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Fic: A Cage Meant To Be Filled (Piki/Proto, PG13)

Title: A Cage Meant To Be Filled

Fandom: Rise of the Guardians

Pairings: Piki/Proto, some Pitch/Proto and Pitch/Pitchiner references.

Warning: References to stillbirth, meta!Proto paying no heed to veganism or personal space, questioning of sanity.

Author’s Notes: Belated birthday fic for peachsweater, whose gorgeous fanart has been a source of blessed inspiration to all; an origin story for the dressmaker’s secret AU.

*



Proto was used to dropping projects. He had spent the last few years moving from hobby to hobby - knitting, embroidery, baking, and herbalism amongst others - practising each for a month or two before taking up a new craft. It wasn’t so much that he was fickle as that he was prone to turning numb, and distracting himself with the development of new skills helped to fight those turns. It was difficult to sustain interest in anything he already knew, and branching out made the world feel a little less dull.

Sometimes, if he was lucky and his energy returned, he could circle around to skills he’d enjoyed learning before and develop them further. He was quite pleased with his abilities both as a home brewer and as a dressmaker, though they would still fall into disuse if a bad turn hit.

The company of others didn’t help much, though he had tried using his attraction to his cousin as a means of escape. It was perverse to want Pitch, and the illicit thrill of that want gave Proto something to wake up for. Pitch was strikingly beautiful, but was more interesting for the energy he generated, always seeking attention and adoration and eagerly accepting Proto’s supply of both. Proto would never be at Pitch’s command, but he enjoyed bringing gifts or offering positive critiques in exchange for conversation.

Then Pitch cut him out. For all the looks they had shared, the moments where flirtation came breathlessly close to action, and the one time Pitch had rested his hand on Proto’s thigh under the table at a restaurant for the entirety of their conversation, their relationship had been a game to Pitch. As soon as Pitchiner became part of Pitch’s university life, he lost all pretence of interest in others; he and Pitchiner fought and fucked like animals, hissed and spit and scratched at each other, and Pitch had always revelled in his vicious streak.

The possibility of a new sexual relationship seemed distant and uninteresting with Pitch out of the picture, but Pitch and Pitchiner both made for tolerable friends, and there were others in his art classes Proto was fond of.

Jack Sickle was quieter inside the classroom than outside, thoughtful to the point of being damn near a different person entirely, and Proto actively liked several of the lecturers. Mr Mansnoozie tended to keep his words to a minimum, his criticisms constructive unless a student was disruptive enough to warrant having their asses handed to them in writing, and there wasn’t an ounce of pretension in him. He enjoyed natural beauty, dynamic story book sketches, old greats and modern abstracts, and he didn’t automatically brush off Proto’s efforts as morbid or depressing.

The worst Proto had ever heard from him was an accusation of producing exquisite fragments, works that demonstrated great potential but never came across as complete. It was a perfectly valid accusation, and one Proto hoped his latest project would help to fix.

In and of itself, the antique frame was inspiring. It begged for dresses and gowns and skirts to be crafted around its gentle curves, begged for lace and ruffles to compliment its age or spikes and asymmetry to contrast it.

Proto didn’t make a habit of splashing out, tried to avoid dipping his hand in the family coffers for perfectly justified concerns of being bitten, but the impulse to purchase the frame had been so strong he didn’t want to question it. Feeling was a luxury during his bad turns, and he embraced sensation wherever he could find it.

He had owned the dressmaking frame barely a month when a nightmare gave him inspiration no dream ever could.

.

Smoke coiled under his bedroom door, rolled upwards and outwards to take a shape too tall and too loose at the edges to be human, a face eerily close to his own emerging from the smoke and watching him evenly.

The lack of malice in its eyes didn’t fool him. It wasn’t something bestial or angry, it was something much older. Something that saw Proto as an insect fit for smothering with chloroform and pinning to a board.

Proto clambered out of bed, ran for the window and saw only more smoke outside, turned and found himself face to face with the creature. A claw-like finger caught him under the jaw before he could duck out of the way, its very tip cutting into his skin. “You should know better than that by now,” it said, more hands emerging from within the smoke to grab Proto’s arms and pin him back against the glass, the threat of falling through the window feeling like mercy compared to that ice-cold touch.

“These aren’t ours,” came a voice from behind the smoke creature, and it raised an eyebrow, smoke clearing a path so it could look over where a shoulder should have been. A blanched doppelganger of Pitch stood in front of the dressmaking frame, and Proto could make out a human shape beneath the viscous black ooze it wore as robes, folded arms conveying disinterest. “That isn’t your toy. You took a wrong turn. Again.”

The smoke creature shrugged, expression perfectly placid. “Forgive me if they all start to look the same after a while. Can’t we have a bit of fun first?” the finger under Proto’s chin dragged a thin line down his neck, the sting of split skin following its path. Proto grit his teeth, tried not to move despite the trickle of blood from the cut making him itch to run.

“I am not taunting a hunk of metal while you play games,” spat Pitch’s doppelganger, turning to face them both, and Proto could see all the ways it wasn’t quite Pitch - its hair slicked back, its jaw a little narrower, eyes a little more deep set. “Find us. The right. Dream.”

The smoke creature pulled away its hands, shaking them loosely before letting them disappear back into the shadows they came from, and sighed in a way that seemed anything but despondent before gliding over to Pitch’s doppelganger, wrapping itself around slick black shoulders and smirking. “I can’t leave him without one good memory,” it said, smoke fanning out to cover Pitch’s doppelganger entirely and face retreating into that same smoke before the two of them disappeared as suddenly as they had arrived.

Proto felt wet lumps catch in his throat and retched before falling to his knees, covering his mouth as he continued retching and refusing to look at what he could taste, what he knew would be red and raw and dead -

- he woke, cold but drenched in sweat with the taste of meat fresh in his mind but not on his tongue, and after a drink of water and waiting for the initial panic to fade he grabbed a sketchpad, started drawing.

The smoke creature didn’t bear remembering, attempts to capture its smile feeling like an invitation for it to smile back at him, but something about Pitch’s doppelganger haunted him. It felt like Pitch with the sharpness in him removed, or more accurately buried, the same bone structure if given a touch more femininity.

Sketched out, it was almost beautiful.

.

Proto found himself looking at the sketch over and over after a less fitful sleep took him through to morning, building on the original with new sketches and experimenting by softening some angles further while leaving others sharp.

He was used to horror, to creating images that unsettled, but this not-quite-Pitch was something he could admire from an entirely aesthetic point of view. Its lips were still thin but not to a point of seeming mean or cruel, its eyes black and bright, and he hovered his finger over a charcoal mouth, wishing he could brush something more solid.

The antique frame seemed to beckon him over the second that wish finished forming.

.

Repetitive tasks had a bad reputation for being dull and uninspiring, but Proto had always found them soothing. After the nerve-wracking task of shaping the doll’s face, punching hairs into its head one by one gave him a way to think without thinking - a way to keep busy without paying attention to the outside world.

The hair he had chosen for the doll was softer than Pitch’s, wouldn’t easily style into the spikes Pitch favoured, but the closer he was to finishing, the more he was convinced that leaving it loose would be better.

It had been tempting to look for a vintage wig stand to start his doll, something that might compliment the dressmaking frame better, but modern materials gave more flexibility for shaping and he’d always had a soft spot for contrast. It was part of what drew him to thrift stores, the mix of old and new, plastic and brass, chipboard and rosewood.

The arms and legs he had bought for the doll were more for show than anything else, both a touch longer than was strictly necessary for the frame, but the slender, ball-jointed limbs suited it regardless. He wasn’t in any position to comment on the doll being a touch lanky given his own proportions, and he liked the height they gave.

He wasn’t sure when he started talking to the doll - wasn’t sure if he’d ever talked to the other mannequins he’d acquired over time, when he thought about it - he just happened to notice when his occasional mutterings while working on the doll started to address it. Never quite in a way that demanded a response, more like the idle chatter of a stereotypical hairdresser, little “How does that feel?” and “A bit more over here, don’t you think?” comments.

Whenever he paused working on the doll to work on a dress or a skirt instead, it was hard to think of the clothes as being entirely his own construction. The frame continued to inspire him, and a few of his creations actually sold, even if they never seemed quite as interesting to him on more traditional mannequins.

When he fitted the doll’s head in place on the frame, secured it tight, and it blinked twice before a soft, uncertain voice said, “Hello,” he didn’t react except to freeze for a second, mouth falling open before snapping shut.

It was only when the doll lifted both hands, flexing the joints before tapping Proto on the shoulder and saying, “Hello?” that he fainted.

.

Proto felt perfectly justified in running for a baseball bat when he woke up to plastic fingers shaking him by the shoulder, though when he turned to face the doll again while armed, it wasn’t exactly crawling towards him with murder in its eyes. It just sat still, hands folded in its lap, watching his every move.

If he didn’t know better, he’d say it looked nervous.

“I’m dreaming,” Proto said, measuring his surroundings as he took a few slow, deep breaths to try and calm himself down. “Or I’ve gone mad.”

The doll bowed its head, frowning in distress as it looked at its hands. “I thought this was real,” it said, voice raspy as if it wasn’t familiar with speaking - and why would it be, after all? - as it flexed its fingers. “I thought - you talked to me, you were different. No one talks to me anymore, except when they’re sleeping.”

Proto sat down on the opposite side of the room, still clutching the bat tight, skin prickling at the fact he couldn’t trust the sight in front of him. Not for the first time, he regretted having dabbled in hallucinogenics. “What are you?”

“I don’t know,” the doll said, hugging its long legs to its chest. “I think I was meant to be human. I don’t remember dying like the others.”

Proto blinked. He hadn’t known his subconscious had a spiritualist streak.

“My name is Piki. You never told me yours.”

Proto put down the bat slowly, kept his fingers loose around the handle as he set it on the floor. Something about that name itched, felt familiar, and he wasn’t in the best frame of mind for working out what by himself. “Proto. Who talks - talked, to you?”

“Pitch, before he grew up. Grown-ups can’t see me. Or pretend they can’t,” the doll looked up at him, bright black irises reflecting light as if they were alive, “But you can see me, can’t you?”

Proto nodded, traced the bat with his fingertips as the doll clambered to its feet, unsteady like a foal, and the reason that name sounded familiar came to mind as it did.

It had only come up once, maybe twice, a family tragedy swept under the rug. Pitch was meant to be a twin, but his twin had been stillborn.

Proto watched plastic legs struggle for balance, clicking and creaking as they got used to movement, and wondered if perhaps he wasn’t quite as mad as previously assumed. “Piki, how did you get in there?”

“I’m not sure. I wanted to, and then I was.” Piki looked down at his feet, flexing them, before giving Proto a shy smile. “I was lonely until I found you.”

Proto watched Piki stumble towards him, realised his legs had been fitted slightly uneven, and stood up to catch him before he could fall. “I can fix this,” Proto said, looking between his bed and the floor, knowing whatever he chose, he would still have to remove and reattach Piki’s leg, something that would have been a hell of a lot easier to consider if dealing with an inanimate doll.

Proto nodded to himself, steered Piki over to the bed and helped him lie down, a guilty thrill running up his spine at how readily Piki stretched out for him.

“Let me know if this hurts,” Proto said, mouth feeling dry as he grabbed Piki by the frame of his hips with one hand, the other sliding over the plastic of Piki’s thigh. There wasn’t any blood when he popped it out of its socket, Piki’s expression curious rather than pained as Proto adjusted the frame before socketing the thigh into its proper place.

Out of the socket, it had felt light and empty. Socketed, it shifted under his hold as if there were more holding it together than wires and plastic joints.

Proto sat back, watched Piki wriggle his hips to test the fit.

“Is that better?” Proto asked, trying to ignore the spike of arousal Piki’s actions had caused, trying to tell his libido it’s just a doll.

“It’s easier,” Piki said, lifting his legs up, splaying them, and closing them before sitting up, apparently satisfied with the new fit. “Thank you.”

Piki’s brief gymnastic display had knocked most of what remained of Proto’s sense out of him, along with all of his words, and when Piki extended his arms awkwardly for a hug, Proto returned it without much thought, wrapped his arms around cool metal that he couldn’t begin to pretend was human.

It went on too long to be normal, and Proto didn’t care that he was shaking, wanting the continued comfort of Piki’s arms around his waist for as long as he could have them.

“Is that better?” Piki asked, echoing Proto’s earlier question, and he nodded before pulling back reluctantly, muscles aching.

“I need to eat,” Proto said, wanting a moment to think away from the lure of open arms and black eyes framed by long eyelashes. “Make yourself at home, just stay away from the windows for now,” he allowed himself another quick touch, cupping Piki’s face and rubbing his thumb across a light pink cheek. He was glad he’d airbrushed on that touch of colour, something to make Piki’s face a little less ghostly. “I don’t want anyone to hurt you.”

Piki nodded, and Proto felt his gaze until the second he shut the door.

.

Proto wasn’t given to snacking, but making a sandwich was straightforward enough even with a preoccupied mind, and having something to fill his stomach helped settle it.

His cousin’s twin’s ghost was occupying the doll he’d designed to be a silent companion.

Describing the situation as simply as he could didn’t make it any easier to deal with. The thought of exorcism felt like murder, and he couldn’t exactly let Piki walk around freely - his own instinct had been to grab a baseball bat, and there were people far more inclined towards violence.

Moreover, as much as Pitch abandoning him had hurt, introducing Pitch to his dead brother was far from appropriate revenge. Piki seemed naïve and affectionate, and deserved better than to be used as a means to get back at Pitch.

And that tied into another problem. Proto couldn’t deny that he was attracted to Piki, despite knowing almost nothing about him; he’d made Piki to be beautiful, and having that beauty animated by Piki’s movements and gestures felt like a fantasy.

Even if Piki clearly knew something of humanity, he’d never interacted with it beyond speech before, and his lack of genitalia complicated matters further still. Proto only thought of him as male because he knew Pitch’s twin had been identical, and he didn’t know what gender or sex or love might mean to someone who’d never had a body before.

It was going to make for an awkward talk, one only made worse by the fact he and Piki would have to share a room regardless of its outcome.

Proto finished his sandwich, dusted the crumbs off his hands before running his fingers through his hair, rubbing his scalp in a vague attempt to calm himself further.

Nothing was about to change the fact he had a living doll in his room, and taking time out to think about it wasn’t actually helping to resolve the situation. It wasn’t a situation that could be resolved. A doll that he had made had come to life for no better reason than a ghost wanting to possess it and succeeding in doing so.

Proto wondered if there were any alternate universes where his life could be considered normal.

.

Piki had curled up on his bed with a book when he returned, trying to turn a page and frowning when his fingers kept sliding across the paper uselessly.

Proto winced, felt guilty that the frictionless surface of Piki’s fingers wasn’t making the task any easier for him, and walked over, turned the page for him and earned a small smile for it.

He wondered whether scuffing Piki’s fingers with sandpaper would help, or if it would be better to give him gloves, sat down next to Piki and turned each page whenever Piki nodded to indicate he’d finished.

It was quiet and peaceful, despite the impossibility of it all, and Proto settled a hand at the base of Piki’s back, fingers curling loosely around the wire cage of his spine.

Maybe there was no need to complicate the situation just yet. “Do you need somewhere to sleep?” Proto asked as they neared the end of a chapter, Piki’s reading speed unusually fast, though not freakishly so.

“I’ve never tried sleeping,” Piki replied, looking thoughtful. “I could try. I don’t know if it will work.” He closed the book, setting it aside before facing Proto. “I know we’re not close, but can I sleep next to you? I’ve not had a body before and I think - it would be safer if I could sleep next to you.”

Proto knew a thousand reasons why the idea was a really, really bad one. He’d watched enough horror movies, read enough ghost stories to get a healthy understanding of what risks weren’t worth taking.

“I’ll get you something to wear,” Proto said.

It didn’t matter that he was putting himself in danger. There wasn’t a hint of viciousness in Piki, and if that innocence was a trap, he was willing to be caught by it. He had been achingly lonely in a way platonic friendships couldn’t fulfil, and having someone willingly share his bed - someone who asked to share his bed - felt like the universe answering a prayer he’d never voiced.

The nightgown was old fashioned and feminine, high collared and long-sleeved, pale yellow cotton covering Piki to a point where he almost looked human. It didn’t make him much more comfortable to lie next to, but it made looking at him a lot less jarring.

Piki took Proto’s hand and tugged on it to wrap around his waist, refused to close his eyes until he could see Proto spooned up against him, and went completely still once he did.

Piki didn’t have breath or nervous twitches to give him movement, and Proto couldn’t help but fear he’d wake to stillness, to find this had all been some sort of fevered dream.

He let himself rest his forehead against the back of Piki’s neck, held Piki a little tighter.

If Piki was a dream, Proto hoped he’d never wake up.

.

Cool plastic pressed against his lips, his cheek, and Proto’s eyes snapped open when it stroked his neck, Piki’s expression turning from curious to guilty.

“Sorry,” Piki said, and Proto registered dimly that it was still dark outside. “I tried to sleep. I don’t think that I can.”

“What were you doing?” Proto asked, and Piki pinched his earlobe lightly between two fingers, rubbing the skin back and forth.

“Testing,” Piki replied, curiosity switching places with guilt once more. “You’re much softer than me.”

Proto nodded, mouth feeling dry again thanks to Piki’s casual relationship with skin contact, and in a half-asleep burst of bravado asked, “Can I kiss you?”

Piki smiled and nodded, both hands cupping Proto’s face before he leant in to press their mouths together, keeping them pressed without any other movement or any attempts to nudge Proto’s lips apart.

Proto smiled back, pulled away just enough to nuzzle Piki’s nose with his own before initiating another kiss, pushing Piki’s lips open and tracing their outline with his tongue.

There was no hidden warmth in Piki, nothing wet, but the uncertainty behind each movement he made was more human than any pulse could be, and the fact Piki didn’t need to pause for breath was a blessing, something that let Proto indulge his curiosity entirely at his own pace. Proto hadn’t kissed anyone just for the sake of kissing them in years, and Piki was more beautiful, more frightening, more interesting than any of those others had ever been.

Piki pushed him back after a while, thumbs rubbing Proto’s cheeks in slow circles.

“Can I stay here?” Piki asked, and Proto nodded, the lack of urgency in Piki’s touch soothing and helping him stay on the cusp between sleep and arousal.

“As long as you like,” Proto replied, kissing Piki again before he could say anything like “forever”, anything that might tempt fate, and wrapped both arms around Piki, holding him close.

.

Proto woke to an empty bed and rumpled sheets, looked over at where the dressmaking frame had originally stood, half expecting the night’s events to have been those of an intense lucid dream.

The doll wasn’t there either, and Proto’s stomach fluttered as a soft chorus of clicking and creaking let him know to turn over, Piki standing in front of Proto’s dressing table and slipping on a purple velvet dress. It swamped his frame, having originally been bought for Proto’s own use, but combined with the coat Piki wrapped himself in before posing he looked like a twenties movie starlet.

Proto watched with a smile as Piki layered long necklaces around his shoulders, beads rattling against his chest each time he moved, lost in his own little world and seemingly unaware that Proto was awake.

Piki was undeniably his own person, and Proto knew next to nothing about him. He was otherworldly, literally so, and the thought of being responsible for satisfying his curiosity was both frightening and exhilarating.

Proto cleared his throat when Piki struggled with a necklace that had caught in his hair, climbed out of bed and walked over to help detangle the mess. “Sorry,” Piki said, and Proto shook his head, smiling.

“Dressing up suits you,” Proto said, cocking his head towards the wardrobe where he kept his contributions to Pitch’s theatre. “There’s more in there if you want to try them.”

Piki’s eyes widened before he rushed towards the wardrobe, and Proto leaned against the dressing table, watched Piki pick through the clothes excitedly, piling those he wanted to try around his feet. Proto could have corrected him on how to treat the clothes, but he didn’t want to disrupt the enthusiastic outburst; creases could be ironed out, dust brushed away.

Piki’s presence felt like a chance to enjoy his life again, and while Proto didn’t know how long he would get to spend with Piki, or how it would affect the turns where he lost all interest in the world, it was a chance he was willing to take.

Piki was a secret worth keeping.

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