The icy wind whipped the tails of Sebastian’s swallowtail coat, blowing them away from his body with a flapping of fabric. The butler took a deep, if unnecessary breath of the chill air, admiring the taste of winter as it filled him. So far this January, 1893 was the most frigid month Sebastian had experienced in nearly 100 years, and while the cold didn’t affect him the way it did mortals, he still felt it, still saw it when his breaths puffed in front of his face.
The snow fell softly around him, landing on his dark hair and shoulders, dusting the rose bushes and the walkway that led from the manor to the greenhouse. Sebastian glanced up at the full moon, looming large and deep blue in the night sky, reminding him of his master’s visible eye, the only one he showed the world. Standing still like this in the chilly, silent garden was a very human kind of indulgence, the sort Sebastian would have scoffed at seven years ago.
But he was changing. The longer he spent by his young master’s side, the more years this contract stretched, the less irritated he became with the entire experience and the more “human” he felt he was becoming. Not as if his demonic powers had weakened, for he was as strong as ever. And he still relished the hours between midnight and four when all the humans within the manor slept and Sebastian was free to go about his work undisturbed, free to use his superhuman speed and strength without worrying about prying eyes.
And yet over the past year he had found himself contented with his role and his masterful performance as butler and bodyguard. It was laughable for a being as powerful as he to find enjoyment in mundane monotony, and he wondered if it was the constrictions of spending almost the entire past seven years in his human form. Never before had he worked so long, so closely to his contractor. He’d always taken easily fulfilled contracts, the kind that were over almost as soon as they’d begun, or that merely required his presence from time to time over the course of years, leaving him free to do as he pleased in the interim.
He had expected the same when he’d felt that pull from the depths of Hell, the call of anguish of a master so tiny he had laughed when he first set eyes on the fragile boy in the cage, the one he knew all about from the memories of the boy’s twin’s tasty soul. How wrong he had been. Never could he have foreseen how irritation could morph to amusement and even—did he dare say it?—fondness for a mere meal.
And yet the tedium that had plagued his life for millenia had faded into the routine of his butler’s duties, spiked with the thrill of being the Queen’s watchdog’s bodyguard and assistant. He normally cared little for the affairs of mortals, but he enjoyed the games his master wove to snare his prey, and the fun of battling foes both mortal and supernatural. This contract was unlike any he’d ever taken before, this soul unlike any he’d ever encountered, and for once, perplexing as it was, he did not wish for it to rush towards its inevitable conclusion.
The wind picked up, stirring Sebastian from his momentary reverie. He pulled his pocket watch from his waistcoat and clicked it open. Almost time. He frowned, and in a blur of black and misted snow, detoured to the greenhouse for the herbs he needed before hurrying into the house.
If tonight was like nearly every other this brutal winter, his young master would be needing him shortly.
“Breathe, young master, you must breathe,” Sebastian urged as he guided the steam-powered inhaler device, which rested on the bed tray they used for breakfast so that the mouthpiece was near the teen’s lips.
The boy coughed harshly, his petite frame shaking with the force. His wheezes were like nails on chalkboard to the butler’s sensitive ears. While at the start of their contract he might have enjoyed the way the boy’s panic scented the air, now it was a bitter taste on his tongue.
Sebastian held the device still and waved his fingers over the water to infuse it with just enough magic to set it boiling immediately. The power of the steam aerosolized the powder in the top of the device, forcing it through the mouthpiece, where it was inhaled to work directly where it was needed. “The medicine will help, but you must breathe.”
Ciel nodded weakly, his chest jerking as he put his mouth on the funnel that sprouted out of the top side of the inhaler machine, his eyes closed as he did his best to focus, hands fisted in the sheets.
“I’ll stoke the fire so you won’t get cold,” Sebastian said even as he draped a blanket over the boy’s shoulders.
Night after night nearly every day this winter, the young earl’s asthma had torn him from sleep. As bad as tonight was, it was by far not the worst of these nights. Ciel was fully conscious, able to think clearly enough to focus on the task of inhaling as much of the misted medicine from the device as he could, knowing it would work to relax his irritated airways.
As Sebastian focused on the fire, he kept all his senses primed on the earl, ready for any sign he might be in more distress. Some nights, the demon needed to support the teen, almost hold him in place to keep him in the right position to inhale the medicine. During the worst fits, Sebastian had to breathe the mist himself and blow it into the boy’s mouth as he felt the boy’s life fading in his arms.
The butler had been disappointed by how little most doctors could do for the teen, and had come close to tearing out the throats of one or two who had made big promises but were little more than snake-oil salesmen out for the earl’s money. Even as a demon, that kind of avarice disgusted him, although he was beginning to realize his protective possessiveness for his contractor was morphing into something unfamiliar and at times disconcerting.
Sebastian stood, changed his gloves to be sure he wouldn’t dirty his young master’s skin or bed clothes with soot, just as the boy lay back into the pillows, exhausted. The butler could tell the treatment had finished as he barely scented it anymore. It took a few minutes to fully work, and the teen was still laboring for each breath, shoulders rising and falling rapidly with the effort, although he was no longer coughing and his color was slightly better.
Relieved he wouldn’t need a second dose of medication, Sebastian lifted the heavy device away, setting it on the nearby table, and cleared the tray as well, adjusting the covers around the boy. He paused to feel his forehead. It was warm from the exertion but not feverish.
So far not a single doctor Sebastian had consulted could satisfactorily explain why the teen’s disease had grown worse in the past couple years, or why it tore him from sleep like clockwork night after night.
Sebastian went to the vanity where a pitcher of water rested beside a basin. He filled the bowl and tested the temperature. It was cold, but he dipped a clean cloth in it anyway and wrung it out, again using a small amount of magic to heat it enough so as not to cause his master discomfort. Normally the earl forbade Sebastian from using magic, but decided on an exception for his health.
“Se—bas—tian,” the teen’s voice called hoarsely.
“I’m here, my lord,” he replied obediently, pleased the boy’s breathing had eased enough for him to speak, and his body had relaxed. Sebastian still heard the faint wheeze, though it was inaudible now to human ears, which meant before long the earl would fall asleep. “Rest,” Sebastian urged with an encouraging smile that wasn’t at all mocking, using the cloth to wipe some of the sweat off the boy’s brow and ease some of the tension from his neck and shoulders. “It’s safe to sleep.”
“Stay,” Ciel whispered as he gazed up at Sebastian for a long moment before letting his lids fall and sinking further into the pillows.
“I’ll read some metered poetry to help you unconsciously regulate your breaths until you fall asleep. And no matter where I am in the manor, if you need me I will be here in an instant. You have nothing to fear,” Sebastian said in a soothing tone, again without a hint of mockery.
Sebastian picked up the book from the table and was about to open it so he could begin reading aloud when he heard Ciel speak again.
“Sit,” he said, his voice stronger, patting the edge of the bed beside him.
Sebastian frowned. “That wouldn’t be appropriate, my lord.”
Ciel scowled. His eyes were heavy, but his tone commanding when he insisted, “That’s an order. Until I fall asleep.”
With a put upon sigh Sebastian obeyed, perching on the edge of the mattress, surprised when Ciel’s hand stretched to touch the butler’s leg, as if to reassure himself his demon was obeying.
“You must be regretting our contract,” the earl said as his eyes closed again.
Sebastian couldn’t lie to Ciel, but realized he didn’t have to as he whispered, “Never, my lord.”