With everyone else gone, the mess hall felt too open. Barren of life save for him and Hugh. Commander Saru had ushered everyone else out after the fight, giving them a moment free from watching eyes and pitying glances. They sat together in two of the chairs Paul had right, and no matter how much he wanted to reach out to Hugh, he kept his hands to himself by clasping them together in his lap.
It was hard not to stare at his partner. Light from the debris field poured in from the viewports like sunlight and cast shadows across the reflective metal floor panels. Paul had always thought Hugh was handsome, but never more than when he stood planetside and facing the sun. At that thought, he felt his eyes water and nose start to tingle. He blinked hard once, forcing the tears down.
Now was not the time for nostalgia.
For a while, Paul managed not to stare by focusing on his own hands, clenching and unclenching them as he searched for the right words to make the situation better. Each time he opened his mouth, it would close again without anything uttered. Paul almost didn’t dare to disturb Hugh. His eyes were so empty as he stared at the floor, unblinking.
Hugh flexed his hand after a few more minutes. His knuckles were reddened, and considering how hard he’d hit Tyler earlier, he might’ve done more damage than what was visible. For his soft-spoken partner to lash out like that-
The door opened, breaking Paul his reverie. A glance showed it was nothing more than a few drones come to clean up the mess hall, but their small hum was enough to dispell the quiet.
“You should at least…” Paul began, pausing a moment when Hugh didn’t react before finishing rather lamely: “-At least get your hand checked out.”
“Why?” Hugh snapped.
Of all the responses Paul expected, that single word wasn’t the one he wanted. It made his shoulders tighten back, and jaw tremble. Hugh was just so angry, and Paul had no way to fix it.
“I-I can feel it,” Hugh continued, finally looking up from the floor to lock eyes with him. The anger melted away and was gone by the time Hugh’s shoulders rounded in, and he went back to looking at his hands. “And I’m not letting anyone fix things I can feel.”
He couldn’t help himself. He reached out. “Look, just come home and…”
“It’s not my home anymore, Paul.” Paul pulled his hand back as though the words burned it. “That version of me that called your quarters home, that version of me is dead. And I’m not going back.”
The sickly feeling of tears came back again, dampening his eyes. Paul tried to keep it together; he did. “But is it because you don’t want to or… because you don’t know how?”
“What difference does it make?” Hugh asked, but he wouldn’t let Paul reply. Instead, he just continued, getting out his feelings and crushing Paul’s in the process. “Would you please just move forward? And let me do the same.”
“I, uh…” Paul swallowed down his feelings. “Okay.”
A computer chime saved him from saying more, and a voice came over the speakers. “Commander Stamets to Engineering.”
He looked from Hugh to the door, saying nothing more as he forced himself up and away. Staying with Hugh wouldn’t help, his partner wanted nothing to do with him. He’d changed. Whether as a result of dying or the mycelial network or coming back -Stamets didn’t know.
After the failed attempt to jump and hours spent working fixing the problem, Paul found himself in his quarters alone. Exhaustion pulled at his shoulders, making them droop just like Hugh’s had earlier. He rolled them out from habit and tugged at the collar of his uniform, loosening it and unzipping the first few inches to make it easier to breathe.
He found his gaze stuck on the couch for a few minutes before he managed to tear it away. Hugh had been angry yesterday, too.
Paul closed his eyes and rubbed his hands over his face. They were cold and sore from hours of typing in his lab. The feeling was familiar. It was hardly the first time he worked late into the night cycle. He huffed, letting his hand drop. Hugh had mentioned that as well.
Never before had he felt truly guilty over working late. Hugh had grinned and bore it throughout their relationship, letting nights and dinners go by untouched. But how Hugh could be surprised to find his things still living here, in their quarters (they weren’t just his), Paul couldn’t figure out.
He walked through the main room, running his icy fingers along the edge of the cabinet that held knickknacks from trips together and a glass sculpture they’d received at their wedding. In the bedroom, one half of the closet still contained all of Hugh’s clothes. When he reached the bathroom, his toothbrush sat beside the sink.
How Hugh could believe that he hadn’t cared- Paul didn’t know.
His hands dropped to the countertop, and he forced himself to look in the mirror. How many mornings had they stood beside one another in this room? Brushing their teeth and smiling at each other in the glass. His fingers closed into fists. He wasn’t going to let it end like this.
“Computer, where is Doctor Culber?”
When the door to sickbay opened, Paul wasn’t surprised to see Hugh at one of the computers alone. Doctor Pollard had left for the night. Someone would be on call if anyone required assistance; otherwise, they were off duty. Hugh didn’t turn around at the whoosh of the door, nor at the sound of footsteps as Paul walked into the room.
Paul ensured his steps were loud enough to be heard. He didn’t want to startle Hugh. As he continued his approach, the only acknowledgement Paul received was a slight movement of Hugh’s head as he glanced down at Paul’s feet when he stopped a half-metre away. It was almost as if he needed to confirm how far away Paul was and not who it was.
“Why are you here?” Hugh asked as he returned his attention to the screen.
“I’m not ready to let you go,” Paul told him, matter-of-factly. He had to clench his jaw to keep his emotions in check when his husband blew out a laugh.
“That’s not how it works, Paul.” He turned, dropping his hands to his sides and shaking his head. “Just because you aren’t ready to let me go doesn’t mean that I am staying.”
“In sickness and health,” he parroted back to him one of the lines in their vows. “I am not giving up. Not on us and not on you.”
Hugh’s hand rose to run through his short hair. “And until death parts us. I died , Paul. What about that don’t you understand?”
“I know that!” Paul couldn’t help but yell in return.
“Death changed us,” Hugh insisted as he turned back to the screens and gestured for Paul to see. “I am ‘new.’ My body was reconstructed from organic material and my memories implanted. I am nothing more than a clone of Hugh Culber. The Hugh you knew, he’s dead.”
Paul shook his head, his eyes closing to try and block out the data in front of him. Before he joined with the network, he might’ve been able to separate it as Hugh could, but not now. “You aren’t a clone any more than someone is after they’ve been through the transporter. Your body was broken down in the network and rebuilt.”
He shook his head, his arms coming in to cross over his abdomen. “You saw my body, Paul. It’s still out there somewhere, isn’t it?” When Paul didn’t reply fast enough, he lashed out and shoved him back, “Isn’t it!”
Paul managed to keep himself on his feet, thrown off balance but refusing to back down. “I see you in front of me right now, Hugh.” He bit his bottom lip to stop it from quivering. “I saw you in the network too. You helped me get out.”
“No.” He took a step forward, grabbing hold of Hugh’s shoulders. “I am not going to stop, Hugh. I love you.”
He pushed away but was trapped between the medical bed and Paul now. “But I’m not me!”
“You are!” Paul yelled right back. He wouldn’t let Hugh run anymore; he couldn’t. “You said you didn’t want anyone to look at your hand because you felt something, right?” he waited for Hugh to nod. “Then work with me. Let me help you feel again.”
He was close enough to see Hugh’s throat bob as he swallowed. “How?”
A small smile worked its way on Paul’s face. “Like this,” he said as he brought one hand up. He moved slowly, ensuring that Hugh actually wanted to be touched before he let the back of his fingers touch his cheek. Beneath his hand, he felt Hugh shiver and inhale sharply. Paul pulled his fingers back a bit. “Sorry, I’m cold.”
But before he could remove his hand, Hugh grabbed it and pressed it harder against his cheek. “No. Leave it.”
“All right,” he whispered as he flattened out his hand to cup Hugh’s jaw. “I know things are different,” he continued. “I changed. You changed. But I don’t want us to stop being together. We’ll get through this.”
Hugh’s eyes fluttered closed, and he pressed into Paul’s hand. “I don’t know how.”
“What you said yesterday in our quarters gave me an idea.” He leaned in, pressing his lips gently against Hugh’s. At first, his husband didn’t react but when Paul went to pull away, Hugh’s hands twisted in the front of his uniform and he didn’t let go.
So instead of moving away, he kissed him deeper and let his eyes fall closed as well. Allowing Hugh set the pace with his reactions was easy. He was so responsive to any form of contact, more so than Paul could ever recall.
When they eventually parted, barely a breath of space between them, Paul watched as Hugh slowly came back to himself. “Come home with me?” he asked.
Hugh nodded and leaned back in to capture Paul’s lips with his own. “In a minute,” he mumbled against him, and Paul moaned as his tongue broke past lips to enter his mouth.
It had been so long since Paul had been kissed -especially like this with all the passion he remembered from their honeymoon. Hugh’s hands found their way around Paul’s back, and he held them together. He’d forgotten what it was like.
At that moment, he vowed never to let it happen again.