By the light of day, the Earl of Phantomhive comported himself with a glacial hauteur that belied his tender years. Alone at night in his chambers, however, the Watchdog’s mask slipped, and the broken, wretched child locked away in his heart lifted his head to scream. This was one such night. If the dark maelstrom of energy emanating from his room was any indication, the young master was beset by nightmares. Pain, sadness, anger, despair…they devoured him.
Hesitantly, Sebastian put his hand on the doorknob. His master hadn’t called for him; his cries were the wordless howls of an irreparably damaged soul. Still, it was past midnight, and the Earl had been tortured relentlessly by his dreams. If Sebastian didn’t intervene, he might not sleep at all, which would make him irritable and bothersome the next day. The demon assured himself that it was solely for the purpose of preventing this outcome that he entered the room. He could hardly sympathize with the young master. It wasn’t as though Sebastian wished to assuage the terrible grief suffocating this soul.
“Who’s there?” the boy cried out, his voice shrill with panic.
“It’s your butler. It’s Sebastian.”
The weary, haunted figure cowering among his blankets served as a reminder of the mouthwatering repast that awaited the demon when this contract was over and done with. So why did the sight fail to bring him satisfaction? Sebastian felt not a whit of the smug schadenfreude that was normally his chief emotion. Poor, poor boy he thought to himself before pushing down the sentiment that had arisen unbidden to his consciousness. Still, the young master needed to be properly rested for the busy morning ahead.
An outlandish notion suggested itself to Sebastian. It was unorthodox (he preferred remaining in human form for this contract to maintain the butler aesthetic), but a Phantomhive servant would do what he must for his master’s sake. Sebastian’s outline wavered, and his face was obscured by a smoky darkness. When the flurry of his essence dissipated, a massive black wolf with blood-red eyes stood where the butler had been.
“What the…you turned into a wolf?” the Earl choked out after spending several interminable seconds staring at Sebastian.
“I did indeed, my lord.”
“I don’t understand,” the boy whispered hoarsely. “Wolves are practically the same as dogs, Sebastian.”
“Thank you for enlightening me, young master,” the demon responded dryly. Perhaps a little needling would take the Earl’s mind off his troubles. Sebastian felt a rush of relief as that spark of defiance with which he was familiar was rekindled in the boy’s eyes.
“But I thought you hated dogs?” the young master insisted.
“Curs are despicable creatures, but there is a certain pride and ferocity about a wolf. Besides, you like dogs.”
The boy went slackjawed in astonishment. Sebastian leapt onto the bed, causing both himself and his master to bounce on the springs. While the Earl spluttered indignantly at this unexpected disturbance, Sebastian curled himself around the frail human.
“What the hell are you doing, you bloody idiot?” the young master snapped at him, though he was too spent from his nightmares for the query to carry any real venom.
“In past contracts, I’ve observed that humans can derive comfort from animals. As your butler, I place your comfort among my highest priorities, and I assumed adopting the form of a creature ideal for petting might achieve that goal.”
A range of emotions ran across the young master’s face in such rapid succession that Sebastian could not place them. “Stupid demon,” he muttered, and fresh tears streamed down his cheeks as he buried his hands in Sebastian’s fur.
In his rare moments of leisure, the Earl sometimes wondered whether he had inadvertently contracted with one of hell’s most bizarre fiends. What kind of demon twittered like a schoolgirl over cats, for God’s sake? Even for Sebastian, though, this was odd behavior. There had to be an ulterior motive at work here, or perhaps Sebastian was simply fed up with listening to his screams. Yet the demon’s eyes, which regarded the world with implacable coldness, seemed almost warm now, even sympathetic.
That was impossible, poppycock. A creature like Sebastian was categorically incapable of such sentiments. At present, though, it hardly mattered. He harbored no illusions where Sebastian was concerned—the demon didn’t give a fig about him except as a prospective meal. However, if he could not offer care, his butler could at least provide comfort, and the boy would accept it from anyone at this point.
Sebastian’s fur was impossibly soft and thick; the Earl’s hands sank in it up to the wrist. Comfort. It made him weep anew, and he cursed his own weakness. The Queen’s Watchdog should be hard as flint, unyielding as steel.
“It’s all right, child.” Sebastian craned his neck around to lick the Earl’s tears away with his bright pink tongue. “I am your sword and shield, remember. By the dictates of our contract, I will never leave your side, nor will I betray you. If any enemy attempts to harm you, I will annihilate them.” Then, in a rush, “Please don’t cry, young master.”
Why was Sebastian going to all this trouble? When the Earl’s painstakingly constructed façade fell to pieces like shattered glass, the demon’s response was either mocking or callous. If the Watchdog hadn’t known better, though, he’d have sworn that his butler sounded truly concerned.
He petted the fluffy, crimson-eyed wolf and felt the tension in his shoulders ease. His shaky, shallow breathing returned to normal at last. Through it all, Sebastian sat motionless, a bulwark that no cauchemar could breach. The Earl’s leaden eyelids drooped. The hell within his mind hadn’t given him a moment’s peace, and exhaustion was supplanting the terror that had consumed him.
His head drifted down until it was cushioned by dark fur. “Se…bastian…”
“Yes, my lord?”
“Stay…until I…fall asleep.”
The demon’s snout gently touched his forehead. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Well, now,” Sebastian whispered. The child slumbered peacefully, using the demon’s shaggy pelt for a pillow. Technically, Sebastian was free to leave. His young master had only asked that the butler stay until he fell asleep, without bothering to append the command with the clarifying statement “this is an order,” and it was the demon’s custom to obey the letter of a master’s laws rather than the spirit. It would be a shame to stir right away, though. What if he woke the boy? Besides, despite being such a vexing little master, the Earl looked almost cute curled up against him. It wouldn’t hurt to stay for a few more minutes.
Sebastian didn’t leave until the sun’s first rays cleansed the coal-black night from the sky to reveal its pure, kyanite blue.