The first thing Hugh notices when he leaves the transporter room is the almost palpable buzz of activity. People are hurrying down the corridors in an organised chaos – the crews of two ships doing their best to work together and function as one in so short a time. The mixture of standard Starfleet blue and Enterprise's colour coded uniforms makes for a fascinating display that just for a second has Hugh pause to take it all in.
From behind, more of Discovery's crew filter out into the hallways, joining those who had not beamed back for the jump to Xahea, and briefly Hugh entertains the idea to wait for the last of them to arrive – an irrational part of him wanting to make sure everyone gets here safely before Control does.
The more logical regions of his mind however are quite aware that there is little sense to this and of how, since she was among the first to return here when the Enterprise caught up, Tracy is no doubt already waiting for him to join their team in sickbay. Thus, with a near invisible shake of his head that is more meant for himself than anyone else, he proceeds to make his way to the nearest turbolift.
The walk is short enough and easy to navigate even though he has to weave through the crowds. Every once and again he nods in greeting when he passes personnel that he knows, his gaze automatically flicking across the faces in search of something, someone, that he doesn't dare put a name to even for himself.
Eager to push the resurfacing of this old habit off his mind, for what good would it do to think about it now, he welcomes the distraction that reaching the lift provides.
Getting in line to wait for the car to arrive his focus is quickly drawn to three ensigns to his right who share a quiet conversation. With their voices low and serious, there is a look in their eyes that somehow makes him feel uncomfortable when one of them suddenly glances at him with an odd mix of surprise and sympathy.
Although he had never been prone to eavesdropping he feels tempted to shift closer, or outright ask them about the nature of their discussion. But before he can settle on either of the two options the doors glide open, tearing his attention away from the trio rather abruptly.
Because right in front of him, with a deep scowl edged into her face, Tracy comes rushing through, closely followed by more of Discovery's medical staff.
Hugh barely manages to reach out and stop her before she storms past without even acknowledging his presence. The observation itself is startling to him.
Whirling around she fixes Hugh with a glare that he instantly knows is not aimed at him but which speaks of righteous anger and almost he is afraid to enquire about what happened.
However, he does it anyway.
“These idiots didn't tell us,” Tracy fumes, the outburst a far cry from her normally calm and collected demeanour. “Apparently they think that's a clever thing to do. Who needs medics anyway?”
Utterly clueless what she is talking about he frowns, poised to ask for an explanation. Tracy, thankfully, takes pity on him before he can even say a single thing.
“Half of Engineering and the Bridge Crew,” she clarifies, her tone softening a fraction. “Some others, too. They are following Burnham into the future.”
The information takes a second to really register with him, but as soon as it does Hugh blanches.
“How many in total?”
Tracy grunts in frustration. “Like it matters. They sure as hell won't be doing this alone.”
Obviously, she has already made up her mind.
The PADD in her hands is being subjected to a vice-like grip as she tilts her head towards where Miller is the last to be seen return to the transporter room. If Hugh noticed correctly, there's five nurses and two doctors – including Tracy – going back to the Discovery. It's a precious small staff to tend to a crew that is going into battle.
What were they thinking?
There is a beat of silence, an endless moment during which but one thought forms in his own head after that, almighty and with the potential to shake him to the core. He doesn't even question what it stems from. Nor does he consider the implications.
“Paul... Do you know if he's with them?”
He is surprised how steady his voice sounds, how calm he feels. He reckons it's because he already knows the answer.
Tracy regards him intently, her look assessing, before some of her tension dissolves to be replaced by compassion.
“Vasquez says he saw him and Ensign Tilly head back to the labs." Then, "I'm sorry, Hugh.”
He wants to say that she shouldn't be. Just, there are more pressing matters.
“Computer, locate Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets.”
He needs to know for certain, waits with baited breath.
The artifical voice, when it replies, is clinical. “Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets is not on board this ship.”
And just like this the world does stop turning. His blood runs cold.
Paul is on the Discovery. He didn't leave. Won't leave.
But why didn't he say?
Distantly, Hugh is aware of how his palms start to sweat. How his heart races. And something in his stomach constricts.
Paul told him about the job offer at the Science Academy, and that he might be accepting it. Did he knew then already that he would stay behind? Did he lie? Or did he make the decision after Hugh told him he planned to sign up for service on the Enterprise?
The notion makes him feel like he is losing the ground beneath his feet.
All that talk about forward motion, about a new life for both of them... Hugh was willing to trust in what Paul said: that this was the most honest choice for both of them. After all he had asked it of him in the first place, had asked Paul to move on. And believing in that hurt less than thinking of what he was giving up on.
Standing here however, amid dozens of people yet painfully alone, the lie he fed himself collapses.
Joining the Enterprise while Paul went on to teach at the academy - it would have lead them on separate paths, but always in the same universe. With millions of possibilities to maybe, some day, repair what they have lost. And while his system responds to what he searched for since his resurrection, he finally understands that he wants to do just that: build anew what has been destroyed.
He needs to have the hope at least.
That's the sole reason he believed in it, that's why he said good bye. Because there would have always been the possibility.
Not any more though.
If Paul goes now, if he follows Burnham, Hugh will lose him. He will lose him all over again. Only this time there will be no going back.
The realisation hits Hugh with full force. It turns his pulse into a violent drumbeat that is throbbing in his ears - almost even drowning out the alarm when it starts blaring, accompanied by Number One's voice.
“Enemy fleet arriving in 2 minutes. All hands to their stations.”
It sounds like an ultimatum to him. And in so many ways it is.
He has to make a choice. Now.
Tracy squeezes his left shoulder but it barely registers with him. “Take good care of yourself, Hugh.”
She is leaving, knows she needs to beam back as quickly as possible. Away from a ship that Hugh had thought could become a new home to him. A home that would forever feel empty.
He had been trying to fool himself.
For a split second it occurs to him that most of his things are still in the quarters he had been assigned to here on board, but strangely he finds he isn't bothered. Because it's so clear to him now that he wonders how he could have ever doubted it. How he could have ever forgotten.
He doesn't want to live without Paul. Not now, not ever.
And so he runs.
The moment he catches up with Tracy he grabs her lightly by the arm, inadvertently slowing her down but needing the contact for reasons unclear to him.
“I'm coming with you.”
She freezes, turns to him and now it is on her to frown. They are running out of time but she knows this is important.
“Hugh, are you sure? If this is all about Paul,” she pauses, seemingly undecided how to go on. “He might not even want to get back together with you.”
Her warm gaze holds his. She knows him better than he sometimes gives her credit for.
“There is no turning back from this. You have to be certain.”
He wants to respond but remains silent. She is giving him one last chance to think this over.
If he goes with her now, he will leave everyone behind: His mother who already lost him once. Old friends. The places he used to call home when he was a child. And he'll do it for nothing but the mere chance to perhaps find a way back to who they were together, to feel safe in Paul's arms again and be happy just lying next to him.
Is that truly worth it?
“I need to try at least.” The words are out the moment he finds his answer.
It is. Has always been.
Maybe it is because she sees the conviction in his eyes, or because there is no more time to argue, but in the end her reasons for accepting his choice don't matter. As she nods her lips bend into a small smile, then she motions for them to get going.
Hastening into the transporter room she makes quick work of telling the Lieutenant to beam them back. They have the grace not to question her. While the energy starts building up she looks at him, and in the brown he can see that she is actually grateful to have him at her side.
Neither of them knows what this distant future looks like or what awaits them during the battle, but at least they will face it all together.
When the dematerialisation sequence starts - the molecules in his body disassembling and the information of his structure being safely stored and transmitted to the Discovery – despite the situation they are in, Hugh feels a new sense of peace.
After everything that happened in the last couple of months, after all his searching, for once it seems to him that he is going exactly where he needs to be.
Paul is his family, and with one last silent prayer on his mind that his mother will forgive him, he is going home to him.