This is a long one, guys.
The English countryside was much different on the ground than the air. The colors were much more vibrant, and the herds of animals they passed were very much not the size of dots, many of them fabricated.
Alek sipped at some hot chocolate as he stared out the window at the land shooting bye. The door opened to emit Singe, who’d just returned with hot chocolate of his own, and Deryn, with what was presumably very strong coffee. The three of them shared a cabin on the overnight train ride, Dr. Barlow and Tazza next door.
Deryn sat down nervously and gave Alek a panicked look. “Um, Singe, can you go ask Dr. Barlow if she wants some hot chocolate?”
“Aye,” he said and stood again, the door sliding shut behind him silently.
“It’s Tad. He’s here. On the train.”
His eyes widened. “You mean, the one from the party?”
“No, dummkopf, the other one. Of course the one from the party!”
Alek narrowed his eyes in thought. “Where did you see him?”
“He was right after us in line for coffee. I was lucky he didn’t recognize me.” She blinked a few times and took a steadying breath.
Alek stood abruptly, sending a twinge through his ankle. “I’ll be right back...”
It was time he met this Tad. “Where are you barking going?”
“To make a new friend,” he said. There was the audible sound of Deryn slapping her legs.
“Not likely, ninny. You can still hardly walk! And what if--” her voice lowered “--what if he’s the one that shot you?”
“What if he was? It was dark--he wouldn’t recognize me.”
“Any amount of darkness won’t hide the barking hole in your arm, Alek.”
He looked down his nose at it. His sleeve covered the bandage, and if he didn’t move around a lot, he could hide the stiffness well enough. “I’ll be fine, Dylan.”
She caught his arm as he stood. “Don’t, Alek. As long as I avoid him--oh, barking spiders, Alek!”
He was already out the door, and making his way to the dining car. Both his foot and arm complained with every step, and he set his jaw against it. Then it occurred to him that he didn’t know what this boy looked like.
And he’d forgotten his hot chocolate.
All the more reason to get another from the dining car. The man behind the counter smiled at him pleasantly, politely forgetting to ask why he was back so soon. Steam rose from the mug and curled around his fingers. He watched over the rim at the others in the car, looking for someone around his age.
“Could it be?” came a voice from behind him. Alek turned, and saw just what he was looking for. A tall boy, probably taller than Deryn, with very black hair and pale skin had fixed him with an incredulous look. “The famous Prince Aleksandar of Hohenberg?”
“Just Mr. Hohenberg these days, I’m afraid.” He held out his good arm. The other boy seized it and shook. Alek tried not to grimace.
“Thaddeus Welker. You may have heard of me; I recently made the acquaintance of Miss Dalia Barlow, and I am under the impression that the two of you know each other.”
“Oh, yes. We know each other very well.” Alek hid a smug grin as Thaddeus’s cheeks colored.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hohenberg.”
“Please, call me Alek. It is much less of a mouth full.”
“In that case, I am Tad. You speak German, yes?” Tad said, in German.
“Yes,” Alek replied likewise. “Of course. But is it wise to speak this language in a Darwinist country?”
He waved a hand. “It is not an important matter. What brings you on this train, Alek?”
Alek sighed. He was a horrible liar, though he had improved recently. Still, staying close to the truth was the best idea. “I am on a business trip. And you?”
“I am on my way to France with my father. We are traveling around Europe. Who are you traveling with, Alek?”
God’s wounds, what did he dare say? Maybe Deryn was right. He shouldn’t have blundered out here and started talking to this Clanker boy.
“Alek! That’s where you went!” Singe clapped him on the shoulder. “I was beginning to wonder where you’d gone off to!” He turned to Tad. “Midshipman Dylan Sharp, at your service.”
Alek blinked as Tad took Singe’s hands and shook it, looking him firmly in the eye and then at his scar. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dylan.”
“Well, I suppose I’m not a midshipman anymore. I work for the Zoological society now. It’s a pleasure to meet you...”
“Thaddeus Welker. I’ve been following your exploits in the newspaper, as I was just telling Alek here.”
“Aye, that’s barking wonderful and all, but I’ve just come to fetch Alek here, not to chat. I’m sorry, but we’ve very important matters to discuss.” Singe took Alek by the arm and steered him away from the table. As they walked away, Alek caught the glower on the other boy’s face.
She jerked her head up the moment they walked in, chewing her lower lip viciously. Singe deposited Alek on the bench, hard enough to set him grimacing from the jolt, and sat himself down so the two of them faced Deryn. She moved on to biting her top lip.
Singe’s eyebrows shot up, “So? What was that about? Why did I have to pretend to be you just now?”
“Blisters, there’s no easy way to say this, Mr. Newkirk.” She said, her voice steadily rising, “But--I’m a girl.”
His eyes widened, and then he burst out laughing.
“That’s a barking good one, Dylan! You had me going there for a squick!”
He looked at Alek, to see him laughing, too, and his face turned to stone.
“This isn’t a joke, Eugene.” Alek told him. “Her name is Deryn.” His eyes darted between the two of them, still waiting for them to crack. They didn’t.
“Mr. Sharp!” Bovril exclaimed from where it had nestled in Alek’s open luggage bag. Alek patted it’s head to quiet it.
“You can’t be serious. Can you?”
Silence settled in like a dead weight around them; even the train’s rattle seemed to dampen.
“I am.” Deryn sighed. “Please don’t barking make me prove it.”
“You can go ask Dr. Barlow. She knows,” Alek said helpfully. Nodding dumbly, Singe stood and stumbled across the hall.
“That went beautifully.” Deryn growled.
“Ah--yes.” Alek made a face. “And you’ve me to thank for it.”
Singe returned a few moments later, led by the lady boffin. “Mr. Sharp? What is the meaning of this?”
“Ms. Sharp.” Deryn said firmly, looking the older woman in the eye.
“It would seem I was not the last to know, then,” Dr. Barlow said, and her loris sniffed haughtily.
“Last to know.”
Singe took a deep breath. “You mean you’ve really been a girl this whole time?”
“That’s a daft thing to say. Do you think I would have just become one?”
“No. Sorry, Dyl--Deryn.” He looked away. “Why did you--you know--be--uh...”
Deryn heaved a great sigh. “Blisters, this is going to be a long night.”
I am totally open to suggestions on what happens next, unless it interferes with my current plot plan. :)