Paul looked up, surprised by the engineer’s voice.
“Looks like your kid was right. You never leave your lab, do you?”
Paul quickly wiped at his eyes and avoided her scrutinous gaze.
“She’s not my kid.” Gosh, he hated how nasal and weak his voice still sounded.
“Really? Because to me both of you look like you’ve all but adopted each other. You must be her hero or something.” She huffed doubtfully. “Bright girl you picked up for your gardening project. Kind of a waste.”
“What can I say?” he responded with a sense of stubborn pride. “She loves mushrooms.”
“So, what’re you doing down there in the corner?” Reno asked when he didn’t bother to get up from the floor by the entrance to his old cultivation bay.
“Thinking,” he simply responded.
She made a noncommittal face and put the suitcase full of equipment she had been carrying down on the nearest workstation—which was actually Paul’s, but he had given up trying to reclaim it for now. Who knew for how much longer he would even be on the Discovery, and by then it would no longer matter anyway.
“Anything good come out of it?”
Great. He wouldn’t be getting out of this interrogation after all. For a moment there, it had seemed like they might be able to get along after all, despite the way their first conversation had gone. But right now, he wished for nothing more than some solitude.
“Wanna talk about it?”
Paul frowned at her.
“I didn’t take you for the listening and comforting type, Commander.”
“I’m not,” she said, while picking something apart with a tool Paul had never seen before. It looked suspiciously improvised. “But some people like talking about their problems to get them off their chest. So I probably won’t be listening, but I’m present, if you wanna rubber duck at me or anything …”
“I … don’t tend to talk about personal issues to strangers,” Paul said defensively.
Thanks for nothing, Paul thought. He was about to ask her to leave him alone and do her engineering somewhere else when she spoke again.
“Ensign Tilly said you lost someone recently.”
Of course she had. Poor Tilly—bless her heart—sometimes just didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. Not that he’d noticed her excitement ever since mere seconds after meeting Reno. Or that he’d felt some weird sense of jealousy towards Reno for that. Not at all. That would have been ridiculous, and entirely illogical.
He had to remind himself that she was still his superior officer before he snapped at her that this was none of her business.
“That who you were thinking about?”
A lump in his throat suddenly made it hard to swallow.
Paul had heard him. Fuck. Of course. The harmonic interface had been a bad idea. He knew it even while he was still building it. Somewhere out there, in between the all-encompassing melodies of the mycelium, he had heard Hugh’s voice. It had been worth it, of course, anything to try and save Tilly. But fuck, if it hadn’t hurt.
Reno took his silence as a yes.
“I always imagined him differently, you know.”
Paul squinted up at her.
“The guy Culber was dating.”
His face fell. Critical system error. It took a few seconds for his brain to reboot. He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came. He closed it again.
She looked at him once more with that piercing look that he couldn’t seem to hide or shield himself from. Something like sadness settled on her features for the first time.
“He was stationed on the Hiawatha before he transferred here.”
Right. Paul remembered. He had forgotten. How had he forgotten? Did it even matter? How had the name of the ship not rung a bell? Was this the first step towards forgetting Hugh?
The all-consuming pain inside his chest responded, no.
“We were good friends. Bright guy. Brighter smile. Witty. Charming.”
Unlike you. She didn’t need to say it for him to hear it. Paul knew, of course. Most people didn’t see whatever Hugh saw in him. Had seen. Even less so now, when he was probably at his lowest.
“I didn’t find out about his death until after you guys picked us up. I was sorry to hear it. Truly.”
At this moment, Paul wanted nothing more than to run away from this conversation, from the cold, harsh truth, from everything. Except spill his entire heart onto the floor.
“The Hiawatha … crashed …” His voice was shaking.
“‘Crashed’ is an understatement.”
“If Hugh hadn’t transferred …”
Her eyes fixed him again, he noticed it in his peripheral vision, blurred by tears. He kept staring into the distance.
“You’re blaming yourself.”
Slowly, he nodded.
“It’s not your fault. If he had stayed, he probably would’ve died. There’s a reason why your crew found me keeping my people alive on my own. None of our actual medical staff survived the crash. We took a bad hit.”
The fleeting sense of relief that Hugh’s death wasn’t his fault was immediately crushed by the realization that it had been inevitable, that no matter what either of them would or wouldn’t have done, even if it hadn’t been for Paul, and Hugh had stayed, he wouldn’t be alive today. He buried his face in his hands.
“Would be easier if I could just blame you, too. But I know it’s not true. Death doesn’t discriminate. We’ve all gotta live with our losses.” Her face hardened. Looking up, Paul could see her pain, too.
“You too?” he asked quietly.
She observed him for a moment, maybe deciding if he was worthy of sharing her personal details with him. But this time, he wasn’t intimidated by it.
“Yeah. Starbase 343. They’d taken in civilian refugees from nearby systems. Until the Klingons took it. No more civilians then.” Paul thought he saw her lower lip tremble. “Didn’t find out about that until afterwards, either.”
“I’m sorry,” Paul said in earnest.
“Culber chose this life, Stamets. And what’s more important, he chose you. So stop wallowing in self-pity, he deserves better than that.”
“I know.” He took a deep breath, then another. His voice steadied. “Thanks, Commander.”
She flicked her had dismissively.
“Commander, gormagander. Call me Reno.”
She held out a hand and he took it, allowing her to pull him up. For a moment he hesitated, then decided to trust her.
“I heard him. His voice.”
She stared at him. The words sounded bad enough to his own ears; he could only imagine what she must be thinking.
“The last time I used the harmonic interface. He’s …” Paul swallowed. “Shortly before the end of the war, I met something like him in the network. I don’t know if it’s a ghost, or his mind, or just the network playing with my memories of him.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“You sure this isn’t another trip?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t know. But if it was, I don’t think it’d hurt this much. I—I know he’s dead, and I have to let him go. But if a part of him is still trapped in there … don’t I have to help him? Even if I can’t bring him back … I at least want him to find peace.” He felt the familiar lump in his throat again. “Even if I don’t know if I can take saying goodbye again.”
Looking up, he saw the spark of warmth in Reno’s eyes as she looked at him. Then she smiled a little and patted him on the back.
“If there’s a way I can help you with that, Stamets, let me know.”
He smiled back.
“Thank you, Reno.”
“Hey—can’t have our boy haunting the mushroom network until the end of time.” She let her hand fall down and the smile turned sad. “If that’s true, you’re a lucky guy. I wish I could have said goodbye to my wife, too. Though she’d probably be making fun of me for bawling my eyes out, as usual.”
There was the glint in her eyes, the all too familiar spirit of someone using jokes to mask their pain. So, Paul chuckled, because he knew the appropriate response in this case was to indulge her and play along.
“Good to know that at least my gaydar is still working.”
Reno shook her head incredulously.
“You’re actually proud of yourself, huh? Do you know your ensign’s gay, too?”
He chuckled again.
“I’m pretty convinced she is, yeah. But don’t tell her, I don’t think she’s fully realized it herself yet. She needs to figure that out on her own.”
“Heh. I knew it. Adopted her.”
“Maybe. So what?”
“She’s a good kid. You better take good care of her, or I’m gonna steal her away from you.”
“You can try if you dare.”