The rope cut tightly into his wrists as Arshad trudged toward the gallows. A dull drone rose from the crowd, like the hum from an angry hive of bees, and the sun beat down mercilessly upon his head. But its scorching rays couldn’t touch the despair that froze his soul, locked in ice colder than the lofty Himalayas.
He didn’t shed a tear, nor did his legs quake with terror. He was too empty for that. Only a few days ago, Arshad had been invincible, spitting in the face of the gods, seizing whatever caught his fancy and crushing whoever stood in his way.
In his hearts of hearts, he’d known there would be a price to pay, but he’d never believed that day would come.
Time slowed to a crawl as he ascended the steps, head bowed. The crowd erupted in jeers and curses when he came into view.
Not a single friendly face was to be seen; all were twisted with loathing and hatred. His own monstrousness reflected back at him.
The noose scratched Arshad’s skin, but sat loosely around his neck—a languid serpent waiting for the right moment to tighten her coils and swallow his life whole.
I’m not ready.
Death was all that awaited him. Hopeless. And although he fully deserved it…
I don’t want to die. Not yet. Please.
A hand latched onto his shoulder, shaking the khansama out of his dream and into the present. Two vivid points of red gazed down at him in concern from the darkness.
That…that was right. He was Agni now, not Arshad. Agni.
The khansama gasped for air, half-expecting to feel the noose round his throat, choking him.
Kind hands smoothed the hair from his brow, which was bathed in a cold sweat.
“You’re safe, dear. It was just a bad dream. You’re safe. I’m here. No harm will befall you.”
The demon’s voice was softer than satin. Agni focused less on his words than on the steady calm and reassurance conveyed therein, and his frantic heart grew quiet.
“Se-Sebastian,” he whispered.
Sebastian took his blessed right hand and kissed it. A tingle ran across the bare skin touched by a demon’s lips, as it always did when Sebastian’s hellfire ventured so near to Kali’s divine benison. Then, the butler snapped his fingers, and the lamp on the nightstand was suddenly aglow. Light and shadow danced across his countenance, lending a gentler cast to the sharp, inhumanely beautiful planes of Sebastian’s face, yet shrouding it in mystery. And his eyes glowed like embers at the hearth when he opened his arms to Agni.
“Come here, love.”
Agni buried his face in Sebastian’s chest, tears silently rolling down his cheeks. The demon hugged him close and began to purr.
“My poor dear…there, there…it’s all right, my honey…shh, sweetheart, shh…”
Agni sought refuge in his warmth, in that undefinable scent, comforting but with a wilder, acrid tang beneath, that was inimitably Sebastian.
“Would you like to talk about it?” the butler asked while he caressed Agni’s hair.
He swallowed hard before replying.
“I was dreaming of my life...before. Before Prince Soma saved me, I mean. They were taking me to the gallows to be hanged for my crimes, and the rope was around my neck, and death racing towards me like a tiger with its gaping, hungry maw…”
Trembling violently, Agni wrapped his arms around Sebastian’s waist, filled with an irrational fear that he might otherwise be swept away.
“But the worst of it was knowing that I deserved that death. I committed atrocities by the dozens, ruined countless people’s lives, and nothing that I say or do can ever wash those sins clean.”
Sebastian’s voice ached with sadness.
“The past cannot be changed any more than words engraved in stone can be rewritten, but the present is malleable as clay. You made yourself anew, sunshine. The Agni I know is not the wretched man whose cold eyes saw nothing but death. He’s an exemplary khansama, a friend and mentor to the other servants, and a wonderful father to Soma and my young master…not to mention the husband I utterly adore,” he whispered fondly.
Agni blushed, and almost managed a smile, but remorse’s vicious teeth gnawed at his heart.
“It’s just hard to feel like I’ve changed, sometimes. No matter what praise I receive, the gods see all my wickedness, and know how unworthy I am of the happiness I’ve found here.”
“But aren’t I far less worthy?” Sebastian countered. “I’m a demon from hell, Agni. If you committed dozens of iniquities, I’ve committed hundreds. Yet you still love me.”
“It’s not the same, though. You were merely acting in accordance with your nature, or at the behest of evil masters. I was taught the right path, but I strayed from it of my own free will…there’s no excuse for the things I did, none.”
“You stubborn, impossible man,” Sebastian sighed, his voice tinged with affectionate exasperation. They lapsed into silence. Agni’s tears dried, but the crushing guilt that smothered his soul grew no lighter.
“What do you need from me, sunshine?” the butler finally asked.
Agni closed his eyes. He was still badly shaken by the unexpected nightmare, but he didn’t want to worry his husband more than he already had—
“And don’t you dare say ‘I’m fine,’ Agni, because you’re not. I don’t need to be a demon to see how upset you are.”
“I can’t go back to sleep just yet,” he admitted bashfully.
Sebastian patted his back.
“That’s perfectly understandable, dear.”
“But you shouldn’t trouble yourself on my account,” the khansama protested, only to be shushed by his demon.
“We’ve discussed this before, husband mine. Remember? Your generosity knows no bounds, which is a noble and admirable trait, but you can’t serve others from an empty cup. It’s equally important to accept help when you’re tired or hurting. So, I’ll ask again. What do you need from me?”
Agni blushed. Beneath the silent screams of his tortured conscience, he heard the truth in Sebastian’s words.
“Maybe…maybe doing a little work that’ll keep my hands and my mind busy. Like baking,” he stammered. “But it’s much too late. We might accidentally wake up the other servants, and it wouldn’t be right for me to plunder Earl Phantomhive’s kitchen.”
Sebastian chuckled. “Nonsense, you silly thing. Neither of us is the type to clatter pots and pans for all the manor to hear. And as long as we’re making something sweet, I think my young master will forgive us. It’ll hardly put a dent in his coffers. If he does take umbrage, I’ll assume responsibility as the one who encouraged you.”
Agni mused, not for the first time, that either the gods above or the infernal powers below had gifted Sebastian with a silver tongue. The idea that moments earlier had seemed selfish and farfetched was completely acceptable when phrased in the demon’s terms.
“And it’ll be…well, fun. I love baking with you, Agni,” Sebastian coaxed. He said the khansama’s name as if all the world’s happiness was contained in those two syllables, and the open adoration revived Agni’s spirit as rain does a parched, melancholy flower.
“All right, you’ve convinced me,” the khansama smiled. He slowly disentangled himself from Sebastian’s embrace and rose to put on more suitable clothing, with his husband quickly following suit. Neither donned their full work ensemble. Agni threw on a plain sherwani and trousers, and dispensed with his turban in favor of a simple, loose ponytail. Meanwhile, Sebastian slipped on a pair of his standard black pants and white shirt, eschewing the tailcoat for once. Agni noticed that Sebastian didn’t bother with the first two buttons, leaving those graceful collarbones exposed. And unsurprisingly, the demon noticed that he noticed, as evidenced by the faint smirk that crept across his face.
However, the smugness faded as Sebastian tenderly took Agni’s right hand in his left.
“Are you ready, dear?” he asked. Agni nodded, and they headed out into the hall.
Just as Sebastian had opted against wearing gloves, Agni had left his bandages tucked away in the drawer. The khansama was fully aware of what his partner was, and Sebastian’s black nails and contract seal held no more horror for him than the demon’s nebulous, ever-shifting essence, like the soul of midnight given substance, or his multitudinous red eyes, each one burning with the passionate splendor of a blazing star. The night sky’s black, infinite emptiness was as lovely in its own way as the tranquil, selenian light that guided men’s footsteps in the dark. Small wonder, then, that the incomprehensible shadows of the demon’s true nature and the Phantomhive butler’s glittering perfection were both beautiful to Agni. Likewise, Sebastian did not quail before the right hand of Kali. Agni took precautions not to touch him when using the goddess's gift, and Sebastian had grown so finely attuned to his movements that he anticipated the khansama's next step almost before he made it. Of course, the demon had also drunk his blood on occasion, which conferred a measure of protection against Kali’s power (though that was something Agni could never think of without blushing to the tips of his ears).
He treasured the private moments when they could hold hands like this, skin on skin, no barriers between them. Sebastian’s touch carried an added protectiveness tonight: The firm hold that said I shan’t leave you, the gentle back-and-forth of his thumb that whispered, You’re precious to me.
Once they entered the kitchen, Sebastian turned on the lights, and the pair washed their hands at the sink before putting on aprons. Agni borrowed one of Bard’s, but the demon had his own personal apron—a recent gift from Lady Elizabeth. It was a bright, cheerful pink (the color that ebullient girl so loved), overlain with a pattern of smiling black cat faces.
Sebastian glanced down at his new attire with a rueful smile.
“A tad too frivolous for a butler, but it would be ungracious to cast aside a token Miss Elizabeth gave me. And the adorable felines are certainly a redeeming feature…”
Agni found himself grinning from ear to ear. While a dramatic departure from his somber livery, the whimsical apron lent a softness to Sebastian’s appearance. Domestic, and, as the butler himself had said, absolutely adorable.
“You’re so cute, moonlight,” Agni whispered, cupping Sebastian’s face in his hands.
“I—I beg your pardon?” the demon stuttered. “Dear, you do recall that I am a member of the Diabolical Gentry, and slay my young master’s enemies without an ounce of pity—"
“All that is true, and more…but it doesn’t make you any less cute,” Agni chuckled. Then he bent down and kissed Sebastian. The demon let out a gasp of startled delight, eyes fluttering shut, lashes ticking Agni’s skin, light as a feather.
Sebastian rarely divulged his innermost feelings to others, hiding them at the very center of his labyrinthine heart and sowing thorns and briars to guard the way. But he willingly came forth to share them with Agni. His most profound statements were often unspoken: A soaring melody from his violin, a graceful dance with the khansama by candlelight...or a kiss that felt like the newest verse in a poem he'd been writing to Agni for years and years.
“My white rose,” Agni sighed when they parted, though in fact a red bloom lent color to Sebastian's pallid cheek.
"You hush," the demon whispered. "I shan't be able to concentrate if you keep acting this sweet."
He tilted his head thoughtfully to the side.
"By the way, have you decided what you'd like to bake?"
"Hmm..." Agni mused. Although he didn't observe Christmas himself, it was less than a week away, and the other members of the household might appreciate a treat in keeping with the season.
"What about gingerbread?" he asked. His prince loved the flavorful biscuits, and if he and Sebastian put icing on them, so would the young earl. And they were also a favorite among the Phantomhive servants.
The demon nodded approvingly. "An excellent choice. Should we make the traditional variety, or use the cookie cutters?"
Agni brightened. "Oh yes! The little ones shaped like rabbit faces."
Last year, Funtom Corporation had released a line of Bitter Rabbit-themed cooking products, including a set of cookie cutters made to resemble bunnies.
"I thought you'd like that idea," Sebastian purred, eyes crinkling affectionately. "Now let's get our ingredients."
Once they'd set everything up, Agni said a quiet prayer, and power surged from his arm to his fingertips like a pure white flame. The holy knowledge guided his hand as he combined brown sugar, flour, cloves, allspice, and more. There wasn't room in Agni's heart for sadness when he worked in the kitchen; he was too deeply immersed in the joy of creation, taking the separate components and forming a new whole that would delight those who partook of it.
And his beloved Sebastian was there, closer than Agni's shadow, deftly moving around the khansama to help where needed, perfectly synchronized with his rhythm. Agni softly began to hum a tune, a favorite from his boyhood, and the demon only needed to listen to a few bars before he picked up the harmony.
Once they'd cut out the biscuits and arranged them on trays, Agni put them in the oven to bake. Sebastian got out his pocketwatch to check the time.
"They should be done in about 15 min—"
He paused abruptly, and his head whipped around as he stared at the kitchen door.
"What is it, moonlight?" Agni asked.
Sebastian's brow furrowed. "It would appear you're not the only one whose sleep was troubled..."
The door swung open to reveal Bardroy, still clad in his pajamas, eyes bleary and bloodshot.
It took a moment for his drowsy gaze to focus on butler and khansama, but he stumbled back when he noticed them standing there.
"Aw shit! I mean, er—sorry, Mr. Sebastian, Mr. Agni. Didn't mean t' disturb yer...but what're ya doin' in the kitchen at this time of night?"
"I could ask much the same of you, Bardroy," Sebastian retorted. However, the demon's frown bespoke worry rather than annoyance.
The chef sighed wearily and rubbed the back of his neck.
"Couldn't sleep worth a damn...not with the dreams I was havin'. Figured I'd step out t' have a smoke."
Bard rarely talked about his past, but Agni knew that his time as a soldier had left him wounded in spirit as well as in body. Unseen scars had a way of lingering long after those visible to the eye had healed.
"I was having nightmares, too, so Sebastian and I are baking for a little while to take my mind off things," Agni replied.
A shadow of a smile crossed the chef's face.
"Ye have a magic touch in the kitchen, Mr. Agni, so I reckon it's bound to be good."
Bard walked over to the oven and took a whiff of the fragrance wafting towards them.
"Cor! That's gingerbread, ain't it?"
"That's right; we tried to make enough for everyone," the khansama said.
Bard shot him a boyish grin.
"Would ya like someone to taste-test 'em?"
Sebastian's eyes narrowed in exasperation, and he opened his mouth to deliver a tart reply, but Agni beat him to the punch.
"Of course!" he declared, putting his hands together. "We want to make sure they're just right before serving them tomorrow."
The butler clearly had reservations about Bard setting the kitchen ablaze, but in Agni's mind, the chef would be better off if he had company. And sampling a biscuit would be preferable to puffing away on cigarettes; it wasn't Agni's place to interfere, but he often worried about the effect those foul-smelling things might have on Bard's health.
Sebastian raised an eyebrow and shook his head, but he gave Agni a fond smile as if to say, What am I to do with you?
While the three of them waited for the gingerbread to finish baking, Agni kept up a steady stream of conversation with Bard—pleasant, innocuous topics that had nothing to do with the horrors of war—with Sebastian chiming in as needed.
"Aw, look at the little chaps," Bard said when they removed the baking trays from the oven. "Mey Rin'll be beside herself with how cute they are."
"They're perfect, sunshine. I'd expect nothing less of you," Sebastian added warmly, beaming with pride.
His husband's praise was much too generous, but Agni had to admit that the gingerbread bunnies had turned out well.
"All thanks to the goddess," he protested. As soon as the khansama set down his tray, Bard reached out to swipe a biscuit.
"Bardroy, they're still piping hot! You'll burn off the roof of your mouth!" Sebastian scolded, but the chef paid his singed fingers no mind as he took as bite.
"Ish delishus!" he exclaimed around a mouthful of gingerbread. He wolfed down the rest of his treat, and gave Agni a thumbs-up.
"Like a little bit o' heaven."
Sebastian stifled a giggle, though not before the khansama heard him. Agni had received help from a demon, after all, and his partner delighted in irony.
"Maybe jus' one more..." Bard wheedled, eyeing the remaining gingerbread.
"You have to leave some for the rest of the household! But there'll be plenty tomorrow."
The chef looked ready to protest, but was overtaken by a tired yawn.
"Blimey! 'Scuse me," he mumbled. "Ye know, I think I'm fin'lly ready for bed."
He clapped Agni on the shoulder and gave Sebastian a grateful nod.
"Thank yer for letting me hang around. It...it helped."
And he saw himself out of the kitchen, walking back to the servants' quarters with lighter tread.
"I hope he rests peacefully," Agni said once Bard was out of earshot.
"I'm sure he will, dear," the demon replied. He laid his hand atop the khansama's and gave it a gentle pat. "Do you see?"
"See what, moonlight?"
“Whatever your feeling tells you to the contrary, you are a good man. Your hands used to destroy, but now they create. And you always take time for others when they need it most. In my experience, human virtue is little more than a sham, but yours is the genuine article, Agni. Your love changed me in ways I didn't think possible. I'm a completely different person because of you."
Sebastian's grip tightened as he gazed into Agni's eyes.
"It takes a special mortal indeed to win a demon's heart."
Agni couldn't speak past the sudden tightness in his throat, so he settled for giving Sebastian a kiss on the forehead. He knew the butler would understand.
They waited in silent contentment together for the biscuits to cool (otherwise, the icing would have melted straightaway). Agni felt a blessed peace descend upon his soul, the kind he usually only achieved after hours of meditation.
"I suppose it's fitting that you chose gingerbread," Sebastian murmured.
"Oh?" Agni asked with a smile.
"Well...it's like our love, in a sense. A mix of piquant spices and sweet sugar. You might not normally think to combine them, but when you do, the result is something close to perfection."
Agni wrapped an arm around the demon's waist.
"A little bit of heaven," he whispered.