Author: Maiden of the Moon PM
Demon children, like human children, are taught many of the same basic ground rules. Don't go anywhere with strangers. Don't talk with your mouth full. Don't jump through wormholes that suddenly open in your vanity mirror. …wait. -Part of the "Bicentennial" series. Set 6 years after "666." Crossover with Chocolate Moosey's "Broken Pieces."-Rated: Fiction M - English - Family - Ciel P. & Sebastian M. - Chapters: 2 - Words: 34,434 - Reviews: 13 - Favs: 21 - Follows: 12 - Updated: 08-02-12 - Published: 07-26-12 - id: 8361927
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: AND I-EEEE-I, DON'T OWN KUROOOOoooOOOOoooOOOOOOoooOOO~
Author's Note: Like so many of the ideas in my mind, this fic began as a joke, then somehow morphed into something, lyke, serious. 8/ With a plot and a point and everything. Weird how that happens. In any case, my thanks and love to Chocolate Moosey, who ever-so-kindly allowed me to borrow her SebaCiel baby, Ophelia, to use for my own nefarious purposes. D You can check out Ophelia's original story on Chocolate Moosey's profile, in a wonderfully written fic called "Broken Pieces."
Oh. And there is a prequel to this forthcoming. And hopefully a sort of sequel soon after. :3
Warnings: Crossover, technically? XD; (You should go read "Broken Pieces," in any case.) This also features brief cameos from a few of my other stories, for giggles. Part of the "Bicentennial" series, post "666." SebaCiel, OCs, and surprise guests! (Ooooo~) References the short story "The Juniper Tree," which you can find and read with Google's help. Shout-outs to two of my other fave demon-related series; snaps if you can find both. ;3 Crap editing, doot doot~
"A violet in the youth of primy nature:
Forward, not permanent— sweet, not lasting"
~Hamlet I, iii
Sebastian Phantomhive had the patience of a saint.
Or… whatever the demonic equivalent of a saint was, technically. (Though really, he'd never liked that phrase to begin with. All of the saints he'd ever known had been pushy, pretentious, and not very patient at all. Always trying to figure out the fast-track to Heaven and salvation and all of that nonsense. Certainly, if anything was patient, it was a devil like himself: carefully molding a soul for years upon years, never rushing perfectio— okay, he was digressing.) Keep it together.
The demon gave his head a brusque shake, trying to clear it.
Okay. Semantics aside, Sebastian had the patience of… something that was very patient. (A… a rock, maybe? Rocks were patient. They sat around for millions of years, just waiting for something to happen to them. Knowing full well—or as well as rocks could know— that sometimes, nothing happened at all. Ever. And- …was he really comparing himself to a rock, right now?)
He gave his head another rough toss, resisting the urge to beat it against the steering wheel.
In any case, Sebastian was freakin' patient. He'd raised a brat of an earl for years, hadn't he? Despite not having a clue about how to properly rear a kid, back then… or even how to be a butler. But he'd done both of those things, all the same. He'd endured every sort of indignation and humiliation that the realms Above and Below could throw at him, all for that soul's sake. And he'd continued persevering, even after his prize had been so unfairly taken away. Whatever had happened, he'd just kept on being patient… And eventually, he'd realized that he'd earned himself something sweeter than supper in exchange for his fortitude. So surely, there had to be a light at the end of this tunnel, too, yes?
A light that wasn't an oncoming semi, anyway.
…oh, wait, shit—
The car swerved with a piercing screech of tires and the wafting stench of burnt rubber. Though it left an acidic aftertaste on the back of his tongue, the nostril-curdling aroma was at least able to rouse his senses— more so than his coffee, anyway, which was flavored much the same. Ugh… A strained sigh whistled through Sebastian's teeth, his shoulders sagging under the weight of worries and general stress.
Oh… What did it matter, really? About saints, or rocks, or what he had or hadn't done in the past? Regardless of his stellar record, the demon could physically feel what shreds of patience he still possessed wearing thin. Very, very thin. Worn away by his master, by their friends, by his fatigue, and by his sullen fledglings, who—if nothing else—had inherited their mother's cantankerous nature.
Case and point…
"Mama doesn't almost-kill us on the way t' school…" the tiny girl in the pink car seat was muttering under her breath, kicking mindlessly at the Avengers backpack near her feet. In the aftermath of her violence, Thor and Loki's faces had folded over, giving them a private moment with the Hulk; when the young boy beside her began thrashing his legs in kind, Captain America and Iron Man wound up in an equally intimate, crumpled position.
"…" the boy then added, underscoring his sister's rebukes with a glare.
"Mama always sees th' trucks comin' an' yells at 'em to let 'em know we're here," she was quick to add, resentful, before exchanging a nod of confirmation with her brother.
"Asmus, Toth. Please," Sebastian half-growled, his warning glare seeking out the complaining children in the rearview mirror. He tried to ignore his own reflection— his pasty skin and bagged eyes—, focusing instead on the matching glowers that two very upset fledglings were shooting the glass. If looks could kill, Sebastian might've actually been in trouble; either way, he was thankful for the buffer of the mirror. It was actually a bit impressive… How much bitterness the pair could squeeze into a single glare, that was. Somehow, it made his own irritation seem kind of pathetic. As if in surrender, the once-butler felt his fury dull, and his jaw—once tense with irritation—slacken a bit. This was truly the last thing that any of them needed…
"…oh, come on. Don't be like that," he pleaded, trying to lighten the mood as he again turned his weary eyes upon the road. Best to make sure they remained in the right lane for the rest of the trip. While not all who wandered were lost, some were texting, or falling asleep behind the wheel. Or so they said. The latter was his concern, right now, in any case. "Is it truly so awful to have Daddy take you to kindergarten?"
To paraphrase a popular quote, her lips said yes and her eyes said read my lips.
"We want Mama," Asmus retorted automatically, crossing angry arms over her puffed chest. The baubles bound around her pigtails clattered together, and even they sounded annoyed. "It's Mama's job t' take us t' school! I want Mama to do it, not Daddy!"
Beside his fuming sister, locked safety in his own car-seat, Toth nodded emphatically, his little face crumpled in a mope. As his brow furrowed, he clutched his My Little Pony knapsack more tightly to his chest, as if it were some sort of plastic and vinyl security blanket.
Sebastian allowed himself another heavy exhale. In, out; in, out: trying to physically expel his ire. Just as in labor, breathing exercises helped, but not nearly enough. With conscious effort, the devil loosened his hands around his steering wheel, lest he accidentally wrench the damn thing off. "Mama is still not feeling very well," he then explained—for the umpteenth time—, using more strength than was wholly necessary to activate his turn signal. "I know it is difficult for you two right now… I recognize that you're disappointed and worried. But Mama and I are also having a hard time, and the two of you acting out like this isn't helping matters. I need you both to please try and behave like big boys and girls, and to be a bit more flexible."
As Sebastian wrapped up this brief speech, he also dodged wrapping his car around a fire hydrant. Well, that was close. But once the curb had been successful dodged, they were at last in the parking lot of a quaint school building, all red bricks and ivy and brass bells. Despite its picturesque charm, the sight made the devil scowl; even after half a year of enrollment, the structure left the demon feeling a bit queasy. Not because it was on holy grounds, or anything, but because it was very much a school for mortals, and his children were anything but. There was a DMV just a block away that served as a portal to the districts of the realm Below, but Ciel had been insistent that his children learn to appreciate their human heritage. (Which seemed a bit hypocritical to the servant, in all honesty, considering Ciel had never put much stock in his own humanity back when he was human.) There had been some arguing, some threats, and some negotiations; in the end, they had reached a compromise. The children were to be proud attendees of a mortal elementary school until they reached third grade, at which point they would be transferred into a more wholesome, proper, demon academy.
Sebastian could only hope that being the grandchildren of the Lust Sect's king would save his darlings from being bullied for the years they spent playing with finger-paints and glitter glue.
But for now, it was best not to dwell on it. He was already in a bad enough mood.
"All right," he murmured—more to himself than anyone else—as he hopped out of the car and circled to the passenger side door. By the time he'd slid it open, the twins had managed to work themselves out of their harnesses, and had already gathered up their things. With their button noses in the air and pert frowns upon their lips, they looked just like Ciel back when he was a child. Arrogant. Obstinate.
Wonderful. Memories of that particular era of his life were enough to make the devil want to beat his head against the frame of the car; figuring that might look a bit suspicious to the other parents in the vicinity, he exerted what effort it took to restrain himself. Instead, Sebastian raked a hand through his hair and tried to smile for his dissatisfied ducklings. "Okay, well… I hope you two have a good day," he said as cheerfully as he could manage, watching lamely as his children hopped out of the van and stomped off towards the school grounds. "I love you both."
The twins hesitated. Unfair. That was unfair to bring into an argument. Daddy sounded so… pathetic. Probably intentionally so, too, to make them feel bad. So unfair. Shifting guiltily, the pair exchanged exasperated glances before coming to a decision with a rueful grunt.
"…bye. Love you, too," Asmus lowly groused, muttering at the ground as she and her brother stomped off. Toth, for his part, shot his father another defiant stare, but also graced him with a goodbye-wave: fingers curled into the ALS response Aunt Grelle had taught them. For as frustrated as they were, they weren't heartless. And after what had just happened…
The small girl kicked at a pebble, antsy fingers plucking at the frills of her jumper.
Ducking down a bit in an attempt to catch sight of his sister's face, Toth frowned, his prompting voice almost too soft to hear. It wasn't often that he bothered trying to catch Asmus' attention vocally; usually, glances and expressions were enough to communicate all that he had to say. But she was looking particularly distracted, right then… The young boy turned away from their father—who had reluctantly loaded himself back into the car—and instead directed his focus onto his twin. "Whazza matter?"
Hesitation. The little girl waited for a minute before responding, not quite sure how to answer. After all, she was feeling an awful lot at the moment, and it was difficult to differentiate one emotion from the next. Was it merely crossness at their mother? Or maybe at their father? Did she feel guilt-tripped by what Daddy had just pulled? Or was she depressed because…?
"…we didn't get t' say it to... you know," Asmus mumbled, readjusting her bag and waving weakly at their cousin, Angel. In the distance, the pretty blonde was climbing on the jungle-gym with the bigger kids, waiting for the morning bell; she moved as if to join the twins, but they rebuffed her with a shake of their heads. They didn't really feel like playing, right now. "We didn't get t' say anything. I think that's one of th' reasons why Daddy is so sad. And Mama. And us."
"Mmm," Toth hummed in agreement, spinning to march backwards down the chalk-covered sidewalk. Arms crossed behind and cradling his head, the fledgling glanced towards the early spring sky, contemplating his sister's concerns. She was probably right—Azzy was almost always right, after all, since she was older. Whenever somebody came over to play or to visit, it was always sad when they had to leave, even if everyone knew that they'd be coming back sometime soon. But it was worse if the twins had to take a nap, or run a chore, and by the time they woke up or returned, the guest was gone. They still had so much left to say and do with that person, and now they couldn't. He might only be 6, but Toth still knew that goodbyes were sad, no matter how long or short an absence was… and not getting to say goodbye was sadder still. So no wonder Mama and Daddy were unhappy. And even though Asmus and Toth were upset for their own reasons, seeing their parents like this wasn't helping… It was messing everything up, and everything was already messy.
Preparing to mull more deeply on this already deep subject, Toth stuck the tip of his thumb into his mouth… But nearly bit the digit off when the thunder of the school's clock tower cut through the yard, shattering his thoughts. He squeaked; he jumped. At the sound of the first toll, the fledgling instinctively twirled around to clutch at his sister's sleeve, ducking behind her as their classmates began to rush the door. So we dun' lose each other in th' crowd, of course, was the excuse that the twins used to explain his actions, but privately they knew the truth: the sonorous gonging always scared Toth, even though Asmus had tried to explain to him that the bell was like a phone, and phones weren't scary, were they? They both rang, they both caught everyone's attention, and they both brought people together.
…Hey, wait a minute—
"…" Toth's dark eyes widened a fraction as an idea suddenly struck him, almost like a clapper inside of his head. He gave his sister's arm a brusque tug; she glanced back and arched an eyebrow, temporarily bewildered. But after a few seconds of wordless staring, her expression morphed to match his own.
Sebastian waffled for a moment outside of the master bedroom, an endearment dangling precariously off the tip of his tongue. For as much as his husband had always enjoyed his pet names, the demon couldn't help but think that most of them would still be… well, somewhat unwelcomed, at present. All things considering. And as he tried to save "my lord" for laughs and arguments, Sebastian supposed he was left with naught but a name. He hoped that was comfort enough.
"Ciel…?" Apprehensive, the servant rapped his knuckles lightly against the door, on the off chance that the other might actually be asleep. Apparently, he needn't have worried; he was answered almost immediately by a grunt and a rustle of blankets. Sebastian's mouth twitched, not sure if he should smile or frown. And honestly, trying to decide on an expression to wear only tired him out all the more. Would a smile be seen as belittling? Would a frown be mistaken as confrontational? In the end, he settled for something composed but concerned, figuring that it would be best to express both of those things, right then. "Ciel, may I come in?"
Another mumble. He decided that was approval enough. It certainly wasn't a 'no,' anyway. With a quiet creak of metal hinges, the devil eased himself into the bedroom, lips pursed in wordless despondency at the sight that greeted him. The shades were still drawn, the lights were still off; Ciel was still curled up and cocooned in a cave of plush blankets, back to both the wall and Sebastian. Nothing had changed since he'd left. Nothing had changed for a week. Well, besides 'everything,' the devil supposed.
The coverlets wrinkled; Ciel had flinched. He looked so small and helpless and fragile, it almost broke Sebastian's heart all over again. Desperate, the demon immediately turned to false-cheer, trying to distract them both from the pervasive gloom of the younger's mood.
"...the children missed you on the way to school," he announced—perhaps a touch too loudly—as he trudged over to the windows and threw back the curtains. Shadows scattered; in an instant, the place went from black to white. Inexplicably, however, those few patches of spilled sunshine only made the room as a whole feel drearier… It didn't help that the smaller devil had responded to the light with a sniffle and shuffle, as if it had burned him. Exasperated, Sebastian flipped the light switch, too, before seating himself on the edge of the mattress. "They spent the whole ride whining that you weren't the one driving them. It was enough to make me feel unloved," he jestingly griped, pulling back the sheets enough to catch a glimpse of a rumbled, hoary hair. The unwanted excavation of his body elicited a snarl and a glare from the once earl.
Unfazed, Sebastian responded with a gentle grin, dipping down to brush a kiss against his beloved's disheveled crown. It earned him a squirm, and some more half-hearted griping. "It might pacify everyone if you'd come with me to pick them up this afternoon," he then added in a whisper, nestling close as the other whined himself into a dour hush. The not-boy's silence sounded like submission, albeit the begrudging sort. His butler chuckled sadly, understanding. But still… "You can't stay cooped up in here forever, love."
"…I don't yet feel well," Ciel grumbled, though he allowed his husband to help him sit upright. Almost immediately, he folded into a slouch against the headboard; his skin looked sallow where the glow of the morning hit it. For someone who'd recently spent so much time in bed, he didn't appear very well-rested. "I don't want the children to see me like this…"
"I think they'd rather see you like this than not see you at all," Sebastian retorted, somber of both features and tone. Leaning forward once again, he rested his brow against Ciel's, allowing their noses to brush; the gesture provided both some comfort. "You're worrying them. And frankly, you're worrying me. And Grelle—" the fledgling hissed, but was ignored— "and everyone else, too. You've been cooped up in here for days… I know that your body needs to heal, but so does your mind. And succumbing to the temptation of wallowing in darkness and depression is just… It's detrimental. Please," the demon pleaded, starting to sound frantic as he scooted ever-closer, reaching out to grasp his husband's shoulders. "I'm not asking you to overexert yourself… You can stay in the car, and then sit on the couch when we get back. Just come out of the bedroom… for me?"
Silence. For a long moment, Ciel said nothing— choosing instead to distract himself with Sebastian's tie. He toyed and he tugged, pointedly avoiding the other's anxious gaze and trying to hide the fact that his bottom lip was wobbling, that his eyes were red in an effort to stave off tears. He flexed his fingers; he swallowed thickly… but then he smoothed the silken fabric against his husband's chest and nodded.
"Funny," the once-earl added a minute later, his trembling voice thick with an emotion that humor couldn't fully conceal, "you used to spend all of your waking hours and energies getting me into bedrooms."
…was that… a joke? Temporarily stunned, Sebastian leaned back enough to level his master a startled once-over, mouth slowly curving into a smirk as numb surprise melted into gratifying relief. It had been ages since… Surely this was a sign of progress. "Well," the heartened devil teased in kind, nipping an affectionate kiss against Ciel's cheek, "you used to be something of a, shall we say, location purist. I appreciate that you've become far more flexible in a number of areas… the least of which being locale."
"I suppose." A snuffle. The base of a quavering palm darted beneath nose and tear ducts, leaving Ciel's cheeks rosier than before. Sorrow was more 'suppressed' than it was 'eradicated,' but it was still a step in the right direction; the fledgling's features glowed an emotional pink as he forced a wet smile. "In fact, as time has gone by, I rather think we've jumped to the opposite extreme and neglected the bedroom. Since we're already here, does that not sound like a problem that needs rectifying…?"
The same adroit hands that had been plucking at Sebastian's tie began to deftly loosen it, slender fingers teasing against the sensitive spots on the demon's throat. Sebastian shivered—from the cold of pale skin, the surprise of this advance, the urgent thrum of desire in his veins. How long had it been? They'd barely touched since… Lashes fluttered against the camber of his neck, the tickle of their butterfly brush exacerbated by the heat of the younger's sweet breath. "Love," the butler groaned, hands curling around his master's in a weak display of resistance— pulling them away even as he allowed himself to be pushed back against the sheets. "Oh— Ciel, I'm already going to be late for work…"
Sebastian paused. He hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes until he was opening them, looking up at his little lover— perched so precariously atop the bony cradle of his hips. He looked so tiny there, so lonely and frail: a lost fledgling, uncertain, his chirrups almost inaudible. That soft plead, already uncharacteristic, had been so feeble, so forlorn… so frightened. The not-boy's brow crinkled between his blue, blue eyes, features taut with anxieties; his quaking lips had parted, and fears were perched on the tip of his tongue. Do you not want to? Do you hate me, now? Am I disgusting? Don't you love me...?
It took half an instant for Sebastian to respond to his husband's unasked questions—just enough time for the springs to sing, and the sheets to susurrate. Ciel gasped, on his back before he'd realized he'd been moved. "Sebas—" he began, but the name caught in his throat, and the syllables were quick to unravel; he arched with an airy moan as wanton hips ground him into the mattress. The sound of his mewling went straight to Sebastian's groin… It really had been too long, hadn't it? He was keening now, too: purring and nipping, licking and rubbing. Black nails clattered against white buttons, frantically trying to wrench them from their holes, but soon zealousness won out and the plastic disks were yanked off entirely. Greedy claws ripped at nightclothes and dress shirt, tugging and squirming to free mismatched bodies from the fabrics that bound them. Friction— ah. Breathing was abandoned in lieu of kisses, deep and probing and feverish. Their hair and tongues tangled; the devil wrapped his larger hands around Ciel's wrists, pinning them above his head.
They broke apart with a wet gasp, glassy-eyed and bruised.
"I'll call in sick," Sebastian husked, free hand groping blindly for his belt. His master smiled, looping limber legs encouragingly around his waist.
Everyone knew, of course, that holding up one mirror to another opened a portal to the demon world. That much, at least, was common knowledge. What was less-known—to the humans, anyway—was that demon-world-portals weren't nearly as dramatic as their name might imply. Really, they were no more exhilarating than a fancy cell phone; the Phantomhives used one every weekend to chat with Grand-Papa and Grand-Mum down in the realm Below. To make those calls, though, they used some of Mama's Chap Stick to inscribe the proper runes—to "dial the right numbers," if one wanted to continue the metaphor— so as to keep the picture clear… But the twins didn't have the luxury of choice, here at school. They were stuck with whatever they managed to filch off of their teacher during Show and Tell.
"Ew. This is a'tro'shus. No one should wear lipstick this orange," Asmus muttered judgmentally, nose scrunching in distaste as she uncapped their prize. Aunt Grelle would be appalled to see her niece anywhere near makeup this offensive. But desperate times, as they said. And she sure as heck wasn't putting it anywhere near her lips. Who knew what Miss Hendrick did on her days off? "Well, we'll use it all up, then, t' save teacher from herself."
Toth, as per usual, responded with little more than a discreet hum. He was busy jamming the pens and pencils from his Puella Magi Madoka Magica pouch underneath the bathroom door, since they hadn't a key to lock it. It might be kind of hard to explain to a peer what they were doing, should anyone enter in the hopes of peeing.
"D'you have the 'mergency compact?" Asmus asked, though with no intention of waiting for an answer. Long before Toth had a chance to make a sound, his sister was rifling around in his backpack, digging through books and lunch and spare crayons. At the very bottom, she found a small plastic hand mirror covered in black lacquer and painted spider lilies, given to them by Lilith. (Like most grandparents, Grand-Mum didn't trust modern technologies as far as she could throw it. Which was actually pretty far, considering. Though Daddy had wasted no time in pointing out that cell phones were more durable than glass, Grand-Mum was equally swift to remind him that mirrors didn't lose reception or run out of batteries. In the end, they'd just rolled their eyes at each other and given the twins one of each.)
With a bit of elbow grease—which Asmus had taken to understand actually came from the elbow, so she used just that—the little devil scrubbed crumbs and bits of lint from the face of the compact, making sure it wasn't damaged before gingerly snapping it open. The mirror inside glinted brightly beneath the florescent lights, reflecting her curious eyes back upon her.
"'Kay then…" the demonling muttered to herself, flopping down on the tiled floor. As if it were a piece of drawing paper, Asmus placed the mirror carefully before her on the ground, prepping the tube of lipstick with a few clumsy twists. "Now, when Daddy calls Grand-Papa, he draws Grand-Papa's Seal on the mirror, yeah?" she reasoned aloud, glancing towards her shrugging brother when he came to sit beside her. "Well then, we should just have to draw Daddy's Seal."
Mutely, Toth arched a brow. Asmus, noticing this, frowned in discouraged agreement.
"Yeah, you're right," she consented, "that'll just call Daddy, won't it?" Well, that wouldn't do. A touch put-out, Asmus scrubbed at the back of her head, much like Uncle Ronald did when frustrated. "Hmmm…" she mused, mouth twisting. Auburn eyes narrowed as she further considered the mirror; they only had 15 minutes left to out-think this road block. "Well… Why don't we draw our Seals? We can't call ourselves, so maybe…" Asmus began, but trailed off awkwardly when her brother lifted his other eyebrow. "Yeah, yeah. That doesn't work with cell phones, either. Um…"
Man, who would have guessed it'd be so difficult to call someone without the right number? This was shaping up to be more troublesome than anticipated. And it's not like there was a directory for this sort of thing… (Well, at school, anyway. Mama had one at home, but the twins didn't have access to it. So it may as well not have existed at all.)
But speaking of Mama…
"How about if we use Daddy and Mama's Seals, then?" Asmus suggested after another long minute of intense deliberation, glancing excitedly at Toth. He blinked once, seeking further explanation. "I mean, we dunno what her Seal would be, but it's gotta be something like them, right? So if we draw 'em right on toppa one another, that might at least be 'nough to get a fuzzy picture."
"…" Ah. Well, that made sense. In theory, anyway. Tilting his head to the left, Toth cast a worried glance towards the clock. 12 minutes left… and who knew when someone would next need the toilet? They at least had to try something, and his sister's idea had merit, if nothing else. Decisive, the young boy nodded once, gesturing towards the compact. They didn't have much time; she should start drawing right away.
"Right!" Asmus cheered, hunching her little body over the mirror on the floor. Tongue between her teeth, eyes narrowed in extreme concentration, she began to smear the dreadfully colored makeup over the smooth surface of the looking glass. Regrettably, unlike her brother, she had not been fortunate enough to inherit their father's steady hand or their mother's artistic abilities; that, combined with the chunkiness of the lipstick, made it rather difficult to decipher her meshed symbols and scripts. But it was the thought that counted, wasn't it? That was what Daddy always said, anyway, when Asmus tried her hand at things like drawing and gift-giving. And she'd certainly put thought into it… Besides, it didn't have to be pretty. It just had to work.
"Do we need t' draw it on the other mirror, too?" Toth muttered as his sister pulled back, admiring her masterpiece of streaks and smudges. He glanced somewhat nervously between her shoddy workmanship and the line of rectangular mirrors plastered to the wall above the sinks. Somehow, he couldn't see things ending well, should she choose to climb up there and continue with her art. "I dunno if the janitor would 'preciate that…"
Asmus, too, turned towards the row of mirrors, and then looked back down at the pinched makeup she held in her petite fist. The stick had barely made it through one inscription; she didn't think they'd have enough for two. "Well, Daddy always does," she admitted in a mumble, tossing the plastic tube away with a rolling clatter. "But I dunthink we really gotta. I mean, the Seal is 'flected in the mirror, right? So it's practically the same thing as drawin' it again. You know?"
She pushed herself to her feet and placed one fist upon her hip, feet splayed and knee crooked in a dramatic sort of stance. One that, she hoped, came off as full of confidence and authority. Toth privately thought she looked a bit off her rocker—or maybe kind of constipated— but kept it to himself. He appreciated her vigor, if nothing else… And if she was convinced this might work, that was enough for him. "If you say so," he whispered peaceably, plucking the compact from the ground and placing it with a pap in his sister's open palm. (The one that was outstretched, gesturing towards the mirrors as if she planned on charging them.) "Let's try it, then, b'fore everyone wakes up."
"Yessir," Asmus saluted as she accepted the handheld from her brother. But an obedient solder she was not; at least, not one when it came to handling items of power. Like some sort of Disney villain, the weight of the talisman elicited from the little one a worming grin so marvelously deviant, the Grinch would have been jealous of it. She giggled—cackled, really—, holding the compact to her chest; her eyebrows wiggled meaningfully as she caught her brother's eye in the reflection of the larger mirrors. "Hey… Have you ever watched Sailor Moon with Uncle 'Lois and Uncle Claude?" she innocently queried, lips curling back with a flash of ivory. Flicking the compact open again with the strike of a hidden button, Asmus turned the Contract-covered mirror towards the affixed glass and struck another, likely copyrighted pose. "Moon… Prism… Power!" she then cried, laughing with delight as the gingery stains on the reflective surface began to glow an ethereal indigo. "Makeup!"
As if in answer to her call, the florescent lights flickered and popped; the mirrors on the wall groaned, shuddering in an attempt to escape their frames. It all played out like the start of a bad horror movie—as if a poltergeist might pop out of a toilet at any moment, hooting and hollering about having been summoned. (But that was just silly. Summoning poltergeists was an entirely different spell.) Still, the rattling was enough to turn Toth into a quibbling mess: with a gasp, he ducked behind his sister, squeaking when the floor began to move in ways he was sure it wasn't supposed to. Was it an earthquake? No— no, it couldn't have been, because the ground wasn't really moving. It was just the reverberations from the now-enchanted glass, straining so mightily against its metal mounts that the whole of the wall was shaking. But whatever the construction workers had used to glue those mirrors in place had been resilient… When the casings refused the give, the glass itself started to warp: as if some invisible hand was trying to push through it, break free. The middle mirror bulged outward with a sound like nails on a chalkboard… Only to suddenly suck itself back in with a whistling scream, forming what looked like some sort of silvery vortex.
"Azzy…? I don't think this is right…!" Hair whipping, t-shirt flapping, and dangerously close to shedding panicked tears, Toth gave his sister's arm a sharp tug— half-heartedly trying to make her lower the magic mirror. When she wouldn't budge, he put a bit more force into his shoves, but it was still no use. As in most facets, she was the stronger of the two… Not to mention fueled by conviction. Also not as prone to motion sickness, which was starting to become a problem for Toth; the reflection of their ridiculously-embarrassing-attempt-at-holy hieroglyphics was starting to make him feel sick. Though the characters remained stationary on their side of the glass, within the mirror they had taken to squirming and circling, like ribbons being sucked into a fierce whirlwind. Watching made him feel dizzy. "This def'nently isn't what happens when we call Grand-Papa!"
"Yeah, but that's 'cause we're not tryin' to call Grand-Papa!" an exasperated Asmus retorted, having to raise her voice to be heard over the otherworldly maelstrom. (Their class sure was full of heavy sleepers. Convenient.) Rather than fear, the demonling's russet-turned-vermillion eyes had begun to glitter with exhilaration; their piercing red gleam cut through the blues and grays of the churning gateway before them with the force of headlights in a fog. "Dun be such a scardy-spider! Look! I think it's working!"
With the hand that wasn't keeping the compact stable against her chest, the girl gestured eagerly towards the larger of the charmed mirrors, anticipation animating her every movement. Her finger waggled and jabbed; Toth leaned around her shoulder, wary. But though his reservations made him cautious, they didn't make him dumb. Whether he liked it or not, his sister was right—something was happening. The eerie tornado that they'd been staring down the eye of was calming (somewhat) and the clouds that composed it were beginning to thin. As if through veils of mist, the twins could now pick out shadowy forms… brief and translucent, vanishing like smoke once the pseudo-storm passed them by. There was a black-haired toddler in a blonde woman's arms, all coos and chirps, who gave off the aura of a cuckoo-bird… A naked little girl with dark locks and blue eyes, features feral as she gnawed on a corpse's emaciated arm. Then that blonde reappeared—younger than before, with a crueler smile— her hair up in ringlets and a doll in her lap, singing a song that neither twin could hear…
"Which one is her, d'you think?" Toth whispered loudly, his whole body tensing in alarm. Blunted ebony nails dug into the sleeve of his sibling's jumper, fingers fidgeting with nerves. There were so many of them; how were they supposed to know which one was right? They couldn't possibly all be—
"I dunno… Maybe we get to choose?" Asmus submitted in bemusement, looking a bit disconcerted, herself. None of the girls they'd passed had seemed particularly nice. Certainly not worth the effort they were going through to make contact, anyway. (Especially not that middle one. Hadn't she ever heard of a napkin? Geez. Daddy would've been appalled.) "I mean, 's not like we gave an ex'zact Seal, right? So maybe we get options."
Well, that made about as much sense as anything else did, the boy supposed. "Which one do we want, then?" he mumbled, careful to remain half-crouched behind his sibling. He didn't find any of these girls particularly appealing, to be honest. Most of them were dressed in clothing he only recognized from Mama's old photo albums, or from the boxes in the closet; it made him worry that they might be stuffy. Or weird. Distantly, he wondered if there might be a version who had heard of WalMart and televisions and ping-pong. So, you know, they had stuff in common. To talk about. "We only got a few more minutes 'til naptime is over… Who should we get?"
Oh, right. Time limit. Asmus had forgotten about that in the wake of the shiny lights. (Magpie tendencies. It happened.) "Uh… yeah. Um, I dunno. Maybe one who doesn't look like she might eat us?" the girl suggested vaguely, in tones far too sunny for such a macabre proposition. Toth leveled his sister a dry glance, not bothering to voice the implied duh. Not that Asmus really noticed; she was kind of ADD. And her attention had already been garnered by the smoky specter who'd most recently started materializing in the wall-mirror. "Ooo, how 'bout that one?" she tittered, eyes shining with hope as she glanced back at her cowering brother. (Oh, c'mon. She'd only been half-kidding about the cannibalism thing.) "She looks kinda less crazy than the others!"
Wow. "Kinda less crazy." What a heartening description. Beginning to feel as if he'd stumbled into the hybrid game-child of Bloody Mary and Russian Roulette, Toth turned cagily towards the looking glass, lips prepped and pursed around a "lolnope"… But then he paused, mildly taken aback by the fact that—well, she did seem kinda less crazy. She wasn't noshing on limbs or doing her impression of Regan from "The Exorcist," anyway, which was a good start. That alone put her heads and tails above the others… (Though they had set the bar pretty low.) Oh, and this kid looked quite a bit like them, too—more so than that blonde— which was probably a good sign. Wherever she was doing on the other side of the portal must have put her pretty close to a mirror, because the twins had been afforded a very good look at her. (Maybe she was at a makeup table…? Though the twins could hardly imagine why she would be. She couldn't have been any older than they were; what use would she have for makeup? Besides, um, making portals. Anyway, she didn't need it: she was already petite, pretty, and pale, like a precious porcelain doll. It was almost kind of ridiculous, actually. Her cheeks were so perfectly rosy, it looked like they'd been painted. Asmus had the distinct feeling that she should be jealous, or something. But there was no time for that now— recess was coming up, and she didn't want to miss it.)
"Hey, can you hear us?" the fledgling bellowed at the corkscrewing mirror, stamping her tiny feet just in case the extra noise might merit the other's notice. It didn't. The phantom continued her silent, downward staring—oh, she was reading something, wasn't she?— as oblivious to the twins' presences as if they were the ghosts. Cheeks ballooning outward in irritation, Asmus kicked off one of her Mary-Jane and barked at her brother, "Chuck it."
"Um, Azzy, I dunno if—"
"Just do it!"
So "do it" Toth did. With the pomp and ceremony of a baseball star, it should be added, because if you're going to lob a shoe at a mirror, you might as well give it your all. After an impressively histrionic wind up, the little devil threw the glossy black shoe with as much strength as he could… And then he and his sister watched, transfixed, as it went soaring straight at—then straight through— its intended target.
That had been weird. The mirror had wavered wetly when it'd been acquainted with the Mary Jane, but rather than splinter and shatter, the heal had hit the surface with a gloopy splat… then sunk beneath the rippling glass as if it'd been made of lucent quagmire. So, yeah. Weird.
What was even weirder was the fact that Asmus' shoe was now hanging off the nose of someone on the opposite end of a wormhole.
"What on Earth—?" An affronted and understandably-startled child squeaked with rage, her voice tinged by both ire and accent. English, it sounded like. Like Mama and Daddy's voices, sometimes, when they got particularly mad or nostalgic. But that was good—another sign that they'd probably found the right demon. Though maybe that hadn't been the best way to get her to notice them, in retrospect…
Perhaps they should try again.
"Hiya! Can you hear us, now?" Asmus cheered a second time, waving her free hand in a frantic attempt to catch the other's floundering attention. (Honestly, it was just, like, a boot to the head. Nothing to get all crazy about.) But apparently this girl had never heard of internet memes, because crazy she went, leaving Asmus to worry that this was about to become nothing more than a bad parody of a Verizon Wireless commercial. The thought had her simmering with frustration once more; she loathed being ignored. "Hey!" she shouted, stamping a few feet closer to the mirror. "Can you hear us now? …No? Oh, come on…"
But then (just as the fledgling was about to kick off her other shoe) acting like a spaz finally gained her some positive results. Once the girl in the glass had finished with her cartoonish bout of flailing—arms waving as she spun to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, trying to figure out who'd attacked her—she came to a sudden pause, auburn eyes narrowing she leaned closer, squinting at her mirror.
A gasp. In an instant, the girl lunged forward— grasping at the frame of whatever-mirror-it-was she'd been sitting before, dark irises flaring like stirred coals.
"…did you just… is that your shoe?" the girl demanded, in what was probably a bell-sweet voice, most of the time. Now, though, it was shrill, and jumping octaves higher in irritation. In the throes of her thrashing, a few wispy strands of midnight hair had slipped from the elegant knot that the girl wore on the crown of her head; she brushed the fizzing locks away as she removed Asmus' shoe, then began scrubbing at her abused nose, disgusted. "Why on earth did you throw a shoe at me? And… wait."
There was a pause during which priorities were mentally resorted.
"What are you lot doing inside of my vanity?"
As the stranger spoke, the vortex that connected them wobbled a bit; the girl on the other end was probably shaking her aforementioned vanity, trying to dislodge the strange visions within it. But since they weren't speaking to one another through an Etch-A-Sketch, this plan didn't work out too well. Much to her bemusement and chagrin. Meanwhile, the twins remained as they were, grinning like gremlins.
"I'm really glad we found you!" Asmus sang, frantically nudging her brother as if he hadn't yet noticed they'd managed to make contact. In a number of ways. "We have somethin' really 'portant to tell you, Maggie!"
"I… what?" The little girl in the glass gave—what was probably supposed to be—a graceful double take, but in practice kind of came off like she was trying to bat a bee from her face. Her nostrils flared as if she was still smelling the inside of Asmus' shoe, and considered its stench horribly offensive. "First off," she decreed, holding up a finger and giving a regal sort of sniff, "my name's not Maggie. It's Ophelia Phantomhive, an' I should 'preciate being called thusly. Second," Ophelia briskly continued, turning away from the twins with a regal shuffle of unseen skirts, "I'm not allo'wd to talk to strangers, so I'm afraid I can't listen to your message."
…well, that was a trifle unexpected.
The twins exchanged a brief stare, befuddlement tweaking the edges of their expressions. "Huh?" Asmus finally managed to verbalize, carefully scrutinizing the apparition before her. "But I thought… I was really sure it was Maggie, wasn't it?" she tried to affirm, but all her brother could offer was a vague shrug, uncertain himself. Maybe they'd been kept out of the loop? It wasn't impossible. It did seem kind of suspicious, though… Grumbling as thoughts tumbled about in her head, Asmus narrowed her probing eyes and leaned another few inches closer, almost conspiratorially. "Are you sure your name isn't Maggie?"
The other girl huffed, looking very close to throwing her own shoe in retaliation. "Yes!" she adamantly barked, lifting the leather-bound book she'd had open on the table. As if it held the answers to all, she flashed the twins a glimpse of its spine, then jabbed a black-tipped finger at its title."It's Ophelia! Like in Hamlet. She's the girl that drowns."
What some dude named Ham-melt had to do with the book that Ophelia was shoving in their faces was a mystery to Asmus and Toth, but they let it go. They were smart enough to realize when to keep their mouths shut, rather than risk coming off like idiots. That having been said…
"Why would you wanna be named after someone who drowns?" Asmus inquired with a nonplussed scoff, hip cocking out at a sassy angle as she crossed her arms and snorted. This girl was strange. In a funny way, though, not in the eating paste way, so that was okay. "I dunthink drowning is all that great. So you should be Maggie. Maggie is a better name."
"No! No, it's not a better name!" Visibly vexed now, Ophelia pounded her balled fists against her vanity, growling at the perceived slights. How dare these peons in their bizarre, oddly-tailored rags insult her in such a way? Where did they get off? Oh, if Papa and Mum hadn't left the manor on a mission, they would certainly hear about this! They'd give these two simpletons a piece of their minds! "My name is much better than something as stupid as Maggie. Or—or—"
They stared at one another in silence. It was only sort of awkward.
"…um… what are your names?"
"Asmus!" Entirely unfazed, the elder of the siblings beamed, choosing to disregard Ophelia's raving, as well as her flustered blush. "That's me, anyway. And he's Toth. But unless we're in trouble, people call us Azzy and Toto."
"Ha! Well, Ophelia is better than those names, too!" the little girl continued with a victoriously quirked smirk, tossing her head like someone in a shampoo commercial. How… obnoxious. The twins exchanged cynical glances; maybe they should have gone with the weirdo eating the arm, instead. This one was kind of petty… Though to be fair, Asmus supposed, she had hit Ophelia in the face with a shoe, and then told her that her name was dumb. So maybe they deserved a bit of this at one another, the pair swallowed back yawns and allowed their companion to rant until the anger was out of her system, since she clearly had no intention of shutting up prior to saying all that she had to."'Asmus and Toth'… No one's ever written famous stuff about people named Asmus and Toth. An' 'Maggie' is common, an' not fit for a Phantomhive. So stop calling me that, or I'll tell—well, my parents are out, but… I'll tell your parents on you! I should tell on you, anyway, for throwing a shoe at me!"
For the second time that day, Toth gave a small start—ruddy gaze gaining the glisten of a genius idea in the wake of Ophelia's half-hearted threat. This time, however, he didn't even need to make eye contact with his sister in order to communicate it; she'd had the same brainwave at the same time, and was already clapping her hands to celebrate her cleverness.
"Oh! Oh, that's a great idea!" Asmus gasped, nodding in delight as Ophelia—startled by such exuberance—gave pause. They wanted her to tattle? Maybe 'tattling' didn't mean what she'd thought it did… Or perhaps these two were just as eccentric as their clothing implied, because when Asmus continued, she didn't dispute the definition of the word. "If you come tell on us, Mama and Daddy will know we did something bad. We're s'posed to do a few bad things each week," she helpfully explained, as if to a younger (or stupider) child. Ophelia bristled; they were the same age, weren't they? So obviously she knew that… maybe. (Whatever.) "Besides," the fledgling added encouragingly, crooking her bitty fingers in a get-your-butt-over-here-now sort of way, "I'm sure Mama and Daddy really wanna see you, too! An' after all of that, we'll know each other, so we won't be strangers, so we can tell you our message! So you should totally come tell on us!"
In the wake of this verbal tirade, Toth nodded emphatically, as if to say "what she said." It was a most convincing addendum, apparently, for Ophelia was soon nodding, as well.
"… I… I guess that makes sense," the other girl agreed, albeit reluctantly. With a furtive glance to her left and right, the demonling gingerly closed the book she'd been reading and pushed it aside, making enough room on the makeup table for her knees. After all, if the shoe had traveled from the twins to her through the mirror, it was obvious that she was going to have to journey the same pathway. Even still, she hesitated before making the final plunge. Not because she was nervous about falling through an undocumented rift in time and space that had abruptly materialized in her mirror, of course. Rather, she vacillated over something far more dire. "But I dunno," she confessed, worrying the joint of a knuckle. "I'm not 'llowed to go out or play until I'm done with my studies."
…that was her major concern? Asmus barked a dry laugh, giving her hand a dismissive flick. Like Daddy did when dealing with idiots. "Well, if that's all you're worried about, you dunhave to be," she reassured, flashing Ophelia a heartening grin. "'Cause we're at school right now! So you can study with us, and it should all be good."
"You're at school?" Ophelia gawked a bit, further intrigued by these strangers and the mysteries they espoused. She'd never been to a school, before. Mum had always found them distasteful. Curiosity piquing, the young girl leaned even closer to the mirror—nose nearly brushing its surface—as she tried to catch a peek of the world beyond the small window of her vanity.
All the while, Asmus beamed and nodded, gesturing her arm like some sort of tour guide. "Yep! It's naptime now—"
"Actually, Azzy, naptime ended a few minutes ago…"
"—and then it'll be recess, and then we'll practice the alphabet and stuff and play, and then Mama and Daddy will come pick us up, and you can tell on us. That's everything you need t' do, right?"
Ophelia considered this, assessing the other girl's jovial claims. She did make a good point—that was everything she'd expressed an interest in doing, certainly. And it'd been days since she'd last been allowed out of the house… Her parents didn't even like her strolling about the garden when they were away. Some fresh air and exercise and demon-to-demon interaction would be good for her, she reasoned.
"Well… All right. So that I can tell on you," Ophelia decreed. Carefully, because she didn't want to seem overly-enthusiastic, or anything. And with a final nod of confirmation, she shuffled the final inch forward, forehead and palms pressed to the swelling surface of the looking glass. An aspic undulation; her reflection inverted and contorted.
On the twins' side of the portal, the mirror ballooned…
"How are you feeling?"
The air was still brisk with the last remnants of ice; as the wind whistled through the cracked windows, it smelt of slush, damp foliage, and the zest of early spring. His hair ruffled in the breath of it, glinting silvery in the watery sunlight. And his eyes—weary but alert— reflected the streets that their meandering van trundled through: buildings wet with final traces of snow, and grungy cars stained with salt. Ciel smiled a bit at the familiarity of it all, his lazy azure gaze flicking over towards the driver's seat.
"I'm fine," he returned softly, and for once seemed to mean it. Untangling his arm from beneath the drape of his jacket, he placed his palm atop the hand Sebastian had set on his knee. The other demon's eyes may have been on the road, but there was no question as to where his attention had drifted. "In fact, I'm glad. That you made me do this, I mean. I wasn't doing anybody any favors by staying cooped up in my room… I needed to get out of there."
The butler nodded. He'd been right; he'd known he'd been. All the same, Sebastian was glad that his lord didn't seem to resent having been dragged along. "Well, no one can blame you for how you've acted," he gently reassured, giving the other's fingers a heartening squeeze. With far more grace than he'd managed that morning, Sebastian maneuvered their car into the school parking lot—idling a bit by the hydrant as he waited for buses, SUVs, and other equally annoying vehicles to inch to their respective destinations. His was the curb near the flag-circle, to the left of the building entrance; caught as they were behind trundling soccer moms, both devils knew they might be waiting for a while. (Sebastian considered using his horn—just to be a prick—but in the end, thought better of it. He didn't want to aggravate Ciel. He could rack up more points for this month's Evil Quota at some other time.) "Satan knows that this has hit all of us rather hard… But the best thing, I think, is to get ourselves back into a routine of sorts. Keeping active will certainly help take our minds off of things," he promised, turning his gaze from his husband to the yard. Perhaps they could catch the twins' attention and meet them here, instead, rather than pull an Uriel and hover awkwardly around, creeping on everyone in the area. The bell had rung for the kindergarteners a few moments ago; a modest surge of bitty mortals had meandered out of the building, or had come running from the swing set. Both demons kept their eyes peeled for two black-haired heads among the blondes, brunettes, and gingers. "It's been a while since we've all hit the town, as it were. Perhaps it might make you feel better to take the children hunting today. Or out for some other sort of treat. Just to have some time as a… um… family…"
The proposal ended with an out-of-place upswing, morphing from sentence to question. It seemed that, when distracted, the elder devil was unable to use his eyes and mouth at the same time; his voice trailed off, becoming little more than verbal mush in his mouth. Or perhaps it was his brain that had become mush. That was a logical explanation, as well. It made more sense to believe that than to place any stock on what he thought he was seeing, anyway. And though he'd always been told that demons possessed flawless vision, for the first time in his life, Sebastian thought perhaps he'd given his senses too much credit. Or maybe his mind was starting to go in his old age. For while he could certainly see what he was looking at perfectly well (with or without his usual brand of unnecessary theatrics), he just—well, he couldn't believe he was actually seeing it. It must have been a trick of the light, or—
Suddenly realizing that he'd half-folded himself over the steering wheel, and that he'd bruised his jaw when he'd dropped it, Sebastian straightened, head snapping towards his master. And maybe—maybe he wasn't losing it. Because Ciel was gawking at the same sight that he was, dark eyes impossibly wide as his face gained a faint grayish pallor. "Sebastian, who is…?"
Asmus' shriek of joy could be heard loud and clear, even from inside of the car. Which was kind of impressive, considering she was at least a fourth of a mile away. As soon as her brother had given her arm a tug and pointed them out, she'd begun to bound swiftly towards the van—like some sort of a pigtailed antelope—, auburn eyes luminous with glee. Her brother, as always, was close in toe; his hand was wrapped around another little girl's, who looked…
"Mama! Mama, look who we found!" Practically colliding with the frame of the car, the whole of the van gave a visible lurch as Asmus began to beat against her mother's door, trying to entice him to open up. "Toth and me got tired of being lonely and sad and stuff so we gave Maggie a call with Grand-Mama's mirror durin' naptime, only she says her name is Ophelia, not Maggie, so I guess we got that wrong, but that's okay, because now she's here and she's super nice and she's really good at the alphabet and reading and we read 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' and built a model of Big Ben with clay during arts together, and we're gonna play Pretty, Pretty Princess when we get home!" Gasping to stave off self-imposed asphyxiation, Asmus grinned as widely and brightly as she could, jumping around in a vibrant display of excitement… and in an attempt to see through Ciel's window. (Why wasn't Mama coming out? Why did he look so scared?) "An' it's a good thing we called her, too, because 'Felia was all by herself and I bet that was lonely 'cause she didn't know you guys were here an—!"
"Asmus. Be quiet."
Though Mama's door remained pointedly closed, Daddy's had opened and shut again with a dangerous snap. In half an instant, he'd circled the hub of the van— an imposing figure indeed, in his black dress slacks and shirt. Startled in equal parts by his curtness and the scowl upon his face, Asmus flinched as her father approached them… and then frowned herself, bitter and confused. Sebastian sounded like he was going to scold them, but for what? She and her brother—they'd not done anything wrong! They'd just called Ophelia because… "Daddy—"
"I told you to be quiet," Sebastian said again—levelly, but firmly. He didn't bother meeting the baleful gaze of his reproachful daughter, nor did he turn towards the equally obstinate glance of his son. Instead, he looked unblinkingly down at the young girl who stood delicately between them, guarded by one twin on either side… And she, in turn, stared up at him with eyes so familiar that they changed his innards to gelatin. Then to water.
And when she beamed, he had no insides at all.
"Papa!" the child—Ophelia— squealed, hopping over to him like a happy baby bird. She was bedecked in a pinafore dress of sea foam green; each exuberant movement had her petticoats rustling about her knees, the fabrics swirling around her bloomer's lacy cuffs. Though her tiny hands had been clasped to her breast, she soon extended them—pressing whatever-it-was in her palm forward, and offering it to Sebastian. "I know that you and Mum said to wait at the Manor and study while you went out, but I was dreadf'lly bored… And Azzy said you were both here, and I missed you, so we thought I would surprise you! Oh, an' I was gonna tattle on Azzy for hitting me with her shoe, but she shared her snack with me, and it was pudding, and it was good, so never mind. Anyway, here!" she tacked on, thrusting her arms forward with a trifle more force. Absently realizing he was being presented a present, Sebastian's gaze flicked downwards; resting in the cup of her pale, willowy hands was a dead finch. (The demon couldn't help but think of how heartbroken Finny would be, should he see it.) "I killed it for you! To welcome you back. Even though I su'pose I'm the one who's back..."
"I… uh…" At an uncharacteristic loss for words—or maybe they were all just stuck in his throat—Sebastian wasted a good minute gawking dumbly at the small creature… But then civility got the best of him. Crouching low on wobbly knees, he met the grinning girl once-over at her own eye-level, and carefully accepted her gift. "…thank you, little one," he finally managed, though in a voice that was hardly more than a cracking whisper. He was not going to cry. But being this close to her— she… well, it was impossible, but she smelled like them. Like the twins. Like himself and Ciel. Spiced, perhaps, a bit more potently with the lingering perfume of humanity… but still a devil child of the Phantomhives. With a rusty creak of resisting joints, spindly fingers folded around the fluffy finch, cradling it like one would some priceless treasure. He brought the bird to his own chest, then smiled weakly— reaching out to pat her head, to pet that soft hair. She actually was real, wasn't she? "That was… very thoughtful. And what an excellent huntress you are."
Pleased with herself, Ophelia glanced demurely at her calfskin boots, lacing now-empty hands behind her back as she accepted her hard-earned praise. She giggled, twisting a bit at the hip; soon, though, her curious stare had leapt up to the car, and to Ciel, who'd watched all of this unfold mutely from his seat. The sight had her cocking her head, bemused.
"…what's the matter with Mum? Is he frightened of that odd new carriage he's in?" Ophelia asked amiably, and it suddenly struck Sebastian just how affable a child this girl was, considering where she'd come from and where she was now. Judging solely by the style of her dress, the once-butler surmised she was over 200 years from home… Was she really so lackadaisical that she'd seen the others' outfits, the architecture, the technology, and simply shrugged her slender shoulders and muttered a "meh?" And… and what about everyone who'd seen her?
"…how in the name of all that is unholy did you explain this to your teacher?" Sebastian snapped, already volatile emotions pulling a 180 as his attention again fell upon the children that he, uh, well, knew about. The warmth Ophelia had stoked behind his eyes went out in an instant. The fire remained, certainly, but it was now more akin to an inferno, and nowhere near as endearing. Sulking in the wake of their father's displeasure, the twins grouched and grimaced and grumbled, hip-to-hip and wearing identical pouts.
"We tol' Miss Hendrick that 'Felia was visitin', an' that she'd talked to you this mornin' an' had said it was okay," Asmus muttered, suddenly very interested in her nails. Toth's were equally fascinating. (Yes, look at how black they were. Mhm.) "An' maybe we might'a Charmed Miss Hendrick a little… But she's human an' it'll wear off, and no one in our class really bothered us after they saw 'Felia kill th' bird at recess, so it was fine." She shrugged.
…fine. This was how his daughter defined fine. Sebastian moved to press both hands to his face—remembered one had a moldering animal in it—then settled with pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. Just another one of a million reasons why demonic children should go to school in the realms Below. The teachers there were trained to deal with all manner of magic and mischief; nothing like this would have happened in any classroom of theirs. He and Ciel were going to discuss this again la—
Jolting as if electrocuted, Sebastian whirled back towards the car— his head filling with colorful curses upon catching sight of his husband's expression. The one earl had huddled beneath his coat like one would a blanket in the aftermath of a nightmare, looking torn between throwing up and fainting… or possibly scrambling out of the car and running like an animal. But as to where he would run…
"Baby bi— young master, I… She… I don't quite know where or how, but—"
Ciel nodded once. Hurriedly. He understood; he didn't need or want to be told anymore. He just wanted to go home. Wanted to go home and hide again… Sebastian could tell that much. The devil sighed, thinking perhaps this had been the wrong day to force his husband out of hibernation. Not that he could have known anything like this was going to happen. What had he to blame for this mess? A mirror, was it…? He was fairly certain Asmus had mentioned a mirror. Well, he'd be taking a look at that as soon as they got back. And using it, likely, to make a few calls of his own…
"All right. You lot get in, then," the butler commanded, giving the sliding door a very brisk tug. As the door fell open on rumbling gliders, Ophelia released a soft coo of wonder, enchanted by the spectacle that was this horseless carriage.
"Papa, does this run on magic?" she inquired innocently, dancing about on the tips of her toes. Asmus and Toth had already scrambled into their car seats and were busily snapping themselves in; Ophelia lingered to get a better look at the exhaust pipe and the brake lights, the rearview mirrors and the windshield wipers. Sebastian caught her around the waist when she began to push on the gas cap, not wanting her to get any excess fluid on her hands. Or to accidentally blow them up. (He didn't know if this one had learned to breathe fire, yet.)
"It runs on something that costs nearly as much," Sebastian returned, only a bit wry. Bracing the inquisitive little one against his hip, he shot the twins one last, disapproving stare— which they responded to with their initial brand of indignant confusion— before shutting that door and opening another.
His husband looked up at him with nearly as much outrage as his children.
"We only have two car seats," the elder devil reminded, a touch apologetic, as Ciel did his best impression of a deer in headlights. Ophelia dangled between them, held aloft by the hands that Sebastian had braced beneath her underarms. Feeling a bit like one of the cats she sometimes saw her father playing with in the garden, she glanced from Papa to Mum with an innocuous sort of perplexity playing across her pretty features. Was this some sort of ritual involved in one's first car ride?
For a stubborn spell, the once-earl did nothing. He didn't want to— …he already felt faint. This couldn't actually be happening; it was just some cruel trick. But Sebastian continued to hold her, and his gaze slowly hardened, and Ciel knew… This girl was guiltless, and there was no need to frighten or traumatize her. He was the adult here, and dammit, he was going to act like one. So the demonling sucked down a deep, steadying breath… and finally held out his own arms, looking as grave and nervous as if he was reaching to accept a very large capsule of cyanide. Or a bomb.
"…fine," he whispered, allowing Sebastian to place the small child atop his lap. Ophelia, seemingly oblivious to Ciel's expression-pinching discomfort, nestled atop his thighs without a care in the world… Though she did struggle a bit against the arms he guardedly wrapped around her middle. They were impeding on her quest to press her face to the window, after all.
"Is this London, then? It doesn't look like London. Is it some new part of London? Is the manor far? Or will we be staying at the townhouse?" Ophelia asked, firing off questions like her mouth was some sort of verbal tommy gun. Sebastian opened his mouth, half-trying to answer, but was never given the chance. "There are so many iron horses! Did you design them, Mum? Papa, why're everyone dressed in such rags? Oh! What a funny-looking phonograph! What sort of music is it playin'? Does one dance t' it?" She paused for a moment to gasp for breath, during which time Asmus and Toth began to sing along with the radio.
"Cuz I may be bad, but I'm perf'cly good at it~"
"…what does 'S-n-M' mean?"
"Sebastian, change the channel."
"Yes, my lor—"
"Woah!" Distracted again. Ophelia's palms and cheeks left sticky marks upon the glass as she plastered herself to it. "Papa, this horse is so fast! It runs almost as fast as you!"
With a subtle shift, Ciel glanced at the speedometer. Since they weren't even on the road yet, they were traveling at a whopping 10 mph. Despite himself, he snorted; a tiny smirk began to play on his lips as they inched out of the bustling parking lot.
"You must be a turtle demon, where she comes from."
"You feelin' better?"
"Y-yeah…" Looking a trifle sheepish, Ophelia tugged on the hem of one of Asmus' dress, which Sebastian had helped her into after she'd thrown up on her own. Motion sickness, Ophelia decided, wasn't much fun, and she wasn't sure she really liked cars, either. But she'd survived the journey home, and she'd been promised she wouldn't have to get back into the van… so now she just had to get over the humiliation of having been sick all over herself and her mother. "Is Mum alright?"
Toth moved his little shoulders in an ambiguous response as Asmus sighed, carefully pouring them all sippy cups of juice. Orange-mango, to get the taste of puke out of Ophelia's mouth. "Mama said he was fine, so he's pro'lly fine. He's just washing up. Then he'll pro'lly go back to bed," Asmus stated matter-of-factly, snapping on three plastic lids. Normally Daddy would prepare an elaborate snack for them after school, but not today. Once he'd tended to Ophelia and placed some apple slices on a plate, he'd dashed into the study in order to examine the twins' compact. And to call Grand-Papa, if the shouting was anything to judge by.
"What do you mean, alternate dimensions?"
"I mean just what I say. The worlds that would have resulted if you'd, for instance, taken a right turn at the corner of 42nd street instead of a left, or had a bagel for breakfast instead of Malt-o-Meal. There's as many alternate dimensions as there are decisions you make in a day, all moving parallel to one another, across time and space. It's rather mind-blowing, and perhaps a bit disconcerting, since it means having to accept that you're not the only you out there, or that maybe you don't exist at all, depending. It's best to just keep focused on the life you're aware you're living, and not bother with the other lives you may or may not have."
"D'you wanna see our toys?" Asmus asked cheerfully, wrapping her arms around all three cups and deftly sliding them from the tabletop. Once she had a proper grip on the drinks, she waddled over to the others and offered one to Ophelia, then one to her brother. Without missing a beat, Toth started to suckle on his with the gusto of a drug addict offered a pacifier full of PCP. Ophelia, a bit more cautious about new things after the car-trip, took only a tentative pull, at first… Then she smiled, deciding she liked the taste.
"Okay. Do you have lots from Funtom?" she enquired, following the siblings the few paces it took to get from the kitchen to the living room. Distantly, she wondered why they stayed here, rather than in the manor or even the townhouse, but from what Sebastian had said, both were very far away… And this place wasn't bad, she figured. Just kind of small. (Where did they hide the servants?)
"We have some," Toth murmured around chomps on his lid, waiting by the couch as his sister hefted a few plastic tubs from beneath the television set. One was full of Barbies and related accessories; another, GI Joes and My Little Ponies. The third was fit to bursting with a colorful array of Lincoln Logs and Legos. "But Mama says he just shadows 'em, now, an' they're expensive, so we mostly get stuff from Target. 'Sides, they sell more Avengers and Ponies there."
"Um… okay…" Joining the others on their knees after Asmus wrenched open the Tupperware lids, Ophelia took a moment to examine the strange playthings. Of course, she recognized the basics of what each was supposed to be—a doll, a horse, building blocks— but never before had she seen them constructed from such strange materials, or made to conform to such odd proportions. Holding up a very well-endowed doll with rubbery limbs, frizzy hair, and a vacant smile, Ophelia inquired, "Is this an Avenger, then?"
"No, that's Human Sacrifice Barbie."
"I think the box said she was s'posed to be a McDonald's worker, or somethin', but we decided she'd enjoy bein' a sacrifice, more," Asmus explained, positioning Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie near a pile of naked Kellys and Stacys. During playtime yesterday, the ponies had finally managed to overturn the Intergalactic Empire of Barbies' Little Sisters, and were feasting on the corpses of their enemies to celebrate. Since a good deal of time had passed since then, Asmus figured some damage would have been done to the dolls; idly, she began popping off their limbs, scattering the mangled cadavers at the hooves of Princess Celestia and Twilight Sparkle. "But if you wanna use her as a McDonald's worker, that's okay, too. She can make hamburgers for us."
Ophelia nodded sagely. "Hamburgers. Yes."
She stared at the doll for a moment.
"…what are hamburgers?"
The expression the twins' shot the girl then could only be described as heartrendingly pitiable.
"Daddy!" Asmus screeched, whipping her head in the direction of the study. Grand-Papa and the mysteries of the time-space continuum could wait. This was far more serious. "Daddy we abs'lutely halfta have hamburgers for supper tonight!"
A grunt. Distantly—both in tone and proximity— Sebastian made a frustrated noise, only half-listening to his daughter's shouts. "Asmus, Daddy is on the mirror right now," he tersely reminded, before returning his full attention to his current call. "Well, I'm afraid that's not an option anymore, since the product of another Sebastian and Ciel is currently helping the twins make a mess of the living room."
"Ah, isn't that fabulous, Malphas? I'm so happy to hear that you and that cutie of yours have enjoyed fruitful unions in multiple timelines! As the king of the Second Circle, I couldn't be prouder of your unwavering desire to copulate with that boy… You two were truly meant to b—"
"Father! How did this happen?"
"We'll ask him again later," Asmus reassured her guest, offering a sunny, albeit consolatory smile. "Hamburgers are yummy. An' Daddy makes 'em so they're really red inside, and sometimes kinda bloody, and sometimes, he makes 'em outta th' deer we hunt, and they're super good. But mostly we make 'em out of beef we get at the grocery store because that's faster and we only get t' go hunting if we're good and it's been a while."
"I get to go hunting all the time," Ophelia retorted—not bragging, per se, just eager to prove she wasn't completely ignorant of all of the joys that Azzy was speaking of. Accepting the tiny purple brush that Toth offered her, Ophelia began to tease the kinks out her doll's towheaded locks. "There's a big woods around th' manor, and Papa takes me out at least once a week. We catch lots of phe'sants and bunnies. And once, when I was 4, we caught a lynx, which Papa said was very odd 'cause lynxes weren't supposed to live around there… But we didn't kill that, because it was a cat. Instead, we gave it to th' zoo, an' Mum was happy 'cause he said it was good publicity, an' also 'cause the lynx wouldn't kill our chickens anymore. I named the lynx Lottie."
Oo, cats. The twins liked cats. "We had a cat named Georgina and she had kittens. Their names are George and Georgia. Did Lottie ever have baby lynxes?"
"No, Lottie was a boy-lynx," Ophelia corrected casually, though she did have to speak up to be heard over the ruckus in the study. Sebastian was being kind of rude; didn't he and Asmodeous realize there were kids playing in here? He should be more quiet. "I jus' liked the name Lottie better than Rufus."
"It's most likely the result of forbidden magic. We rulers of the Circles and those with power Above outlawed such spells many millennia ago… Because if the timelines intertwine too much, they threaten to tangle together in a knot that that would destroy all of existence as we know it. Plus, it's just kinda weird, right? Gotta say, those are some smart ones you've got there, if they figured out the spell on their own! What'd they do?"
"They drew my Seal and Ciel's atop one another… along with some squiggles that I can't really make out. We need to work on Asmus' handwriting."
"Yep, that'll do it. In lieu of a specific devil's covenant mark, combining those two allowed them to make contact with all of the unions that you and your adorable husband have had throughout the timelines. I'm assuming they didn't draw the same ruins on the second mirror… That's what allowed for travel. They didn't properly Seal both surfaces, as a human would need to when, say, performing a demon summoning. If they didn't wanna die, anyway."
"Ugh, Daddy is being too loud," Asmus exclaimed in irritation, throwing a decapitated doll down in a dramatic display of defeat. Toth gave a loud slurp of agreement. "How're we sup'posed to have the Barbies come back as zombies and try to ride the Ponies over the Rainbow Bridge into Az-guard if we can't hear each other?" She rolled her eyes, shaking her head at her father's inconsiderateness. Really. Well, there was only one thing to do, then. If they couldn't play here, they'd just have to relocate. "How 'bout we go play in your room instead, 'Felia?" she suggested, scrambling to her feet. With one hand, she held her juice to her bosom; the other she offered to Toth, helping him up. Once he'd found his balance, Toth gave his free hand to Ophelia.
"My room?" Understandably taken aback, Ophelia nevertheless accepted the little boy's help, though she didn't actually need it to stand. (These flimsy gowns of Asmus' were really quite freeing; she felt as light as a feather in hers.) That said, the hand did help to keep her stabilized in a world that sped along much more quickly than the one she was used to. "My room in the manor? But I thought—"
"No, silly," Toth cut her off with a grin, the spout of his sippy cup still clamped between sharp teeth. "Your room here."
"My mother, she killed me
My father, he ate me
My sister, little Marlinchen, gathered together all my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief
Laid them beneath the juniper tree
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I!"
"I love that song!" Asmus squealed as they finished, her now-dusty head popping out of the closet. In her hands she held a large cardboard box— marked 1970 to 1979— and was quick to dump its contents out on the floor. Fwump. This process had been ongoing for a while, now; the ivory carpet was no longer visible, buried instead beneath bellbottoms and belts, bustles and boots, spankies, spandex, and sequins. The room that (according to the twins) was to be Ophelia's had, at one point, been Uncle Finny's, and then converted into storage space; the cupboard was still full of Mama's old clothes, and Asmus and Toth had always enjoyed playing dress-up with them. (Much to Mama's chagrin.) "Can we sing it again?"
"I'll not sing twice for nothing!" Ophelia quoted with a giggle, a floppy sunhat resting atop her mussed bun and a whalebone corset hanging loosely off her hips. The whole of her arms had been swallowed up by lavender evening gloves; the silk fingers of the gloves flopped about like empty sausage casings, far too large for her tiny hands. Still, she was determined to wear them, and continued to pull and tug them into place whenever they began to slip. She'd also taken to holding a pair oversized sunglasses to her temples, and looked keen on making a more striking statement as soon as she was able to find the proper accessories. "Give me the gold chain, and then I will sing it again for thee."
"I dunno if we have a gold chain. How 'bout these, 'stead?" Toth quietly offered, hefting up a vintage necklace of rattling pearls. He didn't need them, anyway. Rather than jewelry, he'd decided to wear a pair of black chaps upon his head. Four feet of worn leather trailed behind him like bunny ears.
Ophelia considered. For all of a millisecond. "Mmm… 'kay! One mo' time!"
"My mother, she killed me
My father, he ate me," the three sang, dancing about as wildly as their restrictive outfits would allow. Asmus had twined a gaudy boa around her body and was now flapping about like the young crow she was, leaving a trail of magenta feathers fluttering behind her. With a playful caw, she jumped onto the rocking chair in the corner; its collection of stuffed animals had since been swathed in velvet britches and old lacy shirts, like some sort of fashion-nest. "My sister, little Marlinchen, gathered together all my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief
Laid them beneath the juniper tree
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I!"
"That's a good story," Ophelia announced in tones of deep satisfaction, flopping down upon the little mattress that had been set against the wall. Behind it, disassembled wooden bits clattered and clicked, almost like the beads coiled around her throat. "I have a book of Grimm's fairy tales in my room at home, an' Papa used to read it t' me all of the time before bed. Then he'd tell me how that one reminds him of b'fore I was born."
"Huh? Were you born 'neath a Juniper tree?" Asmus probed, burrowing more comfortably into her makeshift bed of plush toys and fabrics. Toth, unsure of which girl to join, eventually sat between them on the floor, slurping the last of his twin's juice from her cup. Waste not, as they said. "We were born in Mama an' Daddy's bedroom."
"Oh, that's where I was born, too," Ophelia clarified, rolling onto her stomach and kicking her legs in what her parents would've described as a slovenly way… But Asmus and Toth had done it earlier, and had said it was really comfortable, and since Mum and Papa weren't here right now, she figured it was okay to experiment. And they were right—this was pretty comfortable. Except maybe for the pressure it put on her elbows, but she could deal with that. "But Mum ate lots and lots of black pudding when he was pregnant wi' me. Papa said he ate so much, Mum pro'lly woulda popped like a mosquito if Papa had poked him in the belly."
"Ewww!" Asmus squeaked in noisy disgust, her button nose scrunching theatrically at such a gruesome mental image. Still, both her and her brother's eyes shone with mirth, and deviant laughter was quick to curdle their grins—morphing from sweet to satanic in moments. (Though in their defense, Satan was one of their great-uncles.) "…now I wanna eat black pudding."
"I wonder if it's better than hamburgers…" Toth mused aloud, glancing towards the ceiling as if it might hold an answer. It didn't. All it held was a mobile.
"All right, what did you lot say you wanted for su—?"
Sebastian froze. Dust. Dust everywhere. Dust, moldy old textiles, and the unique, salty-sweet scent particular to rambunctious children… all three of whom were gazing up at him with rosy cheeks and shining eyes from a fort they'd constructed out of bygone fashion pieces and the parts of an Ikea bedframe. The sugary remnants of juice crusted the corners of their grinning mouths; though it was faint—and subdued a bit by the odor of mothballs—, the devil could still smell traces of Ophelia's earlier accident on her flushed skin, and the grime the twins had picked up during school that day.
He sighed, hand slipping from the doorknob. "Never mind. Bath time first."
"Daddy, I wanna try black pudding," Asmus announced, forcing her rubber ducky beneath the sudsy, lilac-scented water. When she released the toy, it popped up and broke the surface with so much force that it soared, squeaking… only to landed with a wet plop right in front of Ophelia. Ophelia spluttered, bubbles splattering across her face.
"No, you don't." As had been his duty since his days as a servant at the Phantomhive estate, Sebastian knelt beside the inset tub, sleeves rolled to his elbows and a terrycloth in hand. With the driest tip of the rag, he dabbed the fizzing soap away from Ophelia's eyes before it could irritate her. She smiled in thanks, and he smiled in return, looping a sodden curl around her ear. The abused rubber duck floated lazily by, bouncing off of frothy glaciers of white foam.
"Yes, I do!" Asmus continued to insist, glancing towards Ophelia and Toth for support. Both fledglings nodded, as if to confirm the fact that Azzy did, indeed, want to try black pudding. Who wouldn't? Pudding was yummy. And black sweets were usually a licorice flavor, or really dark chocolate, and both of those things were tasty, too.
Sebastian snorted, dropping a dollop of shampoo into his palm and lathering up Toth's tiny head. The scent of apple blossoms wafted about their ears in invisible plumes, filling their nostrils with its processed sweetness. "No, you don't," he then said again, faintly amused by his daughter's misplaced perseverance. Also, she looked rather cute sitting there, pouting, with a head full of melting soapsuds. "You don't like sausage, remember?"
"But it's called pudding."
"I know, pet, but it's a type of sausage," the devil explained, scrubbing away at his son's scalp. As was his habit, Sebastian made sure to mark his task as finished by shaping his son's tousled locks into two little cones, like cat ears. Toth, for his part, rocked about a bit, but didn't really pay his father's antics much heed. He was too busy playing with one of his water-fueled ring-games, pounding at the rubber buttons as if it were his Wii. "'Pudding' can refer to more than those snack cups of which you are so fond. In fact, the word 'pudding' is believed to come from the French boudin, originally from the Latin botellus, meaning 'small sausage.'"
Asmus said nothing to this for a long minute, instead nudging pensively at another of her family of floating ducks.
"I dunlike pudding anymore," she then decreed, sullen. Angry. Pudding had betrayed her. Sympathetic, Ophelia patted her new friend genially on the back, providing what comfort she could.
"Do you like fruit? You could try blood oranges, 'stead."
"…Daddy, I wanna try blood oranges."
Sebastian rolled his eyes and dumped a bucket of clean water over Asmus' head, rinsing it of soap.
"Ciel? Ciel, it's time for supper."
No answer. No shock there. Biting back a sigh, Sebastian rapped his knuckles against the bedroom door, hoping that—if gentle encouragements and promises of food had failed him— he could at least depend on Pavlov and his theories to hold true. But no; though he knocked, the servant didn't even earn a "who's there," much less an open door.
"Love, won't you come out?"
Again, the only response was silence. The springs didn't creak; not even the sheets rustled. The only noise to be had was the unnervingly-loud echo of his own knocking, resonant as a church bell in the emptiness and quiet. Well, that probably wasn't helping matters…But even that wasn't enough to merit a reaction from Ciel. This was becoming ridiculous; Sebastian knew his lord was there. Awake. Brooding in the dark. What good did acting like this do anyone?
Sebastian's shoulders sagged, as if each one of his innumerable fears had become invisible, ten-pound weights strapped to his back. Even with his incredible strength—physical and emotional—some things just wore a demon down, after a while… And while he could understand that his master felt mocked, and frightened, and like this was proof that he'd done something wrong, there was no reason to take it out on a little girl who had no idea what was going on. Sebastian had been dealing with this taciturn creature for nearly three centuries now, but never had his master's basic nature bothered him quite so much. This had to stop.
"My father told me how to return her home," the devil informed—quietly, lips all but pressed to the door, so that the children wouldn't hear. They were close, after all: in the twins' room, picking out pajamas. "I'll be setting up after we eat, and sending her home later tonight. She's not going to be here much longer. Are you sure you won't regret this?"
A fibrous whisper; a quilt was being readjusted atop the bedspread.
"I'm not going to let it end like this, Ciel. You realize that, yes?"
"Very well, then," the butler murmured, his fist sliding down the wood grain and falling limply against his side. Stubborn, was he? Well, Sebastian could be stubborn too. This wasn't over—not by a long shot. But for now, he had dinner to serve.
Mmm, meat. Fresh, warm meat. Squishy between her fingers, oozing the liquid remains of fat and lard. Experimentally, she squeezed the odd-looking pasty—as if it were an organ she might wish to taste the juices of; it innards dripped onto her plate in oily, pink blotches, greasy blood mixing with a thicker, sweeter paste. Red and yellow humors mingled with minced green flecks, which to her tasted like a tangy bile… Offset by the saccharine softness of two fresh buns and the gooey layer of tart cheese that had fused the mess of it together.
Ophelia was beginning to understand what all the fuss about hamburgers was about.
"These taste like cow!" she crooned in delight, taking another large bite of the patty she grasped. Crouched atop a pillow on her chair, Ophelia tucked into her supper with reckless abandon; within minutes, her cheeks had been smeared with a sticky rouge of condiments. Beside her, the twins were fairing little better. Sebastian wondered idly if a second bath might be in order, after all of this.
"Don't talk when your mouth is full, love," the butler chastised gently, reaching over to wipe a precarious blob of ketchup from the girl's chin. Asmus and Toth were given the same treatment, the pouches of their apple cheeks bulging with mashed meats and breads. "But yes, that's because beef is made of cow. Toto, please chew like a proper devil, not like a tyrannosaurus. We don't need the sound effects. And Azzy, don't forget to eat all of your carrots."
"But I dunlike carrots," Asmus whined, swallowing hard around a generous portion of burger. "Why can't I jus' eat all of my fries, 'stead? Those are potato. Potatoes are a veggie…" she reasoned, trying to win her father over with logic. Devils were, after all, logical creatures. Unfortunately, her logic in this case was flawed, so things didn't work out the way she'd have liked.
"Come on, now." Crossing his arms atop the table, Sebastian leveled his daughter a pointed glance— insistent, with the possibility of disappointment or anger if she didn't do as told. Also, no dessert. "Carrots are good for your eyes. Don't you want to keep your pretty eyes healthy?" he cajoled, gesturing at the girl's narrowed gaze with the silvery tines of his fork. Asmus' glower deepened; it was a silent "no" if Sebastian had ever seen one. Well, a new tactic, then. Feigning an expression of shock, he turned towards Ophelia's plate, noticing with all manner of dramatics that it was nearly clean of cooked carrot wedges. "Oh, would you look at that? Your… Ophelia is eating all of her vegetables. The carrots are good, aren't they, precious?"
"Yes!" With an animated nod, Ophelia shoveled another spoonful of carrots into her grinning mouth, blushing a bit when Sebastian gave her an appreciative pat on the head. "I like carrots. And peas. And cucumbers are okay, too, unless they're pickled by Mr. Tanaka. I don't like it when he pickles stuff, because then it's all sour and icky."
…wow. Mr. Tanaka. That was a name he hadn't heard for… No. Sebastian shook his head, refusing to let his thoughts wander down memory lane. He hadn't the time or the fortitude for that, right now. Instead, he offered Ophelia another small smile before returning his attentions to his daughter, who had slumped into a sloppy slouch atop her booster seat, kicking her short little legs in wordless protest. "Anyway, you see, Azzy? Ophelia likes carrots. She's eating them all up. So surely you can, too, can't you? After all…" He smirked; time for the trump card. "You don't want to lose… do you?"
Lose? Asmus stiffened, glancing anxiously towards her new friend. Her competitive streak was a mile wide; she loathed losing. But… But carrots…
"…it's not a contest…"
"All of life is a contest," Sebastian corrected, sidling over to his little girl's side. With his own cutlery, he speared one of the orange vegetables and brought it to Asmus' lips, nudging at her mouth until she relented and opened up. "That's what your mother always says, isn't it?"
"Mgph." The retort was bitter and indistinct; Asmus chewed the carrot with an expression that suggested doing so was causing her untold amounts of physical pain and emotional anguish. Or like she was being forced to eat nails. As soon as the blasted bite was down her gullet, she gasped—like a drowning man breeching the surface— and chugged half of her glass of milk to counterbalance the lingering aftertaste. Sebastian looked heavenward in exasperation before turning his attentions to her brother, who was pounding his carrots and French fries into a sort of orangey mush. These two were impossible.
Meanwhile, Ophelia watched all of this play out in vague amusement, nibbling like a chipmunk on one of her own carrot disks. "Where is Mum, anyway?" she inquired, genuinely curious. She hadn't seen hide nor hair of him since the car ride to this strange new townhome. Was he still feeling under the weather? Or was he busy with business? Or maybe he didn't like hamburgers… Though Ophelia was having a difficult time imagining anybody not liking hamburgers. A small scowl marring her cute face, the young demon cocked her head and mulled on what the matter might be. He… he wasn't still annoyed that she'd vomited on him, was he? "Is he still in his room? Is he gonna come out?"
The earnest queries hung in the air for a moment, unanswered by the other three at the table. The twins, for their part, simply frowned a bit and shrugged… as if they were used to this, by now. They then returned to picking at the food on their plates with their plastic spoons and forks, unsure of how else to respond. Sebastian, on the other hand, offered Ophelia what could only be describe as a sympathetic sort of stare, his dark eyes glossy with exhaustion.
"…why don't you come with me for a moment, little one."
Ophelia was starting to think she'd done something wrong.
Confused, she'd taken the hand that Sebastian had extended—allowed him to assist her from her seat, to clean supper's leftovers from her face with a cloth— and had followed him out of the dining room, waiting for him to say something. To do something. To explain something. But no… He didn't even spare her a glance as she followed trippingly along behind him, clinging to his fingers as he meandered to the end of the hall.
The elder devil flinched a bit. Not obviously, but still. Though the vibration didn't travel down his arm, Ophelia watched as it pinched the nerves at the base of his shoulder blades, tensing the muscles of his back. The sight concerned her; her frown deepened in incomprehension. What was going on? She wanted to ask, to press for answers, but thought maybe that would be unwise, at this point… So instead, she remained silent, compliantly following Sebastian as he led her to the room that she and the others had been playing in, earlier—with the lavender walls and the mobile on the ceiling. Someone had repacked all of the discarded clothes and had returned the boxes to the closet; it looked much emptier without the mess. Sort of desolate. Ophelia was guided to the rocking chair that Asmus had earlier been playing on, laden with stuffed sheep and teddy bears. Gingerly pushing the toys aside, Sebastian eased himself onto the mahogany seat… then he gently hefted Ophelia onto his lap, tucking her against his chest.
For a long moment, the devil simply stared at the girl— a sturdy hand smoothing down her dark, wet hair. The twins had found her a pair of spotted footie pajamas to borrow; she looked so very sweet in the oversized set, it made Sebastian's chest ache and throb.
And all the while, Ophelia watched him with wide, oblivious eyes, waiting for her father to say something profound enough to make sense of everything that had happened to her. Sebastian wished he knew what that word or phrase was. It would certainly make things easier… But in lieu of that, he sucked down a steadying breath and quietly asked:
"Did the twins tell you whose room this was?"
…wait, what? Ophelia blinked. Wasn't Sebastian supposed to be the one answering questions? Why was he asking them? "Um… They said it was mine," she nevertheless responded, however befuddled. After all, father had always made it very clear that she should speak when spoken to. She would be considered rude otherwise, and Phantomhive ladies were never rude. (Unless someone was rude to them, first. In which case, Papa had promised, he would lock the offending peon in an oven for her.) "I dun'really want it, though."
A snort. Markedly amused, Sebastian responded to this honest confession with a quirked smirk, tucking a sodden loop of ebony hair behind the girl-child's ear. "Don't you like it?" he pressed, eyes crinkling with humor as he teased her. Ophelia, unfazed by his goading, offered an apathetic shrug.
"It's okay. But I like my room at the manor better."
Fair enough. The once-butler hummed, understanding. While the mansion that the Phantomhives had owned back in the days of Victoria would've been considered imposing regardless of architectural competition, it probably seemed the size of a small country when compared to this modest apartment on the outskirts of New York. He was honestly surprised Ophelia hadn't made a bigger fuss about how cramped it was, or how tiny. (Maybe she assumed she hadn't seen the whole of it. And while that was technically true, the master bedroom wasn't going to impress her by any stretch of the imagination.) Well, it hardly mattered, in the end. What was important was that she understood the implications of the twins' declaration. Perhaps he needed to back up a bit, though, in order to make that clear…
"Asmus said that, when they met you, they called you Maggie. Do you recall?" Sebastian reminded, idly urging the chair into action. The spokes groaned a bit; the carpet muffled the creak of seesawing runners. Ophelia nodded in time with his rocking, sober and slow. "This room was supposed to belong to Maggie. Magdalene. She is… was… Asmus and Toth's baby sister," he clarified, in a whisper so despairingly low that it was almost inaudible over the squeak of the rods. And for a long moment, strange and strained, though Sebastian was looking right at Ophelia, the little girl could tell he wasn't seeing her at all… But instead beyond her, into some other place and some other time. It made her stomach twist in an odd way, like it did when she bumped her head or scraped her knee, and she thought she might cry. A quiet whimper wriggled from her throat; Sebastian started, the sound of it snapping him from his reprieve. He offered a brief smile, sheepishly apologetic, before pushing the slowing chair back into motion. "Maggie's body was very weak. She died before she had a chance to be born. It made the twins very sad, because they were looking forward to playing with their new sister. And it made Ciel very sad, because he thought Maggie's death was his doing."
Then that meant… Ophelia began to gnaw on the plump of her lower lip, mulling over the many implications of this announcement. "So… Azzy and Toto… They brought me here 'cause…? 'Cause…"
'Cause what, exactly?
Unable to fully grasp the words that she needed, Ophelia grumped and trailed off, unsure of how to phrase the thoughts in her head, or how to voice what she was thinking. It was very frustrating, to say the least… Her belly and brow knotted in kind, and she kicked a bit at nothing to release the energy the welled along with her irritation. But Sebastian, it seemed, understood well enough what was going through her mind. He sighed heavily, features twisting with guilt.
"I am afraid this is partly my fault," he confessed, the weight of perceived culpability pushing him into a forward slump. "I didn't… I didn't explain things very well, at the time. Young as they are, the twins have not had much experience with death. And having been raised on stories of Ciel's unique… circumstances, I suppose they never had any reason to believe that death is particularly finite. I should have made that clear. Instead, I told them that their sister had died, and gone someplace far away… I suppose they figured that, since we often call relatives who live far away, they might be able to call Magdalene, too."
"But… I'm not Maggie." It seemed a foolish thing to say, in retrospect— obvious, really, after all of the protesting she'd done that day. But still, it felt like something that merited restating, even if the muted confession had Ophelia squirming nervously… as if she had been intentionally lying to the twins and Sebastian this whole time. Though she hadn't been. He knew that, right? "I'm Ophelia."
The ardent reminder had Sebastian chuckling. Not out of mirth, of course, but in a gentle attempt to bolster falling spirits. Reassuring and kind. "I know you are," Sebastian then promised, coiling loose arms more firmly around the child's slender waist. He didn't want her to feel like he was pushing her away—in any sense— for not being the baby. That certainly wasn't true. "And I'll make sure the twins realize that, too."
"What about Mum? He knows that, right?"
The rocker missed a beat. Under the little girl's intensely inquisitive stare, Sebastian hesitated, his own gaze falling to the far right. Eventually he managed an answer, but even then, the words came hesitantly: dark and slow, like molasses from the bottom of a bottle.
"Is that why he's mad at me?" Ophelia pressed, stubbornly twisting atop Sebastian's lap. Her small hands balled against his breast, tangling in the fabric of his shirt. As she spoke, she yanked at the cloth in emphasis; the force of her despondent tugging made the chair undulate a bit faster. "Is he mad 'cause I'm not Maggie, and that's who he wanted t' see?"
Sebastian was shaking his head even before the question had fully formed. "No, love, no," the demon comforted, nearly frantic, as he wrapped spidery fingers around her own. Loosening her fists from his front, Sebastian lifted those petite palms to his lips, and placed calming kisses on their bases. Ophelia trembled faintly, pooling tears quavering in the corners of her bright eyes. "No, Ciel isn't mad at you. He's mad at himself. He's angry about what happened to Maggie. Angry and frustrated and heartbroken. And seeing you… seeing you reminds him that— in his mind— he failed to protect someone he cared about." Again, Sebastian mentally added, but didn't say aloud. There was no way or reason to explain to this child what had happened to them in their past (her future)—the promises Ciel had sworn that night in the Aurora speakeasy, with a withered, half-dead Sebastian laying like a corpse in his arms. "But it is in no way your fault, little one. We all know that."
Ophelia was quiet. For a markedly long time— especially for a 6-year-old—she said nothing at all… Merely sat there, legs sprawled, in Sebastian's warm lap, allowing him to cradle his face in her curled hands. Forehead furrowing with revelations and contemplations, she stared fixedly at some invisible spot on the devil's stomach… rolling all of this very heavy information over again in her mind.
"…you all loved Maggie an awful lot," she eventually murmured, little tongue flicking self-consciously over chapped lips. "I'm sorry I'm not her." If she was, perhaps Mum would…
But again, Sebastian was shaking his head—more fervently this time, reaching out to tilt Ophelia's chin.
"There is no need to be sorry," the butler told her firmly, making quite certain that their gazes met, and held, and that the import of this pronouncement did not fall on deaf ears. He tipped forward a small fraction, their foreheads almost brushing; Ophelia swallowed thickly, and he could feel the reverberations of it against his crooked fingers. "Just as there is no need for you to be anyone but yourself. I did not tell you this to make you feel bad, love… I told you because I want you to understand, and to not hold Ciel's behavior against him. He is not ignoring you because he is angry with you—he just doesn't know what to say."
Again, Ophelia paused to consider this. The tiny cogs and wheels in her brain spun, faster and faster, as she tried to fit all of this together in some cohesive way. Sebastian, meanwhile, looked on in sympathy… until he was startled from his unintended patronizing by a determined scowl and a peeped question.
"What if… I have something to stay to him?"
…what? The devil blinked, twice, in rapid succession. "Do you have something to say…?" he then queried, startled, having assumed that such an announcement would've had the opposite effect on the girl. But no—rather than wish to hide, to avoid the demon who couldn't look at her without becoming morose, Ophelia actively wanted to seek him out… to speak with him.
He should have known better, really. She was a Phantomhive, after all.
Ophelia responded with a tentative shrug, looking slightly uncomfortable, but also stubbornly determined. "I dunno," she quietly confessed, her somber expression set somewhere between commendable resolve and reasonable apprehension. "But it's not like Mum to give up. So I wanna talk to him."
"I think that's a good idea."
"Sebastian, please. Not tonight. Just le— …oh."
With a timorous squeak, the bedroom door creaked open, half-blinding the occupant within. And though the haloing backlight of the hallway made it difficult to pick out the features of the figure half-dangling from the doorknob, it was still pretty obvious that the one who'd knocked hadn't been Ciel's butler. Instead…
"…um…" Shuffling forward inch by hesitant inch, the little girl waffled near the jamb, gumming on the tip of a finger. "Hi, Mum. I… wanted to see if you were okay. Since you didn't come t' supper…"
Behind Ophelia, the bedroom door groaned to a close. As the partition fell back into place, the awkward pair lost much of their light; all they had to see by, now, was the glow of the digital clock on the bed stand, and the resonant gleam of streetlamps outside. It didn't particularly matter; they were devils, and could see perfectly fine in the dark. But all the same, it created an ambiance of mild foreboding… For a spell, the two simply stared at one another, not quite knowing what to do.
"…it's all right. I'm not so hungry that I'll bite," the once-earl finally mumbled, the faintest traces of humor in his subdued tone. "You can come over here… if you wish."
Well, that was more of an invitation than she'd been expecting. Perking up a bit, Ophelia immediately did as told: bounding over to the bed before Ciel had a chance to change his mind. As she got closer— as she scampered up onto the mattress— the young girl noticed that her mother had something in his hands. She hadn't particularly paid it any heed, at first, because it was a blanket, and the bed was covered in those. But this one was different… For starters, it was a number of shades of pink. A woolen knit. It'd been decorated with a thread that glinted gold in the dim light, and a name had been stitched along its edge. It was soft, and square, and far too small to belong to him. But still, he toyed with its corners—smoothing it fretfully atop his lap.
Kneeling beside him on the mattress, Ophelia watched him for a moment, head cocked.
"…was that Maggie's?" she inquired after a time, pointing to the coverlet with the most earnest of expressions. "It's got her name on it."
A jolt. For half an instant, Ciel's hands stilled. Then, cagily, he surrendered a mechanic nod, fingers plucking gingerly at frizzing loops of yarn. "…you know, I thought about 'Ophelia' as a name," he then murmured—sounding almost conversational— as his gaze again locked upon his legs. "But in the end, I chose Magdalene. Maybe I shouldn't have. I should have known better. There's a devil that Sebastian and I knew who'd been acquainted with a Magdalene, and it didn't end well for her. I guess the one in the Bible didn't get much slack, either."
"The Bible is that jeweled book in th' library that you and Papa laugh at, right?"
"That's right," Ciel snorted, a reel of memories filming over his eyes. He hadn't thought of that in years. It was peculiar to think that there was a butler and an earl of Phantomhive out there, somewhere, who still indulged in such things. "So I thought it was sort of ironic. In a funny way. And its meaning was cute. Appropriate."
"'Meaning'…?" Ophelia echoed, the word lilted with curiosity. Since the jammies she had been provided included trousers, she allowed herself to roll onto her belly once more: legs popping up and crossing at the ankles, elbows propped to keep her chin aloft. Mum didn't say anything about such a pose being obscene—he was too distracted by his own thoughts.
"All names have meanings. Much like flowers," the devil murmured, his thick lashes fluttering over hooded eyes. Much akin to his gaze, his voice seemed distant, somehow— as if he was speaking from somewhere far away, or was not fully present. "'Asmus,' for instance, means 'to love.' 'Toth' means 'death.' 'Magdalene' means 'tower,' which I thought was quite clever, considering Sebastian's reputation." Ciel shrugged—squirmed, really—as if now embarrassed by what he'd once thought so witty.
Ah. Ophelia got the joke. "Yeah! Papa's really good at building stuff. He built the manor up from nothing lots of times!" she exclaimed with an excited giggle, bouncing upright and onto her knees. But in her eagerness, a thought occurred to her. Slouching a bit, the girl frowned and finally asked: "Why don't we live in the manor, anymore, anyway? Did it get broken too many times?"
Well, if nothing else, the question had Mum smiling. A teeny sort of simper, perhaps, but it was there nevertheless. That must mean he was amused, and amused was better than sad, Ophelia figured. "…a great deal has happened, precious. Much had changed. For us, anyway. But don't you worry… You'll be going back, soon."
"Back to your own time. To the Mum and Papa who are waiting for you in Victorian England," Ciel explained, almost unnervingly calm, as a tenderly apologetic expression stole across his face. He knew Sebastian wouldn't like him spelling this out for her—that it'd be preferable to allow her to assume what she wished after this experience was over, perhaps suffering under the hope that she'd conclude it was all a peculiar dream. But she was a smart girl, anyone could see that… And even if she wasn't asking all of the questions she could've, that didn't mean she didn't have them, or that she wasn't making deductions on her own. Surely it had not gone unnoticed, for example, that two previously-unfamiliar twins had been referring to Sebastian and Ciel as their parents all day. Certainly Ophelia would have noticed prior to now if she'd had siblings. And the pregnancy they were speaking of, and the dead baby… those wouldn't have necessarily been realities in her world. They were giving her too little credit by trying to hide the outright truth… as Ophelia made perfectly clear a moment later, when she hummed and nodded sagely.
"I thought you two were acting a bit off today," she commented mildly, understanding but unperturbed. "And Azzy and Toto, and the mirror… I thought maybe we were all in some sort of Wonderland, like in the books Papa read me. But I s'ppose a different time makes just as much sense…" Ophelia mused aloud, yawning briefly as she flopped atop the mattress, this time rolling onto her back. That explained a lot. But at the same time… Pensive, she gazed up at the ceiling for a minute or two, her long hair leaving moist, apple blossom-scented water stains atop the sheets.
Ciel grunted softly, his attention having been drawn from the blanket to Ophelia's damp locks. Tentative, wavering, he'd allowed his hand to slowly slip out and brush against one of her curls… The touch tinged his cheeks pink, and melted the remaining ice from his blue, blue gaze. She might not have been his, but she… She was still…
"Maybe… maybe it's okay that Maggie wasn't born here," Ophelia said, craning her neck to meet Ciel's startled eyes. His hand leapt from her, like a child caught sneaking sweets; he mouthed mutely, unsure if this declaration made him angry or sad or… or what. Before he could decide, however, the reflective child smiled, her expression compassionate, yet full of conviction. Either way, it stole his breath. "Because by not being born here, that means she was probably born somewhere else, to a different Mum and Papa, who needed her more. I mean, I wasn't born here, either… But I'm really happy with my Mum and Papa in England. And I would be sad if I wasn't with them, even if it meant staying here, with you, another Mum. So," Ophelia concluded, watching the flabbergasted Ciel intensely from her somewhat lopsided vantage point, "if I'm not mad at you for not having me… I'm sure Maggie isn't, either. An' I'm sure she's okay, too, wherever she is… with that Mum and that Papa, who are pro'lly really thankful that you shared her with them, so they're not lonely. So you don't need to be sad anymore, either. 'Cause you didn't do anything wrong."
For what felt like years, no one spoke. No one moved. Deep in his chest, Ciel could feel his insides shifting: contorting, aching— squeezing and twisting themselves into knots tighter and smaller until it felt as if his innards had vanished entirely.
He didn't realize he was crying until the first wet pearl shattered against the back of his hand, leaving a heated blotch of moisture atop his knuckle. It pooled… And soon was joined by another tear, and another; the smoldering droplets of saline burned and broke and beaded again, and he choked, half-drowned, under the crushing weight of his own emotion.
But at the same time, when his shoulder shook, it was with laughter, not sobs. When his quavering hand reached up to clamp over his mouth, his fingers hid a smile, not a scowl. And when Ciel gasped, trying to breathe, he realized— rather suddenly— that for the first time in ages he actually felt like he was able to do so. For so long, the whole of his body had been suffering under the weight of his own guilt, his own fear, his own insecurities… But the forgiveness offered by this child— this little girl who wasn't his baby, he knew that, but still… After taking everything into consideration, all that they'd both seen, maybe— it was possible that she—she could be… right.
It was all draining away. Sliding down his flushed cheeks, landing in puddles and as dew drops atop the knit blanket.
"…the name 'Ophelia' has a meaning, too, you know. Did your parents ever tell you what it is?" Ciel finally managed to rasp, beaming at the young girl before him—who had straightened, concerned, when the tears had first begun to flow. Reaching out, he lightly caressed her beautiful face… and then pulled her to his chest, holding her close, after she shook her head 'no.' Pressing a kiss to her crown, the earl snuffled once and told her, "It means 'help, or aid.' And you, little one, were named very well."
Huh? "Was I…?" Ophelia started, feeling a blush of her own form in the wake of a compliment she didn't completely understand. All she'd done was relate the stuff she'd been thinking about. That didn't really merit all of this, did it…? Regardless, Ciel chuckled at her earnestness, their hair whispering as he nodded against her temple.
"Yes," he murmured, cradling the small child in his lap. "You were. Thank you… for your help, Ophelia. Thank you for coming to my aid."
…well, if Mum said so… Though still a bit flummoxed by whatever-it-was that had just occurred, the young demon relented, willing to simply find happiness and contentment in the fact that Ciel appeared to be feeling better. Snuggling more fully against the once-earl, Ophelia opened her mouth to offer a habitual "you're welcome" when she was interrupted by more knocking.
Again, hinges creaked; again, a knob turned. Another shaft of sallow hall light broke through the lingering shade near the jamb, framing the tiny bodies of two more children, clinging both to the door's handle and to each other. Four pairs of eyes met, each set wide for its own reasons… But, as usual, Asmus was quick to break the silence, giggling and grinning at the sight before her.
"Mama~" the fledgling trilled, throwing the door open with a bang before leaping wholeheartedly into the room. Toth squeaked, quick to scramble along in her shadow. "Mama, we wanna sleep with 'Felia, but there's not enough room in our room, so can we all sleep with you, since 'Felia is already here?" Asmus asked in a single breath, throwing herself over the bed and half-dangling from its edge, kicking keenly at the metal frame. Toth was quick to mimic her, puppy-dog plead and all. "Daddy said it's okay…"
"Oh, did he?" Ciel sniggered softly, loosening his hold upon Ophelia so as to wipe his damp face dry. He didn't need the twins to see that he'd been crying… They'd been through enough. He cleared his throat with another laugh, then feigned a thoughtful sigh. "Well…"
"Please? Please? Pleasepleaseplease?" the two begged, clawing at the bedding and writhing about in such a fervor, one might have thought bees had snuck into their pajamas. The sight elicited another chortle from their mother… and then he shifted a touch, scooting to the right as he pulled back the plush comforters in welcome.
"Fine, then. If your father said it was okay."
Uttering a passionate cheer of victory, the pint-sized siblings were quick to scale the bed, using sheets as ropes and the metal casing as a pseudo-step. It took them a second or two, but frequent spring thunderstorms had made them experts at surmounting this mountain, particularly when in a frenzy. Once they'd managed to clamber to the crest, they wasted no time in flopping atop Ophelia and their mother, completely disregarding all of the extra space the latter two had made for them on the other half of the mattress. The springs groaned in the wake of their spontaneous dog-pile, muffling two stifled "oomphs."
"Thanks, Mama," Asmus then cooed, nuzzling against Ciel's left side as Toth curled into his right. Their arms met and splayed atop Ophelia back, effectively enveloping everyone in the vicinity in a hug. Ophelia, who'd still been in the earl's lap when the assault had begun, now found herself lying directly atop Mum's chest, suddenly burrowed beneath blankets and limbs. She was startled, certainly… But once that wore off, she had to admit, it was very cozy. The body heat, the steady rhythm of breath, and the pulsing of the devil's heart beneath her ear… She felt lulled almost immediately, even before Toth nudged against his sire, imploring.
"…can we have a song?' he requested, the request mumbled around a thumb in his mouth. His mother's smile, already tender, became particularly indulgent.
"Do you have a preference?"
"Not th' one Irish-y song… the other one."
"Ah," Ciel chortled, though the retort was colored by a parent's understanding. And while she was only half-listening, Ophelia was surprised to hear that the boy had asked. Mum sang her to sleep on her side of time, of course, but everything else was so different here… She'd have thought that maybe Papa sang these two to sleep, in this dimension. But no: not only did Ciel grant his son's wish with a relenting and teasingly-tolerant sigh, it turned out that "the other Irish-y song" was one that Ophelia knew very, very well.
"Huna blentyn ar fy mynwes, Clyd a chynnes ydyw hon; Breichiau mam sy'n dynn amdanat, Cariad mam sy dan fy mron," the young devil murmured, his voice enchantingly melodic. Mellifluous. Just as it was when he sang Ophelia "Suo Gân" in her own bedroom, sitting beside her on a velveteen footstool as the candelabras' dancing wicks cast flickering silhouettes upon the papered walls. Grinning a bit, she nestled all the closer to his bosom, simply enjoying the familiar sound. "Ni cha' dim amharu'th gyntun, Ni wna undyn â thi gam; Huna'n dawel, annwyl blentyn, Huna'n fwyn ar fron dy fam...'"
By the time the final note had resounded into silence, Asmus had fallen into a ludicrously deep sleep: prostrate, sniffling, and drooling, having totally depleted a day's worth of energy by being her normal spaz of a self. Ophelia could feel herself begin to drift off, as well—her head felt light and her body all tingly. Before she could fully fade into unconsciousness, though, she felt one of the hands in the small of her back twitch… Toth was tugging feebly on her PJs, urging her to look his way.
He wriggled shyly when she ultimately did so, eyes crinkling with weariness and an overtired flush upon his cheeks. "…I dun wanna fall 'sleep before I forget to say… we had an impo'tant message, 'member? From me an' Azzy and Mama and Daddy."
Oh yeah… Now that he mentioned it, that had been a part of the reason she'd come here, hadn't it? In the face of all of the other excitement, she'd almost forgotten. Like a drowsy cat, Ophelia curled a bit to face the little boy beside her, her heavy lids drooping on bleary eyes. "Wha'wusit…?" she posed, not bothering to sit up and speak properly. It wasn't worth it; they were both already half-gone. And in any case, Toth didn't seem to mind. Rather, he flashed his companion a small smile as sleep, finally, overtook them both.
When the twins woke up the next morning, she was gone.
7:33 AM (1900)
"—and the one who won got t' place the plastic crown on their head, along with all of the other fake jewelry," Ophelia continued vivaciously, her taffeta petticoats rustling merrily beneath the table linens as she kicked her bitty feet. "And then we played all sorts of games, like London Bridge and something called duck-duck-goose, which they told me is called duck-duck-gray duck where their cousin lives, and then we tried on all sorts of funny clothes, and sang Grimm's fairytales. Oh! Oh, and they also showed me their toys— which were made of the strang'st stuff— and we played ring-'round-the-rosy proper'ly, with one of us pretendin' to die from the plague whenever the rhyme ended. And also—also— we ate this strange dish called 'hamburgers,' and it was made of cow, and I should very much like to have it again, sometime."
As his daughter gasped for breath on the other end of the dining room table, the Earl of Phantomhive listened intently—a Wedgewood teacup frozen part-way to his lips and his attentive butler at his side. The pair had been out of their minds with worry upon returning home the previous night and finding the servants in a panic over the mistress' unknown whereabouts; they had been even more startled when the devil's reflection had… as far as they could tell… walked out of the full-length mirror in the master's bedroom and gingerly deposited their sleeping child into their arms.
There had, of course, been a brief discussion— some quick overview of timelines and dimensional warps and a set of rambunctious twins— but the whole of it had, in great part, flown right over the heads of both nobleman and servant. (More so the former than the latter, but still.) And now, here they were, at breakfast, and Ophelia was a right chatterbox: relating all sorts of misadventures and blabbering on about iron carriages and buildings with 60 or more stories, and about a family that was hers, but not hers, but still oodles of fun.
It was all so very disconcerting, really, that Sebastian and Ciel had yet to fully chastise her for neglecting her studies in favor of crawling through a wormhole. (Though the earl had darkly ordered his butler to never again relate Alice in Wonderland stories to their child. Not that it really mattered, at this point; the damage had been done. But the master's word was law…)
"Oh, an' I forgot t' say— when I was at their school, once recess was done, and we'd shared Azzy's pudding, we read a marvel'us book about a caterpillar that eats far too much. Also, after making the Big Ben model, we drew pictures with these odd waxy sticks of different colors. Mine was of us and the servants. And then I also drew Azzy and Toto, too, because they put me in their pictures, so it seemed fair. I would have brought it back to show you, but their teacher liked it and hung it on the wall next to Azzy's picture of a wizard-shark and Toto's picture of a unicorn and a dragon havin' scones."
"It… sounds like you had an enjoyable time, at least," Ciel managed when Ophelia finally gave him a chance to rejoin, temporarily quieted by a deep pull of her milky Earl Gray. Beaming, the little demon responded with an eager nod, tucking into her meal of poached dill salmon and spinach salad when she again remembered it was there.
"Oh, yes," she assured after swallowing a bite of fish, smoothing her napkins and trying very hard not to out-and-out bounce in her seat. "It was grand! Though I'm glad to be home, 'cause their quarters were rather small, and their clothing weird, and I missed you. Still… there is… one thing… that I think I liked better about being there. And… since my birthday is coming up…," Ophelia trailed off for a moment, nose scrunching as she nibbled demurely on the tines of her fork. She seemed to be vacillating between keeping silent and making some sort of confession; her face tilted towards the table, but her eyes peered up and outward, darting from mother to father and back.
Ciel arched a prompting eyebrow, taking a sip of his own beverage. "Yes, precious?" he queried, markedly amused by the abrupt seriousness of his daughter. Ophelia braced herself against the back of her chair, lips pursing into a solemn line as she decisively announced:
"Mum, Papa— I want a brother."
The earl responded by choking.
"If you are so determined that they attend school—even after all of this!— in the Middle realm, can it at least be under the guidance of a tutor?"
"And by 'tutor,' you mean someone of a demonic ilk, of course."
Well, on the bright side, Toth's commented with his eyes, shooting a subtle glance from Sebastian, to Ciel, and then back towards his sister, Mama is out of bed again.
A scoff. Asmus, though inclined to agree, nevertheless made a dismissive noise in the back of her throat, chewing on her cereal with a bit more force that was entirely necessarily. Throwing a noisy tantrum wouldn't help their cause, they knew, so the pair had instead decided to utilize nonverbal sulking. Not that doing so really helped anything… But it at least made it clear that they were unhappy. Both she and her brother had been decidedly disappointed to find Mama's bed empty of all but themselves that morning; they'd known Ophelia couldn't stay for long, but it was still sad to see her go.
She had to go back to… She had to go someplace far away, Daddy had told them (again), giving their heads empathetic pats. But she'll always be in your hearts. He had then offered hugs, and answered a few more questions— no, she cannot visit again; no, we are not mad; no, that doesn't mean you can have your mirrors back—before the twins had been sent off to brush their teeth and dress for school.
Which, maybe, they wouldn't have to go back to, if this kept up.
"Ciel, they're devils," Sebastian was reminding in exasperation, raking a hand through his hair as he and his husband huffed at one another from opposite sides of the counter. "Of course I do. If someone of our own species had been watching them yesterday—"
"How can you still be so biased after all of this time?" Ciel shot back, seated at the island and rifling through the newspaper's business section (to keep tabs on Funtom) and want ads (to see if he could, ah, help anyone. For a price). "You learned from me, didn't you? Back when I was mortal. Claude learned from Alois. Hannah learned from Luka. If we start the twins off early, they might be fortunate enough to bypass your family's general dickery and move right into emotional maturity. Besides, shouldn't they know how to personify humanity if they are to survive hunting in this realm? I'm trying to teach them to be wolves in a flock of sheep—you just want them to join a pack!"
"This is laaaaame," Asmus groaned under her breath, pushing the rest of her meal away. Her brother—feeling much the same about the situation—decided to act the same, as well: crossing his arms and scowling as their parents bickered over something neither of the twins really cared about, anyway. (They'd just as soon not go to school at all.) "I wish 'Felia was here," the girl added moodily, pouting out her bottom lip as she flicked at a stray Trix piece that had escaped the confines of her bowl. It skidded off the table and landed with a plink upon the floor… where both George and Georgia immediately attempted to turn it into a toy, pouncing on it with the general uninhibitedness of house cats. "It'd be cool if she'd just, like, come back."
"Because they're young! Even baby wolves have to learn from the pack before they can start killing lambs on their own! Can we not at least contact my old college roommate? He's on Earth now, somewhere. And he has a teaching degree, so—"
"Neuro? That freak from the Gluttony sect? Are you kidding? I've seen the way he treats that girl-toy of his. He can teach her in whatever fashion he wishes, but he is coming nowhere near my children with those 777 tools of—!"
…someone was knocking.
The family of four froze. Each of them— the children at the table, Ciel with his papers, Sebastian in the midst of putting clean dishes away. In an instant, the entirety of the inane argument was forgotten, as if it had never happened. As if it had only been some sort of mindless diversion. Something to distract everyone from what was really on their minds. And now… Could it be? Nerves that were already overly wound from yesterday's insanity tightened their joints; glances were exchanged, furtive and disbelieving, as an identical and wholly-impossible thought raced through their minds.
Was it… her?
No. There was no way. Sebastian had made it quite clear to all parties involved that what had happened yesterday could never happen again, and yet—yet there was still some small hope…
"I'll get it!" Asmus shrieked, catapulting from her seat with such force that the chair itself went careening backwards, landing with a rattling racket against the linoleum. Toth, as was his wont, was only millimeters behind her—almost stumbling over his sister's heels as he made a frantic dash for the front door. They both knew better than to hope that it was Ophelia, but they couldn't help it; who else would possibly show up like this, so early and with absolutely no warning? (Well, besides Grelle, but she wouldn't even bother knocking.) Antsy fingers scrabbling for the lock, Asmus finally managed to twist the proper knobs and fling the barrier open— "Hellooooo—oh?"
She blinked. Toth—his chin perched upon his sibling's shoulder—did so, as well.
"…who're you?" Asmus demanded, frowning in notable disappointment as she gave the strangers at the door a long once-over. They certainly weren't Ophelia, whoever they were. Instead, they were a pair she had never seen before: a man and a woman, pretty as China dolls, holding a large box decorated in colored paper and curling ribbons. The male—nearly as tall as Daddy— had scruffy dark hair, which had been cut short and kept stylishly messy; he was resting his head atop his companion's, whose long locks were bound in thin braids and buns. Whereas his eyes were narrow and closed, hers were round and honey-colored, much like Uncle Claude's. Their clothing was nice enough, though starting to look a bit threadbare: tight jeans and tops made in a reminiscently oriental style, with frogs snaps and high collars and silks. They smelt a bit like old waffles.
"Oh my," the man purred as he—seemingly, anyway—glanced down at Asmus, long lips curling into a cat-with-a-canary sort of smile. "Does this mean we missed the dear earl's wedding?"