The thing that was his master seldom strays from under several layers of thick blankets, when it isn’t soaking itself in scalding hot baths. It mimes drinking tea from empty cups, it chokes and gags on sweets that no doubt taste like ash in its mouth, then demands fresh made immediately all the same.
(“You’re trying to poison me, aren’t you? What kind of butler could call this rubbish food?”
“Make another, and do it right. That’s an order.”
“If I may, young master, your sense of taste—”
“So it’s my fault your cooking tastes like dirt, is it? You’re worthless. Isn’t that right, Sebastian? Absolutely worthless.”
“...Yes, my lord.”)
He reassures it when it asks it of him, tells it that soon it will be used to not being able to feel heat, that soon it will forget the taste of the foods it once enjoyed so. As he does not lie, he tells it in as much detail as he can muster about how the human body tears itself apart when it contains something that is no longer human. What was once Ciel Phantomhive stares at him with its sharp red eyes for a long while, then, but puts on a good show of being unmoved.
Privately, he wonders when this insidious thing will try to kill itself. Wretched souls that share its fate always do, at one point or another.
Even if he had not been eternally chained into a contract that could never be fulfilled, it would be a sickening waste of a soul. Had the spider gotten his way, at least then the meal he’d spent years cultivating would have sated someone who could have appreciated his efforts, but this—
That She and the Trancy brat had managed to make that outcome seem palatable by comparison would have impressed him, were he an outsider. To be the victim of their schemes makes him very much wish he had not let Her die so easily. A thousand human lifetimes of agony delivered upon Her would not satisfy the rage set alight by this.
But that is not to be. He draws another bath and rather childishly ponders baking rat poison into the florentines he’s been ordered to make, just to make himself feel better. The thing that was his master might not even know the difference.
They’ve taken temporary residence in an abandoned country house far from the now masterless Phantomhive estate. It was ravaged by fire, of course. It could be nothing else, to serve this purpose.
Only about half of the building even has a roof to keep out the elements, but it’s amenable enough with a bit of work. There is a bed and a bath and a kitchen and a chair in front of a fireplace, and that is all that’s really necessary.
The thing that was his master lasts a week before it begins crying in the night. The first time, he feels a faint stab of concern despite himself, because he had spent three long years training himself to produce the appropriate emotional response to his child-master’s moments of weakness, but in an instant that feeling is quashed.
What quietly sobs behind the charred bedroom door is no longer a child, after all. He no longer needs artfully balance his contradictory agendas, both encouraging his master’s soul to steep and simmer in darkness and providing just enough of a tether to the light to keep an irreparably damaged human child from falling headlong into despair. No—he need not fret over its peace of mind any more than he is ordered to. A demon may suffer any grief or agony of mind and survive all of it, because it is simply impossible to do otherwise.
He feels quite aware of that, now, and does not bother to check on his-once master while its cries punctuate his preparations for the next morning. Its pride does not permit it to call for him, and for another fortnight they pass their nights such.
Perhaps expectedly, it bends first.
“I can’t sleep,” it announces one night, padding barefoot out into the study, buried in blankets as usual. Its eyes are blue for the moment, the contract mark catching a glint of violet light as he approaches the fire; to most observers it would look unmistakably like a human. A sickly, pitiable human, pale and white-lipped with blackened nails, blue eyes reddened around the rims by tears it would not admit to shedding, all wrapped up in a tiny, shivering body. Surely charitable souls would be moved to tears at the sight of such a thing, not knowing that they look upon a creature of Hell.
Something twists in him at that.
“I can’t sleep,” it repeats, knocking the duster out of his hands. It’s rather a lost cause keeping the ruined house clean, of course, but relinquishing himself to habit keeps him from going mad with whichever of boredom or blind fury would claim him first.
“Demons do not require sleep, my lord,” he says blandly as he picks up the duster, but that is apparently the wrong answer. His once-master’s eyes flash scarlet and it snatches the beleaguered implement away again, brandishing it as though it intends to disembowel him with it. He almost wishes it would try, just for the novelty of it.
“I don’t care about that.” It tugs its blankets around its trembling shoulders and stares at him, as if daring him to blink first. He does not yield. “I’m tired and I wish to sleep, but I can’t. Fix it.”
He abandons the duster and goes to stoke the fire instead. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, young master.”
“You just like to see me suffer, don’t you? I order you to fix it!”
“My lord,” he snaps, and find he doesn’t much care that his tone is unbecoming of a butler, “there are things that are not within my power, however you may demand them. I suggest you learn to bear with it.”
“Just who do you think you’re talking to?” it grumbles, but its eyes fade back to blue. It drops wearily into an armchair and only levels a mild glare at him as it does so.
This does not feel like a victory.
“Are you going to offer me milk and honey?” it asks, after a minute. He retrieves the duster from its now slack hand and sets it aside. Clearly he will not be doing chores unbothered for the remainder of the night.
“Would you like me to prepare some for you, young master?”
“No,” that which is not Ciel Phantomhive says, its eyes somewhere distant. “It would taste rotten anyway. I wanted—no, I was just wondering if you would ask.”
He can see, of course, as things begin to get worse. It does a reasonably valiant job of hiding its suffering, but its eyes are dull and unfocused, it cannot hold a teacup for the shaking of its hands, it runs a temperature that would easily kill a human, and it’s developed a hacking cough that tends to involve whatever handkerchief, blanket or shirt cuff is in easy reach ending up stained with blackish blood that is an utter nightmare to wash out.
These are all temporary things not worthy of concern. It acts as if it is not slowly being destroyed and rebuilt from the inside out, and still it cries through the sleepless nights without seeking out comfort. He takes pity enough to keep a
jug of water hot and clean towels at hand without being ordered; the wretched thing does not thank him, naturally, but it seems less prone to take its volatile moods out on him.
Or perhaps it simply lacks the energy to have its tantrums at all. He minds little either way, being briefly free of that thing’s maddening, unreasonable demands. The days begin to follow a rather peaceful routine—bring the water, change the sheets, stoke the fire, et cetera, et cetera, repeat on the hour, carry on otherwise free from disruption. Sometimes it will ask for music, or a book or game, and when it cannot manage even that—
“Read me the papers again,” comes the hoarse voice from under the covers, and he sets aside the bloodied towels he’d been clearing away with a dutiful “as you wish.”
The study holds a stack of month-old newspapers, all amassed in the first few days after their disappearance from public life. His once-master is rather obsessed with its own ‘death’—it planned it out to the most meticulous detail when it was still revelling in the euphoria of its new immortality. He watched it write its will—the manor house to the servants, most of its fortune and personal belongings to the Midfords, the rest to charity—followed by a lengthy ‘suicide note’ that disclosed enough of the wicked history of both the Phantomhives and the monarchy they served that it seemed rather unlikely the false Queen and the Yard would ever allow it to see the light of day. Then it was simply a matter of following his orders, of course to the letter, and by the time the servants received word of the packages their master’s acquaintances had been given, the carriage they’d seen off was abandoned by the coast, nothing left for the Yard to find but the note and the blood dyeing the carriage’s insides and painting a clear crimson path over the white cliff face.
The papers drank up the ‘tragic murder-suicide,’ of course, and his once-master clung to every wild story like gold. It would have been unbecoming of Ciel Phantomhive to dwell on such macabre things, but the thing that now wore his face brought such disgrace on the proper way of things by simply existing that it was rather beyond reproach.
It had even deigned to leave one loose end glaringly untied.
“Would you prefer to hear today’s news, my lord?” He lets himself smirk at its troubled look as he returns with the day’s paper in hand, which only has it furrowing its brow further, eyes darkening to red. “Marquess Midford has announced the young Lady Elizabeth’s engagement to Earl—”
That the unfortunate thing before him has the strength to fling the water jug at him with such force comes as a surprise.
“You—” It’s wracked by another coughing fit before it can say what, exactly, it believes him to be (though he can easily enough fill in the blank with any number of choice phrases he has had leveled at him during its many bouts of vitriol) and when it surfaces again, hands and chin streaked black, its eyes are alight. “What right do you have to mock your master, Sebastian?”
“It was not my intention to mock, my lord.” To infuriate, to drive to such an outburst, to cast aside its temporary guise of vulnerability and recall this fiend now gazing at him through a child’s eyes—his intentions were thus. Such kindnesses as their verbal sparring of old are no longer part of his butler’s aesthetic. “As the young Lady was not disposed of as intended, I simply thought my lord may wish to hear of what she has done with your mercy.”
“As if you spare a thought for what I may wish anymore.” It falls back against its pillows with eyes turned skyward, red fire fading again to a blue so empty without the light of a singular human soul glimmering behind it.
For a fleeting moment, the figure that lays before him resembles nothing so much as a soulless corpse.
Like it had on the island. In the trunk, in the forest, in Her arms. And are that and this not one and the same, in all the ways that matter?
No—now it still speaks.
“It wasn’t merciful. To her family, one could argue, but not to her. Not to Elizabeth.” Its tone tells him that it is not speaking to itself, that he is not at liberty to carry on with his chores and leave it to its reminisces. Naturally. “That she will live through this loss, left to bear the burden of my disgrace—married off that her family might save face after the way I shamed them—I believe it may well be the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.”
He stoops to pick up the shattered pieces of ceramic that it might not see his face. “I should think not, my lord.”
“I let her live so that I would not have to bear the memory of killing her. Betraying the trust and love she gave me so completely when she couldn’t have possibly understood why. I didn’t want her to die.” He catches its eye again just as its expression hardens into a scowl. “I suppose you wouldn’t understand that, would you, Sebastian?”
He smiles at that. His once-master seems surprised at the sight.
“No, my lord.”
It sighs and averts its eyes, wiping its mouth with the back of its hand. It’s an exercise in futility; blood simply ends up in more places than it already was. What a job cleaning that will be.
“Some demon I’m turning out to be.” It coughs weakly again, this time dryly. It is a luckier creature than it knows, if the worst of its maladies have already passed. “My mouth still waters to recall the scent of her soul, and yet I’m sickened to admit it. Even to you.”
He can see its gaze grow distant again, off in some long ago time that will someday be no more than a blurred, meaningless dream.
“I’ve never known hunger like this before,” it says, with a crack in its voice, and he knows its moods well enough to know that it will raise hell the moment it is able, as though to erase its weakness. That is one thing that hasn’t changed at all. “I feel like I’m ready to die or go mad from starvation, because of one life I couldn’t take when I had the chance. I dare say you understand that.”
For once, he blinks first.
“My lord, I understand that completely.”
“Get back to work,” his once-master mutters and turns on its side, as if to sleep. To sleep, to dream. Perhaps dreams of a time when darling Elizabeth was the bride Ciel Phantomhive would one day treasure, and not the only spun-sugar confection that would ever satisfy that child’s sweet tooth again. Or perhaps of a less kind time, of a cage, of even the men who defiled the boy within it forcing porridge down his throat to keep him from starving to death. “I won’t have you standing around all day.”
“Of course, sir.”
He’s attended to the jug, the towels and nearly finished with the stain on the floor before its voice interrupts him from his work one more time.
“I pity you,” the thing that was Ciel Phantomhive says. “You won’t hear me admit it again, but I do.”
The Phantomhive servants had always known that when the young master took ill, they could expect him to be on the warpath the moment he was out of bed, just to prove he no longer needed to be fretted over.
There are no servants anymore, no young master in the ways that matter, but it is, at least, convenient to know that that which now wears the young master’s face is still occasionally predictable.
“Would that I could bring back Alois Trancy and kill him myself,” it gravely confides to the dish it’s destroyed in the process of stabbing the piece of gatêau au chocolat it had ordered made. He truly cannot comprehend why it still bothers, beyond the apparent misery it must endure whenever it goes half a day without giving some maddening order or another.
“Is Alois Trancy at fault for the dish, my lord? Or for the gatêau not pleasing you?” The dish is an unfortunate loss; even the intact part of the house is not well-stocked and large quantities of china and silverware are somewhat conspicuous things to find their way to an abandoned property. They’ll be out of china altogether by the time the creature learns its own new strength.
He recalls Finnian and Meyrin, unbidden, and quickly carries on as if he did not.
“Alois Trancy is bloody well responsible for everything, the way I see it. He may as well have thrown ruining my dessert into that contract of his, for how much he seemed to want to spoil everything just to satisfy his—his indecent fantasies!” The chair clatters to the ground as his once-master stands, brandishing the fork in its hand the way he might if he were about to stab someone in the jugular with it. The table loudly skids a few inches when it pushes off from it. “I hate to say I agree with that vulgar demon he fancied so much. A naive child who sells his soul to a demon and expects to be loved for it isn’t even worthy of having his soul devoured.
“He thought I had everything he wanted. That I was so happy. If he’d just opened his eyes and seen he was demanding something your kind—our kind doesn’t have to give—that no sane person would want—” The ruined dish goes flying from the table with a crash of further shattering china. And the gatêau, too; it seems intent on making a proper fit out of this. For once, however, he finds himself not yet tired of it, even as he hurries to take care of the mess. “He claimed he and I were the same, but he could have never understood the meaning of the deal when he’d convinced himself he lived in some wonderful dream rather than on borrowed time that would demand payment. That he made me what I am now is proof enough that sacrifice meant nothing to him.”
It makes a quiet noise that might have been the aborted beginnings of either a sob or a laugh.
“I could think of few better ways to punish me than to spit in the face of everything I was, I have to give him that. What does it mean to have sold my soul if my soul has no value, after all? My soul is worthless, my sacrifice is worthless, my revenge, this contract, everything—he ruined everything. I was played for a fool and he and that demon ruined everything!”
“‘There are two types of people in the world: those who steal and those who are stolen from.’ Were those not your words, young master?” He glances at it over his shoulder as he discards the remnants of the china, and this time he can tell that it laughs. Brief and bitter. Laced with a hint of resignation that would have been disappointing had it come from the human Ciel Phantomhive.
“Yes, I suppose that’s it. They just stole my life from me, that’s all. Nothing more and nothing less.” It sighs and sets down the fork, turning away. “Be honest with me, Sebastian.”
He finds himself raising his eyebrows quite reflexively. “You know I do not lie, my lord.”
“That isn’t the same as telling the truth. Not always.” His once-master seems to brace itself before it speaks again; he can see the way its shoulders tense the same as they always did. “If there were a way to fulfill the contract, you would tell me.”
He blinks, twice.
“Yes, my lord.”
“If you could kill me in this state without violating the contract, you would do it.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Then there’s something that hasn’t gone mad in the world.” His once-master is already nearly out the door to the hall before it adds, almost as an afterthought, “I’m going to bed.”
And, quite unhappy with how puzzled it has left him, he does the unthinkable and follows without being asked.
“Young master, if I may—”
“You may not,” it interrupts, a familiar, if subdued, spark of indignation in its blue eyes. “I’m tired and I’m going to bed. I don’t want to be disturbed until I call for you.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
By the time he lifts his head from the obligatory bow, the tiny figure has all but vanished down the dark hallway. He watches the child-demon go with the strangest feeling of having come out the loser of a long and tiresome battle, even though he has done no such thing.
“‘Following the tragic and shocking death of the Earl of Phantomhive, Ciel Phantomhive, aged thirteen years, in August of this year, the deceased’s uncle, Marquess Midford, has made generous donations to many of the causes the late Earl famously supported. The Ciel Phantomhive Children’s Hospital, situated in the former Phantomhive manor, owes its completion to the Midford family and will begin operating in full in the coming month under the direction of Chairman of the Board Albert Tanaka. The construction site has frequently been visited by the Marquess’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Midford, and her fiancé—’”
A crumpled ball of newsprint sails by his head with surprising momentum, missing the fireplace by less than a foot. He abandons the empty teapot to smooth it out and take a look.
A photograph shows all four Midfords—Lady Elizabeth still in full mourning attire—a well-dressed Tanaka, and a pale young man with whom he can claim no familiarity in front of the manor house, now bearing a large sign in the courtyard reading, sure enough, ‘The Ciel Phantomhive Children’s Hospital.’ The unknown man is at the young Lady’s arm, and he is the only one smiling.
“Burn it, Sebastian,” comes the order like clockwork.
“As you wish.” The paper wrinkles and splits and blackens in the flames, until there is nothing left of it at all.
“I’d like to say I didn’t need a reminder that I’m not going back to that life.” There’s a muffled yawn from the bed behind him; the fledgling demon lying there had learned how to sleep again. “I expected they’d distance themselves. They did distance themselves, at first. Now—they’re moving on, but no one’s about to forget the tragic Earl Phantomhive. Not now that they’ve gone and done something like this.”
He can hear the rustle of sheets a mere instant before his once-master is out of bed and by the fireside. The superhuman speed of a demon comes naturally, then, now that the death throes of the human body have passed. He can see the firelight reflecting off blue eyes, giving the contract seal a flickering lilac shine.
“—Conservation of mass.”
He raises an eyebrow. “What of it, young master?”
“The paper in the fire. It’s turned to ash and smoke, but it hasn’t ceased to exist. Even in a state where it’s no longer capable of serving its original purpose, it can’t be destroyed completely. I doubt it pities itself for no longer being a newspaper when it’s become fuel for a fire instead.”
“I had not thought you to pay so much attention your science lessons, young master,” he says, though the words make themselves strangely difficult to form.
“‘If there’s so much as a thread to cling to, I’ll take hold and fight my way back.’ My soul may be ash and smoke, but I’m still alive. Not as Vincent and Rachel’s son, or as the Earl of Phantomhive, but as myself. And my life—and what I gave to keep that life—still has meaning as long as I fight for it. Whatever may have been taken from
me, to lose, or not to lose, my will to live is entirely within my power.
“I cannot give you what you’re owed, but I will not do you the discourtesy of wasting what I was given by letting myself be swallowed by despair. For as long as you are ‘Sebastian’—until I am gone from this world for good—I will earn my right to exist. Do you understand?”
If it’s just the firelight giving the impression of a soul behind those eyes, the illusion is uncanny. For an instant, he would not hate to forget all his anger. For an instant, he believes he could.
Sebastian Michaelis drops to one knee with a willingness he has not felt in months and gives the only answer there is to give his master.
“Yes, my lord.”