The lights were low, dimly glowing in the room, only slightly more than the stars passing by the window. Hugh liked it darker. The bright light still hurt his eyes. Hugh’s breath sounded too loud in his own ears. One hand rubbed his shoulder. No. Not there anymore. It was all so different. He didn’t understand. The silence of his old quarters felt like it was pressing in around him. Paul had gone to work. He’d wanted to stay, but Hugh insisted he just needed a little time alone. He could tell that his love was frustrated and rightfully so. They couldn’t touch. It hurt his raw and new nerves; also, it terrified him. The only touch he’d had for so long… it ravaged him as the Network tried to absorb him. He pulled his arms across his chest, trying to hold himself together as his anxiety grew. Beads of sweat formed on his arms and on his face. The environmental controls must’ve been malfunctioning.
“Computer, is it hot in here?” he whispered.
“Environmental controls set on standard temperature,” came the automated voice.
“Lower temperature by five degrees.”
Hugh stripped off his tank-top and sat bare-chested on the bed. The air around him started to cool, but he still felt uncomfortable. Hugh tried to focus on breathing in and out, but he found it more difficult. Flashes of memory came to him, screaming as the Network attacked him. He only tried to protect himself. Why were they attacking him? His heart raced and he vaguely realizes that he was panicking, but that didn’t help the situation. A part of him wanted to call Paul, but he couldn’t. Paul wasn’t real.
“No,” he whispering, squeezing his forearms. Pain shot through his arms where he squeezed.
It was too much.
“Damn it!” Hugh shouted, standing up and starting to pace back and forth across their quarters.
Paul was real. He wasn’t in the Network anymore. He squeezed his arms again, trying to ground himself with the pain. It wasn’t enough. Hugh rubbed his shoulder. No, not his shoulder. Sweat ran down his face and his hands were clammy on his skin.
It wasn’t right.
Hugh moved to the replicator, putting in what he requested before he realized it. He grabbed it and sat down on the floor, hard. Hugh twisted it around in his hands, barely keeping his fingers from the point. The knife barely had any weight to it. His hands shook as he stared at it. Tears mixed with the sweat on his face. It wouldn’t make it right. Maybe. Damn it, Hugh didn’t know what was right or real.
Paul wanted things to be the way they were before; Hugh knew he did. But Hugh didn’t know how to be that version of himself anymore. He had no idea. Everything was too much. Fear. He’d only felt fear and pain for so long. Dr. Culber died in the Network. Or he died when Ash/Voq broke his neck in the medbay and Paul held him as he slipped away. He’d been aware of Paul’s arms around him, after he’d died. It wasn’t right, nothing was.
But he loved Paul. He did. Hugh loved him.
“Gave him a very sexy scar and inspired him to go to medical school and become the man he is today.”
Paul smiling from ear to ear. Unspeakable joy. His love being returned to him.
He couldn’t see the pain Hugh was in.
Hugh grasped the small hilt of the blade in his right hand. Not his dominant hand. This was going to be even messier. He took a shaky breath. There was no turning back in his mind. Pressing the tip to his skin, Hugh let out a sob. And then he stabbed the blade into his skin, dragging it where his scar belonged. Hugh screamed at the pain. He paused, letting out a guttural scream, but he didn’t stop until he’d remade the entire mark. Blood gushed from the wound, covering his hand and the blade. Hot. Warmth on his hand. Searing pain in his shoulder.
It took several long moments of sobbing and pain for Hugh to realize what he’d done to himself. He slammed his free hand down on the floor and yelled as he pulled the blade from his shoulder. The knife clattered to the floor. He rubbed at the blood on his hand and immediately felt ill. Hugh turned his head, throwing up the meager contents of his stomach at the sight of what he’d done, how he’d mutilated his skin. His pristine new skin.
He’d stabbed himself.
“Oh my god,” Hugh sobbed.
Distantly, he heard the door chime. Once. Twice. Hugh couldn’t bring himself to answer. He pulled his knees to his chest as the blood continued to flow down his chest and dripped onto the floor, staining everything it touched. Just like Hugh. He couldn’t do this. His breaths came in bursts, short and painful as his body shifted slightly at the exaggerated breathing. It wasn’t calming him down, but making it worse.
“Burnham to Culber,” came over the comm.
Hugh’s chest felt like it was being ripped apart. He pressed his knees against his chest and started to rock back and forth. He stabbed himself. Why?
“Dr. Culber, it’s Michael. May I come in?”
Hugh wanted to let her in, but he couldn’t speak. Despite the overwhelming fear in his mind, Hugh told the computer to open the door before burying his face between his knees. The pain in his shoulder shifted and he cried out.
The door silently opened to the dimly lit room.
“Doctor Culber?” Michael’s soft voice called.
He wasn’t visible from the doorway. She must’ve stepped inside and there was a sound of the door closing behind her.
Hugh could barely breathe as the sobs tore through him. He couldn’t keep them quiet.
“Oh my god,” Michael exclaimed, not doubt seeing him and the bloody mess he’d made.
Hugh lifted his head to see her through his blurred vision, kneeling in front of him. He rested his head against the bulkhead behind him. The wound in his shoulder was completely visible now.
“Help me,” he choked out.
Michael’s soft features were sympathetic and not angry as she looked at him. “Oh Hugh. I’m so sorry.”
“Paul,” he gasped, trembling all over. He started to feel a little light-headed from the blood loss and dizzy.
“Okay.” Michael reached out her hand, letting her fingers brush his knee. She comm’d for medical to report to his quarters first, insisting on Dr. Pollard not anyone else. The second call she made was for Paul. “Burnham to Stamets.”
“Stamets, is something wrong?” Paul replied. Tilly’s chipper voice spoke animatedly in the background to someone else.
Hugh heard the barely concealed worry in his voice. He wondered if Paul had sent Michael to check up on him so he wasn’t alone. Too bad it was too late. He wasn’t alright.
“You are needed in your quarters. Immediately,” Michael said, keeping her voice even.
“Hugh?” He didn’t wait for Michael to answer. “I’m on my way!”
Hugh felt the tension start to fade away. It became easier to breathe, but only slightly. Michael spoke softly to him as she picked up his discarded tank top and used it to staunch the bleeding after asking if she could touch his arm. She kept talking, but he didn’t hear any of her words. The room still felt too warm, but he didn’t have the energy to ask the computer to lower the temperature again. The rational part of him realized it was never the ambient temperature. It was him. He’d panicked and harmed himself. Hugh watched as Michael moved the knife further from his reach. He wouldn’t have had the energy to hurt himself again. The metallic smell of his blood spilled out on the floor made his stomach cramp. He gagged, trying to turn himself away from Michael and keep from being sick.
“Shh… it’s okay,” she murmured, using a clean corner of the shirt to dab his forehead.
“It’s not okay,” he gasped. “It’s not… okay.”
Michael didn’t answer, but continued her soft ministrations.
The doors to their quarters opened, admitting a breathless Paul. He must’ve run from Engineering. His eyes immediately focused on the blood on Hugh and the sick on the floor. Hugh wanted to disappear. He tried to move, but Michael kept her firm hand on his wound, keeping the pressure. Hugh moaned.
“Hugh?” Paul whispered; his voice sounded tight and on the verge of breaking.
“P-Paul?” Hugh shivered. The air suddenly felt too cold and he turned his face away from his love.
“Did he…?” The question wasn’t directed at Hugh, but at Michael.
“Dr. Pollard is on her way. This was already the situation when I arrived.” Michael kept the judgment from her voice.
Paul didn’t move any closer to him. Doctor Pollard entered with one of the nurses and immediately addressed the situation by asking Michael to step back so she could see the wound. She asked Hugh a question, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t feel like talking anymore. He watched as Paul covered his mouth with one hand, rubbing back and forth over his mouth as if he were holding himself back from freaking out. That was the last sight Hugh glimpsed before losing consciousness.
Warm hands loosely held his right hand. Hugh knew it was Paul before he even opened his eyes. The pain in his shoulder had disappeared and he wondered what happened to the wound. Hugh didn’t want to wake up. Paul would want to talk about what happened. As soon as he opened his eyes, Paul released his hand and straightened up.
“Hi,” Paul whispered.
Hugh turned his head, staring at a spot on the far wall. He couldn’t look at Paul after what he did to himself.
“How’re you feeling?” Paul asked.
Hugh didn’t answer. He shifted his gaze to stare at his hand, noting the blood was gone. Cautiously, he reached up to touch his shoulder. Paul’s hand caught his. He jumped, jerking his hand free. Pain seared through his shoulder at the sudden movement. It apparently wasn’t healed fully. He hissed as he moved back to his previous position.
Hugh glanced at him, still not meeting his eyes. “Why… are you here? After what I did? You should just leave.”
“I’m not leaving you. I promised.”
“Paul, I stabbed myself. I willingly drove a knife into my skin and pulled it because I’m not okay. I’m not me. I don’t know who I am!” His voice rose and he fought not to cry.
Paul was silent for a long moment. His voice shook when he finally spoke. “Because I love you. You’re the man I love and I’m not letting you go.”
“Fuck Paul! I don’t want you here!” An alarm went off on the biobed as he felt the blood rush to his face. Hugh put his uninjured arm over his eyes as the room spun.
“Your heartrate is too high right now,” Doctor Pollard said as she stepped over to the biobed. “I need you to take deep breaths. Your body is too weak for this right now. We replenished quite a bit of your blood in the last hour.”
“Please, make him leave.” Hugh regretted the words as soon as he said them, but he couldn’t take them back.
Paul’s voice broke his heart. “Hugh?”
Hugh opened his mouth to swear again, but Doctor Pollard interrupted. “It might be a good idea for you to head to your quarters to rest, Lieutenant-Commander Stamets. Doctor Culber will be staying here for observation tonight.”
Hugh moved his arm so he could see Dr. Pollard, but he didn’t look at Paul. “Go Paul,” he whispered. He couldn’t hurt himself here. He doubted he would be left alone tonight and he definitely wouldn’t have access to anything sharp.
“I love you.” His tone, full of emotion and fear, reminded Hugh of the last time he’d said he loved him, right before he stepped into the spore chamber and risked his life to complete the series of jumps.
Hugh swallowed around the lump in his throat, but he didn’t respond. He didn’t deserve Paul’s love anymore. Paul left without saying anything else. A part of him wanted to beg and scream for him to come back, but he didn’t have the strength or the will to keep loving him. He was too tired. Doctor Pollard spoke softly to him. She administered a hypospray with something for the pain and to help him relax. It only took a few minutes for him to fall asleep with the image of Paul walking away from him clear in his mind.
When he woke up again, the lights in the medbay were dim. It must’ve been late or early in the morning. Hugh sighed and tried to move his sore shoulder. It still hurt. He reached up and felt a bandage there. They hadn’t used the dermal regenerator. It was probably penance for what he’d done. It took him a few moments to realize that he wasn’t alone. Michael sat at the end of his bed, staring blankly at a PADD in her hand. She looked up at him and gave him a soft smile.
“When I first came to Discovery, after being in prison for what I did at the Battle of the Binary Stars, I didn’t belong. I didn’t want to belong. I was responsible for the deaths of innocent men and women. I deserved to be imprisoned for life. It took me a long time to find any sort of happiness here, but… it was worth it.” Michael sat up straighter in her chair. “I know it’s not the same thing. You died, but you lived on in the Network. And it was agonizing. I’m so sorry, Doctor Culber. I wish we could’ve saved you sooner.”
“I shouldn’t be here.” A tear rolled down his cheek and fell onto the bed.
“No, you shouldn’t. But you are. You’ve been given a second chance at life, even if you didn’t want it. Second chances are hard, trust me. But we’re all here for you. And Stamets – Paul, he loves you. I’ve never seen someone so broken after you died. It was little things at first. Tilly noticed. She noticed he was getting thinner and he wasn’t sleeping. She tried to encourage him to eat and I assisted her, but he wouldn’t. Tilly saw him one night in the mycelium forest, just crying as he held onto one of your shirts. He had it pressed against his chest and he was sobbing. She said the sound broke her heart. She wanted to talk to him, but she didn’t want to interrupt his grief. He’d been easily angered the past few days.”
Michael stopped and stood up. She motioned to his left hand, lying motionless on the bed. Hugh made a face, but nodded. She gently put her hand one hand under his and lay the other hand on top, cupping his hand and putting warmth back into his cold fingers. “Tilly found him two days later. He was late for work, only an hour, but she knew it was wrong. He’d actually offered to go to dinner with her the night before, but she’d had plans with me. She couldn’t get into his quarters and called for Saru to override the door code. His quarters were filled with spores, floating around the room as Paul sat on the bed and holding a hypospray. He said he wanted to end it, so he could be with you again.”
Hugh felt the tears flowing freely now. “No,” he murmured. “Paul wouldn’t do that.”
“His grief-stricken mind became too much for him to handle alone.” Michael gently squeezed Hugh’s hand. “But he came back from it. Tilly and I helped him. We took turns spending time with him and he spoke to a counselor for a little while so he could come back on duty. We ate with him, listened to him talk about you, held him when he cried, and just stayed with him. Paul needs you and you need him. This won’t be easy and you’re both hurting. Let him help you.”
“I can’t.” Hugh shook his head. “It’s too much. All of it.”
“You won’t heal in a day. Take your time and take it moment by moment. Let him be with you, but start slow. You both need each other right now.”
The door to the medbay slid open, admitting a sleepy Paul, dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt that was a size too big. Michael gave his hand one small squeeze before letting go. She touched Paul’s shoulder as she walked past and whispered something Hugh couldn’t hear. Paul moved to the end of the bed, but didn’t get any closer.
“I thought you’d be asleep. Do you want me to leave?” Paul asked; his voice barely above a whisper.
Hugh tried to speak, but his words stuck. He tried again after clearing his throat. “You can stay.”
“Thanks.” Paul looked at the chair, but didn’t make any move to sit down. He shifted uncomfortable on his feet and Hugh saw he wasn’t wearing any socks or shoes. His feet must’ve been cold. Paul never liked wearing socks to bed; his cold feet always ended up pressed against Hugh’s legs for warmth.
“Is that my shirt?” Hugh said after a long silence.
Paul touched the article of clothing and smiled. “Yeah. It’s the only way I can fall asleep. It helps with the nightmares, but not always.”
“I have nightmares too,” Hugh choked out. “I can barely close my eyes without worrying that the spores will try to dissolve me. The pain… I can still feel it.”
Paul stepped closer to him, putting out his hand and pulling it back quickly. “I’m so sorry, Hugh.”
“I’m sorry too. I don’t know why I did what I did. It was too much. Everything.” Hugh lifted his hand and reached for Paul.
Paul hesitated for a second before taking Hugh’s hand in his and holding it to his chest as tears trailed down his own cheeks. “I wish I could’ve saved you sooner.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“But it is. I put you in the Network.”
“You didn’t know.” Hugh let out a shaky breath. “I don’t know how to do this. Please, help me.”
Paul pulled the chair up and sat beside him, simply holding his hand. He slowly began to trace every line of Hugh’s hand, softly feeling his veins and un-calloused skin. His touch remained soft and incredibly gentle. He placed Hugh’s hand facing up on top of his. Paul traced the length of each finger, running his finger in-between and up again. It felt… comforting. Hugh tried to smile at him, but it fell. A part of him wanted to pull back, but he stayed still, letting Paul comfort him. He relaxed and threaded his fingers between Paul’s, holding tight to his hand. Hugh let his eyes close. This would be enough for now. It wasn’t going to be easy, but he’d try. For Paul.
“I love you too,” he murmured, hoping that Paul heard him.
“I’ll always love you, Hugh.”