At 0500 hours, the new captain contacts Pavel directly on his communicator and asks him to relay another shipwide broadcast. Mandatory six-hour rest period for all officers on the alpha and beta rotation, he explains, with strict orders from the CMO to attempt sleep where species-applicable.
"That includes you, Ensign," he adds.
Pavel's hair is a mess from crawling around in Jefferies tubes and his jersey is the wrong color - he spilled coolant on his own and borrowed a science-blue from someone much earlier in the night - but he only swipes at his face blearily before tapping in the all-call code at the Engineering com station to make the announcement. Afterwards, hauling himself to his feet, he suddenly remembers that nineteen or twenty hours ago, his greatest fear in the universe was having to make another shipwide broadcast. He'd spent those three minutes to Vulcan feeling like his face was on fire, imagining his voice echoing through the entire ship - those stupid syllables, the second when his voice almost broke. Now it seems like something he thought a thousand years ago, like someone else's memory.
His quarters aren't his anymore, of course. Port decks four through fourteen are gone, for one thing, and even if they hadn't been, nearly all single quarters have been reserved for the injured, or for the dead. Pavel's rooming with five other ensigns he's never met before, all of whom are already asleep when he gets there.
The straps on his boots give him some trouble, still unfamiliar to fingers used to an academy uniform, and he's glad no one's awake to see him give up halfway and just push them off with his heels. To anyone else it might seem like a silly thing to worry about, but then no one else is a seventeen-year-old accelerated cadet serving on the flagship of the fleet.
He was sensitive to it before. Now he's almost obsessed, determined to prove not only capable but in complete control of himself, from redirecting the entire secondary power grid and broadcasting all-calls to going to bed when ordered. He can just see himself making a dumb mistake, fumbling with a code or misplacing a decimal, and the crew suddenly regarding him with apprehension, whispering among themselves, is the kid okay? Poor thing, he's been through so much.
They don't know he isn't that type of kid. He doesn't expect them to know, but he doesn't want to waste valuable time reassuring them all individually, either, so better to keep ahead of any doubts before they form.
Pavel switches off his PADD and turns over, eyes shut dutifully. But the luminescent webs of the ship's power circuits still glow behind his eyelids - x4 connecting to y2 connecting to this switch bypassing that switch under this panel - and it's not just the cold twitching tension in his muscles, there's another feeling he can't pin down: self-reproach, almost, at the notion of sleep. When he opens his eyes again, the room's as it always was - quiet and dim, lit faintly by the yellow-alert panels that are still glowing even though there are no shields left to be raised - but now it seems to be looming at him, oppressive.
He shuts his eyes and recites his prime numbers, trying not to think about how much he wants to open a channel to Earth, right now, and talk to his mother. That's just what he needs to do, wake up the captain in the middle of the night with a stammering red-faced request to interrupt subspace transmissions because he needs his mama. He is not a child; he is certainly not this kind of child; but then Pavel thinks about never opening a channel to his mother again, and then he thinks about Commander Spock, and then he's up and stumbling through the corridor.
In the bathroom Pavel splashes his face with cold water and rests his elbows on the sink, breathing hard and willing himself not to throw up. Wouldn't his advisors love to see him now. A million concerned evaluations, a million reassurances that he could handle it all, and on his very first mission he ends up huddled in the bathroom, trembling and light-headed and afraid of the dark.
But he's not going to let himself be like this. Pavel rinses his mouth, composes his face. He'll go back there and lie awake for six hours with his eyes shut, if he has to.
Still, he can't help walking more slowly than usual on the way back. He pauses to check the technical codes on bulkheads, to read the crew designations beside each door as if he might spontaneously find his mother, his brothers, an old school friend, on this ship of strangers.
When he actually does recognize a name, he's so surprised that he stops right in his tracks.
Lt. Sulu, H.
Pavel glances around briefly, as if he's broken a rule and could get caught. But the hall is empty, completely silent, and so he steps closer. There's an alert notice below Mr. Sulu's name: Second Off. (act.). The status screen is enabled, too, reporting that he is "Present - Awake - Available."
Pavel hesitates for only a minute before he taps the chime.
"Enter," says a voice, and the doors whoosh open.
Mr. Sulu is sitting cross-legged on the bed, his feet in neat white socks. Several PADDs are laid out before him on the covers, like cards in a game of solitaire, and his right eye still has the faint halo of a bruise. His face lights up when he sees Pavel.
"Chekov!" he says, straightening his back. "Come in, come in."
Pavel takes a few steps forward, a little surprised and embarrassed at how happy he is that Mr. Sulu remembers his name.
"I'm sorry to bother you," he says. "I was passing by, and..."
"Not at all," says Mr. Sulu, gathering the PADDs to the side and sliding to face him. "You're not interrupting anything. Please, have a seat."
He's gesturing to a clear polymer stool, the only piece of furniture in the room besides the bed and night table. Apparently, as acting Second Officer, Mr. Sulu managed to snag a rare single room for himself, but it's cramped and virtually empty - exactly, in fact, how Pavel had originally envisioned his own quarters would be. He sits as requested, relieved to be in the presence of a superior officer again so he can simply follow orders.
"Can't sleep?" says Mr. Sulu with a sympathetic wince.
"Ah," says Pavel. "Not really."
Mr. Sulu looks even more exhausted than Pavel feels, which isn't surprising. While the new captain and Commander Spock have been busy receiving and answering Starfleet transmissions, dividing and delegating duties, it's Mr. Sulu who's actually had to comb through and collate the data, relay reports to each department head, update the body count, all while piloting the ship.
Pavel also stayed at the helm after Mr. Scott ejected the warp core, but only for twenty minutes or so. His navigational skills were not quite indispensable in this particular instance, as the Earth-Alpha-Centauri gap was probably the most comprehensively charted stretch of interstellar space in Federation history. That didn't make it any easier to travel, though, especially for a bulky Constitution-class starship operating only on impulse power, and Pavel fidgeted by Mr. Sulu's side for a while, feeling more and more useless until he finally excused himself to Engineering with the hope he could be of some use there.
Now, thinking of Mr. Sulu painstakingly dodging asteroids and maneuvering past gravity spheres that whole time, all alone on the bridge, makes Pavel frown.
"You should rest," he says before he can help himself.
"It's only, the doctor has said so, sir."
"I heard," Mr. Sulu says with a grin.
"Ai." Pavel puts a hand to his forehead. He forgot, for a minute, the all-call announcement.
"Your accent is awesome," Mr. Sulu says earnestly, and Pavel likes it - black hair, black eyebrows, black eyelashes and black eyes, and then, right above the black collar, the sudden white smile that takes him by surprise each time he sees it. It's nice to look at, Mr. Sulu's face.
"You're from... uh... Russia?" Mr. Sulu continues.
"Ah - yes."
"Nothing, only, you seemed maybe scared for a second to say it."
"Well, yeah. I'm scared of Russia," Mr. Sulu says, which makes Pavel laugh. "No, actually, I was afraid you might be from one of those countries near Russia that I can never keep straight. One of the -slovakias or something."
Pavel shakes his head, biting the inside of his lip. "No, just regular Russia, I am afraid."
Mr. Sulu himself looks like he's from east Asia somewhere. He doesn't have an accent, though, which Pavel's been wondering about for a while. He decided not to ask about it at first, certain he'd manage to be unforgivably insensitive somehow, but now after a brief silence he blurts, "You are an American, Mr. Sulu?" and feels his face go hot.
But Mr. Sulu just nods.
"Yeah, my family's, basically - if you took every island nation in the east Pacific and smushed 'em together" - he demonstrates with his palms - "and stuck 'em in California for a couple hundred years. Plus some Cherokee in there somewhere, supposedly, but I think my grandpa was lying about that."
Pavel laughs again, feeling almost giddy with something like relief. Not just because Mr. Sulu is talking to him as though he doesn't even mind, but because of the casual allusions to Russia, California, the Pacific ocean, mischievous grandpas, little details unique to Earth that now seem unbearably precious and fragile.
Too late, Pavel realizes he's been quiet for a while. Mr. Sulu is frowning at him.
"Hey," he says. "Are you okay?"
"What do you mean?" Pavel says, though he has the sinking suspicion he already knows.
"Just... after everything that's happened."
Well, Pavel thinks, already bracing himself, it was bound to happen sooner or later. And at least Mr. Sulu seems genuinely concerned about him, rather than suspicious that Pavel is two shaky steps away from nervous collapse.
Still, his reply is swift and merciless.
"Oh." Pavel waves his hand slightly, ushering this topic to a swift end. "Yes, thank you, I am fine."
He gives Mr. Sulu a firm, friendly smile as proof.
Mr. Sulu nods slowly, but it doesn't seem like a reply. His gaze has softened as if he's thinking about something else entirely; he's staring at a point over Pavel's shoulder.
"I'm not," he says, after a minute.
It's such an entirely unexpected thing to hear that Pavel doesn't register it at first - he's on autopilot, all set to nod encouragingly, to give a hum of agreement and camaraderie. When he realizes what Mr. Sulu actually said, Pavel's lips are already parted in reply; and he goes still just like that, blinking, his hands folded in his lap and his mouth half-open.
Mr. Sulu doesn't seem to notice.
"You know," he says, and laughs a little. "You know, it's weird, what I can't stop thinking about? Rice Day. Were you there for that?"
Pavel recovers himself long enough to nod.
Rice Day was at once one of the most infamous and well-loved traditions at Starfleet Academy. During the first week of orientation, after the initial screening and settling-in, the entire first-year class gathered at dawn on Azophi Green for a seminar given by the president of the UFP. Even for elite Academy students, this was a rare honor indeed, and when Pavel attended - his junior year, not his first, when he transferred in from the Conservatory - the cadets were so quiet that he could hear the waves lapping in the bay in the distance.
The lecture given was the expected, perhaps. A crystallization of the Federation's purpose, its values, what it meant, and how each of the cadets present was now an ambassador of that meaning, with all the honor and responsibility inherent in that title. Expected, but Pavel's neck still prickled with chills in the September sunshine.
When the president withdrew from her pocket a tiny white speck, invisible to everyone but the front row and the towering multi-projector vidscreens broadcasting the seminar, those cadets with Starfleet parents or siblings murmured fondly and knowingly among themselves. A camera close-up revealed that the president was holding a single grain of rice - one that shimmered with the slightest, barest hint of metallic green, a minuscule band around its center that had been painted with a fiber-optic brush.
That grain of rice, explained the president, represented a planetary system in the Milky Way which had developed not just life, but life intelligent enough to communicate, to develop language and culture and faster-than-light technology - intelligent enough to qualify for Federation membership.
She dropped the grain at the bottom of a deep, massive platinum basin that had been set up on the green. Then, from behind her podium, she and several assistants wheeled out a massive fifty-kilogram sack of rice, larger and heavier than the punching bags hanging in the Academy gymnasium, which she poured into the basin in a thundering white waterfall.
And that, she continued, speaking over the deafening rush of the clattering grains and the stirrings and murmurs in the crowd, represented the other solar systems in the Milky Way.
The cadet who could, before sunset, find the one banded grain of rice among the two million, one-hundred and twenty-nine thousand, five hundred and fifteen unbanded ones would have the campus building of their choice renamed for them, but it hadn't happened yet in the ninety-two-year history of Rice Day, and that year was no exception. It wasn't until two days later, when the scoured-clean rice was served at the last dinner of orientation, that an Andorian cadet found the banded grain on her plate.
Pavel remembers how they all shouted and cheered; how they stood and watched as she brought it up to the president, their faces alight not only with laughter and self-effacing excitement, but with something more real than that - something close to wonder.
"We never found it, my year," says Mr. Sulu now, in the silence. "Even back then, that bothered me. That we never found it."
After a second he looks back to Pavel, and laughs a little.
"Sorry," he says, shaking his head. "I know that must - sound weird, after all that's happened -"
"No, no," says Pavel. His tongue feels heavy in his mouth. He thinks about moving his seat closer, leaning forward, and he stops himself just an instant before saying the words: I know everything you mean.
It was Pavel and Mr. Sulu at the front of the bridge, the eyes of the Enterprise, when they watched the last wisp of matter that had been the planet Vulcan be snuffed into darkness. And then again it was the two of them, waiting, watching as that enemy ship loomed massively over the planet of Earth, which was now so obviously as blue and clear and guileless as a glass marble. The whole time, it had been he and Mr. Sulu - the two of them, beside each other, in each other's peripheral vision. Each seeing what the other saw, each thinking the other's thoughts.
"Mr. Sulu?" he says now.
"I am not okay."
Mr. Sulu looks up at him. After a minute, he nods - slowly, almost thoughtfully.
"Do you want to come in?" he says.
He's lifting up the bedspread.
"Yes," Pavel says, and begins to cry.
From the first second of the first sob, Pavel covered his face with his hands; and so when he feels Mr. Sulu take him gently by the elbows, pulling him in, it feels like such a relief, like a natural force he doesn't have to fight. He lets himself bury his face in Mr. Sulu's chest, lets himself cry in great heaves of his shoulders, because somehow - impossibly - it feels like by holding tight to Mr. Sulu like this, he's holding everyone back home, too: his mother, his brothers, his family and friends, his professors and classmates and every stranger he's ever passed in the street.
Pavel stays there, curled up in the dark under the covers, crying hard, tasting salt, the clean warm Starfleet regulation sheets all around him smelling like the Academy and Mr. Sulu. He keeps his face hidden in Mr. Sulu's shirt, and the fabric soon grows damp with tears, twisted into his fingers, but Mr. Sulu doesn't seem to notice, or care. He doesn't say anything - doesn't shh Pavel, or pat him, or try to comfort him. He just keeps Pavel's head tucked under his chin, arms locked tight around his back, and lets him cry.
It's almost enough - enough to let Pavel to empty himself out completely, to exhaust himself into sleep in Mr. Sulu's arms. It's almost enough that Pavel misses it - but then, in the hitch between one shuddering breath and the next, he realizes. The heartbeat under his ear is hammering as hard as his own.
Slowly he draws his head up.
Mr. Sulu's eyes are open, focused at some point over Pavel's shoulder. He's strong and solid all around him, holding Pavel tightly, resolutely. But his eyebrows are tightly knitted, as if in determination, and there's a strange, familiar look in his eyes. It takes Pavel a moment before he recognizes it - it's the same expression he saw in the bathroom mirror, in his own reflection.
Soon Mr. Sulu notices Pavel watching him.
For a moment, Mr. Sulu looks taken aback. He swallows; his throat moves. It seems like he's having trouble finding something to say.
"It's okay," whispers Pavel. It's instinctive - so instinctive that it comes out in Russian.
But Mr. Sulu doesn't seem to notice that part.
"I know," he says, softly, his eyes still locked on Pavel's. "I'm - all right."
Pavel says nothing, just keeps watching him.
"I'm all right," says Mr. Sulu again, as if it's vital Pavel know this. "It's just." His voice is a whisper now; his eyes are suddenly, shockingly wet. "I'm just."
It isn't until Pavel brings his hands up to Mr. Sulu's hair that Mr. Sulu finally lets his voice hitch, and lets himself bow his head, clutching Pavel tighter. He buries his face against Pavel's neck, his shoulders jerking - first in silence, and then, soon, in quiet, shuddering sobs.
Pavel and Mr. Sulu stay just like that, netted together, pressed to every inch of the other they can touch, until it's impossible to tell who's holding who, who's comforting and who's being comforted. And Pavel, exhausted, tucked against Mr. Sulu's slowing heartbeat and with Mr. Sulu's wet face pressed to his neck, can feel himself falling asleep - only moments away from it now, all his defenses gone. Part of him doesn't want to: part of him wants to hold to this, is afraid to lose it. But part of him knows he doesn't have to be afraid.
He can feel it happening already. This thing, this delicate thing, has already begun. From here, it will only grow, moment by moment, coalescing like water in a raindrop.
He and Mr. Sulu will fall asleep like this - holding each other, under the covers, the lights still dimly glowing in the room beyond them - and they'll wake up this way, too, six hours to the second after Pavel's all-call announcement. But they won't blush and stammer when they discover what they've done; they won't be embarrassed. They'll help each other up carefully, gently - watching each other, keeping slow and sure. And when they walk to the bridge, they'll walk together, guiding each other with soft touches to each other's arm, the small of each other's back. There will be no need for apologies, or awkwardness, or silence. There will be no distance between them that they fear to cross.
Pavel, drifting to sleep, knows it with every deepening breath of his body: this thing has already begun. It began the moment he walked in - the moment he and Mr. Sulu chose to be the world for each other.