AN: Sorry, didn't mean to take so long to finish up this chapter in the saga. But here you go. And in other news - there's a Cupcake character tag now! \o/

Kirk's plan for getting down to the planet unnoticed turned out to be absurdly simple and potentially dangerous, but Pavel wasn't about to complain. After all, his own plan – beam down on his own and hope he at least had a chance to find Greg before he was hacked to death by natives – was all he had to compare it to.

Despite Kirk's greeting grin as he came into the transporter room, Pavel knew there were some things he would have to work out with the captain after this was all over. He had stepped over the line and he knew it. Twice, even. Kirk was as informal as any Starfleet captain Pavel had ever met, but he still had the right to expect certain behavior out of his officers.

Besides, Pavel's insubordination had been a reflection of his belief that Kirk wasn't willing to risk enough to get Greg back. That was unfair, even if at the time it felt true. Kirk cared about all of his officers. All he had wanted was a feasible plan before he went down, and Pavel hadn't offered that until now.

Pavel would have to submit himself for disciplinary action when they returned to the ship. He knew that. At the same time, though...he was fine with it. Everything he said he would say again. Everything he had risked he would risk again in a moment if Greg needed him.

Kirk deserved better, perhaps, but Greg did as well.

He returned Kirk's grin with a small smile of his own, hiking the small bag of equipment he was bringing down higher up on his shoulder.

Hikaru was only a few steps behind him – Pavel heard the door sliding open again and moments later felt Hikaru's arm as it dropped over his shoulder.

"Ready to go be a hero, Pavel?"

Pavel rolled his eyes but shot Hikaru a smile. "I've been ready for two days."

"Sorry, I'll be more specific – ready to be a living hero?"

Behind them the door slid open again, and this time Pavel did glance back.

McCoy strolled in, a familiar black medkit slung from a strap over his shoulder. He looked around at them and nodded in greeting, casual. "We doing this?"

Pavel blinked in surprise, and glanced back at Kirk.

Kirk was obviously just as surprised. "Uh. Bones, all I asked you to do was have a bed ready for a hopefully not-too-damaged Cupcake."

McCoy moved in, passing Hikaru and Pavel without a pause. "You know the good thing about technology? Takes me about a half a second to get a bed ready."

He passed Kirk and stepped up on the transporter padd.

Kirk followed him fast. "Hold it, Bones. I'm not gonna make you go back down to that pit twice, okay? You faced those little shits once..."

"And I guess I'm gonna face 'em again." McCoy smirked, but Pavel noticed his hand was white-knuckled around the handle of his medkit. "But I don't remember you ordering me to do anything, so don't dirty up your conscience for my sake, Jim."

Kirk's voice lowered, but the transporter room was small and Hikaru and Pavel had nothing else to do but stand there and overhear.

"This isn't just another landing party, okay? It's dangerous, and those things already took a piece out of your leg. I don't want you-"

"Jim." McCoy turned to Kirk, smirk vanishing. "First, my leg's fine. Fine enough to make the trip, anyway, and since I'm the only one here who knows exactly what we're getting into, I think my feelings on the matter should hold some weight. Two..." He glanced over at Pavel. "If he's hurt as bad as he must be hurt if he can't get back to transporter range on his own, you stand a hell of a good chance of getting him back here too late. I know the kind of wounds those things leave, and he's already been down there how long?"

Kirk hesitated. He followed McCoy's gaze over to Pavel, but frowned and looked away again. "I really don't like this idea."

"I'm not singing about it myself," McCoy said with a shrug, nodding to Pavel before turning back to Jim. "But I'm right. Besides, given how often you get yourself hurt pulling fool stunts like this..."

Kirk didn't answer. He frowned at McCoy, their gazes steady as if there was something to read from all this that wasn't horribly obvious to everyone else in the universe.

"This is why I don't understand all the surprise when I said I would go down there by myself," Pavel said to no one in particular, approaching the transporter padd. "Everyone else on this ship is allowed to make grand gestures to be with the ones they love."

McCoy shot him a look, and his mouth crooked up on one side in acknowledgment of the implication.

Kirk looked at Pavel, and then back at McCoy. He cleared his throat, smirking hard after a moment as if he had to force his facial muscles to form that expression.

"I kinda doubt the-"

"He ain't wrong, Jim." McCoy said before he could finish.

Pavel smiled to himself and stepped into position on the padd. He only watched out of the corner of his eye, trying not to stare.

Kirk's smirk melted away. His eyes went wider, bright and pale blue, studying McCoy as if he'd never seen him before.

"Come on, Captain," Hikaru said with a quick 'about time' grin at Pavel as he moved in to stand on the padd beside him. "We're already stuck in the middle of one soap opera, let's save the other one until we're back on board."

In the end he never did manage to get himself out of that tree. It was the tree that kicked him out.

Happened bit by bit, as he tried to manage the best way to move his dizzy ass downward without blacking out. The branch beneath him that had been so sturdy through the night started to give, bit by bit.

Finally and with a ridiculously loud crack it seemed to dissolve underneath him all at once, and down he went.

Which was good, in a way, because he was starting to get a little numb and unfocused in that damned tree, and plummeting down to the ground while scraping his fucking face on every branch along the way was a hell of a good way to wake up.

But also, bad. Because he was on the ground, and if there was one of those natives anywhere close they would have heard that crack when the branch broke.

So with his face slashed and stinging and his legs at least working, if not the most steady they'd ever been, Greg hauled himself to his feet and knew he had to get the hell away from where he was.

Pasha had ordered him not to move. He said they could see him, somehow, and were coming for him. But Greg was a human target where he was.

Pasha also told him to open his communicator line and not close it for anything, so he raised his trembling arm close to his face.

"Harris to Enterprise," he rasped, distantly amused at how strange his voice sounded. "I don't know if anyone's actually listening to this line, but I'm gonna start moving. Just until I get to a safer place."

He lowered his arm. Keeping the channel transmitting like this meant that he wouldn't be able to receive a response, but he felt better having said something out loud.

He glanced backwards at that tree, wondering if he'd actually confess to anyone when he got back to the ship that he spent a night in a tree like a frigging owl.

He hesitated when he actually took in the tree.

The branch that had broken under him had sheared off completely and lay on the ground a foot away. He didn't know what the hell native trees on this planet were supposed to look like, but that branch didn't look anything like healthy. It was all but hollow, the broken edges thin and dry and brown. If this branch was from Earth he'd say it was dead. Long-dead, from a long-dead tree.

And...yeah, the tree itself didn't look so great either. It was mostly brown all down the trunk, and the leaves covering the branches were all dangling, limp, like they'd all dropped dead too fast to even break off.

He'd first spotted that tree in dusk in the dark woods, but he could've sworn it was a little bit stronger looking than it was now.

There was a dark patch on the ground, near where the branch lay. A stain turning the ground and underbrush a rusted brown color.

Shit. That was blood. That was his own fucking blood, drop by drop hitting the ground as he slept, not even realizing how bad he was hurt.

The ground around that dark stain was brown, cracked. Weird, since most of the ground around him was pretty damp and mossy and healthy looking.

Something was off there. Something he wasn't quite picking up on.

But screw it. Wasn't his job to figure shit out. It was his job to get back to the ship.

Pain was good for a couple of things. It woke up a drifting mind, for one. It also usually came along with a nice hit of adrenaline. Fight or flight, all that crap.

So, despite the numbness and the ache and the dried blood making his uniform pants and the ugly torn shirt he turned into bandages feel stiff and gross, when Greg ordered his feet forward they actually obeyed him.

When the third landing party from the Enterprise materialized on the surface of the planet, they were obviously done being ambushed by hostile natives. They were all in security red, all carrying oversized blasters and phasers in each hand. They appeared and stayed where they were, tense and waiting.

Each landing party that went down seemed to get attacked quicker than the last, and it was no different in this case. A shriek pierced the air from under the cover of distant trees, and almost before the glow of the transporter had faded there were figures bounding out of the forest on two sides.

The landing party didn't seem surprised. They stood their ground, not firing, barely moving, as the pack of hostiles came flying out at them.

And without a word, without a request to the ship, the transporters suddenly glowed around them again. Before the natives could reach them, before they had to fire a single shot, they were suddenly dematerializing.

And then they were gone.

The howling natives all slowed to a stop, shrieks lifting through the air and piling on top of each other, sounding almost confused.

Their eyes stayed on that space where their victims had been standing just long enough that not a single one of them noticed the fading of a second transporter glow, off to the side and right up against the line of trees.

Abruptly their shrieks rose up again, high and vibrant, echoing through the clearing like a shout of triumph.

None of them noticed four figures dart instantly into the cover of the trees and out of sight.

Security training had taught Greg a lot of good lessons. Things about strength and action, about reflex and motion and balance. But the great majority of a security guard's job wasn't about those things. A guard like Greg was expected to be brave and selfless and strong when it counted, but that wasn't supposed to be all that often.

It was like cops back on earth. Greg used to like reading crime stories when he was a kid, those old fashioned comics and thin old books about detectives and badges and solving crimes and putting bad guys in jail. Before he realized he wanted to be Starfleet, he sometimes thought about being a cop.

Thought about it like a dream, anyway. Like a fantasy, like being a football player or whatever. No self-respecting Harris kid was ever gonna even think about actually becoming a cop. If he'd've told his dad what he thought about someday being a cop his dad would've broke his jaw for him, probably.

Hell, he didn't even tell his dad he actually read things now and then, just for fun.

But, the point was, when he was reading up on those crime novels he read something kind of interesting – cop movies and comics were all about action and gunshots and killing the bad guys, but in real life a cop wasn't meant to ever fire a gun at all. Most of them never did, and the ones who did never wanted to.

That carried over into security. They had the training and the phasers and everything, but the hope was that they'd never have to use them. They were there just in case, and everybody hoped that 'just in case' never actually happened.

Which was where Greg's other training kicked in. The training that was helping him the most as he dragged his feet step after step through eerily quiet alien woods.

For every minute a guard was in battle, he had at least a week of guard duty under his belt. For every day he was on planet there was another month of watching weapons lockers, pulling duty down at the usually empty containment cells. Even going on planet was usually pretty boring, standing around looking tough during negotiations or standing back and watching a still horizon while the smarter guys did the fancy work.

Being a security guard was, ninety-five percent of the time, really fucking boring. Standing at attention, staring at walls, not drifting too far because the second something actually happened you had to be ready.

A guy with any experience at the job knew the importance of being able to distract their minds without actually getting lost inside their own head.

It was that part of the job, strange enough, that was helping him the most.

His legs were numb, his stomach knotted sickly. He was parched and weak and he'd lost too much blood and it was really god damned cold.

But Greg moved step after step, minute after minute, because he didn't actually let himself pay attention to any of that. Because he knew how to distract himself just enough, send his thoughts somewhere outside his own body even as he kept alert for any nearby noises.

He meant to only go far enough to feel safe in case anyone had heard him crashing out of that tree earlier. But he realized pretty fast that if he actually stopped moving he wasn't sure he wouldn't just stop altogether. And not just his legs.

It sucked, because if people were really on their way to come get him he wasn't sure if he was going towards them or walking away or what. Maybe he was hurting himself, keeping himself from getting found.

But he didn't have any choice. The minute he stopped moving, he knew he would be out for the count. If he let himself sit down he was drop, and even if he managed to stay conscious his legs weren't gonna get him up again. Greg knew his own body pretty well after all the years of training and pushing. He knew where his limits were, and he knew damn well that he'd passed all those limits a while back.

If he did stop maybe it would be alright. Maybe they'd find him all the same before any of the aliens that had to be roaming around somewhere did. Pasha told him to stay where he was, after all.

He just couldn't.

Greg didn't know how to do much of anything, maybe, but he knew how to keep going.

And long as there was a chance that if he stopped moving he might just lay down and die, he didn't have no choice.

He had to get back.

As long as he could distract himself, as long as he could trudge his feet step after step but see Pasha in his head instead of the trees or the bushes around him, he was better off moving.

He had only seen the briefest glimpse of the planet's natives when they landed, since the plan relied on them coming down unseen and ducking out of sight as soon as possible. Still, that glimpse was enough to keep him motivated to move fast and without complaint through the darkness of a strange forest.

The aliens might not have seen the second landing party arrive, but those shrieks they had been filling the air with seemed to follow Pavel through the silent trees.

It made him feel more urgent, somehow, as if just knowing that Greg was out there somewhere hurt wasn't enough motivation. That quick look at those alien creatures was enough to make Pavel understand the doctor's nervousness, and the fierce gashes he and Scotty had come back to the ship with.

"Spock to landing party," he heard, soft, from up ahead.

Pavel's own communicator was on an open channel, constantly broadcasting back to the ship the way Greg's was, so that their two signals could be tracked and they could be guided from the bridge.

"Go ahead, Spock," Kirk answered into his arm.

"The Lieutenant is moving. Adjust your path approximately ten degrees west."

Kirk glanced back at Pavel, but followed Hikaru when he changed their bearing and steered them on at an angle. "Done. Any indication why he's moving?"

"Nothing specific, captain. He felt as if he were unsafe where he was."

"Yeah, good luck finding a place that actually is safe on this hellhole," McCoy grumbled at Pavel's side.

Pavel had to stop himself from looking back just to make sure none of those thin, ragged little beasts was following them.

"I hate to say it," McCoy went on after a minute, as Kirk confirmed their new bearing with Spock (Pavel didn't need to hear it confirmed; Hikaru was just as good a pilot on the ground as in the air), "but you take away the homicidal harpies back there and this isn't much different from where I grew up."

Pavel frowned around them at the dark woods.

"You know. Usually on these planets you can tell the difference right off. The colors are different or the air is weird, or something's just wrong, you know? But hell." McCoy drew in a deep breath and sighed it out. "If I didn't hate this fucking place I could almost get to like it."

He was still nervous, Pavel realized. McCoy was not a particularly chatty person, especially in the middle of hostile territory.

Pavel wanted to answer him somehow, to put in some kind of comment about how he could tell the difference, or how it wasn't very much like his own childhood home at all. But he couldn't manage to find the words, and he wasn't sure if that was due to worry about the natives around them or the same fear that had gripped him for two days.


He looked over at McCoy.

The doctor's eyes were serious, his gaze staying straight ahead as they went. "I appreciate you outing me as a romantic back on the ship, but the truth is I'm not down here to watch out for Jim."

Pavel looked back out at the nonexistent path, the dark trees and damp brown soil around them.

"I'm not any kind of naïve," McCoy went on, slow, his voice quiet between them. "We've been on Jim Kirk's ship for a few years now, which means we've seen a fair amount of over-dramatic shit go down."

Pavel managed a faint smile.

"I've seen a lot of idiots do a lot of dumb things in the name of being brave. I've seen some cocky bastards take the most unnecessary damned risks just to play martyr, or hero." McCoy sighed again, his eyes on Jim's back. "I've seen some real bravery too, now and then, but that's more rare."

Fairly certain that he knew where McCoy was going with this, Pavel looked over, watching the doctor's solemn profile.

"Funny thing is I never even saw Harris take off. All I was focused on was getting to Scotty and getting those fuckers away from me. Heard him yelling, but I didn't even see it happening. Didn't realize what he did until we were back on the transporter padd and I could actually put thoughts together. But even though I wasn't watching when it happened doesn't mean it wasn't the most brave fucking thing I've ever seen."

Pavel drew in a breath, his smile fading.

"Those things were out for blood. Wasn't no mistaking that. But you ain't even the way he took off like that to get those things away from us. That's not even the thing. The thing is, I know Greg well enough to know that unlike some dumb kid who picks a fight so he can play hero, Greg wouldn't even think about what he did as being a big deal."

Pavel's smile stirred at that, a little. "It's just his job," he agreed, since that was exactly what Greg would say about it.

McCoy nodded, looking over at him with a crooked smile and haunted eyes. "That's a really humbling thing to realize. And that..." He shrugged, lofting the medkit. "If I can't get past my own nerves and get down here to do my job when someone like that needs me, then I wouldn't be worth saving in the first place."

"Kirk to Enterprise."

Pavel looked away from McCoy as Kirk spoke.

"How we coming, Spock? Can you estimate some kind of eta for us?"

"Perhaps four more hours, captain, if you remain at a constant pace."

Four hours. It already felt like they had been walking for half the day.

Pavel looked out into the dimness, swallowing to think that they were still so far away. Four hours to get to Greg, and hours more to get him back into range of the ship.

He was only trying to be quiet when he spoke, but it came out sounding strangely grim. "To be honest, doctor, I don't really care why you decided to come down here. I'm only glad that you're here."

McCoy only nodded, his dark eyes on the trail ahead.

When he reached the top of the small hill that had been rising ahead of him for what felt like hours, Greg did the one thing he didn't mean to do.

He stopped.

He didn't even realize it for a minute. When he realized he'd reached the top he looked up, and surprise pushed his feet to the ground and locked them there.

It was brown.

Everything. Ahead of him, spread out down the other side of the hill and across a flat, tree-less field. No grass, no bushes. Just a big barren patch of cracked dirt. It started abruptly, and he could see on all sides of it where the grass and trees and soil simply started up again like there was some kind of invisible forcefield keeping the brown out.

It was unexpected enough that he stood there looking out until his breathing had slowed to normal. It was weird, but...his instinct was pinging at him. Weird like that tree he'd crashed in (and out of) the night before.

Down towards the middle of that flat circle of dead ground there was something interrupting the brown. Something dark and reflecting the light, something man-made.

He looked around, but the air was still and the entire planet seemed to have shut up in the last minute. Knowing he might be stepping into some kind of fucking up ambush, he started his frozen feet until he had pushed his way down the side of the hill.

He looked around as he walked across hard, dry dirt, but even the trees beyond the brown were quiet, still.

Greg slowed as he neared the object in the field, squinting down at it. If he tried to crouch or kneel down to get a better look there was no way in hell he'd be able to haul his exhausted ass back up, but he bent a little and reached out a foot to nudge it.

It was some kind of tarp. The edge of some thin black material, vinyl-like, like a tent he'd've gone camping in back home. Not Starfleet regulation.

Civilian, though, maybe. Spock had said there was a missing group from a civvie science ship. If they came down to research they might've brought tents and things.

He frowned and looked around. The tarp was obviously buried, but the ground around them didn't look disturbed. And this hard, cracked and dry ground would have showed any disturbance.

Unable to help himself (since this, after all, had been the mission Kirk wanted them to be on, finding missing people), Greg let his knees bend. He tried to just crouch, but his muscles said fuck that and he dropped pretty hard down on his knees.

Didn't think about how much that really fucking kind of hurt. He reached out, focused on the mission, and tugged at that edge of tarp.

Some of the dirt around it cracked and crumbled away, but it didn't reveal much. It seemed to be buried pretty deep. He looked around, frowning at the uninterrupted dry dirt around him, knowing there was something there he was missing.

He tugged at the tarp again, wondering if he could free it enough to see if anything was buried down there with it.

Didn't take much more tugging, though. He peeled at that edge of tarp, crumbling more of the surrounding dirt, and a few inches down there was a hand.

Either he was too tired tired to feel surprised or part of him had figured as much.

Didn't look like anyone who'd been dead very long. It wasn't decay or bone or anything, just a really dirty human-looking hand, sun-burnt and limp in the dirt.

Which made no fucking sense. But he looked around that field of brown and thought about the branch dropping under him earlier and landing him on his ass, and...

It did make sense.

Greg sucked in a breath and let the tarp fall back over that hand. He leaned back on his heels and looked around, seeing that field of brown way different suddenly.

Behind him there was a scrape, a sudden noise like a footstep skidding on dirt.

He wheeled around. At least he tried too - his tired muscles and awkward position basically meant he wheeled his head around and then kind of slipped and dropped on his ass when his body tried to follow.

Caught by surprise, and apparently those bastards moved quietly when there was only one of them and they weren't screaming like they did.

He tried to move, but he was long past being able to force himself. He'd been right, he realized in a wild moment as this wild-eyed alien shit came stalking towards him - once he let himself stop, he was done.

Only one of them in the end, and wasn't that fucking pathetic? Only one little runt that probably weighed less than one of Greg's legs.

And there was nothing he could fucking do about it.

"The Lieutenant has stopped moving."

Five words, spoken as neutrally as anything else Spock ever said, but for some reason those five words lit a panic inside Pavel's chest that he couldn't quell.

Maybe thirty minutes ago now, Spock had delivered that message. For thirty minutes Pavel had been running, ignoring any need to be silent, unaware of how near or far the other three in the landing party were to him.

Stopped moving.

He didn't know why that was bad. If Greg found a safe spot he might have simply stopped. He had to be tired, after all, and he was hurt. But no. No, he knew his Grischa too well. He knew how stubborn he was, and how strong, and how determined to be strong no matter what.

For him to simply stop moving...

They weren't too late. That was all Pavel could tell himself, over and over again, as he ran with every ounce of speed his Academy training had helped him build. They were not too late, because that was not happening. Simple as that.


He would not accept even the fear that after all the delay and doubt, they were finally down there with a plan and a path just in time for Greg to stop moving.

He had not found the solution and yelled at his captain and stayed awake for 48 hours and said goodbye to his own papa just to get to Greg too late. It was absurd, and he had too scientific a mind to believe in absurdity.


He didn't turn back or slow down. That would be his third blatant insubordination, then.

"Chekov, god damnit!"

Kirk sounded winded. He also sounded fairly panicked.

Against his every wish, Pavel slowed down. Since they weren't there too late he would take a moment, after all.

He slipped from a jog to a walk and looked back over his shoulder.

He hadn't seen Kirk so red in the face since the captain celebrated his 27th birthday trying to drink his first officer under the table. (Only McCoy, arriving to the party late after his shift, had kept him from dropping dead of alcohol poisoning by informing Kirk that Spock saying that Vulcans weren't affected by alcohol had been a fact, not a dare.)

"Jesus mother fuck," Kirk gasped between breaths, stooping to wheeze as Pavel moved back to him. "Just stand there, speed racer. Spock says...Christ...Spock says we're coming up on him, and as reckless as you think I am I do not let my crew go jogging into fucking danger."

Pavel frowned, but he could hear pounding footsteps behind Kirk as the others caught up, and he turned back the way he'd been going, listening and scanning the trees for any indication of what was just ahead.

Hikaru jogged up quickly, but McCoy didn't seem to be doing much better than Kirk. Pavel didn't apologize, but neither of them seemed to want him to.

Kirk sucked in a loud breath and pushed himself straight. "Hikaru, it's zorro time. Pavel, if you're coming on the front lines at least hold your damned phaser." He looked back at McCoy. "Stay back until we know it's clear."

McCoy didn't argue.

He watched Hikaru slip his sword out of its deceptively small holster, and then Pavel pulled his little-used phaser from his belt and clenched his knuckles around it.

His role was usually in coming up with theories, charting courses, conducting research. But he had killed before. He had pushed the controls to fire the missiles to destroy entire ships full of enemies.

He would fire his phaser at whatever stood between he and Greg.

Kirk grabbed his own phaser and looked around to ensure they were all ready. He nodded them on. "Quick and quiet, guys."

McCoy was a set of soft footsteps following slowly behind them as they went. Pavel kept stride with Kirk and Hikaru easily as they slipped past the next line of trees and started moving up the end of a sloping, long hill.

"Shit," Kirk murmured as they moved up that hill. "Get low near the top. We can't see what's waiting, so take it slow."

Pavel didn't answer. He tightened his grip around his phaser, unable to repress a twinge of nervousness. It was too quiet suddenly, the air still and too wide open as they moved up the hill and left the trees behind them.

Greg. He couldn't stop that thought, though he should have been focusing harder. Greg was over this hill, or over the next one. Close. Greg was close, and Pavel was finally there to get him.

He bowed his head and stooped his way up when Kirk did, and followed the captain's lead when Kirk hit his knees to push himself to the top without making himself a target for anything on the other side.

"Hang on," Kirk said, his voice barely a murmur, when they couldn't go any further without being exposed.

Pavel held himself back but it was hard. His heart seemed to be moving faster not from nerves, but from excitement. Hope.

Kirk shimmied up and peered over to the other side of the hill.

The moment Pavel heard his inhale of breath he moved, scooting up the path beside him and peeking out at whatever Kirk saw.



He clenched his hand around his phaser, but Kirk reached out instantly and pushed him down by the shoulder. "Wait."

"There's only one of-"

"I said wait, ensign," Kirk all but hissed in response.

Pavel swallowed, his free hand forming a fist. He shut his eyes for a moment and ordered himself to trust his captain for as long as his self-control would allow.

Kirk peered over the hill again. His hand stayed planted on Pavel's shoulder, holding him where he was. He frowned suddenly and dropped back down beside the other two. He released Pavel with a warning look, reaching for his communicator.

"Spock. What the hell is Harris doing? Can you hear anything?"

A moment later Nyota's soft voice answered. "Not anymore, sir. He spoke a short time ago, but no one answered and he's no longer talking."

Kirk flipped off the communicator, brow furrowed.

Suddenly he nodded at Pavel and got to his feet, standing straight up and into full view.

Pavel didn't understand but he didn't argue. He was right on Kirk's tail as Kirk moved over the top and started moving down the bottom of the hill.

Distantly Pavel noted the strange shift in scenery, the brown dirt ground spread out in front of him. The only thing he focused on was Greg.

He was sitting on the dirt in the middle of the brown, and one of those things was standing over him. But even as Pavel thought to bring up his phaser and take aim, he noticed what it was that made Kirk hesitate.

The alien wasn't moving. He was just standing there. He didn't even seem to be looking at Greg. He seemed to just be waiting on...something.

It was that alien that spotted the three approaching officers first. The thing's thin body tensed, and its strange harsh face shifted. Its mouth opened, and Pavel remembered their horrible screaming cries and remembered his phaser again.

Kirk's was already out and up, faster about spotting danger than Pavel was.

But Greg's head turned in their direction, and he scrambled instantly up to his knees and raised his arms out.

"Don't shoot!"

Kirk strode out in front of the other two. His phaser didn't lower, but he didn't fire. "Harris."

Greg seemed to want to move, to get up, but he was swaying just after getting to his knees.

Pavel noticed then the red staining up the sides of his undershirt. The jagged fabric tied at his side, and down over red-soaked gashes in his pants.


"Captain, hang on." Greg either didn't notice himself swaying and trembling or he simply pushed past it, twisting to look back at the tense alien.

The thing looked down at him, its mouth shutting.

Greg gestured back at Pavel and Hikaru and Kirk, and, strangely, pointed his hand upwards.

The alien stared at him for a long moment.

Then it turned, and without a sound the creature started racing back towards the treeline, away from all that empty brown space.

Greg sagged.

Pavel was there in a second, before he even consciously thought about moving. His phaser hit the dirt somewhere on the way, but he hardly noticed.

"Greg!" He hit his knees in front of Greg, reaching for his arms to steady him.

Greg grinned, but his eyes were red-rimmed and his face was deathly white, and the grin didn't do a thing to quell Pavel's nerves.

"Harris, what the hell." Kirk reached them, surveying Greg for just a moment before he turned back towards Hikaru. "Get Bones," he said, soft and intent.

Pavel swallowed, trying to see through the makeshift bandages and dark uniform to see just how badly he was hurt.

Greg's eyes moved to Kirk much to slowly. "We gotta go," he said, voice as rasping and strange as it had seemed over the speakers on the ship.

"No shit. Especially if that little bastard went to get reinforcements."

"He didn't." Greg dropped back on his heels, and Pavel had to move in fast to keep his grip. "They just want us out of here."

"You telling me that thing told you that?"

Greg grinned unsteadily. "Can't talk. That's the problem."

Pavel heard McCoy and Hikaru as they came up fast behind him. He let Greg's arms go when McCoy pushed in between them, but as he got to his feet slowly his eyes stayed glued to Greg's face. He didn't try to see the display on the tricorder McCoy pulled out, not even when McCoy cursed under his breath and started digging frantically through his medkit.

Greg all but ignored the doctor, trying to keep focused on Kirk. "They didn't know how to tell us. Any of us, anybody who landed here. They can't talk to us, so they ended up just killing...anybody who showed up."

Kirk crouched down. "Didn't know how to tell us what?"

Greg nodded out at the field, the expanse of lifeless brown dirt. "This. This is what we do. We kill things."

Kirk frowned, but looked around.

Pavel studied Greg. His eyes were too bright - fever, maybe infected wounds - but he seemed certain of what he was saying.

Greg blinked hard, looking at Kirk with sudden intensity. "They're not like us, Captain. I don't think they're all that advanced. All they know is we keep showing up out of nowhere, and wherever we go the planet around us starts dying." He reached out an unsteady arm, pointing down a few feet away where Pavel glanced just long enough to see some scrap of black fabric on the ground. "Think that's your science team. I figure they were camped out here when the natives caught up to 'em."

Kirk moved over to that fabric scrap, crouching down.

Greg's eyes shifted over to Pavel, but he kept talking fast. "These guys kill us because they can't stop us any other way. Something about us, or just outsiders in general...something doesn't mesh right here. This place wasn't like this, but they buried those guys right there and everything started dropping dead and blowing away. Place I slept last night..." Greg's throat worked.

Something beeped, shrill, on McCoy's tricorder.

Greg talked over it, speeding up, tripping over the words. "Whole tree rotted under me. Captain, they don't deserve to get shot, they don't know what the hell we are or how to stop us except by killing us. We just gotta tell the Federation to stay away from here. It's their planet."

Kirk straightened up and turned back to Greg, his brow furrowed deep. "How the hell did you get all that out of a creature that can't even talk?"

Greg shrugged, still looking at Pavel as if he couldn't manage the feat of even turning his head. "Lotta gestures, lotta guesses." He swallowed, if possible going even more pale. "Maybe 'cause I was alone and unarmed, but that one didn't want to kill me. He wanted me to get it, you know? They just want us to leave them the hell alone."

Kirk frowned. "I don't know if the Federation-"

The tricorder squealed again, and McCoy snapped it shut and shot to his feet. "All due respect to the natives here, unless any of you remembered to pack a few liters of blood in your kits we need to get back to the ship about ten minutes ago."

Greg's eyes focused on Pavel for a moment, and he flashed a small, uneven smile, almost looking relieved.

It wasn't until they were moving through the trees under Spock's direction, Greg being all but dragged between Hikaru and McCoy and hanging on to consciousness but not even enough to move his feet, that Pavel realized why he was relieved.

He knew he didn't have much time to get the words out. He wanted Kirk to understand what he'd figured out before he passed out.

He wondered as he tore through the trees without seeing them, as he willed the men around him to move faster, if that was the same sort of urge that made Greg turn himself into a target to protect his fellow officers. That same instinct that McCoy had been so humbled by.

Was it the security officer in him, or was it just Greg? It was an odd thing to wonder about, maybe, but if he didn't let himself think of other things he would have panicked halfway through the woods back to where the ship could find them.

Then Greg stopped breathing, and Pavel couldn't wonder about anything at all anymore.

An hour into the silence, sitting beside Hikaru and staring at his red-stained hands as people walked silently back and forth passed them, Nurse Chapel emerged from the closed doors where Greg had been taken away from Pavel.

Pavel was on his feet so fast it made him dizzy - all the hours of not sleeping or eating or anything except worrying catching up to him. "What? What's happening?"

Chapel smiled faintly but it didn't reach her eyes. "Leonard said to bring this to you. It was with the lieutenant's things, in his pocket I think." She held out a small box.

Pavel reached out reflexively, uncertain.

A small, dark hinge-lidded box. Battered around the edges, scuffed at the corners from Greg's time on the planet.

Chapel spoke softly. "Leonard said to tell you that even if you don't know what it is, hang on to it. It's important."

She turned and moved back through the doors, but Pavel's eyes were on that box.

In his mind he heard his papa's voice, telling Pavel about the words Greg had asked him to teach him.

Holding his breath, strangely scared for some reason he couldn't have voiced, Pavel opened the lid of the box.

For a moment he could almost imagine himself back at home, in Russia, in his old house. Most of his mother's things were stored in their small cellar, but papa kept the most meaningful things around them in the house.

It was a very different box that held her old wedding ring. A smaller ring, to match the huge one papa still wore on his hand every day. Pavel had gone to his papa's room sometimes and looked at it, along with the pictures he kept there and the hairbrush still sitting on the dresser.

Some of papa's friends tried, back then and even now, to talk him into putting those remainders away, but Pavel understood suddenly in a visceral, deep way exactly why he kept them. He understood because the ring in that box Chapel gave him brought him back there, to his home and his family and his mama.

He had no idea how long he stood there before something nudged his arm, and he looked up to see Hikaru standing by, studying him.

Pavel held out the box.

Hikaru only glanced at it. His mouth tilted into a feeble smile. "I've seen it."

Pavel drew the box back in, reaching up and brushing at the three-toned ring with a feather-light fingertip.

"You know what it is?"

Pavel nodded. He drew in a breath and slipped the ring from the box. It was heavy and cool against his hand and he held it up for a reverent moment just to look at it more closely.

Then he slipped it onto his his ring finger. His right hand, the way they still wore them in Russia.

Hikaru took his arm, steering Pavel back against the wall, back to their chairs, back to their weight.

Minutes later Pavel realized something else and laughed, sudden and only a little bit desperate-sounding.

Hikaru turned to him. "What?"

"On the bridge, the morning before this all started." Pavel couldn't take his eyes off the metal, the way the pale sickbay light hit the three different shades of gold. "You said you hated me because my weird choices always turn out better than they should."

Hikaru blinked, then smiled. "I said you'd understand what I was talking about later."

"If you'd just said you meant Greg, I would have understood even without this." He tore his eyes from the ring and smiled over at Hikaru.

As the minutes past, Pavel's eyes stuck on the doors that were keeping Greg from him, and the ring seemed to fade from his mind just as thoroughly as the smile faded from his face.

Holy fucking hell.

He didn't hurt, which for some reason his brain thought was odd. But Greg had never been so fucking sore in his entire damned life, and that was saying something.

He couldn't even open his eyes for a while. He just lay there, feeling as heavy and stuck as if he was buried under concrete. Felt like every damned muscle in his body had been wrung out like a fucking dish towel.

His throat was dry like he'd been swallowing sand. His brain was telling him he was lucky, but his body sure as hell didn't feel it, and he couldn't remember why he was lucky.

He knew the smells and the sounds around him enough to figure a few things out. He was in sickbay. He'd spent a good two weeks camped out for hours a day when Pasha got stabbed by fucking Klingons, he recognized that tangy chemical small and the steady chirp of monitors and machines.

Whoever kicked his ass must have been fucking hard core, that was all he could figure.

"Hey, Harris."

He couldn't manage a jump at the sudden voice filtering into his aching, leaden world.

"I know you must want nothing more than to pass right back out, but if you can get your eyes open for a minute there's someone here who'd really appreciate it."

He recognized McCoy's drawling voice quick enough. For some reason his mind felt relieved all over again at that. Like some kind of shit had gone down with McCoy?

Hell with it.

He sucked in a breath and tried to pry his eyelids up. His eyelids told him to fuck off.

"Go on, kid. He's awake enough. Brainwaves don't lie."

A few moments later a slight, warm weight appeared against Greg's hand. "Grischa..."

He told his eyelids to cowboy the fuck up, and after a last token protest they managed to slide apart a little.

"Grischa!" Another hand joined the first, taking his arm and lifting his hand from the bed, clutching.

He had to blink a couple times, but Pasha swam into focus finally.

Greg smiled. A little twist of his mouth, at least, but it was all he could manage. He swallowed, but even that was painful enough that he didn't try to talk yet.

Pasha's eyes were way too bright. His face was strange, shadowed and pale and the skin under his eyes was smeared so dark it looked bruised. But he was fucking beautiful.

Greg had some kind of memories, anyway. Something about McCoy and Spock and Scotty on a planet somewhere, and Pasha's voice coming through a communicator from far away.

Pasha studied him hard, the way he studied his padds in the middle of solving some giant problem. He opened his mouth, and shut it, and opened it again, like he had a million things to say but they were all jumbling up on top of each other.

Finally he drew in a breath and smiled through the words he settled on. "Vyhodi za menja zamuzh?"

Greg blinked, surprised. Not because Pasha was speaking in Russian, but because they were words he somehow knew.

He frowned, trying to puzzle them out, and the light caught his eye as it bounced off something in Pasha's hand.

On his hand.

He saw that ring and remembered most of what his mind was still trying to piece together. He was supposed to be the one saying those words. He'd chanted them over and over again back in his quarters before shit went down.

Someone gave it away, he realized, looking at the ring he'd been so scared of glittering against Pasha's pale fingers. Someone told on him.

Pasha swallowed and freed one hand from the clutch he had wrapped around Greg's. He reached out and slipped his fingertips down Greg's cheek, and again over his temple like he wanted to clear off the lines furrowing his brow.

Pasha smiled, sweet and simple like he didn't smile a whole lot. "Vyhodi za menja zamuzh, Grischa?"

Greg echoed the smile after a moment, easy like his face suddenly forgot how tired he was. He could feel the coolness of the ring against his hand as Pasha held it, and he didn't figure it mattered so much who asked the question.

"Yeah," he managed to say.

The word was dry and painful and it burned up his throat, but it was fucking worth it.

Kirk came by to fill Greg in on how things had gone after he passed out like a fucking sap. The Federation wasn't too happy to have to close the book on their missing people, but Kirk said he just told it to Pike the way Greg told it to him - wasn't the aliens' fault that they weren't advanced enough to talk. They were defending their home the only way they could.

In the end it was a moot point, since the very existence of those natives made the whole thing a Prime Directive nightmare. End result being that nobody from any Federation planet in the universe was gonna show their face on that planet again. At least not for a few thousand years, until those strange little wild men started shooting rockets into space.

It felt good. Greg admitted that much to Pasha after Kirk left. Felt like he didn't just help the guys in the same uniforms as him, but managed to maybe help out those aliens. They killed some people, maybe, but so had a lot of good people who were protecting their homes.

Pasha couldn't seem to stop smiling, not since Greg first got out that first painful word after waking up. Greg sure as hell understood it, and if he wasn't ready to sleep for a thousand years he'd've been grinning just as big.

"He has another surprise for you," Pasha said at one point, nodding out as if Kirk had just left. "But it can wait until you're back on your feet."

Maybe another citation, Greg figured, squeezing Pasha's hand. Maybe he'd earned one keeping the landing party alive.

"Luckily you'll be back on your feet before too long." McCoy sounded almost cheerful as he appeared - he'd been in and out since Greg woke up - holding a padd in his hand. "Infection's all gone, your scratches and scrapes are healing pretty well. I'm gonna keep you on the IV overnight to keep you from crumbling into dust for want of water, but come morning your ass is out of here."

"Really?" Greg wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed. Sure as hell seemed like there should be more wrong with him than that.

"Yep. Don't get the wrong idea, Greg - you beat the odds surviving long enough for us to find you, much less to get back to the ship. You lost enough blood that I was worried about organ failure and brain damage, even once I knew you'd live. You got off lucky but don't take it lightly."

Okay. Yeah. That was more like it. Greg swallowed and grinned shakily. "You know me, doc. I'm all about following doctor's orders."

"Good." McCoy glowered at him, but relaxed after a minute. His eyes went to Pasha. "Don't suppose there's any chance you'd follow orders and get some sleep before you collapse?"

Pasha seemed pale and shadowed all over again. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Fine, we'll bring you a cot. And it ain't open for discussion, kid. You pass out on your own or I'll hypo your ass."

Pavel nodded, his eyes on Greg.

McCoy patted Greg on the arm and moved back around the bed towards the door. "Someone'll bring the cot by, and you'll get checked on now and then, but other than that you two are on your own for the night."

"Thanks, doc. Oh, shit!"

McCoy turned instantly. "What? What's wrong?"

"No, nothing. I just realized..." He grinned. "Pasha asked me."

"Asked you what?"

Greg held up his hand - Pasha hadn't let him go for more than a few seconds at a time since he woke up - to show the ring. "He asked me," he said again. "So you and Hikaru won the bet after all."

McCoy frowned but only for a second. He looked at the ring, and at Greg, and then he grinned so hard it made him look like a different person. "Well, hot damn."

Greg managed a faint laugh as the doc tore off with new enthusiasm - going to collect his bet, probably.

"They made bets about..."

Greg looked back at Pasha. "I already made 'em feel like shit about it, it's cool."

Pasha smiled, but it was uneven. "Did you tell everyone on the ship about this except me?"

"Just them. Well, just McCoy. Wanting his advice and all. He's the one that blabbed to Sulu." Greg toyed his fingers through Pasha's, smiling at the feeling of the ring against his knuckles. "And your dad. And I guess technically that guy who made the ring, Yudashkin or whoever."

"I'm sure papa told most of the village, of course," Pasha said, still in a strange, fake-happy kind of way. "And as much as I love Hikaru there is no secret safe with him, so doubtless most of the ship knows by now."

"Does it matter?" Greg studied him, trying to figure out what was wrong. "I guess if you'd said no it would have sucked, but..."

Pasha's smile faded a little until it looked sad, but at least real. "I was never going to say no, Grischa. And you didn't need to have papa or this ring or any Russian words."

"I think I knew that," Greg said, dropping his head to the pillow and smiling to think of how fucking scared he'd been. "I got scared," he even admitted out loud, "but just...over the same shit you always tell me not to think about. Me being a big dumb shithead and all."

Pasha's eyes flashed.

Greg kept going before he could say anything. "But you're starting to get through to me, I guess, because even when I was scared I still...I knew things would be fine. I knew you weren't going anywhere." He squeezed Pasha's hand, but his strength was starting to fade and he could feel it. "I know you don't need anything fancy. But I want you to have it. like it, right? I mean..." He dragged a fingertip over the twining lines of the ring.

Pasha's smile returned and he looked down at their hands. "If someone had asked me what sort of ring I would want most in the universe, I wouldn't have thought to describe this. But this would have been the true answer."

Sounded like a yes to Greg. He grinned sleepily, his eyelids getting heavy again. "Is it weird," he asked, "that after that planet and thinking I was gonna die and almost actually dying and everything, all I feel is just really fucking happy?"

"No." Pasha's voice was strange, thick. He moved suddenly, releasing Greg's hand and climbing right onto the bed beside him.

Greg opened eyes he hadn't meant to close, rewarded by the familiar sight of Pasha's curls under his chin, Pasha's lean body curling in against him like he wanted to wrap Greg all around him and never get free.

He managed to make his arms work, to slide around Pasha and hold on to him. He was weak, but he wouldn't ever be too weak for that.

Pasha's breathing was unsteady, fast. He buried his face against the sheets over Greg's chest.

"It isn't strange at all," he murmured, though Greg barely heard him with his face buried and Greg's head starting to turn to cotton as his body kept hauling him stubbornly back to sleep.

Pasha didn't sound happy. Not at all. But maybe the way he understood Greg's being happy, Greg understood that. There was more than one kind of happy, after all. Besides, Greg had been there before. He had sat in a chair beside a sterile sickbay bed and watched Pasha's eyes open for the first time after his operations and felt so fucking full of happiness that he couldn't even smile.

Seemed like a contradiction, but it wasn't.

And when Pasha gave up his own control laying there against Greg, when he started crying right there into Greg's chest so damned hard it made the bed shake...Greg understood that, too.