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Needs of the One

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Hugh Culber isn't a man given to anger. Which doesn’t mean he’s incapable of it. He just tries his best to channel it, to save it for things that truly matter - unlike Paul, whose righteous rage seethes like a volcano, never simmering down and ever so often spouting flame. It works for Paul because Paul’s got anger to spare, and keeping it all in would just put him on the fast track to a heart condition. Hugh is different, though. A doctor first, empathy tends to be his gut reaction, but if there’s anything he’s learned in life it’s that battles aren’t won on kindness alone. Which is why anger - raw, undiluted, the kind to save lives - isn’t a weapon Hugh wields lighty.

So far, on Discovery, he’s been keeping his head down. After the strings he pulled to get posted here - including touting the ridiculous claim that he actually had some influence over Paul, and therefore over the outcome of the spore drive project - any overt criticism would only hurt them both. Or at least that’s how he felt before.

It was Burnham who lit the fuse. Burnham and her self-imposed mission of mercy, and Hugh still isn’t sure whether to be concerned or grateful that one suffering soul - humanoid or not - is still all it takes to launch him on his own moral crusade. Except this has gone way beyond Tardigrades. Now it’s about duty, and sacrifice, and what it takes to push a man as wired for independence as Paul to risk his life to obey an order to jump. He wouldn’t have done it for Lorca, that much is sure. But it wasn’t Lorca who gave the order.

“You should know,” Hugh says, voice steely with tension, “that I’m keeping you personally accountable if the Lieutenant doesn’t recover from this.” He has one eye on the monitors across Paul’s head and the other on the tricorder he’s holding, not sparing Saru even a glance.

At least the sedative seems to be working. Not a thing to be taken for granted, considering someone went and got his DNA all scrambled. But given the state Paul was in - convulsing with laughter on the spore chamber’s floor - putting him out for a while seemed like the prudent choice. If only to buy Hugh more time to find out if any permanent damage was done. That, and tell Saru exactly where to stick it and why.

The first officer belongs to the majority of people who’ve never seen Hugh mad in their lives; the perplexed look on his face is enough to give that away. “Of course.” Blinking, Saru bows his head. But his threat ganglia are miles ahead of him, Hugh notes, not without a certain dark satisfaction. “I’m the one who gave the order. Therefore the responsibility is mine as well. But I assure you, I did not anticipate…”

“Your Chief Engineer sacrificing himself rather than condemn an innocent creature to death?” Hugh fixates on his readings until his eyes start to burn. The irony is, he didn’t see it coming either. He isn’t sure what it says about him that he watched Paul acknowledge Saru’s orders and never stopped to wonder if it wasn't an act. Somehow he was too caught up in the Tardigrade’s plight to remember that, whatever else Paul is, he values life just as deeply as Hugh does. Life, and the importance of choice. And that, Hugh knows, is the real reason for his anger. He could have prevented this if he hadn’t been so blind.

And maybe if had, they’d all be dead, drifting like so many specks of frozen flesh in the depths of Klingon space. Saru, and him, and Paul as well.

Hugh braces a hand against the edge of the bed, squeezes it the way he can’t squeeze Paul’s hand. When they’re alone, maybe, but not now. The truth is, he’s an accessary to this as much as Saru is. He focused on saving a life because that’s what he does, and Saru focused on saving the ship because as acting captain they depended on him. But Paul - Paul somehow took all of that and found a way around it, orders and reason and personal safety be damned, and god dammit, Hugh ought to have known.

“I don’t regret it,” Saru murmurs, from somewhere behind him. “Or rather, I regret the shape our salvation took, but not the decision that led us to it. As I said -” He straightens his posture, slowly, as if struggling under a burden too heavy for words. “I had a crew to protect. When the need arises, we all do what we must.”

“We do, do we?” Hugh says bitterly. It’s a nice enough speech, and it would be far less painful to swallow without Paul lying there on the biobed, reminding him of all the things he should have done but didn’t. “Easy to say when you’re gambling with lives that aren't your own.”

“I’m afraid you are mistaken.” There’s an odd melancholy in Saru’s voice, enough to make Hugh glance up and try to read the emotions behind that solemn façade. “There was nothing easy about it at all.” Long pause, in which Saru’s hands flutter nervously. “Some people… they thrive on difficult calls. Captain Lorca. My former Captain, Georgiou. Specialist Burnham. I am not, nor will I ever be, one of those people. Though I believe… Lieutenant Stamets may be. It took a great deal of courage to do what he did.”

“It… really didn’t.” The words, slurred as they are, still convey a depth of being-done-with-it-all that makes Hugh’s heart stutter in his chest.

He takes a breath as he turns away from Saru, trying to shut out what's left of his anger and frustration. “Lieutenant? Welcome back.” His hand settles down on the edge of the bed, just a few inches away from Paul’s arm. “You still all there?” Not the most professional question, but he knows how much Paul loathes being a patient and a little unorthodoxy goes a long way - for him, too, because watching Paul’s eyebrows do that puzzled squint is two-thirds of a diagnosis already.

“I don't know,” Paul says, his voice wobbling slightly. “Was I…? I don’t think I was gone, just… someplace else. The network. I saw…” And there’s that blissed-out smile again, spilling across his face like a revelation. This time, at least, it stops short of spiraling off into something that doesn’t look like Paul at all. Instead the frown returns, Paul’s hand coming up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “That was…” His voice is thick with wonder. “The most magnificent thing, short of making love.”

It’s all Hugh can do not to wrap him in his arms right there, chase away that damned fragility oozing from him, but there’s a time and a place and this isn’t it. “From a medical viewpoint, I’d recommend sticking to the latter,” he says, as dryly as he can, all too aware of Saru’s presence at his back.

“You’d say that, wouldn’t you?” Paul replies, still with that vague, angelic smile on his face. “Don’t worry, baby, I won’t…”

“Ahem.” Saru clears his throat, interrupting before Hugh can express his shock; Paul never uses endearments in public, let alone with a superior officer around. To Hugh’s relief, the Commander lets it pass. “Captain Lorca asked to see me, so I should go. But before I do… I wanted to thank you, Lieutenant, for the bravery you showed. I’ll make sure the Captain hears of your sacrifice.”

“My… sacrifice?” Paul might as well be chiding him on a theory, his voice dripping with disbelief. Struggling to push himself up on his elbows, he winces, then sags back onto the bed. “No… you don’t understand.” He gestures feebly. “What I saw, I wouldn’t have missed for the world. The beauty of it, the elegance, the belonging, the, the…” His forehead wrinkles and his eyebrows knit together, and for the few moments that his eyes lose focus, he looks halfway between laughter and tears. “Really, I’m the one who should be thanking you, Commander. If only you could have seen it. Hugh, you too. I… I wish…” Paul shivers violently, and on the screen behind him an alarm starts to blink.

Saru sees it too - there's precious little that the man misses - and starts to lift a hand to the back of his neck. Hugh meets his eyes just as he catches himself, turns the gesture into a tug at his collar instead. But Hugh’s own senses are tingling as well, and it doesn’t take threat ganglia to see that something about Paul isn’t at all as it should be. Not physically, perhaps, but psychologically for sure.

“I should go,” Saru says softly, his gaze leaving Hugh's. For a man claiming to stand by his command decisions, there’s a remarkable amount of anguish in his face. “Get some rest, Lieutenant. Doctor, I’m…” He shakes his head. “I… didn’t know.”

Hugh nods, not sure what else he can say, but aware he just got more of an apology than Saru was planning to give. Unlike her captain, Discovery’s first officer does care about her crew, and Paul’s rambling might just haunt the man’s dreams tonight. As vindication goes, that’ll have to do.

Paul makes a small, plaintive noise in the back of his throat. “Hugh?” He sounds breathless, and Hugh wheels towards him, refocusing on the tricorder in his hands. The flush that colored Paul’s cheeks has vanished, replaced by a gray, waxy pallor that Hugh doesn’t like the look of at all.

“Easy does it,” he mutters, with a nonchalance he doesn't feel. The alarm has stopped flashing, but most of the indicators are still in the red, pulse and blood pressure all over the place. He runs his scanner across the newly patched holes in Paul’s sides; they’re healing nicely, pink skin stretching across where the punctures used to be. “I’ll give you something to take the edge off. You may need another session with a dermal regenerator, but in a couple of days you’ll be good as new.” Long beat. “Physically, that is. I’m hugely underqualified to make prognoses about the rest.” Frustration and a mounting sense of powerlessness make that come out more like an accusation, and Hugh tenses at his own sharpness but doesn’t take it back.

“You’re angry,” Paul says, in a rare, unprompted flash of empathy, and it’s a testament to how unsteady Hugh feels that his first impulse is to wonder if this, too, is a side effect of whatever the hell is going haywire in that scrambled brain. “Well, yes, of course you’re angry, but I can explain…” Paul’s voice softens, becomes contrite in a way that makes Hugh’s gut ache.

He puts his tricorder down to prepare a hypospray, hoping the familiar task will settle his nerves. “You’re damn right I’m angry,” he answers, under his breath. This time he manages to keep his tone neutral; with Paul still bouncing between agony and ecstasy, this isn’t the time to let himself go, but when else will they get a chance to talk before the next crisis hits? “Angry and worried and, frankly, scared shitless because we’re wildly out of our depth here, in case you hadn’t noticed. What the hell were you thinking, Paul?”

“Same thing you were.” Paul’s head tosses on the pillow. His nose wrinkles in the familiar scowl that might be the most comforting thing Hugh has seen all day. “That we had to jump, but not if it meant killing our navigator. That left one other option. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same.”

“As a matter of fact I’m not gonna tell you that, because I… don’t know,” Hugh blurts, realizing it’s true. “I don’t know what I’d have done. Remembered my classes about the Eugenics Wars, most likely, but after that…” He taps his hypospray, more aggressively than he should - not a scientific method, but one he swears by nonetheless - while he double-checks the dosage. Tucks the hypo beside the pillow, then crosses his arms. “Look…” He sighs. “It’s not that I don’t understand why you did it, even if it was reckless as hell. What got to me is… I never knew you were such a good liar. You actually had me convinced you were going to follow orders, try and force the Tardigrade to jump.”

Paul swallows, his throat working. “Yes, well… I almost had myself convinced. For about two seconds after Saru gave the order. Then I realized… I couldn’t do it. So I had to do something else instead.”

“You could have told me,” Hugh says, his voice rising in pitch before he scrambles to tone it down again. “At least I could have monitored you, tried to limit the risks…”

“There wasn’t time.” Paul seems more lucid now, as if the argument is helping to ground him. “And I couldn't lose more time convincing you, or debating which of us would do it - don’t give me that look, you know that’s how it would have gone down…”

“So you went around me. Pretended to follow orders so you could get the job done.” It makes a queasy kind of sense, despite how Hugh’s inner voice is still clamoring there should have been another way. “And I bought it, too. Swallowed it hook, line and sinker.” He hugs his arms tighter around himself, fighting a sudden chill that has nothing to do with the temperature.

“Of course you bought it,” Paul says softly. By now he looks almost translucent, tiny tremors running up his arms as he makes an attempt to sit up straighter. “I’ve gotten so good at acting the asshole it takes me zero effort to be indistinguishable from one. Don’t blame yourself for falling for it. I’ve had years of practice.” There’s no drama in the words; just resignation, and an odd kind of peace. “But I’m changed now. I’ll be better. I promise.”

“I don’t need you to be better. I need you to be you,” Hugh says, with a vehemence he regrets instantly, because Paul stiffens as if someone just put a phaser to his head.

“I imagine… I sound half-delirious to you, don’t I?” he mutters. “But if you’d seen what I saw, you’d be changed too. I just… I wish I could show you. Words can't do it justice, Hugh.”

It’s not that Hugh doesn’t want to believe him; he does, and at least that last statement had some self-awareness to it, but the tightness in his chest is still refusing to leave. It can wait, though: Paul is shaking on his elbows, his mouth a thin, bloodless line, and Hugh leans in to catch his shoulders, then ease him back down onto the bed. In an impulse, he cards his fingers through Paul’s hair, the way he would to help him settle down to sleep. He’s rewarded by Paul’s eyes closing, lungs straining around a shuddering breath.

“You’re right,” Hugh says, soaking up the sight of Paul in his arms, not nearly all right but at least here, and alive. “I can’t begin to understand what you went through. And maybe I don’t have to. Maybe, for now, I can settle for being glad that you’re safe.”

“No one’s safe,” Paul says, without opening his eyes. “The Glenn is gone, and it could just as easily have been us. It could still be us. But for the first time, I’m thinking… maybe some things are worth dying for.”

The dread in the pit of Hugh’s stomach stirs again. From the day they met, the essence of what they are to each other has been about living for their passions, not dying for them. It’s what drew them together, and Hugh isn’t prepared for that to change. “Maybe there are,” he says, as cautiously as he can. “But, unlike our Vulcan friends, I don't think the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. I figure the one is always worth saving… whether it’s a Tardigrade, or the man I love.”

Disentangling his fingers from Paul’s hair, he reaches for the hypospray beside the pillow. Checks it again, just to be sure, then gently injects the contents into Paul’s arm.

The sound Paul makes is one of startled relief. “Thank you,” he sighs, after a moment, and Hugh doesn’t know if he means the hypo or what he just said, or both. Watery eyes flutter open, struggle to focus on him. “I mean it, you know. It wasn’t a sacrifice. I’ve seen the Tardigrade interact with the spores. I was aching to share that connection. If you think for a moment I’d have given up that privilege to anyone else…” Paul chuckles, closes his eyes again. “So really, I was being selfish. It wasn’t the needs of the many; it was my needs, too.”

Hugh rolls his eyes, not even making an effort to stop himself. “That’s real convincing. And I’m sure you’ll find someone who’ll buy it, but I don’t. Not this time.” He reaches down and strokes Paul’s wrist, to take the sting out of the words. “The Paul Stamets I know may be a huge pain in the ass, but he’s got barely a selfish bone in his body. I’m his doctor, not to mention his lover, so you can bet I’ve looked.”

Paul’s heart rate is evening out, taut muscles relaxing as the hypo takes effect. Maybe he’ll even manage to sleep; proper sleep, not the chemically induced kind that’s all he’s gotten so far. “If you say so, dear doctor,” he breathes. Then, voice slurring slightly: “This is a good thing, Hugh. I can feel it. It’s going to change everything.”

Hugh nods, and musters a smile, and hopes to God that whatever change Paul means, it'll be the kind they both can live with.