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15 December 2011 @ 01:07 am
"the wee birdies sing and the wild flowers spring"  
Title: The Sky Never Ends
Rating: PG
Fandom: Leviathan
Pairings: Alek/Deryn
Word Count: 14,408
Summary: A rather AU version of what could have happened between Switzerland and Istanbul. Written for Willa.

Note: I started writing this story the summer before Behemoth came out, and, because I am incredibly lazy (and because it would’ve required rewriting pretty much all of it), I decided to finish it as was, despite the fact that it had already been completely Westerfelded. Oh well.


01.

Alek had faced a lot of trials in his time—Mother’s overprotective tendencies, Volger’s fencing lessons, escaping from Austro-Hungary while half the German nation was hunting him down. But this—well. This was something entirely new.

‘He’s a boy, you idiot!’ Alek whispered to himself, slapping his palm against his forehead and screwing his eyes shut.

That was the thing—Dylan was a boy. Utterly, inescapably, a boy. So much a boy, in fact, that it was downright stunning how much Alek—someone who had stared down machine gun fire and piloted a Stormwalker halfway across Austria—could feel a pathetic child in comparison.

Of course, this latest development was only the final blow to his already broken ego. Dylan had taken everything from him—and quite literally, in fact, considering that it was Dylan’s fault that Alek was on this ship in the first place, ten years of preparations and several tons of gold lying abandoned on the snow back in Switzerland. But the material loss didn’t sting anywhere near as much as this new and most personal development.

Alek wasn’t a fool. He’d heard of this, usually hidden away in old books in the library about Rome or Greece. The only time he’d asked his tutors about these little footnotes, they had coughed uncomfortably and swiftly changed the subject. So it was something that happened, apparently, though that didn’t mean people liked talking about it.

‘But why me?’ he groaned into the silent cabin.

‘Why you what?’

Alek nearly jumped straight out of his skin. Dylan was standing in the doorway, a bemused grin on his face and Tazza’s leash in one hand. His grin only grew wider as Alek stared at him, unable to form any words.

‘Sorry, did I interrupt something?’ he said, coming into the cabin. ‘You might think about using Clanker talk, if you’re going to be moaning about all private like. It’s not a big ship, you know, and people might overhear.’

‘People like you, you mean,’ Alek snapped.

‘Aye,’ Dylan said, without a trace of shame. ‘Something bothering you, Alek?’

‘No,’ Alek said immediately, causing Dylan’s eyebrows to rise in skeptical amusement.

‘Oh, wirklich,’ he said, sitting down on the bed, and Alek couldn’t help but smile. The ‘r’ was all wrong, and the ‘ch’ was almost a ‘g,’ but it was one of the few words he’d managed to teach Dylan so far, despite the boy’s insistence that ‘Clanker talk was barking easy.’ This was mostly because it was what Volger always said when Alek told him he had to go on egg duty with Dylan or go walk Tazza with Dylan or go talk about the inner workings of the Leviathan with Dylan in an attempt to heighten the efficiency of the Clanker engines, and finally Dylan had asked what it meant.

‘Ja, wirklich, Dylan,’ Alek said. ‘Hast du nicht Ohren?’

Dylan burst out laughing, and Alek felt his stomach turn, though not altogether unpleasantly.

‘Well, we’ll be here all day if you’re going to use Clanker talk, you ninny,’ Dylan said, shaking his head. ‘Now what in blisters is bothering you?’

02.

Alek bit his lip following Deryn’s question, his gaze shifting from her down to the floor, though what he was looking at she didn’t know. There was nothing to be seen, not even a speck of dust. Say what you liked about these Clankers, but they sure were clean.

About five seconds had gone by, Deryn was still waiting for an answer, and the silence was verging on unbearable. She cast about for something else to say and chose the first thing that sprang to mind.

‘You know, you’re a lot tidier than I’d expect a prince to be.’

Alek’s head snapped up, his expression twisted in confusion.

‘What?’

‘I mean,’ Deryn amended hurriedly, starting to wonder why she couldn’t have brought up something normal, like the weather or the awfulness of the ship’s food, ‘I thought you’d have maids and butlers and all that to look after you at home. I wouldn’t have expected you to be so neat all the time.’ She finished with a wild gesture to the rest of the small cabin, the movement bordering on frantic.

It was at times like these that she could hear her mother’s voice in her head.

You met a prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Deryn? And what did you talk with him about?

Oh, you know, Mum. His tidiness and his ability to use a broom.


‘I—no,’ Alek finally said. ‘No, I would have, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it. She said if I was going to one day be responsible for a whole empire, then I could start by being responsible for picking up my own socks.’

Deryn grinned, until she remembered something which made her frown in confusion. ‘But I thought you were “just a prince,” right? You can’t inherit any empire.’

‘Oh, right, I mean—I don’t know the word, er—hypothetisch? Not really, but if it were…?’

‘Oh, you mean hypothetically!’ Deryn said.

‘Yes, hypothetically,’ Alek repeated, looking curiously relieved. ‘She said you never knew what might happen, you see.’

‘Sounds like a smart lady, anyway.’

‘Yes. She was,’ Alek said and smiled sadly. ‘I think father would have “spoiled me rotten,” like you said, if it were up to him. You know, I think he felt bad about—about everything.’

‘Well, good thing your mum was there, then, otherwise you’d be even more up yourself than you already are,’ Deryn said, giving Alek what she thought was a pretty soft punch in the shoulder, even though the boy winced in pain.

‘Yes, Dylan, I suppose you’re right,’ Alek said, glaring at her. She was grinning back when she felt a sharp kick on her ankle. When she glanced back up, Alek had turned away to look out the window. He was trying to hide a smile and failing terribly.

‘Come on, you ninny,’ she said, grabbing Alek by the shoulder and pulling him to his feet with her. ‘Let’s grab Tazza and go for a walk.’

03.

‘Do you like flying, Alek?’

They were strolling along the spine of the Leviathan, up on top (or ‘dorsal,’ as Dylan always corrected him) with the Mediterranean stretched out around them in its blue immensity, filling the horizon.

‘Yes,’ Alek replied eventually. ‘It is like… a Beethoven symphony.’

‘A— what?’

Alek bit back a groan. It had been a stupid thing to say. Even if Dylan knew who Beethoven was, he’d probably never heard a symphony in his life, and now Alek just sounded even more full of himself than ever.

‘Have you heard—?’

Dylan shook his head, tugging on Tazza’s leash to keep him from wandering off the middle of the spine.

‘Well, we sometimes went to the Musikverein in Vienna to the concerts, you see. And there was a series of works by Beethoven one winter, and… and—’

Alek tried to come up with the words to describe the memory of that one night—the golden walls of the Musikverein shimmering faintly as hundreds had listened in silence, momentarily stilled in their daily lives from the moment the first few notes filled the hall—quiet at first and then unfolding with each repetition, until the oboes finally drew the melody out once and for all, the entire orchestra joining in a sudden crescendo of joy and beauty.

Usually Alek was bored by these concerts, only attending them because his mother insisted and threatened him with extra fencing lessons if he refused. But this one had been different somehow. That overwhelming wall of sound, until it wholly enveloped you and you realized it wasn’t a wall, but an ocean, surging and pulling you along with it as it climbed and twisted, its final chord just out of reach, higher and higher, until you thought it had to end, had to stop, but still it kept soaring onward.

Alek had said nothing in the carriage on the way home that night, staring out into cobblestone streets lit by golden lanterns as his mother and father had a murmured conversation that had nothing to do with him.

Dylan was still staring at him expectantly and Alek quickly fumbled for an answer. ‘It’s the way—the way the music climbs up and up, but never seems to stop. Like—like how the sky never ends.’

Not for the first time, Alek wished his English was better, but he doubted Dylan would be able to understand him anyway, even if he was able to remember the word for aufsteigen or even just der Akkord.

Dylan grinned at him. ‘Well, I’ve never heard any Beethoven, but I’ll take your word for it. Big on concerts, were you? I suppose you also learned the violin from the age of four and can play all kinds of fancy concertos or whatever they’re called.’

‘Well, I can play a couple concertos, but… very poorly. My father would always leave to take walks in the garden when mother made me practice. I don’t believe I had the… “knack,” I think you say.’

Dylan laughed. ‘See, I was right about that violin, even if you’re terrible at it. You nobs and your fancy instruments that no one in their right mind plays.’

Alek snorted. ‘I thought the Irish were famous for the violin.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not Irish, you ninny, I’m Scottish. Completely different. You want me calling you German when you’re Austrian?’

Alek sighed. As usual, it was impossible to win any argument when Dylan was your opposition.

‘That’s what I thought. So don’t go confusing Irish with Scottish, or one of these days you’ll get a smack, and it might not even be from me.’

‘Well, that would certainly be a change,’ Alek muttered, only to be rewarded with a shove that sent him stumbling to the right.

‘You know, one day you’ll shove me right off this airship, and then where will you be?’ Alek demanded, rubbing his arm after he regained his balance.

‘With one less useless Austrian boy to nanny,’ Dylan replied. ‘Come on, I hardly touched you.’

Alek shook his head, but fell in line alongside Dylan again, continuing up the stretch of the spine, hundreds of feet above the sparkling blue water.

04.

Deryn sat in the darkness of her cabin, entirely unable to sleep. Having given up on lying there and staring at the shadowed ceiling after an hour or so, she was now staring out her small porthole and down towards the moonlit water, hypnotizing in its lack of change.

Stupid Alek. It was all his fault.

Not to say that he’d intentionally gone around trying to give Deryn the sort of insomnia that consists of an awful lot of wistful sighing and pointedly not going back over every word and glance exchanged that day. After all, she was pretty certain that Alek was still firmly convinced that she was a boy. If Alek had set out to give his supposedly male friend ‘Dylan’ the sort of thoughts that Deryn had previously believed only existed in her mother’s silly ha’penny love stories, royals must be even more barking that she’d realized.

But Alek was definitely still the one to blame, since if they’d never met in the first place, Deryn wouldn’t even have this problem.

‘Barking spiders!’ she hissed, and turned away from the window, flopping once more onto her narrow bed. She needed to sleep—she would be staying up half the night tomorrow for one of the four-hour watches—but it was like the night before the middy exam, her brain spinning and her nerves jangling, the tension unbearable and ceaseless.

Like how the sky never ends.

Alek had smiled after he said that, though he’d looked rather sad too, shrugging like he’d failed but in a way which was inevitable. She’d understood him perfectly, though, even if she’d never been to a concert house in her life and didn’t plan to go anytime soon. It had been the look on his face as he described it that she had recognized. It was the same look Da’d had when he’d taken her up in his balloon for the first time, and it was probably the same look she wore every time she left solid ground, climbing towards the clouds above.

She wondered if anyone else had ever seen that look on Alek’s face, or if she was the only one. His green eyes had been looking right at her, not at the horizon or at Tazza or anything else, just her, and for a second, it was as if—

What in blazes was wrong with her?! Another ten minutes of sleep wasted, and all over some stupid prince, just because he had nice eyes and was impressively good with mechanics and said her boy name in a way that made her skin tingle every barking time. It was ridiculous.

‘You can get stuffed, Prince Aleksander von Hohenburg,’ Deryn announced to the darkness, then closed her eyes and tried to make her mind give in to sleep at last.

05.

‘Dylan?’

‘Alek! What in blazes are you doing up? It’s three in the morning!’

‘You don’t have to tell me that,’ Alek sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He’d just spent nearly seven hours piloting the engines. Ever since they’d made the latest adjustment that evening, Klopp had only wanted the two of them on pilot duty for a ‘testing period.’ Sometimes Alek wondered if Klopp maybe gave the Darwinist pilots too little credit.

Dylan lifted his lamp filled with glowworms closer, saying, ‘Blisters, Alek, you look awful.’

‘Well… so do you!’ Alek spat back, pushing the lantern out of his face. And it was true— Dylan looked like he hadn’t slept in a month, all bloodshot eyes with dark circles underneath them.

But then Dylan cracked a smile, a pale crescent in the semi-darkness. Alek tried not to give in, but hardly a second had passed before he sighed and grinned back as well.

Dylan glanced away, and for a second there was something about his shadowed features that didn’t seem quite right, but by the time that Alek had blinked, Dylan was looking at him again and it was gone.

‘Are you looking for your cabin, by any chance? Because if you are, you’re going the wrong way.’

Alek groaned.

‘Klopp kept the lantern. I don’t know the ship well enough to be able to make my way in the dark, and I must have become turned around…’

Dylan snorted. ‘Come on, then,’ he said, and walked past him, back the way Alek had come.

Alek turned to follow, but he didn’t make it more than one step before he tripped, sleep-deprivation and darkness combining forces to send him crashing to the floor.

‘Alek?!’ Dylan hissed, and Alek was vaguely aware of the patter of hurried footsteps, followed by the placing of the lamp on the floor nearby.

‘…ow,’ Alek said. So far as he could tell, he would be fine, aside from general bruising and wounded pride. He blinked and looked up at Dylan’s face, hovering above his own, looking oddly distorted in the dim light.

Alek tried blinking again, but the image remained. The shadows had done something altogether curious, and Alek could have sworn that Dylan looked almost like… well.

A girl.

It was ridiculous, Alek knew it as soon as he thought it, but there was no denying that Dylan’s face, wide-eyed with unusual concern, lacking all boyish bravado, was unmistakably feminine.

06.

Alek’s mouth was hanging open, and Deryn couldn’t help the feeling that something was very wrong, even if Alek couldn’t have fetched himself more than a light bruising.

‘… hello?’ she asked eventually. ‘Anyone in there?’

To her confusion, Alek seemed to almost scramble away from her, backing himself up against the wall of the corridor, as far from her and the lantern as possible.

‘Yes!’ he said, his expression impossible to make out in the dark. ‘Yes, I am—I am in here. Do not worry, please!’

‘You sure?’

‘Yes, thank you!’

‘I—alright. Fine, then,’ Deryn said, wondering if she sounded as confused as she felt. Maybe Alek had hit his head or something, and that was why he was acting all funny. Maybe they should head to the sick bay to have him examined. But Alek was already pulling himself to his feet.

‘I—I think I can find my own way back, now,’ Alek said. ‘I’ll see you in the morning, yes? Good night, Dylan!’

Alek didn’t even wait for her to respond before she heard his footsteps fading as he practically ran down the passage, quickly disappearing from the faint glow of her lantern.

‘...what in blisters was that all about?’ she asked eventually, but the empty corridor offered no explanation.

07.

Alek shut the door as quickly but also as quietly as possible behind him, and immediately collapsed onto the bed. He also covered his face with his hands, just for good measure.

‘Das ist nicht möglich…’ Alek muttered. ‘Ich bin ein Dummkopf, bestimmt.’

He rolled over and hauled himself up to look out the window. He could see the edge of Greece off to the left, the islands a string of dark shadows under the starry sky. They weren’t close enough that he could see any lights, but he imagined a few houses with fires still burning, mothers up late with sick children or working to darn another pair of socks, fathers working at their crafts or out looking for stray animals. They were invisible lights, but Alek could feel them illuminating his night nonetheless, a softly glowing reminder that the world was not falling apart, that life was going on—despite all evidence to the contrary.

Was Dylan a girl? Or had it all just been a trick of Alek’s mind, sprung from wishful thinking? Night could transform a lot of things. He could still remember childhood nights spent cowering under the covers, certain that the tree outside his window was a giant come to eat him whole.

But four words floated up from Alek’s memory, and he heard Dylan’s voice in his head, nervous but excited as well.

I’m not really a…

A what? After Dr. Barlow had interrupted, Dylan had never finished telling him and Alek had dismissed it until now as therefore unimportant. But maybe—maybe that was the answer. All this time, Alek had thought Dylan was just a normal boy, but instead those blue eyes and graceful hands had belonged to—

‘Gott sei Dank,’ Alek sighed and collapsed onto the bed once more.

At least that was one problem taken care of.

08.

‘Good morning, Dylan!’

Deryn looked up from her breakfast to see Alek standing beside her, looking alarmingly cheerful.

‘Er… good morning?’ Deryn replied as Alek sat down beside her, and grabbed a potato as well. ‘Feeling… better?’

‘Yes, very much.’ Alek stopped slicing his potato into manageable chunks and turned to face her. ‘I should apologize for my actions, I think. I was… tired, and not myself.’

At a loss for anything else to do, Deryn stared at him. He looked awfully sorry, but that didn’t stop her desire to shout at him until she was hoarse, asking him what the hell that’d all been about and how she’d lain awake until nearly dawn wondering and it was, as usual, all his fault.

After a while, Alek continued more hesitantly. ‘I know I was, as you would say, a “daft git,” but—’

Deryn sighed. ‘Yes, you’re sorry, fine, apology accepted.’ She hated it when he quoted her like that. It made her feel like her stomach had just turned a summersault. All she’d wanted was to sit here and eat her potato in peace, letting food make up for lack of sleep. Leave it to Alek, of course, to turn even breakfast into a bewildering mess she wanted no part of.

And then Alek grinned at her and—

Stupid princes.

‘Eat your potato,’ Deryn mumbled and looked out the window like there was something really interesting on the horizon other than clouds.

09.

‘Your Highness, are you paying attention?’

Volger’s voice provided an unpleasant awakening from Alek’s thoughts, doing about the same job as would a bucket of cold water.

‘Y–yes,’ Alek stammered and tried to remember what the wildcount had been talking about. Unfortunately, all his memories of the last couple minutes were completely filled with thoughts of Dylan, with Volger’s voice just an irritating murmur in the background.

‘As exciting as your little daydreams may be, Your Highness, I should think our plans for our arrival in Constantinople might take some priority,’ Volger said. ‘You will be responsible for the fate of your men, after all, and you might do better at preserving their lives if you had been listening to anything I’ve been saying for the last five minutes.’

Alek did his best to look impassive, even as hot shame and guilt washed over him. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t stop thinking about Dyl—about her. How could he, when his best friend—the boy Alek had wished he could be—was a girl? How long had she been pretending? What was her real name? Did anyone else know or was it only him? Had she ever thought he might—

And there he was again, filling his head with thoughts of her when he should be thinking of Constantinople. Alek picked up his teacup, grateful to find his hands still steady.

‘Go on, then,’ he said, and took a sip.

Volger sighed. ‘As I was saying, we have already established that we must get free of this Darwinist vessel, before the captain comes up with some paltry excuse to put us in shackles. Who knows how long it may be before Austria takes a side in the war and we are labeled Clanker enemies in the Darwinists’ eyes.’

‘But, Volger—’ Alek interrupted, and then fumbled for words. ‘I don’t see why—why are you so sure the Leviathan’s crew would betray us?’

Volger looked at Alek with incredulity. ‘Don’t be a fool, Your Highness. The tenuous alliance that you secured by offering up our engines is hardly enough to override the responsibilities of these men to their country.’

‘But,’ Alek began, remembering Dyl—Miss Sharp in the machine room, flushed from the heat, promising to keep his secrets even in the face of the hangman’s noose. Volger didn’t give him the chance to finish, however.

‘We cannot afford to simply throw ourselves on the mercy of these Darwinist sailors, Alek. If you think that they would all be willing to sacrifice their lives to protect your secret, then you are even more foolish than I had previously believed.’

Alek could see the sense in Volger’s words, but he still couldn’t stop hearing Miss Sharp’s promise, as if it were a theme from a symphony, coming back again and again no matter what Volger said in between.

I won’t tell.

Alek made one last attempt, the teacup starting to shake in his tight grip.

‘But at least here we know the threats, Volger, whereas in Constantinople—’

‘Paltry compensation for the constant chance of discovery—a near certain occurrence if you continue with this careless disregard for any sort of prudence. Who was it that got us discovered by the Darwinists in the first place, Your Highness?’

Alek said nothing, unable to meet the wildcount’s gaze, and after a few seconds Volger sighed.

‘So perhaps you should leave decisions that involve your personal safety to me for the future, don’t you think? When we arrive in Constantinople, we will depart the ship immediately, before the captain has a chance to change his mind. We can then disappear into the countryside, lost to obscurity for the rest of the war, until the time comes when you can make yourself known again without receiving a bullet in your head as a result.’

‘… very well,’ Alek said, feeling sick, and placed his still half-full teacup back on its saucer. ‘Might we continue this discussion tomorrow, Volger? I told Klopp I would assist him with some further adjustments to the engines.’ The lie came easily, but Alek would have said anything to get out of Volger’s cabin.

‘Yes, perhaps that is for the best,’ Volger said after a moment. Alek pulled himself to his feet and walked over to the door.

‘Just remember, Your Serene Highness,’ Volger said and Alek looked back from where he was already halfway through the doorframe. ‘Träume sind Schäume.’

Dreams are foam, Alek’s brain said automatically, too used to serving as translator by now to prevent the immediate switch. He’d heard the saying before.

Without replying, Alek shut the door and walked away down the corridor.

10.

Deryn stretched and rolled her head from side to side, each joint cracking like a shot from an air gun.

‘A little sore there, Mr. Sharp?’ Newkirk said behind her, and Deryn turned to see him grinning smugly at her.

‘Well, at least I didn’t forget my gloves like some scatterbrained midshipmen I could mention, Mr. Newkirk,’ Deryn replied, and smirked when Newkirk automatically tugged down his sleeves in a vain attempt to hide his red and likely blistered hands, put through the ringer after a morning hanging off the ratlines.

‘Get stuffed, Mr. Sharp,’ Newkirk mumbled, turning red.

‘Oh, so you wouldn’t, say, like me to give you these?’ Deryn said, reaching into her jacket pocket and pulling out a roll of soft white gauze and a metal tin of cream.

Newkirk’s eyes widened, but Deryn could see him catch himself, too proud to be caught asking for help from a rival boy. She watched him squirm for a few seconds, then rolled her eyes.

‘Here,’ Deryn said, and tossed the gauze and the tin at him. Newkirk nearly fumbled the catch with his swollen hands, but he managed to grab them both before they hit the floor.

‘…thanks,’ Newkirk said, and Deryn shrugged.

‘Make sure you’re all bandaged up by the time we’re back on duty this evening, aye?’ Deryn said, pushing past him.

‘And maybe you could get some sleep, then, Mr. Sharp,’ Newkirk shouted after her. ‘Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Too scared of the monster under the bed, are you?’

‘That’s just because I’m too busy saving your arse in my dreams as well to get any proper sleep, Mr. Newkirk,’ Deryn shouted back and kept walking, a grin spreading across her face as she heard Newkirk cursing after her.

Just as she made to crack her neck a second time, Deryn turned the corner and walked into someone, their heads knocking together before she realized what was happening.

‘Barking—’

‘Ach, Entschuldigung—’

‘Oh, Alek!’ Deryn said, once she realized who she’d just knocked heads with. Alek looked rather strange, frowning and all too distracted for Deryn’s liking, especially since she’d thought he’d gotten over that at breakfast.

‘You alright, Alek?’ she asked, and Alek smiled in a way she knew was forced.

‘Oh, yes,’ he said, dropping his hand from his forehead where it’d hit hers. ‘Nothing serious, I’m sure.’

‘I didn’t mean—’ Deryn started, but it was clearly useless. Whatever it was, Alek obviously didn’t want to talk about it.

Boys,’ Deryn sighed under her breath. Then she said, loud enough that Alek could actually hear her, ‘Would you like to come up topside with me? It’s a nice day, and I thought—well, unless you have somewhere else to be…’ Her voice trailed off, her stomach slowly twisting itself into knots as she waited for Alek to give her some sort of answer. Unfortunately, he seemed to be treating the matter much in the fashion of her charming cousin Margaret when faced with the most perplexing question of which dress to wear to a Saturday dance.

‘I’m not—that is, I don’t think—’ he began, then glanced at her face and stopped as if the words had been choked back. Another agonizing second on Deryn’s behalf, and then—

‘Alright, yes,’ Alek said with a smile. There was a moment in which Deryn might’ve said he look almost, well, guilty… but it was only a moment, and who knew how to read the expressions of daft princes anyway, so Deryn dismissed it, soaring now that she knew Alek would be coming topside with her.

‘Excellent! You can look over my sketches of your Clanker engines for me, then, and be useful for once,’ Deryn said, and Alek spluttered in indignation. ‘Just let me grab my sketchbook and we’ll be set.’

11.

Now that he looked at Miss Sharp in the light of day, Alek wondered how he hadn’t seen it before. True, the haircut was short and the airman uniform wasn’t particularly flattering, but there was something very different about his—her eyes, noticeable when she wasn’t busy shouting or cursing or just being as soldierly as possible. It was when she was looking out at the horizon or petting Tazza or drawing in her sketchbook that Alek would notice it.

Or when he caught her looking at him and she didn’t look away fast enough.

It wasn’t just her eyes, though. There was a strange sort of grace about her as well. It was hard to believe, particularly when he saw her outdoing Newkirk at every turn or was on the wrong end of her really-quite-painful fist, but it was there all the same.

It reminded him a bit of Mother. She’d had the same air of someone who looked totally at ease, only because they knew everyone was waiting for them to show how out of place they really were.

‘What on earth are you staring at?’ Dylan suddenly exclaimed, and Alek startled. They were sitting on the spine. Dylan—Miss Sharp—God, who knew?—had been sketching while Alek was supposed to be there for consulting on the details of the Clanker engines. Of course, she’d yet to ask him a single question, so he’d gotten lost in his own thoughts, helped along by the lulling warmth of the afternoon sun.

‘Nothing!’ he said quickly, knowing full well that he had, in fact, been staring. Admitting it, however, didn’t seem like the best idea, particularly since he was still supposed to be fooled by Miss Sharp’s disguise.

‘Well then why have you been studying me for the past five minutes like some fascinating new species you’ve just discovered?’ she continued, despite all of Alek’s prayers that she’d let the matter drop. ‘It’s barking annoying, you know. Like being looked at through a microscope.’

‘S–sorry!’ Alek stammered, his voice squeaking a little more than he’d like. With one last glare, she returned to examining the drawings in her sketchbook, every so often making tiny adjustments to her sketches of the new engines.

Alek turned his gaze out to the far-off horizon instead and resisted the urge to sigh. Obviously, knowing someone’s biggest secret didn’t always make things easier. If anything, things were now more complicated than ever before.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alek could see the golden glow of her hair, lit up by the afternoon sun and ruffled by the breeze. He swallowed and tried to ignore thoughts of how running his fingers through it would feel, what her smile would look like as he brushed it back from her face, how—

And that was the problem, because the more he tried not to think about it, the more he did, and, Gott in Himmel, he was a prince, a someday emperor, not someone who could afford such thoughts about a… well, a commoner.

Because unless Miss Sharp was hiding a whole lot more than just her sex, there was no chance in Heaven that they could ever be together, even if she did want to be with him in the first place. Indulging in such fantasies was stupid and pointless and the last thing Alek needed to be doing in the middle of wartime with his entire future, not to mention the future of his entire empire, on the line.

With a soft exhale, Miss Sharp suddenly dropped her sketchbook to the side and laid back, a small smile on her face and her eyes shut against the bright sun. Short as her hair was, it was still long enough to have fallen away from her face, fanning across Alek’s fingertips, his hand placed rather too close to where she had decided to put her head without looking first. It was light and soft and Alek knew that he should pull his hand away, but if he did, she was sure to notice. So he left it there, the breeze making the golden strands dance and brush across his fingers as they sailed through the endless blue.

12.

Deryn examined her face in the small chipped mirror in her cabin. Her cheeks were a little too pink, but she’d luckily escaped any further sunburn, a hydrogen sniffer snuffling in her ear and waking her before much damage could be done.

She couldn’t believe she’d fallen asleep with Alek there. What if she’d done something incredibly embarrassing, like snoring or drooling or—oh God. What if she’d talked in her sleep? Jaspert always used to make fun of her for the things she’d say at night, him having an excellent spot for observation, the two of them sharing a room. Most of the time it was stupid stuff about talking potatoes or dancing sheep, but occasional she’d let slip a name or a detail that would send Jaspert laughing about the house, teasing her mercilessly until Deryn finally got fed up and punched him in the stomach.

What if that was why Alek’s face had looked so strange when she’d startled awake?

‘Oh God,’ Deryn whispered, her eyes growing big and terrified in the mirror. ‘Oh no. No no no. Please God tell me I didn’t—’

A sharp knock interrupted her panicked ramblings and Deryn nearly jumped out of her skin in surprise.

‘Come in!’ she said, after a brief glance around the cabin to check that she hadn’t forgotten to tuck anything incriminating back in its place.

‘Mr. Sharp?’

It was Newkirk. Sodding Newkirk, of all people, who had gotten her so flustered.

‘What is it, Mr. Newkirk?’ Deryn said, trying to look composed and calm, rather than how she really felt, which was somewhat closer to wanting a bucket to throw up into.

‘Um, it’s just— did you realize that you missed dinner?’

Deryn stared at him stupidly until her brain finally started working and—blisters. Of course she had. It’d been nearing sunset when the hydrogen sniffer had startled her awake, and then Alek had disappeared mumbling some unintelligible excuse that Deryn had just dismissed as boys being boys and therefore infuriating, and then she’d come down to her cabin and been so distracted thinking about Alek and Clanker engines and the clear sky with a golden sun that she’d forgotten that she was supposed to go eat dinner somewhere in there.

‘I, yes, I just wasn’t really that hungry, I guess,’ Deryn said, but that was a poor excuse and Newkirk knew it. No one was ever ‘not hungry’ when you had to work on an airship day in and day out, and Deryn already knew that she’d be regretting this later, trying to keep up with Newkirk as usual, with her stomach begging for food.

But Newkirk was grinning and his smile only got bigger as he brought out a white-bandaged hand from behind his back with a bulging tied-up napkin in his grasp.

‘I got what I could. It’s mostly rolls and potatoes, but I figured you wouldn’t—’ And then Newkirk just laughed as Deryn grabbed it from him, picking apart the knots with lightning speed and letting it spill out across her bed. A full dinner, for certain, if a bit bland.

When she looked up, Newkirk was already halfway out the door, still laughing.

‘Thank you, Mr. Newkirk!’ she said quickly as he began to pull the door shut.

‘Don’t thank me, you forgetful loon. Alek was the one who suggested it,’ Newkirk replied and then the door snapped shut and Deryn was alone again.

13.

Alek stared down at his teacup. Or rather, he stared down at his hand which was currently holding his teacup. There was engine grease stuck under his nails, which was never going to come out no matter how many times he scrubbed at it, apparently, and in the dry skin of his writing calluses. Otherwise, however, there was nothing unusual about them, aside from perhaps the odd freckle here and there.

Which was why Alek was having a hard time believing that, less than twenty-four hours ago, they’d been tangled in Miss Sharp’s blonde hair while the two of them were side by side, soaring over the world’s vast expanses.

‘Good grief, Aleksander, at least pretend to be paying attention,’ Volger said sharply, and Alek jerked his head up, trying not to look too obviously guilty. ‘I always knew you were hopeless, but lately you’ve been plummeting past even my own meager expectations.’

Alek cast about wildly for a reply, but the excuse of ‘I’m sorry, but I was busy thinking about how it would feel to run my fingers through Miss Sharp’s hair properly’ didn’t seem like it would do the trick.

‘Once more, your quick wit and fast tongue leave me speechless,’ Volger said dryly, after more than a few silent seconds had passed. ‘Perhaps you will concentrate better when faced with the written word.’ Volger lifted a four-centimeter stack of papers from his desk and dropped them on Alek’s lap, the impact nearly causing Alek to spill his tea. ‘I will expect you to have read all of that by tomorrow morning, Your Serene Highness. And do be prepared for questions.’

Still silent, Alek stood, grasping the thick stack of papers with one hand and placing his teacup back on its saucer with the other.

‘Oh, and you might find someone to give you a haircut,’ Volger added. ‘It would be good for us to appear civilized as long as possible, don’t you agree? I would assume your midshipman friend with the colorful manner of speech would be able to help you. He must be used to cutting his own, after all, with his origins.’

Alek colored, but gave a brief nod before walking out the door. It was almost as if Volger knew, as if he was constantly trying to remind Alek of just how impossible any pursuit of Miss Sharp would be.

As if Alek didn’t already know.

As he entered his own cabin, Alek dropped the bundle of papers on his bed and collapsed beside it, staring dully at the ceiling. Volger couldn’t know, of course. Otherwise he’d never have suggested Alek ask Miss Sharp to give him a haircut, or in fact have suggested Alek do anything at all other than never speak to her again.

Of course, Alek was not so fainthearted that he was incapable of facing his problems as a proper man should. Obviously this… fascination with Miss Sh—no, Dylan, she was still just Dylan, goddammit, how could he have forgotten that? It was just momentary insanity, no doubt the result of weeks of trying circumstances and now being held on an ungodly Darwinist airship. Nothing had really changed, had it? She was still his friend Dylan and there was no reason why he wouldn’t have asked Dylan to cut his hair. Not to mention, she certainly had to be good at taking care of her own if she were to keep her disguise convincing.

His mind made up, Alek dragged himself off the bed and fetched a pair of steel scissors from his bag, dropping them in his jacket pocket. Then he strode out the door and down the corridor, keeping his mind firmly fixated on details like the pattern of the wallpaper and the color of the rug until he reached Dylan’s door, at which point Alek swallowed, steeled his resolve, and knocked.

‘Come in!’ came Dylan’s muffled yell.

Alek tried to open the door, but found it wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard he pulled at the handle. He was still pulling with as much force as he could muster when he heard Dylan on the other side say, ‘What in blisters is wrong with—’

The door swung inward. Alek’s hand flew off the handle and, with no friction to stop it, smacked him square in the face.

14.

Scheiße! Herrschaft nochmal, täglich, verdammt—’

Alek stumbled back against the wall, holding his nose and, by the sound of it, swearing like good Austrian princes were never supposed to do. Deryn was promptly torn between concern and amusement. She did her best to suppress her laughter and exclaimed, ‘Sorry, Alek! Didn’t know that would happen.’

‘Well, obviously,’ Alek said, glaring at her. ‘I should hope you wouldn’t intentionally attempt to break my nose.’

Unfortunately, Deryn was unable to stop herself from rolling her eyes at that one. ‘Oh, honestly, you’re the one who just punched your own self in the face. Come on, let me see it,’ she said, pulling Alek’s hands away from his face before he could stop her and leaning in for the sake of better inspection. ‘Good grief, you’re fine, just a little bruised, that’s all. You barking princes, it’s like you’re made of glass.’

And then Deryn realized that she currently had both of Alek’s hands held tightly in her own, not to mention their faces were about five inches apart and Alek seemed to be frozen in place. She promptly dropped Alek’s hands like they were on fire and took a step back, shoving her own hands in her pockets.

Alek straightened and coughed slightly, looking away from her and, she couldn’t help but notice, licking his lips.

For a moment Deryn wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped back—if instead of increasing the space between them, she’d made it not exist at all. Then she realized that doing so would’ve been the most incredibly daft move she could ever make, since Alek was sure to object to his supposedly very male friend kissing him full on the mouth. Flustered, Deryn turned to conversation as a feeble means of distraction.

‘What are you even here for, then?’

‘Oh, yes, I was wondering—’ and here Alek held up a pair of scissors pulled from his jacket pocket ‘—if you might be willing to cut my hair for me.’

For a few seconds, Deryn just stared, trying to determine if she’d heard Alek properly.

‘Cut… your hair?’

‘Yes. That is, Volger said I needed to look “presentable” for Constantinople, and it’s been nearly two months since I last…’ Alek’s voice trailed off and he waved the scissors back and forth with a hopeful expression. Deryn continued to stare.

Oh, great. Some bloody distraction this will be.

But Alek was looking at her with his gorgeous green eyes and, well, his nose was still pink from where he’d hit himself in the face not two minutes ago, and she did feel just a bit bad for him over that, so how was she supposed to say no, really?

Deryn Sharp, you are full of clart. Stop making up excuses and just say no like any lassie with brains in her head would do. It’s one word. It’s not hard.

‘Fine, I’ll do it,’ Deryn said, and immediately wanted to kill herself on the spot. Her traitorous mouth and all the trouble it got her into, at least where Alek was concerned.

Alek, however, smiled and pushed past her into her cabin.

‘Where would you like me, then?’

Anywhere at all, Deryn’s brain supplied before she could stop herself.

‘In front of the sink’ll be fine,’ she said, hoping he didn’t notice her cheeks turning pink already. At this rate, she’d be about the same color as a tomato by the time they were done. ‘And you’ll have to stand, it’s easier that way.’ After all, Deryn told herself, she used to cut Jaspert’s hair all the time. Surely this wasn’t that different. Right?

‘Scissors?’

Alek handed them to her wordlessly, and took up position in front of the sink, taking a moment to examine his reflection in the slightly chipped mirror above it. It almost seemed as if he was seeing himself properly for the first time in ages, brushing his fingers slowly through his hair as if he’d forgotten she was there for a moment.

‘Will you be wanting to save some for remembrance’s sake, then?’ Deryn asked him, attempting a grin.

Jaspert had asked her the same question when he cut off all her hair in the tiny rented room in London, and she had smacked him in the arm and told him to get on with it already. When she saw him fold up one of her long golden locks in a piece of paper and slip it into his own pocket later, she didn’t say a word, feigning complete absorption in the Manual of Aerology.

Alek, however, rather than hitting her in retaliation, just started and then quickly shook his head.

‘Well, turn around and face me, I need to get a decent look at you first,’ Deryn said and took a deep breath in an attempt to calm her racing nerves. Alek’s hair was rather long, it was true, something he’d been hiding quite well by brushing it back from his face constantly. Deryn considered it for a minute, eventually deciding that about three quarters of an inch would be a good amount to take off all around.

‘Lean back a bit, would you? It’ll be easier for me later if most of it gets in the sink and not on the floor.’ Alek obliged, staring at some place past her left ear.

Okay, time to take the plunge, she thought, and, before she could think any more about it, snapped the scissors open and ran her fingers through Alek’s hair briskly, stopping a little less than an inch from the bottom of the section she was holding onto and snipping it off into the sink. And then it was back again, no time to think about it, just one section at a time, from the top down, Alek’s brown hair sliding through her fingers, soft and warm.

‘Stay put, would you?’ she huffed, Alek having the same annoying habit as Jaspert of moving his head whichever way she tugged, when the whole point was so she could get the hair pulled taut in the first place.

Alek just made a noise that wasn’t much of a noise to start with, more like a strangled exhale, and Deryn wondered if maybe she was pulling on his hair too hard, and Alek’s stupid boy sensibilities just wouldn’t allow him to admit it. Still, at least he’d stopped moving, and if he wasn’t going to say anything, then that was too bad. This haircut was his own barking fault in the first place, so from Deryn’s standpoint, a bruised scalp might be just what he deserved.

‘D-Dylan—’

‘I told you, don’t move, unless you want a snipped ear for your trouble.’ Having finished both the sides, Deryn shifted her attention to the front, her fingers brushing against his forehead as she worked. If Alek didn’t talk, then she could almost pretend that this was just Jaspert or maybe even Newkirk if she was desperate, some daft boy she didn’t give two pence for. She wished he’d shut up. Also, perhaps stop breathing, a little too fast for her to ignore, but that was just because she’d forced his head back so far he must be having trouble getting air.

‘D—’

‘What did I say about—’

‘Dylan!’ Alek snapped, and grabbed both her wrists in a tight hold, stopping her in her tracks.

Oh God, not again, Deryn thought desperately, and decided that clearly Austrians didn’t have a very good idea of what constituted personal space if Alek thought now was a brilliant time to have a bit of a chat.

If I leaned forward one inch, our noses would touch, Deryn thought, feeling slightly deranged. Alek’s mouth opened, like he was about to say something, and for moment Deryn thought, Really? Talking? At a time like this?, and then—there was a knock at the door.

Deryn had barely enough time to wrench her wrists out of Alek’s grasp and stumble backward before Dr. Barlow came bursting into the room, Tazza at her heels.

‘Ah, there you are, Alek! Honestly, I’ve been looking all over for you, you’d think it would be easy enough on this rather small airship, but apparently that is not the case.’ Dr. Barlow paused. ‘Getting a bit of a trim, are we?’

Deryn waited for Alek to reply but after a few seconds went by with nothing but silence from the wide-eyed boy currently backed into her sink, Deryn figured she’d pick up some of the slack in the conversation. ‘Aye, ma’am. On Count Volger’s orders, or so I’m told.’

‘I see,’ Dr. Barlow said, although she threw a curious look at Alek, who still hadn’t moved since she’d barged in on them both. ‘Well, Alek, I was hoping you might take some time away from your… other activities, and spend some time with my eggs instead.’

At this, Alek finally unfroze enough to stammer out, ‘B-but, I watched them last night—’

‘Yes, well, you’ll just have to watch them tonight as well. I still don’t trust that clumsy Newkirk boy, and Mr. Rigby has informed me that Mr. Sharp here is scheduled for watch until midnight, despite my pointing out that my eggs are of far more importance than Mr. Rigby’s precious watch rotation. From eight until four, shall we say? Very good. Best of luck with your haircut, Your Highness.’

And with that, Dr. Barlow swept out of the room as quickly as she’d swept in, the door clicking shut behind her.

The room was dead silent, until Deryn swallowed and cracked a grin. ‘Barking spiders, what a lady!’ she said, looking at Alek in the hopes of some kind of response. Alek just continued to look ill.

‘Er, right, well, I’m almost done, so if you’ll just let me get the back—’

And let me get on with pretending that didn’t just happen…

Alek nodded, still wide-eyed, and Deryn closed the space between them again, placing her hands on Alek’s shoulders to move him where she needed.

‘I—I can’t believe Dr. Barlow,’ Alek finally said, as Deryn busily snipped away.

‘Well, you are her favorite for egg duty, after all,’ Deryn said, and Alek sighed.

‘But I don’t understand why. It’s not as if it takes much talent to move heaters around and stare at a bunch of eggs for hours on end, after all.’ Alek was sounding more normal now, much to Deryn’s relief. After one last slice from the scissors, she turned Alek back around to face her and considered her handiwork.

‘Tell you what,’ Deryn said, as she brushed a lock of hair back from Alek’s forehead and pointedly ignored the sensation of her stomach turning over, ‘I’ll drop by after my watch to keep you company.’ She held up the scissors for Alek to take, adding, ‘Sound good?’

Alek took the scissors from her hand, staring at them and biting his lip while his own fingers went up to touch where hers had been just a second before. Then he looked up and met her gaze, so unexpectedly that Deryn nearly took a step backward. ‘Yes. That sounds very good.’

‘…right,’ Deryn said and watched Alek run his fingers through his hair and smile.

15.

‘Ich bin.’

‘Eeg bihn—’

‘No, no— Ich. Bin.’

‘Yes, I know—Eeg—’

‘No, listen to me. Ich, do you hear it? Chhhhhh.’

Dylan stared at him. ‘You sound like my auntie’s cat.’

Alek resisted the temptation to throw his hands into the air in frustration. ‘I’m not a cat, I’m speaking German, now try to get it right, please.’

They’d been working on the same phrase for a good quarter of an hour now, every repeated mispronunciation on Dylan’s part standing Alek’s hair on end, like the painful screech of an amateur violin player. He was beginning to wonder why he’d ever thought this would be such a great idea in the first place, but egg duty was boring, particularly at two in the morning, and Alek had thought this might be a better idea than sitting in silence while he did his best not to recreate every moment of the haircut Dylan had given him that afternoon.

And then Dylan grinned and said, ‘Ich bin Dylan, ein Fähnrich zur Luft,’ with hardly a trace of an accent and so fast Alek almost didn’t catch it.

‘…you’ve been mispronouncing everything on purpose, haven’t you,’ Alek said slowly, as Dylan clearly tried not to burst out laughing. ‘You… you Dummkopf, why would you ever—’

‘Mostly for this moment right here,’ Dylan said. ‘Du bist der Dummkopf, I think, Prinz Aleksander von Hohenberg.’

Mein Gott, mehr als du weißt, Alek thought, his stomach twisting at the sound of Dylan pronouncing his title like it was the silliest thing she’d ever heard, completely inconsequential and unworthy of her attention.

If only.

Alek sighed. ‘Fine, Mister… “Clever Boots,”’ and Dylan let out a huff of laughter at that one, ‘well done. You had me quite convinced that you were a complete imbecile so far as languages were concerned. A most believable ruse.’

‘Talk big all you like, Alek,’ Dylan said with a roll of her eyes, ‘but after having your mum drill you in Scottish every Sunday, German doesn’t seem much of a challenge.’

‘But you speak English in Scotland. I thought.’

‘Aye, that we do, but my mum still thought we should know the Gaelic, so every Sunday Jaspert and I had to sit through hours of her teaching us. I think you might find it’s a little more tricky than your language much of the time.’

Alek let out a huff of disbelief, and only realized his mistake when he looked back and saw Dylan glaring at him.

‘Want to bet?’ she said. ‘Alright, you teach me a German saying and I teach you a Scottish one and we’ll see who gets it in the least number of tries.’

Alek bit his lower lip and looked into Dylan’s eyes, hard with evident annoyance, but also—maybe just a hint of amusement?

You’re going to lose, you’re going to lose, you’re going to—

‘Fine,’ Alek said. ‘My phrase first. Bäume wachsen nicht in den Himmel.’

‘Baume wächsen nicht in den Himmel.’ It was very close, with just a couple of slightly off vowels. Alek felt the heavy press of impending defeat settle on his shoulders, but kept going anyway.

‘Try again. Bäume wachsen nicht in den Himmel.’

‘Bäume wachsen nicht in den Himmel.’

‘Very… good. Correct,’ Alek said, and Dylan looked smug.

‘My turn now,’ she said, popping and unpopping the snaps on her uniform, ‘and I’ll go easy on you. Na gèill is tu beò.’

‘Na gyai—’

‘Na gèill is tu beò.’

‘Na gèill ees—’

‘Is.’

‘Eis.’

Is.’

‘Na gèill is… tu… beò.’

‘Congratulations, Your Highness. Only four tries, and with the shortest saying I know!’

‘Alright, alright, you win,’ Alek sighed, turning away on the pretense of checking the thermometer. As he shuffled the heaters, Dylan asked from behind him, ‘What did your phrase mean?’

‘That?’ Alek said, scooting a heater across the floor with his foot. ‘Oh. Um, it translates to, “Trees do not grow into the sky.”’

‘What in blisters does that mean?’

‘Mm, that there’s a natural order to things, I suppose. That you shouldn’t get carried away by dreams. What about yours?’

Dylan yawned and propped her feet up on a nearby crate.

‘Do not surrender while you are alive.’


but the broken heart, it kens nae second spring again
and the world knows not how we are grieving
 
 
 
Psocopterapsocoptera on January 8th, 2012 02:44 am (UTC)
This is so good! Haircutting, eeee! I'm so glad you decided to finish it and share it.