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Gross Indecency

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“Young Master?” Ciel looked up from his pile of paperwork to see Sebastian standing in the doorway, a strange and unreadable expression on his face. “A Miss Annette Browning is here to see you, my lord.”

Ciel raised an eyebrow and waved a dismissive hand. “Tell her to call again on Tuesday – I haven’t the time or the inclination just now to see anyone who can’t be bothered to arrange an appointment beforehand.” He returned his gaze to the shipping forms he was reviewing, the matter firmly closed as far as he was concerned.

Sebastian cleared his throat politely. “I’m sorry, Young Master, but she is most insistent, and refuses to be turned away.”

The Earl looked up in irritation, frustrated at having his concentration broken yet again; running the most successful toy and confectionery company in the world was no easy task, and the idea that he should have to delay his work due to some stranger with no manners and no appointment was vexing indeed. “Who is this woman? Is she someone I should have met before now? I can’t say I’ve ever heard of her.”

Sebastian’s eyebrow quirked very slightly. “Miss Browning is a founding member of the Committee for the Cessation of Child Exploitation. She claims to have urgent business with you.”

Ciel blinked in surprise. “The ones who have been petitioning the Crown for stricter laws concerning child labor and workhouses?” He sighed. “Oh, very well. Her cause is of interest to me, and I suppose you can’t exactly strong-arm a lady out the door if she won’t go.” He set aside his pen and stood, smoothing the wrinkles from his jacket. “Take her to the parlor and offer her some tea or something; I’ll be there directly.”

“Understood.” Sebastian bowed and left, closing the door behind him.

Five minutes later, Ciel entered the parlor, his walking-stick tapping on the parquet floor; he paused to look at his guest, and within seconds he understood why Sebastian’s expression had been so guarded.

“Ah, Ciel Phantomhive!” The woman’s eyes lit up the instant she saw him, and the boy flinched at the casual use of his given name. “From all I’d heard about you and what happened to you and your family, I expected you to be in far worse shape, poor thing!”

It was all the Earl could do just to keep his jaw from falling open in shock. What? Who the hell begins a conversation with a stranger this way? He cleared his throat and drew himself up to his full height, straightening his spine proudly. “If you know so much about me, Miss Browning, then perhaps you should do me the courtesy of explaining a bit about yourself and what your business is with me.” He handed Sebastian his walking-stick and sat down in a wingback chair, allowing himself to commit something of a social faux pas by not offering to take her hand in greeting; everything about the woman grated on him, from her pitying gaze to the way she wrung her hands in her lap as she spoke to him, as if she were fretting for him the entire time. “And with all due respect, I am hardly a ‘poor thing’.” Which is no doubt why you’re here, he thought acidly, so just get on with it and tell me how much money you’re hoping to garner from me to support your cause.

“Well, you see, Ciel—“

“Miss Browning, I am the Earl of Phantomhive, and I have not given you leave to address me so casually. This is not a good way for us to begin.” The boy’s tone and gaze were ice cold, tension beginning to knot up the muscles in his neck and shoulders.

“Oh!” Miss Browning’s eyes flew open wide as it finally dawned on her that she had offended her host. “I beg your pardon, you were titled despite being just a child, weren’t you?”

Sebastian, standing behind Ciel’s left shoulder, sensed imminent social ruin and quickly put a cup and saucer into his young master’s hand to distract him.

“Very well,” the woman continued, in the tone of one indulging a small child in a game of pretend. “I apologize for being so familiar upon our first meeting, Earl Phantomhive.”

Ciel was finding it very difficult to sip his tea while clenching his teeth. “What is it you want from me, Miss Browning?”

“Oh, but it isn’t what I want from you, Earl Phantomhive, it’s what I want for you!” She leaned forward eagerly, beaming a smile at him that he supposed was intended to be warm and charming. “It’s you I’m here to support!”

Ciel was so taken aback that it took him several moments to compose himself enough to reply as politely as possible, “What on earth are you talking about?”

“I represent the Committee for the Cessation of the Exploitation of Children,” Miss Browning said, as if that explained everything.

“Yes, so I’ve heard – but if you’re not here seeking financial support for your petition, then what does that have to do with me?” He did not like the direction the conversation was going, and he had the distinct feeling that even Sebastian – who normally took great pleasure in watching Ciel squirm – was no more amused than he.

“The Committee seeks to ensure that every child is allowed a childhood, one free of suffering and overwork at the hands of exploitative adults.” Her smile was becoming dangerously close to beseeching.

“An admirable stance – but what, Miss Browning, does that have to do with me?” The little Earl was at the very limit of his patience, his quiet annoyance building to a simmering anger. “Make yourself plain, or let us be done with this – I am very busy and I have taken time out of my schedule for you, despite your lack of an appointment or invitation, and I do not appreciate having my valuable time wasted.”

She sighed and dropped her gaze; when she looked up again, her expression was soft, her voice even softer, her tone serious. “Orphaned so young, and so tragically; famously returning after a month-long absence with one eye missing; forced to don the mantle of head of household, the title of Earl, and the ownership of one of the largest manufacturers in the world; you are rumored to work long hours and are often seen in public with various injuries… Earl Phantomhive—Ciel—you are an exploited child, and the Committee would like to help you!”

Ciel nearly dropped the teacup. ”What?”

“Your childhood has been taken from you, Ciel, a childhood you deserve to have! That every child deserves to have! You’re vulnerable to the cruelty of adults who would seek to use you for their own gain – how many of your servants do you suppose are stealing from you? Have they bartered for higher wages than they deserve? How would you know? Being a child, you have no understanding of the way adults think, and how they can truly be!”

Ciel was offended beyond the ability to form sentences; he sat there in shock and stared at her, his face pale, the teacup half dangling from his finger, and said nothing – so she rushed on:

“Forgive me for being so harsh – I only wish to open your eyes to the way things are, to help protect you from any further harm! I’ve often seen you in the newspapers, donating to orphanages and the Great Ormond Street Hospital – it’s obvious that you’re trying to give other children the childhood being stolen from you day by day while you line the wolves’ coffers from your own pockets!” She lowered her voice even further and said in a gentle, coaxing tone, “And… and perhaps… you are too young to know that the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed four years ago, raising the age of… adult reason… from thirteen to sixteen years of age… and perhaps someone… some man might… lead you astray, unbeknownst to you—“

The cold anger in Ciel’s chest swelled into a burning rage, and he stood abruptly, handing off the teacup to Sebastian before he did something irrevocably socially damning, like throwing the hot tea in the woman’s face. “How… dare you!” he spat, color rising in his cheeks, his visible eye blazing with livid pride. “You know nothing of me, Miss Browning, if you think I am merely an easily-duped child with a tragic history – what do you know of me? What you’ve read in the papers? What you’ve seen in the society columns? How dare you presume to tell me who and what I am, and to my very face!” His fists clenched at his sides, his fingernails digging bleeding crescents into his palms. “Never in my life have I been so deeply insulted – in my own home, no less! – and I assure you, I have met a great many very provoking people!”

He stalked over to her, glaring up into her face in fierce defiance. “As if my servants’ wages are any of your business – which they are not, by the by – I am the one who determines them, I am the one who pays them, and if you think I would keep around any servant who stole from me – or dared to speak to me in the manner you have today – then you, Miss Browning, are gravely mistaken.” He paused to take a breath, willing his heartbeat to slow enough to allow him to inform her in a harsh, cutting voice: “I am well aware of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, as well as its provisions, and I assure you, were I to commit any act of ‘gross indecency’, it would be by my wish, and to Hell with anyone who would say I am incapable of ‘adult reason’!”

Sebastian stepped forward, realizing his young master was losing control of his temper, and coughed unobtrusively; Ciel raised a hand to indicate he was all right and the butler should stay where he was, then inhaled and exhaled deeply before continuing, much more calmly but in a voice laced with hoarfrost and poison, “I am not a child, Miss Browning, not a pathetic foundling in the workhouse, nor am I an innocent to be duped by unscrupulous adults. I have likely seen as much, if not more, of ‘the way things are’ as any grown man, and I have survived it all, even if my eye did not. Therefore, take your protections to a genuine child, one who requires them, for I do not need your help, and I surely do not want it!”

Turning away from the woman, who was gaping at him like a goldfish, Ciel gestured for the demon to come forward. “Sebastian, escort Miss Browning from the house – immediately.” And don’t bother to be gentle about it, he wanted to add, but didn’t.

“Yes, my lord.” Sebastian bowed and firmly took hold of her arm, his smile rife with dangerous politeness. “Come this way, please, Miss Browning – I shall see you out.”

The parlor door shut behind them, and Ciel sank into the chair again, trembling all over, his hands shaking. How dare she! How dare she! he thought, over and over. I’m more of an adult than she is, that tactless, presumptuous, ill-mannered—

“Young Master? Are you all right?”

Ciel looked up to see that Sebastian had returned, and almost laughed when he saw the look of concern on his face. “I’m fine, Sebastian. Pour me some tea.”

“Of course.” The devil bent to fill the cup again, then handed it over with a crooked half-smile.

Feeling a bit better, the Earl sipped his tea, regarding his butler from the corner of his eye. “What are you smirking at?” he asked, a bit brusquely, but without venom.

“You were quite the firebrand, my little lord. I must say I’m quite proud of you.”

Ciel’s cheeks flushed again, but not with anger. “Stop flattering me.”

“I would never do such a thing,” Sebastian replied amiably. “I’m being completely sincere.”

Ciel snorted out a little laugh, then set the cup and saucer aside. “Sebastian.”

“Yes?”

“Take me to bed.”

Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “Young Master, it’s hardly half-past three in the afternoon – surely that didn’t upset you so much as to tire you out?”

A slow smile curved the boy’s lips. “Far from it. I’m actually feeling rather… grossly indecent.” He held up his arms to indicate that Sebastian should lift him up and carry him. “Take me to bed, Sebastian.”

The devil’s eyes flared like coal-embers. “Shall I lead you astray, then?” He lifted Ciel from the chair and settled him in his arms, then strode across the room to the door.

The little Earl chuckled into Sebastian’s ear, breath as hot as his words warming the alabaster shell. “Several times over, I should think.”

“Of course, my lord, at once.” He carried the boy upstairs, the two laughing conspiratorially, and shut the bedroom door behind them.

 

END.