Disclaimer: I do not own Paradise Lost. It is in the public domain, and thus it is legal for me to use the quote as the subheading.
Her Life, In The End
Long is the way,
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light.
~ John Milton, Paradise Lost
Elizabeth had never thought the Queen would be so small.
She had only ever seen Queen Victoria once, at a distance, when she had been about six years old. There had not been nearly so many wrinkles on Victoria's face, nor had her hair been quite so white. Now, Victoria looked like a child's doll, tiny and fragile as a snakeskin. Her eyes were alive, though, eerily so, dark and flickering. Her shoulders hunched the slightest bit, as though she was carrying a great weight on her shoulders. Maybe she was. Behind her stood a man in dark glasses that Elizabeth thought she might recognize from somewhere. She couldn't quite remember where. She sank into a deep curtsy, and didn't lift her head. "Your Majesty."
"Elizabeth Middleford." There was a rustle of skirts. "You are welcome here."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." She rather thought the Queen would tell her to rise by now, but there was nothing. Maybe Victoria was testing how long she was willing to comply to an order. Elizabeth gritted her teeth. Fencing and curtsy practice had made her knees quite strong; she would be able to hold this position for a while. Still, she ached from the Orient Express, and she really would rather not kowtow to the woman who let others claim the responsibility for the blood on her tiny hands.
"It's the Phantomhive cousin!" The voice was vaguely familiar. It reminded her of sweat and fencing halls, a foil in her hand. Silver flickered in the corner of her eye. A nobleman, pale as a knife, swept her a bow. "Don't you remember me, little love? You used to pretend you could whip me with a blade."
In spite of herself, Elizabeth straightened. She'd seen this man before, and recently, in the theatre where she'd killed Petrovsky. The Queen sniffed, but didn't say much of anything about it, so Lizzy stayed standing. "Charles Grey?"
He took her hand and bowed over it. His glove felt silky on her skin. "I haven't spoken to you in a while, Miss Middleford. Not since that Easter a few years ago. It seems that you've been a busy bee."
"One likes to be." She glanced at the Queen. "I wasn't aware you were working for Her Majesty."
He waved a hand, but Victoria had caught his eye, and he said nothing else. The Queen cleared her throat, and Lizzy snapped back to attention, her hands fisting in her skirt. "I wished to congratulate you, my dear, on your part in bringing the Watchdog's investigation to a close. Earl Phantomhive led me to believe you had a great deal of influence over the case."
Ciel, what did you say? Her heart twisted at that thought. She cleared her throat. "It depends on what one means by influence, Your Majesty," she said, and bobbed down into a curtsy again. "I simply assisted as best I could, considering my training and my…previous position."
"Your engagement," Victoria offered. Lizzy nodded, but she didn't comment. It was clear that Victoria was waiting for something else, some confirmation, perhaps, of a recreation of the engagement that had nearly destroyed her, but Lizzy had nothing to say. No matter what had happened between her and Ciel, she was very clear on one thing: her life was her own, now, to do with as she wished, and not to be used to please the woman who had ruined the life of not only her cousin, but all of the Watchdogs who had come before him. She would not accede to the command of the woman who demanded that other women remain in chains.
Finally, Victoria sniffed. She glanced at Charles Grey. "Earl Grey, would you retrieve that box for me, please, the one I set aside on my desk. Thank you," she added needlessly, because Grey had turned before she'd even finished her sentence. Behind her, the man in dark glasses stood silently, but there was a contemplative smile playing around his lips. Grey swept down into a bow as he offered the box, and Victoria took it without a word, opening it. She glanced at Elizabeth. "If you could kneel down, please, my dear. I have something for you."
Elizabeth complied. She swept her hair off her neck as well, and held the curls in one hand, trying to fight back the memory of Ciel's fingers in her hair, his lips on hers, as the Queen rested the pendant around her neck. It was hung on black velvet, soft against the sore skin of her throat; the charm itself was heavy, and reminded her of her father's medals of honor. She pinched it between her fingers and studied it, carefully. Deep purple amethyst glinted at her from the silver setting, engraved with a crest she had never seen before: crossed sabers, tied together with a string and encircled by a line of gold. She looked up at the Queen again, startled.
"For her work," the Queen said, lifting an unsheathed blade, "in ridding our empire of those who conspired towards its destruction, and for her collaboration with the Earl Phantomhive in eliminating this threat, we hereby proclaim that from this date forthwith, Miss Elizabeth Middleford shall be known as a Knight of the Realm, and therefore be addressed as such."
The cold blade touched the cloth on her shoulders, once, twice. Elizabeth couldn't breathe. She was trembling. She looked up at the Queen, squeezing the pendant so hard that the silver was cutting into her palm. "Your Majesty?"
"Rise, Lady Middleford," Victoria said, and, numb, Elizabeth obeyed. She stared at the ceremonial blade in the Queen's hands, and wondered if what had just happened was real. She was a knight. She was a real knight, an honest-to-goodness knight with a real title, and it was something that not even her mother had ever achieved.
The only thing she could think was: what does the Queen want from me now?
"I apologize for the lack of ceremony, my dear, but it's something that would…ruffle feathers." Victoria sniffed. "At the same time, however, it's the least I could do. In fact, it was suggested."
Elizabeth licked her lips. "P-Pardon me, Your Majesty, but who…?"
"Well, I did, of course," Charles Grey said, and his smile was wicked and cruel. "After all, it's what you've always wanted, isn't it? Lady Knight." He laughed. "All hail the Queen's Paladin!"
"Be quiet, Grey," Victoria snapped. Grey shut up, but the mischievous grin didn't leave his face. Elizabeth felt as though she'd been punched. "I do apologize, Lady Middleford, but I've another appointment to get to. Brown will show you out." She gestured to the man in dark glasses. "There's a carriage waiting for you at the gate."
"No, I—" Lizzy swallowed. "I can find my own way, Your Majesty." She curtsied again, so deep she felt her knees quake, and made herself say it. "I can't thank you enough, Your Majesty. I can't thank you enough."
"I believe you'll find that our situations are actually reversed," said Victoria, and then she swept out of the room, Grey and Brown at her heels. At the door, Grey turned, and grinned at her again.
"Oh, and don't worry about the Parker girl, Lady Knight." He winked. "She's in the most excellent hands."
Then he vanished. Elizabeth wanted to run at him, to throw a blade in his face, but he was gone and there was a maid behind her, whispering something about showing her back to the entrance hall. So she shook her hair back, fixed her new pendant of office, and followed.
She kept her back straight and her head tall until she reached the carriage, whereupon she had a fit of hysterics, barely smothered by a handkerchief.
The crest—her new crest—weighed heavy around her neck.
It was a few days after her knighting by the Empress of the British Empire when Lau showed up at her door. Her mother's new maid, a sour, pale-faced woman by the name of Greyhaven, showed him in without a word, but the way she sniffed when she announced his name said everything that Elizabeth needed to know about her. She made a mental note to discuss the woman with her mother at the nearest possible opportunity.
Emily was twisted tight around her neck again. The viper's head brushed lightly against her ear. After they'd been brought back to England—first to the nearest city by a frightened looking farmer and his cart, then to the hospital to have Ciel's wrist set and her cuts sewn up by a professional, and then to Calais and the boats by a once-again unflappable Sebastian—and returned to the Phantomhive estate, Snake had promptly set his viper on her again, and Lizzy couldn't get the damn thing to leave her alone. Emily was becoming more of a comfort, now, than a spy; she reached up to her throat and scratched the snake on the top of her triangle head as Lau heaved the box he was carrying through the door, setting it on her father's desk without preamble. He lifted an eyebrow at the sight of the viper, but didn't comment. "I hear that I am to congratulate you, Lady Middleford. A knight of the realm, now, is it?"
The new title still rang strange in her ears. Though Sebastian slipped, sometimes, because he knew who she would have been, most of the world still called her Miss Middleford. The daughter of a marquis did not a lady make. But now she was a knight, and since no one felt comfortable calling her Sir Middleford, especially when there were two others in her family… Lizzy shook her head a bit. She played with the key at her throat. "If the majority rules."
"Really?" Lau smiled. "I would have thought it was your dream, little miss."
She didn't respond. Her eyes flickered to the box, but she didn't ask about that, either. She was simply too tired to deal with Lau right now, too exhausted by the machinations of the world. Under the bandages, her bruises and her breaks ached. The cut on her shoulder was pulsing with her heartbeat. She didn't have the energy for this. "Why are you here, Lau?"
"Oh, so impolite." He tsked at her, and then ran his hands over the lid of the box, thoughtfully. "I would have brought Ran Mao to say hello—she's quite interested in you, by the way—but I thought she might not be let in through the door."
"Any guest of yours will always be let in, Lau," she said, gently, and he gave her a sharp, considering look. For once in her life, for once in their strange little relationship of give-and-take, she'd surprised him, and he wasn't sure what to make of her quiet acceptance of his mockery. Then he smiled, and again, for the first time, it looked almost real.
"That she'll appreciate."
Elizabeth shook her head a bit, not in a rejection, but in an effort to get the cobwebs out of her skull. "So, what have you brought me that you don't want to show Ciel?"
"It's not for the little lordling, though I do appreciate your willingness to keep him out of it." He even put his hands together lightly a few times, in a mockery of applause, before he touched the box again, lightly, lovingly, as though caressing a lover. "No, my dear little knight, this is a gift for you, and it's something that I have been holding on to for a fairly long time."
Lizzy blinked. At her throat, Emily hissed. "A gift for me?"
"That it is." He held out a hand, keeping out of striking range. "If I might have the key, little knight, I'd be more than willing to show you."
She didn't move. "Why all the mystery then, Lau? Why try to con me out of a favor?"
"Oh, you holding onto the key was part of my favor, though the rest isn't…quite complete yet." He smiled. "You see, I had to keep this safe for a long time, and what better place to hide it than with its intended? Besides, I've quite a few locks that that key opens, and you, an oh-so-esteemed knight of the realm keeping it safe for me…well, that's the clotted cream on the scone, don't you think?"
She scowled. Still, she shifted Emily—cautiously, since the snake seemed to be in a bad mood this morning—and then unlocked the chain from around her neck, offering it to Lau without another word. He took it, his fingers just barely grazing hers, and then he had it held carefully in one hand, slipping it into a lock hidden beneath a panel, turning it carefully. There was a rusty click, and then the lid popped open, and he stepped back as though waiting for something to escape. Elizabeth looked at him, waiting, but he gestured, and she pushed the lid back herself.
Papers. There were books, handwritten, and sketchbooks as well, but it was mostly papers. Letters wrapped in ribbon. Old documents, maps and sketches. At the very top there was a letter addressed to her, in a handwriting she barely recognized. When she opened it, and saw the signature at the bottom, it felt as though someone had scraped her heart out of her chest. "Aunt Rachel?"
"Your cousin is not the first Phantomhive I've had dealings with, little knight," said Lau, and his voice was almost gentle. "Your aunt was…very kind to me at a time when most Englishmen were willing to ignore me completely. When she asked me to keep this for you…well, I couldn't resist."
"Keep this—for me?" She wanted to paw through it all, dump the papers on the floor and sit like a child, scraping through it, reading every word. But she couldn't quite move, couldn't look at the letter lying open in her hand. There was another letter, too, for Ciel, but that could be left for later. "You're serious?"
"As serious as I can ever be!" Lau said lightly, and laughed. He flicked his fingers at her. "Go on, go on, read. I'll wait right here. I can be patient, you know. Just…keep the snake away," he added, somewhat uneasily, and Emily hissed at him one last time.
Lizzy hushed the viper, settling her around her throat again, and then sat down hard in her chair before beginning to read.
My dearest Lizzy,
I write this as I sit in the garden, watching the roses bloom. The first opened only a few days ago, and the bushes are already becoming a riot of color. The yellow ones are the last in bud, but I think they will be quite beautiful. If you and your mother are not too busy, I shall invite you both out to see them when the time comes.
There is so much that I long to say to you, dear. You're so small now. You and Ciel are inseparable still, though you are eight and he is seven, and I hope that it will always be that way. As young as he is, my little love, I can tell he takes after my husband more than he does me, and there's a streak of sadness in the Phantomhive line that they all succumb to, eventually. You are so bright, my love, so bright and free; I hope you can keep him from falling to it entirely.
I write this in the hope that someday you might understand, my darling. I have a deep sick feeling inside me that something is going to happen, and even if nothing does, I hope that one day, at least, I will be able to give you this letter in person, and we will be able to talk about it as extensively as I would like. Still, I fear I do not have that much time. I am not as well as I would like to think. I am both joyful and fearful, for reasons that I have told no one, should not be telling you. Indeed, you are too young for all this, and I am afraid that to give you this letter now will place too big a burden upon you. So I will entrust it to a dear friend of mine, and I trust him to seek you out when the time is right, if it becomes necessary for him to do so.
I harken back to a long tradition in the lives of the Phantomhive women, in writing this letter for you. I received a letter like it from your grandmother, as she did from my great-aunt; we are all related somehow, and there are things in the life of a Watchdog's wife that cannot be understood by anyone other than the next woman in the line, the next brace for the man who cleans up the messes of the royals.
It's a hard life, my little love, and it's a cruel one. It's not a life my mother would have chosen for me, and I know, in my heart, that Frances would have rather you never have to live this life either. But sometimes fate is thrust upon us, my dearest Lizzy, and there is little we can do about it. I do hope, in the years to come, that you will come to love my son, as dearly and devotedly as I love my husband. It's something that I can only hope for, the happiness of you two, especially considering the darkness with which we live; there's a terrible, overwhelming chance that I will not live to see it. But I can hope, as we women have always hoped, for the joy of our children. For what else does a mother long for, than to see her babies happy?
You have laughter, my dear, which will save him in his darkest times. You have heart, which will serve you well. But most of all, my dearest, dearest niece, you have strength, and that will serve as a ballast for the two of you in the black times to come.
It's a hard thing that I must ask of you. It's something that I ought not say. It's not something to place on anyone, the soul of another human being. But you are the only hope I have that he will not fade, and I place that hope squarely on your shoulders. As unfair as it may be, and as hopeless as it may seem at times, it's all that I can do. Your mother and I will do our best to train you for the times to come, but that is all we can do.
I entrust Ciel to you, my love. I have faith that you will protect him, that you will love him, that you will save him. I know you can. I know you will. And I do believe this, in my heart of hearts—I do believe that he knows you will, too.
I must away. Vincent is calling.
All of my love to you, dearest girl. I wish you all the luck and all the happiness in the world. Remember: No matter what happens to me, I will always be with you.
Your aunt, Rachel
She was crying. She could feel the sobs building in her chest, like a gathering storm. Lizzy folded the letter, carefully, with shaking hands, and settled it back in its envelope. She looked at Lau, and even though the tears were pouring down her face, he didn't look away.
"She wants me to save him, Lau," she said, and there was no question as to who she was. There was no question as to who she had to save. "She wants me to save him, but I don't know if I can. You know what he's done. You know what—what he's promised. You know who he works with."
"Yes," Lau said. His eyes were suspiciously wet as he looked at her, and Lizzy remembered, for the first time in a long time, that he'd been around when she was growing up, too. He'd been a part of her childhood, just as much as her aunts had been. Not nearly as frequently, or as devotedly, but he had been there. "Yes, I do."
"Then how can I save him?" She wailed, and her voice broke. "I can't save him if saving him will destroy me. That's not fair of her to ask. That's not fair."
Lau hesitated. His hands clenched into fists by his sides. Then he came around the desk, and Lizzy looked up at him, desperate, hoping for answers. He set his hands on her shoulders, and then, light as a kiss, leaned down and pressed his forehead to hers. It was a touch she hadn't anticipated, but one that offered comfort, and she took it.
"I think," he said, his voice soft and whispering, "I think that you already have, my dear. I think that you save him, every day of your life. You've already done it."
She closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands. Lau pulled away, pressing his lips against the top of her head; then she heard the door shut, and she was alone.
Lizzy pulled her knees up to her chest, and hid her face as she sobbed.
Recovering came in patches. She had very bad days where all she wanted to do was curl up in bed, stare at the wall, and sleep. She had no desire to do anything; she didn't want to write letters, she didn't want to dance, she didn't want to read, and she most certainly didn't want to see anyone in Society. Since she was injured again, her mother had no desire to make her.
Their relationship had changed since she'd insisted on going off to help Ciel end it; it wasn't the knighting, or the titles given to her by the Queen, but rather a newfound sense of camaraderie, of respect, that hadn't been there before. She could talk to Frances now, she realized, after one late night of sitting in her mother's drawing room and talking with her. Not just about the Orient Express, and everything she'd done with Ciel—including the kiss—but about anything and everything. Things she'd never been able to tell her mother before. Things she'd never dreamed of telling Frances before. She showed her some of Rachel's papers, as well. (She kept the letter private, though, hidden in the secret panel behind the head of her bed. That was something she would always keep to herself.) She told her about Colleen's fate, and about Felicity—that the Queen had Felicity, and was having her do who knew what. She told her about the Zodiac, and heard that Nathaniel Fotheringhay—the only survivor, she reveled, that pretty-faced boy with the smile on his lips—had gone to the continent. "Some say," Frances said, "that he's gone to recover. That his mind's been affected. Personally, I just think he's a bloody coward."
Sometimes she cried, and Frances stroked her hair until she stopped.
When she asked why her mother was being so patient when she was being so ridiculous, Frances had simply looked at her. "War is hard, love," she'd said. "And no matter what anyone says, you've been through a war."
Despite it all, she couldn't help thinking, one night after her mother had left, that Ciel had no mother to help him through his war. And that made her cry again.
God, she hated crying.
One night she asked her mother something that she'd been turning over in her mind for months now, something that she'd only ever voiced aloud to Lau, obliquely. She turned to Frances. "Mama."
"Is it wrong to love Ciel?"
Her mother paused in her embroidery, but she didn't look up for a long time. Finally, she put her sewing down. "Do you think it's wrong?"
"I don't know," Lizzy replied. "I think it might be bad for me. I think…I think he makes me sad."
Frances stayed quiet. Lizzy kept talking. "He makes me so angry, Mama, and he makes me cry, but when I'm with him, I can't…I can't stop loving him. And I don't think that it's healthy. I don't think that it's right. But I can't…" She took a deep, shuddering breath. "I don't think I can stay away."
"Does he make you happy?" Frances asked, and there was a curious quirk to her voice that snagged Lizzy's attention. Not enough to hold it. She was working through the thoughts that had tumbled inside her for months, and couldn't focus on anything but them.
"He does. But he's…he's so terribly sad, Mama. He's alone. And I want…" She struggled over the words. "I want to save him, but I don't know if I can. Aunt Rachel thought I could, but I don't think…" She slanted a glance at her mother. "He's tried to keep me out of it, Mama. He broke my heart to keep me away, but I couldn't. And now I think there might be something wrong with me."
"There is nothing wrong with you," Frances said, and her voice was so low and fierce that Elizabeth stopped. There were tears in her mother's eyes, she realized, real tears, and without thinking about it she reached forward and took Frances' hands in her own, squeezing hard. "Nothing. Nothing. You are a good, kind, strong, beautiful girl. You are my good and kind and strong and beautiful girl. There is nothing wrong with you."
She wanted to cry. But she was done with crying. Elizabeth took a deep breath, and said, "But there is something wrong with Ciel."
Frances was quiet for a long moment. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. "He's...Ciel is a good man, or could be. But he's…very like his father. He's like Vincent. The job he has, the darkness he faces…it leeches into him. It could swallow him whole. It could destroy him, and if you stay with him, it could destroy you."
"Will you stay with him?" Frances asked. Her eyes fixed on Lizzy's. "Are you going to stay with him, my dear?"
Lizzy shook her head. "I don't know. I don't know if I can. If I try, I…" I don't think I'll survive. "I don't want to be destroyed," she said. "But I don't want to lose him, either. I don't…I don't know what to do, Mama. Tell me what to do."
"This is your choice, my love," said Frances, and even though it was frustrating, Lizzy knew she was right. "If it were up to me, I would keep you away. I would send you to Wales, or to America like Fotheringhay, and make you change your name. I would keep you safe the way I've always wanted you to do. Damn duty," she said, her voice suddenly vicious, and Lizzy's eyes grew as round as pennies. "Damn everything. I don't want you destroyed. But you're a woman now. And I can't decide this for you, Elizabeth. You have to decide."
"My friends died because of this," Lizzy said. "Because of this job. Colleen and Theodore, they're both dead. If I run away now, that would…that would dishonor them. Shame them. And if I work with Ciel, I can do good, real good. I can save people. But I don't know if I can save him, even though I…"
"Even though you love him," Frances finished, and Elizabeth closed her eyes and nodded. Frances pulled her into a hug, and Lizzy tightened her arms around her mother's waist, not crying, just breathing.
"Oh, my girl," Frances whispered, and stroked Lizzy's hair. "Oh, my girl."
That was one of the harder nights. Things grew easier, the more she talked. It was as though she was lancing a boil, an infection deep in her gut, and with all the infection spilling free, the weight on her shoulders seemed to ease. Soma was still staying at the Middleford house, and his presence made her smile. He was too silly not to cheer her up. Stephen Fotheringhay had recovered enough to come and visit her, and it became her habit to visit the Phantomhive estate every afternoon on Beatrice, and to talk about books with him.
Ciel was still in London, playing the lordling. It was the only reason she felt comfortable going. She wasn't ready to see him yet.
She returned home one afternoon to find that Soma and her brother had conspired to invite Rebecca Beddor to the estate, and that, perhaps more astonishingly, Rebecca had come. The long, awkward pause had been broken by Rebecca bursting into tears and flinging her arms around Elizabeth, squeezing so hard that she nearly popped a few stitches. It had taken a good two hours and a great deal of tea before Rebecca had finally calmed down, and Elizabeth invited her to stay the night, which delighted her father. After all, it was the first time Elizabeth had had a real female friend, her own age, from the right branch of society.
She kept the clothes that had been designed for Colleen at the bottom of her closet, and every so often she opened the drawer and stroked the cloth, fighting back a smile. But also tears.
Rebecca and Stephen took to each other right away. They'd met before, Elizabeth was certain, on the night of Rebecca's birthday party, but not since, and she wondered if she might have a career as a matchmaker. Like Emma, from the Jane Austen novel. Considering Emma's mistakes, though, she might have to consider a different life path.
She was healing, slowly.
Rebecca was the one to bring her the pages. She'd come to visit again, for the fourth time in one week, and brought the mail up with her, as was becoming her custom. The handwriting on the envelope had made her stomach drop through the floor; the blood left her face. Rebecca called for a maid, but Elizabeth had already seized the note from Theodore and ripped the envelope open, dumping the papers out onto her lap.
One scrap of paper in English. Not even a full sheet. Just a few words. She opened it, and devoured it with her eyes.
I trust you'll keep these copies safe. The originals are gone up in flames. Be safe, darling.
Damn you, Theodore, she thought at him, shakily. Damn you. Why am I always the safehouse?
Copies. Copies of what? But she only had to look at the script, and she knew. The Sanskrit papers, the ones that Theodore had been translating. The ones that Stephen's mother had told her about.
She was on her feet and shouting for Soma before Rebecca could even take her pulse.
"It's a legend," Soma said a few hours later, once he'd finally puzzled through the last of the anachronistic grammar and strange spellings. "Of a man who lost his soul to a monster. It's a bit unclear as to the how," he added, laughing uncomfortably, because she was sitting so close to him that she could feel his body heat, and she hadn't taken her eyes off him since he'd started work. "But it…it details something interesting. It tells the tale of how the man went on a quest to…well, win his soul back."
"How?" Lizzy said, and her voice was so low and hoarse that she sounded ill. Soma looked at her queerly.
"Are you quite all right, Lizzy?"
She waved that off. "How, Soma?"
"Through trials. They have to be taken willingly, according to the pages. They have to be of the man's own free will. Though why someone wouldn't want their soul back—"
"They're different for each person, Elizabeth!" Soma stared at her. "Are you all right? You're scaring me."
"No, you're not."
"I'm fine!" she snapped, and she took the papers from him, staring at the words she couldn't read. Out of all the languages she'd studied, why couldn't she have ignored society's gossip and have Soma teach her Sanskrit? "Soma, how does he do it?"
He looked at her for a very long time, but finally, he licked his lips. "There's a ceremony. It's all detailed. But, Lizzy, this is impossible. It's ridiculous. It says something about needing the help of a—of a death-god, for goodness' sake, and that's only for the first trial. It's not possible. Why are you so—"
"It doesn't matter." She took a long breath, let it out. She felt like she was trembling. She was trembling. Rebecca took her hand, squeezed it hard. A death-god. A reaper. That couldn't be all there was. And Ciel had to do it willingly. That…that was impossible, right now, she was sure. Sebastian was too important to him. Their deal was too important. She folded the papers, reverently, and steadied herself. "I'm sorry. This is just…this is something I've been waiting for. Do you mind writing a full translation of it for me? I apologize for acting so strange."
She hadn't fooled him. She could see it in his eyes. But when she offered the papers again, he took them, and nodded. "Of course."
There was a clue. It was something so small it could have been missed, but there was a clue. And Theodore had given it to her.
It took her a moment to think of it. Still, the question slipped out before she could stop herself. "What happened to the demon?"
Soma looked at her, his eyes wide. "Well, it died, of course."
"I see." Something in her quivered. Elizabeth stood, sharply. "Excuse me. I have to…I have a headache."
It took a few hours. She thought about it, over and over again, twisting and turning it, looking from every angle. But there was only one place she could go, really, only one place she dared go.
She would have to wait. She couldn't tell him now. Ciel. He wouldn't believe her, first off. Secondly, he needed Sebastian. She could tell he needed Sebastian. She was certain that not even Ciel knew quite why. And Sebastian… Sebastian needed Ciel, and she wasn't sure if it was just because of the deal. She'd seen humanity in Sebastian, she knew she had. She'd seen it. She didn't think the bond they had was something that was purely demonic, no matter what the Undertaker said. As much as she hated Sebastian for destroying her cousin, for betraying her trust, there was something in her that had broken at the thought of him dying, something that had driven her to empty her gun into the Director's head at the thought of him gone. And Sebastian…
He'd saved her. In the Campania. He'd saved her during the Orient Express, during everything they'd gone through to destroy the Zodiac. He'd saved Ciel more times than she could count. And for those rescues, each and every one of them, she owed him a debt. And she would not repay that debt with murder.
She took a deep breath, and lay down on her bed, staring at the ceiling.
She would have to wait. Listen, and watch. Try to find some other way. She had a way to save Ciel, now. She knew she did.
And maybe, if she did it right, she wouldn't be saving just Ciel, after all.
Her heart was pounding in her chest as she lifted the door knocker and let it fall against the wood. The smells of London weighed heavy around her, smoke and oil and salt and trash. The smog that always rolled in with the misty tide twisted around her like tentacles, and left her sneezing. She'd forgotten, in the weeks since she'd been here, how much she hated London. Why she'd offered to come here to meet him, she would never quite understand. But still, she had, and when Sebastian opened the door, she didn't hesitate to duck inside.
"He's in the library, Lady Middleford," Sebastian said. He looked just the same. Perfectly groomed, as always. She didn't let him take her coat.
"I'll only be here for a moment." She hesitated, and then offered him the small box she'd brought. "A few cakes. For Finny."
"I'll be sure to deliver them."
She crouched down on the floor, touched her hand to the carpet. Emily twined tight around her neck in a goodbye squeeze, and then slid away down the hall, vanishing into the kitchen where she was sure Snake lurked. Then she stood again, straightened the lapels of her coat, and marched up the stairs to the library door.
She opened it without knocking. Ciel looked up, and closed his book. His wrist was bound up in bandages and plaster, his arm hung in a sling, and she wondered how long it would be before he could take it off. He looked ridiculously grouchy about it, though his face went smooth and blank when he met her eyes, as though he was trying to hide something from her. "Elizabeth."
"Ciel," she said, and closed the door behind her. She carried her new rapier parasol, a concoction of black lace and muslin that matched her mourning skirts. Lizzy tilted her head at him, studying him. The bruises had faded, but the cuts remained. "You look better."
"You look worse," he said, bluntly, and she couldn't help it. The corner of her mouth twitched.
"I suppose I do," she said, lightly. The letter from Rachel Phantomhive lay heavy in her pocket. "But then, I've had a lot to think about."
"So have I," he replied, and he set his book down and stood. He was as tall as she was, now. She wore her flat shoes, and so did he, and they were still eye to eye. He came around the desk, and leaned his hips against it, watching her carefully. He looked like a housecat, circling a vole that might fight back. "What have you been thinking about?"
"Us, mostly." It was refreshing, this directness. She'd never had the guts for it before. Non-confrontational, matter-of-fact. Simply speaking the truth without any expectations of it coming in return. "What will happen now."
"And what conclusions have you come to?"
"I don't know if I can save you, Ciel," she said. Something dark flickered in his uncovered eye, and he looked away. But Lizzy reached out, and with both hands, untied the eyepatch, letting it drop away to the floor. She placed her palm on his cheek and studied his eye, the contract, the agreement that had damned him, and she didn't look away.
"I think," she said, "that someday, you might destroy me."
He looked as though he wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words. She lifted her other hand, pressed it to his jaw, so she had his face cupped in her palms and she could feel his shaky breath against her lips. She traced his cheekbone with her thumb, lightly. "I've been thinking about it very long and hard, and I really think you might."
"Not on purpose." He stared at her, his eyes flicking just a bit, trying to find some emotion in her face. "Never on purpose, Lizzy."
"I know." She leaned forward, and pressed a feather-kiss to the corner of his mouth. He let out a short, shaky breath. "I know. Never on purpose. But you see, it's in you now, the darkness, and I don't know if I can save you from it."
His hands were trembling as he set them lightly on her hips, holding her close to him, keeping her still. She let her hands slide down to his chest, and she put her head on his shoulder, breathing in the scent of him. Ink and paper and blood. The blood, she thought, was just imaginary. But she could still smell it nonetheless.
"I don't know if I can save you from it," she said again. "It might kill me to try."
His voice was husky against her ear. "I wouldn't let it kill you."
"You might not have a choice."
"I'd never let you die. Not if I can stop it."
"I don't want you in this, Lizzy. I've told you from the beginning. I don't care what happens to me. I don't want you in this. I don't want you ruined by this. By what I do." He hesitated, so long she thought he might not say it, and then his voice went lower, and his arms went tight around her waist. "I don't want to destroy you any more than you want to be destroyed."
"There are no guarantees, then," she said, and pulled a little bit away, so she could look him in the face again, so she could see his mismatched eyes. "But there never are guarantees in anything."
If it was possible for elation and devastation to coexist in one expression, it was the face Ciel wore now. "You're staying?"
"Not immediately." She hesitated. "I need time to myself. I need space to heal again."
He nodded. He understood the war as well as her mother did. "Where will you be going?"
"Do you know, I'm not sure," she said, and for some reason it made her smile. "Places I've never been to before. Perhaps I'll go to India. I did promise Paula I would."
"For how long?"
"As long as I need to be gone." She paused again. "You're really all right?"
"I've been through worse," he said, and it dug a knife into her heart to know that yes, he had been through worse, and no, he had not had anyone to help him through it. Elizabeth took a deep breath, resting her forehead in the crook of his neck for a moment. Her arms went tight around him, and she clung to him, and he to her, and for once she didn't feel like crying. She felt like soaring.
Then she kissed his cheek, and pulled away. "I'll write."
"Wait," Ciel said, and he snagged her wrist in his good hand. "The last time you were here, you forgot something. You don't have to keep it if you don't want it. It's just…something you ought to have. For good, this time," he added, and she hadn't seen him nervous in years. What on earth—
He set something in her hand, curled her fingers over it before she could see what it was. He looked at her for a moment, and his mouth quirked up at the corner. Ciel Phantomhive lifted her hand and pressed his lips to her knuckles, light and lingering. "I will see you again, Elizabeth. That I promise you."
She felt herself blush, but she didn't pull away. She couldn't quite speak. Ciel released her and left, closing the door gently behind him, and it was only once she'd steadied her breathing again that Elizabeth could open her hand and see what he'd given her.
The diamond and sapphire engagement ring rested, light as a kiss, against her palm.
Something you ought to have. For good, this time.
With trembling fingers, she laced it onto her necklace, tucked it and the key under her collar, and pressed a hand to her heart.
She stood there, shaking hard, for a very long time. And when she finally left, she left the letter his mother had written for him on his desk.
Sebastian showed her out. He was very quiet, though she could see a hint of a smile around his mouth; she wondered if he could tell, if he could see what Ciel had given her, or not. She didn't know anything about demons. It was something she ought to change, she thought absently, as she walked down the main path towards the street. If she was going to do anything, try anything, she really ought to know more about demons.
It was only at the edge of the carriage that Elizabeth gathered up the courage to speak. "Sebastian."
He bowed to her. "Lady Middleford."
"If I asked, would you make a contract with me?"
His eyes flashed red. Sebastian gave her a very long and level look, considering. Elizabeth stood very still, staring back at him. She'd seen this man commit sacrilege and murder. She'd watched him for years now, saving her cousin and destroying him, all at once, and she didn't know what she could do to stop it. The Sanskrit papers in her desk seemed to claw at the inside of her mind, a solution, a chance. But still she waited, and finally Sebastian smiled.
"No," he said. "No, I wouldn't, Lady Elizabeth. But I rather think that the dear departed Ramiel would have."
If he'd punched her in the face, he couldn't have hurt her more. Elizabeth took a ragged breath, and stared at him. Fought back the urge to slap him. "And what on earth is that supposed to mean?"
"He would have said something, I'm certain of it." Sebastian reached out, and set his index finger against her sternum, light as a moth. The touch made her tremble. "Your soul is so very bright, my lady. No matter how dark your life grows, no matter how battered it becomes, your soul never stops glowing. It's almost as though you have an angel's hand on you."
She stared at him. Sebastian retracted his hand, placed it against his chest, and bowed. Then he walked away, and she was left to clamber into the carriage on her own, and think about what he'd said.
Come to think of it, the Director had said something. The very first time she'd met him. He'd looked at her so strangely, focused on her so hard, that she'd been terrified she'd been found out. But he'd called her interesting. "It's faint, but…" It's almost as though you have an angel's hand on you.
There was only one person she could think of that would do that.
"Aunt Rachel?" she whispered, and waited. The carriage rattled around her. There was no answer. Elizabeth cleared her throat. Tears filled her eyes. She let out a breath. "Aunt Rachel, are you there?"
There was nothing obvious. Perhaps she felt a bit calmer. Perhaps there was a rush of warmth, but that could have been her imagination. The smell of violets, too, was something she could wish into life. But despite her better judgment, she swore that she felt a hand brush against her cheek, an arm around her shoulder. There was a soft whisper in her ear.
No matter what happens to me, I will always be with you. Both of you.
And then she was gone. The warmth faded. She could taste just a trace of violets on the air.
Elizabeth closed her eyes, leaned against the seat, and smiled.
"Have you seen enough?"
Colleen straightened. It felt very strange to be watching the goings-on of London from above. She sat on the roof of the Phantomhive townhouse, one knee drawn up to her chest, the other foot dangling out into space. Her hair had been cropped short, as per reaper regulation, and her new suit—with pants, of all newfangled notions—was crisp and clean. Dirt never seemed to stick on it. She didn't ever smell, either, and that was a right godsend. It even made up for her having to wear specs, now. She glanced at Ronald Knox, tilting her head to one side. Her gloves itched on her hands.
"Not really," she said, and turned to watch as Lady Toff's carriage rolled away down the street. "It's all right if I keep an eye on them, yeah?"
"Keep an eye on the Lady Middleford, you mean," Knox corrected, and Colleen punched him in the shoulder, hard. She didn't look away from the carriage. "Damn you, woman, don't hit me."
"Then don't be smart with me, fancy boy." She waited until the carriage was out of sight, and then rolled back to her feet, stretching her arms high over her head. The notebook was hot in her pocket. "New name."
"I'm the teacher here, trainee, don't forget that." Still, Knox was grinning like an idiot as he watched her, and Colleen wondered if that was normal, for reapers. All the stories she'd heard about them when she'd been a kid, no reaper had ever grinned like that.
"Then teach," she snapped back. He reached out, and tapped her lightly under the chin.
"Yes, sir, ma'am."
They left before the demon could sense them. Colleen did not look back.
It's over. It's over. At long last, it's finally over. 463 pages, over 214,000 words, and (as of this moment) 1,155 reviews. I can't believe it's over. DE has been such a huge part of my life for so long that it's impossible to think that it's done.
But it is, and now I have certain very special people to thank:
My oh-so-wonderful beta, L., (talesofinkandglass on Tumblr) who only came in during the latter third of the story but did so much to help me improve it.
Ia, my darling, darling Ia, (sakumaking on Tumblr, though you'll probably change your username again soon, won't you?) who drew such lovely pieces of art and cheered me on every step of the way. (Actually, now that I think of it: cielking-art on Tumblr. I don't see that changing in the near future.)
Sophie, your reviews and messages have been a joy. Don't ever stop being awesome.
Anubis, who also drew me a wonderful picture, and made me smile with their depiction of Colleen.
And to all my lovely reviewers: whether you're new or if you've been with me every step of the way (and so many of you have that it makes me want to cry with joy), you have been my bedrock, my foundation, and the pillar that I depended on to keep me posting. You are wonderful, all of you, an ecstasy, and I love you all very dearly.
I wish you all a very lovely year.
~Shu of the Wind