Title: The Notion of Nations
Summary: A powerful nation, a starving demon, and a broken child, and the circumstances of their crossed paths. Kuro, pre-manga storyline.
Rating/Warning(s): T; none
Disclaimer: This fangirl owns nothing but an entirely fabricated noble at the end of this fic.
The man on the steps of the newly reconstructed Phantomhive manor is neither tall nor broad, but one gets the sense of great strength and authority lurking just behind a deceptive veneer... and if one happens to be a demon of no small ability, there is much more to discern. Sebastian Michaelis nearly forgets himself as the door swings to a halt, its substantial wooden mass paused by a gentle touch of his gloved hand. His eyes, suddenly inquisitive, rake over the slender frame - the man is a head shorter than him, he notes with amusement, but that is only the half of it, and not even the half worth mentioning.
Power. He can taste it, smell it, feel it. It emanates from this man, the alluring scent of raw human energy and immortality not sustained by human souls - at least, not in the manner that Sebastian knows best. It is the power of history and bloodshed and memory, the power of a nation... and not only that, but a nation at the height of its supremacy and potential.
Sebastian bows at the waist, a mocking sort of gesture as a smirk curls his lips, and as he rises, he sees an expression of sudden disdain cross the man's face. "You," says the nation, and it isn't used in any context of familiarity - rather, a generalizing, rather degrading term, that applies to all of Sebastian's kind as a whole.
Despite the aura of sorcery that enfolds this man, which Sebastian's excellent senses next pick up, it seems that the nation isn't quite keen on the presence of demons - or, at the very least, demons on his territory. The man's hands are reflexively curling, his entire body tensing in checked aggression and readiness, and Sebastian heaves a derisive sigh, forcibly reminding himself not to respond in a similar manner.
"Come now, Mr. Kirkland," he says smoothly, recalling the name from the earlier missive. He is the last to step away from a challenge, but this would be no ordinary enemy, and then there is the little matter of the contract to consider. "Surely you have already reached the right conclusion. There is nothing you can do."
He doesn't doubt the nation's intelligence, and indeed, realization has already dawned on the man's face... along with the traces of horror. "He has made a contract," Arthur Kirkland murmurs, his eyes reflecting dismay. "That's how..." and he trails off with a wordless groan of frustration, dropping his forehead to a hand, as the uselessness of his own ability in this situation displays itself fully to him. However, his brilliant green eyes are smoldering when he looks back up at Sebastian, and for a moment he seems inclined to attack regardless.
"You monster," the nation breathes. "He is a child."
"And fully capable of making his own choices, as you will soon see," Sebastian answers with a delicate shrug. Monster is the closest approximation in this particular language that one can reach, in describing in a demon. "Pray, calm yourself, Mr. Kirkland. If we quarrel over this, we will only cause a mess, and despite your best efforts..." a hint of mocking triumph and insinuation enters his voice, subtly testing the other, "his soul will still be mine."
This isn't just an errand run for the Crown. Clearly, there is some sort of attachment or affection involved, an insult at what can be interpreted as theft in the basest sense, for Arthur's eyes narrow dangerously at the implication. "You..." he says again, the word carrying the same acid connotation, "if you've hurt him..."
"Don't be foolish. I exist to protect him, until such time as the contract is fulfilled."
The statement carries both reassurance and added offense, Sebastian can tell, by the way Arthur simultaneously relaxes and scowls. Already, the demon is delighting in this visitor - the boy alone is interesting even when measured by demonic standards, but it seems that those whose circles he inhabits... well, this particular one isn't even human. The man is truly significant, in comparison to the general insignificance that seems to plague the humanity that the nation represents.
Arthur doesn't deign to provide a response. Allowing himself only to glare, he steps past Sebastian into the entrance hall, and his haughty air is clearly indicative of his less than favorable opinion of demons. The edge to Sebastian's grin is reminiscent of a predator who has found himself something that is not quite prey... but something that is intriguing nonetheless.
A nation. Sebastian has not come across one in many years, but the previous encounters are not memories he is likely to forget, should a demon be even capable of forgetting. For a moment, he recalls the man who named himself Rome, and he who rode with the Mongol Horde, and the violet-eyed child who called himself Russia...
And now, as Sebastian returns to the present, here is another in a matchless lineage. As Arthur glances back at him and snaps out an order to lead him to the boy, Sebastian looks upon the British Empire with that lingering smirk, wishing that nation souls were viable targets. He would give much more than absolute servitude just to taste one, to satisfy his great hunger with that...
In response, Sebastian delivers a bow and complies.
"You learn that this kind of information communicates itself better when they're young." A light chuckle, unfamiliar to the child's inquisitive ears, accompanies this statement. "It took you months to come to terms, Vincent, and sometimes I wonder if you truly believe it at all."
It is the child's father who speaks next, equally amused. "Oh, I believe it. I've seen enough of your virtual indestructibility, thank you. I've been in this business for far too long, and that particular aspect of you still unnerves me."
"As is to be expected." The stranger's voice trails off, almost thoughtful, and then he abruptly picks up again. "Though I do wonder at how your son will take it. You say he's intelligent...?"
"And it's the intelligent ones who give the most trouble. Why, my own-" And here the stranger cuts off, so sudden as to read myriad meanings into the three words that slipped out, until the child's father gently and skillfully breaks the silence.
"I wonder where he is," Vincent murmurs, practiced ease banishing all hints of the lingering silence he'd expertly carved into. "The servants must not have found him too quickly, else he'd be here by now..."
With a guilty start, Ciel Phantomhive tumbles through the crack in the door and into the room. He'd paused just before entering, the presence of a stranger freezing his feet to the floor, and the conversation from within had done the rest in keeping him rooted, though his as-yet-undeveloped mind had hardly comprehended half of it. Now he looks up at both men, his father and a blond stranger, and remains where he is, hands clasping together behind his back as sudden shyness overtakes him.
"Ciel," Vincent says warmly, holding out a hand. "Don't be shy. This is a very important friend of mine, and he wants to meet you."
Hesitantly, Ciel walks forward, and when he reaches his father's side, Vincent's gentle pushes keep the child from edging behind his father's legs. Ciel's eyes are fixed on the stranger, trying, with all his six-year-old might, to read him.
The first thing he notices, as per his youth, is that the stranger's eyebrows are really quite large; Ciel quashes the desire to giggle, as that sort of thing is the kind of rude behavior in the domain of a four-year-old. So he focuses instead on offering the man a tentative smile, which the man somewhat awkwardly returns. The stranger then crouches down to be at eye level with Ciel, and Ciel feels his father step away. The boy wills himself not to reach back for Vincent, taking a breath and meeting the gaze of the man before him.
"My name is Arthur Kirkland," the stranger says, no longer a stranger, now. "What is your name?"
It seems like a silly question - after all, didn't Vincent just say Ciel's name? - but after a moment's consideration, Ciel thinks that perhaps the man is just trying to be polite. "Ciel Phantomhive," he offers, with all the dignity that everyone has been telling him comes with such a name.
Arthur nods in acknowledgment, and his smile is a little less awkward, now. "I heard a rumor that you're your father's heir," he says, rather teasingly.
Ciel nods importantly. He still isn't quite sure what he is supposed to be the heir of, but it isn't just a rumor. However, he's a little confused by the sadness that seems to come into the man's face at this, though it vanishes within seconds.
"Well, then," Arthur says, "that makes you a very important man, doesn't it?"
Ciel brightens at the use of the word 'man'. Only his mother ever seems to refer to him with such a noun, and even then it's usually accompanied by the prefixing adjective of 'little'. He nods again.
"And important men get to know important secrets," Arthur continues. "Tell me, Ciel... do you know what country you live in?"
"England," Ciel answers at once. Even a four-year-old should know the answer to that. He's been told often enough that England is what he owes his allegiance to.
"Do you know what England is?"
This is beginning to resemble one of Ciel's lessons, and he doesn't manage to control all of his fidgeting. "It's a country," he says hesitantly, and corrects with, "My country. A land, with government." He isn't quite sure of anything further than that; the notion of nations isn't completely clear to his six-year-old brain.
Arthur quirks one of his prominent eyebrows, seemingly amused. "Anything else?"
Ciel considers a few answers and ultimately shakes his head, wondering why so many questions are being posed. This friend of his father's, Ciel speculates in apprehension, isn't going to turn out to be another tutor, is he?
Arthur's smile and voice have become exceedingly gentle now. "What if I told you that I was England?"
Ciel's brows furrow as he tries to work his mind through that one. He comes away completely mystified. "But... you are a person," he says at length. "England is a country." Inasmuch as what Ciel understands of the concept of 'country'.
"A country is not just the boundaries of land and government," Arthur says, after a pause. "It is also the people. It is you and your father and your family and many others. You are English, and so are they. And I..." here another pause comes, as if Arthur is trying to find the words, "I represent all of that. The people, the land, and the government. They come together to form a nation, and I am the living representative of all three. The agreement between them, you might say."
Ciel ponders this and thinks he may understand a little, but he is still somewhat bewildered by the words. Arthur sees this in his face, and his forehead creases in thought. "Have you learned any mythologies lately?" he asks at length.
Ciel nods. "Yes, sir."
"Then can you tell me who Zeus was?"
It is thoroughly confusing, to go from country to mythology, but Ciel does his best to follow. "He was the sky god. The king of the gods."
Arthur nods encouragingly. "Very good. I want you to focus only on the fact that he was the god of the sky. Would you agree that he represented the sky without actually being the sky?"
Once again, Ciel thinks hard on this and nods slowly. It would be impossible for any person to be the sky, even a god, but Zeus had still possessed its power and name... Ciel's eyes grow wide as the explanation begins to click in his head. "Does this mean you are a god?" he asks in awe.
Arthur laughs outright at this; the action transforms his face, and Ciel finds that the man is much less intimidating that way. "No," Arthur assures him. "I am most definitely not a god. But like Zeus, I represent the power behind something, and I don't grow any older than I am now. Which is why," he drops his voice conspiratorially, and Ciel leans in, caught up in the moment and the excitement of a shared secret, "very few people know what I am. You get to know because you will one day inherit all that your father has and does. And what he has and what he does are very important to this country - to me." His eyes soften somewhat. "Does this make any sense at all, child?"
Ciel gives him a reassuring nod. Perhaps not total sense, but the boy is not yet old enough to mistrust any such information, regardless of how extraordinary the nature.
Though perhaps Arthur still sees some of the lingering confusion in his eyes. "You'll understand it more as you get older," he says with a chuckle, and a casual motion brings his hand up to ruffle the boy's hair.
It isn't the only time Arthur visits. The man often drops in on Vincent, and though his visits are usually brief, he always finds time to at least give Ciel a greeting. Ciel begins to look forward to it, and indeed, his mind begins to grasp more of the concept Arthur presented to him as he ages. Naturally, it is questions that accompany this greater understanding, and Arthur answers the ones he can... though Ciel never really understands why the nation sometimes looks so sad when Arthur's eyes rest silently upon him.
This is not the same child.
There are a great many dark possibilities that run through Arthur's mind when he considers what could have happened to Ciel in the month that he was missing, and each possibility is worse than the last; he isn't sure he even wants to know. The nation hadn't been entirely sure of what to expect - grief, anger, denial, any number of possible emotional responses to the terrible event that had occurred - but the one thing he hadn't expected is what he sees in the child's remaining eye. What should never be seen in any child's eyes.
To be precise, he sees nothing.
Arthur only covers half the distance between himself and Ciel, coming an uncertain halt near the middle of the room. It is the same room in which he first met the boy - or, at least, he thinks it is. The mansion has been rebuilt since the fire, not entirely the same as before, and Arthur knows exactly who could have constructed it so fast. But he ignores the demon watching from the door and doesn't cover the remaining distance that separates him from the child.
He doesn't think any condolences he could offer would be welcome.
Arthur taps at his right eye, which mirrors Ciel's hidden one. "I presume that holds the mark of the contract," he says softly - and again, that uncertainty. Not because he is unsure of his guess; rather, he is unsure of the child before him, of the change.
Ciel's left eye narrows slightly. "You know?"
"Why else would you have a demon serving you?"
After a moment, Ciel removes the eyepatch to show him the violet seal. It creates a disconcerting image when paired with Ciel's normal blue eye, and Arthur grimaces.
"Am I to be judged for it?" Ciel asks, replacing the eyepatch with a sudden movement; his voice cuts through the thickness of the atmosphere with all the sharpness of a knife.
Arthur breathes in slowly, feeling a heaviness settle on his chest. He has seen many humans suffer and die in his long, long lifetime, but even he is not immune to children. Some might dare to say that he's vulnerable to them. "No," he says, and it's accompanied by a brief shake of his head. "I don't want to imagine what must have prompted it. I'm just sorry to see a bright soul go to waste."
He'd taken a liking to the boy. He liked children in general, even when they were in the screaming brat stage, and this child had been nothing like that. Polite, inquisitive, charming. Cursed with a family name he shouldn't have had to bear, a name he'd hardly understood.
But Arthur can see now that Ciel understands. Understands too much.
"It doesn't change anything," Ciel says, taking hold of the subject and turning it away from any further discussion of the grim matter. "I am still loyal to my country, and I will carry on my father's work."
"If you require assistance..."
"I don't need assistance," Ciel quickly affirms, casting a glance past Arthur to Sebastian. "I have everything I need."
Arthur resists the urge to look back, knowing that he'd only find a smirking, thieving demon in his sight. "Very well," he says, and formality drapes over his tone, put firmly in place by the sense that any affection Arthur could have shown is no longer desired. This isn't a child anymore. Not quite a man, either, but it's clear that Ciel Phantomhive has changed irreversibly. "Then I should give this to you without lingering any longer."
From his overcoat, he withdraws a letter affixed with the Queen's seal. "If you are to carry on the Phantomhive work," the nation says, striding nearer and handing it to the boy, "then you'll need the blessing of the Queen. Which she plans to give to you soon, with a proper title and a formal grant of these lands."
Ciel takes the letter and almost reverently closes a hand around it; he doesn't give it anything more than a cursory glance, and Arthur isn't going to make sure that it is read. His work is done. The nation inclines his head ever so slightly, and the composure he bears is second nature to him. "I will be seeing you in a few weeks, then, Earl Phantomhive."
Ciel's smile is just as slight and subtle, because such an acknowledgement by a nation, however unofficial, holds far more merit than anything a mortal could bestow; the child knows it. "That you will, Lord Kirkland."
And it is with some measure of relief and a familiar sentiment of sadness that Arthur leaves that empty mansion, sweeping past the smug demon as if the creature does not exist.
Ciel Phantomhive often wonders at the nature of that race known as 'nations'.
Unlike most, he has never really known an existence without them. Having been exposed to the secret at such a young age, he has had no trouble accepting it, just as one must accept that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It almost grants a sense of privilege, being privy to a secret that most nobles - who often have trouble grasping the concept - aren't even aware of until well into adulthood, to say nothing of the mostly ignorant masses, who would no doubt reject the notion of an immortal personification without a second thought.
However, Ciel has only ever met one nation in his lifetime and therefore lacks a significant means of comparison... but it seems to him that nations have an unusual level of attachment to people in general - which he supposes is to be expected. It isn't emotional attachment in any sense of the normal, human definition, however; it is deeper and at the same time more callous.
Though perhaps 'callous' isn't the right word. 'Distant' hits closer to the mark... and Ciel wonders if this is intentional.
Ciel's own nation sits across from him, both rigid and relaxed, with the kind of impeccable posture that Ciel had always found just out of reach. There is tea spread out between them and more importantly, a missive from the Queen, stretched out on the tea table and delivered by Arthur's hand.
He has a habit of doing that - occasionally conveying the Queen's orders himself, rather than the missives being sent through an underling or the post, and Ciel suspects it to be a means of keeping an eye on him. He'd been rather irritated by this at first, but Arthur is one of a few men whom Ciel respects and a useful friend to have, besides. He quite literally knows everyone, and he's prone to dropping deliberate hints about certain people and certain cases, despite Ciel's well-rehearsed insistence that he needs no help.
After the two of them have finished discussing this duke and that count, Arthur sets his cup down decisively, leveling the fullness of his gaze on Ciel. Composed or not, Ciel finds it difficult to avoid squirming beneath it. "Well," says Arthur, and his tone is beginning to approach finality. "Enough about people who irritate me; I'm sure Her Majesty will be needing me back soon enough. But before I leave, I'd like to offer my personal congratulations. I hear Funtom just expanded yet again."
Ciel smirks at the mention; it's only been a year, after all, and he has every right to be proud. "Yes, that investment proved to be quite beneficial."
"I'm sure it did," Arthur says delicately, and there is no mention of how some very valuable information was exchanged the last time the two them met like this; it wouldn't do well for others to know of the favoritism offered by certain members of the government. "I must also commend you on your work as a Phantomhive. You are proving to be admirably capable."
Both of them know fully well the reason for that, but Arthur chooses to ignore the demon by the door, and Ciel follows the example of his guest. He can see Sebastian's smile from where he sits, and even though Arthur's back is to the demon, it's best that he doesn't turn around. There is a certain amount of friction between nation and demon, and Ciel suspects that, at least in part, it is only natural, a tension between two extremely powerful creatures. He avoids giving thought to the fact that it also carries some desire for retribution on Arthur's part; Ciel has made it clear that he neither seeks or appreciates any antagonism on his behalf.
Ciel merely accepts the compliment with a nod, and he rises with Arthur, coming forward to shake the nation's hand. "I appreciate your visit, as always," Ciel says, dipping his head as is due to someone who carries such a high station. "I'll be sure to keep you informed of the progress of the investigation." In addition to the official letters, Arthur is a direct line of correlation between Ciel and the Queen; almost a middleman, one could say.
It's an interesting relationship to have; part business and dare he say it, part familial. Because Ciel has known Arthur longer than he's known most, and it's near impossible to think of a nation only as an acquaintance. He can see it in their parting; Arthur's farewell carries his flawless formality, but there is a certain degree of warmth present that can hardly be denied, that Arthur rarely shows to anyone.
Ciel, for his part, returns it - after all, he wouldn't do well to alienate such a powerful ally... and of course, that is the only reason.
There is something quite remarkable in the way a nation fights, or perhaps it's just this one - nevertheless, Sebastian is prepared to admit the fact. It's a refreshing change from the general fragility of humans, though a pity that Arthur happens to be on the same side; to battle a man who can match a demon... well, there are few of such caliber.
Though, Sebastian supposes, it can be just as interesting to fight side by side with one.
"Wilmington, you bastard," Arthur says, sword in hand; he's already handed his loaded revolver to Ciel, who is safely in between the demon and the nation. "Do you honestly believe you'll be able to escape?"
From his position behind his many loyal guards, who surround the cornered trio, the lord smiles. "We'll be on our way to South America presently," Wilmington says, and Sebastian has to wonder if the man is perhaps inflicted with insanity. His eyes certainly do seem to gleam so. "By the time Victoria discovers it, not even her navy will be able to catch up. And you know she'll pay dearly to have you back." Wilmington's smile widens. "I admit, I didn't expect to have this child as well, but an earl will only increase my price. Especially one so young... and as fond of children as Victoria is."
The Queen had suspected Lord Wilmington of false loyalties and possible illegal activities and had ordered Ciel to investigate the doings of the errant lord. The perfect opportunity had come up when Arthur had been invited to dine with Wilmington, and a few well-placed hints had led to an invitation for Ciel as well - though neither Sebastian nor Ciel had guessed that the dinner was a front for the attempted kidnapping of the nation himself, arguably the most important individual in the government.
Not to mention the most dangerous, but Sebastian suspects Wilmington of possessing an abnormal degree of stupidity.
Arthur sighs, and it's a very incensed sound. "You idiot. You'll die for this."
Wilmington scoffs. "Even if I was caught, she wouldn't dare hang me. My family is one of the oldest-"
"No," Ciel interrupts, and though his voice is young, it has the kind of cynical bite to it that most adults have difficulty grasping. One can hear the mocking smile lurking behind it. "He means you've picked the absolute worst people to try this mad scheme on. Do you know what the name Phantomhive means? What a nation means?"
Wilmington laughs - no doubt feeling perfectly safe behind his many guards. "Enlighten me, little boy."
But it's Arthur who responds, and now he's smiling, too - indulging in the darker instincts that accompany the humanity he represents, his smirk cold and scornful. "I'm the British Empire, you fool. I can't die."
Sebastian sees disbelief cross Wilmington's face, and right on cue, Ciel completes the theatrical little scene, throwing the demon an imperious glance. "Sebastian," he says, the iron ring of an order in his tone. "Kill him."
Finally. The demon nods in assent, remaining silent - best not to break the illusion, because seeing the fear on Wilmington's face will be such a delight. He tenses, crouching slightly, and casts his eyes to the side to meet Arthur's. The nation scowls at him, but they understand each other regardless - Sebastian will handle the treacherous noble, lest he escape, while Arthur takes care of the guards.
Were Arthur anyone else, Sebastian would not trust him with Ciel's safety. But Arthur is no mere human.
Wilmington snorts derisively. "Take them," he commands his men.
And Sebastian astonishes them all by leaping over their heads.
He lands delicately, right in front of the lord, whose gaze widens in growing horror. "T-That's not possible!" he stammers.
Sebastian can hear the clash of a sword, a gunshot, and several cries of pain. He focuses instead on the smell of fear radiating from this pathetic little man. As far as ludicrous schemes go, this kidnapping plot is particularly laughable, and the demon lets his utter disdain show. "We never did explain what the name Phantomhive means," he says conversationally. "Would you like to know?"
Wilmington stumbles back and nearly looses his footing, and Sebastian merely takes a swift step forward, looming over the trembling lord. A moment later, he feels a bullet enter his chest, lodging somewhere near one of his lungs.
How irritating. Sebastian looks down, gives it a few seconds, and catches the projectile when it resurfaces. "Really," he says, tossing the bullet to the side as if it were entirely harmless. "You are a fool."
Wilmington is no longer able to move. He stands rooted on the spot, gazing in abject terror at Sebastian as his whole body trembles. "What?" Sebastian asks, and he lets his mask of humanity drop slightly, his eyes beginning to glow red. "You aren't going to fight back?" Wilmington falls to his knees, whimpering, and Sebastian releases a long sigh. "What a disappointment."
When he's finished with Wilmington, he tosses the limp body aside and turns around, rather sour in mood. The guards have all been dealt with, some dead and some moaning where they lay, and Arthur is gazing down at his bleeding side in annoyance, muttering about the sheer dullness of the fight.
"There's a bullet hole in your side," Ciel reminds him dryly.
"His aim was terrible, yes," Arthur agrees, just as deadpan. "Trust me, my boy - this is a mere scratch."
"Nations heal like demons, then?"
"Mostly," Arthur says. "Though slower." He looks up as Sebastian approaches, disapproving. "I see you're still alive."
"As are you," Sebastian observes, and he delivers the next sardonic statement as only a demon can. "How utterly relieving."
Sebastian's nature means he is attuned to many things, and not least of these are attitudes of the people around him - the way they act and interact, what the spoken and unspoken reveal about the true essence of their characters. It has been two years since his first encounter with Arthur Kirkland, England himself, and he can say with absolute certainty that there are few people as intriguing. He finds that he's come to enjoy the nation's presence, however much they may personally dislike each other, because tedium never dares to tread in the nation's path. Even more intriguing is something that, being what he is, Sebastian finds difficult to understand.
Humans and their loyalty, to be precise.
He's only ever seen Ciel show concern over his own family, and though Arthur's wound is already beginning to show signs of healing, Ciel is practically insisting on getting a professional to look it over. There's an ease in communication between the two that Sebastian rarely sees in his normally closed off master; in fact, he'd say it almost matches his own connection to the child, though perhaps excluding the emblematic unhealthy tinge. That is to say, without any pretense or false behavior, though it lacks the insolent hints which are exchanged in equal measures in the case of Sebastian and Ciel. The demon supposes it's because Ciel has nothing to hide from Arthur... and because Arthur understands. Knows. And most importantly, doesn't pity.
Sebastian has never quite understood the boundaries by which humans limit themselves, drawing the lines and laws and giving the name of 'nation' to that which they construct. There's often a loyalty there, to a half-imagined thing; a fierce patriotic pride, at times, and though Ciel exhibits nothing so extreme, it's there. Loyalty is there, however veiled, and Sebastian has often wondered at Ciel's devotion to the job as well. He'd thought, at first, that it was merely a device Ciel used to keep himself always moving; that the duty that accompanied the name Phantomhive didn't matter half so much as having a distraction, a means of advancement. But lately the demon has been beginning to wonder if it's not more - not necessarily an attachment to duty or to government or orders, but to nation.
And though perhaps Sebastian will never grasp why humans submit themselves to such things as government, he thinks, maybe, that loyalty to one's country is something a little more understandable. At least in this case... and for a human.