Alek returns to the flat after a late night of translation work for Dr Barlow to find Deryn sitting at their kitchen table with a scowl on her face, emptying the last of a bottle of scotch into a glass tumbler before her. She's still in her work clothes -- boots and trousers and a collared shirt -- but her necktie's gone and the top buttons at her collar are open and her shirtsleeves are rolled up past her elbows, and although Alek knows something's wrong, he can't help the sudden desire that kindles in the pit of his stomach like a curl of flame, because this cool disheveled look is one of the many reasons why he loves her.
She looks up when he enters the room, meets his gaze, then deliberately raises the glass to her lips and takes a gulp of the amber liquid before setting it back on the table with a thud.
They've been living together for almost a year now, long enough that Alek knows better than to ask such an obvious question as "What's wrong?" Instead, he sets his things down in a pile just inside the kitchen door and drags the other chair so that it's just a foot away from her before he sits down. He eyes the empty bottle, then looks back at Deryn and gestures at the tumbler. "May I?"
She nudges it toward him and he picks it up and takes a sip, smaller than hers, the scotch searing his throat on its way down. He'll never understand Deryn's taste for it, but she told him once before that it reminds her of her childhood in Glasgow, sneaking off with her brother Jaspert, who always defended her right to be "one of the lads" if she wanted to.
Only after Alek sets the glass down in front of her does he rest his palm lightly across the back of her hand where it's splayed across the table.
"Mum wrote," Deryn says, not looking at him. "She wants to know if now that the war's over, I'll finally stop this spy business and find myself back in skirts." He feels her shudder at the thought -- in rage, or disgust, or fear, he isn't quite sure which. "She doesn't understand," Deryn says, her hand balling into a fist. "It's not just that I'm no good at being a girl. It's -- some days it's like I'm not one. Not really. Not like anyone else wants me to be." She takes another gulp of the scotch, but she doesn't move her other hand from Alek's grasp.
"I don't want you to be anything other than who you are," Alek says, meaning every word of it. "The only time I wanted you to be someone else...it was a mistake. It was almost the biggest mistake of my life." He closes his eyes at the thought -- he can't imagine a life without Deryn, and yet less than two years ago he'd nearly talked himself into believing that it mattered that he was the son of an Archduke, and she was a commoner.
Deryn doesn't say anything, but her hand relaxes beneath his.
He opens his eyes and meets her gaze. There's pain there, deeper down than she'd like to admit, and he hurts at the thought that there's nothing he can do about it but tell her he loves her and hope she believes him, and hope that that's enough to heal the part of her that the rest of the world rubs raw.
"Deryn," he says. "I'm sorry your mother doesn't understand. But you are the most wonderful person I have ever met -- girl or boy. And really -- really, it doesn't matter. Not to me. Being a boy or being a girl, that's what you are. It isn't who you are. And all I know is that who you are is perfect."
"Certainly convenient for you that I'm a lass, aye?" Deryn says, and offers him a sarcastic smile that's closer to a grimace.
"Yes," he says, she's right. "But...before I discovered your little secret, I had more than considered the thought of the two of us...together. Despite potential inconveniences." He can't stop himself from blushing as he says it, but that doesn't mean it's not true. He was hurt to find that Dylan was Deryn after all, but only because his trust had been violated -- not because the things that mattered about the person he loved had changed in the least. It might have made it easier for him to come to terms with his feelings, but it had not changed the way that he felt.
"Really?" Deryn says, and though she's trying to sound scornful, he knows she's intrigued.
"Really," he says, reaching across the table to take up her other hand. "I even had a few dreams about you, while you were Dylan." At the time he'd vowed never to think of them again, and he still didn't feel entirely comfortable talking about them with anyone, but building trust requires a willingness to discard secrets. And he knows Deryn well enough to know that her attention is straying from her mother's letter in favor of a far different train of thought.
"What sort of dreams?" she asks, her voice low, her fingers tracing aimless patterns against his palms.
Alek feels his blush deepen, but he makes himself look her in the eye as he says, slowly and deliberately, "Very good ones."
She surges toward him then and kisses him, and he can taste the scotch on her tongue and feel the weight of her as she half-straddles him, one knee balancing on the chair between his legs, one hand fisted in his hair and pulling his head back, and all the while she keeps kissing him like nothing else matters. He's afraid the chair will tip over and send them both spilling across the kitchen floor and he also doesn't care one bit because most of the things he'd like to do are far better suited to lying down, though he'd probably prefer if they made it to their bed -- the hardwood floors are not particularly comfortable.
Deryn breaks the kiss for a moment, only to swing her other leg across his lap and rock her hips against his groin, and his breath catches and he wonders why any man in his right mind would want to confine a woman to layers of skirts and petticoats when it would mean she couldn't do that. His hands reach behind her to slip under her untucked shirt, and when he starts to fumble with the bindings still pressed tight against her chest, she pushes his hands away, sits back on his knees, and deftly unbuttons her own shirt without even looking down at her fingers before working to loosen the bindings.
"Bed," Alek says, breathless, impressed that he's managed to get out such a simple word. Deryn smiles at him, a predatory expression, and slowly rocks her hips against him again (this time Alek can't suppress a groan) before sliding herself backwards off his lap. She stands in a fluid motion, and Alek follows suit, feeling pleasantly unsteady on his feet. She turns back to the table for a moment, raises the glass to her lips, and downs the rest of the scotch. She sets the glass back down on the table with a resounding thud, turns back round to face him, and just stands there for a moment, close enough that the heat of her body feels like fire, before leaning down and for a slow, deep kiss that ought to melt his bones.
"I thought I was supposed to be comforting you," he says, when he has control of his mouth again.
"Believe me," Deryn practically growls, stroking a hand possessively along his chest, "you are." She grabs his necktie, still properly knotted in place, and without further preamble leads him willingly to bed.