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Dogwood and Chestnut

Chapter Text

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.

—Gerontion


 

He left nothing behind him but empty shells. The only thing of any value was the ring on his finger, and the essence that still shone within, pulling his gaze, his heart on moments like these—eyes open, watching the ground rise beneath him as the plane took off, a rush of noise, the pressure of filtered air. There was no way to lose himself in formlessness without losing this, too, and so it stayed, a kind of anchor, a hint of a memory. He thought he'd lost the habit of worrying with such jewelry but it came back to him; he found himself brushing his other hand across it, smoothing the bright surface, watching the play of colors. He wasn't hungry, but he wanted. In the middle of the flight, suspended over the Atlantic, it came to him that he'd made a terrible mistake. He suddenly felt ill, though there was nothing in his physical makeup that should have made him feel so. He stood up, walked to the end of the plane, closed the flimsy door of the bathroom behind him to shut out the cacophony of souls, and breathed, for a moment, shaking; not sure why. He felt like he wanted to retch; there was a queasy feeling in his stomach. The ring, and her soul, grounded him. Julie, he thought. She had been a person; she had been his contractor; she had been as bright and vibrant as this ring, and now she was nothing, she was dead. For what?

Sebastian, he reminded himself. It sounded more like a question than it ought to have. I didn't want to kill her, he thought. But what else should he have done?

There was someone waiting outside the door, impatient. He washed his hands, left, passed with an insincere smile. The weight of people and his tangibility made him irritable. He felt lost. Another hour or two and he closed the shade, closed his eyes, tried to let his mind wander. Then once again he was there, in the hands of that cult, as real as it had ever been, nothing but filth and shame, and he woke up screaming. People stared at him, and he met their eyes coldly until they looked away, touched the ring, obsessive. His breath was fast, his mouth dry, and he pressed his face to the window until the brightness of the sun burned its way into his retinas. He'd slept for the first time since he'd become a demon, he didn't even know how, and it had to be this. He thought he'd figured out how to stop thinking about that time. He hadn't expected it. Not now. Everything unsettled him.

He imagined for a moment Julie sitting beside him; just feeling her humanity, her moving limbs and skin, the flowing blood—something that could see him and wouldn't be afraid. She was here, yes, yes, her soul was, the very essence of her, but it wasn't the same at all. She couldn't turn to him, ask what was wrong, touch his hand, smile. Because of him.

He remembered that last day with her, that last moment, let himself think it through in all clarity. He didn't know why this of all things should get him so shaken up. By the time the plane landed he felt fine. He passed through the lines, through the airport, onto the familiar streets, found himself walking to the graveyard again, just as it had been before he left, and staring at Elizabeth's headstone.

"I'm sorry," he said, surprised by the sound of his own voice, sounding so uncertain. "I should have visited you. After. I suppose that, in my pride, I decided it would have been easier for both you and me if I stayed away, but that wasn't right at all. I've wasted… so much. I've been such a fool. Perhaps I didn't like the thought of you seeing right through me, as you always did, pointing out my flaws and foibles without judging me. In the span of a mortal lifetime you've made the world a happier place, for those who knew you. Gathered friends and family, left behind children and grandchildren to remember you. They're doing fine," he added, after a moment. "I thought you might want to know." He stood, feeling awkward; materialized a bouquet of flowers and placed it before the headstone. He could have stayed there longer, but as night drew close, he remembered his purpose, felt it clinging to him in the spark of that ring. It was only as he turned to go that he saw an old familiar figure ambling through the tilted stones, humming a tune. It stopped, facing him in baggy coat and cap, the long grey hair seeming almost white in the sparse light from the streetlamps beyond.

"Fancy seeing you here, my lord—ah, but it's not that any longer, is it?" Undertaker said. "Ciel, then."

Ciel nodded. "Undertaker."

Undertaker fell into step beside him, and Ciel was surprised to notice that they were close in height—his memory of the man had always been of him as a towering figure, unsettling and comforting by turns. At the moment, he seemed nothing more than a gentle old man, looking wistfully up into the gathering dark.

"It's funny how time files, isn't it?" Undertaker said, as they made a circuit of the grounds, inside the curling iron fences that separated this untouched space from the rest of the city. "I remember when you were born, just a little tyke with hardly any hair!" he laughed, and Ciel rolled his eyes. "I remember wondering what tragedy would befall you, heir to the cursed house of Phantomhive. I never thought it would be anything like this."

"Probably for the best I never married Elizabeth, then," Ciel said.

"Probably," Undertaker agreed. "You would have persisted in being miserable, and it would have worn on her heart. Such things never end well." He sighed, and seemed, for a moment, lost in thought. "The weeds here need a bit of clearing up," he said, bending to peer at a cluster of old stones thrown together like teeth, almost worn away. "Mind giving me a hand?"

Ciel bent down beside him and followed Undertaker's lead, and for some time they worked in silence, with nothing but the night-sounds around them, a few mournful owls and the echoing calls of bats in the distance, inaudible to humans; further still, the incessant, winding traffic and the electrical hum of the city in which they rested.

"You've seen me here before," Ciel said at last. "You never talked to me then. Why now?"

"It wasn't the time," Undertaker said, pulling weeds, his long, clawed nails, black-painted, brushing against tangled stems. "You weren't ready to talk. I could tell something was different, tonight." He glanced toward Ciel, who watched him back; the glint of the ex-reaper's eyes glowing uncannily, almost covered by his hair. "You've been gone for a while, since she died."

"I suppose," Ciel said. He looked at Undertaker's face, curious, but without asking him anything, and realized that Undertaker wouldn't press him. Somehow, it was that, and the memory of Elizabeth that had been brought up so vividly, hearing her name spoken by someone who knew her even slightly, that had him elaborate from that terse response. "Yes. I needed time to think."

"And what did you think about, during all this time?" Undertaker said.

Ciel shrugged.

"Something to do with that soul on your finger?"

Ciel's eyes drew downward, pulled inexorably, and he could feel his eyes lighting red, fangs elongating; he felt a confusing wave of territorial possessiveness, felt for a moment that the reaper was trying to steal her from him. He could feel the reaper's sudden carefulness, as he sensed the change in mood, a watchful danger that quieted everything around them for a heartbeat. Then Ciel forced out a breath, fighting the instinctual response, and shook his head, with a rueful laugh. "Yes. No. She was… not originally part of the plan." He paused for a moment. Let one hand hover above the ring, then let it fall to the earth, soft and crumbling, with the smell of new growth, leaving the stone untouched. "Her name was Julie."

"Hm," Undertaker said. "You know, any body can hold a soul... even a dead one, given enough tinkering. You could still change your mind. Bring her back."

"No," Ciel said, with the memory of his own torment under Claude's hands, merged with Alois; remembering Angela's bizarre experiments in purity, sewing together frankensteinian creations; remembered Drocell Keinz's dolls under her guidance, created from straw and clay, iron and steel, and human souls. Perhaps only someone who had once been human could understand the way such things felt like violations. "There's nothing worse to do to a person that what you're talking about. It wouldn't… be right. For anyone. And I don't plan to eat her."

"Would you really rather have died?" Undertaker said, softly, and for a moment, Ciel thought he looked tired and sad.

"Wouldn't you?" Ciel said, harshly, staring him down.

"Once, maybe. But why put limits on what a second chance ought to look like? Sure, you and me might muddle along for centuries, but maybe we needed the extra time."

"Needed the extra time?" Ciel scoffed. "To do what?"

Undertaker shrugged. "I suppose that's the question. Once we knew the answer, we wouldn't need the time."

"You're speaking in riddles, Undertaker."

"I can speak in jokes if you prefer. Once there was a man who was given a wish by a goblin in a banyan tree…"

"That doesn't sound like a joke."

"Instead of wishing for something that mattered to him, something he really wanted, he wished for two more wishes. And with those wishes, he wished for more wishes…"

"Logical," Ciel said, "if there was a wishing system set up so shoddily, why not take advantage of it?"

"Which he kept on doing until he was old and grey. They found piles and piles of wishes around him when he died: not a single one was used. 'In a world of apples and kisses and shoes, he wasted his wishes on wishing.'"

For something that Undertaker said was a joke, he seemed disinclined to laugh. Instead he looked merely pensive.

"I'll bring you an apple next time I come, then," Ciel said at last.

That, at least, made the Undertaker chuckle, and he stood up from the now cleared patch of graves. Ciel stood up as well.

"What are you planning to do with it, then?" Undertaker said.

"I…" Ciel looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

"Haven't decided?"

"No, it's for Sebastian," Ciel said quietly. If he wasn't sure that he was doing the right thing in bringing Julie's soul back for Sebastian, at least he didn't plan on broadcasting that uncertainty. The principles of bluffing were a habit that had always served him well. But something about his tone of voice failed to project the confidence he wanted it to, and the silence, with the wind around them, seemed to strip away the front he'd meant to project.

"The hilarious butler? He hasn't been so funny recently, you know," Undertaker said. "It's quite pathetic."

"Really," Ciel said scathingly. "And I suppose you two used to pal it up with lewd jokes every fourth Sunday."

"Only sometimes," Undertaker said, with a chuckle. He glanced at Ciel. "What ever did you do to him?"

"Nothing," Ciel said. "I didn't… I didn't do anything. We've…" He couldn't finish. He didn't know what to say, when he'd hardly even figured out what had happened between them himself. He'd been lost in self-absorption for so long… and Sebastian certainly had been as well. They'd forgotten how to even talk to each other. In the beginning, his reasons had been clear. He'd been lost in relief and glee, he'd been trying to cement his place, reassure himself that Sebastian would always be there. Then he'd realized that nothing was going to be the way he'd imagined it to be; he'd had to face his own loss, his uncertainties, with no one to guide him through them, with nothing but his own guilt and a new existence he couldn't comprehend. And yes, they'd patched things up, but without ever really… doing anything about the problem. For one wild moment he imagined opening his mouth, confessing everything to Undertaker, asking him if he ought to have set Sebastian free. He couldn't. He wanted to know what that refusal made him; surely one couldn't define shades of evil in what was already an evil creature? And yet it was for that one action… that refusal, that he still felt haunted.

"Is that so?" Undertaker said, at last. Ciel realized he'd trailed off into silence some minutes ago without having answered.

"I should be going," he said, quietly.

"Say hello to your butler for me," Undertaker said, as Ciel began to walk down the path toward the exit. "Tell him he should visit the graveyard more often!"

Ciel chuckled, looking back Undertaker's way. "I just might," he said. Undertaker tipped his cap and then shuffled off, hands in his pockets and a spring in his step.

Chapter Text

"Welcome home, young master," Sebastian said, appearing at the door before Ciel could push it open himself, holding it for him. His gaze was drawn to the ring, of course: he'd gotten used to the smell of Julie's soul over his time with her, but to Sebastian, it was new, and a surprise. Some indefinable thought flickered its way past the depths of his human-brown eyes and his perfect composure. As ever, Ciel found it hard to read his butler, especially with him held so close behind his human form as he was now. If he pushed past, he might find the truth—but Ciel was tired of pushing. It hadn't done anything for them yet.

"Hello, Sebastian," Ciel said, stepping into his hall and taking off his coat, casting an appreciative eye over the immaculate interior of the apartment, kept as pristine as always; feeling the essence of the place, so attuned with Sebastian, seem to enclose itself around him, careful. "You seem rested."

"I took the time off you so graciously provided to find a meal," Sebastian said.

"Oh," Ciel replied, somehow disappointed. "That's… that's good." He suddenly felt on the wrong foot. He knew that Sebastian must suspect the purpose of the ring—he'd as good as promised him the next soul he'd contracted with—but now that they were here, now that Sebastian brought him into the parlor, standing behind him, waiting, he felt like his gift was more insignificant and small than ever. "I, um—"

"Young master, I—"

"It's all right, you go first," Ciel said, waving a careless hand as he sat down upon one of the chairs.

"It's been some time since we've experienced culture. As I take it, you've always had some interest in art," Sebastian started, slightly more hesitantly than was his wont. He looked at Ciel as though expecting an answer.

"Well, yes," Ciel said. It was a paltry answer, if accurate: art and culture, human aesthetics, had never interested him the way it had fascinated Sebastian; he had always been more readily intrigued by crime, and by the solving of it. On the other hand, he had a fine appreciation for art, as a gentleman ought to, and which Sebastian had been so careful to cultivate in him. He almost tagged on a thoughtless, "of course I do," but refrained. He was curious as to what Sebastian's purpose was, although he thought that he could guess: the other demon was bored out of his mind, and must have decided that they once again were at a place that Ciel wouldn't look amiss at such a suggestion. He didn't know why, but it relieved him, infinitesimally, that Sebastian felt able to do so; and Sebastian, also, seemed more at ease, now that the suggestion had been made. "If there's something you'd like to look at, somewhere to go, we can of course go."

"I shall arrange a schedule immediately," Sebastian said, and stayed, waiting for Ciel to continue with what he had started, earlier, or dismiss him.

Ciel tried to gather his thoughts. He'd planned to give the ring to Sebastian without ceremony, and yet he felt it wasn't at all respectful to Julie to do so without first explaining who she had been, and giving her the last words that she had asked him to deliver. Yet he couldn't bring himself to do so right now. He felt too tired, too relieved at whatever had happened to his and Sebastian's fragile truce, to risk breaking it so soon by offering his butler another thing to get offended over. "As for what else I was speaking of… it can wait," he told Sebastian.

Sebastian seemed slightly surprised at this, and his gaze flickered, once again, to the ring on Ciel's hand. Was that disappointment? Relief? Or merely indifference?

"Of course, my lord," he murmured.

"That will be all," Ciel said. Sebastian's physical form walked out of the room, although he himself remained, an unabashedly curious waiting that infused the walls and flickered behind occasional darkened tendrils. Ciel looked up at it with a half-smile, somehow thrilled that he had caught Sebastian's attention without even having planned to. "Shouldn't you be keeping busy with something?" he said, chiding in play, though without any intent. The presence subsided, slightly: turned its focus to whatever Sebastian must be doing, yet remained. Though Ciel still felt the urge to dissipate into some force of nature as he always felt so strongly after a contract, he let himself put it off, for the moment—choosing, instead, the bright softness of Julie's soul close to his finger, caught in the pink stone; the solidity of the house, its man-made items, an incongruous taunt against a changeable world, and Sebastian's presence, within it all.