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Never As It Seems

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

They started in Zone 1 at Damien, pulling what materials they could from the abandoned smoke mines; in Pentel they went about caring for (and, in Zacharie's case, thinning) the herds of cattle. Silence smiled at the wobbly-legged newborns, as the merchant soothed the older and weaker animals before putting them down.

After gathering the meat and metal from the bovines ('How do they even get it there?' Silence had signed; Zacharie had shrugged, having no answers to offer.), they hurried back to Zone 0 to beat the oncoming night; Zach had directed Silence to the food cellar.

"Don't worry, Cherie. I just need a bit of time to make you a weapon of your own, and having you here to look over my shoulder makes me nervous. I don't hover over your shoulder when you draw for the same reason." He assured her, shooing her out the door.

"There's also the fact that... that I still can't face that. I still can't face her. I just hope that you don't have to find out about that." he muttered once she was outside. Shaking his head, he turned to the metal he'd set aside for her dagger, muttering "Have to get my mind off of this."

It took him a half-an-hour to finish the weapon, and another ten minutes to realize Silence was sitting across from him, gently cupping his hands in her own. He made eye contact with her, apparently answering an unspoken question; she moved closer and gently, -more gently than Sucre ever had- lifted the mask away from his face, laying it to the side. Her eyes met his again; Zach knew he was having a conversation with her now, but didn't know exactly what he was saying. After a few moments of the unspoken communication, she pulled him into a tight hug.

"I'm sorry, Zacharie. I never meant for that to happen, I didn't know until it was too late, and I would undo it in a heartbeat." The puppeteer whispered. Zacharie's heart twinged painfully, and he found himself returning the tight embrace.

"I'm the one who should be sorry; I'm using you as a throwback... and..."

"Hush. You're doing no such thing, I volunteered; don't beat yourself up for missing someone who was so close to you." she chided, lightly petting his spiky-fluffy hair. Zacharie didn't respond, letting himself remember the spicy youth who had accompanied him to the Zones.

"You're softer than she was... I couldn't pretend you were her if I wanted to." He murmured after a while; Silence chuckled at him.

"Are you saying I'm pudgy?" She teased softly.

"No, I'm saying you're cuddly." He responded with a soft laugh; he pulled her into his lap, chuckling gently at her squeak. "You aren't whispering, by the way... I take it the affliction is gone?"

"Mhm... for now at least..." She trailed off, snuggling against him.

"Good... While it was an interesting quirk, your voice is too pretty to be overshadowed by such whispers."

He felt her tense up at that comment, and sighed.

"My apologies, mon ami. It seems I'm getting far ahead of myself. Something about going without contact with other humans must be addling my head."

"It's fine! I... I mean... I understand. It's fine." she squeaked, pressing against him. Zacharie chuckled again.

"Perhaps we both need sleep, ma fleur." He let her go, then laughed to find her clinging to him; Wrapping one arm around her shoulders and the other under her knees, he stood and carried her up to bed. It amused him greatly to find her asleep before he even reached the top stair.

~~*~~

The next scrounging-mission took them to Zone 2, seeking cloth (Silence wanted to have an extra set of clothes, just in case), tools (Zacharie needed a new whetting stone, among other things), and information; on top of that, Silence had been pestering her poor merchant for a trip from the moment she'd thought about the library, begging to go and look through the books.

Much to her disappointment, all but a handful of the books were fake, and most of the real ones were nigh illegible.

Her interest lost, Silence started to wander around, trailing after Zacharie as he made his way up to the shopping mall.

"Be careful here, love. I'm sure you remember, but this place is mazelike at best." He warned.

"Yessir.....did you just call me 'love'?" She replied, glancing at him.

"I suppose I did," He said softly, "Why? Is that not something you wish to be called?"

"I-... you just surprised me is all... didn't know I meant that much." She muttered in reply.

"Ah. Well... there should be cloth further in, but I can find most of what I need right here. Do you want me to go with you?"

"N-no... I'll be fine. I can use the point on the pommel of the dagger you made for me to mark the way back." She murmured, smiling softly. Zacharie nodded, turning to dig through the crates. Silence sighed, turning and walking into the maze of a shopping mall.

~~*~~

He heard the familiar footsteps, cleats digging into stone floors and the 'foosh' of the bat swinging back and forth through the air in time with the 'tump-tump-tump' of the near-inaudible steps.

"Hola, mi amigo! It has been a long time, my old friend!" Zacharie called, turning a radiant (even if it was obscured by his mask) smile to the Batter.

"Zacharie? What are you doing here?" The tall, pale denizen of the Room asked. Zacharie shrugged, looking over the man who had once been his best customer and who was one of only a handful of friends.

"What any person in our shoes would do; I'm scrounging for what I need." He replied; the Batter winced,  those tired jasper-colored eyes flashing with pain. Zacharie frowned.

"How long has it been now, do you know?" The Batter asked, no longer looking at the merchant.

"About... oh, maybe a month? Maybe two? Forgive me, my friend, I've had a different concern weighing on my mind these past several days... Oh! I've made another friend; I think you'd get along rather well with them."

He saw the purifier wince again, far more violently this time.

"I don't think that that is a good idea, Zacharie. I... I don't want to leave you alone again."

"My dear Batter, I doubt you could kill this person even if you wanted to. As a matter of fact..." Zacharie moved the crate he had been digging through to the side, grunting under the weight. "I have to finish packing up the useful things I've found; would you mind going and fetching her for me? Just be careful not to corner her... she may be slightly skittish of you at first."

"...Very well. What is her name?"

Honestly, it nearly broke Zacharie's heart to hear the unsure tremble hidden in the Batter's voice. "You'll know her when you see her. Trust me, you'll know her when you see her." He murmured, making a shooing gesture. "Go on, now. I'm sure you could use the exercise."

~~*~~

She heard the quiet footsteps from several rooms away; she'd been on edge anyway, after fighting off secretaries and a lingering whale (Why were those things even still around?), but footsteps were the last thing she wanted to hear.Particularly when they weren't Zach's.

"Hello?"

Her heart froze for a moment, unbridled terror screaming through her.

The Batter, here?

"I'm looking for Zacharie's friend! He's starting to pack up so you guys can go back."

Oh, so that was it. Well, at least the guy hadn't waited to find her to say such things; she wanted to believe him, after all he'd been Zach's best customer during his crusade, but...

She was still on edge. She needed to find a stress relief before trusting the Batter with her back...

"Hello?"

She screeched, startled by the too-pale skin and haunting red eyes, and the Batter grimaced.

"Had I known I'd get that reaction I wouldn't have bothered."  He growled, offering her a hand up. She hesitates, meeting his gaze for a moment, before taking his hand and standing.

"I-I'm sorry, sir. You startled me, and I've seen far too many hostile shadows here to deal well with being startled." She murmured, lowering her head.

"It's fine..." The Batter replied, not looking away from her. "Why do I feel like I know you?"

She chose not to answer, merely shrugging, and turned to walk back to the entrance.

"Silence. Wait."

She stopped, closing her eyes and sighing, and turned back to the too-pale-to-be-human man.

"Yes?" She asked, fixing her eyes on his and resting her hand on her dagger.

"Why are you afraid of me?"

"Not of you. Of the darkness, be it a part of you or not." She tensed, preparing herself to run.

"That part of me is gone, purged by all the blood that is on my hands, and all the death that is on my head." He deadpanned, his expression becoming unreadable. She winced, and nodded.

"C'mon, then. You said Zach is waiting for us."

The Batter sighed, following quietly as she led the way back through the maze of corridors to the entrance, where Zacharie was closing the crate he'd collected of useful items.

"Ready to go, Cherie?" The merchant called over his shoulder.

"We have room for another person in Zone 0, right?" Silence responded; Zacharie glanced at her, then at Batter, then back at her again.

"We can squeeze another cot in, I'm sure." He consented, lifting the crate.

"What?" Batter asked, glancing between the two.

"Come with us; You'll have a safe place to sleep and relatively decent food, and you won't be alone and bored." Silence asked beseechingly. Batter hesitated, then sighed, relenting.

"Fine. It was getting too quiet here, anyway." He muttered, rolling back on his heels.

"Right; now that's sorted, would you grab that other crate? I don't have enough hands." Zacharie laughed. The Batter growled, and made his way back to where the other crate was sitting. Zacharie herded Silence away for a moment, glancing over his shoulder before locking gazes with her.

"Silence, sweetheart, I understand wanting to help him, but he destroyed the Zones. He's my friend, and I'll stand by that, but-"

"But you're judging him by something he had little to no control over."

"And you did? What're you saying, Puppeteer?" Zacharie's tone became disturbingly calm; Silence could feel the malevolence rolling off of him in waves, and forced herself to not back away from the merchant.

"I'm saying that something twisted his perception, and, therefore, mine. It's only fair to give him a second chance if you give me one; he and I both share the blame, after all."

She heard the Merchant growl, defeated, and sighed.

"Fine. It will be good to catch up with him, I suppose. Though, we do need to find a way to expand the island soon. It's starting to feel slightly cramped."

"Fair enough."

"What's going on?" The batter asked, returning to their group.

"Emergency meeting; my apologies, mi amigo, I just had to discuss something with Silence."

The jasper eyes reflected a hint of amusement, but their owner said nothing.

"C'mon guys; Those crates look heavy, and it's getting late." Silence smiled, turning and leading the way back to the red teleport-block.

Zacharie watched impassively as Silence stitched the first seam of her skirt, vaguely aware of the ex-purifier that had chosen to sit outside and watch the night come. He mulled on the last time he'd seen the Batter, on all the times he had assisted the man-turned-monster, and the few times he'd considered the direction the delusional quest had been going.

"You're gnawing a hole in your lower lip, Zach. We agreed that we didn't have to hide here; spit it out and be done with it, otherwise you're gonna be brooding all night." Silence scolded softly. Zach sighed, pushing his mask up and massaging the bridge of his nose.

"Despite your faith in him and my own agreement to give him a chance, I don't trust him. He.... well, you know exactly what he's done, you saw it all." He growled, trying not to become angry.

"And I helped him. Even when I could have turned the game off and left you all to your fates, I helped him. I thought it might get better." She replied, setting her sewing down.

"Obviously it didn't." He grumbled; apparently he was more aggressive than he meant to be, because Silence turned pale and stood, quickly walking out the back door.

"Silence?" He called, startled. "Silence, wait!"

Zach yanked the door open to be greeted with the low-frequency 'bwaaat' of something teleporting to the nothingness.

"Zacharie? What's going on?"

His heart dropped as he automatically slid his mask on (despite not needing it any longer, the smoke was gone from Zone 0) and turned to face the Batter.

"Silence has run off."

~~*~~

She knew she was being childish. She knew she shouldn't be as angry and upset as she was. She knew a lot of things, but that didn't change her current state.

Silence was angry, frustrated, and tired. And there was no way she could deal with Zacharie's mistrust of the Batter, when she herself knew that the Batter wasn't inherently evil. She'd glimpsed him when he left the Zones, before his mad quest to purify his now-corrupted home had begun. She knew what he was; he was a guardian, a Gatekeeper for the kingdom that the Queen had built. She stalked across the nothingness, letting herself be surrounded by shadows and stalking away from the zone portals. Maybe she would get (un)lucky enough to stumble across the shadowbeast that had injured her before; she was upset enough that she needed to vent, and talking wouldn't cover this.

She heard the sound of another warping into the Nothingness, and darted to the nearest Zoneline she could see. She heard a rough voice, the Batter, calling her back as she dove gracefully through the hole in the darkness.

She landed, per usual, on her feet. Zone 1 glittered stark white around her, and the bare train tracks beckoned to her.

She saw the Batter warp in after she'd gone thirty yards, and started running. Two secretaries tried to stop her, but she darted between them as they swooped in; her reflexes were wired again, and her mind focused on one thing. The mines. She could disappear among the twists and curves; she remembered where the secret passage was, and if she was lucky she could fool Batter into checking there while she fled to the maze in Alma.

She forgot how used to running he was.

He cut her off before she could reach the mine-entrance, forcing her to backtrack and flee to the postal-building in Shachihata.

He did forget the number for the item room she'd brought him to, floor 2584.

She heard the elevator fly upwards past the floor, and let out a relieved sigh; its return, however, sent her scurrying in among the boxes. She heard the Batter's cleats squeaking near-silently on the tiled floor, and held her breath.

"She has to be here or the post office."

"It would make more sense that she came here, The other number is a bit easier to remember."

Her heart nearly stopped, hearing Zacharie's voice. Fear was a powerful compulsion; she found herself creeping around the edge of the room toward the elevator as the two males started sifting through the crates in the far corners. The only alert they got that she had been there was the 'ding!' of the elevator as the doors closed.

"Silence!!" Zacharie shouted as the doors closed; Silence didn't respond, instead escaping through the ground floor to the rails and over into Alma. She relaxed a bit once she was in the maze, and carefully marked the way out in an inconspicuous place; she heard them calling out for her, heard them trying to find her in the high walls.

"She's not here, Zach. Maybe we should go back, it's getting extraordinarily late."

"I can't just leave her out here! What if a secretary or a spectre finds her? All she's got to fight with is a dagger, I don't even know if she has any magics!"

It hurt to hear the worry in the merchant's voice, but Silence said not a word as they passed through the chamber just to her left. Exhausted, she let herself doze, content knowing that she would be left alone for the evening.

Chapter Text

She woke up under a pair of glittering garnets, and immediately froze when she saw the shadow looming over her.

"I take it you and Zacharie were arguing over me?"

She swallowed a terrified sob, staring up at the Batter's glittering eyes. Red human eyes were dilated fully in the darkness, while glowing secondary eyes were mere slits in the thick shadows.

"N-n....not o-over you p-particularly... w-we weren't even arguing, honestly."

"Then why run?" He asked calmly, crouching down to her level.

"Because I know when a person is good or bad; that's why I convinced him to let you stay in Zone 0 in the first place. I was the Player, I KNOW how things work and who can be trusted, particularly when it comes to the individual I was "assigned" to!" She hissed, cutting off in another sob.

"Silence..." The Batter sighed.

"I'm tired of being mistrusted; I'm sick of being reminded that all this is my fault, and being told to let it lie because there's nothing to be done! I'm smart enough, I can find a way to fix it! I know I can! But Zacharie with his damned defeatist attitude tells me not to even try! He probably wouldn't even let me fix my own wounds if I figured out the magic for it. Doesn't trust me to.... to not break everything again." She curled in on herself more, crying softly.

"Or maybe he doesn't want to risk losing you like he lost Sucre."

"Wh...what?" She looked up, confused. Batter smiled at her softly, like an older brother would.

"Kiddo, I haven't seen someone so lovestruck since I was a kid. He doesn't trust me because I was directly involved with Sucre's death. He doesn't want to lose you like he lost her." He chuckled, gently lifting her to her feet, then catching her when she teetered and nearly fell over.

"So, will you let me take you home?"

"Only... only if I can sleep." She murmured, cursing her own exhaustion. She was barely aware of Batter chuckling, and fell asleep as he hoisted her onto his back, carrying her back to Zone 0.

~~*~~

Batter sighed, feeling the Player's arms wrap around his shoulders, and navigated to the red block just before Dedan's office, then hot-footing it back to the safehouse at Zone 0. He had convinced Zacharie to return earlier, around midnight, and had promised to bring Silence back safely, one way or another.

Surprisingly, he wasn't frustrated with the girl; she had a good reason to be angry with the merchant.

He was alarmed by the shadows that gathered around them in the Nothingness. Whispers of "Leave her here" and "Give her to us, Purifier" filled his ears; instinctively, he tightened his grip on the Player's legs, holding her to his back more securely.

"Alpha, Omega, Epsilon, to me. I'm sure it's not safe out here, and my hands are full." He muttered; the three Add-Ons expanded from around his bat and circled him, their soft glow pushing the darkness back to a more comfortable distance. Batter eyed the shadows warily; one manifested and bared its teeth at him, and he returned the gesture.

"Mine are sharper, dimwit." He growled, and the shadow dissolved again with a grumble. He chuckled darkly, thankful that his corrupt side was now fully under his control. Things like pointed teeth and secondary eyes carried between forms, making intimidation easier and sometimes unintentional, but then, there weren't any people left to accidentally terrify.

He saw the Zoneline and relaxed a bit, thanking and releasing the Add-Ons (which shrank down again and hovered around the business end of his bat..

"Funny... besides them, you're the only one who stuck with me unquestioningly through the whole ordeal, even beyond it. Zacharie helped us the entire time during the quest, sure, but it felt like he was driven by want for money, not by loyalty." He commented to the girl on his back; she didn't respond, still fast asleep. "I guess now it's time for me to return the favor. You may or may not hear this, kiddo, but I've got your back. You helped me even when my mission to purify the zones turned out to be a malevolent thing, despite my good intentions; you stuck with it to the bitter end. Now... even if Zacharie won't support you in fixing this, if there is a way to fix it, I will. I promise, you don't have to face this alone."

He felt her arms tighten around his shoulders for a moment as they touched down onto the island, and smiled at the acknowledgement.

"Please, don't tell Zacharie what I said earlier." She whispered.

"He has to know, Kiddo. If you don't tell him, I'll have to. Otherwise he'll keep caging you."

He heard her sigh, and echoed it himself as he kicked the door, yelling to get the merchant's attention. "Oi, Zacharie! I've found her!"

~~*~~

Zacharie startled at the loud bang echoing from the downstairs door, and his heart leapt when he heard the Batter's shout.

"Oi, Zacharie! I've found her!"

He rushed down to the ground floor, quickly unlocking the door and letting the Batter in. The merchant chuckled to himself, seeing the way the purifier had decided to carry Silence.

"She usually sleeps upstairs, 'Big Brother'. I've got a bed laid out for you on the second floor when you want it." He commented, tilting his head.

Batter gave him a long look, then sighed. "When she has been put to bed I must speak with you."

"Alright. Top floor on the left."

He got another long look, this one less neutral and more unimpressed, before the Batter went up. Once he heard the other man cross the second floor, Zacharie let out a frustrated growl.

"Why did she run? She had no reason to walk out like that, I was trying to be reasonable! Je ne comprends pas!" He groused, pacing back and forth.

"Maybe she heard more than just what you were saying."

Zacharie grabbed for his longsword, whirling to find the Batter staring at him impassively.

"Batter! Mon Dieu, don't sneak up on me like that!" He yelped.

"I walked like I always do." The man deadpanned.

"Still. You said you wanted to talk to me. What about?"

"It's about Silence. She ran because you don't trust her, and that hurt her." Batter narrowed his eyes, leaning against the wall.

"What?! Of course I trust her, otherwise she wouldn't be here!"

"Then why did I find her, alone and crying, in the same maze we both searched as thoroughly as possible? Why did she say that you probably wouldn't trust her to even fix her own wounds, let alone to fix what she seems to think she broke?" The purifier's voice lowered to a growl as he spoke, and his shadow pulsed ominously. "Silence was my Player, or puppeteer as you seem to enjoy calling her, and I am grateful that you have cared for her. However, people speak the truth when their emotions are laid bare, and she said you continue to remind her that, while it was my mission to purify the zones, she was the one 'pulling the strings' as it were, and that nothing she does can or will repair what damage was done before."

"Batter, I lost Sucre to your demented schemes, I'm-!"

"Et j'ai perdu toute ma famille, vous marchand damnés égoïste!" The man-turned monster roared, his eyes glowing blood red for an instant. Zacharie clutched his sword, alarmed, as the Batter sighed in frustration, letting the anger dissipate. "You lost one person. An important person, yes, but only one, and she wasn't even a lover to you anymore. I woke up from madness, standing over the body of my dead son, remembering the glazed eyes of my dead wife, and seeing a monster staring back at me from the mirror. I would give my life to bring them back, to have the chance to say I'm sorry. Not even a year later, I find out the Player who aided me in my quest has fallen into the Zones, is under your care, and isn't allowed to even look and SEE if there's a way to fix things, to undo it all. Zacharie, if anyone can fix things, it's her."

Zach reeled, clenching his jaw to keep from retorting harshly.

"If I may interject in your argument, sirs, Silence asked me to tell you she could likely hear you yelling from three zones away, and could you at least save it for when people aren't trying to sleep?"

Zacharie turned to the stairs, and saw Batter do the same in his peripheral vision. "Pablo?"

"Of course, my dear merchant. Now, I am inclined to agree with the girl, and would politely ask if you could save your energy for fighting shadows? It would seem that the Nothingness is in an uproar."

"O-oh... right. Sorry." Zach laid his sword on the counter, watching as the Judge approached the Batter.

"My apologies, Judge. I let my emotions get the better of me." Batter murmured, crouching down to gently pet the purring cat.

"All is well, dear Batter. Just mind your temper." The cat rumbled in reply. Zacharie sighed, shaking his head.

"She's awake?"

"Yes, but she'll not speak to you right now. Wouldn't surprise me if she'd escaped to the roof to skygaze." Pablo thrummed.

True to the cat's prediction, Silence was wrapped in a blanket and staring out at the barren sky on the roof of the building. Zacharie watched her for a moment, standing in the doorway with the Batter.

"Well, loverboy, go on. You won't get another chance tonight, and if you're careful she won't lash out an angry cat." Batter murmured, gently shoving the merchant out onto the concrete. Zacharie stumbled and turned to snap at the taller man, only to find a locked door.

"Merde." He grumbled, padding over to where the Player sat. "What are you seeking in the Zones' barren sky, my dear?"

"Orion. Virgo. Taurus, Gemini, the Great and Little Bears. Anything that would resemble one of the constellations from home. Even the Moon would be a welcome sight." She murmured, shivering in the blanket-turned-hoodie.

"I'm sorry... there haven't been any stars in a long time, since before the Batter originally left. He was a king and guardian before this whole purification business, you know." Zacharie offered, hoping to catch her curiosity.

"What made him leave in the first place, then?" Silence asked.

"Hugo got sick. From what I understand, it was a never-before-seen virus, something similar to the trigger that turns normal Elsens into Burnt ones; Vader Eloha panicked, and started looking for a cure."

"There wasn't one?" Silence asked quietly. Zacharie shook his head.

"Not a one. Not here, anyway. However, she caught wind that perhaps a mage who dwells in a zone way off to the west could help; because she was tied up caring for Hugo, she sent the Batter."

"The mage sent the corruption, corrupted him, and sent him on the mad quest." She hummed, her eyes distant.

"You know the story, then?" Zacharie asked. Silence thought for a moment, then nodded.

"I know a bit. I know that Batter seemed... off, when I first met him, and his shadow was distorted. I wandered off when we reached the Room, and found a journal; it detailed the change, how Hugo had gotten sick, how the stars had vanished. I thought that.... maybe if we completed the Batter's mission..."

"That it would make everything reset." Zacharie finished, understanding dawning in his mind. "That's why you didn't stop."

"Obviously. I.... I'm sorry for running off. That was childish of me." She shrank back into her blankets like a snail into its shell; Zacharie sighed, pulling her close.

"No, I'm sorry. I was harsh on you and the Batter." He muttered into the blanket.

"Ok, so we're both sorry and we're both gonna work on being better." She retorted lightly. Zacharie chuckled and nodded.

"Sounds fine to me, love."

"There's that 'love' again." She murmured, poking him through the thick fabric.

"You're complaining?" He replied incredulously. She chuckled.

"You've only known me for what, a couple of weeks now? How can you honestly call me 'love' in such a short amount of time?"

"It's just a nickname, mon ami. I'll stop using it if it bothers you that much." Zacharie mumbled, shivering slightly in the cool air.

"Maybe you should go inside?" Silence commented, poking him again. He laughed.

"Or maybe I can convince you to share the blanket?"

"Maybe. You'd have to ask nicely though." She chuckled, looking up at him.

"My dear Silence, voudriez-vous partager gentiment la couverture, s'il vous plaît?"  He purred against her ear, feeling her shiver.

"A-Alright." she stammered, handing him an edge and scooting over; Zacharie pulled the suddenly loose fleece around his shoulders, wrapping his free hand around Silence and pulling her into his lap. She squeaked at him, making him smile, but didn't complain otherwise; he felt her settle in his arms, and rested his chin on the top of her head to watch her fiddle with the edges of the blanket.

"Comfortable?" he asked; she nodded, snuggling against him.

"If we fall asleep out here and Batter has to fetch us, it's your fault and you get to explain why there's only one bed in our room." She muttered, yawning softly. Zacharie laughed, not responding, and gazed out at the pitch-black sky.

Chapter Text

Silence woke still snuggled in the blanket, still snuggled against the merchant, but laid out on her bed instead of curled up on the cold concrete. Blinking away the sleepiness, she glanced up to see Zacharie's expression darkening; he pulled her against his chest tightly, muttering in slurred French as his body twitched.

"Zacharie? Zach, you're having a nightmare." Silence whispered cautiously, pressing one hand to his chest to try and push herself away so she could breathe. Zacharie stirred, but didn't wake. The Player sighed, carefully wriggling closer to press a chaste kiss to his jaw.

"Zach, please, you're crushing me. It's ok, we're safe." she whispered, more urgently this time. Again, Zacharie stirred, but didn't wake; however, his grip loosened, and Silence was able to free herself and get up. She stretched, sighing in relief as her back crackled and popped, then turned and carefully wrapped the blanket around the merchant more tightly, gently brushing some of his black-brown hair out of his now-relaxed face.

"Mmm...mon cherie?" The merchant mumbled, blinking blearily at her.

"Shh, go back to sleep, mein Freund." She whispered, letting her hand fall to rest on his shoulder. Zacharie 'hmph'-ed at her, before curling up and doing as she asked. She chuckled lightly, turning and quietly padding downstairs to the main floor.

"Mind explaining why you and that masqué imbécile are sharing a bed?" Batter asked quietly as she emerged into the kitchen. Silence chuckled softly, walking over to sift through their stash of tea.

"That masqué imbécile, as you so eloquently call him, acts as a living teddy-bear when the night-terrors get to be too much for me, much like you did when we were playing the game and I had to stop us for sleep." she retorted, laughing. The Batter sighed, shaking his head.

"You still fight with the monsters your mind conjures? I thought you overcame that?" He inquired.

"I never said the terrors were the same as before."

"Touche. Still, though, Zacharie? I suppose I shouldn't judge, but..." Batter shook his head, and Silence sighed. Giving up on the tea, she walked over to the table, sat down, and picked up her pencil and one of the pieces of paper.

"Zacharie was the only one around when I got here; he got me inside and loaned me his old Judge mask. Human's can't live very well on breathing smoke, remember." She murmured, sketching the back of the building, then adding on a small peninsula with an oak tree.

"Fair enough..."

~~*~~

Batter watched his player carefully, trying to decide what all she had changed since the game; obviously, her hair was no longer down past her waist in length, but she was also thinner and paler, like she hadn't had proper food or sunlight for a while. But... those changes weren't what bothered him; they were obvious enough and could appear in anyone. What bothered him were the subtle changes, like how her face was a slightly different shape, her nose was off, and how her expression looked too symmetrical.

"Batter?" Silence asked, startling him. "You're staring. Is something wrong?"

He hesitated, trying to think of a kind way to put it.

"You're different than when we played the game."

"Of course. It's been, what, three months now? People can change, even in that short of a time." She responded casually, adding details to the oak tree she'd been sketching.

"No, not like you have. There's... there's something about you that's gone missing, like this isn't the real you. Not that I'd doubt it was you, just.... you don't seem right." He sat down to her left, watching the window and waiting for her reaction.

"Everyone has a mask, Batter. Some just manifest more obviously than others." She said simply, adding a final detail to the tree. He bit his tongue, not sure what exactly to say to that, and sat back to watch her draw for a few minutes.

Purple magic flared in his vision, and out of the blue his Player stood and rushed outside, knocking her chair over in the process. Batter found himself staring at a blank piece of paper where Silence's extraordinarily realistic drawing had been, frozen; he heard her retching outside, and forced himself to his feet to go aid her (and pick up the chair she'd knocked over in her flight). Stepping into the warm outdoors, he rushed over to his puppeteer, crouching next to her as she heaved dryly.

"Kiddo? Mon petit chaton, what's wrong?" He asked softly, resting a hand on her back. She coughed, shaking her head as tears streamed from her eyes, but didn't answer. Batter sighed, lightly rubbing circles into the girl's back until she was able to recover.

"What was that all about?" He asked gently, once she was no longer coughing or dry-heaving.

"Something I did didn't sit properly with me... lucky me, I didn't have anything in my stomach..." She whispered in reply, trembling.

"I saw magic. And your drawing was gone when the flash faded from my vision." Batter murmured absentmindedly. He glanced up, and froze; a large oak tree had sprung up from a grassy patch that he knew hadn't been there the previous day.

"Kiddo, I think you magicked an oak-tree onto the island."

"What?!" she responded, shocked. "But I didn't-" she turned, looking at what had caught his attention, and fell silent.

Batter shook his head, standing and gently pulling her to her feet. "Maybe you weren't meaning to, but you certainly did, mon petit chaton. Might be why you became so suddenly and violently ill."

"...do you think I can do it again? Maybe add on a room or two?"

And there was the curiosity he remembered so well.

"I wouldn't recommend trying just now, not if your reaction is anything to go by." He chuckled, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and helping her to her feet. "C'mon kiddo, let's get inside and fix up some breakfast, shall we? I'll cook while you wake Zacharie."

She nodded, letting him lead her inside and shoo her upstairs.

Batter sighed, shaking his head and walking into the kitchen and fishing about for foodstuffs.

"Merde, Zacharie, où est le sel sanglante?"

Chapter Text

Zacharie woke up to a gentle pressure against his forehead, and felt someone sitting next to him.

"S-Sucre? Sucre, I had the worst nightmare-" he fell silent as his eyes cleared, and saw not Sucre, but Silence, sitting next to him and brushing his hair out of his face. Her eyes were sad, and he realized he'd reminded her -yet again- that she had caused him to lose someone important.

"Silence, I'm-"

"Hush. The more you apologize the worse it gets." she cut him off, her tone gentle. Zacharie watched as she stood, and walked back to the stairs. "Batter said he'd cook if I woke you up; as I recall, you and he shared a mutual dislike for one another during the game, so... I agreed. I'm gonna go make sure he doesn't burn the place down, now."

Zacharie watched her go, guilt gnawing on him, and sighed.

"Might as well get up... merde, I feel like an asshole now." He muttered, shaking his head. He pushed the blanket away, stood and stretched, and slipped into the closet to change clothes, opting for a simple t-shirt (adorned with a heart, of course) and a pair of black jeans. He padded downstairs, finding Batter sitting at the table with a displeased expression on his face.

"Kicked out of the kitchen, amigo? I didn't know your cooking was that bad..." He chuckled. The ex-puppet growled at him, eyes narrowed.

"It's not that his cooking was that bad, it's that he doesn't know where everything is." Silence laughed from the other room.

"I wasn't aware that putting things in the least obvious place was the new rule, Chaton. I was looking where I remember such things being in my own home." The Batter retorted, before sighing and running his hands through his hair.

"Oh, while I think of it, Zacharie. The Player discovered a new ability this morning. Look outside, to the right of the back door." he said, turning scarlet eyes to Zach. The Merchant looked at the ex-purifier confusedly, then sighed and stepped outside.

"Alright, Batter, what're you talking-" He fell silent, staring at the massive oak tree that now adorned a new piece of land behind the building.

"Batter, what did you do?!" He half-shrieked, backing up against the doorframe.

He heard the batter curse from the table. "Damnit, I knew he'd react that way..."

The taller man walked over to stand next to him.

"Kiddo conjured it from nowhere this morning; her system didn't react very well, but, then, she did it by accident. Is it that bad?"

"No! No, it's not bad at all! I just... wasn't expecting it. You said it didn't mix well with her?" He replied, shaking his head.

"It made her sick to her stomach; considering how stressed she was yesterday, that doesn't surprise me."

Zacharie didn't respond, biting his lip instead.

"Guys! Food!"

He scrambled after the Batter at that summons, his stomach growling.

~~*~~

"You're sure you'll be alright? We're gonna be gone for awhile." Zacharie asked for the third time; Silence sighed, nodding.

"Yes, Mum, I'll be fine. If anything happens, I've got that steel bat that Batter gave me, and Pablo's here with me. Now go on, Batter said he wanted you to help him out." She groused, shooing him out the door. She shut said door before he could retort, then hurried upstairs for a powernap.

Once she woke up, Silence closed her eyes and tried something she'd been thinking about for a while; she tried hacking into the digital side of the world, seeking the character files. Nothing came, no memories, no files, nothing.

"There's a reason that nothing was fixed by those who live here, after all..." She murmured, turning and going to look for Pablo.

"Pablo? Judge, mein Freund, I need to ask you something important!" She called, walking down to the second floor.

"Yes, my dear?" The grinning cat purred, materializing from a shadow near the Batter's bed.

"I.... I wanted to ask, before I tried it... because I wasn't sure how you'd react." She stumbled, chewing on her lip.

"Ask what, dear Puppeteer?"

"If I could bring Valerie back, untainted and completely himself, would you want me to?" She closed her eyes, choking down the fear that blossomed in her chest.

"My Dear, if there were a way to bring my little brother back, I would have made use of it as soon as was prudent." Pablo's voice was sad, as it had been after the fight atop the Library.

"And if that way was through this magic I've discovered?"

"Batter was saying that you should not use your competence yet, because it affected you so badly before. I would not feel right, knowing that you were going against his wishes for my sake."

"That's why I went and had a nap. I need to do something helpful or I'll go mad. This is the way I can make things right, even if it's only one life at a time. Now... if I can, do you want me to bring Valerie back? I can't bring everyone back at once; that will definitely kill me, but... one at a time over the course of several days or weeks should be alright." She pinched the bridge of her nose, furrowing her brow.

"If you can without bringing harm to yourself, then yes, I would love for you to bring Valerie back." Pablo conceded, headbutting her ankle. "I miss my younger brother."

Silence nodded, bending down and scooping the cheshire cat into her arms; she turned and walked back down to the table, thinking through the process she'd used that morning.

---

"No, no, he was a little smaller than me."

"Better?"

"Much. It's not quite a portrait, but it is enough, correct?"

Silence nodded, leaning back and inspecting the sketch. A sleeping Valerie lay curled up on the table, surrounded by her character sketches of him. She took a deep breath, finding the focus she had had before, and fell to detailing him into reality. She felt her heart speed up, heard a startled hiss from the cat sitting in her lap as everything turned purple; she took the energy that she felt welling up into her fingertips, started willing it into the drawing as she saw it.

Fur bloomed under her hands, a soft body filling out and shaping itself before her, and-

Pain. Oh, by the heavens, there was so much pain. Her skull felt like it was going to crack, but...

She heard the purr.

"Brother?"

"Valerie! Valerie, petit frère, tu es vivant!"

She blinked, trying to see the results of her effort, and the world spun. She shut her eyes tightly.

"Silence?"

She shook her head, closing her eyes against the suddenly-blinding light. "I'm... I'm alright. Headache... I think I need to sleep." She replied, reaching out to gently pet whichever cat had stuck his head into her hand.

"I'll go with you, alright? I'll make sure you don't run into anything and help you sleep." Valerie said, headbutting her elbow. She nodded, standing clumsily, and stumbled over to the stairs.

~~*~~

"Silence? Pablo, we're back!" Batter called, opening the door.

"I think you're going to be upset with me, Batter."

"Why, Pablo? What happened?"

"Silence brought back my little brother, as he was before that overgrown parasite infected him. I tried to convince her not to, but... she made good points for her trying."

Batter sighed. "I never told her expressly not to, Pablo, I just said i didn't recommend it, considering her reaction to summoning the tree. Where is she?"

"Sleeping. Valerie's keeping an eye on her; she said she had a headache, but... she was stumbling like she'd been clubbed over the head with your bat."

Batter fiddled with the brim of his hat, troubled. "Was there anything else wrong?"

"She didn't throw up, if that's what you're worried about. Although... Valerie said she'd been whimpering about stomach cramps just before she fell asleep. And... she looks different. like she did before, when you two passed through."

He didn't stay to hear more, instead quickly making his way up to the Player's room, sudden eagerness to see the girl who had helped him so many times, who had been loyal to a fault, replacing the fear.

She was sprawled across the bed, her pained expression softened by sleep and her long brown hair fanned out under her head. Valerie was curled in a ball next to her stomach, purring.

"How is she?" Batter asked the cat; Valerie blinked at him, then glanced up at the Player.

"She is.... not well, but not ill. I think she may be attending to something in her own world."

"Her own world?" Batter blinked, starting at the cat. Valerie nodded, grinning his uneven grin.

"She is still human, Batter. She is still the Player."

"I know that, but... she seems so corporeal. Like she really is here, not just an avatar."

"It would explain why she looks so different, but in a way she is here. She is operating two bodies at once, Batter. One here and one in her world."

Batter reeled and shook his head. "Now you're just trying to confuse me."

"Guilty as charged, monsieur. I think she is merely trying to recover energy for now."

He nodded, then went over to a chair and sat back, waiting for Silence to wake up.

Memories danced in his eyes, of happier and sadder times, and he shook his head, standing and walking back to the stairs.

"Perhaps mon chaton has the right idea. I'm going to go sleep... let me know when she wakes up."

~~*~~

Zacharie watched as the Batter talked to Pablo's little brother, listening with half-an-ear to the conversation. The idea that Silence was in her own world.... it wasn't that impossible, he supposed, but it was still improbable, and there would have been signs if she were really acting as she had before.

Batter muttered something about sleep, and went back down to his makeshift bedroom. Zacharie shook his head, walking over to sit on the bed next to the brunette.

"So this is what you really look like...ma chérie, pourquoi caches-tu un si joli visage?" He whispered, lightly brushing her hair behind her ear; she stirred under his fingers, and he pulled away to avoid startling her.

"You're back." she murmured softly, her voice floating among a sea of whispers. Immediately, she bit her tongue and sat up, freeing her hands.

"They plague you again?" He replied, giving her a concerned glance. She shrugged and nodded.

'I suppose they do. It might be caused by me bringing Valerie back.' She signed slowly, her eyes closed. Zacharie sighed, his mind flying through explanation after explanation.

"Because you overexerted yourself?" He asked softly.

'Because I dared to dabble in things that shadows controlled.' She replied, a pained smile twisting across her face.

"How do we rid you of these shadows, then?"

'We don't. It's a part of me, one without which I would be lost and alone.'

"Je ne comprends pas! I don't understand, ma chérie. You would willingly live with these demons? You would allow yourself to be haunted?" He demanded, searching her expression for answers. She looked up, met his eyes (for the first time since he'd met her, she actually looked him in the eye), and held his gaze as she signed.

'Not all of the shadows are demons. Not every dark place is a nightmare. Not every day is bright and sunny. There must be darkness, or the light becomes meaningless.' That smile became sad, then wry, before disappearing.

"No world can be perfect." She said simply, shadows whispering around her words.

"Bien, bien. Je comprends. On another note... Valerie suggested that you were in your own world when you slept for the entire day that we were gone. What say you?"

'I say that that is a foolish thought, though I understand why it could have popped into his mind.' Her hands fell, her eyes strayed, as if some odd thought had distracted her. Zacharie watched, entranced, as those hands rose again.

'My home is gone. My world is dead. Everyone left, and...' They stilled as she searched for words, then started moving again. 'And I chose to come here and make a difference, rather than remain and die.'

"So dramatique, mon ami." He chastised gently, laughing.

'Perhaps.' She responded, smiling again. 'I tend to be that way from time to time.'

They laughed, and Zacharie pulled the Player into a tight hug.

"You really do need to stop testing your limits when there isn't anyone here to look after you, though."

'But that's the best time to do so! There's not anyone to tell you that you can't do something.'

"But there's also no one there to help you if you mess up and hurt yourself." He poked her side, making her laugh.

'Fair enough. Are you done being a mother hen now?'

"You fuss at me if I try to be anything more, mon amour. Though the writer would have me restrain myself, I like to think that at some point you will see what I mean."

'Zach, sweetheart, you're breaking the fourth wall again.'

He laughed outright at that. " Telle est ma nature, ma chérie."

Chapter Text

The darkness pulsed that night, waking all who slept in the warm confines of zone 0 from their slumber. The sound of shattering glass apparently woke Silence, whose abrupt lurch into a sitting position woke Zacharie. Batter woke with a roar on the floor below, and rushed up to join the Player and the Merchant on the roof, staring into the suddenly pulsing black sky.

"What's happening?" The Purifier asked, glancing between the two of them. Zacharie shrugged, shaking his head.

"The root of the corruption has revealed itself." Silence mused, shadows chasing the words from her lips. Batter flinched; Zacharie had told him of the Player's affliction earlier, when they had been searching for tools in Zone 0.

"What do we do, then?" He asked, already knowing the answer.

"Same thing we did during the game, my friend. We destroy it. Only this time, it should set everything back to how it was supposed to be."

"Should? Chérie, we cannot base this on should." Zacharie interjected.

"Either killing the source of the corruption will automatically set things right, or it will allow one of us to go into the core of the world and set it right manually." Silence sighed, stretching and popping her shoulders.

"Simple as that?" Batter asked, wary about letting himself hope.

"Simple as that." She confirmed.

---

It was not, in fact, as simple as that. They entered the nothingness, and found themselves assailed by darkness and creatures that they could not see. Silence led the way to a dark and unmarked corner of the world, to a Zoneline that pulsed with darkness the Batter had never seen the like of.

And suddenly, he realized he had seen it before. Long before, when the world had first been corrupted, when Vader Eloha had sent him to the Mage seeking a cure for their son's illness.

He shook his head, watching his Player dive into the Zone, then following suit.

They landed in pitch darkness. His mind was assailed with a fear that was not his own, and it took him a moment to remember that his mind was linked to the Player's, that he could feel what she felt, and that she could also feel what he felt if she chose.

"Alpha, Omega, to me. Epsilon, look after Silence." He called softly. The three Add-ons sparked into life, Alpha and Omega circling him, Epsilon going to rest at Silence's hip. The Player smiled to him, a gratefulness sparkling in her eyes, before turning and plunging into the darkness before them. Batter saw Zacharie follow, and sighed, begrudgingly taking the rear.

They trudged on through the darkness, a thick silence keeping their words to themselves, until the sound of fast-moving air and a sharp shriek broke it.

A loud, high-pitched scream followed before either Batter or Zacharie could react. Batter heard the scream, and recalled where he had heard it before.

And then he was running faster than any normal person should have been able to. Panic burned in his system, pushing him all the faster because that's my player she's hurt she's scared something is attacking her I must protect her! and he was barely aware of the pain that surged through him as he changed, morphed, became the monster that he had never wished to be. And suddenly, the panic was rage, blinding rage as he sprinted through the darkness towards the scream, because how DARE someone try to attack her I will KILL them for so leaving so much as a SCRATCH on her and Zacharie's cries begging him to wait for the merchant to catch up fell on deaf ears.

He burst into the room, a roar of cold fury tearing from his sharp-toothed maw at the shadow-man standing over his Player with a blood-soaked dagger.

"Well, now. One little cry from the puppeteer and her faithful puppet comes running. My, what big teeth you have, Batter." The shadow-man sneered, dodging away as Batter struck at him with one massive, clawed hand. The rage was overshadowed with fear as he felt the strings that still barely connected to his limbs start to shift towards the shadow, before jolting back to Silence.

"Don't you dare touch him, demon." She hissed, coughing out the last word. "E-epsilon. Help me."

The Add-On blinked into life and quickly hovered over to her, letting her grip its rim and pulling her to her feet. Batter looked over his shoulder at her, letting out a questioning rumble.

"I've been worse, mein Freund. I'll live."

He still hurt you.

"Focus, Batter. It seems we've a shadow to destroy."

Avec grand plaisir. He smiled slightly, glad she could still hear him when she held the strings. Turning, he called out Alpha and Omega, baring claws and teeth at the shadow that had hurt his Player and earned his hatred.

"Mind letting me take Epsilon's place for this one, mon chérie?" Zacharie stood at his left shoulder, a longsword in his right hand. Batter looked the merchant over, before snorting in amusement and turning his gaze back to the monster before them. He felt a tug on his strings, and charged at the man with a roar.

---

Battle was all he knew now, rage consuming him like a fire; he could hear them in the background, vaguely, the shouted commands Silence gave to Zacharie, the hum of the Add-Ons as their onslaught continued. The shadowman... he was a tricksy one, with blood that smelled and tasted of grease and quick movements that made him hard to hold onto, hard to crush.

Batter was hurt. Not badly, but enough to hinder him slightly. He was slower than the others, but he got lucky when Zacharie herded the adversary within his reach. He grabbed the shadowman, and slammed him into the ground hard enough to make him bounce. The shadow yelped, a sickening crunch echoing when he hit the ground; he stood, shaken, and roared, to which the Batter answered in kind.

"ENOUGH." The shadow screamed.

The rage fell away from Batter's mind like a sloughed-off skin; his monstrous form melted away, and he was thrown back like a ragdoll. He saw Zacharie fly back in a similar manner; Alpha and Omega were dispelled.

"Enough. Your pretty little game is over, Player. Why not face me yourself instead of sending you pretty alabaster ragdoll at me? Or are you a coward?" the shadow hissed. Batter's gaze snapped to his Player... oh gods she's standing and drawing her dagger no no no chaton turn and run please for the love of all that is pure run run away!

"Bad move, Corruption." She choked, spitting a mouthful of blood to the side. Batter knew she could hear him, why was she not listening?

"Because, mon ami, if I don't end it who will?" She smiled at him. He heard Zacharie whimper, heard her shushing the merchant, before turning to Corruption.

"You've done your damage. Time to undo it." She picked up no no no not my bat put it back and run you little fool.

"Batter, hush. I'm not gonna run, and I can hit far more accurately with a bat than with a dagger."

And the battle began anew. He watched as she lunged at the shadow, clumsily dodging the claws that flew at her and whacking the not-quite-human-anymore shadow upside the head. another crack went across the shadow's ribs, and a third broke one arm. she leapt back, Epsilon raining a multi-attack down from above before sweeping her out of the way of the Shadow's reaction attack.

Back and forth and back and forth, Player and Shadow danced across the field. Batter managed to pick himself up and call his two remaining Add-Ons back to the field, but his strings pulled him back into a sitting position, followed by the order "Rest and wait". He was too dizzy to track who was winning over whom anymore, his vision was blurring and it felt a bit like his skull had been cracked.

A final, sickening CRUNCH signaled the end of the battle; the soft peals of a crystal landing on the stone floor sent ripples of pain through Batter's head, and he barely saw the bare feet that padded up to him. Silence gently tilted his head up so she could check his eyes and lightly blot the blood away from his forehead with a ragged strip of cloth torn from her sleeve.

"Thank you for coming to save me, mein Freund. We wouldn't have won today if you hadn't." she whispered, smiling at him. She waved Alpha and Omega over, directing them to help him stand while she checked on Zacharie.

"Take them home, guys. I've still go one thing left to do."

He felt warmth surround him, focused around his shoulders and waist, as Alpha and Omega pulled him to his feet; he heard Epsilon question Silence, before humming in consent and lifting Zacharie up.

"Mon chérie, where are you going?" Zacharie asked in a cracked whisper.

"To finish this. There is no better time, and I want to end it before anything else has the chance to go wrong." She said firmly, before vanishing into the darkness.

~~*~~

She felt it. The end was here, the end to all the sorrow and torment; the key, the stolen piece of crystal that pulsed in her hand like a heartbeat, pulsing ever faster as she approached the Room, where it all began, ended, and would begin anew. Her own pulse was quickening, her heart beating what might very well have been its last, considering how tired she was and how much energy it would cost to undo the damage that had been done.

She hastened through the maze, through the Throne Room, past the Switch (which remained OFF and would for the rest of time immemorial, if the Batter had his say.) into the core of the world.

The huge crystal pulsed before her, its plumb-shaped cut making it glitter in the neutral light. All that marred its brilliant beauty was the crack, deep within it, near its core, where a shard shaped like a dagger was missing. Silence approached quietly, the missing fragment cupped in her now-bleeding hands, lines of light lacing across her fingers and up past her wrists. The crystal pulsed ominously, making her wince at the brilliant glow.

"Undo the damage that's been done. Restore the Mother and the Son. Shadows fall, the Sun must rise. Corruption has met his demise. Take it now, thy missing piece, and all the stolen souls release!" She chanted, pressing the shard against the crystal's surface. The huge crystal pulsed again, driving her back against the wall and sapping her of what little energy she had left. She sank to the ground, a pained whine hissing past her teeth. She lost track of time, whether the moments that passed were seconds or hours, instants or eternities, and felt soothing blackness engulf her.

Time came bounding back to her when muffled footsteps lightly padded over to where she had collapsed.

"Hey, you're the Player, right?" a child's voice asked. Silence cracked her burning eyes open, looking up at the bright little boy's face as he stood next to her, and nodded.

"Then you need to stay awake, ok? Papa is on his way here, he'll fix you like you fixed us." Hugo beamed; Silence found herself smiling with the little boy, and tried to push herself up to a better position on the wall.

"Since I can't very well fall asleep right now, how about a story?" She rasped, smiling despite the sudden complaints from all over her nervous system. Hugo's expression brightened further, and he nodded frantically. So, she told him the story of the corrupted world, of the man who had tried to save it, and of the shadow that had set him on the wrong path. Another hour passed, and as she finished the tale Epsilon came buzzing into the room, filling her vision with his ecstatic light.

"Ow... Epsilon, it's good to see you too, but you're bright." She laughed, seeing a vision of Epsilon as a giant overly-exuberant puppy.

"He's one of Papa's Add-Ons... Do you think I'll get my own Add-on when I'm grown up?" Hugo mused, a delighted smile adorning his chubby features.

"Perhaps. I don't know, though... for now, i suppose we should go calm your papa down.... I can feel his concern from here." She murmured in reply, letting Epsilon help her to her feet and support her, as Hugo took her free hand and walked out of the core-room with her. the walked back through the Switchroom, through Hugo's hiding place, out into the Throne Room. Vader Eloha was talking to Batter, trying to calm him down before he broke his composure completely. Silence sighed, gently squeezing Hugo's hand before letting him run over to his father and hug the man around his knees. She watched, amused, as the little boy startled Batter from his frantic pleas to be allowed past the Queen.

I'm ok, my friend. Exhausted and worn, but ok. She thought, hoping he would hear her.

A sense of calm wafted from the man many called her puppet, and the Player sighed. Vader Eloha motioned her over, the Queen's touch at the intersection of her shoulders and back revitalizing the Player and taking away the worst of the ache. Silence smiled at Batter (now bearing his son on his shoulders), as he smiled contently.

"You have my thanks, my Player... this is twice, now, that you've aided me with no regard for how it would affect you... Perhaps you'd give the three of us the pleasure of remaining here?" the tall man she'd known as the Batter asked, his French accent making the words that much more eloquent.

"It'd be my pleasure, mein Freund. But... for now, I'd really like some sleep. May I go back to Zone 0, to calm Zacharie down if nothing else?"

"Go on, Chaton. Though, I'm sure Hugo will want more stories when you've recovered a bit." Batter chuckled. Silence nodded, then turned and limped out of the room.

"Take Epsilon with you, Kiddo! The Nothingness has gone absolutely mad!"

She laughed to the Add-On, who still hovered next to her, and kept walking. There would be time to resolve the Nothingness. There was time to do everything that needed doing, now. First, though, she wanted to find Zacharie, tackle him onto their cot, and dream of them dancing among the stars than now glittered in the heavens.

That was what mattered.