Note: Surpriiiiiise! I'm still alive! And so is this glorious wee beastie of a fic! :)
In case you've lost track, because it's, uh, been a while, this is part 3 of an AU that began in chapter 39 ("parallel universe") and continued in chapter 60 ("parallel universe: cross twice").
I wonder where you are and how you feel
- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac
His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty Aleksandar is not looking forward to his flight.
He could hardly decline King George's kind offer of transportation: it's the fastest way to reach Calais. So fast, in fact, that by the time he arrives there, his own airship – setting out from Vienna – will still be at least an hour away.
But he is not thrilled at the idea of actually riding in one of those monstrosities. Perhaps it's only that he would have preferred the company of Miss Sharp. And perhaps not. He finds the Darwinist mania for turning sea creatures into aircraft positively grotesque, not to mention incomprehensible.
And that is why, when the carriage at last arrives at Hyde Park, he takes two steps and stops, though he can see the king's airbeast is moored and waiting in the pre-dawn light, airmen scurrying around and aboard, and the words of Volger's telegraph are drumming an urgent tattoo in the back of his mind.
Simple disgust. That's all. He has certainly not been dragging his feet in hopes of receiving a return message. Unrealistic to expect it; the address produced, magically, by one of the Palace staff – it's rather far from Buckingham Palace. And ridiculous to delay the business of an empire for a girl.
"Your Majesty," his bodyguard says behind him – the only part of his retinue that Alek consented to bring along today. The rest of them can catch him up in Vienna, or desert as they please; he has little patience for them in the best of circumstances. These are decidedly not the best of circumstances. "Sir, if you're to make Calais –"
"Of course, Lieutenant," Alek says, rather crossly. He straightens his jacket and strides across the grounds towards the airbeast, exhausted and unhappy and unreasonably irritated with Lieutenant Ackermann.
Ridiculous. Idiotic. What could he have done with her? A commoner, not rich, not beautiful, infamous, scandalous, disgraceful. A blonde Lola Montez. God's wounds, it's bad enough that his empire is tearing itself apart at this very moment; he does not need to add fuel to the fire by befriending wayward Darwinists.
He meant what he said in that message.
He sighs and scowls at the world – or at least the portion currently visible, which is mostly filled with bleary-eyed men holding mooring lines.
Fate seems to delight in conspiring against him. In stealing his few moments of joy.
Think about something else, he admonishes himself. Your empire, for one.
The situation in Hungary must be dire indeed for Volger to cable him the news at such an ungodly hour. He'd hoped it wouldn't come to open rebellion; he'd also hoped that it wouldn't happen while he was playing the diplomat with King George.
Secure one ally, lose another.
The captain is standing at the base of the boarding ramp, crisp and sharp-eyed despite the hour. An older man, to judge by his white hair and beard, and one with considerable experience, to judge by his bearing. Of course. Only the best for the king.
"Your Majesty," the captain says, bowing. "The King has placed us at your complete disposal. To Calais at once, is it, sir?"
"Yes," Alek says. It sounds curt, and he regrets that; but at the same time, he hasn't the energy or desire to be polite.
"Excellent, sir." The captain bows again, brisk rather than obsequious. Alek boards, followed by the captain and then Ackermann.
The gondola is a relief: it looks much like that of a proper airship, though the wood is undoubtedly fabricated. The king has fitted it out with as much luxury as possible, given the weight restrictions. The lights are dimmed, presumably to preserve the vision of the crew assisting with take-off. A few officers snap to attention as Alek enters the main corridor. He nods and makes a half-hearted salute of his own, more interested in the bottom of the ramp.
No return message.
"Show His Majesty to a cabin," the captain instructs one of the officers, who gives a sharp salute.
"This way, Your Majesty," the officer says, gesturing. His voice sounds both out-of-breath and vaguely familiar, but it's difficult to make out his face in the poor light. Perhaps it's one of the House Guards from Buckingham, pulled from his regular post.
Alek allows himself to be directed down the corridor, half of his mind occupied with the problem of Hungary, and the other half wondering if there isn't any message because Miss Sharp refused to send one.
The officer stops and opens a door for Alek. The room beyond is a sitting room of some sort, rather than a standard cabin. It's smaller than what he's used to on his private airship, but probably quite large by common standards. There are three portholes studding the curving outer wall. Outside the sky is just beginning to redden.
He eyes the sofa. It looks to be the perfect size for a nap.
If only he could sleep.
Well, he can make certain that others enjoy Providence's mercy, even though it's denied to him.
"Are there other cabins?" he asks the officer. They haven't taken off yet. There's still time for the messenger to arrive.
"Lieutenant Ackermann," Alek says, turning to his bodyguard. "I shall be safe enough once we're away. You should rest."
Ackermann's brow furrows, but as he opens his mouth to protest, he yawns. He'd been at the Oxenfords' party, too, though he'd kept to the background. "Very well, sir," he says. Yawns again and looks a trifle chagrined about it.
The officer takes Ackermann away, shutting the door with a soft click and leaving Alek alone.
Outside, there's a great deal of shouted commands, and the airship begins to lurch about. The rustling leaves visible through the portholes seem to slowly sink as the vessel rises.
Time has run out.
Alek sits on the sofa, opens his jacket, loosens his tie, and slumps forward, elbows on his knees and hands rubbing his aching head.
Dear Miss Sharp, he thinks. You were the first truly interesting person I've met since becoming emperor. Or even before that, in fact. I wish I could have –
Someone raps at the door, quick and confident, and before Alek can do more than turn his head in surprise, the helpful officer lets himself into the cabin.
"Your man's sorted," he says, closing the door behind him again and pushing a hand through his short blond hair. He grins at Alek. "Just in time, too – take-off's the best part."
Alek blinks. Suddenly the pieces tumble into place, and he rises as one ought to do in the presence of a lady, blurting, "God's wounds, you do look like a boy," before he can stop himself.
Deryn Sharp laughs. "Oh, aye. Wouldn't be much of a disguise if I didn't, hmm?" She tugs the lapels of the officer's jacket, contemplating the insignia, perhaps, or the fit. "But you can thank Captain Wells for the uniform. I saved his nephew's life during the war, you see. Twice, in fact. He thought this was a daft way to repay the favor, but I convinced him -"
He scarcely hears the words. For some reason, his pulse is sounding loudly in his ears. "You received my message."
"Aye. My brother Jaspert was properly gobsmacked, too. You might've said you were the Emperor," she adds, with a touch of reproach.
I didn't want to be the Emperor, not with you. The thought flicks across his mind, shockingly traitorous, and nearly trips off his tongue as well. He swallows it and coughs into a fist. "Yes, well, I hardly had a chance to get a word in last night."
Miss Sharp shrugs, one-shouldered and careless. "D'you still want that tour of London from the air? We'll be away before much longer."
He does indeed want to see London, so he crosses the cabin to stand beside her at one of the portholes. As promised, she points out several locations of interest as they gain altitude, then turn southeast. Alek is somewhat unsettled to find that the most interesting aspect of the tour is how the small diameter of the porthole forces them to stand in close proximity.
Their arms and shoulders brush several times. He tries to ignore the electrikal jolt that each touch generates. He's less successful at ignoring the warm, clean smell of her.
Finally, with the sun rising, they leave the great city behind them. She remains at the porthole for several moments, a small, pleased sort of smile lingering, before she turns to him.
They are very close indeed. His eyes drop to her mouth without meaning to, and he hastily corrects himself. God's wounds. He hopes she doesn't think he wants her here for that.
"Nothing much to see now until Dover," she says. Then her brow furrows and she looks at him more closely. Her eyes are blue – and bright in the morning sun now streaming in through the glass. "I could fetch you some coffee, if you like."
"That would be greatly appreciated," he says, relieved that he looks fatigued rather than lecherous.
She nods, moving towards the cabin door, though she pauses before she opens it, the better to look back at him with a grin. "Those parties are pure dead exhausting, aye?"
Talking about it brings his exhaustion to the fore once again; he covers a yawn. Chagrined, he says, "I thought to get a few hours' sleep before our expedition, but I suspect I would have done better to stay awake."
She makes an amused noise. "Back in a squick, Your Majesty."
It's the first time she's addressed him by rank, and he finds he likes it. It sounds… it sounds very like a private joke, instead of a formal title.
Alek sits on the sofa and watches the dawn fade into blue. He is unreasonably happy – so much so that he catches himself smiling. Smiling. While Rome burns all around him.
He scrubs his hands over his face and prays that, at this moment, his father isn't watching him from some heavenly vantage point.
Miss Sharp raps at the door again, then breezes in with a pair of cups in one hand and an aluminum coffeepot in the other. "Captain says they've no breakfast," she reports, deftly placing the cups onto a side table, "but you're welcome to whatever is in the galley."
He shakes his head. "I'm afraid I haven't much of an appetite, Miss Sharp."
She glances up from pouring coffee into the cups, her nose wrinkled. "Blisters, don't call me that. 'Deryn' will do fine."
No. Too casual, too familiar. Darwinist girls in trousers shouldn't be on a first-name basis with emperors.
"Then you must continue to call me Alek," he says.
"Aye, I will," Deryn says, pleased. She brings him a coffee cup, which he accepts with all the gratitude of a drowning man presented with a life buoy.
It's hot enough to scald the tongue and strong enough to chip away at the thick, muzzy feeling in his head. "This is quite good."
Deryn takes a cautious sip from her own cup. "Mm. It's the King's. I reckoned you wouldn't care for the Air Service muck."
"Indeed," Alek says drily.
Aside from the sofa, the cabin boasts a chaise longue in fabricated wood and silk; Deryn crosses the cabin and rather carelessly drops down onto it, then swings her legs up and settles back.
Alek tries not to watch. He truly does.
He thought she was pretty in last night's dress. There's something about the way she carries herself in trousers – the air of confidence, of ease, of mastery – that makes his breath come short.
Ridiculous, he tells himself. Idiotic. And: You haven't the time for this.
He drinks his coffee and looks, determinedly, at the sky.
"What's got you running home?" Deryn asks. "If you can say, that is."
"Why not," Alek says, exhaustion crashing down upon him again despite the bracing effects of the coffee. "It will be in all the papers soon enough."
He sets his cup aside and draws the telegraph message from the inner pocket of his jacket. He doesn't need to read it; the words are burned into his memory. "Volger – that is, my prime minister – has informed me that Budapest is in open revolt. My men are trying to hold the city, but it seems likely to fall. Once that occurs, the rest will be lost, too. I shall have to give up Hungary altogether or fight a war to gain it back."
"Barking spiders!" she exclaims. "That's half your empire! And the other bits – they'll try to splinter off too, won't they?"
Her quick understanding is both gratifying and depressing, as it's the conclusion he himself has already drawn. If he cannot hold on to Hungary, the Empire is doomed.
"Yes," he says. He turns the telegraph paper in his hands, though his gaze remains fixed on the blue sky visible through the porthole. His throat constricts, but he says, "Yes, they will. And they'll succeed," with tolerable equanimity.
Deryn says nothing for a moment. Then she curses loudly and jumps up from the chaise longue, beginning to pace the room. "Aye, you can't count on any of the Serb troops, or the Hungarian ones," she says, obviously thinking aloud. "They're just as likely to desert as not. And your Austrian lads took most of the damage during the Great War, didn't they?"
"We incurred heavy losses," he allows.
"Germany can't do anything to help, not under the treaty. And Britain…" She grimaces. "We took some bloody large losses ourselves."
"I won't ask your king for assistance," Alek says. He tucks the telegraph message away again and briefly presses the heels of his palms to his eyes – a vain attempt to ease the headache behind them. "There won't be another Great War because of Austria-Hungary, I can assure you of that."
"So you'll just let it fall to pieces, then?"
He lets himself look at her, hands on her hips, feet spread, short golden hair a saint's halo in the sunlight, ready to conquer the world in her borrowed officer's uniform, and wonders at Providence's sense of humor: perhaps she ought to have been the emperor. Goodness knows he never wanted the job. "I don't know that I have any other choice."
"Bollocks," she says, and, to his astonishment, not only sits beside him on the sofa, but claps a hand on his shoulder. She leans towards him a bit, blue eyes urgent. "You're the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Alek. You can do sodding anything."
He stares back at her, no doubt wild-eyed. Her hand is burning through the fabric of his jacket and shirt as though neither are there, and the electrikal sensation has returned tenfold, and he suspects the dryness of his throat has nothing to do with the grief of losing his empire and rather more to do with her.
"Can I," he says. His voice sounds strange to his own ears, but that may be because his pulse is hammering so fiercely.
Her hand is still on his shoulder.
"Aye," Deryn says. Her eyes flick downward, and when they meet his again, her breath catches slightly.
It is the most intoxicating sound Alek has ever heard.
But what may have happened next – if he would have developed the audacity to close the distance between them and kiss her before she, perhaps, could – he shall never know, because she abruptly drops her hand away and stands again.
"Airships," she says, a bit too loudly and briskly, returning to her coffee cup and taking a large drink. "And aeroplanes. You still have plenty of those, right?"
"Our air fleet came through mostly intact," he says. One does not give details of one's military forces to a foreign girl one has just met.
And right now, with the scent of her skin in every breath, he would be hard-pressed to remember if Austria-Hungary even has an air service.
"There you are, then," she says, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand. He must look blank indeed, because she elaborates, "The side that controls the air is the side that wins the sodding war. What sort of air service has Hungary got?"
Alek doesn't answer immediately; instead he looks at her. He is, he thinks, very stupid.
He's been so blinded by – by attraction, he has utterly failed to notice what Providence has gifted him: an expert on air warfare, a thoroughly unconventional mind, someone who will think about combat in ways his generals – all raised, as he was, on cavalry and swords – will never be able to match.
Someone who is loyal and courageous.
"Miss Sharp," he says, then shakes his head and corrects himself, using the rank she gave at the party. "Lieutenant Sharp. What are your plans after we reach Calais?"
Deryn blinks, taken aback. "Back to London, I expect. Why?"
"Have you ever considered working for the Empire of Austria-Hungary?"