In Trenches, Part One
The noises are deafening, and they move closer with every passing second. The ground shakes as another bomb goes off outside. Alek can feel sweat trickling down his back even though it can't be even thirty degrees. Alek's hands tremble as he struggles with the insides of their broken communikator. Without it, there's no way to know if it's safe for them to get back to their camp, if someone is coming for them... they have nothing without it. They're just stuck. Which feels like a fate worse than death for Deryn Sharp and Aleksandar Von Hohenburg.
Alek had believed that tossing the papal bull off of the side of the Leviathan into the Hudson river might have made his life simpler. The moments afterward he had felt lighter than air, and not simply because Deryn had kissed him quite soundly. He shouldn't have been surprised, however, that it wasn't true at all. Being, as Deryn described, common as dirt, was turning out to be rather more complicated than he ever could have imagined.
Of course, perhaps all non-princes didn't find themselves staked out in a railroad shed while mortars fall all around them with a broken communikator in the dead of winter.
"Barking spiders!" Deryn yelps, pulling her helmet closer to her head as a bomb explodes less than 50 feet from their shack. She peeks her head back up again, peering through the filthy window, then turns to him, trying valiantly to hide her desperation and fear. "Alek, how's progress for that talker?"
It's not technology he's particularly familiar with. It seems like all of the pieces should fit together, he's laid them out on a small table and sorted them quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, he can't get his hands to hold steady. Sorting the pieces is one thing, but actually making them fit and work together is proving more difficult. He's also slowly coming to the realization that some of the pieces are warped, burned, or too covered in frost to be workable. Still, it's just mechaniks, Alek should be able to fix it, if he could just make his aching hands work. If he wasn't so blasted tired. If he knew what time it was, he could be sure how long he's been up. But he knows that they were out all night attempting to gather intelligence from a Clanker camp, and that now it's most of the way through another day.
The screaming and explosions aren't helping either, he supposes.
Another shell goes off outside.
"Alek," Deryn hisses, backing away from the window, her face smudged with dirt and ash, blue eyes glowing with terror. She hasn't slept either, of course. They, as usual, were sent on this disastrous mission together, and now they're both on their last bit of steam.
"I don't know," he cries softly, "I'm trying. I can't get my hands to work." He holds trembling hands up to her, and she realizes that he's had his gloves off trying to fix the destroyed communikator since it attracted the attention of a stray flying beastie (assumedly fabricated to seek and destroy Clanker technos), and that was hours ago. His hands are bright red and the tips are just starting to turn whiteish. Deryn knows the beginnings of frostbite when she sees them.
"Blisters, Alek," she whispers, whipping off her own gloves and kneeling in front of him on the floor, "your fingers!" She takes hold of his fingers as gently as she can.
They huddle together, hands clasped with their foreheads touching. They say everything in their eyes, in their breaths, in a gentle tilt of the head. The two of them removed any secrets between them long ago, but now with death rapping quietly at the door, they are more raw together than ever. Deryn brushes her cheek against his in a familiar, nuzzling gesture that means I love you, I'm here. Alek responds with the barest, lightest kiss on the very corner of her mouth, I love you, it says, don't worry.
Outside, the battle sounds like a nightmare. A particularly gruesome scream shocks them out of their loving reverie. The shed shudders around them. Deryn changes her grip on his hands. Alek bites down on his lip as she attempts to rub some heat into his fingers. It burns and he tries not to cry out. He supposes there's no reason to try to stay quiet-- the bombs keep getting louder and louder and closer and closer-- but it seems prudent.
Deryn's face contorts as she realizes her own freezing fingers are not going to solve this problem. And that the rest of their problems will not be solved until Alek has full use of his hands again. She's out of ammunition, she can only guess at whose forces are winning outside and she has no interest in risking their lives trying to find out. And though it's hard for her Darwinist heart to admit, they need the communikator. Badly.
"Well," she mutters, unfastening her coat rapidly, "this is what we're going to have to do."
Alek's eyes grow as wide as saucers, "Deryn--"
She shoots him a sharp glare as some dirt clatters against the roof of their little hideout. In a flash, she's shoving his hands up her shirt. They both blurt out curses, Alek from surprise and Deryn from the feeling of Alek's freezing hands against her warm chest.
Their eyes lock for one long moment. Even the bombs go silent. "The core of anything's body is always the warmest," she says breathlessly. His hands are tucked safely smack in the middle of her chest, under her bandages, between her breasts. She tugs at his hands through her shirt, making them unclench from the fists he made in an attempt not to be improper with her.
It's hardly the time.
She wraps her arms around him and traps his hands between them. There's yelling outside now, orders being given in French and English and German, men and beasties howling in pain along with the clatter of Clanker machine guns. If they're going to die today, she's going to be holding him when it happens. She takes just a moment to breathe deeply, feeling her chest push out against his frigid hands. It makes some sense. Their first kiss was during a storm. It would figure the first time he got his hands under her shirt would be in the middle of a battle.
Feeling is just starting to reappear in Alek's digits, when something rocks the shed worse than before. Before they can separate, before they can think even, the walls are falling in on them. Deryn throws all of her body weight (which isn't much) into throwing them both to the floor and rolling them under the low table Alek had been using to fix the blasted machine.
The dust clears quickly with the wind howling over them. The fallen shed and the table have provided a new, smaller hiding place, just barely big enough for the two of them to lie close together. No way out. No communikator. The one saving grace of this sodding situation, Deryn figures, is that they'll be well hidden and safe-- unless a Clanker bomb lands directly on top of them. Even if they die here, they won't be captured.
For a long time, they are frozen together as the battle rages, it seems, just above their heads. At one point, it seems a beastie gallops over the wreckage of their hideout. The table creaks ominously, but holds. What feels like hours later, the sounds begin to retreat the opposite direction. As though the battle passed right over them on its way to cause further destruction elsewhere.
"Deryn," Alek whispers once he can safely say the clanker engines are at least a mile away.
He can't see her, but he can feel her heartbeat slowing and her breathing evening out. It's quiet.
"Aye," she whispers back, snaking one arm out from under him and shaking it as well as she can in the enclosed space, trying to wake the limb up again.
"Do you suppose," his hands twitch involuntarily against the soft skin of her chest, suddenly he's glad that it's dark and she can't see his face grow red, "we can dig out of here?"
"Could be," she whispers back, "but we should lay low for awhile yet, don't know if they're still scouting."
He lets out an enormous sigh, and then has to suppress the urge to laugh out loud, "Deryn, liebste, we're alive!"
"Too right we are, and your hands are in my shirt, so we're even having a pretty good day!" She jokes back, perhaps a bit hysterically. He carefully slides his hands down her stomach and repositions them around her back. Lying there in the darkness, all of the exhaustion from the past several days hits him hard. It's warm and Deryn is close. She gives an experimental kick to some of the debris keeping them trapped. No luck. "And we're stuck," she says and yawns hugely.
"We probably shouldn't sleep," Alek says through an equally significant yawn.
"No," she agrees, snuggling close into him and resting her head on his chest, "definitely not."
"Definitely not," he says, though his eyes are drifting closed.
Alek hears Deryn mumble something incoherently before he slips into unconsciousness.
End Part One