It was Kirk's mother who taught him how to play chess, in the image of his father. Winona had instructed him in the distinct way each piece moved: holding up the roughly-carved king in the fading light and telling him it could never be taken; explaining a castling manoeuvre and how a pawn could become a queen. Every time Jim plays, the chequered board reminds him of his mother's sad eyes.
But it was Pike who'd taught Kirk how to win.
They'd been complicated lumps of wood, until the then-Captain had said: "Think of them as people, son." (After Kirk had lost his fifth consecutive match.) "Think of them as a crew, with you as the captain."
Their games had had even less frequency than the ones of his childhood. Pike was a busy man, too busy for favouritism, but sometimes when he wasn't out on a mission and Kirk had no girl or assignment or club duties, they'd meet and play.
"Haven't gotten yourself in too much trouble lately, I hope," he'd say, pouring them both a soda.
Kirk would just smile his shit-eating grin, add whiskey to his glass from the hip flask he'd stolen from McCoy. "Not too much, Captain."
Pike canted his head and his eyes were knowing and world-weary, creasing in the corners. "I hear you're taking the Kobayashi Maru again."
"Oh you know me," Kirk said, waving a hand lazily as if to dismiss all this surrogate-father bullshit. "Never say die."
(He kinda enjoys the old Bond films; Bones had lent him a couple and regretted it near instantly when he had to put up with hearing Kirk, James Kirk every time he played wingman: "Goddamnit, Jim, you're a student, not a secret agent.")
Kirk relies heavily on his knights; he likes them the best, the way they seem to move in defiance of the rules, acting on their own strange patterns. Think of them as people, Pike had said, but people could never be chess pieces; they're too complex, too driven, too free.
"So why'd you come back?" he'd asked Spock abruptly. They were alone for the first time since the Enterprise's launch, doing data entry and debriefing on the successful start to the flight in one of the rooms off the bridge, the kinda thing you delegate every other time except the first.
Spock had glanced up from his work, eyebrows raised slightly. "Pardon?"
"Oh please, you know what I'm talking about. You resigned from Starfleet!" Kirk's stylus skittered along the datapad with too-firm taps. "What made you change your mind? Was it Uhura? Because I could totally understand that. If I thought you'd get the concept without a half an hour explanation, I'd be giving you major props."
"I understand, and … appreciate, the sentiment." The screens had shown Spock's pallid face, expression unreadable in their dull reflection. "But it was not Nyota for whom I returned."
This had made Jim turn a little more to the left, barely pausing to take this in before he tilted his head and batted his eyelashes, lips pursing into a parody of a pout: "Was it me? Face it, you can't resist my charms."
Spock stiffened almost imperceptibly, the tips of his ears colouring with the slightest tinge of green. "No," he said, but without malice. His tone was considering. "No, Captain, I believe it was for myself."
"Really? Didn't know you knew how to be selfish, Spock," crowed Jim, bumping their shoulders together familiarly.
Spock's shoulders moved minutely in what could have been a shrug. "I was the first Vulcan ever to turn down acceptance into the Academy of Science," said Spock, which seemed like a hell of a non sequitur.
Kirk didn't really know what the significance of that was, and he wasn't really in the mindset for a big David Copperfield narrative, so he just said "Oh;" nodded sympathetically and said "Huh;" punched in some codes and changed the subject: "Hey, do you play chess?"
A pause while Spock recollected himself. "I occasionally enjoy the challenge of a game."
"Ever play with Pike?"
"Admiral Pike and I rarely had time to indulge in frivolities…" Spock turned to him with an amused eyebrow raise. "However, I believe once or twice during our friendship we were given to such diversions."
"Sweet." Kirk stretched out his arms before him, flexed his fingers to crack his knuckles, which made Spock wince. "If you can track me down a board in this madhouse, it's game on."
When he was eight, Kirk had jumped off the roof of the barn for a triple dog dare, and fractured his tibia. "I wanted to see if I could fly," was the lie he told, and his mother had pressed her lips together, the look in her eye the same one that appeared around Jim's birthday, and the cant of her posture reminiscent of the way she'd sit out late on the veranda and name constellations with half-drunk melancholy. It had been high summer, and his flexicast had felt heavy and itchy, sticking to his skin. Josie Taylor, daughter of the town doctor, had kissed him on the lips for being brave, and her long brown hair had smelt fresh and clean, like newly mown grass. The kiss and the fall had felt the same, so that now memory tangled them together in his mind.
Now Kirk stares hard at the board, the close-shaved stubble of his chin rough against his palm. He can't out-strategize a Vulcan. The best way to beat Spock is to be illogical, to act on instinct. He pushes a pawn lazily, watches the way Spock's brow twitches as though it might furrow with confusion.
"That is not a strong move."
"Isn't it?" Kirk leans back in his chair, puts his hands behind his head and tilts his chin forward. "That's lucky for you, then, right?"
"Luck is not the word I would choose," Spock replies, and his penetrating focus seems torn between their game and the mystery that is Captain James Tiberius Kirk.
Kirk believes in luck, even if he knows you can't trust in it. It's just another weapon in his arsenal as he takes the world head-on.
Certainly he believes in getting lucky. Kirk loves the way sex means he can feel his own heartbeat, the same way he can during parachuting practice. The day of his first atmospheric entry simulation leaves him giddy and adrenalized, the volume of the world turned up high so that he notices things like the distinct sparkles of dust in sunlight and the crunch of fall leaves under his feet.
That night he goes out alone to a smoky jazz bar with Beat poet memorabilia on the walls and picks up a civilian with dark hair and a filthy sense of humour. She makes him fuck her in his Starfleet uniform in the cramped hallway of her apartment building, her long legs braced against one wall, her back against the other, and Kirk in the middle, the wind rushing past his ears.
Spock slides his queen from one side of the board to the other and takes a bishop.
"Huh," Kirk says.
Chekhov plays too, but he's predictable; at first he thrashes Kirk, but after a few games a complicated, overarching pattern begins to emerge and then the tables are permanently turned. Sulu knows a lot of six-move tricks and not much else. Scotty says he prefers cards. Uhura turns him down altogether, but that's not really a new thing.
Kirk moves his king somewhere tactically unsound. Spock lost the last game, so he's gonna assume this is a clumsy attempt to bait his pride and his desire to finish this quickly, and more importantly, he's gonna ignore it. The Vulcan taps a finger thoughtfully against his lips, glances between the move and his face from under his eyelashes, and Kirk's breath hitches.
"Y'know, it's funny," Kirk says, in a way that means it's probably not funny at all, and his voice has an undercurrent of seriousness. "But I never really picked Vulcans as the type to play games."
Spock looks up in what for him, passes for startlement. "Our society understands the need for relaxation, best achieved at a young age through interspersing regulated times for play throughout the working period."
A smirk hitches up the corner of Kirk's mouth. He twirls a captured pawn between his fingers. "You and fun aren't exactly the best of buddies, are you?"
"I disagree. Fun and I have had a long and fruitful acquaintanceship, and I would consider us lately closer than ever."
Kirk gives a huff of amusement. Spock trying to tell jokes is generally funnier than the jokes themselves, but shit he enjoys it. The man's lips haven't even twitched. Badass. "Rhetorical," he clarifies, watching Spock reach for his castle — ignoring Kirk's too-obvious gambit, just as predicted. "Anyway, I wasn't talking about chess."
Spock knocks over his piece.
"I do not believe I understand," he says when it's righted.
"Don't give me that bullshit, you've been dancing around me since you walked onto my bridge and offered character references." Kirk's eyes are bright with something that isn't anger, and it makes the blue swimmingly vivid. "Maybe before that."
The secret to chess isn't the infinite permutations of the moves the rules allow for, the logical set up. It's reading the person who's pushing those pieces around. The part of his brain that understands members of his crew individually so that he can amalgamate their skills into one well-oiled machine, that's what he taps into to win. The day he figured it out he'd knocked on the door to Pike's office, and the man couldn't have looked prouder for losing.
It's also helped him work out what all those emphatic Vulcan silences mean. Kirk has a secret key to the alien way Spock's mind works, thanks to that unlikely mind-meld on Delta Vega. One that had taken for granted the belief Kirk would offer something his alternate universe self would probably have allowed without a second thought. The why of that last fact is a question Jim is finally beginning to be able to answer, everything clicking into place like his two-bit trap closing around Spock's king as he moves his piece.
Sometimes Jim wakes up in the night from dreams of being freezing and heartbroken, desperately alone as he watches his planet die.
So he gets it, he understands the flare of emotion in Spock's expressive eyes, the internal struggle to suppress his vulnerability. "Perhaps," Spock allows cautiously.
There's silence for a moment as they concentrate on the game, and Kirk gives him time to collect himself. It's only two more turns before Spock places his hands palms-down on the edge of the table, scans the board and bows his head slightly. "I'm afraid I am in a rather untenable position." It's a flick of his finger to topple the king, that piece which could never be taken. His lips quirk slightly at the edges with layers of meaning. "I forfeit."
Kirk huffs out a laugh: "It's about time." The win thrums through his veins as he pushes the board carelessly aside, reaching across the table. The pieces tinkle across the floor. Spock parts his lips in shock or protest, and that's all the opening Kirk needs. Then it's just the inhuman warmth of Spock's mouth on his. Spock plants a hand on the table to steady them both, and Jim's still laughing quietly into their kiss, riding out the adrenaline rush, stomach lurching like he's falling.