She was truly an idiot of king's calibre.
Someone could say there were some circumstances justifying the previous statement. For example: there is no denying that the raven-haired doctor was shocked by the presence of young Lord Phantomhive and horrified by a vision of an army of thugs lurking in the shadows. Not to mention the rather unpleasant possibility of relapse of Madame Red's depression if the meeting with her nephew would not have been successful, thus return to the drugs and being fired from the hospital and by the way ending Dr. Douglas most important thing – her career. It was not about Evelyn being a medic by vocation, who wanted to at least once save mankind. The job was simply the only sensible way to escape the role of the typical upper-class woman that the girl despised with a passion of thousand suns and to which she would have to come back.
That's why now Evelyn leaned forward in the uncomfortable carriage bench with a soft, weary sigh, giving the small village a speculative sweep with her bluish eyes. The unidentifiable stains on the supposedly white buildings and the crumbling plaster was giving the whole place a very dubious feel but she was simply too tired to care.
"What do you mean saying we shouldn't go there?" growled the irritated coachman.
A farmer in his mid-forties shot them a quick glance from behind the old looking straw hat. His glance held a barely concealed displeasure, seemingly regarding the question as quite foul and close on impossible to answer.
"Phantomhive estate has always been a strange place, but since the tragedy no one ventures there. They were a cursed family, good sir, one knows what evil lurks there, especially now. Last night…" he stopped abruptly, reconsidering what to say next. "A strange glow shone from there. As if ghosts returned to the place of the carnage. Old Bartson says that with his grandson they had seen a phantom, as if the house never burned down." the man finished with a gulp of uncertainty.
"Ghosts?" Jonathan held the reins tighter, as if just waiting for a command to retreat.
"You will drive me and then you can come back and stay for a night at the inn. Thank you, sir, for showing us the way," the young woman interjected swiftly, sitting back into her seat and closing the window.
The farmer stared after the departing carriage for a while with a pensive expression as a small pang of guilt attacked his conscious. It lasted all but a few seconds. After all, they were exactly what they were, just rumours, he justified his ignorance to his own simplistic mind. Moreover, the woman and her servant were complete strangers, they were not fond of strangers around here in their closely guarded community, so if anything were to happen… no one would question it, no one would lift a finger.
The sun hung low in the late winter sky, shining its last rays of the day onto the darkening buildings, already on its solitary way to dip behind the horizon. This whole place was giving her the creeps. All the while they were in the village a countless faces were giving them nothing but stern and disdainfully mistrusting looks as though they were some monsters from horror stories, despised and unwelcome.
Evelyn allowed herself a short sigh, turning her head to look out the side window only to get a glimpse of an old couple engaged in a deep glare in her direction while chewing on something that was just then spat out right onto the ground. Guessing what it was would only make her feel sick for sure. They could all go to hell for all she cared; she was getting fed up with their idiotic, in-your-face mannerisms anyway.
The last of the houses quickly disappeared, replaced by soggy fields vigorously grazed upon by few goats, their near white coats starting to shine strangely in the strengthening cascade of moonlight. Even the animals raised their expressionless muzzles and glared sternly while chewing on iced grass and weeds, only they didn't spit it out and their faces didn't sport an ugly countenance. At least the goats had slightly better manners around here, she thought with an irate smirk as she turned her thoughts back to the scowling boy.
Yesterdays meeting between young Earl and his aunt started quite promising. After the brunet explained to Madam Red, that the older woman had to be careful and not push too much the already traumatized boy, the Baroness seemed to hold on, at least until she saw the state of her nephew.
She almost threw herself at him, wanting to rip off his shirt and dress even the smallest scratches. It's embarrassing to admit, but Evelyn did not notice any of them before. The girl panicked seeing as Madam Red freaked out, but not like the boy who was ready to run away without looking back. Ciel froze completely, standing there like a small fawn with big sapphire eye bulging with fright, looking directly in the eyes of a wolf.
The young woman reacted instantly and completely without thinking. She calmed Madam Red declaring that she already examined the boy, who apart from a few bruises and scratches, was perfectly healthy and with just a few well-fed meals he would be as good as new. Evelyn chewed her lips. How anyone could believe such an obvious lie? The child barely stood on his feet, may had few broken ribs, internal bleeding, concussion, not to even mention his bandaged eye. From what she knew, the boy could has been half blind! He was undeniably the biggest brat she had ever met, but it did not change the fact that for the whole last night she was tormented by a guilt of the size of Big Ben.
That is why today, right after her shift, Evelyn told Jonathan to take her to the Phantomhive manor. She slipped from her hand a leather glove and touched the window. The frosty glass felt warm to her icy hand. For a moment her eyes closed as she prayed the cold would push back the boiling guilt. She leaned to the side, touching her temple to the wooden frame, eyes open, unblinking, reflecting the orange glow of the setting sun.
The road narrowed into an old path that led into a thick, dark and untamed forest. The mass of trees resembled an impenetrable barrier of wilderness, a black wall made of shapes that no sculptor could have even dreamed of. Long and disfigured branches of ancient trees intending to discourage a newcomers to the way forward.
Some branches, hanging low and menacing, made her subconsciously lower her head as though they could decapitate her through the roof. The hardwood forest seemed never-ending, last light struggled to get through few narrow gaps between the treetops, making its way through the prolonged shadows to reach the road as the night darkened. Jonathan lit the oil lamp to, at least a little, illuminate the way. He had to strain his eyes to not miss the turning that should lead to Phantomhive manor.
There it was, a mere dirt track off into the depths of the forest. The trees seemed to incline even more, almost intimately trying to reach each other in a long endured longing, their intertwined branches creating a strange crown that blocked all but a few strands of the lunar haze and everything turned almost impenetrably black. The path, reclaimed by weeds and small mounds of mossy carpets, narrowed even more and after what seemed like countless minutes driving at a tediously slow speed. A sturdy gate finally appeared in the near distance, torn out of the darkness by the weak beam of the lamp.
Jonathan had to stop the carriage, unable to go any further as a metal door blocked the path. The heavy booted foot dropped down unsteadily into the small ditch fouled with mud, splashing it onto the woolen trousers. A shiver suddenly slid down the whole length of his spine. The old Scot tensed and glanced around. Despite nearly complete lack of wind, the crooked branches seemed to move, sounding like a whispering of ghostly footsteps aimlessly wandering through the thick of the wild and deformed bushes.
He recalled haunting and unnerving words of the farmer in the village but the hollow sound of an owl pierced through the darkness, quickly snapping him out of blooming paranoia.
The man shook his head at the ridiculous thoughts. There were no such things as ghosts and monsters prowling through the cold nights to pray on lost and innocent souls, only other humans and possibly a few goats. Yesterday he had seen the young Earl with his butler with his own eyes and there was nothing otherworldly in these two.
Jonathan gave the gate a forceful push and the metal bars creaked open with a loud chink.
The noise disturbed the night and the flapping of wings followed, accompanied by a distant howling however it was impossible to see the source through the daunting thickness of the branches and dark shadows. Wolves perhaps? The coachman shrugged it off uncaring as they were not uncommon in the mountains around where he used to live, so it would not be surprising if this place was no different. It was however time to move on, he thought as the chills dug their foul nails into his skin that erupted into an army of goose bumps. He returned to the carriage and drove through the open gate.
Here the thick forest was taken over, quickly and suddenly, by vast parkland. Untamed bushes and majestic trees that seemed older than time itself lay scattered around in solitude or forming lush oasis in the sea of grass as if by the fleeting whim of a long forgotten artist that painted a surreal vision only found in a fairy-tales.
The horizon seemed lined with a wall of pure darkness that disguised the true size of the grounds and made them seem infinite. Even the slight breeze that he felt earlier did not break the overwhelming silence; in fact, there was no wind at all as though it halted at the forest boundary, afraid to intrude on this sleeping land.
As the carriage came to a full stop all sounds vanished completely, swallowed by the dead stillness. The edge of the fog engulfed the intruders. Through the misting windscreen, their eyes peered sternly at the quiet and imposing house that stood right in front of them, as if right in the middle of the nature reclaimed grounds.
There was no sign of fire. It was as if the tragedy from a few weeks had never happened, and the mansion had not changed for decades. It stood there unmarked and steady like a mountain. The rather low but broad proportions were composed of two identical l-shaped wings connected at the longer side. The frontage of the two levels mansion was adorned by many large, twelve-pane windows that on the first floor were interspaced by statues of gargoyles, whose faces were twisted into the most disturbing and scary expressions. The roof appeared flat, cluttered by high chimneys reaching to the sky. The entire building would give off a feeling of emptiness if not a flicker of light in one of the windows on the second floor to suggest a sign of life inside it.
"Hoo oan earth?" muttered flabbergasted Jonathan studying the building with piercing scrutiny.
"Some time ago, I heard that Lady Milford was planning to rebuild the mansion so she could sell it. I've never thought she would do it so soon." not letting her eyes stray off the large spellbound house, the girl slipped out of the confines of the carriage, inhaling the freshness of the air that was filled with the soft scent of wilderness and something else that she could not quite identify but for sure it was not ash.
"But, miss, what if it's truly the doing of some sort of dark force?"
"I think this force wouldn't be too dark if it has nothing better to do than rebuild old households." she mused walking to the entrance. Evelyn exhaled heavily, standing on the doorstep and preparing to ring a bell but even before she touched it, the door opened smoothly, as if unlocked by a ghost.
The first thing that hit her was the unusually pleasant smell. It reminded her of some sort of exotic spices with strong hints of dark chocolate. It was that delicious, expensive kind of chocolate rich in coco, almost as if made of pure coco beans. It made her close her eyes for a few seconds to breathe it in.
"What a pleasant surprise, Lady Douglas. We were not expecting to see you so soon."
The girl almost jumped hearing the seductive voice whose owner was bathed in a soft lamplight.
"I'm sorry for the inconvenience," she apologized, barely hiding the earlier lack of attention. "I know it's late, and that I haven't warned the Earl about my visit, but I would like to see him. Is it possible?"
"Of course, my Lady, please come in."
Evelyn needed only to nod in the direction of Jonathan to the old man knew what to do. The coachman with her suitcase in hand, walked up to the butler alike one old predator to another trying to take his place. With the handing of the luggage occurred also an exchange of glances promising miserable fate to anyone who would even think about exceeding the established limits.
Normally, the blue-eyed doctor would scold the rude behavior of her servant, but even she had to admit that the disturbing atmosphere of the place affected her temper. Before she had a chance to thank him, the man in black pulled the door shut, leaving two of them in the stuffy darkness dissipated only by a faint glimmer of the oil lamp in his hand.
"If I can ask you to come with me, Lady Douglas?" the question was clearly rhetorical, because the butler went ahead without waiting for the answer. Or he simply started to be tired of waiting for it, while the woman blankly stared at the locked door.
Evelyn blinked and quickly walked after the retreating figure in a black tailcoat that shined like moonless midnight. The circle of light gliding alongside him across the dark room gave her the opportunity to look around.
It was a truly marvelous old manor with a great hall that reached over both floors, proudly displaying its glory under a superbly painted ceiling. Polished marble floors made from noble black and white stone that continued its splendor up the paneled walls and the masterfully carved staircase leading to the first floor gave the room a capacious and luxurious feeling. Beautifully framed pictures were blending into the stately charm yet their lack of warmth lent the hall an eerie atmosphere.
They climbed the staircase, and delved into a maze of corridors that led them to one slightly open door, behind which shone a bright light. The new room was a grand space, to say the least. The huge mahogany table took up most of the vast space the dark, intimidating dining room offered, left without a tablecloth as if daring guests to ruin the perfectly varnished shine with their unworthy fingerprints. Two tall, silver candelabras commanded attention from the center of the table, holding smooth white candles whose wax had never dripped.
At the top of the table with the beautifully arranged napkin and a majestic wine glass sat the tiny boy. He appeared a little less haunted this time, perhaps it was a trick of the old rags he was wearing earlier as now he was clad in clean, fine clothes. The child's face was illuminated directly by the candles and received a slightly healthier sheen more in semblance to a breathing being. His expression however conveyed a clear annoyance and a haughty coldness as he sat there, silently observing her.
"Good evening, Young Lord," Evelyn said respectfully, nodding her head with a false smile. For a moment she did not think he would respond at all. Then, with great stiffness, he cleared his throat and spoke in a manner that could only be described as politely aggressive, or was it ill-polite?
"What do you want?"
Her gaze slipped downwards as the girl closed her eyes tight for a while, steadying her breathing and counting to ten.
"Our last meeting was rather unexpected for me, thus I neglected my medical duties. Despite this, I assured the Baroness that you are in good shape. I would like to make sure that it is true." Because you looked like you could drop dead at any moment was left unsaid.
"Are you saying you made a mistake?" he inquired with undisguised glee.
"Yes," she was unable to deny it. "And now I want to fix it."
"Sebastian can take care of me." Ciel gave her an expressionless, scrutinizing stare that made her feel very small, with a feeling akin to an undeserving servant begging for forgiveness at the behest of a strict master, at least until she remembered that the look belonged to a eight year old boy.
"I'm sure that your butler is a quite capable mercenary if he got you out of whatever hell in which you were, but you have to be in top shape if you want to take the title of Lord Phantomhive and impress the Queen. For now you don't look like her Royal Guard Dog. You can't even stand straight let alone avenge your parents."
The boy's bottom lip began to tremble, the built up rage threatening to erupt like a new born volcano but the fierce figure of a woman standing in front of him weakened, her shoulders slumped and sapphire eyes lost their dangerous glint.
"I'm not here to judge, pity, or take advantage of you. I'm not your friend nor an enemy. I have a debt to your father, kid, and I want to repay it, that's all. I'll put you on your feet and each of us will go our own merry way", she promised.
No matter how much he hated it, Ciel needed help and he knew it. The demon was not an expert on human health, and the sooner the boy would be at full strength, the better. The Earl did not have the time or means to lose so why should he reject another pawn that was literally pushing itself into his hands?
"Sebastian, pour a cup of tea for Lady Douglas and prepare a room." the little Lord instructed his butler and with strange satisfaction watched as a porcelain teacup was filled with a brown liquid.
"You should work on your manners, my lord. It is common to propose much earlier for your guests to take a seats."
"Until now, you were not a guest, but an intruder", he summed up by what, to his surprise, earned him a soft burst of laughter.
"You have to learn what and when to say, not so much to impress the Queen as Lady Midford."
"You know Aunt Francis?"
"I know her reputation, that's enough," she said, taking a sip of tea.
The young Earl could not help but drop his jaw.
"How could you swallow it? The tea is horrible." Ciel had hoped that Sebastian's nonexistent capacities in the field of human catering would bring him a least some enjoyment. Unfortunately, for now the demon was much less useful than might had been expected.
"I've had worse," she declared, glancing at his untouched meal. "If that's all I would like to examine you."
Ciel felt himself stiffen, although his confident demeanor didn't waver.
"Good," he muttered and carefully lifted up from the chair. The man in black was at his master side in a blink of an eye and began to undress him. Evelyn had forgotten earlier about the butler's presence, but he did not hold her thoughts for too long.
When Sebastian helped remove young Phantomhive's shirt, the boy's hands movement were frail and wary, shaking gently as he reached up. They were ashen where the candle light caught them, not ghostly like a pale person, just subdued and greyish. She thought that was the first time she realized how vulnerable the kid was and how much of a toll the tragedy had taken. Evelyn was trying not to stare at a brand on his back but she kept finding her eyes had diverted to it. One moment they were obediently on his covered eye and the next they were rested on the bloody mess that had been once a perfectly ordinary flawless skin.
He was now practically naked in front of her and she could barely recognize him. The boy's posture was all wrong. He moved like a scarecrow more than a human and all lop-sided at that. As she neared to him her heart dropped right into her shoes. His legs were more purple than white and his whole left side was swollen - he should not be out of bed for a while yet.
She reached for the child's hand and stiffened at the fear in his eyes. Ciel nearly retreated but collected himself at the last moment and stood still. He hated every moment of it but he did not move. He also had it worse.
Evelyn slipped into her form-fitting, pristine white nightgown and strolled through the bedroom, combing her black hair. She paused in the middle of the spacious room, her gaze resting on an elegant love-seat that was neatly tucked under a beautiful bay window, the dim moonlight streaming its ethereal light onto the soft fabric, very invitingly so.
There was this strange feeling that accompanied her ever since stopping at that old gateway. It was burning and tingling in her stomach, like a sense of something sinister lurking about, watching her, whispering darkly and inaudibly, yet her mind did not seem to panic as if it was nothing to be worried about.
The clock struck twelve when absentmindedly, she knelt on the seat and leaning forward, turned her gaze towards the star littered sky. There were so many, hundreds more than she noticed after moving to London, where the bright lights of the city were obscuring the true extent of their vastness. While here, in the absolute darkness, not a single light spoiling their brilliance, she could see every single one. She locked eyes on a small bluish star that in some odd way reminded her a single azure eye she saw today.
Ciel did not let her see his wounded eye almost setting Sebastian on her when the doctor did not want to give up. Rubbing her wrist she had to admit that the Phantomhive's butler had a firm grip. The woman could not believe it but she sincerely felt sorry for this small, arrogant idiot and hoped that her currently negligence would not take vengeance on him one day.
The rest was relatively fine. Sure, he needed his rest, rehabilitation and probably a cane to move freely, but it was nothing that time could not heal. Evelyn was used to the pain and the suffering; in the hospital corridors you could rarely stumble on anything else, but it were not them that worried her so. It was the sheer agony in his gaze. The invincible steel in his one, big, childish eye that was hiding a screaming soul.
The dark-haired woman was remembering the last time she saw anything like it when a strange noise startled her and she dropped the brush from the hands. She picked it up from a chestnut flooring showing an almost luminous sheen. It just occurred to her how clean and tidy it all seemed, not a single speck of dust, not a single stain or a faded surface, a pile of neatly chopped up wood stacked up by the fireplace. Everything was so mercilessly perfect it was scary – truly inhuman.
The odd sound once more rent the air, this time louder. The girl recognized it as sobbing. It was the kind of sound that bypassed any logical thinking and went directly to emotional response. High pitched and raw it was the sound of a child in pain. Evelyn's head turned and one bare set of feet sprinted in the direction of the cry.
The flame had no values, shame or mind, yet it consumed all that it wanted. Its only criteria was if it could take it and reduce it to ash or something molten and foul, then it would. The flames burned hot, short and passionate, with no care what would be left behind. So when Sebastian stared into a lit oil lamp in his hand it was not fire he saw, he saw human's despair. He felt their desires. He recalled how savage, spiteful, ruthless, callous, empty, unforgiving and mean spirited they could be. They fascinated and repulsed him at the same time.
Especially the child, that he had just started to grow. People believed that his species served them, of course, in some twisted way it was true, there were after all THE RULES and that was why Sebastian served the young Earl in the same way that a farmer worked for his pigs.
Patrolling the manor corridors his face was enhanced by a hint of a cruel smile in the form of an upward twitch of the left corner of his mouth and the devilish glee in his strangely lit burgundy eyes. Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all complications, hindrances, and dead ends; it was what distinguished the strong souls from the weak ones. It was why the boy was so different than the rest. Despite everything he had not given up. It was his cry of desperation and hatred that caught the attention of a bored demon. And even now every night the sounds of it... The butler stopped in his tracks and listened, but his ears encountered nothing more than silence. There were no more haunted cries and tear drenched shrieks. It was good but no less disturbing.
A child's body needs to rest, so every night his little master fall asleep, nevertheless if Ciel had the choice he probably would not do it. Sleep came like the falling of an axe. He knew it had to come but the boy fought it with everything he had. He was utterly wired until that time when he could not fight it anymore and the sleep was as sudden as it was unwelcome. His dreams were only memories of this hell of reality. The nightmare was always the same. Paralyzed, naked, cold. It reminded him of deadlines both near and distant, demanding to slice the time between now and then ever thinner to apportion hours and minutes. Sebastian was not even sure how it should be called, after all, how could anyone call it a nightmare, if it did not leave the boy's presence when he awoke?
The demon took two steps and in a manner understandable to no mortal man found himself in the doorway of the bedroom of his new master. As always, Ciel's cheeks were wet and his body was bathed in a cold sweat. The sheets were twisted around his limbs because the child was thrashing in his sleep. Nevertheless the room was not entirely dark as usual. There was a dim light. The remnants of the boy's nightmare no longer clung to his mind, haunting him. His heart thumped in accordance with slow, shallow breaths. Tranquility was plastered across his face as he slept at peace, his mind serenely blank.
Earl Phantomhive was cuddled into the front of his guest. At this moment even for Sebastian he looked like a young child, too big to be a baby but still very young. For the most part the boy kept his head buried in her cotton nightgown, his black hair sticking out behind like he'd just woken up from a long nap. His fingers curled into the fabric over her belly, clasping it tightly. Every time she even twitched, his fingers gripping tighter to reassure him they were staying together.
The woman was too young to be his mother, maybe an older sister? They were even quite similar to each other. One arm she reached up to stroke his hair while the second one was holding a book. The demon raised one perfect eyebrow seeing its title. The young doctor had specific taste, although it was hard for him to imagine anyone who would strain their eyes in the dim light of a candle to read Manual Knitting.
"My Lady?" he whispered, wanting to know what the Phantomhive guest was doing with his future meal.
Sapphire eyes anchored her attention on the butler but nearly immediately wandered back to the book.
"His body needs rest, and a feminine presence is commonly known as soothing."
"He will not like it," noticed the man, already hearing the annoying, childish screams about wounded male pride.
"Not if he will not know," she whispered back turning a page. "He's a child, Sebastian, and for some odd reason I can't imagine you comforting him."
When dawn came, Evelyn could barely move. She wanted to be selfish and not had a guilt but she just couldn't. This was a battle the no-so-heartless doctor couldn't win so she swallowed it all down and lie next to him. He was not satisfied until he had arms around her neck, a leg over her belly and breathed softly in her face. She knew she should find it adorable but the girl liked her space so she gently tried to get him to let her go, but it was like pulling an octopus off it's prey. The brunette really was not much of a hugger, she never even liked teddy bears as a kid.
Her every muscle stiffened. Unable to move with any grace her movements were jerky, the girl edged into the gentle light that flowed water-like through the curtained windows and her throat felt like the Arabian desert, she decided to look for something to drink.
The corridors were empty and silent. Absence of life lingered in the air, thick and heavy, like a blanket. Wherever Evelyn moved, that hollowness followed, always watching never fading. She was so focused on the nothingness she had not noticed when and how she reached a kitchen. It was as if the estate itself led her there, not wanting to let the stranger wander in it halls.
As usual in similar manors kitchen were hidden in a basement, which also housed other rooms occupied by servants, and where family members never dared to tread, because they simply did not have such a need. However, in the household without even one maid Evelyn had no remorse doing so. Sebastian the butler somehow did not suit her. The man was too perfect to be at the beck and call of someone like her. Maybe if she was a queen, or at least Marquises but otherwise it was unnatural.
Speaking of the devil, the unholy handsome man was standing over a stove in the middle of the room. As everything else in the Phantomhive manor it was spotless and grand but more than a good impression, here the functionality counted. The kitchen was fully equipped, but the man in it apparently did not know how to use it.
"You're doing it wrong," she interjected, peering over his shoulder. "A spoon of a tea for each person and one more for a pot. Then half of pint of boiling water and let it steep until it's dark."
"Thank you, My Lady, but I wasn't aware that a lady would know how to do such a mundane task" he wondered, however did exactly as instructed. Meanwhile the woman sat at the table.
"I am of noble blood, but I didn't grow up detached from reality. Moreover, it is only a tea making. I'm afraid that If you require assistance with cooking, then you have to ask Jonathan when he arrives. He sometimes helps in the kitchen. I am hopeless in it."
"Then I shall ask him," the demon looked at his flawless reflection in a tea before covering a pot and setting a teacup before Evelyn. Thoughtfully he sniffed an aroma coming from the liquid filling her cup. The smell was more intense, bitter- without milk or sugar it had to be beyond unpleasant. One more thing he did not understand in humans.
He focused on the doctor's reaction wanting to know if he did it right. The dark-haired female slammed her eyes shut and hummed with pleasure.
"Perfect. A little more practice, and I'm sure you will be one hell of a butler. What did I say?" She asked, seeing his shoulders shaking with laughter.
"Excuse me, Miss, it's nothing. Just a personal joke." His voice answered happily like a mountain river. It was beautiful. Everything here was so right and it was wrong- really wrong.
Thank you to all the reviewers/faves/alerts, and to mrsmiawallace88 for her awesomeness!