Title: Yearning For the Moon
Chapter 1: Nightfall
Ye Obligatory Disclaimer: Girl Genius is property of amazing Phil and Kaja Foglio, I'm just a huge fangirl who likes to play with their stuff.
Setting note: A murky time period in volume 11 after Zola's escape from Castle Heterodyne, while our favourite sparky trio is still busy with the repairs - and all of them seriously needing some rest.
A couple of warnings:
- I am not a native English speaker, so there might be glitches and mistakes that you're welcome to point out.
- The first 3 parts of this fanfic were originally posted around 1 year ago on . Given that so much time has passed and my own ideas on certain aspects of the fic have evolved, these first 3 parts have undergone a light revision for language, style and some plot nuances.
- Given that this was imagined and plotted out so much time ago, to go through with my idea I'm taking some liberties with some canon details, such as Violetta's location (I'm assuming she was giving a hand to Theo's team for some reason) and the time passing between Zola's escape and the attack on Mechanicsburg.
- This is an experiment at playing with canon while staying in it as much as possible. As such, I was more aiming at showing a particular slice of the characters' lives while repairing the Castle, rather than writing a story with them, and it probably shows. I loved it, but I understand this might not be everybody's cup of tea.
Agatha took the occasion of the first moment of rest in hours to contemplate with a smile the fruits of the day's work. Now it was late night, but it had been worth it: Castle Heterodyne finally started to resemble a place that could be lived in by people, instead of the nightmare of a sociopathic architect, and this was a huge step forward. And she had to admit that she actually liked this room that had kept her, Gil and Tarvek busy for hours, although she couldn't quite make up her mind on what its original purpose had been, or on who had used it in the past – and she was wary of asking the Castle further details, given that this usually led to various anecdotes about her family that she'd rather not know. The main lines of the Castle's systems were all readily accessible, although cleverly disguised and protected by a series of secret compartments they had had to study and remove, and this had helped them considerably in restoring the castle's full functionality at least in that area. The huge, sturdy carved wood table gave them plenty of room for working, laying out their equipment, studying the castle plans and make calculations. Two couches under the windows and a large, four-poster bed, the latter of which hadn't probably seen much use in the past, given that it was still in a pretty good shape, could become much more comfortable options, in case they needed to get some rest, than sleeping in their bedrolls on the cold floor, all huddled together for warmth, like they had done lately.
Not that Agatha minded to cuddle between the two boys: actually, she was sure she was going to miss that little, intimate ritual… the thought brought a wave of warmth up to her cheeks, and Agatha tried to shove it away, not wanting either of them to catch her blushing. Granted, at the moment the two seemed entirely too absorbed in studying the Castle's plans for the next area waiting to be repaired they'd laid out on the table, but still, she really shouldn't be thinking about that… what was important was that another section of the Castle was fully repaired and working, and they'd even found a room that could serve as a functional, comfortable base for operations. Also, said room did not contain tapestries with naked demon women, ambiguously-shaped inlays or paintings that tried to eat people, which was even better. Of course, the gaslamp holders on the walls were shaped like saber-toothed humanoid skulls, but considering what they'd seen over the last few days, now this just looked like a little touch of exotic decor to her.
Now that she could afford a moment of peace, she sat on the bed to take off her shoes, that had started to hurt, and rub down her aching muscles, while the boys still chattered to each other, concentrating on their work. She felt a smile dawning on her lips. At least as long as they were busy, Gil and Tarvek managed to keep friction to a minimum, and on the contrary, she had to admit they worked really well together. And this was no small help for her mood.
She stretched, thinking that all she wanted to do was sleeping for at least a week, maybe in that same bed since it seemed so comfortable – and in the movement she caught sight of a flash of white on the ceiling above the bed, that she hadn't noticed before. Curious, she shifted to the center of the bed, lying down completely, to get a better look, and what she saw took her breath away.
Above her, above the bed, shone the full moon. Huge, glistening white, perfect, barely stained by the tail of a passing cloud. That room had a big, round window in the ceiling above the bed, probably a domed window that also worked as a lens because she was pretty sure that the moon she normally could see in the sky was not really that large. And the full moon in that moment was right there, perfectly aligned with the opening in the ceiling. Of course the window's glass was dirty, but the strong downpours of the previous days had washed away enough for her to appreciate the sight. It was one of the most beautiful things Agatha had ever seen.
"Agatha, are you alright?"
Gil's voice interrupted her train of thought. They had likely just noticed she had lain down.
"I'm fine," she replied, lifting an arm to motion the two boys to get near. "Come here, you two. I'm going to show you something."
She noticed the boys had exchanged a perplexed stare before joining her.
"Um… it's not another of those paintings, or another mirror, I hope," Tarvek said, and Agatha noticed his sudden blush. She flushed as well and nervously cleared up her throat.
"I wouldn't be so enthusiastic in that case, don't you think?" she replied. Even someone as naive as her knew that there was only a reason to hang a mirror above a double bed. Or yet another tantalizing painting with naked demons. "No, this is much better. And please take off your shoes, the both of you. If you don't come here near me you can't see it."
She must have gotten them curious enough, because the two quickly kicked off their boots and lay down next to her, Gil to her right, Tarvek to her left. When they followed her gaze, the only sound was a hushed "oh" from Gil.
"Castle, turn off the lamps, please," Agatha said.
[Of course, mistress. And I have to say that you have my complete approval.]
Agatha frowned. Approval? Approval for what? Part of her brain recorded the fact that the Castle probably was trying to hint at something or was amusing itself at her expense, as usual, but the idea escaped her quickly when the lights went out, throwing the three of them in a surreal, silvery twilight. The moon looked even bigger and brighter now, and the little swarm of stars around it was more clearly observable. Taking a look around her, she noticed the boys' entranced stares, and she smiled, folding her arms under her head.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" she said, speaking in a low voice without really knowing why. "This room gets better and better. Maybe, when all the rest has been taken care of… maybe we can think about putting skylights like this even in the other bedrooms. Apart from those facing north, of course."
She only realized late, in the brief silence that followed, that she'd spontaneously talked in the plural.
"We're going to have to add curtains above the beds too, though," Tarvek said, "or the light will keep everyone awake. And actually, we could do this in the rooms facing north as well, if we use a mirror instead of a lens."
"Good idea," Gil snapped his fingers, and Agatha felt the enthusiasm rising in his voice as well as in her heartbeat, "and why not put the two together? The mirror in a transparent gap that magnifies the reflected image…"
"Oh, and a system of tracks and bearings so it all can be rotated!" Agatha said, her fingertips tingling. "That way not only we can see the moon from the rooms facing north, we can even follow it in the sky."
"What if we think bigger?" Tarvek said, and Agatha recognized the shine in his eyes in the twilight. "Let's think about eclipses! In a room we can treat the glass like a welding screen: of course we'd have to assess how the lens' behaviour would change, but then we could watch an eclipse with no hazard and no goggles!"
"And I'll tell you more!" Gil chuckled. "Tarvek, remember Professor Arcier's photography demonstration?" Tarvek nodded enthusiastically and Agatha gave Gil a curious glance to incite him to explain.
More than a hour later, the moon had moved and disappeared from the window, and Agatha's throat ached with all the talking. The initial idea of modifying a skylight had turned into a project of extension of the main library, with the building of Europa's largest telescope, capture of images through the wet plate collodion process Gil and Tarvek had seen in Paris, and the at least theoretical possibility to use the telescope from everywhere in the Castle through a network of adjustable mirrors. Complete with one-way screens and several safety measures so that the whole system couldn't be exploited backwards to peek into the single rooms – something that the Castle probably would consider an essential architectural improvement, but left them much less than enthusiastic. Oh, and naturally a network of brushes for automated cleaning of the glass surfaces exposed to the elements.
Madness pulsed between Agatha's ears and under her fingers like a warm tingle, drawing hypotheses, concepts and intuitions in crisp, bright details both in her mind and in her words. Some part of her wanted to get up, take paper and pencil and start taking notes for the project together, but now she was just too tired to move, and judging from the fact that neither man had moved yet, she wasn't the only one. Under the weight of exhaustion, the piercing clarity of Madness faded until a soft silence fell upon them, barely interrupted by the nighttime calls of the owls outside, while they lay there looking at the pincushion of stars in the sky. Agatha realized that she was smiling, without really knowing why. It wasn't for the stars, for the moon, for the skylight and for all they had invented over the past hour. It was something else. It was that silence, that hanging peace in which there was no need to speak, the tingle of joy and exhaustion melted together. It was that warmth surrounding her, the warmth of the two bodies next to her, their arms barely touching, the rhythm of their breathing, the soft, barely audible rustling of Tarvek playing with his hair, Gil nibbling the skin around his thumb nail. The warmth inside of her. It was the three of them, just like that, free to be exactly what they were.
Agatha's breath caught up in her throat. This was perfect. This was how it should be. Even if no part of this could ever be real. For how much longer could she keep on pretending this wasn't true, for how much longer could she keep on playing at just being Agatha, instead of the new Heterodyne? How much room had she left before her inevitable breaking point?
Before everything crumbled to pieces?
She took a deep breath, as if clinging on to air itself.
"I wish it were always like this."
Her voice left her throat like a barely audible whisper. But she knew they'd heard, because she felt them both shift beside her, maybe giving her confused glances, even if she refused to turn to face either of them.
"Like this… like we are right now," she added with a shrug. "Just Agatha, Gil and Tarvek. Without… all the rest. Without the burden of… of names, generations and centuries that we didn't choose. Without always having to hold off each other, without fear, without masks, without…"
Her voice suddenly choked in her throat with a start that sounded like dry leaves, her vision clouded and the sharp stab of pain in her chest clearly warned her that no, stop, stop right now, enough. She had no more room, no air, nothing left.
She was breaking down.
"Agatha..." Gil shyly brushed her shoulder, and instinctively she sprang to sit up, as if all she wanted were to run away even from that kind touch, to say no, stop, enough, enough now. She didn't want to break down in front of them: she had to be the strong, big bad Heterodyne, and she already had a lot to worry about without getting lost in thoughts of yearning for something she couldn't have and wasn't even sure she understood. But she knew perfectly well that she wouldn't run away, and she wouldn't say no, because the reason why she had spoken in the first place was that she needed this. She needed them.
She felt the bed shift again as the boys sat up next to her. Gil put an arm around her shoulders, Tarvek to her left lightly caressed her head, and she stopped holding back the tears, sliding her shaking arms around their shoulders to pull them both close, in a wobbly, uncomfortable embrace that was returned after a moment of hesitation. All of her body answered their closeness with a shiver of piercing, numbing, reassuring warmth, conceding her a last fragment of the previous peace through the familiarity of those sensations – their scent, that smell of burnt oil and exhaustion, Gil's breath caressing her neck, his strong arms, Tarvek's fingers running through her hair, the clear feeling of his body next to her, both nimble and tough, different from Gil's massive build, but not less attractive for her, whether she liked to admit it or not. The body knows all, Zeetha had told her once. And even through her anguish and fear, all of her body, the warmth pooling around her face and down in her belly, quickening her heartbeat, every single cell of her body was screaming its approval at her while she stayed there cuddled between the two of them.
There it was. Approval. Suddenly she realized what the Castle was hinting at with that word. Apparently it thought it was funny, that huge son of a brick. Or maybe it was entirely serious, which was even more worrying. That artificial brain really needed a meeting with a cocktail of antipsychotics, or simply with a jackhammer, depending on the circumstance.
"Hey… come on, now," Gil whispered at her ear, seeding goose bumps down her neck. "Calm down."
"He's right, Agatha," Tarvek said, his hands trying in vain to bring down the rebel tuft of hair on the back of her head. "You'll see… everything's going to be alright."
Agatha choked a sour laugh between her tears. Calm down, said her main human shield against the Baron's carpet bombing. Everything's going to be alright, said the figurehead of the Storm King conspiracy. Of course. It was all going to be sugar, hearts and flowers.
"It's going to be alright… what?" she said as her tears died down. "Damn nothing is going to be alright, and you know it. You both know it. And sure enough you are two damned idiots. And I'm even more of an idiot than you because I still haven't stopped keeping up with you. I should…"
The words crumpled in her throat again, her tears now dry. I should. She should what? Tell them to go to hell? Send them out with a pulley, an idea which both the Castle and Krosp probably would have had a great time putting into practice? Even besides the delicate power balance that had arisen with the Baron, and the fact that Tarvek was precisely the type of person she couldn't afford to let out of her sight – she couldn't forget that those same huge idiots now were part of her life, whether she liked it or not. Before being young Wulfenbach and Prince Sturmvoraus, to her they were Gil and Tarvek. Her men. They'd even joked about it, when they'd found the Castle seraglio. And the thing that hurt her the most was that she perfectly knew that right now there was too much going on, too many important things depending on her, for her to afford the luxury of letting her guard down, of stopping, of taking a honest look inside herself to give her feelings the name they deserved and in the end, make a decision. She couldn't afford to just decide for herself, to just be a woman, to just be Agatha – but she couldn't give up on them either. So in the meanwhile every day would keep on feeling just like a fall on broken glass for each one of them. She took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry. It's my fault, I'm putting you two in a situation that… I mean, this just isn't right."
Gil strengthened his hold around them, heaving a sigh.
"You're sorry about something you didn't actually decide? Agatha, you know perfectly well that we both have chosen to come into the Castle."
"True," Tarvek said, trying to move her ruffled hair away from her face. Agatha hung her head, feeling his eyes upon her. The skin of her face seemed to tingle under his touch. "Agatha, I'd rather say that the fault is ours. And that it's the two of us that are putting you in a tight spot."
Agatha slowly shook her head, frowning.
"But I didn't send you away. I chose to do nothing, because I'm confused, because I'm terrified… because I don't know what to think, I don't know what I want, I just know that… that I don't want to lose you, that I need the two of you to face what's coming." She smiled despite herself, moving her clouded stare from Gil's eyes, concerned, to Tarvek's, adoring. "See? A small piece of fault for each one, like three good little siblings."
"Agatha, don't joke on this." Gil smiled at her, ruffling her hair. "You wouldn't be human if you weren't feeling confused or shaken in this situation… and you're right, we don't have much to be calm about. But we are here to help you, and you know. Whatever it is that's coming, we're going to face it together, be sure about it. Tell her, Tarvek."
"Of course, my lady," Tarvek said, squeezing the hand she hugged him with. Agatha's heart gave a jump at that form of address he used from time to time. Violetta was right: Tarvek perfectly knew what he was doing with sweet talk, and might he go straight to hell with his devoted knight manners that worked so well in tearing down her defenses. "It's true that putting up with each other is not always easy, but if you say that you need us, then we'll be at your side. Just think of what the three of us have achieved until today…"
Agatha had to try a couple of times before she could speak, and her voice resembled a thin hiss.
"It's true. But I wasn't just talking about… the Castle, about everything that's happening." She swallowed. "I was talking about… us. The three of us. About what we are."
The silence that followed, a silence of baited breath, of contact and quickening heartbeats, was clearer than a thousand words. Gil heaved a sigh, laying his head against hers.
"I know you were," he whispered, his breath warm against her face. "I think we all do."
Tarvek huddled tighter next to her, and a lock of soft hair caressed her cheek bone. How he could keep that hair in almost a better shape than hers in that horrible place was still a mystery. Knowing him, there was a deal with the devil or something.
"And the answer is the same," Tarvek said. "We are here for you, Agatha."
"Whatever will happen… and whatever you will decide, when the moment comes," Gil whispered, his lips brushing her ear for a moment, a fleeting contact that was more than enough to send her heart flying.
Gently, Gil wiped out her dried tears from her face, and for a moment, in the timid intimacy of those touches, Agatha felt the sudden desire to kiss him, like an essential, visceral need. She barely had to turn her face to taste his lips. Of course, she could never really do it, not right there and in that moment, in that absurd situation, with an arm around Tarvek's shoulders and his hair brushing her face. But she still remembered quite well that crazy day in which she and Gil had fought against the wasps, on Castle Wulfenbach, even if it looked like a whole lifetime had passed. She remembered how she'd grabbed him by his jacket and she'd just kissed him, without hesitations, without wondering why or what he was going to think of her, simply because kissing him was the only thing that remotely made sense in that moment. She remembered his smell of fear and exhaustion, so similar to how he smelled that night, the touch of his lips at first uncertain and surprised, then quickly turning softer and welcoming. She also remembered his sullen face, so similar to his father's, and the argument that had followed, of course – just as she still remembered perfectly that night in Sturmhalten, the feeling of Tarvek's arms around her, his chest against her back, his voice brushing her neck, and his darkened eyes evading her as he betrayed her. So many things had changed in time, and despite that twisted, essential bond that now joined the three of them, she perfectly knew she couldn't completely trust either of her men. But Gil still reminded her of a time when she was just Agatha, and not the new Heterodyne, a time that would never come back, no matter how much she missed it. And it still hurt.
"You're shaking," Gil said, holding one of her wrists to check her pulse. "Sleep for a while, it's clear that you're going to flake out."
"We'll take the couches and leave the bed to you," Tarvek said, "so you'll actually get to sleep comfortably for once."
Agatha cleared up her throat as they hesitantly loosened their embrace, yet still not daring to part with each other completely. Sleeping on her own in that bed was certainly much more comfortable than huddling with the other two in their bedrolls – but that was not really the point. She had to take a deep breath to build up her courage before she could say what she had thought.
"Want to stay here with me?"
She felt them both stiffen, and she noticed that they'd exchanged a glance that she couldn't read in the twilight. But they were surely wondering if they'd heard right. Agatha curled up into a ball between them, gathering her knees to her chest.
"This is a good bed indeed, but the sheets are going to be cold and we still don't have a working heating system. It'll be… like the other times, just much more comfortable than in the bedrolls." Which was true in theory. But it wasn't all of it. She shook her head, breathing deeply. "I'm sorry, but… I don't think I could really sleep alone. Not tonight, at least."
She just needed to be with them, that was the truth – she needed their ritual, the warmth and comfort of their closeness, to finally let go and have a real rest. And she hoped that she'd managed at least in part to show them how much this was important to her.
Gil was the first to react, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Oh… well, of course, Agatha. Don't worry. Sturmvoraus?"
Tarvek nodded after just a moment of hesitation.
"No issue for me."
They made themselves comfortable before sleeping: Agatha unbuttoned and took off the bodice she wore over her shirt, and she loosened a bit the laces of her corset, while the boys took off their shirts; Tarvek undid his ponytail, and his pince-nez were put together with Agatha's glasses on the bed's headboard. The three then slid under the covers, that were indeed very cold as Agatha guessed. They huddled together for warmth, Agatha in the center, each of the boys with an arm around her waist. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply as she listened to her heart finding peace again, the shivers running under her skin gradually calming down in the warmth of their embrace, of their contact, so close, so clear and so delightful now that less layers of clothing separated them. Her fingertips still tingled faintly, and she wrapped them on the arms around her waist, lightly caressing them both without really thinking of what she was doing, getting quickly lost in the sensation of skin against skin, and warm shivers, and strong arms under sparse hairs. The warmth of Gil's breath on her neck, the light caress of Tarvek's fingers on her head, through her hair, were the last things she felt before she finally surrendered to her weariness and lost her grip on reality.
And her last thought was "thanks".