persephone_kore: (Persephone)
[personal profile] persephone_kore
Title: Agatha's Bad Plan
Fandom: Girl Genius
Authors: [livejournal.com profile] persephone_kore and [livejournal.com profile] khilari
Summary: AU. Agatha insists on trying to save Passholdt after all.
Note: Dialogue taken from the comic, up to a point.






‘Could you burn down people -- women and children -- even if you knew they had become monsters?’

‘I.. no...’ Agatha couldn’t take her eyes from Payne as he loomed over her. 'I don’t know.'

'The Baron can. The Baron has. I respect him for that, but I don’t want to be him. No sane man would.’ Agatha had to agree with that, but the words seemed to lodge just under her sternum, burning. It was true, she didn’t know if she could do that. She almost wanted to think she couldn’t. But could she leave people to die, trapped among monsters that might or might not be their family and neighbors turned to mindless beasts, and wait for the same Baron Wulfenbach who’d taken her from her home and terrified her family to come and fix it? Would the Heterodyne Boys have done that? For that matter, would Baron Wulfenbach have done that when he’d been travelling with them? ‘Now you drop any ideas you have about being another Othar Tryggvassen,’ Payne said, making her face heat with embarrassed fury, ‘unless you want to leave my show and manage your heroics on our own.’ He jabbed a finger at her, and she recoiled. ‘Do you understand?'

'Yes! Yes! I understand!’ Agatha took a step back, pulse beating in her temples. 'But I don’t have to like it.' She swallowed and lowered her head, eyes still turned up grimly toward Payne even as tears stung them. There was one chance. Not a good one, not without the weapons she’d been building, but the wagons belonged to the circus. But the Jägers had followed her. ‘And I can’t wait for the Baron,’ she finished. ‘If any of the townspeople are alive now, they’re not likely to be by the time he gets there. Thank you for letting me travel with you this far. I think I’ve done enough work on your clanks and wagons to pay for a change of clothing and my death rays, so I’ll go and pack.’

‘What?!’ ‘Vot?’ ‘No, you--’ ‘No, I--’ ‘NO!’

Agatha ignored these outbursts and addressed the nearest Jäger, purple-skinned and looking decidedly startled. ‘Are you with me?’

He pressed a fist over his heart, eyes shining, and she half expected him to kneel. ‘Ve are alvays vit hyu.’

‘Good.’ She started toward her wagon, only for Zeetha to appear in her path and catch her by the shoulders. The Jägers ranged behind her, tense and alert; Agatha was almost as sure where they were as she was of the position of her own hands. (At her sides, fists clenched, nails biting into her palms.) ‘Zeetha--’

‘Agatha. Zumil. You can’t do this.’ Zeetha let go with one hand to pinch Agatha’s chin and make her meet her eyes. ‘I mean it, you literally cannot succeed. You saw these things. They die easily enough individually, but you saw how many more were on the other side. Passholdt wasn’t a small town. You’d need a small army to take it.’

Agatha shook her head. ‘I have to try. Even if it’s a really small army.’

The final attempt to turn her aside shouldn’t have been as unexpected as it was. Krosp flung himself on her as she entered her wagon, all his claws out, and grabbed her face with both front paws. Agatha felt the pinpricks in her cheeks. ‘I am your king,’ he said, ‘and I was made for strategy. This is hopeless. I forbid it.’

Agatha grabbed him and pulled him off her, and Krosp let go instead of slicing her face. ‘I’m sorry. I’m going anyway. If you’ve got any advice besides don’t, though, I’d love to hear it.’

Krosp slumped on her bed, ears flat. ‘Don’t is the only good advice. But I guess I’ll come along and try to keep you alive.’ He eyed the Jägers, who had followed her in and pretty much filled up the Baba Yaga. ‘I don’t suppose the three of you care how stupid this is.’

The green one shrugged. ‘It iz not a goot idea,’ he said. ‘But ve go anyvay.’

Krosp glared at him, tail twitching. ‘Because she’s a Heterodyne,’ he said flatly.

‘Yez.’

Agatha let her pack, already half-filled, thump onto the bed next to Krosp and looked up at the Jägers. ‘What are your names?’

‘Dimo,’ said the green one.

‘Hy’m Ognian.’ This was the one still in the usual range of human skin tones, although his feet had grown too unusual for boots.

The purple one swept his hat off with a flourish and did kneel this time before plopping it back on his head. ‘Maxim,’ he said. ‘At hyu service.’

‘I got that part,’ Agatha said, and then, not really sure what else she could say about it, ‘Thank you.’

‘Hyu really vant to take a town vit three Jägers und a cat, Mistress?’ Dimo asked her.

Agatha looked at him. ‘I have to try. There are -- there could be people there.’ People trapped, terrified, waiting to die. ‘I’d rather be doing it with more people and more weapons, but nobody else will come.’

‘Hyu could get more! Ve send a message--’

‘That would take too long!‘ Agatha snapped at him, voice rising, vibrating. Wavering dangerously, as the world did in her eyes. She clenched her teeth. ‘I have to try. I’m not waiting for the Baron. You heard what Master Payne said. He might not stop to look for survivors either.’

Dimo fell back. ‘Ve haff vaited a long time for a new Heterodyne,’ he said.

‘Her poppa and uncle used to do this,’ Ognian said. ‘I tink. Go attack towns all by demselves. Vorked okay for vot, tventy years?’

Dimo glared at him. ‘Not so goot de last time.’

Agatha slung her pack over her shoulder. ‘I’m ready,’ she said. ‘If we’re walking to Passholdt we’d better get started. Especially since the bridge is out.’

‘Dere is a narrow place east of here,’ Maxim said helpfully. ‘Not far.’

Agatha gave him a grateful smile. ‘Off we go, then.’

They started walking. Agatha felt the eyes of all the circus on her, setting off in the dark like a madwoman. It made her angry. At them, for not coming. At herself, because she really did understand why they weren’t coming. Everything at the edge of her vision seemed to be shaking.

Behind them in the shimmery firelight, her little clanks came after her. Out of every wagon, out of clanks, out of corners and containers and all the nooks and crannies they’d found to hide themselves, following like a river of brass.

Agatha stopped after several steps, turned back, and stooped to pick up the one in the lead, that she’d built with her own hands. ‘I can’t wind all of you,’ she said. ‘Most of you had better go back and --’ She swallowed. ‘Keep things running smoothly. These are my friends, you know. And they probably had better get a message to the Baron.’

There was a disappointed chiming, but the bulk of the clanks poured back into the circus. The people there regarded their wagons with some dismay.

Agatha set off again, the pocketwatch-sized clank in her hand. One of the little flying ones alit on her shoulder. The circus would get a message to the Baron. Keeping him from finding her wasn’t as important as keeping these creatures from killing anyone else. And if she failed, his finding her wouldn’t matter at all.

She had people she had to look after, Agatha reminded herself. She couldn’t fail.




It wasn’t a short walk to Passholdt, and Agatha had spent most of the day running and the evening fighting already. The Jägers had apparently been keeping up with the circus on foot all this time, though, and they didn’t seem tired in the slightest, and there wasn’t time to stop and rest. They had to save Passholdt.

She thought about starting to run again, actually, but Krosp hastily pointed out that they would just alert the monsters to expect an attack if they didn’t approach with caution, so they walked. They seemed to be the only things moving. Even the wind was still.

The walls had just come into sight when Zeetha caught up with them. ‘Agatha.’

Agatha whirled and gasped. Even the Jägers jumped, but they didn’t glare quite as openly as Krosp ‘Zeetha.’ Agatha swallowed. ‘I -- I didn’t think you were coming.’

Zeetha smiled crookedly. ‘I should throw you over my shoulder and drag you back with me. This is worse than wanting to try the Qa’atara too soon, zumil. But I don’t think your new companions will let me.’

‘Nope,’ said Maxim. Oggie shrugged, but he grinned so all his teeth showed. Dimo looked sour, like he might be thinking about it.

‘So the best I can do is come along,’ Zeetha said. Agatha felt a warm rush of affection, which was promptly spoilt when Zeetha added, ‘And die alongside you, if we must,’ in a disapproving enough tone to nettle someone much more even-tempered than Agatha.

Instead of rethinking her plans, which she assumed had been the intention, Agatha snapped, ‘We are not going to die!’ and marched onward toward the town wall.

They turned and walked alongside it when they reached it, though Agatha was tempted to simply charge the gates. But they needed more information than Augie had reported, so they looked for a good spot to see over. They found the tree with the broken branch that had probably dropped Lars and precipitated the whole chase and confrontation, and Agatha spared a wistful thought for several shining onstage kisses before returning her thoughts firmly to the task at hand.

They found a much sturdier tree next; Agatha gauged it as if she were with Adam in the woods near Beetleburg... and then had a flash of memory so sharp it almost hurt, of her Uncle Barry whisking her up a tree when she was far younger and then balancing very still on a branch, strangely silent himself and holding her gently, securely, with his hand (smelling faintly of bark, grease and metal) over her mouth. She remembered she hadn’t been frightened, only a little annoyed. Now she wondered what he’d been hiding from. Agatha drew breath and chased the images away as Dimo dropped back down from the tree, shaking his head, and silently offered her his hand.

Agatha took it and let him boost her up into the tree so she could see into Passholdt.

It was... awful. She had expected it to be full of the elongated, spidery creatures they’d already been fighting, but it was almost more disturbing to see them at rest. Many were sitting on the roofs, folded up like frogs or mosquitoes, and she caught her breath and kept very still in case they looked her way. A few wandered the streets, among carts that had been pulled over or pulled apart, goods trampled into the muck. As she watched, one of them picked up a long white bone, already broken. Heads turned toward it at once. Its lips peeled back a second later, and it dropped the bone again, but the three nearest were charging in to squabble over the ‘prize’. Agatha swallowed and looked away. That bone was long for a human femur, but it certainly hadn’t belonged to an ox or a horse.

The buildings looked mostly intact at first glance, but a second showed windowframes that were clawed and broken, doors that stood open. Still, there were some shut. There was a chance.

Agatha let herself down from the tree and pulled a death ray out of her bag. ‘Let’s get started.’

Krosp groaned quietly. Zeetha looked exasperated; Dimo’s shoulders slumped. Ognian flashed a rather alarming grin at her, and Maxim’s eyes gleamed as he said, ‘Ve hunt, Mistress.’

What they actually did first was circle the town and the surrounding area for a defensible location. She was in a hurry, not stupid. She wasn’t going to break into a refuge and leave its inhabitants with nowhere else to go, and they found a respectable cave with potable water and no passageways running toward the town. She had hopes of taking the creatures by surprise, perhaps sneaking the remaining townspeople out since it would be difficult to kill all the monsters. They did avoid breaking any trees... but almost as soon as they set foot inside the walls one of the creatures sat up straight and let out a nerve-jangling SKREE! Distorted faces turned toward them.

The creatures lunged. Ognian shouted a challenge over the crack of Agatha’s death ray. She pointed toward the nearest house with a closed door. ‘Find them and get any survivors out!’

‘What if they want to stay in?’ yelled Krosp.

‘Look around you! Nobody could hold off a siege coming from inside the town.’

‘Yeah,’ Krosp muttered, just audible over the eager screams and the discharge of her death ray. ‘That includes us.’




Getting between buildings was the worst. Agatha blasted the street, leaving the smell of ozone and charred flesh hanging in the air, and then the Jägers and Zeetha charged forwards to keep the path she’d cleared open, shoving and hacking and clawing, while Agatha and Krosp got to the next building.

‘In,’ Agatha called, voice sharp and clipped, but fading at the edges with exhaustion. She’d have to sleep again soon, Dimo thought. Maybe the house after this. They backed up after her, still fighting, keeping the creatures away from the still open door. As they reached it Oggie hung back, his weapon’s greater reach making him the best choice to play rear guard until they were all in. Once they were through Dimo pulled him in and slammed the door shut. Maxim and Zeetha were already hauling over a table — a makeshift barricade while they searched the house. Zeetha’s arms were wrapped in brown- and red-stained bandages, new red spotting through them as holding the table pulled open scabs. The Jägers healed quicker.

The windows of the front room were already smashed in when Dimo entered it. He clawed the throat out of a creature as it started to climb through one, leaving its corpse there to slow others down. Most of the windows in the town were broken, the houses stripped of anything edible. They would find the bones of housepets, or of people who hadn’t been transformed, sometimes, broken open to get at the marrow. Dimo cocked his head. Movement further into the house. He nodded to the other two — they knew where to go, they’d been rotating these roles ever since the first few houses. Oggie to the stairs, to reach the upstairs windows and keep the mob at bay there, Maxim with Agatha and Zeetha to help clear out the house and check it for survivors.

Both Maxim and Oggie were smiling as they went and Dimo snapped at them, ‘Tek care,’ when he wanted to tell them to be less happy. Oggie’s optimism was at least eternal and not based on circumstances, but Maxim was happy about this mess, happier than he’d been for a long time, and Dimo wanted to shake him for whatever warped ideas of chivalry were making him romanticise another hopeless mission when they’d only just ended the last. And when they might be getting their Heterodyne killed alongside them. So far he’d held off on snarling about it because having Maxim guilty and miserable wouldn’t actually be an improvement.

Dimo retreated to a point a few metres back and midway between the windows, throwing knife perched between his claws. His ears weren’t quite flexible enough to turn backwards, but they were trying, following the noise inside the house; scratching and snarling, the zap of Agatha’s death ray. He nailed a creature through the forehead as it climbed through the other window and ran to retrieve his knife as the corpse in the other window was yanked backwards — pulling his knife out, turning and throwing it again in one motion that took the new enemy through the ear. He pulled his knife free again, wiped it, and was about to step back to his post when he heard a yowl of pain from above him, quickly suppressed into a hiss. Oggie.

He flinched, hesitating, one of the corpses in the window already twitching as another creature clawed it apart on its way in. They could overrun the house all too easily, turn it into a death trap, but they might be breaking through upstairs already if Oggie was down (if he was being torn apart, eaten, buried under a mob). Dimo snarled and ran inwards, yanking the door to the front room shut. It was an internal door, it didn’t have a lock, which was why he’d been at the windows in the first place. In desperation he shoved his knives through the wood and into the doorjamb, one above the handle and one below it, hoping they would hold.

Oggie was on the landing between the two upstairs rooms, practically buried beneath a heap of the creatures. Dimo grabbed at the nearest one and pulled, accidentally throwing it across the room and down the stairs behind him when it offered no resistance, nearly severed head flopping on its neck. He dug in, clawing and pulling until he found a live one, the rake of his claws making it turn and snap, teeth digging into his cheek when he wasn’t quite quick enough. He swiped its throat out and felt the teeth pull out of him as it fell, hastily shoving it aside to attack another one. He could see Oggie clearly now, teeth bared, weapon dropped because they were pressing him too closely for him to be able to swing it, slowed by tiredness and not as adept with his claws as Dimo. His horn was fractured, splinters sticking up from a jagged crack, all the way to the base and blood was running down his neck from it. Dimo grabbed his arm, pulled him close, and turned to push their backs together, feeling Oggie’s hot blood on his shoulder as he did.

Footsteps on the stairs, sharp, pounding, the scent of Heterodyne in the air. He turned to see Agatha standing at the top of them, gun in front of her, feet falling into a firing stance, eyes feverishly bright. ‘Get past me!’ she snapped.

Dimo threw a corpse aside, hooked his claws through the back of Oggie’s collar, and hauled them both through the monsters still coming out of both the upstairs rooms, practically sliding past Agatha and then having to dig his claws into a stair to keep himself from falling down them. The smell of ozone and charred flesh filled the air. They scrambled to their feet and retreated down the stairs, slowly, Agatha following them a step at a time, still shooting. When she ran out of charge she pulled out another death ray.

At the bottom of the stairs Maxim grabbed Dimo’s arm and ushered him through into a kitchen. Dimo’s eyes flicked around it at once. Smashed pots and jars littered the floor, cupboards hung open. There was a heavy door to the outside here, one of the hinges shattered, but pushed into its frame and with a table dragged across it. A small window, heavy shutters pushed closed and bolted. Probably the creatures could break in here, as it was now, but they’d been too busy trying the front so far and the group could barricade themselves in here while still having a way out of the house tomorrow. It wasn’t good, not with creatures already in the rest of the house, but going outside would be worse.

‘Ve stay here tonight,’ he said.

‘It’s not dark yet,’ Agatha said as she came in and shut the door from the hall behind her. Maxim and Zeetha started piling chairs against it. Agatha took Oggie by the shoulder. ‘Sit down.’ He did, obediently, and she crouched over him, rummaging in her bag. ‘I can carry on for a while.’

‘Ve ken’t.’ Dimo pulled a toolbox from under the sink and started searching for hammer and nails, if they were staying here they needed more than stacked furniture. ‘Ve dun’t need much sleep, but ve iz slowing down.’ So far only Agatha and Krosp had slept, Krosp curled at Agatha’s feet while the rest of them stood guard around her like bizarre angels. ‘Mizz Zeetha too.’

Zeetha looked as if she might protest, but then sighed and nodded. ‘There are Skifandrian disciplines that allow us to go without sleep for days, but not forever.’

Guilt flickered in Agatha’s eyes. ‘Sorry. You’re right, we can stop here.’

Dimo looked at her. At first he’d hoped they could retreat, that she would give up when she realised there was no one to save, but so far she had been either passed out or frantically driven, insisting that if anyone did survive they couldn’t leave them like this. Now, with that softening, maybe he could make her listen. But it was too late. They were too far into the town and if they left they would be pursued. He nodded and turned back to nailing the window shut.

The two little clanks Agatha had brought pulled a saw out of the toolbox, holding it vertical with one walking and one hovering, and set about reducing the cupboard doors to planks. Soon both doors and the window were nailed up. Agatha, meanwhile, had wrapped Oggie’s horn in wire, to hold the fracture closed, and then in bandages and was now wiping the blood from his head with a damp cloth. Oggie was leaning into her touch, eyes closed. Dimo finished off by sweeping the broken glass and crockery from the floor so they’d have room to lie down and rewarded himself by gulping down water from the kitchen tap before finding an unbroken cup and filling it for Oggie. The rest of them took turns drinking before sitting down, crouched awkwardly on the dusty floor.

‘I’ll tek first vatch,’ Dimo said. He could hear scratching from the hall, the handle of the inner door jiggled. Rustling from outside, but no scratching yet, if the creatures got in that might still give them a relatively clear retreat.

Agatha pulled one of her death rays onto her knees. ‘I can. I’m not tired yet.’

Dimo looked at her. She was still unmarked; her weapon was a distance weapon and they had been able to keep her back from situations where the enemy would have been surrounding her too closely for her to defend herself with it. He still felt a surge of pride at that, even knowing it might make no difference in the end. ‘Not by hyuself,’ he said.

She nodded. ‘All right.’

Oggie lay down, carefully, on his right side with his bandaged horn off the ground. Maxim curled up against his back, spreading his cloak over both of them. Agatha gave them a slightly puzzled look, but they were already more asleep than awake and didn’t notice it. Zeetha didn’t lie down, huddling back against the kitchen wall with her head resting on her knees and a sword unsheathed on each side of her, by her hands. It took longer for her breath to even out into sleep.

The sounds from outside were getting louder, the creatures had found their way around the house now. Dimo could hear scratching on the outside door — they’d have to fight their way through tomorrow. Nothing to be done about it now, though. He stood up and started opening drawers, pulling out a selection of knives. Steak knives, yes, dinner knives, no, butter knives, definitely no, meat cleaver, yes, cheese knife?

‘What are you doing?’ Agatha asked.

‘Lost veapons,’ he said. ‘Me und Oggie’s. Dun tink hyu leedle clanks could get dem.’ Oggie’s was too big and unwieldy for them, his own wedged into a doorframe with all his strength. ‘Und dun tink ve iz getting dem beck.’

Agatha’s eyes shone. ‘I don’t have much to work with, but if you give me some of the bigger knives…and if I use that table leg…’ Her clanks were already heading for the saw again, Dimo noted with relief. It would be much easier to get between houses with Oggie properly armed.




Could you burn down people --

There was no longer any question that the elongated, wide-eyed, ravening creatures were the townspeople. There were too many of them to have come from anywhere else without leaving signs, and the only trail outside Passholdt was the one leading to the bridge.

There weren’t enough human bones, on the inside, for them to have killed everybody.

-- women and children --

Even if there had been a trail out, there were too many clothes to allow the possibility that the townspeople had fled. Clothing torn at the seams and ripped at the fastenings. Agatha calculated the forces and could see in her mind’s eye thread and weakened fabric giving way as the body under it stretched, still binding until newly clawed fingers scrabbled it off. Men’s clothes, women’s, garments in smaller sizes.

Most of the creatures were around the same size. Agatha hadn’t said anything, but from the gnawed bones in the streets and houses (cradles) she thought that maybe the youngest children had changed more slowly. The creatures didn’t seem interested in chewing on each other.

But here and there they were attacked by creatures only around four or five feet tall, not six or seven or eight, and a pack of them had got in close this time and four of the little ones were hanging on Dimo. Chewing on Dimo. He bit one of them on the head, and the stretched-out skull cracked. Dimo spat. Agatha aimed carefully and the blast charred away sections of the remaining three.

-- even if you knew --

Agatha fired, and fired, and turned and fired again, and the smell of ozone and slightly scorched electronics was better than the smell of burnt meat coming back from the road. And she was starving and how could she even think about that at a time like this, but it was two days since they’d run through their supplies.

-- you knew --

And there was no food in the town: the creatures hadn’t just eaten everything in sight and broken the glass jars, at some point they’d had enough mind left to open tinned stores. Unless that had been untransformed survivors, and they’d been caught later. She felt sick.

-- they had become monsters?

Apparently she could burn them down, and had, and was. They hadn’t found anyone to rescue at all in any of the houses so far. Agatha clawed aside a lock of hair that had escaped from her braid and apparently targeted her eyes, and spotted -- yes -- the heavy-walled building in the heart of the town. Not a castle, but surely the Sparkiest construction in the area. ‘We head for the laboratory!’ she shouted.

‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ Krosp yelled back, and Agatha didn’t understand why until the Jägers swerved aside from the door they’d been headed for. She hadn’t really intended to go for it all at once, but she was pretty sure everyone with her had thought she was crazy from the beginning, and they went along with her now too. She thought about telling them what she’d meant, but if the lab had stayed secure then it might be a more defensible place to make a stand than anywhere else, and it might just confuse things to contradict herself now, so she started firing again, more steadily, clearing sections of the road as fast as she could. Her death ray gave a warning sizzle; her flying dingbot dropped one with a new power supply into her hands and made off with the old one to dismantle or recharge it.

They were in the middle of the town square before a particularly good shot gave her a view of the laboratory’s doors.

Standing open.

The next second Oggie yelled, grabbed her and shoved her into the centre of a four-point circle, Krosp clinging painfully to her shoulders. The creatures closed in, and she fired desperately between her defenders as often as she dared, frustrated and terrified for them before she even remembered to be terrified for herself.

A shadow fell on them.

Agatha fired between Maxim and Zeetha before they got too close together, then spared a glance upward. She didn’t understand what she was seeing at first, tired brain processing only polka-dots, but the growing ovals blotted out the sky and she saw that they were airships, and then she saw fire flicker in their bellies.

She screamed a warning, but what was there to do?

But none of the bombs fell on them. The first ones fell in a ring, too precisely centred to be anything but intentional, still close enough that the shockwaves shoved everyone inward toward Agatha and she felt battered by the air itself. She didn’t even process those first explosions as sound, exactly, only pressure. She tasted blood.

The Jägers and Zeetha were cutting down the Passholdt monsters still within reach, now fleeing the bombs as much as they were trying to attack. More projectiles struck around them, closer than the bombs but still far enough that it was clear the gunners were aiming only at the creatures. Some of those outside the first ring hesitated, perhaps unsure whether to run away or charge. Hesitated fatally, when more bombs fell.

The bombardment proceeded systematically, concentrically outward from Agatha’s little group, though other patches of sound and fire also bloomed here and there in more distant areas of the town. Agatha reflexively started humming, trying to block out the noise, but there was too much. It rolled over her voice and drowned her thoughts as if she’d tried to push back the tide with a squirt gun. Once the remaining attackers were gone, she ended up crouched with the death ray across her knees, hands over her ears, waiting for the thunder to stop.

It didn’t quite stop, but it finally receded enough to stop buffeting her. Zeetha pulled her to her feet, and Agatha noticed uneasily that Zeetha was still standing as if she might have to move fast....

She turned, and the Baron was looming in front of her, blood on his clothing, an enormous sword at his side and a death ray in one hand. She clutched at hers reflexively and felt herself squeak, although she didn’t quite hear herself and rather hoped he didn’t either.

‘Miss Clay,’ he said. ‘Or Heterodyne, rather.’

Agatha stared at the man who had threatened to sedate her, who’d had her parents torn to pieces, sent his son and a crazy pirate woman after her; she looked around at the largely flattened town she’d wanted to save, and the fear blew away like a broken cobweb as she shouted, ‘What have you DONE?’ The Baron looked taken aback, which only made her angrier. ‘You, you -- you bombed the place flat! If there was anybody left to save here you’ve killed them!’ She felt like she was screaming, but her voice sounded distant, muffled. It was very unsatisfying.

‘Agatha...’ Zeetha began.

‘I saved your lives!’ the Baron snapped back at her. ‘What have you done here, besides nearly get yourself and your companions killed? Idiot girl--’

She had heard that far too many times, not usually to her face. ‘I was trying to help! I couldn’t just walk away when it might not be too late, when there was still a chance there was anybody left! And now you--’

There was no one left!‘ The harmonics in the roar cut through the ringing in her ears and made her bristle; she clenched her teeth... but the words hit home, finally, putting frame and shape to the conclusion she’d been rejecting even though all the evidence pointed to it.

‘There could have been.’ She wasn’t yelling anymore, but her throat felt raw, and the protest sounded weak even to her. ‘We hadn’t searched everywhere yet.’

‘There was no one left,’ the Baron repeated.

Agatha squeezed her eyes shut and sniffed. She was not going to cry now, not in front of the Baron, not in front of the people who’d fought for her. Miserably, she said, ‘I know.’

‘I did survey the situation while moving into position. You know how they were reacting to un--’ He looked at her companions and rephrased. ‘To anyone who had not suffered the same alterations. There was only one place in the town they were attacking.’

‘I thought maybe we could get to the laboratory.’ Agatha lifted a hand to wipe her eyes; Zeetha caught her wrist and held it, casually but immovably, until Agatha actually looked at the grime on her hand, and changed her mind. ‘Fortify it.’ Sometimes a Spark did want to be able to hold off a siege from inside the town. Rather often really. ‘Look for a way to reverse the process.’

The Baron grimaced. ‘You had to know that wasn’t likely either. Once a transformation has affected the brain--’

Her shoulders slumped. ‘There wasn’t anywhere else to go by that point. I had to try.’ She looked around at her companions, once, instead of at the Baron. ‘I -- shouldn’t have dragged you all into this. I’m sorry.’ It was sinking in, finally, that retaking the town with the circus’s help might have been possible, but once they’d seen the state of things... even if there had been anyone whole inside, she wasn’t sure they could have brought them out to the cave.

‘You didn’t drag us,’ Zeetha said. ‘We came. Granted, if the Jägers hadn’t decided you were the boss and we couldn’t hogtie you and take you back to the circus....’

‘There is somewhere else to go now,’ said the Baron, curtailing that line of conversation. ‘I can offer food, bathing facilities, medical attention--’

Maxim said sharply, ‘Ve vait for her for dot vun. Hyu know better.’

‘All too well,’ the Baron returned, ‘but I doubt she would keep you from accepting food.’

Agatha recognized the manipulation and -- wondered why he was bothering, actually, when there wasn’t really any chance she could get away with his airships filling the sky. If he wanted her dead it would be easy. If he wanted her caught.... ‘I thought you wanted me back as a prisoner.’

‘I would actually prefer that you come voluntarily. None of you will be harmed unless you initiate hostilities. Nor will the circus that concealed you.’ The Baron gave her a long, critical look. ‘You are Bill Heterodyne’s daughter, not only Lucrezia’s, and despite the poor strategic situation this is the type of thing he would have done.’ A wry smile tilted his lips, so faint and fleeting and so unexpected that Agatha wasn’t sure she’d actually seen it. ‘I would probably have followed him into it.’

‘Ah...’

‘You were raised by two of the best people I have ever known,’ he went on, ignoring Agatha’s attempt to find a response. ‘They are in recovery, by the way.’

Agatha nearly dropped her death ray. ‘What -- but -- that’s not possible --’

The Baron looked at her blankly. ‘Don’t be absurd. It’s not a simple procedure, but hardly unprecedented. There shouldn’t even be much memory loss, given the timing.’

Laughter bubbled up in her throat and between her lips, and Agatha tried to choke it back because if she really got started she wasn’t sure when she would manage to stop. Of course it wasn’t unprecedented. They’d been pieced together in the first place. She swallowed, trying to control herself, and as the urge to giggle faded she suddenly felt tired all over. She didn’t exactly trust this, but he had kept them alive, and she didn’t think there was much to be gained from insisting that they walk out of here on their own except to find out whether he’d let them. Which she doubted. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘We’ll come.’

The Baron’s stance eased, minutely, and he signaled the airships above. Several of them landed and disgorged a number of troops who spread out to begin searching the ruined town. For evidence, Agatha thought drearily, though she supposed they would also look for survivors. One of them stopped at an overturned cart and quietly vomited next to it, before his nearest comrade took his arm and pulled him onward. The Baron escorted her party personally onto one of them, which immediately took off again and made a beeline with several others back toward, presumably, Castle Wulfenbach.

True to his word, he supplied drinking water, food -- from onboard rations, clearly designed to survive not only time but enemy fire and crash-landings, but at this point they were delicious -- and a chance to clean up. The Jägers approached the offered washbasins with an enthusiasm that led some airman to remark that when Jägers were that eager for a bath, you knew things had been bad, to which Oggie said cheerfully, ‘Hyu got dot right! Vot a mess!’ Krosp regarded his own basin with the dismay of a cat who had been hoping not to be identified as a construct, or possibly one who was debating whether the grime or the water was worse.

For Agatha and Zeetha, the Baron rousted the crazy pirate woman out of her personal cabin -- which took some doing, not because she objected to their using her bathroom but because she apparently wanted to stick around and chitchat about the battle while they did it. The cabin was very green and very full of gold, silk, and things made out of bones. Agatha felt she had seen quite enough bones lately, but at least these appeared to be neither human nor... ex-human. After Captain DuPree had gone and she had a chance at the shower, though, she could just about forget the decor.

‘Nice,’ Zeetha said, eventually. Their skin was mostly clean by this point, and Agatha had rebandaged the claw marks on Zeetha’s arms. Now they were both trying to get their hair clean and unbraided, not necessarily in that order. ‘Reminds me of home, kind of.’

Agatha looked at her oddly. ‘This is like Skifander?’

Zeetha shrugged. ‘Not very like.’

Agatha wasn’t quite sure where to go with that. After a moment she began again, ‘Zeetha, I--’

‘Stop.’

Agatha stopped obediently.

Zeetha asked her, ‘What did you learn?’

Agatha fixed her eyes on the ends of her hair and the water finally running out of them clear. Blood was still coming out of Zeetha’s hair. ‘I should listen when people who know more about it than I do tell me something’s a bad idea.’ She dashed a tear off her eyelashes, unable to pretend it was a stray droplet from the bathwater. ‘Especially if it’s people who will go along with it anyway.’

‘That’s a good start.’ Zeetha leaned over and chucked her gently under the chin. ‘And here’s your second lesson for now: cheer up, nobody died. None of us, anyway. Don’t assume you’ll always be lucky, but don’t beat yourself up about it.’

‘Thanks, Zeetha--’ Agatha broke off and yelped as a twisted wet washcloth snapped across her upper arm like a whip, leaving a red mark. ‘Ah. That’s your job.’

Zumil,’ Zeetha said, ‘don’t steal my lines.’


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