Chapter Twenty-Six

The intruding sunlight should go back where it came from. The noise from outside the door should mute. The world could wait. Sebastian wasn't ready to face it yet.

He kept his eyes scrunched shut, as though to trick himself back to sleep. It had been the most peaceful sleep he'd had in weeks. Months, maybe. No dreams, no tossing and turning, no sudden heart-thundering awakenings. It shouldn't have been so peaceful. If someone had walked in, caught him there, he would have gone from the oven into the frying pan.

Ciel almost stirred against him, brow furrowing, eyepatch twisting out of place as he shifted. But then a half-snore. He settled again, back pressed snug against Sebastian.

Sebastian kept still, unwilling to move. If he moved, Ciel would wake up. If Ciel woke up, he'd talk, and Sebastian wasn't sure what he'd say. Whatever it was, it would set their new rules, establish the new status quo. He'd only just settled into their old one. How much would change, for better or for worse?

He wasn't completely blind. Whether Ciel had tried to mask it or not, he had seen that flash of disgust, the revulsion at what Sebastian had confessed. It wasn't out of affection for him that Ciel had talked their way around the reality of what was happening.

Old words came back to him uninvited.

'When you first arrived, I considered using you to get out of here. I didn't care what it would have meant for you, if they'd have locked you up in my place.'

Ciel had never been dishonest on that front. It had been as clear as day, from the very beginning. But was that consideration truly gone? He'd mentioned it since, dismissed it out of hand. They'd come after me, he'd reasoned, drag me back. A fruitless endeavour, nothing to do with the consequences for Sebastian. Hardly a surprising angle for Ciel to take.

But was that just calculation? Setting a foundation for later, for now, when Sebastian began to question?

He held my hand.

Sebastian shifted a little, curling closer to Ciel. He still didn't wake.

Ciel used to cringe away from any and all contact, accidental or otherwise. A graze of fingers while handing him a cup would earn a scowl. Brushing against his shoulder as they walked side by side would have him striding three steps ahead. God forbid someone steady him if he stumbled. The look they would get as thanks would put Medusa to shame.

He had a hedgehog's tactility, as gentle as a jellyfish sting.

And he had held Sebastian's hand throughout the night.

Sebastian reached over to straighten Ciel's eyepatch, no thought of peeking underneath in his mind. Where had his curiosity gone, his desire to know anything and everything about Ciel? It seemed irrelevant now; what was under the eyepatch, the value of the missing ring, the fire that ruined Ciel's chance at ever leaving the Institute of his own volition. It had been crucial before. To know, to understand, to peel back every layer until he was satisfied.

But, now. Just details. Scraps of a past he had no part in, no role to play. Memories belonging to somebody he didn't really know. Whoever Ciel used to be, that person was long gone, as gone as the innocent man Sebastian had been. A day, a week, however long it had been since that day on Ward V, it had changed everything. The Ciel who his Aunt came to visit, the Ciel who received surreptitious letters out of Faustus' view, that wasn't the Ciel he had ever known, and one he knew he never would.

A missing eye, a missing ring, a missing past. It made no difference now, not to the man Sebastian had become.

A knock on the door woke Sebastian. The sun was strong through the window now, a few hours on. He hadn't intended to fall back to sleep. The exhaustion of the day before was finally catching up to him.

The knock came again, quietly insistent.

'There's, at most, two people with the manners to knock,' Ciel said, voice low, 'Fifty fifty chance this visitor isn't for me.'

'He was worried last night. He probably checked my room this morning.'

Sebastian glanced over at the door, at the shadow shifting restlessly beneath the crack. For some reason, he almost found it funny.

Ciel nudged him.

'Go in the bathroom for a minute. We don't know who else is out there.'

Sebastian didn't move straight away, earning himself an impatient look. He still felt sluggish, achy, a bit numb. Opening the door would mean a conversation, concern and questions and apologies, a flood of words Sebastian didn't particularly want to hear. Now or at all. He wasn't sure he had much else to say to Agni, about anything.

Ciel sat up, looking down at him.

'I'm not going to say you're not here. That'd just start a wild goose chase. But I can get him to leave, if you want?'

Was this the new status quo Ciel was establishing? This hesitant sort of consideration from him was odd to see, even odder to receive. It was like seeing someone trying to push the wrong puzzle piece into an ill-fitting gap. It was almost funny.

'Go in the bathroom. I'll get rid of him.'

'Thanks,' Sebastian said, after too long a pause.

Getting out of the bed was harder than it should have been. His joints creaked. His bandages felt too tight. He'd lay on his injured shoulder for too long, felt the throb all the way up to his skull. He'd always had a lot of pride in how fit he kept. It was like he'd aged a good twenty odd years over night.

Sebastian shut the bathroom door behind him, hearing Ciel open the other door at the same time to cover the noise. The conversation was muffled and abrupt, Ciel's natural abrasiveness a godsend in that moment. The bedroom door clicked shut again.

Sebastian didn't leave the bathroom. Ciel didn't come in, his footsteps stopping outside the door. It sounded like he'd sat down on the floor instead.

'Sebastian?' It was rare to hear him hesitant. Sebastian wondered how many people had actually heard him sound so unsure of himself. He was probably one of the honoured few. He didn't feel particularly honoured for it.


'It'd be ... worrying, if you were alright.'

Sebastian lowered himself to the floor, back against the bath.

'So if I told you I was, you'd worry?'

'I'm not so stupid as to think that what I told you last night was okay. That it would magically make things better. The things I said were bad. The things I'm asking you to do are bad. So yes, I'd worry if you were okay with it all.'

Sebastian couldn't help but stare at the bin beneath the sink. A finger was hanging over the rim, the latex still caked with rusted blood.

'We're a little beyond bad, aren't we?'

A long pause. Sebastian wished for a second that they were in the same room, just so he could see Ciel's face.

'You'll never get over it, you know,' Ciel replied a few moments later, something off in his voice, 'I could lie and say you will, but I'm not going to do that. We're a little beyond lies, aren't we? You're never going to get over it and you'll always remember that person's face and how it felt. It's just going to eat away at you. That's what I should have said last night. That's the truth of it.'

Sebastian was speechless this time. Then he laughed. It sounded like he'd forgotten how to.

'No. I couldn't have handled hearing that last night.'

Sebastian shuffled across the floor, reaching his good arm out. He plucked the ruined gloves from the bin. His skin didn't crawl when he touched them now. He wished it did.

Ciel didn't ask what Sebastian was doing when he heard the sink run, the splash and squelch of something being washed. Sebastian didn't bother to explain, shoving the still damp gloves into his pocket. It was as clean as they were going to get. It would do.

He sat beside the door now, head resting against the wall.

'Patient V7. A man. Big guy, strong fists. That's all I know about him.' The words felt easier to say than he thought they should have.

Sebastian heard a loud exhale, then, 'I never knew their names. Men and women. At least a dozen. They deserved it. That's all I know about them.'

'The fire?' Sebastian asked.

'The fire,' Ciel replied.

It was almost evening. Sebastian still hadn't left Ciel's bedroom.

They lay together on the bed, arms resting against each other carelessly, an easy silence the only space between them. Not a single word had been said since Sebastian had left the bathroom. There wasn't really much else to say. Tomorrow there would be, a new day and new problems, but today was their limbo.

Ciel was staring up at the ceiling. Sometimes his mouth would twist into a frown, his own thoughts annoying him. He didn't share them. Sebastian didn't ask.

No one else had knocked on the door, though as Ciel had rightly said, it wasn't like anyone else would have the good sense to knock anyway. All it would take would be Soma bursting in and an undesirable like Angela on the ward to throw the whole thing into disarray. Maybe Agni was making himself useful. Maybe they were just having uncharacteristic luck.

Sebastian breathed a little laugh. Not even an hour after deciding Ciel's past was irrelevant to him did Ciel finally share a scrap of it. If Ciel had told him that last night, would it have helped? Maybe, maybe not. It had helped today. It had made it easier to leave the bathroom. It would make it easier when he decided to leave the bedroom. It and the gloves in his pocket would help when he had to go back to Ward V.

The thought of returning wasn't as terrifying as it would have been the night before. The terror had watered down into a sort of ache. The ache sat heavily on his chest. It was easier to ignore as the minutes passed, easier still when Sebastian took Ciel's hand in his own.

Ciel didn't pull away. He continued to stare at the water-stained plaster above, slotting his fingers in-between Sebastian's.

It felt okay to talk now.

'Your birthday's soon, isn't it?' Sebastian asked.

Ciel glanced over, grimacing.

'Yeah. December fourteenth. Eighteen. Christ.'

'All grown up.'

'Allegedly,' Ciel's lip curled, 'Gonna bake me a cake?'

Sebastian snickered, 'If you want, though I'm fairly certain the only sorts of ingredients they'll have here is arsenic and the like.'

'Think I'll pass, in that case.' Ciel turned on his side to face Sebastian properly. 'You know, eighteen was always the goal post for me.'

Sebastian followed suit, sensing the change in tone.

'How so?'

'Like you said, all grown up. Legally an adult. For the first few years here, I actually believed them. That they were helping. That I was being rehabilitated. That all this was just a stepping stone. So, eighteen, it just seemed the likely time. To get out.'

'Learnt better, I take it?'

Ciel rolled his eye, 'Obviously. Lost a bit of my mind, got a bit of sense. There was no end goal for them. I wasn't moving towards being better, healthy, nothing like that. So I thought, eighteen, legally an adult, they won't be able to keep me here.'

Sebastian gave a wry laugh, 'Learnt better, I take it?'

'Obviously. Even I've had my stupider moments. I moved on from them quickly. My Aunt, Ann, broke the news to me when I was thirteen. I'd been here three years. My age was irrelevant. I would only get out of here when they decided I was allowed to.'

'So. Never.'

'Exactly.' Ciel exhaled through his nose, rolling onto his back again. 'Eighteen. I don't really want to be eighteen. Feels like I lose when I turn eighteen and I'm no closer to getting out of here.'

Sebastian squeezed Ciel's hand, 'Yeah. I guess so.'

The sky was a stretch of black outside the window when someone knocked at the door again. Neither of them moved for a minute or so, Ciel pushing up on his elbows to look. The shadow beneath the door wasn't restless like Agni's had been.

Ciel squeezed Sebastian's hand, ran his thumb over the thin scar there, then let go.

Sebastian didn't go into the bathroom this time, just stood in its doorway to listen.

'Hey,' Freckles greeted, smiling.

'Hey.' Ciel managed to echo the smile. He glanced past her, scanning the leisure room. It was empty apart from Freckles.

'You alright?' She was very obviously not checking Ciel's bedroom, not noting the rumpled bedsheets.

'Fine. You?' It sounded offhand, but the way he stared, Sebastian could see the concern. Now he looked himself, Freckles looked a little gaunter than he remembered, her eyes a little sunken.

She smiled as though it pained her, dimples and all.

'Yeah, yeah. We're all fine.' Freckles looked back over her shoulder, eyeing the ward door. 'Jus' wanted to let you know that it's curfew in ten minutes. Agni stepped out, he'll be back in a few.'

Ciel nodded, beckoning Sebastian over to the door.

It was alright now, to leave. Any earlier and Sebastian wasn't sure he'd have been able to make himself do it. He'd needed the day, the safe hiding place, the company. But hiding forever was impossible. Still feeling the phantom grip of Ciel's hand, the bulge in his pocket where his gloves were, it was possible to move beyond the limbo of that day.

'I'm not sure where I'll be tomorrow. Faustus mentioned different things. I'll have to see how things stand,' Sebastian said, walking with Ciel to the ward door. He didn't bother to take out his key-card, seeing Agni's shadow through the frosted glass.

Freckles went back to her bedroom, closing the door behind her with a quiet click.

'Right.' Ciel nodded. 'If you get given an option, go for the one as far from him as possible. Goes without saying.'


The door buzzed, Agni unlocking it from the other side. Sebastian hesitated for a moment.

'Be careful,' Ciel said after a long silence. 'Come back here as soon as you can.'

'I will,' Sebastian said.


And left the ward, unsure when he would be back.

As soon as the ward door shut, Freckles reappeared, stepping out of her bedroom with uncharacteristic caution. Ciel had known this conversation was going to happen. He was just glad it was with Freckles and not the entire group.

'You're going to get locked out of your bedroom,' Ciel pointed out, if only to stall. He knew the conversation had to happen. He just wasn't in the mood to have it now. An entire night and day in someone else's company had drained him. Even if it was Sebastian, he still needed to recharge, to be alone for awhile.

'Then I'll be quick,' Freckles replied, leaving her door open and moving towards the two armchairs in the corner.

Reluctant but resigned, Ciel followed her.

'You alright?' Freckles repeated. The question wasn't a pleasantry like before.

'Fine. You?' Ciel's was.


Skin sallow and sickly. Eyes sunken. She was biting her nails again, biting them bloody.

No, indeed.

'Drocell has already accused me of jumping ship. If this is more of the same, then I don't want to hear it.'

'That's not what I'm sayin'. I wouldn't think that for a second. You know that.'

'Then, what?'

As if to prove him right, Freckles brought her hand to her mouth, teeth closing around the raw tip of her index finger. There was hardly a nail there left to bite.

He should have pulled her hand away, held it like he had held Sebastian's, to stop her doing more damage to herself. He couldn't really bring himself to. He was too tired to touch.

'I look back and kick myself for it now, y'know. All them jokes. Laughin' along, teasin'. I didn't mean nothin' nasty by it, and I know you weren't bothered, but now I'm wonderin' if maybe we put the idea in your head.' The words were difficult to make out around her gnawing her finger. Maybe that was her intent.

'What idea?' Ciel wasn't sure why he asked. He knew perfectly well what she meant.

'Him. You an' him. It was just a laugh. You never took an interest in anybody. So when you did with him, we turned into school kids. "Smile and Sebastian, sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g."' She laughed humourlessly. 'An' we weren't bein' mean about it, we really weren't. I was happy. You stopped hidin' away so much. You talked to us more. I kinda thought he was like your Agni, but.'

Her expression darkened.

'I'm not Soma,' Ciel said, 'He's nothing like Agni.'

'I know. It was a stupid thought. I get that now.'

'Freckles, where is this going? Curfew. Remember?'

Her hand dropped away from her mouth. She hadn't broken the skin, he noted with some relief, though her finger was a sore-looking red. Adjusting in her seat, she looked him in the eye. She hadn't managed to do that until now.

'What did he do, Ciel?' Freckles asked, more severe than he had ever seen her.

It wasn't even the question that struck him, had him speechless for a moment too long. It was his name. He couldn't remember her ever using his real name before. From her, it sounded foreign, strange, wrong.

Ciel sat forward, looking her in the eye.

'What he had to do.'

She waited. For more, for an elaboration, for an excuse. When Ciel gave her none of those things, her face fell.

'I'm sorry, Smile. I'm sorry. We can't trust him,' she said, shaking her head. Her voice was thick with the threat of tears. 'We just can't.'

'You don't have to trust him,' Ciel reached out for her hand, 'You just have to trust me.'

For the first time he could remember, she cringed away from him.

'I'm so sorry. We can't. Not anymore.' Tears were no longer just a threat. Her cheeks became a blotchy red. 'I'm sorry, Smile.'

'Freckles -'

Her bedroom door shut on him, just in time for the lock in.

By the end of the week, Sebastian's bruises had faded to a dull yellow. Although his shoulder still twinged every now and then, there was no need to wear the sling, and the bandages came off. The stitches on his shoulder came out too, leaving only a few purpling dents in his skin, the remainder of his surgery.

By the end of the following week, Doctor had cleared him to return to work.

'Just take notes. Don't make eye contact with them or draw attention to yourself. A few of them may ask why you're here. I'll answer that question myself. Understood?'

Faustus shuffled through the files in his hands, arranging them into the order the patients would be seen. He was back in his work clothes. Prim and proper, pressed white shirt and black pants, blandly professional.

'Understood. Any guidelines for the notes?' Sebastian asked, flipping through the pages of his clipboard. He'd expected a sort of form, boxes to check, blanks to fill in. This didn't seem professional. Shockingly.

A knock on the door and Faustus waved his hand dismissively, gesturing for Sebastian to take his seat by the window.

'Just anything you think is relevant. I'll be taking my own notes as well.'

The first patient of the day was Wendy.

A half an hour session. Three questions.

'What progress do you feel you have made since our last talk?'

'What progress would you have liked to have made by our next talk?'

'Is there any topic or question you would like to discuss with me?'

And then it was done. Wendy felt she had made no progress. She had no idea what progress she could make before their next talk. She had nothing to talk about with Faustus.

She watched Sebastian anxiously the entire half hour, but she didn't ask what he was doing there.

The next patient was Snake.

Progress made: absolute silence.

Desired progress: absolute silence.

Topic or question: a beseeching look in his direction that Sebastian didn't quite understand.

After Snake came Beast, then Dagger. They offered nothing for the first two questions, but in a different way than Wendy and Snake. They didn't give the feel of having nothing to say. They withheld their words, robbing Faustus of any response he could play off.

They both asked the question.

'What is he doing here?'

'Black, why're you 'ere?'

Just like they had done to him, Faustus withheld the answer, dismissing them from the room without offering his final question. They both retreated, eyeing Sebastian darkly.

Something had changed.

Next was Jumbo, then Drocell. Neither had much to say. Drocell was downright hostile, the way he looked at Sebastian balefully. After him came Alois. Sebastian expected something different there, but no, more of the same.

Progress made: a shrug, a mumble.

Desired progress: a stare fixed on Faustus' chin rather than his eyes.

Topic or question: silence.

Alois didn't seem to notice Sebastian was there at all. When he was dismissed, he slunk from the room, as though his steps were suddenly too heavy for him.

Soma was next. He seemed to be sulking. When asked about his progress, he shrugged, nose in the air. He was pointedly not looking in Sebastian's direction.

'I've made so much progress, I've come full circle and made none.'

When Faustus asked him to elaborate, Soma refused.

'You're my therapist. You should understand what I'm saying.'

It was said so petulantly, Sebastian almost cracked a smile.

Desired progress made Soma wrinkle his nose.

'I'd like to learn a new language, I think. Maybe French. Everybody speaks French now. I'd hate to be left out.'

Faustus didn't even dignify that with a response. Moving swiftly on, he asked whether Soma had any questions or a topic he wanted to discuss.

'I have a grievance,' Soma announced, sitting up straight.

'Oh?' Faustus put down his pen, leaning across his desk attentively. 'Well, we'll do our best to resolve any grievances. What's troubling you?'


Faustus raised an eyebrow.

'You'll have to elaborate, Soma. What exactly is the problem?'

Soma mirrored Faustus' position, sitting forward to lean his elbows on the desk, expression faux-blank.

'My problem is that I'm twenty-three years old and my bedtime is still dictated to me. My problem is that I have a curfew that cuts down the very limited space I already have. My problem is that at eight o'clock I'm either in my bedroom or locked out of it for no good reason at all. All while someone five years younger than me has all the freedom you people allow.'

Sebastian scribbled some notes, surprised.

Faustus sat back, his brow furrowing slightly when Soma immediately copied him again.

'Your grievance is Phantomhive?' he asked.

'My grievance is the treatment Phantomhive gets,' Soma replied evenly.

After a pause, Faustus rebutted, 'What you need to understand is that Phantomhive has been a resident here for almost eight years. Incidents of bad behaviour have been minor, to say the least, especially in more recent years. With a long term resident such as him, it's only proper to offer rewards to make the time here more endu -'

'I've been here five years. I am a long term resident. I have few incidents to my name, and the ones I do have, I'm more than happy to discuss, if someone would actually listen. I'm co-operative, I behave just as much if not more than he does, so where is my reward?' Soma sounded grand, speaking with a gravity it was rare to hear from him. He almost sounded like the Prince he liked to think he was.

Faustus toyed with the pen on his desk. Uncomfortable?

'So what are you asking for, Soma?'

'I'm not unreasonable,' Soma smiled, 'I want what Ciel has, or for Ciel to have what the rest of us have. No curfew, or a curfew for everybody. All doors locked, or no doors locked. I think it's fair.'

'I think Phantomhive may disagree,' Faustus replied.

Soma was resolutely not looking at Sebastian. At first, it had seemed like a childish sort of sulking, but now he wasn't sure. Had something happened between Soma and Ciel? A fight? Sebastian couldn't understand what Soma was trying to do. He had never seemed bothered by Ciel's exception from the curfew before.

Was this a double cross?

Faustus agreed to discuss the matter with Angela, dismissing Soma. Soma didn't look satisfied or unsatisfied with the outcome, walking from the room swiftly. He finally glanced Sebastian's way. Sebastian didn't get a good enough look at his expression, but he was sure it wasn't anything pleasant.

What was going on with the patients?

Next was Ciel. The questions were the same.

'What progress do you feel you have made since our last talk?' Faustus asked, pen poised against the paper.

It had been almost two weeks since he had last seen Ciel. He didn't look any different. Not sickly, not worried, not tired. But then, Faustus was the lead in this situation. Sebastian couldn't quite catch Ciel's eye.

'Progress... Nothing very interesting. I've been sleeping better, I suppose,' Ciel replied, fussing with his rumpled sleeve.

'That's good to hear. If the insomnia had gotten any worse, we'd have had to start thinking about changing your medication. Quite late in the day for that. I was worried about the negative effects it could have. So good, good. The sleep itself, would you say it's peaceful, or disturbed?'

Sebastian frowned, watching closer. Ciel stopped fussing with his sleeve abruptly, then drew his finger over his leg. It was a few movements before Sebastian caught on.

Behind the desk, Ciel's hand and leg were out of Faustus' view.

I-T-E _ I-T _ D-O-W-N

Sebastian followed the looping movement of Ciel's finger, identifying the letters he made, the rest of three beats between the words, and wrote them down on his paper. All the while, Ciel kept talking, answering Faustus' questions with uncharacteristic detail. If Faustus noticed a difference, he didn't question it, dutifully taking his own notes and keeping the conversation going.

Y-O-U _ A-L-R-I-G-H-T

Sebastian gave a slight nod, unsure whether Ciel would see or not. Although his focus was on Faustus, he must have, as he began tracing letters again.

D-O-N-T _ W-O-R-R-Y

Sebastian frowned, but Ciel mustn't have saw. Instead, he drew a question mark on the paper, tilting the clipboard ever so slightly. A quick glance his way that Faustus didn't notice and Ciel began tracing again.


A longer pause between the last letter and the next. A new sentence.

I-T _ W-A-S _ A-G-R-E-E-D

T-O _ A-P-P-E-A-S-E _ T-H-E _ O-T-H-E-R-S

Sebastian tilted the board again, displaying the question mark.

Ciel didn't reply to him immediately, giving more focus to his conversation with Faustus. The subject had changed to progress to be made.

'I think I've been ... isolating myself lately,' Ciel said, a hint of dejection in his voice.

'I had noticed. You've been staying in your bedroom during the day more and more. For a period, you were doing so well, interacting with the others. Did something happen? A falling out?' Faustus asked, pen moving swiftly as he scribbled sentence after sentence.

'Nothing in particular. I've just ... not felt like being with them. But I know that's a bad thing.'

'A regression,' Faustus agreed, 'But it's good that you're aware of it. Noticing it for yourself without it having to be pointed out, that's very good, Ciel. So now you need to decide what you're going to do about it.'

Ciel began to trace letters again.

P-L-A-Y _ A-L-O-N-G

W-E _ N-E-E-D _ T-H-E-M _ O-N _S-I-D-E

T-H-E-Y _ A-R-E _ A-F-R-A-I-D

Sebastian wasn't sure what was meant by that yet but he nodded nonetheless. The looks he had received from some, the hostility from others, the outright ignoring from Soma. It began to make sense.

The patients were afraid, of him.

'Is there anything you'd like to discuss?' Faustus asked, placing his pen down on the desk.

'Actually, there is,' Ciel paused, glancing Sebastian's way with an uncomfortable expression, 'Sorry. Not to be rude, but could he step outside for a minute? It's ... a bit personal.'

Faustus stared for a minute. Sebastian could see Ciel become genuinely uncomfortable beyond the act, but he kept his face straight, meeting Faustus' eyes.

Faustus nodded, gesturing to the door.

'Sebastian, wait outside until Ciel leaves,' he instructed brusquely.

Sebastian stood, pressing the clipboard to his hip, and left the room. He had a fair idea what personal matter Ciel was going to bring up. If it was what had to be done, then it was what had to be done. The last thing they needed was the other patients turning their backs. That sort of division among the ranks could be lethal.

Sebastian took the opportunity to ball up Ciel's messages, ignoring the bin and shoving the paper in his pocket.

'Anythin' interestin'?'

He jumped, despite himself. Joker had approached soundlessly. Judging by his expression, it hadn't been accidental.

'Just scrap paper.'

Joker smiled a little, a faux thing.

'Bin right there.'

Sebastian just shrugged. The mistrust was as strong in Joker as it had been in all the others. Without Ciel telling him exactly what the plan was, he didn't quite know what to say, how not to misstep any further.

Silence developed between them, stagnant and pressing. Joker just watched him, waiting for him to say something, do something.

Faustus' office door opened and Ciel strode out. He nodded at Joker, ignored Sebastian, then was gone.

'Come in,' Faustus called.

Joker's questions were invariably the same. He found a middle ground of answering casually without saying anything remotely personal to him. It was a well practiced avoidance, one that had Faustus not even bothering to take a single note. He divided his attention evenly between Faustus and Sebastian, answering to them both.

Sebastian wondered if he was missing some sort of message.

At the end of the session, Faustus didn't ask whether Joker had anything he would like to discuss. The absence of what must have been a routine question had Joker faltering. Instead, Faustus instructed Sebastian to move his chair beside Joker's.

'I was going to wait until Joker had left, but on second thought, as one of our more senior patients, perhaps he can pass on the information to the others for us.'

Joker frowned, 'What information?'

Faustus had eyes only for Sebastian now.

'The matter Phantomhive wanted to discuss privately. Do you have any idea what it might have been?' Faustus asked, toying with his pen.

Sebastian shook his head, as innocent as could be.

'Alright. Then I'll ask this; do you believe you have made any ... inappropriate advances towards Phantomhive?'

Joker shifted in his chair, 'Look, er. Should I really be here for this? Doesn't really feel like any of my business.'

Faustus ignored him, waiting for Sebastian's answer.

'I ... don't personally think I've been inappropriate. I can only apologize if I've made Phantomhive uncomfortable in some way,' Sebastian replied. He wished he could have had more of an indication than play along to know how he was supposed to respond. Was he supposed to deny it? Admit it? Finding the middle between the two seemed like the only good option.

Faustus' hand tightened around the pen, a white-knuckle grip.

'Regardless of how you see it, Phantomhive has requested that you not work on the ward. As this is a matter of a patient's well-being, I have to act on that request. Joker,' Faustus turned to a visibly uncomfortable Joker, 'You associate with most if not all of the other residents. Do you believe any of them feel unsafe around Michaelis?'

Joker eyed Sebastian, mouth twisted. There was calculation there, the cogs whirring.

Figure it out, Sebastian urged, Play along.

'They've not said anythin' specific to me,' Joker said slowly, 'But now that I think of it, Doll don't seem as keen on him as she used to be. Not that I'm makin' any accusations, mind. But if Smile's said somethin', probably best to play it safe, yeah?'

Joker smiled, that same odd little smile from earlier.

'We wouldn't want nothin' to happen to Smile now, would we?'

Oh. Sebastian watched that flicker of something dark pass over Faustus' face. The way his clenched hand shook. And now Sebastian had noticed, a dozen more things suddenly made much more sense.

The pages upon pages of notes from Ciel's session, compared to a measly sentence or two from everyone else's.

The arguing back with Soma over Ciel's rights, rights that only someone in Faustus' position could think about granting in the first place.

The punishment Ciel received for his involvement in freeing Finny, centred entirely around more time and more sessions with Faustus.

The promises, the lies, of a possible freedom, all held in Faustus' hand, his decision alone.

And that look Faustus was giving Sebastian now. What exactly had Ciel said, Sebastian wondered. How much of the truth had he given. How far did that jealousy of Faustus' go.

'No,' Faustus replied, voice absent of any emotion, 'I wouldn't want that.'

'You get it now, yeah?' Joker asked quietly, walking beside Sebastian as he was escorted back to the ward. There was no hostility in him now. Everything about him just seemed ... quiet.

'How long have you known for?' Sebastian asked, trying to stay just as hushed.

'Years,' Joker replied, 'I tend to notice these things. Smile knows. Smile ignores it. Plays on it when it suits him. Mostly ignores it though. Think he's more scared of it than he'd ever admit. Last thing he wants to do is encourage the guy. Still.'

Joker stopped walking. They were long clear of Faustus' office, the hallway completely empty.

'Still, this could go bad for you, y'know? Gotta assume Smile knows what he's playin' with here. When you came onto the ward a few weeks ago, with all that blood on you, you spooked us somethin' wicked. What happened, man? And do we got reason to want you off the ward?'

'I was attacked,' Sebastian replied simply, 'So I defended myself. That's all.'

Joker nodded, 'And this accusation of Smile's? Don't try and play me coz we all know somethin's goin' on there.'

'Nothing for you to be worried over.'

'Safe, sane, consensual. That's all I need to know on that. But I tell ya, somethin' I do need to know, this defendin' yourself. Disappearin' for almost a month. Hidin' scraps, all suspicious like. It's all makin' you look more like one of them than one of us, and that's somethin' I can't just turn a blind eye to. I need you to understand this - it wasn't just Smile that came for me back then, got me out of that room, saved my life - so I want to believe that you're genuine. That you're not someone I gotta second guess every time I see you. You get me?'

Sebastian pulled the balled up paper out of his pocket, smoothing it out for Joker to see.

'I'm on Ciel's side. So long as you can trust him, you can trust me.'

Joker read Ciel's messages.

'Don't it bother you?' he asked, 'That he said we're afraid of you?'

'Bother me? No -'

'Coz it should, Black,' Joker smiled, that old nickname not sounding nearly as fond as it used to, 'And I think it would have bothered you, before.'

Joker handed the paper back to Sebastian, giving him a little nod before striding off towards the ward, leaving Sebastian uncertain of just where he stood in the grand scheme of Us and Them.

Even as a child, Sebastian had never been one for comfort items. There were no special toys he had treasured or a specific blanket that helped him get to sleep. Sentimental, he had never been, so the idea of some item holding the secret to calming his nerves was completely lost on him.

His fist tightened around the latex gloves, balled up in his pants pocket.

But then, he had never been one for losing his nerve either, not before St. Victoria's.

It wasn't the slick, sometimes squeaky way the gloves moved under his fingers when he toyed with them. That sensation went right through him. Neither was it the tight, clinging way they fit on his hands. That was uncomfortable, made him too aware they were there.

It was the colour. That clinical sort of off-white. Pristine, any smudge immediately noticeable, easily cleaned away. It had taken hours to scrub them completely clean that first time, but the satisfaction when he had, there was no comparison. And it would be easier next time, he knew. There wouldn't be days for the filth to dry, crust, ruin. He wouldn't let the filth make its home there, on the gloves, on him.

Sebastian stood before the door to Ward V with the gloves clutched tightly in his fist and found that he wasn't afraid.

'So long as you're wearing a pair of these gloves, your hands will still be clean, you see?'

Sebastian clung to those words, slipping the gloves over his hands and walking through the door into Ward V.

That first time, Sebastian remembers for the cold sweat he broke out in, the way his knees trembled every so often as though about to let him drop, and the inability to forget that his name was Sebastian Michaelis and that he was doing very bad things.

That first time ended with his swift departure to the residential bathrooms. The door was locked for three hours, during which time he retched so violently, his throat began to ache. His legs refused to obey him when he tried to stand, leaving him to collapse back to the floor in a heap. Two, three, four more tries to stand and Sebastian gave up, letting his clammy forehead drop against the rim of the toilet bowl.

It didn't feel like a success, even if his hands were spotless after he took the gloves off.

The next time, the next day, Sebastian woke up an hour before his shift was scheduled to begin after a restless night of tossing and turning. He had gotten out of bed three times, collected his key-card from the desk, and made for his door. Each time, it had taken more effort to go back to bed, to remind himself of just why he couldn't go to Ciel for the time being. So instead, he spent that hour sat at the edge of the bed, the gloves snug over his hands.

He was getting used to the feel of them. They no longer made his hands itch.

For that hour, Sebastian practised leaving himself behind in the bedroom, all those things that made it hard to do as they said abandoned until later. What remained of his conscience, his compassion, his morality. He left them on the desk beside his spare uniform, nothing more than garments he could wear or discard as and when he chose.

That second time, his knees still shook and he still broke out into a cold sweat, but the urge to vomit wasn't as strong as the day before. He only hid in the bathroom for an hour and a half.

The third day, Sebastian set his alarm clock an hour early. Just like before, he spent that extra hour of his day sat at the edge of his bed, curling and uncurling his gloved fingers, shedding himself of those heavy characteristics. His conscience first, cut away with the sharpness of justification. Compassion next, chipped at bit by bit, weak against the memory of V7's beastly fists pounding down upon his back. And then his sense of morals. That was the hardest to pick away, so deeply rooted, and Sebastian never quite succeeded in leaving behind the knowledge that what he was doing was wrong.

So, instead, Sebastian left behind whatever part of him cared about that.

The third day, his legs still shook and his forehead still glistened with sweat, but once his shift ended a good nine hours later, Sebastian didn't feel as though he was about to be sick at all. His shift ended, he removed the gloves, and went to make himself some dinner. For the first time in a long time, he gave careful consideration to just what he would eat, what he could prepare from the ingredients at hand.

For the first time in too long, Sebastian enjoyed a meal.

The fourth day was a trying one. The past three of Sebastian's submission had given his supervisors confidence. Angela began to override Doctor's authority on the ward, to push and prod, trying to find the limits of Sebastian's newfound obedience. He refused to let her find any limit. Every order she gave, he obeyed, his gloves becoming more and more filthy than on any of the previous days. And when she smiled in satisfaction, he smiled back, as though proud of a job well done. He had always taken pride in his work, after all, even work he found distasteful.

That day, it took a little over an hour at the bathroom sink before he was happy that his gloves were spotless. Although it had gotten late by then, he still went down to the kitchen and made himself something for dinner. The ingredients were difficult for even him to work with, but the end result was as good as the day before.

The fifth day and it took half the time it usually did before Sebastian was ready to go down to the ward. It was easier already to shed the qualities he didn't need down there, the qualities that dragged him down. There were more spectators now. Angela had brought Ash, and between the both of them, they effectively silenced Doctor completely. That annoyed Sebastian, that unfounded arrogance, and although he followed their orders technically, he did so in a way that left Doctor with the end result he had wanted.

Angela seethed, but could say nothing. After all, Sebastian had done no wrong.

As such, when he asked if he could make a request of her, she had no reason to deny him.

'Yes, what is it?' As curt as she sounded, there was a glimmer of interest in her eyes. It made a change from the usual disdain.

'I was just wondering if something could be done in regards to the kitchen,' Sebastian said, returning the day's tools to the trolley, 'The ingredients in stock are pitiful. Is there any way we could get a bit more variety?'

Angela stared for a long moment, as though trying to find some deeper meaning behind the request. She seemed almost disappointed when there was none.

'Write up a list,' she said curtly, and left the ward with her brother at her heel.

So ended the first full week of Sebastian's time on Ward V.

Saturday was the patient's day in the garden. Even now it was nearing the end of November and the weather had turned frightful, the patients still clutched at that small window of freedom, ignoring the cold and the wind to sit outside upon the grass.

Sebastian volunteered to be one of the monitors, Ronald landed with being the other. He was happy enough to lie down on one of the benches, chatting to any nearby patients, friendly enough. Sebastian wondered about him; had he ever been on Ward V? He was rarely on the main ward, but then, he had never been on Ward V while Sebastian was there either. He didn't have that quality the rest of the staff had, but maybe that was part of the threat he could pose.

Sebastian sat at a distance from the group, back against the trunk of a tree. Joker had his usual lot around him, Ciel amongst them. Whatever plan Ciel had been playing through during their time apart, it had worked, from the looks of it. Freckles sat on one side, Soma on the other, both smiling happily enough.

Ciel glanced his way every now and then, when the others weren't looking. Sebastian didn't acknowledge him beyond a small nod. He still wasn't sure where he himself stood in the eyes of that group. It wouldn't do to unravel the work Ciel had done to get back in their good books.

Drocell and Snake kept to themselves across the lawn. Alois was nowhere to be seen. Otherwise, all present and accounted for.

The morning dragged on, the chilly wind picking up. Ciel's glances over at him became more meaningful, more deliberate. Only half sure it was what he was asking for, Sebastian stood and left, walking around the side of the building and out of sight.

It must have been a correct guess as Ciel joined him not long after.

'You don't look terrible,' was the first thing Ciel said to him after almost a month of being apart.

'Careful, I might swoon,' Sebastian replied, following Ciel's lead in sitting against the wall of the building.

They caught up with each other quickly, knowing their time together was short. Ciel confirmed he had gotten back in with Joker and the others, even if it was in a way he avoided directly saying. After some pushing from Sebastian and what may have been an embarrassed flush from Ciel, he finally admitted, 'I may have led them to make the conclusion that my feelings towards you are somewhat Stockholm Syndrome in nature. Now they're treating me like a heartbroken teenager. I'm this close to hitting whoever talks to me in that patronizing tone next.'

Sebastian laughed, 'So I broke your heart, did I? What a brute. I do apologize.'

'I'll be breaking something of yours if you don't shut up,' Ciel snapped, still slightly red in the face, 'We haven't got the time for this. What's happened on your end?'

Sebastian recounted his own side of events, omitting some of the more gruesome details. Even so, the colour quickly drained from Ciel's face, and it was with a heavier atmosphere that their conversation continued.

'So they're pleased with you,' Ciel concluded, voice a bit tight, 'Good.'

'I'm not in any immediate danger, at least,' Sebastian adjusted. Ciel's expression was making his chest tighten in a way it hadn't since the first day on the ward that week. He found himself turning his hand over, an invitation he hadn't consciously decided to make.

After a pause that threatened to never end, Ciel slipped his hand into Sebastian's, knotting their fingers together with a squeeze.

'That's the important thing. Like I said before, do whatever you have to do.' It sounded more like Ciel was reminding himself than Sebastian, but that was alright. Sebastian squeezed Ciel's hand in return, brushing his thumb over Ciel's.

There was a question that came to Sebastian then, one that he didn't really want to ask, but wanted more than anything right then to hear the answer.

'A lot of what you've done, you did to stop the staff from changing me into one of them,' Sebastian said, forcing himself to meet Ciel's eyes, 'Do you regret doing those things now, considering how it's all turned out?'

Sebastian had expected a hesitation, for Ciel to pause and stare and think up a dozen different possible answers before giving the one that benefitted him most. Instead, Ciel mirrored that affectionate little stroke, moving his thumb back and forth in a soothing gesture, and answered straight away.

'I don't regret any of the things I've done. They didn't change you, Sebastian,' Ciel said, his smile bitter, 'I changed you.'

AN: Thanks as always for sticking with this fic even though it's the slowest thing in the world, both in story development and also in update schedule. I hope you guys had a fab winter break/whatever you celebrate, and have a happy new year!