Here is what a typical day for Cadet Hugh Culber looks like:
He gets up at half past five before the sun has yet touched the horizon. He waters the two succulents his mother gave him when he left for Starfleet (aloe and jade) and puts two slices of bread in the toaster, setting it for when he leaves the shower.
If he’s having a week that, for whatever reason (extra shifts at work, a coffee stain on his uniform, a patient dying in front of him because he wasn’t good enough to save them, anything below a 90 to ruin his average), is worse than usual, he’ll buy some organic avocados to spread on his toast, but most of the time he just uses the can-bought stuff that will probably give him chemical poisoning.
He takes his coffee in a to-go mug and rushes down to the Children’s Hospital, which is halfway across the city from him. He needs to be there at seven on the dot every day for his Starfleet mandated internship.
His work at the hospital is rather mundane, but Hugh wouldn’t trade it for any top of the line surgery experience. While working with children is not what he sees himself doing with his career, he enjoys it nonetheless and finds it more fulfilling than doing menial tasks at a bigger hospital.
The nurses there all know him and treat him like he’s their long-lost son, slipping snacks into his bag because they know he has a hard time finding time to eat with his schedule.
And then there are the kids, who seem to always laugh at his poor attempts at humor.
“How’s my favorite warrior doing today?” Hugh asks as he slips into the room of a young Andorian with a bad case of Slyrup’s Cough. She’s been in the hospital for over a month and they don’t know yet when she’ll be released.
“Strong!” the girl answers right before she lets out an impressive roar, making Hugh laugh for the first time that week.
His heart aches in his chest whenever they manage to do something spectacular: to stretch an hour into a day, a day into a week, a week into a year and then maybe a life without crutches, a life of possibilities.
He’s at the hospital for six hours, leaving around lunchtime with a tuna sandwich from the cafeteria that’s seen better days. After work he goes to class, which is, of course, all the way across the city again, forcing him to take two skytrains and bump into a whole lot more people than he would like.
Most cadets in the medical track don’t do their mandatory internships while attempting to complete Starfleet’s highly demanding curriculum, but then again most cadets don’t come from small mining colonies in the Dorala system where every day with food on the table is seen as a gift.
Hugh is a Golden Cadet, which is a fancy term Starfleet made up for scholarship students. He’s riding pro-bono, tuition and rent paid, but that means he has to put in triple the amount of work his colleagues do just to stay on top of the current.
(It’s funny how, despite all his efforts, whenever he has a moment to himself, some miracle five minutes where he’s not expected anywhere and he can just stop and breathe for a while — during those moments, when he’s supposed to feel the most relaxed, that’s when he could swear there is water in his lungs and he’s drowning, from the workload and the pressure and the promise that he’ll be better, he can better, he—)
He has work after class, so then it’s another rush, this time to a quaint coffee shop near campus where he does the last shift during the weeks and comes in on the weekend when an extra pair of hands is needed.
He sends most of the money he earns back home to his family. His parents don’t want it, yell at him time and time again that they’re not a charity case, but Hugh sleeps better at night knowing his people back home aren’t living in eternally mended clothes anymore.
Plus, his little sister is about to turn fourteen, and if the only way Hugh can spoil her halfway across the galaxy is through credits and the occasional batch of Earth’s latest fashion trends, then he will work until eleven each and every day, living off coffee and whatever little sleep he can get.
And that just about sums up every single day of Cadet Culber’s existence. Weekends are a little different, in that he usually doesn’t have work or classes, so instead he spends his days at the local parks or at the library studying and making sure he’s still top of the top of the top, as Admiral Rekin is always telling him to.
He does go out on occasion with his colleagues from the shop and some of his classmates. He’s by no means anti-social, just busy ( y de verdad madre, no te preocupes porque estoy bien. No, no me siento sólo— )
A recent addition to his friends list is another student in the medical track, Leonard McCoy, who seems to be perpetually annoyed at something, someone, and the universe itself. He’s not usually the type of person Hugh would spend time with outside of work, but McCoy gets what’s it like to be Atlas, a whole world of worries and expectations on their backs, and that alone is enough to strike a bond.
That and the fact that McCoy is somehow friends with half the bartenders in town, which gets them free drinks whenever they go out together.
“Life is all about the connections you make. The people who you choose to surround yourself with matter,” McCoy slurs at him one Saturday night.
“Is that why you chose to be best friends with a guy who’s ten seconds away from jumping on the bar counter and doing a striptease?”
“What? Oh, for Elon’s sake. Jim— ”
Hugh takes McCoy’s drink while he’s off taking care of his friend. He downs it with a cringe and then moves towards the dancefloor, enjoying the loose sense of freedom that comes from being surrounded by strangers in a nightclub.
Some people make eye contact with him, grinning as they try to slip closer, but Hugh moves away each and every time. He has never been the type to chase after one night stands. Todo un caballero, his mother likes to call him.
He leaves around four in the morning, the smell of smoke and alcohol trailing after him.
In the morning, his body aches from being on his feet all night and he spends twenty sad minutes by the toilet questioning the real value of life (is it worth it? Is anything worth it? And what the fuck is in Romulan vodka, holy fuck, Hugh’s stomach is going to die—).
His only consolation is that he gets to tell his mom he went out when she calls around lunch time, and the way she smiles at him brightens his whole day.
And then, besides the work, the pressure and the occasional venture into the nights of San Francisco, there is the light of Hugh’s life (not his own words). The dashing man in red (again, not Hugh’s words). The reason why Hugh doesn’t mind closing the shop every night even though he could come and leave a little earlier if he wanted (for the third time, not an actual thought he has expressed out loud, dammit, when did his coworkers get so gossipy?).
And then there is Paul.
Paul is a Starfleet cadet like ninety-nine percent of the people who visit and work at Yamund Ya’s Sweet Starglazed Coffee Delights (Hugh cringes every time he has to write down the name of his workplace).
He’s tall, paler than a snowflake and carries around two bags under his eyes that might as well be tattooed on his face.
On most days, Paul arrives at Yamund Ya’s Sweet Starglazed Coffee Delights (Hugh has not actually met Yamund Ya and has a distinct suspicion the man doesn’t exist and the shop was named by a five-year-old, but that’s just a shower thought) a little after Hugh and he always places the same order: caramel latte with soy milk, three shots of espresso and two spoonfuls of sugar, plus a slice of their “intergalactically acclaimed” vegan brownie (when? how? by whomst?).
Hugh would be lying if he said the first thing he noticed about Paul were his eyes or the way he smiled when he placed his order or any of that romantic crap they write in the novels his sister reads and sends him excerpts of (“So you can learn from them”).
The first thing he noticed was the man’s ass (mighty fine).
The second thing was that Paul was a bit of a dick.
Upon entering Ya’s Coffee Delights, the first thing he did was stop right in front of the counter and glare at their drinks menu like the holo frame had personally insulted him, his mother and his grandmother’s soul.
Hugh normally greeted customers with a polite, “hello, what would you like?” but this time he waited for his customer to make up his mind.
“You have too many drinks on the menu,” were the first words Paul Stamets ever said to Hugh Culber.
“We’re a coffee shop located near Starfleet Academy. An extensive menu is kind of mandatory.”
Paul tilted his head to the side, seeming to acquiesce defeat before he added, “Still, there’s so much stuff. What is a Klingon Shake a Heart Blow Brainer even supposed to be?”
“You could order it and find out,” Hugh told him, making Paul bark out a sharp laugh.
“I want caffeine, not a heart attack.”
Paul then proceeded to rattle off his order, which, quite frankly, sounded a lot worse than the Klingon Death Inducer, but Hugh decided to keep that comment to himself as he was a professional and Paul seemed the type of customer who would write a complaint about you if you so much as looked at them wrong.
Hugh handed him his drink with a closed-mouthed smile, not bothering to be genuine. He was ready to strike off Paul as just another rash customer when Paul surprised him, the first of many times to follow.
“Oh, this is quite good,” he said after taking a sip of his drink (not even waiting for it to cool down, the lunatic). “Thank you,” he added, flashing Hugh a real smile that may or may not have tugged the arteries near Hugh’s heart.
Well, Hugh thought, first impressions weren’t always right.
And then came all the other stuff, like the fact that Paul uses the name on his tag when addressing him (a genuine first after four months of working there!) and the way he started asking Hugh how he's doing a week after he became a regular at the café.
“You’re at the Academy, aren’t you?” he asked him not long after they met.
“Yeah, everyone working at Ya’s is a cadet trying to pay their bills.”
Paul frowned when Hugh said that, his nose crinkling in a way that could only be described as cute.
“Doesn’t Starfleet offer scholarships to those who can’t afford tuition?” he asked.
“They do, but living in San Francisco is expensive and some of us have families we need to support so.” Hugh shrugged. “Work it is.”
His comment seemed to frazzle Paul (was he unaware that not at all Starfleet cadets lived the shiny, plastic life advertised in billboards and leaflets everywhere? Did he live that kind life?), so Hugh changed the topic.
“What track are you in?”
“Engineering, but I’m currently doing research in mycology, trying to figure out how to apply biotechnology to new types of propulsion mechanisms...” Paul said, staring at the coffee cup Hugh had just placed in front of him like it held all the secrets in the universe. He scratched the handle for a second before he looked up and asked. “You?”
“Medic, dividing my focus on humanoid and non-humanoid lifeforms,” Hugh said. He wasn’t trying to brag or anything, he just wanted to make sure Paul knew what he was about.
A new customer walked in right as Paul was about to open his mouth and say something else, forcing Hugh to return to planet Earth.
After that it was business as usual, with Paul working on his padd until the shop was about to close and Hugh stealing one too many non-covert looks after his last coworker left for the day.
Paul has a tendency to get so absorbed in his work that Hugh could probably use him as a model for an oil painting and he wouldn’t notice. Not that Hugh’s staring is the creepy stalker kind, at all, it’s just that there’s never much to do during the last shift.
Most of his work consists of sweeping the floor, cleaning the tables and running a few ‘ oh shit I have a paper due tomorrow that I forgot about, crap, I’m dead, hey can you make that a fourple? Is that a word? Fuck it, just put in as much caffeine as you can ’.
If the night is slower than usual, with no rushing customers and trash to take out, Hugh will pull out his own padd and do homework. For the most part, though, he just does his chores and watches as Paul nibbles on the tip of his thumbnail whenever he's facing a problem he can't seem to solve.
A week after Paul asks him what track he's in, Hugh tells himself that his mother didn’t raise un pendejo que ni sabe hablar and decides to ask Paul for his name so his coworkers (and his private thoughts) can stop calling him “the Pale Mushroom Man”.
Pale Mushroom Man stares at him for a couple of seconds in silence after Hugh voices said question, making Hugh wonder if he has stepped out of line and their relationship is just a customer and worker type of a deal and not something warmer and more comfortable. But then Paul shakes his head, smiles and says, “Paul Stamets."
Hugh wants to lean forward to shake his hand, but Kacia, one of his coworkers, is still around and probably spying on him from the other side of the store, so instead he smiles back and says, “It’s nice to finally know your name, Paul Stamets.”
And the world keeps spinning on its axis.
Once, Paul asks him if Hugh can help him with an equation he has been struggling with for four days now. “I’m a med student,” Hugh replies, caught between a wall and his broom.
“Yes, I know but I’m stuck and just—” Paul waves his hands, a little frantic, a bit too wide-eyed. He's looking paler than usual, which is saying a lot considering he's albino. “I need someone else’s opinion. Please?”
After a full month of being treated like a human being by another good-looking, intelligent human being, Hugh Culber is pretty sure he would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge if Paul asked.
“Okay,” he says, sitting down next to Paul. He puts a modicum of space between them, but the second he takes the padd from Paul’s hands the man leans over him to point at a string of lines on screen.
“See, okay, so the problem is…” Hugh listens with only one ear, the other half of him distracted by how Paul has glued himself to his side like they are good close amigos who solve maths problems together all the time, when in reality Paul is meant to be a simple customer and Hugh is far, far too sleep-deprived and contact-starved to handle this situation properly.
He tries to distract himself from all the body warmth by focusing on the screen in front of him.
He isn’t familiar with Paul’s area of study, but he is pretty smart, so after a few minutes of scratching his beard and moving numbers around, he comes up with something that Paul describes as “brilliant!” right before he kisses Hugh on the cheek.
The moment that follows is, well, quite awkward, with Hugh not knowing how to react (laugh? scream? kiss back?) and Paul turning this delightful shade of sunburnt red that spreads across his cheeks and all the way down his neck.
“Sorry. I’ll just— Hum. Yeah. I’ll get back to work.”
As far as Tuesday nights go, it is one of the better ones.
That Tuesday, Paul stays until it's time for the café to close and Hugh has to usher him out with the promise that he'll get two slices of brownie the next day if he comes back with his work done.
As the semester drags on and exams season starts to loom over their heads, Paul begins to stay at the café for longer periods of time. He doesn't notice when Hugh starts putting away the chairs and turns off the lights at the back and, well, most of the time Hugh doesn't have the heart to tell him anything either.
Sometimes it's nice to stay behind the counter and do school work while Paul drives his hair into a brilliant mess fretting over mushrooms. Paul is a human battery, full of energy that he tries to keep in control until he just can't do it for any longer. That's when he'll start to fret, pulling at his hair and biting down on his lip until he nearly draws blood.
One night he doesn't stop himself in time, biting through the skin and staining his chin in vibrant red. Hugh gets out his portable tricorder and fixes him up in silence, using the moment to appreciate how soft Paul’s guilty expression looks under the cafés yellow lights.
“Do you always carry a tricorder with you?”
“I’m a doctor.” Well, soon to be one anyway.
“That doesn’t answer my question. I’ve known plenty of doctors who don’t carry around portable tricorders in their pockets.”
“It wasn’t in my pocket, it was in my backpack. Also, you’re welcome,” Hugh says, getting up to leave when Paul grabs his wrist to keep him in place.
“Thank you,” he says.
Hugh couldn’t stop himself from smiling even if he tried, which he had little desire to do. “No problem.”
He tells his mother about Paul late December. He’s not sure why does it. After all, they’re not in a relationship. Hell, one might even argue they’re hardly friends, but on that Hugh would argue back. He and Paul talk, mostly about their workload and Starfleet, but occasionally they’ll share tidbits about themselves. Hugh has noticed that he’s a lot more open than Paul, so the conversations tend to be fairly one-sided until Paul throws in details about his private life, as casual as can be, as if Hugh didn’t treasure every bit of information he got.
“Is he your boyfriend?” his mother asks.
“He’s a friend.”
From across the room, his sister yells, “Yeah, but would you like him to be your boyfriend?”
Hugh rolls his eyes. “I’m too busy for a relationship right now.”
“But you shouldn’t be. Ai, cariño mio, you don’t need that job. Just quit and go mushroom picking with that Paulo.”
Hugh sighs, exasperated. This is exactly how he predicted this conversation would go and yet knowing it beforehand has made the experience none the more pleasant.
He’s in a bad mood after the call, his spirits lifting only when he gets to work and sees that Paul is already there, sitting on his favorite sofa. Paul lifts his drink when he sees Hugh, smiling at him.
Low enough that only Hugh can hear, Paul says, “Come over when you can, I’ve made a breakthrough with the mycelial network.”
These words are code for I want to tell you all about my nerdy science project, which you’re smart enough to understand even if you have no idea how I’ll get from point A to point XKJ5.9.78 and, quite frankly, neither do I.
Hugh Culber never imagined that at twenty-six, he would be nursing crushes on cute guys that hang out at the local cafés and live off sugar and pure spite, but life is often unexpected like that.
Their existences continue much the same throughout the month of January, except for the minor detail that exams and deadlines are now raining on top of them and Hugh has started taking sleeping pills just to make sure he gets at least four hours of rest every night. His anxiety is killing him, literally according to McCoy, who Hugh promptly tells to fuck off.
Between his work at the hospital and his ridiculous course load at Starfleet, he’s being stretched paper thin and run through every test, trial and misery. There are days when even a strong gust of wind could tear him apart.
His work at the café becomes more stressful as well, with more customers coming for coffee runs so that he has less time to spend with the highlight of his day and life (still not Hugh’s words, although they could very well be at this point).
It sucks and Hugh hates it, especially since he can tell Paul is under as much stress as he is. Paul is not a Golden Cadet, but from what Hugh has gathered he’s currently taking part in five different research projects and he has two admirals breathing down his neck about putting his work to “good use”, which Paul is wary of.
“I don’t know if I can trust them,” he confides to Hugh one night when it’s just the two of them, pitfalls of rain falling outside the café’s warm limits.
Hugh doesn’t say anything. He respects the Admirals, even admires a few, but he gets what Paul means: there are many people in Starfleet and not all of them hold Starfleet’s core values as close to their hearts as they should.
The best day of the week ends up being Friday, when most cadets decide to do the right thing and ignore their work in favor of going out and getting shit-faced drunk.
During those nights, Hugh rushes to the door as soon as the clock hits eleven, hitting the ‘closed’ sign before anyone decides to be semi-responsible and ask if he can directly inject caffeine into their veins (Hugh did say semi ). After locking the door, he goes to the backroom, takes off his apron and pulls out his Starfleet issued padd. He still prefers working at the counter than sitting next to Paul, sure that if he was in such close proximity to the man he would spend more time looking at him than doing actual work.
Of course, staring at Paul is what he ends up doing seventy-three percent of the time anyway, since he’s far too tired by the time midnight rolls around to do anything but keep his head up, but still. At least this way he can hide behind the pretense of work, which is better than having to confront the truth head on and admit that he keeps the coffee shop open into the wee hours of the morning just so Paul Stamets can research mushrooms by his side.
That just sounds depressing, even for someone with a crush as big as his.
Most of the time Paul doesn’t even notice Hugh has kept the café open way later than he should just for him. He loses all track of time when he’s working, capable of going over hundreds of pages of research in one sitting. Hugh always finds it funny when he breaks the spell and Paul looks up at him with wide-eyes as if he has never seen another human being before.
At the start of February, a cold weather front hits San Francisco. Each passing day is colder and sharper than before, with strong winds and a heavy chance the entire city will be snowed in during the weekend.
Hugh doesn’t think much of it. He’s under so much stress at the moment that at one point the idea of being frozen for two days sounds appealing. It’s a horrible thought and completely unlike him, but he point blank refuses to dwell on it, blaming it on his lack of sleep.
Paul doesn’t seem to care either, coming in and staying as late as always.
It’s a normal day for them, except for the part that when the clock hits three in the morning, and Hugh’s about to tell Paul it’s time for them to head home, he notices that it’s rather dark outside.
As in, there is literally not a single light in sight.
“Oh,” Hugh says. Paul doesn’t hear him.
Stepping away from the counter, Hugh moves close to a window to confirm that yes, his suspicions hold true when observed closely: somehow, at some point between eleven and three, it had started to snow and then it kept on snowing and snowing, to the point where there was a wall of snow standing at his chest level and mountains of snow falling so thick and heavy that he couldn’t even see the building across the street from Ya’s.
“Oh shit ,” Hugh says again. This time Paul does hear him.
“What’s happening?” Paul asks.
“We’re snowed in.”
“Is it that b— oh.” Paul pauses as he reaches Hugh’s side, glancing out the window. “Oh shit. How did this happen?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention. Must have been falling pretty steadily since the shop closed,” Hugh admits.
Paul frowns in that cute way of his, with his nose wrinkling in confusion and his mouth twisting to the side. “What time is it?” he asks.
“A little after three.”
Hugh watches his expression shift from confused to suspicious to aghast in flighting seconds.
“Why didn’t you tell me that? The shop closed hours ago. We shouldn’t be here anymore.”
“You were working and I didn’t want to disturb you,” Hugh says, crossing his arms over his chest but refusing to step back as Paul shifts closer until they’re standing chest to chest.
“It’s way past closing time, Hugh—”
“Listen, I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier. I didn’t know we would be snowed in.”
“That’s not what I’m mad about.” Paul shakes his head. “You should have told me so you could have gone home earlier and gotten some rest.”
And suddenly it’s Hugh’s turn to be confused.
“What yes. You think I haven’t noticed how fucking tired you look? I know your schedule. You’re doing crazy amounts of work between the hospital, Starfleet and here. How many hours of sleep do you even get per night? Five? If that?”
Hugh’s brain is a little too fried for him to process everything Paul is saying, so instead it latches on to what it deems the most important fact. “You know my schedule?”
“I—” Paul opens and closes his mouth, freezing mid-sentence. “I may have asked around,” he admits with the same bashful look a child might have when admitting that they ate their sibling’s birthday cake.
“That’s…” Hugh tries to think of the right word. Finding he’s too tired for the task, his brain supplies the first one available option. “Sweet.”
Paul sighs. “I was worried. You should have told me.”
Hugh had no idea Paul even cared about him, much less worried.
“It’s fine. I’m used to the workload,” he says. Before his friend (they’re definitely friends now, fuck official recognition) can argue further, he adds, “Do you want some hot chocolate? I’m in the mood for hot chocolate.”
He moves away before Paul can answer, stepping behind the counter to turn on the ergo heater. One of the best parts about Ya’s was that they didn’t use synthesizers to make any of their drinks or food, preferring to do things the old fashion way with actual milk and chocolate powder.
“Yes, hot chocolate sounds nice, thank you. Should we attempt to call for help?”
Hugh shrugs. “There’s not much of a need. There’s enough food here to last us a week if need be, as well as blankets, a bathroom and places to sleep.” Hugh points to the sofas. “Plus, I’m sure the streets will be cleared by morning. Unless… do you want to leave?”
Paul stares at him, examining in silence for a few seconds before he admits, “I’ve got nowhere else to be.”
Hugh pours their steaming milk into two separate mugs. “You might find this weird to believe, but me neither.”
Paul laughs. “Well, it’s good to know you have to free time during the weekends to rest. Do you… go out often? Or do you go on study dates and stuff?”
Hugh looks up, squinting at Paul. Was he trying to ask about his love life? Was this Paul’s idea of subtle? Was Paul even trying to be subtle? Hugh looked around behind the counter. He was sure they had a bottle of synthesized whiskey lying around somewhere.
Then again, one touch of alcohol to his lips and he’d probably pass out from exhaustion, which is not what he wants to do when he’s alone at the café with Paul and both of them seem to have discarded the petty concept of work.
“I do spend my weekends studying, by myself,” he adds. “But look who’s talking! If I didn’t say anything you would have spent all night working on your padd.”
“Yes, but that’s just me,” Paul says, waving him off like the whole conversation is a moot point.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’m a workaholic.”
Hugh rolls his eyes. “And that makes it better?”
“Yes,” Paul replies, but the way he’s smiling shows that even he knows he’s spewing bullshit.
They sit next to each other on the biggest couch in the café, leaning on their sides so they could face one another. Thanks to the heaters inside the walls it’s toasty warm everywhere in the café and it’s seeing the snow fall and cover the whole city in a blanket is almost peaceful. For once, Hugh feels like there’s nowhere for him to rush to, nothing to do but be exactly where he is, drinking hot chocolate next to Paul Stamets.
“Thank you, by the way. For keeping the café open for me and always listening to me ramble about my work. And for the drinks. And the company. Just— thank you for everything and I’m really sorry about this. I wish I could do something.”
“Paul, it’s fine, seriously.”
“But you’re stuck here with me.”
“And there is nowhere else I would rather be,” Hugh confesses, the words leaving him in a single rush of air.
Paul tilts his head to the side, biting down on his bottom lip like he always does when he’s found a problem he can’t seem to solve and all Hugh can think is fuck it, just fuck it.
If being stuck at the café with Paul for an entire night isn’t some kind of sign from the universe that he needs to get his shit together and act, then nothing will ever be.
“I think I’m going to kiss you now. Is that alright with you?”
Paul blinks at him, once, twice, then finally a tiny smile start to stretch across his lips. “About time,” he says.
Hugh would flip him off if he wasn’t so busy doing what he had wanted to since the first moment Paul Stamets looked him in the eye and said, “If your career in Starfleet doesn’t pan out, you will always have a future as a barista.”
Ridiculous, yes, but life is unexpected like that.
(one day all the stars in the universe
will run out in hues of liquid caramel
oxidized soda and bubble bursts,
melting the universe in their
i am relieved to say
today has yet again proven
not to be that day)
come shout at me on tumblr @ paulculberr!