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There had been little conversation among the group as they walked through glass tunnels and various other attractions of the aquarium. The underwater environment was so foreign to all of them that each of the friends was caught up in the wonder of the experience.
It wasn't until they were outside and walking away, that the foursome seemed to split into two pairs, separated by a respectful distance.
"How are you doing Val?" Terry asked with concern at his pensive expression. "You look like something's bothering you."
"I'll be fine." Valentine said quietly.
"What's wrong? Was all that water making you nervous?" Terry asked, only half seriously.
Valentine smiled at the question and said, "No. Being here, doing this with all of you made me consider how drastically my life has changed, since coming to Earth."
"If you feel like talking about it... you know... I'm here. I'll listen." Terry stammered.
Valentine smiled at Terry, then glanced at Melanie and Sharan who were walking ahead of them before saying, "Before I left Vulcan, I tried to anticipate what it would be like for me on Earth. The reality is very different from what I expected."
"In a good way, I hope."
"Yes. In a very good way." Valentine said with a smile, then continued, "As you noticed when we first met, I am not like other Vulcans. Since I was unable to master the mental disciplines or the intellectual prowess that is accepted as the norm for Vulcans, I felt very alone for most of my life."
Terry stared at Valentine for a moment, then quietly said, "Yeah. I know how that is."
"Were you also shunned for being different from those around you?" Valentine asked curiously.
"Sort of. I mean, I was born and raised in a domed city... a Tellarite mining colony. My dad is a geologist and my mom is an environmental specialist. We would go to Tellar a few times a year, but not much further away than that. So I never really got much of a chance to spend time around Humans other than my parents." Terry said uncomfortably.
Valentine put an arm around Terry to give him a quick, affectionate hug.
"I'm glad I ended up bunking with you Val. I don't know if I would have made it through the first month without all your help and encouragement." Terry said honestly.
"I'm sure you would have, Terry." Valentine said gently. "But I'd like to think that our friendship made it a more pleasant experience than it would have been otherwise."
"Yeah." Terry said with a chuckle, "I think that's a pretty safe bet."
"Are you guys hungry?" Melanie asked from ahead of them, then gestured toward a restaurant they were approaching.
"Yeah." Terry said immediately.
Valentine noticed that he still had his arm around Terry and tried to inconspicuously release Terry from the hug as he said, "Yes. I am also hungry."
"Val?" Terry said as he stopped walking.
Valentine turned and looked at Terry with question.
"You guys go on, we'll catch up in a minute." Terry said more loudly toward Melanie and Sharan.
Melanie and Sharan looked at Terry curiously for a moment, then both nodded in acceptance before continuing.
There was a long moment of silence as Terry struggled within himself about what he wanted to say, and how to say it.
Valentine watched his expression carefully and understood that whatever Terry was considering, was serious.
"Val. I like you." Terry said as he forced himself to look into Valentine's dark eyes.
"I like you too, Terry." Valentine said simply.
Terry shook his head as he muttered to himself, "I'm messing this up."
Valentine had no idea of what Terry was trying to say, but could tell that his inability to express it was causing him frustration.
"I don't know if you even think about stuff like this..." Terry said, then shook his head, obviously not knowing what his next words should be.
Even though Valentine didn't know what was bothering his friend, he could clearly see the emotional turmoil and only knew of one thing he could do to try to help.
Valentine took a step forward and pulled Terry into his arms.
Terry closed his eyes as a tear of frustration escaped down his cheek.
"Val, I think I might be falling in love with you." Terry said, not sure if even Valentine's superior hearing could catch the muttered whisper.
Valentine froze for a moment, trying to analyze his feelings toward Terry before responding.
"Val?" Terry asked in fear, not knowing what the silence meant.
"Terry." Valentine whispered as he put his hands on Terry's shoulders and guided him slightly out of the hug.
There was a long moment of frozen silence as Terry searched Valentine's eyes, trying to find any hint of what Valentine was feeling.
Without a word, Valentine bent down and kissed Terry full on the mouth.
Terry seemed to be in shock, unwilling to take the chance of moving, afraid that it would break the spell that held them in that perfect moment.
Finally, Valentine slowly pulled away, looking deeply into Terry's light brown eyes to gauge his reaction.
"Wow!" Terry gasped.
Valentine smiled, then a look of regret ghosted into his expression as he said, "I know that I love you, Terry. But I would never want to lie to you. I can't honestly say that I'm 'in love' with you."
"Good." Terry whispered.
Valentine quirked an eyebrow at the unexpected response.
"I don't know if I'm 'in love' either. But if you're willing, maybe we could find out together." Terry said quietly.
"I would like that." Valentine said as he pulled Terry close to his chest again.
After a moment of enjoying the hug, Terry reluctantly said, "Mel and Sharan are probably already eating. We should go."
"From the way Melanie and Sharan have been looking at each other, they may very well be having the same discussion that we are." Valentine said seriously as he guided Terry to his side so they could walk with their arms around each other.
"I hope so. I think they'd be a great couple." Terry said as he felt joy at being held so affectionately.
After a moment, Valentine hesitantly said, "Kissing is not a custom of the Vulcan people."
"I didn't know that." Terry said honestly, then glanced up, hoping to get a hint of what Valentine was thinking.
"Did I do it right?" Valentine asked in a whisper.
Terry smiled and hugged Valentine a little tighter to his side as he said, "You did it great."
Before they could say anymore, they had arrived at the front door of the restaurant and found Sharan and Melanie waiting for them just inside.
* * * * *
"It'll be about five minutes until they have a table for us. What are you guys up to?" Melanie asked with a sparkle of curiosity dancing in her eyes.
"Val and I were just talking about... um... I don't know how to explain it." Terry said nervously.
"We have expressed our affection for each other. I am not familiar enough with the nuances of Human socialization to know how such a relationship would be classified." Valentine said in a formal tone, which told the friends that knew him that he was feeling uncomfortable.
"I don't know either." Terry said with a reassuring smile as he looked up at Val.
"Well, if you have affection, then I'd say you're at least friends. Agreed?" Melanie asked seriously.
Both men nodded in unison.
"Are you planning on dating? And if you are, will you still be seeing other people?" Melanie asked as she watched both for their reactions.
"Just each other." Terry said, then looked up at Val and quietly continued, "If you want to."
"Yes, Terry. I would like that." Valentine said as he draped his arm around Terry's shoulders.
"Then it sounds to me like you two are boyfriends." Melanie said happily.
"Well, we are friends. And next to you, I look like a boy." Terry said playfully as he looked up at Val.
"Next to you, I feel like one." Valentine said with a joyful smile.
Terry was about to respond when he noticed Sharan's serious expression.
"Is there a problem, Sharan?" Terry asked gently, feeling that after Sharan's earlier declaration of friendship, that the question might not be taken as a challenge.
"Yes." Sharan said seriously, then at Terry's look of surprise, he continued, "Excuse me. What I meant to say is, no, I have no problem with the two of you being boyfriends. But, yes, I have a problem."
"Oh. Um, thanks." Terry said in a flustered voice, then asked, "Is it anything I can help with?"
"No." Sharan said quietly, then turned to Melanie and said, "Mel, I should have told you as soon as I realized that I liked you. But since I didn't, it gives the impression that I didn't realize my attraction until the subject was introduced by Val and Terry."
"Um, Sharan." Valentine said hesitantly, "I don't know if you thought you were hiding your emotions from us, but it was obvious how you felt about Mel from the first day."
"Really obvious." Terry said with a nod and a chuckle.
Sharan seemed surprised by the statement, but soon overcame it and turned to Melanie to say, "Regardless of how obvious my feelings might have been. I regret not telling you sooner. I really like you Mel."
"That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me." Melanie said with a chuckle, then when she noticed the expectation in Sharan's eyes, she quietly said, "I like you, too, Sharan."
"Your table is prepared if you would like to follow me." A waiter said from beside the group.
"Come on guys. Let's eat." Melanie said with a grand smile, then held out her hand to Sharan.
After a moment of hesitation, Sharan took the offered hand and walked with Melanie into the dining room.
Terry and Valentine shared a smile at the sight.
There seemed to be a moment of indecision, but Terry finally offered his hand to Val. Terry's hand looked like the hand of a child compared to Valentine's much larger one, but his grasp was firm as they walked, hand-in-hand to catch up to the others.
* * * * *
After being seated and given their menus, Sharan noticed the look of concern on Valentine's face.
"Order whatever you like. I'm buying." Sharan said to the group, then raised his menu and said in a whisper that only Valentine's Vulcan hearing could detect, "Please Val, enjoy this day."
Val glanced at Sharan, indicating that he heard, then went back to trying to decide what to order.
"Thanks Sharan. I really appreciate it." Terry said sincerely.
Noticing the look of concern in Valentine's eyes as he continued to study the menu, Sharan came to a decision.
"My parents were archaeologists." Sharan began, drawing everyone's attention. "About three years ago they made an amazing discovery, the find of a lifetime."
"The crypt they found was from an ancient civilization that no one had ever encountered before. I remember their call like it was yesterday. As soon as they made their discovery, they called me so they could share it with me... they were so happy." Sharan said distantly.
"What my parents didn't know at the time was that the fall of that civilization was brought about by a plague. Even though they took what they believed were reasonable precautions, the plague which lay dormant in the crypt, was so infectious and easily transmissible, that not only they, but the entire archaeological team became infected. Fortunately, when the first of the team members fell ill, the medical personnel on site instituted a complete quarantine, otherwise there's no telling how far it would have spread... Even now, the planet is still quarantined." Sharan said, then looked around the group to see that they were still listening.
"The disease is an incredibly adaptive mutagenic virus. The moment any treatment was introduced, the virus adapted to nullify it, sometimes within minutes. It took weeks for the disease to run it's course with my parents, and I spoke to them every day. I could see them getting sicker and weaker as the disease devoured them." Sharan said quietly.
"We'll need a few more minutes." Melanie said, drawing Sharan's attention.
The waiter gave a quick nod, then withdrew.
"Go on." Terry said gently to Sharan, with a look of compassion in his eyes.
"They died." Sharan said simply, then added, "I was fourteen."
"I'm so sorry." Melanie said as she laid her hand over Sharan's.
"I was able to convince my grandparents that I was old enough to take care of myself... and so I have. My parents amassed considerable wealth before the discovery that killed them. I have never had to want for anything that money could buy." Sharan said quietly, then looked around the table again.
"What the money couldn't buy me is what I've found with you. For the first time since their deaths, I don't feel alone. So please, don't be concerned when I offer to pay for things. I know that you can't buy true friends, but this is something I can do to express my caring for all of you." Sharan said quietly, seeming to direct his last statement to the salt shaker in the center of the table.
"Thank you for explaining. I understand, now." Valentine said with a quick smile at Sharan, then looked back at his menu with no trace of his former hesitance.
After a moment, he quietly added, "But I don't know what to order. All these choices are so... alien."
Melanie chuckled at the choice of words, then asked, "Would you mind eating some seafood?"
Valentine considered for a moment, then said, "I would be willing to try."
"Fine, then look at that meal selection at the bottom. Just pick one thing from each category, it doesn't matter what. If you don't like something, you can trade with one of us." Melanie suggested helpfully.
"Yes, I will do that." Valentine said as he read over the section of the menu that Melanie had indicated.
"I'm going to do that too." Terry said decisively.
Sharan nodded his agreement to the plan.
* * * * *
Once their orders were placed, Valentine noticed that Melanie once again had her hand resting over Sharan's on the table.
"As you may have noticed, I'm not a 'typical' Vulcan." Valentine quietly said.
"From the way you look, I figured that you're probably half Vulcan... I just don't know what the other half is." Terry said honestly.
"No." Valentine said with a gentle smile at his new boyfriend, "I am a full Vulcan. The doctors concluded that through some quirk of genetics, an ancient recessive pattern of our ancestors became dominant in me. So not only am I larger and stronger than other Vulcans, but my brain structure is significantly less developed."
"I don't understand." Melanie said cautiously.
"I have little telepathic ability. I am not able to control my emotions as other Vulcans do. And I have, thus far, been unable to attain a true understanding of logic." Valentine said in a diminishing voice.
"Good." Terry said as he reached under the table to take Valentine's hand.
Valentine looked at him with surprise.
"I like you just the way you are," Terry said with a grin.
After a moment to absorb the words, Valentine quietly said, "You are the first person to ever say such a thing to me."
"Well, he won't be the last." Melanie said from across the table. "I like you just the way you are, too."
Sharan nodded his agreement to Melanie's statement.
"Thank you." Valentine said shyly, then continued, "Since Sharan introduced the subject of money, I felt that I should explain... I am only here due to the generosity of a retired Starfleet officer who agreed to sponsor me. That is why I have to be very careful about the money I spend."
"What about your family?" Melanie asked gently.
"I have not spoken to them since I left their home. That was nearly five years ago." Valentine said distantly. "But had I asked for their support, they would have refused, claiming that my 'deficiencies' would bring shame to their house."
"You said 'their' house." Sharan said quietly.
Valentine slowly nodded, then after a moment to consider his words, explained, "I was forbidden the Kahs'wan, which means that in Vulcan society, I am seen as a child. I have no say, no voice, no house. That is why when I turned fifteen, I left their home."
"You ran away?" Melanie gently asked.
"No. I did not run." Valentine said simply.
Just as Melanie was about to explain what she meant, Valentine continued, "I chose to relieve them of the burden of providing for me and the shame of having a child who could never fulfill even the least of their expectations."
"When I told them my intentions and my reasoning, they did not disagree. So I did not run. I left." Valentine said distantly.
"How did you survive on your own?" Terry asked as he squeezed Valentine's hand under the table.
"There is a segment of Vulcan society that no one talks about, what I suppose you would call 'outcasts'; Other people like me who, for whatever reason, have no house and no voice. It seems strange to me that those who have endured so much hardship have such a great capacity for acceptance. It wasn't an easy life, but since I am strong, I was able to barter my labor for food, clothing and adequate shelter. Once my most basic needs were met, I began to dream of a future." Valentine finished with a smile at his friends.
"Starfleet?" Terry asked to confirm.
"Yes. Although it seemed to be an unattainable goal at first, it was the only possibility that I could conceive that offered a future that would allow me to someday fulfill my ultimate dream." Valentine said distantly.
"What's that... I mean, if you don't mind telling." Terry asked gently, recognizing that it was something very personal.
Valentine looked around the table at his friends, then quietly said, "I want to make a difference."
At the curious looks of his friends, he continued, "On the last day of my life, I want to be able to look back and know that in some way, no matter how small, the universe is a better place because I existed."
"Wow." Terry muttered as he looked at Valentine with admiration.
"Although I never considered my motivation in such terms, I suppose that my ultimate goal is much the same as yours." Sharan said frankly.
At Valentine's curious look, Sharan continued, "I had the family support and finances to pursue any path that I wanted, but rather than take any of those 'easy' paths, I decided that I wanted to achieve something. I didn't want what was handed to me or passed down to me, for once in my life I wanted to have something that I earned for myself."
"I had so many choices, but the one that stood out above all others was Starfleet service. It was the chance for 'me' to do something. Not my money. Not my family influence. It was a chance for 'me' to make a difference." Sharan finished with a smile at Val.
Movement in close proximity to their table drew their attention and everyone watched as the waiter placed appetizers on the table before each person.
* * * * *
"So Val, what do you think?" Melanie asked expectantly.
Valentine considered the flavor of the lobster bisque before saying, "There is an underlying sweetness to this that I find displeasing."
"Then switch with me. I've got a crabcake on watercress salad, maybe you'll like that better." Melanie said as she scooted her dish to him.
"I would not want to take your food." Valentine said cautiously.
"I just picked one at random, same as you. Come on, switch so we can enjoy it before the main course arrives." Melanie said insistently.
As Valentine traded appetizers with Melanie, Sharan asked, "Terry, do you like yours?"
"Yeah. I have no idea what Arancini is, but it tastes great." Terry said with a wide smile.
"I'm glad." Sharan said peacefully.
* * * * *
As the group waited for the main course to arrive, Terry said, "I guess it's my turn to tell."
"You don't have to." Melanie said honestly.
"It's alright. I've wanted to tell all of you about me for a while now, it just never seemed to be the right time." Terry said with a smile at her.
He turned his attention to all three of his friends as he said, "Even though I'm Human, legally I'm a Tellarite because I was born on a Tellerite colony world. I guess working at the mining colony was a great opportunity for my parents when they were first starting out. You know, really good money and impressive titles for a pair of kids fresh out of college. Anyway, by the time their careers were established and I was born, it had become their home and they didn't want to leave."
"I don't know if you know anything about Tellerites, but... well, arguing is kind of like a sport to them. Because of that, I didn't really spend that much time around anyone but my parents. I went to school by subspace and got to know a lot of people from a lot of different species, but... well, people tend to come and go a lot in a situation like that. Because of that and the physical distance between us... I never really got close to anyone." Terry said thoughtfully.
"What drew you to Starfleet?" Melanie asked curiously.
"My parents' dream was 'their' dream. I wanted to join Starfleet so I could see something other than the colony and maybe discover a dream of my own." Terry said simply.
"Was your mining colony on a high gravity planet?" Sharan asked curiously.
"Yes. How did you know?" Terry asked with surprise.
"During calisthenics I have noticed that you are far stronger and have greater stamina than the other Humans." Sharan said simply.
"I've noticed too." Val said honestly.
"Well, yeah. Where I'm from has a lot higher gravity. It's about 2.4g compared to Tellar. I haven't done the conversion comparing it with Earth. But that's why I wear these." Terry said as he pulled back his right sleeve to reveal the small device on his forearm.
"What is it?" Val asked, anxious to know after being curious for so long.
"Why don't you try it and see if you can figure it out?" Terry said as he deactivated the unit and unhooked the strap.
"It won't hurt you to be without it?" Val asked cautiously.
"No. Trust me." Terry said with a grin, then glanced at Sharan and said, "You can try one too if you want."
"What does it do?" Sharan asked hesitantly.
"Nothing bad. Just don't let Mel try it, it's possible that it could hurt her." Terry said as he removed the device from his left arm.
"What do I do?" Val asked as he pulled back the long sleeve of his robe and moved the device to his forearm.
"Just strap it on and press the button by your wrist." Terry said with a smile.
Everyone was startled by the sound of a ::thump:: from Sharan's side of the table.
Sharan slowly lifted his hand that had slammed down on the table, then he started examining the device on his forearm.
"Do you see what it is now?" Terry asked with a smile.
"It seems to be a weight." Valentine said as he lifted his arm experimentally.
"Well, they use the same technology as gravity plating to distribute the weight evenly instead of only on my wrists and ankles, but yeah, for all intents and purposes, they're weights." Terry said with a smile.
Valentine turned off the unit as he quietly said, "When I saw you without these in the shower room, I thought perhaps you had some sort of neurological or muscle disorder."
"No. My only muscle disorder was being born and living my whole life on a high gravity planet. Without the compensators, I feel almost like I'm floating. I stumble and fall into things. If I were to try and scratch my nose right now, I'd probably slap myself in the face." Terry finished with a chuckle.
"But with your compensators, you don't have any difficulty?" Valentine asked carefully as he handed the compensator back to Terry.
"No. Well, at least not with the gravity. The air pressure and atmosphere are different from what I'm used to, but I spent some time in the Federation Dome back at the colony before I left, so I could acclimate before I came to the academy. I notice it, but it doesn't cause me any problems."
A pair of waiters arrived and cleared the appetizer dishes as they placed the main course.
* * * * *
Melanie watched with concern as Valentine took a small bite of his main course. She knew that he wasn't used to eating any meat.
After a moment, Val looked up with surprise and said, "This is very good."
"What did you get, anyway?" Terry asked curiously as he looked at Valentine's plate.
"Swordfish." Val said as he cut himself another bite, then asked, "What is yours?"
"Seared Mahi Mahi." Terry said, then quietly continued, "From the description, it looked like the least scary of the choices."
"You can taste mine if I can taste yours." Val said with a smile.
Melanie sputtered a little as she tried to giggle around a mouth full of food, then after swallowing, finally said, "I hope you were talking about the food."
"What food?" Val asked, feigning ignorance.
"Here." Terry said as he offered a piece of the Mahi Mahi on his fork.
Val placed his hand over Terry's and guided the fork to his mouth.
After a moment to consider, Val finally released Terry's hand and said, "I like that too. Try mine."
Melanie and Sharan watched as Terry guided Val's hand holding the fork to his mouth.
"Would you like some of mine?" Sharan asked her quietly.
"We ordered the same thing, Sharan." Melanie said with regret.
"So?" Sharan said as he offered her a bite of one of his broiled prawns.
Melanie mimicked Val and Terry's action by guiding Sharan's hand holding the fork to her mouth, then after a moment to consider, she said, "I think I like yours better."
* * * * *
"My turn." Melanie said, drawing the attention of the others at the table.
Their uncomprehending looks prompted her to add, "...to tell why I came to the academy."
"My favorite aunt, Janice, served... actually, is still serving on the Enterprise. She's the best and happiest person I know, so I decided that I'd like to pattern my life after hers... well, except that I want to go into medical. I don't think I'd enjoy ship's services... and my aptitude tests agree with me." Melanie rambled.
"Patterning your choices after someone you admire is not only a great tribute to them, but seems like a smart way to start out until you find your own path." Sharan said thoughtfully.
"I bet your aunt is pleased." Terry said with a grin.
"When she found out that I was accepted, I thought she was going to explode with happiness. I can't wait until she's back on Earth so I can tell her about everything that's happened."
"How did your parents feel about your decision?" Sharan asked curiously.
"They thought it was a good choice. From the first time I brought it up to them, they've offered me their encouragement and support." Melanie said happily.
"That's good. I'm happy for you." Terry said honestly.
"What about you, Terry? How did your parents' feel about your choice?" Valentine asked curiously.
"I think they didn't want me to go, but they knew that Starfleet would be good for me. By the time I was ready to leave for the academy, they were happy for me and accepted it." Terry said contentedly.
"Excuse me, but were you just talking about the Starfleet Academy?" someone asked from the next table.
"Yes." Terry said cautiously.
"I'm going to start there tomorrow, is there any way I could ask you some questions?" the young man asked hopefully.
"We're just about to have dessert, but you're welcomed to join us if you like." Terry said, then glanced at the others to see that it was alright with them.
"Thanks. We're waiting on our food to arrive, so I'll just take a minute." The young man said quickly as he pulled his chair over between Melanie and Terry. "I'm Giovanni."
"It's nice to meet you, Giovanni. What's your specialty?" Sharan asked seriously.
"I've been accepted into the accelerated officer's program. I'm going to be a helmsman." Giovanni said with joy.
The four friends exchanged a look, then Melanie said, "We're probably not going to be much help. We're all taking crewman's courses."
"That's okay. I just wanted to know what it's like at the academy. What can I expect?" Giovanni asked quickly.
"Expect to work hard." Terry said immediately.
"Don't let anything distract you from your reason for being at the academy. You will need to work toward your goal to the exclusion of all else." Sharan said seriously.
"And remember that one of your greatest assets at the academy will be your classmates. Surround yourself with those people who will motivate you and appreciate your encouragement. Do not allow someone with a bad attitude or a lax work ethic to divert you from your pursuit of your goal." Valentine said as he looked the young man in the eyes.
"Remember that life isn't fair, Starfleet isn't fair, when you're told to be somewhere, it's an order, not a request." Melanie said frankly.
"It sounds tough." Giovanni said with a little apprehension.
"It is." Terry said honestly. "But if you can stick with it and not give up, it will all be worth it."
Giovanni glanced over his shoulder and saw a waiter placing the main course on his table.
"Thanks guys. I appreciate the advice. Hopefully I'll see you at the academy." Giovanni said as he stood.
"You probably will. Enjoy your meal." Terry said with a smile at the happy young man.
After watching Giovanni go back to his own table, Melanie quietly asked, "Is that what we were like?"
"It seems like a lifetime ago, yet it was only a month." Sharan said distantly.
"It's been worth it." Terry said with an affectionate smile at Val.
"Yes." Val said as he returned the smile, then looked up as the waiter approached with their desserts.
* * * * *
"What do you want to do next?" Terry asked as the group were all getting ready to leave.
"How about we walk along the pier for a little bit to see some sights, then head back? I don't know about you guys, but I would absolutely love to get a full night of stress free sleep." Melanie said as she automatically walked to Sharan's side and took hold of his hand.
"Yes. That sounds like a very good idea." Val said as he followed her example and offered his hand to Terry.
"It's your world, lead the way." Terry said happily, then took hold of Valentine's much larger hand.
Some of the patrons of the restaurant gave curious glances at the large Vulcan publicly displaying affection, but Terry and Valentine's attention was only on each other.
* * * * *
"That's Alcatraz. And over there is the Golden Gate Bridge." Melanie said as she gestured across the bay.
"It is so beautiful here. The pictures that I have seen didn't do it justice." Valentine said as he draped his arm around Terry's shoulders.
"I always thought that my parents were being sentimental about Earth, because it was their home. I guess I didn't think it was really as nice as they said it was." Terry said distantly, then asked, "Are you alright, Val? It feels like you're shivering."
"I am a bit cold. I am used to a much warmer climate." Val said quietly, trying to minimize his discomfort.
"Let's ask if the others are ready to go. I think I've seen enough." Terry said quietly as he looked up into Val's eyes.
"One thing, first." Valentine said, then leaned down to kiss Terry gently.
Automatically, Terry reached up to place his arms around Val to pull him closer.
"Now I'm ready." Val whispered against Terry's lips.
"Yeah. Me too." Terry said before reclaiming Val's lips with his own.
* * * * *
"Before we get back to the academy, I just wanted to say thank you to Mel for choosing such a wonderful place to visit and to Sharan for paying for it." Terry said as he snuggled against Valentine's side in the back of the taxi van.
"Yes. I had a great time. Much better than my best expectation." Valentine agreed in a gentle voice.
"It was our pleasure guys." Melanie said happily as she hugged Sharan with one arm.
"But we will expect you to respond in kind if we should ever find ourselves on Tellar or Vulcan." Sharan added with a grin.
"Absolutely." Terry said with a chuckle as Valentine nodded his agreement.
There was a long moment of silence as each of the group were lost in their own thoughts.
Finally, Melanie quietly asked, "Are we all ready for another month of this?"
"There is no ready." Terry said as he clung to Valentine a little more tightly.
"That's right. We just have to do it." Valentine said, then leaned down to place a gentle kiss on Terry's dark blond, slightly wavy hair.
"I think that says it all. We've all committed to this. We either continue on, or nothing we've done so far matters." Sharan said frankly.
Melanie nodded as the cab pulled up to the curb in front of the spaceport.
* * * * *
The group of four were surprised when they walked into their barracks to find four other people already in there.
"Hello?" Melanie said cautiously, as she separated herself from Sharan's side.
"Hey." A young teenage boy said as he lounged on his bunk. "I'm Troy. I think I've seen you around."
"I have noticed you in calisthenics." Valentine said in a neutral tone.
"Yeah, and I've seen you in the cafeteria. Have you been consolidated into this barracks?" Terry asked with his arm still around Valentine.
"Yup. I'm the last survivor of D7A. Juan and Phillipa are from D6K. That guy with the headphones over there hasn't spoken to us, but his cabinet says 'Horton'." Troy said, still sitting on his bunk.
"I'm Terry... Harper." Terry finished by pointing to the placard on his cabinet, then continued, "This is Val, Mel and Sharan."
"Nice to meet you. I can't believe how many people we lost in one month. There can't be more than twenty five of our original group left." Troy said seriously.
"We've been through six, so far, in this barracks." Valentine said as he guided Terry to walk with him to his bunk.
"Boyfriends?" Troy asked curiously as he looked at them.
"Yeah. As of today." Terry said happily.
"Congrats. Juan and Phillipa are a couple too." Troy said as he gestured absently in their direction.
"So are Sharan and Mel." Terry said with a smile.
"I guess that leaves me with..." Troy began to say as he glanced at 'Horton' who was rolled on his side, facing away and still wearing headphones, "...um, on my own."
"Don't worry Troy, we'll make sure you don't feel left out." Terry said with a grin.
"Guys, please trust me when I say that I'll probably want to be left out of certain things." Troy said frankly.
"Got it, Troy." Terry said with a chuckle.
"I think Terry was just saying that the rest of us won't pair off and ignore you." Valentine said gently.
"Thanks." Troy said, looking at Valentine with astonishment.
"He's nicer than the average Vulcan." Terry said with a grin, then winked up at his large boyfriend.
"Well good. I think this is going to be an interesting month." Troy said with a smile.
"Excuse me. Someone has left their soiled undergarments on my bunk." Sharan said in a menacing voice.
"Oops. Sorry. I wondered where those went." Troy said quickly as he stood and snatched them from the edge of Sharan's bunk.
"Do I want to know?" Terry asked quietly.
"I was the first one to get moved in here today. I guess maybe the unpacking got out of control." Troy said as he quickly stashed the underwear in his locker.
"I suspect that, while we have been out, a monkey has been spanked." Valentine said ominously.
A burst of laughter drew all attention to Phillipa who was now burying her face into Juan's chest.
"Ya never know, maybe more than one." Troy said with a guilty grin as a blush rose up his cheeks.
"We're going to need to do class selections tomorrow. I think it might be a good idea to do a little planning tonight." Sharan said thoughtfully.
"You're right, Sharan, as usual." Terry said with resignation as he walked to his locker to retrieve his padd.
Valentine, Melanie and Sharan each picked up their own padds, then looked around, trying to decide the best way they could make plans together.
"Guys, you can use my bunk." Terry said as he walked to sit with Valentine.
"We're planning our schedules, the rest of you are welcomed to join us if you want." Terry said over his shoulder.
"We've already planned ours. But... would you mind if Phillipa and I went up to my bunk?" Juan asked shyly, indicating the bunk above Terry's.
"Go for it." Terry said with a chuckle, then looked over at Troy and asked, "Do you want to join us for some schedule planning?"
"No more monkey jokes?" Troy asked cautiously.
"I don't know. You'd have to ask the big guy about that." Terry said playfully.
"I will promise not to introduce the subject." Valentine said in a valiant attempt to sound emotionless.
"Alright then." Troy said as he scooted off his bunk, took one step, then scooted onto Valentine's bunk and swung himself around so that he ended up right beside Terry.
"I think the best way to start will be in the 'path'." Sharan said as he looked at his padd.
"Oops. I guess I'll need that." Troy said as he rolled backward and swung his legs around again so that he ended up rolling off the edge of the bunk and landing on his feet.
Valentine and Terry smiled at each other at the younger boy's energy.
"How old are you, Troy?" Melanie asked with a grin.
"Fifteen and one third." Troy said as he hopped back onto the bunk.
"That's kind of young for the academy, isn't it?" Melanie asked with concern.
"Yeah. But I had nothing better to do." Troy said as he settled in beside Terry again.
"What about high school?" Melanie asked cautiously.
"Been there, done that, got the diploma. I even knocked out a few college courses before I was accepted to the academy." Troy said happily.
"If you can do all that, why aren't you in the officer's course?" Melanie asked curiously.
"Because I don't want to be an officer." Troy said simply.
At Melanie's disbelieving look, Troy said, "Some people think I'm smart. I don't see it. I can remember things and I'm a good test taker. But I'm not a leader. If I can make it through the E-1 training and get a good posting somewhere, then I'll probably start working my way up through the enlisted ranks. I like the idea of working along side people and training them. I think I'd hate sitting at a desk and planning out the jobs for all my little 'crewmen' to do."
"I think you are smart." Sharan said simply.
At Troy's look of surprise, Sharan continued, "You know your strengths, capabilities and your own mind. I respect your decision."
"Kewlness." Troy said with a grin.
"Perhaps we should begin our scheduling so we can enjoy the remainder of our evening." Valentine said in an attempt to get everyone back on task.
"Yeah. I know that some of us are looking forward to a long, stress-free night of sleep." Terry said with a smile at Melanie.
"Yup. Let's do it." Melanie said as she looked at her padd again.
* * * * *
"Crap!" Troy said as he worked on his padd.
"Problem?" Terry asked as he looked at what Troy was doing.
"It looks like I'm going to have to get 'special permission' to overload my classes again. It's such a pain." Troy muttered.
"Overload? What's that?" Terry asked curiously.
"You have to get permission to take more than eight classes. I thought when I did it last time it was a one time thing and I could just load up my schedule again this time. But noooOOOoooo. Now I'll have to go talk to all the guys with the funny jewelry on their collars and convince them that I really do know what I'm doing." Troy said with frustration.
"How many classes are you planning on taking?" Melanie asked curiously.
"Twelve, well, at least that's how many I'd like to take. I won't know for sure until I can plug them into the path and see if there are any conflicts. Last month I had two classes that I had to get waivers on because I hadn't completed the prerequisite classes, yet. Of course, I didn't know that until I got permission to do the overload and plugged them into the path, so I had to go through the whole 'special permission' thing again to get the prerequisite waivers." Troy said as he worked through the screens on his padd.
"I guess if you survived the tests last month, then they shouldn't have too much trouble with you overloading again this month." Valentine said carefully.
"Survived?" Troy said with a laugh, "I smoked them bitches! The only thing I didn't ace was that oral essay final. I lost points for being a smartass."
"Not you." Terry said with a chuckle.
"It was TOTALLY worth it." Troy said with a mischievous smile.
"Is there anything you can do tonight or will you have to wait until tomorrow to do everything?" Valentine asked curiously.
Troy sat thinking for a moment, then let out a sigh of resignation before saying, "I could go to the library and look up the requisite details on all the classes that I'm interested in... and that I've completed... and the college credits that transferred over, then chart out the whole mess and manually do what the path program usually does with a few 'drag and drops' and a click."
"You said you could do that, but what will you do?" Sharan asked curiously.
"Oh, I'll end up doing it. I'm just going to bitch and whine about it a little bit longer before I go." Troy said honestly.
Valentine worked to keep all emotion out of his expression as he said, "I see the logic of your approach."
Troy looked at Val with surprise, then broke into uncontrollable laughter.
All four friends watched as Troy fell back on the bunk clutching his stomach and laughing himself silly.
"You... you... are so awesome!" Troy hooted.
"Troy, would you like some company at the library?" Terry asked with a smile.
"I thought you were talking about going to bed early."
"No. I mean, yes. I was talking about that, but no. Not me." Terry said quickly.
"Dude, I think I need to diagram that sentence a few times before I understand it, but... if you want to come along, it'd be great to have the company." Troy said with appreciation.
"May I also accompany you?" Val asked cautiously.
"You already told me that you're boyfriends." Troy said seriously.
At Val's expectant look, Troy rolled his eyes and said, "That means if I invite him, you're automatically invited. And vice versa."
"Thank you." Valentine said with a happy little smile.
"I can see why you like the big guy, Terry. You ready?" Troy asked as he swung his legs around, rolled sideways and tumbled off the edge of the bunk onto his feet.
"Yeah. Would you two like to go to the library, too?" Terry asked hopefully.
"I think we might enjoy some quiet time together more than a trip to the library." Sharan said with a tender glance at Mel.
"Got it. Have fun." Terry said with a grin, then walked to join Valentine and Troy who were waiting for him buy the door.
* * * * *
"What a ghost town." Terry said, as he looked around the large open room.
"I guess this is the one day of the month when no one needs to be in here." Troy said as he walked directly to the reference section.
"Do you need any help?" Valentine asked quickly.
"Nah. I know what I need. It'll just take a sec." Troy said as he glanced at the books.
"Do you want to do it in a study room?" Terry asked curiously.
"That depends on what you mean by 'it'." Troy said with a grin as he selected a book from the shelf.
Terry chuckled and said, "The only 'it' that I was planning on offering you was to hang out with you while you plan your schedule."
"Yeah. Then a study room would be good." Troy said as he grabbed another book.
* * * * *
"Policy makes it six. I think that's as much as I'm going to be able to stand." Terry said as he added the last of his classes into the path program.
"Do you think I should attempt to take the environmental control course again? Perhaps using what I learned the first time through the course, I would be able to pass it the second time." Valentine asked hesitantly.
"How important is it?" Terry asked as he walked to Val's side.
"It isn't. It's a specialty class that only leads to other, more specialized environmental control classes." Valentine said thoughtfully.
"Unless you really want to be in environmental control, I think you should skip it and take something that you can really use." Terry said frankly.
"The only thing that concerns me is that it was my only specialty class. All my other classes were general studies." Valentine said with concern.
"You can always go back later and pick it up if you find out that you have an empty block in one of your later schedules." Troy said as he concentrated on the books in front of him.
"Yes. That makes sense to me. I would prefer to focus on General Engineering rather than the specialized classes. Once I've fulfilled the minimum requirement for Starfleet service, then I can take classes in individual fields to enhance my desirability as a potential member of a crew." Valentine said thoughtfully.
"Would you mind if I look at that?" Troy asked as he finally looked away from his work at the table.
"I would not want to take you away from your scheduling efforts." Valentine said hesitantly.
"I could stand a minute or two away from it." Troy said dismissively, then held out his hand and asked, "May I?"
"Of course." Valentine said as he handed the padd to Troy.
After a moment of looking over the padd, Troy absently said, "It looks like you nailed down the most important classes last term."
"The only one I failed was Environmental Control." Valentine said quietly.
"Hey, let me try something." Troy said suddenly, then started working on the padd.
"What are you doing?" Valentine asked hesitantly.
"You said that the goal was to qualify for Starfleet service, right?" Troy asked seriously as he was working on the touch screen at a rapid pace.
"Yes. I should be able to complete that requirement in two terms, then I can begin to broaden my skills." Valentine said cautiously, as he watched Troy work.
Troy broke into a wide grin, then handed the padd to Valentine as he said, "Tell me what you think of that."
Valentine began to read the padd, then his eyes widened in astonishment.
"What is it Val?" Terry asked with concern.
"Troy found a series of classes that would qualify me for Starfleet service at the end of the coming term." Valentine said in wonder.
"He what?" Terry said in surprise, then turned to Troy and asked, "How?"
Troy smiled with pride at his accomplishment, then said, "The trick is lab studies. You'll notice that nearly all those classes include practical lab components. Those classes carry more weight than the textbook only classes."
"Does that mean that Val is going to have to take eight classes AND eight labs?" Terry asked cautiously.
"No. It doesn't work that way. These classes are designed to teach the different disciplines with a hands-on approach. So instead of having to do a ton of reading about how to do a thing, you go into a lab and actually do it. You end up learning about the same thing. But the really great part is that there are quite a few things that you can do that will apply for credit in two or more classes." Troy said happily.
"I don't understand what it says about the unscheduled testing requirement." Valentine said thoughtfully as he read through the class descriptions.
Troy shrugged and said, "That's just their roundabout way of saying that you may be asked to actually do one of the lab projects for a grade. Usually labs are just there to help you figure out stuff that the reading didn't explain well. A cadet can make it through three or four terms without ever setting foot in a lab. But if you take one of these classes, you might be asked to prove not only that you can answer a question of how to do something, but actually give a demonstration."
"I don't know if that's better or worse than the other way." Terry said cautiously.
"I don't know either. But it's faster." Troy said frankly. "If Valentine's goal is to become eligible for Starfleet service as quickly as possible, I think this is the only way."
"Thank you, Troy." Valentine said when he finally looked up from the padd. "If I can complete these classes, I will be eligible for Starfleet service at the end of the month." Valentine said as he studied his padd.
"Are you going to do it?" Terry asked with concern. "You'll be able to leave in one more month?"
"I will meet the absolute minimum requirement for active Starfleet service. However, I would only be qualified as 'general labor' with no qualification in any engineering department or specialty." Valentine said as he looked up from his padd.
"Still, I think it's the way to go." Troy said as he looked back at the large table strewn with papers.
"How are you doing with your stuff, Troy?" Terry asked with concern.
"I'm good. I know it looks like a mess, but I've just about got the hard part done."
"I think we're almost finished with our stuff. Is there anything we can do to help you?" Terry asked cautiously, not wanting to distract Troy from his work too much.
"No. I've just about got all the pieces mapped out, so all that's left is to put them together." Troy said as he concentrated on his writing.
After a moment, Troy looked up from his work and said, "Even though this part isn't hard, it might take a while. So you guys can go back to the barracks and sleep or relax or something if you want."
Before Terry could respond, Valentine said, "If we are disturbing you, please say so. We will not be offended and we will leave you to complete your work. However, if you are not bothered by our presence, I believe we would both like to stay. We enjoy your company."
Troy seemed to consider for a moment, then quietly said, "I enjoy your company, too. I'd like it if you'd stay."
* * * * *
"So what does all this mean?" Terry asked when Troy stopped shifting pieces of paper around on the table.
"Basically, that pile in the middle represents the classes I'm going to sign up for tomorrow, as soon as I talk to everyone from the groundskeeper to Commander De Gama and get their approval." Troy said honestly.
"And you had to go through all this to get that?" Terry asked hesitantly.
"Yeah. I could have written a program to do it, but after writing it, I'd have to plug in all the variables and in the end it would have taken longer than this did." Troy said seriously.
"So what do you need to do now?" Terry asked as he looked at the scraps of paper that honestly looked like scattered rubbish to him.
"Well, the result of all that..." Troy said as he gestured toward the table.
"...is this." He continued, holding up one neatly written piece of notebook paper.
"So we can just throw it all away?" Terry asked uncertainly.
"Yeah. If you wouldn't mind. I'll go put the books back where I found them." Troy said as he picked up the reference books from the table.
"Hold on!" Terry said in a commanding tone.
"What?" Troy asked from the doorway.
"Can I see that piece of paper again?" Terry asked seriously.
"Sure." Troy said in a puzzled voice as he fished the folded piece of paper out of his pocket.
"What do you need it for?" He asked curiously.
"I don't. I just wanted to be sure that I saw you leave the room with it, in your hand, BEFORE we started throwing away large amounts of paper." Terry said frankly.
Troy broke into a smile as he said, "Good call."
"We'll be done here in a minute." Terry said as he walked to the corner of the room and picked up the large paper recycle bin.
* * * * *
"So you're done with everything you can do tonight, right?" Terry asked as they walked out of the library.
"Yeah. At 09:00 I'll start jumping through all the hoops to get my schedule set up. It'll probably take me all morning." Troy said sourly.
"Well, we've still got a few hours before bedtime. Do you have any plans?" Terry asked curiously.
Troy considered for a moment before saying, "No. Not really. Did you have something in mind?"
"I just feel like relaxing. It's too early to sleep, but I think it'd be nice to just get comfortable and basically do nothing for a while." Terry said honestly.
"Count me in." Troy said with a smile.
"I feel conspicuous in my 'civvies'. Perhaps we could shower and change first." Valentine said as they walked.
"A hot shower sounds like a perfect way to start." Terry said with a grin up at Val.
After a few steps, Terry noticed that Troy had stopped walking and was staring at them.
"Problem?" Terry asked cautiously.
"Um, it's about the shower thing..." Troy said uncomfortably.
"Join us. Don't. Whatever makes you comfortable." Terry said casually.
Troy seemed to be lost in his thoughts as Terry and Val waited for his decision.
"Is it because we're gay?" Terry asked cautiously.
Troy blinked with surprise at the question, then said, "No. Actually, I wasn't even thinking of that."
"Then what's wrong?" Val asked gently,
"It's just... you know I'm young..." Troy said uncomfortably.
"Yeah." Terry said cautiously, not sure what problem Troy was having.
"I just... I guess all my growth hormones went to my brain." Troy finished as a blush rose up his cheeks.
"Terry tells me that he feels that, due to my size, he looks like a boy in comparison." Val said gently.
Troy looked from Val to Terry and nodded that he understood what Val was saying.
"So if you would like to join us, you would have someone sympathetic to what you are feeling." Val finished with a smile.
After a moment, Troy reluctantly said, "I guess I could try. For the last month, I've been trying to avoid showering with the other guys because I didn't want to get stared at or picked on."
"We wouldn't allow anyone to torment you, Troy." Valentine said sincerely.
"Thanks. It's going to be nice to have some people around that I can trust." Troy said happily.
"You've got 'em, Troy." Terry said with an honest smile.
Editor's Notes:?It seems as if all of our friends are beginning to become more comfortable with one another, and now Troy has joined them.?He seems to fit in very well.?He is young and very smart.?He has already shown that he can think logically.?He had better not be quite such a smart ass. it will not go well for him, if he comes off that way to the mucky mucks.
Ah, we also have a pre-existing couple in the mix, now.? I wonder what they will add to the group.
Of course there is the loner, wearing his headphones.?What is his problem?
We will just have to wait for the next chapter to find out, won't we?
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher