Disclaimer: Most characters and all settings belong to Scott Westerfeld, unfortunately. As it is, though, I owe the guy.
The entire ship was in a state of shock.
Not all for the same reasons, of course. In general, there was the loss of two airships--over eighty men in all, plus the beasts, including the great whales themselves. After that came the guilty shock of the fact that the Leviathan was untouched, every one alive. The zeppelin responsible had been too far away to harm the great whale.
Then there was Deryn Sharp.
She’d denied it as long as possible, but when rescue teams had gone out for survivors and found only two badly wounded riggers alive, she had moved on to a terrible anger. There wasn’t really one thing--or person--in particular that she was mad at, but there was certainly one that had accumulated more than his share, and for more than one reason.
Alek was avoiding her.
For good reason, too. So she avoided him. The Leviathan was a big airship and it was easy to find things to do that kept her away from him. The flechette bats always needed fed or the strafing hawks reharnessed, and she even went up in a huxley for a few hours. It was nice to blow off some steam and curse loudly with no one around to hear.
Everything was a barking wreck, and there was nothing Deryn could do to control it. Events were spiraling from her grasp like a Clanker aeroplane felled by an aerie of strafing hawks. Breaking apart and tumbling to the dark ground below in a million pieces of Deryn Sharp. What was left of her was like an empty shell filled with... nothing. A hungry nothing that she needed to fill but couldn’t. It gouged pits into her stomach and stole her sleep. Fire had stolen her father and brother now, and she knew it was coming for her next.She pulled her shaking hand out of the bag of grain and strung it around the bats’ nests. Doing something at least helped her ignore the emptiness building inside her belly. Miles and Deryn were up in the higher of the nesting coves, at the tip of the nose, with Newkirk and Fitrzroy below. The boy wasn’t helping much, just staring vacantly like a pile of sod at the stretch of land that was spread out below them, hands twined around his head. His fingers tapped his hair, a twitch of indecision.
“Oi! Just because you’ve got me here doesn’t mean you don’t have to work, Wilson!” She growled. This boy was being barking suspicious. Against her will, Deryn was beginning to believe that he could be a spy. His accent wasn’t quite British, and his speech always sounded forced, like it was a foreign thing that took thought to do, and no boy was as barking quiet as him.
He didn’t answer her.
Deryn took a few steps toward him, “Did you barking hear what I said, you bum rag? You’ve got a bag, so get to work!” Her voice sounded harsh to her own ears, but she didn’t care. What right did this boy have to sulk around?
The boy was still standing at the edge of the nesting cove, still staring down at the water. Deryn was about to tell him to get moving again when she recognized the look in his eyes, and her heart beat went into overdrive, pulsing all thoughts of spies from her mind.
“Don’t do it, Miles,” she said warningly.
His face stayed impassive. “Why shouldn’t I? My brother is dead, and he was all I had to live for.”
“No. That’s not true, Miles. You have more things to live for than you think. More people living for you. If you jump, you’ll ruin everything you have.” Deryn said in a calming voice, trying to talk the boy down from the ledge.
He whirled on her, the tears glinting in his eyes belying the rage in the rest of his face. “Don’t tell me what I have, Mr. Sharp. You know nothing of what I’ve lost!”
She laughed coldly. “Don’t I? My brother died yesterday on one of those ships, Miles!” The sting of tears was blurring her vision now. Miles’s face became a blurry frown. “And I lost my father years ago! I’ve been where you are, Miles, and I know what a load of clart it is! I’m there now, too, but I know it gets better!”
“You still don’t get it!” his voice broke. “No one does, and no one ever will! Unless..” he trailed off, taking a long look at the water. Deryn’s blood pounded in her ears and her hands shook with adrenaline. This boy wouldn’t jump, not if she could help it. He spoke quietly, in a soft, high voice. “Someone should know.”
“What? Miles, don’t do it.”
The boy edged away from her and perched his toes on the ledge. “You see, Dylan, I’m a girl,” he said.
Deryn didn’t hesitate to react. She lunged for him and one hand clenched around the belt of the flight suit, the other wrapping itself on a ratline. Her muscles screamed as she was pulled in two, the rope digging into her gloved hand. Scrabbling for purchase with her feet, she clambered to a crouch and began to pull Miles up.
“No! Let go of me!” the girl shouted, trying to punch Deryn’s arm without success. Deryn tangled her boots in a rope and freed her other hand to take hold of the scruff of Mile’s flight suit. With a heave, she pulled Miles up the side so they were in a heap next to each other. Their legs hung off the side, and she kept a firm grip on the other girl in case she tried again.
Miles swatted at her hand. “Let go! I’m not going to jump anymore, alright?” She struggled to her feet with Deryn’s hand still on her belt.
“Go to the back of the cove and have a seat, then, and we’ll talk,” Deryn replied warily, poised to stop the girl if she made another attempt to jump and always staying between her and the open air.
“Did you hear the...” the girl asked defeatedly, searching Deryn’s face. She nodded, and Miles’s expression fell. “You’re not going to tell, are you?”
Deryn shook her head, laughter bubbling up into her throat.
“Then what are you going to do to me, Dylan?” Her eyes widened. “Please don’t...”
“You are one lucky girl, Miles,” Deryn said, gaining a certain pleasure from the terror on the girl’s face.
“Wh-why?” Miles was cowering back into the corner, pleading silently up at Deryn.
“Because,” Deryn started, smiling slightly, “I’m going to trade secrets with you. What’s your real name?”
“What?” she asked incredulously.
“I doubt it’s really Miles.”
“No, what did you say before that?”
Deryn waved a hand. “I’ll trade secrets with you, for the price of your name.”
Miles traced a circle with a gloved finger on her thigh, deep in thought. “I-I’m Melissa. Melissa Wilson.” She bit her lip.
Deryn smiled and held out her hand, speaking in her normal voice. “Nice to meet you, Melissa Wilson. I’m Deryn Sharp.”
“I know who you are, Dylan,” she didn’t take Deryn’s hand.
“No, you weren’t listening. I’m Deryn Sharp,” she emphasized her words by propelling her hand a little closer. Melissa took it reluctantly, and Deryn pulled her to her feet. “I’m a girl, too,” she whispered into Melissa’s ear.
The other girl jerked back, wounded. “I don’t believe you.”
Deryn moaned. “Don’t make me barking prove it.”
“How else could I know you’re not feeding me a load of lies?” Melissa challenged.
“Well,” Deryn said slowly, “What if I give you my razor and don’t shave for a week? If I were a boy, I’d have a beard by then.”
Deryn cursed and unzipped her flight suit, unbuttoning her shirt just enough so Melissa could see her careful tailoring. “Is that barking good enough for you?”
She nodded sharply as Deryn zipped herself back up. “Yes.” Melissa then showed Deryn her own bound chest, and the girls silently agreed to keep the other’s secret. “It’s nice to meet you, too, Deryn Sharp.”
“Aye, it certainly is,” Deryn pursed her lips, the weight of a question pressing them together. “What about your brother... was Levi a girl, too?”
Melissa nodded solemnly. “It was Lauren's idea to come here and join the service. We were supposed to be going to boarding school in London, but Mom’s all the way home in New York, so she couldn’t stop us if she wanted to.”
“Of course you’re a barking American lass!” Deryn started to throw her hands up in mock exasperation, but stopped as a thought came to mind. “You’re not a Clanker spy, then, are you?”
“Excuse me? Of course I’m not a spy!”
The shriek of a whistle called the two of them back down to the other midshipman, stirring up the bats, and Deryn’s moment of happiness was broken.
Her shoulders fell, and her boots dragged on the membrane.
Her brother was still dead, after all.