AN: It's finally finished… Most of you had probably given up on me by now. I am truly sorry for making you wait so long, and I can't express how grateful I am to all of you. Without your support, I definitely wouldn't have come this far.
I originally planned on posting only four chapters, but there was simply too much to cover, and I wanted to make this story as good as I could, so I decided I should take my time. I hope it paid off in the end, and that you enjoyed the ride. I know I will miss these characters forevermore. Thank you for reading, a special thanks to reviewers, and to my sister for putting up with me! Your advice is always a huge help, sis.
Previous Chapter Summary:
Oz's plan to fix the time paradox by turning Jack into Lacie's Chain had unexpected consequences: when Gilbert, Vincent, Alice and her twin made it out of the Abyss, they landed fifteen years in the past, and Oz turned back into a plush rabbit. Terrified at the idea that history will repeat itself, Gilbert struggles to reconcile the Four Great Dukedoms with the Baskervilles without revealing too much of the Tragedy of Sablier or the alternate future he comes from.
Five years have passed: Gilbert and Alice are headed for a certain party hosted by the Vessalius Household, but get attacked on their way there by Zai Vessalius, who suspects Gilbert of plotting against his family. Gilbert arrests the duke's accomplices and takes them to Pandora Headquarters before proceeding to the ceremony with Zai. He hopes to salvage the relationship between the Nightrays and Vessalius with Oscar's help – and that, on this particular day, something can be done about Oz's predicament.
The stop at Pandora Headquarters allowed Gilbert some time to clean the blood off his healed wounds and change his clothes before he escorted Zai to the party. Pandora gave Gilbert and Alice another carriage in compensation for the one lost in the attack, and six agents made the trip with them as bodyguards – here to protect them as much as to keep an eye on them, Gilbert knew. Whether the watch was intended for him or Zai, Gilbert welcomed their presence: the duke wouldn't try anything in these conditions.
Nevertheless, he couldn't relax completely until the familiar mansion came into view; only for the tension to be replaced with another anxiety: what would he say to Oscar? How would the duke react when he saw his brother?
Gilbert craned his head to look out the window, and saw that his carriage had distanced Zai's: the second coach had yet to emerge from the woods. Gilbert frowned. What was the duke thinking?
"Finally!" Alice stretched and jumped to her feet. Gilbert grabbed her arm before she could open the door.
"Wait until the carriage stops," he chastised her.
"Yes, I know, stop babying me!" Alice grumbled without taking her hand off the handle. As soon as the vehicle stilled and Gilbert released his grip on her, she sprang outside like a devil out of its box. Gilbert fought off an amused smile as he fell into step behind her.
Gilbert looked down in time to see a mop of blonde hair latch itself onto his leg with a delighted laugh. He froze in place upon spotting the white cat clinging to the child's head. It took all his willpower not to unleash B-Rabbit's powers on the creature.
"M-Miss Ada," he stammered and held Oz like his life depended on it. "Could you please…"
"I told you that you shouldn't bring Dinah, Ada," came Oscar's laughing voice. With a snap of the man's fingers, the cat leapt off the little girl's head. "My apologies, Gilbert, I couldn't stop her in time. Our Ada was really eager to see you."
Gilbert let out a shuddering breath: "It's alright, Lord Oscar," he said, although he had trouble taking his eyes off the cat as it rubbed itself against Oscar's legs and mewed for attention. Small hands tugged at his trousers until he looked down at the beaming child in front of him. The sight of Ada's sparkling green eyes warmed him to the core, and for a second he allowed himself to forget the little monster that trailed after her.
"Good morning, Miss Ada," he smiled at the little girl and took a knee to be level with her. "I'm sorry for being late."
Ada answered with a pleased blush and a clumsy curtsey. Oscar kissed Alice's hand, and gave a hearty chuckle at her baffled splutter.
"And a good day to you, I'm glad you could make it," a shadow passed over the bright green of his eyes. "I admit I was getting worried. Did you have a safe trip?"
Gilbert averted his eyes, and met Alice's expectant look. He had forbidden her from speaking of what had happened, wary of her bluntness. Gilbert himself had no idea how to broach the subject, let alone in front of Ada.
The sight of the following carriage peeking out of the woods gave him the push he needed.
"We… met Duke Zai Vessalius on our way," he whispered.
Oscar's eyes became wide with worry. They darted to the approaching golden carriage, and back to Gilbert:
"What happened?" he asked in the same tone.
"…I'd rather discuss it in private. I'm afraid it's serious."
Oscar nodded slowly. He had gone pale:
"Whatever occurred, I'm relieved to see the both of you alright. I'm really sorry if…"
"You don't have anything to apologize for," Gilbert said earnestly. "I know you had nothing to do with it. I really hope we can salvage the situation."
Oscar smiled at that, even though his face had lost its sunny disposition.
"In that case, it's for the best that you were the first to arrive. I need to have a word with my brother… The two of you should go ahead and make yourselves at home. I already gave the servants instructions to help Miss Alice get dressed for the party: you'll find them in the Great Hall."
He leaned over and whispered so only Gilbert could hear:
"After you've dropped her there, head over to my study: it's on the first floor, the third door to your left. I'll meet you there after I've talked with Zai."
Gilbert nodded solemnly and turned a worried gaze towards Ada. But the little girl was oblivious to the dark tone the conversation had taken: she had her eyes fixed on the plush rabbit Gilbert was still holding.
"Oz was impatient to see you, too, Miss Ada," he told her with a smile.
Ada welcomed the rabbit with a huge smile and a tight hug.
"Happy birthday, big brother!" she chirped, and hearing it sent a wave of warmth through Gilbert's chest. "Gil, can I give him his gift now?"
"Oz needs to stay with Miss Alice," Oscar told his niece. "So why don't you escort our guests to the tailors, Ada? You can make your gift there."
The little girl nodded enthusiastically. Gilbert bowed to Lord Oscar and let Ada take him by the hand to the old mansion where every Coming of Age Ceremony was held. He couldn't help sending a few worried glances back, but Ada was surprisingly fast for such a small girl, and they were at the door before Zai's carriage reached Oscar. Gilbert had to take his eyes away to greet the Vessalius servants properly.
Alice was used to Gilbert entrusting her to tailors before attending a party, and put up less of a fight than usual. From the furtive glances she kept sending him, he had the ill suspicion that she was trying to preserve him after the fight. He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile and turned to leave, only to be blocked by Ada, who was standing at the doorway and worrying her lips. Just like that, his smile no longer felt forced:
"I won't be long, Miss Ada. There is just a small matter your uncle told me to take care of. I'll leave Oz and Alice with you for now," he took off his hat and put it on the little girl's head. "Will you hold onto this for me?"
It always warmed his heart to see the way the old hat fell over Ada's eyes and the stark contrast it made with the light blonde hair cascading down her shoulders. She tilted it back until the brims covered the nape of her neck, and her thick fringe kept the hat in place atop her head. She grinned up at him, nodded, and took Oz to a low table covered with freshly cut flowers. Gilbert's smile widened. He had a pretty good idea what Ada's gift to her brother was going to be.
An uncomfortable mix of nostalgia and dread constricted Gilbert's heart as he climbed the stairs to Oscar's study. Everything from the rich curtains to the spotless carpeting looked exactly like the day of Oz's fifteenth birthday, before the mansion had been abandoned and become a research subject for Pandora. Gilbert could still hear Oz's muffled laughter in every wardrobe. The absence of the plush rabbit at his side made the phantom noise all the more haunting. Gilbert hurried on.
Gilbert turned round and almost collided with a storm of white silk and blonde hair. The party dress made an emergency landing before it could crash into him. Gilbert was almost thrown off balance when two hands emerged from its floating folds and clasped his arm. His hand flew to his holster.
He stopped his movement when he recognized the young woman trying to catch her breath.
"Are you alright?" she heaved. "What about Miss Alice?"
"We…are both fine," Gilbert stuttered. He looked her over with concern. "What's the matter, Lady Lorina?"
Zai's eldest daughter raised her head to meet his gaze. Her blonde curls had been sent in disarray by her race through the corridors, and her red eyes were shining with anxiety behind her oval glasses as they looked from Gilbert to the great windows lining the walls. The man followed her gaze to the front garden outside. In the distance, he could see Oscar talking animatedly with his brother.
Lorina suddenly released her grip and set about smoothing her ruffled party dress with hasty pats. She straightened her back and fixed him with a determined stare:
"I wish to speak to you. Do you have a moment?"
Gilbert looked from the door to the young woman barring his way. In spite of the abrupt change in attitude, her heavy breathing and dishevelled hair betrayed her distress.
"That is to say," he mirrored her stiff formality in his bemusement, "Lord Oscar asked to see me in his study…"
"Good. Let's wait for him inside."
Before Gilbert could think to stop her, she opened the door and preceded him into the study, where she set to opening the great curtains. She left the thin white curtains underneath drawn, so that the light could filter while the gardens remained obscured from view. Her moves were smooth, but her shoulders were tense.
"Isn't your chaperon with you?" Gilbert asked her with mounting confusion.
"About that…" Lorina averted her eyes: "Could you please close the door? I would like to speak to you before Mrs Kate finds me. In private," she added quickly.
Gilbert obeyed reluctantly, torn between mild exasperation and reluctant amusement. It was far from unusual for Lorina to avoid her governess: she had been a master of Hide-and-Seek for as long as Gilbert had known her, and liked nothing more than to demonstrate that skill. But he had hoped that the young heiress would have the decency to spare Mrs Kate's nerves on the day of her Coming of Age Ceremony.
"She must be worried," Gilbert kept his tone neutral. As of today, Lorina was no longer a child: he had no authority to chastise her on how she treated her servants. However, that didn't mean he couldn't voice any misgivings.
"It's important," she said with a defensive huff completely at odds with her formal attire. Gilbert found the slip reassuring in its familiarity.
"I'm listening," he said with a prudent nod.
Lorina's eyes lingered on the windows. Her high heels clicked on the parquet floor as she turned to face him:
"I saw Father arrive shortly after you on the main road. And pardon me, but I couldn't help noticing that you were late. If you don't mind me asking, did anything happen during your trip?"
Gilbert tensed up. Lorina was watching him expectantly, her posture as stiff as her polite words. Suddenly her little escapade made a lot more sense: she was scared. Scared for him and her father, or scared of them, Gilbert couldn't tell. He never could.
He felt trapped.
"…Everything is fine," he fought off the urge to open the door and bolt. "Alice and your father are both alright. I'm sorry for worrying you."
Lorina's shoulders were growing so stiff it was starting to look painful: "You are avoiding the question."
Gilbert had to look away: "No. Nothing happened."
It felt more tempting to run away with every second. Gilbert's head was reeling. Could it be? Had Zai informed his daughter of his planned attack? No, impossible. Lorina would have warned Oscar about the plan. Zai would never take such a risk in the first place.
His silence proved too long:
"…Were you attacked?"
Gilbert gulped. He couldn't deny it to her face. But he refused to accuse her father in front of her. She was barely out of childhood, just about to enter noble society. Gilbert wanted to keep her from its twisted plots and schemes for as long as possible.
He saw a possible escape in the phrasing of her question. Lorina hadn't asked who his attacker had been, had she?
"It is a matter I need to discuss with your uncle and father," Gilbert said. "We will need Pandora's help in order to identify the culprit."
Lorina went deathly pale:
"…I see," her voice trembled. "I knew it..."
Gilbert hoped that she would leave it at that. This hope was crushed when Lorina raised her chin to meet his gaze head on:
"You think my father ordered this attack, don't you? That's why you're trying to keep it from me."
Gilbert stammered an inarticulate series of denials that sounded weak to his own ears. Lorina's eyes were wide and accusing behind the magnifying glass. She looked very young.
"You are a terrible liar. You always were," she whispered. She had given up all pretence of politeness or neutrality. "Everybody knows that my father and you hate each other."
There was no point in denying any of these statements.
"That wouldn't warrant an attack!" Gilbert said instead.
Lorina flinched and ducked her head. Unruly curls of blonde hair came to obscure her face:
"…Didn't my father say anything to you?"
Gilbert felt at a loss. He was still fearful of what she knew and her possible reactions to the truth, but mostly confused:
"I'm not sure what you mean," he said at last.
There was a short silence. Lorina's eyes were set on the waving curtains, but Gilbert could see the fear in them. When she spoke next, her voice was so small he barely heard the words:
"It's because of the ceremony, isn't it?"
"The Coming of Age Ceremony," she whipped her head back towards him. "You warned Pandora that something might happen today, didn't you?"
"How did you know…?"
"I suspected," she said, and Gilbert cursed himself for falling for such an old trick. "My father kept telling me to stay away from you, that you must be planning something, that… he wouldn't let you have your way," she bit her lower lip. "So when he said he might be late to the ceremony because he had to work, I..."
Lorina fisted the front of her white dress. Gilbert remembered Zai's final warning, and the motive of the attack dawned on him.
She was right: Gilbert had told Pandora about the Silent Clock starting again on Oz's Coming of Age Ceremony and the passage to the Abyss opening. Pandora had agreed to reinforce security at the estate for the day, even though Gilbert knew that few of the agents actually believed his prediction.
Zai had been the one who had argued most against Gilbert and his fellow Baskervilles attending the party. The duke suspected that Gilbert was using a false prediction as a pretext, and was actually plotting against the Vessalius Household. Whatever he imagined, Zai probably really thought he was protecting his family.
Gilbert clenched his fists. To think that, in another future, Zai had been the one to tear his family apart by throwing Oz into the Abyss. Had he given his son a chance, everything could have been avoided.
The steady burn of Gilbert's hatred was tempered by sympathy as he watched Lorina. Even when he actually tried to care for them, Zai kept hurting his relatives.
"Your father loves you," Gilbert told Lorina. The words had a hard time coming out of his mouth, but he knew them to be true, and the lass needed to hear them. "It's only natural that he worries about you."
She kept staring at the sunlit curtains with a bitter wistfulness. When she turned back to him, there was reproach in her gaze:
"You're not going to tell me anything, are you?"
Guilt nagged at Gilbert, but he refused to give in:
"You know I have a risky job. I can't tell you much about Pandora's investigations…"
"That's about to change."
Lorina raised her chin defiantly:
"This is what I originally wanted to tell you. I've made up my mind: I am going to assist my father as a Vessalius representative at Pandora Headquarters."
Gilbert's stomach sank: "You…are going to work with Pandora?"
"I was going to no matter what," Lorina said. Her tone was stiff again, like a well-reversed text. "I'm not a child anymore, and it's my duty as a member of the peerage to ensure that our world is safe from the Abyss. All I'm going to do is relinquish my title of heiress to the Vessalius dukedom."
"Lady Lorina, you need to think carefully about this," Gilbert cut in, frantic in spite of himself. "As you said, all noblemen and women from the four great dukedoms are involved in Pandora's research on the Abyss. Every heir is well protected and rarely does dangerous missions, even if they are privy to them. But if you ask for the position of representative, you will have to contract a Chain and fight. You will be risking your life!"
"Isn't that what you and my father have been doing all these years?"
That stopped Gilbert in his tracks. Lorina looked determined and pleading at the same time. It was a disarming expression; one Gilbert was painfully familiar with: he could never refuse Elliot or Alice anything when they gave him that look.
"I want to understand," she went on. "I want to know what Father is so afraid of. I want to help him."
Gilbert's eyes widened. Afraid? He had never thought to associate this word with Zai Vessalius. Even now, it was impossible to reconcile the idea with the cruel, ruthless traitor he had always hated. Lorina was making a mistake, Gilbert was certain of it, yet he could find no words to dissuade her.
And what right did he have to question her choice? Zai was her father. Now that she had come of age, of course she wanted to step up for him instead of being protected.
The thought filled Gilbert with nostalgia. He remembered the child who chased butterflies in the Vessalius gardens with her sister in tow, and the proud way she showed off her collection of feathers. His gaze flicked from her unruly blonde curls to the tiny emerald and crossed white wings pinned to the hem of her party dress. Gilbert recalled the replicas of the Vessalius crest she used to craft and wear in her hair, to the eternal dismay of the servants. Looking at Lorina now felt like looking the past five years right in the eye.
"Are you sure?" he asked, unable to keep the fear from his voice.
"Have you talked to Lord Oscar about this?"
"No, not yet," Lorina suddenly sounded meek. "Not even Father knows."
"What?" Gilbert started. Only then did the incongruity of this conversation really strike him. "You mean… But why would you tell me first?"
"Well," the lass drawled, and wrung her hands. "There's something I need to ask you…"
She shook her head. "No. First… There's something you should know."
All trace of her previous bravado was gone. Gilbert waited silently for her to elaborate. Lorina took a deep breath and raised her head to face him once more:
"Do you remember the day you first came to our house? Riding bareback on that black horse with blood on your clothes?"
Gilbert flinched. He remembered that day all too well.
"You really scared me then," Lorina said. "After you were arrested, when my uncle agreed to talk to you in private, I thought he had lost his mind. I was sure you were going to attack him. So…"
"I hid in my uncle's study. I thought that, if anything happened, I could scream for the servants," she said in a rush, like she was expecting to be scolded and wanted to get the admission out of the way as fast as possible. Her voice quieted with her last words: "I heard everything you told him."
"Please tell me you didn't tell anyone," he took a shaking step forward. Lorina stepped back:
"No. I never told anyone," she shook her head. "I didn't understand most of it anyway… It was the first time I'd seen a grown man cry. I thought you were mad."
She threw him an apologetic look over her oval glasses; it looked like four bright eyes peering up at him. Gilbert didn't know how to react. Lorina ducked her head:
"But then, you kept coming back. And you started to tell Ada and I stories… Stories about Oz Vessalius."
The name woke Gilbert from his befuddlement. He smiled sadly:
"You never believed them, did you?"
"I… That's not the point," Lorina struggled with her words: "I didn't know what to think at first. Father said you must be mad, and for the longest time, that's what I thought, but..."
Gilbert sighed: "I don't blame either of you for being suspicious of me, really…"
"Me?" Lorina gaped at him in disbelief. "You think I suspect you?"
Gilbert blinked, taken aback by her outburst. A dark blush rose on Lorina's cheeks, and she bit her lips to fight off her growing embarrassment.
"…I wouldn't ask to talk to you in private if I didn't trust you," she mumbled. "Let me finish. Please," she amended.
Her glasses had gone askew. In the time it took Lorina to right them on her nose, the colour on her face subsided a little.
"I admit it, I used to be scared of you," she said in a clipped tone. "But I stopped avoiding you after a while, didn't I?"
Gilbert wasn't sure whether or not the question was rhetorical, but thought it best not to interrupt. However, now that he thought about it, he did remember an incident two years prior that had changed Lorina's attitude towards him completely:
The young girl had been playing Hide and Seek with Ada, but she hadn't reappeared at dinnertime as usual. That had whipped Mrs Kate up into a frenzy. Soon, the entire staff was looking for the missing child. The situation had been way too similar to the day Oz had almost been kidnapped, and Gilbert had made haste to join in the search party.
He had been the one to find her: Lorina had accidentally locked herself in the aviary. Gilbert had been so relieved that he had readily agreed to keep quiet about it, and helped her to get rid of all the feathers on her dress so her favourite hiding place could stay a secret. Lorina had been a lot friendlier during Gilbert's following visits.
"I couldn't bring myself to hate you," Lorina went on. "Everybody says that the Nightrays are cunning and hate the Vessalius family, but you were always kind to us. Father says you're only pretending, but… it doesn't add up. If you were really trying to trick us, why would you make up stories about sentient rabbits? I just… I didn't get it."
Gilbert nodded, feeling intrigued and anxious. Lorina was still avoiding his eyes, but his silence encouraged her to continue:
"In the end, it was Uncle Oscar who helped me understand. Once, I asked him why he trusted you. He couldn't answer with the whole truth, of course, but he did tell me that you had the means to ruin our family, but never used them."
She found the will to lock gazes with him once more:
"He was referring to Jack Vessalius, wasn't he?"
Gilbert's breath hitched. He took another step:
"You must promise to never reveal this. To anyone."
But Lorina didn't back away this time. She turned towards him fully, with both hands clenched into fists:
"Why do you go so far for us? You're one of the Baskervilles; the Nightrays are the ones who adopted you, and they are the ones who get blamed for the Tragedy of Sablier! Shouldn't you be helping them instead?"
"That's what I am trying to do! But I can't change a century worth of history, or what's already happened. It's the present that matters." Gilbert took a steadying breath. There was no point in arguing with Lorina. She was only trying to understand. He went on in a calmer voice: "I don't want to take sides. I just want the Four Great Dukedoms and the Baskervilles to find a new balance. That's why I won't discredit any of them."
"But you're discrediting yourself instead! Don't you see?" Lorina snapped. "Do you have any idea what people say behind your back? They call you an usurper and a conspirator; those who don't fear you call you a useless fool or a lunatic!"
Gilbert grimaced and thought of Break: "I'm used to that."
"Don't say that! How could anyone get used to that?"
"It doesn't matter. Not as long as they acknowledge the problems I'm warning them against."
Lorina shook her head vehemently: "They mock you for being in love with a plush rabbit!"
In spite of her serious tone, Gilbert couldn't help but chuckle:
"Well, that much is true. I do love Oz."
That stopped Lorina in her tracks. She stared at him with her mouth hanging open. Gilbert's smile only widened. He always felt a little embarrassed to say it out loud, but it wasn't something he had any trouble admitting to anymore: Oz had accepted his feelings, and that was all that mattered.
"Even…like this?" Lorina asked breathlessly.
A warm, painful bubble of tenderness expanded in Gilbert's chest at the thought of the small rabbit he had left in Ada's care. "Yes," he answered in a soft voice.
It was hard to remember a time when he hadn't loved Oz. It was as natural as breathing to him by now.
"I…see," Lorina said. She was still looking at him with her eyes as big as saucers. Her hands trembled when she steadied her glasses on her nose for the second time. Gilbert only got a glimpse of the deep unease in her eyes. "Actually, I… That is… There's something I need to ask."
Gilbert waited for the other shoe to drop. He was well aware that his admission might have confirmed the heiress' worst suspicions about his sanity. That would also mean the end of the good understanding between them. The thought saddened him greatly.
"Do you hate me?" she asked in a small voice.
Gilbert started: "Sorry?"
Lorina scowled so deeply her eyebrows nearly met the base of her glasses.
"Don't make me say it again," she said through gritted teeth.
"Why in the world would I hate you?"
"Because of him! Oz Vessalius!" she massaged her forehead so she didn't have to look at him. "Because I took his place!"
Gilbert was flabbergasted. The silence seemed to unnerve Lorina this time, and she kept speaking in a drawl:
"In the future you came from… I didn't exist, did I? That's the first thing I noticed when you told Uncle Oscar about your world. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I thought you must…" she bit her lip. "You think I took Oz Vessalius' place, don't you?"
It took several seconds for Gilbert to find his voice again. In the meantime, Lorina's appearance had deflated completely: she was hunching her shoulders as if bracing for a strike. Gilbert felt an overwhelming urge to pat her head, but she inched back as soon as he made to approach. He resolved to keep his distance, and offered her a smile instead.
"How could you take his place when he already exists?" his voice was quiet from incredulity. "Oz travelled with us to this time. It wouldn't have made sense if he had been in two places simultaneously, would it?"
"But according to you, he should be the Vessalius heir," Lorina said, and Gilbert could hear a hint of reproach in her voice.
Gilbert shook his head: "Oz never cared much about titles. He loves his family dearly. I may be unable to speak with him now, but I know he must be delighted to have another sister."
It was Lorina's turn to watch him in disbelief. She was faster to recover, and her face settled into a scowl:
"What about you, then? What do you think of me?"
The door banged open.
Gilbert turned round and came face to face with Oscar Vessalius, who raised an imperious hand and yelled: "Objection!"
Gilbert had barely recovered from the shock when Oscar slammed the door shut and marched to him with a dangerous glint in his bespectacled eyes:
"What do you think you're doing, taking my niece from her chaperon and leading her astray, hmm?"
Gilbert backed away, too shaken to make sense of the accusation.
"Uncle Oscar!" Lorina spluttered, her eyes wide with horror. Her entire face had turned an impressive shade of red. "How long have you been here?"
Oscar turned to his niece with a wide grin: "Oh, long enough. I think I heard something about you hiding in my study to make your own inquiries five years ago. Ina," he tut-ted, "what did I tell you about eavesdropping on private conversations?"
"You just did!"
"Drastic circumstances call for drastic measures," Oscar said sagely. "I had to step in and protect your virtue…"
Gilbert was keenly reminded of the day the duke had infiltrated Lutwidge Academy to ask Ada about her letter – not only had Gilbert been attacked by her dreadful cats, but Oz and Oscar had been ready to hunt him down on top of everything.
"We just bumped into each other," he said in a feeble voice. "Lady Lorina wanted to speak to me, that's all."
Oscar looked from one to the other with a suspicious rumble of his throat. Lorina was making valiant efforts to disappear behind her hair. Gilbert himself felt a renewed urge to bolt out of the door. At long last, the duke heaved a dramatic sigh.
"That won't help Zai's opinion of Gilbert, you know," Oscar told Lorina in a scolding tone. "Especially when he thinks that Gilbert intends to strengthen his status by marrying you."
"What?" Gilbert cried, scandalized. "What in the… Is that what Zai told you?"
He forgot to add the proper honorific in his shock, but Oscar didn't comment on it: he only nodded mutely. Gilbert gaped like a fish out of water and looked from the duke to Lorina in quick succession, unable to come to terms with the enormity of Zai's suspicions.
Lorina scowled and avoided his gaze.
"Yes, well," she grumbled. "It's not like it's ever going to happen."
"Of course not!" Gilbert chimed in. "I would never do that!"
Gilbert was taken aback by her clipped words and the strange mix of relief and compassion on Oscar's face as he looked from Gilbert to his niece. The lass slowly raised her head and gave Gilbert an ironic smile:
"Still. We both want the relationship between our two families to improve, right? Marriage is obviously out of the question, but…" she cleared her throat, suddenly uneasy. "…Would you open the ball with me this evening?"
"Oh," Gilbert blinked, unsure how to respond.
It was true that it would have a strong symbolic impact if the Vessalius heiress opened her Coming of Age Ceremony by dancing with a Nightray, but that would undoubtedly make her the object of a lot of gossip… especially, Gilbert thought with a wince, if Zai wasn't the only one to suspect that Gilbert intended to marry her. Furthermore, Lorina's expression and odd behaviour concerned him.
"I would be glad to, Lady Lorina," he said hesitantly, "but…"
"You really are trying to upset your father, aren't you?" Oscar asked after a curt, light-hearted laugh.
In spite of the duke's teasing tone, Gilbert heard a hint of his own worry in Oscar's voice.
"I am not," Lorina said. "I just want to make it clear that our opinions diverge on this matter. If Father and I are going to work together, we might as well get those differences out of the way as soon as possible."
Oscar frowned: "'Work together?'"
Lorina started: "Oh. You…hadn't heard that part?"
Her eyes wandered for a second. Gilbert tried to guess when Oscar had started eavesdropping, heart thumping with growing anxiety. Lorina recovered faster than he did, and fixed her uncle with her previous determination restored:
"I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you about my plans, Uncle Oscar: I am going to be a Pandora Representative."
Oscar's frown deepened:
"You are serious about this…"
"I figured it was the only way Father would stop hiding everything and trying to shelter me 'for my own good,'" she said defiantly. Gilbert had half a mind to scold her for her straightforwardness; although he knew it wasn't his place. "And this way, Ada won't have to make the choice."
The duke visibly flinched at the mention of Ada. Gilbert felt all the more improper for witnessing this exchange and Oscar's obvious worry at the thought of either of his nieces being exposed to danger. To his surprise, Oscar smiled:
"I hope this is not just a part of your plan to claim ownership of the Griffon?"
Lorina flushed: "What? Of course not!"
"I know how eager you are to fly away on a Black Winged Bird of your own…"
"Uncle Oscar!" Lorina threw an alarmed look at Gilbert and shushed Oscar with an urgent hiss.
"…but even if you do become a representative straight away," Oscar went on unperturbed, "you will still have to wait until Zai retires before you can attempt to make a pact with it…"
"Yes, I know, this is not…"
"And it will depend whether or not the Griffon accepts you…"
"In fact, Pandora will have to check whether or not you are qualified to be a contractor first. Me, for instance…"
"I know, Uncle Oscar, and no, this is not the only reason!"
She put a hand to her mouth when she realized her slip-up, and gave her uncle a mortified glare. Her face was as red as her eyes by now. Oscar laughed good-naturedly:
"There, there, Ina, I'm just teasing." A sombre look clouded his smile: "This is your choice, and I won't stop you. But please discuss it with Zai first. Like you said, no matter what happens, from today on, the two of you will be colleagues: you need to tell him that you want to work with him, not against him."
Lorina's eyes widened. Her embarrassed flush had erased all trace of her defiance. Still half hiding behind her hand, she looked hesitant and vulnerable as she glanced over at Gilbert:
"…But what if he asks me to choose?"
Oscar's paternal smile was as comforting as Gilbert remembered it. The warm compassion in his eyes was as much reassurance as the light-hearted humour in his voice:
"I think you already know the answer to that question, or you wouldn't have asked Gilbert to the ball. Right in front of me," the duke added with a note of reproach.
Lorina had a hiccup of laughter, which she covered up with a cough. When she removed her hand, the ironic smile from before was back on her lips:
"Father attacked two of my guests on the day of my Coming of Age Ceremony. Dancing with a member of an old rival family can't be that big of an offense compared to that."
Oscar turned round with an alarmed look:
"I told you, Lady Lorina, it wasn't…" Gilbert said at the same time.
"He wouldn't tell me anything about the attack, if that's what you're wondering," Lorina told her uncle before either of them could go on. "I would appreciate it if the two of you could inform me of these things from now on. I will be your colleague too, after all."
Both men looked at her with twin expressions of befuddlement, and she visibly struggled to hold both of their gazes. At last Oscar shook his head with a weary smile, breaking the spell. Gilbert rubbed the back of his head self-consciously.
Lorina was right. And after what Zai did, Oscar and he would need all the help they could get to fix the situation.
"Alright, Lady Lorina," Gilbert told her. "I'm sorry for keeping you in the dark."
She let her guard down after that. The red of her irises became more pronounced with her wide-eyed anxiety:
"My father really attacked you and Miss Alice, didn't he?"
Gilbert hesitated. He glanced over at Oscar, who gave a nearly imperceptible nod. His expression was dismal, but resigned.
"I see… Thank you for telling me."
Silence stretched as both men let her process the truth. Suspecting her father was one thing, but having his guilt confirmed was another matter entirely.
"What can we do?" she asked them in a small voice.
"We don't really have a choice at this point," Oscar sighed. "Zai won't be able to hush up the case so easily. A trial will be held soon at Pandora Headquarters."
"…Which side will you take, Uncle Oscar?"
Oscar shrugged, both hands held up in mock-surrender:
"I'm not taking any sides. It's just like you said: it's the good relationship between our two families that we're going to salvage," the duke winked at Gilbert. "And in order to do that, we must make all the light on the plot against Gilbert."
"A plot? You mean to say that Father wasn't working alone?"
Gilbert answered with a solemn look:
"The duke wasn't the only one behind the attack. It was my own coachman who led Oz, Alice and I into a trap – a servant of the Nightray Household. I think Duke Vessalius is in league with Duke Nightray."
It felt disturbingly like déjà-vu when Gilbert turned towards Oscar and voiced his suspicions. Except, Gilbert reminded himself with a raw sense of relief, he had protected Oz this time. Neither he nor Alice had been thrown into the Abyss, and thanks to the duke's captured accomplices, Bernard Nightray wouldn't be able to provide any convenient alibis for Zai.
Oscar looked more concerned than really surprised by his words, but Lorina turned to him with a look of shocked revulsion:
"What? But…that's crazy! Why would Duke Nightray target his own son?"
Gilbert raised a hand to his chest and felt the place where his blood-mirror used to be. He remembered Vincent's warnings:
"…He was probably after Raven. Our attackers tried to end my contract with him by breaking the blood mirror. My Chain is the only thing that ties me directly to the Nightray Household, after all… I'm afraid my foster family never saw that in a favourable light."
"Your own family…" Lorina pressed her lips together in a tight line: "…Do you have any proof?"
"No," Gilbert gave a frustrated sigh. That much hadn't changed. "But I wouldn't be surprised if Duke Nightray supported Zai at the trial."
"Will I be able to attend it too?" Lorina asked her uncle earnestly.
"You might be required to," Oscar said in a dark voice. "Gilbert was attacked on the way to your party, after all…"
"They can't possibly put the blame on her!" Gilbert protested.
"Well…" a cynical self-confidence slowly crept back into Lorina's voice. "If Father cares at all about me, that might be one way to bring him back on our side, don't you think?"
Gilbert shuddered, too horrified by her words and expression to answer. He was unnerved by how much that smirk of hers resembled her father's.
"That's one way to put it," Oscar laughed. "But I would rather not see my dear niece get caught in the crossfire, if it's all the same to you. We should prepare our plea together…"
Just then, a gallop of high heels resounded in the corridors, soon followed by knuckles drumming on the door and Mrs Kate's shrill voice:
"Lord Oscar! Are you in there? Oh please tell me Lady Lorina is here with you…!"
Gilbert and Lorina rounded on the door with twin expressions of dread. The display only brightened Oscar's mood.
"…Actually, you should return to the preparations, Ina," he said lightly. "It's getting late. Zai was probably informed of your absence, so you'd better hurry before Mrs Kate sends a search party. I promise I will relay our discussion to you later," he added in a softer tone.
Lorina looked like she was about to protest, but her uncle's reassurance changed her mind. She fixed her hair hastily and steadied her posture:
"Thank you. I will see you later, Uncle Oscar," she gave her uncle a well-practiced curtsey, and another to Gilbert – who was suddenly struck by an odd detail.
"You never call me by name," he said, unable to stop himself.
"Oh." Lorina looked sideways. "That is… I never really know how to call you."
Gilbert was taken aback. Come to think of it, he had gotten used to people calling him all sorts of different names, usually in association with one of his Chains or adoptive families. It occurred to him how confusing it could sound to an outsider.
"'Gilbert' is fine," he told Lorina. She flushed.
"That would be contrary to etiquette, wouldn't it?"
Gilbert noticed the warning glint in Oscar's eyes. He gulped.
"…Lord Gilbert, then?" Even after all this time, the honorific still sounded strange.
"Don't sound so unsure," Lorina said with an exasperated sigh. "You deserve that title more than most noblemen I know."
That startled Gilbert out of his unease. He didn't think he deserved the compliment, but he felt touched all the same. He gave her a grateful smile.
"Coming, coming!" Oscar said heartily, and gestured for Gilbert to hide. The man promptly ducked behind the duke's desk – he didn't have too fond memories of Mrs Kate's angry rants. "I was giving Ina last-minute advice, you know how it is, time just flew by…"
"Milady! I looked everywhere for you…!"
Gilbert saw Lorina's reflection in the window get dragged away by a stampede of servants, led by a frantic Mrs Kate. The man was mildly impressed by how fast they managed to run in those heels – and deeply relieved that none of them saw him.
"All clear!" Oscar said cheerfully.
Gilbert chanced a glance over the desk to confirm it. He slipped out of his hiding place with a relieved sigh.
"Is Lady Lorina going to be alright?"
"Oh, don't worry so much, Mrs Kate can be a hassle, but she has Ina's best interests at heart."
"…That's not what I meant…" Gilbert glanced at the duke uneasily. "Will you be okay, Lord Oscar? Your brother…"
Oscar shook his head. His voice lost its carefree tone when he answered:
"Zai has been avoiding me for a while now… I should have suspected that something was amiss."
"It's not your fault! You had no way of knowing what he planned to do!"
"That may be true… but I still feel responsible," the smile Oscar gave Gilbert was sad, but no less genuine for it. "Zai is my brother, and I won't pretend that it doesn't hurt me to have to face him in this manner… but you are as much family to me as he is. I refuse to let him hurt you further. I'm sure Ina feels the same."
These words left Gilbert breathless. Suddenly he felt like he was nine again, with nowhere to go and no parent to run to, when Lord Oscar had treated his injuries and welcomed him into the Vessalius Household with a paternal grin.
"Lord Oscar…" he said shakily. He could feel tears brimming at his eyes and made haste to wipe them away.
Oscar's smile became more amused at his reaction: "Are you really so surprised?"
"No, it's not that, it's just…strange." Gilbert fidgeted. No matter how much time passed, it always felt odd to be taller than Oscar. "Once, in the time I come from, you told me that…I was like a son to you. That made me so happy... And now…" He chuckled sheepishly. "It's so strange being the same age as you."
Oscar laughed outright. Gilbert felt a little embarrassed, but seeing the duke's optimistic expression again was well worth it.
"I can see it, though," Oscar told him when his laughter died down. He looked more relaxed, but his next question was asked in a serious tone: "What about Oz?"
"Do you know how I felt about him?"
Gilbert smiled at that:
"You loved him like a son. You were more a father to him than Zai ever was."
There was a peculiar expression on Oscar's face. A wistfulness that Gilbert didn't know how to interpret, coupled with gratitude.
"I see…" he breathed a heavy sigh. "That's a relief."
Gilbert felt confused: "What do you mean?"
Oscar shook his head:
"It's complicated… But your story always felt oddly compelling to me. The way you described Oz… I couldn't help but think of my own son." The duke drew a hand through his hair and looked towards the sunny curtained windows. "What could have been if he had lived..."
A heavy weight sat on Gilbert's chest. He had arrived at the Vessalius mansion years after Oscar had lost his wife and child, and the man's grief was always well concealed by his constant cheer. Gilbert would have been none the wiser if Oscar had never spoken of his loss.
"You should tell him," he said softly.
"Who?" Oscar asked, a little startled.
"Oz. He doesn't show it, but he is very sensitive. He has trouble realizing how much people care about him, so…" A wistful smile tugged at Gilbert's lips. "I mean… I know it sounds strange right now, what with Oz looking like a plush rabbit, but…"
Oscar shook his head: "It sounded crazy at first. I will admit that it took me a long time to get used to the idea… but really, when you stop to think about it, what happened to Oz is no stranger than travelling through time or dealing with Chains. Furthermore, you couldn't lie to save your life, Gilbert," Oscar slammed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "And I trust you."
Gilbert winced under the force of the slap, but the words' impact was stronger still:
"…So you don't think me mad?"
"Mad? No. I, too, thought I was going insane after Sara died." Oscar leaned heavily on Gilbert's shoulder. "But there is nothing mad about missing a loved one."
Gilbert felt crushed by the combined weight of Oscar's contained grief and his own nostalgia.
"Oz isn't dead," he said in a strained voice. "He isn't lost to the Abyss, either. This can't compare to what you've been through…"
Oscar shook his head: "Don't be ridiculous. There is no point comparing feelings. Grief can't be measured. I can't even begin to imagine how this situation must feel to you. Having your most precious person right in front of you, but being unable to talk to him, for five years straight… It would drive anyone insane. You're a lot stronger than you realize, Gilbert."
Somehow, the way Oscar put it made his own feelings easier to bear. Easier to understand, maybe.
"It's not so bad," Gilbert answered, and was surprised to realize that he meant it. "We've been through much worse. At least I know Oz is in no direct danger, or Alice would feel it. And the three of us have gotten stronger. We can protect each other." He gave a shaky sigh. "I just… I wish I could tell. I want to know if Oz is happy. I want to see his smile again..."
Oscar nodded and stared in the far distance: "I know the feeling..."
Suddenly he straightened up with a long, deep intake of breath, like a rooster before sunrise. He let it out in a long string of categorical sentences:
"But there is no need to beat yourself over it. Word of advice: after all these years, I have come to realize that taking care of others is the best way to forget about your own sorrow. You are doing everything you can for Oz and the Four Households, and that's already too much for one man to handle, if you ask me," Oscar punctuated every point with a hearty slap on the back. Gilbert thought his lungs had been emptied when the duke concluded: "We are both alive, and we have a right to be happy. Don't forget that you have people to support you, alright?"
"I won't, Lord Oscar," he answered, breathless, but feeling much better. Somehow, all his anxiety had left his body along with the air. "I won't forget."
"Good." Oscar put his fists on his hips in a victorious pose. "As a matter of fact, the number of people who support you has improved significantly this past year. Ina was only relaying the rumours she heard at Lutwidge Academy, but she isn't privy to the discussions at Pandora Headquarters yet. And the veracity of your past predictions attest to your honesty. Our colleagues are giving your version of the story more credit now."
"That's good to hear," Gilbert said once he had caught his breath.
"Judging by your reaction, no one from Pandora bothered to tell you that they were starting to believe you," Oscar sighed. "But at least they discuss it among themselves. In fact, there have been interesting theories about how accurate your predictions were in spite of the differences in our history."
That got Gilbert's full attention: "Are you referring to Break's theory? That the Abyss might be actively trying to repeat history even if the past has been changed?"
"Yes," Oscar's confident position deflated slightly as his voice got sterner. "I've talked further on this with Break and Vincent. In the future you come from, Zai's first child was a boy, whom Zai could trade with Jack Vessalius' infant body without arousing suspicion. Vincent explained the resurrection's cycle to me: most likely, the reason Jack knew that Zai's son would be stillborn was because he was the child whom Jack was supposed to be reincarnated as. Since no soul could reach his body, the boy was stillborn."
"But in our time," Oscar went on, "Jack Vessalius was swallowed into the Abyss along with Sablier. And since Oz turned him into Lacie Baskerville's Chain, Jack, as B-Rabbit, was thrown into the darkness of the Abyss along with her, and their souls were annihilated. Break's theory is that, in the Abyss, these two events happened at the same time. This is why history was rewritten accordingly: like Jack Vessalius' ghost had never interfered with the hundred years cycle of resurrection. According to Vincent, this is the reason Ina was born; as a fresh soul from the Abyss," he added in a whisper, as if he were afraid his niece would hear him.
Gilbert was suddenly reminded of Break's first meeting with him and Vincent in the Abyss, when he was still Kevin Regnard: they had come from completely different times, but to the Abyss, their arrivals had happened in quick succession. He nodded grimly:
"Oz thought that turning the remains of Jack's soul into a Chain would fix the time paradox without altering the past. But it looks like we ended up changing the past after all… Are you suggesting that is why Oz lost his human body?"
"This is just conjecture," Oscar said apologetically. "But it would make sense. After all, if Jack Vessalius never wandered the earth for a hundred years, it stands to reason that Oz could never acquire his human body. On the other hand, Oz did have a body of his own before meeting Jack: that of a plush rabbit. Furthermore, since the future you come from was erased, from the Core of the Abyss' point of view, Oz and Jack were thrown into the Abyss at the same time, during the Tragedy of Sablier; and so were you, Alice and Vincent. Therefore, when the three of you got out five years ago and left Jack behind, the Abyss gave Oz his old body back after fixing the time paradox. It's like Oz had never lost it."
"And what remained of Oz's powers was shared between him, Alice and I," Gilbert completed. "Since she was the one who took his powers back in Sablier, and I made a pact with them both." He clenched his fists: "That means that Oz might never become human again, doesn't it?"
Oscar gave him a look of compassion.
"It is only a theory," he insisted. "The best the three of Break, Vincent and I could come up with so far. The Abyss is still a mystery to us. But thanks to you and the Baskervilles, we might be able to better understand it one day. This alliance between the Five Households is definitely a step in the right direction." He looked Gilbert right in the eyes, like he was trying to pull him out of his depression by sheer willpower. "We will figure out what happened to Oz. I'm sure of it."
Gilbert nodded firmly:
"Thank you. For everything."
"You're welcome," Oscar grinned. He turned towards the door and gave a theatrical gasp upon spotting the clock hanging over it: "Would you look at the time! We'd better go back to Miss Alice before she gets bored to death. And I'm sure Ada will want to spend more time with you before the Ceremony starts. The poor dear is so upset that she can't attend."
On the way back, Oscar regaled him with tales of his nieces' antics in Gilbert's absence, overflowing with praise of the girls' piano lessons and marvelling at how fast they were growing up. Gilbert shared the feeling, all the more so now that he had stopped aging: time seemed to pass even faster, almost too fast for him to keep up. He wondered if Break felt the same way.
'He has a right to be happy, too,' Gilbert thought. 'We all do. Lord Oscar is right…'
But how could he convince Vincent and Break of that when he couldn't convince himself?
'Love only your master and protect him. Only then will you have value as a human being.'
Gilbert willed the memory back and focused on the present. He would much rather trust Oscar than the insidious voice in his head. He could fight it.
They found Ada swinging her legs with her huge eyes fixed on the door. She beamed at them as soon as they opened it, and leapt from her chair:
"Welcome back! Now, please kneel down and close your eyes."
Gilbert exchanged a befuddled gaze with Alice, who shrugged. However, Oscar gave them an encouraging wink and executed himself with a flourish:
"Your wishes are orders, milady."
Ada giggled at her uncle's antics. Gilbert took a knee and gestured for Alice to do the same; she knelt down with a reluctant frown, careful to gather all the folds of her cherry-red party dress into her arms so she wouldn't trip, and half-closed her eyes:
"No cheating!" Ada scolded her.
"But I already saw what you…"
"Shh! You promised not to tell!"
"Whatever…" Alice rolled her eyes and closed them. Relieved to see that she wouldn't throw a tantrum, Gilbert followed suit.
He heard Ada's inquisitive humming as she peered closely at each of them to make sure they weren't peeping, then the soft tapping of her little shoes as she went to fetch whatever she wanted to surprise them with, and ran back. There was a soft rustle. Something light came to rest on top of Gilbert's head. He recognized the smell of daisies from the Vessalius garden.
"You can open your eyes now!"
Gilbert blinked. Oscar immediately hugged his niece and started to rub his nose against her cheek in hearted thanks for the flower crown adorning his head.
"I didn't want you to feel left over," Ada said between giggle fits as her uncle gave her a noisy kiss. "Uncle Oscar, that tickles!"
"You mean 'left out,'" Gilbert corrected automatically, although he could feel a wide grin on his own face. Alice looked vaguely annoyed. "Thank you, Miss Ada."
Gilbert raised his eyes to the table Ada had previously occupied – his breath caught in his throat.
There was Oz, with his red mantle and white bow neatly folded next to him. The little rabbit had traded it for a white mantle with golden and green embroideries on the sleeves, and a white cravat with the Vessalius emblem strapped on.
It was a miniature replica of the mantle Oz had worn at his own Coming of Age Ceremony.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Ada cheered.
Gilbert felt dizzy. No one but him and Alice knew what Oz had been wearing that day, and neither of them had ever mentioned it. There hadn't been a point to. The Abyss might be actively trying to repeat history. Could it really be the case? Even in details like this?
He turned towards Oscar, still reeling from the sight: "Did you…?"
"I had it custom-made," the duke grinned. "Since Oz was going to attend the ceremony, we thought he should look his best."
"Me and Ina made the clasp!" Ada said. "And we all wrote the card!"
Suddenly speechless, Gilbert lifted the card that lay on top of Oz's pile of clothes. Under a rainbow-coloured crayoned 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY OZ' in sloppy capitals were three signatures in green ink: a calligraphic 'Ada' – and Gilbert could only imagine the amount of practice it must have taken the child, – Oscar's official seal, and 'Ina.'
Gilbert marvelled at Oz. It occurred to him that he never had a chance to congratulate his young master on his fifteenth birthday.
"You look gorgeous, Oz," he told him, and beamed at Ada and Oscar: "It's a great gift… Thank you."
Ada exploded in delighted giggles: "You're welcome!" She started to play with the brim of the hat that still adorned her head, looking a little crestfallen in spite of her success. "I really wanted to go to the party..."
Gilbert petted her head comfortingly: "Your time will come."
The hat fell in front of her eyes again. Ada lifted it to peer up at him: "Will you come to my Coming of Age Ceremony, too?"
An old guilt raised its ugly head. Gilbert had still been avoiding the Vessalius family when he had been invited to Ada's Coming of Age Ceremony, and had long debated with himself whether or not he should go. His cowardice won in the end, and he had let Vincent attend in his stead.
Gilbert knew how much his absence had hurt Ada's feelings that day; she had told him as much in her letters. He could no longer ignore them after that.
"I will be there," he told the child solemnly. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Ada cheered up instantly and hugged his knees in thanks. Gilbert offered to let her keep his hat, now that she was old enough to wear it, but she declined:
"It looks better on you," she said as she held it up. "When I'm grown-up, I'll have my own hat, you'll see!"
Gilbert laughed: "I'm looking forward to it."
He definitely trusted her tastes in that department.
"Well then!" Oscar clapped his hands as Ada said her goodbyes to Oz and Alice, "Us grown-ups had better get prepared for the party. Come on, Gilbert, Alice, Oz. Your friends shouldn't be long now."
He was referring to their fellow Baskervilles, Gilbert understood. It would be better to decide on a strategy for the trial with the Baskervilles present. After all, if the both of Zai and Duke Nightray were going to accuse Gilbert and Alice of treachery, it was more than likely that the entire Baskerville family would become their scapegoats.
"So basically, Dukes Nightray and Vessalius suspect us of spreading our influence until we have total control of Pandora?" Fang gave a weary sigh. "I can't say I'm surprised."
"It wouldn't be a bad plan, though, would it?" Zwei said with a sardonic grin. "Why don't you actually marry that girl, Gilbert? It would save us a lot of time and trouble."
"I am not going to marry Lorina against her will just to gain influence!" Gilbert protested.
"'Against her will!'" Zwei burst out laughing. "You really are an idiot."
"Never mind that," Fang shook his head. "It would be a cheap political strategy: arranging a marriage between a Baskerville and a Vessalius would only discredit us in the short term, and lead to more internal conflicts and succession problems in the long term. Duke Nightray's behaviour is only proof of that: he adopted Gilbert and Vincent because he was desperate to get his hands on Raven, but after five years, he has decided that having Baskervilles for adopted sons was more trouble than it was worth. The Four Households are terrified of losing their influence to us, who were gifted with the power of the Abyss."
Oscar nodded sombrely:
"I'm afraid you're right. On his own, Gilbert already has more power and political influence than anyone at Pandora; it's only natural that people would be wary of him. Gaining an even higher status would only encourage his detractors."
"At least it would be easier to get rid of them if they attack us directly," Alice said with a shrug.
"I would prefer to avoid any more assassination attempts, thank you," Gilbert grumbled at her.
"You're no fun."
"You and Oz almost got thrown into the Abyss!"
Oscar rounded on them, eyes wide with shock:
"You didn't tell me that. Did Zai do this?"
Gilbert cursed himself for revealing the whole truth in such a brutal way. But there was no way he could have hidden the facts from Oscar, not with Zai's upcoming trial. He acquiesced with an apologetic look.
Fang broke the ensuing heavy silence with his usual practicality:
"In that case, you might not have been the duke's target to begin with. Have you considered that he might only have been after B-Rabbit?"
Gilbert turned to him with a start:
"Oz? But what about my blood mirror then? Zai hired the Lizard to destroy it."
"And his lackeys shot Raven!" Alice chimed in.
"Remember that the higher ups at Pandora Headquarters already know about our healing abilities," Fang pointed out. "They might have been trying to slow you down rather than kill you. It could be the same for Raven: losing it would have made you unable to protect your other Chain."
"You really think they would have let him live after that?" Alice asked scornfully.
"I don't know," Fang admitted. "But think about it: Duke Nightray had no guarantee that anyone but Gilbert could contract Raven, even if he got killed. It would be too great a risk for him to take, whereas a broken contract can be renewed. Duke Nightray might have planned on letting Gilbert live in case none of his sons managed to contract Raven after the mirror was broken."
"…So the two dukes were only trying to lessen my influence by breaking my two contracts?" Gilbert clenched his fists. "Was that reason enough to kill Oz and Alice?"
"You can't be this stupid!" Zwei shook her head. "Of course that's not the only reason, it's because of B-Rabbit's powers. It was just a rumour at first, but the Pandora higher ups have figured it out by now: they're growing."
"What?" Gilbert turned round to face her, so fast he almost tripped. "Really?"
"You didn't even notice?" Zwei cackled in disbelief.
He hadn't. He hadn't noticed a thing.
It had become easier over the years to ignore the voices in his head and the constant pain in his left arm. But he had been trying so hard to repress them that he had failed to see any changes in the powers he carried.
Gilbert put a careful hand on his forearm. He could still feel Raven and B-Rabbit's powers fighting for dominance, barely restrained by the seal Gilbert had put on himself. But now that he was paying close attention…
Oz's powers had taken the advantage. Raven's seal was reaching its breaking point.
Gilbert rounded on Alice and Oz. The rabbit was unreadable as ever, but Gilbert saw his own shock reflected in the young girl's eyes.
"You didn't feel anything?" Gilbert asked incredulously. "Even when you were fighting?"
Alice shook her head. She slowly rose Oz to her eye-level and frowned at him:
"My powers are the same as ever. If you don't feel anything either, that means the change must be happening in Oz's body."
"I…do feel a change," Gilbert said in a trembling whisper. "It was too gradual for me to notice as it happened, but now..." His grip tightened on his arm. "I'm not sure the seal can contain Oz's power much longer..."
Alice glanced over at him before she glared at Oz and pinched his cheek. She tilted her head as though she were listening to a faint voice in the distance.
"I think it's a good thing," she said at last. "Oz can control his powers, and he would never hurt you. He should have told me, though," she added with another chastising pinch.
"A good thing?" Zwei growled. "You think it's fun to lose control of your Chain? I sure am glad Doldum can't break the restraining seal Gilbert put on me. Just you wait until B-Rabbit takes over your body! Then again," she threw Gilbert a mocking smirk, "maybe you would like that, you freak."
"Oh, shut it," Alice bit back. "You're the one who possessed him twice with your stupid strings!"
"I did, did I?" Zwei grinned. "That does sound fun…"
"Now, ladies," Oscar said amiably, but loudly enough to cut in on the argument, "You are here as our guests, and no one will be possessing Gilbert tonight, are we clear on this?"
"Quite," Fang agreed. He ignored Zwei's petulant pout and turned to Gilbert: "Zwei does have a point, though: no matter how much you trust your Chain, it's still dangerous if its power outbalances yours; especially when you have two."
Gilbert barely heard them. He was too busy staring intently at his arm and probing the intensity of the powers contained there. Now that he was looking, there seemed to be some intent to the way the power was spreading in his veins. Rather than spreading through his whole body as their contract allowed, Oz's power was focused solely on his left arm. Raven's influence was also stronger there – "once again I will be bound to your left hand," Raven told him long ago, there was no escaping it – but the bird's power, unlike B-Rabbit's, was omnipresent. Could it be that Oz was targeting something specific?
'So Oz does have some control of his powers after all,' Gilbert thought, elated. 'But is he doing this consciously? Or is it just his power fighting off Raven's seal?'
Gilbert started and quickly apologized for spacing out.
"Alice is right," he said. "Oz would never hurt me. Furthermore, I made this contract so that I could help him bear the weight of his powers. Even if the seal doesn't hold, I will do my best to contain them. I was supposed to inherit Lord Glen's five Black Winged Chains, after all; if I can't handle Oz's powers, no one can."
"And you would never reject it, would you?" Zwei sneered. "Even to save your own skin?"
"Never," Gilbert said in a steely tone. "And I don't plan to die, either."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Fang sighed. "But please remember that your allegiance goes to Master Glen."
Gilbert wanted to protest, but the shrill voice in his head wouldn't let him. His arm was ablaze with the constant strain of his old vow and two contracts.
"Leo," he put a deliberate emphasis on the child's birth name, "is too young to rule over us, much less decide on Oz's fate."
"I agree," Fang raised a placating hand. "Don't get me wrong, Gilbert. As our Master's original successor, I do think you're the most fit for regency until our rightful Master comes of age. But if you'll allow me to be frank, I think you're too easily swayed by your emotions. It's clouding your judgement."
Judgement. Oh how he hated that word.
It brought to mind an old conversation he had with his fellow Baskervilles. Vincent, of all people, had brought up the subject of Children of Misfortune. He had been the one to point out that there must have been a reason that such children had to be cast into the Abyss in the first place. That there might be some truth to the old superstitions about them attracting disaster.
Gilbert had been livid. Even if he had been forced to admit that Children of Misfortune seemed to have a special connection to the Will of the Abyss – Oz had insisted that either Vincent or Break should accompany them if they wanted to meet her, after all – that was no excuse to sacrifice anyone for being born with red eyes. And at any rate, it didn't matter: the Will of the Abyss no longer existed.
The three of Vincent, Fang and Zwei had accused him of sentimentality. Gilbert would hear none of it. It was Lacie's sacrifice that had started everything, and Gilbert wasn't about to repeat Oswald's mistake. He had told them as much.
However, the truth of the matter was that Gilbert refused to believe that Children of Misfortune attracted disaster, point blank. He never had Oz's gift to hide his own feelings and think rationally. His actions attested to that, and people tended to realize it within minutes of talking to him.
Nonetheless, Gilbert didn't think he was in the wrong.
"It's not irrational to believe in Oz," he said defiantly. "I've known him my whole life, and we went through much worse than some power incontinence. We'll be fine."
Fang inclined his head, resigned:
"In any case, we will be watching your back tonight. Won't we, Zwei?"
"Sure," Zwei shrugged. "Vincent asked me to protect that idiot brother of his, after all. I just hope something will actually happen. You didn't sound too sure, Gilbert."
"Circumstances have changed from the previous situation," Gilbert said, "so we should be ready for anything."
With these words, the conversation was over. Oscar led the Baskervilles to the party and the waiting guests.
The sight of Alice's twin sister was almost blinding for all the white she wore. She ran past Gilbert like a silky comet, and stopped just short of hugging Alice, frozen by the sight of her fellow Baskervilles. Said sister had no such qualms about their audience: she promptly wrapped the newcomer into her arms; only then did the former Will of the Abyss return the tight embrace:
"It's been so long!"
She peered anxiously over Alice's shoulder and gave her fellow Baskervilles a timid greeting. She only let go of her twin to give Oscar a curtsey, and a curt nod to Gilbert. Alice frowned and opened her mouth to say something, but promptly shut it when Sharon walked in after her twin, followed by Break.
"Good evening, Lord Oscar," Sharon bowed deeply to each of them. "My Lords Baskervilles, Lord Gilbert, Lady Alice."
Gilbert returned the greeting with a wide smile. The other Alice was right: it had been too long since they were all together. Sharon had grown at least four inches since the last time he saw her, and it would likely be the last time he could witness her growth:
"It's good to see you again, Lady Sharon, Break, Lady Alice."
"Too bad it's going to be brief," Zwei sing-sang as Oscar greeted the three guests with his usual booming enthusiasm and Fang stood to formal, respectful greetings. "Since you've yet to come of age, Miss Sharon."
"Zwei!" Gilbert hissed.
Sharon's serene smile didn't waver when she answered: "Actually, Lady Lorina was kind enough to give me a special invitation as her friend. I am truly grateful to her."
Oh right, the two of them were schoolmates at Lutwidge Academy, Gilbert realized. He hadn't known that they had gotten this close, but it sounded like Lorina had given Sharon the formal task of welcoming her into noble society after her vows. It was a great honour, and the only case in which a minor could attend an official gathering. Gilbert sent Lorina a silent thank you for the unexpected backup.
"You honour us with your presence, Lady Sharon," Oscar assured her. "And I'm delighted to hear that you and my niece get along so well."
"I also came to excuse my mother's absence tonight," Sharon said in a quieter voice. "She would have loved to come, but sadly, her health won't allow it. Please accept her deepest apologies."
"It's not like it's news to us," Zwei smirked. "Gilbert foretold that, after all."
"Indeed," Sharon said calmly. "And it shouldn't surprise you either that I have successfully contracted a Chain."
"This is great news, Lady Sharon!" Gilbert exclaimed, distracted from Zwei's impudence by this bit of information. "Congratulations!"
Sharon was briefly startled out of her serene expression:
"That's…unexpected. I thought you already knew I would do it?"
"You know I can never be sure which events are going to repeat themselves and which of them are going to change," Gilbert told her. "And at any rate, it's an impressive feat to achieve a contract. I look forward to working with you."
Sharon's smile returned. This time, it reached her eyes:
"You are very kind. But then, I don't suppose you will have any problems guessing which Chain I acquired?"
"It was Eques, the unicorn, wasn't it?"
"Correct," Sharon's smile widened. "It sounds like your predictions deserve our full attention. I don't suppose I need to introduce you to my servant, Xerxes Break?"
"No," Alice grumbled, which earned her a reproachful glare from her sister. Her reaction only made Break grin:
"A pleasure to see you again, milady; gentlemen," he added, bowing to Oscar and the Baskervilles in turn. "I am officially here to escort Lady Sharon and her sweet adopted sister Alice to the party; but of course, partying isn't the only reason we're here. You did ask for reinforcements, didn't you, Gilbert?"
"Yes. Thank you for coming."
Break gave him a blank stare.
"You do realize we are actually here to keep an eye on you, right?"
"It's probably for the best," he touched his left arm carefully. "Oz's powers are getting unstable. I'm not sure what's causing it yet. I don't think I'm in any danger, but still – I'll feel better if you and Mad Hatter are nearby tonight."
"When did this happen?" Sharon asked with a worried frown.
"It was very gradual," Gilbert said, a little sheepish. "I only noticed the difference when Fang pointed it out."
"As useless as ever!" Emily chanted in her mechanical voice, making Gilbert jump out of his skin.
"Don't be so blunt, Emily," Break mock-scolded her.
"Hey, Raven, mind if I tear that thing to shreds?" Alice growled.
"Now, now, I never threatened to harm your little doll, did I?"
"Yes you did," Alice pulled Oz out of Break's reach before he could snatch him away.
"It was all in good jest, I assure you. Speaking of young master Oz, have you tried restarting the pocket watch today?" Break asked Gilbert.
"No," Gilbert pulled the watch out of his pocket. "I thought it would be safer to do it with you."
"Unusually wise, coming from you."
"Oh, shut it."
He turned the winder on and on, but still the needles refused to move, ever frozen at midnight. Gilbert let Break, Sharon, Oscar and his fellow Baskervilles try in turn, with no more result. He pried it out of Alice's hands before she tried to hit the watch against a wall to see if it helped.
"And you say no watchmaker ever managed to open it?" Oscar stared at the golden case in wonder.
Gilbert shook his head.
"Just like the Silent Clock..."
A worried crease appeared on Oscar's forehead; suddenly he looked a lot more like the man in his forties whom Gilbert had left behind. He didn't like that look on him. A man like Oscar shouldn't have to worry so much.
"Last time, the Clock started working again as soon as Oz touched it, right?" Oscar's frown deepened as he glanced at the plush rabbit. "Will Ina be alright…?"
"We'll watch over her," Gilbert told him. "I won't let anything happen to her or any of the guests, I promise."
"Thank you. All of you."
Oscar huffed and puffed in an attempt to clean the grimness right out of his lungs. He gave Gilbert another great slap on the back:
"But don't let it spoil your fun, this is still a party! There will be plenty of food, beautiful music, delicious tea and alcohol," Zwei cheered at that, "not to mention a lot of lovely people to dance with, and I want all of you to make the most of it! Now, if you'll allow me to escort you… this way, please!"
The guests followed Oscar in line, with the exceptions of Alice and Zwei, who bounced more than they walked. Break let the noblemen pass him by, as was expected of a servant. Gilbert lingered behind with him. He was putting off the evil hour when he would step into the crowded hallway, careful to keep Oz and Alice in his line of vision.
"You never told Lord Oscar about Children of Misfortune, did you?" Break leaned over to whisper in his ear. Gilbert almost screamed.
"Where did you hear that?" he asked in a fast mumble.
"Your little rat isn't always as secretive as you, and I have my ways to verify information. Funny that you didn't think it important to inform me."
"Idiot! Idiot!" Emily chimed in.
Gilbert winced. On top of everything he had been through as Kevin Regnard and having to care for the former Will of the Abyss to make amends, Gilbert had hoped that Break would never have to face the same doubts Vincent was plagued with constantly. But once again, his brother had to spill the beans.
"Those are just superstitions," Gilbert insisted. "They were stronger in the past, that's all! Vincent always overreacts when it comes to this, but there's nothing to worry about, I promise!"
"Then why hide it from me?"
"Because I didn't want you to feel discriminated!"
Break's one visible eyebrow twitched.
"Excuse me?" he asked in a clipped tone.
"I…I thought you had enough on your plate as it was. So..."
Gilbert drifted off, suddenly too nervous to continue. Break's expression remained deadpan: "Are you serious?"
Gilbert gulped. From his tone of voice, Break looked about ready to strangle him.
"If you really think I would care about something like this," Break said, "you don't know me as well as you claim."
"Well, you never say anything when something bothers you, but…"
"That's quite enough."
Gilbert bit back a yelp of pain when Break's cane hit the back of his head. His fellow agent kept walking as if nothing had happened. He gave Gilbert a pointed glare in passing:
"No more hiding information from me, especially those that concern me personally. And more importantly, I do not want any of your mother hen concern. Are we clear on this?"
Break rolled his eye: "Sometimes I wonder how you've managed to survive this long, Gilbert."
Gilbert started. Then a helpless grin spread across his face. Break raised his eyebrow at him:
"Nothing. It's just the first time you've called me that. Well, in this time, I mean," he amended with a sheepish chuckle.
Break answered with a startled grimace. Gilbert wasn't sure whether the expression was an insult aimed at him or a manifestation of self-disgust. Break turned away promptly:
"We'd better catch up with the others."
"Wait," Gilbert was careful to keep his voice down as he matched Break's stride. "Do you think I should tell Lord Oscar and Lady Lorina?"
"Do whatever you want," Break shrugged. "As long as you tell me first, I really don't care."
"But they won't be happy when they find out!" Emily cackled.
Gilbert felt Alice's temptation to tear the doll apart very keenly. However, irritating as Emily's voice was, he had to concede the point.
"…I'll think about it."
"It's a little late for that, Raven," Break said over his shoulder. He walked back to Sharon's side without another word.
Gilbert sighed. It looked like they were back on formalities. But they had made some progress.
He hid in the shadows of the thick curtains at the entrance, and scanned the great hall. Alice had made a beeline for the buffet with Oz under her arm, followed by her sister, who eyed the dance floor with longing. That reminded Gilbert of his promise to Lorina, and his nervousness expanded tenfold.
The young heiress wasn't hard to spot: a long line of guests had gathered to offer her their best wishes on the occasion of her fifteenth birthday. Gilbert traced the queue of cheerful noblemen and women back with his eyes, and found that Lorina wasn't welcoming them alone.
Gilbert clenched his fists at the sight of Zai. He glanced over at Oz and Alice. The little girl was stuffing herself while maintaining a strong grip on her plush rabbit, oblivious to the world. Gilbert felt a wave of protectiveness clash with his anger. He stepped out of his hiding spot and made to join them.
At the very least his anger gave him the focus he needed to restrain his fear when noblewomen accosted him on his way there, and having to go congratulate Lorina was the perfect excuse to cut every attempt at conversation short.
"It's too early to eat," he chastised Alice as soon as he reached her; although he was pleased to see that she was using her utensils with the proper refinement in spite of the speed with which she devoured her food. "We have to greet our host properly first, remember?"
"There are too many people," Alice argued after swallowing. She leaned over to whisper: "And I don't want to greet her with Scarface standing there."
"Me neither," Gilbert said in the same tone. "But we need to keep up appearances. Zai will be tried in due time. Besides, Lady Lorina knows what happened. She's on our side."
Alice squinted her eyes doubtfully: "Really? I thought she loved Scarface."
"Of course she does. That doesn't mean she will stand for what he almost did."
Alice still looked unconvinced.
"What are you two whispering about?"
Alice's twin was so quiet Gilbert had nearly forgotten she was there. She came to stand very close to her sister and wrapped a possessive arm around hers.
"Nothing," Alice shrugged her off to finish her serving of ham with salmon eggs before she put down her utensils on a passing plate. Gilbert thanked the servant carrying it when she failed to. "We were just going to greet the party-girl. Are you coming?"
Her sister looked quickly from the waiting line to a group of women talking animatedly with each other. Sharon was among them, with Break keeping a respectful distance in the shadows.
"Then Sharon should come too," she declared. "And Xerx as well!"
"Don't be such a baby," Alice grumbled. "You don't need the clown to trail you all the time."
"Don't call him that!"
"Alright, don't fight, I'll ask them," Gilbert said.
Alice protested further, but in the end she followed Gilbert through the crowd with her sister clinging to her arm. The man watched over the twins out the corner of his eyes, and noticed the way the former Will of the Abyss kept her eyes to the floor as she walked. A few women pointed at her white hair from behind their fans. Their stares were making the already timid girl shake with nerves.
Civilians and Pandora agents alike were whispering among themselves as she passed, Gilbert noticed angrily. He could guess what each group was gossiping about: to the former, each twin had been adopted by a different Household, and the girls were supposedly eighteen but neither of them looked their age; did they really have any right to attend such an important ceremony? Who in their right mind gave twin girls the same name, anyway? Furthermore, they were rumoured to be descendants of the Baskervilles. What were the Nightray and Rainsworth families thinking, adopting children with such a suspicious background?
It was all rubbish, but at the very least the official version acknowledged that the two of them were blood relatives. To Pandora, they weren't even actual sisters. It still made Gilbert feel sick to his stomach to think about it, but in spite of their best efforts, there had been no avoiding the ordeal:
In the previous time, there had been no direct interaction between the three of Vincent, Break and Gilbert when they had gotten out of the Abyss through different Gates, and each of the Nightray, Rainsworth and Vessalius families had covered it up successfully. Gilbert himself had had no recollection of the Gate until Break brought it up.
This time however, after coming out of the Abyss, the five of Gilbert, Oz, Vincent and the twins had been in too much of a hurry to find each other, and Bernard Nightray had contacted Pandora Headquarters as soon as Gilbert and Alice had fled towards the Vessalius mansion. Therefore, they had all been tried except for Break, and underwent various tests. Gilbert had insisted on being present for all the experiments on the others to make sure the Pandora staff didn't hurt any of his companions. Thankfully, the researchers hadn't found much aside from their exceptional healing abilities and the unique bond between the three of Alice, Oz and Gilbert. The former Will of the Abyss, however, showed no sign of power. No one had suspected that she had once been what Pandora had been looking for all along.
Alice had decided to take advantage of it to get her sister out of trouble. Gilbert had let Vincent answer the researchers' questions: according to him, the white-haired girl used to be a Baskerville, but had lost her powers in Sablier, when the other Alice had been created. The latter was a mere reflection of the real Alice Baskerville, a fragment of B-Rabbit's power that had taken the appearance of the nearest human when the Chain had lost its previous contractor to the Abyss. She was now Gilbert's Chain, along with Oz, who carried the rest of B-Rabbit's powers; but the white-haired Alice was an ordinary human.
From the results of their experiments, this version sounded plausible enough to the researchers. Since Alice and Gilbert couldn't be separated, it had been decided that she would stay with the Nightray family, but that the 'real' Alice would go live with another Household so as not to burden the Nightrays further, when they already had three adopted relatives to deal with. The white Alice had protested vehemently at first, until the Rainsworth family offered to take her in. Gilbert had already told her she would find Kevin Regnard there.
It hadn't been easy to arrange a reunion between them. Thankfully, Vincent remembered the graveyard he had first met Break at: that was where he and Gilbert went to meet their fellow contractor, and told him the whole story. In this context, Gilbert had offered his own secrets in exchange for Break's, and they had formed an alliance. Break had been reluctant to associate himself with them, but surprisingly open about taking the former Will of the Abyss under his wing, even though she had taken his eye.
"Of course I won't forgive her," he had told Gilbert once, with his usual uncanny cheer. "But there is no way I will ever forgive myself, either. A failure of a knight is what this wrecked little princess deserves. We make a good pair, wouldn't you agree?"
Gilbert wasn't sure he understood the logic behind it, but if he read between the lines, Break seemed to feel like the former Will of the Abyss was all he had left. Sometimes, looking at them, he was reminded of Alice and himself: there would always be some underlying resentment, but there was mutual care as well, between comrades in misfortune. They helped each other adjust as best as they could, when Break couldn't bring himself to trust anyone and the former Will of the Abyss was scared of her own shadow.
Gilbert was impressed that she had found the will to come to this party at all. He had always been scared of crowds himself, but the young girl had more reasons to be afraid still. She had been alone all her life in a timeless prison with only the Chains and her toys for company. Gilbert couldn't even begin to imagine how terrifying the real world could be to her. No wonder she stuck to Break and her sister like glue.
He slowed his steps to let them catch up and positioned himself on the white Alice's other side.
At the very least, Oz and Alice had successfully freed her of her powers. That was one less burden for her to carry.
It was a relief when they reached Sharon, although Gilbert was thrown for a loop when all her friends started to talk to him at the same time. Alice stepped up, snaked her free arm into his, and declared over their chatter that she, her sister, Raven and Lady Sharon were off to see Lady Lorina now. For once Gilbert was grateful for her bluntness.
"Candid as ever, Lady Alice," Sharon chuckled fondly. "But you are quite right. It was lovely talking to you, ladies; I'll be seeing you. Will you escort me, Lord Gilbert?"
Gilbert hurried to take her offered hand before her friends found some pretext to keep them here any longer, excused himself with a curt nod, and led the three young women away. Break followed at a leisurely pace, and the white Alice made insistent attempts to lead her twin closer to him, much to Alice's annoyance.
At least Break and Sharon seemed to find their antics funny, Gilbert thought.
"Sorry for taking you away from your friends so abruptly," he told Sharon.
"Don't be. This is my first time attending an official gathering; I got a little carried away. I didn't even take the time to thank Lady Lorina for inviting me. I should be ashamed, really."
'Not as much as the one who went straight for the food,' Gilbert thought inwardly, but made no comment.
"She's already surrounded by people," Alice pointed out. She was still clinging to Gilbert's arm while pulling her sister away from Break, and her twin pulled right back. It was starting to hurt. Gilbert dearly hoped neither of them would let go and fall. "It's going to take forever like this… Couldn't we just gather everyone, yell 'Happy Birthday!' all together and be done with it?"
"Now, that wouldn't be very romantic, would it, Lady Alice?"
"You keep using that word, what does it even mean?"
"Oh," Sharon clapped her hands in delight. "I would be most delighted to teach you…"
Break and Gilbert shuddered, but it was already too late. As they waited in line, Sharon talked non-stop to the twins about the finer points of romance and etiquette. Alice looked more confused than anything, but her twin drank in Sharon's words with rapture. She had even forgotten her tug-o-war with her sister.
Gilbert tuned them out. Once again, he probed his left arm for signs of instability. He could feel Oz's powers shiver under Raven's seal like a wild animal lurking in the grass: invisible, yet formidable and ready to strike. The man chanced a glance at Oz. The poor rabbit was squeezed between the twins' linked arms, his plush cheeks puffed up in a comical expression of pain. Gilbert made haste to free him from the sisters. He straightened Oz's pristine new clothes and brushed his ears with his fingers.
"Will you be okay?" Gilbert whispered to him. He glanced over at Zai, who hadn't spotted them yet. When he looked back at Oz, the rabbit's expression remained unchanged.
"Hold on, Oz," Gilbert gave him a comforting pat on the head. "It will be over soon."
Sharon only stopped talking when they reached their destination, and walked up to Lorina first. The heiress had kept the same polite smile on for all her former guests, but her face lit up upon seeing Sharon, and the two girls exchanged warm greetings. Only Zai's intervention stopped the two friends in the middle of their merry chat about Lutwidge Academy. Yet even the duke looked more amused than annoyed, and he welcomed Sharon with a kiss of the hand.
"I must also thank you for inviting my sister, Alice," Sharon said. "This is her first time attending a formal gathering since her own Coming of Age ceremony, she was really anxious to go." She motioned the twins forward with a wave of her hand. "Come on, ladies, don't be shy."
Alice gave her sister a small push forward. The former Will of the Abyss blushed deeply and curtsied to the Vessalius duke and heiress. Her twin bobbed her head to Lorina and greeted Zai with a sharp glare. Gilbert stepped between them before Zai could make a comment:
"I thank you too for your invitation and hospitality, Lady Lorina," Oz inclined his head along with him as he bowed. Gilbert took a glimpse at the glinting clasp around the rabbit's neck, and smiled at the efforts that Lorina had gone through to make it. "Congratulations for your fifteenth birthday. We are all really happy to be here on this occasion."
The lass returned his greeting with a well-practiced curtsey. Gilbert winced in sympathy as he thought of the number of times she had to repeat the gesture this evening. Zai, on the other hand, only received Gilbert and the twins with a brief nod. He didn't even spare a glance for Oz.
"The pleasure is all mine," Lorina said. "Thank you for coming. I'm sorry that you ran into trouble on your way here."
Gilbert gasped, but Zai didn't so much as blink at his daughter's words. Lorina's eyes flicked to her father with a flash of anger. She turned back to her guests with a pleasant smile:
"Nevertheless, I welcome you here in the name of the whole Vessalius family. I hope you'll enjoy this party, and I look forward to working with you at Pandora Headquarters."
Zai frowned slightly at that. He looked annoyed, but not altogether surprised. Gilbert wondered if Lorina had followed Oscar's advice and talked to her father prior to the ceremony.
Lorina clapped her hands together:
"But enough of these formalities!" she said, and all conversation subsided as her guests turned towards her. "I believe it is high time that you started enjoying yourselves. Wouldn't you agree, Uncle Oscar?"
"Quite right!" Oscar's booming voice carried over from the other side of the reception room. He gave his niece a thumbs-up from over the guests' heads and gestured grandly towards the band on the balcony. "Music!"
A waltz started playing in the background. Gilbert felt a lump of nervousness obscure his throat and squeezed Oz a little tighter. He knew what was coming, and he couldn't keep Oz by his side for this:
"I'm leaving Oz in your care," he told Alice, both as a warning and an apology. Alice nodded and wrapped her arms around the plush rabbit protectively.
All eyes were on Lorina when she held out her hand to him:
"Lord Gilbert, shall we dance?"
The audience gave a collective gasp at the invitation. Zai's carefully neutral expression morphed into a disapproving scowl. When Gilbert took her offered hand, hurried whispers erupted all around them. Lorina's only response was a smug smile.
"They're already starting to gossip," Gilbert whispered as she lead him to the dance floor. "Are you really okay with this?"
"Let them be," her lips barely moved when she answered him. He almost missed her reply because of the music. "The entire point is to make a lasting impression."
"But what about your father?"
She turned to face him. Her satisfied smirk from before had turned acidic:
"I'm doing him a favour," she murmured as she placed his right hand on her hip and held his left. "By covering up his offense when he attacked you. For now, anyway."
Gilbert let himself be led, a little unsure on his feet. He was all too aware of everyone's eyes fixed on them, and the pressure wasn't helping his dancing skills.
"Don't think about it," Lorina told him. "We can deal with it later. Please keep your mind on the dance, you're going to crush my feet if you keep this up."
Her smile recovered some genuine amusement when she said that. Gilbert mumbled a quick apology and gradually fell into step with her. Looking at her flushed face and twinkling eyes rather than the surrounding crowd made the experience easier to bear. It brought back memories of the few times he had helped her practice when she was younger.
"You've gotten a lot better at this," he said.
"Better than you?"
"Definitely," Gilbert smiled self-depressingly. At least he took some comfort in the fact that he was a better dancer than Break; then again, even Oz in his plush body was probably a better dancer than Break.
"You have also gotten better at crafting," he added with a more genuine smile. "The clasp you made for Oz is beautiful, and this coat looks great on him. I'm sure he loves them."
To his surprise, Lorina didn't seem too pleased with the compliment. They twirled in silence for a few seconds.
"You wish you could dance with him instead of me, don't you?"
"I…" he ducked his head in an irrational attempt to hide his blush. "I… It's not like we could, of course… dance together, that is… I know it sounds silly, but…"
Lorina kept guiding him step by step as he rattled on. It took him a moment to realize that the look in her eyes was stern rather than teasing.
"What's wrong?" he asked, suddenly anxious. He could feel that his cheeks were beet red.
"Nothing," she sighed. "Don't worry, it's almost over. I'll let you go after this dance."
"Oh. Sorry. I'm afraid I'm not the ideal partner..."
She looked down and squeezed his hand tighter:
"Don't mention it. I brought this upon myself."
They kept dancing in silence. Lorina looked wistful, but a small smile graced her features when Gilbert released her for a turn. Her bun nearly came undone as she spun and kept a strong grip on his left hand. The whispers around them subsided along with the music, replaced with a chorus of polite clapping. Lorina slowly let go of his hand.
"If anyone questions you about the nature of our relationship," she whispered as they bowed to each other, "just tell the truth: we are trying to improve the relationship between our two Households, nothing more. I will do the same."
"Sure," Gilbert smiled. "Thank you for everything. Your trust means a lot to me."
Lorina's eyes widened into a brief, vulnerable look. She took a breath to say something, but stopped herself at the last second. Her red eyes were very wide as she held his gaze with an earnest expression. Her cheeks were still flushed from the dance.
"…No. Thank you," she said at last. With that, she turned away.
"Now," Oscar said, his enthusiastic clapping still echoing in the great hall, "everybody dance!"
Gilbert made haste to get away and return to Alice's side before anyone could invite him. The young girl greeted him with a deep scowl. Before he could ask her what was wrong, she grabbed his hand and dragged him straight back to the dance floor.
"You're dancing the next one with me," she said in a tone that brooked no reply.
"Wha-Wait! We can't leave Oz alone!"
"Oz is coming too."
Gilbert stared, flabbergasted, at the plush rabbit hanging at her side. His lower body had been tied to Alice's waist securely by the silky red belt of her dress. His white mantle covered the belt and made it look like Oz was bouncing at her side.
"When did you…?" Gilbert asked in wonder.
"I asked one of the designers from Pandora Headquarters to make me a belt like this so I wouldn't lose Oz in a fight," Alice answered without slowing down. "I lent their designs to the Vessalius' seamstresses last time we visited, and the tailors adjusted it for my evening dress this afternoon. I won't lose Oz tonight."
She dogged the other dancers without a care for their reproachful glances or Gilbert's protests, and only stopped when she reached the centre of the dance floor. She turned on her high heels, and Oz whirled at her side.
"Come on, Raven," she took his other hand on her own authority. "Let's go!"
It wasn't the first time the two of them danced together. Anytime Elliot and Leo played the piano at home, Alice would insist on dancing in tune, and it wasn't unusual for her to drag Gilbert along. She also insisted on helping him improve his skills, since he could rarely keep up with her. Their dances tended to either be straining exercises, or wild, spur-of-the-moment whirling that left him exhausted.
To include Oz changed everything. Gilbert could see his small body bouncing along with their every step, his long ears flying after them when Alice twirled. Even his glass eyes were shining under the lit ceiling. Gilbert's heart soared.
He felt lighter and lighter as Alice guided him on the dance floor. The faster they danced, the wider she grinned; Gilbert tugged subtly on her hand every time she came too close to the other dancers. He was surprised at how easily they blended in with them. In the eyes of the crowd, Oz was as much a part of Alice as the bright dress she wore. He was an unusual addition that surprised some, but didn't shock anyone.
Gilbert realized he was grinning too. With the previous pressure gone, he could anticipate her every move as if they were his own, and his body followed smoothly. Her steps were graceful and confident; his were careful and gentle. Between the two of them, Oz danced in tempo. Gilbert could hear his laughter in the strings of the violins.
All too soon, the music ended with a flourish, and every dancer bowed to their respective partner. A little dazed, Gilbert let go of Alice, who gave him an elated smile:
"That was fun!"
"Yes," he said softly. "It really was."
He thought back to their conversation in the carriage and almost added: "It will be even better when Oz can move on his own again."
But something cold closed over his heart and froze the feelings in his chest before he could voice them. In the back of his head, the ever-present lugubrious voice was calling him a failure for getting distracted when he should be helping his master.
Alice squinted at him suspiciously: "What's wrong? Does your left arm hurt?"
"…Yes," he admitted. "It hurts continuously tonight. I'm not sure what's going on..."
They both turned to Oz, who was hanging limply from Alice's belt. His head was tilted to the side in an impression of reflection.
"You're planning something," Alice told the rabbit, "aren't you?"
Her frown deepened at Oz's silence.
"Did he say anything?" Gilbert asked anxiously.
"His powers are at their strongest tonight; he suspected that would happen. He is scared to use them, but he thinks he may have to," she glared at Oz reproachfully: "He won't tell me anything more."
Gilbert's heart beat faster.
The rest of the ceremony went by in a blur. A lot of people bombarded him with questions, but he was too bothered by his own troubles to keep track of all conversations. He and Alice kept their answers short, and stuck together until they heard the first rumbles of thunder from the high windows. Even the music was no longer enough to cover the storm.
Gilbert was starting to feel sick. The weather was exactly the same as the day Oz had turned fifteen. Even though he had been expecting it, to actually stand here, among the unsuspecting guests and under the ominous flashes of lightning, assaulted from all sides by the heavy scent of perfume and expensive food...
His memories were rushing back along with these sensations. His nostrils were flaring against the phantom smell of blood. He kept glancing over at the Silent Clock, his body as stiff as a board…
"Relax. You won't be of any use in your state."
Gilbert whirled on the speaker:
"Break! Don't sneak up on me like that, you gave me a heart attack!"
"See what I mean?" Break smirked, unbothered. "You didn't even feel my presence. All I did was speak to you, and you almost shot me on the spot. If a passage actually opens, you might kill everybody in a fit of nerves."
Gilbert took several deep, calming breaths before he answered:
"…You're right. I'm sorry. Did you notice anything unusual?"
"As a matter of fact, I did want to ask you something," Break tilted his head towards the ballroom. "Do you see anyone familiar over there?"
For fear of drawing attention to them, Gilbert didn't turn his head in the indicated direction. He scanned the room out the corner of his eyes.
"No," he said after a minute of searching, a little crestfallen. "Do you?"
"No one specific," Break answered with a carefree grin. Gilbert tried not to let the taunting expression get to him. "But I would keep an eye on the servants if I were you."
"Because, after all the fuss you have made about it, I doubt Rufus Barma would miss this Ceremony."
Gilbert couldn't supress a small gasp.
"He is a master of illusion, remember? You did mention that he used to disguise himself as one of Lady Sheryl's servants. It is indeed a good strategy: nobody of noble lineage would pay any attention to a servant, after all."
Gilbert frowned: "That's true, but… Duke Barma has a much higher status in this world, and he is very proud. He never shows himself in public like this, and he never attended a Coming of Age Ceremony before. I thought he would just send spies…"
"Don't use psychology, Gilbert, you're terrible at it," Break clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "Trust me on this: someone as information-obsessed as Duke Barma will want to witness today's events with his own eyes. Now, let me get you something to drink before someone gets suspicious."
"There is nothing suspicious about talking to a servant," Gilbert said.
"Maybe not for you," Break rolled his eye, "but I like to be careful."
Alice hissed at the servant's retreating back: "I'm not drinking anything he brings."
"What did I tell you about wasting food?" Gilbert hissed back. "Besides, Break is our ally."
"I don't trust him," Alice shook her head. "He was fishy before, he is even worse now. If you're still going to follow him blindly…"
"It was never blind trust," Gilbert argued. "Break and I have come to an agreement. We are protecting each other's secrets and trading information. I will keep this up until I actually earn his trust, even if it takes another ten years."
"Whatever. I'm not making friends with this clown."
"Alright, alright, just don't start a fight with him in public," Gilbert sighed. "In any case, I think we should follow his advice. Duke Barma might really be hiding among the servants. We should watch what we say and who is listening."
"Exactly," Break's voice startled them both. He smirked at their shocked expressions and handed out two glasses of champagne. "You're not doing a very good job so far."
Alice snatched one of the glasses out of his hand and promptly retreated behind Gilbert with a pointed glare at Break. The servant's grin only broadened as he gave the second glass to Gilbert:
"Keep in mind that Duke Barma is the one who fears your influence the most."
Gilbert's eyes widened. Somehow, he had forgotten all about that.
He was so wrapped up in his own troubles that he sometimes lost sight of the bigger picture, and which time he lived in. It had taken Gilbert months to get used to this new version of history:
After Oz had fixed the time paradox, Jack had been unable to survive the Tragedy of Sablier. He had disappeared along with the capital and all its residents, leaving no witness to explain the catastrophe.
One thing had remained the same, however: Arthur Barma was to thank for the most detailed accounts of the Tragedy and the events that had followed. He had lost his sister and best friend in Sablier, and had thrown himself in his work body and soul to find out what had happened to them. He was the one who had braved the ruins of the city and found Glen Baskerville's four keys to the Abyss. The sorcerers he had been in contact with had helped him figure out what the purpose of these keys was. Interrogating the Nightrays had done the rest, and the existence of the Abyss had been discovered.
The rest was history: since the Baskervilles had been the only ones in contact with the Abyss, they were held responsible for the Tragedy. And because their relatives had been guarding the Gate to the Abyss on the day of the Tragedy, the surviving members of the Nightray family were accused of complicity. Many conflicts arose as the royal family fought for the rights to the four keys and the power of the Abyss. It was argued that the keys found on their land were legally theirs, while Arthur Barma, who came from a foreign country, didn't have the right to hold onto his discovery.
Pandora was created in this context, both as a means to stop the conflicts and to keep researching the Abyss. Arthur Barma became the lead researcher and hence gained a status of nobility, provided that he would keep only one of the four keys, and that the Rainsworth family, who were of royal blood, would keep another. The man had accepted, on the condition that the Vessalius family would be granted the same honours.
Arthur Barma hadn't been very objective as a historian. He had glorified Jack Vessalius in his essays, and claimed that he would have been none the wiser about the Baskervilles' role in the Tragedy if it hadn't been for Jack. It was rumoured that Jack had discovered Glen Baskerville's scheme and tried to stop his friend. As a consequence, to Gilbert's eternal dismay, Jack Vessalius was remembered as a martyr.
As for the Nightrays, they were allowed to keep the fourth key so long as they would let the other three Households monitor all their research on the Abyss. Over the years, after the blood mirrors were created, the Dukedoms gained yet more power and influence by contracting the Black Winged Chains, while the Nightrays remained unable to acquire Raven, and were left in the dark.
Just thinking about all these power struggles made Gilbert's head hurt. It revolted him to think that Elliot had to grow up with the baggage of his family name, and that Gilbert's former master was remembered as a bloodthirsty conspirator. Ever since he had come out of the Abyss with Oz, Vincent and the twins, he had done everything he could to correct Arthur Barma's assumptions:
Glen Baskerville had had no reason to throw the capital into the Abyss. On the contrary, the Baskervilles' role as messengers of the Abyss was to watch over its power and prevent it from damaging the world. The Tragedy had been the work of an illegal contractor. It was only thanks to Glen's intervention that the rest of the world hadn't known the same fate as Sablier. And it was only thanks to Oz that the illegal contractor, who had wandered the earth as a ghost for a century, had been stopped for good: B-Rabbit had rebelled against his first contractor, at the cost of his powers, mobility, and hard-won humanity. After they had all been thrown into the Abyss, Gilbert had contracted Oz and Alice, the dual incarnation of B-Rabbit, to prevent them from fading altogether.
But Gilbert didn't have much in terms of solid proof: his and Vincent's blood mirrors, which were much more advanced, proved that they came from an alternate future. More importantly, he held the fifth key to the Abyss, Glen's pocket watch: with it, he could claim the Baskervilles' right to be part of Pandora. Even though many doubted Gilbert's version of the story, his knowledge was invaluable for the organization, and especially for Rufus Barma, its current lead researcher.
"To be more specific, you are as much a threat as an invaluable tool to him," Break told Gilbert with a conspiratorial smirk. "But, depending on what happens tonight, your version of the facts may be proven true. You can be sure that the good duke will be there to confirm it with his own eyes."
Gilbert nodded. He felt even more anxious than before, but at least he had a better idea of what to expect.
"Thank you, Break. You're a lot better with politics than I am."
"That's not saying much."
"I am trying, alright?" Gilbert said, exasperated.
"Oh yes, a right workaholic you are. Sometimes you could give Reim a run for his money."
"…Okay, no, I don't work that hard…"
"Yes you do," Break sing-sang. "You just can't help the fact that you're an incompetent fool."
"Relax. You're still useful, or I wouldn't be talking to you right now."
There was a brief silence. Break checked his watch to avoid Gilbert's tentative smile:
"It is almost time for the young lady to make her vows. Get ready."
Gilbert looked up sharply. Everybody had stopped dancing. The guests were moving in small chattering groups like a silky tidal wave to the shore. They gathered on either side of the great staircase that led to the Silent Clock.
"Hurry up, Raven, we need to get closer!"
Alice grabbed his arm and pulled him forward with surprising force. Break had already vanished. Gilbert and Alice pushed and shoved to make their way through the crowd until they reached the bottom of the stairs. Gilbert gripped the guardrail firmly. Alice slowly untied Oz from her waist, ready for battle if it came to that.
"Look," she whispered. "The clown is up here."
Indeed, to his surprise, Gilbert could see Break standing at the top of the stairs with Sharon, who was holding a white cloth in her hands.
"He is escorting Sharon," Gilbert whispered back. "She will be welcoming Lady Lorina in the noble society as her closest friend."
He could hear hushed tattling all around him. It suddenly occurred to him how strategic this show of friendship must look to some guests: Lorina had opened the dance with someone who belonged to both the Nightray and Baskerville Households, and was soon to be formally acknowledged as the Rainsworth heiress' best friend. In the eyes of her fellow noblemen and women, Lorina Vessalius was showing off her influence.
Gilbert gripped the guardrail tighter to stop his hand from shaking. He, too, had grown up in this world of pretence, but he never had the brains to exploit it nor the courage to oppose it directly. But Oz had had both. Gilbert remembered the confidence and earnestness with which Oz had asked him to attend his Coming of Age Ceremony as his best friend. Oz had been fully aware of the gossip he would attract for choosing an orphaned servant over a fellow nobleman on such an important day, and he hadn't cared one bit.
"Do you feel anything strange, Raven?" Alice peered up at him.
"I was just thinking that it's unfair," Gilbert didn't bother to whisper, which earned him startled gasps from the nearest guests. "How some people assume that Lady Lorina and Lady Sharon have made an alliance for their own interests. Anyone can tell that they are friends."
"Is that why you look so angry?" Alice asked in disbelief. "Sometimes I don't get you at all."
Gilbert smiled. Alice might have less trouble understanding noble etiquette than before, but she still failed to see the point of it all; if Oz was indifferent to the opinion of others concerning his friends, Alice was completely immune to it. It was refreshing.
"You're right. We have more important things to worry about."
The crowd lowered its mutters until silence fell on the vast room. Nothing could be heard aside from the heavy rain against the windows and the occasional snap of thunder. The storm was getting closer.
Zai was standing on the first floor with the sword of baptism in his hands. Lorina kneeled before him, and her father's voice carried easily over the storm outside. Gilbert couldn't suppress a shudder at the sound of this solemn booming voice over the thunder.
"Your crime is your very existence."
Gilbert gritted his teeth against the onslaught of memories.
'It will be fine,' he told himself over and over. 'I am no longer the helpless little boy I was back then. Raven is with me. I can protect Oz and Alice.'
He glanced over at Break for reassurance. The servant blended in the shadows with an expression to match Sharon's serene smile. The two of them looked completely unthreatening. Gilbert had lost all hope of mastering their stoicism.
He jumped out of his skin when Zai proclaimed that Lorina could now make her vows.
The lass rose to her feet and climbed the stairs without a backwards glance. Even from this distance, Gilbert could see the tense line of her shoulders. He exchanged a quick glance with Alice, who held Oz to her chest with a determined expression. They both kept their eyes on Lorina as she dropped to one knee and lay a gloved hand on the Silent Clock:
"I, Lorina Vessalius, swear to bring honour to the Vessalius Household until my dying day," her voice was clear and steady above the pouring rain. "May my family, kinsmen and kinswomen, stand witness to this solemn vow."
Lightning struck and lit up the room in blinding white light. In the same second, the Silent Clock came to life.
There was a collective exclamation of surprise as the huge clock broke its silence for the first time in a hundred years. Twelve resounding strikes drowned the thunder. Then, silence.
Gilbert looked round. The assistance had been frozen in place, their mouths hanging open in mute shock. He made to touch Oscar and the former Will of the Abyss, but his hand went right through them.
Time had stopped. Just like that day…
Zai climbed the stairs four at a time to reach his daughter, who staggered back and looked over the frozen guests with wide eyes. Break and Sharon had already moved to shield her from either side. Out of the corner of his eyes, Gilbert saw the Pandora agents detach themselves from the crowd and rush into position.
'It's just as Vincent thought,' Gilbert realized. 'Chains and contractors aren't affected.'
"A path is opening, Raven!" Alice rushed after Zai, closely followed by Gilbert. "Something's trying to get out!"
"A Chain?" Gilbert took off his left glove hurriedly.
"No, it's something else," her voice trembled with apprehension. "I've never felt anything like it… Hurry!"
Their fellow Baskervilles fell into step behind them. Gilbert forced his building fear to the far back of his mind. Whatever was coming, they could face it together.
"Looks like you were right on the money," Zwei grinned at him from under her dark hood. "What happens next? Isn't this the part when Alice gets out of the Abyss? Oh wait, she's already there…"
"It could be anything," Fang unsheathed his sword. "Get ready!"
Gilbert made it first to the top of the stairs. The clock's shadow was spreading and simmering, its borders sparking with static electricity. He could hear a gurgling noise within.
Something emerged from the darkness like a dripping corpse breaking the surface. Even the cloth it wore seemed to be made out of liquid.
When it spoke, its voice spread like ripples in the air:
"Where is Glen?"
Gilbert felt a full-body shudder. That voice. He knew that voice.
"Where are you hiding him?"
He could see a wrinkled face as old as time, blind glassy eyes and a toothless mouth. Could vaguely hear a horrified scream from behind. But his surroundings were fading into the background as that voice from beyond the grave crawled its way to the forefront of his mind.
"Who are you?"
His own voice seemed to come from very far away. Gilbert had to make a conscious effort to speak. His head hurt so much it felt like it was about to burst open. The old figure's sightless eyes pinned him to the ground when it spoke next. That same gravelly voice from a hundred years ago, he thought he had it under control…
"We, the Jury, should be able to locate Glen Baskerville and guide him. You are no longer qualified to be his successor. The former Glen should have been reincarnated by now. How did you manage to keep him from us?"
They were after Leo.
"What do you want with him?" Gilbert squinted his eyes to hold the intruder's empty gaze. Cold sweat stuck to his eyelashes. It blurred his vision.
"Glen Baskerville's role is to protect the Abyss. Our duty is to watch over Glen. We must make sure that he fulfils his."
"I have never heard about this," Fang's voice cut in the fog invading Gilbert's mind. "This is the first time we meet. Do you come from Sablier?"
Gilbert briefly became aware of his surroundings again: the Baskervilles and Pandora's contractors had the tall figure surrounded from all sides, weapons drawn. Zai was standing between the Silent Clock and his daughter.
'Lorina doesn't have a Chain… How can she move…?'
"Our origin is beyond your comprehension," the stranger gave a toothless smile, and the vice of that voice closed on Gilbert's mind again. Even thinking hurt, make it stop…! "We came into being before the Abyss did. Our purpose is to watch over the worlds the Core creates: every different time, every alternate reality has an assigned Jury to watch over it." The blind eyes seemed to fill the room as the stranger's smirk widened: "We make sure that each world meets its proper end."
"What's the meaning of this?" Was that Zai? It was hard to keep track… Focus, don't let it get to you! "Were you involved in Sablier's destruction?"
"We do not get involved. Those who successfully contract a Chain may use the power of the Abyss as they please. Sablier's fate was the work of one such contractor and his Chain. We are merely watchers."
"…That's a lie."
The Jury turned their unseeing eyes towards Gilbert. His voice had come out raspy. He could barely articulate around his coated tongue. Just looking into those eyes clouded his mind.
"I remember you," he clung to his repulsed anger and held that gaze. "You tried to use me. Back in Sablier, when I found Master Glen, you put a spell on me. You did the same thing to my Master, didn't you?" he asked through gritted teeth.
The Jury's expression didn't waver.
"That was merely a precaution…"
"What?" Lorina exclaimed, horrified. "What spell? What did you do to him?"
The hooded figure did a double-take and gave a shrill scream:
"A Child of Misfortune! What is she doing here?"
Lorina gasped in terror and retreated into the arms of her father, who glared at the Jury fiercely:
"What did you just call her?"
"She shouldn't be here!" the Jury screeched. "Those born with red eyes cause disturbance around them! Children like her shouldn't exist!"
Those words enraged Gilbert enough to shake him out of his trance:
"How dare you…!"
"Those are nothing but old superstitions!" Zai shouted at the same time.
"Ignorant fools," the Jury's harsh whisper silenced them both. "Those children have the power to influence the Core of the Abyss itself. Their very existence is a threat to the stability of your world." Their blind eyes bore into Gilbert's once again. "You know that better than anyone, don't you, Gilbert?"
"It's not true," he closed his eyes, but the accusatory glare still pierced him, burning right through his eyelids. "It's not true..."
"Raven? What's wrong with you?"
"Your world narrowly escaped its fate twice," the Jury advanced on Gilbert. Alice's voice was drowned. "It should already have disappeared into the Abyss. That would have been a satisfying conclusion…"
"Damn it," Zwei cursed under her breath. "Fang, Dledum's strings don't work on that thing!"
"Thanks to Glen's intervention, this world could mend itself. The Abyss has returned to the state it used to be, and the Baskervilles' story can go on smoothly. However, as long as Children of Misfortune are around…"
Gilbert could hear shocked screams in the distance, "My Chain won't come out!" "What is that thing?" and half-formed thoughts in his mind, 'they don't fear the power of the Abyss,' 'they can control Glen…!'
…but everything was blurring together and fading away before the commanding voice that ate at his thoughts and burned his left arm…
"You should have been Glen," it said, absolute and inescapable, "And it was a Child of Misfortune who stopped the ceremony, wasn't it? It is high time we put an end to this. Since Glen isn't here, you will carry out your master's duty."
His left hand was already raised.
"Do it, Gilbert. Send those accursed children into the Abyss!"
Before Gilbert had the time to think, Raven was out. The giant bird breathed long flames through the heavy chains that obstructed its beak. It pulled at the metal with all its might. Gilbert gripped his left arm tightly:
"Do it! Kill your master's enemies!"
Chains burst from the floor and wrapped themselves around Lorina, Alice and Break. Zai was caught in the middle, unable to summon his own Chain under the strain. Sharon screamed and screamed, but Eques wouldn't answer.
In his panic, Gilbert turned a desperate gaze towards Alice. She was fighting like the very devil against the chains that entrapped her. Raven's seal was bounding her powers as tightly as her body. Her small plush rabbit was crushed between the chains and her chest. He could only see one of Oz's dark eyes.
A passage lit up under their feet.
Kill your master's enemies.
Gilbert reached out for them. They started to sink. The tip of Oz's ears disappeared under the heavy chains.
Call my name.
There was a great quake. A hot flare of pain pierced through Gilbert's left arm. More chains burst out from the floor and wrapped themselves around the shaking limb. Raven closed its beak on the chains trapping it. A dark shape started to form above Alice.
"Impossible!" the Jury screamed. "That creature can't still be alive! Gilbert, you must kill it now! All Children of Misfortune must die!"
"Oz!" Gilbert kept shouting desperately. This name was the only thing that kept the imperious commands at bay. "Oz!"
And suddenly he could see him. The great figure above Alice was still vague, its contours blurred, but there was a grace to the way it moved, a smooth accuracy that Alice always lacked in her brutal displays of power. Gilbert stared wide-eyed, half-blind from pain, fear and sudden, burning hope. Could it really be…
Two clawed hands emerged from the darkness and grabbed the long chain in Raven's beak from either side. The bird answered with a wide grin. A tongue of blue fire engulfed the chain. The claws only dug deeper into the incandescent metal. The chains around Gilbert's left arm tightened at the same time.
The man let out a scream. The red-hot metal burnt right through his skin. He smelt burning flesh, fur and feathers. There was nothing but pain and this sickening smell, even the screams in his head were dying, burnt to a crisp, howling in agony, gone with the scorching wind, he couldn't think, it hurt so much…!
The chains shattered.
Gilbert gasped. It felt like his very first taste of air after a dive in a sea of fire.
He blinked rapidly to try and see through his tears, eyes trained on the blue light above him. The flames intensified, but they no longer hurt him. Free of all restraint, Raven drew itself up to its full height, its beak opened wide in a victorious caw. The pentacle disappeared with a flap of its fiery wing.
The remaining chains shattered into a million pieces that vanished with the pentacle. The great figure before Raven collapsed along with the freed contractors.
"Oz!" Gilbert rushed towards the smell of burnt fur. "Oz, are you hurt? Let me see your hands!"
Raven shook itself and spread its wings as far as they would go, shielding Gilbert and his second Chain. Blue flames licked its beak as it clicked in satisfaction, free of all boundaries, ready to strike down anyone who dared approach.
There was a flash of lightning. The Black Rabbit was there, an immobile heap on the floor. The Chain didn't make a sound when Gilbert took the back of its huge fingers and turned its hand over. The smell of burnt flesh and fur assaulted the man's nose. Gilbert whimpered at the sight of its bloody palms:
'They're not healing!'
"Hold on, Oz, I've got you," Gilbert murmured in Oz's long furry ear. His voice was trembling so badly he had trouble understanding himself. "Please stay with me. Open your eyes."
There was a pregnant pause. Gilbert kept his hand pressed against the pulse at Oz's neck and his eyes trained on his heavy head. The black eyelids, as big as Gilbert's hand, shivered. The man caught a glimpse of blood red underneath.
"Oz," in spite of the grim situation and his terror at Oz's state, Gilbert couldn't help the wonder in his voice. "Can you hear me? Blink twice if you can hear me."
The red eye widened. Its black pupil focused on Gilbert. Oz struggled to keep it open. He blinked twice, purposefully.
"Oh thank God…" Gilbert's vision blurred with fresh tears. "Thank God…!"
Only then did he become aware of the voices around them.
"…just happened? Did B-Rabbit break the seal on its own?" asked Zwei, horrified.
"It's not just the seal," Fang said. "Something else was restraining Raven. I always thought those chains were an integral part of its power, but now…"
"You have no idea what you just did!" the Jury exclaimed. "Raven is the link between us and Glen Baskerville! To break this link will have unfathomable consequences! Your world will spin out of control!"
"Out of your control, you mean?"
The tip of Break's sword was at the Jury's throat. They gave an anguished scream and slithered away:
"Don't come near me, Child of Misfortune!"
"And why not?" Break followed their every move. No matter where they turned, the Jury couldn't escape his sword. "You don't seem to fear any of our Chains' powers, aside from B-Rabbit's. And Lady Lorina Vessalius is not even a contractor. Why are our red eyes so scary to you?" The Jury was shaking their head from side to side, looking blindly for an escape. "Is it because you can't see us?"
"Don't get any closer!"
"Is it because you can't hurt us? 'Children of Misfortune,' as you say?" Break's smirk turned vicious: "Or simply because we are the only ones who can hurt you?"
There was an ear-piercing, blood-curling scream.
"I thought so," Break sing-sang. Inky-black blood pearled at the Jury's neck and slid down his blade. "No wonder you are so desperate to send us all into the Abyss. Too bad your little slave just broke his chains."
"Good work, Hatter," a tenor voice broke in on the exchange. "Hold this person in place for me, will you? I will take it from here."
Break squinted his eyes at the newcomer, who was taking his sweet time climbing the stairs to join them. Gilbert didn't recognize him: a man in his late forties dressed all in black and dark red, with short, thick brown hair combed back to reveal a narrow, ashen face; but the smug grin he wore was all too familiar. Five contractors surrounded him at once, shielding him from all sides.
"Duke Barma, I presume?" Break gave him a stiff nod of acknowledgement. "How kind of you to join us after we have brought the situation under control."
The man waved the remark off and marched towards the cornered Jury, who was moaning in pain under Break's relentless sword.
"I have a lot of questions to ask you, Jury… or whatever you call yourself," Duke Barma told them. "You'd better answer truthfully if you want the Hatter to let you go. Firstly, was this young lady the one who opened the Gate tonight? Without the power of a Chain?"
"She is a Child of Misfortune!" the Jury rasped out. "This is only the least of what those children are capable of! You can't let them live!"
"You will not speak of my daughter this way," Zai cut in. The other duke ignored him:
"Yet it was only thanks to her that you could get out of the Abyss. Can't you open the Gate on your own?"
"We will only appear before Glen… But this time, the one we found was Gilbert." The Jury rounded on him and screamed when the wound at their neck widened: "You must tell us, Gilbert! Where is your master?"
Gilbert glared at the Jury defiantly:
"You want to brainwash him? Like you did for every Glen before him?"
"Unconditional loyalty to the cause is the condition to become Glen Baskerville. Without our guidance, he would lead the world to ruin!"
"Shut up! You didn't lift a finger to help Glen stop the Tragedy of Sablier! You did nothing to save the world when Oz's contractor came back! All you ever did was force the Baskervilles to hunt down innocent people and throw them into the Abyss!"
"Traitor," the toothless mouth spat. "How dare you question your master's decisions?"
"They were never his decisions, those were your commands! And Glen Baskerville is no longer my master," he leaned into the giant rabbit's warm fur, and trained his gun on the Jury. "I am Oz's servant."
"You fool," the shrill voice deepened in its rage. "Do you think you can defy us? You are nothing but ignorant pawns, all of you. We know everything about your world, every possible past and future. We could reveal the entire truth about what happened a hundred years ago…"
"No!" Gilbert threw a panicked glance towards Zai and Lorina. "Don't say a word!"
Rufus Barma smirked:
"There is no need to react so strongly, Raven. I already know all about it."
Gilbert gripped Oz's large shoulder: "You can't possibly…"
"It wasn't hard to guess," the duke shrugged grandly. "Tell me, Jury: you pretend to have witnessed everything that happened at the Tragedy of Sablier, but do you know how the Gate to the Abyss was opened?"
The Jury was silent.
"As I thought," the duke's superior smile widened. "Fortunately, Lady Lorina gave us the answer tonight: only a person with red eyes can open a path to the Abyss without a key, and escape the Jury's notice. Now, Raven: there was a person with such an ability with you back in Sablier, wasn't there?"
"You have no proof!" Lorina protested. "It happened a hundred years ago, it could have been anyone!"
"Do not interrupt your elders, young lady," the duke threw her a reproachful glare. He turned back to Gilbert like nothing had happened: "You always claimed that Glen Baskerville was innocent, and that an illegal contractor was responsible for throwing Sablier into the Abyss. But how did he or she get their hands on such a powerful Chain as the Blood-Stained Black Rabbit, right under the Baskervilles' nose? Impossible; unless they had a Child of Misfortune at their beck and call…"
"Don't use that word," Gilbert warned him.
"Touchy subject? Of course it is. Your own brother is a Child of Misfortune, after all…"
"Another one!" the Jury exclaimed. "You dared use a Child of Misfortune to hide Glen from us!"
'They're right,' Gilbert realized suddenly. 'Vincent is the one protecting Leo from the Abyss' influence...'
"It would appear so," Duke Barma nodded. "Vincent Nightray is entirely devoted to Lord Gilbert here, after all. And who, pray tell, is B-Rabbit's contractor? The very same Lord Gilbert."
"Fascinating," Break said sarcastically. "Did you come here just to spout the gossip that everyone has been whispering for five years? And why, pray tell, would Gilbert want to throw Sablier into the Abyss?"
"These rumours deserve a little more attention now that we know how to open a Gate without a key," the duke answered easily. "As for the motive, according to his own testimony, Gilbert was only a child at the time, barely nine years old. It seems likely that he couldn't control such a powerful Chain as B-Rabbit properly. He ordered his little brother to open the Gate, made a contract with B-Rabbit, and the Tragedy of Sablier was the result."
"Enough!" Lorina shouted, unmindful of Duke Barma's warning glare. "Lord Gilbert, tell them the truth or I will do it!"
Gilbert rounded on her, alarmed: "Lady Lorina, no! You promised!"
"I made no such promise!"
"You don't know what you're doing!"
"Oh? And what would you know about the Tragedy of Sablier, young lady?" Duke Barma asked mockingly. "There aren't many sources you could have learnt anything from, are there?"
"Lord Gilbert let it slip the first time he came to our manor five years ago," Lorina said. "I know the truth."
"Another tale he fed you, then. Most likely Lord Oscar as well, or the good duke wouldn't trust him so readily. Did it occur to you that whatever you heard was something Gilbert made up to earn your trust?"
"He wasn't lying! He doesn't know how to lie!"
"That's quite enough, Lorina," Zai restrained his daughter by the shoulder. "You know as well as I do that Duke Barma is right."
"You don't know anything! You have no idea what Lord Gilbert endured for us!"
"Why don't we ask the Jury, then?" Duke Barma turned towards them with an engaging smile. "You did offer to reveal the truth, after all, and you have no reason to lie to us about Sablier, do you?"
"Indeed," the Jury answered with a painful, yet confident grin. "Gilbert, this is your last warning…"
"Don't you dare say it!"
He felt Oz move. The rabbit's head was lolling from side to side on the floor, like Oz was trying to shake his head 'no' but couldn't find the strength.
"Oz, you can't be saying…!" Gilbert whispered urgently: "I can't let this happen, what about Lord Oscar and your sisters?"
Oz stared at him insistently. Gilbert gulped.
"Send this creature and the other accursed children into the Abyss this instant or we will tell the truth."
Gilbert held Oz closer. Raven breathed fire right under the Jury's nose. Everybody stepped back.
"Well, it is too late anyway," Duke Barma said from the wall he was pressed against. "We all know you have been hiding something all along, Gilbert. Why don't you reveal the name of the contractor that caused the Tragedy of Sablier?"
"Because it doesn't matter anymore," Gilbert said through gritted teeth. "That man is long dead."
"Unless that man was you," Duke Barma countered.
"It wasn't me."
"Then why would you protect him?"
"The culprit is not the one Lord Gilbert is trying to protect!" Lorina cut in. "It's the relative peace the Five Households have found," she put a deliberate emphasis on 'five.'
"Do it, Gilbert! And bring Glen to us!"
Raven opened its beak wide, blue flames gathered in its throat and lit up the entire room. But Gilbert could feel the weight of Oz's head against his knee. He was still shaking his head.
'Duke Barma is right,' Gilbert thought bitterly. 'It's too late. If I kill the Jury now, everyone will think I was preventing them from denouncing me. In the eyes of the world, the Baskerville and Nightray families will remain the instigators of the Tragedy of Sablier.'
He looked at Fang and Zwei, thought of Vincent, Alice and Elliot. He saw Lorina's pleading eyes, Oscar's frozen body downstairs, and thought of Ada sleeping in her little bed, oblivious to the world.
"You can say whatever you want," Gilbert hissed at the Jury. "As long as you get out of here. I won't let you touch a hair on Glen's head, or anyone else. And I don't want to hear the words 'Children of Misfortune' ever again."
"You can't keep us away forever," the Jury sneered. "Soon, chaos will fall on your world, and Glen Baskerville will be begging us to come back. He is nothing without our insight."
"That will be up to our master," Fang said. "But in the meantime, Gilbert is our regent. And I agree with him. The Baskervilles have no need of sorcerers like you."
"Very well then. Here is the last information I will give you so the story can progress smoothly. I did warn you, Gilbert." The Jury turned back to Duke Barma with a taunting grimace: "You are wrong, Rufus Barma. A hundred years ago, the man who contracted B-Rabbit and tried to throw the world into the Abyss wasn't Gilbert. It was Jack Vessalius."
Silence fell upon the room. Every witness was waiting with batted breath for a denial, but no one said a word. Gilbert's fingers tightened around the fur of Oz's neck.
"Now get out before Raven burns you to a crisp," he growled at the Jury. "I can barely restrain him as it is."
Raven emphasized his words with a hissing breath of blue fire. The giant bird had been thrilled to get rid of the links that restrained him, and was all too eager to unleash its powers on its former tormentor.
The Jury shrank on themselves, their body dissolved into a bubbling mass that melted into the Silent Clock's shadow. Its gurgling, mocking laughter disappeared last, swallowed by the gap between the Abyss and their world.
The Silent Clock shuddered with static electricity. Its needles started to turn at top speed.
"The Clock is catching up to its hundred years of silence," Gilbert said as he remembered the conclusions Pandora had come to after examining it, in the future he came from. "Was that enough for you, Duke Barma?"
The duke was looking at the Clock with a pensive smirk. He looked like he was enjoying himself thoroughly.
"This is ridiculous," Zai spat. "Jack Vessalius didn't have enough influence to accomplish such a feat on his own."
Gilbert ducked his head.
"On the contrary," Fang said slowly, like he was thinking out loud. "Jack Vessalius was our Master's closest friend. He might have trusted him with more information than his own subordinates. And Miranda Barma was the one who helped Jack enter the centre of noble society, wasn't she? She might have been his accomplice."
Duke Barma turned towards him with a raised eyebrow:
"Next you'll be telling us the Rainsworth family was somehow involved, as well."
In spite of the sarcasm, there was a bit of a threat to his voice. Gilbert had a brief flashback to the day Glen Baskerville had recreated the chains holding the world, the matching keys of Rufus Barma and Sheryl Rainsworth, and the way the duke had stuck to the duchess' side.
He shook his head:
"Don't you see? None of it matters anymore. Jack Vessalius and Miranda Barma have been dead for decades, and neither of them acted in the name of their respective families. None of the Five Households should be held responsible for what they did."
"And isn't it convenient that this version of the story exonerates both the Nightray and Baskerville families?" Zai sneered. "This so-called Jury was another Baskerville, and you knew they would be getting out of the Abyss today. You could have planned this entire masquerade."
"And where do you suggest that Lord Gilbert met this person?" Sharon asked in her usual even tone. Only the strained quality of her voice and the slight flush of her cheeks gave away her previous panic attack. "In the Abyss?"
"Why not? He holds the fifth key, after all. And Raven can open the Nightray Gate anytime."
"That's enough," Gilbert snapped. "I have no time to discuss this with you, I need to get Oz somewhere he can rest! You can just add those claims to your defence at the trial."
"Gladly," Zai glared daggers at him. "I won't fail to mention the fact that you almost sent my daughter and Mad Hatter into the Abyss, B-Rabbit."
Gilbert took a harsh intake of breath, shaken. His hand dug into Oz's fur for comfort. The rabbit bowed his head to Break and Lorina. Gilbert did the same:
"I'm sorry I scared you. But it won't happen again. Oz broke the spell the Jury had on Raven and I. And we won't let them hurt anyone else."
"You keep saying 'Oz,'" Zai said scornfully. "Isn't your Chain called Alice?"
"She's here too," Gilbert said. "The three of us are B-Rabbit. You know that."
"Still delusional, I see," Zai huffed.
"I don't care what you think. Let us go."
"Alright, alright," Duke Barma shooed him off, his attention drawn to the Clock once again. "I'm looking forward to this trial you speak of."
Fang passed Gilbert by with his huge sword thrown over his shoulder:
"Go ahead, Gilbert. Zwei and I will take care of the Silent Clock. It would be better if the guests don't see our Chains when they come to."
Gilbert nodded and called Raven back. The great bird shook itself in mild protest, annoyed that its time outside had to be cut short, but vanished obediently. Oz shivered as the balance of energy tipped in his favour.
"Oz, can you walk?" Gilbert asked him softly. He was short on breath from the energy they were sharing.
The rabbit nodded. He jumped down the stairs, and the ground shook when he landed. He wobbled a little, but didn't touch a single of the frozen guests. Before Gilbert could catch up, he leapt to the Great Entrance.
As he ran after him, Gilbert could hear the hurried voices of his fellow contractors, who were trying to make sense of what had just happened. Several of them were calling him delusional or accusing the Baskervilles of staging the entire ordeal. He could hear Lorina's indignant answers and Sharon's quiet counterarguments. He didn't care. They could all deal with it at the trial; he needed to get to Oz, now.
"Oz, wait! Don't push yourself so hard! Where are you going?"
Oz led him outside, towards the gardens. The howling wind pushed Gilbert back. He pressed on. No matter how hard he screamed, Oz wouldn't slow down. The man couldn't keep up with his great leaps, but the long rabbit ears were easy to spot over the trees, even in the darkness of the storm. He slalomed between the trunks, unmindful of the rain soaking him to the bone, his eyes trained on Oz, who had finally stopped. The giant rabbit tottered. He fell forward, and was swallowed by the surrounding trees.
Gilbert sprinted in his direction, slipped in the mud, got back up, ran on faster. He recognized the place at once. Oz had stopped before Lacie's grave.
The giant rabbit lay sprawled out in the clearing, where the Pandora agents had excavated the secret grave five years ago. The hole was too narrow for Oz; only his burnt hands hung limply over the edge. His fur and clothes were drenched with muck and water. His ragged breathing came up in big, puffy clouds in the merciless rain.
"Oz!" Gilbert was by his side in an instant. He knelt in the muddy grass and cradled his Chain's head between shaking, freezing hands. Even the gloved one had lost all sense of touch. "Oz, you can't stay here, you'll get worse! Don't fall asleep, please, stay with me!"
Gilbert had no idea how long he stayed there, screaming over the storm for his companion to remain conscious, terrified beyond words that the power he had released had been too much for him. He couldn't lose him, not now, not when he was finally free, when Oz needed him most…!
"Xerx said I would find you there," came a soft, dreamlike voice behind him.
Gilbert turned round. The first thing he saw was a pure white figure behind a curtain of rain. Alice's sister was standing before him with her arms spread out to catch the wind. She seemed completely unaffected by the drenched state of her clothes and hair. She turned towards Oz as if she'd just remembered his presence, with the same absent-minded look:
"It's been a while, Mister Rabbit."
"Please help him!" Gilbert begged of her. "He's hurt! His wounds won't heal!"
"There's no need to shout like that," she swayed in the storm. "Mister Rabbit knows what he is doing: he took you here because there is a small gap to the Abyss near this grave. Now that the Silent Clock has started again, you can use the pocket watch to open a path to the Abyss."
"To the Abyss?"
"Yes," the former Will of the Abyss answered slowly, like she was speaking to an idiotic child, "to the Abyss, where Mister Rabbit can be fixed. Back when I was the Will of the Abyss, I broke most of my toys. But I knew how to heal any wound. All that was needed was a little flake of light from the Abyss, and my friends were good as new. That's how I fixed Cheshire's eye," she said proudly.
Gilbert felt nauseous at the mere thought of Break's eye in that beast's eye-socket. But if he could heal Oz…
"Alice, I told you to wait up!" a masculine voice interrupted his frantic train of thought. "Come here before you catch a cold!"
Reim was running to them, careful with every step on the slippery ground, holding an open umbrella for Sharon with both hands. He was struggling against the wind, but the umbrella wasn't really helping Sharon, who was as drenched as her two companions.
Alice let herself be coaxed under the umbrella regardless, and Sharon promptly put a thick coat on her frail shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Lord Gilbert," she said as soon as her adopted sister was bundled up. "I was powerless to do anything when the Jury appeared. If it weren't for Lord Oz, Break would have..." She shook her head. "Anyway; Eques is back now. She will escort the both of you to the Abyss. I will bring you back as soon as Lord Oz is better."
Gilbert's eyes widened:
"…You believe me?"
"I believe Lady Lorina is right: you have no talent for deceit, Lord Gilbert. As extraordinary as your story is, if you witnessed it with your own eyes, then I will trust you." In spite of her sombre look, a genuine smile graced her features: "Break might tell you otherwise, but he agrees."
Gilbert bowed to her gratefully.
"Hold on, Oz," he whispered in the unmoving rabbit's ear. "You're going to be fine."
He pulled the golden watch out of his pocket and started to turn the small button. For the first time in five years, it gave way immediately.
The minute's needle started its journey forward, turn after turn, faster and faster, until Gilbert had to let go. Round and round the needles kept turning, as fast as the Silent Clock's before them, until they came to an abrupt stop.
Lacie's melody drifted from the pocket watch's open case, its mechanical tune happy and melancholic in the heavy silence. That's when Gilbert realized that the rain had stopped. In fact, the very taste of the air was different, heavy with static electricity, but without a smell to carry. It was the empty air of the Abyss.
Gilbert hung on to Oz and slowly raised his head. His eyes widened as he stared in mute amazement.
The Abyss was a field of gold. There was no sky above their heads; only stars, just like the ones that danced around their feet. Thousands upon thousands of lights as far as the eye could see, always moving, like golden blowballs carried by the winds of time.
Oz was very black against this sea of gold and starlit sky. He was hunkered down in the high field with his long arms on either side. His clawed hands disappeared among the airy golden flakes.
"How do you feel?" Gilbert asked, his voice soft from concern and an undercurrent wonder.
Oz turned towards him slowly. Even though his contours were still blurry, his eyes crinkled in a sleepy smile.
Gilbert grinned helplessly in response and buried his face in the crook of Oz's neck. His fur smelt like the forest, earth and rain. A strong pulse was drumming against his ear. He had never felt more alive.
With a long, exhausted sigh, he leaned on Oz's shoulder.
"Raven…" Gilbert looked drowsily at his left hand. "Thank you."
As soon as he said the name, the great bird materialised in a tornado of black and gold. Among its inky feathers, wide yellow eyes opened in a fixed stare. They shone with a near-demented joy.
Gilbert smiled back:
"Go ahead and fly. Oz and I need to rest for a bit."
Raven's wings were already open. They were impossibly wide in this endless world. If they reached far enough, they could cast the Abyss back in its former darkness. Only this time, tiny lights danced around the black feathers like fireflies, and there were no chains to restrain Raven. It licked blue fire off its beak and took to the skies.
The bird flew fast as a bullet, leaving a whooshing trail of wind in its wake, and only Oz's strong body anchored Gilbert against its shove. Soon, Raven was nothing but a black star in the golden sky. It shone blue, and its distant laughter echoed all the way to Oz and Gilbert.
This, Gilbert thought, must be what freedom tasted like.
"You should have done this years ago," he scolded Oz. "Why didn't you?"
The rabbit was avoiding his gaze. He could feel it shaking under him.
"You still can't talk," Gilbert felt a pang of disappointment. "…Were you afraid your power would hurt me?"
Oz's eyes met his at last. They were wide with a lingering terror that made Gilbert shiver in synch with his Chain. He had seen that look on Oz's human face before, however briefly, in his half-conscious state: it was on the night of his first Coming of Age Ceremony, after his young master had accidentally stabbed him.
Gilbert's eyes widened in sudden realization:
"You were afraid it would kill me."
Oz shut his eyes tight. The tremors that shook him intensified. Gilbert had to cling to his fur not to slide off. He reached out with his free hand and let it rest on a soft spot between Oz's eyes. At long last, they opened hesitantly. They were shining with fear. Gilbert smiled at him:
"I'm fine, Oz. We both are," he said softly. "We can fight together. So never hide your plans from me or Alice again, alright?"
The hesitant look wavered, but didn't vanish. Gilbert shook his head fondly:
"Didn't I tell you? I can take the burden of your powers. You shouldn't be afraid to use them when you have to. And you had to: I wouldn't have been able to stop myself otherwise," his voice turned bitter. "Alice, Break, Lady Lorina… I would have killed them all. Even you..."
He felt a push against his hand. Small drops were gathering all around it, lighting Oz's eyes with specks of gold. They were still fearful, but their stare was more insistent. Gilbert gave him a solemn nod. For the very first time, his head felt clear, without a whisper in the back of his mind. He felt a self-confidence he never knew he had:
"It's over now. Jack is gone. The Jury is gone. No one can control us anymore."
Oz's eyes stayed fixed on him as if he barely recognized him. Gilbert felt himself blushing under the scrutiny, but he held it with a broad smile. At last, Oz closed his eyes with a long, relieved sigh. He nodded in response, and leaned his head against his contractor's side.
In a half-asleep daze, he and Oz played with the floating lights passing them by. Warmth settled everywhere they touched. Shining flecks slipped through their fingers, others stuck to Oz's burnt palms and Gilbert's left arm. More of them gathered around his chest before drifting away. Gilbert chuckled:
"Looks like this scar won't be healing anytime soon."
The rabbit lowered his ears. A cloud passed over the bright red of his eyes. Gilbert smiled:
"Don't look so despondent, Oz. You were just trying to protect me. And even after all this time, you still are," he held out his left arm, engulfed in golden light. The limb could hardly be seen underneath. "You set me free."
Oz looked up at Raven as it soared through the light, far above their heads. His look softened, and he inclined his head in a slow nod.
"It's funny," Gilbert said. "I had so much to ask you. These past five years, I've been desperate to talk to you again… But somehow, just being together like this makes me happy. Don't you agree?"
He searched the rabbit's face as Oz considered it. After a few moments, the light was back in his eyes. He gave another, more heartfelt nod. Gilbert leaned against him, feeling happier than he had been in years.
"We can make this work," he said with conviction. "Zwei may be right, after all: if you're recovering some of your power, you might be able to borrow my body from time to time. Or Alice's body, if that's okay with her. This way, you can enjoy life as a human being again." He smiled wistfully: "It's not the same as having your old body back… but it's a start, right?"
The rabbit gave him a light shove with his head. Gilbert fell with a yelp, and the flakes of lights were sent dancing all around him.
"What was that for?" Gilbert asked, outraged.
Instead of answering, Oz started to play with his hair, using the tips of his fingers, right under the claws. A bubble of happiness expanded in Gilbert's chest at this show of mischievous tenderness that was so Oz.
"…You're calling me an idiot, aren't you?" he asked sheepishly.
Oz's eyes crinkled again and he gave a firm nod without stopping his ministrations. Gilbert sighed heavily, letting out air so the bubble in his chest wouldn't explode. He watched the trails of light that followed Oz's fingers like the tail of a comet:
"Does it hurt?"
Oz shook his head 'no.' He paused his rubbing, let his forefinger rest atop Gilbert's head. After some hesitation, he pointed to the man's left arm.
"Don't worry, it no longer hurts, either. In fact, I've never felt better! It's probably going to leave scars, though," he said brightly. Oz scowled disapprovingly. He reminded Gilbert a little of Alice, like this.
"Is Alice alright?"
Oz nodded again, more slowly this time. Gilbert smiled sadly:
"She is going to take over soon, isn't she?"
Another nod. Gilbert mirrored the gesture. Some of his hair was pulled back from the movement, caught under the rabbit's claw.
"Will you come back?"
Oz's ears drooped. He made no other move to answer. Gilbert pressed his unharmed hand against the rabbit's side and let his fingers sink in the rough fur there. The smell of burnt flesh had faded, but Oz's contours were getting blurrier already.
"It will be okay," Gilbert murmured. "Everything will be okay. There is still a lot to do, for our families and the other Households, it might be years before they can finally trust each other… but we will figure something out. I know it. Lord Oscar is right: we are no longer alone. And with everyone's help, we will do what it takes to bring the Five Households together."
The more he talked, the more optimistic he got:
"And just knowing that you're here with us… it's enough for me. Until we find a solution, we will keep protecting this world together. So we always have a home to return to."
Oz's fingers slid slowly down his body, followed the curve of his hair, the nape of his neck and the line of his spine before settling at the small of his back. Gilbert was pushed forward, against Oz's big muzzle. The soft base of a long ear caressed his cheek as Oz nuzzled his chest. He could feel moisture on his furry eyelids.
Gilbert wrapped his arms around his Chain's head in a tight hug, shaking with a single, violent sob. The deep layer of light covering his arm exploded into a flight of feathery drops. The outline of Oz's body blurred in as the light fell back on them both.
"We'll always be together, Oz," Gilbert spoke into the warm fur. "You, Alice, and I. I won't let anything come between us, I promise."
His fur was getting softer. The rabbit leant more heavily into him, until Gilbert was leaning back; yet his weight was getting lighter. Gilbert kept calling his name and squinting his eyes to try and see through the invading golden light, but Oz had already been engulfed in it. All that was left was a feather-light body in his arms, and the soft plush his face was pressed against.
Gilbert felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked down.
Alice was there, the surrounding light reflected in her big amethyst eyes, her expression oddly subdued. Flecks of gold clung to her long dark hair and blood red evening clothes in a surreal halo. She looked more solid than anything in this floating world.
Gilbert wrapped her into a hug. More golden rain fell away as he held her tight. He could see them both clearly now: Alice, who clung to him possessively, and Oz, squeezed between their bodies with his face pressed against Gilbert's neck. There were burn marks on his small plush hands.
"You both got hurt again," Alice grumbled. "I can't leave you alone for five minutes..."
Gilbert threw a sheepish glance at the burns on his own left arm, the red-hot links of Oz's chains deeply imprinted in his flesh.
"You're right," he petted Alice's head. "I'm sorry for scaring you. But we all pulled through somehow."
She leaned into the touch, and took his hand as soon as he made to pull away. Gilbert clutched her hand and held Oz close.
The three of them stared in silence at the starlit world surrounding them. The golden lights flew around them in a strong whirlwind as Raven came back. It flapped its fiery wings one final time, and vanished in a whisper of black feathers. Its seal was back in place; Gilbert could feel both of his Chains' hearts beat a steady rhythm against his ribcage.
Lacie's melody was drifting along with the golden flakes in the empty air. Gilbert looked down at his shadow, the only pitch of darkness that could be seen on the luminous ground, shivering from Eques' watchful presence.
When the song ended, Gilbert closed the pocket watch:
"Come on, Oz, Alice. We're going home."