A/N: Written for the Livejournal 500themes challenge community using the prompt #111 - Ghost of a rose. This was supposed to be no longer than 1000 words, but. Things, uhhhh, slightly spiralled out of hand. (And then I said, fuck it, I'm doing a multichapter.) Oh, and I'm slapping M rating on it from the get-go. Knowing myself, I can say with certainty that things are going to spiral. Far into the left field.
Warnings: (Spoilers for (the end of) season two in case you're a recent addition to the Kuroshi fandom and haven't gotten that far yet.) Demonic shenanigans, some violence, a dash of angst, and a myriad of some minor disturbing notions in-between.
Disclaimer: Toboso Yana and all associated companies are the rightful owners of Kuroshitsuji and all its associated official adaptations/translations. No copyright infringement intended and no money is being made out of this. Please support the mangaka by buying her work.
Ghost of a Rose
O, faithful eternity!
"Look at my skin –
All these cracks remind me of some place I've been,
Here in the morning sun."
- The Morning Sun by Thomas Godoj
They meet again.
Centuries have passed, millions of human lives have dwindled away, and the world has greatly changed when they meet again. He has retained little of his former grace and magnificence: a haunted look in his eyes, an eternal longing for something unspoken which he cannot attain. She has changed only a little bit, though not in his eyes. To him, she is completely different now than when they had initially met; while in reality she has remained much the same, if only even wiser and harsher now.
They meet, eye to eye. Sparks do not fly, even though they are – used to be – nigh enemies. For a moment they only stand there, sizing each other up. She knows the look in his eyes, though he tries to hide it, knows and smiles lightly. Acknowledges him as an equal and means it as an insult.
She tilts her head in a confirmatory nod to his blunt statement, but doesn't elaborate; doesn't gloat, seeing his poor state. She just stands there before him in her demonic attire, majestic and refined, and wearing her very essence like a crown. With great displeasure he finds that he can no longer compare.
"You still serve him."
Not a question, he notes and hates her, hates this conclusion which leaves her lips easily like breath – and a reprimand that isn't. Because it's her – the one who made it happen; the one who fulfilled the most demonic of contracts. The ultimate. The forbidden. The one punishable by Lucifer himself. And yet here she stands – liberated and free to roam as she desires.
His name burns through him like a spear, like the mark of an eternally chained demon. She bears no name in contrast, nothing to call her; nothing human-like, at least, and he cannot use her old name because she has had so many in-between that she might not even remember the one, the only one he knows. Used to know. She is well-fed, he notes, but without a current contract. He can clearly feel the power emanating from her – the one he used to know as Hannah Anafeloz.
"Still serving a cruel little master who now feeds on human souls and leaves you starving."
A cold chill runs down Sebastian's back and he hasn't had that too often in his life. Maybe all of once when he witnessed the power of a real angel descending (not the joke Angela had been) – a genderless being of light and goodwill whose presence had made him double over and whose name had made his tongue shrivel up and wilt, unable to even bear the sound of it. He had been young and foolish back then and it had been centuries since another truly holy being had come down to the Earth, and certainly nowhere near him for him to remember that feeling. But he does remember, right now. This feeling from right now is very similar to the one from way, way back, but ex-Hannah is no angel. (And if she knows of his status now (and how could she not!), so do the others.)
He had been a great demon once – Sebastian Michaelis, now, forever and always, from the moment his contract with Ciel Phantomhive was sealed, seared, and set in motion – feared and respected, even among the ranks of his own kind. Who, it seemed, were all mocking him now if the way Hannah looked at him was anything to go by.
"Will you cling desperately to your aesthetics until they erode you from existence?" she asks impassively and stares him straight in the eye, but he cannot bear her gaze for long; not anymore.
Aesthetics are all that's left for him in this world. Aesthetics, and an eternal contract which saps him one day at a time; and time is passing slowly when you are a part of it, cursed to be an immortal being. (Living was easier with the empty slots between the years of servitude, he reminisces.)
"How much does he give you? A soul per century?"
He can feel her eyes burning down on him (down and not up at because she is shorter, but because their current positions have her high, high above him) and he hates himself for being unable to look up, to straighten himself and shrug her off the same way he had done not once, but several times when her name had still been Hannah Anafeloz.
He doesn't know what compels him to answer her.
"A quarter." His tongue barely moves, creating words in a language he can barely speak now, as it is not one he uses to obey his master's orders. "Soul," he adds, and his voice drops even lower until it is a mere sound with no discernible syllables. He wishes, then, that he could have switched places with Claude Faustus. At least for him the ground was merciful enough to open up and swallow.
Hannah says and does nothing for a while. When she finally moves, Sebastian is startled to feel her nails score his cheek and nudge his chin up. She tries to examine the faded hellfire in his eyes, but Sebastian slaps her hand away and snarls at her to stay away, to not touch. This much he can still do. She smiles, her face splitting in a knowing grin. She could eat his soul too with that – if he had one.
"Would you like to be liberated?"
Sebastian stares at her, completely speechless. And hating.
"Do you want to be liberated?" she implores and the stress (just on the right words) is unmistakable.
Does he? Sebastian no longer knows. The contract binding him to his little master is not eternal. (Or wouldn't be if his aesthetics were not the deciding ones in the way he chose to exist.)
"How did you survive?" he asks instead and his tongue moves with notable difficulty. He will not – cannot – ask anything else right now. He cannot think about anything else, about himself and who he was, what he used to be, once upon a time when her name was still Hannah Anafeloz. He clings to that single notion because it is the last clear point of reference in his life; one before everything blurred into perpetual starvation. She'd told him to kill her, to make things absolute. He hadn't.
"Death did not want me."
Sebastian glowers. It is a vague answer, delivered with a smile, but she is a demon and won't give a straight reply unless she deems it necessary. He would have done the same, always. Before.
"Is he alive too?" he almost snarls, remembering the one who had started it all. Claude Faustus. He should be nameless now, if he is.
"No." And there is something like a small wonder – or is that amusement? – in her voice. "When I awakened for the second time, I found that I still lived, but he was no longer."
At least in this Sebastian can gain some solace. No one else would come around to taunt him but her. No one else to mock and ridicule him but his little master who was growing more and more prolific by the day, raking in soul after soul. And her.
"You did not answer," she reminds him, but he has no answer, only questions to shield himself from the undeniable.
"Why are you here?"
She pins him with that stare, mildly incredulous, and he cannot look away even if he keeps his gaze wandering away from her eyes to the outlines of her features – brow, tip of nose, curve of lips, a stray strand of hair down the side of her face, high cheekbones. He finds his eyes always drawn back to hers.
"You killed my servants," she finally states flatly. And I already told you why with my previous question, is something she doesn't say, but he knows it anyway, can read it in the unspoken words rolling around in her mind like tumbleweed. For a moment, nothing else exists between them but that one thought, blowing through, blowing between, seeking for a place to settle. "I need replacement."
"Blame yourself for their death. You got them involved," he snaps back before adding a thoughtful, "So they were yours, after all. I though he didn't have the might..."
She hums thoughtfully and tilts her head a little.
"Neither had you."
He takes offence and makes it known.
"Many offered to pledge allegiance. I had no interest, or the need for pawns. I was quite capable of handling everything alone. Of course," he smiles quite viciously, and bitterly besides, "a more fragile being..."
"You were," she laughs, interrupting him. "You were once before. Now there is not a single worm in the underworld who would approach you."
"And yet here you stand," he bites back and the fire burns within him anew, but it is weak, weaker than before. It's only a shadow of what it could be, of what it used to be. If he is lower than a worm in the hierarchy of Hell, then what is she now? She who died and came back again, she who committed the sin of allowing a human soul to transform into something it wasn't supposed to become, ever. Souls were food: nothing more, nothing less.
She sizes him up briefly and decides to go with the truth. Well, partial truth, anyway. The other part he should know already, as it is any demon's nature.
"I need servants, and there is no one else who would match my requirements."
"Aren't you aiming too high?"
"Aren't you looking too low?"
During all this they have remained mostly still: two unmovable mountains in the rapids of eternity, and behind her there is storm, but behind him - empty seas of salt, sand, and desolation. His pride and aesthetics speak louder than his hunger and he would rather kill her than become her servant, exchanging one immortal master for another. She reads the answer in his eyes and smirks. She looks over at the chain that binds him; the chain which she made at her master's request. Claude underestimated him. Sebastian didn't estimate him correctly. And Ciel Phantomhive… Ciel Phantomhive put all the necessary weapons into his capable hands, even if unwittingly.
Sebastian's little master is stirring, she notes, – a sign that he has not yet fully crossed over, that he has not yet entirely shed his human shell, even if centuries have passed – and Hannah needs to depart. She crosses the final space between herself and her once-rival and leans in to his ear to give him a few choice parting words to consider.
"I still have it with me."
If she came like a whisper on the wind, then she tears away like a hurricane, making her presence known, and Sebastian struggles to suppress the flinch from both her words and the intentions behind them – which he hopes to have misunderstood – and his master's possible reaction to her presence. Through Alois Trancy and his contract, Ciel also knows Hannah's signature and though it was only a brief moment centuries ago, he has the ability to recognize it. Whether he has or not, Ciel doesn't comment on it. He merely stares at Sebastian with unreadable eyes and his butler can only guess at what is on his mind. (He cannot read him; couldn't read him entirely when he was still human.)
Just having woken after a three-day sleep after the fulfilling of his latest contract, Ciel already desires a new one. He has noticed that with each passing century, with each fulfilled contract the time he spends sleeping away the exhaustion shortens. Three more and he will not need to sleep at all just like Sebastian, Ciel calculates. Sebastian has taken notice of it as well and knows that his master's conversion to a full-blooded demon is drawing close. He thinks of this as he serves his master food on empty platters and pours hot tea water from a teapot which hasn't seen fire in entirely too long. And the plates are brimstone and the teacups are all ashes. He dresses his master, taking special care of laces and tricky buttons, making him highly presentable before listening to his orders for the day – all mundane tasks while his little master chooses his next contract. The demonic Ciel Phantomhive retains his name always and refuses to be summoned like a dog – he'd had enough of that with the Queen of England – and now he prefers to be the one to handpick his next entertainment, taking after Sebastian and failing, falling behind only a little bit. After all, Sebastian is still the one to go about all the mundane tasks the new contractor wishes to have done and which Ciel has never known how to do and would never lower himself to even attempt at. He is still lord Phantomhive, even in this new life. Except now he truly is a phantom of his old self.
Sebastian thinks of all this for the next month, mulling everything over and over again, as he has done for centuries now – there is nothing new in his life; all he has are replayed memories and thoughts once thought already. Hannah does not show herself before him again, but her words linger behind and he is almost certain that he has understood her parting message. He cannot suppress a shudder when thinking about it, but whether it is disgust, hatred, or anticipation, he cannot tell. Either which is fine. Either which gives him something to mull over; and a thought which has already settled itself in his mind is starting to grow and form.
The month passes and the quarter of a soul which he was promised is never delivered. He hides his disappointment and does not question his master; has learned not to. He assumes it is for the behind-master's-back heartfelt hatred-to-amusement conversation with one of his – their, now – kind. He did, after all, attempt at killing his little master in the beginning of their reformed contract and little master did not believe his sweet little lie; not once, even for a second. Even as a human his little master already knew too much of a demon's nature.
And one day, Hannah is back. Or rather – Sebastian knows that she is nearby and goes to seek her out. She has two demons he's never seen before at her side and when he arrives at her place, her new servants are just finishing up the pieces of a soul which she'd split between the three of them. So she has not waited on him - that thought stings a little, but it is a pleasant kind of pain, one which Sebastian had almost forgotten existed. She has no obligations toward him, after all. The demon gives a word and then takes it back and ten others with it, along with the soul fed on the promises of that one word. And she has always been a demon, even when pretending not to be.
The look passing over Sebastian's features is not lost on her, but she does not comment, does not jeer. Does not make an example of him to teach her new followers the deepest, darkest secrets of the demon world, to which not many are privy. She turns her back on the two youngsters and directs all of her attention to him, waiting for him to speak first, because it is his turn now, his move – she will not make the first step twice. But Sebastian cannot find the right words. He'd thought of many on his way here, but nothing had seemed appropriate.
"Do you," he starts and stumbles several times, his own voice betraying him. He is broken, breaking; and she is the only one who tells him that he can seal all the cracks again before he falls apart completely. And she remains silent. Not even a hint of a word, not the birth of a thought which he desires from her can be read on her face. "Do you really have it?"
Hannah does not smile, does not say a word. She only nods and her eyes are burning, burning...
"Then…" There is desperate hope in the way he says that word. Hope, he cringes inwardly, and hates. No demon has ever, ever…
She doesn't promise anything. She opens her arms for him and he takes a step forward and collapses against her, shaking in her embrace like a child, and there are no words strong enough to describe his disgust with himself at that moment. He hates himself for letting her hold him like this, he hates her for creating the contract which dragged him down, and he hates the two young demons who stare at him as though he is some sort of an amusing creature. But he is desperate and hopeful, and breaking, and... it's such a human thing – to feel – those words come to him from somewhere in the past. He has heard them before, but he cannot quite remember where, so he only glares at the two demon children. Earlier he would have considered them being naught but mere vermin. After a while they turn away and return to devouring the last crumbs of their meal, ignoring him like he is nothing but one of Hell's pets. (And he truly is now – a pet of a demon.)
Meanwhile, Hannah has begun speaking. Her voice is low, meant only for his ears, and with her every word Sebastian finds himself sinking deeper and deeper. Her voice is what he remembers it to be – slow poison and the hissing of a snake, but right now he cannot live without it. He needs to poison himself thoroughly to complete what he is setting out to do. For he is no longer a magnificent demon on par with the firstborns, the ones chased out of heaven. He is Sebastian Michaelis – a wretched butler seeking liberation.
Sebastian endures another half of a century. Hannah is a more frequent occurrence in his life and Ciel notices her as well, but does not object to her as much as Sebastian has expected he would. She is, after all, always only passing through. Ciel does not consider her a threat. Or maybe he does, but is certain that his faithful servant will protect him no matter what; therefore the young Phantomhive demon pays no close attention to other tenants of the underworld. More so when he knows that this one particular demon had been after Alois Trancy's soul, not his; and she had gotten it in the end, giving Ciel this immortal life in return. Alois played two demons for fools – Ciel has to admire that, even if unwillingly. He'd been ready to surrender his soul (and he had, in a way), but after Alois had voiced the terms of the contract, he had begun wondering…
And now they are here. And he is a demon. And that Sebastian always looks at Hannah with deep loathing (though he tries to hide it) is no secret for Ciel Phantomhive, either. He finds it all… quite entertaining.
"How do you find my Master's gift?"
Ciel veers around and comes almost face to face with Hannah. First and foremost he makes sure to know where exactly her two servants are (he took notice of their existence immediately) and where Sebastian is. Seeing his butler in close proximity while her two followers are keeping their distance, their faces passive and disinterested, he allows himself to engage in this conversation, though he doesn't jump right in. He simply arches his brow at her.
"The eternity," Hannah elaborates without waiting for his reply, her lips stretching into a smile. It's thin and fanged even if no teeth are being shown right now. (And he wouldn't know, but there is something still hiding at the back of her throat.)
Ciel recognises that smile instantly. Sebastian smiled at him like that all the time when he himself was still a human child. Sebastian hasn't smiled that way in centuries now; he isn't allowed to anymore, it's not his place to smile like that. Somebody else's is.
Ciel responds with a mirror smile. "Maybe you should ask my butler, since he was the intended recipient."
Hannah chuckles low in her throat and regards him with something like admiration. (It's more akin to praise, really.) "Something tells me that he does not appreciate his present."
Ciel laughs, even as he feels Sebastian approaching to take his side. He doesn't need to glance back over his shoulder to see the look of anger ghosting across his servant's face before it disappears beneath a mask of calmness and indifference. Lately, though, he has seen that mask cracking quite often, ugly and worn, and a mere veil for the desires tucked underneath.
"Do you?" Hannah queries, lifting her eyes up at Sebastian and they are filled with mockery.
A smile stretches across his lips and he bows slightly towards his little master and it's that same old expression, clearly screaming fake, and Ciel only feels mild amusement at how badly his butler can pretend. Sebastian keeps his eyes almost closed when regarding Hannah.
"Whatever interesting topic are you discussing, I wonder?" His lips are stretched into a narrow smile, almost ear to ear, and his eyes are narrowed in fake laughter, but it's a disguise that's wearing thin. He lies, pretends that he hasn't overheard their small exchange, but it's a transparent lie. The awareness of everybody seeing right through it all is painful; and painful is something no demon should ever feel, unless in the company of the Lord of Heaven himself or one of his angels, but Hannah is no angel and Ciel will never be one. (Was never one.)
"Do you enjoy your existence?" Careful choice of words because demons have no life to speak of; for life is something with a beginning and an end. There is no beginning for the demons, just as there is no end for them; only constant awareness, bereft of many things.
"I have never known anything other than this existence," Sebastian replies and his answer is equally measured. Certainly, he has known better times.
"Do you enjoy it?" she presses on. She repeats herself and doesn't do it willingly. Answer is not needed, but she knows that the young Phantomhive master wants to hear one nevertheless, and she feels like humouring him.
"From the moment I became aware of myself as a demon I have not striven to become anything else." It is equally evasive and just as measured, but despite it all he speaks the truth. He has never wanted to become anything else than what he first comprehended himself as being. He has striven for a higher standing point among his brethren, he has striven for diversity and recognition, and rising, but it is not quite the same, and therefore it is the truth. Partial truth, but not really a lie. Just a small piece of a demon's truth.
Hannah's expression is unreadable and Ciel looks somewhat annoyed by such an indirect answer, and for a fraction of a second Sebastian regains his footing. He is still superior to his little master in some ways.
And then he plummets.
"You are a bad liar, Sebastian."
Ciel has turned toward him and the tiny sneer on his face is a noose around Sebastian's neck that's drawn too tight.
You tried to kill me, say his eyes. You still crave my soul.
He did and he does; it's undeniable. Though all this time he'd thought that it wasn't quite so noticeable how much exactly he still longed for that. Eternity, as he has come to realise, was a terrible thing if one was suddenly forced to starve. Not that he couldn't do it; not that he would die if he couldn't – demons were immortal and thus it didn't matter how they chose to spend their infinite existence. But once you chose a certain path to follow – devouring human souls in this case – you couldn't just quit it. One grew used to regular meals, to feeding as such, and changed in structure. Changing back was hard because the withdrawals and the after-effects of starvation were terrible. That's why it had struck him so hard – this eating taboo. He hadn't lost his favourite pastime, hadn't lost the entertainment. He'd lost the source of his energy for living in the human world. No demon living in hell needed to feed like this – they fed on the infernal flames burning in the chambers of Lucifer and the despair of the countless souls trapped within that infernal eternal fire. Human world was too high up for the hellfire to reach and thus the need for an alternate energy source. (That, and human souls were very delicious if served right.)
Hannah leaves like an echo across a mountain range, fast, uncatchable, and unnoticeable, save for her trailing laughter; and she takes her two servants with her. She leaves Sebastian eye to eye with his wicked little master. He has to admire her for her cruelty, and acknowledge her – which he does. What he doesn't have to do, however, is to hate her, but he does so anyway. Demons have no emotions, they do not exact revenge. They only get fair. They get even. And while for someone human this would seem like exactly the same thing – it isn't. One has to be a demon to truly know and understand the difference. But there is that risk of letting in a human soul inside of oneself – the emotions come along with it. (Which is why not all demons choose to follow this over-ground lifestyle and also why there is such reasonable lack of concurrence outside of hell.) And now Sebastian knows that strong emotions can even change a demon. If Hannah could be swayed by a child's unconditional love, he muses, then the flurry of emotions within him right now might be a blend, an echo of the emotions of all those he'd swallowed. Sebastian thinks that he now knows why the rank of him and his brethren is different from those residing in hell permanently. Because all over-ground dwellers are different than the regular Hell's inhabitants. The human saying of living with the wolves apparently held true – for living with humans.
Ciel is not pleased and Sebastian grows weary. Their contract is absolute now and he has not the power to break it anymore. He'd tried once, but failed. He'd tried when he had still been at the zenith of his power. He still vividly remembers that cloud of blood rising up and around him and his little master. Cloud of demonic blood. The wound had closed right under his fingertips.
Yes, he had tried to kill his little master, useless to him after his turning. Sure enough, he failed because demons were immortal. Of course, he did sweet-talk his way out of it, but the lies couldn't last and ultimately, his little master knew the truth anyway. He knew what kind of situation they were in now: the tables have turned. The Sun has set in the East. Blue has bled into red. Human has become demon. A soul has withered away, turned into demonic spirit – a black ether. Hell has turned itself inside-out and vomited itself back in. His contract mark is worth nothing and has cost him everything. Sebastian hates because hating is the only thing he can still manage for all hundred percent.
"I have not," Sebastian says and his smile is dim. Fake. Ugly cracks right across the prettiest piece of china. The sentence remains unfinished. He can't layer lies with more lies; not in front of this human-reborn-demon.
"You haven't said the truth, either," Ciel counters firmly, and viciously besides. "Don't teach me the ways of a demon, Sebastian!" Because I am one and I know, remains unsaid, but it is so obvious that it needs not be voiced.
A hidden cringe, a minuscule flinch. A respectful bow (though there never was any respect), a fake demure demeanour (when there is hatred and hunger boiling underneath), and a slightly exalted tone (instead of a hiss, a snarl, and bared teeth sinking deeply into a precious delicious soul). There is no soul.
"Yes, My Lord."
The contract will not be broken, Ciel reinstates. His butler will not betray him, for all of eternity. If Alois were still alive, Ciel would thank him and give him a moment of his time just the way Alois had wanted. And then he would slash him into a million pieces just like Ciel had wanted to. Fair was fair. Ciel wasn't ungrateful enough to not give credit where credit was due. End of the world couldn't be reached by travelling toward nothingness. Plunging over the world's edge was certainly doable, but it only threw you into a yet another aspect of existence instead of erasing who you were and making you forget. And eternal life made you look at a lot of things form a different perspective.
The perspective of his next meal, for example.