(Originally posted May 27, 2023)

“Miss,” the doll plaintively asks, “what are all of these pills?”

“They're vitamins, dear. Here, let me get you something to wash them down ...”

She stares at the bowl before her as she bustles off.

Some of them look like vitamins, true, little oddly shaped gummies and tiny pressed pills: familiar sights from all the other times she's been given supplements to keep her nice and healthy and to help her hair grow into beautiful curling locks.

But then there are others.

Quite a few of the pills look distinctly hand-made, imperfect presses and half-crushed gelcaps holding only a few specks of sparkling powder; there are some that look like little fishies and one that's inexplicably molded in the shape of a (slightly squished) flower.

That's odd, the doll thinks, though her thought becomes more of a question with every moment it lingers in her little clockwork mind. It's odd, isn't it?

She's still staring when her witch finally returns with a glass of peach juice—her favorite!

“Here, dear,” the witch says, “now don't dawdle! I've got other things to do today.”

The first few handfuls go down smoothly, but everything goes wrong when one of the pills lingers on her tongue and she tastes it—it's wrong, like a bitter little piece of rot and vomit and, and—

She gags, chokes, makes a horribly undignified sound that earns her a glare and a muttered “what is it now?”

With her throat spasming and muscles tensing and stomach threatening to rebel she sits there, trying not to move, trying not to draw any more attention—

The cup spills as her groping hand struggles to find it, sending a flood of cool sticky juice spilling across the table and dripping down onto her freshly laundered dress and soaking through to paint her smooth skin beneath—

”... look what you've done,” her witch hisses.

She blushes, still choking, trying to swallow—but her hand's on her mouth, her head's being tilted back, another against her throat—and as she stares up into her witch's angry glare she feels the last pills slide down into her stomach as her bladder releases in a hot flood.

Her witch's nose wrinkles at the smell.

“Disgusting little thing. I don't know why I keep you around, really ...” she shakes her head in a gesture of resigned disdain that the doll knows she's practiced. “Clean up this mess and let me know before you get into the shower, okay?”

“Y-yes, miss.”

“And do a good job. Show me that you're not entirely useless.”

She can't bring herself to answer with words, just nods. Thankfully that's good enough for her witch this time; often it would not be.

All the cleaning supplies are just where she left them.

She's almost on autopilot as she cleans, her body moving without thought. The specifics of the mess may vary but it's always the same actions—mopping and spraying and wiping it up, throwing her dress and panties into the washer, woozily staring as she stumbles into the table ...

She's almost done when the pills really hit, her coordination slowly decaying into big imprecise movements that she can't find it in her to care about, the ground swaying beneath her feet until she finds herself stretched out on the cold and mostly clean tile floor.

She's a floor doll now, she thinks to herself with a giggle, not a chair doll or a cleaning doll. A floor doll! Dolly going floor, nice clean floor, cozy floor,

This is her place and it's where she is and if she wants to roll around she can and everything's so sparkly ...

Her witch finds her like that half an hour later.

She giggles when her boot pokes her in the side, a little nudge sending her into mirthful paroxysms that fade away into a squirming gasp when her witch picks her up by the neck with a sigh.

“Should have known those would hit before you were done, doll. But this is fine too.”

She leads her (no longer a floor doll! a following-along doll, or, or, maybe a stress-toy doll? her witch is squeezing her neck so very hard ...) to a shower already steaming with humid heat.

Doll's hardly able to hold herself upright (why can't she still be floor doll?), but it feels so good when her witch lifts her in and the hot water cascades down her body. She's so light-headed, almost floating, and her witch's hands are everywhere—

Tangled in her hair and running rough washclothes across her skin and rubbing her with fragrant soap and squeezing her neck until she mewls for air—

For a moment, as her witch's hand's relax, she sees a toothy smile that seems almost large enough to swallow her up in one bite.

It's just a moment, though.

Because she's drowning in sensation, can hardly breath, her body crushed flat between warm tiles and her witch's burning heat. The tide's lapping at her in rhythmic, insistent bursts, pressing into her with every breath she takes; someone's moaning.

She's not really there, isn't there at all, isn't inside her body: she's somewhere better, somewhere impossible, somewhere where she'll never need to be anything at all—

It's like she's unfolding again and again, like she's a wave building up to higher and higher heights, like—

When her witch is done with her she leaves her on the shower floor, liquid oozing out from between her legs. The water's cold now, almost on the edge of chilly, and that mild discomfort slowly brings her back to herself.

She's not quite sure what just happened.

But she's used to that. Dolls have to be, don't they? So she does what she assumes she's supposed to do: finishes showering and rubs balm on her aching body and turns the shower off and curls up in a soft fluffy towel. Cozy towel doll, nice and warm and dry ...

cw: self-harm, psychosis

The call's coming from beneath her skin. It's not yet ready to be dead, not ready to be buried and forgotten, grave bell ringing with wild abandon. Louder with each heartbeat, louder with each breath, an electric shriek filling the too-still air—!

She was walking through a park when it began, big and open and public, and now she's cowering in a public restroom: single-occupancy, filthy, soggy paper ringing a piss-streaked toilet. Something's waiting inside the rim, something that stinks like death and gurgles like an empty stomach longing to be filled.

There are moments missing from her awareness. She's not sure how she got here, not sure why she's collapsed on the ground next to the sink's shattered ruins as rusty water dribbles sadly from a hole in the wall; all she remembers is that the park was full of eyes, that everyone was watching her, that everyone could hear the same noise that she can't stop hearing—the screaming in her belly, the dead thing threaded through every inch of her body desperate to escape—they could all hear, they all knew, they were all looking.

A few more moments and they'd have started to come for her.

To pin her down and tear it out.

To take it away from her.

So now she's here, shaking on the floor, her face ruined by snot and tears, sharp-edged porcelain scattered all around and the shitty metal mirror leering down at her from its perch so far above. Safe, safe, safe at last—but the noise! That horrible noise, that accursed fucking thing, waiting inside her all this time as she struggles to keep it in!

And oh, how she's struggled.

All her life she's struggled, she's tried her best, she's fought against it no matter who heard its call, no matter what jagged rocks its siren song drew close to tear at her fragile spirit's hull, no matter who it try and fail to let it out. It's hers, and it's going to stay hers—

Her hands twitch spasmodically, fingertips stained with streaks of red and greenish brown. Everything feels too wet, too soft; the world twists around her like unfired clay. The air is drenched, dripping with putrid oil, each breath smearing her vision a bit more—her eyes hurt, they burn, they won't stay still. She touches her face and it breaks like rotten cheese, opens up as if eagerly welcoming all the rotting glory streaked across it.

A vice closes around her stomach, around her throat; she gags, retches, spews up a golden broth seasoned with slimy green strings and a bubbly saliva afterbirth. It soaks into the concrete, spreads like ink in water until it's all around her, watercolor swirls reaching up the walls to the empty light so far above, a fragile bubble—

She's safe here, in this place, swaddled in her own filth. Nothing can touch her without going through that hideous membrane, without letting her acid permeate their body and eat away at them until they're just another her.

It's the only place she'll ever be safe. She knows that now. She knows what she has to do, with her fingers clutching a sharp porcelain shard, the only hard thing left in this oozing parody of reality, the only thing left that can truly touch her—

She knows what she has to do.

It's her choice, even though it's not a choice at all.

It was never that she didn't want to let it out, never that she didn't want to answer its call; she just couldn't bear to give up that sacred joy—that hellish sorrow—to another. It's always been hers and it always will be, and she'll be damned if she ever lets someone else choose it for her.

The first incision isn't easy.

The next is easier.

Blood joins the bile, fills her bubble of safety with shimmering reds and deep shadowy crimsons; seeps from her face's malformed squishiness and the deep cuts in her wrists. It's sharp, metallic, alive: strong enough to drown out all the other smells, strong enough to drown out everything and anything—

Her entire body tingles as the thing inside her stretches its unbound limbs.

Her vision flickers and fails as it takes its first steps outside her skin.

And finally, finally, the noise inside her fades into silence.

Doll stumbles as she rushes home, one fine little foot caught in the cracked sidewalk, stone-teeth gnawing at protective leather. Her bag's too heavy today, rattling and clanking against her bruised hip; each step brings a fresh gasp of pain to her tightly sealed lips. Oh, if only she didn't have to hurry, if only she could take her time—!

But the sun's grasping rim is already teasing against the horizon, so far off across the sea that Doll's eyes can barely see the superheated steam which always veils those nightly indulgences; the sea is reaching up towards it and every clock in the city is about to chime out out the 19th hour's song and there's no time held in wait for her belated need.

But still, but still, Doll walks as fast as her pained body can manage, rushing back up the long hill, up and up and up until it feels like there's no end to her climb, until she forgets what it's like to walk on level ground (distance elapsed: 40 meters on a 7° slope). All the pain is worth it; her suffering always is.

She's dripping with sweat by the time she finally stumbles in through her home's door (a further 30 meters uphill, during which the slope declines to 4°), not even present enough to lock the door behind her. Doll just collapses onto the floor, overloaded bag slumping down from her weary back, head spinning far too fast—

The solid click-click-click of the door locking itself behind her doesn't rouse her to life, nor the sad little sigh as hands far less present than her own lift the bag off her and ferry it to a nearby table, nor even the busy noises of its contents being sorted—all those vials and bottles clinking against each other, the vibrant echo of ceramic against bone and the careful crinkle of dried flowers wrapped in layer upon layer of yellowed gauze. Doll's done her best to find everything on the list, tried her best to do her part to help prepare—!

And a few whispered words of praise and recognition do more to bring her back than anything else she can imagine, though of course she still eagerly fills herself with cold water when those kind half-there hands offer her a glass. There's no time to truly relax, still no time to waste and no time waiting in the wings; through the house's largest window and far beyond a slope where landslides have devastated any attempt to ruin her witch's view the sun is half beneath the waves, its light muffled in steam and its grasping loops desperately reaching down towards something that Doll's never seen, something hidden beneath the ocean deeper than anything but the sun could ever hope to penetrate.

Doll distracts herself by imagining that shining treasure, just as she does at each and every sunset—

But only for a moment.

Her witch's hands ruffle her hair, drawing her back to it; and there's the candle waiting before her and a lighter already slipped into her hands. It's the first night of many, the start, the threshold—

Doll loves the little noise the wick makes as it springs to life.

content notes: sharp power dynamics, forcible naming, referenced atrocities, other implications. Lho are borrowed from @lho_shivers, and this particular story is inspired by @nradiowave's artwork.

Poor little thing without a proper name sitting in the corner of a diner, sipping a cup of coffee bought with stolen money that's running out so much faster than she hoped it would. Victim-coded, trying not to let her body shake; the waitress keeps on glancing over at her, seems halfway to offering her some sort of help or calling the cops. She can't tell which, hopes it's neither.

Her horns are out—she used to have a little beanie to cover them, used to have a hoodie instead of just her button-down shirt (sweat-stained) and too-revealing skirt (grass-stained). Nearer the colonies that would be a fatal mistake, but she's far enough away that she can pass them off as an early halloween costume—she's not a lho, no sir! Just a down on her luck girl hoping that a bit of demonic luck will rub off if she does her best imitation.

The waitress swings by again, favors her with a “Hey honey, you want anything to eat? You look like you could need it.”

“No, uh, just coffee's fine.”

A snap decision, judging her wallet's contents against her aching belly. Her stomach rumbles and she hopes the waitress can't hear it.

“Well okay hun, but give me a shout if you change your mind!”

She tries to smile as the waitress bustles off. Even without a mirror she knows it looks too broken to be believable.

Lost in her thoughts, half dissociated, she doesn't notice the diner's door open, doesn't see the way the new woman's gaze slides over everyone inside or how it lingers on her. If she did she'd be out of her seat and running, or so she'll tell herself afterward; probably she'd just have frozen up, just as she freezes up when the huntress slides into the booth across from her.

Her body knows how it's supposed to react to someone like that: someone so clearly dangerous, someone so much larger than she is. It's not the leather jacket or the faintly clinking bag thrown over the huntress's shoulder, or even the shoulder holster just barely visible as she rests her arms on the booth's back; she'd be just as gut-churningly, crotch-soakingly intimidating even stark naked.

... maybe more so, she realizes with a guilty shiver.

The huntress just smiles over at her, with a look in her eyes like she can read every thought that's going through her head. She hasn't been looked like that since before she ran away. It sucks.

“Hey, hun,” the waitress chirps, “you two know each other? You want anything to eat?”

“Yeah,” she replies, not glancing away from her prey, “this is my lil' sister, Cecily. Didn't you introduce yourself, Cece?”

She could object, say she doesn't know the huntress, maybe get away, but she can't. Her body won't let her, no matter how that sick feeling churns in her stomach; she knows exactly what she is, and exactly where she fits into the hierarchy.

“Uh, no, I forgot. I'm, I'm sorry.”

“Don't worry about it, hun! So, you want anything, miss ...?”

The huntress grins. “Rhea. And yeah, I'll have a coffee and some bacon and eggs. And french toast for my sis' too, I'm sure she could use it.”

“I'm sure she could! I'll be back with that in a jiffy.”

With the waitress gone again, Rhea leans forward towards her, elbows resting on the table. Her clean musky scent tickles her prey's nose as it slowly seeps across the table, drowning out the last lingering traces of coffee.

“So, Cece,” she says the name like it's a weapon, as indeed it is, “what have you been up to? Getting lost, trying to find somewhere no one would recognize you ...?”

The lho doesn't trust her mouth to reply, so she just nods, the sudden motion making air flow uncomfortably over her suddenly-too-present horns.

“Good thing I found you then, hmm?” She doesn't move an inch in reply, and the huntress's next words are laden with menace. “... nod for me, Cece.”

Cecily's head jerks up and down, almost involuntarily, something curdling inside her as she realizes how little it's taken to make her respond to her new name.

“See, I knew you'd see it my way. Who knows who else might have found you, right? At least I,” she reaches across the table to brush a finger along one of Cecily's horns and the lho barely resists flinching away (and doesn't at all succeed at containing the blush which blooms across her body from the shameful warmth that touch conjures in her crotch), “take care of my things. And I've always wanted a little sister to keep me company on cold nights.”

Probably there's something that Cecily would want to say in response, but her brain has well and truly crashed; she hardly registers the waitress returning with food, doesn't react at all to Rhea's laughingly nonchalant chatter filling the minutes before they're alone again.

Maybe this isn't exactly what she was trying to get away from—maybe it's better than the breeding stocks, better than the guarantee of having her horns broken—but ...

“Eat up, sis. Can't let you starve yourself to death, can I?”

She's smoking on the roof again, leaning back against the railing with her head tilted up to stare into the rotting orange sky. There's no point in looking down or out, no point in letting her gaze wash over the city so far below. She's seen it all before.

The way down's lit up by her halo's spotlight, shining painfully bright against the night's uneasy shadows. Each inch of the fall thrown into sharp relief, from the ease with which she could tip back over the too-low railing to the places she'd have to flare her wings to escape the skyscraper's setbacks, gathering speed all the while, plummeting down faster and faster and faster—

There's the place her whoops of triumph would turn into screams of regret, and there's the place she'd find peace in her last few moments, and there's the solid ground waiting so far below for her to splatter against it: the end of the spotlight, her life's waiting terminus.

Her body would carry on, as these things do; no funeral awaits her but high-pressure hoses to wash the gore away, a spray of cleansing water sending her pancaked ruins streaming down through half a dozen storm grates to reunite and rot in the tepid water of storm sewers that haven't been washed clean by pollution-laden rain in longer than she can remember, with the past as far away as it is and the future promising never to arrive.

She's here now. She always will be, up until she isn't.

Nothing to look forward to; nothing to wait for.

But she's seen it all before, seen the path her remains would take and seen the way down; there's nothing new there, and her halo is just whispering the same things again and again, a litany of emptiness that's gone on far too long—

So she just tilts her head back and looks up towards stars that no one's seen from the city in decades and decades, watching the smoke slowly drift up until it loses itself among the night's dark, swollen clouds.

There's rain coming, rotten with incandescent city-light and filthy with the gaseous effluvia of ruined lives and useless factories. She can taste it in the air, a bitter acidic tang so far removed from what rain once was. It will strip the paint from walls and leave putrid stalactites dangling down from overhangs and run in hungry oil-slicks down and down and down, down into the sewers and through the city's secret channels and out to pollute the bay—

She sighs and peers at her cigarette; barely halfway done.

“Well,” she thinks to herself as the first drops begin to splatter down, as thick and heavy as rotten berries, “fuck wasting the rest of it. I can take a little rain.”

When the water finally finds her face it burns her skin so beautifully, so painfully; it's almost enough to make her feel alive.

cw: smut, nullification

He's rock-hard already when she stops teasing him to fetch the gorgon, dolldick waving proudly (or perhaps desperately, if the little drips oozing from its tip are any indication) in her workshop's warm air.

She's been careful not to touch it, but that's hardly a barrier; his body has so many other sensitive places for her hands to linger, and the plug buzzing against his prostate certainly helped—it's always been his weak point, though she's been careful not to give it the sort of hammering that might push him over the edge. That would ruin things.

When she returns, tugging along a masked and hobbled figure by a leash wrapped in so much magic that even his mortal eyes can see its glow, he can't help the words which grow in breathy spurts from his mouth.

“P-please, mistress, I can't ...”

“Shush, dear. I need to put your blindfold on.”

“B-but, please ...”

It's not exactly a blindfold; she just likes calling it that. A full-face mask, complete with noise-cancelling headphones and air filters; a tool for denying his senses. That it will protect him from his mistress's pet gorgon is a secondary bonus.

The last words he hears her say as she tightens the straps around his head are a simple instruction: “Stay still. I'll be disappointed if I have to repair you.”

He's not sure what she means, but something about the tone in her voice makes his dick throb and his chest ache. He's always been a slut for the idea of being broken, even back in those bad days before he was a doll.

In the part of his mind that's still able to think, the part that's not overwhelmed with how desperately he needs to be touched and used and how that horrible aching need has twisted his entire mind around his dick, he considers whether he should squirm anyway. Just to make a point. Just to enjoy the feeling of things going too far ...

His mistress doesn't bother with protection as she undoes the gorgon's mask. It's been centuries since her body was last vulnerable to a curse so weak and non-specific as its gaze, and even in the old days (long before she managed to find a gorgon) she had felt sure that she could stare one down and come out on top.

Its “hair” is curled in tight whorls all around its head, beady eyes staring impotently out at her. Its true eyes always seem faintly hurt—something about the creases in the scales which dust its face, maybe, or the thin line of its bloodless lips below and the way one of its fangs always seems to peak out into the air.

She rests a hand on its head, and tilts its gaze towards the doll. Some of its hair's tiny mouths try to bite her, but their fangs slide harmlessly off her carefully crafted skin.

“There you are, pet. Look but don't touch.”

The gorgon is already drooling at the sight; it never could resist a proudly waving cock, not even before she caught it and reshaped its mind into something she could use.

The doll feels her gaze like a wave of heat through his body, dripping in long clinging waves down his dick and along his painfully tight balls; it feels like cocaine dripping down into his throat, a burst of heat that leaves no sensation behind. He moans into the mask, does his best not to move at all, doesn't feel enough to react as his mistress taps his tip and runs her finger down to his base just inside the line of petrification—

“That will do, pet,” she murmurs to her gorgon, “very good,” but it's far too entranced to hear so she just shrugs and grabs her chisel. The downsides of aggressive conditioning, she supposes. Still absolutely worth it.

It doesn't take her long; just a few careful taps and his petrified flesh cracks and crumbles. She's careful not to damage his penis as she deposits it and his scrotum on a nearby tray (the gorgon's attention shifts along with them), but his body receives no such care. She's going to be packing the jagged hole she's left in him with fresh substrate anyway, so why bother? And that lovely dick of his will make a wonderful strapon once she's had the time to make sure it stays alive without its body ...

Hours later sensation begins to flow back into his crotch. He squirms with excitement—that she's letting him feel again must mean something good! Maybe it's finally time, maybe she'll finally let him tip over the edge into the climax he's been longing for all this time, maybe—

It's immediately obvious what's missing.

He still feels his dick somewhere, still feels that aching need filling him; the urge to thrust and shake and finally, finally—but it's not between his thighs, not proudly waving in the air above his crotch. He's not sure where it is, but on his own body he only feels an unfamiliar absence of wait and a fresh boundary of skin where he knows none should be.

“There you go, my dear,” she says with a smile as she finally removes the blindfold. “Look how much better you are now!”

Better isn't the word he would use.

There's nothing there, just smooth skin adorned with the fluttering lines and delicate curves of his mistress's spellwork; a sigil he can't quite read.

“M-mistress, what ...?”

“Well,” she grins, “I saw how much fun you had with your little toy, so I thought that it might be amusing to take it for myself. But don't worry!” She gestures at a familiar-looking dildo sitting on a table just beside him, “I'll be sure to share it with you from time to time.”

“I'm glad you're broken too.”

The murmured words linger in her ears just like the sticky sweat covering both their bodies, its wet horny smell slowly fading into a memory of itself as the little room's littler AC unit struggled to catch up with the heat. The room smells like sex, like her body and theirs, like all the gasps and touches and shuddering moments of release they'd filled each other with all through the movie murmuring its background noise from her laptop's little speakers and long past its end—

The room smells like everything their words do not.

“Uh, what? I'm not broken.”

Their body shifts against hers, her thigh rubbing between their legs and their elbow digging into her side as they bring themselves up to look her in the eye, their breath filling her nostrils with the smell of stale cum and musky sweat and lingering kisses and only the faintest trace of the energy drinks they'd both been chugging all day.

“You don't know?”

”... no?”

“Dear,” they say, a faint liberty for someone who she only met earlier that day to take, no matter how thoroughly they've explored each others' bodies—no matter that it's hardly been any time at all since their tongue was as far up her ass as they could manage as she came again and again into their eager hands, “no one who enjoys sex like that isn't at least a bit broken. Besides, I saw the way you flinched when people shouted at the park.”

“I just don't like shouting, okay? And plenty of people like weird sex.”

“Mmm, plenty of people are broken. There's no shame in it. I'm just glad you are; it would be shame if someone so hot wasn't.”

“I mean, sure, but I'm not. I'm perfectly fine.”

It takes a few moments for her to untangle herself from them, but she does, breaking the fragile skin contact that she'd been so desperate for ever since she saw them (ever since they approached her, with a confidence and joy that was nearly as alien to her as their attraction that would have been obvious even if they hadn't made it abundantly clear with their words and their body and the feeling of them inside her, thrusting and thrusting as she shook and screamed and finally fell limp)—

Her clothes are scattered, and they don't try to disguise the way they're looking at her as she hunts around for them. A sweat-stained shirt, a pair of ragged jeans, the newly torn fishnets that had peaked through the holes so beautifully, her panties wadded up and too damp to wear.

“Mind if I use your shower? I'm a bit, uh,”

“Sure, it's just down the hall,” they idly wave at the door. “Use whatever towels you want.”

The bathroom is small and filthy; there'd hardly enough room for the single shower stall, the toilet, and the sink, even without all the places on the floor that she doesn't want to step on and the way the walls look moist even before she turns the water on. It's the sort of bathroom she's seen far too many time recently, maybe a closet converted by an uncaring landlord, the sort of place where she wouldn't be able to resist if someone snuck in and pinned her to the wall ...

Though her aching body is too satisfied to really indulge thoughts like that, especially after whatever just happened, and the warm water feels like heaven on her skin. She lingers beneath the spray until the room's walls are practically seeping with condensation and the steam billows out to fill every nook and cranny, long past the point of getting clean, long past the point where the sad towels hanging raggedly by the door grow too wet to dry her skin—

A knock disturbs her reverie; their voice drifting in through a crack in the door.

“Hey, uh, I'm sorry if that was too much. I just, I'm glad I met you. I'm glad we like the same sort of sex. I'd like to get to know you better. That's all.”

She should have left when she started to feel weird. Shouldn't have bothered showering, no matter how sticky she felt—her clothing will betray her either way, and a clean body slipping into filthy fabric somehow always manages to feel worse than filth on sticky sweat. And how should she reply to that, really? How should she respond? What's the normal thing to do?

They're too human. Too much like something she could never be.

”... yeah, sure. Order some food and I'll forget about it.”

She can practically feel their happiness, even through the door; it fills up the steamy little bathroom like trembling rhododendrons and red carnations and corpse-borne lilies, fills the room with all the scents the little sliver of soap resting just outside the shower couldn't offer—

“Of course! What do you like?”

“Pizza? Or burgers. Something cheap and trashy. Oh, and can you find me a towel? The ones in here are, uh,” she trails off. She's sure they know.

“Yeah, sure! Give me a sec.”

Their presence recedes, but that bright happy smell remains as she slumps against the wall uncaring of how greasy and wrong it feels against her back. Fuck, she thinks, what I am getting myself into this time ...

(inspired by this prompt)

Ever since the prince's new tutor arrived at the castle, everything has been just humming along. It's really almost uncanny! It's like someone's filled off all the edges that used to cause so much friction; the chefs haven't bitten anyone's head off, let alone snapped at them, and the scullery maids have grown so quiet and efficient that you almost wouldn't know they're there. The footmen move in well-rehearsed motions, the horses kneel down to be mounted ...

Even the birds in the towers have stopped muttering.

And it's been weeks since the prince's last tantrum.

It's almost suspicious, thinks Oliver Seal as he paces through the halls. Everything running perfectly smooth, and he hasn't had to do a thing.

If this keeps up then maybe the castle doesn't need a butler at all, and that's a horrible (and threatening!) thought.

So here he goes, looking for any flaw to throw in the face of the other servants, girding himself to do something most unwise: intrude upon the prince's studies.

The new tutor's rooms (a study, a bedroom, and (for reasons which escape Seal) an observatory) are up in one of the castle's tallest towers, up and up and up along winding staircases and broad balconies; he's panting too much to enjoy the view out of the generously placed windows, but if he could pause for a moment he'd really ... well, he's not the sort of person to enjoy a view. Not yet.

There's no reply to his first polite knock, so he bangs on the door—in for a penny in for a pound, right? That's what he's always thought, what his father always told him.

The tutor's voice is full of strange cadences as she replies, a relic of her overseas upbringing (or so Seal understands, though no one has ever told him exactly where she was raised).

“Yes, Seal? Do come in.”

He doesn't stop to think about how she knew it was him.

The wide circular room is full of light, cascading in through the windows and sparkling off tall glass chimes and dripping down stacks of books; she's standing there waiting for him, her black robes and dull hat entirely out of place in such a beautiful room. The prince is ... no, that's not the prince. It's a porcelain doll, done up in a fine dress and positioned demurely on a throne-like chair; life-sized, which is odd, but Seal's seen stranger things in his 50-some years.

“Where's the prince, Ma'am? I was sent to fetch him.”

“And you came yourself? Seal, my dear, I'd have thought that you'd have sent another servant. All those stairs can't be good for you.”

His heart twinges at her words.

“Even so. Where is he?”

“She's a bit indisposed at the moment, Seal. If you would give me a moment ...?”

“Of course—wait, indisposed? What?”

“Mmm, she's just not quite ready. You understand, I'm sure.”

“I do not, Ma'am.”

“Ah well, you will. Just wait there, Seal ...”

The tutor turns away from him, and Seal adds another few notches to his tally of slights; he's already quite frustrated with her, but ... maybe he'll need to figure out how to properly destroy her. It can't be that hard, even if the prince likes her.

He almost misses the way she approaches the doll.

But when she lays a hand on its head and it tilts its face up to look at her, well ... that can't have been her puppetting it, can it?

“Dear,” the tutor says, “Seal is here to fetch you. You'll need to put your mask back on for a bit.”

The doll's voice is small and high-pitched, and Seal swears something about it seems familiar. “Do I have to? I don't think I'm ready ...”

“You do. It will just be for a bit, okay? Remember the game we've been playing.”

”... yes, Miss.”

Seal stares gobsmacked as the doll stretches and its appearance shifts—it's like it's putting on a fresh set of clothing, like it's letting something settle across its body. He stares, and blinks, and then ...


That's where the prince was, staring at him with curious eyes.

“What do you need me for, Seal?”

He chokes back a scream, and turns to run—if this is the prince then his tutor is doing something unholy to him, and if it's not then she's surely killed the real prince! Someone must be told! Someone—

“Calm down, Seal!” the tutor cries after him, her voice faintly mocking. “Think of your heart!”

He doesn't pause, just keeps on racing down the stairs.

His heart twinges and aches and his body feels leaden and sweaty and still he runs, as fast as he can, far faster than he'd ever call safe—

Pain shoots through his chest.

He misses a step.

And that's the end of him.

Rather later, the prince and the tutor stare down at his broken corpse from a ways above. There's blood spreading from his broken skull and the panic of his last few moments still fills his slack face. The prince stifles a giggle.

“Is he going to be one of yours now, Miss?”

“I do rather think so, dear. Better not to rock the boat too much. Now be a darling and help me drag him upstairs ...”

(a response to this prompt. cw: drugs, coercion, capitalism.)

It's not quite your first day, but she makes it feel like it is.

Everywhere you go in the tiny, crowded kitchen you can feel her eyes on you, the heat radiating from her bulk as she slides in next to you (or behind you, with the weight of her arms reaching around your too-slender body) to correct some perceived flaw in what you know is exactly what you were told to do just a few days before.

It's so fucking frustrating!

She doesn't give you the chance to get into a rhythm, doesn't let you slip into the dissociative routine of just-being-a-thing that you've always used to survive work like this (and so many other parts of your life). Some of the other workers shoot you apologetic glances, but none of them even talk to you; the thrum of conversation you expected is totally absent.

Maybe it's just that they're getting used to having you around still?

Or maybe she's just too intimidating, as she hovers over you.

It's a pity. Some of them are cute.

The shift is a bit like hell, and then it's closing and she just keeps on making you clean Again and Again and Again, refusing to accept that anything is clean enough even as she waves the other workers away. Some of them shoot you worried glances as they leave, some of them share mean chuckles as they leave, but ...

You'd have stormed out hours ago if you didn't Need this job.

In the end it's just you and her.

And it's raining.

Of course it's raining.

Nothing in the forecast about it, but ... gods, riding home on your bicycle is going to suck, isn't it? You don't have a coat, don't have a light, and you've never been good at riding in the dark and the rain—you can tell there's at least one embarrassing fall in your future, if not a panoply of bruises ruining your next few shifts ...

Gods, you have to be awake again too soon.

It sucks. It really, truly sucks.

You're doing your best to brace yourself for the ride and the pain and just everything about the path your life has taken when she wanders around the building, smoke curling out of a wide, self-satisfied smile.

“Hey, newbie. You need a lift?”

You stammer out something about your bicycle, but—

“That's all right, I've got a bike rack. Come on, no one wants you to break your neck in the dark.”

You agree reluctantly, regretfully; it's a bad choice, must be, but ...

Maybe she's nicer outside of work?

Maybe this is the chance to build a rapport, to get her to stop being so hard on you. It's worth a try, right? And if not ...

Well, if not then at least you'll be at home.

Her car stinks of sweat and smoke and weed and old fast food.

You didn't have her pegged as the stoner type. Seems too serious, and none of the smell clings to her clothes. But hey, it takes all sorts, right?

She's clearly not interested in talking as she carefully guides the car through the rain's thick curtains. Your halting attempts are met with, at best, grunts and shrugs; frustrating, disheartening.

At least you're not getting soaked, right?

You glance up from your phone when the car finally pulls over, but ... this isn't your home. It's nowhere, just a little gravelled alcove on the side of the road, hemmed in by trees.

“Hey, uh, where are we?”

“Mmm, just need to take the edge off.” She waves a vape in your general direction as she rolls the window down. “You want some, kid?”

“Uh. Should you be driving if you're high ...?”

“Slight buzz never killed anyone,” she says just before taking a long drag on the vape. “Here.”

“O-okay, sure ...”

The metal cylinder is warm in your hands, faintly greasy; it doesn't feel nice to hold, but ... well, you want to be polite, right? Maybe get into her good graces. And it can't hurt to have a sip, not after how much she inhaled.

It hits hard.

Far, far harder than you expected.

Did she change its setting, or are you just that much of a weakling?

You're still coughing and choking when she starts talking, the world thrumming in your ears and buzzing through your body and her voice the strongest part of all of it, the most real thing you can sense—

“So, look, kid,” (w-why is she calling you that? You're not that young ...) “I'm really not impressed with how you were today. I had to waste so much fucking time correcting you, and you just don't vibe with the others.”

You cough again, try to speak; it comes out like a kaleidoscopic shattering, and the moment after you're not sure if you said anything at all.

“Normally I'd just fire you, y'know? Sucks, but I've got to keep my eye on the good of the store.”

You stammer a protest, confused, baffled—surely this isn't how she's supposed to fire people? Surely she's not going to kick you out of the car in the middle of nowhere, leave you to figure out how to bicycle home ...?

“But, y'know, I was thinking,” her voice shifts, a hint of honey slipping into her rough drawl, “you seem diligent enough. And you are a cute little thing. So I could be persuaded,” she leers suggestively, “to keep you around. As long as you make yourself useful.”

Tying scraps of cloth to a dryad's limbs in the winter so she won't feel naked

(a response to this prompt)

She first met them in the summer, when their strong arms and broad thighs and sturdy chest were covered with a thick coat of fresh growth—a dozen shades of vibrant green sprouting from the rough bark of their skin, little rivulets of life like spreading moss sheltered beneath delicate leaves and the thorny flowers that adorned their head.

They were everywhere, then, always waiting for her to venture out into the forested hills so close behind her home; up and up along the merest hints of hiking paths and deer trails winding between the last traces of decaying industry, up into the fresh-born wilderness blossoming with life—

If they spoke it was not in any way she could hear, but the two of them shared joy and desire even so, in those long sweaty summer days when the trees hung heavy with the buzz of insects and birds sang undisturbed by her presence.

They always seemed fascinated by her clothing, the contrast between the sturdy fabrics she wore and the soft skin underneath; and she was so fascinated by their leaves, by the way they curled about her wandering hands and drew back to admit her touches, to welcome her into their hollows and crevices just as they welcomed her into the forest's secret places, the springs and caves that (she liked to imagine) no human had ever seen before.

It was a magical time, no matter that her life outside—back in the world, back in the city—suffered for it. They were worth it.

But summer gives way to fall and fall gives way to winter, and the seasons march on, as as they went she began to see them less and less, and then only from a distance.

Their coat frayed and tattered, leaves dripping away to litter the ground already strewn with leafs by their ... charges? companions? flock? She'd never been sure of the relationship between them and the forest, save that their form reflected it.

The last time they let her get close they almost seemed ...

Well, she couldn't be sure, really.

But they didn't seem to want her to look at them, with so many of their leaves gone.

They seemed almost ashamed, and ever more fascinated by her warm fall clothing (and her warm skin beneath, the faint sheen of sweat from her hike and the burning, sweaty warmth that their rough fingers and long tongue coaxed from between her legs); their motions full of melancholy, guilty longing—

Of course they refused to take her coat when she offered it to them, and of course she felt stupid the moment after; even if it could have fit them, imagine how that bright thing would look as they walked their paths through the woods! Totally out of place. Imagine what the deer might think!

... they didn't let her see them for weeks after that, though she felt their eyes on her each day as she wandered the forest paths beneath a canopy fast fading into winter's grasping hands.

It hurt, being left alone like that.

Her needs denied.

It hurt less than it could have, though each time she found herself in one of the places they'd brought her in the summer her heart ached with loss at their absence, at the way winter's desolation warped her memories without even the consolation of snow.

But she was a clever thing, for all that she tried to deny that cleverness; she thought and considered, and when she finally hunted them down again (or, well, petulantly stretched out on the ground during a cold snap without her warm coat, so that her skin was going blue and they couldn't help but approach) she brought a knapsack with her.

Oh, how confused they were when she pulled out the first ragged scrap! A faded blue-green, lichen-pale, irregularly torn with not a hint of a scissor's elegance—

They seemed about to run when she caught their arm and tied it around, a weak reflection of their summer vibrance. She thought they would for sure, that this was a bridge too far—

But they didn't.

They just poked at it, confusion filling their weathered face.

By the fifth scrap they'd caught on to what she was doing, and by the tenth they were starting to smile—

And when she finally finished with their arms and started on their legs, covering their bark in what almost seemed like a fluttering coat of ghostly leaves, they eagerly joined in, wrapping clothes around for her to tie and shifting their body to make sure she could get the right angle—

In the end they bundled her up in their arms and spun her around, scraps of fabric fluttering all about them in the cold wind, their face full of joy;

And in the end they stopped hiding from her.

And that was really all she wanted.