to do after we wrap up the movies?" Janice was asking. "We only got through five games of laser tag after all, which I say is totally unacceptable. And I still say we could have tons of fun with the sleepies. I mean…we could re-enact Star Wars. How cool would that…?"

Topher flipped the final switch, and Janice never finished her sentence. The Treatment started and ended as routinely as ever. He pulled the wedge turned around to greet Sierra.

"Hello, Sierra. How are you feeling?"

"Did I fall asleep?"

"For a little while."

"Shall I go now?"

"If you like."

Nothing more was said. Nothing more was ever said. Sierra smiled at him before getting up from the chair and allowing Sophia to lead her down the breakfast. Topher knew that Echo and Victor would most likely be waiting anxiously for her. The three were getting practically inseparable, at least for Dolls. Topher watched them go, before remembering that he still had Janice's wedge held in both hands. He sighed and went back to his desk. There were important beaurocratic things to do – labeling, processing, filing – before he could safely file Janice away for the year.

He had only just finished when he got the sense that someone new had entered his domain. Topher and Ivy were usually the only people to spend more than ten minutes in the lab, and so he was rather hypersensitive when it came to "foreign intrusions" among his gadgets.

Sure enough, when Topher cast a glance towards the doorway, it was to see Boyd standing in the doorway, staring thoughtfully back at him.

He let out a heartfelt little groan. "Oh, come on! Can I at least get my breakfast before my daily dose of moralizing? DeWitt told you, right? Y'know, why don't I fill in the gaps for you? You probably haven't eaten, either! 'It's a new kind of prostitution, I shouldn't be mixing my business and my personal life, it's exploitation of innocent victims;…"

"Who was she?"

Boyd spoke softly, but Topher still froze mid-rant. He stared at Boyd with his mouth slightly open…before very pointedly closing it and leaning back in his chair with a weary sigh.

"She's…no one," he said, then hurriedly amended himself. "Well…that's not quite true. I still hold out hope that there's someone like her out there somewhere, but…I never met her. She's…she's the type of girl I would have done anything to have. She's the type of girl I wish to God I could have met back when it really mattered. She shares my interest, she always gets my witty pop-culture references, she laughs at my jokes, I laugh at her jokes, and she's as smart as me. Maybe even a little smarter." He shrugged and smiled ruefully at Boyd. "I mean, c'mon. You of all people should know how dead it is around here. My choices of conversation range from orderlies to Handlers to Dolls. I need to have someone around here I can connect with, even if it's only once a year."

Boyd nodded. "I guess you do." He turned to go…and then glanced back over his shoulder.

"Happy birthday, Topher."

With that, he left.

Topher got up from his chair and returned to the couch where he and Janice had spent the night. The blankets were still there, rumpled and covered with crumbs from innumerable inappropriate starches. Making vague efforts to brush them away, Topher wrapped himself up, laid his head down on the arm rest, and was asleep before the Dolls downstairs had finished breakfast.