Singing in the Silence
By Kimberly T.
The Phantomhive servants are all loyal and sworn to defend the estate and their master from any and all enemies... even enemies they can't actually see.
Not my first fanfic by any means, but my first Kuroshitsuji/Black Butler fanfic, based mostly on the manga that my daughter recently got me addicted to. Just a Gen piece of not-quite-fluff, while I extrapolate on the few times we've seen Ciel suffering flashbacks, and try to get a feel for the servants and the household.
Phantomhive Manor is the primary residence of Earl Ciel Phantomhive, who is quite notable for, among other things, being the youngest man to have ever been titled as an earl; Queen Victoria performed the ceremony of investiture for him at the tender age of ten. The reason for investiture at such a young age was tragically simple: after Ciel's parents were murdered, there were no others left of the Phantomhive line.
Phantomhive Manor has a total of twenty-seven rooms, though most of them are currently unused, with dust covers draped over the furnishings. For the home of a British nobleman, the manor is quite sparsely populated, occupied by just a handful of servants and their lone master.
Sounds drift through the air occasionally, as the servants go about their duties; the rustle of fabric as linens are folded or spread out on the dining table, the clatter and tinkling of assorted utensils being wielded in the kitchen, the snip-snip of the gardener's shears, the murmur of the butler's voice as he directs the other servants or inquires as to his master's wishes, the master's voice as he gives the butler orders or talks on the telephone with his business interests. But for the most part, the manor is silent.
But sometimes, the manor goes too silent... just before someone bursts into song.
Typically, servants working above stairs do not speak unless they are being spoken to, and certainly never sing out loud. A good servant is generally considered to be one who does his or her duties well, but so quietly and unobtrusively that the master hardly aware that they're there.
But while bringing in flowers for decorating the table, Finnian the gardener will suddenly start singing in a voice bright with cheer, "There was a man lived in the moon, lived in the moon, lived in the moon! There was a man lived in the moon, and his name was Aiken Drum. And he played upon a ladle, a ladle, a ladle! And he played upon a ladle, and his name was Aiken Drum!"
"Aiken Drum" is Finny's favorite song, and he changes the verses describing the various things Aiken is made of nearly every time he sings it. If he sings of Aiken Drum's coat being made of good roast beef and his buttons of broccoli, then the Earl Phantomhive, who is often nearby when the singing begins, will growl at him by just the second or third verse to shut up and take his singing somewhere else. But if his song describes the man in the moon as being made of an assortment of sweets and pastries from head to toe, then sometimes the young master will let him continue on for up to a dozen verses before declaring that enough is enough.
The maid Meirin's speaking voice is a bit shrill, and her cockney accent sometimes grates on the ears. But while changing the tablecloth on the table in the earl's sitting room, wielding her feather duster on the shelves or doing other housekeeping tasks, she will sometimes start singing in a surprisingly melodic voice. She sings children's songs, lilting rhymes that speak of innocent fun and joy in life, and the one she sings most often begins with, "Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements. Bull's eyes and targets, say the bells of St. Margret's. Brickbats and tiles, say the bells of St. Giles'. Halfpence and farthings, say the bells of St. Martin's..."
Depending on his mood at the moment, sometime the young earl will stop her after just a few lines, and sometimes he'll let her continue on to the final bell in the classic nursery rhyme, the great bell of Bow. But Meirin never finishes "Oranges and Lemons" with the traditional verse of "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chop chop chop chop, the last man's dead!" Instead, she finishes with what should be the first verse, "Gay go up and gay go down, to ring the bells of London town!"
As the founder and president of Funtom Toy Company, the Earl Phantomhive is normally a stickler for getting things right, particularly when it comes to children's activities. But he's never quite bothered to correct her on how to sing that song properly.
It's rare indeed for Baldroy the chef to venture out of his kitchen to serve the earl in person; usually the butler Sebastian will pass on the young master's instructions. But on occasions when the butler is away on some errand for the Queen's Watchdog, Bard will dust the flour off his apron and stub out his cigarette before reporting to the earl's study to discuss the day's menu and learn if they're expecting guests for any meal. Those occasions don't come often, so it's very rare for Bard to be found singing above stairs.
But there was one time when the veteran soldier started singing in a gruff baritone, "In a canyon, in a cavern, excavating for a mine! Lived a miner, Forty-Niner, and his daughter Clementine! Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine..." Once the earl started actually paying attention to the lyrics, he wore an expression of incredulity, and when it was over he declared it to be the most ridiculous tragedy he'd ever heard of, obviously something that only an American could dream up. But by strange coincidence, the next fluffy bunny produced by the Funtom Toy Company, a bunny with a gingham dress and exceptionally large feet, was named 'Clementine'.
At still another time, Bard suddenly started crooning, "Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play! Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day." It is another uniquely American song, generally unknown to the British, so the master listened with interest as the chef sang all six verses of "My Western Home."
Officially, Tanaka is the Phantomhive house steward. But in reality, virtually all those duties are handled by the current butler Sebastian, and the Japanese-British citizen is unofficially retired after decades of faithful service as the prior butler to the Phantomhive family. He spends most of his time in the servant quarters, enjoying his tea and the company of the other servants as they work. But if Sebastian is away on some mission required by the young master or otherwise unavailable, Tanaka quietly steps in to perform the duties of a butler again.
On those infrequent occasions, Tanaka has sometimes been heard humming; the melodies are not of nursery rhymes or folk songs but classical music, spritely or quietly beautiful pieces such as Mozart's "Ein Kleine Nachtmusik" or Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". When the young master notices the humming, it tends to bring a small smile to his lips that he is entirely unaware of unless someone points it out (which of course Tanaka never does; it's not a servant's place after all.)
Recently, a new sound was added to the manor's daily repertoire; the sounds of snakes slithering across the floor and furnishings while hunting mice and other vermin or merely exploring their new environment, while their mostly-human companion Snake performed his duties as a footman.
In the month of October, the city of London was being hit by a rather peculiar crime wave; dogs and cats were disappearing from people's homes on nearly a daily basis. Being used to investigating far more serious crimes of murder, kidnapping and illegal drug trafficking, the Queen's Watchdog had been taken aback to receive a request from Her Majesty to look into the matter. Perhaps it was because the two most popular breeds being "pet-napped" were Persian cats and Pomeranian dogs, and the Queen had a pet Pomeranian named Marco. But regardless of reason, the Queen had oh-so-sweetly commanded, and her loyal Watchdog obeyed.
On that particularly cold and dreary day, Sebastian had been sent into London to gather information from several distraught pet owners; going on his own rather than in accompaniment of Earl Phantomhive, because several homes had cats in them and the earl was terribly allergic to cats. With the butler away, the master was being served tea in his study by his footman instead.
Snake hadn't been particularly nervous about serving tea for the earl; Black had drilled him several times on how to perform the duty properly. Emily and Oscar were behaving themselves, keeping to their perches on his shoulders instead of slithering onto the tea trolley, and the earl was quite accustomed to them anyway. The finger sandwiches being served with the tea had been cut into the proper shapes, and he'd blended, rinsed and then steeped the tea leaves exactly as Black had shown him how to do it. The tea was still at the right temperature for serving, and he'd announced the blend of the day just as the butler had said to announce it as well.
Then why wasn't the earl interested in the tea? He was just sitting there silently, staring at... something on the bookshelves across the room, Snake guessed, though a quick glance in that direction didn't reveal anything out of the ordinary. And breathing hard, like he'd run into the room and sat down just a few seconds before Snake had come in with the tea trolley.
Snake stood frozen in place, wondering what to do next; Black had told him quite clearly that after stating the tea blend, he should wait for the earl's nod of acknowledgment before serving it. But what should he do if Smile-sorry, Earl Phantomhive; first impressions were hard to let go of-didn't give him the nod at all? Serve it anyway before it went cold, or take it back to the kitchen and try again?
Maybe he didn't hear you, Oscar suggested. Let's say it again.
So he did, in his usual quiet tone. "Today's tea is Fortnum and Mason's Darjeeling second flush. Says Oscar." And then he waited in silence, but the earl still didn't acknowledge the tea.
Don't say this aloud, but something's very wrong, Emily said abruptly, rising up in distress. Smile's scent says he's terrified of something!
What's the threat?! Oscar said while rearing and twisting with his tongue flicking out, tasting the air around them to scent either large predators or really large stomping beasts. Snake spun about and stared hard at the bookshelves, but he still couldn't see anything even remotely threatening about them.
I don't know, but he smells as scared as... as the night we faced those humans that had been made into horrible-tasting Bizarre Dolls! Emily declared, as they all shuddered in unison at the memory.
Snakes were normally rather timid creatures, but his friends had learned to be brave as well as clever over the years spent in his company. Guard Smile while I check it out up close, Oscar said as he dropped from Snake's shoulder to the floor and slithered at top speed towards the bookcase. Emily coiled and prepared to strike while Snake stepped between the earl and the bookcase with his hands balled into fists, wondering if maybe the threat was behind it instead. But hadn't his friends all agreed that the only secret passage in the house big enough for a two-legs to use, was the one connecting the earl's bedroom closet with the downstairs linens closet? Maybe it wasn't anything human, then...
Oscar had just finished checking out the floor both in front and behind the bookcase -nothing but wall there, no cracks to indicate a hidden door - and was climbing its fancy molding up to the second shelf, when the door to the study opened and Finny walked in with some flowers from the greenhouse, cut and arranged in a vase. "Good afternoon, master! I brought you some-eh?"
Snake saw Finny look around the room in bewilderment, at Snake and his friends as they tried to protect the earl from an unknown threat, and at the master still sitting there silently petrified... and then his face brightened. Whatever it was, Finny had figured it out!
Finny was strong, stronger than even Black, and pretty hard to injure too. So Snake figured that Finny would charge the bookcase and break it into splinters as well as whatever was lurking inside it, and hurriedly told Oscar to back away and let Finny do the destroying. (And inwardly prayed that Finny wouldn't destroy too many books in the process; Smile let Snake borrow those precious books one at a time, to read poetry to his friends in his off hours.)
So both Snake and his companions were flabbergasted when, instead of turning into a one-man army of destruction, Finny turned into a minstrel. Since when did attacking an enemy consist of singing loudly about somebody named Aiken Drum, who lived in the moon and played with a ladle? ...And was apparently made entirely of food?
"...his toes were made of strawberries, strawberries, strawberries! His toes were made of strawberries, and his name was Aiken Drum! And he played upon a ladle, a ladle, a ladle! And he played upon a ladle, and his name was Aiken Drum!" Finny sang while Oscar warily slithered near enough to catch his scent, decided that yes, that really was their friend and he didn't smell rabid, and gave the serpentine equivalent of a shrug before climbing back up to his usual perch. "His shoes were made of plum puddings, plum puddings, plum puddings! His shoes were made of plum puddings, and his name was Aiken Drum! And he played upon a ladle, a ladle, a ladle! And he played upon a ladle, and his name was Aiken Drum!"
"Enough, Finny," Smile said wearily, causing Snake to spin around again in surprise, that turned rapidly into relief; he was back to his usual grumpy self! "I'm already hungry enough for tea. What's the blend, Snake?"
"I... ah... the tea, yes... Today's tea is Fortnum and Mason's Darjeeling second flush. Says Emily," Snake finally managed to say. Smile gave the nod, so he served it, and thankfully it hadn't cooled too much while... while that oddness was going on. And yes, Snake knew very well what it meant for him, one who talked with and for snakes, to be calling something odd...
Finny put the new vase of flowers on the stand by the window and took away the old one while Snake was still serving the master, so he didn't have a chance to ask the gardener about what had happened. And Smile's exceptionally grumpy expression as he took his tea, glaring as if he was daring Snake to ask him something, told Snake that it would really be better if he just kept his mouth shut. So he firmly ignored his companions' questions, served the tea with all the decorum Black had drilled into him, and left with the tea trolley as soon as he was able.
That evening, the five Phantomhive servants who were home gathered in the kitchen to prepare dinner for the master together. Finny had just brought up more potatoes from the root cellar and was handing them to Snake for peeling when the footman spoke hesitantly. "Finny... earlier, in the study, what was the singing about? Asks Emily."
Meirin paused in polishing the silver when she heard that, and gave the gardener a worried look. "You had to sing for the master, Finny?"
"Just once, at teatime, when I was putting new flowers in the study," Finny hastened to assure her. "And 'Aiken Drum' worked like a treat, just like always!"
Despite Finny's reassurance, Meirin still looked worried as she set down the fork she'd been polishing and got to her feet. "Oh, the young master picked a poor day to send Sebastian away, he did... Maybe I should check on him now? I could say I left my feather duster in the study..."
"'S'pose it can't hurt, if it's just for a few minutes," Bard muttered while chopping vegetables for the side dish. "He'll probably be fine, though, and this was just a one-off. Don't go marching in there already singing 'Oranges and Lemons', because I can almost guarantee he won't thank you for it." Sitting at the table with his ubiquitous cup of tea, Tanaka chuckled softly in agreement.
Snake said almost plaintively, "Will someone please explain about the singing? Asks Emily. And what it has to do with... with whatever was threatening the master earlier? Asks Oscar."
That got everyone looking at the footman with mild surprise. "Sebastian didn't talk to you about singing when you were hired on?" Bard asked. "Huh, wonder why; maybe he figured it wouldn't be needed anymore. This is the first time in nearly a year, after all."
"Oh, how to explain this?" Meirin fretted. "We don't want you thinking less of the master, no we don't!"
"Well, hell, why should he? He's already seen the master doing a helluva lot worse, at the same time we did; that time in Germany," Bard said with a thoughtful drag on his ever-present cigarette.
Snake and all his companions twitched a little, in pained remembrance. That had been a horrible time... Poor Smile had spent days in blind darkness and wracked with incredible burning pain, suffering from the 'curse' of the werewolves' miasma, which had actually been some kind of poison gas. Black had been exposed to the stuff too, but he'd recovered without any problems at all, just like he'd been unaffected by venom when Snake had set all his friends on him just before agreeing to serve Smile as a footman. Black was obviously a scientific super-human, like Finny but with more control over his strength, and it seemed like nothing could affect him at all. But poor Smile was strictly human, and had suffered so much...
And everyone had become painfully aware that for all the power he commanded as an earl and as the Queen's Watchdog, for all his normal confidence and poise and dominating personality, Ciel Phantomhive was physically still just a child. A little boy who'd been scared out of his mind by all the pain he was in with red swollen blisters over most of his skin, screaming and panicking if anyone other than Finny touched him, hiding under the bedclothes and wailing that he wanted to go home...
Everyone had done their best to comfort and reassure Smile in those horrible days, and fretted over when he'd get better. But Snake didn't think anyone had actually thought poorly of Smile for it; Snake knew he himself sure hadn't. Because there had been a time, years before Doll and Joker and the rest had come for him and released him from that circus cage... A dark and terrible time when the one who hadn't called himself 'Snake' yet had screamed and cried for days on end. Cried while begging for his captors and tormentors to stop, begged to be set free so he could go home…
Snake hated remembering those horrible days, but oh, did he understand the fear and sheer misery when someone else was going through a similar time. So, like everyone else, he'd fretted and waited and done everything helpful that he could think of, and felt nothing but relief when Smile had finally come out of his shock and started acting like a young lord again.
Snake was drawn from his memories back to the present time when Bard continued, "That was straight-up the worst any of us had ever seen him, ever. Normally he never gets anything close to that bad, okay? But every once in a while, well… sometimes, the master has a bad moment or two."
"Let Meirin tell it!" Finny urged. "She was the first one to sing for him, so it's only fair!"
So Meirin sat back down, set aside the polishing cloth, took a deep breath and told them:
She'd been hired on as the maid only six weeks ago; six weeks of trying hard to do her duties as Sebastian explained them, but making mistake after mistake and sometimes even breaking things in her clumsiness. She thought for sure she'd be tossed out into the cold after her last accident had resulted in a whole stack of dishes falling to the floor and breaking, but Sebastian, after he scolded her, just sighed and told her to carry on, and to dust the library while he swept up the mess.
But today... today was a good day! Here it was almost noon, and she hadn't broken anything yet! And the room she'd just finished dusting really did look cleaner now than when she'd started. She was finally getting a good grasp on how to be a housemaid! Meirin was so happy as she walked in and started dusting the earl's study, that she started singing one of the few songs she knew by heart; a nursery rhyme her Mum had taught her before she died. "Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clements.
Bull's eyes and targets, Say the bells of St. Margret's.
Brickbats and tiles, Say the bells of St. Giles'.
Halfpence and farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin's.
Pancakes and fritters, Say the bells of St. Peter's.
Two sticks and an apple, Say the bells of Whitechapel.
Pokers and tongs, Say the bells of St. John's.
Kettles and pans, Say the bells of-Oh!" she gasped, because she'd turned towards the desk, prepared to dust it, and realized the master was sitting there staring at her. He'd been so quiet, she hadn't even realized he was in the room!
"Master, I'm so sorry!" Meirin gasped, peering at him and trying to make out the expression on his face at this close range. Sebastian had told her to always, always ask before coming in to clean a room that the young master was occupying. "W-would you like me to leave? Or to continue dusting?"
"Ah, carry on," the young earl said, his voice sounding odd; almost a little shaky, as if he'd just had a bad scare and was trying to get over it. But it wasn't Meirin's place to judge such matters about the master, Sebastian had made that clear too, so the maid curtseyed and resumed dusting. After a moment the young earl said, much more quietly, "You can carry on singing too, if you like. For the moment, I...I'm not bothered by it."
Meirin couldn't help blushing at his words, which were the closest she'd had to a real compliment since... since as long as she could remember, really! (Except for compliments on her marksmanship at long distances, but she'd gotten so many of them over the years that they really didn't count anymore.) So she cleared her throat self-consciously, and then as she started dusting the next shelf, she picked up where she'd left off with, "Kettles and pans, Say the bells of St. Ann's.
Old Father Baldpate, Say the slow bells of Aldgate.
You owe me ten shillings, Say the bells of St. Helen's.
When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch.
Pray when will that be? Say the bells of Stepney."
And then suddenly Meirin's voice was joined by another's, a man's voice-oooohh, such a singing voice! As rich as dark chocolate, it was, even better than Sebastian's speaking tones. The butler walked into the study with a parcel of some sort under his arm while singing, "I'm sure I don't know, Says the great bell of Bow."
Both startled and entranced by his singing voice, Meirin fell silent as Sebastian, sounding very amused, sang the nursery rhyme's final verse, "Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to-"
"Shut it, Sebastian!" the young master suddenly snapped, sounding furious.
Sebastian instantly shut up. Meirin couldn't clearly make out his expression; her new eyeglasses were so very helpful in helping her see things that were closer than twenty yards, but she knew her improved vision at close range still wasn't as good as most people's unaided eyes. Even so, she thought the butler looked quite startled for a moment, before his expression went smoothly blank.
After a few moments of utter silence, the young master muttered uncomfortably, "Don't you know it's rude to just join in without asking when someone else is singing?"
Sebastian bowed as he said, "My sincere apologies, my lord. And my apologies to you as well, Meirin; I did not mean to offend."
After all the troubles she'd caused in the past few weeks, someone was apologizing to her?! "Oh, I-I-I don't mind, no I don't!" she stammered. She almost blurted out that she'd dearly love to sing a duet with him, such a wonderful man... but really, the only songs she knew by heart were nursery rhymes like 'Oranges and Lemons'; not suitable for a romantic duet.
Since the young master had told her to carry on dusting, Meirin tried to go back to her work, but she was now so flustered that it made her even clumsier than usual. After she knocked over five books and a bookend, a small statue of a hunting hound and a globe of the earth, Sebastian sighed aloud while cradling the globe he'd caught just inches from the floor, and suggested that Meirin could move on to another room and come back to finish the study later.
But less than half an hour later, while she was spreading a new tablecloth in the dining room, Sebastian came up to Meirin and told her he needed to talk to her for a few minutes, about what had happened earlier. "I left earlier to run an errand for the master, and I do not know what happened while I was gone, so please tell me: what happened to upset the young master so?"
"Um, uh... Well, he didn't seem to like it when you joined in singing with me," Meirin reluctantly told him, before she hastened to add, "Though I'm sure it's not that he doesn't like your voice, Mister Sebastian! You have such a lovely singing voice, you do!"
But Sebastian just shook his head impatiently and said, "That's not what I'm referring to. I'm embarrassed to say I did not notice the master's emotional state when I first came in, because I was preoccupied with amusement at the idea of you entertaining the young master by singing nursery rhymes for him; he so rarely permits himself such childish indulgences. But when he ordered me to stop, and I took a good look at him... Meirin, he looked quite terribly shaken. Improving more by the moment, with color visibly returning to his cheeks, but at some point not long before then, they must have been as white as that tablecloth you just laid out. Did you happen to see or hear what caused that?"
Meirin was embarrassed to say, "I'm so sorry, but I did not, Mister Sebastian. The truth is, when I walked into the study to dust it, at first I didn't even notice the earl was sitting at his desk! He was so quiet, not making any noise at all; even a mouse would squeak more loudly."
Sebastian frowned, and rubbed his chin in thought. "I wonder..."
But he didn't tell Meirin what he was wondering about; instead he just went back to his own duties, still rubbing his chin, and leaving the maid to return to her work.
Three days later, Meirin was dusting in the foyer when Sebastian suddenly appeared behind her, startling her as he said abruptly, "Meirin, I need you to come with me." And with that, he picked her up and carried her in his arms, as if she was his beloved bride, through the great hall and up the stairs to the first floor. He was moving so quickly, and somehow so quietly up the marble steps, that for a moment she thought they were flying.
She was so overwhelmed by the romantic gesture that she was equally startled when Sebastian suddenly set her down just outside the master's study, and she almost fell over instead of standing on her own two feet. Sebastian sighed a little as he steadied her until she found her footing, and then whispered to her, "Silently count to ten, and then start singing that nursery rhyme you sang two days ago. Then come in after singing the first two verses, and begin dusting the shelves." And then he vanished though the partially open door to the master's study without a further word.
Completely bewildered, she nonetheless did what she was told; she silently counted to ten, and then started singing 'Oranges and Lemons.' And as she sang the third verse, "Brickbats and tiles, Say the bells of St. Giles," she walked slowly into the study, and headed straight for the shelves on the right side of the room. She glanced to the left as she raised her duster, and saw the young master sitting there at his desk, with Sebastian standing silently off to one side. But since Sebastian had told her to come in and work, she didn't pause to ask the master's permission before she began cleaning.
Just as she finished the line for the bells of Whitechapel, the young master spoke up, sounding rather annoyed. "Meirin, didn't Sebastian tell you, you're to ask permission before cleaning any room I happen to be in?" The annoyance became much sharper as he scolded, "Sebastian, you're slacking in your work of instructing the other servants!"
"My deepest apologies, young master," Sebastian promptly said with a deep bow. "Meirin, the master is quite right; in the normal course of duties, you must ask the master's permission before intruding. And if he declines to give permission, you will have to rearrange the order of rooms for cleaning that day, and attend to that particular room later."
Meirin had always had trouble seeing things up close, so she'd learned to keep a sharp ear for conversation as a result; she clearly heard that emphasis on the 'normal' course of duties. She very much wanted to ask why today wasn't normal, but something in Sebastian's tone said that right now was not the time to ask.
So she curtseyed, apologized for intruding and left to go back to dusting in the foyer, while behind her she heard the young master say accusingly to Sebastian, "What was the reason for that emphasis on normal course of duties? Sebastian, what are you up to?"
"Master?" Sebastian said, sounding quite puzzled, and so innocent that an angel might pat him on the head at any moment. "I'm serving your elevenses, with an Assam tea as you requested, and almond biscuits fresh from the oven; are they not to your liking?"
Later that evening, in the servants' quarters, Sebastian sat with the others at the dinner table, not really to eat—they hardly ever saw him eating—but to once more instruct the newest servant, Finnian, on how to use common tableware. It wasn't easy, as Finnian didn't know his own strength at all; yesterday he'd broken two forks and three knives, and flattened a spoon with just his lips. He likely would have broken the plate and cup as well, but Sebastian had found or made them out of quarter-inch-thick steel for Finnian's use.
Finnian was a real puzzle, he was. It wasn't just that he was so strong, because Sebastian was much stronger than normal too, nor the fact that he'd come to the manor bald as an egg (Meirin figured that Sebastian had shaved him, as an easy way to rid the lad of head lice.) It was the way that he looked to be at least as old as the young master, but still had the innocence of a babe in arms. When he'd showed up with the young master and Sebastian last week, he'd been amazed by everything. Glancing outside through an upstairs window, Meirin had seen him going just wild when delight when a simple sparrow had flown overhead. And the first time Sebastian had sat him at the table for dinner, he'd poked at the spoon and asked curiously, "What sort of weapon is this?" Granted that she'd seen Sebastian make deadly weapons out of knives and forks, but really, to not even know what a spoon was used for?
Meirin's Mum had been nice when she wasn't drinking, though that wasn't very often. But the old woman who'd lived with them for awhile before everything had gone up in flames—Oh dear, she couldn't remember the woman's name now; just that she had been mean and cruel to everyone, but especially children. Meirin could still remember one saying the old bat had been fond of repeating; "Children should be raised in a barrel and fed through the bunghole! And when they come of age, then you decide whether to crack the barrel open, or drive the bung in and roll 'em out to sea!"
There seemed to be an unspoken rule at Phantomhive Manor: Don't ask people about their own pasts, and they won't ask you about yours. A rule that Meirin appreciated, yes she did! So she wasn't going to ask where Finnian had come from, but as she looked at him fumbling with a knife and fork now, she couldn't help wondering if he really had been raised in a barrel, and what they'd fed him through the bunghole to make him so strong.
Sebastian began the instruction with "Watch my hands, Finnian; do you see how I'm holding the fork with the tines pointing down and outwards? Now carefully pick up and hold your fork the same way… Well done. Now the knife; observe how I keep my index finger extended, and resting lightly along the back of the blade near the base. Yes, like that. Now, very gently touch your meat pie with the fork, to hold it steady. No, not in the center of the pie; near the corner. See? Now, we're going to cut off a bite-sized piece of the pie for eating. Just beyond where you put the fork into the pie, very gently insert your knife… no, not straight down; at an angle. See? Yes, like that. Now, very gently draw the knife back and forth, to cut off-"
Sitting on the other side of the table, far out of arm's reach, Meirin and Tanaka both flinched hard as they heard a horrid screeching noise for a split-second, followed by a snap.
"I'm sorreee!" Finnian wailed as he held up the snapped-off handle of the knife, the blade of it still partially embedded in the steel plate.
Sebastian sighed heavily before plucking the blade out of the plate, reaching over to his left, and picking up another knife from the small pile of cutlery that he'd set there before dinner. "We'll try again. It simply won't do to have someone continually cutting up your food for you for the rest of your days, let alone eating with your fingers like a primitive cave-dweller, so you must master this skill eventually…"
Two knives and a fork later, Finnian finally managed to eat all of his meat pie and his vegetables. To reward him for never once resorting to eating with his fingers again, Sebastian served him a slice of the chocolate gateau that had been made and served for the master's dessert earlier. And then another slice of the gateau, for successfully eating the first slice without destroying another fork.
After dinner and after all the dishes were washed and put away, Sebastian checked his pocket watch and declared, "Fifteen minutes before time to go upstairs and begin drawing the master's evening bath. Dear me, I hardly know what to do with so much free time."
Meirin didn't know if he was serious about that or not. But since he didn't have to dash off to do anything right that minute, she nervously swallowed but asked the question she'd been aching to ask for hours: "Mister Sebastian, if—if you don't mind, would you please tell me why you told me to come in and sing for the master earlier?"
Sebastian blinked at her in surprise before telling her, "I was testing a theory, Meirin."
That answer just confused her even more. She asked plaintively, "About my singing? Or about the nursery rhyme?" What on earth would either of them have to do with science-words like 'testing' and 'theory'? She was pretty sure that was scientist-talk, though she'd never talked with a scientist before (assassinating them on her old masters' orders didn't count; she'd been much too far away for conversation when she'd shot them dead.)
"At the moment I would say it's about the two together, and my theory concerns their potential use in this household." Then he flipped open his pocket watch again, and smiled. "Just enough time for a brief visit." And with that, he started striding off towards the kitchen door to the herb garden, though who or what he would be visiting in the garden in the evening was beyond her.
"But-but…" Meirin started to protest, but then fell miserably silent; she didn't even know the right question to ask anymore.
Tanaka had been sitting and quietly enjoying his tea as usual, but now he spoke up in soothing tones. "Meirin, if it concerns either the wellbeing of the young master whom we all serve, or your own wellbeing, then I am sure our butler will tell you in due course. If it does not, then simply trust Sebastian and follow his directions; I am sure he has a purpose in mind."
Meirin still wasn't quite sure what to make of the elderly servant; he really didn't do much that she could see, though he sometimes helped her out when she made mistakes, and he always deferred to Sebastian as the boss below stairs—but if he spoke up for any reason, Sebastian listened. Sure enough, Sebastian paused in the doorway as Tanaka quietly spoke, and didn't continue outside until after he finished.
Early every morning, Sebastian held a brief meeting for the servants just outside the kitchen, to let them know if anything concerning the manor would be happening that day. Meirin knew that sometimes nobles had fancy parties with lots of guests, and privately dreaded hearing that the young master would be hosting one of those sorts of parties when she was still so awful at her duties, but so far that hadn't happened.
The morning after Meirin had been told to sing, Sebastian glanced at his pocket watch and then gave Finnian a disapproving frown when the new boy showed up for the meeting not only five minutes late, but wearing only his trousers. Meirin blushed and hid her face in her hands, but couldn't resist peeking a bit as Finnian miserably held out the tattered remains of his shirt, socks and shoes, all of which he'd torn to shreds while trying to put on, and all of which Sebastian accepted with another longsuffering sigh and a stern, "Finnian, I asked you if you felt sure you could dress yourself this morning…"
Tanaka chuckled a little, before he put a comforting hand on Finnian's shoulder as he offered, "I can get him properly dressed for gardening today, and assist him for the next few mornings until he learns better control."
Sebastian looked both surprised and pleased by the offer. "Thank you, Tanaka; please take him to get dressed now, as today's schedule for tending the gardens and landscape is unchanged from yesterday's. But do be careful when directing him to move this way and that… and Finnian, you must be careful as well. The master will be very displeased if you accidentally injure Tanaka," as he leveled a burning glare at the boy that let him know Sebastian would be very displeased with him as well.
Finnian gulped before promising earnestly that he'd be very careful indeed, and the elderly man led the boy back towards the male servants' living quarters. Then Sebastian turned to Meirin and said, "And while they are gone and we have some time before breakfast, this is an opportune time to talk to you about yesterday's incident."
He directed her to sit down at the kitchen table, and sat opposite her as he began, "While I am not about to start divulging anything about our young master's past prior to the day you arrived here, you must surely be aware that he has had a large amount of pain and tragedy in his life already. Boys his age normally have at least one parent still living and caring for them, and they normally do not need to keep one eye covered with an eyepatch."
Meirin nodded sadly in acknowledgment. The young master had made it plain by his words and actions that he didn't want anyone's pity, but she still felt sympathy for him.
"Suffice it to say that he has endured a great deal of hardship in the past, of the sort that has been known to kill lesser men. And every once in a while, he suffers… I suppose it could be termed 'involuntary traumatic recall'. The memories of what he endured will suddenly rise up and overwhelm him, to the point that he loses awareness of his surroundings."
"Oh, I've seen that before, in other people," Meirin said with a start of recognition. She hadn't known the fancy words for it back then, but another one of her old master's slaves had gotten like that sometimes, and had to be shaken out of it. Eventually the master had gotten fed up with his shortcomings, and just had him shot instead of shaken. "Does shaking his shoulder work to bring him back?"
Sebastian gave her a wry look. "It does, but unfortunately that is a very ill-advised course of action in his case. The memories are so very terrible, that he is still terrified for the first few instants after becoming aware of his surroundings… and these days, the master is always armed with a loaded pistol."
"Oh… Oh!" as Meirin gave another start of recognition. "Would it be a Webley .45 Bulldog revolver? I was sure I heard one of those being fired in the house two weeks ago, while I was polishing the candlesticks." She'd thought at the time that it was Sebastian's own weapon, as it had a hefty recoil for a snub-nosed revolver, more than most eleven-year-old boys could handle... but then, the master was certainly not like most eleven-year-old boys.
Sebastian gave her a somewhat bemused look. "I shouldn't be surprised that you're so extremely familiar with all types of firearms… Yes, it is a Webley Bulldog. And to banish that look of worry from your face, I clearly suffered no lasting injuries from the incident. You surely have noticed that I'm much faster than the average human, and therefore very quick at dodging. Thus far I have managed quite well when dealing with his issue, but it has occurred to me that now that we have other servants in the manor, some other method of bringing him back to reality must be found. The master would no doubt be highly embarrassed to find out he had shot other members of his own staff essentially by accident."
"It's quite embarrassing for the master even when he doesn't actually fire," Tanaka put in as he walked into the kitchen, with a properly dressed Finnian trailing behind him. "Are you perhaps discussing a solution that would help to prevent such a situation in the future?"
Sebastian turned to stare at Tanaka in surprise. "The master drew his weapon on you as well? When did this occur?"
"Mm, perhaps three months ago," Tanaka said as he crossed to the stove and began preparing a pot of tea. "I was serving him tea at the time; I believe he had sent you on an errand to London's East End that morning. But it was hardly the first time someone has drawn a weapon on me, nor the first time it was done unintentionally. I just kept talking to him calmly until he came fully back to himself and put it away." Normally a quietly merry fellow, the elderly man wore a concerned frown as he added, "I made no mention of it because he was so very mortified by what he'd done, and I had honestly thought that precise situation would not occur again. I did not realize until very recently that this is a recurring issue."
"Indeed it is," Sebastian said as he brought his hands together and steepled his fingers under his chin in thought. "However, Meirin may have inadvertently provided us with a solution, or rather the first steps of a solution. Four days ago, I came in to find the master looking rather shaken, as he often is after such an incident of involuntary traumatic recall, but calmly listening to our maid singing a nursery song while dusting the shelves nearby. But at the time I was unsure as to whether he had indeed had an incident, or whether Meirin's singing had drawn him out of it without any unfortunate side-effects."
He nodded to Meirin as he continued, "Yesterday, I had the opportunity to confirm my suspicions. I came in to serve his elevenses, and found him withdrawn into the midst of an episode once more. Rather than rouse him myself, I fetched Meirin and had her start singing just outside the door. I was quite pleased to note that the music roused him from his memories in an easier manner than usual; he did not even reach for his gun that time. However, the experiment was only a partial success; the master himself was not pleased to find Meirin singing and dusting in his presence again and scolded the both of us, her for doing so and myself for not preventing her from doing so. Which is why the solution needs further exploring and refining."
Finnian had been listening quietly while they'd been talking, but now he spoke up, looking rather distressed. "I'm sorry, I'm trying very hard to understand, but I don't think I heard you correctly. The master doesn't want to shoot people, and Meirin helped him, but you turned it into an experiment about singing and now he's unhappy with you?"
Sebastian sighed a little before turning to Finnian and talking in a different language—German, Meirin thought, hearing the guttural vowels and harsh consonants. She had no idea Sebastian spoke other languages too; was there no end to his talents? ...And this added one more mystery to Finnian, too; the fact that Sebastian was explaining things to him to him in German meant that it was probably his mother tongue. So how did such an ignorant boy learn to speak English so well, without even a German accent?
Sebastian talked for nearly a full five minutes while Finnian listened thoughtfully, and then the boy asked a question of Sebastian in the same language. When Sebastian blinked at him in surprise, Finnian said something else, while expressively spreading his hands wide—and accidentally hitting the table from underneath, flipping it over.
Meirin yelped as she kicked backwards and fell out of her chair, trying to get out of the way, while Tanaka quickly rescued his teacup. Fortunately, Sebastian grabbed for the table before it fell completely over while Finnian blushed and stammered apologies, speaking in English again.
Carefully righting the table, Sebastian said for the others' benefit, "Finnian has just suggested that we simply tell the master that someone will sing for him when they find him in such a state. That it would be unfair to keep him in the dark about our intentions, as he is plainly aware of his issue if currently unable to control it, just as Finnian is currently unable to properly control his strength."
"Our new gardener has made an excellent point," Tanaka said approvingly, while Finnian just beamed from ear to ear.
Sebastian still looked rather bemused, as though being so open and aboveboard with the master was something unusual for him-but that was silly, Meirin thought to herself, for how could the master trust him so much, even with his very life, if Sebastian wasn't honest with him nearly all the time? So Sebastian was probably just surprised that such a good suggestion had come from the newest member of the staff.
At the servants' dinner that evening, Sebastian told them all, "I spoke with the master about members of his staff singing nursery rhymes in his presence, as a gentle method of rousing him from being trapped in his memories, and he was reluctantly agreeable to the idea. After a bit of persuading," he added with a smile.
Tanaka just chuckled into his teacup, while Meirin thought Sebastian was a master of-what was that word, the opposite of exaggerating? Understating, she thought; it wasn't a word she'd ever used in conversation, but oh my did it apply to what Sebastian had said. Because while she'd been changing the linens in the master's bedroom, she'd heard a dreadful argument raging on in the study down the hall.
Well, mostly the master had been dreadfully upset, shouting at Sebastian; she'd been too far away to really make out the words, but most of them had sounded like insults. Sebastian's responses had been too low-voiced for her to really hear anything at all, but towards the end she had heard him say one word clearly enough: Tanaka. The master had stopped arguing shortly afterwards.
"However, he has made some stipulations to the practice," Sebastian continued. "The first, which is the most important, is that such singing must never be done while we have guests anywhere on the estate. You surely understand why; whether they are here at the behest of the Queen's Watchdog or at the behest of the owner of Funtom Company, the master must deal with them at an adult level, and it absolutely will not do for them to be audibly reminded of his physical age. There is also the fact that servants generally do not sing at all, or speak unless required to, while performing their duties above stairs; good servants are as silent as shadows. Again, it would not do for others to receive the impression that the Earl Phantomhive doesn't keep a firm hand on his household staff."
"But what will we do if the master gets stuck in his memories while guests are here?" Meirin asked worriedly.
"Then you must simply trust me to handle the issue with discretion," as Sebastian modestly indicated himself with a gloved hand. "If for some reason you come across the master in such a state, simply fetch me as discreetly as possibly from wherever I have gone to, which will surely be no further than the kitchen; the master does not send his butler out on errands when guests are at hand."
Tanaka nodded acceptance before asking, "And the other stipulations?"
"That you sing more than just "Oranges and Lemons" time and time again; as it happens, that his one of his favorite songs from when he was a child, and he does not want it ruined by sheer repetition. Further, only Meirin is allowed to sing that particular song at all," as he nodded to her. "I gathered that some lady important to him, perhaps his own dearly departed mother, used to sing that song for him; it may be he feels that only a woman's singing voice can do it justice."
"Which is why, Tanaka," as Sebastian turned to the elderly servant, "I must now turn to you for advice. What other nursery songs do you call the master liking when he was a child? We must apparently build a repertoire for these incidents." Tanaka chuckled as he paused with his teacup halfway to his lips, as he searched his memories of bygone days for knowledge to share with them all...
"Tanaka gave us a good list of songs, he did, and then we taught the best ones to Finny because he didn't know any songs at all," Meirin finished telling Snake.
"But I know lots of them now, and my favorite is 'Aiken Drum'," Finny put in enthusiastically. "Because it's got food in it, and because I can make it different every time I sing it!" Less cheerily, he added, "I tried singing it for him when we were alone a few times back in Germany, to see if it would bring him to himself back then, but it didn't help at all."
"Ah, Finny, that was a different scare he had back then, it was," Meirin said to comfort him. "We know you did all you could, but that awful werewolves' miasma had left him in so much pain, he was screaming at every touch!"
"Yeah; that maybe wasn't a case of him being trapped in the past so much as it was being trapped in the pain right there and then," Bard suggested, while Tanaka nodded gravely in agreement.
"Anyways, Snake, that's the deal. If one of us comes across the master just staring into space and not saying anything, we don't shout or shake him; we just back off a ways and sing a little, until he's back with us mentally," Bard added as he struck a match to light his next cigarette. "And just so he doesn't think we're watching him every minute like a bunch of nervous nannies, we sometimes sing above stairs even when we're not in the same room with him. The master allows it so long as there's no company on the estate, though you'll catch holy hell from Sebastian if you let out so much as a peep when there's a carriage even turning up the drive to the house."
"Is that why I heard you singing two weeks ago? Asks Emily," Snake said for both his companion and himself as he turned back to Meirin.
Meirin blushed a little as she shrugged and offered, "I was just keeping in practice, I was."
"So, what kind'a songs do you know?" Bard asked after a drag on his cigarette, while Emily and Oscar both ducked their heads away from the gray smoke and Snake had to remind himself not to flinch along with them (cigarettes, ugh, they all thought in unison.) "Meirin and Finny do British kids' rhymes, but I sing songs I learned back in the States; the master apparently likes the variety."
"Apparently so," Black spoke up, making everyone jump; they hadn't realized he was back from his mission for the master in London until that moment. The butler was frowning at them from the doorway as he said, "I'm assuming you would not be speaking to our footman of this particular practice unless you had good reason to do so."
"Mister Sebastian! The master had an incident in his study while Snake was trying to serve his tea. But it's okay, I was coming in with some fresh flowers, and he came back just fine for Aiken Drum!" Finny said brightly.
But that did not ease Black's frown in the slightest. "Hmm. After so long without an incident, I had thought we were done with that," he said mostly to himself. "What could have triggered it today? Perhaps something he read in the newspaper... Well," as he turned to Snake. "Now that you know of the practice and the reason for it, what children's songs do you know that might be of benefit, if the master has particular need of someone singing to rouse him again?"
"Well... we know a few. Says Emily," Snake said as he thoughtfully rubbed the softest scales under his chin. English wasn't his native tongue either; it was frankly easier for him to read it than speak it, though he'd gotten much better at it with the help of his companions. But he had picked up a few songs during his years in the circus, songs that his friends Freckles and Dagger had sometimes sung when they were feeling particularly merry. So he self-consciously cleared his throat, and then began singing, "Tom, he was a piper's son,
He learned to play when he was young-"
But then he stopped, because Black was holding up a hand to stop him and shaking his head slowly but emphatically. "Not that one; it has unfortunate associations for him now."
"It does? Since when?" Bard asked in surprise.
"Since recently," was all Black said, the heaviness of his tone a warning not to pry further. Then he looked at Snake expectantly again.
"Um... (ahem) London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down-"
Black stopped him again, looking pained. "Not that one either. Do you know of any more? If not, we'll have to have Meirin and Finny teach you a few that have worked in the past..."
Which is how, the next day as he brought the morning post into the house, Snake found himself practicing by singing under his breath, "Half a pound of tupenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Up and down the city road,
In and out the Eagle.
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel."
Bobbing in time with the melody, Wordsworth and Charlotte were quite pleased to be able to time the faint popping sound they could make with the Pop! of the refrain.
Peculiarly, Snake found himself both dreading and hoping for a time when he'd have to actually sing to bring Smile out of the sort of terrorized fugue he'd seen yesterday. Dreading because he had some idea of how awful and embarrassing that would be for Smile, but also hoping-just a little-because if it worked, it would be another thing he had in common with the other servants living here.
Yes, life as a Phantomhive servant was strange, even compared to living as a circus performer. But as Finny cheerfully waved to him with his left hand while carrying a six-foot-tall potted ficus tree with his right hand, as Bard set down a platter of beef that he'd accidentally burned for the snakes to eat (waste not, want not, Oscar thought gleefully as he wrapped his jaws around a big chunk), as Black smiled while tickling Charlotte under her chin in passing (ohhh, the black mamba loved that,) and as Smile accepted his conversations with snakes without blinking an eye... Yes, life here was good.