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Reasonable Expectations

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“Sebastian seems scarier than usual today,” Soma confided to Agni, voice hushed into a stage whisper as if he thought Sebastian was listening just outside the door. Perhaps he did; Soma was occasionally quite funny.

Agni nodded to his prince’s words, absently refilling his cup of chai. (Soma had been feeling homesick this morning.) “He did seem in quite a temper this morning,” he frowned.

Bard had attempted to make breakfast that morning, causing a localized explosion in the kitchen and waking both Soma and Ciel over an hour early. Sebastian had then banned Bard from the kitchen for the rest of the day, and his tone had been such that Bard had not dared even stay in the house. He was currently lurking outside, weeding the herb garden for lack of anything better.

And then later, Mey-rin had attempted to dust a bookshelf in the library, but had been startled by the sudden appearance of one of Snake’s smaller and more innocuous friends, resulting in her flailing in shock and colliding with the unfortunately unsecured bookshelf behind her. Were it not for Sebastian’s timely appearance, it would have fallen into the bookshelf behind it, possibly downing half the column.

Mey-rin had then been banished to her room (outside of which Agni had actually spent some time comforting her) and Snake had been frightened into near-complete silence, making himself quite scarce.

Agni shook himself, realizing he had been silent for quite a while, and Prince Soma was looking at him apprehensively. “Would you prefer for me to stay especially close today?” While Agni did not believe that Sebastian would harm Soma, his prince was frightened of the British butler and he knew some reassurance would not be amiss.

Soma appeared to consider that for a long moment, but then he smiled, a small and gentle look that accompanied many of his kindest decisions.

“I’ll stay with Ciel today,” Soma declared confidently, rolling his cup between his hands. “He’ll yell at Sebastian if he gets too scary.” He tipped his head to meet Agni’s gaze, tawny eyes warm and bright. “You want to talk to him, right?”

Agni started, and then smiled as a deep and grateful warmth spread through his chest – he would support Soma in whatever he chose to do, but his prince’s thoughtfulness never failed to amaze him. Unable to find his voice, he nodded.

Soma grinned at him, leaning forward against the table. “If anyone can calm him down, you can,” he said fondly. “But don’t let him yell at you, okay, Agni?”

“Jo aagyaa,” Agni chuckled, and at Soma’s shooing motions, he bowed shallowly and turned to leave, seeking out his colleague with all speed.

He found him near a supply closet, a scathing snarl on his face and eyes seeming to gleam ruby red in his anger, tearing into Finny in a voice that was barely raised but carried all the way down the hall; Agni had heard him before he saw him.

“-most basic of self-control. Byy now you ought to be more than capable of such elementary feats of restraint, and the fact that you simply are not amounts to nothing less than a complete and utter failure on your part.”

Finny, Agni found, was hunched in on himself in front of the irate butler, clutching two halves of a broken shovel to his chest and trembling visibly. His eyes gleamed with badly suppressed tears, and he wasn’t even attempting to defend himself, mouth shut tight.

In a single, fluid motion, Agni inserted himself between the two Phantomhive servants, and reached back to gently grasp Finny’s free hand. He gave Sebastian a disarming smile, and the British man stopped speaking immediately, though his displeasure seemed to ratchet up noticeably.

“I’m sure the young man has learned his lesson,” Agni cajoled. It was difficult, Agni knew from experience, to master such strength; Finny was doing his best, which Sebastian knew full well. “There is no need to denigrate him so, Mister Sebastian. Would it be acceptable to embrace this as a mistake and allow him on his way?”

Sebastian glowered at him for another long moment, with more blistering irritation than he had ever directed at Agni before. Agni held his gentle smile, patiently waiting the other man out, and behind him, Finny let out a desperate, breathy whimper. Finally, Sebastian held out one gloved hand.

It took a light squeeze from Agni before Finny yelped and jolted into action, placing the pieces ever-so-carefully in Sebastian’s outstretched hand. Agni gave Sebastian a grateful smile, and Sebastian nodded curtly before turning away and taking off at a brisk walk.

Agni intended to follow him, of course – such uncharacteristic fits of temper did not come without reason, and Agni was quite concerned – but first, to mind the distraught boy behind him.

When Agni turned around, Finny was sniffling, reaching up to rub fervently at his wet eyes.

“I’m s-s-sorry,” Finny croaked, voice tiny. “I-I didn’t mean to!”

“Of course not, my boy,” Agni soothed, gently wiping some of the tears off his cheek with the edge of his bandaged palm. “You’ve been doing admirably this past week, but mistakes will happen.” Finny hiccupped, and Agni continued, brushing the boy’s hair back behind his ear, “I have had my strength for years. It is not so great as yours, but I still break things by accident on occasion.”

Finny’s eyes widened, his breath steadying a little. “You, Mister Agni? But even Mister Sebastian admires you!”

Agni tried to ignore the heat that rose to his cheeks at that and smiled. “And yet, I still make mistakes. To err is human, after all. Do not worry; you will learn and it will get easier.”

Finny gave Agni a watery smile and bobbed his head. “I’ll learn! I’ll get better, I promise!” His smile fell. “But Mister Sebastian was really angry this time…”

“I will speak with him,” Agni promised, and Finny’s smile returned. “My boy, do you know what might have upset him so? He has seemed quite mercurial all day.”

Finny bit the inside of his cheek, frowning in thought. “I don’t really know,” he admitted, ducking his head. “He gets like this sometimes, but Mister Sebastian never says anything about it.” He shrugged helplessly. “He’ll calm down tomorrow, I think, but he’s scary like this.” He shivered, huddling in on himself again.

“Ah,” Agni sighed, and reached out to squeeze Finny’s hand again, swift and light. “Well, I will see if I can calm him sooner, eh?” He smiled reassuringly. “Now, my boy, in the meantime, would you mind checking on Miss Maid for me? She seemed quite upset earlier. And then you could perhaps keep Mister Footman company.”

Finny nodded quickly, and Agni was gratified to see him straighten with shaky determination. “I will!”

Agni smiled as Finny took off down the hall, and then turned to pursue Sebastian, his smile fading as concern rose to the surface.

Sebastian was a perfectionist of the highest degree, it was true, and his temper tended to lurk just beneath the surface. But such harshness was usually beyond Sebastian, so his behavior today was quite worrying.

Sebastian was returning inside when Agni found him again, hands free of the broken shovel and still radiating nothing but cold hostility. The last thing the man wanted, it seemed, was conversation.

Keeping this in mind, Agni cleared his throat, and Sebastian immediately turned a sharp glare on him, discouraging any overtures. Agni offered him a gentle smile, trying to smooth the man’s ruffled feathers.

“Would you accept my help with today’s chores?” Agni asked, voice soft and carefully inoffensive, palms open and relaxed. “Taking them on alone would surely be tedious and lonely.”

At first, it looked as if Sebastian would lash out at him too. His harsh expression did not budge from his face, his stance deceptively loose and distinctly predatory, and his teeth beginning to bare in the trappings of a renewed snarl.

And then Sebastian closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath, and nodded once.

“If you insist,” Sebastian said curtly. “I intend to polish the staircase next. It still has traces of shoe polish on it.”

“Then I will help you,” Agni replied firmly.

Sebastian’s expression pinched in apparent displeasure, but he simply turned away and started walking, aiming for the supply closet from which wood polish and wax could be retrieved.

In quiet cooperation, the two of them cleaned and waxed the staircase, and then dusted the library, brushing away residue from books and shelves and paintings, and then moved on to the kitchen. When they had finished cleaning the ash from the kitchen, they started tea, working alongside each other but not together. It was then that Agni decided to approach Sebastian, who had calmed somewhat with the silent work.

“You never speak of home,” Agni pointed out mildly, stirring a bowl of batter with care.

Sebastian’s lips thinned, and he cast Agni an unamused, warning look. “It has never been relevant.”

Sebastian’s motions were stiff but flawless. Russet eyes refocused on his work even as he scowled faintly. Agni considered him, a small, concerned frown on his face.

Everyone got homesick sometimes.

“You place great value on precision, honesty, and patience,” Agni mused aloud, treading carefully. Sebastian actually glanced over at him, raising an eyebrow, and Agni offered him a small, commiserating smile. “Are these your own virtues, or did you learn them from your homeland?” While it was easy to assume that Sebastian was British born-and-raised, there were some behaviors of his that did not quite fit.

Sebastian scoffed. Something about the sound made Agni’s heart clench; derision decorated Sebastian’s face. “Nothing so respectable could ever come from such a place,” he muttered, draining his pan into another bowl.

“You did,” Agni said easily. Sebastian did not reply, expression still stormy and motions becoming somehow sharper, so Agni persevered. “You’ve learned much since you came here, haven’t you? So have I, and so have your coworkers.” He turned a smile on Sebastian, now more sure of the source of his problem. (Why did all of Lord Ciel’s servants seem to have such unfortunate histories?) Sebastian went briefly still, cocking a weary, skeptical eyebrow at Agni, who finished, “I expect we all have more to learn yet, as humans do.”

Sebastian did not immediately reply, but neither did his ire spike again. He simply gazed at Agni, expression unreadable, with much of the tension gone from his shoulders. Recognizing the look, Agni gave him a bright grin and returned to the final touches of Soma’s afternoon meal.

After an indeterminate amount of time, Sebastian spoke. The tightness was gone from his voice, leaving a tired, almost contrite tone. “We should not keep our masters waiting. Children become bad-tempered when hungry.”

Agni relaxed and cast Sebastian a teasing smile. “They are not the only ones.”

Sebastian smirked back, his hand brushing lightly across Agni’s shoulders as he moved past, plate in hand. “I suppose not.”