Disclaimer: I own none of the characters or anything, Scott Westerfeld does.
Alek smoothed his hair in the mirror and sat on his bed, resting for a few precious minutes before being called to dinner.
God’s wounds, that girl was going to be the death of him. Even with her hair freshly cut to look even more like a boy’s, she was beautiful to him. If he tried, he could always see through her disguise. She cursed like a true airman, seemed perfectly adept at being a boy, and was somehow still infuriatingly taller than him, but it didn’t matter to Alek. What did matter, however, was how she was always doing something dangerous. Last night had been the closest call, and his heart nearly jumped out of his chest when he’d seen her fall, and he nearly fell himself catching hold of her.
There was a knock at the door, “Come in,” Alek said.
“Mr. Hohenberg, you are being summoned to Dr. Barlow’s sitting room,” a servant said, “and you are asked to have haste.” Alek nodded his compliance and straightened his shirt and trousers in the mirror, frowning at the size of his ears.
Deryn and the lady boffin were already there when he arrived, and the lorises had climbed up onto the unlit chandelier, chattering away. The girls looked up, and Deryn’s face lit with a dazzling smile. She stifled it soon enough, though, when the servant appeared behind him at the door. “Prince Aleksandar, Dr. Barlow.” he announced, and left.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Alek mumbled.
“What was that, Aleksandar?” the lady boffin asked him.
She raised an eyebrow in question, but didn’t comment. “I’m sure you are both quite anxious as to why I have summoned you.”
“Quite anxious,” one of the lorises said from above.
“Miss Sharp,” as Dr. Barlow said this, Deryn looked nervously around the room, “I assure you we are quite alone,” she amended.
“I trust you recall our conversations prior to your appropriation of this job?”
“All too well.”
“And then you recall our discussions of you having to go into disguise.”
Deryn’s face took on a suspicious look, “Aye, I remember.”
“Good. You shall understand, then, when I ask you to come out of disguise.”
“What?” she was confused, Alek could tell. But he was catching on, suddenly desperately suppressing a laugh.
“Honestly, Miss Sharp, I thought you were clever enough to have understood by now.”
Comprehension dawned on her face, and her lip curled. “Oh,” she said, keeping her voice low and calm. “I see.”
Dr. Barlow continued, pretending not to notice Deryn’s poorly hidden anger. “You will be accompanying me to a party ten days from now as my niece. Until then I will be reeducating you in the ways of being a proper lady.”
“What will I be doing, Doctor?” Alek asked, composing himself.
“Doing some discreet skulking--as you call it. Your face is too well known to make an appearance, so I will arrange to let you in through an unguarded door while all the guests are at dinner, and you will search several of their rooms.”
“Alright. Can I ask a question.”
“I believe you just did.” She sighed. “Proceed.”
“For what reason am I skulking, exactly?”
“Ah, yes. That is a classified matter, Mr. Hohenberg.”
Deryn groaned. “Sorry, Ma’am, but now that we work for you, I think we have a right to know the ‘classified’ things. Right, Alek?”
He felt trapped between a rock and a hard place. He couldn’t disagree with Deryn--it would have consequences,--and the lady boffin was not someone to argue with. In the end, he knew what his answer had to be; “Right, Dylan,” Dr. Barlow gave him a hard look, and his resolved weakened. “And besides, it would help to know what I was looking for. I’d get in and out faster, less likely to be discovered.”
“I shall consider your request, Aleksandar, and in the meantime, the two of you should dress for dinner. We’ll be having several of the Zoo board with us, so be presentable.” She turned on her heel and strode out of the room.
The two of them followed, and as soon as she was out of earshot, Alek opened his mouth to speak.
“Don’t even start,” Deryn snarled and whipped around to face him, her hands curling into fists. He could see it on her face, the terror hidden by a sheen of rage.
He took a step back, afraid. “You’re not going to punch me again, are you?” like the night I found you out, he added to himself. He remembered how she’d been so ready to fight him, anything to feel more like a boy. The same thing was happening now.
She faltered. “No. I won’t--I wouldn’t.” The anger drained from her face, leaving only what was beneath. “It’s not even you I’m mad at. It’s that sticky boots lady boffin. I never thought she’d ask me to do this. Alek, the last time I actually acted like a girl--wore a barking skirt--was before the Leviathan. And I hated it. The thought of returning to that, for even just a wee bit, terrifies me.” He could tell her control was breaking. She’d already let her voice go up to normal. Alek closed and locked the door to her room behind them.
“It will be alright, Deryn.”
She gulped, as though pushing down the tears and fright. “Aye. It will. After all, how hard can it be? I was a girl most of my life, I can do it again.”
“That’s impossible to imagine.”
“You being a girl.”
“That’s a bit daft, considering all the kissing.” He gave her a withering look.
“You know that’s not what I meant. It’s you acting like a girl. I try to picture what you’d look like, and I never can.” He shook his head, still unable to. “You fit just the way you are. But I’m sure you will be able to pull it off. After all, you are the great Deryn Sharp.”
“Aye, I am dead brilliant, aren’t I?”