The entire crew of the Excelsior immediately fell in love with Chekov, of course, even though their captain was the only one who knew him personally -- so to speak. The boy's natural charms aside, the Excelsior had had very little excitement since the incident at Khitomer almost a year before, and parallel universes and time travel were always items of interest, at least for Starfleet vessels unfortunate enough to bear names other than Enterprise. So poor Chekov Alter, as he had excitedly insisted he be called, could hardly turn around without running into another crew member with a thousand questions about his universe, or wanting to hear another story about what Captain Sulu had been like as a young pilot, or possessed with the need to tousle his hair.
Sulu, aware he was nowhere close to immune to the kid's charms himself (his face still hurt from smiling after every video conference with the Chekov from his universe) found himself extremely concerned for Chekov Alter's peace of mind and ended up physically escorting him from the bridge, despite protests from both parties concerned, with a stern order that ensign Chekov was not to be disturbed for the next twelve hours.
When they reached the guest quarters, Chekov flopped onto the bed.
"It really does not bother me!" he insisted for the tenth time. Grinning, because Chekov never just smiled when he could grin.
"I suspect it takes a lot to bother you," said Sulu. "Would you like some water, anything to drink?"
"No, thank you. Captain Sulu."
"That's 'Captain Captain Sulu' to you, kid," said Sulu airily. It was a constant struggle, remembering to treat this younger version of his friend like an equal, when he actually felt -- well, fond, he supposed. Protective and fond, almost the way he felt toward his own daughter. More so, actually, considering he only saw Demora once every few years at this point.
"So, Hikaru," Chekov began, again using Sulu's first name like it was the most natural thing in the world, "we have found a way to send me back, modified your ship's systems, talked about Ambassador Spock's upcoming visit, and yet you still have not told me the obvious thing."
"Oh, yeah? What's that?" Sulu said, smiling already.
"Where is the other Pavel?"
First names again. Sulu stretched out on the desk chair, folding his arms behind his head. "Didn't I tell you? He's a commander now."
"No, yes, but, I mean, where is he actually? I want to know if I stay as handsome as you do."
Sulu laughed at that.
"Flattering your elders, I see," he said. "You might just go places. Now, let me remember. Chekov. I believe he's in Fort Baker nowadays, possibly doing something for Command. I can't remember exactly. I could have a channel opened to Earth, if you'd like to talk to him."
"Ah," said Chekov, waving his hand, "no, no, that's fine, it would probably be strange." He smiled again, but it seemed a little hollow. "He is not here, then?"
After a pause, Chekov said, "Why not?"
"Uh," said Sulu. "Well, he... never requested a transfer, once he was on the Reliant. I don't think he would have even... I've never thought about it before, to be honest. That is to say, I would have been happy to have him here, but --"
"You two were not together?"
Sulu's breath caught in his throat.
"What do you mean?" he said. Surely not what Sulu thought he meant.
Now Chekov seemed troubled, or maybe just embarrassed. He was tapping his forefinger against the silver insignia on his chest, which Sulu suddenly recognized as the nervous habit that his own Chekov used to have, and eventually grew out of.
"Together," Chekov said, without looking up, raising one shoulder as if apologizing. "You know. As in a sort of -- a relationship."
Sulu's heart was hammering, his face hot, as though he were eighteen, too.
"No," he said. "No, we weren't."
Chekov looked up at him, an inscrutable look on his face.
"Never?" he said.
"No," said Sulu. His mind was somewhere else entirely, thirty years in the past, emotions and wishes he'd thought long turned to dust suddenly blooming to life again as if no time had passed at all. "Do you mean, in your universe...?"
Chekov just nodded and shrugged again. He was fiddling with his sleeve.
"I wanted to."
Slowly, Chekov looked up at him.
"I wanted to," Sulu said again, as if he were thinking aloud in private somewhere, instead of spouting decades-old confessions at an alternate version of his best friend. "When you first came on board. When -- Chekov first came on board. I realize now that I wanted to, anyway; I don't know if I was aware of it then. But when I was with him, I felt... at ease, yes, but there was always this sort of restlessness as well, as if I were close to something -- bigger than that. But I didn't want to upset the balance, I suppose, and soon we'd been friends for so long..." Sulu laughed and shook his head. "I have no idea why I'm telling you all this. I'm sorry."
Chekov was watching him, those eyes so big. A child.
Briskly Sulu took hold of the armrests.
"Never mind the ramblings of an old man," he said lightly, as he rose. "We get all misty about the past at a moment's notice."
"No, not at all --"
"And it's always interesting to think about what might have been." Sulu gave Chekov what he hoped was a reassuring smile from the door. "But thank you, for the conversation. Ensign."
He regretted the word before it even escaped his lips.
"If you need anything, Yeoman T'Peng is right next door," he continued, feeling dizzy. "I'll see you in the morning?"
"Yes," said Chekov, with a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Thank you."
Sulu already knew he wouldn't get any sleep that night. He didn't even try. What he hadn't expected were these sudden doubts about every choice he'd ever made, every turn he'd decided to take.
Hadn't he decided long ago that all he could do was make the best choices he could with the information he had at hand? What more could he have demanded from himself? And yet here he was, in full captain's uniform, staring at his desk with a pounding heart and overcome with the unaccountable electric feeling he'd often had when he was young; that at any minute, any of his most wistful dreams might wink into existence.
So when he heard the code being entered on his lock, he wasn't surprised. He just turned to watch. And when the door whooshed open, and he saw Ensign Chekov silhouetted against the hallway, it felt natural, an organic event.
Chekov stepped in. The door closed behind him. He took several breaths before glancing up, and Sulu could see his eyes were wet.
"It is like this," he said. "I cannot believe a world where I don't love you."
He'd tried to stop him, his protests genuine, biting back a shudder of disgust at the thought of how he would look, a sixty-year-old lech drooling over a teenaged ensign; and all the real reasons for this clear to him: homesickness, hero worship, projection. But Chekov hadn't listened, just climbed into his lap and started nuzzling his jaw, and it was like Sulu was underwater, his protests slow and meaningless, the world echoing densely around him.
"Chekov, I'm. I'm not --"
"Yes, you are, you are."
When Chekov put his arms around Sulu's neck, the smell of him, the warmth, suddenly hit Sulu like a physical blow. It was exactly the same scent as his own Chekov, the unknowable sweet something that was always there across the console.
"Let me tell you how it happened," Chekov whispered into him, and Sulu was helpless, at a complete loss.
"Commander Spock assigned us to it. The K-7 mission, the shuttle. We were already friends but I was so embarrassed, I felt sure you knew how I looked at you and what I thought, but you were so kind to me, you made me feel like I was your favorite. I tried to make you laugh all the time."
"I knew you weren't sleeping then, that night. I could just know it. I wasn't sleeping either. And I was so scared, I was just lying there so scared that I might get up and kiss you, and then I was so scared that I wouldn't, and then, Hikaru, there you were, you came to me."
"Pavel, I'm your Pavel," Chekov said in a fierce whisper, and he took Sulu's face in his hands and kissed him.
Everything that day had been its opposite -- an unfamiliar anomaly bearing the most familiar face, the past suddenly right in front of him like a future he could touch -- and this was the same way. Sulu wasn't strong enough to stop himself, not when Chekov was eighteen years old, just as hot and tight and familiar as Sulu always ached to know he would be; so he tried to shame himself instead, visualizing the lines on his old tired face, the gray hair, how he must look to him. But Chekov wouldn't stop touching him the whole time, whimpering things to him, and it was so good, so familiar and right that soon Sulu couldn't even remember his own body, or that he was supposed to be ashamed with what they were doing. There could be nothing shameful about this perfect thing.
Afterward they only said a few things to each other, pressed together in the dark.
"There's still time for this, to be here, Hikaru."
Sulu sighed, Chekov tucked so easily against him. The two of them fit together like they were created as a set.
"It's not -- It's different here. After so many years, things happen, people change."
Chekov was quiet for a little while. Then:
"The Pavel Chekov here, did he ever marry?"
"No," he said. He felt Chekov smile against him.
"But it's not as simple as that," he said hastily. "There were... We both had..."
"Who are you spending your life with, Hikaru?"
This time Sulu was the one who went quiet.
Chekov was already gone when Sulu woke the next morning. A check with the computer confirmed he was off-ship, had initialized an ionic transportation at 0300 hours, and for a minute Sulu just lay there, arms crossed behind his head, staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out how he felt about this. It was possible his better judgement had yet to return to him, because after rifling through every emotion he expected to have, Sulu still felt nothing but an exhilaration that was making him grin like a loon.
He was still smiling fifteen minutes later, fully dressed and brushing his teeth, when there was a query from his vidscreen console.
"Hayes to Sulu."
"Go ahead," he said after he spat.
"Sir, the Commander is on the channel you requested."
"Great, thank you. Patch it in to my quarters, security level beta."
Commander Chekov blinking onto his vidscreen was suddenly the best thing Sulu had ever seen.
"Captain!" said Chekov. "It's been a while. Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, everything's fine. I'm sorry to bother you. Are you busy?"
"Busy, hyeh." Chekov waved his hand. "Busy avoiding the bureaucracy. Believe me, I'm free as long as you can stand me, Sulu."
"Well, good," Sulu said, feeling light and warm, all at once. "Because this might take a while. But, Pavel, call me Hikaru, okay?"
Chekov raised his eyebrows, then broke into a slow grin.