"To perform a job quietly from the shadows . . ."
Sebastian placed the cup of tea down beside his lord with a quiet grace. Their routine had been almost etched in stone, something so unmoving and fixed that should their routine err in any way Sebastian was sure that his young lord would be unable to cope. How could one continue to believe in their core beliefs when something as fundamental as a daily cup of tea could no longer be counted upon? The normalcy of it was as sickening as it was hypocritical.
"Is that not the job of a servant?" Sebastian asked with a rather sincere smile. "Do not worry, my Lord. I will see to it that the noisy trio becomes as silent as Snake or Tanaka, even if I must take a special interest in the lives of those downstairs."
"Good. See to it that it doesn't happen again."
"Yes, my Lord."
Ceil sipped his tea whilst Sebastian stood by his side, his smile fading just slightly – almost imperceptibly – so that his red eyes seemed to narrow dangerously into the beginnings of a frown. There was rarely ever emotion behind his façade at the best of times, but at times like this his blatant indifference seemed to be replaced with repressed resentment, and as his gloved hands touched upon today's letters he seemed to regard Ceil with something akin to disinterest. It was a feeling shared by both men. Ceil would never admit to the complex emotions interplaying between the two, but he would willingly admit that both men sought to torture one another as much as possible without doing any lasting harm.
The knife that appeared in Sebastian's hand sliced through the first of the envelopes with little resistance, a small cat hair slipped from his white glove and the butler had to suppress a flinch as he saw it. He quickly slipped it into his pocket without being seen, but he couldn't help but smile sadistically as Ciel's nose furrowed and the growing boy – not quite a man – sneezed in a childlike manner.
"It seems as if you have been invited to a ball held by Lady Midford, my lord," Sebastian said casually, automatically handing the invitation to Ciel even though the child would undoubtedly dispose of it. "If you have forgotten your dancing lessons I would be happy to offer you further tuition upon the matter, although there surely must come a stage when denial wears thin and a lost cause becomes recognisable for what it surely is."
Ciel all but snatched the letter from Sebastian's hand and skimmed through its contents with a bored eye, before shooting a curiously dark glare at his butler, but – against all logic – ignoring the blatant insult that was rather explicitly thrown his way. It seemed as if Sebastian's temper with the staff had worn thin if he couldn't even work out a more subtle – or even clever – insult with which to work Ciel's last nerve. It didn't mean anything to Ceil, however, because he was the master in this relationship, and as such he was guaranteed the last laugh.
"I suppose I am obliged to go," Ciel said in an almost whine.
"However I have more urgent business to attend to," he said, putting down his tea and reaching for the broadsheets of a newspaper. "I will reply some other time, I am sure my aunt can wait a week or two. What other news is there?"
Sebastian looked at the two letters remaining in his grasp, along with a long strand of red hair that remained caught between his thumb and the white paper beneath. The first hair he had found had been many weeks ago on their return to the manor from Noah's Circus and the workhouse, and – since then – he had found a multitude of hairs lurking about the manor. He wasn't sure what concerned him more: the watchful eye of a man he detested, or the fact that someone could shed so much hair and not be completely bald.
He pocketed the hair so that it would remain out of his lord's sight. It simply would not do to make mention of such a thing, for after the incident with Madame Red – and later on the Campania – his lord would only make ridiculous demands that would take up far too much of him time to make such requests worth while. He scowled as he recognised the handwriting of the first letter . . .
It seemed this would be a catch twenty-two, as neither letter foretold good news, and – with a lord such as his own – he could only assume that what would follow would be a case of 'shoot the messenger'. He had grown somewhat tired of playing the roles or doctor or circus-act or teacher . . . endless commands often ended with dirty tasks, something that he often felt above as a demon. He disliked playing with his food, particularly when he didn't actually get to eat it, and so socialising with such creatures felt rather pointless and torturous.
"There is," he said, with a slight pause for effect, "an invitation from Alois Trancy –"
Ciel's expression turned fast sour. He flipped his newspaper in half with a sudden and violent gesture, the relationship between the two teenagers was beyond frightening, with their rivalry as 'spider' and 'dog' reaching the far corners of both their lives. There had been . . . skirmishes between the two, and the last had resulted in a fancy-dress ball going horribly wrong, but since then there had been nothing but silence . . . silence and further invitations from Alois for his 'friend' to visit. The last time the two had met things had very nearly resulted in a sword-fight.
"The final letter," Sebastian continued, "appears to be from her Majesty."
"Indeed? What does it say?"
"I am afraid, my lord, that in order to tell the contents of a letter that one must first open the letter. I had assumed you would wish to read such a letter yourself, but – if you wish – I am certainly happy to read it for you."
The dark-haired boy glared darkly at Sebastian and seemed to think for a long moment. Ceil always forbade any item, creature, or circumstance that may be considered a source of joy for the demon, up to – and including – his beloved cats, even making known that were his allergies non-existent that they would still be forbidden from the manor. A mere letter would not amuse Sebastian, but Ciel's potential discomfort and displeasure – depending on the contents of the letter – most certainly would, but whatever secrets the letter held Sebastian would be privy to them in the course of time. Ciel would inevitably forgo pointless attempts at privacy for lazy ease, and thus give Sebastian a scrap of sadistic pleasure for the sake of avoiding dirtying his hands with the ink of a letter.
Ciel sighed and placed his newspaper down beside his cup, carefully resting a hand upon the print as he cast a curious gaze to his butler. His lips were pursed into something of a pout, his fingers drummed a long line on the pages beneath him, and as he looked to Sebastian he eventually looked away. The sounds of Pluto howling in the distance and of crockery smashing below were deafening in the small study, and distracting to the young ears of the master.
"What does it say, Sebastian?"
"It appears that you are required to investigate a string of disappearances that have occurred throughout the country," Sebastian said, frowning a little as his eyes continued to scan the lines. "It seems that the wife of her Majesty's nephew has recently been declared missing. That alone would not usually warrant the attention of the Phantomhive family on its own, but there have been some exceedingly similar cases of missing people throughout the country."
"Similar in that each missing person has no living relatives or discernable family in the slightest, similar in that each person made complaints to various authoritarian figures of being 'watched' within the last week previous to their death, and similar in that various 'confessions' were found within their abodes. Her Majesty's niece was unusual in that she was the only one of the missing people to have family of any sort, albeit those 'family' were the ones that she had married into and bore no blood relation to her in the slightest. The confessions are vague and make no mention to any specific crime or person, only a mere 'apology' to no one specific . . ."
Ciel reached out a gloved hand to Sebastian and awaited a response. It only took a mere second for the letter to be placed into his hand, at which point he perused it with a mild interest and stubborn curiosity. Sebastian watched as that working eye moved swiftly across the page with a diligence only a noble could possess, searching for anything hidden between the lines that might give away more about the present case. It would be a fruitless search.
The young master threw the letter down to the table, the loud slap of paper upon wood echoing about the study whilst Sebastian kept his eyes trained on Ciel. It seemed that his master had succumbed to undue pressure over the past few weeks, and the present rivalries with Tracy, the seeming betrayal of the Undertaker, and frivolous requests of the Queen had done naught to ease his concerns and worries. He coped well, as only a noble could, but little signs slipped through that revealed his human weakness for emotion and trivial feelings. Sebastian could not ignore the tensed muscles when he bathed his master or the twitching of his eye when certain sounds caught his ears, and it amused him to see him suffer so. It was a type of justice . . . perhaps a banal justice, but justice nonetheless.
Ciel stood rather abruptly and walked to the windowpane, his eye gazing out over the gardens. Sebastian did not need to look to know that Finny would be tending to the plants in one far corner, or that the young maid would be rushing up the path in an overcoat and a bag full of groceries, or even that Pluto would be running freely in dog form looking for someone to stroke his coat. Humans – once set in a routine – rarely deviated from routine.
"Perhaps we should try our luck with the Undertaker," Ciel said uncertainly.
Sebastian felt his eyes widen just a little in surprise, but he schooled his emotions quickly and suppressed the swelling rage inside his chest. His trademark smile soon replaced any previous expression and – little by little – the shock in his eyes was gone completely, leaving nothing but a reddening glow that expressed an intense frustration and a desire for revenge that could match even his master's in intensity.
"Is that wise, my lord?"
"No, but we have no other choice as of this precise moment," Ciel snapped bitterly as he turned from the window. "If these victims were in fact being watched then we cannot discount foul play, and so we must consider the fact that there are bodies lurking somewhere in the depths of the underworld. The Undertaker may be a 'violator', but so long as he lives in our realm then he must rely upon a profession in order to survive . . . we have no choice but to ask a favour of him."
"He may not be in a humorous mood," Sebastian said in all seriousness. "It is very likely that he shall refuse to work with us or divulge necessary information, and that alone assumes he has returned to his previous work and place of abode."
"There is only one way to find out. If he refuses to co-operate then we may remind him of the momento mori that we hold; it would be a shame if something were to happen to it, would it not? If that fails make mention of the fact we require his help . . . make him laugh at that."
The young lord reached for his cane and moved in front of his desk. He stood before Sebastian with legs slightly parted, back straight and chin high, and a stern look upon his indifferent expression. He radiated control and power. It amused Sebastian to see a boy so small – whose strength paled in comparison to his female cousin, who appeared to be kidnapped at regular intervals – could strive to be so collected and attempt to exert his 'power' in all areas. The mere act was so human. He even went so far as to wear heels to increase his stature, so insecure for one so 'strong'.
"Tanaka can look after the servants and the manor here," the young master commanded. "I will take Snake as my personal valet, although this is in name only. I expect you to take care of everything as usual, Sebastian."
"Of course, I would expect nothing else."
"Then please alert Agni to our arrival," Ciel said curtly. "I wish to be on the train by this afternoon, no later, and – Sebastian – whatever you do . . . do not let that freeloading prince know we are on our way! If he catches wind of this I dread to think what kind of 'celebrations' he'll have planned for our arrival."
"Yes, my lord."
"Good, now go see to it. It is time for my lessons."
"Yes, my lord."
Sebastian bowed deeply to his master, one hand over his breast, before he set walked at a brusque pace away from his master and out of the room. The door closed softly behind him, but it did little to hide the sigh he could hear expire from his lord's lips, something so soft and ephemeral that it was lost as soon as it was uttered. He waited for a brief moment. He needed to be sure his services were no longer required, that he would not be called back . . . it seemed today he was lucky. He was not called back.
He ignored the loud hissing noise by his feet as a long snake slithered by, the same way he ignored the shattering of crockery not too far away or the explosion from the kitchen, and he even managed to ignore the cries from the garden and the howling that followed. This house was chaos. It was nothing but a swarming hive in which Sebastian was expected to exact control, and – in all honesty – he found it tiring. There were many times he allowed the messes to accumulate, or for his master to stew, solely to exact some real sense of control and tame revenge upon those that tormented him with such chores, but he knew that he would inevitably be required to clear any potential messes up. It was sometimes easier to stop them before they started, even if that meant being a good, little butler.
He shot his hand down and grabbed the rogue snake by its neck, lifting it upwards to stare into its beady eyes. The snake soon quietened and fell into a seeming sleep. That would do for now, but he would have to have to talk to Snake before he made the preparations for their departure. It simply would not do to take such venomous creatures with them to London, nor could they leave them free in the manor with Pluto around to potentially try and eat one. They would have to find a compromise.
Sebastian draped the snake around his shoulder and made to fix the series of messes that had occurred in his absence, starting with the broken plates and the broken oven down in the kitchens. He had barely moved a step though when he caught a noise from his master's study, a noise of trickling water and a exclamation of disgust, which was followed by a loud shout of:
"Sebastian! My tea is cold! Fetch me another!"
"Yes, my lord . . ."
The smell was intoxicating . . .
Claude could not put it into words, he could not compare it to basic human sensations or emotions, but he imagined that it would be akin to the most rare of wines or the sweetest of desserts. It did not quite match the delicate and complex palate that was Ciel, but it was still rather tempting . . . like the tantalising starter to the main course of a pleasant evening. It was too much to resist.
He reached down to touch his master's foot, allowing his hands to run along the calf hidden beneath the soft socks that crawled higher than the knee, and indifferently looked up to see Alois smiling down with an extremely pleased smile. The blond boy loved him. He practically opened the door to his bedroom – among other things – to Claude on a regular basis, but so far Claude had refused to entertain such notions or give into his master's invitations. He would willingly drink the blood from any wound, willingly bathe any inch of skin, but to willingly warm the bed of such an obnoxious brat . . . clinging to him like a mould . . . he would not.
Claude looked up to his master over the rims of his glasses. He knew what would wipe that smile from that pale, white face . . . he knew what would cease that joy. He reached down and placed a soft kiss upon the top of that foot. He felt Alois flinch, but he held firm, looking up to see that smile break just slightly in mild confusion, but then – against the expectations of Alois – he kissed again, this time drawing a sensual line upwards towards the thigh . . .
Alois' smile was completely erased at this point. The joy that Claude felt was only momentary as the young boy's foot came up to kick him hard upon the face, sending his head jarringly knocked to one side. If this were Ciel the offence would stem from the familiarity, but with Alois the offence was the insincerity . . . how dare Claude not worship him . . . how dare he indeed? Claude fought back a smile.
"You know I hate it when you do that! Why do you keep doing things that I hate?"
"Do you truly hate what I do?" Claude stood and raised his head, looking down at Alois as the boy sat with hands clenched hard upon the bed. "Is there a reason for your disgust at a mere kiss? Did something once happen to you? Did someone kiss you there that you wish to forget?"
"You – you hate me," Alois continued. "I know you hate me! You were going to bring me roses . . . Hannah brought in the bluebells . . . the triplets told me so. You couldn't even get that right!"
"The condition of my contract requires that I serve you. I fulfil the conditions of your requests as per the request; if you wish for more then you must be more precise upon your wishes. I cannot be expected to humour you on all occasions, and nor can I be expected to remember your favourite flowers when a whim of yours occurs. Do you know the favourite flower of the lamb you eat? Do you care to remember its name?"
"So I am nothing but food to you? I'm not nothing! I'm the lord here!"
"Yes, you are lord here," Claude said coldly.
Alois seemed – for one brief moment – to be on the verge of mature behaviour. He thrust his foot out as if he were willing to ignore what had happened, as if he wished for Claude to resume lacing his boots for him, but no sooner had Claude began to hope for the best had the boy reached out and took a hold of a long glass vase that stood upon his bedside table.
There wasn't even so much as a flinch as the vase came past his head and struck hard the wall behind him, causing crystal shards to scatter about the floor – even in his hair – as the glass smashed completely somewhere above his head. Claude refused to so much as dust off his shoulders as he stared emptily at the boy. Alois' gaze was hard, but it was not strong enough to resist the penetrative stare sent back upon him, and soon he had thrown himself hard upon the bed and began to weep as if all the pain and betrayal he felt were flooding through his system, leaving him in one fell swoop. It was like watching meat marinate itself. Alois' pain only made him more delicious.
"If Ciel finds out he'll hate me," Alois managed to spit coherently through broken sobs, "he'll hate me like you hate me! I know you like him more than you like me. I ought to kill him . . . I'll rip off his wings so he can't fly! You won't love him more than me then! You won't!"
"A broken butterfly still holds more worth than a roach."
"Leave me alone! Go away! Leave me alone!"
Claude looked at his master with a cold stare and turned around so that his back was to him and his expression out of sight. He knew the boy's fears well, because those fears that plagued the boy threatened to break the status quo of Claude's life just as much as they threatened to destroy Alois'. The boy's claim to the Trancy name was . . . tenuous to say the least, and if it were to be discovered that he were not the biological child of the late Lord Trancy the boy's life would be destroyed. That may have been why Alois so clung to Ciel, so desperate for approval, so desperate to prove that his life were worth living . . . the broken noble . . .
"Yes, your Highness."
The tall butler obeyed his command and walked away. He often wondered if Alois would kill himself were it to be discovered about his heritage, or if he would cling to life the way he had done so many years ago, grasping that spider's thread with a desperation that only a human could endure. He wanted Alois to die, for the boy's worth lay in what his soul held, but only alive could he provide some morbid entertainment for Claude as the demon awaited something better.
No sooner had he reached the door had he felt a hard weight about his waist. He looked down to see purple-clad arms around his waist, the teenage fingers clawing at him so strongly that they would surely leave marks, and as he resisted the urge to roll his eyes Alois pressed against him. The boy's cheek was flat against his back, and he could feel the reverberating shakes of each and every one of his sobs, the wet tears starting to soak through his jacket as he stood still. There would come a command. There was always a command. The boy was a mixture of contradictions, a mass of contradictions, and his bipolar temperament defined what it meant to be a Trancy butler. It defined Claude.
"D-don't leave me! Don't ever leave me! Please, don't leave."
"To turn night into day and day into night," Claude said aloud in a cold and clinical tone. "I will do as you command, my Highness."
Yes, it was the Trancy butler way, and as such he would be forced to allay any of his master's concerns, even if those concerns were not one with Claude's. Time would tell of Alois' true origins, and when they did Claude would be there to devour the soul that had eluded him for so long, he would be there to take what was rightfully his, and he would enjoy every last second of it . . .
"Yes, your Highness."