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Break Down In the Shape of Things to Come

Chapter Text

Neal spends the first two days after Captain Burke takes over Logistics and Strategy flinging his mind out toward his new instructor, trying to get a read on him. He isn't good at it, and knows it; he's spent too long pretending he can't do it at all, encouraged by his mother not to draw any attention to himself beyond what his mixed race will already garner him. Still, he tries; he has questions the captain might know the answers to, and he's willing to steal those answers if that's what it takes to get them.

The captain, however, doesn't seem to have the same kinds of stray thoughts Neal picks up sometimes from other people. He gets a sense of the man's essential solidity, a feel for a mind with a great deal of focus. The few thoughts he does pick up are all slanted toward the course he's teaching, and once or twice toward the ship he is missing as though it was a lost limb.

Neal would feel more sorry for him if he didn't have the kinds of questions that he does, ones that burn in his mind and demand answers that Burke's mind won't give up to him. He decides after the second class that he's going to have to use his abilities more overtly if he intends to get the information he wants from the captain.

He doesn't plan how to do it beyond planning that he will. He'll do it by feel, like he does most things.

Chapter Text

Peter has been teaching Logistics and Strategy for exactly three days when it happens.

It's the middle of the year. It had taken him some time to get the Defiance berthed in space dock, and to thoroughly examine the plans and the timetable for repairs. Both resources and people are scarce, now.

He’s never taught, but he’d spent his last year as a cadet as a TA to three different instructors, and apparently that's enough of a qualification for Starfleet right now.

It had taken him weeks to try and refresh himself on as much of the material as possible, and weeks to try to integrate the half-empty corridors and lecture halls. Weeks to grasp the real measure of Starfleet’s loss, but not nearly as long to grasp the danger the emptiness posed.

It had taken those weeks to push back his own bitter sense of loss and accept that, for now, at least, he is genuinely needed here as much as he would've been needed in the captain’s chair of the Defiance, even if she were space-worthy.

During those weeks of preparation there is a slow, quiet influx, so gradual that it happens almost under the radar, of Vulcans enrolling in Starfleet Academy. It makes sense, of course. With the Vulcan Science Academy obliterated, where else could they go? But seeing them makes the other cadets even quieter. All of them, the old cadets and the new, are diminished. Not just in numbers, but in the way their eyes look bruised and hurt, and in the way that they barely murmur when conversing, as though unwilling to overturn the silence left by their missing classmates.

Peter is aware of the enrollment of a half-Vulcan; everyone is.

Peter is even aware that he's in one of Peter’s classes.

But he hasn’t actually caught sight of him, nor has he especially been trying. Teaching isn’t as hard as being a starship captain, but it definitely has some difficulty attendant, and he's still trying to settle into it. He isn’t sure if it's better that his classes are half the size of what they would normally be, or if it's terribly, horribly worse.

He's caught flat-footed at the end of a class, while the rest of the students are already filing out of the room, to find a slender, well-built cadet with dark brown hair rounding the corner of Peter’s table of materials with a determined set to his mouth. Peter notices how young he looks before he notices the gentle points of his ears, and is curious despite himself.

“Captain Burke. I’m Neal Caffrey,” the kid says, and Peter nods. He knows the kid’s name. Everyone does. Peter hadn't heard, however, that he has startlingly blue eyes that make him look almost fully human.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Caffrey?” Peter asks with more curiosity than he’s been able to muster since he came to Starfleet Academy to teach.

“The Defiance is in space dock, under repair,” Caffrey says a little slowly, his eyes bright. “It was the only ship other than the Argos to take debilitating damage while engaging the Klingons in the Laurentian system.”

Peter doesn’t ask how he knows that; he assumes that it's at least semi-common knowledge, since Peter is here, teaching, and not captaining his ship. Instead, he asks, “Where did you hear about the Argos?” because that isn’t common knowledge. The captain and most of the bridge crew of the Argos had died defending their vessel.

Caffrey shakes his head as though it's unimportant. “It’s rumored that you somehow drew the Klingon’s fire away from the Argos and saved the lives of most of her crew. Is that true?”

Peter pauses for a long moment, a little surprised. He hadn't thought that was common knowledge either. “It was a little more complicated than that, but it’s not untrue,” he finally settles on.

“How did you do it?” Caffrey all but demands, his eyes glittering. Peter realizes, somewhat belatedly, that this kid is really sincerely beautiful. A little young -- though that may be his Vulcan heritage showing -- and possessing that Vulcan symmetry of feature that make all of them unusually attractive, but his wide blue eyes, and the length and curl of his hair mark his human heritage too. The two combine well, into a whole different kind of beauty.

And being demanding suits him, which Peter supposes is good, since if he is in this class, he's on the command track.

“That’s still classified, Mr. Caffrey,” Peter says almost reluctantly.

“The rest of your crew might not be so hesitant to share those details with me,” Caffrey says, taking Peter almost entirely aback with the baldfaced attempt at blackmail.

Not very Vulcan at all.

“I think you’ll find that they’re just as mindful of Starfleet regulations as I am,” Peter says firmly.

Caffrey’s mouth tightens into a thin line. “My mother served on the Valiant,” he says stiffly. “She was a casualty.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Peter says carefully, even sincerely, “but I still can’t give you classified information, cadet.”

Caffrey’s blue eyes bore into Peter intently; Peter can see the raw emotion there, and is surprised. He reminds himself that Caffrey was raised among humans, not Vulcans, and the shape of his ears shouldn’t be used to guess at his personality or his restraint. The kid is clearly grieving, and Peter can live with having a little wrath directed at him, if it helps Caffrey deal with his grief.

“Can you tell me, then, why you didn’t do for the Valiant whatever it was you did for the Argos?”

It's a very blunt question, more Vulcan than human in its simplicity, and Peter is glad to be able to answer it truthfully. “What I did for the Argos was a surprise maneuver that couldn’t have been used effectively more than once.” He gentles his voice as much as he can without making it obvious. “The Valiant had three other starships around her. The Argos was alone, and almost surrounded. I made the call.”

He leaves it open like that, deliberately. If this kid wants to use him as the focal point of his grieving wrath, Peter's willing to accept that. It isn’t even entirely wrong. He had made the call. It had been the right call, the only call, but he had made it. It's unlikely that there was anything Peter could have done to save Caffrey’s mother, but it’s not impossible. And he understands the need to have someone to blame.

He's surprised again when Caffrey’s hand darts out and captures his. “Tell me you made the right call,” he insists, brows furrowed.

Peter’s hand jerks a little in Caffrey’s grip. He is by no means unsure of what's going on, but after a long moment, he allows it. “I made the only call I could make under the circumstances,” he says truthfully.

Caffrey drops Peter’s hand as though it has burned him; Peter’s whole hand prickles as though it had been asleep. He ignores it, though the urge to rub it against his uniform pants is pretty powerful. He lets it hang by his side, instead, and watches Caffrey’s face crumple a little, not without sympathy. What he says, however, is: “If you ever do that again, I’ll report you,” in his firmest voice.

Caffrey merely nods, his shoulders slumped with unhappiness. He turns away from Peter without another word, leaving the class without glancing back.

Peter rubs his hand roughly on his uniform pants and then with his other hand when that doesn’t banish the tingling sensation. He looks at the door for a long moment, waiting, though he isn’t sure for what.

Whatever it is, it doesn’t come, and Peter packs up his PADDs and his few papers and walks across campus to faculty housing, his hand prickling and burning the whole way.

Peter had met Commander Spock on several occasions. The Defiance has several Vulcans amongst her crew, all of which Peter has had regular contact with.

Never once had one of them touched him.

He’d watched them go out of their way to avoid contact with other beings, even when such contact was common or casual.

There's no way to be sure that Caffrey had inherited Vulcan touch-telepathy -- he hasn't looked in his file; he's had no reason to -- but it seems likely considering the way Peter's hand tingles hot the whole evening afterward, finally abating sometime around twenty three hundred. He’s never heard of the recipient of a Vulcan’s touch having a physical reaction to it before -- and he’d looked into that, too, as soon as he’d gotten home -- and has no idea what to think about it. He isn’t willing to write it off as his imagination; it had been too real, and too omnipresent, to dismiss.

He lets it go, eventually, because he can’t solve it. Not even with Starfleet’s database at his disposal. There simply isn’t enough information.

Not even enough for Peter to be sure of what, exactly, Caffrey could have received from Peter via touch.

He regrets allowing it, letting himself be lulled by his compassion, but it's done.

He will, however, never let Caffrey touch him again.

Chapter Text

He regrets it even as he's doing it. The captain's mind is an orderly place, and Neal gets flashes of books and rooms and the faces of his crew, glimpses of a battle, a burnt mark of char along one wall of the bridge, an injured man, the captain at the weapons console.

When he asks his question, his hand curled tightly around the captain's unresisting hand, he can feel the answer before Captain Burke even opens his mouth to speak. He senses sorrow and justification, the certainty that he had done the right thing, and that nothing else he could have done would have been as important as the call he had made. He even gets flashes of some kind of tactical screen outlining the layout of the fleet and the Klingon fleet they had been fighting against. Neal can pick out the Valiant because Captain Burke knows where she is.

The Captain is right; there had been nothing he could have done, and Neal has just violated the integrity of his mind for no good reason. Perhaps there is never a good reason for this kind of violation.

He retreats as soon as he can and stays away, certain that the captain will prefer it, and when he decides he has no business in a classroom with a man whose mind he had deliberately violated he fills out a request for transfer with a certain sense of relief.

He can still feel the breadth of Burke, the solid pinning of his mind and the incisive feel of it. He can feel the way it had felt to have it open to him, allowing him to reach for the things that Neal had wanted so badly to know, and can feel nothing now but guilt for reaching for it to begin with. It had not been his to take. He hadn't even asked and the captain certainly hadn't made the offer. It's even worse that he hadn't tried to stop Neal, even though Neal could feel that he understood what was happening. Worse still that he had felt enough pity for Neal to let it go on.

Of course he can never go back to Captain Burke's class. The very idea is obscene. He will take the hit on his academic record rather than force himself on Burke again, after what he's already done.

Chapter Text

Peter’s faculty accommodations are roomy, even with the boxes Peter lives between and around, unwilling to unpack them, as though doing so might mean his tenure will become permanent. Not only does he not unpack them, but he's added another box, now half-full of things he’d accumulated since he’d arrived earth-side. He adds things to it fairly regularly, as though he's packing by increments at all times.

So far it contains three books, a sweetly-scented cedar box full of photographs from his mother, two very good bottles of scotch, and the medal for extraordinary valor he had received for his part in the rescue of the Argos and her crew.

Peter lost fifty-one crew members to the maneuver that had saved the almost one thousand beings on board the Argos. He had known the risks, as had every one of those fifty-one people. But he had been the one to make the call.

Looking at the medal makes him tense and ill, and he keeps it well concealed in the bottom of the box.

He doesn’t drink the scotch in the box; it's twenty years old, perfect and potent, and he'll save it for an occasion worthy of it. Instead he drinks decent wine, when he wants something; no hard liquor to speak of. He hadn’t become the captain of a starship by allowing himself to drown his sorrows, and he isn't going to start now. A couple of glasses of wine with dinner -- he always eats in -- are enough to make the evening mellow, enough to let him accept and even understand what it is he is doing here. They don’t need him to fix the Defiance, after all. More likely that he’d just get in their way.

This is not supposed to be a punishment. He has to remind himself of it again and again.

He tries not to think about the damage to the Argos, which reports say will be repaired within just a few months.

Caffrey isn’t in Peter’s class for the next two days. On the evening of the second day, during his second glass of wine, his PADD beeps to alert him of an incoming message.

It's an administrative request to transfer out of Logistics and Strategy for Neal Caffrey. The reason cited is “academic incompatibility.” Which is merely a turn of phrase meant to indicate a strong level of dislike by either the instructor or the student. Peter stares at it for at least fifteen minutes, alternately offended and sympathetic, and then eventually merely denies the request.

If Caffrey wants to push it there will be an administrative hearing. Peter is willing to go that far to keep him in his class, though he isn’t crystal clear on his own motivations. Part of it is merely the desire not to fail a cadet, any cadet, who needs the class. If Caffrey bows out of Peter’s class, it will work against him on the command track. Interaction with others, whether you like them or not, is an absolute requirement. Part of it is that nascent sympathy for the kid, for all that he’d been through, up to and including what had happened with Peter, which was a flagrant violation of both law and ethics. He hardly knows Caffrey at all, but he suspects that his actions had been driven by grief and sorrow, an aberration rather than a systemic personality flaw.

The rest is nebulous. He wants to help, somehow. If forcing Caffrey to stay on track in his chosen career path is all that he can do, then he'll do it. He won’t be complicit in his failure.

He drinks the rest of his wine and is in bed by eleven.

Sometime in the night he wakes sweaty and achingly hard. He throws back the covers and shoves down the light sleeping pants he habitually wears and jerks off while still half-asleep, his hand and his cock and his mind hot and needful. He's asleep again almost before it's over, and only really remembers it the next day because he wakes up freezing with no blankets, covered in his own dried come.

Chapter Text

Neal thinks he's reading it wrong when his request comes back denied by Captain Burke. He spends long minutes staring at the PADD, trying to see it in the way he's sure it must be, but he keeps running headlong into the 'denied' scrolled across the top of the request. He doesn't know what to think, how to feel.

Eventually he sets the PADD aside and thinks hard about what had actually happened. Yes, he had taken Captain Burke's hand, knowingly doing so without his consent, and used his telepathic abilities to touch Burke's mind. Yes, it had been reprehensible, both morally and legally, but another thing had also happened.

Burke had let him do it. Burke had known he was being telepathically scanned; that much was clear from his mind in those few seconds of contact.

He had known, and he had let Neal do it anyway, for Neal's peace of mind, to ease Neal's pain, if he could. He had done it knowing that it might not be what Neal needed to help him, but that it was all he had to offer. And he had offered it. It had been a reactive offer, one made after the touch had already been initiated by Neal, but it had been allowed, nevertheless.

There is no denying that Neal should have asked.

But there is also no denying that Burke could have put up a fight and had chosen not to.

It doesn't mitigate Neal's actions, but it illustrates the reasoning behind Burke's refusal to allow him to transfer out of Strategy and Logistics. Not that Burke doesn't think Neal had done anything wrong; the fact that he'd threatened to report Neal if it ever happened again had been enough to make it clear that Burke does know. But that Burke doesn't plan on basing his entire working knowledge of Neal on that one feverish misstep.

Neal thinks about it for a long time. He suspects Captain Burke is a better man than Neal himself is, and is grateful for it at the same time that he's humbled.

That night, long past the time his dorm mate is sleeping, Neal takes himself in hand and jerks off quickly and heatedly without bothering to pretend he isn't thinking about his instructor, his mind focused on the feel of his mind as surely as the lines of his face.

Chapter Text

Caffrey is back in his seat the next day, though he doesn’t look up from his PADD for the entirety of the class, and escapes the classroom -- and that is exactly what it looks like to Peter, an escape -- huddled amongst a group of older classmates, both concealed by them and straining to avoid touching any of them.

Peter wants to tell him that it doesn’t have to be so hard, that he isn’t holding anything against him, but he doubts Caffrey would believe it.

Peter doesn’t think he would have believed it at that age (eighteen, according to his records, and only barely that); not if he was aware that he was the one who had behaved badly.

Peter puts it out of his mind while he teaches the rest of the day, and only comes back to it when he's forced into eating with the faculty for dinner by dint of Hughes’ sheer bloody mindedness. He seems sure Peter needs to be social with the rest of the faculty, and won’t be dissuaded. From his spot at the table -- over what he has to admit is a much tastier dinner than he would have prepared for himself -- he sees Caffrey sitting alone, holding a PADD up so that he can read and eat at the same time.

It's odd because there are at least ten cafeterias on campus, and only a handful of cadets are in this one. It's out of the way for most of the cadet housing. It isn’t forbidden or anything; there are another dozen or so cadets scattered throughout the room. But it is unusual, especially for a cadet Caffrey’s age. His dorm would be all the way across campus, almost three miles from here. Peter hadn’t memorized his academic schedule or anything, but he doesn’t recall Caffrey having any classes on this end of campus toward the end of the day, either.

He eats and wonders about Caffrey and wishes he was in his own rooms where he could have a glass of wine without anyone knowing the difference, and he hardly notices he isn’t participating in the ebb and flow of conversation until Hughes asks him a direct question and he's forced to turn his attention to his temporary colleagues.

He doesn’t notice when Caffrey leaves, his attention entirely devoted to what has to be a tall tale about Admiral Archer’s dog, and only wonders about it for a moment once dinner is over. He lets Hughes talk him into a drink at an off campus bar -- he likes Hughes, who has the distinction of being the only person on the faculty that Peter really knows well, having been Peter’s adviser for four years -- where he indulges in one scotch and then restricts himself to water.

Hughes, perhaps inevitably, wants to hear about the Argos, though he has access to all the reports and Peter can’t imagine what he could possibly add to them.

“I just made enough space so they had time to fall back,” Peter tells him, folding his little square napkin into an origami flower absently. “Their impulse engines were barely online, and they didn’t have room to maneuver without risking catastrophic damage. It was just a gambit for time. It didn’t deserve the whole valor medal thing.”

“It was extraordinary thinking under extreme pressure,” Hughes says, sitting back against the bar for a moment. “You don’t really believe that ‘it was just a gambit’ bullshit, do you?”

Peter blinks in surprise.

Hughes snorts. “It was a minor miracle, Peter. Fast thinking, good judgment, successful results. The Argos was going down. You saved that ship, and at some risk to your own.”

“Fifty-one of my crew died,” Peter says a little flatly. “My ship is practically in pieces. That doesn’t deserve a medal.”

“Nine hundred and sixty-three people lived, and that does.” Hughes knocks back the remains of his drink, giving Peter a too-shrewd look. “Have I ever lied to you?”

He's clearly serious, and Peter sighs.

“Of course not.”

“Then take my word for it. What you did out there is going to be in next year's curriculum. It wasn’t all rainbows and puppies, but you did Starfleet proud, Peter. You did your duty and your job.”

And Peter is going to have to take Hughes’ word for it, because whenever he thinks about it, all he can see are the faces of his dead crew members and the blackened and scarred port and aft sides of the Defiance.

He's home later than he’d have liked, and merely takes a quick shower before turning in, skipping both the wine and the lesson plan. He's far enough ahead to lose a night.

Chapter Text

Neal doesn't bother to lie to himself about why he's eating so far from home. He wants the chance to look at Captain Burke when he's surrounded by his peers rather than his students, and he wants the chance to study his face, and he wants to push his mind out toward Burke's again (though the last he has as much guilt as curiosity concerning).

Burke eats absently at first, and Neal feels more than sees his attention on Neal. Neal hopes Burke doesn't think he's stalking him. If he does, he would be at least a little bit right, and the thought makes Neal feel even more uneasy about being here, even as it doesn't change anything enough to make him leave. Eventually, however, Burke is pulled into the flow of the conversation of the rest of the faculty, and Neal gets to see him speak quietly and passionately about something -- Neal can't hear him, and when he flings his mind out toward Burke he gets back almost nothing at all -- and then later gets to see Burke smile. The lines of his face, which have always looked a little saddened and weary to Neal, wreathe into perfect lines of humor, and Neal can't imagine how he could have thought them anything else. His whole face lightens, and when he laughs it's a low tenor that makes gooseflesh rush up the back of Neal's neck.

He hadn't thought Burke was unattractive before; even when he's not smiling, he's got a good face, remarkable and lived in, if not classically handsome. But when he smiles and laughs the transformation to profoundly attractive is startling. Neal hurries to finish his dinner and escapes the dining area before the captain can look up and see the flush of arousal on his face.

He walks awkwardly back to his dorm and manages to jerk off once before his roommate comes in, once more in the shower, afterward, and then again late in the night, the covers a warm hollow around him. All three times his focus is just as clearly on Captain Burke's face as it is on the feel of his mind. He recognizes the inappropriateness, and doesn't care. He's causing no harm, after all, and Captain Burke will never know.

He promises himself to be more like himself as he's drifting toward sleep; no more lurking in the faculty's cafeteria or huddling behind his PADD in Captain Burke's class. The Captain has given Neal another shot at first impressions; Neal recognizes it and is acutely grateful for it. He won't waste it. He'll be himself, and Captain Burke will forgive him.

Maybe even like Neal, at some point. His mother had always said he had the devil's own charm.

And Neal likes the captain. He wants it to be mutual.

Chapter Text

Peter wakes again in the night, only half-aware of his hand already in his pants, and it is just as desperate and needful as it had been the night before. Peter has just enough cognizance to be amused at himself; he hasn't jerked off like this since he was a teenager, his early twenties at the most. He manages to clean up a little and drag the covers back over himself before he sleeps again this time.

He wakes up late the next day and manages to run late for most of his classes. After lunch doesn't improve the speed at which he's moving, Peter sends an alert to the PADDs of all of his cadets for the rest of the afternoon letting them know he'll be late and encouraging them to spend the time reading over the materials.

They won't, of course. Or most of them won't, anyway, but that's okay with Peter. He made the attempt, and that's enough.

He walks into Logistics and Strategy only ten minutes late, expecting them to be one of the classes that actually are, mostly, reading over the assignment.

Instead he finds them huddled into a group around a desk that Peter has to strain to see belongs to Neal Caffrey.

Caffrey's voice floats across the room to him, easy and mellow and nothing like the strained voice he'd heard from him during their one conversation.

"No, you don't have to do anything but touch it." Caffrey laughs a little, a ringing sound, infectious enough to make Peter's lips quirk without his volition. "No, don't touch me. I'm a touch telepath; that would be cheating."

Well, that answers that question, at least.

"You are certain of your ability to do this?" one of Caffrey's Vulcan classmates asks. He sounds interested, thoughtful, but not really doubtful.

"I'm sure," Caffrey says easily, and Peter is close enough behind his lectern now to see that Caffrey has a deck of old playing cards. He's ruffling them through his fingers so quickly and easily that it seems almost superhuman, cutting them one handed and shifting them back together with one hand, and then splaying them easily in a fan. He passes his other hand over the spread of cards for a few seconds, his expression pleasant, smiling at the cadet standing in front of him, and then works one card out of the deck with his free hand and flips it to face the cadet. Her face opens wide with wonder.

"That's it," she says, sounding shocked. "How did you do that?"

"If I told you, what would be the fun?" Caffrey replies, laughing and charming and surrounded by his equally wonderous classmates. Even the Vulcans all look baffled at Caffrey's parlor trick.

Peter is taken aback. Again. He had already slotted Caffrey into 'keeps to himself, takes lots of notes,' and he isn't quite sure how to reconcile that with this showman he's being confronted with now.

"Let me," one of the other cadets says, sounding dubious rather than excited, and Caffrey obligingly shuffles the deck adroitly and offers it to him. Peter watches the other cadet shuffle though the cards, lay a finger on one of them, and then shuffle them before handing them back to Caffrey. Caffrey merely completes the same performance Peter had already witnessed, the effortless shifting slide of cards in his left hand, the splayed deck and the deft pluck of a single card with his right. "Holy crap," the cadet says, sounding both baffled and impressed now.

"I would like to make an attempt," one of the Vulcan cadets says, and Peter decides it has gone on long enough.

"And I'm sure you can do so, after class is over," Peter announces, and watches the little crowd around Caffrey's desk break and scatter back to their own seats. Two of the girls, Peter notes, have moved themselves into empty seats near Caffrey. Peter is simultaneously amused and annoyed. He still has to work at remembering all their names. Changes in seating will only make that harder. He chooses not to object, however, as Caffrey glances over at one of them and gives her a wide and delighted smile.

Peter will get used to it. It's only two seats, after all.

Caffrey spends the class dividing his attention between his PADD and the girl sitting just to his left, and Peter can't help but be a little bit relieved by it. Surely it's far healthier than keeping his head down and taking copious notes every day. And she, though at least two years Caffrey's elder, is paying attention to him right back, so. What would be the point in interfering?

Peter teaches, working around it, and if the class is a little bit more present, a little bit less crushed with grief, all to the better.

And the class does go better. Not just a little, but a lot better. The cadets ask questions, make statements, communicate with Peter in a way that they hadn't before. Peter is willing to believe that at least some of that was his own fault; he's a new instructor, after all, and everyone has to know about the Defiance. He's willing to believe that he had been unapproachable.

But he still thinks that some of that had been Neal Caffrey, glib and easy with a stack of cards in his hands, effortlessly charismatic and smiling.

Peter doesn't know entirely what to think about it, so shunts it off to the side to think about later.

Chapter Text

After class Neal calls, "T'Kreen," and one of the Vulcan girls pauses and turns back to face him. "I'll trade you card tricks for some tutoring." He walks over closer to her, his voice lowering as he does, but aware that Captain Burke can probably still hear them.

A glance toward him shows him apparently busy with something on his PADD. Neal isn't sure if he's grateful or irritated.

"I have seen no evidence that you require tutoring; I share most of your classes." It's not a no, though; Neal can hear it. She's regarding him with interest. Almost without thought he flings his mind out toward her and can feel flicker-flashes of her interest as well as a shivery moment of attraction.

He can feel himself smiling at her, pleased, even as he flings his mind out toward Captain Burke and gets back nothing but that same solid sense of his presence. He's not even getting fragments, like he had the first couple of days. It isn't blank, exactly. Neal can feel Captain Burke there. But he can't read anything else about him.

He turns his attention back toward T'Kreen, who is watching him with an arched brow.

"I speak Vulcan," Neal says, trying to keep his voice careless, but fairly sure he doesn't entirely manage it. "But I'm not fluent. And what I know about our culture I only know from books."

He doesn't outright ask the question, but T'Kreen doesn't ask it either. She arches a brow at him, a Vulcan expression of faint surprise. It's gone almost as soon as it appears. "Your mother's experiences were not enough to teach you," she says. It's not a question.

Caffrey arches a brow back at her, and says, keeping his tone very even, "They were, as I understand it, very brief."

"It was ill done," T'Kreen says gravely. "It is not our way."

Caffrey inclines his head briefly. "I know that much." And he does know. He'd studied enough to know; Neal had met his father three times. He's never understood, if he merely intended to have a scandalous affair with a human, then why did he keep coming back? It wasn't Neal he had wanted to see. Neal could sense that well enough to be certain of it by his twelfth birthday. So the question still remains, and he still wants those answers. "I want to know the rest," he admits truthfully.

"I am available on Thursdays, mid-evening," T'Kreen merely says. "Bring your cards."

Neal beams at her, and she remains mostly expressionless, very Vulcan, except for the faint twitch of her lips.

Neal feels slightly smug at her interest and the almost-smile he had wrung from her, and then even more smug when he glances toward Captain Burke and sees that he's smiling a little, hidden behind his PADD.

Chapter Text

After that, Peter seems to see Caffrey everywhere. He's on the steps of the main library, surrounded by enamored cadets, his hair touched with auburn by the sun. He eats in the far cafeteria every night that Peter does, but now he's drawn a bevy of students that sit with him, and there is laughter from their table. Hughes leans over to Peter on one of these nights and says, "It's good to see."

Peter isn't sure how to respond, so doesn't, but he doesn't fail to notice Caffrey whenever he sees him.

He wakes hot and unfocused at night with his hardon aching and his head a whirl of heat, and it takes him three days to realize that he's jerking off with his left hand, though he's always been a righty, and another night after that to stay up long enough afterward to actually think about the last ten days or so, and his unusual night time activities.

They had not seemed pressing at the time -- any of the times -- even though he's always been an in-the-shower-in-the-morning kind of guy. It has literally been years since he jerked off in bed at night, and more years than that since he woke in the night with his cock already eager. Peter gets up and takes a shower, trying to clear his head, but now that the exigency has passed, he's more baffled than aroused.

He wonders if it's his new surroundings, he wonders if it's stress, and only after he gets out of the shower and back into a pair of sleeping pants, while he's holding a cup of hot spearmint tea, that he wonders if it could be Caffrey.

He has to sit down at the idea, but once it has occurred to him, he can see the progression fairly clearly. It hadn't started the day Caffrey had touched him, but it had been only a couple of days after. It hasn't been every night, but it has been most.

And his left hand is the one Caffrey had touched.

Vulcan telepathy doesn't work that way; Peter knows that. Their abilities are transient; once the conduit of touch is removed, the telepathic connection is broken. There's no rational explanation to argue for Caffrey still having any effect on Peter.

But the hand Caffrey had touched had burned for hours afterward, and there's every reason to believe that Caffrey has minimal training in his telepathic gifts. As he had told T'Kreen, he knows almost nothing of their culture. And if there is a deeper element to their gift, Peter doesn't know it. Hell, Starfleet doesn't know it. The Vulcans have always been closed-mouthed about many aspects of their culture. It isn't so hard to believe that their telepathic abilities are any different.

And if it is true, the question remains: What should he do about it?

He can hardly tell Caffrey that he's suffering from sexual side effects, especially since Peter can't be sure Caffrey has anything to do with it, most especially because Caffrey is a cadet under his supervision, and such a conversation would be profoundly inappropriate.

Peter drinks his tea and tries hard to come up with a solution, but without much success. The situation is not beyond his ability to endure, and asking Caffrey what, exactly, he had done to Peter without being able to tell him the particulars is absolutely impossible. He won't report it, of course. He's already thrown his bid behind Caffrey's success, and he won't take back that effort now.

Whatever it is, Peter is going to have to learn to live with it. It's intrusive to be sure, but it isn't actively inappropriate. He doesn't wake with images or fantasies in his mind; merely with urgency and heat. If Caffrey had meant to do him some kind of harm, surely it would have been something more invasive than near-nightly jerk off sessions in the safety of his own bedroom. More likely that Caffrey had not meant to do anything to him at all, and that he merely has imperfect control of his abilities.

And he doesn't know it has anything to do with Caffrey. It's just as likely that he's having trouble settling in, and this is merely a side effect of his dissatisfaction. Maybe even more probable.

He dismisses it from his mind with some effort. There is nothing to be done about it, and there's no point to dwelling. He merely moves a box of towelettes from the bathroom into the bedroom, for the sake of convenience if nothing else. He does not enjoy waking up stuck to his pants.

It goes on this way for two more weeks. Caffrey is charming and vivacious, and seems to infect the other cadets wherever he goes. The halls are no less empty, but the cadets in them now seem determined to defy that silence. Peter is not the only one relieved to see it, to see them, and the instructors seem buoyed up by it as much as the cadets.

Peter keeps office hours, though he rarely has anyone take advantage of those, but that's where Hughes finds him about a month after Peter starts teaching.

Hughes already looks apologetic, which Peter is sure cannot bode well from him, but he gestures Hughes inside anyway. Hughes closes the door behind him. Peter sighs and tries not to look like he's headed for the guillotine.

"We need faculty advisers," Hughes tells him without preamble.

"I'm only going to be here for a year, Reece," Peter objects, unable to quite fathom how being a faculty adviser to a slew of cadets would even work. "I don't have any kind of experience at it."

"You're the captain of a starship," Hughes says patiently. "If you tell me you can't advise on coursework, I'm going to laugh at you and make you do it anyway."

Peter sighs, but nods. "Still only going to be here for a year," he says.

"I want to drop down the Vulcans under you," Hughes says, watching Peter's face expectantly. "They're adaptable. I think changing advisers for them wouldn't be as dramatic a change as for some of the other cadets. It also leaves you with only seventeen or so cadets to advise, so you won't be overwhelmed while you're figuring it out."

"I'm not sure the Vulcans are going to appreciate it," Peter says, but he's already trying to figure out how it will work. "I don't have the credentials to be doing this."

"Doesn't matter at this late date," Hughes says philosophically. "There isn't anyone else. Besides, you've worked with Vulcans in the field, which is more than most instructors can boast of." He waits, apparently for Peter to say something. Peter just nods instead. There isn't really a good argument to make here. Hughes nods back. "I've had their academic records transferred to your PADD with advisory status. I'll make sure they're all informed, and that they make time to meet with you during your office hours."

Hughes looks supremely pleased, which doesn't make Peter any less grumpy.

Peter is what is currently referred to as an 'old school' starship captain. He'd eschewed college in favor of Starfleet, something that had to be cleared by a bevy of testing from Starfleet itself before he'd been accepted. He had been eighteen years old when he'd entered the Academy, and while he'd spent the whole of that time on the command track, he'd spent a lot of it dipping into the other fields as well. It had been his intention to learn enough in every field to be able to take over the primary function of any of the bridge crew if necessary, including engineering, so he had spent six years as a cadet.The time he'd devoted to his education had netted him a lot of offers upon his graduation.

He'd accepted Captain Grant's offer of the helm position on the Constitution class starship. Defiance, a much coveted and sought after position. He'd spent four years there, and though he'd loved the Defiance, he'd accepted an offer for tactical aboard a Galaxy class ship, Indigo, for the experience alone. He'd intended to be a captain some day, and had been aware that he'd need all the practical experience he could get. He'd stayed with the Indigo for eighteen months, and then had put in for consideration of the first officer's position aboard the Carolita. He'd had no fixed position on the Carolita; any given day might find him in any of two dozen positions, filling in, and when he wasn't doing that, he was learning the minutiae of captaining under the exacting eye of Captain Al'dran, who Peter had come to respect as much as he respected his own father. Peter had remained in contact with Captain Grant, however; he had known, even then, what he wanted. When Grant himself was promoted four years later, Peter was offered the captaincy of the Defiance, upon Grant and Al'dran's joint recommendation, without fanfare. It had been at least a little surprising. At thirty-three, Peter wasn't the youngest captain amidst the ranks, but he was one of them.

Since the Defiance had been the ship Peter had wanted all along, he hadn't hesitated to take it. His previous service aboard had made the transition uncommonly smooth. The crew already knew Peter, and Peter had already known the ship, the crew, and everything there was to know about how to keep it running smoothly.

He's been glad for many reasons for his extended stay at the Academy, but is grateful for it all over again when he ends up advising seventeen different Vulcans, not all of which are on the command track, which is undeniably what Peter is most suited to advising for. He flips through their records on his PADD, organizing them by area of study, and halfway through crashes headlong into Neal Caffrey's file.

Peter almost groans aloud.

Caffrey is on the command track, and is taking every course Peter would recommend for him already. He wonders if that means he'll see very little of Caffrey. He knows it means he can't transfer him to another adviser since his chosen path is in Peter's particular area of expertise.

Caffrey has a heavy work load for a first year cadet, including classes in science and mechanical engineering. Peter would very much like to find something to disapprove of, and simply can't. All indications seem to imply that Caffrey's plans are as 'old school' as Peter's had been. He unwillingly approves. He has an intrinsic distrust of being given orders by people that don't know how to do his job, and he approves of the spread of Caffrey's classes and of the experience he will gain from them.

That doesn't solve the problem of Caffrey at all, and puts Peter in a position of close contact with him that Peter would really rather avoid. So far his... experiences have been without visuals, without much thought at all, and he'd like to keep it that way. As long as that's the case, Peter can merely assume that he is either experiencing an unexpected upsurge in his sex drive or, if Caffrey is indeed to blame, that it was unintentionally done and is thus totally impersonal.

Peter can live with accidentally impersonal. He isn't thrilled with it, but he can live with it.

Chapter Text

Neal gets an alert on his PADD mid-day and finds out that Captain Burke has been assigned as his faculty adviser. He doesn't know whether to be delighted or horrified, so merely sits through Command Statistics staring at his PADD, stunned.

He'd known when he'd enrolled that he'd have an adviser, and Admiral Hughes had been the one that had initially signed off on the course work that Neal had chosen largely on his own, via research. He'd thought they'd wait to assign him a permanent one until term break, at least. He isn't the only cadet that had come to the Academy in the middle of the nominal year. Most of the Vulcans had transferred in at the same time, and there has been a fairly large influx of students since then as well. Neal suspects Starfleet is actively and heavily recruiting in an effort to recoup some of their losses since Vulcan.

If he had given it any thought, he definitely wouldn't have considered Captain Burke as a candidate, however. His tenure is well known to be temporary, and while Neal is impressed with him as an instructor (far and away more impressed than he ever would have expected to be), he doesn't really have the training necessary to teach, let alone advise students regarding their four or five year academic regimen.

Regardless of any of those facts, having Captain Burke as his faculty adviser means working with him one on one, and Neal has already damaged their relationship to a degree that seems impossible to recover from on that basis. The captain had let it go for his class, and Neal is grateful for that, but he can't imagine him wanting to sit down across a desk from Neal and wrangle out a schedule for the rest of his academic life. The entire idea seems like an exercise in excruciating discomfort to Neal, and he suspects Captain Burke will feel the same way about it.

But there's no way to get out of it. Literally, no way. Neal has already made a request to be transferred out of Burke's class and had that request denied; another attempt to get out from under Burke in an advisory capacity will throw up red flags, obstacles Neal doesn't need any more of on the command track. He's already a half-Vulcan and among the youngest of the cadets on campus. Granted, he'd earned his place here; Starfleet doesn't accept non-college graduates without a rigorous testing regimen. Still, it means he has to work harder to be taken seriously.

And if he hears himself compared to Commander Spock one more time, Neal might engage in a homicidal rampage. It isn't his fault that Neal was raised on Earth. His apparent humanity seems to be something both instructors and students think is an acceptable conversational topic to pursue with Neal. Only the very good manners his mother had diligently instilled in him keeps Neal from telling all of them that his humanity or lack thereof is none of their damned business.

He can't afford to object to having Captain Burke as his adviser, is the material point. It would be a form of self-sabotage that he won't allow himself to indulge in again.

Captain Burke himself won't object to it either, Neal is certain. It will be an egregious chore for both of them, but he's already made it clear that he won't accept Neal's attempts to avoid him, possibly (even worse) because he'd recognized before Neal even had that a transfer out of Burke's class would work against him on the command track.

Neal leaves Combat Statistics with the rest of the cadets, hardly aware that class is over until they all start filing out. He's turning the matter over and over in his mind, searching for a potentially workable solution that isn't hideously awkward for both of them and failing miserably.

There's nothing for it. He'll have to apologize to the captain -- a thing he admittedly should have done already -- and hope that will be adequate. He knows enough of Burke to believe he'll be civil, at least, and he's totally certain that Burke will do his best to actually counsel Neal. He's not the kind of man to slyly work against Neal for the sake of retribution for past wrongs.

He takes his things to his room and scrolls absently through the material for his next class on his PADD, barely seeing it.

He'll apologize, and hope to keep things cordial. He'll make every effort to be professional. That's the only way to handle it.

Chapter Text

Peter overhears, purely by accident as he's crossing the quad, Caffrey and T'Kreen discussing telepathic shielding whilst sitting on a bench beneath a sprawling oak tree that's five times as big around as Peter is.

"We are all trained in barriers when we are very young," T'Kreen is saying. "Almost young enough to retain little memory of it. I have a book on the matter, which you may borrow, but I am unsure as to my ability to teach you this myself. Better for you to visit the Vulcan colony and take instruction from an Elder."

"I can't do that right now," Caffrey says, his voice unusually serious. "I already have commitments here. I'll take what you're willing to teach me and figure the rest out on my own."

"How is it you have no structured barriers and are yet able to function, Neal? There is logic to why we are taught to shield so young. The intrusion of others into our consciousness is omnipresent until such shields are constructed." T'Kreen sounds fascinated.

Peter lingers behind the tree, uncomfortably aware that he's eavesdropping quite deliberately now.

Caffrey hesitates a few long seconds before he answers. "I think I just adapted to it," he says finally. "My mother knew enough to tell me that I needed them, and I read enough about Vulcans and other telepathic races to have an idea of why. I do have some barriers in place. I can keep people out of my mind as long as they don't touch me. But if there's physical contact, it's like the barriers aren't there at all."

"The touch telepathy is undoubtedly Vulcan. The other... consider allowing a psychic test. Most humans are psychic null, but if you are not, it would explain some of the symptoms of your present discomfort."

"Like I need to be an even bigger freak," Caffrey says, voice strained.

"You need control of all of your mind," T'Kreen responds a little pointedly. "Any ability that you cannot fully control must be counted as a liability."

Caffrey sighs.

Peter decides he's being a prick and changes course, headed across the quad in a different direction. He'll have to double back once he's out of sight to get where he's going, but it serves him right for the whole eavesdropping thing.

He spends part of that evening researching psychic ability in humans and comes up with more information than he would have expected. There is a whole manifest dedicated to half-human children of which one parent is of a race of psychics, which seems to indicate that not only does the psychic talent breed true, it often manifests even more strongly in those children, and it's not uncommon for them to manifest other psychic abilities as well. There are, of course, other papers that seem to indicate otherwise, as there always are, but Peter returns to the first manifest again and again. There are sections on training such children, citing the dangers of psychic abilities that they're unprepared to control.

Peter drinks a glass of wine and tries to decide what, if anything, is to be done about it. He won't go to Hughes, though the truth is, he probably should. Letting Caffrey run amok with his abilities uncontrolled is potentially dangerous, but Peter still won't go to Hughes. He's read Caffrey's unabridged file, and if he discounts the possible accidental effect Caffrey may or may not have had on Peter, there are no incidents in his history to speak of. Going to Hughes would almost certainly result in at least a lull in Caffrey's education as they brought in experts to try and sort him out, and Peter isn't willing to do that to him. Not when Caffrey is already approaching others that might be able to work with him to control them. A leave of absence never looks good on a cadet's file, and this one would have to annotate Caffrey's psychic abilities and state that they uncontrolled.

That could be enough to deny him a captaincy for the rest of his life, depending on who was on the board when Caffrey's name came up.

He can't do it. He can only imagine what his life would be like without the Defiance, and he doesn't think he could do it to any cadet without there being some egregious wrongdoing involved.

Caffrey's only wrongdoing is that he was raised by people that couldn't help him with his abilities, and that through no fault of his own.

And he has to have some kind of control over them. He had passed Starfleet testing, which includes telepathic control for Vulcan potentials, so he can't be without any skill at all in shielding. He doesn't touch people, but that's true of most Vulcans. More tellingly, he has enough control to perform parlor tricks, to engage a person or even several people with witty banter. Peter has seen him being charming, though that hasn't yet been directed at him, and he excels in all of his classes. There are no signs that his abilities are raging out of control.

Except for Peter. Maybe.

He drinks another glass of wine and forces himself to put aside Caffrey's file in order to read through the rest of them, since it's likely that tomorrow he'll be approached by at least some of them.

That night when he wakes he's already halfway through, and just manages to get his pants down in time to avoid making a mess. He cleans himself up blearily, aware that he should be more worried about this than he is, and then he's asleep again.

He wakes up the next morning with an idea, and messages Hughes before he even showers. He thinks it's a solid idea, not guaranteed to work, but likely to based on what he already knows about Caffrey. If it does work, it's certain to make their cadet/adviser relationship go much more smoothly than their relationship so far has been. Hughes' response is rapid and boils down to 'why?' Peter gives him a brief and sanitized version of his one and only conversation with Caffrey, and by the time Peter is out of the shower, Hughes has managed to get approval from the powers that be. He also mentions that the request for transfer out Caffrey had made has been stricken from his record.

Peter is as pleased with the situation as he is likely to get. He eats replicated toast and spends five minutes scanning the news, and then makes his way to his first class of the day.

There's a certain rhythm to teaching at this point, with a month and change of experience behind him. It's not the same kind of rhythm that captaining a starship has; it lacks the constancy, or it does for Peter, at least. Maybe if this was what he'd chosen for himself it would be different.

There is a rhythm, though, and Peter's glad for it since it doesn't leave a lot of time for speculation about Caffrey's probable response to learning that he now has Peter as his faculty adviser.

He teaches advanced classes in the mornings, classes that are very small since the majority of the advanced cadets are gone now. Those that are left are like Peter; they've already gleaned the potential danger of the sudden loss of more than half of the student body, and they're quietly, intensely driven. Peter tells them everything the books tell him to, but he also tells them everything he knows, things that only time and experience can really teach, things that textbooks are not designed to convey.

They listen to him tell them the realest truths about what they're training to do, and they don't flinch away from the hard facts. They are already acquainted with loss and death. They already want those truths.

In the afternoons he teaches newer cadets, some a year or two in, many in their first year at Starfleet, and he takes care to stay more closely within the materials with them. They're a little more skittish than their older counterparts, and Peter doesn't intend to drive anyone away. He suspects he's still more honest than Starfleet would approve of under normal circumstances, but doesn't let that stop him.

He's an instructor now only because they need him here. Really, he's a captain in sheep's clothing. He can take care not to frighten anyone away, but he can't change what he is.

He receives messages throughout the day from his new charges, all of them very politely Vulcan, requesting that he provide them with a time at which to meet him. By late afternoon he has messages from all of them except Caffrey.

He is not surprised.

When he unlocks his office and sits down, it is five minutes to seventeen hundred.

At seventeen hundred exactly the door chimes a notification.

He is not surprised.

"Come," he says, and Neal Caffrey walks into his office, his shoulders back and his jaw tight, his whole stance adversarial.

"Captain Burke," he says tautly.

Peter is well and truly not surprised. He points to the chair across the desk from his. "Sit down. We should talk."

Chapter Text

Neal hesitates, taken a little aback, and then sinks obediently onto the chair, his back straight. "I owe you an apology," he begins, sounding not at all like himself, the words stiff and awkward. He wants to take them back immediately and try it again, more sincerely this time.

"Save it," Burke says in what Neal is sure is his Captain Voice, and pushes a PADD across the desk toward Neal. Neal's mouth drops a little open in surprise. "If I ever need an apology from you, I'll be sure to let you know. Read that."

Neal frowns, totally turned around now, but he picks up the PADD and turns his attention toward it. As soon as he realizes what it is, his grip tightens on the device. He cuts his gaze sharply toward Captain Burke, but his face is almost totally neutral; he doesn't know what to think. He doesn't even have a question to ask. His mind reaches out, but Captain Burke is as opaque as ever.

"Read it," Captain Burke merely repeats.

Neal takes a breath and turns his attention toward the PADD. It doesn't take him long. He reads as fast as most Vulcans do, which is to say, at speeds which appear superhuman. He can feel Captain Burke watching him read, which doesn't actually stop him from going wide-eyed as he reads through what seems like an almost impossibly successful mission report. He finds himself tapping the PADD rapidly as he rushes through it, and at the end he slumps back into his chair feeling dazed.

"I didn't know you lost crew," is what he finally says, meeting Captain Burke's gaze a little more hesitantly this time. "I'm sorry."

"So am I," Captain Burke says. He takes the PADD back and sets it aside. "I have authorization to let you, and only you, read the report on that incident, so I expect you to keep the details to yourself until Starfleet declassifies it."

Neal blinks, but says, "Yes, sir." Then, because he just can't help it, he says, "Eleven Birds of Prey." His gaze shifts to the PADD at Captain Burke's elbow and then back to Captain Burke. "I can't believe it."

"Neither could they," Captain Burke says. "Or it wouldn't have worked. But I paid for it."

Neal nods seriously. Thanks to the report, he knows the extent of the damage to the Defiance as well as the number of casualties. The latter is actually minimal considering the success of the mission, but he wouldn't dream of saying so to Captain Burke, who he is certain would not appreciate it. The former, however, had been substantial. Captain Burke's report indicates a fairly massive structural degradation of the port side and the aft section. "How long will it take to fix her?"

Captain Burke sits back in his chair. "At least a year," he sighs. "Which means you're stuck with me for at least that long. Is this going to be a problem?"

"No, sir," Neal says, more hoping he's right than he is sure of it. And then he adds, "I really am sorry about that. It was inexcusable; I can offer no defense." Because Captain Burke really does deserve a sincere apology for that.

Captain Burke doesn't even pause.

"I told you, if I ever need an apology from you, I'll let you know." Neal blinks again, and then settles back into his seat. "Good," Captain Burke says. "You'll have questions. Everyone always does. I can write a forty page report detailing it right down to the perfume my science officer was wearing, and there are still always questions."

Neal smiles; Captain Burke doesn't smile back, but his face does lighten a little, as though he's only moments away from smiling himself. Neal would like to get a real smile out of the captain, but feels pretty good about this expression, too. "Was she wearing perfume?" he asks, still smiling.

"She was," Captain Burke says, and loses the battle and smiles just a little. Neal resists the urge to fist-pump. "Something with Bayberry in it."

Neal's grin widens, but just like everyone, he does still have questions. The one he starts with, however, seems to surprise Captain Burke. "How did you even come up with the idea?"

Neal isn't talking about technical explanations. It's not even exactly tactics that he's looking for. He genuinely wants the actual origin point of the idea itself.

Captain Burke hesitates for a few seconds, and Neal reaches helplessly for his mind again. It's there, solid and expansive, but Neal still can't read him. He doesn't know what makes Captain Burke hand over the mission report without blinking but pause before admitting how he'd come up with the idea. It's a mystery.

"I come from Oklahoma," Captain Burke says slowly; Neal can almost feel him thinking, but has no idea of what. This close, it should be much easier than it ever had been in class, but all he gets is the impression of a mind in motion. "The soil there is red. Some minerals in it." Neal nods once, a little confused but attentive. "There was a kid a street up from me, a couple of years older. Every time it rained, which was almost all the time in spring, his life was apparently not complete without flinging balls of mud at me. I was smaller and not as fast. I flung mud back at him, but I hardly ever got him. Then one year, shortly after the mud flinging began, I got the idea that I didn't actually have to hit him to get him just as muddy as I always ended up. I got my hands on some firecrackers and spent some time practicing, and the next time we met up I didn't actually aim at him. He didn't bother to dodge much, as my aim had never been that great -- a mud ball is not an ideal projectile weapon -- but I aimed close enough to him that when the firecrackers went off they splattered him pretty spectacularly. It was timing that was important, really." Captain Burke pauses. Neal's lips are twitching, and Captain Burke looks close to smiling himself. "We only had another two or three rounds of it after that. Apparently his mother had some objections to washing mud stains out of his clothes. So did mine, for that matter, but I think my mother was a little more patient in her boys-will-be-boys attitude."

"So you just adapted mud slinging for shuttle craft slinging?" Neal asks, less smiling this time, more serious, though he can see how it would work, both tactically and mechanically.

"The Klingon's shields are weak in some spots; you'll get into that more when you get to battle tactics classes." Neal already knows this, but sees no point in bringing it up. He listens intently instead. "There were too many of them to pick them off with phaser spreads, and our supply of photon torpedoes was finite. The first batch of shuttles they didn't even fire on. I'm guessing they didn't see a shieldless shuttle craft as a danger. We rammed their starboard side near the underside of the wing and detonated the torpedo in the shuttle at the same time. It did enough damage to take them all out with phaser fire to the detonation site."

"You just made a hole to shoot through," Neal says; he can hear the wonder in his own voice and is vaguely embarrassed by it, but he's too interested to pay attention to it. "And you flew them from the bridge?" Neal says, though he knows that it's true from the report. "You, I mean. Personally."

"Not the first four. My tactical guy handled those, but we took a hit and he went down. I handled the other eight myself. The Klingons fired on them the second time and I had to do some fancy maneuvering to avoid getting hit. It wasn't until I launched the last four that they started really targeting the shuttles instead of us, though. That's when one of them took it upon themselves to target my aft section, the shuttlebay itself. I managed to take three of the remaining Birds of Prey out. The last one fell back, and I lost that last shuttle to enemy fire."

"Were there secondary explosions from armed torpedoes in the shuttle bay?" Neal asks; the report hadn't explicitly stated either way.

"We didn't arm them until they were ready to hit," Captain Burke says. "There was damage from exploding shuttle craft in that attack, but no torpedo damage."

"How did you set up the autofly function from the bridge?" Neal asks. He's on the edge of his seat now, alight with interest, impressed to an almost unbearable degree, partly because Captain Burke so clearly has no ego about any of it. It was a brilliant offensive and defensive strategy, and Captain Burke is one of those men that just looks at it like he was doing his job.

"It was already set up," Captain Burke tells him. "When I made captain, it was one of the first things I put in place. A pilot override from the bridge seemed like a logical modification to me. And I've used it before, as decoys. The only hard part was figuring out a way to force the torpedoes to stay inactive until triggered, and I have a brilliant engineer. Once I told him what I wanted, he had it done in minutes."

"So you shielded the Argos with the Defiance with all power diverted to your port shields and sent out shuttle-missiles to distract the Klingons." He gives Captain Burke a sharp look which Captain Burke returns mildly. "Did you think it was going to work?" Neal is betting no, or at least not as well as it had.

"Not as well as it did," Captain Burke admits. "I was looking to cause a distraction, any distraction. I thought the possibility of it was there, but I honestly expected the Klingons in direct engagement with the Argos and the Defiance to fall back and regroup. I didn't think they'd just stay put and take it." Captain Burke smiles faintly; Neal pretends he isn't violently attracted to the captain at this very moment. "I was lucky to be wrong."

"So you were playing for time," Neal says, satisfied, pleased, impressed. That Captain Burke could do what he did and succeed at it was phenomenal skill; that he had done it knowing that the best he could really hope to get was time was phenomenal leadership, phenomenal devotion, phenomenal valor. "Time for the Argos to retreat with thrusters and their limited impulse power."

"Yes," Captain Burke says, sounding glad to be explaining to Neal that it hadn't been his intention to destroy a third of a Klingon armada. "I meant to make some room to get her out of there. That's all. The rest was luck."

"The rest was skill and luck," Neal corrects, and would add more adjectives if he thought the captain would accept them; as it is, Neal thinks he'd just be embarrassed and potentially irritated. "It could never have happened without your idea, which was ingenious, wherever it came from."

Captain Burke says nothing for a long moment, then he says, "Fifty-one of my crew died."

"Six billion Vulcans died," Neal says, gentle, but serious. "I know it doesn't make your loss any lesser, but try to keep some perspective, Captain. You had to know going into it that there would be crew casualties. Everyone in the engagement lost crew."

"I knew," Captain Burke admits. "But I wasn't ready."

"I think that's part of your job," Neal says, quietly sympathetic. "I don't think you're supposed to ever be ready."

Captain Burke clears his throat and quite obviously changes the subject. "Tell me how much control you have over your telepathic gifts."

Neal is fairly sure he doesn't manage to conceal all of his surprise at the question. He'd passed the tests Starfleet requires of touch telepaths, and has no idea how Captain Burke has any idea that he isn't in total control of his gifts. He feels himself stiffen, and Captain Burke points a finger at him.

"You can treat this as completely confidential," he says. "I'm not going to report you. But I want to know what limitations you're working under and what you're doing to get it under control."

"What makes you think...?" Neal begins, and Captain Burke waves him silent. Neal, disarmed and not at all pleased about it, shuts his mouth.

"I heard you talking to T'Kreen." Captain Burke doesn't look like he feels at all bad about it, either. "Future conversations on the matter would be much better pursued in more private surroundings."

Neal feels his face heat; Captain Burke watches as though merely interested, but makes no comment on the matter.

He doesn't say anything for a long moment, trying to decide what to tell, how much and to what extent. At length, he responds based more on Captain Burke's candor in response to his own questions than he does because Captain Burke needs to know. "I have the touch telepathy almost entirely under control. I need stronger barriers for that, because when touches do get through, it's pretty overwhelming, even with the slightest touch, sometimes through my clothes. The Vulcans I've spoken with about it have some suggestions about undergarments that nullify some of that effect." He pauses, uncertain, then sighs a little. "But I also have a small range of proximate telepathy that Vulcans either don't have or have trained out of them very young. T'Kreen thinks it's probably the latter. If I can see you, I can touch your mind. Some minds are harder than others; your mind is almost perfectly opaque." He doesn't bother hiding the fact that he finds this faintly annoying. "It requires either close proximity or eye contact, and the thoughts and feelings I get from it are difficult to parse. I get more emotion and some imagery with it than any actual words or thoughts." He glances at Captain Burke through his lashes, almost insurmountably hesitant about this last one. Captain Burke merely waits like he knows more is coming. "I can also temporarily... disable another mind. It happens like a short circuit. I send my mind out to theirs and for a matter of a few seconds, that mind is a null, incapable of thought or action." He shifts uncomfortably. "I'm speculating some of that. I don't have very much data."

Captain Burke brows arch in surprise. Neal ducks his head, studying his hands clenched tight on the arms of his chair.

"Had a few fights of your own as a kid?" Captain Burke asks finally.

Neal relaxes a little in his chair and takes a deep breath. "A few," he says. "It turns out that being three times stronger than your average human makes most people think better of it."

"But you had enough to discover that trick," Captain Burke says.

"No," Neal says softly. "I discovered that trick on one of my teachers."

He doesn't expand on that, but he can see from Captain Burke's face that he's made the connection anyway; a darkness angles across his features that Neal half-recognizes.

"Did you report it?" Captain Burke demands.

Neal flushes again and shakes his head. "I was scared and different. I didn't think anyone would believe me."

Captain Burke says nothing to that for long seconds; Neal can't read his mind, still (damnit), but he can feel the captain a little, a low edge of anger that isn't directed at Neal. "If you change your mind, let me know," Captain Burke finally says seriously. "I'll take care of it, and your name will never come up."

Neal offers a smaller version of his usual smile, though it's just as sincere. He believes Captain Burke absolutely. "It was years ago," he says, almost easily.

Captain Burke frowns, but apparently is going to accept it; of course, what else could he do? He is not a mind reader.

"Your course study," Captain Burke says, and Neal relaxes a little more in the chair. "You've got quite a spread going on. Is there a reason for that, or are you merely pursuing whatever catches your interest?"

Neal frowns a little at the question; he's got a method, and he's almost sure Captain Burke knows it. "A little bit of both," he says. "I got a lot of the Vulcan traits that let me move through material quickly and retain it easily, which means I can spread myself out a little further without danger of overwhelming myself. I want the command track, primarily, but I want a solid background in the fundamentals of other aspects of starship operations. I think I can cover it in four years, but I might stretch it to five, just to make sure I get all of what I want."

"It took me six," Captain Burke says matter-of-factly. "I approve of what you're doing now, but I want a list of what you intend to take over the next four or five years. I won't be your adviser for the whole time you're here, but I spent my cadet years cultivating a spread of skills, and I can tell you what I've used and what I haven't since I graduated."

"You want to cherry pick my classes for me," Neal says, smiling only a little, so as not to spook the captain.

"I want to steer you in the right direction, if I can," Captain Burke says sternly. "None of what you're taking now is pointless, but if I can get an idea of what you'll be pursuing later, I can give you a pretty clear picture of what I used and what I wish I'd learned."

"Is there a lot of that?" Neal asks, and privately doubts it. Anything this man hadn't known that he'd later wished he knew he would have merely made the time to learn.

"A few things," Captain Burke says. "We've had enough transporter issues that I wish I had more understanding of their workings, and I'm not as good at the helm as I wish I was."

"Good enough to blow up Klingons with shuttle craft," Neal says, sotto voice.

"Not the same," Captain Burke insists. "I've always been good at tactical. The helm just isn't something I've done with any regularity in years."

"You could get simulator time, you know," Neal suggests. "Maybe audit a few classes."

Captain Burke looks a little surprised; Neal has to work not to gloat. "I'll think about it," he says, and Neal thinks he really will.

"I'll get a list together," Neal says, straightening. "It'll be a week or so for me to pick and choose. I don't have a lot of free time."

Captain Burke nods. "I've seen your course spread; I'm aware of your free time. And I encourage you to continue to work with T'Kreen on your abilities. They may be things you can correct on your own. But if you can't, I expect you to come to me with the problem and we'll work out some kind of solution."

"It'll be on the record," Neal says, frowning.

"Only if you're completely out of control," Captain Burke says seriously. "As long as you're not doing any worse than you are right now, I'm not putting anything into my reports. I don't want you off track any more than you do."

Neal chews at his lip for a long moment, and then says, "Why not? After what I did to you, you'd have every right."

"You behaved badly," Captain Burke agrees. "But there were mitigating circumstances, and there was no harm done. If anything, I want you to be on an even keel just so the same thing doesn't happen again."

"It won't." Neal makes his voice flat and serious. "I won't allow it to."

"I believe you," Captain Burke says, and he sounds like he really does. "Get your four or five year plan to me within a week or so. In the meantime, I have Vulcans showing up here within five minutes or so, with appointments."

Neal blinks. "You got all the Vulcans?" he asks.

Captain Burke nods.

"And they all made appointments?" He bites back a groan. He absolutely loves the way he keeps showing up in front of the captain and looking like a total asshole.

"Don't worry about it," Captain Burke says. "I knew you'd be here first. I allowed time for it."

"I'll make an appointment next time," he promises.

"Don't worry about it," Captain Burke repeats. "Come any time that you need to."

Neal stands up, shifting from foot to foot. "I'm sorry," he says, face tipped down.

"What did I tell you?"

Even with his face tipped down, Neal can see Captain Burke's lips quirk faintly. "If you need an apology, you'll let me know," Neal repeats obediently.

"Damn right," Captain Burke says, almost smiling. Neal's almost-smile widens into an actual smile. "Now get out of here."

"Sir," Neal says, tapping his heels together smartly and spins on his heel, exiting the room.

Chapter Text

Compared to Caffrey, the Vulcans are swift and easy to handle. They listen intently when Peter talks to them about their chosen paths, and take notes. He requests their future coursework plans as well, and an impressive number of them already have it ready for him. Peter spends time asking why this and not that and explaining why he would recommend this over another thing. They're attentive, but Peter gets the idea that most of them are going to do whatever they're going to do, regardless of what Peter says. He doesn't even blame them, much. He's a new instructor, a new adviser, and a human on top of that.

A few of them are actively engaged, however, T'Kreen being one of them, and Peter is more satisfied than he would have expected to feel like he has an impact on them.

It's definitely not what he would pursue given his choice of pursuits, but it's not bad, either.

And he likes the Vulcans. They're very cognizant of their futures and very open about their goals. It makes them easy to advise.

Hughes messages him later that night to ask him how it had gone, and Peter responds that he hadn't had any trouble, and he appreciates the Vulcans' candor. It takes a few minutes for Hughes to message him back, and then it's a long stream of 'ahahahahahahahahahahaha' appended with: 'Trust you to get along well with the Vulcans.'

Peter rolls his eyes and doesn't message back.

He eats in, grateful that Hughes' message hadn't been about dinner, has a glass of wine, and reads over Vulcan class schedules, annotating anything he thinks should be different and why. They don't need it much. They all seem to know what they want to do and what to take to reach that goal. Most of what he annotates is slight alterations in elective courses and some ancillary courses they might find helpful from a command perspective. He does less work on those cadets not on the command track; he knows less about what they'll need. He does spend some time looking over primary and elective courses for those cadets and cross checking them with the dossiers of officers in those areas he's known and worked with well.

He goes to bed late, but not so late that he doesn't awaken sometime in the night with his hand already wrapped around his cock, aware of heat and need and not much else, though it lasts a little longer this time than it had before, and he's panting and sweating by the time it's over and he's mopping up his chest and belly with a towelette.

He doesn't think about it; he's already chosen the path of deliberate avoidance, and he doesn't see the point in stopping now.

He rolls over onto his side and goes back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Neal spends the evening getting together his course spread for Captain Burke instead of doing astrophysics like he should be. Halfway through he's diverted by the degree to which his course study trends toward engineering and backtracks for two hours to find the point at which the balance skews in order to correct it. By that time he's missed normal cafeteria hours, which means he gets replicated food or no food at all. That's the point at which he realizes he's spent five hours and only annotated about one eighth of the information he'd promised Captain Burke within a week.

He munches disconsolately on his fake turkey sandwich and considers the messy sprawl of books and papers and the twelve open tabs on his PADD. If things don't go substantially more quickly after this, he's going to end up looking like an asshole in front of the captain for a third time, and Neal won't hear of it.

He messages Captain Burke's PADD a little hesitantly -- it seems weirdly personal to do it, though he can't think why -- but determinedly.

Captain Burke,

I've come to the conclusion that I seriously underestimated the time it would take me to gather a four or five year course spread. At the pace I'm putting together materials, I'm guessing I'll have something comprehensive within three weeks. I can put together something less comprehensive earlier, if you require it.

Neal Caffrey

His fingers hesitate over the send button for several long seconds and he realizes his palms are sweaty for what he believes may be the first time in his life.

"For the love of God, he's just a guy," Neal says, and punches the send button viciously.

The sentiment is neither entirely accurate nor entirely false, but it does calm Neal somewhat to have said it.

Peter Burke is a starship captain and a decorated Starfleet officer whom Neal both likes and admires. He'd turned the tide of the battle in the Laurentian system, saving the lives of almost a thousand Starfleet members. He'd risked his life and the lives of his men and women who served under him because it was the only chance the Argos had. He'd knowingly allowed a telepath to trespass in his mind, so he must have almost nothing to hide. He's a better teacher than at least half of Neal's other instructors, at least some of whom actually are teachers by profession. He'd taken the time to examine Neal's course study for this year. He'd taken the care to procure the mission report so that the two of them might have a shot at working together. He'd forced Neal to acknowledge his telepathic issues and made it perfectly plain that he expected Neal to deal with them. He'd treated Neal as though he wasn't holding anything against him.

So, no, not just a guy. But still just a man. Neal has never seen grief and guilt more plainly on anyone's face than on Captain Burke's when he'd mentioned his dead crew members. He doesn't even have to be a telepath for that. He doesn't have to read Captain Burke's mind to know he doesn't want or need the medal they'd given him, or that he doesn't regret what he had done, regardless of what it had cost him to do it. He's a remarkable man, but still just a man.

Neal has to get over admiring him and being embarrassingly badly behaved in front of him and get to a point where the two of them can work together, and right now that has to start with him being able to message the man without having sweaty palms. The rest will work itself out if he can just get past the stupid things that are already done.

Captain Burke has clearly put them aside; Neal has no idea why he's having such a hard time doing the same.

His PADD dings and Neal feels his belly do a little flip-flop when he sees the message is from the captain.

"Ah," he says aloud, leaving the PADD where it's sitting for the moment. "I see."

And he does see, but he's going to have to put that aside just as surely as the bad behavior. It's not even a matter of what Neal wants or doesn't want. As long as Captain Burke remains who he is, there is never going to be anything to be sweaty-palmed about. It's not even a question. No mind reading necessary.

Peter Burke would no sooner enter into a relationship with a cadet under his instruction than he would let the Argos go down to avoid risking his own ship. It's simply never going to happen.

Neal sits and breathes for a minute or so, letting that reality integrate in his mind, and when he finally reaches for the PADD, his hands are dry.

Take all the time you need.

Burke

The brusque signature line makes Neal's belly flip-flop again, and he sighs and puts the PADD back on his desk.

This is so exactly what he does not need for his first year as a Starfleet cadet. He could have lived a happy, productive life without ever having to experience the fact of utter fruitlessness that comes from having a crush on a man like Captain Burke.

He rakes a hand through his hair, and works hard to think about his course spread or astrophysics or the forbidden degrees of engineering he'd excised from his study plan or anything other than the way Captain Burke's face lightens with humor, or whether he's as lean as he looks, or if he's ripped under his blacks.

"Shit," Neal says, and turns out the little light above his desk.

Under his blanket, his breath making the air moist and warm, he lets himself think of whatever crosses his mind, his hand rough and punishing on his cock.

It doesn't matter if he has this.

He's the mind reader, not Captain Burke.

Chapter Text

Once the Vulcans seem to get the idea that Peter is genuinely working hard to get them in the courses best suited for them, they're all over him. It had taken just one explanation to a science track cadet about why Peter recommended this class over that by comparisons to dossiers of crew he'd worked with, and that had been enough. His office hours become booked solid, so much so that he has to extend them to cover students he's not advising, but who merely have questions about his classes.

Caffrey settles into a group consisting of about half Vulcans and half humans, and he is smiling and laughing every time Peter sees him, an infectious, scoundrel's grin that Peter has to pretend not to see, lest he return it inadvertently. He's attentive in class and asks quick, insightful questions, and if Peter was ever going to take joy in teaching -- and he's closer to doing so than he'd imagined possible for the first month he'd been here -- then students like Caffrey would be the reason why.

He, and the Vulcans, to be fair, really listen to what he has to say. They absorb knowledge quickly and fluently, and integrate it in a way that not many of the other races demonstrate. Those tests that he does give out -- relatively few, honestly -- come back perfect from the Vulcans and nearly so from Caffrey. Caffrey's only real problem is that he tends to annotate his tests with what he thinks would be better questions and why. Peter quietly corrects this problem by assigning him to compose a paper on each test, after it's taken, annotating those same facts, and some of them are good, solid suggestions that Peter picks up and runs with.

Peter takes Caffrey's advice and audits a class in transporter function and repair, and if he has to stay up later than he'd like to get classwork done, he considers it well worth the time.

Caffrey spends the first few minutes of most class periods performing telepathic tricks intermingled with sleight of hand until he notices Peter's presence and announces, "The Captain is in!"

The first few times it happens Peter merely ignores it, but the rest of the class picks up the phrase with terrifying alacrity, and soon his entrance is always marked by someone saying, "The Captain is in."

Peter responds with, "The Captain wishes you were all sitting where you belonged," the fourth or fifth time, and the entirety of the class settles neatly into their usual seats, smiling as though Peter had just told the best joke ever. Caffrey, especially, is beaming at him, and Peter feels harried and distracted throughout the class, though he's sure enough of his own poker face to feel comfortable that the cadets aren't aware of his distractedness.

He spends more time with Caffrey than any of the rest of his advisees, mostly because Caffrey wants more out of his Starfleet education than the rest of them seem to. He reaches for things he neither has the time nor the ability to pursue, and Peter has to take care not to bruise his feelings while he's slicing down his classwork into something manageable.

After three weeks, Peter says, "This is five years of course work," and sits back in his chair.

"It's four," Caffrey argues, leaning back in his own chair as well, and lacing his fingers behind his neck. "I know my limitations, Captain Burke. With a little rearrangement of scheduling and at least one course in independent study, it's four."

Peter sighs. "Yes, you're very smart, but it's still not a good idea to cram your classes all together like that. Some classes take more effort than others, and you have to allow for some down time someplace, cadet."

"I have three evenings and one weekend day clear," Caffrey argues persuasively, his lips curled into a little pout. "You don't trust me to know my own strengths."

Peter's lips quirk, but he manages not to smile. "Quite the contrary. I just don't think it's necessary to overextend those strengths. Being here for five years instead of four isn't the end of the world."

"Kirk did it in three," Caffrey grumbles.

"Kirk mainlined the command classes. I understand from his crew that he's catching up on hands-on knowledge during mission down time. It's better than nothing, but it's not necessarily the best way to do it. Besides." Peter sits forward. "We both know you could do it in three if you really wanted to."

Caffrey grins at him and Peter rolls his eyes.

"I'm telling you, there's something to be said for staying in the Academy long enough to really reach the full spread of your talents."

"I heard you're auditing Foster's advanced course on transporter function and repair," Caffrey says, grinning a cat that ate the canary grin.

"I am. And I'm glad for the suggestion. If I'm still here next semester, I'll be auditing full helm control. I'm good at it as it is, but not great. My reasoning as a student was that the helm has a built in backup with tactical adjacent, but..."

"... but sometimes tactical is too busy to do both," Caffrey says, nodding with a little frown. "I heard you requested a separate weapons console added to the Defiance?"

"How do you know all this stuff?" Peter demands, and Caffrey just grins. "It's a secondary console, again in the event of a catastrophic failure of helm and tactical."

"I think it's smart. Starfleet thinks you're paranoid."

"Starfleet can think whatever they want as long as they do what I say," Peter grumbles. He shoves the PADD back toward Caffrey. "Okay, condense it and let's see your four year plan." Caffrey taps it for about four seconds and then hands it back over. Peter studies it for long moments. He doesn't see anything obviously missing, and the spread is still good. "You're shooting for tactical?" he asks finally.

"Temporarily. I can fly, but I'm better with numbers, and I'm a terrific shot."

Peter taps at the edge of his PADD. "And your independent study?"

"Last term," Caffrey says, the smile dropping away from his face. "The study of psychic enhancement in the progeny of psychic parents."

Peter rocks back in his chair, genuinely surprised.

Caffrey regards him sphinx-like, but says, "By that time I'll have had four semester breaks to get a handle on my abilities. I've read everything there is, manifests and case studies, but they've all been written by doctors, not by those affected by the issues attendant." He cocks his chin a little. "I'm hoping to have it approved as my dissertation."

Peter thinks about that for a long moment. "You'll have to have established your abilities within your third year at the very latest to get it approved. That only gives you two, maybe three breaks, total."

Caffrey bobs his head once in agreement, but says, "If I don't have control of it by then, I'll lay the problem out for the board of governors and request help." He looks none too happy at the prospect, but his face is set. "T'Kreen is right. Anything I can't control has to be considered a liability, most especially in a command position. I can't afford to make a place for myself aboard the bridge crew of a starship without being certain of my complete control."

Peter huffs out a breath. "At least you know it," he says, as it had been a genuine concern of his. Caffrey's manner is so consistently charming and expansive that it's hard to even see the Vulcan in him sometimes. Other times, it's impossible to miss. Peter had been seriously considering the necessity of talking to Caffrey about graduating Starfleet with untried psychic abilities, and it's a relief to find that Caffrey had already made exigency plans to avoid that possibility.

"Even so, what I've got is no less controllable than that of an average Vulcan teenager. It's just more sensitive and has a distance aspect to it that I think resembles a Betazoid's natural empathy more than the Vulcan touch telepathy. The other... I just don't know. I can't find anything in my research, and I obviously can't ask for help experimenting with it."

"Why not?" Peter asks. "I'm assuming there weren't any lasting harmful effects, or there would have been some kind of report made."

Caffrey pauses for two or three heartbeats, and finally says: "I've only done it the once, which isn't a large enough data pool to really gauge the effects, primarily. Secondarily, however, I sincerely doubt that there would be a group of people willing to have me neutralize their brain for practice."

"T'Kreen?"

"I haven't asked," Caffrey says, looking down in a way that Peter suspects means that Caffrey thinks T'Kreen would agree if he were to ask.

"I'd do it," he hears himself say, and then blinks in surprise. Luckily Caffrey's still looking down at his hands when it happens, before glancing up sharply. "And I'm betting some, if not all of your Vulcan friends would be interested enough to give it a try."

"We don't know if it's safe," Caffrey repeats, sounding both aghast and a little stunned. "It's possible I'm doing actual damage to your brain tissue when I do it."

"We can have a medical officer on staff," Peter says. "I know of at least two that I'd trust to run a blind study and not go blabbing about it. One of them is my chief medical officer on the Defiance. She's been bored to tears since she got planet-side. She'd jump at the chance."

Caffrey looks away, his jaw jumping. "It's against regulations," he says stiffly.

"No, it isn't," Peter says patiently. "There are no regulations governing this, since it's never come up before. It merely skirts the edges of regulations, and if we're careful, we can work within medical regulation almost entirely, which won't leave much room for Starfleet regs to apply at all. And medical records are confidential. Even if Starfleet does object, they can't subpoena a medical study without proof of wrongdoing, which we won't give them."

Caffrey gives him a slow blink. "Do you know," he says calmly, almost conversationally, "that if Kirk hadn't managed to save the planet exactly when he did, it would have been you in front of the board of governors and every cadet attending while you accepted your medal of valor."

Peter tenses at the idea. "Thank God he did, then," he says with real feeling. "I'm not interested in being a hero. I'm interested in doing my job, doing it right and doing it well."

"And this is how you captain your ship?" Caffrey asks. "Unpredictable medical studies designed to circumnavigate Starfleet's control over its cadets?"

"This is how I run my life," Peter corrects, not at all offended. "I do what I feel is right, regardless of the situation. If that falls within Starfleet regs, that's all to the good. If it doesn't, but it's going to save the lives of my crew or the integrity of my ship, then I do what seems best at the time."

"And you think training my uncontrolled psychic abilities is what seems best at this time?" Caffrey asks seriously.

Peter pauses, half unwilling to stroke the kid's ego, and then shrugs. "Based on your aptitude tests and your classes so far, you're going to be one of the best cadets of your generation," he finally says. "I'll do whatever I can do to aid you in that endeavor."

"You have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, Captain," Caffrey says wryly.

"That's what makes me a Captain," Peter says truthfully. "You have no family, no guardians, and no contacts on Earth. Who should do it, except me?"

Caffrey looks away, gaze a little distant, but his grip on the arms of the chair is tight. "If you can arrange a controlled study with medical supervision, I'll submit to it."

"I'll need the names of the Vulcans aware of your abilities," Peter says.

Caffrey looks at him for a long moment. "All of them, Captain. They can sense it."

"We'll need human and potentially subjects of other races for adequate results," Peter says.

"Let's start with you," Caffrey says, without meeting Peter's gaze. "If you're unharmed, we can recruit for a medical study just like we would for any other medical study."

"I'll get to work on it," Peter agrees.

Caffrey stands abruptly, pauses, and then says, "Permission to be dismissed?"

Peter is sure Caffrey must be in high emotion indeed to even ask the question. Far more normal for Caffrey to come slouching into Peter's office whenever he wants something and then slouch out of it again in the same way, without bothering to ask for permission for either.

"We don't have to do this," Peter says. "At least, not now."

"The reasoning is sound," Caffrey says almost tonelessly, very Vulcanesque.

Peter somehow doesn't sigh. "Dismissed."

Caffrey leaves with his back stiff and his shoulders squared.

Chapter Text

Neal goes straight to T'Kreen. She has the distinction of being the only person Neal has ever mind-melded with, and he wants to find out if she thinks it's likely that his ability might permanently harm someone years before he ever lets that ability loose on Captain Burke.

She's at dinner, but she's almost finished when Neal sinks down into a seat that immediately opens up next to her. Neal nods at the Vulcan who'd made way for him gratefully. He must either look or feel like something is wrong because T'Kreen immediately asks, "What has happened?"

"Nothing, yet," Neal says, and waves away the look on her face, which for a Vulcan, is fairly blatant disbelief. "Not yet, I promise," he repeats. "But I need to talk to you."

"I have had enough to eat," she says immediately and stands.

Neal waits for her to bus her tray, shifting a little from foot to foot. She regards him doing this with a faint line between her brows. "Not here," he says, and she merely nods and they go back to T'Kreen's room because her roommate has evening classes three nights a week. She forces a cup of replicated tea on him when they get inside, and because it's easier than arguing, Neal drinks it. They settle across from each other at her low table, which is how it always is except for the one time in which they'd lain in her bed for the meld, because she'd warned him that the first time was often physically and psychically disorienting.

It had been, both, but it had also been fairly interesting. He wouldn't say a mind meld was the only way to make dear friends, but he'd definitely say it was a good way. He can see, equally clearly, how it could make vicious enemies. If he'd known what he was asking of her when he had asked it, he's not sure he would have done it. He still doesn't really understand why she'd agreed. He knows some of the reasons; he'd read them from her mind while they'd been melded. But he doesn't know everything she has ever thought or done; it doesn't work like that. So he can't be sure of the main reason she'd agreed to meld with him.

But still, he had to assume she'd seen more of him than he had of her; she'd been training to do it her entire life.

"When you melded with me, did you see what happened with my primary school teacher, Mr. Watts?" He can't think of any way of asking more plainly without actually disclosing the ability, and he wants to know if she's known all along that he could do it, and hasn't mentioned.

"Yes," she says at once, and Neal leans hard against the little table in front of him.

"Why didn't you say?" he demands.

She arches a brow slightly. "It's an incident that still causes you some distress. If you didn't wish to revisit it, it was not my place to force you to."

Neal would like to be irritated, but it's a very Vulcan sentiment, and he can't say he's really all that surprised. "Then you know what I did to him?" he presses on.

"Yes," she agrees, regarding him from beneath level brows. "It was in defense of self; you should lay no blame on yourself."

"I don't," he half-lies, and then changes his mind. "I do, a little, but mostly because I scared the crap out of myself when it happened. I've been worried that I did something permanently harmful to him ever since."

"And the thing he would have done to you, would it not have been permanently harmful?" she asks, sounding actually a little pissed, in a quiet, Vulcan-y way.

"Yes, of course it would," Neal says impatiently, batting a hand at her. "I know that, it's not about that, okay? It's about my independent study."

She blinks and waits for him to get to the point.

Vulcans.

"I have to have all of my abilities cataloged and under control by the time I present my independent study and my dissertation statements to the boards. All of them. Captain Burke volunteered to let me take his brain offline under controlled medical conditions, but I don't want to do it if it might hurt him. Do you have any idea at all whether or not what I can do is harmful to the person it's done to?"

It's a totally unfair question, but he has no one else to ask.

T'Kreen tilts her head slightly as though considering Neal. "I know you have no evidence that the only person this was done to came to irreparable harm. A data pool of one is so small as to be negligible, but as it's the only one you have, you must assume that it is correct at this juncture."

"I don't want to assume that and end up giving Captain Burke an embolism," Neal objects loudly enough that T'Kreen's left eyebrow twitches. He lowers his voice. "I was hoping that there was something you could tell in the meld," he admits. "Or even that you heard some old Vulcan legends about it; something to go on other than the one time in my life that I did this, while I was scared out of my mind." He throws up his hands. "I'm not even sure I can do it on purpose!"

"It is your intention, however, to find out," T'Kreen says. "And since the captain has already volunteered his mind for a test on the subject, it's likely you'll discover both at the same time."

"You are the least comforting person I know," Neal says bitterly and puts his forehead on the table.

"I am a Vulcan," T'Kreen says, sounding tonelessly smug somehow. "If compassion was what you sought, perhaps you should have consulted a Betazoid."

"You're hilarious," Neal says bitingly. "I know you're compassionate, I've been inside your mind. Now you're just being mean."

"Would you be here, and so distressed, if the test you are undertaking was to be performed upon a total stranger?" T'Kreen asks meanly.

Neal doesn't say anything, but rocks his head back and forth against the smooth tabletop, feeling it cool his brow.

T'Kreen lets him stew for almost two full minutes before she says, "I do not believe it to be harmful."

Neal lifts his head and looks hopefully at her.

She tilts her head fractionally and says, "There are 'old Vulcan legends' that resemble what you recall of what you did. It was a contest of stamina, according to legend, from a time when our people were still savages. They are little more than fragments, but if they are accurate, then we can at least speculate that your ability is of similar nature and stems from your Vulcan genetics rather than from your human ones."

"How old?" Neal asks.

"Hundreds of thousands of years old," she tells him, a little gently, for her. "I have looked into this talent, Neal. If it is of Vulcan origin, no one has practiced it or reported it in ten thousand generations."

Neal puts his forehead back on the table. "Crap," he says.

"Your feelings for the captain aside," T'Kreen says meanly, "he is an ideal test subject. He's fully human, strong and healthy and in the prime of his life. The medical results should be easily dissected, as his previous records can be only months old at the least. And he knows about this talent and is willing to put himself in your hands, which is, perhaps, the most desirable factor in the matter."

"You're so mean," Neal says forlornly.

"I will, of course, be the first Vulcan you attempt to use this ability on," T'Kreen says.

Neal lifts his head again. "Hey, no," he objects. "I didn't mean..."

"You will require multiple tests on multiple species," she says implacably. "Captain Burke is only preceding me as he was aware of the tests existence previous to my knowledge."

Neal is awkwardly touched and less awkwardly fond. "Yeah, I should have talked to you. I just. Wasn't sure you knew."

"Your shame on this matter is illogical and potentially harmful," she tells him seriously. "I suggest you seek an injunction against your former teacher and some form of counsel."

"No," Neal says seriously. "Absolutely not. I won't discuss it."

T'Kreen, at least, knows to take Neal at his word. "Very well. I have stated my suggestion. You're at your own discretion. When will you know about the time and place of this study?"

Chapter Text

Peter outlines the study for Elizabeth, his Chief Medical Officer, who considers it for a day and a half before she has an outline for a study on his desk. Peter has always liked her get-to-it attitude, has always liked her just in general, and if he were anything other than what he is, he probably would have made a move on her. She's made it fairly plain that a move would be well-received. And there are no Starfleet regs against fraternization, merely sexual misconduct. It's simply something that Peter can't see himself doing. Too complicated.

His relationship with Elizabeth is otherwise great, however, and she's nearly beside herself at the prospect of running a psychic study involving a half-Vulcan with previously undocumented psychic abilities. Peter tells her twice that the whole thing is entirely classified before she interrupts him with an impatient eyebrow. "Peter, I know every STD passed around your ship over the last four years, which means I know who every crew member is sleeping with at any given time. If I can avoid the temptation of workplace gossip in that environment, I don't think you have much to be concerned about with your one single top secret study."

Peter doesn't mention it again.

Elizabeth is also terrifyingly efficient at gathering up people to be used as guinea pigs as regards Caffrey's distance telepathy. A few days later she shows him the consent letter that over a hundred cadets have already signed explaining the potential psychic aspect of testing, as well as the offer of two credit hours for participants.

"Oh," Peter says, half-admiring, half-appalled. "That's just wrong."

"We're not brain-breaking any of them," Elizabeth says cheerfully. "This is just for the distance telepathy. I also have two, that's right, you heard me, that was two Vulcan graduates that are willing to come to the med facility and help oversee the tests. They'll be able to tell how much psychic energy Neal is splashing around, and possibly be able to help him stop doing it."

"How are you keeping this a secret again?" Peter asks, flummoxed.

"We're not, not this part. Neal already has control of this, more or less. The study participants will be on the other side of one way glass, so they won't get a look at Neal, and Neal will never know their names. It's a literal blind study, and the results are medically classified, so technically I can't even tell you." She smirks at him. "The other thing is separate, and we'll start with you and one of his Vulcan friends who've volunteered for that. That will be in a strictly controlled environment. But otherwise this looks like a study of Neal's half-Vulcan telepathic abilities from the outside. Anyone looking into it won't even be able to tell what we're looking at or for. Just that we're looking."

Peter would like to object -- that seems like far too many people for a secret -- but Elizabeth gives him an impatient look.

"I know what I'm doing here, Peter," she says scoldingly.

"Of course you do," Peter says, and sighs because she's almost certainly right.

Chapter Text

In class that day they're covering Romulan war games, and Captain Burke is focused intensely on the holographic presentation he's using to illustrate his lecture. His face is bathed in blue-white light, throwing it into sharp relief. Neal watches him as much as he watches the presentation, helpless to stop himself. The hall is darkened for the holograph, so no one can tell that Neal is using the time to stare at Captain Burke as much as he wants to. No one will ever know.

The line of Captain Burke's spine is always perfectly straight, and he holds himself like a fighting man when he's at rest, a little low on the balls of his feet. His jaw is angular and a little hard, which perfectly reflects the captain, as does the straight, bold line of his nose, and the slight jut of his brow. He has a determined face; that's the best Neal can do. He looks, at any given moment, as though he's determined to do something. If Neal hadn't spent an hour or two a week in his office after classroom hours were over, he would think determined is the only look the captain has.

As it is, he's seen at least seven other distinct expressions: amusement, exasperation, approval, annoyance, calculation, outrage, and a kind of low, smoldering intent that is the most dangerous expression Neal has ever personally witnessed on another being's face.

Neal had seen that look when he explained how he'd discovered his ability to psychically nullify someone.

Neal had not for one moment believed that that expression had been aimed at him. Just the same, it had been a frightening expression. It was the intent that made it scary. That was not an expression made for mere anger. That expression promised violence. Not just suggested it; it promised.

Having it executed on his behalf had made Neal feel both exultant and deeply uneasy. Having seen it, he understands more clearly that in many ways, Captain Burke is a loaded gun.

He had known that. They all did, to some degree. Starship captains are supposed to be able to be loaded guns. They're trained to be. Neal is training to be a loaded gun.

But knowing it and seeing that smoldering intent actually on the captain's face are not the same. They're related, but distantly.

In spite of that expression, perhaps in part because of it, captain-watching is one of Neal's favorite things to do. Normally it's done in small chunks with much awareness of who around him might be Neal-watching. He sees the most in direct one-on-one conversation with the captain, but that's also the hardest time to watch him without obviously watching him. What he has of him is a compilation of moments from class, office hours, and the very occasional social function or faculty dinner that the captain is clearly being forced to attend.

He never has time to just stare at the captain the way he is doing now, tracing the shape of his mouth, the width of his shoulders, the long lines of his legs, the shape of his ass, most of it largely obscured by faculty blacks. Still he appreciates the opportunity to see what he can see: the tilt of his head, the vertical line between his brows when he frowns at a question, the curve of his ear.

He thinks this infatuation is going to go badly for him at some point, but since he has no illusions of potentially fulfilling any of his fantasies, he has no real urge to curtail them. It's harmless to everyone except perhaps himself; he's aware of the possibility of self-inflicted pain in this scenario, at some point in the future.

But right now he wants, and he's still okay with wanting without having. Statistically, he'll fall in love three point six four nine times in his lifetime (assuming, mathematically, that he possesses exactly between a Vulcan standard and a Human standard lifespan), and over seventy-three percent of his loves will be unrequited. He doesn't see why knowing it will be unrequited in advance should stop him.

Captain Burke's eyes glitter a little, his lips curl in a half-smile at an astute answer from Astrid in the third row. Neal will make her laugh with her favorite card trick after class in appreciation.

Chapter Text

Peter wakes himself both that night and the next with his hand wrapped around his cock, sweat coating his chest and lower back. He's overheated, too hot, and feels almost drugged with heat while he wipes himself down and climbs back into bed with only the sheet to cover him.

He doesn't get to attend the first set of tests -- he has a class -- but Caffrey bursts into his office at seventeen-oh-one with a wide, manic grin on his face. "It's not my barriers, it's just me," he says, and circles the chair to flop down into it. His eyes are brilliant with pleasure, and Peter finds himself smiling back without meaning to.

"I take it that's a good thing?" he asks.

Caffrey shrugs one shoulder, but his smile doesn't dim. "It's a thing. My barriers are fully functional. Both the Vulcans Dr. O'Dell brought with her were able to examine my telepathic shields, and they both assure me that they're not only adequate, but outstanding, especially considering my lack of formal training. The ability to actively use my telepathy while in proximity to a subject, but without touching that subject, is unique among Vulcans as far as they know. They were fascinated. I couldn't read them without touching them, but with touch added I could, which they both said I shouldn't have been able to do through their barriers. It was like not-touching a human though. I got emotion and flashes of imagery, but nothing solid. They hypothesize that my touch telepathy is stronger than the averages Vulcan's, if I can get through their barriers, even to only get surface thoughts. But the other students...."

Caffrey stands up and paces back and forth in the small space of Peter's office. "The more I tried it, the easier it got." He grasps the back of his abandoned chair with both hands, bending over to give Peter a long, solemn look. "The potential for abuse isn't negligible."

"Abuse how?" Peter asks. "We've got no evidence that you could influence them in some way, and we've already got a whole host of other types of telepaths and empaths in Starfleet. You'll have to make the same oaths that they made, but if I thought you were potentially abusive, I never would have set this up to begin with."

Caffrey's shoulders droop with relief. He tips his head down for a long moment and sighs. "Of course," he says. "You're right, of course."

"It doesn't even have to be made public," Peter says, and lets his tone coax Caffrey back around the chair to sit down again. "I can make a fairly strong case for keeping the ability confidential as long as you document the same oaths that other telepaths and empaths are required to give."

Caffrey blinks. "And you think I should," he says, but he sounds thoughtful rather than dubious. "I won't seem so overtly different if I'm just a touch telepath, and it could be used offensively in a hostile situation."

Peter nods and steeples his fingers, waiting.

"And there's no good reason to alienate anyone that isn't already alienated by my heritage. Some people just won't ever believe I won't read their minds just because I can. If I can have the ability classified, no one can hold it against me." He gives Peter a brief smile. "You looking out for me, Captain?"

"Constantly," Peter says dryly.

Caffrey laughs, his head tipped back, delighted.

"Tomorrow, at fifteen hundred," he tells Peter before he leaves.

Peter doesn't need to be reminded of the time at which Neal Caffrey is going to render him unconscious with the power of his mind.

Chapter Text

T'Kreen deposits a data card into his hand at dinner, her face studiously blank. Neal pockets it without comment, since the vague sense of her -- not reading or even active empathy, but merely a kind of familiar awareness he shares with the very few people he's really close to -- seems to indicate reticence. They don't talk while they eat, though normally they would both be part of the lively conversation that is even now going on around them. Neal is nervous about tomorrow, something that keeps welling up through his pleasure at how well today had gone. The dichotomy between the two has him off balance. He's glad for T'Kreen's silence. It offsets his own, makes it seem less weighted.

They leave together without conversation, T'Kreen's direction leading them both toward her quarters, and only when they're inside and sitting across from one another at her low table, cups of tea steaming at their elbows, does she say anything.

"On Vulcan it was called The Repository," she begins evenly. "The sum collection of our knowledge and history in the form of the most massive super computer in the galaxy. Much of it was saved by those fleeing the destruction of the planet through merely having some pieces of it within their personal devices or on storage cards. But some was lost. Even now, each of the elders spends a portion of each day rebuilding it with their own knowledge and the katra that they hold."

Neal doesn't have to ask what katra is. It had been in the first lesson. T'Kreen isn't sure that Neal, as a half-Vulcan, will have the same 'living spirit' that all Vulcans possess. Nevertheless, she had taught him about it, including how to deposit it into the mind of another in the event of his impending death, so that all that he ever was could be preserved. Neal doesn't quite disbelieve it, but he doesn't fully understand it, either. It sounds like a cross between racial memory and soul to him, and T'Kreen herself has never held another Vulcan's katra. The ability to do so is only taught to elders, or possibly merely comes to you when you become an elder; she isn't entirely clear on which. She thinks it's possible that the ability to tap into Vulcans' collective katra is what makes you chosen to be an elder.

She hands him a PADD. "This is everything I was able to discover regarding the legends that may be connected to your ability. There is little. Given time, there may be more as the elders rebuild The Repository, but this is all that I could access."

Neal inserts the data card into the PADD and regards the images of scrolls that look beyond ancient. T'Kreen hadn't been kidding about it being fragmentary. The screen shows partial pages, some illegible to Neal, who now speaks and reads even Ancient Vulcan fairly fluently, but can only make out perhaps one in five of these characters. He pages through them anyway, studying the fragments, confident that T'Kreen wouldn't provide him a source of information that he couldn't decode.

He's proved correct when the last several pages are revealed to be descriptions and translations of the digitally copied images.

"It was a contest, you see," she says, leaning forward slightly to read along with Neal upside down. "Both participants were engaged in the attempt. Whichever participant was rendered unconscious first would lose. The phrasing seems to indicate that it was done ritually, or when leadership was in question. Even in the fragments the ability is counted as rare. Legend holds that those that could use it were slated as princes or chieftains -- the symbol is unclear, but the estimated date of the scrolls would make chieftains more likely to be accurate -- regardless of that individual's actual ability to lead others."

She catches Neal's gaze, her dark eyes unusually intense. "You are what might be referred to as a 'sport,'" she tells him. "A throwback to a lost evolutionary combination of genetics. Your proximate telepathy is likely to be the same sort of power. I have been reading studies...."

"That seem to indicate that the child of one psychic parent and one null often produce a child stronger than the gifted parent," he interrupts. "Yeah, I've read those. There are at least as many studies that show it the other way around."

She nods. "Commander Spock is reportedly quite telepathically adept. I have no reliable information to cite; it is merely hearsay."

Neal nods. He's heard the same. "And he's really the only other source of comparison that we've got right now."

"You have legitimate grounds over which to contact the Commander," T'Kreen says, but without any evidence that she thinks he will.

Since he's refused every time she's mentioned it, he isn't surprised. "Totally different set of circumstances," he says dismissively. "The only thing we'd have to talk about is genetics, and even then it would be only the basics of genetics. Comparing what he can or can't do against what I can or can't do is unlikely to net useful results and very likely to be intrusive to Commander Spock. Besides, he's a busy man."

T'Kreen accepts this silently, which means she disagrees but isn't going to argue about it any further.

Neal returns his attention to the translations, and T'Kreen had been entirely right when she'd said there was very little to them. Part of one page indicates that the contests sometimes went on for days, but it doesn't say why. Perhaps those with the ability used to be able to shield against it as well as use it. Or maybe it's just that hard to use; maybe it only works intermittently. No way to tell.

It does, however, indicate that the loser was 'shamed,' which is, in Neal's opinion, a whole lot of positive information. One had to survive to be 'shamed.' He'll 'shame' the captain up one side and down the other as long as it doesn't actually hurt him. Wow, that sounds all kinds of dirty.

He glances up at T'Kreen, whose face is uncharacteristically soft. Neal smiles at her and says, "Thanks."

"You are welcome," she says in the same tone as she might say 'take out the trash,' but her face is still soft.

Later that night, lying in bed without being able to sleep, despite T'Kreen's deliberately procured reassurance, Neal jerks off lazily, a long, slow kind of self-torment in which he tries to imagine the shapes of the captain's body that are hidden by clothes, like the lines of his ribs and the hollows at the backs of his knees and the bumps of his spine beneath taut skin.

Chapter Text

Peter dreams deeply that night without waking, long, vivid dreams that ply him with images of Neal Caffrey in sweeping detail, lingering on the line of his cheekbone, the hollow of his cheek and the angle of his jaw. He watches the long, elegant shapes of his hands while he performs for Peter, in this dream, though in reality Neal is surrounded always by a small crowd these days. There are the long, dark fans of his eyelashes and the vibrant blue of his eyes, the faint upward arch of his brows that is clearly Vulcan, but can almost be overlooked entirely above the dazzle of his gaze. The curve of his lower lip as he smiles and the perfect bow of the upper one. The curve where his brow meets his nose. The width of his shoulders and the long line of his legs.

He wakes abruptly, but not feverish with want as he had all those times he'd woken with his cock already in his hand. He has predictable morning wood, but otherwise this dream had been different than all those nights he'd awakened himself with his own hands on his body, but with no memory of why.

He lays in bed trying to unsee the laundry list of details his dream had provided him with, and fails spectacularly. He doesn't know why now, what had prompted this today of all days, and can't guess. It's not like he hadn't known Caffrey is gorgeous. He sees him every day. But he'd never dreamed so intimately of anyone in his life, and he isn't sure whether to feel mortified or kind of wondrous about it. It had been like no dream he's ever had before. It had been a symphony of a dream.

He can't even say he doesn't favor Caffrey above the rest of his students. He's going to let Caffrey knock him unconscious with an untested psychic ability later in the afternoon; he's been plotting how to keep Caffrey's more unusual abilities classified for months now; he's spent hours and hours poring over Caffrey's academic schedule; he lets Caffrey have the first five minutes of almost every class to show off his parlor tricks without objection; he allows Caffrey to come and go as he pleases in and out of Peter's office, something no other cadet would dream of doing.

Of course he favors Caffrey; he's going to be brilliant. He supposes every teacher favors a brilliant student.

But he would have said yesterday that he had no particular speculation about Caffrey's beauty, and he can't say the same thing this morning.

It's like his mind had been holding on to those images, just waiting for the right moment at which to unfold and reveal them.

"Shit," Peter says, and gets up to take a shower, trying to shunt Caffrey out of his mind, grateful, at least, that he's never seen any more of Caffrey than his cadet reds allow. If his hands and wrists and face are the worst of it, he supposes it's another thing he can live with and try to keep separate from his interactions with Caffrey.

It hadn't even been a dirty dream.

That doesn't stop his hand from moving down to cup himself in the shower, and it takes him three or four strokes to realize that his head is tipped down and his eyes are closed and the things that he thinks of when he jerks off -- something he hasn't been doing a lot of considering his recent nighttime activities -- are nowhere in his head. There's only the wide flash of Caffrey's smile and the tilt of his head when he's making one of his stellar leaps of deduction, and the slightly quizzical tilt to one brow he gets when he's silently laughing at Peter.

Peter drops his hand and says, "Shit," again.

He will not jerk off to images of Neal Caffrey.

It isn't even that he's a cadet and it's inappropriate, though it obviously is inappropriate. But Peter has jerked off to imaginings of his subordinates before -- Elizabeth is a frequent visitor in his fantasies -- and he feels it's largely harmless in the grand scheme of things. It's not like he has any intentions toward any of them.

But Caffrey is a mind reader; Peter is going to have his mind touched by Caffrey today, and he absolutely refuses to indulge in something that will so clearly come back and bite him in the ass. Never mind what Caffrey had said about Peter's mind being mostly opaque. Caffrey had also said he was getting better at it. And it's the kind of thing that, opaque mind or not, is likely to leap right up to the forefront of his brain the second Neal looks at him.

So, no.

He turns the shower cool until he's shivering and his cock has wilted, then turns it up warm again for long enough to actually get cleaned up. Then he eats and scans the news just like he always does, and does his level best not to think of Caffrey at all.

His level best is pretty good. It always has been. It's one of the reasons he's good at his job.

Chapter Text

It's a weekend day, and Neal spends it in the throes of nervous anticipation. His coursework is spread out on his desk and he has a long-cold cup of replicated coffee off to one side, but none of it can hold his attention. Eventually he throws on a set of reds -- normally on the weekend he'd wear informal clothes, but since he's doing something fairly formal later in the day, he thinks the reds are more appropriate -- and leaves campus in search of a coffee house that both serves real coffee and also has a view of the water.

He knows of several places that serve real coffee closer to campus, but none of them has a direct line of sight to the water. He has to hunt for one further away, but he does eventually find one. The barista does a double take at him, which likely means she doesn't see many Starfleet cadets in here, if a Vulcan is enough to surprise her. He orders espresso and finds a seat outside and does his best to merely take in the day, being what T'Kreen calls One Mindful. It means to concentrate on the moment, to live in it and be aware of all that it is. It's a mild form of meditation. Neal succeeds at it slightly more often than he fails. He's much better at the ritualistic forms of meditation she's teaching him, those that provide him with quiet and solitude and a focus on which to dwell. Being One Mindful is harder.

He tries anyway, and even succeeds for long enough to feel some of his tension about what will be happening later recede. The day is beautiful outside, and the water is clean and blue, dazzling with points of light in the sun. The bridge stretches across it with architectural beauty, an antiquity that Earth has studiously maintained, even when using it for travel was no longer its primary purpose. A few vehicles still crawl across its surface, but it's mostly a landmark now, a symbol of the past maintained for those in the future to marvel over. Neal had read that the bridges had once been laden with vehicles at almost all times, a mass of carbon monoxide and pollution utilized every day for those going to and from work. Now sonic trains and shuttles take up most of the burden. Those that drive do it for the sheer pleasure, and their engines no longer burn fossil fuels to deplete Earth's resources and sully her atmosphere.

Neal has never learned to drive, but would like to. He suspects Captain Burke knows how, and just like that he is no longer One Mindful, but instead living inside a thick press of anxiety and uncertainty.

He's as close to certain as he can be that he will not actually damage the captain with his ability. Unfortunately, that degree of closeness is not actually that close. He has one past example that so far as he knows did no long term damage to the subject, and fragments of Vulcan lore that comes from a time when the Vulcan culture had only barely begun to keep written records.

Is it worth knowing for certain? Is that risk a legitimate one?

The captain seems to think it is, as does T'Kreen, but they don't know how it feels to wonder, always wonder, if whatever it is he can do that renders a being unconscious is also doing tiny, unobserved damage to that being's mind. He's lived with this guilt and fear for over a decade, and he still can't be sure it isn't possible. Watts is alive and retired, something for which Neal is profoundly grateful. From what Neal had been able to glean through a fairly dubious obtainment of the man's medical records, he has arthritis in his hands, but is otherwise a perfectly healthy man of sixty-one. There's no record of any kind of brain function injuries or complaints, no indication that he had ever been diagnosed with so much a headache after Neal had touched his mind.

And, contrary to what T'Kreen and probably Captain Burke think, Neal had told someone. He'd told his mother. She had believed him, and there had been a quiet kind of argument in which Neal had been forced to detail the way his life worked, the estrangement, the constant attention, mostly negative, the sneering contempt and the uneasiness his presence engendered. She had wept, Neal remembers. He thinks it's the only time he'd ever seen her do it, and once the two of them were curled together on the couch, her fingers lightly wound into his hair, she had agreed with him not to report it, and had transferred him to a school that specialized in teaching alien students. They couldn't really afford the boost in Neal's education, and their living conditions went somewhat downward even as Neal's actual social life immediately began to move upward. Thereafter, school had been a thing of joy, and Neal didn't mind the smaller quarters and the largely replicated food, or sharing his room with his Uncle Mozzie, who stayed with them so Neal would have a guardian while his mother was off-world.

Things had become better. Neal had made friends, had been an oddity, but of a different kind. Most races were represented only once or twice, and there were quite a few human children of Starfleet parents that wanted their children raised in a multi-species atmosphere. His half-Vulcan heritage had been a factor in his favor, all the more interesting because of it's rarity. He was unique there, as he had been at his prior school, but it had been the kind of uniqueness that garnered curiosity and friendship, not ugly teasing or bullying.

He holds Watts in contempt, and always will, but the event itself, while ugly, had been enough to change his life for the better. He can't imagine who he would be if he had stayed in that school, who he would have been when he arrived at Starfleet Academy, which had always, always been his goal. So in some measure, he owes Watts at least a little gratitude. What he had done had been reprehensible, but it had also given Neal what he had needed to escape to something better. His mother had never seemed to resent the price she had paid for his education. Mozzie never seemed bothered at sharing a room with Neal. Both of them had been happy for Neal's happiness.

Since then, most people seem to be happy for his happiness. He's surrounded by people that recognize what he is and bear him no ill-will for it. He had been nervous about the Vulcans, but most of them seem to regard Neal with a kind of bemused kindred feeling that Neal holds deeply dear. He is no outsider, here. The humans at Starfleet treat him as he treats them, either all but forgetting that Neal is half-Vulcan, or completely unbothered by it. The Vulcans are more aware of their differences, but don't hold those differences against him. The other races are the same.

Neal is being allowed to blaze his own trail at Starfleet. He's being encouraged to do it, both by those he counts as friends, and by the captain, who takes all of Neal's little eccentricities in stride.

Not even merely encouraged, but actively aided. The captain, he is certain, is on his side. He's aware of how much time the captain gives up for Neal, how he allows Neal privileges to his privacy that other cadets aren't permitted to have.

He can't imagine repaying that favor by doing the captain a harm.

He has all but decided against the testing when T'Kreen finds him. Neal has no idea how. She sits with him, placing a small steaming cup near his hand. "I do not approve of this beverage. The caffeine content merely further agitates you." That said, she merely watches Neal sip at the dark, rich espresso.

"It's soothing in other ways," Neal tells her, truthfully. Espresso had been a ritual with Mozzie, and with his mother when she was on the planet. They would go out at least once and indulge in the luxury of real coffee, and talk and laugh and be, Neal believes in retrospect, One Mindful.

T'Kreen has a cup of what looks like herbal tea. She inhales the steam, looking thoughtful. "They did not have spice tea," she tells Neal. "This is called oolong, a variety called Golden Cassia, from an area known as the Fújiàn province." She pauses. "It smells of fruit and honey."

"I like most kinds of oolong," Neal volunteers. "And they're fairly low in caffeine, compared to black tea or green tea, so that should make you happy." He grins at her arched brow; she ignores his grin and gives her tea an experimental sip. Her expression is bland, but he can still feel her satisfaction. "I came out here to be One Mindful," he admits.

"And how were you succeeding?" she asks curiously.

"Fairly well at first, less well by the time you found me. How did you do that, by the way?"

"I extrapolated your general location. You are fond of genuine coffee, and prefer a view of the bridge and the water when you are endeavoring to achieve calm." She takes another sip of tea. "Then it was merely a matter of walking from coffee shop to coffee shop until I located the one outside which you were sitting."

"Okay," Neal says slowly; she's not wrong, but it would have been a time consuming process. It had been time consuming for him, and he hadn't been looking for someone. "Why?"

"Because you often fail to recall that there are those who would support you when you are in need of it," she says matter-of-factly. "You are uneasy about the events scheduled for this afternoon. You have told me this. Yet when you require assistance in managing your uneasiness, you seek solitude instead. Were you raised among Vulcans, this would not concern me overly. But you were not, and your emotions are largely unchecked. This is not a detriment to you, as your emotions are almost wholly positive, Neal. But it does mean that I am aware of your concerns and could speculate with near certainty that you had isolated yourself so as to deal with a series of emotions that are less positive. I applaud your attempt at One Mindfulness, but I am not surprised it was not effective. You would have been better served with ritual meditation this afternoon."

Neal parses this easily down to: I was worried about you, and I think you need more control over your emotions, but I'm not pressing because you actually mostly do okay. He smiles at her and thinks, not for the first time, that he'd have been much better off if he'd developed a crush on her instead of the captain. "I'm glad you found me," he says, which means: You're right, I need help.

"I have a scenario for you to consider," she says, regarding him from over the rim of her cup as she takes another sip. Neal merely waits -- one of the effects the Vulcans have had on him is that he less often feels the need to interject obvious questions -- and she arches one brow a little, quietly amused. "Your concern is about the captain's well being," she says.

Neal realizes a little belatedly that he's had his own effect on the Vulcans. He almost never refers to Captain Burke by his name, either in his thoughts or aloud. He is always just 'the captain,' as though he is the only one there is. Thinking about it, almost all of the Vulcans and not an insignificant number of the humans and other races in Neal's social circle do the same. He is belatedly mortified at the understanding.

But he says, "Yes, that's my concern."

"Then consider this: In four years you will have earned yourself a position aboard a starship. Presupposing that you are still on good terms with the captain, and there is no reason to believe that you will not be, it's not unlikely that you will be offered a place aboard the Defiance."

Neal's heart kicks up a little and his belly flip-flops. It isn't that he hasn't considered the possibility, but hearing T'Kreen say it aloud, as though it's not only possible but actually probable, makes his palms sweaty. He discreetly wipes them on the trousers of his reds and pretends as hard as he can that it doesn't make him semi-hard just to consider.

"And continue to suppose that you will sometimes be part of away teams with the captain, as your hand to hand combat skills are only improving with the addition of Vulcan styles, and your other skills are multitude." Neal flushes faintly in pleasure at the compliment, but says nothing. "At least some of those missions will contain elements of danger; you are well aware of the statistics. Having supposed these elements, consider how you will react if you do not develop this particular skill, and the lack thereof leads to the injury or capture of the captain or of another member of the crew."

T'Kreen sits back with her tea, merely waiting, and Neal tosses back the rest of his espresso, abruptly restless and alarmed.

She's right, of course.

Neal had signed up for combat training with the singular understanding that while he may never need it, needing it and not having it would be far worse than the having and not needing. He's fast and strong; his Vulcan genetics seem to have totally trumped his human genetics in that area. He tests the full range of Vulcan strength, and can hold his own against most of the Vulcan cadets at similar levels of training. And he is improving rapidly. He's graceful and apt, as he always has been at physical exercises.

This is not that different.

Never mind having all of his psychic abilities under his full control in order to submit a course request for independent study and what will potentially be his dissertation.

Those are important things, but they're not the most important things.

T'Kreen is right about the most important things.

If he has this ability and doesn't at least attempt to gain control over it, assuming it can be used at will, and someone else pays the price for that by injury or death, Neal will be responsible. He will be culpable.

He thinks about the fifty-one casualties from the crew of the Defiance, and the way that the captain's face had looked when he had discussed them with Neal, and is profoundly struck by the difficulty that must have posed for the captain, and that he had done it anyway, to help Neal. To set Neal's mind at ease about the events in the Laurentian system that had cost him his mother's life. There's no question that the captain feels responsible for those fifty-one deaths keenly. To some degree, Neal is sure that the captain feels a lesser degree of responsibility for every death connected with the engagement with the Klingons. He can barely fathom it, he understands. He feels what can only be the barest echo of the captain's grief and guilt.

But that echo is enough. He can't afford the weakness of being too afraid of his ability to learn to use it.

If Neal were ever culpable for the injury of the captain or any member of the captain's crew, he would never forgive himself.

"I can't argue your logic," Neal says, to which T'Kreen nods. Then he adds, "What would I do without you?"

She arches a brow and answers, "I have the utmost faith in your ability to do what is right. Of course, without me, such a course might be more difficult to discern."

Neal snorts, but doesn't argue the content.

Chapter Text

Peter arrives at the medical suite where they're going to be performing the test precisely on time and discovers that he's the last to arrive. Elizabeth's face lights up in a broad smile when he comes in. Peter is fairly sure it's less for him and more for the mad science she's excited to be performing, but he smiles back anyway.

T'Kreen is also present, which doesn't remotely surprise Peter. She's looking inscrutable as usual, and greets him with a nod, and a murmured, "Captain."

"T'Kreen," he says. "I take it you're up after me?"

"Yes, sir. Assuming we are both unharmed, we will widen the parameters of the testing."

"What, wait," Caffrey says, sounding faintly indignant. "Why is she T'Kreen and I'm still 'cadet' or 'Caffrey?'"

Peter blinks a little in surprise, but answers, "Because she invited me to call her T'Kreen. The rest of her name is fairly complicated to pronounce."

"Oh," Caffrey says, looking a little abashed. Then, looking even more abashed, he adds, "Please feel free to call me Neal, Captain."

Peter kind of wants to smack himself, but merely nods. "Neal it is. So, do we have a plan, here?"

"It should be relatively simple," Elizabeth says, using a scanner in the air around Peter almost absently. "We check and make sure you're healthy, we hook you up to some equipment to monitor your well being during the test, and we see if Neal can knock you out."

"I've only done it the once, and it wasn't deliberate," Neal says, looking worried. "I'm not even sure it's something I can do at will."

"That's what we're here to find out," Elizabeth says soothingly. "Don't worry about it just yet." She turns her attention to Peter and pats a biobed. "Up you go," she says cheerfully.

Peter, who doesn't feel at all cheerful about sitting on a biobed with his feet dangling off the end in front of two of his cadets, sighs and obediently boosts himself up onto the end of the table. It's a little wider than most biobeds he's been on, and there's a startling array of equipment around it. Peter sees something with wires and works hard not to sigh again. Maybe he'll get lucky and they're only for his head.

Elizabeth crushes his illusions and says, "I'll need your shirt off, Peter." She's scanning him again, and says it almost absently, like it's no big deal for him to be half naked in front of two of his cadets. He'd like to protest, but she's the medical expert. Also, protesting in front of T'Kreen and Caffrey -- Neal -- will make it into a bigger deal than it is. He reaches back and undoes the clasps at the back of his neck and pulls the shirt of his blacks up and over his head. Elizabeth immediately takes it from him and hangs it on a rack in the corner. Peter keeps his eyes front and center. If either of his students are checking him out, he does not want to know about it.

It takes Elizabeth a little over a minute to connect Peter to the various machines with little gel-covered pads. The dozen or so wires he's strung around with make him feel vaguely claustrophobic, and he wonders, not for the first time, why he had volunteered to do this.

He knows why, of course. Caffrey is his responsibility; he doesn't have anyone else on the planet looking out for his best interests, and Peter has the time and resources to do so. In some ways, Peter's cadets are his interim crew. They're his to take care of in whatever ways they need it. It isn't Caffrey's fault that he needs things that other cadets don't. And Peter really doesn't mind doing it; he'd just prefer to be doing it fully clothed.

"Huh," Elizabeth says, and Peter sees her studying one of the displays with a faint frown line between her brows. Peter twists so he can look at it, but he isn't sure what it's saying. Medical is out of his league. He can do standard first aid and operate a biobed for the simple and the very common ailments, but these machines are all unfamiliar to him. Elizabeth picks up a PADD and pulls something up on it. Even upside down, Peter can read his name on it, and assumes it's his medical charts and history. She puts it down again and stares hard at the monitor behind Peter. "Why would you have gamma waves?" she asks, as though Peter might be able to give her an answer.

"I don't," he says, which is true. He's never had gamma waves. He's a psychic null.

Elizabeth taps the screen beside him with a fingertip. "But you do. They're minute, but they're present."

Peter doesn't say anything. He's staring at the monitor, which is showing other types of brainwaves at the top, all of which look pretty normal to Peter's admittedly uneducated eye, and a line at the bottom that should be flat, but which dips upward into a fractional swell every three seconds or so. Elizabeth is right; he's got gamma waves.

He doesn't look at Caffrey, but he's pretty sure there's only one possible explanation for his newly developed gamma waves, and that's Caffrey. He's the only telepath Peter has come into direct contact with. It doesn't make any sense, though; telepathy is not contractable. Not only that, but Peter would have noticed if he were suddenly telepathic.

T'Kreen feels free to circle the table and look at the monitor, her head cocked slightly, as though in question. Elizabeth lets her, stepping aside, which Peter supposes makes sense. Out of all of them, T'Kreen is likely the expert on telepathy. "May I suggest that you monitor Neal and overlap the gamma readings of the two of them." T'Kreen sounds a little worried, which makes Peter exponentially more worried about it. Vulcans don't do worried. Vulcans do all serenity, all the time.

"What is it you're thinking?" Elizabeth asks, but gestures Neal over so that the four of them are all bunched together in a little knot. Peter, sitting while everyone else is looming over him, is not happy about this development. His lack of happiness does not stop him from noticing that Caffrey smells like coffee and sunshine. He immediately sets that thought away.

"Neal has said multiple times that the captain is opaque to his proximate telepathy. If the captain has developed barriers of some kind that block Neal's ability, it's possible it would read as an incremental increase in gamma waves. If that's the case, the captain's ability would have been triggered by Neal, and should match the frequency of Neal's gamma waves, if not the pitch." Vulcans don't lie, so Peter can't quite bring himself to disbelieve her, but that worried edge to her voice concerns him. It seems too pronounced to be a result of Peter merely developing shields.

"You're talking about it like telepathy is contagious," Elizabeth says, disbelieving, but hooking little gel pads to Neal's temples anyway. She plugs the wires into the machine Peter is hooked up to, and the display immediately splits, showing Peter on the left and Caffrey on the right.

Peter doesn't have to look for more than ten seconds to see that Caffrey's gamma waves, while much larger and sharper than Peter's, are otherwise cycling at the same rate. Peter doesn't have it in him to feel vindicated in his belief that Caffrey had done something to him that first day; not when Caffrey's face is pale, his eyes round and shocked.

"So you're saying I did this to him?" Caffrey asks plaintively. "That I did something to him to make him psychic?" He sounds alarmed.

"Not psychic," T'Kreen says, and then steps back and looks at the three of them, head still a little cocked. Caffrey stares at their gamma waves for another several seconds, and then turns his attention to her. Peter and Elizabeth had already been focused on her. "Neal, did you at any time have physical contact with the captain?" She sounds remote when she says it; Peter doesn't like that any better than he'd liked the faintly worried edge earlier.

Elizabeth turns and looks at Peter. Peter merely nods. Elizabeth's brows rocket toward her hairline.

"Nothing like that," Peter says sharply, a little offended. "He touched my hand."

Elizabeth looks a little guilty, and then deeply thoughtful. She turns her attention back to T'Kreen. "There is not a lot of information about Vulcan touch telepathy in the database," she says pointedly. "I looked. I assumed you'd fill me in on anything I needed to know."

"I believed that would not be necessary," T'Kreen says calmly. "The statistical chances of there being anything outwardly questionable about Neal's abilities approached nil. He is psychically very Vulcan. I conjecture that he possesses proximate telepathy and the potential to render another unconscious as remnants of abilities that our race once possessed."

"And the ability to make Peter psychic?" Elizabeth demands. "Is that something your race once possessed?"

"Not psychic," T'Kreen repeats, and then gives each of them a thorough look. "But you are correct, Dr. O'Dell, that there are things about our abilities that are kept confidential. There are cultural aspects to our abilities that are private."

"So you're saying I could have accidentally done something to the captain when I touched him," Caffrey says, looking dismayed at the idea.

Peter squelches the urge to try and hurry the conversation along, incidentally glossing over what, exactly, the side effects of Caffrey touching him had been. He knows Elizabeth well enough to be sure that won't work.

"I would have said that you could not have," T'Kreen says slowly. "You lack the ritual training required. I believed it was not a possibility. But you are strong by Vulcan standards, and evidence suggests that you have."

"What are we talking about here?" Peter asks impatiently. "Since I'm directly affected, I don't think the normal cultural rules apply."

"Perhaps not," T'Kreen says, looking at Neal. "But allow me one experiment to be certain." She looks at Peter expectantly.

Peter wants nothing to do with this experiment, wants nothing to do with anything that is going to force him to explain his recent night-time habits, but can't see any way clear of it. He'd been the one that had insisted that Caffrey gain control over all his psychic abilities. If Caffrey could accidentally do to someone else what he's apparently done to Peter, it's definitely something that Caffrey should know about.

"Fine," he says, and doesn't look at Caffrey.

"Neal, reach out for the captain with your mind," T'Kreen instructs.

Peter watches the gamma waves on Caffrey's half of the monitor spike; those on Peter's side of the monitor stay tiny and quiet. "That's it?" he asks.

"No," T'Kreen says. "With your permission, sir, I would recommend that Neal repeat the experiment while in physical contact with you."

Alarmed, Peter asks, "Is that really necessary? If he did something to me by accident the last time, I'm not that keen on repeat exposure."

"If I am correct, repeat exposure will have no ill effects. I do not believe this is something that can be done a second time."

Peter sighs and does his best to shunt all inappropriate thoughts about anything at all to the very back of his mind.

"I would never deliberately hurt you," Caffrey says, looking pale and unhappy. "We don't have to do this. I can find other test subjects."

Before Peter can respond, T'Kreen says, "Alternate test subjects will not render what has already been done moot. I do not believe that this ability has any connection to that one."

"I won't touch him against his will," Caffrey says firmly, and takes a step back, putting himself out of arms reach of Peter.

"I believe it is important," T'Kreen says, carefully neutral, but she's looking at Peter, as though aware that he doesn't have it in him to dismiss it if she honestly thinks it's important. And all embarrassment aside, Peter should be a lot more concerned about what's going on between himself and Caffrey. Never mind that it hadn't ever been about Caffrey. Peter had known almost from the beginning that Caffrey was responsible for it, and that should have been enough to make him make some attempt at putting a stop to it. He had let the relative lack of adverse effects lull him into doing what was easiest.

"All right," Peter says only a little grudgingly, and holds out his hand toward Caffrey. Caffrey looks at it uncertainly and tucks his hands behind his back, as though to make sure they behave themselves.

"What am I supposed to be doing, exactly?" Caffrey asks, his gaze darting up to Peter's face, and then over to T'Kreen.

"Touch his mind," T'Kreen says. "Nothing more."

Caffrey regards Peter's hand for several more seconds, and then hesitantly slides his hand into Peter's, and--

For several timeless moments there is nothing but confusion. It feels as though he's fallen into a well of thoughts and images and memories that aren't his own, and is merely flailing within them, straining for some equilibrium. He feels it when Neal focuses on him, steadies him, but not physically. Peter is distantly aware of his body, but he's mostly aware that he's reading Neal's mind. Neal is thinking: It's so orderly, even the Vulcans aren't so regimented, and he's reading me, too, that shouldn't be possible, only bondmates can do that, I don't have the training... I don't know... there's no way... and then Neal drops Peter's hand and takes another step back, his eyes wide and shocked and panicked.

Peter doesn't know what the hell just happened, and is about to demand an explanation from T'Kreen when Elizabeth says, "Look at this." She's tipping the monitor toward Peter and rewinding it thirty seconds while she says it, and Peter merely watches it reel forward. He can tell when Neal must have taken his hand because his gamma waves spike upward like Neal's, overlapping Neal's exactly. "Perfect overlap," Elizabeth says, as though Peter can't see that for himself.

He shakes himself mentally, shedding the aggravation as much as he can. It's not their fault that he doesn't understand what's going on, and if he can just wait a goddamned minute, someone will probably explain it. "Okay," he says, to both T'Kreen and Neal. "What just happened? Explain it to me in detail."

Neal bites at his bottom lip uncertainly and looks at T'Kreen for a second. "I don't know," he says. "I have a guess, but I don't know enough about it for it to be even an educated guess."

Peter opens his mouth, and T'Kreen says, "He is correct, Captain. His guess would be uneducated, and I suspect incorrect. This is a thing I did not teach him, as it seemed superfluous considering his age and heritage. Because of our gifts and because of biological need, Vulcans are betrothed at a very young age. We're taught the rituals for binding long before we need them, and are bound until we are biologically driven to mate. At that time, we return to our betrothed and become bondmates. This explanation is greatly simplified and lacks much of the culture that surrounds the events. The pertinent information is, when a Vulcan child becomes betrothed to another, a thread of a telepathic bond is formed. It is a shadow of what it will become once the pair are mated and married, but it is there." She pauses. "Most Vulcans lost their betrothed when Vulcan was destroyed. It was... unpleasant. As children we are trained to do this binding. I assumed that Neal, having no such training, and being at an age where betrothal was unlikely, would have no need of the skill. I did not consider that it might be done accidentally. I have never heard of it happening so."

"Betrothal?" Peter repeats, too stunned to really process. "I'm betrothed to him?"

"No," T'Kreen says at once. Peter doesn't have time to be relieved, as she then adds, "But you have the binding that betrothal requires. It is a fragment of a true bonding, but it is enough to affect you both. The captain's opacity to your telepathy is an effect of the binding. Your power recognizes his wish for privacy and respects that wish. It is not required that such a wish be consciously formulated. The binding will recognize such desires. Your ability to read him just now is an example. Unless he was genuinely willing, you would not have been able to do so."

"What about me reading him?" Peter asks, stomach sinking all the way down past the floor, possibly, from the feel of it, all the way to the molten core of the planet.

T'Kreen's brows arch faintly, a tiny expression of surprise. "The reverse is also true. It is equally true that you could not have read him if you had not wanted to. Desire is ability within a binding. Neither of you will be able to do anything except what you both want to do."

Neal is looking at Peter as though expecting to be kicked, and Peter just can't find it in himself to be mad.

"It was an accident," Peter tells him. Neal's expression doesn't entirely clear, but it does clear a little.

"I'm sorry," he says, shaking his head, eyes still too wide. "I'm so sorry."

"It's fine," Peter says. He doesn't believe it's fine at all, but he still says it. "There's got to be a way of undoing it." He looks at T'Kreen and doesn't like her expression, mostly blank with a touch of something else Peter can't identify.

"The death of either of you will break it," she says. "That is the least desirable option, clearly. You could merely live with the binding until such a time as Neal must mate, and challenge it with koon-ut-kalifee. This method will require at least several years, and as a challenger, Captain Burke, you would be forced to either champion yourself or choose a champion for ritual battle. It is likely that either Neal or your champion will die during such a contest. That is only slightly more desirable. Those are the two ways that I am certain of. Less certain, you could undertake the ritual and bind with another, Neal. Should you be successful, your binding with the captain should dissipate. That option is largely theoretical; if it has ever been done, I do not know of it. If necessary, the Vulcan Elders can be consulted. A mind healer might have the ability to break a binding without damaging either of your minds. The Elders themselves might know of additional possible solutions."

Several seconds of silence follow the list of options.

It's Neal who breaks it. "Are you kidding me?" he demands, cheeks flushed with pale green. "Are you telling me those are our only options? Tell me you're not telling me that, T'Kreen!"

"I am telling you that," T'Kreen says seriously. "If there are other options, I have no knowledge of them."

"Shit!" Neal says, and gives Peter a desperately hopeless look. "Shit, Captain," he repeats with a little less heat and a little more dismay.

Peter is a little amused in spite of the situation. He's never had profanity directed at him by title. "Just settle down," he says calmly, recognizing that it's a very temporary feeling and that he's likely to throw a fit later, in private. "We'll contact the Vulcan colony and get help." Peter doesn't think it'll be that easy. Not really. But Neal is having enough of a meltdown for both of them at the moment.

"Peter, the Vulcan colony is just a few months old," Elizabeth says, looking as though she doesn't want to be the bearer of bad tidings, but is planning to do it anyway. "They're still living in emergency shelters there. They may not have time to deal with something that isn't immediately detrimental to either of you."

"The doctor is correct," T'Kreen says. She doesn't look like she's sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings at all. "There is another, potentially more pressing issue."

"What could be more pressing than getting my mind unhitched from the captain's," Neal asks, tone overflowing with disbelief.

"Starfleet," T'Kreen says simply, and Peter immediately understands where she's going.

"It's going to look like a breach of integrity," he says grimly. And it had been, but it had been one that Peter had allowed. He hadn't known this was going to be the result, but the initial contact, Peter had allowed. "Or it's going to look like an abuse of authority. Or both."

Neal has gone very pale again. "It was an accident," he says in a small voice.

"Which also would not be well received, even should it be believed," T'Kreen says flatly. "And it is likely that it would not be believed. The binding itself requires both parties to be open and willing to share their minds. That this should happen by accident is so small as to be negligible."

Just his luck. "If we don't report it and it comes out later, it'll go badly for all four of us. Elizabeth and T'Kreen will probably only get reprimanded, but Neal and I will likely be Court Martialed."

"What? Why wouldn't we report it?" Neal asks, going paler still. "This was in no way your fault. We should report it and I'll claim full responsibility."

"They'll throw you out under the Breach of Ethics clause, Neal," Peter says seriously. "The chances of them believing that this was an accident on your part, even with T'Kreen and me backing you up, are slim at best."

"That's not your problem; that's my problem." Neal's face is pale, but set. "I won't let you get strung up for something that was ultimately my fault."

"Oh, honey," Elizabeth says gently. "He will be anyway. The Board of Governors may not ever bring charges against him if you claim all responsibility, but his career will be over. They won't take the chance that he somehow coerced a student under his care. They'll billet him someplace far away from home and make sure no one is in his direct command."

"And regardless of that, it would end your career before it even started," Peter says. "It was a mistake, an accident; I won't see you thrown out of Starfleet over it."

"They wouldn't billet you," Neal says, regarding Peter with open disbelief. "They would never. You're a hero."

"I'm an officer in a position of authority over you, and you are vulnerable to me in many ways. They'll assume what it's safest to assume, which is that I either coerced you or abetted you, both of which would be bad in different ways. Listen to me, Neal. Stop worrying about my career and think of your own. If Starfleet turns you out, you'll never have another shot at what you want in life. I've already done what I wanted to do with my life. I'd like to keep doing it, sure, but if I can't, I can live with it. The question is, can you live without it?" Peter watches Neal wilt and feels like an asshole. "We all have to be on the same page, here. If you want to come clean, it absolutely has to be now. This is the time when it'll have the least amount of fallout. We can tell the absolute truth up until now. Odds are, we'll both be decommissioned at the very least, but I don't think either of us will serve time. If it comes out any time after now, it will be obvious that the four of us concealed it. It will be a lot worse."

"Why am I the one making this decision?" Neal asks a little desperately, and Peter feels for him. He knows what it's like to be in the hot seat.

"Because," he says gently, "you're the one with the most to lose."

"If we don't report it to Starfleet, that seriously cuts down our options for contacting the elders or the mind healers," Neal says, his expression conflicted. "It doesn't give us any of the mostly likely to be effective options."

"I know," Peter says.

"Captain," Neal says, now a little exasperatedly. "I don't think you actually heard what T'Kreen said. If we don't break the binding before I reach biological maturity, I'm going to look for my bond partner to mate." He gives Peter a sharp look. "To mate. What will eventually happen is that I will have to mate or die, and you, presently, are my mate. We don't even know when it's going to be! For Vulcans it's usually about every seven years after biological maturity, but I'm half human. We have no idea when my genetics will deem me biologically mature. It could be much, much sooner than that."

"But probably not," Peter says. T'Kreen is nodding, which Peter takes as a good sign. "Probably we've got at least a few years to sort this out without anybody mating with anybody else."

"I can't believe you're considering this," Neal says faintly, and probably honestly, going by the way he looks.

"And if we don't fix it," Peter continues doggedly, "Then the worst thing that happens is that I have to have sex with you when you need to mate. It's not ideal, but assuming you're not completely against the matter, I can live with it."

Neal blinks at him, but doesn't say anything.

"If you mate with Neal, you will be bonded to him for life," T'Kreen, that little box of sunshine, says in her detached voice. "The telepathic link you share would be much stronger. The cycle of Pon Farr is seven years in Vulcans. Neal's Vulcan heritage has bred true in almost all respects. I have no reason to believe that will be different. You would have to be with Neal throughout each of his cycles. Without his mate present, the mating urge will drive him first to violence and then to insanity."

"There isn't any of this in the medical books," Elizabeth says, sounding aggrieved.

"It is private," T'Kreen says. "Our culture forbids discussion of Pon Farr with outsiders. It is a biological imperative that we, as a race, work diligently to overcome."

Peter is still stuck on 'bonded for life' and 'mating urge.' He'd like to say something encouraging to Neal, who is looking pale again, but can't come up with anything. He isn't sure what to say about that, though he is crystal clear on the potential consequences of this decision. Nevertheless, it's the only decision to make if Peter wants to protect Neal, and he is protecting Neal here. If he went to the Board of Governors and reported Neal, he's pretty sure he'd get off with just a reprimand, but Neal would definitely be expelled from the Academy. Neal wouldn't deny it, and Peter is only putting himself in danger if they decide to conceal the situation. But it's the only decision to make.

"It's moot," Peter says. "We've got some time to figure it out before then, but even if we don't, the situation is manageable."

T'Kreen looks at him silently for several seconds, and then says, "I do not think you are clear on the ramifications of this binding, captain."

"Oh, I'm clear alright," Peter says.

"He's clear," Elizabeth says. "He never makes a decision without being clear on the ramifications."

Peter is pleased to have Elizabeth's backing on the matter, but T'Kreen doesn't look convinced. "Once the full bond is in effect, you will not want to be separated from him."

"Yeah, I get that," Peter says, and he does. "If we can't fix it, we're talking adjoining assignments and close quarters. We'll probably have to file for a full marriage contract with Starfleet in order to stay in proximity. I'm clear on the ramifications, T'Kreen."

"I see that you are," T'Kreen says with a slight nod. "Forgive me, captain."

"No need," Peter says, waving a hand. Neal is looking so wide eyed and pale that he resembles a china doll. "What about you?" Peter asks. "Do you understand? Can you live with it, if it comes to that?"

"I'm so sorry," Neal repeats, his voice unsteady. "I had no idea what I was doing."

Peter waves that away, too. "If I thought you did, we'd be having a very different conversation. The question on the table is whether or not you can live with being bonded to me if it comes down to that."

"I thought the question was whether we were going to come clean to Starfleet."

"Impossible without ruining your life," Peter says. "Not an option."

"If they find out, they'll ruin your life, too," Neal argues. He's looking a little less pale, and Peter feels a little better that Neal feels well enough to argue back. "Dr. O'Dell's and T'Kreen's, too, to a lesser degree."

"Everyone in this room can keep a secret," Peter says, and catches T'Kreen looking faintly pleased before reverting back to a neutral expression.

Neal hesitates, looking torn. "If you report me and I don't deny it, they won't do anything to you," he says finally.

"They probably won't, or at least nothing besides a formal reprimand," Peter agrees, not that surprised that Neal had figured that out, but not pleased by it, either. "But it would still ruin your life, and I'm not willing to do that. You're the best cadet we have. You'll make an outstanding officer and, if you choose to go that route, an outstanding captain. You haven't hurt me, the side effects seem to mostly work in my favor, and I'm willing to take the chance that what's done can't be undone."

"But do you really believe it?" Neal asks a little urgently, his hands balled into fists at his sides. "Are you willing to risk it because you're sure we can find a way around it? Because if we can't, we're stuck with each other for as long as we live, and I don't think you really want that."

"I wouldn't have chosen it, no," Peter agrees. "At least without a longer period in which to get used to it. But if T'Kreen is only certain of one way that it can be broken, and that means one of us or a chosen champion is going to end up dead, that means she's never heard of it being done any other way. She's speculating. Which means the chances are high it can't be undone. I don't know about you, but I'm not killing anyone to get out of it. I can think of hundreds of worse people to be bound to right off the top of my head."

"You don't fully understand the extent of the bond," Neal says miserably. "You're not equipped to make this decision."

"If I understand it correctly, nobody here understands the extent of it. None of us have ever been bonded. All we've got is like a psychic guide-wire right now. Just because I don't understand it doesn't mean I don't have to make a decision about it, and it has to be done right now. Lack of information is not an excuse."

"And can be partly remedied," T'Kreen says mildly. "If you melded with the captain, he would have a much better understanding of the complexities of a life bond."

Neal's hands scuttle around behind his back. "I've invaded enough of the captain's privacy already," he says tightly.

"No, she's right," Peter says, and Elizabeth is nodding beside him. "I have Vulcan crew; I've seen the meld done before. It's temporary, and would give me a clearer idea about what a bond would be like."

"It would also give you a clearer idea about everything about me, and me a clearer idea about everything about you," Neal says pointedly. "Are you sure that's something you want? I have some training in the meld, at least. You don't have anything. I'll be able to sift through your mind like it's made of sand."

"But will you?" Peter asks, already knowing the answer.

Neal flushes pale green. "Of course I won't, but even still, the meld is personal. You won't be able to lie or hide things. Neither will I. How much about me do you really want to know? How much do you want me to know about you?"

Peter doesn't hesitate, even though there are things he'd rather Neal not know about him. "I've got nothing to hide," he says. "And I doubt I'll see anything from you that I haven't seen before."

Color flares in Neal's cheeks, and Peter thinks: Huh.

It doesn't change anything, though. He's willing to go through with the meld for no other reason than to set Neal's mind at rest, if that's what it takes.

"You should do it while you're still hooked up to the machines," Elizabeth says, sounding excited. Of course, she isn't the one about to undergo a mind meld. "I've never seen a medical scan of a meld in progress!"

The color in Neal's cheeks has faded to a pale green. He's looking at T'Kreen. "Or you could meld with him," he suggests. "If the only purpose of the meld is to demonstrate the degree of intimacy of a full bond."

"It will not demonstrate the degree of a full bond," T'Kreen says serenely. "It's merely as close to that experience as we can duplicate under present conditions. And I believe it would be to your benefit to experience it, as well as to the captain's." She sounds faintly stern. Peter doesn't know what it says about him that he's beginning to be able to decipher the Vulcan's minute vocal inflections, but it's true of the rest of his cadets, as well. Part of the binding with Neal?

Neal looks like he'd like to object, so Peter says, "This is the best we can do, Neal. If you're not willing, all you have to do is say no."

Neal looks absolutely mutinous, but he doesn't actually say no. His eyes are too bright and his skin still holds a tinge of green blush. Peter pretends not to notice, though he has to work kind of hard not to stare. He's never seen a Vulcan blush at all, so of course he's never seen anyone blush green.

"All right," Neal says, defeated. "But for the record, I want it noted that you have no real concept of what you're asking for."

"Stipulated," Peter says; having never been melded, he's willing to accept Neal's opinion as the authority on the matter. "I'm still asking for it."

Neal chews his lower lip for a moment, looking even younger than he usually does, and finally says, "You might want to lie back. It's disorienting."

Peter would much rather stay sitting up; lying down puts him in a more vulnerable position than he likes. Falling over, however, would put him in an even more vulnerable position, so he merely scoots back on the biobed and lies back. T'Kreen appears with a chair and positions it near Peter's head. Neal sinks into it without a word, his gaze questioning on Peter's face.

"You're sure...?" he asks without really asking.

"This is not going to be the worst thing that has ever happened to me," Peter assures him. It's even true. He's been captured and tortured more than once. This is invasive and not entirely welcome, but he's willing.

"You say that now," Neal says with a shadow of his usual grin. He reaches for Peter with his right hand, and Peter can't see him lining up his fingers on Peter's psi points, but he can feel it, can imagine what it looks like well enough. Neal's eyes are intent, now, and very very blue. "Your mind to my mind," he says almost soundlessly. "Together and as one."

This time the disorientation is like a battering ram. Peter catches glimpses, images, Neal's mother, his uncle, his ex-teacher, he hears a running stream of calculus somewhere in the back of Neal's mind. He feels Neal, too, barely any better, stumbling around Peter's mind and encountering the faces of his dead crew, the battle in the Laurentian system, Peter's first lover, his last lover, and then something happens -- Neal does something -- and they sync up, wound tightly together around one another's consciousnesses, and the things they see are the same.

Neal feels Peter's desperation as he calls to Jones for manual triggers for photons, Peter feels the ache of a very young Neal attending an all-human school in which his peers were both bigoted and less intelligent than he was, Neal looks at Peter captured by Romulans on an away mission and sees the subsequent beating he'd received, Peter sees Neal's mother and uncle Mozzie together with Neal at an outdoor coffee house in the springtime, all of them laughing, Neal sees Peter's brief and violent affair with an Orion girl his second year in the Academy (Really? Neal thinks. Why didn't you stay with her?) (Because she wasn't a one guy kind of girl, Peter thinks. She was almost worth sharing.), Peter sees Neal jerk away from Mr. Watts' hand, his whole mind alight with fear, and sees Watts fall backward while Neal steadily backs toward the door, not even stopping to see if he is all right, Neal sees Peter eating replicated food at night, alone, with his one or two glasses of wine, Peter sees Neal curled around his erection under the covers with his attention focused on an imaginary Peter, Neal sees Peter waking up with his hand on his cock, night after night, no memory or explanation, Peter sees Neal's vivid imagining of what Peter would look like under his blacks, and Neal sees Peter's vivid, languid dream of all the angles of Neal that Peter could see outside his reds.

There is feeling in all of it, intermingled, fear and relief, sympathy, anger, and a species of uncertain fascination that Peter can feel from both of them.

In a bond, we could reach out for each other like this all the time. You would eventually know all there was to know, as would I. You couldn't be private from me, Captain, and I know you're private. Neal feels distinctly unhappy in the meld.

This is not the worst thing that has ever happened to me, Peter assures him. It's not even in the top twenty. Hell, it's probably not in the top one hundred. I can live with this. He doesn't have to try to convince Neal of his honesty; the meld makes it unnecessary.

It doesn't reassure Neal, however; it merely makes him more regretful. It shouldn't have to be at all. This is supposed to be voluntary. His self-loathing feels like needles in Peter's mind.

He soothes it away without thinking of how to do it; his surprise is echoed by Neal. I am willing. That's what I'm trying to tell you. If we can break it, it's probably better for both of us, but if we can't, I can live with this.

Neal's emotions wobble between relieved and ashamed. I never wanted to... he thinks, and Peter can hear all the endings to that sentence that Neal isn't saying.

You didn't. It was just an accident.

For the rest of your life, Neal thinks, and his mind flashes to Elizabeth, smiling and lovely.

Was never going to happen, Peter tells him truthfully.

But you're going to offer me a position on the Defiance, Neal challenges, hopeful and hurried, anxious to address it while he can still be sure of Peter's answer.

I was going to do that before; this doesn't change anything.

But, why? Neal all but begs.

Because my first officer will be ready for a ship of her own by the time you graduate. I can slot you into the bridge crew with an interim first officer, and assuming that you operate as well as I'm already sure that you will, I'll make you my first officer after you've been on my crew for a year. I wasn't exaggerating when I said you were going to be the best cadet of your generation, Neal. Why do you think I let you take up so much of my time? I'm investing in your future and in the future of my ship.

Neal is silently grateful.

Quit it, Peter thinks, slightly peeved. You deserve to serve on a ship that will appreciate you.

Neal wells with warmth, and Peter feels awkward. Neal is amused at his awkwardness.

Never mind your crush on me, Peter says. Neal abruptly goes still and small in the meld. That will either fade or it won't; time will tell. But you have to put it away as long as you're a cadet. I won't cross that line.

Even though a mind meld is the most certain way to be certain of consent in the galaxy? Neal demands; Peter can feel the stirring of Neal's desire, but has no idea how to soothe that away.

I won't cross that line, he repeats.

Neal goes so quiet he could be absent for a few seconds, and then gets right to the point. You're already crossing the line by concealing this from Starfleet. Why shouldn't we? I know you don't think about me like I think about you, but I also know you're attracted, and that it's growing. This won't help. And you'll only be here a few more months. Then it will be years before I even see you again.

There is actually a quiet kind of desperation underlying Neal's question that makes Peter unwilling to dismiss it. Because I would always feel like I took advantage of you. Just because you're hot for teacher right now doesn't mean you won't find someone else when I'm no longer catering to your academic whims. And it won't be years. We dock on Earth a couple of times a year.

But you intend for it to always be a 'no.' Neal thinks a little bitterly. I can feel it. You don't understand. If I cycle into Pon Farr, it can't be a no. I'll go violently insane if you try to make it a no.

I intend for it always to be a no until it comes to that, Peter replies a little stiffly. Until we either find a way to fix it, or until you have to mate. I won't leave you hanging. I've already told you that.

But you don't really believe it will come to that Neal thinks. You think we'll find a way around it, and I don't want what you don't want to give.

Peter sighs mentally and thinks about that. What I don't want is for you to have to have me because you accidentally telepathically linked me. I want you to have chosen who you want, not have it thrust on you because you made a mistake.

Neal doesn't respond, but Peter can feel his certainty.

You might feel differently about it when I'm gone, Peter reminds him. You might meet someone else. He's thinking of T'Kreen; he can hardly help it. The two of them are as close as anyone is to Neal.

It's not like that, Neal thinks, but Peter still isn't sure. Maybe it's not like that for Neal, but he thinks it might be very much like that for T'Kreen.

She would have said, Neal thinks, but he's uncertain. She is, after all, Vulcan.

We'll find a way to make it work, Peter thinks, and even believes it, at least a little. He has to believe it; he's the captain.

Neal doesn't respond except to pull back from Peter's mind, his hand falling away from Peter's psi points. "This is a bad idea," he says a little shakily.

"It's the best we've got," Peter says a little hoarsely, and sits up. He can't help but notice the way that Neal's gaze roves over his naked chest this time. He feels ultra-aware of all things Neal at the moment. After a few seconds, Neal gets out of the chair and T'Kreen discreetly removes it from Peter's bedside.

"All things considered," Elizabeth says, "I think we should still try the test."

Peter gives her a disbelieving look, and she shrugs a little apologetically. "I have to do something that justifies my use of the suite for almost an hour. I can keep your records under wraps, Peter, and as long as we're careful once we're off planet, I can do the same thing to keep your gamma display from showing, but I have to do something today to justify the use of this room. It's confidential, but not completely confidential. Some people will still have access to it if they think to look. I don't think they will, but they could."

"Christ," Peter says, and watches with envy as Neal peels the monitoring devices from his temples. He's still pale, but there is a grim, determined set to his mouth. T'Kreen is watching him silently, expressionless, but Peter can almost sense her concern.

"The captain might not be a good test subject, since we have a telepathic link," he says without looking up at anyone.

"There's no way to tell," Elizabeth says, spreading her hands. "There's not anything medically pertinent for me to refer to. We should still try Peter and then T'Kreen. If Peter doesn't work, we can try another human to see if your link interferes."

Neal nods, still looking grim. Peter isn't sure what to say to make the line between his brows ease, so says nothing at all.

"The good thing about the meld is that I think I know how to do it," Neal says, and steps around to the bottom of the bed. "I saw it again, we saw it, and I think I know how it's done."

"Unsurprising," T'Kreen says serenely. "I suggest we revisit the event in the meld together if you have difficulty."

Neal grimaces, but nods.

"Okay," Elizabeth says, and then goes and reattaches the monitoring devices to Neal's temples. "I want to monitor you both," she scolds when Neal starts to object.

Neal sighs, but holds still for Elizabeth, and then stares at Peter for a long moment. "I still don't know if it causes permanent damage," he says solemnly. "Evidence suggests that it doesn't, but it's not very much evidence, and it could vary from person to person."

"I'm still willing to risk it," Peter says sincerely. He is willing, partly because Neal doesn't have anyone else, but mostly because he doesn't really believe it will cause him permanent harm. He thinks Neal would have to want it to cause harm for it to actually cause harm. It's pure speculation, but it feels right to him.

"Okay," Neal says. "Okay." He goes still and meets Peter's gaze for several seconds, and the next thing Peter knows, he's staring up at the ceiling tile. Elizabeth is scanning him again, and the monitors are still beeping steadily along. Peter's brain waves still look about the same to him.

"About forty-five seconds," Elizabeth answers his unasked question. "Your brainwaves dipped down, as though you were asleep, but not dangerously, and physically there seem to be no effects whatsoever. Your heart rate is normal, your brain function is normal, you respiration was normal throughout. It's not that different from the Vulcan nerve pinch." She looks thoughtful. "We've never been able to recreate that, you know. It's possible it's a quasi-psychic power to begin with. It works on different species with different nerve clusters." She looks at Neal. "Can you do that pinch?"

"Yeah, I can do it," Neal says, looking a lot less tense than before. "One of the first things T'Kreen taught me."

Elizabeth's gaze flickers to T'Kreen. "Come do the nerve pinch on Peter," she demands.

T'Kreen frowns slightly and looks at Peter questioningly. Peter merely nods. "Might as well get all the knocking out done at once," he says philosophically.

T'Kreen waits until Peter sits up and then there is a bright moment of not-quite pain and the next thing Peter knows he's staring at the ceiling tile again.

"Almost the exact same response," Elizabeth is saying. "His heart rate was a little elevated at the beginning, but that's probably because he knew you were going to pinch him. Lasted a little longer -- almost two minutes--" she adds for Peter's benefit, "but it might be the same kind of thing as Neal's proximate telepathy. He can do it at a distance, but it's not as powerful as actual touch-based telepathy is for him." She grins at Peter. "How are you feeling?"

"A little headachy," Peter says. "But I was a little headachy before, so I don't think it's a side effect. Can I put my shirt on now? It's freezing in here."

Elizabeth snorts, but peels the monitoring pads off his head and chest.

"Okay, T'Kreen," Elizabeth says. "Let's get you hooked up."

Peter is disgusted to note that Elizabeth merely tucks the monitoring pads beneath T'Kreen's shirt while he struggles into the shirt of his blacks. He can feel Neal watching him, and is uncomfortably aware that he's not unaffected by the attention. He does his best to ignore it while Elizabeth compares T'Kreen's records with her last physical.

"Your gamma waves are more pronounced," Elizabeth says finally, sounding a little grumpy about it. "Would contact with Neal cause them to spike?"

"Not at all," T'Kreen says calmly. "It is to be expected that they become more pronounced over time as I reach the Vulcan age of maturity. Our abilities grow steadily until such a time. The difference should be minimal."

"Fairly minimal," Elizabeth agrees, and takes the PADD over to show her. "Are these within the normal parameters?"

"Yes," T'Kreen says. "In time they will level out, but even then periods of extreme distress or agitation will cause them to fluctuate."

Peter considers asking if Vulcans have periods of extreme distress or agitation, and then doesn't. He has proof enough just with Neal alone, but that isn't the only proof he has. He has been getting better at reading the minute differences in his Vulcan cadets' tones and expressions. He has no doubt that Vulcans have emotions. They merely keep them in check far more readily than most humans. Except for Neal, of course, who does most everything with his emotions on his sleeve. Peter worries about that, a little, but doubts there is anything he can do about it. Maybe spending time with the Vulcans will help temper it.

Elizabeth is making notes on T'Kreen's chart and wiping out personal identifiers for the test results, much as she had Peter's, so that there will be a file record of the tests without it being clear who had participated. "Okay, Neal," she says eventually. "Whenever you're ready."

Neal arches a brow at T'Kreen, who nods minutely. Neal stares at her for several seconds, and she wilts backward onto the biobed, which is plenty wide enough to take her fall without any danger of her falling off one side or the other. She's out for just over a minute according to Peter's watch, and when she stirs and then sits up, she looks perfectly normal.

"Same effects," Elizabeth says. "It reads as though she were sleeping. I'm detecting no signs of any kind of physical injury, no brain injury, no bodily distress. Can you do the pinch on her?"

T'Kreen nods minutely again, and Neal comes up behind her and tucks a hand around her right shoulder, his fingertips carefully positioned, and squeezes. T'Kreen wilts again, and this time Neal catches her and eases her down onto the bed.

She's out for more than three minutes this time. While she is, Neal says, "You can guide how long the subject stays unconscious by the force of the pinch." He's talking to Elizabeth, who is scribbling furiously on her PADD. "It's not an exact science, but if you need someone to be unconscious for a while, a harder pinch can last up to twenty minutes or so, for a Vulcan. I can make it last up to thirty."

He says it with no pride, but with rather a sense of resignation that Peter recognizes. It's hard to excel; people expect things from you, talk about you, want your attention.

"That's classified," he tells Elizabeth.

She's already nodding. "I'm making a file for the Board of Governors," she says. "I assume you're going to take this to them when you petition to keep his file sealed?"

This is what he likes about Elizabeth. One of the many things. "Yeah, I'd planned on it."

T'Kreen sits up and rubs at her shoulder. "I think it wise to have his more unusual abilities classified," she says without pause. "It can only be to his benefit, and to the benefit of whatever starship he is eventually assigned to." She gives Peter a bland look that Peter is sure means she already knows what starship he'll be assigned to. Peter wonders if she knows that she will be assigned to the same ship, if he has his way, and feels a little smug about it.

"So," Elizabeth says. "We need at least fifty people willing to let Neal knock them unconscious without those people knowing what he's doing." She taps her fingertips on the side of the pad. "And you need eye contact?" she asks.

Neal ponders on that for a moment, and then shakes his head. "I've always had eye contact. I don't know."

"Try again," T'Kreen says from her seat on the biobed. "Looking away."

Neal obediently turns his back and there is a long pause, twenty seconds or so, before T'Kreen wilts backward again, this time for only thirty seconds or so.

"So you can ask for volunteers for the pinch," Peter says. "Then Neal can touch them without using the pinch, just with his mind, and see how it works."

Neal grins for the first time in a while. "Devious," he says, his tone complimentary.

"Strategic," Peter counters firmly.

"Practical," T'Kreen says tonelessly while she peels monitoring devices out from under her shirt. "I will arrange for several of the Vulcans to participate. I can also broach the subject with cadets of several other races I'm familiar with. I believe that concealing the true breadth of the test is likely to garner a much greater number of willing participants."

"I can post for it, if we're masquerading it as a nerve pinch test," Elizabeth says thoughtfully. "That alone will net us at least a hundred subjects, though those will mostly be human, so whatever contacts T'Kreen has should definitely be utilized."

"And my records?" Peter asks.

"Sanitized," Elizabeth says. "But we'll have to take care that I handle all your medical exams until such a time as the truth can be known. I can only keep it under wraps if I handle it myself." She pauses and makes a face. "I'll have to tell at least one tech. What do you think about June?"

Peter nods his approval. "June can keep her mouth shut. Besides, she's been with the Defiance as long as I have, and she likes me. I keep the tea she likes in stock."

Neal snorts, but he's smiling. "I bet you keep everyone's favorites in stock."

Peter shrugs a little self-consciously. "If I can. It does me no harm, and keeps them happy. A happy crew is a productive crew."

"And a loyal crew," Elizabeth says, smiling fondly at Peter. "Don't worry, I can keep a lid on it barring anything short of a life-threatening crisis."

"I'll try to avoid those," Peter says, though he doesn't actually carry much hope of that. Life-threatening crises don't happen daily, but he's been in ten or twelve since he became Captain of the Defiance, and at least a half a dozen before that, when he was a first officer. Still. He trusts his crew, and if it does come out, he trusts Elizabeth to be able to either contain the information, or invent a creative but believable excuse for it. Hell, she's probably thinking one up right now.

Peter will spend some time thinking some up later. Right now, he'd like to return to his quarters and think about what just happened to him and decide what, if anything, he should do about it.

"I'm sorry," Neal says, giving Peter another long, distressed look. "I still wouldn't blame you if you want to take this to the Board and report me. I won't fight it."

"Not an option," Peter says, not for the first time. "I'm essentially unharmed, as are you, and it is possible that we'll find a way to work around it. But even if we don't, I won't shred your entire life over this."

Neal looks like he'd like to object, or perhaps cry, and Peter looks uncomfortably away. Neal looking like he wants to cry raises a heretofore unknown desire to comfort him somehow. "I don't deserve your forbearance. I didn't mean for this to happen, but I definitely touched you on purpose, without your permission."

"And I could have stopped you, and chose not to," Peter says as patiently as he can. "There's nothing either of us can do about the past. We should both be looking toward the future, and I want you in Starfleet. You want to be in Starfleet. That makes our goal the same, and reporting it to the Board of Governors is counter to that goal. Clear?"

Neal smiles a little shakily. "Clear," he says.

Peter turns to T'Kreen and Elizabeth. "And you two?"

"I'm in," Elizabeth says easily. "I trust Peter's judgment."

"I trust the judgment of all parties involved," T'Kreen agrees.

"Good," Peter says, satisfied. "We'll worry about the rest of it later. And I have lesson plans to work on, so if we're done here?"

"We're done," Elizabeth says, and waves him away. "Neal and T'Kreen, if you two would stay?"

The two of them agree, and Peter lets himself out, relieved to be done, ready to be alone for a while to think about what just happened.

Chapter Text

Excepting classes, Neal doesn't see the captain again for two weeks. His schedule is jammed full of coursework and homework and testing of his gifts, and he doesn't even manage to make it to any of the captain's office hours, though after a week of only seeing him in class, Neal tries hard to arrange it. One night he misses office hours by three minutes and stands outside the door for another five, taking deep breaths and convincing himself not to go to the captain's personal quarters.

He tries to curtail his nighttime activities for most of that first week, but after several nights of waking sweaty and hard from half-remembered dreams, he gives it up and takes himself in hand. After the first time, it seems pointless to continue to fight it.

In classes, the captain is the same as always, and Neal can't tell if he's relieved or disgruntled by that fact. Both, he guesses; some days one more than the other, but most days it's a mix of the two.

The testing itself is going much as T'Kreen had predicted. Neal can knock out the humans in under twenty seconds, the Vulcans in less than thirty, and the other scattered handful of races in less than a minute. After the first time he knocks out a Betazoid, the next is easier, and he spends a long time talking with Doctor O'Dell about the physiology of different races and the way his gifts work. Neal is beginning to get a solid picture of his abilities, and while he's not exactly happy with the extent of them, there is some satisfaction in knowing for certain how they work. He wishes he'd merely inherited the touch telepathy without the rest of the baggage more than once, and has to remind himself to live with what is, rather than pining after what isn't.

For a while, his mind is a noisy place. Using his gifts deliberately means shedding some of his barriers, and it takes some time to work out a system for keeping them in place while he's not using his abilities. Since he'd developed them without the same kind of structure that most Vulcans use, he has to learn how to take control of them. He spends a great deal of time with T'Kreen, late nights with tea at their elbows, practicing while holding hands until Neal's mind feels scraped raw with contact. It does help, though, and he doesn't complain. He's lucky to have T'Kreen to help him, and he knows it.

The psychic link between himself and the captain is, now that he knows how to look for it, an ever-present distraction.

Neal can't feel anything from the captain, not really. He's as opaque as he ever was. But he can feel the captain there, and it's both distracting and exhilarating at once. He knows it's unfair to have any expectations, but he can't help it.

It's T'Kreen who contacts the Vulcan colony and requests information on the separation of a betrothal-binding. The news she gets back isn't good. The ritual of koon-ut-kalifee is the only certain way, according to her sources. Since she can't give them any of the particulars of the situation, she can't ask further questions. Neal is disappointed, but he isn't surprised.

And honestly, he's not that disappointed, either. He's more disappointed on behalf of the captain than for himself. Neal doesn't have a problem being bonded with Captain Burke. Part of Neal is, in fact, deeply content at the situation. But the rest of him is aware that the captain himself did not ask for and would not have chosen to have established a binding with Neal. The captain had said so himself. As much as Neal wants him, he doesn't want anything less than total willingness.

He doesn't want to feel as though he's taking advantage, either.

During the middle of the third week, Neal misses the captain's office hours again, by minutes, and this time he lets his feet carry him into faculty housing, telling himself that it's a bad idea even as he's ignoring the potential fallout. By the time he's pressing the button outside the captain's door that will let him know he has a visitor, his hands are sweating, but he's resolved.

The captain answers the door in worn denims and a Starfleet Academy t-shirt, thin with age. He doesn't look surprised to see Neal, exactly; more like resigned. Neal's stomach dips, and then dips further when the captain doesn't invite him in. "What is it?" he asks with what sounds like genuine concern, and Neal is unprepared for the question.

It's very direct, and he can't bring himself to tell the absolute truth, which is that he had just needed to see the captain. Instead he says, "Can you extend your office hours for an appointment with me sometime this week? I keep missing you. The tests are keeping me busy."

The captain gives him a considering look; Neal is sure he's deciding whether or not he believes Neal. He can see it when the captain decides to take what Neal says at face value, and it makes him feel about three inches tall. "Sure," the captain says easily. "I can stay late tomorrow."

"Thank you, sir," Neal says, and winces inwardly at the 'sir.' He's abruptly a little clearer on the power imbalance of the situation, and why the captain had refused to consider a physical relationship while he's still Neal's instructor.

"It's not a problem," the captain says, his face light and almost-smiling. He's got one hip cocked against the door jam and one arm slung up alongside the frame. Neal is sure his bare arms are going to be an embarrassingly tame part of his jerk off fantasies tonight. Less tame is the fact that he can see the points of the captains nipples beneath his thin shirt, which is tight enough to cling lovingly to his body. "Anything else?" the captain asks, shaking Neal out of the moment.

He can't quite keep ahold of his tongue. He says, "Have coffee with me," without any ability to censor it. The captain's brows arch with surprise. "There's nothing untoward about having coffee in public with a cadet you're advising," Neal bristles, angry with himself, annoyed with the captain's slight frown.

The captain's brows settle back down and he looks considering again. "What's this all about?" he asks, but fairly gently, without accusation.

Neal rakes a hand through his hair and sighs out some of the tension he's holding in check. "I don't know," he says, truthfully. "I don't know if it's the binding or if it's just me, but I need to see you."

"You see me every day," the captain points out, but still in that same non-accusatory manner.

"I know," Neal agrees, sighing again. "But it's not the same as seeing you alone, talking to you alone. It's not enough."

"I'm going back into space in six months, Neal," he says, quiet and careful, but firm. "You're going to have to get used to not seeing me."

"But not until I have to," Neal says, almost a plea. "There's no reason to make it harder than it has to be."

The captain gives him a dubious look, but says, "I'll extend my office hours tomorrow night. You can bring coffee there, if you want to."

It's a fairly gentle rebuff, but Neal still feels it pressing behind his breastbone. "Yes, sir," he says miserably.

The captain gives him another long look; for a moment, it looks like he's going to say something. Then he closes his mouth, pauses, and says, "Goodnight, Neal."

"Sir," Neal agrees and turns and goes, since there's nothing else he can do. He isn't even at the end of the corridor when he feels the captain clumsily reaching out through the thin tether of telepathic connection between them. He can't read the captain, but he's willing to guess at his intentions. He's checking up on Neal, checking up on how he's feeling. It's the only thing he's likely to be able to get from the binding, since he has no training, no psychic ability of his own, and no experience with it.

Neal could choose to block the thready attempt, but doesn't try. He doesn't press his emotions through the binding either; that would be both unfair and possibly overwhelming for the captain. Instead he just ignores the intrusion, letting the captain get whatever he's capable of decoding, without interfering in the attempt. It's the first time that the captain has done anything with the binding at all, and Neal has no intention of giving the captain the opaque wall that Neal himself receives when he tries to use it.

He isn't sure what the captain gets from him, but he feels him drawing back after only a few seconds. He entertains the notion that the captain might call him back all the way through the rest of the hall, and knows he won't.

He doesn't.

Neal crosses the quad at a jog and lets himself into his rooms without letting himself think too hard about that careful mental reach he had felt, or what it means that the captain had even attempted it. Ascribing motivations to the things the captain does is folly; Neal is wrong more than half the time when he tries it, and has paid for his mistakes more often than he likes.

He ignores it, but it stays in his thoughts that night when he goes to bed, conjuring a helpless imagining of the captain that fumbles gently at his body, rather than his mind. He knows it's ridiculous, but it's too late, now, for that to stop him.

Chapter Text

Peter holds T'Kreen after class the next day -- Neal leaves the class at a run, so likely doesn't notice -- to find out what kind of coffee Neal likes. He can't explain why he does it, other than that brief moment of contact the night before that had left him with nothing so much as the feel of Neal's deep unhappiness. He's still Neal's instructor, however, and can't quite bring himself to actually go out to coffee with Neal.

T'Kreen lists off a dozen coffee places, none of them near the Academy, and none of them likely to deliver. He decides, reluctantly, that he'll bring cafeteria coffee (which is better than replicated coffee, though not by much), when T'Kreen says, nearly toneless, "I'm at liberty for the next several hours. It would please me to have coffee with you at any one of these places."

Peter balks for several seconds, unsure of what to reply to that, and then takes in the slow realization that T'Kreen offering to take him to coffee doesn't actually bother him. That it doesn't feel wrong or unprofessional, and he can only conclude that just that it's Neal that is stopping him. Peter is many things, but self-delusional isn't usually among them. He is abruptly ashamed of himself. "Let me just change my office hours," he tells her, and then sends an alert to cancel the evening appointments to everyone but Neal.

They walk to a place a little more than a mile off the Academy grounds, someplace close enough to see the water. T'Kreen isn't much of a chatterer -- hardly any of the Vulcans are, excepting Neal -- but she tells him about Neal's fondness for genuine coffee and his preference for a location near the water as they walk. "I do not approve of the beverage in general; I do not believe the caffeine it contains is good for Neal. His fondness for it escapes me."

"It doesn't contain any more caffeine than most types of tea," Peter defends. He likes coffee quite a bit. "And it can help you stay alert when needed. It's also a comfort sort of drink, like almost any warm drink can be."

"Vulcan spice tea contains no caffeine," T'Kreen says.

"But it contains careatonipis, a chemical that reacts to a Vulcan's brain chemistry to enhance memory performance."

She gives him a sharp look, and Peter returns it guilelessly.

The coffee shop she chooses is almost at the water, it's so close to the bay, and the line of people standing outside and sitting in patches of shade in the grass attest to its popularity. There are a small number of outdoor tables as well. T'Kreen offers to attempt to procure one should Peter order Oolong tea for her. Peter agrees, mostly because he doesn't want to see what she'll do to attempt to procure one.

There's a good five minute wait, but once Peter is outside again, drinks in hand, T'Kreen has indeed procured a table, and Peter offers her the mug of Oolong with poorly concealed distaste. It smells like socks. He has an iced coffee with caramel drizzled over the top in deference to the heat.

"Neal prefers his coffee warm," she tells him. "And most often drinks espresso, though he has been known to order both mocha and vanilla chai."

Peter catches himself making a mental list, and is exasperated with himself, but doesn't stop.

They drink their coffee in silence for a few minutes; indeed, T'Kreen's mug is nearly empty when she says, "What are your intentions toward Neal, Captain?"

Peter sputters into his iced coffee and has to use a napkin to wipe at his chin. "I don't understand the question," he finally says, though he's horribly suspicious that he actually does.

T'Kreen cups her tea in both hands and meets his gaze frankly. "Your stance that this problem not be taken to Starfleet is likely beneficial to both of your careers, however I am less certain as to the benefit to both of you as individuals. On Vulcan, the binding was performed on individuals at a very young age, and then those parties were separated so as to avoid any... mishaps that the very young can sometimes fall prey to."

Peter takes that to mean to avoid teen pregnancy, and has no real response to that.

"For the next several months, at least, you will be in close proximity to Neal, and a part of your mind now knows that you should be. If you do not already desire him, you will begin to. I believe I can reasonably state that he desires you. Do you intend to alleviate that mutual want, or does your position of authority require you to refrain? I have been over the regulations exhaustively. As Starfleet cadets are uniformly adults, the only instances forbidden are coercion by either party, and abuse of a position of authority."

"It would be an abuse of a position of authority," Peter stresses, half thinking that it's unbelievable that he's having this conversation right now.

"If you require nothing of him and reward him in no way for his participation, I fail to see the abuse," T'Kreen says flatly.

"It would cultivate favoritism," Peter says desperately.

"Neal is already your favorite," T'Kreen points out matter-of-factly, as though it is obvious. Peter would really like to be able to argue.

"I would always feel like I'd done something wrong," Peter says, more honestly as well as more doggedly. "If this is something we can fix, I don't want him looking back on it as something foolish he did because he felt he had no choice."

"You give him too little credit," T'Kreen says, but fairly gently.

"No, I give him a ton of credit, T'Kreen. But I've been an eighteen year old boy; I know what that's like, and I don't want him doing things at eighteen that he regrets at twenty-five. It is possible we'll find a way to reverse it."

"I have been in contact with the elders. Without being at liberty to provide details, their advice was less than helpful."

"But the Defiance will dock at the colony within a few months of leaving space dock. I'll have the chance to talk to the elders in confidence, and that may yield different results." Peter pauses to take a drink of his coffee, as he is counting on those yielding different results at the same time that he is dreading it. He doesn't think about it, tries not to, but there's a certain amount of comfort in having the binding. He doesn't want to admit it, but it's there. Part of it is just Neal, because he's Neal, but there's no small amount of loneliness factored into that. He doesn't want to steal Neal and keep him because he's lonely. That would be wrong of him, more wrong than the accidental telepathy that Neal had already forged between them.

T'Kreen watches him from beneath her arched brows while he drink his coffee. When he's finished, she says, "So you will physically deny him."

It's not a question, but it makes Peter wince anyway. "As long as I'm his instructor at Starfleet Academy, I will not sleep with cadet under my authority."

"You are aware that it is not uncommon," she says.

Peter winces again. "I am aware, but just because other people do it doesn't mean I have to. Being common doesn't make it right."

"I understand your reasoning while disagreeing with your logic," T'Kreen says. "You fear you will somehow negatively impact Neal's academic career. I fear the same, but for different reasons. He has never had a binding, either, Captain. He will be preoccupied with you, distracted, desirous of your time and your attention. If you deny him these things, he is likely to react negatively."

"He can have those things without having to have sex with me," Peter leans over to whisper.

"And yet you refused to go to coffee with him," T'Kreen fires back, her eyes just a little narrowed.

Peter sighs and swipes a hand through his hair. "Yeah, well, I reconsidered," he says lamely. "I'm here, aren't I?"

T'Kreen relaxes into her chair. "You are. But you must further understand that you will begin to feel the same preoccupation. As the binding becomes stronger, especially with the two of you so physically proximate, you will want him with you. If you are determined to deny you both physical intimacy, I suggest you avoid being alone with Neal."

And that, Peter had not thought of. It hadn't even crossed his mind, even after his tentative reach out towards Neal's mind last night, even when it had been the first thing he'd thought to do when he'd awakened this morning. He hadn't done it, had resisted, but he had thought about it. And the next time he wakes up with his cock already hard and wrapped in his fist, what will he do then?

"Good advice," he says hoarsely.

"You will stray into his mind," T'Kreen says, as though reading his thoughts. "It is only a matter of time. He will be open to you in a way that you are not to him; it is in Neal's nature to be open with those he cares for. Given enough time, though I cannot give an accurate estimate, as I do not know you well enough, you will allow him into your mind as well. These will be little trespasses, as the binding is merely a thread between you, but it will happen. I know."

Peter believes her, and not just because he has last night as an example. He's willing to bet that she had had a binding in place before the destruction of Vulcan. According to the way she talks of it, almost all Vulcans do. He imagines the abrupt hole torn in the psyches of the escaped Vulcans and wishes he knew how to offer some kind of comfort for it.

"The more they happen, the closer you will each want to be to the other." She regards him coolly. "You must understand, for Neal, this is a perfectly natural experience. It will feel normal to him. And though it will be different for you, there have been human-Vulcan bindings before, Captain. Ambassador Sarek was bonded to a human. It is not unheard of. If you speak of this to anyone on Vulcan, I would suggest the ambassador, though he lost his wife in the destruction of Vulcan. If you are told it cannot be undone, perhaps he will be better able to tell you how to negotiate it."

"What is it you want me to do, exactly?" Peter asks, abruptly a little suspicious of this particular outing.

"I want for you not to damage Neal," she says frankly, dark eyes serious. "I want for you to understand that avoiding him will harm him, and will eventually harm you, as well. I want for you to understand the seriousness of what has happened between you, whether Starfleet is involved or not. When you return to your ship, you will both feel the loss of one another acutely. You will communicate. That is not an advisement; it is a fact. You will be overcome with the need to communicate. And the binding will not entirely dissipate over distance. It will be smaller, more difficult to connect with, but it will be there. If the two of you have taken to using it regularly, you will continue to do so. You must understand. The binding is designed to be the first step in a longer process that ends in a full telepathic bond. If you treat it as though it is a temporary inconvenience, you will be doing yourself and Neal an injustice. As long as we do not know if it can be undone, you must treat it as though it can't." She tips her empty teacup in her hands and looks down at it. "If you do not do this, I believe Neal will suffer for it more than you, as you are human, and less susceptible to the harsher side effects."

It's a low blow, but Peter understands why she'd felt compelled to make this point. He guesses he isn't the only one who knows that he treats his cadets as his interim crew, and he would never let a crew member suffer if he could prevent it. Still. It's asking a lot.

"Why didn't you bind with him?" Peter finds himself asking gently. T'Kreen closes her eyes and tips her cup back upright.

"At which time it finally occurred to me, it was too late," she says, and opens her eyes to look at him. "I am still willing to attempt to preempt your current binding, but I suspect it to be impossible. Neal would have to want it to happen for it to have any opportunity for success, and Neal is content with his binding to you. More than content. He thinks very highly of you."

"And you don't?" Peter asks without quite meaning to.

"On the contrary," T'Kreen says immediately. "If I thought poorly of you, I would not have taken the trouble of speaking to you so frankly. I would not have agreed to conceal the situation from Starfleet. I respect and admire you perhaps more than any of my other instructors. My only quarrel with you is that you have a thing that I did not know I coveted until it was to late to attain it. I apologize."

"Don't," Peter says. "Don't apologize. It's a difficult situation for everyone, and I appreciate what you're trying to do. I'm not sure I understand all of it, but I appreciate it."

"It's a part of our culture," T'Kreen says, making a dismissive little gesture that Peter has seen Neal make a hundred times; he has to suppress a grin at seeing her unthinkingly replicating it. "We grow up knowing these things. If you think you might prefer it, I have a book that the Vulcan council would probably desire me not to lend you. It is in Vulcan, so you'd require the universal translator, which is not always as accurate as one might hope."

"I read Vulcan, actually," Peter says, and watches her left eyebrow twitch in surprise. "I speak and read eight languages well, and five or six more moderately well. The Defiance does its share of diplomatic work, and I have a knack for languages. I always have."

"I will bring it to you." She flips open her satchel and brings out her PADD. "You barely have time to redirect Neal from your offices to this cafe," she notes tonelessly.

Peter says a vile world and pulls out his PADD. She's right. He shoots off a quick message to Neal. "You're pretty devious for a Vulcan."

"I believe I am adequately devious for any race," she tells him, deadpan. "In the meantime, I have a study group in ten minutes. I shall have to run to make it. If you'll excuse me, Captain?"

"Dismissed," Peter says, waving a hand at her. She gives him a look that might be Vulcan for smiling, and slings her satchel across her shoulder and jogs off in the direction of the Academy.

Neal shows up barely five minutes later, breath labored, looking a little rumpled, his skin flushed greenish with exertion. As always, Peter can't help but stare at the green flush. It's one of the few very obviously Vulcan things about Neal. He grins at Peter and flings himself into the chair T'Kreen had recently vacated. "You changed your mind!" he says, sounding far happier about it than Peter can quite fathom.

"Let me get another drink," Peter says, flustered and frustrated with himself for it, and goes into the shop for another iced coffee and an espresso.

Neal makes grabby hands at the espresso and merely holds the tiny cup under his nose for a long moment, inhaling deeply, his eyelashes fluttering as though in bliss. Peter watches with a half-unwilling fascination until Neal pulls himself together and sips at his drink. Peter takes a long pull on his own as well, and then can't figure out what to do with his hands. He didn't bring any of the materials he'd have had in his office. All he has is his PADD, though it looks, at least, as though Neal has a full bag of things to look at.

"So," Peter says lamely. "Extended office hours at the coffee house. What did you bring to do?"

Neal toes his bag with a marked lack of interest. "Can't we just look at the water and talk about whatever comes up?" He's batting his lashes charmingly.

Peter snorts. "How is that different from normal office hours?"

Neal beams. "We get coffee?"

Peter snorts again, but Neal isn't wrong. They spend a good deal of time in Peter's office talking about coursework, but at least as much time talking about random other things that come up.

"How did you end up out here, anyway?" Neal wants to know.

Peter considers prevaricating, but suspects T'Kreen is going to pony up the truth sooner rather than later, so he doesn't. "T'Kreen brought me here to give me a lecture on how the link is likely to affect you and how it will affect me."

Neal's mouth makes an "o" of surprise, but he doesn't actually say anything.

"She's worried about the long term affects on both of us if we treat the binding as though it is a temporary situation and ignore it." Peter slides a hand through his hair. "None of it sounded fun."

Neal is silent for several seconds and then says, "So, you want to...?"

"I want to be back on my ship doing my job," Peter says, frustration making his tone harsh. Neal draws back slightly, brows drawn together, and Peter waves a hand at him to get him to relax. "That not being an option, I don't think what either of us wants is actually an issue. We have to do what we need to do to keep us both comfortable and to keep the binding functioning the way it's supposed to."

"Which is?" Neal asks. Peter frowns at him, but Neal merely shrugs. "What? I wasn't raised on Vulcan. I've never had a binding."

Peter sighs. "Spend time together. Try to be open with one another. T'Kreen suggests we have sex, but I veto that suggestion. She says the stronger the binding grows, the more time we'll want to spend with one another and the more open our minds will be to one another. Once I go back to space, the binding will still be in place, so we'll be compelled to communicate often."

"Wow, could you try saying it like it was more of a chore?" Neal asks, tone dry, but brittle underneath.

"It's not a chore," Peter says at once, carefully. "It's just a thing I don't have any experience in, and a thing that could cause one or both of us harm if I don't get it right."

Neal relaxes as Peter is talking. "You'll get it right," he says, and waves one hand dismissively. "You get everything right."

Peter is not encouraged. Though he is very faintly flattered. "This is your life, potentially the rest of your life, and even if it's not, it's definitely your current mental health, Neal. Can you at least try not to be blithe."

Neal frowns a little, but his shoulders are still an easy line, tensionless. "There's something you and T'Kreen have in common that makes it pretty easy to feel blithe in this situation," he says, his tone jovial, but his expression serious. "And that is that I almost never need to worry about something one of you is already worried about. Anything either of you are worried about is always managed into submission. And in this case, both of you are apparently worried about it, so I think I'll take a pass. I vote we just let it happen how it happens."

Peter works hard not to clench his jaw. "That's the worst plan I've ever heard," he says honestly.

Neal sighs. "This doesn't have to be so hard, okay? The worst that happens is that we sleep together for a few months, talk to each other while you're back on duty, and eventually I become a member of your crew and we spend the rest of our lives having excellent sex. It doesn't sound like a bad thing from where I'm sitting, but I get that maybe that's not what you want, but that's the worst case scenario. The best case involves the Vulcan elders and an easy reversal. All I'm trying to say here is that the worst case scenario isn't exactly all bad. I mean, you aren't absolutely opposed to men, right?"

"Now you're asking?" Peter asks exasperatedly.

"I assumed," Neal says. "You look. I see you looking."

Peter hopes he doesn't flush, but can't be sure of it. If he does, Neal is kind enough to pretend not to notice. "I'm not totally opposed, no. I am totally opposed to having someone forced into a relationship with me, and I'm not crazy about being forced into a relationship myself. Attraction notwithstanding, Neal, you and I don't exactly have a lot in common."

Neal is looking pale and solemn now. "If I could take it back, I would," he says quietly. "I know you don't want this."

Peter sighs and rubs at his forehead for a long moment. "This is not me blaming you, Neal. This is me being frustrated with the situation. When you get right down to brass tacks, we're both being forced into this. Neither of us said yes. I'm going to continue to be frustrated at this situation until it settles down into something I can get my head around. You're going to have to get used to that, and stop assuming that I'm holding a grudge over this. It is what it is; I'm just still working on figuring out how to live with it."

"It's kind of hard to keep thinking you're not blaming me when you talk about it like it's a life sentence on a Klingon prison planet," Neal says tightly. "It doesn't have to be so hard. It's not like I'm horribly disfigured, Captain."

Peter pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes, sighing. "Of course you aren't. And I told you when Elizabeth tested me that I can live with this. But it's still new, and you're still only eighteen years old. What seems like a good plan to you now might seem like a life sentence to you five years from now, Neal."

"It won't," Neal says, and sounds sure enough that Peter opens his eyes to look at him. Neal is looking uncommonly serious, even grave. "I'm a lot of things, but fickle isn't one of them, Captain." He doesn't sound offended, but Peter still gets that impression from him anyway.

"I wasn't implying that you are," Peter says. "But people change, and at some point you're probably going to want a partner that's closer to your age, or one that has more common interests with you, or just someone who isn't also your boss." Peter shakes his head. "I'm not insulting you. I'm concerned for you."

"Or you're concerned for you," Neal ripostes only a little harshly. "It's even understandable; you had no way of seeing this coming, and now you're shackled to me, possibly permanently, because I couldn't keep my hands to myself. But I'm telling you, if you just let it, it will settle on its own, one way or the other. If it turns out you can't stand me, we'll work out something else. Even if we have to stay on the same ship to be close to one another, we don't have to necessarily see one another that often."

"I don't think it works that way," Peter says wearily. "And I never said I was shackled to you."

Neal picks up his espresso cup and stands. "Do you want another?" he asks tensely. Peter, who doesn't think more coffee is really a good plan for either of them, considering the tension, merely shakes his head. Neal disappears into the interior of the shop, and Peter sighs aloud and finds himself watching the water while he wracks his brain to think of a way to say something, anything, that Neal doesn't take as an insult or an accusation.

He hadn't meant it that way, any of it, but he can still see why Neal would take it like that. He just doesn't know how to say it and make it sound like a good thing. Neither of them asked for it, and Peter, given any advance notice, would have gone light years out of his way to avoid it. He isn't sure why Neal doesn't feel the same way. It isn't like they have to be telepathically attached for the two of them to have a fling. And Neal is only eighteen. He doesn't get the difference in perspective that even five years can make, let alone the seventeen years that Peter has on him. Peter doesn't know how to explain to Neal that sooner or later, it's going to matter that your partner is nearly twice your age.

Peter doesn't want to regret this; that much is true. But it's equally, if not more, true that he doesn't want Neal to regret it. Peter himself is adaptable. The worst case scenario Neal had laid out really is something he can live with. He's less sure that that's also true of Neal. Peter wouldn't have wanted to pick the person he was going to spend the rest of his life with at eighteen, and he certainly wouldn't have wanted that choice to be made for him, regardless of his own desires. He can't quite get his head around the fact that Neal seems fine with it.

Neal sits back down and sips at his espresso. His gaze is serious when he looks at Peter over the rim of his cup. When he puts it down, Peter isn't entirely surprised to hear him say, "Just give it a shot, Captain. We can still try to find a way to break it, but in the meantime, can we just keep going the way we've been going? I'll show up for your office hours a couple of times a week, if you can extend them just a little, and we can just go back to mocking one another over my schedule spreadsheets."

Peter doesn't think it's going to work like that, either, but he can't quite bring himself to say so. It's tempting to hope that they could really just pick up where they'd already been, like nothing has changed. Peter doesn't believe it, but he isn't willing to burst Neal's bubble. "All right," he says, because he can't think what else to say that Neal won't take wrong. "I can extend Monday and Thursday."

Neal beams at him, and Peter pretends it doesn't affect him at all.

Chapter Text

It's three weeks later before the reality of the situation truly hits home for Neal.

He's walking toward the captain's office, thinking about nothing much other than getting to see him, and feels a distracting kind of nervy shiver that seems to come from some place in his head at the same time that it comes from someplace at the base of his spine. He doesn't know why, exactly, but he turns around and sees the captain behind him. He's holding a cup of replicated coffee, and had apparently just turned the corner into this hall. He's stopped walking, though, and Neal gives him an uncertain look and again feels that little rush of shivering, and he realizes with an abrupt and inelegant moment of insight, that that is not his feeling.

He's been looking at the captain with desire for months now, and he knows the feel of it. The binding has always been dead space in his head, allowing a constant awareness that the captain is, but giving no other information. The shivery feel of it in his head, open a little, just enough for him to feel the captain's surprised desire, a faint sense of fear, is something like a victory for Neal. He has to stop himself from flashing psychic desire back at the captain, and further stop himself from knocking the cup of coffee from his hand and pressing him up against the wall.

He doesn't try to entirely conceal it; it's too late for that. The captain can probably see it on his face, but even if not, can almost certainly feel Neal's awareness in the binding. "I felt you there," Neal says, hitching the strap of his bag up to shift the weight on his shoulder. He's pretty sure he looks calmer than he feels. "For just a second," he qualifies. Then he distracts. "Did you bring me coffee?"

"No," the captain says roughly, and then starts walking again. He's very faintly flushed; Neal pretends not to notice while he memorizes it, fascinated. "You can bring your own coffee to office-hours-extended-for-your-sole-convenience." He passes Neal and enters his office. Neal realizes with belated disappointment that he could have checked the captain out more thoroughly from the front if he hadn't been so distracted by his face, and now he's sitting down and Neal can't see anything. He shrugs mentally and sinks down into his customary chair.

He can still feel the captain in his head.

It takes him a few seconds to realize that what he's feeling is slightly aggravated nerves, and then another handful of seconds to process that the captain is watching him expectantly, and that he apparently had been fooling no one in the hall. He shoves his bag under the corner of the captain's desk and crosses his arms over his chest. "Can you feel me like that?" he asks finally.

"More, probably," the captain says. He's dismayed and guilty in the binding. "You're naturally open, according to T'Kreen. She told me this would happen eventually. I really thought it was going to take longer." Resigned.

Neal doesn't feel at all like this is a victory any longer. The captain's emotions seem uniformly negative about the binding; Neal would much rather live in ignorance.

Which isn't actually true, but is, almost. "How long since you could...?" Neal asks.

"More than three weeks that I could do it at will. Now about a week of it being on all the time." Embarrassment. "I should have told you." Self accusation.

Neal shakes his head. "I don't mind," he says, honestly. "T'Kreen is right; I'm pretty open by nature. What are we going to do about you?"

"Learn to live with it?" the captain says, darkly amused.

Neal's heart flutters embarrassingly in his chest at the way that dark amusement feels in his head. "I might be able to teach you a little shielding," he offers, though he would really rather not. He will, of course, if it will make the captain happy, or if it will just ease things for him.

The captain shakes his head and takes a sip of his coffee. "This is supposed to work this way," he says simply. "If we try to mess with it, it'll probably make it worse." Dismissive.

Neal is utterly distracted at being able to see the captain and listen to the captain at the same time as he can feel the captain's emotions. He's almost a whole second behind the conversational flow, and the captain looks at him questioningly, concerned. "It's distracting," Neal says, truthfully, accidentally.

"You bet it is," the captain says, smiling now, genuinely amused. "It started happening off and on last week during my morning classes. You weren't even in the room when it started. It was damned distracting."

"I didn't know," Neal says, a little saddened by not getting to see the captain flustered with new-found telepathy. "Wow, I'm belatedly embarrassed. Do I even want to know what I was feeling at any given time?"

The captain's face is light, his amusement still shivering in the binding. "Nothing you have to worry about, aside from the fact that I now know that you actively detest Trevor Klein, which I previously hadn't been aware of."

"He's a misogynistic prick," Neal defends, and the captain actually tips back his head and laughs. Neal watches raptly, and it isn't that he hasn't seen the captain laugh before, or even been the reason the captain had laughed before, but he can feel this laugh crackling in his mind and swirling from the base of his spine up into the pit of his belly. He's almost overcome with warmth and want and longing, and the captain's laugh fades and his brow crinkles with genuine concern.

He feels sorry, regretful.

"No, don't," Neal says, his voice a little rough with his feelings. "I'll live with unrequited lust every day to get to hear you laugh like that."

It's true, and now he knows that the captain knows it. It's a relief to know that. He's wondered before if the captain believes what Neal says.

There is some kind of fluttering thing in the binding, too quick moving for Neal to quite translate, but it hadn't felt like a bad thing, and then the captain is mostly calm, still faintly regretful. "The real question is, how can we manage to keep working together without making it obvious that we're joined at the cerebrum?" the captain says quietly. "Because I've hardly heard a word you've said for the last week over the feel of your emotions."

Neal is bizarrely, shyly flattered to hear it. The captain is darkly amused at his expense, but Neal can live with that.

"There's got to be some way to acclimate ourselves," he says thoughtfully, flipping through his mental library to see what he's retained about the empathic nature of the binding ritual.

"Distance is the best thing to neutralize it," the captain says dryly. "And even then, it works better before the empathy starts. So we're kind of screwed there."

Neal blinks at hearing the captain say 'screwed' and then again at the captain's crisp, sharp amusement at their predicament. He's resigned, too, and not entirely resolved, but those are distant, background feelings. Immediately he is amused, mostly at Neal's expense, but also at their mutual complication in general.

"We could sleep together," Neal suggests, and allows himself to grin at the captain's surprise. "High emotion over extended periods could presumably force acclimation of the lesser emotional situations."

Now the captain is cranky. "We're not sleeping together while I'm an instructor and you're a cadet," he says firmly, though he doesn't feel entirely firm in the binding. He's worried.

Neal ponders that for several seconds, and decides finally that he can't take advantage.

Damn it.

It would have been so much easier if the captain wasn't so... the captain.

Neal sighs. "All right, we'll table that one, though I'd like the record to show I still think it would work."

"So noted," the captain says wryly.

"Extended normal exposure, then?" Neal asks.

The captain feels both resigned and faintly disbelieving.

"Do you have another idea?" Neal asks sharply.

The captain smiles a little and shakes his head, closing his eyes for a long moment. "Don't get huffy; I'm willing to try it."

Neal is indignant at being referred to as 'huffy,' and the captain is laughing at him gently, in his mind.

Neal is so in love with him that he's stupid with it, and doesn't know how much of that shows in his general emotions. Additionally, now that he knows the captain can feel what he's feeling, it's harder than usual not to think about how in love with the captain he is.

The captain is gently concerned, regretful, and Neal knows it's illogical to be hurt at emotions that the captain has no control over, but can't help but wish his affection was mutual anyway. Even worse that the captain knows how Neal feels, if he doesn't feel the same.

"It's going to be okay," the captain says, low and sincere, more concerned, blaming himself, comforting. "Neal." Helpless.

"I know you think I'm going to get over it," Neal says, because apparently mutual empathy means they have no choice but to talk about this. He knows he feels a little bitter at the captain's certainty, but he doesn't know how to hide it. Even if he did, he probably wouldn't. The captain draws back in surprise, confused, still concerned. "You think I'm too young to recognize my own best interests." The captain is in silent agreement with him, but the overwhelming emotion there is still concern for Neal, worry, the desire to comfort, affection, even, although not as elevated as Neal's own. Neal takes a moment to calm himself and then meets the captain's gaze. "I know you don't feel the same way," he says, and the captain is practically on fire with his desire to comfort Neal. "You aren't responsible for my feelings," Neal tells him earnestly. "But you also don't get to dismiss them as unworthy just because you don't understand how I can feel this way."

"I would never dismiss your feelings," the captain says, truthfully. He's appalled at the idea.

"No," Neal says, resigned himself now. "But you're on board with ignoring them and hoping that they'll go away."

"I'm not hoping anything," the captain says with dignity, wounded. "I'm just waiting to see."

"It's not going to change," Neal tells him, with no real hope that the captain will believe him.

But the captain says, "But I'm still your instructor, and you're still a cadet under my authority, and I won't have any kind of romantic relationship while that's still true. Not even one that doesn't involve sex." There's a pause and then something that feels oddly warm and uncertain in the binding, almost shy. "Once that's no longer true, I'll entertain the notion," he says, and Neal feels that fast bright thing again, and can't catch it to study it before it gets away from him. But he's sure, this time, that it's not a bad thing.

He puts aside what it may or may not be with some difficulty; he can make a list later, even if it takes him half the night. Instead he says, "I'll keep that in mind, Captain," and feels the captain's dark amusement spill into his mind.

"In the meantime," the captain says, still amused. "Why don't you tell me what you've planned out for your term project?"

And it isn't the same as it was before. It isn't better, either.

It's harder.

Chapter Text

Neal avoids Peter for a week, and Peter allows it without comment. It had taken him at least that long to get a grip on feeling Neal in his mind all the time, and he's more than willing to give Neal space to manage the same. It would be easier if he couldn't feel Neal's confusion and uncertainty all the time. It would be even easier if he couldn't feel Neal's warmth and affection during the classes that they can't avoid being together in.

Peter doesn't want to encourage those feelings, but it's becoming increasingly clear that he can't actively discourage them either. Any attempts that he makes, Neal responds to as if under attack, and Peter doesn't want him to feel like he's under attack, either.

And, to further complicate things, Peter is fairly sure he isn't managing to conceal his own esteem and affection. They're not on the same level as Neal's -- Neal's feel like full blown puppy love to Peter -- but they are there, and Peter doesn't even want to change that. He merely wants Neal not to be encouraged that there could be more when he feels them.

He has no intention of falling for Neal, for a whole multitude of reasons, but mostly because it's impossible for him to do anything about it. And he really does think that Neal will change his inclinations, given time and space away from Peter to do so. Why wouldn't he? He's out of Peter's league, anyhow.

After a week, Peter stops him after class with a simple, flat, "Be in my office by nineteen hundred," because there's acclimation and then there's avoidance, and Neal is only becoming clearer in Peter's mind, which means the reverse is almost certainly true. They have to figure out how to deal with it, and a collective attempt is most likely to be successful.

It is also not entirely untrue that he misses Neal, misses their time together, but he shunts that off to the side as unimportant.

But he spends the rest of the day in anticipation, and he can't help knowing that Neal is feeling something close to the same, though his is liberally laced with nerves.

Neal brings coffee with him; he'd obviously taken the time to go to one of his coffee shops rather than just hitting the replicator, as the brew he delivers to Peter is bold and smooth and has just a hint of sweetness to it. Peter makes a rumbling sound of pleasure and feels Neal's warm gratification in the space in his mind that Neal's emotions now inhabit.

Neal has a smaller cup, undoubtedly more espresso. He sips at it once he's settled into his usual seat, and Peter notices for the first time that he hasn't brought any of his customary materials with him.

Peter is taken aback, but not entirely surprised. They aren't here for Neal's academics, obviously. But Peter isn't sure where to start, if not there.

Neal, unaccountably shy, says, "I think we're going to have to work out some kind of plan for talking it out, Captain." He thrums with tentative uncertainty in Peter's mind, though his tone is fairly even. "I've been thinking about it, and it's distracting, but I think we can work around it. But some things are impossible to ignore. Yesterday at eleven hundred or so, you were furious about something, and I spent all day trying to ignore that it was driving me crazy not to know what. Right now you're resigned and satisfied at the same time. What does that mean?" He swipes a hand through his curls, expression serious. "Not knowing is almost impossible to stand."

Peter can't even argue it. He has at least three instances on his own mental list, but he still hesitates. This degree of disclosure, of intimacy, can't be good for Neal in the long run. Peter doesn't want to set a precedent that he then has to live up to hereafter, one that makes Neal feel as though he has the right to know all there is to know about Peter.

Neal sips at his drink, silent, but frustrated and unhappy.

Peter sips at his and tries to see a clear way to make this work without making it complicated.

"It's already complicated," he says eventually, aloud. Neal is faintly confused, but he nods anyway. "There's no way to handle it to make it less complicated."

"I know that," Neal says softly, relieved.

Peter shakes his head slightly. "As long as you also know that this may not always work like this. I can't think of anything better right now, so we can try it your way, but I want the option of altering the terms of this engagement at any point during it, assuming that I can think of another way."

Neal is exasperated and faintly amused, but just says, "What have you got against talking, Captain? It seems pretty ubiquitous to me."

Peter shakes his head again. "It's personal, it's going to be uncomfortable and it will give neither of us any privacy, and you know it. But what else is new?"

Neal sighs, vaguely hurt. It makes Peter want to wince, but he doesn't know how to mitigate it. "I'm sorry you're uncomfortable with being personal, and I know your privacy is important to you. I'll try to impinge on it as little as possible," Neal says quietly.

Now Peter feels like an ass, and he's still relatively certain that long conversations about what they can feel from each other in the binding is going to be intrusive and uncomfortable. But he'd been telling the truth when he said he couldn't think of a better way. "Okay," he says, resigned. "Let's talk about it."

Chapter Text

It's two weeks after they can both feel one another all the time before Neal gives up the possibility that he could just spend the next several months not jerking off.

After the third time that night that he wakes sweaty and hard from some half-remembered dream, he throws back the covers, frustrated and unhappy, but determined; maybe the captain is soundly asleep and will never know. It's a slim hope, made slimmer by the fact that he already knows he's wakened the captain before with his night time pursuits, but Neal clings to it anyway. Maybe this will be fine.

He has to hope it will be, because he can't stand another second of abstinence, and when he takes himself in hand he has to bite his lip to stop himself from groaning aloud. He is overheated and overwhelmed by the sense memory of the captain's emotions resonating in his mind, his laugh and the dark twist to his amusement, and he barely needs the visual memory of the captain shirtless in the medical suite to fuel his fantasies, though it's nice to be able to have both. He thinks of the determined set to the captain's face and imagines it directed at him, wonders at that brief, shivering moment of desire the captain had felt at the very beginning, when he'd come up behind Neal in the hall, and he entertains the notion that the captain's lust would be an even deeper thing once he had been moved beyond the mere beginnings of desire. He thinks of the captain pushing a hand into Neal's hair and holding him still to deliver deliberately rough kisses onto Neal's open mouth, and then he thinks of that shivering desire again and imagines it pulsing through his mind as the captain's hands explore Neal's body.

Neal's cock is aching and leaking, and Neal turns away toward the wall to use his pillow to muffle any sounds he might make so as to not wake his roommate. He spreads precome around the head of his cock with his thumb and lets himself pretend that the it's captain's hands on his cock. They would be hard and demanding, Neal is sure, they would coerce as much as they would caress, and Neal breathes harshly and tightens his grip, but jerks himself with slow, methodical patience that he suspects the captain is capable of. He thinks of the wide expanse of the captain's mind, underpinned by that steely framework, and he thinks about the bright, fast thing that the captain sometimes feels for Neal that Neal still hasn't managed to quantify.

He knows the moment that the captain wakes. There is a curious sense of doubling, as though his own urgency and arousal is being reflected back against him, and then the captain, with quick mental agility, feels a rush of understanding. Neal pauses, pauses, his cock still desperately hard, but aware that he'll stop, he'll have to stop, if the captain is angry or uncomfortable or displeased.

Neal wishes he could read the captain's mind, and not just his emotions. It's possible this entire thing would be easier if that were the case.

The captain's understanding stretches for a long, unsteady handful of seconds, and then Neal feels him shift over into acceptance. He doesn't know, can't know, but still does know when the captain takes himself in hand. He stretches in the binding, as though preparing for a workout, and then Neal can feel his desire, the red raw pull of it, and Neal doesn't even allow himself to wonder if that desire is for him, or if the captain is thinking of someone else while he jerks himself. Better, much less hurtful, to assume that the thrum of lust, lower and deeper than what Neal had imagined, is for Neal and no one else. And he knows the captain wants him, deeper emotions aside. He had felt it in the meld.

He lets himself go to it, the heat and the hungry roll of the captain's emotions spiking Neal's own lust into delirious need, which seems to draw the captain taut and faintly vicious in the link, so that he pulls them both back to something calmer, Neal struggling the whole way but unable to control his emotions well enough to stop him, and then driving them both upward again, while Neal thinks of the captain's mouth and his hands and the curve of his biceps and the visible cords of muscle beneath the skin of his chest and belly, and the captain is reeling and driving them onward in Neal's mind, and Neal doesn't even try to fight him anymore, allows the tidal drag of his want to pull Neal over the edge, moaning helplessly into his pillow, feeling it when the captain succumbs as well, a bright well of feeling, banked but still present desire, satisfaction, calm.

After a moment, Neal catches a faint gleam of amusement wound through all of that, and has just enough presence of mind to be faintly indignant, which only makes the captain more amused.

Neal sleeps before he can explore the experience further, and the next day in class, the captain is exactly the same as before, except Neal thinks he's a little more relaxed.

He considers skipping the captain's office hours -- the plan to talk things out is proving to be rocky at best, excruciating at worst -- but then can't quite bring himself to be so cowardly.

The captain glances up when he comes in, but returns his attention to his PADD almost immediately, typing with moderate competence that makes Neal think the captain must really hate doing it, as almost anything he does, he does very well. Neal slinks to his chair and slides into it; he'd brought his schedules and coursework this time, in the event that things are horribly awkward and they need to fill the time with something impersonal. He slides his bag to one side of his chair. The captain types for another minute or so and then pushes the PADD away and turns his full attention on Neal.

Neal flushes, helpless to stop it, and the captain is gently amused at his expense.

"Regardless," he says, as though they were in the middle of a conversation, "you don't get to use me like a wind up toy for your amusement."

"I would never..." Neal says, astonished and a little ashamed of himself. "I didn't mean..." His flush is approaching dangerous levels, he's sure. "I hoped you'd sleep through it," he admits, gaze fixed on the captain's PADD. "It had been weeks, and I was dying. I am eighteen."

"I'm aware," the captain says, darkly amused. "And I know you were ready to back off when I woke up, which I appreciate. My point is merely this; I'm not going to performing monkey for you. If it happens to overlap, I won't stop it." He frowns a little, and then shrugs, face clearing. "Maybe can't stop it. But I'm not going to be readily available, either."

"I wouldn't expect you to be," Neal whispers, mortified. "You made your position on a sexual relationship very clear."

The captain nods. "As long as we understand each other," he says, but he still feels uncommonly mellow about what Neal had been sure would be a bigger deal. "I see no point in discussing this again."

Neal blinks, off balance, and then stumbles into understanding gracelessly. They won't talk about it, because talking about it would make it into something the captain has already stated is off limits for them: a sexual relationship. As long as they don't discuss it, it's merely a coincidence of timing.

Neal is frankly a little surprised at the captain for this little exercise in mental duplicity, and then decides not to hold it against him. He had said himself that he didn't think he could stop it. Possibly he needs the half-step of distance the exercise allows him.

Neal isn't going to stop him, whatever the reason for it. He wants to do it again, almost desperately, but he doesn't want to do it at the cost of the captain's peace of mind. Whatever makes it work acceptably for the captain, Neal will work within those parameters.

They don't talk about it again, but when Neal takes himself in hand, more often than not, he is not alone in his mind. Better, even, than that are the scant handful of times that the captain doesn't participate, but instead waits until Neal is done, and then begins himself, leaving Neal writhing in a helpless recoil of lust that scrapes him raw and taut and is so good Neal doesn't know how to even describe it.

Sex with the captain moves up to the top of his bucket list, but he makes no move to make that happen in reality.

The captain's integrity is important to him. Neal won't be the reason he breaches it.

And he won't be in the Academy forever.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

Peter is exhausted when he lets himself into his rooms; it feels like he always is, now. There is a fragment of his attention always on the binding, as though he can't mentally just let Neal be, can't just ignore the binding unless he needs it, can't miss anything Neal might be feeling. It feels like he's spying on Neal all the time, and Peter would love to be able to stop doing it just so that he could stop feeling quite so guilty about it, but he can't seem to.

They've talked about it.

After the first stumbling month of listening in on each other's feelings all the time, during which they'd had several abortive conversations about one set of feelings or another, they'd finally stumbled into a rhythm of emotional twenty questions that they both seemed to be able to live with. It had taken another month for that to smooth out into a working system which consisted of a basic quid pro quo operation, and now, working on their third month of fairly uncomfortable forced intimacy, things have almost stopped being uncomfortable.

At this point, they've talked about almost everything.

So they've talked about it, and Neal is supremely unworried about the amount of mental peeping Peter is doing. And Peter knows it's a legitimate lack of worrying, too, since he can feel Neal's emotions. But it doesn't entirely soothe Peter's guilt about peeping at Neal 24/7.

And it's exhausting, feeling so much all the time. Just feeling as much as Neal feels makes Peter tired. He feels more, and more immediately, than any other person Peter has ever met or seen or even speculated the existence of. He's a ball of emotions all the time.

He's the anti-Vulcan.

(Neal thinks the nickname is funny, and laughs out loud every time Peter uses it; Peter only rolls it out on special occasions, like when they've over-shared and are both frazzled and upset.)

Then there's the added bonus of Peter's own emotions, now much more troublesome than they ever had been before, and a fabulous follow up of projecting an image to the rest of the world of someone who isn't listening to Neal Caffrey's emotional soundtrack at all times.

He is tired.

So he is really disappointed to find his rooms already occupied by Hughes and Diana, Peter's first officer. "Privacy, anyone?" Peter asks.

Diana laughs at him; Hughes smirks.

Peter maneuvers around the boxes in the living area and pours himself a drink from the remaining bottle of scotch in the topmost box. The first bottle is still in the box, too, but it's empty, lying dead on its side.

Midway through month one of the mind-meld network programming, Peter had given up the proverbial goat and taken his own permission to have a drink at night if it soothed his nerves, since, wow, did they ever need soothing.

"You guys thirsty?" Peter asks facetiously. "Though if you are, you're going to have to wait for me to be done; I only have one glass."

"Uh, no, thanks, " Diana says, making her most disgusted face at him. Hughes shakes his head exaggeratedly, mouthing 'no, thank you.'

"What are you doing here, anyway?" Peter finally asks, and takes a mouthful of smooth fire, just in case he needs to brace himself. "I thought you were on the Olympia for six months," he asks Diana.

"Yeah, me too," Diana tells him, and helps herself to a seat on the corner of Peter's small couch. Hughes just leans up against the replicator, arms crossed over his chest. "But they called me back, because it turns out the Defiance is due out of space dock at the end of the month."

Peter's mouth falls open with surprise, and Diana watches him sputter, amused. "And they didn't think to tell me this little fact?" he finally manages.

"Someone told them that if they told you and it didn't actually happen on time, you'd eat their soul," Hughes tells Peter seriously. "Apparently their impression of you while you were overseeing the plans for repairs made that threat seem credible."

Peter has no response to that. He's still a little stunned and reeling. He takes a drink to cover the fact that he isn't actually overcome with joy.

He's happy, yes, almost ecstatic with happiness, but he's also still reeling.

There were supposed to be two months left here. Two more months with Neal.

He settles at the other end of the couch from Diana, quietly shocked at how much knowing he won't be getting that two months stings.

"Boss?" Diana says, and Peter realizes that he's been silent too long. Hughes is giving him a speculative look. Peter has another swallow of scotch and asks, "So when do we blow this pop stand?"

But he's thinking about what he's going to tell Neal.

"Two weeks from yesterday," Diana says, grinning. "We've got orders and everything. It's a training wheels mission, but I'll still take it."

"Didn't enjoy the Olympia?" Peter asks, but he knows the answer already, like he knows he'll go out in two weeks and be glad to be doing it, despite leaving Neal behind. There's nothing quite like your ship. Other things can help you abide elsewhere for a time, but there's nothing like your own ship.

"She was all right," Diana says, her glittering gaze sharp and knowing. "Didn't enjoy playing teacher?" she counters.

"I didn't hate it," Peter says grudgingly.

"That's good to hear," Hughes said, "because I'm here to drop the other shoe."

Diana rolls her eyes a little out of Hughes line of sight.

"Which is?" Peter asks, uncertainty making his grip on his glass too tight. He isn't a man who's used to not knowing what he should want. He never has been. He's out of his element.

"The Academy wants you to stay," Hughes says. "Truthfully, they'd love to offer you a full time position with built in tenure, but we already know you aren't going to take that. So instead, we want you to stay for the rest of the term. See out the last couple months and change." Hughes tries on a cajoling expression, and then seems to think better of it and shakes his head. "Don't bail out on the cadets you're advising."

"I have orders," Peter reminds him, and looks at Diana.

Diana gives him a small shrug. "The Defiance has orders," she says a little reluctantly. "It's a milk run. I can handle it, and Starfleet has approved me as acting captain if you sign off on it."

"Wow," Peter says after a long moment. "How conflicted are you right now?"

Diana doesn't bother to pretend. She waggles her head side to side. "Fairly. I don't want to steal your thunder, boss."

"But it'd be a nice shot for you," Peter says, because he understands. Any time as acting captain on any successful mission looks good to Starfleet when they're looking at who to put in the big seat for a ship.

"Not that big a shot," Diana says, dimpling at him a little. "I don't want it if you're working in the Starfleet Academy dilithium mines." She's clearly serious, too. That's one of the things he likes about Diana. She's honest to a fault, even when it doesn't necessarily win her any friends.

"It's a pretty big shot," Peter argues and makes a 'give me' gesture. "Let me see the orders."

She hands over a data card and Peter plugs it into his PADD to investigate. "Debris field work," Peter says thoughtfully. "In the Laurentian system. Of course it is."

"Milk run," Diana says easily.

"Not if it's seeded," Peter says seriously. "And if the Klingons have been back in the area, it probably is. You could end up with a mess out there." He looks at her sideways. "Do you want it? Even if it's a mess?"

She meets his gaze evenly. "You know I do."

Peter knocks back what's left in his glass. "Well," he says thoughtfully. "You'd better take it, then."

Even as he's saying it, he can hardly believe it. Diana's expression is disbelieving, too. Hughes is looking speculative again, but Hughes can go hang himself right now as far as Peter's concerned.

"What's wrong with you?" Diana asks, abruptly overtly worried.

Peter shakes his head. "Nothing. I told you I didn't hate it. And I'm advising all the Vulcans, Diana. They were mostly late entries anyway; it's unfair to cut and run on them."

"No, really?" Diana says, this time with a little threat in her voice.

Peter gives up and goes for the truth. "I think I found your replacement," he says, and screw Hughes. Diana's brows arch expressively, and Peter hurriedly continues, "About five years down the road. When they start thinking about promoting you. He's a first year cadet right now. I want to see him through this year."

"Poaching?" Diana asks, surprised but looking thoughtful now. "I'm surprised."

"I didn't go in meaning to," Peter agrees. "But you should meet this kid, Diana."

"Caffrey," Hughes supplies. "Neal Caffrey."

"He's the half-Vulcan?" Diana asks, because apparently everyone knows Neal is the half-Vulcan. Her eyebrows are approaching her hairline now.

Peter nods his acknowledgement of Hughes' announcement, but answers Diana's question as though he hadn't made it. "His name is Neal Caffrey. He's on the command track and is managing a wide spread and what probably should be five years of coursework with a tight four year schedule. He's brilliant, and I want him on my ship no matter what happens with you, but the timing would be right for you. He could have your example for a year, maybe two, and when you get promoted, which you will, I'll slot him into the first officer position."

"Are you kidding me?" Diana says seriously, her head slightly cocked. "Boss, he's a first year cadet! More of them wash out than stay in. You can't be planning around this kid."

"He won't wash out," Peter tells her, and Hughes helpfully shakes his head. "He's going to graduate at the top, and his career is going to go straight up. I'm not kidding about him being brilliant. I'm willing to bet on him."

Diana slumps against the back of the couch, looking stunned. "Isn't he kind of young for it?" she asks, sounding a little bewildered now.

"He's eighteen," Peter admits, and Diana's eyebrows launch toward her hairline again. Peter shakes his head. "I promoted you when you were twenty-four. He won't be that much younger." He holds up a hand when she opens her mouth. "Diana. Don't. I'm sure of this."

She subsides a little, but she plucks the empty glass out of his hand and gets up to pour herself a glass of his scotch. Peter doesn't object. "Does he know?" Diana asks with her back still to Peter.

Peter would be happier if he could see her face, but tells the truth anyway. "He knows," Peter admits.

Diana shakes her head and tosses back her scotch in one long swallow. She turns back to Peter, glass still in her hands. "Are you sure that's a good idea, setting him up like this?"

Peter shakes his head again. "Anybody else, I'd be saying the exact same thing. You have to trust me. Just meet him. I'll bet you my medal of valor that you'll agree with me."

She sighs. "I don't want your medal of valor," she says dismissively. "And I already believe you, since you're giving up the chance to get back behind the wheel of your lady in favor of nurturing this kid's career, or whatever." She waves a hand. "I didn't believe you'd do it. I owe Hughes a hundred credits."

Peter is kind of wounded. "I'd have done this for your career alone," he says.

"After a year planetside?" she asks dubiously. "Maybe another time, but now? I doubt it?"

"Nice," Peter says, still a little genuinely wounded. "Good to know what you think of me, Diana."

"Alright, you're right," Diana relents. "You'd do it for my career. But that's not why you're doing it. You're doing it for his."

"A happy intersection," Peter says dismissively. "Can't it just be me doing it because I think it should be done, and never mind who specifically benefits from it?"

"Sure," Diana says, rolling her eyes. "It can be that."

"I knew you were set on him," Hughes says, sounding pleased with himself. "And you're right; he is brilliant. Enough so that he'll probably be recruited by other captains. I hope you've thought of that."

"He won't take another ship as long as he knows I'll offer," Peter says, and truer words were never spoken. There is zero chance that Neal will ever serve on a vessel Peter is not also serving on. Neither of them will be able to take it. "And I'll offer even if it takes him six years to graduate instead of four, but it won't. He'll graduate exactly when he's decided to graduate."

"You're really loaded over this kid," Hughes says, looking speculative yet again.

"I'll steal the rest of the Vulcans while you're not looking if you aren't careful," Peter says, still being totally honest. "They're all going to be great officers."

"Do they know you'll be trying to draft them, too?" Diana asks tartly.

"Actually, they do," Peter says, because why lie now? "I'm probably lucky you didn't make me the adviser of more cadets. I wouldn't have had nearly enough time to work with all of them the way I have with just Neal and the other Vulcans."

"Neal?" Diana asks, disbelieving. "I was 'Commander Barrigan' for two years after you promoted me!"

"And you're still Commander Barrigan when I talk about you to anyone else," Peter says. "But you're Diana now, and since you are, I'm not in the market of trying to hide how close I am with this kid. Did you think I was all revved up just because he was a baby genius, Diana? For God's sake, listen to what I'm telling you. I could take him out of his reds and slap golds on him tomorrow and he would still be a better officer than half of Starfleet. He's smart, intuitive, mentally agile, determined, and flexible."

"I don't know about half of Starfleet," Hughes says, "but Peter isn't wrong. This kid is golden. Peter spends almost every night working with him, and he's driven. He wants it the way almost none of them really do. He's going to do great things for somebody. I don't blame Peter a bit for wanting it to be for the Defiance."

"He's going to have his own ship by the time he's thirty, if he wants it," Peter says with certainty. "He's going to be a lieutenant before he even graduates, mark my words."

"Okay, okay," Diana says. "Enough of the two on one. I'm on board. I'll take your word for it. Just tell me what it is you're planning on doing?"

Peter blinks. "Nothing. I'm doing nothing except getting him through this year and waiting for him until he's done."

"Nothing," Diana repeats, tone neutral. "You want to delay getting back on board your ship and..."

The chime sounds on Peter's door. Peter is abruptly sure that it's Neal, because Neal can almost certainly feel that Peter is agitated. Neal himself is worried, and the last thing Peter needs right now is to do a little song and dance to obfuscate the fact that he's psychically entangled with a cadet that he's currently teaching, advising, and actively recruiting.

Peter works hard to broadcast calm in Neal's direction even as he's crossing the room to let Neal in.

"Get a lot of late evening visitors?" Hughes asks, as though amused. Peter does not snap at him, but it's a close thing.

From the feel of Neal in Peter's head, his attempts at calm aren't especially reassuring Neal.

When the door slides open, Neal is visibly relieved to see him. "Captain," he says. "I was..." He trails off as he takes in the fact that there are two other people in the room. "I'm sorry," he says slowly, politely, though he's alight with alarm in Peter's mind. "I didn't mean to interrupt." He sounds relaxed, but he's reaching critical levels of alarm in Peter's head. "Admiral Hughes," he says, nodding. "Commander Barrigan."

Diana's brows arch, but she nods back.

Peter squashes down the new and dangerous urge to physically comfort Neal and steps back into the room so that Neal has room to come inside.

"Are you packing?" Neal asks, horrified in Peter's mind, sounding merely mildly curious in the real world, outside of their heads.

"More like never actually unpacked," Peter says, and soothes Neal as well as he can silently.

Neal comes in hesitantly, glancing uncertainly at the boxes. "I don't mean to intrude," he lies. He's sparking with jealousy and fear in the binding, and Peter isn't sure what to say to reassure him.

"How do you know who I am?" Diana asks curiously, and Neal's jealousy ramps up another notch, but none of it is visible on his face. Peter is moderately impressed. It's the most Vulcan-like that Peter has ever seen him, but he's broadcasting a careful kind of pleasantness rather than the more usual Vulcan remoteness.

"I know all of the captain's crew by sight," Neal admits a little hesitantly. "I looked you... them, up. I hope to serve on the Defiance." He says it stiffly, but still politely. There's no outward sign that he's ablaze with jealousy at Diana. Peter would very much like to reassure him that there's never been anything with Diana for him to be jealous about -- Diana is a ladies' lady -- but there's no way to do it presently.

"I've heard all about you," Diana says easily. "The captain seems to think you'll be my replacement one day."

Neal flushes with pleasure, but the jealousy doesn't entirely fade, and beneath that, he's a tangle of unhappy nerves. "I truly didn't mean to intrude," he repeats, and looks like he'd like to back toward the door. He turns to Peter. "It's a personal matter; maybe you could make time for me early in the day tomorrow?"

"It's alright, Neal," Peter says, still trying the soothing, though he's clear at this point that it's not really working. "I wanted you to meet Diana, anyway."

Neal turns his curious and mild expression back to Diana, still jealous, scared, unhappy, but outwardly polite. "I've heard all about you, too," Neal says hesitantly. "It's not my intention to drive you out of your job."

Diana laughs a little, and shakes her head. "Don't worry about it; I'm not. By the time you've graduated, I'll be close to getting a ship of my own, assuming I don't do anything career destroying before then."

The jealousy Neal is struggling with eases a little, but is still there. "I'm really sorry," he says again. "I didn't mean to interrupt anything." The statement is almost a question, as though Neal is hoping one of them will tell him what, exactly, he's interrupting.

Peter isn't sure that's a good idea, not when Neal is so emotionally high strung, and Hughes and Diana look to Peter as though for permission. He shakes his head minutely, and says, "You interrupt me all the time. Why should now be any different?"

Neal flushes again, this time not in pleasure, and Peter feels like a jerk. Diana looks like she'd like to roll her eyes at his interpersonal skills, and is only refraining because of Neal's presence.

"We were all but done, anyway," Hughes says, straightening up from his lean against the replicator. "Commander Barrigan will be on campus for the next couple of days, so we'll pick this up later." He walks past Neal and slaps Peter on the shoulder. "You look tired as hell. You should think about making it an early night."

"I'll do that," Peter says, aggravated and probably not hiding it as well as Neal.

"We can meet for dinner tomorrow," Diana says. "Bring Mr. Caffrey. I'd love to hear stories about how mean and evil you are as a teacher, boss."

Peter sighs, but Neal actually eases in his mind, and smiles a little at Diana. "Meanest and evillest," he says, bantering and charming, and Diana grins.

"I suspected." She stands and offers Neal her hand. "I'll see you then," she says.

Neal considers her hand uncertainly, and says, "I'm a touch telepath, Commander. I don't mean to be rude, but I don't shake hands." He holds his hand out in the Vulcan sign of greeting or leave-taking, something Peter has never seen him do, and murmurs, "Live long, and prosper, Commander."

Diana drops her hand immediately, and says, "Of course you are. I'm sorry. You look pretty human for a Vulcan. I forgot for a moment."

Neal gives her a little grin, his feelings toward her softening somewhat. "It's okay. I appreciate the offer, though."

"It's a standing one," Diana says seriously. "I've got nothing to hide. If you ever want to shake my hand and take a peek, you have my blessing."

Neal's eyes widen slightly, but he just says, "I'll keep it in mind, Ma'am."

Diana nods and punches Peter on the biceps, hard. "I've got the current plans for the Defiance and I'm staying in faculty housing. I'll send the directions to your PADD. See me tomorrow before dinner, or I'll hunt you down."

"I'll be busy composing your write up for insubordination and striking a superior officer," Peter says crankily.

She grins, totally unrepentant. "My replacement ought to know the lengths he'll have to go to to keep you in line," she says sweetly, and then follows Hughes when he lets himself out.

Peter turns to Neal, mouth open to deliver some kind of explanation, but Neal is already flinging his arms around Peter's neck and pressing his cheek against Peter's. "Don't go," he begs at a whisper, and with the added element of touch, Peter can feel his fear even more clearly, a strong pulse of emotion underpinned still by desire and jealousy and impending loss. Peter draws back a little to look at him, intending to reassure him, nothing more, and then they are abruptly kissing, Peter all uncertain as to which of them had even initiated it.

It's good, though, so good, Neal's mouth hot and wet and inviting, his emotions fluttering with love and lust, though he is still full of fear, and Peter should break it off immediately, and instead he's biting gently at Neal's slick lower lip and sliding his tongue along Neal's and he has both hands in Neal's hair and Neal is shuddering and incendiary in Peter's mind. Peter doesn't know what Neal is getting from him, but some part of it has to be the pleasure he can't pretend he doesn't feel at kissing Neal, finally, after months of living and breathing in one another's minds, months of feeling Neal reach out for him when he pleasures himself, months of Peter having neither the heart nor, honestly, the desire not to reach back and touch Neal's mind when it is white-hot with need and pleasure. Neal whimpers into his mouth and the tangle of nerves at the pit of Peter's belly lights up and clenches, and if he had only a little less scruples, he could just let this go in the direction it's heading in, and finally get to see if Neal flushes green all over, if his skin is as pale and as perfect as it looks, if he burns as hot as his mouth is on Peter's all over his body.

He has rarely wished to have less scruples before, but he isn't entirely surprised that it's Neal that makes him want it.

He pulls back, breathing only a little hard, and Neal cooperates unsteadily, flushed and tousled and unbearably appealing. "I'm sorry," Neal whispers, and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. He's still standing far too close to Peter, and Peter can still feel the elated pulse of victory from him, as though he had been wanting and waiting for this, and now cannot stop himself from savoring it, in spite of the fact that it's going no further than it already has.

Peter takes a step back, partly because they are still standing far too close, but mostly because he can feel the heat radiating from off Neal -- he had known that Vulcans run several degrees warmer than humans, but hadn't even considered what that might mean for sex -- and it's stupidly distracting, as is the faint gleam of slickness along Neal's lower lip, as is the green tinge to his cheeks and the blown wide circles of his pupils, the blue of his irises barely visible rings around them.

"I'm sorry," Neal says again, this time feeling faintly miserable, and Peter has to do something or say something to get this situation under control at once, but can hardly think of what the right thing to say might be.

"It's fine," he says carefully, hoping Neal can tell Peter means it through the binding. It really is fine. It had been better than fine. It had been one of the sweetest, most artless kisses he's ever participated in, and that is, for some reason, just another thing that makes it better than other kisses. "I'm not upset. We won't be doing any more smooching, but I'm not upset."

Neal calms, crossing his arms and rubbing his upper arms with both hands. "Are you sure?" he asks, hopeful but not expectant. "Because it was a really good kiss."

"It was," Peter admits, and feels Neal burbling with pleasure, excitement, banked desire. "But it's still not going to happen again."

"But you liked it," Neal says, not discouraged. "I knew it would be good."

Peter does not deny that it had been good. "I haven't changed my stance on cadet/instructor relations," he merely says.

"I know," Neal says, but he still feels pleased. "I'm not asking you to. But it's nice to know, anyway. If we can't fix it, it's nice to know that you..." He shrugs.

"I'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to want you, Neal," Peter says, smirking a little, but serious. "That's never been the problem with this situation."

Neal nods, looking serious, but he's still bubbling with contented pleasure in Peter's head. But he says, "What happened? You were so excited and then agitated and then aggravated, and it was so mixed up. I was worried. I shouldn't have come to your personal quarters, I know that doesn't look good, but I was worried." Neal's gaze is pleading. "They were here because of the Defiance?"

Peter nods, and sighs, and then turns and pours himself another drink to give himself something to do. "She's going to be out of space dock early. In just a couple of weeks. Diana was here to give me a heads up, because I apparently scared the repair crew enough that they didn't want to do it."

Neal is burning with jealousy again, which this time, at least, Peter can address.

"I don't know what you've got in your head about Diana, but you can get it right back out again. She's my first officer, my favorite crew member, the person I trust most in the whole galaxy, and she's only interested in women. It's not like that between us. Never has been."

Neal nods, looking as though he's considering that, but he's still simmering with jealousy. "It's not that," he says quietly. "She just has what I want. Not all of what I want, but enough of it to make it hard." But his jealousy has receded somewhat. "I'll do better," he says. Then, "So. Are you going?"

His voice is admirably neutral. Peter doesn't know why he bothers, since Peter can feel his distress, so high octane that it's nearly panic.

"I'm not going right now," Peter says seriously. "Diana is going to take this mission, and I'm going to finish out the term. But you know that I am going, Neal."

Neal nods, all traces of flush absent now, leaving his cheeks pale. "But you..." he says, and then pauses, confused and anxious, and then determinedly says, "...you had mixed feelings."

Peter feels a dull flush heat his own cheeks, and takes a drink of his scotch while he tries to think about how to respond to that. Finally, he says, "Of course I did. I'm just as involved with you as you are with me, in case you've missed the way that this thing is a two-way street. Of course, I had mixed feelings. But if it wasn't for the fact that this mission solo will look good on Diana's docket, I would have taken it. I belong in space. This, here at the Academy, is just me occupying time until I can get back to doing what I'm supposed to be doing. A starship captain isn't what I do; it's who I am. I know you know that."

Neal nods, tremulously unhappy, but accepting in Peter's mind. "I always knew you'd go," Neal says. "I just... I have a countdown clock in my head. It's unfair of me to even ask it, but I want all of that time."

"I'm not going now," Peter repeats, feeling a little strange and unsettled at hearing Neal say something so close to what Peter had been feeling when he'd first found out. He doesn't know what to say about it, and isn't even sure what the feeling is, so he just reiterates, "I'm here for the whole term."

Neal feels so unsteady and groping in Peter's head that Peter passes him the glass of scotch. Neal takes a respectable swallow, breathing out hard once it's down, and hands the glass back to Peter.

"I'm sorry I came rushing to your door like that," Neal says, face tipped down. "I know I have no right."

"Don't be stupid," Peter says irritably, and Neal's head snaps up so he can look at Peter. "If I felt anything emotionally bizarre coming from you, I'd be pounding on your door in minutes." This is true.

Neal smiles a little. "It's just that you're usually pretty calm, captain. You have an even keel. It freaked me out."

Peter snorts. "Yeah, well. It freaked me out, too. I wasn't exactly expecting to have mixed feelings about the Defiance being released from space dock early." He shrugs one shoulder. "I was surprised."

"I'm still surprised," Neal says, but Peter can tell he's being a smartass now. He grins a little when Peter gives him an exasperated look.

Peter would be more annoyed, but Neal is feeling calm and more like Neal usually feels, like things are basically all right in the world of Neal Caffrey, and Peter is unwilling to mess that up.

"Fix your hair," he says instead. "I don't want you leaving here looking like I mauled you." And Peter is a little embarrassed to even think it, let alone say it, but Neal's amusement mitigates most of that.

"You totally mauled me," Neal agrees, smirking, but obediently goes into Peter's bathroom and messes with his hair until it looks more or less like it usually does.

Peter, grudgingly feeling like he has to acknowledge it in some way, says, "That was a good redirect." By which he means, a good lie. But still. "Diana is probably safe, but I wouldn't want Hughes catching wind of the situation. I like and even admire him, but I'm guessing he'd feel compelled to report it."

Neal comes out of the bathroom, unmussed, and merely shrugs. "It was a personal problem," he says. "I didn't even lie." He's straight-faced when he says it, but Peter can feel his devious amusement in his head.

"My ass," Peter says dismissively. "Now get out of here so I can make it an early night."

"Sir," Neal says, and smiles at Peter's irritated huff, but lets himself out without further comment on the matter.

Peter sits down on the end of his couch and nurses the last of the scotch in his glass for a quarter of an hour or so, and isn't surprised when his PADD beeps that he has an incoming call. He isn't surprised that it's Hughes, either.

"Tell me," Hughes says, calmly but firmly, "that you are not sleeping with that kid."

Peter snorts. "I'm not sleeping with that kid, Reece. And I'm kind of offended that you even asked."

Hughes sighs and slumps back a little, changing the angle of the image on the PADD. "I know, okay. It never even crossed my mind before tonight. I know you. But I would have bet you wouldn't let your students come to your personal quarters, either, and I started to get paranoid over it. There are no regs, but if you're recruiting him, that's dodgy, Peter."

"He's been to my rooms all of twice since I've been here, including tonight," Peter says patiently. "He doesn't come here, I don't go to his rooms. We meet for coffee about once every two weeks off campus, but otherwise we're always in my office with the door open. It's not like that."

"I know, I know," Hughes says, and rubs at his face. "I'm sorry. He just has such an obvious crush on you, I felt like I had to ask."

Peter blinks. "He has an obvious crush on me?" he asks. Peter knows it's obvious to him; it just hadn't occurred to him that it was obvious to anyone else.

Hughes snorts this time. "Very obvious. The whole staff knows. And I even knew that you didn't spend time alone with him, but I just had to ask. I'm sorry. I'll say I'm sorry tomorrow with that expensive scotch you like."

"The whole staff?" Peter repeats, surprised and a little dismayed.

"And probably most of the student body that knows him or you at all," Hughes agrees. "He's an easy read anyway, and he doesn't even really try to hide it."

Peter pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes. "Jesus," he says, frustrated and belatedly embarrassed.

Hughes chuckles. "You had to have known."

"Yeah," Peter says without opening his eyes. "I knew. I just didn't think everybody else in the world knew."

"An academic fact of life," Hughes says when Peter opens his eyes. "Some cadet or two or three is always mooning over you. Don't let it worry you. We're all used to it."

"I'm not used to it," Peter says crankily.

Hughes smiles. "Count your blessings. If Vulcans got crushes, you'd have your hands full. Instead they just talk about you like you're God."

Peter groans, and Hughes laughs at him.

"Okay. I'm sorry. Get some rest."

"I hate you, Reece," Peter says, which gives him at least a little vindictive pleasure.

"I know, Peter. Good night."

Chapter Text

Things don't get any calmer over the next day.

Neal is anxious, and he can feel every moment of wistfulness in the captain's mind, and hates himself a little for wanting to squash the captain's desire to be back aboard the Defiance and back in space. It's not like he'd ever lied to Neal. He had always known it would come to this.

Just not this soon; and the captain could still change his mind, could still take this mission and be off planet within just a few days.

Neal knows that he won't. The captain isn't the kind of man that commits to something and then bows out. If he had told Admiral Hughes that he was staying for the term, then he's going to be here. Hell, the fact that the captain had told Neal he was staying is enough to make him stay, even if he does have a change of heart. The captain doesn't breach promises. The fact is so obvious that Neal shouldn't have to tell himself that at all.

But he's afraid, anyway, that kind of formless, purposeless fear that you can't pin down and then explain away.

The Defiance is all but done, the captain's first officer is here, and Neal is afraid of what that means, even if the captain isn't going anywhere.

He gets through the day in a state of mental half-attendance that T'Kreen comments on at lunch.

He takes her across the quad to the big tree and relates the events of last night, leaving out the kiss with a twinge of guilt at doing so. She listens attentively, and finally says, "Is it Commander Barrigan's approval that you wish to obtain?"

"No," Neal says, and then changes his mind. "Yes, I'd like to have her approval, but this is about the captain. I know he won't leave if he says he won't, I'm not blind or stupid, but." Neal pauses trying to sort through his sloppy emotions to get to the root of his anxiety. "Commander Barrigan knows the captain well. I'm supposed to have dinner with the two of them tonight, and we're going to have to pretend that we aren't empathically connected. The only time we're alone together, there's no point in pretending, and when we're in class together we're not having personal conversations, so the empathy isn't obvious. This dinner is going to be a tricky combination of both, and we've gotten used to just letting it be what it is most of the time. I'm afraid we'll screw it up."

T'Kreen opens her mouth to speak, and Neal holds up a hand.

"Additionally, I'm crazily jealous of Commander Barrigan, and I don't know if that's something I can adequately hide over any length of time. And finally, I know the captain would never commit to staying and then leave anyway, I know that, but I still can't stop myself from imagining that he will, and what that will be like for me if he does."

Neal blows out a breath in a sigh and doesn't look at T'Kreen, since he's pretty sure she's not going to approve of at least two of his three problems.

"I will not address the captain's likelihood of leaving once he has stated that he will stay. I have nothing to say on the matter that you have not likely already thought of. On the matter of your jealousy, I suggest you not attempt to hide it, if you truly feel that you will be unable to. It may make matters simpler to merely state your envy of her position and acknowledge that it is not personal."

Neal blinks; he hadn't though of that, but he likes it. It has a simple kind of elegance to it, and he thinks it might work. He's a first year cadet with designs on Commander Barrigan's job; it's possible she even expects him to be in some way jealous. Neal files that away for later consideration.

"Concerning your empathic connection, I have no solid advice. I have never experienced a connection as advanced as yours is with the captain. My intended bondmate was thousands of miles from me during the entirety of our binding, and thus distant enough that we experienced no such affects. You have said that the captain feels that Commander Barrigan knowing of the binding would not be harmful. I think you must simply act as though it does not exist as much as possible, and if that falls short, then allow the captain to decide on what and when to explain to Commander Barrigan."

T'Kreen rarely gives bad advice. Okay, so T'Kreen has actually never given bad advice to Neal's knowledge, so he takes what she has given him and does his best to utilize it effectively.

It's not helpful that he can feel the captain's dread growing as the day progresses, and eventually he maneuvers himself into a position to hang back at the end of class and murmur to the captain her advice. The captain looks thoughtful, but feels firmer in his mind, as though having any advice at all to use as a basis for action is enough to balance him. He dismisses Neal's worry about Commander Barrigan's reaction to the binding with a quiet, "She can be trusted. Yes, I'm sure."

After that, Neal starts to feel more balanced as well, and when he receives the PADD notification from the captain that they'll be going to an off campus restaurant, he's cautiously excited. He doesn't get to dress up often, and he cleans up well, he knows he does. The cadet reds aren't eye searingly ugly or anything, but they are prefabricated, institution issued clothing. It's not like they're tailor made. He likes the idea of dressing up for dinner.

Additionally, that means the captain will be dressing up, and Neal is looking as forward to that as he is his own dressing up. If not more.

For a while, as he dresses and shaves and puts something in his hair to keep it tidy, he half-pretends that he's going to dinner with the captain alone. It's an idle fantasy, and one he can only barely shape enough to half-believe, but it keeps him occupied and steadies his nerves so that when it's time to go doesn't feel quite as much like this has great potential to be an unmitigated disaster.

The restaurant is called Poe's and specializes in seafood. Neal is ten minutes early, as is his general habit, and just standing outside and smelling the place is making his belly knot with hunger. The captain and Commander Barrigan arrive together, six minutes later, and if he weren't so worried that it was going to out them, Neal would be deeply gratified by the way the captain stares at him and stammers a little.

Commander Barrigan says, "You do clean up nice," and smiles, apparently genuinely, at him. "You're going to give the boss a stroke if you go around looking around like that all the time. A good things the reds aren't exactly the most flattering uniforms."

Neal blinks, unsure of how to respond to that, and the captain says, "Don't tease him, Diana; he's only eighteen."

"I'm not the one that can't take my eyes off of him," Commander Barrigan points out reasonably, both brows arched. "I can see him being your type, too."

"Oh, Christ," the captain says, pressing at both temples with one hand. "I thought we'd at least get through the appetizer before you started in."

Neal is still speechless, partly owing to Commander Barrigan's apparent willingness to allude to the captain's potential desires and/or appetites, and partly because the captain is wearing an impeccably tailored charcoal gray suit made of a shimmery material. It's got dark pinstripes, and he's wearing a pale blue shirt beneath it, with a banded collar. He looks stunning. He looks like he'd walked off one of the various marketing signs lining the streets. He looks amazing in faculty blacks, and delicious in jeans and a t-shirt, but neither had prepared him for what he looks like now.

Neal wants him desperately.

Worse, Neal can feel that it's mutual, although the captain's want is slightly lessened by his embarrassment.

"Let's go in," the captain says tautly, and holds the door for Commander Barrigan and for Neal. The captain speaks to the maitre d' while Commander Barrigan and Neal hang back.

Neal pulls his attention away from the captain long enough to note that Commander Barrigan also looks stunning in a dark blue sheath dress and glittering sapphires at her throat and ears. "You look beautiful, Commander," Neal tells her, uncertain if he's actually supposed to do that considering the hierarchy of rank present, but deciding that since she's already commented on Neal's appearance, he should get a free shot at hers.

"Thanks, though I think for tonight and probably only tonight, you should call me Diana." She smiles a little crookedly, as though her intentions are faintly wicked.

"Okay, Diana," Neal says. "Please call me Neal. That one is permanent."

The maitre d' seats them in the back corner of the room in a quiet semi-alcove near the restrooms, takes their drink orders -- Neal goes against his better judgement and orders himself a glass of wine -- and leaves them alone to talk.

"So, Neal," Diana says when the three of them are alone at their table. "On a scale of one to ten, how desperate is your crush on Peter?"

Neal looks at the captain, but the captain is clutching at his temples again, his eyes closed. "Diana," he says, but then doesn't seem to have any kind of follow up for that.

Neal decides that if he can't avoid it, it's best to indulge it openly, and says, "Seven hundred."

Diana laughs out loud, and the captain snorts and shakes his head, but he's stopped clutching his temples, so that's something.

"So are we talking 'hot for teacher' here, or full blown puppy love?" she asks, still smiling, but a little serious around the eyes.

"While I wouldn't entirely dismiss the 'hot for teacher' element," Neal says carefully, also smiling but serious around the eyes, "I wouldn't use either of those to describe my feelings for the captain."

Diana's brows arch. "Sure about that, are you?" she asks.

"I'm eighteen, not oblivious," Neal says.

"Appetizers?" the waiter asks.

"Oh my God, yes," the captain says, flipping rapidly through the menu.

Diana is still watching Neal, and Neal watches her back, content to let the captain order the appetizers. The waiter leaves with their order, and the captain opens his mouth to say something, but the waiter immediately returns with their drinks. Neal sips at his wine, and finds it a sweet, dry white that he thinks will go great with seafood. The captain has a burgundy of some kind, and takes a fairly big gulp of it as Neal watches. Diana has white wine as well, though not the same one that Neal had ordered.

"Enough with this conversation," the captain says when he's finished gulping his wine. "I know you do it just to screw with me," he accuses.

Diana doesn't even try to look innocent. "I do, it's true," she says. "But I also do it because sometimes you tell me things just to get me to shut up."

The captain doesn't groan, but he looks a lot like he wants to. He's feeling mortified, aggravated, and still half-aroused, the last of which is enough to make Neal happy all on it's own.

"And he's clearly got at least some appreciation for you," Diana tells Neal as though the captain weren't sitting just across the table from them. "I've never seen him in a suit, and I've known him for eight years."

"While we were in space," the captain objects, but he's flushing faintly.

Neal can't decide whether he loves this conversation or hates it. "Am I his type?" he asks, taking the plunge, because it's not like he's not already involved anyway.

Diana rocks her head back and forth for a moment, then says, "I can see you being his type, but I can't cite past examples. The boss is notoriously private, and as far as I know, has never slept with a crew member before. There have been some diplomatic missions that I'm reasonably certain he hooked up with somebody on, but he's pretty particular."

The captain sighs. "I don't think it matters if he's my type," he says, and sips at his wine this time, rather than gulps. "Look at him. He's everyone's type."

Diana looks amused and pleased in equal parts, but says, "He's not my type."

"You know what I mean," the captain says snappishly.

"You're clearly his type," Diana tells the captain as though pointing out something he might not have noticed. The captain's jaw clenches, but he doesn't say anything. "And in a few months, you'll be back in space, and Neal will still be at the Academy, and you'll be spending another chunk of time without amorous attention."

"Do you have a point?" the captain asks abruptly, actually riled now, rather than just embarrassed.

Diana cocks her head as though surprised, but just says, "I just think you should consider carpe-ing a little diem."

Neal agrees, but is not foolish enough to say so. The captain really is riled; more than upset but less than angry. He doesn't want it pointed at him.

"And you think I'm the type of man to take a cadet to bed with me, just because there's a mutual attraction between us?" he grates out.

Diana draws back and looks at him. "No," she says finally, but without the jovial edge the rest of the conversation had held. "I know you're not. I just thought it might do you some good if someone encouraged you to make an exception." She leans forward a little. "And you clearly like him. You want him on the Defiance, already, when he isn't even halfway through the Academy. You have extended office hours every night to accommodate his schedule. You have coffee with him occasionally, which, since it's you, means you're already making an exception on some things. And you knew it was him at the door last night before you answered it, which means he's the only cadet you have that would even think of coming to your quarters, at any time, for any reason."

The captain sighs. "And all of this means I should sleep with him?" He's just weary and wary now. Neal feels bad for ever being amused at Diana's litany of questions.

"It means," she says almost gently, "that you'd probably already be sleeping with him if you weren't his adviser. Peter, I slept with two different advisers. Everyone I know has at least one instructor-I-banged story. I don't see the point in you putting Neal off over something that just is not a big deal. And I think it would do you good."

"And when I leave again, will that do him good?" the captain asks flatly, his tone a little unfriendly. "Considering how he thinks he feels about me?"

"I don't see that it'll do him any harm," Diana says gently. "He's going to feel how he feels, whether you sleep with him or not. Why not make some memories?"

Neal has to take a big swallow of wine to keep himself from interfering in the conversation. The captain is feeling intractable in the link, solidly displeased, and Neal doesn't think this campaign of Diana's is going to work, but he still kind of wants to put his opinion out on the table as well.

After the silence goes on for an uncomfortably long time, Neal asks, "So, is this an aberration, or do you interfere in the captain's personal life on a regular basis?"

Diana gives him a long look, as though deciding whether or not to actually answer the question, and then she shrugs, all elegant, caramel skinned motion that Neal appreciates aesthetically regardless of her sexual preferences and of his own current romantic fixation. "We live on a starship with several hundred of the same people for years at a time," she says and sips her wine. "We all interfere in each others personal lives. The entire bridge staff has a standing bet that he'll end up with Elizabeth." She glances over at the captain. "But I may change my vote."

The captain sighs. "Can we just eat our food and not talk anymore?" he asks, but his mood has dialed back down to merely cranky, and Diana smiles fondly at him.

"I won't ride your ass about it, Peter; just tell me you'll give it some thought," she says cajolingly.

"Don't get his hopes up," the captain says on a sigh. "It's going to be hard enough when I leave."

"I don't actually think getting to sleep with you will make that harder," Neal says carefully, trying for neutral, but pretty sure he only manages hopeful.

"I'd always feel like I'd done something wrong," the captain says, studying his wine rather than looking at either of the two of them. "The fact that it happens doesn't make it right."

It's something the captain has said to Neal before, but it resonates differently with Neal this time. He can feel it, for one thing. The captain is unhappily certain that it is wrong. But it's also the look on his face. It's almost wistful. Like he wishes it could be different. It makes Neal's heart clench a little uncertainly in his chest and he wonders, for the first time, if he even wants the captain to give in on this issue. He'd like to have sex; of course he would, he's eighteen. But the captain's integrity is a real part of his attraction for Neal.

And the captain has maybe already given up all of the integrity that he can manage as far as Neal and sex go. What they do at night, alone and in separate bedrooms, but their minds tangled together, isn't sex for a given definition of sex, but it's far more than masturbation, too.

The captain has already bent his rules, and it was because he had no real choice, but they are no less bent because of that. Maybe that's all he can give, and maybe that should be all Neal wants him to give.

"I withdraw my request," Neal says, and returns the captain's sharp look with a smile that is a little painful, but still genuine. "I don't want anything that makes you feel like you've compromised yourself."

That thing that the captain sometimes feels, the quick, darting, warm thing, settles in the back of Neal's mind for a moment, soft and sweet and generous. It doesn't stay long, but Neal thinks the captain makes it go away, dismisses it when it happens, and that's why Neal can never get a look at it. This is the longest chance Neal has had to puzzle over it. He still doesn't know what it is, but he likes it, wants it, is gladdened merely to have it directed at him.

"Okay," Diana says in tones of resignation. "You're right." She's looking at the captain, and Neal has no idea what she's talking about.

The captain swallows a mouthful of wine, and then leans back when the waiter arrives with their appetizers. The restaurant is nice enough that the waiter serves them out, rather than everyone going for their own, so it takes a minute before he leaves.

Neal waits for the conversation to pick back up where it had left off -- right about what? -- and it never does. Diana and the captain both squeeze lemon over their appetizers and start to eat. Lacking anything else to do, Neal does the same, minus the lemon.

The rest of the evening passes in conversation mostly in regards to the Defiance. "They're still having trouble with the third core module," Diana says, scowling beautifully as she bludgeons a Dungeness crab. "The core won't seat and they've rebuilt it three times."

"Damn it," the captain says, slicing into his salmon almost absently. "I told them that was going to be a tricky fix since we had to rebuild it in the field. I told them that while I was at space dock." He takes a bite and chews angrily.

"What's the problem with it?" Neal asks, merely to be a part of the conversation at all.

"She's Constitution class, so she's got four warp cores modules," she tells him, and arranges the bread sticks on the table into the module configuration. "A while back, we had trouble with a small fleet of Romulans, and the third position core was uncontainably breached. We had to eject it. We hit a space dock with the right module not long after, but the damage to the area of the ship that housed the third core was pretty catastrophic. We had to rebuild it to fit the core, and we didn't have a lot of time; we were under orders. So we did some rerouting around the damaged areas to get the core engaged well enough to get us to maximum warp." She tips the third bread stick to sit diagonally "The mission we were on was mediation between the Lengins and the Taupir, and it went on for almost three months. At that point, we'd rebuilt all we could rebuild while actually on a mission in potentially hostile space, and the new core position was pretty finalized, unless we had a month or more in space dock to tear out and rebuild the whole section. When we got towed to space dock here, the powers that be decided that they weren't going to just tear out that makeshift work while they were up in her guts rebuilding her anyway. They decided to leave it as it was, since it worked. Which might have been fine; stingy, but fine. But you can't work on most of the main systems with the entire warp core at full power, so they pulled the first three modules." Diana relocates the bread sticks back to their baskets. "Now they can't get the third core to seat properly, which isn't a surprise, because we rebuilt it from inside the ship, with whatever we could get our hands on, and they pulled it from the outside, which partially destroyed some of the support system."

"They're going to have to suit up and EVA inside the ships hull to fix it," the captain says, sounding slightly vindictive. "And they better, because if they delay your mission because of that, I'll rip them up one side and down the other."

"So these are space issues?" Neal asks, just to be clear. "They can't seat the core because there's not really enough space to seat it and then also seal the hull behind it?"

"Yeah, exactly," the captain says. "Why?"

"Why not use a Courier class or a Galaxy class core?" Neal asks. "They have the same units of power, but are only about 2/3rds the size. Then even if they do have to EVA inside the hull to repair it, they've got plenty of room to do it."

"Why are they smaller if they have the same units of power?" Diana asks, shifting in her chair a little sideways, so she can face Neal. "Better question, why are our cores so big if smaller cores can generate just as much power?"

"Cooling," Neal tells her. "Cooling a larger surface area is actually easier than a smaller one. So for Constitution class ships, the big ones that are going to be out for big long stretches of time, it's actually safer to have a bigger core because it's easier to cool. But having one smaller core shouldn't make a difference to your power usage, especially if you have them use whatever room is left over to put in back up coolant systems. And even then, it's really unlikely to be needed, because warp cores on Constitution class ships fire two, four, one, three, so it's the last core to be used and the first core to be shut down. But extra cooling systems can't hurt."

Diana looks at the captain. "Did you know that?" she asks a little sharply.

"Yeah," the captain says a little slowly. "I did. But it didn't occur to me as a solution to the seating problem. The fixtures are even the same. They're universal, so they won't have to do any modifications on that."

"Sure," Neal agrees. "On the theory that if core two is misfiring, you can swap it out for core three and limp on back to space dock without it causing you a lot of speed reduction. They're redesigning the universal fixture, though. I think they're complicating it on purpose, to keep it proprietary, but they say they're addressing current issues with the fixture."

"What do you mean, keep it proprietary?" the captain asks. "Aren't they already proprietary?"

"And top secret, technically," Neal agrees. "But that's theoretical at best. We go too many places, meet too many new races, and the ship is always right there, and the engineering staff all know everything there is to know about her, and it's only polite to make conversation with the natives, and then a few years later the Ferengi are selling warp cores with the universal fixture to anybody who wants one. Which turns out to be mostly us, because sometimes you're really far from a space dock, or you blow more than one core and can barely hit warp at all, or you're on a time critical mission and you have to fix it yourself." He gestures at the captain and Diana.

"And how do you know that," Diana asks.

"Because I read declassified mission reports," Neal says seriously. "All of them I can get my hands on. I'm looking forward to next year, when we can legitimately access some of the classified reports for strategy and tactics courses. My third year I'm going to try and gain authorization to all mission reports, classified and otherwise, that have to do with the Federation having its own equipment and weapons used against us, and do a report on it in a Starfleet Code format. If they've got any sense at all, they'll just take the report and incorporate it as a whole into the current Starfleet Code."

"Think well of yourself, don't you?" the captain asks, but his face is light, and he feels amused and pleased and proud.

Diana is staring at him as though he is an unfamiliar species of insect, however, which is actually kind of on the unpleasant side. "He really is a baby genius," she says.

"I'm not a baby anything," Neal says, but he's a little flattered. "I'm smart, but I work hard. I don't know this stuff because it's just laying around. I look for it, I research it, I spend time and effort building a knowledge basis that I'll use someday when I'm assigned to a ship."

"Don't be coy, at this late date," the captain says, actually smiling now. "You can just say when you're assigned to the Defiance."

Neal can't help returning the captain's smile. It's apparently hard wired. "Assuming I haven't made you crazy by then, sir," Neal says, and to his great delight, the captain pinkens.

Diana pretends not to notice, so Neal takes his cue from her. "Anyway," he says easily. "Get a Galaxy class core module and slot it into your current system. Use the extra space for coolant, though I don't think you'll really need it. It shouldn't affect your performance at all, and will probably make it easier to get to the core itself for repairs."

Diana says, "Yeah, I'm on it, boss. First thing in the morning." She grins at Neal. "It'll be handy having you around."

They talk about other things, after that, ship things and then mission things and then, when everyone is on their third glass of wine, personal things, although not in the half-goading manner that Diana had used before.

"It was never going to work for us long term anyway," Diana says, and swirls her wine in her glass. "She said that she felt like she was in third place in my life, behind you and the Defiance, and she wasn't exactly wrong, but what am I supposed to say? I'm the first officer; that's how it's supposed to work."

"Did this happen before or after she put in to be transferred?" the captain asks gently.

"The conversation happened after, but that was the reason for the transfer, if you get what I mean. And it's okay. I care about her a lot, but it wasn't true love or anything. Besides, Elizabeth is getting two new nurses, one of which I went to the Academy with. If you can't get lucky with nurses, who can you get lucky with?"

Neal is surprised with a mouthful of wine and has to sputter into his napkin. "I did not know that about nurses," he says when he's finally recovered. "But I'll definitely keep it in mind."

"See that you only keep it in mind," the captain says, and then looks surprised and feels absolutely shocked. Diana is so surprised that she fumbles her wine glass and almost upsets it into the bread bowl. The captain flushes ruddy, but doesn't make any attempt to take it back.

Neal, feeling giddy and delighted, merely says, "Yes, captain."

The captain drains his wine glass and says, "Are we staying for another, or are we done for?" The waiter has appeared out of nowhere, and seems to be waiting for the answer with baited breath.

Neal would vote for another; he's having what has turned out to be an improbably good time. But he doesn't object when Diana says, "I've got to be up at space dock at oh-six-hundred. Another would be just asking for a hangover."

The captain nods at the waiter and he produces the check. The captain passes over his card without looking at it.

Neal thinks about objecting, but Diana doesn't, so he doesn't either.

They walk back to the Academy. It's a little breezy and cool, and Neal thinks Diana has to be uncomfortable, but when he offers her his jacket, she laughs merrily. "I spent six months in survival my last year at the Academy, honey," she tells him. "A brisk wind barely registers anymore. But thanks for the offer. You're sweet."

"She's this butch all the time," the captain tells Neal, sotto voice, and she laughs again. "I think she's more macho than me."

Neal laughs, too, this time. The idea of the captain being macho is absurd. Being macho is a thing you do, like a suit of clothes you put on. What the captain is runs deeper than that. He is who he is all the time, no matter how hard that is for him. Neal feels foolish that it had taken him this long to really understand that.

They walk him to his door as though he were their collective date, and the captain reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out three mints. "I forgot," he says, and shares them out among them.

His fingertips brush Neal's palm, and he knows that the captain is thinking that Neal looks beautiful, and knowing it makes it next to impossible to manage the soft, "Thank you," that Neal eventually forces out.

When he goes inside, T'Kreen is silently meditating on his bed, and his roommate is nowhere to be seen. T'Kreen opens her eyes and says, "I believe he was disconcerted by my presence."

"How did you get him to let you in, anyway?" Neal asks, amused.

"I told him I was waiting for you to meet me here," T'Kreen says mildly.

"How long have you been here?"

"Two hours and twelve minutes," she says with no sign that she finds the situation funny, though Neal is one hundred percent certain that she does.

"Very Vulcan of you," he says.

"Thank you. The lateness of your arrival and the scent of alcoholic beverage on you leads me to believe that you were not displeased with dinner." The trick she has where she doesn't actually ask a question, but somehow still compels you to speak, is one that Neal is going to learn if it's the last thing he does.

"It was good," he says a little grudgingly. "I like Diana enough that the jealousy thing wasn't an issue. They both treated me as if I was already a member of the crew, which may have aided in that. My fear that we were going to trip up and actively display empathy proved to be groundless. We talked about space ships and warp cores and a little about our respective personal lives. It started out kind of rocky, but it turned out to be good."

T'Kreen says something, but Neal misses it in the wash of abrupt and unexpected lust through the binding. He stammers something -- he will never remember exactly what it is -- but whatever it is, it's enough to get T'Kreen moving, though it's possible she merely senses enough of his astonishment and desire to make her aware of what's going on. He merely brushes a hand across her arm, which makes her eyes widen as she hastily retreats from the room.

It's never happened like this before. The captain has never...

Neal always, always starts it. The binding is pulsing and hot, and Neal is nearly overwhelmed at the way the captain's mind stretches out for him, as though it's become so normal that he never considers doing anything else, but it also feels deliberate, it's clear in the binding, undeniable. Neal can't stand against it, and doesn't want to. He fumbles at his clothes, slinging his finery carelessly over the back of a chair, and it hardly crosses his mind that his roommate could be back any time. He's too fundamentally enthralled by the captain's slowly mounting pleasure, his need, and he would not have anticipated the extent to which the captain reaching for him, rather than the reverse, would strain his self control.

He is in bed before he's entirely undressed, struggling out of the rest of his clothes with one hand on his cock, his mind already tangled with the captain's, caught up in his urgency. The captain's focus is entirely devoted to the binding, and it's different, it's not the same as when Neal reaches for the captain's mind and the captain merely lets him. There is a reciprocity here that Neal has no defense against, and he is whining with his hand on his cock, and he cannot read the captain's mind, not really, but he feels him there more closely than he ever has, and he's helpless against it. He cocks his free hand beneath his legs, also for the first time, and the burn of a finger inside him, unlubed and unprepared, only drives him further into the whirl of desperation in the link. He wants to touch the captain, he wants the captain to touch him, and while he has come to uneasy terms with the fact that it's not going to happen any time soon, this is so much closer to that than anything he's experienced so far that he is feverish with it. He feels almost close enough to the captain to touch. Almost.

It doesn't help either of them that the captain is as enraptured by it as Neal is. Neal can feel it, fascination-desire-possession-demand, and it's wanted, Neal craves all of those things from the captain desperately, and he's helpless against his climax, and he's helpless, still, when the captain slows his own down deliberately, so that Neal is caught in some halfway state between satiation and building arousal, and that is the captain's goal, it can't be anything but intentional, which sets Neal to reeling so profoundly that he clutches at the captain's mind, clings to it in a way that he's never allowed himself to even during these moments, never allowing himself to forget that the captain is a private man, and that Neal is stronger than he is, psychically, and can't allow himself to take advantage.

It doesn't feel like taking advantage, though. The captain is solid, unconcerned that Neal is entrenched so deeply in his mind that he can almost feel the captain with him, as though there is barely a whisper of space between them. He feels the captain's need as clearly as the captain's want, knows that it has as much to do with the Defiance as it does with Neal, understands the thin underpinning of grief and distress, comprehends the difficulty posited by doing nothing more than staying on Earth. He eases that distress, he soothes it away without thought, and does what he can to distract the captain from the things that Neal can't soothe away. The captain is red and raw with hunger, and Neal lets it drive him upward toward delirium again because it's what the captain needs from him, and Neal will always do anything the captain needs.

He has sweated through his sheets, he is too hot and he is groaning aloud, the captain is close and Neal batters at him with his own desire. He hides nothing, and the captain can hide nothing from him. He can smell the captain's skin, taste the tang of scotch in his mouth as he had last night, the wet whisper of their kisses barely illicit in their innocence, but still so good that Neal can call up the feel of them with barely a thought. He is grateful even as he is starving.

He wants so much more than this, but feels lucky to have anything at all.

The captain soothes that away; Neal doesn't know how he knows how, but he allows it to happen.

Better to think of what the captain is feeling, better to know that they are feeling the same, now, that they are together and close, that Neal is taut with exertion and necessity and can imagine how the captain looks like this, can almost see it, the line of his hard body, the cut of his hips and the bunching of his biceps. The captain flexes in his mind, bows outward, and the wash of his pleasure is pure and thrilling and exactly what it must be to send Neal over the edge with him, minds intimately coiled, focused and enthralled, while Neal cries out and arches his back and comes again with enough force to make him ache with it.

The captain's mind in his is lazy with contentment, and Neal falls asleep without meaning to, still sticky with sweat and covered in his own come.

Chapter Text

Peter has to take a shower afterward, which gives him plenty of time to think about what a stupid fucking stunt he had just pulled.

He hadn't meant to. He'd come back to his quarters and stripped out of his suit and he'd meant to do nothing more than go to bed, head still buzzing pleasantly from the wine.

But when he'd closed his eyes, Neal had been hiding behind his eyelids, stupidly beautiful in his dress clothes, Vulcan-ish in design, so that they covered every inch of him, but clinging in all the places anyone with eyes would want to touch. It had been easy to reach down and take himself in hand, and it had seemed rational to reach for Neal as he did it. Neal would know, after all, even if Peter hadn't reached for him. Why not make it easy for them both?

As he showers himself clean of sweat and come, he can think of a hundred reasons why he shouldn't have. The... depth of the binding alone...

"How was I supposed to know that?" he asks aloud, voice echoing a little in the close shower stall.

But he should have known, or should have at least guessed. And he had started it. He'd told himself that he was never going to do that.

"Like it makes a difference," he mutters, because he's always been a participant, but it does matter. It had been different.

Not just that, but it had made a difference to Neal, and that had been unfair of Peter to do. Things are going to be difficult enough already. It's unfair for him to set precedents like this one. Unfair to drag Neal any closer to Peter than he already is.

When he goes back into space, it's likely to be for a minimum of a year. It's possible that he'll be gone up to five years.

He'd told Neal that the Defiance docks on Earth a couple of times a year, and that's true, historically speaking, but that doesn't mean it will continue to be true. Defiance is a Constitution class ship, and with the damage the fleet had taken and the destruction of Vulcan, it's not only possible, but probable, that the Defiance will play a different role than she has historically. There are only eleven Constitution class ships left in the whole fleet.

Seven of them are on deep space missions, including the Enterprise. The Defiance could easily get the same orders.

Peter thinks, statistically, that they won't. He thinks Starfleet will want to keep at least a few of their fighting ships closer to home. But he doesn't know that for sure.

Neal may end up waiting for the Defiance, done with his education before the Defiance is called home.

Peter gets out of the shower and dries off, throwing on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, restless and ashamed of himself, and determined to do something to offset it.

If they get five year orders, Neal will graduate and Starfleet will station him someplace else, and Peter will have to fight to get him back to where he should be. He won't let that happen. Not when he's already done everything that he's done, including what he'd done tonight.

It takes him three hours and two Admirals to draft what he needs -- and the Admirals aren't happy with him at all, which doesn't especially bother Peter -- and he wakes up Hughes to sign off on it as well as to present it to Walsh. Hughes, groggy, but not seeming especially surprised, merely asks if Peter feels like he has to have it finished tonight, or if the morning will be soon enough.

Peter would really like to have it done tonight, but thinks it's more likely to get approved if he doesn't wake up the entire Board of Governors in the middle of the night to do it. He tells Hughes tomorrow is fine, but to comm him as soon as it's official.

Then, because he's awake and doesn't think he'll be able to sleep any time soon, he drafts sixteen more for the Vulcans. He's already made his intentions plain; there's no point to singling Neal out entirely. Some of the Vulcans may decline, but Peter doubts it very much.

Including the Vulcans actually probably decreases Peter's chances of success. The Board of Governors may balk at what is undoubtedly a case of Peter bogarting some of the most promising potential resources they have. But Peter doubts that, too.

He isn't Kirk; he didn't save the planet. But he's a hero in his own right, and if he's ever going to capitalize on that fact -- something he would have never guessed he would be doing -- it might as well be now.

He goes to bed in the dark hour before dawn, and he reaches for Neal and finds him quiescent, at rest, which unexpectedly means that Peter feels like he can rest, too.

Chapter Text

Late the next morning, Neal feels the captain buzzing with some kind of high energy. It isn't the same kind of agitation-aggravation-dismay that had sent him to the captain's door two nights ago, but it's the same level of emotion. Neal can't quite get a handle on what it is the captain is feeling, though. Just that he's highly emotional, passionate, in a way that he normally isn't. Neal tries not to let it distract him, but it's a hard sell. The captain isn't emotionless by any means, but he is, as Neal had told him, even-keeled, contained. He doesn't spike with emotion for the most part, and he doesn't climb to and maintain this level ever.

Neal is leery of going to find out what is going on, in light of the last time he had done so, not to mention that he's in class right now, and can't easily or subtly extricate himself.

He's already been dodging T'Kreen this morning; he doesn't want to give her more reason to come after him.

He's still in the class twenty minutes later when the captain settles down, and Neal relaxes enough to actually pay attention to his instructor.

That lasts for eleven minutes, and then Neal is called out of class and told to report to the executive offices to speak with the Board of Governors. Neal panics for about four seconds, and then realizes that seven of his classmates -- all Vulcans -- have been called to report as well.

So. Probably not about his empathic bond with the captain.

Neal exchanges a look with T'Kreen, who gives him a perfectly blank stare which he nevertheless reads clearly as 'I have no idea.'

As they walk across the quad, another handful of Vulcans join them, and T'Kreen gives Neal a brief look and says, very softly, "The binding?"

"I don't think so. But he was passionate about something this morning, high emotion, sustained."

T'Kreen cocks her brow. They've talked about it often enough that she understands that isn't the captain's M.O. "And last night?" she asks, lips barely moving.

Neal looks down to hide his flush. He hasn't talked to her specifically about the... thing, but he wouldn't put it past her to have either researched or extrapolated it.

"He... initiated," Neal whispers. He doesn't look up to see T'Kreen's face -- he's too embarrassed -- so he's utterly shocked when she slips her hand briefly into his.

You can tell me these things. They are not burdens you must bear alone.

Her hand is gone just as quickly as it's there, and Neal feels unexpected tingles dancing across his skin where she'd touched him. He doesn't know why. They've touched before. "I know..." he says slowly. "Sometimes there just aren't the right words."

She nods without looking at him, and he realizes for the first time that she has feelings for him. Not friendship feelings. Other feelings. "T'Kreen," he whispers, agonized, but she shakes her head and continues up the steps with the rest of the Vulcans.

Neal trots to keep up, and realizes as he does so that this is the captain's entire complement of advisees. Neal's stomach sinks, but then a moment later he dismisses it. He can't read the captain like he can read other people, but that emotion from him earlier, that had been passion and determination, it had been something good, and Neal doesn't believe that the captain could feel good if he was turning his entire list of advisees over to someone else because he's decided to go back into space early.

Neal is ashamed of thinking it, even for a moment.

But that leaves wide open the question of what are they all doing here?

A Yeoman meets them at the administration building's door, and says, "Right this way, please?" She's smiling and pert and blond, and her gaze lingers on Neal. Neal resists the urge to tell her that he's taken. Sort of.

They follow the Yeoman to a conference room with a plaque on the door that says "Board of Governors."

Before Neal has time to consider what that means, he's being ushered inside, and he falls into parade rest at all the brass present automatically, because you learn that early or you end up wishing dearly that you had.

The captain is there, and Admiral Hughes, Admiral Archer, Admiral Bennett, and three of the Board of Governors. Neal knows all their names, but he doesn't know them by sight. This seems like a grave oversight considering the situation.

"Cadets, to my right are Admiral's Hughes, Archer, and Bennett, and seated at the high table are Governors Clax'l, Donnel, and Drxlsh."

The facility with which the captain manages the alien names of the Andorian and Deltan members of the Board is impressive. Neal practices the sounds silently, motionlessly, so that he has them in his head well enough to be confident enough managing them with his tongue.

As one, the Vulcans nod their understanding.

"Unless you want individual introductions of each cadet, which I'd be happy to provide on request, I suggest we move onto the issue at hand," the captain says. He seems to have no trouble at all trouncing three admirals and three Governors with his sheer presence.

The Governors are looking a little stunned. The Admirals mostly look amused, with the exception of Bennett, who merely looks quizzical. Like he's not sure he believes this is happening.

Neal has no idea what is happening, so he totally understands.

"At least tell them what's going on," Hughes says, sounding lazily amused.

But Neal has figured it out, and as soon as he does, he can't stop his face from lighting up like it's Christmas and his Birthday and his eventual defloration by the captain all at once!

He's been picking up the knack of keeping a serene countenance from the Vulcans, but this emotion has no chance at being held back.

"At least one of them already figured it out," Archer says, and the Vulcans look to Neal -- they look to Neal, which Neal will take time to think about later, because it seems important, an important fact -- and while they don't show the same kind of elation that Neal knows he's beaming about the place, there is definitely some almost expressions going on. T'Kreen's brows are both arched, Stentek has his head bowed, hands clasped behind his back, T'Leyna isn't smiling, but for a Vulcan, it's a very, very close thing.

Peter ignores them. He calls them up in alphabetical order, and by their entire names, even the unpronounceable Vulcan apostraphic fancies, and Neal, who is conversationally fluent at this point, can tell he doesn't make a single error. When they're all in a row, facing him, Neal sees the line of boxes on the table behind him and has to exercise the fullest extent of T'Kreen's tutelage to keep his face in order, even if his hands are trembling minutely behind his back.

"A'lshir r'len Stentek, I'd like to offer you a commission on the starship Defiance, contingent upon your graduation from Starfleet Academy with full academic marks. Will you accept this commission?"

"It would be my honor to serve with you, Captain," Stentek says, and stands perfectly still while the captain opens one of the boxes and affixes a single silver pin to his collar." Stentek salutes him gravely, and returns to his place in line.

It seems like it takes forever to get to Neal's name -- he's using first names, which are technically last names in Vulcan society, but there's a symmetry in it that Neal doesn't object to. He forces himself to be still and calm and not to maul the captain in front of all the admirals and governors, and the captain's lips quirk very faintly, as though he's aware of the force of Neal's restraint. He accepts his commission -- of course he does, like there was ever any doubt -- and the only surprise in the process is that the captain affixes two silver pins to Neal's collar. Neal understands what that means. Lieutenant, not ensign, he gets it, but he's still stunned. He must stand there for several moments too long, because the captain says gently, "Fall in, cadet," and Neal falls in on automatic.

T'Kreen, also, gets two pins, and she manages to make her retreat with far more grace than Neal had managed.

When it's done -- and it can't be lost on anyone in the room that not a single one of them had declined -- Admiral Archer clears his throat.

"This is not something we do with first year cadets," he says simply. "It's never been done before. But with our numbers so declined and our fleet effectively cut by a third, Captain Burke has made a compelling case in favor of the situation. He insists that he'd have any one of you on board without so much as another semester under your belts, and he's not prone to hyperbole." One of the Governors turns a laugh into a cough. Archer smiles a little, but goes on. "This doesn't change anything about your standing as Cadets at this Institution. Your rank is meaningless unless we're in dire need of warm bodies to fill seats, and you're all still expected to graduate from Starfleet with full academic marks. Your rank is contingent on Captain Burke's assurances that each and every one of you will do so." He clears his throat. "You're mostly Vulcans," he says, with a nod to Neal that comes off as merely recognition, not condescension, "so it's highly probable that we could ask you to keep this to yourselves and it could be our little secret. There was some argument relative to that. The end result, however, also pointed out by Captain Burke, is that seeing this happen, seeing the possibility, might give other cadets reason to strive harder in order to attain a similar goal. That said, it should be pointed out that since you're all Vulcans, there could be some sore feelings. I expect you to treat such things as negligible unless they threaten your personal safety, at which point, protect yourself and each other, at all costs." He rubs his temples. "It doesn't matter how hard you try, the lowbrow element will find a way to enlist. So be watchful."

"Do we wear our insignia?" Neal asks, secretly hoping for a yes, but bracing himself for a no.

"By all means," Governor Drxlsh says. "We have no intention of denying you the pride and purpose that your commissions grant you. However, you will have no authority over any other cadet here. Consider your commissions as a mark of status. You are already among those few who have been selected, and you're to be commended, as is Captain Burke, who fought very hard to put you in your present positions. But until you're actually aboard the Defiance, you're still a cadet at this Academy, with no more rank than any other cadet."

"Understood, ma'am," Neal says with his blankest face, secretly delighted. He can feel the captain's amusement.

"And finally," Admiral Hughes says, "should it happen that when you graduate that the Defiance isn't immediately available to dock at Earth, you will be given interim assignments -- not all of them fun -- to keep you available until the Defiance can come get you."

Something cools soothingly at the base of his neck and he recognizes it as reassurance. From the captain.

This is why. It's because he wants them, yes, all of them, but the reason for this is because he doesn't want Neal to fear being reassigned if the Defiance is given a deep space mission.

His mouth wants to babble something inane in thanks, but he keeps it still. Instead he meets that cool, soothing feeling at the back of his neck with excitement and gratitude and just a tiny bit of want that he can't seem to hide.

"Any other questions?"

"I have one," T'Kreen says politely. "What is the standard level of academic achievement at which commissions are most commonly given?"

The admirals exchange a complicated three way look. Hughes answers. "Previous to this, not sooner than the third year. It shows enough time and merit to gamble. But most often it's in the fourth or fifth year, and occasionally a commission isn't offered until sometime after graduation." T'Kreen cocks her head slightly, which Hughes, impressively, translates as meaning 'go on.' "Considering our depleted fleet and the number of cadets killed at Vulcan, exceptions will be made. Yours are just the first. And honestly, you'll probably be the only first years we commission. Partly because you are Vulcans, and your race in general has a predisposition to learning quickly and comprehensively. Partly because we need you, visibly, we need to demonstrate that Vulcan is still a core member of this federation, and partly because Captain Burke doesn't ever ask for anything. It's not a joke in a way that's funny, but his lack of requests is a running kind of gag. One of the things you do when someone who never asks for anything comes to you and asks for a lot, is that you don't dismiss it out of hand just because it's a lot. I trust Burke's judgment. When it comes down to it, we all do. So. You're commissioned officers in your first year of Starfleet. Congratulations. If you weren't Vulcans, I'd trust that you'd be falling down drunk by midnight. As it is, we'll leave you with Burke and see if he can figure out how to throw you a party that's more your style."

He gives the captain a grin and an arched brow. "Thanks a lot, Admiral," the captain says drily, but his face is light. Neal can feel his pleasure and triumph.

The admirals and governors pass them on their way out, each of them taking the time to congratulate them individually, none of them making the mistake of trying to touch them. Neal is impressed. Also, the Deltan Governor is smoking hot. It's really too bad about the way he could never hit that even if they both wanted to.

The captain, as though reading Neal's mind -- or just the direction of his gaze -- spikes with amusement in Neal's mind.

The captain's newly commissioned officers are still standing at parade rest, watching him curiously. The captain pushes a few empty boxes out of the way and rests his ass against the table.

"So. Questions for me?" he asks.

"How long has this been in your mind," T'Kreen wants to know.

The captain thinks about that for a while, and then says, "Since the beginning. Since the second or third week we started juggling your schedules. Since I started looking at what you were doing and thinking about officers I admired and looking up what they'd done to start. And then I started comming them, to see what they wish they would have known. And even then, I just wanted to do right by you. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with you, so I did the best I could figure out how." The captain sounds cranky, but he feels vulnerable. Neal would like to soothe it away, but he isn't sure how he'd done it the other time he'd done it, so he doesn't try.

"Did it occur to you to ask how other advisers were handling their advisees?" T'Leyna asks with cool curiosity.

The captain pushes up from the table, and Neal thinks for a minute that he's going to just leave. But he doesn't leave. He starts to pace. "My first year academic instructor gave me a form letter," he says, a low growl. "My second year academic adviser had his hand on my ass before we'd even been properly introduced. I did without an adviser that year. Thank God for small favors, my third year I got Hughes, and once I did I stuck to him like glue. I'd already done well. I had a good spread as a third year cadet with no actual advising to speak of. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew how to research. I was willing to put in the time to do it the hard way." The captain rakes a hand through his hair. "The point is, I had you, and I had no way of knowing what would happen to you if I turned Hughes down, and so I did for you what I would have wanted for me. Other advisers are..." He stops short of being insulting. "Overworked," he says instead. "And I don't trust them. I only had seventeen of you, and I still felt like I could hardly take a breath. I actually sort of get the guy with the form letter now." He shakes his head. "And it doesn't matter. You barely needed me at all. You were already very together, academically, all on target. I barely had to tweak your work. The hardest part about you guys was explaining the why of the changes. Once you understood where I was getting my data from, you were all on board. And that's... that's what a ship needs. People who are all on board. Aside from Neal, who is going to be the prodigy of the group, as we all know, each and every one of you is already more knowledgeable in your area of expertise than your average officer. I know that because I watch you work at it. And it doesn't matter to me whether or not you're all Vulcans. It mattered to the admiralty, they were not pleased with me taking all of you, but I told them not all of you might sign up."

The captain grins a little.

"Did you really think so?" T'Zahn asks.

"No," the captain says, lips quirking. "I didn't really think so."

"It might be wiser to spread the Vulcan presence out in the fleet," Stadan says thoughtfully.

"No," the captain says. "The Enterprise is their flagship, but we're going to be the ship they send when they need to make it clear and obvious that Vulcan very clearly is still represented in and by Starfleet."

"You expect a heightened degree of danger," T'Kreen says, brow cocked, not a question.

"I do," the captain says, lips still quirked. "But I promise you, it won't be boring."

"Since the beginning?" T'Kreen repeats. "For all of us?"

The captain flushes faintly; Neal watches, fascinated.

"For Neal. But it wasn't long after for the rest of you. Once I'd come to terms with poaching him right out of Starfleet's rank and file, it seemed like poaching the rest of you was the logical next step. I know your skills, I know your grades, I know you. The Defiance has the best crew in the galaxy. Why shouldn't I take advantage of a situation not of my choosing to make it better. Honestly, they should have known better than to put the smartest group of cadets under my advisory. That's their own short sightedness problem, not mine."

"And you're sure enough of all of us to do this so soon?" T'Ceir asks.

"Yes. And if you part ways with Starfleet for personal reasons, and return again at some later date, I won't revoke your commission. I'll assume your reasoning was sound."

There is a small gap of silence into which Neal cannot help but shout, "I'm a LIEUTENANT!"

The Vulcans all look at him with their expressionless fondness showing through, and the captain just laughs.

"Why the disparities in rank?" T'Kreen asks. "I am also a lieutenant."

"Because I know the two of you well enough to trust to you be in charge of other people," the captain say seriously. "In a way that means I know you'll look out for them with your own lives. Honestly, there are others of you that probably deserve it, but I had to fight my ass off to get even one lieutenant, let alone, two. I think Bennett is going to put me in for a psych eval." He shakes his head. "It doesn't matter. The rest of you will make lieutenant before you graduate. If I can't be here personally to ensure it, Hughes has promised to step in for me. He thinks it's hilarious that I co-opted the entire Vulcan student body." He shakes his head again. "It doesn't matter. In the end, you'll come onto the Defiance on equal footing, or I'll promote you on the spot if you aren't."

"You're anticipating a deep space mission," Santik asks seriously.

The captain sighs. "Historically, the Defiance runs close to Earth. She's a fighting ship, and we need a few of those around. Presently, however, with a third of our fleet gone and a good chunk of it still under repair, it's possible. I don't think it's probable. Again, we need fighting ships here, and the Defiance is without bias, one of the best in the fleet. But we may be out for a couple of years if there are problems with either end of the neutral zone, and our first set of orders is already data picking the Laurentian system."

T'Kreen's eyes betray nothing. "You are going?"

"No," the captain says, though he's almost surely aware that T'Kreen already knows that. "I'm giving it over to my first Officer, Commander Barrigan. It'll look good on her docket and it will let me finish out the term with my classes and advisees."

T'Ceir asks, "And us? Will we be separated among different advisers to fill your absence?"

The captain sighs. "Yes. Well, no, because I called in some favors. You would have been, but Chris Pike is going to be on campus, doing some teaching, filling in here and there, and he doesn't have any advisees. He lost most of them at Vulcan. I don't know if you know him, but he's a good man. Solid. If you need advising, I suggest you go to him. But most of you don't need it, which is how I talked him into taking you on. I'm leaving you with some service records, solid men and women in your chosen fields, along with their academic records, and also along with the lists of things they would have taken if they'd had the time, or would have replaced with other courses if they'd known then what they know now. It's not strictly... illegal, but it's confidential information. They've all agreed to share it with the group of you and Pike, and only the group of you and Pike. So. I know Vulcans aren't exactly chatty, but don't spread it around."

T'Kreen looks like she might nearly almost smile.

"And I'll be available by comm," the captain says, like it makes him uncomfortable. "Anything too far out and they'll be a delay, but the relay system is pretty good, so. And I don't have to warn you, nothing sensitive on an unsecured comm."

"And your binding with Neal?" Sigiir asks, and the captain looks like he might fall backward off the table. Sigiir says gently, "We all know. We can feel it. We were all, once, a part of such a binding."

For a moment the captain says nothing, and then when he does Neal is so astounded that he feels an almost impossible to deny urge to weep. "I grieve with thee," he says softly.

Sigiir nods. "We know. We thank you. But the farther you are from Neal, the tauter the binding will become. You have become close; the binding is wide. You can feel one another, perhaps sometimes talk to each other?" He looks a question at Neal.

"I haven't tried to talk," Neal says, though he had read about it. He had immediately discarded it on the grounds that the captain would almost certainly object. "But his feelings are clearer every day."

Sigiir puts his fingertips together and says, "You are here." Then the pulls his arms wide, leaving his fingertips together as though holding a piece of string in each hand. "You will be here, apart. Unlike most of us, my betrothed and I were geographically close. It was not until she went to the Vulcan Science Academy that I understood what a strain it would be on the binding. You become used to another in your mind. It becomes a comfort. When you leave, you will feel that change in magnitude of that connection. I suspect that the captain is contained enough to appear mostly unchanged, but do not believe that projecting that image will make it true. You must learn to meditate, and it must be soon. Neal..." He turns to T'Kreen.

"He's doing well. He will be visibly more upset than the captain, but since he has kept his feelings for the captain no secret, this will not seem odd. We must not allow him to wallow." She gives Neal a bright look. "In memory," she clarifies gently.

Neal flushes, but nods. "Yeah, I probably will."

The captain flushes, too, but doesn't say anything about it. "So. Meditation. How is that going to work in two months?"

"I can teach..." Neal begins, but droops when T'Kreen gives him a stern look.

"T'Zahn is the most accomplished of us," Sigiir says. He looks toward T'Zahn. "If you have no objection."

"I have none," T'Zahn says. She looks very very faintly pleased.

"I can't exactly hang around her quarters, here," the captain says, a little flushed again.

"Unnecessary. There are meditation areas set aside for most races that practice. I will schedule sessions. When will you be available?"

"Between teaching class and office hours and Neal?" the captain says, a little flushed, but since everyone seems to know anyway, apparently willing to go there.

"You should lessen your time with Neal," Sigiir says evenly. "In order that your binding feel as though it will merely stretch, rather than break. It would be unwise to allow yourself to be any closer than your proximity of necessity makes you."

Neal feels an objection bubbling up in his chest, a hurting, unhappy thing, and the captain gives him a long look. "What would the damage be?" he asks almost academically, as though this is a purely intellectual exercise. Neal tries hard to keep himself contained, like the captain, but is pretty sure he fails.

Sigiir considers this. "Possibly minimal," he says finally. "You are already entwined. Another span of weeks is unlikely to make you less entwined." Neal gets the feeling the Sigiir is feeling sorry for him, and is grateful for it. Then he remembers Sigiir's dead betrothed, and feels like an asshole. Maybe he wishes he had not taken the time to draw back from her in the last few months before she left. Maybe he wishes he'd decided to risk it. "And it cannot be broken by any of us here; the distance will not do it. It will merely make it a remote thing, rather than what you've been experiencing so far. Distant and difficult to reach, but it will be there."

"Can it be broken?" T'Kreen asks. Trust her to ask the tough questions; the ones Neal doesn't even want to know the answers to.

"By death or by kun-ut-kalifee," Sigiir says. "If one half of the binding pair goes mad, I know that the mind healers can break it, but it breaks the other mind as often as it frees it. The Elders may know another way, but if so, I do not know it."

"You guys get that this is a secret, right?' the captain asks in his just-taking-precautions-voice.

"We're aware of the likely penalties and prejudices that would befall you both should you be discovered," T'Zahn says. "I do have one question?"

"Only one?" the captain says wryly.

"Neal has no training. You are human and thus a psi null. At no point that I can see would Neal have had a reason to reach for your mind to find comfort there." She looks mildly puzzled, but that's the equivalent of wildly inquisitive in a Vulcan.

"It was an accident," the captain says. He stops when Neal sighs.

"My mother was aboard the Valiant," he says, gaze steady, but voice toneless. "I understood from rumor and hearsay that the Defiance had executed a stunningly unexpected attack to protect the Argos while she was shieldless and without impulse power. The Valiant took heavy casualties, my mother among them. I wanted to know what he had done, and why he had not done it again to protect the Valiant. I couldn't read him. He's like Vulcans to my distance telepathy. There, but unknowable. So I touched him. I held his hand while I asked my questions."

There is a long, disturbing silence.

"You did this against his will?" T'Zahn half-asks, half-states.

"No, he did not," the captain says in his I'm-the-captain-voice. "I have almost two dozen Vulcans serving on the Defiance, not counting you lot. I know what a touch telepath is, and I knew when he took my hand what he was doing. He was hurting and alone. He didn't ask for it, but he didn't have to. I would have given it to him anyway."

"Except the binding," Neal says quietly. "That was an accident. I don't know how it happened or how to undo it. So the captain is effectively shackled to me for the rest of his life."

The captain catches his chin and turns him to look at him. "I just called in every favor I was ever owed and argued with eleven admirals and seven Governors for five hours to get you aboard my ship because you belong there. If you tell me I'm effectively shacked to you one more time, I swear, I'm going to do exactly what Sigiir says and lessen my time with you because you're making me want to strangle you. Stop... stop apologizing to me. It was an accident, and I'm not sure you've actually noticed with your epic guilt here, but it's an accident that I'm not actually fighting."

"You think the Elders will fix it," Neal says, and only hears how sullen he says after the fact.

"No, I don't," the captain says. "I don't think anything will fix it. I think only you and I can fix it, and to do that, we have to be doing it together."

"You said while I was a..." Neal begins, because he's beginning to feel the edges of the captain, the parts of him that are settled, at peace, where the bond used to be like a loose end.

"And I meant it," the captain says forbiddingly. "It's wrong and I won't have any part of it."

"Actually, if you have an active binding in place, it invalidates all other bylaws concerning the personal interaction between the two parties," Sigiir says helpfully.

Neal's eyes widen and for a beautiful shining moment, the captain's eyes are just as wide, and Neal thinks he might actually get to go climb bodily into the captain's lap.

"No," the captain says, but he sounds a little hoarse when he says it. "We have a secret active binding in place. And I won't take sexual advantage of a cadet under my authority, which is what it would look like."

"I understand it's quite common," T'Zahn says simply.

"That doesn't make it right," the captain says. "I'm in a position of authority over his life right now. Other instructors, advisers, admirals, they all have the power of success or failure over any cadets life. There should never be sex involved in that equation because the cadet has no way of being sure that his or her consent will determine his or her success or failure."

"I agree," T'Zahn says simply. "I believe I'll do an Ethics project on it. And it happened like that, then?" she wants to know, so that Neal has to troll back through the conversation to get her meaning. "With a single touch?"

"Yes," Neal says, not catching her meaning, though he understands that there's something there to catch. "It lasted... less than five seconds."

T'Zhan looks at T'Leyna briefly, but then merely nods. "When it's no longer sensitive information, I may do a project on that, as well."

The captain snorts out an undignified little laugh. "You do that. Meditation?"

"Can you shorten your office hours?" she asks.

"This close to the end of term; hard sell." He turns to look to Neal. "Coffee every morning at that place you like by the water and we cancel extended office hours entirely."

"What time?" Neal asks, smiling.

"It should be before meditation," T'Zahn says, sounding almost amused.

"Twenty-one-hundred?" He glances at T'Zahn, who nods. Then, to Neal, "Oh-six-hundred." Neal represses the desire to groan; he nods instead.

"I quite like meditating under the stars," she says, which sounds oddly un-Vulcan to say. And then she adds. "All the most desirable locations are open late at night."

"Okay," the captain says, clapping his hands together the way he does when he's done with something, and wants to know if everyone else is done, too. "Tomorrow, then?"

T'Zahn nods gracefully.

Neal thinks graceful is overrated, and flings himself at the captain so hard that he probably bruises his thighs on the edges of the table the captain is sitting on. The captain is stiff in his arms for just a moment, but Neal knows he isn't a PDA kind of guy, so he waits for him to relax and then slide his arms around Neal's waist and then kiss him, briefly and chastely, on the forehead. "Do me a favor and don't do that," he murmurs, not pretending the rest of the Vulcans in the room can't hear him. "My position on that is never going to change, but it's one thing to say that and another thing entirely for you to shove up against me right between my thighs, Neal."

"Sorry," Neal says, and he really is, even though he can feel the heat of the captains body along both sides of his own, and he wants that so badly.

"So sorry you're letting me go now," the captain prompts gently, and Neal disengages himself reluctantly. The captain rewards him for his good behavior with another forehead kiss.

"I think it's supposed to go down lower," Neal says, and gets the captain to grin in reward.

"Maybe later," he says, and hands out boxes for everyone who got pins. "I've got a class in twelve minutes," he says and grabs a PADD and runs for the door.

Neal stares after him, hopelessly, stupidly, and obviously in love in front of all the Vulcans.

After a minute of nobody saying anything, Neal turns to face them. There doesn't seem to be any censure in any of their gazes, though it can be hard to tell with Vulcans. Neal waits another minute, and then asks, "How did you all know?" Because as far as he had known, it had been between him and T'Kreen, Vulcan-wise.

"If you've been bound, it can be sensed," T'Zahn tells him. "If you're currently bound, it can be sensed even more strongly." She doesn't actually say that she is, but Vulcans generally wouldn't. Neal is betting on T'Leyna, but he's been wrong before.

"On Vulcan..." Sigiir corrects himself. "On the Vulcan colony, it would be seen with disapproval. The seed of our bodies is more precious to them than the satisfaction of our lives." Sigiir manages to say all of this with almost no inflection, even while it's steeped in bitterness. "Even a half-Vulcan would suffice. I've heard it said that Commander Spock has turned them away. To bond male to male or female to female was once very common. On the edge of our extinction, such commonalities are no longer permitted."

"If we went there and asked for help breaking the binding?" Neal asks, not because he wants to do it, because now he's afraid of the answer.

"They would save your mind at all costs," he says immediately, and without the need for further interpretation.

T'Zhan says, "You say it was only a moment, Neal. Less than five seconds. Is that accurate?"

Neal runs the course of events through his mind carefully, but finds it no different. "Less than five. Probably less than four."

"A ritual Vulcan betrothal takes hours," she tells him. "Our minds are cleared by meditation and made ready for the presence of another. Even with that, the shock is sometimes enough to drive one or the other of the children into a healing trance, until their minds can adjust."

"So, it's impossible," Neal says flatly, because he can feel the captain running flat out, no breath for thinking, just for running, and he knows that isn't impossible; that simply is.

"Improbable," she says instead, and Neal bites back some of his anger for it. "And to bind with a human... When Vulcans enter a binding, both parties are aware and cooperating as much as they can with the object. With other races, non-telepaths, it's the Vulcan's will that creates the bind. The human has to be accepting, but it's the Vulcan that drives it."

"I know that," Neal says. "T'Kreen gave me a book after we figured out what happened."

"So what we have here is not one improbability or two, but three," she says, counting on her fingers. Neal sees she has silver rings on all ten fingers. He isn't sure how he hadn't noticed before. "Improbable that you should be able to initiate a binding, all untrained and utterly accidental, in a matter of seconds, improbable that the captain should accept you so quickly, so wholly, in that same space of seconds, and improbable that such a binding is thriving between you, is a tangible psionic force between you, without your will having deliberately been in use to begin with."

"Tangible how?" Neal asks, wary, but she actually smiles a little. Neal decides she's really a pretty relaxed for a Vulcan.

"Tangible to those of us who have or have had bindings or bonds. We that know what to look for."

"I don't see how knowing there are three improbabilities involved is helpful," Neal says truthfully. "We can't explain anything."

"Three improbabilities in mathematics, when solved, create an inevitability," Sigirr says. "The phenomenon occurs in nature, as well, in social groups. Everywhere. But mathematically, three perfectly solved improbabilities create an inevitability."

"I hope that isn't supposed to be meaningful to me in some way," Neal says, tired now that the excitement is past and the captain had disappeared and T'Kreen is merely looking on with interest.

"Look it up," Sigirr says, curiously gentle. "Start with solved improbabilities. Find the inevitability it was used to create. Then circle back and find the other two. You won't find them to be as different from your own situation as you think."

Neal will look it up, because at the very least he's curious, but he isn't sure what good ready-made inevitabilities are going to do for him.

Wait. No.

These are Vulcans. He turns and looks at them, the group of them as a whole. They don't speak in riddles, and they don't tease.

"What does it being an inevitability mean?" he asks.

"It means that what is now will be later," T'Kreen tells him. "Your three improbabilities make it an inevitable conclusion. The binding won't be broken. The two of you will be bondmates."

"At least," T'Zhan says.

"Legends lost to time," T'Kreen says tightly.

"Not all legends are lost. Some of them are merely kept hidden for their safety."

T'Kreen regards T'Zahn keenly. "Would you share them, if indeed you possessed them?"

"Would you swear never to reveal them, to bury them deep in your mind and forget them, if necessary?" T'Zahn looks merely curious.

"I would swear to that," T'Kreen says flatly.

T'Zhan nods. "Then we will speak of it. But first, I think I will speak of it to the captain."

T'Kreen's eyes widen slightly. Neal doesn't know what the hell any of them are talking about.

"And me?" he asks.

T'Zahn gives him a kind look and says, "You must be the inevitability in this formula, Neal. That makes you the last to know."

"Great," Neal says with a marked lack of enthusiasm, but something about the conversation, something, is making it hard to keep him cranky.

"Bond-mates in body and mind?" Neal asks, backtracking a little, but unable to help himself. He wants the captains body -- oh, he really really does -- but he wants what T'Kreen's books had laid out for him, clinical, except that Neal has always been able to translate clinical to the actual, and he wants that, too.

"I have no doubt of it," T'Zahn tells him. Surprising Neal, the others echo her.

"He never asked for it," Neal says, because the captain didn't, and it isn't fair, and...

But T'Zahn is tapping the pins on the collar of Neal's cadet reds. "I think he did," she says. "I never thought him a man without humor, nor without sincerity or emotion, but I have only seen him soft with you, today."

Neal flushes, but truthfully says, "I don't know when you mean."

"I might have believed him a man capable of kissing you in the privacy of his quarters or even his office, but not here, in front of all of us, knowing what we all know. He's a private man. He's asking for your patience, but he's giving you what he can in the meantime." She gives him a faintly sly look and Neal furiously refuses to blush. "Even if that is only his private regard, here, in front of his students. He is soft with you. For a man like the captain, that means something. I hope that you know that."

Neal doesn't manage not to blush this time. "I do. I'm... impatient. I don't follow directions well. I frustrate him."

"I think you followed his instructions exactly as he gave them, and that he was rather more frustrated with himself than with you. Though I cannot argue on your impatience."

Not meaning to speak at all, Neal says, "You're not wholly Vulcan, are you?"

She quirks her lips up at him. "Paua'un, four or five generations back. The empathy seems to breed true, if practiced. It is little more than surface feelings."

"Does he want this?" Neal asks, so helpless to ask that he finds himself tugging on her sleeve with two fingers. "Does he?"

"He doesn't understand all of what this is," she says gently. "Something I'll help to educate him in. But if it's any consolation, he wants you, Neal. He's uncertain about the rest, feels under-prepared and a little entrapped by it, but he isn't unsure about wanting you."

"Do you do Paua'un meditation?" Neal asks, for fear that if he asks anything more personal it will come out unsteady.

"I do both. Would you like to learn?"

"I would love to," Neal says sincerely.

"I, too, would like to learn," T'Kreen says. She's flushed a little green along her cheekbones, but she ignores it. "I have heard Paua'un meditation is mediation of the heart."

"Yes, it's been called that. Also of the spirit, which may be in many cases the same. You'd be welcome to join us."

In the end, it's apparently going to be an all Vulcan event, though T'Zahn says she won't begin it until she finishes with the captain's vitally important crash course in meditation.

Neal and T'Zahn walk out of the hall together, and Neal says quietly, almost under his breath, "There is a third thing. Binding. Bondmate. What else?"

She's looks at him, her surprise showing a little around her eyes, but she says merely, "Better to go through T'Kreen on this. It will hurt her less to know more, and to be able to give you more."

"You're really not very Vulcan at all," Neal says.

"Oh, but I am. Have you ever questioned it before today?" Neal shakes his head. "We started as seventeen, and I was sure we would drop away one at a time, as happens in wide open places where there are new people to be shared with and new things to be discovering. But we did not drop away, and I am willing to risk that us, we seventeen, will allow me to be Vulcan at all times that I wish, and will still hold me in regard for the times that I wish to be Paua'un."

"I think you're fascinating as Paua'un," Neal says truthfully, and she doesn't laugh, but she turns her whole body toward him to hide her smile from everyone else.

"Which kind of meditation are you going to do with the captain?" he asks, as they open the doors and walk down the steps, angling toward the quad.

"Vulcan to prepare him; it's structured. Then a mixture of my own devising that I think will soothe how he feels driven toward this."

"In the end," Neal says, looking up at the clouds, "aren't we all driven toward something?"

She doesn't smile again, but her voice is a warm burr of sound when she says, "You are old for your age. I was much older before I realized something so profound."

"What was it?" Neal asks. Something about T'Zhan makes it not seem like prying.

"That I would never be fully Vulcan, and that I was content with that."

"I was content with that when I was nine," Neal says.

"Can you say the same about fully human?" she asks.

"Twelve," Neal says.

"But what if you had been raised on Vulcan and told that you would never be good enough, not even when you had beaten everything they had ever challenged you with. Would that have been true?"

"I don't know. But it sounds like elementary school to me, and that was the worst time in my life. So, I'm sorry it was like that for you."

"I'm not," she says softly. "All that I am now is represented in all that I was then, and I am content in my life, Neal."

Chapter Text

Peter doesn't see Neal for the rest of the day, not that that's surprising. It's nearing the end of term and his office hours are crammed with cadets that either genuinely need help, or who screwed off the rest of the term and are desperate not to fail. Peter fends off five sexual advances in less than two hours, and is frustrated and puzzled that this is the way it suddenly is here. He doesn't remember this from his stint in the Academy, aside from his second adviser, but then he'd had Hughes, and Hughes is in Peter's camp: he'd never abuse his power in such a way.

And it hadn't become bad until the last few days, as they're approaching the close of term. He'd fended off a few advances before, but nothing like this frenzied jangle of desperation and willing degradation. And these aren't his first years, or not many of them. These are second through fourth years students, and most of them that do it, do it like it isn't their first time on the bike. The idea of Neal attending this... four years of Starfleet Sex Ed makes Peter so enraged that he worries he's going to have a stroke, even as he deliberately contains his emotions so as not to alarm Neal. He takes a step back, lets himself look at it as a captain, with some distance.

He gets ups and walks the halls, and it's more of the same, but sometimes it's the instructors showing cadets into their offices and closing the doors. He sees it again and again, and by the time he's watched it often enough that it's practically memorized, he understands the difference between when it's a real meeting and when it's a 'meeting.' In a meeting, the instructors hands never touch the cadet's body. Even when some of the cadets touch first, there's a carefully choreographed pattern of staying just out of reach that means that this particular instructor is not interested. Peter doesn't pretend it means he or she is never interested, but he thinks it's likely they mostly aren't. Actual professionals.

The rest... some of these kids are Neal's age, and none of them are that much older. Even if they're making the play, they've obviously been given a reason to think that the play would be welcomed. Someone, somewhere, had traded that favor with them.

What if somebody ran a goddamned ship like this? Peter knows it could happen, in theory, but he keeps a close eye on his people, and encourages a lot of dating outside anybody's particular chain of command. It doesn't always work, but he watches for it to happen, and he watches to make sure everyone involved wants it to happen, and if it ends badly, he watches to make sure he doesn't have to step in and take matters into his own hands.

What the hell is going on here that somebody isn't doing the same? Even if this is the extent of it -- sexual favors for a passing mark -- it's still causing material damage to the quality of graduate that comes out of Starfleet all shiny and new. And if it's not... if it's worse than that, then it's motherfucking criminally negligent, and that's just for the people running the goddamned Academy. For the rest of them, the instructors, the advisers, God help him, from the Admirals, then it's not just negligence. It's criminal. It's a crime. The fraternization regs as written are just a Starfleet sanctioned unprofessional, criminal, degrading, permission to sexually harass people without any power of their own to stop it, at least as far as the Academy goes.

Peter knows there are cases, he's seen cases, mostly downplayed in the public media, but not this many cases. Not like this. Not like this sexual barter system/date-rape/duress.

At the end of his office hours, Peter has built up a righteous head of steam, and fires off a furious but carefully worded email to the entirely of the Admiralty and the Board of Governors. It may not be smart after the favor he'd just pulled out of them, but somebody damned well needs to do it.

Back in his quarters, he reviews the fraternization regs in minute detail, and then begins the laborious but somehow calming task of setting them to rights.

He understands why it's allowed. Everyone here is above the age of consent. But there has to be a system in place, something for the Academy itself, apart from Starfleet frat regs. Something that disengages both ends of what is essentially a sexual barter system, and that is an extremely generous term for what's going on here.

At some point, Peter gently pushes Neal's desire away, deliberately calm, and Neal retreats with what feels a little like a reluctant sigh, enough like it to make Peter actually feel calmer, just by having passed calm through the binding to Neal.

He doesn't think about the way that he knows that Neal had stopped entirely, disinterested without Peter's participation, and pretends that that doesn't make him feel the tiniest bit triumphant.

He's halfway through regulations when his door chimes and Peter isn't surprised that it's Hughes. He's probably lucky that it's Hughes. Hughes already likes Peter. Hell, they'd probably drawn straws as to who had to come talk Peter down.

"I'm not worried about who's fucking because they want to fuck," is the first thing that Peter says; Hughes eyebrows shoot upwards at Peter's deliberate vulgarity. "I'm talking about the ones who are fucking because they want to pass, and the ethically challenged authority figures that are taking advantage of that. It could be worse, even, Reece. It probably is, in at least a few cases. It may be a matter of fucking your instructor if you want to pass at all, repeatedly, never mind whether you could make the grade on your own. How the hell did you people let this happen?"

"Are you telling me you never made a pass at a professor?" Hughes asks, as though genuinely curious.

"Of course I didn't," Peter half-shouts. "I had a couple of passes made at me, which I more or less ignored, but they never affected my grade or my status in the classroom. This wasn't like this ten years ago. I'm not talking out of my ass, here. I did the legwork on it, I watched and I listened and I swear to you, I am not blowing this out of proportion."

"Every teacher has favorites," Hughes says evenly. "Everyone knows yours, for example."

"But I'm not fucking my favorite," Peter says, but he blushes anyway, because while that's true, it's not really the whole truth.

"But you'd like to."

Peter sighs and rakes a hand through his hair. He invites Hughes to sit down at the other end of the couch with a wave; Hughes regards the papers and pens and PADDs with what looks like it might be something like alarm, but he does sit.

"You bet I would," Peter sighs, admitting it aloud for the first time. "But I won't; not as long as I'm his instructor and his adviser. It would give me too much potential power over him, and while I wouldn't use it, that doesn't mean the power dynamic still wouldn't be skewed by it. And I'm telling you, this isn't like that. I had five cadets all over me in less than two hours today, cadets that knew how to phrase what they wanted in ways designed not to incriminate either themselves or me. This isn't new to them. They've done it before. I redirected the rest by just keeping the door open regardless of what they wanted and keeping my desk between us, but even with that, a few of them managed to let it be known that they'd be willing and would keep quiet about it."

He knocks back a gulp of scotch and passes the glass to Hughes, who takes it and downs a swallow without comment.

"This is a systemic problem," Peter says finally, as evenly as he can. "It is, at the very very least, criminally negligent of the Academy itself. It's an abuse of power by the instructors and advisers, and it's detrimental to the emotional and educational health of every cadet attending." He shakes his head. "These weren't first years. Or not many. These were older cadets. They've done or been done to before, to get what they need. And right and wrong not withstanding, Reece, you're graduating Starfleet Officers that didn't earn their qualifications! It's wrong on every level, unethical and unfair, but it's also dangerous. What happens when these cadets start graduating and don't really know how to do their jobs?"

Something flickers over Hughes; face and Peter goes hot with fury.

"It's already happening, isn't it?"

"The last couple of years," Hughes admits. "We've had to decommission and either dismiss or retrain about seven percent of each graduating class."

"Which means it's worse than that, really," Peter says. "Because some of them, poorly trained or not, are still getting by. God damn it, Reece."

"There's some talk of revamping the fraternization codes in the works," Hughes says. "No one wants to do it. It's a leviathan just to begin with, but there's also the statistics to be accumulated, the presentations, the evidence gathering. And we're weak, Peter. We can't afford to fire half our instructors; we're working at barely two-thirds of our optimum staff as it is. The rest of them are like you; filling in because they either have nothing better to do, or because we recalled them because what they were doing wasn't as important as this."

Peter tosses a PADD at Hughes, who skims it while Peter talks. "Never mind the evidence. Prosecution would just complicate things, though I've left it acutely clear that any cadet that feels he or she was unfairly graded or judged based on sexual coercion can come forward and file a complaint, either publicly or privately with the Board. I know we can't fire them; we can't prove anything anyway. But you can do some fucking damage control, here. I've got half the work done already. I'll have it finished for you by tomorrow sometime. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see criminal charges brought up against every authority figure that even once took advantage of a cadet on the barter system, but I'm aware of the repercussions of that. But the regs we can change, I'll make the case for the Board and the Admiralty, I'll do the presentation and take my best shot at the statistics. It can't go on like this."

"Don't you think you've got enough on your plate as it is?" Hughes asks. "In fact, don't you think what you did today is going to look a lot like a reward for services rendered in light of this particular campaign?"

"They're Vulcans," Peter dismisses. "They wouldn't even consider it."

"Neal might," Hughes says.

"Neal might if he wanted to sleep with you, but he wouldn't do it for a grade, and anyone that tried to coerce him would be in for a very ugly reprisal." Peter sighs and steals the scotch back from Hughes.

"You're starting to make the Board and the Admiralty nervous," Hughes says seriously. "And not in the good way that your impassioned demonstration this morning made them. Even those of us that don't know you personally know you by reputation. They aren't going to want you to pursue this."

Peter considers this for several long seconds, staring into the scotch in his glass. "Tell them they'll let me pursue it officially, or I'll pursue it unofficially and present it to Starfleet Command directly, as is my right as a Captain in good standing." He knocks back the rest of the glass, and looks at Hughes flatly. "They'll either cooperate with me visibly, or I'll make sure Command is aware of that lack of cooperation." He sets the glass down on the table. "Fuck that," he says, and looks at Hughes. "Don't make it that easy for them. Tell them I'm pursuing it. I'll contact Starfleet Command as soon as you leave and get their approval."

Hughes eyes widen. "The Board of Governors aren't going to stand aside for that. They'll take it over, put their own people in place in the investigation, and you'll be making a number of enemies."

"Then tell them to cooperate with me, and neither they nor I, will have to worry about bad blood in between us. I'm not trying to knock down their house of cards, here, Reece. I'm trying to reinforce the ethical and moral authority that holds it together."

"They'll want promises."

"I've got two hours free starting at eleven-hundred if I skip lunch," Peter says, catching Hughes eyes. "I want to do this with their support, but don't let them believe for a second that I need to have it. I never ask for anything, as you are well aware. If I ask Starfleet Command for this, they'll give it to me, especially if I can give them solid figures on why it has to be done."

Hughes nods. "I've got notes. I'll send them as soon as I get back home. I know at least two of the Governors have notes and statistics, and a couple of advisers. I'll get them to you." He pauses. "You aren't the only one who's worried about this."

"That's not the question," Peter says, slumping back against the couch. "The question is: Why am I the only one willing to do anything about it?"

"Necessity. Political fallout. Timing. Willful blindness." He shrugs. "Take your pick. But while you're at it, your Doctor, O'Dell?" Peter nods. "She's got access to absolutely anonymous polling resources that she can send straight to a cadet's PADD. That should give you at least some kind of statistical data."

Peter doesn't even pause; he sends Elizabeth everything he has and why, and asks her to create and send out a totally anonymous questionnaire ASAP requesting immediate responses. "Good thought," he tells Hughes, who smiles a little.

"This is a new thing since you became a captain," Hughes tells him. "While you were here, you were methodical and forceful and willing to ride yourself into the ground to get something done, but you never were much of a risk taker. It wasn't that you didn't have it in you. It was just that there was no need for it, here. Now you're going to stand toe-to-toe with the Academy and tell them exactly what you think of their lack of action, and you're not even going to take a second to think about the backlash."

"I'll do what I have to do," Peter says. "I can handle their backlash. The worst thing that can happen to me is that the Academy complains, and Command sends in their own team to investigate, and they'll start right here, with what I've already got, and they'll let it lead them the same place I'm letting it lead me. If the Board has any sense of self preservation at all, they'll cooperate with me and let it be known that they encouraged me to pursue this investigation. But even if none of it goes how I think, even if there is backlash, it doesn't matter if the backlash is worth it."

Hughes doesn't bother with a goodbye.

Peter looks up at oh-four-hundred, pinching the bridge of his nose, abruptly aware that all the reasons he'd given to himself and to Hughes for doing this, now, are true reasons, but that there is another reason for it as well.

Neal.

Not that he's afraid for Neal, not at all. Neal would destroy anyone that tried to take advantage of him like that.

But, rather, as a distraction from Neal. Something to occupy time so that he doesn't spend every spare moment thinking of Neal. A way of soothing his own graceless admission that he doesn't want the binding stretched taut and usable only to the extent that they will each know that the other one is there. Peter is used to it. It feels like a part of him, has become normal, even welcome.

He had never considered himself a lonely man before, had never believed himself to be unhappy, but with the prospect of the binding whittling down to its narrowest point, he thinks he's probably always been lonely. Not necessarily unhappy, but lonely.

And just now, for a while, he hasn't been.

It's selfish even to feel it, he knows it; better for Neal if they can actually banish the binding entirely, regardless of whether or not either of them wants to. Peter's loyalties will always be conflicted. His ship will always be his priority. He gave an oath to Starfleet that is just as important. Where does Neal fit into that? How is he going to feel about it, once he understands? Like Diana's girlfriend, who'd taken a transfer off-ship?

"He already knows," Peter says, not intending to speak aloud, but once he has, is kind of grateful for it. His own tone is certain, and Peter trusts himself in almost every situation. He has just as much trust in Neal. He may not have Peter's experience, but he has a solid grasp on starship command protocol. Even if he could, he wouldn't transfer out because he's third in line in Peter's life. Though that point is moot, anyway. If things continue as they are, neither of them will have much of a choice.

Peter shakes his head and turns his attention back to the slew of papers and PADDs and notes littering his coffee table. Then he shakes his head again and stands up, joints crackling, and takes himself to bed for three absolutely necessary hours of sleep. He wakes grainy eyed, but deliberately early, and messages Neal's PADD. He replicates toast and coffee and eats them standing by the replicator, and then showers and dresses in short order.

Neal's reply is waiting for him when he gets out of the shower. The content is pertinent: If you need me to. The context, Peter understands, is wide-reaching. He pushes that aside to consider later, and messages Neal back.

The coffee place near the water that Neal likes is nearly deserted this early, which means finding a place to sit is far easier than it ever has been before. Neal is already there. He has his PADD, but nothing else, and he's watching Peter alertly. Peter feels the brush of Neal's mind inside, alongside his own even as he watches Neal catalog the physical signs of Peter's weariness. Neal doesn't actually mention it aloud, however. Whatever he finds in Peter face and mind leaves him a little tense, but he doesn't seem worried. Peter's customary coffee is already sitting in front of an empty seat, and Peter inhales the steam appreciatively. Neal's coffee habits are rubbing off on Peter.

It seems pointless to worry about that, considering the rest of what's going on between them, so Peter doesn't.

"One of the others will make sure I have what I need if I miss anything," Neal says, apparently merely as a way to start the conversation. "Both classes are primer classes anyway. I already know the material, but I have to have them to take other classes later. Tell me what you want me to do."

Peter doesn't even open his satchel. He shoves it across the table to Neal, bulging with paper and PADDs and datacards. "Most of the real work is done," he says, and watches Neal's quick fingers open the satchel and begin sorting through the contents. He pauses for a long moment, eyes skimming a PADD, and Peter feels the click of understanding as though it were happening in his own mind. "I did it last night," he continues. "But you're more fluent in regulatory language than I am, so check that. Otherwise, your whole job is to make it into something I can present in under two hours by oh-ten-thirty."

Neal doesn't answer immediately. He's sorting, reading, flipping through displays, scanning graphs. "My whole job?" he asks after a long minute. He puts down what he's holding and picks up his espresso.

Peter has no right to be proud of Neal -- he's had no hand in crafting the man he is, after all -- but it's there, anyway, at Neal's clear grasp.

"Make it look as bad as it really is. Don't play it up or play it down. Otherwise, personalize it as much as you can with all the anonymity intact. Don't make it all about the numbers. Try to work the people angle, too."

"Can I use outside statistics to create dissonant comparisons?" Neal asks, leaning a little forward.

"What did you have in mind?" Peter asks, mostly curious, and then changes his mind and shakes his head. "Never mind. Use whatever you find useful. I trust your judgment. I'm presenting it at oh-eleven-hundred, so I need it half an hour or so ahead of then, just to make it familiar enough to get through."

Neal, scanning a PADD again, doesn't look up when he says, "I know your general methodology; I should be able to simplify it enough that you only need a few minutes to look it over. I can be sure it looks like entirely your own work."

"Doesn't matter," Peter says. "I don't care if they know I drafted you. I plan on drafting T'Zahn as soon as I talk to her."

"Why not have her do this, then?" Neal asks, glancing up, a little grin curling his lips.

"I'm sure of you," Peter says truthfully. "I know you'll get it done. I don't know her well enough to say that, yet. And I'm not sure she could have as easily pulled out of her morning classes." He shrugs one shoulder. The truth is not exactly that, though. The truth is, on Earth, at Starfleet Academy, if Peter could be said to have a first officer, then it would be Neal. The pins on his collar are tangible proof of Peter's regard in that capacity, but even without them, it would have been Neal. He doesn't have to concern himself with Neal's success or failure in the matter; Neal is sure of his success, and Peter can feel that surety, and that is enough.

Neal drains his espresso and fixes Peter with a stark look. "This isn't going to make you any friends, captain," he says. Distantly, Peter can tell that Neal is faintly amused by this.

"Hm, no," Peter agrees, and takes the time to enjoy several swallows of his own coffee. "Good thing making friends isn't all that high on my list of priorities."

Neal's amusement spikes. "There will have to be a more formal investigation, even if they take your regulation changes and adopt them without amendment; the reg changes themselves will create a social need for a formal investigation."

"I don't care that much about that, either," Peter says truthfully. "I'll be in space before it kicks off. I care about stopping it right now in as much as it can be stopped, and then leaving it in the hands of someone who'll put the legwork into it once I'm gone."

"T'Zahn," Neal says.

Peter nods. "Regardless of what the Academy or Command decide to do formally, she'll be able to proceed based on what I have already and compose a rational course of action. With you to help her, there's no chance that the two of you won't be able to determine the truth of every single liaison that happens, if you want to."

"And the formal investigators will listen to us why?" Neal asks curiously.

Peter smiles a little. "It doesn't matter if they do. T'Zahn is working on an ethics project. She'll present it to her class mates and the Board via special dispensation from her commanding officer. They won't have a choice but to listen. If they're smart, they'll make the effort to contact her and work with her information before it even comes to that." He shrugs. "It doesn't matter. I want the frat reg changes for the Academy pushed through in forty-eight hours, or I'll contact Starfleet Command and request an immediate investigation based on the stats I've already got."

Neal tips his head. "Are you always such a troublemaker?" he asks. He's amused.

"No," Peter says truthfully. "That's why I can make trouble when I need to, without it biting me in the ass. Advice for life," he says wryly.

Neal grins. "Yes, sir." His smile fades after a moment. "It's as bad as it looks?" he asks, but not as though he's expecting an answer. More as though he's incorporating the information into his working knowledge base. "No one has so much as intimated anything to me."

"I'd be surprised if they had. The Vulcans will probably all be a null. You, maybe just as much because of me as because of your heritage. It would be worth looking into the other major races to see if they've got similar immunities, but I suspect it's just the Vulcans. You don't sexually harass a touch telepath."

Neal nods his understanding, but still looks thoughtful. "If your anonymous compilation of statistics is correct, more than half the student body is in some way sexually entangled with someone in a position of authority over them. A quarter of those are completely non-consensual, within a given definition of consent."

Peter merely nods.

"It was wrong of me to..." he begins.

Peter waves him silent. "That's nothing like what's going on here on the grand scheme, Neal. I don't care who's fucking because they want to be fucking. If it were just that, I would have left it alone altogether. This is about abuse of authority, and to a lesser degree, about the inadequate training of Starfleet officers."

"I saw Hughes' numbers," Neal agrees, subdued. "He's only got two years worth of statistics. I'll see if I can go back further."

Peter nods. "I know you will."

"I'm still sorry," Neal says.

Peter's lips quirk. "I'm not," he says, perhaps more warmly than he means to. Neal's gaze snaps upward to his face, wide-eyed. "Don't let the fact that I said 'no' distract you from the fact that I don't say 'no' to most of the things you set your mind on." He gestures at his coffee cup pointedly.

Neal flushes, but he feels pleased in Peter's mind. "I should go. I need all the time I can get with this stuff," he says.

"Bring it to me in class, oh-ten-thirty," Peter says. "I'm going to set you up to TA the tail end of that class, so come prepared for that."

"I don't have time to draft a quiz, captain," Neal says exasperatedly; Peter can feel his zing of nerves.

"Informal Q & A," Peter says dismissively. "They're your year anyway. You'll probably spend most of it answering questions about how you managed to get commissioned already."

"And how do you suggest I answer those?" Neal demands pertly, flush deepening.

Peter is unwillingly charmed. "Truthfully," he says. "And whatever you think, the truth is that you were commissioned on your merits as a cadet and on your potential as an officer, and for no other reason."

"Yes, sir," Neal says again, this time grinning a little along with his flush. He slings Peter's satchel over his shoulder. "I have to get to work."

"Dismissed," Peter tells him, because he's not immune to the fact that Neal inexplicably likes it when Peter formally dismisses him.

Chapter Text

Neal immediately comms T'Kreen. She has the morning free, and though it's early, she answers immediately. Neal doesn't want to go into detail about the captain's 'project' over an open comm. "I have a pressing project that I could use some help on," he tells her instead. "Something for the captain."

There is a brief hesitation, uncharacteristic, and T'Kreen says, "I am with T'Zahn." She doesn't offer any other information, but Neal can guess that they're talking about mysterious Vulcan legends by the conversation yesterday. Apparently, it's something T'Kreen is deeply involved with, since she doesn't immediately volunteer to abandon it.

Neal would love to give her some privacy and let her learn whatever it is she's learning; he's aware that he'll likely be learning it from her in short order. But he doesn't. "This is a priority for the captain," he says. "T'Zahn's help would be just as valuable as yours."

"Come, then," T'Kreen agrees without further discussion, and Neal takes her at her word.

Aware that he's interrupting, he comes bearing hot beverages for everyone. He doesn't know T'Zahn's preference, and should probably go with Vulcan spice tea for the sake of safety, but he gets her Pua'aun l'vange instead, a beverage that smells a little like oranges and is served with curls of some alien fruit shaved into it. T'Zahn is delighted, to Neal's relief, and they arrange themselves around T'Kreen's table with their beverages at their elbows while Neal relays the most pertinent data aloud and lets his hands retrieve and organize the captain's materials into three working groups.

"Impressive," T'Kreen says, which Neal has been thinking since the captain had deposited all of this in his lap. "To have only begun yesterday, his progress is quite impressive."

T'Zahn is scanning a PADD. "His skill at research should not be such a surprise," she says, while managing to convey silently that she is surprised.

"He's revamped the Academy frat regs, too," Neal tells them, since he's allocated that into his own pile of work, and they won't have seen it. "I don't think he got much sleep last night."

T'Kreen hums. "I will concentrate on further statistics and comparative statistics outside Starfleet," she says. She exchanges some PADDs and papers with T'Zahn.

"I will compile the presentation in... human terms," she says, not smiling, but Neal can feel her slight amusement anyway.

"Great. I'll take care of restructuring the language on the frat regs. He's got the basics down, but he was right; I'm better at the regulatory language than he is. I'll make it sound less like an angry captain has bridged the gaps in the regs." He doesn't bother to hide his own smile. "And he really was angry. I must have been asleep while he did most of this."

They work in silence for a long time. T'Kreen, rather abruptly, says, "If the statistics here are correct, a being is more likely to be sexually harassed at Starfleet Academy than he or she would be in a Federation penal colony."

Her tone is as bland as ever, but the fact that she feels the need to say it out loud at all speaks volumes.

T'Zahn says, "Dr. O'Dell's survey seems to indicate that more than half the student body has been in some way sexually compromised, either willingly or through duress. The boundaries are not always clear. However, six percent of the respondants indicate that their experience was quantified by them as rape."

Her tone is blank, too; Neal allows himself to be openly dismayed by the number, more for their sakes than for his own. He thinks it must be hard to feel as though you aren't allowed to be horrified by something that's so blatantly horrifying.

"That's something like a hundred and thirty cadets," Neal says unnecessarily, but still feeling like it needs to be said.

"Three percent of those indicate that their experiences are currently ongoing." T'Zahn puts down the PADD. She looks at Neal and at T'Kreen. "I have had no experience with any type of advance," she says.

"The captain thinks most if not all of the Vulcans won't have. We're touch telepaths."

"Indeed," T'Kreen agrees. "We would be the least likely to be subjected to such things."

"More personal data would be striking," T'Zahn says, looking at Neal. "Others will likely be unwilling to answer queries on the matter coming from most Vulcans."

Neal shakes his head. "We don't have time for me to personally collect data. But put together a survey on what you want to know and I'll have Dr. O'Dell circulate it. It will have to be fast, if we want to get enough data back from it to be of any use."

T'Zahn begins to type furiously. Neal doesn't even look it over when she's finished. He forwards it to Dr. O'Dell with a note regarding what he's doing and why, and the survey comes up on his own PADD within ten minutes. T'Kreen and T'Zahn's PADDs also alert.

The three of them pause to fill out the questionnaires, and Neal hopes the rest of the students are doing the same thing, are wise enough to understand why they're receiving the surveys at all, are honest enough to be forthright in their answers.

Otherwise, he doesn't have time to think on it. He corrects the captain's angry language, smooths the verbiage back to something more practical and less outraged, adds a handful of clauses to compensate for genuinely reciprocal sexual relationships -- he understands why the Captain hadn't done so, but he also understands that leaving no room for them at all will merely cause the new regulatory measures to act as a pressure cooker that will eventually implode -- and rewords the captain's attempt to provide recourse to those currently requiring it, adding in the medical and psychological clauses that the captain probably hadn't considered because even knowing what he was working on, he himself would never have done anything to anyone that might require medical or psychological aftercare.

The surveys T'Zahn put together come back in a remarkably short span of time. Not from everyone, though Academy policy demands that everyone eventually will be forced to comply, but from an astounding ninety-two percent of the student body within the allotted time frame that would allow her to include the data in her presentation.

They finish half an hour early, and without comment, exchange work to double check for errors. T'Kreen and T'Zahn's work is already spliced seamlessly together, presentation with statistics -- they had come together to make it so an hour ago -- and Neal can find nothing wrong with any of it. He changes wording slightly in some places merely to make the wording sound more like the captain's wording would be, and swaps the order of at least one portion of the statistical presentation, but it is otherwise perfect.

Neal could have done almost all of what the three of them had done on his own in the same amount of time, but it would have been rough and unpolished, less complete. This is better than he could have hoped for.

"I'm indebted to you both," he murmurs absently, still skimming materials. "I would have never managed such excellence without you."

He looks up when they don't answer; they're both regarding him with the same blank look.

"You sounded very Vulcan just then," T'Kreen says, as though it's a bad thing.

"And regardless, you are indebted to no one," T'Zahn says. "We are your crewmates." She touches the pin on her collar. "We are the captain's crew."

Neal feels that strike home somewhere behind his breastbone and expand into warmth. "Of course," he says, and knows he doesn't have to say anything else.

"Take it to him," T'Zahn says, having organized and packaged the entirety of the materials back into the captain's satchel.

"Tell us when you know," T'Kreen adds, and Neal rolls his eyes. T'Kreen arches an amused brow at him. "Forgive me; of course you would not neglect to keep us informed."

"We are crewmates," he reminds her, grinning, and slings the satchel over his shoulder. He leaves them there, and though he has plenty of time before the captain's deadline, he goes to the captain's classroom by the quickest, easiest route.

The captain's brows arch in surprise when he sees Neal come in, but he just says, "Use the rest of the class to get through Roeman's Fomature maneuvers," and gestures Neal to the front table. Neal, who would normally be in this class, actually, spreads the materials out and shows the captain how to tell what order to use them in. The captain's brows continue to rise as Neal goes very quietly through each section of the presentation, including the regulations, and he is looking so impressed midway through that Neal has to pause to say,

"I enlisted the help of both T'Kreen and T'Zahn, captain; this is not wholly my own work," as he feels guilty at the idea that the captain might be giving him too much credit.

"I expected at least T'Kreen when I asked you," the captain says, not looking any less impressed. "The three of you together are clearly terrifyingly formidable." His tone is wry.

Neal's belly heats at it. The captain gives him a brief, knowing look, but turns his attention back toward the materials and Neal obligingly continues to brief him as completely as possible given the amount of time they have.

"I'm impressed," the captain says when they get through it, though it's hardly necessary. Neal can feel how impressed he is through the binding: impressed, grateful, proud.

"I'd like to sit in," Neal says, knowing the answer, but asking anyway, as he seems always to do with the captain.

"Sorry," the captain says, lips a little quirked, and Neal can tell he really is. "But you're conversant with Roeman's Fomature maneuvers, right?"

"Explicitly," Neal agrees.

"I've got to leave class early," the captain announces, not that he needs to. Everyone in class has been paying far more attention to the front of the classroom than to their PADDs, and they already know something is up. "I'm going to have Neal TA for the rest of the class. I expect you to treat him with the same respect you'd treat any other TA."

Neal is bundling up the materials again even as the captain is making this little speech; he has the idea that this TA'ing session is going to go nothing like the captain expects, and is preparing himself to be as bland and as Vulcan as is possible during it. The captain unwittingly undoes most of this preparation by clapping him on the shoulder, murmuring, "Thanks," as he passes Neal by. Neal can practically feel the rooms surprise at the touch, and he takes hold of himself in both hands, prepared for things to be ugly.

"Yes, sir," Neal agrees, and then the captain is gone. Neal, at the front of the room, lets his gaze sweep his usual classmates -- seven of them are among the Vulcans assigned to the Defiance -- and then levers himself up onto the table, feet dangling, and opens the floor with a casual, "What is it you want to cover in the last twenty minutes of this class."

None of them even pretends that it has anything to do with Roeman's maneuvers.

"What was that all about," one of them asks, waving a hand toward the front table.

"The captain has a presentation to attend to," Neal says mildly. Several cadets exchange looks. Most of them are smart enough to put together the two anonymous surveys within a day with an unscheduled presentation. Neal is surprised and gratified when none of them ask him anything further about the nature of the presentation. He suspects it's out of respect for the captain, rather than for Neal himself, but that doesn't make him any less gratified.

"How did you get commissioned?" Aelya, one of the human girls that Neal counts as one of his circle of friends, asks. She sounds both deeply interested and a little envious. "I'm assuming it's for the Defiance."

"It is," Neal agrees. "And I can't fully answer that question. The captain assures me that it's due to my merits as a cadet and on my potential as an officer, but I can't answer as to any other motives he might have entertained. I suspect Starfleet's recent losses are partly to blame for the approval of my commission. It wouldn't surprise me if we were all to see more commissioned cadets in the near future."

"As it is, he commissioned only the Vulcans," Klein mutters, clearly disgusted.

"He commissioned the entirety of the advisees he was assigned," Neal corrects carefully. "Every cadet he personally advises received a commission. I don't doubt that every commission he offered was merit based."

"Get off it, Caffrey," Klein sneers. "We all know you're his favorite."

Neal doesn't bother to deny it. "The captain's preferences are not my business, nor are they yours. But if that were the case, I would suggest that the captain prioritizes based on skill and effort, both of which I put a great deal of my attention toward."

"I can't believe he managed to get a first year cadet commissioned at all, let alone as a lieutenant," Liam says, sounding much less bitter about it than Klein. "If Starfleet is going to be handing out commissions earlier than fourth or fifth year, I intend to get one."

"I suggest you attend to your course spread and your classes, in that case," Neal says seriously. "No one the captain commissioned was in less that the ninety-ninth percentile of our class, and none of us were in less than the ninety-seventh percentile of the entire Academy."

"Not everyone is going to be as particular as Burke, though," Liam says.

"Undoubtedly true," Neal agrees. "Another instructor or adviser might be easier to court, especially as the captain will be leaving at the end of the term to return to the Defiance."

"So he was doing a little poaching," Liana says, sounding amused rather than disapproving. "I can't believe he's taking all of you, though. I can't believe that even got approved."

"I have it on good authority that the captain doesn't ask for much," Neal says. "And, as such, when he asks, he's often given what he wants."

"Do you give him what he wants?" Klein asks with a sneering, ugly tone of lechery.

"I should be so lucky," Neal says truthfully, and about half the class laughs. The other half doesn't look surprised or especially amused. Maybe a little sympathetic. "I've made my position clear, and have been firmly rebuffed."

Klein actually looks a little at a loss at that information, and Neal is glad he gave it, mostly on a whim. It's not like most of them hadn't suspected Neal's feelings. It does him no harm to admit to them openly, and it clears the captain's reputation as well as Neal is able to clear it.

Not that it needs much clearing. No one seems surprised to find out that the captain won't put out.

"So he is leaving," Liana asks, sounding a little sad. "I mean, I knew he was temporary, but..."

"He's one of the best instructors," Cecile finishes for her.

"I agree," Neal says, which makes several of his classmates laugh again. "I have no proof, but I suspect he's one of the best advisers, as well. If you feel that your own adviser is not the one best suited to helping you plan your course work, you can apply to the board of governors for a replacement."

"It looks bad on your transcript," Klein says, not sneering this time. "Especially if you're on the command track."

"Then you should consider researching and planning your own course spread," Neal says, and he dislikes Klein intensely and always has, but he offers, "I can't speak for the rest of the Vulcans, but my spread is already plotted. I'd be willing to help anyone I could to the best of my knowledge. That said, if you're going for sciences or engineering, I'm probably not going to be able to help you much."

"We will assist as requested," Sigiir says on behalf of the rest of the Vulcans, and there's a little lull in the conversation as the class considers that. There's only a few minutes of class time left, and Neal considers that to be a high note, so says,

"We can all beat it out of here a few minutes early if you want. I'm reminding you that you're supposed to review Roeman's Fomature maneuvers, so if he quizzes you right off the bat tomorrow and you don't have it down, you have only yourselves to blame."

T'Kreen and T'Zahn are waiting for Neal when he leaves the classroom. Neal isn't entirely surprised.

When he's entirely sure they are alone, he murmurs, "He is calm. Mostly. I believe he is concentrating carefully enough to reign in much of his emotion on the matter."

They fall in on either side of him, and T'Zahn says, "You should eat." Neal, who hasn't eaten today at all, doesn't disagree, and they end up in one of the emptiest of the dining halls, undoubtedly by design. There are a few cadets present that they would normally join, but T'Zahn leads them to a far, empty table instead, and for a few minutes they only eat in companionable silence, both of them firmly inside the bubble of awareness that Neal can only sometimes stop himself from projecting, just touching the edges of his awareness, leaving him constantly aware of their presence. Comforting, both of them, T'Zahn a warm, slow flow of energy, T'Kreen quicker and brighter, but utterly familiar. Eventually she says, "There will be repercussions."

"He is unafraid of them," Neal says, but nods. "He is not a man to avoid any risk he deems necessary."

"Of course. I only state it to suggest that we might be able to mitigate them somewhat by engaging in what humans commonly call 'gossip.'" Neal turns to look at her in surprise. She returns his look blandly. "If the student body knew the barest outline of what he is attempting, it would be quite difficult for him to be condemned for it by higher authority. I have considered the matter, and T'Kreen agrees that the majority of the cadets at this Academy are likely to approve of the captain's efforts."

Neal considers this for a long moment. "Many of them will have guessed merely from the surveys from Dr. O'Dell that someone is pursuing the matter."

"And your class, at least, must be aware that the captain's early withdrawal signifies his involvement. Did they question it?" T'Kreen asks.

"Only in as much as they asked after his absence. They didn't press for information." He looks at T'Kreen. He hardly has to ask, but he does anyway. "You have begun?"

She nods once. "We have. We were certain enough of it's effectiveness, and your probable approval."

Neal smiles a little. "I am not certain of my own approval, but if the plan is already engaged, it would be pointless of me to sabotage it now. I agree that it may offer the captain some... buffer against the disapproval of the Board of Governors and the Admiralty, should such disapproval be forthcoming. It's less clear that it may offer him less sanction from his own colleagues, as they are among those perceived to be the guilty parties."

"They are in a position to do him little harm," T'Zahn says. "We can only expect partial success utilizing this avenue, irregardless of the opinions of the rest of the faculty of this institution."

"I agree," T'Kreen says. "There is only so much we can accomplish. Still, I believe it to be worth the effort."

"I don't disagree," Neal says. "Methodology?"

"Merely using the surveys as a conversational topic and including the captain's previously unscheduled meeting with the Board."

"Allowing the target to mentally link the two," Neal nods, approving. "We should separate, as to cover as much ground as possible."

"It is possible it will be obvious what we are attempting," T'Zahn says. "Vulcans are not known for such talk."

Neal shakes his head. "Yeah, as in completely unheard of. I think that in itself makes me doubt we'll be suspected. Can we recruit the others?"

"As we pass them. A few already are aware." T'Kreen gives him a guileless look that Neal knows is totally fabricated. He can feel the prickle of her guile, this close to her.

"Remind me never to piss you off, T'Kreen," he says seriously. She arches a brow at Neal. "No, seriously. Remind me periodically."

"If you wish," she agrees, brow still arched, barely expressing amusement.

"We will all have classes soon," T'Zahn says. "We should proceed."

They split up, and Neal stops near the table where they might normally have sat to eat lunch and makes light conversation with Kythrn, a Betazoid with strength enough that Neal is sure he can pick most of the detail out of his mind if he leaves it out and unshielded, but he talks, too, as there is no guarantee that Kythrn will take advantage. Some things he can't help but receive, but Neal has found him to have great integrity of character, and is unlikely to pry unless Neal is deliberately unguarded.

It is enough, he senses, reaching out with his own power. Kythrn doesn't know all the details, but from Neal's casual mention of TA'ing the captain's class for him in his absence, and the surveys, and the work Neal had done, in general terms, plucked willingly from Neal's own mind, it is enough. And Kythrn is a good start, as he is as open and as forthcoming as all Betazoids, and is likely to share the information freely. Even without that, the entire end of the table nearby looks as though they have some grasp of what it means, and they will pass it on even if only in the form of questions to others of their acquaintance.

The news will spread.

Neal is well-liked and known to be social. It's easy for him to eel into conversations and drop only a few words in order to make those conversations turn toward the subject that he wants to have discussed. He admits to assisting the captain with a presentation for the Board, but refrains from discussing the topic of said presentation. He lets others bring up the surveys, and when he's sure the line of reasoning he's presented is being followed, he eases away from the conversation, pleading time constraints.

The fifth time he does this, the conversation is already on the path down which Neal would have lead it. Either these cadets had made the leap themselves, or someone else has already been here. Either is equally likely.

Statistics aside, Starfleet cadets are largely well above average, intellectually, and the captain had been close-mouthed without actively being secretive. Being secretive when he was prepared to blow the whole thing wide open, would have defeated the purpose, of course.

But it paved the way for the surveys to have been linked to his absence from class. Some of the student body almost certainly saw him enter the administrative facilities. Word that the Board was assembled unscheduled would almost certainly have gotten out, especially if members of the Admiralty were present.

And this is the second such meeting in as many days, albeit on a larger scale, and the last time such a meeting had happened, the captain had tapped seventeen cadets as junior officers under his command. People are already watching him.

After two more groups are already discussing it when Neal arrives, Neal decides that it's enough; the rumor mill is terrifyingly efficient, after all, and Neal really does have a class to get to.

Chapter Text

It does not go over well.

Peter had expected as much, but is still a little disappointed well into the evening, his afternoon classes behind him.

Hughes steps in during Peter's office hours, which are much subdued from yesterdays, but are still booked solid. Not a single cadet has hit on him, which means someone, somewhere had figured out the gist of what Peter had presented to the Board, if not the particulars, and word has gotten around. Peter suspects Neal, possibly with assistance from T'Zahn and T'Kreen, and thinks he should be annoyed, but really uniformly isn't. He can guess at their reasoning, and he doesn't even disagree with it. The three of them together are devastatingly insightful.

"Got a minute?" Hughes asks, but doesn't wait for Peter to answer before he comes in and shuts the door.

"Here on behalf of the Academy, or is this a personal call?" Peter asks tiredly.

"Both," Hughes says, and doesn't sit down. "They want all your source material." Peter merely hands him a data card, prepared for that request. "They also want to know about your relationship with Neal." Hughes looks unhappy to be the bearer of this bit of news, but Peter waves a hand dismissively unsurprised.

"And what did you tell them?" he asks.

"That I was willing to bet my rank that you aren't sleeping with him, or with anyone else at this juncture," Hughes says, and finally circles the chair to sit down. "They didn't actually say they didn't believe me, but I'm betting they'll be putting together their own investigation on that front." He sighs. "You put together a hell of a lot of information in not much time," he says. "I think they're worried about covering their asses just on that basis alone. They're going to have to answer to Starfleet Command about how you managed it in less than a day when they haven't been doing anything about it for years, if they adopt your frat regs. And if they don't, they'll have to answer to them for that. They're not happy with you at all."

"I didn't go into it expecting to make them happy," Peter says truthfully. "And I'm prepared to be investigated for whatever they want to investigate me for. I've got nothing to hide."

Which is a lie so monumental that Peter is amazed he even manages to verbalize it, let alone meet Hughes eyes while he does it.

He does, however, and Hughes seems to take that at face value. "I told them as much," Hughes says. "They'll try anyway."

"It's a waste of time," Peter says aggravatedly, and rubs at his face. "They should be discussing what steps to take to get things moving in the right direction. A background investigation into my past is a waste of resources."

Hughes shrugs. "You can't tell me you're surprised."

"No," Peter sighs. "Just irritated. What else?"

"Just checking on you, honestly," Hughes says, with a surprising amount of gentleness. "You look tired as hell."

"I was up most the night," Peter says, though he suspects Hughes knows that already. "Other than that, I'm fine. Aggravated, but fine."

"It was a good presentation," Hughes says. "Ugly, but good. Comprehensive. I don't think they'll be able to do anything but address the issue. There's too much information there to ignore." He pauses for a long moment, and then says, "Caffrey help with the regulatory language?"

Peter quirks a little smile, not quite able to help it. "Yeah. He said my revisions sounded too much like they were made by an angry starship captain."

Hughes smiles a little, too. "I have no doubt that he was right." He shakes his head. "Don't spend time alone with him, Peter," he says seriously. "I know I don't have to tell you that, but I feel like I should, just in case. It's pretty common knowledge that he's your favorite; don't give the Board anything to work with."

"I have coffee with him every morning, in public, and I'm not going to stop doing that now. I'm still his adviser, and he's still working on his course spread. I'm not the one doing anything wrong, Reese," he says.

Hughes shakes his head. "His course spread has been done for weeks, at least, but it's as good an excuse as any. Make sure you have it on you. Even better if you had another student with you, but that's your call." He gives Peter a knowing look. "You're only going to be his instructor for a few more weeks."

Peter sighs. "I'm that goddamned obvious?" He'd like to be surprised, but he can't bring himself to be. Not after the Vulcans, anyway.

"You're not," Hughes says. "That's the thing. You're really not. Everyone knows he's your golden boy, and everyone knows he'd trip you given the slightest opportunity, but you've got a hell of a poker face. I just know you, and you've never had coffee with the same person every day since I've known you. Not even when you were a student. Not even when you were seeing that Orion girl." He smirks a little.

"I'm courting him," Peter says. "I want him as an officer."

"You already have him as an officer," Hughes points out. "Honestly better if you stop seeing him every day now, but you're not going to."

"No. I'm not," Peter says flatly.

"Even so," Hughes says. "Just don't do anything stupid. It's only a few weeks."

"Since when do I do the stupid thing?" Peter asks, and Hughes just shakes his head, smiling slightly. "No, really?"

"You don't. You never have. But it doesn't hurt to remind you." He stands up. "Take another Vulcan or two to coffee," he advises. "Your other lieutenant, at least."

And Peter has to admit, he understands the wisdom of the advice. He might even take it, at least some of the time.

Hughes circles the chair to get to the door, and then pauses there. "If no one else thinks to tell you this," he says slowly, thoughtfully, "you did a hell of a good thing. I'm ashamed that I didn't do it myself. I'm ashamed on behalf of the Board."

"Too close to the problem," Peter says, though he doesn't quite buy that. He's willing to give Hughes the benefit of the doubt, however, because he knows Hughes is a good man.

"Maybe," Hughes says. "Or maybe just willfully blind to the problem." He sighs. "Either way, you did the right thing. Don't let the fallout make you forget that."

"I'll keep it in mind," Peter agrees. And he will. He doesn't doubt the truth of the sentiment, or he wouldn't have bothered doing it to begin with.

"You know it's all over the school," Hughes says musingly. "Not the details, but in general."

"It's not that hard to put together, considering the surveys and my absence from class," Peter says, deliberately drawing attention away from Neal's hypothetical involvement in the gossip mill.

Hughes nods. "That's what I'll be telling the board. But you might want to make sure the rest of your advisees know that now would be a good time to stop any chit-chat they might be making about the subject. It's sufficiently widespread."

Peter doesn't actually acknowledge that, but Hughes doesn't really wait for it, anyway. He lets himself out, leaving the door open behind him.

Peter takes a minute to send a message to Neal's PADD, and then calls the next cadet into his office.

He's just finishing up when Neal appears in the doorway just long enough to let Peter know he's there, and Peter gestures him to stay put as he winds up his business with the cadet he's with.

The cadet flashes Neal a slim smile as he passes him by the door and Neal smiles back genuinely, open as he ever is, and steps into Peter's office. He looks at the door, and Peter says, "Leave it open. I just need a minute." He crooks his finger, and Neal comes to perch on the corner of Peter's desk. "If you're talking about the events of the day with any of the others, it's time to stop," he says. Neal doesn't have the good grace to look ashamed of himself.

"Understood. How did it go?" Neal asks.

Peter sighs. "I can't discuss closed Board meetings with you, Neal," he says with a look that he hopes indicates that Neal should ask him tomorrow, over coffee.

"I know," Neal says with a put upon sigh. "I was hoping you might slip up."

Peter's lips quirk, but he merely says, "There can be absolutely no slipping up as long as I'm still teaching here. Of any kind."

Neal's brow furrows into a frown, but he merely says, "Yes, you've said. I haven't hit on you in ages."

Peter doesn't snort -- Neal had hit on him yesterday -- but he says, "Tell T'Kreen to be at the shop tomorrow morning. I've got to handle her term project review anyway; might as well do it at the same time as yours."

Neal looks dismayed, but not as though he doesn't understand. "Sure. Same time as yesterday?" But Peter can feel the thin crackle of his unhappy dissatisfaction through the binding.

It can't be helped, Peter would like to tell him.

"I know," Neal says, and there is a long moment during which they consider each other, neither of them really surprised, neither of them really sure how to proceed in the face of Peter actually talking to Neal in his mind. So you can hear me? Neal asks, and Peter feels the pull of it through the binding, the way that it feels convoluted in a way that Neal's feelings don't. His feelings had been simple, are still simple, always there and open to inspection. The talking is... not simple. There is a faint vertical line between Neal's brows.

"Yes," Peter says out loud. "Make sure to bring your course spread, too."

Neal says, "I will," giving no indication at all that his course spread has been done for months. "I always do."

"I'll see you then," Peter says, effectively dismissing him.

Neal frowns. He's still buzzing with displeasure, but he goes because he's smart, Neal is too smart not to understand the careful code of the conversation. He won't be happy with it; Peter isn't happy with it himself. But he trusts Neal not to risk Peter's reputation, and there's nothing else they can do. Not now.

He's already tired by the time he finds T'Zahn at the meditation gardens, and he's not sure this is the best night to start lessons, but he's unwilling to put them off. He believes they're something he will have to have to manage the binding with Neal once he leaves Earth. There's no point in not learning as much as he can now, while Neal is still a humming presence in his mind, alive and hectic with feeling. He's amused now, he's with T'Kreen, and someone else that Peter can't get a good mental picture of. He doesn't know what they're doing; only that it involves music and people. A bar, maybe, though with Neal's age, maybe just a club.

T'Zahn is watching him interestedly, and Peter reels his mind back away from Neal a little ruefully.

"So," he says. "Vulcan meditation."

"You should consider wearing clothing of lighter weight for meditation, captain," T'Zahn tells him. "The Vulcan meditation gardens are kept quite warm, as suits our race. Your blacks will be overwarm."

Peter nods, but says, "They'll have to do for tonight. I'll change clothes tomorrow night."

She nods and leads him into a bramble of foliage that looks like it will lead to another patch of the grounds, but actually leads him into a smallish room. Sand crunches under his boots, and he understands immediately why he'll need lighter clothes. It must be a hundred degrees in here. There are a pair of mats on the floor, facing one another, and an incense burner between them, gently smoking so that the place smells like spices.

T'Zahn settles herself on one of the mats -- she is wearing nearly-sheer lightweight robes -- and Peter mirrors her on the other mat without being asked. "The incense is traditional, but each individual tends to select the blend that he or she prefers. I have several blends we may experiment with until we find one to your liking."

Peter is already sweating in his blacks. "Is it going to offend your sensibilities if I take my shirt off?" he asks, because he honestly doesn't think he'll be able to sit in this heat for any length of time while he's trying to learn to meditate. He's already trying to think of what clothes he owns will work for this.

"Not at all," T'Zahn says, one brow arched. "When you have learned standard meditation practices, you will find different states of undress will provide different degrees of relaxation or contemplation."

Peter is listening while he unclasps his blacks at the back and pulls the shirt over his head, folding it on one corner of the mat where he's relatively sure sand won't get into it. "Will it always need to be this hot?"

"I do not know," T'Zahn says. "Outside environment may cease to matter once the principles of meditation are established. Until then, maintaining a habitual environment will assist you in calming your emotions. If you prefer it, we can move to another, cooler garden."

Peter shakes his head. "Might as well do it the traditional way as long as I can do it without actually hurting myself. I can tweak it for myself once I've got the basics down."

"I am in agreement," she says. "Were you Vulcan, you would begin by focusing on your katra. As humans have no real equivalent, I believe it is best for you to focus on the binding itself. Not upon Neal, or what you might feel from Neal, but upon the place of the binding in your mind. Focus on that place, and be aware of it, and make it calm. If it is still a thing which feels external to you, you must set about integrating it into your self, captain, into that core of your self that you perceive to be you. Do you understand?"

"Not entirely," Peter admits. "You want me to view the binding as my own?"

"As a part of what makes you you," T'Zhan says. "As a part of Captain Peter Burke as a whole. Not a thing done to you, but as a thing you are, as you are your body and your mind. The binding should feel as though it is as much a part of you as your own feelings are a part of you."

Peter mirrors her pose, thinking about that. He isn't sure whether the binding feels like it's a part of him. No. He knows that it doesn't; not quite. It always comes from the same place, and he thinks about that place as though it were Neal, though it's a place within his own mind. He thinks of it as other.

"Close your eyes," T'Zahn tells him. "Breathe in the scents here, feel the heat of the air and of your body. Let them become familiar and quiet, not distant, but of no concern. Think of the binding, and of the way it hangs upon your mind. Draw it into you, so that it becomes your own. You are his partner and his equal; the binding belongs to you as much as it does to him. You must draw it into you and believe that it is so."

Peter closes his eyes and breathes, and without his shirt he's still hot, but it's a pleasant kind of heat, a sauna without the steam, and he can feel his body settling and his heartbeat slowing. He isn't a total novice to meditation or self-hypnosis. He knows how to make himself calm. The environment is alien, the heat and the incense, but that has it's own kind of comfort. It sets this apart from the rest of his life, lets him let go of the clusterfuck of the frat regs and the likelihood of being investigated by the Board and of his own uncertain feelings about being bound to Neal for the rest of his life. What is, is. He's always been good at taking the situation as it is and working within it. Never mind the fear that Neal will some day come to regret any bond he forms with Peter now; it can't be helped. What is, is.

He feels for the place in his mind that is the binding, not reaching for Neal carefully, instead merely considering the how of reaching for him, the way it feels, where it is in his mind, the way it feels a little foreign, as if that part of his mind has become not his own. It feels like Neal, the bright and eclectic heat of him, and Peter breathes and thinks about what it must be for Neal, if Peter is some calm and sombre presence in his mind, if that is a good thing for Neal or if it's a burden for someone as emotionally kinetic as Neal is. Is Peter a place that Neal reaches for when he needs calm the way Peter reaches for Neal when he needs reminding of the good things here, the light and life that help Peter to balance out his desire to be back in space?

He reaches for that place and ponders how to make it his own. Does he even want it? If he can, actually, integrate it, will Neal's distinctive feel be wiped clean from Peter's mind.

"If I make it mine, how will I know it's him?" Peter asks seriously, a little unwillingly, but determined to do this right, even if it means revealing more of himself than he wants to T'Zahn.

"You will always feel him," she murmurs soothingly. "You do not wish to wipe him from your consciousness. You must merely accept that he is a part of your consciousness, that he belongs there, that the binding is as it should be, and that you can use it as he does, as you wish to; yours as much as it is his. Not a thing done to you, but a thing that is a part of you. Neal is a part of you. Acceptance is vital to be calm. As long as you see it as something separate, different, you will never find your way to true calm."

Peter suspects this is easier said than done. He can feel Neal. He's laughing at something, bright with amusement. Peter can almost hear him. It's as though he's both close to Peter and very distant at once. How do you incorporate something like that into your sense of self?

He isn't sure how long he puzzles it over, how long he considers the binding and the way it feels and the way Neal feels, how long he holds it in his mental sights and thinks of ways to pull it in close to him entirely, how to view it as something he can do, and not just as something that Neal can do. He knows it's true. He's done it, and he knows that he has as much control of it as Neal does, though perhaps he doesn't have the same kind of training, and Neal handles it more deftly. But to make it his own...

He has always had known boundaries. The binding with Neal has been eroding them, slowly, but he feels it happening. Not all of them, but enough. He doesn't know how to entirely drop those boundaries that are left to him, doesn't know how to let that brightness that is Neal meld with the rest of his mind.

It's quite some time.

Eventually, T'Zahn says, "It is enough."

"I haven't..." Peter says, opening his eyes. She arches a brow.

"I know. It will not all happen at once."

Of course it wouldn't. That was why he had to learn. The process is gradual.

T'Zahn rises gracefully to her feet. Peter follows her up a little less gracefully, snagging his shirt and pulling it back on over his head.

"Will this work?" Peter asks once he's decent again. He's honestly not sure.

"If you want it to," she tells him frankly. "If you decide it is worthy of your time and effort, then you will learn, and as you learn, it will happen naturally as you come to focus."

Peter considers that for a long moment, and then merely nods.

"Tomorrow, captain," T'Zahn says, and then is moving away from him through the gardens, her robes pale against the dimness of the night.

Peter turns in the other direction, toward his own quarters, and feels Neal quiet and relaxed but alert, his attention on Peter, his sense of waiting. It hurries his step, and it's impossible to pretend otherwise. He should keep his mind, as well as his hands, to himself, he really should, but he knows he won't and the reasons why he should are blurred and vague, some kind of nebulous sense of self defense or self preservation that has already been stripped away in reality. His objections are illusions so ephemeral he can't even pin them down with words. Even if they had ever mattered at all, it's too late for them now.

He takes a shower because he's sheened with sweat from the meditation gardens, and he means it to be brief and purposeful, but as soon as his hands are on his own skin he feels the clench of Neal's want, though Neal doesn't actually reach for him. Peter doesn't know how Neal knows, doesn't know how he had known about Neal's surroundings earlier, but he's come through surprise and dismay and settled into acceptance without ever having made the choice. He doesn't know why any of it works the way it does, doesn't know how far it will go before it's done, and is more or less at peace with that. The feel of Neal's desire in his mind is not that much different than the feel of his happiness or his displeasure. It's close and sweet and it feels normal.

It would be easier to keep his distance from all of it if it didn't all feel so normal when it's happening.

Peter reaches, again -- there's no point in avoiding at this late date, and Neal is so carefully not doing it -- and Neal's hot gratification is immediate and a little overwhelming. Peter has to widen his stance and brace a hand on the wall of the shower at the slow, rolling heat of Neal's want in his mind. He doesn't try to hide his response, his own want, and Neal is curled into himself somewhere warm and dark, his bed, Peter guesses, and he can almost feel the damp prickle of sweat on his skin and the way his palm pulls at his cock. Peter feels his mouth fall open in surprise, and his free hand curls around his cock automatically. He thinks anyone's would. He thinks of the way Neal smells, spicy coffee and smooth skin, and imagines how it would be tucked up around Neal in the warm dark, the smell of him surrounding them both, of the way it would feel to touch that skin, sticky-hot with sweat, to put his nose in the crease of Neal's neck, to drag him out and open with Peter's hands, to lay him flat and put his mouth everywhere he could reach. What sounds he would make. The feel of muscle shuddering beneath his skin.

Captain, Neal breathes into his mind, and Peter startles out a sound someplace between a yelp of surprise and a groan of disbelief, and comes immediately, without further prompting. He's still blinking when Neal uncoils in his mind, twisting out with hot relief, and Peter hisses in a breath instead of surrendering to the moan that wants to escape his lips.

The water is still hot, but his skin feels oversensitive now, and it's prickling at him. He rinses and turns it off, and it's just Neal talking in his mind that hit him so quickly and so devastatingly. Not what he'd said.

He dries off and tries to not think, but Neal is a warm, weighty presence that should be at the edge of his consciousness, except that Peter can't remove him from his focus. He's still front and center in Peter's mind -- Peter isn't sure Neal's even aware of it, he's panting and shivering, but he's also half-drowsing, Peter doesn't know how he knows, but he does -- and Peter is thirty-seven years old. It's been a long time since he went from orgasm directly back to erection. He would have said that he didn't have it in him any more.

But here he is, and Neal's cleaning himself up, Peter can almost feel the prickle of oversensitive skin, Neal is pleasantly tired, stretched out now, sated and on the edge of sleep. Peter climbs into his own bed, determinedly not thinking, not reaching, not wondering if Neal thinks of him like that all the time. He does, he almost certainly does, because if he thought of Peter as anything else, captain would not be the thing he murmured into Peter's mind during... whatever it is they're doing. Telepathic mutual masturbation.

Which it is not. It really isn't. Nothing like.

And the desire to hear Neal call him 'Peter' is twisted up in contention with the part of him that heats and stirs at the idea of Neal calling him 'captain' while he comes.

It's perverse, Peter is perverse for wanting it, either of the its in question, as the former is dangerously intimate and genuinely a bad idea until Peter is back in space at the very least, and the latter is just... perverse. He's never wanted anyone to do such a thing in his life. He doesn't know why Neal murmuring it into his mind is enough to make him smolder; it smacks of the kind of abuse of authority he'd had taken the Academy to task for that very day. He should be appalled.

His cock jerks against his belly. He should sleep. Neal is almost asleep, hazy with it in Peter's mind. It's late, and he'll regret it in the morning, and not just because it's late.

It's perverse.

But he thinks, Cadet, and feels Neal snap awake, feels him singing with tension for a long, intense moment, and then tightening with lust.

"Jesus," Peter says, and shoves his covers to the side, his hand already wrapping around his cock.

Captain, Neal repeats and Peter bites back a noise and closes his eyes, and never mind Neal's skin, never mind the spice and coffee scent of him, better to think of pushing him down, pushing him back, better to think of him wide-eyed and hard for Peter, better to imagine covering him and pressing his cock against all of that hot, pale skin, his thigh, his hip. Neal is burning in Peter's mind, Peter is getting flashes, sweat-damp curls and the ferocity of Neal's grip on his own cock, and Peter wants to bite him, kiss him, really kiss him, not that surprised and helpless pseudo-kiss from a few days ago, but a deliberate assault on Neal's soft pink mouth, he wants to kiss Neal while his cock is pressed up against his body, he wants to take Neal in hand and hear him stuttering 'captain' at him, he wants to push his hand down behind Neal's balls and touch the place where he'll open for Peter, wants to hear him, he wants, and Neal wants too, wants as much as Peter, is trembling and helpless with it in Peter's mind, and Peter realizes, he knows, that he's just given all of that to Neal, had fed it to him, that he can't keep it back, and Neal is clutching at him abruptly as though afraid that Peter will try, is hooking himself into Peter's want and Peter's mind and Peter isn't sure he could let Neal go, even if he wanted to, even if he had to, and he doesn't try to hide that, either, reckless with heat and want, and Neal clenches again, his mind a scattered glittering of need that Peter can touch, can almost sift through with his hands, and Neal wails, Captain!, and Peter growls out loud, cock aching, and comes again, painfully, brutally, so good Peter is unraveled by it for long, languid stretches of seconds in which he is aware of Neal there, so close, almost touching, so goddamned far, and he can feel the twist of satisfaction and dissatisfaction from Neal as clearly as he can feel it himself.

He wants, God help him, so much more.

He's shocked at the strength of it even as he recognizes that it isn't a new feeling. No, not new. Something he's just been ignoring as it built up, something that has managed to successfully sneak up on him.

Neal, he thinks helplessly, though he hardly has to they are so entwined, their minds twisted up together, the binding pulling them both in tightly, the worlds most alluring noose.

Sleep, Neal whispers back, all soft corners and soothing edges, a puzzle piece fitted exactly into its proper place.

Peter thinks he won't, that he can't, but he's exhausted and physically sated and Neal isn't where Peter wants him, but he's close, close enough, and he thinks he'll have to tell T'Zahn that integrating the link isn't going to be a problem, and he knows he has to stop himself from being alone with Neal at all costs, and he wants nothing more than he wants Neal aboard the Defiance where he belongs, and then he's asleep.

Chapter Text

Things change; it isn't that Neal is surprised by it, but he isn't happy about it either.

It's three weeks before Neal sees the captain alone again.

He finds T'Kreen waiting for him each morning as he's leaving to have coffee with the captain, and Neal doesn't need to have it explained to him. She's a buffer between the captain and the suspicion of impropriety, and he understands it, but he still isn't pleased. He loves T'Kreen, and he understands that the captain can't be seen alone with Neal right now. It would undermine his position.

He knows that isn't all it is, though.

The captain's time is eaten up with classes and office hours and the ongoing investigation of sexual impropriety among the staff; it hardly seems to help matters that Starfleet Command has sent a gaggle of officers to help with that investigation. Rank notwithstanding, those officers all seem to feel that the captain is in charge of the investigation, and all reports go through him. The captain, being the captain, doesn't shirk the duty, even though he has enough on his plate to excuse himself from the rest of the investigation, should he choose to do it.

Neal never catches him during his office hours; his own schedule isn't much easier. His free periods are eaten up with the last of the tests of his psychic abilities, and with term papers and projects.

He spends most of that three weeks trying to ignore that things are out of balance for him without the captain's present attention. Coffee with T'Kreen is good, but it's not the same. The way that they reach for one another at night steadies him, but it's not enough.

The countdown always ticking away at the back of his mind makes him agitated and restless as the end of term closes in, and Neal isn't sure what do to make it better. He meditates, and it helps, but it isn't enough.

Nothing is enough.

T'Kreen watches him, not pretending it's anything else, and she's not the only one. The other Vulcans find reasons to be close by; Neal appreciates their desire to help be a distraction for him, and doesn't know how to tell them it doesn't help. It wouldn't even be true; it does help, somewhat.

But it isn't enough.

T'Kreen tells him one day that she won't be available for coffee that morning, and Neal is ashamed at the way his heart leaps.

"You will not cause him censure," she tells him seriously, Vulcan for: "Behave yourself."

Neal didn't really need it to be stated, but he understands why she felt the need, even as he is overwhelmed by the idea that, just this once, he will have time with the captain to himself.

He loads his bag up for reasons having to do with probable deniability, rather than because he specifically needs the captain's attention for any of it.

He meets the captain at their usual table, still early enough that only a handful of people are there, and there is something in the captain's face, something in the low hum of emotion that spikes when he sees Neal there, alone, and it still won't be enough, but knowing that the captain is as hungry for time alone with Neal settles him a little. He takes a seat across from the captain, careful not to sit too close, not to touch the way his fingers itch to.

"T'Kreen had another appointment," he tells the captain, and he merely nods and pushes Neal's cup of espresso across the table toward him. T'Kreen's oolong tea sits untouched by either of them, cooling in the spring air.

He'd like to bring up the careful distance the captain is keeping between them, but he doesn't.

He knows why. He can feel it as clearly as if it was his own emotion. The captain doesn't trust himself alone with Neal. Not anymore. Not since he had reached out for Neal and driven them both into a frenzy with that alone. Not when they have reached some tenuous point that gives them flashes, images in one another's minds, though it only seems to happen at night, when they're separate-but-together. The captain hasn't tried to stop it -- had, in fact, become surprising adept at navigating it -- but he doesn't want those flashes during the day, when they are both supposed to be concentrating on other things.

Neal counts himself lucky that the captain hasn't called a halt to their late-night joining altogether. He knows the captain thinks he should in the same way that he knows that the captain won't. It's the thing that is holding them both together, the thing that they use to keep apart the rest of the time, both a tease and a reward.

The night before the captain had gone to his knees for Neal, had looked down his own body as he jerked his cock, and it had been enough for Neal to catch glimpses of his body, his cock, the taut stretch of his thighs and the hard, long length of his cock disappearing through his tight fist. Neal had come first, just from that sight alone, and he had lain back and looked down his own come splattered chest and stomach and had let the captain see. His mind had been like a vice around Neal's, holding him and drinking in the sight, mesmerized and battered with want.

The captain doesn't trust them alone together, and Neal can't even argue that. He's right.

It would take only a handful of moments alone to undo the careful line they are walking.

Neal wants that, but not enough to break the line. He won't sabotage the captain's self-control by abandoning his own self-control, no matter how desperately he wants, no matter how good he knows it would be.

But still, the captain is happy to have this brief moment alone, but not alone; his mind is gentle and quiescent.

"What did you bring me?" he asks, and Neal shoves a pad at him almost blindly, his attention riveted to the captain's face.

"Term project," Neal says. "I know you're busy; do you have time?"

"I'll make time for any of my advisees projects," the captain says dismissively, giving a cursory glance at Neal's PADD. "Do you need it back today?"

"By Friday," Neal says, and the captain nods and pushes the PADD slightly away.

"Your testing?" he asks.

"All but done. The Vulcans Dr. O'Dell brought in early on want to check my progress, and are willing to stand up with me in front of the Board of Governors and Starfleet Command. Dr. O'Dell, too. Will you be there?"

"I will if you want me to be," the captain says. He's drinking in Neal's face; it's distracting. "I'm not the Board's favorite person right now," he adds. "If you wanted me to steer clear, I'd understand."

"No," Neal says. "I want you there. You may not be on the Board's good side, but Starfleet Command will listen to you."

The captain nods as though that's all he wanted to hear. "And you're in control?"

"Complete control. We're running some of the early tests again, just as a precaution, but yeah. I know exactly what I can do and how to do it." He pauses. "What about you. You're running yourself ragged with end of term stuff as well as being head of the investigation."

"I do all right," the captain says, though Neal thinks he looks tired.

He suffers a momentary pang of guilt, and reluctantly offers, "We can skip morning coffee if it's eating into your sleep time." He doesn't want to, but he will.

The captain shakes his head, lips quirking gently. "It's the best part of my day."

"Not meditation with T'Zahn?" Neal asks, genuinely curious.

"It's the most relaxing part of my day," the captain says. "There's a difference. She says I'm doing well. She says..." he pauses and takes a brief look around. "She says it will go better for us if we complete the bond before I leave." There is something both of fear and desire in his voice, but Neal can feel that the desire is stronger than the fear by whole orders of magnitude. Unfortunately, he can feel the captain's unhappiness draped over both of the other emotions like a cloak, unhappiness at the situation, at having to consider making such a decision against all of his objections.

"I'm ready to complete it whenever you feel you are," Neal says truthfully. He doesn't let himself say more, though he would beg, he thinks, if the captain were another man, someone to whom begging might make a difference. Though maybe not. Maybe if the captain were another man, Neal wouldn't want to beg.

The captain buries his face in his cup, drinking; Neal can feel him thinking it through, a logic puzzle only the captain can see. "I don't know enough about the Defiance's current schedule to be able to answer that definitively," he says finally.

It's not a no, which is close as Neal is likely to get. He hopes, but he puts that hope away. He can't afford to be disappointed in a way that will crush him.

"She talked to me about something," the captain says, and meets Neal's gaze briefly. "Something that may happen when we bond for real."

T'Kreen has also had this talk with Neal. Neal isn't sure he believes -- T'Kreen had been careful to make it clear that there may be nothing to believe, that it may be pure legend, hearsay handed down like myths from the beginnings of their race as a civilized people; this time she doesn't even have scroll fragments or books to base the speculation on -- but he knows what the captain is talking about.

"If it's true at all, it's so rare that there hasn't been a documented case is hundreds of centuries," Neal says carefully.

"She told me that, as well. She also told me that it's intensely private; that if it happens, it's possible, or even probable, that the bonded couples it happens to don't exactly report it to Vulcan High Command." The captain looks at him full on, his face full of questions, but he only asks, "Never mind, that. What do you think?"

"T'Kreen says if the bond is that strong, we, neither of us, will be able to fight it. It either is, or is not. She says that if we don't want to go that far, then we should separate as soon as possible and break the binding in whatever way we can find. Otherwise it will happen, with our without our input. Even if we don't fully bond now, we won't be able to stop it when I enter Pon Farr"

"That's not what I asked," the captain says. He is patient in the binding, but there is an edge of nerves to it.

"T'hy'la," Neal says experimentally, and the captain's chin jerks up in surprise, but Neal can feel the resonance of it in the captain's mind, and in his own, like something in him recognizes the word in some sense that isn't merely academic for the first time. To cover it, or at least to distance it, he repeats what T'Kreen had told him almost verbatim. "It means more than friends or brothers or lovers. It is the truest joining of two people, the one most likely to be both more intimate and more powerful than any other." Neal pauses, thinking. He wants it. If it's real, and it's possible, then he wants it, even though it scares him a little. The bond itself is intensely personal, private, and Neal can't quite get his head around something that would be even more so.

But he thinks about the improbability of the instant connection of their bond, the improbability of what they have made of it, and the improbability of the consummation of such a bond, and comes to the matter of inevitability.

He had researched the path of inevitability, mathematically, philosophically, socially, and he can find no argument to make with T'Zahn's assertion.

They seem to be walking a path with only one direction, and Neal doesn't want to leave the path. He wants all that he can get, yet he doesn't want it at the captain's expense.

"I want what you want," Neal says finally. "I want no more than what you want to give."

"I don't know what I want to give," the captain says, and it's truthful, that assertion, but there is more to it. The captain wants; he's merely unsure that he should have.

"If we complete the bond, and if T'hy'la is real, not a myth or a fairytale, the one will inevitably lead to the other," Neal points out, trying to keep his voice and mind as neutral as he can. "That's my understanding of it."

The captain nods and drinks his coffee. He's far away in his own mind. Eventually he says, "With us fully bonded, the distance won't be as great a barrier."

He doesn't ask a barrier to what. He already knows. He'd spent hours in library, and more hours still with T'Kreen and her borrowed resources from Vulcan, and he understands the limits of the binding versus the bond. The distance will still matter, but it will be less of a strain to reach for one another, less work to keep them both steady without one another's constant presence. It's still not the best solution. The best solution is constant proximity, assuming the bond cannot be broken. But it would be something. A distant something, but something.

"It has to be up to you," Neal says finally. The captain flashes annoyance, but pulls it back almost immediately. Neal shakes his head. "I can't help you, captain. I want it all. I want the bond, and if it grows beyond that, I want that, too. But I don't want anything that you don't want, so it has to be your decision."

The captain lowers his voice. "You're too young to be stuck with me forever," he murmurs.

"You don't understand," Neal says, trying for patience, but a little exasperated. "The binding wouldn't have worked the way it did, immediately, if we weren't both compatible. The bond itself will help us grow together. There will still be things we don't agree on; it won't make us into something that we're not. But it's designed to facilitate the happiness of both parties. If I was unwilling or unable to commit in such a way, the bond won't work at all." He shakes his head. "I wish you worried less about my age and more about my happiness." He's a little hurt, and he's sure the captain can feel it.

"I worry about your happiness," the captain defends quietly. "I worry that you'll end up feeling trapped, being tied to me when you're so young and, you'll spend the next several years meeting new and exciting people."

"The bond is reciprocal," Neal says. "There is no feeling trapped. If anything, it will feel like we're coming home after a long absence."

The captain sighs. "Do you believe in the T'hy'la thing?"

Neal considers his personal speculations for a long moment, and then shrugs. He doesn't see any reason for the captain not to know what he knows. "I think T'Zahn and T'Leyna are T'hy'la."

The captain's mouth drops open. "Why wouldn't she just tell me?" he wonders aloud.

"It's private," Neal stresses. "Not only that, it's near-mythical for present day Vulcans. At the very least, they'd face suspicion. At the worst, extensive testing of their bond in order that it be understood, but also in order that it might be reproduced. Either way, it's not worth outing themselves over. It can't be reproduced. It is what it is. If it isn't there, there's nothing they can do to make it happen. It's one of the things we lost when we became civilized, captain. It was done to control and direct the mating drive, to prepare both parties for what it will be, but the result is basically arranged marriages, and arranged marriages aren't conducive to searching for and finding... whatever this is. The love of your life. The other half of your whole. Whatever you want to call it." He shakes his head again. "And I don't have confirmation from either of them. It's speculation. It's the way they feel to me when they're together."

The captain is silent for a long time. Neal lets him think, and when the captain says, "I've been thinking about your course schedule," Neal doesn't fight the change of subject, though he can't help his disappointment.

"What about it?"

"I think you can test out of some of it, if you're willing to take the time over the break to take the tests." He holds out his hand, and Neal digs in his bag and brings out the PADD with his carefully arranged schedule on it. "Here," the captain says, highlighting a course. "And here, and here." He glances up at Neal. "You might have to take an unsupervised crash course for the last one, but I think you can do it." He tips the PADD toward Neal. "And if you can, you can slot third year classes into their places, and either choose other classes to round out your course load, or give yourself a little time to breathe for both years."

"It's still going to be three more years worth of work," Neal says, considering. He doesn't doubt that he can test out of the three courses the captain has chosen. He thinks there might be another couple of courses on top of those, actually.

"I'm not worried about shortening your Academy time," the captain says. "I'm just trying to make sure the classes you're taking are worth your time."

"You didn't object to them at the beginning of last term," Neal says.

"No, but I didn't know you, then. I wasn't as clear on what you can do." The captain looks at him. "Testing out of what you don't need will give you more time to take classes that are more to your benefit. I can put in a request for you to take the tests."

"Then put in for these, too," Neal says, doing some highlighting of is own. The captain studies them for a long moment, and then just nods. He pulls out his own PADD and sends off the request.

"It'll keep you here for part of the summer break," the captain says.

Neal shrugs. "I'll go home and visit Mozzie for a couple of weeks and get some studying done there. By the time that's done, I'll be ready to come back anyway. I'm not sure how long I can manage to stay there without..." The captain is nodding, which makes Neal grateful not to have to finish the sentence. "Anyway, it'll give me a little break, and I'm willing to let the testing eat up my summer if it means opening up my schedule for other classes."

The captain nods again. "Okay, then." He glances at his watch. Neal doesn't have to look; he can guess the time by the number of people at the cafe. "I have to go," the captain says.

"Sure," Neal says, trying not to sound as disappointed as he feels. "I've got class soon, too, but I think I'll have another espresso before I go."

The captain stands and nods and hovers for a few moments. Then he squares his shoulders and ruffles Neal's hair gently. The feel of the captain's big, warm hand in his hair makes Neal want to press up into it like a puppy, but here merely sits still and lets the feel of it relax all of his muscles as long as it goes on. Then the captain is gone, and Neal slumps back into his chair, feeling defeated.

Chapter Text

Peter lets Elizabeth take the lead in defense of Neal's classified psychic abilities. He has no illusions about how the Board feels about him at this particular time, but Elizabeth, Neal, and the two Vulcans are enough in the way of experts that the conversation and questions rotate around the four of them. It's only when one of the Governors, O'Neil, says, "And as his commanding officer, you think it's in the best interests of your ship and crew that these abilities not be made public?" that Peter is drawn into the fray.

"His heritage and touch telepathy is enough to make him stand out already," Peter says. "I think anything further that he can do should be classified and revealed to command staff only, both for the comfort of Neal himself, as well as for the rest of my crew, and for the element of surprise that said abilities could be used for in hostile or dangerous away mission circumstances."

"And I take it you believe he won't misuse his abilities."

"I'm willing to take the standard oaths Starfleet requires on the matter," Neal says.

"Why, then, are we only hearing about these abilities now?" O'Neil wants to know.

"Neal came to me with imperfect control of his abilities; he wasn't raised on Vulcan, and didn't have the benefit of having been tutored from birth in them," Elizabeth says. "Before he presented them to the Board, we felt it best to do extensive testing to find out all of what he could do, and under what circumstances he could use them."

"And you believe he has control of them now?" Governor Donnel asks. He looks more interested than displeased, for which Peter likes him better.

"Our testing was extensive," Elizabeth repeats. "I believe Neal has complete control of his abilities."

"I feel like we should ask for a demonstration," Governor Drxlsh murmurs, "but which of us would want to have such abilities used on us."

Elizabeth hands her a PADD. "We were careful to receive permission from all parties, and to test Neal's abilities on a wide variety of species. The names currently present will be redacted once the data is entered into the pertinent medical file, but Starfleet Medical Code allows me to share them with you under the strictest of confidentiality." The PADD is passed around the table.

Governor Donnel turns toward the two Vulcans present and asked, "And you took part in these experiments and can confirm all the details herein? My understanding was that Vulcans were limited to touch telepathy."

One of the Vulcans -- Peter thinks his name is Sevok -- says blankly, "The most common of psychic manifestations in Vulcans is touch telepathy. There are records of those with proximate telepathy among our people in the distant past, and we believe that his ability to render a subject unconscious is a mental manifestation of the Vulcan nerve pinch, which is an ability that is largely psychic in nature, but which requires touch to instigate by most of those of our race. Neal is strong, even for a full-blooded Vulcan. He has uncommon abilities. But we believe those abilities are Vulcan by heritage, and the Federation has never turned away a sentient being merely for being stronger than the norm."

Whatever his name is, Peter likes him. He's basically made it a challenge for them to turn Neal down, a challenge that he'd implied that the rest of Vulcan would not be pleased about. Vulcans are few, now, and valuable, and more importantly, they are committed to continuing their primary role in the Federation. To turn Neal down for being strong would be like spitting in their collective faces.

Governor's O'Neil and Donnel tip their heads together to speak in low voices, which Peter doesn't bother to try to overhear. Neal's hearing is better than human, and Peter trusts him to fill him in later if need be.

"You realize," Governor Lang says a little sharply, her voice matching the sharpish angles of her face, "that no matter what is decided here today, Starfleet Command will have the ultimate right to veto our decision."

Peter would like to tell her to leave Starfleet Command to him, but he's just political minded enough not to do it. Instead he says, "I'm aware, Governor. But since Neal is going to be directly under your supervision for the next three years of his formal education, it seemed best to present the matter to the Board before worrying about Starfleet Command."

"A sop to our aching egos?" she asks, looking a little sour, but also slightly amused, as though she can't help but see the irony even if she doesn't like it much.

"If you like," Peter says. "Mostly just the logical progression of events. I know I'm not your favorite person right now; I'm asking you not to use Neal as an object lesson because of that."

"And you don't think it's likely, whatever you say, or you would have gone to Starfleet Command ahead of us. If you really believed we'd vote against you just because you're you," Lang says. She gives Peter a long and serious look. "You may not be our favorite person, Captain Burke, but that's through no fault of your own. Like it or not, what you did needed doing."

Peter decides she must have been one of the ones that had been working on it from the inside. While he doesn't entirely approve -- if working it from the inside was going to work, it would have worked already -- it does win her points for at least trying.

"And even so," she says after a long pause. "We're not talking about you at all; you're only here to submit the recommendation. We're talking about Mr. Caffrey."

"I agree," Peter says neutrally. "I'm here as his potential commanding officer, his adviser, and as a Starfleet captain to relay information and defend my reasoning if necessary."

She turns slightly to address the Board. "I see no real reason to deny the request. Caffrey's abilities are under his control to the satisfaction of his medical adviser, and it's true that having the... unusual breadth of talent he's expressed could affect how those around him perceive him. Once he's graduated and an officer aboard a starship, such abilities might give him advantages in dangerous or unexpected situations. He has expressed his willingness to take the oaths put in place for telepaths, and under those terms, I vote in favor of confidentiality."

The rest of the Board murmurs amongst themselves for a few more minutes, but it turns out to be really as simple as that.

No one votes against it or even abstains.

Neal takes the oath, which is recorded and placed in his file.

Donnel volunteers to present the matter to Starfleet Command with Elizabeth's data and recommendations, and they're all dismissed within half an hour.

"That wasn't so bad," Neal says, though he's not smiling. Peter can feel his puzzlement and suspicion; he'd like to try and reassure Neal, but Peter has his own share of suspicion, and he doesn't think that will help. Neal glances sideways at Peter. "Too good to be true."

He does it all the time; Peter isn't sure if he knows it or not. If Peter is in his line of sight, Neal is always looking at him. Peter makes some effort to be less obvious about it, but he suspects the opposite is also true. He's drawn to Neal. The binding, almost certainly, but it doesn't feel like something outside of him that pulls him in Neal's direction. It feels natural, like breathing.

If this is only the binding, then the true bond is likely to be exponentially worse. Or better, Peter supposes. Depending on your point of view.

The problem, really, is that Peter had meant everything he had said when he'd told Neal that they would make it work if the binding couldn't be broken. He had said it, and he had meant it, but he has to admit, even if only to himself, that he had thought they would find a way. He had thought that, then, months ago. And he had thought then, that if it couldn't be broken, that he understood what he was getting into.

He hadn't. Not remotely. Not like he does now.

Now... now he isn't sure he'd want it, if a solution dropped right into their laps. Now he wants the bond almost as much as Neal does. He can feel it, that ache in Neal, limned with fear, but mostly just the want of it, the desire bright in his mind. The way that Neal knows it will be more, it will be better, apparently by instinct, since he's never been bonded before himself. Vulcan instinct, maybe; the understanding that comes from a thousand generations of your people living and seeking to be bound to another mind. Whatever it is, Neal doesn't fear it. Not the way Peter does.

Neal doesn't fear losing himself in the bond the way that Peter does. And, because Neal doesn't fear it, Peter's fear fades a little, day by day, because he knows Neal now in a way that he hadn't when Peter had made him promises. He knows that Neal wouldn't want something that would make either of them lesser, make them less than all of who they are. He wouldn't seek it out if he thought it would subsume him, and he most definitely would never willingly subsume Peter. Peter knows it, and it makes it harder to remember that he isn't sure he wants it.

Almost all of Peter's fear hangs, now, on the fact that he isn't sure Neal should be sure. Not at eighteen.

Because Neal is out of his league in so many ways, and Peter wants him, wants to be wanted by him, and wants never to realize one day that Neal wants out.

Peter could have him, will have him, if nothing changes, but he knows himself. If he has him, he'll never want to let him go.

Having him will be like the nights, all of them, now, no way to justify it. It will be heady and undeniable and impossible to let go, even if it should be let go. Peter is sure he should let them go, but being sure doesn't make it possible. Neal's mind reaching for his is something he can't deny. On the nights that he's the one that reaches, it's necessity as much as it is desire.

"Captain?" Neal murmurs, and lays a hand on his arm, careful to keep it on his sleeve. Not that it matters, of course. Neal can feel what Peter is feeling. He looks a little drawn, wary. He pulls his hand back almost immediately.

"It's okay," Peter says gently, and makes an effort to calm his mind.

Neal looks at him, but doesn't believe him.

"I'm trying to make it be okay," Peter tries again, and that Neal believes.

He gives Peter a small smile, but doesn't say anything else as he heads off across the quad to whatever class he's currently missing.

"Oh, Peter," Elizabeth says, abruptly right next to him. She takes his hand and squeezes it once before letting it go. "You're going to have to trust him to know what he's doing at some point." Peter blinks and opens his mouth to defend himself, but she doesn't give him the chance. "Otherwise you're going to end up not trusting him right up to the point that you bond, and he's going to know it; he won't bond with you like that, no matter how much either of you want it. He's too good."

Peter can't find a flaw in her logic to refute. "He's eighteen," he says instead. It's all he's got, really.

"You were younger when you decided on Starfleet," Elizabeth says, tipping her head in a way that forces Peter to meet her gaze. "Some people know what they want when they're that young. You can't tell me that you've ever regretted it."

She's right; he can't.

"I don't want to steal his life," Peter says, which is more of the truth than he's said aloud to anyone, even Neal.

"You're not stealing it," Elizabeth says, slowly and seriously. "You aren't stealing anything. He's trying to give it to you."

She squeezes his arm and then walks away from him, leaving Peter standing alone on the steps leading up to the administration building. He takes a deep breath and considers the blue of the San Francisco sky. It's a beautiful day. Term ends in less than two weeks. The Defiance will be back at space dock within a day or two of the end of term, plus or minus.

He's running out of time.

He can leave the binding as it is, small, innocuous once he's out in space and Neal is far, far out of reach. It would be the easiest decision to make. He merely has to do nothing at all.

But he will miss Neal, and he has no doubt that Neal will miss him even more.

A binding might still be breakable; once they fully bond, the only way to break it is for one of them to die. It will be permanent.

Whatever Elizabeth says, it will feel like stealing.

Peter pushes it away. He'll think about it tonight, he'll meditate on it. Maybe he'll talk to T'Zahn about it more.

But not now. Now Peter has a class to teach, and he doesn't have time to stand on the quad and stare blankly at the horizon.

Chapter Text

Neal has always worked hard at the Academy. He's smart enough to understand that it's more than just a proving ground for Starfleet. It's the single most valuable tool available to him while he's still a cadet. It's the chance to learn enough fast enough and well enough to leave here with a solid underpinning of knowledge in the safest way known to mankind. He understands that he has this one, limited window to take advantage of this tool, and that to use it to its best capacity, he needed to not just study, but to research and pursue and retain everything that he possibly could. Once this window closes, learning will be in the field and catch-as-catch-can, and he is smart enough not to dismiss such a mode of learning, but he wise enough to want enough of the other kind to give him a solid foundation.

He works hard. He works in his off-time. He works from every angle he could personally think of, and he hasn't ever been shy about asking his fellow cadets, especially the Vulcans and those older than he, about the angles that they work from. It's nothing to him if they think he wanted to emulate them. What he wants are the differences in perspective necessary to cover as much ground as possible in as little time as possible.

He is an excellent student.

He has always been an excellent student: smart, driven, competent, and prepared.

He can't explain what happens during exams.

The Academy is challenging all the time. He is always busy; there is always something he's working on, some project or research or something. These things are not new.

He doesn't know why end of term exams leave him breathless and turned around for most of the week. He knows the material. He's known most of it since a third of the way through the term. He retains; he's good at it. He isn't underprepared.

Nevertheless, the whole week feels like the last three minutes of a particularly grueling obstacle course, and his only slivers of calm come from coffee each morning with the captain, during which he can look at the trials of yesterday and consider the trials of the day to come and put them into some kind of perspective.

Time seems to slow from its breakneck pace, settling into something almost leisurely, and they talk about how crazy both their schedules are (Neal does not offer, again, to give up coffee; he can't this time, and feels slightly guilty about it, but not guilty enough to offer it), about how overwhelming their days are, but without actually feeling it in those brief intervals. They are lulls in the otherwise frantic immediacy of the craziness.

He would feel worse if he couldn't tell that the captain feels the same; that they are using their coffee meetings for almost precisely the same purpose. Some form of calm and focus before the storm of the day.

T'Kreen watches and listens, occasionally participates, but acts for the most part as though she is there merely to observe. Neal feels as though he should feel worse about this than he does.

The captain listens and reassures Neal that it's all perfectly normal, and Neal believes him, even if that belief only lasts as long as their coffee break itself.

Neal looks forward to them like beacons of sanity in his suddenly off-kilter life, though they don't last long enough, and he spends a good deal of the rest of the day rethinking each one, looking forward to the next. It can't be good for his concentration, but he lets it be what it is.

Something of T'Kreen's meditation lessons sinking in, perhaps. He knows the material. He has known it for months. There is the exam on each subject, but the knowledge is already there. Only the format is unfamiliar. If he is distracted by his time with the captain, he doesn't think his performance suffers from it. The knowledge exists in a kind of buffer, waiting for him when he reaches for it, while the captain's nearness, his emotional presence, lingers just on the inside of Neal's skin constantly.

The captain is an island of calm during the mornings, a lifeboat during the days, and a windswept beach at night, a hot and hectic culmination of Neal's day, whereafter they lie naked and distant, but close in mind, a comforting release of tension, of pressure, a balm.

Neal doesn't have time for distractions, but he still finds himself thinking about completing the bond at odd moments. The captain had mentioned it in passing without indication of how he felt about it one way or the other. Neal refuses to have expectations, but the captain had mentioned it, and that means something. The captain rarely speaks idly. No expectations, but he cannot stop himself from hoping. Those wishful thoughts creep into his mind as he's bolting down his lunch, racing from one classroom to the next, scanning his notes once more at the last moment, standing dazed and wrung out in the shower.

He barely has the attention span to take in the captain's emotional state beyond the solid core of his calm, but when he does he is a bastion of steadiness and solid strength. If they were fully bonded, Neal could borrow that calm and that strength. He understands the theories. Even with just the binding, he can lean a little on it, taking comfort in its simplest form just by knowing that it's there. Either way, it's a constant source of reassurance, and Neal refuses to think far enough into the future to fear losing it.

It will still be there, he knows. He's made it his business to know everything there is to know about it, everything he could read, everything the others could tell him, having gone so far as to ask invasive questions that he never would have dreamed of inflicting on the reticent Vulcans if he were not so desperate to understand. It will be there. Distance will not negate it. It will merely mitigate it, draw their minds apart to how they were before, not separate but barely touching. They are both learning to meditate well enough to touch the bond, they reassure one another through it, but brief and transitory touches will be all they will be. They will not feel, not like this. They won't speak. They won't tangle together at night and end the day in the equivalent of a mental embrace, and one that Neal himself is finding less and less satisfying. He will take it; it's all he has. But he so badly wants more that he feels a little sick with it.

The binding will remain in place, distant but whole, but the captain will be gone. Some small bitter part of him is angry, and Neal would like to be able to banish it, or at least to calm it to merely upset, but he doesn't seem to have any control over it. The closest he comes is when he meditates, and even then it's as if some small, unreachable core of him is in revolt, and he can't touch it to calm it. It's too far outside his control, as though it doesn't belong to him at all.

T'Kreen knows it, senses it, tries to soothe, but nothing Neal does banishes it.

He wishes the captain hadn't told him of T'Zahn's advice to complete the bond. He wishes T'Kreen had never mentioned T'hy'la to him -- and yes, despite all lack of evidence, Neal feels the truth of it, never mind the improbability, it feels true, and he wants it. Both of them are just messy variables in his head, improbabilities that he can't do anything about and yet can't entirely dismiss. They're creeping things that catch him out when he should be thinking about warp core mechanics or inter-species cultural cues.

It isn't going to happen. Not now. The captain has made his stance on the matter perfectly clear. It doesn't matter that it's impossible; Neal can't make himself dismiss it, and because he can't dismiss it, he spends sporadic, disconnected moments obsessed with it, with how it could be, without how he wants it to be, how he might be able to make it work.

The worst part is that Neal is almost sure he can make it work.

He is the telepath. It has to be him that initiates the bond. The captain need merely cooperate at this point, and even then it need not be much. They are already so twisted in the binding that it probably wouldn't occur to the captain to fight it. And they both know the why behind the captain's sudden refusal to spend time alone with Neal, not even in public. It has something to do with the appearance of propriety, but it has far and way more to do with the actuality of propriety. The captain cannot help but see Neal, now, as a sexual creature, and one with which is mind, if not his body, is intimately familiar. At this point in the binding, the captain thinks of Neal as 'his' whether or not he wants to feel that way. The captain doesn't trust himself alone with Neal, and considering the effects of the binding, he is right not to.

Neither of them can be trustworthy around the other.

All it would take would be a single visit to the captain's quarters late at night.

It would be so easy, the captain would want to resist, but he wouldn't, and Neal is half-elated and half-horrified every time the thought comes into his mind. He shoves it away with all his considerable strength of will, but it gets harder with each withdrawal.

The captain would be horrified to know what Neal can't stop himself from thinking, but knowing that only barely helps. The captain would, after all, forgive him. Neal knows it, can feel it. The binding itself is enough, but with the full bond in place there could be no misunderstandings. The captain would be able to see all the way to the root of Neal's fear and his need.

Neal won't do it.

The captain's forgiveness, foregone a conclusion though it might be, is something Neal never wants to require for anything so selfish and cowardly. Neal would never forgive himself for that degree of duplicity, that pseudo-coercion.

That he can do something, doesn't mean that he should.

It was a lesson learned at his mother's knee, but it truly had been driven home deeply by the captain himself, that first day, when Neal had taken what he had wanted without bothering to ask for it, and had disrupted both their lives irreparably as a result.

He won't do it, but it doesn't stop circling his mind all the time, moving to corner him any time he's at all confused or distracted.

He hates that he's even capable of formulating such a plan, and throughout all this internal turmoil, he doesn't have time to settle it somehow. He has to go on with life, he has exams, he has simulator tests, he has the first presentation of his term project, he just doesn't have time.

He has to function, he has to evade T'Kreen's concerned silences because he can't face admitting what he's thinking about, he has to eat and sleep and have coffee with the captain every morning and he has to strain with him in the binding every night, taking only what he's allowed to have; he will not ask for more.

Three years, he thinks, feeling numb and hollow after his last final exam is over. There are still five days left in the term; time for instructors to grade projects, time for resits, time to wind down, but Neal himself is done. Five days to somehow fill without the distraction of the exams to keep his thoughts from treading down ugly, unforgivable paths, and he's shocked to find himself wishing for the constant influx of it all.

He'll get used to it, he tells himself. It will probably even get a little better with distance. The captain won't always feel so near, and Neal won't feel him as both ever-present and utterly unattainable. Maybe it will be a relief. If they grow distant at the same rate that they'd grown so close, it would be a matter of just a few months.

He'll get through it. It can't possibly stay so hard.

It all seems so dim and pointless, so distant, an entirely unwilling retreat for three years and if he could just explain, if he could just touch the captain and initiate the meld and explain...

But, of course, no.

There's no point in trying to justify it that way. At this point, he knows exactly where a meld would lead.

He finds himself under the big oak, and isn't surprised when T'Kreen finds him there some little while later. He's a little surprised to see T'Zahn with her.

"I can't do this," he tells them miserably. He is on the verge of tears, and in the face of their cool, expressionless facades he feels he should be more embarrassed by it, but he's too unhappy for embarrassment.

T'Zahn surprises him by saying, "We agree. Or, more accurately, we agree that you should not. That you both are capable is not materially important. It is that the bond itself will be of nothing but great benefit to you both, and will cause your suffering to be greatly lessened. I have spoken to the captain."

"He won't," Neal says. "Not while I'm his student."

But. But.

He thinks they must have a plan, and he can't help the upswell of excitement and hope that the idea gives him.

T'Kreen's plans always work. She has never lead him astray.

Chapter Text

The last day of term starts the same way that all of his days in recent memory have started.

Coffee with Neal.

Peter doesn't let himself think that this will be the last time that they do it. He also steadfastly ignores T'Kreen's absence. Better that they do this alone anyhow, whatever this is going to be. This half-ending. This last time they have coffee together by the water while Neal drinks in the sight of him.

Neal is dragged down with the expectation of pain, but says nothing of it, and Peter doesn't know how to. He feels it too, Neal isn't alone in that, but it's too late now to do anything but go forward. Neal must understand the same, as he doesn't ask even one last time, even though Peter feels like one last time might be all it would take to change his answer. He's leery of the feeling, and ashamed of his own inability to take that last step up to Neal. He can feel how much Neal wants it, knows that Neal feels like he has been expressly forbidden (which he has been, of course he has) to take it, and now Peter himself can't close the gap.

Three years isn't that long. Neal will have grown into himself, Neal will understand why Peter can't take what he's offering now, Neal will grow up and grow out and possibly decide to try and find another way to break the binding rather than tethering himself to Peter forever after all. Neal has no perspective now; none at all.

He thinks of T'Zahn trying to explain that Neal didn't need perspective for the bond to work. That his perspective would grow to include Peter's, but as far as Peter can tell, that's still after the fact consent. He doesn't want Neal to 'grow into' Peter's perspective; he wants Neal to have the chance to grow a perspective of his own.

They sit in silence, sipping their coffee for a good five minutes, before Neal says, "My exams were at the top of my class this term."

Peter nearly winces at the idle smalltalk of it all, but instead he nods. "I know." He'd checked with embarrassing frequency.

"I did option to test out of a bunch of classes," Neal adds. "I'll go see Mozzie for a couple of weeks and then come back to take any practical make-up tests and exams required."

"Good," Peter says lamely. "At the very least, your course load won't be so immense."

"I like being busy," Neal says. He is aching with impending loneliness; Peter feels like he could choke on it. He wonders again if Neal asked once more, if Peter would be able to tell him no. But Neal doesn't ask. Instead, he says, "I heard the Defiance came into space dock yesterday. When do you report?"

"Today," Peter says hollowly. "I have to formally tender my resignation to the Academy, but other than that, I'm done here. We probably won't stay at space dock for more than another day or so after that for resupply. The last mission wasn't that long. We're already mostly loaded for bear."

Neal nods and tips his face down to sip at his coffee. Peter is pretty sure he's doing it to hide his miserable expression, which doesn't do a lot to help because Peter can feel his goddamned misery.

"Neal," he says helplessly. "Neal."

"It won't stay like this," Neal says dully. "Once we're further apart, it won't be so strong." He sounds like he's trying to convince himself. "It won't be like losing something, really. Or not something that we can't get back, anyway. It's just a little while."

Peter doesn't know what to say except to agree with Neal's assessment. He personally thinks it's going to be like having a vital organ removed by slow and minute increments, losing it bits and pieces at a time until he's left with something so much less than what he'd had to begin with that it was as different as a tin whistle is to a violin. He's had a lot of time to think about it, and he's got a lot of experience with loss. It's not hard to conflate the two. It's only a guess, but Peter thinks it's likely to be a good guess. But he says, "We'll adjust," roughly, and hates the way that Neal nods without looking up. "It won't be radio silence," Peter tries. "We can comm, subspace, even, if we're close enough. I'm not going to just go out into the black and forget you."

He feels like it's important for him to tell Neal that.

When Neal looks up, his eyes are shiny, and Peter feels a terrible mix of grief and panic. "I know," Neal only says softly. "I know that." Peter realizes that only the grief is Neal's; the panic is his own.

Neal is grieving his loss, but recognizes it as a temporary loss.

Peter doesn't sit well with fear, it doesn't suit him, and this kind of raw panic is utterly unlike him. He'd like to be able to pretend it isn't there, or at least to pretend that he doesn't know what it's about, but he doesn't practice that kind of cowardice either. Neal isn't afraid that Peter is going to go out into space and forget him. Peter is afraid that he's going to go out into space, and Neal is going to forget him. He's afraid because he has a thing he'd never expected or even hoped for, and he doesn't want to give it up. He's afraid because he loves Neal, as foolish as that may be, and Neal is probably too young to grasp the breadth of that emotion. He's afraid because he really does believe that Neal needs the time to find his own perspective, and that once he does, it's entirely likely that he won't want a tired, cantankerous starship captain cluttering up his mind. That's the crux of it. The real fear.

That Peter will go away and come back, and Neal will find him wanting.

That it seems too probable to be anything but nearly certain. The world has everything to offer Neal Caffrey. He is worthy of so much more.

And he'd been wrong about all that grief being Neal's after all. He has his own grief, a different kind of grief. Preparatory grief in anticipation of something far more permanent.

Neal reaches out to cover Peter's hand with his own. He has to reach across the table to do it, and he does it slowly, as though to give Peter plenty of time to pull away. Peter doesn't.

Neal washes through him, the awareness of his hurt and despair magnified exponentially with the contact, but there is a sort of calm within it, too. Something like peace that Peter wishes he understood how he had come by.

"It will be all right," Neal tells him, gently, blue eyes wide and sincere and still shiny with unshed tears. "We're going to be all right, captain."

Peter nods, but he doesn't believe it. Neal sighs and draws his hand back.

"I have to go. I have to clear out of the dorm and turn in all my uniforms," he says. He sounds reluctant, but feels a little relieved to Peter. Like he'll be glad to leave this particular scene behind him.

Peter nods again, not trusting himself to speak. We could do it now, he thinks, but not so that Neal could hear him. Just to himself, voice safely trapped in his own head. If you asked, if I was sure, if I could just be sure, or even if I could be sure that you're still sure...

But he merely stands when Neal does, and it takes him a moment to realize that Neal is saluting him, stance rigid and precise.

"It has been my privilege, sir," Neal says.

Peter salutes him back by rote, but he's sincere when he says, "No more than it has been mine, cadet."

Neal gives him a small, unsteady smile, and then turns away.

Peter watches the red-uniformed line of his back retreat until it's out of sight, and then sits down to finish his own coffee. He feels husked out and incomplete, in spite of the fact that he can still feel Neal there, anxious and restless. He sees that there's still a little coffee left in Neal's espresso cup and doesn't let himself think about it when he picks it up and turns the cup so that his lips rest where Neal's had been resting to swallow it down. Peter doesn't like espresso much, but it tastes like he imagines Neal would taste right now. Rich and bitter.

Then he puts it aside. He has his own things to put in order today, and he isn't the sort of man to brood. Doing is better than thinking right now. There will be time enough for thinking when he's done with things here.

Chapter Text

They do have a plan, and it's so outrageous that Neal doesn't have room for anything like excitement or anticipation; he's merely overwhelmingly anxious with a healthy dose of fear of catastrophic failure.

But that's not really true, either. He trusts them all, trusts them enough, anyway, that he has to shield himself tightly from the captain because there is a small and completely self-centered part of his brain that is, in spite of everything, wildly excited to be actually doing something, some wild and hopeful part of him that he isn't sure isn't just a little bit crazy. He remains, somehow, completely terrified while somehow incredibly elated at the audacity of it.

"This is..." he says shakily, because he wants his at least semi-legitimate concerns on the record, and T'Kreen cocks both her head and one eyebrow at him in an easily read message to shut up.

"Never mind," T'Zahn says, and pats him on the arm. "We're almost ready."

Neal picks at his uniform and finishes anyway, just so they're all clear, "...so illegal."

"Not under medical code," Dr. O'Dell says.

"Not under any code," Commander Barrigan adds a little too brightly; even shielding, Neal can feel her wicked, almost evil delight.

Neal subsides because they're both technically right, and because they are almost done, so there's no real point to arguing about it, even if he were inclined to.

Which he isn't. Not with any real heart or substance. He doesn't want to win the fight, so he shuts his mouth and does as he's told.

Chapter Text

Peter has a bag in one hand and his comm in the other. He is thinking of Neal, of course, and of how distant he feels from Peter, who's standing in the spaceport and looking at the shuttle that will take him back to the Defiance. Everyone else is already on board. Peter is piloting, and he's the only one holding them up, which he can do because he's not just the pilot; he's the captain.

He hadn't seen Neal again after the bureaucratic business of resigning from the Academy had been taken care of. He hadn't expected to see him again, he tells himself. Neal had all but said that he wasn't sticking around.

But he had expected to, really, in someplace that lives in the back of his brain, safe from things like higher thought processes. He hadn't expected Neal's restraint to assert itself at this late date (which isn't fair or true; Neal has been the epitome of restraint for the last several weeks, uncompromisingly and uncomplainingly), and he'd thought Neal would make one last attempt once their student/instructor relationship had been officially dissolved.

Peter had thought of little else for most of the day, honestly, tuning into Neal just occasionally to feel that steady, low-grade anxiety and unhappiness that was still cut with a steady dose of calm that Peter can't quite get his head around. He'd thought about it, that calm, and had assumed, and now that it clearly isn't going to happen he understands and accepts for the first time, consciously, that he had wanted Neal to do it. That if Neal had, Peter would have gone down without a fight. If Neal had just taken that step, Peter would have taken it with him.

He isn't disappointed so much as he is deeply and desperately longing.

It's as much his fault as Neal's, but he decides to blame Neal anyway. His life had been complete without Neal, before, and now there is no denying that it's not. He had known it without really feeling it with Neal around him every day, coffee in the morning, the almost-sex every night; he had known it, but it hadn't felt entirely real until now. Until he turns to the binding and feels Neal a little distant, agitated and upset, but not paralyzed with the onset of loneliness that Peter is feeling.

Peter turns his comm over in his hand.

It's his ship, and if he wants to call his star pupil and cadet-lieutenant to take a tour of it, no one will say anything to stop him. No one would even think it all that strange.

Peter considers the feel of distance from Neal, though, and is pretty sure that Neal isn't even in San Francisco anymore. He doesn't feel the same in Peter's mind. He's a little muted, a little less present, and that will only get worse the further away that they get from one another.

Call him anyway, Peter thinks. Give him the chance to come if he still wants it. Take the first step yourself, damn it.

And he should. He should stop leaving Neal to do the heavy lifting, stop expecting it to be Neal's responsibility to start the engine running if they both want the same thing. Anything else is cowardice, or so close as to be equally disgusting.

Peter takes a breath and flips open his comm, dialing Neal, and waiting, standing stock still with nerves and anticipation.

It's the right thing to do. Making no decision at all is unworthy of him; expecting Neal to break the rules Peter has so painstakingly hammered into place is unfair, and it's the right thing. Any other decision is an exercise in conjoined sadism and masochism.

They both want this. If T'Zahn is to be believed, they've never really stood much chance of fighting it, and Peter has never believed her assertion more strongly than he does now. Peter can't even pretend that he still even wants to fight it.

He does wish Neal was older, but he also doesn't want to change who Neal essentially is right now, and it's wrong of him, he has been wrong, to hold his affections hostage to Neal's chronological biology. It isn't as though he doesn't believe Neal can make good decisions. Peter does. Neal has been making nothing but good decisions since Peter had met him.

If Neal is still sure, then Peter wants what he has to give, what they have to give to each other.

For thirty seconds or so, Peter feels good, light, freed in some essential way.

Then he gets Neal's recorded voice message and flips his comm closed, clenching it in his fist, his chest abruptly weighted.

Neal is traveling. He probably can't answer. It doesn't have to mean anything else.

It doesn't have to be now. The Defiance isn't going anywhere until Peter says so.

Still, his belly is a lead weight and that feeling of rightness is fading.

"Don't be stupid," he says aloud, heedless of the people around him.

Neal? he thinks, both outward and inward, to the binding, to the thin feel of Neal still lingering in his mind.

Captain? Neal answers immediately, and Peter feels the arc of Neal's pleasure like it's a physical thing. Neal feels more solid in his head. Peter can still feel his anxiety, but the surge of happiness is enough to cover whatever else he's feeling right now.

You're not in San Francisco? Peter asks and isn't surprised by Neal's surprise.

You can tell? he asks, more thoughtfully than inquisitively. No, I left a little while ago. Should I be in San Francisco? It's an anxious jumble of emotion, anxiety, hope, a little fear, a quietly building anticipation that is both exquisite and a little painful.

I thought you might want to see the ship, Peter says carefully, not quite willing to push while aware of the discordant note of Neal's fear, ashamed of the fact that he's probably the cause of that fear, that Neal is probably afraid of another rejection, that Neal has learned to be wary of him. Peter wants to take his face in his hands and hold him there, breathing in his air, until that wariness retreats. He wants to never give Neal reason to be wary of him again.

Neal doesn't need a primer. He's a genius, and his reaction highlights his understanding, giddy joy, pure and undiluted by that wary fear, his mind alight with it, and Peter is grateful and his own emotions rise to meet that joy, mirroring it back, letting it sing between them. I can be in town tomorrow, Neal says, still alight, feeling not at all unhappy at having to wait a day.

Peter is unhappy about it -- almost unhappy enough to say screw the beaming regs and demand Neal's coordinates -- but in the end he's not unhappy enough to dampen Neal's happiness. He's waited this long.

Good enough, he says, feeling light again, feeling right. Comm me as soon as you get into the spaceport and I'll send a shuttle for you.

He'll go himself, of course. He recognizes it might mean that he has sex with Neal for the first time in a shuttle, but he'll do it anyway.

Neal doesn't say anything, but his mind is like a caress in Peter's, silken and eager, and Peter is so happy to feel Neal being happy that he's standing by the shuttle, his closed comm in his hand, smiling vacantly at the metal hull.

I have to go, he says finally, getting ahold on himself. I'm supposed to be the pilot.

By all means, Neal says wryly. Then, with warmth and with nervy anticipation, I'll see you soon.

Peter climbs into the shuttle and stows his bag, still grinning stupidly.

Chapter Text

"All that planning!" Commander Barrigan says, aggrieved.

"All that paperwork," Dr. O'Dell agrees.

T'Kreen and T'Zahn say nothing, sphinx-like.

Neal says, "It doesn't matter," because it doesn't matter, not the how, it only matters that it works out. He only cares about the end result.

Chapter Text

Diana meets him on deck, looking a little cranky, but otherwise put together. It's a pretty standard look for her at any of the in-between stages of readying the Defiance to receive orders. She doesn't like waiting any more than Peter does.

"Report?" Peter asks, not because he needs to -- she will anyway -- but because it's been a long time and he wants to say the things he's missed saying.

"Everything as it should be," she says briefly. "The Galaxy class core idea has made Jones your wunderkind's biggest fan. Wants to meet him and shake his hand, or possibly pick his brain, or maybe even offer up his body in gratitude. You know Jones."

Peter snorts. "I do." And she's right, too; it could be any or all of those things. Not that Jones is getting anywhere near Neal's body.

"Honestly, there's nothing for you to do tonight. I'm overseeing the last of the supplies; a little bird hinted to me that we were going out for a year, don't ask, no names, but that means we'll run short on the comforts if I don't make sure we're ready for it."

Peter doesn't ask; Diana's information gathering network is extensive and ever-so-slightly shady. He doesn't want to know anything that might make him have to ding her record. They have a system.

"Way to make a captain feel needed," he says instead, mostly joking, wry, but a little on the serious side, too. He's been off deck for a year. It would be nice if someone needed him specifically for something.

"Don't get used to it. I've got two dozen things to bore you to death with tomorrow, and possibly into the next day. You know how some of the department heads are. You should settle in tonight and get some rest." She gives him a smile that's all teeth. "Besides, you look like hell."

"Great, good pep talk. Thanks," Peter says, but he doesn't doubt her. And surely tomorrow is soon enough to look over the shit-ton of reports that invariably require his attention urgently whenever they dock anyplace the various departments think they might be able to get new equipment/people/supplies, et cetera. It doesn't have to be done tonight.

He's not surprised to find everything else in order; Diana is ruthlessly efficient at everything. It's one of the things that makes her such a stellar first officer.

And the idea of just going to his quarters and maybe screwing around with some unpacking while mostly still reveling in the sense of rightness he still feels is appealing. The decision made, Peter is certain, and it's good to be certain. If anything, home on the Defiance, he feels even more of that rightness, as though the combination of the conversation with Neal and the solid feeling of being back where he belongs had doubled it somehow. Or maybe he's getting the same thing from Neal, the happy expectancy, and that's why it's suddenly so strong, why Neal feels as though he's at the very front of Peter's mind.

Not that Neal isn't usually right at the front of Peter's mind. He tries not to smile at the admission. From Diana's expression, he is probably failing.

"Seriously, though," she says, giving him a narrow eyed look. "You're smiling, but you look dead on your feet. What's the deal."

"Bureaucracy," Peter says and shrugs. "This is why I'm a starship captain and not a politician."

"Aside from the fact that you'd be an appallingly bad politician, stipulated," she says. "So why the smiles."

He shakes his head. "Just something about Neal."

Her eyes gleam. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," he says in a tone designed to bring to a close that line of questioning. She looks like she's tempted to pursue it anyway, but then just shrugs.

"Besides, you have plenty of bureaucracy as a starship captain. You just delegate." She starts walking and Peter falls into step with her automatically. "To me, for example. The 3977-C forms, just for instance."

Peter grins a little. "I don't want or need to know what non-standard personal items the individual members of this crew are willing to put down on paper that they want to bring on board."

"Neither do I," Diana says with an entirely faked shudder coupled with an entirely real air of boredom. "I don't know why Starfleet cares about peoples personal pleasure devices and other random shit anyway."

"Possible cleverly concealed death ray," Peter says. "That's always been my working theory. Jones is doing the inspections?"

"On the mechanical items. I've got some other department heads checking on things that fall under their areas. I get the stuff that nobody can figure out who should look at it." She grimaces. "Some of it is just downright bizarre. H'renyeli from botany has a collection of intergalactic insects under glass. You should see some of these things. Plus it's the size of a bunk. Just, you know. Why?"

"A taste of home, I guess," Peter says, his mind not really on the matter. He can feel Neal's attention, something immediate and suggestive, and he's abruptly in more of a hurry to get to his quarters. Just because Neal isn't here doesn't mean they can't... psychic-sex, or whatever it is they do. The idea is enough to make him relax a little all on it's own. It would be a relaxing end, a reassuring end, to what really has been a long and largely unpleasant day.

"Yeah, and what did you bring as a taste of home?" she asks, giving him a sly sideways grin.

Peter pretends that he isn't carrying a bag containing a dozen or so holos of Neal taken at various times, usually by people that were not Peter, and thus he had requisitioned via T'Kreen, along with every word Neal had ever written in every class he had ever taken, including the things that are works in progress, meant for next terms projects and various side projects. "This is my home," he says instead, and Diana rolls her eyes, but he notes that she's taken them right to his quarters, which means he really must look tired, as she's very good at managing people when need be, but doesn't usually do it to him.

"Settle in," she says, and gives him a real smile, one that's warm and entirely lacking in teasing. "We'll probably have orders within the next couple of days, but you know Starfleet. It could be longer. I'll let you know as soon as they come through."

"Yeah, just keep me posted," Peter agrees, and dismisses her with a gesture. He's tired. And more pressingly, he wants the time and privacy to reach out to Neal with his mind, assuming that Neal has the time and privacy to meet him half way. Ending the day without that essential tangling of their minds seems even more important in light of their current understanding, and not just because Peter's libido has kind of gotten used to it. He misses Neal. Misses him already.

God, he hopes like hell the bond is going to alleviate some of that. T'Zahn says it will make what was a thread, the binding, into something more like a window. Something wide enough that even over a distance, they should be able to feel fairly close. Distance will still affect it, but to a lesser degree. And a smaller window is still better than a barely-there thread of awareness.

"Sleep tight, boss," Diana says, and goes back in the direction from which they had come.

Peter keys open his door and drops the bag in an unoccupied corner of the room as he says, "Lights."

Neal is sitting on Peter's bed.

For a moment, Peter entertains the notion that he's hallucinating. Neal's wearing a full Starfleet uniform except for the command shirt, and he looks happy and guilty and eager in equal parts.

"Surprise?" he says.

His nerves are profound, but are still outmatched by his joy at seeing Peter. There are other things, too, lesser emotions, but Neal's joy is enough to rock Peter back on his heels, and he doesn't try to fumble his way through the rest of Neal's emotions.

Of course it had felt like Neal was right at the front of his mind. Of course it had. Of course he hadn't given up. Of course he had found a way to smuggle his way aboard Peter's ship -- had to have been here even as Peter was talking to him mind-to-mind earlier -- and into Peter's quarters. Of course he had. He was Neal. He could do anything. He never gives up.

"Christ, Neal," Peter says helplessly, and lets himself drink in the sight of him, beautiful and uncertain and earnest and dressed for starship duty, perfect and smiling and Peter's, and adds, "You devious little prick!" But by the time he even starts the sentence his feet are carrying him forward and by the time he finishes, he's got one knee on the bed beside Neal and both hands buried in the silk of his hair.

He shudders at it -- he'd had no idea how much he had wanted to, how he had coveted the knowledge of the feel of his hands in Neal's hair -- and Neal lets out a little pained sound that Peter has felt with his mind but has never before actually born witness to.

It's unspeakably maddening, that sound and Neal's stunned and delighted face and the heat rolling off of Neal in waves.

Neal grasps at Peter's shoulders, fingertips digging into his skin, and says, "In case it matters, I was mostly hijacked into this situation."

Peter laughs a little crazily, flexing his fingers, and presses his brow to Neal's. Neal sucks in a sharp breath and Peter can feel their mutual desire like a conduit between them, amplified by skin on skin contact. "It doesn't matter," Peter tells him, even though it does, he wants to know the whole story, but later. Everything else later.

Neal, now, and Neal seems to be in agreement as he's dragging Peter downward with both hands, falls onto his back on the bed and just drags Peter over to cover him, and for the first time the reality of Neal's Vulcan strength is clear to Peter. He had known, of course. But they never touch. It had never come up.

He's never in his life been with anyone physically stronger than him -- and it's so deceptive, Neal is six inches shorter than Peter, and built slim and light -- but he's abruptly twisted up in the idea that the things he'd always assumed about how it would happen between them, all of those things are built on faulty logic, and he isn't worried about it, but he's ablaze with totally prurient curiosity about what that could mean, what they could do.

Neal, apparently getting enough of that from his mind, shudders full-body and arches up against Peter, all slim angles and the overheated feel of him, another thing he had known without knowing, that Neal is hotter than human normal, and there's no reason in the world that that should be a turn on, but it completely is. Peter presses him down with the weight of his body, and Neal's hands are on his hips, it's Neal that gets them lined up so that they're hard and tight alongside one another. Peter has to take a deep, shaky breath and Neal makes a low, soft sound that would be a coo if it were pitched higher.

"Tell me you're sure about this, captain," Neal says, pushing his hands through Peter's hair and then lacing them behind his neck. "I can't handle starting anything that you aren't sure you want to finish."

"Peter," Peter says.

Neal blinks.

"I think at this point, you should probably start calling me Peter," he says, patiently and gently, watching the way Neal's face merely flickers with surprise, but feeling the way something shifts inexorably in his mind.

"Peter," Neal repeats wonderingly, and it comes with that high, sweet pleasure that is so pure that Peter thinks that maybe only Neal is good enough to feel it like that, that the rest of them are too old or jaded or just too human. Whatever the reason, it's sweet enough and pure enough that Peter bends to kiss him as though he might be able to taste it on his lips.

Neal moans, his mouth slipping open at once, and all Peter tastes is Neal, not just with his mouth but through the binding, through the contact of their skin, Neal in all of his essentials, clever and sweet and gorgeous and deceitful and kind and heedless and thoughtful and bitter and sure, so sure, that Peter breaks away to say, "Yes, I'm sure, Neal. I'm sure," and Neal pulls him back down into the kiss, the tangle of his slick lips and wily tongues, the drag of teeth and the spill of their emotions between them, lust and love, foremost, but deep eddies of trust and admiration and just care, simple and expansive care. Peter doesn't know how anyone does this with an open binding; he's as lost in Neal's feelings as he is in the feel of his body, distracted in a way that isn't bad, but is certainly going to complicate the more mundane aspects of sex, and Neal laughs at him, his thumbs brushing the sides of Peter's throat like soft, hot circles against his skin.

"It'll settle," Neal tells him, and rubs his thumbs up to the edges of Peter's jaw, which makes Peter shiver and rock his hips down against Neal's. Neal's face is flushed with a definite green tinge, and Peter had researched why Neal's lips and tongue were pink if his blood was green, why were Vulcans so close to humans in their various colorations considering that basic fact, and had discovered that the copper in their blood produced a mild toxin that their bodies released through the thinner membranes of skin, their lips and their eyelids, their ears and the insides of their mouths. They didn't sweat, so the toxin had to be released through other avenues, and there wasn't even much of them at that. Vulcan physiology is very efficient. But it's why Vulcans don't kiss on the mouth, most theorists agree, although they also agree that they could, it wouldn't be dangerous to them, it just wasn't how they did it.

Except this one does, and he makes soft little noises as Peter licks into his pink mouth and maybe it's just that he was raised on Earth, but it doesn't matter to Peter because it's so good, so much better than their one soft and fleeting kiss in Peter's instructor's quarters at the Academy that it barely even resembles it. Neal's mouth is as hot as the rest of him, and he pulls Peter in closer with one hand and manages to slide the other downward until he's rucking up Peter's uniform shirt and undershirt and splaying his hand across Peter's lower back, and Peter can feel the possessive satisfaction Neal is feeling at being able to touch Peter's skin so clearly that it sparks an answering desire in him, and abruptly they're not kissing, they're just jerking at one another's clothes and breathing heavily against one another's cheeks.

Neal is wearing something under the blacks, something sheer and sleek that's tucked into his trousers, and Peter makes a frustrated sound -- Neal is amused and aroused by it in equal parts -- and finally backs up onto his knees to pull the black shirt over Neal's head with as much cooperation from Neal as he can expect when Neal refuses to remove his hand from Peter's lower back.

It's another shirt, white except that it's so sheer that Peter can see the dark peaks of Neal's nipples through it, and once Peter gets the sleeve of Neal's uniform shirt over Neal's uncooperative hand, Peter just sits back and looks at it, puzzled.

"They're thermals," Neal tells him. His voice has gone a bit throaty and Peter can feel it in the tangle of nerves at the base of his spine. "We get cold. We come from a desert planet. We all wear them."

Peter fingers the material thoughtfully; it's silky and thin and doesn't seem likely to be terribly warm, but he's going to take Neal's word for it. Then it occurs to him that he's probably wearing thermals under his pants, too, and feels a dizzying moment of lust at the idea before he's working on the fastenings of Neal's pants and then stripping them down, revealing the sheer fabric of the thermals from the waist down.

He thinks they may be the closest thing he's ever imagined to lingerie on a male body.
He can see the dip of Neal's navel through them, can see the outline of his cock and even the color, a green a little darker than the color of olives.

He's seen Neal before, sort of, in that way that they can sometimes see things through each other's eyes, but it's always been dark and he's never seen him like this, spread out on Peter's bed in fabric so sheer that it molds itself to the lines of his cock, highlighting the differences between it and Peter's own.

Neal watches him, mouth a little open, eyes wide and dark, as Peter traces the outline of Neal's cock through the flimsy fabric, feeling the strangeness of the second flare of the head of his cock, just below the first, and smaller, but definitely not human. Neal's skin is so hot Peter expects to see steam curl off of it.

"Increase temperature three degrees Celsius," Peter tells the computer, because he can stand being a little over warm in order to keep Neal comfortable, and he wants it warm enough that it's not a distraction, and he wants to take these thermals off of Neal -- not entirely true, he wants to mouth every inch of Neal through the thin fabric, but he thinks he'll wait for a better time.

"I'm fine," Neal murmurs.

"I didn't ask," Peter says firmly, and Neal cooperates this time while Peter, dragging his hands along Neal's nipples through the fabric first, just once, negotiates the undershirt off over his head and gets his first real look at Neal's pale, perfect skin. He's slim, yes, but he's got a lot more muscle definition than Peter would have expected, clean cuts of skin over muscle. He doesn't touch, only because when he touches the physical becomes completely entangled with the emotional, and that's okay with Peter, he's not objecting, but he wants the chance to look first. Neal either understands this or is willing to humor him, as he merely arches his hips when Peter tugs at the thermal pants revealing the ridges of Neal's hipbones, the long lines of his thighs and calves, the cut of muscle that leads to his groin, and the long, lean length of his cock, close enough to human looking that the differences seem to stand out more.

Peter studies him, memorizes him, and might have gone on doing that for some time, but Neal says, "You can't see the ridge from that angle."

His voice is matter-of-fact, but he's a little nervy in the binding.

"I get distracted when I touch you," Peter admits.

Neal gives him an almost shy smile, nearly unprecedented in Peter's experience, and curls his own hand around the base of his cock and tips it upward so Peter can look at the top of the shaft, along which a darker green ridge of harder flesh is obvious. Peter doesn't have a frame of reference of what to compare it to; just that it's darker than the rest, and that he knows from the impromptu Vulcan biology lesson he'd given himself that it's harder.

"Go on," Neal says. "I'll shield."

That Neal can shield, Peter doesn't doubt. For lack of a better method, he lowers himself down on one elbow beside Neal and takes a grip on Neal's cock as he would his own. Neal shivers, a little gasp escaping his lips, but while Peter can still feel his pleasure/excitement/desire, he's definitely shielding some of it. Neal's cock is like hot dry silk in his hand, hard and smooth, and the ridge is a little slicker feeling than the rest of the shaft, raised and harder, but smoother, too. The double flare of the head doesn't feel unfamiliar at all in Peter's hand as he gives a couple of experimental strokes, and why should it be? He's been living in Neal's head while he jerked off for months.

Neal's head falls back a little and he breathes heavily, hips rolling up a little as though he can't quite help it.

Peter, who can think of a bunch of reasons why this is a bad idea -- unfamiliarity, over-too-soon, it's been a long damned time -- levers himself downward and licks at the shaft of Neal's cock, finds it tastes the way Neal smells, clean and spicy. Neal arches and chokes out a low sound, and Peter shifts over to get a good angle.

"If you do that, I'm never ever going to be able to hold back," Neal warns. Peter fits his lips experimentally around the head of Neal's cock and finds it different, it feels different, but not even close to bad, and he's definitely going to be able to manage it from a technical standpoint. The double flare doesn't make it impossible; the ridge doesn't make it inflexible. He ignores Neal's warning and goes down on him as much as he can at once, about half way, and Neal groans, his thighs going tense; Peter doesn't try to hold him down. Neal is stronger than him anyway. But he doesn't think he's going to have to. And he's right. Neal lies there and takes it while Peter tastes his precome -- sweet, no exaggeration, sweet like sugar water -- and figures out where to use his tongue -- below the first flare, right where it joins the second, and anyplace on the ridge he can reach -- and works out how to take him deeper in spite of the extra thickness the second flare gives the head of his cock. Neal doesn't thrash or jerk, but he flexes and groans, and says, "Seriously, probably right in your eye, capt-- Peter!"

And Peter enjoys it right up until the point at which Neal apparently loses his grip on his shields, and then he loves it. Neal is frantic, his breath a needy whine, he's hot, so hot, and he's jerking all the muscles in his body tight to keep from shoving it down Peter's throat, he's blown wide open with desire, a deep red pulse in the center of his brain and a razor-tangle mass in the cradle of his hipbones, and no one has ever, for him, he's not a virgin but no one has ever like this, like he can feel the way that Peter wants it, the way that they can both feel the heat of it and the tremors of Neal's body and that Peter is dying to know what Neal tastes like when he comes and has no intention of stopping until he does, and that Neal is helpless in the face of that, he says, "I, ah, ah..." and Peter goes down as far as he can and spreads Neal's thighs with his hands and Neal feels unraveled, opened, and he's coming in Peter's mouth -- sweet again, thicker, like syrup -- and arching off the bed and groaning at Peter's hands on his thighs and he can't believe how good it is and he wants it all, he wants everything, and his hands are all over Peter, telegraphing intent and contentment in equal amounts. He feels faintly stunned in the binding, but still hungry for this, for them.

Peter slides his lips over the slope of Neal's hipbone. "We've got time," he says, and lets himself touch Neal everywhere while Neal comes down, feels Neal's want and pleasure, knows where to touch him and how, can tell immediately when he's got it right, though truthfully there isn't much he can do wrong while he's touching Neal. Neal arches into every caress like a cat, and the contentment he's projecting is so obvious and legitimate that it feels like Peter could do anything, could have Neal any way, and his cock aches where it's still trapped in his pants, but he's okay with that for right now, too.

One of the things eighteen year old humans have in common with Vulcans (of all ages, according to Peter's research) is a very brief refractory period, and Peter is perfectly content to wait for Neal to be ready again before they proceed.

"You're still dressed," Neal complains a little hoarsely, his hands plucking ineffectually at Peter's clothes. "Be naked."

Peter has to fight not to grin at Neal's genuine desperation, hidden hardly at all while Peter's hands are on his skin and their minds are so close.

"Peter," Neal urges when Peter doesn't immediately respond, and Peter bends to kiss him, taste the traces of his name on Neal's soft lips. Neal sighs and catches one of Peter's hands, stroking the first two fingers of Peter's hand with the first two of his own. Vulcan kisses, Peter had researched enough to know (thanks mostly to T'Zahn, who had been happy to fill in the gaps that the readily available material hadn't covered), but he would have known anyway, without the tutorial. He can feel the buzz of Neal's mind in his hand, and his fingers tingle along a path that he wasn't aware connected directly to his groin. Peter repeats the motion himself without breaking away from Neal's mouth, and Neal sighs against his lips, settling a little, his other hand once again creeping under the back of Peter's uniform shirts. "Clothes," he breathes, but gently this time. "I want to see you."

Peter can feel the truth of it so immediately that he doesn't question it, doesn't hesitate. He wrestles his boots off with one hand, his other still twisted up with Neal's in an ever expanding spiral of sensation and intimacy, and then struggles with the fastenings of his pants and shoves them off as well. Neal's hands come up -- Peter feels a brief pang of loss of the contact -- and shove at Peter's shirts, and Peter helps him as much as Neal allows, which is not much. Neal is hard again, Peter can feel it without having to look at him to confirm it, and he's bleeding desire through the binding like bright little spirals of light.

"God," he says, and splays his hands across Peter's chest, the tips of his smallest fingers just barely brushing Peter's nipples. He sweeps his hands down to Peter's belly and then back up his ribs. His legs have come up, perhaps unconsciously, and he's curled his whole body up and around Peter's where he is hovering over Neal, even his head coming up to capture Peter's mouth again while he searches out the places that make Peter gasp and moan. If it's anything like it had been with Neal, it has to be easy. There is not quite a doubling sensation, not like he can feel what Neal is feeling, but like he can sense Neal's responses, his pleasure. It's exterior, but immediate.

Peter isn't sure if this is what the bond is supposed to feel like, or if they haven't got that far yet. He can't quite bring himself to care. Neal's thighs are cradling his hips, their cocks brushing together, and Neal has tipped his head further forward to set his teeth into the tendon in Peter's neck and is worrying it a little roughly, hard enough to leave some pretty serious marks. Peter is so overwhelmed at the idea of carrying Neal's marks on his body that he can hardly do anything but ride against Neal's belly a little and groan while Neal's hands slide down over his back and cup his ass.

Peter hasn't had a lot of relationships with men, and those he has had have been fairly brief, but he knows he likes prostate stimulation, and he knows that the ridge at the top of Neal's cock is practically designed to make prostate stimulation unbearably good. It does things for Vulcan women, too, but Peter doesn't care about that. He cares about the practical applications of the ridge for him, and barely remembers that when he had thought of this, all the times that he had though of it, Peter had been the one fucking Neal.

Now it seems to matter hardly at all; he can feel Neal's desire, and he knows they'll be equals in this as they will be in everything else, so it doesn't matter who fucks whom this first time.

"Do you want to...?" Peter asks, and Neal moans against his throat and bites at his collar bone.

"Yes, can I...?" he whispers breathlessly, and Peter is nodding before he thinks about it -- Neal can, of course he can, Neal can do whatever he wants, and Peter will not only let him, but will help him in whatever ways that he can -- and Neal rolls, flipping them both over with uncanny ease. He settles his body over Peter's like a superheated, silken blanket, all the spans and shapes of him clear and beautiful so that Peter's hands stray mindlessly over them, his shoulders and his chest and his ribs and his long, sleek back, and the curve of his ass, perfectly shapely, perfect, and he runs out of skin he can reach easily and starts again, with Neal's hands this time.

Neal lets their fingers tangle together, kissing at first but then just a tangle; the shivering, heightened-nerve feeling of it is a little like having sex all on it's own, rendering Peter breathless and focusing his attention on the soft skin of the webbing between Neal's thumb and forefinger, the texture of his knuckles, the long, delicate shapes of his fingers. Neal dips down and licks at Peter's nipple, tongue so hot that Peter groans a little, and then Neal is using his free hand to tip Peter's leg up off the edge of the bed. Peter plants his foot on the mattress obligingly, and Neal pauses there, staring down at him, his eyes dark and blown, irises just pale blue rings around his enormous pupils. Their hands are still tangled; Peter can tell that he likes what he sees, and while he hadn't been overly worried about that particular matter, he finds himself reassured anyway. Neal kisses the inside of Peter's knee, and then backs away from the bed to search for something in the pile of clothes on the floor.

Peter is pretty sure it's lubricant, even without the physical contact, and doubts Neal will require his aid. He slips up further onto the bed instead, making sure they have plenty of space (a sex related injury would be most inconvenient to have to explain), and a moment later Neal is back, slim tube in one hand.

"Are you sure you...?" Neal asks, and Peter grins at him.

"Come here and see," he says, because he knows Neal can feel it when he touches Peter, and Neal, smiling and wide-eyed, obeys immediately, his hands once again all over Peter, running from his neck to his navel, the tube of lubricant discarded beside them on the bed momentarily. Neal sweeps his hands from Peter's neck to his navel, and then, without looking up, takes Peter's cock carefully in one hand. Peter can feel the thrill Neal gets even as he's grinding his teeth with his own pleasure. Neal examines him carefully, touching mostly with fingertips in a way that is sensually pleasing, but nothing near as hard as Peter wants; Peter doesn't object only because he can feel Neal's desire building at handling Peter, at Peter letting him handle him like this. He dips his head and tastes Peter's precome, two quick laps of his tongue against the head of Peter's cock, experimental, but enough to make Peter clench his hands in the covers and grind his teeth harder. "Remember, my refractory period is nothing like as quick as yours," he grates out, and Neal gives him a half-smile, gazing at him through lowered lashes.

He takes Peter into his mouth, briefly, his hotter than human mouth, and Peter's back arches helplessly, half at the sheer hot pleasure, but at least as much from the way that Neal is entirely devoted to that one long, perfection motion, hot with need, but still taking pains to make it perfect for Peter. He's never been so inconsiderate to a partner as to try to get more of his cock inside their mouth, and he's a little appalled at himself even though he can feel Neal mentally urging him on, can feel Neal enjoying the press of Peter's cock into his mouth. Neal only holds it for a few seconds, just enough to get to know the feel of it, Peter understands, before he pulls off and leaves Peter's cock, cool and aching, to lie across his belly. He splays his hands on Peter's thighs, spreading them, and Peter pulls them up again, bracing his feet against the bed. Neal snags a pillow, clearly knowing what he's doing (which is reassuring), and Peter lifts up so Neal can roll it under his lower back and ass.

For a moment, Neal isn't touching him and Peter can think more or less clearly. It's through a haze of lust, true, but it's still more than he can manage when either of them have their hands on the other. He expects an attack of conscience or possibly cold feet, and finds nothing there but desire and trust and love and excitement, and that is reassuring, too. That feeling of rightness is still present, is just as strong if not stronger, and he says, "Come on," because Neal is just sitting and looking at him, his face a little dazed. Peter reaches for his hand, captures it, and focuses his attention on his desire. "Come on," he repeats, and Neal shudders out a breath and reaches for the lubricant.

"How long...?" Neal asks, and Peter marvels at the way that neither of them seem to be able to speak in complete sentences, and then marvels at the fact that neither of them have needed to.

"A while," Peter says. "Come on."

Neal snaps the top of the lube open and does something down between Peter's legs that he can't see. Coats his fingers, presumably. At any rate, a moment later one of Neal's slim, slick fingers slips against his hole, even the lube rendered warm by the heat of Neal's skin, and Peter breathes out a sigh and relaxes entirely, so that when Neal pushes forward cautiously his finger slides in easily. Neal's want tightens into a prickling noose around Peter's own want, and the finger slides in perfectly, without pain, and tilts just enough to cautiously brush Peter's prostate. Peter doesn't moan, but he does jerk his hips a little without volition, and he feels sweat prickle across his face and his belly and the small of his back. Neal soothes his free hand up the inside of Peter's thigh -- he is alight in the binding, it's almost impossible to look at him through it; Peter has to turn his attention away a little, or he's going to come before Neal even manages to get his cock inside -- and Peter catches that hand in his and tangles their fingers together.

Neal's eyes flutter shut for a long moment, and then he's opening them and giving Peter such a look of naked adoration that Peter can't repress his own adoration in response. It was a thing he would have said he was incapable of feeling even just three or four months ago, but here it is, and Peter doesn't even want to deny that he feels it. Neal smiles, small and warm, and slips another finger into him with the same ease as the first, feeling Peter's body, feeling his responses, knowing how to do it without having to be told. He twists his wrist and Peter lets out a hoarse little cry and feels Neal go smugly victorious in the binding, and would laugh a little at it if he weren't burning inside his skin and desperate for more, for everything.

The third finger does burn, but just a little, and it's okay because Peter kind of enjoys that stretch and burn feeling, he always has, and of course, Neal knows it, too, can feel it as he twists his fingers and stretches Peter out enough for his cock, and Peter can feel Neal's focus, his desire not to hurt Peter a little at odds with his desire to be inside Peter now, as soon as possible, this very moment.

"It's enough," Peter says, because he doesn't mind the stretch and burn, and because he wants it and because Neal's want is making him feel a little crazy as well, and Neal looks at him with a knowing gleam in his eyes, but he takes him at his word and pulls his fingers carefully free. The cap of the lube snaps open again and Peter leans up so that he can watch Neal coat his cock, his thumb lingering behind the first flare of the head and then the second, and then smoothing along the whole length of the ridge so that he breathes a little unevenly from his own touch. Peter is about to tell him to 'come on' again when Neal tosses the lube far off to one side and then leans up and forward, his hand unknitting from Peter's as he uses both hands to brace himself at Peter's shoulders.

Tell me if it's not okay, he sends, even his mental voice sounding breathless, and then he is pushing slowly in, forcing Peter wide for the head of his cock, not once but twice -- Peter jolts in pleasure as the second flare breaches him; it's proof definitive that he is with Neal and no one else -- and the ridge along the top of his cock rides along Peter's prostate for the entire length of the stroke.

"Neal," Peter says, choked and shocked at the pleasure, his own, even greater than he had anticipated, and Neal's, nearly incandescent in the binding and on his face, eyes closed, head tipped back, lips parted and wet, and it takes Neal a few moments to move past that initial pleasure before he can look at Peter, eyes still wide and dazed with it. Peter tucks one knee up to his chest, and Neal obligingly snakes one arm behind the other, tipping Peter upward so that the next stroke is even deeper, longer, and they both groan as though in pain, though they're both completely aware that it's nothing like pain.

"Captain," Neal says, a long exhalation, and then says, "Peter," in that same, wondering voice, as though amazed that such an intimacy as a first name is permitted, even while in the midst of this much larger intimacy. He pulls back and strokes in again and Peter arches up to meet him. Neal is so hot inside him that it feels a little like being branded, and Neal's skin on his skin is burning everywhere they are touching and Neal's mind is whirling with pleasure and want and fierce joy at having and when he reaches for Peter's face Peter knows what is happening and does his best to project his willingness; it must be enough because then Neal is touching his face, fingertips light, as he says, "My mind to your mind." My thoughts to your thoughts.

Then Peter is lost in the conflagration of Neal's mind, the kinetic heat and the tangle of emotion, desire and love and lust and need and happiness and still just the faintest traces of fear that Peter can't stand, and won't let stand, and he reaches for them in some way that he doesn't know and wipes them away, makes them still in Neal's mind even as he lets the rest of it wash over and through him, even as he feels Neal carding his mental fingers through Peter's mind. There are no memories this time; they are too deeply in the throes of physical pleasure. There is only a heightened sense of closeness, deliberate, both of them reaching and finding each other, both of them curling their minds together as their bodies are joined.

Neal doesn't stop thrusting into Peter, and Peter can still feel it, can feel it, if anything, even more strongly with the force of Neal's pleasure and emotion so exposed to him, but he's just as caught up in the labyrinthine beauty of Neal's mind, like a thing made of crystal, both natural and structured, and the way his emotion sets the crystal to ringing at a high pitch, just audible to the human ear. He doesn't know what Neal finds his mind to be like, but he hopes he finds it beautiful the way that Peter finds his beautiful.

He feels the binding when it becomes the bond; it's impossible not to. Neal's mind is hazed with pleasure, but it becomes crisp, too, like a room with all the curtains pulled back to let the sun pour in. Neal cries out, bent over Peter's chest to cradle his head, their foreheads pressed together, and they lay coiled like that for a few seconds or a minute. The light of Neal's mind is so gorgeous and pervasive that Peter is breathless, and Neal gasps against Peter's mouth, his hands curled into Peter's hair, and Peter's own mind seems to shift, to actually change it's shape to accommodate Neal, not a painful thing, or even that surprising when it happens, but stunning in the ease of it, the light and space, places where the crystalline structure of Neal's mind slips over or through something of Peter's. And he can't think why he wouldn't realize that this kind of bond would change their minds, both of their minds, but it's almost as pleasurable to see and feel the way they are already beginning to grow together, and Peter clutches Neal's to him while Neal moans softly.

The lust returns in increments, but it doesn't take the clarity or beauty out of Peter's view of Neal's mind. He basks in it while Neal pushes in again, stretches him open, and Neal shifts both arms beneath Peter's thighs, and hauls Peter closer, the angle of his body more acute, and fucks him feverishly, his eyes clenched shut, his mouth open in a continuous gasp of pleasure. Peter is too far gone, between Neal's mind and his body, to hold on.

"I, Neal," he whispers hoarsely, and Neal opens his eyes and shoves into Peter harder, then harder still, and then a short, upward angled stroke that makes Peter's head swim as he comes, his whole body shuddering in the grips of the best orgasm of his life. He feels Neal shudder and cry out, and then spill into him, so hot that though it's not quite painful, it makes Peter's hips jerk upward, clenching around Neal's cock in pleasure.

Chapter Text

Later they eat pizza that Diana brings them without appearing to need an explanation, and later still they explore the bond. They can't be sure of the distance, since they're trapped in a starship, but everything else is so much clearer that it's a little daunting. Peter can sense, not quite in words, that Neal is worried because Peter is private, and he might not want to share like this all the time.

"Shut up, of course I do," Peter says, and wipes pizza sauce off Neal's mouth.

Then they go back to bed, and though Peter bemoans his refractory period, Neal discovers that if he is sufficiently turned on, with the bond, it doesn't take much touching for Peter to respond appropriately.

According to Peter, this is the 'Vulcan Viagra' effect.

If Peter weren't already sure this had been the right call, the walk from Peter's quarters to the shuttlebay is enough for him to be certain. This is nothing like the hard, helpless feeling of watching Neal walk away from their coffee place, nothing like the feel of Neal crushed by despair.

Neal looks at everything, talks to everyone that talks to him, and strikes up an on the spot friendship with an Orion girl that Peter used to sleep with. Peter isn't sure if he's dismayed or should be encouraged.

Even when Peter sets the shuttle down and it's really goodbye, Neal is smiling at him, his mind washed faintly with sorrow, but nothing like fear. He takes Peter's hand and they kiss there on the ramp.

"This does not negate your commitment to comm me," Neal says, smirking a little.

"Understood, sir," Peter says, smirking, and Neal kicks the toe of his shoe.

"Go on, get out of here, before I decide it's worth it to see if we can have sex in the shuttle craft and I can still get on my train." He's smiling, but his eyes are serious.

"Fair enough," Peter says, amused at the way that Neal is slightly sad that Peter hadn't voted to try it anyway.

"I love you, Peter," Neal says, with a little color in his cheeks.

Peter realizes that he can't remember if either of them had said it last night. Last night had been mostly boots flying around and sweaty skin and really outrageously good orgasms, and about the bond. Peter knows it, because of the bond, but he can feel what Neal is doing.

Saying it matters. It especially matters to a man like Peter.

"I love you, Neal," Peter says softly, and strokes his hair back from his face. "I'll see you soon."

Chapter Text

Peter wakes soaked with sweat, his heart pounding along with his head, and knows something is wrong. He pulls on his uniform pants and staggers over to get the command shirt without bothering with the black undershirt, and lunges out of his quarters moving in the general direction of the bridge. By the time he gets there, he still looks like he came straight from the bed to the bridge, but at least he's walking a straight line. He can also feel the distress, clearly from the bond, but he'd already known that, really. He'd awakened knowing it; he just needed a little time to process it.

"Calso, plot a course for Earth," he snaps. Calso glances over her shoulder at him, does a double take, and then does as he asks without comment.

"You gonna tell me what's going on, boss?" Diana asks from the Captain's chair.

"How long at warp four?" he demands of Leikrill.

"Three point four days, Captain," zie says, and Peter spins on his heel and goes straight to engineering. He notices that he's not wearing shoes or socks and decides he doesn't care.

He argues with Jones for ten minutes before he starts actually full-on shouting at him, and Jones goes quiet until Peter calms down. Then Jones says: "Do you know the theory of trilinear physics." It sounds familiar actually, but Jones' whole demeanor is shouting SAY NO.

"No," Peter says obligingly.

"Theoretically, I can cut the time by a third, but Starfleet could read all that theory off our systems at space dock," he says, giving Peter an intent look. "Those theories might not cater very specifically to regulation. So we'd have to get close enough to beam you to the surface, spend a little time cleaning up the computers, and we can be in space dock a day or so after you."

"So, this is doable, but I can never open my mouth ever, and neither can you," Peter says.

"Right. I'll claim I managed to get some extra warp for your emergency reroute to Earth, and they'll buy it because it doesn't really seem all that faster by the time the ship itself arrives." Jones is now grinning a little in anticipation.

"I don't care how you do it, I swear to God. Just do it as fast as you can," Peter begs, and Jones squeezes his shoulder.

"Aye, Aye, sir."

Peter spends the day in his quarters watching the normally straight starlines out the port window bend into angles and edges and jagged lines and trying not to focus on the ever-widening bond and through it, Neal's pain and urgency. While he doesn't know for sure what's going on, he's been doing all the reading T'Kreen has been sending him, so the heat and agitation crackling from Neal through the bond gives him at least a decent guess. He tries to reach back, to reassure or comfort, and maybe because he's still too far or maybe because he's only human, and doesn't have the psychic power of a Vulcan, most of what he sends doesn't seem to get through, or at least not in a way that Neal is in any shape to respond to. He still tries. It can't hurt.

Jones gets them within transporter range in just under a day (and they have to be within range of the star bases sensors, but Jones doesn't seem worried, and Peter can't bring himself to worry about anything but Neal, and besides, he trusts Jones), and it's all Peter can do not to kiss him. He packs light. Well. He throws some clothes in a bag without even looking at them, but at least he packs. Jones, looking pretty pleased with himself, beams Peter directly onto Starfleet grounds (a gross violation of procedure), managing to somehow do it so Peter rematerializes in the lee of one building and facing the back of another. Bless him.

He doesn't need to ask anyone to find Neal; the bond is throbbing, pulsing white hot with pain and need, and he just follows it, staggering a little under the brunt of it, hoping he doesn't look too much like a drunk.

He's not surprised to find Neal in the medical facility, but he panics a little anyway when he sees they're about to give him, God help them, an ice bath to bring down the fever.

"Stop right now," Peter roars. "Don't anybody move." He has to struggle not to pull his phaser to back this command up with the threat of it. He turns to the physician that looks like he'd been giving the orders. "Do you know what core temperature of your average Vulcan is?" Peter asks, low and deadly. In the room with Neal again, so close, he feels crisp and vital, in spite of Neal's broiling prickling suffering. The bond gives him enough focus to suppress Neal's pain, and he feels Neal start to ease as well, though he's still unconscious.

"Mr. Caffrey's been showing signs of a unremitting fever for several days, Captain...?" he says pointedly.

"That was not the question. Vulcan Core temperature?"

The doctor looks away, looks at his pad, and then looks back. "Vulcan biology is not my specialty."

"A Vulcan's core temperature can range from thirty-nine degrees to forty-one point five degrees without being outside the range of normal, depending on their environment," Peter raps out quickly. "What is Mr. Caffrey's fever?"

"Forty-two point twenty-two," the doctor says, looking abashed; Peter can see him doing the math in his head and realizing that an ice bath, even for a non-feverish Vulcan, might actually kill him. He looks tired now, and some of Peter's wrath drains out of him. "I hope you're going to offer up a solution, Captain, because we've been on this for days, and we can't find anything wrong with him except he's feverish and delirious."

"Check his records; who is his medical proxy?" Although Peter already knows the answer to that question.

The doctor taps away on his pad, and then can't decide if he should look disapproving or relieved. "You are, Captain Burke."

"Indeed," Peter says. "Get him away from that ice bath and let's get some kind of clothes for him."

"What is your plan of action?" the doctor inquires. It almost makes Peter burst into totally inappropriate peals of exhausted laughter.

"I'm taking him to someone who knows how to treat this particular ailment," Peter says. He hopes Neal's quarters are still in the same place. He picks Neal up.

"It's totally outside regular procedure to remove a patient from a physician's care without first informing that physician with a full briefing on what will be done to care for the patient outside medical facilities," the doctor sort of whines, and Peter can tell Neal's agitation is affecting him, so he tries to be nice.

"It's a form of Vulcan meditation and cleansing that has to be done once every seven years."

The doctor does not look satisfied with this, but Peter presses past him anyway, rushing through medical corridors and so enmeshed in Neal's pain and yearning that he almost walks right past T'Kreen, who is lurking (yes, there's no other word for it, she's lurking) just outside the doors.

"Captain, thank the ancestors. Come, I've got a vehicle. We have to get him away from campus."

"Why?" Peter staggers out, not sure if he can hold off until they get off campus, not even sure he can carry Neal all the way off campus. He's totally out of it, skin fire hot, and he's muttering and keening with pain that makes Peter want to beat someone to death.

"Pon Farr can sometimes spread sympathetically, and many of us are of an age to become attuned to Neal's cycle. Should you have not arrived, I would have not have let him perish, but it would not have been ideal for any of us. Come. I have a hotel booked for you." Her urgency is such that Peter merely takes her word for it, and two minutes later Peter is occupied with getting a slightly struggling Neal into a moderately luxurious personal vehicle. Neal thrashes in the back seat, his eyes fluttering open and rolled back in a way that terrifies Peter, but T'Kreen says, "This is not uncommon." She reaches her hand out for Neal and then snatches it back, looking a little startled and wary, and Peter realizes she'd meant to give Neal some comfort, and had only barely remembered that touching him might have drawn her into his need. Peter takes Neal's hand for her, and she slumps a little in relief. "It was spring break," she says. "He must not have understood it was happening, and the rest of us were not on campus. He was already hospitalized when we arrived. I messaged at you at once, but..." The naked relief on her face is such a strange thing to see. He knows she loves Neal and wishes he could do something for her, but she'd be humiliated if he even mentioned it. It's takes three minutes before they land at the hotel -- a very luxurious one -- and when Peter cocks a brow at her, she says only, "You will need the accommodations this place provides."

They hurry inside, T'Kreen takes care of their room keys, while Peter takes care of giving his best angry spaceship captain glare on anyone in the room that seems likely to ask questions about Neal. They take a very fast elevator to the twenty-first floor. "Food and water will be brought for you and left in the en suite kitchen. The bathing room has an unusually large bathtub; it will help if you soak and rest while he sleeps, which will only be for two or three hours at a time." T'Kreen looks away for the first time. "I don't believe he will hurt you, but he is stronger than you, and in less than perfect control of himself. Send quiet, gentle thoughts through the bond if he becomes savage. There is a doctor on standby at this hotel, but...." She takes a deep breath. "I do not believe he will hurt you." She looks at Peter again, her face very solemn. "Make it as perfect as you can for him, Captain. The first Pon Farr is the gauge by which we measure all others."

"How long?" Peter asks; it seems like the only pertinent question at this point.

"Two days, perhaps three. When he's older, it will be longer, but less driven. Rest whenever you can. Be sure to remember to eat and drink, but Neal will not do either during. We feel no hunger or thirst, during; only the drive." She clasps Peter's hand in both of hers, shocking him, and meets his gaze. "If you are truly T'hy'la, this will be as good for you as it is for him."

"So you believe in T'hy'la now?" Peter asks in genuine question.

"T'Zahn is a persuasive advocate. I believe it's possible. I don't know if you share it with Neal, but I hope that you do." She looks up at him from beneath her straight cut bangs. Then she takes his PADD and programs her number into it. "If you have any need, I am at your immediate disposal."

Peter nods, ready to get her out of the hotel room, though it's obvious that he'll never be able to thank her enough for what she's done; she nods back as though she's perfectly aware of that, and then turns on her heel and goes.

Peter scoops Neal up and carries him into the bedroom -- suspecting that's the only room he's going to be seeing, except for the bathroom, and when he lays him down, Neal's eyes are open and he's staring at him with eyes that are half disbelieving. "You came," he breathes.

"I will always come for you," Peter tells him gently, and Neal begins to weep even as he tears at his clothes.

"I'm too hot, Peter, I need..."

"I know," Peter says, and helps Neal strip down, and then helps while Neal clumsily tries to strip him down in return.

"Please," Neal begs, and Peter likes the sound of it more than he would have thought. Through some foresight, likely T'Kreen's, there is a tall, unopened tube of lube on the night table, and Peter doesn't waste time with it.

"How?" Peter asks and Neal scrambles on his knees, his back arched so gracefully that Peter has to remind himself that this isn't recreational sex. Neal cries out and moans when Peter presses into him, and the bond immediately captures them both in one crystalline moment of pleasure, and then Peter understands a little better about whey the Vulcans are so private about Pon Farr. He doesn't lose control, not exactly, but it hazes the world red and bright, and it cares for nothing but the physical, and it goes on like that for what seems like hours. Peter understands that it isn't just a haze of red for Neal. Neal is drowning in that desperate need, and Peter is feeling it through the bond, but isn't experiencing it himself. Even so, while it's happening, he forgets about it entirely until Neal sleeps again.

Peter gets food and water from the kitchen and takes T'Kreen's advice for a long soak in the jacuzzi.

Yep, he thinks, exhausted and sore. Definitely not recreational sex.

But though he's a little sore and a lot tired, Neal had never come close to hurting him. It had been frantic, even rough, but not painful.

He drains the water, dries off, and goes to lay down with Neal to see if he can get any sleep while Neal is under.

Neal wakes him with his cock already slicked and sliding into Peter's ass, both of them on their sides, and that hyper-sensitivity descends on them both, red and bright, and Neal is with him, much more present while his need is still somewhat sated, much more cogent now that Peter is with him, and they're together, and they can do anything together. Peter arches his back and lets Neal take him, hard, but not as hard as before, and he knows that Peter is fine with hard, he can feel it, the same way that Peter can feel that when it's him sinking into Neal, it cannot be too hard, as he's stronger and his body was designed to be receptive to a Vulcan of either sex.

"Peter?" Neal whispers toward the end of the second day. He's stretched out naked and shameless on the bed, and Peter is trying to clean up some of the mess with a warm washcloth. Peter glances up at him questioningly and Neal looks away, cheeks tinged green.

"Well it can't be this," Peter says, slightly amused and waving his washcloth. "I mean, you've been doing way dirtier stuff than this to me for the last two days." Neal looks at him and smiles, which is a genuine, but not very sturdy construction. Peter picks up the cloth and puts it aside and slides into bed with Neal. It's still light out, and it's temperate, but something makes him pull the comforter from where it had landed on the floor within minutes of their arrival, and he curls up facing Neal, pulling the blanket over their heads. "Are you hurt, Neal?" he asks, though he doesn't think Neal is. Peter thinks he would know.

"No," Neal says quietly. Peter feels his mind fluttering shyly, the way that he both reaches for Peter and draws back at the same time. "I want to ask you something?" he whispers almost soundlessly. "Or tell you something. I'm not sure."

"You can ask me anything, or tell me anything," Peter murmurs and pushes his hand through Neal's hair. "I promise."

There are several beats of silence, and then in a small, hopeful voice, Neal asks, "Am I T'hy'la?" and the tone hardly seems to matter. The word, coming from Neal, booms deep in his mind, calling up rapid-fire feelings of home and family and safety and light, of all the things that Neal is for him, and he grabs Neal and crushes him against his chest, overwhelmed at this new awareness, a little frightened of the way losing one single person could ruin him forever.

Still, he's never been a coward, and he says "Yes," and kisses Neal's cheeks and brows. "Yes, Neal. You're my T'hy'la," he whispers hoarsely into Neal hair. Neal clings to him. Peter can feel that he's weeping, but doesn't mention it. After all, he's never been alone in quite the way that Neal had, and the warm light of belonging is fairly new to him.

A little while later, Peter asks, "So you can only be it if you say it?"

"You can only have it if you acknowledge it," Neal corrects. He's sitting naked on the kitchen counter, eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon. He'd consented to a soak in the jacuzzi earlier, and his hair is wet and tousled. He looks beautifully unselfconscious considering where he is and what he's doing. Peter's pretty sure if he did that, he'd look like a pervert and a weirdo.

Neal is calm, so close to his normal self that Peter, who has been ridden hard and put away wet a few times in the last two days, wishes for another day, just so they can spend time together that isn't entirely carnal (not that he's not in favor of some carnality, if it should happen his way). He had known he missed Neal. He hadn't been entirely aware that he missed him desperately.

"Are you okay?" Peter asks, trying for innocence.

Turns out that being bonded to someone makes it so that you can't feign innocence.

Neal tips his head, smiling widely. "Have I ever told you how grateful I am that I didn't scare you off, that first time, in the lecture hall?" He's so sincere that it's a little painful.

Peter shakes his head; he thinks he might be blushing. "Have I ever told you how grateful I am that you used your powers for evil that day?"

Neal rocks back his head and laughs. "What did T'Kreen say?" Neal asks. "About how long."

"Two or three days," Peter says, already starting to smile at Neal's wicked delight.

"I just don't think I'm ready yet," and gives Peter doe eyes. Peter is appalled that they're so effective, since he can feel Neal being so evil. "I think, maybe I need at least another morning. Maybe part of the afternoon. After all, I didn't even blow you once. Or vice versa. What kind of first Pon Farr is that?"

"An incomplete one," Peter agrees gravely, but Neal merely sets aside his peanut butter and comes to stand in front of Peter, leaning his brow forward against Peter's collar bone.

"Only one more year," he whispers.

"Yeah," Peter agrees. "You going to be ready?"

Neal gives him a grumpy face. "Of course I'm going to be ready. I'm the top cadet in my class. Plus it doesn't matter." He peeks up and smiles at Peter. "Once we're together, we'll always be ready."

And Peter can remember not wanting to deprive Neal of his youth by forcing him to be bound to Peter, but he can't remember now why he hadn't listened to Neal when Neal had tried to tell him he was wrong. Neal is, after all, good at everything, rarely wrong, and he is perfect with Peter, as he had always maintained that he would be.

Peter tips Neal's face up and kisses his soft mouth, and slow, easy happiness passes back and forth between them.