Alek liked Mrs. Sharp’s Glasgow home. A few years before he might have complained about cramped quarters and the omnipresence of other people, but having lived briefly aboard the Leviathan, and then for quite some time in small quarters owned by the Zoological Society in London, the room he was in now felt rather snug and comforting. At night it was also quiet, which central London, for all of its other conveniences, never was. Here he could sit in the light of a glowworm lamp and read up on the latest developments in Clanker-Darwinist hybrid creations (or devour one of the ridiculous adventure novels he loved but that Deryn made fun of him for reading) without hearing some fabricated beastie pulling cab along the street outside.
There were, of course, some benefits to his living arrangements in London. It had taken a little bit of negotiation with Dr. Barlow and a lot of not listening to Volger, but since most people—including most of the members of the Zoological Society—still knew Deryn only as Dylan, no one had thought anything strange of “Dylan” and Alek sharing a set of rooms. After all, they were mates, and they were working on the same project, and they often stayed at the Zoo until late in the evening. This way at least if they had a slew of late nights they could bring some work home with them and continue their research in the comforts of their own flat.
It had, of course, been Deryn’s idea, and Alek hadn’t known what to make of it. For all that he’d stood up to Volger’s numerous objections, it had been mostly because he detested the man’s smug distaste and wanted to challenge him to a duel every time he disrespected Deryn, not because he hadn’t thought through some of the same objections himself. What if they got in a fight and couldn’t stand the sight of each other but didn’t have any space of their own? What if Deryn’s secret was revealed and she lost her position with the Zoological Society because she was known to have been living with a man to whom she wasn’t married?
What if Alek could never concentrate on anything, ever again, except for the angle of Deryn’s collarbones and the sound her bare feet made on the hardwood floor and the loose, relaxed grace of her limbs as she sank into satisfied sleep beside him?
He had countered most of these objections by reminding himself that each of them would technically have their own room, and by vowing that he would give Deryn all of the personal space she needed. But he had forgotten to account for Deryn’s plans. After doing a quick survey of their rooms she had turned to Alek and said, “We’ll move the desks into this one to make a study and push the beds together in the other,” as though this were the most straightforward proposal in the world and not at all something that should cause Alek to blush so fiercely that he could feel his ears burning. He’d worried for a moment that everything was going too fast, that he would never be able to slow down now. And then Deryn had laughed at him and kissed him, and he had forgotten all about worrying and blushing and moving the beds because he had more important things to do.
Alek wasn’t sure what Deryn’s mother knew about their living arrangements in London, but all the times they’d come to visit her up in Glasgow they’d been quite respectably lodged in separate—and distant—rooms in her house. It was only proper. Mrs. Sharp knew that something was going on between her daughter and the strange Austrian boy whose English was just as good as his German, who had grown up a Clanker but fallen in love with a fabricated airship. But she had never done anything to suggest that she knew with any detail exactly what was going on, and as far as he knew Deryn had made no attempt to enlighten her. Alek spent these Glasgow visits trying to stay on good terms with Mrs. Sharp and to stay a bit further from Deryn than he would have liked. There were, of course, hands held under the dinner table and stolen kisses in empty rooms, but any time Alek found himself wanting anything more than that, he thought about what he would say to Mrs. Sharp if she discovered them in a compromising situation. When a mother accused you of besmirching her daughter’s honor, the correct response was probably not, “But it was her idea!”—no matter how true the objection might be.
On the bright side it was quite a lot easier to get through the reading he had to do for work when Deryn wasn’t trying to distract him. Less fun, but far more productive. In the past weeks he’d managed to decipher the complex boffin-speak of the three reports he’d brought with him, and had happily moved on to a cheap adventure novel set in the American West.
The protagonist had just challenged another man to a shoot-out when Alek was startled into dropping his book by a soft knock at his door and the sound of his name whispered in a voice he knew all too well. He set the book aside, straightened his pajamas, and opened the door with as stern an expression as he could muster. “Your mother would not approve,” he whispered.
“Then she’d better not find out, aye?” Deryn said, slipping past him with a grin and settling down to sit on his bed. She wore a white cotton nightdress that was meant to cover her from neck to ankles, but she’d apparently taken offense at the garment’s intention, and had retaliated by cuffing up the sleeves past her elbows and undoing half of the small mother-of-pearl buttons that reached from the base of her throat to just below her breasts. She hadn’t bothered with a dressing gown.
Alek leaned back against the closed door and took a deep breath. “This is still a bad idea,” he said, and it was, but it didn’t keep him from taking a seat right next to her. He put an arm around her in a half-hug and savored the feel of her body’s heat as she curled herself closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder. She was still taller than him standing, but her height was mostly in her legs, so when they sat side by side they were on a level.
“I miss you,” she said softly against the silence of the house.
“We see each other every day,” Alek pointed out. “I was just talking with you after dinner.”
Deryn rolled her eyes. “Dummkopf. That’s different. I miss talking with you when no one else is around. I miss being able to talk about all the things that everyone else doesn’t understand, or isn’t allowed to know. And I miss not talking.” And then there was that wicked gleam in her blue eyes and before Alek could voice a single word of protest he was lying on his back on his bed, pinned under Deryn, who was quite occupied with kissing him senseless.
Eventually she drew back a bit and watched with a smirk and half-lidded eyes as Alek did his best not to let it sound like he was panting, and not to let it look like he wanted her just as much as he did. “We shouldn’t—it isn’t appropriate—” he blethered, feeling happy and warm and breathless.
Deryn raised an eyebrow. “Since when have we been appropriate?” she asked, but she shifted her weight so that he was no longer pinned underneath her.
He rolled to one side and propped himself up on an elbow so that they were both lying lengthwise on his small bed, watching each other. Deryn’s nightdress had shifted about so that the hem was above her knees, and Alek could see the faint curve of one of her breasts rising above her unbuttoned neckline. “You are going to drive me mad one day,” he said, doing his best to keep his voice low and his gaze high.
“I’d drive you mad tonight if you weren’t such a Clanker prude,” Deryn said, a predatory smile playing about her lips.
Alek closed his eyes briefly at the suggestion, trying to shut away the tantalizing images it summoned. “Believe me,” he said, “I would like nothing better.” He reached out and twined his fingers with hers. “But I am a guest in this house. I wouldn’t want to do anything to offend your family. And I can’t blame your mother for giving us separate rooms—it’s not as though we’re married.”
“Well, that’s easy enough to fix,” Deryn said, in a matter-of-fact tone that reminded Alek of the way she sounded when presenting Dr. Barlow with a clever solution to a tricky problem.
Alek felt a shiver of something quite different from the simple pleasure he’d been feeling before. It made his mouth go dry. “Excuse me?”
“Well, you’ve been here almost three weeks, aye?” Deryn asked, looking down at their interlaced hands. “That’s all the residency you need to get married in Scotland. And since we’re both over eighteen, we don’t need anyone’s permission.”
Alek’s head was still spinning. He had known for what felt like forever that wonderful, impossible Deryn Sharp was the only woman he could ever marry. But he’d never thought to ask, never wanted to push things, because she was wonderful and impossible and he was only just starting to find a place for himself in this radically changing world. “Are you proposing to me?” he asked.
“Well, I’d rather proposition you, but as you’ve made it rather clear that that’s unlikely—”
“No—I mean, Deryn, do you—would you really want to—”
Deryn released his hands and pulled back a bit, her expression clouding over. “Wouldn’t you—?”
“Of course I would!” he said, his voice breaking out of the controlled whisper he’d been keeping up so well before, and he was stunned and gratified by the look of joy on Deryn’s face—a look that he was sure mirrored his own. “But you—you’re amazing—are you sure—”
It was probably a good thing that she kissed him, then—a slow, sweet kiss, full of promise. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her in closer, needing to know that this was real, that he wasn’t just dreaming this happiness.
“What are your feelings about long engagements?” he joked.
“Absolutely rubbish,” she responded. “I’m thinking we wake up before the rest of the house, sneak into town, and come back for breakfast as newlyweds.”
It was a tantalizing plan, as Deryn’s plans tended to be, but it also willfully overlooked quite a lot. “Wouldn’t your mother be a bit surprised?” Alek asked.
“Are you daft?” Deryn chuckled. “She doesn’t understand why you haven’t made an honest woman of me already! She’ll be thrilled! I mean, she’ll be a bit upset that she wasn’t invited, but she’d insist on me wearing a dress.” Deryn made a face that suggested exactly what she thought of dresses.
“I’d rather not begin our marriage by offending my mother-in-law,” Alek said, but the force of his objection was somewhat blunted by the giddiness he felt at casually referencing the fact that he and Deryn were going to spend the rest of their lives together.
Deryn raised an eyebrow. “She’d want a proper Scottish wedding, which would mean you would end up in a kilt.”
Alek’s eyes widened. “Alright, then,” he said after a moment, “runaway marriage it is.”