Of the twenty chairs lining the table that took up a full room in the hotel, only three were occupied. It was strange, Deryn thought, how the emptiness was almost oppressive.
Usually the lady boffin had the dining room swarming with other boffins, agents, and wealthy men interested in donating to the Society, but tonight it was only Alek, Dr. Barlow, and herself. The lady boffin's husband, Alan, and the wildcount were out of the country on business. A pity, as Deryn found Alan to be quite amusing and always ready for a laugh. He had a habit of collecting pottery, and she found the history behind each piece to be fascinating.
"Well, boys," Dr. Barlow began, looking each of them in the eye. "Since it is just us tonight, why not practice languages?" she continued in German. Deryn frowned, knowing if she weren't here that they could be speaking in six or so other languages. She'd picked up the basics in Istanbul, but hadn't spoken in her second language since leaving the Leviathan.
Alek smirked and said something Deryn didn't try to decipher. She was already lost in the memory of her last footsteps on the airship. Newkirk may have been the saddest to see her go.
"Do me a favor and don't get yourself killed while I'm gone. I won't be here to save you anymore," she'd reminded him.
He didn't respond for a moment, just gave her a mournful look. "I hate to be a softie, Dylan, but I'll miss having you around. We'll be getting new middies soon, you know, and I don't think they'll be half as good as you."
Deryn had frowned at the sentiment. The boy wasn't one to dish out compliments easily. "Aye, I suppose not. But between you and Rigby, I'm sure you'll keep them in line. Think of it, Newkirk; you'll be head middy!"
"Sure," he sighed, offering a halfhearted smile. "But, hey, don't you get yourself killed, either. Those boffins can be pretty tricky."
"Don't I know it," she agreed, shaking her head. "Here." Deryn pulled off her thick leather airman's gloves and pressed them into the boy's hands. "I won't be needing them anymore, and they're the best on the ship."
His face had lit up into a momentary smile, and with a shake of the boy's hand, she'd left.
Someone snapped their fingers in front of Deryn's face. "Dylan?"
Alek's voice broke through her daydream, startling her. She pushed away his hand. "Blisters, Alek. Isn't that rude?"
Her prince shrugged his shoulders and dug his spoon into his soup. "Probably. But not as rude as cursing at the table."
She shot him a glare and jokingly held up her fists. "I beg to differ-"
The lady boffin cleared her throat. "Boys," she said sternly, then sighed. "Please, restrain yourselves. We are almost finished with dinner."
"Aye, ma'am," said Deryn, properly abashed.
"Yes, ma'am," Alek echoed, suddenly finding the tablecloth very interesting. "Ooh!" He snatched up a newspaper strewn over the top, shaking off the loris that had been napping on them with an angry spattering of nonsensical words.
"Quiet, Bovril," he ordered, petting the wee beastie between the ears. It immediately began to coo at him, and crawled up to find a comfortable position on his neck.
Deryn watched sidelong as he sifted through the numerous pages, straightening and arranging them as he went. After a minute or so, he froze, eyes locked worriedly at one spot in the paper. "That's worrying," was all he said.
She leaned over his shoulder, surprised and slightly confused. "What're you looking at?" she asked, chewing on a bagel a little more noisily than Dr. Barlow would approve of, earning her a disapproving glare which she chose to ignore.
The boy pointed mutely at one of the headlines: "British Airship Burns Over Sea"
Deryn caught her breath and hurriedly began reading through the article, eyes searching frantically for the ship's name. Surely it couldn't have been-
Letting out a guilty breath of relief, she read the rest of the article more slowly. In short, the piece, written by the bum rag Eddie Malone, said that early Tuesday morning, the Danava caught fire off the eastern American coast, exploding within sight of water and worried onlookers from shore. The cause of the fire was still being investigated, but Malone wasn't subtle in hinting that it couldn't have been a coincidence that a German zeppelin was lurking in the area. Reports from the few survivors stated that all the beasties had gone mad right before the fires started, and there were radio disturbances around that time.
Alek tapped the paper with the back of his hand once they'd finished reading. "Did you see this?" he asked Dr. Barlow, concern etched in lines across his face.
"About the Danava? Yes, I read it this morning. In fact, it was my next topic of conversation." The lady boffin stirred her tea and nodded sadly. "It is terrible thing to have happened, and naturally the Zoological Society will look into it promptly."
"Aye. Well, then," Deryn said, for once at a loss for many words. "Barking terrible."
They ate in relative silence after that, Alek having set down the paper in not being able to stomach any more events. He mostly picked at his food after that, and Deryn assumed he'd lost his appetite, too. She frowned and took another bite. No sense in wasting good food.
When they were finally dismissed from the meal, Deryn stood abruptly and made her way out of the dining hall, up the stairs toward her room. Bovril hopped off the table and scurried after her.
Alek caught her halfway there, catching her hand. She looked around worriedly, making sure a passerby hadn't seen the motion, and detached herself from his grasp. He stared down at his hand like a wounded puppy for a moment, then turned his eyes to her.
"What were you thinking about in there?" he asked, hiking a thumb back toward the dining room. "I know you were daydreaming."
Deryn furrowed her brow in thought, letting Bovril climb up her arm to settle on her shoulder. "Oh, before that story about the airship? Same thing I always dream about; the Leviathan. But Alek, what if it had been..." she trailed off, not wanting to continue.
"I know," was his only reply.
"It's just..." Deryn stopped herself, pushing down all the "what if"s that bubbled up in her throat, and started again. "That's enough of that. Let's go on an adventure."
The two of them walked the rest of the way to their rooms, and Deryn slung her dinner jacket and Bovril off and plucked a wool coat off the back of her door. Alek did the same, but took a bit more care in folding his jacket and placing it on his bed, so she waited for him in the hall for a few seconds.
He came out of the door and into the narrow hallway so quickly he nearly ran into her, but caught himself so that their faces were bare inches apart. Their gazes held for a moment, electricity buzzing in the air between. Deryn cleared her throat, looking away. "Right, then. Off we go."
"Of course," he agreed, though he sounded a bit disappointed.
"We need to go back into your room," Deryn said patiently, with a hint of a wry smile.
His mouth made a small "o" and he turned around, leading the way through his bedroom and onto the balcony. The brisk winter air hit Deryn's face with startling force.
"That's more like it," she breathed, watching the spirals of fog on her words.
Without hesitation, she stepped up onto the railing, all of two inches wide. A quick glance at Alek, who held onto her legs so she wouldn't fall, and she reached up her arms, feeling with her fingers for the ledge of the balcony above.
When she found it, she hoisted herself up out of Alek's grasp and swung a leg onto the balcony above, climbing over the railing. Her boots hit the cold stone with a thump and she immediately swung a hand down to help Alek up.
By the time they were both on the balcony, they were breathing hard. "One more, your princeliness," Deryn said encouragingly, and scrambled up onto the roof, a bit more difficult of a feat, but still entirely manageable given time.
Alek followed, and they lay next to each other for a minute, breath coming in ragged gasps and interspersed with jittery chuckles.
"Well, that was fun!" the boy laughed.
"Aye, and about time. I was going stir crazy, cooped up like a chicken in a blizzard," mused Deryn, standing and brushing off her knees. There was a bit of soreness in the leg she'd injured in Mexico, but she convinced herself it was fading. Looking up, she whistled. "Look at the view!"
The suburbs of London stretched out below them, the people and beasties bustling about in the streets like dolls. Worm lamps lit the street corners, and with little help from the setting sun, the landscape had an eerie glow.
"Are you thinking about drawing it?" Alek asked.
The tips of Deryn's mouth drew into a smile. "How'd you guess? If you can't find me tomorrow, this is where I'll be."
Alek nodded, supplying a "good to know" as they turned around toward their intended path of travel. He grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes. "This is the part I don't like."
Deryn let out a breath, now also staring at the five foot gap between the hotel roof and that of the next building. It was also half a story down, but Deryn chose not to dwell on that.
"It's not that bad," she assured him, looking slyly at his widened eyes. She took a few steps back. "As long as you get a running start."
She took off, her feet crunching on the roof in three long steps, and then there was open space beneath her for a few blissful seconds. Too soon, her boots connected solidly with another roof, and she took several steps to steady herself. "Come on, bum rag!" she called to Alek, who shot her a withering look before making the jump.
He barely made it, teetering backward for a split second, but Deryn grabbed his shirtfront and pulled him all the way onto the roof. The urge to pull him close was almost overwhelming, but she resisted.
"Glad you could make it." Deryn smiled broadly, making sure Alek knew she was joking.
"Right," he said, "Why couldn't we take the streets again?"
She shrugged. "This is more fun. And anyway, what would the townspeople think if two-" Deryn paused to make air quotes "-boys were strolling together about the streets of London?"
Something like disappointment flashed across his face. "Two perfectly fine friends out for a night on the town?" he offered, lifting his shoulders.
"Please," Deryn chided, readying herself for the next jump, "Everyone loves a good scandal around here. It makes for wonderful gossip!"
She leaped onto the next roof, a mere hop compared to the last. The buildings in London were crowded together like a box full of kittens, so they would make good time.
Alek's boots hit the roof next to her. "Yes, but how many pairs of boys do you suppose wander the streets in the evenings? I suspect there are many, and another would hardly raise an eyebrow."
They jumped the next gap together.
"And, really, which is more suspicious? Two more teenagers on the streets or a few apparent vagabonds roof-jumping?" he continued, and Deryn had to admit the boy made a fair point.
"So I guess that either way we're fueling the gossip machine," she observed brightly. "And of the two options, this is still more fun."
Alek blinked, making the deep light catch in his eyelashes. "And that is still your opinion."
She let out a blissful laugh, tilting her head back and pausing mid-stride. "That it is, your princeliness." As she was about to begin again, Alek put out an arm across her middle, stopping her.
"We seem to have run out of buildings," he said, pointing at the lack of a roof past the one they were on. Ahead of them was an expanse of green grass, spattered at the edges with tall, wild oak trees. Deryn nodded approvingly, noting that the park was nearly empty, and the few people that still littered the benches looked almost ready to leave; their coats were pulled tightly around their bodies, and they were doing a lot of shifting about. They may have looked cold, but this was nothing compared to a Glasgow winter.
"Aye, which means we've arrived at our destination," explained Deryn, surveying their surroundings for an appropriate method of getting off the roof. Her eyes lit on a lamppost a few feet from the edge of the building, and she nodded approvingly. "So come along."
She could feel his lighthearted glare on her back, but chose to ignore it as she launched herself at the lamppost. Briefly, her fingers scrabbled for a purchase on the cold metal, and the impact had taken her breath and made her go starry-eyed. She slid down easily after that, her feet connecting with the packed dirt firmly. Grinning, Deryn faced Alek ten feet above her, eyebrows wide and a bit afraid.
He took a few deep breaths, apparently steeling himself, and did just as she had, if a bit more gracelessly. When he'd regained his air and footing, Deryn fixed him with a beaming smile.
"So what happens next?" Alek asked. "Do we stroll about the park like two perfectly good friends?"
Paying no attention to the jab, Deryn answered innocently, "Now we go back up."
Alek's shoulders fell, and he took on a look of absolute disbelief. "Wait, seriously? You've got to be joking."
She poked him in the chest and pointed to the tallest tree in the park that had branches low enough to reach, standing about a hundred yards away. "Up that, daftie. Come on, I'll race you," she challenged him, and his incredulity quickly disappeared, turning into a competitive grin.
She broke into a dead sprint, her long legs carrying her over the grass with exhilarating speed. Slowing to a stop just soon enough not to plow headlong into the trunk, Deryn heard Alek behind her, panting just as hard as she was.
"I need a warning next time, Dummkopf," he said between gulps of air, smiling. "Totally, completely, unfair."
"Aye, I'll remember that." She grabbed the first branch and swung herself up, Alek in quick pursuit. Soon the two of them were swarming up the tree like ratlines, the limbs swaying under their weight.
Deryn lunged for a branch, but when her hand reached for it, it met only empty space, and suddenly she was plummeting toward the ground perilously far below. With grim realization, she recognized that Alek must have taken hold of the branch just before she'd reached it.
She gasped, and just as her arm caught on a limb, she felt a sharp tug on her leg. It swung her around, bringing her dangerously close to a head bashing. Her mouth moved, trying to curse, but she was stunned speechless.
"Deryn!" Alek's panicked voice came from above her. "Did-did you hit anything? Are you okay?" He paused briefly to let out a curse. "Did I catch the wrong leg?" He took hold of her other leg to relieve the strain on the one, just in case.
She chuckled shakily, strangely amused by his concern. "I'm fine, thank you," she assured him. After a moment of hanging upside down, Deryn used her arms to 'walk' up the branches until her head was above level with her legs. Alek eased her ankles loose from his grip, and they settled on a sturdy limb. Deryn turned to face him, knowing her face would be sheet white if blood hadn't rushed to it during her time being inverted.
"Well, then. That was exciting," she said uncertainly, offering a half smile.
The boy still looked terribly frightened, and he was studying her closely. "Are you sure you're alright? I'm so sorry. I didn't-you could have been-what if you'd fallen?"
Deryn bit her lip and nodded. "It would have hurt." She looked at the spaces between branches all the way to the solid ground below. "Probably would have broken a few bones, if not on the dirt then at least on the way down."
"Did you get knocked in the head?" Alek asked, still being terribly fearful. Deryn squeezed her eyes shut, taking a deep breath, and was about to assure him she was fine when she felt a sharp pressure on her mouth. Her eyes shot open, and Alek's face was bare inches from hers, eyes twinkling.
"It worked when you did it." He shrugged, smiling slightly now.
"You just wanted an excuse to do this," she argued, returning his kiss with delight.
He pulled back slightly, whispering, "That's complete nonsense. I simply saw the opportunity and took advantage of it."
"We aren't to the top of the tree yet." Deryn raised an eyebrow.
He cast a tired look above them. "Indeed we aren't. Shall we?"
They climbed more slowly after that, feeling no rush. The top branches sagged under their weight, and Deryn could see the worry on Alek's face mixed with awe.
"I like this view better than the hotel," he mused, and Deryn had to agree.
"Aye. But it's harder to get here, too, so they balance each other out."
One side of the boy's mouth quirked up. "Just like us."
"Are you getting all sentimental on me?" Deryn inquired, raising her eyebrows.
"Yes, so either deal with it or kiss me again," he demanded, and for Deryn the choice wasn't hard at all.