Sleeping in dark rooms, Johann Harcourt dreams of his new Latin teacher. Professor Michaelis lingers in his soul, pale and inhumanly handsome, his bearing marked by a minimalism of movement that reminds Johann of a Grecian statue.
Fading into dark corners of the Scarlet Fox dormitories, Johann stills his wobbling lip even as his fellow housemates mock their prefect’s uncle, once again surrounded by rumors of an illegal homosexual dalliance.
Creeping down a dark hallway, Johann approaches Professor Michaelis’ office for homework help, clutching his Latin books to his chest. The door is closed when he arrives, and Johann hears someone else inside— Ciel? A moment later, the professor speaks in reply, voice sonorous as a fine cello. The door muffles the sounds, but Johann’s ear, specially attuned to Professor Michaelis’ voice, makes out just a few words— “Tibullus 1.4.”
Too shy to interrupt, Johann flees back up the hall.
Soon, the midnight tea party wrecks Weston, and that professor— butler— swoops in like some avenging angel and saves Johann before disappearing with Ciel into the night.
Johann belongs in a higher-level Latin class than his age suggests— he knows he could hold his own even at Oxford or Cambridge— though he has never asked Weston to change his schedule, for fear of making a fuss. He recognized the name Tibullus at once from childhood Latin lessons, when his tutor had explained that Tibullus, like Propertius and a few other writers, was an elegist, specializing in minimalist love poetry.
“Elegy is slight, effeminate stuff,” the old man had said. “Stick to Vergil, Harcourt— tales of war and epic heroes will make a far healthier impression upon a growing boy like you.”
On break from Weston College, Johann slips into his family library and picks out a tattered volume of elegiac verse, tucked at the edge of a top shelf. He lies down on the nearby chaise lounge and flips through until he finds Tibullus 1.4.
The first line addresses Priapus, who Johann vaguely recalls is a Roman fertility god.
“Oh, goodness,” he whispers.
The next few lines repeatedly describe Priapus as “nudus” and refer to his “scythe,” which Johann suspects is not really a scythe at all.
Priapus speaks for most of the poem, offering advice of a sort, explaining “quae formosos cepit sollertia”— what ingenuity of his captivates handsome men.
"Oh . . .”
Johann’s cheeks flush, and he parts his lips in a whimper upon realizing the “handsome men” are not even yet men, in the strictest sense. “O fuge te tenerae puerorum credere turbae,” Priapus warns, “nam causam iusti semper amoris habent. Oh, never trust the tender crowd of boys, for they always offer you a reason for true love.”
“. . . goodness.”
“A dark night sky, destruction star!” Clayton belts, swaggering down the center of the Funtom Five rehearsal room.
“Say goodbye to the child who played with toys,” Johann sings out, voice sweet and clear. He pirouettes and drops to his knees, hands stretched out to the audience.
“Now take my hand . . .” Edward’s line is cut short by a violent violin riff.
“Stop, stop!” Professor— Mr. Michaelis barks. “Cheslock, please cease with your improvisations . . .”
At the sound of Mr. Michaelis’ voice, Johann’s heart leaps, speeding faster than even the exhausting dance moves in this opening number can justify. At that moment, Ciel slips into the room to watch the tail end of the day’s rehearsal.
The door opens and closes almost silently, and Mr. Michaelis does not turn around or otherwise acknowledge his employer, instead carrying on his argument with Cheslock seamlessly. Yet Johann sees his lips quirk at the corners— his first smile since morning.
Late at night, Johann re-reads the file Mr. Michaelis has personalized for him, filling the pages with new notes to further improve his performance. He starts in his seat, realizing that Mr. Michaelis himself has materialized seemingly out of nowhere, just a few feet away.
“I apologize for frightening you. I was merely wondering if you had any questions about my critique.”
“Oh, er,” Johann stammers, “no, I just . . .”
Johann grasps at words, scrambling to form an intelligent sentence. “This file, er, reminded me of a, a poem.”
“A Latin poem,” he says, nodding. “It’s remarkable how you’ve distilled each performer’s appeal into, er, a few clear lines, and made our personas so distinct, so the audience has a different reason to love each of us.”
“And this reminds you of a Latin poem?” Sebastian raises his eyebrows.
The Latin rolls off Johann’s tongue in perfect metrical rhythm:
“This boy pleases, because of how he checks his horse with the slender reins,
This one because of how he propels the serene water with snow-white breast,
This one captivates because of his bold audacity;
And that one because of the maiden modesty lingering in his cheeks . . .”
Maiden modesty floods Johann’s cheeks as he recalls the lines immediately preceding these: “Oh, never trust the tender crowd of boys, for they always offer you a reason for true love.”
He just quoted Tibullus 1.4 to Mr. Michaelis’ face.
“Your rhythm is exquisite,” his ex-professor says after a moment, “as is your memorization.”
“Oh, goodness . . . . I, I don’t read that sort of thing regularly,” Johann exclaims, at once out of breath. “I swear I don’t, it’s strange and im— immoral, and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t heard you!”
“I heard you mention it to Ciel, one night at Weston . . .”
Mr. Michaelis freezes, preternaturally still, as if turned to marble on the spot, and the question steals out before Johann can stop it: “You aren’t courting Ciel, are you?”
The butler peers down at Johann with widened eyes.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I . . .”
“What did you just ask me?”
“It’s because of the poem, you see,” Johann splutters. “You seem to be following all of Priapus’ advice.”
“What on earth would possess you to think that?”
“I don’t know, there’s a lot of things . . .” Johann closes his eyes and scrunches up his forehead, straining to summon a relevant verse to mind:
“Don’t refuse to travel as your boy’s companion, even if he prepares a long journey,
Even if the Dogstar parches the fields with scorching thirst,
Even if the storm-bringing rainbow anticipates more water to come,
As it weaves through the sky with its ruddy color.
If he desires to go by ship, among cerulean waves,
Row the light boat yourself through the straits.
And let it not disgust you to endure harsh labor,
Or to wear away at your unused hands with work . . .”
Johann gasps at a sudden revelation. “You did Ciel’s housework at Weston, didn’t you? Maurice was caught neglecting his duties because his hands were too soft to be accustomed to work. But I remember thinking Ciel had marvelously soft hands himself.”
“You are correct in your supposition.” Mr. Michaelis tilts his head, ever so slightly. “But what else could a proper servant do?”
Johann frowns at that. “Well, to be honest, most proper butlers wouldn’t do half of what you do— what with the cleaning and the coaching and the French pastries back at Weston, and all the directing and construction oversight here. And even before all this, you saved Ciel from the wreckage of the Campania. You’re near bursting with energy where he’s concerned, and—” he gives a little sigh— “that’s just as Priapus advises. If at first the boy refuses, don’t let laziness take hold of you. Little by little he’ll place his neck under the plow . . .”
“Ciel Phantomhive is not one to put his neck under a plow.”
“Not even this metaphorical one? They say—” Johann blushes further at this— “that love makes quite an enjoyable chain.”
“That may be, but I am simply one hell of a butler. I am bound by contract to provide the finest of service.”
“You are, I don’t doubt it,” Johann replies. “Yet I see the mysterious way you rejoice over him. And to quote Priapus once more, ‘tu, puero quodcumque tuo temptare libebit, cedas: obsequio plurima vincet amor.’ Agree to whatever your boy wants to try: by obsequience— that is, ‘obedience,’ or perhaps simply ‘service’— love conquers almost everything.” Johann pales as he translates, the full weight of the line suddenly striking him. He begins to quiver in his seat.
“I fear you are seeing things that do not exist. My lord has no interest . . .”
“I said nothing of Ciel, only of you.”
“How dare you insinuate the House of Phantomhive holds such debauchery?”
“I don’t believe it is necessarily debauchery . . .” Johann bites his lip, which once again wobbles treacherously.
“You . . .” Mr. Michaelis breaks off into a scoff. “How could any decent young man of your breeding, in this current age and culture, consider such a possibility without roundly condemning it?”
Johann swears that butler’s eyes flash with some ill-suppressed rage, and he shrinks into his chair as Mr. Michaelis draws closer, towering over him. “I, I didn’t . . .”
“You did not imply that my master allows ‘pure vice’ to thrive within his household? You did not make an accusation that threatens the standing of this noble family . . .”
“I wouldn’t tell . . .”
“You wouldn’t exploit this most remarkable discovery you think you have made, in order to extort massive fortunes or power from the earl?”
“What would I do with money or power?” Johann cries out. “All I’d ever ask for is a kiss!”
Mr. Michaelis halts mid-tirade and narrows his eyes. “Are you implying this is simply a jealous fancy?”
“Yes,” Johann chokes out, “and no. I’m a little envious, but I’m curious, too, and I’m not cruel enough to begrudge you both your happiness together.”
“One kiss from my master, and you’d never dream of making your speculation public?”
“No!” Johann sobs the word as tears break forth and streak down his cheeks. “One kiss from you.”
He lowers his head and stares down at his file, sniffling, yet he knows Mr. Michaelis is gaping at his display, on the verge of turning on his heel and sneering . . .
“One kiss, hm?” He drops onto a knee beside the boy, slips one glove under that small chin, and turns that face towards his own. Johann’s breath catches—
He is drowning, dying, soaring reborn, tangling one hand in Mr. Michaelis’ feather-soft hair and using the other to trace those sharp cheekbones, the starched collar and the smooth skin underneath, drinking deep until he is dizzy . . .
Mr. Michaelis breaks the kiss before Johann can quite faint. His nostrils flare as he slowly inhales, as if committing the boy’s scent to memory. “So you truly would not have told.”
“No,” Johann whispers, trying and failing to suppress a giddy smile even as tears still cling to his eyelashes. “I’d never tell. I’m not Maurice Cole . . . Or Ciel.”
“No,” Mr. Michaelis says, voice tinged with melancholy. “That you are not.”
“Ciel will come around,” Johann says, gaze still locked on Mr. Michaelis’. “You’re too perfect to be possible— how could he not adore you?”
“Do you remember the very end of that godforsaken poem?” he answers. “Priapus gives all his advice, and it all fails. Titius, its hapless addressee, never comes close to winning his boy’s love, nor does Tibullus himself. My skills fail, my schemes fail. There is little hope for those whom a clever boy possesses by his artifice.”
“Tibullus was overly pessimistic about romance,” the boy laughs. “He complained that we age too quickly to achieve any lasting happiness, but time is far slower than that. If I could win such a thrilling kiss from you in the mere months I’ve known you, then surely you’ll win Ciel, heart and soul, in a few years at the most.”
“I am closer to that goal than you might expect,” Mr. Michaelis murmurs.
“I am glad to hear it. Truly, I wish you every happiness.” Johann closes his file, kisses Mr. Michaelis once more on the brow, and dashes from the room.
“Say goodbye to the child who played with toys!”
Johann’s voice rings out over the multitude’s cheers. He shines radiant in a costume dark as the night sky, its ruffled skirt glimmering with sparkles like stars.
Sebastian watches him with his peers and then glances over at Ciel, who sits with a glorious, settled smirk. Impassive on the outside, he sighs internally, thinking of that cursed poem— the fates gave no time for (human) beauty to stay, even while the serpent sheds its skin and lives out its years renewed. Surely there is no point to indulging this foolish longing for Ciel . . .
Then Sebastian looks back at Johann, spinning about and singing his ode to darkness. His traitorous heart twinges with hope.