Alois swallowed, eyes flickering to Ciel's and away again. Ciel crossed his arms, a petulant frown playing over his lips.
"Well? What are you staring at?"
Fidgeting slightly, Alois swung his legs a little and darted a quick, hopeful look at the door.
"I suppose I'm glad to see you're well enough not to have to languish in bed and be attended to." Ciel sounded bored. "You've wasted enough of Sebastian's time."
Alois scowled at that, but checked himself quickly. "'S not like I can heal faster."
Ciel sniffed, but said nothing. Alois wrapped his arms around himself as unobtrusively as he could, trying not to cringe away from that baleful stare...
stop stop stop looking at me like that-
The door opened silently and Sebastian entered, bearing a tray of roast lamb and mashed potatoes.
"About time," Ciel grumbled. Sebastian set down the plates and bowed.
"I do apologize, my lord. There was yet another incident regarding Bard and his separation anxiety for his flamethrower."
The earl didn't look surprised-merely resigned, the way Claude would act when Alois tugged at his coattails or snatched his glasses off for the dozenth time that day.
"Did you at least manage to stop him before he turned the whole kitchen into a raging furnace?" Ciel asked.
Sebastian gave him a smug little smile.
"Aside from a few singe marks on the walls, the crisis was averted, though I fear Bardroy's apron was reduced to cinders."
Ciel impatiently waved his hand as if shooing away a bothersome fly.
"You'd think after two years he'd know better than to resort to such drastic measures. But no matter."
Picking up his fork and knife, the Watchdog turned his attention to the first course, pointedly ignoring Alois.
When he'd first set his plans for revenge in motion (little suspecting Claude's deceit), Alois had ordered his butler to gather all the information he could find on the Phantomhive servants. Good to know what to expect from your enemy's pawns.
Unlike Sebastian, they were human through and through, but endowed with extraordinary gifts.
A maid whose eyes could spot a flea on a hawk's feathers, and whose prowess with a rifle had made her one of the most feared assassins in the British underworld…a fresh-faced gardener stronger than twenty men put together...a mysterious old steward whose katana had sent hundreds of the Phantomhives' enemies to early graves…and a chef whose penchant for firearms and explosives made him an army unto himself.
"Bard's that military chap of yours, right?" Alois blurted out.
Ciel, who'd just stuffed his mouth with a large bite of mashed potatoes, glared at him like an angry chipmunk.
Oh nooo... Alois could feel the wave of nervous chatter rising up, that restless, anxious energy desperate for an outlet.
"That's correct," Sebastian purred, a slight quaver in his voice, as though he was dangerously on the verge of laughing. "Although Bardroy has not served in the army for some time now, he is still one of the young master's private soldiers, as are we all."
Ciel angrily swallowed his food (after which he coughed and was forced to reach for a glass of water), narrowing his eye at the demon. Clearly, he also heard that sly note of mockery.
"Of course you went around poking your nose into my business where it wasn't wanted. I ought-"
"Is there anything else you require, my young master?"
"Don't interrupt me!"
Alois bit back a giggle and picked up his fork, sampling his dinner. It really was very good- soft and buttery; once again, Ciel's demon had surpassed Alois's once-demon.
He licked his fork for the last traces of juice once he'd finished. Ciel was still chewing his last bite; fortunately, he missed Sebastian's approving nod to Alois.
"Next we have a light mushroom broth," Sebastian announced, once he'd removed the empty plates and set down bowls and small plates of garnish. "With bruschetta crisps."
"Bruschetta again? You served this less than a week ago, Sebastian. I won't tolerate such laxness," Ciel snapped, turning his irate gaze upon his butler.
Oh, the earl was trying to be intimidating, with his lordly tone and arrogant demeanor, but Alois had to admit it was kind of funny. This boy, younger than Alois's age, and so puny that he might be blown away like a dandelion puff by the slightest draught of air, was scolding an immortal demon taller than three of him put together!
Alois bit down hard on the inside of his cheek and focused on his hands, which lay clasped in his lap.
But a treacherous giggle still tried to crawl up his throat.
"I'm sorry they aren't to your liking, my lord. If you prefer, I can replace the crisps with another dish-" Sebastian humbly replied.
However, Ciel cut him short with a grouchy sigh.
"No, don't bother. It would only drag things out. Just see that you maintain greater diversity in the menu in future."
"Yes, young master," the demon said. As Sebastian set the boys' plates in front of them, Alois glanced up, and the butler gave him a quick wink when their eyes met.
Alois nearly guffawed, and took a gulp from his water to avoid doing so.
The soup was delicious, though Alois couldn't quite place one of the spices. Whatever it was, it was nice. He looked at the little toasted bruschetta slices, and recalled how he used to mop up his soup with a bit of bread when he still had a mother to make it for him. But would Ciel criticize him for being uncouth? While Alois wasn't noble-born himself, his days at Trancy Manor had taught him that the aristocracy could be particular about their eating.
Across the table, however, Ciel was already dunking one of his crisps. When he caught Alois watching him, the young earl bristled, perhaps mistaking his dinner companion's surprise for disapproval.
"Do you have any objection to my putting bread to good use?" he asked defensively.
"N-no!" Alois stammered. "I... that's how I like to eat my soup, too."
Ciel paused, thrown off his stride by this unexpected answer.
"Ah. Well then, perhaps you'd do better to emulate me rather than staring, don't you think? I don't appreciate cold soup and I can't imagine who would."
Alois flushed at that, but picked up a piece of bruschetta and dipped it carefully into the broth. He shook it over the bowl so it wouldn't drip on his clothes before taking a tentative bite. The scrumptious flavor combined perfectly with the satisfying crunch of the bread.
Ciel, for his part, appeared in a somewhat better humor than he'd been at the start of their meal. Despite his earlier protests about the crisps, he demolished them, leaving nothing but a few crumbs behind, and Alois followed suit.
The broth wasn't oversalted, but it did make Alois thirsty. Which, in turn, made him reach for his glass just a little too hastily...and sent it toppling over, spilling its contents across the neat white tablecloth.
The boy gasped in dismay, and Ciel's amicable expression was quickly replaced by a dark frown. "I already have to put up with three clumsy servants who cause destruction and mayhem wherever they tread. And my new houseguest is no better?"
Alois wanted to counter that "guest" wasn't exactly the most accurate term to describe his position in this strange household, but now was not the time. Instead, he cowered against the back of his seat.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." he whispered, trembling. "I-"
"'Sorry' won't erase your careless blunders," Ciel retorted. "You hadn't even the presence of mind to pick up the glass."
Then Sebastian moved from where he'd been standing against the wall, causing Alois to jump; the demon had kept so still within the shadows cast by his young master's chair that he'd practically become invisible, as a good servant should.
"No use crying over spilled... water, if you'll permit my tampering with the axiom. Allow me."
The butler walked over to Alois's side of the table at an efficient yet dignified pace, setting the fallen glass back upright.
"I have endured far worse disasters at mealtimes; this mistake is easily fixed," he said. "Why, I distinctly recall one occasion when the young master let the gravy boat slip from his grasp during a dinner with Lady Elizabeth...much more troublesome to clean than a mere water stain."
Ciel turned such a bright red that Alois expected steam to come pouring from his nostrils.
"You wretched beast! What kind of butler slanders his master's name in front of-"
Sebastian's eyes widened in affected innocence.
"What slander, my lord? As you know, I cannot lie. I was merely relaying a harmless anecdote to your new colleague."
"He is most decidedly not-"
"Shall I bring in dessert, sir?"
Alois sniffled, stifling a giggle he knew Ciel would not appreciate, and rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes, stubbornly blinking back tears as he permitted himself a shuddery breath.
The demon looked to his master like a dog awaiting its next command.
Ciel gave a stiff nod.
"Certainly. I could use some chocolate after this thoroughly exasperating meal."
"Returning to the matter of the tablecloth, I'll replace it momentarily, my lord."
Sebastian gripped the fabric at the corners and glanced at Alois.
"If you'll excuse me."
With a flourish worthy of a stage magician, he swept the cloth out from under the dishes and cutlery, though they moved nary an inch from their original spots.
Alois gave a tiny gasp. Ciel smirked.
"Let me guess, was Faustus as incompetent a butler as you are a duelist?"
Alois stiffened and crossed his arms, pouting.
"I was out of practice!" he fired back.
The earl rolled his good eye, that insufferable smirk still plastered on his face.
"Of course you were."
"Two kittens with their claws out," Sebastian murmured under his breath, provoking angry glares from two pairs of blue eyes (one covered with a patch, of course).
"Don't you dare, you worthless-"
"I really would hate for dessert to get cold. If you'll both excuse me..."
Well... Alois really wanted cake... especially if Sebastian had made a strawberry one like he'd hinted he might.
"You..." Ciel growled as he clenched his tiny fist in rage. Momentarily, however, he slowly uncurled his fingers and forced himself to relax. He, too, wanted his sweets.
With the tablecloth perfectly folded over one arm, Sebastian gathered the dishes and sauntered out of the room.
"I swear... if I wasn't bound to him by contract, I'd give him the sack," Ciel grumbled, sulkily resting his chin in his hand.
Alois found that rather difficult to believe, but he said nothing. Instead, he kicked his legs beneath the table (careful not to knock into anything and further sour Ciel's mood), thinking wistfully of strawberries and cream.
"For dessert-" Sebastian set down a covered plate in front of Ciel and dramatically raised the lid to reveal his creation- "we have gateau au chocolat, with a fudge frosting and toffee bits."
Ciel nodded once. "Fine."
He picked up his fork and thrust it into the rich pastry, making a pleased noise as he took the first bite. Ciel's face lit up in delight, looking suddenly younger- more like an ordinary twelve-year-old, rather than a lonely, blackhearted boy who, like Alois, had been forced to grow up much too fast.
A proud smile flitted across the demon's countenance, satisfaction in a job well done.
"I hope it is acceptable, my lord," Sebastian said.
"Yes. Quite," Ciel replied absentmindedly, fixated on the decadent cake.
Having placated his irritable young master, the butler headed in Alois's direction with the remaining plate, which probably contained another slice of chocolate cake. Alois didn't want to get his hopes up; why would Sebastian go out of his way to make a whole second dessert just for him? But when he discretely removed the lid, Alois's eyes shone.
This was a delicate sponge cake, covered in cream and cunningly-shaped strawberries cut to look like flowers. A dessert so pretty it might have been made by the fairies, not a wicked hellbeast.
He shouldn't draw attention to this. It would be bound to raise Ciel's hackles if the earl thought Alois was receiving special treatment from his demon. Instead, the boy settled for mouthing a silent "Thank you" to Sebastian, who graciously bowed his head in acknowledgement.
He picked up his fork and dug in. It was as heavenly as it looked- the soft, airy cake melting in his mouth while the cream glided over his tongue like a graceful ice dancer; the strawberries bursting with juice and adding bright flashes of tart sweetness to the luscious, sugary frosting.
Alois closed his eyes and hummed contentedly to himself, spirits lifting in spite of the evening's previous tensions.
Oh wait... would that annoy Ciel? The Watchdog was prickly as a thornbush, and his tongue twice as sharp...
To Alois's relief, however, Ciel was lost in cake-induced bliss. Luka used to get that contented look when Mamma could scrape together enough from the pantry to make bread-and-butter pudding. That life felt like it had been centuries ago...
The nostalgia carried a sweet sting, like the tang of a ripe strawberry.
And there was this new life before him, a road stretching out farther than Alois could see. Who knew where it would lead?
Still, as the two boys sat across from each other, eating their cake in (almost) amicable silence, he dared to hope that this fresh start might not be so bad after all.