"With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world."
i. speak your truth quietly and clearly
There is after-dinner dessert and post-dessert cake and an extra order of midnight-snack homemade gelato, but even when all the plates are scraped clean, and all the forks licked spotless (nowadays they both pointedly ignore how this reflects bad manners), Sebastian still doesn't feel as if he has apologized quite enough. He shuffles around the room, dusting the shelves that Maylene failed to clean that day, until the candles are burning low, and Ciel finally lifts his hand to mask a yawn. Sebastian puts his duster away and stands at attention, but his master says nothing. The boy finishes off the last of his paperwork with a professional calm, although his small fingers tremble around the last few signatures.
"You're tired, my lord," and it's a statement, not a question, even if Ciel raises an eyebrow and replies, in what would have been an irritated tone if it wasn't tainted with fatigue, "It's been a long day, hasn't it?"
The master's bedroom is thankfully not too far from the study, although in the darkness the corridor looks like it could stretch into infinity. Sebastian grips a candelabra in one hand. With the other he locks the study door, and then, noticing how his master is shuffling slowly, one hand to his back as if it hurts, he offers to help him along. They're both aware that it would spare them time and effort if he just carried the boy, but Ciel refuses, and taps his cane pointedly against the floor as if to say, idiot, that's what this is for.
The bedroom is cold when they finally reach it. "You left the window open," he says, as Ciel removes his shoes and stifles another yawn. He pulls the windows closed and drags the curtain over them, then takes his master's coat and vest. Ciel picks at the ribbon on his throat for a few moments, while Sebastian takes off his socks, but he still can't get the knot undone. "Allow me," Sebastian says, working his fingers through it, and smiling gently in response when the boy finally murmurs a sullen "Thanks."
"Your bath, sir." He gestures at the open bathroom door and the tub beyond it, which is already filled with scented water, steaming gently. Ciel steps inside the washroom, raising a hand when his butler tries to follow.
"I'll bathe alone tonight, thanks."
"But you won't be able to scrub your back, my lord."
The earl of Phantomhive raises an eyebrow at this, and starts saying, "I don't particularly c-", but Sebastian places his hands on his hips and shoots back, "Young master, you're supposed to care. You're a man of stature, after all, and hygiene is absolutely necessary, as you wouldn't want to disgrace the Queen –"
"Fine," and for a moment, he not only looks like a boy but also sounds like one. A smile flickers across Sebastian's face; he disguises it by going off to retrieve new washcloths. Ciel has already buried half his head in soapy water by the time his butler returns, humming a nocturne. Sebastian rolls up his shirtsleeves, and is already pouring liquid soap onto the washcloth, when he notices the fresh bruises and bright welts scattered across his master's backside. He pauses for a moment, vaguely wondering if the bubbles don't sting at all, because some of those wounds look fairly deep – and then he says, in a tone halfway between annoyance and pity, "You told me it didn't hurt much."
"Because it didn't," Ciel answers, sounding almost bored. That doesn't stop him from flinching when Sebastian places his long fingers on his back and deftly traces through the injuries. He can feel them melting into scars beneath the touch – the skin pulling itself together over shallow cuts, the bruises flattening out, the deep wounds patched up but not yet healed. The boy tips his head back without noticing, pale lashes fluttering in the dim candlelight, not-quite hissing in pain as he exhales through his teeth – "Not at all. I'm used to it. You know that."
"I don't know anything of the sort," Sebastian replies serenely. "And even if I did, that does not mean I have to like it."
"But you will tolerate it," and the moment of pain has gone; Ciel is looking at him over his shoulder, his one human eye daring him to disobey.
Sebastian inclines his head politely, although his brows knit together for a moment. "Of course."
Satisfied, the earl of Phatomhive turns his head back and starts sculpting animals out of the bath foam. Sebastian pats the washcloth against the boy's skin, rubbing gently so as not to reopen the wounds. Earlier in the day he had done what he could with bandages and conventional medicine, performing first-aid on the boy's arms and legs, but it was difficult to do when he kept swinging around complaining that he needed to return to his work already. In the end Sebastian had let him go, although it bothered him that they were both getting much too accustomed to this; neither of them are being very careful these days.
It is a long moment before either of them speaks. The bath water even starts to cool, although Sebastian stops humming his nocturne long enough to blow a breath, and suddenly it's warm again. There is nothing new about this situation; even the clock ringing to remind them how it is nearly the witching hour seems to echo familiarity. Eventually Sebastian pours clean water over his master's head, measuring it so that new water fills the tub as the soapy water starts to drain beneath him. Ciel reaches out his hand for a towel, upset at the late hour and their strange, pointless exchange of words. He is exhausted, and all too ready to fall asleep dreaming of blueberry tarts.
Instead of a towel, however, it is Sebastian's large hand which falls over his palm. His butler is suddenly kneeling next to the tub, head bowed. "My lord." His voice is almost a whisper, although in the marbled washroom it seems to resound from every corner, "Had I been more competent, your injuries today, they...would not have happened. Please accept my humblest apologies." He looks up to punctuate the last few words, and there is something like remorse dancing in his dark, beautiful eyes, although the rest of his face remains impassive.
Ciel wonders at this sincerity for a moment. Then he smirks and curls his small fingers around the butler's hand.
"Come now, Sebastian, it's not nice for your sort to wear such an unsettling expression. Besides, I am well aware how much you enjoy such dangerous games. You don't get to play very often, do you?"
The butler blinks. Then his sorry expression melts away into a grin, and he nods his head. "You know me too well. Then, if it pleases you, sir."
"Not really," the boy answers shortly. "But at the very least, it keeps things in line. I do wish you'd stop teasing, since you know how much it irritates me." Ciel lifts the towel from the man's shoulder and starts to dry his hair. "Now tell me, what did you really want to say?"
There is nothing apologetic about Sebastian's tone. "That you're too reckless." He holds out a robe for his master, and Ciel accepts it, calmly.
"I have duties to the Queen." As if it offers an explanation. "Sometimes that entails a certain degree of sacrifice."
"No," and Sebastian's smile grows wider as the boy pads back into the bedroom and starts to pull on the pajamas laid out for him. "The only reason why you risk so much is because you know I'll be there for you."
Ciel pauses while pulling his arm through a sleeve. "Am I wrong?"
Sebastian shakes his head. The way his hair whips around his face reminds Ciel of ravens. "You're perfectly right, of course." He stoops and buttons up Ciel's shirt, looking up as he asks, "Nightcap?"
The boy declines, and crawls into bed. "Goodnight, Sebastian."
"Goodnight, my lord." He pulls the blanket up to young boy's chin, then smoothes down the bedspread and the coverlet. In the muted candle-glow, the master of the Phantomhive family looks so small and delicate, his nose tiny and his mouth blunt, his cheeks still flushed from the warm bath. Sebastian lifts a hand, and makes a motion as if he might place it on the boy's forehead; but he merely brings it to his own lips, thoughtfully. He starts to walk away, and is already at the door when Ciel mumbles, slowly, "I'll try to be more careful from now on."
"Thank you, young master." The butler gives a low bow. "That makes me feel better."
"Mm." Ciel rolls over. Sebastian continues to start out the door, but is stopped when his master mutters, "Then...tomorrow, can we have chocolate pecan pie?" He knows it isn't necessary to phrase it like a request, but the gesture is not lost on Sebastian.
"Certainly. And I'll put twice as much cream on it, just the way you like it."
There's a long pause. Then Sebastian takes a risk, wondering what sort of reaction he will receive. "Young master, if you want me to stay, isn't it easier to just say so?"
He sees the boy's shoulders hitch momentarily; then Ciel tucks his head deeply into the pillow, so that Sebastian can't make out his next words. He thinks he hears something like that's not what I meant. He laughs at this – it's a strange sound, not unlike the clock chime: familiar, eerie, heavy. "As you wish." The door clicks shut, and the room is engulfed in darkness. Ciel rolls over in the other direction and heaves a sigh.
"You know, you'll never grow taller if you always stay up this late."
Ciel's eyes snap back open; the demon is pulling up a chair next to his bed. Sebastian settles himself down and rests his chin on his fingers, bare now, without his gloves. He smiles lightly at the way his master is attempting to glare at him - the sour look is ineffective because the boy's eyelids are drooping.
"I'm here, young master. I will never leave your side."
They both know he can't, not even if he wants to. There is no dismissal in his contract, no way of escape for either of them. Still, it sounds like a nice sentiment, when expressed like that. Touching, even.
"I know," Ciel says, sleepily. I know. I know.
The boy's breathing is slow and steady in the room, matching with perfect cadence the nocturne that Sebastian has started humming again. The butler stops only when the light filtering beneath the curtains glows a pale crimson. He stands and replaces the chair, then takes another look at Ciel's sleeping face, slightly guilty at the fact that he'll have to wake it in just a few more hours.
"First things first." He pulls on his gloves as he leaves the room, making sure the door closes softly behind him. "It looks like a good day for chocolate pecan pie."
A/N: The title and subtitle are taken from a poem by Max Ehrmann. I took some liberties with canon (meaning I don't know if Sebastian actually has nifty healing powers 8D), but I hope it was still believable. This was actually conceptualized as a series of oneshots based on the scenes from the ending song, all titled with a line from the same poem, but I'm not really sure if I'll be able to come up with anything more. ^^x We'll see. Thanks for reading. Comments are always greatly appreciated.