Chapter 1: See and understand
Their first night onboard the Discovery isn't at all what they expected it to be.
Instead of celebrating the fact that they are finally living together, Hugh Culber finds himself trying very hard to be sympathetic to Paul who is irritable and in a foul mood and not at all happy with the military design of the ship that is supposed to be a science vessel.
Instead of revelling in the knowledge that waking up next to Hugh will be part of his daily routine from now on, Paul Stamets finds himself being at his most obnoxious and abrasive – allowing for biting sarcasm to conceal how he cannot quite shake the feeling that Starfleet will take the beauty he sees in mycelium and turn it into something dangerous and unforgiving. He feels bad because of it but he cannot help it.
He is miserable and not even Hugh can make that go away right now.
Instead of shutting the world, the universe, everything out for just this one night, Paul and Hugh end up spending their time in silence, watching space drift by - barely aware of their reflections on the glass-like surface before them as neither one bothers to activate the screens.
As always, when they come, Paul's apologies are never extensive. But they are genuine. And while, after what seems like hours to both of them, a nearby nebula paints the room in soft, copper hues he signals Hugh that this time will be no different. His partner deserves as much.
“This should have been a special evening. You and me, finally together. It-,” for a second he has no idea how to finish that sentence, “It's all just a bit much right now.”
He is aware there is more that he should say, more he should explain, only he doesn't even know where to start. Of course, though, Hugh understands.
His warm fingers wrap around Paul's left hand, his soft smile illuminated in the most beautiful of ways as he sighs, “I know.”
And he always does, doesn't he? It's one of the mysteries Paul believes he will never be able to solve: How Hugh always seems to be able to see him and understand.
Their first night onboard Discovery isn't at all what they expected it to be.
Instead of being jubilant and excited they just slip into bed wordlessly, bodies curled towards each other, with nothing but the soft hum of the engines to surround them and melt into their breathing.
Instead of feeling like in midst this war something beautiful and big is happening, Paul seeks comfort in Hugh's presence, and Hugh grants it willingly.
Together they fall asleep, fore-heads touching, hands entwined in a silent promise to be there for each other and protect what means the most to them. To never let go.
Their first night onboard the Discovery isn't what they expected it to be, but it is all they needed.
Chapter 2: Reaching out
"Hugh Culber cannot sleep. He tries to, he really does, but every time he closes his eyes the same image keeps assaulting his mind – causing his pulse to throb in his veins and his breath to catch in his throat."
Episode tag for S1E5 "Choose Your Pain".
Hugh Culber cannot sleep. He tries to, he really does, but every time he closes his eyes the same image keeps assaulting his mind – causing his pulse to throb in his veins and his breath to catch in his throat.
Motionless on the biobed, blood trickling lazily from four wounds that didn‘t seem too deep at first glance but which Hugh instantly knew not to dismiss so easily.
It all comes back to him in circles, and the more he struggles against the memory the more it haunts him:
The panic he felt when he realised the emergency transport to sickbay had been engaged from Engineering. The earth-shattering fear that coloured his every thought as the tricorder started its work to assess Paul’s condition.
All of it is there again, and he has troubles reminding himself that he has just gone through their evening-routine together with him couple of hours ago. That everything is okay.
It doesn’t help that his brain is determined to recite the results of his initial scan in great detail every chance it gets.
Both lungs punctured, one of them already collapsing.
The pericardium showing signs of a near hit while the lower spikes had obviously dug themselves into spleen and liver respectively, causing internal bleeding.
Two rips cracked, and he will not even get started on the messed up blood work.
The entire mechanism was built to operate on a Tardigrade, not human tissue, and that showed.
“Damn it, Paul!” The bitter taste of Paul having left him in the dark about his plans to inject himself with the foreign DNA forces the words out of him before he is even aware he speaks them.
Hugh felt like shouting at him, like screaming and crying all at once as Paul lay before him, unresponsive. He still feels like that now.
Automatically his left hand reaches out, fisting the fabric of Paul‘s shirt – a reminder that he is still here, still so very real and alive.
„How could you do that to me?“
Hugh knows Paul won‘t answer. He was out like a light as soon as he joined him in their shared bed, his system recovering from the ordeal he had put it through.
Leaving Hugh to deal with the fallout on his own.
Honesty has always been the foundation of their relationship, but for the first time in their life Paul has shut him out. And the very thought alone hurts.
He scoots a little closer, needing the proximity and what it entails. Paul‘s chest is rising and falling softly, his breath ghosting over the back of his hand and Hugh feels just that tiny bit better.
Paul is okay.
The tricorder found nothing out of the ordinary when he checked him over and over again after his release from medbay.
Despite everything there‘s that sliver of doubt in his head, and he simply cannot shake that one. He cannot forget what it felt like and he wishes Paul would promise to never do something as stupid again.
But he knows his partner better than that.
Paul might be prickly and insufferable towards strangers, he might be distant to those he doesn‘t trust but beneath that cold exterior he cares. For everyone but himself.
You were in danger.
Hugh snorts bitterly into the darkness. Paul had wasted not a single thought on how Hugh‘s entire world would have fallen to pieces if that spore drive had killed him. Most likely it hadn‘t even occurred to him that Hugh would have preferred to not be safe if only that meant he was with the man he loved.
„I swear I hate you sometimes,“ he finally hisses into the shoulder his face is now pressed against but there is no sting to his words, just the echo of his own pain.
Of all the ridiculously brilliant scientists in the universe he had to fall in love with this one.
His arm moves of its own volition, circling around his partner‘s waist and pulling the sleeping form next to him as close as possible. Even when dreaming Paul automatically adjusts, shifting slightly so that he is now turned towards Hugh and his left hand wraps itself about its counterpart in a long practiced motion.
A happy sigh escapes thin lips as Paul‘s body relaxes in this new position, and Hugh Culber knows that he is done for.
Has been ever since he really saw the man hiding behind all the snark and sarcasm.
He will not be able to change the ways in which Paul Stamets thinks and acts, but at least he can try to look out for him.
He knows Paul will step into that infernal machine again, because that‘s just who he is. Perhaps though Hugh can find something to make the process safer, to aid him and make sure the two of them won’t ever have to go through today’s nightmare again.
Already the idea for a possible design forms in his head, but as Paul‘s steady breathing finally calms his own heart, Hugh senses sleep tug at his mind - and he welcomes it.
Burrowing his face into the curve of his partner’s neck, Paul‘s scent surrounds him. Slowly, finally, Hugh is falling asleep - the images of the day making way for the warmth that is them being together.
And right now that is all, really, that Hugh wants.
Chapter 3: Spiralling
"For just a second Paul can pretend that this is any odd ordinary day and that Hugh will come home any minute. And they will change into their pyjamas and brush their teeth together and just talk. Except -
Except that Hugh is gone. And these are his quarters now. And he is alone."
CHAPTER WARNING: Canon character death.
I'm sorry. Just like in the show this has to get worse before it gets better.
„Are you,” Tilly hesitates, of course she does, “are you alright, Lieutenant?”
“Yes.” No. “Yes, of course.”
The words are out before he can even think about telling her the truth. She scrutinises him for a moment, clearly debating whether to comment on his blatant lie or accept it and let him be for once.
Her mouth opens, but then she closes it again. Either she is too tired to pick up this particular fight, or for the first time in her life Sylvia Tilly doesn't have any words to offer. None that would help anyway, and somehow Paul appreciates either of the two options.
The war is finally over. Earth, the Federation, their ship – they all are safe now. It still feels unreal in a way. Only a couple of hours ago they were on the losing end. Now though there is a moon where his kids grow and turn a barren landscape into a beautiful forest brimming with life. Now there is a new Klingon leader. Now the killing stops.
Too late for too many.
He sighs heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose as a head-ache announces itself. He doesn't think it's from his latest jump though, rather it's the events finally catching up with him.
Dying, waking from a coma, crossing the boarder between realities, again , and finally ending a war – that is a bit much for one day. Even for him.
“You should probably get some sleep.”
Tilly's voice startles him. He realises he has briefly forgotten she is still here at all, and the smallest trace of annoyance melts into his posture. It was bad enough when Hugh constantly worried and tried to get him to eat more regularly and get enough rest and...
Horrendous as their return has been: coming back to a universe that was nearly lost to them, learning of how many souls had perished in those nine months that the Discovery missed by overshooting – at least it has given him an excuse to focus and not spare a single thought to what had happened.
Who he himself had lost.
Suddenly Tilly's eyes on him feel like an unbearable weight, her sympathy like a physical assault and he snaps without meaning to.
“How about minding your own business, cadet?”
The flash of hurt in her gaze isn't lost on him, but he cannot find it in him to care. He will likely feel bad about it later, but right now he is protecting himself. And he has always done that by lashing out.
“I … I'm sorry, Sir. I didn't mean to,” she stammers at last, trying for an apology but somehow this only makes it worse. Because he can hear it in her voice that she cares and he cannot handle that right now.
Because the only one he wants to care about him is gone, and with the war ended there is no way he can hide from that truth any longer.
“I just thought... because you've been through so much and...”
He doesn't let her finish.
“What part of 'mind your own business' didn't you understand,” he grunts through gritted teeth, fixing her with the darkest look that he can muster. Irrational anger is his friend now, and his doom. Something inside of him is breaking free, using the cracks that frustration creates - and watching Tilly recoil just that tiny bit feeds into whatever it is inside of him that currently fights its way to the surface.
Pale hands start fidgeting with the edges of her sleeves and he just knows that she is even more worried now, that he just confirmed the very thing to her he doesn't want anyone to see: That only now that things are slowing down a part of him truly starts to understand.
And it hurts.
Paul has always been a very private person, opening up only to a selected few who had – miraculously - managed to gain his trust. Somewhere deep inside he can acknowledge that Tilly is well on her way of being added to that small circle of people, but he isn't ready for that yet. Not right now anyway.
Maybe one day he can share his grief with her, bear her nursing nature but in this very second all he wants to do is get away. And thus he turns sharply, avoids to even look at her while he leaves her standing there - his stride purposeful and hiding the tremble that is starting in his legs.
He has to get away.
As faces and people rush past him in the corridors, Paul can sense his breathing become erratic, his pulse quicken. Voices, laughter and the ever present hum of their vessel turn into an overwhelming mixture and it simply becomes too much.
He all but stumbles into their quarters, letting the door slide shut, and finally there is silence. He relishes it for a moment, appreciates hearing his own breath enter and leave his lungs in an unsteady rhythm.
This has been his safe haven ever since the war started. This has been a sort of home when life came bearing down on him.
He looks around, taking it all in.
His things are everywhere, their shared life imprinted in the very atmosphere within these walls. He can still feel it, can still distinguish his scent. It lingers, and for just a second the world feels alright.
For just a second Paul can pretend that this is any odd ordinary day and that Hugh will come home any minute. And they will change into their pyjamas and brush their teeth together and just talk.
Except that Hugh is gone. And these are his quarters now. And he is alone.
Suddenly the reality of that simple truth is pressing in on him again with full force, sending him spiralling without warning. Suddenly, the silence in here is suffocating him, but he cannot go back out there either.
His face is pressed into a pillow before he even understands that he has moved, his body shaking without his consent as an ugly, pitiful wail forms in his throat.
Distantly he is aware of clutching a maroon shirt that lay forgotten under the covers, notices his fingers dig into the material and hold on for dear life. He wants to scream against the pain inside that is consuming him, wants to fight it with his voice. But nothing comes, his lips remain sealed.
He is lying in the darkness, falling quickly into an abyss. And he is frightened.
He has been at this point before - that night after he saw Justin's disfigured body on the Glenn. But he'd had Hugh then.
Hugh who wrapped him in his arms, sheltering him and keeping him from falling to deep. Hugh whose voice anchored him lest he got lost in his grief and pain.
There is no one here to catch him now.
All that is left around him is emptiness and the unbearable silence. And he surrenders to them, not knowing if he will surface on the other side. Silent tears soak the fabric beneath his face until everything seems just as empty within.
What little is left for Paul to feel before his body eventually gives in to lack of sleep and exhaustion is fear. Fear of waking to a new morning without him by his side.
Part of him would rather not wake up again at all.
The thought is there but for a fragment of a second, piercing his desperate heart and at last forcing a broken sound from his mouth.
“I'm sorry, Hugh.”
It's the only thing he knows to say before the world around him finally crumbles and he succumbs to a fitful sleep that is filled with haunting dreams of the past and a future that cannot ever happen - blissfully unaware that they are but the first in an endless stream originating in this darkest of nights.
Chapter 4: The Emptiness Within
"There are moments when he feels like he just needs to reach out and reconnect with this life, but in the end it always eludes him. He can't feel anything in view of this past, and that emptiness is deeply unsettling."
Set after S2E8 "If Memory Serves".
He slams his hands against the wall of his newly assigned quarters, deliberately using more force with his left one - knowing it will do no good to the barely healed bones that he broke a few days ago, during his attack on Tyler. As expected, the pain comes ringing through his wrist and into every single finger before travelling upwards until it reaches his shoulder.
Hugh doesn't even wince. He relishes the sensation. It's an easy one. As basic as hunger and thirst and the need to sleep, and at least he still understands those. Everything else he cannot process anymore. Everything else feels alien.
He bends over some, rests his forehead against the wall, and even that simple information of something cold meeting his skin there is foreign to him. He remembers it of course, just like he remembers touch, but his body and his mind have still not re-aligned yet.
Every single memory, every experience – physical or emotional – appears like it was taken from a different person, a different life. He doesn't know what to do with that feeling, doesn't even know what this all means in terms of who he is.
He cannot stand company, is utterly overwhelmed by that onslaught of expectations and questions he sees in the eyes of those around him.
Everyone on board either regards him as if he were a miracle and not entirely human any longer (and is he, really, with this new body having been formed out of a mycelial cocoon) , or as if nothing happened at all and they could just continue where they left off.
He sighs involuntarily, out of frustration more than anything else.
Paul is the one whose presence he can tolerate least of all these days, because Paul combines both in his every gaze.
Paul looks at him as if he was his Hugh, the Hugh who died at the hands of that Klingon hiding beneath a Starfleet uniform, and it is a mixture of marvel and love and unbound happiness that he hurls at him every time they share a room.
And Hugh cannot stand that any longer.
He isn't the man anymore that Paul remembers. He is an empty shell knowing of a past that does not seem to belong to him, and that is just not good enough.
Of course Hugh has not forgotten. He remembers loving Paul and feeling safe in his arms, always. He remembers their evenings and waking up next to his prickly scientist. He remembers the disappointment when Paul, once again, didn't come home for dinner and how they hardly had any time for each other after the war started.
There are moments when he feels like he just needs to reach out and reconnect with this life, but in the end it always eludes him. He can't feel anything in view of this past, and that emptiness is deeply unsettling.
Paul waiting for their life to return to normal only makes it worse. This broken hope in brilliant blue eyes, the pain every time Hugh flinches back when Paul does so much as lay a hand on his shoulder - Paul is pushing him towards something that Hugh can not possibly give right now. He would like to explain it to the other man, too, but how can he do that when he doesn't yet understand it himself?
And so he runs.
Hugh hasn't talked much to the astromycologist after their fight. In fact, he barely saw the other man since then - requesting his own quarters that very same day because he just knew that he could not sleep in that bed again.
That bed is Paul's and Hugh's. And he doesn't feel like he is part of that equation any longer.
A grunt escapes him as he finally pushes back from the wall. His thoughts are going in circles. Every evening ends up being like this, and a part of him wishes it would just stop. But it doesn't. Of course it doesn't. Because each day he is reminded of what his fate is doing not only to him but those he used to care about as well.
He knows he hurt Paul deeply, continues to hurt him with keeping his distance. He knows he needs the time for himself, to come to terms with whatever limbo of existence he is in right now, but knowing he does it at Paul's expense isn't sitting right with something inside of him.
It is too distant to be a real feeling and yet too profound to just dismiss. It drives him crazy, this echo of something that seems long gone and yet clings to him in ways he cannot even begin to fathom.
And so, not for the first time, he takes the mild sedative that Dr. Pollard has given him to help his new body develop a normal sleep-cycle while out in the depths of space. It helps keep the nightmares at bay, too, although fear at least he does comprehend as well.
Sinking into the bed that holds no scent but his own, and with the drug slowing his thoughts down in a strangely pleasant way, he can almost ignore how Paul most certainly lies curled up in his own quarters, three floors down from here, longing for the person that Hugh is supposed to be.
Chapter 5: After The Storm
"If he is being honest with himself Hugh doesn't even know what he is searching for here. Or he does, but he can't quite understand it in its entirety yet."
Episode tag for S2E14 "Such Sweet Sorrow Pt.2"
He is already half at the scanners that will check him and his authorisation when all of a sudden he pauses.
The corridor around him is empty and silent, a testament to the state of the entire ship and its remaining crew. Under the muted artificial light of this section the grey walls appear devoid of all colour and somehow, he thinks, that bleakness is oddly fitting.
Everyone onboard is run down and tired, the rush of adrenaline from the battle long since gone and leaving only weariness in its wake.
Hugh blows out air through his nose, lingering in the quiet for just a moment.
He spent the last ten hours in sickbay - completing multiple surgeries and trying his best to get his patients stable, tending to small injuries and serious ones alike and calming down those in his care that were frightened and in pain. He spent that entire time forcing himself to remain focused and collected while something inside him screamed to stay with Paul instead, and his attention was always half on him and his vitals.
Although they might assume otherwise Hugh didn't miss the doubtful glances his colleagues shot him whenever the need for confirmation that Paul was doing okay became too overwhelming and he returned to his bedside, if just briefly, and he assumes that at one point a talk about this is going to follow. Right now, however, he cannot find it in him to care.
Scrubbing his hands over his face he resumes the previously abandoned movement, having no idea what to even expect. After Tracy all but threw him out, pulling rank and stubbornly ignoring his objection that she must be just as overworked and in need of rest, he found himself wander Discovery's floors aimlessly until his mind at last settled on a destination.
If he'd had his way he would have stayed in sickbay – always at the ready if something happened, if he was needed. It would not have been the first time he did a double shift under less than ideal circumstances, too. As it is though he is ordered to get some sleep and maybe that is a good thing after all, considering the slight shaking of his hands that he only truly notices now that he approaches Paul's quarters.
Not his own. Paul's.
For a second he wonders if he even still has access to them but realises he isn't surprised when the door slides open the very instant he gets close enough. For all that Paul spoke about forward motion earlier, apparently he wasn't able to move on at all.
There is a frown that he can't suppress at the notion, and then he enters.
If he is being honest with himself Hugh doesn't even know what he is searching for here. Or he does, but he can't quite understand it in its entirety yet.
Everything in here is still unchanged, except for the few now missing pieces that he took with him when he moved out a couple of weeks ago – most of which are now on the Enterprise. Nine hundred years in the past. His mother will receive something personal of him after all.
Without haste his gaze sweeps over furniture and what little decoration there has always been. Somehow he expected Paul to ask to be re-assigned to different quarters after Hugh had requested his own on another floor, but of course Paul never did so. He kept holding on to them even when Hugh was shutting him out, pushing him away in his search for what this second chance at life really meant for him, and who he was now in the first place.
It had frustrated Hugh at the time, but as he stands here now he is grateful for the familiarity. Not because of whatever is left of himself here, but because of Paul.
Hugh's scent has long vanished from this place, leaving only Paul's to fill the room and as soon as that registers in his mind Hugh knows exactly why he came here.
While the door closes behind him, he sinks down on the floor in front of the bed that once used to be theirs. The covers are meticulously made, and Hugh cannot help the almost amused huff that escapes his lungs at the image.
He used to tease Paul about it many times: how he, the civilian in all but rank, was more adamant about it than Hugh, who had been in Starfleet for years, could ever imagine to be. The memory of one particular morning almost bends his lips into a tentative smile, but the motion dies quickly when he makes the mistake to look at his hands.
His hands that tried to soothe Paul when he was all too obviously scared of entering another coma. The very fingers that slowly pulled the metal from his chest, simultaneously sealing blood vessels and mending the surrounding tissue lest his system went into hypovolaemic shock. The same hands that grabbed hypo after hypo with agonising precision when despite his best efforts Paul's heart nearly gave out after the procedure.
The sleeves of his uniform are still blood-stained.
There was no time to change. In between instructing crew that had come to help and trying to keep the severely injured from dying even things like that had to take a back-seat. They still lost three more lives and for a split second Hugh feels physically sick knowing that Paul could so easily have been one of them.
In a sudden and uncharacteristically aggressive move he unzips his jacket, pulls it off without even shifting from his spot and slams it against the nearest wall where it lands with an angry thud. As if that might help keep the rising panic at bay.
He really should know better than that.
Only a little deeper. If that shrapnel had embedded itself but a little deeper into Paul's thorax there would have been nothing anyone on the medical track could have done. He would have bled to death on his way to sickbay, believing that Hugh had left him behind to start a new life. Finding happiness without him by his side.
His throat constricts at the mere idea of it, robbing him of his next breath. Out of the blue there is a weight on his chest that feels all-encompassing, and Hugh is being crushed beneath it.
You've got a second chance. It may not last forever.
Reno's words had turned out to be painfully true. And he almost screwed it up.
His decision to return was a last minute one, literally, and as he sits here, surrounded by his past, trying desperately to regain some form of control over his now trembling body, he is equal parts bitter about everything that life threw at them, and infinitely glad for the choice he made.
Paul is stable for now. His vitals are being fed to his PADD and Hugh knows he will be alerted if there is any change to his condition. Tracy begrudgingly accepted the premise, knowing that acting CMO or not Hugh would not have agreed to leave otherwise.
Letting his head fall back he forces air into his lungs, repeats that knowledge in his mind - reminding himself of that as long as the PADD remains silent Paul is going to be fine. The medically induced coma will last for another five hours at least, which is also the time Hugh has been ordered to stay away from sickbay and get some proper rest. This room, here, is possibly the only place on board he has any chance of actually finding it.
All that alienated him after he came back from the network is of comfort to him now: the warmth, Paul's clothes in the closet, the table they used to eat at whenever Hugh prepared dinner for them. He focuses on that, works through the rapid beating of his heart as it thrums near violently against his ribcage until, slowly, the panic ebbs away – leaving him utterly drained of whatever energy he had left.
After what feels like hours to him, and through an almost inhuman effort Hugh eventually pushes himself off the floor to get rid of the rest of his uniform. The image of Paul, bleeding and in pain, is still on the edge of his mind and he does the only thing he can think of that might help chase that ghost away.
Only a couple of weeks ago he could not have imagined ever lying in this bed again, but as he slips under the covers now – at Paul's side, not his own - he knows that he made the right call coming here.
Everything feels like Paul here and the sensation seems so right that for the first time since what was essentially his resurrection Hugh feels some semblance of being at home.
Burying his face in the pillow he almost doesn't notice the tears that are trailing down his cheeks unbidden, but also unhindered. It seems like it has been mere days since he couldn't feel anything at all – now it is simply being too much.
Placing his PADD on the night-stand closest to his position, Hugh pulls the covers around him as tightly as he can. Paul's scent is all around him this way and he concentrates on that, allows himself to get lost in it and ignore the still existing knowledge that he isn't quite who he once used to be and that thus maybe they will not be the same either.
Nothing has been certain for him lately, and he has no idea where this new path will lead them. But as his pulse finally falls into a calmer rhythm, he realises that there is one thing he does know:
He will make sure that Paul recovers from his injuries. And he truly did mean what he said to him.
Wherever he will go from here, he will go together with Paul.
It's his last conscious thought before his exhaustion at last gets a chance to win over and sleep does claim him after all.
It is also the most reassuring notion he can possibly imagine.
Chapter 6: Catch You When You Fall
"They stay like this through dreamless hours, unmoving. Almost as if, even when not conscious, both of them are afraid to let go."
When I sat down to write this chapter I really wanted it to be full of fluff but I had just seen RENT the other day and... well, I guess all those feelings had to go somewhere. I'm sorry. If my muse is up to it I might just compensate for that with a bonus chapter.
This is set after the end of Season 2.
The first night after Paul's release from sickbay, Hugh puts together dinner in their old quarters. He makes sure it is nutritious and that he adds enough of Paul's favourites so that chances are good Paul will finish most of his meal because he has lost weight and he still looks too pale even for his standards.
When they sit down to eat he lets soft music play in the background, though it is nothing of what used to be their usual fare. Instead the simple instrumental pieces fill the air with something new and strangely comforting when everything else feels just a little unfamiliar even though it shouldn't be.
Outside, Terralysium looms in all its ethereal beauty while Discovery orbits the planet lazily, allowing its crew to settle into this new life at their own pace and in safety.
Inside, Paul and Hugh eat in silence, each of them lost in their own thoughts.
Every now and again Hugh looks at Paul out of the corner of his eyes, a soft frown always present on his face when he does so and Paul wants nothing more than to ask him about the reason for it. He has, however, decided weeks ago already to give Hugh whatever time and space he needs and so he just lets those moments pass by, focuses on that sliver of hope instead that grows with every minute they are near to each other without the other man being poised to run.
When his plate is mostly empty and he is relatively certain that Hugh is satisfied, Paul eventually leans back in his seat and closes his eyes. His left arm wraps about his chest protectively, his fingertips tracing the outline of the brace that will support his torso for a couple more days, and almost he wonders if this isn't just another dream of his.
He listens to the soft breaths that draw in and out of Hugh's chest, revels in how he believes he can discern his scent from his own and he is so wrapped up in it all that he startles when suddenly a warm hand settles on his elbow.
„Paul, is everything alright?“
He turns slightly, because Hugh deserves to be looked at, and when finally blue eyes re-appear under almost white lashes, time for a single second seems to stand still.
There is nothing but the truest kind of affection in the brown of Hugh's gaze, and it mixes with that honest and ever present worry that the other man can never quite shake or hide whenever Paul has done something stupid or dangerous, and just seeing it there again cuts through him in the most beautiful way.
His right hand lifts of its own accord, pausing mid-air only shortly to ask for approval and when Hugh nods ever so imperceptibly, it meets with his counterpart – melts against it as if there had never been a time when it wasn't allowed to do so, and automatically his thumb begins stroking perfectly soft skin.
„Never been better.“ His voice is barely above a whisper and Paul himself is surprised by how small and tired he sounds. And how incredibly amazed.
For a heartbeat he hesitates to go on, but then he feels Hugh's hand shift and turn upwards, their fingers interlacing effortlessly and it is enough to set Paul's mind at ease.
„I thought I could never have this again,“ he finally says, squeezing the hand in his gently before he smiles sheepishly. It's a tiny little thing that bends his lips and it doesn't do justice at all to what this really means to him, but right now he has neither other words nor the strength to give Hugh more than this simple admission. And so he settles on the only thing he hopes will disclose at least some of what he can't possibly express:
„Thank you. For everything.“
Paul's truth echoes between them, Hugh's free hand reaching across the distance in the wake of it. And when it moves to caress his left temple Paul cannot help but lean into the touch.
His eyes burn treacherously and his heart beats a thunderous rhythm. Briefly he wonders if it might just burst out of his chest like this but of course it stays put right where it shattered at the hands of a Klingon those many months ago - the broken pieces ready to grow back together one by one.
„Let's get you into bed. You look like hell.“ Hugh's voice is infinitely soft and caring when he answers without replying, and while there is something else lying just beneath the surface – a kind of regret that Paul cannot place or discern right now – the fond teasing has its desired effect.
Paul chuckles despite himself, careful not to stress his freshly healed ribcage, a real smile now lighting up his eyes.
„Well, at least I have a reason to look like this,“ he counters playfully. He has missed this, has missed their little banters more than he dares to admit - even to himself. The realisation, oddly, hurts. “You on the other hand-”
The not so subtle hint has Hugh laugh, because unsurprisingly Paul is right.
The two of them both look awful. One because he actually nearly died four days ago, the other because he hardly got any sleep since then. Being haunted by a future he had almost given up on does that to you, and it is only now that Paul is here with him, breathing and so very clearly alive, that Hugh begins to unwind.
One day, he knows, he will apologise to Paul for all that he put him through. For the days and weeks that he treated him like a near stranger, for how he let him get caught in the crossfire of Hugh's own crisis and his search for himself. Right now, however, is not the time.
Right now he only wants to lie down next to him and leave the universe itself outside. He hopes it's what Paul wants, too.
They change into their familiar red pyjamas once Hugh has put away the last remnants of their meal, helping Paul afterwards when pulling the sweater over his head makes him wince in pain. There is a moment of hesitation between them as he moves to guide Paul's arms into the sleeves, the silent question if this, if his touch, is okay hanging between them before Paul's muscles relax and he gives Hugh free reign.
Hugh doesn't miss the small shiver that travels across fair skin at the contact, nor does he miss the strange look in Paul's eyes after his work is done.
They brush their teeth, a sense of wonder and awe filling the room as they watch their reflections look back at them in unison. And when finally they are ready to get in bed Paul at last starts to fall.
Without warning and unable to stop it his body begins to shake the very second he feels the mattress dip next to him under Hugh's weight. It is such a trivial thing to sense, something that should not send him spiralling when they have already spent the whole evening together. But it does. Because it reminds him of all those nights he was alone with his grief and his longing and a world that had fallen to ashes.
Suddenly the searing desperation of days gone by is there again, burning him from the inside out when he has no means to defend himself, and he doesn't find the strength to ask for permission when he reaches out blindly, his fingers digging into Hugh's skin as, instantly, he appears at Paul's side .
He doesn't see the cold dread which seems to draw all colour from the normally warm brown gaze that zeros in on him.
His blood is rushing in his ears, his own strangled sob that seemingly comes out of nowhere but which really had just been waiting to break free pulling him deeper in, and somewhere on the edge of his consciousness Paul can also feel the pain that shoots up from his chest at the exertion.
He is drowning in the echo of his own agony, in everything he tried to hold back for weeks and months on end – until suddenly Hugh's voice is there with him.
Everything else is being blissfully muted when soft murmurs begin weaving their way through the maelstrom that he cannot escape on his own from, and gentle hands card through blond hair relentlessly in an attempt to calm him down.
„Shh, it's okay, Paul,“ Hugh keeps repeating this, over and over. Maybe there are tears in his voice as well. „I'm right here. I'll not be going anywhere.“
And then Paul is in Hugh's arms, his fore-head pressed against a warm neck while Hugh rides out the wave with him till slowly, gradually Paul ceases to tremble.
When finally his breaths come somewhat evenly again, Paul finds himself cling to Hugh like to a lifeline, and Hugh lets him.
Hugh has always felt safe in Paul's arms, but tonight he will be there for him when Paul seeks comfort in his presence instead. He will let him find shelter from those demons he could not protect him from. Demons that he himself in part created.
When at long last they fall asleep like that, with their cheeks still slightly moist and their bodies curled around each other, their hands are still entwined and their faces mere inches apart.
They stay like this through dreamless hours, unmoving. Almost as if, even when not conscious, both of them are afraid to let go.
And when they awake the next day, long past their normal time and with Paul's head nestled safely under Hugh's chin, they will realise that something meaningful has happened. Because it will have been the first night since their ordeal started, the first time since it all began, that neither of them woke up screaming.
Chapter 7: Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
So this is it. The bonus chapter I wasn't quite sure if it would end up existing. But then I just couldn't not write it, because when you make it through the darkest night there will be a new morning.
This is (almost) entirely cuddly fluff. I sincerely hope you enjoy. And thank you to everyone who accompanied me on this tiny journey. I really appreciated the support. <3
The nearby suns bathe their quarters in rare shades of crimson, blue and glowing gold. The light shifts and reflects, painting pictures through the deactivated blinds.
Paul sighs. Quietly. Contently.
He feels warm, inside and out. His thoughts are pleasantly empty and slow, his eyes still half-closed. Languidly he curls up just a bit more until his body lies flush against the still form in his arms.
Normally they would be long up by now but they have decided to sleep in today, and finally taking in his surroundings he couldn't be more pleased that they did.
His left arm is slung around Hugh's chest, holding him close and following the gentle motion of steady and deep breaths, the palm of his hand positioned just right to perceive the soothing rhythm of a beating heart.
Tilting his head a little Paul buries his nose in the crook of Hugh's neck, delighting in the scent and that almighty feeling of warmth and home that instantly floods his system and makes everything else in this world seem irrelevant.
All that matters is Hugh. All he wants is Hugh. And this.
Right here, right now he believes he must be the happiest man in the entire universe, and maybe he is. Maybe after all they have been through, after all the pain and the grief they have finally found peace.
It has been a year to the day that Paul almost died. A year since Hugh opened up his heart to him anew. A year since he was given a second chance in more ways than just one.
So much has happened in that time. They have grown together and learned once more what it means to be there for each other. To truly be a family.
And Paul wouldn't miss any second of it.
A small puff of air leaves his lungs. It ghosts across soft skin.
“I love you.”
He releases the whispered truth into the silence around them, doesn't expect any reply in return. Thus, when Hugh suddenly stirs, gently grasps the hand that lies above his heart and pulls it upwards, he startles.
Tender lips kiss his palm.
“Love you, too.”
The sleepy murmur tickles against Paul's wrist and almost he thinks he can feel Hugh's smile in the words. It's a beautiful sensation.
“Did I wake you up?”
Just beneath the surface there is a trace of insecurity, of worry even, in Paul's tone but Hugh is quick to shake his head against the hand he still cradles. Humming lazily he plants another kiss on it before he stretches and starts to turn around.
“And even if you did,” he adds with a voice still low and thick from sleep, “would be worth it.”
The sheets rustle quietly around them as Hugh repositions himself in Paul's arms, his eyes straying involuntarily to a spot on his chest to which his now free hand soon follows.
Absent-mindedly nimble fingers begin to trace the outline of a scar that doesn't exist – the memory of it however always present and reminding Hugh each day of what both of them, for a second time, had almost lost twelve months ago.
His name, uttered almost like a plea, pulls him back to the present.
Paul knows exactly where Hugh's thoughts are taking him and he has no intention to let him go down that lane. Not now. And so brilliant blue eyes implore the other man until at last they meet their destination.
“We're here, and we're okay.”
Brown is searching in the blue, drinking in the reassurance and the warmth until at last Hugh nods.
“Thanks for waiting for me.” He doesn't quite know if Paul understands but after a beat of silence, with his own words, Paul tells him that he does.
“Thanks for saving me. Again.”
Gentle fingers move to stroke along his jawline and Hugh leans into the touch as if on instinct.
Shifting impossibly closer he lets the feeling of being in Paul's arms, of feeling safe again, wash over him. And Paul is happy to do the same.
Nestling his forehead against Hugh's his focus is solely on the man next to him, on his proximity and this moment.
While their eyes drift shut again in perfect synchrony they both forget about time and space, about the past and the future they live in.
In the warm sunlight all that remains is this.
All that matters is them.
And that is more than they once had dared hope for.