The first time he heard Paul… Hugh knew there was something special about him. Three days of leave on Alpha Centauri and he’d spent most of the first and second day attending sessions at the scientific conference, looking for more ways to incorporate new technologies into modern medicine. He accidentally went into the wrong room, just in time to hear an excited, animated voice discussing astro-mycology and the possibilities it provided. Space mushrooms. It sounded like an odd lecture on different ways to experience mushrooms. He listened for a little bit, but he needed to move on. Hugh didn’t look at the speaker before heading out of the room and searching for the correct session on cybernetic biological advancements in medicine.
After three more sessions, Hugh needed a break. He headed to the hotel bar, but found it crowded with other scientists and a bit overwhelming. Holding a book in his hand, Hugh stepped out into the chilly air and wished he’d grabbed a sweater. He walked briskly down the street, turning left at the corner and he spotted the small bar off to the side. Softer music filled the air inside and it was warmer than outside, but not stuffy. Much better than the hotel bar. He ordered a glass of wine and sat down at the bar. He opened his book and found his place.
“Prove it. It’s so easy to say that, y’know? It’s a hypothesis! We need their support so that we can prove it! It’s like they’ve never seen science before.” The irritation in the speaker’s voice was clear, and almost a bit familiar.
“We’ve mycologists, Paul. Face it. We have never been, and never will be, the cool kids in the room.”
The second voice said the word he’d heard earlier in the day. The cranky voice belonged to the overexcited astro-mycologist he’d listened to for a little bit. That’s why he sounded familiar at first.
The other male continued talking. “Listen, Amelia wants to see me tonight. She’s concerned that our Stella research is taking away from the terraforming project.”
“Well I’m sure today’s presentation changed her mind.”
Yikes, sarcasm, party of one, your table is ready. Hugh glanced to his right, hoping he could see who was talking. His gaze fell upon a pale man with blond hair so light and blue eyes so piercing as they stared into a tall glass. He wore a grey jacket, which further emphasized how faint the color of his skin was. In the dim light of the bar, Hugh could see his eyelashes were so light that they almost disappeared. The subtle angular line of his jaw and cheekbones was mesmerizing. An adorable scowl formed on his face, pulling his features tight. No one had the right to look so adorable and kissable while pouting.
“I’ve got another meeting now. Try not to drown yourself while I’m gone.” His friend/colleague patted him on the shoulder once.
“No promises.” He swirled the light blue liquid in his cup, watching as it splashed the sides of the glass. He sighed audibly, but Hugh strained to catch his next words. “I miss my mushrooms.”
Hugh almost laughed, but quickly covered by starting to hum his favorite Kasseelian opera. He kept his eyes on the book clasped in his hands, but he didn’t flip any of the pages. The glare of the blond man made the back of his neck warm. He tried to ignore it and kept humming. An irritated throat clearing jarred his attention and he stopped, but quickly started again. He definitely had the man’s attention now.
“Stifle it or sit somewhere else,” the man grumbled, finishing his drink in one gulp. Hugh noticed the slight discoloration beneath his vibrant eyes and the stiff angles of his posture. Stress and lack of sleep was clear.
Hugh stood up in one smooth movement and sat down next to him. He felt his heart racing in his chest as he continued to hum and pretend that he was reading.
“Excuse me, is that Kasseelian opera you’re humming?”
The corners of Hugh’s mouth turned up. He had good musical taste if he knew Kasseelian opera. “Yes. You know it?”
“I hate it. My ears thank you in advance for not humming anymore.”
Oh, well. Two could play that game. “You’re rude. And you think you’re funny. And you have bad taste in music.” Hugh took a sip of his wine, waiting for the man’s reaction.
The tips of his ears turned red, but he bit his bottom lip and released it, then offering Hugh a small smile. Fuck. Biting his lip. That was hot. “You have no idea what my taste in music is, because I don’t hum it in public.” He lifted his empty glass. “Barkeep?”
“Your lectures are better than your manners. I particularly liked the part about ‘star paths’.”
His expression changed from one of incredulous surprise to concealed amusement. “You listened to my lecture?”
Hugh nodded, closing his book. “Some of it. I had another previous engagement to get to, but I found it to be quite interesting.” He extended his hand. “I’m Hugh.”
After a moment of hesitation, the man shook his hand and said, “Dr. Paul Stamets.”
Conversation with Paul, err Doctor Paul Stamets, was tantalizing. “I apologize. I’m Doctor Hugh Culber.”
“What’s your doctorate degree in?” Paul asked. He leaned forward on his elbows, getting a little closer to Hugh.
“Medicine.” Hugh smiled as Paul made a face. “Not a fan of medical doctors?”
“Some, but not particularly the ones that tell me I drink too much coffee or stab hypo-sprays into my neck.”
Hugh lifted his glass to his lips and paused. “Maybe you’re too difficult of a patient. We’re ethically bound not to harm our patients, but we don’t have a rule on how carefully we administer hypos to those who are disagreeable in every way. Well, I can see one way you aren’t disagreeable.”
The blush spread from Paul’s cheeks to his neck and disappeared below the high neckline of his jacket. Hugh tried to keep from grinning at the handsome man he’d met, but he couldn’t. He watched as Paul’s hand shook slightly as he lifted his glass and took a sip of his drink. Exhaustion. The poor man needed some sleep and his doctor probably was right that he needed less caffeine. But it wasn’t Hugh’s place.
“I better let you get back to your evening. Maybe we’ll run into each other again before the conference ends.” Hugh stood up and pushed his chair in. “Good night and good luck with your proposal.”
Paul mumbled his hands and something about he hoped the same and he should probably turn in for the night.
“It was nice meet you, Dr. Stamets. Paul.”
Walking away, Hugh swore he heard Paul say softly to himself, “I like him.”