A/N- First off, I would like to disclaim this story. Done with that. Second, I would like to thank Laeve for being a wonderful beta. Third, I would like to thank you for reading.
This has been updated because I not only abused the poor semicolon, but misspelled Alek's full name. So... mo new content, sorry.
Keeping secrets had never been a problem for them, for the most part. At first, maybe it had put a rift between them, but after a few days on the Leviathan they seemed to not matter as much. They had been content to dwell in their own secrets, accepting the other despite perhaps not truly understanding them. It had been a fragile sort of balance, of course, and goodness knows it didn't last.
They'd peeled away layers of secrets like skin on an onion. Soon, the iconic onion-tears had begun pricking at the corner of Deryn's eyes, but Alek was oblivious, as always. It might have made her laugh - how dense the boy could be - if it didn't make her want to scream.
It was infuriating, having only one secret left between them. But Deryn couldn't tell him now. It was far too late and she wasn't going to burden him with her feelings. She wasn't that cruel, or that selfish.
She had almost told him the night she'd been found out and expelled from military service. It had left her feeling hunted, rejected. As she was marched off the Leviathan she'd wanted more than ever for him to know. She wanted him to know so that he could finally understand her totally. She needed someone to understand in the face of losing her career, as all of her friends and officers stared at her with horror, as though she had suddenly grown a second head. But, as she looked at Alek, he looked just the same. His mouth hung open, eyes wide. After knowing each other for so long, it was a slap in the face to him to find out she was a girl.
So, Deryn held her tongue. Obviously, he was going to need a little time.
That was what she was expecting back then, just a little time. As soon as had gotten over his silly little prejudices - she hadn't really changed, after all, and he respected her, so sooner or later he had to come to his senses - she would tell him. But it took a lot longer than that. After several months, she was beginning to despair. Most of her close old friends had already sent a letter or a telegram or something, but from Alek there was only silence. She thought maybe he was humiliated, that this common girl had climbed to such a high place in his respect, fooling him all the while. She was just about ready to go seek out the prince herself, when a letter arrived. It was awkward and utterly impersonal, but it was something. She'd written back immediately. For longer than she'd liked, all of his letters had that sound to them, hard and unfriendly. But after awhile they regained the warmth with which the pair had always interacted.
It was almost a year after Deryn was discharged that she saw him again, but it was proof that their friendship at least could be salvaged. It had filled her with a sense of possibility, and she had almost told him then. Something held her back, though. It was probably the memory of his face when he found out she was a girl. She didn't want him to look at her like that again, so she decided to wait. Once their friendship was at full strength again she could risk it, but they were both still healing a little. No need to make it any harder.
But still, as she saw him smile at her for the first time in almost a year... it took all her willpower not to say something daft.
She'd almost told him when the emperor before him fell. Neither of them were quite the children they'd been anymore, so she thought he could handle it. She'd decided it was finally time, was marching through the fancy-boots castle he'd inherited (the guards had orders to let her in) to tell him. She charged into his study with no other thought on her mind, and then he caught one look at her and burst into tears.
It brought her up short. It was lot of pressure for any eighteen-year-old boy (maybe they were still a little more like children than she'd thought) to suddenly inherit an empire at war. He'd begun peace negotiations immediately, of course, but things hadn't gotten any easier. He hadn't had much time to see her, or sleep, or do much of anything besides desperately try to patch up Austria-Hungary's foreign relations without making a new enemy in the still rabidly anti-Darwinist Germany, and it was a little too much for him. But Deryn was safe. He could be weak in front of Deryn, so he was.
There was something nice about the fact that he could still trust her with his secrets, even when they were relatively small ones like the fact that he was feeling thoroughly overextended, but at the same time it was horribly discouraging. Deryn couldn't tell him now, she realized. The poor boy already had far too much to deal with. To add her feelings for him to the long list of things he had to lay awake at night thinking about would have been downright criminal.
If she loved him - and she did - she would have to think of him first.
She'd almost told him when the war had ended. It was a lovely ball and she'd hoped the atmosphere might cushion the shock a little. She'd fiddled with her dress as they chatted, hating the extra weight making her clumsy. Her hair had grown out a little; she'd let it. If Deryn Sharp was going to be a girl, she might as well try to look like an attractive girl. After all, you could tie back long hair. It shouldn't interfere at all with her work or her activities, so why not?
At least, that was what she told herself, because the truth was both embarrassing and made her feel a little disgusted with herself. She knew, although she tried to avoid the idea, that she'd really let her hair grow out for Alek. He was from one of those traditional (too traditional for Deryn's taste) aristocratic families. He'd probably prefer her hair long. Even if it did bother her when it fell into her eyes and required so much more brushing to keep nice, and...
...and would you listen to her go on? She should have been disgusted with herself, thinking so much about looking pretty for some boy. Deryn had usually turned her nose up at that sort of girly silliness, but... it was Alek. Anyone else and she wouldn't have tolerated the blond locks ticking her face and tangling all the time. Anyone else and she wouldn't be dressed up in a barking ball gown to mingle with all sorts of fancy-boots rich folk that she didn't know. And didn't like, from the scant interaction they deigned to give her.
She spent most of the night either standing awkwardly against the wall or with Alek. With Alek was much preferable, of course, but the boy was an emperor now and he had diplomatic duties that had to come before chatting with friends, as dear to him as they might have been. A number of times she'd considered leaving, but then he'd catch her eye and smile from the punch bowl or whisper something funny about whatever pompous rich fool he'd been greeting as he rushed off to meet another, and she'd decide to give it twenty more minutes. And twenty more.
Finally he took a break from meeting with his foreign guests and lesser aristocrats and they'd agreed some fresh air would be brilliant. The balcony was nice, as was the cool temperature. They'd talked for a long time, longer than he had with any of the more important guests, and Deryn had finally decided it was time. She worked up to it slowly, restating things they both knew, like how much she valued him as a friend. But when the moment came, she couldn't do it, and just gave him an awkward hug. For the first time she was afraid of her confession not because she didn't think it was the right moment, but because she thought it was the wrong choice. Alek smiling at her, laughing and happy, was not something she was ready to risk just yet. The months that he'd turned away from her had been the worst in her life, and she couldn't bear going through it again.
She'd almost told him when he married Emmalina - as the girl insisted Deryn call her. It was just as well. She could never remember the lass's full name anyway. Deryn just wished she weren't so barking nice. It would have been easier to tell Alek if he'd been marrying someone she hated and didn't have to worry about hurting. But the first time Deryn met his fiancée Emmalina rushed up to her with very real enthusiasm, gushing about how excited she was to meet Deryn and how anyone Aleksandar (not Alek, Aleksandar) cared so much for had to be so very special.
Deryn knew then she wasn't going to be able to do it, and her heart felt like a balloon into which some thick child had stuck a pin. She'd cried herself to sleep that night, something she hadn't done since the months after Da's death. The way he smiled at Emmalina, brushed her hand as they ate dinner, the beauty of the ring on her finger, all tore at Deryn. She wished again that she had been a boy. If she had been a boy, she probably could have avoided falling in love with Alek, who not only couldn't return her feelings due to his station, but wouldn't.
She told herself that he wouldn't, that he'd chosen not to, because it was easier to let her sudden and insincere hate for him burn her up than to face the fact that she both loved him and was losing him; but deep down she knew it was her fault, too. She'd had so many chances to tell him, but had let them all go by. Alek, bless his soul, was barking thick when it came to Deryn's feelings. He always had been. He might be able to run a country, but realizing that his best friend had loved him for years? He might as well try to bring their parents back from the dead. The actions were both equally impossible, and their impossibility was just about equally painful.
Yes, it had been Deryn's responsibility to open his eyes, and she hadn't. So, now he was going to be married.
The ceremony was beautiful and expensive, just like that barking ball when she had the perfect opportunity to tell him (it had been later that night that he'd meet Emmalina, actually) and didn't. She could probably have understood most of the service, due to practice speaking Clanker with Alek and now Emmalina, but her head was spinning too hard. When they'd kissed at the end, it had taken all her strength not to scream. That was it then. It was all over. Unfortunately, she didn't feel any different. Alek was now a married man, and she was a tragic little dafty, loving someone who was not only above her station, but married. She felt horrible, and left the reception early after throwing up in the bathroom.
She'd almost told him when his first child was born. She'd come up from Scotland, of course, for something so important. It was less trouble to travel to Austria when your best friend ran the place, and she'd come to visit for less reason before. She arrived only a few hours after the baby had been born. The guards had escorted her to Alek and Emmalina's chambers (she could have found them on her own, she was sure, but the guards didn't trust her after the last time when she got lost trying to find one of the drawing rooms) and the first thing she saw was Alek with a mewling pile of blankets in his arms. But, of course, the blankets weren't really mewling. It was his first son. Alek had beamed at her then, that innocent smile that made her want to scream. The smile that knew everything about her except the feelings for him that she harbored in her deepest self; the smile that stopped just short of really knowing her. She wanted to wipe that stupid smile off his face. With her fist, preferably. But he'd rushed over to her, too excited to bother speaking in English, and handed Johann to her.
He was a handsome child, with his big blue eyes and serious expression. Johann had howled a little when Alek first handed him to Deryn, but his father had quickly explained that Johann didn't like anyone at first, and if she gave him a few minutes he'd calm down. Alek was right. He fell asleep very quickly.
It was hard to hate Alek with the baby in her arms. Babies tended to do that to people, she'd noticed. Just their presence brought a sort of softness. The idea that Alek and Emmalina had children itself upset her, but it felt weak, futile, when felt in conjunction with Johann. She was utterly defeated by the existence of this tiny new person, which was why she almost blurted it out right then and there. She didn't really have the strength to hold her mouth back anymore.
"I love- him. He's perfect," she said, doing her best to smile. Just as she'd had no power to stop her mouth from beginning that condemning sentence, it was beyond her power to finish it.
She left quickly, only a day or two later, making some excuse about having a Huxley back at the breeder's that was in the most critical stage of training. She had to go back. For her job, of course.
She almost told him when Richard proposed. He was a friend (and her boss, nonetheless), but it didn't take half a squick of time to decide that she would reject him. She'd hated doing it of course, fearing that Richard for her would be left feeling as she did for Alek, but the idea of marrying him was... well, it was impossible. She knew it would only torture both of them, even if Richard didn't. Of course, Richard didn't know she had loved someone else for the past fifteen years, which made a big difference.
She'd come up to Austria for a visit immediately. She'd decided to resign from breeding and training Huxleys (it would be uncomfortable to see Richard all the time after declining his offer of marriage) and she needed more than anything a place full of friends to recuperate. Alek and Emmalina's doors were always open to her, and for as long as she wanted. They enjoyed her company. She stayed for a month that time.
They didn't understand why she'd turned Richard down (a girl like her, so focused on getting out and doing unladylike things such as training Huxleys was undesirable in the first place, bur when that girl was in her thirties, already far past her prime on the subject of marriage...) but didn't say anything about it when she herself didn't bring it up, and they didn't judge. As she headed away at the end of the month, the temptation to tell Alek was there again, how she'd rejected Richard because she wanted him so badly, but she didn't. Deryn hated it, but she had learned to live with it. It was more of an ache that only hurt when she though too hard about it rather than a constant pain the way it had been. She'd said goodbye and that had been it. Deryn wasn't quite free from it, but she was close.
The last time she wanted to tell him was on his deathbed.
It was ironic, almost, that all of Alek's expensive, brilliant doctors hadn't kept him as healthy as the medical care that Deryn, a commoner, could afford. But nobody was going to catch him laughing about it any time soon, because the fact was that the doctors knew something was killing him but not what it was or how to stop it. As soon as it became evident how serious Alek's illness was, Emmalina had written Deryn a letter begging her to come to Austria. Of course, Deryn came.
She became a constant fixture in their life in that time, eating breakfast with them and going for rides and listening as they read aloud after dinner. As Alek became increasingly frail, Deryn made sure to get his children out of doors, trying to keep their minds off their dying father running an empire from his bedroom because leaving bed was too much for him. In the final stages of his disease, he was bedridden for weeks. Emmalina spent all her time crying, and the air of helpless grief was infectious. Deryn fought it the way she fought every hurdle in her life, but the truth was she could do nothing.
The doctor boffins weren't clever enough to find a cure in time to save Alek's life, but they were clever enough to tell them that it was going to be Alek's last day. He saw some of his close friends and advisors, and then his family, one by one. When Emmalina stumbled out of the room into the arms of her daughters, sobbing in agony, Deryn steeled herself. She was honored he'd decided to spend his last hours with her, but she knew she was really still only second in his heart. He loved Emmalina, but everyone knew it would be too much for her to witness the death of her husband. She needed to be somewhere else, comforted by her children, when he passed.
Deryn pushed the door open, two opposing fears fighting for dominance in the bottom of her stomach. She didn't want to walk in there and see Alek die, but at the same time, she was afraid he might have passed in the short span of time it took Emmalina to run from the room. Eventually, the need to see him was strongest and she walked to his bedside, perching on the edge of the mattress instead of sitting in the cushy chair that had been placed next to his bed for exactly that purpose.
He smiled at her, and this time it was weak and a little absent. The medication the doctors had been trying had left him a little cracked in the attic, but not too much. He could still talk, although he had a tendency to mumble. And talk they did, for how long she wasn't sure. They talked about old friends who'd gone on before him, about old jokes they'd shared, about how she needed to help Emmalina and the children in the time to come. As Alek's life wound closer and closer to its end, he got worse. He even slipped up and called her "Dylan" a few times, something he hadn't done in long enough that she'd forgotten how much it bothered her when he did. But now it was heartbreaking instead of frustrating, seeing him slipping slowly to the point where he couldn't even keep her name straight anymore.
She was going to lose him soon, wasn't she? Barking soon.
His eyes slipped closed although he kept forcing more words out. It wasn't until he trailed off mid-word that Deryn couldn't stop herself.
It didn't make sense to hold it in, did it? After all these years, they shouldn't still be keeping secrets. So, she didn't.
"I love you."
It was a short sentence. One that seemed too insignificant to carry the sort of meaning it did. But maybe that worked in her favor. The words were out before she could think twice. And Alek's hand in hers went limp and heavy.
She cried, not knowing if he'd heard her or not. She wasn't sure if the not knowing was easier or harder. One thing was for sure: she should have told him long ago. Years ago. Decades ago. Deryn stood, wiping her red eyes. He'd asked her to try her best not to cry, for Emmalina's sake. He said she was one of the strongest people he knew, and that she needed to use that strength to help his family. She was sure they'd be able to see she had been crying, but strode out of the room anyway. She had more life to live, as did his family.
She almost told him so very many times. She'd carried him around with her like an old suitcase full of memories and disappointment. He wouldn't have wanted her to do that, if he'd known. But she'd kept it a secret.
Keeping secrets had never really been a problem for them, she'd thought. But the truth was they'd always been between the two of them. Only once she'd told him did she truly know what it meant to love Alek. It meant learning not to have him, to put him first. It meant learning to make his wife her sister. It meant doing a thousand things Deryn hadn't wanted to do, but could see clearly now. It meant she had to stop being afraid of him and how he had made her feel for all those years. And she wasn't. Deryn was no longer afraid.
Emmalina saw her and fell to her knees. Deryn hadn't realized the poor lass could cry any harder, but she did. And Deryn held her, whispered comforts in her ears. This was love. To love someone wasn't to waste your life pining away after him. Loving someone was living for him, making yourself the way he'd want you to be.
Now she could love him.