Note: Ficlets/drabbles/whatever #1 through 81 were written before Goliath came out and are therefore spoiler-free for that book.
They are also now way, way out of canon, but watch me not care. ;)
This first one takes place… uh… somewhere around the end of Leviathan. I haven't decided if it's right after chapter thirty-nine, or later. Anyway. Title and original inspiration from "Under the Milky Way" by The Church.
And it's something quite peculiar
Something shimmering and white
Leads you here despite your destination
Under the Milky Way tonight
The stars are huge and bright, filling the sky. There are more stars visible here, floating high over the eastern coast of Italy, than Alek has ever seen.
Now if only he wasn't standing on the spine of a lighter-than-air creature, with only a rope and some fabricated leather between himself and a very long fall, fleeing from his homeland.
"It does look like spilled milk," he says, putting his mind on the stars. The galactic center bisects the darkness in a fairy-tale cloud. "I suppose."
Dylan cranes his head back, turning to and fro carelessly to better take in the whole glittering swath. "It's dead romantic, isn't it?" the other boy says, then coughs and quickly tacks on, "Too bad there aren't any girls on board."
"Aside from Dr. Barlow," Alek points out. Who they are avoiding, which is why they're up here on the spine during the cold dark of first watch.
"She doesn't count," Dylan says, nose wrinkling. "She's a boffin! I meant a girl… Never mind."
Alek gives him a curious glance. The other airmen are full of boasts, brags, and wistful plans regarding their girls back home – but he hasn't heard Dylan say anything on the subject. "Do you have a girl at home?"
Dylan looks taken aback, then offers a quick grin. "Oh, aye. Hordes of lassies lining up at my door every morning. Have to take a stick with me everywhere, to drive them all off."
Alek is shaking his head by the end of that nonsense, because he knows his friend is joking. And indeed, Dylan adds, "I'm too skinny and half barking mad for flying. Who would want me?"
He seems amused, not concerned.
"You'll be a war hero after this," Alek says, not saying If we survive the war, because there's no need to invite disaster.
"So will you," Dylan points out, but Alek dismisses it. So far he's run away from his home, abandoned his countrymen, and allied himself with the British Empire. Next he plans to slip away and hide until the smoke clears. There's not much heroism on offer there, from the perspective of his people.
Dylan lowers his voice. "Never mind a bloody emperor."
"Only if Volger's right." Which the count usually is. An idea occurs to Alek for the first time, and he quickly turns to face Dylan, forgetting the perilous drop: "I could give you a position in my court."
Dylan blinks, taken aback all over again. "An ungodly Darwinist like me? Wouldn't be very popular with your Clanker subjects, would I?"
Alek hasn't considered that. "Oh. I could always tell them that you were my prisoner."
"Not much of a position," Dylan says, indignant. "That's Clanker loyalty for you!"
"It seems to work well for you ungodly Darwinists," Alek says, dry and perfectly on target.
Dylan laughs. "Right," he says, and lapses into silence. They stand and shiver in the cutting night wind, the stars doing nothing to warm them. It's warm in the gondola, warm in the Leviathan's innards, but it's also full of Dr. Barlow and more work.
Then Dylan clears his throat and asks, awkwardly, "So, do you have one, then? A girl. Back home."
"No," Alek says. He thinks of all the duchesses, archduchesses, minor princesses, their mothers snubbing his while prodding their daughters forward. He is hugely relieved to be free of that, at least. Somehow he could never quite imagine – or want to imagine – himself with any of those pretty, simpering young women.
But he can't say that to Dylan, who's not likely to feel pity for a prince besieged by eager princesses. Instead he admits, "I was always more interested in military history, anyway."
"Good," Dylan says, and when Alek gives him what must be a strange look indeed, his friend colors and explains, "No time for love with a war on."
That's true enough. Alek is preparing to say so when the other midshipman, Newkirk, appears.
"Oi!" the other boy says by way of greeting, looking none too happy as he picks his way over the ratlines. "What're you doing up here, Mr. Sharp, er, Alek?"
"Teaching him some astronomy," Dylan says, jerking a thumb in Alek's direction. Clever and quick as always. "Poor Clanker sots – can't tell Lepus from Lupus. Dead tragic, really."
Alek tries simultaneously to look ignorant and not grin. He's terrible with constellations, yes, but his Latin is perfectly good; he knows the difference between a rabbit and a wolf.
"Well, you're both wanted by Dr. Barlow," Newkirk says, and when neither Alek nor Dylan make a move, adds, "Directly."
"It was worth a try," Alek says to Dylan, conceding defeat.
"Aye," Dylan says, voice sounding a bit odd. He's gone red again, and he's looking at the stars, not Alek. "It was worth it."