"The cubs aren't usually so fat," Deryn says, flipping to the next page in her sketchbook. "All the boffins said this one must've had a good mother, to have been stuffed so full of salmon."
Alek dutifully looks at the drawing as she tilts the sketchbook towards him. It's an extraordinary rendering of a small, rotund brown bear cub, all fluff and mischief. Deryn had already been a gifted artist when they first met, and nearly four years later, with the benefit of instruction from the best teachers Dr. Barlow could procure, she's become a virtuoso. Even this rough sketch - barely a few pencil marks on the page - crackles with the cub's personality.
It's merely… he doesn't want to look at her drawings right now.
"It's very fat," he says.
She hmms happily and flips another page, and he wonders if one can be in purgatory before one's death. Or maybe he has died, sometime during those lonely weeks when she was off adventuring in Alaska while he was stuck in London, attempting to secure enough votes in the House of Lords for passage of the amended Escaped Fabricants Act.
He'd had Bovril for company, at Deryn's insistence. The two of them had moped together.
And now she's back, sunburnt, wind-blown, sketchbooks jammed with pictures, bursting with new stories of her time with the National Geographic Society's latest expedition to Mount Katmai - and all he wants to do is wrap his arms around her, hold her very tightly for six or seven years, and breathe in the scent of her.
Instead, he's been forced to be on his dignity today: the Barlows and Volger had gone with him to retrieve Deryn from the airfield, and there hadn't been the chance for a private reunion before the celebratory dinner at the Barlows' house.
Now, finally home, he's been relegated to sitting beside her on the sofa while she shows him ten thousand sketches from the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Bovril, meanwhile, is snuggled on her lap.
It's beneath Alek to be jealous of a loris, but such is the fate that's befallen him.
She taps her finger on another verdammt bear. "This one," she says, eyes dancing, "he's the king, aye? The grand old man, at least. Dr. Rackham said he's nearly toothless, so he must be ancient."
"How long do the bears normally live?" he asks, though he's privately cursing Dr. Rackham. If not for that boffin, whose research for the London Zoological Society focuses on ursines, Deryn would never have been invited along in the first place.
She shrugs. "Twenty years, for the males. Bit longer for the females."
"Ah," he says. He shifts closer, and puts a strategic arm across her shoulders, letting his hand curl around her upper arm.
"Clever fellow," she says, back to the bear again, apparently oblivious to his strategy. "Without teeth, and old as he is, he can't challenge the young lads for the best spots. But he's found a spot of his own, and he sits there until the fish -"
God's wounds. Alek can't take it any longer. "Deryn."
She stops talking and instead gives him a look that could cut glass. "Aye?"
"I'd be happy to look at all of your drawings later," he says, striving for diplomacy, "but first - I've missed you, liebling."
It's the truth, but at the same time, how short it falls of expressing his feelings. He couldn't say it any better in German, or Latin, or any other language he knows.
Her blue eyes study his face for a long moment, her own expression softening into something warm and welcoming. "I missed you, too, ninny."
"Might we -" He gestures towards the sketchbook and Bovril, both of which are quickly placed elsewhere - the book on the floor, and the loris on a pillow.
"How rude," Bovril says, lifting its snout in the air, the very picture of offense.
Alek ignores the loris, because Deryn has all but tackled him, and fitting them both on the rather small sofa is a delicate maneuver. They manage it.
He closes his eyes. Presses his nose to the soft skin of her neck and inhales. "You can't go on any future expeditions by yourself. I forbid it."
"Dummkopf," she says. Smiling. He can feel the curve of her lips just before she kisses his eyebrow. "It was dead boring without you, anyway."
"Mmm," he says. He opens his eyes long enough to meet her mouth in a proper kiss, which does a fine job indeed of filling in the lonely places in his soul.
Eventually, she draws back and says, "Griggs is going back next year. I can put both our names down."
No doubt Dylan Sharp was everyone's favorite on this expedition; she has that knack. Certainly she's his favorite. He runs his hand through her short hair, bleached nearly white by hours in the sun. "Can you promise I'll see immensely fat bears?"
She grins. "Love, I'll find you the fattest barking bears in the world."
"Then yes," he says, and nips at her jaw. She laughs in surprise, then retaliates, and it's altogether a while before they look at the sketches of Katmai's fat bears again.
Note: Did I write this just because it's Fat Bear Week at Katmai National Park? *shifty eyes*
That being said, big shoutout to multi-year champion 480 Otis in here, as well as Robert F. Griggs, who in real life led several Nat Geo expeditions to the Katmai area, 1915-1919.