Today was not a good day.
A bit of an understatement but Ed wasn't in the mood to be that precise with language. Today's catastrophe didn't quite qualify as shitty or crappy and yes, those were two different levels of bad day. It probably said a great deal about his command capabilities that after a year on the job, he already had a system for categorizing bad days.
No one had died when the Orville had been randomly struck by an errant microasteroid coming out of quantum drive which automatically meant today couldn't be a shitty day. The damage to the hull should be repaired within the next twelve hours so it couldn't be a crappy day and he hadn't caught his wife having sex with a Retepsian in their bed so it wasn't the worst fucking day ever.
But any day in which he had watched little bits of his first command float past on the viewscreen was at least not a good one. Ed figured that only made sense. Although, he had been staring at the report he was trying to type up for long enough that the words were starting to break dance across the screen so maybe nothing made sense anymore. It would explain so much, actually. Like that Zulkir ambassador they had been tasked with transporting to some summit last week. She hadn't had a sense of humor that they had been able to find. She didn't even crack the smallest smile or suppress a giggle when Gordon had tricked Isaac into sitting an old style whoopee cushion during the diplomat's tour of the bridge. Even Bortus had looked ever-so-vaguely amused because fart jokes were hilarious. They are the pinnacle of humor, Ambassador Brin, and not laughing at a fart joke is just bizarre.
So if nothing made sense and it was a not good day, did he actually have to finish writing the after action report? Did anyone really read these things? Would anyone notice if he just didn't file it? Ed wondered if he could get away with filling in the blanks like a game of Mad Libs. Perhaps he'd a commendation for original thinking or something idiotic like that. If the words would stop doing the cha-cha, maybe he'd try it out.
Or the door chime could ring. That worked too. Ed didn't see parts of the Orville floating past the window so it was probable that his ship was still as intact as it was hour ago. Okay, it was at least possible.
Ed wasn't expecting Alara to walk in so that was a surprise. Not an unwelcome one, though. He refused to even let his mind wander a single step down the path of just how welcome a visitor his security chief was. That way was dangerous territory and there were more than a hundred reasons why that was so.
"Lieutenant, what can I do for you?"
She had that awkward yet purposeful stride that Ed noticed she fell into sometimes. It was nervous tell that Alara had but he couldn't think of a reason why she would be nervous. Unless she had gotten it into her head to resign again. Ed really, really hoped not. He could still feel the way his heart had dropped into the pit of his stomach when Alara had walked into his office a lot like she just had and said she was no longer qualified to be the Orville's chief of security. All that anguish so easy to see on her face and the self-loathing tainting every word she spoke. It had taken more restraint than he would care to admit (even to himself) to not walk over to the other side of the desk and wrap his arms around her.
Ed knew he couldn't do that. He was her friendly, mentoring commanding officer. He had to be.
"May I talk to you about something, Captain?"
That was eerily stilted phrasing that didn't do anything to calm his mind.
"Only if you promise me that you're not here to resign again."
Alara's eyes widened as soon as the words left his mouth and Ed knew that the thought of leaving wasn't even floating around somewhere in the back of her mind. Suddenly, it was a little bit easier to breathe.
Xelayans didn't blush, as far as he knew, but Ed would bet a real bottle of old-Earth whiskey that if Alara was human, she would be beet red right about now. That little shy smile and the way her gaze had darted to the floor as soon as she spoke? Definitely blush-material and definitely… it was cute, dammit.
"Well… in that case, Alara, feel free to talk away."
But it seemed that she wasn't all that eager to say anything. Alara was still just standing there with a slightly embarrassed or apprehensive look on her face. Ed wasn't quite sure which it was. Her hands were balled into fists so tight that he was a bit worried she was going to draw blood with her fingernails. There was a twitch in her jaw like she was trying to remember how to form words.
Something was drastically wrong. Alara was still uncertain at times but she was a competent and capable badass. Ed was rather fond (too, too fond) of Alara the Badass so this behavior was starting to really concern him. She still wasn't talking – only blinking at him with this frozen look in her eyes. His body was moving before his mind could tell it to stop and the next thing he knew, he was standing in front of her, watching her quickly turn to face him.
"Alara? Is everything all right?"
"Sorry, Captain." Her lips twisted in something between a grimace and a rueful smile. "Maybe I should've had a second shot of Xelayan tequila first."
Had he ever had any Xelayan tequila? Ed actually wasn't sure. He didn't think so; if he had had any, it had been at a point where he was already too drunk to realize what he was drinking. Pure shame, that. Maybe Alara would like to have a few drinks with him some time. Him, her, civilian clothes, a bottle of her tequila…
Damn, Mercer. Focus, for fuck's sake.
Alara had actually felt she needed a shot of hard liquor to come talk to him. What in the hell did she want to discuss? Or was he that unapproachable? That idea turned his stomach. It was the complete opposite of how he wanted to be with his crew. And yes, Ed could admit to himself (if only for a moment) that that was especially true for Alara.
"Look, I'm sure whatever is wrong, we can fix it together. Or I can get Kelly or Dr. Finn or Isaac or all of them or anybody you want to come and work out the problem with us. It's gonna be okay."
And now Alara was looking at him like he was a total idiot. At least, it was a change of pace from that stunned expression her face had been stuck on.
"There isn't anything wrong." That was a relief. Ed felt kinda stupid about his rambling word vomit but it was a relieved sort of stupid. "I… I wanted to ask if you were okay."
Ed knew that Alara could easily see the confusion on his face. His poker face was legendarily bad – a fact that Gordon had taken advantage of many, many times over the years. Did she suspect that he had been possessed by some alien lifeform or something like that? Or was this just more nothing making sense anymore?
"With everything that's been going on and the collision earlier, you looked really stressed while we were on the bridge and I was worried about you."
That was… that was sweet. Ed knew Alara was kind-hearted but he'd never had the full force of it aimed in his direction. From security chief to captain, maybe… this, however, was seemingly from Alara to Ed and he couldn't do anything other than be warmed to the tips of his toes. She was sweet and cute and badass and he was screwed. He was so completely screwed.
The two words said what he wanted them to say but they seemed woefully inadequate. Commanding the Orville was harder than he thought it would be and he had known it would be difficult. The weight of ultimate responsibility was a heavy thing. And here was Alara, nervously standing in front of him and being concerned about him. For a moment (a single, long moment), Ed imagined telling her so many things. But there was a line that couldn't be crossed. Perhaps not yet, anyway.
But he needed Alara to know. Ed needed some way of getting across to her how touched he was. That she had made him (foolishly and unreasonably) happy. That he would really like it if she kept on being worried about Ed, not necessarily just Captain Mercer. Not that he intended to keep worrying her but things happened that he didn't intend all the time and with the Orville's track record so far, some of those things were bound to be 'not good day' things.
And if she kept worrying about Ed, maybe it would be all right if he worried about Alara and not only Lieutenant Kitan.
"I mean it, Alara. Thank you."
As he spoke, Ed reached out and slowly ran a fingertip along the back of one of Alara's still clenched hands. That wasn't too much, was it? Hand touching could be just friendly, right? His eyes slid from their hands up to Alara's face, almost desperate to see a sign that he hadn't gone too far.
But Alara wasn't looking at him; her gaze was directed downward to where he was still lightly resting a finger on the back of her hand. There was a small soft smile curving her lips that Ed didn't think he'd ever seen before. Movement under his finger pulled his attention back down and he watched, more than a little fascinated, as Alara's hands finally relaxed. He honestly expected her to pull her hand away – create more distance between them. There was nothing quite normal about the almost-electrified air that was improbably surrounding them. Or was he the only one who felt that?
Alara's fingers slowly unfurled and yet she didn't move away. Instead, their hands were now resting against one another in a way that made his heart skip a few beats. Ed didn't dare look up, didn't dare speak, and honestly, he was a little scared to breathe too loudly. This moment was fragile and he knew it. The wrong word or the wrong reaction would shatter it. And that was the absolute last thing he wanted to do.
He somehow managed to hold his hand completely still as Alara brushed the knuckle of one of her fingers along his palm. That hint of a caress made him impulsively bold. Ed shifted his hand slightly – just enough so he could gently hook one of his fingers around one of hers. When she didn't jerk away, Ed felt the smile on his face widen. It continued to grow as with a bit of squeeze, Alara laced their two fingers together.
"Permission to speak freely, Captain?"
Alara's voice was soft and quiet, as if she was as afraid of disturbing the intimate spell they were wrapped up in as he was. Maybe (just maybe) it wasn't only him that felt it. The words confused him – what could she possibly be talking about – but Ed wasn't brave enough to say that aloud. If he spooked her, she might come to her senses and realize that he was the one here in his moment with her. Not someone better. So his voice was as hushed as hers when he responded.
For a long heartbeat, nothing happened. Not a single word was uttered and neither of them moved a millimeter. Ed's breath caught when he felt Alara pull her hand away from his. He didn't dare look up as his mind started to try and figure out why his heart had pushed too far in this moment between them. An apology. He needed to actually look at Alara and apologize for…
Alara was hugging him.
She must have moved while his mind was busy talking shit to itself but Ed honestly didn't care about the logistics right this second. Alara's arms were wrapped around him and that was the single most important thing in his universe. He returned the gesture, completely certain that not only was it all right to do so but that he was physically incapable of doing anything else. Pulling her just a little bit closer, Ed laid his hands on her back and let himself enjoy what it felt like to hold Alara. What it felt like to be held by her.
How could someone so strong be so tiny? Xelayan or not, she felt flat-out delicate in his arms. Alara barely came up to his chin and Ed could almost imagine drifting to sleep with her snuggled against his chest. What space there was between them was practically non-existent. Were Xelayans naturally warmer than humans? Because she was so very warm right now. Not feverish-warm or anything like that. Perhaps it was the heat radiating from each of her hands. Or maybe that warmth was simply his own awareness of holding Alara as tightly and tenderly as he could right now. Right now.
Because this didn't feel like a friendly hug. Everything was too sharp and too near. The only move either of them had made was to be closer; there wasn't a single hint from Alara that she wanted to be anywhere else but in his arms. It was too much, too soon to kiss the top of her head or to run his fingers through her hair but Ed dared to think about it. Incredibly and impossibly, this was an embrace and there may be more to come. He needed to say something, though. For reassurance, maybe… an acknowledgement that they were on the same page. That these thoughts of his weren't completely off-base or out-of-line. Alara's muffled sigh echoed against his chest and all ideas of suaveness or coherency went out the airlock.
"Try not to squish me to death, okay. I've got a fear of that."
And that was the entirely wrong thing to say.
It wasn't that he simply startled Alara by speaking. Her whole body tensed and she ripped herself away from him so quickly that he couldn't even try and hold on. Just as swiftly, she was half-stumbling toward the door, not even looking at him. He had obviously fucked up – not the right thing to joke about at all, apparently. And why had his brain decided to go with a bad joke in that moment, anyway? Alara was going to leave without giving him a chance to explain or apologize or fix things. Not that he had a clue about what exactly to say to her but that wasn't the point. She had to stay, if even for only one more second.
"Alara, wait. Please."
She was a step away from the door when he spoke and Ed was certain that she wasn't going to stop until she did, one more stride away from leaving. He tried to exhale but his lungs faltered as she turned to face him, standing at inspection-ready attention – her back ramrod straight and her shoulders stiff. It would be textbook-perfect position if her hands weren't once again coiled into fists and her eyes weren't fixed on a point somewhere over his left shoulder. He couldn't read a single emotion from her features and somewhere deep down, he was kind of impressed at the ability to make her face so blank.
No. No. No. That was bad. That might actually worse than Alara outright walking out. He didn't think that he had ever heard a single word sound so unyielding.
"You know you can call me Ed, right? It's shorter than 'sir.' Or 'captain' for that matter. Only two letters… E and D." He was babbling. He knew he was. "It's also just one syllable but so is 'sir' so that one's a toss-up."
The stoicism on her face melted into wary confusion as she shifted her gaze to meet his and for half a second, Ed wished she hadn't. Alara's radiant eyes clouded by heartache and hurt was a literal punch to the gut. Apparently, he was an oblivious idiot who had wandered into a minefield. She was still there, though, so he needed to make that count for something.
"Look, I'm sorry…" Probably should have started with that earlier. "I'm an awkward fuck-up with these kinds of things. Ask Kelly. I'm sure she'll tell you stories." Alara's face scrunched up a bit at that and Ed suddenly had a very bad feeling. "She already has, hasn't she?" The slightest of nods. "Great."
That was just freaking fantastic. Now Ed was going to be wondering what his ex-wife had said about him to his possible prospective girl that was more than a friend. He hoped that's what Alara was, anyway. She still looked uneasy – hands clenched at her sides and lips drawn tight. Her eyes continued to examine his face, searching for something.
"So you were joking? About being afraid of my strength?"
Each word was layered with caution and Ed knew he was still in that minefield. He just had no idea why.
"Of course I was joking." He was halfway to insulted when her expression became so skeptical that that very bad feeling came back with a vengeance. "Wait… is that a thing? Has a guy really given you shit about being strong?"
The way her eyes immediately darted to the ground gave him an answer that he really, really didn't like. Seriously? What kind of idiot would do something like that? Ed took a step closer and slowly, Alara looked back up at him. Much of the skepticism and the confusion were gone but the hurt remained in her eyes.
"All of them, actually. Except you."
Ed wasn't sure how he felt about that. On one hand, he liked the idea of occupying such a singular place in her life but on the other hand, she deserved so much better. He hurt for her but the smile on his face couldn't be stopped, especially when Alara responded with a bashful smile of her own. That was another new smile. Maybe that was his smile.
"Then, they were morons but I gotta say – I like being your exception."
Wondrously, this moment of theirs just might be reclaimed. Alara took a few more steps toward him until she was once again in his personal space. And that was definitely okay.
"You really don't mind?"
"It's not that I don't mind, Alara. I like how strong you are." That was an understatement. Watching her perform those amazing feats of strength had quickly become one of his favorite things. "It's kind of a turn-on."
And that might have been one sentence (and one truth) too many.
Definitely one sentence too many.
Ed knew he needed to start digging his way out of his latest verbal screw-up but he didn't even know where to start. That one line was certainly not professional or platonic or anything other than probably way too forward. Especially given that Alara had almost marched out of his office not even five minutes ago. He should at least start with the apology this time.
Or she could kiss him.
The lightest of pecks right on his cheek.
How did she keep moving without him noticing?
He was blushing. He knew he was. His fingers itched to reach up and touch the spot where she'd kissed him. His hand started to move of its own accord but he stopped it from going too far. Alara noticed the interrupted motion, though; he could tell by the way one corner of her mouth quirked up into a brief smirk. Those lips had kissed him (on the cheek but still) but Ed wasn't quite sure what he'd done to earn the gesture, other than saying he thought the way she could knock doors down was sexy.
"Thank you." He wasn't crystal clear on what she was thanking him for. He was the one that got a kiss. "What you said… it was sweet."
"If you think that was sweet, then you and me? We're gonna get along great."
As soon as the words left his mouth, Ed reached for her hands, almost needing (and certainly wanting) to have some measure of physical contact. Alara surprised him for the third time as she met him halfway and grabbed his hands with her own. Her smile was a gentle thing and there wasn't the barest shadow of anything other than playful happiness in her eyes.
"I thought we already got along pretty well."
Alara squeezed his hands softly as she spoke and he could only hope that it meant she believed him about not being afraid of her strength.
"Better. We're gonna be even better."
They stood there holding hands and smiling softly at each other. Ed was curious if it would be pushing his luck to go for a quick kiss on the lips. The idea was there because he could still feel the warmth on his cheek where she had kissed him but it was starting to fade. And he wanted to be aware what was going on so he could enjoy all the little details. Was that too much to ask?
Yes, it was. Or at least it was according to the short burst of electronic beeping from his desk. Undoubtedly the computer reminding him that he hadn't finished writing up the after action report yet. He'd been understandably and happily distracted. There was a lessening of pressure around his fingers and Ed noticed Alara was starting to pull her hands away. Tightening his own grip, Ed refused to let her go so easily a second time. The report could wait a minute or two or three.
"I should go." Yes and no, all at the same time. "Let you finish your work."
She made an actual effort to pull her hands away this time but he wasn't ready to let this moment end quite yet. The report would still be there later. It was fine. The way Alara's eyes narrowed in concern made him try and rethink that, though. He sighed – they would have more moments, right?
"Good night, Alara."
It was probably all right to indulge himself with a kiss on the cheek and almost definitely worth the risk. Alara's bashful smile was back as she realized what his intentions were and he saw her eyes slip closed as he brushed his lips against her soft skin. There was a barely audible squeak and a bright but wobbly smile on her face as he leaned back. That was a reaction he could most certainly get used to.
"Good night, Ed."
But that? That was even better.
He watched her walk out the door and stood there staring at it long enough for the computer to beep a second reminder at him. Alara was interested in him like that. She'd kissed him and held his hands and thought he was sweet. Ed carried that piece of joy with him as he sat down and got back to work.
Today was a pretty good day, after all.