Title: Conflicts of Interest
Authors: Neko-chan and mhikaru
Fandom: Kuroshitsuji (mangaverse; pre-canon)
Pairing: Diederich/Vincent Phantomhive
Rating: T to M
Summary: The year is 1882 and England is filled with intrigue—politics and double-dealing—as the German Empire's Crown Prince and his wife come to visit. During it all, the lives of one duty-bound Prussian and one Evil Nobleman will change forever.
Author's Note: New story from mhikaru and myself~ We're having just as much fun with this as with "Libera Nos A Malo," so hopefully lots of people will enjoy another long story from the both of us, too! XD
Conflicts of Interest
1882; Windsor Castle, England:
It was surprising how much Windsor had changed in just the past several years: obviously the railroad that Her Majesty Queen Victoria had encouraged had made the already financially secure town prosper even further. Add in the fact that Her Majesty and her predecessor both resided here and that the Princess Victoria's visit home had been months in the planning… Vincent smiled idly to himself and shook his head, meandering down Thames Street and back towards the residence that he had while staying in the town.
There was to be a gala for the incoming heads of estate, the Princess, her husband, and their retinue (besides the Queen, her own retinue, and… well, himself)—and though Vincent had been invited to attend as the head of the Phantomhive family, it was his role as the Queen's Watchdog that had made him accept. Rumors had been flying about the city, all of them kept quiet and subtle—a conspiracy and a plan, whispers regarding the real talks that would be going on beneath the peace conference and the princess' visit home. The fact that murmurs in the dark had already started had intrigued the Evil Nobleman.
It was all just a puzzle, and one that Vincent couldn't wait to solve.
His smile deepened then, taking on a slightly wicked edge, and his step became just a bit more predatory.
The assertive taps of Vincent's footsteps were echoed by the clip clop of horseshoes against cobblestone.
Diederich Ferdinand von Wolff gave his horse free reign as he rode down Thames Street. The town itself was bustling and industrious, certainly much more than he expected it to be. His image of England had been picturesque countrysides and quaint villages, and he had been happily surprised that Windsor was anything but. Then again, by the time he had stepped off the steamship, anything that was solid land had been a welcome relief.
Still, Diederich couldn't say that his thoughts of the English were currently very forgiving. His Imperial and Royal Highness the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Nikolaus Karl was still probably sitting at the parlor with his beloved wife, Princess Royal Victoria, making inane conversation about the weather.
The very idea of Afternoon Tea simply frustrated Diederich. Trust the English to think of a pastime that was both nonsensical and involved tea. In hindsight, at least they weren't prone to fits of narcolepsy like the Italians and Spanish and their siesta.
The Friesan he rode snorted and arrogantly tossed its mass of black mane, as if agreement. Diederich gave the horse an affectionate pat on the neck. At least the stables at Windsor Castle carried good, stout German horse breeds. His dour mood somewhat alleviated, the officer lightly tapped his heels against the Friesan's sides and brought the horse into a canter.
With the shine of the horse's dark coat catching Vincent's eye, the Phantomhive eased to a stop, stepping away from the street as he watched the full-blooded Friesan prance by in the breed's characteristic gait. Vincent leaned against the fence, silent and enjoying the view—the performance from the horse, obviously trained in dressage, and the horse's rider. Both were incredibly striking: the Friesan lively and spirited, groomed to utmost perfection and the horse's rider the epitome of masculine competence.
The man was obviously foreign—the cut of his clothing and the way that he held himself in the saddle giving away both facts (needless to say, the foreigner obviously wouldn't last ten minutes if he was ever invited to a countryside hunt—he'd be tumbled from the saddle with how he sat upon the horse). Shaking his head and with eyes gleaming in restrained bemusement (and appreciation of how nicely the foreigner looked in his military-cut uniform), Vincent began to once more make his leisurely way down the street to his residence.
Thankfully, Tanaka had finally arrived with his trunk and its wardrobe: with the Prussians' attendance at Windsor, Vincent knew full well that his vacation was now officially over and he'd soon be set to work once again. Perhaps even tonight, depending on when the peace negotiations would begin.
A sigh: How droll.
Diederich found himself mirroring in Vincent Phantomhive's sigh. It wasn't much longer until he had to turn his horse back towards the castle, in preparation for the official ceremony of the Crown Prince of Prussia to meet with his English in-laws.
Since he was assigned as security detail to his Imperial and Royal Highness, it was his duty to shadow Friedrich's footsteps. Still, the soldier did not expect his evening to be wrought with danger. The biggest of threat was being honestly bored to death - the English had too much pomp and circumstance when it came to public displays of goodwill. Diederich found himself oddly nostalgic over the short, and often unnecessarily bloody, "motivation speeches" during his days at cadet academy.
With another barely audible sigh, he cantered through the gates of Windsor castle, his horse snorting and protesting every step of the way.
As the horse and its rider cantered past for the last and final time, Vincent's smile deepened to take on a mischief-laden edge as he took in the very nice view. Who knew that Prussian military-issue pants fit so snugly?
Chuckling to himself, the Phantomhive head stepped through the door of his residence, calling for Tanaka so that he could begin preparations for tonight after one glance at the table near the door and the letter that rested atop its crystal surface.
It was hours later that Vincent strolled through the doors to the antechamber where the guests of tonight's ceremony were gathered; he was dressed impeccably in the latest fashions without seeming foppish, his elegant countenance carrying the wealth and the plush cloth well.
He handed his coat, his top hat, and his cane to the doorman, gracing the servant with a kind smile before making his way deeper into the crowd; he took the time to greet people by name, chatting briefly with most over the latest happenings in the other's lives. Poised and regal, he made a pretty picture of English aristocracy.
All the while, however, Vincent Phantomhive kept his mind upon the assignment that Queen Victoria had given to him.
The Prussian delegation arrived with about as much fanfare as Diederich expected—and that it was a lot. The crowd parted and bowed, as they should have, in the presence of the Prussian Crown Prince and heir apparent of the German Empire. The military salute by the British guard was a nice touch, but the sheer amount of people that His Royal and Imperial Highness had to greet was beginning to give Diederich a headache.
At his appropriate place, five steps behind Crown Prince Friedrich and Princess Victoria, Diederich and the rest of the royal guard stood as stoic and uncompromising as marble statues. The full regalia of their formal uniforms was clearly superior to the English in their party foppery. At his neck, Diederich felt the heavy, proud weight of his Iron Cross and bit back the urge to sneer.
"If you aren't careful, your face may freeze like that," murmured a teasing voice in German just behind Deiderich. If the Prussian militaryman would turn, he would have found his gaze caught by Vincent's idly bemused eyes. The Earl Phantomhive's smile deepened slowly while still remaining soft, and the elegant man tilted his head to the side as he perused the other. "I saw you riding earlier today. Excellent form, though you should really adjust your seat, particularly if you get invited out to a hunt."
The Prussian gave the pretty Englishman a once over and immediately felt a twinge of annoyance. The other man had an openly congenial face, a warm smile, was pleasantly engaging, and embodied everything about these gatherings that Diederich disliked. None of these thoughts, however, reflected on his face.
"Thank you for your advice," Diederich replied without inflection. He was on duty—and duty meant not to insult any of the party's guests, "I will take it into consideration."
Vincent chuckled at that and, perhaps, Diederich would have seen the wicked edge flicker across his mouth before it melted once more into the soft, welcoming smile that he had first given the bodyguard. "You should take it into more than just consideration—or you'll be landing on your ass."
The Earl had to lower his lashes at that, veiling the pleasure at the banter from the Prussian. This was much more fun than he had originally anticipated.
It seemed that the Englishman was intent on taunts. Diederich, not for the first time this night, wondered if it was good luck or bad that Chancellor Bismarck personally assigned him to his mission.
Still, he had not only his own reputation to uphold, but that of his nation's.
"With all due respect, I sincerely doubt that," he replied with much more tact that he was used to. "Thank you for your concern."
And finally His Royal and Imperial Majesty was moving onto the next guest. Diederich followed in step with the rest of the guard with a considerable amount of inner relief.
When the Prussian entourage moved away from the Earl, one of the counselors assigned to the mission stepped forward to murmur quietly in Diederich's ear, "Ah, things are going excellently. I'm glad that you were able to speak with Earl Phantomhive somewhat privately before you had to introduce yourself to him for your lessons in English."
Proud of the militaryman's diligence, the counselor clapped Diederich on the shoulder before heading back to his fellow colleagues, following after the royals and greeting the various English nobles that had been invited by the Queen.
Off to the side, Vincent just hid a smile behind a glass of wine.
Diederich found himself at a loss of words. Private lessons in English? Surely there would be others who needed this exercise in stupidity more than he did...
A quick glance around however made Diederich realize the difference. Most of the other members of the guard were older, but none of them had obtained an Iron Cross First Class. If Diederich were a gambling man, he would bet that none of them had been personally assigned by Chancellor Bismarck, either.
Glancing across the hall, Diederich met Earl Phantomhive's gaze and gave a small, stiff bow.
Pleased with how much more… amiable… the Prussian seemed to have become, Vincent laughed quietly—though Diederich wouldn't have been able to hear—and idly lifted his glass of wine in a slight toast for the other.
He turned to melt into the crowd with the grace of a hunting cat, soon enough disappearing before Diederich's eyes; the Englishman would track the other down once more when it was time to become better acquainted, after the royals had finished their rounds.
For the first time since coming to Windsor, Vincent was actually looking forward to this particular dance, the assignment that he had been given—already so much more interesting than he had originally thought, and the Earl glanced out from the corner of his eyes to watch Diederich follow after Princess Victoria and her husband.
…and, besides, Diederich Ferdinand von Wolff certainly made a dashing enough figure in his uniform. A slight tilt of his head, pretending to listen to the baroness speaking to him, was just enough to give him a better view as Diederich continued to trail after his monarchs, body turned to present his backside to Vincent.
The uncomfortable feeling of being watched raised the hair on the back of Deiderich's neck. Not for the first time since their meeting, he clenched his teeth and refused to turn to meet Earl Phantomhive's gaze.
At first, he had considered the man to be... well, an Englishman - all idle chatter, pretty manners and nothing behind it. But the consistent, almost predatory aura he felt when his back was turned... Did the man hate Prussians, or simply him? And if he did, why would Phantomhive be the one to give him English lessons? Aristocrats, especially English aristocrats, tended to weasel out of anything they weren't willing to comply with. None of it made any sense.
Diederich buried his doubts and stood at attention when his monarchs finally took a seat. Hopefully, after a rest, they would conveniently return their royal selves back to their rooms and Diederich would be free to retire from this entire mess.
Not quite, however.
"I apologize in advance for my country's love of excessively long ceremonies," came an all-too familiar voice, with that very same voice softly chuckling. Vincent once more stepped out from the crowd that had surprisingly managed to mask him completely, blending in effortlessly: a chameleon, perhaps, who hid his true nature.
He gave Diederich another quiet smile, offering up a plate of food for the soldier to eat since others' attention no longer lingered on him. "I thought that you must be getting hungry; with the layers and buttons of your uniform, I assumed that you might have missed dinner. So I've collected some things for you from the buffet table and brought you something to drink—water, no alcohol."
Quirking an eyebrow, Vincent waited for Diederich to either take the food or reject it.
The moment stretched. Diederich found himself torn between the unwillingness to engage Phantomhive any further and the fact that, due to his ride earlier, he had not eaten anything since breakfast. Still, like the trained soldier he was, he only relented when the counselor caught his eye and nodded to dismiss him to socialize with the Earl.
It annoyed Diederich already, how easily he was given exception to duty to appease Phantomhive's whims. None of this would have happened in Prussia, especially since, technically, Diederich was the same aristocratic rank as Phantomhive, second son or not. Then again, they were in guests in England and expected to cater to the English's foppish fancy.
Still, at least the food was half-decent, although it hardly had enough meat. Diederich approached food like he did anything else: with efficiency. In a few sparse minutes, he had completely polished off the plate that Phantomhive had handed him.
"Thank you," he said gruffly.
"You are welcome," Vincent murmured in answer, handing Diederich the glass of water as he took back the plate. "If you're still hungry, I would be happy enough to return to the buffet table to get some more things for you."
Knowing that he had already irked the Prussian with his teasing, the Queen's Watchdog very much ensured that there was nothing teasing in his tone as he made his offer—just light concern for his country's guest, as well as the open friendliness that he had spent years cultivating to ensure that he was known for it, praised by other nobles for it. Vincent offered Diederich a slight smile, waiting for an answer—or waiting to go and fetch the soldier some more food.
Perhaps it was a bit cliché, but apparently—with this man—the best way to get on his good side was through his stomach.
It may have been surprising to someone like Vincent Phantomhive, but Diederich considered himself a simple man. He enjoyed his meals whenever he could - and nothing made one appreciate good, hot food like war did.
Still, like with everything all of his decisions, the pervasive sense of duty won out in the end.
"No," the Prussian took the glass of water, remembered to sip instead of gulp, "I'm fine."
"If that is what you wish…" Vincent murmured with a slight incline of his head, offering up the plate to a passing servant so that it could take the dinnerware from his hands. Once more free, the Earl again resumed drinking his glass of wine at a leisurely pace, watching Diederich over the rim.
Eventually, though, Vincent ventured back into a tentative conversation, soft smile present on his mouth as he glanced sidelong at Diederich. "Is this your first time visiting England?" the noble asked, fingers lightly clasped over the stem of the glass. "If so, how do you like it so far? I know that the ceremonies are a bit excessive, but perhaps you can forgive us them when our stables make up for it."
He was cautious in his teasing, exploring the conversational territory with Diederich—to see which topics were a sore point for the Prussian so that he could take note of them and avoid those issues in future meetings.
"The stables are commendable, yes," Diederich allowed, unable to bring himself to mock German stock – a good horse was a good horse, after all, "But the rest of it – ach, the weather could be better."
Out of the corner of his eye, Diederich saw the Princess Royal rise from her seat.
"Excuse me, Earl Phantomhive," he nodded at the other man, stoic politeness masking his relief. A little while longer and Diederich would have inadvertently insulted England somehow.
The Prussian returned to his position in the security delegation forming around the monarchs as they retired. He made sure to keep his gaze level and expressly did not meet Phantomhive's gaze as he marched out of the ballroom.
That was acceptable, however.
Vincent was pleased that he had managed to engage in a conversation—brief though it was—without Diederich scowling off into the distance or stomping away from him, using "guard duty" as an immediate excuse.
Once more, the Queen's Watchdog hid his bemused smile behind the rim of his wine glass, sipping idly at the slightly tart alcohol as he watched Diederich follow after the German Empire's Crown Prince and his English consort.
There was no point in trying to coax the Prussian back, for Vincent had learned several things in this particular conversation—
One, that Diederich was easily irritated and showed it by the tightening of the skin around his eyes—and that tightening became even more pronounced when he tried his best to hide said irritation. Politeness was only a veneer for him.
Two, that the military man was absolutely dedicated to his job and seemed to value loyalty—and loyalty to his duty most specifically—above everything else.
It was intriguing, and Vincent mulled over these tidbits of information as he finished his wine and handed his glass to a passing servant before heading for the exit. The gathering was coming to an end now that the royals had left the room, and the Earl knew that he'd been seeing Diederich soon enough.
It was hours later, when all of good society (and most of the bad) was in bed, Diederich quietly eased the servants' door closed. He left Windsor Castle on foot, the sound of his boots muffled by heavy roils of fog. At least England's weather was good for something, it seemed.
Despite the chilly damp air, the brisk walk made him uncomfortably warm beneath his woolen trenchcoat. When he finally arrived at the correct address, Diederich had half a mind to shrug off his coat, incognito be damned.
His minor irritation only served to help his efforts at picking the locked iron gate of the townhouse. After a few moments, he let himself in, and locked it behind him for good measure. In the moments where his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Diederich listened to the slow, steady breaths of the sleeping man he was to interrogate. It would probably be the last peaceful breaths this man would take.
He broke the calm with a vicious punch into the man's stomach.
It was the muffled cry that brought Vincent's head up as he perused one of his older books in his study. Cautiously, the Queen's Watchdog doused the lights in the room, keeping an eye on the bottom of the door—waiting to see if any shadows would appear that would indicate that someone was on the other side. When nothing happened, Vincent smiled slowly as he approached his bookcase.
He pulled at a slim volume and a quiet "click" filled the area where Vincent was standing. Carefully, Vincent pulled the case away from the wall and slipped into the corridor revealed, closing the hidden passageway behind himself.
The cry seemed to have originated from the servants' quarters, and so the blue-eyed Englishman began to make his way down to the small area of the townhouse—moving stealthily in the silence of the night. He made no sound—never did when he was on a hunt—and kept an ear open to hear where the scuffle had originally taken place.
A sound finally stilled his journey, and Vincent stepped up to the slight crack that allowed him to look into the servant's room, gaze narrowed dangerously at what he saw and heard between the two men.
Diederich wasn't as masked as the Prussian had originally believed.
And Vincent's own servant…? Ah, now that was what was curious. Why would Diederich break into Vincent's home in the middle of the night to zero in on this particular man?
The said man was now struggling frantically, his movements no longer clumsy with sleep. Diederich kept a firm hold on the servant's wrists and dug his knee into his spine, muffling the man's cries and struggles against the bed. The Prussian waited for him to tire, idly wondering when the man would figure out the more he writhed, the more Diederich put weight on him, and the less he could breathe.
Eventually, long after Diederich was losing the bet against himself that the other man would just smother himself in his own pillow, the servant stopped thrashing.
"You know why I'm here, Emerich" Diederich purposefully used the man's birth name, uttered it low and gutteral in their native tongue, "it does you no good to pretend."
The white of the man's eyes flashed and the Prussian saw only blind panic. A breath of utter stillness. Then the man began to struggle in earnest, bucking and trying to dislodge him, trying to find purchase with his legs, trying to kick-
Nonchalantly, Diederich broke the man's forefinger. Predictably, the body beneath him stilled from shock and pain. For good measure, he broke another - the middle finger this time. He felt rather than heard the man's moan of pain, rattling in the hollow of his chest, right under Diederich's knee.
This man had once been a spy for Prussia, albeit a low ranking one. It seems that he had been selling his small allotment of secrets to the English for some quick cash - not that he had particularly useful to sell, but it was the gist of the matter. Loose ends needed to be cut.
Diederich leaned forward, close enough to smell sour sweat and fear, "Tell me your contacts, and if it's good enough, you'll live the night."
"B-Burnham! Edward Burnham in South Central...!" the man pleaded in German, "P-please..."
"And who is he?" Diederich ground the man's broken digits together in his grip, "I'm not patient, Emerich. Answers."
When the silence stretched again, the Prussian felt the urge to sigh - he was on the verge of losing yet another bet with himself. In a practiced move, he lazily gyrated the man's arm half an arc, and in a sharp jerk, popped the arm out of its socket. He congratulated himself on having the foresight to smother the man's face into the pillow as he screamed. When it died to muffled whimpers, Diederich allowed him to take a few breaths.
"I... I .. ahhh... the Queen... said he... worked for... Queen's Watchdog," the man sobbed, then keened as Diederich ran a heavy hand against the protruding bulge of bone, "Th-hat's all I know...! It's the truth!"
Diederich considered, took a hold of the man's arm, and with a sickening scrape and crack, popped his arm back into its socket. His gloved fingers dug into bruised and tender tissue, "I'll give you one week to give me a name to this 'Watchdog'. If not, I will end you. If you run, I will find you, and then you will wish I ended you. Are we clear?"
The man gave a frantic nod and the Prussian, after an evaluating pause, eased off of him. Diederich had no intention of letting the man live - but if another week before his execution gave Diederich information, then it would be well worth it. After all, doomed men were always so resourceful.
The Prussian took a quick survey to see if he had left anything - he hadn't - and made his way towards the door. As he neared it, he had the oddest sense of being watched. Narrowing his eyes, he surveyed the room again to find... nothing. With a vague sense of unease, he left as quietly as he had entered.
When Diederich was finally gone, leaving the Phantomhive townhouse completely, Vincent quietly triggered the release that would allow a small section of the wall to move forward; he stepped into the servant's quarters, feet as silent as Death itself.
And that was what he was tonight—and Diederich had been right to feel that sense of unease.
"M-my Lord?" the spy stuttered out, clutching desperately at his injuries as he sobbed, shuddering with the pain and wishing, somehow, that it would end; he had broken, knew that he had been broken mentally beyond repair and would die by Diederich's hand because he couldn't—didn't want to—find out who the Queen's Watchdog was. He was the Bogeyman that everyone else feared in the underworld.
"Hello… Emerich, was it?" Vincent murmured quietly, voice a stark contrast to the other man's harsh breathing. "I had always thought that the hiring process for my servants had always been a bit slack when they were being hired for the residences that were not the manor. A double-agent, was it?"
Vincent smiled slowly, and the man whimpered in terror at the look in the Earl's eyes.
"Betraying the German Empire in favor of Britain, but I wonder how many times before now you have betrayed Britain in favor of the German Empire, mmm?"
"P-p-please, my Lord, you don't und-derstand," the frightened man stuttered out, mind scrambling frantically to come up with some reason, some excuse that would make a reasonable explanation. He came up with nothing, however, despite the fact that Vincent waited patiently for him to think of that "reasonable explanation." When nothing was forthcoming, Vincent just made his way closer.
"Tut, tut~" the Earl murmured as he eased a sharp dagger from its sheath at the small of his back. "You should know, Emerich, what happens to double agents who are sloppy enough to get caught." The man's eyes widened in dawning horror, in realization; his bowels released and he tried to scuttle uselessly away from the kind-eyed man who blocked the doorway. Vincent was quick, though, and grabbed the Prussian's hair to force him still: jerking the spy's head back, he sliced open the man's throat.
As Emerich began to die, bleeding out from the wound that Vincent had inflicted, the Earl leaned forward to murmur against the spy's ear. "One last secret for you to discover," he whispered, lips brushing the spy's ear with every word as the man whimpered and thrashed in his death throes. "Though I'm afraid, dear Emerich, that this is a secret that you will take to your grave. The Queen's Watchdog is Vincent, Earl Phantomhive."
"N-no…" Emerich breathed as he stared up at the Earl, finally bleeding out. His gaze had been filled with hopelessness.
The Queen's Watchdog neatly cleaned his knife on the spy's shirt before sheathing it once more. As he stepped back into the hidden corridor, a small, mean smile tugged his lips upwards in a parody of a kind expression. "God save the Queen."
The hidden door closed.