There was a brief pocket of time between clipping up the last sheet to dry and beginning the preparations for dinner that Finny spent dozing under a tree, and Bard spent reading a magazine with a busty girl on the cover, when Maylene would excuse herself to no one and climb up to one of the rooftops, where the sheets were draped artfully in long, pointy rows and everything was awash in the orange glow of a just-setting sun.
Maylene pulled the covers off and took her time with each rifle, as long as she needed to run her hand along its length, check that it was well-polished and loaded, then properly resettle it in its case. This was a simple, soothing task for her. It was a lot easier than washing plates or folding napkins. Here she knew exactly what she was doing, and hardly had to think when she raised the telescope to her eye and spied a bird flying hundreds of feet away, wheeling into a cloud drifting above the mansion. A muscle in her finger twitched against the trigger, as it sensed the right second to pull and send the bird plummeting down to land on the garden, right in the midst of Lady Elizabeth's yellow roses, but she didn't do it. She didn't need to. She turned the rifle down and watched the bird flick out of the cloud again and soar away – she could still kill it from this distance, but any farther now – she blinked, watching the speck disappear entirely. She smiled a little with relief.
"Maylene?" Finny's voice, still groggy from sleep, wafted up to her from the staircase. "Mr. Sebastian needs us in the kitchen."
"Coming," she called back, and flapped the sheets over her guns, and hurried down the stairs.
When she wasn't careful, those long days out on the field would come back to her – the stench of mud and dead animals, the dirt on her boots, smeared on her face. How she'd spend too long tucking the ends of her trousers into those boots, and someone would shout at her from outside the tents to get a move on, they'd freeze to their deaths waiting at this rate. That was a stupid thing to say, she'd think, because it was just as cold inside as it was outside, and nearing winter it got even worse. They'd lie huddled in pools of shallow water, between weeds and marshy plants, and she'd suck in her breath and wait, wait, wait. These days had a rhythm. Eventually their targets would come flying into view, and then it was like clockwork: click, bang, squawk, click, bang, squawk. In her mind those sounds would echo until dinnertime, where they'd be sitting on logs and someone would be carving out rabbit innards and someone else would be notching the number of carcasses onto wood. The rabbit had been her work, too. She knew its hole, and had spied, from the end of her gun, the five bunnies it came home to.
It didn't even make her flinch when she watched her bullet sail into its head, and it tumbled backwards, long ears twitching. It didn't bother her at all.
That her parents had sold her was something she knew instinctively, although she couldn't read the papers her mother had hastily scribbled and crammed into the hand of Madam – that was what everyone called her – just before they left. She could understand the clink of coins in the pouch that Madam handed her mother, the strong sense of desperation that flooded her when her mother bent to kiss her cheek and her father had wrenched her mother back, as if he didn't want her to. "We love you, darling," her mother said wetly, stepping into the carriage, and then they were gone, the rainy distance suddenly swallowing them entirely.
"Pair of fools, the both of them. Think they can recover their money that way. Ha! Won't ever happen." Madam snorted, then remembered she was not alone. She turned to the newcomer sharply. "Your name?"
"Maylene," she answered shakily.
"Tch." Madam spat at the ground. "We'll call you Em. With any luck, you'll grow up to have breasts at least as large as your mother's. Then maybe we can put you off to more useful work." She seized Maylene's wrist and dragged her into a doorway, where the dim light and humidity made Maylene feel sick. "Of course, you're too young now, utterly useless to us – I only did it to your mother as a favor, but we all of us here know she is a damn wench – least you could do is stay outta the way, until we find some factory that could use the extra work." She hustled Maylene down some stairs, and into a room with six other children, who looked dirty, tired and resigned. There was a window on the high wall, with evening light slipping through, barely illuminating the ten rickety mattresses on the floor. Everything looked as dismal as she felt.
"This is Em," Madam said. The other children rustled a little, their faces blank. "She's new here. Sup's in half an hour. I expect you louts to be cleaned up by then, or you're not getting any." With a sniff and a sweeping glare, Madam turned and left.
Madam found her a job very quickly, and Maylene was sent to the factory every day, where she hauled around bags of coal and cotton, slipped into tiny spaces to clear out dirt, and worked pulleys and levers. It was very difficult – at first she couldn't do any of it, and she could hardly see in the factory, too, although she thought it was because it was smoky and dark to begin with. The foreman started beating her when he noticed her dawdling about, and eventually she learned to use her ears and sense of touch to aid her blurry impressions of her surroundings.
After work, her whole body ached and she could scarcely find the energy to eat, wash, and sleep when she returned home – which was, inevitably, what Madam's place had become. She barely talked to the other children, and they barely talked to her; there didn't seem to be anything to say. The only good part about the exhaustion was that it made the food less rubbery, and also sometimes kept her from dreaming. Her dreams always seemed to end with mother saying, "We love you, darling."
The children always stayed in the basement when they weren't at work. As far as Maylene could tell, the ground floor was reserved for the bar and the women in brightly-colored dresses who sat on men's laps, and laughed, and smoked. When they weren't in the bar, Maylene knew they were in the mirror room putting on rogue and brushing their hair. The nice bedrooms were on the upper floor, and the children took turns cleaning them as an extra chore after factory work, changing the rumpled sheets, mopping the floors. Occasionally they found pieces of jewelry or some money, on the floor or wrapped up in the beddings, but they always had to turn these into Madam. She'd know if they didn't. And besides there was no place to hide them.
This went on for several months, though Maylene hardly noticed. Every day was just a blur of work and fatigue. Her eyes got even more blurry, and she spent a lot of time rubbing at them until they watered. A few new children had come since her arrival, but one of them grew lumps on his face and died overnight. They were all asked to sleep in another room while the body was cleared. A few days later, another one of the older children came home coughing and would not stop; Maylene suspected that all of them had stayed awake that night, listening to his lungs rattle wretchedly. He died the next morning. These successive deaths seemed to make Madam uneasy, because she yelled and swotted at them with her broom more than usual. But nothing else seemed different, until the police came one morning, with a certificate and a lot of stern yelling.
The children were filed into a carriage where they sat silently, used to being told what to do. At the police station they were questioned separately. Maylene didn't understand half of what they were asking her. She could hardly see them, so instead she stared at the square of sunlight on the wall, while she mechanically answered yes ("Did Mrs. Bratley send you off to work in a factory?") and no ("Did Mrs. Bratley ever give you payment for this – you know, like a copper? A halfpenny?"), and kept quiet when she didn't know, which was most of the time. Eventually the inspector pinched the space between his eyebrows, and another policeman said, "By god, Charles, you can see he's only a child, can't you?"
"Of course," the inspector snapped. "I just don't know what to do with them all. That woman Bratley left no traces of where they came from. I suspect any family any of them had is long gone by now." There was a long silence, and Maylene nearly drifted off to sleep in her chair. "Little boy," the inspector turned to her again. "Where do you want to go?" Maylene had never realized she looked like a boy. Madam had always cut her hair, and always dressed her in shorts or trousers, which had seemed easier to work in than a skirt; she had seen the other girls at the factories and how the dirt got all over their legs. She thought about his question, and for a fleeting moment, she had a warped image of her mother, mouthing I love you, but she knew she couldn't possibly remember her her that clearly anymore. She said nothing.
That afternoon, after being given some bread and water, she was ushered into another carriage, with two of the other children, and told she would go to the orphanage. They had to go to the one in the next city, because the one in this city was full.
It didn't make a difference. They never made it. As the carriage rattled through a particularly dense part of forest, gunfire rang out from all around them. The two children slumped, dead on the spot, as the carriage tipped over. Maylene suspected the horses hadn't been spared, either. She wondered how long she would last herself, and found she did not particularly care. "Somebody gave us the wrong information!" Men were shouting outside. "There's only children – shit, they're all dead –"
"Let me see that," another voice, much more calm, sounded beside the carriage window. The barrel of a very long gun slipped through and seemed to study the two dead children, before swinging round and training itself on Maylene. She breathed in, and stared at it blankly. The gun seemed almost alive, like it was considering her. Then it bent down, and a man stuck his face in behind it. He had a thick beard and deep wrinkles around his eyes, but looked surprisingly normal; Maylene had thought someone who could kill children without sympathy might look more terrible, but then again she didn't know much about sympathy or terror.
"We did need someone to help drag stuff around. This kid looks to be the right age." The man squinted at her again. "What do they call you?"
"Morgan." It was one of the older boy's names. It came out surprisingly steady.
"Get out, Morgan," the man said. "Or I'll have to shoot you." Then he laughed, and Maylene realized she had been wrong - he was terrible after all.
She never learned his real name, and they never learned hers. The rest of the group – there were twelve of them in all – called their leader Lord Stanly, so she took to that as well, when she needed to. She was afraid of him, because of that terrible laugh, but she smothered her fear by being dull and stupid and doing whatever he said, which were mostly small and tedious errands. They weren't cruel to her, though when she did something wrong Lord Stanly would box her ears calmly, and when she was being slow he got quite threatening. Their group went around, lugging their guns, all of which were the special long and pointed kind. They came into towns and terrorized people laughingly, and went into bars and wrestled with the people there, and got very drunk and left and slept in the forests. Sometimes one or two of them went away, taking a few of the guns with them, but always they'd be back after a few days. They would usually bring money back, and they'd all celebrate by buying more beer than usual. The rest of the time they did what they called target practice, which was shoot at things from far away.
Maylene quickly got accustomed to the loud blasts from the guns, although the first few days she was certain she would go deaf. When she learned to ignore the sound she found herself watching target practice with some interest. It always confused her when somebody missed, because she could see their targets as clearly as if someone was holding it in front of her face, but she didn't think that was important. Besides, Lord Stanly had quickly figured out that there was something wrong with her eyesight, and afterward they frequently jibed her about it. "We knew you were an idiot, poor Morgan, you never went to school after all, but half blind too? Come on, what does this look like? What color is this?" She always wore her most dull expression when they harassed her, and simply shouldered their heavy packs and waited until they got bored.
It was mostly a mistake when they discovered she had some skill after all. It was after passing through another town, the lot of them drunk and hooting merrily as they stumbled into the forests. "Let's get some owls!" Someone suggested, and everyone else cheerfully echoed their agreement. "Hey, let's see Morgan have a whirl," somebody else said, and they instructed her to pull out a rifle and try. "Don't shoot one of us instead, now, boy!" More laughter. The gun felt surprisingly light in her hands – lighter than she had thought it would be – and when she swung it up to her eye, the way she had seen them do countless times, she found herself marveling at how clear everything was at a distance. It was certainly a lot clearer than anything near.
She spotted an owl easily: outlined in silver against a tree, almost as if it was beckoning her. She hesitated. "Come on, Morgan, that goddamned rifle ain't gonna bite –" a hand came down hard on her back and she jolted, and her finger pulled, and the shot hit her target perfectly. She saw the owl sway backwards, then tip off its branch – saw it in perfect detail, the last desperate movement of its wings, its bright yellow eyes. The laughter died in an instant. The forest seemed deathly silent, ringing in the wake of the gunfire. "Did you see –" somebody started, and Lord Stanly whacked that person across the face to shut him up. He approached Maylene, eyes shining, and for an instant she had an urge to aim at him and fire. But he took hold of the barrel of the gun, completely fearless, and stared down it at her.
"Why, Morgan," he breathed. "You're a natural born sniper." Maylene didn't need telling. She had just realized the same thing.
There was a time when Sebastian always stood behind her while she made tea, discreetly looking over her shoulder while she put the kettle on the stove and stood back, like she expected it to explode. "It's not going to," Sebastian sighed, studying the label on the tin of tea she had picked out from the cupboard. Vanilla Bean, if she had read it right. "I'm glad you've memorized the alphabet, at any rate." She nodded, nervously, remembering the sheets of paper they had gone through, the songs he had taught her and Finny to help them memorize. She had practiced as hard as she could, every night, straining and squinting until she had gotten down to Z. Halfway through she had to sheepishly ask for more candles, and was very surprised when the young master had given them to her, without even asking why.
"It's very important not to let it steep too long," Sebastian reminded, as she poured the boiling water into the teapot. "The young master hates things to be bitter."
She nodded again, emphatically. If it was for the young master, she'd do everything as best as she could; here, it was worth making things right.
After that night they gave Maylene her own rifles, and Lord Stanly taught her himself. She didn't need a lot of it; the things he told her she somehow knew already. Since that incident with the owl, and her subsequent success at sharpshooting, the rest of the men had grown both respectful and resentful of her. After a while, even Lord Stanly stopped and let her practice on her own. By that time their party had settled down in what she learned was London, and the people going away and coming back became more frequent. When they were in the city things were a little more quiet and tense, and she was relegated to a backroom to care for the guns and ammunition, while Lord Stanly entertained a lot of important-looking people. Then there would be weeks when they left the city and went roaming around the countryside again – this was training, she realized, but it took her a few more weeks of observation to guess what it was for.
"Morgan," Lord Stanly said one day. "You'll come with me tonight."
She nodded, mutely. She knew her voice was no longer very convincing, because it should have started deepening. Around that time she had also started to outgrow her clothes, and got very uncomfortable with the way her chest was expanding. She hoped no one would notice, and bound her chest every day with some cloth wrappings she had filched from the storage room, but she knew even then that it was hopeless and they'd see through her soon enough. She didn't know what she'd do then – or what they'd try to do to her.
That evening she followed Lord Stanly through the city streets, carrying both their guns; they kept to dark corners and sidestreets, and were silent whenever someone passed. It seemed a long time before they finally reached a large, brightly lit building. There were carriages and well-dressed people hanging around the entrance, but they didn't go that way – they slipped over to the side instead, where Lord Stanly crouched by the keyhole and picked at it with a tiny crooked instrument. The door swung open, and he motioned for her to follow. They crept inside.
Music filled the air. A lady was singing. Lord Stanly crept up one flight of stairs, then another. Between some heavy curtains, Maylene caught a glimpse of rows of people, seated, facing all in one direction. She wanted to stop and see what they were all staring at, but Lord Stanly hissed at her to hurry. They climbed another set of stairs, and halfway through, Lord Stanly paused and gestured for her to pass him his rifle.
They climbed the rest of the way slowly. At the top of it was another set of heavy curtains, but Lord Stanly did not draw these aside. Instead, he settled down into a crouch, and sent the tip of his gun through. Maylene did the same. Their rifles leveled just behind a man and a woman, but they were merely the rounded shapes of shoulders to her, and she focused instead on the couple seated opposite this one, a great distance across, holding up strange glasses to their eyes. There was a sudden banging in her chest when she realized what Lord Stanly was about to do – this wasn't like owls or rabbits at all – she heard herself breathe in sharply, and then she heard the bang, not-quite muffled in her ears, and watched as the man across the hallway gasped. Blood streamed down his face, seemingly in tune to the swelling music, and he tipped over in his seat.
Lord Stanly seized her wrist and pulled her away, as the place erupted in noise and movement. They ignored the stairs and burst through a window, the shattered glass scraping all over as they tumbled onto a rooftop. They slid down the tiles until the very edge – it was so high up, she was going to be sick – and then she watched as he launched onto the rooftop jutting out under this one, and yelled at her to follow. She didn't have time to think about whether she could or not. She had to, or else she would die – and she leaped, and Lord Stanly took aim and shot someone leaning out the window, and somehow they had gotten back on the streets and were hurtling through the black night as the sounds from the opera rose in one huge, deafening scream.
Sharpshooting, Maylene realized later, went hand-in-hand with assassination. She should have known it sooner. Every single one of their group was a skilled sniper, that was now clear. They set her to moving targets right away, and taught her concealment and tactics. Lord Stanly took her on more kills after that night, and it was not long before he asked her to make some of the shots herself. It frightened her, secretly, but she was really good at it. She never missed. She didn't even need to heft the rifles up, the way others did; she found she could lift it quite easily, like a regular pistol. She could do two at a time, if she wanted to.
She always excused herself right away after mealtimes, and nobody ever seemed to care. But one evening, a few weeks after that night at the opera house, someone followed her down the hall to her room, and pushed her up against the wall outside her door. It was the man everyone called Jester. He leaned in close, and the stench of alcohol rolled off him in waves. "You think you've fooled everyone, but you can't fool me, Morgan." Suddenly his hands slipped beneath her shirt and grabbed at the cloth wrappings over her chest, ripping them off; he shoved his hips against hers, pinning her to the wall as she struggled to push him away. "You think you're something with a gun, but you're just a helpless little bitch aft –"
His eyes went white, suddenly, and a spray of blood shot out of his mouth and splashed onto her face. He staggered and slumped against her, but she moved sideways across the wall to avoid him. Lord Stanly came and kicked him across the floor. "A shame," he said, eyes flicking over at her. She was clutching one wrist and breathing hard. He stood before her; his hands had not let go of his rifle. "I don't really care what you are," he said. "Your skills are more valuable. I tried to make this clear to all of them. But I think now you understand what I do when people disobey my orders. I don't like it."
That was enough for Maylene to know she would never dare. From this angle she could still make out Jester's head. His tongue had slithered out from between his lips, which had gone purple.
"You're rather hopeless at this, aren't you," the young master said. He was signing another order of porcelain plates, after she had somehow managed to ruin every single one in a single washing; she didn't know how it had happened, but it seemed that those plates were awfully fragile, and cracked whenever she put them down anywhere. Mr. Sebastian had called her in, to make sure she identified the right kind to replace, and then she couldn't help but feel acutely sorry for all the trouble she was causing.
"I'm sorry," she apologized again, and ducked, and waited for him to stand and box her on the ears, or order her to go and fetch him a beer. Instead, all he did was sigh irritably and sign the bottom of the paper. "Oh, don't bother, really. It's not any worse than those trees I'll have to replant since Finnian knocked them out, and the kitchen tiles we need repaired after that last fiasco with Bard – honestly, Sebastian, it would help if you stopped smiling and got them better trained, or I shall soon be bankrupt."
"I am doing my best, sir," Mr. Sebastian replied, a hand to his chest.
"Won't you –" she started, and stopped. Both Mr. Sebastian and the young master were looking at her with expressions of vague interest. Punish me, hurt me. She stuttered, "Let me make up for it somehow?"
"I want tea and cookies," Ciel said dismissively.
She took becoming a sniper just as easily as she had taken everything before that – her parents abandoning her, Madam's exploitation, the fact that nobody had ever helped her, even when they knew she was underage and had no place in Lord Stanly's gang, and they had been to so many towns. Nobody cared, and she swallowed this too, and kept everything like a stone somewhere inside her, and felt herself become ice. Killing was easy, a lot easier than everything else. When she set her eye on a new target, the world blacked out; the only things that existed where a little space where she could see clearly, and her finger against the trigger, and a life waiting to be snuffed out. She did every murder impassively, precisely.
Lord Stanly always had her hair cut, and gave her new trousers and vests to wear; she had her own collection of rifles by then, and sometimes he would give her new models to test out. She could adjust to new ones quite easily, test out the weight and speed, the variations on accuracy. She'd become their finest killer without even knowing it. She might not even have cared, if she knew. She still hated Lord Stanly's laugh, and still woke up from nightmares about Jester spitting blood onto her face.
The request to kill the Queen came with a fresh new shipment of rifles. They were the best kind, light and swift as clockwork. This was a big operation. They talked about it for days. Maylene was not used to working with others. She was usually good enough to do the jobs on her own; if someone else came, it was only to keep an eye on her. Lord Stanly drew diagrams and although she couldn't read any of the letters, she squinted at the images and memorized the floor plan. Lord Stanly would be the main player, and she'd back him up; the rest of them would be spread out across the grounds to handle any soldiers or unexpected defenses. Their plan was perfect. Bulletproof.
The Queen wasn't where she was supposed to be – Lord Stanly realized this right away, didn't waste any of his bullets and swung round to shoot whoever had entered the room instead – Maylene moved faster, and fired every single shot in her rifle straight at the little figure with a cane that had stepped into her view. To her surprise, the figure didn't drop dead. Something like a rush of wind swooshed blackly in front of it, then swerved up to the dark patch of corner where she knew Lord Stanly was crouching. She fumbled for the rifles on either side of her – none of them had thought their plan could fail, and she never missed – she hooked her fingers over the triggers, calculating rapidly, when something caught both her hands and yanked them over her head. The rifles clattered to the floor.
Suddenly she was lifted, then dropped down to the space below, hard. Whatever was holding her pinned her head against the floor, and twisted her hands behind her back. She glared up to see a boy staring down at her, his features thoroughly blurred. She guessed, from his height, that he was about the same age she had been, riding that carriage with the two children so long ago; she blinked and struggled to get up, and again a force wrestled her down.
"For the crimes of murder, attempted murder, theft, exploitation, and treachery to the army, you, Lord Stanly Woldecott, are under arrest." There was a muffled outcry somewhere behind her, and she knew instantly that Lord Stanly had been caught and bound and was lying in misery and probably pain. She knew at any moment the same would happen to her. There were rifles scattered around him – his spares. One of them was just near enough for her to reach if she had her hands free. She felt the ice in her chest harden to steel.
"As for your assistant." The young boy stopped, and seemed to be considering. He walked closer towards her, studying her face; this only made him less visible. "How many of those would have hit me, Sebastian?"
"Every single one of them, my lord." The voice that replied was effortless and cool, even if she struggled hard against his hold.
"Interesting." The boy seemed to be considering. "That wasn't just luck, was it?" The word luck came out like a scoff.
"No. The aim was deadly – and accurate."
The boy paused, and paced over to a large window at the end of the room. At that distance she could see him more clearly; he wore an eyepatch and was terribly thin. He had put one hand against his hip and seemed to be thinking hard. At length, he made a gesture at the man named Sebastian, who had pinned her down. He released her, with some reluctance. She sat up, and made a wild grab for a nearby rifle with no success – Sebastian had somehow moved it further back. He put a hand against her shoulder now, and despite its light pressure, she found she could not move. "I'd like to offer you a proposition," the boy began. "I am currently procuring staff for my manor, and someone of your skill would certainly be an asset. You'll have your own stipend and living spaces, of course, but I do need to teach you some housekeeping, otherwise you wouldn't have anything to do the rest of the time."
"You just want to use me," she answered, voice quaking. It seemed the hard stone of misery in her stomach had moved into her throat and was trying to make her choke.
The boy sounded quite surprised when he replied. "Well, of course I do. It comes with being employed. Otherwise I wouldn't be hiring you, would I? You'll have to instruct me about which guns you'll need particularly, too. And Sebastian, do take your hand off her. We don't want her thinking we've forced her into this."
The man named Sebastian did take his hand off, and she sat there rigidly.
"I do believe," the boy said airily, "You'd be better off with me than back where you came from, but if you'd rather not, we'll let you go free. She wasn't in the records, was she, Sebastian?"
"I believe not, my lord."
"Right. So will you come with us, or not?"
She could feel the mass of emotion splintering inside her. Lord Stanly gave another angry shout, then there was a light crunch and he gave a moan of pain, but she wasn't paying attention. She was thinking of what this child was telling her, of leaving everything she had known, of mother saying I love you and an old man dying as a bullet smashed into his skull, of rabbits twitching dead in the forest and an owl going hoot. Blood everywhere, and her hands full of it. She had nowhere to go. Nowhere but forward –
"Please," she said, and her voice was higher and softer than she had ever heard it, and she found she was crying, hot and angry tears. "Take me away from here."
The grand Phantomhive mansion was very different from anything Maylene had known. She entered it, wonderingly, but also tense without the familiar feel of a gun on her shoulder; there was an incessant urge in the back of her mind that this might be treachery as well, and she should have struggled for her rifle and blasted them from behind while they were distracted with dragging away Lord Stanly and the rest of his party (some dead, and some unconscious). But she didn't. And now she was here.
She was shown into her room by a stately old man with a pleasant smile; she could barely make anything out, but the room was much bigger than anything she was used to, bright and clean. "The young master requests that you dress accordingly, and see him in his study in half an hour, to discuss your new position as maid of this household. There's warm water in the shower room, and you'll see we've prepared your accommodations already."
She nodded, feeling reverent and wondering if he was not perhaps a noble himself; certainly the young boy, the gentleman named Sebastian, and this old man were much more lordly than Lord Stanly had ever been, and she knew that only by instinct. She sat on the edge of the bed, which felt wonderfully soft and smelled almost flowery, and unfolded the bundle at the foot of the bed. It was a dress – a dress! – of black linen, and a clean white apron – there was even a frilled little cap to go with it, and when she peeked over the edge of her bed there were brown boots –
"Is something the matter?" Mr. Sebastian had somehow materialized by the door, and was holding it open with a look of polite wondering. She must have looked a sight, standing and staring down at everything in disbelief; she lifted her head towards him, unable to think of something to say, to show how she felt. Mr. Sebastian laughed. "Oh, yes – I've already told the young master, we do need to get you glasses. It's difficult to see, isn't it?"
"No, I, it's just, it's all –" so perfect, she thought, so wonderful, it can't be real. She stopped, breathed in. "I just don't know how to put this on, I've never worn a – a dress." Her face quivered, and she realized she was smiling, but the action was so alien to her face she immediately wiped it off. It would be quite a while, still, before she could manage an honest smile.
"Not to worry," Mr. Sebastian said. His face was still a haze of paleness and dark hair to her, but she thought she saw him smiling, and imagined it was a very nice smile. "I can certainly help you with that."
The days at the Phantomhive estate turned out to be a blur of happiness, with particular snatches of extra-happiness that stuck out. Like when they had gone out to town, and the young master handed her a pair of glasses and told her she had better take her work seriously, and the household needed her for it to look its best, and that this task wasn't meant for just anyone. When she first spotted Mr. Sebastian from a distance, and realized how shockingly good-looking he was, with his noble nose and deep mysterious eyes. When she met Finnian and Bard soon after her arrival, and that first time they laughed together, at how funny the burnt chicken looked splattered against the wall like that. Lessons on keeping the household clean, and lessons in general, where she and Finny struggled over Arithmetic and English together. Meeting Lady Elizabeth, who was so kind and radiant. Being fitted for new dresses, with the special buttons that she could hitch up when she needed to whip out her guns – and that time too, when the pistols and rifles arrived in their beautiful casements, all of the finest quality, and the young master had smiled up at her over his crossed legs and asked if they suited her just fine.
She still felt the hard knot of iciness inside her whenever she needed to make a kill, but she did these things of her own free will now. She did it because she wanted to, to protect the things she cared about. She also learned, over time, not to smash the plates, and not to tear the beddings when she hung them out to dry, and not to feel pale and weak whenever they cooked rabbit for dinner.
Sometimes she would pause over sweeping out a swathe of dust, and imagine a woman's lips moving in the night, her words drowned by gunfire. Then the moment would pass, and she would remember that she had a home now. Here, she wasn't cornered or threatened. She didn't have to be desperate or afraid. She could sweep away this dust, clean it out like yesterday. It was her job as a maid, after all, and she intended to do it well.