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He was young for an Academy instructor, but in those days he was older than his years anyway. He told himself he was taking responsibility, but in reality, "responsibility" was code for filling time and keeping to himself.

Gary Mitchell was making that difficult.

"See ya, Jim."

"Mitchell," Jim said warningly.

"Gary," Mitchell returned in the same tone.

"Lieutenant Kirk," Jim corrected, gathering up his data tapes and a few old-fashioned books and ignoring the grin the kid tossed his way, like it meant nothing, like a good grade was to be had for the price of a smile.

Jim hoped it was a grade Mitchell was grubbing for.

There was something about him, though, something easy and uncomplicated about his cockiness that Jim recognized with a nostalgia that sat oddly on his youthful features. Mitchell wasn't more than 2 or 3 years his junior, but he made Jim feel old. He was immature, sure, but in that precocious, intelligent way that made you forget sometimes that his little jokes weren't always appropriate and his papers never fully addressed the topic but wound their way around the semantics of the assignment--despite Jim's conviction that Mitchell was fully capable of understanding the material.

Which was probably why he let it go.

It wasn't that he resented Mitchell, or anyone really, for being a kid. It was just that at 13 he'd found himself suddenly grown up, only no one seemed to recognize it but him. On the contrary, everyone had treated him like a baby until he'd more or less fled to early admission at the Academy. It took him until age 20, and Gary Mitchell, to realize he wasn't grown up at all.

Despite his relative isolation, he got attention. He didn't always like it. Didn't like it, particularly, from older men. He wasn't attracted to men, and tended to go for smart, personable blondes. The sort who sought him out anyway, were attracted to his mix of studiousness and what he didn't understand yet were stunning good looks. His boyish awkwardness was melting away under the Starfleet regimen and a native confidence--something he was, similarly, unaware of--was beginning to reassert itself.

He'd had several girlfriends, and he'd been good to them but a little distant and demanding by turns, never knowing why it fizzled out. He had sex with them because it was expected and because he was a considerate lover and because, despite everything else, he was a teenage boy.

But he wasn't really having fun.

"Are you having any fun?" Gary asked one night, bending over Jim's shoulder as he scanned a file, correcting a paper. Gary had announced shortly after the spring semester had started that since Jim "Lieutenant" Kirk was no longer his instructor, even he could find no ethical objection to their friendship. He hadn't asked if Jim wanted to be friends, and Jim hadn't corrected him. He liked being Gary's friend. He didn't like it when Gary invaded his personal space, as he did now, but he refused to analyze that. Just edged away. He thought Gary hadn't noticed. "I mean, I go through all the trouble of setting you up with Susan, she's picking out china patterns, and next thing I know she's seeing Sullivan and making sheep's eyes at you at the same time. What gives?"

"It just didn't work out. Gary, I'm working. Why are you even here?"

"I have no idea," Gary said, sitting on the desk and directly in Jim's way. "I don't know why I waste my time with you. You're no fun."

Jim couldn't exactly comprehend why Gary would waste his time with him either. Gary was popular, handsome, smart, up for anything--he confused Jim, and again the locus for that confusion escaped him. But then again... Gary was fun. And somehow, he'd decided to bring Jim along. Jim enjoyed his company far more than he ever had Susan's, or Anita's, or Valerie's. Though he wasn't aware of it, he smiled more, laughed more, and consequently attracted more attention.

Like Ruth's.

Ruth was older, but Jim took to her right away. She was like Gary, in a way. Always something to do, somewhere to go, even if it was a night in. Everything an event. Everything was special. It was Ruth who taught him that while love was serious business, sex didn't have to be. And none of it had a formula.

"You like him, don't you?" she said one night.

The question surprised him. "Sure, I like Gary. He's my friend." The three of them, it turned out, got on quite well, and had been spending a lot of time together. There were whispers about them among his classmates, but it was more envy than anything else and anyway, Jim thought, they had no idea what they were talking about. The three of them... just got each other. It wasn't about sex.

Ruth shook her head, her blond hair sliding across the pillow. "No, I mean... Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I probably shouldn't say anything. But sometimes I'm not sure why you're not dating him."

Jim leaned up on one elbow, looking down into her face. "Because I like girls?" he said, as if the answer were so obvious it hurt. "Specifically and most emphatically, you."

"Yes, sweet Jim," she said, smiling softly. "You love girls, and you're very good at it. But the two things aren't mutually exclusive, you know."

His expression darkened. "They are for me," he said.

Now a tiny line appeared between her brows. He liked that line, because usually it meant she was thinking. He didn't now. "But the way you look at each other--"

"I don't look at Gary that way," he said, more harshly than he'd intended. He sat up and rolled over to sit on the edge of the bed in her apartment. She waited, maybe to see if he was going to get up.

"Jim." Her voice behind him was soft. "Jim, I'm sorry. What happened to you?"

He shook his head mutely.

"You don't have to tell me," she said. "But whatever it was, it wasn't your fault. And... I was half-joking about Gary, but not about this: even if you don't feel that way, for him or anyone, whatever happened to you doesn't have anything to do with... men or women. It wasn't Gary, any more than it was me. Now come lie down, that's the last I'll say about it."

Eventually he did sleep, but that night the dreams came back and for the first time he found himself roused from one by a cool hand pressed to his forehead, Ruth's calm, sensible voice drawing him from the shadows of memory. He told her then, as he had never told anyone, and to his immense relief she didn't express pity but quiet anger. And then, understanding.

"Jim," she said, the bedside lamp encircling them in their own private haven, "what happened to you had nothing to do with sexuality, yours or theirs. I've often wondered about you. Small things, but they made me sad. Don't allow this to define you. You survived. You served the greater good. What more could anyone ask of a kid?"

"You think the fact I don't want Gary Mitchell means I'm letting it 'define' me?" he asked with uncharacteristic harshness.

"No, Jim, no. The fact you bring it up is interesting, but I meant in the larger context. You. Who you are, how you present yourself. There's a Jim Kirk who comes out in this bed, in front of class, in conversaton with Gary. In flashes. Let him out, Jim. I think you'll like him. As long as you remember that what happened to you doesn't need to have anything to do with what you are now aside from give you faith that you can come through. You survived, Jim. Let yourself live."

He'd dismissed her speech as preachy and irrelevant, but in the days that followed found himself coming back to it in his mind. There were times, he realized slowly, that he was holding back. Now that Ruth mentioned it, he recognized what she was talking about. The next time they made love, he remembered what it had been like with other girls, and the next time he saw Gary he felt... awkward. In a way he hadn't before. He wondered how he was looking at him, which only made him look stranger, and it finally made Gary suspicious.

"Jim, what's the deal?" he asked finally. They were sitting in a bar, one of Gary's favorites because things happened there and they let Gary drink. "Everything okay with Ruth?"

"Yeah, yeah, fine," Jim said dismissively. "Ruth's great." What if she was right? he wondered. What if he did want something else, and he was letting something in his past, something he had no control over, alter the course of his life? His very personality? It sounded ludicrous, but there was something in it he had trouble ignoring. Despite the fact that he was happy with Ruth, and didn't want that to change. Didn't want to believe that there was some part of him dissatisfied with the life he'd been dilligently shaping for himself. To believe that he was capable of fooling himself. Because what she was talking about wasn't really about sex--it was about what knew of himself, and what he allowed himself to know.

In the end, it wasn't possible for him to ignore the doubts. Even if it changed everything.

"I like Ruth," Gary said, not for the first time. But this time, he sounded like he had more to say.

"I like her too, Gary."

"No, Jim. You love her." Gary was a little drunk, and he sometimes became insistent in such a state. Jim usually thought it was sort of endearing.

"All right," Jim said, smiling softly. "Maybe I do."

"An' what have we here?" said a swaggering voice from the bar, and Jim and Gary both looked up with annoyance on Gary's part and dismay on Jim's. Finnegan had graduated, and should be gone, but naturally shore leave occurred and sometimes it occurred in the vicinity of Earth. He should have figured this for a place Finnegan would frequent. The man came over, resting his palms on their table. "Lieutenant James T. Kirk. And his little pet, what was it? Marshall? Looks like you're following in the grand tradition of turnabout bein' fair play, Jimmy-boy. Found someone younger to practice on, now you ain't the child prodigy no more, huh? Usin' him as you were? Only I heard different. I heard you volunteered--"

The punch that knocked Finnegan back hadn't been Jim's, and that fact startled him for long enough that he had to look around to figure out what had happened. Gary was wringing his hand, and Jim made a mental note to teach him how to punch but for now, that horrible sinking feeling in his gut was coming back. How Finnegan knew, he had no idea, but it was obvious he did. A treacherous, interrogataive "Ruth?" floated through his brain, but he dismissed it.

Finnegan was standing, Gary's moment of confusion almost up. But Gary was just smiling, that familiar, devil-may-care grin Jim knew heralded trouble. "Jim, do you see this?" he was saying. "I'd heard about them, but never really seen one. An actual bigot, right in our midst! I don't know about you, but I wouldn't ask my girlfriend to do anything I thought made anyone else a second-class citizen. That the problem, Finny? No one given your dick a good lick recently? I don't think Jim'll be interested, though. He's sort of selective that way."

Finnegan, drunkenly staggering towards Gary, was felled by another blow from Jim. Who promptly grabbed Gary and kissed him, in front of everyone.

It hadn't led to anything else, though.

Outside, Gary had been lit up like a sparkler, dancing around Jim and touching him delicately as if he couldn't believe his good fortune but was afraid to let go. But Jim hadn't gone home with him, or vice versa. "Ruth," was all he'd said, but in truth, he was afraid of the feelings coursing through him, of what he'd let loose, what he wanted to do to Gary and wanted to let Gary do to him.

"She won't mind. She knows about us," Gary had insisted, leading Jim to wonder what she could know about two people who weren't an item, what Gary had told her. But it didn't matter; he just couldn't follow through with anything, Ruth's knowledge or consent aside. It was Gary, sure, but even his familiarity and growing attraction weren't enough to overcome what he now knew wasn't natural disinclination, but his history.

"Oh, Jim," Ruth said gently, smiling sweetly when he'd spilled the whole thing to her anxiously. "There's an easy solution, you know. Will you let me take care of it?"

He frowned at her, suspicious. "You're taking this really easily," he said. "Doesn't this threaten you at all?"

She laughed. "Do you want me to be jealous, Jim? We knew from the beginning that you'd eventually go off on your starship, and me on mine, and as much as we love each other I know you've got plenty of love left over. You love him already. Does how you feel about Gary change how you feel about me? Do you love me less because you might want to touch him now?"

"No."

"So why should it change how I feel about you? That doesn't work for everyone, Jim, but it works for me. And if it works for you, and Gary, who's the worse for it?"

He couldn't find an answer for her, but to kiss her, and when she fucked him tenderly that night with a strap-on he came harder than he would have imagined.

Some days later, Jim let himself into Ruth's apartment to hear quiet voices coming from the bedroom. He didn't come over without announcing himself, or being invited, so it didn't make much sense for his heart to drop into his stomach. He wasn't sure it was any easier to walk to the doorway and see Gary there, laughing and smiling at something Jim hadn't heard. But when he caught a look on Ruth's face and turned, his own expression brightened in a way that made Jim feel like everything was going to be okay.

"Jim," he and Ruth said in unison, and laughed. Ruth spoke. "Jim, I want you to know you can say no. Any time. But I invited Gary here because I thought it would be nice. I don't want to presume anything. But I love you, and you love me, and I think you and Gary have something lovely that I certainly have no objection to seeing."

He didn't want to say no. But he wasn't sure how to say yes, either. And Ruth had given him a convenient out. He blushed, looking at Gary, and focused on Ruth anxiously. "I think..." He trailed off, and looked at Gary quickly, then away. "I'd like to make love to you. Both of us." The implication being that he was not ready to touch Gary himself. "I'd like to see you. Together."

She looked over at Gary--Jim did not follow her gaze--and after a moment she nodded. "Okay," she said. "Whatever you want, my lovely Jim."

What followed was nothing short of a revelation, as absurd as that seemed even to him, looking back. He learned two things: that he could love two people at once, reveling in fact in his ability to be what they needed; and that the sight of Gary, proud and naked and his eyes dark with arousal, aroused him. It didn't start out that way, of course; he kissed Ruth, and they undressed her together, and then Ruth undressed Jim and Gary shucked his own clothes while Jim was distracted. There was plenty about Ruth to distract and he never got tired of her breasts, her generous thighs, the sounds she made when he bit down lightly on her shoulder. It was while he did so that he caught his first sight of Gary, turned away from him briefly as he pulled off one leg of his pants. He looked back at Jim, and smiled, and Jim smiled back. Gary came up behind Ruth and mirrored Jim, pressing himself to Ruth's back and kissing her other shoulder.

They both touched her for awhile, Jim getting the feel for things, for the brush of another hand when he reached for Ruth's waist, for the sigh of another, lower voice when she kissed him. When they found themselves on the bed, Ruth looked at Jim, smiled, and turned to Gary on her other side, and Jim pressed himself to her back as he watched them together. They were both good looking on their own, but he hadn't thought about how beautiful they'd be together. Or what it would be like, sharing something so intimate. It didn't feel prurient, with him touching her back, his cock pressed up against her as Gary's lips found her breasts and her hand wrapped around his erection. Jim, at first, thought his own arousal was due to the familiar things: Ruth, plus the idea of Ruth's attentions towards a man, Gary as his stand-in. Like pornography, none of which he'd watched for the men involved.

But as they moved together, he found himself watching Gary just as much, appreciating the line of him, the lithe power, the sensual curve of his lips. And then the sounds he made, the way his eyes drifted shut as Ruth touched him.

Finally, the hitch in his breath when Jim did, as if he knew it was him, unseen, reaching out across Ruth to stroke the curve of a buttock. That sound, Gary's own response to something so simple, undid him. Ruth nudged his shoulder, and he looked up to see her smiling down at him and nodding towards Gary.

"Let me see you," she said, and her voice was so husky, so laden with expectation it was more than enough to send him over the edge. He leaned over her and found Gary's lips with his, and his own eyes slid shut. Ruth next to him, caressing his side as Gary's tongue traced the seam of his lips. Jim knew this, knew how to kiss, and he opened his mouth and kissed Gary back. Ruth's breath caught now, so Jim deepend it, one hand sliding into Gary's hair. And Gary, Gary was on fire, as if he'd been waiting his whole life for this, and suddenly Jim realized he wasn't scared at all anymore.

When he guided Gary into Ruth, it was almost as if he could feel it himself in their gasping sighs. And when they rolled, Gary on top, Jim's lips found his back and his hand found his own cock and Gary said, "Jim, please," and Jim didn't know what he meant. But Ruth did; she motioned to the familiar bottle on the bedside table and Jim thought he'd come before he even finished carefully preparing Gary. He thought Gary might come, too, but he held back, held still, until finally they were moving together, and Jim was makng love to both of them. It was tighter than he thought he could stand, but he could. And hearing both of them beneath him, feeling Ruth's hands on his arms, hearing Gary's groans at one or the other or both of them in and around him, he was grateful his conditions were as flimsy as they'd been.

Ruth came first, and slid out from beneath Gary to watch. Jim's eyes met hers above Gary's head, and then watched as she brought herself off again in time with them, one hand deep between her legs and the other around Gary's cock. And when Gary came, Jim couldn't hold back, and he cried out with something that sounded almost like pain when he spent himself at last.

Nothing of the anxiety he feared had surfaced, and while he wondered at that later--at how healthy that really was--he wasn't about to knock it. Indeed, now that the dam had broken he couldn't seem to get enough, of either of them or both, and miraculously neither seemed inclined to stop him. He made love to them with new abandon, which Ruth noted and Gary appreciated without knowing the difference.

It could not last, of course. Ruth was reassigned, and Jim went off to serve on various ships, and Gary finished his courses and did the same. There was never an official break up, but it hadn't seemed necessary to put into words what Jim felt he'd lost, especially when they'd never codified what they were. He saw them sometimes, even serving with Mitchell for a too-short period. He dated--mostly monogamously--and fucked with great gusto and variety when he was on shore leave and unattached. And when he made Captain, almost the first thing he did was request Mitchell be assigned to the Enterprise.

But things were different. At first Jim couldn't imagine why; he had Gary now, he had a beautiful ship, and he thought that, at 32, he had everything. But while Gary had never been as ambitious as he, the difference in rank began to chafe. It wasn't that he demanded special attention, and Jim did not think he took advantage of his own role. But having him on the bridge, while delightful at first, soon resulted in a friction that had never been present when they were merely students. Jim had to treat him like everyone else, but in private Gary was getting more and more sullen and demanding, and it was edging into their professional relationship. Gary could not be Jim's equal in the relationship, and his subordinate in everything else. And Jim hadn't even thought about it.

By Delta Vega, they had called it off, after a spectacular fight and sex that only made up for the fight, but couldn't patch up the causes of it. And nothing was the same after that. And Jim could see now that somewhere along the way, Gary had become a different person. Maybe he had, too. Jim had become someone who could, he thought, mostly happily separate work and play and in the meantime catalog a certain intriguing Vulcan's non-expressions while handily beating him at chess. Gary had become someone who could allow his feelings to cloud his good sense and his own values. And Jim didn't know how it could have happened, or how what occurred later could have been allowed to, but he knew he'd killed his friend, both the vivacious, amazing Gary of their youth and the bitter one he'd somehow helped create and that it was far, far better to remember he could not have it all. That he couldn't afford to have both at once, lest he lose everything. Bad enough Gary had died--that Jim had loved, and also killed him was too much.

So Jim found his balance, never forgetting Ruth or Gary or what they'd taught him. And vowing never to be in that position again.