sulu

Fic: Just Like a Waving Flag (Sulu, Gaila/Sulu)

Title: Just Like a Waving Flag
Author: igrockspock
Characters/Pairings: Mostly Sulu gen, with brief Gaila/Sulu at the beginning and end
Rating: PG-13 for some violence, references to sexual slavery, and threats of rape
Summary: When Sulu was 10 years old, he and his father tried to smuggle an Orion slave girl to freedom. It's not a story he tells often.
Warnings: Violence, threatened sexual assault
Notes: Title from the K'naan lyrics "when I get older/I will be stronger/they'll call me freedom/just like a waving flag."
Word count: 4,000



Sulu's never been much for talking about the past. It's not that he's ashamed of it; it's just that he doesn't much feel like explaining the intricacies of his childhood to people who aren't going to understand it anyway.

"We were traders," he always says. "Salvage operations and stuff."

People who know something real about the world get what his family really did, and they knew better than to ask more questions. The ones who don't pick up on his reluctance and don't press him any further.

Gaila's different. It's why he likes her. They sit side by side on a blanket on the beach, bare arms prickling with goosebumps from the chilly breeze. He's not surprised when she switches off her padd, looks him in the eye, and asks, "If you grew up on a smuggling ship, why are you here?"

He's never told the story, and he didn't imagine he would share it today or any other. But somehow he thinks she deserves to hear it, considering how much of herself she has to reveal every time someone asks where she's from, what her parents were like, why she came to the Academy. Considering that she's willing to trust him at all after what men did to her before.

Besides, he's already reliving the memories.

***


His father kneels in front of him so that their eyes are level. He looks even more serious than the day he explained that his mother was sick from all her drugs and they couldn't see her anymore.

"Hikaru, I need you to listen to me very carefully. We are going to do something very dangerous, and I'm going to need your help."

Hikaru makes sure his spine is straight and his voice is steady before he answers. He wants his dad to know he can trust him.

"What is it, Dad?"

"Come with me. I'm going to show you, but first you must promise to never tell anyone, no matter what they ask or say. Do you promise?"

"Yes, Father." Even to his own ears, he sounds bored. Tell no one has been the rule for as long as he can remember, and he thinks he's old enough to be trusted to obey it by now.

But his father shakes him a little, looking into his eyes hard.

"This is important, more important that credits and cargo even. You must take it seriously, or people will die. We might die."

Hikaru's eyes widen. He'd seen a body in the med bay once when his friend Kenji had dared him to sneak in. The face was human, but it hadn't looked like a person anymore. The thought of his father, cold and dead in a freezer with eyes flat like a fish...He can't suppress a little shudder at the thought.

"I promise, Father. You can count on me."

"Thank you, Hikaru. I knew I could."

They step out of the airlock and travel through the rusty corridors of Deep Space 8. Hikaru never gets lost; it's his job to know all the back ways through the stations they visit. Now, though, as they climb over ladders and through narrow crawl spaces, he has no idea where they're going.

"You be the look-out," his father says finally, stopping in front of a dull grey door at the end of a narrow corridor. Hikaru can't imagine that anyone could have followed them here, but he does as he is told, leaning against a wall around the corner and pretending to read a holographic comic book while he actually listens for footfalls on the creaky metal grill of the floor. Down the hallway, he hears the door creak open on rusty pneumatic hinges, and his father whistles the familiar signal to come. Hikaru looks in both directions, checking one last time for intruders, before he bounds toward the door.

Inside, there is nothing but a bundle of rags on the floor, and he looks up at his father incredulously, question forming on his lips, before he sees that the bundle is moving.

"This is Amaia," his father says. "She needs our help."

Two days later, they sneak her aboard the ship inside a crate of Malvidian eels. Hikaru's stomach churns when he looks inside the the box. Everything he can see is gray and writhing. He's never, ever questioned anything his father has asked him to do before, but this one seems worth it.

"Dad," he whispers. "This is gross. Can't we put her in with the textiles shipment instead?"

He steps back a little just in case his dad is mad. Dad never beats him the way some of the other kids' parents do, but Hikaru's pretty sure that insubordination is worth a smack. Instead, his father drops a big, calloused hand onto Hikaru's shoulder.

"You're right that this shouldn't happen. No being should ever have to do this to protect their life or their freedom." Hikaru looks up to show that he understands, but his father is looking off somewhere in space, his lips pressed into a thin line.

"Believe me, Hikaru, it's safer this way. The captain will never open a box of eels for inspection."

Finally, he looks down and offers Hikaru a manly slap on the back.

"You did a good job getting the air tank. I knew I could count on you."

Hikaru smiles a little at that and watches Amaia climb into the box wearing a battered emergency oxygen tank and one of his mother's old, stretched out swimsuits. His father leans over to tuck the last of Amaia's red curls underneath the slippery pile of eels, and only then does Hikaru realize they were both talking about her as if she wasn't even there.

After that, they don't talk about Amaia at all. Sometimes, Hikaru watches his father bent over inventories late at night and wonders how he can pretend that Amaia -- Amaia with the red curls and wasted body and shadowed eyes -- doesn't exist at all. It irks him because he doesn't understand, and Hikaru is used to understanding everything. But when he opens his mouth, he realizes that he doesn't even know the words for the questions he wants to ask about his father, about Amaia, about a universe that allows nice and pretty women to need to sneak on smuggling ships in a box of writhing eels.

Every two days, his father hands him a water bottle and a heavy canister full of oatmeal. It's the only time they ever acknowledge Amaia's existence, and his hands always shake a little on his way out the door.

"That won't do," his father says the third time he watches Hikaru's trembling hands. "Hold your hands steady. Nobody ever questions people who look like they know where they're going."

It's the same tone he uses when he says to do a better job sweeping the floor and cleaning the dishes. Hikaru can't help it; he straightens instantly.

"You know what to do, right?"

"Hide behind the boxes, scan the hallway for any life forms, don't talk, leave fast."

The words tumble off of his tongue as reflexively and boredly as multiplication tables, taking the last of his tremors with them. He has done this for six days now; he can do it today too.

In the cargo bay, he kneels in front of the grill in the floor, scanning one last time with his tricorder just in case. It's an old model, salvaged from an abandoned research outpost, so the scan takes a long time to run. The Starfleet insignia on the back is almost worn off, but he turns it over to look at it anyway, narrowly resisting the urge to repeat out loud the dialogue he'd made to go with it: "Sulu to Kelvin, no signs of life on this planet."

The tricorder finally pings that the scan is done, and he tucks it securely into his pocket; just because something's old doesn't mean he shouldn't take care of it. Then he raps on the floor three times. When he closes his eyes and concentrates, he hears the familiar faint patter underneath the floor. A green hand snakes out of the grill, and he helps the fingers curve around the water bottle and the oatmeal can. Then, even though he's not supposed to, he presses his face to the grill and stares into the thin, shadowed green face and wide eyes below him.

"Do you need anything else?" he whispers. "I could bring you a sandwich tomorrow."

The green fingers curve around his. They're cold, and he can feel the hard bones through her thin flesh. It makes his skin crawl, but he doesn't let himself move.

"No," she whispers back, her Standard decorated with a lilting accent. "It's too dangerous."

He shivers a little in spite of himself. The cargo bay isn't climate controlled, and her skin is so cold.

"Do you want a blanket? I have an extra one on my bed." That isn't precisely true; the blanket isn't an extra so much as a necessity in light of the ship's fickle heating system. But she looks so skinny and cold that she might die, and he doesn't want that.

Her fingers tighten on his wrist once before she lets go.

"Thank you, little brother. But you mustn't suffer cold for me." Her unspoken words hang in the air between them -- that it's too dangerous for her to have anything that might be traced to him, or to his father. Even though he doesn't fully understand the danger, he decides with a heavy sigh that he'll respect it. Amaia and his father know a lot about the world, after all.

"Okay," he says. His voice is leaden and slow, the way it is when his father interrupts his holovids to make him do chores. He knows he sounds disobedient, and he hopes she's not disappointed. His eyes lock on hers one last time, and then he gets to his knees, preparing to go.

"Hikaru?" Her voice is faint, and her face is too deep in shadow for him to see her eyes any more.

"Yeah?"

"You could come back tomorrow and tell me a story."

He presses his face to the grate one last time and feels the cold metal biting into his skin.

"Okay," he says. "I'll find you a good one, I promise."

Her smile is the most beautiful thing Hikaru has ever seen.

***


"Dad, what kind of stories do girls like?" he asks when his father switches off the holovid just before bed.

His father looks up at him sharply. At night, they talk shipping schedules, prices on the open market and black market, where the Federation patrol boats are most likely to hide. They don't tell bedtime stories, and belatedly, Hikaru remembers his father's last commandment before they brought Amaia on board: "she is not your pet and she is not your friend. She is your job. Don't think of her any other way." Suddenly, he regrets his request. What if his father will not let him take care of Amaia anymore?

"Tell me when the cargo bay is empty," his father says instead.

The question catches Hikaru off guard, even though he can sense the answer is important some how. Lost in thought, he scuffs the floor with the tips of his battered sneakers before a slow grin splits his face.

"Mess time. Everybody's gone when there's food."

"Good boy," his father says, and then he begins a story.

***


When the mess call sounds, Hikaru dashes to the counter and fills his pockets with oranges before he races out the door. No one will miss him; like the handful of other kids on the ship, he's too small to be important. Before, he'd been willing to do anything to prove his worth to the rest of the crew, including drinking a bottle of hot sauce for sixteen credits, but now he welcomes his expendability. It's worth it if it helps him protect a secret as good as this one.

Even though he'd silently counted everyone in the mess hall before he left, he scans the cargo bay with his stolen tricorder before he raps on the floor just to be safe. Amaia appears instantly, and Hikaru flops belly-down on the grate so he can look at her face.

"I brought your story," he whispers through the cold metal planks.

"Thank you," she whispers back, but she stands halfway in shadow, her eyes rolling back and forth like a scared horse in the old westerns he sometimes downloads.

"I'll make it safe," he promises, leaping to his feet and racing toward the door. As an afterthought, he tries to push one of his oranges through the grill, but of course it doesn't fit, and the flat metal bars tear the peel. He'll have to pass it to her piece by piece later. As he turns toward the doors once again, he thinks he sees her rise to her toes and lick the flecks of juice off the grate. Suddenly he is on fire with questions -- how hungry she is, if she's ever tasted an orange before, what kind of food she ate at whatever home she had before. But it's more important to secure the cargo bay, so he keeps walking away no matter how badly he wants to look back.

He's finished in less than 5 minutes, face pressed against the metal grill once again.

"You can't see it, but I emptied a whole carton of extra nuts and bolts in front of the door. If anyone comes in, they'll step on it, and you'll have time to run away." He'll get in trouble of course, but he'd say he was just playing, and they'd believe it even though he's old enough to know better. The thought of surrendering any of his hard-earned respect from the crew stings, but Amaia is worth it.

He tears off a piece of the orange and passes it through the grill.

"Once upon a time," he begins, "in a very old country called China, a girl's father was called to serve in the army. Did you get all that?"

"I did, Little Brother," she says, reaching up for another slice of orange. "My Standard is even better than yours."

Hikaru blushes a little because that's true. He takes his schooling by correspondence, and he's never gotten good marks in languages. Amaia, though...everything she says is pretty, like she'd been practicing all her words for years and years. He should have known she'd understand.

"Anyway, this girl -- her name was Mu Lan -- was a very good daughter, and her dad was old and sick, so she said she'd dress up like a boy and fight in his place."

"In those days, they didn't know girls could fight," he adds because he'd had to ask his father about that the night before. He finds the idea very strange -- his friend Dominique could kick his ass any day -- but Amaia doesn't look surprised by the idea of girls and boys being treated differently.

"Of course, his father didn't want her to risk her life, so they argued back and forth for days and days," he continues. "Finally, her dad said they could have a sword fight, and whoever won would get to join the army. Of course, Mu Lan had been training secretly with monks ever since she was three, so it only took her two seconds to cut her father's sword in half."

Actually, in the real story, she got him drunk and snuck out of the house, but but he doesn't tell Amaia that even though he's proud he made up a more exciting version. He's working his way up to the best parts now, about how she defeated and dismembered hundreds of male opponents on the battlefield, and he doesn't want to disrupt his momentum, especially when Amaia is looking up at him with shining eyes.

"In her first battle, she cut the heads off -- " he starts, but the sound of feet crunching over metal cuts him off. His eyes snap up instantly to take in the hulking figure lurking in the doorway. When he looks down, Amaia's gone.

Hikaru clenches his hands into fists to hide their trembling as he walks toward Tank. Tank's not the meanest of the crew, not by a long shot, but they're all dangerous when they smell fear.

"The hell, kid?" Tank asks when Hikaru's close enough to hear. His muscled, tattooed arms wave over the nuts and bolts heaped on the floor.

"I-I spilled the box when I was trying to unload it," he stammers. The fear in his voice is genuine. He could outrun Tank if he needed to, but he keeps thinking what those bulging muscles could do to Amaia.

Tank points toward the tower of boxes Hikaru had been hiding behind, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

"Then why were you all the way over there? You hiding somethin'?"

Hikaru's stomach does a back flip. He should have come up with a better lie, talked a cover story through with his father. The people on this ship lie for a living, and their lives depend on knowing when other people are lying to them.

"I was looking for the big magnet," he says finally. "You know, to pick up all the stuff on the floor."

He kicks a couple of the bolts with his toe.

"They're made out of iron."

"I know that, kid," Tank snaps. "You think I'm an idiot?"

"No, sir." Hikaru's voice is quiet. He knows Tank isn't an idiot. That's why he's so scared.

"Magnet's in storage B now. I moved it yesterday."

"Thanks." Hikaru bobs his head convulsively. "I'll go get it."

He turns to go, but Tank claps a beefy hand on his shoulder.

"I been watchin' you, kid. You used to be underfoot every minute of every day, and now you're always runnin' off to little corners and hidey-holes. Someone might get the idea you're up to something. Or that your dad's up to something."

He bends down on one knee so his eyes are level to Hikaru's.

"It's no good, your old man usin' you go run a scam. You'll catch hell if he gets caught, and you know nothing slips by the captain. You tell me what you're up to and I'll make it worth your while."

Hikaru has to swallow twice before he can find his voice.

"Nothing. There's nothing. I'm going to go clean up now."

He braces himself for a smack, but Tank pats him kindly on the shoulder instead.

"Fine, go on. But you change your mind, you know where to find me."

After that, he doesn't get to see Amaia any more. His father takes care of her, two food drops per week, never at the same time.

"As far as you're concerned, she doesn't exist," he says before he leaves for the cargo bay. "We'll never speak of her, you'll never ask questions, and you will behave exactly as you did before she came here. Are we clear?"

Hikaru nods, careful not to let his father see the defiance flashing in his eyes. After that, Dad makes the food drops when Hikaru's not around. For all he knows, Amaia's dead and gone.

Maybe that's why he goes to the cargo bay for the last time. He has to know she's alive.

He presses himself flat against the grate, eyes straining for a hint of green in the darkness.

"I miss you," he whispers. "Are you okay?"

She doesn't answer, but a faint rustle tells him that she's listening. He pictures her hiding down there, hunched and scared, and wishes he could tell her a story.

"I won't let them get you, I promise."

She darts into the light just long enough to squeeze the fingers he'd curled around the grill, and then she vanishes.

The next morning, an all-crew announcement sounds.

"All able-bodied crew members report to bay six immediately."

Hikaru starts running, away from the bay and toward the scanning array where his father works, but Tank spots him in the hall and stops him with a rough hand on his shoulder.

"Where you goin' kid? Bay's this way."

Hikaru has no choice but to go with them.

The crew filters in in curious pairs and trios, muttering, "you know what's goin' on?" and "heard there was a stowaway."

When Hikaru's father comes, Hikaru runs toward him, eyes wide, apologies and explanations ready to tumble out. But his father's eyes look dead, and he whispers from the corner of his mouth, "stay quiet and follow my lead."

He is almost certain that his father has saved Amaia already when Tank yanks her out of the storage compartment by her hair.

They bay explodes into chatter and leers: "We'll have fun with this one before we turn her in" and "Aw, Tank, lemme have a go before the other guys use her up!"

Tank holds up a meaty hand.

"One at a time, gentlemen. You'll all get your turn."

His eyes sweep the bay, landing for a moment on Hikaru.

"But first, y'all wanna know who did us the favor of bringing this lovely lass on board? Kept her fed up so you could all enjoy her?"

His voice grows dangerous.

"Lied to the captain and kept valuable bounty out of all your hands?"

The carnival atmosphere vanishes at once. The crew stares at each other with searching eyes; the tight little knots of friends take inconspicuous steps away from one another. No one wants to be seen with a potential traitor. Hikaru knows what he's supposed to do in these kinds of situations: act the same as everyone else, make sure he's above suspicion. He can't do it. He can't take his eyes off Amaia. That means he's the only one who sees it coming. Her fingers creep toward the phaser at Tank's hip -- they're always armed, all of them, all the time -- and it flashes twice before anyone can do anything. Once, and Tank hits the floor with a heavy thud, taking the knowledge of Amaia's protectors with him. Once more and Amaia hits the ground.

***


“I never did ask my dad how she got caught,” he finishes. What he means is that he never had the courage to ask if it was because of him, because of that one last visit. It's his one regret, not knowing if he's supposed to blame himself for her death. Out in the distance, the ocean looks gray, the same color as the clouds advancing toward them. He throws a rock out into the waves because he's not ready to look Gaila in the eye yet. He doesn't even bother to make it skip.

When she finally speaks, her voice is soft, but her eyes are hard.

“I'm not her.”

"Thank god for that." His stomach drops at the thought of her, hauled from hiding by her hair for rape and slaughter. He works up the courage to hold her eyes so she'll know he means what he says next.

"I, uh, don't want you to be her. I want you to be you.” He cringes a little when he says it; it sounds like a cliche, and he's sure that she's heard a lot of those in her life time. He wants to tell her that he knows hundreds, maybe thousands, of men have made her into their personal fantasies, and he doesn't know what that feels like, but he knows it's wrong. He wants her know that he will never, ever diminish her that way. It's just...he doesn't know how to say that yet, not in a way that she'll believe anyway. He hopes she'll give him time to figure out how.

They spend the rest of the night on the beach in silence. It's the most either of them can handle right now.
You are ever so much braver than me, you know? I don't think I could have written this as unflinchingly and full of reality as you have.

His father leans over to tuck the last of Amaia's red curls underneath the slippery pile of eels, and only then does Hikaru realize they were both talking about her as if she wasn't even there.

So I didn't read this last night, because I knew I would end up sobbing. Everyone's at school assembly, so I can cry.

"Thank you, little brother. But you mustn't suffer cold for me."

About here is where I started.

The thought of surrendering any of his hard-earned respect from the crew stings, but Amaia is worth it.
Oh, Hikaru. This is so HIM, his deep-seated, great-hearted chivalry.

"Anyway, this girl -- her name was Mu Lan -- was a very good daughter, and her dad was old and sick, so she said she'd dress up like a boy and fight in his place."

And he starts telling her the story of MuLan! Oh God, my heart.

He wants to tell her that he knows hundreds, maybe thousands, of men have made her into their personal fantasies, and he doesn't know what that feels like, but he knows it's wrong. He wants her know that he will never, ever diminish her that way. It's just...he doesn't know how to say that yet, not in a way that she'll believe anyway. He hopes she'll give him time to figure out how.

And this is what I mean about how brave you are. I think I would have made him more eloquent than he should've been, would've written in a hug, because I'm mushy like that and after reading this *I* need a hug. I like -- I *respect* -- your ending more.

This is an amazing story. And let me post this and go wash my face.

Thank you so much. Really, receiving such detailed and thorough (and kind!) feedback from an author I admire means more than I can say (especially since this story is kind of my baby and did not get very many comments). I am so glad that you found it moving.
after reading this *I* need a hug.

*HUG*

Thanks for reccing this story. IDK how I missed it the first time, but it's amazing and I'm glad I read it even though I'm kind of wibbly now.
Wow, this was beautiful. Very harsh, and very real. I love your characterisation of... everyone involved, really. Brilliantly written, very interesting read.
that was so hard to read but good also . . . kind of makes me want a hug
Omigod. An actual backstory for Sulu. And incredibly well done, too. I absolutely love that combination of being in on the secret and yet not understanding everything fully (which is the definition of childhood) that you manage to give Hikaru. And then Gaila being the one he opens up to. This is just a totally awesome story and fast becoming my personal canon for Sulu. :)
This story is absolutely amazing. The details and what isn't said but simply understood... This feels like canon backstory. Thanks for writing it!
Wow. That was really strong stuff. I also heart Sulu's Mulan story.
This really broke my heart, in a good way (that is, the well-written, hardcore way). The world needs more Orion fic.
Oh, wow. This is so vivid and painful and true. I love your backstory for Hikaru, and his relationship with his father, and Amaia being so quiet and strong and not having any illusions about being rescued. And Hikaru's guilt and how Gaila doesn't take it on herself to exonerate him. And that last couple of paragraphs... just perfect.

And Mu Lan! I loved how sort of clueless and sort of wonderful and so HIM Hikaru was, wanting to get to the part about chopping heads off.
Thank you so much. This story is very close to my heart, and kind and detailed feedback like yours means the world to me.
I couldn't really think of an eloquent way to say this, but I'm in a graduate program in world literature, and while I was reading this I kept forgetting that I wasn't reading it for a class, and like, thinking of things I wanted to say in discussion. :D I think that means you did something right!
I was reading this I kept forgetting that I wasn't reading it for a class, and like, thinking of things I wanted to say in discussion

I think this may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.
This is a beautiful, achy story that makes the universe bigger. It hurts like hell along the way, but sometimes that's necessary.
I loved this. It seems perfectly in-character for kid!Sulu. As painful and achy as this was, it is stories like this, ones that makes us think and grow, that I love the best.

You did fantastic job with a difficult subject. Just awesome.
Thank you! It especially means a lot that you thought kid!Sulu worked - that's something I was really worried about!
Wow, what a story! It took me a couple of reads to come up with an even halfway coherent comment. It's amazing how you wrote his backstory and what's implied of hers. I love that he tells her the story of Mulan. The ending is horrifying but sadly very realistic and far more fitting than the alternative. Thank you so much for sharing this.
And thank you so much for your beautiful comment! I'm so glad you found the fic worth a couple reads :)

I really, really wanted to let Amaia live, but the more I thought about it, the less I could believe it would really happen that way. I think that's why this fic took me a whole 5 months to finish - I just couldn't face what would have to happen at the end.

Thank you again for the comment - I worked long and hard on this story, and feedback like yours means the world.
This was absolutely heartbreaking!! Do you think you'll write any more with them?
I'm so glad you enjoyed it! My Gaila/Sulu bunnies are slow to come to fruition, but I think I will write more of them eventually.
Thank you so much! This story is pretty important to me, so it means a lot you found it affecting.
I feel all... wibbly inside. A good wibbly though. And I love "quiet" empathy of Gaila- it's a side not often explored, but done really well here. :)
Thank you so much! This story is pretty important to me, so it means a lot that you took the time to comment!
This is so amazing and heartbreaking! Oh, my poor heart! Little boy Sulu is so perfectly written-- I love him, so young and not-quite-innocent and sneaky and that strong sense of justice and chivalry that's so like the grown up Sulu we know. What a fascinating backstory. Amaia is wonderful and tragic. And I love Hikaru's father-- how he's purposely trying to distance himself and Hikaru from her, not out of some sense of not caring or dislike, but because it's safer for all of them. And when Hikaru told her the story of MuLan, especially when he changed it to make it more boy-like and action-filled, I wanted to cry.

The hints of something with Gaila are lovely too-- she's such a fascinating character and I love to see her in fic. This was really an amazing story. So emotionally gripping, while keeping a surprisingly and sort of refreshingly unemotional narration. Beautifully done.
Thank you so much for commenting, and for leaving such a thoughtful and detailed comment to boot! I'm not sure I've ever worked longer or harder on a story, and it means a lot to get feedback like yours.
I'd meant to read this weeks ago, but I kept forgetting for some reason. Then, last night, after rewatching ST, I had this desire for a good Sulu-centric story, and I remembered you'd written this.

*sigh* This is wonderful. Heartbreaking, gritty. I love your young Sulu - his compassion, his cleverness, and his guilt. I like that Gaila doesn't offer him absolution - she's not a stand-in for Amaia - but she seems to understand what he means, and that gives the ending a very hopeful note.
Thank you so much! I don't think I've ever worked harder on a story than I did on this one, and it means so much that you liked it. Thank you for coming back to read!