The boy wants to dress himself.
"Leave," he orders Sebastian coldly, pushing the covers off and straightening the nightshirt that has slipped off one pale and slender shoulder. He sits up at the edge of his bed, his bare feet dangling several inches above the floor.
The devil of a butler sets down the morning tea tray on the side table and withdraws with a bow, graced by a knowing smile that provokes a scowl from the young earl.
The scowl is all he gets – for now. No rebukes, not just yet.
But while Sebastian is setting out his master's breakfast of English clover honey with trimmed, fine-grained bread lightly tanned to a pale gold, the bell predictably rings for him. The timing is deliberately, impeccably, bad, which is what makes it so interesting.
He makes his way back up the stairs and enters Ciel Phantomhive's bedroom.
"You rang for me, Young Master?" the butler asks, smooth as the curls of butter he had been placing perfectly into the china dish downstairs at the time he was summoned.
With the merest upward tilt of his chin, the earl communicates several messages all at once: "Come here"; "Finish up"; and naturally, "You deserve every inconvenience I can possibly impose on you, you piece of slime."
All without having to utter a word.
Sebastian obeys. Of course he does. He approaches the child, goes down on one knee before him, and adds the finishing touches to his master's dressing: securing the straps that hold his socks up on his delicate calves, buckling his shoes, slipping the topmost buttons through the buttonholes, and forming a casually elegant bow with the blue ribbon around the boy's delicate neck.
Every other point of attire has been seen to by the young earl himself. From his shoes to the main articles of his expensive clothing up to the fine black silk patch over his right eye, he was already fully dressed by the time Sebastian re-entered the bedroom.
Sebastian has not seen the child in a state of undress for six days now. A peculiar situation, considering that the demon butler has, from the beginning of their association, attended to every detail of his wardrobe and grooming. Everything from slipping his undergarments onto his body in the morning and off him at night, to waiting on him during baths, very lightly brushing his fine raven hair with its iridescent hints of blue (the master does not like it too neat), and tying on the carefully stitched silk that hides from the world that emblem of their unholy contract, imprinted upon one iris.
It is that contract which is the cause of the present tension. The symbol in the young master's eye, and its glove-covered counterpart on the back of the butler's left hand, look the same as they ever did. But he knows, and the boy knows, that they are new. The marks disappeared briefly from both their bodies six days ago, when the first contract was broken. When the new agreement was reached, identical symbols formed again in the same places.
Ciel is not pleased with the new contract. He will take it out on Sebastian until his simmering anger is spent.
"I was supposed to be dead by now," the boy states bluntly.
Here it comes again.
"I was supposed to be dead and gone, out of this world," he growls in the manner only a thirteen-year-old child can. "I was ready."
"You were too ready," Sebastian remarks politely.
It was a foolish whim – even devils have whims. An impulsive remark – even devils may be impulsive. A perverse response – devils are always singular creatures. And just like that, the contract was void, opening the way for its replacement.
But there were no hysterics then, and none now, from Ciel Phantomhive. No screaming or crying. He is resolute as always. The quick flashes of anger that flare from time to time are all the more striking because he is for the most part so cold.
"Would it please the young master to partake of breakfast in the morning room, or shall I bring the tray upstairs?" Sebastian asks, ignoring the epithet the child has just graced him with.
Ciel glares at him, but answers evenly enough: "I shall be in the study."
"Very good, my lord," Sebastian replies, bowing, lifting the silver tray with the empty cup and teapot balanced on it before moving smoothly across the room, a step behind the boy. He flows around him like a shadow at the last to open the bedroom door for him.
Once downstairs, the earl vanishes into his study, and Sebastian returns to the kitchen to add the finishing touches to the breakfast tray. The toast has cooled too much to be served to the young master now, so he swiftly makes ready several more fresh slices. The other servants can always eat the unwanted pieces.
Ciel does not look up when Sebastian enters the study. He is deep in the correspondence and accounts involving the confectionery half of his business concerns – matters he believed he had abandoned forever only six days ago, but which now urgently require his attention.
The butler sets down the tray at the edge of the desk.
"Please eat the toast before it grows cold," he says to the boy.
A non-committal murmur that could mean anything or nothing is the only response he gets from the earl.
"Shall I spread the butter for you, and drizzle some honey over?"
"It will not be good for the young master to consume soggy toast with softening butter." Besides, he has taken pains to make the toast perfect, and it is deteriorating with every second that passes, almost like a living thing.
Ciel is still not looking at him.
Sebastian smiles to himself. He could insist. The contract does not forbid him to oppose the young earl's wishes. Even under the old contract, which was stricter, he had been free to refuse Ciel's childish demands for sweets just before dinner, or to be set down when he had snatched him into his arms in times of danger. If done for the safety and well-being of the master, even direct orders might be disobeyed without damaging the contract.
Only when Ciel words his directives as specific commands that draw upon their covenant, or purposefully displays the mark in his eye as he orders Sebastian to carry out a task, would Sebastian be obliged to obey although he might be loath to do so.
For now, he might insist on the child's compliance for his health's sake. But this is not a time to fight over such a trivial matter, and the earl will hardly die from eating soggy toast, so he backs down.
"Very good, sir," he says, and retreats from the study.
Unsurprisingly, he is called back several times in the course of the morning, to see that one letter or another is sent out. The earl could easily have waited until he had accumulated all the correspondence, but has chosen to inconvenience his butler instead. He is venting on Sebastian his frustration over having any correspondence at all – if he were dead, he would have none.
There are to be no music, art or dance lessons today – business matters take precedence over such things, so none of the tutors will be calling.
By mid-morning, Ciel has taken out enough of his general irritation with life on his demonservant to settle down calmly to elevenses. The snack comprising a plate of orange biscuits mildly echoed in flavour by a pot of Earl Grey tea appears to please his taste buds and soothe him temporarily. No doubt his displeasure will mount again as more responsibilities cry for his attention in the course of the day.
Indeed, it does.
The highlight for Sebastian of Ciel's afternoon meeting with one of the managers of his confectionery company is a toppled pot of ink – very artfully toppled, if Sebastian may venture his opinion – spilling its dark contents over the expensive Chinese silk rug which the desk rests on.
"I shall have the rug cleaned at once, my lord," Sebastian says, glancing at the spreading stain, which is taking on a shape rather like the head of a dog. A big, black dog.
"You do that," Ciel says, leaving the study with the deferential manager in tow. "This is just the kind of thing you signed up for, isn't it?"
A later meeting with the people to whom he will entrust the launch, distribution, supply and logistical matters pertaining to the curry bread for which he has obtained a royal warrant also requires Sebastian's presence, to confirm that the recipe he wrote out for his master and the hired chefs a few days ago is the correct one, and has lost or added no ingredients in the copying of it.
"That is quite correct, my lord," Sebastian avers, giving the recipe a half-second's glance. "Nothing is out of place."
"The only thing different, of course, is the one who will be doing the cooking," Ciel remarks, giving Sebastian a deeply thoughtful look, as if he is contemplating banishing him permanently to the kitchen of the food factory that will be producing these bread rolls.
But the master, if he has considered such a thing, swiftly reconsiders, no doubt thinking that no one can torture Sebastian better than he himself can, at close quarters.
After an excellent roast dinner with buttered vegetables, glazed potatoes and a touch of wine, chased by a dessert of caramelised, brandy-soaked oranges in a lightly flambéed syrup, the earl disappears into his library.
"Shall I run your bath for you, young master?" Sebastian asks dutifully, entering the library at the usual time for the child's pre-bedtime ablutions – although Ciel has shut him out of the bathroom these six days.
But when the butler returns to the library to announce that the bath is ready, the boy tells him to go away; he will see to it himself.
Sebastian waits upstairs to be sure that the water remains hot, but the earl does not come.
After three quarters of an hour, he is obliged to abandon the bathwater after giving it one last dose of several new pails of freshly heated water. He returns to the library, where he finds that the child has fallen asleep in his large wingback chair.
"Young Master?" Sebastian says softly beside his ear.
Ciel starts awake and instinctively lashes out at Sebastian, dealing him a blow on the cheek with the sharp corner of the book he fell asleep reading – a hardbound copy of Keats' sonnets.
Sebastian could have dodged the blow easily, but he permits it to land. If it will assuage the child's anger infinitesimally, that is a good enough reason to let himself be abused.
"The young master will naturally be made sleepy by such poems that speak of drowsiness whilst listening to nightingales," Sebastian comments with an unflappable smile, gently taking the book from Ciel and returning it to its proper place on one of the shelves. Everything in the manor, down to the titles of the books, is as it was before the latest devastation. Sebastian saw to that.
"Shall I help you upstairs to your room if you are too sleepy to negotiate the stairs, Young Master?" Sebastian asks.
"Don't touch me," Ciel mutters.
The other servants are still awake, cleaning up at the end of the day and also tidying up after themselves in the servants' kitchen, where they have just had their own dinner. The lights in the house are still on, so Sebastian does not need to illumine the earl's way with the candelabra.
Ciel enters the bedroom and closes the door in Sebastian's face. Although he is plainly unwanted in there, the butler waits outside the door because the boy is sleepy, and the water may not be as hot, or as cooled, as he might want it, considering how it was left unattended while he had to fetch him from the library.
Sebastian is not summoned into the room or bathroom, even after fifteen minutes of waiting. But he stands outside nonetheless, because his instincts advise him that he should.
True enough, he soon detects the sound of a slip, a little splutter, and at once he is standing in the bathroom unbidden, lifting a choking Ciel out of the water.
"Master must not fall asleep in the bath when no one is there to watch over him," Sebastian says quietly, wrapping the startled boy in a thick towel before he can voice a protest, and lifting him into his arms.
He is small for a thirteen-year-old. Perhaps he will grow. Perhaps not. He is not very much taller than when Sebastian first met him three years ago, a little thing covered in blood and bitterness, seeking destruction and vengeance.
Ciel does not struggle in Sebastian's arms. Perhaps he thinks it would be undignified to do so when the whole length of his arms and half his legs are trapped inside the towel. But he does not lean into the butler either. He lets himself be borne to the bedside, where he is set down on his feet on the warm, woven wool carpet.
Sebastian unwraps the towel and pats the young master's body dry, paying special attention to the hair and ears, which have suffered an unintended dunking in the bathwater. The eye-patch is soaked too, so it has to come off to be taken away for cleaning and drying, and a fresh one placed on the bedside table for use in the morning.
Totally bare of the least scrap of clothing now, Ciel's flesh is pale, starting to form goosebumps now that the heat from the bath is wearing off. Sebastian notes that the child seems none the worse for six days of lacking his butler's usual level of attentive care. He is clean, looks as well-fed as may be expected of one so naturally skinny, and his flesh is of a healthy colour compared with its sickly pallor during some of the worst times of the past.
The butler checks him over fleetingly, not intending to let the child see that he is inspecting him, seconds before he buttons his nightshirt over his slender frame and helps him step into his undergarments.
"Don't think I didn't see you looking," Ciel speaks in a monotone, his deep-blue eyes unreadable even to the devil.
"Even one such as I must look at what he is doing from time to time, so that nightshirts do not end up buttoned over the young master's face, and to be aware of the master's state of health," Sebastian responds easily.
"And this is the kind of thing you chose to do more of," Ciel remarks uninterestedly, before turning away and climbing into his bed, whose cover Sebastian has already turned down for him.
"Good night, Young Master," Sebastian says, tucking the warm, quilted cover securely around the child. "Call me if you require anything."
"Get the hell out of my bedroom."