Black Butler: Through the Years

Chapter 5: His Master, Ashamed

Two days after Marchioness Midford and her daughter visited Phantomhive Manor, they had another visitor; one whom they had known well in advance would be coming that day, though they didn't go to any great lengths to please her. Quite the opposite:

At the sound of the front door knocker being vigorously banged, Sebastian strode into the foyer and opened the door, and then frowned down at the visitor. "Miss Hopkins, I've told you before, trades people such as yourself are expected to arrive at the rear entrance."

"And a good morning to you, too, Mister Hardhead," Nina Hopkins retorted, frowning up at the butler's face. "As for the rear entrance to the manor, that is for servants! And Nina Hopkins, the tailor who announces the seasons, is not a servant, but an artiste!"

"Referring to yourself in the third person is a sign of narcissism and mental illness, Miss Hopkins," Sebastian said with clear exasperation. "I am sorely tempted to close this door and insist that you go around to the rear, but the master is already waiting for you in the drawing room, and it would not do to keep him waiting further."

Once inside and heading into the drawing room, Nina called out gaily, "And what daring new outfit do you need this time, my little earl? Are you going on another adventure to distant lands? After the delight of designing your outfits for exploring Africa on Her Majesty's business, I can hardly wait to find out what my new challenge will be!"

Seated in his favorite chair with a detective novel, as he'd been reading to pass the time while waiting for her to arrive, Ciel looked up at Nina with an arched eyebrow and wry expression. "Your 'challenge', Miss Hopkins, will consist solely of making a respectable wardrobe for me. For a growing young gentleman," he added as he stood up, his lips quirking in a blink-and-you-miss-it smile.

Nina Hopkins went from leaning solicitously over the earl's seated figure, to drawing back with a startled frown as he stood up from the chair and stretched to his full height in front of her. "You... you've grown! At least a full inch, in just the three months since I saw you last!"

"A full inch and a half," Ciel informed her, no longer able to hold back his smug grin. "And I believe my shoulders are a bit broader than before as well; you'll need to do a full set of measurements today."

As Miss Hopkins began working with measuring tape and clipboard, frowning in concentration and perhaps something more, Mey-Rin quietly approached Sebastian at the entrance to the drawing room. "Mister Sebastian, perhaps while she's here, Miss Hopkins could see Dahlia as well?" the maid suggested hesitantly. "Dahlia will be needing a holster under her uniform for her pistol, yes she will. And... and begging your pardon, Mister Sebastian, but Miss Nina's designs for concealed holsters are, um, a bit more comfortable for the female figure than your design, I'm so sorry to say."

Sebastian frowned at Mey-Rin, but chose not to comment on her remark concerning his own tailoring abilities. Instead he asked, "Has she finished deciding on the long-distance weapon she'll be using, then?"

"Not yet, sir, but it should be soon. When last I looked out at the firing range, Bard had narrowed it down to three weapons for her, yes he had..."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Even as Mey-Rin was speaking to Sebastian indoors, back in the fields behind the mansion, Bard was looking through a pair of binoculars at a target twenty yards away from where he and Dahlia were standing, Dahlia with a short-barreled revolver in her hands. "Damn good grouping; all but one shot within an inch of the bulls-eye," he commented past the smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips; lips that twitched up into a smile as he added, "Ain't nobody gonna expect that from a gun that's normally used for close-in fighting!"

"Precision aiming is required for throwing weapons, too," Dahlia commented with a wry smile as she lightly touched the braided coil of hair piled atop her head, in which she kept two hair-sticks that doubled as daggers, and over a dozen tiny throwing blades hidden within the long braid.

"Yeah, and that damn strong grip you got from strangling people makes it easy to handle a Webley Bulldog's recoil, just like I figured," Bard said almost smugly. "Yeah, you'll do fine on the Bulldog. Convenient, too, if you and the master use the same gun; there'll be less chance of grabbing the wrong type of ammunition from the armory in a crisis."

"The young master fires one of these?" Dahlia said, blinking down at the small but powerful revolver in her hands. "I wouldn't have thought..." her voice trailed off, and she seemed to shrink in on herself.

"Lemme guess; you thought he was too small and prissy to handle a Bulldog?" as Bard gave her a lopsided grin. "You should've seen him last year, before he started really growing; such a scrawny little thing that you'd expect him to be knocked on his arse by the recoil from an itty-bitty derringer! But even before I got hired on here, he carried a Bulldog when he went out on the Queen's business, and he'd go bird-hunting with a full-sized shotgun too."

"Indeed he did, and still does," Sebastian said from directly behind them, making them both jump a little before they spun around, to be confronted with his stern expression. "And the master would be singularly unappreciative of your descriptions of him, Baldroy... do you perhaps need another one of my lessons on holding your tongue?"

"No!" Bard said quickly, a bead of sweat trickling from his forehead. "Come on, Sebastian, I was just explaining to the new girl about how the young master is a lot tougher than he looks!"

"That he is," Sebastian conceded, and a little of the dark, dangerous aura that seemed to surround him eased up, as he looked past them at the target. "And that is a decent grouping, Dahlia; enough to satisfy the current requirements for a distance weapon, though of course you are expected to practice and further improve your marksmanship."

"O-of course, Mister Sebastian," Dahlia agreed with a hasty nod.

"I suggest you take your weapon into the house with you, to be measured for a holster by our visiting tailor. I shall retrieve your target to show the young master your efforts, as he had exhibited a moment of curiosity on the matter this morning," as Sebastian strode forward, towards the row of targets.

"But—!" as Dahlia started to reach out to catch the butler's jacket sleeve, only to be pulled back by Bard and urged towards the house.

"But what about all those beehives only a few yards away?" the laundress protested, looking back over her shoulder at where Sebastian was heading; the series of posts and hay bales that supported targets were indeed bracketed on either side by beehives, a cluster of six to the left and seven to the right. "You said the firing line was also our minimum safe distance; any closer and they might feel threatened and attack!"

"Yeah, and you and I would both regret it," Bard said with a vigorous nod, still tugging Dahlia towards the house. "And so would Mey-Rin, or Snake since not all of him is scaly. But Finnian's got some tough skin; beestings only make him itch a little, though he still goes out mostly at night to change the targets because he's such a softy towards any animal, even them. And Sebastian... he just doesn't get stung, period! Which is good for him, considering how often he has to go out there for honey; the young master's got the world's biggest sweet tooth."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Weeks passed as the latest servant-soldier to join the Phantomhive household settled into her duties. Weeks that saw the ruin of five of Master Ciel's shirts, three pairs of pants, two fancy tablecloths and even an ironing board, before the new laundress finally got the hang of ironing. But under Sebastian's stern tutelage, Dahlia eventually did learn to do all of her duties properly, just as she eventually found her place and comradeship amidst the manor staff.

After giving the matter due thought, Sebastian allowed Dahlia and Mey-Rin to have the same evening off, provided they performed their duties flawlessly beforehand and were always back home at the proper time. Both ladies were happy to have the time off together, having become comfortable and friends with each other, and would often spend their weekly evening off exploring the nearby village. The rough shepherd lads and other locals that had once bothered Mey-Rin so much that she had gotten in the habit of staying in her room to practice reading with children's books instead, were less troublesome when the serving women went out together.

But for the rest of the week, when no laundry needed collecting, washing, hanging, folding, ironing, mending or putting away, Dahlia could often be found in the kitchen with Bard, even when the meal preparations required little to no assistance. Sebastian actually subtly encouraged the behavior, after he noted that there were almost no explosions or incidents of flash-burned food on those days, because Bard wasn't as impatient to get the food ready for eating quickly if he had Dahlia to talk to while working. Dahlia would do some easy but time-consuming task like shelling peas or stirring a thickening gravy while good-naturedly teasing the chef about his rough American ways, smiling when he sassed her right back, and occasionally sneaking his cigarettes.

Just under a month after her arrival, Dahlia was hard at work in scrubbing a set of particularly stubborn grass stains out of Finny's pants, when Sebastian came in with an armload of bed linens that looked to be of the finest quality and asked politely, "Pardon me, Dahlia, but do you have any matches?"

"Ah, no, sorry," Dahlia told him, wondering why he had thought she would have any in her pockets; the laundry room had no stove for heating water, so when she needed hot water for washing the whites, she lugged a few kettles' worth in from the kitchen. She held her arms out for the bedsheets, fully expecting Sebastian to hand them over, but instead he held them up out of her reach. Puzzled, she watched him stride past her and towards the door leading outside to the clotheslines… and then pause and look over his shoulder at her expectantly, in a wordless command to follow him.

Dahlia followed Sebastian outside, far past the clotheslines, and clear over to the burn pit where Finnian burned the most noxious weeds. Then she watched with astonished dismay as the butler dumped the high-quality linens right atop the ashes. "What on earth?! Sebastian, why…?"

"I'm sorry, but the master has forbidden me to tell you anything about this increasingly regular occurrence," Sebastian said coolly, before walking back to the manor.

Dahlia did not consider herself an exceptionally clever woman, but neither was she a blind fool. She spent only a moment frowning at Sebastian's retreating back before pulling the sheets out of the burn pit and laying them out to look them over, searching for whatever the Phantomhive butler had been forbidden to tell her but wanted her to know about regardless.

By the time Sebastian came back out with a box of matches from the kitchen, Dahlia had found the stains in the sheets, determined their origin and bundled the sheets back into the burn pit, though with the stains conspicuously exposed instead of hidden in the folds. She asked quietly, "Mister Sebastian, even though you're forbidden to tell me anything about this… could you nod or shake your head in response to questions I ask after making this entirely coincidental discovery?"

"Why yes, I am physically capable of nodding and shaking my head," Sebastian said while giving her an approving smile, as he struck a match and set it to the base of the bundle. And for the next several minutes as the fabric slowly burned, he proceeded to either nod or shake his head in response to the questions she asked… though there were a few times when he gave her an inclined head and piercing stare, which she eventually figured out meant that while the question could be answered with a simple yes or no, the real answer was more involved than that and she should make a more specific inquiry.

As the bundle of linens burned to ashes, and after voicing a suggestion for how she could approach the situation and receiving Sebastian's nod of approval, Dahlia excused herself and went to see the young master.

0oo00oo00oo00oo00

Ciel had finished reading the newspaper and was preparing to make the first of the day's telephone calls to his business managers when he heard the knock on the door to his study and Dahlia's voice asking quietly, "Young master, may I come in?" He gave permission to enter, and she came to stand before the desk, dropped into a deep curtsey and said plaintively, "Young master, how can I prove to you that I am not a complete failure as your laundress and seamstress?"

"Eh?" as he stared at her in surprise.

Dahlia kept her head bowed as she said in a voice heavy with misery, "I know that I have failed to live up to the household standards in regards to ironing, though I swear to you that I am trying my best to improve with Sebastian's firm lessons in technique. But truly, I do have some knowledge of how to properly wash and clean various fabrics, and I do sew a tidy seam when mending. Will you not give me the opportunity to prove my worth?"

Ciel cocked his head at her, as a suspicion began to form. "And what, exactly, have I or a member of the staff done to make you believe I doubt your capabilities?"

Still staring at the carpet, Dahlia told him, "Earlier today, my lord, I was hanging the first of the day's washing to dry when I saw Sebastian taking a bundle of fabrics to the burn pit, and burn the lot to ashes. His manner at the time did not encourage questions, but Finnian said afterwards that it's not the first time he's done that since my arrival. My lord, for your butler to burn your belongings before even giving me an opportunity to see how they are stained or torn, let alone attempt to remedy… how else am I to interpret that, except that you think me utterly incapable of performing my duties?"

Ciel sighed and rubbed at his forehead, swearing he could feel a headache coming on. Damn that demon butler, he'd probably deliberately timed that burning to coincide with her hanging clothes to dry… "Dahlia, so far I've been given no reason to doubt your capabilities at washing or mending. Nor are Sebastian's actions intended to cast aspersions on your abilities. Those sheets are being burned because I want them burned, that's all."

Dahlia curtseyed again, even further than before, and her voice was strained as she asked timidly, "Would my lord be so kind as to inform this humble servant why he desires the sheets to be burned, rather than mended or washed and donated to the orphanage nearby?"

Sebastian was nowhere in sight, but Ciel could still somehow feel his butler smirking at his discomfiture. He finally growled out, "Because they're an embarrassment, that's why! Now return to your duties!"

Dahlia hastily curtseyed again with a hurried, "Yes, my lord!" And she proceeded to back out of the room, still babbling, "I apologize for giving offense, my lord; I did not mean to—oof!" as she turned to hurry—straight into the still-closed door, hitting it so hard she rebounded and fell to the floor.

Ciel wondered for a split-second if Mey-Rin's more unfortunate habits were catching, as he reflexively got up from his desk and hurried over to where Dahlia lay sprawled, her hands over her face. "Are you all right?"

"Mon nez," Dahlia moaned, and he could see blood starting to seep out from between her fingers. Having seen plenty of broken noses over the last few years, he recognized the signs too well; he hissed a curse while whipping out his handkerchief for her to use, and said aloud, "Sebastian, come!"

Sebastian appeared in the doorway a moment later, taking in the scene at a glance, and crouching down beside them while giving Ciel a raised eyebrow. "My lord, what precisely did Dahlia do to earn such a mark of displeasure?"

"What?! I didn't hit her; she ran right into the door!" Ciel protested.

"I was stupid," Dahlia moaned, as Sebastian whipped out his own handkerchief to give her to hold over Ciel's, which was already staining red. "I'm so stupid… I'm going to be let go…"

"I hardly think that is the case, Dahlia," Sebastian said reassuringly as he effortlessly lifted her in his arms, but took her over to a chair in the study instead of back to the servants' quarters. "Here, lean forward onto your elbows, and keep your head bowed. You don't want the blood to run back and down into your throat or lungs; that would be quite unpleasant for you… Young master, before she begins truly panicking, perhaps you could reassure our laundress on her continued employment?"

"Sebastian's right, Dahlia; you aren't going to be let go just for breaking your own nose," Ciel told her, and offered a crooked smile. "The other servants could tell you stories of all the things they've broken, burnt and ruined, and they're still here! I told you, you were hired to be not just a household servant, but part of my private army to defend my estate. You proved you were lethal enough back at the House of Flowers, and as far as your servant capabilities, from what Sebastian has told me, you're doing far better than my other servants did for their first few weeks here! You're in no danger of losing your position."

"Thank you, my lord," Dahlia whispered, keeping her head down as ordered by the butler.

"Young master, it would be best if Dahlia stays seated there and holding her nose for roughly ten minutes, to ensure the bleeding has stopped before she returns to her duties," Sebastian said with concern written on his features. "Will it be too terribly inconvenient for you to work with an additional servant besides myself present in the room?"

Ciel had been about to tell Sebastian to take Dahlia back to her quarters… but given the way the butler had phrased his question, he'd look peevish and petulant if he said anything but that it wouldn't be a bother at all. So he did, but he gave Sebastian a glare just on principle as he went back to his desk.

Both servants were silent as he flipped through the ledger he kept on his desk until he found the telephone sequence for connecting to the Funtom confectionery factory in Belgium. He picked up the receiver, started to dial the number… and then set the receiver down, staring first at Sebastian and then at Dahlia, until he finally demanded, "You put her up to this somehow, didn't you? So damned clever at working around my orders… Did you actually tell her to contrive to break her own nose if I didn't tell her everything right away?"

"I did not, my lord," Sebastian said with a smile and bow, though it was unsure whether the smile was for his master's intuition or for Dahlia's cleverness. "That delaying action was an inspired bit of quick thinking on Dahlia's part."

"It's not actually broken, young master," Dahlia said as she tilted her head up just enough to peer at him, with what might have been a wry smile peeking out from under the handkerchiefs. Her voice was somewhat muffled and nasal in quality, but still intelligible as she explained, "I get nosebleeds rather easily; it's come in handy at other times that I needed a reason to stay in place instead of leave, or keep a gentleman's attention focused on me in a completely platonic fashion. But it did hurt quite a bit, banging my face like that… and I will continue to bleed for several minutes, my lord; that is an unfortunate truth."

"I see," Ciel said grudgingly. "You understand of course that the ruse will never work on me again, and if you try it, I'll order you to run back below stairs, dripping all the way."

"Of course, my lord," Dahlia said quietly.

Ciel sighed and admitted, "And the equally unfortunate truth is, those sheets are being burned because they're stained. It's a stain that you're likely familiar with from your prior profession, and I didn't want you to have such an unpleasant reminder of your old life when you'd barely begun your new one."

"I see. Young master, thank you for showing such consideration to a humble servant. But perhaps I could mention two minor issues? The first being that I still see sheets with such stains on them—"

"What?!" as Ciel gaped at her in outrage.

"On sheets from the servants' quarters, my lord." Dahlia's look at him from underneath her lashes was definitely wry. "You have five healthy males on staff, three of them in the prime of life and one of them still growing…"

"But which one—no, forget I said that, I don't want to know!" as Ciel buried his face in his hands.

Hiding his face did nothing to hide the amusement in her voice. "I don't try to ascertain which bed the stained sheets came from, my lord; I simply wash and dry them. In any case…" Her voice grew serious again. "My lord, may I speak freely?"

Too aware that he was blushing hotly, Ciel nonetheless lowered his hands, looked at her and sighed. "You may."

"Thank you, my lord. May I ask, what is your favorite fruit?"

That got not only Ciel but Sebastian staring at her in wary confusion, wondering what she had in mind. But Ciel answered honestly, "Strawberries."

"Thank you, my lord. As it happens, I do an excellent dessert with strawberries, which I'd be delighted to make for you someday. But to use strawberries as a metaphor… The world is filled with people who like them, and why not; they're very sweet. But someone isn't apt to like them much at all, perhaps even loathe them, if their first experience with strawberries was being fed them before they were ripe… and having the fruit forced on them."

Ciel stiffened in his seat, while Sebastian went very still. But looking down and apparently unaware of their reactions, Dahlia continued, "And even if their first experience was not so … very unpleasant, if someone was fed strawberries with every single meal, for year upon year, whether they wanted it or not… they would eventually get tired of that fruit as well. But it would be a truly selfish person who denied others the pleasure of eating strawberries, which most do indeed regard as a delicious treat, simply because they themselves didn't like them. No, a decent person would simply and politely decline to eat any strawberries offered, and pass the bowl down the table to others waiting for them."

Looking up at him through her lashes again, Dahlia finished, "Young master, I would never willingly 'eat a strawberry' again, but I do not begrudge others their enjoyment of it. And washing sheets with 'strawberry' stains on them will not offend me at all."

After an uncomfortable pause, Ciel finally said, "Your consideration for others is commendable, Dahlia; thank you." He added while looking down at his desk, "You can stop burning the sheets, Sebastian."

"Thank you, my lord," Sebastian said with a smile and bow. "Come along, Dahlia," as he gestured to her.

But Dahlia remained seated, her eyes downcast. "My nose is still bleeding," she said softly. "Young master, may I continue to speak freely while it does?"

Ciel's loud sigh made it clear he was beginning to find this tedious, but he still told her, "You may."

"Thank you, my lord. And may I begin by thanking you again, for sparing my life when you tore down the House of Flowers. It's quite likely that I would have been dead within a fortnight if you had not come; after it became plain that the facial wound inflicted on me by the last man I strangled to death would not heal cleanly but leave a blatant scar. A flower that is no longer beautiful, is soon plucked from the garden; when you spared me, you saved my life twice over. But now I must ask, why did you decide to do so, and hire me as a laundress?"

Ciel hadn't expected that question either, but he was ready to answer it. "Partially on Sebastian's recommendation; he said that you whispered an apology when you tried to kill him, but you still went about it quite thoroughly."

"Indeed," Sebastian said with a smile, evidently not at all bothered by the memory. "I dare say that between first strangling me with your braid, and then stabbing at me with your hair ornaments, you would have succeeded in killing nearly anyone else. Fortunately, I am of rather hardier stock than the average human."

"Rather hardier stock, indeed," Dahlia agreed emphatically, sparing the butler a rather suspicious glance. "Mister Sebastian, may the young master and I have privacy for the next few minutes?"

Sebastian gave her another wide-eyed look of surprise, that started to turn into an offended frown—but instead became a professionally blank expression, as he bowed to Ciel with a smooth, "With your permission, my lord." When Ciel nodded assent, he left the room and closed the door behind him.

After several seconds of silence, Ciel prompted the laundress, "Well?"

"Given his exceptionally sharp hearing, I believe Mister Sebastian is still within listening range outside the door, young master," Dahlia said without looking up. "Would you kindly tell him to move out of range?"

Ciel gave a quiet half-chuckle, and then said without raising his voice in the slightest, "You heard her, Sebastian; the rest of the staff is catching on to you. Go keep Bard company in the kitchen until I summon you."

Both master and laundress faintly heard a set of footsteps walking away from the door, and thumping down the stairs with a definitely offended air. Ciel informed Dahlia, "You've likely just made the next few days harder on yourself, you know."

"Yes, sir," Dahlia said quietly. "But I thought you'd prefer he not be present for what I have to say."

Ciel frowned at her. "I'd prefer it?"

"Yes, master. Because I am not an exceptionally clever woman, but as a Black Rose I was trained to observe, to spy as well as seduce, steal and kill. And I have made some observations that I feel it necessary to voice now, while no one else can hear."

Here it comes, Ciel thought to himself with resignation. With each servant-soldier that he hired onto his staff, there was a risk that the newcomer would figure out that Sebastian was a demon, and then the newcomer would have to be quietly gotten rid of before they could cause serious trouble. They'd been fortunate up till now, in that Bard knew the value in keeping his mouth shut (and frankly, wasn't really that smart when it came to matters outside his military expertise,) Finny was just too blindly loyal to question anything Sebastian did, Mey-Rin couldn't see past the not-so-secret crush she had on the butler, and Snake apparently knew better than to say anything that might risk his position at one of the few places in the entire world that would accept him and his poisonous friends.

But Dahlia was reasonably intelligent, able to blend in with the general populace if she wished, and too jaded by her past experiences to have a blind crush on any man. After nearly a month of observing the butler at close quarters, it would be no real surprise that she had determined Sebastian's supernatural origin. Now he'd have to take her on 'a trip into town', and then have Sebastian bury her remains where no one could find them, while he told the staff that she'd found a new employer or a long-lost lover or something.

Ciel expected Dahlia to start listing all the things Sebastian had done lately that no human could accomplish—the first being surviving her successive attempts to kill him. But instead she said, "The first observation is that Hyacinth tried and failed to kill Sebastian too, but the two of you did not spare her as you did me, long before offering me a position here. And given that we were trained to kill in similar ways, I cannot help but feel that the greatest difference you saw between myself and Hyacinth, is in how we behaved towards you personally. Before we were given the orders to kill, Hyacinth tried and failed to seduce you. But I did not, because I wasn't assigned to do so."

Ciel gave her a sharp look of warning, and was about to tell her that the greatest difference was that she had quietly apologized while attempting to kill Sebastian—his soldiers had to be ready to deal out death without hesitation, but truly bloodthirsty people eventually began killing just for the fun of it, and he would have none of that on his estate—but Dahlia kept her gaze focused firmly on the floor as she added, "And I know too well the effects of the Passionflower Potion, how men usually behave when under its influence. "

His mouth suddenly dry, Ciel shut it and swallowed convulsively as she continued, "You didn't behave that way at all when you were drugged with it, even when you were thrown afterwards into a room full of Flowers who had been ordered to couple with you until you were comatose. You channeled all that drug-induced passion into rage, instead of desperately seeking carnal pleasure as the Madame had expected. I had more than enough time to observe your actions and reactions, both as you and Sebastian killed the Master and Madame and tore down the House, and afterwards on the journey to your manor. And your iron self-control, that which kept you from pouncing on me or on any of the women or pretty young men you saw on the long journey back here… that iron control was forged from more than just a sense of decency.

"And in all the occasions since my arrival here that I've seen you interact with people besides your staff… My lord, you never asked about my past history, nor have I ever asked about yours. But as you surely deduced from my metaphor earlier, I started my 'career' at the House of Flowers by being raped by a well-paying client, when I had barely begun to blossom as a woman. Nor was I the only one to be initiated that way over the years, though we didn't all start that way... and after a while, I learned to recognize the signs of those who had."

She almost whispered, "There's… a hesitation, a slight stiffening of the body, whenever we're touched by anyone that we're not already deeply familiar with and trust implicitly. There's a certain look in the eyes; the look that speaks our first thought and fear of 'how much is this person going to hurt me?' And often there's a flush of anger, at anything that makes us remember what we'd like so much to forget. Most of us at the House of Flowers learned quickly to hide the look and the hesitation, the fear and the anger, because our masters told us we must give every impression to our clients that we enjoyed being bedded by them… Except for the ones that came there precisely because they liked hurting women."

Keeping her eyes firmly on the expensive Persian carpet, Dahlia continued, "Life at the House was terrible, but those of us who survived it chose to endure because we knew what would happen if we tried to escape. Nearly every year, someone tried… and when they were caught or hunted down, the Master and Madame made an example of them before everyone. And then made us bury the remains afterwards. But there was one time, roughly twelve years ago… one of us didn't escape, she was rescued. I remember…

"Her name was Alice when she was brought to us, before the Madame named her Gentiana. She was thirteen, a few years older than I was when I'd been sold to the House, but her first time was even worse than mine, because they gave her to two clients together; I heard her screams and sobs, and helped her clean herself up after the bastards left. And afterwards, she showed the same hesitation and the same subdued fear and anger that so many of us did until we learned to hide our true selves. But roughly three months after she was brought there, a Danish nobleman visiting the country with his son came to the House of Flowers, saying it was time his boy became a man. Gentiana was chosen for the boy, while Chrysanthemum went with the father, and he'd paid for a full night for each.

"The next morning the father was found dead, having died in his sleep of a heart attack. Well, Chrysanthemum swore that it had been an entirely natural heart attack, even after the Madame put her in the Flowerbox for it, and it's true that the baron had been overweight and had a somewhat unhealthy complexion the evening before. Anyway, the Master and Madame made their apologies to the boy, the new baron, and at first he seemed to accept them without question. But later that evening he came back with twenty strapping men, the entire crew of his father's ship to act as his bodyguards, and he demanded to see our masters again.

"The new baron told the Master and Madame that there would be a price to pay for his father's death; a price for his silence, to keep him from warning all the men of peerage that he had ties with to steer clear of the House's deadly women… and he named his price as Gentiana. He demanded they release her to his custody, and forswear all claim to her thereafter. Aster witnessed the meeting and she told me that he even offered them a small sack of gold, to compensate them for the loss of her future services. The Master was ready to refuse him and have the Black Roses take care of him and his entire crew, but the Madame privately told her husband to accept, that Gentiana was proving too fragile for the work and she didn't expect her to last the year anyway; they'd get far more money for her from the baron now than they'd get from regular clients later.

"So the new baron took Gentiana away to his ship, and no one at the House ever saw her again. But six years later, on an assignment that took me to Denmark, I saw Alice. I saw the baron on an outing with her and their children, and she was laughing. She was happy. And we were in the middle of a crowd, there were men all around her and some of them were acting quite boisterous, but I could see in her eyes that she was unafraid. Unafraid, and unashamed of herself; even when her husband kissed her cheek, as much affection as could be shown in public, she just smiled and accepted it. I can't say that Alice had forgotten entirely her terrible time with us, but it wasn't casting a shadow on her anymore."

Ciel had occupied his hands during Dahlia's story by clenching a pen in his white-knuckled fingers, though his grip had loosened as time went on. When she seemed to have finished, he made sure his features were schooled to impassiveness before commenting dryly, "A nice little story. Let us all rejoice in happy endings. But why did you think it important enough to tell your master?"

"I told that story because… I was a Black Rose for far too long; there can be no such happy ending for me," Dahlia said as she lifted her head, though not looking directly at the earl, and took away the handkerchiefs; her nosebleed had stopped. "I am a humble laundress, but it's honest work and I'm alive to do it, and I'm content with that. As your servant and out of gratitude for your having spared me and hired me, I just want to say that… that for some people, happy endings may still be possible. That there is still hope, for people who have others who truly care for them, as that Danish youth cared for Gentiana and as… as some other people's fiancées obviously care for them. People like that, even if they were forced to eat unripe strawberries once, can still learn to like the fruit and enjoy it without shame."

After a moment of frozen silence, Ciel said heavily, "Congratulate yourself, Dahlia. You came perilously close to an outrageous level of impertinence, but by your wording you've managed to avoid the charge by a hair's breadth."

"Y-yes, my lord."

"However, if I ever hear of you speaking to anyone else, even the other servants, referring to me in even the remotest of connections to one of your fellow enslaved whores—except in my role as the Queen's Watchdog who tore the House of Flowers to pieces—if I ever hear of any talk even remotely like that, you'll be sacked immediately and without references. And possibly deported, to whichever remote corner of the world I happen to be thinking of at the moment."

Dahlia wisely did not ask how he would accomplish that last threat; she simply repeated meekly, "Yes, my lord."

"Having said that…" Ciel found to his self-disgust that he could not look Dahlia in the face just then; he stared down at his desk instead of at his servant, even though she'd been carefully not looking at him the entire time. "I appreciate, on just this one occasion, your attempt to offer comfort and hope about… about disliking strawberries. Not that it was at all needed; I've been slowly improving on my own over the years since… since then."

"Yes, my lord."

"Sebastian won't be burning the sheets anymore. And I can see now, the link between my ordering him to do that and… back then. But don't expect me to start bloody announcing to all and sundry when the sheets need changing!" as he abruptly gave her a fiercely defensive look. "There's such a thing as common decency!"

"Of course, my lord!" Dahlia hurried to assure him.

"All right. Now return to your duties, and tell Sebastian to bring me a fresh pot of tea and some sweets when he comes back up; something with chocolate."

"Yes, my lord," as Dahlia rose to her feet, curtseyed again and left the room, this time without running into anything on the way out.

After she left, Ciel brooded over her words and the horrible memories of That Month that they had dredged up. Dahlia's suspicions had hit the bull's-eye; among the many other tortures the Satan-worshipping secret society had inflicted on him, he'd been raped repeatedly, by men and by women equally as depraved as the men. For nearly a full year after his rescue, he could hardly stand to be touched by anybody except Sebastian, who was bound by an unbreakable contract to protect him at all costs... and when waking up from nightmares of being their captive again, he couldn't stand even Sebastian being within arm's reach.

During that awful time in Germany when he'd been stricken by the werewolves' "curse" of mustard gas, the incredible pain he'd been in had brought the memories and nightmares back full force, and even paralyzed his mind when he was awake. He'd been literally struck blind from shock, and had gone into utter hysterics if he'd thought any adult was even in the same room with him. If it hadn't been for Finny, a youth far more childlike than Ciel in many ways but who had gladly stepped up to take care of him, Ciel would either have starved during that terrible week, or thrown himself out the nearest window in a blind panicking attempt to get away from his servants' caring(hurting!) hands and end the torment forever. Once he'd finally snapped out of it, he'd been so humiliated by his behavior... even when Bard had informed him that even seasoned soldiers sometimes had episodes like what he'd suffered, after being wounded unexpectedly and worse than usual.

Those nightmares of the ways he'd been so foully violated by his captors were relatively rare now, though he suspected they'd be visiting him again tonight. But after listening to Dahlia, he realized that even though the nightmares were rare now, the grooves worn into his psyche by his tormentors were still affecting his daily life. He still unconsciously avoided being touched by anyone but Sebastian, when he could manage the avoidance without giving offence. And even all these years later, the thought of sex was still more apt to make him panic than anything else.

And the way his own body had been betraying him of late, with what the medical texts politely referred to as 'nocturnal emissions'... even after two full months of such happenings, he still felt burning shame with a dash of raw horror every time he woke up to find the sheets sticky and stinking of that.

He told himself that he shouldn't feel ashamed of such things, which Sebastian had assured him over and over were actually quite normal for boys his age. But telling himself that did not stop the feelings of degradation at all. Surely a normal boy would be over such feelings and feel no more than mild embarrassment by now...

But then, Ciel knew to the core of his being that he wasn't normal.

Normal boys didn't agree to make contracts with demons, knowing full well that it would cost their souls in the end.

Normal boys did not become heads of household and acknowledged by the Queen as titled nobles when they'd barely turned ten.

Normal boys didn't become business tycoons even before becoming teenagers, amassing wealth and influence in the business world... and all to taunt those who had killed his parents and sold him to the Satanists, basically daring them to try to end the Phantomhive line once more.

Normal boys would scarcely even dream of becoming the Queen's Watchdog of the Underworld, with all the terrible burden implied.

Instead of being curious or outright eager to experience sex as so many boys his age were, if being perpetually ashamed, afraid and disgusted by even the idea of sex was just one more way that he wasn't normal, then so be it. Normality was for the common folk, not a Phantomhive.

Dahlia had tried to offer him hope that becoming married to Lizzie would change his views on the matter, but he refused to touch that hope and instead did his best to banish it from his thoughts forever. Really, given the life he led, how likely was it that he would even survive till his twenties and a decent marrying age? He fully expected to have his revenge against his tormentors fulfilled, and his soul to end up in a demon's belly, years before that could happen.

The young earl's broodings were thankfully interrupted by Sebastian coming back into the study, pushing a fully laden tea trolley. "As requested, young master, fresh tea and some sweets with chocolate."

The tea was Darjeeling, and was received with due appreciation. But the sweets Sebastian uncovered with a flourish were chocolate-covered strawberries... and the butler got those pitched back in his face.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

To be continued...