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To Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

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Lieutenant Commander Doctor Hugh Culber stepped through the door labelled ENGINEERING–2, D.A.S.H. DRIVE LAB with a large crate of equipment under his arm and a small professional smile on his face. A quick glance around told him that the room, with its signature dimmed blue and red lights, was empty except for one officer. He was at his usual workstation and so caught up in the formulas and equations on the glass screen in front of him that he didn’t notice Hugh’s arrival.

“Weren’t you supposed to meet me in medbay two hours ago, Lieutenant?” Hugh asked as he walked down the steps from the door and made his way across the room. He wanted to stick to his usual concerned doctor’s tone, but the smile was audible in his voice.

Paul Stamets’s face lit up immediately as he recognized his visitor. “Hugh!” he exclaimed, leaning over the console to greet him with an enthusiastic hug and a kiss.

Right. Hugh wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to this new behavior. Not that he was complaining, of course. And after all, they were alone in the room right now, so there was no need to worry about maintaining professionalism. He set his crate down on Paul’s console and looked at him. “Did you forget?”

Paul shifted uneasily. “No! Yes. I—” He cleared his throat. “I’m almost finished, this is only going to take a minute.” He turned back to his screen, hurrying to wrap up the day’s work. “I sent the kids home early so they could go to the party tonight. So I had to finish the shift alone and it took a little longer. I must have lost track of the time.”

“‘Kids’?” Hugh chuckled. “Paul, are you developing paternal feelings for your team now? Besides, Ipek and Castillo are both older than you.”

“So what if I am?” Paul shot back. “Besides, Tilly hasn’t shut up about that party all day. They were more distracting than helpful at this point, with how excited everyone was about it.”

With a grin, Hugh said, “I don’t think Tilly sees you as a father figure, though.”

“That’s fine with me. I don’t mind being a cool uncle or something like that.”

Hugh laughed. “A very weird cool uncle, I guess.”

“Whatever. As long as I’m not boring.”

Hugh watched Paul, typing and swiping away at his screen, with a fond expression. “I still think you’d be a great father.”

Paul froze for a moment but said nothing, avoiding Hugh’s eyes. It wasn’t as if they’d seriously had this discussion, but Paul had shied away from it every time they so much as touched on the subject. Although Hugh had teasingly asked him if he was planning to adopt Tilly shortly after she had joined Paul’s team, because he wouldn’t shut up about how smart and brilliant she was—in private, of course. Hugh doubted that Tilly had any idea just how much Paul adored her. With his usual personality, who could blame her?

“There—that’s it for today,” Paul interrupted Hugh’s train of thought. He shut off his screen and walked around the station and up to him, where he placed his hands on Hugh’s arms. “Shall we get started now, Doctor?”

“Sure. And since I’m here anyway, I brought my equipment,” Hugh said, patting his box. “So we can stay until your relief arrives.” He gestured at Paul’s seat. “Sit down, please.”

Paul did as he was told, then unzipped his sleeves and pulled them up to his elbows to reveal the cybernetic augments that Hugh had made for him.

Hugh had been able to convince both him and Lorca that they couldn’t just let Paul get stabbed in the torso every time the Discovery jumped, especially not with the needles getting so close to puncturing vital organs each time, so he had spent the last weeks trying to figure out a solution that was safer and more comfortable for Paul. Instead of his sides, the needles could now connect with the augments on his forearms. They had done a little test run two days ago and Hugh had taken the data he gathered from those jumps to make a few more adjustments, which he was going to implement now.

“Stop touching yourself!” Hugh chided him as he pulled his equipment out of the crate, because Paul had been running his fingers over the edges of the augment on his right arm again, staring at it in silent fascination.

“I will if you do it instead,” came the nonchalant answer from Paul immediately. Hugh asked himself why he was even surprised by those kinds of quips anymore as he felt his cheeks heat up at the remark. Without responding, but unable to suppress the grin that had crept into the corners of his mouth, he reached over to grab the arm that Paul was now holding out to him and started examining the augment and the skin around it.

“Did you notice any issues with the implants?” he asked instead. “Pain, skin irritation? Did they cause any problems or discomfort?”

“No, dear doctor,” Paul responded softly, and Hugh needed a moment to collect himself, because the pure adoration in Paul’s voice and on his face caught him off guard. Again. “No issues. No itching, no getting caught on the fabric of my sleeves, no pain, no malfunctions, no side effects. They’re amazing, honey; you’re a genius.” In the face of these compliments, Hugh started implementing his upgrades into the augments with a growing smile while Paul continued. “Plus, they look super cool.” Like an excited child, Hugh thought. Cute. “But they feel a little weird. That might still take some time to get used to. It’s not painful or anything, just … an odd sensation.”

“Is that why you keep touching them?” Hugh asked with a frown. “Maybe the update will fix that. We’ll do another test run tomorrow and then see if they need any more adjustments.”

“You’re always looking out for me,” Paul said, giving Hugh that same warm smile from before. “How are you able to always care so much?”

“It’s in my nature,” Hugh responded after a moment of consideration. “It’s why I became a doctor. Because I care.” He looked up at Paul’s face, smiling again. “I know you care a lot as well.”

“Not about people, normally.”

“And that’s okay, too.”

They shared a comfortable silence as Hugh finished his work on the first augment and asked for Paul’s other arm. Neither of them had much interest in going to the “Disco party” that was taking place tonight, so they had decided to seize this opportunity, when their shifts finally coincided for the first time in two weeks, to spend their evening together. Hugh was looking forward to it; most of his free time lately had been taken up by developing the augments for Paul, and double shifts had been common for the medical staff with all the missions the Discovery had been sent on recently, aiding Federation vessels and outposts that had run into trouble with the Klingons. These last few weeks, whenever either of them had come home to their quarters and not found them empty, the other one was either already asleep, or getting ready to leave for work. Their only chances to spend time together had been shared lunch breaks and meeting to work on Paul’s augments. Hugh couldn’t speak for Paul, even less so in his current high mood, but he could feel the strain of the situation. He missed spending time with Paul, having deep conversations with this brilliant mind without a time limit, being able to relax and enjoy each other’s company in the comfort of their quarters, physical contact outside of the public eye. It was astounding, Hugh thought, how quickly he had gotten used to this, how wonderful it was to have Paul by his side every day since they had started to serve on the Discovery together. All those months before of their long-distance relationship felt like a million years ago and Hugh couldn’t imagine how he ever managed it.

“And we’re done,” he said at last, after finishing his work on the left augment. He put his tools aside and planted a light kiss on the skin of Paul’s forearm for good measure. “What do you think?” he asked, looking up at him.

Paul started carefully inspecting the implants, tapping various spots on his arms with his index finger, his brows furrowed slightly in concentration.

“It’s better,” he commented, “on first impression. Feels less like a foreign body, too. It’s fantastic, you are a genius!” He lowered his arms and smiled at Hugh, his eyes as soft and warm as his voice. “Thank you.”

They held each other’s gaze in silence for a moment, Hugh’s hands resting on Paul’s knees. Then Hugh stood up and held out his hand. “Shall we run some tests now?” Paul’s lips formed into a grin as he took it and let Hugh pull him up.

The next moment, all of the lights in the room flickered. Hugh barely had the time to process this, let alone notice how odd it was that the power supply should be interrupted with the ship’s power-redundant relays in place, before the flickering was over and something else captured his attention.

Paul’s expression had completely transformed from the smile before. For a moment, he looked tired and hounded and more exhausted than Hugh had seen him in a long time, maybe more exhausted than he had ever seen him. There was an odd mix of emotions on his face that Hugh didn’t have enough time to dissect, because Paul moved towards him, placed his hands on both sides of his face, and kissed him with what felt like desperation and determination. When they parted, all Hugh could do was stare at him in confusion as he said, “Sorry, I gotta go,” then whirled around and sprinted out of the room, yelling over his shoulder, “see you tonight!” before the doors closed behind him.

 

Hugh just stood there in the middle of the now empty room for about a minute or two, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

Was this another side effect of piloting the spore drive? Hugh doubted it. Paul’s situation had seemed to stabilize over the last weeks, and nothing out of the ordinary had occurred recently that warranted such a drastic change.

Unless … could it be the augments? A rush of panic hit Hugh. Had he missed something? A critical detail that might have slipped his mind, that was now affecting Paul’s mental state? He would have to investigate that as soon as possible … but Paul had rushed out of the room before he could run any tests or scans. Crap. And he had no idea where on Discovery he might have run off to. Double crap.

Hugh closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath that was more of a sigh, then went back to the box he had brought with him and started to pack up his things. When he was done, he sat down on the seat Paul had occupied until a few minutes ago and waited for one of the engineering crew to show up, so the lab wouldn’t be unsupervised now that the spore drive’s chief engineer had just disappeared. Hugh assumed that something must have messed up the schedule if no-one was here hours after Paul’s shift should have ended. His mind wandered back to his partner’s mysterious behaviour.

Paul had looked as if he’d seen a ghost. And talked to it, extensively. Hugh briefly thought of Hamlet, but quickly brushed the thought aside. There were no ghosts in space … right? Still, Paul must have had experienced something in those seconds between his careless, gentle smile and the expression of someone who has been trying to crawl his way out of hell for a hundred years. But Hugh was at a complete loss as to what it possibly might have been, or what could have caused it.

He sighed again and decided to go looking for Paul and see if he was okay, ask him to let Hugh run some tests to make sure the augments weren’t causing any trouble, and then hopefully spend the rest of the evening together in peace without any further incidents.

After several more minutes, at 0142 hours, the next operations officer finally showed up.

“Doctor Culber? What are you doing here all by yourself?”

Hugh stood up. “Lieutenant Marquez,” he greeted her with a smile. “Lieutenant Stamets seems to have sent the rest of his shift home and then had to take care of some emergency, so I stayed behind until his relief got here.”

She looked down at her feet. “I apologize that you had to wait here for so long. I should have been here two hours ago but there was an accident over in Engineering-1 and I only just got released from medbay, so I—”

“Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant,” Hugh interrupted her rambling with an encouraging pat on her arm. “I’m not your boss, you don’t have to explain yourself to me. But I’m happy you’re here now, and feeling better, so I’ll return to medbay. Have a good shift.”

She gave him a little relieved smile. “Thank you, Doctor Culber. Have a good night.”

 

The corridors of the Discovery were unusually quiet, but Hugh was grateful for it as he walked back to medbay, still lost in his thoughts about Paul’s strange—well, even stranger than before—behavior. If something had happened to the ship in general, or they were in some kind of trouble, he surely would have noticed by now … right? Could it be something that only Paul could sense, with his mysterious new tardigrade DNA powers? Now, that sounded a little far-fetched …

As he walked through the door to the main sickbay room, Hugh was greeted by one of the nurses, who quickly hurried towards him from the monitor that was closest to the door.

“Doctor Culber!”

“Nurse K’puar,” Hugh replied in a friendly tone. “What can I do for you?”

“Oh, Doctor Culber, haven’t you heard? The entire department is in disarray!” They sounded highly distressed and kept glancing around helplessly. “Something must have happened to the ship’s controls. We can’t access the systems, none of the tech is working, we can’t even get into our patients’ files!” Hugh raised one eyebrow after the other as he listened to the nurse’s report. “And from what we’ve heard, it’s not just us. We can’t do our work and we don’t know what to do about it!”

Hugh tried to exude calm. “Have you informed engineering? The bridge?”

“Engineering is in the same situation!” Hugh followed them through the room while they kept talking. “And we can’t get anything out of the bridge. Since the ship’s comm isn’t working we sent someone over, but they just brushed him off saying they were aware and we should just keep doing our jobs, and everything should sort itself out soon.” They stared at Hugh incredulously, their four eyes wide. “Can you believe this?”

Hugh didn’t like the sound of this at all. After he set down his crate, he moved to the monitor screen K’puar had been at when he entered, but it didn’t look as if it was going to do any more for him than for the nurse—who was still in the middle of their rant at their superiors.

“They’re lucky we’re not having any life-or-death situations in here right now; I wonder if the captain would still be as dismissive if it was him on the operating table right now with none of our equipment working …”

Hugh let the jab at Lorca slide because he was inclined to agree with the nurse here. A thought occurred to him. Could all this be related to Paul’s behavior back in engineering? But it made no sense: K’puar said the comm was down, and last he checked, Paul was neither psychic nor a telepath, so there was no way he could have known what was going on, was there? Hugh squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. Tonight had been far too full of questions for his taste, and he was developing a headache.

He continued to help out his fellow staff, despite the fact that his shift had officially been over long before he even left to meet Paul in engineering. The systems did, in fact, go back to normal sometime around 0202 without any prompting from anyone in medbay. After testing to see if the comm system was back online they were relieved to find out that everything else on the ship seemed to be fully working again as well. In the aftermath of all the chaos, Hugh helped wrap everything up before he excused himself to finally enjoy his long-overdue time off.

 

Hugh Culber prided himself in—mostly—being an optimist, and so he had hoped, rather than rationally believed, that maybe if he went back to his quarters now, Paul might already be there, waiting for him.

The door to their shared quarters slid open. Of course they were empty.

Hugh took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down the panic rising tangibly in his chest.

“Computer, locate Paul Stamets.”

Lieutenant Paul Stamets is in the captain’s ready room.

This was not helping his panic at all. Still, at least Paul seemed to be okay. Hopefully.

“Computer, what happened? Were there any incidents on the ship within the last hour?”

A full critical systems breach and forced lockdown occurred between 0132 and 0202.

“Do we know what caused it?”

The official logs have not yet been updated.

“Thank you, computer.”

Hugh pondered for a few moments, still standing at the door. But he realized that there was no way he would be able to sit around and wait for Paul to return when he still had no idea what the hell was going on, so he decided to turn back and find out, and drag Paul out of Lorca’s claws if necessary.

 

On his way to the bridge and the adjacent captain’s quarters, Hugh ran into Michael Burnham.

“Specialist Burnham!” he greeted her, relieved to have found someone who might be able to shed some light onto whatever had been going on tonight. “I’ve been trying to find Paul,” he said, not bothering with titles in his state of growing unease. “Do you know what’s been going on?”

The expression of someone who has to deliver troubling news showed through Burnham’s usually cool façade. Hugh noticed how tired she looked.

“Lieutenant Stamets is still talking to Captain Lorca. We just reported back to him to explain the full details of what happened, but the captain had some additional questions for him.”

“Can you tell me what happened?” Hugh asked her. “All I know is that the ship’s critical systems were on lockdown for half an hour, medbay was a mess, but nobody seems to know what exactly is going on here.”

“Of course,” Burnham replied. “I will try to answer your questions to the best of my abilities, Doctor. But Lieutenant Stamets will be able to tell you more after his meeting with Captain Lorca is over.”

They found an empty conference room nearby where they sat down and Burnham began recounting what she knew.

“A temporal anomaly?” Hugh repeated, trying to follow the story. His tired brain was having trouble keeping up.

“You could call it a time loop,” Burnham explained. “Mudd trapped our ship in this anomaly and forced it to repeat the same thirty-minute time frame over and over again. With each repeat, he learned more, figured out how to get on board, how to hack into our systems, learned about the spore drive … and I believe he enjoyed killing Captain Lorca multiple times over,” she added, uncertain.

Can’t say I blame him, Hugh thought.

“And nobody noticed—” he began.

“—Because as soon as time reset, we all forgot everything that had happened,” she finished. “Except for Mudd and Lieutenant Stamets.”

Hugh’s eyes went wide. “Paul? Why?”

“He assumes it is a side effect of combining his DNA with the tardigrade’s. That because the tardigrade is a multidimensional creature, this allowed him to exist outside the normal time stream.”

“So,” Hugh began, “he was aware of every loop we went through?”

“Yes.”

Hugh was getting a very bad feeling.

“Did he tell you how many loops there were?” he asked slowly.

“No, Doctor, I’m sorry.” She gave him an apologetic look.

“No problem,” he said with a small smile. “Please go on.”

As she finished recounting the events up to Lorca dismissing her and Tyler, Hugh managed to calm down as his questions—the ones that needed to concern him, at least—were finally answered, but his concerns about Paul’s well-being remained.

“Thank you for explaining everything,” he finally said. “You usually only hear myths about those kinds of incidents at Starfleet Academy. It’s strange to have it actually happen—even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time,” he added with another smile. He reached for Burnham’s hand on the table and gently squeezed it. “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you, as a doctor or as a friend?”

“No, Doctor,” she said, accepting the small gesture. “I’m fine, thank you. But I will try to get some rest now.”

“You definitely deserve that.”

They stood and returned to the hallway.

“Just one more question, if you don’t mind,” Hugh said, this time in his doctor’s voice.

Burnham turned to face him, “Sure.”

“What was your impression of Lieutenant Stamets’ health the last time you saw him?”

“He looked more tired than I have ever seen him before,” Burnham responded carefully, “but otherwise unharmed.”

“I see,” Hugh replied. “Thank you, Specialist Burnham. Have a good night.”

“You too, Doctor Culber.”

Burnham returned to her quarters, while Hugh remained standing in the hallway.

That hadn’t sounded so bad. But Hugh knew Paul too well. He would pretend everything was fine, even if it wasn’t. The time loops sounded far too worrying, and if his suspicions were correct, there was no telling what Paul might have gone through that the others weren’t fully aware of.

But still, if he had been in Lorca’s ready room for this long already he would most likely be dismissed soon. For a moment Hugh entertained the idea that either of them—Lorca or Paul—would remember to have Paul go to sickbay after the report. As if, he thought with a grim smile. Hugh wanted to believe in the good within each person, but after several months under Lorca’s command, he knew better than to expect him to have any regard for Paul’s well-being. And as for Paul—well, when had Paul Stamets ever cared about his own health? Plus, he hated doctors (aside from Hugh), and knew that he wouldn’t be in medbay now. So Hugh decided to go back to their quarters and wait.

 

Sitting around and waiting was hell. It was well past 3 in the morning, ship’s time, when the door finally slid open. Hugh jumped out of his seat immediately and rushed over.

Paul was standing in the doorway, one hand unzipping his already half-open uniform jacket completely while the other was braced against the doorframe. He looked even more tired than back in engineering earlier, but a little more at ease, and there was the hint of a smile playing around his lips. As he looked up and registered Hugh standing in front of him, the smile grew. Hugh noticed that he was swaying slightly, despite the hand on the doorframe attempting to steady him.

“Hey honey,” he mumbled and took a step forward.

Hugh thought he was going for a kiss, or a hug, when Paul stumbled and fell forward, and he barely managed to catch him with his whole body.

“Paul!”

“I’m okay,” he mumbled into Hugh’s chest. “I’m fine … I just need … a moment to …” His voice trailed off into the fabric of Hugh’s shirt. Right now, though, contrary to his own words, he seemed to be making no attempts to support his own weight. Hugh could feel him taking deep, slow breaths against his chest.

“Okay, let’s—let’s sit down first,” Hugh said, lightly rubbing his back to comfort him, “and then tell me what’s wrong, boo.”

He carefully guided Paul over to their small couch, and finally let go of him when Paul slowly sat down and leaned his head back, his eyes closed. Up close he looked even worse than at first impression. Hugh brought him a glass of water before sitting down next to him. He noticed Paul’s hands shaking as he took it and raised it to his mouth to drink.

“I’m okay, honey,” Paul started, and Hugh could tell immediately that he was trying to deflect. “I—I’m just a little tired …”

“Bullshit,” Hugh interrupted him. “No offense, dear, but you look terrible.” Paul snorted, setting the glass down on the table. But he didn’t argue. Hugh let out a deep breath and continued, calmly, as he raised his arm and started gently rubbing circles into Paul’s back and shoulder blades, “Burnham told me what happened to the ship. Will you tell me what happened to you?”

Paul hesitated for a moment, thinking about what to say. “Sorry I ran off. There was no time, and I hoped that if things went according to plan, I would be able to explain everything later. Sorry it took so long to come home.”

“It’s okay, honey,” Hugh simply responded, pulling him a little closer. “I’m not mad at you.”

Paul nodded slightly.

“I experienced all the time loops. While everyone else’s memory was reset after time started over, mine wasn’t,” he began. “The first repeat, I didn’t realize what was happening. It just felt like a strong déjà vu. The second time, I knew something was wrong. The third time, I tried to act differently to see what would happen, and found out that I could.”

His voice was calm and almost steady, but Hugh noticed the slightly erratic rhythm in his stream of words that gave away what he assumed to be exhaustion. But he needed to know if there was more to it.

“I tried to explain to you what I was experiencing, but it didn’t get us anywhere and just made you more worried about my mental health.”

Ouch. The words, combined with Paul’s pained expression, sparked guilt inside of Hugh on behalf of his alternative time loop selves. And a bit, he had to admit, on behalf of himself as well, since he had spent no small amount of time worrying in this timeline after Paul had run off.

They’d had their share of discussions about Paul’s altered behavior after injecting himself with the tardigrade DNA compound. Hugh had been worried—not just as a person who had fallen in love with someone who acted very differently back when they first met, but also as a doctor who had to make sense of a sudden and inexplicable change in his patient’s behavior. And Paul had been frustrated, insisting that he was still the same person and that he was feeling fine. And ultimately, after all medical scans and tests had come back normal, Hugh had decided to trust him. He was still his Paul, after all, and Hugh could tell in his heart that it was true, however cheesy that sounded. Paul had always been honest, fearlessly himself; and while he was naturally brusque and prickly and Hugh loved that, he was always open with his feelings. Hugh had experienced his childlike excitement at scientific breakthroughs and his unfiltered adoration the first time they met again in person after their initial encounters on Alpha Centauri. He’d had to remind himself that the reason why Paul’s behavior seemed so wildly different all of a sudden was because ever since the war had started—with him having to hand over his research and being enlisted into Starfleet, losing his long time work partner and good friend, and the constant harassment from Lorca—Paul had been deeply unhappy.

“I’m sorry,” Hugh said quietly.

Paul shook his head. “I’m not blaming you.”

Both were silent for a moment, as if waiting for the other to say something else, but neither of them did. So Paul eventually continued.

“The loop just kept repeating over and over again, so I tried to find out what was causing it. It didn’t take long to find Mudd. I tried to stop him without alerting him to my knowing what was going on, but it became harder with every loop we went through. He eventually caught on that I knew he was messing with our time stream. So I had to try and stay away from him before he also figured out that he needed me to make the spore drive work until we found a way to stop him.”

He swallowed and rubbed his eyes. Hugh rested both of his hands on Paul’s shoulders, an invitation to lean back and relax a little, which he accepted.

“So I tried to find someone who could help me stop him.”

“Michael Burnham,” Hugh said.

“Yes. I found out that Tyler had some intel that might help against Mudd, but I couldn’t get him to cooperate on my own. Guess Starfleet head of security is code for ‘won’t listen to anything a civilian scientist has to say, no matter how smart they are.’”

Hugh opened his mouth to protest the jab at Starfleet personnel, but decided to let it go so Paul could continue telling his story.

“I really underestimated Burnham back when she came on board,” Paul continued. There was a warmth in his voice that Hugh wasn’t used to hearing from him when speaking of other people. “She’s got a crush on Tyler, did you know that?”

Hugh raised an eyebrow. “Yes. They both like each other, I guess.”

“Right, because you’re you, and you’re a doctor,” Paul remembered, and Hugh didn’t miss the hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“How come you know, then?” he asked.

“With all those loops, all those times crashing into both of them in the hallway with you, it was hard not to make the connection eventually, even for me. It actually helped our cause, too, because she was able to talk to Tyler and we came up with a plan together.” A smile spread across his face.

“What?”

“It’s just—after something Burnham told me, and seeing the lovestruck fools in action again and again and again, I decided to help them out a little.”

Hugh stared at him in surprise.

“You what?”

“I just gave Burnham some general advice,” Paul explained. “She’s still new at this ‘being human’ thing.”

Hugh listened to him, still staring in amazement. What had gotten into Paul to be playing matchmaker for two Starfleet officers (one current and one former) that he barely knew? Hugh, too, must have underestimated Michael Burnham.

“We—” Paul hesitated. “It sounds silly now, but we danced in the hallway. No music or anything. And we talked. I told her about how I met you.”

Hugh noticed himself smiling now. The fond expression was back on Paul’s face, despite his visible exhaustion, as he looked at Hugh.

“And I advised her to be honest and true to herself.”

Hugh squeezed his shoulders encouragingly. “I’m proud of you.”

Then Paul lowered his head again.

“I’m not so sure it was a good idea now, though,” he continued. “I remember that moment, but she doesn’t. Neither of them do. They don’t remember that they danced, they don’t remember that they kissed. I had to tell them afterwards what had happened, but that’s not the same as experiencing the moment for yourself. Maybe it was all for nothing. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it.”

“You never know that,” Hugh tried to comfort him. “Just give them time. Their feelings have been there before, and they are genuine. It’ll work out.”

“I …” Paul started, his voice suddenly different, weaker. “I just felt like I needed to do something. Do some good. See some beauty in between all that chaos Mudd was creating. I was running out of time, options, energy. The more loops I went through, the harder it became to focus, to keep straight what was happening and what had already been reset.”

Hugh sensed that they were finally getting to the tough part, to the reason why he had been worried. The mask Paul had tried to keep up was starting to crack, but he had not been prepared just for how painful it would be to witness.

“It’s still hard to accept that everything is fine. That we did it. That the ship didn’t blow up, that the captain wasn’t murdered, that there were no casualties or even injuries this time. I’ve—” His voice broke. “Hugh, I’ve seen it so many times. There are at least three dozen ways to destroy this ship, and each one was worse than the last. Mudd raided Lorca’s room full of war toys … I know I complain about Lorca all the time but to watch him die, repeatedly? Not as satisfying as I imagined.”

It sounded like he made an attempt at his usual sarcasm but Hugh saw right through it. He wrapped his arms around Paul to comfort him as his partner’s carefully built up composure started to come undone. He had a bad feeling about where this was going.

“Paul,” he began, “in all of these loops you went through, did you ever get any sleep or rest?”

“No,” was the simple answer he got.

“Did you eat anything?”

“Everything got reset every thirty minutes. I didn’t get hungry. I was busy.”

“Your body was reset,” Hugh said slowly, “but not your mind. Am I right?”

“Yes,” Paul said. Hugh noticed he had started shivering again, like sleep-deprived people do.

“Paul, how many loops were there?”

He fully expected Paul to avoid the question, to start rambling, and he was prepared to argue about—

“62.”

He was not prepared for that.

“Plus the final one where we left the time loop.”

Hugh’s stomach made a jolt as if someone had pulled the ground out from under his feet. This was a lot worse than he had anticipated. It wasn’t just the number itself, or how unexpectedly easy it had been to get it out of Paul. The manner in which it spilled out immediately, as if Paul knew only too well exactly how many loops there had been, felt deeply alarming.

“That’s over thirty hours under constant, high stress,” he said slowly, still trying to process the meaning of his own words at the same time. “On top of the time you’ve already been awake today and the aftermath, that’s over 48 hours without sleep, Paul!”

“If you say so,” Paul mumbled, his mind seemingly still elsewhere. “I’ve done worse.”

“And I don’t even doubt that. But not under these circumstances.”

“No. Not like this. Not … not watching you die.”

Hugh stared at him in shock. Maybe it was a bad habit that came with being a doctor, but he hadn’t even thought about himself for one second.

“The—the reason why I kept going without you,” Paul explained, “wasn’t because I didn’t trust you, or because you didn’t believe me, or because you wouldn’t have been able to help. The—the ship exploding was one thing; it’s fire and agony, but it’s over in a second. But going through that, seeing you die, over and over again, knowing that it’s coming and unable to do anything about it? That’s different.” His face was twisted into a grimace, and Hugh could tell that he was holding back tears, barely. “Watching Mudd shoot you with a phaser? Or throwing his murder sphere at you that disintegrates people like burning paper? That’s—” He swallowed, trying to steady his voice. It didn’t work. “I couldn’t stand watching that anymore.”

He leaned into Hugh now, forehead resting on his shoulder, tears silently trickling down his face and soaking trough the fabric of Hugh’s shirt. He didn’t ask how many times Paul had seen him die. He was too afraid of the answer.

“And do you know what the worst part is? You’d think it would get easier eventually. That—that you might get used to it. That you become numb to the pain after the tenth, twentieth, thirtieth time.” His voice was quiet, barely audible, but every word pierced right through Hugh’s heart. “It didn’t. I became more scared every time, because I always feared that this loop might be the last, and you would be gone forever.”

They sat like this in silence for a long while. Paul seemed to be completely drained of words, and Hugh was at a loss how to comfort him, other than with his presence reassuring Paul that everything was okay.

Eventually, Paul stirred again, wiping his face and mumbling, “I’m tired.”

“Of course.”

With Hugh helping him up, he stumbled to his feet, but couldn’t hold his balance, so Hugh carefully guided him over to the bed. Paul barely managed to wiggle out of his jacket and boots before he sunk down on the bed and refused to get up again. Hugh sighed sympathetically and covered him with the blanket.

He tried to tell himself that it wasn’t his fault that Paul’s day had been hell and he hadn’t even been aware of it. That there was nothing he could have done. That still didn’t make it fair. As much as he always wished for Paul to change his mind about Starfleet, he never should have gotten involved in any of this. Hugh had requested his transfer to the Discovery to take care of Paul, to protect him. Today had been another reminder that life didn’t work that way. Paul had saved the day. His Paul, he thought with a sense of pride. His words from a few weeks ago crossed his mind again: A brilliant but reckless maniac who’s willing to risk his life for glory. For glory …? No, Hugh thought, and warmth spread inside his chest, for me.

When he turned away to pick up his PADD from the table he felt something tugging at the hem of his shirt. It was Paul.

“Come to bed,” he mumbled.

“I’ll be right there in a moment,” Hugh said with a reassuring smile. “Just making sure you get plenty of rest for a few days.”

Paul seemed to be satisfied with that answer, because he let go, mumbled something unintelligible, and snuggled deeper into his blanket. Still smiling, Hugh picked up his PADD to type a short medical report into Paul’s file. He made sure to forward it to Lorca as well. Then he placed his PADD back down on the table and returned to the bed. Paul’s breathing had evened out, it looked like he was already—

“Hugh?”

He knelt down in front of the bed. Paul was looking intensely at him, visibly straining to keep his still reddened eyes open. Hugh reached out his hand to stroke his soft, blond hair, while placing his other hand on Paul’s, resting on the bed.

“Yes?”

“Hugh … please don’t ever die again. Please … promise me you won’t.”

Hugh watched him for a moment, not sure how to respond. As a doctor, he knew life was unpredictable, and often too fragile.

He placed a kiss on Paul’s forehead.

“I’ll do my best.”