Tilly fidgeted at the control console, hands twitching.
“Have I mentioned,” she blurted, “Your haircut. I like it. It’s, um--” she floundered, “--short. Suits your style.”
Across the room, Hugh turned, eyebrow arched impossibly high. His tricorder, primed and quietly whirring, rested in his hand.
“Thank you,” he said mildly.
“I like it,” Tilly repeated.
Hugh’s eyebrow entertained ambitions to a higher plane of existence.
“It’s nice,” Tilly said, “Not that it wasn’t nice before, I mean,” she giggled nervously, “it’s not really all that different from what you used to do with it, which was fine, just I like this, this degree of shortness better.” She smiled--winningly, she hoped. From the vaguely perplexed, vaguely concerned expression that appeared on Hugh’s face, she recognized failure.
“Thank you,” Hugh repeated.
He began to turn back to the spore chamber, where Paul had just staggered drunkenly to his feet, wavering badly.
“HAVE I MENTIONED,” Tilly shrieked, startling Hugh into dropping his tricorder, the clatter ringing dully in the deserted control room.
In the spore chamber, Paul tripped over his own feet and went flying, face-first, into a transparent wall.
“OH NO,” Tilly shouted over the muffled thud, “I’M SO SORRY. I--” She stepped out from behind the console, deliberately catching her foot on the deck plating and crashing to the ground. Her flailing hand knocked the tricorder under the console, wedging it tightly between the deck and a titanium-alloy leg.
“What--” Hugh said, dumbfounded, “Are you alright?”
Tilly moaned, squinting surreptitiously over Hugh’s hovering shoulder at Paul, who had managed to haul himself upright, one hand pinching the bridge of his nose, the other tightly gripping the release handle.
“Fine,” Tilly said, smiling brightly up at Hugh, “Have I mentioned that my mom always used to say that she thinks that I inherited her uncle’s three left feet? I--”
Paul pushed his way out of the spore chamber and listed sideways, staggering all the way into the computer stations on the opposite side of the room with a muffled curse.
“What--” Hugh began, turning.
“OW,” Tilly shouted, “I THINK I HIT MY HEAD.”
“Okay,” Hugh said, eyes large and wary. He crouched, placing a steadying hand on her shoulder. “Let me--” he made as if to glance over his shoulder just as Paul caught sight of them, eyes narrowed, mouth opened.
Desperately, Tilly fisted her hands in the front of Hugh’s uniform.
“AM I GOING TO DIE?!” she shouted, “I FEEL LIKE I’M GOING TO DIE.”
“No, no,” Hugh said soothingly, smoothly removing her hands from his uniform as Paul wobbled towards them on legs as steady as a star-jelly’s. Tilly’s eyes widened. “You’re going to be just fine.”
“I DON’T WANT TO DIE,” Tilly said loudly, frantically trying to determine if the Lieutenant Stamets storming towards them was actually Lieutenant Stamets or just a egregiously spored-out, spaced-out version of her CO.
“You’re fine,” Hugh repeated, scrabbling under the console for his tricorder, which refused to budge, “Just lie still.”
Paul slewed towards them, arms held out for balance.
Spaced-out, Tilly decided, eyes widening still further, Very spaced out.
“Who--” Paul slurred.
“--HAVE I MENTIONED--” Tilly shouted.
Hugh winced, ears ringing. Paul blinked, took a step back. Tilly widened her eyes, pleading over Hugh’s shoulder. Paul blinked again.
“ Where--” Paul tried again.
Tilly grabbed Hugh’s uniform again and shook vigorously, eyebrows raised as she furiously indicated the man now half-sprawled across her body.
“-- HAVE I MENTIONED!?”
Paul blinked rapidly, eyes darting between the two of them.
“--WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!?” he roared.
Startled, Hugh whirled so quickly he smacked his head on the underbelly of the console with a resounding thud. Tilly dropped back onto the deck plating in delirious relief.
“Darling,” Hugh said, sitting back and gingerly rubbing his head, “I promise it’s not what it looks like.” He jabbed another finger at the tricorder, which remained stubbornly unmoved. Sighing, he looked up at Paul and cocked his head. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Nauseated,” Paul snapped, “By the two of you.”
Hugh reached up to place a steadying hand on Paul’s thigh, missed, and planted it firmly on Paul’s ass.
“Give me a moment here,” he said, “Cadet Tilly hit her head.”
“Oh,” Tilly said breathlessly, springing to her feet, “I’m feeling much better now, thank you.”
“I thought--” Hugh began, squinting up at her.
“Have I mentioned--”
“--Yes,” said both men in unison.
“Oh,” Tilly said, wilting slightly, “Okay.” Recovering quickly, she beamed at them both. Hugh’s eyebrow made another commendable bid for a saner dimension. Paul squinted. “Okay,” Tilly repeated. She patted Paul on the arm. “Good to have you back, Lieutenant,” she said, “I’ll just, uh--” she pointed to the door, “--go now. So you can, uh, catch up.”
“Cadet--” Hugh said,
“--I’m good, I’m good,” Tilly said breezily with a vaguely hysterical giggle. She bounded up the stairs and backed into the door controls. “I’m good,” she repeated as the doors opened behind her.” She backed out into the hall. “I’m--”
The doors sealed shut.
In the ensuing silence, Paul reached up again to pinch the bridge of his nose. Hugh watched him sympathetically, tugging on his tunic in a vague effort to straighten himself out.
“I take it back,” he said mildly, “You really weren’t exaggerating about her.”
Paul grunted, smoothing his hand over his face. Hugh eyed him warily and bent in another effort to retrieve his wedged tricorder.
“Leave it,” Paul snapped, “I’m fine.”
Hugh ignored him and fumbled about for a few moments longer before admitting defeat.
“What’s with this sudden concern?” Paul said peevishly. He moved around to the other side of the console and pulled up the datalog from his jump.
Hugh watched him critically.
“I’m just doing my job,” he replied.
“What,” Paul snorted, “Doctoring?”
“No,” Hugh shot back, “Caring.”
Paul tapped irritably at the display, brow furrowed. The pressure behind his eyes grew, pounding, clamoring for escape, to burst free from the impossibly narrow confines of his tiny mind. Ponderous moments before, he’d had all the universe in his hands, spread into infinity. Now, he was nothing, just the vague impression of something that had been and was no longer. The data cells blurred before his eyes, meaningless, dithering digits, inconsequential representations of a breathtakingly complex universe of frightening beauty that had never--
He slammed a hand down on the console, cutting off the display with a silent flicker.
“What?” he snapped.
Hugh said nothing, watching him with same equanimity that had driven him to pursue a life of sacrificial service.
Have I mentioned--
Paul inhaled sharply and ducked his head, bracing himself against the console. His eyes fixed on the tricorder wedged beneath the leg, and he fell to his knees with sudden feverish energy, pulling a servo from the tray beside him.
“How did this get stuck down here, anyways?” he muttered, feverishly unbolting the console leg from the deck.
“Paul,” Hugh repeated, “Leave it. It’s fine.”
Paul shook his head.
“I knew we shouldn’t have gone with titanium. It’s too light. Too easy for stuff like this to happen,” he mumbled, “But Lorca--” The bolt popped free, and Paul levered the console leg away, kicking the tricorder out from underneath. It skittered hollowly across the deck, and Paul let the console thump back to the heavy plating. “--Lorca insisted,” he continued, frantically resecuring the bolt. “He wanted titanium.” Paul ducked out from under the console, retrieved the tricorder and held it out. “He wanted fucking titanium, and that’s what he got.”
Hugh’s large, warm hand closed around his.
“It must be nice, being captain of something,” Paul continued, slipping away and leaving the tricorder in Hugh’s hand. “You can have other people fight your fucking wars.”
Hugh slid the tricorder back into his pocket. Paul glanced quickly at his face and turned away.
“Please stop,” he said.
“What?” Hugh replied sharply, “Doctoring?”
“No,” Paul said, half-strangled, “Caring.” He took a step towards the spore chamber. “Worrying.”
Hugh folded his arms across his chest, eyes fixed on his partner’s sharp silhouette against cold, blue light.
“Do you love me, Paul?” he asked.
Startled, Paul turned to face him, ghostly blue casting the strong lines of his face into sharp relief.
“Of course,” he replied, “Why--”
“--Then don’t ever ask me to do that again,” Hugh said, voice flat, hard.
Paul clasped his hands behind his back.
“You’ve been saying that a lot recently,” he said.
“You’ve been different recently,” Hugh replied evenly. His chest tightened as Paul squared his shoulders, chin rising defiantly. “Paul,” he said, a quiet note of pleading escaping into his voice.
Paul swallowed, jaw clenched. He dipped his head, turning slowly back to the spore chamber.
“A lot of things have been different recently,” he said.
Hugh stepped forward slowly, wrapping his arms around Paul’s waist. He settled his chin into the crook of Paul’s shoulder, willing the tension to ease.
“Some things haven’t changed,” he breathed into Paul’s ear. Paul settled minutely against Hugh’s chest. “It always hurts more when you keep things from me.”
Paul closed his eyes, stomach twisting.
“I know,” he replied.
Hugh did not push. He never pushed. He’d never had to.
“Trust me?” Paul said.
Hugh breathed deep and long. He never lied.
He’d never had to.