Melanie, Sharan and Terry met up at the table that Valentine was holding for them. Quickly, they added their combined bounty to the center of the table.
"I still can't get over how crowded it is in here." Terry said as he looked around and noticed Troy approaching.
"Just wait until the first exam, I bet you'll be surprised at how quickly it thins out." Melanie said frankly.
"Speaking of exams, does anyone need any help studying?" Troy asked as he set out fruits and breakfast cereals.
"I'm having a little trouble with my advanced medical terminology class, but I doubt that there's anything you can do to help with that." Melanie said regretfully.
"Just give me a little time to read it over and I should be able to help you. I'm in a really good place with all my studying, so it's no problem." Troy said happily.
"Yeah. If you want to help, that'd be great." Melanie said with surprise.
Troy smiled, then took his seat. He got a curious look on his face, then seemed to remember something.
"Terry, I almost forgot, I printed this out for you." Troy said as he pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket.
With a smile, Terry accepted the piece of paper and unfolded it.
"It looks like I've been 'officially' invited." Terry said with a smile.
"Yup. As soon as I told her that you were raised off planet and never had Christmas before, she just about ordered me to bring you home with me." Troy said happily.
"You're going home with Troy?" Melanie asked cautiously.
Terry nodded with a smile.
Melanie's curious gaze moved from Terry to Val.
Terry turned to Valentine and gave him an expectant look.
Valentine smiled as he said, "Mike has invited me to visit his home on Christmas day."
"So, Terry's going with Troy and you're going with Mike?" Melanie asked in confirmation.
"And I'm going with you." Sharan said quietly to her.
Melanie looked from Val to Terry and back, sure that she was missing something.
Before she could ask anymore questions, a voice interrupted them, "Do you mind if I join you?"
"You're always invited, Liam. You don't have to ask." Terry said frankly.
"I still feel that it's the polite thing to do." Liam said honestly.
"I was telling Val and Terry about the trip you're going to take to Ireland. I'm so jealous of you!" Melanie said excitedly.
"Would you rather go to Ireland than spend the holiday with your family?" Sharan asked curiously.
"No. I wouldn't pass up Christmas with my family for anything. But still, I've always wanted to visit Ireland. It's supposed to be so beautiful there." Melanie said longingly.
"I'll be sure to take lots of pictures for you while I'm there." Liam said with a smile at her.
"And once we have both graduated from the academy, we will find a way that we can take leave together so I can take you there." Sharan said seriously.
"You would do that?" Melanie asked with surprise.
"Consider it a promise." Sharan said tenderly.
Melanie grinned at the response, then moved in to give Sharan a long slow kiss.
"Oh God! Are they at it again?" Mike groused teasingly as he approached the table with a tray full of glasses.
"I don't think they ever really stop. They just come up for air occasionally." Val said with a smile.
"Yeah, yeah. Look who's talking." Melanie said with a teasing grin at Val.
As Mike started handing out drinks, he said to Val, "Everything's arranged. It took some doing at the last minute, but I got us Starfleet transports all the way to Pennsylvania. So it won't cost us anything. And someone will pick us up in Harrisburg."
"That won't be a hardship for them, will it?" Valentine asked cautiously.
"No. They drive into town all the time. They won't even think twice about it." Mike said
"Where are Juan and Phillipa?" Terry asked as he looked around.
"Right over there. It looks like their line is stalled." Liam said as he pointed at the serving line where side dishes were served.
Suddenly, there was a commotion at the front of the line and the group could see a pair of people fighting.
"A hashed brown dispute?" Terry asked speculatively.
In less than a minute, the two cadets who had been fighting were being escorted out of the cafeteria.
"As crazy as our time here has been, at least we haven't had to deal with violence." Valentine said with a concerned look.
"Yeah. Over all, I think we lucked out with the group that we ended up with." Terry said frankly.
"I doubt that luck had much to do with it." Liam said honestly.
Everyone at the table looked at Liam with question.
"I don't have any proof, but I get the feeling from what I've seen and heard that very little around here is left to chance. I'm willing to bet that every one of you were put in your group for a reason." Liam said as he looked around the table.
"You think they planned on us becoming friends?" Melanie asked cautiously.
"No. Not that you'd become friends as much as you'd inspire each other to achieve and help each other to overcome obstacles." Liam said carefully.
"I think he's right." Mike said thoughtfully.
Everyone turned to look at him with question.
"My first term here was hell. I don't know if they planned that, but I'm going to choose to believe that they didn't." Mike said reflectively. "But since I survived it, they've put me in with your group where I can fit in. I wouldn't have thought that there would be anyplace that I'd feel like that. It must have been planned."
"I could be wrong about all this. But I just think from the way things seem to work out around here, that a lot of thought goes into a lot of decisions that we take for granted." Liam said seriously.
"I'm sorry we took so long. You guys should have started eating, you didn't have to wait for us." Phillipa said as she quickly offloaded the food from her tray.
"Seeing those punks fighting reminded me of our first class group." Juan said as he also added food to the selections in the middle of the table.
"Well, if we're going to eat. We'd better do it quick. Class will be starting soon." Terry said honestly.
As everyone started making their selections, Phillipa asked, "So, what did we miss?"
"It looks like all of us are going to be taking Christmas day off. Sharan's going home with me, Valentine is going with Mike, and Terry is going home with Troy." Melanie said cheerfully.
"And Juan is coming home with me." Phillipa said happily, then leaned over to give Juan a quick kiss on the cheek.
The group was all smiles as they began to eat in earnest so as not to be late for their upcoming class.
The alarm ringing jarred Valentine out of a peaceful sleep.
"Val, you need to get up. We have to catch an early shuttle." Mike said from beside Valentine's bunk.
"Oh, yes. That's today, isn't it?" Valentine asked blearily as he slowly sat up in his bed.
"Do you still want to go? You don't have to." Mike said cautiously.
"Yes. Of course I want to go. How much time do we have?" Valentine asked as he slowly stood.
"We need to be down at the shuttle pad in twenty minutes." Mike said with a tinge of anxiety in his voice.
"Just allow me a moment to dress and I'll be ready to go." Valentine said quietly.
Mike gave a quick nod, then went back to his own bunk to finish getting himself ready.
"I'm going to miss you, Big Guy." Terry said as he got out of his bunk.
"I'll miss you, too. Although I would like to be spending time with you today, I think that this is a good thing that we're doing." Valentine said gently.
"I think so, too." Terry said with a smile, then added, "But the next holiday is ours to enjoy together."
"Yes. I promise." Valentine said as he leaned down to give Terry a kiss.
"Guys!" Mike stage whispered impatiently from the doorway.
Valentine and Terry both began to giggle in their kiss.
"I'll see you tonight." Valentine whispered.
"Have a good time." Terry said as he stretched up to snag one final peck of a kiss.
"Is there anything I should know about your family before I meet them?" Valentine asked cautiously.
"I don't think there's any way to prepare you for them. Just, whatever they say, don't let it get to you." Mike said seriously.
"What are they likely to say?" Valentine asked curiously.
"I can't even guess. I just know that sooner or later someone will say something tacky or crude or just plain mean, thinking that they're being funny. Don't take it personally. They're always like that." Mike said firmly.
"Always?" Val verified.
Mike nodded and said, "All day, every day."
"If that's the case, then I can understand why you tend to be so cautious with people." Valentine said thoughtfully.
"I guess so. Being around you and the guys is really different for me. I'm just not used to being around people who behave so... civilized." Mike finished with difficulty.
"If that is the case, then you are in much the same situation that Sharan, Terry and I are in." Valentine said frankly.
Mike was about to remind Valentine that he wasn't an alien, but before he could say the words, he realized that his over-sized Vulcan friend was actually right.
Valentine listened carefully to an announcement, then said, "I believe they are announcing our shuttle."
Mike looked at the departure information that was being displayed just ahead of them, then said, "Yeah. That's us. It's down this way."
"Where are we going?" Terry asked as Troy led him out of the spaceport.
"To the airport." Troy said simply.
"I thought you said that you made arrangements so we wouldn't have to buy any plane tickets." Terry said cautiously.
"I did. My dad has his own plane. He's going to pick us up." Troy said frankly.
"He has his own plane? Is your family rich?" Terry asked cautiously.
Troy chuckled, then pointed ahead of them at the cab stand before saying, "More like reasonably well off. My parents have a nice house, nice cars, and dad has the plane. But my dad has to work and pay bills and all that stuff just like everyone else."
"I guess it's different where I'm from. No one in the domed cities had private transportation. And all the homes were built when the city was created, so they're all basically the same. It's possible to modify them, you know, attach another room module. But people usually only do that when they have kids, so the kids can have their own rooms." Terry said distantly.
"It sounds really different. I don't think my parents would do well there. They enjoy their 'things' too much." Troy said frankly, then motioned for Terry to walk forward so they could get the approaching cab.
"When we get on the plane, remind me to turn off my compensators." Terry said as he waited for Troy to get into the cab.
"Over there, that's my uncle Paul!" Melanie said happily.
Sharan looked to where she was pointing and saw a tall, stocky man waving at her like a fool.
"Come on, you're going to love him." Melanie said with excitement.
Sharan hurried and tried to stay close to her as she ran out of the spaceport.
"Uncle Paul, this is Sharan!" Melanie said, breathless with excitement.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, young man. You are young, aren't you? I don't want to make any assumptions when dealing with non-humans." Paul said pleasantly.
"I'm eighteen years old by your standard of measurement. And it's a pleasure to meet you as well." Sharan said formally.
"So polite!" Paul said with delight. "The truck's right over here. Let's get going before this one's parents send out a search party."
Sharan smiled at the man, he hadn't wanted to like him, but the man's genial personality was irresistible.
"Mama! I'm home!" Phillipa called as they walked in the front door.
"Oh Baby! I've missed you so much." The older woman said as she rushed into the living room to give her daughter a hug.
"I've missed you, too, Mama. This is Juan." Phillipa said as she returned the hug.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Juan. My Phillipa has told me many wonderful things about you. I'm Rosalee." She said warmly, still holding her daughter tightly.
"It's nice to meet you, ma'am." Juan said uncomfortably.
"Come into the kitchen with me. I need to keep an eye on the food." Rosalee said as she ushered Phillipa to walk away.
Juan followed along behind them silently.
"That's my grandfather." Mike said as he pointed at the large black car approaching.
Valentine watched as Mike's grandfather pulled the car to the curb.
The passenger window rolled down as the old man leaned over and said, "Git in. I'm not a chauffeur."
"It's nice to see you, too, Gramps." Mike said as he opened the back door, then gestured to Val that he was supposed to get into the car.
"Who's this with you?" Gramps asked sourly.
"This is Val, he's a friend of mine from the academy." Mike said as he closed Valentine's door, then opened the front passenger door.
"He got no family of his own?" Gramps asked as he waited for Mike to be seated.
Valentine was prepared to explain but Mike beat him to it.
"No. And since I've got more family than I know what to do with, I thought I'd share mine." Mike said bluntly.
Gramps didn't have any answer for that, instead, he pulled away from the curb to drive them to Mike's house.
Terry watched as a man approached them.
"Hi Dad!" Troy called out, then took off running.
Terry smiled as he watched Troy give his dad an enthusiastic hug.
"How are you doing, Troy-boy? I like the haircut! You look like you've done some growing since you've been gone." Troy's father said as he walked toward Terry with his arm around his son.
"I'm doing great! Dad, this is Terry Harper. He's one of my classmates." Troy said happily, then quickly added, "Terry, this is my dad, his name is David Evans."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir." Terry said cautiously.
"It's nice to meet you, too, Terry." Troy's father said courteously, then added, "When Troy told us about you, I guess we just assumed that you'd be an alien of some sort. His mother is going to be very surprised."
"Well, even though I'm biologically a Human, I was born in a Tellarite colony, so legally I'm a Tellarite. I guess in that way, I am an alien." Terry said cautiously.
"Come on. They should be done servicing the plane soon, so we can be on our way." Troy's father said as he gestured toward the small aircraft.
"Who all is going to be at the house?" Troy asked as he looked back to see if Terry was doing okay.
"Just about the whole family will be there, except maybe your Aunt Dee Dee. She's having one of her spells. You know how it is." Troy's father said casually as they walked.
"Aunt Dee Dee has an obsessive compulsive disorder and agoraphobia. Sometimes she can make herself go out and do stuff, but usually she just stays in her house." Troy said frankly.
"I've heard about OCD but I've never met anyone who had it." Terry said carefully.
"Yeah. There's not really anything we can do for her but just let her know that we understand that there's stuff she can't do." Troy said honestly.
"It looks like they're done. You guys get aboard while I do the preflight." Troy's father said as he gestured toward the door of the plane.
"Remember to turn off your compensators." Troy said as he climbed up the stairs.
"Thanks Troy, I'll be sure to turn them off as soon as I'm buckled in."
"This is it, what do you think?" Melanie asked as they emerged from the truck in front of an elaborately decorated house.
"It is very... festive." Sharan said haltingly at the sight of the astonishing amount of ornamentation on the house and around the lawn.
Melanie giggled, then said, "You should see it at night."
The snow on the ground and the chill in the air reminded Sharan of Andor.
He was lost in his thoughts for a moment until Melanie took hold of his arm and said, "Come on. I want to introduce you to the family."
"Juan, this is my Aunt Maria and my cousin, Rosella." Phillipa said as they entered the kitchen, then turned to the ladies and said, "This is my boyfriend, Juan."
"Oh, is he the guy who protected you at the academy?" Rosella asked as she looked over Juan carefully.
"Phillipa is strong, she didn't need me to protect her." Juan said as he looked at Rosella and waited for her to meet his eyes. "But I did stand with her, to let her know that she wasn't facing everything alone."
"Mammi! You need to keep this one. Mens like this are hard to find. I know. I been looking." Rosella said with delight.
Juan blushed as Phillipa put an arm around him.
"Girls, we need to do some cooking if we want to have dinner sometime today." Rosalee said from the stove.
"Do you need for me to help?" Phillipa asked quickly.
"No, Mammi, you take Juan and show him around, then take him into the TV room and introduce him to the boys and your pappa." Rosalee said with a knowing look at her daughter.
A look of apprehension ghosted over Phillipa's face before she hid it with a smile and guided Juan out of the room.
"Val? You a dago?" Gramps asked as he drove.
Although Val was reasonably sure that what he was being asked was an insult of some sort, he had never heard the term before and couldn't guess at what he was being asked.
"Gramps, you should wear your glasses if you're going to be driving." Mike said with exasperation, then added, "Val is from Vulcan."
"Vulcan? You're one of those guys from outer space?" Gramps asked slowly.
"Yes, sir." Valentine responded cautiously.
There was a long silence as Mike and Valentine waited for Gramps' reaction.
Finally, Gramps said, "Alright then. As long as you ain't no dago."
"How are you guys doing, back there?" Mr. Evans asked from the pilot's chair.
"We're fine. How long till we land?" Troy called out.
"Twenty minutes. So far the air traffic seems light, so there shouldn't be any delay." Mr. Evans called from the front.
"No matter how things go with your family, I think the whole trip was worth it just to be able to do this." Terry said as he looked out the window of the plane at the breathtaking scenery of the California coast.
"I guess I'm used to it. I used to go up with dad every weekend. We'd go and do all kinds of things; camping, skiing... Sometimes we'd just go flying for no reason, just to fly." Troy said distantly.
"It sounds like you miss it." Terry said as he turned his attention to Troy.
After a moment Troy shrugged, then quietly said, "We were really close, back then."
"What happened?" Terry asked gently.
"I don't know. Maybe he got busy with work, or maybe I just started growing up. However it happened, we just stopped..." Troy trailed off and ended with a shake of his head.
"When I was a kid, me and my dad used to go rock hunting." Terry said, then quickly added, "I know, it doesn't sound like much fun, but it really was. Sometimes we'd explore caves or dig around excavation sites looking for interesting stuff. For a lot of years, I thought I was going to become a geologist like my dad." Terry said distantly.
"I guess since you're going to the academy, you changed your mind." Troy said frankly.
Terry slowly nodded, then said, "When I started growing up, I figured out that I also enjoyed some things that my father didn't. I developed my own interests and spent less time doing things with him."
"You make it sound like it's just part of growing up." Troy said in resignation.
"I think it is. But it's not the end of doing things with your dad. The really great thing is that once you've developed your own interests, you can share them with him. You can still do the things that you used to like doing with him, but you'll also be able to introduce him to new things that you enjoy." Terry said with a smile.
"Yeah." Troy said consideringly, then looked at Terry with a grin.
"What?" Terry asked, confused by Troy's expression.
"Nothing. I'm just glad you're here with me." Troy said warmly.
"So am I, Troy."
"Everyone, this is Sharan." Melanie said happily.
Sharan looked around the room to find nearly two dozen people looking back at him.
"This is my mom, my dad, my Aunt Myrna, my Aunt Delia. On the couch we have my grandmother, her name is Pearl and beside her is her sister, my great aunt Opal. Over here by the tree are my cousins Pete, Aaron, Julie, Rachel, Wendy Sue, Justin, Austin and Aiden. Then on this side of the room we have Uncle Frank, my cousins Mike, Jay Jay and Ford, my brothers Ryan, Paul and Patrick, and my sister-in-law, Judy. And of course, you've already met uncle Paul." Melanie said, seemingly in one breath.
"You know that Troy is the one with the photographic memory. There is no way I will remember everyone's name." Sharan said quietly as he looked around the room.
"Just stick close to me and you won't have to worry about it." Melanie said with a grin.
"So Sharan, I take it you're... from out of town?" Melanie's mom asked weakly.
"Yes, ma'am. You could say that." Sharan said, very glad that he had had time to adapt to spending time with Humans.
A chuckle went around the room at Sharan's response.
"Did you already hand out all the presents?" Melanie asked as she looked at the bounty of unwrapped gifts by the tree.
"We couldn't keep the kids waiting all morning. But your dad sat your presents aside. If you'll take a seat, he'll bring them in to you." Melanie's mother said, then gave her husband a significant look.
"Sharan, can I get you anything? We won't be having dinner for a while yet." One of the women, Aunt Delia, asked from beside the couch.
"We didn't get to eat before we left the academy, so I think we're both pretty hungry." Melanie said frankly as she drew Sharan down to sit with her on the floor.
"You should have spoken up! Just stay right there and I'll get you something." She said as she and Myrna dashed out of the room.
Sharan sat cross-legged on the floor and looked around at all the strangers looking back at him.
The silence in the room was uncomfortable, and he was very much wanting to go outside and enjoy a few minutes of the crisp cold air.
"He's blue!" an elderly voice said from the couch.
"Yes Grandma. This is Sharan, he's an Andorian." Melanie said loudly.
"He's blue!" She said again, seeming not to be able to work past that one point.
"Yes, dear. He's blue." Opal said as she patted her sister's hand.
"Here you go, honey. Make sure to read the tags before you open them." Melanie's father said as he handed her a stack of gifts.
Melanie accepted them and did as her father said. She looked at the first tag and said, "This one is from Uncle Paul and Aunt Myrna."
Sharan watched as she opened the gift to reveal a hideously gaudy Christmas themed sweater.
"Thank you!" Melanie said happily, then added, "I don't have one like this."
'I should hope not.' Sharan said internally.
"The next one is..." Melanie began to say, then turned and quickly said, "Hey! It's for you, Sharan!"
After a moment of hesitation, Sharan accepted the gift from Melanie cautiously.
His inner dialogue was chanting to him, telling him things like 'be nice', 'say nice things', 'these are the beings that spawned Melanie, so they must have some redeeming qualities'.
Once he had the wrap off the gift, he turned the oddly shaped wooden box around, looking for how to open it. He finally found the clasp and opened the box to reveal paper, pens and a small clip-on light inside. It took him a moment to realize that the box itself was the majority of the gift. It was a lap desk. Considering the amount of classwork he had and the amount of time he spent studying, it was actually a very useful gift.
"How do I know who gave this to me?" He asked Melanie in a daze.
She picked up the discarded wrapping and finally found the tag before saying, "It doesn't say. It just has your name on it."
"It's from the whole family, Sharan." Melanie's father said from his place, sitting on the arm of the couch.
Sharan looked around, then said, "Thank you, all of you. I will make good use of this."
"That will be the best thanks you can give us." Melanie's father said warmly.
"You two, clear some space. Food's coming." Myrna said as she rushed into the room. "Aaron honey, pull your legs in so you don't trip your Aunt Delia."
Melanie and Sharan put their gifts aside just in time to be presented with two trays filled nearly to overflowing with just about every kind of breakfast food imaginable.
"I'm supposed to eat all this?" Sharan asked as he looked at the mounded over plate of food.
"You need to eat, you're too skinny." Myrna said with a warm smile at Sharan.
"And blue!" Pearl added insistently.
"Juan, this is Junior and Chewy and Oscar, and my baby brother, Juan." Phillipa finished shyly.
Juan nodded in introduction to the boys and smiled at his much smaller namesake.
"And this is my papa, Eduardo." Phillipa said nervously.
"I heard you took care of my little girl when she was scared." Eduardo said in a low voice as he looked at Juan carefully.
"She handled things just fine on her own. But I always tried to be there for her in case she needed me." Juan said as he met the much larger man's gaze.
After a long silent moment, Eduardo broke into a smile, then said to his daughter, "You keep this one, mija. He treat you right."
Phillipa was all smiles as she ran to her father and gave him a joyful hug.
Juan felt relief course through him. The parents seemed to approve of him; now, there was a chance that he could actually 'enjoy' the rest of the holiday.
"This is it." Mike said as he got out of the car.
Val looked around, then hesitantly asked, "People live here?"
"If you can call it living." Mike said, then led the way across a cluttered lawn and up to the front of a single-wide trailer.
As they walked up to the door, Valentine looked around curiously.
"I understand, now." He said to Mike slowly, "At first glance, I thought these to be shipping containers."
"They pretty much are. Cut out a few windows and throw in some carpet and you have a trailer." Mike said frankly.
"Mikey, honey. Who do you have out there?" A woman asked from inside.
"Mom, I brought a friend home with me for Christmas." Mike said, then gestured with his head for Valentine to follow him inside.
The smell was the first thing that caught Valentine's attention as he crossed the threshold. Most Vulcans are aware of the scent of humans and are somewhat offended by it until they get used to it. But the stench inside the trailer was of a whole new level.
Valentine backed away from the trailer and took in a slow breath of cool fresh air to try and dilute the acrid stench of years of stale cigarette smoke mingled with the overwhelming odor of unwashed bodies.
"Are you okay, Val?" Mike asked with concern.
"I will be. I just wasn't prepared." Valentine said carefully.
"For what?" Mike asked cautiously.
"The smell." Valentine said honestly.
Mike puzzled over that for a moment, then suddenly said, "Oh! The cigarette smoke. Yeah. Just about everyone here but me and the dog smokes. Are you going to be alright?"
Valentine considered telling him the whole truth, but concluded that saying more would only cause offense and not improve anything for anyone, so he simply answered, "Yes. Although I may need to step outside at some later point for a breath of fresh air."
"You and me both. I don't know how I stood it for all those years." Mike said frankly, then asked, "Are you ready?"
Val took a slow, deep breath to brace himself, then nodded that he was.
"Are you okay, Terry?" Troy asked with concern.
"I forgot to turn my compensators back on." Terry admitted shyly from his position sprawled on the floor of the plane.
"Did you hurt yourself?" Troy's father, David, asked as he got out of his pilot's chair. "Do you need any help?"
"No. I'm fine." Terry said as he slowly stood.
"Terry's home planet has a lot different gravity from Earth. He has some devices that he wears to deal with it, but he can't turn them on while we're flying because they'll mess with the plane." Troy explained to his father.
"But you're going to be okay?" David asked carefully.
"Yes. I'm fine now." Terry said with a smile.
"Good. Then let's get going. I don't know about you guys, but I'm getting hungry." David said honestly.
"We had a good meal before we left the academy, but that's been a while ago. I'm just about ready for lunch." Troy said frankly.
"You're always ready when it comes to food." David said with a chuckle, then motioned to the door and asked, "Do you want to do the honors?"
Troy rolled his eyes, then walked to the door of the plane and opened it, then lowered the stairs into place.
"Can I get you anything else?" Myrna asked Sharan hopefully.
"No. Please don't." Sharan said as he handed her his plate.
"That was great. They feed us good at the academy, but it's no where near as good as your home cooking." Melanie said with a wide smile at her aunts.
"Tell us about the academy. What's it like?" Melanie's brother, Ryan, asked curiously.
"Well... I guess in some ways it's like going to school, but it's a whole lot harder." Melanie said carefully.
"Do you have a lot of classes?" Ryan asked curiously.
"I'm taking eight subjects, but I don't actually have any classes."
"I don't understand." Ryan said seriously.
Melanie looked at Sharan hopefully, begging with her eyes for him to explain.
"Rather than requiring us to attend classes, they give us all the requirements and study materials at the beginning of the term. After that, it's up to us to motivate ourselves and learn what is required of us. No one is teaching us, no one is telling us what to do or when to do it. Whether we pass or fail is completely up to us." Sharan said frankly.
"We have a facilitator who will help us if we get stuck on something or give us suggestions about which areas of study we should focus on, but the big thing is that we're learning how to teach ourselves. We're learning how to find the answers on our own even when we're tired and don't feel like studying anymore. It's really a valuable lesson and I don't think we could learn it any other way." Melanie said seriously.
"So what about you two? How did you get together?" Melanie's mother asked curiously.
"It's kind of hard to explain how that happened. I mean, there are eight of us in our barracks. We've been through a lot together and we've become friends. There are four of us who have been together since the beginning, so we're closer to each other than to the rest."
"Although, I think Troy has insinuated himself into our group rather effectively." Sharan added.
Melanie nodded, then continued, "So, Sharan and I are two of the four originals. The other two, Val and Terry, became a couple at the same time that we did. I liked Sharan from the first day we met, but I think the way things worked out around us also helped us to become a couple."
"You didn't open all your presents. Don't you want to see what else you got?" Melanie's father asked with a smile.
"Oh yeah! How could I forget about presents?" Melanie asked excitedly.
Sharan smiled at her happiness, that alone being enough to make the entire trip worth it.
"This one is from Aunt Delia and Uncle Frank." Melanie announced, then tore open the gift wrapping.
"Look at this!" She said happily, "It's a portable music player. Now Mike won't be the only one who can listen to music at night."
Sharan broke into a grin at her unbridled joy at receiving gifts.
"This one is from Mom and Dad." Melanie said with surprise as she opened an envelope.
"What did you get?" Sharan asked when he noticed her dumbfounded state.
"It's a Christmas card filled with all kinds of gift cards! Here's one for music for my music player and one for clothes... this is great!"
"A very practical gift." Sharan said in an impressed voice, then noticed the satisfied looks on Melanie's parents' faces.
"Let's see what else." Melanie said eagerly, then said, "This one's for you, Sharan."
He was surprised to be receiving another gift, but accepted it willingly.
It only took a moment for him to get the wrapping paper off, then he looked at the folded piece of cloth.
As he unfolded it, he finally began to realize what it was.
"What did you get?" Melanie asked curiously.
"It's a new duffle bag!" He said happily, then picked up the wrapping and looked around, "Thank you, Ryan and Paul. This is something that I can use."
"I'm glad you like it." Ryan said with a smile, "When Mel told us she was bringing someone home from the academy, we knew she'd want us to treat you right. So we put our heads together to come up with something practical for you."
"You did great, guys." Melanie said as she walked to her brothers and hugged them.
"Gentlemen, I believe I heard something about a certain sporting event that you were wanting to watch on TV today. I think that should be starting any minute." Melanie's mother said as she looked around the room, then continued, "Ladies, I believe we have some hungry men who will need to be fed soon. Who would like to help me make a special dinner for them?
All the women, even Grandma Pearl, got up and filed out of the room.
"I want to go in the kitchen for a few minutes talk to my mom and my aunts. Will you be alright in here with the guys while I'm gone?" Melanie asked cautiously.
Sharan looked down at the lap desk and duffle bag before saying, "Yes. I believe I will be fine."
"So how is this school you're going to? Are they treating you alright? From Phillipa's letters it sounds like they been picking on you." Eduardo asked Juan and Phillipa as one.
Phillipa looked at Juan hopefully, silently asking him to answer the question.
"When we first got there, we both got picked on a little bit. But I think it was just the punks trying to figure out the pecking order in our barracks. When Phillipa and I wouldn't back down and act afraid of them, they pretty much left us alone. But them always being loud and acting like pinche pendajos made it hard for us to study." Juan said frankly then, when he realized what he had said, he muttered, "Excuse me, sir."
Eduardo chuckled at his shy apology and obviously wasn't offended by his words. "I'm just happy to see that Phillipa had someone to keep her on the right path."
"We help each other." Juan said seriously.
"And now we're in with a really good group. It was worth putting up with those punks to end up where we are now." Phillipa interjected.
"So they don't treat you funny because you're Latina?" Eduardo asked as he looked his daughter in the eyes.
Phillipa chuckled as she said, "No daddy. In our group, we have an Andorian, a Vulcan and a Human who was raised as a Tellarite. I don't think they've even noticed that we're not lily white."
"Since the day we joined our new group, they've included us in everything they do and treated us with respect." Juan added seriously.
"It sounds like you've fallen in with good people. That's the way things should be." Eduardo said warmly.
"Yes." Phillipa said introspectively. "I think we're exactly where we need to be."
Valentine steadied himself as best he could to endure the horrendous smell that was assaulting him. Although he wasn't typically a person who was bothered by these types of things, just being in such a malodorous environment made him feel as though it was permeating his clothing and penetrating his skin. He envisioned himself taking a very long shower when he got back to the academy... perhaps more than one.
"Val, I'd like you to meet my mom and dad, that's my brother Jimmy, our neighbor, Victor, and you already met Gramps." Mike said quickly, then turned to face his family and said, "This is Valentine, he's one of my classmates from the academy."
"Are you fucking my brother?" Jimmy asked into the silence that followed.
Val stared at the grossly overweight young man, shocked at the blunt and vulgar question.
"Stop being an asshole, Jimmy." Mike's mother barked. "Valentine is a guest in our house, so you need to welcome him and treat him with respect. You can ask him about who he's fucking after dinner."
Valentine winced slightly when he saw Jimmy light up a cigarette. He then noticed that everyone else in the room was also smoking.
"Come on in and have a seat! There's beer in the fridge, you can help yourself!" Mike's father said as he raised a bottle of beer in a toasting gesture, then added, "It's Christmas, after all."
"Do you want one, Val? It might help." Mike asked quietly.
Val was about to refuse, but after another look around the grimy house filled with grubby people, he finally answered, "Yes, please."
As Mike was getting the beer from the refrigerator, Val quietly said, "I know that you weren't expecting me, Mr. and Mrs. Horton. Thank you for welcoming me into your home."
"Oh, no." Mike's mother said quickly, then shyly added, "Our name is Burleson. Horton was Mike's father's name... he was my second husband."
"Please excuse my mistaken assumption." Valentine said quietly, then accepted a beer from Mike.
"My dad was a mechanic. He was killed when a winch broke and dumped a car engine on him." Mike said as he took his seat.
"Yeah. Steve was a good man... damned good mechanic, too." Mike's father said seriously, then finished off his beer in one long gulp.
Mike automatically handed his unopened beer to his father, then walked to the kitchen to get another one for himself.
Terry was in awe as he walked into the huge house. In all his life, he had never seen a private dwelling that was so luxurious.
"Guess who I've got!" Troy's father, David, said as he led them through an entry hall into a cavernous living room.
Terry couldn't help but gawk at the enormity of the room.
The building was two stories tall, but this room didn't have a second floor above.
At the side of the room, by a curved staircase, was an enormous Christmas tree, looking to be every bit of twenty feet tall.
On the other side of the room was a collection of very formal looking couches and chairs, most of them filled with a collection of equally formal looking people.
"How's my little angel doing?" Troy's mother said happily as she ran forward and stopped just short of hugging Troy.
Terry watched curiously as she took Troy by the shoulders, mimicking the action of hugging and kissing him without actually doing either.
"I'm fine, Mom." Troy said shyly, then added, "This is Terry. He's one of my friends from the academy."
Troy's mother looked at Terry curiously, apparently trying to find something 'alien' in his appearance.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ma'am." Terry said quietly, suddenly feeling very uncertain of his ability to behave properly in front of people who were obviously rich.
"It's nice to meet you, too, Terry. And please call me Janna." She said graciously.
"We can do the rest of the introductions after presents. We've just been waiting for Troy to get here." David said with a warm look at his son.
"Dad! You didn't have to wait for me!" Troy said with annoyance.
Terry couldn't help but smile at Troy's petulant tone. It made him sound like a small child.
"Come over here and sit down, Terry." Janna said as she gestured to an open chair. "As soon as Troy is done handing out presents, we'll be having dinner."
Troy flashed an exasperated look at his mother before walking to the tree.
Terry watched as Troy handed out the gifts. Everyone was very courteous and outwardly pleasant, but he couldn't detect even the slightest hint of happiness from any of them. It was curious to him that Troy didn't seem to notice anything out of the ordinary with any of it.
Troy approaching him caused Terry to break out of his musings.
"I'll leave mine over here with you, if you don't mind." Troy said as he placed a wrapped gift on the floor beside Terry's chair.
"Of course, Troy." Terry said quietly, then looked around and noticed that no one was opening their gifts.
"Hey, Terry! There's one here for you!" Troy said happily as he dashed away from the tree, carrying a small gift.
"Really?" Terry said with surprise, then looked toward Troy's parents and said, "Thank you. I wasn't expecting to receive a gift. Just being here, seeing a real Christmas is enough of a gift for me."
"Terry told me that he was raised in a Tellarite colony, so I suppose they have their own holidays there." Troy's father explained to everyone.
"They don't have holidays so much as celebrations. When they have a special occasion like this, the whole community just gathers together and drinks and sings and tells stories. They don't have anything like trees or decorations or gifts." Terry said in a clear voice, trying to use the skills he had learned in his public speaking workshop.
"That's very interesting." Janna said in a bored tone of voice that said that it really wasn't.
"I think that's all the gifts!" Troy said as he handed out the last present.
"Then I'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas." David said to the group, then began to open a wrapped gift that was sitting on his lap.
As soon as he started to open his gift, everyone in attendance started to open their own gifts.
There were murmurs of 'That's lovely' and 'How nice' from the people around him.
Terry opened his own gift to find that it was a small, crystal Christmas tree with tiny ornaments embedded in it made of gold and tiny jewels.
He had to admit that the delicate and obviously expensive little decoration was incredibly beautiful. It also had to be the most useless thing he could imagine. All his life, he and his family had never owned anything that didn't have a purpose. They had things of beauty in their modest dwelling, but each of those things had a function and a reason for being in their home.
"Do you like it?" Troy asked from Terry's side.
"It's beautiful." Terry said honestly, then noticed a woman in a plain blue uniform walk into the room and say something to Troy's mother.
"If we're all done, dinner will be waiting on us in the dining room." Janna said as she stood.
"What did you get?" Terry whispered to Troy at his side.
"A new tablet computer." Troy said as he raised the boxed gift for Terry to see.
"That's nice. You'll really be able to use that." Terry said as he stood and placed his gift on the low table beside his chair.
Troy shrugged, then said, "I can do everything I need to do with a padd. But I guess it will be nice for when I'm on leave."
Terry nodded as they followed the rest of the guests out of the massive living room.
"So Sharan, what's going on between you and my sister?" Ryan asked curiously. His tone wasn't the least bit accusatory or threatening. He seemed to be genuinely interested.
"We enjoy each other's company. She inspires and encourages me to do my best and I believe that she is likewise affected by me." Sharan said thoughtfully.
"Do you love her?" Patrick asked from his brother's side.
"Yes." Sharan said immediately, then added more quietly, "More and more each day."
"Good." Melanie's father said with a smile. "As long as you two can keep feeling that, everything will be fine."
"You're not bothered that I'm not Human?" Sharan asked cautiously.
Melanie's father chuckled, then said, "No. Not at all. Our family already had to face our demons on that subject, and I think we're all well past it."
At Sharan's inquisitive look around the group, Ryan finally said, "My ex-boyfriend was... half-Romulan."
Sharan's eyes went wide at the announcement.
Ryan's look became distant as he said, "He was raised as a Human and never even knew his father. But his whole life, he only ever knew discrimination because of his species."
"What happened to him?" Sharan asked cautiously.
"We didn't work out." Ryan said quietly. "While we were fighting to get people to accept him and to accept us as a couple, we were great. But when the fight was over we realized that the fight is all we ever really had in common. Underneath it all, we were just two very different people. I'll always cherish him as a dear friend."
Patrick put an arm around his brother and gave him a comforting squeeze.
"So, Sharan, you can see that after that, accepting an Andorian wasn't really much of a challenge." Melanie's father said with a look of sympathy directed at his son.
"I appreciate how you've welcomed me into your home. I don't have words to express how much your acceptance means to me." Sharan said sincerely.
"Just worry about you and Mel. Do what's right for the two of you, and however that turns out, we'll be in the background, cheering you on." Melanie's father said with a warm smile.
When the football game started, all other conversation stopped.
"I want to go talk with mama. Do you want to stay here or go with me?" Phillipa asked quietly.
"I'll stay, if you don't mind. This looks like it could be a good game." Juan said, dividing his attention between Phillipa and the television.
"I don't mind at all. Enjoy the game." Phillipa said happily, then gave Juan a quick kiss on the cheek before leaving the room.
"Hey, Dumbass. Get me the remote! It's time for the game!" Jimmy bellowed.
"Get off your fat ass and get it yourself." Mike said to his brother.
"Mikey, your brother's been working hard and needs to relax on his day off." Mike's mother said in a scolding tone.
"You've been working? When did that happen?" Mike asked with surprise.
"I got a job as a cart clerk at the grocery store." Jimmy said with an impatient look at his younger brother.
"But aren't you too old to be doing that? I mean, you're twenty six." Mike said incredulously.
"Yeah. Well, I just do it two nights a week, when the other guy's off." Jimmy said uncomfortably.
"But when they see how hard he works, they're sure to give him a full time job." Mike's father said with certainty.
Val looked at the morbidly obese young man and had doubts that Mike's father's prediction would come to fruition. Jimmy appeared to be breathing heavily from the effort of sitting upright.
"Are we going to watch the fucking game or not!?" Gramps bellowed.
Mike's mother got up from her chair, walked to the coffee table and picked up the remote. She handed it to her husband as she said, "I'm going to check on dinner. I hope everyone's hungry."
Valentine looked around the trailer and seriously doubted that he would be.
"Everything looks wonderful." One of the women at the formal dining table said in an impressed voice.
"Since I started having the holiday meals catered, it has made the holidays such a delight. Now I'm free to devote my attention to my guests." Janna said happily.
'Lucky us.' Terry thought to himself sarcastically as he looked at all the other people settling in around the table.
They all had plates full of food set out before them, each exactly the same as every other.
Terry didn't really know what he expected when he was invited to Christmas dinner, but this wasn't it.
"To friends and family." David said from the head of the table as he raised his glass.
Everyone around the table responded in kind, then took an obligatory drink.
The wine had a harsh flavor and it was all that Terry could do not to wince at it.
He looked around and noticed that the few teenagers and children at the table were making faces at the bitter flavor.
Some signal must have been given that Terry missed. All at the same time, everyone seemed to start eating.
The food was decent, not remarkable in any way but not in the least offensive.
"These vegetables taste just like at the academy." Troy said quietly.
"They must use the same cannery." Terry responded.
"Did you have something to share with the whole table?" Janna asked sternly.
"I was just saying that this food tastes like what we have at the academy." Troy said, seemingly oblivious to his mother's tone.
"So they feed you well." She said as a statement, but Troy seemed to take it as a question.
"Yeah. It's great. And they always have a lot of things to choose from." Troy said happily.
"How nice." Janna said to Troy with a smile that was as false as just about everything else in the place.
The doorbell ringing stopped any further conversation.
"Who could that be?" Melanie's father asked as he stood.
"I think everyone's already here." Patrick said frankly.
"But you know how it is, somehow there's always room for one more." Melanie's Uncle Paul chuckled as Melanie's father walked out of the room.
Sharan glanced around the room and found that Ryan had a pained look in his eyes.
"Is something wrong?" Sharan asked cautiously.
"No." Ryan said as his expression changed to a wistful smile. "I was just remembering."
As Sharan was trying to come up with something to say, Melanie's father walked into the room with his arm draped around a young man.
"Look who's here!"
There was no doubt in Sharan's mind who this person was. Even though his features were much softer than those of a full Romulan, there would be no way of mistaking him for a Human.
"Khari!" Ryan said with delight as he ran forward and pulled his ex-boyfriend into a hug. "I'm so glad you're here! I thought you said that you couldn't come."
"I know. I was really trying to be strong and self sufficient. But I was miserable being alone on Christmas. You've become my family and that's what this day is all about." Khari said as he looked around the room, then his startled gaze stopped on Sharan.
"Khari, you know everyone else. This is Melanie's classmate from the academy. His name is Sharan." Melanie's father said formally.
Sharan's first instinct was to distrust the Romulan and strike out at him. But fortunately, he was able to control that urge and focus on the good things that had been said about the person he was meeting.
There was definite anxiety in Khari's eyes which was the final element to enable Sharan to greet the Romulan as something other than an enemy.
"I have been accepted here and been treated very kindly. I hear that that's in large part thanks to you. If they accept you, then I do as well." Sharan said as he looked Khari in the eyes, then decided to follow up his speech with the Human custom of shaking hands.
As Khari shook Sharan's hand he said, "Thank you. And allow me to respond in kind. If they accept you, so do I."
Sharan gave a slight nod of agreement.
"Khari, I got you this, just in case." Ryan said as he quickly handed Khari a wrapped present.
"Oh, Ryan! I didn't get you anything." Khari said sadly.
"Don't worry about it. I got this for you before you said you couldn't come. Really, I just saw it and thought you'd like it." Ryan said as he waited anxiously for Khari to open the present.
"It's perfect! But how did you know that my camera was broken?" Khari asked as he pulled Ryan into a hug.
"I didn't. I just remembered that it was getting old and when I saw this one on sale, I thought you'd like it." Ryan said gently.
"I've missed you." Khari said quietly.
"I've missed you, too." Ryan responded.
There was a long moment of silence as everyone watched Ryan and Khari just holding each other, then Patrick suddenly said, "Crap! We're missing the game!"
"Football?" Khari asked hopefully as he turned, keeping one arm loosely around Ryan.
"Let's sit down and watch it." Ryan said as he urged Khari toward the couch.
"Do you like football, Sharan?" Mel's father asked casually.
"I've never watched it before." Sharan said honestly.
"Two teams, each has a goal. One ball, each team is trying to get it to their goal the most times before the time limit expires." He said frankly.
"That's it?" Sharan asked with surprise.
"Oh, no. It would probably take the whole game for me to explain all the rules, but those are the facts you need to know to enjoy the game."
Sharan nodded that he understood, then turned his attention toward the TV screen.
"Dinner's ready." Rosalee said as she walked into the TV room.
Everyone looked at her anxiously, obviously torn between following the game or their stomachs.
"If you go now, you'll be back in plenty of time to see the start of the 3rd quarter." Rosalee said warmly.
"Come on. Mama knows best." Eduardo said as he stood.
Reluctantly, the others stood to follow.
"Are you having a good time?" Phillipa asked as she walked to Juan's side and put an arm around him.
"Yes. I'm having a very good time." Juan said gently before leaning in to give her a quick kiss.