In the early hours of the morning, that coldest part before dawn, Ciel lay in the bottom of a lifeboat shivering in his wet clothing, and listening for the distant calls from the other lifeboats and the ship nearing for their rescue. He did not waste the energy yet to lift his head, or to start calling out. He shivered, and his butler's body beside him did not move at all. If he were not lying so close, with his cheek sticking to wet cotton, his nose and mouth layered with salt and blood, it would have seemed that his butler was no more than a corpse. But under the cold skin a heart still gave a weak yet steady rhythm. As stiff as he was, Ciel shifted to press closer with his ear to let that beat fill his numbing thoughts.
Fatigue and cold made him drift in and out of wakefulness, until his numb feet hit painfully against a wooden deck and he had to struggle to take a few small steps. It was all so undignified, but Ciel was only one among many crowded on deck of the liner that had picked them up; large and small, clamouring for help, crying in relief and loss. Ciel stood silent and wide-eyed. He panicked for a moment as he lost sight of Sebastian's familiar black coat, but then that pale blood-stained face was beside him again. Several men tried their best to transfer Sebastian to a stretcher without aggravating his injuries. His butler showed no signs of consciousness, and was about to be whisked away while Ciel was jostled further towards the people huddled together in wool blankets.
Someone threw a coarse wool blanket over Ciel's shoulders and tried to direct him into the waiting line. His temper suddenly burned. They could not be separated. Ciel couldn't credit the possibility of anyone seeing the devil's contract seal or anything else suspicious. He pushed away the strange hands, and threw himself towards the stretcher and Sebastian.
It couldn't be helped; so Ciel clasped Sebastian's left hand in his own, and in the guise of a distressed child refused to let his hand go. If he bit someone's fingers here or there as they at first tried to pull him away, it was all in the line of duty. He would have preferred announcing that he was Earl Phantomhive and demanded to have things resolved as he saw fit; and how dare anyone address him as "poor little dear", but his voice, when he tried it, was burnt from the frosty night. Also, outwardly he was nothing more than a bedraggled child pulled from the ocean, barely able to stand on his feet as the early morning wind gusted over deck.
Seeing as Sebastian yet had a pulse despite the blood-soaked mess he was in, the men rushed him to the infirmary. Ciel continued to hold on to his hand, stumbling along beside the stretcher and letting no-one get in his way, snapping at all who tried, rather like Duchess Windermere's spoiled Pekingese at a luncheon. Except that Ciel currently had to take the role of guard-dog while Sebastian remained unconscious and unable to take that role as he usually did.
Sebastian had lost so much blood, and although his supernatural abilities had sealed those wounds to prevent further blood loss, many gashes had reached deep and remained that way. Ciel had never before seen him so thoroughly damaged, and even he had to admit that he had been afraid, and still shaken a bit by seeing Undertaker extract the record from Sebastian's core. Unlike the first time, this had nearly been his death. At the least he would require bandages, and Ciel resigned himself to the risk of getting him medical attention.
Ill to his stomach as the smell inside the infirmary met his nose and lodged in the back of his throat, Ciel no longer needed effort to make his eyes water. He had been pretending to cry, but his aversion to the stench of chemicals and injury was true.
Considering the general chaos and under-staffing for such a situation, the nurse who stitched and bandaged Sebastian up had no spare awareness to question seriously how Sebastian had survived his injuries. She simply did the best she could, and moved on to the next patient. As someone who had not witnessed the "bizarre dolls", she hardly had a reason to suspect anything sinister.
After being bandaged up, Sebastian had been covered with blankets, and Ciel surreptitiously removed the glove covering Sebastian's contract and wound about his hand a cotton bandage he had snatched from a nearby tray. Then he tucked the bandaged hand under the blanket beside Sebastian's body. He smoothed down the wool, and pressed the limp hand underneath. He would have sneered at his sentimental gesture if his chest cavity had not felt so still and unable to muster any emotion at that point. Swathed in his own blanket like a cape, Ciel pulled himself together and left the infirmary.
At this point he drew on his reputation and money. He had not yet spotted his aunt, uncle and cousins, though he trusted that they were safely aboard as well. He did not expect to rely on them, though he would search them out as soon as he had his own affairs in better order, including managing to secure a private room.
Although Etruria was an English liner, it comprised rather a different social circle than he was used to as it was not on the Southampton to New York service; and talking up to adults, who tried to ask him where his parents were and so forth, was rather taxing in his current state. A little help from curious and busy-body bystanders who knew him from London society was appreciated, though it frustrated his pride to smile and act graciously. It did result in securing him a cabin, a change of clothing, and light tea; and to be spared the tedium of being questioned and processed like the lower class survivors still gathered on the main deck and in the second class dining room.
The liner was already rather full, but certain accommodations were being made for noble families such as his own. Though it was not at the level of Empire luxury that had characterized Campania, his first class cabin was comfortable in a cosy country manor way. The cabin steward who had shown him the way also informed him that the hot water had by now been restored to normal, following Etruria's full-steam rescue journey to the site of Campania's sinking.
As much as Ciel longed to bathe, change into dry clothing and sit about drinking tea, he first insisted that Sebastian be brought to his cabin to rest peacefully and in comfort, and so that Ciel could be sure that no-one snooped around his butler or tried to harm him. Considering the crowding in the infirmary, it did not take much convincing.
The Viscount of Druitt was among the nobility who were being settled into First Class, and Ciel had passed near where he was making a fuss with his sob-story. Ciel would have liked to pistol-whip him in passing, but he did not have his handgun, and Chamber was surrounded by a typical adoring crowd. American ladies were no more immune than the English to those rotten charms.
Porters had carried Sebastian in, still wrapped up in blankets, and settled him on the double bed. Once the door was closed and the room was still again, Ciel let out a long sigh and dropped into the armchair beside the small tea table.
The boiled water standing in a metal jug on the tea tray was no longer as hot as he would have liked it, but he poured it into the tea pot himself, trying to copy the smooth motions Sebastian always used, but little splashes escaped. It hardly bothered him though as he leaned down to inhale the threads of vapour and strong Ceylon aroma. The tea-leaf variety was not as choice as anything Sebastian would have picked out for him, but Ciel barely waited a minute of steeping before he poured himself a cup. He breathed in the bitter scent, the steam making a humid layer over his skin. He sipped a little, licked his lips, and sank further into the cushioned seat.
The low background hum and churn of the ship's progress through the Atlantic ocean further settled his nerves; they were on their way back to England. Night's fog had melted away, and sun dazzled from the clear water. Ciel could not forget that under that beautiful scenery countless corpses and 'dolls' had been washed away. White birds passed the window, and circled far out over the choppy waves like specks of confetti. He did not allow himself to shudder at the memories, but he looked away, focused on the room, and the tea cup lightly chattering on its saucer.
Sebastian had been lying still all this time. Ciel did not think of speaking to him, or otherwise trying to rouse him just to ascertain that he was more alive than dead. Over the past years the unnatural sense of the devil's mark in his eye had given him a feeling for the extremes of Sebastian's status. Sebastian had been quite open with the fact that he could sense Ciel through the seal on his hand, but Ciel had denied that the connection would go both ways. Not because it was true, but rather because he did not want to admit that his affinity to the devil extended so far. Now, the vague sense of warmth and energy in the seal told him that Sebastian was more alive than he had been lying in the lifeboat earlier in the day.
Ciel set down the cup on the table, and pulled away the stiff material of his eyepatch that had become gummy with saltwater and chaffed around his eye. It would be best to bathe and dress as quickly as possible, as he had a feeling that unless she was too exhausted to move Lizzie would be tracking him down and beating down his door so that she could make certain he was also alive and well.
The facilities were rather cramped compared to home, and it took him a bit of experimentation to figure out the taps and fill the small tub with just enough warm water to quickly scrub down. As tedious as if had been, circus life had given him some practical experience in seeing to the small daily rituals that Sebastian would usually take care of for him, and it did not take him long to dress neatly in the donated clothing. No-one had yet thought to bring some men's clothing for Sebastian to replace the ruined set disposed off in the infirmary. Something else Ciel would need to take care of while his butler was taking his well-deserved rest.
The investigation had led him to a point in the truth where going further would need to wait until he was in London again, and at least until Sebastian was recovered. Now that he knew the reapers were involved at the highest level, he needed a pawn like Sebastian more than ever.
Later in the evening, after Ciel had reunited with Lizzie and the rest of the family in the lounge, and had eaten dinner with them and otherwise satisfied their need to make certain that he was well, Ciel finally returned to the quiet of his cabin. Most of all he wished to rest, in warmth and comfort, and the knowledge that they were safe for now. Compared to the night running around through storage holds, above deck, and then lingering in the ocean, the small cabin was wonderfully warm and cosy, right down to the soft carpet under his bare feet.
As Ciel was preparing for bed, he could not help a little scowl towards his still sleeping butler. This cabin had been intended for a single occupant, or perhaps a couple, and Sebastian occupied the only bed. Ciel considered the plush armchair, but he was not in the mood after everything else he had put up with in the past twenty-four hours.
He threw down his too-large jacket and trousers on a chair, not even thinking to take any of the care Sebastian always did. He had no nightshirt to change into, but the shirt he wore was large enough to provide some modesty, which was just as well as no spare drawers had been provided, and the pair he had been wearing earlier were still drying on the rim of the tub.
Standing at the edge of the bed, Ciel suddenly stiffened with nerves. He gripped the hem of his shirt and squirmed his toes over the carpet, feeling foolish with indecision and the heat scaling his face. Sebastian had been placed a little right of centre on the bed and had not moved from there, still wrapped in wool blankets rather than tucked under the bed covers. Even if he had the strength to shift him, Ciel was unsure about how it would affect the injuries.
"Sebastian," he said, trying to inject the usual amount of authority into his tone. His voice came out wheezing, and he pressed a hand over his chest, willing the constriction to pass. He climbed onto the bed to take a closer look.
Dark wool fibres showed traces of blood around Sebastian's head. The unwashed black hair remained clumped with dried blood and sea salt. Skin that was normally spotless and pale was not only crusted with blood that had not washed away, but was coloured with a splotchy flush that Ciel had never before seen on the demon. Partly curious, disgusted and concerned, Ciel unwrapped a little more.
He raised his hand below Sebastian's nose to check that he was breathing regularly. The radiating heat of fever warmed his cool hand and might have been pleasant if it were not a sign of illness. Ciel found a washcloth in the bathroom and soaked it in cold water to lay across Sebastian's forehead. Eyelashes shivered a moment but Sebastian's eyes stayed closed. Ciel worried his bottom lip with his teeth and stared at the unconscious face that burned too hot under his damp fingers.
Thinking about how Sebastian had cared for him when he was ill with fever, Ciel decided that after all he should try to shift him under the thick coverlet of the bed to keep him properly warm. Currently his bare feet and lower legs were sticking out of the blanket-wrap, bloodlessly-pale and black-nailed. Ciel had never been aware of that before, and he shuddered just looking at them too long.
Every day previously, Sebastian would only appear in his presence dressed from neck to foot in his trim black uniform, high starched collar, white gloves, down to polished shoes and not even a glimpse of bare ankle. Always perfect decorum.
As he moved the blankets around in trying to coordinate the switch, Ciel couldn't help uncovering more under his hands and eyes. In fact, he had seen more in the infirmary while the medical staff worked to assess and treat Sebastian, but he had been overwhelmed by the sight of a body marbled with blood and split open to the raw flesh. Much of Sebastian's torso was covered in bandages, but now that Ciel looked without distraction it was still more than he had ever seen.
Daily his butler saw him as he bathed and dressed and undressed, and Ciel did not even think about it. For the situation to be reversed gave him uncomfortable pause. It was a bit like realizing that his aunt and uncle and every adult around him had such bodies under their clothing too. Vaguely it mortified him, but Sebastian was not family, not even human. And at this time he could not see, would not smirk, or gaze at Ciel's face for far too long and see how Ciel blushed to see his butler so exposed.
A man's limbs were heavy when he had no strength in them. Although Ciel's feeble soft child body had been strengthened over the past years through fencing, horseback riding and the general demands of his underworld pursuits, he had little hope of whisking his butler into the bath or lifting him gently enough to move him underneath the blankets without jolting his injuries.
He huffed and brought out a spare blanket from the cupboard, then tried to shift everything around to give most of the blanket coverage to Sebastian.
Ciel double checked that the door was locked, the thick velvet curtains firmly drawn, then he turned down the light and climbed into bed beside Sebastian. Only in wriggling in at Sebastian's side did he find his small build useful in this situation.
He was practically shivering from how unbecoming this was. At the same time he reminded himself that he followed only his own rules and bowed only to the Queen.
The blanket layers and the room's warm regulated temperature soon let warmth outweigh cold. Through his shirt the sensation of his butler's still body no longer repelled him. When he touched his hand, tepid warmth reached his sweating hand, and the joints moved smoothly. Despite the lack of response, to feel that hand limp but warm in his reassured him enough that he finally breathed out some of the tension that had braced him.
Regardless of Sebastian's motivation for keeping him safe, he had carried out his task to the utmost, and had nearly been killed for it. Ciel had not even a broken bone, so he wrapped those unharmed arms around Sebastian, making sure the blanket covered him properly. If Sebastian had been killed, he would have been free of the contract, but he would have been alone again. He could barely think those thoughts, and shut them from his mind. He would not be afraid like that now that they were here, safe. He would not linger on the past while he was conscious enough to control his own thoughts. He shivered and held closer to Sebastian. When he had huddled up to Sebastian's limp body in the lifeboat, it had been as much for his own comfort as to prevent Sebastian from freezing to death (if that was possible).
He began to drift, exhaustion winning. When he found himself in a haze between sleep some time later, he felt a sort of steady gentle hum of energy from Sebastian's body. It was not really a sound, but it felt like purring, alive, content. Ciel couldn't bring himself to move or open his eyes yet, but finding himself clinging to Sebastian's arm, he was too embarrassed to fall asleep again. His bare legs had stayed put along Sebastian's side. The hand with the contract seal lay caught in the folds of his nightshirt. When it became too awkward to leave it trapped there, he finally made his body move. He lifted and folded the arm while removing the gauze, so that the seal rested at his cheek, the patterned skin there rather cool against his.
"Thank you, young master."
Startled by that voice after many hours of silence, Ciel almost jumped up.
"There's no need to thank me," Ciel said more gruffly than he had intended.
"It gives me strength... if you are near; and the proximity of the seal in your eye," Sebastian explained with a thin voice short on breath. He flexed his fingers slowly and long claws passed along Ciel's scalp. Like that time, Sebastian's palm covered his right eye, and Ciel's skin prickled.
He sat up and put on the bedside lamp. "Where's your dignity as the Phantomhive butler?"
Without opening his eyes or twitching his lips into a customary smirk, Sebastian replied, "Perhaps I shall get up now and look for it." Neat little shark-like teeth flashed between his pale lips.
Ciel sighed. "Lie still, you fool," he said with unusual gentleness.
Not wanting to lie around beside his naked butler now that they were awake, Ciel climbed out of bed and went about dressing, and then replaced the damp washcloth on Sebastian's forehead.
Sebastian had no taste or need for human food, and yet Ciel worried how he would regain his health without nourishment. When Sebastian refused to eat, Ciel decided to instead eat as much as he could for his own strength and then returned to Sebastian's side to allow him the spiritual proximity that seemed to fortify him.
On the list of indignities endured in his short life, allowing Sebastian to nuzzle up to him while dreaming about the taste of his soul should hardly have fazed Ciel. It also helped that no-one was scolding him for sitting in bed at noon eating plates of sweets and dropping biscuit crumbs in the sheets.