There were times, especially in the beginning, when he was newly born and as delicate as if made from wing bones and papier mâché, that the Phantomhive family believed Astre was going to die. Each time he surprised them. Illness had wracked his tiny body so powerfully that he would become completely still but for the lightest breaths, and so pale that he seemed to be burning the last of his kindling. Then, when Angelina would look up from the patient with mournful eyes or lean back while shaking her head, when all seemed lost, Astre would suddenly pull through. His pallor would warm and he’d start mewling and crying and reaching out. “It’s a miracle,” Rachel would say, brushing her boy’s hair away from his forehead, and Vincent would agree. But both could not help wondering how much longer they could push back the inevitable. Whenever Astre began to cough again, they felt the reaper’s breath on their necks.
Despite it all, Astre grew. So did Ciel, faster, healthier, always a bit bigger, like the firstborn he was. By the age of two, he was smart enough to recognize it. “Astre’s little,” he might say matter-of-factly while hugging his frail twin. Or, if Astre weren’t well that day, “Sick more?” Ciel loved his brother dearly. If Astre ever scraped his knee or became frightened, Ciel would cry along with him in sympathy. But, to his parents’ puzzlement, Ciel never seemed worried about Astre when he was bedridden. At two, it was only natural he wouldn’t understand that illness could lead to death, or what death even meant. But at eight years, Vincent had anticipated Ciel being more aware.
It had been a long, hopeful day full of chloroform liniments and pilocarpine injections. Evening fell now with dull gray light, and Astre’s condition had only worsened. Rachel, Aunt Ann, Vincent, and Tanaka hovered around the bed like ghosts. The white sheets seemed to reflect light better than the sick boy's translucent skin. Rachel held one soft little hand in both her own, as if to tether Astre to the world of the living. When Angelina offered quietly, “I think I should go fetch Ciel,” Rachel’s silent crying became audible.
Tanaka’s voice was strained. “Please, stay here, Madam Dalles. I will bring him.”
“No.” Vincent stood from the bed. “I should speak with Ciel first. I think it would be best if I were the one to prepare him for this.”
Tanaka and Angelina could only nod gravely and returned to their vigil.
Ciel was in the nursery, playing by himself. The room was dim – usually someone would have lit the lamps by now, but the staff mourned too and went about their chores much more slowly, methodically, in a way mixed with prayers and tears and forgetfulness. Ciel was the only one in the manor without a sadness darkening his mien. At the moment, he was much more concerned with attaching a toy Begbie lantern to his childhood rocking-horse. He was trying to get the metal handle to slip over the horse’s ears, but the pony’s wooden face, carved in an eternal whinny, was too wide to allow this. Ciel’s little hands were trying to hold the lantern at an angle to make more space between the handle and the horse’s head. When he noticed Vincent approaching, he held the lamp aloft. “Father,” he said, “will you help me? I want to put this on my pony’s neck but it’s too hard for me to do myself.”
“Never mind that now.” Vincent knelt down, placing his hands on Ciel’s shoulders. His son gazed back in mild curiosity. “Ciel,” Vincent said, “Astre is very sick. Soon we will have to face a difficult truth. But right now, we must hurry and say goodbye to him, while his soul is still with us. Let’s go together to his bedside.”
Ciel frowned, as if he’d been told it was bathtime. “Do I have to?”
Vincent had a stalwart grip on his emotions, but that response surprised him so, his shock came through in his voice. “Ciel, if you do not do this, you will sorely regret it. Come.”
Ciel took his father’s hand, but kept the lantern in the other. “Astre’s been sick plenty of times, and he’s never died. He’s not going to die this time either.”
Vincent said nothing. Ciel hastened to keep up with his father’s pace. “He’s not going to die,” the boy repeated. To him it was a simple fact, and he stated it as such. “If he was going to die, he would have done it already, years ago. He wouldn’t make us wait.”
“Ciel, that’s enough,” Vincent scolded hurriedly without looking at him.
“I just mean it’s how Astre is. He wouldn’t bother anyone if there weren’t a reason for it.”
“He isn’t being a bother now. He has never been a bother.” In his grief, Vincent was becoming defensive. Ciel still seemed unconcerned, and Vincent hurried them the rest of the way to the bedroom.
Tanaka, Angelina, and Rachel did not glance up when Vincent reentered, practically dragging Ciel with him. By the way everyone gazed at Astre’s limp form, Vincent deduced his boy was still alive. He was simultaneously relieved and pained it wasn’t over. The world hadn’t taken a breath in the two days that Astre spent wilting. When death was inevitable, the wait was a cruel game. Tanaka cupped his pocket watch, ready to note the time of Astre’s last breath, while Angelina and Rachel studied the rising and falling of the little chest, their lips prepared to say, “He’s gone.” Vincent sat on the bed beside his wife, placing his hand over hers, the one that still held Astre’s.
Ciel stood next to Tanaka, fidgeting with the lens that allowed the lantern’s color to change from green to red. The room was bathed in these odd alternating lights, until Vincent turned and Tanaka gently stopped Ciel from continuing.
“But Astre likes this toy!” Ciel whined, hugging it to his chest. “Maybe he’ll want to play if he sees the lights flashing!”
“Put it down and join us on the bed,” Vincent instructed.
Ciel did so, still pouting, folding his arms. He chewed his lip as he looked upon Astre’s frail form beneath the sheets. A worry crossed over his features for a second but then faded into indignation. “I know you’re not dying,” he mumbled.
Rachel began to sob. Vincent turned to his other son with a look of questioning disapproval. But Ciel had already dashed out of the room, leaving his green lamp behind.
Astre awoke the next morning when dawn came through the window, bright white, dappling over his eyelids and made him squint them open. He was stacked up so high on the pillows, he was practically sitting up. He weakly scanned the room by tilting his head. Mother and Father were to his left, asleep while sitting up on the mattress, propped against each other's shoulders. Aunt Ann sat on the floor with her head resting by his feet. Mr. Tanaka was snoring lightly from a chair in the corner. A clock on the mantelpiece ticked like a metronome.
Oh, dear, thought Astre, glancing between them all. I must have gotten very sick.
No one stirred when he pushed back his blankets. They must have been too exhausted. Astre was secretly relieved by that. The thing he hated most about coming out of an illness was seeing how worried he’d made everyone. His mother and Aunt Ann would be crying, and Mr. Tanaka and his father would be tearing up wistfully. Then Aunt Francis and Elizabeth would come over, and Elizabeth would cry too, and Aunt Francis would tell them all to be practical and not cry because she never did. He would be grateful if, for once, the others didn't shed any tears on his behalf. But Aunt Francis didn't like him, so she didn't count.
His whole body felt weak, but Astre clambered out of bed anyway. He stumbled over to the wall, pressing his hands to it for support. He looked around again; everyone still slept. Once Astre felt a touch less dizzy, he padded softly out of the guest room, the one he was always put in when he wasn’t well enough to be near Ciel.
In the hallway, it was quiet, and the light made everything look sepia-colored, like a photograph. Astre noticed a vase of white flowers on a side-table that wasn’t there before, the vase's neck dressed in a black ribbon. But otherwise, everything was the same. Astre was glad for that. It hopefully meant he hadn’t been sick for very long. Once, he had been bedridden for a month, and when he went out of the room, the whole house felt like a different world. But it was familiar to him now. And he had to pee.
His brain was still coming out of the fog of sickness, and he was processing thoughts one at a time. Therefore, it was only after Astre used the bathroom that he remembered he was in his bedroom and that that meant Ciel was here. Ciel. The one person who never acted like his getting sick was so terrible. The one who didn’t cry but just invited him to play, like fevers and sweats had not pried them apart for days. His best friend in the whole world.
Astre approached the bed at the same moment he realized he’d used up most of his energy. He climbed in next to his brother. The softness of the pillow would have dragged him back to sleep if Ciel had not woken up at once. His eyes flew open like the shutter of their toy signal lamp. His mouth broke into a smile. “I knew it!”
“Kn-Knew what?” Astre’s voice came out weakly, tired from a lack of use.
“That you weren’t dying!” Ciel declared.
“Oh.” Astre rubbed his eyes. “Is that what Aunt Ann said?”
“It’s what Father said.” Ciel pushed himself up on one elbow. Then he put his hand to Astre’s forehead. “Not even a fever anymore. I told them all you weren’t dying, but no one believed me. But you see, I know you better than anyone. And I told them that if you were going to die, you would’ve done it already, because you never like to bother anybody. Then Father got mad at me for saying so, but I was right, wasn’t I?”
“… Huh?” Astre was very tired and having trouble following his brother’s fast little voice.
“I knew,” Ciel said, “that you were fine the whole time.”
Astre blinked sleepily. “I didn’t feel fine.”
“Even so. You were.”
“Not really. I don’t know why I got better. I'm sure next time I won't.”
Ciel cocked his head to the side. “Huh?”
“Getting sick is hard work,” Astre yawned. “Next time it might be too hard, and I'll die.”
Ciel's smile disappeared. “No, you won’t.” He bit his lip. “You always get better, even if it’s hard. You can do it again.”
“Well, Father thought I would die this time,” said Astre, “and Father’s really smart."
Ciel’s eyes were growing big and fearful. “But Father was wrong! You got better! You always get better!” He looked as though he might cry, like all the others, and he blurted, “You always get better because we can’t leave each other! We can’t!”
Guilt curdled in Astre when Ciel’s sobs became real, and he was then clutched so tightly that he felt a pain in his bones. Still muddled with exhaustion, Astre draped an arm over Ciel but was too weak to hug him back. There were tears falling all over his hair and cries ringing in his ears.
Astre didn’t know what to say. He was so familiar with diagnoses and medicines and syringes that death hardly seemed so terrible a thing. He’d long ago stopped fearing an early grave. At this point he nearly wanted it, because each time he got better, everyone cried. Everyone cried, but he’d only get sick again, spoil their hopes, and make them long for this to end. And now… even Ciel had joined the ranks of the disappointed.
Then the sobs stopped, almost too abruptly. “You aren’t going to die,” Ciel growled like a wolf cub. His small fingers curled into Ciel’s nightgown. “I won’t let you. Not without me.”
Suddenly, the bedroom door burst open, and in rushed Mother and Father and Aunt Ann and Mr. Tanaka. They stared wide-eyed at the young lords before dashing over, pressing the backs of their hands to Astre’s cheeks, pulling open his eyes to see that they were bright, then swaddling him up in the love and relief that made Astre’s heart sink like a stone. Rachel was rocking him at her chest, and Astre peeked out from her embrace to get a look at his brother.
He expected the same ferocity in Ciel’s expression as had been in his tone only moments ago, but instead Ciel was indignant and even a bit smug. “I told you,” he said to Father, “I told you he wasn’t going to die. I knew he wouldn’t, and I was right.”
Vincent didn’t respond to the taunting, only pulled Ciel over to join in the hug.
Astre, at the nucleus of this kindness, could not help but feel undeserving. Next time I get sick, he decided then and there, I have to die. They fell asleep waiting for me to die. I can’t keep making them wait.
Born in him that day was a fierce determination. He would not, could not, see his family’s suffering any longer. And he wouldn’t. After that bout of asthma, Astre never got so sick again, and for years after, he found faith in the power of his own tenacity, his innate ability to change circumstances – so much so that summoning a demon did not entirely surprise him. But now, gazing out from under the brim of his dripping top hat at the identical figure on the staircase, a memory flashed back to him, a snarled sentence from a broken-hearted boy with everything to lose.
You aren't going to die. I won’t let you.
Not without me.