Title: Ciel
Series: Off
Character/Pairing: Batter, Zacharie, Hugo, Enoch, Sugar
Rating: PG-13
Summary: After the fall of the Queen, Zacharie cares for Hugo. Batter attempts to redeem himself as a father, with less than successful results. Just maybe there's a happy ending in store, after all.
Author's note: longfic_bingo: kidfic. Mildly AU as characters who died are alive and the ending didn't happen as it did in canon. I just needed to comfort myself through the ending, okay.

.

Learn his name. Change your ways. Because you are...

The brightness faded, and within him so did the rage. Burned out, he found himself empty and staring at the vestiges of everything he had broken.

A whisper and the world was made new, all his destruction undone. It was not to the very pristine start, but it was no longer scattered bones and white.

Did you really think you could destroy the world I made so easily...?

Her voice rung in his mind, fading into the sound of rain.

.

He awoke to the feel of rain on his face. Batter coughed as he woke up, wiping the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand. The world was as it once was. All his sweat and blood for purity was undone with just a word from the Queen.

He pushed himself up, and walked on. He saw Elsens elbow deep in cows. One nervous Elsen tilted his head as he came closer.

"Where are the specters this time?" Batter said.

"Specters? There are no specters here. Even if there were, Dedan would save us. ...He's very kind..."

Batter stepped away. She had peeled back the world to an earlier state. He looked to his hands and saw only healed over scars.

Through the clouds, he could see just a hint of sun peeking through.

He walked on. Through space and voices, rain and clear skies turned a different and deeper shade of blue. The other zones were much of the same. Zone two was calm, an enclave of safety—though Zacharie was nowhere to be seen–and the acrid scent of burning plastic filled the air of zone 3, but the workers were happy.

No sugar wafted up, no sound of specters.

Nothing.

.

The room seemed tinier without her there, as if it were closing in on itself without her presence. The child huddled in a corner of his space, a thick blanket draped around his shoulders. Batter didn't so much walk in with presence as stumble in, his eyes adjusting to the difference between blinding light and the darkness of the room with curled into itself.

Do you even know his first name?

He tried to remember the words, and with it came memories of a distant time. It was so far off, a picture of a man he once was, and now was no longer. With it came the reflection of another side of himself, fury and impurity doused away.

Unlike the others, he hadn't been pushed back with no memories. He was something made new, with the faint memory of clay turned.

The boy began to draw back. "No pills..." he said.

"Hugo," Batter said.

Hugo shook his head. He was wrapped in a blanket, hidden behind pillows and peeking out.

"Where is mama?" he said.

"Your mother is away," he said. He stepped closer, and Hugo crawled away from him.

"I want mama. Mama! Mama!"

He picked up Hugo, who kicked his feet into the air, a little whimper in the back of his throat.

"I'm your caretaker now."

The word father still felt strange in his mouth. He couldn't bring himself to say it. He tried to hold tighter to Hugo, but Hugo tried to squirm away.

"You're holding him wrong again," Zacharie said.

He hadn't heard him come in. Batter turned, and Hugo squirmed more at the sight of him.

"Zacharie!" Hugo said. Hugo reached out desperately for him, pulling away from Batter's hold.

Zacharie lifted the boy up from Batter's grasp.

"I promised her I would care for you, and that's just what I'm going to do. Are you going to be my apprentice?"

"Uh-huh. I'll be good appentice," Hugo said. He stumbled over the word and tried again. "A-preen-teece." he frowned.

"Helper," Zacharie suggested. Hugo shook his head, and tried the word again, only to stumble.

"You'll get it eventually," Zacharie said.

Batter looked at Zacharie with narrowed eyes. His grip tightened on his bat. Hugo drew back in fear, hiding under Zacharie's shirt.

"I've helped you on your journey this long. Why is this a surprise, friend?"

Batter didn't reply. He let Zacharie lead the boy away. The room seemed smaller without him, darkness closing in to darkness.

.

Everything was as it once was. Batter woke up to a cocoon of a room, a safe place made for her child. She'd strung spider silk and broken butterfly wings all around it, guarded him with every fiber of her being and life.

Zacharie was in the kitchen, a newly formed part of the room. He must have learned to shape it, given how many changes had come since he had decided to stay.

"Ah, Batter! There you are, just who I was looking for. Here are some important implements of being a father," Zacharie said. He held up a particular piece of clothing.

Batter frowned down at the garish floral pink ruffled apron. Zacharie was chuckling again, never a good sign.

"How much is it?"

"The price of my amusement. Credits can't buy everything," Zacharie said.

Batter was about to toss it aside when he heard a sound. Childish laughter, warm and bright, a sound he'd almost forgotten. He stared over at Hugo, who was looking at him without fear, but happiness. Some hard plane within him softened ever so slightly.

"I accept," he said.

He put on the floral monstrosity and started to work on the floor.

"I'm on a sacred mission to clean this floor," he said.

Hugo laughed even more, falling over. Zacharie put his hand out before Hugo's head hit the floor.

The scent of bleach made his head ache, but it cleaned up the stains, erased the dirt until everything was pristine again. He'd gotten far worse injuries The black walls turned gray, and then finally white under his constant scrubbing. His nostrils flared as he noticed a stain on Hugo's red jumper. He stared over at Hugo, and carried the bleach closer, closer until Hugo began to crawl away from him, the look of fear returning.

"For the last time, you can't purify the child," Zacharie said.

Batter didn't respond, the bottle of bleach still in hand.

"Let's go get changed," he said to Hugo, taking his little hand in his.

Batter watched them go. He put away the things, and sat in an empty room. No sun came through these windows. In the heart of the Queen's world, still some darkness remained.

.

Zacharie tucked Hugo in, and put one of his bears close. Hugo held the bear tight, its head just below his chin.

"There, there. Now is that better?"

"Mama would sing to me before I'd go to bed," Hugo said.

"A song? Hmmm, I suppose I could try," Zacharie said. He stroked his chin thoughtfully and cleared his throat. His voice was low and melodious.

"Hush little baby don't you cry, or a bird will come and pluck out your eye. And if that bird wears a cat hat, I'll go in and make a new mask."

Hugo quivered, his eyes wide with fear. He broke into a coughing fit.

"I was never good at songs. Ah, perhaps a bedtime story instead? How about this? There once was a very clever man with a sword who went on a journey. One day, he ran into the toad king, and said 'greetings, wretched monarch, leave this land at once or perish at the tip of my blade.' The king did not listen at all, so the very handsome and clever man went and killed him with his sword and made a mask from his face." Zacharie said.

"A mask?" Hugo said. He reached out to touch Zacharie's mask, and Zacharie let him. Small fingers traced the line of leathery roughness.

"There's nothing to fear," Zacharie said. His mask was pushed up enough just to see his grin. "If anyone tries to hurt you, I'll make a mask from their face. And then..."

He leaned in closer.

"—I'll let you wear it. No enemy can hurt you if you take their power like that. There, some advice for free."

Hugo's eyes were wide. He held tight to Zacharie's wrist. "Nothing to worry?"

"Nothing," Zacharie said. "No one will harm you," he said again. He looked to the side of the room where Batter watched.

"Isn't that right, Batter?"

"Right. I would destroy them myself if that happened," Batter replied.

"Good to hear, good to hear," Zacharie said. He pushed himself up, and snuffed out the candle. "Now, Hugo, it's your bedtime."

"Can I have a nightlight?" Hugo said.

"Well, I think there's something from my bag—"

He pulled out a little glowing sun-shaped orb and placed it on the table.

"Don't knock it off. Bad things might happen," Zacharie said.

Hugo nodded solemnly and closed his eyes.

"One last song?" he said sleepily.

Zacharie wound up a music box and put it next to the sun orb. The tinkling melody went on long after he had left the room.

"You should sleep, too," Zacharie said in an undertone. "You never did sleep well on your journey, and you aren't changing those habits now."

"You remember," Batter said.

"I remember everything," Zacharie replied. "Goodnight, Batter."

Batter watched him walk. He stayed a while longer to watch Hugo sleep, the music box slowly winding down until it was just the sound of small breaths, broken by a cough to disturb the peace.

.

That day, Batter woke up early to finish his rounds. He put as much work as he had put into purification into wiping out the dinginess of the room. Once his cleaning was over, Batter returned to Hugo's room. Zacharie had brought some crayons, and they were currently drawing rainbows over the newly washed walls.

His knee-jerk reaction to strike out at the corrupting of this newly pristine space was broken when he came closer. Hugo looked up at him, crayon still in hand.

"It's color," Hugo said shyly. "Zacharie brought pictures of outside. He's the best."

"I see that," Batter said. He said no more, but the slightest smile formed on his face.

"Why don't you take a crayon? I've got a new special, only one-hundred credits a piece."

"Your specials are a robbery," Batter muttered.

"I am the only merchant around, which makes it quite profitable...heheh," Zacharie said.

He pulled out credits and handed them over. Zacharie handed him a yellow crayon.

"Something's missing, don't you think?" Zacharie said.

They'd made a scribbled sky, mixed in shades of discordant blue with little squiggle birds. Hugo had provided the shaky grass at the bottom, which was easiest for him to reach. Zacharie had made the tree, drawn with a far lighter and sturdier touch than Hugo's squiggles.

"Mama is the sun," Hugo said. "The bird is in the sky, big man is in the hole, and tall friend is in the house. A cow bit the tall man," Hugo said. He was babbling away, but Batter had fallen silent. He solemnly drew the circle of a sun high up where only he could reach. the swirls of the light were like the patterns of her hair he only half remembered.

It was the least he could do.

.

Zacharie was drinking coffee, looking over some paper as the morning came in shades of orange and pink that filtered through the new windows he had installed. Before the room had been a place to shut out the horrors of the world from Hugo, but with it had all beauty and hope. He'd forgotten what a sunrise could look like, with the way the sky was clouded over from the smoke stacks in zone 3.

Hugo came to the table, his face twisted into a grimace.

"I want to go outside," Hugo said. His lower lip was quivering.

"Later. Not today," Batter said.

"You always say later. I. Want. To. Go. Outside!" His voice broke at the apex, and he fell into a fit of coughing, his head against Zacharie's leg. The room shuddered at the outburst, the darkness Batter had worked so hard to lift returning in a cloud of gray.

"It's dangerous outside of the room," Batter said in a low, cold voice. "The world is a cold place. Impure and cruel."

"My friends went outside," Hugo said. "I haven't seen them in a long time, but I know they are out there. I can feel them, here." He put his little hand over his heart. Each breath his took was labored, and he broke into another coughing fit.

Even if she had brought the world back, she couldn't fix him. Even that was beyond her power, otherwise she would have done it long ago.

Zacharie chuckled. "Hmm, which should we show little Hugo first? The meat packing barns where they cut up cows, or the sugar plant where they used to—"

"Neither," Batter cut in.

"I do own an amusement park in zone 2. Guaranteed not to have any specters, especially not with you around," Zacharie said.

"Outside?" Huge said hopefully. His eyes were wide, and for once, filled with hope and not fear.

"All right," Batter said.

"Will we see my friends again?" Hugo said.

"One day, but not today. Today Zacharie will take us around the park."

"We are going to have fun," Batter said.

"You say that with such determination, like you'd kill anyone who got in the way," Zacharie said.

Batter just looked at him.

"Duly noted," Zacharie replied.

.

He had on a floral baby carrier from Zacharie, where Hugo could hang from his chest and look, but not fall into the sea of plastics. At this point, he suspected that Zacharie's sole reason for living (other than making copious amounts of money) was to laugh at him, but if Hugo laughed too, it didn't matter so much. Hugo looked out in wonder at the world, craning his little neck.

"It's so big," Hugo said.

"There are many more zones, though they don't feature the sorts of thrilling escapades of this one," Zacharie said.

"It's cold outside," Hugo said.

"The room is always warm," Batter replied.

"Not always. When I take pills, it gets cold and sore. They're bitter and I don't like them."

"You must take the pills," he said. "Your mother would want you to take them."

Hugo slumped a bit at that. He adored his mother, would do anything for her. Sometimes a part of him felt a twinge that Zacharie and she got this side of Hugo, but he never would. Batter was not one for regrets.

He patted Hugo on the back.

Hugo looked up at him, wary and yet curious. The moment was broken when Zacharie returned with a balloon.

Hugo brightened when he saw Zacharie. He was unabashedly trusting and happy as he reached for the pinkish balloon.

"He's too young for the roller coaster, but there's always the pedalo ride...or a trip to the mall."

"I'm not taking my son to get eaten by your collection of space whales," Batter said.

Zacharie chuckled. "They aren't mine, though they never attacked me. Only you seem to find a way to provoke all the specters."

"Pedalos?" Hugo asked.

"You'll like them," Zacharie replied.

Soon enough they were at the course, a pedalo waiting for them. Batter climbed in first, then Zacharie sat beside him, though it was a tight fit.

"They're birds," Hugo said. He looked from side to side. "But not birds like my friend."

"They're powered by someone working the pedals. Now isn't that something?" Zacharie said.

Batter started to pedal at a quick pace. Soon enough they'd caught a rail and were sailing through. Hugo clung to him a little harder.

"Speaking of which, I need to put more balloons around. The ones I put in the last time for you were never replaced," Zacharie said.

"You put those for me?" Batter said.

"You think the Elsens would be interested in Luck tickets and Abaddon's meat?" Zacharie said.

"You never know with them," Batter said.

The breeze was in his face. Hugo had his arms held up high, and Zacharie had rested his arm against Batter's own, distracting him to no end. The sunlight reflected bright off of the seas of plastic, so bright he had to pull his cap down to see.

.

Days passed. The room had lightened considerably when Hugo had gone outside. Now there was a new pattern of birds across the ceiling that were too high to have been drawn by any of them. His powers grew by the day.

Batter leaned against the doorway, only to find Zacharie in the cat mask with his arms stretched out. Hugo faced him back wearing an alligator mask.

"Meow," Zacharie said.

"Grawwrwaar," Hugo responded back.

Each had their hands out, Hugo looking about to topple over. Before he did, Zacharie caught him and lifted him up.

"You're the best, Zacharie."

Beyond the memories of pain, of rage, this moment softened something inside him. Something bitter and coarse which had withered away to desicated earth.

Hugo broke off as they both noticed Batter there, leaning against the door.

"I agree," Batter said.

He left without another world. He pulled his cap down over his face, but it didn't hide his smile from anyone, least of all himself.

.

"By the way, we're having a visitor today," Zacharie said. "In fact, he just arrived ten minutes ago."

"Thank you for the early warning," Batter said.

Zacharie chuckled. "You're welcome."

All around the little table was a group of pies which Enoch set out, grinning the whole while.

"I did promise you pie," Enoch said. "And I always keep my promises."

Batter had been at the back, arms crossed and surveying the situation for any possible problems, but Enoch motioned him towards the table which was dwarfed by him. The room had expanded to fit him. Had it been Zacharie, or was Hugo starting to come to his powers even more than he thought?

"I'm fine," Batter said.

"There's no need to be a wallflower," Zacharie said. He held out a pie towards Batter.

"I'm not hungry," Batter said.

Batter only looked away for a moment, but in that moment he felt the sweet dessert smashed against his face. He licked away the frosting as it fell to his newly cleaned floors.

His bat was in another room. He tensed as more cream fell down his face. Zacharie reached up to clear out his eyes, so it looked as if he was wearing a mask as well.

"You have three seconds to explain," Batter said.

"According to the history books, it's comedy at its finest. Besides, look at your son."

Batter pushed away the remains of the pie from his face, leaving only a faint trace of white. Hugo had begun to laugh so hard that he was rolling on the floor.

He picked up the pie and considered it just a second before pushing the mask up and smashing it into Zacharie's face.

"Here's a new mask for you," he said.

Hugo laughed until he gasped, and Enoch joined him, a deep booming belly laugh as he pushed a pie into his face. However, it only made a little spot on his massive cheeks.

"Pie face for everyone!" Enoch said.

Not to be left out, Hugo pushed his face into the pie.

"Try being ridiculous more often, it's good for the soul," Zacharie said.

"With you around, I can't help but be," Batter said dryly.

.

The days passed slowly. Like a warm summer bathed in sunlight, the room had changed. Instead of a constant drive, the days were tempering himself, and taking care of Hugo.

Today when he came in, the scene had already been set. By Zacharie, presumably. The chairs were terribly small. Hugo had put them all into a smiley face. Because the table was in the other room, the tea had to be balanced on their laps.

Without a word of protest, Batter walked to sit by Hugo. Zacharie was on the other side. Hugo coughed, and reached out to tug on his shirt. Batter leaned down, an unfamiliar feeling rising up in him.

"Don't forget to get tea," Hugo said.

"We saved a spot for you, though it may be lukewarm by now."

Batter took the cup, which was small, covered with patterns of dark spirals, and made of delicate porcelain.

"Teddy wants a drink," Hugo said. He lifted the cup to the teddy bear's mouth and poured it over him.

Batter lifted his cup, only to find a rabid looking teddy bear on his lap. It bit and snapped at him. He slammed his fist into it, but more came.

"Don't worry, he's merely making them go to sleep," Zacharie said, reassuring the boy. Hugo's lower lip quivered.

"Teddy?!"

"What, did she buy all the toys at Possessed R Us?" Zacharie muttered under his breath. "Obviously I need to start stocking toys that aren't demonic."

Batter slammed his bat down on the skull of another of the fiendish teddy horde. For a moment, they gained on him and he was surrounded in possessed furry toys.

There was a sound of glass breaking, and over it, the sound of a cry. "Papa—!"

He'd never heard the words, and for a moment he was sure that Hugo was addressing Zacharie, not him. It jarred him enough to make a bear gain on him, as the teeth sunk into his arm far enough to draw blood.

"Stop, teddy!"

It was as if a force in the room had changed. One by one the bears fell lifeless to the ground. Just as Zacharie had said, they looked asleep. Whatever dark spirit had come up in them was there no longer.

"I broke mama's cup."

"She'll forgive you," Zacharie said. "She cared about you more than anything."

Batter pulled himself back up to the chair. Hugo tentatively reached out to touch him. His clothes were torn from the teddy bear attack. Hugo gripped at what was left of Batter's shirt.

"Don't you go away," Hugo said.

"I'm not going anywhere," Batter replied.

"I think he's getting restless again. Maybe we should take him on a walk..." Zacharie said.

"We're going outside again?" Hugo said.

"Yes," Batter replied.

He dusted himself. "After I change my shirt."

"We wouldn't want you to make the Elsens swoon, after all," Zacharie said.

.

Newly dressed and bandaged with healing salves that Zacharie was kind enough to give to him without even charging double price, they set out. This time it was zone 0 which he showed Hugo.

Zacharie sighed. "Was it necessary to put him on a leash?"

"Yes," Batter replied.

Hugo reached up towards the three floating circles. Alpha dipped low enough for him to grab on to. Alpha went flying, and Batter was dragged along.

"Can't you control your hula hoops?" Zacharie said. "Down boy! Sit, stay!"

"That's not how you control them," Batter said.

"Oh, you don't say?" Zacharie said.

Alpha paused in the air, Hugo hanging desperately to it. Far be it from being frightened, Hugo was kicking his heels in glee. "This is the best ride!"

The leash broke off as Alpha lifted higher. Batter reached up, only to find Alpha had lowered with the sound of a snap. He looked up to see Sugar, the manic girl that she was had lured it down to her level with a shake of her hips.

Hugo released Alpha and stepped forward, attempting to mimic her moves. He broke out coughing, and she made a sad face.

"Here, I'll show you the steps. Let's dance!" Sugar said. She twirled around, bending down so she could hold her hands. Hugo had a hard time keeping up, and yet, he was grinning from ear to ear.

"She never changes," Zacharie said.

Batter didn't comment. He kept a watchful eye on Hugo; he knew just how powerful Sugar could be. Even at a best scenario, she could easily tire Hugo out.

"Aww, Zacharie's friend, you're no fun," Sugar said, her face turned down in an exaggerated sad expression.

"I don't dance," Batter said.

"Make him, Zacharie," she said. "You know what to do," she said, winking at them both.

"You heard the lady," Zacharie said. Zacharie held out his hands. Batter glowered at them.

"Do it for the boy," Sugar said. "Don't you want to see your papas dancing?"

"Uh-huh. It's fun, papa. Try it."

"See?" Sugar said.

Zacharie couldn't help but chuckle as he lead an awkward Batter to the sweets covered dance floor. His agility with fighting did not translate to dancing. Zacharie was just quick enough to avoid being stepped on most of the time, though they seemed on entirely different orbits. Zacharie's hand bunched up Batter's shirt, as he laughed.

"You're comedy gold. I'll never get tired of you," Zacharie said.

"I always suspected you followed me just to mock me," Batter said.

"Oh, that's not the only reason..."

"And?"

"I'm rather fond of your credits, too!"

.

Batter carried Hugo home after the long day. He'd fallen asleep long before they were even out of Zone 0. Batter felt a clenching inside his chest. Worry, patterned to the beating of his heart. Would he always feel like this? Like his skin had been turned out and suddenly there was a vulnerable spot everywhere.

"Leave it to me," Zacharie said.

A shaft of fading light came through the windows. The birds across the ceiling had multiplied, and now took on whatever color came through them. They were near twilight now, peppered the new stars and clouds.

He followed the birds, and saw them become larger, more intricate as a large portrait of Japhet was on the far wall. Beside it was the Judge, Enoch and Dedan, all reaching out.

The Queen had the power to create, he the power to destroy, and somehow between them, Hugo had gained both. But it was his mother he followed after, with her clay-touched hands, her sewn dolls turned to life and visions made new.

Hugo slept on Zacharie's stomach. Little trees and the both of them were drawn in squiggles all over the new papers, with the Queen as the sun.

He walked further in, until he reached Hugo's room.

Zacharie's mask was at an angle. Slowly, as not to wake them, Batter began to push it up to reveal the rest of his face. Zacharie's eyes opened, his mouth framed by two dots at the edge of his smirk.

"Be careful, uncovering that may be a higher price than you can pay," Zacharie said in an undertone.

Zacharie set Hugo aside without waking him and rose up. He licked his lips, revealing sharp teeth. He narrowed his slitted, catlike dark eyes at Batter.

"I may look like the creatures you so mercifully decided to exterminate from the zones, but I assure you that you are mistaken. If you were to see the biggest threat towards your child, all you would need is a mirror."

"You knew all along, and yet you aided me," Batter said.

"I had my reasons," Zacharie said.

"Why didn't you ever try and stop me?" he said.

"Little old me, stopping you? After all, I am only an item merchant," Zacharie said. There was a flash of something in his eyes, mockery, daring Batter. He pulled the mask back down over his face, hiding that side of himself again.

"Don't you tell me it was scripted. Don't you dare," Batter said in a low voice.

Zacharie sighed. "Perhaps I thought the Queen would set you to rights. Or perhaps I had other reasons. Whatever they are, they're mine and mine alone."

The subject was changed, the door swung shut on whatever answers he might have gotten. Zacharie pushed himself up, and began to walk away. He stopped for a moment and leaned against the wall.

"Or maybe, just maybe, I believed in you, no matter what course you took," Zacharie said softly.

Batter looked up. The mask was down again. But this wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.

He leaned into the wall, effectively trapping Zacharie there before he could leave.

"Are you here to interrogate me? This wasn't in the game notes," Zacharie said.

Batter pushed him harder to the wall. An intense feeling of half anger, half desire welled up in him. He pulled the mask off of Zacharie entirely.

"I trust you, and I don't trust anyone lightly. Even more than trust, I—Do you understand?"

Zacharie's lips curled up in an impish smile.

"Ah, so it's that. You're very transparent at times, you know. After all this time, you finally realized what was there all along? You always did treat romance like a lesser form of homicide."

"...but I like it," Zacharie said, his voice low and surprisingly sensual. He reached up and pulled Batter closer, nipping at his neck with sharp teeth.

"Truth is I've been far more than loyal to you for a long time. More than you'd imagine. But don't worry, it isn't one of those tragic romantic subplots revealed just before a character dies. I've never played that role."

Zacharie tilted his head. Batter ran his hands through Zacharie's mess of curls and brought their lips together. The touch and taste of him was vivid and new, past the first clumsy pain of nails sinking into him, the graze of sharp teeth. He broke apart for air only to linger close. Zacharie licked a line down his neck, his tongue swirling about Batter's Adam's apple. Batter stepped away, stunned by the sudden rush of emotion, of feeling. The growth that had come in the bright time spent together hadn't prepared him for this.

"Is this the part where you run away? How cliche," Zacharie said.

"No," Batter replied.

He leaned in and brushed a curl from Zacharie's forehead.

"I'm not going anywhere."

.

He left before Zacharie and Hugo had woken, through the far less twisted halls, to the place where everything started. There was still one last thing to set to rights.

White opened up around him, the swirls of energy around her. Wrapped in a crystalline cocoon, the remains of her glowed. A power source, a center to the world from where she slept an eternal dreamless sleep. A light faintly emanated from the glass. Color had returned to the world, their lives, even his very soul was brought back by her sacrifice. He remembered the blow, the death of the beast within him, and the return of the lands he had purified.

"You got your wish. This world will live a while more. Even with the seed of its corruption. You returned it to what it once was, but it will fall again. You do know that it is fruitless, and yet you loved the world. You kept trying."

The Elsens she made with such care, the elements she crafted, all aligned together, the zones put from piece to piece. All a playpen for her beloved son to grow up in, and one day rule. He touched the glassy surface of her prison. The memories of before the corruption started within him were hazy, dreamlike. He couldn't connect them to the cold, hard world he lived in.

He must have loved her once, though he could barely recall what had come before the transformation, the corruption and the mission that sprung up within him.

All that he felt was the now. He couldn't guarantee that the corrupted side of him wouldn't emerge again, but her sacrifice had changed something within him. And for that, he was thankful.

"You saw beauty in the world, so I'll try and protect it, and him."

He left the room, locked behind him with her seal. From it came the power to transform this world from the course it had gone. Slowly her life ebbed away, and from it, they lived.

What he stepped out to wasn't the room, but zone 3. Had he connected the worlds so early, or had Zacharie done it for him? Sunlight fell on his face, warm over the plastic seas. Zacharie was setting up a little shop, and boosted Hugo up to sell his first meat juice stand.

He could've lost it all.

He stood out of sight, and watched them, to two closest people in his life.

"You're a natural shopkeeper," Zacharie said. "One day, I'll teach you how to properly deal with chumps."

"Chumps, huh?" Hugo said.

"Did I say chumps? I meant valued customers, of course. A slip of the tongue."

"Is papa a chump?" Hugo asked.

"Your papa is a valued customer," Zacharie said, gently chiding the boy by tapping him on the forehead.

"Is that all I am now?" Batter said.

"Is this a conversation you really wish to have in front of the boy?" Zacharie said, with faint amusement in his voice.

Hugo looked from one to another. "Are you fighting?" he said, his eyes wide.

"No, we're having a perfectly reasonable conversation," Zacharie said. "Isn't that right, dear?"

"...I can't even tell when you're mocking me or being serious," Batter said.

"Then rightly assume that I'm always mocking you," Zacharie said. He laughed, and Batter found the sound elicited a strange response in him.

Warmth, like sunshine, but concentrated. Happiness? He barely remembered what the word even meant before the months that had spread out between them.

He would learn again, no matter how much time it took.