content notes: a sad ending.

“Be a dear and fetch my dancing body, will you? I feel like going out tonight.”

Cam doesn't bother to reply to his nameless mxtress, not with his mainspring as deteriorated as it is; he just opens the closet and carefully pulls out the shell they want.

Each shell is different, dozens of bodies for every purpose they might possibly need: bodies for strength and speed and stealth, bodies for all the quiet arts of the courtroom and boudoir, bodies they haven't worn in years and bodies worn thin from overuse.

When they first got Cam, bringing him into their home just days after his conversion, he thought it was overwhelming. Terrifying, even!

All those headless forms, thin jointed plastic and hardened glass and even, there in the far back, the glimmer of deadly iron …

Now it's routine.

Beautiful, even.

He'll never get tired of how his mxtress's fluid form looks as it pours into a new shell; the rainbow shimmers coruscating across their surface, the way their body's surface flexes and changes—

And the way their face swims into existence, coalescing like sunlight on water in the emptiness above each body's truncated neck. A mirage perfectly fit to their current mood—to who they are today—in a way that the premade faces worn by so many of the others never could.

It doesn't take Cam long to find the right body. It's a lithe, slender thing draped all about with hollow fronds; his mxtress's fluid form will flow out into them, fill them, and they'll dance through the night in a cloud of themself.

… or so Cam imagines.

Dolls aren't invited to society parties.

Still! That's not important. It's all about his mxtress's happiness, right? Good dolls find all the joy they need in the satisfaction of being a good and proper tool.

That's … that's all it's about.

There's something between a scaffold and a cage in the center of his mxtress's dressing room, a device for holding empty bodies steady when they're out of the closet. It has other uses too, buttons and levers Cam has never been taught, but most things do.

His mxtress paces behind him as he locks the fresh body into place; they're so impatient today! Even without a word, he can feel their haste burning against his back.

It's not like them at all.

The final latch locks with a quiet clip, and he turns to them.

“I'm ready to help you transfer, mxtress.”

His voice creaks laboriously; really, why hasn't he already gone in to get his mainspring fixed? He's been putting it off for so very long ...

His mxtress doesn't seem to notice.

“Yes, Chamomile, please do.”

They kneel before him, and he suppresses a shiver at the twisted shapes that fill their face for just a second as the mirage shatters.

He shivers again (such a different sort of shiver!) as the first grasping pseudopods rise up out of their truncated neck, gently waving—

Their fluid form is a sauna rising up to engulf him, a wave of heat saturating his false-ceramic skin; as he bends down to meet them he feels his gears move a bit more smoothly, his body reacting to their nearness just as it always does.

But …

Deep within his chest, his mainspring unwinds. No matter how strange its substrate is, no matter how carefully dreams and soulstuff and stolen paradox were alloyed to make his heart, it cannot help but respond to the heat.

He can't even make the handful of steps, not before—

The first thing he feels when he wakes is the heat in his chest; a pulsing, throbbing heat, a tightness around his mainspring. His eyes open smoothly; his limbs don't move.

He's on the floor, on his back; not a place where he should be.

The ground doesn't feel hard.

How odd.

There's something wrapped around him, something squeezing through the cracks in his body; something hot and soft and—

“Cam! Are you okay, Cam?” He feels their voice all through his body, humming in his skin. “I don't have your winding key but I think this is—”

“I'm fine, mxtress. I feel …” Whatever's happening in his mainspring, he can't feel any of the deterioration that's dogged his footsteps. Just cozy heat. “I feel Right.”

“Oh thank the goddesses. Do you think you can get up?”

Cam tries. He really does!

It's just that his body isn't quite responding, and even if it was he can tell that his mxtress's weight would make it quite impossible to get up—even spread out across (and inside) him as they are, they've completely thrown off his center of gravity.

“I'm sorry, mxtress …”

“Oh, Chamomile … here, let me walk you to bed.” He feels the parts of them that are already inside him shift, flowing out into his limbs; and the rest of them, the bits of soft flowing slime that were cushioning his body, recede into him.

He's so full his gears can hardly spin.

When his mxtress sits up, his body sits up with them; such an unfamiliar movement, full of the little quirks that distinguish his body language from theirs. For a moment his gears grind and seize, for a moment it hurts, but then his mxtress shifts and all is smooth.

The walk to his bed is strange, as moving to another body's rhythm always starts out strange; she moves confidently where he clung to walls, and his feet echo with a tread that he would never dare to make were he on his own.

It all feels so unreal.

He feels like he's floating.

It takes almost no time at all before he feels his body gently lay down in bed—it's far sooner than he expects, even with his mxtress walking faster than he ever dares to. Perhaps there's something wrong with his clock.

Perhaps …

He's so tired.

All the energy and motion that filled him recedes with the departure of his mxtress.

He hardly hears their voice promising to get a repairwitch, promising that he'll be all better soon, apologizing for not noticing sooner. His gears grind and all he wants is to rest …

It will be fine, right?

It will, he hears them say from so very far away.

Everything will be fine.

Just sleep for a bit, Chamomile.

Everything will be better when you wake.