AN: Here is the third pairing from the 2013 Matchmaking Icon Meme (see my profile for details). Sorry it took so long.

I am so cruel to Gilbert that I am starting to feel ashamed. Even Jun Mochizuki lets him catch a break more often than I do.

My sister is partly to blame for this: she was a lot more inspired by the pairing than I was, and we came up with the plot together. So consider it a team effort between Stingmon and I. Thank you sis: I would miss out on a lot of crazy ideas without you!

Anyhow: the story takes place during episode 19 of Digimon Adventure 02, "An Old Enemy Returns," shortly after the Emperor goes into the Dark Whirlpool, and sometime after Gilbert contracts Raven in Pandora Hearts. There will be spoilers for the Emperor's backstory (episode 23 of Digimon Adventure 02, "Genesis of Evil") and the beginning of the Headhunter case ("Retrace XLV: Queen of Hurts", volume 11 of Pandora Hearts).

Disclaimer: Pandora Hearts, written by Jun Mochizuki, belongs to Square Enix, and the Digimon franchise, originally created by Akiyoshi Hongou, belongs to Bandai. None of the characters are mine except the nameless servant.

Warning: Nothing explicit, but the pairing implies pedophilia. (Gilbert is twenty-four, Ken is twelve. Even in the Pandora Hearts universe, people only come of age at fifteen.)


Bird of Ill Omen

When he woke up, the first thing his drowsy mind noticed was that his imperial clothes were gone. For several seconds of blinding anger, Ken thought he was back in the real world.

The feeling receded as he took in his surroundings and realized that he didn't recognize the room he was in. He was lying on the quilt of what looked like a very luxurious twin-sized bed. There was a high, richly adorned wooden ceiling above his head. Nothing like the bare cement of his old room, or anything you could find in modern day Tokyo.

Still half-asleep, Ken turned his head and blinked to get a better look. There was a man sleeping on the armchair beside him.

The Digimon Emperor sat up straight. Past events were rushing back in his mind: his plan to create the ultimate Digimon, the Dark Whirlpool, Devimon's prized data right here, waiting for him. He had gone into the whirlpool and then...

The boy searched his pockets and the blankets furiously, to no avail: his Digivice was gone.

The stranger snapped awake as soon as the boy moved. The young emperor crossed his arms and greeted the man with a bold smirk, determined not to let his current disadvantage get to him. Never show weakness, especially in an unfamiliar situation.

"Good, you are awake," the Emperor said, as if he himself had not just risen.

He was quiet after that, and simply took his time to observe the stranger with an air of superior confidence; this might be enough to prompt the man to start explaining the situation on his own. The Emperor's memories were too vague. It was better not to demand anything until he had a better idea of what to expect.

"Oh thank God, you're alright…" the man breathed a sigh of relief. "How are you feeling? You didn't look injured, but heaven knows how long you've been in the Abyss… Wait… What did you say? Oh no, you don't speak my tongue, what can we do..."

He rattled out. The Emperor frowned, puzzled. The man spoke an odd mix of French and ancient English. The whole room was decorated with florid western furniture. He could even see a fireplace out of the corner of his eyes. Yet there was no electric device in sight.

This was no mere foreign country the Emperor had landed in…

He felt a sharp pain. The boy hissed and put a hand to his temple. He could still hear Devimon's laughter. He had successfully collected his data, he was sure of it. Everything beyond that was nothing but fog in his mind. There was a resounding caw, splashing, mighty clanging. The Emperor thought he caught a glimpse of dragging chains and the hint of a huge, razor sharp beak. Something had emerged from the darkness. It had attacked his Mechanimon.

The Emperor clawed at his skull and focused all his attention on the flickering memory. More of them were dancing before his eyes like distant candles. The suffocating smell of blood and metal. His heartbeat became erratic. Mechanimon had been impaled. A Digimon he had never seen, a monstrous bird with blue flames for eyes, its skull bare under black feathers. The Mechanimon had vanished beneath his feet, leaving him wide open to the gaping abyss.

The raven…

"Hey, calm down! Can you hear me?"

Ken gasped, jolted out of the sudden onslaught of memories. He panted, tried to fight back the lingering fear and cling to the present. How had he ended up here?

"It's okay," the deep, slightly breathless voice was still speaking. "It's over now, I used Raven to get you out of the Abyss."

'The Abyss?'

In a flash, Ken saw an ocean of darkness under a pitch black sky. He shivered and his vision refocused. The boy met a pair of warm golden eyes, their surreal colour made all the more striking by the shadows under them. The stranger was very pale, his features sharp, his shoulder-long curly black hair in complete disarray. From up close, he looked much younger than Ken had initially assumed.

A cool hand came to rest on his forehead. Only then did Ken realize it was burning and slick with sweat.

"You're still feverish," the man said. "Here, let me…"

The Emperor batted his hand away and jumped to his feet. He ignored the way his head started spinning and threw an affronted glare at the man:

"Don't touch me," he said in English. "Where's my Digivice?"

"Your what?"

"What you had the nerve to steal from me. Give it back at once."

After staring at the Emperor uncomprehendingly for several painful seconds, the stranger finally seemed to catch on. The boy kept glaring at him as the man rummaged through the long black coat hanging on the armchair's back.

This blundering fool had been controlling the raven? He had found a way out of the Dark Whirlpool? What a joke. Yet no matter how hard he tried, the Emperor's memories stayed dormant. But how else would this man know about the Digimon's appearance?

It wasn't a Digimon.

He almost winced when the information flashed across his mind. His frown deepened. He had used his Digivice to try and scan the bird, hadn't he? His last chance, maybe he could take its data before it was too late, he couldn't lose here, he couldn't go back to the real world, never…!

The boy shook his head to rid it of the phantom panic. This wasn't the real world. That only left two possibilities.

"Is that what you were looking for?" the man asked and held out the familiar black device.

The Emperor snatched it from his hand and gave the object the once-over. It didn't seem to have sustained any damage. Two clicks were enough to confirm that no data had been lost. He could even hear the faint echo of Devimon's maniacal laughter.

The boy pressed a button, and the nagging mockery was soon drowned in a series of beeps. His body shivered with static as his imperial clothes settled back on his shoulders. He could feel the trusty whip at his waist, safely hidden by his cape. The confident smile no longer felt forced on his lips. His host nearly fell over in surprise.

"Did that startle you?" the Emperor sneered at him. "You don't seem to be very familiar with the inner workings of this world, mister."

The honorific was dripping with sarcasm. Even as Ken, he had been well aware that most adults were no better than children in terms of intelligence and maturity. He really doubted this one had found the Digital World on his own.

Or rather, the Emperor thought, inspecting his Digivice through opaque glasses, an alternate Digital World. The scanner wasn't picking any familiar signal from the world Ken had discovered as a child and claimed as his own.

That was one mystery solved. And it wasn't altogether surprising. The boy had already entertained the hypothesis of people like him visiting other artificial realities. After all, someone had to have created the Digital World at some point; for such a massive project, there must have been several beta versions. And the so-called 'Digidestined' were living proof that even the most obtuse could come across these fabricated worlds on occasion.

"What you were referring to as 'the Abyss' is actually one of many ways to travel between our worlds and one of eternal darkness," he told the man, deciding to indulge him a little. "This device here is a little token from the Digital World, an artificial reality similar to this one," the boy embraced the room with a sweep of his arm. "I improved its functions, of course – I wouldn't settle for that kid's toy they call a Digivice. As you can see, it grants me certain abilities, even in this world."

The man's frown deepened as the Emperor talked. The boy paused to give him some time to take all the information in. Most of Ken's uneasiness was gone, and it felt easy to settle back in the old habit of explaining everything at length to simpletons who didn't get half of what he was saying.

"An 'artificial reality…'" the man murmured. A worried crease appeared on his forehead. "You think this world is an illusion?"

The Emperor burst out laughing:

"Don't make yourself look stupider than you are. If giant ravens and robots existed in the real world, neither of us would have left it behind so easily, would we?"

The man stared at him in a mix of horror and disbelief.

"This is bad." The man clenched a fistful of his tousled hair. "You don't have the slightest clue…"

He took a deep, shuddering breath, and stared the Emperor straight in the eye. The boy raised an eyebrow.

"Listen," the man told him in a halted voice. "I can't even begin to imagine what you have been through, or how you survived in the Abyss, but you have to understand that you are not safe yet. This might come as a shock, but…"

"Am I interrupting something?"

The Emperor's hand moved to the hidden handle of his whip as he turned towards the door. A man in his early twenties with untidy blonde hair wearing a rich black mantle was standing in the doorway. He closed the door behind him as soundlessly as he had opened it, and gave each of them a pleasant smile. The other man straightened up:

"Vincent! Did they find anything?"

'Vincent…' The Emperor looked from the new arrival to the extravagant occidental furniture of the bedroom. He wondered whether that was his real name or an alias. The design of this world had been strongly based off the Victorian Era, if he wasn't mistaken, but if that was the case, these two men's clothes were blatant anachronisms. He allowed himself a slight derisive smile. The absurdity was almost nostalgic. It wasn't too different from the Digital World and its Coliseum designed with soccer goals, of all things.

"They are on their way," Vincent said, seemingly unbothered by the Emperor's scrutiny. "There aren't any clear leads, but it would seem that our young friend here is suspect number one."

His smile turned a lot more sinister when he turned to the Emperor. The other man paled:

"What? But that's ridiculous! This boy has nothing to do with…"

"You will address me as 'Kaiser,'" the Emperor interjected. "And I would appreciate it if you would refrain from talking as if I weren't here."

Vincent chuckled without looking at him.

"Kaiser has nothing to do with the Nightrays!" the other man went on as if he hadn't been interrupted. "He was asleep the whole time! I never left his side! How could…"

"And you were poisoned," Vincent cut him off. His smile vanished as he said those words.

The taller man stopped talking, frozen in place. He looked from the Emperor to Vincent.

"But…that couldn't have been him," he protested feebly. "He only woke up a few minutes ago."

"You can't prove that." Vincent's unctuous smile slithered across his face. "Besides, you have to admit it is a strange coincidence: you successfully contracted Raven and brought back this mysterious boy from the Abyss. The following day, two noblemen from the Nightray family were brutally murdered, and there were two attempts on your life the day after…"

"Vince!"

"…Two days?" the Emperor repeated.

He had been asleep in this bizarre world for two days straight. What had happened to him? The Darkness couldn't have affected him that much, could it? And what in the world were these two talking about, had he landed in the twisted charade of a murder mystery?

"You didn't even tell him that?" Vincent broke into another fit of giggles. "Oh Gil, you are too considerate… I might even be jealous."

"Stop joking around!" the other man – Gil? – interrupted. "They can't seriously suspect him! How do you even know this?"

"I thought something like this might happen, so I told Echo to follow our dear brothers. From what she told me, they were quite vehement in blaming you for Fred and our uncle's murders. Thankfully, Father was a little more sensible. But they did persist in suggesting that you were covering for this brat."

Vincent put the tips of his fingers to his mouth in mock-startle.

"Pardon me, that just slipped out," he said with a curt, sheepish laugh. "Anyway. They definitely let their imagination run wild: they went as far as to suggest that this boy might actually be another Chain that you had contracted. I think Ernest said he had seen you hide something in your pocket that might have been a blood mirror."

Gil tensed up and, before he could stop himself, the Emperor's fingers tightened around the Digivice. Vincent's eyes followed his gesture and slowly went over his cape and spiky hair. His smirk widened:

"Come to think of it, the boy looks a little different… Did something happen?"

The Emperor answered with a grin of his own. He had let this masquerade go on long enough.

"So this is the kind of game you have been playing," he snickered. "Pretending to be nobility in fancy mansions and ridiculous clothes to satisfy your own vanity, only to kill each other and put the blame on the first unsuspecting newcomer? Ha! You must have been pretty desperate to leave your lives behind."

Vincent's eyes widened in a brief flash of surprise, and the Emperor took notice for the first time of his mismatched eyes: one red, the other a familiar gold. Were these two really brothers, or was that only a part of their elaborate comedy?

The thought flew straight out of his mind when Vincent narrowed his eyes, his smirk nothing short of venomous:

"That's an interesting theory, young man." He took his sweet time examining the Emperor's violet sunglasses, his golden epaulettes, the thick metal bangles at his wrists, and the divided cape at his back that evoked insect wings: "You must be pretty desperate yourself."

The Emperor saw red, suddenly hyper aware of his lanky body and dark blue spiky hair, the shadow of a long repressed memory. The whip cracked.

"Don't insult me!"

"Stop it!"

The boy stared open mouthed as Gil interposed himself. He barely flinched when the whip slashed across his arm, but Vincent's expression went from horror to rage in the blink of an eye. Another blink, two keen blades were rushing towards the Emperor's eyes.

"Vince!"

The blades froze in mid-air. The Emperor realized that they were scissors. Vincent was glaring at him over the glinting metal, his mismatched eyes screaming bloody murder. The boy stepped back and met a resistance in his clenched fist. Gil was holding his whip in one hand, his brother's armed wrist in the other.

"Are you crazy?" he shouted at Vincent. "What were you thinking?"

"He hurt you," Vincent said.

"You could have blinded…!" Gil glanced over at the Emperor and stopped himself mid-sentence."For heaven's sake, he is just a child!"

"Are you sure about that?"

Gil froze. Vincent's voice had stopped shaking and settled back into the suave tenor from before. It made the Emperor shudder in revulsion.

"Time flows differently in the Abyss," Vincent told his brother. "You know that well. How long would it have taken this…child to acquire these uncanny transformation abilities, and to develop such a twisted view of the world?" Vincent's deceptively tranquil smile turned into a sneer. "He might be more Chain than human by now."

The Emperor had a moment of panic when Gil let go of his brother's wrist, but Vincent made no other attempt to attack him. The boy kept a tight grip on his whip and glared up at the older sibling:

"You are not going to believe this nonsense, are you?"

The man glanced over at him, and the naked fear in Gil's eyes made the boy gulp. He shut them tightly:

"Is that what the Nightrays believe?" he asked Vincent.

The door burst open before Vincent had a chance to answer. A woman in lacy headdress and robe – a maid costume, the Emperor realized with renewed disgust – came barging in, completely out of breath:

"Fire!" she screamed. "The manor is burning! Master Vincent, Master Gilbert, you have to escape!"

Before he had time to fully process those words, the Emperor felt a tug at his arm, and was forcefully dragged towards her, then out of the room. An acrid smell assaulted his nose. He caught the first signs of black smoke in the spacious ornate corridor. The boy yanked his arm out of Gilbert's grip:

"I can run on my own, thank you. And you," he spat, turning to Vincent, "I hope you are not going to blame this arson on me too."

"What?" the woman shrieked. "An…an arson? What's going on? Who is this boy? What…"

"We don't have time for that!" Gilbert said, and pulled her along. Even Vincent's face had taken a greyish colour, his pupils dilated as he ran. He kept close to his brother.

The Emperor gritted his teeth. The heat and smoke weighed down on him, the blaze spreading quickly as the thick curtains caught fire behind them. He had to remind himself over and over that none of this was real.

There was more smoke coming from the other side of the corridor. Under the maid's guidance, they turned left and used a back door. The staircase it revealed was much more sober than the rest of the manor – it was probably only used by the servants.

"It leads directly to the gardens," the woman heaved, her voice rough from the smoke she had inhaled. "Duchess Nightray and Mistress Vanessa are already there. The servants are doing their best to contain the fire, I..."

She broke into a coughing fit before she could finish. Her long dress was slowing her down. Gilbert halted his steps and the Emperor took the lead down the staircase. He heard the man call Vincent for help. The boy looked back briefly and saw Gilbert drape one of the heaving maid's arms around his shoulders while Vincent took care of the other one, a reluctant frown on the latter's face.

"Fool," the Emperor said between clenched teeth, and looked right ahead.

There was a heavy wooden door twenty stairs ahead. It was half open. The Emperor jumped over the last four stairs and threw himself through the gap. The cold night air hit him like a slap. He staggered away from the door, holding his aching head with one hand, panting for breath. The world had started spinning again.

He had exerted himself right after waking up from a potentially scarring experience, his brain supplied, and the adrenaline rush that had kept him going was now over. He was dehydrated. He needed to lie down. The Emperor ignored these thoughts viciously and blinked back the red invading his vision.

The two brothers emerged soon after him, still carrying the maid, who had lost consciousness. It looked like they were arguing, but the Emperor could barely hear them over the blood rushing through his ears. Gilbert let Vincent carry the woman on his own and started to back away. The Emperor managed to understand one sentence of what he was yelling:

"I am not going, Vince!"

Vincent was about to protest, but Gilbert cut him off:

"I have to take Kaiser away from here! Spread the rumour that he's dead, anything, but we can't let the Nightrays catch him!"

The Emperor stared at him in disbelief, and clenched his eyes shut when they started to water from the smoke and heat. He clutched his temples to try and stop the pounding in his ears, to no avail. The rest of the conversation, all rushed sentences in improbable ancient accents, was lost on him.

A hand landed on his shoulder, steadying him when his legs suddenly gave way. The shock cleared his head for a fleeting moment. He was still panting heavily, the scorching air burning his lungs every time he opened his mouth.

"Thank you," Gilbert said. "Please take care of Elliot."

The Emperor didn't have enough saliva left to protest when the man hefted him on his back and ran into the night.


A huge bird materialised in a burst of blue flames. In its wake, a tall man emerged from the blackness with bloody clothes and chains coming apart around his wrists. Before the Emperor had a chance to react, the monster swept down on him.

"Oz!"

Mechanimon disappeared. The Emperor met wide golden eyes. Suddenly they went fierce, a sharp mix of disappointment and anger. The monstrous raven and fire roared behind the man. He trained a gun on the boy, his gaze indifferent and cold. A scorching heat was rising along with the booming inhuman voice. The boy broke into a cold sweat:

"Don't look down on me!"

He was sinking. He directed his Digivice towards the man and started to scan. The Darkness was closing in on him, its pressure pounding on his skull, ready to break in. He had no way of knowing whether this raven Digimon was in enough of a weakened state for its data to be taken safely, but it was his only option.

The raven started to laugh. The man's mouth opened in shock:

"You're alive? But how… You know how to make a legal contract?"

"What is this?" the boy shouted, growing panic blending with outrage. The Digivice wasn't picking any signal. It couldn't identify the mocking creature lurking in the shadows. "How did this thing get here? It's not possible, I can't…!"

The Emperor was falling. He wouldn't lose here, he refused, he would never go back…!

Strong arms caught his fall. The last thing he heard was a worried voice screaming in his ear over the raven's raucous guffaw.

'Why did he bring me here?'

When the boy woke up, it was to the old wooden ceiling of a small apartment, the question hanging in the air like a dusty lamp. Everything it implied came to him in a flash, along with the nightmares that had plagued him all night, blinding him with their sudden intensity.

The Emperor sat up. His breathing came out halted as he took in his surroundings. He was lying on a twin-sized bed that smelt strongly of cigarette smoke. The room overall was sober, with parquet floor, a single window and nothing to adorn its total of four pieces of furniture: the bed, a night table, a wardrobe and a small bookcase. There were still no signs of anything electronic save for the Digivice resting on the bedside table.

The boy clutched it tightly. His imperial clothes came back at once, but even their familiar weight wasn't enough reassurance to calm his heartbeat. He needed to think, and fast. Gilbert was a lot more dangerous than he let on. What did this man want from him?

He nearly jumped out of his skin when the door opened a fraction. Here Gilbert was, holding a steaming cup and looking at him through the gap anxiously, as if he were afraid he had woken him. The Emperor would have laughed if he weren't so tense.

"I thought I heard something. Are you hungry?"

Gilbert spoke in a hushed voice, his eyes soft and uncertain. The smell of coffee drifted to the Emperor. Suddenly he was reminded of Wormmon, of the dedication the pathetic caterpillar put in the most degrading missions, desperate for approval, that puppy-eyed stare that made him sick.

He got up with slow, deliberate moves, never taking his eyes off the man, and snickered:

"What, you're not afraid I will poison you again?"

"Of course not," Gilbert answered at once, looking bemused. "It wasn't you."

"Then you think food is going to make up for kidnapping me?" the Emperor challenged, one hand at his whip.

"I didn't kidnap you!" Gilbert protested, and seemed about to add something, but thought better of it and gave a weary sigh.

"I am sorry," the man said, his fingers tightening around the handle of his cup. "For getting you involved. I should have been more careful."

He looked sincere, with his hunched shoulders and downcast eyes. The Emperor had to make a conscious effort not to whip him. He remembered the gun, this man's iron confidence in spite of the darkness surrounding him and the monster at his back. This exaggerated show of remorse made the Emperor want to vomit. He uncoiled his whip:

"If you wanted to apologize, you could start by getting on your knees. And maybe tell me why you felt the need to include me in your little charade."

The man's affronted look deflated at his second sentence, and he briefly averted his eyes, looking more contrite than ever.

"Kaiser," he said after a few silent seconds. "This is no illusion. What you see is real."

The Emperor rolled his eyes:

"Oh, please. How old are you? Maybe you have deluded yourself into thinking that there is nothing weird about controlling giant ravens and travelling between worlds, that's fine by me, but don't even think about having me play along."

Now Gilbert looked hurt on top of everything. At this point the Emperor wondered if this man wasn't actually a twelve year old hiding behind an adult avatar. This world was a lot more immersive than the digital one, after all, and the lack of visible electronics only added to the illusion.

"You should come and get something to eat," Gilbert said at last, without meeting his eyes. "You haven't eaten anything in days, and we have a lot to discuss."

"I agree," the Emperor said haughtily and kept a tight grip on his whip as he marched out of the bedroom. "You'd better explain yourself fast. And I hope your servants are competent cooks."

"I don't have servants. But I can cook."

The Emperor stared at him in disbelief as the man made his way to the kitchen.

"Aren't you supposed to be a nobleman? Please don't tell me we switched worlds again."

"We didn't," Gilbert said and broke two eggs over a frying pan. After a beat, he added: "I have only been adopted into the Nightray family ten years ago."

"Really? Were you a servant before that? It would explain a lot. You sure know how to crawl, Gilbert."

The man didn't take the bait. He didn't even react at his provocation. When he turned to give him an apple, there was a sad smile on his lips:

"Actually, yes, I was."

The Emperor took the offered apple with a disgusted scowl. He was reluctant to sit down: no matter how pathetic Gilbert was acting, the boy barely reached his shoulder, and he hadn't missed the holster strapped to his thigh.

"Does your system require you to level up and get higher in the hierarchy?" He raised his hand when Gilbert looked at him with eyes like saucers. "Don't answer that, I don't want to know. Just tell me what I'm doing here."

Whatever the case, the Emperor had been in this world long enough to decide that he wanted no part in their game.

Gilbert nodded. He handed him a plate of warm toasts and some jam. When he asked, the Emperor settled for tea and watched closely as the man put on the kettle. As if reading his mind, Gilbert took a bite off one of the toasts and assured him they weren't poisoned.

Mildly, the Emperor wondered if there was any point in being this cautious if he didn't plan on staying. He had yet to discover what happened when a human died in an artificial reality, and was admittedly curious, but not too eager to find out.

"This is my apartment," Gilbert said. He put the fried eggs on a separate plate and took a seat. "Only two people aside from us know this address. You can stay here until things settle down."

"Your hiding place, you mean. So I take it I am still a suspect."

The Emperor sat across from him and tried a toast. To his surprise, the taste was incredible. Maybe he should take this man to the Digital World with him: it seemed only fair after being kidnapped, and it would be a definite improvement from Wormmon's cooking.

"Vincent told the Nightrays that you died in the fire," Gilbert said. "I expect a letter from him. I'll keep you informed."

"There won't be a need for that," the Emperor said in an assertive voice and leaned forward: "Since I will be taking my leave."

Gilbert met his glare evenly: "You can't go yet, it's too dangerous. The Nightrays may not know your current appearance, but it will stand out. You would be drawing too much attention."

"You don't understand. I am leaving this world."

The man winced, and shook his head: "You're still going on about that…"

"And you're still in denial," the boy smirked. He moved his chair a little, making sure to keep a clear view of Gilbert's holster under the table. "There is no use pretending, you know. I wouldn't blame anyone for wanting to leave the real world behind. However, I will say that your choice of destination isn't much better. But you didn't actually choose this world, did you?"

Gilbert's long fingers inched closer to the cigarette packet on the table, only to stop halfway. The man took a long sip of coffee instead.

"I have been thinking," he whispered. "Your clothes, the way you talk, and this device you use… Neither Vincent nor I have ever seen anything like it. And this world doesn't seem familiar to you at all, either, does it?"

"You're avoiding the question," the Emperor said. "But for the sake of conversation, no, it doesn't. My Digivice would have identified it if it were the Digital World, and no matter how hard you try to convince yourself, this world is too well-versed in the supernatural to be real. It's also sadly lacking in any modern technology."

He was mildly hoping that Gilbert would prove him wrong by showing him a laptop, but even if the man didn't fully understand how the Digivice worked, he probably wasn't stupid enough to do that. Once again, he deliberately ignored the hints:

"You keep saying that you have travelled to several worlds before. But as Vincent said, time flows differently in the Abyss. Do you think…you could have gone back in time instead?"

The Emperor burst out laughing:

"Nice try, Gilbert. Unfortunately for you, I have spent five years studying the Digital World. Time indeed used to fly at a slower pace there than in the real world. Months inside equalled to a handful of seconds outside. But that was fixed four years ago by the annihilation of the Digimon causing the phenomenon. I can assure you, the digital and real worlds now go on the same time axis. As for this world of yours," he waved vaguely at the small kitchen, "it would require some investigation, but I am sure it follows a similar logic. In any case, the difference between these worlds isn't only time: it is space."

A simulation so realistic it literally absorbed all visitors: the perfect escape.

Gilbert seemed to have trouble following. And if the way his fingers kept twitching was any indication, he didn't like what he was hearing.

"You have met…monsters, where you are from, right?" he asked carefully. "Do you know that some of them can cast illusions?"

The Emperor pulled on the whip: "Are you trying to tell me that all these years of research were spent on the illusion of a Digimon? In this day and age, the existence of monsters seems more plausible to you than that of artificial realities? How much more ridiculous can you get?"

"Hear me out," Gilbert said. "Trust me, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes. We call them Chains; they live in the Abyss, but sometimes a gap opens between our worlds, allowing them to get out. I only found out about them ten years ago. The Dukes are going out of their way to hide their existence from the public. In fact, it's my job to solve the cases involving Chains or the Abyss. When I saw you with one, I thought..."

He averted his eyes again, and his cheeks turned pink. The Emperor stared. The contrast between this show of juvenile embarrassment and the lurking memory of Gilbert chained and deadly made the boy nauseous.

"Well… at first I thought you were an illegal contractor. Someone who had made a pact with a Chain and been cast into the Abyss as a result. But you didn't die when I killed the Chain, so I assumed you were a fellow agent and brought you back." He ran a hand through his hair in a nervous gesture. "I'm sorry for jumping to conclusions..."

The Emperor frowned. He weighed what Gilbert was saying against what he had seen. He recalled the man's surprise after Mechanimon had been destroyed. Gilbert had mentioned a 'legal contract.' But something still wasn't adding up.

"You are not telling me everything, are you?"

Gilbert tensed up immediately. The Emperor smirked:

"From what you and your brother said, I can safely assume that you went into the Abyss in order to acquire the Chain Raven. But that's not all, is it?"

The man's expression was more guarded now, his shoulders set as if bracing for a strike. The Emperor was more than happy to deliver:

"When the Raven attacked, you looked rather distraught for someone about to execute a criminal. I heard you yell something… possibly a name. Oz, was it?"

Every blow told. When he said the name, Gilbert's expression morphed into one of intense grief, the pain so raw it might as well be physical. The man lowered his head. His breathing had turned shallow.

"From afar," he whispered. "For a second, I thought you were him."

He buried his face in his hand. The boy felt an unexpected pang at the sight. He took another toast to bury the uncomfortable feeling in his gut. The silence lingered between them as he munched. The Emperor found his eyes lingering on Gilbert's hair. The morning light gave them a bluish hue, not unlike crow feathers…

'Or a raven.'

The boy nearly choked on his bread when he realized the direction his thoughts were taking.

"Spare me this snivelling," he snapped, hoping his trembling voice could pass for anger. "None of that explains why you're covering for me."

That startled Gilbert out of his depression.

"Because you're innocent," he said, like it should be obvious.

To his horror, the boy felt his face grow warm. He put as much contempt in his voice as he could muster:

"You do realize that will only make you look more suspicious in the eyes of your so-called foster family? From what your brother was saying, they are just waiting for a chance to put the blame on you."

"Don't worry about that, I can look after myself."

Gilbert gave him a small smile, seemingly amused, and the boy felt his heart jump. At his own mistake or the change, he didn't know. There was still a heavy layer of sadness over Gilbert's eyes, but they looked a lot softer, honey-warm. It made the boy feel disturbingly small.

And why did he care, it wasn't like he was playing their stupid game, nothing of consequence would ever happen here, not to him or Gilbert, because none of this was real…

"I should check if Vincent's letter has arrived," Gilbert said and got up. "Here's your tea."

The boy flinched away when Gilbert set the cup in front of him, suddenly wary of the man's touch. His eyes went from his refined hands to the hidden gun at his thigh, the Emperor's grip tightening around the whip until it hurt. Once Gilbert was out of the room, he started breathing again.

What was wrong with him?

The Emperor brought the tea to his lips and inhaled deeply to rid his nose of all trace of cigarette smoke and coffee. It smelt like bergamot orange. Earl grey, he assumed. It was warm, but not to the point of scalding his tongue. He took a tentative sip. Delicious.

The boy gritted his teeth. He needed to get out of here. It wouldn't surprise him if he got a terminal disease from Gilbert's soppiness alone.

He was trying so hard to get his thoughts back in order that he forgot to pay attention to the sounds. A sudden strangled noise jolted him out of his trance. It was followed by a thud. The Emperor got to his feet and ran to the next room.

Gilbert was leaning on the table heavily, looking absolutely livid. There was a crumpled letter clenched in his fist. A quick look at the signed envelope resting on the table next to a bouquet of black roses confirmed the identity of the sender.

"Give me that."

The man turned round, caught like a deer in headlights. It might have been comical without the urgency hanging in the air. Gilbert fumbled with the letter, looked round for a place to hide it. Eventually he shook his head and held out his hand. It was shaking badly.

The Emperor made it a point to ignore him as he took the letter and attempted to read. To his growing frustration, the foreign dialect was a lot harder to understand out of context, without an interlocutor's inflexions and expressions to clue him in. At least Vincent's handwriting was neat and tidy. The boy skimmed through idle pleasantries and honey-laced words, and focused on the relevant terms: murders, Nightrays, Chains, Raven, the Abyss... He paled.

"Another two murders in your foster family on the very day of our escape," he said with a sarcastic smile. "What a coincidence. And since they couldn't find my dead body, I remain the prime suspect. Looks like your brother didn't do a very good job covering for me. So tell me, Gilbert: what exactly happens when someone is 'cast into the Abyss?'"

Gilbert collapsed on the nearest chair and buried his head in his hands, choking on a curse. For a rather baffling second, the Emperor wondered if he was crying. The boy cracked his whip to get his attention. Gilbert nearly fell over in shock:

"Don't do that in the house!"

"Don't make me repeat myself," the Emperor countered, whip at the ready.

Gilbert's eyes went from the boy to the letter, only stopping to throw a disapproving glance at the whip. By the time he went back to the Emperor, his gaze had hardened into the fierce gold of their first encounter:

"I won't let that happen."

"It looks like you don't have a choice in the matter," the Emperor said and threw the letter back on the table. "You will be declared a traitor otherwise. And you can't afford that, can you?"

"I won't do it," Gilbert insisted. His fingers were clawing the table. "They can't make me…"

"It sounds like it's vital that you do it, though. Before anyone else finds out about me, that is. For murder victims, your family seems strangely eager to hush up the case. How lucky that I make such a convenient culprit…"

"God dammit Kaiser, how can you be so calm?"

"What if I want you to do it?"

The man stared at him like he had gone crazy.

The Emperor was thinking fast. Despite Gilbert's best efforts, the longer he stayed, the more tangled up Ken got in the intricate web of conspiracies that ruled this world. From the tone of Vincent's letter and his open animosity, the Emperor suspected he hadn't put a lot of effort into clearing his name; for all he knew, Vincent was the one who had edged the Nightrays' suspicions towards him from the get-go.

Regardless, this ultimatum could be his chance to get out of here. He just had to make sure he understood the situation correctly:

"Last time, you used Raven to bring me here, right? Instead of casting me into the Abyss, can you bring me back?"

Gilbert's eyes widened. He stood up abruptly, red from anger:

"You can't be serious!"

"I told you I wanted to leave, didn't I?" the Emperor shot back, hating the fact that he had to look up to meet Gilbert's glare. "This isn't my world, and I have no intention to replace this kid you were looking for!"

The boy froze. That wasn't what he had wanted to say. The words had left his mouth unbidden, and he had no idea where they had come from.

Gilbert staggered back as if he had been hit:

"You…what? That's not… I..."

The Emperor felt it again: an invasive ache that spread from his chest to his throat, rendering him speechless. He felt confused and angry, pinned to the ground by Gilbert's burning eyes.

The man seemed to notice his discomfort. His expression softened, although he still looked distraught. He put both hands on the boy's shoulders, trapping him.

"You're not replacing anyone," he told him firmly. "Oz is my master, and I will save him, no matter what it takes. The Nightrays can't stop me."

Gilbert closed his eyes and took a long inspiration before continuing earnestly:

"Now is not the time to worry about me. I know you're scared, but you can't make snap decisions like this, it will get you killed. You're smarter than that."

The boy's eyes widened.

"I do not make snap decisions! This plan is perfectly sound! And since you seem to realize that you are an idiot and I am a genius, you should just follow my orders!"

"But you know how dangerous this plan is! You were in the Abyss!" Gilbert clenched his teeth with that pained expression from before. "Please, Kaiser… Don't throw your life away."

A wave of cold washed over the Emperor. He was sure the man had felt him shudder. The boy shook the hands off his shoulders and took several steps back:

"I am not, you fool!"

"Don't shout! There are people looking for you!"

The Emperor ignored him. He pulled the Digivice from his belt and started typing wildly, still holding the whip in his left hand. He would not be called a suicidal fool. Absolutely not.

Two holograms materialized over the small screen, a map and a picture of the Dark Whirlpool. They both dissolved into glowing 0s and 1s.

"I am going back where I belong!" the Emperor said, holding the whip between Gilbert and himself as he modified his acquired data. "And don't you dare tell me it was nothing but an illusion! Alternate reality, the future, I don't care how you call it, but I have studied it long enough to know that it exists! Shouldn't this Digivice be proof enough?"

Gilbert gaped at the display, caught between fear and fascination. The Emperor held out his Digivice triumphantly. The second hologram no longer showed the inside of the Dark Whirlpool, but a picture of it taken from above.

"There. I rewound the travel data from my Digivice: the passage in its memory no longer leads into the Dark Whirlpool you found me in. As soon as my avatar is connected to the Digital World again, I will be sent directly to the location you see in this picture. My flying base should still be hovering there, I'm the only one who can control it."

The boy was slightly deterred by the helpless stare Gilbert gave him. Everything he just said had gone right over his head.

"All you have to do is send me back to my world," the Emperor growled, aggravated, "then I will be safe. Can you do that?"

Gilbert seemed to consider it. He had dread written all over his face.

"Do you…" he swallowed uneasily. "Do you have anyone to go back to?"

The Emperor flinched. He covered it with a heated glare:

"That's not the point!"

"Do you?"

The boy couldn't help but shiver. There was no longer any impatience in Gilbert's voice, only concern. It made it impossible to look him in the eye, leaving the Emperor with nothing but this foreign voice to fill his ears and body with its soft tenor.

Anyone… There had been someone, hadn't there? Long ago…

"No one that matters."

He choked up on the last word and cracked his whip to cover it up, making Gilbert jump:

"What did I just tell you?"

The Emperor glared at him in defiance as the man put a hand to his heart and breathed heavily. Gradually, his shock gave way to consternation:

"Was there no one to take care of you?"

The Emperor cracked his whip again out of frustration. The last thing he needed was for this man to treat him like some charity case.

"My parents are idiots," he spat. "Like most adults I know."

The man was on him in a flash. There was a brief scuffle, a squeeze on his right wrist. The whip was out of his hand in seconds. As soon as it left the contact of his glove, it vanished in a burst of static.

The Emperor took advantage of Gilbert's surprised gasp to pull out his Digivice and materialize another whip. The man caught his wrist before he could raise it, and grabbed the Digivice with his other hand.

"Don't touch it!" the Emperor screamed.

Gilbert had already pried it out of his hand. His imperial clothes disappeared, pixels dancing around his body like black snow before drifting away. His straight hair fell back in its wonted shoulder length. The boy glowered at Gilbert, fists clenched tightly. He mentally stomped on the fear in his gut.

The man was silent for a while, taking in Ken's skinny limbs and icy eyes. Gilbert glanced over at the Digivice with some wonder, then came back to the boy with a sigh:

"Kaiser…"

The Emperor scoffed: "You do know that's not my name, right?"

Gilbert's eyes widened: "But you said… What is it, then?"

"A foreign word," the boy put on an air of superiority. "It means 'Emperor.'"

"What?"

Gilbert turned a vivid shade of red. His grip on the Digivice tightened so much Ken was suddenly worried he might break it.

"All this time," the man said shakily. "You made me call you…!"

The Emperor tried to take advantage of his shock to take the Digivice back, but Gilbert stepped aside before he got the chance. He cursed under his breath. Winning martial arts competitions was much easier than going against a trained adult.

"You damn brat," Gilbert said.

The boy felt his heart miss a beat. Suddenly, among the annoyance, there was unexplainable fondness in Gilbert's voice, and Ken felt troubled by the discovery. Even more disturbing was the fuzzy feeling battling fear in his chest, both emotions expanding every time he met Gilbert's eyes without his glasses to shield him.

"I think we both know who the adult is here," he challenged, and wished his cheeks weren't as red as they felt.

Gilbert looked at him in silent consideration, still holding the Digivice out of reach. He gazed at it and gave a long, shaky sigh:

"I honestly don't know..."

He sat heavily on the couch. Having their height difference thus lessened was a relief. The Emperor had the sneaking suspicion that Gilbert had done it on purpose. He was about to make a smart remark, but the man's serious stare stopped him.

"You are awfully perceptive," Gilbert said. "And clever. You are right. If you had been put under a spell for so long, you probably would have noticed."

"Of course I would have."

"Yet you claim that this world is an illusion," the man shook his head. "I don't get it. What makes you so sure?"

Ken's breath hitched. His fingers twitched in search of the missing whip and Digivice. Gilbert didn't seem to notice.

"Shouldn't that be obvious? Monsters don't exist!"

"They do," Gilbert said. "You claim to have studied them for years, but so have my colleagues. We know for a fact that they are real."

"That's ridiculous…"

"When you studied them," the man interrupted him, "did you find decisive evidence that these creatures were imaginary?"

Ken had a million answers at the ready. Digimon were made of data. You could tamper with their program to make them obey you. They burst into static when they were killed. They couldn't go to the real world…

Could they?

"I have nothing to say to you," the Emperor said. "Give me back my Digivice."

"But I have to know!" Gilbert protested. "I have to be sure I'm not sending you to your death!"

"I am sure, and that should be enough for you. Give it back now!"

Something in his expression seemed to throw Gilbert off. He looked down at the Digivice, then back at Ken.

"Do you promise not to use your whip again if I give it back to you?"

"You have my word."

Ken realized belatedly that his hasty response had been an obvious sign of weakness. Gilbert held out his hand without comment. Ken didn't know whether to feel relieved or insulted.

The boy took the black device and called the Emperor back. He brushed aside the memory of the day he had met the Digidestined in the real world with a sweep of his cape. He smirked at Gilbert:

"Let's put it this way: either you send me back as proof of your loyalty to the Nightrays, or they take your blood mirror and you lose your Chain for good. Oz stays in the Abyss forever."

Gilbert blanched. The Emperor gave him no time to recover:

"Between your master and a stranger you just met, the choice should be obvious, right? It's not like you've never made sacrifices before."

The man had gone white as a sheet, his teeth clenched almost to breaking point. Ken was all too aware of the gun. He was playing with fire; but it was fine, Gilbert wouldn't shoot him, he needed him alive if he wanted to please the Nightrays, Ken would be fine…

No, it didn't matter whether or not Gilbert shot him, because this world was fake…

"I know," Gilbert said haltingly. "I know that…"

His head jerked up, and Ken almost jumped back from the force of Gilbert's glare:

"But you said you would be fine! You said you could go back to your own world! Was that a lie?"

"Of course not," Ken answered, befuddled by the despair in Gilbert's voice.

"Are you certain?" the man pleaded. "Are you sure you can make it to the other side?"

"Who do you take me for?" the Emperor asked, affronted. "I am the Digimon Emperor! I rule the Digital World! No one can prevent me from going there!"

In a flash, Ken felt a phantom pain in his left cheek and saw a tall figure take his Digivice and put it away in a drawer. You can't take this from me…

The Emperor shook his head to rid it of the memory. Gilbert's lips trembled as the man stared at him, his gaze determined and imploring all at once:

"In that case… whoever it is you're trying to reach, promise me to go back to them."

Ken's eyes went saucer wide. He had rarely felt more grateful for his glasses.

"What are you talking about? I told you, there's no one…"

"You wouldn't be so determined if there was no one," Gilbert cut him off. "You would have gone crazy long ago. There must have been someone to stand by your side…"

"Don't be stupid!" the Emperor snapped. "He's useless! I only keep him because he does all the chores without complain, and he doesn't even do that right!"

Ken caught himself when he saw Gilbert's expression shift:

"I'm only interested in the Digital World for research purposes!"

It was too late. Gilbert had regained his confidence, and Ken was plagued by thoughts of that accursed worm. He had had it with the Digimon's doe eyes and its insistence on cuddling and comforting his Emperor as if he were some lonely little kid…

Why did he keep the little nuisance around?

"Please promise me you'll go find him," Gilbert asked softly.

The Emperor turned to meet his gaze and found he couldn't look away.

"…I promise."

What did it matter? Wormmon wasn't real.


None of it was real.

That was what the Emperor kept telling himself as he rode a carriage back to the Nightray mansion with Gilbert. He hadn't even felt curious to look at his surroundings before boarding. The boy held his head high, but kept his eyes to the ground, safely hidden behind the familiar violet of his glasses.

Midway through, he summoned another whip to keep his hands busy. Gilbert let him be. The Emperor tugged and pulled at the artificial leather, and attributed the trembling of his hands to the road bumps.

"Such a primitive world," the boy sniggered. "I can't wait to be back."

Gilbert didn't react. He kept fumbling with his right pocket. Ken had seen him put his packet of cigarettes there on their way out. The man was refraining from smoking because of him, he realized suddenly.

"I'm not a kid, you know," the Emperor rolled his eyes. "I can handle a little smoke."

The man started. Out of the corner of his eyes, Ken saw his mortified expression at being caught.

"I will be fine," Gilbert whispered.

From the tone of his voice, he was anything but.

They fell silent once again. The Emperor went over several demeaning remarks in his head, but they were like sand in the storm of his mind. Before he could voice them, the words whirled away in a chaos of anxiety, lashing out at everything with no intent or purpose.

He wished Gilbert would speak.

"Would you tell me your name?"

The inquiry was quiet, a gentle murmur that barely reached Ken's ears over the carriage's jolts and the whirlwind of his thoughts. It was a small wonder that he had heard it at all.

"Ken Ichijouji," he replied in the same tone.

Gradually, the storm died down. It left a desert in its wake. Ken was left staring at the endless thoughts he couldn't bring himself to say.

"Don't call me that," the boy said through gritted teeth.

A hand came to rest on his. Ken stilled. He had not realized he had been clenching his fists so tightly until now. Gilbert gave his hand a squeeze. Ken's throat was too dry for him to tell the man to let him go.

He could only hope that Gilbert couldn't feel his racing pulse through their gloves.

None of this is real.

The Emperor faced Vincent and his adoptive father with a bold smirk. He didn't understand a word of what they said. So the Emperor said nothing and laughed a lot.

Gilbert was no longer by his side. Two men grabbed him and held him down. Fear threatened to overwhelm him when they reached out for his Digivice.

"Don't touch it!"

Gilbert's voice. The hands jerked away.

"This thing is dangerous. I'll send it away along with him."

Ken barely recognized that voice. It was nothing but steel, and all he could see was the gun.

This is not happening.

More words were exchanged, but the boy couldn't understand Gilbert anymore. He was losing control of his thoughts again. They went a mile a minute. The teenager from the past who looked like the Emperor but wasn't, disappear, I want you to disappear, Devimon's taunts, that day on the stadium, the children in the bleachers, didn't that plush toy look like Patamon…?

It's not possible…

Was Wormmon still waiting for him above the Dark Whirlpool?

If it is…

He heard a mighty caw. A shudder shook Ken's whole frame. He felt a breath of fire. Black feathers danced around him. The raven was laughing.

What have I done?

A bare hand slammed against his forehead like a talon. The gloves were off. A black coat flapped like an outstretched wing. If he looked up, Ken knew he would meet sharp golden eyes staring at him, framed by bluish black.

"Go on, Raven," Duke Nightray's voice rang loud and clear in Ken's mind. "Render your judgement."

Ken couldn't tell whether he was speaking to the man or the monster he controlled.

Cold fingers tightened their iron grip on his head. The two men holding him jumped out of the way. Chains burst from the floor all around him in a clanging cacophony. They snaked their way to his ankles and left arm. The Emperor seized the chance to grab his Digivice. Right then, another chain trapped his arm.

Another terrible cry shook the entire room. The talon kept Ken in place as the chains dragged him down, black feathers flying from the man's coat. The raven kept laughing. The Emperor raised his face to scream.

The illusion broke when he saw the tears in Gilbert's eyes.