AN: It all started at 6:19am on a Thursday morning. It was too hot and I couldn't sleep. Retrace 74 was depressing. I normally don't like introspective fics all that much, but I was in no state to deny a wild plotbunny. In the end I couldn't seem to find any better way to cope than trying to figure out how Gilbert's mind works.
My conclusion is that it goes like this: "Let's try and see the best in everyone or, failing that, the worst in me." Such a cuddly fellow, our Gil is.
Speaking of whom, ever noticed that he uses both hands to shoot? I can't believe it took me this long to catch on.
Beta-read by brumal. Enjoy!
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
("Humpty Dumpty," from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass)
His master was broken.
It was the one clear thought in Gilbert's mind, the sole truth he was certain of. He had trouble wrapping his mind around it. Who his master was, what got broken, how it had all come to this. He also knew that he couldn't move on if he didn't understand.
He was back at the Nightray household. As it turned out, Vincent had been using it as a headquarters for the Baskervilles all along. Furthermore, his little brother had known from Day One that Gilbert was one of them. Should he be angry at Vincent for hiding that fact? Or grateful?
No, he was angry. Vincent never told him anything. Nothing about his memories, his illegal contract, or what he was plotting. No matter how many times Gilbert asked, Vincent always feigned ignorance for his sake. Always assumed he knew what was best for Gilbert, better than his older brother did.
He could feel his concern in the iron grip Vincent had on his arm, like he was afraid his brother might dissolve and slip right through his fingers if he ever let go. It had always been like this: Vincent's insatiable need of physical contact, and Gilbert trying to keep his brother's feelings at bay. Another case of co-dependency was the last thing either sibling needed. Distance might keep their relationship somewhat stable, or so Gilbert had thought.
Vincent never let go. If Gilbert looked up, he knew he would meet mismatched eyes staring sideways at him, wide with misplaced love and worry. He had failed his younger brother as much as his master, unable to protect him as a child and as an adult. For all his wit and expertise, Vincent had been manipulated for a century, and his brother had been none the wiser. From the looks of it, every single person Gilbert was supposed to protect had become Jack's tool. And Gilbert had been the man's most zealous clueless pawn.
Maybe Vincent was right. By protecting Gilbert from himself, he had protected Oz indirectly all this time...
Gilbert shuddered. The impulse to throw Vincent off, get up and flee the room was strong. Everything from the tall paintings on the walls to the glowing fireplace that projected distorted shadows on the carpet made him antsy. It seemed like the old smell of blood clung to the furniture, like reproachful ghosts of the murdered noblemen and women. His fellow Baskervilles, sitting in a circle on the armchairs around the low table, looked out of place in the Nightray living room. Almost like an insult. Elliot would have thrown a fit.
Raven's contractor glanced over at the man who wore Leo's face. The valet and best friend of his adopted sibling. Glen Baskerville. His master. God, what would Elliot think?
His headache was unrelenting. Elliot was dead and there was nothing left of the Nightray household. Nothing but this empty room and two siblings who never belonged there. Had Gilbert ever been Elliot's older brother? The teenager had called him that when he had contracted the family Chain. Gilbert had been pleased, but he had never believed him until Oz had described them as siblings, too. If his master said it, then it had to be true.
Oz wasn't here anymore, and whether or not Elliot Nightray had been his brother was not something Gilbert could ask Glen Baskerville. Especially not a Glen with Leo's face and Oswald's voice. Accepting. Forgiving. Glad to have them all back together.
Gilbert struggled to clear his throbbing head and acknowledge the people around him. He could hear their hushed voices over the crackling flames, like they were trying not to disturb him. No doubt the order had come from their master. Glen Baskerville could feel Gilbert's shame, and decided to let him mourn in silence for the time being. He was considerate. Gilbert had to be worthy of his thoughtfulness. Had to get his act together.
He felt naked without the hat he got from Ada. As soon as they had arrived, Gilbert had made haste to hang it on the mantelpiece, lest further contact with his skin might dirty it. His fingers itched for a cigarette, but he didn't dare smoke in front of his master.
Gilbert was getting the impression that he wasn't alone in this turmoil. He could make out the other Baskervilles beneath the wavy black bangs that fell in front of his eyes, all of them silent and respectful when their master talked. Even the kid, Lily, who sat on the impassive Doug's lap and kept glaring daggers at Gilbert when she thought no one was looking. Apparently she hadn't forgiven him for helping Break kill Fang. One of them. Gilbert was a traitor and a failure. Yet Glen had forgiven him.
The woman on his right, Lottie, didn't seem to know what to do with this Glen. She was flustered and kept shifting in her precarious position, perched on the left arm of her armchair. She stared unblinkingly at their master, like she was afraid he would disappear if she tore her eyes away for one second. Yet there was something unsure about her, a confused daze that looked like a complex mix of joy and disappointment. Gilbert could relate.
The one he was most afraid to look at – except for his master whom he had failed, failed on so many levels – was the chuckling girl standing sentinel at the door. The mere sound was enough to draw the man's right hand to his holster like a hateful magnet. How many times had Gilbert heard this mocking cackle in his sleep, how many of those dreams had ended with this infuriating noise dying on a gurgle after a gunshot...
Gilbert buried his face in his hand and realized he was trembling. He barely heard Vincent's solicitous inquiry over the static between his ears. In reality the gunshot had killed Echo as surely as it had broken Oz, the Noise had taken over and now Zwei was laughing and laughing and laughing…
The man straightened automatically to look at Leo's serene face with wild eyes. He must have looked like a madman.
The possessed boy heaved a sigh that sounded way too weary for his age, and laid a hand on Gilbert's shoulder. The man recoiled. He was unworthy.
Glen was unbothered by his reaction: "You can go rest in your room for a while if you'd like. We can fill you in on the details later. You've done more than enough."
There was a tight feeling in Gilbert's chest. Enough. He had shot Oz. He had shot Oz.
Yet his master was right here, smiling at him with this sad expression that Gilbert remembered so clearly, it was suffocating. This sadness he understood only now, when it was far too late. His master was dead and the world was ending. All because of Jack.
But did Gilbert have any right to blame Jack when he had been the one to tell Glen to trust the man? When he had been the one to stand between them, to allow Jack to use him as a hostage and then deal the final blow? When, all because of Gilbert's foolishness, Oz had been forced to kill by his contractor?
Oz is a Chain. Oz is B-Rabbit.
How was this possible? The world was ending and nothing made sense...
"It's alright." Glen was holding his shoulder as Gilbert clutched at his temples. He was sorry, sorry, I'm so sorry… "We can still stop the Black Rabbit."
Gilbert shook his head.
"I shot him," the words tumbled out of his mouth like sharp knives on his quivering lips. "I shot him, how could I, Oz..."
"What a crybaby," Lily said under her breath, and let out a yelp of pain when Vincent threw a chess piece at her nose, earning a curt scolding from Lottie. Their bickering was a blur. Gilbert couldn't look his brother in the eye.
Oz had been calling for him, had clung to him for dear life and cried. Gilbert was needed. He shot him. The last image he had of him was made of soaked blond hair tainted green by the grass, an empty stare and a bloody stomach. Then Break had stepped forward with Alice in his arms, and the three of them had vanished into Eques' shadow. Her scream still rang in Gilbert's ears.
His left hand ached. The drain the seal was putting on him was dulling the vice-like grip Vincent had on his arm. Gilbert could feel Raven's power burning through his veins as B-Rabbit thrashed against the chains that bound its destructive abilities.
Oz was alive. He had to be.
"You did the right thing," Glen told him patiently. He was too focused, it seemed, on the task of comforting Gilbert to pay any mind to his underlings' antics. Understanding. Reassuring. "This child should never have been born."
Something snapped. Thirteen-years worth of hatred boiled deep inside Gilbert's gut. He despised those words and the man who spoke them. A cruel, evil man who could say such horrible things to his son's face and walk away with a condescending smile, leaving the broken boy all alone in the rain...
Instead of the abhorred scarred face, Gilbert met the calm eyes of a slender boy as Glen Baskerville stared impassively at the barrel of a gun.
Vincent caught Lottie's wrist before her knife could slice Gilbert's throat. The Baskervilles had stood up as one except for Zwei, who stayed at her post and leaned towards the scene eagerly, her Chain looming behind her. One word from Glen froze them all to the spot. The gun slipped from Gilbert's slack fingers and hit the carpet with a thud.
"Let him go."
Gilbert bolted out before Vincent even lessened his grip. Gilbert could hear his brother calling after him and feel the faint sting of the cut that Lottie's knife had left when he got away. On his way out, the man bumped into several of Zwei's puppets without eliciting so much as a blink from them. None of it mattered. His hands were crying for blood, just how many people would he have to kill in the name of his master, out, he wanted out!
The dull green of Oz's eyes and the resigned face that Glen wore in front of a gun haunted Gilbert as he staggered back to the room he hadn't used in two years. It was unlit and sober in the cool evening, with a faint smell of dust in the air. Nothing about it felt familiar.
Gilbert dug his nails into the back of the nearest plush armchair and looked hard at his hands. His gloves gleamed an eerie white in the dark. Every time he blinked, the man expected crimson stains to bloom between his fingers. If he focused hard, he could remember the fleeting touch of soaked feathers. If he tried hard enough, he could almost feel the heartbeat under Oz's seal.
It felt like hours until the sound of the door opening pulled him out of his trance. Leo was standing in the doorway. The sudden light from the corridor blinded Gilbert to everything but the boyish figure and its unkempt hair. For a second it felt like another time, where Gilbert might never have left the Nightray household: Leo would have come to fetch him for dinner, because Elliot knew his siblings would forget on purpose and – as Leo would point out – Elliot was too shy to do it himself.
"I will let some light in," Oswald's voice warned.
Gilbert closed his eyes tightly. When he opened them again, the curtains had been drawn back, and the sunset bathed the room in an orange glow. Leo's hand was still clutched around the thick fabric with his back to Gilbert. Perfectly trusting in spite of his freshly bandaged chest wound and the gun Gilbert had pointed at him.
An apology was on Gilbert's lips when the boy turned to him with his timeless gaze and sad smile:
"I figured you would be too agitated to get a proper rest. You haven't changed."
Hearing this made Gilbert feel very small. In spite of the petite stature of his vessel, Glen sounded just like the man whom Gilbert would seek at night as a child until his master chased the nightmares away with calm, sensible words.
But they had changed. Gilbert was a man, and that soothing voice had ordered him to kill.
"I can imagine how hard it must be for you." Even now, his master seemed able to see right through him. "But it was necessary. In order to protect the peace of the Abyss, sacrifices have to be made. This is our lot as Baskervilles."
Oswald's voice had a strained quality to it. Suddenly it occurred to Gilbert that this man had sent his own sister to the Abyss.
Earlier, back at the reunion Gilbert had fled, Glen had briefly alluded to his past in order to explain Jack's motive and plans to his subordinates, so they could think of a way to stop him for good. Their master hadn't elaborated. Like sending your younger sibling to a hellish dimension because they happened to be born with red irises was just that: a necessity. Something Oswald had never considered to object to, and that Glen had done without question.
This part of the meeting had shocked Gilbert enough to stare at his master in outrage – he could feel Vincent's weight next to him, smell the gunpowder from the mechanic shot aimed at Oz – and their eyes had met. For all their resignation and practicality, Glen's gaze seemed bottomless. It was like staring into the Abyss and its never ending darkness, which bore nothing but loneliness and pain. Gilbert had had to look away.
The boy who stood before him in his old bedroom bore the soul of a man who had seen everything. As Gilbert looked back at the dancing golden specks in his calm midnight eyes, he knew they spoke nothing but the truth. As leader of the Baskervilles, Glen knew the Abyss and its laws better than anyone, and had suffered more from them than all contractors put together. His words were absolute. Sacrifices have to be made.
Gilbert remembered tousled fair hair in the sunlight, laughing green eyes, and a mischievous smile. A giant monster screaming through its tears as its scythe mowed red-caped figures, like a bloody harvest. The chiming sound of chains breaking in a golden rain. A small body lying abandoned on the wet grass like a broken toy.
Oz had to be killed.
"There has to be another way…" Gilbert had fallen to his knees. His earlier offence vanished from his mind as desperation took the better of him. The man took Glen's sleeve in his hands and looked up at him with imploring eyes. "Oz didn't do anything wrong. You know he didn't want to hurt anyone, it was Jack who… Master, please...!"
"Oz was born to destroy everything," Glen held Gilbert's left fist in his hands and unclenched it gently. "It is its nature. You, too, must have noticed, with the way the child treated you."
Gilbert's mouth went slack: "What...?"
"I have Leo's memories," Glen said. "I have seen the kind of relationship the two of you had. I am glad you could come back to my side." Leo's mouth smiled slightly. "I am proud to have you as my servant, Gilbert. Don't be so hard on yourself."
Gilbert felt reassured. He felt sick. That was the kind of comfort he had always sought, the feeling of belonging, being needed. He was such a leech. He deserved none of it. Of course his master spoke the truth. Gilbert had been blind all along.
"The kind of relationship we had… That's right," Gilbert whispered and stared off to the side. Towards the ruins of Sablier, a few weeks back. How come it felt like a lifetime ago?
"Even if you trip and fall, I'll be by your side to support you," Oz had told him. "So, you can just fall without worrying about a thing!"
That was what Gilbert had needed to hear. His memories and murderous thoughts kept haunting him. The man had relied on Oz entirely, had let all the weight of his worries rest on the boy's shoulders. No matter how many times he told himself it was wrong.
"That's right," Gilbert repeated, his smile bitter and broken as he held on to his master. "It brought nothing but destruction. I was the monster all along."
Oswald's confused voice came from very far away:
"What do you mean?"
Gilbert glanced up. The boy's surreal eyes looked slightly wider and honestly disconcerted. Worried, even. They didn't understand. Of course they didn't...
"Oz couldn't help it..." Gilbert explained. "But I was a lot more destructive than he ever was."
Leo had only seen the surface. Oz kicking his servant at the slightest wrongdoing, Gilbert's obsession with him – "abnormal," Break had called it. He had tried to warn him so many times and Gilbert never listened – the murderous thoughts that had almost made him kill Alice, Zai, and Break in turn...
"You don't know," Gilbert said breathlessly. His eyes were unfocused, and his right fist clenched a fancy sleeve. At the moment he couldn't remember whom he was talking to. "You have no idea how it was these first months, after Lord Oscar found me. I couldn't remember anything. I just knew I had done something terrible. Unforgivable. I had no idea what happened to the master. That's what I told Lord Oscar. That's why he took me to Oz. But Oz, he..."
His voice broke on the name the second time he said it. He could barely feel the boy's fingers around his left hand, indicating that Glen was giving him his full attention. All Gilbert could see and hear was the distant voice of a ten year old boy swearing to protect him as long as he lived. Taking a blow to the head for Gilbert, punching him with all his might immediately after, when the amnesiac boy had thrown a panic fit.
"It's true," Gilbert said softly. "Oz was violent. He was tyrannical. But that's the only way he knew how to keep me here. For the first few months at the Vessalius household, I kept having panic attacks and losing contact with reality. Oz... He was always there for me. When no one else could reach me, he would hit me as hard as he could and wake me up. Tell me I belonged with him."
Gilbert had clung to this boy as if he were a lifeline. A commanding voice, laughter and pain had made the injunctions in his head grow fainter. Oz had accepted him as he was: a lost, amnesiac child with unstable emotions who cried all the time, born solely for servitude. Except for the last part...
"Stop calling me 'master'!" Oz had told him over and over, and begrudgingly accepted the compromise of "young master." As a child, Gilbert had thought Oz was being too generous. Gilbert would have done anything for him, which was only natural for a servant. And he knew Oz felt the same, which was both improper and wonderful.
"Oz gave me more than a master," Gilbert was unable to stop. "He called me his best friend. I was just a servant, yet he let me train and play with him. He faced an armed man to protect me..."
Gilbert drifted off. That was when everything had gone downhill for the both of them. Oz vanished and silence fell on Gilbert's life, heavy and foreboding. There was nothing left to distract the boy from his hell and its bloodthirsty disembodied voice. He hated to recall the ceremony from ten years ago.
"And as soon as he disappeared..."
Gilbert had lost everything. Given up on everything for the sole purpose of bringing Oz back. Betrayed the household he had once called home, brought shame and grief to Lord Oscar and Lady Ada, took a disgraceful noble name, used his own brother to form a contract, stole Elliot's legacy, learnt how to use a gun, and shed blood on Pandora's orders.
"There was no one to stop me," Gilbert's voice was trembling with self-disgust. "So I became a criminal. I didn't mind tainting my soul if I could save him. Even if I lost his trust for good. Because Oz was the only one who kept me together."
All his sins hadn't mattered next to the slimmest hope of bringing Oz back. Gilbert had cried and gone sick with self-loathing, but not once had he considered turning back. Neither had he ever expected Oz to want anything to do with the man he had become.
"But he came back on his own," Gilbert laughed bitterly. His eyes felt strangely dry from staring into a past long gone. "I was useless. And a traitor to the Vessalius. And yet… Oz… He forgave it all."
No matter what he did, Oz wanted him by his side. Unpredictable, noble-minded, brave, wonderful Oz Vessalius...
"Yes, he's tyrannical…" Gilbert's voice got louder. The words fell like tearless sobs on the soft fabric clutched between his fingers. "So what? He has every right to be! I was nothing but trouble for him and as soon as he disappeared, I lost my mind! I don't even know why he put up with me! Why he kept me near... I deserved none of it, and I wanted it all!"
A person to love, respect, obey, and protect at all costs. How could Oz not be his master?
"Gilbert... Please calm down…"
"I don't know why, but it doesn't matter as long as he wants me! I can take anything if I can be by his side! Oz can have all of me!"
The sentence choked him. No… Gilbert had no right to make such claims anymore. Not after what he had done.
"Please come back," Oswald's voice said, low and unsure. Afraid? "Stay with me."
Gilbert's breathing came out harsh and uneven. He could feel a hand patting his head. It was comforting and awkward. Warm and lonely. Alienating. The boy holding him had the wrong scent, the voice in his ear was too deep and its body too young, while Gilbert was too big. Nothing would fit.
Gilbert didn't belong here. Not in the Nightray house, not with the Baskervilles. Oz was hurt and possibly dying, what was he even doing here?
If I go back, I may shoot him again.
The man shuddered and hid his face in the young noble's dress. Vincent had never protected Oz. If he had warned his brother, told him about his past earlier, things might have occurred differently. Gilbert would have been able to face his memories head-on, without a severed head to cradle and broken boys with ghosts' voices that made him mad with longing.
Maybe then Gilbert's choice wouldn't have depended on who ordered him first.
Shoot him. An order Glen never apologized for.
Why should the master apologize? came the gravely voice in his head.
Because it was Oz, Gilbert thought right back.
Long fingers let go of his hand and came to rest on his head instead. All was quiet except for Gilbert's laboured breathing.
"You went through a lot," Oswald's voice said at last, his breath brushing Gilbert's hair. "I didn't expect you to survive Sablier. You are strong, Gilbert."
The words surprised him. Even the tone felt at odds with his master's voice. It had grown hesitant, like Glen was having trouble forming sentences. In his clouded mind, Gilbert remembered his master as a person of few words. And the man hadn't tried to comfort anyone in a century.
"But you know you can't use this child as a reprieve. You couldn't have kept that connection forever," the voice grew softer. "Neither of you. The truth about Oz would have come out eventually."
It felt so strange, hearing Oz's name in that deep voice. Almost like Glen knew Oz personally. The notion made Gilbert's throat tighten.
"He's so lonely…" Gilbert mumbled into Glen's chest. "He was always so lonely..."
"I know," his master's tone was so tired. It really sounded like he knew. "Oz truly is a pitiful being. Erasing his existence is the least we can do."
Gilbert could go no further than that. No more than a simple monosyllable to oppose his master. But he had to say it. Oz deserved better than pity. He was too bright and dashing for that. If anything between them got broken, Gilbert was the only one to blame.
"It is the truth," Glen said calmly. "This child can't call anything his own. All this time, Jack made him live a lie. He is better off dead."
Because Gilbert hadn't known anything. Hadn't been able to see through the lies Jack had drawn their lives with. Gilbert had promised on a whim, without thinking, but no matter how much he wanted to believe, the servant could never have made "forever" come true. Or maybe he could have. If only he had been more insightful... Now it was too late.
"What about her?" he whispered without thinking, hoping for a way out, any way out. "What about Alice? Isn't she B-Rabbit, too?"
Glen's grip tightened around his locks.
"Alice is already dead."
Dread filled Gilbert's chest before he had time to fully process those words. Then he remembered what Oz and he had seen in the Cheshire cat's dimension. He wasn't sure what it meant for the Alice he knew. What Glen was implying, exactly.
The only thing that mattered was that there was no way to save her. No way to save Oz.
"…Leo?" Were they all fated to disappear?
"He is still here." It was a minute difference, but Oswald's voice sounded lighter. Gilbert could hear the beginning of a smile. "The attack only weakened him. He will come back eventually."
Gilbert sighed. That was a relief. At least Oz had managed to save his friend. He was always desperate to help, no matter how hopeless the situation looked. A feeling Gilbert knew all too well. The both of them had always been so reckless... And their most venturesome act had probably been to let themselves depend on each other so much.
Yet his master had always looked like he could do anything. Gilbert still believed that. What he had never fully grasped was just how deep the boy's trust ran. As a child, Gilbert had been too dazzled by Oz to wonder at his magnanimity.
Here, in the arms of this master he couldn't remember twenty-four hours ago, as Gilbert begged for answers he couldn't find, he was starting to understand Oz's way of thinking. Why the boy was so bothered when Gilbert called him "master," why he resorted to violence so often to bring his servant back to his senses. Just like Break when Gilbert had almost killed Zai in spite of his vow.
Oz had always known. What Break could guess from his past as Kevin Regnard and the Red-Eyed Ghost, Oz had felt since the day he first met Gilbert, fifteen years ago. His servant was mad, and starved for acknowledgment of any kind. Ready to cling to the first person to tell him he could be useful, and do their every bidding. It was the twisted mind of a murderer.
Regardless, Oz had chosen to trust him. Enough to believe in his promise of undying loyalty, to keep Gilbert by his side with his tainted soul and secrets, to let his servant keep those secrets until he was ready to speak, to always respect his choice. Like Gilbert was actually capable of free will.
Gilbert wished he could give all of this back and so much more. Yet all Oz had gotten was a bullet wound and a death sentence from Gilbert's real master. The servant couldn't find his way around Glen's wisdom and sorrow. No matter where he looked, there was no way back to Oz. Not if Gilbert couldn't trust himself.
Exhaustion was pulling him in. Gilbert could feel his master leading him by the hand to the bed. It still hurt. After lying down, Gilbert gripped his left arm, lest the appendage should fire more stray bullets. He could feel a pulse, which might have been his own, or Raven's, or, hopefully, Oz's.
"Rest," Oswald's voice ordered him. "We can talk tomorrow."
So Gilbert let the heartbeat lull him to sleep. Whoever it belonged to, he never wanted it to stop. Remember your priorities. Jack was a common enemy. If only Gilbert could sever the link that ghost had with Oz. If he could end this with anything but a bullet...
He thought he heard a caw. And his master's voice.
"You will recover in due time."