It’s nerves when he screws up the takeoff, all right, but those nerves aren’t related to any Romulan threat or sense of responsibility, although he’d had plenty of those until he saw who sat in the navigator’s chair. These nerves are focused on two years ago, and he’s hyper-aware of how much Pavel’s curls shine even in the artificial light of the bridge as he corrects his mistake and they fly off to join the fight. He’s even more aware of Pavel’s refusal to look at him, which possibly had something to do with his volunteering for a daring sabotage mission.
When he lands on the transporter pad, the first thing he’s aware of, beyond the surprise of being alive, is a pair of wide blue-gray eyes and a dead-white face. Pavel, he thinks dazedly, is very pretty even when he’s frightened. His sense of triumph that he got Pavel to look at him is completely overwhelmed by his desire to reassure Pavel, and that’s when he realizes that he might just have a problem.
He hasn’t thought too much about it since then. They’d both been very young, and Pavel had been a whiz kid Mama’s boy with oversized Einstein-embroidered uniforms, and although he’d felt really guilty about it, it didn’t keep him up nights. Most nights. Every now and then, once or twice a week, he’d think he ought to track Pavel down and apologize, but somehow it never happened. Until now, Sulu hadn’t realized that he might have been afraid.
Now he’s afraid. He tries to thank Pavel, thank him for his life, and is dismissed. Ignored. His face is gone again, caught up in some other problem, and Sulu must have imagined the fear in it because now there’s nothing there for Sulu at all. He retreats to his position to contemplate what to do, but before he can start thinking the action starts again and then it’s nothing but fighting, near-death experiences, and insane plans until they’ve landed back at the Academy.
He hunts for Pavel in the crowd leaving the ship, but there’s no curly blond head to be seen, and he doesn’t see the navigator again until the awards ceremony, where he is the only face in the crowd.
Pavel doesn’t look happy to see him, although Sulu wonders, a little grumpily, exactly where he expected Sulu to be. Of course he is at the awards ceremony. When he corners Pavel at the buffet later, ostensibly to talk about their new assignment on board the Enterprise, Pavel eels away before he can get out any more of his apology than “Look, Pavel –“.
It’s going to be a long five years, he thinks, if they can’t even interact civilly. Normally. Like acquaintances who just happened to save the whole fucking Federation together. He ignores the roles of Spock and Kirk, who are, after all, only his commanding officers and not people he actually has to work in tandem with, and pretends that it’s honor and professionalism and maybe a little guilt behind his apology instead of a whole lot of guilt backed up by ulterior motive.
Eventually, he gets a chance to apologize to Pavel. And by that he means cornering him in the turbolift when they have to ride from the bowels of the Enterprise to the bridge together and even if Pavel puts his hands over his ears and hums he’ll still be able to hear Sulu. Pavel doesn’t, of course, because he’s grown into his emotions as well as his uniforms, and if Sulu’s gabbling, “Just, look, I’m so sorry, like, incredibly sorry, and, Pavel, I was so wrong” by the end, he’s certain it’s a reasonable reaction to Pavel’s silence.
“Ensign Chekov,” Pavel says finally. “Not Pavel. Pavel is for friends.”
Sulu is pretty sure that Russians invented the grudge.
Chekov (because if he thinks of him as Pavel, he’ll either cry or slip up, and he can’t do either) isn’t actively avoiding him now, at any rate, and he makes sure to call him Ensign. He’s also usually walking by Chekov’s door (sometimes for the third time) when it’s time for Chekov’s shifts, and since they work together, most days they end up walking together too. In silence, because Chekov won’t say anything other than “Good morning, Lieutenant Sulu.” And, in the evenings, “Goodnight, Lieutenant Sulu.”
He’s somehow not surprised that his misters fail to perform after about two weeks of escorting Chekov to and from the bridge. As he remembered, Chekov had always had a vindictive streak, and he’s guiltily certain that he deserves the almost certain death of his favorite orchid if he can’t get another mister. What surprises him is the filthy look he gets from Doctor McCoy and the sudden absence of all the misters in the botany bay. Apparently the constrained relationship between the helmsman and the navigator had not gone unnoticed on the bridge, and Kirk, having nothing better to do with his time in between finding new planets to traumatize, spent it analyzing (correctly) the tension at their station. Everyone knew that Doctor McCoy was the Captain’s best friend, and everyone knew the Doctor had been thrown over by his wife shortly before joining the Academy. Apparently the resentment over inconsiderate heart-breaking assholes lingered. Sulu set his teeth, continued escorting Chekov to and from the bridge, and only cried a little when the orchid died.
He endures the isolation and the glares. He suffers through salad during the two weeks the cooks serve nothing but dishes in cream sauce – ostensibly because there had been an excess of cow(ish)-derived products from the last planet, but Chekov is the only person on board who knows exactly how much Sulu dislikes cream sauces, which he considers oily and bland. Eventually, the pranks stop. He’s not certain whether Chekov’s gotten bored or decided he’s suffered enough, but they stop. People start talking to him again, although they never mention the ship’s navigator in his presence. It’s only been a year of hell.
That’s what he thinks until he finds a quiet, dark-haired biologist outside the bridge one day after shift. A quiet, handsome, dark-haired biologist, who slings a friendly arm around Chekov’s shoulder and, in Sulu’s opinion, walks far too closely. He waits for Chekov outside his door every morning, to walk him to the bridge, and sits with him at lunch. On their day off, Sulu goes to Chekov’s door, only to hear them talking and laughing over the Mendelssohn octet in the background. There’s a scent in the air, sweet and smoky and somehow familiar, and he realizes, when his door has closed behind him, that it’s the smell of Chekov’s favorite tea, which he was complaining about being out of last week on the bridge. Now this is hell, and it’s worse than before because he’s pretty certain that Chekov isn’t hurting him on purpose.
The little biologist is not his only competition, either. There is the lovely girl from engineering, with serious gray eyes and a laugh written into the curve of her mouth, who argues furiously with Chekov over mathematics and watches him with open appreciation. She lures him down into the depths of the Enterprise, on missions of repair and to prove points, and Sulu suspects she is more of a danger because she challenges Chekov’s mind. He could, too. He has. But he can’t anymore, Chekov won’t let him, and it was the stupidest thing in the world when he’d told that kid (and now he can’t even remember his name) that Chekov wasn’t his friend or his lover, “just some clingy whiz kid whose clothes don’t fit.” It was cruel and unnecessary but he’d so desperately wanted to be cool for the first time in his life, and for those two years, he had been. Because he’d left Chekov behind.
Now Chekov talks with him on occasion, but most of the time his gaze slides over Sulu like he’s another piece of equipment, and there’s no way that those two years were worth it, that if he had that moment again he wouldn’t proclaim his adoration to the world. At least when Chekov hated him, he’d been focused on making Sulu’s life miserable. The thought of that first year, and Chekov’s glare, made his breath come hard. He starts planning, because he’s suffered enough and paid his dues and there is no way he is going to lose.
He goes to Kirk, and tells him straight up what happened. The conversation is something like this:
“Sir, would it be acceptable for us to drink too much together so I can tell you my darkest secret?” It’s far too bold, but they’ve served together for two years plus now, and saved each other’s lives countless times, and Sulu thinks they might actually be friends of a sort. With a twisted power dynamic, but still friends. And there’s no way to get any time at all with Chekov unless Kirk gives him a little help.
Kirk has always admired Sulu’s sense of humor. And he likes drinking.
“My place, half an hour after shift?”
“Done.” Sulu heaves a sigh of relief, and that evening he tells Kirk what he did (although he knows Kirk knows, more or less, because he’s no one’s fool and will admit straight up that much of the time he has nothing better to do than watch his bridge crew make fools of themselves). And then he tells Kirk his really deepest secret. It’s probably unreasonable to wish that Kirk wouldn’t look at him with so much pity.
“So, you were a dumb teenager, and he’s a vindictive little bastard. Why exactly do you want him again?”
“Because other than that, to everyone else, he’s perfect.” Sulu says miserably. “I just want a chance.”
Kirk, who was repeatedly throttled by his love interest before Spock realized the pig-tail-pulling aspect of human courtship, nods thoughtfully, and it’s good they write things down because in the morning they’re too hung over to remember anything other than drinking far too much and plotting.
So the pretty engineer and the biologist are a little frustrated when Kirk announces, jovially, that it’s been too quiet for too long and he’s changing everyone’s shifts around to ‘keep them on their toes.’ They can still see Chekov, but they have only an hour or two of his day instead of dominating it. Sulu doesn’t take up his escorting habit again, though. He pretty much ignores Chekov, and hides partial equations in twisted spills of paper at Chekov’s station, in his gym bag, in his room. Kirk gives him the codes.
He wheedles and flirts the cooks into making Chekov’s favorite foods, and slips an extremely rare CD by the ancient Russian composer Borodin under his door. When Chekov talks to him on the bridge, he is not so obviously desperate for every scrap of speech – he answers politely and calmly, and goes to speak with Uhura, from whom he is learning Russian. Chekov grows ever more curious, and eventually shows him the equations – which he has neatly finished, sometimes on several sheets of paper. Sulu raises an eyebrow at them, and smiles a little. Chekov nearly bursts from frustration.
Sulu knows the plan is working when Chekov takes to running through the corridors like he hasn’t done since the first six months, after he settled into the job. He can hear the rapid tack of shoes on dark flooring, endless and regular, and quickly discovers when Chekov is likely to finish and burst into the gym to cool down. It’s a good time to practice fencing, he decides. So he’s always there when Chekov bursts in, outwardly completely focused on his practice. It does feel a little bit desperate, but, well, he is. And Chekov has a thing for martial arts, he remembers.
It’s very satisfying to hear Chekov slide to a halt and stare. And even more so the next day, when he does it again. When he leans against the wall and watches until Sulu finishes, Sulu counts that as a definite victory.
It’s going to take a little more than proving his general physical desirability to win Chekov’s heart, though. More than all his secret plans. And the competition’s getting stiff. Engineering girl has got him involved in a project, and Sulu knows that if you win Chekov’s mind, his heart is easy. And they’re spending too much time together, and Kirk can’t rearrange the shifts again. He watches the neckline of her dress get lower and lower, and fumes silently. It’s not like he can increase the tightness of his uniform to accentuate his attractiveness.
Bio boy is stepping up, too. He glares at Sulu and engineering girl whenever he runs across them in the halls, and it’s not in Chekov’s nature to refuse a plea for help when the boy begs him for tutoring, with the offer of teaching him to dance in exchange. It’s clever, and Sulu thinks his glare might be hotter than that of the biology boy when they pass in the halls after he’s seen one of those ‘dance lessons’. An excuse to put for the boy to put his hands all over Chekov, that’s what those lessons are.
So he goes out of his way to be charming and considerate, and one day convinces Uhura to practice Russian with him somewhere where Chekov can hear. Chekov’s face – it’s a good opportunity, so he turns around, and says in Russian, “I am so sorry, Ensign Chekov, for betraying you. It was dishonorable, and what I said was not true.” And then he says it in Standard. While holding the comms open. His voice echoes through the ship, and that, he thinks, is pretty much a statement of his intentions. Chekov blushes bright red, and stares at him for a moment before turning and running away.
Everyone stares at him for days, and whispers follow him in the hall, but he holds his head up and answers gracefully and unrevealingly when the bolder crewmembers ask him for details. He knows that Chekov won’t have forgotten how much he hates attention. One more way to prove he’s sincere. Sincerely sorry. But, well, mostly desperately in love.
Because like he said to Kirk, to everyone else, Chekov’s perfect. He’s sunny and brilliant, helpful and kind and passionate – he charges the air around him with energy. Sitting next to him on the bridge, Sulu feels almost as high on life as Chekov always seems to be. He’s sincerely interested in other people, and is the least arrogant person Sulu has ever met. He loves games, and small things, and Sulu knows that if he asked Chekov to spin in the rain with him, Chekov would run outside without a second thought. Chekov contains an infinity of joy.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s beautiful, either, although he was a most unbeautiful fifteen-year-old and Sulu had still been drawn to him. It hadn’t mattered then that Chekov’s skin was imperfect and he needed braces and he had the most horrible glasses ever seen on a teenage boy. It hadn’t mattered that he was short and disproportionate and infinitely awkward except while running – his eyes were like looking into the sky on one of those autumn days when the air itself makes you want to laugh with sheer exhilaration. And his hair, matching his eyes for irrepressible enthusiasm. Those were the same. Now he’s – well, he’s beautiful. Something fine and tempered. Sulu can never find the words to describe him. His body is arrested motion, the most perfect movements – the dive of a bird, the turn of a head, the arch of a throw, the twist of a fish - frozen into flesh. And his mind is that motion freed.
And now, they’re even. Embarrassment for embarrassment, exposure for exposure. It is a debt to his past paid. He forgives himself for his youth, and is surprised at how much relief he feels at the cessation of guilt. It doesn’t hurt that when they meet again in the hallway, Chekov looks at him directly and says,
“Perhaps you call me Pavel now, Lieutenant Sulu?”
He knows he’s grinning like an idiot, but it’s probably all part of his genius plan to win over Pavel Chekov, so that’s alright. “Pavel. You going to call me Hikaru, too?”
“If you wish.” Chekov’s a little flushed, and his voice squeaks the tiniest bit.
They eat lunch together, and talk about the system they just flew through. There’s nothing so good as arguing with Pavel directly. He continues stashing equations, though, and ups the ante to hiding flowers around his room so it always smells vaguely sweet and spicy. Which might not have been such a good idea, because the smell emanating from Pavel’s clothes during shift makes him feel slightly breathless, makes it seem like even more of a good idea to grab Pavel and kiss him forever, and that’s really not a good idea at all. He’s still trying to come up with phase two of the plan to make Chekov fall in love with him.
Phase two, as it turns out, isn’t so much a plan as an accident. They’re both on an away mission, which has been happening fairly frequently since they became friends again and wouldn’t be a danger to each other in possibly hostile situations. This doesn’t seem like a hostile situation. Not exactly. Not at first, anyway. There are aliens with drastic-looking weapons, but he has a few drastic-looking weapons himself. Sure, they aren’t several feet tall and mounted on a cart, but Sulu’s fairly confident that he could dodge the blast and stab one of the aliens with his sabre if it got out of hand. Well, maybe. They might shoot him with their efficient-looking feather-bedecked laser pistols. Phasers, he thinks, have nothing on feather-bedecked laser pistols for coolness. Also for deadliness. If one of those shot you – as the rabbit tied in the middle of the clearing was just shot, for demonstrative purposes – then you were black and dead. Like the rabbit.
And he’s pretty sure, when they say they require a hostage to ensure the smoothness of negotiations, that they don’t intend to kill their hostage, or torture said hostage too badly. At least not at first. But they’re eyeing Pavel contemplatively, and when it comes right down to it he trusts Pavel to get him out of a bad situation more than he trusts himself to rescue Pavel. So he says,
“I’ll be your hostage,” and steps forward. It’s possible that the alien in charge of the situation raises what amounted to an eyebrow (it’s made of little tiny feathers), but he’s not sure. He sees Pavel thrumming with energy, and looks at him calmly. I trust you, he mouths. They turn him around, and walk him off into a city in the trees, introduce him to the leader – king, queen, head bird - and then he’s ensconced in what is a fairly comfortable room by dungeon standards while somewhere outside he imagines a rather tense debate going on between Kirk and the leader. It’s not so bad, not being involved in that, and they haven’t been too rough. It wasn’t as bad as the last time he’d been in a dungeon, but that time he’d been captured and they hadn’t been too pleased with his resistance to the idea. It took a long time for his ribs to be properly strong again, and he had a scar running down his leg from where the cut had gone too long before McCoy had seen to it.
It’s possible he’s panicking a little, but he does trust Pavel, and if there’s a very large, irrational part of him willing to die to prevent a mark from marring Pavel’s skin, to keep him from any hurt or harm, he’s not actually sacrificing himself for the safety of his love. Pavel, he knows, can take care of himself. Dancing wasn’t the only thing he learned on board the Enterprise. Still, tactically speaking, this was the best decision.
His faith is justified when, a few hours later, he feels the transportation begin to take hold.
“I take it the Kalach were uninterested in trading or joining the Federation, Captain?” Sulu asks as he materializes, since Kirk is directly ahead of him and he wants to know if his rescue jeopardized the mission.
“Bunch of violent, twittering bastards.” Kirk says dismissively. “We’ll give them another thousand years or so to get it out of their systems. You okay?”
“From what my guards were willing to volunteer, they value serenity in hostages. I am unharmed.” Apparently negotiations had not gone well. He had suspected as much. Negotiations begun with what humans regarded as kidnapping rarely did. “How did you retrieve me?”
“Whiz kid over there snuck off and disabled their force field,” Kirk replies, gesturing at Pavel, who is standing against the wall, his fingers clenched into white-knuckled fists. Sulu gulps. “Then he called the Enterprise and had us all beamed up while the bird people ran around like chickens with their heads cut off.”
If he’s expecting a response to that, he doesn’t get it – Sulu barely hears him. He’s inching off the pad, towards Pavel, who’s still against the wall, still corpse pale. When he looks around again, halfway across the floor to Pavel, Kirk and Scotty are both gone, which is a little surprising since he’s fairly certain that Kirk, ever the voyeur, would enjoy what’s going to happen next. Whether he gets punched out or yelled at or – kissed. Or – but kissing’s more than he expects, and he tries not to think about any other options. And his imaginary Kirk is right, Pavel throwing a punch would be hot. Or. But he’s not thinking about that.
“How – why – that?” Chekov spits out, obviously furious. He still doesn’t have any color in his face, and his shoulders are high with tension. Sulu takes another step towards him.
“Well, someone had to.” Sulu replies reasonably. “We had to give the mission a chance.”
“No, they did not. Could leave.” Pavel snaps. “Mission – mission! You know how people die on mission.”
“We couldn’t leave. Not like that. Not without someone getting hurt, and -,” he stops, and steps a little closer, leans against the wall beside Pavel. “I knew they had force fields. And I couldn’t disable them. But you – I knew that you could.”
“How could you trust me with your life?” Pavel yells at him. “I am – I make mistake, you get hurt! You die! How could you trust me with your life?”
Pavel’s saved his life before, but this was the first time that Sulu directly put his life in Pavel’s hands. And this, Sulu realizes, is probably the best opportunity he’ll get. Maybe the only one. Pavel is wound up with nerves and excitement and terror and the adrenaline of mental and physical exercise. He’s open and vulnerable, and maybe, if Sulu says something now, it’ll stick. Sulu’s tired of planning, anyway.
“I trust you with my everything.”
Pavel whips around and pins Sulu to the wall, his hands hot on Sulu’s shoulders, his face inches away. His eyes are still the autumn sky, but with a different sort of weather. It’s still exhilarating.
“I was afraid,” Sulu says, throat dry. “I was afraid. But I trusted you. I didn’t trust – I didn’t know that I could save you.”
“Stupid,” Pavel growls, and Sulu’s head slams back into the wall with Pavel’s kiss, a sharp ache. It’s nothing like the kisses they used to share back in the Academy – it’s rough, and Pavel’s teeth are close to tearing the skin of his lip. It’s not uncertain, or exploratory; it’s like Pavel doesn’t care that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s – intoxicating, and Sulu kisses back with the same ferocity until he realizes that Pavel’s hands are shaking as he grips and pulls on Sulu’s shirt and hair. He gentles the kiss, stroking his hands slowly up and down Pavel’s back, holding him close, slowing until they break apart.
Pavel’s crying. His body shakes against Sulu’s, and Sulu eases the two of them down against the wall until they are sitting on the floor, more or less side by side. There’s blood on his shirt, he realizes, and when he looks at Pavel’s hands the skin is cut in crescents. He doesn’t know if the dampness on his face is blood or tears.