AN: This is the chapter where everyone gets their wish. You may or may not hate me for this, but I figured the genre was fair warning. You will get all remaining questions answered in the next (and final) chapter, I promise.

I am deeply sorry for making you wait nearly two years, only to give you the first half of my final chapter. I had to cut it in two due to its length and the fact that Pandora Hearts is nearing its conclusion, and I don't want to let it influence me too much. I haven't read the last chapter yet because it has yet to be translated (so please don't spoil me if you have) - I will try to finish Ambidextrous' fifth chapter before then. Thanks for being so patient with me, and apologies to the 'angry anonymous' reviewer: I honestly thought 'Alternate Continuity from "Retrace 74" onwards' was a clear enough warning that this fanfic contains spoilers.

Many thanks to those who followed, reviewed or put this story in their favorites! I hope I won't disappoint.

Previous Chapter Summary:

Gilbert frees Oz and Alice from Jack's control by making a contract with them, but the illegal contractor's seal remains on Jack's body. When the needle completes its course, the four of them get thrown into the Abyss along with Vincent.

As a last resort, Oz decides to meet the Will of the Abyss and convinces Jack to make a deal with her: Oz and Jack switch bodies so the latter can become B-Rabbit, travel back to a time before Oz became sentient, then contract Lacie and fight the thugs that almost killed Jack in the past; thus justifying the time paradox. When Oz comes to in his human body, the Abyss starts to collapse around him.

There was something soothing about watching a hearth fire. To Gilbert, the feeling was almost alienating. It was nothing like the fickle burn of gunpowder before a shot, nor the blue furnace that Raven left in his wake along with a fiery rain of black feathers.

This fire was tame: a crackling creature slumbering in its nest of logs, safely tucked away behind the fireplace grate. Even the smoke was but a shadow of the acrid smell Gilbert had grown accustomed to. It clung to him like a second skin. Just like the smell of blood, it was impossible to wash away completely.

The small flames had burnt the night away. Gilbert found some reassurance in the steady task of replacing logs and reviving dying embers: the fire was easy to watch over and keep alive. The hypnotizing dance of the flames kept his thoughts from going frantic. That night, however, they weren't enough to ease his mind. Not that Gilbert really expected them to.

"Oz," the man whispered without taking his eyes off the fire. "Are you awake?"

There was no answer. For several minutes, Gilbert listened to the small cracks and snaps the flames made as they swirled and burst into red sparks. His face felt hot in their light. It could keep him awake for hours.

"Don't worry," Gilbert said with a small smile, "I'm not tired. I wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway."

He had always had trouble sleeping. In fact, Gilbert would be hard pressed to remember a time when he had slept soundly if it didn't immediately follow a day's work – which, more often than not, translated to murder – that left him so exhausted he all but collapsed on the nearest soft-looking furniture upon getting home.


"Are you nervous?" Gilbert asked.

The weight on his shoulders felt all the heavier after voicing the question. Gilbert himself was so taut he could feel it in his bones, like his entire body had turned to friable stone. With every passing hour he felt closer to his breaking point, like the lightest draft could make him crumble. No amount of staring into the fire could distract him from the creeping dawn.

At last, the day had come. Gilbert had dreaded this date as viciously as he had wished for it to come faster. He had no clear idea of what to expect, but the hope he clung to was getting unbearable.

The man tensed up when he heard a soft click behind him. His knee-jerk reaction was to grab the gun he kept hidden under the cushions of the couch, but he stopped himself midway when he turned round and saw who was peeking from behind the door. A wide blue eye was peering through the gap.

"Elliot… What are you doing here?"

Gilbert's inquiry was gentle, but his adopted sibling jumped out of his skin upon being sighted. He ran his one visible eye over the room and made a point to look anywhere but at Gilbert. The man watched him in confusion until the boy recovered from his uneasiness and threw the door open with a decisive frown. Gilbert had a moment of panic over the noise that would make, but Elliot kept a tight grip on the door so it wouldn't actually slam against the opposite wall.

The little boy was standing in the doorway with his arms crossed, glaring at Gilbert in silent defiance. Elliot was trying hard not to blink or pout: his left eye was twitching and his chubby cheeks were turning red from the effort.

Gilbert couldn't help but smile in endearment. That only fuelled Elliot's anger.

"I knew I'd find you here!" the child said with all the indignation a six year old could muster. "I saw the light under the door. You stayed up all night again!"

"You shouldn't be up at this hour," Gilbert gestured for him to be quieter. "Hurry back to bed."

"I'm not the one who has to go to a stupid party tomor- today!"

"It's not stupid," Gilbert protested out of reflex. He faltered when he saw the look on the child's face. "Look," he added in a softer tone, "I'm sorry you can't come, but…"

"It's not like I wanna come, dummy!" Elliot covered his mouth hastily when he realized he had been too loud. "I don't wanna go," he grumbled, his cheeks turning redder by the second. "I hate the Vessalius family."

Gilbert rubbed his temple wearily. Sometimes he couldn't tell whether Elliot was being honest or just trying to change the subject. The man was about to drop the issue and send his foster sibling to bed, but when he reopened his eyes, Elliot had rounded on him. The child was glaring daggers at Gilbert's silent companion.

"Wait, what are you doing here?" Elliot asked, forgetting to keep his voice down in his renewed aggravation. "You let Gilbert stay up without saying anything? What kind of master are you?"


The child reached for the pile of fluffy towels sitting next to Gilbert, but the man snatched Oz away before Elliot could grab him.

"Stop bullying him," the man held the plush rabbit to his chest protectively. "It's not Oz's fault, he… fell in a puddle yesterday, so I gave him a bath. I was keeping him company while he dried off."

Elliot eyed the two of them suspiciously. Gilbert groaned internally. He had always been a terrible liar, but he couldn't tell Elliot the truth.

Only hours prior, Oz had been covered in blood.

It had been a close call this time: there had been two attackers, but Gilbert had noticed the assassin's accomplice a mere three seconds before the man attacked Alice from the back. She had jumped out of the way right before Gilbert shot the man in the head. Blood had splattered all over the plush rabbit in her arms.

Gilbert hugged him tighter. Feeling the feather-light weight in his arms tempered him somewhat. Oz was safe and clean, warm from the fire, still slightly damp and smelling of soap – as fine as he could be.

For now, the voice in his head murmured.

"Oz this, Oz that," Elliot grumbled, startling Gilbert out of his thoughts, "it's always about Oz..."

Gilbert looked at the boy questioningly, unsure how to respond. Elliot went on without looking at him:

"Why hasn't he turned back yet?"

Gilbert shook his head slowly:

"I don't know..."

"But you said he would turn back today!" Elliot said. "The clock says it's morning already! He's late!"

"I meant at the ceremony," Gilbert whispered. And he had said Oz might turn back. It was mere speculation – blind hope – on his part.

The rest of Elliot's protests distracted the man from drifting further into gloomy thoughts. Gilbert glanced up at the grandfather clock. Half past four. His shoulders slouched. Elliot was impossible.

Before he could scold the boy again, there was a sudden whack, followed by a yelp from Elliot. When he glanced down, Gilbert found a messy-haired six year old holding a thick book over Elliot's head. It looked like the second child had snuck up on them on bare feet while they were arguing.

"What was that for?" Elliot hissed, only to get whacked again.

"Be quiet," Leo told him in a lazy drawl that ended on a yawn. "You're gonna wake everyone up."

Elliot's mouth clicked shut. He looked up at the ceiling anxiously and tilted his head to the side, listening. Once he had made sure there were no footsteps to be heard, he shook his fist at the other boy:

"Well I wouldn't have yelled if you hadn't hit me! Servants don't hit their masters, idiot!"

"You were being stupid," Leo wrapped an arm around his book and held it against his chest so he could rub his eyes with his free hand.

"Gilbert, Leo hit me!"

"Calm down, both of you," Gilbert chastised them. "Leo, you shouldn't hit people with… where did you find this book?"

Both boys started. Leo seemed to repress the urge to hide the heavy volume behind his back. Elliot bit his bottom lip as his eyes darted from Gilbert to the book. Leo's bangs drooped lower over his eyes. He opened his mouth, but Elliot was faster:

"I lent it to him! It…" Elliot's eyes dropped to the floor. "It was in the library..."

Gilbert sighed. He didn't need to look at the cover to know the book didn't belong in the children's section.

Elliot had been so scandalized when Leo had caught up to his reading lessons that he had challenged the other boy to read the hardest books he could find in the library. They had struggled together on the first chapters of Arthur Barma's Legacy of Sablier, until Vanessa found out and took it away lest the boys damage the book. Since then, it had turned into a game, and the boys grabbed whatever book came within their reach for more challenges.

"We'd better return it before someone notices," Gilbert held out his hand to Leo. "I'll take care of it."

Leo threw him a half-hearted glare, but handed the book over obediently. Both children were still sulking after Gilbert had escorted them back to Elliot's room, carrying Oz in his arms. Before he could usher Elliot through the door, the young noble grabbed his sleeve. Gilbert looked down at him expectantly, but the child kept his head low.

"What is it?" the man asked.

Elliot refused to answer. Leo watched them both in silence, then let out a dark chuckle:

"He's afraid you'll stay with the Vessalius family."

"Am not!" Elliot lifted his head to glare at his servant. "He won't!"

"Of course he won't," Leo's eyes bore into Gilbert's through thick black hair. "'cause he's a Reaper."

"That's not true!"

"Yes it is," Leo was still glaring at Gilbert. "We're both going to leave one day."

"That's not true!"

Neither child heard Gilbert over their argument as he tried to calm them down. He knelt beside Elliot and passed an arm around his shoulders. His foster brother was trembling, his teeth clenched to prevent himself from shouting at his servant. He stopped talking back when Gilbert gave his slight frame a one-armed hug.

Still the boy wouldn't meet his eyes. Gilbert turned to Leo:

"What are you talking about?" Confusion and worry made his voice barely audible to his own ears.

Leo pressed his lips together in a thin line. His hair fell in front of his face, obstructing it completely.

"It's true," he said. "That's why you brought me here. You're gonna give me over to the Baskervilles."

Gilbert's eyes widened.

"'s not true," Elliot repeated, his voice nothing but a faint growl now.

The man looked from one boy to the other, agitated by their stiff shoulders and downcast expressions. He shook his head slowly:

"It's not like that…"

"I heard Vincent talk to Duke Nightray," Leo interjected. "They said I was the Reapers' leader. They said Glen Baskerville lives in my head."

Gilbert's breath caught when the young servant started rubbing at his temple furiously. He knew this gesture all too well. It was starting all over again...

Gilbert had hoped that he could shield Leo from Glen's influence and tell him the truth when the child was ready to face it. He should have known better. After all, there were no Sealing Stones to keep Glen's spirit away this time around. Leo had probably heard his past incarnations' voices all his life.

"It doesn't change anything," Gilbert told him firmly. "You are your own person."

"…Then it was true?"

Gilbert glanced sideways at Elliot. His clear eyes were wide with awe and uncertainty. Gilbert could still feel him shaking against his arm. Leo had gone quiet. The man's lips quivered under the children's scrutiny.

"It's complicated..." Gilbert eyed Oz uneasily. He couldn't see his face in the dark.

"That's what you always say," Elliot grumbled. "You never tell us anything because you think we're dumb."

Gilbert's heart sank. He watched the two boys and weighed his options. He realized that he wasn't being fair to them. The man had always kept his distance, afraid of saying too much, of getting them involved in this insane world he had to face on a daily basis; past, present and future so tightly entwined Gilbert couldn't tell them apart anymore...

Regardless, he had hurt them. Elliot and Leo were young and curious, always full of questions. Try as he might, Gilbert couldn't avoid them at all times, and vague answers could only get them so far. It was only a matter of time until they found out something incriminating. Now that they had drawn their own conclusions, Gilbert felt cornered, desperate to make it up to them somehow.

But how much could he tell them?

Gilbert squeezed Elliot's shoulder and searched Leo's eyes under his wild mane:

"It's late," he whispered. "And it is a long story… but I'll tell you what I can."

Both children turned towards him with their mouths hanging open. It was almost comical how similar they looked in this moment.

"What? Really?" Elliot blurted out. "You'll tell us about the world you came from?"

Leo cleared his throat:

"You don't have to, Master Gilbert," the servant fidgeted, back to his cautious formality. "If it bothers you…"

Gilbert smiled and shook his head:

"It's okay. There are things you should know."

Elliot flashed a toothy grin at him, all resentment forgotten, and raced Leo to the twin-sized bed. The other child followed at a slower pace. The bed creaked in protest when Elliot bounced on it – Gilbert dearly hoped he hadn't kicked through yet another bed base. The young noble pointed an accusing finger at Leo when he realized his servant was dragging his feet:

"You weren't even trying!"

"I never agreed to the race," Leo deadpanned before sitting on the small wooden chair he usually occupied.

"Oh, whatever," Elliot rolled his eyes and kicked the covers so he could settle on the bed. Gilbert was about to tuck him in, but his sibling gestured for him to wait.

"C'm'ere, Leo," he said, petting the small space at his side. "You'll be cold if you stay over there."

Leo stilled. It was hard to be sure with his tousled hair hiding half his face, but Gilbert got the impression that the young servant was looking directly at him. Gilbert gave him a small nod of encouragement.

"Come on!" Elliot tapped the mattress insistently. "You too, shorty."

He had turned to Gilbert when he had said that last bit – or rather, to Oz. Gilbert smiled and handed the plush rabbit over:

"His name is Oz," he scolded his brother mildly. Elliot ignored him and sat the rabbit between himself and Leo, who had climbed on the bed to sit beside him. Gilbert tucked the three of them in.

"So!" Elliot exclaimed as soon as Gilbert had withdrawn his hand. Leo elbowed him, and his master lowered his voice. "You really come from the future?"

Gilbert sat on the armchair Elliot's siblings usually used to tell him bedtime stories, and drew an uneasy hand through his hair:

"Yes… But a future that's no longer possible," the man said, struggling for the right words. "Things have changed."

"But Leo was there, right?" Elliot insisted. "That's how you knew he was a Baskerville. Was I there too?"

Gilbert's throat clenched. He gave his sibling a wavering smile:

"Yes. You were there."

The boy's smile widened. He opened his mouth to ask something more, then closed it with a sudden frown.

"But I wasn't a Baskerville, right? I was a Nightray!" the child leaned forward in earnest.

"Yes," Gilbert said, startled. "Of course you were."

"Then you were a Nightray as well!" Elliot said with finality. "Vincent, too! We were all brothers in that world!"

He held Gilbert's gaze fiercely, daring the man to contradict him. Gilbert squirmed a little, unsure how to handle Elliot's sudden determination to tell the story himself.

"Well, yes. Vincent and I were adopted into your family."

"Good!" Elliot turned to Leo with a victorious nod. His servant ignored him. Gilbert's attention shifted to the little rabbit between the two; he looked very black against the spotless white of the sheets.

"But the Vessalius family found me first," Gilbert could feel the corners of his lips quirking up at the memory. "That's how I met Oz."

Elliot grumbled at that, but Gilbert went on regardless:

"I wasn't much older than you two. At the time, I didn't remember that I once belonged to the Baskerville clan," he told Leo. "In fact, I remembered nothing at all, except for my name. But the Vessalius family gave me a place to call home. I didn't need anything else. I served Oz for five years; I was happy."

Leo was still. Gilbert took a deep breath:

"So happy that I was afraid to remember my past. I didn't want anything to get in the way of what I had gained, to get between me and the people I'd grown to love..." He regarded the two boys and rabbit, a wistful smile lingering on his lips. "It took me years to realize that it made no difference. When I became a nobleman – and later, when I finally regained my memories – nothing changed. My place was always by Oz's side."

"Why?" Elliot protested. "You just said you were a Nightray! You can't be a Nightray and a servant of the Vessalius!"

Gilbert chuckled: "Oz said I could."

"Well that's just stupid!" Elliot huffed and made to punch the plush rabbit, but Leo caught his fist in time.

"Don't do that!" Gilbert cried out. "Oz said that because he thought our two families should get along! Actually," bittersweet amusement replaced some of Gilbert's distress from Elliot's behaviour, "you agreed to help him improve the relationship between the Vessalius and Nightray Households."

Elliot's eyes widened:

"I did? When?"

"You were about sixteen…"

"Oh! Oh! Did I have my own sword then?"

Gilbert felt a pang at that.

"Yes… you did."

His foster brother didn't seem to notice his discomfort. The little boy was beaming with excitement:

"Did I slice any dragons?"

Gilbert had to swallow the lump obstructing his throat. All of the Nightray siblings, slaughtered one by one. Elliot's horrified expression as Break held him down:

"Don't move, Elliot Nightray… Or should I say, Headhunter?"

"You were very brave," the man murmured. "And strong. But you… were always rushing ahead recklessly. And that… It…"

It took all of his willpower to meet Elliot's gaze.

"…That got you in serious trouble. You should really be careful with that sword…"

"That sounds like you alright," Leo snickered. Elliot punched him in the shoulder.

Leo's chilling scream, a race through the tunnels, blood everywhere...

"And was I good at playing the piano?" Elliot asked, startling Gilbert out of the grisly vision. "I was better than Leo, right?"

The man managed a shaky smile:

"You were both very talented. You played many duos. I think you wrote most of your pieces together."

Elliot turned to Leo with renewed enthusiasm:

"See? We'll still be playing together when we're grown up! You don't have to go with the Baskervilles!"

"Gilbert said it was a different future," Leo pointed out. He sounded anxious.

"Then I'll make it happen!" Elliot countered. "It's okay, you can be my servant and a Baskerville. Zwei is a Baskerville too, right?"

Leo hesitated. Then he smirked:

"Yes. And Gilbert is a Nightray serving a Vessalius."

Elliot flushed: "That's completely different!"

"Hypocrite," Leo taunted.

"Am not!"

"Are too."

"Well I will have a sword and you won't!"

"Then I'll have a dragon."

"Then I… wait, really?" Elliot turned to Gilbert: "Gilbert, did Leo have a dragon?"

"I read something about that," Leo moved a strand of hair out of his face to give the man a pointed look. "Glen Baskerville had a dragon, right?"

Leo's deranged eyes as he spoke of the Abyss. A giant grotesque beast framing his small body.

"Farewell, Oz."

The glowing runes at Oz's feet, the breach to the darkness, the chains, no, not again, Oz…!

"Hey, Gilbert! Don't fall asleep!"

Elliot's voice was like a splash of cold water. Gilbert heaved, his pulse beating madly against his throat, nearly choking him. He took in the sight of the two boys, startled and inquisitive, but there, they were still there, alive and well…

'How long? How long before the Abyss takes them back?'

Gilbert fisted his hair and shoved the thought to the far back of his mind. His eyes searched Oz's in the dark. He wouldn't let himself think like that. Oz had granted his friends a second chance. They should make the most of it. Gilbert would protect them to the end.

"Are you okay?" Leo asked.

The man took a deep breath and let his hand fall back on his knee. He smiled at the children; to his relief, it no longer felt forced.

"Yes… I'll be fine, don't worry," he assured them. "You are right, Leo: the Jabberwocky is one of the five Black Winged Chains that Glen Baskerville used to possess."

Elliot raised his eyebrows: "Like Raven?"

"Yes, like Raven."

Gilbert remembered this exhilarating night from another time, when all five birds had taken to the sky so the world could be reborn. The surge of power that electrified the air, the unbreakable bond that kept all five contractors connected under the fire of their Chains...

Yes. He could tell them that much.

"Things have changed, since the Tragedy of Sablier," Gilbert clarified. "Glen Baskerville can no longer pretend to hold as much power as he used to. This is an agreement Pandora and the Baskervilles had to come to: each of the four Dukedoms has an entitled Black Winged Chain and Gate to the Abyss. For every generation, an heir to the duke or duchess must contract this Chain as a representative of Pandora, and another shall inherit the title of heir to his or her house. The Jabberwocky, on the other hand, is Glen Baskerville's legacy, as is the fifth Gate."

Elliot listened closely, his pointed nose scrunched up in concentration:

"So you're the Nightrays' representative as a Pandora agent?"

Gilbert looked to the side, feeling a little sheepish.

"Actually, my status is a little…unusual. I think most people at Pandora Headquarters think of me as a free agent."

To his bemusement, Elliot perked up immediately:

"Like Xerxes Break?"

A short laugh bubbled up in Gilbert's throat:

"Yes… something like that."

"That's so cool!" Elliot exclaimed with stars in his eyes, and once again Leo had to chastise him for being too loud. Their squirming shook the mattress and made Oz topple forward. Elliot straightened him up with a mumbled apology.

"So…" the child asked, eying the plush rabbit warily. "Is Oz the Vessalius heir, then?"

A heavy lump crawled its way back up Gilbert's throat. For the first time, he regretted having taken Oz along. It wasn't a subject Gilbert liked to broach in his presence.

"Oz is… In this time…" the words tasted sour in his mouth. "Well… he never had a Coming of Age Ceremony. He wasn't formerly acknowledged as a member of the Vessalius Household, so..."

His smile turned bittersweet. Most people didn't even acknowledge Oz as a sentient being, let alone a man.

Silence lingered. It weighed on their small group as the two children glanced from one occupant of the room to another. They fidgeted and fumbled with their blankets. Oz was perfectly still, a shadow within shadows.

At long last, Leo broke the silence:

"What happened to him?"

Gilbert bit his lip. How could he even begin to explain that?


The man swallowed his uneasiness. He could count the people from this time who believed in Oz on one hand. Elliot and Leo deserved to know.

"Oz was cursed," Gilbert whispered.

Elliot nodded in silent understanding. Inconsequent as it was, the gesture comforted Gilbert. He rummaged through his pants' pocket. The thin chain of the old pocket watch tinkled as he pulled it out. The children leaned over to take a better look.

"Long ago, this watch was possessed by a ghost," Gilbert told them. "It was attached to a secret grave in the Vessalius estate. No one knew of its existence, or the identity of the deceased. Until one day, Oz, who was just about to come of age, went to explore the gardens and heard a mysterious melody."

Gilbert flicked the watch open. The children held their breaths. There was no sound but the distant call of night birds.

Elliot pouted: "It's broken."

"Yes. That's because the ghost is gone." Gilbert's lips twisted into a sneer. "He is long gone."

Elliot inched back, eyebrows furrowed in worry. Gilbert stared at him in puzzlement, and gradually the boy seemed to relax.

"Did you get rid of it?" Elliot asked.

"It wasn't that easy, believe me…"

"Maybe you should start from the beginning," Leo advised meekly. "So Oz found the grave. And then?"

Gilbert smiled ruefully. He was never good at telling stories, even when it mattered most.

"After finding the watch, Oz went into a trance… I think that's when he got possessed. But there was no clear sign; I was there with him, and yet I didn't notice a thing."

An old guilt weighed down on his chest. Gilbert had gotten accustomed to its presence long ago. He barely noticed it anymore, but he never forgot.

"Neither Oz nor I understood what was going on. Back then, the children of nobles were rarely told about the Abyss until they came of age," Gilbert clarified. "But the watch contained some power from the Abyss. Therefore, as its messengers, the Baskervilles had to step in. And…"

Zai Vessalius had betrayed Oz. He must have known all along, somehow, that despicable man – he had treated this amazing boy like filth, discarded him like it was nothing, like he had never been able to see…

Gilbert's fist clenched.

"…They threw Oz into the Abyss. He had no idea why. Oz was trapped there for ten years…"

He broke off. Just talking about it made him feel sick. Betraying the Vessalius family, being ostracized by the Nightrays, the murders and plotting, the constant fear that it may all be for naught, that Oz may be long dead or worse…

You can't protect anyone.

A gentle touch on his arm jolted him out of his thoughts. Elliot pulled back his hand with an embarrassed flush. Oz had slid to the right and was leaning against the child's side.

Gilbert focused on the sight and willed the insidious voice out of his head. It was stronger today, feeding on his anxiety and memories, but the man had gotten better at ignoring it. Oz was here, he told himself. Oz was right here, he wouldn't lose him, never again.

"…It only felt like a few hours to him," Gilbert said, unsure whether he was trying to reassure the children or himself. "He was saved by a Chain known as the Black Rabbit, but whose actual name was Alice."

"Alice?" Elliot parroted, startled out of his concern. "But…isn't she your Chain? …Or something?"

Gilbert nodded: "But back then, she was Oz's Chain. I contracted her much later. When Oz was thrown into the Abyss, he and Alice had to form an illegal contract in order to escape. I could see him again at last..."

"What about the ghost?" Elliot asked when Gilbert's pause proved too long.

The man tried to gather his thoughts and not give in to feelings of the past, be it anger or joy.

"The ghost… Unbeknownst to us, his powers kept growing. This contract between Oz and Alice had set his plans in motion. You and Leo both read about illegal contractors before, right? Oz, too, had a seal. Every time the needle advanced, his bond with Alice grew stronger, and the ghost gained more influence over him. Given enough time, the ghost would have taken complete control of them both…"

Jack's taunting words slurring out of Oz's lips as the possessed boy danced with slithering chains, and the giant rabbit screamed in agony. To think it had taken Gilbert this long to realise who the monster was…

"Eventually, Oz realized that he himself was becoming the Chain B-Rabbit, and that the ghost was the one claiming his human body and becoming the contractor."

Gilbert shook his head to rid it of the hateful thoughts that plagued him:

"In order to protect Alice from the ghost's influence, Oz ended his contract with her. But that wasn't enough to get rid of the ghost, and Alice was sent back to the Abyss as a result. I used Raven in order to reach her, and we made a pact. I knew I would need her help to save Oz. We fought the ghost together…"

And it had been such bliss, when Gilbert had sealed Jack away with Raven's power and finally Oz was himself again, still shaken and distraught but there, in full control of his body and voice, there with him…

"I made a pact with Oz to free him from the ghost's control, but…"

Gilbert's voice broke. He couldn't go on.

"The seal didn't disappear, right? You can't break a former contract just by making a new one."

The man raised his head to meet Leo's gaze. The child's words had been hesitant, almost mechanical, like he had repeated a line that had just been whispered to him. Gilbert shivered at the thought.

Glen was listening.

Gilbert shook himself. If the children deserved to know the truth, Glen's past incarnations needed it more. It was about time they reconsidered the so-called balance that had almost led the world to its destruction. One day, when Leo was older, someone would have to tell him about Jack and Lacie. The boy needed the knowledge if he really were to inherit the title of Glen Baskerville.

Gilbert acquiesced to Leo's words, and gave a bitter smile. Oz would be better suited to tell this specific story. For now, it was Oz's tale that Gilbert had to finish; the way he had ultimately failed to protect his young master.

So, with a longing stare at the plush rabbit between the two boys, Gilbert started over.

He told them the way Oz had tricked the ghost into becoming the victim of his own curse. How the ghost had become a Chain, and how Oz had gotten his human body back. When suddenly, after the Will of the Abyss had granted Jack's wish, everything had been immersed in golden light. Gilbert and Vincent had been separated in the confusion. The air had been heavy with electricity. Gilbert had felt a vicious pull, something immensely powerful leaving his body in waves, leaving him dizzy and disoriented.

Then Gilbert knew, with frightening certainty, that it was the power of B-Rabbit being taken from him. He could feel it through his contract with Oz.

Oz was fading.

His apprehension was impossible to repress. Gilbert clung to the belief that Oz's plan would go smoothly, that soon they would all be back, that Oz would be free at last, without Jack or his destructive powers to haunt him. Yet the fear was stronger. Gilbert called to him, desperate to at least hear his voice.

The ground collapsed under his feet. Gilbert reached out blindly with his left hand. Black wings burst out of the darkness, long feathers sliding through his fingers, spreading under him, breaking his fall. Gilbert could still feel the heavy metal of the black blade in his right hand. Frantically, he searched the collapsing room for his companions.


Here he was, back in his human body, the distress in his emerald eyes unmistakable, falling in the darkness of the Abyss. Alice was at his back, clinging to him with all her might. The Raven dived after them. Gilbert was clenching the sword's hilt, ready to open the Nightray Gate as soon as he reached them. He let go of the Raven's plumage as the bird continued its descent. Oz's desperate cry reached him just as the man's hand brushed Alice's forearm.

A swipe of the sword, and the Gate to the Abyss burst open.

"We made it out of the Gate… and the first thing I saw was you," Gilbert told Elliot. "You wouldn't remember. You were still a baby. Your brother Ernest had wanted to show you Raven's Gate. I have no idea why he did something so dangerous, I think he hoped you could contract Raven one day if he failed, but really, how could he be so… Well, your father told him as much," Gilbert gave a quivering sigh. "I didn't stop to think about it at the time. The only thing I could think of was that I had just left my own time."

A startled scream. A young sandy-haired man gaping at him. A blue-eyed toddler in the man's arms. The clanging of metal when the sword fell out of Gilbert's hand.

Ernest Nightray. Elliot.Elliot was alive, they were both alive… they were younger.

Where was Oz?

"Vincent and the Will of the Abyss had disappeared. As for Oz and Alice…"

Gilbert turned round and saw Alice. She was kneeling on the ground and breathing heavily, clutching something black in her hands. Gilbert searched the rest of the room with frantic eyes, he couldn't find Oz, it wasn't possible, he couldn't…

His eyes went back to Alice. The little girl was muttering to herself and biting into the black object she held. Gilbert stepped closer. The sound was deafening. Everything went cold.

She was holding a plush rabbit.

"Wake up," Alice said with every bite. "Wake up. Wake up…!"

"We weren't thinking straight. Alice and I. The only reason we didn't get arrested on the spot was the Nightray crest on my clothes. Your father and brothers were quick to realise I had contracted Raven. They wanted to question me before contacting Pandora Headquarters."

Gilbert lost track of time. He couldn't look away from the child and rabbit. He was only vaguely aware of his surroundings: deep, angry voices, anxious inquiries, being led through stairs and corridors to the Duke's office. Bernard Nightray was there, younger, but stern as always, his face expectant. Gilbert heard none of his questions. Something inside of him was screaming. He had become deaf to everything but the storm in his chest.

Alice kept biting Oz, pulling at his ears with her teeth. Gilbert could see tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. He didn't have the heart to stop her.

A snow-white homing pigeon was sitting on the window. Suddenly there was a letter in his hand. Duke Nightray looked vexed, but curious. It took one look at the handwriting, and Gilbert was awake in an instant.


The letter was brief, its rushed sentences shaking with anxiety. Gilbert's heart started beating wildly as he scanned through the words, caught between hope and fear.

"Vincent made it through the Vessalius Gate," Gilbert looked up abruptly. "The Will… your sister might be there!"

Alice froze midway through another bite to stare at him with rapt attention. The Duke narrowed his eyes:

"I believe you owe me an explanation…"

Gilbert jumped to his feet.

"Let's go, Alice!"

The little girl nodded. Ignoring Bernard Nightray's protests, they ran for the door. When they turned the corridor, Gilbert heard the Duke call the guards. Gilbert turned left and pushed Alice through the small wooden side door the servants used. Most noblemen disregarded it completely, but Gilbert knew that it lead to the laundry room, and then a shortcut to the stable.

Most of the horses they found there were unfamiliar to him, but Gilbert did recognize two young stallions from the matching white marks on their foreheads. The horses wouldn't remember him, but Gilbert recognized them as the oldest stallions the Nightray family owned. They might not be as tame as he remembered, but they were his safest option.

"We don't have the time to put up a carriage," the man told Alice as he untied a rein hanging from the loose-box and fastened it on the tallest horse. "Do you know how to ride a horse, Alice?"

"Of course I do!" the little girl answered in an offended tone, and kicked the stable's wooden double doors open with a creak. The morning sun painted the straw and animals in warm colours, like a picture coming to life. The wind against their skin felt surreal after their dive into the Abyss. "All you have to do is sit on it and tell it where to go!"

Gilbert didn't have enough energy left for aggravation. He opened the door for the horse and led it out of its loose-box. He was about to take a blanket and a saddle from their shelf when approaching footsteps stopped his movement. Gilbert swore under his breath:

"There's no time to saddle a second horse anyway."

The man hoisted a protesting Alice on to the horse's back. The little girl wavered and put a hand on the horse to keep her balance, while her other hand held Oz to her chest. Gilbert mounted before her. Right then, they heard the jingle of keys from the door they had entered through.

"Hold on to me!" Gilbert told Alice, and he spurred the stallion on.

The horse gave a startled neigh and darted forward. Alice's retort turned into a horrified squeak at the unfamiliar sensation. She hugged the cavalier from behind and held on for dear life with her stuffed rabbit crushed between their bodies.

Gilbert was almost knocked off, and brought his legs closer against his mount's flanks in a hasty attempt to remain steady. He forced the sensation of Oz's too soft body out of his mind and focused all his attention on following the horse's movements.

They rode for miles. Alice kept asking if they were there yet, her tone increasingly nauseous as the ride dragged on. Gilbert only answered in clipped sentences. He could feel exhaustion lurking behind his eyelids, a steady reminder that he had abused Raven's powers yet again. He kept his eyes wide open and fixed on the road, determined to keep going.

The sun had nearly completed its journey through the sky by the time they arrived.

They came upon a governess and two fair-haired children playing in the gardens. The older of the two was carrying a long butterfly net. Gilbert pulled at the reins, desperate to take a closer look…

A small hand closed over Gilbert's.

Just like that, he was back in Elliot's bedroom. Silence was complete save for the wind against the windows. Leo had leaned over to pat his hand in polite inquiry:

"Are you okay?"

Gilbert nodded numbly. Looking over the child's shoulder, he saw Elliot snoring gently against his pillow.

"He fell asleep," Leo said, and threw a small, fond smile at his young master before turning back to Gilbert. "I'm not sure when. And you went all quiet. Are you sure you will be fine?"

Once again, Gilbert had trouble finding his voice. He glanced over at the window. The first hints of a bluish hue were appearing over the black trees in the horizon.

"Yes," he said. "Thank you."

Leo looked unconvinced. Gilbert put on a reassuring smile for him.

"It's getting late," the man said as he tucked Elliot in and retrieved the plush rabbit from under his arm. "You should go back to sleep as well."

Leo slid off the bed obediently and shivered at the loss of the blanket's warmth. Gilbert made haste to fix Elliot's sheets before escorting Leo back to the servants' quarters.

"I still don't believe you," Leo said suddenly, so softly Gilbert wondered if he had imagined it. The man felt a pang to the chest all the same.

"I meant it when I said you were your own person," he told the child. "Do you believe that, at least?"

Leo bit his lower lip. It was hard to tell whether it was out of frustration or mere confusion, but he looked lost. And so very young...

"I don't know," the child shook his head and started to pull at his hair. "I don't know who to trust..."

"You can trust Elliot," Gilbert told him earnestly.

Leo didn't turn to look at him. He did stop scratching his head.

"That idiot?" Leo snickered, but there was no real bite in the word.

"He's not an idiot. But…I worry about him," Gilbert admitted. "And you are the only one he really listens to, so… please, look after him."

He hadn't meant to sound so distraught. Leo half-turned to glance at him. Despite the child's best efforts to conceal it, Gilbert saw a slight smirk appear on his lips:

"He doesn't really listen. But alright."

They walked the rest of the way to Leo's room in companionable silence. Gilbert felt a little lighter after their conversation, but his head was still buzzing with unpleasant memories and doubts.

Even now, he couldn't be sure whether or not bringing Leo to Duke Nightray had been the right thing to do. The child was distrustful, and Gilbert didn't blame him: he had gone straight from living in a small village with his single mother to serving one of the more influential families in the noble hierarchy, seemingly for no other reason than Vincent having taken a special liking to his mother.

In truth, Gilbert and Vincent had spent four years looking for him. Vincent himself didn't know much about Leo's past aside from the fact that he had been taken to the House of Fianna when he was fourteen. But Gilbert refused to wait, much less let the orphanage's construction on Sablier's ruins come to fruition. The two siblings had only agreed to cooperate with Duke Nightray and let him study Raven on the condition that he would stop his human experiments in the former capital.

That left them with little to no clues. In the end Gilbert and Vincent had had no choice but to search every village and rely on their own gift as Baskervilles: without the Sealing Stones to hinder them, they could follow the Abyss' golden light to Glen Baskerville's location.

But Leo was too young to lead the Baskervilles, and Gilbert worried constantly about the toll Glen's spirit was taking on the child's psyche. More than anything, Gilbert was scared of facing his former master: what would the previous Glens think of the current situation? Would they be satisfied with the status quo the Baskervilles and Pandora had come to? Or would it only be seen as another betrayal?

Gilbert didn't like to dwell on these thoughts. Instead, all year long, he had focused his attention on Elliot and his renewed friendship with Leo.

It was amazing how quickly the two of them had become inseparable. They had clashed on Leo's first day at the manor and yet, to everyone's bemusement, rather than have Leo and his mother fired, Elliot had insisted on keeping the child as a personal servant. Ever since, you hardly ever saw one without the other. Leo had gotten used to his new life, and his bad temper improved significantly. Thanks to his mother's influence, he was also a lot more careful around noblemen. Gilbert suspected that only he and Vincent knew that Leo still argued with Elliot behind his masters' backs.

Gilbert was startled out of his thoughts when his foot came in contact with something soft barring his way. Looking down, he barely contained a scream:


The form at his feet stirred, easing his worst fears. He crouched down to be level with his brother:

"What are you doing here?" Gilbert hissed. His heart was beating furiously from his near panic-attack.

"Waiting for Lord Leo," Vincent answered. "I was keeping watch when he left his room, so I followed him, but as soon as I saw him with you, I knew you would bring him back safely. Therefore, I came back to my post."

He got up, his limbs heavy from sleep, and bowed to the child:

"I must have fallen asleep. My apologies"

"What were you thinking?" Gilbert asked, too distressed to be bothered by the strange display. "What if something had…"

"Don't worry, brother, no one would try to kill us inside the manor right after a failed attempt. Too obvious."

Even in the dark, he could sense Vincent's sardonic smile. He lowered his voice to an urgent whisper:

"Don't say that in front of Leo!"

Vincent's smirk only widened: "He is not as naïve as you think he is."

Gilbert turned to the child, almost afraid of what he would find. Leo had shown no sign of surprise or fear when they had found Vincent's prone body at his door.

The boy's defences were back on: he had taken refuge in his silence. His quiet presence felt a lot more oppressive in the dark corridor, with Vincent's cynical words still hanging in the air.

"I'm not sure the attack came from the Nightrays," Gilbert protested weakly.

"I am," Vincent replied.

"You can't just assume things like that! And don't drag Leo into this!"

Gilbert heard a low chuckle: "I am merely trying to learn from the past, brother. Or the future, as the case may be. My only wish is to protect our Lord."

"Vincent, you…"

"Master Gilbert."

The small nasal voice reduced him to silence. Leo sounded eerily calm. His obstructed face was unreadable as ever.

"I don't mind," Leo said. "It's easier for me to keep an eye on Vincent like this, too. I don't like it when he hangs around my mother."

"What a low opinion you have of me, my Lord," Vincent laughed approvingly.

"It's not like that!" Gilbert said at the same moment. "Vincent is just pretending…"

"I still don't like it," Leo cut in on them. "But at least Vincent doesn't lie to me," he added in a lower voice.

Gilbert's eyes widened, and suddenly it struck him: this uncanny complicity between the two, and how closely it resembled the way Leo and Vincent had fallen into their respective roles of master and servant after Elliot's death.

"Were you the one who told Leo about his connection to the Baskervilles?" Gilbert asked his brother.

"He trusted you enough to tell you?" Vincent brightened up. "I'm delighted to hear that, Master."


"I was just making sure that you were telling the truth," Leo grumbled and ducked his head. "If you'll excuse me, I have to get up for work soon."

"Of course," Vincent stepped aside. "Sleep well, my Lord."

With a mumbled "goodnight," Leo disappeared in the darkness of his small room. The door closed with a soft final click. Gilbert's gaze went from the door to Vincent, who had just straightened up from his bow. Gilbert was unable to find his voice.

The last person Vincent had called 'Master' had been Jack.

"Why did you tell him?" Gilbert asked.

"It will be easier to protect him if he knows," Vincent answered easily. "Don't you agree?"

"He's just a child… He shouldn't have to deal with this."

"Kind as ever, my dear brother," Vincent chuckled. "But I won't let it get either of you killed."

Gilbert shuddered. He hated it when Vincent used that tone. It wasn't helping his suspicions any. He forced himself to ask:

"Why do you call him 'Master'?"

Vincent didn't answer right away. Gilbert was unable to see anything beyond the contours of his brother's unruly hair; nothing that might clue him in on what Vincent was thinking. He was getting antsy, but didn't dare break the silence.

When Vincent spoke at last, his voice had a strained quality to it:

"Because I made a vow to protect him."

In spite of himself, Gilbert's gaze drifted to Oz. That wasn't the answer he had expected. It almost sounded like an accusation.

"I see you still carry that toy around."

Gilbert bristled: "Don't call him that."

"That's what he is."

"You know that's not true," he said through gritted teeth.

"No, I don't," Vincent replied steadily. "And neither do you."

"Stop that!" Gilbert snapped.

He could have punched Vincent. It was hard enough to deal with everyone's disbelief on a daily basis, but for Vincent of all people to rub it in was simply too much. Gilbert knew that his brother was only being pragmatic about the situation, but he wouldn't let him say such horrible things right in front of Oz.

"I will prove it to you," Gilbert said. "And to the rest of the world."

There was a beat. Gilbert still couldn't see his brother's expression.

"What if nothing happens at the ceremony?" Vincent asked.

Gilbert flinched. Vincent's voice sounded even more strained as he asked that. It did nothing to alleviate Gilbert's anger: Vincent was worried about him, not about Oz.

"I will keep searching," he answered curtly. "For Oz's sake."

"What about your sake?" Vincent jerked forward. He was still whispering, but the tension was building in his voice. "Don't you think you have done more than enough? You have your master back!"

Gilbert's eyes widened:

"You don't mean…Leo?"

"He is our master," Vincent insisted. "Right now you are doing everything you can for the Baskervilles. Isn't that enough?"

The shock and anger in Gilbert's chest blazed into white-hot fury:

"How could this be enough?" he said with a snarl. "Everything we have right now, this opportunity for the Baskervilles and Nightrays, Elliot being alive at all, all of it is thanks to Oz!"

"He is gone," Vincent said. "He never existed in the first place."

Gilbert grabbed him by the collar. He was this close to slamming his brother against Leo's door.

"Don't say that," he hissed. "Don't you dare."

Vincent stayed silent for several seconds. Gilbert could hear nothing but his own laboured breathing. Oz's weight against his left arm felt heavier somehow, like a quiet reminder that Gilbert shouldn't be fighting in front of his master and friend. His grip loosened at the thought.

He heard a long sigh.

"All I am saying is that you should respect his wish," Vincent said.

"What do you mean?" Gilbert asked in as calm a voice as he could manage.

"This is his real appearance, after all. And he can't hurt anyone like this, while his powers still protect you and his dear Alice. He is probably happier this way." Vincent's voice deepened: "I know I would be."

Gilbert's eyes widened. So that was what this was really about. He sighed shakily, torn between anger and compassion.

"Don't say you envy him," he begged his brother. "It's too awful."

"Why?" Vincent sounded genuinely confused.

"Because Oz deserves to live!" Gilbert cried. He didn't know how either of them had managed to keep their voices down for so long. "And so do you!"

"Do I?"

His brother's tone was so sardonic it felt like acid on Gilbert's skin. Vincent laughed on the other side of his face. His next words bore the weight of years and years of insatiable fatigue:

"You don't understand, Gil. I don't want to live. I used and killed many people in order to change the past… all for nothing. I hate myself. In the end, everything I tried only made you suffer more."

Gilbert's hand trembled against his brother's collar. He could feel a beat there against his fingertips, slightly unsteady in Vincent's jugular. His hand moved to his little brother's shoulder, and he caught him in a tight hug. Vincent went rigid in his arms.

"I never hated you."

His voice was rough. Gilbert had to clear his throat.

"We both did terrible things in the past," he said. "I don't know if we can ever make up for it. I don't think a lifetime is enough. We took and lost so much..."

"You say that helping the Baskervilles is enough," Gilbert went on softly. "But really, it's all I can do. Sometimes I feel like I will go mad if I look back, so I just keep moving forward. The truth is, I'm terrified of what's ahead. That history will just repeat itself."

Saying his fears aloud made them easier to bear. Gilbert found himself breathing more evenly. His fingers brushed Oz's cheek, pressed against Vincent's back.

"You know, Vince… Oz never believed in fate. But I think I do. Since the both of us ended up in this place and time, we should take it as an opportunity to right everything we did wrong. With the information we have, maybe we can stop some of the deaths we caused."

Vincent was trembling. Gilbert's arms tightened around him:

"I know it's selfish. I don't want to force my own opinion upon you. But I'm glad that you came here with me. This time, I think we should carry this burden together. And even if you don't want to… just having you here is enough for me. If I were the only one to know about the other future… about Oz… I couldn't bear it."

His brother was still unresponsive, quiet save for his heavy breathing on his shoulder.

"Please, don't be afraid to rely on me," Gilbert insisted. "Ask for help when you need it. You don't have to do everything on your own anymore. You've got me, Vince."

"Let me go."

Gilbert inched back, unnerved. Vincent's voice was on the verge of breaking. From this close, he was able to glimpse his brother's mismatched eyes boring into his, clouded in the bluish light of dawn.

"I will never have you."

Gilbert couldn't suppress a shudder. Vincent's expression only darkened.


His little brother put a shaking hand on his chest and pushed him away. Some bitter humour crept back into his voice when he spoke next:

"You worry too much, Gil," he said, like the previous tension had never existed. "I did promise to keep you informed of my every move, didn't I?"

"It's not about that," Gilbert protested. "I don't want us to be strangers anymore!"

Vincent's shoulders shook in the dark. From amusement or sadness, Gilbert couldn't tell. Sometimes he wondered if his brother had ever felt anything but a sickening mix of both.

"You still have Miss Alice, don't you?" Vincent tilted his head forward. "And your precious master."

Gilbert's fingers tightened around Oz. He hadn't realized he had been clutching the rabbit to his chest. Vincent sighed:

"I hope you enjoy the ceremony."

Gilbert bit his lip, helpless before his brother's barriers. Five years of working together in this world, and the distance between them only seemed to grow.

"Are you sure you don't want to come?" he asked in desperation. "You were invited…"

"No thank you," Vincent cut in. "The less I see of this girl, the better I'll feel."

His older brother raised an eyebrow. It had taken him a long time to realize that these recurring insinuations referred to Lady Ada, and to this day he couldn't fathom what Vincent found so frightening about her. He could understand if it were her cats, but an eight years old child?

"I mean," Vincent amended hastily. "Someone has to look after Lord Leo. Besides, Zwei will be with you; you'll be fine."

"How is she?" Gilbert asked carefully.

Vincent shrugged one shoulder:

"Calmer. Last I checked, she was still Echo." He yawned. "Noise will probably show herself again before tomorrow night, but don't worry, she'll remember my instructions. Just handle her carefully, you know she can't control herself very well."

Gilbert gritted his teeth: "I wish you would stop talking of her like this..."

"My bad," Vincent said with another shrug. His brother could hear a teasing smirk in his voice. Gilbert shook his head, aggravated, and turned away:

"I'll see you tomorrow night. Please be careful."

"Always, dear brother. Have a safe trip."

When it was time for departure, Gilbert found Alice in front of the carriage, glaring at the harnessed horses, unmindful of the unnerved glances the groom and coachman kept sending her way.

"Will you be okay?" Gilbert asked her.

Alice turned to glare at him instead:

"I'm not scared, I just hate them!" she bit back. "They're annoying, they're uncomfortable, and they're not edible. It's a good thing we have carriages or they would be useless on top of everything."

Gilbert rolled his eyes. Really, being uneasy around horses was nothing to be ashamed of, especially after Alice's rocky introduction to equitation. However, she had lost interest in the animals before he could tell her as much, and trotted to him instead.

To Gilbert's confusion, she bounced past him, her white boots clicking on the pristine marble stairs. Once she was standing three steps above him, she leaned over and bit his cheek.


He rubbed his aching cheek, fuming, words tumbling out of his mouth in an incoherent mess of reproaches. He thought they had been over this, for Heaven's sake, it had been years since she had dropped this ridiculous habit, what had gotten into her all of a sudden…

"I know," Alice cut him off. "And you're depressed all the time anyway, but today it's even worse. I had to try something. Biting worked on Oz once," she said with a defensive huff.

Gilbert could only stare at her, his cheeks burning red. Alice looked away first, her gaze dropping to the rabbit in Gilbert's arms.

"How are you feeling, Oz?"

He didn't react. Alice sighed. She opened her arms and looked at Gilbert expectantly. With some reluctance, the man handed Oz to her. Before he could stop her, she bit into the plush cheek, too. Alice frowned, ignored Gilbert's protests, and pecked the bite mark on Oz's cheek.

"Still nervous," she commented. "But it does help, you know," she said to Gilbert.

The man grumbled. 'I guess it's the intention that counts, but still.'

"I think it would help more if you just kissed him instead."

Alice shook her head: "Biting works better. It keeps him awake."

Gilbert looked at them both, his annoyance tempered by uncertainty. Alice looked no older than the day he had first met her as a wild Chain, dressed in the same white and red coat over her black skirt and silk ribbon – the same material the smaller ribbon around Oz's neck was made of. Few people looked twice at her when they saw her holding Oz: just a little girl and her plush rabbit. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Except the girl never aged, and the rabbit couldn't be damaged. To Gilbert, seeing them like this was a constant reminder of their common past in Sablier, of the unbreakable bond between them. One Chain in three bodies. The shadow of the Blood-Stained Black Rabbit hovered over them constantly.

The man glanced over at the two servants near the carriage, and saw a reflection of that shadow on their distant faces. The man and boy bowed to him promptly. They had been serving the Nightrays for three years now, and had heard the rumours. No matter what Gilbert told them, they would always fear the three of Gilbert, Alice and Oz to some extent. He couldn't really blame them.

"…Did Oz say anything?" Gilbert whispered to Alice.

She scrunched up her face in response:

"Ask him yourself."

"You know I can't…"

But Alice just hopped past him with her head held high, clutching Oz against her. Gilbert felt a vicious pang of envy and resentment; the latter mostly towards himself.

The two of them were the Chain, and Gilbert was the contractor. If Alice really could understand Oz, why in Heavens couldn't he?

Gilbert contained the urge to ruffle his hair in agitation and followed her to the carriage. The young groom made a hasty retreat while the coachman fiddled with the reins and inched away from the approaching man like his sour mood was contagious. Gilbert couldn't even find the energy to reassure them.

The worst part was that he could never be certain that Oz could actually speak to Alice in this form. Gilbert knew that she was as desperate as he was to hear Oz's voice again. Was what she heard only wishful thinking? The fruit of a child's imagination? Alice was knocking on eighteen, but she had remained childish over the years. And didn't Elliot and Lady Ada speak to Oz, too?

Was this all it was? Was it what Gilbert lacked?

Before boarding, he glanced at his reflection in the window glass of the carriage door. He met the face of a twenty-four years old man, neatly dressed for a party, black hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail that he knew wouldn't last the ride. Only his eyes gave a hint of his actual age: sunken and narrow. Haunted. Gilbert put on his old hat, and pulled it low over them.

Whether he considered himself twenty-nine or a hundred twenty-nine years old, he was well past childhood. Gilbert had long forgotten how to care for a toy so much it came to life and developed a personality of its own. He couldn't remember whether he had ever been a child in this regard.

He sat opposite Alice and looked at her from under the brim of his hat. She was still pouting, looking every bit the petulant kid she was at heart. She started flicking Oz's long ears to stave off boredom.

"Stop that," Gilbert chastised her. "Don't take advantage of the fact that Oz can't say anything for himself."

"He's used to it. And he does talk," Alice grumbled. "You're the one who never listens."

"I don't know how you do it!" Gilbert said, frustration building in his voice. It wasn't the first time they had had this conversation. He knew he should be the adult and stop before he said anything he would regret, but he couldn't bring himself to, not today. "It's easy for you to say when you spent your childhood with Oz like this! Do you even want him to be human again?"

"Of course I do!"

"You could have fooled me!"

"I do! I want to dance with him again."

Just like that, Gilbert's bitterness left him. Alice stopped shouting as soon as he did. She still looked peeved, her skin flushed from their outburst, but not angry. She lifted Oz so he was at her eye level. She gave him a spin before catching him again. The rabbit was facing the wrong direction, looking at Gilbert with unmoving marble eyes.

"We can still dance now, of course," Alice gave Oz another spin so he was facing her once more, "but I liked it better when Oz could move."

Gilbert stared at her in puzzled wonder:

"That's it?"

Alice settled Oz back on her lap and scowled up at the man: "Aren't you the same?"

Gilbert flushed: "What? I can't dance with Oz!"

"But you want to," Alice said. "And you want to kiss and do a bunch of other things I don't really get, but you don't because it doesn't feel the same when Oz looks like this…"

"Will you shut up? Where did you get such ideas?" Gilbert stammered in a high-pitched voice that sounded completely alien to him. His entire body was on fire, his head full of overheated steam.

She couldn't know how right she was. She couldn't.

"Oz told me."

Gilbert's throat dried. Unable to form a coherent thought, he could only gape at Alice's aloof expression. His gaze was drawn to Oz. The rabbit stayed motionless save for the light cahoots of the moving vehicle. Gilbert hadn't even realized that they had departed.

"Why are you so surprised?" Alice asked, nonplussed. "I keep telling you: Oz can speak. And he always says you should stop acting like an idiot and live a little."

These words wiped away Gilbert's embarrassment like so much smoke, leaving a swirling confusion in its wake. Suddenly he could feel Oz's chiding eyes on him. A part of him was afraid to look at the rabbit's face.

Even reproach is better than nothing, the ever-present voice nagged at him.

He looked down. Oz looked exactly the same. To his own surprise, Gilbert chuckled.

"He would say that, wouldn't he?" he smiled ruefully.

Alice rolled her eyes: "You definitely need to listen to him more often."

Gilbert found no answer to give her. His eyes bore into Oz's marble ones, looking for a sign of life or acknowledgement of any kind – coming off with nothing.

The silence lingered, heavy and stifling in the small carriage. For lack of anything better, Gilbert opened a window in an attempt to make it more bearable. The whooshing cold wind and the loud clanging of the wheels against the road were violent intruders on their sullen mood, but Gilbert was willing to take any distraction.

Alice jumped at the opportunity to stick her head out the window and let her long hair fly in the strong draft. True to herself, she let the view and rocking motion distract her from her sulking. In a matter of minutes, they were back to their usual routine of questions and answers about the world rushing by.

Gilbert was more than willing to humour her. He only stole glances at Oz every now and again, and added bits of trivia that he thought the young man might like to hear: this village they passed had been included in the trading market after many weeks of negotiations; the villagers' daily lives should get easier from this arrangement. That small town in the distance was in full preparation of a festival for the upcoming Winter Solstice…

Alice was only interested in the food the townspeople would serve and whether or not there would be meat. She still let Gilbert drift off topic from time to time, with a pointed look for the rabbit resting on her lap.

They mostly avoided the subject of the ceremony, until Alice pointed at a familiar farm in the distance.

"That one belongs to Oz's family, right?"

Gilbert nodded: "That's right."

"So we'll be there soon?"


Alice smiled and bounced Oz on her knees.

"Good. These trips always take way too long. So when are we meeting the other Baskervilles?"

"Not until this evening," Gilbert answered, a little surprised that she would bring it up. "Fang will be coming at the same time as the guests, along with Zwei. Zai Vessalius is still wary of the Baskervilles, so he will want to keep an eye on them."

Gilbert, for his part, very much intended to keep an eye on Zai. But Alice was unbothered by the hint of hostility in his tone:

"What about my sister?"

That attenuated Gilbert's blossoming anger. He smiled slightly:

"She'll probably be the first guest to arrive. In any case, you'll get plenty of time to catch up with her after the ceremony."

Alice's own smile brightened.

"Yeah, but the clown will be there too," she said with a sudden grimace. "And it will be all about him again."

Gilbert couldn't help but laugh at that, which only annoyed Alice further.

"She'll still be happy to see you," he told her. "So will Sharon."

Alice gave a full body shudder, and her face gained a greenish colour:

"You'd better tell her I don't need her help to get dressed for the party."

Gilbert winced a little in sympathy: "Don't worry, she won't be here until the ceremony starts. The Vessalius' servants will be the ones to dress you."

Normally, the both of them should have gotten dressed up before departing from the Nightray manor, but Gilbert knew better than to expect Alice to keep her party dress in order during their travel and the following afternoon at the Vessalius'. Not to mention…

The man tensed, his eyes locked on the window.

"What is it?" Alice followed his gaze. "Did you see something funny?"

"This is not the main road," Gilbert said, careful to keep his tone neutral. The coachman couldn't hear their words over the clattering wheels, but he might be able to pick a change of intonation.

"So? Maybe the coachman got lost or…" Alice paused when she saw her companion draw one of his guns. She gave him a wicked grin as she curled both hands around Oz: "Think it's our welcoming committee?"

The seal on Gilbert's chest itched as his heart beat in apprehension. Idly, he recalled the sarcasm in Vincent's voice this morning: "Have a safe trip."

"Get ready."

The muzzle of his gun inched closer to the glazed front window as Gilbert reached for its lock with his free hand. Alice hopped to his side silently, and came to stand on the seat with her back to the wall on the opposite side of the small window. She had one hand wrapped around Oz, the other clutching the back of the seat for balance.

"Ready when you are."

With a nod, Gilbert slid the window open:

"Stop the carriage."

A whip cracked. The compartment shook as the horses picked up speed. Gilbert leaned on the window's pane and threw his arm through the opening. He caught the coachman into a headlock and put his gun to his temple:

"I said," Gilbert hissed into his ear, "stop."

The coachman shook his head and let go of the reins. From this close, Gilbert was assaulted by the thick smell of perspiration and terror. He was unmoved:

"You'd better stop the carriage before we have to do it ourselves."

"Too late for that, Seaweed Head," Alice laid flat against the back of her seat and held on tight.

It was the only warning Gilbert got before the carriage came to an abrupt halt, knocking him off balance as his surroundings exploded into a chorus of grating wheels, panicked neighs, and the coachman's long scream. Alice and Gilbert stood up as one, listening for incoming threats, but all the man could hear were the stamping hooves of the distressed horses outside. He nodded to Alice, gun at the ready, and kicked the door open.

The first things he noticed were the chains: they had burst out of the earth, tangled themselves into the wheels and pinned the carriage down, their thick metal glowing under the afternoon sun. They were unmistakably B-Rabbit's.

"There must have been a safer way to do that," Gilbert hissed at Alice, still on the lookout. The little girl ignored him and sniffed:

"I can't smell any Chains yet, but you should be careful, Raven."

Gilbert stepped out and scanned their surroundings as he neared the coachman's broken body. He had been thrown overboard by the sudden stop, right into a tree. He wasn't moving. Gilbert knelt by him and kept his gun ready as he checked for a pulse. Nothing.

"I doubt he was working alone," Gilbert whispered, a sick taste in his mouth. Vincent had been right after all. As he picked up the dead man's gun, Gilbert's eyes lingered on the coachman's oddly small hands and the way his freckles stopped at his palms. It was disturbing, the way Gilbert only noticed details like this in death.

"There's something in these woods," Alice pointed her chin towards the thick forest the road led into. "He was probably supposed to take us there."

Gilbert nodded and turned away from the corpse. Both guns at the ready, the man gazed from the trees ahead to the horses kicking at the floor and shaking their manes in distress. If there were ambushed attackers nearby, trying to get away on those horses would give them an opening. Alice and Gilbert could always fly away on Raven, but then…

"We need to find out who planned this attack," Gilbert told Alice. The little girl gave him an eager look.

Before she could reach him, gunfire thundered in the fringe of the woods. Gilbert and Alice jumped apart and ran for the cover of the grounded carriage. Small rocks burst in their wake from bullet impacts. The horses reared up and kicked at the air with panicked neighing. Gilbert had to give them a wide berth when he bypassed their flailing hooves. Two bullets sank in his left side. The man only felt the flaring pain after he managed to duck behind the coach. He let out a ragged gasp as he leaned against the compartment.

"Oh, I'll chop them up for this!" Alice shouted right next to his ear.

She was standing on the carriage's front wheel, clutching Oz to her chest. She sank into a crouching position on her perch when the side windows started to crack from bullet impacts. The threat of flying broken glass didn't stop her rambling, but Gilbert could hardly hear her obscure threats over the noise as he clutched at his bleeding stomach and tried to gather his strength.

"…are you waiting for?"

"In a minute," Gilbert grumbled back. "You're not going in there alone, give me a moment to heal…"

"Oz and I can take care of ourselves! You can just stay here and heal while we fight!"

"I said no! Be quiet!"

The window glass ended their argument when it shattered. Alice curled into a ball and Gilbert shielded her with his body. Shards of glass fell like hail on his head and back, clung to his hair and bit at the hand covering the nape of his neck. But his side wound was already closing. The man chanced a glance up, then let go of Alice and took off his left glove. Alice shook herself to get rid of the debris in her hair, and brandished Oz like a sword.

"Try not to kill them," Gilbert said as he reached out with his left hand. "Remember, we need information."

"I know, just lift the seal already!"

Oz's head was so small it disappeared from view when Gilbert rested his palm on his plush forehead, careful to circle the base of the rabbit's ears with his fingers. The man's thumb brushed against Oz's cheek in silent apology. He pressed on, and a blue glow spread from his hand to the rabbit and the girl holding him.

Gilbert only got a glimpse of Alice's elated grin, and then she was gone. All that was left were the long imprints in the ground of a huge rabbit before a leap.

The man burst into the open as soon as he heard the chains clang around the wheels. He ran alongside them as they uncoiled from under the carriage and struck at the nearest trees. Bullets bounced off their thick links in brief, ear-splitting screeches. Gilbert saw a gun disappear behind a nearby trunk and made a beeline for it. Suddenly, an avalanche of smoke cascaded towards him and a giant walrus emerged from it, barring his way.

The creature barely had time to open its tusks-armed jaws before the Black Rabbit fell from the sky and landed right on the creature's nose. More thick smoke came out of the walrus's mouth as it howled. Gilbert could barely make out the shapes of two other Chains in the spreading fog. The rabbit's ears kept flicking in their direction, the movement followed by swift kicks that sent the Chains tumbling back.

The sinister cracks of falling trees mixed in with the roaring beasts. Gilbert kept running forward, intent on finding the walrus' contractor so they could at least get rid of the smoke. When he got to the tree he had spotted earlier, his target was gone without a trace.

Gilbert leant his back on the trunk and looked round, gun raised. But it was impossible to make out anything but the brutal fighting of the Chains, and the fog was getting thicker by the second. Gilbert was ready to summon Raven so the bird could clear the area with a flap of its wings, when he felt something cold slide along his neck.

Gilbert tried to grab at the thing, but it was too fast. It slipped under his collar in a split second. The man heard the sound of shattering glass. Next thing he knew, a tiny lizard was crawling out of his clothes and down his body with his broken blood mirror in its mouth.

The creature sidestepped his gunshot and disappeared in the fog. Gilbert didn't try to follow it. The tiny Chain would only lead him into a trap. However, if Gilbert didn't move, the lizard would signal his position to its contractor.

With a mumbled curse, the man circled the tree he was leaning against and squinted his eyes, on the lookout for the next attack. A mighty gust shook the trees, nearly threw Gilbert off his feet, and sent the smoke whirling all around him. He heard the clanging of chains in the distance. Alice screamed.

Pulse racing, Gilbert ran in the direction of her screams with his left hand outstretched. The sounds of dragging chains and the rabbit's thrashing and roaring were unrelenting. A horrible realization sank in. Gilbert had heard those sounds before: when Oz's seal had been completed and dragged them all into the Abyss.

Gilbert pushed forward with a strength born of despair.

Over the chaos, he could hear the flapping of mighty wings. The smoke was blown away. In the middle of the carcasses of crushed trees, the Black Rabbit appeared, struggling against the long chains that snaked around its mighty limbs, dragging it down…


In a storm of blue fire and black feathers, Raven swooped down on the giant bird that B-Rabbit was fighting. Gilbert didn't recognize it, barely heard the shocked screams all around the clearing. He just kept running towards the struggling rabbit. The chains binding it were already loosening their grip; the Black Rabbit broke free before Gilbert could reach it.

"Are you alright?" the man asked breathlessly.

Black fur and red fabric fell all around him with a great rumble, shielding him. He heard gunshots, and the Black Rabbit hissed in pain:

"They have a Black Bird," Alice said through gritted teeth. Her voice was shaking from fear. "They tried to…"

"Calm down," Gilbert tried not to let his own terror show. "I won't let them hurt you."

She shook herself and nodded: "You can have the bird; I'll take care of these Chains."

The Black Rabbit lashed out. From between its legs, Gilbert saw its spiked chains impale the giant walrus right in the mouth. The beast howled and crumbled to dust. What remained of the fog disappeared along with it. A human scream echoed the walrus'. In Gilbert's periphery vision, a man clutched his chest and collapsed.

Gilbert turned towards Raven, just in time to see the giant bird it was battling: the creature was in the process of disappearing, called back by its contractor, but Gilbert saw the black wings and crooked beak right and clear.

It was the Gryphon.

Gilbert's sight burnt red with rage. He was blind to everything but this fleeting vision.

"Raven, they're falling back!"

Alice's voice startled him. Relief flooded his chest and tempered his boiling blood. She was alright. Oz and her were both alright.

Raven shielded them with its chains, and Gilbert turned towards the giant rabbit. It was growling in frustration at the loss of its preys, hissing invectives through gritted sharp teeth. This was all Alice, Gilbert thought. Just like that, all his remaining anger turned to fear.

"Oz…" he whispered.

The rabbit started and turned towards him, its ears straight and attentive. It frowned.

"Oz?" the rabbit echoed. "What is it?"

With a pang, Gilbert realized that Alice wasn't talking to him. She was speaking to Oz, the way she always did.

'Oz must have seen the Gryphon too,' he thought with growing horror.

The rabbit narrowed its eyes until they were reduced to two red slits:

"There should be another carriage nearby." Its left ear tilted back. "Yeah, I can hear horses this way. Three men are running in that direction. That leaves two of them on standby."

Gilbert's heartbeat quickened at that: 'Did Oz ask her to check…?'

He shook his head. There was no time to wonder about that. He knew what he had to do. Gilbert held out a hand to the rabbit:

"You can turn back now," he whispered. "Raven will take us there."

Alice groaned some more, but agreed. Gilbert let his hand linger on the Chain's strong furry arm. He couldn't help himself: his eyes searched the rabbit's face desperately, looking for a hint of Oz's feelings in its expressions, the way it moved… but all he could see was Alice.

With a shaking sigh, the man let go, and the rabbit shrank back into the girl he knew. Gilbert gasped when the weight on his chest was lifted; he had barely felt the pressure of his seal in the midst of battle. Oz's innocuous plush face stared back at him from between Alice's arms. In a sorry attempt at comfort, Gilbert gave him a pat on the head. Alice gave him a jealous glare, so he petted her head too. She cheered up immediately.

Gilbert bowed to Raven, who grinned widely, blue flames licking the corners of its beak. The black bird lowered itself so Gilbert and Alice could climb on its back. Gunshots erupted from the carcasses of the trees, but Raven swept the bullets away like dust in the air, and took to the sky.

"What about them?" Alice glared down at the cowering men who had fired the shots.

"Let them be," Gilbert said. "They're only here to slow us down. We have to catch up with that carriage."

Alice nodded. She leaned over Raven's neck and marvelled at the view. Gilbert grabbed her by the scruff of her neck so she wouldn't fall off, much to her protest. He didn't spare her any more attention as he scanned the earth below for any signs of their attackers. However, the forest was thick in this part of the woods, and even as it swayed under the flapping of Raven's giant wings, the canopy was hiding all travellers from view.

'He thought this through, didn't he?' Gilbert seethed with renewed anger.

"There!" Alice pointed at a bunch of chestnut trees. "Horses!"

Gilbert could see them too: as the trees leaned forward against the gust of Raven's wings, a carriage peeked from between the leaves, and vanished as quickly as it had appeared, covered by the waving foliage. With a mighty caw, Raven swooped up on the fleeing coach. In a mighty racket of creaking wood, its talons closed on the carriage roof.

"Put down your weapon," Gilbert told the pallid coachman, who was fumbling with his holster. "We are only here to talk."

"Do as he says," came a deep, calm voice from within the carriage. Gilbert made a conscious effort not to draw his own gun and riddle the carriage side windows with bullet holes.

The coachman hesitated. He was still clenching the reins in one hand like his life depended on it, and didn't seem to feel the pull of the terrified horses as they struggled against their restraints and tried to get away from the giant bird holding the carriage in place.

Amid the chaos, the right door of the carriage opened, and out walked Zai Vessalius. Composed as ever, the man got out one step at a time, walking cane in hand. He put its tip on the road, raised his head and met Gilbert's glare with an even stare:

"What is the meaning of this, Raven?"

Gilbert was so outraged he couldn't speak. He sank shaking fingers into Raven's thick plumage. The feathers burnt his hands. They were like fuel for his blazing anger.

"You ambushed us," Gilbert said in a low voice. He couldn't tell his own words from the whispering flames in Raven's bony beak and eye sockets.

"You are the one attacking," Zai cut him off. "You're not making any sense."

"It was premeditated. You hired illegal contractors to do your dirty work. You made them break my blood mirror."

"Your blood mirror was broken? How peculiar. Neither one of your Chains was affected, it would seem."

Gilbert drew in a sharp breath. The air tasted dry.

"So you contracted them illegally," Zai said after a lengthy pause. Even from this distance, his disgust was as conspicuous as the scar marring his nose and forehead. "I didn't think you would be foolish enough to take that great a risk. Unless," he added with a slow smirk, "this is another of the Baskervilles' secret talents?"

The Raven answered with a smirk of its own. Alice shielded her face against the onslaught of heat. Gilbert didn't bat an eyelid:

"You tried to kill us."

Zai's mocking smile only widened: "Where is your proof?"

"I saw the Gryphon! When Pandora hears of this…"

"It will be your word against mine. And you have an infamous tendency to spout nonsense, Raven. Or should I say, B-Rabbit?" Zai spat the codename like something foul.

"You won't get away with it," Gilbert growled. "You left too many witnesses this time. Pandora will learn everything it needs to know from interrogating them."

"'This time?' Do you mean to accuse me of other assassination attempts? Now you are bordering on paranoia."

"That's enough!" Gilbert shouted. "Turn this carriage around! We're going back for your accomplices. Then we can be on our way."

Zai frowned at that, his traits settling for the disapproving scowl Gilbert had always loathed. He cringed at the thought that Oz was witnessing all of this.

"You'll make a fine impression," Zai grumbled. "Taking a duke to his own home like some criminal. This will bring great improvement to the relationship between our two families, I'm sure."

"Stop trying to buy time and get back in, Scarface!" Alice cut in.

The duke's scowl further deepened as he turned to her. Without further ado, Alice jumped off Raven's neck. With a panicked yell of her name, Gilbert leaned over and nearly fell trying to catch her. His eyes followed her as she fell feet first into a bush. She walked out of it covered in leaves and twigs, but looking unharmed. Gilbert shook with relief as he guided Raven back to the ground and dismounted.

As soon as his feet touched the ground, Raven took to the sky in a rain of black feathers.

"Go back to the clearing," Gilbert told the coachman, who cowered and threw a desperate look at Zai. The duke merely nodded, and boarded the carriage. Alice was already seated and keeping an eye on the remaining passenger as she dusted off her clothes.

"That one is the Lizard," she told Gilbert when he got in after Zai. "The trace is faint, but I can still smell it on him. I can't smell your blood though; I guess the Lizard ate the blood mirror. He can eat anything."

Gilbert gave her a sombre nod. The contractor turned the colour of curdled milk and pulled his lips together to hold back a whimper. His eyes darted from Alice to Gilbert with a hunted look. Zai only shook his head at the sight:

"A right animal, that one," he wrinkled his nose and sat as far away from Alice as the seat would allow. Alice ignored him in favour of picking twigs out of her messy hair. Gilbert turned a hateful glare towards Zai:

"I'll talk to Lord Oscar and we'll salvage what we can of the relationship between the Nightray and Vessalius families," he said in response to the duke's previous statement. "At least he has sense."

Zai glared right back:

"Oscar is a fool. He would sooner lead his own family to ruin than see reason."

"Don't insult him! What are you even talking about?"

"You know very well what I'm talking about. Ever since you came out of the Abyss, you have done a remarkable job meddling in Pandora's affairs. You assured yourself a place among the Nightray family by contracting Raven, but still bragged about being a Baskerville and having witnessed the Tragedy of Sablier. And of course, you claimed that your clan wasn't directly responsible for it. A likely story."

"Yes, you've always made it clear that you don't believe me," Gilbert clenched his fists. "And I never trusted you. But we're still fellow Pandora agents. You had no right to attack us."

Zai gave a scornful snicker:

"Pandora didn't have much of a choice in recruiting you. With Raven as your Chain and all the helpful information you provided, you knew it was only a matter of time. But do you really think anyone at Headquarters actually trusts you?"

Gilbert held the man's gaze steadily. Zai snorted:

"I doubt you'd be this naïve. You know how close Duke Nightray was to arrest you, the day you appeared. The only reason you maintain the status quo with Pandora is because it is more convenient to you. At least for now. Much like your good friend the Hatter."

"Leave Break out of this," Gilbert hissed. "And what do you mean, 'for now?'"

All trace of ill humour disappeared from Zai's face. He watched Gilbert with a quizzical glare:

"You have big plans for the Baskervilles, don't you, B-Rabbit?"

Gilbert was about to protest, but the duke stopped him with an imperious slam of his cane on the carriage floor. Zai put both hands on the handle. He leaned over, and his eyes glimmered a dangerous green:

"Whatever it is you are planning," he murmured. "I won't let you touch one hair on the heads of my children."

Gilbert was so flabbergasted he forgot how to breathe. His head whipped towards Oz, who was sitting on Alice's lap, covered in tiny bits of wood and leaves. As he looked from father to son – but Zai didn't, would never, acknowledge Oz as his son – Gilbert felt a fierce stab of sadness, its burn more painful than the seal on his chest.

"You don't know anything," he spat, eyes hot as he faced Zai once more. The defiant look didn't waver from the duke's face.

"I don't care what you think of me," Gilbert told him. "But you can be sure of one thing: for as long as I live, I will do everything in my power to protect the members of the Vessalius family." He looked pointedly at Zai. "All of them."

Zai raised an eyebrow at that. However, he was quick to recover from his surprise, and sniggered:

"Who would believe a madman?"

To this, Gilbert had no answer. He turned an apologetic gaze towards Oz. He wished his young master could tell him if he was doing the right thing.

Alice noticed his staring in the middle of untying a knot, and held out her plush rabbit wordlessly. Gilbert took Oz from her hands and sat him on his knee so that the rabbit had his back to Zai. Then Gilbert proceeded to clean Oz of the small debris on his skin and clothes, only keeping one wary eye on the road and the coach's occupants as he brushed Oz with careful fingers.

Once or twice, Gilbert felt the seal pulse against his chest as Raven released small jets of flames in the distance; their carriage raised clouds of ashes as it rolled over the trees that the black bird had burnt to a cinder. It was odd, not to feel the cold metal of his empty blood mirror over his heated skin.

Gilbert sighed: Vincent had been the one to suggest that they keep their blood mirrors as decoys after making proper contracts with their respective Chains. That was how he had managed to keep Demios a secret from Pandora, after all. To this day, no one but them and Alice knew that the Dormouse wasn't Vincent's only Chain.

Vincent probably wouldn't be happy to hear that Gilbert had been found out. It was only a matter of time now before the Baskervilles' methods to contract their Chains were discovered. But at least Gilbert had come closer to unravelling the plot against the Black Rabbit:

It had been his own coachman, a servant of the Nightray household, who led them to Zai's trap. Either the coachman had been a spy all along, or Zai Vessalius and Bernard Nightray had formed an alliance with the common goal of getting rid of Gilbert.

The Lizard's contractor tensed visibly when Gilbert searched his pocket, but Gilbert only brushed his cigarette pack with his fingertips and fought off the urge to smoke his worries away; not while Oz was sitting right under his nose.

He knew full well which scenario was more likely: in the future Gilbert came from, Duke Nightray had been Zai's alibi on Oz's Coming of Age Ceremony. Vincent had confessed that he had been the one to introduce Bernard Nightray to the Baskervilles, whom Zai Vessalius had sought out on his own. It had only been Fang and Zwei at first, so they had no choice but to make an alliance with the two dukes and hide until they could find their missing companions and master. As for Zai, he had probably known Oz's identity all along: back then, their common goal had been to send the Black Rabbit into the Abyss.

And that was exactly what Zai had just attempted.

Gilbert's hands shook as he adjusted Oz's bow after getting rid of the last twig. Of course Vincent had seen the attack coming. Even if the Black Rabbit no longer held the power to destroy the world, it was still an incredibly powerful Chain. Only one of the five Black Winged Birds could hope to defeat it.

Furthermore, there was the rumour from the archives: the rare witnesses who had come upon the wreckage of Sablier after the Tragedy claimed to have seen a monstrous rabbit.

Gilbert had been fighting that rumour since he had first heard of it: it was true that the Black Rabbit had caused the Tragedy of Sablier, but only because it had been unable to fight its contractor's orders. More importantly, its powers were now sealed thanks to Oz's sacrifice and the combined efforts of Alice and Raven. What remained of B-Rabbit's powers was something Pandora could use, rather than a threat. Gilbert had agreed to help Pandora research the Abyss once again, and Alice along with him.

He had always refused to reveal the identity of Oz's first contractor. Gilbert kept telling his fellow agents that it didn't matter: the culprit of the Tragedy of Sablier was long dead, swallowed by the darkness of the Abyss along with the capital. Holding on to old grudges was meaningless when Pandora's priority should be to restore a balance between the four Dukedoms and the Baskervilles, who were bound to return from the Abyss one by one.

Gilbert knew very well how suspicious his omission sounded. But he refused to discredit the Vessalius family by exposing the name of Jack Vessalius. The man had done enough damage as it was.

A great caw and gallop resounded in the distance. Gilbert straightened against his seat, eyes set on the horizon. Tree carcasses covered most of his vision, but he could see a cloud right ahead. When they emerged into the clearing, Raven appeared, looming over the main road like a living storm cloud. Two cavaliers were fleeing before the great bird, which edged the horses forward by clicking its mighty beak near their croups.

"Stop the car," Gilbert told the coachman. This time, the man obeyed at once.

Gilbert made them all disembark so he could keep an eye on them as they waited for the two remaining attackers. The carriage he and Alice had arrived in was still there: it was missing its two rear wheels, its side was riddled with bullet holes, its window panes in pieces, and B-Rabbit's chains had left deep lashes across the wood. Naturally, both horses had been taken.

The coach could be used as evidence, Gilbert mused as he told the coachman and the Lizard's contractor to help him retrieve the two corpses and put them in the carriage. That would help ward off scavengers long enough for Pandora reinforcements to arrive. He paused when he laid the two bodies on the seats, and covered the men's faces with their handkerchiefs.

Just then, the two missing cavaliers came barging in. Gilbert and Alice greeted them with drawn guns, and both men halted their horses on the spot. The animals were foaming at the mouth and shaking their manes, their eyes trained on Raven, who landed behind them heavily and spread its wings to break their escape. The air was thick with the smell of hot ashes.

"The two of you are coming with us," Gilbert told the grey-faced cavaliers. "We'll make a detour to Pandora Headquarters and drop you there."

He was breathing heavily from the strain of Raven's unleashed powers, but the men didn't seem to notice as they nodded and begged him to call his Chain back. Gilbert waited until they had dismounted and Alice had taken all their weapons, then he let out a shuddering breath, and Raven vanished with a final hiss of blue fire.

The rest of the ride was uneventful, with the duke and his three accomplices in the carriage and Gilbert riding alongside it, gun in hand. Alice was riding side-saddle behind him and occasionally grumbled her discomfort, but kept her unloaded gun trained on the coach's side window – she would sooner shoot herself in the foot than hit her target, but for someone so small, she could pull off a frightening look when she threatened someone with a weapon. The men behaved themselves.