Poppet

She won't ever love you.

The thought slid through his head, starting near the back of the eyes and coiling towards the center to make a nest and settle down. The thought got comfortable. It wasn't going anywhere.

He knew it, anyway. It wasn't a flash of insight. He'd known it for a long time, that she didn't. That sad smile, the way she didn't look at him but didn't not. She'd float back and forth; drifting away on a cold quiet breeze, only to snap back as if realizing her distance and then trying too hard to give him attention to make up for it. As if he wouldn't notice, as if the peaks and valleys would settle out to flatness in their minds, a consistency of affection where they could look back and say that nothing had been wrong. To her, it was something compelled by a need to do the right thing, rather than doing it for its own sake. It was duty rather than desire.

Well, it had been, anyway.

He thought of her hands, earlier that afternoon. She tried to not not-look at him, give him the decency of looking into his eyes or at least his face while talking. She had been looking through him, though. He knew that glassy haze her eyes got, slightly unfocused, when she was staring at absolutely nothing. She couldn't change that, couldn't cover it up. He wasn't even sure she was aware that she did it.

He hadn't been able to look anywhere but at her hands. Even now, like always, they had twiddled restless in her lap, nails digging ruthlessly into cuticles and picking away the loose skin to show something red and unsure underneath. Her fingertips looked like hell.

He couldn't blame her, really. What could she do? What could anyone do?

Still.

She won't ever love you.

He sat up, echoes of the ceiling fan's slow spin fading from his vision. The room was dark in the way rooms are on bright days when all the curtains are drawn. The summer sun was out there, ticking time away and stretching the day well into evening before anyone knew it. Hot dust.

One of the desk drawers, he knew, held a doll. He didn't crank them out mass-production style, of course. He never had that much need. He never knew exactly what he'd need one for, or when. Plus, it was a lot of work, and naturally to leave them lying around purposeless long enough was to invite disaster, and he wasn't one to go asking after trouble. But he usually kept one around, blank, for emergencies; while this wasn't an emergency, he was willing to concede that now was probably as good a time as any to put it to use. A few minutes' shuffling of reams and packets and loose objects turned it up in the third drawer down. It was small, snugly-fit in his palm, and linen-white, just like all the rest.

Setting the doll aside, he rummaged in a pocket to produce a rumple-folded tissue, which opened to reveal a blonde hair about eight inches long, if he had to estimate. He felt a small sense of relief, looking down at that hair. He had been concerned before leaving the house that he would not get one long enough, seeing as how her hair had been styled short and close for the past who-knows-how-long. Thin excuses and a trip to the bathroom proved her hairbrush to be a bounty, though; there was a good crop left over from the dim days when it had touched her shoulders and curtained across her face when she leaned forward, and he was able to select to his liking. After the act, he had briefly regarded himself in the mirror, remembering also the days long past when he would have considered such a thing unsavory in any context.

She won't ever love you.

Though he would have preferred to preserve the dark closeness for atmosphere, if nothing else, he was forced to flip on the light so he could see what he was doing. More searching produced a needle, and he threaded it with some little concentration, pale hair stabbing several times around the eye before passing through. Exasperation and triumph warred, and he wished irrationally, not for the first time, that she'd had the decency to be dark-haired—at least for practicality's sake. It was so much easier to see what one was doing.

He held the needle gingerly, for fear that the hair would slide out and he would have to start over again, and retrieved the little doll. A double-knot for the ends, the dip and stab of the needle—once or twice into an unsuspecting and immediately regretful finger—and after a small while he had done what was needed. When turned correctly under the incandescent light, a neat and simple heart, hair-embroidered in a steady backstitch, flashed in the center of its chest. The extra ends of the hair simply trailed off, as he could hardly snip them down and still expect anything to work properly. There necessitated a balance between having enough length to work with while not having ridiculously long strands hanging off the end, and this was about as close as he was ever going to get, unless he was going to use a smaller needle.

She won't ever love you.

He sat for a moment to contemplate his work, and then vanished into the outer house. The ring of glancing blows between ceramic and kitchen-clutter, a plashing of water, and he returned. A bowl, faux-delft and filled nearly to the brim with water that released steam to curl gently into the air, was set gently in a clear spot on the desk—but not gently enough for one poor hand, and he hissed and wiped the too-hot droplets on a pantleg. More space was made, books and papers piled in a rough stack on the floor for later relocation. He thought for a moment, and then flicked off the lights again, breathing quietly in the resumed darkness. He left again and returned with a tealight, glowing it into life with a spare Bic and setting it near the bowl. This wasn't required in any of the instructions he'd ever read, but a little ambiance was always nice.

Her hair. Her eyes. Her nerve-picked fingers. He had loved her, he did love her. Just not in the right way. And she just...didn't. She'd talked at him, not to him—her voice was flat, like her eyes. She couldn't keep it up, for the sake of not hurting him. He understood, of course. And it did hurt, now, but. Well. Taking action would make it hurt less.

He held the doll, looked at it without really seeing it. He still had the needle. It would be so easy, just one stick, one stab. To feel a little better, like a release.

She won't ever love you.

Except it wouldn't stop at one.

He blinked, hard, and pulled a little of this and a little of that from the bags he'd retrieved from the kitchen along with the bowl. Hope, confidence, need, good sense—a sprinkle, a dash, stir it all with the needle.

Here, too, it would be so easy. A stray prick of the finger, a drop or two of blood to bind. He could make her want it.

Except.

Deep breath, in and out. He took the doll, looked at it for a moment again—really looked at it this time. Then he kissed it gently on its featureless face and laid it in the now just-right water, fragrant and bluish and faintly bubbling. It floated for a moment before absorbing the liquid—he had to poke it once or twice to get it evenly saturated—and then drifted to rest motionless at the bottom of the bowl. Where his fingers had faintly touched the water, a feeling of warmth and calm and comfort radiated into his heart, into his mind, into that little coiled thought, she won't she won't she won't, that now closed its eyes and began to dream.

If she was going to try again, she might as well do it right this time.