My apologies for keeping everyone waiting so very long for this final chapter/epilogue; a multitude of RL issues has taken away all but a fraction of the writing time I used to have every week, and just recently my daughter pushed me headfirst into another fandom (but so far I've had no Miraculous plot bunnies biting me, thankfully; I've already far too much on my plate.)
For those of you hoping for explicit sexytiems between Ciel and Sebastian in this chapter, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed, but I have no intention of increasing the maturity rating of this story beyond what it already is. There will someday be another story set in this 'verse that goes into more detail about such matters, but this final chapter moves in a different direction: 'round to home, at last.
Also, for those who may be interested in an entirely different resolution to Sebastian and Ciel's situation at the end of Aservis Roturier's story "Père Lachaise" (a.k.a. The One That Started It All), feel free to check out my story "Grim Duty".
Chapter 8: For Auld Lang Syne
Cats are well known as predators, but it must be admitted that they are rather small predators. When hunting in the same territory as larger predators, they must be cautious and watchful that they do not become prey themselves.
Ravens are well known as scavengers, but feeding on carrion is simply making good use of easily available meat; they are true predators in nature. When no dead animals are nearby, they will hunt for mice, small birds and yes, even smaller predators.
Therefore, it is not unheard of for a raven to swoop down with talons out, and carry off a kitten.
However, it is extremely unusual for the kitten being carried off, to do so riding in a beribboned and bejeweled fancy Easter basket. Also, to be surveying the landscape so far below its paws with a decidedly grumpy mien.
Are you comfortable in your accommodations, my lord? In raven form, with the basket handle securely clutched in his talons, the thoughts Sebastian projected down to Ciel were thoroughly laced with amusement. Is the bedding soft enough for your liking?
Ha. Ha. Very funny, Ciel sent back sourly, glaring up at him, though the effect was rather spoiled by how adorable he looked at the moment. My main concern right now is that anyone who sees me in this might well sicken and perish from a surfeit of cuteness. Is this over-decorated atrocity really the only small carrier that you could find for me? What about something simpler? Even a cheap muslin sack!
But if you were inside a sack, you wouldn't have such a delightful view of London below us, Sebastian retorted, somehow managing to convey a smirk even with a raven's beak as they approached Hyde Park, passing over a row of flower gardens in full bloom at the start of May. Besides, the basket's colorful decor perfectly complements your current attire.
Reminded of his 'attire', Ciel irritably pawed at the bright blue ribbon around his neck, tied in a big puffy bow at the back. Remind me to never wager on a horse race with you again. Or at least to ask what the penalty for losing will be first!
There was a time when you would have insisted on being adorned with bows, buttons or lace on your attire, my lord; I can remember quite clearly all those mornings I spent getting you dressed to the nines. Besides, considering who we're planning to visit now, an extra dash of cuteness may serve you well. I seem to recall that where the lady was concerned, there was no such thing as 'too cute'.
Ciel fell silent at that, but Sebastian didn't need to hear his projected thoughts to have a very good idea of what he was thinking about. It had been weighing rather heavily on his little lord's mind for the past month, since that night in a back alley of Florence, Italy:
Peering down over a rooftop at a man loitering in the alley below, Ciel whispered to Sebastian beside him, "That's the one?"
"Indeed," the elder demon assured him in the same near-silent murmur, though loud and clear to their demonic senses. "I've observed him off and on for the last six days, whenever I had time to spare from my current duties, and he meets all the criteria you gave me: fully adult, living alone with no one depending on him for support, and regularly engaging in criminal activities. And I can assure you that his soul is well-flavored with the attitudes that make a human quite palatable to our kind. It won't be as sweet as your last contracted meal, nor as filling since removal without a contract always leaves part of the soul behind. But he should make the equivalent of a small Cornish pasty for you; a savory snack to tide you over for the next few years, while we wait for my current contract to be completed."
Ciel nodded his acknowledgment of the information, but kept gazing down at the chosen prey. After a few moments of silence, Sebastian hinted rather pointedly, "There are currently no Grim Reapers in the vicinity to interfere with us..."
"I'd rather stalk him and wait until he falls asleep before taking his soul," Ciel said without tearing his eyes from their target. "I want just the soul this time, not his last thoughts while dying as an unwanted garnish to the meal."
"While he sleeps?" as Sebastian looked at him askance.
"What? Don't tell me there's a rule against doing it that way; you let Signora Giordano fall asleep before taking her soul!"
"Because that was also a lesson for you in how to properly harvest a contracted soul, a lesson best conducted without noisy distractions, and because I knew you had developed a bit of a soft spot for her situation despite yourself. I can assure you that Signor Rossi there," as Sebastian pointed to the man two stories below them who was still oblivious to their presence, "merits no such consideration from anyone; indeed, he prefers his own prey to be screaming! And for a demon, that last burst of terror and outrage from a human whose soul is being taken only enhances the flavor of the meal. Taking a soul completely unawares, would be rather akin to serving a rib roast without the beef au jus."
"How dreadfully dry," Ciel muttered with a roll of his eyes, before he became more serious. "I want to try it this way, Sebastian, for at least this first time."
"Very well," Sebastian acceded before falling silent. It was his dear little lord's first solo attempt at soul-taking, after all, so he supposed some hesitance in absorbing the full experience was understandable. Someday in the future, when Ciel had fully accepted and been completely educated in his new nature and neither was under contract, the two of them would go on a delightfully bloody rampage of feasting together; it had been centuries since Sebastian had done so, having tired of the sport, but he rather thought it would be more fun with company. However, that would have to wait at least a few more decades.
Sebastian's current contractor was currently sound asleep in a bed on the far side of the city, thanks to a soporific the demon had discreetly slipped into his evening meal, so he and Ciel were assured of having the entire night to themselves. If they ended up keeping vigil for hours while waiting for Ciel's next meal to go home and go to sleep, well, Sebastian could certainly think of some entertaining ways to pass the time...
As Ciel kept watch on his prey, Sebastian scooted a little closer to his dear one, and then used a slender finger to lightly brush his hair back and tuck it behind one ear. Ciel's breath quickened a bit, and his cheeks pinked as a hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, but that hint of a smile vanished almost immediately as he maintained his stare downwards into the alley.
All of which brought a wicked smile to Sebastian's face. So the youngster wanted to make a game of it once more, did he? A little contest to see how far the elder demon would have to go in this impromptu seduction, before the object of his attention lost track of his prey down below. It was a game they'd played before in their slow and sweet courtship over the last two years, though Sebastian was always careful to lose quickly whenever Ciel tried his hand at seduction (better for Ciel to think Sebastian was nigh-powerless against him, than for him to feel unwanted in even the slightest degree! The ancient demon would never forget the lessons of Paris.)
Sebastian began gently nibbling on his little lord's ear, which was usually a surefire way to get Ciel's full attention—ears were definitely an erotic point on his kitten—and in short order he had the demon-child quivering and his breath coming in little gasps, but his eyes still firmly glued to the alley below them.
He had just snaked his hand under Ciel's torso to begin slyly unbuttoning his shirt when the boy suddenly stiffened, tensing as he redoubled his focus on the alley below. Sebastian paused, turned slightly to follow Ciel's gaze, and saw that the meal-to-be was in the process of obtaining a potential victim of his own. Signor Rossi had leaned out of the alleyway just long enough to yank back into it a young woman dressed in varying shades of green, in a style that had become all the rage in the first years of the new century; a young woman whose foolish mistake of walking the streets of Florence at night without an escort would likely be her last.
The young woman's broad-brimmed hat went flying to one side as she struggled uselessly to free herself from her attacker's grip, revealing a pale terror-stricken face and long blonde ringlets—a foreigner, then, likely a tourist from England or even from further north in Europe. She gave a piercing shriek of panic—
And Ciel shouted "No!" before launching himself off the roof, leaping down into the alley two stories below. Sebastian gave a quiet huff of vexation at having their game interrupted, before leaping down after his impetuous little lord.
Moments later, Ciel was hurriedly wiping his bloodied claws on the handkerchief Sebastian had dropped into his hands, while asking in English if the young lady was all right; the young lady herself, pressed up against the alley wall, was staring at him in wordless shock; and Sebastian was off to one side with Rossi's still-bleeding corpse, discreetly salvaging the soul for Ciel's meal. The boy's impetuosity had ruined his own plan, but Sebastian was sure he'd find the soul more toothsome with the added garnish of terror.
Once he had the soul in his temporary possession, Sebastian cleared his throat to draw Ciel's attention. "She is unharmed, my lord, thanks to your timely intervention. But now we had best be on our way, before certain others arrive," as he cast a meaningful glance skyward.
Not desirous of crossing paths with a Grim Reaper, Ciel quickly followed him out of the alley, and once they were out of sight of the rescued young woman he accepted and supped on the snatched soul. But rather than express either appreciation for the flavor or disgust with their prey's last thoughts, Ciel kept glancing back the way they'd came, his expression distracted and troubled. And when Sebastian inquired what was on his mind, the demon-child finally confessed: "She reminded me of Lizzie."
Lady Elizabeth Midford, Ciel Phantomhive's cousin and betrothed back when he'd been human; Sebastian hadn't spared a thought for her since they'd left England. It was possible that Ciel had not done so either in the intervening years, but after that alleyway encounter there was no doubt that he was thinking of her afterwards. Indeed, that very night while they lay curled in bed together he asked hesitantly, "Could we make a trip to England, to see how she's doing now? I know it's been well over a decade, but..."
Sebastian shook his head firmly. "You know very well that so long as I'm under contract for a soul, I can make no long journeys away from my contractor without his express bidding," he reminded while displaying the soul-for-service contract symbol on the palm of his left hand, subtly different from their tutoring-for-companionship sigil on the back of that same hand. "And it would be extremely unwise to ask Signor Fellini for permission to journey there; his questions as to why would doubtless reveal our connection, and I will not risk exposing you to him! Not when he could order me to do you injury, or worse, and I'd have no choice but to comply," as he tried to kiss away Ciel's frown.
"I know; I just... she was my cousin, and my dearest friend as a child," Ciel sighed. "I can't help worrying about her, and wondering how she's doing now."
"As you pointed out, it's been well over a decade; doubtless she grieved for a while after your reported death before moving on, but by now she's surely married and raising a family of her own," Sebastian assured him before reluctantly rising from their shared bed to dress; his current contractor would be waking up soon. After dressing, he leaned back in for a final kiss, asking, "Will you need anything else before I go?"
"No, I'll be fine," Ciel said with a nod towards the study in their small home, with a stack of books next to the writing desk; for a challenge to pass the time, Ciel was teaching himself Russian, and translating the epic novel Anna Karenina from its native Russian to a dialect of Sicilian that he was already fluent in. Sebastian, who was already well-versed in Russian, would check his progress once a week as his contract duties allowed. After Ciel finished the translation, he intended to learn Mandarin Chinese, solely in order to translate War and Peace into that language.
So Sebastian left, dashing across Florence to arrive at the home of his current contractor Antonio Fellini just before the man awakened. The next few days passed in what had become the typical fashion; under Signor Fellini's direction Sebastian spied on and reported the dealings of several wealthy and powerful gentlemen, discreetly altered a few financial records stored in various places, and caused a fatal accident that could not possibly be traced back to his contractor, in Antonio Fellini's quest to become the richest and most powerful man in all of Italy.
The contract with Signor Fellini had begun just over eighteen months ago, and while this contractor wasn't quite as imaginative, clever, vicious, or unexpectedly kind at times as Ciel had been while human, he at least kept the contract fairly interesting by ordering that the money and influence be made by human means, if not entirely legal means. Sebastian made use of his skills in forgery and lock-picking on a near-daily basis, but the only supernatural abilities used regularly were his far superior senses of sight and hearing, his ability to blend into shadows and go unnoticed by mere mortals, and his demonic speed—and most of the time he only used that to slip away for brief trysts with Ciel before Fellini noticed his absence. Definitely a change from contracts in centuries past, when prior contractors with similar desires and less sophistication had simply ordered Sebastian to shower them with enough gold and treasures to buy entire kingdoms, and immediately slaughter all their enemies and rivals.
The showers-of-gold contracts tended to be brief, but in the end the souls were always poorly flavored and unsatisfying, and so he'd eschewed such easy pickings since long before the Renaissance. Antonio Fellini's soul wouldn't be quite the delightful feast that Ciel's would have been, but Sebastian still anticipated that it would be delicious and satisfy him for the next few decades. And in the meantime, his current master's ambitions and orders for fulfilling them gave the demon another way to pass the time, and an interesting conversation topic whenever he sneaked away to be with Ciel.
Yes, all went well for the next few days, until four nights after the alleyway encounter. Sebastian was watching over his master as Fellini hosted a high society gala, thinking somewhat wistfully of how much more grandly and smoothly the event would have flowed if he'd been put in charge of it, if Fellini had chosen to properly employ him as a butler and not just as a demonic spy/assassin/secret bodyguard, when a psychic cry startled him out of his semi-attentive reverie. Sebastian!
Ciel, what's wrong? Are you hurt?! Sebastian projected, already charging full-speed out the door and across the city towards their little villa. He'd shrouded the new house in avoidance wards just as powerful as the wards back in Aquileia, but what if Ciel had been caught outside the wards by a supernatural creature again?
...No, I'm not hurt. Sorry to disturb you; I just woke up from a nightmare, Ciel projected, with a definite sheepish tone to his thoughts.
Since he was already nearly there, Sebastian finished running to the villa and dashed inside, to give Ciel a comforting hug as the demonic youth rose out of bed, looking adorably rumpled. "What was the nightmare about? The Fire? The insane angel? That detestable Trancy?"
"No, none of them," muttered Ciel as he returned the hug. "I dreamed about Lizzie... That you were right, and her parents had married her off to someone else, but that someone," Ciel shuddered, but his lips peeled back to show his fangs as he finished, "was Viscount Druitt."
"Oh dear. That would be rather unfortunate for the young lady," Sebastian had to agree, remembering the viscount's proclivities for depravity, and his hobby of selling ensnared young women off to the highest bidders in underground auctions.
"He was forcing her to—" Ciel abruptly shook his head violently, refusing to finish that sentence, and then lifted his gaze to stare determinedly into his lover's eyes. "Sebastian, we must go back to England. I have to be sure she's safe!"
Sebastian sighed in resignation at that expression, knowing only too well that when the former Queen's Watchdog had that look in his eyes, nothing could dissuade him from his course of action; not raging hellhounds, royal decrees, nor Grim Reapers with scythes at the ready. "I understand, my lord... but the problem remains that I'm still under contract right now. I would not be able to accompany you to England and search for your Elizabeth unless Antonio Fellini could somehow be made to agree to it." And Fellini had no property holdings anywhere in Great Britain, nor even spoke a word of English that Sebastian was aware of; how would he persuade the human to let his demon servant go on such a journey that would be of no benefit to him?
"Well then, it's time to end that contract," Ciel said grimly, as one hand came up to start thoughtfully rubbing his chin
Sebastian frowned hard at him. "Ciel, do not tell me you expect me to forfeit the contract and give up that soul! Not after all I've—"
"No, not forfeit it," Ciel interrupted with a dismissive wave of his hand. "To complete it! The condition is, he has to become the richest and most powerful man in all of Italy, right? Tell me the exact words he used..."
Three weeks, thirty-seven skillfully forged documents, five clandestine meetings and twelve telephone calls later, Sebastian appeared in the dining room of Antonio Fellini just after the man had finished his dinner of il Maialino da latte del Cansentino and crème brulee di foie gras with a perfectly layered tiramisu. "Did you enjoy your last meal, Signor?" he asked, letting his fangs show in a wide smile. "Because it is time for me to enjoy mine."
"W-what?! No, you're wrong, our contract's not done yet!" Fellini sputtered. "You promised me I'd become the richest and most powerful man in all of Italy! I know I'm the richest man in all of Florence now, but not all of Italy!"
"Oh, but you are," Sebastian purred. "As of five minutes ago, and for at least the next few hours, you are indeed the richest and most powerful man in all of Italy. Because five minutes ago, the last of the seventeen men you had acknowledged as richer and more powerful than you crossed the national border and temporarily left the country." Sebastian had been pleased and impressed by both Ciel's idea and his meticulous planning to make it all come together at the correct time. All the powerful men who had interests in expanding their business empires in other countries, had received meticulously forged invitations from wealthy nobles and businessmen all over Europe that Funtom Corporation had once done business with; invitations to visit their estates, with hints of creating business alliances. Ciel had even found a way to temporarily dislodge one rich and powerful man whose empire already spanned the globe; the Pope had received a supposed invitation from King Edward himself, to come to England to discuss relations between the Catholic church and the Anglican Church... with encouragement to bring a certain highly-placed cardinal with him.
In addition to those letters forged right down to the foreign postmarks, there had been telephone switchboard operators to bribe so that specific calls to other countries were instead routed to Ciel and Sebastian's villa, response letters to be plucked from the outgoing mail before reaching their destination, and myriad other minor details to handle with the utmost discretion... but it had paid off; all seventeen men had departed within the last 24 hours, the last one just a few minutes ago. Antonio was now, technically speaking, the richest and most powerful man in all of Italy. Sebastian was able to declare the contract with Antonio Fellini completed on that technicality, and collect on the delicious debt owed him.
Soon afterwards, the demon was sprawled loose-limbed on the roof of Fellini's grand mansion, looking up at the lovely full moon glowing in the sky while savoring the delectable soul he had just extracted from the corpse three floors below. Ahh, Fellini's outrage at having been cheated of his goal had been so strong, almost as strong as his terror in his final moments; the perfect balance of spices for flavoring the damned!
Footsteps sounded on the roof, and then Ciel was standing there looking down at him and tsking, "So much blood and gore, you've even got it in your hair. I never took you for a messy eater..."
"Indulge me, little one," Sebastian yawned with a lazy little wave at him, not moving otherwise. "It's been far too long since I was able to properly enjoy feasting on a contracted soul..."
Ciel gave a lopsided smile as he conceded the point. "Very well, I'll let you sleep this off and clean up later. But by this time tomorrow, I want us to be heading for England!"
The next day, flush with power from the complete soul he'd devoured, Sebastian had created a 'dimensional pocket' to store the few belongings from their home that Ciel wanted to keep; then they'd sold the villa to a buyer that Ciel had already lined up while awaiting the contract's completion, and used the money to buy passage for both of them back to England.
Queen Victoria (to be more accurate, the imposter who'd been installed on her throne after that wretched business with the angel had concluded) had finally passed on and passed the crown to King Edward, who had never had any dealings with the Queen's Watchdog. But Ciel still thought it unwise to appear on Britain's shores as himself, looking almost exactly the same as he had back in 1889; even if he no longer wore an eyepatch, his petite stature but arrogant posture and his rare hair coloring made him memorable and possibly recognizable to much of London, both High Society and the Underworld. So the moment the passenger steamer had docked, 'Edgar Corben' and 'Thomas Corben' had vanished from their cabin, and a large raven and tiny kitten had sneaked off the ship.
Now as they soared past Hyde Park, Sebastian projected to his little one, Do keep in mind that it has been nearly fifteen years since you've set foot in this land; you've been away longer than you were alive as a human. Much will have changed in the interim, my lord.
I can see that already, Ciel responded, looking from his basket down at the streets below. When they had left England, automobiles had been in existence but had been a rare sight indeed, with horse-drawn carriages still the normal mode of transportation for the upper classes; now the streets were clogged with motorcars, the drivers beeping their horns at one another and at the few hansoms and broughams still present and struggling to ply their trade. But assuming Viscount Druitt is still alive, he'll be at his London townhouse for the Season; we'll start our search for Elizabeth there.
And if she is indeed shackled to the man by marital bonds, my lord? Sebastian asked, though he already knew the answer.
Then we shall immediately free her by making her the widow Viscountess Druitt, Ciel instantly responded. Though in some manner she couldn't possibly be blamed for, of course. Then I'll look into improving her financial situation, if need be; she mustn't be left to suffer in any way.
Yes, my lord; we shall see your cousin well situated, Sebastian assured him as they approached the townhouse district where Viscount Druitt kept his residence, and had once hosted both a high-fashion gala and a human trafficking auction in the same evening.
But two blocks away, he balked in his flight as he sensed... We may have a complication; I'm sensing another demon ahead, one under contract.
His basket jostled, Ciel growled low in his throat (but he was so small, even that was utterly cute.) I knew that bastard would be more trouble! Doubtless he sacrificed who knows how many young girls in those horrible rituals in order to get his own demon... if he sacrificed my Lizzie, then no matter what that servant of his does, I'll make him pay in blood! He'll BEG for death before we're through with him!
Yes, my lord! Sebastian replied with his beak split in an avian grin, happy to see his kitten's bloodthirsty side showing. Though there was the matter of the other demon to deal with first... From what he could sense at a distance, its level of rank and power was far below his; really, it was scarcely more than an imp. But being contracted to a mortal soul gave a demon access to more power than it possessed on its own... Allow me to find a safe haven for you before confronting this other demon; with your combat training barely begun, it would be most unwise for you to engage it directly.
Ciel growled again, but had to concede the point. Very well, set me down at a good vantage point. That rooftop there should do, as he pointed down and to the right with a soft gray paw.
Sebastian set him down in the basket on the rooftop, then shifted to his winged-humanoid form before stepping into the shadow cast by a chimney, and stepping out in the alley behind the Druitt townhouse. As he did so, he projected his intentions to the other demon, the closest their kind usually came to a common courtesy: Here to investigate, not to fight (yet.)
The other demon instantly appeared to confront him, with both apprehension and rage written all over its features (decidedly canine features, resembling a small terrier; uggh.) MY SOUL! GO FIND YOUR OWN!
Sebastian spoke aloud and with thinly-disguised derision, "I've no need for your viscount's soul tonight; I've just dined on one of frankly superior quality." He'd assessed many years ago that Viscount Druitt had pride, lust, greed and cruelty enough for any demon's tastes, but was ultimately such a shallow soul that he wouldn't make more than a toothsome appetizer. "Rather, I'm here to see to the lady of the house, if there is one."
But rather than settle back in reassurance, the dog-demon instantly sprung at him, snarling even more frantically, MINE!
Sebastian frowned in puzzled thought, even as he smoothly dodged, grabbed the other demon by the throat in passing and used its own momentum to spin and slam it into the nearest wall. Then from the wall to the ground, and after pistoning its head into the cobblestones a few dozen times over the next few seconds, he lifted it back up to look into what was now a bloody mess of a face as he asked, "Pardon me, but am I to understand that you are not contracted with the Viscount Druitt, but rather with his wife?"
Ciel had learned the value of patience long before becoming a demon, but so long as he was worried over the fate of his sweet cousin Lizzie, patience was particularly difficult to cultivate. He'd hopped out of the basket and shifted to human form as soon as Sebastian had left, and had progressed to pacing back and forth while waiting for his mentor-partner to reappear. The rooftop Sebastian had set him on had unfortunately proven to be just out of range for even his demonic hearing to reach the viscount's townhouse. He'd heard faint sounds of a scuffle right after Sebastian had left, most likely Sebastian encountering that other demon he'd mentioned, but after that he'd heard nothing that he could definitely say came from the townhouse; the air was filled with the sounds of Londoners going about their daily business, all unaware of the supernatural creatures in their midst.
Finally, just when Ciel was about to throw caution to the winds and start leaping across rooftops to find out what was taking Sebastian so long, the elder demon reappeared with a definite smirk on his face. "My lord, you should be pleased to know that your nightmare was unfounded; the lady Elizabeth is not married to Viscount Druitt."
"Well, that's a relief," Ciel admitted with a sigh. But it didn't end his concerns about her fate; he asked, "Did you find out who she is married to, where she is now?"
"The demon I spoke to, had no knowledge of her; his mistress has never made her acquaintance." Sebastian's smirk widened. "Yes, you heard me correctly; his mistress. The demon is not contracted with Druitt, but with his wife! His second wife, to be more accurate; it seems his first wife died four years ago under apparently mysterious circumstances, mere days after 'Lady Amaranth' caught the viscount's eye at a duchess's grand ball."
"Mysterious circumstances," Ciel snorted in derision, but his curiosity was piqued. "The demon servant; did he contract under a situation like yours with me? Druitt tried to summon a demon servant, but it chose to serve his wife instead?"
Sebastian smiled. "Oh, not at all; from what I was told, 'Lady Amaranth' started out as a resident of Whitechapel! After contracting with the demon she chose to remake herself as a fine lady, the belle of London's High Society. She reportedly had originally set her mind and servant on marrying a duke, but when the viscount pressed his suit so ardently... I dare say that Aleister Chamber has met his match indeed; he still engages in depravities when he can, but only with his wife's express permission, when she chooses to watch. Otherwise, if he steps so much as a toe out of line, she has her demon punish him, in what I'm sure he thinks is a most cruel manner. Would you like to see what our dear viscount looks like now?" And without waiting for an answer, Sebastian conjured a magic mirror between his hands and held it out to face Ciel.
Ciel gaped at the image in the mirror, and found himself giggling uncontrollably. "H-he's gone as bald as an egg!"
"Indeed. And note the proliferation of wrinkles known as 'crow's feet' around his eyes... Quite a blow for someone so obsessed with beauty, is it not? He apparently wears makeup and a wig when out in public, but she once arranged for the wig to be 'accidentally' dislodged, in front of enough people that all of Society knows the truth. And when the mistress is displeased with him, a wart will appear somewhere on his features for the next week or two..."
Ciel grinned at the sight of that miserable viscount in the mirror, remarking, "If we made our presence known, he might well beg us for death after all... but that would be too kind to him. No, let him live out his days caged and dancing to someone else's tune," as he waved a hand dismissively, and Sebastian dispelled the mirror into thin aether once more. "However, that still leaves the matter of how Elizabeth is doing these days. The fact that the Druitt demon hasn't heard of her is worrisome; if his mistress is determined to be the toast of all Society, the lack of acquaintanceship means that Elizabeth hasn't been to the finer balls in London in recent years, when the daughter of a marquise should be invited to such events as a matter of course."
"If anyone knows how Lady Elizabeth fares these days, it would be the current Marquise Midford and his family," Sebastian suggested. "Shall we venture to Midford Hall in the countryside? With perhaps a detour on the way there, to Phantomhive Manor? I must confess to a desire to see how the estate is faring these days; if the servants are still in residence..."
"Or if they've burnt the place down by now, or blown it to Kingdom Come," Ciel finished for him, with a wry smile that quickly became a teasing one. "Why, Sebastian, are you feeling sentimental about the place where you used to work?"
"To a far lesser degree than you are feeling about your cousin, I assure you," Sebastian shot back. "I consider it more a matter of curiosity than sentiment," he added before he shifted into his raven form, hopped to the handle of the Easter basket and eyed Ciel meaningfully. Ciel huffed and frowned, but eventually reverted to his Russian Blue kitten form and hopped into the basket, and Sebastian launched into the sky with him again.
As they flew across the countryside, Ciel finally admitted, I'm curious about the servants and the manor too, but I'm not holding out any hope regarding what we're apt to find. Those poor fools were always better at destroying things than maintaining them; I truly would not be surprised to find the manor in ruins for a third time.
Sebastian caught the melancholy tone to Ciel's thoughts, and winced inwardly. Given what he recalled the demon-child saying when they'd left the manor fourteen years ago, telling the servants that they could burn it for all he cared and telling Sebastian that he felt as if a great burden had been lifted from him, the elder demon had thought that Ciel wouldn't care about the old estate one way or another. But it was plain now that it had all been a bluff and his little lord actually still cared about his old home, loathe as he was to admit it; Sebastian really should have known better. If it is in ruins, would you like me to restore it for a third time? he offered. I currently have the power to spare, and more.
...No; there'd be no point, Ciel finally said reluctantly. We can't stay here, or at least I can't stay here, wearing my own face; sooner or later someone would recognize me and ask questions. Maybe in forty or fifty years I could walk the streets of London again with no concerns, but not now. And with the last of the Phantomhives dead so far as the world knows, there's no point in restoring the manor once more.
I understand, my lord, Sebastian responded, projecting a note of apology with his thoughts. They flew on in silence for a few moments, until the elder demon decided that if they were going to see wreck and ruin that would put Ciel in a sorrowful mood, best to get it over with; accordingly, he increased his speed from the average for a mortal raven, to far above the best speed for a gyrfalcon. The basket his little lord was riding in was buffeted briskly, and Ciel yowled in protest as he hung on with all his claws and his pretty conveyance lost ribbons and paste jewels to the whistling winds, but Sebastian kept his pace and they crossed the country miles in seconds instead of hours, until the site of the old Phantomhive estate showed over the treetops.
—better slow down right this instant, or I swear I'll shave you as bald as Druitt! Ciel yelled in his head while clinging to the fragmenting wicker, I'll spray you from head to toe with dog urine, so no cat will come near you for a month! I'll—
No need for such threats, my little lord, Sebastian responded as he slowed to a normal raven's speed. We're about to arrive. And it appears as if your fears were unfounded in this instance as well, he added as the manor hove into view. The manor appears intact, at least on the exterior.
Ciel cautiously poked his head over the rim of the now-far-worse-for-wear basket, staring at the estate now visible past the forest below. Intact... and added to; that large building behind the stables wasn't there before!
Indeed not, Sebastian agreed as they flew over the estate in a wide circle, to see it from all sides. The mansion itself looked just as it had when they'd left fifteen years ago, but the grounds were very different; another greenhouse had been erected behind the kitchen, the vegetable garden beyond that had been expanded considerably and included several plants that neither of them could immediately identify, and the flower gardens that had once been devoted to roses now boasted a large variety of blooms in a riot of colors. And that large building that had been erected, dwarfing the stables next to it... what was its purpose? The large double doors on opposite sides of the building were big enough to accommodate not just a carriage but a loaded hay wagon. But those doors were painted white with intricate designs on them; the building seemed too fine to be a simple hay barn...
After completing their circle over the estate, Sebastian gently spiraled down to earth, setting the basket down just behind an ornate birdbath at the edge of the flower garden. He found himself surprisingly relieved to note that many of the rose bushes he'd tended so carefully in years past were still there, though they no longer dominated the garden; now the rosebushes competed for sunlight with shrubs of blooming forsythia, bougainvillea, lilacs and jasmine, while in front of them stretched flowerbeds devoted to tulips and orchids in nearly every color known to man.
Ciel hopped out of the basket, looked about them on the ground, then gathered himself and leaped for the top of the birdbath; its shallow bowl five feet off the ground, the fixture would have defeated most cats and certainly any mortal kitten, but the demon-child had learned to use supernatural strength in his familiar form and he cleared the edge easily. Sebastian fluttered up to perch beside him, and they spent the next few moments looking about in silence.
...Well, whoever lives here now has a decent gardener, at least, Ciel finally projected, his 'voice' a pained mutter in Sebastian's head. This would all be dead grass and scraggly weeds if Finny were in charge of it.
Sebastian chose not to respond that that, though he was in silent agreement; Finnian's overwhelming strength, excitable nature, and frank ignorance after spending most of his life captive in a laboratory, had caused plenty of disasters in the garden while they had been in residence. He asked instead, Are you curious to see the new residents?
...Mildly curious, Ciel admitted. Then he added with a note of scorn, Though I'm already quite sure of the type of family that's taken over the estate.
Oh? As Sebastian cocked his avian head at him. Such as?
The nouveau riche, of course. Even while we were still here, the merchant class was rising higher while the nobility declined. The Phantomhive estate was one of the few that were still thriving financially, thanks to Funtom Corporation and my business savvy; other noble domains were being portioned and sold off to whomever could afford them. No doubt the people within those walls bought Phantomhive Manor for a mere fraction of its true worth, and are as ignorant as pigs of all its grand and terrible history; all that I and my ancestors did as Watchdogs for the royal family, all that we sacrificed to keep the Underworld in check and keep the kings and queens happy as they gambled with our lives and souls. Ciel's mental tone grew more and more bitter as he went on, until he abruptly stood up with a disdainful hiss, the fur along his spine bristling. I've changed my mind, Sebastian; I've no desire to meet the new lackwits in residence. If your curiosity's satisfied, then let's-
It would seem that we're about to meet one of those residents, my lord, whether you desire to or not, Sebastian interrupted the youngster's rant, turning his head to look over his wing at a row of towering hollyhocks that were presently rustling suspiciously. I believe that a human child is hiding nearby... and I also believe that child is peering out of his hiding place at us with considerable curiosity. Never one to turn down a teaching moment, Sebastian flicked a wingtip in the right direction as he added, Can you sense the soul there? Remember your lessons... Ciel turned towards the hidden child as his tutor continued encouragingly, The fact that the child is focusing on us should make it even easier to sense him in return.
I sense someone... but you said 'him'; how can you tell it's a boy? Ciel asked, but the question was rendered moot when the hollyhocks parted, first enough to let a small human face peer out between them, and then further to let a child dressed in a boy's play clothes slide past.
The play clothes were normal enough, but the child himself was rather unusual for an Englishman; his skin was of a dark amber hue, but his untidy hair was sunny blonde. He rather resembles a photographic negative of your younger self, my lord, Sebastian mused as the boy crept forward, obviously trying not to spook them away.
Hmmph. If he goes for my tail, or my ears, I won't be held accountable for the damage to him, Ciel said irritably as he watched the boy approach through narrowed eyes; the demon-child had lost whatever fondness he'd had for human children, after a few unfortunate encounters with them while in his familiar form back in Italy.
If he tries anything untoward, it would be better to simply depart, rather than cause him to cry out and attract more attention to us, Sebastian chided.
Why are you concerned about attracting attention in these forms? It's not like anyone here is going to recognize us like this, Ciel retorted, while growling a warning for the human child to keep his distance. (But of course, a growl from a throat so small ended up being so weak and high-pitched that it was cute; Sebastian thought it endearing rather than warning.)
But just after the boy-demon projected that thought, they heard a man exclaim from a short distance away, "There you are, Master Ciel!"
?! !? as both demons spun around, to see a tall blond-haired man in gardening clothes and with a straw hat tied around his neck striding through the garden in their direction.
Is that... Finny?! Ciel exclaimed as they stared at him.
It would indeed appear to be Finnian, grown to adulthood... but do not ask me how he recognized you in feline form, my lord! Sebastian responded, just as astounded as his student.
"Young master, you made some people upset with you, when you just left like that without good reason," the adult Finnian chided gently as he drew closer.
Without good reason?! I'd just had my humanity ripped from my very being, and didn't have enough control back then to pass as normal anymore! If that's not a good enough reason, then I'd like to know what is! Ciel retorted with an indignant yowl.
That made Finnian pause for a moment, before resuming his walk a little more slowly, but with a smile slowly growing on his face. "Are you making new friends, young master?"
"Aren't they neat?!" a young voice piped up. Ciel's shoulders twitched in a hard flinch at the abrupt sound, and even Sebastian was slightly startled; their surprise at Finny's appearance and chiding had been enough to make them momentarily forget about the strange little boy behind them. "I've never seen a bird and a kitty be friends before! I'm going to ask Bābā if they can be my pets!"
Eyes darting between Finnian and the dark-skinned boy as he made the connection, Sebastian projected, It would seem that Finnian wasn't actually talking to you, my lord. It appears you have a namesake in that child!
"I've never seen a bird and a kitty be friends before either," Finnian said cheerfully. "But before you ask your father if they can be your pets, shouldn't we find out if they want to be your pets? I'll ask Bard to chop up some bits of meat for you to give them later. If they will let you feed them, that's a good sign that they'll stay here and maybe become pets," as he finally reached the birdbath, but stepped around it to sink to one knee in front of the child he'd called Ciel. "And your father might be more apt to say yes to new pets, young master, if you first prove to him that you're a responsible lad who deserves them. And how do you think you should do that?"
The little boy heaved a great sigh almost too large for his small body, before reciting in a sad singsong, "By going back in, sitting still and doing nothing at all for hours and hours, while that boring old man paints a boring old portrait of me."
"Yes, that would help show your maturity; very good!" Then Finnian began gently shepherding his charge away, saying, "Let me ask your mother if she'll allow me to stay in the room and read some of your books to you, while you're sitting for your portrait. Wouldn't that be a nice way to pass the time?" The little boy Ciel visibly perked up and agreed, and stopped dragging his feet as they headed back towards the mansion.
My word, I do believe Finnian has gained a modicum of wisdom in the last fifteen years, Sebastian projected with mild astonishment. The saying was that with age comes wisdom, but over the millennia Sebastian had witnessed countless humans becoming physically mature while entirely lacking that benefit. But the former Phantomhive gardener was apparently managing that child better than most of the governesses he'd met in the last century!
But rather than marvel at how their impulsive young Samson had matured in their absence, Ciel was focused on a different matter. The boy is named after me? But why would anyone do that? ...Perhaps it's simply that 'Ciel' has become a popular name in the last decade or so, or at least less of an unusual name...
Completely unaware of the nearby 'animals' conversation, Finnian and the child Ciel headed for the outside door to the conservatory. But long before they reached it, it was opened from the inside and a small parade of adults came out, led by a man and a woman that Sebastian instantly recognized...
Prince Soma Asman Kadar, arm in arm with Lady Elizabeth!
The past 15 years had made changes in them both; Prince Soma had grown taller, and had evidently grown accustomed to wearing British gentlemen's clothing rather than his royal Bengal garb, presently looking quite comfortable in a bespoke tailored suit. And the Lady Elizabeth, who had added womanly curves to her figure as well as another few inches in height, had eschewed her childish curls for a more mature chignon that complemented her elegant day dress. But it was unmistakably Ciel's cousin and former fiancée, arm in arm with the one who had insisted on calling himself Ciel's friend and 'big brother'.
The white-haired man in servant's clothing following right behind the pair was also older but instantly recognizable as Prince Soma's khansama Agni, and was carrying what appeared to be a painter's easel, stool and case of supplies. And an elderly man wearing an artist's smock trailed after them all, protesting that he could hardly be expected to work under "such conditions" and that "This just isn't right!"
But without even looking back at the evident portrait painter, Prince Soma dismissed his protests with a cheery, "Stop being so afraid of new ideas! It'll be a great portrait; I wouldn't pay for anything less!"
"Besides, the weather's perfect!" Elizabeth added with a smile and expansive gesture. "Who wouldn't rather be out-of-doors than cooped up inside on a beautiful day like today?"
It's Lizzie! ...Married to Soma!? Ciel's mental 'voice' was incredulous.
"Ciel! There you are," the prince exclaimed as he caught sight of the child. Then he frowned, his voice becoming stern and scolding as he said, "You were naughty to sneak away from your portrait sitting like that!"
"I'm sorry, Bābā," the child Ciel said meekly, staring down at his shuffling feet. "But I was coming back!"
"He did decide to come back on his own, Your Highness," Finnian said with a smile.
"He did? Well, good!" as Soma beamed again. "But you're not going back in there; instead, we're going to have your portrait painted out here, with Bala!"
"With Bala?! Really?" as the child brightened, grinning very nearly from ear to ear.
"Yes! So go change into your very best riding clothes; the ones your grandfather sent you for your birthday," the prince commanded. Little Ciel took off like an arrow straight through the doors inside, and after setting down the artist's supplies, Agni bowed to his prince and begged leave to go with the boy, to ensure he put his attire on properly. After nodding to Agni, Prince Soma commanded Finnian, "Go get Bala dressed in her finest, and bring her out here!"
"Yes, my prince!" Finnian said with a grin just as wide as the child's, before dashing into the new building next to the stables.
Lizzie had married Soma?! In all the times that Ciel had wondered and worried about his cousin and former fiancée in the past month, all the people he had imagined her marrying—everything from being trapped in Druitt's vile clutches, to having been matched by her parents with some staid and boring member of the aristocracy nearly as old as her father, to having thrown her future away on a romantic whim (by running off with an actor, or some handsome but penniless commoner who'd left her struggling in a cheap tenement hall with five wailing children and towering debt,) he'd never once thought that she'd marry someone who wasn't even an Englishman!
But... she looked happy. She was smiling while talking with Soma about the portrait, which was evidently intended to be a present for Soma's father on his upcoming birthday. And her smiles were... she was more than just happy; she was relaxed and happy.
He remembered all those times he'd seen Lizzie while he'd lived at the manor; all the times she'd smiled at him while trying to get him to play a game with her or go on a picnic with her or dance with her, and the way she'd smiled when he'd given in and they'd done activities together. Lizzie's smiles had always been big and cheerful and, in retrospect, somewhat desperate. Determined. He had never realized it while he was still human, but looking at her now, it was clear that back then she had been making an effort to be happy around him.
Why had she been making such an effort, back then? Because she had been trying to make him happy too? ...Or just because she'd been expected to be happy around her cousin and her future husband? Had she never truly been happy with him?
Staring at his cousin and his old not-exactly-a-friend together, lost in his increasingly dismayed thoughts, Ciel didn't really notice when somebody else emerged from the manor and headed in their direction, until he heard a soft and wondering, "Young Master? Have you truly returned to us at last?" Then his head snapped around, to see faithful old Tanaka approaching them with a hopeful smile.
He realized three things in quick succession:
Tanaka was definitely looking right at him, not at anyone else, even though he was in his feline familiar form at the moment.
Upon a closer look, Tanaka himself was looking rather translucent; the sun was above and behind him but he cast no shadow, and as he passed the larger rosebushes their faint outlines could see seen through his immaculately pressed uniform. Which meant...
It was not truly Tanaka he was seeing, but Tanaka's ghost.
Sebastian seemed to have come to the same conclusion, for after a faintly-projected oh dear and momentary pause, the raven at Ciel's side straightened up to his full height, then brought one wing forward to cross his chest before bobbing forward in an avian approximation of a formal bow. Tanaka smoothly bowed back and smiled at him as he added, "And Sebastian, of course... It is good to know you are still with the young master."
Which is when Ciel had his fourth realization in as many split-seconds: since Tanaka was not one bit surprised by their shapeshifting, he had likely always known of Sebastian's supernatural nature; had possibly even known of their old soul-for-service contract, though he'd never said a word to anybody. But then, Ciel remembered from his childhood that Tanaka had always been the soul of discretion...
Sebastian nodded his response to Tanaka's greeting, then flicked that wing outwards to indicate the greenhouse nearby while projecting to Ciel, Let's go somewhere out of view of the manor's current inhabitants, so we can take human form and talk with him more easily. I've a feeling we all have a great deal to catch up on...
Ciel promptly agreed with Sebastian's suggestion, hopping down from the birdbath to scamper over to the far side of the greenhouse. After silently gesturing for Tanaka to accompany him, Sebastian took wing and flew after the lad, arriving just as Ciel stood up on his hind feet and changed from kitten to human form, self-consciously adjusting his tie and smoothing the lapels of his jacket. Tanaka arrived just as Sebastian took human form as well (and took the extra step of converting the Italian suit he'd been wearing into his old butler's uniform, for sentiment's sake.) Tanaka sank to one knee before Ciel, saying with quiet joy, "Welcome home, Young Master."
"Thank you, Tanaka... Now please, get up," Ciel urged him with a bittersweet smile. And as the old steward—former steward, Sebastian corrected himself—rose to his feet, the demon-child continued, "but I must tell you that this isn't truly a homecoming; we won't be staying here."
The former steward's posture stayed ramrod-straight, but somehow still gave off the impression of wilting in disappointment at his words. Ciel hurriedly continued, "We just came to England to find out what has happened since we left fifteen years ago; to Lady Elizabeth, and to the household. We didn't know until our arrival that we would find her here as well! Will you tell us how those two came to wed, and to make their home here at the estate?"
"Certainly, my lord," Tanaka said with another bow. After straightening up once more, a reminiscent smile tugged at his lips as he began, "Actually, one might say that it all began the very same day that you left."
"The same day?!" Ciel almost yelped with dismay. He didn't project his thoughts, but Sebastian thought he knew what they were regardless: had Lady Elizabeth truly started receiving other suitors the very same day she'd received notice of Ciel's supposed death? The demon butler had thought her to be truly devoted to his master, not some fickle flirt like the debutantes that flocked to London every Season, seeking only to better her station in life.
"I pray you pardon my poor choice of words, young master!" Tanaka said hurriedly. "Please, allow this doddering old fool to explain. Less than four hours after your carriage left the estate for the final time..."
The Phantomhive servants were all sitting around the kitchen table, their usual gathering place, staring blankly at the scattering of teacups and dishes in front of them or just staring off into space, their expressions filled with bewilderment, dismay and varying shades of grief. After the carriage had driven out of sight, Tanaka had come for them, ushered them into the kitchen and served them all his calming green tea and some small tea cakes, but only the ever-hungry Finnian had any appetite for food, and even he had just picked at his plate after the second serving. The same questions were on all their minds, and had been asked again and again over the last few hours:
Were the Master and Mister Sebastian really gone forever?
What would they do with themselves now, without having the little Earl Phantomhive there to serve and protect, or Sebastian there to rescue them from their own mistakes?
Dusk was falling outside and the clock on the kitchen wall had just chimed the hour when Finny raised his head, hastily wiping at the dried tears on his face with a sleeve. "I hear horses, and a carriage... Maybe they're coming back!"
No one doubted Finny's sharp ears, or disputed his fervent hopes; instead they hastily righted their uniforms and dashed outside, to greet whoever was coming. No one had known Earl Phantomhive or his incredible butler to ever change their minds about anything, but there was always a first time!
But to their disappointment, the carriage turned out to be a hired brougham from London, carrying Prince Soma and the prince's servant Agni. They both looked grief-stricken, and the first words out of the Bengali prince's mouth were "How did Ciel die?"
Before he'd left with Sebastian, the Master had told them all that he'd had the butler deliver death notices to all of his acquaintances, with the exception of one package that was being sent by paid courier. Without it being said, Tanaka, Bard and Mey-Rin had all understood their roles, the final way in which they would serve the Earl Phantomhive: to maintain the illusion of his death to anyone who asked.
However, someone really should have spoken those instructions aloud at least once, for Finnian's sake. Still a child himself in many ways, the gardener piped up immediately, "He's not dead; he just left in a carriage with Sebastian!" The other servants immediately tried to shush him, but he ignored their efforts, tears springing to his eyes again as he continued, "But he told us he's never coming back!"
"He's not dead—but he lied to me?!" Prince Soma shouted in simultaneous relief and outrage. Followed by more shouting, and more tears, and questions that none of the servants could answer... But some time later, inside the servant quarters and with a cup of Tanaka's green tea held in his hands, the prince calmed down enough to clean the tear tracks from his face and talk reasonably. "If Ciel truly does not expect to ever return, then your Queen Victoria must have sent him on a very dangerous mission indeed," he mused, staring down into the teacup, while wiping away a last errant tear.
Then the foreign royal lifted his head to fiercely proclaim, "But I say that so long as Sebastian is with him, with all of that butler's incredible abilities, then there is always hope for him! So, to keep that hope alive, we will always leave his bedroom waiting for him in perfect condition! I will claim a different room nearby instead."
"Huh? Whazzat?" Bard said, turning back to the table. "You want a room for the night? We got lots of guest rooms, like the one-"
"No, not for the night; for until Ciel comes back!" as Soma gave the cook a slightly impatient look, for making him spell out what the prince found so obvious. "He made me the manager of his townhouse in London, since he spent most of his time out here on the estate. But it's obvious that with Ciel gone until further notice, a steady governing hand is needed here even more!" Then the prince turned to Agni, who had been quietly looking through the cupboards of the kitchen and pantry while nodding to himself. "Agni, we'll make do with the available furnishings here tonight, but tomorrow we'll return to London to bring back the touches of home we have there, and then close up the townhouse indefinitely. We'll have to find someone else to take over the baking of curry buns and distributing food to the poor, but it can't be helped; we're needed here, to keep this place running until Ciel returns."
The Brahmin-turned-royal-servant turned away from his inspection of the cupboards to give his prince a bow with hands clasped in front of him and a firm, "Jo Ajna." He followed that up with a more cheerful, "I believe I know which bakery in London can be trusted with continuing our charitable work, if they are given a monthly stipend for doing so. And I believe I can make a decent dinner for you tonight with what we have on hand, if Bard will kindly allow me the use of his kitchen and lend me his aid with preparing some of the ingredients!"
The Phantomhive servants traded startled glances between themselves, that slowly tuned to tentative smiles. It wasn't something they would have thought of themselves, but... Agni was highly skilled, not just at making curry but at just about everything to do with running a household, and even skilled at fighting! Not as incredible at everything as Mister Sebastian, but then, there was only one Sebastian. And it would be such a relief, having someone really competent like Agni here telling them what to do and then helping them do it; Tanaka had rallied himself for these last few hours to be a firm guiding hand for them after Sebastian left, but they could tell that it was a strain and he wouldn't be able to keep it up much longer, before reverting to that childlike state in which he did little more than drink tea and chuckle.
"Sure, I'll be glad to help ya," Bard said as he stood up, adjusting his apron with a growing grin. "You need some vegetables chopped up, right?"
"Can I help, too?" Finny said eagerly. "Last time I helped mash the potatoes for cottage pie..."
Agni smiled at him as he said, "Mashed potatoes could be an ingredient, but today I would appreciate even more some fresh herbs from your garden outside! Would you kindly bring in six leaves of marjoram? And fresh cuttings of rosemary and thyme as well; bring in just enough of each to cover the palm of your hand."
"Sure, I can do that!" Finny said with a grin as he leaped up from his chair, nearly overturning it, and bounded outdoors.
Then Agni turned his kindly smile on the maid still sitting at the table. "Mey-Rin, it will be some time yet before we shall need the table set. Until then, would you please begin preparing a bedroom close to Lord Ciel's room for my prince's use tonight? You could open the windows to air it out, and remove the dust covers from the furniture."
"Yes, Mister Agni!" Mey-Rin said happily as she got up from the table as well and trotted upstairs. Bare moments after she left the room, Tanaka gave a faintly audible sigh of relief, and then sank down in his chair until he seemed only half of his original size, chuckling softly into his teacup. Sitting next to him, Prince Soma stared at Tanaka in astonishment... And then after a minute or so, reached over to fondly pat his head like a family pet for a few moments, before turning to watch Agni directing preparations for the evening meal as smoothly and easily as if he'd always been there.
Three days later, the manor was visited by the missing earl's next of kin.
Prince Soma had breakfasted and was now out enjoying the late summer day in the garden, idly watching Finny weed out the beds of roses. Finny was being very careful to pull only the weeds, and not the old stately rosebushes or the new growths started from cuttings, and this time he was doing well; Agni had told him (as well as Bard and Mey-Rin) that it was better to go slowly for now and be sure in his work, rather than rush about trying to do their chores at the pace Sebastian always had.
Agni would normally have been out in the garden as well, attending to his lord and sovereign's every whim, but instead he was seated at the kitchen table with Tanaka. Having sent Bard off to the butcher's to explain the change in their standard order (beef was now off the weekly list) and having made a fresh pot of tea and biscuits to share, he was now taking careful notes as the aged butler, having rallied his strength again, gave a thorough accounting of all the lands, businesses and properties managed by the Phantomhive estate, and the administrative duties the estate's self-appointed manager would be expected to perform.
By the time Tanaka was done, Agni had filled five pages with handwriting and his eyes were wide with incredulity. "So much... It is difficult to believe that such a young man as Lord Ciel managed all of his estate, even with Mister Sebastian's aid, and still found the time to be the Watchdog of the Underworld whenever the Queen summoned him."
"It must be admitted that Mr. Sebastian took on a fair amount of his master's administrative duties," Tanaka murmured while looking down into his teacup, "expanding his own workload far past the limits of what had been my duties under the late Earl Vincent Phantomhive. As for how he was able to do all that successfully... Among Mr. Sebastian's many abilities is the capacity to go for several days, even weeks, without succumbing to somnolence; he regarded sleep as an idle luxury rather than a biological necessity."
"I am able to go without sleep for a day or two and still do all my duties well enough, but weeks?!" Agni shook his head while commenting, "There are times when I almost wonder if our friend is truly human."
Rather than respond to that, Tanaka chose to take a long drink, slowly draining his teacup, before setting it down and rising to leave. But just as he stood up, Mey-Rin hurried into the kitchen, carrying a half-empty basket of washed laundry that she'd been hanging to dry. "We've company coming, we do!" she said urgently. "A carriage all draped in black, just turning up the drive now! I took me glasses off to have a better look, and it's got the Midford family crest, it does, carved on the door!"
"Midford?" Agni repeated questioningly, glancing at Tanaka.
"Earl Phantomhive's closest kin! The Lady Elizabeth Midford is both the young master's cousin, and his betrothed," Tanaka hurriedly explained. "I suggest you alert Prince Soma, that this will likely be a highly emotional meeting..."
Agni hurried out to the garden to warn his prince of the unexpected arrival, while Tanaka went to fetch some papers from inside the desk in the young master's study. After tucking them into his jacket and quickly confirming that his uniform was presentable, he went out to greet the guests just as their carriage, draped for mourning, arrived at the front door.
The Marchioness Frances Midford née Phantomhive, who had grown up in Phantomhive Manor before marrying the Marquis Midford, was sad and solemn but dry-eyed as she stepped out of the carriage, declaring that she had arrived to settle her late nephew's estate. Her husband the Marquis, on the other hand, still periodically dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief, with occasional quiet sniffles and mutterings of 'that poor young lad' and how tragically his life had turned out. And their daughter Elizabeth was a study in abject grief and misery, her eyes red and voice raspy from near-constant weeping, her posture slumped no matter how forcefully her mother hissed at her to straighten up.
Tanaka was aware that the young master had sent his "death notice" to Midford Hall via a courier paid to deliver it after a 24-hour delay, rather than have Sebastian deliver it before their departure as he had done for all the other notices. Tanaka presumed that was partly because it would be less believable for such a notice to arrive just hours after Lady Elizabeth had seen the young master in another surprise visit to the manor... and partly because the Marchioness Frances Midford, whom surely all of England agreed was a formidable woman with a Phantomhive's keen intellect, would have questioned (interrogated) Sebastian regarding her nephew's sudden demise and ferreted the truth out of him in mere seconds.
Since Sebastian was no longer here at the estate, Tanaka had no doubt that he himself, whom the Marchioness had known in her youth before marrying the Marquis, would be her target of choice for interrogating. The thought was enough to make even a Phantomhive butler quail inside. It was so very tempting to just let himself go, to relapse into—but that would be cowardly, and it would mean she would turn to the other servants, who had never met the Marchioness before and would be far less prepared than he for this onslaught. Taking a deep breath and steeling himself, he stepped forward...
Just as the front door opened with a bang and Prince Soma charged out, with Agni right behind him. Skidding to a stop between Tanaka and the Marchioness, the prince said rather breathlessly, "Welcome to Phantomhive Manor; I am Prince Soma Asman Kadar, prince of Bengal, and manager of the Phantomhive estate in Earl Phantomhive's prolonged absence. I-I mean, after his tragic death! I am told you are his next of ki-"
Whatever else the prince might have been about to say was lost forever when the Marchioness, who had only seconds before been hissing to her daughter about exhibiting proper behavior in public, dropped her fan of black lace while lunging forward to grab Prince Soma by the shoulders as she growled, "Prolonged absence?!"
It was possible that Frances meant to do no more than hold the prince firmly in place while she questioned him, very intently, about his slip of the tongue. However, the khansama Agni saw someone physically attacking his sovereign, and responded accordingly; darting forward while shouting "My prince!" he broke the Marchioness's grip on his master and delivered near-simultaneous nerve strikes that rendered her arms temporarily useless. Overbalanced by her own lunge, and now unable to use her arms to break her fall, the Marchioness fell forward and to the side, face-first into the bed of blooming asters.
Which, of course, set off her husband the Marquis Midford, who also happened to be the leader of the Order of the Garter and the knights of the British Empire. He was normally quite an amiable fellow, but at the sight of his beloved wife being treated so roughly, he gave a roar that should have made the lions of the Serengeti sit up and take notice, and lunged for the foreigner that had dared to lay violent hands on his family while drawing his dress sword.
It could easily have become a bloodbath. But just as the marquis and the khansama began to close in battle, the Lady Elizabeth, who had stopped in her tracks the moment Prince Soma had come through the door, threw back her head and screamed. "EEEEEEEEEE!"
The child's speaking voice was normally quite high and piercing (Tanaka had fervent hopes that it would lower in range like her mother's had as her adolescence advanced), but this shriek was far worse, by an order of several magnitudes. Everyone present instantly stopped what they were doing and clapped their hands to their ears in pain—except for poor Frances Midford, whose arms were presently incapacitated; she just hunched deeper into the flowerbed as though hoping to burrow into the dirt with her nose.
And then, as abruptly as she'd started, Lady Elizabeth stopped screaming. The silence that descended was almost shocking, as everyone turned to stare at her. Then she spoke, her voice seeming greatly muted (though Tanaka thought that just might be due to momentary deafness on his part) as she implored, "Father, please don't hurt them! Agni was just protecting his prince, and I'm sure Mother will be fine soon, because he's very good at stopping people in a fight without really hurting them. I know, because he helped saved my life and Paula's at that costume ball Earl Trancy held last spring."
Then she looked at the prince who was still staring at her in amazement, and her voice began to hitch as she continued, "Prince Soma, my mother wasn't really going to hurt you; she's just upset... we're all upset to find out... Is-is it true?" as tears began spilling out of her eyes again, running down her cheeks. "Mama thought it was suspicious, but then she decided Ciel would never actually... not to his family... But he did, didn't he? Ciel's still alive, but he... he lied to us, made us think... Waaaah!" as she broke down in tears, sinking to the ground while sobbing into her hands, "CIEL! Why would you do such a horrible thing?! WHYYYYY?!"
After glancing at Agni in apology, Alexis Midford went to comfort his daughter—but somehow Prince Soma made it there first, sinking to his knees in front of Lady Elizabeth to hug her shoulders while giving out his own wails of grief: "Ciel, why did you not trust us?! Your friends; your family!" And the two of them carried on wailing while Agni, with many fervent apologies and with Tanaka's silent aid, helped the Marchioness back to her feet and massaged specific areas of her arms to restore their use.
Once she had recovered enough to take her husband's arm again, Frances looked at her daughter still sobbing into a near-stranger's arms, and finally just shook her head in resignation. "Let's just get both the children inside. We'll take tea in the drawing room, Tanaka."
"Very good, your Ladyship," Tanaka said with a bow, and left to prepare the tea while Agni and the Marquis gently separated the two bawling youngsters and all but carried them inside.
The teakettle in the kitchen always held hot water for making tea, and Agni had already whipped up a batch of tea cakes for later, so it took very little time to prepare a suitable tea service for the visitors. Tanaka entered the parlour with the tea trolley to find that the prince and the young lady had been settled on opposing couches with handkerchiefs, with the Marquis and Marchioness sitting on either side of their daughter, and the sobbing was slowing down and quieting while Agni, doubtless after begging pardon for his presumption, spoke for both his prince and himself in explaining how they had so recently come to settle in at the estate. "...closed up the townhouse, and returned here two evenings ago. And now you have been informed of all that my prince and I have learned about Lord Ciel's decision to feign his own death and disappear. I regret that we cannot tell you more about why he chose such a course of action, or where he is now," Agni concluded with an apologetic bow to the Marquis and Marchioness.
His tears now reduced to sniffles, Soma said with an angry frown, "It's because of your Queen Victoria, I'm sure of it! Because she made him a 'Watchdog of the Underworld' when he's still so young... Either she sent him on another secret mission that's so horribly dangerous that he doesn't expect to survive it, or he decided that faking his death was the only way to get out from under her fat thumb!"
"Mind your tongue!" the Marchioness instantly flared in response, and the Marquis frowned right along with her. "How dare you disparage our sovereign queen, when you're on the estate of a family that's served the royal line for generations?! And Ciel would never fake his death just to find relief from his duties as the Watchdog; not when it's he who petitioned Her Majesty to be granted the title and responsibilities at such a tender age!"
Tanaka politely cleared his throat to interrupt before the incipient argument got out of hand. "I beg that you pardon my presumption, but I believe I have found something that might, possibly, offer an explanation for the young master's behavior. Earlier this morning I was dusting and tidying up in the master's study, keeping it clean in hopes of his eventual return, and when I picked up his favorite novel to return it to the bookshelf, two envelopes fell out onto the desk," as he picked up the envelopes he'd put onto the tea trolley while loading it. "One is addressed to the Lady Elizabeth, and the other to her mother the Marchioness."
Lady Elizabeth sprang from the couch as though she'd been shot out of a cannon, and snatched the envelope bearing her name out of Tanaka's hand even before he could finish explaining, "I had planned on sending them to Midford Hall in the daily post. However, your arrival today is most propitious," as he bowed while handing the other envelope to the Marchioness.
While listening to the ghostly steward's story, Sebastian heard Ciel murmur in a perplexed tone, "Two letters? I didn't... did I?" But since the words would have been barely audible to a human's hearing, and his posture was still quite attentive towards Tanaka, the elder demon set the comment aside for the moment and continued listening to the recounting of events fifteen years past:
Lady Elizabeth tore open her envelope on the spot, and was unfolding the letter within even while seating herself on the couch again. Still seated on the couch opposite her, Prince Soma leaned forward eagerly while asking, "What does it say?"
"Now see here, young man; it's rude to go asking about a young lady's correspondence!" The Marquis Midford said sternly. But then he glanced aside at his daughter, and was unable to disguise the curiosity in his voice as he added, "But is it something you're willing to share aloud, Lizzie?"
After reading through the letter silently to herself, with tears streaming down anew, Lady Elizabeth set it down briefly to daintily blow her nose before picking it up again. She cleared her throat, and then haltingly read aloud:
To my dearest Lizzie,
If you are reading this, then the worst has happened, and I am dead and gone. But in truth, if you are reading this, then the worst has not happened, and you have been spared whatever fate befell me.
Lizzie, though I know I do not express it often or well, there is no human alive more dear to me than you are. Your every smile is precious to me; there are times when it seems that they are the only bright spots in a world grown dark and grim. You may not believe it, since I so often turned from you to embrace the darkness and my Watchdog duties, but this truth remains ironclad; my sweet cousin, I would give my life twice over to see you safe and happy.
Grieve for my passing if you must, but do not be sad forever; I want you to find happiness again. To find someone who will smile with you, and even laugh with you in the way I have found myself unable to these last few years. I wish for you to find someone who will bring you joy in the morning and warmth in the evening, every day of your life.
By the time she'd finished, not just Soma and Agni were openly sobbing but the Marquis as well, and even the Marchioness was discreetly dabbing at her eyes. Having had the forethought to prepare for such an eventuality, Tanaka quietly passed handkerchiefs to those in need, and waited for them to regain their composure.
One of the first to dry his eyes, Agni said quietly, "This may be presumptuous, but I believe that letter does indeed explain why Lord Ciel chose to deceive everyone into believing him dead."
Still wiping his tears away, Soma paused to look at his manservant curiously and ask, "What do you mean? That was just a goodbye letter; it didn't explain anything!"
"A thousand pardons, my prince, but it did, in that Lord Ciel made his wish for his betrothed clear; he wants her to find happiness with another, who can provide for her what he felt he could not for some reason. And while there are aspects of society here in England that still bewilder me," Agni admitted, "I have observed enough to learn that if an engagement is broken for any reason other than death, it casts a stigma on those formerly engaged; particularly on the lady. Even if the reason is that the man has left the country, or proven himself utterly unworthy of her, the lady's reputation is unfairly soiled. For whatever reason Lord Ciel had to leave, he chose to sever all ties and concoct his hoax so that Lady Elizabeth would be free to find happiness without his disappearance casting any shadow on her reputation," as he nodded to the young woman, who stared at him wide-eyed for a moment before bursting into tears again.
When she'd finally recovered, her eyes redder than ever before and her hands twisting a handkerchief to shreds, Elizabeth said brokenly, "That's the most romantic thing Ciel has ever done for me..."
"Even willing to give up his entire estate, just for the sake of our Lizzie; Ciel always tries so hard to be gruff and stern as a Watchdog, but he's such a dear, sweet boy at heart," the Marquis Midford half-whispered while wiping away the last of his tears.
Having composed herself sooner than anyone else, the Marchioness Midford at first prepared to tuck the letter addressed to her into her reticule for reading later, but then after a glance around the room, she huffed a sigh of resignation and slit the envelope open instead. Unlike her daughter's letter of just a few brief paragraphs, her letter was evidently longer, as the envelope held several pages of the same quality stationery. She had already read through the first page by the time Lady Elizabeth composed herself enough to ask, "What does your letter say, Mama? Did he tell you the truth? Ciel would know better than to actually lie to you…"
Sweeping a stern eye over everyone in the room, the Marchioness said in a most severe tone, "Do recall that I am under no obligation to reveal my personal correspondence to anyone, despite your own choice to do so." The members of her family present flinched a bit guiltily, with mutters of "Sorry, Mama" and "Sorry, dear," while the non-members just shrunk back or bowed under pressure from that gimlet eye. Then she said with an exasperated sigh, "But since I know too well that at least one person in this room will be badgering me for days about it otherwise, after I finish reading it for myself, I may decide to share certain excerpts from the letter with you all."
Everyone in the room fell silent and waited for her to finish reading. When she finally settled the pages back in order, she huffed and declared, "That troublesome boy didn't outright lie, but he clearly learned the art of misleading with carefully chosen words from his father. And nothing in this letter explains why he's left us or where he's gone to."
"But what does it say?" Prince Soma burst out, then just as quickly shrank back with an immediate apology for his rashness.
After another glare to inform the prince that his faux pas might be forgiven but it was not forgotten, the Marchioness spoke. "Since this letter does speak primarily of two people already present in this room, out of the kindness of my heart, I shall read it in its entirety." Then she held the pages up and began reading aloud,
To the Marchioness Midford, my respected Aunt Frances,
If you are reading this, then I have been declared dead. A copy of my will has been filed with my solicitor, but as my eldest close surviving relative, I am assured that the task of settling my estate will fall to you. The words contained herein are not in my will, but I earnestly hope that you will hold them as final and binding as that legal document:
There is no living human dearer to me than your daughter Elizabeth, and I earnestly pray that she has been spared whatever fate befell me. If this reading finds her safe and well, then as the death of one's fiancé naturally severs the betrothal, it will be equally as natural and expected for you to begin screening candidates for another potential match for her after the proper period of mourning is over. Though I have no right whatsoever to dictate your actions and criteria for choosing, I still dare to urge you to consider this:
With the exception of some specific funds and items set aside for the wellbeing of my loyal servants, the entirety of my vast estate has been deeded to Elizabeth, with the proviso that she either retain the current manor staff or see them honorably discharged with enough additional funds that they shall never want for the basics of living. As the heir to a considerable estate that includes a substantial business empire, Elizabeth's future should have no financial concerns whatsoever, and therefore financial status need not be a deciding factor in choosing a suitable husband.
Rather, I beg you to consider emotional compatibility as a far more critical factor: please, for the sake of your daughter if not for myself, consider only suitors who prove themselves to possess exceptional character. Consider a man who will respect and even encourage her hidden strengths, as well as cherish her foibles. Consider a man who, while publicly respectable, shows himself willing to play the fool occasionally if it will give her a few moments of genuine laughter. A man who will bring her joy in the morning and warmth in the evenings, every day of her life; that is what my dearest Lizzie deserves.
There is another personal matter that I dare to request your aid in from beyond the veil. Though not as dear to me as Elizabeth, to my bemusement I have found a gentleman bold enough to consider the Watchdog of the Underworld a personal friend; Prince Soma Asman Kadar, of the royal house of Bengal. Being the 26th son of the Rajah of Bengal, he will never inherit the throne, but he spent all his childhood in the shadow of that high seat, kept from catching more than bright glimpses of the wide world outside.
After an ill-fated quest brought Prince Soma to our country's fair shores, and he realized how poorly his highly sheltered upbringing had prepared him for living as a man and a gentleman, he declared that he would remain in England with no more aid than his loyal manservant Agni, and embark on a personal quest to learn and grow in soul and achievements until he meets the standards of a great man for any nation. To assist the prince in learning to shoulder responsibility, I assigned him the role of caretaker of my London townhouse, and he has discharged his duties there admirably. Moreover, though I did not ask it of him, he has shown great compassion and charity towards the unfortunates left homeless by the recent devastating fires; no doubt there are many who would not be alive today if not for his timely actions.
My respected aunt, I urge you to consider Prince Soma as a candidate for stewardship of the lands that comprise the Phantomhive Estate, until Elizabeth comes of age and has acquired sufficient education in management to claim the lands and responsibility for her own. Given that this stewardship will be far greater than his current responsibilities by the order of several magnitudes, he will need your aid and guidance at first in successfully managing the lands and the tenants. But just as I rose to accept and fulfill my duties as the Earl Phantomhive at such a tender age, I have every confidence that in due course Prince Soma will rise to the responsibilities given to him, and honor my memory in so doing.
I have no doubt that there will be many in Society who would frown upon or even cry outrage at such a choice. There will be many who will look no further than Prince Soma's clothing and the color of his skin, who will ignore his education, his integrity and his earnest goals, and decry him as unsuitable for overseeing anything greater than a child's garden party. But if he has an ally in the Marchioness Frances Jean Phantomhive Midford, proud daughter of the line of Watchdogs who have stared down the most ruthless elements of the Underworld and answered to none but the Queen Herself, then Prince Soma will indeed have the opportunity to grow and prove himself a great man for any nation.
In closing, my dear aunt, I thank you for all that you have taught me in my few years on this Earth, and pray that you will look past all the heartache I have given you to remember me fondly in years to come. Please give my Lizzie one last hug from me, and accept one from her in my stead,
Your affectionate nephew,
The Marchioness laid down the papers when she finished, and silence reigned for a brief period of time; a silence broken by Prince Soma standing up from the couch, to step in front of the noblewoman as he said, "If Ciel says that I will need your guidance and advice in order to manage his lands properly, then I humbly ask for it now," and he clasped his hands together and bowed in the manner of his culture. "Please, be my mentor and ally, so I may keep his estates thriving in hopes of his someday returning to claim them."
The noblewoman looked him over thoughtfully, then nodded once. "I have not been impressed by your behavior so far, but I will honor my nephew's request; you will remain here as the steward of his estates, and my family and I will visit often to advise and assist you."
The prince smiled as her words and straightened up-and then froze in his tracks as she pinned him in place with another gimlet glare. "But you had better live up to Ciel's promise, and not waste my time, or you'll be tossed out on your ear before you can blink!"
Prince Soma swallowed hard before promising fervently, "I swear I will do my best!"
"The devil I ever wrote that!" Ciel shouted.
Mindful of the living humans talking not eighty feet away from them, and preferring that they stay unaware of his and Ciel's presence, Sebastian instantly whisked himself and Ciel further away to behind the next greenhouse, then waved for Tanaka to rejoin them. The ghost walked soundlessly over the grass towards them while Ciel angrily explained, "I wrote a final letter to Lizzie, yes, but not another one to my Aunt Frances! The only letter for her was left in my solicitor's keeping along with the will, and it concerned only the Watchdog duties, not telling her to let Soma keep playing house with my property!"
As Tanaka rejoined them, Ciel gestured in his direction with an angry, "I specified in my will that Tanaka would remain the steward for the first full year after my death, so Aunt Frances would have plenty of time to screen and interview candidates before appointing another man to take his place! Did that damned khansama Agni decide that serving his prince included forging documents for him? And reading the letter I left for Lizzie, damn his eyes, to ensure his forged letter would contain some authentic details; how dare he?! I'll rip that 'blessed right hand' of his, right off of his arm! And then I'll…"
Ciel's outraged voice suddenly trailed off as he stared at the ghostly steward, who had silently fallen to his knees in front of him, with head bowed in sorrow… and right hand extended in abject offering.
Ciel's whisper was full of shock, and hurt. "You? You did it; forged that letter? And even read my private letter for Lizzie?! How could you… Tanaka, why?!"
Keeping his gaze fixed upon the ground, Tanaka spoke with a pained quaver: "It is the duty of a loyal servant to not only care for his master's wellbeing, but to do all he can to ensure the master's domain is kept fit and flawless, even in the master's absence. When you informed me prior to your departure of the stewardship provision in your will, I swore I would do my best to fulfill your orders… but I also knew too well that my best would not be enough; that I was simply no longer strong enough to act as the steward and keep your estate intact and thriving for one full season, let alone one full year. That first terrible fire that destroyed the mansion took so much out of me, and then after the second… my lord, it was simply too much. If Prince Soma and Agni had not arrived and declared their intentions so quickly, then I would have sent a letter to the Marchioness within the week, begging her to intervene immediately.
"With Prince Soma declaring himself as steward until your return… and Agni, whose capabilities rival even Sebastian's in some areas, there to see his commands carried out… Young Master, it was a godsend that I could not let slip away or be cast aside; the best possible way to ensure your estate would indeed thrive in your absence, but would still be turned over to you once more upon your return. Only a loyal friend who was already used to governing in your stead, would be willing to relinquish the reins of power to you when you came back at last."
"And a foreign man, born far from English soil and worshipping gods that most Englishmen disdain, would be more easily ousted by the courts than an English businessman would be if he was not willing to relinquish said reins after holding them for so long," Sebastian added shrewdly. "Tanaka's methods may not be to your liking, my lord, but I do believe he had your best interests at heart."
Ciel scowled and looked away for a few seconds… and then turned back to Tanaka with a huff of exasperation mingled with resignation. "Well, done is done, and it seems to have all turned out well enough in the end. You can get up, Tanaka; you're forgiven. Besides, I have no idea how I'd chop a ghost's hand off," he added wryly as Tanaka lowered his arm to his side.
"My lord, I expect either you or Mister Sebastian would find a way, if you were truly determined," Tanaka said with a trace of his old familiar chuckle as he rose to his feet once more.
Ciel dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand before saying, "I take it that your letter's tactic of appealing to my aunt's pride in her indomitability, succeeded in making her Soma's ally in Society as well."
"It did indeed, Young Master. When the grand funeral for Earl Phantomhive was held a few days later — closed casket, of course; those who enquired for details were told you had been trampled beyond recognition by a runaway horse — the Marchioness coldly informed those who were crass enough to ask about the estate that it was in good hands. And when the news of a foreign prince being appointed steward over a noble estate began being whispered about in the higher circles of Society, she quite openly challenged anyone to gainsay her decision, and cited Queen Victoria's recent appointment and granting of honors to Mohammed Abdul Karim, 'the Munshi', as precedent for the stewardship."
"And no one would dare say a word against the Marchioness and Marquis Midford, except for perhaps the Queen herself," Ciel said with a knowing nod of his head.
"Indeed, Young Master. Though there was almost a spot of trouble from the throne, when word spread through the highest circles that the Queen had been heard to comment to one of her court that since there was no living Phantomhive heir to take up the Watchdog duties, the Phantomhive lands should be reverted back to the Crown."
Ciel's lip curled back to expose a fang as he growled low in his throat, while Sebastian reflected on how completely unsurprised he was by that news, considering all that Queen Victoria had done to destroy the house of Phantomhive, not once but twice within his little lord's mortal lifetime.
Back during Sebastian's first year of acting as butler to young Earl Phantomhive, when he had gently prodded Tanaka during his more coherent moments to tell him more about what the prior Watchdogs of the Underworld had done for the Queen (so he could better prepare and anticipate how to protect and serve his young contractor), one time Tanaka had looked him straight in the eye while saying very deliberately, "Our young master's father, Earl Vincent Phantomhive, gave me many standing orders. One of them was that he would not have even one word spoken against Her Majesty the Queen, by anyone living under his roof." And instants later Tanaka had regressed to that feeble state in which further questioning would be fruitless. But Sebastian had gotten the message: there had been trouble with the Queen in the past, trouble that the former butler could not talk about, but that trouble might still become a problem for his little lord.
But without knowing what exactly that trouble was, since Tanaka always silently refused to say more on the matter, Sebastian could do no more than hire a few select soldier-servants to help protect the estate, and hint to Ciel that perhaps his loyalty to Her Majesty Queen Victoria was misplaced. But his contractor would simply not hear of it, the boy being far too determined to prove himself a capable Watchdog just like his predecessors. No, Ciel had refused to believe that the sovereign ruler his family had served so loyally, was capable of such betrayal and dangerous insanity until the proof was waved in front of his very eyes at the Eiffel Tower in Paris... and by then it had been far too late.
Ciel stifled his demonic growl at Tanaka's news, and made a definite effort to speak calmly, almost with nonchalance as he responded, "I'm sure it would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall of the audience chamber in which the Marquis and Marchioness confronted Her Majesty, and dissuaded her from confiscating everything."
"Actually, it was not necessary for the Marquis and Marchioness to act in order to preserve the estate..." Tanaka glanced to one side and cleared his throat — which was clearly unnecessary for a ghost, but the habits of human flesh persisted — before commenting, "I arranged for a letter to be found underneath the royal pillow, suggesting that she leave things be unless she wanted certain state secrets to become publicly known."
Ciel gaped at the ghostly steward in wide-eyed shock, and Sebastian became aware that his own jaw was hanging open; it seemed the Phantomhive servants were still capable of surprising him. Knowing that Tanaka's extreme integrity had previously barred him from even speaking aloud of Queen Victoria's betrayal and conspiracy against the house of Phantomhive, it seemed almost impossible to believe, but... Ciel finally gasped in an incredulous squeak, "You blackmailed the Queen?!"
Tanaka drew himself up very straight indeed as he responded, "I blackmailed the government-sponsored imposter who sat on Queen Victoria's throne, after her sudden demise during the London Fires. There is a difference, my lord."
"Indeed there was," Sebastian commented with narrowed eyes. "But how, pray tell, did you learn about that? I certainly made no mention of it in my briefing to you all afterwards." When he'd returned to England with his temporarily-soulless little lord unconscious in his arms, he'd found the servants all camped in the midst of despair as well as the ruins of the mansion, as none of them had anyplace else to call home. He'd permitted himself one loud sigh of exasperation—here we go again—before using sorcery to restore the mansion once more, while casting a cantrip to cloud the servants' minds into thinking that the repairs had taken days instead of seconds. Then he'd told all the servants just barely enough of what had happened during the Fires for them to understand that one particularly perilous threat to their young master's wellbeing was finally over, before leaving to find "a specialist who can assist our lord in waking to himself once more" (as all demons are specialists, after a fashion, though mortals may not consider the tormenting and consumption of souls to be a special profession worth pursuing.)
"Oh, there were subtle tells here and there, for one who knew where to look," Tanaka said vaguely. Sebastian frowned at the evasive answer, but decided to set the matter aside for later, as there was still more to learn about what had happened at the estate during the last 15 years.
His mind was still buzzing from the shocking news of what Tanaka had done in his absence—forgery and blackmail?! But it had all been done to protect the Phantomhive estate, and really, should he have expected less from the man who had once been his father Vincent Phantomhive's most loyal servant? After digesting the news, Ciel brought his mind back to the ghostly steward's main narrative. "So since the Crown didn't intervene, Soma became the steward, and Agni the butler who did most of the steward's work for him. But how did he come to marry Lizzie? Given Soma's habits of childish outbursts, hugging everyone in sight and crying at the drop of a hat, I really can't imagine that my aunt the Marchioness Midford thought him worthy of her daughter's hand," Ciel said skeptically.
"Certainly not in the first few years of his stewardship, my lord," Tanaka agreed. "Though they became much better acquainted regardless; when the Marchioness visited the estate to advise him on his duties and check the ledgers, which she did on a frequent basis for the first year in particular, Lady Elizabeth often came with her. The Marchioness reasoned that since the young lady was to inherit everything if you did not return, it would waste her time to teach the same lessons twice, and so her daughter would learn estate management alongside the prince. The young lady took to the lessons quite well, though she had some difficulties grasping the finer points of finances, as a British lady's education is often deficient in mathematical subjects. Prince Soma, on the other hand, took to all his lessons with fervor, and a speed that was little short of astonishing; indeed, it was very nearly on par with your own greatly accelerated education, young master," he added with a twinkle to his grandfatherly eye.
"On par with me?!" Ciel blurted out, not just surprised but offended...and, deep down, somewhat hurt. While he'd been human, he had taken silent but but fierce pride in how quickly he had mastered all of Sebastian's lessons and the skills needed to maintain the earldom at only ten years old. Back then, Sebastian had said himself that his achievements were impressive... but had that been just more of a servant's flattery? Perhaps his achievement hadn't been that exceptional after all...
Tanaka implored, "I pray you do not take offense at the comparison, my lord! Despite his childlike nature during your acquaintance, the prince has always been quite intelligent. Consider that he arrived on Britain's fair shores already highly fluent in the English language, never needing to pause for consulting a dictionary or to have his words translated by others, despite English having virtually nothing in common with his native tongue."
Ciel blinked as he thought for the first time about that fluency, and what it implied. Even with Sebastian's strict teaching methods, it had taken him years to learn to speak first Latin, then French and finally Italian fluently, and all three languages had a common root and vocabulary that the English language had borrowed heavily from. For Prince Soma to have become so fluent in English, when Ciel remembered him saying once that he'd never have come to England if not for chasing after his missing servant Meena; he supposed that without immersion by way of being surrounded by English-speakers on all sides, that degree of fluency required both excellent teachers and a dedicated, highly intelligent student.
Tanaka went on, "Mister Agni once confided in me that back in Bengal, the royal tutors had praised Prince Soma as the fastest learner of all 26 royal sons; indeed, he had outstripped his tutors on one or two subjects, and had demanded more books in those subjects for the royal library so he could continue learning on his own. Once he became determined to learn the principles and practices of land stewardship, the prince absorbed his lessons not only from your aunt, but from Agni and myself as well; not a day went by that he was not perusing his acquired textbooks, the ledgers, the maps of the Phantomhive domain, or the tenancy contracts, sometimes for hours at a time."
Just then, they heard a loud noise coming from beyond the garden, sounding somewhat like a brass cornet that was being played with far more enthusiasm than skill. "What's that?" Ciel asked curiously.
"That would be one of the residents of the newest structure on the estate," Tanaka chuckled. "Shall we return to the better vantage point?"
They all returned to the shadow of the first greenhouse, in time to see the great double doors to the new over-decorated barnlike structure being pushed open from the inside, by what appeared at first glimpse to be a great gray tentacle. After the doors swung completely open, an elephant came striding out! Ciel had seen one in the flesh before, in the exhibition at the Crystal Palace, but not like this; with its massive sides adorned in equally massive barding of red and gold silk, and a gilded howdah perched on its back. Finny sat just in front of the howdah, his legs straddling the elephant's neck, and his face split by an ear-to-ear grin as he called out, "Bala is ready for the portrait, your Highness!"
And moments later, the mansion's conservatory door swung open and Prince Soma's son came charging out, dressed in richly decorated Hindu garb much like Soma had worn when Ciel had first met him. "I'm ready, Bābā!"
"So you are!" Soma said with a grin, reaching down to pick up his son for a hug. "And Bala is ready too, so up you go!" He turned to the elephant with the boy in his arms and commanded, "Bala, deri!"
With another squealing trumpet, the elephant wrapped its massive trunk gently around the child and plucked him from his father's arms, then carefully lifted and swung the boy up to where Finny was perched. "Good girl, Bala!" Finny praised as he took the child and situated him inside the howdah, setting his lightly rumpled clothing to rights. "There you go, young master, all ready for your portrait; your grandfather the Rajah will be so happy to see it!" Then he gave a final affectionate pat to the elephant's head before sliding down its neck to the ground.
But that great gray trunk entwined around Finny before he'd gone two steps, drawing him close again, while the elephant let loose a soft grumbling sound, clearly protesting his leaving. "Aw, Bala," Finny chided with a smile, patting the trunk. "I promise we'll go for a nice walk in the forest later, but right now you're out here to get your portrait painted! So be a good girl and stand still, and I'll bring you some apples for a treat!" as he gently unwound the trunk from around him and stepped away.
The portrait artist, having already set out and prepared his palette and easel, began walking a wide circle around the elephant, clearly pondering the best angle for the combined portrait of boy and beast together. Peering out from their hidden vantage point, Ciel commented somewhat wryly, "I see Finny has finally found another animal sturdy enough for him to play with."
"Indeed, young master; Finnian is very fond of both Bala and the manor's other elephant, Kushali. You may see Kushali outside later when it's time for their daily exercise and their baths, but she is not as patient and sweet-tempered as Bala, who would be the preferred choice for a portrait sitting," Tanaka confided. "But to return to your earlier question about the prince, my lord; at the start of his stewardship, his education did indeed far outstrip his emotional maturity. But once Prince Soma began regularly putting the principles of management into practice, his daily encounters with the tenant farmers, families and businessmen had a large hand in changing that."
"How so?" Ciel asked a bit absently, still looking at the scene before him; Soma and Lizzie standing together, arm in arm and talking quietly in words that he couldn't quite make out, as behind them Agni set out a table and chairs for taking tea in the garden. They both looked so comfortable together, so quietly happy...
"You have surely heard the phase 'adversity builds character', young master. And during his first few years of stewardship, the prince encountered adversity from nearly everyone he met on the estate. They all saw him as an outsider, of course; they treated him with suspicion and even outright scorn, which was only barely concealed when the Marchioness came along for the introductions. The prince had to prove himself to everyone he encountered in the Phantomhive domain, over and over and over in those first few years, and keep a tight hold on his temper all the while, because he believed he would be letting you down otherwise."
Ciel couldn't help drawing parallels between Prince Soma's first years of stewardship, and Ciel's own dealings in his first few years of being the Watchdog of the Underworld. It hadn't been quite the same, because the criminal elements had seen him as a child instead of an outsider, but he'd had to prove himself just as canny and ruthless as all of his predecessors, over and over again until he was properly feared and respected by those he dealt with on a regular basis. "So all that character-building adversity led him to finally act his age, eh?" he said with a wry and lopsided smile.
"Just so, my lord. By his twentieth birthday, when Lady Elizabeth invited him to Midford Hall to celebrate the occasion, the Marchioness was heard to declare that he had 'turned out decent after all.' Or so the Midford butler confided to myself and Agni as we dined with the staff that evening."
"For the Aunt Frances I remember, that was high praise indeed," Ciel commented wryly.
"Quite so, my lord. And they granted him a far greater indication of favor soon afterwards, when they invited him to assist in managing Funtom Company. Though I still functioned as the figurehead and executive director, actual management of the company was done by the Marquis and Marchioness... and I fear that, while still sound financially, the company had been lagging further and further behind its competitors without your clever business strategies or your keen eye for popular toys. But the prince brought in a fresh point of view; several, really, for he dared to do what the Marquis and Marchioness could not quite bring themselves to do, by going to neighborhoods all across London and directly asking children of every station what sort of toys they liked best."
Ciel snorted, "I can just imagine the results if Aunt Frances had tried to do that; she'd be far better at terrifying children than getting them to talk and play with her."
"I fear so, my lord. But though he had matured greatly in the four years since your departure, Prince Soma was not that far removed from his innocent childhood, and the children found it easy to talk to and play with him. The prince used the children's answers to develop new products for the Funtom line of toys, while Agni's fantastic cooking skills were loaned to the task of developing new sweets for marketing. Over the next year, thanks in no small part to their combined efforts, Funtom Company regained some of the financial ground it had lost to competitors. While it is true that the Funtom business empire is no longer the grand booming success that it was with your firm hand at the helm, young master, it still turns a sizeable profit overall, and much of that is used to keep the Phantomhive and Midford domains intact and thriving when other noble estates have suffered great losses."
"So Prince Soma not only took the burden of keeping up the Phantomhive domain off their shoulders, he started making money that enriched their domain as well," Ciel commented cynically, a little surprised at his own bitterness as he finished, "No wonder they decided to betroth Lizzie to him."
But Tanaka shook his head firmly. "My apologies, my lord, but that is not what happened. There was no talk at the time of betrothing Lady Elizabeth to him, or to anyone else of any station in Society, though you had been gone for nearly five years by the time Funtom Company began thriving again. The young lady remained staunchly loyal to your memory and insisted that you would return someday if you were at all able, and her parents supported her declaration to wait for your return."
"Oh," and Ciel found himself both relieved and mildly ashamed of himself for his earlier thoughts. Besides being terrifyingly strict, his Aunt Frances had been ruthlessly practical in the way that all Phantomhive children were raised to be, but it was rather a relief to know that she'd actually cared about her daughter's feelings more than about enriching the noble estate she'd married into.
Tanaka continued, "But her parents also allowed her to continue coming to the manor, even after the Marquis and Marchioness had agreed her education in land management was complete. With her maid as chaperone, she frequently accompanied Prince Soma on his regular inspections of the estate, seeing to the tenants' general wellbeing. Everyone was aware that your will had deeded the entire estate to her, and they applauded the lady showing an interest in her duties even before she came of legal age to take on such responsibilities."
"So they weren't betrothed by her parents, but Lizzie and Soma spent a lot of time together, over the years… And they fell in love, didn't they?" Ciel asked rhetorically, watching them together.
"Yes, though love was slow to blossom between them; while they became friends very quickly, I believe they both saw any romance to be a betrayal of their feelings for you, my lord. But not every couple had that impediment," Tanaka added, and when Ciel glanced at him curiously, those grandfatherly eyes twinkled as he continued, "It occurred to me that it might amuse you both to know that over the years of visits, Bardroy and Lady Elizabeth's maid Paula developed such strong feelings for each other, that he actually strove hard to become a decent cook in order to impress her. Strove, and succeeded; Agni is still the superior chef, particularly when it comes to Indian and Bengali cuisine, but these days Bardroy regularly makes most of the dishes that are served both above and below stairs."
"Really?" as Sebastian blinked in surprise. "All it took to make that idiot actually do his job right, was to fall in love? Hn… Perhaps I should have let him flirt with Mey-Rin after all."
"Perhaps, or perhaps it would have made no difference back then; I'm sure you recall that Mey-Rin was quite taken with you at the time," Tanaka reminded Sebastian. "Soon after Agni's arrival below stairs, she transferred those affections to him, though she knows they are still unrequited. Agni does not love her, but he cares for her and is always unfailingly kind to her, and as they have the same evening off each week, they often do step out together. But to return to the subject of Lady Elizabeth and Prince Soma: up through the lady's twenty-first birthday, they both denied there was anything between them but friendship, and shared loyalty to you. But after she turned twenty-one..."
"I would have been seven years gone by that time; that's long enough to have any missing person legally declared dead," Ciel mused.
"Indeed, my lord. As I understand it, that is the argument the Marquis and Marchioness used to finally convince her and Prince Soma both to lay your memory to rest. The Midford family all came to the estate for a small, private funeral, exactly seven years and seven days after the grand public one had been held. Or rather, a pair of funerals; a service was conducted and a gravestone was set in place for each of you," as Tanaka gestured off towards the private cemetery at the edge of the forest on the estate. "Afterwards, Lady Elizabeth donned black again, which reportedly caused quite a stir in Society as she did not deign to tell anyone why she had done so. Then, a little over one month later…"
Tanaka's "all together" moments were coming fewer and further between those days, and all of Phantomhive Manor was aware of it. When they occurred, Agni was always quick to ask him if he had any further words of wisdom or affectionate anecdotes concerning the estate to impart, and then to ask if there was anything he desired. Usually he answered the latter question with a simple smile and shake of his head, but this time he said slowly, "I would like very much to accompany Prince Soma on his planned journey to Midford Hall tomorrow, if he will allow it."
Agni blinked in surprise, but said with a smile that he would bring the matter up with his highness at dinner that evening. Then Mey-Rin, sitting nearby and polishing the silver for dinner, cooed that it was such a lovely sentimental idea and she wished she could go as well, and at the stove Bard sighed that he'd sure like a chance to see his sweetheart Paula at her place for once. The prince had hired on other staff for the estate over the years (since Agni, though highly capable, couldn't do the work of a full dozen servants at once in the way Sebastian routinely had), but Finnian, Mey-Rin and Bard were all considered the senior staff and given a bit more leeway for that reason. Agni said with a smile, "Since Finny will be following us in the cart to play his part tomorrow, I will try to persuade the prince to permit the three of you to ride along in the cart as well, for sentiment's sake!"
The prince gave his permission at dinnertime, and so the next day the carriage set out for Midford Hall with Prince Soma and Agni inside, and Finny followed in the luggage cart with Tanaka, Bard and Mey-Rin for company. The prince's carriage had been freshly painted and decorated for the occasion, and as they traveled the breeze carried snatches of conversation from the carriage back to the cart. Prince Soma spent quite a bit of the journey fretting about his appearance and the portfolio he was bringing with him, as well as the speech he had been planning for the last few weeks, while Agni spent a great deal of time reassuring his master that he looked quite suitable in his dove-grey suit, the portfolio he'd put together was very impressive, and surely his speech would be well received.
The horses were fresh and the roads were dry, so they made good time to Midford Hall. As a letter had been sent beforehand stating his intentions to call upon the family, the Marquis was at the residence instead of in London or off inspecting his estate, and greeted him cordially on the steps to the main entrance. But when the Marquis invited him inside, Prince Soma swallowed nervously before saying, "Actually, would you please ask Lizzie if she'll come to meet us out here? I, ah, what I have to say to her should be said out here, but I can't explain why just yet."
Marquis Midford raised his eyebrows a trifle, but agreed and gestured for a nearby footman to approach, as the Phantomhive servants quietly stepped out of the cart to form a short row with Agni at the lead, a respectful distance behind the prince. Saying in a low voice that probably hadn't been intended to carry quite so well to other ears, the nobleman ordered his footman, "Go fetch my daughter from her room... and make sure she understands that she's not to come down here wearing black again; she was told two days ago that enough is enough!"
A short while later Lady Elizabeth appeared, wearing a bright blue gown, and a decidedly nervous-excited expression. "Hello, Som—I mean, welcome, Your Highness," she quickly corrected herself, as her mother appeared on the stairs just behind her. "Wh-what brings you to Midford Hall today?
The prince didn't reply at first, just staring up at her on the steps, his expression stuck somewhere between longing and terrified. Then, standing several feet behind his prince, Agni coughed rather firmly into his fist, and the noise startled the prince out of his apparent daze; after a hard swallow, he managed to say, "I...I wanted to show you something," while reaching back to Agni without looking.
Agni handed forward a thick portfolio bound in leather, and the prince took it as he said, "You know that soon after I came to this country, after learning what a foolish spoiled child I'd been, I vowed to stay here and improve myself until it was plain to see that I'd become a great man in my own right, not just a brat clinging to his father's royal robes. Originally, my planned measurement of success was for Ciel and his butler, Sebastian who told no lies, to both agree that I'd become a great man... but after they left, I had to find a new yardstick. And so I began to ask: what are the qualities that make a man, a great man?
"I asked many different people, from tenants on the estate, to the nobles who had invited me to parties, to my own countrymen in the East End. The answers varied wildly, and not just between classes but between people in the same class, but finally a rough consensus was agreed on; a great man is someone who has both great wealth and influence, and who uses them for the betterment of others. And 'great wealth' was finally agreed on as someone who has a total income greater than £1,000 per annum, or whose total worth exceeds five thousand pounds," as the prince opened the portfolio to the first page, a table of figures and sums.
"You see here my portfolio, showing my total income; the sums earned as manager of the Phantomhive Estate, and as an executive of Funtom Company." Pointing lower down on the page, he continued, "This is a list of all the investments I've made with my incomes, as well as the stipend that was sent to me from my father in Bengal for my first few years here... and here, the returns that have come from the earlier investments. My income isn't quite £1,000 per annum, but in total, if every pound and shilling in every financial account is summed up, then as of yesterday my total financial worth is over £5,102. So I've met the first criteria: great wealth."
Looking up from the portfolio, while still talking to Lady Elizabeth, the prince's eyes met those of her father and mother standing nearby as he said, "As for great influence... your father once said himself that I've kept Funtom Company alive with my ideas; I count that as having real influence there. And you know I've been active with charitable works among my countrymen and people of India living in the East End; that's given me influence there as well. There was that one time last year when they were ready to riot, after what those drunken soldiers did to the daughters of the Mukherjee family, but Agni and I persuaded them to hold off and give military justice a chance to act."
"That's right; it was largely your influence that prevented the rioting, and a lot of needless injury and property damage," the Marquis said with a sage nod of his head. "And I don't mind saying that it was also your influence with me that led to my using my own influence on the military tribunal, to see justice done swiftly instead of dragging on far too long. But let's not dwell further on such grim matters today! Instead, let us agree that you've also become a man with great influence in certain circles."
"Thank you, Sir," Prince Soma said with a quick bow of his head, before flipping to the next page in his portfolio. "And the last criteria: using one's wealth and influence of the betterment of others. I'll let all these letters speak for me," and he began slowly turning pages; on each page was a letter from someone, sometimes a charitable institution, sometimes a solitary person or family, but each one of them was a letter of thanks for the prince's contribution, usually of money but sometimes of time and effort instead, spent in organizing charitable events that persuaded others to donate money for worthy causes. Over seven years' worth of such letters, all carefully preserved, made for a fairly thick portfolio.
"These letters speak for Prince Soma very well indeed, don't they, my dear?" Alexis Midford asked his wife with a knowing smile.
"Well enough," Frances Midford said with a severe expression, as though disapproving of giving such praise, but a small smile tugged at the corner of her lips.
"Well then! A man of considerable wealth and influence, who uses both for the betterment of others; I would say Prince Soma has become a great man in his own right!" and the marquis beamed, as proudly as if the foreign prince had been his own flesh and blood instead.
The prince started to thank the marquis for his assessment, but his wife's voice cut across them both. "That may be so, but! What does he intend to do now that he has reached his goal?" Stepping forward from her husband's side, the Marchioness Midford reminded them all, "When you began your tale, Your Highness, you said you would 'stay here until you became a great man.' What are your plans now?"
Prince Soma sighed, suddenly wounding a bit weary. "Eight years ago, my response would have been, 'Return home, of course!' 'Home' being the capital of Bengal, the royal palace and the city around it. And I do miss a great deal about my native land; the colors, the festivals, the flowers and trees that simply don't grow here... I would like to return there someday, but somehow it is no longer 'Home' for my heart. Not when there is someone here in this country, who holds my heart in her hands," as he looked straight into Lady Elizabeth's wide eyes.
Then the prince almost whispered, "Would you hold this for a moment?" as he handed her the portfolio. As soon as Elizabeth accepted the bundle he stepped backwards, gesturing imperiously. Instantly, both Agni and Finnian stepped forward, to stand on either side of him. After a moment's pause, Soma lifted a hand and snapped his fingers. Finnian then reached over, grabbed Soma about the waist-and flipped him upside down!
The grey silk top hat went flying, and the Midfords all gasped in unison, but Finnian wasn't done yet; still holding the upside-down royalty firmly by the waist, he passed the body over to Agni, who grabbed his prince firmly by the ankles and held them at arm's length, till the ends of Soma's hair brushed against the grass. Then Finnian stepped over to behind Agni, crouched down to grab the tall khansama by his ankles, and swiftly lifted both Bengali men into the air together!
Finnian set Agni's feet firmly on his shoulders, and Agni's own grip on his prince's legs never wavered. Being held upside down but also high in the air, Soma looked down at the Midford family and waved to them in a friendly fashion. Both the marquis and his daughter burst out laughing at the sight, but the marchioness nearly shouted with outrage, "What is the meaning of this... circus trick?!"
Disheveled and a little breathless, Prince Soma explained, "It's to show that besides being a great man, I'm also 'willing to play the fool occasionally, if it will give Lizzie a few moments of genuine laughter'! It's one of the qualities that Ciel wanted you to look for in potential husbands, isn't it?"
Then, speaking only to the young lady herself, Prince Soma said, "Lizzie, I've loved you more and more with every year we've known each other, and now I can finally say it: I want to be the one to 'bring you joy in the morning and warmth in the evening, every day of your life.' Please, will you marry me? And we'll name our first son Ciel, I promise!"
"Yes! YES!" Lizzie nearly screamed with delight, before dashing forward and reaching up to tug Soma's downwards. Smiling benevolently down at them, Agni lowered his arms enough to put Soma's head on the same level as hers, and she leaned in to kiss him before her mother's scolding "Elizabeth! Not in public!" could ring out.
Forgetting themselves, all the Phantomhive servants cheered aloud for their prince and master, though they immediately quieted when the Marchioness's stern eyes swept over them. Then Bard stepped forward to say gruffly, "Let me help you back on your feet, Your Highness," while Mey-Rin went to retrieve and dust off his wayward top hat.
Agni carefully lowered the prince into the former soldier's arms, and then lightly leaped down from Finnian's shoulders as Soma was set upright again. Meanwhile, Tanaka overheard the Marchioness grumble, "To be proper, he should have asked us for her hand in marriage first..."
"Oh, he asked me two weeks ago, while we were inspecting the sweets factory together, if he could propose once her mourning was over," the Marquis responded cheerfully. "I'm sure you'd rather he had come to the manor to ask us both, but you do have a bit of a reputation, my dear..."
Once he was on his feet again, Prince Soma staggered dizzily for the first step or two. When Lady Elizabeth fretted that he'd been upside-down for too long, he said cheerily, "It's not from being upside-down; it's from being kissed by a goddess!"
"...Then he and the Midfords went inside, to begin planning the official announcement and engagement party," Tanaka said with a reminiscent smile. "The engagement party was held at the Midford family's townhouse, as one of the final events of that year's Season. And the wedding was held here at Phantomhive Manor, the following year; April 7th 1997."
Ciel gave a small start of surprise as he echoed, "April 7th, 1997? That's the same day I woke up from my coma!"
"A day of happy occasions all around, then," Sebastian mused with a smile...
A smile which rapidly fell from his face when Tanaka turned to look him straight in the eyes while quietly echoing, "Coma?"
The regret, guilt and remembered grief Sebastian felt at the reminder of what Ciel had suffered thanks to his stubborn idiocy were all too familiar to the elder demon, but what was not familiar was the slight curl of trepidation around his spine at the look in Tanaka's eyes...
"It's not important, Tanaka, not anymore," Ciel said firmly as he stepped between the ghost and demon, returning Tanaka's focus to him. "Continue your story... So they got married, but did it cause a scandal? Was Lizzie made to feel unwelcome in Society as a result? We came here from London, after learning news that indicated she hasn't been seen at any of the balls and social events for the last few years..."
"My lord, I believe there were a few unkind whispers about their betrothal in certain circles, but I can assure you that their spring wedding was considered the first major Event of that year's Season, and everyone of merit ensured their invitations to at least the grand reception if not the wedding itself. It was a lovely ceremony, combining British wedding traditions with some of the more beautiful Bengali traditions; why, it was so lovely that that even the Marchioness Midford was seen to be weeping tears of joy at one point in the ceremony!"
"Aunt Frances, weeping tears of joy?!" Ciel looked highly skeptical. "I'd be more inclined to believe that any tears shed were caused by some unwary insect flying out of the flowers and into her eye."
Tanaka bowed as he said smoothly, "You are of course free to believe as you wish, my lord. Regardless, the wedding was very well attended. And thereafter the prince and princess received invitations to many Society events, throughout the Season. Though I regret that I cannot say for certain how many of those events they actually attended; that spring my awareness of daily events gradually withered, as my mortal shell weakened even further, until..."
During their years of serving together at Phantomhive Manor, Agni had noted that Tanaka liked to start his day sitting seiza just outside the kitchen door, drinking tea and watching the sun rise, weather permitting. The kindly butler had quietly built a low platform next to the steps for the elderly man's use, and ensured it was swept clean on a daily basis. And if the morning's duties were not too pressing, he would occasionally join the old steward there, drinking tea and watching the sun rise in companionable silence.
On that particular day in late June, the Summer Solstice to be exact, Agni was a trifle too busy with the daily meeting and task assignments, and then settling a minor but bitter dispute between two of the footmen, to make it outside in time for sunrise. It was rather a pity, Tanaka thought to himself as he settled down into the correct posture, regardless of the strain it put on his aged knees and ankles. Tanaka had thought of a few words he would have liked to say to his Bengali friend... Then he put the matter out of his mind as he took a sip of tea, cleared his thoughts, and waited as the sky lightened to the east.
Later, the dispute finally settled and the family's breakfast preparations in the kitchen staff's capable hands, Agni came outside with a fresh pot of tea and cups, saying cheerfully, "There you are, Tanaka; a lovely sunrise, was it not? I caught a glimpse of it through the windows earlier. And now that the day is well started, I think it is time for some..." Agni's voice trailed off as he set the tea tray down on the platform, and as he realized that Tanaka was too quiet. Too quiet, and while he still sat facing the sunrise, his teacup had fallen from his fingers to lie on the platform...
After checking for a pulse first at a bony old wrist, then at a pale wrinkled throat, Agni reached up further and gently drew the lids down over Tanaka's eyes, his own eyes brimming with tears. "Farewell, old friend," he choked out. "Farewell, and give Sebastian my warm regards..."
"...You 'left your mortal shell behind' at sunrise on the summer solstice," Sebastian repeated slowly, looking at Tanaka with narrowed eyes. "Tanaka, I used to highly discourage talk among the staff about what people had done prior to becoming Phantomhive servants, but now that those days are passed, I find myself quite curious about your own history. And I believe we both know that the day you technically left Phantomhive employ, has supernatural significance for many creatures. Tanaka, on the ties created between us by serving the same master together, I ask you specifically: Were you bound to service, for a set period of time? And if so, for how many years?"
"...For one full century," the ghost admitted quietly, looking down at the grass instead of into the demon's eyes.
"A full century?" Ciel asked incredulously. He'd known Tanaka was old, but not that old... Over a century old and, as Sebastian had deduced, some sort of supernatural being, not that the news surprised Ciel anymore. Because while he'd heard that most humans actually shrunk a little in height in their old age, that drastically reduced state that Tanaka had spent most of his time in after the Fire had been far too extreme to be part of any normal human's aging process.
Was Tanaka a demon, too? No, Sebastian would have sensed that, just like he'd sensed the nature of all the Trancy servants, and found some excuse to kick Tanaka out of the manor rather than keep him around just because the master was fond of him. Ciel wanted to outright ask Tanaka what sort of supernatural creature he was, but he'd noted that Sebastian hadn't asked that, when it was such an obvious question; he wondered if the question was considered rude, by those who'd been supernatural for all their existence instead of converted from human. So rather than ask Tanaka to define his nature, he asked, "How did you end up bound in service to my family?"
Tanaka smiled while shaking his head slightly and saying, "Oh, surely you're not that interested in what a mere servant did before taking up his duties; not when there is still much more to tell about the young master's friends and what has happened in their lives. Once free of my mortal shell, while no longer able to affect and advise, I was able to observe keenly once more..."
The deflection had been polite but firm, and the intent unmistakable; Tanaka didn't want to tell him anything about his past, or his true nature. Ciel thought briefly about ordering him to confess all, but quickly discarded the idea as poor treatment indeed for a servant who had proven literally faithful beyond death, and instead settled back to listen as Tanaka continued his tale:
When Soma and Lizzie had been married six months, they left together for Bengal, timing their arrival for after the monsoon season had passed and planning to stay for the autumn and winter holidays there. Tanaka's spirit had stayed with the estate rather than accompanying them across the waters, but he'd read through Agni's letters to Bard and the other servants about the new princess's reception in the royal house of Bengal. The Rajah had not been pleased at first with one of his sons having 'gone English' so far as to marry an English girl, but had gradually warmed to the idea and to her over the next few months, particularly since Lizzie had been so earnest in learning more about her husband's culture and customs, determined to incorporate at least a few of them into their household.
When the husband and wife returned to England in the spring, it was with a definite 'baby bump' under Elizabeth's clothing, and they were accompanied by a royal nursemaid named Amala for the child-to-be as well as a mahout named Setu and two well-trained elephants for the stables. Their firstborn child was born in September of that year, and named Ciel Alexis Kadar; the middle name chosen to honor Lizzie's father.
The elephants Bala and Kushali, whom the staff had first thought would be nothing more than expensive curiosities and a burden on the manor's finances, eventually proved useful indeed for clearing toppled trees from roads and similar construction and agricultural work. Finny, who had adored the elephants from the moment they'd arrived on the estate, had asked to be trained as an assistant mahout and quickly proved to be adept at elephant care and management; it soon became common for Finny and Setu the mahout to be seen riding Bala and Kushali down the road to wherever their aid had been requested, on the Phantomhive estate and even beyond.
Bardroy and Paula were given permission to marry, after assuring the master & mistress that their love for each other would not take precedence over their devotion to their duties as chef and lady's maid, and so far have kept their word quite admirably. Mey-Rin, who had not even known how to read before Sebastian had taught her and Finnian together, persevered in learning with Agni's help (and with a better set of eyeglasses to further correct her vision,) and eventually began to write her own stories. Her romance stories never sold, but she unexpectedly proved to be adept at creating thrilling adventure stories full of wicked villains, crime lords and mercenaries, handsome heroic men and exceedingly clever boys that outwit the villains at every turn. She had published three chapbooks and was now a regular contributor to magazines such as The Boys' Own Paper, under the nom de plume Basil Michaels. Upon hearing her chosen pseudonym, Ciel gave the obvious source of her inspiration a teasing glance, to which Sebastian could only smile and shrug slightly in response.
Just before little Ciel had turned three years old, Lizzie had given birth to her and Soma's daughter, named Ananda Francis Kadar to honor both her grandmothers. Listening to Tanaka's tales of how devoted both Soma and Lizzie were to their children, it soon became plain to Ciel why the new Viscountess Druitt had never made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Kadar née Midford, despite her being not just the daughter of a marquis but a princess by marriage. Lizzie and Soma were happy being parents, and while they were still invited to galas, soirees and balls on a regular basis, they were now very selective about which events they would leave their children and travel to London for, and generally preferred to invite their friends out to the manor for entertaining instead. Ciel strongly suspected that they only traveled to events at which it would be perfectly acceptable for one to talk on and on about how adorable their children were, and the ever-so-fashionable Viscount and Viscountess simply didn't attend those types of parties.
Tanaka's tales were suddenly interrupted by peals of laughter, coming from Lizzie and Soma together; Ciel looked in their direction to see them both laughing so hard that they had to lean on each other for support, and Agni trying rather unsuccessfully to stifle his own chuckles behind his hand, while the portrait artist just looked at the three of them in bewilderment. Ciel fleetingly wished he knew what they had found so funny... but it didn't really matter, did it? He wasn't a part of their lives, and hadn't been for a long time. "It's just as I'd thought it would be when I left," he said quietly with a pained smile. "Everyone is better off without me."
"No, my lord, you mustn't think that!" both Tanaka and Sebastian said nearly in unison, and with nearly identical expressions of dismay. Tanaka went on to add, "Forgive me for not making it more clear in my tale; none of the current happiness of all who dwell at this manor would have happened if not for you! If not for your intervention and the example you set for him, Prince Soma would likely have returned to Bengal as much of a spoiled brat as he had been when he left, and ended up as miserable as all who are raised that way ultimately do. And there is no doubt at all that if not for your hiring each of them away from their former situations, Bardroy, Finnian and Mey-Rin would have all died by violence or in utter desolation. And Lady Elizabeth would never have found happiness with Prince Soma; if not for your final letter to her and all it inspired, her parents might well have married her off to someone of great social rank but far less worthy, such as the Viscount Druitt." Tanaka must have noted the start Ciel gave at the name, for he added, "That particular member of Society did ask for her hand in marriage once, but was politely but firmly turned away."
If not for the news that Sebastian had relayed to Ciel only an hour ago about the viscount's current miserable state, Ciel would have suggested another trip to London immediately, just to make absolutely sure that particular nightmare never came to pass.
"I believe it is telling, my lord, that Soma and Elizabeth's firstborn child was named after you, despite your having been gone' for nearly ten full years by the time of his birth," Sebastian put in. "It is how they chose to acknowledge to the world that you are the author of their happiness."
Then Sebastian turned to Tanaka and said mildly, "But it occurs to me that there is one person on this estate who was left out of your recounting of personal joys and accomplishments... You yourself, Tanaka. Forgive me for being so terribly blunt, but with your term of mortal service expired, why are you still here? What so troubles your spirit that you must stay and haunt the estate rather than move on?"
"Oh, you needn't concern yourself about such a trivial matter," Tanaka began with another smile and slight shake of his head, but he stopped when Ciel stepped forward, his hand raised in a firm that's enough gesture.
"Please, stop acting like you're unimportant to us," he said softly. "Since you don't want to talk about it for some reason, I won't ask you about your true nature or how you came to serve my family. But please, answer this honestly: now that you're 'free of your mortal shell', is there somewhere that you'd rather be?"
His head bowed and eyes shut, Tanaka whispered simply, "Yes."
"And what is preventing you from going there?"
"...An unfulfilled vow," Tanaka finally admitted. "A vow I made of my own free will, foolishly never considering that I would be unable to see it through. I had thought that..." his voice trailed off as he shook his head before finishing, "It does not matter now."
"Obviously, it does matter," Ciel refuted with a challenging eyebrow. "What was this vow?"
Tanaka finally lifted his head to look him in the eyes, and the sad smile the ghost gave him was full of heartbreak. "My lord, it was to see you happily married, with a family of your own."
"..." as Ciel could only stare at him in shock.
"Because you had become my family, presumptuous as it was to think so," Tanaka explained. "First your father Vincent, then you; you of all the Phantomhives were my clever kits, using your wiles to vanquish your foes. I saw you born, my kit; I held you in my arms, and when Vincent asked me if I'd watch over you just as I'd always watched over him, I vowed to do so without hesitation. I vowed to see you grown and happily married, with a family of your own; fool that I was, I had believed that since you would turn twenty-one years old before my century of service ended, the vow could be fulfilled without any hindrance. I had never thought that your monarch, driven insane with grief for her dead husband, would ally herself with an angel even more insane than her. I had not expected the mansion to be attacked on your tenth birthday, by a holy being wielding unholy fire..."
"Ashrael," Sebastian growled, his voice echoing with harmonics of power, clearly remembering his own battles with the insane angel, including the final one that had cost him an arm.
Tanaka nodded miserably. "I was overpowered in a heartbeat, before I could protect any member of my little human family. All my power burned away, then my flesh skewered by its blade..." He gave a small, bitter chuckle as he admitted, "I would have perished on the spot, but for my binding to service; that alone kept me from dying, though it could not restore all the power I'd lost. I had to recover as a human would, in the hospital that I'd been brought to by the tenants who'd found me amidst the ruins. Then, when I saw you walk in through those hospital doors, alive and looking for your aunt..."
Ciel almost instinctively threw himself forward to embrace Tanaka, just as he had that day decades ago when they'd found each other in the London Hospital... But was momentarily shocked to pass right through him instead. He's a ghost now, remember? he bitterly chided himself in his disappointment. But then, he felt a slight pressure surround him with ghostly arms; Tanaka trying his best to embrace him back.
"I was so, so happy to see you alive, my kit," Tanaka whispered, before letting go and stepping back to eye him sadly. "But you came back so very changed, from the happy child you had been..."
"He came back under contract with a demon, his soul claimed for my planned dinner," Sebastian said somberly, standing several feet away with his hands clasped in front of him and his head bowed.
"I came back after suffering losses and torture that would have killed most people," Ciel retorted with a firm look back at Sebastian. "That changed me far more than you did, at least at first."
"Losses and torture that you should never have been subjected to; would never have been, if I had just been a little more clever, had been more proactive about protecting you from your own mad queen," Tanaka said with a shake of his head.
"No, you mustn't blame yourself for that," Ciel said firmly. "You said it yourself; how could anyone have anticipated an insane angel showing up and wreaking havoc? You did all you could, Tanaka; I don't blame you in the slightest for it not being enough to stop Ash from doing anything."
"Thank you for your forgiveness," Tanaka whispered, his eyes downcast. "But it doesn't change the fact that you came back no longer happy in the slightest, and I had lost any power to change that. All I could do was watch, as you tried so hard to fill your father's shoes as the Watchdog... as that cursed angel came back to attack you and destroy your home once more... as that blighted nest of demons on the Trancy estate pulled you into their mire, and eventually changed you into one of them, driving you away from the estate for good! I could do nothing to help you, nothing to protect my last kit and keep my vow... being chained here is fitting punishment."
"No, it is not," Ciel said firmly.
"Particularly since you did do more than merely watch," Sebastian says, stepping forward to stand beside Ciel again. "You know very well that after we brought you home from the hospital, I listened to you whenever you were strong enough to advise me on the needs of the estate and on what could please our mutual master. Who was it who told me of his childhood desire to own a toy store, to make other children happy? Who told me of the fledgling toy company his father had started with a simple "Noah's Ark" toy set, but that had collapsed when the family had perished in The Fire? Ciel would never have admitted to it on his own, being far too focused on his Watchdog duties and on managing the Phantomhive estate. If not for your words to me, Funtom Company would never have been revived, let alone turned into the thriving toy and sweets empire it became."
"And that did make me happy," Ciel said earnestly. "I tried to pretend it was just about all the money coming in, proving that I could do even more than my father had... but I really loved 'testing' all the products before they went to market, and the smiling faces on children eating the sweets and playing with the toys that I saw whenever we went into London."
"Your advice to me and to the other servants mattered, Tanaka, and you played an important part in all our lives. I'll grant you that Ciel being changed into a demon against his will, certainly put a stop to everyone's plans for the future at that point in time," Sebastian said slowly, "But since then, he and I have both changed, and..." he abruptly spun Ciel to face him and dropped to one knee, while a small velvet box holding a golden ring appeared in his hand. He held it up as he implored, "Ciel, my darling, will you marry me?"
"M-m-marry?" Ciel found himself stammering as he blushed beet red. How would that even work? They were both men, not to mention demons!
"I ask this not just to help Tanaka fulfill his vow at last," Sebastian said hurriedly, "but because I want to spend every century I can with you, far beyond the end of our tutoring agreement. Marriage isn't the way of demons, but I'll shred apart anyone who would dare gainsay this, gainsay us; all I care about is that being with you makes me happy, and I want to spend the rest of your life making you happy in return. So I ask again, will you marry me?"
Who cared about convention, what other demons or Society might think? "Yes!" Ciel nearly shouted as he all but fell into Sebastian's arms, for a celebratory hug and kiss; a very enthusiastic kiss, that threatened to become more until he remembered they had an audience. He pulled back to look at Tanaka, who was standing there staring at them with wide eyes and his hand raised to his mouth, unsuccessful at hiding a smile of either joy or mirth, or possibly both at once.
"I know it's not what you had in mind for me, but Sebastian really does make me happy. And, er..." as Ciel blushed even redder, rubbing the nape of his neck with one hand while not quite able to meet Tanaka's eyes. What he was about to say was embarrassing to admit, even to a ghost, but there was truly no point in waiting to have a fancy ceremony with an officiate, witnesses and a wedding cake before declaring themselves married. Tanaka was witness enough, and Ciel and Sebastian had never needed an officiate for any of their prior life-changing agreements. "One could say we're already 'married', in the most basic sense... for the past ten months."
"Ten months, eight days, and sixteen hours," Sebastian promptly added with a smirk as he slid the ring onto Ciel's finger, and a matching band appeared on his left hand. "The honeymoon was exceedingly brief, due to my contractual obligations at the time, but nonetheless lovely."
"And as for 'having a family'... Well, it's already here, on the estate. Just a moment," as Ciel closed his eyes and concentrated. He had taken this form a few times before, but only long enough to learn to maneuver in it, as it was such a fragile creature... but any other form would likely result in attempts to either drive him off or capture him, while he did what he could to make his statement at least somewhat official. He pictured the form firmly in mind, and shifted...
And a blue butterfly with black-edged wings fluttered up and away from the small cluster of supernaturals, over to the cluster of humans watching a portrait being painted.
He fluttered to a landing on Lizzie's golden hair first. Lizzie, my dear sweet cousin; you've always been part of my family. I'm glad you're happy now, with Soma and your children. Be happy always, as he pressed a butterfly kiss to her hair.
"Princess, you have a visitor," Agni said with warm amusement clear in his voice, at the same time that Soma gasped, "Lizzie, don't move! You've got a butterfly in your hair; it's beautiful!"
Thanks for the compliment, Ciel thought with amusement as he launched again, and fluttered around the small group once before landing on Soma's shoulder. Soma stared at him in open-mouthed delight (and the perspective at such close range was a bit daunting), but he projected, Soma, you always called me your 'little brother'; today I claim that title in return. You are my brother, now and always. Thank you for making Lizzie happy, and for taking care of my estate and my servants, as he deliberately brushed a wing against his brother's cheek, before taking flight again.
He fluttered up to the howdah on the elephant's back, where the little boy Ciel was staring and pointing at him while delightedly exclaiming something in words he didn't understand; probably something in Bengali, of course they'd raise the boy to be bilingual. Hello, namesake; hello, nephew, he projected as he landed lightly on that outstretched finger. I claim you as family too, and heir to the estate. Now you be good for your mother, and perhaps I'll come to see you again someday, as he fluttered off again.
One final visit, up to a window on the second floor of the mansion, where he knew the nursery had always been. He landed lightly on the glass pane and peered through it, to see a dark-skinned woman in a servant's uniform sitting quietly and darning a sock while a little girl slept in a bed nearby. So you're Lizzie's daughter Ananda, eh? I claim you as my niece, and I've no doubt you'll grow up to be as beautiful as her in your own way, as he gazed at the napping toddler for a few moments before turning away, back to where Sebastian was waiting.
Sebastian smiled and held up the palm of his hand for a landing pad, and Ciel lit on it briefly to flutter his wings flirtingly at his lover—at his husband, now; the realization was both weird and utterly delightful—before hopping off, and shifting in midair to land on his usual two feet again. "So: happily married, and with a family of my own," he told Tanaka with a smile. "But, Grandpa Tanaka, before you leave... one more try?" as he held his arms open.
With tears of sheer joy trickling down from those aged eyes and with that old familiar happy chuckle, Tanaka stepped forward... and became solid for a moment, hugging Ciel firmly as he whispered, "My clever, clever kit. Thank you, so much..."
"Thank you, Grandpa, for everything you've done for me and my family," Ciel whispered back, before reluctantly letting go.
Tanaka stepped back as he turned insubstantial once more, bowed low to them both, and then began rising into the air. His form wavered and changed as he did so; first to that shrunken-down human form they'd seen so often before, and then to something else entirely, that glowed too brightly for them to look at. Squinting hard, Ciel tried to discern his true shape—was that a tail?—but never really got a good look before being distracted by a glowing portal that appeared high in the air. Oriental music could be heard coming from that portal, and a babble of high-pitched voices speaking in what might be Japanese; then what-was-Tanaka touched the portal, and both vanished with a final flash of light.
Both Ciel and Sebastian looked wordlessly upwards for a moment more, before turning to each other. "That was a lovely gesture you made, my lord," Sebastian said with a smile.
"Not just a gesture; I meant every word of it," Ciel said firmly, as he looked out to where Lizzie and Soma were talking, still unaware of all that had just transpired. "We can't stay around here to take care of them, but they're my family, and I'm glad to see they're doing well. It's hard to believe, though; that I helped to make them and so many others happy, just by being a part of their lives once..."
"It's not hard to believe at all," Sebastian countered firmly. "My lord, despite all the pain you experienced in your human life and all the rage and bitterness that shrouded your daily affairs, the purity at your core, the very best part of humanity, still shone through at the most unexpected moments." He smiled as he chided, "Ciel, how can you think so low of yourself, when you taught a demon how to love?"
"Pfft, silly demon; I didn't teach you that, you figured it out all on your own," Ciel retorted as they embraced.
Their kissing in the shadow of the greenhouse would have continued for much longer, but they were interrupted by a distractingly loud trumpeting coming from within the elephants' stable; doubtless that other elephant Tanaka had told them about, Kushali, complaining about her sister getting all the attention while she languished indoors.
"Well, if you're not of a mind to stay and watch over your newfound family for a while longer, then where would you like to go now?" Sebastian asked.
"Mmm, Italy was nice, but I'd rather go elsewhere now," Ciel mused, rubbing his chin in thought. "I'm certain Tanaka came from Japan originally; perhaps we could go there and make some inquiries, find out more about who and what he was? Or we could go to America; I've heard so much about that country, I'm curious to see it with my own eyes."
"I see no reason why we can't visit both countries; we have plenty of time for traveling," Sebastian said with a smile. "But shall we spend a brief holiday in England first? With your family out here on the main estate, that likely means your old townhouse is currently vacant. And I would like to fulfill some old fantasies of mine, of ravishing you thoroughly on that magnificent four-poster bed there," as the smile turned wicked. "And then downstairs on the kitchen table, and then on the desk in your study..."
The Ciel of fifteen years ago would have slapped the smirk off of his demon's face before ordering him to rip his own tongue out, and then would have really punished him for saying such horrible things.
The Ciel of even three years ago would have blushed, stammered and tried hard to pretend he wasn't both excited and terrified of such activities.
Ciel mentally waved those boys goodbye as he smirked up at his lover—husband!—and offered, "I'll let out the ears and tail, if you'll bring out the wings..."
"Oooh, I like that idea," Sebastian breathed, his eyes glowing with arousal as he lowered his face for another kiss...
But they were interrupted again, not by a trumpeting elephant, but by another familiar voice shouting, "Yoo-hoo, Bassy-chan!"
They both whipped around to see a red-clad figure approaching rapidly from the east, a chainsaw slung over one shoulder. Grell cried out gaily; "It must be fate, my darling! Here I'd just transferred back from France to the English Bureau, and on only my third day back, I sense your presence near where I'm reaping!" The red-gloved hand not carrying the chainsaw wagged a finger at them in a scolding fashion as Grell continued, And you left our date early, Bassy, back in Paris; you still owe me fifteen minutes—and more, with accumulated interest!"
"I'm terribly sorry, but I've just gotten married, and I believe that takes me off the market for such activities!" Sebastian called back, before scooping Ciel up with a hurried, "You were interested in seeing Japan first, correct? No time like the present; let's be off!"
Safe in Sebastian's arms, Ciel couldn't help laughing a little at Grell's disappointed howl as they dashed off and away, towards the next adventure.
And so they wander to this day, perhaps; a gentleman of elegant manners and his younger, sometimes less-patient companion, both dressing just a cut above what's required to blend in with the populace of their current locale. Seeing the sights, sampling the 'local cuisine' as it were, and contracting with those souls they deem worthy of their time and effort. Traveling the world, never staying in one place too long... and always finding their home in each other.