Ensign Paul Stamets stalked through the arched doorway of Alpha Centauri’s El Galleon bar, resentfully feeling like a character in the setup to an unforgivably terrible joke.
There was nothing terrible about Alpha Centauri in and of itself. The capital city was a nice enough place. He and Straal were now a week into their month-long research trip working out of the local university with their team, and everything was going wonderfully. So wonderfully, in fact, that his colleagues shut down early for the weekend and headed out to the local bar.
Paul, on the other hand, had escaped to a lovely 24-hour café in the arts district, fully intending to drink as much of the famed local green tea as possible and leisurely attempt to -– or pretend to -- catch up on some of the latest journal articles in peace.
But it turned out to be a short-lived peace. He’d hardly started his second cup of tea when Straal started blowing up his communicator with messages. For apparently when an astromycologist, a doctor, and a wannabe captain walk into a bar to reserve some tables for their friends, the punchline that results involves Straal and the rest of their lab entering into a three-way karaoke competition against a group of Starfleet medics on leave and a team of command-track ensigns who were on Alpha Centauri for a team building retreat.
Straal seemed determined to irritate him into coming out and supporting the home team with endless, rambling messages on every possible channel of communication that would ultimately take him days to delete. Defeated, Paul had abandoned his seat at the little café, with the hope that wherever this night was heading, it wouldn’t turn out to be a joke on him.
The El Galleon was packed, but the exasperating press of bodies provided enough cover for him to sneak over to the bar and order a drink unseen. Once his eyes adjusted to the terrible lighting and his brain was able to process objects beyond the hideously gaudy décor, he realized that his attempted stealth was pointless –- his lab mates were all faced away from the door and busy hollering support at the stage for their facility manager Nikita.
Who was giving a surprisingly passable performance of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
The song hurtled through to its driving conclusion and the bar erupted in cheers and applause. An emcee leaped onto the stage and declared her the winner of her bracket, the large screen behind her dramatically flashing over from lyrics to scorecard, with Team Shroom –- fucking really, Straal? -- pulling another point ahead of Club Med and into a tie with Team Gold.
Nikita returned to their colleagues, and they swarmed up to her, drinks lifted aloft to her victory.
Paul smiled too, drawn, in spite of himself, to their happiness.
Paul really did care for his lab team. Not that he was all that great at expressing those feelings. But Straal was a real friend, and they were all united by the built-in culture of camaraderie that Starfleet so helpfully provided, which was just one of the many things that Paul loved about Starfleet. He also loved the idealism that propelled the organization, and the ways in which its core mission kindled that little fire for exploration that fueled his heart.
And the resources weren’t bad either. And he was grateful for it -- Starfleet was basically the only organization in the known universe so utterly committed to boldly going that it would optimistically fund a lab full of mushroom experts claiming that they could someday take their fleet of ships on a swirling cosmic trip.
But there were the weird things as well, the things that drove him crazy, the things he tried to avoid. Departmental patriotism, for example, ran pretty rampant throughout the organization. Alcohol tended to exacerbate the sentiment. And when you throw in the sometimes exciting but occasionally alarming tendency among Starfleet’s finest to prioritize courage over sense –- especially in the command track, in Paul’s estimation -- you end up with an endless supply of people proclaiming fuck it!, lining up to hand each other their beers and prove that they’ve got this, no problem, and, well -– they wind up here, making fools of themselves in a hideous tourist-trap bar which looked like a pirate ship which had crashed into a Mardi Gras parade.
A gentle tap to his shoulder and he turned his attention to the bartender, accepting his drink just as emcee started to announce the next competitor in a garble of noise.
Ready to be unimpressed, he sipped warm amber bourbon from his glass and turned back around just in time to see an unfairly gorgeous guy walking up to the stage.
One of the doctors, wearing, like the other doctors, something kind of beachy and casual that showed that he had…arms. Nice ones. Strong-looking ones. Attached to strong-looking shoulders and hands, and what was that flippy feeling? Paul frowned down at his chest in irritation.
He looked back up warily. The doctor was now up there, still unfairly gorgeous, and confident to boot. He had a focused calmness in his dark eyes, exuding that particular kind of strength that was a natural result of being totally centered and at peace.
For a moment Paul felt his usual irritating envy for those who possessed that kind of tranquil grace, but then the doctor cast an easy-going, beautiful smile down to his friends and Paul cursed as his heart flipped again.
Warm string music burst forth from the speakers surrounding the bar, and it's a pop song in the Andorian style. Paul recognizes it right away, it was ubiquitous on Federation channels a few years back. One of those really lyrical and romantic ones, downright sappy, really, and then the guy opens his mouth to sing and --
It’s a smooth, confident voice -- perfectly suited to him. He’s effortlessly handling the swooping lines of the melody, managing long phrases with some very nice breath control. Then he breaks into a surprisingly sensitive falsetto for the end, and Paul’s starting to think that maybe he really does like this song after all.
There’s something about it that is allowing this doctor to somehow embody the perfect contradiction of strength and gentleness and make it totally coherent and now Paul is starting to wonder whether he’s going to need one of those other doctors to check on his heart because what the hell.
The song ends and Paul is on his feet, hardly aware that he’s applauding until his hands start to sting. His eyes follow the doctor as he walks back down to his friends, and Paul is pretty sure that this is probably about the time where it’s no longer socially acceptable to still be looking but he just can’t quite bring himself to turn away –
A hand falls on his shoulder. Paul barely swallows a gasp.
“Dammit, Straal -– don’t sneak up on me like that.”
He really did not appreciate the smirk he got in response.
“That’s what happens when you get caught staring. Now come on, you’re up. Nikita put is back in the game. You’re our ace-in-the-hole.”
Paul’s stomach lurched, and he dropped back into his seat. He met the eyes of his lab mates, who were observing him from a safe distance at their table in front of the stage. They were all squinting at him in confusion.
Don’t panic. He can’t possibly know. “I am here for moral support, Straal,” he said, attempting to play it cool. “Moral support. I’ll cheer. I’ll clap.”
"Our lab is fighting for everlasting glory. You have the power to secure our victory.”
"What the hell—"
"Don't even try, Stamets. We’ve been roommates. We run a lab. I’ve spent way too much time around you, I’m such a saint, I don’t know how I do it --”
Uh oh. “Yeah, well dealing with you isn’t exactly a picnic either--”
“--can you seriously think that I've never overheard your singing?”
“Like in the shower? The night shift at the lab?”
If there ever was a time to argue, this was it. But Paul couldn’t seem to get his brain to connect to his mouth.
Straal forged ahead. “Come on. You’re good. You know you’re good. And you wouldn’t abandon us in our time of need, right?”
Paul gave his brain a firm talking to. Pick a fight, insult him, find words so blistering that Straal will have to nurse his metaphorical wounds for months…
His voice came back online, ready to do battle. “You never mentioned anything to me before,” he croaked.
Paul cringed at the disgraceful sound but Straal, damn him, acted like he hadn’t noticed. "Well, everlasting glory was never at stake,” he said expansively, like a Captain giving a pep talk before battle. “The needs of the many. A leader must emerge to overcome looming defeat--"
"This isn't the fucking Karaoke Maru, Straal. No."
Straal started to respond, but Paul emphatically raised a finger and made a deliberate, mocking show of being distracted by the emcee announcing the next competitor from Team Gold.
Almost reflexively he finds himself looking over to the doctor again, purely out of curiosity, just to see how he reacts to his competition.
Within moments it’s clear that the win is his. Team Gold’s representative is a young Ensign who was obviously hoping to win through the force of her personality alone, since the singing was a total unmitigated disaster. The doctor’s friends are bouncing with glee, but the doctor himself is utterly gracious -- just sitting with a little smile, and it’s only the sparkle in his eyes that betray his delight.
The song ends, and when it comes time for the applause vote Paul is sullenly silent for the competitor from command.
Fortunately justice prevails, and the doctor is declared winner of his bracket. Club Med collectively leaps to their feet, and Paul is surprised at the dissatisfaction he feels at losing sight of their victor.
Even worse for him, Straal is abnormally perceptive tonight. "You know, this is totally your opportunity to impress Mister Ripped, Dark, and Handsome over there."
“Cliché,” Paul mutters, throwing in an eyeroll to mask his embarrassment. “Give it up, Straal. I don’t do this,” and he gestured generally at the bar, the people, the stage in an attempt to cover with an all-encompassing vagueness all the things he doesn’t want to discuss.
Of course Straal doesn’t understand. “What’s going on? Is it stage fright or something? You present at conferences in front of hundreds of people all the time and it doesn’t bother you.”
Paul just glares. Was it really necessary to explain that of course there was a universe of difference between presenting your work in front of colleagues and presenting your feelings in front of a crowd?
But as ever, Straal is unfazed by his attitude. “You’re never going to impress the man of your dreams like that, Mister Thin, Pale, and Grumpy.”
“Fuck off, Straal,” Paul grumbles, stung. He slouches and casts his glare into his empty glass.
“He’s looking over here, you know.”
“What?” As though jerked up by a puppeteer’s strings, his body jolts up involuntarily, but he doesn’t look over, he can’t--
“Ah, not anymore. Too bad.”
Paul exhales and slouches back down, the strings cut.
“I hate you,” he muttered, frowning at his pounding chest again. And you too, stupid heart, he adds for good measure.
The emcee bounds back up on the stage with the scores from the evening’s ridiculousness, and it’s official: the doctor’s win isn’t enough to put Club Med in the final bracket. Unfortunately, it’s Team Shroom and Team Gold that will have to battle it out for the win.
Straal, bafflingly, leaps up and runs over to their team’s table, leaving Paul alone at the bar.
Paul eyes his colleagues with suspicion. But a few uneventful minutes pass and he begins to maybe believe that Straal just gave up and is working out a backup plan.
So he orders another drink, cautiously watching Straal in case of an ambush, and occasionally cutting his eyes over to the doctor’s table every now and then because he keeps getting this feeling like someone is watching him. This feeling is pathetically invalidated every time he looks over, however, and he has to conclude that the sensation of being watched is merely some sort of psychosomatic wishful thinking.
More time passes, and his thoughts idly dwell on memories of singing with his uncle’s band back in his pre-Starfleet days.
He’d always liked rehearsals, and even wound up doing a couple of gigs. Singing backup wasn’t ever a problem for him, but he had never gotten used to singing lead, no matter how often they goaded him into doing it. There was something about it that always felt just a little too personal.
So singing turned into something he just kind of did for himself. It was a difficult thing for him to explain, so he just pretended that he didn’t sing at all. He’d never imagined he’d get caught out, especially in circumstances where he was put on the spot, and fuck –- Straal was marching back towards him.
“There is nothing you can say, Straal, that will get me up there,” Paul babbles as his friend approaches, but Straal just bulldozes right on over him.
“If you won't do this for us,” Straal starts, “and you won't do this for your own good--” he continues, inclining his head toward Club Med’s table.
"I hate you,” Paul interrupts.
"Then how about this,” Straal gamely continues. “Do this for us, and I'll let you have first crack at the new spectroholography system coming in next week."
Paul stops short.
Apparently there was something Straal could say, damn it all.
"If you win,” Straal wheedles, “Exclusive use for the first 72 hours. My team entirely out, yours rotated in.”
Paul considers. He then knocks back the rest of his drink and rises to his feet.
"I hate you.”
Straal howls his elation, lifting his own drink in the air as Paul marches up to the front to glare at the song selection screen.
"Pick something good," Straal suggests, buzzing about behind his shoulders.
Paul pushes him back with an elbow. "Yes, thanks,” he snarls sarcastically. “I’ll try to do that.”
For a moment the sheer enormity of the catalog has him drawing a blank. He scrolled through some top selections for inspiration, and finally something flickered on the screen that made him think of something else…
Paul tapped his selection into the queue. The computer helpfully flashed the song’s specs: time signature, key; information he knew was meaningless to most who frequented karaoke bars but was absolutely essential to him, especially now, when the details were a comforting buffer against the anxiety threatening to creep up and over.
Muse, “Feelin' Good” (EY 2001 AD)
4/4, G minor
3 bar intro
He calculated as the emcee mounted the stage and whipped up the crowd for the final bracket. G minor was no good. Repeated high Gs and a full-voice Bb were a sketchy prospect even under the best, fully warmed-up conditions. A half-step down would sound just as impressive, and would sit much better in his voice. He quickly thumbed the key down.
"Start rearranging your schedule, Straal," he tossed over his shoulder.
His friend pumped his fist and bounced back to Team Shroom’s table.
Someone handed Paul a microphone, which he gripped in a hand that had suddenly gone cold.
He looked out at the crowd and tried to focus his buzzing thoughts, running through the chord progression in his mind and plotting out what he would do for the improvised vocalizations at the end of the song.
You know your F#, just trust them to ring; your high A is just fine; no need for any falsetto at the end, keep it mid-range and give it a growl – I bet that doctor would sound nice on those falsetto notes – okay, FOCUS -
Doctor Hugh Culber had a problem.
“Okay, he’s looking over here again.”
“Ooh, I haven’t seen him yet, where is he?
“There, the blond guy, the one about to sing.”
“Wh- oh. Him? Heyyyyyy, Hugh. He’s pretty.”
Hugh knew that. That was his problem.
“He’s still staring. This is your chance, turn around!”
Hugh sighed. Clearly his friends had forgotten that his objective for this vacation was to relax. Playing an hour-long game of eye-contact-chicken with a random pretty guy at a bar was not what he would call relaxing.
But he turned around anyway.
Yes, and there he was. Or, there they were. Staring right at each other.
The guy was lost in thought, a peculiar expression on his face. Hugh wasn’t really sure if he would call it wistful or annoyed.
Someone from Team Gold was clunking his way to the end of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Hugh found the song choice overly optimistic, given the level of actual vocal talent on display, though it had certainly been a committed attempt.
The song came to a halt, the usual whoops and applause broke out, and Hugh’s staring partner came back to himself with a start.
Hugh lifted his eyebrows at him –- now what?
The other guy’s eyes widened and he turned away with a jolt.
Hugh’s friends guffawed, but Hugh felt a little badly -– as much as he wanted their little staring contest to be over, he hadn’t wanted to embarrass the poor guy. Especially since he was about to sing and had been, from what Hugh had observed, pretty reluctant to do so.
Yes, he’d been watching. He may not be out looking for any kind of entanglement, but a cute guy was still a cute guy.
The emcee was back. “And now, our final competitor -- representing Team Shroom with ‘Feelin’ Good’ –- here’s Paul!”
Hugh’s friends started cheering. He cast them all a withering look, but they were all deliberately ignoring him in a pretty poor attempt to act as though they were just naturally focused on the stage.
The music started, and the guy –- Paul -- got up there and walked right past the screen with the lyrics, standing in the center of the stage. His body language was defiant, his eyes closed –- everything about him resistant to being watched, pushing every spectator and keeping them at an arm’s length.
Hugh found himself worrying right in time with the nervous instrumental introduction.
And then the guy drew a breath and started to sing.
That breath drew the crowd right in with him, and voice that followed had Hugh waiting at its razor edge as it softly wound through the verse. It was a voice with a whine to it, but not an annoying whine -- a kind of plaintive, vulnerable sound. Like the voice of a boy who had witnessed evil in the universe and just couldn’t understand why things weren’t any better than they were.
Hugh knew that he was in trouble when he started to get all analytically Florence Nightingale over someone.
And then –- and then that voice started to growl.
A distorted guitar kicked in, strutting its way down the scale. Hugh was dimly aware of people around him hollering and cheering but his brain was totally occupied with a complete reconceptualization of this guy’s attitude.
Yes, he was a contradiction. His eyes closed, making no apparent effort to physically connect with the crowd, and yet he stood center stage instead of hiding himself behind the lyrics screen. But despite his reluctance, his voice was totally in control, and because of that he now just appeared as though he didn’t give a fuck who was watching. He belted through the loud verses, high notes ringing clear, and drew back on the soft verses, nuanced and expressive.
The final verse roared to life, and Hugh noticed this thing the guy was doing with his breathing, these sharp little gasps for air between phrases. Had he been breathing like this all along? Now Hugh couldn’t unhear it and it was starting to feel way too personal, too intimate – like getting a glimpse of the sounds this man would make for a lover, their hands on him, taking him apart…
Hugh dropped his forehead into his hand. Oh, no.
This had definitely not been the plan. Tonight was supposed to be a silly time out at an ugly bar, enjoying his leave with his friends and colleagues. It wasn’t supposed to end with his heart running away with itself.
He lost track of what happened next. When the song was over the bar exploded into its loudest cheers of the night. Obviously the guy won, he remembered applauding for that.
His friends pushed Hugh to go introduce himself.
“You two were the best singers of the night,” they urged. “You at least have that in common.”
Hugh dug his heels in. “Let him have his moment with his friends.”
He let that moment drag on. Maybe now that this whole competition thing was over, the heightened feelings in the room – his included – would just blow over. He ordered another round of food and drinks, tried to lose himself in talking with his friends, keeping his back to the other side of the room.
It was all for naught. An hour dragged by, and he was distracted all the while.
Ignoring the happy little giggles from his hopeless friends, he made his way over to Team Shroom’s table.
But the guy was gone.
Hugh located the dark-haired man who had argued the guy in question onto the stage.
“Where’s your friend?”
The dark-haired man looked up at Hugh –- and gave him the hugest, silliest grin of recognition as he stumbled to his feet. “Hey. It’s you. You’re looking for Paul?”
“I think so.”
“Ah, man. I told him he should have stayed. But that’s Paul. He never listens to anybody.”
Hugh thought he should probably be feeling relief. Too bad his emotions felt otherwise.
“But hey,” the dark-haired man wasn’t finished. “Let me tell you where he’s going to be tomorrow.”
Hugh stared at him. “What?”
“I know where he’s going to be tomorrow. You know. So you can go find him.”
“That’s–-" Hugh shook his head. “That’s pretty weird. Can’t you just give me his commlink number?”
“No way, that won’t work. Trust me.”
Hugh sized him up. He appeared to be in earnest. Drunk, but earnest.
He sighed. “Alright.”
“There’s a 24 hour café in the arts district downtown. Near the opera house.”
Hugh nodded. “I know it,” he replied noncommittally.
It was his favorite part of town.
“He’ll be there in the afternoon.”
This was, by far, the most bizarre, roundabout way to meet someone that Hugh had ever experienced. “Why are you doing this? You don’t even know me.”
“Nah, I have a good feeling about you. Seriously.”
Hugh thanked him and went outside to clear his head. The night air was clear but not cold, and he set out for a long walk under the Alpha Centauri moons. His feet comfortably tread upon the worn cobblestone thoroughfare, the repetitive motion grounding his thoughts.
Hugh was determined to think through his options as he took the long way back to his hotel, though he really knew that any resolve to follow his head was inevitably futile. In the end he would, as always, follow his heart.
Closing time at the El Galleon, and a group of Starfleet astromycologists and a group of Starfleet doctors were still sitting around a table, polishing off a bottle of the cheapest local wine and picking over the soggy remnants of a platter of nachos.
“So your guy will be there tomorrow for sure?”
“He’ll get nothing from encouragement from us. So yes, you can count on it. And yours?”
Straal sat back in his chair. “Yeah. If he doesn’t end up there on his own, then I’ll find a way to make it happen. If your guy is anything like you say he is, then he is perfect for Paul.”
One of the doctors raised her eyebrow at him. “At this point I feel obligated to say that if your guy hurts our guy, just remember that we’re all surgeons here and we know a thousand different ways to cut someone.”
Straal grinned and lifted his glass. “Fair enough. But if your guy hurts our guy, remember that we know of 157 untraceable mushroom poisons with no known antidotes.”
“Cheers.” And the village clinked their glasses.