Disclaimer: I do not own Kuroshitsuji, its characters, or enough of its merchandise. XD

Author's Note: When I first wrote "Contracts," I never dreamed I'd write a sequel. After I wrote the sequel, I didn't think it'd become a three-parter… and even after it'd become a saga, I didn't foresee a specific ending.

But then I thought of a specific ending. ^^;

I won't jinx myself and say that "this is it"— knowing me, I may still post ficlets related to "Hide and Go Seek" in the future. That said, I can't imagine any other major updates happening in this universe, so I'd just like to take this time to thank everyone who has followed and enjoyed "HaGS." Though season II stole some of our thunder (haha), I've still greatly enjoyed playing around with this plot bunny; I hope you guys have had as much fun as I have! :3

Dedication: For my darling Askee. What with all of the help and inspiration you've showered upon me, I almost feel as if this saga is as much your baby as it is my own. And as you pointed out, this is the series that brought us together… it seems appropriate that we should end it together, too. Love you, sweetheart! 3

Warnings: Standard "Hide and Go Seek" saga warnings apply. THIS WON'T MAKE ANY SENSE IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS. (Contracts, L'Homme aux gants blancs, Secrets, KakuRenBo, Kagome Kagome, Asphyxiation, and Remember December.) I really mean that. More so than usual. Also, I originally got this poem from an FMA doujinshi; I dunno if it's actually a legit song, or if the doujinka made it up. Somehow I think it's the former, but… yeah. XD;

XXX

Cuckoo's Nest

XXX

X

There were two birds sat on a stone

Fa la la la lal dee

One flew away, and then there was one

Fa la la la lal dee

The other flew after and then there was none

Fa la la la lal dee

And so the poor stone was left all alone

Fa la la la lal dee

X

Rachel kept a pet bird in a golden guild cage.

Hung low beside the window, its pin-thin bars ever-glistening in the sunlight, the pretty pen hovered a scant few inches above the girl's mahogany desk, like some sort of heavenly spectator. Like a miniature beacon, like the Gates of St. Paul, and the angel beyond seemed wholly content to keep her company. It was an auspicious reality, for the responsibility of the creature housed within the ornamental construction was to do just that: day in and day out, it lingered calmly on its swinging roost, head cocked, eyes bright, listening to its mistress sing nonsensical little songs as she wove a silver comb through her butter cream locks.

"It's another beautiful day," Rachel would greet her pet each morning, the sound of her sweetly sad sigh smothered by the clattering of curtain rings on rods. "It is a shame I cannot yet set you free."

In reply, the bird would rustle its glossy down, give a tiny squawk.

And she, in turn, would smile.

X

"And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming…"

Head lolling and lids lax in the wake of gratified exhaustion, Rachel only-just managed to muster the strength to twist her face to the left, raking a hand through her disheveled curls. Beneath the crisp coolness of starched white linen, she shifted and shuffled, cuddling all the closer to the warmth of Vincent's body. His arm, in return, coiled around her waist, but his eyes remained elsewhere; like a lethargic winter sun, Rachel peeked up over the muscled curve of his chest, cerulean irises piercing through the gloomy shade to find the object of his attention.

From beyond the cloak of darkness, a pair of pupiled garnets returned her stare. Steady. Unblinking. Intelligent.

"What th—! Oh, Sebastian…" Rachel, voice airy with surprise, sputtered out a giggle as she rolled back over, unable to continue staring at her pet. She could taste her heart in the back of her throat, flavored with iron and shock. "Poor thing… I suppose we're keeping him awake."

"I doubt he sleeps, anyway," Vincent muttered, and the girl couldn't help but notice how his hold had tightened ever-so-slightly, as if to shield her from the observant bird. "Too much to watch. Too much to plot."

Rachel snorted, toes tangling in the discarded eiderdown as her lips found her lover's shoulder. "Is he 'The Raven' now?"

Fingers bit into the porcelain flesh of round hips, possessive and pointed; a pull, a yank, a tug was all it took to perch the bird-boned girl atop the concave cradle of his pelvis… and Rachel settled herself there as if it were a comfy nest, her second home. Groans were muffled by malleable mouths, mouths that swallowed breath, shame, sense, truth…

"And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor… shall be lifted nevermore."

X

"Tell me of hell."

"Now? But such a bedtime story would give you nightmares."

"Perhaps I tire of happy dreams."

A languid chuckle, dark and velvet as a funeral garb. And the man from whom the sound was uttered was just as languid, dark, and velvet as his voice would suggest: an elegant silhouette, clothed in ebony, fingers taloned and feet booted and eyes like incandescent jewels. With loving hands, he tucked the pouting blonde into her bed, peppering her face with butterfly kisses. She giggled and gasped, writhing beneath her coverlets, as lashes and lips skimmed-slipped-slid up and down the alabaster expanse of her face. Over temple, eyelid, bridge, cheek bone… until the slickened ivory of saw-toothed fangs tickled the plump of her earlobe, and warm breath— like the wheeze of an open furnace— whispered into its coral-colored shell…

"Hell is Eternity."

X

"Found you…" he murmured, face soft and haloed by rays of spring sunshine. With a silvery lining, the crystalline beams traced the boy's lithe body, collecting in lambent pools of light and shadow upon his face, shoulders, lacquered black-coal locks. He offered Rachel an angelic, affectionate smile, and the heavenly illusion was further fed by the fantasy of fragile wings— layers of draped doily lace, delicately folded, falling to froth about his back when he parted and pushed away the hangings.

"I suppose I'm not very good at hide-and-go-seek, am I?" the little girl blushed, tripping up against the mirror-smooth surface of the patio door. Despite its cheerful brightness, the day beyond the window was bitter; ice seeped into her clothes and skin and pounding blood as she stumbled against the jamb, molding into the corner— spine traced and framed by the cherrywood casing that decorated as much as it entrapped.

Entrapped.

"Vincent…" she whispered, arms bound about her budding chest as the boy before her bore down, mouth following a blue-blooded vein from dainty clavicle to graceful throat. "Vincent, not now… oh!" A hiss, a whimper; pearly teeth caught hold of an equally pearly lip, biting harshly down. The crocheted curtains wafted and wavered, rolling and swelling and rising and falling like the bodies concealed within their cosseted embrace. Puffed breaths misted over the veranda glass, obscuring visibility with a film of sugar-scented fog. A kiss of frost against her back; a kiss of flame against her front— a burn as deliciously deviant as the aching grind of a knee pressed flush against her core, as wanton as the tangle of half-protesting tongues.

"Vincent…!" Moaning, rejecting, affirming, proffering—pounding against his chest even as her thighs quaked and shivered and spread wide in welcome. "Big brother, mum and dad are… are just in their bedroom… nnn!"

Ten frail digits twined around clumps of a cotton shirtfront, relishing the feel of the heart that beat just for her— faster and faster, like the thrust of his hips, and the shallow waves of warmth that painted her nape a rosy pink. There was laughter and love thrumming just-beneath his flesh, wheedled words cascading as embers of stardust down the staircase of her spine.

"Then be quiet… silly…"

Down the staircase—forsaking Heaven, diving towards Hell, even as her eyes bore holes in the ceiling and the taste of a seraph stuck in her gullet. What dirty games they'd learned to play; hiding from God, seeking salvation, ready or not, here they—

"Ah…!"

Beyond the smoggy glass, in the bare branches of a crooked apple tree (roots knobby and knotted and intertwined with decaying fruit, mushy and infested) an avian spectator kept soundless watch, leering beak pursed around a never-nevermore.

X

A gift he'd been— packaged in punctured paper and a sloppy ruby ribbon. A strangely shaped present, as if to match the strangely shaped expression on the receiver's tear-streaked face: half-dome, half-cylinder, all clatters and chirps and rustling plumage. Upon accepting the unusual bundle, Rachel had blinked briny eyes and sniffled, startled by the feel something shift-jump-trembling just-beyond the sheet of shiny wrapping— fluttering like her heart in her chest, housed within layers of flesh.

"To keep you company," her brother had said, planting a chaste kiss against the unkempt frizz of her crown. His lips had quivered as he'd done so, quivered like her own, and she could feel his pulse pounding in the fingertips that rested against the bare of her shoulders. "Now that mum and dad are…"

Yes.

Now that mum and dad were no longer sharing the same cage as their fledglings—now that they had broken free and taken wing, soaring into the mysterious distance like the birds that Rachel enjoyed watching from her window. Flying higher, farther, faster… until handheld companions were little more than blots, then specks, then memories against the azure-blue of the summer sky.

And in their cloudy, cobalt wake, it was as if they had never been.

So although she knew it was cruel, Rachel did, in fact, take a great deal of comfort in caring for her new pet. After all, trapped as he was behind bars of painted aluminum, Sebastian could not leave her. Not like the others.

They were hostages in this place, bound and tied by red threads.

"It's another beautiful day," the young woman hummed as she changed out untouched water, replaced pelts of moldering food. Sebastian, as always, watched his mistress work with uninterested eyes, shifting from one scaly foot to the other. "It is a shame I cannot yet set you free."

But they would be set free someday. Someday, their sorrowed songs would reach sympathetic ears; someday, their constant beating would break the walls; someday, the lock on their cage would rust and shatter, and the door would fall open with a corrosion-tinged squeak. Someday, they would escape this cursed place. And they would do so together.

He had promised her as much.

X

"My my. Your parents. How… original."

"Shut up!"

The frenzied roar echoed through the bloodstained basement, bouncing off of the ruin-inscribed walls and the bile-bathed bricks. Within the center of the vermillion pentagram, an apathetic humanoid was casually checking the soles of his shoes, face scrunching in distaste when he realized the mess he'd accidentally stepped in. With a languorous sigh, he scraped the remainder of a squelched gall bladder off on the serrated flooring, oblivious to the crazed gleam in his summoner's wide eyes.

"You're a devil, right?" the young boy snapped, panting like some sort of rabies-infested animal. His tiny fist tightened around a dripping kitchen knife. "You can grant my wish, right?"

"Hm?"

In spite of his jaded façade, the human's husked demands caught the creature's wandering attention— for indeed, the burgundy bands of fate were radiating from the child's skip- thump -pounding heart, undulating like serpents in this gory suburban Eden. Faintly intrigued, the demon paused in his preening, chin tilting so that the flickering light of cracked bulbs refracted against his thin lips, glittering like broken glass and sharpened sickles. His mouth curled into a death scythe smile: a gash that slit his face from ear to petite ear.

"Indeed I can. For the proper price."

The boy's maniacal expression, rather unexpectedly, fell perfectly flat; when he next spoke, his voice was tinted with a twang of barely-suppressed sarcasm. "I've just murdered my mother and father in cold blood," he droned, gaze half-hooded in mordant vexation. "I hardly believe whatever else you ask of me could be any worse than that."

A wily chortle, almost like a purr… With a clawed hand pressed lightly against his leather-swathed chest, the devil fell into an obsequious sort of bow— as folsom, the child was sure, as the grin that left his onyx eyes empty.

"Would you like to bet on that, my lord?"

X

Rachel chose to wear her Seal in the center of her chest, an organic tattoo that colored the snowy valley of her breasts a violet shade of black. Sometimes, after Vincent had departed with a final kiss goodnight, she would unfasten the binds of her bra and finger the familiar pattern, memorize each curve and point and Latin verse with inquisitive, lust-hazed eyes.

"What does 'Tetragrammaton' mean?" she one day asked, resting her head against the round of Sebastian's wiry thigh. She craned her neck to catch his gaze, and the shifting of her body made his wandering hands slide from ribcage to belly button.

"'God,'" the creature answered in kind, without any hint of emotion or inflection. His eyes— despite Rachel's most fervent efforts— remained on his cage, poised above the varnished table of her desk. "Why ask this now?"

"I thought devils didn't believe in God," the blonde child frowned, sidestepping her companion's inquiry entirely. Not that it mattered; the demon didn't particularly care what had brought about her query. The demon didn't particularly care about much. "Why use His name in your Contracts?"

Sebastian breathed a faint scoff, heavy lashes half-lowered and brow knitted in contempt. "You cannot be forsaken by something that you do not believe in," he muttered… and with such a capitulate sort of scowl marring his usually-lovely face, he looked so much older than his form would suggest. Perhaps not as ancient as he'd be in reality, but still worn and world-weary enough to remind Rachel of the elderly peoples she'd seen in ivy-covered houses— tired and resentful and yearning for the end.

Perhaps that was why…

"…you know what you've agreed to, forming a covenant with me. Don't you?" she murmured, palm stilling over the pentagram that pulsed like a second heart, ever-warm atop her first. As he often did, the demon chuckled in reply… but this chortle lacked even the darkest of humor, instead sounding weakly exasperated.

"I understand far better than you do."

Naturally. "I would expect as much…" Rachel sagely nodded, digits drum-drum-drumming against the taut film of her skin. Beneath the wrinkled folds of her summer mantle, bare legs slid and shifted and squeezed, trying to distract from the dull ache of pillaged insides. For while physical twinges of pain she could weather, the corporal feel of emptiness reminded her too much of the emotional sort. And that was all Sebastian seemed to be, at times: an all-encompassing emptiness, nothingness—an abyss as black as his feathers, void-like and unending.

Fingers paused in the wake of a realization. It wasn't an epiphany, per say, for the girl had thought this from the start… she just hadn't been able to figure out the proper way to phrase her musings. But now that the words were balancing on the tip of her tongue, she had no qualms about letting them fall.

"You're using me, aren't you," she questioned.

Only it wasn't really a question. And so neither insulted the other by pretended that it was, or wasted precious time bothering to deny it. Instead, the demon's pallid features shifted ever-so-slightly, morphing from quietly bothered to quietly impressed. "You are wise for your years, mistress," he complimented— coolly, but not without a hint of nuanced fondness. "Many of my tamers never comprehended that. Or, at least, were never brave enough to admit to recognizing it."

Rachel considered that for a moment, rolling the truth around in mind. Turned it over and over and over and over, until she had made herself quite dizzy. But for all of the many angles she examined his confession from, she could reach but one conclusion. And that conclusion left her cold, vision blurring as she twisted her pretty head, inadvertently leaving a butterfly kiss against the jut of his hip.

"…I'm so sorry," she whimpered. The unnecessary apology tumbled from her mouth coated thickly in tears, though no liquid had yet escaped the tender ducts of her eyes. It hardly mattered; the tone was enough to startle the devil. Unable to fully mask his surprise, Sebastian's petting hand paused, brow arching as he regarded the girl who'd nestled up against his pelvis.

"Whatever for?" he asked. And this time (for the first time) he sounded genuinely bewildered— bending over ever-so-slightly to regard his contractor. But for all of his subtle straining, it did Sebastian little good; it was now Rachel's turn to rebuff his gaze, and she was quite adapt at doing so. Unblinkingly, she stared at the nearest wall— stared until it seemed to swirl and ripple through the moist sheen that had glazed over her irises, making them glimmer like sapphires. "What reason have you to feel sorry for me?"

A delicate sniffle, dabbing at her nose with the back of her hand. "It's called empathy," Rachel explained—not unkindly, but her patronizing was enough to irk. He was a soulless being, not a heartless one; he understood the implications of the term. Curiosity sated, Sebastian once again leaned fully against the headboard, lids apathetically hooded as Rachel sucked down a shaky breath. When she next spoke, her sadness-warmed exhalation left an ephemeral blanket of mist atop the chilled textile of his leggings, silvery and evanescent. "I am sorry that your cage came with so complicated a lock."

Sebastian grunted, fingers once again braiding through the cascading goldenrod curls that lay draped across his leg. "Hell is difficult to escape," he droned in reply. "It would not be hell, otherwise."

"I suppose…"

She sniveled a second time, but had finally calmed enough to reposition herself—rotating so that she could once again look up into her monster's eyes. "But I don't understand," the young girl then admitted, lacing her hands atop the dip of her belly. "You may break free from this squalid plane, but eternal life is the prerogative of all souls. Well," she tacked on sheepishly, palms ascending with a lit-match-hiss to caress the burning kiss of the Contract. "All souls besides mine, that is. And those like me."

The demon hummed, a noncommittal noise that escaped before he could stop it. "Your mistake is the assumption that I have a soul at all," he murmured, and for a moment he seemed oddly distracted by the ebony of his nails, deadened and glossy with rot. "Mine was eaten long ago. This reanimated shell is all that I am, and once it ceases to function…"

He trailed off meaningfully, fingers curling into fists that hid his talons from view. And Rachel watched those digits coil inward, watched as Sebastian's thoughts did the same; she mulled over his words for a moment or two, assuming it safest to leave him to his meditations. But (like any mortal who had ever agreed to the devil's games) she'd never been very good at following the safe route. When a final pondering knocked against the back of her teeth, the girl couldn't resist opening her mouth and letting it out.

"If that is so," she whispered, catching one of the devil's clenched hands in her own and clasping it to the warmth of her bosom, "what will happen to you afterwards? Will you just… Not Be?"

It was not unusual for Sebastian to deny his tamers answers to their questions. Even if he did respond, it was often one part truth and two parts lie; most quickly realized that it was wisest to simply let him snicker and sneer and taunt as he pleased, and listen carefully for the hints that he'd lace into his jeers.

But now… Now, there were not even jeers. There was only stillness, and silence, and sightless staring. And when he softly confessed "I am not sure…" Rachel thought she might have heard the faintest, weakest traces of a fearful little boy lurking beneath the surface… as if this manskin was as much a disguise as his birdskin.

She wrapped her arms around his middle, and though he did not return the embrace, neither did he pull away.

X

"One intangible for another. What a waste of a wish."

"Are you complaining?" the master snorted, disbelief staining his words with the same viral intensity as the ink that was staining the papers on his desk. Black on white, as if a game of chess… and upon the ledge of the board, a hungry raven sat, watching his contractor scheme his life away.

"I would never dare," the demon politely returned, but the veneer was as thin as his mortal coil: a superficial, cracking mask, barely strong enough to contain all of the malevolence that writhed within. Every now and then, scorn and iniquity— like white, squirming maggots—would poke bitty holes in his façade, as if it were the putrid meat of a cadaver. "The right to protest lies with those far above my humble station. I lament for you, my lord. What has your sacrifice bought you? If you had asked to kill those who have touched her, you could have at least crushed their still-beating hearts in your hands. If you had asked to possess her, I could have arranged it so that she would never, ever leave your side— would never even want to. But no."

The monster sighed, rolled his eyes, and made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort, straightening his sinuous body with a flourish of his hips. "No, instead," he continued blandly, torn between boredom and disgust. "Instead, you ask for something so insubstantial, you can hardly derive any sort of pleasure from it..."

A grunt was the other's retort, his tone deriding and curt. "And what would you know?" he demanded, not bothering to so much look at the devil. "Do you even understand what love is, Sebastian?"

"Love…?"

For once, Sebastian fell silent. At first, the lack of antagonistic blathering was a welcome relief, but before long the uncharacteristic lull had filled the boy with the faintest sense of unease; he rotated slightly in his chair, casting a questioning glance at the monster…

Only to find that the creature was staring just as pointedly back, forehead furrowed in deepest deliberation. Dark eyes had narrowed slightly; his head was cocked like a curious marionette's. Then he looked at his nails, his feet, his reflection— considered the pale likeness of himself that lurked within the latticed jail of the window. Pupils slit to daggers, irises shone like the summer sky: bloodshot and oddly ruddy.

"…I am not sure that I do, young master," Sebastian thus admitted, speaking in a muted rush of melancholy air. Pathetic, subdued, puzzled. And in that moment, the monster seemed so incredibly human that the child couldn't help but remember the musty lore of Christian tomes: the dust-covered tales of devils, angels, and mortals who had shared the seed of a single Father.

But before he could press the matter further, the demon was gone.

X

"Was this part of our Contract, then? Was this your doing?"

Lounging carelessly against the tile of the bathroom sink, idle fingers tracing damning rings and stars of rancid epidermal, Sebastian sneered and cawed an avian cackle, grating and pitiless. The lack of sympathy should have come as no surprise; empathy was a human shackle, and the being before her was anything but. For while the mirror behind his spine reflected an identical, earthly likeness, the shadows cast from the row of lights above told a different story all together. Amorphous, indistinct, horrifying; formless visages, they were stitched to his shoes, his legs, his shoulders, parasitic and squirming. Living silhouettes that clung to the spackled walls, distorted and primeval: personified amalgams of nightmares and insanity, of corpses and cockroaches, of monsters that lurked in children's closets and underneath their beds at night.

"I believe the credit belongs to Vincent," the demon returned tersely, dark eyes burning with the ice-bright fire of a distant, lifeless star. With a scoff and a slinky sway, he crossed his sharp stiletto boots, giving his left foot a nonchalant little kick. "Our Contract is not meant to be a scapegoat for foolish adolescent mishaps."

A vomit-tainted cough, tinged with the echo of porcelain and plastic. With a sickly-green groan, Rachel pulled herself away from the toilet, resting her flushed forehead against the rim of the seat. "…you're right, of course," she eventually croaked, weary lids lowering as her fist clenched above the churning sea of her stomach. "I just… I just don't know."

Sniffling once, the blonde allowed a single, gossamer tear to ooze from a gap between her flaking-kohl lashes. "I… What will I tell big brother?" Rachel hiccupped, trembling voice raucous with anxiety and barely-suppressed fear.

And though the terrified teen tried to shut out the world—buried her face in the crook of her elbow, covered her ears with the drape of her arm— she could still hear the leer in the demon's velveteen murmur, razor-toothed and pleased.

"What indeed…?" he pondered (mocked) aloud, scalpel-tipped talon slicing through his poisoned smile. "What indeed."

X

"Does she know that you come here and watch her at night?"

The blackbird smoothed the kinks in its plumage, flapping half-bent wings as it repositioned itself on its swing. Its drifting voice— a wavering whispering— floated through the stuffy air like the lullaby of a gramophone: archaic and riddled with jump-skipping static.

Sitting calmly beside his sister's quilt-strewn bed, the demon's dark-locked master responded with a shake of his head, deliberate and precise. "But my parents found me, once," he tacked on in quiet afterthought. "They were going to send me away. To some mental institution, I expect. It's one of the reasons I had to kill them."

"Only one?" Bathed as they were in slithered slivers of moonlight, the golden bars of the crow's luxuriant prison gleamed: seemingly striped with splashes of mercury, like silvery streaks of rain. "What other reason could there have possibly been?"

The teen did not offer a reply, this time. But though his frowning mouth remained decidedly closed, the rest of his face was an open book: the creature sang a knowing trill as he read the answer with ease.

"Ah… Yes, it is a wonderful feeling, isn't it?" the devil purred, his voice a dreamy enticement as the bird's perch jangled and clanged. Unseen feet shifted, roused into excitement by memories and daydreams; black pearl eyes shimmered, opalescent, through the cloying embrace of midnight. "The thrill. The power. The tinny taste of blood in your mouth, the sensation of tendons snapping beneath your fingers. The scent of fat as it starts to decay, gelatinous and jellied. The predestined pattern of fluids as they seep and weep and spread; reds and greens and golds, like a once-living Monet. It draws you in— you can't resist it. It's like a drug, isn't it, an overpowering obsession… the beauty beneath brutality."

A knee gave a twitch— involuntary and telling, just like the pinch of tightly pursed lips. "A drug…" the teen musingly repeated, the tip of a burgundy tongue darting hungrily in-out, up-down. "Well, it most certainly is an addiction."

"Like love, hmm?" the raven added, head slanting sideways with a twitch and a tweak. And though a beak is not built for smiling, it seemed as if the bird was wearing one anyway: malicious and shrewd as the tenor of his tone. "Which addiction will win in the end, I wonder?"

An angry squawk, a ferocious glare. Immediate. Predictable. Naïve. "I would never hurt her!" the monster's contractor hissed, and his eyes flashed like meteors through the blanketing cosmos of depravity and darkness.

Sebastian only cackled.

"You'd be surprised."

X

"Checkmate."

Rachel's response was a childish, pouty-lipped glower, a reaction that he would have considered distastefully juvenile had it not soon melted into a playful giggle; she flopped against the table, wrists folded beneath her chin. "This is why I can't play with you," she jokingly groused, watching the impassive demon knock over her final carved token. The roughly hone figurine clattered against the checkered marble of the board, joining its brethren on the black and white battlefield. "You're far too good at this game."

"Hmm," Sebastian returned vaguely, downcast eyes still locked upon the muddled mess of pieces. Beneath a sinuous finger, the onyx king was dancing back and forth, back and forth, rolling on its ridge in tentative half-circles. A pregnant pause; the token trembled on its own whittled ledge. And then, with a decisive flick, the devil watched it topple, landing crown-first atop its lily-colored brother.

Rachel lifted an eyebrow, confusedly regarding the chaos of two seemingly-defeated armies, jumbled and worthless and gratuitous. Just like so much in life. "What was that for?" she demanded, dimly bemused. "You won. No need to play demolitionist now."

"The King isn't meant to stay standing after the game is over," the demon informed her, leaning back to fold svelte legs. "If he is, then you're not… playing chess…"

He faltered, he frowned. And his doing so made his mistress frown in turn, for she had never seen her demon look so outwardly pensive— puckered brow forming three perfect folds that made his features look so utterly mortal, she might have forgotten his true nature completely if he'd worn the expression for longer than five ticking seconds. But then he was snickering, nostrils flaring, lips creeping towards his ears as some sort of realization punched him in the stomach, forcing laughter from his throat.

"That's right," he muttered… seemingly to himself, for Rachel was still as lost and bewildered as ever. But she was far too mesmerized to question or care— wholly fascinated by the inscrutable grin that had swiftly taken hostage of Sebastian's pliant mouth. "I'm still It, aren't I…?"

An undercurrent of spiteful mirth, hand lifting to clutch at the right side of his face. Rachel gawked.

"…what are you talking about?" she later pried, following a lengthy hush that informed her (in no uncertain terms) that an explanation was not going to be willingly provided. "What do you mean, you're 'it'?"

Sebastian offered no answer. It was not unusual, not really— he simply grinned and chortled, tired eyes rosy and full of private amusement. The glittering stare dared her to ask again, to order a response, to try and solve the Pharaoh's Puzzle that skulked in the camber of his leer… but no. It was annoying (it always was), but Rachel though it likely that, even if he did explain, she wouldn't understand.

Not this time, anyway.

Not now.

X

It had started out with spiders.

Rachel had always hated spiders, their slender wiggling legs and their creepy-crawly-scuttle. When she'd see them wave beyond the window, dangling daintily on lucent puppet strings, she would shriek and cry and hide— body shuddering as if dozens of the creatures (invisible, or perhaps beneath her skin) were dancing up and down her bony limbs, tickling and tingling and teasing her goosepimpled flesh.

Rachel hated spiders. And so he had taken to killing them.

At first, he'd only crush those unfortunate few who had wandered into the house, taking secret pleasure in the nutshell crack of their splintering invertebrate spines. If they were big enough, the spiders would let loose piercing death-squeals and ooze colored pus, spindly limbs writhing and thrashing and eventually folding inward, as if in one last prayer.

He liked to imagine that they were pleading for mercy, like evil trolls that princes slew for the sake of their intended. And Rachel would thank him just like the princess she was—arms thrown around his neck and lips lingering against his cheek.

At first, he'd only crushed the spiders that he had found inside the house, hiding in the corners with their cobwebs and their eight omniscient eyes. But soon that wasn't enough; his feet itched to stomp, to feel something shatter and crumble beneath his sole. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust— he wanted to be the one who started the fire. To fan the flames of destruction, demolition. Even if it was only the damnation of spiders…

And so he had taken to hunting them. He'd find them loitering in the bushes, or suspended in the hammock of their silk-spun homes. Sometimes, when the need was strong enough, he'd murder them (no, they were just spiders—it wasn't 'murder' if they were just spiders) right there, oh yes, relish the swiftness and suddenness of it all, and then spend the rest of the day desperately plucking translucent threads from his clothes, as if the sticky residue would tattle to the world about what he'd done. Other times, when he felt like prolonging his pleasure, he'd adopt an unlucky arachnid: place it in the small tub that he kept in his room, decorated with twigs and uprooted grass. For a day or two, perhaps a week—or even a month, once, with a beautiful creature of olive and yellow— he would care for the spider. He'd bring it dead flies that he found on the windowsill, watch it crochet its milk-white doilies, bequeath it with a name and sometimes even play with it, as if it were a precious pet.

Then, when Marie-Albert-Nathaniel-Kathryn-Jacob-Beth-Claude-Courtney (and so many others that he had long-since forgotten what he'd called them) were least expecting it, he would turn them into a twitching streak of broken skin against the bottom of the pail, nothing more than a drying smear and a spray of dislocated limbs.

Sometimes, he wondered if humans were as beautiful when they lay in dismembered chunks upon the floor.

Other times, he'd throw up in the twig-bedecked bucket and wonder what was wrong with him.

But still, it all felt so perfectly natural that he couldn't stop himself—couldn't resist. And when Rachel would see what he'd done for her, when her blue, blue eyes would shine like Heaven and she's kiss him with her cotton-candy mouth, he couldn't remember why he'd wanted to.

At first, he had only crushed spiders. But then— one muggy summer day in the latest part of August— the neighbor's nasty dog had taken a snap at his sister. In the aftermath of the beast's feral assault, Rachel's skinny arm had looked more like a shredded sleeve than an appendage. There were as many tears as there were tears, and the doctor had proclaimed that she needed to be stitched back together, as if she were a rag doll. His precious doll… tattered. Damaged. Scarred. Even after returning home from the hospital, little Rachel had not been healed; she had sobbed all night, because it hurt, and she was scared, and now her arm was in a sling… and he had thought it only fair that the dog's owner have a good cry, too, since reciprocity was important.

So on the night that August became September, he ripped the mangy creature limb from fucking limb. Ripped and shredded and hacked until his nails were caked in flesh and fluid and coarse, chocolate fur, tongue lolled and panting as if he were a canine himself. Beneath his sodden fingers, the grass was dyed as red as the apples in the tree backyard, boughs heavy with nearly-ripe fruit and a single, silent crow, almost indistinguishable from the darkness itself.

He felt himself smile, relishing the refreshing scent of rust amidst the rolling waves of fine, pink mist.

He felt himself smile, and the cogs in his head began to spin—pondering the differences between spiders and dogs, arachnids and woman, canines and man, and really, weren't we all just animals in the end? Blood and organs and brains and bones wrapped up in sheets of membrane and tissue. The packaging was different, but the insides were the same; if killing spiders was okay, then shouldn't it be just as okay to kill dogs? To kill humans?

To kill humans…

The boy leisurely licked his lips, red tongue all the redder in the wake of settled crimson vapor.

And for the briefest of instants, his pupils seemed as sharp as his smirk.

X

They sat together on her bed, side by side and somber. Atop her leg, a comforting hand lay; atop her desk, a deriding gaze radiated. Rachel did her best to focus on the first and ignore the second, but the signals must have mixed in her mind; she wound up doing exactly the opposite, flinching every time Sebastian beat his wings.

"You don't want to… um, go to the doctor's and… I didn't think so. No, that's good, that's good…" her brother coughed awkwardly, but did, in fact, look slightly relieved. He gave her knee a heartening squeeze, anyway. "I agree. But I thought… well."

He didn't need to continue; she knew what he thought. They often knew what the other thought. But sometimes, it was still better to hear things said aloud, and this was most certainly one of those times—even if every word he spoke was graveled and gruff, overflowing with guilt.

"We could… run away," Vincent eventually suggested, almost inaudible. After an hour and a half of apologies and tears, he'd nearly lost his voice entirely; still, he was faring far better than his sister. The passing of time had yet to corrode away the terror that had coagulated in her throat like a ball of viscous glue, blockading any responses she might have wanted to express. But though she was unable to move her mouth, she was having no troubles with her neck: she shook her head no, and he needed no explanation why.

He knew.

X

She supposed she should have been frightened the first time her pet bird spoke. When otherworldly curdles of fetid miasma swirled and spiraled from his falling feathers, she should have screamed— should have tried to run from the maw-like abyss of the room, transmuted into a midnight-hued hellhound as her furniture creaked and shuddered, groaning like the hinges of a carnivore's jaw.

But Rachel had never much cared for histrionics. Admittedly, the transformation had startled her; half-muffled pleads and sniffled desires had never before instilled such a change in her companion, so she felt she had the right to be a bit taken aback. Even still, there was no need to exacerbate the situation with shrill shrieks or the like. Instead, she turned the page of the poetry book she'd been using to muffle her cries, hiccupped once, and hoarsely quoted:

"`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore.'"

The quotation birthed amusement— lips curling up under his eyes as the ground beneath them pulsated, rumbling out a sonorous sort of chuckle. With the sound of flapping wings, he perched prettily upon the ledge of Rachel's desk: lissome legs looped and china face angled. The mutated blackbird then greeted his cage's keeper with a gentleman's unctuous chortle, and answered in kind.

"You may call me Sebastian, if it pleases," the ominous creature informed her, teeth as white as corpse bones and smile as wide as a skull's. As he spoke, his incisors clattered like wooden chimes, and Rachel found their hungry song oddly soothing— lulling and saccharine, like the scent of squalid toffees and white chrysanthemum that drifted from the chasm of his copper-colored mouth. "But the more important question is, what shall I call you?"

The shuffling of ink-covered parchment; the dull thud of cardboard covers. "What do you mean?" the girl asked quietly, in a voice as reed-thin as the shifting of her papers. The monster, too, shifted, sidled: readjusted his willowy body, twining like a wisp of smoke around her shoulders, neck, mind.

"I am asking if you meant what you said," Sebastian purred, clock-spring lashes fluttering against the sweep of her throat. Beneath the tips of printless fingers— their whorl-swirl patterns exfoliated away by the blasting sands of Time— the demon could feel a second set of lowered lashes quiver, trembling like a frightened moth caught within in a woven web. "For the proper price, I can do all that thy ask and more— your wish will be my command, as they say."

Beads of tepid aquamarine squeezed between darkness-decorated digits; tremors dislodged and burst the salty diamond droplets, even as thin inhalations deepened, steadied, calmed. Rachel quavered beneath Sebastian's ginger touch, but she did not pull away… Did not struggle, or panic, or rebel against the blackness that he forced upon her. Rather, sightlessness seemed to sooth her; nothingness was a respite. She soon relaxed fully against a plumaged chest, relishing the feel of the hand that caressed her tangled golden tresses.

"Mistress…?"

She jerked, she twitched. The reaction was faint and instinctual, but enough of a nod to make the devil grin.

"Tell me your desire."

A shaky breath, wet and raspy. Lips pursed, puckered, prepared… When Rachel next opened her pliable little mouth, strands of saliva tried to sew it back shut, tried to force her to swallow her cravings— but the intensity of her yearnings snapped the stringy threads in two, melting them like icicles in spring. "I don't want to be alone… it scares me so…" she husked, hands twining insistently around the demon's slender fingers, holding them urgently in place.

He stiffened against her, hardly believing his ears. Could it be…? No, it couldn't— but then, once again, she ordered: "Don't ever let me be alone…!"

Finally…!

An excited gasp, a barely-suppressed moan. Exuberant laughter bubbled from somewhere down below, with the sound of molasses foaming over in a witch's caldron: frothing, boiling, sin-black and treacle-sweet. The resonance of the candied chuckles collected as sensation between tangled limbs, fingers, toes; the feeling of entrapment returned— stuck in layers of glue and sinew, dangling like a sugar-spun puppet, brittle and bound. A pretty white pawn.

And as he pressed an open kiss to the wingless blade of her back, Sebastian keened a reverential:

"As you wish."

X

He had killed spiders before. So many skittering, scrabbling, ball-joined spiders. After the spiders, he'd mutilated dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rats; once he'd eviscerated a baby squirrel he'd found curled up in a gap in the backyard apple tree, slate-gray and sleeping. And when his mother and father had found him—their own baby squirrel, slate-gray in the moonlight of his sleeping sister's room— he'd killed them, too, just in case. He didn't need their looks of shame, of disgust, of horror. But while he didn't care what they thought, there was one opinion that would always matter… So, with a book in one hand and a butcher knife in the other, he had used their scattered vestiges to purchase some insurance.

But it was all for naught, it seemed.

"Rachel!"

The name slid from his lips like the blood that dripped between her own, slipping down her chin in spittle-slickened ropes. It burbled, it bubbled; it trickled from the wooden stamen of the handle. And all around the razor of the would-be pistil, delicate petals of sultry scarlet emerged, budded, and flowered, blossoming like a summer rose against the insipid expanse of an oversized nightshirt.

A gaping mouth sucked down a rattled gasp; two open eyes gawked pleadingly upward, cloudy and wet behind a film of searing tears. But though the haze made it difficult, sight hadn't left her. Not yet, anyway— while strength and fluids were fickle and flighty, her senses were still her own. For at least a moment longer… and a moment was all it took to see, hiding in the gloom of an unbuttoned collar, a thorny ring so black that it almost looked as if there were a cavity in her sibling's chest. In the most lucid part of her mind, Rachel wondered what had once resided there. A heart? A soul?

A soul…

"Big brother…"

Gummy claret hands trembled and twitched, reaching out to cling to the folds of a neatly pressed shirt, but she found that she could no longer move the bones in her fingers. Instead, the girl's straining digits left slithered prints of maroon down the pale length of his front, like the streaked remains of spider guts.

He watched soundlessly as her jerking knees caved beneath her, unable to do anything more than gape…

"Big brother…" Rachel whispered again, and with the same numbing abruptness as his initial mental blackout, the sound of her voice broke through the shade of surrealism. She offered a comforting grin when his expression swiftly snapped— tears welling and rolling like bile down a blade as muttered hisses of despondence and desperation congested in his throat, nearly strangling him. "I guess I… I couldn't save either of you, huh…?" She giggled feebly, forlornly, as her gaze slid to the crumpled corpse behind her. But nighttime was already falling, starless and cold— the darkness rising and the shadows growing long, blurring the world behind her pupils. And it was just as well, really, because Rachel was already so tired… so tired. "I'm sorry… I was so selfish. I knew how you felt but I… I…"

A garbled cough; the girl's lungs were full of more mucus than oxygen, and she was drowning in the misplaced liquid. Still, she swallowed thickly, and forced the vomit back down and what she needed to say out. "All the… same…" Rachel continued, the words barely more than a butterfly breath now, fluttering like her lashes against the fine hairs of his cheek. "I love you, too… Edgar…"

And with a final, wavered smile, her body shuddered to a still.

"…Rachel?"

It was no use. He knew that. Consciously, he knew that. He'd seen enough ruined marionettes to recognize when the breath of life had left them, when they were nothing more than sacks of meat and filth and worms. But this was different—this was Rachel—and so he surrendered to the basest of human stupidities, shaking her limpid carcass as if that might revive her. As if she was only asleep.

"Rachel…!"

Within the dyed cradle of Edgar's shivering arms, the broken blonde remained motionless: a half-torn rag doll with glassy marbles eyes. Cerulean. Vacant.

"Rachel—!"

"And so it ends at last."

Edgar stiffened, straightened. From his undignified crouch upon the red-washed floor, he slowly turned around—each hollow bone in his long, lean neck working independently, mechanically. With stunted clicks and clacks, cracks and creaks; he was as much a puppet, he realized then, as any other putrid mortal eking out an existence on this filthy, maggot-ridden planet.

And the creature looming before him held every single string.

"How long ago we met," Sebastian mused, standing tall atop the mahogany desk— like a player on the stage— with a dented golden cage beneath the ball of his booted foot. With a cheerful chuckle, he kicked the gilded jail against the plaster of the far wall, delighting in the screeching clatter of bending tin. "Do you remember that day, my lord? When you sold your soul to me in exchange for your sister's lifelong affection?" The devil leered, and with the rising moon behind his back it was almost impossible to see his face… but through the murky blackness of the bedroom his ivory teeth twinkled, shimmering in the shallow pools of luminescent mercury that gathered atop every flattened surface. "I must admit, you were the easiest master I have ever been made to serve. Naive little Rachel cared about you from the start, the poor dear; I never even had to do anything."

"Liar!" It was an impulsive shriek, unexpected and horrifyingly feminine. The young man clutched Rachel's remnants ever-closer to his chest, puffy, bulbous eyes glaring like a toddler mid-tantrum. "She… she never loved me like she did Vincent!"

The demon did not deny this. Rather, he acknowledged. "Maybe so," he said evenly, entirely unfazed by the vials of vicious venom that had exacerbated his charge's revulsion -filled glower. "But you never specified what type of love you were looking for, now, did you?"

Edgar's chapped lips parted, teeth clenched and bared… but could think of nothing to say in response to this. Due in great part, he was sure, to the fact that the monster was damnably right—a fact that they were both well aware of.

With a lazy shrug, Sebastian arched a graceful leap from the low writing table, impossibly-thin heels making nary-a-sound against the plush of the sodden carpet. "Though it is a pity," he mulled in afterthought, pausing to regard the cooling cadaver of a dark-haired boy, mouth still formed around a pained confession and a 'brother-what-are-you-doing?' "It is said that twins were lovers in a past life. Lovers whose feelings were so intense, they were born together in this. To feel so passionately and to have been born as siblings… God is terribly cruel, isn't He?"

For a single moment—a moment so fleeting that it was almost as if it had never been— the window of the demon's gaze was thrown open, exposing the emotions that he normally kept so carefully curtained. Discomfort, longing, regret… With a brush of clawed fingers, he lowered flimsy flaps of flesh over disturbingly familiar eyes. There was still a soul quietly pulsing beneath the chilled membrane of Vincent's tarnished skin, rising closer and close to the surface; Sebastian could feel it vibrate beneath his fingertips: little bubbles of light and memory that he had no claim to, and so he left the meal alone. Let the reapers have their way with one, whenever they decided to appear.

"And on the subject of cruelty…"

The demon smirked around a pretty sigh, delicate and cold as a flurry of crystalline snowflakes. Through the growing shroud of darkness, his eyes radiated a wintery light: bitterly blue despite the crisscrossed mesh of tired red veins that had added cobwebs to the whites of his eyes. "For what it's worth, I am sorry," Sebastian murmured, brow knotted up in an expression of (what almost looked like) pity. "For helping you Descend, that is. Though I am surprised; at times, I wondered if you had inherited enough wickedness to do so. Yet here we are…" Another lackadaisical exhale, whistling through his parted maw. "What a waste," he mumbled—seemingly to himself, for his head was cocked in just-such-a-way so as to exude an aura of intense contemplation. "And to think, I did not really need you. But how was I to know? Even after all these years, I've had no example to follow but his… I assumed you might be necessary, in some way. Why else would I have been born? But no… Who'd have thought that all I needed was to find someone as desperate as myself?"

He chuckled then, sour and soft, and the sound of it hissed through the room like spilling acid, spitting and bubbling and frothing in the space the lingered between them. The space that was gradually lessening: with each passing minute and each noiseless footstep. Soon, Sebastian was towering directly above the still-slouched Halfling, watching him shiver with downcast eyes.

"Hey," the devil prompted then— and had he not been so distraught, distracted by his own turbulent emotions— Edgar might have noticed (again) how strangely human Sebastian looked in that instant: weary and frustrated beneath the gauzy façade of current excitement. "Did you know, my lord? Demons cannot die of natural causes."

Whether he knew this or not, Edgar didn't seem to be listening, the rude little thing; he'd dedicated all of his focus to the carcass of his sister, holding to it as if it were a lifeline. The monster allowed himself a minute to appreciate that irony before pressing on, though his azure stare remained locked upon the motionless face that, from certain angles, was just as distressingly familiar as her twin's.

"Obviously we cannot die of old age," Sebastian persisted, the barest hint of humor in his lilted, explanatory tone, "Nor of sickness, nor of wounds. Accidentally or purposefully inflicted," he added, and for a thoughtless instant he began to rub at an unseen spot upon his chest, cloaked beneath veils of leather and blackness… but he soon remembered himself and forced his fingers still. "Can you possibly imagine the agony of such a fate? Can you even try? To have so little control over your own body…? Well, perhaps you can…"

The demon laughed again, though this time the sound was hollow and acrimonious; he tore his gaze away from Rachel, shooting Edgar a mocking sneer instead. "In light of recent events, I mean. And if you do not yet, I am certain you soon will."

With that, he lowered himself into a stoop similar to Edgar's, reaching out to touch the yawning expanse of Rachel's shredded stomach. Instinctively, the Halfling tried to pull her away, tried to shield her from view, but the demon was too quick, and her dead weight too heavy; Sebastian plucked something small and glinting from the surface of her womb, regarding its opalescent sheen with a general air of indolence. In his grasp, the underdeveloped soul wriggled like a worm, squiggled and squirmed. In his nostrils, the scent of it lingered… and from its stench, he could tell that the adage about twins was only just that. But still…

"Wh—what are you doing…?"

Still.

"Stay back! Leave her be—!"

"I am afraid I cannot do that, master," Sebastian happily informed, lifting his right hand to display its paste-gray backside. Already, the seal of their pact was disintegrating, flaking away into ashy nothingness. (Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.) "Our Contract is at its end; I've no reason to listen to your demands anymore. However, the mistress has ordered that I never let her be alone, and so I have one last task to complete before I take both her soul, and your own."

And indeed, when he lifted his left, the pallid skin of its silken back still bore the unholy emblem of a second covenant. Raw power thrummed through its barbed lines, crackling almost-audibly in the electric hush. "I could misinterpret her wish, if I wanted," the devil murmured distantly, as if in answer to an unasked question. (And perhaps it was. Or would be.) Around the words, his jaw creaked in preparation for a meal, but the gesture seemed more habitual than honest. "Consuming her spirit is, technically, more than enough to fulfill the terms of our agreement. But that would go against everything that I have been working for. Maybe you will understand, someday… or maybe you won't."

His lissome digits were reaching out again— gradually, leisurely— a sluggish swoop of avian talons seeking out a meal. And he could have moved faster, of course; could have snapped Edgar's fragile neck with instantaneous ease, could have stolen Rachel's soul before the Halfling had a chance to blink…

But (as he'd said) that would go against everything that he had been working for. And it hardly mattered either way, for both of the children's essences would find their way to him, in the end. He knew that from experience.

So when the knife sunk into his chest, he did not resist. Rather, he relished the vicious abruptness— stunted, staccato bursts of strength that (at first) failed to crack the cage of his ribs, but try, try again the boy did… and with a helpful thrust from his victim, the blade broke messily through: tore apart muscle and ligaments and tissue and decomposing organs and finally, finally…!

The twice-used knife clattered dully against the floor; Sebastian allowed himself to do the same. And all the while, the panicked Halfling hacked at him—feet, free hand, nails, recaptured blade—howling and snarling like the hellborn creature that he was fast becoming.

"You can't have her!" Edgar screeched, over and over, over and over. With each throat-ripping echo, his auburn irises fissured more and more— glittering like mirror shards as his pupils waned to slits, and his shadow began to blister, boil, and sputter upon the walls. And as miasma clawed at peeling scraps of paint and spiraled up warped, winding legs, the demon found himself remembering—how much it had hurt, how hard he had screamed, how the vine-thin wisps of congealed and clotted Evil had stolen from him all that he had, even after he'd thought that he had nothing left to give. Even after he'd thought that the game was over…

But hadn't he been the one to say it? Life was not like chess. It didn't matter if the Knight fell or if the King lived, because this wasn't about knights or kings or rooks or pawns. This was about…

About…

The collapsed demon thrashed and contorted, seizing as he felt his bowed spine shatter— smashed into a million fragmented pieces by a well-placed, lashing kick. His back was full of holes, his fossilizing feathers molting. A gurgled cough, a crackled wheeze; petrified lungs hardened to stone as once-luminous eyes winked out, the lights behind them snuffed.

But all the while, the murdered monster smiled.

"Ready... or not…" he couldn't help but whisper, giggling around a foaming spray of saliva and a mouthful of metallic scarlet. "Sebastian…"

And with a last, contented sigh, Ciel fell asleep.

XXX

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XXX

The world that he had always known had been a dark place— monochrome and murky. Despite the rainbow wash of color that tried to conceal the grime and filth of residual humanity, he had never failed to see the earth for what it was beneath its candy-coated surface: black. Endlessly, eternally, damnably black, and as a demon his form-wings-aura had reflected as much, for humans were always drawn to the familiar. Trusted what they understood.

The world that he had always known had been a dark place— the world of white in which he awoke was its polar opposite. Inverted upon itself. Where the realm above had been cluttered and messy, this one was empty, orderly. Where the other plane had forever simmered and stewed with passion, hatred, lust, and vices, vices, vices (sizzling through the effluence-tainted air like waves of radiation), this one was calm. Serene. Silent. And where his former residence had lacked any traces of his long-perished servant, in this place…

in this place…

"…what is this place?" Ciel asked quietly, the tripping question reverberating oddly through the strange chasm of paleness, like the wuthering of his homeland's gnarled moors. "Where am I?"

"You are inside of me."

Despite himself—despite the situation—the child couldn't manage to smother a sardonic snort. "That's a first," he droned, and his ears pinked a little when a second, tinkling chortle joined his own.

"You are inside of me, and I am inside of the one who sired me, and she is inside of her forbearer, and she is inside of hers, and so on, and so forth."

Ciel considered this slightly more informative explanation, forehead furrowing as he mentally followed the long chain of ancestry back, back, back… "Indefinitely?" he mused aloud. But even as the word jumped from his lips, he knew it was erroneous, for no— nothing went on forever. And that was the beauty of it all.

"Back to the Beginning. Good and evil cannot exist without the other, you realize. They are entities sprouted from the same kernel, and thus, are one in the same, at their core. Thus, in death, so are we."

Another pause for pondering.

"…so I am to be stuck here with you, then?" the boy paraphrased. And no— that was not a lump in his throat. There was no lump in his throat. Or at least there wouldn't be, once he'd swallowed it back down... He did so with a refined sort of sniff, aristocratic fist rubbing beneath a sophisticated nose. "Until we reach the End?"

"Yes."

A measured exhalation, relief mixed with contempt. "…that is, indeed," he feebly decreed, "Heaven and Hell."

Another chuckle, velveteen and genial. The sound of it wrapped around him like a blanket, comforting and snug; when Ciel next glanced upward, the creature before him— tall, debonair, bedecked in a reflection of his own demonic apparel, a blemish of black against all of the blinding white— offered a gentle, genuine smile. Silk-spun locks of deepest ebony shifted as a pretty head tilted, framing ruby eyes that glistened with predilection, empathy.

"And what sort of parent would I be," Sebastian playfully chided, an onyx-tipped hand pressed flush against his breast, "if I couldn't offer my son the very best of both?"

It was too much.

With a gushed gasp— thick and wet and half-wedged somewhere within his esophagus— Ciel toppled forward in mimicry of that hand: buried his face in Sebastian's chest with a soundless, sullen snarl. "You were the worst," the boy vehemently growled, balled hands hit-smack-pounding against the other's sturdy torso— as pathetic as a butterfly drumming itself against concrete. "The very worst!"

A snort.

"Now, now," Sebastian smoothly interjected, his tone tinted more by humor than indignation as he watched the small boy hammer relentlessly—if weakly— against the flat of his ribcage. "Is that an entirely fair assessment to make, my lord? You were not a particularly good parent, yourself."

Ciel choked on a second, snotty hiccup, glowering up at his sire through the quaking fan of his lashes. "Maybe I didn't want him to miss me," he rasped in retort, throaty voice trembling like his arms, like his legs. And the tumultuous shaking loosened more than just his lips: against the elder demon's chest, the seed-like round of the teen's fists were changing, sprouting— fingers creeping outward, blossoming into five-petaled flowers that scrabbled against the fabric of Sebastian's torso, clinging like ivy.

And the convulsing- clutching- confessing made the other's grin widen.

"Oh?" he purred, running his own willowy fingers through his little one's moonstone hair. "Didn't want him to miss you? What exactly are you trying to say, young master?" Sebastian husked, smiling all the more when cotton-down puffs of saline-scented air began tickling against his breastbone, as blisteringly hot as the bubbled beads of water that sprung beneath his charge's eyelids.

"Shut up," Ciel snapped, the abrasive command splintering as his reedy demands ruptured, and tears broke through the dam of pride that had corroded away after centuries, centuries, centuries… "Just… just sh- shut up…!"

It wasn't really an order (not a proper one, anyway) and it wouldn't have mattered if it had been… but all the same, Sebastian obeyed: silently stroked the child's shuddering crown, head, and shoulders as his petite body was racked by bitter sobs, knees buckling and nose running and eyes as red as his creator's, now, but for different reasons all together.

"You…" Ciel hissed, shaking his head back and fore, back and fore, as if in revulsion, even as he scrambled for further purchase against Sebastian's front. His nails had almost bitten through the cloth of his companion's top. "I n- never… forgave you… you b-bastard…"

A honeyed hum, soothing and sympathetic. "I know."

"And I… I never…" the boy spat, spewing out acerbic words that burnt his tongue and eyes and stomach and the place-just-above it, a place that he didn't want to name, "Never… not for one second… forgot you…"

Sebastian nodded wisely, still caressing the feathery down of his charge's fine locks. "Because to forget is to forgive, is that not so?" the once-butler murmured, slender arms enveloping the snuffling once-human. Said creature nodded crisply, soundlessly, as if his attendant was not worthy of a verbal response. "Indeed… but I have been wondering, my lord," the elder thus continued, pulling away just-enough to meet his child's glazed, glaring eyes. Undaunted, his tranquil beam remained; Sebastian allowed his drifting fingers the pleasure of pushing unruly bangs behind pierced ears. "If forgetting is forgiving, then what is remembering, precisely?"

A scowl. "They mean the same."

"Not so," the other immediately corrected, enigmatic as always. "It is one thing to be unable to forget a wrong done to you— it is another matter entirely to purposefully remember something, don't you agree?"

His nose dipped downward, brushing against the fledgling's: a mouthless kiss that ached of an innocent affection 'til-then unknown. "You cannot lie to me, my lord. We are one in this place, just as we have always been. It is true that you never forgot, that you never forgave, but you also remembered, didn't you? Happy times, moments of laughter… glances that we exchanged, jokes that we made. The touch of my hand atop yours, the scent of my clothes and the heat of my skin. Irrelevant niceties, better lost than reflected upon… particularly in the wake of my crimes. And yet, you treasured those details, built yourself up around them. Clung to them just as much as you did your anger. And do you know why?"

Ciel's face was trapped between two palms, now: temperate and tender and tilting his chin upward, keeping the whole of his body at bay. But though he could not physically flee, could not even hide the tinge of cherry-pink that was seeping up the pale of his neck, he managed, at least, to tear away his gaze—staring sidelong into nothingness as he grumbled a petulant, "No, I don't."

But Sebastian wasn't fooled. Sebastian was never fooled. "Yes, you do," he chuckled, moving his hands so that Ciel had no choice but to look his way once more. "I know why, so you must, too."

"Well, I'm not going to say it, if that's what you're after," the younger one bit through gritted teeth, huffing all the more when the satin pad of a clawed thumb dabbed away the last of his pearly tears, drying swollen eyes with an innocuous sweep of parted lips. Another quiet laugh, as soft in Ciel's ears as the arms that— once again— folded around his being, pulling him close, close, close.

"Have you ever needed to before?"

It was warm in Sebastian's sheltering embrace—familiar and cocooning, like a nest he'd left too soon. And though the baby bird would never say so (never, ever, ever), Ciel relished the welcoming sensation of protection that had (re)enveloped him, shielding him from every other thought, every other feeling, everything and everyone. He made not a single sound of protest when the other bent momentarily low, hooking an elbow beneath his knees and hoisting him easily upward—just as he'd done so often so many years ago…

"Well then," the child's ancient servant thus proclaimed, in a teasing tone to match his mischievous smirk. "What game shall we two play next, my lord?"

Oh…

In answer, the boy's head fell, heavy and worn, against the crook of his elder's collar. And though he managed to croon a respondent giggle, his body ached with an exhaustion that was near-palpable … "If it's all the same to you," Ciel said wearily, twisting his face into the sweet-scented flesh of his butler's exposed nape, "I've had my fill of games, for now. All I want is to do is rest for a while… Just a little while…"

The fingers fisted again, needy and weak.

Sebastian, in turn, smiled. Nuzzled closer. Sucked in a calming, steady breath, relishing scents and sounds and sensations that he hadn't experienced in so, so long... Were you lonely without me? Yes, as I had been before you. "Then you may do so," he whispered into wisps of hoary hair, hands tightening ever-so-slightly around elegant, twining limbs. "Sleep. For as long as you'd like, Ciel."

Charcoal lashes lowered, heavy with sea salt and leadened under layers of ash and fatigue. Behind those paper-thin lids, the vibrant world of whiteness softened, dulled: faded to a peaceful silver… a cozy gray… an inviting black.

"Goodnight… father."

And the two who were one became nothing.

XXX