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"Guys, I just heard that the cafeteria is going to stay open all night for students studying for the next exam. I'm going to head down there now before it fills up." Melanie said seriously.
"Hold on, Mel. We'll go with you. There's no reason for us to stay here and keep Sharan and Roger awake." Valentine said quickly.
"If you guys feel like studying with us, you're welcomed." Melanie said seriously.
"No. I think I've studied all that I can. I'm going to try to get a full night of sleep, so I'm well rested for the test tomorrow." Roger said steadily.
Melanie looked at Sharan with question, wanting to be sure that he knew that he was honestly invited.
"Perhaps later." Sharan said quietly.
Melanie reluctantly nodded her agreement, then led the way out of the room.
* * * * *
"My brain is turning to jelly." Melanie said as she stared at her padd.
"My jelly still hasn't absorbed all the General Operations material, so I have to keep going." Valentine said frankly.
Terry and Mel chuckled at his statement.
"I need food. Would any of you like some more coffee while I'm up?" Valentine asked as he stood.
"Yeah. I could use some." Melanie said with a tired smile.
"What would you like in it?" Valentine asked automatically, even though they had had coffee together enough times that he was fairly certain of what she would want.
"She likes her coffee like she likes her men." Terry said with a grin.
Melanie looked at Terry with surprise at the statement then slowly asked, "What *exactly* is that supposed to mean?"
Terry froze, realizing that Melanie seemed not to be amused by the joke.
"Don't worry Terry, I know what you mean." Valentine said as he started away from the table.
After a few steps he stopped and said over his shoulder, "Although I'm not sure if they have coffee that is blue and sexually frustrated."
* * * * *
"I don't know how or when, but I'll get you back for that." Melanie said when she saw Valentine returning to the table carrying a large plate and a cup of coffee.
Terry was fighting to contain his chuckles.
"I have no words to express my regret for making that joke." Valentine said as he sat the coffee down beside Melanie. "But I do have nachos, which I will be willing to share with you, if you'll forgive me."
Melanie seemed to consider for a moment, then said, "You drive a hard bargain, but you're forgiven."
Valentine smiled as he placed the full plate of nachos in the center of the table.
Melanie picked up the coffee and seemed to be about to take a drink when she stopped and looked at Valentine with question.
"Strong, hot and just a little bit sweet." Valentine said with a barely restrained smile.
Melanie smiled at his answer, then took a careful sip of the coffee.
"Yeah. That's *exactly* what I meant." Terry said quickly.
Melanie flashed a look in Terry's direction, saying without words that she wasn't buying it for a second.
"How are you two doing on the studying?" Valentine asked casually.
"I think I've got a handle on the Protocol. But I'm still shaky on the Procedure." Terry said honestly.
"I'm swamped. I had no idea that taking 8 classes could be this hard. I really don't think it's possible to learn all this stuff so quickly." Melanie said frankly.
"But people do it all the time." Terry said quietly. "Every year they offer the accelerated course, and there's a graduating class... otherwise they wouldn't offer it."
"I always thought of crewmen as the grunts who do the dirty work. I never imagined that they had to go through this kind of training." Melanie said in wonder.
"I never considered what type of training crewmen went through. I just assumed that it was what they needed to know to do their jobs." Valentine said honestly.
"Well, I suppose it is that. But it also weeds out the people who are lazy or think that they can coast through the system." Melanie said thoughtfully.
"Would you mind if I join you?"
The trio turned as one to see Sharan approaching.
"Please have a seat." Valentine said immediately.
Sharan stopped by the table and looked at Terry and Melanie with question.
"We told you that you were invited." Melanie said frankly.
"Yeah. And you can help us with these nachos if you want to." Terry said cautiously, still not entirely comfortable with Sharan's volatile nature.
"I suppose such is the duty of classmates." Sharan said in a tone of long suffering and finally took the offered seat.
"Are you having trouble with any particular subject?" Valentine asked cautiously.
"No. But when I tried to go to sleep, my mind kept going over and over the facts that I had been studying." Sharan said quietly.
"That's been happening to me all week. I doubt that I've had one good night's sleep since the last test." Terry said honestly.
"None of us have." Melanie said in a weary voice.
"Except Roger. He goes to sleep every night and wakes up every morning like nothing has changed." Valentine said slowly.
"I hope he knows what he's doing." Melanie said before grabbing a nacho chip.
"It's nearly midnight. I suppose we'd better get to work if we're going to finish before morning." Valentine said reluctantly.
"I'm getting back to my General Procedure. I want to finish the chapter one more time before I try the practice quiz again." Terry said as he lifted his padd.
"Keep in mind that we'll need to be on the practice field before 06:00 for calisthenics." Valentine said grimly to the rest of the group.
"Don't remind me. Couldn't they at least let us take exam day off?" Melanie said as she dropped her forehead onto her arms folded on the table.
"Actually, I'm counting on our morning run to wake me up before we take our test." Terry said frankly.
"Terry, I swear to God, if you're cheerful in the morning I'll kill you." Melanie said in a growl, then lifted her head enough to look him in the eyes. "Do you hear me? I will fucking kill you."
"Got it Mel." Terry said cautiously, then shared an amused look with Valentine.
* * * * *
"Holy Christ!" Melanie gasped when she saw the questions fill her screen.
"This exam is timed. Correct answers are worth one point each, incorrect answers are worth negative three points each. Unanswered questions have no value. A seventy-five percent grade is required to pass. If you pass, you will be awarded the full value of 25% of your grade for the term for that module."
Valentine felt a cold numbness wash over him as he realized that he had nearly a thousand questions to answer.
"All or nothing." Terry whispered under his breath, sounding to be on the verge of tears.
"Begin." Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said simply, then took his seat.
* * * * *
"If your terminal just froze, that indicates that your time has expired. Please exit quietly so as not to disturb your classmates."
Valentine couldn't even spare a glance of concern or encouragement as he worked his way through the seemingly endless barrage of questions.
* * * * *
"I... I..." Melanie stammered as she walked out of the classroom.
"Yeah. Me too." Terry said with sympathy as he rested against the wall, just outside the classroom door.
"I never imagined such a method of testing existed." Sharan muttered as he walked slowly into the hall.
"What do you think Valentine? Did you pass?" Terry asked timidly, not able to even guess at Valentine's mood from his expression.
"There were just too many questions. I don't know." Valentine said helplessly.
"Did Roger go back to the barracks?" Melanie asked as she noticed that he wasn't waiting in the hall for them.
"He got called to room 112 a few minutes after I got out of the test." Terry said ominously.
"Commander De Gama's office." Melanie said in a whisper.
After a long silent moment, Sharan hesitantly said what they all were thinking, "If our grades are such that there is no possible way to pass, we are asked to leave."
A tear escaped down Melanie's cheek as she stared vacantly down the hallway.
Valentine was about to offer his support when he noticed Sharan slowly and hesitantly raising his hand.
It was an effort for Valentine to restrain his smile as he watched Sharan place his hand on Melanie's shoulder and give it a gentle, reassuring squeeze.
* * * * *
"I'm Toko, that's Geneva and the twins are Kelsey and Ashley." The first of four cadets said as he walked into the room.
"That's nice, but what are you doing here?" Sharan asked in a barely civil tone.
"We're being consolidated in with you. The rest of our class group washed out." Toko said, then turned when Geneva slapped his arm.
"Oh yeah. And I'd better apologize to all of you right now. I never knew it before, but I guess I was born without any tact at all." Toko said frankly.
"You and Sharan will get along fine." Melanie said with a smile at Sharan to take any sting out of her words.
"Or kill each other." Valentine said frankly, trying to maintain a serious 'logical' expression.
Sharan rolled his eyes, then turned toward the new arrivals and said, "I sleep naked. If you have a problem with that, I don't want to hear about it."
"That was Sharan." Melanie said with a chuckle at their shocked expressions.
"I'm Melanie, this is Valentine and the guy on the bunk over there is Terry." Melanie said in a somewhat hospitable tone.
"Valentine?" Ashley asked timidly as she looked up... then up some more, absolutely dwarfed by his greater size.
"Or Val." Valentine said down to her, trying to look nonthreatening.
"Guys. We need to look at our test results." Terry said nervously from the edge of his bed.
"Yeah." Melanie whispered and walked to her cabinet.
"Do you want us to come back in a few minutes?" Toko asked cautiously.
"No. I think we all know that we passed, or we would have been called to Commander De Gama's office by now." Melanie said honestly.
"So, although it may not necessarily be 'good' news, we can be reasonably assured that it is not the worst news." Valentine said frankly.
"I see that someone has already assigned our bunks, so we'll just... unpack, while you do that." Toko said quietly, then turned and gave the rest of his group an urging look.
Valentine looked immediately toward Roger's cabinet to see that rather than 'Wyndham' it now had the name 'Garcia' on it.
"Are we ready?" Melanie asked as she held her padd, her finger poised on the button to download her test results.
"There is no ready." Valentine said simply.
Sharan gave an abrupt chuckle, then nodded his agreement.
"Let's do it." Terry said as he stood from the edge of his bunk.
"Good luck, guys." Melanie said, then pressed the button.
* * * * *
"Terry?" Melanie asked at his stricken look.
"I failed policy. I mean, completely. It's off my course list as if I never took it." He said as he stared at his padd.
"How did you do Val?" Melanie asked quietly, feeling that Terry was still too numb to be able to accept comfort.
After a moment to absorb what he was seeing, Valentine cautiously said, "It appears that I passed all but one of my courses."
"As did I." Sharan said, not able to express any joy in the light of Terry's failure.
"I failed one too." Melanie admitted reluctantly.
"So where do we stand?" Sharan asked as he looked around the group.
"I began with eight courses. I now have three that I have failed one module." Valentine said seriously.
"Val, I don't know if you've thought about this, but... as long as you passed them, I don't think it matters by how much." Terry said quietly.
"How do you mean?" Valentine asked cautiously.
"The last two tests were all or nothing, so the next one probably will be too." Melanie said, realizing what Terry meant. "It doesn't matter if you go into the next test with a perfect score or near failing. If the next one is for a full 50%. It's going to be do or die."
"And it is essentially the final exam, which probably means that anything covered in the entire course of study could be covered." Sharan interjected.
"No pressure." Terry said with a weak, defeated chuckle.
"Library?" Valentine asked as he looked at his classmates who had quickly become his friends.
Melanie nodded, then glanced at the newcomers and said in a louder voice, "We're going to the library to study, if you guys want to come with us."
"No thanks. Maybe next time." Toko said quickly.
Melanie looked at her three remaining classmates with question, then as one, they left for the library.
* * * * *
In the week that they had shared quarters, the two groups had barely spoken. There wasn't any animosity between them and the silence wasn't uncomfortable. It just seemed that both groups realized that they didn't have the time or emotional energy available to invest in making new friends who might be gone in less than one week.
Kelsey and Ashley seemed to always be together, and didn't interact much with the other members of their group.
When Toko and Geneva were together, it seemed like her entire world revolved around him, and since his world revolved around him too, they appeared to have a lot in common.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of Valentine's group, what they did not have in common was a desire to study.
"Are we ready?" Melanie asked, then glanced at Sharan, waiting for his standard response.
What she didn't expect was for all three boys to say in unison, "There is no ready."
Melanie chuckled, then led the group into the classroom.
Toko, Geneva, Kelsey and Ashley followed Valentine's group into the classroom, but didn't make eye contact with any of them.
"If you'll take your seats, we will begin." Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said professionally.
"This test will be a scaled grade... in other words, not 'all or nothing'. When your name is called, you will be taken before a panel of Starfleet officers and asked an essay question. You will answer that question as concisely and completely as you are able. Of course, you will be given one question for each of your courses. You will be graded not only on the correctness of your answer, but also your ability to convey information in a professional manner." Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said seriously and noticed the color wash out of the majority of the students.
"If there are no questions. We will begin." Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said as he moved to his desk and clicked something on his terminal.
The silence in the room was deafening as the students waited to see who was going to be called first.
"Cadet Crewman Ashley Landolt. Come with me." Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said firmly, then walked to wait for her by the door.
"Good luck Ash." Kelsey said in a whisper.
Ashley gave her twin brother a nervous glance before walking out of the room.
* * * * *
Lieutenant Commander Gibbs returned to the room in time to hear Terry say, "I can't do this."
"Yes, Terry. You can." Valentine said firmly.
Lieutenant Commander Gibbs discretely took his seat and quickly keyed something into his terminal.
"I don't want to be around people even when they're not paying attention to me. I can't get up in front of people and talk." Terry said quietly.
"Then, perhaps, it is good that the academy gives this style of exam to first term students." Sharan said simply.
"Why?" Terry asked in a whimper.
"Consider what this test is actually asking you to do. It is something that you could reasonably expect to be asked to do in the course of your duties." Sharan said clearly.
"He's right." Valentine reluctantly agreed. "I don't like this method of testing any more than you do, but it is reasonable."
"When you go in to take your test, just imagine that you're working on a starship and doing your job, and that whatever the question you're asked is something your commanding officer wants you to explain to a visiting dignitary." Melanie said carefully.
Terry nervously nodded, not looking particularly assured.
"Or imagine them naked." Valentine said simply.
Terry and Melanie... even Sharan looked at Valentine with surprise at the suggestion.
"If memory serves, it is a time honored method for dealing with the fear of public speaking." Valentine explained calmly.
"Are you going to imagine them naked?" Terry asked hesitantly.
"Yes. I believe I will." Valentine said without any trace of embarrassment.
"So, does that mean that you're nervous about public speaking too?" Melanie asked curiously.
"I did not say that." Valentine said, fighting to keep his Vulcan, emotionless persona firmly in place.
"So you're just going to imagine them naked because..." Melanie trailed off as she fought down her chuckles.
"Correct. Just because." Valentine said simply.
Valentine's three friends broke into laughter at the statement, relieving at least a little of the tension they were all feeling.
"Cadet Crewman Valaan." Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said as he stood from behind his desk.
Valentine looked up and realized that the Lieutenant Commander was calling him for his exam.
"Good luck Val." Terry said sincerely.
"Yeah. We're all behind you." Melanie said quickly.
Valentine turned to glance at his classmates and was surprised when Sharan looked him in the eyes and firmly said, "Do well."
* * * * *
Valentine walked nervously down the hallway beside Lieutenant Commander Gibbs and tried to remain calm.
"How are you doing?" Lieutenant Commander Gibbs asked quietly.
"I'm nervous, but I know the material, so I'm sure that I'll be able to answer their questions." Valentine said seriously.
"I think you'll be fine." Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said sincerely.
Before Valentine could respond, the Lieutenant Commander stopped by a closed door and motioned for Valentine to go into the room.
"Thank you, sir." Valentine said seriously, then straightened his posture as he walked into the room to face his next exam.
* * * * *
Even though his logical mind told him that the entire exam had taken less than an hour, the experience felt like it had lasted for the majority of the day.
Valentine knew that 'logically' he could wait for his classmates in their barracks, but he had no doubt that the others would choose to do the same as him and wait outside the classroom for everyone to be finished with their exams.
"How did it go?" Melanie asked as she walked down the hallway.
"I believe it went well." Valentine said quietly, but his tone of voice betrayed his uncertainty.
"Yeah. I want to believe that, too." Melanie said with a nervous chuckle.
"I am concerned for Terry. Although I am certain that he knew the material, his nervousness might have affected his ability to convey the information." Valentine said seriously.
"I know. But I can't think of anything else we could have done to help him." Melanie said honestly.
"Are you guys talking about me?" Terry asked as he walked down the hall from the opposite direction from Melanie.
"How did you do?" Melanie asked quickly, sounding desperate to know.
"I don't know for sure, but I think maybe I passed." Terry said in an uncertain voice.
"How can you not know?" Melanie asked in frustration.
"I answered their questions, and I'm pretty sure that I answered them right, but I bumbled and stammered so much, that I'm not sure if they're going to pass me or not." Terry said anxiously.
"Lieutenant Commander Gibbs said that this was a scaled grade. So even if you lost points for your delivery, you may still pass the course." Valentine said carefully.
"I guess, since I haven't been called to Commander De Gama's office, that maybe I passed." Terry said hopefully.
"Either that, or he's still listening to the others do their exams." Melanie said frankly.
"Does that mean that Commander De Gama was in your exam?" Valentine asked with surprise.
"Yes. Does that mean that he wasn't in yours?" Melanie asked curiously.
"No. I had an Admiral, Admiral Hanson, I think. Also a commander and a lieutenant commander." Valentine said frankly.
"An Admiral? Wow! And I thought I had it bad with two lieutenant commanders and a lieutenant." Terry said honestly.
"Did you imagine them naked?" Valentine asked curiously.
"No. When the time came for the test, I didn't even think about that." Terry said with a chuckle.
"Just so you know, it doesn't help... especially with Admiral Hanson." Valentine said with a grim look.
"Is there room for another in your gathering?" Sharan asked as he approached the group.
"We're just waiting on you." Melanie said with an inviting smile.
"How do you think you did?" Terry asked quickly.
"I am Andorian. So, of course, I excelled." Sharan said with false bravado.
"I am pleased." Valentine said sincerely.
"I thought you'd do good." Terry said with a smile.
"You're the most outgoing one of us. This exam was made for you." Melanie said as she gestured down the hallway for the group to walk with her.
"I must admit that the number of questions was a bit intimidating, but thanks to our diligent study, I feel confident." Sharan said happily.
"Then let's go to the cafeteria to celebrate." Melanie said with a devilish grin.
"Does this mean the rest of you did well?" Sharan asked curiously.
"We're not as confident as you, Sharan. The rest of us will have to wait and see the scores to be sure." Melanie said honestly, then added, "But I think all of us would enjoy celebrating the fact that you did well."
"Yes." Valentine said immediately.
Terry nodded his agreement.
"But we'll need to swing by the barracks to get our padds before we celebrate. We're going to want to see the grades as soon as they come down." Melanie said seriously.
"Left turn." Valentine said as they approached the hallway intersection that would take them to their barracks.
The group stayed in formation and turned as one.
* * * * *
"What's wrong, Kelsey?" Valentine asked as soon as they entered the barracks.
"Ashley." Kelsey said in a distant voice.
"What's happened? Did she do bad on the exam?" Valentine asked quietly.
"I guess the stress was too much for her. From what she said, right in the middle of the second question, she lost it. She just... broke down." Kelsey said quietly.
"Where is she now?" Melanie asked with concern.
"I don't know. She said she was going to drop out and then she ran out of here... I looked for her, but I don't know where she went." Kelsey said as he finally looked up to meet Valentine's eyes.
"What are you going to do?" Sharan asked in a reasonable tone.
"If she goes through with it, I'll probably drop out too." Kelsey said in a small voice.
"Why would you do that? If you can make it here, why would you just give up?" Sharan asked in disbelief.
"I only came here because she thought it would be such a great experience for both of us. Without her, there's no point." Kelsey said frankly.
After a long moment of silence, Sharan finally said, "Then you should go."
Valentine thought that although Sharan's words might seem cruel on the surface, they were the words that needed to be said.
"Sharan is right. You've made it this far, so you obviously have the intelligence and skills to make it in Starfleet. But if you aren't devoted to it, then it's all wasted effort." Valentine said frankly.
"Thanks for being honest." Kelsey said as he slowly stood.
"If you change your mind and decide that you want to complete your training, we'll be here for you. Just because your sister left, doesn't mean that you'd have to face this alone." Melanie said seriously.
Kelsey gave her a quick, pained smile, then slowly started walking toward the door.
"I don't feel much like celebrating now. Why don't we just check our scores?" Terry asked as he walked to his bed.
"You don't mind do you Sharan?" Melanie asked quietly.
"Not at all. But if my grade is better than I anticipated, I may choose to celebrate anyway." Sharan said boldly as he walked to get his padd out of his cabinet.
"I passed it!" Terry said joyfully.
"I did not." Valentine said as he stared at his padd.
"Don't tell me you flunked out!" Melanie said with surprise.
"No. I did not flunk out, but I failed environmental control 1... completely." Valentine said quietly.
"So you passed seven out of eight, right?" Melanie asked in confirmation.
"Yes. Not by a significant margin, but I did pass them." Valentine reluctantly agreed.
"Then I think we have a reason to celebrate. All four of us survived the first final." Melanie said frankly.
"What about you Sharan? Do you feel like celebrating?" Valentine asked, noticing that he hadn't spoken since he looked at his grade.
Sharan stared at his padd for a moment longer, then a look of resignation came over his face.
"Yes. I believe I have cause to celebrate." Sharan said firmly.
"Not as good as you'd hoped?" Melanie asked with concern.
"No. Not as I had hoped... but still sufficient." Sharan said solidly.
"Well, after the month we've had, sufficient is pretty damned good. Let's go party!" Melanie said as she started toward the door.
Valentine gave Sharan a momentary look of concern and was gifted with a reluctant, grateful smile in return.
"Come on guys." Terry said urgently from the door.
* * * * *
"Hey Geneva! We're celebrating surviving the exam, would you like to join us?" Valentine asked when he saw her wandering through the mess hall.
"No, thank you. Have you seen Toko? I haven't seen him since the test and I'm starting to get worried." She said seriously.
"I'm sorry, but we haven't seen him." Valentine said regretfully.
"What about Kelsey and Ashley?" Geneva asked cautiously.
"We saw Kelsey..." Valentine said hesitantly, not feeling like he should reveal what Kelsey was thinking of doing.
"You're obviously thinking the same thing that we are." Sharan said frankly. "Go to the barracks and check to see if their belongings are still there. Then you'll know."
"One of us can go with you if you want." Terry offered quickly, not wanting the timid young girl to feel all alone.
"No. But thanks for offering. I can do this." Geneva said bravely, then forced herself to walk away from the table.
"I think she's going to bail out." Sharan said honestly.
"If Toko's gone, I think she will too." Melanie said regretfully.
"I'm glad we didn't have to go through that this time." Terry said quietly as he looked around the table.
"Yeah. I'm glad too. I've grown attached to you guys." Melanie said with a grin.
"There you are! Just who I was looking for." Dr. White said as he approached the table.
"Which one of us?" Sharan asked suspiciously.
"All of you, actually." Dr. White said frankly.
"What can we do for you?" Valentine asked curiously.
"The question is, 'what can I do for you?'." Dr. White said with a grand smile.
"I'll bite. What can you do for us?" Melanie asked hesitantly.
"I'm glad you asked." Dr. White said with a smile. "What would the four of you think about having one fun-filled, luxurious evening, off-duty?"
"Really? You can do that?" Melanie asked with a yelp of excitement.
"Yes. I'm happy to say that I can. You four still have to be back in the morning, bright and early for your calisthenics, but tonight you can get out and let off some steam." Dr. White said with a grand smile as he handed out four identical cards.
"Why?" Sharan asked suspiciously. "I mean, why us?"
"Because, Cadet Crewman Sharan, your group has learned in one month what some of our regular classes have yet to discover after a year at the regular pace." Dr. White said happily.
"What is that?" Sharan asked cautiously.
"We're a team." Terry said in realization.
Dr. White touched his nose, then pointed at Terry, as if they were playing charades.
"So, because we came together as a team, you're giving us a day pass?" Sharan asked in confirmation.
"And because you passed your classes. Don't forget that!" Dr. White said cheerfully over his shoulder as he walked away.
"What do you guys want to do?" Melanie asked quickly.
"I have no idea. It's my first time on Earth." Valentine said honestly.
"Mine too." Sharan said frankly.
"Mine too." Terry admitted reluctantly.
The other three turned to look at Terry with question.
"I grew up in a colony. I never visited Earth before I arrived here to start classes." Terry said shyly.
"So *that's* why you're so nervous around people." Valentine said with a chuckle. "You could have told us."
"I know how some people feel about 'colony rats'... I just figured that I'd try to blend in." Terry said in a diminishing voice.
"Mel, how would you like to show three extra-terrestrial visitors your world this evening?" Sharan asked in an exaggerated voice.
"I would be delighted to." Melanie said with a radiant smile.
"Let's go get into our civvies and hit the town." Sharan said happily as he started clearing away his dishes.
"I'm not sure my clothing is suitable..." Valentine said in a diminishing voice.
"Val, you're a Vulcan. On Earth. No one will think twice about what you're wearing. They'll just think it's your native clothing from your home." Melanie said seriously.
"It is." Valentine said quietly.
"We'll take a look at it before you go, but I'm sure it'll be fine. Let's go, we're burning leave time." Melanie said as she motioned for the three extra-terrestrials to follow her out of the mess hall.
* * * * *
"You look comfortable." Melanie said frankly when she saw Valentine in his traditional Vulcan desert attire.
"I feel out of place." Valentine said quietly.
"Welcome to my world." Terry said with a chuckle.
"It's Mel's world. The rest of us are just visiting." Sharan said playfully.
"Thank you Sharan." Val said seriously. "I suppose I should feel out of place because I *am* out of place."
"Come on guys. Let's get down to the shuttle pad and see if we can hitch a ride into town." Melanie said as she checked to see that she had everything she wanted to take with her.
"Do you know where we're going?" Terry asked curiously.
"Does it matter?" Sharan asked bluntly.
After a moment to consider, Terry shrugged, then responded, "I guess not."
As Melanie approached the door, she nearly walked into a crewman who was entering.
"Oh, excuse me." He said quickly, then quietly asked, "Do you mind if I come in?"
"For what?" Sharan asked cautiously.
"I'm here to collect some personal belongings." the crewman said in a hesitant tone.
All four classmates looked at the cart the young crewman was pulling and each noticed the two carryall containers.
Immediately, all four looked at the lockers to find that Kelsey and Ashley's lockers had already been emptied.
"Come on in. We were just leaving." Melanie said quietly.
"Thank you." the crewman said as he continued on into the room.
"Shuttle pad." Melanie said to her companions, then started out the door.
Valentine looked back into the room in time to see the young crewman open Toko's locker.
* * * * *
"Where are we going now?" Sharan asked as the group stepped off the shuttle at the Starfleet spaceport.
"Over there. I need to get some advice on the best way to get us where we're going." Melanie said as she started walking with purpose.
The three boys shared a glance of question at her response, then quickly followed.
Melanie walked up to the information desk in the spaceport and waited for the older woman behind the counter to acknowledge her.
All three watched and waited as Melanie talked to the woman behind the counter.
Finally Melanie turned with a smile, then said, "This way guys. We need to catch a cab."
* * * * *
"Um, I hate to be a nuisance, but where are we going?" Terry asked cautiously as the taxi van pulled away from the spaceport.
"Pier 39." Melanie said simply, then noticing the identical befuddled looks on all three of her friends' faces, she continued, "While I was still at home, I did some research about San Francisco so I'd have an idea about what there was to do to fill the countless boring hours when I was out of classes and had nothing but free time."
All three boys smiled at her statement, understanding what she meant.
"Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf made the top of my list of 'must see' sights. And if I'm remembering right, the Aquarium of the Bay should be open until 7 tonight... I mean, if you guys want to go." Melanie said, not leaving any doubt about her own preference.
"Forgive me for asking, but what is the admission fee to participate in this activity?" Valentine asked hesitantly.
All his friends immediately picked up on his discomfort by the way that he reverted to his more formal, 'Vulcan' pattern of speech when asking the question.
"About fifteen dollars each, I think." Melanie said apologetically.
"I am afraid..." Valentine began to say when Sharan interrupted.
"I will pay for all four of us."
"You don't have to do that Sharan." Melanie said quickly.
"As I recall, this entire affair began as *my* celebration, so it is my prerogative to pay, if I wish." Sharan said firmly as if daring any of them to defy him.
"That's incredibly generous of you, Sharan." Melanie said with an appreciative smile.
After a moment of indecision, Sharan turned to face his companions in the van and said, "I will say this once, so pay heed."
All three looked at Sharan uncertainly at the ominous words.
"I am a self-sufficient person. Due to circumstances... that I would rather not discuss, I have learned to achieve my goals through hard work and determination. Since meeting all of you, I have discovered that it is not a sign of weakness to accept help from others and that being part of a team can be rewarding in ways that I could not have imagined before." Sharan said in a somewhat formal tone.
In a quieter voice, Sharan continued, "You are my friends."
Editor's Notes: It is very nice to see Sharan realizing that he has friends.?It was sad to see so many people leave, but I suppose it is to be expected. The academy is, after all, in no way, a breeze.?I believe that as a team, our guys stand a pretty good chance of completing their studies, and finishing with honour.
I am eagerly waiting for the next chapter.? I am sure that MM has more interesting adventures ahead for our friends.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher