Within the sprawling grounds of the Phantomhive estate on the edge of London is the plot of land where the family still buries its own. While many of the great houses of Britain have faded in power, prestige and influence, selling off ancestral homes and land for badly needed money, the Winterbourns thrive.
All the property, wealth and titles they wish to keep have been kept. The old manor is still in excellent condition. Though it is no longer surrounded on all sides by thick forest, it retains its mysterious, grand and intimidating air to those who come upon it for the first time. A Countess of Phantomhive resides here, the latest in a long line of aristocrats who have held the title. Most of her children and grandchildren live with her or visit often.
All the graves here receive visitors regularly, for the family remembers its history and keeps it close to their hearts. The Winterbourns walk out here together on significant dates to pay their respects to those who came and went before them. The headstones are always clean, the grass neat, and the flowers beautiful – one of their many gardeners is dedicated to the job. The smaller Winterbourn children sometimes play amongst the stone and marble markers, bringing their laughter and cheer to the resting places of their ancestors, who for too long had little to laugh about.
One of the most striking headstones, tall and elegant in black marble with gold lettering, reads:
Fifteenth Earl of Phantomhive
Born 14th December 1875
Beloved husband, father, friend and companion.
"I repent of nothing."
It is remarkable not only for its beauty and defiant words, but also because it does not bear a date of death. And the family remembers through the stories it tells from one generation to the next that this particular resting place was remarkable for a variety of other reasons too.
First, it is common knowledge that there is another headstone beneath the one above the ground. It also bears Ciel's name, but it gives December 1885 as the date of his passing. The history of that buried headstone is well-known even beyond the family circle: when Ciel Phantomhive was a child, he had been thought killed by those who had murdered his parents, his small body lost forever in a terrible inferno that engulfed the manor. The stone marker had been erected beside the graves of his parents.
But the child had returned alive a month later, having escaped from his kidnappers, with a black-clad butler by his side. Some time in the years that followed, the premature grave marker was removed and put away.
Then there was the matter of the present black-marble headstone having been erected in 1926, with the first three lines beautifully chiselled into the stone, leaving an empty space below, as if waiting for more to come. The earl was said to have died while travelling abroad, and his ashes returned to his family. But those who are old enough to remember will recall how, despite this earl having been deeply loved by his wife, children, friends and servants, there appeared to be little mourning in 1926 when the headstone was put up and the ashes interred.
His countess, Lady Elizabeth, was often seen walking out to the grave and tarrying there, but with a gentle smile, sometimes touching her fingers to the stone. His children, too, were often seen speaking with their mother there, calm and smiling; and his staff, many of whom were known for being emotional, were seen to pat the stone cheerfully, for nearly thirty years after it was put up.
Another remarkable anecdote associated with the earl and the headstone was that his steward, Sebastian Michaelis, perhaps the person closest to him, was rarely seen to visit the grave after the funeral. On those few occasions that he did, he was always in the company of another man whose face was obscured by a hat and scarf. Those close enough to see might have seen that the mysterious man accompanying the steward had eyes of the deepest blue, like a forest reflected in a calm ocean. But the only ones near enough to see were family and dearest friends, who would not talk.
Even if they would talk, there would be so much they could not tell, so much that was private and secret between Ciel Winterbourn and the one he most loved.
These are but a few of the tales that will never be told in their entirety by anyone from or close to the family.
The earl loves being dressed by his demon, even though he is perfectly capable of dressing himself. Unlike an ordinary valet, Sebastian is his lover and companion, so Ciel can lean in for a kiss as he knots his cravat, buttons his waistcoat or secures his pins. The devil is always pleased to kiss him back, and hold him when he simply wants to be held. Sometimes they have to dress him all over again, on those mornings when they tumble back into bed and undo everything that has been buttoned and knotted.
There is no laughter and teasing or lovemaking today, however, because it is January in the year 1901, and Queen Victoria is dead. Great Britain is in mourning.
"I'm going to miss her, although she made my life miserable sometimes," Ciel sighs as Sebastian helps him secure his cuffs. "But it's Tanaka I really miss."
For old Tanaka has finally given up the ghost. He passed away in some physical pain but in mental and spiritual peace a week ago, requesting that he be cremated, and his ashes scattered over the grounds of the estate.
"I know, Young Master," the devil replies softly, straightening a crease in the left sleeve of the earl's pure-white, fine-wool coat. The queen had instructed, before her death, that everyone should wear white at her funeral.
Ciel reaches out with his right hand and strokes the lapel of Sebastian's coat, as if adjusting it. Of course it is impeccably in place and spotless, so there is nothing to adjust. But the demon understands his smallest gestures by now, even the most insignificant of them. He understands that Ciel always needs time to ease into a position of vulnerability with him, because in all other arenas of his life, he is the leader, the father, the husband, the ruthless aristocrat who does not hold back when required to keep family, throne and country safe.
Knowing his unsettled feelings at this time of change and loss, Sebastian strokes his cheek gently, letting him know through his touch that he can discard his other roles here. At once, Ciel responds to the touch, nestles into him, wraps his arms about him, and rests his head on his shoulder, breathing in the devilish scent only he can detect, taking comfort in the familiarity, the protection, the immense love that has never spoken its name, but which they both understand intimately.
It does not seem so very long before they are again facing each other in a similar situation, but in fact, nine years have flown by, and it is now King Edward VII who has passed away. Disapproved of in his younger days, but genuinely loved by the people since ascending to the throne, he is truly mourned.
Ciel does not know of the things that took place behind the scenes, but Sebastian does, for he had a hand in reminding the king of his promises. And the king remembered. Some months before his death, while recovering from a bronchial infection, the king spoke privately with his surviving son, George, and revealed secrets to him that the prince would always remember.
Edward was close to George, and had always been pleased that they could speak like friends and brothers rather than an authoritarian father and submissive son; he would not have wanted the distance between them to be like that which had existed between himself and his mother.
"We who have ruled England for hundreds of years did the Phantomhives a terrible wrong a long time ago, George," the king said.
"What do you mean, Father?" George asked affectionately, adjusting the duvet over the king's chest.
"Things beyond my knowledge nearly all my life are now within my power to rectify. Centuries ago, magic was performed – don't laugh, it is true, I only learnt the truth a few years ago – magic was performed to ensure that the Phantomhives would always serve us, the rulers of England, but never become powerful enough to challenge us. The magic unfortunately worked by decimating them at regular intervals. Thank God, the spell has been undone, but they remain chained to us – and I speak broadly of 'us' as the kings and queens of this island – to us, who did that wrong against them. The leash that binds them is passed down from sovereign to sovereign, but I shall not hand it to you. It is time to let them be, time to let them do what good or evil they do, without being chained to us any more than any other title of the peerage is."
"I don't know if I really understand all this, Father, but I know you have carefully considered it, and I accept whatever you have to do," was Prince George's sensible reply.
So there and then, Edward VII burnt the papers which spelt out the instructions for how the monarchs of England could affect the fate of the Phantomhives through means beyond politics and human power.
Ciel and his children were finally uncollared, freed from the very last vestige of the spell.
"Protect them if you can, to make up for the injustice they suffered in the shadow of the throne all these generations," said the king to his heir. "But to tell you truly, I do not know if you can even protect yourself. The way things are going in Europe… with Germany and her allies… there will soon be a great war. I wish it would not come in your time, but I fear it will."
Ciel does not know of all this which happened months ago while feeling deeply the loss of this king who has been very good to him and his family. But Sebastian knows, and he holds the earl as he did nine years ago, giving him strength and comfort, while also drawing from him the affection and intimacy that the devil so enjoys.
"You are free, do you know that?" Sebastian asks gently, stroking his back.
"I don't know what you've done," Ciel murmurs against his neck. "But if you say I am, I know I am. Just promise me that you have done nothing this time that will bring any harm to you."
"I promise, Young Master."
"Don't you think it's time you stopped calling me that? I'm almost thirty-five years old."
"If it suits your dignity better, I shall stop addressing you thus," Sebastian smiles. "But you will always be my 'Young Master' to me."
Drawing his head off his shoulder to kiss his lover, Ciel smiles back and whispers huskily: "You can call me whatever you like."
"Yes, my lord."
"Say my name."
And there in the midst of mourning and death, is a moment of tenderness that sustains them both.
It is 1914. Despair and fear have stolen into the Winterbourn and Midford households, as the eighteen-year-old Vincent Winterbourn and his cousins of sixteen and seventeen, Alex and Eddie Midford, declare that they will go to war now that hostilities have broken out between Great Britain and Germany. Alex and Eddie are not yet old enough, but they will be soon. Vincent is already of age, and he is adamant.
"Thousands of men have joined up, Mother," Vincent protests, when the countess tells him that he is not to think of anything foolish unless conscription is enforced.
"Vincent, for his own reasons, the king has strongly recommended that no one from the house of Phantomhive be called up," Elizabeth tells him firmly. "Our house works so closely with the royal family and with Scotland Yard on domestic matters that we are needed here – you are needed here. The crown knows it, and the army knows it. No one expects you to go."
His green eyes – as brilliant as his mother's, and as keen as his father's – flash angrily as he answers: "Am I to sit at home like a coward while my friends from university go to war? While common men and noblemen alike prepare to fight for our country? Even the Prince of Wales has joined the Army, and the Duke of York is commissioned in the Navy! I could not live with myself if the king's own sons go to war and I do not because of some special Phantomhive exemption!"
Ciel and his daughter Rachel are thoughtfully silent throughout most of this exchange between the countess and the young viscount, but when a pause comes in the fierce firing of words between a determined Elizabeth and an obstinate Vincent, the earl speaks:
"You are of age, and I will not stop you from joining up if you are bent on it. I myself could not be talked out of a course I had determined when I was your age or younger. But if you go, I want you to go knowing that should you be killed in battle, your mother is likely never to recover from the blow of losing another child, do you understand?"
For Elizabeth and Ciel have endured the grief of losing their third child, a daughter, named Alice after Elizabeth's paternal grandmother. She had been born perfectly healthy ten years ago, and everyone had doted on her. But she had suddenly stopped breathing in her crib five weeks after coming into the world. Sebastian had detected the cessation of her breaths at once, and had flown to the nursery in a second to attempt to resuscitate the infant, watched by her frantic parents. But try as the devil might, with all his knowledge and skills, the child would not breathe on her own however long he pressed gently and repeatedly on her tiny chest, and at last her innocent spirit left her body.
Elizabeth took a long time to heal from that loss, especially after the doctors advised her that her health would not safely support the carrying and bearing of any more children. She can scarcely face the idea that her firstborn, her Vincent, may walk away from her into a war and never return to her alive.
"Do you really accept the consequences of your decision, Vincent?" Rachel asks, gently but firmly, wiser at sixteen than her brother is at eighteen.
The boy breaks their hearts with his answer: "I do. If I die, I die. Our family's title is such that daughters can inherit as well, if no sons remain. Therefore, Mother can take comfort in having you to carry on the family name, Rachel. Isn't it true, Father, that when the title belongs to a Countess of Phantomhive, her children can take her family name and not their father's?"
"It is true," Ciel states flatly. "But you have broken your mother's heart."
Carsten, who is lounging in the doorway of the drawing room, has remained as silent as Sebastian has throughout this conversation amongst the family. But even more than Sebastian, this devil has long felt a closeness to and compassion for Elizabeth. He looks now into her beautiful, tormented face, and says quietly, in a manner that will brook no contradiction: "If Lord Winterbourn goes to war, I go beside him. As a demon, I can create the right papers flawlessly, with a suitable identity, and make all the arrangements that no human can make. I will not leave his side for a second. Seen or unseen, I will be there with him."
Elizabeth's rush of tears of sheer relief are all the reward the demon needs.
Through the terror of the worldwide conflict that soon comes to be known as the Great War, and the almost unbearable fear for their loved ones that haunts those left behind, the Phantomhives endure. In time, the Midfords too must feel the pain of having their heirs face danger daily, when Alexis and Eddie join up. Like their cousin Vincent, they conceal their rank and parentage, and sign up like all the other ordinary volunteers from villages and towns, football clubs and factories, and vanish into the chaos of Europe.
Ciel is thirty-nine when the war begins, within the age of enlistment. But George V, who has remembered his father's words about the wrongs done to Phantomhive, does all in his power to emphasise how important the earl is to Scotland Yard's ability to enforce law and order in the underworld. Though the royal family no longer commands the same kind of absolute power it once did, a mere word from it is still given far greater regard than firm directives from many other quarters. But the truth is that Ciel is badly needed on the domestic front, so there is no argument that he must remain in England. The underworld is taking the opportunity of the uncertainty and deprivations of war to increase its activities and influence, and the Earl of Phantomhive is the one with the inside knowledge, contacts and power necessary to keep them in check.
As the underworld bustles and Ciel suppresses it wherever necessary, bombs and explosives from enemy aircraft rattle the coastline of Britain, shatter buildings in London, and reduce homes to rubble, killing innocent people who never held a gun or hurt anyone in their lives. Knowing that no bombs will penetrate Sebastian's magical shield, the Phantomhives and their staff wait out the conflict patiently, sheltering their closest friends like Soma, who has married a lady from Spain and is a father of three; Agni and Mey-Rin; an elderly John Jarvis, his son-in-law and the adopted child. Finnian has never married, neither has Paula, or Vidya; but Baldroy and Sumathi fell in love some time ago and have been husband and wife for a few years now.
Protected by one devil at home, and trusting in the loyalty and power of another in the European fields of war, Ciel, Elizabeth, Rachel and their household go about their daily lives while hoping and waiting, clinging to every letter that comes from Vincent, and hoping and praying harder each day as the months pass. Elizabeth thinks that if she did not have Rachel with her, she would go quite mad – how precious every child is, and how fragile life is.
Dismaying reports reach Britain periodically of countless young lives lost, often needlessly, seemingly pointlessly. Dreadful tales of terrible machines and weapons shredding helpless humans deployed by commanders who still think they are fighting horse-mounted armies instead of tanks and aircraft. Horrible poisonous gases and treacherous mines; miles and miles of trenches filled with mud, blood, the dead and the terrified. Heartbreaking rumours of the devastation at the Somme – reports of nearly a hundred thousand British men lost forever in four terrible months. Then more accounts of other losses, other battles, more and more casualties.
Vincent is in France. They know that, but little more. Elizabeth is distraught. Ciel is tense, and Rachel prays quietly every day. Then stories secretly filter back to them through their connections who have people in the war, whispered rumours of how, after a struggle on the Western front in which poisonous gases and buried mines ripped into everything all around them – a situation no one could have survived – a single man with dark gold hair stood up unscathed when all was quiet, after everything was over, picked up another young man whom he had covered with his own body on ground torn up by shrapnel and bullets and fire, and carried him out of the ruins of that field.
Weeks later, just before Christmas 1916, Vincent Winterbourn is sent home from the war with a shattered left leg and a dangerously high fever – but miraculously, otherwise unharmed. Elizabeth never leaves his side, and Sebastian tends him as devotedly as he tended Ciel, until the young man pulls through at last, the fever breaking, the awful wounds closing up.
On the day he knows he will live and begin the slow road to recovery, Vincent opens his eyes after a sound sleep to find his exhausted mother resting her head on her arms at his bedside, his father asleep in a chair, his sister curled up under a blanket on the couch at the other end of the room, Carsten leaning against the door frame, and Sebastian wiping the sweat off his brow as his fever breaks for good.
"Sebastian..." he murmurs.
"I believe you will be fine from here on, my lord," the steward says with a calm smile, giving him water to drink.
Their soft exchange wakes Elizabeth, and her eyes fill with tears of joy when she realises that her son is going to live.
"I'm so sorry, Mama," Vincent whispers, clasping her hand. "Please forgive me for making you cry. I don't regret fighting for my country and my king, but I realised very quickly how much I had hurt you. So many of my friends... as they fell and lay dying in the mud... they wept for their mothers, knowing they would be heartbroken. I knew that I did not want you to lose me like that..."
"Say no more," Lizzie whispers back quickly. "No more. I understand. I only want you to be well and strong again."
The injured leg, operated on and set carefully by a doctor, eventually heals, but he will always walk with a limp.
His constant companion in the battlefield and in the barracks, a man with dark gold hair named Charles Fox, is later listed as missing in battle, presumed dead. Only the Phantomhives know that "Charles Fox" returned to their manor beside Vincent, the devil as calm and ostensibly uninvolved as ever, although he is clearly the reason that their son and brother has returned to them alive.
One evening, as Ciel moves between his study and the library, he sees Lizzie and Carsten along one of the galleries, both her hands held in his, their foreheads touching. She is saying to him: "Thank you for bringing my son home to me. I can never tell you how grateful I am."
"I did it for you as much as for him," is the devil's even reply.
"I know. Thank you."
The exchange ends there. She slips her hands out of his and walks on to whichever room of the manor she had been headed for when she encountered him. Carsten realises Ciel is there, and glances down the passageway at him, but says nothing before walking away.
Ciel, alone in the passageway, absorbs what he has just witnessed. He has long known that Carsten has a strong attachment to Lizzie and the children, but it is at this moment that he realises that the devil's attachment to Lizzie may be of a different nature from his closeness to Vincent and Rachel. Ciel is very certain that Lizzie has never sexually reciprocated Carsten's affection – she is far too loyal to him for that. But even if she did, he could hardly complain. He has Sebastian. Why should she too not have someone else who admires her in that special way?
By this time, Sebastian has given Elizabeth more than the fifteen years she asked for with Ciel. Sixteen years have come and gone, and one day soon after Vincent no longer needs crutches to hobble around on and can manage with one of his father's old walking sticks, Elizabeth finds a private moment with the steward.
"You've more than kept your word to me, Sebastian. The children have grown up. I won't stop you from doing what you and Ciel wish."
"His Lordship is never happier than when he is at home, my lady," Sebastian replies. "Truth be told, I like it here too."
For he and Ciel have their magical worlds to slip into whenever they require complete privacy. The family is not always with them when they drive to London either, so they often have the town house to themselves.
Through all the hours, days and years of passion, witty exchanges and affectionate spats, they have never tired of each other. Sebastian had been quite sure when Ciel was fourteen that the earl would weary of him one day, and he would have to watch over him from a distance. Ciel, too, had often wondered if Sebastian would be seized by a devilish whim at any moment and abandon him forever.
Somehow, neither has happened.
"Wouldn't you rather take a younger lover, Sebastian?" Ciel regularly teases when the devil starts undressing him on those nights they have all to themselves.
"Wouldn't you rather take a human lover, my lord?" Sebastian teases back.
"You've already altered your appearance in public to seem older, so that people won't be suspicious of why you never age. Then you come into my bedroom and resume being the Sebastian you always were. With the infinite variety you offer me, why would I want any other lover, human or not?" Ciel asks.
"With your beautiful spirit and soul as bright and perfect to me as they ever were, while your body changes in the most fascinating ways, why would I seek anyone else of any age?"
"You charming bastard," Ciel purrs, drawing Sebastian towards him by his tie.
"Irresistible brat," Sebastian retorts, letting himself be pulled towards the handsome man in his prime.
"One can't be a brat at forty-one."
"You can, my lord."
"Kiss me and I will be quiet."
Soon, Sebastian and Ciel are relieved that they have not chosen to travel for a time, because troubles cripple the Midford family. The war still rages in Europe and the colonies, and Alex Midford, Elizabeth's eldest nephew, is killed in France. He comes home in a coffin. That his brother Eddie returns alive is some comfort, but nothing can take away the pain of his parents and grandparents as they bury their heir. The Marquess of Midford succumbs to a long struggle against cancer very soon after his grandson's funeral. Lady Francis, always so strong and resolute, seems at first absolutely determined to carry on with life as a widow and Dowager Marchioness. But despite not showing any outward weakness, she must have let her grief pierce her deep within, for within weeks of her husband's passing, she is felled by pneumonia, fades with shocking swiftness, and dies battling for breath.
Edward and Elizabeth are devastated. Ciel deeply mourns the loss of his last close relation from his parents' generation. He is stunned that the aunt he imagined would live forever like a sword of the strongest steel has left this world so suddenly.
How fragile human life is. How abruptly it can all end. He feels a shiver run through him as he thinks of how Sebastian will one day be without him.
"Do you want to live forever?" Sebastian asks him when they are next alone, discussing mortality and immortality.
"Using Ambrose's methods? Culling your powers like a parasite, the way he culled Carsten's? Feasting off the life forces of other humans?" Ciel responds. "No. I would have died at ten, then thirteen, then at any time my enemies overpowered me, or sickness took me, or the spell that chained me to the scale of balance destroyed me. But each time, you intervened. I have already lived well beyond what I might once have expected. I will not do as Ambrose did. It would perhaps be the greatest error in a life already riddled with so much sin."
"I won't abandon you, not in life, not in death."
"You'll have to devour me to keep me with you forever. I'm not heaven-bound, that's for sure, and your fellow demons won't let you back into hell. There's no other way."
"We shall see."
John Jarvis passes away peacefully in his sleep one night, at the age of seventy-five. His simple funeral overflows with love and sorrow from an astonishing number and variety of people, from earls to paupers, young and old, humans and demons.
Carsten nods to the coffin in a gesture of respect. Ciel chokes back a torrent of tears. And Sebastian touches his fingers lightly to the wood and says softly: "Goodbye, my friend."
At the end of the war, Rachel Winterbourn realises that she has been in love with Rakesh, Agni and Mey-Rin's eldest son, for longer than she knows. She does not know when or how it happened, but she loves him, and she realises it only when he comes home from the war, somewhat battered and with a haunted look in his gold-green eyes that lifts only when he looks at her. What is more wondrous to her is his confession to her that he too has adored her for a long time, but never dared to address her until she began to seek him out.
Ciel has always thought of his beloved daughter as deserving no less than a prince for a husband. He is initially taken aback by this development, despite his long association with Agni and Mey-Rin. My Rachel, marrying the son of two people who used to be servants? Even if Agni was once Brahmin royalty, who was Mey-Rin but a hired assassin?
But almost as soon as he thinks it, he feels ashamed of himself. Agni and Mey-Rin are loyal friends, and the two young people love each other, and that should be all that counts. Besides, the times are changing. Absolute lines between social classes are slowly but steadily eroding. While marriage between people of different races is still frowned upon, it happens with greater regularity. In Ciel's own circle, there are several examples of cultures merging in this way, and it must be occurring in other circles too. Especially now that some of their fellow Europeans have shown them what terrible enemies they can be, some of the British are starting to see that people from other faraway cultures may not necessarily be much more alien than those to whom they have historically been closer.
Unlike Ciel, Elizabeth does not hesitate to give her wholehearted blessing to the coming union. She has never lost her romantic ideals, despite all she has lived through.
So in the summer of 1919, Ciel gives his twenty-one-year-old daughter away to the son of his friends, and with each step he walks with her towards the kind and beautiful young man who will be her husband, he grows in the certainty that he is doing the right thing.
He also knows, by the end of the celebration – a tasteful but very simple one because England is still staggering from the aftermath of the war and the devastation of the Spanish influenza – that the years are speeding by, life is short, and he wants to spend more time alone with Sebastian before it is too late.
The earl and the devil begin to travel out of Great Britain, spending much of the 1920s visiting America, the Far East, India, Africa, and European countries which had been Britain's allies or neutral parties in the war. In most of these places, no one knows who they are. By day, in the open, they quietly enjoy each other's closeness and conversation; by night, or in private, they merge, eagerly, passionately, tenderly, knowing that time and years are relentless.
In between their travels to different places, they return home for Ciel to rest for weeks at a stretch. There, the earl sees that Vincent has truly matured and is handling all his father's duties with the greatest competence and responsibility.
"Look at you," Ciel says proudly to his son one day. "You are already a better earl than I am."
"Papa, you are the earl. I'm only learning," Vincent replies sincerely. For he has learnt humility and developed a deep love for his family and friends since seeing so many of his comrades die beside him.
"No, you will be a better Earl of Phantomhive than I ever was," Ciel tells him. "And you will be the Earl of Phantomhive sooner than you might think."
At once, Vincent is alarmed, for a peer cannot abdicate from his title the way a king or queen might abdicate a throne. Even if a peer rejects a title he holds, the title remains his until he dies. Ciel could declare himself no longer Earl of Phantomhive, and insist on passing the title on to his son at once, but it would not work that way. The title would be held in suspension until his death, and only then would Vincent receive it.
Vincent is already thirty years old. Ciel does not want so deserving a son to have to wait much longer.
"Papa, what are you saying?" Vincent has dropped his papers and come round to clasp his father's hand anxiously. "Are you sick, Papa? Is something wrong?"
Ciel laughs and grips the young man's hand firmly. "No, I'm not sick. I'm perfectly well. But I am going to make certain that you receive this title you deserve, with all its honours and privileges, as you already have so much of its responsibility."
"Papa...?" Vincent is eyeing him suspiciously now, knowing the craftiness and cunning of his sire. "What are you up to?"
"I am going to 'die', without actually dying just yet."
"I do not like the sound of that," Vincent says firmly, disapprovingly.
"Oh, don't be such a stuffed shirt," Ciel huffs, with a mischievous smile on his face. "I 'died' once at ten, so I know what it's like. It will be fine."
So it is that in 1926, Ciel Winterbourn, fifteenth Earl of Phantomhive, is widely reported as having died of heart failure while travelling in India. The relevant documents are sent home to England, and soon, an ash-filled urn is delivered to the manor, together with Ciel's blue diamond ring and signet ring. The beautiful black headstone is erected, the old marker wrongly put up in 1885 is buried in the grave along with the urn, and the ground covered up.
Vincent Alexis Sebastian Winterbourn becomes the sixteenth Earl of Phantomhive.
Far and wide they travel together, wrapped in each other. Sebastian has seen much of many worlds, but a great deal is still new to Ciel, and the devil takes pleasure in the interest and excitement of his master.
But whatever Ciel sees and experiences, it is always Sebastian who gives him the greatest pleasure and the greatest wonder, when they lie together in a shared bed all night, or steal moments away from other eyes.
"How you must have loathed me when I was a brat of ten," Ciel laughs softly in Singapore one night, as he and Sebastian look back on their earliest months together.
"You were certainly a difficult child," Sebastian huffs.
"But I smelt tasty, didn't I?" Ciel smirks.
Another night, in Agra, Sebastian whispers into the earl's ear in the wake of a passionate coupling: "When did you really begin to want me in your bed, my lord? Were you already jealous when I used the prostitute?"
"Perhaps I was," Ciel whispers back. "I may not have been attracted to you in that way, at that time, but you were always mine, and I suppose I was a little jealous."
"And horribly disgusted."
"Yes, that too, you filthy bastard."
They laugh, and slip into each other's arms again.
In New York, Ciel tells Sebastian just before he falls asleep in his embrace: "You must forget me when I am gone. Don't cling to what is lost."
"Even after a million years, I would not forget you."
"I'm just a man. Men come and go. You'll find a thousand more like me in time to come."
"There will never be anyone like you for me again."
Then they are in Paris, and the scent of war is again on the winds.
"I think it's time we went home, Sebastian," Ciel murmurs.
"Let us go, my lord."
Vincent, Eddie Midford, Rakesh, his brother Dakshi, and Jarvis' adopted grandson, Maurice, are all in their forties, too old to be called up for the second great war. Vincent's bad leg would rule him out in any case, along with his essential domestic duties as the Earl of Phantomhive. The others volunteer for civil work, to give all they can to Britain.
Baldroy, who married late in life and has a son and a daughter with Sumathi, is already in his seventies. Ciel and Elizabeth hurt for this elderly, loyal servant of theirs, who waves goodbye to his thirty-one-year-old son as he is sent off to the East. But Baldroy was a soldier in his time, and he knows that what must be done must be done.
Even the women who are of age are all registered and called up to play their part in defending their country. They will not bear arms, but they must work – in civil defence; in the factories churning out munitions and aircraft; in the navy and air force, watching for enemy aircraft, ships and missiles; as drivers and clerks. Elizabeth, at 65, is too old to be conscripted, but Rachel, her daughter Margaret, Soma's wife and daughters, Baldroy's daughter, and Vincent's wife, Clarissa, all sign up to do what they can to help. Ciel suspects that Sebastian and Carsten have a lot to do with the way things turn out, for all the women they care for are assigned roles in or close to London, and are able to come home from work almost every day.
Nonetheless, there is danger and death at home too. Bombs rain from the sky. Ports, ships and airfields are blown up. Ciel, Sebastian and Carsten see Shinigami everywhere – Grelle blows kisses at Sebastian whenever their paths cross. Cities are battered. London burns, and a million of its houses are lost. Soma and Agni, who after the first war sold most of their houses and invested in gold instead, are largely unaffected financially, although Soma does lose two houses in the Blitz. He does not care about the loss of the homes, however; it is the terrible waste of human life that brings him to tears.
Carsten moves temporarily to London to keep a closer eye on Rachel and Rakesh, and Soma's and Agni's families, for Elizabeth's sake; Sebastian holds the fort at the manor.
Ciel has been living quietly in the manor, unnoticed by the world outside. Sebastian has created documents for him that will show him to be a relative of the Phantomhives from Kent in case identities are checked in this time of war. But no one checks the manor too closely, and Ciel is left in peace to get to know his daughter-in-law, Clarissa, and his granddaughters, Alice and Frances, who are eleven and nine at the start of the war.
Clarissa came from a good family, and is well-matched with Vincent although she is no great beauty – the earl first fell in love with her at a dinner party one year after Ciel's "death" because of her kindness of heart and her quiet strength. Their eldest daughter Alice was named for her infant aunt who passed away, and Frances for Lady Francis. As with everyone who is deserving of a place in the Phantomhive manor, Clarissa, Alice and Frances know how to keep a secret, and they grow delightfully curious about and fond of Ciel and Sebastian over the years.
At long last, the war does end. Germany and Japan surrender. Baldroy's son comes home in one piece, just in time to spend a few months with his father before he passes away. The world will never be the same again, yet, amidst the sorrow and bitterness of loss, amidst the tears and outrage that flow as the worst atrocities of the war begin to come to light, there is hope that life will be better now, that each part of this planet will become a better place eventually.
Ciel and Sebastian begin to travel again, visiting a new place every year and returning to the manor in between. But one day in 1954, in Kyoto, after receiving word that Soma has passed away, Ciel says quietly to Sebastian: "I'd like to go home now. I think my time is coming."
Sebastian has scented the hint of death in Ciel's body for some weeks, and he knows that Ciel is right.
"Let's go home, my lord."
The devil attends to his lover and master with as much devotion as he did when the man was a child. Ciel has little physical strength now, and Sebastian is content just to lie beside him and hold him. But his mind is as sharp as ever, and his blue eyes have not lost their clarity or keenness.
"Don't you wish I was still young and beautiful?" Ciel asks him one night, after Elizabeth and his granddaughters – who have returned to the manor for the weekend – have come in to kiss him goodnight, then left them alone.
"You know that your physical age has never mattered to me," Sebastian murmurs, stroking his master's thin arm. "It never mattered to me if you were ten or fourteen or twenty-four, forty, sixty or eighty. When I look at your physical self, I simply see you, and you are beautiful to me. When I look at your spirit and soul, I see even greater beauty – brightness – brilliance – and an intriguing compassion for others."
"Still, I'm very old."
"Not as old as I am," Sebastian smiles, kissing one thin cheek and the withered lips.
"Oh, you're ancient, you are," Ciel replies sardonically, looking up at the beautiful face which the devil designs to look old in public, but here in private, has not altered a whit from what it was before.
"Very ancient." Another kiss.
"I don't want to be apart from you after I leave this body. You'll have to eat me."
"Now what have you done?" Ciel asks suspiciously after a weighty pause, eyeing the demon.
The negotiations that began after wrestling with God in the sphere have been going on for a long time now, and are nearly at a close.
One day in 1955, watched over by Elizabeth, who is herself quite frail now, Vincent and Clarissa, Rachel and Rakesh, Margaret, Alice and Frances, Sebastian and Carsten, Ciel Winterbourn, the fifteenth Earl of Phantomhive, passes away peacefully in his bed, saying at the last: "I regret nothing, and I repent of nothing."
Sebastian dresses his master for the last time. Then in devilish secrecy, the demons and the Winterbourns bury Ciel, who has had two false deaths in his lifetime, but has at last genuinely departed from his body.
Those who are close enough to know and remember will be able to describe how, on this day after so many years of calm smiles, there is genuine grief at the elegant black headstone. How the Dowager Countess of Phantomhive kneels on her aching old knees and weeps her heart out, how her children, Vincent and Rachel, cry beside her, and how the grandchildren first feel the heavy sorrow of the loss of someone they have deeply loved. How the ground is covered with the palest sterling silver roses.
Most of all, those who are close enough will be able to describe how Sebastian Michaelis stands alone by the grave, which now truly holds the bodily remains of Ciel Phantomhive.
The latter two lines inscribed on the headstone are added at this time, and when at last the family helps a grieving Elizabeth back to the house, Sebastian remains by the grave, keeping vigil well into the night. Carsten watches him from a distance, but says nothing, knowing that he must not intrude on this delicate time.
Late, late into the night, the devil waits and watches over his master's body like a faithful hound. Then finally, the long negotiations end, and only those who have the eyes to see can see what happens next.
To those who do not have the eyes to see, it appears that Sebastian Michaelis is still standing there, head bowed, all alone. And yet, it appears that he is speaking to someone, and smiling, and caressing something that cannot be seen.
So this is your plan, says a laughing voice that only those with the ears to hear would hear.
"Yes, Young Master. I hope you approve," Sebastian smiles.
I couldn't have dreamed up anything better.
"I see that you like all the things you can do as a soul and spirit," the devil remarks.
Those who can see would be able to observe how Sebastian seems one moment to be speaking to someone close to him in height, then the next moment appears to be addressing the being as if it were a good deal smaller – like a child.
How do you want me? Like this, as I was at thirteen? Or like this, as I was at twenty-five?
"I want you in every way you like to be," the devil chuckles, now holding the child to his chest.
It's interesting, this feeling...
"What feeling, Young Master?"
How much sensation there is through every pore of this spirit-body – I can tell I won't need food, or water, or air, or even lovemaking, but it's as if I'm being fed and sated and contented just by holding you and merging lightly into you, like this...
"It is most pleasing, is it not? You now know how satisfying it used to be to me to merge with a soul by devouring it – something I no longer need to do, thanks to all the power I seized from the spell."
So we'll have our own world, our own paradise? Is that really what you negotiated for?
"Yes. Our own world between the absolute lines of heaven, hell and earth, as John Jarvis once said. I no longer belong in hell, and I will be damned a million times over again if I let you go there without me. Neither of us belongs in heaven or on earth, but I have negotiated for something never done before, and it has been granted. Our world, our space, our heaven."
Did you create that world?
"No, that is the wonder of it. I did not create it. Someone else did. But I have been granted the key."
Then let us go, Sebastian.
"After you, my lord."
With his invisible key, Sebastian Michaelis opens a doorway that is quite unlike any of the other doorways Ciel has ever seen of the nowhere-worlds he has been in. This is better, more beautifully formed, and it leads into a vast universe that the earl can see promises to hold all the space and time in which he and Sebastian may explore its wonders – and each other.
"It is a place where you can be at peace – where I can be at peace," Sebastian says.
Ciel steps in, and Sebastian enters after him. The devil looks out at the earthly world one more time, nods a farewell to Carsten, and seals the doorway forever.
Perhaps devils and earls of Phantomhive do not belong in the presence of God, but the earl whose name means "heaven" is all the paradise that Sebastian needs and wants. So into their own world they go, Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian Michaelis, no longer seeking a return to heaven, for in each other's presence, heaven is before them, always.
The first thing I want to say is a huge thank-you to everyone who has stuck with this story despite its length and detail, and who took the time and trouble to leave me kind, polite and constructive feedback and reviews. It's not easy to plough through a story like this, much less have the energy to leave a thoughtful comment afterwards. If you have done that – and many of you have – I really appreciate it.
I knew there would be serious reader-attrition for this kind of story, so I am especially thankful to those of you who have read it from start to finish without wavering!
It's been a fascinating but exhausting journey, and I will miss writing this. For now, I'm going to take a break. I need rest.
Additional notes about what readers wanted:
This is the first time I have written a fic that has polarised readers so much. It has truly run the gamut of reactions. Of course I am paraphrasing wildly, but these are genuinely among the types of responses I've received through reviews, PMs, and comments on FFnet, other fanfic sites, blogs and forums:
Hurry up and get to the sex between Ciel and Sebastian/ Slow down the relationship between Ciel and Sebastian/ I hope you never let Ciel and Sebastian have sex!
Best story I've ever read/ This is a god-awful train wreck of a story
Love all the details, more please/ You have too much detail
Your story is so gripping I've sat here for 12 hours straight reading this/ Your story is so boring I fell asleep in the middle of a chapter/ I don't even remember or care whether I read the last chapter
Keep the pace of the plot SLOW, don't let it get fast/ Your story is too slow
Your Sebastian is so perfectly Sebastian/ Your Sebastian is a creeper paedophile
You've kept Ciel so IC and fleshed him out into a real character/ Your Ciel is not Ciel
Your characters are so IC/ Your characters are completely OOC
Your OCs are so memorable/ I couldn't remember who your OC was
You've obviously poured your heart into this story/ It's like you don't enjoy what you're writing
I can't wait for the next update!/ I couldn't get past chapter 2, the fic's so bad
I hope this story goes on and on and on/ Stop writing it, it's horrible
I love how realistic the relationships, sex and emotions are!/ No one wants realism in fanfic
It's great that Lizzie and Ciel have such a strong relationship/ Lizzie's presence in this story is killing it for me
I love the chapter with time skips/ I stopped reading this story because it has time skips
I hope you never stop writing fanfic like this/ I'm complaining to the site and doing everything I can to get your whole account removed from this and every other site you use because that's all you deserve.
There's no pleasing everyone, so I can only please myself. That said, as and when the gods of this site take the part of the complainers, I'll accept that it's been a good ride, and I'll be around on other sites.
Other observations for those who may be interested:
I have followed the Square Enix and Yen Press English spellings of character names, as they are the publishers of the manga and other authorised material:
- Baldroy rather than Bardroy. I believe the closest real-life surname would be "Balderoy", which may be derived from the English surnames "Bald" or "Bauld", or the Germanic-Italian surnames Balde and Baldo, which all mean "bold" in Old English and Germanic; and the French or Scottish surname "Roy" (meaning "red" if French, and "king" if Scottish).
- Mey-Rin (my personal take on how this happened is that the dear girl was a wanted criminal under her original name, and when Sebastian brought her home, Tanaka rechristened her with a Japanese monicker)
- Grelle Sutcliff (I personally prefer to spell it "Grell Sutcliffe", but I am sticking with the publishers' version)
- Mina (a more likely Indian spelling of the name would be "Meena", but again, I'm sticking with the publishers' version)
- Lady Francis (rather than the more likely "Lady Frances")
Certain people have commented that I spell words "wrong", only for me to realise that they were referring to American dictionaries. I am a native speaker of British English, so all my spellings are British, not American. Words like "defence" (rather than the American "defense"), and the distinction of spellings between nouns and verbs (eg "practice" and "practise", "licence" and "license", unlike the standardised American "practice" and "license" for both parts of speech) are examples that come to mind when it comes to differences between British and American English that may be reflected in this story.
Some real-life incidents in 19th-century/Victorian England alluded to in this story:
- The Vere Street Coterie Scandal. In 1810, before Queen Victoria was born, a 16-year-old boy and a 46-year-old man were hanged for being associated with a male brothel on Vere Street.
- Death sentences for child criminals. Possibly the most striking example of the harshness of law and justice in England was in 1814, when an eight-year-old boy was sentenced to death and hanged for stealing food.
- The Ripper murders. These occurred from 31 August to 9 November 1888.
- The Cleveland Street Scandal. This broke in July 1889. The investigating officer was Frederick Abberline, who also investigated the Ripper murders.
- The death of Prince Albert Victor on 14 January 1892 made his younger brother, George, the heir to the heir of the English throne.
- Oscar Wilde's sentence of two years' imprisonment with hard labour dated from May 1895, for "gross indecency" with Lord Alfred Douglas and other men. He was released from prison in May 1897, sick and penniless. He died in Paris in November 1900, in poverty, at the age of 46.
- Queen Victoria's death in January 1901, at the age of 81. Her eldest son ascended the throne as Edward VII, and reigned for nine years until his death in May 1910. He was succeeded by his second son, who reigned as George V.
Other matters of culture and society
- The legal age for marriage without parental consent in England after 1823 was 14 for boys and 12 for girls. This was a return to Tudor and pre-Tudor times, when girls were often married at 12, became mothers by 13, were grandmothers by 30, and were in many cases dead by 40. It was actually a regression from 17th and 18th century norms, when 21 was the legal age of marriage for both men and women without parental consent, and around 16 to 18 with parental consent.
- It was perfectly legal for first cousins in England to marry. (As an interesting side note, it was illegal from 1835 until 1907 for a man in England to marry his dead wife's sister. It may throw some light on Madam Red's devastation as a young girl in the manga and anime, when the Earl of Phantomhive married her sister – she would have known that even if Rachel should ever die, the earl would never be able to marry her.)
- Locks of hair were considered highly intimate gifts in the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras. These were often kept in lockets, or bound carefully and kept between the pages of personal diaries.
- Civil marriages were allowed in England from 1836.
- Homosexual acts between males were punishable by death in England until 1861, and punishable by imprisonment from 1885. Homosexual acts between consenting adult males were legalised in England only in 1967, with the age of consent set at 21, later amended to 18 in 1994, and most recently to 16 in 1997.
- Homosexual acts between females were not legislated in Victorian times, because Queen Victoria refused to believe that it was possible for women to be homosexual.