Less awake than asleep Paul lies in bed as his senses slowly resume their active duty. It’s dark, and quiet, not much to hear but calm breathing and a gentle background hum. Half of his body feels pleasantly warm while his back has gotten a little chilly. The comfort of familiar scents surrounds him.
Mercifully, his waking hours these days stay mostly free of the visions and spells that the Terran Stamets had bestowed upon his mind in the past. But in exchange, others take their place at night. He’s not sure what’s woken him this time, but he stirs, and so does the person he’s holding on to. The short hair at the back of Hugh’s head prickles against his face, the breaths vibrating through his chest deepen under Paul’s arms. But he doesn’t speak.
Paul peels one eye half open and squints at the dimmed light in the room. Still dark setting. Still night time. His eye falls shut again.
He tries to wiggle as little as possible as he shifts into a slightly more comfortable position. Lets his lips brush lightly against the nape of Hugh’s neck in a gentle kiss.
Hugh twitches and makes a small grunting noise, and Paul calmly mutters, “‘s okay, honey... Just me. Go back to sleep.”
In his arms, Hugh calms, but some tension remains in his body. He goes quiet, but Paul doesn’t think he’s gone back to sleep yet. His hands start small, calming motions against Hugh’s stomach and chest, and he presses himself a little closer against his back, soaking in the feeling of the flush skin contact and the familiarity of every contour, every muscle and bone and birthmark.
Until his fingers trace over an old scar that’s never been there before.
At the same time, a memory tugs at the corner of his mind.
Something’s wrong here.
Paul freezes as his brain gears up.
Hugh is fast. Before Paul realizes what’s happening and can react he’s lying flat on his back with Hugh on top of him, pinning him down with one arm and holding a dagger to his throat.
Paul’s mind races.
“Computer, lights to maximum!” he yells, more a gasp than a scream with the blade at his larynx.
His plan works. Hugh winces in pain and squeezes his eyes shut, his grip on both Paul and the dagger loosens, and Paul has just enough time to slap it out of his hand and make it clatter to the floor before Hugh yells, “Computer, dim lights!” and wrestles him down again. But this has told him what he needed to confirm: that this is the Hugh Culber of the Terran universe.
Paul’s heart is racing in fear and his breath is quick and shallow, but for now, all that’s happening is them both staring at each other in silence. Hugh is… Culber is straddling his abdomen, his hands are holding down both of Paul’s wrists with an iron grip. Of course he’s got no trouble overpowering Paul, even without a weapon. But this is a start, Paul reminds himself, trying to calm his breathing. He has no doubt that Culber knows plenty of ways to kill him with his bare hands, easily. Paul’s only weapon is his mind. If he wants to survive this, he’ll need to convince Culber not to want to kill him.
“How did you get here?” Culber hisses — and it’s Hugh’s voice, and for a split second, Paul’s heart stops at the sound, even if it’s clear that there’s none of Hugh’s inherent warmth in it.
“No idea,” Paul snaps back. “I could ask you the same question.” He struggles against Culber’s grip; to no avail, of course. All that happens is that Culber pins both of his arms against the pillow above his head with his right hand and wraps his left around Paul’s throat, threatening his windpipe. His eyes narrow dangerously as he brings his face a little closer to Paul’s.
“Listen,” he says in a low voice, the threat vibrating in every syllable. “If you try anything funny, I will kill you. Painfully.”
Paul glares up at him and doesn’t respond. Culber pulls back and appraises him. Paul does the same.
It’s remarkable and impossible. He looks exactly like the Hugh Paul remembers, with the exception of the cold and calculating expression on his face — if it wasn’t for the countless scars mapped out across his entire body, the thing that gave it away to Paul that this isn’t the man he knew and loved. He would love to count them, illuminated by the dim light in the room, if there weren’t more pressing matters on his mind right now.
He’s noticed that the room they’re in isn’t his quarters, but it doesn’t look Terran, either. How he got here, he has no idea, nor what happened before he woke up. Both of them are completely naked. Nothing in this room or about this situation explains to him why he woke up spooning the Terran Hugh Culber, and based on what Paul can read from him, he’s no wiser than Paul.
“Look,” he forces out, struggling against the grip on his windpipe. “I won’t… attack you if you… don’t attack… me,” he manages to get out.
Culber’s brows furrow. He inspects Paul’s face silently, before eventually withdrawing his hand from Paul’s throat. The other one, however, remains where it is. Paul coughs and draws a slightly ragged breath, not without an accusing glare that Culber ignores completely, in favor of something else having caught his interest.
With the insides of Paul’s arms facing upwards, the augments on his forearms that Hugh — his Hugh — designed for him are on full display, and Culber inspects them attentively. With his index finger he traces the edges of the implants, and the touch to the sensitive skin around them makes Paul shiver.
“I know who you are,” Culber says, voice quiet and low. “I read through his notes.” Paul knows at once who that “he” is referring to. He wonders what their relationship is in his universe. “There weren’t many, of course, after he woke from his catatonic state.” Culber’s fingers are still trailing over his arm. From his touch and the ghost of pressure he applies, Paul can tell that he is left-handed, too, just like his Hugh. He almost seems lost in thought, if it wasn’t for the sharp, attentive edge that never, ever leaves his features. “I managed to get them just in time before it was all declared classified.”
“I heard that… he died,” Paul says quietly.
Culber’s eyes snap up to his face. His left hand freezes. The other tenses around Paul’s wrists. “Yes.” Paul knows that face well enough to see the flicker of pain behind the cold, hard mask.
“Don’t be pathetic. People die all the time because they’re weak.”
Culber glares at him. Paul expects a hand to wrap around his neck again, but it doesn’t. Some of the cold and indifferent pretense drops.
“My… The Hugh Culber in my universe died, too,” Paul offers. Admitting it hurts, so much. If the sight of someone so close in resemblance to the man he lost made him forget all of his pain for a split second, his own words have brought it crashing back down on him with full force. His lips start trembling again, and he has to force them to stop. He doesn’t trust Culber enough yet to let him see that much weakness. “I know what it’s like,” he continues. And after a pause, “Were you close?”
Culber’s face remains stoic, but Paul can see the storm that’s raging behind the mask. He raises an eyebrow knowingly. Finally, Culber relents.
“Closer than I’ve ever felt to anyone before.” He drops his gaze, releases Paul’s arms and sits back.
Tentatively, Paul pulls himself up to sit, unable to tear his eyes away from Culber’s face and the depths of the abyss that seems to be swallowing him. He pulls his knees towards himself and softly says, “I’m sorry.”
Culber’s eyes dart up to him, and for a moment, he glares, almost insulted. It doesn’t take long for that to melt away, however, and be replaced by a frown. “How? How can you feel for me? How can you feel…” He seems to be struggling for words.
“Compassion?” Paul suggests.
Slowly, Culber nods.
“It’s human,” Paul simply responds. “And even more so, I see part of him in you. How could I not feel for you? When you look at me, when you think of me... Tell me. Don’t you feel anything?”
In Culber’s face he sees the answer that he doesn’t want to admit. Paul wants to reach out, put a hand on Culber’s arm, but thinks better of it.
“It’s okay,” he says. “We’re alone. You know you have nothing to fear from me.”
Eventually, with his voice slightly cracked around the edges, Culber responds. “When I look at you, I see him. So much of him. Too much.”
He seems to slump in on himself, shoulders falling; shaking. And in that moment, he is just Hugh Culber to Paul — not his Hugh Culber, still, but one close enough that he can’t help but feel something for him, even if it’s something mixed with pity.
He lets go of his own knees and reaches over to embrace Culber, who flinches for a moment at the gentle contact, but then lets Paul put his arms around him, and holds on to him in return.
Their shivers and sobs mingle in the silence of the dimly lit room as time passes around them, both mourning the loss of the other in a different universe where he used to be their world.
Paul awakes with a jolt; his eyes fly open and he’s staring at the ceiling in the darkness. He looks around. The quarters are his own. The bed is empty, save for him. His Starfleet pajamas are sticking to his skin, drenched in cold sweat. The silence of the room is deafening. He is alone.
He can’t say what’s worse; nightmare or reality.