I'm Headed West, I'm Headed Home
A/N: T for dark themes and off-camera adult fun.
I make no money off what I witness these dorks doing.
The campus is empty. That, really, is what gets him the most. At nine a.m. on a Sunday, he would expect to see cadet red everywhere, students scrambling to finish assignments before the start of the week. It would have been especially busy now. Everyone would have been gearing up for the first exams of the semester. He would have had one on Wednesday.
This is where Hikaru Sulu finds himself after a debriefing that felt like a temporal/emotional black hole, dragging himself back to his empty dorm room on February 22, 2258. His roommate was on the Enterprise and escaped with minimal injuries, and is currently at home with his parents in Santa Fe. And so Hikaru is surprised when he makes it home, intending to sleep and sleep and sleep (the messages on his PADD about memorial services can wait) and finds someone standing in his room, waiting for him.
The man turns from where he's been standing silhouetted at the windowsill, a plastic cup in one hand.
"Ben," Hikaru blurts out. "I thought you were grading exams."
How's that for a romantic welcome?
But Ben doesn't seem to have the right words either. "I let myself in," he says. "I hope you don't mind. I'm taking a couple days off—I have an extension. I watered your plants. I wasn't sure when exactly you'd be back and I know they're important to you…"
Hikaru isn't aware that he's crossed the room. Only that he's removing the cup from Ben's hand and placing it on the bedside table, and pulling Ben into his arms. "Are you ok?" he asks, an eternity later.
Ben makes a choked, incredulous noise into the crook of Hikaru's neck. "Am I ok?"
Hikaru laughs—and doesn't stop. Soon he's shaking, doubled over, vaguely aware that Ben's outburst wasn't particularly funny. It's as if he's in the aftermath of quiz night, when everyone is up in the wee hours of the morning, not-quite-sober and still high off a ringing trivia victory, and everything is hilarious. His eyes are burning with fatigue. He feels drunk.
"I'm ok," he gasps, because Ben's eyes have widened in concern. "I'm just…I'm so fucking tired."
"I believe it," Ben says. "Come on."
Hikaru allows himself to be guided over to the tiny dorm bed where the sheets and blanket are still rumpled, an absurd reminder of how different the world was only a week and a half ago. It's far from comfortable, but they make it work, adjusting limbs and shifting left and right so that at a minimum, no one's arm is going to fall asleep.
"Lights off," Hikaru says, and the room is plunged into a hazy, cool gray semi-darkness, the light from outside filtering in through the window shade. It reminds him of when he was a teenager, floundering and exhausted and overwhelmed, when he would come home from school at the end of the day and flop onto his bed, plugging in his headphones and tuning out the rest of the world, just for a few minutes, maybe half an hour. He could never afford to lose more time than that. During his first semester at the Academy, reenergized and ready to start over, he broke himself of the habit. But Ben is solid and warm next to him, his breathing quiet and steady, and Hikaru is perfectly content to forget, at least for a little while, that the rest of the world exists.
He wakes up hours later. The room is still cool and gray, but the light has shifted to the opposite wall and his roommate's empty bed.
"Hey," Ben murmurs behind him.
"Hey." Hikaru shifts and turns to see Ben holding Hikaru's PADD.
"I didn't want to wake you," Ben apologizes.
"What are you reading?"
"The news, at first." Ben shakes his head. "Needed a break, though, so I switched over something in your book folder called The Year of the Flood."
"I don't really understand it."
"It's a sequel."
Ben raises his eyebrows. "Oh."
Hikaru smiles. "You could've woken me."
"No, I couldn't have. You sleep like the dead."
Hikaru doesn't disagree. Ben is wrong, though. He didn't sleep like the dead. He dreamed, long rambling dreams about the drill, the Enterprise, Captain Pike asking him about parking brakes. Then about sitting across from Ben in the kitchen of Ben's apartment in New Sacramento. It's not quite Ben's kitchen, though. The fridge magnets are all remnants of Hikaru's childhood. And the windowsill is crowded with the plants from his dorm room. There's a knife set that he remembers belonging to his grandfather.
His PADD chimes, interrupting his train of thought.
"Oh," Ben says and hands it to him, where there is a message notification from Admiral Barnett. "Battlefield promotions, huh?"
"I guess so," Hikaru says, before setting the PADD aside.
"Lieutenant Sulu," Ben muses.
"It's not a sure thing yet."
"From what I understand it's pretty likely," Ben says quietly.
It is. Five-thousand some-odd Starfleet casualties have torn a gaping hole in the fleet's crew and officer corps, to say nothing of the lives lost on Vulcan. Hikaru knows full well Command will be looking for ways to rebuild the fleet as quickly as possible.
He shifts, uncomfortable with the direction this is taking.
It's something they've talked about on occasion: what happens after he graduates. When they realized things were starting to become serious, he made sure to say outright that he intended to seek a position on a starship. He's been careful not to compromise on that. That plan hasn't changed, but now, instead of next fall, Hikaru could be in space by the end of May.
They've done just fine with Ben on Mars and Hikaru on Earth, just a stone's throw away. But Mars and the black is another story. What happens when Hikaru is halfway across the Beta Quadrant for months at a time? Or years?
Hikaru thinks about Ben's quiet acceptance of him: his aspirations, his love of flying, his deep-seated fear that he'll die someday without ever having seen or done anything impactful.
If you've got someone good in your life, don't let them go.
His mother's words. Words that have haunted him, at times.
His father's. On occasion, he's cautioned Hikaru against what he sees as impulsiveness. His mother has always called it confidence. Once Hikaru makes a decision, it's made. He doesn't waste time making sure it's the right one.
And so Hikaru does what he has always done. He sits up and turns to face Ben. "I have to ask you something."
Ben raises his eyebrows. "Ok."
"It's a yes or no question, and I really hope you say yes." Hikaru takes a breath and barrels past the seed of doubt in the back of his gut. "I will get down on one knee if I have to."
The silence that follows hits him like a freight train. Ben's eyes are saucers, his mouth half-hanging open. Genuine terror seizes Hikaru then, and he tries to cover it with nervous laughter. "Oh god, please say yes."
There's another beat, then Ben's hands are cupping his face, and Ben's mouth is on his. When he pulls away, he's laughing: "Of course yes."
Much, much later, when they're laying warm and dazed in a pile of blankets on the floor, Ben says, "We should set a date. Before you wind up off-planet."
"Mm." Hikaru nods. "Yeah." He rolls onto his stomach. "I don't need anything big or flashy."
"Me neither," Ben agrees.
Hikaru smiles. "Fair warning, my parents are going to freak out."
Ben nods. "My sister is going to freak out. She'll be insufferable."
"What about a venue?"
Hikaru tries to come up with anything in particular that he wants. When he can't think of anything, he says, thoughtfully, "You know, I only have one request."
"I don't want to get married outside."
"I can respect that," Ben nods.
"Otherwise…" Hikaru shrugs.
Ben chuckles. "Well, there's always City Hall."
Hikaru feels the corners of his mouth tug upward as Ben reaches out to him, their fingers twining together. "Yeah."
The room falls silent again. For a moment, there's nothing but the gentle hum of the central heating, the chirping of winter birds.
Hikaru frowns. "Ben?"
Hikaru rolls onto his side. "How late is City Hall open?"
Ten minutes later:
"Ok. So, we need ID, we need…" Hikaru holds up his wallet. "There's a form fee, right?"
Ben's answer is to grab him by the collar of his cadet reds and kiss him again. "I think so."
"D'you want me to cover it? I just got paid."
"No, no, I can get my half, it's just…" Hikaru trails off, frowning. He's forgetting something. He knows he's forgetting something. He often is. Whenever he travels, he usually only checks to make sure he has his wallet, his comm, and his Federation passport or Starfleet ID. He's amassed a small collection of travel-sized toothpaste bottles that way.
Ben kisses him on the cheek, and Hikaru is just thinking how indignant his mother is going to be when she finds out he's deprived her of a fancy, 200-guest invite, black tie wedding with kids carrying flowers and cheesy music and a best man, and…and…
"Shit," Hikaru says, eyes widening.
"What is it?" Ben is halfway through tying a tie: a plain blue one of Hikaru's that Hikaru hasn't seen in months.
"We need a witness."
Ben pulls the tie off his neck. "Right. …I could call my friends in Monterey?"
"Would they be able to make it?"
Ben grimaces. "Good point. What about Pavel?"
"He's too young. Not eighteen yet."
"There's not anyone else who…?"
Hikaru thinks for a moment. "Not…" something constricts in his gut. "Not on the Enterprise."
"Oh," Ben says, realizing.
The room falls silent.
"Hikaru, I…maybe we should wait?"
Hikaru looks up. The suggestion flits through his mind. But Ben is standing there, holding Hikaru's tie in one hand, one that was most likely jammed at the back of his closet. One he realizes he'd been wearing on their third date. That Ben would have had to remember in the first place, then commit to go hunting for in order to find it.
"No. No," Hikaru says. "We have—what, an hour and twenty minutes? We're gonna make this work. I can—I'll—" he's halfway out the door. "Meet me at City Hall."
"Are you sure?"
Ben is frowning at him, but Hikaru sees the corners of his mouth pick up.
Hikaru nods. "Positive."
Fifteen minutes into his search, Hikaru sees him.
It's with a breath of relief that he races across the misty, empty quad, the name on his lips: "KIRK!"
Kirk about jumps out of his skin. He's in civvies, carrying a stack of three different PADDs and a disposable coffee cup. One arm clutches the PADDs tight to his chest, the other almost loses his grip on his coffee.
"Sulu," he says, when Hikaru is within meters of him.
Up close, Hikaru can see he hasn't slept. He looks exhausted and harried. "Are you free for the next two hours?" Sulu blurts out.
Kirk blinks. "I mean…in theory, yes. But I have a mountain of debrief paperwork."
"It's important. Two hours max, I promise."
He must sound as convincing as he feels anxious, because Kirk lets out a breath. "I…ok. What do you need?"
Hikaru's heart leaps. "Come with me."
"Where are we going?"
"Just come on!"
And just like that, he's running in the direction of the light rail stop, Kirk—never one to refuse a challenge—close on his heels.
The bay passes under them, all choppy whitecaps and cresting waves. Mist condenses on the window of the train car. Hikaru's fingers are drumming on his knees. It seems like the train has slowed down the train as it crosses the Bridge. Maybe for the tourists, so they can enjoy the view a few seconds longer?
"I really don't understand why you won't just tell me what's going on," Kirk says.
There's a part of him that knows it's more than a little unfair to keep Kirk in suspense like this, given the drill and the near-disaster with the parachutes and how—by the way—he personally saved Captain Pike's ass and led the crew to safety after taking out Nero and destroying the last of the red matter.
Then again, there's also a part of him that's afraid to jinx it.
Not to mention the other part that can't shake the thought that it's only been a fucking week-and-a-half, and what the hell has he done to deserve this kind of happiness so soon?
Kirk darts a glance in his direction again. "Are you ok? You're sweating."
Hikaru nods. "Yeah, I'm good."
"Are you sure?"
They lapse into silence again. For about ten seconds.
"Is it a medical procedure?"
"Are you getting a medical procedure? General anesthesia?"
"…Are we going to beat someone up?"
It should be more concerning that Kirk's tone is so mild, like maybe he's game for that sort of thing, and just wants a little advance warning.
Instead, Hikaru's just annoyed. "No. Don't worry. It's not—don't worry."
Kirk frowns. "Then why—"
"Kirk, if you just…let it go for the next…" he sucks in a breath. "…ten minutes, I will buy you a handle of whatever you like to drink. Booze of choice."
Kirk looks archly at him. "Ten minutes."
Hikaru nods. "Ten minutes."
"Scotch," Kirk says.
"I like scotch."
"Right." That makes sense. He seems like a scotch guy. Hikaru pauses. "How old?"
Kirk whirls to face him. "How old?"
"Yeah, you know. Fifteen year, thirty year? What?"
"Jesus, Sulu, I'm not gonna ask you to buy me thirty-year-old scotch!"
"Fifteen it is."
Kirk opens his mouth to protest, and Hikaru interrupts: "Ten minutes or all bets are off."
A few minutes pass in silence, and then his comm buzzes: Ben.
"Forms are done," he says, by way of a greeting.
A smile tugs at the corners of Hikaru's mouth. "I found someone."
"It's really happening."
"It really is."
"Where are you?"
"On the lightrail. Just crossing the Bay. I'll be there soon."
"Ok. I love you."
"Love you too."
In his periphery, he can see Kirk eyeing him suspiciously. He wonders briefly whether the captain caught any of his conversation, and decides he doesn't care. About another minute goes by before Kirk checks his watch. "Are we there yet?"
The train starts to slow, and a cool, disembodied voice announces the stop:
"Civic Center. City Hall, California Supreme Court, Orpheum Theatre. Please watch your step when exiting the train car."
Hikaru gets to his feet. "Yep."
Ben is waiting at the light rail stop. He's managed to get Hikaru's blue tie into a simple four-in-hand, and he's holding a PADD. When he sees them, his face lights up like it's Christmas. Hikaru's stomach thinks he's fallen off the drill again.
"They're mostly finished," Ben confesses. "They need your signature."
Hikaru presses a kiss to Ben's cheek and takes the PADD. "Ben, Kirk. Kirk, Ben," he says, making cursory introductions before he goes hunting for the signature line.
Kirk shakes Ben's hand, looking between him and Hikaru, the gears turning in his head written all over his face. "Nice to meet you… Sulu, can I ask—"
"Is there a wait?" Hikaru asks, only vaguely aware that he's interrupting.
Ben nods. "Yeah, but they're almost ready." He takes Hikaru by the hand and starts leading him toward City Hall. Over his shoulder, he turns to Kirk with a warm smile. "Thank you for doing this."
Hikaru follows Ben's gaze just in time to see Kirk put two and two together.
"Wait. Are you getting married?"
Ben blinks. "You didn't tell him?"
Hikaru just laughs.
"Am I the witness?" Kirk continues, jogging a little to catch up. "Is that what's going on here?"
Ben shakes his head at Hikaru. "Just had to ratchet up the suspense, didn't you."
Trailing behind, Kirk calls after them: "I should be buying you thirty-year-old scotch!"
The honeymoon is short, and half-located in Hikaru's dorm room, but neither of them is particularly bothered by it. For the other half, Ben has him close his eyes and put his finger on a rotating map of Earth. They wind up on a shuttle to Edinburgh and spend the weekend wandering the Royal Mile, scrambling up Arthur's Seat in the rain, and eating far too many meat pasties for their own good. For grins, they attend a whisky tasting that's an odd mix of sophistication and Disneyland. (Before the tasting room, there's a slow-moving track ride with an animated holo-ghost explaining things about peat and malting and oak barrels.) Standing in the gift shop afterwards, Hikaru finds the oldest bottle of single-malt he can reasonably afford and has it shipped to Kirk's mailbox at the Academy.
Afterwards, they're temporarily pulled apart again. Ben has to go back to school and Starfleet begins holding memorial services. Hikaru sits in the audience and listens to the names of the dead, and twists the band on his ring-finger around and around as he thinks of all the cadets who could be here now, sitting in his place. That night, he finds himself among friends, in a basement common room on the other side of campus. Several faces stand out: Pavel, Kirk, his roommate. Montgomery Scott—the odd guy Kirk found on Delta Vega who's now the Enterprise Chief Engineer. Also, Nyota Uhura, Leonard McCoy, and—curiously—Commander Spock, who barely says a word all night. (If Hikaru notices Spock and Uhura's fingers brushing gently throughout the evening, he doesn't let on.)
It's a sort of potluck. They have to eat, after all, and no one wants to grieve alone. Sitting among the chili, guacamole, and plomeek soup, there's a familiar bottle. When Kirk offers a toast, it's what he uses to make sure everyone in the room has a glass, including Hikaru.
Absent friends, Kirk says. Absent friends, everyone echoes back to him.
Hikaru nods to him from the back of the room, and Kirk nods back.
Twenty-year-old scotch tastes like things unsaid.
It's only a matter of time before he's found out.
As predicted, his mother freaks. (His father, by contrast, merely gives him a look—impulsive—before shaking his hand and asking when Ben can come over for dinner.)
Not to be denied, Kinuyo Sulu insists on organizing a banquet luncheon for what seems to be all of their extended family and then some. When Hikaru jokes that she should just invite the whole planet—all humans (and a fair number of non-humans) are technically blood-related if you go back far enough—she gives him a look that promises fire and devastation should he say anything else even half as foolish.
It's long and more than a little bit embarrassing, but when he's not being cornered by relatives, Hikaru spends the afternoon people-watching. Watching his young cousins each pick up the mic in turn and giggle their way through bubble-gum wrapper jokes. Watching Ben's sister, Vera, talk animatedly with Hikaru's grandmother about cross-stitch. Watching his mother dissolve into tears halfway through telling Ben how happy she is to have him in the family. Watching Ben hug her.
Hikaru decides that wedding ceremonies are about more than just the people getting married.
In June, the Friday before the Enterprise is due to leave on the shakedown cruise, Ben comes to Earth to see Hikaru off and to help him move out of the dorms. He gets into San Francisco on the 14:30 shuttle. When Hikaru meets him at the shuttle port, the first words out of his mouth are: "I borrowed Vera's cooler so if you want I can take care of your plants while you're away." Hikaru was planning to donate them to the Academy greenhouses. He smiles the entire light rail trip home.
For dinner, Hikaru manages a surprise of his own: a restaurant neither of them have been to, even though they both know the City like the back of their own hand. It's a classy brew pub in the bank building on Market and Castro. Halfway through dessert, the idea occurs to him, and he knows without having to think that it's the right thing to do.
"Do you want to see it?" he asks.
Ben looks at him. "See what?"
"The ship. Where I'll be."
Ben blinks at him. "We can do that?"
Hikaru pauses. "I can call in a favor. If you want."
It's midnight before they can make their way up to spacedock. Scotty—who's all but moved in to Engineering—gives them an hour before he has to beam them back down to Earth. He leads Ben through the dark corridors, pointing out Medbay, the rec rooms, the botany lab, but stopping in none of them. He has a single destination in mind. When they step off the turbolift, the bridge is deserted and dark, the viewscreen inactive.
"Whoa," Ben says softly.
"Computer, lights eighty percent," Hikaru whispers, then feels vaguely silly: they're alone. He makes his way over to the helm console, putting his hand on the back of the seat. "This is me." He looks over at Ben, who's looking left and right like he's Alice and this is Wonderland. All at once Hikaru is unsure whether this was a good idea. "Ben?"
Ben walks over and puts his hands on Hikaru's face, bringing their foreheads together. "I want you to be safe."
"It's not the safest job in the world…"
"I know. Just…say you'll try. Ok?"
Hikaru swallows the lump in his throat. "I'll try."
They stand there for a long time, before Hikaru looks up again. "Can I show you something?"
Hikaru pulls away from him and says, a little louder this time, "Computer, activate viewscreen."
The blank wall before them is suddenly a window full of stars.
Ben curls an arm around Hikaru's waist. "It's beautiful."
Starfleet doesn't give them the same options as their parents' generation had. After the attack on the Kelvin, Command decided that families didn't belong on starships. Ben won't ever fully understand life in the black, or what Hikaru does day in and day out. But maybe, Hikaru thinks, he can share this little piece of it.
Maybe for now, it's enough.
A/N: In my version of events, Ben is a high school history teacher. When the Enterprise is leaving on its shakedown cruise after the Battle of Vulcan, Ben is working on Mars, but before that he was in San Francisco. He and Sulu met in the Rio de Janeiro shuttle port, when their flight back to California was delayed. For more about Ben, Sulu, and the Battle of Vulcan, check out Chapter 1 of my fic "225842."
There should be a classy brew pub in the bank building on Market and Castro, but I'd be remiss if I claimed I came up with the idea myself. Thank you, MAB, for letting me write it into the story.
The Year of the Flood is by the esteemed Margaret Atwood, and is the sequel to Oryx and Crake.
Title taken from the song "Golden Coast," by Allison Weiss.