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Never As It Seems

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She fell, watching the burning yellow of zone 0 draw closer and closer, feeling rough sackcloth knit together over her bare shoulders and her gray camisole; a few meters before she hit the bright-colored ground, her body pivoted of its own accord and slowed, allowing her to land somewhat gracefully on her feet. She glanced around, taking in the floating blocks and the emptiness. Oh, the emptiness. It howled around her, perfectly still yet moving so quickly that she felt it surrounding everything. She took a step forward, only to fall to her knees, and laughed a bit as Zacharie materialized out of nothingness.

"What is this? Nothing is left, why would anyone..." He fell silent as his gaze landed on her. She shifted uncomfortably after a moment; being stared at was one thing. Being the sole focus of a masked salesman was another.

"Identify yourself, Mademoiselle. Strangers here are not usually welcomed kindly, not after the land was.. oh, how to explain..."

'Purified?' she signed, falling to the only universal language she had. Zacharie stared at her, appearing to process the sign language for a moment. He only reacted when she started to cough.

"Mon dieu... Silence?" He whispered, shock visible even through the frog-mask's eyes.

'I'm afraid so. Believe me when I say that... despite what it seemed, I wish that the Batter's quest had taken a different turn. I waded too deep too quickly, and I had gone too far to turn back when I realized what was really happening.' She signed rapidly, fighting back another fit of coughing, before Zacharie approached and grabbed her hands. Utterly silenced, she stared through the mesh that covered the eyeholes of the mask, trying to catch a glimpse of the human eyes that she knew were hidden in the darkness.

"I do not blame you, ma petit fleur. Alas, I, too, wish it could have gone differently. But, life must go on, what little of it is left. Hopefully Pablo will forgive you for siding with our... friend... the Batter, but even if he does not he still understands that what happened was necessary. Come now, out of the smoke. I fear that we humans need to either wear masks that will filter the air, or stay indoors." Zacharie murmured, pulling her to her feet. Without another word, he guided her into his shop, closing the door behind them with a sharp click. He had her sit in a chair against the wall, then hurried over to a set of shelves on the back wall, rustling through the numerous items; with a soft "ah-ha!" and the sound of things being pushed to the side, he turned and swept back over to her.

"I need you to close your eyes, my dear. I promise that you can trust me, and it makes the transition a bit easier." He murmured, slipping behind her. Silence glanced at him over her shoulder, then coughed again and nodded. She shut her eyes tightly, inhaling deeply and holding her breath for a moment as what felt like cool porcelain pressed against her face. Releasing the held breath, she inhaled, and the taste of sweet, pure air flowed over her tongue and into her lungs; she coughed again, laughing softly.

"Open your eyes, mademoiselle. Tell me what you think." Zacharie cooed in her ear; she did so, noticing that the brilliant shades of yellow were toned down a great deal. She took another breath, opening her mouth to thank him, before catching herself; quickly, she shifted back into sign.

'Thank you; this is far better, I don't feel as if I were being blinded now.' She signed. Zacharie laughed.

"I understand, my dear; why the Queen insisted that the zones be such bright colors, I do not know."

---

An hour after discovering her new (old) friend, Silence was still in the chair Zacharie had led her to when he found her, and the shopkeeper himself was rearranging the items that were scattered among the various shelves while humming some song or another. Silence glanced about, bored, and noticed a stack of plain white paper sitting on the shopkeeper's counter. She hesitated for a moment, before standing and walking over to the surface. She knocked on the counter to get his attention.

"One moment, ma fleur. Let me finish this." Zacharie called over his shoulder, straightening a small collection of books. Silence nodded, rocking back on her heels and tucking her hands in her jeans pockets. The shopkeeper finished straightening the last shelf in his reach, then carefully clambered down off the stepladder.

"Now, how may I help you?" He asked with a chuckle.

'May I have a pencil and some of the paper you have here? I'm getting a little bit jittery, but having something to engage my hands with might help.' She signed, smiling sheepishly.

"Of course. Not all of the paper, mind; I do need some of it myself, but you may have a few pieces. As for a pencil, give me a moment and I'll see what I can find." He laughed. Silence smiled, delighted, and took several sheets from the stack as Zacharie ducked down beneath the counter to rummage through whatever storage he had there. She blinked for a moment, seeing dragons and birds and countless things dance across the walls, before blinking and shaking her head.

"Silence? Here. I don't have any colors, but It's something." Zacharie called softly, tapping her shoulder with a mechanical pencil.

'Thank you!' She signed, smiling widely. Zacharie chuckled, and turned back to tidying the shelves.

Silence sighed softly, taking pencil and paper to the corner of the room and laying on her stomach with her feet up in the air; now, her only problem was deciding what to draw first. She glanced back up at the salesman for a moment, considering him from the corner of her eye, then started sketching. A fluff-winged dragon materialized in her mind; she smiled, mouthing 'Hello Orion' to it as it circled her. Its laughing eyes smiled at her, making her forget the emptiness that filled the zone and buzzed in her ears like flies. She felt it nuzzle her hand, and chuckled.

A thump next to her startled her from the daydream; she glanced down at the paper, where her dragon still laughed to her, though in a much smaller voice. Then, she glanced up, to see a table sitting next to her. Her gaze rose further, to find Zacharie setting the chair down.

"You looked mildly uncomfortable, mon ami. I thought you might prefer a desk to the floor." The shopkeeper murmured, offering her a hand. Silence nodded, gathering up the paper and letting him pull her to her feet.

'Thank you.' She signed again, before setting the pages down and dusting off her pants.

"It is nothing, my dear. Merely my duty to my fellow human."

She had no idea how true that would be until a bit later.

~~*~~

It was late that evening; Silence had gone to bed, Zacharie was cleaning the last shelf of "merchandise" before doing the same.

"Why do I even bother now..." He muttered, setting the last stack of old luck tickets in their place. "There is no-one to sell to, no reason to sell in the first place now. Pablo has disappeared again, and now I've a helpless young lady to look after, too." Sighing, he made sure the doors and window were sealed, before taking off his mask and rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Mon dieu... Now I think of it, Pablo will have a fit once he learns that Silence is here. Perhaps I should just..." He trailed off, thinking through his options.

A scream threw him from his thoughts moments later.

"Silence?!" He called, startled. Turning, he grabbed the longsword he kept for such occasions, and bolted up the stairs. The puppeteer (as he had mentally nicknamed her) was thrashing on the bed he'd given her, screaming and crying as night-terrors tormented her. Zacharie sighed, leaning his sword against the doorframe, and walked over to the convulsing girl. He reached out and started petting her hair lightly, not wanting to scare her into wakefulness, until she began to settle again; once she was reasonably calm, he carefully moved her over a bit so he could sit down. Unconsciously, he reached over to brush some of her hair away from the mask, like he would have done so long ago for... someone else; Silence, though, was apparently too close to consciousness not to wake up to the gesture. She startled, sitting bolt upright.

"Z....Zacharie?" She whispered, many shadowy voices drowning out her own. The salesman shuddered unconsciously, hearing the whispers of the Nothingness drowning her out, but pushed the fear aside.

"You were screaming." He stated simply. Silence inhaled sharply, as if she were remembering for a moment, then nodded. Her hands rose, as her mind came fully online.

'Forgive me. My journey through the darkness did not, it seems, leave me as unscathed as I would have hoped. Forgive me for disturbing you.' She signed. Zacharie nodded, taking her hands in his own and asking the question sticking in his mind before he could think better of it.

"Do you want me to stay here with you? I can try to keep the night terrors away for you, and I fear there are no stars or celestial objects to watch in place of sleep." He murmured, watching her carefully, not letting go of her hands. She lowered her head, seeming to think about it for a moment, before nodding hesitantly.

"Move over for a moment then, so I can settle myself."

She did so, allowing him to stretch out next to her.

"Now, then, come here." He ordered, carefully pulling her onto his lap; once she was settled, he laid back, letting her rest her head on his chest, over his heart.

"Good night, my dear." He murmured, feeling her shift some of her weight to the side. She nodded; he heard the whispers echo his words, a soft "gute Nacht" mingling with them.

---

He knew when she finally fell asleep; her body relaxed, what little of her weight was pressing into him distributed more evenly, more comfortably. He sighed, barely conscious himself, and let one hand drift to wrap over the side of her knee, reaching up to start stroking her hair again with the other. It was... relaxing, he thought, to have another warm body curled with his own, another heartbeat to listen to. It cut down on the loneliness, the emptiness he'd been experiencing since the Batter had gone to his final battle, and the Judge had chased the purifier with a hiss. He found his mind wandering back, to happier times when he and Sucre had wandered the darkness just to see if they could, when the Batter and the Queen had been at peace, before Hugo had gotten so gravely ill. He remembered Valerie, Pablo's brother, when he was just a kitten, when Deden, Japhet, and Enoch had been newly-ordained rulers, and had been fair and gentle. He remembered hearing tales of the Puppeteers, of how they would be summoned when the world fell out of balance.

He blinked, and found he'd been dreaming. Silence was still curled in his arms, the mask he had lent her pushed to one side of her face as the other pressed softly into his chest. He blinked again, suddenly recalling that his own mask was sitting on the counter in his shop; feeling exposed, he carefully sat up, lifting Silence with him. When she stirred, he soothed her back to sleep, before carefully laying her on her side so he could stand.

"I'll be right back, mon fleur." He murmured, quietly rising from the bed and walking away. Slipping down to his shop, he found the mask and slid it over his face; no longer feeling so vulnerable, he returned, to find the girl looking out the window, the mask he'd lent her resting in her hands.

"I'm sorry, Silence. I didn't mean to wake you..." He started; she shook her head, and he found himself distracted by the shifting brown strands. He blinked as she turned to face him, and watched as she signed her response.

'Honestly, I was awake when you started to move around... Dark dreams are hard to shake, even when someone tries to keep the worst terrors away.' She shivered, looking down. 'I truly am sorry for disturbing you last night, both with the screams and...' She hesitated, then sighed and continued. 'And with my voice. You now understand, I think, why I generally do not verbally speak, yes?'

Zacharie nodded, then reached over and took her hands in his own. She looked at him, silenced, and waited.

"Mon fleur... My dear Silence... the Nothingness should not stop you from speaking your mind. If I may inquire, what happened? Normally such whispers would not accompany a person's words."

She glanced down at her hands, firmly clasped in his own, then back up at him. Without the mask to block her expression, he could see the minor amusement sparkling in her eyes.

"With your voice, cherie. I would like to know what was stolen from the young mademoiselle who is now in my care, so I can try to figure out how to restore it to her." He encouraged gently, trying to catch her eyes. She sighed, dropping her gaze to their hands again. He heard her take in a breath, and braced himself.

"I made the mistake of falling through the world, out of my home, away from my computer and into the nothingness. I was lost, unable to see, to hear, to find my way. A terror found me, bit me, tried to make me its meal, but I ran." She stopped and laughed bitterly; the whispers echoed around them, but Zacharie was able to find her voice hidden among the whispers. He waited, letting her continue.

"That's the one thing I've always been good at, running; I was able to outrun the shadow, though the other nothings seem to have hooked themselves in the place of its teeth, and before I realized, I was tumbling down to Zone 0. You know the rest." she inhaled again, swallowing the whispers, along with her own voice; then, she delicately pulled her hands out of his, and signed 'Please, my friend. Don't ask me to tell the tale again. The whispers scare me, remind me too much of the demons I saw in my own world.'

"Alright, mon ami. I will not ask again, though I will try to fix the problem. You said the Nothing-dweller bit you?" Zacharie cocked his head, carefully examining what little he could see of the puppeteer's skin. She nodded, then turned her back to him and lifted the sackcloth-weave-sweater she was wearing. First, he saw the gray undershirt, then frowned when he saw the tears on her left side. He reached out to touch the fabric, then winced as he glimpsed the marks that semicircled just below her ribs.

"Perhaps treating these is the first step?" He asked, lightly running his finger over the scabs that he could see, then down to the hem of her shirt; he paused, silently asking a question, to which she nodded, and lifted the undershirt up above the wounds.

Zacharie hissed.

"Mon dieu, my dear, why did you say nothing before?" He asked, tracing the perfect arc of scabs. She shivered, hissing.

"D...didn't s-seem as bad.... no scrapes on my front." she whispered, shuddering as the nothingness voices echoed her. Zacharie sighed.

"Wait here. I'll get the antiseptic and some bandages... perhaps pull that heavy sweater off? It's warm here, I can hardly imagine how stifling that is for you." He ordered softly, turning away and walking back downstairs again.

He came back up to find her in the same spot, but without even the camisole on; the sweater and her undershirt neatly folded next to her. A white cloth was wrapped around her upper torso, likely what she used to bind her chest; Zacharie shook his head, mentally scolding himself for becoming distracted, and took a closer look at the wounds.

"What kind of creature leaves a mark as large as this? Not even the troquantaries or whales have this kind of arc to their teeth..." He mused softly, picking up the peroxide and soaking a washcloth with it. Silence hissed in pain as the cloth made contact with the wound.

"H-hurts!" She squeaked, ignoring the near-inaudible whispers that hissed with her.

"I have to clean it, Silence. It'll get infected and not heal properly, otherwise." Zacharie sighed, holding her shoulder to keep her still.

"Wh...what about a luck ticket? Or -OW!- s-something like that?" She stuttered, flinching as the peroxide fizzed on the marks.

"All useless now. The Queen made them work, her magic was what fueled the magic in the items; I'm stuck with human remedies now, no quick-fixes." He sighed. Silence started to respond (he heard the whispers hum, and heard her inhale), but stopped; what he could see of her stance collapsed inward a bit more, making the wound more evident.

"Mon ami? What- oh." He trailed off; he'd forgotten, she had been watching, blindly helping the Batter, until it became evident that neither of them could turn back. She'd seen the Queen die. She'd seen Hugo die. She'd even seen Pablo seem to die, and had been unable to undo what she'd done. She'd had to keep moving on with the plan, just like the Batter.

"Silence, I'm sorry. I'd forgotten-" He began, cutting off when she flinched away from him.

"It's my fault your way of life was destroyed. What have you to apologize for?" She scoffed, laughing harshly, loudly enough that Zachary barely heard the murmur behind the whispers: "Maybe it would've been better if the nothing-creature had caught me."

"Don't say that, Silence. I hear it from you again and I'll challenge you to a fight myself. Understand?" He scolded, making her wince again. "Now, let me finish with your wounds so we can talk properly. Alright?"

"Yessir." the shadows whispered. He didn't hear Silence's response, though it was likely similar, if not the same; sighing, he wiped the peroxide away and sprayed on disinfectant (which he had expected to make her flinch, but drew no reaction), before covering the marks with gauze secured with tape.

"There." He murmured once he was finished. "Now, pull on your shirt and come downstairs. I'll scrape some food together for us, alright?"

She didn't respond, which he had expected. He moved carefully, so he was sitting next to her; brown eyes stared straight ahead, focused on something a thousand miles away, and silvery-brown hair fell over a tense, terse expression. Zacharie sighed again, and quickly wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into a tight hug. He heard a small squeak fly from her lips, but paid no heed as he held her close.

"Silence, you need to calm down. Relax, I understand that you had no intention of bringing harm on us. In a way, those who remain are better off. We don't have to walk as carefully for fear of Burnt Elsens, and the smoke is clearing away little by little. We'll be able to start cleaning away the rot and making this place liveable soon enough." He murmured softly, lowering his arms and watching as Silence buried her head against his shoulder and wrapped her arms around him tightly. Smiling softly, he fell to gently petting her hair again, waiting for her to give in to the soothing and let him go.

"I just... I just wanted to help. I saw the darkness through my screen, and while I thought it was just a video game, I still wanted to help. I still WANT to help....but now it's also that I want to make things right after I messed so many things up.i....I-I-" she cut off with a hiccup; Zach felt her shoulders starting to tremble, and felt a damp spot begin to develop on his t-shirt.

"Mon Cherie..." He murmured; shaking his head, he pulled his mask up so he could rest his cheek against the crown of her head, resting one hand on her back and wrapping the other around her shoulders as she cried.

About a half-hour passed before she let go; even then, Zacharie knew it wasn't because she was ok, but because she'd worn herself out.

"S...sorry..." She mumbled, shivering. He laughed, shaking his head.

"Don't be, mi amica. Better to let the darkness out and be rid of it, eh? Now, how about some brunch and tea, does that sound nice? I don't have much, but I've enough to share, and we can go scrounging later. Alright?" He laughed lightly, trying to break the sadness for a little while. She nodded, reaching over for her camisole, and pulled it on.

'I feel like a fool... Back at home everything-' She started to sign; Zacharie stopped her.

"But you aren't at home anymore, cherie. You're here, you're safe for the time being, and you don't have to hide. Just let go, I won't judge you as long as you don't judge me, alright?" he smiled at her; she stared back at him for a moment, and he realized she could see half of his face just as she smiled back.

"Sorry..." he muttered, starting to fix his mask, before she grabbed his hand and stopped him.

"If I don't have to hide, then neither do you." She replied quietly, an amused look on her face. Zach glanced at her, surprised that he'd heard no whispers chasing her words. He saw her eyes gleaming purple, before she blinked and looked away, coughing.

"Y-you can magic them away?" He stuttered, not checking himself.

'Only for a short time... I figured it out while you were downstairs.' She signed in reply, shrugging; he nodded, standing up.

"Shall we have some breakfast, then? I'd managed to hoard some proper, normal meat, and I think I might have some eggs as well. I know I have some tea hidden away." Zacharie asked, trying not to be too eager. Silence smiled gently, and nodded.

~~*~~

She watched as the unmasked merchant went about unwrapping and preparing food (he'd expressly forbidden her from cooking for the moment, due to her mental state, though she had succeeded in convincing him to let her brew tea). Honestly, she understood needing the masks outside, but why had he insisted on hiding his face, she couldn't understand. She traced the scars running across his mouth and the hollows of his cheeks with her eyes, musing on them for a moment; then, she looked up at his eyes, his strange, enchanted, beautiful mismatched sea-green and sunset-red eyes, and found herself caught in his gaze.

"Curious, my dear?" He asked, cocking an eyebrow suggestively. Silence felt her cheeks heat up, and frantically signed a retort.

'No, no, just observing. I'm an artist, what do you expect?'

"I expect you to be honest, mon ami."

She grumbled, turning away to her drawings again, and heard him laugh.

Three more dragons and a small tree form under her hands before Zacharie places a steaming plate next to her dwindling stack of paper. She looks, to see what appears to be steak and a small cheese omelette cooling, with a fork sitting alongside.

"T-Thank you.." She whispered as she began devouring the omelette, not noticing that Zacharie was looking at her drawings on her other side.

"My, Silence... I knew you were an artist, but I didn't know you had such talent." He said with a little chuckle; Silence felt the blood drain from her face, but chose not to respond, instead laying down the fork and folding her hands in her lap.

"Mon cherie? Do you not believe me?" Zacharie purred against her ear; she swallowed, feeling a blush burn on her ear-tips.

'I said nothing of the sort. You seem to be in rare form today.' She signed, earning a laugh.

"Ah, forgive me, you're right. 'Twould seem that being close to you is addling my head today, not that I'm complaining... but then, that makes you uncomfortable. I'll try to check myself, my friend." The merchant promised, sheepish. Silence nodded, closing her eyes and pushing away the disappointment. Zacharie was human, yes, but she'd only really known him for a day or so, and there was still the fear that others had left in their stead.

"Tea?" Zacharie questioned quietly, assessing her with calm mismatched eyes.

"Tea- oh! Yes. Tea. I'll go make it, I'm sorry." She stammered, drawing on an old mantra to focus her mind and lose the whispers. She rose from her seat, quickly heated the water, and set two-mugs-worth of tea to steep. That done, she handed his to him and retreated to lean on the frame of the back door and look out at the floating blocks around the world's exit.

They stayed like that for a while, the silence settling over both of them as they drank tea and allowed thought to outrun speech. At the half-hour mark, Zacharie sat his teacup down, startling Silence with the sudden sound.

"Well, I did promise we'd go scrounging. Ready?" He asked, standing. Silence thought for a moment more, then set her mug down as well and nodded. The merchant handed her the cat-mask (or, as she had termed it long ago, the "Judge Mask"), settling his own mask over his face.Once she had secured her mask, he took her hand and led the way out to the floating red block.

"We'll have to pass through the Nothingness; we won't be there too long, thankfully the Zones are close together, but we still have to enter the darkness. Will you be alright? I'll be right there with you, and I've my longsword in case anything decides to take exception to us." He said, pausing and looking at her. She nodded, not hesitating.