“Oy, Dummkopf,” Deryn hisses, “you’re going to get both of us caught if you don’t stop blundering about. You’re being about as loud as an elephant right now!”
“Am not,” Alek retorts. “I can’t help it if these boots don’t even fit.”
Deryn rolls her eyes, but she can’t help the smile that threatens to overcome her annoyed expression.
For a spy, Alek makes a pretty poor one.
She can’t blame him, though. He was never trained for this sort of work; not that she was either, but she’s got a lot more experience where disguises and in cognito are concerned.
She did, after all, spend the better part of her relationship with Alek dressed up as a boy called Dylan Sharp.
“All right,” she eventually amends, “I’ll go by myself while you keep watch.”
“What?” Alek looks at her, aghast. “No! I’m not letting you sneak in by yourself. They’ve got swords. Every one of them.”
Deryn narrows her eyes through the keyhole the two of them are crouched against. He’s got a point. She’s really no match for fourteen sharp blades.
“Well, what do you suggest, then?”
Alek feels a little stupid and far, far clumsier than he had ever felt in the overgrown hobnail boots Dr Barlow had given them before this mission
But this was his idea, and – mortification aside – it was a brilliant one.
When he and Deryn return to the Zoological Society of London, Dr Barlow is waiting for them. She is dressed immaculately, as usual, occupied with the morning paper. It is Tazza who bounds up to Deryn, expecting her attention.
Some things never change.
Deryn duly attends to the thylacine while Alek takes the opportunity to explain his rather … unique attire.
“It’s not quite what you think,” he says immediately, pulling at the hem of his skirts.
Dr Barlow’s eyebrows go up, but she doesn’t reveal her thoughts. It’s really nothing out of the ordinary. At the best of times, Dr Barlow is a very difficult person to read.
“I don’t really know what to think, young man,” she says. “Though if I’ve ever wondered what the ex-prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire might look like in a dress, I suppose my curiousities have now been satiated.”
Alek turns to give her a glare … but he immediately becomes more bashful than anything – especially when she takes his hand and gives it a squeeze.
If Dr Barlow notices anything – which she certainly must, considering neither he nor Deryn are doing anything to hide it – she certainly says nothing about it.
“We were running out of options,” Alek says. “Trapped as we would have been in the brig of that ship.”
Deryn nods. “And Alek had this mad plan to dress up as ladies because they wouldn’t suspect us as girls half as much as they would if we stayed boys.”
Dr Barlow shakes her head in an ‘I really don’t want to know the details’ sort of way. “Well, nevertheless, did you get the scroll?”
Deryn nods again. “Aye,” she says. “Show her, Alek.”
Alek pulls something out of his pocket and passes it into the lady boffin’s gloved hand. The scroll is wrapped in protective drafting paper and tied with what can only be cheap twine. But it contains information the ‘Zoological Society of London’ has been eagerly trying to acquire for the past four months.
“Thank you,” she says, before Alek can further inquire about it. For two spies serving in the Society, they certainly haven’t been told very much. “You may both have the rest of the day to yourselves. That will be all.”
Bowing, the two of them head out.
“I never really understood what you meant when you told me how much you dreaded being ‘stuffed back into skirts’,” Alek tells Deryn as they head towards their rented flat, close to the Zoological Society building.
It is quiet in the streets, unsurprising in this part of town when nearly everyone has some job to do, leaving very little time to wander the outdoors.
“Not until now,” Alek continues, pulling his skirts up to avoid tripping on them.
Deryn laughs, walking with the ease of someone who’s actually worn skirts for several years of her life as she has. She honestly can’t wait until she’s back in her shirt and trousers.
“Seriously, Deryn,” Alek says, “I have no idea how you or any other girl could stand to wear this. There’s just … so much material.”
“Makes it a lot harder for flying, that’s for sure.”
Deryn nods. “Aye,” she agrees, amused. “Or walking.”
There’s a comfortable silence between the two of them as they continue down the cobblestone lane, past a great number of Zoologists’ offices, residences, and public rooms (such as the library, the dining hall, and the squash room).
“A whole day to ourselves,” Deryn starts conversationally, her tone laced with a slightly dreamy sigh. “What’ll we do with all that time?”
Alek shrugged. “I don’t know,” he says. “I actually find it almost suspicious that Dr Barlow gave us the time at all.”
“Must be something serious if the lady boffin won’t talk,” Deryn says, before she shakes her head. “Actually … considering we’ve worked with her for almost a year now, maybe not. She doesn’t tell us things until we—”
“Pry to the point of annoyance?” Alek offers, nearly tripping over his skirts. He mumbles a curse, but walking alongside him, Deryn can hear it perfectly clear.
“You know,” she says, “you don’t look half-bad as a girl. It’s almost a bit … charming.”
They’ve nearly reached their building when Deryn suddenly has an idea. Of course, it’ll involve her putting on a different outfit than the one she’s got on now, but –
She stops to touch his wrist.
Alek turns to give her a questioning glance.
She suddenly looks embarrassed, her cheeks heating. “Uh, Alek?”
“What is it?” Alek asks, frowning.
Deryn can feel her face grow warmer. The longer she stalls, the more concerned Alek gets; it’s in his nature to worry, thinking anything gone wrong is automatically his fault.
She lets out a breath. She really didn’t want to make a huge deal out of the sudden idea that struck her … but the two of them had promised they would never keep secrets from each other, and they’ve been true to their word for ages now.
“I’ve got an idea of how we can spend the rest of the day.” She leans forward to take his hand, aware of the risk of being seen by anyone if they were to step out from their door.
“Really?” Alek looks so innocent, Deryn almost laughs in the midst of her shyness.
“Yeah,” she says. “Of course, that’ll involve you staying in those skirts. I might also have to borrow one of your jackets, if I may.”
Alek stares at her for a moment, perplexed. And then his eyes widen.
“You’re not serious?”
“Only if you want.”
Alek glances down at himself, thinking for so long that Deryn opens her mouth to tell him ‘Never mind’, when he turns his gaze back to her and nods.
“All right,” he says, smiling a little. “And I think I’ve got something you can borrow in my room.”