After three months of sharing shifts, meals, and work-outs, Sulu knows Kirk well enough to recognize that he's just said something stupid. Sulu's not exactly sure why a comment about Kirk chomping down on china if he's not careful should be taken as anything other than the lame crack it is - one he frequently got from his sisters as a scrawny, perpetually famished teenager - but he sees the flash of Kirk's discomfort during the two seconds' pause in conversation. While the captain's easy smile doesn't falter, the skin at the corners of his mouth seems to tighten and his gaze drops down to his empty plate.
Before Sulu can do more than clear his throat, McCoy's halfway out of his seat. "Watch your mouth, flyboy," he snaps, glaring across the table.
Sulu blinks, taken aback by the doctor's ire. While everyone knows McCoy's got a temper, he tends to save it for Kirk, Spock, or any patient dumb enough to defy his orders in sick bay (again, usually Kirk). He and Sulu have gotten along fine so far.
"Sorry," Sulu says, unsure if he should be addressing Kirk or McCoy and ending up kind of talking to the air.
"Don't worry about it, Hikaru." Kirk lays his napkin down and waves a hand in dismissal. That flash of - of something behind his affable expression is replaced by irritation when McCoy continues giving Sulu the hairy eyeball. "Bones, would you knock it off?"
McCoy's jaw clenches. "Jim," he says in a low voice, turning to Kirk and touching his arm, "if you'd just -"
"I said let it go," Kirk cuts in, his tone even but tinged with a hint of command. He hardly glances at McCoy as he gathers his tray, flashes a grin and a "See you on the bridge" at Sulu, and saunters out of the mess.
McCoy stares after him for a long moment, brow furrowed. Sulu shifts in his seat. He hasn't wanted to sink into the deck so badly since the whole thing with Pike and the inertial dampeners, and he doesn't even know why.
"I really didn't mean anything by it," he offers, hoping to avoid an unpleasant experience on the next round of crew physicals.
McCoy looks down at him, distracted, as if he's forgotten Sulu's there - though he doesn't neglect to shoot him one last dirty look as he follows in Kirk's wake, muttering under his breath.
Sulu doesn’t make heads or tails of their reactions for months, not until Chekov and a lieutenant from Stellar Cartography are captured during an away mission. When Kirk’s rescue team finally manages to recover them four weeks later, both young men are bruised, battered, and severely undernourished. While the fringe political group that had taken them hostage didn’t bother torturing them for information, they were denied food and water beyond the bare minimum required to keep them alive. McCoy says it could’ve been much worse, then orders them off-duty for a week and under direct observation for two days.
“I wish I did not have to stay here for so long,” Chekov says with a scowl, fingering the IV in his arm.
Sulu leans back in his chair, oddly comforted by Chekov’s bad temper. He’d looked so fragile when they’d brought him in, lashes fluttering against his sunken cheeks, lips pale and chapped. Personally Sulu thinks McCoy ought to confine him to sick bay until he’s gained back every bit of the weight he lost down on that planet. Maybe an extra kilo or two for good measure, even.
“It’s only a couple of days, Pavel. I’ll come see you when I’m not working.”
Chekov lets out a heavy sigh. He reaches up to tug at a curl - a nervous habit he’s had since childhood - and Sulu’s throat closes up at the faint tremor in his hand. “I know. I should not complain so much, when I think of how often the captain is stuck in a biobed.” His face brightens. “He’s visited me twice already, though I know it is difficult for him.”
Sulu glances up from examining the fine bones and veins in Chekov’s forearms. He’s always been fair-skinned, but a month trapped underground has rendered him nearly translucent. “What?”
Chekov cocks his head, giving Sulu a curious look. “You don’t know? Captain Kirk was on Tarsus IV, during the crop failures and - and the madness, after.”
Doing the math in his head, Sulu draws in a sharp breath. “But he was just a kid then.” He’s never studied the Tarsus disaster in depth, but he has a child’s vague memories of the newsvid reports - mass graves, weeping mothers, the emaciated faces and haunted eyes of the survivors.
“Yes,” Chekov replies softly. He fidgets with the blanket, looking regretful at having raised the topic. Sulu hopes Kirk didn‘t tell him this in strict confidence; he doubts it, as Chekov would never betray the captain‘s trust. “Kodos allowed him to live, but he was starved nearly to death when Federation forces arrived.”
Several pieces fall into the puzzle of Jim Kirk in Sulu’s mind. His cold fury when they’d found Chekov and Epps, weak and hungry; some of his bizarre medical quirks; the way he eats his meals rapidly and with absolute focus, as though someone is going to snatch the food away at any moment…
And he remembers the offhand comment he made all those weeks ago, how Kirk’s eyes had shuttered this old wound Sulu had known nothing about - but McCoy had. No wonder he had jumped all over Sulu. Even if no one realized the captain and the doctor were sleeping together back then (Uhura claims she figured it out first, but Sulu is pretty sure she‘s lying), McCoy’s devotion to Kirk was plain from the day he smuggled him aboard the Enterprise.
“No,” he murmurs, so low that Chekov has to lean forward to catch his words. “No, I didn’t know about that.”
Chekov must sense the guilt and shame running hot along his spine, for his voice turns loud with false cheer. “I am not so bad off, of course.” He looks hopefully up at Sulu, who shakes his head once to clear it, and tries to smile.
“Nope, Doc says you’ll be just fine.” He reaches out to tweak Chekov’s nose, though what he really wants to do is take his face in both hands and lean in to kiss him. He wants a million different things, most of them involving Chekov and a real bed and fervent promises to never let him out of his sight ever again - but if there’s ever been a time for such a confession, this is definitely not it. “But we’re gonna get you one of those little cat bells so you can’t go wandering off alone to be kidnapped.”
Chekov makes a face at him. They talk about their favorite Andorian drama series until Chapel comes to shoo Sulu away.
He’s on beta shift with Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and Chekov’s replacement Polly Danvers. She’s not a bad navigator, but she prefers to sit in silent contemplation of the console or her fingernails or whatever and Sulu is bored out of his skull within the hour. He divides his time between mentally organizing all the past month’s gossip so he can share it with Chekov, lamenting the fact that he’s fallen hopelessly in love with their eighteen-year-old navigator, and imagining what he could possibly say to the captain to apologize for inadvertently bringing up his painful past. Or maybe he’ll chicken out and just give Kirk a houseplant.
Deciding he needs a moment to get his bearings before going to see Chekov, he takes a detour past one of the observation decks. He might spend all day staring out at the stars, but he’s still comforted by the sight of them when he’s feeling out of sorts. There are relatively few vantage points throughout the ship - a fact for which he knows McCoy at least is grateful.
So he’s surprised to discover the doctor standing with his back to the window. Hearing Kirk’s voice is less of a shock. Sulu ducks back behind the bulkhead at the entrance of the small antechamber, unsure if McCoy has seen him.
“- supposed to be my responsibility,” Kirk is saying as he appears at the edge of Sulu‘s vision. He’s pacing in short, tight arcs, his posture radiating tension. McCoy simply watches him, head turning each time he pivots. “For fuck’s sake, Bones, they’re both just kids. I never should have taken them on that mission.”
“They’re Starfleet officers, not children, and you couldn’t have known what would happen.” McCoy reaches out to snag Kirk’s sleeve. “Hey. Hey,” he says, gently but firmly, when the captain won’t look at him. Curving his fingers along Kirk‘s set jaw, he leans forward until their foreheads are touching. Kirk wraps his hand around McCoy’s wrist, and that’s when Sulu sees that he’s shaking. It’s also when he realizes just how intimate a moment he has stumbled upon.
Kirk speaks again, his voice too quiet to hear; whatever he says makes McCoy shake his head.
“It’s not your fault, Jim.” His expression weary and yet infinitely patient, McCoy pulls Kirk close. “It was never your fault.”
Kirk tucks his arms up against McCoy’s chest, hands curling into fists under his chin. Pressing his lips to the captain’s brow, he murmurs something softly. His eyes meet Sulu’s over Kirk’s head as easily as if he‘d been searching for the wayward gaze. Sulu can’t read anything in them because he immediately turns and retreats down the hallway.
In sick bay Chekov is stretched out on his sterile white bed; Sulu thinks he’s asleep until he turns his head. He stares blankly for a moment, his eyes the green of aged copper. Then he realizes it’s Sulu pulling aside the privacy screen and his face stretches into a tired smile.
When he can remember how to move, Sulu sits. When he can remember to breathe and then to talk, he says, “Hi.”
“Hikaru,” Chekov says, propping himself up on his elbow and ignoring the warning beep from over his shoulder. “I wanted to ask, you will train with me when Doctor McCoy has released me?” He leans back against the pillows with a sigh. “I hate this feeling weak. What is the expression - like baby cat?” His language always slips when he’s worn out (to the benign, eternal befuddlement of the ship’s computer).
“A newborn kitten,” Sulu supplies. His voice echoes strangely in his own ears, too rough for what he’s feeling.
“Da, kitten. Perhaps I will need a bell after all.” It’s not a particularly funny joke, nor does Chekov deliver it as such - but Sulu laughs nonetheless. He scoots closer to the bed and reaches out.
Chekov looks puzzled but pleased when Sulu takes his hand, strokes his thumb over the long fingers that have helped him trace a path across the stars. It seems as if it’s been so much longer than eight months - like they’ve been doing this their whole lives. Sulu doesn’t think he ever wants to be anywhere but the bridge of the Enterprise, at Chekov’s side.
“I’ll look after you, Pasha.” It’s the first time he’s said that name aloud; he looked it up ages ago after overhearing a conversation between Chekov and Uhura in his native Russian. Chekov’s face flushes and his lips part slightly just like Sulu has imagined. A single gasp brushes warmth over Sulu’s cheek as he bends to kiss the hollow of Chekov’s palm.
He’s still clutching a slender hand when he jerks out of a doze two hours later - not from the stiff neck or the numb arm, but from the weight of a blanket settling over his shoulders.
“Thanks, man,” he manages to get out in the company of a yawn.
McCoy nods, glances over Chekov’s vitals, and pulls the screen more closely around them.