They all get really good at ping-pong. It's an odd choice, all things considered, but Kirk's heard of stranger ways that crews vie for attention and favor.
It doesn't happen right away. At first, they're kept far too busy for that type of idleness. Kirk knows they're being tested -- handed what the Imperial brass thinks are impossible missions -- exploration of supposedly lifeless planets that turn out to have nasty indigenous life forms; "negotiations" for mineral rights that end up requiring full-scale planetary population eradication (and the paperwork on that is a bitch); rescue and subsequent babysitting of some Admiral's daughter who'd let her pleasure craft get too close to the neutral zone before she got drunk and crashed it into an asteroid. She'd been a real handful, too -- Kirk was glad to have her off his ship before she castrated any more male crew members stupid enough to hit on her. She'd been wickedly fast with that dagger, and he'd gotten tired of hearing Bones bitch about reattaching the dicks of morons who shouldn't be in the gene pool anyway.
Now, though, it's smooth sailing -- at least for the moment. They're on a boring run to some back-of-beyond Imperial colony to crush a nascent revolt. What's important is that they're four weeks out from that colony, and so now is the perfect opportunity for his fledgling crew to start jockeying for position.
Oh, of course there are mountains of paperwork to be done, too, but that's what underlings are for. Well, underlings and Spock -- Spock actually seems to enjoy that shit, so Kirk's happy to let him do as much as he wants. He checks it all over before it's submitted to the Empire, of course -- he might be the youngest captain in 'Fleet history but he's not naive. Trust nobody -- that's the motto that got him here. Well, okay, he trusts one person -- mostly. But Spock is not that person. They've only been serving together a few short months, after all, and Jim sure as shit hasn't forgotten the way that Spock tried to get him disgraced for his creative solution to the Kobayashi Maru. He doesn't know if Spock's carrying a grudge over the fact that his gambit didn't work, overshadowed as it was by Kirk saving the entire fucking Empire. Too bad about Vulcan, but then, you have to break a few eggs, right? And it got Kirk his command, so really, he isn't in a position to complain about how things had gone down.
Anyway, the ping-pong thing starts about ten days in. Kirk's gotten through all his reports, even that one clusterfuck on Gamma Vega with the ice bats (Mating Habits of Chiroptera Glacialis, which he was so tempted to subtitle Killing Horny Motherfucking Ice Bats for Fun and Profit). The senior officers have been straggling into the rec room more and more often, tiring of the limited entertainment options in their own quarters, and knowing that it's crucial to get in some face time during off-duty hours, to see and be seen. No one enjoys it, but the point of downtime isn't relaxation, after all. It's survival. Maybe, if one is lucky or skilled, advancement.
As for Kirk, well, he's got to keep an eye on these, his most dangerous crew members. They're the ones who'll be spinning plots against him, who will be angling for his job. Plus, he's got a few of his own plots in mind and he'll need people to recruit into his conspiracies -- it's important to have someone to take the fall if something goes wrong, after all.
It's Chekov who starts it. The ping-pong, not the plotting, although Kirk wouldn't be surprised if he's up to no good. No one could be as innocent as Chekov looks and make navigator on the Empire's flagship at seventeen years old. Anyway, Chekov is the one who drags the dusty old ping pong table out of some storage room somewhere, pushes it up against a wall, and starts practicing. While he shows off his moves, he treats them all to a dubiously-factual lecture on how ping-pong was invented in Russia. That "everything was inwented in Russia" shtick is really a pretty clever double-blind. It's a natural part of Chekov's innocent little lamb routine for those stupid enough to buy that bullshit in the first place. And for those, like Kirk, who know it's an act, it comes across like a clumsy act, once again misleading the observer into underestimating him. Kirk's got to admire that -- the kid's got real potential. Still, it gets annoying sometimes.
Apparently Uhura agrees. Maybe she's sick of the kid's ridiculous accent, because with her xenolinguistics training she's got to know it's phony, or maybe she just sees an opportunity to score points -- metaphorically, as well as literally -- but she marches up to the table, grabs the spare paddle, and proceeds to whip Chekov's ass in five minutes flat. The ass-whipping is also metaphorical rather than literal, sadly.
Jim enjoys watching the match anyway, though if he's honest with himself -- which he generally is, even if he's not honest with anyone else -- really he's watching the flex of Uhura's abdominal muscles. The woman has got some impressive abs. He makes a mental note to up the number of sit-ups and crunches in his daily workout. He sees that Spock is watching him watching Uhura, and holds up his hands in a gesture of mock-surrender. He's well aware of the history there, and even though the two are no longer together, there's no point -- at least not right now -- in riling his first officer by making a play for his ex-girlfriend.
He might rather make a play for Spock himself, actually. Could be interesting to see what's behind that icy Vulcan facade. Besides, he's a good-looking bastard, and somehow that little goatee, which should look stupid, only makes him more attractive. That's for later, though, when he's more sure of whether Spock's actively plotting against him. Not that he won't fuck Spock if he is, but he'll approach the assignation slightly differently if so. Kirk idly considers and discards several seduction scenarios as he watches the match.
After Uhura easily defeats Chekov in a best three of five, Sulu steps up to try. He's much better than Chekov, and gives Uhura a serious run for her money before she manages to defeat him during their fifth match with a wicked backspin that causes Sulu to misjudge his return shot.
Then Scotty suggests making things interesting. More and more of the bridge crew and other senior officers get involved as bets of booze, shift-changes, and sexual favors are exchanged. Kirk grins. Thank fuck he doesn't have to lower himself to anything as petty as betting on a game of ping-pong to get any of those things. Speaking of which, he could use a blow job right about now, and there's that ensign who said he'd do anything Kirk wanted if he could go on the next away mission. Kirk comms him and tells him to be at his quarters in five, then says goodnight to the crew in the rec room. Let 'em continue their games without supervision for a while.
The ensign has a particularly talented mouth, which makes it a shame when he gets himself killed on that away mission he'd been so eager to join. The empire has no place for fools who can't get out of the way of a rampaging rock-beast, though, Kirk thinks philosophically.
Watching his officers vie for his approval via ping-pong isn't quite as nice as fucking a hot, wet mouth, but it's not without entertainment value. Bones joins him most evenings, sitting on the couch next to him and making derisive comments about all of the players. The competitors, in turn, pretend with varying degrees of success not to hear him. There's absolutely no percentage in calling Bones on his insults -- in fact, on this crew, it's just about the best way to end up dead or permanently maimed, short of wearing a red shirt on an away mission. Everyone's got to see the doctor sooner or later, after all, and Bones has been known to be... inventive with the contents of his hyposprays.
They share a flask, Kirk sipping rather than gulping because it wouldn't do to lose an ounce of control in front of these sharks. Bones doesn't play; he knows he'd be shit at ping-pong, and anyway his position as Kirk's CMO is assured, as is his safety as long as Kirk's got breath in his body. In turn, Kirk knows he never has to worry about his own safety when he's unconscious under Bones' laser scalpel. It's rare in the Empire for two people to trust each other the way they do, but Kirk knows that it's crucial to long-term survival and advancement in the Empire to have at least one person who's got your back and, just as importantly, who has skills that make them worth keeping around. Bones fits the bill nicely. As a bonus, Bones hates Spock with a deep and abiding passion, so there's no chance those two would team up to get rid of him. The loathing is quite mutual, and he subtly encourages their rivalry every chance he gets. He trusts Bones more than he trusts anyone, but there's no point in inviting trouble, after all. And if he can keep Spock's disapproval focused on Bones rather than himself, well, that's even better.
Speaking of Spock, he's turned out to be quite the ping-pong player. His reflexes and dexterity are superior to the human crew members', and he uses his razor-sharp intelligence to predict and counter his opponents' moves. He doesn't play that much, no more than a few matches a day, but clearly, he's the one to beat.
Kirk has refrained from playing, for several reasons. Mixing it up with his crewmembers won't do -- he's got to seem above them, a bit removed and intimidating. Playing ping-pong does not give one an aura of menace. Second, any sign of weakness, even at something as inconsequential as ping-pong, will be extrapolated by his crew into something larger and more meaningful. If he loses even one match, the news will race through the ship faster than the riot suppression nerve gas that he's only had to use once. (That's a record, actually -- most captains have to use the gas at least half a dozen times their first year in the black.) And finally -- well, it's nice, for once, not to have to be at the absolute peak of his game, not to be the focus of attention. He can actually kick back, have a drink with Bones, and just enjoy watching something, not worry about how his own performance is being judged by those around him.
He knows it's not going to last forever, though, and it's Uhura who finally brings it to a head. This ping-pong shit has shown him a lot about his crew that they probably don't even know they've revealed. Uhura, for example, is really fucking ambitious. She wants to be captain, and she wants it bad. Her current ploy seems to be to pit him and Spock against each other, watch the carnage, and then step into the power vacuum created when the dust settles. Kirk grins a little to himself. No way in hell he'll go down that easily. She's going to be an exceptional -- and really fucking scary -- captain someday, but not on his ship.
Anyway, Uhura shoots herself in the foot this time, because her plan doesn't exactly work out as intended. She steps up to the table to face Spock and says, just loudly enough to carry throughout the rec room, "Winner challenges the captain, agreed?"
Instantly, there's silence. Everyone's been wondering if Kirk would ever play, and now Uhura's named the elephant in the room. Spock raises one eyebrow, looking at Kirk. Kirk smiles lazily, and motions with his hand for the two of them to get on with it, tacitly accepting the challenge. As if he could have afforded to turn it down. Turning down a challenge is a bigger sign of weakness than losing one.
Uhura's good at this, and she's improved over the last couple weeks, but Spock's better. He defeats her handily, and she barely hides her smirk as she steps back from the table. Her setup is complete.
Kirk feels a thrill of trepidation and eagerness as he gets up from his spot on the sofa, the adrenaline singing through his veins. He's been practicing in his quarters just about every evening, knowing this moment was coming. He felt ridiculous doing it, but whatever it takes to keep command of his ship, he'll do it. He's confident of his ability to beat anyone on his crew -- except for Spock.
They square off across the table, for a moment just looking at each other. Everyone in the room is watching, unabashedly staring at the captain and first officer. The senior crew is well aware of the tension between the two -- the history there, including accusations of cheating at the Academy, the vicious fight on the bridge, mutiny and all the rest of it. Kirk and Spock have settled into an uneasy detente, but Kirk knows that it can't last, and so does everyone else in this room.
Spock serves first. They rally, paddles moving almost too rapidly to be followed. They don't watch the ball -- they watch each other's eyes and bodies, looking for minute tells as to where the next shot will be placed. Neither of them is playing his best game yet -- they're both holding back, figuratively circling the ring, testing each other.
Soon, though, it's deadly earnest. It should be absurd, concentrating so intently on a fucking ping-pong match, but it's not. The stakes are too high for this to be even remotely funny.
Spock wins the first match, but it's close, harder-fought than any of his previous games. They're both sweating now -- well, okay, it's mostly Kirk, but he's pretty sure he can see a slight gleam on Spock's forehead. Kirk takes the second match on a lucky shot that skims the net and barely dribbles over. He hadn't planned that, but he's not about to admit it, and so he grins cockily, watching Spock's nostrils flare in suppressed irritation. Half of his success as captain is rolling with the punches, taking whatever happens and making it look like that's what he intended all along. It's a survival skill that he's elevated to an art form.
The third match starts and he falls behind. Spock's starting to figure out his style of play and is able to compensate for it, better than Kirk can compensate for Spock's superior speed and control. Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk sees that Bones is looking nervous. The man couldn't hide his feelings to save his life, and one day it might come down to that. Of course, Bones pretty much lives or dies with Kirk, so he's not out of line in being highly invested in the outcome of this match.
He never comes back from behind in the third match, but plays ferociously during the fourth, catching Spock off guard with his sheer intensity, and he wins it. They're tied at two apiece; everything will be decided by the final match.
The thing is, Kirk knows that if Spock wins, he'll be just as fucked as Kirk. Spock's a great second-in-command, but he wouldn't last a month as captain. He's too rigid, lacks Kirk's intuitive understanding of people and how to manipulate them, how to compel the loyalty of a crew while making them think they'd actually given you that loyalty voluntarily.
The two of them together, though -- well, they could take on the galaxy and win. Maybe even rule the Empire one day. Uhura's not the only one with ambition, and Kirk's got his sights set higher than just Captain of the Empire's flagship. With Spock at his side and Bones at his back, he's pretty sure they could tear the universe apart and remake it in their image. But not if he loses this fucking pissant game of ping-pong.
The thoughts race through his head and then his mouth is open almost before he processes the idea he's just had. "Mr. Spock. That paddle seems to be serving you well. Why don't we trade for this last match?"
If it was silent before, now that silence is electric. He's just oh-so-delicately implied that Spock's been cheating. In the silence, Spock's swift inhalation of breath is telling. His first officer is pissed.
"Captain, I assure you that the paddles are both regulation and are, for all intents and purposes, identical."
"Well then, it won't matter if we switch. Humor me." This last sentence is delivered with a hint of the steeliness that he keeps in reserve for moments like this. His tone says don't fuck with me right now.
Spock stares at him for a long moment, then nods stiffly. They step out from beside their respective sides of the table, walk towards each other. Spock puts his paddle down on the table, expecting Kirk to do the same so they can pick each other's up, but Kirk ignores this cue, stepping forward to press his paddle directly into Spock's hand. He holds Spock's wrist with his other hand as he does so, and in that moment he thinks as hard as he can at Spock. He shows him his plans for the future, how it could be if they formed an alliance. He shows him his honest evaluation of how it would go if Spock challenged Kirk for leadership -- how with Spock's strength and intelligence, he might win in the short term, but how he'd never command the devotion of this crew the way Kirk does.
Kirk shows him everything, all his ideas and plans, opening himself up in a way that he never has before. His heart's racing and his nerves are electrified as if he's just spent an hour in the agony booth. It's a huge fucking risk he's taking, but then, that's the only way to get the big rewards. Kirk's never shied away from the cliff's edge in his life, and he doesn't intend to start now. He's not even sure if Spock's getting all of what he's trying to tell him, but judging by the slight widening of his eyes, he's at least getting something.
Kirk can't afford to drag this out too long. He's already committed a nearly unthinkable breach of etiquette by pushing into Spock's personal space and touching him -- a touch telepath, no less -- without warning. If he were anyone other than the captain, the crew would be expecting a bloody fight as a result.
So he steps back, leaving his paddle in Spock's hand and picking up Spock's paddle in turn, and moves back to his side of the table. Spock returns to his own side and by the time he faces Kirk, his face is completely blank. Kirk's got no idea what he's decided, or even if he's decided. Only one way to find out.
He serves. Spock returns. They parry, volleying back and forth fiercely. Spock takes the point. Kirk takes the next. And so it goes until they're tied at ten points apiece.
It all comes down to this, then. He serves, practically lightheaded with the exhilaration and fear and vibrancy of this moment. This is the shit he lives for. Spock returns the serve, a creampuff of a shot that lands right in the center of the table. Kirk narrows his eyes, judges the angle and the spin to put on the ball, and then smacks it back over the net with a satisfying bink! He watches Spock and -- there, just there, he sees Spock deliberately over-rotate his wrist, sending his return shot flying wild.
The crew erupts into near-mayhem, shouting congratulations to their captain, settling their side wagers, and beginning the "did you see..." exchange that will weave into ship's lore the story of how this game went down.
Kirk and Spock, though, are still and silent, merely watching each other. Kirk allows a smile to cross his face, and it's not his usual cocky, shit-eating grin. Spock acknowledges it with the barest arch of one elegant brow. Kirk's smile widens. Fuck, the universe isn't going to know what hit it.
Kirk steps back from the table and closes his eyes, and just for a second, he feels like he's dreaming. Like he'll wake up hung over, beat up, and fucked out on a stained mattress in an abandoned warehouse in Riverside any minute. But he's not going to. So he flops onto the couch and aims a patented James T. Kirk smirk at a silently fuming Uhura, and elbows Bones for a slug of whatever he's drinking. And he knows he'll be bored tomorrow, and before long he'll be publicly torturing the leaders of some idiotic revolt on some planet at the ass-end of whatever system, as an example to all the other dumbfuck would-be revolutionaries on other planets at the ass-end of whatever-other systems, because that's what they're up here for. But right now -- Jim fucking loves right now.