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Is it time?

Time is a strange thing for a demon.

On an infinite timeline, everything feels static. From an infinite distance, every moment shrinks down to zero.

The demon looks up at the tapestry of stars in the sky and sees a thousand ghosts – the reverberating lights of stars that died many thousands of years ago. And yet their image remains, inert and unchanging, stubbornly fixed upon the night sky as if in denial of their own demise. Each night he looks up and sees the same scattering of lights. He knows that one night, he will look up and see these lights extinguished, only to be replaced by others, as indistinguishable from the first as pebbles on a beach, as interchangeable as the grains of sand on the hills of an ancient desert. And the universe will continue to move, to expand, to exist, oblivious to the death and birth of stars, oblivious to the passage of time.

On an infinite timeline, everything begins in order to end. Everything ends in order to begin.

Within an infinite existence, everything will recur, again and again, never moving forward, never evolving, never becoming something other than it was.

In an infinite universe, does everything remain stagnant, entombed as if in amber in the eternal memory of the cosmos?

Chapter Text

The demon sat perched on the spire of the temple, looking down upon the bloodbath below. The local gang of bandits and daggermen had gathered around their prey and were tearing at the robed figure’s flesh like a pack of hyenas pouncing on a gazelle. He was beaten with sticks and stones, then mutilated with a sickle, and finally hung up from a makeshift gibbet in the town square for the entire city to see.

The Master will not be pleased. The demon continued to stare impassively at the tableau of carnage unfolding before him.

Such mutilations and lynchings had become an increasingly common occurrence in this land caught in the riptide of impending war. The occupying force had pushed the people to the brink, had subjugated and humiliated them, and pillaged and plundered their land. And in return, the populace had begun to turn to violence, had begun to support whatever insurgency was willing to take on the great Empire’s army. And so all sides of this wretched, internecine clash lurched towards war with all the equanimity of a wounded animal, all the clearheaded forethought of a drunken man.

The demon had seen the same sequence play out in the past, and would see it again and again in future. History repeats itself, and in an infinite timespan, everything recurs an infinite number of times. The pointless, never-ending battles between factions mattered little to him, as did the outcome. He had been summoned to perform a task, to reach a goal, to procure and consume a soul. The morality of it, the right and wrong of it, mattered little to him. He had lived long enough among humans to know that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, were malleable concepts, their shape easily plied and rough edges smoothed away to fit whatever narrative was deemed most convenient; whatever lies humans wanted to tell themselves, wanted to believe.

In an infinite timeline, everything recurs, rendering all that happened before it meaningless.

The crowd had started to dissipate. The frenzy and anger and bloodlust having peaked, plateaued like a great tide, and now starting to ebb. The mutilated body – what was left of it - now lay hung up on the town square, shredded flesh and grey-and-purple entrails spilling forth from his abdomen, dangling like a broken pendulum. The sun was suspended in its midday position in the cloudless sky, its rays beating down mercilessly upon the desert town. It would not be long before the heat would rot the flesh of the mutilated corpse, the sickening and putrid fetor of decay and decomposition remaining in the town centre for days to come, long after the mangled remains had been transported away from the square by the temple servants.

The Master will not be pleased, the demon thought as he made his way back to the governor’s palace, walking along the dirt covered roads lined with palm and olive trees. The static oppressiveness of the desert heat was punctured by an occasional dry, gasping breeze that blew sand into his eyes and mouth. He could almost feel the ground smoldering beneath him from the unrelenting swelter.

The ‘victim’ - if such a name would apply to anyone on either side of this wretched battle - was a high priest, a member of the aristocracy- and by extension, in collusion with the ruling Empire; nestled in a symbiotic alliance of convenience that allowed both agents to remain buoyant, to maintain their grasp on power. The Master had counted on him to mollify the inhabitants, to enlighten them as to the futility and folly of their resistance. Clearly, a new strategy would need to be developed. 

The demon walked through the stone arched portico of the palace and into the main dining hall, making sure to adopt the appropriate subservient posture as per the preference of the Master. The Master was sitting at the dining table, attended to by an assembly of servants and civil officials. The white woolen drapes of his ceremonial garb stuck to the mounded flesh of his rotund shape, and sweat dripped down his pockmarked and bloated face. He looked up with mild interest, and barked in the general direction of the demon.

“Why have you returned so soon?” 

The Master’s face became more and more twisted in fury as the demon told him of the unfortunate turn of events in the town square. His jaw clenched and his fists tightened, as he stood up and approached the demon, fire in his eyes like the roiling flames of the desert sun. The demon had finished explaining by the time the Master stepped in front of him. Without missing a beat, the Master slapped him across the face, the jeweled band of his ring snagging on the demon’s cheek and ripping the skin where a thin curtain of blood flowed down his face. The demon lowered his head in what he had learned to be a show of meekness and submission appealing to his Master. 

“Kneel” the Master ordered as he turned back to the antechamber.

The demon did as he was told, lowering his tunic and keeping his gaze downcast in a theatre of deference and fear. The Master returned, gripping the flagellum, its straps slung over the flattened palm of his other hand.

The master swung his arm back and forth as the metal-knotted thongs of the scourge made contact with the demon’s human flesh. And through the palace the sounds of crashes like thunder could be heard as leather hit skin and skin parted like the Red Sea. 

*****

*****

*****

“Who are you?” the tiny figure speaks into the stillness.

The demon moves through the room, slowly emerging out of smoke and ash and a rain of obsidian feathers, shuddering out of his true form as slender coils of black and plumes of darkness billow from him, vanishing like the morning fog as dawn melts into day. He has already seen the boy’s mind - if not yet his face and form - so he knows the boy’s wants, understands his most fervent desires. He slowly melds into the shape of his new master’s wishes, tendrils of black mist turning into human limbs as he straightens the woolen tailcoat over his torso and pulls the silk white gloves over slender, black-tipped fingers. He walks through the carnage of bodies, entrails and viscera, errant limbs and bones littering his path. The marble white floor is now red, awash with blood and human filth. The room is quiet as a mausoleum wherein – just moments ago – ear-shattering screams and wails choked the atmosphere like a dense noxious fume. All of them screaming for help, screaming for mercy as claws wrapped around their necks and crushed their windpipes, as fangs tore into their throats and consumed the blood spewed from their jugular, as tentacles dove into their chests, eviscerated their insides and tore out their still-beating hearts. They all screamed and screamed for mercy, though no mercy would be accorded to them, of course. Fitting, since they themselves had demonstrated none.

Now all was eerily calm. Quiet except for the question just now uttered by the small creature in the covered steel cage at the centre of the hall.

The demon walks over to the cage, slow and weightless as an exhaled breath, and removes the cover to bend down and peer inside.

“Who are you?” the boy asks again, now seeing the demon, or rather, the human form he has morphed into, for the first time.

“You called for me, my lord. I am what you summoned.”

“You are a demon.” the boy surmises. Not a question, but the demon nevertheless answers, “Yes, my lord.”

The demon continues to observe the child through the steel bars of the cage, wrapping a hand around the rods and kneeling down. And there he is, a tiny wisp of a boy. He is so small, so fragile a creature, crumpled on the floor with his legs curled up against his torso and arms wrapped around his knees.

The demon could not recall ever having had such a tiny master.

He is covered with blood and wounds, some half-healed, some still bleeding; bruises leading a splattered trail through his limbs and torso like an ancient map of the constellations. The tattered remains of a paper-thin garment hang from bony shoulders, sticking to the concavity below his clavicles. The floor of the cage is covered with dirt and dried blood and the boy’s own sick and filth. The stench of rot and putrefaction is noxious – or would be if the demon were human. The child likely would not have lasted much longer had the demon not intervened on his behalf to rescue him from his own kind.

“Are they all dead?” the boy asks, his throat still raw and his voice wavering.

“Yes, my lord. You wished it, and so it was done.”

“I did? I wished this?” he breathes, looking overwhelmed and wearied, as he scans the room with dull, weather-beaten eyes.

“Yes. You ordered it when you summoned me.”

“If I had wished it, I would have wanted their deaths to be slower, more painful. They deserved no better.” He said, his voice all of a sudden far steelier. The demon blinks.

The boy turns his gaze back onto the demon, and scrutinizes the shape staring at him from outside the bars. His skin is an unearthly ivory pale, set against locks of ink-black hair. His eyes are an uncanny shade of auburn, at times red like wine, at others brown like mahogany. His inscrutable expression betrays no malice nor sympathy, no desire nor contempt, only a mild detached curiosity. It is a somewhat unsettling combination, though the boy cannot ascertain exactly why. It is not entirely discomfiting – there is a comfortable familiarity mixed with the strange beauty.

“You look human,” he says finally.

“I am not.” The demon responds in a clipped tone. And as if to demonstrate, begins to bend apart the bars of the steel cage to release his new master. He reaches in to fetch the boy, but the child shrinks back from his touch with a start, screaming “Don’t touch me!” The demon, startled, withdraws his hands and holds his palms up in a placating gesture. The boy has shifted away and is crouching on the opposite side of the cage from him.

“My lord, I do not wish to harm you.”

“I don’t want to be touched.” He says quietly.

“You are quite injured.” The demon says, his gaze resting on the boy’s mangled, emaciated legs. “I do not believe that you will be able to stand on your own.”

The boy looks at his limbs, runs a hand over the wounds, and winces in pain. He tries to stand on his legs, but collapses to the floor almost immediately, face contorted in agony. He looks back at the demon and then averts his gaze, eyes wet and lost and hollow. “alright,” he says, defeated, voice barely above a whisper now, “You may touch me.” Whatever conviction, or bravado, had been there a moment ago now has vanished.

The demon reaches for his master again, and as gently as he can, takes the boy into his arms, balancing his thighs in one hand, and letting him rest against his shoulder. He weighs next to nothing. He senses the boy tense and coil up at his touch, seeming to tolerate it but only barely.

“Burn it.” The child whispers, his head coming to rest against the crook of the demon’s neck. “Burn it all to ashes. Leave nothing behind.” 

“Yes, my lord.” And the demon waves a hand in front of a torch affixed to a nearby column, beckoning the flame so that it flickers to life, frees itself from its vessel, chases around the corners and climbs up the walls, and begins to engulf the room. They walk away from the cage, amid the detritus of human bodies littering the ground, as the fire devours all the wretchedness inside within in its consumptive and purifying splendour.

*****

The demon stands outside for some time, with his young master cradled in his arms, watching as the conflagrations engulf the manor, and ash-gray tufts of smoke float up like ghosts to the black starless sky. He turns and watches his master as his master watches the spectacle, face impassive and frayed. He watches the reflection of the flames in the boy’s mismatched eyes, one blue like the ocean, the other violet and flush, still bleeding from where he had carved the mark of their covenant. He brings a hand and runs a finger to trace the outlines of the marked eye. The boy flinches at the touch, and the demon withdraws. Sensing his master’s discomfort with being so scrutinized, he turns his gaze away, back to the fire, and waits.

“What will you do now?” the boy says finally.

“Whatever my master orders.” He responds.

The boy looks dazed, and rests his head on the demon’s shoulder. “What I order?”

“Yes, young master. For the duration of our contract, I belong to you. I am yours to do with as you please. I perform whatever actions, acquire whatever goals my master desires.”

The boy looks at him, stunned and overwhelmed and exhausted. He contemplates the enormity of the thing he has done, the unfathomable enormity of the thing currently cradling him.

“What shall I call you?” He says, unable to think of anything else to ask. “What is your name?”

“It is whatever my master wishes.”

Chapter Text

The desert town was bathed in black, the pale glow of the half-moon the only guiding light piercing through the darkness. The night had brought with it a cool, dry breeze which swept over the area, offering respite from the sweltering daytime heat. The city had long ago gone to sleep and the din of daytime bustle was replaced by the hiss and whining trill of the cicadas.

It was quiet in the governor’s palace. All domestic duties had been completed, all planning for the following day finalized, and the Master was in his bed asleep, and did not require his services. The demon sat on his rarely used cot in the servant’s chamber and looked at the sparkling desert sky through the tiny window of his quarters. He stared at the blanket of stars, thought to be divine communion, messages from the Gods, portents of doom, famine, war, hunger. He only saw the travelling echoes from long-ago extinguished balls of gas and dust.

He rarely found himself with nothing to do. He continued to look through the window, watching but not really seeing. Thinking. 

He did not like these moments. If he had to express a preference, it would be to not be so immersed in silence, so submersed in the muted vacancy of the night. It was in these moments that the feeling would float up to the surface, wash up along the shores of his psyche like so much jetsam. That gnawing … ache? That thing, that void that seemed to lay side by side his hunger, that seemed to make up his substance without actually being anything. Like the emptiness that makes up so much of the universe; the space within atoms and molecules, the space between stars and galaxies. That thing that was not like a self, but rather the hollowness around it.

Time is a strange thing for a demon, and in these moments, time seemed to slow down to an anesthetized crawl. To a soporific languor like a heavy fog. So that all he could see when he stared into the expanse of time was an infinity of blackness and void, as dark and endless as a desert night.

He could rest, he thought. Sleep was not as frequent a necessity for demons as it was for humans, though it was occasionally needed to restore his strength or recover from a particularly brutal injury to his physical form. The strange, alien sting from the welts doled out by the Master’s scourge glided along his human body, like the scratches from the paws of an animal skittering across a windowpane. The sensation was like a thing that he could observe, pick apart and examine.

If he were so inclined.

He sighed and laid on his back on his cot and looked up, traced the lines of the cracks in the ceiling, watched as a grasshopper jumped from the windowsill to the edge of the crown molding and then back out the window to be swallowed up by the night. He looked at his arms, observed the olive-coloured skin, ran the pads of his fingers over the veins wrapping themselves around his forearms. He picked at the scabs of the healing welts on his torso and shoulders to watch the trickle of blood, ruby red pearls against tan skin. He put his blood-covered fingers in his mouth, to taste the metallic sting of his own blood against his tongue.

He rolled on his side and folded his legs and looked at the wall of his quarters. He tried to fill his mind with something, remember something. Tried to bring up an image, a song, a scent. Tried to tell himself a story. Something to cut through the quiet of the early morning hour, the deathly quiet of his own mind. His thoughts reached out and grasped and grasped, but came back empty-handed. 

He finally abandoned the effort, closed his eyes and tried to sleep. 

 

*****

*****

*****

 

This child is difficult.

The demon discovers this while tending to his wounds inside the manor he fashioned out of bricks and mortar, out of cinder and dust, out of the jumbled, fragmented memories of his new master.

Whatever state of stoicism, or stupor, the boy had possessed upon being rescued had vanished, scattered away like the ashes of the old Phantomhive Manor, leaving Sebastian with a trauma-addled child, wracked with anger and fear. He is now every bit the desperate ten-year-old who reached out to the darkness, screaming and begging for deliverance regardless of the price. He is curled up in the corner of his bedroom as Sebastian makes attempts in vain to soothe him enough to allow him to wash and dress his wounds.

“It hurts! You’re too rough!” Ciel yelps, shrinking away against the wall and batting at his butler with tiny limbs.

“I apologize young master, but it is necessary.” Sebastian states, coolly efficient and calm.

“When Tanaka used to do this, he was much gentler.” The boy whines, twisting his body away, trying to protect his wounds from the burning sting of the antiseptic on Sebastian’s washcloth.

“Yes, well, young master, I am not Tanaka.” The boy drops his gaze, and looks defeated.

“Please, try to remember, that I am not your guardian or your mother or your father. I am your servant.” Sebastian repeats, not unkindly.

“I know.” Ciel says, his voice small and barely audible. “I know you’re not.”

The boy looks tiny and broken and lost, and Sebastian feels a pang, somewhere deep inside him, feels an unfamiliar ache. A curious sensation, strange and novel, deep inside his chest, like something inside him attempting to come loose.

He takes a breath, attempts to marshal his patience, and tries again.

“Young master, please -” he starts, modulating his voice into what he assumes to be a soothing, parental cadence, before reaching for the boy’s wounds with the washcloth.

“Get away from me!” Ciel cries again as he cowers further to the corner of the room. “Do not touch me! I don’t wish to be touched…”

“My lord, please, you will need to trust me.” Sebastian crouches down to eye level, attempting to appear non-threatening, as if trying to beckon forth a small, skittish animal. “I do not wish to harm you.”

“Why should I trust you? You are a demon!” He cries, as his face crumples and an agonized sob is ripped from his throat.

“Yes, but one that is bound by contract to protect you.” Sebastian sighs. “I have sworn to be your guardian and your knight, and that is what I will be.”

“You say that you will not harm me?”

“No, my lord. I will not.”

“And yet you wish to destroy me and consume my soul.” Sebastian watches the boy become more anguished, his voice strangled with sobs, trapped in ever increasing paroxysms of despair. Watches his eyes become wet as hot, angry tears begin to spill down his cheeks.

“Yes, my lord. But once you have obtained your vengeance. This is the nature of our covenant.”

The boy has at this point worked himself into hysterics, and is taking in deep, frantic gulps of air between wracking sobs, his mouth gasping and lungs expanding like the desperate inhales of a fish flapping at the bottom of a trawling boat.

“How can I be sure that you will not harm me before then? That you will not get impatient, or bored, or hungry, and tear into my flesh and rip me limb from limb?” He begins to choke on his sobs as he spits out “Really, what is there here to stop you?” His face is blotched and wet and contorted, and the demon’s gaze falls on the pool of saliva gathering around the corner of the child’s mouth, drops of it rolling down his chin as he rocks back and forth with each wail wrenched from his chest.

“My lord, please understand.” Sebastian says softly, attempting one last time to calm his new master. “Breaking the contract is not in my nature.”

“Your nature, is it? The nature of our covenant, is it?” Ciel shouts between staccatoed hiccups, as he coughs and retches through his sobs. “What about your nature, Sebastian? What can you tell me about that?”

Sebastian sighs. Sensing the futility of attempting to reason with the child when he is in such a state, the demon stands up, bows uselessly to his shattered and broken new master, and walks out of the room.

*****

The demon could not tell the boy much about his nature.

Or his provenance.

He cannot not remember his birth. He is not sure if he had a birth. If there was a branching point in time, a line bisecting the world into one before he existed and one after. If there was, he cannot not remember it. If he had to put forth a conjecture, formulate a hypothesis, he would say that he did not have a birth. Demons are immortal beings. Their lifespans stretch infinite. Logic would dictate that this is bidirectional, spans a line from the past into the future. If there is no end, then one would presume that there cannot be a beginning.

Of course, he can only infer this, not know it.

There was so much about his own existence that he could not know. This was the nature of a demon’s life, he supposed. Moving from one contract to the next, one soul to the next. The times between contracts were spent in some dark shadow at the periphery of the world, an abyssal emptiness, the negative space around time and existence, while he waited to be summoned.

And when summoned, he performed his tasks, became whatever his masters wanted, achieved whatever meaningless goal his masters required, rolled the boulder up the hill, only to possess and consume their souls – with no malice of intent or desire, this was just the way things were - , and return to the same shadowy emptiness and vacancy from which he was sprung. There was no use in questioning any of it. Such was the nature of a demon’s life. Trying to trace the origins of his self was like trying to map out the latitude and longitude of one’s coordinates in a dream. He remembered certain things, patches and scraps here and there, but for the most part, his memories of his previous contractors and his previous lives remained as intangible as smoke, filtered through his consciousness like water through the fingers of a clenched fist.

A demon’s existence is one of solitude, even when contracted. He didn’t know what loneliness felt like, because he didn’t know what feelings felt like, and loneliness had always struck him as a particularly human feeling. Emotions seem to work in opposition to each other, seem to exist in opposing binary pairs. One could not exist, could not be perceived, without its opposite. Light cannot be understood without understanding darkness, and darkness is merely the absence of light. A lie can only be discovered as a Lie when it is juxtaposed with the Truth. Even within the universe, the things you see cannot exist without the things you can’t. Much of the universe is made up of substance that can never be perceived; whose existence one can only posit from the movements of the things one can perceive. Hence it would make sense, the demon had always reasoned, that the same is true of emotions; one cannot understand love unless one understands hate; one cannot understand bliss unless one understand despair. One cannot feel unmoored if one has never felt tethered. And one cannot feel loneliness if one has never felt kinship.

*****

That first night, and the day after, and the day after that, the young master does not leave his room. Sebastian would come into his chamber, to bring him a meal or a change of clothes, or simply to check if the boy was indeed still alive and breathing, and find him in bed, his tiny body sheathed in a cocoon of Egyptian cotton and lattice coverlet. The boy does not acknowledge Sebastian’s presence. Does not speak a word or make a sound.

Sebastian would roll the trolley containing the master’s dinner or snack, and wordlessly leave it by the bed after picking up the untouched plates of food left from the previous meal.

He would wonder if it was actually possible for a human to will himself out of existence, to starve himself into erasure, the way his young master seemed intent on doing.

Then on the first fortnight, the young master finally emerges. Sebastian is in the kitchen keeping himself occupied and helping along the passage of time by polishing the Phantomhives’ prodigious collection of antique silverware. He is sitting at the bench of the solid oak kitchen table, silver polish and cloth in hand, when he hears light footsteps approaching in the hallway. He looks up to find the tiny master in the doorway, leaning against the frame as if needing a prop to hold him up. The boy catches the demon’s gaze and looks away. He stays in the same spot, staring unseeingly into the distance while Sebastian observes him with studious curiosity.

He looks so frail and fragile, as if the effort of standing or speaking or breathing would be too much and he would collapse, vanish into the ether, blow away with a gust of wind like remnant ash at the foot of a dying fire. The demon feels a pang.

“It’s too quiet in my room.” He says finally, looking down to the floor. “I can’t sleep.” This is of course a lie. It was not the quiet in his room, but the chorus of screams and wails inside his head that have kept him from sleep.

Sebastian accepts this, nods, and directs his eyes away from his master and back to the silverware. Free of his butler’s unnerving gaze, the boy starts to move toward the centre of the kitchen. Sebastian tries to occupy himself with the task of polishing, very deliberately tries not to stare at the young master as he circles toward him tentatively, like a battered, fearful stray approaching a proffered bowl of scraps, on alert in case of a betrayal.

Finally, the boy comes upon the bench and sits at the edge away from Sebastian. Sebastian continues to work away at the silverware, while Ciel warily observes him, seeming to finally come to a decision, to send up the white flag. He edges closer and closer to Sebastian, until he is sitting next to the demon. With one final mournful look, Ciel leans against his side and rests his cheek against his butler’s arm. Sebastian sets down the silverware and polish and turns to look down at the boy as he rubs his face against the cloth of his dress shirt. He watches as the boy’s chin quivers and his eyes become wet, and silent tears fall down his cheeks. He watches transfixed as the boy processes through all the misery of the past month, an infinity of torment and loss contained between the wax and wane of the moon. The demon watches as the boy tries to envision his future, with everything he ever had taken from him and replaced with darkness and misery, loneliness and despair, and a lone creature seeking to consume and devour him.

Sebastian can see it all flashing across the boy’s face, and it makes that thing inside him come loose, that thing inside him ache. Acting on a strange impulse, he reaches out to run his hand through the boy’s hair. He expects the boy to slap his hand away, but the child grips his sleeve with clenched fingers as he turns to bury his face in the demon’s arm.

He doesn’t sob, or scream, or wail. The kitchen remains quiet as an abandoned mine, except for the occasional shuddering breath and muted sniffle, and the sound of fabric against skin as the boy wipes his nose against the hem of his own nightshirt, and his tears soak through the sleeve of Sebastian’s dress shirt.

The stay like this for what seems like hours, while the boy mourns for all the things he had lost, for all the things he used to be, and Sebastian can only watch this unfold mesmerized and riveted by the purity of it, feeling the sting of something unrecognizable, something previously unimagined, some new and thrilling ache in his own chest as it expands against his ribs.

Chapter Text

Ciel was five years old. And he didn’t understand.

But he was afflicted with that strange facility that children have of blaming themselves for everything.

He was looking at the mutilated carcasses of his two pet rabbits, lying lifeless on the dusted floor of their cage near the manor’s garden nursery, just off the wooded area downhill. It was chilly in the dawn hour, and the sky had that lavender colour of lilies and orchids, when the sun’s rays were just beginning to peak out from the receding blanket of night. Ciel had managed to leave the manor before Tanaka could wrangle him to get him dressed and groomed for the day, and so was now standing outside the cage, shivering in his cotton pajamas and dressing gown. The faint rustle of the wind in the branches mingled with the early-morning chorus of the blackbirds and robins that lived inside of the hunched-over willow trees dotting the grounds of the Phantomhives’ estate.

He wrapped his arms around himself to brace against the morning chill, as his eyes trailed over the creatures’ unmoving bodies.

Their plush white fur was stained with splatters of blood, and he thought about that time he cut his palm on a toy soldier that he had just gotten for Christmas, when he was showing it off to Lizzie, and how the sanguine drops falling from his hand looked like rose petals against the virgin snow at his feet.

Ciel chewed on his lip and stared, as he began to feel his throat start to clench. He could smell the lingering earthy scent of a recently fallen Autumn rain, which had left a sheen of dew drops on the petals of his mother’s white roses in the garden bed nearby. Petrichor, his father had called that scent – that clean, earthy rain-smell. Ciel remembered thinking that it was so strange that everything had a name; that such things as specific scents had such specific names.   

It looked like whatever had attacked them during the night, maybe a fox or a badger, had managed to overcome them after a very quick battle. They both lay in the corner of the cage, near the grate, as if they had tried to claw their way out when they realized they had been besieged.

“They won’t wake up,” he said uselessly to the presence lingering behind him, just outside his field of vision.

Vincent walked over quietly to stand next to him, and put a hand on his shoulder to give it a light squeeze. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“I think it’s my fault.” Ciel said, his voice soft and wavering, looking down to hide his face away from his father. “I forgot to close the latch on the cage after playing with them last night.” His face began to crumple, and silent, guilty tears started to mark a trail down snowdrift-white cheeks.

In one elegant move, Vincent bent down to scoop him up in his arms and cradle his head against his shoulders. “Shhh… my sweet prince, it’s alright.” He cooed to him, as he ran his hand though the boy’s hair and over his back. “Nothing is your fault.”

Ciel continued to cry silently against Vincent’s shoulders. “Then why?”

“Sometimes these things happen. You can’t blame yourself.”

“But why? Why does it happen?”

“Everything happens for a reason.” Vincent told him in a gentle tone. “It is not always clear to us at the time.” He placed a kiss on the crown of the boy’s head. “But everything happens for a reason.”

*****

Those first few months after the contract, the walls of Phantomhive Manor groan with pain. Pain seems to seep through every crack, pour through every crevice, drip down every wall. It seems to encase all the structures inside within its venomous amber. Sebastian could not be sure but he did not think that he had ever had a master quite so fragile and broken, quite so small and tragic.

Time is a strange thing for a human.

Time is relative, and so is the perception of it. Time feels inconstant and mutable, stretched out at the beginning of life, and compressed at its end. Time seems to meander through consciousness like algae floating down a stream, catching on jutting boulders; anchoring and coiling itself around the most joyful - or most harrowing - events, so that these seem to stretch toward infinity in one’s memory.

For the demon’s young master, that one month of pain and torture and despair had expanded to eclipse the ten years that preceded it, and now has left a permanent residue on the core of who he was, that would define the substance of who he would become. It was not simply the loss of everything that he had, everything that gave his life security, safety, meaning. His parents, his home, his pride, his dignity. While those losses would have been enough to wound and fracture, it was some greater loss that annihilated the child that his young master had been.

It was the upsetting of a worldview – the view that the world was a good place; that it was safe, logical, reasonable.

That his parents could keep him unharmed.

That people were fundamentally benevolent, trustworthy, well-intentioned.

His sheltered life and blessed upbringing had not exposed him to any other way to view the world.

But now, he was forced to see everything through the filter of his recent loss and trauma. And through this prism, the world had become distorted, mangled and ugly, like seeing things through a cracked and broken piece of glass, or seeing it reflected in a funhouse mirror. It was like falling asleep in your real life and waking up in a nightmare world, and then finding out that the nightmare is real, and what you had thought was your idyllic life was only just a dream.

In those first few months, Ciel Phantomhive sets upon to anchor himself within the maelstrom of his loss and grief, of his anger and hatred. Simply because it is all he can do. Because he has to. Because the only other option is to drown, to let himself be pulled down by the undertow. So he works to rebuild himself. Not the self that he was before his abduction and torture, but a new self, as his wounds slowly begin to heal.

Or at least, begin to scab over.

The demon knows that wounds never actually heal – the body never goes back to what it was originally prior to the injury. Broken bones form calluses as they mend, and flesh forms scar tissue over its shredded and torn pieces, as it fumbles grasping towards the shape of its former self. The end result is a best-guess approximation on the part of the body as to what it was before the trauma.

Often, these tissues become mangled and gnarled almost beyond recognition in the body’s wayward attempts at healing, leaving behind a tumorous scar, painful and raw; a constant reminder of the inflicted injury, and the ruin left in its wake. The same must be true of the psyche, of the soul. While some souls can regain some semblance of their former selves, others become charred and painful, like the blistering skin of a burn victim, like the persistent ache of a phantom limb.

The boy would have good days and bad days. He would start some days sure in his conviction to regain himself, to reassemble the pieces of himself through sheer willpower and fortitude, to claw back up the ranks and reclaim his status and his noble name. On other days, he would regress. Something – some memory, some reminder of his former life - might set him off into waves of panic and hysteria, and he would be inconsolable for hours.

Terror and nightmares would still find him in the darkness, stalking him like a prey, quivering and exposed. On more than one occasion Sebastian would have to come to his bedchamber in the middle of the night as he woke screaming from the jumbled images and voices that haunted his dreams. He would have to change his master’s urine-soaked bedsheets while he spoke to him in a gentle cadence to try and calm his primal screams, to try to guide him out of the blood-soaked maze of his nightmares. He would then clean up his trauma-sick and broken master, while the young lord averted his gaze and his cheeks flushed with shame,

“Sebastian, I – “

“It is alright, young master.”

Afterwards, he would cradle him on his lap, rubbing his back and stoking his hair and cooing to him in what he thought was a close approximation of a parental embrace. It was what his master desired - and so it was what Sebastian had to do. While under other circumstances, the boy shrank from his touch, would slap his hand away, in these moments, the child seemed desperate for contact and security, allowed himself to be cradled and held, embraced in something – anything - that could pass for warmth and affection.

In these moments, Sebastian could feel the waves of loneliness and despair washing over the boy, threatening to pull him under. The purity of it, the beauty, the absolute novelty of it, would tear at something unrecognizable in Sebastian’s chest. It pushed at something inside him previously thought immovable – thrust itself against the Pole Star of his static existence. It fascinated him to try to trace the outlines of the jagged edges of whatever was digging and burrowing into his human chest, into his demon heart. It was a tiny flower blooming in a salted earth. Sebastian wanted to shield it, this thing inside him, this novelty – put a glass case over it to protect it, and watch it bloom - if only out of sheer curiosity of what it might morph into, what other transformation it might spawn.

And as for the young lord, he would - during his moments of lucidity - look around and see a world unchanged, unmarked by the tragedy and the horrors that had ripped everything away from him. And he would feel this to be the greatest injustice; a gallon of salt excoriating a festering wound. His world has been destroyed, and yet the sun continues to rise everyday, the wind continues to blow through the branches, and the birds continue to sing their morning chorus.

And he doesn’t understand.

There should be a hole in the world to match the hole in his heart, and yet the Earth continues to turn on its axis oblivious to all he has suffered and to all he has lost.

And so somewhere within the infernal hearth of these first few months, the young master’s foolish pursuit of revenge begins to take shape, to become forged from the molten alloy of his anguish, from the fiery embers of his hatred. He works at it, hammering away at its embryonic form, molding it, and pouring it out to cast it into the new shape he needs. Into the new shape of himself he can crawl into. He does this because he needs a new shape, a new purpose, something to allow him to excise the despair and powerlessness from his life, like one would a cancerous mass, necrotic and oozing, clasped against scarred flesh and mended bones.

And in doing so the young lord finds that he cares less and less about the fate of his soul - where it will end up, how it will be destroyed. He no longer has confidence that his soul would have been better off, destined perhaps for some benevolent afterlife swathed in Light and divine love, had he not bartered it away. A soul, the young master decides with growing derision, is a thing of little value in this universe without rules, without a guiding light and moral absolutes. A soul, he ultimately concludes, seems like a small price to pay in exchange for retribution. For a shift in the universe - even if only by a small measure, even if only for a short time - in response to his suffering, in recognition of his loss. A soul is a small price to pay for some semblance of balance, of meaning.

His revenge begins to give shape to his days, to bring form to the volatile chaos of his emotions. It becomes a dam channelling the turbulent waters of his hatred, it becomes a solid lattice bridling the rambling vines of his anguish. It becomes a thing to hold onto, a spider’s thread to pull himself up by, out of the abyss of his despair. It becomes his boulder to push up the hill.

Chapter Text

Ciel is confused about his demon.

He spends days and nights waiting for Sebastian to do something… demonic. He waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for a glimpse of his true form, his true nature.

He sits on the floor of the Phantomhives’ stately, echoing library, a book of Renaissance paintings resting open on his lap, searching through pictures of devils and demons, gargoyles and monsters, beasts and dragons, and tries to deduce Sebastian’s taxonomy.

He thumbs through a copy of his father’s King James Bible, leather-bound and gold-gilt, letting his fingers glide over its smooth cotton linen pages, and looks up at Sebastian to try and locate a pitched tail, or jagged horns.

He waits for a glimpse of a serpent tongue, of black-taloned claws. Of cloven hoofs. He waits for a flash of sharpened fangs as one of Sebastian’s smiles widens into a cruel, hungry rictus smirk.

He wants to see Sebastian’s unnervingly intense, thick-lashed rust-brown eyes flash scarlet and crimson, filled with the roiling volcanic seas of Hell, when Ciel refuses to do his Latin translations, or tosses his violin bow to the ground in a fit of frustration and anger.

He wants to see the smooth, unblemished moon-glow paleness of Sebastian’s skin turn scaled and reptilian green just as he turns his face away to blow out the candles resting on Ciel’s nightstand to immerse them both in treacherous darkness.

Each time he turns a corner while walking the halls of his cavernous, labyrinthine mansion, he braces, waiting to find Sebastian crouched down, his impossibly long limbs naked and wrapped in grey-green sinewy muscles, inhumanely beautiful face elongated into a wolf-like snout, feeding upon some lost animal or unfortunate intruder, snarling and growling as splatters of blood and bits of flesh cover his mouth and torso.

It is not so much fear that motivates this – more like an aggressive curiosity. He wants to look under the beautiful disguise to see the ugly truth. He wants to draw the curtains back and glimpse into the terrors of the night.

He wants to be proven right about Sebastian.

If humans have shown themselves to be demonic, then what of the devil himself?

And so he waits. 

But Sebastian never provides the relief, the moment of epiphany when the thick cloak of pretense -  the coolly efficient butler façade - dissipates to reveal the truth of his nature.

He looks up from his book and over at Sebastian, wordlessly dusting the antique volumes on mahogany shelves, and waits. Scrutinizes the demon until he is sure that the demon can feel his eyes on him. But still the demon does not react. Always seems to keep his eyes downcast or his gaze averted to allow the young lord to continue watching him undisturbed. Sebastian continues to walk back and forth under a pantomime of obliviousness under his master’s watchful gaze, rearranging the white roses in a flower pot, or running a polishing cloth over Vincent’s Regency terrestrial globe, or performing some other such menial task, making everything clean and beautiful and elegant, until it is time for him to go and fetch the master’s afternoon tea.

“Ceylon tea, my lord. Served with chocolate macrons with fruit filling.”

He stands to the side, just outside of Ciel’s field of vision so the that Ciel always feels him there like a spectre, while he sips his tea with feigned indifference.

The demon’s eyes never reveal anything other than the most placid of auburns, shut occasionally in irritation that only reaches the intensity of ‘mild’ while he watches the spectacle of Ciel acting out, performing the theatre of the spoilt, insolent child.

And there are never any glimpses of fangs or incisors, sharpened or otherwise.

Perhaps this is because Sebastian rarely offers up anything more than an anemic tight-lipped smile, one that never seems to reach his eyes, awkward and tentative, as if he is still mastering facial expressions, or still habituating to the uncanniness of having a child as a master.

Ultimately, what Ciel really wants to see is clarity of motivations. No longer will he avert his eyes, or look at the hideousness of this world through the spaces between his fingers. Never again will he allow himself to be overcome by the ugliness and horror that is the primary substance and motor force in this wretched, rotted earth.

He wants to know the truth. The contract has a clarity to it that is crystalline in its purity. One revenge obtained. One soul consumed.The scales of it balanced, in the young lord’s estimation, in perfect equipoise.

But the waters of this otherwise crystalline pond are constantly muddied by Sebastian’s unanticipatedly impenetrable nature, his decidedly undemonic behaviour. His lack of hunger, lack of bloodlust, lack of malignant craving and gleeful savagery. His detached manner and seeming -indifference- are maddening in their opacity. What is his primary mover if not hunger? What is his primary desire if not bloodlust?

When will he turn on his master like a previously beloved and faithful dog gone rabid, biting and howling and tearing through flesh and bone?

And so Ciel waits. And with each passing day, each day that he wakes up to the gentle rustle of curtains against the window pane and goes to sleep after the flickering out of a candlelight, each day that he has not been ripped to shreds by his strange and unknowable new pet, Ciel grows more impatient, almost resentful of being denied the satisfaction.

*****

Time is a strange thing for a human. There seems to be a certain inevitability to the pull of it, to its unfolding, to the sequence of events that line its passage like domino pieces readying to fall. All outcomes seem like the natural consequences of the events that preceded them, as if no other eventuality is possible. As if the world as we know it is the only one that could exist.

The young master, the demon notes, has a strange affinity toward self-destruction. This seems to be a mere fact of his existence, operating like a gravitational pull, like the laws of physics. All systems tend toward chaos. Entropy moves everything away from a state of order, and toward decay. Self-annihilation is built into life at the point of inception, like a kill switch or a time bomb.

With the case of the young lord, the only curiosity is whether this drive towards self-immolation is conscious or unconscious. Or perhaps something etched into his destiny, sown into the fabric of his fate, and only delayed as a result of the demon’s own intervention, the contract acting as a prop holding up - if only temporarily - the fall of the domino pieces. The demon wonders with increasing fascination whether this fate is something he himself will be able to offset until such time that master has obtained his revenge. If it is something in his master that the demon will have to temper, or if it is the manifestation of a spurned and slighted universe seeking restitution, or seeking to remedy an intolerable oversight.

Today, fate has made herself manifest in the shape of an unbroken mare, currently whining and snorting at his young master inside the Phantomhives’ stables after the boy’s unfortunate attempts to tame and mount it outside of Sebastian’s supervision.

Ciel has in the preceding months marched toward rebuilding himself, and the demon has kept pace in rebuilding the Phantomhive Manor and the Phantomhive Earldom in step with each of the young master’s strides forward. It is the demon’s duty to give the young lord what he wants, but what Ciel wants seems to be a fluid thing, never fully coming into focus. Nevertheless, the demon tries to maintain his crosshairs on this moving target, to remake himself, reorganize the building blocks of Sebastian Michaelis in order to better mold himself to the shape of his master’s desires. The young master needs the edification of a Noble, and thus Sebastian becomes a tutor; he needs the skills and discipline of a hunter, and thus Sebastian becomes an expert marksman. He needs to be proficient in languages, proficient in music and the arts, and so Sebastian becomes a polyglot, Sebastian becomes a polymath

The young lord’s original goal of revenge seems to rise and fall in urgency, sometimes being replaced by simply making it through the day without falling to pieces or making it through the night without dissolving.

On this particular day, sometime between breakfast and his Latin lessons, the young lord has wandered off to the stables to once again stick his hands into the fire just to watch his skin crack and singe. In the tiny span of time that it took for the boy to attempt to mount the horse, for him to try to pull his tiny body atop, and for the mare to buck him off, Sebastian has placed himself between the two, and grabbed the young master just as he is about to hit the ground. The result is only a skinned knee and a few cuts on his calves, rather than the broken bones and shattered insides that would have resulted had the demon not intervened yet again and placed himself, not for the first and very likely not for the last time, between the young master and his untimely fate.

When asked later what would possess the young master to be so reckless with his safety, he simply shrugs. “What does it matter? You’re the only one here who has anything to lose.”

The mare is shaking her head and neighing, angry and spooked, huffing in indignant bursts as she trots around the stable and a cloud of dust billows from her heavy, hoofed steps. Sebastian has his young master in his lap, his arms wrapped around him and the boy’s head tucked underneath his chin to keep him shielded, should the mare decide to charge, or rear or kick or launch some other offensive against her master. The boy is tensed up under his touch, but startled enough in this moment to accept it. He meekly buries his face against the base of his butler's neck. Sebastian eyes the exit, and briefly considers simply killing the mare in the interest of expediency, but thinks better of it in front the boy. The mare eventually calms down enough for Sebastian to crawl out the enclosure, with his difficult and unpredictable young master in tow.

Outside, Sebastian puts the boy down on the ground to check for injuries, and only then does he – and his young master – notice the deformity of cracked bones and torn tendons in Sebastian’s own arm. Ciel’s eyes widen as he follows the now jagged line of his butler’s limb, and notes the blood spreading on his shirt sleeve like wine from a shattered glass. The demon takes note of the injury, and tries to put the pieces back together, as Ciel winces at the cracking sound of bones sliding together. He then reaches for his young master to pick him up, but Ciel flinches and stumbles back away from him.

“Young master, please. I will need to carry you back. Your legs are injured.”

Ciel furrows his brow and chews on his lower lip, continues to stare at Sebastian’s still-mangled limb.

“Does it hurt?” He asks softly as he brings his fingers to his mouth and chews on a finely manicured nail, all the while contemplating the bent angle of Sebastian’s arm.

Sebastian looks at the arm again, and responds in a clipped, neutral tone. “The young master need not worry. Physical injuries will not prevent me from carrying my duties.”

Ciel tears his gaze away from the arm to meet his butler’s eyes. “That’s not what I asked.”

He continues to eye Sebastian with some mixture of incredulity and wariness. Sebastian sighs and softens his tone, feels that same pull on his seams somewhere deep inside, and thinks once again that he understands so little about his new master.

“No, my lord. It does not.” As if to emphasize, Sebastian makes one final, decisive pull on his injured arm to set it back in its socket and to straighten the bones, feeling the crunch of calcified tissue echoing through his human form like a muted cry against the walls of an abandoned cave, while Ciel watches with a blend of horrified disgust and awe.

He then bends down to pick up the boy and cradle him in his arms and carry him back to the manor. He feels his young master’s eyes on him as the boy continues to stare at the demon as if he could see inside his interior if he tried hard enough. The young lord opens his mouth once, twice, to say something, but eventually chooses to remain silent, and rests his head against the demon’s shoulder.

Chapter Text

“Do you know the most painful way to kill a man?”

The Master was sitting at the head of his large, opulent marble dinner table, addressing the demon who sat listening obediently at the other end. He asked this in the same tone as a learned professor would pose a question to educate a young pupil, as an entry to an almost pedagogical dialectic. A master and apprentice, learning the ways of forging slaughter and cruelty, of fashioning turmoil and calamity.

The demon shook his head, as was expected of him. His input was rarely necessary or desired in these exchanges, so he played the part of dutiful acolyte, allowing the Master to pontificate on the nature of slaughter.

“Some believe that burning is the most painful way,” he started, poking at the roasted lamb on his plate before stabbing it with a fork and tearing off a piece. “The flames initially cause an excruciating, agonizing pain, until enough of the top layer of skin is singed to burn off the most sensitive nerves. It is only then that a more dull but deep-set agony can take hold. One that cuts right to the bone.”

The demon listened to the Master and nodded, though his gaze had come to rest on a fly trailing unnoticed along the Master’s beard.

“That is, until the victim succumbs to the blood and fluid loss from whatever remains of his charred flesh.”

The fly walked close to the Master’s mouth, undeterred by the movement of it as he masticated his supper while continuing his sermon.

“Others have a preference for crucifixion,” the Master continued in the tone of an experienced connoisseur, as a sommelier would use to discuss different favoured vintages of wine. “There is a certain elegance to it, one must concede. The captor is bound to a crossbeam by nails driven through his wrists and ankles, and simply left to the elements; the merciless sun, the suffocating sandstorms, the scavenging vultures, or the simple mercy of townsfolk pelting rocks.” The Master paused and took another bite of the flesh of the butchered, roasted animal before him. Chewed it pensively before starting again. “The strength to hold oneself up eventually gives out, and the captor is left hanging from his arms, which are pulled out of their sockets from the shear weight of his dangling body. He eventually suffocates from the weight of his own form pushing down on his chest.”

The demon watched the fly twitch its wings, letting out an almost imperceptible buzz that he could, due to his inhumanly attuned hearing, perceive from across the vast expanse of the table.

“But death comes far too quickly in these methods.” The Master leaned against the table, balanced on his elbows placed on the surface, nearing the climax of his lecture. “This does not leave enough time for true suffering.”

He stared off into the distance, his meal and his dinner companion momentarily forgotten as he seemed to drift in and out of a reverie. “My own preference has always been for scaphism. It is the slowest, the most likely to draw out the torture. Letting decay and putrefaction set in, so that the prey would be forced to watch their own body rot and decompose. Would be driven mad by the pain and fear and horror, as he was slowly devoured by vermin, or succumbed to disease and gangrene.”

The fly moved over the Master’s cheek and the arch of the Master’s jaw, before moving on to the shell of his ear. The Master finally took note of the tiny stowaway on his skin and absently waved it away with a flick of his hand.

“The Persians really do know how to turn terror into an art.” He finished with a note of admiration.

The demon followed the fly’s path with his eyes as it flew out to land on the feast of lamb and figs and plums spread before his Master. He thought about the rot, the detritus, the filth and sewage that the insect had walked through and fed upon before its journey through the Master’s person and upon his meal.

“It may seem unnecessary, the extravagant effort. Why bother with the extra ornamental touches if the end result is the same? A dead body. A life snuffed out.” The Master finally leaned forward and looked directly into the demon’s eyes. “But one must consider the effect of the murder, both on the murdered and on those left behind, left living around the dead. If one wants to maximize the impact of death, galvanize its beauty, then one must coat it in misery, glaze it with terror.” The Master’s own eyes now were full of fire and intent. “They may forget the dead in time, but they will not forget the death; the sheer horror and depravity of it. Memories of the dead will fade from the mind in time, but the fear will remain forever engraved in the heart and soul.” The Master stopped, leaned back in his chair once again, and used the edge of a knife to pick an errant speck of meat from his teeth.

Thus endeth the lesson.

The Master then laid out the next phase of the plan of scorching the earth of the occupied land. Burning villages. Poisoning wells. Destroying crops. Anything to starve out or decimate. To murder any resistance, any uprising, as artfully as one would murder a captor. He discussed it all with a tone of dreaminess and ardor. The demon watched as the Master continued to run his brush over the canvas, continued to chisel at the unformed marble slab. He licked his lips and looked down at his left hand, resting on his lap. Traced the outline of their shared emblem carved into the back of it. Felt the thrum of it against the pads of his fingertips. Turned it over to look at the lines and creases on his palm. Curled his fingers to stare at the black tips of his fingers.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes, my lord. If you wish it, so it will be done.”

The Master finally stopped his rhapsodizing. He leaned back in his seat, rested his elbow on the armrest, and regarded the demon. The demon looked up, alerted to the shift in the atmosphere by the Master’s silence. He stared back at his lord with a placid, impassive expression. Watched the gleam come over the Master’s eyes as his gaze trailed over the demon’s human form. He knew what was coming.

“It is late,” the Master said as he let out an exhausted sigh. “It is time for me to retire for the night.” He made no move to stand. He ran a hand over his chin and jaw, and stroked his beard as he continued to stare at the demon.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Very well. You know what to do.” He said, his voice now thick and husky, as he let his eyes wander over to the corner of the room to rest them upon the flames of a torch, flickering away in the corner, casting dancing shadows upon the marble-white walls of the hall.

The demon lowered his head, and allowed his human form to shorten in stature, to remold itself in the shape of his master’s desires. His limbs took on a slender, coltish shape, and his face became unblemished, round and rose-blushed, like the angels and cherubs in the mosaics adorning the Master’s walls. When the Master looked back at him, his human form had been transformed into that of a young boy, small and delicate, with a round, doll-like face. A lustful haze came over the Master’s eyes, as he licked his lips, swallowed a thick mouthful of saliva, and let his gaze wander over his servant’s new form.

He stood up without another word and made his way to his bedchamber, with the demon following close behind, his head down and his small feet padding along the marble floor, adopting a look of dread and fearful resignation as per his Master’s preference.

**

Nothing stirred at that hour of the night. Everything lay motionless, static, like time itself.

The demon, still in the child’s form, lay on the edge of the bed, and stared at the ceiling. He had lain there like this for hours. Still and unmoving. Just staring. Feeling the air move around him, feeling the Earth turn back toward the sun, feeling every living thing inch one day closer to death.

There was a crack in the mud-and-stone rooftop where water had seeped through from the recent rainstorm – an unusual and blessed occurrence in these desert parts. He listened as the droplets fell down in slow staccato beats, the sound of their impact with the floor amplified in the silence of the near-dawn hour.

He traced the bruises on his hips and touched at the rivulets of dried blood that marked a trail down his inner thigh. He considered working to mend the wounds and bruises and tears on the child’s-body he’d adopted, but thought it more expedient to simply shift back to his adult human form. Now that his Master’s needs had been sated, the child’s-body was no longer necessary, and could be disposed of.

He continued to run his fingers over the multiple bruises covering his torso, and pressed down experimentally on those along his throat to feel the sting of sensation. He did not feel pain – not the way that humans did. He wondered if his Master knew that, though the demon had never divulged that information. He assumed that the Master did not care one way or the other, which is why he had never inquired. The demon could perceive pain as a noxious stimulus through the prism of his human form, something to alert him to a possible assault on his physical integrity, the way that it was designed to function in humans. He could pantomime pain, either as a part of the theatre of his human role or for the pleasure of his master – his current master was not the first to enjoy inflicting pain on the demon.

But he did not feel pain.

When his body was injured, he simply observed it, appraised the extent of injury, and mended it with the same detached expediency as one would a hole in a dress shirt.

He finally sat up upon hearing the crowing of the roosters, signalling morning’s arrival. He needed to make preparations for the Master’s breakfast. He walked over to the window to watch the world outside lurch toward another day.

He stared at the Eastern skies as the sun rose slowly over the horizon, bleeding orange and magenta over the hills and mountains. He stood there, watching, listening, waiting, existing, as seconds turned into minutes turned into hours, as day dissolved into night and night dissolved into day, again and again and again, and he counted each grain of sand falling through the hourglass of his mind, like the grains of sand in the endless shoreline of the ocean of time. 

*****

*****

*****

Angelina stares at him and tries to see, tries to understand. She tries to look beyond the well-constructed walls, the fortress of rancour that has kept her beloved sister’s only son walled in.

He looks the same – thinner, certainly. Older, somehow. But still the same porcelain-fair cheeks. The same pretty, angelic face, marred only by the satin eyepatch, covering that injury that he will not allow her to see. He has Vincent’s strong cheekbones, lying buried beneath a blanket of baby fat; his midnight-blue hair and snowdrift-white skin; and his determined jaw. She can see the acorn that will grow into the oak, in the spitting image of his father.

But he has his mother’s eyes.

She still can’t look at him without seeing her - without feeling a pang in her heart. Like a shard of glass to a wound is still too fresh, making it bleed and ooze. She sees him and she sees the hole in the world left by Rachel’s death, by Vincent’s death.

And that pang, that grief is reflected back in the young boy’s face. He looks the same, but something in him has changed. Likely, they have both changed. It’s inevitable, she supposes. After such a loss. After what he has been through, all the things that he will not allow her to know. It’s inevitable that the boy no longer smiles, or plays, or allows her to wrap her arms around him like she used to; or seems to care about anything other than revenge. Revenge on whom? On what? Revenge on his enemies, his legacy, the hand he was dealt, the whole blighted universe? It is never clear.

It is almost a blessing that the passage of time wears down one’s responses to tragedy, desensitizes and deadens them to such anguish, from the simple fact of repeated exposure. That time erodes away at the jagged edges of the mountains thrust up from tragedy’s collision, that it dusts over the craters left behind by its impact.

Time is said to heal all wounds. Perhaps the best one can hope for is for time to allow them to scab over.

“You’re eating well, yes?”

“Yes, aunt An.”

“Not too many sweets?”

“No, aunt An.”

“You’re taking care of yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

She sighs.

They are standing in the cavernous foyer of Phantomhive Manor as she is readying to leave and travel back to London. She has the strange sense of being an imposition, as if Ciel would prefer to inoculate himself against anything that might remind him of his previous life, of who he used to be. She tries to visit, makes the effort to come to the country manor from the city. It is hard, sometimes. She will admit it when she is being honest with herself. Hard to come here. Hard to see the manor empty without her sister, without Vincent. It seems dark and melancholy now, without Rachel’s warmth and effervescent presence. Like an empty husk, encased in pain and loss.

But Ciel is her family.

It is her duty as his aunt.

And he is all that she has left. Loneliness invades like a cancer, pernicious and consuming. No one is immune.

“You will not reconsider?” she asks. She has lost count how many times they have had this same conversation. It is a scripted dialogue, and both interlocuters dutifully go through the motions each time.

“Reconsider what?” he volleys back, pretending not to know what she means.

“Ciel…” she sighs again.

She had asked him multiple times to come and stay with her in London. It cannot be healthy for a child to be fortressed in an enormous mansion, shackled to painful memories, haunted by the ghosts of his former life wandering along barren walls and through empty hallways, past lonely ballrooms and dusty banquet halls. Her eyes dart over to Sebastian and catch him studying her with unconcealed curiosity. He turns his gaze away immediately upon catching hers, and casts his eyes down respectfully to scrutinize the black-and-white chess board marble floor. 

“I am – fine.” Ciel says, looking at her through a curtain of too-long locks draped over his uncovered eye.

She comes close, threads her fingers in his hair, pushing it out of his face so that she can see, and cups his head to pull him closer to her. He flinches at the touch, tenses up, but allows it.

“You are stubborn like your father.”

He looks away and fixes on a Grecian statue to the side of the main entrance door, a gift from the Queen to her loyal guard dog. She cups his chin in her hand and tilts his head up to bring his gaze back to her. She runs a thumb over the line of his jaw. “Just like your father,” she repeats wistfully, as her eyes begin to shine with unshed tears.

*

Ciel continues to stare at the road leading out of the manor and away from the Estate, long after Angelina’s carriage has been swallowed up by the orange and lavender of the fading afternoon sun, the shrinking dot of it melting into the line of the dusky horizon. Eventually Ciel tires of this, and turns back to throw a glance at his butler standing steady at the bottom of the winding staircase.

“Would the young master like his evening tea?”

Ciel responds with a baleful look. He sighs, not deigning to answer the offer, and turns to leave back to lock himself away in the study for the remainder of the evening. Sebastian watches the young lord’s tiny figure disappear down the hallway, knowing that later that night, he will be called to his master’s bedroom to rescue the child from the nightmares and the darkness and the monsters and the snatching claws of his depthless, engulfing loneliness.

*****

The rat-a-tat of rain against the floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows of the dining hall is a welcome respite from the catacomb-like quiet of the manor. Ciel decides this as he watches the water flow like tears down the windowpanes, further bending the sun’s rays so that they create dimly-lit kaleidoscopic whorls floating against the painted walls like Northern Lights, or like the swirls within his Earl Grey when he stirs in a third spoonful of sugar.

It is always quiet in the manor at supper time.

It is quiet in the manor at all times, it seems, but possibly more so at supper time. Perhaps that is because, sitting at the Phantomhives’ expansive mahogany dining table each night, surrounded by a feast of dishes laughably extravagant when considering the tiny lone diner siting at the head of the table - where Vincent used to sit- there is little else in the way of background din to compete with the soft clink of silverwear against china, or the subtle thud of a goblet being deposited on the varnished table surface, other than an occasional rustle of branches against the window pane, or the call from a nightingale singing its sombre evening song.

Now that the days are shorter and the sunlight is sparse and dwindling at suppertime, the room is dipped in hues of red and orange, with the remnants of daylight casting shadows against the wall in the shapes of the statues and columns that line the boundaries of the dining hall. The shadows get longer each evening, as the days get shorter, and Ciel wonders if he can chart the passage of time through the increasing length of the shadows on the walls.

Ciel sits at his velvet-upholstered chair and pokes away at his meal of braised beef and sautéed potatoes, building the chunks of meat and side dish into towers at each side of his plate, building them up and then tearing them down, destroying and creating. He finally tires of the game and leans back against the cushions of the seatback and sighs.

“Is the meal not to your liking, young master?” says the presence hovering behind him, just outside the periphery of his vision.

It is. It is made exactly the way Ciel likes it, even with the added extra serving of sweet cream butter that Tanaka used to sneak into Ciel’s portion unbeknownst to Vincent and Rachel. The creature’s attention to detail, his way of coiling himself around every one of Ciel’s banal desires and mundane preferences, is uncanny.

Ciel continues to poke uninterestedly at the discarded wreckage that was his supper.

“It’s … distracting to have you hovering there,” he huffs, staring ahead, mostly addressing the ornate floral centrepiece placed on the table in front of him, filled with his favoured white roses.

“I apologize young master. I can take my leave if you prefer.”

“No. It’s fine” Ciel brings his forefinger to his mouth to chew on a nail and thinks. He puts his elbow on the table and rests his face against his palm, in a way that he knows Vincent would have chided him for. Chews on his lower lip as he tries to latch onto the question currently rattling around his mind.

“Sebastian, do you eat?” is what he finally asks instead. He turns his head over his shoulder to look at his butler, and catches his gaze as Sebastian arches a brow.

Ciel turns back around and leans back in the chair, slightly flustered, and rolls his eyes at himself as he goes back to poking at his meal. “I mean, do you eat human food.”

“No young master, I do not require food for sustenance,” comes the reply from the disembodied voice behind him.

“Do you eat for pleasure?” Ciel asks, turning his head slightly to address his butler over his shoulder without looking at him.

“No. I do not take pleasure from eating.”

Ciel purses his lips and runs his fingertips absently over the lip of the crystal goblet. He remembers doing that with Lizzie, hiding under the table away from the adults during any of the Phantomhives’ endless series of balls and banquets back when the manor used to pulse with life, running their wetted fingertips in circles around the edge of the wineglasses to make them sing.

“Splendid,” he mutters under his breath, mostly to himself, “I guess the three-layer chocolate cake is under no threat of being pilfered, then.”

“My lord?”

“It’s fine Sebastian,” Ciel says with a back-and-forth wave of two fingers in a motion of dismissal, “You may go. I think I can manage the task of eating supper without your assistance.”

He hears the crick of the French doors closing before turning around to stare at the vacated space where his butler had been standing just seconds ago. He turns back around, leans a snow-white cheek against his palm, and stares at the empty spaces all along the length of the dining table. He plays with the golden lattice trim of the tablecloth and tries to discern a pattern, or a melody, in the stuttering sounds of raindrops against glass.

*****

Today is not a good day for the young master, the demon concludes. The young lord has good days and bad days, and this day is rapidly revealing itself to be one of the latter.

His young master’s patience, already a fragile and capricious thing on the best of days, is rapidly coming loose in his hands, its edges becoming more and more frayed as the day wears on, as if the sun itself is pulling at its threads as it makes its daily trek across the unblemished sky and towards the Western horizon.

The child continues to be difficult, continues to be an enigma, a pendulum swinging wildly from a self-possession and discipline far beyond his years to the volatility and confusion of an abused and traumatized child, left to fend for himself inside the maelstrom of a cruel and uncaring world with nothing but a dark and fathomless tempest trailing behind him, its winds blowing against his sails in fitful, erratic bursts.

His young master – now the young Earl - does not like defeat, doesn’t like the sense of powerlessness of it, the feeling that something has trounced over you, and left you weakened and grasping behind in its dust. And this particular game feels like one defeat after another.  

The young Earl of Phantomhive grabs the hot steel barrel of the hunting rifle, rests the butt of it against his thin, bony shoulder and aims for the pheasant dipping its beak into the nearby stream, drinking in serene obliviousness, blissfully unaware of the crosshairs within which it finds itself. Ciel’s stiff and aching legs are gripped around the torso of the chestnut-brown Thoroughbred mare, the skin of his inner thighs chafing against the leather of the stirrups in the still-hot late afternoon sun. Sebastian holds on loosely to the mare’s bridle with one hand and looks on, the other hand hovering behind the young lord’s back, perched at the ready while awaiting the inevitable.

The shot fires, the recoil of it sending the young Earl tipping back so that Sebastian has to grab him before he falls to the ground. The bullet has made an upward trajectory within the leaves of a nearby maple tree, an embarrassingly wide berth away from its intended target. The pheasant looks up at the commotion in the distance, staring with mild interest at the young Earl and his butler, before tilting its head down to resume lapping water into its bill. Sebastian attempts to assist the young lord in straightening himself back on the saddle, but Ciel slaps his hand away.

“No! Enough of this!”

“Young master, you must try again. Your riding posture is unacceptable, and you still cannot seem to manage the basic mechanics of keeping a target within your sight.”

Ciel twists his feet out of the stirrups, and swings his legs over the saddle to gracelessly climb off the horse, nearly stumbling to the ground once again in the process were it not for Sebastian’s stabilizing hands.

“I don’t care – we’re done for the day.” He grits out as he finally steadies himself on the grassy, mud-covered field. “I want to go home. That’s an order.”

He pushes past Sebastian, and grabs the strings of his eyepatch to tear it off his face and throw it into a nearby puddle. He trots a few steps ahead before the soles of his riding boots catch on too much mud and he staggers nearly to the ground. Both Sebastian and the young Earl’s Thoroughbred watch this scene unfold with similarly unmoved, unperturbed expressions.

The boy stands stationary for a moment a few paces away, before simply plopping on the ground, sitting with his back to Sebastian. He starts to run his fingers over the scrapes and bruises along his calves and thighs, from the multiple knocks against the saddle amassed throughout the day, feeling their sting through the fabric of his riding breeches, along with the whole-body soreness and strain of being jostled for hours atop his hunting horse.

Everything hurts.

He absently grasps a fistful of grass in the other hand to tear the blades from their root and fling them forth in frustration. Sebastian watches as his young charge falls sway once again to the whims of his own mercurial temperament, placing them in the same holding pattern within which they have been trapped for months. He feels a twinge of something inside. Wants to stoke the smoldering embers to see if he can coax a fire.

“Giving up so soon?” He jabs, injecting only the slightest bit of venom into his usually neutral tone. “After the darkness and pain and trauma that you have already experienced, I would have thought a simple hunting lesson would pose little challenge. Clearly, I was mistaken.”

The young Earl tenses and chews on the inside of his cheeks. “Don’t bait me, Sebastian.” He says through a clenched jaw as he rolls and massages his shoulders to work through the accumulated ache of repeated absorbed recoils from a day of shooting at the sun and the trees and the empty space between. “I don’t wish to be goaded and I don’t want to be manipulated.” He takes another fistful of grass and tosses it angrily to the wind.

“Fine, then,” Sebastian presses, digging his nails against the festering wound and squeezing to see what purulence he can extrude, “while we’re on the topic of your wants and wishes, perhaps you could clarify. What is it that you want, young master?”

“I just told you -”

“No,” Sebastian says as he marches close with heavy steps to stand behind Ciel. “What do you want out of all of this? This contract, your earldom – what exactly is it that you hope to achieve?” Something is thrashing inside him, but he keeps his tone even and controlled; solid and smooth, like the layer of ice covering a river, shielding the view from the roiling waves beneath.

Ciel whips his head around to glower at Sebastian over his shoulder. But his breath catches in his throat when he sees the butler looming over him tall and imposing like a mountain, blocking out the sun and casting him into the shadows. He is staring back at the boy, eyes flashing violet and volcanic with something previously unseen, previously lain dormant. Ciel recognizes not for the first time how startling and formidable the demon’s presence can be.

Lives snuffed out, bodies scattered mutilated and bleeding on a white marble floor. A manor fashioned out of ash and dust. Sometimes he forgets – it’s easy, when the demon blends so seamlessly into the mask he wears, into the role of his loyal, dutiful butler.

Terrifyingly beautiful. Powerful and immense.

Opaque and unknowable. Ciel forces himself to hold Sebastian’s gaze.

“Why do you care?” he says in a strangled voice, “Why do you care if I know how to shoot a rifle or if I can ride a horse or conjugate in Latin, or play the bloody violin? Why does any of it matter to you?” His own eyes are flashing, glaring with suspicion at the demon, his voice full of turmoil and confusion. “All you have to do to get what you want is find and destroy my enemies – why do you care about anything else?”

Sebastian is struck silent for a moment. Unable to fully articulate his reasoning, unsure of his own motivations, surprised that he seems to have motivations or volitions beyond expediency. He stares at his master, as his master stares back at him with eyes stricken and searching. The evening wind blows the scatter of dead, browned grass off the ground so that they swell upwards in undulating waves, like the swirling eddies at the edge of a stream. He can hear the distant mournful cries from a flock of migrating geese flying overhead in V formation, traveling away from home and toward the line where the distant mountains reach up to meet the sky.  

“Young master, I want what you want. This is the nature of our covenant,” he says after a moment, trying to reason through it – as much for himself as for the boy. “You summoned me to rescue you from those monsters that bound you and chained you and tortured and humiliated you. You also summoned me to obtain your revenge, to see to it that all your opponents tumble to the ground like chess pieces and you emerge victorious at the end, to ensure that you ascend to the summit of the bodies of enemies slain by your hand.” Ciel looks on, stunned as much by the spectacle of Sebastian reacting, as by the butler’s words. “Is it not therefore essential that you reach victory in every sense of the word? That you rise up to your status, that you become the true Lord of the Phantomhive Estate, that you never again are in a position to feel fear, to feel weakness, to feel the sting of defeat?”

The young Earl watches him transfixed. Remains uncharacteristically silent, his hand absently flexing and extending around a fistful of dirt on the ground.

“Humans respond to force,” Sebastian continues after a beat. “They cower in the face of strength. The weaker will always bend to the will of those more powerful.” His eyes continue to flash, becoming more alight as the sun fades beneath the horizon. “If you want power, you have to command it. If you want to inspire fear, you have to wrench it, you have to create it.”

“I want what you want, young master,” he finishes in a gentler tone. “So, what is it that you want?”

Ciel blinks, his breath momentarily stolen and speech stunned out of his lips. He feels the thrum of the contract seal carved into his eye by the demon, pulsing to the beat of his own heart. It still aches sometimes, like the ache of the brand burned into his chest. Not acutely – more like a faraway echo, the memory of an ache.

He looks onto the distance, the setting sun shedding its luminescent skin as another day disappears, vanishes from existence. He watches the trees shudder as the winds blow past. Looks at the green leaves on the branches, and the yellowed and withered ones that lay on the ground, like a visual analogue of the passage of time, the eternal circle of life and death, perpetuated like a mobius strip, like the earth turning on its axis, with no beginning and no end.

Sebastian studies his little lord for a response. Runs his eyes over the boy’s clothes, now dirt-smudged and grass-stained from the multiple stumbles to the ground, the wounds on his legs, new and still-bleeding through the fabric, lying side by side with those previous ones, the not-yet-healed ones, the will-never-heal ones. He feels that same tightness in his chest- the one that so captivates and enthralls him. And he finds that he cares. That it moves him. And much as before, he does not fight against this realization, does not try to deny it, does not question its existence juxtaposed against his demon nature. He finds its newness fascinating. Likes to observe it with clinical detached curiosity – like pulling a splinter or a shard of glass from the bottom of one’s foot. That little thing? Trying to line up the finitude of the thing with the magnitude of the disruption left in its wake. Trying to piece together the puzzle of why, of how this tiny, fragile, impermanent thing tears at him so, pulls at his insides so that they move and shift and transform.

His face softens and he sighs. The fire begins to dim.

“Shall we stop for the day? I will do as you order.”

Ciel then looks back at the demon, his gaze now steely and resolute. “No. You’re right,” he asserts simply. “Let us keep going.” He stands up, and walks past Sebastian and back toward the mare. The sun has now disappeared underneath the mountain line in the distance, its last remaining rays creating a belt of fading blue and orange next to the violet-tinted blackness of the star-speckled night sky.

The tightness in Sebastian’s chest expands, feels like it would spill over, like it might overtake.

“Very well. As you wish.”

Ciel sighs as he stands next to the horse. He grabs the back of the saddle, and places a foot in the stirrups.

“I must say, Sebastian, I do appreciate your complete absence of sentimentality.” Ciel says with a small sardonic smile as he hoists himself up on the mare. “Are all demons gifted with your hard-bitten work ethic?”

“You could say it is something of an aesthetic.” Sebastian replies as he grabs the beast’s bridle and begins to guide them back to the main trail.

*****

Ciel inhales a sharp breath and awakens, his legs kicking in one, two spastic jerks. He blinks away the nightmare and looks around the darkened room to position himself. Feels the soft cotton fabric of the bed as proof that, no, he is in fact not still in the cage, and that there is in fact no fire-hot branding iron advancing toward his torso. There is in fact no desperate, high-pitched cries of children being tortured and slaughtered. There is in fact no smell of singed flesh chocking the atmosphere in the deathly, sinister silence that follows.

While the nightmares have not decreased in frequency, the young master no longer wakes up screaming and crying. Only with a start, covered in a sheen of sweat, his sheets tangled in a carnage of Egyptian cotton around his limbs while he orients himself to his time and place.

He spends so many of his dormant hours trapped in the cage - and so many waking hours with his mind to some degree there still – that he wonders if, were he to do the calculus of the hours and days, he might discover that he never left at all.

But.

His soul is no longer his.

So he must have escaped.

He looks over to the murky shadows in the corner of the room and feels that invariable presence.

On some nights, Ciel will ask Sebastian to remain in the room, watching over him until he falls asleep. On other nights, Sebastian knows to stand in the corner, and to stay even after the Earl has fallen into a fitful, disturbed slumber, regardless of being explicitly asked. He knows that the end-result, Ciel calling his name as he tries to claw his way out of the quicksand of his nightmares, will be the same, regardless of orders explicit or implicit. The acuity of these have dulled since the first few months, and the young master is no longer in the same state of hysterical panic. But, the demon senses, the fundamental sense of terror of these nightmares remain as sharp as ever. The master’s outer carapace has simply hardened enough to sustain their cuts without slashing open flesh.

“Sebastian” Ciel’s voice is still wavering and sleep-steeped.

“Yes, young master. I am here.”

That reassuring presence. Ciel is loath to acknowledge the wave of relief that washes over him every time he claws his way back to wakefulness and hears his butler’s smooth, serene, familiar voice.

“Did you have a nightmare?” Sebastian asks, as if though he does not know the answer. As if he cannot sense the residue of the dream, the lingering smoke of it as it clings to his master like the stench of a rotting corpse.

“How did you…” Ciel starts, but then thinks better of it. “Nevermind.”

He sits up and props himself on his elbows. Looks toward the sound of his butler’s voice, and tries to force his eyes to adjust to the dark. The curtains of his floor-to-ceiling Tudor windows are pulled back to allow in the pale glow of the moon, and he can make out the barren, denuded trees along the horizon, their silhouettes carved against the black, starless, cloud-blanketed sky like skeletons, bony limbs reaching up to the dark emptiness of the night. The curve of his butler’s face finally comes into view, and he watches the silver glow reflect off his unblemished ivory skin, the slope of his cheekbone, and catch on the placid rust-brown eyes giving them an unearthly carmine glow. Sebastian stares back at his master, a neutral, expectant expression on his moonlit face, half of it still hidden by the shadows.

Ciel finally feels the awkwardness of the silence, and tries to wrap his mind around an undefined frustration, its edges blurred and its substance distorted by the night and his sleep-muddled mind.

“You are always…there.” He ventures, not unkindly but not with gratitude either. “I think it, and you materialize.” He searches his butler’s face, trying to see any subtle variations in his expression, any subtle cracks in the smooth, perfect marble of his exterior. “It’s unsettling.” Seeing no change, he drops his gaze and rolls away to lie on his stomach, his head turned facing the wall away from his butler.

The demon feels that pang, that stirring in his chest. He is still not used to it, and its newness captivates him. Each time it occurs, he wants to cover it with his hands, like shielding a flickering flame under threat of being snuffed out by the winds.

“Shall I take my leave, young master?”

“No. Stay,” comes the reply, soft and muffled by pillow into which the young lord’s face is buried.

Sebastian tries to grasp for the unnamed desire currently floating untethered in the space between them, like reaching out to capture a firefly, to hold it in his hands. He approaches from the window, slow and hushed as fog, and sits down on the edge of the bed. Ciel can feel the dip in the mattress. He grips the edge of the duvet covering his delicate, bony shoulders, but otherwise does not react, does not protest. The room is suddenly deathly, oppressively quiet, and the demon can hear the branches outside the window rustle against the glass with the gentle motion of the wind, and he can hear the slow, deliberate movement of air in and out of his master’s lungs.

He slowly inches closer to his master, leans over and lays a palm between the boy’s slender scapulae, and starts to rub circles around his back. The young master tenses, and presses his teeth together in an attempt to brace against the feared but so desired sensation of touch. He eventually seems to relax, seems to melt under the influence of the soothing, hypnotizing figure-eights traced on his back by his demon’s palm. He lets his eyes fall closed and tries to remember something.

“Do you like this?” Sebastian whispers after some time.

“Mmm…” Ciel moves his head against his pillow, rubs his face into the fabric. “It’s nice.” His eyes open and he stares ahead, facing away from Sebastian, looking at the skeletal moonlit shadows of the branches on the wall beside his bed. “My mother used to do it like that. When I’d have nightmares.” Sebastian continues to rub circles as Ciel thinks, and the room is once again immersed in silence, except for the quiet whisper of silk against cotton as Sebastian’s gloved hand traces constellations over his master’s nightshirt.

“How did you know?” Ciel says finally, breaking the silence.

“Know what, young master?”

“How did you know that that was what I wanted?”

“Young master, I am your butler. It is my duty to anticipate all of my master’s wishes.”

Ciel turns his head over on his pillow and cranes his head slightly to stare up at the demon. Feels a catch in his throat at the sight of the twin auburn eyes studying him with intent. “Can you… read my thoughts?”

“No, young master. I cannot read your thoughts. But I can sense your desires.”

Ciel thinks about this for a moment, and searches the demon’s face, while a battle of conflicting impulses and volatile desires churns beneath the surface. Eventually, he steels himself and comes to a decision. The night is quiet and dark and endless and lonely, and so he allows for a stalemate.

“Come here.”

Sebastian shifts closer and leans forward in the bed.

“No, come into the bed.” Ciel continues to hold the demon’s gaze as he says this, despite all impulses to look away, and tries to supress the flush threatening to spread to his cheeks.

Into the bed, sir?”

“Yes, into the bed.” Ciel sighs, releasing a tightly held breath, and finally turns away from the demon, as he shifts over to make room for his butler.

Sebastian does as he is told, removing his tailcoat and shoes before lying down on his back beside his master. He stares at the ceiling and lets his eyes wander over the unfurling floral pattern etched into its plastered surface, carved there by his own hands, and awaits his next order.

The boy turns on his side, cradles his head on the bent of his elbow and stares at Sebastian. They both listen to the sparse sounds of the night bird outside, and try to name the blur of emotions swimming inside their chests. Ciel realizes that he has never had the chance to study the demon so closely, never had him there in such proximity - at least, not since the first few months when he was far too immersed in terror and paranoia to take note of anything other than his own profound need to be held, his need to clasp his arms against any standing structure, so as not be pulled back by the riptides of his own despair.

The moonlight accentuates the unearthliness of the demon’s beauty. His black hair is blacker in the moonlight, his pale skin fairer.

Ciel wonders what it feels like. If it feels real – like a human’s or like the inhumanly smooth surface of a marble statue.

After some time, he finally reaches out a tentative hand and trails the pads of his fingertips against the curve of Sebastian’s cheek. Sebastian swallows and his eyes twitch almost imperceptibly, but he continues to stare at the ceiling. His skin feels smooth under Ciel’ touch, silk-soft and satiny. Almost too smooth, but still - real. Ciel continues to run the tip of a forefinger over the slope of Sebastian’s cheekbone, around his forehead and over the bridge of his nose. Sebastian remains perfectly still, breath held in his chest. He doesn’t react, not until Ciel ghosts his fingers over his coal-black lashes, at which point he twitches his eyelids and blinks as if in reflex, and lets out the lungful of air. Ciel, moved and emboldened by this subtle touch of humanity, ventures forth.

“This form – this human form – this is not your true form, yes?” He says softly, breaking what feels like an eternity of silence.

“That is correct, young master.”

“Why did you choose this form?” Ciel’s slender, curious fingers make their way back onto Sebastian’s skin, trail over the angle of his jaw, and follow the line of it down to his chin. Almost as if in reflex, without being fully aware of it, Sebastian starts to lean in to the touch. He lets his eyes fall closed, thinking that it would make it easier for his master to continue his explorations without feeling observed in return.

“My physical form conforms to my master’s wishes. I take whatever form my master desires, much like I take whatever name my master desires, and perform whatever actions my master desires.”

Ciel thinks about this for a moment as he begins to run his hand through the silky strands of raven hair, feeling the softness as he lets them glide between the webspaces of his fingers, watches his butler’s eyelids flutter in response to his touch.

“But I never dictated your physical form the way that I did your name.”

“I knew this form would appeal to you because I knew the physical traits and attributes that you admired and found pleasing.” Sebastian’s eyes are still closed. He looks as though he is falling asleep, thought his tone remains clear and even. The boy’s hand drifts down from Sebastian’ hair down to his neck. Sebastian turns his body slightly toward his young master, to allow the boy better access. Ciel curls his fingers to press his knuckles against the angle of Sebastian’s neck, feels its warmth – like his own – emanating from the blood pumping through his veins. He uncurls his fingers to feel over the cords of tendons sheathed in creamy, pale skin, swelling subtly as the demon swallows and breathes.

“You look a bit like my father.” He moves his fingers over the bob of Sebastian’s Adam’s apple and over to the tiny thrum of his carotid on the other side. He shifts his body closer, so that his knees are touching his butler’s thigh, and his chest is resting against his bicep. “Was that intentional – so that I would trust you?” The beat is there, steady and rhythmic, and drumming fast like his own pulse. It’s all so warm and nice and soft. Ciel shifts his body closer. They are close enough that Ciel can feel the warmth from Sebastian’s body, can see clearly the rise and fall of the demon’s chest. It’s intoxicating, the proximity to something so timeless and unfathomable.

“I knew that this physical appearance would -” he starts. But then, “Yes, to some degree,” he says simply, as he reflexively turns his head towards his master, eyes still closed, and leans further into the boy’s touch. His brow comes to rest lightly against Ciel’s, and Sebastian takes in for what feels like the first time the sensation of skin against skin. He can feel a warmth spreading out through his body, unfolding its wings radially from where his master’s skin touches his skin, nestling itself within a vacancy somewhere deep inside. And for not the first time, an ache blooms in his chest like that tiny flickering ember, finally being fanned into a flame, nursed along with the demon’s own desperate, heated breath. He takes a deep lungful of air to breathe through the strange, new sensation, and thinks about the simple pleasure of contact, searches his memory for any other instances where he has been touched by someone toward whom he felt any kind of affinity.

Ciel’s fingers trail down the column of Sebastian’s neck, and hook lightly against the collar of his dress shirt. Ciel can feel strands of the demon’s silk-soft hair, draped over both their faces, tickle his own cheeks as the demon leans closer. He takes an inhale of the smell of vanilla and laundry soap that lingers on his butler’s clothes and skin. He rubs the starched collar with his thumb, his fingers hovering over the edge of whatever lays beneath.

“What is your true form? What do you look like under this?” He wants to see past the fantasy and look upon the ugly, unvarnished truth. He wants to lift up the sewer grate and see the waste rubbish and filth and underneath.

The demon sighs, eyes still closed, tip of his nose now touching the young master’s cheek. “It is difficult to explain. Difficult to describe.” Ciel feels the warm dampness of the demon’s exhaled breath against his own lips as he speaks. “There is nothing in the human world that compares to it.”

“Can I see it - Your true form?”

“No, young master. It is ugly.” He says simply, his voice muffled by whispering so close against his master’s skin. The young Earl’s hand eventually comes to rest on the demon’s chest. Ciel thinks he can feel the pulsation of a beating heart, the ghost of it echoing through its cage of flesh and bone. 

“You will not permit me?” he says, unaccustomed to having his desires be challenged. “What if I were to command it?”

Sebastian finally opens his eyes, looks down to lock on his master’s, fierce and penetrating. Ciel blinks, startled out of his daze by the intensity of it. “My lord, please. I am your butler. It is not acceptable to damage my master’s impression of me. Please do not ask this of me.”

It is not the answer he was expecting. It felt like a tiny miracle. Something that belonged to the demon himself.

“How can I know the truth of who you are then? What you are?”

I just want to know how much of you is real. If there is anything, any truth beneath the layers of hunger and darkness and your masters’ projected desires. I don’t care if it’s ugly.

“I am Sebastian Michaelis, and I belong to you, my lord. This is the truth of who I am.”

Chapter Text

Weeks turn into months as the Earth is warped around an indifferent sun. The foliage in the English countryside becomes orange and brown and the landscape increasingly forlorn as all trees and shrubbery become denuded, and all fauna abandons the Estate to migrate toward the warmer South; and the land steadily succumbs to the slow cachexia of an approaching frost. The amber, sepia-toned Autumn eventually withers and dies, keeling over in the twilight of its forward stagger, and a cold, endless Winter lumbers out of its husk, as ashen-grey and bleak as a spectre.

While everything around it dies or drifts away, Phantomhive Manor continues to stand stock still in the centre of the desolate grey Winterland, like the jutting hull of a sailboat washed up and lying abandoned between the sand dunes and weather-beaten mudflats of a deserted shoreline. Inside the manor remains the tiny young lord and his black-clad first knight, presiding over his Estate like the last surviving generals surveying the barren, war-ravaged ruins of a fallen empire.

The young Earl of Phantomhive’s short, blood-splattered life had exposed him to the absolute worst and most depraved in humanity, left him with painful scars both visible and psychic as a reminder. The less obvious shades of evil on the other hand, the vast gradation of grey that lay between Black and White, Light and Dark, remained for the most part intangible to the young lord. But, as the boy molds himself further into the role of the Earl of Phantomhive Estate, and attempts to step into the bloodied footprints left behind by his father, he becomes increasingly aware that human darkness cannot be easily identified by the presence of a black-hooded robe, nor by the wielding of a silver-bladed dagger or a fire-hot branding iron, or by the spreading of a lustful rictus smirk beneath a gale of butterfly masks.

 Who are the villains? It is difficult to chart sometimes, the vast abundance of grime and wickedness hidden beneath the thin, fragile gossamer of morality that blankets the world. Lies are simple, but the truth is always complicated. All manner of filth lay beneath the deceptively innocuous surface of everyday interactions, like the sewage that flows through the pipes and aqueducts running below London’s smooth, polished cobblestone streets. The young lord is slowly discovering this as he steps into his father’s role as the head of Funtom Corp.

It seems like an impossible thing, ludicrous, for him to step into his father’s place; to ask a mere child, a boy, to enter the world of men. Absurd that such a weight should fall upon such delicate, breakable child’s-shoulders without shattering them. Absurd in some ways, though admittedly no more so than throwing a child into the snake pit of pain and torture that the young Earl is still clawing his way out of, and expecting that child to remain as such thereafter.

And so Ciel faces this new tempest with the same curious mix of stoic resignation and wilful, unwavering resolve that he does everything else. Because the alternative, of simply letting himself sink, letting the waters close over his head, is no more tenable to the young Earl now than it was within the confines of the steel cage looking through its bars at a sea of enemies with sharpened fangs and snapping maws.

Ciel would spend nights in his father’s study, looking pitifully small sitting in Vincent’s purple velvet-upholstered armchair pulled up against Vincent’s large dark-brown mahogany desk. He would remain there for hours, creasing his brow and chewing his lips as he went through page after page of reports on the Funtom Corp’s revenue and sales and financial holdings. The numbers all floating on the pages, swimming in his head. A sinking feeling would inevitably begin to take root in the night’s darkest hours, as the flame of the oil lamp cast its sallow light in half-moon arcs over the neatly scrawled row of numbers on yellowed pages, lighting the young Earl’s way, but only barely, through the dense, thorn-thicketed maze of graphs and figures, no trail of breadcrumbs to guide him along the way. The young earl would often fall asleep at his desk, a thin strand of drool escaping his mouth and on to the quarterly reports. Finally, Sebastian decides it time to intervene. 

 “Young master, I can be of some assistance in this area.” He says one night as he brings the young lord’ serving of Earl Grey and chocolate-and-almond biscotti, taking note of the crumpled pieces of paper littering the foot of his young master’s desk.

 Ciel tears his eyes away from the tangled morass of numbers and figures on the page and looks up skeptically at his butler.

 “Is that so?” the boy says finally, after studying him for a few moments, arching a brow and leaning backward to rest against the purple velvet-upholstered cushions of his chair, “You do a lot of financial accounting down in the depths of Hell?”

 The demon smiles. “Let’s just say that I’m a quick study.”

*****

The Winter season is only in its nascency and yet the snow storm outside rages with dizzying strength, barreling down upon the Estate with unchecked ferocity. The Manor attempts to withstand the onslaught as sheets of silver-tinted snow lay down upon it, layering upon layer of shimmering white-dust isoclines to bury the structures beneath, so that all that could be seen from a distance is the faint contour of black against the snow-hazed midnight sky, and the dimly glimmering orbs of candelabra-lit windowpanes shining sinister like the eyes of a Jack-o-lantern.

The demon is his chamber, hidden somewhere in the deep recesses of the servant’s quarters, tucked away beneath the Manor’s surface. He works by the pallid light of a single candle, listening as the mansion he built creaks and shudders under the angry assault of the Winter storm, its walls and window-frames rattling like the bones of a skeleton. Sebastian examines the stack of records and reports from Funtom Corp’s last several quarters. His brow furrows and his eyes narrow as the numbers and figures slowly coalesce on the page to paint a picture of treachery, to tell a story of deceit.

At that moment, he hears the heartbeat sounds of small footfalls, slow and hesitant and instantly recognizeable as those of his young master, moving down the hallway and in the direction of his room. He leans against the backrest of his penny seat chair and turns towards the door and awaits expectant as the young Earl appears at its entrance.

“Young master, is something the matter?”

Ciel stands in the doorway, awkward and small, wrapped in a duvet and shivering slightly in his nightclothes, the hems of the sleep-pants he has yet to grow into pooling around his feet.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

He rests his head against the wooden frame of the doorway and absently rubs his cheek against its smooth molding as he stares inside the spartan, sterile room. He very seldom comes down to the servants’ quarters, and has not been inside Sebastian’s chamber since those very early hazily-remembered months of the contract. The room is barren and sparse, and – were the demon not currently sitting at a desk half-buried by piles of documents and papers - there would be nothing to suggest that anyone actually lives here. Though, Ciel supposes, he was not really expecting anything different. He eyes the crisply-made bed, the linen and coverlet in almost exactly the same position they were when the room was first assigned to the butler. He wonders if the sheets have ever been used, if Sebastian has ever lain between them to seek his slumber.

“Shall I prepare some warm milk and honey?” Sebastian offers, after a moment of expectant silence.

“No, that’s alright.”

Ciel’s eyes sweep absently over to Sebastian’s hands, both laying on his lap, smooth and elegant and blessedly ungloved. It is a rare occurrence for him to see the naked skin of his butler’s hands, released from the shroud of his white satin gloves. His eyes trace over the tattooed pentagram of their contract, proof of that eternal bond, and the slender fingers capped in black. He finds the blackness of the nails confounding. As confounding as Sebastian’s inhumanity, as confounding as the strange thrill he feels in those rare moments when he gets to see them. He tries to get his fill quickly before averting his eyes as he begins to feel a heat to the tip of his ears.

Sebastian watches as his young master continues to linger at the door. He absently rubs his ungloved palms on his thighs and waits to see what he will do next. Of course, Sebastian knows why the boy is here, tonight of all nights. Exactly eleven months since their contract. Exactly eleven years since the young Earl’s rather cursed birth. Ciel had specified and directed him with explicit instructions that no special preparations should be made for this very inauspicious day, and none were. And while the young lord may have wanted to forget that day, cleanse the manor and his life of anything that might remind him of it, it is far more difficult to hide form the memories permanently trapped in the corners of the mind, particularly in the dead of night, kept awake by the howling of the wind and the groaning of the walls.

 Finally, he comes into Sebastian’s room and stands by the desk, his fingers roaming over the papers strewn over its surface. “Explain to me what you are doing.”

Sebastian does as he is ordered, and begins to go over the numbers, the heavy, thick-volume leather-bound ledger sitting in front of him. Ciel nods as he listens to Sebastian, and tries to piece together the puzzle in this latest game. He continues to regard the demon with curiosity.

“How do you know this? How to determine this?” he finally asks after the demon has explained some of the initial findings on the financial health of Funtom Corp.

“Young master, it is my duty to know whatever my master requires, to perform whatever tasks -”

“Yes, yes.” Ciel interrupts with an exasperated sigh, “ ‘your duty as a butler’, ‘what kind of butler would you be’ – duly noted, Sebastian. I am asking you how you know this.”

 A small, tentative smile, curious and novel in its unaffectedness, starts to tread across the demon’s lips.

 “It is not so difficult. The numbers are not important, if you understand the stories behind them. Once you understand the people, their roles, their desires – hidden or otherwise – it all comes into focus. Once you understand their incentives, their deepest wishes and most sinister impulses, their most closely guarded secrets; what they want, what they are capable of, what they will do to get what they want, it becomes far easier to fashion a cogent story,” the demon explains as graceful fingers dance over the documents on the desk. “If there is one constant, it is that humans are as predictable as they are petty and vile.” With this, the demon finally looks over at Ciel, and notes his master’s incredulous and somewhat amused expression.

“Present company excluded, of course.” Sebastian offers, the same tentative ghost of a smile flickering on his lips like the stuttering flame of a candlelight.

 Ciel smiles at that. “Please don’t stop on my account. I would hate to break the momentum of a perfectly good monologue.”

 Sebastian shifts his gaze back to the stack of documents on the desk.

 “It’s alright Sebastian,” Ciel continues, “You don’t have to remind me of the vile and deceitful nature of humanity. I am quite aware as you will recall.”

 “Of course, young master.”

 Sebastian continues to peruse the documents, examining Funtom Corp’s latest quarterly report, while Ciel scrutinizes him. He works in silence for a time, pretending not to feel his master’s eyes on him, while he awaits the boy’s next question.

 “Is this something that you do for all of your masters? In your previous contracts?”

 The demon sighs. “I am not sure my lord. I cannot remember. I am afraid that I have had far too many contracts and have lived far too long to remember such things.”

 Ciel stares at him, and something seems to come over his face. “You don’t remember your previous contracts?”

 “I remember some things. Very little. I suspect there was not much worth remembering.”

 Ciel continues to study him, as the demon senses his mind rifling though a thousand questions that he will not ask, questions he ultimately judges best left unanswered.

 Finally, Ciel lets out a sigh, and sits down besides his butler.

 “Alright Sebastian,” he says after a beat. “Tell me a story.”

 And so Sebastian proceeds to tell him the story of Jack Monahan, Funtom Corp’s current interim president.

 *****

Jack Monahan is a cunning man. He is a cunning businessman and a cunning human. Anyone who knows him, has crossed his path, has had the misfortune to find themselves in his crosshairs, would describe him as ‘cunning’. They may use other, less ambiguous, less charitable words in addition, but ‘cunning’ is often used as a more evasive descriptor. At least initially, until such time that the describer can better ascertain where his interlocutor’s loyalties lie.

They will feel increasingly free to be candid – blunt even, and gradually more uncivil - in the wake of Mr Monahan’s rather ghastly demise.

Deceitful, treacherous, corrupt. These are the words that the inspector will jot down in his notebook, as he throws skeptical glances at the various attestants. He will then purse his lips, and look over his shoulder at the waxen, bloodless corpse, bloated and ashen-grey from exposure, staring back at him with the dead, fixed-pupil eyes of a china doll. Lies are simple, the inspector will inevitably think as he sighs and flips shut the notebook, but the truth is always complicated.

Mr. Monahan is as cunning as he is ruthless, they would say, and he is exceptionally ruthless.

But, like many men who are ruthless, deceitful, treacherous, corrupt, Jack Monahan was not always so.

His name – rather, the name passed down to him - had been, at some point in his ancestry, O’Manacháin. Then anglicized to Monaghan, and further to Monahan to more unequivocally erase the connecting dots to that most undesirable lineage. He was born on the East side of London, in the derelict slums and squalid rookeries that line the city like the rubbish and silt that wash up along the edge of the Thames River. He grew up among the criminals and whores and addicts and the relentless tide of poverty- and famine-stricken immigrants, all packed away row-on-row like rats in overcrowded tenement apartments among human filth and excreta. All of it ghettoized at the outskirts of the City, its excesses and misery walled off like a septic tank while the rest of polite society hummed on around it in wilful ignorance and obliviousness.

He was the third of five children, and his birth had been as inauspicious as his grime-ridden surroundings. It had become clear to Monahan at an early age that this was not a just world. This seemed to be a lesson that the world was intent on teaching him, again and again, through repeated blows. He was reminded of this fact countless times, each time he saw his father passed out on the floor of their ramshackle one-room apartment on those nights he was too intoxicated to beat him and his brothers with the full force of his misdirected rage. Each time he saw his mother become near-unconscious, her breath stolen in the grips of a coughing fit that left blood splatters on the linen and the floor and the dirty, tattered rag clutched in her hand. He was reminded of this again when standing by the shallow pit that acted as the communal graveyard for the poor and the indigent as a reminder that, in death much as in life, they mattered just a little less than everyone else. He was reminded of all of this while staring at his mother’s makeshift woodbox crate of a coffin, sitting not too distant from the child-size casket that served as his younger brother’s final resting place.

This was, Mohanan had no choice but to conclude, not a world that rewarded goodness and decency. It was harsh and hard and cruel. And in order to survive in it, he must become as wretched and ugly as the wretched, ugly world he saw around him.

He had started off as a low-level sales clerk at the Funtom company back when it was still just a small toy shop run by Vincent’s father as something of a nobleman’s pastime, and had managed to claw his way up the ranks using a combination of hard work, guile and unfettered avarice. He had helped to build the Funtom company from the ground up under Vincent’s somewhat erratic supervision.

Phantomhive was never much of a businessman. He was a nobleman, born into wealth and – in the resentful eyes of Monahan – took it for granted in the same way that all nobles did, as if ascendency through the social latter was a given, a birthright, rather than something to be fought for, desperate hands snatching and clawing for purchase at its flanks until one’s nails were gnarled and bloodied.

Because it was. For them.

Phantomhive lacked the killer instinct, the willingness to bury down in the mud, to make the unsightly, sometimes brutal choices that were required in order to succeed in business. In order to succeed in the world.

Vincent was stalwart.

Moral.

Good.

Of course, it is easy to be all of those things, to make the right choices when one’s lofty social position so easily allows for it, so easily cushions any fall that might result from the consequences of being good. Of doing what is right, rather than what is expedient or profitable or advantageous; what is needed to survive. And so, because he had far more to lose, Monahan made all of the hard decisions that Vincent could not. Monahan had to be the one to use every leverage, grasp at every single opportunity before the company’s competitors, so that Funtom Corp could remain unbeatable. Monahan had to be the one bribe or intimidate officials to look the other way when Funtom Corp factories’ spilled toxic chemicals led to a cluster of arsenic poisoning in the local community. Monahan had to be the one to squeeze and browbeat factory managers and foremen so that they would in turn squeeze their workers, many of them children, many as poor as he had been, to work endless days for mere shillings, breathing in poisoned fumes, their lungs becoming coated with soot, before leaving for a few hours of fitful sleep in the same bleak and dismal slums from which he had escaped.

He got his hands dirty so that Vincent’s could remain pure. Pristine.

It was a poorly kept secret that Monahan was the true head of Funtom Corp, with an eye to further topple Vincent and the Phantomhive Estate’s figurehead status from the summit of the company’s hierarchy.

Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. Such was the way of the world. There are those who steal, and those who are stolen from.

The recent unfortunate and untimely death of the Phantomhive couple was a rather fortuitous event for Monahan.

Though, of course it was tragedy.

Of course.

Such a lovely couple. Such a loss for the nobility, and for all of England, really. But within tragedy we must find solace, we must learn to rebuild that which was burnt to ash – fashion a new phoenix from the embers of the old -, rise it up, and restore to its rightful greatness. And so here was an opportunity to truly take the helm of this company and turn it into a Behemoth. Certainty nothing stood in his way now. The majority holdings had been bequeathed to the Phantomhive boy, who had made a rather improbable journey back from the dead. But he was just a child. Certainly, he would be seeking guidance in the matter of Funtom’s operations and finances, how to navigate the very adult world of trade and commerce. How easy it would be for Mr Monahan to insinuate himself into the boy’s trusted circle, and rot it from the inside out like a malignancy.

Monahan, of course, did not know about the young Earl’s secret weapon. He did not know the darkness and power that now buttressed the House of Phantomhive. He did not know of the long shadow that Ciel cast in the form of the devil bound to follow and obey, to make realized all of his wishes, to act on all of his darkest impulses. The Phantomhives’ loyal attack dog, though, knew a great deal about him. Sebastian knew of Mr Monahan’s syphoning and intentional mismanagement of Funtom Corp funds, bleeding it slowly so that it became weakened and enfeebled. He knew of Monahan’s scheme to orchestrate a takeover by Funtom’s chief competitor. And he knew of Monahan’s attempts to undermine his young master’s rightful authority; to humiliate him and paint him as an immature, unstable, and trauma-scarred child who did not have what it took to right a sinking ship. Sebastian knew all of this and more. Jack Monahan’s ambition and avarice now had put him on a collision course with his own untimely fate.

*****

Monahan has just finished another in a series of introductory meetings with the Phantomhive boy and his strangely lurking, disconcertingly attentive butler, who always seems to hover at the child’s side like an apparition. He has spun an elaborate confection of half-lies and well-constructed stories to cocoon the truth about the state of the Funtom Corp’s business dealings and financial status, using an array of numbers, graphs and figures like a frosted glass to distort it and shield it from the boy’s prying eyes. Of course Sebastian has already learned everything he needed to know about Mr Monahan. Monahan did not yet know - but was soon to find out - about the rather tenuous nature of his future with Funtom Corp.

“He is lying,” Ciel declares, venom dripping from every word, when the man has finally been escorted out of Vincent’s study and out of Phantomhive Manor.

“Yes, young master. You are correct in discerning Monahan’s deceitful nature.”

Ciel leans forward and places his elbow on the surface of the desk, resting his chin against his palm and absently chewing on the carefully manicured nail of his index finger. He stares into the middle distance and thinks.

“But we can’t just fire him, yes?”

“No young master. I do not believe that it would be wise for you to fire him without cause.”

Besides which, making any attempts against him will likely lead to negative pushback from those in the company loyal to him. Mr Mohanan’ influence within the company was pernicious and long-reaching, both among the senior staff and operations people, as well as among the main retailers and supply chain managers. Many of them had ascended within the ranks right along with him, their success inextricably intertwined with his, like a tangle of vines twisting up along the trunk of an evergreen, strangling it as they climb toward the sun.

The young Earl and his demon had gone over all the options, and all the possible eventualities.

All save one.

The one that seemed to sit in the middle of the room, looming and inescapable, expanding into the space like a physical thing. Like a shapeless husk molded into a golem, living and breathing, grunting and wheezing, as it awaited its master’s orders. They tried – at least, at first – to ignore it, to politely tip toe around it. Sebastian would throw glances in its direction, acutely aware that – though unpleasant and unpalatable to his young master - it really was the most expedient and effective solution. He wants what his master wants, and he so desperately wants to be the one to give his master what he wants. His young master would come to see it as well, and so Sebastian does what he always did, what he would learn to do in the future – sit patiently and watch his master orbit the thing he wants, suspended in a holding pattern by the pull of the tattered remains of his human frailty, his human morality.

“And you don’t believe that he will leave on his own, any other way?” Ciel says, staring past the demon while the tips of his fingers trace knotty lines and figures on the varnished desktop.

“No sir, I do not believe that he will leave without a fight.”

Not while he’s alive, the demon wants to say. But he does not want to push the boy any farther than he is ready to be pushed. It is important that Ciel come to this conclusion on his own, that he see the need for cold-blooded ruthlessness, the need to bury darkness by plunging it in even greater depths of black. And he can see it – the dots connecting, as his master begins to piece together the various alternatives and their outcomes, wrestling with their moral weight, attempting to unravel the moral calculus of what must be done.

“Well… is there some way that he could be… incapacitated, somehow?”

“ ‘Incapacitated’, sir?” Sebastian says, keeping his expression neutral. He is not offering the apple, he is not forcing his young master to take a bite. He is merely placing it on a platter, gleaming and silvered and polished, ready to be grasped and clenched in his hand, ready for him to sink his teeth into it, let its juices flow down his chin, whenever his master should desire it. He never directs his masters’ actions, never creates the intent behind them. He will only become an instrument of their will. He wants what his young master wants. 

“Yes, if he were to be eliminated.”

 “Eliminated…” Sebastian repeats.

These are all ofcourse actions taken in the conditional form. Purely hypothetical and theoretical, so that they remain unreal and could be explored without consequence, so that the scroll could be unspooled to determine the potential eventualities without fault. The young master could turn these theoretical realities over in his head, tonguing at them like with an aching tooth, until his mind habituated to the twinge of their burn. He has to kill on his own. In his mind. Before he can kill in real life. Once he murders in his mind, goes through the moral quandaries, the thought of it, the feel of it; once he unleashes the golem, and commits the act in his mind, it would be infinitely easier to do so in reality.

“Is that something that you… could do?”

“Of course.” A simple reply. Sebastian holds his master’s gaze. “I would do anything for you.”

Ciel’s chest tightens and his breath catches in his throat. His cheeks feel suddenly intolerably hot under the intensity of Sebastian’s gaze. A skein of some inexplicable tightness wraps around his heart, and slides further down still. Sebastian’s otherworldliness is something he is slowly beginning to become accustomed to, but sometimes he finds his strange intensity unbridgeable, like staring into the depths of infinity.

“This is the nature of our covenant.” Sebastian adds, rust-coloured eyes continuing to gaze into Ciel’s until the boy wilts under the intensity of it, and has to turn away to pretend to adjust Vincent’s polished sterling silver inkpot on the desk. His heart is racing at the power he possesses. The infinite powers at his command, sitting dutifully in the chair across from his desk. Sitting dormant at the end of his leash. He licks his lips and turns his eyes back to Sebastian in terrified awe.

Then he backs away from it. Does not want to look at it too closely, like one would avoid looking at the monster one has unleased as it tears through the flesh of its prey. One might not do it, but the impulse is there nevertheless.

Ciel keeps returning to it again and again over the next few days, edging closer and closer to the precipice, then backing off when seeing the drop below. He feels that he should feel horrified at the idea. Of killing. It should repulse him. But he remains strangely unmoved. Perhaps it is not so much the guilt that the young lord has to contend with, but rather its curious absence.

He does it again and again, until finally, he is ready to put his hand into the fire, to throw himself over the edge. It is made infinitely easier – Sebastian suspects – given that a general cynicism and disdain for humanity can so effectively act as a salve and bromide for the burn of a guilty conscience. It so easily allows for one to see the mirrored projection of their own dark impulses as lying nascent within those one despises.

Once wounded and betrayed, it becomes easier to wound and betray another.

“How will you do it?” Ciel asks one night, as he stares at Sebastian across the expanse of his mahogany desk, a tiny figure nestled in a chair designed for a man. Any other child his size would have looked ridiculous, but the young Earl of Phantomhive is quickly learning to forcibly expand into any vacancy that will sustain the invasion. Such is the way of the world.

“Do what, young master?” Sebastian asks, though he knows perfectly well to what his master is referring.

“Kill him.” The Earl says simply, the action having escalated in his mind from theoretical to actual.

“Do not concern yourself with the details, my lord. I will take care of it.”

Ciel stares at him. Feels his cheeks become hot again, and lets his gaze wander away to the corner of the study where Vincent’s favoured giltwood-framed silk tapestry hangs on the wall, staring down at him like a crucifix in a church.

 *****

No less than a week later, the London papers report the shocking and grisly demise of Funtom Corp’s president, his body found in London’s East End  during a raid inside a seedy brothel known to trade in underage girls. A local ponce was arrested for the murder, believed to be due to a money dispute, though the man – of course – strenuously denied any part in the killing. He was however at a loss to explain how the murder weapon, a very unique and distinctive pistol, only available in a handful of local shops, had found its way in his coat pocket.

Rumours have begun to float up from the underworld and are widely circulated that Mr Monahan had a taste for young prepubescent girls dating back years, in addition to an increasingly unhinged appetite for opium, and had in fact mismanaged large sums of Funtom Corp money due to the clouded state of his mind resulting from the combined toll of both vices. 

Ciel has no choice but to be impressed. There is no discounting the demon’s attention to detail. The whole theatre of it was perfectly orchestrated to both eliminate Mr Monahan and ruin his name and reputation so that no one within Funtom Corp would be willing to pledge allegiance to him.

Ciel reads the paper, and turns to Sebastian – always standing just to the corner, at the periphery of his vision – and smiles at him with something akin to admiration, with something akin to affection. His knight and his sword has come through once again, has brought him victory. He feels a strange sense of pride, and moreover feels curiously unmoved and untroubled by the whole thing. All actions have already been justified in his mind. He has simply been accorded what was rightfully his. This is simply just recompense. The universe is shifting toward a balance. It is time to move on. He feels invincible.

 

Chapter Text

Ciel feels the restlessness, feels the dread as it sits in the pit of his stomach and slowly expands across his chest. Seems to fill the room, move across the space, crawl up the walls like a spider spinning endless cobwebs, until everything is covered with it.

It makes him sad, this feeling of dread. It didn’t used to be this way. It just reminds him of all the other things that didn’t used to be this way.

He thinks about this as he lays in his bed, staring through the window at the dour monochrome early-Spring sky. He thinks about this as he listens to the unrelenting silence of the night, punctured at stochastic beats by the mournful hoot of a night owl, or by the soft groan of the Manor settling as its walls and fixtures expand under the chill of the midnight air. He tries to both grasp for and fight off sleep, the dread of the nightmares and terror now dovetailing with this more dull-edged dread that has burrowed itself inside his flesh and has nested in his chest.

He thinks about this in the early dawn hour when the sun’s beams have started to peak out from beneath the line of the horizon, spreading out in a peacock’s tail of peach- and saffron-coloured rays to melt away the darkness. He thinks about it as he goes through the motions of his morning ritual of bathing and dressing for the day, as he combs back the overgrown locks of hair – now longer than his parents would have ever allowed, longer than he knows is proper for a boy his age and station - away from his brow and reaches back to tie the strings of his eyepatch behind his head; to put on his mask to battle the day ahead. As he sits in the carriage, pointedly ignoring his butler’s studious gaze, and watches unseeing the road toward the Midfords’ Estate, lined with a smatter of white Birch trees against the pall of chalk-grey sunless sky, and jutting, ash- and mud-covered piles of not-yet-melted snow on each side, like gravestones of fallen soldiers spread happenstance along the frost-ravaged field. The earth gasping back to life after a long, frozen Winter.

He thinks about how much he used to look forward to these visits, these same visits that now fill him with a dull, throbbing dread.

He thinks about all the things that didn’t used to be this way.

He and Lizzie, they used to be the same. He does not recall exactly when he found out, or was told, or became aware that he and Lizzie were betrothed, nor does he recall when he learned what ‘betrothed’ meant, exactly. It seemed like a knowledge that he would grow into, almost organically, just by being in the world, living and growing, while one day vanishes into the next.

He thinks it a curious thing, the acquisition of language. When a foggy, shapeless awareness of objects and actions, of concepts and ideas, all begins to crystallize into speech. Understanding that smells and colours have names, that the roil of emotions thrashing inside him have names. Can be ensnared and suspended in words. ‘Anger’. ‘Sadness’. ‘Love’.

He does not recall his reaction to this newly-revealed but perhaps ever-present fact of his life, his betrothal, but suspects that he reacted to this information with the same casual indifference as one would react to news about the discovery of a new moon or star or planet. Marriage had seemed like such a foreign concept, a part of that murky, unknowable adult world that seemed to exist adjacent to rather than overlaid on his own. Visible from where he stood but parted by a deep yawning chasm. Just one of the many things that he was told he would understand when he was older.

And why not?

His and Lizzie’s childhood and their lives were so intertwined. It seemed natural. If he had to look around at the people in his current life and choose whom he should wed, she seemed like a fairly logical choice.

He loved Lizzie of course, felt attached to her in that same way that children feel a natural attachment to the people that surround them; where simple proximity is enough to forge a bond. An automatic inborn response; baby birds imprinting on their mother.

They had the same lives, the same ambient backdrop to their childhoods, the same memories. And besides that, he had always liked Lizzie’s golden sun-kissed hair that flowed down around her face like a gilded waterfall, and he liked her laughter and her energy, and he liked her crisp, pretty girl-smell – like lavender soap and flowers and spring rain. If nostalgia and childhood memories had a smell, they would smell like Lizzie.  

He sits across from her in the Midfords’ stately, cavernous drawing room. The sun is streaming through the bay windows on its West side, flowing in in a tide, its waves crashing against the crystalline chandelier and mirror- and stained glass-adorned walls, its rays getting scattered by the dust so that the light saturates everything, making it all look faded and bleached out; and Ciel has to avert his eyes, shut them momentarily to shield himself from the assault of brightness.

Lizzie is very much still a child, and the more time he spends with her, the more he is reminded that he – despite outward appearances – no longer is. She is all energy and good-natured mischief, face radiant and eyes lit up from the moment she sees him. The rest of the Midfords are sitting in quiet, awkward silence, staring at him with the same mixture of pity and vague discomfort that one would regard a crippled veteran just returned home from the war. They choose their words carefully, appearing sympathetic without probing too deeply, asking How Things Are Going, and How Is Business. Not wanting to know too much, trying to keep the conversation to pleasant things. Occasionally, they will throw wary glances at Sebastian, standing in the corner of the room with his hands clasped in front of him and his head bowed and gaze cast down in a perfect show of butlerly deference.

Ciel molds his face into an innocuously pleasant smile and takes a sip from his tea. Tries to listen, to play the part of engaged, companionable guest as Lizzie discusses the latest gossip from their circle of acquaintances. It becomes harder and harder to maintain the role as the day wears on.

He lets himself be led by Lizzie as she bounds to her room, beaming and excited to show him her new toys. He stays quiet and stares impassively at the brightly-coloured, stuffed wind-up bunny. He picks it up and absently runs his hand over the soft, plush, inviting fur as Lizzie sits cross-legged across from him, chattering away with enthusiasm that is appearing to be more and more forced as it repeatedly hits the impenetrable wall of his indifference; trying with what he notes to be increasing desperation to get him excited about the toy, to reach across the divide to seek out her beloved cousin, her favorite playmate.

He does feel sympathy towards her, and he feels a pang in his heart for her loneliness and her loss. He knows that Lizzie knows, at least on some level, that things are no longer the same between them, that he is not the same, but is trying desperately to keep her head buried in the sand, believing that if she shuts her eyes to the darkness that surrounds him now, then it must not exist.

Finally, in the face of the lethargy of his continued silence, the energy deflates from the room bit by bit as Lizzie slowly sputters to a stop. The smile fades from her pretty, cherubic face, and she just stares at him, flicks her eyes down to the toy bunny and back up, and absently plays with the muslin hem of her petticoat.

“Do you like it?” she asks, pointing at the bunny in his hand. “You may keep it if you’d like.” He remains silent, and she bites her lips, and swallows around the gathering lump in her throat. “As a gift?” she finishes, hesitantly, in a much smaller, wavering voice that breaks over the last word.

“No. It’s alright.” He looks at her, then past her to the pink drapery flanking the floor-to-ceiling window, and runs an uninterested finger over the toy in his hand. Her shoulders sag, and her eyes begin to wet. She wishes she could understand. She tries to find the right thing to say, but there are no words. She decides it best to remain quiet, and watch as the tectonic plates beneath them shift and continue to move slowly apart.

He doesn’t say anything else, and silence becomes a physical thing and descends upon the room to fill the space between them. He looks away from her, and turns his gaze back to the rabbit. Runs his fingers over its mechanized heart, and turns the winding key to its clockwork motor to watch it hop across the room.

*****

They ride in silence sitting on opposite sides of the coach, listening to the metronome patter of hoofbeats against gravel as the young Earl’s carriage winds out of the Midfords’ main courtyard and onto the road leading back to Phantomhive Estate. Ciel stares out the window, watches the passing trees, their trunks melting into one another and the rays of the languorous evening sun passing through their limbs, casting jaundiced slats of light on the ground. he looks up to gaze at the migrating cascade of birds, swelling and surging in the near-dusk sky like swirling leaves caught in a gust of wind.

“It’s exhausting,” he finally speaks. Sebastian looks up at the sound of his master’s voice. “It’s exhausting, being around her,” he finishes. He knows that Sebastian understands that he does not mean this unkindly.

“The lady Elizabeth loves you very much,” the butler replies.

“I know. That is what makes it so exhausting,” Ciel says, sighing and still looking out the window. Still looking but not seeing as the world outside folds its wings around itself, tucks its head in and prepares for its nightly slumber. “She loves a ghost.” He leans back and finally looks at Sebastian. “I think whatever part of me could love her back died in that cage.”

Sebastian nods, and feels the same familiar ache wrap itself inside him, its spines twisting up against his demon heart.

“It’s not fair for her – all of this darkness, this melancholy. She doesn’t belong here.” Ciel becomes silent for a while.

Sebastian can see the exhaustion on his face, can see it weighing him down, trailing behind him like smoke. The exhaustion of having to live in the world, try to be in the world, or at least pretend.

“Sebastian,” he says after a while. “Come sit by me.”

Sebastian does as he is told, and sits next to the young Earl. With his gaze still on the window, Ciel takes the demon’s arm and wraps it around himself, and leans into the solidity of Sebastian’s torso, laying his head against Sebastian’s chest and hearing for the beating of his heart. He begins to rub his head and brow against Sebastian chest so that his eyepatch becomes askew and falls off from around his head and onto his butler’s lap, and he stares at the violet light from his contract eye, faded and acid-washed, as it falls onto the demon’s starch white dress-shirt. He wishes silently that Sebastian would stroke his hair. And so Sebastian does, taking off the glove of his contract hand and raking his fingers through his master’s hair to brush them back and tuck them behind his ear in a slow, soothing rhythm.

Ciel lets his eyes fall closed as the demon leans his face forward and rests his cheek against the crown of his head. He turns his face further into the demon’s chest, breathing in the scent of cinnamon and vanilla lingering on Sebastian’s woolen vest, and tries to calm the mad clamour inside his mind. 

*****

The various reports and ledgers are spread across the large mahogany desk, littering its surface like leaves fallen in the wake of a rainstorm. Ciel has been in the manor’s study since the morning, working on a proposal to expand Funtom’s international business. Funtom Corp is looking to establish its presence in Germany, and he needs to decide among the multitude of potential retailers and investors vying to build relations with the suddenly prosperous company.

He tries to maintain focus, to work through the morass of legal and financial documents demanding his attention. Following Ciel’s ascendency to the role of chairman, perched as always on Sebastian’s shoulders, Funtom Corp is springing back to life. Competitors are beginning to fall like chess pieces as the company expands its markets and operations. Sebastian’s grasp is far-reaching and his knowledge appears infinite. The company’s old guard has been systematically expunged, replaced with young, hungry talent loyal to the new leadership. Funtom’s interior has been excised of any parasitic force that may threaten its well-being, its renewed vigour allowing it to lurch forward undaunted, unfurl its tentacles, wrap them around the throats of anyone looking to undermine its dominance.

It feels good.

Sometimes.

He knows that Funtom will likely be stronger, more indominable, than it ever could have been under Vincent’s leadership. It’s a victory of sorts, he supposes. He is just not yet sure how to feel about that.  

His eyes wander off the page and trail over the bookcases and watercolour landscapes lining the walls of Vincent’s study. Though, of course, it is no longer Vincent’s study. It is Ciel’s now.

He tries to remember to think of it that way. How Ciel does things is now how things are done. Vincent is gone, and less and less of him – his favoured books, his most treasured artefacts - is left in this room. There are no ghosts inside these walls. Only memories left behind to haunt.

His mind drifts in and out of focus, floating above and dipping below, as his eyes trail over the same paragraph of dense legalese again and again. The world comes into view and disappears, like it did when he was a child, swimming in the lake nearby, and would bob his head underwater and hold his breath and watch the sky from below its surface, watch the world become fractured into shimmering rays of light upon the sun-kissed waves, as he remained enveloped by the muffled, womb-like whoosh of a breeze-hewn ripple.

He floats back to the surface and looks down at the report, and realizes that he had absently made a paper plane from the eighth page of the financial projections summary document. He shakes his head, frustrated with his own childish tendencies, and carefully splays his palms over the page, tries to smooth out the wrinkles and lines etched into the paper. He turns around and looks outside his large bay window at the setting sun, watches the lilac and orange light filter through the recently sprouted leaves on the maple trees dotting the garden. His eyes rest upon the spot where the Phantomhives’ yearly Easter egg hunt used to take place, where he and Lizzie would run through the gardens, trampling and crushing his mother’s prized white roses much to his Father’s chagrin. He sighs and turns back, stares at the page, and decides to lean back and submerge himself once more under water.

*****

Sebastian is down in the kitchen putting together the final preparations for supper when he hears his master’s approaching footsteps. He pauses, straightens up to full height, and fixes his gaze on the doorframe until such time as his master appears.

“Young master, is there something you require?”

Ciel chews his lip and looks around, fumbling for some authentic-seeming excuse, some legitimate reason why he would find himself down in the kitchen. He would often come down there when he knew Tanaka was preparing something delicious, and try to finesse an early treat like a cat rubbing itself against its master’s leg. His eyes finally settle on the three-layer chocolate ganache cake that Sebastian has baked for desert. It sits like a trophy on the kitchen counter, next to the sugar-and-flour dusted mixing bowl and rolling pin.

“Can I have something sweet?” Ciel asks, at first using the same tone he would employ to ingratiate himself to Tanaka, often when he knew the answer to his request would invariably be ‘no’. Then he thinks better of it. “Sebastian, I would like some cake.” He says, much more firmly. He no longer needs to ask for things when he can order them instead.

“Young master, the cake is for desert.” Sebastian says, his tone neutral and automatic, as he continues to run a polishing cloth over the various plates and brass pots and pans lying scattered on the kitchen island. “you will ruin your appetite if you have cake now.”

Ciel purses his lips and studies him. Sebastian continues to work, his back to his master, feeling the increasing weight of the young lord’s gaze on him. He remains in the same spot as he hears his master’s light footsteps approach him from behind. He then feels the insubstantial weight of his young lord’s small, doll-like torso as it leans against his back, and feels him wrap his slender arms around his waist.

Sebastian stops moving, grips the cloth in his hands and feels the breath he does not need catch in his chest. He looks down to see tiny, delicate hands clasped around the plane of his abdomen.

Everything seems to recede into the background - the flour-dusted cookware, the cake, the kitchen, Phantomhive Manor, the whole of the Estate and the world along with it - and all he can see are those hands, like white doves perched against the midnight-black of his own livery vest, and all he can feel is his master’s body against his own, and the touch of the young Earl’s one bent knee as the boy leans it lightly against the back of his leg.

He slowly turns around within the ring of Ciel’s encircling arms to look down at his master. Ciel loosens his grip, leans against Sebastian’s abdomen and brings his hands to grip the lapels of his tailcoat. He then puts his hands against Sebastian’s chest and runs his flattened palms under the coat, around Sebastian’s torso and down the curve of his spine to clasp them against the small of the butler’s back underneath his tailcoat. He smiles lightly and rests his face against the fabric of Sebastian’s woolen vest.

Sebastian’s ungloved hands fly as if in reflex to the tacit permission to touch, to cradle his master’s head, to thread fingers into downy-soft, silky hair. He puts his fingers through midnight-blue locks, and feels his hand being pulled almost automatically to the knot in the threads of the young master’s eyepatch. He pulls on the strings so that the tiny slip of cloth falls forgotten to the ground, and he can look upon the emblem of their shared bond floating in the violet-tinted pool of his young lord’s right eye. He feels that same warmth spread through him, through his chest and then pouring out to every part of him, that same intoxicating wave of sensation that he feels run through the whole of him whenever his master touches him. He lets his lids fall closed, finding it easier to bear the onslaught of sensation with eyes shut or teeth gritted, as he searches his memory for its equal.

“Sebastian, can I have some cake now?” Ciel says softly into Sebastian’s chest, his voice muffled by the fabric as he rubs a cheek against the demon’s vest. “Please?” He looks up to take in the sight of Sebastian’s closed-eyed expression while pressing his mouth against the butler’s torso, and Sebastian can feel the heat of his breath and the burn of his lips through three layers of clothing. His own lips part and he takes a ragged breath. Lets out a sigh as he feels the sensation of warmth run through his body, spill over as if it cannot be contained in his bounded human form.

“Alright,” he breathes, “as you wish.”

Ciel smiles, satisfied, and unwraps his arms from around his butler to head toward the cake. Sebastian’s hands, just a second ago tangled in the feathery softness of his master’s hair, now drop uselessly against his sides, and he feels the chill and coldness of that loss of contact. He opens his eyes and stares after his young master for a moment and absently runs his fingers over his chest, to try to trace on it the memory of the ache before it fades.

The world comes back into focus, and he returns to the task of cleaning the table and cookware. 

Having gotten what he had come down there for, Ciel goes to sit in the tiny alcove in the opposite wall with his prize cradled on his lap. He takes a bite, and watches Sebastian as he continues to move around the kitchen, puttering with this china plate or polishing that brass cooking pot.

“It’s not particularly demonic, concerning yourself with ruined appetites.” He ventures after taking a few bites.

Sebastian does not answer. Continues to put away the remainder of the cookware.

“Did your other masters have particularly healthy eating habits?” Ciel tries again, with a light, teasing tone. “Or particularly devilish ones?”

Sebastian sighs, growing uncharacteristically weary of these overtures. “Young master, what is it that you want to know?”

Ciel shrugs. Goes back to stabbing at his cake with his fork. “I’m dreadfully bored. It’s so quiet around here.” He moves to smear the chocolate frosting over the rim of the china plate. “Tell me a story, Sebastian. Something about you. You must remember something about your other contracts.”

Sebastian thinks about this. Watches the polishing rag in his hand as it carves ellipses and butterfly wings into the white flour and confectioner’s sugar dusted over the surface of the marble counter.

“They are not particularly interesting stories, I’m afraid,” he says finally, looking up and catching his master’s gaze as the young Earl tilts his head up with interest. “They all tend to have the same ending.” He adds evenly. He holds Ciel’s gaze until the boy swallows, and flicks his eyes back to his dessert. He goes back to chewing his lips and playing absently with his fork, the rubble of chocolate frosting and dismembered cake sitting mostly uneaten on his plate.

“That must have at least made you happy. You got what you wanted in the end.”

“ ‘wanted’ “ Sebastian tries out the word. Pokes at it. Wraps his tongue around it. “The end is simply built into the contract. A natural outcome. This is just how thing are, young master. What I’m made for.” He explains, as he goes back to dusting the countertops, readying the kitchen in anticipation of tomorrow’s breakfast. “What I want does not really enter into it.”

Ciel regards him with a solemn expression as he considers how this new piece fits into the puzzle of his demon’s truth.

“Is the cake not to your liking?” Sebastian says, eyeing the barely-eaten desert balanced on the young lord’s lap.

“No, it’s good.” Ciel puts the plate aside. “I guess I’m just not as hungry for it.”

He hops off the edge of the alcove and walks toward his butler. Wraps his arms around him once more, and rests his head against his chest. “I don’t mind, you know,” he says quietly. “How it will end – It doesn’t bother me.” Sebastian stands still and submits, because it is all he can do in the proximity of his young master’s warmth, the proximity of body pressed flush up against body; of skin against skin, separated by infernal layers of cloth.

“I used to think that we all would go to heaven when we died. If we were good. If we did good.” He stares into the distance, and Sebastian watches a haze of sadness and sorrow come over his eyes. He buries his hands in the boy’s hair, and smooths away strands of it from his brow. “I don’t know what to believe anymore.” Ciel turns his face to rub his cheek against the soft wool of Sebastian’s vest.

“I don’t know where my parents are now. A pile of ash and dust, I suppose. And that’s all there is to it.”

He finally tilts his head up, to look up at Sebastian, resting his chin on the butler’s sternum. Sebastian’s hands slide around to cup his cheeks with his palms, and he rubs his thumbs over the swell of the boy’s rounded cheekbones. His gaze falls and fastens itself on the boy’s petal-pink lips as something takes grip of his chest and a now-familiar pain and longing spreads through his demon heart. “So I don’t mind the end.” Ciel says with conviction he wishes to be real, willing lies to become truths, willing to expand into the shape he has carved out for himself.

“It will be worth it, as long as I have my revenge.”

*****

 It is long past midnight, and all is quiet as the manor awaits dawn’s arrival. The master had been put to bed, the kitchen and dining room have been cleaned, and all cookware has been put away. All the silverware has been polished, the holes in the drapes and tablecloths have been mended. The Funtom Corp finances had been tallied and plans for upcoming expansions have been formulated. Sebastian is in his chamber listening to the sound of air moving in the silence of the night. It is a rare occurrence for him to find himself without anything to do.

 He lays on his bed and faces the ceiling. He stares. He swallows. He licks his lips. And he whispers his master’s name.

 Quietly.

 To himself.

 His master’s given name; the forbidden one.

 Ciel.

 He feels a pang in his chest.

 Ciel.

 He closes his eyes, and feels the pang bloom and the ache spread across him. Feels a warmth spread through him at the sound of the name coming from his own lips. Ciel. He runs the pads of his fingers over his lips and imagines. He tries to hold on to the thrilling, lancinating waves of sensation running through him. He rolls to his side and folds his legs against himself. Ciel. He remembers the feel of his master’s skin, the smell of his master’s hair, the song of his master’s voice.

 Ciel…

 He clenches his fingers around the piece of cloth in his hand, his young master’s day-old discarded dress shirt taken from the hamper. He brings it to his face and buries his nose in it, taking deep inhales of his master’s scent. He puts the edge of it in his mouth to suck on the fabric, to see if he could taste his master, so he wouldn’t have to only imagine what his master would taste like. He only tastes the stolid, inert flavour of cotton and not the longed-for sharp, sweet tang of his master’s skin and sweat, so he is left again to only imagine.

Ciel…

He rubs his cheeks against the cloth, and touches his own chest, where he feels the tightness. Spreads his fingers against it to better feel the thrum of it, the beating of his own heart pounding against his chest. He closes his eyes and breathes it in, breathes through the tightness, the ecstasy of sensation.

 Ciel…

 It is as if an eternity of devotion, of attachment and warmth can be contained in that one word. An eternity of emptiness and sadness and loneliness, but only an impermanent sense of feeling. Of existing. He wonders how long that warmth can persist in a boundless vacuum.

 Ciel…

 He wonders what it would be like to be transformed by existence rather than simply having to endure it.

 Ciel…

 He wonders what happens to fire in the emptiness of space.

 Ciel… Ciel… Ciel…

He continues on like this until dawn breaks, and the rays of light float in into the demon’s chamber like tiny fingers reaching over the window sill, timid and cautious, to usher away the darkness. And it becomes necessary for him to return upstairs, to open the shutters and draw the curtains, to dust over the carpets, to rake out and relay the fires, to take out the cookware and china that he had just put away the night previous, and to prepare breakfast for his young master.

Chapter Text

“What is a Guard Dog?”

Ciel was standing back, watching as Sebastian leapt through the meadows, over the flowerbeds and around the trees, chasing rabbits and barking after squirrels. He watched the orange glow of the dying afternoon sun catch on the golden hairs of his coat, watching it heave like amber waves, float like fields of barley swaying in the wind, tempered by the strength of the planes of muscle underneath. 

“A Guard Dog is a protector, my sweet prince.” Vincent’s voice came from behind, solemn and serene, rippling through his consciousness like a babbling brook.

Ciel was standing atop one in a multitude of rolling hills of the English countryside that surrounded the Estate, positioned amidst the tide of rising and falling earth, of lush green grassland, with flowers pink and purple and orange spread like sea foam speckled upon its waves. He could almost feel it all moving, living, expanding; the Earth pulsing with life.

“A protector of what?”

“Of people. Guard Dogs protect their masters.”

His father came to stand next to him, tall and strong and permanent; the marble column around which he was tethered; the Polaris around which everything revolved.

“What do you protect?”

“I protect everyone. Anyone who can’t protect themselves.”

Vincent stepped beside him, in the path of the sun’s rays, and lay a hand on his shoulder. He seemed to glow at that moment, as if illuminated from something inside. Ciel could see the brightness wreathed around him. Locks of hair blue-black like the shade of midnight, like his own hair, moved back and forth, coming down and off his face and riding the wind like the fluttering wings of a Magpie.

“Why do you do it?”

“Because I can. Because I have to. Because someone has to.”

Ciel’s gaze swept to the line of yellow Birch trees undulating gently back and forth in the temperate summertime breeze, their limbs swaying toward each other, coy and lazy and intimate, while the faint rustle of the wind through the leaves created hushed sounds like the whispers of secrets.

“For what reason? For what recompense?”

“There is no recompense. This is my duty. You are what you do. You are the choices that you make. This is what I do and who I am.”

Sebastian bounded up to Ciel, galloping circles around his tiny master before running his paws against the boy’s chest and licking his face, declaring his love and devotion, begging to be petted and loved in return. Ciel laughed and acquiesced, scratching behind the beast’s ears and running his hand over his face and neck.

Everything was clear and stark, sharp and beautiful.

They both stood there watching while the world spun around them. The languorous Summer melted into Autumn, and Autumn congealed into Winter, and finally the cold, frozen Winter splintered, its outer shell crystallizing and shattering, the sugar-dust of it falling down on him like the white feathers of a dove, in a rain of petals and floating dandelions. All of it spinning and spinning, surrounding him like a flock of whirling dervishes. Everything changes. Everything that dies is born again. 

“Who protects you?”

Vincent smiled. Said nothing. Closed his eyes and tilted his head up to feel the sun’s warmth as its rays trickled down his face.

In the distance, the rolling clouds lined the horizon like blue-tinted cotton-candy mountains. Ciel looked up to see the rays of light, pink and hazy and shimmering through a snowfall of cherry blossoms. The sun was incandescent and he wanted to look directly at it, to see it and understand it. But his father had told him not to, that it would burn, so instead he closed his eyes and tilted his head toward its warmth and radiance, so that he could see the ghost of it through the diaphanous skin of his eyelids and feel its rays caress his skin like a flow of tears.

He would do this until his vision became blurry from the sheer white-hot purity of the light, and when he would open his eyes and look around, he would see tiny fractures of gold and yellow and red blanketing the world like the misty, ephemeral lights of fireflies, like the insubstantial ungraspable contours of a memory.

An he would close his eyes again and again, keeping them closed, knowing with the full, indominable certainty of a child that when he opened them, his father would be there with his hand resting on his shoulder, and everything would smell like springtime and rain-mist and petrichor; and the sun would be there, a yellow, permanent orb against a storybook-blue sky. And he would be loved and enveloped still in the warmth and glow and incandescence of the world.

And Ciel would blink. And blink again. Trying to extend the life of those shimmering lights as they danced over his field of vision.

And Ciel blinks. Opens his eyes to see nothing. And blinks again, seeing only darkness. Thinking he has gone blind. Everything is black.

His eyes finally become focused and he realizes that it is simply night-time, cloud-shrouded and moonless, and he is in the cemetery at the outer periphery of the Estate, staring at twin gravestones lying under a broken-backed willow tree. Everything is motionless in the stagnant night air, the scent of nightshade and oleander invading his nostrils with their unwelcome sickly-sweet fragrance. The endless silence of the night eventually becomes suffocatingly claustrophic in its indolence.

“Come Sebastian. Let’s go,” Ciel says, and feels the shadowed darkness behind him coalesce into the form of his butler, and follow him out of the Phantomhive family cemetery, trailing a respectful distance behind.

*****

It was astonishing thing to behold, how quickly Ciel took to the role of chairman of Funtom Corp. A grasp of human nature at its basest and most wretched can be a true asset in the business world, the young lord quickly learned - far more valuable than any formal edification in finance, economics, accounting or the like. Funtom Corp has been able to conquer lands and seas previously uncharted by his father, with Ciel setting the course and leading at the helm increasingly as often as Sebastian. Ciel had come down from the sidelines to play the game, no longer content to have his black knight, his loyal general, carry out the battle on his own. A shared understanding of human weakness, depravity, frailty, had lead to a strangely deep-rooted understanding, an unspoken bond stronger than any contract.

And the sense of power, the feeling of agency it gave him, felt like something given back to him after everything had been ripped away. He was no longer that tiny little boy, fragile, tortured and humiliated, easily discounted and left for dead. It felt like David felling Goliath, though of course Ciel did have to admit – at least to himself – that he was armed with substantially more effective a weapon than a sling and stone.

Still, it was a reversal of fortune.

And in it, the young earl could see the battle inside of him play out in the world outside. His ‘enemies’ could then take physical form. They no longer had to reside in the deepest recesses and most secluded corners of his mind, as some conflation and amalgamation of images and memories, contorted with anger and bitterness.

There could now be an outlet.

His enemies could be all around him, anyone that intended – or the earl thought intended – to best him, to trick him, to defeat him somehow. And he could now annihilate them. Powered by forces he thought best left unknown, shielded by his dark knight, sitting upon his invulnerable black steed, he could feel invincible. Those monsters who had killed his parents, caged him, tortured him, humiliated him, they had vanished without a trace, they had remained unvanquished. But he did not have to sit idly by, waiting for them to return to finish what they had started. He could fashion new enemies to defeat, new adversaries to crush, new monsters to kill.

It then came as no surprise that, when the letters started to arrive from the Queen, the young Earl was more than willing to take his father’s place as England’s Guard Dog, to immerse himself in these assignments, to launch into another battle, to set upon to eradicate another set of enemies.

And since the earl much preferred the fiery passions of wrath over the gnawing ache of despair, Ciel took to vanquishing these new enemies with the reckless, wilful certainty of a fool tilting at windmills.

*****

If London had a soul - a psyche-, it would be a fractured one.

If London had a heart, it would be as coal-black as the smokestacks rising from its standing army of dirt- and soot-covered chimneys.

Adjacent to the world of wealth and excess - his young master’s world - lies one of absolute destitution and misery. London’s masses trudge down in the mud while the rich and fortuned float above them, ensconced in a cloud of their own unearned prosperity. London is one city for the prince and another for the pauper. London is one city for the lawful and another for the lawless. London is one city for the blessed and another for the damned.

London expands and consumes, eats and shits, while its centre withers from disease and infestation.

Indigence breeds hopelessness, and hopelessness breeds desperation, and desperation slowly morphs into resentment and rage. Under London’s placid surface, slouching through every slum, gathering in every corner like dreck, teeming inside every tenement apartment like cockroaches, is the festering miasma of formless, untethered rage.

London is one city, housing many enclaves; like one body, housing many souls.

If London had a mind, it would be driven mad.

Sebastian cuts a strange figure, floating in the night in the back alleys and inner bowels of the East London district of Whitechapel, moving in deeper and deeper into the schizophrenic murk of the city’s biggest slum. The smell of urine and alcohol and sewage and human depravity chokes the atmosphere, is amplified by the stagnant heat and humidity of the Summer air. The stench of it will reside for days in the nostrils of whomever is unfortunate enough to walk through these quarters and is lucky enough to be able to leave. The inhabitants of the area have of course long ago habituated to the fetor, much like those who work at abattoirs habituate to the incessant wails and screeches of the animals being skinned and slaughtered.

Sebastian glides through it all, otherworldly and untouched.

He has traded his butler’s uniform for a nobleman’s finery. With his hair slicked back and his suit made of imported wool and silk, he looks inhumanely flawless, too perfect and too beautiful. And this is of course done - like everything the demon does - with a great degree of intent and forethought. It would be impossible for him to move through the area unnoticed, so he elects to do the opposite.

He walks in the unpaved road, rain-soaked mud mixed with feces – either of human or horse, he could not be sure – clinging to the soles of his lace-up leather ankle boots. A blue-black sludge flows through the open sewers, its sallowed surface reflecting the light from the nearby rubbish fires. A garland of torn and tattered rags dangle off of clotheslines, hanging motionless in the oppressive night-time air, while an ever-present smog of flies buzzes over everything, feeding and multiplying within the rot and detritus below. Sebastian can hear the errant screams from an alcohol-fueled rage of a brutish husband, followed by the frightened shrieks of a battered wife, followed by the shattering of glass and smashing of furniture, followed by an eerie, unnatural silence; all of it rising and falling in the air like the syncopated rhythms of a dissonant, gruesome symphony.

He finally reaches his destination, a local pub – tucked away inside the last in a row of dilapidated tenement buildings. A man lays unconscious near the entryway, a bottle of whiskey in his hand. His trousers are soaked in the seat with the telltale pattern of urine. It is not clear if he is intoxicated or dead – neither possibility would surprise the demon. Another couple of -lovers- could be spotted mid-fornication in a darkened alleyway. The man, his trousers pooled around his ankles, drills robotic and joyless into the whore as she lays bent over a rubbish bin and stares off into the middle distance, a bored expression on her sad, lined face.

Sebastian eyes this inauspicious welcome for a moment before heading inside into the makeshift headquarters of one Broghan Cahill.                

*****

Ciel had learned through Sebastian of Cahill’s various operations in the drug trade, prostitution, and racketeering. He ran the usual bookmaking and illegal gambling operations, a few brothels and opium dens, and supplemented these with quasi-legitimate businesses, all of which were suspiciously lucrative, their chief roles as fronts for his less-savory commerce so blatantly, ludicrously obvious to anyone who cared to take a closer look.

Though of course, no one ever did, because why should they?

“Would they really run the operation out of so obvious a setting?” Ciel had asked, his astonishment growing with each piece of information put forth by his butler.

“Yes young master, I believe they would. There is no need to hide when there is no one willing to see.”

Cahill’s rise to power within the ranks of London’s criminal underworld, from garden-variety thug to feared crime boss, was as resolute as it was unoriginal – the same combination of bribery and intimidation, of subtle threats and direct shows of force, as that of any other criminal aspirant. He had managed to secure the loyalty and silence of other local businessmen, both the legitimate and less-so, by offering his men as a security and protection force - for a small fee, of course - from the roving gang of violent offenders that terrorize and destroy their neighbourhoods. The fact that these same gangs also happen to be under Cahill’s employ is a rather advantageous and convenient bit of serendipity. As a final act of betrayal, one almost Shakespearian in its grandeur, he arranged for the elimination of his chief mentor so that he might take his place, and managed to pin the murder on the leader of a rival gang.

He has been able to run his operations largely outside the reach of the long arm of the law. The Metropolitan police has revealed itself to be profoundly incompetent and ineffectual. Half of London’s police force are too afraid of him to launch a direct assault, and the other half are – Ciel suspected – on his payroll.

The local politicians and councilmen have become indebted to him after he put a stop to a riot that was purported to occur on election day near the polling station of the district most sympathetic to the incumbent, a riot that of course he himself had been preparing to instigate. Like any skilled chessmaster, Cahill knows how to play both sides of the game. He has become intimately aware of the fact that London’s political world, its business world, its law enforcement, - its ‘polite’ society – are all infected with the same malady of corruption, kept afloat within the same nexus of unspoken debts and hidden alliances, as that of its underworld. Nothing in this world is what it seems. Nothing in this world is clean.

All in all, Cahill has managed to create one of the most powerful, most prolific and most feared criminal operations in London.

Second-most powerful, prolific and feared to be exact. And Ciel suspected that Cahill is not a man who has any tolerance for second place.

“Shall I dispose of him for you, sir?” Sebastian had proffered, regarding his young master across the expanse of Vincent’s – Ciel’s desk in the library of Phantomhive Manor.

“We must be a bit more shrewd than that, Sebastian.” Ciel had volleyed, hands clasped on the smooth, gleaming mahogany surface. “Murdering one’s adversaries is likely not a sustainable long-term strategy. Besides, it lacks elegance.”

“Yes, of course.” Sebastian had smiled lightly, fondly. “We would not want to be inelegant.”

This was not, the young lord reasoned, a battle that would be won by the Queen’s Guard dog. His father had tried to eliminate Cahill’s extensive network of criminal activities. He had attempted to do so through a number of operations with Scotland Yard, all of which were foiled as none of Cahill’s men, none of the people living within his territory, would cooperate. The threat of imprisonment was no match for the threat of spears through their eyes or knives through their tongues, or dead lovers and children, should they find themselves on the receiving end of Cahill’s wrath. Vincent had even attempted to infiltrate the network by planting one of his own men as an undercover informant. He was found several days later, mangled and burned in an abandoned factory, both hands chopped off and his mutilated genitals choked inside his throat. His singed and battered flesh would have been nearly unrecognizable had it not been for the word ‘traitor’ carved in the skin of his chest. His family had to be quickly relocated.

Vincent nevertheless believed in the possibility of decisive victory over evil, of the eradication of wickedness and treachery from London’s infected soul, and chased it like a desert wanderer chasing a mirage.

Vincent, as it would turn out, would have been better off had he been gifted with his son’s cynical pragmatism.

Ciel also happens to possess something that Vincent did not – a complete absence of fear and dread relating to man’s capacity for darkness. Every vile, sadistic and horrid act that could be inflicted upon a person had already been done to the young Earl. It has the effect of leaving one completely inured to the threat of human potential for depravity and sadism.

******

Upon entering the premises, Sebastian is welcomed rather unceremoniously by a duo of Cahill’s bodyguards each wielding a derringer pistol, one of whom he quickly dispatches with a direct jab to the head and repeated uppercuts to his jaw, tossing him to the ground to nurse his dislocated shoulder and mouthful of broken teeth. The second is similarly subdued with an elbow to the face, releasing a sickening crack from the broken bones in his nose and cheeks, and the gurgle of blood in his mouth as he coughs and spits out his broken teeth.

A third man, alerted to the intrusion by the commotion, marches toward the entrance shooting haphazard bullets in the demon’s general direction. All of which Sebastian ducks with little effort before leaping with inhuman speed to grab the gunman’s revolver-wielding wrist with one hand, and his throat with the other, tossing him against the wall as if he were little more than a rag doll. Sebastian’s expression remains impassive as he stares into the man’s bulging and terrified eyes while slamming his fist into the brick wall once, twice, three times, with such force as to both release the handgun so that it drops to the ground, and to break several bones in the gunman’s hand.

A gaggle of henchmen are now gathering around, waved to stay in place by the gunman’s silent orders as Sebastian squeezes his throat with enough force to choke his voice but not -yet- his breath.

“I am here as an emissary for Lord Phantomhive,” he says in a smooth, mechanical tone, not taking his eyes off his current captive. “I am seeking a simple conversation with Cahill, nothing more,” he finishes, speaking loudly enough to be heard on the other end of the hall.

Sensing that he may need a bit of a theatrical flair in order to buttress his argument for the gathering spectators, Sebastian lifts the gunman easily up by throat so that his legs dangle just off the ground like a marionette, and his arms claw desperately at the demon’s hand clasped in a vice-grip around his windpipe

“It’s alright. Let him through,” says a gravelly voice, bored and unperturbed, floating above the fray and over from the other end of the hall.

Sebastian unclenches his hand, opening his fist and releasing the gunman to fall to the ground. He turns to walk toward the table at the other end of the room, spinning around with such swiftness and grace that he has already begun to march away by the time the gunman crumples to the floor, sputtering and coughing and running his fingers over his bruised and crushed throat.

Sebastian’s arrival at the tavern has brought with it a hush that falls like a cloak upon the patrons and workers. The air is thick and heavy from the stifling heat and smoke, and the rancid odour of sweat and sin. The boisterous music has died down and the cacophony of the room has dimmed, as all the tavern’s occupants watch Sebastian march slowly over to Cahill’s table in the corner of the hall, their eyes tracking him in rapt attention as though they were spectators in the Colosseum watching the newest condemned being shepherded toward the lion’s den.

“I was wondering when her majesty’s new lapdog would come sniffing around these parts,” Cahill says, his tone sardonic, not lifting his eyes from his meal of braised steak and onions.

Sebastian stands opposite Cahill until he waves his hand in the general direction of his associates in a gesture of dismissal, motioning for them to leave the adults to conduct their business. His eyes sweep over the man’s balding, meaty cranium, gleaming with a sliver of light reflected from the nearby torch, and beads of sweat dripping down the scars and craters on his face. His gaze becomes momentary fixed upon the half-masticated piece of meat currently circling around the crime lord’s partially-open mouth. Cahill leans back in his barrel-back wooden chair, takes a leisurely sip from his glass of whiskey to wash down the bite, and finally looks up to smile indulgently at the demon.

Seeing that no polite offer is forthcoming, Sebastian takes an unbidden seat in one of the vacated chairs opposite Cahill. The absence of operatic violence and bloodshed causes a wave of disinterest to ripple through the room, as the music sputters back to life and the occupants return to their briefly suspended business of gambling and drinking and whoring.

“Though ‘puppy’ would be a better descriptor for the boy,” Cahill continues as he runs a yellowed handkerchief over a sweat-glistened brow and crooked, dented nose, broken more than once during his previous days as lowly street thug. “Pity, what happened to his father. I had meant to send a bouquet to convey my condolences, but…” he shrugs dismissively, pushing his plate away, and takes a draw from the cigar perched between his thumb and forefinger.

“You would be wise not to underestimate the young lord simply due to his youth,” Sebastian says as he runs a thumb over the length of the delicate chain currently hidden from view in his fisted hand.

“Let me guess; he takes after his father in foolish endeavors,” Cahill responds, not deigning to look at Sebastian, seemingly too fascinated by the coiled threads of smoke rising from his cigar, “He wishes to eliminate me.”

“If his wish was to eliminate you, you would be dead by now.” Cahill looks up and arches an amused brow at his interlocutor’s impertinence. Sebastian stares back, his voice even and matter-of-fact. “The young lord wishes to do business with you.”

Cahill smirks at this. “Is that so?” He leans back and runs his hand over his chin before taking another draw from his cigar. “An alliance of convenience? You would so defile the good name and reputation of the Guard Dog?”

“That is correct. I believe it would be to your benefit.”

“Elaborate for me please, Mr. Michaelis. What is it that you have that would benefit me?”

“It is quite simple. The Earl will leave you alone, and turn a blind eye to your business dealings. He will use the formidable power and resources at his disposal as the Queen’s Guard Dog to eliminate your competition. In return, he asks that you perform some covert … ‘contract work’; deal with some of the less savory aspects of the work of the Guard Dog.”

“Oh, is that all?” Cahill huffs with an acerbic bite to his words, carefully calibrated for the benefit of his gathered associates and underlings.

Sebastian continues, undeterred. “As well, we would expect you to keep your activities to a low thrum. You may go unpoliced as long as your dealings do not bubble up from the underworld to the surface, to disturb those in polite society.”

Cahill picks up the whiskey glass and swirls it to watch the whorl of tawny liquid over ice. He takes another gulp of whiskey, swallows and sucks his teeth as he sizes up his strangely unflappable visitor.

“Enlighten me; why do you think that you can eliminate Wallace’s gang? Rayburn’s? Why does that boy think that he can succeed where his father failed?”

“Because the young Earl has something his father did not.” Sebastian responds, his tone cool and his gaze steely. “He has me.”

A laugh bubbles up through Cahill’s throat. He continues to swirl the whiskey glass in his hand so that the soft clink of ice against crystal can melt into the background din of distorted voices and jangling music. “And here I was afraid that I would be starved for entertainment tonight.”

Sebastian maintains his stoic countenance and stares intently at the crime lord. “What exactly do you find amusing about this arrangement?”

“Your hubris, Mr. Michaelis.” Cahill barks, the affected geniality finally beginning to melt off his face. “And your ignorance. That is what I find amusing.”

The performative smirk has now completely left Cahill’s lips, and something much darker comes over his face as he slams his whiskey glass down and leans forward to rest his elbow on the table.

“Allow me to explain something to you.” Cahill starts, pointing his cigar in the demon’s direction for emphasis, “London’s seedy underbelly, its slums, its rookeries, are not in the hands of the police or the parliament or Her Majesty the Queen. We run London, Mr. Michaelis. Us. The underworld.”

Sebastian knows this of course. As does his young lord. London’s poor outnumber the rich by a vast margin, the lawless men outnumber the police by umpteen to one. In a direct uprising, were these men to grasp and seize upon the advantage that lays in their numbers, the complete ambush of the police and the Law is a near inevitability, and any victory snatched from the jaws of defeat would assuredly be pyrrhic in all respects. Cahill’s men risk very little. They would, at worse, be facing a few weeks or months in jail.

Or perhaps death. It is all the same.

Neither eventuality strikes fear into a man who has been given nothing, and thus has nothing to lose. Cahill knows this, has built an empire upon its foundation of rage and desperation.

“Collectively, we have an inexhaustible army of angry, disaffected men – men that polite society has shut away. Your lot – that boy’s lot - are fat and complacent. Our men are hungry. These men enlist every day in our legion, and our numbers become larger and larger with each passing day as London’s rich line their coffers. We have a military whose size can rival that of Caesar’s.” Cahill sits back, twirls the cigar between his fingers, and smiles as he nears the end of his soliloquy, “So, I have to ask, Mr Michaelis; where is your fleet to sweep the Roman seas?”

I am the young lord’s fleet.”

Cahill snorts with theatrical exaggeration at this, as is expected. He takes another leisurely drag from his cigar and continues to study the demon.

“This sounds like rather messy work for the young Earl. Surely, the Queen’s Guard Dog would not want to get his hands dirty with such unseemly business.”

“The young Earl will not have to get his hands dirty,” comes the reply, “he has me.”

Cahill continues to chuckle derisively as he sits back in his chair.

“And if I refuse, you will what? Kill me?”

“Again, you are much more valuable to the young Earl alive. And we suspect you will not refuse.”

Cahill shifts in his seat and purses his lips as he contemplates his strange and imperturbable guest. He is finding himself increasingly unnerved by this exchange, and discomfited by the seemingly fearless, inscrutable, uncannily stoic figure sitting opposite him. His gaze falls down to his visitor’s lap, where he catches a glint of something shiny clutched inside the other’s hand. He looks back up, chews on the inside of his mouth and narrows his eyes. Waits to see which one will blink in this strange game of chicken within which they seem to have found themselves. Finally, he looks away and starts to stand up.

“Well, this was -enlightening-.” He says as he starts to motion toward his bodyguards to draw their weapons. “But you will understand that I am a busy man, and you are overstaying your welcome.”

Sebastian does not make any moves to stand. Remains in his seat, as Cahill begins to chew the inside of his cheeks in irritation.

“Mr. Michaelis, I have grown bored of your company. Your offer does not interest me, and you have brought me nothing worth considering.” He gestures for his men to approach. “Now, leave peacefully, or you will be leaving in pieces.”

With one graceful move, Sebastian raises his hand and brings it to his face. A silken white gloved fingertip is gripped by an even whiter row of teeth, and the glove pulled off Sebastian’s contract hand. With an elegant flick of his wrist, he coaxes the fires from the nearby candles and torches and oil lamps in the room so that they coalesce into a single flame, roaring above their heads.

The indistinct background din of voices and music in the room becomes strident and panicked, snapping to sharp focus to their corner of the room like a meandering rope pulled taut. All eyes are now on trained on them, as the music stops and the clamorous voices turn into terrified screams. 

Cahill looks up to see the conflagration crackle and roar, not with the stuttering of a flame but with the vicious howl of an inferno. He watches the smouldering orb split into several ribbons of red and yellow and black, each chasing the next as they spiral around and encircle his desk like a pack of Bengal tigers, leaving the two of them facing off in the middle of a ring of fire.

All of Cahill’s gathered men back off, tripping and falling down as they rush to escape the fire’s path as its flames begin to lick up toward Cahill’s table. Sebastian can hear the stampede of feet against hardwood, and can feel the tremor and quake of the pinewood floorboards as the tavern's occupants try to flee the spreading blaze.

Smoke begins to fill the room so that the screams and cries are layered upon by sounds of coughing and chocking on its fumes.

Cahill stares wide-eyed, and the flames can be seen dancing in the irises of his eyes. He struggles and mostly fails to maintain his detached, unruffled composure. Finally, he turns to Sebastian, his eyes blazing and his voice a growl.

“Who do you think you are - walking in here with some paltry offer and even paltrier threats and cheap parlour tricks?” he snarls, his jaw clenched and his lips curled over his teeth, panting with rage at the sheer affront of it all. Sebastian’s eyes wander to rest on the sweat pooling in the channel between Cahill’s lip and nose, “You think you can intimate me? Do you have any idea what I can do to you? To that boy?” he stands up quickly, pushing his chair so that it falls back and tumbles to the ground. He leans forward, resting his weight on hands, fingers splayed on the table, and glares down at Sebastian.

“I could kill you right now,” he sneers, “but I would far rather drag every single person you care about in here and then slice them open and tear them to pieces right in front of your eyes so you can watch them bleed to death before I slice you open and choke you to death with your own entrails.”

The demon remains impassive, maddeningly unperturbed, his expression betraying no emotions. Sebastian clasps his hands on his lap, blinks and casts his eyes down to the object clutched between his fingers, its golden interwoven chains catching the light from the surrounding flames. Cahill grits his teeth and nearly growls, tries to find his centre as he feels himself becoming increasingly unhinged in the face of this unknowable threat.

“you think you can threaten to kill me? You have no idea what you have set into motion!”

“Again, we do not wish to kill you,” the demon speaks slowly, voice coloured with the slightest hint of impatience, as if explaining the rules of a simple game to a particularly dim-witted child. “The young master finds you a much greater asset alive.”

He waits a beat, then starts again “Although, it should be said that we could kill you, if we so chose.” His expression darkens as he speaks. “Or anyone else for that matter. The Queen’s Guard Dog can reach anyone at any time. There really is no hiding from us.” He punctuates this with a wave of his hand coaxing the flames around them to reach up to the ceiling, so that shadows dance across his otherwise pristine, moonlight-pale face.

Cahill sputters and growls and reaches underneath the table for his revolver, as Sebastian stays still and readies to play his trump card. “Your daughter. She lives with her mother, correct?”

Cahill’s gaze snaps back to the demon’s face as though jerked by an elastic band. His hand remains perched over his revolver, frozen in place like a petrified snake.

“You were wise to hide her away, given your line of business.” Sebastian continues, his expression now menacing and sinister, “One must always be careful to conceal one’s vulnerabilities.” He plays with the golden chain in his hand, the faint glimmer of it reaching Cahill’s eyes once again. “And the Celtic Sea air is particularly good for a young child’s constitution.”

Cahill pales as he continues to stare, his mind turning to static and his heart hammering away. He grips the handle of his revolver and tries to maintain his composure, tries to find some way to grasp control of the situation like someone caught in quicksand, or a fly caught in a spider’s web.

“You’re – you’re bluffing. There is no way that you could find her.”

Sebastian finally reveals his hand, opens his palm to show Cahill his final move, his checkmate.

“This, I believe, is the locket you gave her last year. For her sixth birthday if I am not mistaken,” he says as he drops the necklace on the table. The tiny clink of it as it hits the table surface seems deafening, seems to overtake the ambient commotion of the patrons and the roar of the flames.

“You should teach her not to speak to strangers. Men can do such vile things to little girls.”

At this exact point, Sebastian lets the blithely servile butler façade melt from his exterior. His eyes become slit-pupiled and reptilian, begin to flash crimson, and his incisors elongate into snake-like fangs. His human form becomes less substantial and more vaporous, and seems to expand to engulf the room. Plumes of smoke and ash, darker than the darkest obsidian, begin to spill from his form and run along the edges of the room and up the walls, their tendrils reaching up like vines, before filling toward the centre of the hall so that their fumes run noxious against the lungs and throats of Cahill’s men. They coil around Cahill, enveloping him like the prey of a python snake, while a tendril of smoke reaches inside his throat to claw at the walls of his lungs with each inhale.

And for a brief instant, Cahill catches a glimpse of the demon’s true form. And it causes a flash of pure terror that cuts to his core.

“Never settle for the kill when you can strive for the pain.” The demon rasps, his voice no longer human, no longer like anything recognizable. The sound of it appearing as if everywhere simultaneously; echoing off the walls, throughout the room, inside Cahill’s head. “I imagine you should know that.”

In the periphery of his vision, the demon sees the bullets coming out of the barrel of the gun and hurtling toward him.

But not before-

He hears the impact of the atmosphere around the barrel as it expands into sound waves with each ejected bullet.

But not before-

He sees the finger of one of Cahill’s men press again and again against the pistol’s trigger.

But not before-

He feels the air and smoke move around the gunman’s arm as he raises his weapon and takes aim at the demon’s head.

But not before-

He senses the idea of the assault forming in the mind of his assassin. Emerging from nothing into something. An idea, an impulse, to be transformed into action. To be made manifest through a series of electrical and chemical and mechanical impulses within the brain and tissue and muscle and steel.

Is it time?

Time is malleable thing for a demon.

It weaves in and out of consciousness, like a string woven through a lattice patchwork. Years, decades, even centuries can pass in the blink of an eye.

But one second, one instant, one moment in time can expand to fill an entire universe.

It is said that in the first fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second in time at the beginning of time as we know it, all the matter and energy in the universe burst forth from nothingness to fill a space the size of a galaxy, and the forces that hold the universe together began to peel off from each other, setting into motion the space and time and world as it now exists.

The demon requires infinitely less time than that to identify the gunshot at the moment of its inception in the hitman’s mind, map out the trajectory of the bullets, and catch each of them gracefully and decisively, as if capturing butterflies with a net.

And when he does, he holds the bullets, smoke still billowing up in undulating patterns from their crushed shell casings, out in his palm. He turns his hand over to spill them on the hardwood surface of Cahill’s table, where they fall in beats like pellets of iced rain in a hailstorm. 

“What the hell are you?” Cahill breathes, fixing the inert bullets lying on the table surface like casualties of war lining muddied, rain-soaked trenches.

“I am the young lord Phantomhive’s faithful battalion.” The demon responds simply, as his face melts back into that of Sebastian. All the smoulder and ash and black dust within the room retract into the reassembling body of the human sitting in front of the crime lord.

The fire dims and dies out.

The smoky clouds start to dissipate.

The room is bathed in black. Now completely, deathly silent, as if deference and awe to what it has witnessed.

Sebastian finally stands up, as Cahill’s men - those who have not been knocked out or smoked into unconsciousness - stumble back to move away from his path.

“I do hope that you will consider our offer. It is in your best interest not to make an enemy out of the young lord.”

“Why is that?” Cahill says as he stares at the smoke-strewn bullets lying impotent and unobtrusive on his desk, and a look of something like defeat begins to cloud his face. “Because he has you?”

“No.” The demon states in a clipped tone. “Because, unlike you, he has nothing left to lose.” He turns toward the door as the crowd of Cahill’s men part to clear his path. “Good day, gentlemen.”

*****

One can never fully eliminate crime, never fully eliminate chaos and unrest, just as one can never fully excise darkness and evil from the heart of man. One can at best hope to tame it. To contain it. If one were to try to eliminate it, chop the monster off at the neck, another would simply sprout up in its stead like the multiple heads of a Hydra snake.

An equilibrium, an uneasy balance, is the best one could hope for. Besides which, Ciel had reasoned, if one had to choose between Cahill and the successor that would assuredly ascend to fill the vacuum should he be eliminated - well, Cahill at least had the benefit of being the devil Ciel knew. And Ciel had – by his own estimation – developed rather a talent for making deals with devils.

*****

Sebastian makes his way back out of the tavern largely unmolested by Cahill’s crew of henchmen, hired hands, or the rookery’s inhabitants. The simple fact of his undisturbed journey through the area after making so clear a threat to the crime lord is evidence enough of the impression he has made.

He walks through the winding roads and narrow alleyways, and around the periphery of the slum, and finally arrives at the carriage where his young master is waiting patiently for his return. He climbs aboard and sits on the cushioned bench next to the young Earl.

“So, did they enjoy your little magic show?” Ciel asks after the carriage has started to make its way back to the London townhouse.

Sebastian smiles and stares out the carriage window. “I believe that I sent a clear message, yes.”

“Very good.” Ciel says as he studies his knight and sword. “So, what now?”

“Now, we wait.” Sebastian states as he turns to meet his young master’s gaze. Ciel continues to study him, continues to observe and scrutinize Sebastian in his nobleman garb. Sebastian stares back, watching the young lord watching him, watching his own reflection in the limpid pool of his master’s uncovered eye, letting his eyes drift over the contour of his young master’s face. He feels the length of the young lord’s thigh as it abuts his own.

Eventually, the boy reaches out with his hand and musses up Sebastian’s carefully combed-back hair, allowing thick, ink-black locks to fall back over the demon’s eyes and around his face.

“There. That’s better,” Ciel says after he is satisfied, his tone soft, and his lips curved with the tiniest of smiles, “you look ridiculous with your hair slicked back.”

Sebastian turns to look ahead, his own lips curving into a smile, as he feels his master’s head lean softly against his arm. 

*****

*****

*****

The demon stood on the charred and devastated ruins of the last stronghold of what remained of the rebellion against the Master and his army. 

He was flanked by a phalanx of soldiers on each side. They had already wrested control of the last of the rebel-held territory. All that remained was this last encampment housing the bandit chief, his family, and a few surviving acolytes and followers. The demon let his eyes sweep over the singed and mutilated bodies littering the ground, some of whom were killed by the spears and swords of his Master’s soldiers, and the rest burnt to ash by the fire the demon himself had coaxed and commanded.

As ordered by the Master, he had driven a blade into the bandit chief’s throat and lacerated his windpipe before sinking the same weapon into his belly, and had left the man to crumple to the ground, sputtering and bleeding, unable to make a sound; not a plea or a wail. Or a goodbye. Dying, but not dead. Not yet.

He had done so, as ordered, in audience of the man’s wife and two young children, all three of whom now lay huddled and whimpering in the corner of the room.

Of course, his orders did not end there.

He was not to finish off the wife in a similar manner, but rather to ruin her as a last act, a coda to the bandit’s decimation, and as the final scene in the theatre of his wasted life.

The demon walked over the young woman sitting on the floor gripping her children against her chest and weeping near-silent tears. She did not fight him as he dragged her by the hair away from her children’s screaming, clawing embrace. She had already accepted her fate, had seen the futility of resisting. She remained immobile and nearly lifeless as he went through the motions of bending her over the remains of a marble table, in full view of her ashen, blood-drained husband and stunned, terror-numb children. In a slow, automatic gesture, he grasped both her hands and clutched them behind her back in one fist. 

“It is not enough to eliminate your enemies.” His Master had explained as he laid out the details of his new ‘assignment’. “You must leave a trail of terror in the wake of the destruction.” The Master was rather adept at the art of terror, as he was in the art of conquest. And the art of death.

The demon thought about that, as he reached down to pull up the hem of the woman’s tattered dress and push it over her naked torso, and tried to wrap his mind around the vague sense of distaste that seemed to permeate his being.

Later, he set fire to what remained of the encampment and the nearby houses in the village – anywhere suspected of housing, hiding or sheltering any of the rebel bandits or their supporters. There would be nothing left of the uprising. It was not enough to kill. One had to bring about anguish, despair. In order to truly destroy, one had to hurt.

“Never settle for the kill when you can strive for the pain.” The Master’s voice rang in his mind. “I imagine you should know that.”

 

Chapter Text

Is it time?

The demon came to with a start.

With a lightening-quick motion, he wrapped his hand around the weapon perched over his chest.

He had been lying on the cot in his bedchamber, resting. Sleeping. Something of a rare indulgence for the demon but one made necessary due to injuries sustained in the latest battle.

Now of course he was fully awake, his fingers clasped around the blade of the dagger, the hilt of which was held by the Master, dangling only an inch above his flesh. Rays of mid-morning sun reflected off its gleaming copper surface, casting a shaft of jaundiced light on the demon’s face as he glared up at the Master. He tightened his grip on the sharp, serrated edges of the blade so that blood began to drip down his fisted hand in rivulets, and fell in drip-drops onto the woolen fabric of his tunic.

His Master began to frantically shake the hilt of the dagger to try to dislodge it from his servant’s vise-grip hold, as the demon sat up from his supine position. The demon continued to stare menacingly at his Master, who looked increasingly unnerved by his inhuman strength, and was clearly beginning to doubt the wisdom of his current chosen course of actions.  Suddenly, the demon opened his fist and released his grasp on the blade, and allowed the dagger to propel forth by the force of his Master’s fist - not even cringing as its sharpened, saw-toothed edge plunged into his chest. His eyes, crimson and fiery and glowing, never broke from the Master’s.

The Master, stunned and open-mouthed, watching the blade glide through skin like butter without so much as flinch from his servant, released his hold on the handle and staggered back. The demon looked down at his chest with almost scientific curiosity, seeing only the handle protrude from his torso, as the entirety of the blade was buried within his flesh. Blood was dripping down his abdomen, the ruby stain of it blooming like a desert rose against the tan fabric of his tunic. It trickled down onto the mud-and-stone floor, mixing with the dirt and drying into a coagulate in the shape of the constellations. He eventually wrapped his own contract hand around the handle and pulled the blade out with no more fanfare than if removing a splinter. 

A bronze dagger blessed by a high priest, the demon surmised quickly as he studied the weapon. Believed to ward off evil spirits.

Pure superstition and make-belief. It had no effect on him.

He turned the dagger, stained with the drying rust-colored blood of his own human form, over and around in his hand, and studied it with dispassion, before standing up from his cot and turning his attention back to the Master.

It was of course not the first time that his masters had developed misgivings about the nature of the contract, and taken action to circumvent its inevitable outcome. Greed and enmity may have been the motivating force behind the contract’s inception, but these impulses were invariably overtaken by self-preservation.

His Master, eyes now wide with terror, had started to stumble back away from him and toward the entrance of the servant’s chamber.

“Know your place, demon! You can’t hurt me - I order it!” he said, his voice uncertain and wavering with fear.

“Is that so?” The demon approached him, slow and with intent, as his human skin began to melt off his face. Smoke and ash and sulfur emanated from his human form, blotting out the sun’s rays and smothering the room with darkness, as a maelstrom of bitter, icy gusts surrounded the Master, keeping him trapped in the eye of the storm churning inside his own palace.

The Master pressed his back up up against the wall as the demon stalked towards him. “You are not attempting to break the contract, are you?” he said, his voice now harsh and dissonant, like a howling wind in a hailstorm. It was nothing like that of the docile and obedient human servant he pretended to be. His human form was scattering into the tempest, as his body became more ash and smoke than flesh and bone. There were now only orbs of pure molten red where his eyes had been, as he took the shape of his master’s nightmares.

He coiled his increasingly insubstantial form around his Master’s, trapping him against the wall. “You are not having second thoughts, I hope?” his voice thundered out from everywhere, causing a tremor to run through the walls and foundations of the palace.

The Master, at this point shivering and shaking with fear, began to bargain. He offered up the souls of the peasants and slaves in the land. “As many as you want,” he implored. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands of souls, all easily rounded up now that he had unbridled power over the inhabitants.   

“Is that not a superior contract – untold numbers of souls instead of one?”

“NO!” The demon howled, “My contract was with you, Master, and the contract is binding.”

The demon finally drifted back, and released his unearthly grasp on his Master so that he fell crumpled into a heap on the ground. The Master watched in petrified fascination as the billowing smoke and ash receded, the roiling winds died down, and the demon’s face and body began to regain the shape of his human servant facade.

Everything became quiet and still. The sun’s beams began to float into the room to chase away the blackness. The bedchamber and the servant inside it now looked exactly as they had when the Master had creeped into the room just a few moments before.

“Now then, Master,” the demon spoke, calm and even, as though nothing had come to pass, “I suggest we focus on the final phase of your plan to-.”.

“Demon!” The Master snarled as he gathered himself up from the floor, “You foul, revolting, evil creature!”

“Oh no, Master. Make no mistake – I am simply an instrument of your desires. Any act I commit is under your orders, any blood shed is on your hands. Do not deceive yourself as to which of us is the more foul, revolting; which one of us is the more evil.”

*****

*****

*****

“I simply cannot abide London.” The young Earl’s voice rings out in the darkness, seeming to slice through the soot-encrusted fog shrouding the warm London night. The moon is perched in the Eastern sky, appearing ghostly and smudged-out behind the curtain of dust and smog that has ascended from the cityscape like steam rising from a recently poured cup of Earl Grey. The only other light is coming from the modest smattering of streetlamps that line the streets of the East End quarters.

“It is absolutely intolerable.” Ciel declares, stating this proclamation as if it were the gospel truth. He looks to Sebastian for validation, and watches his butler stare back at him with a fond smile treading across his lips.

“Honestly, how can anyone choose to live here?” he continues as he paces back and forth on the crumbling cobblestone sidewalk, gingerly sidestepping the foul-smelling puddles of sludge.

They are in one of the slums that hang off the outskirts of the city, awaiting one of Cahill’s lieutenants, dispatched by the crime lord to meet them with information. A main transport route for imports from India is suspected to have been tapped by one of the more powerful crime syndicates in London, and unknown amounts of imported opium siphoned off to the black markets. The Queen’s Guard Dog has been summoned to assist in intercepting the trafficking; to try to clean up the mess, or at the very least, to sweep the whole thing under a convenient rug.

Cahill had seemed unusually, suspiciously eager to disclose any information that he might be privy to in an effort to assist the young lord. Ciel had of course considered the possibility of a ruse, a trap that they may be straying into under false pretenses, either to be ambushed by Cahill’s own men or those of another rival gang. But Cahill has revealed himself to be, of all things, a businessman and a pragmatist, and Ciel suspects that he simply sees an opportunity to fell a competitor. At least temporarily. Such operations are never down for long, and the beast will surely lurch back up to full height soon enough.

As the Guard Dog and his loyal first knight wait under the early-evening moon, people spill forth from every doorway and every street corner, lumbering home after an endless day of drudgery, stooped over as if carrying on their backs the accumulated load of yet another day of the insults and rebukes, the humiliations and disappointments of life in a diseased and decaying metropolis. A beggar woman, emaciated and haggard, can be seen crouched in the corner, her hand outstretched and her eyes vacant, holding a screaming baby clutched to her chest. She repeats the same supplication for alms as if in a trance while passersby walk on in willful obliviousness.

Ciel takes this all in with the detached curiosity of a tourist.

The young Earl decidedly does not blend in, though dressed in his street urchin’s clothes, a knitted cap pulled over his face to partially cover his eye-patch. It is a rather half-hearted attempt to hide the fact that a Phantomhive, much less the Queen’s Guard Dog, would find himself venturing in these murky and polluted parts, consorting with these murky and polluted people. Even in his threadbare shirt and tattered and patched-up knee-pants, it is impossible to conceal the young lord’s aristocratic bearing, and the pristine beauty of one who has yet been untouched by a single day of hard labour.

“Is there some law of the universe that precludes holding clandestine meetings in aesthetically pleasing locations?” Ciel says as he takes note of an old man crouched down over a sewer well, possibly mid-defecation, “Must it always be surrounded by grime and filth and human misery?”

Ciel is in a strange mood tonight, the demon notes. Oddly energized. Despite the caustic sting of his words, Sebastian can see that Ciel is buoyed by a peculiar giddiness, as he typically is on those nights when they tread out to seedier parts of London to sniff out crime and sin and wickedness at the Queen’s behest. He has more and more elected to accompany Sebastian as the assignments accumulate, saddling his butler with the added burden of keeping his young, breakable master safe from harm in addition to closing down whatever opium den, raiding whatever brothel, cleaning up after whatever gangwar, and performing whatever dog-and-pony show deemed necessary by Her Majesty in order to maintain the illusion that the Rule of Law, and not the ruthlessness of men, still run dominant in what essentially amounts to London’s septic tank and landfill.

Sebastian suspects that Ciel enjoys the thrill of it – the proximity to danger, the exhilarating high of flying so close to the flames. Of course, under Sebastian’s watchful gaze, cocooned inside his butler’s impenetrable wings, any danger to the young Earl will ever only exist in the wild fancies of his own imagination.

Still.

The demon finds that he does not mind. This is what his young master wants. And, as with everything else his young master wants, it has now become what Sebastian wants.

They have been waiting for Cahill’s emissary for quite some time in the same area, watching the London night unfurl its skeletal bat’s wings, as Ciel’s initial exuberance slowly begins to become encroached by a creeping restlessness.

“Does no one value punctuality anymore?” he continues in the same dry, sardonic tone, as he kicks a pebble into a nearby puddle, watching it scatter the reflected light like a shattered looking-glass. “I shall have to compose a tersely worded letter to his superior.”

Sebastian leans against a decaying road embankment, stuffs his hands in his trench-coat pockets, and smiles once again as he looks on with amusement and affection at the spectacle of his young master trying to carve a new shape for himself in the mold of hardened, disaffected anti-hero in the drama of his own life.

“I sense some degree of sulkiness, my lord. It is past your bedtime.”

Ciel shoots him a glare before kicking another pebble into the puddle.

“I am perfectly capable of handling this on my own if the young master prefers to retire for the night.”

“Ugh. Do stop being trite, Sebastian. It’s unseemly.” He volleys back, with no real venom behind his words.

He then begins to tinker with his revolver, taking it out of its holster around his waist, and running his fingers over the ridged edges of its cylinder. Sebastian has been instructing him on how to fire a handgun, and after the initial rough start of the young lord becoming accustomed to absorbing the recoil with his tiny body, and learning to compensate for the lost peripheral vision when aiming with one covered eye, he has revealed himself to be a surprisingly adept marksman. His marks have thus far been limited to stationary targets, or some of the less spry local fauna that populate the estate grounds, and Sebastian wonders how long it will be before the young Earl will wish to graduate to human targets.

“Sebastian, are you familiar with the game of Russian Roulette?” Ciel asks in a teasing, almost seductive tone, as he angles up the weapon and points it in the distance just to the side of his butler. “A revolver is loaded with one single bullet, and the players take turns spinning the cylinder, placing the barrel against their heads, and pulling the trigger.” He points the barrel of the gun at Sebastian, smiling slyly with almost dangerous excitement as he cocks the hammer. “Isn’t that fascinating? I suppose nothing beats the thrill of gambling with one’s life.” Ciel lowers the revolver to his lap and stares at it with a dreamy expression. “Money can be so trifling in comparison,” he muses quietly before uncocking it and placing it back in the holster.

He walks past Sebastian, over to the lowered part of the embankment, and hoists himself up on the stone surface. He sits perched, straightening his back and swelling his chest, and balances himself on his palms gripped to the ledge. He then lets his legs dangle over the edge before crossing them, and swings one swaying foot in a pendulum motion. He looks away, and lets his eyes sweep over the ash-grey landscape.

At this point, as he sits poised like a model awaiting a portraiture, he knows without looking that Sebastian is watching him. With that intensity that he has of staring.

Staring at him, as if staring is imbibing.

And he thinks about how much he likes the fact of Sebastian watching him, how much he likes the way Sebastian looks at him. Unlike anyone else in his life, who look at him as if they are tracing the outlines of the shadow of who he used to be. As if they are searching for the remnant echoes of that pampered, spoiled, untouched and innocent child that was left behind on the night of his tenth birthday.

He thinks about him often - the other Ciel. Frozen in time and preserved in amber. Forever ten and forever untainted.

He wonders sometimes what would happen if they switched lives, if he – the real him - were somehow to be transported into that alternate version of the world where his parents weren’t murdered and his world wasn’t destroyed. Would he be content in that world, looking out at its glimmering surface, knowing what lies beneath? Or would that shimmering, untarnished reality simply reject him – his current self-, the way a human body would try to expel a foreign invader; a virus or a grafted organ?

But then he thinks about Sebastian. How Sebastian looks at him and sees him; what he is now, what he is becoming.

It makes him feel real. Seen. Known.

The knowledge of that - the intimacy of that bond - brings a flush to Ciel’s cheeks and a tightness to his chest that, as it always does, spreads further down below.

He bites his lower lip, and turns back towards Sebastian, fixing him with a coy smile. Or one that, in the young lord’s estimation, approximates coy.

He has seen young maidens do this toward their suitors, the ones that they know are already besotted and entranced. They do it as a way of enticing further, of maintaining the interest, the allure. Of continuing to stoke the embers. Not so much because the attraction is mutual, but rather because the feeling of being desired is so intoxicating. He looks up at Sebastian from under his lashes, and watches Sebastian stare back, and feels that strange headiness of knowing that something so beautiful and eternal is so clearly infatuated with him.

As they stay waiting, a distance away from the cacophony of the restless city, a calico cat can be observed ambling in and out of the nearby bushes, rubbing her yellow-and-orange salted back against the streetlamp at the bifurcation of two alleyways. Her eyes shine a reflected light, like broken shards of glass. Sebastian crouches down and beckons her over, whispering a soft, gentle entreaty. After a slow and leisurely approach, the cat acting coquettish and theatrically bashful in her graceful zigzag march, she finally deigns to sidle up to the demon, climb into his lap and allow him to pet her.

Sebastian bites on the tip of a silken-sheathed finger and pulls off the glove, revealing his naked hand like the lifting of velvet curtains over a treasured Caravaggio. And Ciel watches the silver light of the moon bounce off the skin around the blackened insignia of their shared bond, before then revealing the slender, elegant lengths of Sebastian’s fingers, their ivory color accentuated in the fog-refracted moonlight and against the stark darkness of his inexplicably obsidian nails. The fingers come down to dance upon the cat’s back and around her belly, over her neck and behind her ears, all with softness and pressure calibrated to please, and Ciel continues to watch them, black-and-white glimpses against the cat’s orange-and-brown fur, the contrast striking like a zebra marching through the yellowed grassland of the African savannah.

Ciel looks on in amusement as Sebastian runs his hands over the soft, inviting coat while the feline purrs her approval. She rolls on her back in his lap to allow better access to her belly, which he dutifully strokes and massages.

“What exactly is your fascination with those wretched animals?” Ciel asks mildly after watching the spectacle for some time.

Sebastian does not look up and, keeping his attention focused on the cat, answers, “Cats are such delightful creatures. Self-possessed, moody and mercurial. So ungenerous with their affection, so that it is welcome when it is accorded.” Sebastian finally looks up at his master as he caresses through the cat’s fur, “and they’re soft.”

Ciel smiles at this. “I get the strange sense that there might be an underlying layer of subtext to this exchange.”

Sebastian goes back to running graceful, skilled fingers over the cat’s fur, stroking and massaging while she arches her back and vibrates with pleasure.

Ciel stretches his arms and folds them behind his head as he reclines back on the stonework surface and sighs. “Of course, you know that the longer that thing lingers nearby, the more likely it is to trigger my allergies.”

The hint of a smile begins to pull at the corners of Sebastian’s lips.

“That’s alright. I’ll just let my lungs constrict and my throat close up, and I’ll simply shuffle off this mortal coil.”

Sebastian purses his lips and continues to stroke the cat.

“But by all means, don’t let any of that stop you.”

Sebastian's eyes finally sweep over to meet his young master’s, as he tries to suppress a smile. He lets out a sigh, and puts the creature on the ground, giving her a small tap to send her on her way. The cat, disappointed and affronted, continues to rub herself against Sebastian’s legs, hoping to rekindle the passion. Eventually, she abandons the effort and walks away to vanish into a darkened alley.

Ciel tilts his head and everts his lower lip in mock-sympathy.

“Don’t forget to clean that trench-coat when you get back to the townhouse. Cat hair lingers on clothes like the dickens.”

Sebastian is about to reply, but notices his master’s eyes fall on a darkened silhouette approaching them from a nearby side street. “Ah. It’s about time.”

*****

Vasili Petrov is not a gentleman.

He is certainly not part of the gentry – having been born and raised in one of the port cities of Russia, and floating into London upon a wave of immigrants fleeing the pogroms. But more aptly, he is not a gentle man. He initially found work in one of London’s chemical factories before securing far more attractive and lucrative employment within Cahill’s company. He was able to quickly distinguish himself with the depravity of his kills, which, given the company within which he found himself, was a rather remarkable honour.

He enjoys dragging out the slaughter, knows where to cut so as to maim, but not kill, so that the victim could watch himself bleed, could watch his entrails ooze out of his belly knowing that the end was not far behind. The victim may beg for death, a gift that Petrov would bestow in due course, usually when the victim had divulged the needed information or when his executioner had grown bored of the spectacle.

Vasili Petrov is not a subtle man. He had once bitten off the eye socket of a local opium dealer believed to have betrayed Cahill’s trust – in a rather tragicomic misunderstanding of the adage ‘eye for an eye’ -, and held its jagged-tipped flesh between his teeth while the man’s blood poured down his own lips and chin, and his victim watched on with his mouth frozen in a horrified ‘O’, his voice trapped in his throat by the agony and terror.

Vasili Petrov is not a patient man. Time is a valuable commodity in Petrov’s eyes, and he finds himself rather irked by the indignity of having his time wasted by this trivial errand, to baby-sit that child, the Phantomhive boy, the Queen’s Guard-something-or-other.

He is not a timid man when it comes to communicating his displeasure as he relays the information provided by Cahill on the specifics of the smuggling operation; which runners are responsible for diverting and transporting the cargo when it arrives in London’s port, which dockmen are helping the gangs skim off the products, and which officials are being paid to look the other way. Ciel listens with a slight mocking smile hanging from his lips, becoming more and more amused as Petrov becomes more and more rankled, his answers to the lord’s questions devolving into no more than snarls and monosyllabic grunts.

Ciel comes to the end of his questioning, somehow finding himself miraculously free of Petrov’s meaty, calloused hands clasped around his delicate, swan-like neck. At this point, as the young Earl and his guardian are about to take their leave, Petrov clears his throat to indicate that the meeting is not yet over.

“Monday the next, Mr. Cahill will be sending an export cart through the Port of London,” he grunts, his words bent along the spines of a thick Slavic accent.

Ciel decides that there is no time like the present to tease a feral animal. He purses his lips, and glances up innocently toward Petrov. “Ye-es?” He sing-songs expectantly.

“Well, I believe the little lord is forgetting the simple matter of quid pro quo.”

“Really? I should think that snuffing out and incapacitating one of Cahill’s chief competitors should be enough pro quo in this exchange.”

Petrov marshalls his rapidly vanishing patience and ignores the young Lord’s impertinence. “Mr Cahill would prefer if that ship was not searched at that time.”

“Would he now?” Ciel says as he lets out a theatrical sigh, and continues to throw pellets at the growling tiger, stalking and prowling behind iron bars, “Well, I know that I would prefer if afternoon tea was only ever served in the finest of china serving pots, and brewed for no more than four minutes. I would also prefer if informants presented themselves on schedule, and did not look and dress as though they had just fallen out of a penny dreadful." He shrugs, "If we’re naming our preferences.”

Petrov narrows his eyes at Ciel, as his jaw tightens and every muscle in his body clenches, in a herculean effort not to pounce and kill. He runs his fingers over the cold steel of the dual edged, rusted knife in his pocket and imagines sinking it into soft, creamy, blue-blooded flesh. He takes one step toward the boy - who remains in place, utterly calm and unflustered - before throwing a glance at Sebastian standing behind his young master. Sebastian glares back, his eyes steely and aquiline. He holds Petrov’s gaze as he flicks his wrist and flexes his fingers together, causing the flames from nearby rubbish fire to rise up into the sky and burst forth out of the bin and onto the surrounding rubble and debris.

Petrov’s eyes track over to the fire and widen as he watches the blaze expand, then retract under the demon’s command.

His eyes snap back to Sebastian who continues to regard him, his own eyes now flashing crimson with a matching fiery glow.

Ciel watches Petrov’s reaction, then turns his head back and smiles at Sebastian over his shoulder. Sebastian smiles back, his eyes now the softest, most placid of auburns.

Ciel turns back to fix Petrov with a triumphant look, not even bothering with the effort of concealing a satisfied Cheshire-cat smirk as he watches him chew the inside of his cheeks.

Petrov rethinks his strategy, calls on the better angels of his nature, and takes a breath before addressing the young Earl again.

“Forgive me for the lack of clarity, lord Phantomhive,” he says instead, spitting out each word as if it were dipped in venom, “Mr Cahill would like your assistance in ensuring that the ship will not be searched at that time.”

“Ah, I believe that is the sound of the other shoe dropping,” Ciel says as he glances toward Sebastian, before turning back to Petrov.

“That is fine. You may tell Cahill that the Queen’s Guard Dog will take care of it.”

As Petrov is turning to leave, Ciel calls out, almost as an afterthought, “May I ask what will be in the shipment that Mr. Cahill is so keen to preserve unmolested by prying eyes?”

Petrov bites the inside of his cheeks with enough force to draw blood, clearly hanging on to the remnants of his patience by a rapidly fraying rope. “Puppies and Christmas,” He growls through gritted teeth, not bothering to slow his forward march.

Ciel rolls his eyes. “Of course.” He turns to Sebastian, and stretches his arms in an exaggerated cat-like yawn. “I think we best get going. It is getting to be past the little lord’s bedtime.”

“Yes, young master.”

*****

On the way back to the townhouse, Ciel sits opposite to Sebastian in the carriage and stares out the window with an absent smile, obviously still feeling untouchable, buoyed yet further from his most recent victory. This affords Sebastian the opportunity to watch his master unobserved. He can let his gaze roam over the snow-white smoothness of his complexion, now rose-speckled and flushed both from the humidity of the London night and from the thrill of triumph. He stares at the strange, uncanny blue of his untarnished eye encircled by dark lashes that fan across his cheeks when he closes his lids, that catch the glow of the full moon when angled toward the carriage window. He watches him rake his hand through his hair, tousled and sweat damp from being tucked underneath his cap, so that his fingers catch on the strings of his eye-patch and trace along the soft indentation left on his brow. His eyes trail down the soft slant of his master’s cheekbones, still covered with baby fat, but hinting at the sharp angles that he will grow – he would have grown – into. Sebastian indulges in the simple pleasure of watching Ciel, and relishes the sensation of tightness that spreads across his chest.

Inevitably, his gaze will drift down to his master’s mouth, his pink lips, slightly parted and wet from the boy’s habit of absently licking them when deep in thought.

Sebastian wonders for not the first time what it would be like to have the master’s lips against his own, to beckon them apart, press his tongue inside and taste; to take that deep breath and inhale. A previously unknown thrill runs up his spine, and a warmth swells through his body at the thought of that moment.

And then he thinks about the moment after that and the tightness in his chest blooms into a gnawing pain like a dagger, like a corrosive fume that spreads to his throat and threatens to choke his breath.

Ciel finally feels himself being scrutinized, and his smile becomes less absent and more purposeful. He turns to catch Sebastian’s eyes on him.

“Feeling a bit peckish, are we?” He says lightly.

The demon smiles in response as he tears his eyes away from the boy’s mouth and meets his master’s gaze.

“How long has it been since you’ve fed?” Ciel asks, his tone light and conversational.

“It’s been some time, young master.”

Ciel goes on along this train of thought with a gently teasing lilt to his voice, walking a steady line on the narrow ledge, “Well, if you’re looking for a snack, you’re welcome to go down to the London docks and deal with that new breed of human traffickers that have sprouted up in the past few weeks. I’ve been meaning to straighten out that whole unpleasantness for some time. Shall I interest you in ‘a two birds with one stone’ scenario?”

“Young master, I would never dine on such common fare.” The demon says, attempting to echo his master’s light bantering tone. “I am saving my appetite for something far, far more sublime.”

Ciel leans back against the seat cushions and stares at the demon as the light, slightly dewy air inside of the carriage becomes thick and curdled. He feels his cheeks become hot, the heat spreading to the tips of his ears, and throughout his chest. Feels a strange, unrecognizeable twist in his gut.

After a beat, his smile begins to fade as a darkness falls over his unmarked eye. All of a sudden, he looks small, deflated, like a marionette whose strings have been cut. Tiny and frail, like the lost little boy he still is underneath it all.

He nods slightly, and turns back to lean his brow against the solidity of the carriage window to watch the London vista unfolding along their path, as patches of condensation appear like ghosts in the place where his exhaled breath meets the cool glass of the windowpane.

Sensing the shift in the atmosphere, the demon hurries to add, “Of course, I will not be feeding before the terms of contract are fulfilled, the young lord need not worry about that.”

“No, I know.” Ciel says softly, not taking his eyes off the window. He brings up and forefinger and absently traces serpents and figure-eights onto the expanding fog spreading on the glass surface. “I know you won’t.”

Sebastian feels this newer pain, sharper and more acute, as it plunges further into him, kneads itself inside him and metastasizes throughout this body.

They ride the rest of the way to the townhouse in silence.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Tell me a story, Sebastian.”

“What would you like to hear?”  

“Something about you.”

 “In a faraway land, in an ancient time, there was once a king who sought a harmony of the soul, something to strike an equipoise between elation and sorrow. He asked his subjects that such a gift be brought to him, and his subjects acquiesced. But no treasured stone or prized relic or gift of song would please the king or satisfy his wish. I brought to him a ring with an inscription etched on its band, and told him to read it in both times of sorrow and times of joy. And so he did. And it was both a blessing and a curse, in the end. If he was sad, he would read it and feel contented. But if he was content, he would read it and become sad.”

 “What did the inscription say?”

 “ ‘This too shall pass.’ ”

 *****

Is it time?

Ciel has the dream again. But it doesn’t feel like a dream – more like a memory, but a memory of something that has not happened.

He is lying in a field of white tulips.

No, not in a field.

In a bed of tulips.

He can smell the sweet fragrance, feel the soft brush of the petals against his cheeks, the bare skin of his arms and legs. He opens his eyes to stare up at the ceiling of stars, all sparkling against the dark midnight sky, blue-tinted black like the colour of his hair. He feels the ground beneath rock gently back and forth as if in a bassinet, as if in a gondola cradled in the gentle swaying embrace of flowing water, the soft brush of waves whispering against its hull. He sees Sebastian in the periphery of his vision, dressed in his livery; mournful, funereal black like his own clothes. It feels not like his usual dreams, not like a nightmare – drenched in blood and filth and fear. All the desperate cries in his head - all the turmoil, all the pain and anguish and uncertainty - they are all silenced.

All he can feel is calm.

Peace.

My lord, it is time…

His butler kneels before him, and he sits up.

And he sees that he is no longer in the bed of tulips, but on a stone bench. All around him are mortared granite slabs, stacked up on top of each other like caskets in a mausoleum. The sky is a stark moonless black now, as if all the stars have been blown away by the exhaled breath of a nightly wind. It is as if the darkness is enveloping him, as if he and his butler are the only two things left standing at the end of the world.  

But he does not feel afraid. It is curious that he does not feel afraid. He feels like he could melt into the ground, become shapeless and disintegrate, sink like a rainfall beneath the cracked edges of the stone-surfaced courtyard. Fall into an eternal dreamless sleep.

He looks into Sebastian’s eyes, red like the fiery glow of the last sunset on a dying Earth, and feels him cup his face with his palms, gently thumbing along his cheekbones. Still he is not afraid. All he can think of, all he can feel, is the warmth and softness of those hands.

Close your eyes…

And he does, and melts like snow into the ground below.

*****

He wakes to find himself in his bed, looking up at the plaster whirlpools and constellations on his stippled bedroom ceiling. Moonlight is streaming through the pulled-back velvet drapes that flank his window, lending a muted shine to the brass-covered columns of the bed frame. Outside, he can see tufts of ash-grey clouds floating like driftwood in an ocean of midnight blue. He turns his head to see Sebastian lying by his side. Not touching him but close enough to reach out and touch if he so chooses. The demon’s eyes are closed, his lashes fanning out against the swell of his pale cheeks, smooth and ivory like the wings of a dove.  

He remembers that he had asked Sebastian to remain by his side for the night, in his bed, as he sometimes does now in this strange new equilibrium of their bond.

Ciel does not fear the dark anymore. He does not fear the nightmares lingering past its threshold, lying in wait in that abyss beyond the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep. But he still wishes for the demon to remain close, for reasons he cannot quite explain, even to himself.

No. That is not true. He can explain it.

Ciel stares at him, trying to determine if he is breathing, if the demon actually breathes or if the breathing motions he observes during daytime hours are simply part of the pantomime of his human role.

He often likes to look at Sebastian like this, when he thinks the demon may be unaware, when he can observe him without falling under the weight of his intense, otherworldly gaze. He wants to catch him in a moment of unaffectedness. He wants to catch a glimpse of something, like peeking through a door left ajar or through the tiny cracks of his outer human façade.

Most of the time, Ciel does not care that Sebastian is not human. He only cares that Sebastian is real. That his fervent loyalty and unfailing tenderness are real.

Perhaps part of him still worries that the demon will betray him, will give in to his demonic nature and devour him, tear him to shreds, consume him whole and leave nothing behind.

Or perhaps he wants something tangible, something that he can hold in his hand, hold up to the light and observe. Something that shows that there is some truth to the demon beyond the truth of his master’s commands and desires. Some proof, some evidence, that the only thing in his life that feels real actually is real.

Ciel watches Sebastian, and is overcome once again by the immensity of it; of how one creature can hold so much of another inside itself, the way that Sebastian now holds so much of him; his salvation, his power, his revenge. His purpose and his meaning.

And his death, eventually.     

How much of Sebastian is real and how much of him – his human form, his comforting scent, his warmth, his loyalty and devotion - is a product of Ciel’s own desires, a projection Ciel’s wants and needs? How much of it will still be there… after?

He decides that he wants to hear Sebastian’s voice. He remembers how he used to ask Sebastian to read to him on those nights when he couldn’t fall asleep. Or didn’t want to. Read the newspaper, the Funtom financial reports, the penny dreadfuls that Ciel had in the past sneaked underneath his covers to read unbeknownst to his parents and Tanaka. Before.

He thinks about how much he likes the sound of it, Sebastian’s voice. Always calm and serene. Measured. Never louder than it absolutely has to be. Soft and haunted, a bit sorrowful, like the sound of a light breeze caught inside a glass jar.

He wonders if Sebastian sounds like that because he wants him to.

He finally leans in closer and whispers, “Sebastian, are you sleeping?”

“No, young master. I am awake.” Sebastian replies, his voice even and unmuddied by sleep.

Ciel, taken somewhat aback, leans back on his elbows. “Then why on earth are your eyes closed?”

Sebastian opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling. “My lord, you had advised me in the past that you did not wish to have me watching you sleep when you requested for me to remain by your side during the nights.”

“I said that?” Ciel furrows his brow, trying to recollect the logic behind such an order.

“Yes. I believe the word you used was ‘creepy’” Sebastian explains, his lips beginning to curl up into a tiny smile.

Ciel smiles at that. “Oh well, yes, Sebastian. Your solution is brilliant. It is far less creepy to have you lying there, with your eyes closed, pretending to sleep.”

Sebastian’s own smile widens, as he chuckles lightly under his breath. And Ciel can spot the tiny dimples in his cheeks that only form on those exceedingly infrequent occasions when the demon’s smile is genuine. It feels rare and precious, like seeing a double rainbow, or spotting Halley’s comet.

What marvel is this human form. What attention to detail. Ciel continues to stare, and the room is once again immersed in silence.

Sebastian feels himself being examined and turns his gaze away from the ceiling and toward his master. “Is something the matter?”

Ciel remains silent and continues to study Sebastian, the strange auburn of his eyes, the inky-black smoothness of his hair, and enjoys the sensation of Sebastian staring back. Enjoys the laser-like focus of Sebastian’s gaze on him – something that used to so rattle him in its otherworldly intensity, but now makes his chest clench in an entirely different way. His thoughts inexplicably turn to the brand forever burned on his right torso just beneath his scapula, the puckered skin of it brushing against the soft cotton of his pajama shirt. His head swims with images of Sebastian touching it, tracing over the tiny hills and valleys of scorched skin with his long, elegant, black-tipped fingers.

He thinks it strange that, all in all, he often doesn’t mind being owned.

They lie like that for a time, studying each other, each gazing upon the other, getting their fill, each letting his eyes trail over the other’s face and form with no shame or discomfort, as they listen to the soft scratching drone of crickets chiming in through the window.  

“You know, I used to find it so unnerving when you would look at me like that.” Ciel says finally, breaking the silence.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, like you were not so much trying to measure my coffin as trying to decide which garnish would best bring out my flavour.”

“That is not true, my lord - ” Sebastian starts, but Ciel continues undeterred along his train of thoughts.

“Well, in any case, now I don’t mind it at all,” he says as rolls to his side and props himself up on one elbow, resting his cheek on his palm. “I used to be so frightened of you back then. Did you know that?”

“I suspected it. I had to work hard to earn your trust.”

Ciel huffs lightly. “ ‘Earn’ my trust. Yes, well, the complete absence of any other viable options can do wonders to speed that process up.”

He continues to stare at Sebastian, absently chewing on his lower lip. “It’s funny how things change, isn’t it.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Silence cradles them once again.

Ciel tentatively flexes and extends his fingers, and trails the pads of his fingertips over the soft Egyptian cotton of the bedsheet. He finally reaches out and places his palm on Sebastian’s chest, as he likes to do sometimes to feel for the soft thrum of his heartbeat, and observes the demon closely for a reaction. Sebastian looks down to watch Ciel’s hand, as the boy’s fingers slide under the woolen cloth of his waistcoat and skate back and forth over the fabric of his dress shirt, seeming to trace the ache now blooming anew in his chest.

“My lord?”

“I am just wondering what you look like under this. Your true form.” 

Sebastian breaks the gaze and turns back to stare at the ceiling.

“You will not permit me to see it?”

“No, young master.”

“Why not?” Ciel asks, trying to keep from sounding petulant.

“I have explained it already. It is ugly.”

Not yet deterred, Ciel smiles softly and leans even closer, so close that his lips brush up against the ridges in the conch shell of Sebastian’s ear. “What if I promised not to be frightened?” he whispers conspiratorially, an impish, teasing smile making its way across his lips.

He watches Sebastian’s eyes fall momentarily closed, as if bracing himself against the wave of sensation washing over him from the feel of his master’s hot breath against his skin. The demon takes a deep inhale and turns to face the boy, “Young master, while I’m contracted to you, I am Sebastian Michaelis. This is my true form.”

“And what about afterwards?” Ciel presses.

Sebastian drops his gaze and becomes silent. Stares pensively at the foot of the bed.

Ciel rolls his eyes, and sighs. “Come now Sebastian. Don’t look so gloomy. It’s alright, I don’t have to see it.” He decides it best to drop the subject. “This form is fine, I suppose.” He rests his brow against the butler’s temple, burying his nose in soft, raven-black hair.

“Do you have wings, Sebastian?” He whispers again playfully, feeling soft strands of hair tickle against his lips,

Sebastian visibly relaxes, his expression softening as the small fold in his brow unfurrows. He allows himself a tiny smile as he looks toward his master and whispers back, “I could have wings, if you would like.”

Ciel smiles and chews on his lower lip. Sebastian’s eyes fall yet again to his master’s mouth, and there they stay. Ciel inches closer so that his chest is flush against Sebastian’s arm, and reaches out to trace his fingers against the curve of Sebastian’s jaw, down the slope of his chin. His hand reaches to the back of the butler' neck, into that thick tangle of soft, silky hair at the back of his head, and begins to lightly massage it with the tips of his fingers. Sebastian lets out a sigh, and slowly rolls to lie on his side to allow the young Earl better access. He leans in closer to his master, and presses his brow lightly against Ciel’s as skinny fingers massage his scalp and curl through locks of hair. He takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes, lets himself once again become lost in the sensation of being touched.

Ciel’s own gaze drifts down to Sebastian’s mouth, as he follows the curve of it with his eyes. And then, as if in a trance, he lifts his hand out of Sebastian’s hair to place his fingers on the butler’s lips. At that, Sebastian’s eyelids flutter half-open for a moment, then close to allow the boy to continue on his explorations. Ciel traces his fingers over the outline of Sebastian’s lips, then over the line of his mouth. He thinks about the secret promise it contains. His grave and his deliverance. Thinks about how these two things are often not so different.

He licks his lips and takes a breath.

“Sebastian, do you ever - ” he starts and stops.

 Swallows. And starts again.

“Do you ever – get hungry?” He watches Sebastian shut his eyes, clench them further as an almost-pained expression washes over his face and a small crease appears on his brow. Ciel can recognize the expression now. This is how Sebastian is when something stormy and untethered is thrashing beneath the surface; something he can’t name or recognize.

“What do you mean, my lord?” he responds in a heavy, stricken voice.

Sebastian, Ciel whispers, for no real reason, really. Perhaps because he likes saying the demon’s name. Perhaps because he knows how much the demon likes the three-syllable sound of his given name, the one gifted to him, falling from his master’s lips.

Ciel leans in closer, his face impossibly close to the demon’s, feeling the sweet dampness of Sebastian’s breath on his own lips. Sebastian has gone still, frozen, unmoving like a statue. Ciel curls his arms against himself, wets his lips and comes to a decision. He presses his mouth experimentally against Sebastian’s, leaving a small peck on the demon’s lips. Sebastian doesn’t move, appears to be very deliberately trying not to react. Ciel leans in again, this time leaving his lips in place longer, taking Sebastian’s upper lip, then his lower one between his own. He thinks about the softness of those lips – like kissing the fluttering wings of a butterfly.

He feels his cheeks become intolerably warm, the warmth now spreading everywhere. He wants more.

He leans back, and Sebastian opens his eyes at the loss of contact. He stares at Ciel as Ciel stares back at him. And time seems to stop. Every living thing holds its breath and all stars and planets remain unmoving on their axis while the boy and his demon lock eyes and breathe each other’s breath.

Finally, acting on his master's unstated wish as much as on his own desires, Sebastian reaches up with an ungloved hand and cups the back of the boy's head to pull him closer, before leaning in and closing the distance between them. He begins moving his lips against Ciel’s in a proper kiss, licking softly against the line of his mouth and sucking on the plush softness of his lips while both of their owned hearts pound in tandem against their chests, beating fast like wings of hummingbirds in flight.

He then beckons his master’s lips apart as he gently rolls him on his back, lays on top of him with his forearms above the boy’s head to steady himself, and presses his tongue inside to taste and explore. Ciel does not shrink away, and welcomes the intrusion as he arches up against Sebastian and feels his the wet slipperiness of his tongue as it probes inside his own mouth. He lets out a hushed moan as he feels Sebastian taste him. Sebastian’s kisses become increasingly hungrier as he hovers over his master, pressing his body against the young Earl’s, licking and savouring and starting to lose himself. Ciel can feel his own breath become sparse, stolen, sucked into the abyss of the demon’s mouth. He can feel himself begin to melt.

It isn’t time. Ciel isn’t sure if he thinks it, says it, or if he hears Sebastian whisper it.

His eyes fling open, and he tears his mouth away from the demon’s. He pushes Sebastian’s shoulder away while gasping for air and trying to catch his breath. Sebastian, still panting, pushes himself up on his forearm and begins to back away.

 “I was offering a lick, Sebastian, not a bite.” Ciel says evenly, wiping some of the saliva from his lips with the inside of his palm as he turns to face the demon now lying next to him propped up on an elbow. He is struck silent for a moment when he catches a glimpse of Sebastian, his lips red and kiss-bruised, his cheeks flushed, his eyes still closed, and a look of something like rapture on his face as he takes in mouthfuls of air and tries to regain his composure. Ciel smiles, thrilled with himself for treading so close to the edge without falling over into the chasm below.

“How do I taste?” he says coyly.

“Perfect, young master.” Sebastian breathes, his eyes still closed, bringing his fingers to his own mouth, tracing his own lips, feeling the stinging sensation of memory. “You taste perfect.”

 

*****

 

The sting of memory remains with Sebastian. Works its way inside and carves something into the core of him, like ancient drawings on a cave wall. It lingers inside his mouth and inside his chest. And the next night, in the same bed, under the same moonlight, when Ciel gives him a light, knowing smile, he knows to lean in close to press his lips against his master’s.

This is something that they start to do. Neither is sure exactly what it is, what it means, and neither is particularly anxious to dissect it. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it is something that just feels good.

Ciel runs his palm over Sebastian’s clothed torso, over his sides and onto his broad shoulders. He feels strands of his raven hair brush against his cheeks as his mouth is explored by a slick, wet tongue.

There are so few things in the young Earl’s life that feel as good as this, as good as Sebastian’s lips against the corner of his lips, his brow, the shell of his ears the thin skin at the angle of his jaw, the little dip at the bottom of his throat, the valley where the edge of his clavicles come to kiss. There are so few things that feel as good as the humid brush of Sebastian’s exhaled breath against his skin.

He grips the cloth of Sebastian’s waistcoat as they kiss, and pulls himself closer so that their bodies are flush against each other and he can feel the warmth from Sebastian’s torso against his own. His hands drift down to the small of Sebastian’s back, and his fingers hook on the waist of his trousers. Ciel can feel the hem of his tucked-in dress shirt. His fingers flex and extend along the edges, coming desperately, perilously close to skin. Sebastian stops and opens his eyes, his mouth hovering a hair’s breadth away from his master’s. Ciel stares into his eyes, so desperately unimaginably close, pools of rust-red like pain and fire surrounding pupils black like nothingness and death, and thinks about the tiny distance separating Sebastian’s smooth, uncharted skin and his own curious fingers.

Ciel flattens his palm against Sebastian’s back and rides the dip of his butler’s spine up onto his neck, twisting his fingers inside a tangle of raven hair and pushing it close so that he can press their mouths together and once again feel the heat and the taste of his demon’s tongue.

They just like the feel of it. It is soft and warm and wet. Sebastian’s mouth tastes like cherry liqueur, and when his tongue is in his own mouth, searching and teasing and tasting in leashed hunger, the young Earl feels his body become boneless and pliant, and mind go blank with static. White noise. It’s like a dreamless sleep.

It’s nice.

A respite the incessant clatter of his thoughts.

And at the end of it - when Ciel needs to breathe, or has had enough and his lips are bruised, or the passions dim, as they always do, like the dying flicker of a candle, and melt into a hazy contentment and languor like melted wax, and he tears himself away from Sebastian’s mouth, but still close enough to feel the dampness of his breath on his own spit-damp lips, to look into Sebastian’s rust-brown eyes staring back at him in their eternal vastness and mystery - there is nothing left but this.

Do you like it?

I do.

*****

After another dusk, another nightfall, another turn of the Earth away from the sun, after his master has been put to bed, after the candle has been blown, Sebastian begins the ritual of winding down the mansion for the night. He closes the shutters, puts away the cookware, tops up the fires, runs a polishing cloth over the bookcases in the library, and sweeps the grand marble balustrade that lines the winding staircase in the main hall.

Each function is performed with care, each chore permeated with mindful diligence. Each hole in the drapery is mended with precision, each piece of silver is polished with attention.

He wants everything to be beautiful and pristine.

Each mundane and menial task he performs in service of his young lord is no longer an act of duty; it has become an act of devotion.

Later, he walks down the hall toward his master’s bedroom and lingers in the doorway, and stares at the back of his tiny sleeping form. The boy stirs, throws a glance over his shoulders toward his butler before his lips spread into a light smile and he turns back around to lay his head against the pillow once again.

“You woke me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Were you watching me sleep?”

Sebastian smiles. “I simply wanted to see to any last requests.”

“Hmmm”

Ciel stares out the window, his back to his butler, and watches the fractals of stars in the sky swirling around the blood-red moon.

“Sebastian, come lie beside me.”

The demon feels the sweet tightness in his chest. He removes his tailcoat and shoes and climbs into bed, next to his master. He shifts close to the boy, fitting his body against his young lord’s and buries his mouth in midnight-blue locks.

“What were you dreaming of?” he whispers into the feathery softness of his master’s hair.

“I don’t remember.” Ciel lies as he reaches blindly behind him for his butler’s hand, taking his arm and wrapping it around himself like a shawl, feeling his warmth through three layers of clothing as Sebastian’s chest expands rhythmically against his back with each inhaled breath.

“Sometimes I think it’s better. Not to remember. Just turn it all off and fade into black.”

“Sometimes.”

Sebastian wraps his arm tighter around his young charge’s torso and pulls him closer to himself, and rubs his mouth and cheeks against the soft, downy locks, breathing in the scent of honeydew and lavender from the soap the boy had used to bathe that evening. He hears his master breathe out a sigh and feels him tilt his head back slightly against his own face. He places a very soft kiss on the shell of his ear, and watches his eyelids flutter slightly and his lips spread in a tiny smile. Finally, the boy turns around and lays on his side facing the demon, and looks up into rust-coloured eyes looking back at him. Sebastian runs his knuckles over his brow and cheek, until finally palming his face in his hands and running his thumbs over the smooth outline of his cheekbones.

He brushes the hair away from his master’s face so that he could better look at mismatched eyes. And so he does. The boy allows it all, seemingly undisturbed by being so closely scrutinized, and Sebastian continues to let his eyes roam. He looks into his young lord’s eyes, one carrying the emblem of their shared bond, violet-tinted like the color of the lilacs that dot along the gardens of Phamtomhive Manor during the early days of Spring.

But it is the other eye upon which he ultimately settles his gaze. The unmarred one, his master’s real one; a dark, cerulean blue – or is it azure? - whose likeness he has trouble placing in his memory.

Is it the color of moonstone? Or the color of calm, deep waters on the coast of the Caribbean Sea? If melancholy had a colour, if sadness had a colour - if such things as emotions had colours - he would say it is the colour of melancholy, the colour of sadness.

He tries to remember if he has ever seen its equal.

Perhaps it is the colour of a clear sky at twilight in the Saharan desert, just as dusk bleeds into night and the stagnant blue of daytime peels into an infinite polychrome of colours from magenta to midnight.

He thinks about this as he runs a thumb underneath the thick lashes lining the boy’s lower lid.

Perhaps he recalls seeing that colour in the sky on such a night. Or perhaps the memory is transposed into the demon’s mind, created ex nihilo in this very moment in time from the colour of his master’s eye; and the memory of an azure sky, a Saharan landscape, and days melting into nights have all coalesced around it like the cold blood coagulate wreathed around a gaping wound.

The memory may or may not be real.

Its source may or may not have ever existed.

He can only infer, not know.

Is it possible that he had seen such a strange colour, such a unique beauty, and could not remember? That it had somehow slipped through the spaces between the clenched fingers of his consciousness and evaporated into the ether of eternity?

No, he decides.

He had not seen such a colour. Such a memory does not exist. He would surely have remembered.

But if, in an infinite universe, everything recurs, then certainly it would stand to reason that such a colour must have existed in the past, in his past, forming a part of his memories, and his lived experience.

His master has by now closed his eyes and seems to be drifting off to sleep. Sebastian leans his brow lightly against the boy’s, closes his own eyes, and remembers. He can still see it in his mind’s eye, the same unfathomable blue colour. But will that image also eventually vanish from his mind the way that the memory of that first apocryphal moonstone-ocean-sky blue did?

Is it time?

Does the passage of time erase these imprints on one’s consciousness the way that ocean tides wash away footprints on the edges of a sandy shore? Is time destined to take away the demon’s memories the way it is destined to take away his young master?

He runs the pads of his fingers over the slope of his master’s cheekbone and down to his mouth. The boy’s eyes flutter open as Sebastian’s fingers trace the line of his lips. His young lord gazes up at him before parting his lips and allowing Sebastian’s finger into his mouth. Sebastian stares transfixed as Ciel places a small hand on his own and guides the finger further in, closing his lips around a knuckle as he starts to wrap his tongue over it, runs it up and down the length. The demon feels wetness, and warmth and slickness, and it feels like he is immersed in it, feels that he is drowning as his breath is stolen from his chest.

Sebastian knows that Ciel does not know what he is doing, does not understand the implications of it; could not imagine the thing of which it is a simile, the thing to which it is a prelude. He is tasting the traces of confectioner’s sugar and honey that likely remain from the blackberry cornmeal cake that Sebastian had baked for his desert. He stops, and flicks his eyes open to gaze at Sebastian. Sebastian withdraws his finger, and stares at the glistening gleam of saliva that now covers it. Then, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, he puts the saliva-covered finger in his own mouth and licks off the taste of his master’s spit. Ciel’s eyes widen as he watches this. His cheeks become dark and tinted with rose, as he dips his head and buries his face into the crook of his butler’s neck. Sebastian wraps his arms around him to pull him closer against himself, and presses a kiss on the crown of his head.

“Sebastian, do you want to stay with me until I fall asleep?”

“Yes.”

“You will be here when I wake?”

“Always. Sleep, young master. And I will watch over you.”    

 

*****

 

It feels strange to think about it.

Unfathomable.

The numeracy of it.

The improbable calculus of it.

Of him and his young master. Becoming bound as they are.

Sometimes he tries to map it out, to explain it to himself, to further elucidate the mechanics of it. Out of the number of lifetimes, the number of humans, the number of contracts, the number of branching points in reality, what permutation or combination thereof would have led to such a bond? It seems impossible.

Not impossible, perhaps, as it did occur, thereby disproving its impossibility. But rather, mathematically, asymptotically improbable. All the various actions, inactions, decisions, paths taken, paths not taken, every flap of a butterfly’s wings; all the births and deaths, murders, captures, tortures, by every human that ever lived, that would have led the tiny Earl to that point in time in that place to reach his breaking point and call out to him for salvation.

Improbable.

But at other times, it seems not only possible and probable, but determined, preordained, that he should find this diamond after an eternity of plodding through coal and carbonaceous ash. Everything in the young Earl’s life, from his cursed name to his doomed legacy, are stained with blood and savagery. It seems therefore infinitely probable, determined, preordained that the son of Vincent Phantomhive, himself the son of a Guard Dog of the Queen who himself was a son of a Guard Dog of the Majesty, dating back who knows how many generations, all of them meeting some tortured, brutal end, should find himself tortured and brutalized, trapped in a steel cage atop a bloodstained altar, paying for the sins of his father and his father and his father.

Perhaps the improbability lies in the young earl’s choice to summon him rather than simply submit to his fate. Perhaps therein lies the true lynchpin of their twined destinies; the wrench in the wheel of fortune.

And what if he hadn’t?

Sebastian thinks about that – that branching point in reality. Is there a reality, some universe, some version of the world where he has not found his young lord? Where he has to endure the endless anesthetized vastness of apathetic existence unaware that such beauty can exist, does exist?

Is it cerulean? Or azure? Blue like the colour of the sky at dusk? Blue like the colour of sadness?

His heart aches at the thought, and he realizes not for the first time that despite his unfathomably long lifespan, he knows so little about the universe, so little about anything.

And of course, the calculus must lead to its inevitable conclusion, both in his mind and outside of it. His immortal existence must be overlaid with his master’s mortal one. If one presumes that something that has no end cannot have a beginning, then one must also concede that that which has a beginning must also have an end.

This one will have an end by his own hands.

He thinks about this.

And he feels an ache.

And that ache burrows through his human skin, through his human bones, through his human flesh, through his human heart, to whatever lays beneath. He feels this ache alongside the ache of his ever-present, never-sated hunger.

Is it time?

Time is a treacherous thing for a human – it is inviolable, the passage of it irrevocable. It marches on oblivious to those fallen in its path. That which has been sacrificed to time can never be regained. There is some version of the universe where his young lord would have died at the hands of the monsters who kept him caged and tormented. There is another version wherein he would have remained untouched by darkness, would have grown into a blithely guileless, utterly unremarkable nobleman living an utterly unremarkable life. There is yet another version wherein the young lord as he is now would have grown and aged, would have changed, would have metamorphosed through the altering and weathering effects of time, into some wholly different creature.

No matter how he plays it out, the young lord that he serves, the one to whom he has pledged his undying devotion, the one to whom he feels more bound than to any other creature in his whole wretched immortal existence, that lord is impermanent.

He will end, either by the demon’s own hands or by the hands of time.

He comes back to it, tries to unspool it to its determined end, at least in his mind. To habituate to the burn of it, like putting one’s fingers over the flame of a roaring fire. But whenever he gets close, all he wants to do is pull away. Cradle the singed flesh of his hand against his chest.

Time is treacherous thing for a human, and it has become a treacherous thing for a demon.

 

~ End of Part 1 ~

Chapter Text

 

~ Part two~

 

Can you do it, when the time comes?

The demon liked to do it at night.

In the dark.

Bathed in the shadows, drowned in quiet like a sunken ship trapped at the bottom of the ocean.

He liked to do it whilst his masters were asleep, so that whatever ghosts and visions they saw in their dreams could be the last thing that they would ever see. The last thing they would see before they saw him.

His true form.

And then he will be the last thing they would ever see before all was pain and agony, and then all was darkness and emptiness and void.

The Master had vanquished the resistance, the people, the rebel bandits – all had been annihilated once again, and the land was his to rule and crush. The demon had once again delivered death and destruction for the pleasure of his master, and it was time for the balancing of the scales.

It was time for recompense. Perhaps time to eke out a bit of justice.

He had done this many times, countless times, innumerable times, and each time the same pattern repeated. History repeats itself and in an infinite timeline, everything recurs an infinite number of times. Each time, the masters were bewildered somehow – as if, so accustomed had they grown to the demon’s unquestioning servitude, they had confused the demon’s human façade for truth.

He stood before the Master’s bed, watching him breathe in and out in a steady rhythm. He shuddered out of the human servant disguise he had inhabited, for better or worse, during the contract and shifted back into his true form.

Every time he did this, each time he ended a contract, he wondered what it would feel like. What it would taste like. To end that life. To consume that flesh. To devour that soul.

Would it feel good? Would the world be better, or worse? Would it taste like Light, or Darkness?

Would it feel like dying himself? Would some part of him be extinguished along with his master, so that he can perhaps get closer to that asymptote of self-annihilation? Self-erasure?

The Master awoke to the sound of howling winds and crackling fire, and began to gasp and choke on the soot and smoke and burning wood as a wreath of flames began to seethe and blister at the edges of his bed.

The demon watched his Master’s expression twist in fear. He watched the fear morph into an agonizing horror as he took in the full sight of the grotesque figure standing at the foot of his bed. He watched his limbs claw back against his mattress in a feeble attempt to escape as all ambient light was obliterated, unable to evade the demon’s expanding obsidian form.

The demon’s claws reached out and wrapped around his throat, black, gnarled talons digging into his flesh and drawing blood to the surface. He watched the master’s limbs flail as he tried to speak or to scream, to beg or to pray, his voice constricted into silence by the demon’s fist clutching his windpipe. He watched him turn purple and bloated as he snatched ineffectually at the demon’s insubstantial form.

He then raised the master up by his neck, smooth and effortless as if he weighted nothing, as if he were nothing, and brought his mouth against the fathomless vortex where his own mouth would be.

And he took a deep inhale and sucked the Master’s insides and flesh and viscerae along with his soul, and watched the human’s body shrivel and wilt. He ensured to do it slowly enough so that the master could still feel every last bit of the agony of having himself turned inside out. He had to feel the pain of it, every second of it, so that it could be etched into his soul, so that every second before death could stretch into an eternity, like the last moment at the edge of an event horizon.

Finally, having sucked out the last of his Master’s essence, he loosened his grip and allowed the desiccated husk drop to the ground in a heap.

He watched for a few moments more.

He only had a few moments before he would be returned to the darkness and void, to the empty abyss of his home.

He waited.

He wondered if he would feel, or if he would taste. But all he could taste was ashes. All he could feel was nothing.

*****

*****

*****

 “This truly is what hell must be like,” Ciel mutters in a tone dry as burnt cinders as he scans the dilapidated buildings and closed-up storefronts lining one of Whitechapel’s winding alleyways, all of them appearing eerie and abandoned in the indigo glow of the London dusk. He stands spotlighted underneath a lamppost, his tiny shadow cast behind his tinier body like the arm of a sundial in the flickering light of the overhead gas lamp. The young lord’s gaze finally comes back to rest upon his butler, stationed as always by his side. “I imagine you must be feeling rather homesick at the moment.”

His lips twitch up at the corners at Sebastian’s knitted brow and perplexed expression.

“Smile, Sebastian. It’s a joke.” He says, his tone now gently teasing and light, crackling like embers. “Good lord. Are all demons as humourless as you?”

Sebastian purses his lips, and tries to keep his expression neutral. “Perhaps none among us have ever had a master quite as witty as you, sir.”

Ciel’s smile widens, and he laughs softly and nods. He reaches out to wrap his hand around Sebastian’s tie, and gives it a playful tug. He leans in close to the demon, letting his knuckles brush against his chest through the cloth of his dress shirt. “More’s the pity,” he whispers with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

He lets his fingers linger against Sebastian’s chest, then stands back against the lamp pole and savours the gleam of adoration that sweeps over Sebastian’s eyes at his touch, basking in it like a cat stretching out in the sun.

Eventually, reality in the form of the cacophony of the crime scene investigation taking place a distance away punctures their intimate little bubble. It becomes quickly apparent that it has already been going on for some time prior to the young lord’s arrival. Ciel looks back over to the gaggle of constables and inspectors milling around a barricaded establishment, and the cheer and playfulness is slowly leached off his face.

He puffs up his cheeks and lets out a mouthful of air.  “I suppose the sooner we start, the sooner we can leave.”

With one brisk move, he pushes himself off the cast-iron lamp-pole and begins to tread down the serpentine cobblestone alleyway toward the gathered lawmen at the bottom, with his butler trailing close behind.

 

*****

 

As they walk past the barricades and into the jumble of constables and inspectors, and the handful of skittish- and anxious-appearing local inhabitants kept for questioning, two unpleasant things hit the young lord in a rapid one-two-punch succession.

The first is the rancid stench of decomposing flesh, of several dead bodies all in varying degrees of decay and putrefaction, so strong that it seems to crawl down his mouth and fasten itself against his throat.

The second is the sight of commissioner Gerald of the London Metropolitan police, appearing typically officious and blusterous as he presides over the investigation.

And whatever lightness and mirth the young Earl had felt just a moment ago has by now completely vanished, and something foul and distasteful takes up residence in its stead, sloughing down to the pit of his stomach.

Gerald’s eyes catch his as he is gesturing to one of his underlings, and the commissioner’s expression hardens immediately, as testament to the fact that the antipathy felt by the young lord is more than mutual. The commissioner sucks in his cheeks, catching the insides between his teeth, and tries to swallow back the bile rising up in his throat at the sight of the Queen’s Guard Dog sniffing around his sandbox.

He breaks the gaze and looks back down, barking out various orders to the assembled officers and trying in vain to ignore the boy. But when the young Earl pushes past him with no mind and with no word, and walks some distance away to poke experimentally at one of the corpses with his walking stick, the scene simply becomes too much for the commissioner to tolerate. Gerald’s blood boils under his composed surface, and he is forced to stalk over to boy and his butler to take some control of the situation.

“What are you doing here?” he grunts with no guise or pretense of civility as he comes to a stop right behind the young Earl. He glares at Ciel’s back as he watches the boy meander around the dead body with the casual, detached interest of one circling a flower bed.

The young Earl does not look up, or in anyway cease or slow down his examination. “I am doing what I always do at your crime scenes, Mr. Gerald; I am doing your job for you,” he mutters as he continues to observe the corpse, accustomed at this point to the smell and the pallid, purple-bloated and swollen appearance, turning the head with his stick to better observe the entry wound of the bullet that felled the man.

Gerald grits his teeth and holds with white-knuckled strain onto the reigns of his patience.

“Who authorized –“

“The Queen did.” Ciel declares, finally looking up at the man, his own expression placid and unperturbed. “Is that a problem?”

“In fact, it is. The Metropolitan police has the matter under control. You are not needed here, your lordship."

Ciel attempts to bury a smile. He sighs in an exaggerated manner, and observes the end of his walking stick, before looking back at Gerald. “Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to be here,” he drawls, his words barely able to mask the young lord’s glee at the man’s obvious consternation. “If the Queen had any confidence in you and your organization, I wouldn’t need to be constantly hovering over your shoulders.”

Gerald clenches his jaw, and throws a distracted glance in the butler’s direction before trying a different tact. “You know, it is completely improper to have the help present at a crime scene.” He hisses, before finally directing his glare at Sebastian. “He’ll only interfere, and he will contaminate the evidence.”

Sebastian, unmoved, continues to stare at a point just past the commissioner’s head, maintaining the same impassive, indifferent expression as his young master’s.

Ciel sighs, and continues with the clipped, brittle monotone of a weary parent reasoning with a tiresome, obstinate child, “You know very well that Sebastian is my assistant. He goes where I go.”

“Be that as it may, you can inform the Queen that I have the matter under control. We are perfectly capable of solving this matter without her interference.”

Ciel finally loses patience with this little exchange, and whips around to glare at the commissioner.  “You mean like how you solved the case of my parents’ murder?” he sneers, dropping completely for the moment his haughty, dispassionate façade.

Gerald visibly flinches, and his shoulders sag as his expression melts as if in a flash from open hostility and disdain to one more conflicted and anguished.

“Forgive me if personal experience has shaken my faith in your competence,” the young Earl adds, jabbing the ground of the walkway with a final stab of his walking stick as he leans against it and directs the full force of his glare at the commissioner.

Gerald’s whole body seems to tense at the mention of Vincent’s death. The atmosphere around them becomes heavy and loaded, as the evening fog begins to weigh down upon them like a cloak. Plumes of steam rise up from the surrounding storm drains, floating outward like tendrils of smoke to layer upon the cobblestoned ground. Gerald averts his gaze for a moment and looks toward the line of the horizon where the city streets disappear into the twilight sky. Silence expands in the space between them for a moment, until Gerald’s gaze finally shifts back to meet the young lord’s.

“I’m sorry Ciel,” he says finally, his words faltering and hesitant, tumbling out as if they are being wrenched from inside of him. “I… respected your father. He was a good man. He – and your mother- didn’t deserve what happened to them.”

Ciel blinks and stares at the man, and is struck uncharacteristically silent. He is momentarily disarmed by the strange experience of seeing something human through the cracks in the commissioner’s stone-surfaced exterior. And for an instant, the young Earl flirts with the idea of being charitable, of perhaps for just this once taking the high road.

But the moment passes, and he chooses instead to twist the knife even further. “Well,” he says, his voice dripping with venom, “I’m sure that as they’re lying in their graves with their murder still unsolved, it will give them great solace to know that at least you feel bad.”

Gerald’s contrite expression shifts back to a mask of disdain as he begins anew to glower down at him, then at Sebastian. After a moment, he swallows and sighs, and decides that this particular battle is best left stalemated. “Very well, do what you must, but keep out of our way.”

He marches a few steps away, before deciding to throw down a few last words. “If the Queen wishes to take over full jurisdiction of this crime scene, she will need to do so through official channels,” he barks over his shoulder without turning around as he strides away. “Until then, this crime scene still falls under my purview.”

“Yes. Procedure and decorum,” Ciel mutters under his breath. “Truly the lifeblood of England.”

He watches the commissioner walk back toward the congregation of officers, gesticulating wildly at the nearest one in an attempt, Ciel suspects, to take out his frustrations on someone who is not in a lofty enough position to challenge him. He then gestures in the lord’s own direction, likely advising his men to make the Guard Dog’s job as difficult as possible.

The young lord observes this for a time, and then turns back toward Sebastian, with a tiny smile hanging from his lips.

“It’s unwise to tease the animals, sir.” Sebastian remarks, his own smile mirroring his young master’s.

“Sebastian, you really do need to develop a sense of whimsy. I could play nice, but then where’s the fun in that?”

 

*****

 

Now finding himself unfettered, the young Earl walks around the periphery of the blockaded quarters for a bit, and then approaches the lead inspector on the site to get a summary of what they have collected so far.

The crime scene is the apparent remnant fall-out of a most recent battle in the war between two rival gangs, each looking to expand their territory and domination over the opium black market currently wrapping its claws around London’s throat. The very same boarded-up establishment in front of which they currently find themselves transforms at night into an illicit opium den, one of the very few places in London where the indigent and forsaken can mingle with their social betters, those from the upper castes who have allowed themselves to become ensnared in the spiderweb of dependency.

As a matter of course, these gangwars are rarely investigated in anything more than the most cursory of manners – if at all. “Let the rats kill themselves off,” one of the officers on scene mutters.  “Makes our jobs that much easier.”

Tonight’s scene of course is a departure from the norm largely because of one of the victims found at the carnage. A nobleman of high influence - a prominent MP with several ties to the Queen - was found inside the den and believed to have been an unfortunate victim caught in the crossfire. Ciel suspects that Her Majesty preferred to avoid a scandal, and judged this particular incident as needing a more delicate touch than what Gerald was able to provide. And so the Queen’s Guard Dog was conscripted for the investigation and subsequent clean-up.

Ciel canvasses the scene for a time, taking in the number of covered bodies and the destruction to property. He finally makes his way over the remains of the deceased MP, his body covered by a grey plastic sheet, the folds of which still have the collected raindrops from the mid-afternoon shower. Judging from the smell, he has lain there for many hours on the rain-soaked ground, his body undisturbed while most of the other deceased’s remains have been removed and sent down to the city morgue.

Ciel looks over to Gerald, staring back at him with that same look of constipated displeasure, and molds his face into a smug, close-mouthed smile. He pokes at the bag with his walking stick before using it to fold back the sheet to see the MP’s body for the first time.

The smile immediately melts off his face as his eyes scan the man’s ashen, bloated face and battered, lacerated torso. His body has, it is quickly apparent the to young lord, been mangled and mutilated with a particularly gleeful vigour. This is not the work of a low-level foot soldier looking to quickly dispense with the killing and try to escape unscathed, but rather that of someone untouched by fear of capture and consequence.

Ciel’s gaze wanders back to the dead man’s face, and fastens upon the flesh-garlanded craters where the man’s eyes used to reside.  He takes a deep breath to push back the waves of nausea rolling through his insides. He bites his lip and chews the inside of his cheeks, and looks over to his first knight with a somber expression.

“Come Sebastian. Let’s go. We’ve seen all we needed to see.”

The Guard Dog’s faithful servant nods and follows him as he heads back up the alleyway and away from the murdered body.

 

*****

 

While marching away from the crime scene, they chance upon the tail end of another of the Metropolitan Police’s operations.

Commissioner Gerald is, if nothing else, a dedicated disciple to the principle of parsimony in dispensation of resources. If one must be dragged into the festering boil that lies outside of the periphery of polite society, then one is obliged to utilize one’s time and efforts with judiciousness. He has thus authorized a raid on a nearby opium den, seemingly unconnected to the first scene of violence and slaughter, in order to maximize the number of arrests and detentions.

The police are now busy hunting the rabble that had been lining the walls outside the establishment. The flurry of huddled masses - whores, addicts, sundry low-level criminals – are quickly prompted out of their temporary drug-addled stupor, and those who can – who are not too narcotized from the opium or enfeebled from hunger and malnourishment- run away to hide inside the hidden folds and crevices of the nearby slum like ants dispersing in the flood of a lantern light. 

Ciel stands witness to this scene as it unfolds, and his eyes fall on one of the addicts, one whose leg has been amputated, due likely to some previous misfortune. The young lord stands back and stares as the wretch attempts to hobble away on a crutch. The police catch up with him with ease, and one of the constables kicks his crutch out from under him so that he collapses to the ground.

Ciel then watches as London’s white knights, Her Majesty’s battalion in the war against darkness and corruption, proceed, in full view of the gathering crowd, to beat the cripple with their batons, landing blows on his head and torso as the man claws for purchase against the ground, trying desperately to slink away.

The blows of the police’s sticks continue to rain down on him long after he has stopped struggling and lays immobile on the ground like a subdued brute. A halo of blood spreads out beneath him, pooling around his motionless body and seeping into the dirt and the interspaces between the cobblestones.

Later that night, these same officers will return to their homes and crow to their wives about a day well spent and a job well done.

Tomorrow, the doors of the nearby shops and crumbling storefronts will open up at the sun’s rise to begin another day. The food vendors will wheel out their trolleys to fry up rotis and puris for the Indian labourers to eat before heading out to an endless day of work in one of the nearby mines or factories. The black-robed, black-hatted diamond merchants and jewellers will huddle together and float about in twos or threes, dealing and bartering in harshly muttered, sharp-toned tongues, careful to steer clear of the Irish immigrants stomping the same streets, again and again, in often fruitless attempts to find a day’s work.

The sun will rise and set. The smog will drift into the city centre and drape over everything, smothering it under its thick, claustrophobic blanket.

The blood will remain on the ground for days, long after the remains have been carried off, long after the whole thing has been explained away and obfuscated and swept under the rug, and any memory of it has faded from the minds of the spectators.

It will create a mark that will remain blighted onto the ground like a jaundiced stain on silken sheets, until a rainstorm comes several nights later to wash away the contaminate.

During the course of the beating, neither the head inspector, nor the commissioner spare more than a passing glance in the cripple’s direction.

Chapter Text

Ciel blinks, and tries to grasp for reality from inside the murky fog of his dream. He feels the tightness in his chest, feels it crawl up into his throat, and sit there like a physical thing. He feels the wetness on his face, and thinks that it may be due to rain or the seawater from his dream, and it takes him a moment to realize that it is from his own tears.

He swallows around the gathering lump in his throat, and looks up and searches around until his eyes focus on those of the figure staring back at him from within the surrounding darkness.

“You’re here.”

“You called for me.”

“Did I? I don’t remember.”

“You did. And I came. If you call for me, I will come for you. Always.”

Sebastian is sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning over him, his palm on the other side of the boy’s own supine body creating a triangle with his arm and torso, a little teepee into which Ciel can safely nestle.

Ciel’s heart aches. He tries to clench his jaw so that no more tears can fall. He looks away toward the window, and his eyes trace the ornate filigreed wooden frames extending grid-like along the windowpanes. He thinks of cages and prison cells and mortared slabs of granite.

“Was it a nightmare?” Sebastian’s voice is a whisper, soft and intimate, though there is not another soul in the east wing of the manor, no one who could possibly hear them. Sebastian is comforting when he sounds like this. Sebastian calibrates his voice for him.

“Not exactly. More like a memory,” he whispers back. He rolls over onto his back, still nestled in safety of Sebastian’s arm and torso. This time, it was a memory of him and his father, walking along the edges of some unremembered beach, feeling the smooth pebbles under their feet and the damp, grainy sand between their toes as they watched the sea crabs and starfish that lived in the tidal pools next to the sea. His father had picked him up and sat him on his shoulders when the beach became rocky, so that the jagged-edged stones would not cut into the bottom of his feet.  All the while behind them, the ebbing tangerine sun dissolved like candle wax into the line where the water rushed up to meet the sky.

All of it had moved past his mind’s-eye in disjointed flashes, in the colour- and light-saturated images of an overexposed film, the whole thing painful in its utter ordinariness. They way things used to be back then. Simple and mundane.

But he is not sure if it was real. If it ever actually happened. He thinks of clockfaces melting upon the imagined sand dunes abutting that seashore.

His father loved the outdoors; the violent, chaotic beauty of nature, the unruliness of the sea and the peaceful quiescence of the English countryside. He likely would have wished to share that love with his only son. But, as a child, Ciel’s health was often too brittle and precarious to sustain anything more than the most curtailed of excursions outside.

How disappointing it must have been, Ciel thinks, for his tall, strong, indomitable father to have been saddled with such a frail, sickly son.

He stares around the room until things begin to come into focus, their shapes outlined by the silver glow of moonlight filtering in.“Sometimes I forget that it happened.” Sebastian searches his master’s face as the boy tries to capture mist in his hands, tries to put a morass of emotions into words. “It comes in waves. Sometimes when I least expect it,” he says, piecing together the words like a puzzle, revealing a tiny piece of himself. Something he only trusts Sebastian to see.

“There’s a moment, just as I wake up, that it feels like it all happened in a dream. That if I run into their room, they will still be there.” he takes in a deep inhale, tries to swallow back the tears. “Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to just become lost in that moment.”

Ciel turns back to the demon, and moments pass in shiftless quiet while he studies the ivory-white slope of his cheekbones and the sharp angle of his jaw, both so much like his father’s.

“I’m beginning to forget them,” the words finally expelled out, the boy’s voice dropping back to a whisper as though admitting something shameful. “My memory is becoming foggy. I’m not always sure what’s real, and what is simply being supplied by my mind to fill a void.”

He stares at Sebastian, waiting for a reaction; some rebuke or reprobation. When none is forthcoming, he turns back to stare out the window. “It’s as if they’re slowly fading away. Just vanishing into nothingness. And I’m still here. All alone. And soon they will be completely gone, and none of it will mean anything, if it ever did.“

“You are not alone. I will be with you always.” The demon says, each word spoken in earnest, laying himself bare. “All you have to do is call for me.”

“I know. But you’re not human.” Ciel responds, not unkindly, continuing to stare past the demon while he treads through the labyrinth of his own thoughts. “I don’t really know what you are.”

It is not a question, and the young lord does not seem to require an answer. But the demon feels compelled to supply one nonetheless.

“I am yours,” he says simply. “All of me. Whatever I am, it belongs to you.” It is the only answer he can provide, the only manner in which he can strive to fill all of his young master’s vacancies.

Ciel appears unmoved. He continues to stare out the window without acknowledging the demon, continues to wrestle with the ghosts in his head. After a time, the boy nods almost imperceptibly as he rolls back onto his side and burrows his head against the pillow.

And Sebastian can’t be sure if he heard him; and if he did, if he understood him. Understood what it meant, how he has and always will offer himself up for him. To lay everything he has to give at his master’s feet, and -if his offering is found to be insufficient, is found to be wanting – dig inside himself, scrape and claw at the walls of his insides, and find something of greater value to offer.

He puts the palm of his hand against his tiny master’s chest, and starts moving it in circles, like blowing softly over a skinned knee, to try to soothe the ache that gnaws inside his heart.

He thinks it a strange thing, the human heart. How there is part of it that is locked away, enclosed behind a thicket of vines and thorns, garrisoned behind defensive walls built up by the accumulated hurts and betrayals and disappointments of living in the world.

It hides itself away, yet still aches to be touched.

Sebastian wants to touch it.

Neither the human nor the demon say anything more. Sebastian continues to smooth his palm over the boy’s chest until his master is soothed enough to let his eyes fall closed and drift off to sleep.

*****

London becomes sinister at night. Alien and unknowable, like the dark side of the moon.

When the sun has set, when its last rays have been smothered by the encroaching darkness as Night annihilates Day, when there is nothing left of its blazing brightness but an orange and lavender line in the distant horizon; when the glow that shines off the glass-windowed buildings and storefronts at daytime has melted off the city surfaces and into the storm drains and sewers, London begins to show its true colours.

While the days in the expanding metropolis belong to its proper citizens - the blessed and law-abiding -, its nights belong to the city’s wretched. London’s dispossessed, those cast aside by daylight, come out beneath the orchid-and-hyacinth-coloured pall of dusk to lay their own claim on the city.

The whore who appears on the same street corner with clockwork consistency. The shuddering addict shuffling through the valley between his last hit and his next. The homeless sleeping underneath the metal awning of a shuttered storefront. The migrant and vagrant stomping on well-tread grounds after a day spent seeking work. The parade of marauding thugs looking to break down doors, break faces, break ribs, break knees, in redress for debts unpaid. They all appear with circadian regularity at twilight to cloak themselves in the murky amnesia of the London night.

The young lord and his loyal servant travel these same city streets at dusk-fall, heading further and further inside the maze of alleys and passageways toward the city centre, the sky getting darker and their surroundings becoming gloomier with each passing street lamp, stationed along their path like mileposts charting the distance travelled. They stand for a moment and watch the shapes of people slink past in the half-glow of the lantern lights, dragging behind them their shadows shackled to their feet like a ball and chain. Street cleaners, most of them recent immigrants whose choice lays between sheer destitution and the most unwanted of labours, patrol the streets to collect and dispose of the city’s waste.  

As the night slouches on, the sounds of footfalls pounding against the pavement create a polyphony, as the march of those with hastened steps  - those attempting to escape the sinister pall of the night - plays counterpoint with that of those wandering idle and purposeless, those who have nowhere else to go, those nestling themselves within the deep fissures of the city.

The streets are completely bathed in black, the sky now moonless and monochrome, by the time the Guard Dog and his guard dog arrive at their destination, standing at the door of the only establishment showing any signs of life within a row of shuttered, desolate  buildings that extends down the line of the streetway.

They make their way into the pub, pushing past the crush of humanity lining the corridor and the periphery of the hall. The heat of untold moving bodies inside crashes against them, enveloping them like a tidal wave so they feel as though they are moving in slow motion through boggy water. The thud-thud-thud of jangly music assaults their ears, pounding so hard that its reverberations can be felt rippling through the floorboards underneath the young lord’s feet.

They meander about for a time, both appearing obscenely, laughably out-of-place in the midst of the gathering of drunks, whores and low-level criminals. The young lord has once again made absolutely no effort to conceal his blue-blooded lineage, wearing an overcoat of the finest Italian wool, over a ruffled silk dress shirt and cobalt-blue trousers. The Earl scans the crowd, his gaze wandering over the faces of the various patrons all of them staring back at him with varying degrees of curiosity and befuddlement, or suspicion and scorn. His patience, typically in short supply at the best of times, runs out before they have made it half-way through the room.

“Where is Cahill?” he barks at the trio of men occupying the nearest table, with brazen confidence that his voice will carry over the music and the ambient clamor smothering the tavern hall. The men look up from their game of cards, throw a skeptical glance in the young lord’s direction, and proceed to laugh and snigger among themselves before ignoring him once again to return to their game. Ciel forges ahead undaunted toward their table, and sweeps his hand against the collection of silver coins spread in the middle of its bloated, water-cracked surface so that they fall in a staccato against the wood-plank floor at the men’s feet.

“Do I need to use smaller words,” he hisses, leaning forward and bringing his face mere inches away from one of the men’s, so close that he can breathe in the acrid stench of alcohol on the other’s breath and the drying, caked perspiration on his face and clothes. “Or should I just speak more slowly so that you will understand the question?”

The mocking smirk instantly vanishes off the man’s face, to be replaced the provoked, animal-like snarl of a bull affronted with a muleta. He springs up to full height and reaches out to grab the young lord, but Sebastian is there to intercede in the instant before the thug’s calloused, tobacco-stained fingers make contact with his young master’s delicate ivory swan’s neck.

The other two men at the table stare with wide-eyed alarm, as a look of recognition - then fear - washes over their faces upon seeing the Guard Dog’s feared attack dog emerge from behind his tiny master. They make no attempt to intervene on their associate’s behalf as Sebastian grabs the man by the neck and slams him against the wall, the crude tableau of violence made all the more incongruous by the juxtaposition of the thug’s rough, brutish appearance against Sebastian’s delicate, willowy beauty. The demon clamps his slender, black-tipped fingers against the man’s throat, the pressure calibrated to hover at – but not over - the edge of strangulation.

“Do be helpful and tell us where we can find Cahill,” Ciel requests again, stationed safely behind his loyal knight, voice now a mocking sing-song, “My colleague can be quite impatient.” A warning illustratively punctuated by a squeeze of Sebastian’s clenched fist around the thug’s neck.  

The man, now placed in a far more accommodating state of mind as he is attempting to take in desperate gulps of air, silently gestures toward a closed door at the other end of the hall before Sebastian drops him in a heap on the ground, turning around to follow his master without a second glance at the other occupants of the table.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” the man, not yet done playing with fire, croaks from behind them as he coughs and sputters and rubs the bruises on his throat, “Mr. Cahill’s not quite finished yet.”

Sebastian turns back to throw a warning glare in his direction, and the man holds up his palms in a defensive, placating gesture, “Hey - I’m just trying to mind the young lord’s delicate sensibilities.”

Ciel rolls his eyes, and walks over to stand at the door, and waits expectant for Sebastian to follow. Sebastian hesitates for a moment, and the young lord stares back at the butler with an impish expression.

“Sebastian, are you concerned about my ‘delicate sensibilities’?”

Sebastian smiles and walks over to join his master, and, with an elegant flick of his hand, no more forceful than brushing dust off a varnished surface, he thrusts the latched door open.

Inside, Cahill is reclined on the sofa, eyes half-lidded, stretched out like a satisfied cat. The sickly-sweet fragrance of opium does little to cover the more pungent odour of sex that hangs thick as fumes in the atmosphere, and the young lord reflexively wrinkles his nose and curls back his lips in distaste.

A female companion is sitting nearby on a floral-upholstered baroque-style chaise, her mouth fastened to a pipe hanging over an openwork brass-base lamp, her cheeks cratered as she takes a continuous string of inhales. The whore’s body is thin and delicate like a young maiden’s, but her face is all hatchety angles and haggard complexion. She may have been beautiful once, before this world got to her, and the corrosive acid of time ate away at her features and her soul. Her eyes are glassy and half-focussed as they flicker up at their unanticipated guests’ sudden appearance.

She fixes Sebastian with a desirous gaze, a seductive smile spreading across her lips as her eyes rove over the fine marble-cut of his cheekbones, the spider-leg thick crescent-moon of his lashes, and the lines of his impossibly graceful, long-limbed form. Her eyes then drift over onto Ciel, where her gaze hardens into something much more jagged and spiteful, and her smile transforms into a jeering, derisive smirk.

“Perhaps we could speak alone.” Ciel says to Cahill while glaring back at the crime lord’s chosen lady of the evening.

“This isn’t your precious mansion, child,” the whore snaps back, fixing Ciel with the same withering glare, and making absolutely no move to leave. “I’m not leaving unless he says so,” she adds, tipping her head toward Cahill. Her words are punctuated by the broad, glottal accent of the working poor, and it rankles against the young lord’s ears like the screeching of a cat in heat.  

Cahill grins while watching this little performance, his eyes darting back and forth between the whore and the youngling Guard Dog, before nodding slightly toward his nightly companion to send her on her way. Now properly dismissed, the whore shrugs and puts down the opium pipe, and readies to leave. But before she does so, she ensures to lean back against the cushions of the chaise and drop her knee in a deliberate gesture so that the thin fabric of the dressing gown covering her lower body falls away from her groin like the drawing back of a stage curtain, in the young Earl’s direct line of vision. She continues to smirk at the boy who finally has no choice but to shift his gaze away from her and look down, mortified by the flash of colour spreading to his cheeks and the tips of his ears.

The whore finally stands up to leave, cackling at her victory as she walks by, and mockingly running her hands to tousle the tiny Earl’s hair.

Every muscle in Ciel’s body tenses up, as he grits his teeth and barely holds himself back. He wants to slap her hand away, indict her for daring to lay her unwashed, baseborn fingers on his regal person. Order Sebastian to smash her against the wall, lift her up by the throat and squeeze her neck until it breaks. But he ultimately manages to maintain his poised demeanor, and only a ripple of irritation shows on his otherwise placid surface.

“I am not happy, Cahill” he barks, once they are alone.

“Hopscotching right over the pleasantries, are we?” Cahill says calmly, as he knots together the belt of his dressing gown, and moves to sit at his cluttered, paper-littered mahogany desk, “Very well. Enlighten me; how have I displeased you today?”

Ciel sits down uninvited on the barrel-back chair facing the crime lord, “your men have been busy.”

“My men are always busy. Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” Cahill retorts as he turns to smile in the direction of the butler, “Isn’t that right, Mr. Michaelis?”

He puts a cigar in his mouth, and begins to pat down around the sundry items on his desk to try to locate a match. Sebastian approaches the crime lord’s desk and puts out an open palm, his hand inches from of Cahill’s face. With a flick of his wrist, the demon coaxes the flame from the nearby opium lamp to gather in the palm of his hand in a contained ball of fire like a crystal globe. The flames flicker amenably in Sebastian’s palm, undulating back and forth in a coquettish belly-dance under the demon’s command. Cahill watches this spectacle with a gleam in his eyes, before putting the end of his cigar against the flame, spinning it so that it kindles into an orange glow.

He sucks in his cheeks to take a puff as he leans back in his chair, and watches Sebastian extinguish the tiny ball of fire with a closing of his fist.

The butler then stands erect, nods to the kingpin and moves back to his post stationed behind his young master. Ciel’s lips spread into a satisfied smile as he watches this particular plumage display, done - he suspects - as much for his benefit as for Cahill’s.

Sensing a more pliant crime lord, the young Guard Dog decides to move forth without preamble to the reason behind this visit. “Your men killed one of our people. A nobleman - an MP, no less. That is why I’m displeased.”

Cahill takes a first slow, deliberate drag from his cigar, breathing out the smoke in one smooth exhale that it floats up in fractured tendrils around him, clouding around his scarred, time-cratered face.

“What makes you so sure it was the work of my men?”

“The nobleman’s eyes were gouged out of their sockets,” the young lord volleys back, “Petrov likes to leave his signature.”

“Petrov is an artist.”

Ciel rolls his eyes. “Petrov is not an artist. Petrov is a sadistic thug.” He leans forward in his seat and fixes the crime lord with a determined glare. “Now, when you and your rivals are off killing each other, no one will pay any mind. But when an innocent man is caught in the crossfire –“

“ ‘Innocent’,” Cahill scoffs.

“ - When an innocent man is caught in the crossfire,” Ciel continues, undeterred, “I am obligated to come down here to remind you of the terms of our agreement.” He reclines against the back seat of the chair and clasps his hands on his lap. “You need to reign in your men.”

“Petrov can’t always be ‘reigned it’ my young lord,” Cahill says in a performatively mollifying tone, “these things cannot always be helped.”

 Ciel chews his lip and narrows his eyes, and considers the game pieces on the checkered board before trying a different tactic.

“Are you saying that you don’t have control over your men?” he asks, his voice coloured with only the slightest hint of skepticism and derision.

Something dark and ominous flashes in Cahill’s eyes, but only for a moment before they are again cloaked behind his signature expression of false geniality.

Ciel continues in the same measured tone. “Either Petrov did this on your orders, as a clear disregard of our agreement, or he is a dog off his leash, meaning that you have no control over your men.” Cahill fixes the young lord with a calculating gaze, as his lips maintain the same joyless rictus smile. “Either possibility is making me wonder if perhaps I should be making my alliances with someone who does have control over his operation.”

In a split-second move, Cahill picks up an ornamental dagger that had been laying on the desk, and hurls it at the spot between the young Earl’s covered eye and the real one.

In the same split second, as if the moment itself was split into two, and that moment split into two still, Sebastian materializes at his young Lord’s side in a flurry of moving air and floating black coattails, his movement so quick as to be contained within the space of the flicker of an eyelid, within the fluttering of moth’s wings.

The cloud of opium smoke moves around him, slower than the butler himself, and the various pieces of paper on Cahill’s desk float up into the air like feathers in the eddies of a light breeze. The demon puts hand in the trajectory of the airborne dagger so that it stops in its path, and remains motionless in mid-air, penetrated squarely through his flesh, bisecting the tattooed mark of his left hand.

Ciel remains completely unflustered and motionless during all of this, his eyes never leaving Cahill’s. Cahill leans back to watch Sebastian as he extracts the dagger from his flesh, and holds up his hand in front of him, allowing Cahill to see the wound disappear as he rubs the indentation with the black-tipped fingers of the other hand.

Cahill grins and leans back in his seat. “I do so love to see you perform your little tricks, Mr. Michaelis. It’s like watching a dog walk on its hind legs.”

Sebastian says nothing, and he hands the dagger to his young master. Ciel finally allows his gaze to leave Cahill’s, as he looks down and inspects the weapon, running his fingers over its elegantly carved, jewel-encrusted hilt. He then leans against he back of the chair and crosses his legs, and stares at Cahill with an expectant expression.

“Very well, lord Phantomhive. You have made your case.” Cahill says, as he leans forward on his desk, clasping his hands and resting his elbows on the surface. “You will have soon have the guilty party in your custody, prepared to confess his sins and clear his maligned conscience. You will be able to reap the glory of having solved the case before Gerald and his men. What a boon for you this arrangement has been,” he finishes with an up-tempo flourish, his voice dripping with false congratulatory pomp.

Ciel gets up to leave, finally beginning to feel weighed down by the exchange, and the whole sordid and wretched affair, wanting to go home and wash it all off. But Cahill is not content to let him walk off without a final word.

“Would it surprise you to learn that this man whose innocence you proclaim so emphatically was known to - take liberties- with his servant’s thirteen-year-old daughter?” Ciel’s eyes become dark, but otherwise his expression betrays nothing. “And when the girl inevitably became with child, he arranged to have it taken care of in some back-alley procedure, and promptly put her entire family at the door, penniless and destitute without work.” Ciel can feel something sick and slimy settle in his stomach, its viscous ooze coating over his viscera. “The girl succumbed to septicemia and the family now resides in a workhouse, unable to afford scraps to eat much less a proper burial.” The ooze begins to congeal into a coiled and slithering mass, like the squirm of vipers in a snake pit, and begins to constrict the young lords insides.

Cahill raises his whisky glass and swallows a gulp of the bronze liquid. “I suspect that - 'scandal' - is the real reason why the Queen was so eager to see this case buried quickly,” he sneers as he leans back and delights at Ciel’s stricken expression. “So much for your innocent victim,”

Ciel stands up to leave without another word, trying to regain his composure while fighting off waves of nausea trashing below the surface. He moves out of the room without looking back at the crime lord.

Cahill reloads, takes aim, and readies for a final blow. “I think your father would have been proud, to see how you’ve continued to do his good works.” He chuckles around the rim his crystal glass, as he watches the young Earl exit back into the chaotic bustle of the tavern.

“Mr Michaelis?” Cahill calls out as Sebastian is about to cross the entryway, trailing behind his master. Sebastian halts, turns back toward Cahill, and raises a brow.

“Always a pleasure,” the crime lord nods. Sebastian says nothing, and continues behind his young master as his tiny body becomes swallowed up by the throng of humanity inside the pub.

 

*****

 

Ciel pushes his way outside, marches several paces away to put distance between himself and the pub, and buckles forward, bracing his hands on his knees. He takes in a successive string of deep inhales of the now much cooler night-time air, trying to breathe through the wheezing, constricted tightness of his lungs. A chill has now settled in the air, and he watches the visible mist from his breath float up and vanish into the darkness. He closes his eyes for a moment, shutting them against the onslaught of confusion rattling through his mind and heart, and focuses rather on the soft Spring-time breeze brushing reassuringly against his face.

He opens his eyes to scan the grimy, squalid surroundings. Rats chase after one another along the broken-down cobblestone surfaces and around the piles of rubbish and animal excreta. The street lanterns stand on the curves, aligned like the bars of a prison cell, casting everything in a pallid, alkaline gleam. All that can be heard here, a distance away from the cacophony of the pub, is the occasional mewls and howls of fighting street dogs, and the guttural sound of recently fallen rainwater draining through the street sewer grates. After a moment, he hears approaching the familiar cadence of his butler’s footfalls, coming to stand behind him.

Sebastian regards his young master as he continues to suck in lungfuls of the London air, watching him become increasingly deflated, already exhausted by another night in the debauched metropolis. “Nothing is ever simple, is it?” the young Earl mutters softly, to the demon, or to no one in particular. The boy wraps his arms around his own frail, bony torso, hugging himself against the dispassionate chill of midnight.

Sensing that his master desires comfort, the demon reaches out and puts a hand on his neck, to rake his fingers through his hair the way he knows the boy likes. He tries to wrap his arms around his tiny, breakable form, to press him closer to his own body to warm him, but Ciel unexpectedly shrinks at the touch, and shrugs Sebastian’s hand away. “It’s fine,” he bites out over his shoulder, not looking at the butler, “let’s just go. I can’t stand to be here anymore.”

Sebastian stands back for a moment, as the young Earl walks on ahead of him. He feels the strange alien sting of some new ache blooming inside his chest, its pain trickling forth like blood from an open gash. His rejected hand hangs suspended in the air like a hummingbird in flight as the seconds pass. He stares at it, his eyes tracing the creases on his palm and the moonlit ivory skin of the slender fingers capped in the black of his nails. In the background, he can see the blurred outline of his young master’s form, receding away from him into the sinewy alleyway. It comes into focus as Sebastian shifts his gaze up and lets his cold, untouched hand drop to his side.

After a moment, he puts his hands back in his trench-coat pockets and wordlessly follows his young master back to the carriage.

Chapter Text

Ciel watches with sickened fascination as the battlefield becomes littered with bodies and stained with blood. It was black and white when he first began this game, like coal tar splattered upon virgin snow. But now, he sees red everywhere.

The Queen has nearly massacred the enemy, but not before decimating her own army.

Of course, she did not accomplish all of this alone.

It is the rooks and bishops and knights whose hands are stained with blood. It is the peons, lowly foot soldiers fighting for a cause they never believed in, whose bodies now are spread, alone and unremembered, in the trenches and across the front lines. All the while, the dual queens sit on their twin perches, risking nothing, orbiting each other like binary stars.

“We are living through violent times,” Cahill says as he moves King’s Bishop to Queen’s Rook 4. “The world churns hopelessness into hatred, and desperation into wrath. It is all the same, within England’s walls and outside.”

Both armies, equal in ruin and devastation, stand at a stalemate, facing their mirrored projections on the checkered battlefield of twisting black and white.

“The opium wars never ended,” Ciel responds. “They simply switched battlegrounds, from China to India.” Queen’s knight to Queen’s bishop 5. “We need to prepare defenses.”

It was not enough that the Queen had beaten back the mighty golden dragon, and taken control of British East India and its army. Armament was constantly needed to protect the opium trade and British dominance; against local Indian rebel groups and anti-British militias, against foreign aggressors, and against the parasitic mercenaries out to siphon off and smuggle opium and deliver it to the London black market.

“This never-ending conflict, it is certainly good for business. Is it not?” says the crime lord, with a gleam in his eyes. King’ Bishop to Queen’s Knight 6.

The Bishop plunges his sword through the Rook’s neck, severing his head, and watching with a skeletal rictus grin as it falls to the ground and lies inert against the grim, arid dirt of the checkered wasteland.

Ciel glares at him.

Indeed, it is good for business.

Funtom corps has grown from larva to Leviathan. The company has expanded from toys and candy to other, more profitable areas of production. Military contracts have always been lucrative, and war has always been good for business. Under Ciel’s leadership, the corporation has been able to use his position as the Queen’s Guard Dog to secure multiple monopolies for weapons production for the Queen’s unstoppable army. Not content to stop at that, Funtom has developed a semi- covert research and development division. They have worked toward developing a parasite that would – if released - destroy whole crops and starve entire populations.

Of course, the creation of any such weapon requires the parallel creation of an inoculant. No poison should be developed without an antidote, and so work is underway to develop something that would protect the British interests, both at home and overseas, should the germ fall into the ‘wrong’ hands.

“In wartime, it is wise to keep your allies close, my lord.” Cahill intones, his voice puncturing through the curtains of opium smoke billowing around them.

“Cahill, I will not be handing over any weaponry to you and your merry band of sadistic thugs. I do have some scruples left.” Queen’s Knight to King’s Rook 4.

The Queen’s knight drives his spear into the belly of the king’s last remaining pawn, and stands back and watches unaffected as his opponent keels over, retching and bleeding and eviscerated.

Much profit was to be made elsewhere, among the many locally positioned patrons within London’s criminal underbelly, all vying to fill their war chests with the mass of weapons that Funtom could produce. While those sales could of course be tied to some control of the criminal activities, the young lord has steadfastly nixed the idea thus far. Something to do with loyalty and duty to the Queen. Perhaps, it was simply the law of transitive properties as applied to one’s fundamental values - rather than a true belief - that was the prop holding up the young Earl’s increasingly shaky allegiance.

Vincent was the true believer. He believed in the Queen, and in England, and believed in his own sacred duty as the Guard Dog.

And Ciel believes in Vincent.

If A believes in B, and B believes in C, then A must also believe in C. And besides, as the young master once put it to his most loyal knight, “one must believe in something in this god-forsaken world, Sebastian.”

“My young lord, rest assured; were you to change your mind, you would not be the first,” Cahill says as he moves Queen’s Rook to King 4. “Wartime profiteering is as old as war itself.”

“It is not profiteering.” Ciel declares with earnest certainty. “In wartime, we must all lend a hand to protect the empire.” Queen’s knight to King 3.

“It is always wartime in an expanding empire.” Queen’s Bishop to Queen 6. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd, that the Queen commands the greatest army on earth, and yet London struggles to keep itself afloat?”

King to King’s Knight 1.

Queen’s knight to King’s Bishop 6.

Checkmate.

*****

Sebastian is trying to mentally balance the third quarter deficits in Funtom corp’s latest financial reports.

Sebastian is trying to tally up in his head the flower orders for the upcoming ball at Phantomhive Manor.

Sebastian is trying to organize the week’s cleaning schedule for the Manor’s housestaff.

Sebastian is trying to count the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

Rather inconveniently for Sebastian, his train of thoughts finds itself persistently derailed by the faltering sounds of grunting and moaning coming from the partially dressed gentleman fucking him artlessly from behind. Fortunately or unfortunately, what the gentleman lacks in grace, he makes up for in vigour.

Said gentleman works as the deputy for the viceroy of India, and a top administrator in the British government - a rather well-connected one who has been a fount of useful information regarding the murkier, less well-dispersed details of the endless strife in Calcutta and the Indian border wars to protect the opium trade routes.

He tangles his hands in the silky softness of Sebastian’s hair and pulls his head back as the demon grips the side of the desk over which he has been folded, his lithe and slender body bent over like a reed, as his companion drills into him with dogged insistence while fumbling towards his own climax. The gentleman leans over and covers Sebastian’s back with his own torso. He slips another hand under the hem of Sebastian’s partially hitched-up dress shirt, and palms over the expanse of porcelain-smooth skin on Sebastian’s back and sides.

He buries his face in Sebastian’s hair, licks then bites the nape of his neck, and tells him that he is the most beautiful fucking thing he has ever seen.

The man’s moans and grunts remind Sebastian to echo with his own carefully devised sounds of carnal pleasure, as he turns around to look back at his lust-wracked companion over his shoulders, his face molded into a perfect counterfeit of salacious hunger. After a time, feeling the pull to keep things on schedule and sensing the gentleman approaching completion, Sebastian lets out a close enough simile of a feral growl as he comes with a joyless release into the other man’s hand fisted around his own length.

Later, Sebastian sits poised on the desk, his hands gripping its sides with his back straight and chest swelled up, and watches the gentleman pant and shudder his way through his post-orgasmic aftershocks. He runs a hand over his tousled hair and ruffled clothes, and watches the man watch him with wonder and fathomless desire.

“Was it good for you too, lover?” he drawls in a breathless, husky voice that goes right to the gentleman’s softening length. You are becoming a bad habit, the man pants out. Where did you come from? he wonders, amazed and entranced and besotted. I cannot get enough of you, he exclaims, a question stowed away inside the statement; How can you be real?

It is nothing new, of course. Sebastian has heard it all – some version of it, some permutation, some facsimile of it – countless times before. The faces may change, but the words remain the same.

The gentleman finally manages to stagger up on his still-wavering legs, and readies to bring their assignation to a close.

But Sebastian has not gotten what he has been dispatched here to get. Not yet.

He grabs the cloth of the man’s rumpled, unbuttoned dress-shirt, and wraps an impossibly long leg around his thigh to pull him close to himself. He chews on his lower lip, bitten-red and kiss-crushed and glistening with spit, and leans close to the man, much brawnier and meatier than he himself, and rests his brow against the crook of his neck.

“Come now, lover,” he mouths against the angle of the man’s jaw, “You’re not finished with me already, are you?”

Sebastian knows human desire. He knows that the most desirous thing to a man is to feel desired himself. “I want more,” he whispers into the shell of the man’s ear.

A ravenous, lustful grin spreads across the man’s face as he leans forward and runs his tongue, rough and slimy, over the soft, ivory column of Sebastian’s neck, before proceeding to paw at him once again.

And Sebastian feels the unseemly, alien touch of the man’s hands once again as he palms up underneath his dress shirt and sweeps them up and down the slope of his back and over the slats of his ribs. He feels a vague sense of distaste permeate his insides, and the touch feels like the squirm of maggots beneath rotting flesh. The sensation becomes amplified as Sebastian feels the man’s length once again hardening against his own thigh.

He recognizes it by now, this strange feeling.

He does not like this. He does not like what is being done to him.

It is the same thing, the same distaste, that he feels whenever he is touched by anyone other than his young master. It may have been the same sense that he always had whenever he was touched ever, by anyone, even before this incarnation of him, even before he – all of him, human body, demon soul - belonged to his young master.

He simply did not recognize it as such.

Not before the pleasure of his young master’s touch - against his face, his clothed torso, his small fingers playing through his hair and massaging the back of his scalp - brought it into sharp focus by the simple phenomenon of contrast.

Though of course his young master has never touched him like this; never put his hands on the demon’s naked skin.

Sebastian wonders what it might be like if he did.

What that touch - palm against his back, the intimacy of skin against skin - might feel like. If he revealed his own skin to his young master, would the boy’s hands on it feel like being seen? He feels his chest clench at the imagined touch.

Sensing the renewed thrust of his current target’s desire, he dutifully goes through the motions of bending down on his knees in front of him, and running his mouth over the bulge protruding through the cloth of the gentleman’s trousers. He looks up through his lashes, his lips plump and glowing with spit, his moonbeam-white cheekbones dusted with a flush of red, and knows that the man is ensnared. They always are. Regardless of what form he has taken.

The gentleman’s eyes become glazed over with craving and desire, and something inside him is knocked loose. In a brusque move, he buries his hand in the demon’s hair, grabbing a fistful of raven locks and pulling him up roughly by their ends before turning him around and bending him over the desk. He then fumbles with his own belt buckle and pulls down his trousers, and Sebastian hears the wet, guttural slap of spit against palm as the man readies to take him once again.

The playful smirk on Sebastian’s lips and lustful gleam in his eyes fade as soon as his face has left the man’s line of vision, and his expression goes back to empty and neutral while he waits unresisting for the inevitable intrusion. He can feel the gentleman digging his elbow into his back to keep him in place before sinking his barely-lubricated length into him once again. He feels the distaste and the nauseating twist of something else inside, but responds by letting out moans of approval and encouragement of more and harder in his adopted sultry voice.

He can feel – not observe, but feel – his own flesh become raw and eroded as the man stumbles after his own pleasure. He feels the burn of stretched, abrading surface as the man buries himself inside him again and again and again in rough, fitful thrusts. He tries to encase this feeling – this dislike – and push it down somewhere inside himself where it can be walled off and quarantined away from the rest of him. 

He turns his head and lays a cheek on the cool, varnished surface of the desk while the gentleman continues to thrust in and out of him, grunting and bucking like an otter attempting to mount a rock.

His gaze falls upon a silk tapestry on the opposite wall. He stares at it until everything around him becomes hazy and unfocused.

And with a quiet sigh, the demon lets his mind wander, and goes back to counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. 

*

Sebastian stares out the window of the gentleman’s office. His eyes scan over the brightly-coloured shops and stone- and brick-surfaced buildings of London’s Mayfair district. He watches the bustle of people moving back and forth on the streets below, as the silver glow of the half-moon bounces off the puddles of recently-fallen rainwater, and against the polychrome of canvas awnings fluttering like butterfly wings against the storefront walls. 

His eyes eventually focus back on his own mirrored reflection in the window, looking smudged around the edges and ghostly inside the lines, the image wavering and faltering from the faint glimmer of light coming from the nearby gas lamp on the man’s desk.

Sebastian rarely has occasion or interest to look upon his own reflection - this lie, this camouflage of human skin - and finds his reaction tonight to be one of indifference. Perhaps it is beautiful, this non-random collection of features and limbs and body parts - he cannot be sure. He was built in the image of his young master’s desires, so it must be beautiful somehow – at least in his young master’s eyes. Perhaps that is all that matters.

He leans his brow against the cool glass for a moment, and experiences the uncanniness of staring directly into his own strangely red-tinted, unnaturally intense eyes. He puts his palms against the window pane, and slides them down the glass, and then back up and back down again, feeling them grind and skid and stutter against the surface, and leans back to watch the smudges from his handprints catch the stray silver beams of the half-moon outside.

He listens for a while to the sound of snoring coming from the deputy Viceroy, spread out in his leather-upholstered wingback chair, now in a sated, satisfied stupor from the alcohol and the post-climax languor. He takes in a deep breath before quietly moving around in the office, to procure what he had come here for. He looks through ledgers and communiqués, various military reports and secret government missives, while throwing occasional glances over at the man’s sleeping form. His fingers glide over the edges of the sheets and his eyes scan their contents within inhuman speed and unearthly silence.

His gaze tracks over to the picture of the deputy’s charming, comely wife and two lovely young daughters. Should simple seduction ever cease to be an effective method of extracting information, blackmail will no doubt suffice as an alternative.

Once outside, the treasure trove of information safely stowed away in an envelope under his arm, Sebastian turns his head and inhales the scent from his own overcoat. He will have to change before he returns to the mansion. Wash off the remnant tainted residue of the night. He does not want the young master to be exposed to the smell of stale brandy and cigars and dried come that now pollute the demon’s clothes and skin.  

*****

The young master has retired for the night by the time Sebastian returns to the Phantomhive Estate. It is long past midnight, and the mansion is dark and still and soundless as Sebastian walks across the foyer and makes his way toward the expansive marble-stone baluster. He walks toward the east wing of the manor, in the direction of his master’s chambers under the guise of seeing to any orders the young Earl might have for the following day. That is one layer of truth; the other is that he has simply reached the limit of how long he can go in the absence of his young master’s proximity.

He slips into the boy’s room, his steps weightless and hushed as mist, and stands beside the young Earl’s bed. He feels a comforting ache and lightness unfurl across his chest as his eyes roam over the boy’s sleeping form, his chest rising and falling underneath the blanket, his cheek creased from the needlework print on his sham, and his midnight-blue hair splayed across his cream-white pillow like the first splatters of paint on a blank canvas.

“Sebastian, what have I told you about watching me sleep?” the young lord says in a sleep-muddied voice, his eyes still closed.

Sebastian smiles and looks down. “I’m sorry.”

Ciel’s lids flutter open, as he uses his palms to rub the sleep from his eyes, and sweep the fringe from his brow. He sits up in the near-darkened room, the only light coming from the lilac glow of his own contract eye, and the errant beams of moonlight. He lays his back against the stack of pillows, as Sebastian hands him the documents pilfered from the deputy Viceroy’s office.

 He begins to leaf through them, studying each one with interest. “This is good. You did well.” He gives the butler a distracted nod, as he holds up one relating to the escalating conflict near the Burmese border, squinting in the sparse light until the wick of the candles on the silver candlestick by his bedside flicker to flames by a wave of the demon’s hand.

 “How were you able to access the deputy Viceroy’s office?” he asks distractedly, without looking up, as he continues to scan the document. “Did you break in?”

“No young master. I thought it more sensible to use other, friendlier means of access. Should we need to return to that well.”

Ciel finally looks up and stares at him for a beat, before his eyes begin to narrow. Sebastian looks away and lets his eyes wander over to the silver candelabra, as he goes to sit in the young lord’s bedside chair.

“There’s no need to be coy, Sebastian. ‘coy’ doesn’t suite you,” the boy says, his tone now curt and distant. “I understand. You seduced him. You used sex to get the information that you wanted.”

He trips almost imperceptibly over the word sex.

The Earl seems to want to ask more, but hesitates, not knowing exactly what it was that he wants to know, if he wants to know. Not being able to find the words. Instead, he places the documents, now having lost their initial allure, on his bedside table, and turns around to bury his head in his pillow once again, his back to the demon.

Sebastian remains still, hands on his lap in the chair, and watches the boy. He can see perfectly well in darkness, but even if he couldn’t, there is enough moonlight streaming in through the open curtains of the window to lend a pale, unearthly glow to his master’s milk-white, silk-smooth skin. He thinks about the time shortly after he was summoned; how indifferent he had been to this non-random constellation of features and limbs, of skin and bones, and scars and vulnerability. This same collection – likely no more exceptional than so many others in the world - that he now finds to be the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. He lets his eyes roam over the curve of his cheeks over to the spot right underneath the delicate angle of his jaw, where he can just barely make out the steady quiver of his pulse.

He fixes on it, as the young master stares intently at the empty surface of the wall across the room.

He wants to kiss it.

Wants to press his mouth against it, to feel again how the skin, and the surging beat beneath it, would thrum against his lips. He observes that thought, that impulse, with clinical detachment. No use in battling it. But tonight he does not make any moves to make realized that want. Given the nature of the conversation, and the likely nature of the thoughts currently swirling around the young master’s head, he feels that the gesture might be misunderstood. Or unwelcome, as it more and more seemed to be of late. He stares and feels a phantom burn on his lips, and the ache of a chasm opening up in the small space between him and his young master.

“Do you – enjoy - it?” Ciel ventures, struggling to keep his voice even, even as his train of thoughts jostles its way down a winding and circuitous journey through treacherous terrains. He chews his bottom lip and feels the heat of the faint blush spreading across his cheeks.

The demon thinks for a time, trying to devise a way to explain it to the child without artifice and complications. “No, young master. I do not.” He finally responds in a solemn tone, “I don’t feel pleasure in the way that humans do.”

Ciel nods, his cheek still buried in the pillow, as his mind takes in the demon’s words. Pokes at them like a child poking a rotting branch with a stick, to see if he can inspect what mystery lies beneath. What is the opposite of pleasure? Is it pain? Is it indifference? The young earl tries to brush the words away, to uncover the truth of it. He tries to determine whether that is a truth that he wants to have laid bare.

“Alright. Very well.” He says instead, ejecting the words out to fill the vacuum of silence engulfing the room.

The demon’s gaze roams over the mountainscape of the young master’s  form, the promontory of his bony hips caving into the lowland of his waist, and moves down to become fixed onto the plane of the empty and inviting spot on the mattress next to the boy’s body. He feels the same ache, the same longing that seems to have become a part of him, but now overlaid with a strange overwhelm, an unknown sort of dread, and braces against it as he breathes out the words, “would you like me to stay here with you, until you fall asleep?”

The boy grabs the blanket and brings it up to his shoulder, and wraps it around himself. “No, it’s alright,” he says, voice now cool and aloof, words muffled by the pillow into which his face is nestled, “You can go.”

A mass of thorns and spines twists into the demon’s insides, twining with the phantom touch of the deputy’s hands crawling all over his skin. He stands up, bows uselessly and unseen to his young master’s back before leaving the boy for the night, to go back to sweeping the marble floors, cleaning the cookware in the kitchen, dusting the books in the library, and all the other untold tasks that he performs in the boy’s service each night in the stale, lonely gloom of the mansion.

Chapter Text

“You need to hand over Petrov,” Ciel says, his voice battling to be heard over the suffocating din and clatter of the pub. “It’s been two weeks since the MP’s murder. Gerald is feeling the pressure from the Queen to close the case. He’s been knocking on every door in Whitechapel, trying to rustle up a viable suspect.” he leans back in the chair, crosses his arms, and wrinkles his nose at the stench of alcohol and sweat and tobacco smoke that swamp the pub’s atmosphere and latch onto his finery like a swarm of midges, “I fear he might hit the orphanage and the nunnery next.”

Cahill stares past him, sitting on the opposite side of the table in the corner of the tavern hall, and runs a jaundiced handkerchief over the sweat-beaded skin of his face and neck. “Of course. That Gerald- typically dogged about closing the case at any cost. Whether or not the captured actually committed the crime is of secondary concern.”

“He is loyal to the Queen.”

“He is that.”

The crime lord focuses his eyes back on the young Guard Dog, considering him for a moment as his jaw moves back and forth over a masticated piece of chewing tobacco. “He was in charge of the investigation into your parents' murder. Did you know that?”

“Of course I knew. Typically incompetent. No wonder the guilty parties were never brought to justice.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate Gerald if I were you,” he mutters, rolling the piece of tobacco back and forth between rows of teeth. “There’s a great deal going on beneath the surface.”

The young Earl turns and studies Cahill with curiosity. His eyes narrow as his gaze locks onto the bulge bobbing in and out of the kingpin’s left cheek, as if foreshadowing the tumerous mass that will grow there in time; the one that will invade his tongue and his throat, and eventually kill him through asphyxiation on its oozing, necrotic tissue.

Cahill shrugs and smiles that same joyless, self-satisfied smile that so claws at the young Earl’s patience. “Well, you can hardly blame him. the trail does run cold when the chief culprits destroy themselves in some great biblical conflagration. How is he to find out who was behind it all?”  A shadow of something more sinister falls over Cahill’s smile, as he stares evenly at the young lord, then at Sebastian. “That was the… story, yes? Sacrificial self-immolation?”

Ciel swallows and continues to glare back at the crime lord, maintaining his implacable façade. “Not a ‘story’. The truth.”

 At a nearby table, a fight breaks out between two brutes, over a gambling debt or a woman or a carelessly uttered slight. It rarely matters. A crowd is gathered, fists are thrown, tables and chairs upended, blood is shed from the path of a knife plunged into flesh. The crime lord, the Guard Dog and the black knight pay it no mind, barely glancing in the brawl’s direction.

“Yes, well. Fire has a way of expunging all manner of sins. It’s funny, how the universe finds a way of meting out its own brand of justice.” Cahill continues to study the Guard Dog and his companion, while the ambient music and noise and violence meld together in a mosaic of chaos around them. “The murderers perishing in a fiery grave, the same way as the Phantomhives did – it’s a lovely bit of poetic justice.”

One of the men from the nearby altercation is positioned over the other, subdued and lying on the floor, and proceeds to land repeated close-fisted blows to his jaw and cheeks, so that his teeth are knocked loose and blood pours in rivulets down his face and neck.

“In any case,” Cahill continues, his tone downshifting to something much more benign, “the lamb has been selected for slaughter, in a manner of speaking. He will be on his way to the police station ready to offer himself up to be punished for his sins.”

 Ciel raises a skeptical brow. “You’ve finally wrangled Petrov?”

 “Oh no, Petrov is far too valuable. We’ll have one of the boys take the fall. Never risk your knight when a lowly pawn can be sacrificed in his stead.”

 Ciel smolders in his chair as he regards Cahill. “The commissioner will be able to detect that the pigeon you've sent is not the murderer. And then we will simply have to speak again about you offering up Petrov.”

“My young lord, justice is a simple matter of equilibrium. A crime was committed, and a culprit will be detained. And the scales are balanced yet again.”

The first man is finally peeled off the second, still growling and cursing and throwing blows into the air as the assailed party grapples toward a chair, to try to pull himself up and away from the pool of blood and alcohol spreading in a wreath on the woodplank floor.

“They say that Justice is blind. Perhaps it is also indifferent.”

*****

Commissioner Edmund Gerald, the 3rd has a canvas hanging on the Southern wall of his office in London Metropolitan Police's headquarters. It is gold-gilt and copper-backed, and etched upon it in ornate cursive is the phrase Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum.

Let Justice be done, though the heavens fall. 

Gerald stares at the canvas as the afternoon light filters through the window, dwindling and atrophied by the smog and weathered haze rising from the cityscape. The groan and bustle of a city in perpetual motion punctures through the dense corrugated shutters of his thoughts.

He wonders about that.

Justice.

Some intangible force in the universe working to right wrongs and erase indignities, to seek toward some form of equipoise. Restoring order to disorder like the blessed waters of the Ganges river.

That Justice must prevail, regardless the cost. He remembers believing that. He believed it the first time he came upon that maxim, when he was just a boy. Mistranslated it during his Latin instructions, earning him multiple lashes across his hands from his father, until his palms were black and swollen-blue, the marks on the injured tissue matching the yellowing purple welts across his back and thighs.

Justice would be done, for sons against their fathers.

He believed it still, when the factory manager where his mother toiled for fifteen hours a day cheated her out of her earnings, and tossed her out the door when her hands became too mangled and arthritic to work the needle and thread, leaving them penniless and on the verge of destitution.

Justice would be done, for the exploited against their oppressors.

It seemed like a thing to believe in, when there was nothing else to believe in. A right for all wrongs, a reckoning against all sinners. Through justice.

He ran into the open arms of the police academy at the earliest opportunity, at the youngest age they would have him, partly to escape his father’s wrath and his mother’s despair, but also to understand Justice. To pursue it, and to bestow it.

What he found there was not Justice, but the Law.

No one is who they appear to be on first impression. No one is who they thought they would become. You are the story that you tell yourself, and no one is the villain in their own story.

Justice became less and less sublime, and more and more human, as he ascended through the ranks of the police force, from inspector to chief and eventually to commissioner. All the things that he witnessed, that he had to do. The strange barter economy of justice – currency changing hands between law enforcement, the judiciary, and the criminals they were supposed to battle. Money, favours, bribes. Between the politicians and the noblemen and the so-called upstanding citizens seeking to bury an unsightly lapse or a sinister pattern of behaviour. What money didn’t bring to pass, threats and intimidations would. All the while, justice would ravage and devour the unprotected in its path. Until the whole machination of law enforcement - of crime and punishment, of the dispensation of justice - became simply a theatre, a tragicomic farce parodying itself.

And while there has never been any love lost between Edmund Gerald, the 3rd and Edmund Gerald, the 2nd  – in fact, the commissioner has often resented the pedestrian narcissism that would lead imperfect men to recursively name their sons after themselves – he has no choice but to admit that his father was correct in telling him that within London, Law and Justice were two circles in a Venn Diagram that rarely overlapped. That London’s sick, addled soul would always reject Justice like a damned wretch would the holy sacrament.

He doesn’t remember when it happened, when he made the decision to stop swimming against the current, and simply let himself float out into the sea. He suspects it was a slow process, a frog in a saucepan, frozen in place by listless stupor or deliberate obliviousness as the waters around him slowly transformed from tepid to scalding. What he is now is the sum product of accumulated tiny decisions, small betrayals, active choices to look the other way. To ensconce himself in willful ignorance. Or sanctimonious justification.

So much so that justification for his actions became second nature, so that the guilt could absolved before it had a chance to grow roots, to snake itself around him like vines. Evil men never think of themselves as evil. They are simply righteous men committing sins for the greater good, as they compromise themselves bit by bit, until so much of them has been etched away that there is nothing left. By the time they look back to see how far they have strayed, it is too late.

And so Gerald continued to advance, propelled upwards from one office to the next, not because of his integrity in injecting Justice into the Law, but because he could be counted on more and more to look the other way. 

Everyone vanishes into the newer but more hollowed versions of themselves. And so Gerald the seeker of Justice has become Gerald the enforcer of the Law.

Gerald used to work alongside Vincent Phantomhive. He had a grudging respect for Vincent - that rare entity within England’s web of corruption. A virtuous man. He was stalwart and honest. And he still believed. Believed in doing something meaningful, in something good laying buried and unexcavated underneath the rubble of vice and corruption that had avalanched upon the city. Gerald may have scorned Vincent’s naivete, or the ease with which his vaunted social status allowed him to easily wade through the muck and morass that dragged down the rest of London’s law enforcement. But – if he were honest with himself – he would admit that he had a kind of deep-seated envy toward Vincent. While he found galling the sheer nuisance of Vincent’s incorruptibility, he would often wonder what it might be like to feel unburdened by the weight of the guilt of all the things he had done, that he had had to do.

He thinks of Phantomhive now, and begins to feel a familiar skein of dread and nausea coil itself like a snake around his insides.

With each passing day, he watches with resigned impotence as London sinks deeper and deeper in opium. Opium flows in from the trade routes, both the legitimate and the black market, and it drowns London’s inhabitants and buoys the criminal syndicates that run the city’s underworld. It seeps into the law enforcement and justice system that is supposed to keep the city safe and bulwarked, so that its hull becomes weighed down and its foundations become soaked and cracked, so that it sinks below the surface and the waters close above it. And the few good men left can only run around rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.

He wonders about that now. Justice.

Wonders if it even exists. Justice for whom? Justice in whose eyes? What if the costs themselves are unjust?

He stares at the canvas, hanging inert and unaffected on the Southern wall of his office in London Metropolitan Police's headquarters, and wonders about the truth hidden behind the etched markings. If he were to wipe his hands across it, to use a tincture to uncover the hidden text in the palimpsest, would he find another etching, truer and more authentic, hidden beneath?

exitus ācta probat.

The ends justify the means.

He sighs, and tries to suppress it – that feeling of dread and revulsion. All injustices can be justified. Otherwise, unscrupulous men would be driven mad by guilt and remorse.

**

In order to kill a man, in order to end a human life, one must first dehumanize him.

No killer believes that they are killing a person. No, the killer is killing the enemy, they are killing a criminal, they are killing a thief, a liar, a traitor. They are killing someone that, if given the chance, would kill them instead. They are killing someone who has, in some way or another, been complicit in their own demise.

No one has ever killed someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s lover. No one has ever killed someone’s beloved son, someone’s cherished friend, someone’s sole support for survival.

Ciel hears the spasmodic stream of agony coming from a room at the end of the hall in the Metropolitan police headquarters. The door is closed, so the young Earl is left to only speculate that it is an interrogation room - grey and cement-walled and purposefully hopeless - similar to the one that he is currently occupying. Howls and strangled cries float from the room, while not a single officer or administrator raises an eye from their paperwork, or stops the steady imbibing of sips from their teacups.

The young lord finds it curious that there are no invectives or sharp-toned recriminations countering the screams of terror. No gruff voices of interrogators, no barrage of questions and accusations. Simply a rhythmic, pounding beat of something solid against something soft.

The youngling Guard Dog stares ahead, shoulders tensed and jaw set, body as tight as a coiled spring from the mere knowledge of Gerald’s presence in the room, on the opposite wall, and studies the man that Cahill has scrounged up and dispatched to take the fall for his first Lieutenant’s butchery.  

The man – barely a man, really; a boy - in front of him is heartbreakingly slow and feeble-minded. He is perhaps seventeen or eighteen, though it is difficult to tell due to his short stature and emaciated form. He grips the edges of his tattered woolen cap, pulling it over the copper-red curls spilling out from underneath its brim. His eyes, big pools of muddy, brown-speckled green like standing water, dart from the inspector’s face to the table surface and to the barren, desolate cement walls of the interrogation room. His knee bounces nervously under the table, as he stares at, and sometimes through, the police inspector questioning him. When not speaking, and not being spoken to directly, his attention seems to waver and drift away like a boat loosely tethered to the shore, knocking haphazard against the docks.

Ciel knows with absolute certainty that this boy has never committed a single act of violence against any living thing in his short, wretched life.

The police inspector sitting to the young Earl’s immediate left and currently conducting the interrogation, however, shows an almost heroic lack of interest in the inconsistencies in the little lamb’s story, the giant holes that could be spotted from the moon. The inspector writes the unlikely work of fiction down with a complete absence of even basic intellectual curiosity, as though his thoughts have already wandered to far more interesting exercise of speculating the contents of his dinner that coming night. The only bit of creativity he displays is in helping the boy along with plausible answers to any questions that have him stumped - “you mean, near the opium den, yes?” or “the West end of Whitechapel, correct?”- as the boy answers in a volume that never rises above a soft, polite, hesitant whisper.

It is almost comical to the young Earl, how indolence and laziness can often be a far greater evil than corruption and avarice.

After some time, Ciel cannot take it anymore, and glares at Gerald standing against the wall, idly spectating from the corner of the room. He waves the inspector away with a dismissive back-and-forth of his hand, and begins to question the boy himself.

“So you are saying that you alone committed this murder?”

“Yes sir,” the boy answers, copper-lashed eyes now wide and lucid as his attention is pulled to the young lord, regarding Ciel with something like quiet reverence, as though he were a low-caste servant being addressed by the maharajah.

“When did you commit the murder?”

The boy stutters, tripping over his words before coming up with what is clearly a guess. “… Thursday the last.”

Ciel sighs. “The nobleman was murdered on Saturday,” he states in a gentle tone.

“Saturday. Yes, sir.” The boy nods emphatically, ”I killed him on Saturday.”

“How did you kill him?”

“I shot him, sir.”

“with a pistol?”

“Yes, sir. with a pistol.”

“The nobleman was stabbed, not shot.”

The boy blinks, rubs sweaty palms up and down his thighs, wiping them against the cloth of his pantleg. “Yes. I stabbed him.”

“But you just said that you shot him?”

“No, I stabbed him, sir. With a - a knife.”

Ciel leans back against his chair, and considers the boy with an even look. “Forgive me, but your confession is full of equivocations.”

The boy looks confused and startled. “…Sir?”

Ciel lets out a breath and softens his expression. “your story doesn’t seem to hold up,” he repeats in a soft, chiding tone as if gently warning a child against touching a heated saucepan.

“It’s the truth, sir,” the boy stutters, desperate to please, ”I promise.”

Ciel gives the boy a tight-lipped smile and a clipped, reassuring nod, before standing up and walking the corner toward Gerald, out of the boy’s earshot.

“Do you really intend to continue with this farce?” he hisses at the Commissioner. “This – boy- is clearly too timid and dull-witted to have wandered out alone at night, much less orchestrated the mayhem at Whitechapel.”

“He confessed. And he is not recanting.” Gerald grits, with some mixture of defensiveness and resignation, as he stares past the young lord and toward the opposite side of the room. “We can’t simply ignore a confession.”

“You know as well as I do that this ‘confession’ is a work of pure fiction.

Gerald rolls the inside of his cheeks between his teeth as he continues to glare at a spot on the opposite wall. “Well, he is the closest thing that we have to a lead. We can’t let him go unless he points us to the real killer.” He pauses, and turns his gaze to meet Ciel’s eyes for the first time. “That is, unless the Queen’s Guard Dog can provide any further information on the matter.”

Ciel chews his lips and casts his eyes to the floor. Shakes his head. “Not so far.” He turns his gaze back toward the boy, for want of anything else upon which he can comfortably rest it.

“Sir, when can I go home?” the boy says in a small voice, now nervous and frightened, as the import of what is happening to him finally begins to sink in.

The police inspector rubs his face and massages his temples. “you can’t go home.”

“But I need to go home.”

“Well, you can’t.”

The boy swallows and glances around, looking more and more like a fearful stray backed into a corner. He turns his head around and looks over his shoulder as his eyes search out his more sympathetic interrogator. “Soon, sir? Can I go soon?” he asks the young Earl.

“Don’t you understand? You’re not going home,” The inspector barks from the other side of the table. ”You’re never going home.’”

The boy stares at him, his pupils blown wide and eyes brimming over with mossy green.

“Why do you need to go home?” Ciel interjects in the same gentle, lowered voice, as if this is conversation between just him and the boy,

The child looks small, shrunk in on himself now that he sees the wolves circling. “My mum. She’ll worry. She worries when I’m late.”  His voice wavering over the words. “Please, can I go soon?”

 “You can go when you tell us who killed the nobleman,” Gerald barks from the corner of the room.

Ciel drops his gaze once again and stares intently at the floor.

“I did. I stabbed the nobleman.” It is more like a question now, quiet and unsure.

This goes on for another few rounds, until it becomes clear to all that no useful information is forthcoming from the boy. Ciel tires of this and readies to leave, informing Gerald that he won’t be able to convict this man based on the paltry evidence he has.

“I know it’s such a bother to have to always investigate things,” he sneers, his voice venomous and corrosive, “but some degree of skepticism must be exercised whenever things are simply offered up on a silver platter.”

He sweeps out of the room without a look back at the Commissioner or the young pigeon. “Do what you need to do with him and then let him go.”

*****

Red is the colour of love.

Angelina remembers reading about that in the countless stories and poems on courtly love that she used to devour as a girl, a balm upon the relentless ache of her tender, romantic heart.

Perhaps that is because red is the colour of blood, pumping through lovers’ hearts.

She had always thought it strange. To her, red is the colour of passion; of heat and impetuousness and fury. Love can be passionate, yes. But passion dies and its fiery red embers turn to black and grey ash snowing down on its funeral pyre.

To her, white is the colour of love. It is serene and calm, blanketing over her grief and melancholy. Enveloping her rattling mind in its anodyne embrace. It’s fitting that white contains all the colours; red for passion, blue for tranquility, green for healing and regeneration. It comes over you, absolves like a benediction, it anoints your wounds and cleanses the stains of everything that preceded it. All the ugliness and heartbreak and loneliness that has accumulated inside – love, like whiteness, covers over it all like a gossamer blanket.

She sits across from her nephew, on the veranda of the Phantomhive mansion, sipping tea from blue-and-gold filigree china and looking out onto the front gardens, watching as Spring unfurls its polychrome wings. She looks over to his blue waistcoat and blue cravat. His blue trousers underneath a blue overcoat. The sapphire gemstone on the twined rings on his finger.

Blue everywhere, blue to match his eyes. Blue like the colour of his mother’s eyes. Blue like the colour of sadness.

The gold-trimmed silken napkins flap in the wind, and their silver rings knock against the tabletop in a gentle rhythmic tap-tap like rainfall against a tarpaulin.

White like the first snow of winter, pristine and beautiful and sparkling, covering underneath it the brown- and orange-tinted melancholy of Autumn.

White, like the colour of satin bell-shaped cotillion dresses on young girls, looking timid and hopeful as they spin around the dance floor like water lilies floating in a pond. Like what she was wearing when she first saw him, fell in love, and watched – with her heart clutched in her palms, stripped naked and vulnerable by love’s hands - as he fell in love with her sister.

She swallows her heartache, and smiles a beautiful and radiant smile at her nephew.

It’s fitting that white will be the colour of her dress on her wedding day. White, not for purity, but for love.

“He’s a good man, Ciel,” she says softly, of the man she will marry, as she runs her finger over her diamond-and-ruby encrusted engagement ring, turning it over and over in the tiny groove it has already etched into her finger. “Honorable, like your father was.” Ciel bites his his lower lip and averts his gaze to the line of foliage in the distance.

The earth around them has begun to turn from a turpid brown to iridescent green. The frozen mud has begun to thaw under the caress of the lengthening days, and the grassy, flower-speckled field has begun to sprout back to life.

The languid Springtime breeze mingles between the cherry and magnolia trees, before meandering through the grass and shaking loose the scent of lilacs and roses and yellow jasmines, and bringing it to her like an offering. She watches the blackbirds and wrens flit around the emerald-green treetops, chasing one another, chirping and cooing and singing songs of love to each other in a faltering vibrato.

She looks out into the field of green - green like the colour of peace, green like the colour of a salve - and sees the flowers beginning to bloom now that Winter has receded, its army beaten back by the cavalcade of Spring. Her eyes come to rest on the bed of dahlias near the pond.

Pink.

It is like a miracle, she thinks, that not more than a fortnight last, they were buried in brown and grey. Not yet into existence. And now watch them bloom, reaching up toward the sun.

pretty pink.

Joyful, hopeful pink.

“I think that it is possible. To heal. To choose to heal.” She reaches out and runs a hand through his hair, rubbing the string of his eyepatch between her thumb and forefinger. “Sometimes, life bestows us a kindness.” She watches him, as he watches the horizon, unmoved and unmoving. “He would have been happy – they both would have – to see how you’ve chosen to go on. The good you’re doing. To see what you’ve become.”

He doesn’t react, his mouth a static, joyless line. And so she smiles - with enough lightness and serenity in her heart, she smiles for the both of them.

*****

Commissioner Edmund Gerald, the 3rd stares at a point just to the side of the entrance door of the interrogation room. He has stood stock-still, in the same place he was standing when the Guard Dog left, while the rest of the precinct moves and seethes and lurches, blackens and ravages, and churns out justice.

He leans his head back against the wall of the hallway just outside the room, and watches through the open doorway as the boy struggles through the remainder of the inspector’s barrage of questions. The boy is no killer. No thug. He knows this. Just a pigeon. A little lamb, having been led to slaughter. He has obediently stayed in the chair - made no move to leave, because no one has given him permission. The boy’s eyes – wide and frightened and unblinking - sweep over to catch his own, and he has no choice but to look away.

Finally, the inspector gets up from his chair and comes to speak to him. No so much speak to, as shrug in the general direction of. No useful information to be obtained. Perhaps not through the current method of questioning, the Commissioner intones. Another shrug from the inspector. You know what we have to do. The inspector’s eyes snap up to meet the commissioner’s. Is that… really necessary? The boy knows nothing. It is necessary. The commissioner’s eyes harden, his gaze now like steel.

Not long after the inspector has left, disappeared down the dark, winding hallway, does the other man appear.Black trousers, black overcoat, black pupils inside a pool of tar-black iris. Black like the night. Black to match London’s heart.

He carries a leatherbound suitcase into the room, staring blankly ahead as he moves past several constables, all of whom look at him for only the briefest of moments before averting their eyes, before scurrying away like ants to avoid contact. His path ultimately crosses with Gerald’s, and neither he nor the commissioner make any gestures of acknowledgement.

The boy, now sitting ramrod straight in his chair, having watched all his previous inquisitors, all the familiar faces whose voice and cadence he had become accustomed to in the previous hours, abandon him one by one and peter out of the room. His eyes track the man as the man as he snaps open the lock and opens the lid of the trunk, and looks over the instruments packed neatly inside, some sharp, some dull, all rusted and metallic, edges gnarled and serrated and stained sanguine. The boy tries to catch the man’s eyes. Watches him stare back, looking through him with a blank, unfeeling expression on his non-descript face. He swallows and his eyes begin to wet.

“Mister?”

His hands are fisted tight on his lap, and he is frozen in place. The man’s gaze runs over him, cool and detached, as he runs a finger over one of the metallic corkscrew rods. The boy’s chin quivers as his gaze fastens on the instrument in the man’s hands.

“Mister?”

His eyes finally water, and mossy green pools begin to spill over down his pale, anemic cheeks. Gerald’s insides thrash and flail, and he can no longer watch this unfold. He closes the door without a second look at the boy, and the last thing he hears before the metallic clink of a door swinging shut, is a soft, politely whispered please may I go home?

He marches to his office and looks outside the window as the dusk falls upon a leperous city. He fetches a bottle of whiskey from the bottom shelf of his desk and pours out the tawny liquid to wash off the stink of the day. He takes a gulp, and another and another, and feels the corrosive liquid burn of it as it travels down his gullet and hits his stomach, and he feels his mind become hazy and anesthetized. Another day has passed, another piece has been stripped away. Another carapace has been constructed around his heart.  He thinks about going home to kiss his daughter good night and tell her fairy stories of heroes and angels, of white knights and saviours, of good conquering evil.

Of Justice done, and of the heavens falling.

Chapter Text

Ciel remembers reading about the story of a child. Or perhaps his father told him. Or perhaps his mind confabulated it, taking threads of other stories, news, cases, fables, and weaving them together into some cohesive narrative.

The child, a little orphan girl, was trampled by a passing carriage as she was toddling unattended across a busy market street. The curious thing was not the impact itself, which, while tragic, was not unheard of in a city bursting with small, unattended orphans and busy, distracted coachmen. What made it curious was that it occurred in broad daylight, in full view of the bustling market crowd. The coach did not slow down, and as the child lay bleeding and in shock on the ground, she was hit minutes later by a second carriage. She was ignored by the second coachman, as well as a dozen passersby, until eventually, a garbage collector pulled her to safety. At that point of course, there was not much left to salvage.

He remembers how he felt hearing this. How his heart broke, how he wept thinking about how frightened that little girl must have been. How alone she must have felt, when she cried out and no one would come to her aid. When she had no one to hold her as she lay in pain and dying, and the lights around her were extinguished one by one. He remembers feeling the sympathetic pain in that way that only children can, when their interior is nothing but infinite, undiluted empathy and compassion, fanning out in all directions. For a broken-winged blackbird, for a once-beloved, now discarded plush toy.

He remembers his earnest child-like conviction that had he been present, he surely would have intervened on the child’s behalf. He would have acted heroically, righteously.

He wonders what happens to that empathy, that conviction, as people age, as they persist longer in this world. Where does it all go?

He thinks about how his father felt when hearing this story – or how he might have felt had he heard it in the conditional past wherein it had occurred rather the pluperfect past where it did not. Ciel thinks of his father’s endless, untarnished capacity for heartbreak and empathy; how he would have likely thought of his own beloved son when hearing of this little girl’s tragedy. Ciel thinks about how, again and again, his father would nurse the wounds of his bruised idealism so that it may withstand another day’s onslaught.

Ciel wonders what is the place of such a man in this murky, complicated world.

In the whole savage and bloodied history of humanity, there are the few men who commit heinous acts of evil, and the untold many who stand idly by. He knows very well about the former through first-hand experience, and is becoming more and more familiar with the expanding space taken up in the world by the latter.

But what happens to those vanishingly few in that third group - those who choose, despite all evidence of its futility, to act on their conscience and conviction?

*****

The words appear like hieroglyphs. Or like tiny rows of ants, marching back and forth on the cream-white paper in front of him. They float about in sinusoidal formation as Ciel reads over the same block of text, his mind refusing to maintain focus.

He should have retired to bed hours ago, but knew that sleep would evade him tonight, and so he finds himself alone at his desk, looking over his father’s journals, seeking out some sort of connection, or some revelation. Some fundamental truth.

The mansion is quiet in that funereal way that it tends to get at this time of the night, after the house chores have been completed and the housestaff have retired for the day, and the air is still and undisturbed by any flicker of activity. The young Earl is thus left alone, nestled in this lacuna of time and space, hidden away from the quotidian of the mansion, with nothing but the clatter of his thoughts to keep him company.

He turns around in his chair and looks out through the window of the Phantomhive study into the clear cloudless horizon, and watches all the stars as they twinkle and shine, lined up row-on-row in the tessellated night sky. He marinates for a time, until the silence becomes intolerable, and he has no choice but to seek comfort from the only place he can; that beaming surface upon which he can project all of his wants and needs and desires, and have it all reflected back to him without judgment or protest.

*****

He walks along the winding, dimly lit passageways of the mansion, past the Grecian statues and all the portraits of past Phantomhive patriarchs that line the walls. He makes his way to the servant’s quarters, and heads down to the last in a row of chambers - the only one still spilling light from the flickering glow of a gas lamp. There, he finds Sebastian sitting at his desk, a row of documents and ledgers arranged in neat piles on its surface. Sebastian looks up at him, unsurprised by his young master’s appearance at his door in this late hour.

Ciel stands awkwardly at the entrance for a time, in search of something to say. “What are you working on?”

Sebastian dutifully shows him the notes taken in preparation for Funtom’s upcoming negotiation with a metals trader, to purchase the needed raw materials for the company’s arms manufacturing branch.

 “Oh, well. Let me make your work easier,” Ciel starts, with feigned nonchalance. "Their negotiator is profoundly stupid. And incompetent. If you run into trouble, you can just wave something shiny in his face to distract him.”

Sebastian smiles and nods, but does not say anything else. They stay silent for a moment, while Sebastian waits for Ciel to seek out whatever it is he has come down there for. He watches as his master’s façade of glib indifference eventually falters and dies, to give way to something more fragile and vulnerable and true.

“What do you think will happen to that boy?” Ciel asks, voice now soft and solemn.

“I don’t know.”

Ciel nods, and looks down to study the floor.

“Would you like me to find out?” Sebastian offers quickly.

Ciel’s gaze sweeps over to the opposite side of the tiny servant’s room, coming to rest on the small window high up on the wall and abutting the ceiling. He can see the low hanging moon, orange and salmon and outsized against the silhouettes of pines and junipers that line the horizon. After a moment, he shakes his head. “No, that’s alright. He’s in Gerald’s custody now. It’s out of hands.”

The young lord leans his shoulder against the doorframe and works over his thoughts. “I’m just…,” he lets out a long sigh. He chews over his words, and rests his brow against the rough wooden doorjamb. “Gerald is – is not a good man.”

“Would you like to have him eliminated?”

This startles a laugh out of Ciel. “Why yes, of course,” he scoffs reflexively. “Murder is always the perfect solution to any problem.”

His eyes then flick up to catch the butler’s, and he takes in Sebastian’s solemn expression. “Oh, right. I keep forgetting you have no sense of humour,” he says, his tone softening to something milder and mock-chiding. “No, Sebastian. We cannot simply ‘eliminate’ the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police as though he were some common thug.”

Sebastian continues to look searchingly at his young master, as the boy’s sardonic smile fades, and his expression goes back to wistful and pensive. He wants so desperately to give the boy something. Tell him something. To find a void, some vacancy that he can fill. Some emptiness inside that only he can occupy. “Young master, what do you want?” He asks, his voice now uncharacteristically tight and unguarded.

Something raw flashes across Ciel’s face, as he is immediately disarmed by the unadorned simplicity of the question. It seems to cut past his skin and bones, and spear directly into his heart.

“… I don’t know.” He blinks in rapid succession, his eyes shining and wet, if only for a moment. He looks back out the window, his gaze tracing the imagined outlines of the constellations in the sky.

“I mean… I just wonder sometimes. What will be left at the end of this.” He pauses and breathes in a lungful of air before restarting. “My father… all the work he did, all the battles he fought, just because he thought that he was working for something bigger than himself. Something that would be there, in the world, after he was gone. Something good that he would leave behind.” He lets out another breath and gives a tiny shrug. “In the end, all he left behind was me.”

In that moment, Ciel thinks about how, when someone you love dies, they take a piece of you with them; your shared lives and shared memories - all the hidden parts of you that only they could be trusted to see – all of these fragments go with them. Dissolved into the earth and buried six feet under. What happens then, when everyone you love dies, and there are no more witnesses left in the world to stand up and testify that you were once here; that you mattered?

He looks up, his brow still resting on the jamb, and settles his eyes upon the only creature left in the world that still holds a piece of him inside itself.

“Why do you do this?” he asks, his voice becoming taut with something more urgent and purposeful.

“What do you mean?”

“This. Any of it,” he continues, the words spilling out of him. “Why do you sweep the staircase every night, dust over the china, mend the holes in the table-cloths. Why do you-“ he gestures vaguely, waving his hand in the air, “- do all those other things that you do, out in the slums and back alleys of London. Why do you do any of it?”

Sebastian is stunned silent for a moment, as he stares back at his master, searching for a way to put it into words. To communicate it to the boy, all the things that are roiling inside of him, all of his pain and loyalty and devotion. To explain how for an eternity, he never wanted anything, and now all he wants is to give his young master what he wants.

And he is once again confronted with the hollowness of words, the inadequacy of language.

“I do it because you want me to,” he says, speaking it in the best way that he knows how. “I do it because I belong to you.”

Ciel considers this, as he continues to search the demon’s face. “And what happens when it’s … over? When you don’t belong to me anymore?” he asks softly, “Will it be worth it?”

The words seem to hang in the air. Expand into the silence and stillness in the room, to wrap around all of the unstated wishes and unacknowledged heartache between them. They seem to coil themselves around the demon’s heart like barbed wire. When it is over, will it be worth it?

The demon casts his eyes down slowly, and seems to almost deflate as he turns away and directs his gaze to some middle distance in the corner of the room.

Sebastian gets like this sometimes. When his composed, unflappable outer façade draws back to reveal some hidden part of his interior. A rare enough occurrence that it always feels like a revelation. Sebastian always looks perfect - unflappable and otherworldly in his countenance and beauty, such that Ciel sometimes finds it difficult to believe that anyone could possibly believe that he is real. It makes it all the more startling to see him in these small moments, when he appears so lost and frail, so fallible and so utterly human.

“It’s alright Sebastian,” Ciel says, as he lets out a long sigh, “It’s an absurd question.” He shakes his head and rolls his eyes, frustrated with himself for indulging in such maudlin self-pity and sentimentality. “Good night,” he says with a tight smile before turning his back on the demon and disappearing from the doorframe and down into the hall leading out of the servant’s quarters.

Sebastian listens to the sounds of the boy’s footfalls as they retreat down the hallway. He listens as they become more and more faint, but stop short of vanishing all together. Sebastian’s ears fix on that expanding beat of silence between last footstep and the next until the sounds restart, getting louder as the boy is tetherballed back to the butler’s room by his own confused mass of desires and longings. He materializes again in the door frame, eyes cast down and shoulders sagging, looking far more worn and exposed than he had just a moment ago.

In a hushed, wavering voice, he says, “can I stay here for a bit?” and the sound of it sends a spike through Sebastian’s chest. “Of course,” he breathes, and watches his young master walk over to his unused bed, the sheets still perfectly drawn over the mattress, the duvet cover undisturbed. He watches the boy unmake the bed and crawl inside. Lie down with his back to the demon, and rest his head on the pillow and draw the blanket over himself.

Sebastian stares at the curve of the boy’s back for a moment, before tearing his gaze away and turning it around to focus on the documents spread before him on the desk.

But he is distracted by Ciel’s frustrated exhales, and the rustling sound of sheets as he tosses back and forth in the demon’s bed to try and find a comfortable position. He listens to the rise and fall of his master’s breathing, which never slows to the languid crescendo-decrescendo rhythm of sleep.

He wonders if the master’s scent will seep into the bed linen. If he will be able to smell it in the days to come; the boy’s skin and hair, the lemongrass and bergamot of the soap he used to bathe that evening. If the scent will still be there once the night is over, or the drawbridges to the boy’s heart are raised again, and his young master is swept away by the tide of daylight.

All of it may be gone in the morning. But for now, he is here, the oyster’s shell pried open by his own vulnerability, revealing the tiny pearl inside.

And Sebastian knows his master needs something. Comfort perhaps.

He puts down his pen, dims the flame of the lantern light and stands up from his desk to walk toward the bed. He sits down on the mattress, staring at the boy’s back for a moment before whispering, “are you awake?”

The boy nods, his eyes still closed, his hair and cheek rustling against the soft fabric of Sebastian’s pillow.

“Can’t sleep?”

He shakes his head.

“What’s wrong?” the demon asks, his voice once again tight and jagged with a pleading urgency.

The boy remains silent and motionless, and so Sebastian reaches out to stroke his hair away from his face, the way that he knows he likes.

Tentatively at first, not knowing if his touch will be welcome.

When the young lord does not protest, he moves his hand down to his young master’s neck and down further to palm across the valley between the boy’s scapulae. He can feel Ciel’s muscles, tense and strained, begin to relax if only infinitesimally underneath his palm.

And he senses something else.

Something else that the boy wants, some other desire more muddled and turbulent than the desire for simple comfort.

Or is it he himself that wants something else?

It is becoming difficult, to unravel the tangled threads of desires and wishes. It is becoming difficult to see where he himself ends and where his master begins. Or perhaps there is no difference. Perhaps he is always simply staring into the mirror-to-mirror infinite regress of his master’s desires and his own.

He lays on his side and shifts closer, pressing his own chest against to boy’s back as though the contact will act as a balm against the ache in his own heart. He buries his face in the boy’s hair, and takes a long desperate inhale.

He smells like soap and Spring-rain and sadness and blue.  

The demon smooths away the locks of hair in the back of his young master’s head and places a long, lingering kiss on the sensitive skin at the nape of his neck.

And the feel of that kiss, the softness of the demon’s lips, the shift in the atmosphere jolts Ciel out of his quasi-dormant state. He opens his eyes and stares ahead, remaining very still, his gaze fixed on the window, as he feels Sebastian’s hand reach around his torso and lay gently across his chest.  He looks down to see the gloved hand as it rests with fingers splayed across his ribs. Watches it rise and fall gently with the inhale and exhale of his breath, carried along by the tide of his own ribcage.

With a tentative hand, he reaches down and removes the glove, to trace his fingers over the tattooed pentagram on the back of his butler’s hand. Then gripped by a strange impulse and as if moving of their own accord, his fingers slide up Sebastian’s wrist, hitching up the cuff of his dress shirt and moving further up his arm. He wraps his hand around Sebastian’s forearm and continues to stroke gently along its length. He feels Sebastian move closer and lay his body flush against his own, so close that he can feel the shift in the slender muscles of his chest, and the heat from his body body bleed through the layers of fabric between them.

And he starts to feel something igniting inside him.

Not a warmth, not the familiar simplicity of comfort and security, but a heat, new and strange and previously unimagined.

Then he feels the humid caress of Sebastian’s breath against his face as he places a kiss on his temple, long and warm and wet. He closes his eyes to feel the sensation and arches his head back as Sebastian continues to place kisses down a trail along his cheek to the angle of his jaw, each longer, warmer and wetter than the last, until he finally wraps his lips around his earlobe and starts to lick and suck, running a slick, wet tongue over the topaz stud of his earring.

Ciel does not know what to do with this feeling, as it brews inside him like a tempest. He does not know whether to chase it like chasing a storm, or to run away, to hunker down in some hole and batten down the hatches. But so much of him wants to know – will always want to know – how that would feel. To become swept up and nullified in the eye of the storm.

What it must feel like to step off the ledge and feel the peace and certainty of a freefall.

He looks down and sees Sebastian’s naked, ungloved hand laid across his chest, over his human heart, now beating and racing like a jackrabbits, and feels the heat expand all over his body, feels his skin becoming tight and feels his breath becoming trapped in his lungs.

He presses his thighs together and draws his knees up.

He watches as the long, slender fingers reach for the hem of his striped pajama shirt, pull it up, and the hand burrows itself underneath and disappears from view. Then he feels the smoothness of his butler’s palm against his bare skin, feels it move slowly in circles around his abdomen, sending ripples of heat from the epicentre of contact throughout his whole body, and coiling in his groin. His face feels as if it is on fire, set alight from something inside, something radiating out from his centre, along with a craving, a needing ache he cannot recognize.

He squirms and clenches his fingers into a tight fist, nails digging into his palms, to stop himself from reaching for the desperate, wanting heat between his thighs.

“Sebastian, I feel strange,” he breathes.

And Sebastian stops.

And time starts again.

Sebastian’s hand recedes from his skin, and his mouth recedes from his face, and his warmth recedes, like tides receding from the shore. And he is no longer palpably there. And part of Ciel is relieved, but so much of him wishes the demon hadn’t stopped.

Ciel grips the edge of his blanket tighter around him, and stares at the pockmarked face of the moon hanging outside his window. Watches as it stares back at him, placid and ageless. He feels a slight chill as the air hits the wetness on his face and neck left over from Sebastian’s kisses. He feels the chill take over, expand into the place vacated by the heat, and by the ebbing warmth of Sebastian’s enveloping embrace.

Sebastian has rolled away from his young master and onto his back, no longer touching him, and stares at the ceiling. Finally, after a time, he turns to look at the boy’s back.

“Young master,” he starts in a low whispered voice that nevertheless harpoons through the silence. Ciel flinches inexplicably at the sound of it. “Would you prefer if I came to you in a different form – a female form?”

No!” The reply comes out immediately, definite and slightly horrified, surprising even Ciel himself with the force of its conviction. Ciel swallows and buries his head into the butler’s pillow.

Sebastian continues to stare at his master’s back. Studies the visible inches of ivory moonlit skin between the boy’s hairline and the collar of his nightshirt, and shuts his eyes to steady the flail of emotions thrashing beneath his own surface.

He then clasps his hands on his stomach and turns back to stare at the ceiling once again. “Would you prefer if I took my leave for the night?”

The boy is quiet for a moment before a soft, quiet “No” is released from his lips. “It’s your room,” he whispers a moment later, speaking into the fabric of the pillow. 

The boy then shuts his eyes, tethered to place by the familiar dip of his butler’s form next to him on the mattress, feigning sleep until such time that a troubled, dreamless sleep actually comes to drown him in its undertow.

*****

In order to kill a man, one has to knock loose something within himself. Dislodge some fundamental part of one’s humanity. Ciel has noticed a strange habit in Cahill’s hitmen, in referring to themselves in the third person when discussing their kills. It is a curious transition, from “I was once a factory worker - ” to “when a man has to kill another, he must first-”. Perhaps it allows them to incinerate the bridge that they had previously constructed, the one that connects murder and the human heart.

Ciel thinks about one of Cahill’s men. A seasoned hitman, one who likes to recount tales of his kills, embellished but not falsified, in order to impress and intimidate. He spoke about how, after his first kill, he felt a surge of guilt and self-loathing so tremendous that it made the bile rise up to his throat. After his twentieth, he walked thirty paces to the closest pub, drank two glasses of whisky, and slept in tranquility as children might. The mind and the human conscience, the man explained, have an infinite capacity for recalibration.

He thinks about this as he sits in Gerald’s office, and watches him tally up the body count from the latest battle in the gangwar for dominance of London’s opium black market. An inspector is giving the commissioner the summary of the casualties and collateral damage on both sides, as Gerald shuts his eyes and rubs a hand over his face.

Once the underling has been dismissed, and they find themselves alone, the commissioner turns his attention toward the Guard Dog sitting opposite his desk, and finds him staring back with his typical expression of loathing and contempt. “London is truly lucky to have a man of your valour fighting as her first knight,” Ciel sneers.

Gerald purses his lips and stares back at the boy unmoved, too exhausted by the day’s events to take the bait. “I could say the same to you, lord Phantomhive.” He leans forward, hands clasped, elbows resting on his desk, and lets the words roll out, slow and deliberate, “Now, why are you here?”

“I have some information,” the young lord starts cautiously, voice switching to a more neutral, practiced tone. “On the case of the nobleman’s murder. From a – an anonymous source.” Gerald’s eyes dart away. “I just thought it might be a nice change for you, actually solving a case,” the young lord finishes, his voice once again caustic. 

 “No need,” Gerald says in a clipped tone, continuing to stare past Ciel, “we have closed that case.”

Ciel’s eyes widen, jostled out of his indifference and barely-concealed contempt. “What? How?”

“All evidence points to the boy as the killer,” Gerald continues in the same monotone.

Ciel narrows his eyes. “What ‘evidence’?”

Gerald looks up and stares balefully at the young Earl. “He confessed. You were there.”

A sick feeling begins to come over Ciel. Something ugly and ominous whips back and forth against his heart like an eel moving through dark waters. A feeling of dread, like when he was a child, alone in the dark in his bedroom, not wanting to look under the bed lest it confirm his worse fears of monsters and gargoyles and devils hidden in plain sight in the world.

“What -happened- to the boy?” he asks, carefully enunciating each word.

Gerald averts his gaze again to run his hand over an embossing stamp on his table. “He was killed,” he says quickly, hurrying to get the words out as though sucking out a poison, thinking that once they left his body, he could begin to mend.

Ciel stares at him, his mind trying to latch onto the words over the thundering of his blood and the clamorous beat of his own heart. “How?”

“Another prisoner attacked him while he was incarcerated.”

The late-afternoon light filters through the window, forcing itself between the crosshatch of wooden bars separating the windowpanes. The orange-and-lemon rays bounce off the suspended dust particles and create a saturated haze into which everything seems to vanish.

“We believe that it was one of the men from whatever gang he worked for,” Gerald continues, keeping his tone even and unaffected. “Worried about what he might say while under arrest. Ordered from the outside to snuff the boy out – keep him silent.”

Ciel glares at the commissioner, the frayed edges, the ragged, aging skin, and assumes, but can never know, that he is lying. “And you will simply proceed to convict him in absentia?” Ciel hears a voice say in the distance, from outside of himself, hollow like coming from the bottom of a well. It may be his own voice, he cannot be sure.

Gerald casts his eyes down and looks tired, an empty husk. “He confessed,” he says with a limp shrug, the words tasting like acid on his tongue. He stares past Ciel, to the South wall of his office, not taking his eyes off of the etched inscription on the wall.

Ciel glares at him, contempt and loathing now coming full force to the surface. “You got that boy killed,” he grits in a low voice, “You knew he didn’t do it. One way or another, his blood is on your hands.”

At the young Guard Dog’s words, something inside Gerald becomes unhinged. Everything inside that is buried down and compressed every day suddenly surges up to the surface, erupting from within like magma. “How dare you judge me?,” he growls, as he stands up to full height and marches toward Ciel’s chair. “You act like we don’t swim in the same waters.” He says in the indignant, jilted voice of a once-True Believer. There is no atheist more embittered than a lapsed Christian. “You think I haven’t noticed the trail of destruction left in the wake of the cases you’ve investigated? All the men that have been maimed or murdered? Everything burned to ash to conceal evidence of your involvement?” He leans closer, hand resting on the arm of Ciel’s chair and his own face inches away from Ciel’s, and seethes through gritted teeth, “Don’t take me for a fool.”

Gerald then stands up to full height and exhales. He steps back to sit in his chair, and clasps his hands on his lap. “You’ve no right to act as though I – we – are beneath you; not when I know that you are out in London’s slums, playing judge and executioner.”

Ciel stays still, and clenches his fists at his sides, and refuses to look away. But he does not reply, or protest the accusation.

There is a deep chasm between murder and the human heart, and there are many ways to build a bridge.

*****

The worn-out gravestones are spread happenstance along the potter’s field, tired and hunched-over from the combined effects of rain and snow and wind and sleet and the acidic passage of time. The mud and grass are mixed together in a patina along the rotting earth, only recently unsurfaced by the melting of the last snow fallen in the midst of Winter’s death rattle. Ciel can hear the ominous craw and croak of the two ravens, perched on the branches of the denuded, skeletal willow tree against which he is leaning.

He watches the funeral procession in the distance, made up of no more than a handful of somberly dressed mourners. This is the sum total of the people who will care that this boy is no longer here. The sum total of people who will take note of the empty space left behind in the world.

He breathes in and out, watching his exhaled breath float up and vanish in puffs of condensation. The air tastes like mist and smoke and rain-salt and petrichor. 

Two young boys, not much older than the deceased, lower a makeshift casket into the ground, and begin to throw fistfuls of dirt into the grave. Ciel watches the older woman, likely the boy’s mother, as she tries and fails to maintain her composure. She remains stoic until ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but then kneels over and breaks down as soon as the first handful is thrown into her son’s grave.

And Ciel can hear the animal-like wail of her grief across the hundred meters that separate them. He wants to escape, but forces himself to stay, forces himself to feel everyone of her cries of agony. He watches the kindly old priest put a hand on her shoulders as they quack with every sob. The pitifully small cortège of brown-and-grey clad mourners lingers for a time, hugging their arms against themselves and shivering as a faint drizzle dusts over the ratty, patched-up wool of their coats. Ciel watches the priest say the last of the funeral prayers, and lead the procession away from the grave site. He watches them retreat down the narrow pathway of the cemetery,  and disappear into the grey fog settling against the line of the horizon.

The day becomes stillborn shortly after they leave, and the afternoon light begins to slough off the mass of chalk-grey clouds that float through the monochrome sky. Ciel remains in the same place, watching as the light is slowly leached out of the horizon, and the hazy grey turns into a sightless dark, and this day leaves no trace of itself but just another memory.

“I didn’t know what would happen,” Ciel says to no one, or perhaps to his silent companion standing only a few feet away. Sebastian approaches after hearing his master’s voice for the first time in hours. “Or perhaps I did. Or should have known.” He seems worn and frayed around the edges. Empty somehow. Older. Every betrayal and injustice builds another barricade around the soul, erects another set of ramparts around the human heart. A survival mechanism perhaps, as the alternative would be to let the heart bleed until it has run dry.

Sebastian’s heart aches because his master aches. He wants to touch him, put his hand on his should and back, and smooth away the pain, but senses that his touch would not be welcome. “What do you want, young master?” He asks, his voice laced with the same tempered desperation as the previous night.

“Lie to me.”

“This is not your fault. There are no other choices you could have made. This is just how things are.”

Ciel glances to his side, and stares at him for the first time in hours. But the demon senses that he is not seen. Ciel only seems to be staring past him. He nods and turns back to stare at the gravestone, now flanked by the pair of ravens.

Chapter Text

Vincent always knew when Ciel was scared. He would go to him and hold him, stroke his hair, and wipe away his tears. Tell him he was loved, tell him he was not alone, tell him that he mattered. Tonight was no different.

He could sense the boy’s presence as soon as he stepped inside the wood-paneled walls of the Phantomhive Manor study.

Not a sound could be heard, nor a shiver of movement detected out of the corner of his eye. The study was bathed in shadows and darkness. The moon outside the windows was hidden behind a haze of clouds massed on the horizon like a portent.

He waited at the entrance, until such time that the boy was ready to be found. Until he heard the muted sniffles and soft whimpers floating over from the opposite side of the cavernous library. He walked past the low flames crackling in the fireplace, past the rows of bookshelves, stacked from floor to ceiling with old tomes and volumes of ancient text, his treasured copies of Summa Theologiae and De Libero Arbitrio, and stopped when he reached the mahogany desk in front of the large Tudor windows. He bent down next to the desk, and found the boy hiding inside the recess underneath its smooth, neatly organized surface. Sebastian was curled up in his lap, his golden fur catching stray beams of the flickering firelight as he breathed in and out, sleeping the undisturbed sleep of the innocent.

“Ciel…”

“I’m sorry.”

“What are you hiding from?”

The boy kept his head lowered, sniffled and wiped his nose against the sleeve of his pajama shirt. “I was afraid.”

Vincent knelt and sat on the floor beside the boy, tilted his head down so that they could be at eye level. Still, the boy did not look up.

“It’s alright to be afraid, my sweet prince. What are you afraid of?”

Ciel ran his palm through Sebastian’s soft, delicate fur, and felt him stir in his sleep in response to his touch. “My nightmares.”

“Nightmares are only the mind’s way of manifesting some other fundamental fear. What are you afraid of?”

Ciel brought his hand around Sebastian’s torso to rest against the puppy’s chest, searching out the thrum of his heart through laddered ribs, and let the steady metronome beat of it soothe him.

“The dark. I am afraid of the dark.”

“The dark only frightens us because we are afraid of what may be hidden within the folds of the unknown.” His father’s voice was gentle and serene and soft, the way he will always remember it. It always lulled him to sleep, even when he was frightened. “What are you afraid of?”

“Monsters and demons.”

“These are simply human creations, fairy tales and fiction we tell ourselves to explain away the wickedness in the world. What are you afraid of?”

Ciel didn’t know then, but is beginning to know now, the thing he is most afraid of. He can begin to feel its edges and outlines like a blind man stroking his hand over a lover’s face, trying to draw up a shape of it in his mind’s eye.

He looks up now, eyes dry and vision clear, no longer a little boy, as he sits in the tufted-leather wingback chair, and watches Vincent standing in front of him, across the expanse of the same mahogany desk. The night sky is clear, and silver moonlight is now coming in through the window, its path broken up by the criss-cross of windowpanes, and its rays falling in a row of soft-edged parallelograms on the carpeted floor. White puffs of reflected glow bounce around them like clouds and elephants. Vincent looks smaller, now that Ciel is bigger, and it is like coming back to a childhood home and seeing how much it has changed, and realizing how much you have changed.

Ciel thinks about how the dead never really go away. He thinks about how the past adheres to the present- through traditions and names, through genetics and lineage, through unrealized dreams and unexorcized nightmares, all passed down from one generation to the next. He thinks about the infinite ways in which the past renders itself unshakeable. How everything that happened before shapes everything that is about to come.

Ciel shakes his head.

“But you were wrong. All this time, you were wrong. Monsters and demons are real. There are monsters and demons in all of humanity.” His voice is strained and wavering, weighed down with his unshed tears. He needs to make him understand. If his father is proven wrong, then he will be proven right. It’s not much, but it’s something.  “Not just the ones who did this to you. To me. Evil is everywhere. It lurks in the human heart.” Ciel takes in a shuddering breath, and watches Vincent smile back at him. “Perhaps mine too,” he finishes softly, voice now trailing and unsure.

“I choose to believe that this is not true. I choose to believe in the Good in people.” Vincent’s serene countenance remains undisturbed just as it was when Ciel was just a boy, and its unrelenting certainty lights a strange fire under him.

“But how can you know that there is Good? Without seeing it with your eyes, without proof, how can you be sure?”

“Just because we can’t see something with our eyes does not mean it doesn’t exist. We cannot see gravity, we cannot see the passage of time, we cannot see love or kindness or generosity. We cannot see the human soul. We cannot see them – cannot touch them. But these things exist.”

“But this is different. We see evidence of gravity from the movement of falling objects, from the rotation of the planets. We can see evidence of time’s passing from the decay of the elements. This is different. You have no evidence of love. You have no evidence of the human soul.”

“Yes, you are right, my sweet prince. This is different. There is no evidence.”

“So how can you know?”

“I don’t know. I simply believe. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of logic. It’s a matter of faith.”

“Faith?”

“You have to have faith in people, the same way that the pious have faith in their lord. There is so much in this universe that we don’t know, can’t know. Sometimes, you just have to believe. You have let faith take over where logic and reason fail.”

“But why do you have to have faith? Why is faith necessary?”

“When given the choice between Light and Darkness, you can either choose Light, or you can say that the Light is a lie and remain in Darkness. I choose Light. It is a choice I make every day. Again and Again.”

“Why?”

Vincent’s smile fades.

The flames burning in the fireplace rise up, slither outside the stone pillars and the mantlepiece, and spill onto the floor, around the corners and up the walls of the library, consuming everything in their path. The Persian carpets, the silk tapestries, the volumes and tomes, the oxygen and the silver moonlight in the room. The shadows dance across Vincent’s face, casting a darkness that seems to weather his unblemished, ivory-smooth skin, making him look pockmarked and scarred, seared and burned. Vincent casts his eyes down, and for the first time in Ciel’s life, his stalwart, indominable father looks frail and vulnerable. Both older and younger than he remembers. He is seeing his father through his own eyes now, not through those of who he used to be – not through those of the other Ciel.

When Vincent looks back up, it is with an infinite sadness retroactively gilded upon his face through the filter of his son’s memories.

“…Because I have to.”

*****

Ciel’s gaze wanders over the dead boy’s body, and he waits for the onslaught of emotions. Disgust, wrath, heartbreak. Anything. He waits for the tide of it to knock him over.

The sparrows and goldfinches flying in speckled formation above the grassland chirp in monotonous tones, their song cheerless and funereal in the dying Autumn afternoon. The trees in the distance appear tired and worn from the battle with the oncoming chill and blight of Winter. The Summer has been long and grey and dismal, and the Autumn longer still, and the land is prepared to declare defeat in the face of the oncoming frost. Ciel fists the lapels of his overcoat and wraps them tighter around himself to protect against the bite of the late-afternoon wind, heralding a storm.

The boy’s body is naked and twisted in an unnatural pose. Whoever did this to him did not see fit to give him the final dignity of covering his nude form.

The corpse is barely recongizeable as that of a boy’s - it is more like a caterpillar’s husk, the butterfly long departed. His skin is ashen and decaying, hanging flaccid in the space between the two jutting crests of his pelvis, and into the hollow concavity of his abdomen. A steady vigil of flies buzzes overhead, some descending upon the body to trail along the jaundiced flesh and the friable ulcerations. The bruises on his hips and torso have coalesced into a rendering of how he had perished, mapping each blow upon breakable bones and each tear into vulnerable flesh.

But it is not the bruises, or the glassy eyes, or the battered, cadaveric skin that draw the young lord’s attention. Ciel’s gaze remains fastened on the brand scalded into the boy’s torso, and he feels a phantom burn against his own skin where its twin lies.

Well, perhaps not an exact replica, but similar enough. Its brother, or its cousin.

They are standing some paces away from the main dirt road leading to a small nearby village. The sky above is grey and somber, and the earth is hard in the near-freezing weather, dotted with a few tufts of wilting, yellowed rye and timothy, their blades lying prostrate in anticipation of death’s arrival. The body was clearly left here, behind a jutting boulder hidden from the main roadway, in the hopes that it would never be discovered.

Sebastian watches his master from a respectful distance, before letting his gaze wander over to the mark on the deceased boy’s flank.

He has not seen the mark on his young master’s body since those first few days after fate or happenstance brought them together. After he plucked his young master from the bowels of some man-made hell, and pledged to belong to him until the very end. The brand was raw and blistering at the time, the skin around it puckered and violet. His young master yelped each time he tried to dress it with antisceptic and gauze, his face crumpled and red and wet from salty tears.  With each passing day, the cries gave way to whimpers, then a stoic silence as the scars began to scab over on the outside, and his young master began to harden on the inside, and eventually waved the butler away to take over the duties of caring for himself.

He has not seen the young master’s scars or naked skin since then.

He thinks about the brand often. Wonders how it has transformed with the passage of time. He wonders if the brand has changed, the way his young master has changed. He supposes that it looks pink and shiny and dimpled now, no longer raw and weeping and angry. He tries to remember the feel of his scar - the heat of it, the human frailty of it - but can’t. These things did not make an impression back then, they did not brand themselves onto his pysche and solder themselves onto his core as they do now. He was not back then what he is now, insides so raw and aching and tender that they bleed at the slightest touch. Where each of his young master’s words can soothe like a balm, or burn like caustic lye.

He looks at the dead boy’s body, and the dying grass around him, and the dying earth underneath them, and the dying light of the day draining into the horizon, and thinks about the enigma of it all.

The strange symmetry of it.

Of sunrise and sunset, of beginnings and endings, of birth and death.

All ostensibly leading to a zero-sum, each seeming to invalidate the other. But between each pole, there lies a meridian. Between the day’s beginning and its end, there is the miracle of sunlight. Between birth and death, there are choices. There are transformations. There is perhaps some unknowable exothermic imprint on the universe.

The London police had long ago abandoned the site, finding no real leads as to the child’s murder or his identity after an investigation that – if one were to be generous – one would qualify as abbreviated. Ciel had approached the presiding inspector for an update on the case, but the inspector had simply looked back at him with a blank stare.

There is no case here. The boy is long dead, no witnesses, no close relatives that can be questioned. This case is unsolvable.

The young Earl hangs back for some time after the site has been expunged of all the other officers, and thinks about the fault lines between the past and the present.

The wind suddenly picks up, snaking around them so that the hem of the young lord’s overcoat billows up around him, and his demon’s raven-black hair whips against the sculpted glass-cut of his cheekbones. The wind shakes loose the smell of sage and chrysanthemums. It bends the reeds and shuffles the grass so that the land seems to rouse from its slumber like a snake slowly uncoiling itself, and turns toward the two of them if only to whisper and hiss a warning.

S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s

A storm is gathering in the horizon and the sky melts into a vortex of colours, shades of grey and amber and hyacinth like turpentine spilt onto an oil landscape. The door of a nearby abandoned shed bangs against the frame in Morse code. The young lord sweeps the hair from his face and sucks in a deep breath, to take in the salty-fresh scent of a pre-downpour atmosphere.

The boy will be buried in an unmarked grave in the outskirts of the city, his gravestone one among a sea of identical gravesites with men buried and rotting beneath. Ciel thinks about that, of how to world moves on, steps gingerly over his branded corpse and continues to march ahead as if he never existed in the first place, and feels something gathering inside him, slowly becoming hot and fiery and tangible.

*****

Ciel stares at Sebastian sitting across from him in the coach. The young lord’s face is neutral and expressionless, but his eyes are dark and blazing. Sebastian feels himself being observed and looks over to his master briefly before looking back out the window of the carriage.

Finding the boy with the brand has shaken loose a frenzy previously hidden away in some dark attic of the young lord’s psyche, like the madwoman in a gothic novel. It is the first tangible vestige of the Phantomhives’ murder and his own abduction, and all the calamity that followed in the month after. It has given Ciel the sense of a truncated ending, the world shrinking around him and the paths closing in.

Ciel knows that the cultists responsible for his own abduction and torture are dead. Saw the evidence of it with his own eyes, in the aftermath of carnage unleashed by the creature while he was still… whatever he was before he was Sebastian. But he also knows that there is some other culprit, some other invisible hand at work, who orchestrated the fire and the abduction. Some other enemy still unvanquished.

Perhaps he doesn’t know it, but simply believes it. Or needs to believe it.

He had started to believe what others had told him. That the death of the cultists was the end of the story. There is no case here. No greater evil, no greater meaning.

He could never know for certain, because anyone who could provide him with answers was killed by his demon’s hand. And the dead very rarely speak to the living. Except when they choose to, the way the boy with the brand has.

Ciel will think about him often over the next few days as he moves through the precincts and underworld stations of London to follow an imaginary trail to the boy’s beginning and his end. He will imagine him reaching out to him through the Inbetween; that line that separates the past and the present, the living and the dead. He will think about him standing with that other boy, the one buried near a willow tree, those few months back in joyful, hopeful Spring.

He will think about both of them trying to tell him something. You can fix this. You can do something. For all of us. They will implore Ciel to make sense of their shared tragedies.

It all feels like a harbinger, or a catalyst, forcing him to think about the inflection point in his life and all the choices thereafter which brought him here. Of his contract and his ‘second chance’, and the beacon of inevitability that shines on the horizon, edging closer and closer like a lighthouse with its promise of salvation and its portent of dissolution.

And perhaps, beneath it all, hidden away so deep even the young lord is not aware of it, is fear.

Not of death. Not of the end. The young lord has never been afraid of death. Has in fact sometimes felt a deep ache in his bones for it, like yearning for the body of some long-lost lover.

What, then, is he afraid of? What will it all mean when it’s over?

All of this of course inevitably leads, as all things seem to in the young lord’s mind, to Sebastian.

Sebastian.

Ciel feels the rattle of the carriage as it moves over the rocks and maneuvers around the bends of the uneven dirt road back to London. It jostles his body, and unsettles his stomach, but the butler remains unstirred.

Ciel has never stopped wondering about the truth of Sebastian’s nature, the truth of his interior. His curiosity has been balanced with uncertainty and hesitancy, wondering if the truth was something he wanted to see. Something that once seen, he could not unsee. The result has been vague, half-hearted entreaties into Sebastian’s nature, his past contracts, his true form, all of which were deflected with similarly vague, half-hearted responses.

In the absence of facts, he was content to fill the vacuum with fiction. He had been content to fabricate a story of Sebastian’s interior as some reflection of his own. Of Sebastian’s self as some extension of his own self. He thinks of those times that Sebastian pressed his lips against his own. It had all seemed so natural, a logical extension of their bond, a cherry-sweet foretaste of its inevitable end.

Now, the memory of it causes his cheeks to flush and his insides to gather and clench like a fist.

And he tries to not think about all the times he spends not thinking of what Sebastian looks like under this. His other true form. The one lying veiled beneath the cloth of his butler’s livery. When he is not thinking of it, he does not wonder if it is a form like his own. Much taller to be sure - long-limbed and graceful in a way that he himself is not - but still flat-muscled and lean and slender like his own. Covered with an expanse of smooth, touchable skin.

He grits his teeth and shakes his head to try to chase away the thoughts he is not having, feeling that same mixture of revulsion and fascination that these things engender in the uninitiated. He tears his eyes away from the demon to stare at the hills and valleys of the English countryside as they emerge and descend upon them and then recede outside the frame of the carriage window, and he goes back to wishing that his feelings toward Sebastian were simpler the way that he wishes the world was simpler and his revenge was simpler.

It would be simpler, if he could achieve some distance. If he could see the dividing line between the two of them, demon and human. If Sebastian were simply a pawn, a knight, an instrument under his power. If he didn’t need Sebastian the way that he does. If he didn’t need care, protection.

(love)

If he didn’t need the demon’s undying loyalty and devotion to fill some hole inside himself.

Of course, it is a natural progression from that point. One always comes to resent the thing that one needs.

He watches Sebastian stare out the window, and studies the look of distant sadness that has come over the demon’s face. It all comes in flashes, more and more the more attuned he becomes to Sebastian’s interior. Like the look of tenderness, of undying devotion, the ones in which he so often found comfort.

Today, he finds it inexplicably, irrationally irksome.

He is suddenly overcome by his old childish tendencies to jab at the creature, to see if he can prod a reaction, like an infant throwing a tantrum to test his mother’s love.

“Why so melancholy, Sebastian? I can’t imagine a demon would find that child’s death regrettable.”

Sebastian’s expression remains contemplative as he turns to stare back at his young master. “You find it regrettable, my lord, and so I do as well.”

Ciel narrows his eyes, and Sebastian goes back to staring out the window.

“Why do you imagine that I find it regrettable? I am simply curious about the brand. It is the first real clue. The first indication that this tiresome journey may have an end in sight after all.” His voice is deliberately casual and conversational, but his eyes are trained like a hawk’s on the demons face. Sebastian continues to stare out the window and nods almost imperceptibly.

“It’s comforting,” the young lord ventures forth, pushing a finger further into the wound. “We will finally both get what we want.”

Sebastian finally turns to him, voice strained and face momentarily lined by a creeping intensity. “Young master, why don’t you just ask what it is that you want to know.”

There is something pleading in the demon’s eyes, some part of his interior unmasked. Ciel glares at him for a brief moment, and hold his gaze without flinching.

It had seemed so simple when everything else had seemed so simple. Sebastian gave him the strength and power to find his enemies – or fashion new ones – and to defeat them, so that he could regain some of the control taken from him, obtain some form of vindication. to restore the world to its rightful balance and meaning. And Sebastian allowed him that distance, the space between his darkest impulses and their manifestation, so that he did not have to take responsibility for the things that he wanted, the things that his anger and bitterness set into motion. Sebastian could accomplish all the things that occurred in the shadows, all the things he himself could not stomach, and all was simple as black and white as long as he was not forced to look down to see his own hand holding the demon’s leash. But he more and more finds himself forced to confront the truth behind the smoke- and -mirrors, his mind drifting outside his own accord to conjure images of what Sebastian does in the back alleys and underground networks of London. Of what lewd and obscene behaviours take place behind the closed doors of London’s dens of power and privilege. He tries not to think about the masses of weapons floating from Funtom Corp’s factories into the hands of the British army, propping up his own wealth and power, and felling untold foot soldiers and casualties in the trenches of the opium wars. Of what blood is being shed in his name.

Every day, things seem to get darker in this world, more complicated than he had imaged when concocting his childish revenge fantasies. It is more and more difficult to paint himself as the innocent victim or dauntless survivor or battle-worn warrior in the story of his own tragedy.

He resents so many of the things that have become of his vengeance, that it feels like a logical progression to resent the thing that made it all possible. Natural and hypocritical and so utterly human.  

He feels a sudden drive to be cruel. He is human and he hurts. And so his impulse is to lash out to hurt another. To pull the wings off a fly, just to malign another creature with some of the pain and turmoil brewing inside of his own heart.

“Why do you always stare at me like that?”

“Like what, young master?”

“Like a puppy, following its master around, begging for scraps and affection.” His voice is uninflected with emotion, but his lips are twisted into something cruel.

Sebastian regards him for a moment, a brief flash of something raw and wounded coming across his face before it vanishes, and Ciel wonders if it was ever really there. The demon regains his unreadable expectant expression, before turning his head toward the window to stare out unseeing into the rolling landscape, electing not to allow himself to be dragged into his young master’s theatre of misplaced anger and mis-assigned recrimination.

Ciel face softens and his heart aches, as his resentment toward the demon turns around - of its own volition like the dial of a Ouija board - to be directed against himself.

The truth of it remains unchanged, twisting like a wind-tossed branch in the silence that now hangs between them.

Sometimes, in the darkness, before he is to fall asleep, when he imagines the world without Sebastian, all he can imagine is a vacant existence of having escaped the cage on his own, only to be submerged in impotence and aching, suffocating loneliness. And so he calls out the demon’s name to come to his bedside, and stay with him through the night. To allow him to see the loyalty and endless, unconditional devotion that the Earl desires, - needs -, reflected in his auburn eyes.

Though of course, most of the time when he forces himself to imagine a version of the world where Sebastian had not been summoned through some twist of fate to rescue him, where his dark knight was not by his side to slay on his behalf, he can only imagine mangled, mutilated flesh and desiccated bones lying in a heap inside a wrought-iron cage atop a bloodstained altar.

Or lying in a barren field of dying, yellowed grass. Bereft of clothes and dignity. Slowly dissolving into the earth, unmourned and unloved and unremembered.

*****

The floor of the church is a shiny, reflective surface, made of white polished marble, ornamented with golden textures. It is clean and pristine; a perfect counterpoise to the Gothic opulence of the rest of the nave, and in sharp rebuke of the drab gloominess of the nearby orphanage under its purview.

A world of shapes and figures is brought to life on this very floor with each sunrise, the light shining down in patterns as it passes through the multicolored panes of the church’s stain-glass windows. Pink flamingoes and purple dragons and saffron iguanas, polychrome butterflies with polychrome wings, all dance on the floor for the day as the sun makes its journey across the sky.

All of them dying as inauspiciously as they were birthed when it dips beneath the line of the horizon.

The young lord and his dark knight were directed to the orphanage, and eventually the church, by the Chief Inspector at the local precinct were the deceased boy’s case file would likely be processed, and stamped as unsolved, and put away in a dusty bin somewhere in some dank basement. The Chief Inspector was courteous enough, and appropriately heartened by the body’s discovery, - he is a father himself, after all - but not exactly a wellspring of useful information, nor particularly hopeful of the chances of finding a killer. And, it should be noted, somewhat befuddled by the young lord’s fascination with the case. Ciel did not mention the brand, or of his own personal stake in pursuing the case. None of the constables or inspectors seem to have noticed the mark, or made much of its presence, which is likely for the best.

The deceased boy has no close relations, the young Guard Dog learned, and no one has come forward to claim the body. The police’s best assumption is that he was part of a nearby orphanage and had gone missing and assumed to have run away.

“They did not try to find him?“ The young lord inquired in an incredulous tone. “Or alert the police to search for him?”  

The Chief Inspector stared back at him, and blinked.

“I imagine they tried, but…”

“But what?”

“It’s an overworked, overpopulated orphanage. Runaway children are not an unusual occurrence. And their absence is not always noticed.”

Ciel and Sebastian had gone to the orphanage prior to coming to the church. The orphanage where the boy with the brand had been sheltered before his disappearance and murder was like all the other ones they had visited; a bare-down, utilitarian affair, where the wards would receive food and shelter, basic education if they were lucky, and later on some sort of menial paid labour if they were particularly blessed.

But no love. Never love.

To be loved was a luxury reserved for the unabandoned. The unwanted will have to make do with scraps.

Now, inside the church, they speak to the orphanage’s headmistress, a timeworn veteran of the city’s welfare system. She, like all of London’ public servants, is overworked and overwhelmed. Unsentimental about her vocation and its impact on the world, but nevertheless competent and blessed with that talent unique to those who work in public welfare to stretch next-to-nothing into almost-barely-enough. She does not know much about the case of the boy with the brand, but does inform them that the Bishop who oversees the parish and the orphanage has already been in communication with the Metropolitan police regarding this child’s abduction and murder.

She also paints for them an unvarnished portrait of the lives of the children who end up at the orphanage. For some, their parents died - perished from disease or accident. But for many, the parents simply abandoned them. It was the first in a long series of betrayals that the world would inflict upon them. It would burn into their consciousness like a fire-hot brand, leaving it scorched and scalded, so that all subsequent experiences – love, friendship, loyalty – would be built on scar tissue.  Some of them grow up with such neglect that they never learn how to speak. They learn to fear human touch.

While they are speaking, the sounds of singing from a choir of young boys, many of whom are wards of the orphanage, begin to float from the other end of the church. Their voices rise up through the air and glide against the ornate rib vaulted ceilings of the chancel.

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.

The boys are lined up in rows on the church altar, all in pristine white robes, their faces pale and cheeks speckled with pink as they mold their voices around the melodies of the sacred hymn. They eye the young lord as he walks past with the headmistress, his shiny patent leather buckle shoes clip-clopping on the marble floor. He is close to them in age and form, but may as well be from another world. Their gaze follows the length of his Kelly green overcoat and hunter green trousers. They envy his clean skin and clean garments. Clean green. Peppermint clean. Wintergreen clean.

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Their voices are sweet and immaculate, submerged in melancholy, the sopranos entwining with the tenors, peeling apart perfect in counterpoint, and coming together in the end in braids of melodic harmony.

“We do what we can,” the headmistress continues in the foreground of the choral symphony, “but the future is limited for these children outside of these walls, and the present is bleak.”

“I assure you,” Ciel mutters, staring at the parallel lines of singers and feeling that same phantom burn of his brand against his skin, “I have some understanding of that.”

The head mistress stares back at him, her eyes trailing over his nobleman’s finery, made of silk and imported wool, his bejeweled fingers with their manicured nails, his family crest and all its implied wealth and privilege, before wandering over to his loyal and faithful servant constantly at his side.

“With all due respect, sir, I do not believe that you do.”

Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us.
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

The young lord holds her gaze for a moment as he tries to conjure up his rebuttal, to communicate his bitterness and self-pity, but ultimately has the decency to look away chastened.

It is then that Ciel hears the crescendo sounds of looming footsteps, before he sees the silhouette of the cassock-clad man heading toward them. A light sweeps over the headmistress’s tired, time-battled face as she stares at the other end of the nave and watches the figure approach.

“The Bishop, His Excellency, is here…”

And Ciel suddenly notices in the periphery of his vision, the cobwebs infesting the corners of the otherwise immaculate stone walls, becoming more focused as each strand holds the slanting afternoon light in its greedy grasp. Cobwebs everywhere, covering the walls and the pews and the arches of the church.

“He must have been notified of your visit,” the headmistress says, her tone reverential, and her voice receding to whisper in the young lord’s head. The man floats down the aisle, flanked by two dutiful attendants.

Ciel sees, out of the corner of his eyes, a platoon of spiders and tarantulas emerging from behind pillars of the church. They make their way onto to the stage from behind the curtain of cobwebs, emerging like can-can dancers as they grin their spider grins, and rub their spider legs together to create a hissing sound.

S-s-s-s-s-s-s

The sound seems to be a whisper in the young lord’s ears.

S-s-s-c-c-c-Ciel

The young Guard Dog looks over at Sebastian, and sees the demon staring back at him with a furrowed brow and a puzzled look, clearly deaf to the sound of hissing and blind to the swarm of spiders.

He blinks and shakes away the sound and the sight. He feels his heart pound in his chest, and thunder in his ears as though beating a warning drum… thump-thump-thump

He walks toward the Bishop to meet him in front of the altar, under the watchful eye of the Jesus-on-the-crucifix permanently crying his red, bloodstained tears.

“Lord Phantomhive, please welcome to our humble church.” The Bishop has the appearance of a kindly, stalwart man of God, his hair salted with grey-and-white, and eyes that crinkle at the corners when he smiles.

But at his voice, half-remembered images and nightmares and pain are pulled into sharp focus, all telescoped into a single memory. Ciel remembers a voice.

In times of trauma, the mind seeks refuge in madness and fiction. It buries what it cannot process. Ciel has no concrete memory of what happened to him that month. Only a hazy recollection made up of a chaotic mass of pain and fear and nausea, overlaid with an incessant thundering of his heart in his chest. Images flash through his subconscious in the midst of nightmares, but he can never be sure what is real and what has been stretched and twisted and distorted by his mind like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.

But.

There are some things that can be forgotten and some things that cannot.

Deep within the recesses of Ciel’s psyche, from inside a locked trunk underneath the floorboards, stowed away beneath a layer of dust and ashes and charred remains, there emerges a snake. It slithers up through the sewers of his memories and hisses at him from behind the grate.

S-s-s-s-c-c-Ciel

Ciel remembers being blindfolded and hogtied.

Ciel remembers being dragged out of his home as he cried and pleaded, the image of his mother and father’s scorched, mangled bodies branded forever behind his lids, the smell of burnt flesh forever in his nostrils.

Light is suddenly shone on that black hole in time and space, that sensory deprivation tank between the smell of smoke and fire, and the sensation of fear and pain. In between those memories, like a secret treasure map wedged between two dusty volumes in a forgotten library, is the memory of that voice.

“Your Excellency,” he says, his own words hoarse and automatic.

The scab is peeled off the brand on his chest. The tourniquet is ripped off, and the artery is pumping blood. Ciel swallows and takes a breath, and struggles to keep his composure placid and unaffected.

“Lord Phantomhive, did you find the information that you were seeking?”

The young lord blinks and blinks and hears his own voice and that of the Bishop over a turbulent whoosh, as though trapped in a wind tunnel masked by the loud, crashing sound of his own blood pumping through his ears.

“Not nearly. It is a rather messy affair here, it seems.” He feels as though something reached with its claws into his throat and plucked out his voice, shaved it down before returning it so that it has become frayed and whittled down and brittle.

“We try our best. These children do not have any other alternatives,” the Bishop smiles, and Ciel notes that it never reaches his eyes, tar-black-pupiled and sinister. His expressions are like the stylized masks of the Greek theatre. His smile, the rictus grin of comedy, his sorrow the exaggerated grimace of tragedy.

“You and I have met before, my lord.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, I met your father many times. He was a good man.”

Ciel glares at him. stares at his hissing mouth with teeth like a shark’s. Watches him smile his nasty smile and speak his nasty words, watches an octad of hairy spider-legs break through from his thorax, and watches them lift his body, his chains and rosaries dangling in the space above the floor, as he crawls up the wall of the church to the corner to spin his nasty web.

In that moment, the young lord floats up from where he was standing.

He turns back and sees a marionette-Guard Dog mouth words to a marionette-Bishop, each speaking their scripted dialogue as though on some grand theatrical stage. He watches as a marionette-demon-in-human-disguise steps forward toward the two to show the drawing of an emblem – like the one on his own chest - and ask a question.

That is a mark of the devil, the marionette-Bishop is made to say. I am a man of God. I have no dealings with such darkness.

All of it unfolds before the young lord like a grim satire, the conversation calm and casual as though there was not squadron of spiders with their Bishop-spider-leader swarming toward them like a tide. He looks over to the headmistress standing to his side, beaming up at the Bishop, a smile of reverent adoration on her lips.

I wish you luck in your investigation. It is a sad affair. The marionette-Bishop is carried along backstage, and the curtains are drawn on this wretched, ghastly play.

Ciel watches him go and thinks about him walking down the aisle swinging frankincense in a silver pot. Ciel thinks about him, standing at the pulpit in a brightly lit cathedral, facing a throng of believers, sitting row-on-row on wooden pews, staring back at him in rapt silence. Ciel thinks about him sermonizing in a rich baritone, kindly and compassionate, masterful and certain, booming and bombastic, while he preaches about a benevolent God.

*****

As soon as Sebastian and Ciel are outside the church, he staggers to the side of the tulip- and hyacinth-lined pathway, and takes a series of desperate, panicked inhales. He closes his eyes and feels the soft breeze run against his face, feels it cool the beads of sweat now dotting his cheeks and brow. He feels the trickle of tiny drops of perspiration, as they run down his neck and ride the inward curve of his spine.

He can hear the flap of hummingbirds in the distant field, flitting from flower to flower, spreading pollen and regeneration. He can see globes of light, refracted and scattered by his own lashes, float over everything around him. He focuses on slowing the movement of air in and out of his lungs. A gentle wind sidles up to him from behind, encircles its arms around him to pull him close, and whispers in his ears ssshhhh… it’s alright… it’s alright.

At that moment, the young Earl feels convulsions seize his body. They run from the bottom of his stomach up the length of his gullet. His vision becomes hazy, and he shuts his eyes.

And then, he braces his hands on his knees, doubles over, and empties the contents of his stomach into a nearby bed of roses.

 

Chapter Text

London is a city adrift, the Bishop thinks. He watches each day, as the city spirals downward, sinking further and further into a cesspool of decay and corruption. Bathed in sin and blanketed with immorality. A Babylonian demonstration of man’s hubris and debauchery. A latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah on the brink of immolation through a Godly wrath and divine retribution. 

And so, he thinks, its people could either turn to gleeful vice and hedonism because what is there to lose, or a resigned sort of nihilism because what is there to be gained.

The third option, shining on the distant horizon like a beacon, is of course the warm, anodyne embrace of the Church. And so the people grasp toward it like drowning men scrambling up upon a life raft.

Each Sunday morning, the damned stumble out of the opium dens, and the righteous march into the Church. Each Sunday morning, across the parishes of London, they go in droves to sit in pews and stare at the grand fables and mythologies told in the gold-gilt silk-sewn tapestries that adorn the walls of the naves. They hear the ethereal voices of the choir, and watch the rays of sun refracted through the stain-glass windows in a shimmer of colours like light shining off the translucent gossamer wings of dragonflies, and for a few moments, they feel the presence of the Heavenly Father, and it puts distance between them and their pain. Gives it meaning. Gives it shape.

Each Sunday morning, they listen to the calming tenor of robe-clad men wearing a garland of chains and rosaries as they weave meaning and order into a world of chaos, as they preach of peace and salvation like the wandering soothsayers and necromancers of days gone past.

All of them telling you what you want to hear.

Your suffering matters.

Everything happens for a reason.

It is Divine Providence.

And the desperate, poverty-stricken man teetering each day on the brink of ruin can now take solace in the fact that one day, the meek shall inherit the earth.

And the grieving mother not so much living as enduring a hollowed-out shadow-life in the wake of her infant’s death can find some measure of peace in the knowledge that her child is now an angel sheltered inside the cocoon of God’s infinite love and protection.

And they can all take comfort in the idea that there are limits to the anguish that they will be forced to endure, because the lord does not give you more than you can handle.

And suddenly, the drudgery and rootlessness and shapelessness of existence is inflected with a few moments of hope and transcendence, every Sunday at 8AM. And then again at 10AM.

All of this for a price, of course.

The price, sometimes, is your money. But more often, the price is your heart. The price is your devotion.

There is therefore no greater influence on the hearts and minds of the people than the Church. Crowds can be mobilized on voting day, should an incumbent reveal himself– to the public, and behind closed doors in the private circle of the Church – to be appropriately pious and deferential. Public opinion can be swayed – toward some legislation or away from some unseemly scandal - with one poignant speech, or one rousing call to action, from the pulpit of a majestic cathedral.

Words are powerful. Symbols are powerful. Ideas are powerful. Oftentimes more than weapons, more than money, more than social stations. Eyes can be coaxed away from the greatest crimes and injustices, the greatest breaches of trust, by the simple soothing words of the Bishop.

Influencing hearts and minds means a steady influence on pocketbooks, and so wealth abounds behind the doors of the Church, growing and growing, floating between legitimate commerce and that of the underworld, while Law and Justice both look the other way. Influence is a valuable commodity, yielded and traded with a great deal of aplomb by the Bishop.  Favours are accorded, and favours are repaid within a tight circle of influence inside London’s elite – between the rich and the powerful, between those who need influence, and those who have influence to wield. Favours, the Bishop recalls, like the one accorded and repaid on that grim, stormy December night, snow layering down upon London like ashes falling from the scorched husk of a fire-ravaged mansion.

Always, a careful ledger is kept on the balance.

The Church may be the antidote to the venom that infects London’s soul. Or it may be yet another poison permeating its flesh, unable to be sucked out without killing its host. The way toxins are injected into a cancer-riddled patient in the hopes that whatever is left after their mass slaughter upon the body can rise up and be once again, immaculate and undefiled.

Or the body may simply perish, keel forward and succumb.

It is all the same to the Bishop. Death and life are but two sides of the same coin, both a part of Divine Providence. All acts of evil, of violence, of injustice happen for a reason. They happen as a part of some greater celestial design. His own will, his own actions, all are simply the product of all the actions that happened before. Everything that happens can be justified, because everything that happens is the only thing that could happen.

He recalls a time when he wished he were a better man, when he wished he did not do the things that he does. But he now finds such stray yearnings to be pointless. Everything he has done was the only thing that could have been done. Everything that he will do has already been set into motion. All has already been preordained. There is nothing left to do but simply walk down a beaten path, mapped out and forged and lighted by Providence.

Regret, guilt, remorse – all are pointless emotions, in the face of Providence.

The boy can search all he wants, the Bishop thinks distantly, unconcerned and unintimidated. There are no answers to be found. No reasons why, no greater meaning or purpose. We are all at the mercy of Divine Providence.

 

*****

 

There is a figure looming over the London Metropolitan Police’s central station. It is a gargoyle, sculpted out of stone, and it sits perched upon the apex of the pointed arches of the medieval building, formerly a church, that now houses the Metropolitan Police’s headquarters. It stands stock still and watches day after day, season after season, as the law sputters to life, and deflates; lurches back and forth, and collapses. And through it all, it grins a horrific rictus grin, its wings frozen in a permanent pre-take-off V above its head.

Yesterday, it watched as a cassock-clad man strode through the main hall, past the rows of officers who looked up to track his motion with wonder and reverential awe. It watched him speak in hushed tones behind closed doors to the often defeated-looking man who sits in the large office tucked in the back of the building.

Today it watches as a young Guard Dog marches purposefully into the station, flanked by an uncommonly attentive first lieutenant. It watches him move past these same officers and inspectors, and head toward the same large office to speak to the same man, though his voice is not hushed and his movements are not furtive. It remains unmoved by the boy’s obvious consternation, likely no different than so many of those it has seen flowing in and out of this building either attempting to chase justice, flee from it, or subvert it.

The young Earl pushes his way into the commissioner’s office, who leans back in his chair and stares at him with a cold, expectant expression.

“It’s been a long time, lord Phantomhive,” Gerald says flatly, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair. “I hear you’ve recently been busy with a new hobby,”

Ciel stops and glares at him. Chews the insides of his cheeks, and tries not to bristle too obviously at the commissioner’s condescending, dismissive tone. A number of sharp rejoiners float through his mind, referencing Gerald’s own ineptitude and his department’s continued impotence under his leadership, but even the young Earl knows that these would ring hollow. The truth is that he has been withdrawing more and more from his duties as England’s Guard Dog, leaving Sebastian to do the brunt of the work; to keep up the appearances that he is still a masterful investigator, a worthy successor to his father’s mantle, and the scourge of London’s underworld.

He elects to concede this one point, and forge ahead. Even the blithely incompetent can be allowed their rare moments of trenchancy.

“Let’s dispense with the pleasantries this time, Gerald. We need to talk.”

“This is about that boy, I assume?” Gerald says, unfazed by the Guard Dog’s intensity. “My men tell me there is no case here. No clues, no leads. It’s unsolvable.”

“So that’s it? A job well done? Another case expertly dispensed with by the Metropolitan police?”

Gerald remains silent for a moment and studies him. “I’m told you’ve been sniffing around the Bishop and his parish? What exactly are you thinking? Why are you so interested in that boy’s murder?”

“Why am I interested in the brutal murder of a child?” Ciel sneers. “Why aren’t you more interested?”

“Spare me your sanctimonious rubbish,” Gerald cuts him off, tone exhausted, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. ”I have no patience for it today, and no desire to humour his lordship’s capricious interest in an otherwise hopeless case. There have been untold deaths of orphaned children, from malnourishment, from disease and consumption, from acts of God and acts of men, from blows dealt by their own mothers and fathers. It is not our job to dispense justice, only to enforce the law.”

Ciel tenses his jaw and stares. He tries to slow his breathing and steady his shaking hands. “There is some connection here, between the orphanage and the Bishop, and that child’s murder.”

“Oh, is there?” Gerald retorts, tone dripping with sarcasm, “You’re quite sure about that? And where is your evidence exactly?”

The voice. Ciel remembers the voice.

“I just – I just know it,” He mutters, his voice wavering, peeling back a layer to reveal a glimpse of the confused little boy crouching veiled underneath. He feels himself beginning to unravel, and feels a distant shame in knowing that Gerald of all people is witnessing it. He swallows and struggles to pull together the rapidly fraying threads of his sanity.

“Oh well yes,” Gerald scoffs. “By all means, let’s investigate one of the most powerful and well-regarded men in London, based on nothing more than a hunch.”

Ciel grits his teeth and turns his head toward Sebastian. He watches the demon move swiftly toward the commissioner, wrap his hand around his throat, and squeeze it until his face turns purple and bloated, and his eyes become bloodshot with burst capillaries. He sees the demon smirk despite the ghastly display, and looks on as the life goes out of the commissioner’s eyes.

Ciel shuts his eyes and takes a breath. He opens them again to find Sebastian standing in place behind him, staring back with an impassive expression. Gerald sits in front of him, arrogant, defiant, and sadly unmolested.

Ciel attempts a different tact. “I represent the interests of the Queen here. If I deem this a priority, then the Queen does as well.”

“Does she now?” Gerald volleys back, “I think the Queen realizes that the police’s resources are best directed elsewhere. London is drowning in opium. Larger and larger amounts are being siphoned off to the black market, despite massive shipments of armament sent to India to secure the trade routes. We can barely ourselves afloat, lord Phantomhive.”

Ciel bristles, sensing himself become defensive at the obliquely delivered jab. “Funtom Corps does its part. I am not after all responsible for the actions of an entire army, or an entire transport enterprise.”

Gerald glares at him for a moment, and rubs his palm against his chin. He draws in a deep breath and leans an elbow against the armrest of his chair. “Listen to me,” he says, his voice lowering, now taking on a previously unheard gravity. “You should not assume that the Queen is with you in all matters. Let this case rest.”

“So you’ve no interest in pursuing this case.”

“I have not.”

Ciel stares back at Sebastian and then at Gerald. His fingers clench into fists.

The gargoyle sits perched on the crest of the two arches of the building and watches the man in the office stand up and usher out a young Guard Dog and his dutiful companion, and close the door behind them. He watches the Guard Dog transform into a little boy struggling to bite back tears. He watches him breathe out, erect back the shell around him, shake off the companion’s comforting hand on his shoulder, and thunder out of the doors of the precinct.

 

***** 

 

"Have you ever read Dante’s Inferno?”

Cahill has that expression on his face, the one that demands an audience. The crime lord is feeling particularly contemplative and pedagogical on this day, and in search of a gallery for his sermons. A discourse on crime and punishment from the head of London’s top criminal syndicate. The Gospel according to Cahill.

 “It’s on next semester’s syllabus,” the young lord replies, resting his face against the curl of his knuckles, tone pregnant with boredom. “I have a feeling you’re about to give me the abridged version.”

They are in one of the East End pubs in Cahill’s territory. One among many where London’s working class come at the end of a long shift at the factory or the mines to shake off the foulness of the day. The clamour of the music dovetails with the rise and fall of the conversations, spoken in the many immigrant tongues of the Whitechapel district. There is Gaelic with its soft rolling rs and lilting melody, mingling with the staccato of Bengali’s swallowed consonants and plucked syllables, both navigating around the harsh angular glottals of Yiddish and Russian.

All men keep to their own tribes, and away from Cahill’s thugs, moving around the tables like sharks in choppy waters.

“Hell is made up of nine circles, each circle containing punishment and torture of escalating brutality, to reflect the escalading sins of those damned within,” the crime lord pontificates, while the Guard Dog looks on unmoved. “Do you know who resides within the ninth circle?”

Ciel lets out a sigh. “Judas Iscariot.”

“Judas, the betrayer of Christ,” Cahill booms with theatrical flourish. “Is it not fascinating? The greatest evil, the greatest sin committed in the whole blood-splattered and ugly history of humanity, is that of betrayal. Not adultery or sodomy or sexual perversion,” Cahill stops for effect, and stares at Sebastian, then back at his young master. The young lord looks back and blinks. He feels a sudden heat flush to his cheeks, though his face betrays nothing. “Not theft, not murder or genocide,” Cahill continues after a beat, “but betrayal.”

A drunkard suddenly stands up at his table nearby, and begins to sing tunelessly at top volume along to the music. His mouth struggles to master the sounds, his words garbled and slurred, rendered soggy by the drench of alcohol. He swings his mug back and forth, and tawny liquid spills to the floor. While the other patrons watch and laugh, he moves to the centre of the pub, ambling to and fro like a wind-up bird before stuttering to a stop and collapsing on to the ground.

“I do so love these little parables of yours, Cahill,” the young Guard Dog says, as he regards the vaudevillian display with mild interest, “They make me feel as though I’m back in Sunday morning catechism.” He turns back to the crime lord, “But perhaps in the interest of time you could just say what it is that you want to say?”

“This whole story of the boy with the brand. You are looking for your enemies, are you not?”

Ciel does not answer. His face betrays nothing.

“But you are not looking in the right place, my young lord.”

“Enlighten me.”

“I believe that I have a traitor in my midst,” the crime lord begins sermonizing anew. “One of my men. I can’t tolerate betrayal, as a matter of survival. Once a termite infests the foundation, it can spread like a plague, bringing down an entire structure.”

Ciel then watches as Cahill calls for one of his men to approach their table, in the corner of the tavern hall. The man slinks forward toward them and stands in an awkward pose for a moment, eyes darting nervously between the young lord and the crime boss, until Cahill smiles and beckons him forth with a reassuring back-and-forth wave of his fingers. The man relaxes, but only by a hair.

“Did you conspire with Rayburn’s men to siphon off the opium from last week’s shipment?” the crime lord asks, without any preamble, keeping his tone cool and even, as though he were simply inquiring about the weather, or the conditions of the roads out of London.

“No, of course not! Never!” the man protests.

“I know the last few shipments have been tampered with. Someone has been skimming off the top,” Cahill continues, fingers gently caressing the hilt of his gun.

“I would never –“, the man bleats, but his pleas of innocence are silenced by the thunderous sound of a bullet being ejected from Cahill’s pistol.

The man stands dumb for a moment while the light in his eyes go out, as the bullet tunnels a path from its point of entry on his brow to the exit point behind his skull.

Time stands still and all the ambient sounds around them dim as Ciel stares at that entry wound; a small dot between the man’s eyebrows like a mystical third eye. Not smudged out or jagged-edged like the blessing of Ash Wednesday, but tiny and clean and coin-shaped, like a bindi – a blood sacrifice to appease the gods.

After a beat, the man drops to his knees and falls forward onto his face, and the back of the skull is revealed to be a fleshy, macerated mess of gnarled tissue and bone fragments. Ciel looks on with eyes widened and mouth hanging slightly open. The look of boredom and imperious superiority has been slapped off his face, and he can feel the nausea rising up in waves and crashing against his insides. He glances toward Sebastian who looks back at him with calm reassurance, and he knows that of course nothing will happen to him.

A tense, taut silence has fallen upon the pub, as every single occupant stares wordlessly at their fallen comrade, lying prostate in a pool of his own blood. Of course, none of them will challenge Cahill. None of them will speak a word of this random act of brutality, because they know who owns them.

This is real power, son. Enjoy your little capers and revenge fantasies and shabby parlour tricks.

“How did you know it was him?” Ciel asks, his eyes still trained on the man.

Cahill shrugs. “I didn’t.” His eyes briefly roam the hall before circling around back to the young lord. “Such grand gestures are often necessary in order to send a message, to keep your men in line. I suspect that the issue of our rat will sort itself out rather quickly.”

Ciel stares and narrows his eyes.

“Now, about your boy with the brand,” Cahill starts, as he waves at two of his acolytes to clear the tavern of the slain man’s remains, and to do whatever it is that they need to do in these situations. The usual clean-up procedure. His family will receive a generous sum.

Cahill then puts down his gun and inspects the drawing of the emblem that had been handed to him by the demon upon his and the young lord’s arrival. He drums his fingers against the table.

Next order of business.

The Guard Dog learns through Cahill that this is not the first time a child has gone missing from the orphanage. There had been an inquest by the police at some point in the past, but it was stalled, or it had run dry. No evidence. No families to compel the authorities to sustain the investigation. The London papers had covered it for a few days, placing some pressure on the Metropolitan police, but the media’s attention is fickle, and when they moved on to the next scandal or were distracted by the next shiny object, the investigation fizzled along with the public’s sympathies. There was certainly something untoward happening in the orphanage, though whether the children did actually run away due to the conditions, or if something far more corrupt was going on, Cahill could not be sure.

“How do you know all of this?”

“Some of my men spent time at the orphanage when they were children, and they have been the beneficiaries of the Bishop’s … -Christian munificence-.”

The Guard Dog narrows his eyes. “Stop being coy, Cahill.”

“The children were valuable commodities, in some ways. The Bishop may have taken a -vow of poverty-, but he always found ways to skim from the top.”

Ciel feels his heart pound against his chest, the beat of it like a prisoner clanging a cup against the metal bars of his cell. He feels his insides become wracked with the now-familiar waves of dread.

As their meeting comes to a close, the crime lord stands up and leans forward. “Whatever your suspicions are, I would not share them with Gerald if I were you.”

Ciel shuts his eyes and sighs. Shakes his head. “There’s no other option. Gerald needs to make the arrest. I just need more evidence.”

“The Bishop is a powerful man, and I’m afraid there is no justice to be found for him through that route. You will discover this, and you will find a more efficient means of obtaining your justice,” he says, sweeping his gaze once again towards the demon, and then back at his young master. “And when that happens, the less Gerald knows of your interest in the Bishop, the better.”

Ciel narrows his eyes, and studies the crime lord for a few moments. “Why are you telling me this? What is your stake in all of this?”

Cahill smiles an enigmatic, close-mouthed smile. “I am simply educating you. You still need to ask the right questions. You still need to know what to see.”

 

*****

 

The raindrops assault the windows of the Phantomhive Manor study. They fling themselves against the panes in gestures of mass suicidal frenzy like lemmings running off a cliffside, and their bodies explode upon impact into shimmering entrails. Their remains either sit stationed in sparking globes, or run down in diagonal patterns, further distorting the reflection of the flickering candles inside, and the grey and amber landscape outside. The night will bring with it a chill that will crystalize these remnants, transforming their acts of violent sacrifice into a thing of transcendent beauty.

The demon watches the young Earl watch the spectacle unfold. The young lord is sitting in the wingback chair in the study, sad and forlorn and lost. The demon is standing in the corner, desperately searching for something to fix.

The boy wraps a hand around the crystal glass filled with his father’s antique scotch, swirls the amber liquid around before taking a gulp. It tastes bitter, and burns as it goes down his throat, but is soon followed by a pleasant haziness. He rolls his head back against the chair, and closes his eyes.

 “You mustn’t keep drinking, young master. You’ll make yourself ill.”

Ciel lips quirk up in a tiny half-smile. His cheeks are dusted and flushed, and his usual sharp edges softened by the alcohol.

“I am lord Phantomhive, the Earl of this estate, and the Queen’s Guard Dog. I will drink if and how much I choose,” he says in an affected imperious tone, mocking the spoiled, insolent child he knows he appears to be to others outside his and the demon’s intimate dyad.

“I probably have had enough though,” he continues, his tone downshifting to something more acquiescing. “The room is tilting. Or is it just me that’s tiling?” He attempts to stand up from his chair, but staggers and collapses back into the seat.

“You can have some too, if you’d like,” he offers, jerkily waving the crystal glass in the demon’s general direction.

“That’s alright.”

“Right, of course,” the young Earl says as he spins around in the chair to gaze directly at the demon. ”Always the perfect butler, correct? We should all aspire to be as proper as you.”

He takes another gulp of the pungent liquid, grimacing at the aggressive bitterness of the taste. He continues to study his butler, and his expression becomes clouded by some far weightier and graver uneasiness. He chews his lips and takes a breath. The demon braces himself for the question that is about to come.

“Sebastian, are you evil?”

Something wraps its claws around the demon’s heart. He is quiet for a moment as he contemplates the question, and the young master’s many questions stowed inside this question.

“I don’t think so,” he ventures finally. He takes a breath and amends the statement. “I don’t know. I am simply whatever my masters want me to be.”

Ciel observes him for what seems like an eternity, his face betraying nothing. After a time, he nods, seeming to accept this answer. For now. His expression loses its intensity, if only incrementally.

“Your eyes. They are such an unusual colour.”

The demon’s own expression softens, a tiny smile flickering on his lips at the apparent thawing of the atmosphere, the draining of the tension in the room.

“…Thank you.”

“Not a compliment. Just an observation,” the boy clarifies.

Sebastian nods. “Of course.”

“Was that because of me? Because you thought I would like that?”

“I think so, yes.”

“And in your previous contracts, you took on different forms.”

“Yes.”

“Always in the shape of your masters’ desires.”

“Yes.”

“And in your future contracts?”

“…Yes.”

And in that moment, Ciel tenses, and the atmosphere is pulled irrevocably taut. His eyes begin to harden and the ramparts and spires are once again erected around his heart. And whatever spell was cast by the steady drumbeat of raindrops and the anesthetic haze of the alcohol is now broken, and Sebastian mourns its loss. They are both unceremoniously dropped back to Earth.

“Sebastian, what will you do when I’m gone?”

As if pierced by a dagger, Sebastian feels a lancinating pain grip his chest as the tiny half-smile melts off his face. The pleasant warmth inside of the study congeals and turns to ice. The demon purses his lips and looks past Ciel’s shoulders to the opposing wall, gaze fixed upon the rows of leather-bound volumes stacked on the bookshelves.

At the silence, Ciel’s voice becomes more steely, and the cloudiness of alcohol all but vanishes from his gaze. “It’s a simple question. What will you do when I’m gone. Will you simply move on to the next contract? Become whatever your next master wants you to be?”

Sebastian remains quiet and stares back at him.

“Come, Sebastian. I thought you said all I had to do was ask.”

Sebastian struggles to find the words. But, as always finds no truth in the hollow simplicity of language.

“Will you be sad?” Ciel goads in a lightly sardonic tone.

“Young master, I do not know the answer to this question.” Sebastian responds truthfully.

“Well, you must have some idea. I am not asking you how to turn base metals into gold. After your previous contracts –“

“My lord, why do you ask me these questions?” Sebastian interrupts, uncharacteristically terse.

Ciel shrugs and rolls his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“We do spend an inordinate amount of time together. We share something of a ‘bond’, one might say,” he continues with a vague gesture of his hand. “Am I not allowed to be curious?”

“Why don’t you ask me what it is that you really want to know.” Sebastian grits, his voice thick and heavy, holding onto his master's gaze with a blazing intensity.

Ciel stares back, and the silence that stretches between them becomes once again weighed down with unspoken truths.

 Finally, the boy looks away.

“Nevermind,” he says, his head slumping back against the backrest of the chair, away from his butler. “Forget I asked.”

He pushes himself off the seat and staggers up to full height. He moves toward the door of the study, wavering as he tries to centre himself. Sebastian moves forward and reaches out to steady him, but Ciel stops him with a wave of his hand. “It’s fine. I can manage on my own.”

He walks gingerly out of the room and down the hall, leaving Sebastian alone inside the study, to watch the flames from the candles burn and burn, then flicker and dim, until finally they die out.

 

*****

 

He could see his master wondering, struggling, trying to see inside of his own interior. Trying to ask his questions through declarations. Stay with me. Protect me. Never betray me. All the while, the real question plaguing his young master’s mind remains unstated.

Do you love me?

He wonders when the master will ask, how he will ask, if he will ever ask.

He may ask a more general question, under the guise of benign studious curiosity, personal edification. He is an inquisitive person; he thirsts for knowledge.

Can demons love?

Demons (plural).

Demons (general).

Sebastian will then have to answer truthfully, that he does not know. He does not know of the nature of demons (plural), demons (general). He has in his long eternal life had very little interaction with demons (plural), demons (general).

The master may stop his questioning at that, thinking that the answer to his real question – do you love me? – has been answered in the negative, though the demon had no intention of being evasive. He simply answered the question as it was asked.

But perhaps the master will ask a different question.

Can a demon love?

Indefinite article. A demon. One demon among many. Can any of the demons love?

And the demon will have to answer – yet again – that he does not know. He does not know if any one demon – chosen among the multitude that he can only infer but does not know exist – if that specific demon can love. He cannot look into that hypothetical, apocryphal demon’s heart and know his truth. He would again fear that his master would assume him evasive, or would assume his question answered in the negative, and would not press the issue further. And the truth would curve itself, as it often does, around the negative space of the spoken words exchanged between them.

The more direct question, of course, is the one rattling around in the Earl’s mind. Do you love me? do you, Sebastian Michaelis, love me, Ciel Phantomhive?

(I do not love you, but I need you to love me)

And to that question Sebastian would have to answer – as he is bound by covenant and by duty - truthfully.

Yes.

Whatever this attachment is, whatever shape it has taken, however it differs from human love, however inadequate and hollow he finds that word – and language in general – in capturing the limitless depth of his devotion, he would still answer in the affirmative.

Words are hollow; truth lies in actions, truth lies in his demon heart.

And yet, still he would answer in the affirmative.

He stays by the Earl’s side because he was ordered to, but also because he wants to. He cares for the Earl, prepares his meals, polishes the silverware and dusts the marble floors because he was ordered to, but also because he wants to. He protects the Earl, fights on his behalf, subjects himself to this previously unknown phenomenon of pain, because he was ordered to, but also because he wants to. He lays by the young Earl’s side on those nights when he is sad or scared or lonely, wrapping his arms around his tiny body and smoothing locks of hair away from his sweat-stained brow and replacing them with feather light kisses because the Earl wants him to, but also because he wants to.

He will be the one to end it all, to press his lips against the young Earl’s in that one final kiss, to dim the lights at the end and plunge them both back into darkness and emptiness. He will do it not because he wants to, but because the young Earl wants him to.

And he wants his young master to know this. This truth. Not because he expects reciprocity, but simply because it is a truth, a part of his substance, a part of their bond. It is something inside of him that he wants the Earl to see. He wants the intimacy that can be shared only in the revelation of truth. And perhaps it may ease even infinitesimally the turmoil in the young Earl’s mind and the ache in the young Earl’s heart.

He could say it of course. It would cause him no pain or distress to do so.

I love you, he would say in the language that the boy would understand. With all my heart, he could add, in that peculiar way that humans have of layering ornamentation onto such declarations.

And he wonders how it would be received, this affirmation. Would his master’s face be filled with tenderness, with befuddlement, or with revulsion? Would it be met with suspicion about his motivations?

But he does not wonder for very long.

Because he knows his young master, sometimes better than the boy knows himself. And so he suspects that this admission most likely will be met with a mix of skepticism and scientific curiosity.

Yes, but what does it mean?, the boy would wonder.

What does it mean when a creature is tethered to you through some strange twist of fate, and for the measly price of your soul, you get to mold this thing into whatever you need it to be – so that it can give you comfort when you need it, protection when you need it, power when you need it, revenge when you want it, and even death when it is time. So that it can absorb the taint left behind by the incarnation of your anger and your bitterness. What does it mean when that thing then turns around and looks at you, sees you, and falls in love?

Does it choose to love you? Does it simply imprint upon you as baby birds might? Does its love make you worthy, the way that human love would – worthy because you have been loved?

Does it mean that you mattered?

However, this is not a question that the young Earl has asked. He has not asked the question, nor its permutations. The demon suspects the reason that the young Earl has not asked is the same reason that one typically does not ask the most important questions.

One does not want to know the answer.

Do you love me? No, I do not. You are alone in the world, and your life does not mean anything to anyone.

Do you love me? Yes, I do. You are a creature so damned and wretched that you have earned the love of a demon, a creature similarly damned and wretched.