Title: "The Helmsman"
Summary: Moments of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise.
Disclaimer: Star Trek and all its characters are property of Paramount Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: Star Trek 2009 film continuity. A character study, mostly of Sulu, but also a bit on Spock, Uhura, and Kirk. Genfic, with references to canon pairings. Thanks to rabidfangurl for glancing it over.
Word Count: 2726
After a few months at Starfleet Academy, Hikaru Sulu often forgets his given name. Even in his own mind, he refers to himself as "Sulu." It is not until after he is assigned to his five year mission as helmsman of the USS Enterprise that he reflects this is a bit odd. After all, he grew up to his parents' affectionate "Hika-chan," and his childhood friends called him 'Karu. Everyone in Starfleet, however, calls him Sulu. He quickly realizes that they are the people who shape his life now, his conceptions, even his identity.
Sulu leans back in his chair, his helm blinking calmly at him as the Enterprise races past stars at warp speed. He glances around. Kirk asks Uhura if he can call her "'Ota" in front of Spock, no doubt hoping for a reaction from one or the other—or both. Spock ignores him and checks on the ship's scanner readouts, while Uhura asks him if he so eagerly sought promotion so he could have more free time to run into dead-ends. Chekhov murmurs to himself in Russian as he peers at his controls. McCoy stomps in to demand why Kirk has not reported to sick bay for his annual physical, and Scotty can be heard chirping equations to Chekhov so complicated that they make Sulu's head spin.
Sulu would not have any other people in the galaxy shaping his identity.
After watching Spock lose his mother, Sulu contacts his own as soon as he returns to Earth. "Hika-chan!" she cries, waving furiously from the balcony. He smiles and waves back, revealing the symptoms of his mother's own unique infectious disease: joy. When she bounces out of the house and into his arms, he thinks of the look on Spock's face as he held out a hand to an empty transporter unit where his human mother should have been. Sulu hugs his mother tighter, until she protests that she cannot breathe.
His father comes home early from the university that day, and he weeps a little when Sulu shows him the medal that Starfleet awarded him for helping to save Earth. His mother punches him in the shoulder and makes him his favorite food: tacos.
The same scent of sakura incense, lemon cleanser, and salsa clings to his parents' house, but it no longer smells like home. His bed feels too soft, and the room's walls are spaced too far apart. He misses the soft thrum of shipboard engines beneath him and the occasional alarm going off in the middle of the night (sometimes abruptly cut off by an apologetic Scotty who claims he hits the wrong button while periodically remodeling the Engineering section). When Sulu returns to the Enterprise two weeks later and places his bag on his bunk, he takes a deep breath.
The Enterprise smells of recycled air, lemon cleanser, and home.
"You have an unusual last name, Sulu," Uhura tells him over lunch, perhaps to break the awkward silence. He finds it hard not to stare at her, even though he and the rest of the crew now know she is Spock's woman. The arch of her long neck and the contrast of black hair against mocha skin draw his gaze like filings to a magnet.
"Yeah, I guess so," he tells her, smiling.
"But the Japanese language doesn't have an 'l' sound. How did that happen?"
Sulu keeps smiling. "I'm not sure how we got the name, honestly. We're more American than anything else by now. My family has been in San Francisco since the early twentieth century."
Uhura rolls her eyes, though Sulu can tell her annoyance is not with him. "Back then, people made up names or American officials misspelled and otherwise misinterpreted immigrants' names. A few strokes of a pen eroded their cultural heritage."
"I guess so." Sulu decides not to tell her that he does not really care where the surname came from. He considers himself American, not Japanese. He takes another bite of his quesadilla to fill the awkward pause, listening to the conversations around him. None seem so labored as his own.
"Do you speak Japanese?" she asks, giving him the same look that so many fellow Japanese have given him over the years. In her case, Sulu imagines that with all the universal translators to be found, her ability to speak so many languages seems as arcane as his affection for katanas.
"Um." Sulu tries to recall the words, grasping at his fading knowledge of his ancestors' tongue. "Watashi wa Nihongo o sukoshi hanashimasu." He winces at his pauses between syllables and his painfully American accent. His father would be disappointed in him.
Uhura smiles. "Demo yokujaarimasen," she says in a tone that almost hides her disappointment. "Does your mother know how awful your Japanese is?"
Though Uhura teases, Sulu decides not to tell her that he speaks more Spanish than he does Japanese, especially since his Spanish is limited to deep and meaningful conversations about where he might find the bathroom and in which direction he might find the beach. "My mother's Japanese is worse than mine, actually. My father is fluent, though."
"That's something. It's lucky that we have universal translators."
Sulu wonders if she resents them as much as he does phasers. There is something deeply satisfying about swinging a katana against an opponent. Phasers rob him of the satisfaction of doing anything but pressing a button. It makes him feel as if battle were nothing but a simulation. Battle, like flying, offers an adrenaline rush not equaled in the mundanity of normal life. When he sits at a table in the ship's cafeteria and eats his lunch, he is a fairly unassuming, affable man, much like his father. When he fights and when he flies, though, he becomes fierce and intense, much like his mother. He does not think anyone on this ship but Kirk can understand that.
As Uhura eats her egg salad sandwich, Sulu decides to spare her his awkward presence and finishes his quesadilla so he has an excuse to flee. He wonders, as he boards the turbo-elevator back to the bridge, why he wonders so much.
Plummeting to the surface of a soon-to-be-extinct planet can form odd friendships. James T. Kirk seems so unlike most of Sulu's friends. Though Sulu is not the intellectual his father is, he has spent his life surrounded by intellectuals, and his experience on the Enterprise is no different. Though genius-level, Kirk is not what one would call an intellectual. He has too much energy and too much rebel in him to be an intellectual. Out of everyone in the crew, he is the most like Sulu.
They also differ in many ways. For example, Kirk has no skill whatsoever with alien flora. In truth, he seems to be the bane of alien flora.
"I am really sorry about that," Kirk says, watching Sulu try to rescue the Kaladian thorn flower bush that he had over-watered in an attempt to be "helpful."
Sulu smiles, though he realizes he is going to lose his most prized bush. "It's all right. I only behead people who destroy my plants on stardates that end with '9'."
"Uh." Kirk blinks. "Aha. It's Stardate 2258.129."
Sulu slips his collapsible katana from his belt and thumbs it open with a single flick of his wrist. Kirk's eyes widen. "Hold still," Sulu tells him. "It will hurt less."
Kirk bursts into laughter, and Sulu soon follows. When Spock enters the botanical garden and sees them, standing by a dead Kaladian thorn flower bush, laughing with a katana between them, he arches an eyebrow at them. It only makes them laugh harder.
Sulu regains his wits and retracts his blade. He does not need to be court martialed for pointing a weapon at his captain. He discards the dead bush and notices that Spock watches them with a peculiar gleam in his eye that must be Vulcan curiosity. Kirk invites Sulu to the lounge for a drink, and Sulu agrees. He glances back as he follows Kirk, noting Spock idly fingering the blue leaves of his new experimental tree, still watching them.
Sulu is not sure if it is Spock's half-human nature or not, but Spock's Vulcan curiosity looks remarkably human at times. Sulu flashes him a grin and heads out, intent on drinking Kirk under the table.
"Fascinating," Spock says as they leave, turning back to his blue tree. He reminds Sulu so much of his socially awkward and overly-intellectual father that it sends Sulu into another fit of laughter.
When Father's Day comes around, Sulu sends Spock an anonymous Father's Day card. Spock enters the bridge that morning with his right eyebrow already arched. Out of the corner of his eye, Sulu watches as Spock shows Uhura the card. She throws her head back and laughs at Spock, causing him to arch his left eyebrow. Only she knows about Sulu's private joke—after all, he needed her to translate the other half of it.
That night, Sulu checks his messages and reads his father's bewildered query about why his Father's Day card is in Vulcan.
Sulu cannot explain what brings him to this dry, dusty house. The Vulcans stare at him as he walks towards a small stone building set apart from their main colony. They betray no emotions, of course, which is perhaps why it is so easy for Sulu to imagine sadness in their eyes. They hold black cloth to their mouths and blink in the sun, pausing in their duties to watch him knock on the door of the stone building.
"Ah, Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu," the old half-Vulcan says as the door slides open with a rumble. Perhaps it is the shadow of his darkened room or the austerity of the spartan surroundings, but age seems to have made Spock all the more human. "I've been expecting you."
Sulu blinks and steps in, wiping dust from his nose and mouth, grateful to be out of the glare of the Vulcan survivors more than the bright sun. "You have?" Sulu sent no advance warning of his arrival.
"I have." Spock gestures to an uncomfortable stone bench and shuffles to another. Age also slowed his movements. Sulu watches him in fascination, realizing he will live and die his natural lifespan before the Spock he knows reaches this age.
"But why, sir?"
"Because you, my friend, much like Captain Kirk, are a particularly curious individual," Spock says, his right eyebrow arched. This Spock is older, friendlier, but still Spock.
Sulu sits on the stone bench, finding it as uncomfortable as it looks. "I thought I was fascinating?"
"Like most humans, you are both."
An awkward pause fills the space between them as Sulu considers why he came here. He swallows and finds his mouth dry. His smile fades. "What was I like, in your timeline, sir? I cannot stop wondering. I wonder too much, my mother always told me."
"Much the same, if a little less awkward. You lost your father as a boy—in an accident involving a transporter crashed by an inept pilot. In my research, I discovered this pilot died during the attack of the USS Kelvin." Spock places his veined hands on his knees, his dark gaze boring into Sulu. "In my timeline, your mother was a quieter, more sorrowful presence in your life. The event that cost Captain Kirk his father's life saved your own. You became the most efficient pilot I ever knew, perhaps to reclaim your father's honor in some way."
The thought of growing up without a father and with a subdued mother opened a pit of cold in Sulu's stomach. As much distance as Starfleet put between him and his family, he could not imagine life without their presence. They had helped make him the man he was. "Wow," he says, unable to think of anything better to say. He stares at his knees and brushes dust from them.
"But now, it is I who have a question for you, Mr. Sulu. Why did you become a pilot, if not because of your father's death?"
Sulu looks up and smiles a little. "I can't speak for my other self, but I can tell you this. You may have misread my choices. I became a pilot because I love to fly. Flying has always been one of mankind's ultimate dreams."
"Ah. And you always were ambitious." Spock nods. "Fascinating."
"May I ask another question, sir?"
"It's a personal question."
Spock arches his brow again. "Proceed."
"Why did you join Starfleet?"
"The answer is complicated."
"I can handle complicated." Sulu smiles. "I'm human, remember?"
"Of course. I will give you my primary reason: because humans are diverse and complex. They appreciate differences as much as similarities."
Sulu's smile fades as he infers the meaning of Spock's words. He wonders if Spock realizes how much Sulu reads into his statement. Did Vulcans truly see Spock possessing a disadvantage due to his human heritage? Sulu shakes his head, astounded. Humans strove to conquer their history of racism and ethnic conflicts, though they had not won the war yet. It sobered him to realize that even the logical Vulcans fought in the same war against prejudice.
"I know how intelligent you are, Mr. Sulu. You must wonder why I told you that."
Sulu studies Spock's lined face, though there is little enough expression to study. "Yes, sir."
"Because once, and perhaps again, you, and the rest of the primary crew of the Enterprise, saved my life. I owe you nothing less than the truth."
"That sounds like quite the story."
Spock nods. "And perhaps, next time you visit, I will tell you about it."
"That sounds like an incentive, sir."
"Indeed. I meant it to."
Sulu grins and stands up. "Well. By now, I'm sure you're done talking to your father—you Vulcans certainly make your conversations remarkably short and sweet. And I'm also sure the supplies have been delivered. I better go."
"I look forward to your return. But may I ask a favor?"
"Of course, sir."
"Tell Nyota that I hope she visits me soon." Spock looks out of the slit window on his wall, his expression serene. "I would find her visit nostalgic."
"Yes, I'll be sure to let her know. But—" Sulu pauses. "Why ask me? You speak to her all the time. The other you, that is."
"I do?" Spock turns back to face Sulu, his dark eyes glittering.
"Yes, of course, sir. You two are, um. Well." Sulu scratches the back of his head, wondering why this older Spock sounds so surprised about his relationship with Uhura. Did he not have one in his universe? "You know. An item."
"No, Mr. Sulu. I did not know." Spock smiles, an expression that nearly sends Sulu wheeling back into a wall in shock. "Thank you for telling me."
"Uh. You're welcome?" Sulu turns to the door, feeling suddenly awkward. He wonders what Spock thinks, what he feels, if he truly feels anything. "Until next time, sir."
"Indeed, Mr. Sulu." Though his expression returned to its usual neutrality, Spock's voice trembles. Sulu steps out of the house and glances back. Spock pulls something out of his pocket. It glitters in the weak light, and Spock stares down at it, his expression so full of human regret that Sulu reaches out to him. The door slides closed, and Sulu's fingers brush against cold stone.
When Sulu makes his way back to the main Vulcan colony, he sees Uhura in the distance, standing beside the younger Spock. She cuts a sleek figure as she waits, her hand occasionally brushing against Spock's hand. On her ear glitters the same earring that the older Spock took from his pocket.
As Sulu approaches his group, he notes how close Uhura and Spock stand together, and the way Spock glances at her, with an intensity in his dark eyes that he spares for no one else. Sulu thinks that though this younger Spock has lost so much more than the older one, he also has something the older Spock never had.
Spock nods at Sulu when he reaches the rendezvous point. He taps his communicator as the wind kicks up a dust flurry nearby. "Three to beam up, Scotty."