Hearts and Minds
The rush of the water was deafening, drowning out the faint humming of the ship and slowly working out the stress ache from her back and shoulders. She felt like she went a hundred rounds in a boxing ring with an opponent she beat only with pure luck. There were a few moments in that fight when her artillery skills left a lot to be desired, but Ryden had said nothing about it after and she was thankful for that. In the end, they were out of danger and she was safe.
He was safe.
She bristled, annoyed at the unguarded moment that had allowed him to slip into her thoughts. She hated how he made her feel like she had no control over her own feelings and thoughts, how he made her imagine the kind of life she could not possibly wish to have. She hated how it felt like the entire crew was always watching them expectantly, when they really weren’t. Most of all she hated how tense it was between them. He tried engaging her in conversation every so often, but she never knew whether it was him just trying to be nice or whether he was genuinely interested in talking to her. Each time the blood rushed in her ears and her stomach knotted up and every single response she had practiced in the privacy of her room froze on her lips. The end result was tense, short conversations that she played out in her head repeatedly at night in bed, imagining how it could have gone differently.
She shut the water down and reached for her towel, wrapping it tightly around her body. He was way out of her league. He was several years older and had a lot of life experience. He was smart and a little funny and she knew nothing about him. Until she met him, she had only heard of the term “bare-faced.” He did not speak of his scrubbed face and she dared not ask about it. Not that she could, private conversations were a bit of a commodity on this ship. She squeezed a generous amount of body cream into her hands before starting at her feet, applying the moisturizer in even strokes. He was surely married, or at least had a mate at some stage, maybe even kids. It was very possible. She shook her head, annoyed that she allowed her thoughts to go this far. Sweat pants and a t-shirt would do, she wasn’t planning on joining the debriefing at Afterlife. The chain with his key card went back around her neck, and she tucked the card safely into the front of her shirt. She’ll give it back tomorrow. She startled slightly at the soft knock at the door and hesitated, hoping the person would go away but the knocking persisted. His back was turned as if he had decided she was not in her room, spinning back around when the door hissed open.
What came next would give her food for thought for weeks after, cringing with embarrassment right down to her very soul, yet feeling strangely excited all the like. Did she make the first move or did he? His arms around her were tight, pressing her so close to him that she could hear the faint beating of his heart. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to. They had made it out alive out of a near impossible situation and lived to fight another day. Her arms slipped around his waist and she rested her head against his chest, ignoring the uncomfortable press of his chest armour against her.
“Do you require medical assistance?” Stein’s voice bellowed over the intercom and they sprang apart.
“I’m sorry. I have no idea what came over me.” She was mortified. If he didn’t know about her silly crush before, then he did now. If the ground would just open up and swallow her whole, she would be very grateful, thanks.
“No, I’m the one who should apologise….I think.” He looked as pained as she did and backed away, increasing the distance between them. There was a short, awkward silence. He was clearly waiting for her to say or do something.
The key card.
She fumbled for the chain, finally managed to pull it over her head and held it out to him.
He didn’t take it and her hand dropped down to her side.
Bilreh saw the uncertain look on her face and mentally kicked himself. Nice one, B’tah. No wonder she thinks you’re an idiot. This wasn’t going the way he had planned it in his head. He was only going to check in on her and make sure she was okay and leave to join the rest at Afterlife. He did not expect the flood of emotions when he finally laid eyes on her or the flash of joy on her face when she saw him standing at the door. He certainly did not plan to grope her like an over-zealous Hanar at a Free Love convention. He was surprised she didn’t kick his ass the moment he reached for her. Instead, she reciprocated. Her body leaned into him, and he felt her heart beat speed up. They were safe.
She was safe.
“You should keep it.” He looked around the corridor, smiling. “I suspect we haven’t seen the last of our brushes with death. I might still need you to tie up those loose ends.”
She tucked the card back into her shirt. She had so many questions about this. _What was in the locker? Why did he trust her with its contents? Was he in trouble? Just play it cool._
“I didn’t look in the locker.”
He smiled again. “I know you didn’t.”
She stepped back. “Did you want to come in?” She realized at once that she invited him into her bedroom and her face flushed bright red. “Or…we could go out for a drink, if you prefer.” That didn’t sound right either.
“Did you just ask me on a date?” He meant to tease her, but regretted it instantly when he saw the mortified look on her face. After all, Nymeria was not exactly the kind of girl that took well to teasing. His errors were mounting and his opportunity to save the situation was fading fast.
“Wait..what? No, I just meant that I only have a bed in here and that you would…” she floundered. “What I mean to say is…”
She was rigid with tension, trying to put the right words in the right order to fix what she thought was a mistake. Her lilac tinged face was flushed pink with embarrassment and her yellow eyes avoided his, instead blinking rapidly in undisguised panic. This was a Nymeria he had not seen before. Her usual angry demeanor was gone and replaced by a vulnerability he suspected was there all along. She clearly felt out of her depth. He could kiss her right there, right now.
Easy B’tah, she might still give you that ass-kicking you avoided earlier.
“I would like that.”
She frowned, breaking off her sentence midway. “What?”“I would like to have that drink with you.”
It’s now or never, B’Tah.
“Like a date.”
Her frown deepened – had he read this wrong? This was clearly a mistake. He should just turn around now and got back to where he came from and pretend this didn’t happen. He was making a fool of himself, and there were few things more painful to watch in this world than an old man foolishly trying to impress a young woman. After Naomi’s passing he never expected…..
It was his turn to be surprised and it took a second to steady his voice. He did not expect her to agree. Hell, he didn’t come here expecting to ask her on a date either, but here they were. Did he have to run this by Tiana? He wasn’t sure of the protocol. He pressed on, in for a penny and all that.
“A proper date. With good food, and good music. Omega is a bit short on that. Illium has some nice places. Shall I book us a table on our next visit?”
“Okay, then. I’ll be going now. I’ll send you the details over comms?” She nods and he hesitates before nodding slightly. “Sleep well, Nymeria.”
“You too…Bilreh.” The door hissed shut and it took him a few moments to snap back to reality and walk away, hesitating at a high pitched squeal coming from behind the closed door. Must be my imagination.
He strode down the corridor, punching victoriously at the air.
“Do you require medical assistance?” Stein bellowed over the intercom again
“Not medical, my friend. Not medical. Let’s head to Afterlife and after that, we have home work to do.”