"Where's Goober?" Mike asked his father as he looked around curiously.
"I'm sorry, Mikey. I know you loved that old hound dog, but we had to have him put down." Mike's father said regretfully, then added, "He got the lung cancer."
Mike sadly nodded, then noticed Valentine's look of discomfort and asked, "Are you okay, Val?"
"I need some air." Valentine said quietly to Mike.
"I'll go with you." Mike said as he stood.
"Where are you two going? The game's on!" Mike's father asked indignantly.
"We'll be right back, dad. I'm just going to show Val around the trailer park." Mike said frankly.
"If you see my parents, you don't know where I am, okay?" Victor asked hopefully.
"I didn't see you." Mike said as he walked toward the door.
Val couldn't get to the door fast enough.
He had thought that the stench of stale cigarette smoke and unwashed bodies was the most unpleasant thing that he would ever smell, but add in the foul odor of whatever Mike's mother was cooking into the mix and it went beyond nauseating.
* * * * *
With all it's huge rooms and beautiful 'things', the place, at it's core, was a prison.
And Janna was the warden, lording over her helpless inmates with an iron fist.
At some signal that Terry must have missed, the dinner was simply over.
He was eating his meal with everyone else, then all of a sudden, between one bite and the next, it seemed that everyone else was done, or at least had stopped eating.
"We'll have dessert later, after dinner's had a chance to settle. We can retire to the living room, now, and the children can go outside and play," Janna said as she stood.
Troy looked at Terry with an expression that said he didn't know what to do.
"Outside." Terry said simply.
"But..." Troy began to say.
"Troy, you and your friend can stay in and visit with the adults if you like." Janna said from the dining room doorway.
After an uncertain look at Terry, Troy reluctantly said to his mother, "I already told Terry that we'd be going outside and he's looking forward to meeting the kids."
His mother gave a single nod before withdrawing from the room.
"I thought when you said that you'd come with me, that we were going to work on my parents to get them to treat me more like an adult." Troy said as he slowly started walking toward the door.
"I thought that, too. But have you looked at the adults around here? They have no souls!" Terry said frankly.
Troy stopped and looked at him curiously.
"Your mom runs everything, every little detail. Everyone else goes along with whatever she says, without even thinking about it." Terry said in an urging tone, trying to get Troy to see what was going on.
"That's just how people behave in society. You know, proper etiquette." Troy said dismissively.
"Then I pray to any deity who might be listening, that I never become successful enough to have to live this way." Terry said as he looked Troy in the eyes.
"It's not that bad. It's no different from when I have to act professional in class. You just turn it on when you have to and off when you don't need it." Troy said honestly.
"I think it is different. This is your home. The people you invite into it are supposed to be your friends. This... I would never treat a friend like this." Terry said desperately, imploring Troy to understand.
Troy thought about it for a moment, then slowly nodded. "I never realized it before, but the way we are with the guys from the barracks, that's what family's supposed to be like, isn't it?"
"Yes. That and more." Terry said with relief that Troy was understanding his point.
Troy smiled warmly at Terry, then said, "Come outside and I'll show you around."
"Lead the way."
* * * * *
The football game itself wasn't all that interesting to Sharan, but watching it with the others made the experience somehow more enjoyable. Their excitement about the happenings on the screen seemed to be contagious.
"How is it going?" Melanie's aunt Myrna asked as she walked into the room.
"It's a good game, so far." Melanie's dad said without looking away from the TV screen.
"Khari! When did you get here? Come here and give me a hug!" Aunt Myrna said as she ran to him.
With a smile, Khari stood and hugged the woman firmly.
"It's a Christmas miracle! Just wait until everyone finds out that you're here." Myrna said as she continued to hold him.
"I don't think anyone else in the universe would call me a miracle." Khari chuckled.
"Everyone in this house would, and you know that." Myrna said firmly, then said to everyone, "Dinner's going to be ready in just a few minutes. You might want to think about heading into the dining room."
Sharan looked at her disbelievingly as he stood. He had consumed what he was sure was a full day's worth of food less than two hours before.
Before he could say anything to that effect, she rushed out of the room.
"Don't worry, son. Just eat as much as you're comfortable with. This meal is more about enjoying each other's company than it is about eating." Melanie's father said as he put a hand on Sharan's shoulder.
The innocent word so casually spoken, hit Sharan like a ton of bricks. To be called 'son' by this man, this virtual stranger, intellectually seemed wrong to Sharan, but on some fundamental level, it also seemed more right than he wanted to admit.
"Speak for yourself, Dad. I'm starving." Paul said as he walked past them out of the room.
* * * * *
"So Juan, tell us about your family." Rosalee said as everyone settled around the table
"I have three brothers and two sisters, I'm the oldest. I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, but when I was about 13 we moved to Austin so my dad could open his own restaurant. The whole family works there." Juan said quietly.
"I'm surprised you didn't want to spend Christmas with them." Rosalee said frankly.
"Dad didn't want me to apply to Starfleet, but he didn't fight me too much about it because he thought I'd never get accepted. When I was, he said that I would be betraying the family if I left. My dad told me that if I went to the academy, that I wasn't his son anymore. He said that I was on my own and that I could never come back." Juan said with pain at saying the words.
"I'm sure it was just said in the heat of the moment. I know he didn't mean it." Rosalee said gently.
"Oh yes he did. But I'm going to give it some time and I'll try talking to him later on. I haven't given up on him, but it's too soon for me to talk to him now." Juan said wearily.
"In life, all of us say and do things we regret. I can understand that you probably feel hurt and angry at what your father said. But try to understand that what he has done will hurt him for the rest of his life. No matter if he changes his mind and takes back what he said, he still will have said it and it will haunt him." Eduardo said sagely. "I do not know the man, but I pity him."
* * * * *
"How are you doing, Val?" Mike asked with concern.
After another long moment of breathing in the fresh air, he finally said, "I feel as though I've been steeped in a vat of stench."
Mike chuckled, then said, "I've never thought of it that way, but yeah, it's like we're being smoke cured."
"Although your family seems belligerent and somewhat dysfunctional, I don't think they're bad people." Valentine said cautiously. He was trying to dwell on the positive aspects of Mike's family, but that turned out to be more challenging than he would have liked.
"No worse than anyone else's, I suppose, they're just louder about it." Mike said as he leaned on the rickety porch railing and stared off into the distance.
"You're ashamed of them." Valentine said distantly, simply stating the fact.
Mike let out a long sigh, then said, "Yeah."
"Do you think you're better than them?" Valentine asked curiously.
Mike chuckled at the question, then said, "I don't know. Maybe, sometimes. But other times I feel like, no matter what I do, this is what I am, this is all I'll ever be... Low down trailer trash."
Valentine looked on with sympathy, being able to relate to Mike's feelings on some level.
"I want to be better than this. They live this way, in a ratty trailer in a junky trailer park, smoking their cigarettes and getting drunk all day and... they're fine with it. They don't dream of anything else."
"And you do?" Valentine asked gently.
"Yeah. If I can complete my training, I'll be able to get a job doing what I love to do." Mike said distantly, then chuckled as he added, "And maybe even make a few friends along the way."
"You don't have to worry about that, Mike. All of us, all of D 7 T, sees you as our friend." Valentine said frankly.
After a moment, Mike nodded and quietly said, "I'm still not sure how that happened, but I'm pretty sure I have you to thank for it."
"I didn't do anything, Mike. It was you being willing to let down your guard enough to talk to us." Valentine said sincerely.
Mike smiled as he said, "I still think that if you weren't there, things would have turned out a lot different for me."
Valentine considered that for a moment, then said, "Why don't you do as you said earlier and show me around? I'm interested to see this 'trailer park'."
"Yeah. Sure." Mike said easily, then led the way off the front porch.
* * * * *
As Terry and Troy walked out of the house, Terry was taken aback at the intoxicating beauty of his surroundings.
The sunlight was bright, causing the expansive yard to come alive with vibrant color. The lawn was perfectly manicured and the hedges had been sculpted with the utmost precision.
"It's nice today." Troy said as he tilted his head back to enjoy the feel of the sun.
"Troy! Troy!" A younger boy said excitedly as he ran up to the pair.
"What's going on, Cal?" Troy asked casually.
"Did your parents really let you join Starfleet?" Cal asked breathlessly.
"I haven't actually joined yet. But I'm attending the Starfleet academy. This is Terry, he's one of my classmates." Troy said warmly.
"How do they treat you there? I mean, do they pick on you because you're a rich brat?" Cal asked without any hint of teasing in his voice.
Troy chuckled at the question and honestly said, "The only time they've treated me like a rich brat is when I've acted like one."
"So they really treat you like everyone else? Your mom doesn't, like, go in there and try to check up on you or push people around?" Cal asked hopefully.
"No Cal, she can't get to me inside the Academy. That's one of the big reasons I went there. She can't arrange any 'endowments' or schmooze any alumni to try to control me there." Troy said seriously.
"I'm not as smart as you. Do you think that when I'm old enough that there'll be any way I can go to the academy too?" Cal asked hopefully.
"I tell you what." Troy said in prelude. "You do your best at school and email me about what's going on with you. By the time you're ready to start the Academy, I should be out on assignment. I'll try to have some contacts lined up to help you out. With any luck, I'll be able to arrange a sponsor for you."
"A sponsor?" Cal asked with confusion. "The 'rents got more money than God. Why would I need a sponsor?"
"It's not a monetary sponsor, it's an officer who can tell the Academy that you're a good kid who'll try really hard. If you've got someone like that in your corner, it can get you moved up in the line and one step closer to being accepted." Terry said seriously.
"Hey! That would be great! I'm so scared that I'll end up like my brother did, all zombied out at a college, under mom and dad's thumb." Cal said frankly.
"I know. Seeing what happened to Blaine is what made me start looking at other alternatives." Troy said honestly. "Just let me know when you're ready and I'll help you out however I can."
"Thanks!" Cal said quickly, then gave Troy a quick hug before running to join the other kids.
"What happened to Blaine?" Terry asked Troy quietly.
"He left for college. His mom and dad arranged everything. His major, his classes, his roommate... everything. They kept the pressure on him every moment, always watching, always guiding."
"Did he have a nervous breakdown or something?" Terry asked cautiously.
"No. He's in the house right now if you want to meet him. He's exactly what his parents want him to be. I don't know if he has a single thought or feeling that his parents haven't approved. Everything that made him a real person is gone now." Troy said ominously.
"His soul died?" Terry ventured.
"No wonder you wanted to join Starfleet."
"I think I'm smart enough and strong willed enough that I could have gone to college without losing myself, but for what? To get a degree and become some corporate wonk, working in a beige cube? Maybe spend my days scheming and clawing my way up the ladder so that someday I can have a corner office? I think I'd rather live life and retire with a lifetime full of good friends and good memories instead of a bank full of money."
"It sounds like a way to go." Terry said with a casual smile.
Troy grinned at the comment, then asked, "How about you? What were you trying to get away from?"
"Nothing. I just wanted something else. Something that I couldn't find at the colony." Terry said simply.
"Something like..." Troy prompted.
"I don't know yet. I'll let you know when I've found it." Terry said thoughtfully.
"Are you sure you're looking in the right place?" Troy asked curiously.
Terry thought for a moment, then smiled as he said, "Yeah, pretty sure."
* * * * *
As Sharan walked into the dining room, Aunt Delia was there to direct him to a seat.
There was a commotion off to the side and he noticed that Khari was the center of attention. It seemed that all the women in the family were taking their turns hugging and kissing him.
As Sharan took his seat, he smiled at the embarrassed look on Khari's face at receiving so much attention.
It took a few minutes for things to settle down, but finally everyone took their places around the table.
"At Christmas it's our tradition for the family to gather and regroup. We share our lives with each other and draw strength from each other before we have to go our separate ways and go back to our regular lives." Melanie's father said from the head of the table. "Khari's back and Sharan is joining us for the first time. So please join me in celebrating because this is what families are supposed to do... grow."
Sharan felt a smile come onto his face. The sincere words touched him and made him feel that these people, for all their quirks and oddities, were becoming his family.
"So remember why we're here, it's not for presents or food, it's for family. The people around this table... and at that little table over there." He added with a chuckle as he looked at the 'kid's table'. "This is the big picture, this is why we do all the things we do through the year, so we'll always have this."
After a moment, Patrick asked, "Can we eat now?"
"Go ahead, son. I'm done." Melanie's father said with a smile.
Sharan watched as everyone around the tables started moving at once. Platters and bowls were being passed to him from both directions and everyone seemed to be talking at the same time.
"Take it easy on him, this is his first Christmas." Melanie chuckled as she intercepted some of the food that all seemed to be directed at Sharan.
"Which of this food would you recommend?" He asked her quietly.
"Knowing your tastes, I think you'd enjoy the turkey and stuffing and maybe the baked sweet potatoes." Melanie said thoughtfully, then quickly added, "Not the candied ones."
"That?" Sharan asked as he pointed at the turkey.
"Yes. I think you'd like some breast."
"Excuse me?" Sharan asked as he looked around quickly to see if anyone was listening.
"Breast meat." Melanie said with a chuckle as she maneuvered some of the already carved meat to his plate.
"That sounds... rather..." Sharan trailed off as he looked at her.
"Just try it." Melanie said with a roll of her eyes.
Sharan took a small bite, then considered the flavor carefully.
"Is it good?" Melanie asked cautiously.
"Yes. I think I like it... except for the name." Sharan said hesitantly.
"Just call it white meat." Melanie said with a smile, then spotted the bowl of baked sweet potatoes.
"You'll want to split this open and add butter. Watch out, it's still pretty hot." Melanie said as she dropped the foil wrapped sweet potato onto his plate.
After unwrapping the foil, Sharan cautiously asked, "This is a root vegetable?"
"Yes. It's just like the potatoes we have at the academy... but different." Melanie said in a considering voice.
"Good, after the breast, I was concerned at what this might be." Sharan said frankly.
A bark of laughter from further down the table caused Sharan to look up and he noticed that Khari was watching him.
"I'm sorry. But that was funny." Khari said shyly.
Sharan grinned at Khari to let him know that he wasn't upset, then buttered his sweet potato.
"Is that all you're having?" Myrna asked with concern.
"You fed us a ton of food for breakfast. We won't be able to eat very much." Melanie explained carefully.
Myrna seemed to consider that for a moment, then said, "Just as long as you eat your fill. We have plenty of everything."
"I will. Thank you." Sharan said quietly to her.
Myrna put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him to her slightly before moving off to fuss over someone else at the table.
"I think my family likes you." Melanie said warmly.
"I think I like them too." Sharan said as he looked into her eyes.
For a moment, all the noise and chaos of the bustling dining room faded away as Sharan and Melanie felt peace.
* * * * *
"Juan, there's the tree I was telling you about." Phillipa said from her place at the table.
He turned slightly and saw the simple Christmas tree illuminated with twinkle lights. And just as Phillipa had said, the tree had twenty-two ornaments.
"You told Juan about our tree?" Eduardo asked with a smile at his daughter.
"I told everyone in our barracks. We wanted to do something special for Christmas, but we didn't want to do anything really big or expensive. So I told everyone about our tree." Phillipa said shyly.
"And because of Phillipa, we have a tree of our own in the barracks. It has nine ornaments, one for each of us." Juan said happily.
"It's beautiful." Phillipa added with a distant smile.
"To do something like that, they must be good friends." Rosalee said thoughtfully.
"All of them are great. I'm just worried about what's going to happen after we graduate." Phillipa said honestly.
"Do you know where your friend Lydia is now?" Rosalee asked curiously.
Phillipa thought for a moment, then said, "She's married and they're living in Oregon. It sounds like she's really happy. They're already trying to have a baby."
"How long has it been since you've seen her?" Rosalee asked with a smile.
"Two, no, two and a half years." Phillipa said carefully.
"I think that's what's going to happen with you and your friends after graduation. You'll go and live your own lives, but you'll still be part of each other's lives, too. And being in Starfleet, I'm sure you'll run into each other all the time. I don't think it's anything to worry about." Rosalee said warmly.
"Yeah." Phillipa said quietly, then smiled at Juan.
"No matter what anyone else does, we will be staying together." Juan said seriously.
Phillipa smiled at Juan and nodded her agreement.
* * * * *
As Mike and Valentine walked at a slow casual pace through the trailer park, they were mostly silent. Occasionally Mike would tell Val about the people who lived in one or another of the trailers, but for the most part, they were just walking.
"You know, before I left for the academy, I'd never been away from here. I think I kind of missed it." Mike said distantly.
"I think that's natural. This is what's familiar to you." Valentine said thoughtfully.
"Hey Mikey! Who's your new girlfriend?" A mocking voice called out from the front door of one of the trailers.
"That's Juss. He's an asshole." Mike said as casually as if he were talking about the weather.
"So I assumed." Valentine said calmly.
A moment later they heard footsteps hurrying to catch up to them.
"What's up? Whoah! You're a Vulcan!" Juss said with amazement.
"The funny thing is, he is the sharpest tool in the shed." Mike said as he glanced up at Valentine.
Valentine quirked an eyebrow in response to his comment.
"Hey man! What're you doin' here with a Vulcan?" Juss asked excitedly.
"You know that I'm going to the Starfleet Academy. Val's in my class and he's never had Christmas before, so I invited him to visit today." Mike said frankly.
"Wow. I didn't think Vulcan's were so big! You look a lot smaller on the TV." Juss said in wonder.
"Everyone looks smaller on the TV." Mike said simply, but was obviously being ignored.
"So, how do you like Earth?" Juss asked as he stared up at Valentine in wonder.
"So far, I like it very much." Valentine said cautiously.
"My folks ain't gonna believe I actually got to talk to a Vulcan." Juss chuckled.
"Miiiiiiiiiiikey!!" a voice called on the wind.
"I think dinner's ready." Mike said as he glanced toward where his trailer was located. "We've got to go, Juss."
"Yeah! Yeah!" Juss said quickly, then stopped and said in a deep booming voice, "LIVE LONG AND PROSPER!"
"Peace and long life." Valentine said as he gave a quick Vulcan salute.
"Oh man! You really did it!" Juss said with delight.
"We'd better get back to the house, now." Mike said as he tried to restrain his chuckles.
* * * * *
"Did I miss dinner?" A woman asked as she rushed up to Troy.
"Yes." Troy said simply.
"Thank God!" The woman said dramatically. "Call me crazy, but I really do want to see everyone. I just can't bear the thought of enduring another one of your mother's prison cuisine dinners."
Troy chuckled, then said, "It's over. You're safe."
"And you're probably right. I think the caterers probably served the same mass produced Christmas dinner that will be served in prison." Terry added frankly.
She turned her attention to Terry and said, "I haven't seen you around here before. No one's gotten married, no one's adopted a kid. How did you get invited to the holiday wake?"
"Terry, this is my Aunt Dee Dee." Troy said with a smile, then turned to his aunt and said, "Aunt Dee Dee, this is Terry Harper, he's one of my classmates at the academy."
"The academy? Your parents let you go?" Dee Dee asked with surprise.
"I sort of applied and got accepted before I ever talked to them about it." Troy said quietly.
"Hey! Whatever works!" Dee Dee chuckled. "I had to get a psychiatrist to declare me nuts before they'd stop trying to run my life."
"You know they're going to lecture you for missing the dinner." Troy said in a tone of warning.
"No they won't. They'll just be happy that I showed up at all. Remember, I've got OCD." Dee Dee finished proudly before turning to leave.
"Lucky." Troy called after her.
She chuckled and waved at him over her shoulder as she walked toward the house.
"I like her." Terry said honestly.
"Now that I'm older, I do too." Troy said thoughtfully. "I used to be kind of scared of her, but I can't remember why."
"Well, I think she's great." Terry said with a cheerful smile.
"Come on, it'll still be a little while before dessert, let's walk down the hill, I want to look at the pond." Troy said as he started walking.
"That sounds nice. Does it have any fish or anything?" Terry asked curiously.
"I really don't know. Mom was having it put in when I left for the academy."
* * * * *
"Would I be offending anyone if I went outside for a few minutes?" Sharan asked Melanie cautiously.
"No. Is something wrong?" Melanie asked with concern.
"Not at all. I just think a few minutes of quiet and cool air would be refreshing, right now." Sharan said honestly.
"Do you want me to go with you?" Melanie asked cautiously.
"No. Please stay and enjoy spending time with your family. I just wanted to be sure that I wasn't going to be disrespecting my host if I chose to be absent for a time before the gathering was concluded." Sharan said honestly.
Melanie chuckled and said, "No, we don't have anything like that. It's fine if you want to go outside."
Sharan nodded, then quietly left the crowded room filled with chattering people.
* * * * *
"Do you mind if I join you?"
Sharan turned to see that Khari was standing by the front door, apparently waiting for his answer.
"I don't mind at all." Sharan said as he leaned on the porch railing and looked out at the quiet street.
"Are you from Andor?" Khari asked quietly.
Sharan turned to look at him with an 'are you serious?' expression.
Khari chuckled, then said, "I don't want to make any assumptions. And since I don't really know anything about you, I thought I'd ask. I hope that's okay."
"It's fine." Sharan assured him, then added, "And yes, I'm from Andoria."
"I was born on Earth. I guess I've always wondered what it's like, to have grown up on a whole different world." Khari said quietly.
"I can't really say. It was different than it is here. Different air, different gravity, different sky." Sharan said as he looked up into the blue sky scattered with puffy white clouds.
Khari was looking off into the distance and seemed to be at war within himself.
"If you want to ask me something, please feel free. I'm not going to lash out at you. I promise." Sharan said carefully.
"Thanks." Khari whispered, then hesitantly forced himself to look into Sharan's eyes before asking, "Since you've been somewhere other than Earth, maybe you know, does everyone hate... Romulans... as much as they do on Earth?"
"I can't really answer that question. I haven't been very many places." Sharan said frankly. "But what I do know is that Andorians are taught from an early age that Romulans are the enemy."
Khari regretfully nodded.
"And then I met you, and I realized that such sweeping generalizations can blind us if we don't have the courage to challenge what we were told." Sharan said quietly.
"I just wanted to know if there's someplace in the universe where I can go and not be looked at as a villain or a monster." Khari said distantly.
"Well, I can think of one place." Sharan said honestly.
Khari looked at him with hope.
"Inside that house."
Khari's hopeful look wilted at the words.
Sharan saw the disappointment, but persisted, "Those people love you. Not your species, just you."
"But Ryan and I broke up. I can't be part of their family anymore. It's selfish of me to be here at all." Khari said regretfully.
"Do you want to hear about my family?" Sharan asked curiously.
"Yes." Khari said with immediate interest.
"My parents died a few years ago, so I'll tell you about my current family." Sharan said carefully. "You know Melanie. We're a couple, so that makes us family in some sense of the word."
Khari nodded that he accepted that reasoning.
"My closest friend after Melanie is named Valentine. He's a Vulcan, if you can believe it." Sharan chuckled.
"I thought Andorians and Vulcans didn't usually get along." Khari said curiously.
"I personally think the stories are exaggerated because it's easier to deal with simplistic ideas. I think that if you were to dig deeper, you'd find that those who actually had differences probably had legitimate reasons for their grievances and those reasons most likely had nothing to do with what species the participants were." Sharan said thoughtfully.
Khari nodded that he understood.
"Valentine's boyfriend is named Terry. He's a human who was raised as a Tellarite." Sharan said simply, then waited for Khari's reaction.
"How did that happen? Is his situation something like mine?" Khari asked quickly.
"Since I don't know anything about your situation, I can't say. But what I do know is that Terry's parents are Human and they accepted jobs working in a Tellarite mining colony. Terry was born in the colony and lived his whole life there. His first time away from his home was when he left for the academy."
"Oh." Khari said thoughtfully. "But I guess being a Human among Tellarites made him feel kind of like an outcast, didn't it?"
"He hasn't spoken much to me about that. But he was really timid and quiet when he first arrived, I'd guess that he probably did grow up feeling different from everyone around him." Sharan said speculatively.
"So he's friends with you and your Vulcan friend. Does that mean that he can't fit in with Humans?" Khari asked cautiously.
Sharan chuckled as he shook his head, then answered, "No. Terry fits in with the Humans just fine. He lived with us for a month before he finally told us that he hadn't been born and raised on Earth."
"I wonder if he feels more a kinship with the Tellarites he was raised with or the Humans who are his own species." Khari asked distantly.
"I don't know. But I haven't noticed him having any problems with our other bunkmates. The other four of them are Human. Terry actually went home with one of them for Christmas." Sharan said frankly.
"I bet that's an odd concept for people from other planets." Khari said with a grin.
"Not really. We all have our own mythologies, folklore and holidays. Some are more fanciful than others, but they all end up being basically the same." Sharan said thoughtfully.
"Aren't you cold? It's freezing out here." Khari asked as he snuggled tighter into his coat.
"I'm from Andoria. It's quite cold there. From my bedroom window I could look out onto a vast frozen desert that stretched off into what seemed like infinity. Feeling this cold, it reminds me of home." Sharan said with a far away smile.
"Well, I grew up in Southern California and my nose is cold. I'll see you inside." Khari said seriously, then added more gently, "Thanks for talking with me."
"It appears that we've been adopted by the same family. That makes us family, of sorts." Sharan said as he looked Khari in the eyes.
"Yeah. Family." Khari agreed, then added, "Jeeze it's cold!"
Sharan chuckled as he watched Khari rush inside.
* * * * *
"Juan, make sure you save room for dessert!" Rosalee said with a grin.
"I hope Aieyu has some offensive moves that involve rolling over your opponent." Juan chuckled.
"Who is that?" Rosella asked curiously.
"Our hand-to-hand combat instructor. He's really great." Phillipa said with a smile.
"That's nice. But more importantly, is he cute?" Rosella asked with a predatory grin.
"Yes. But he's a little bit out of your league, Ella." Phillipa chuckled.
"Oooh, tell me! Tell me, Mammie." Rosella said, her interest now piqued.
"He's Deltan. He had to take an oath of celibacy so he'd be safe to be around us." Juan said frankly.
"Soooo, he's so sexy it hurts!" Rosella said with a twinkle of delight in her eyes.
"He's so sexy it kills. LITERALLY." Phillipa said slowly.
"Oh." Rosella said shortly, then muttered, "Death is soooo not sexy."
"But Aieyu is a really good teacher and a nice guy. He'd be worth getting to know even if you couldn't ever... you know." Juan finished shyly.
"You don't go to the butcher shop to LOOK at the meat. I'm not expecting to find Mr. Perfect. But I sure ain't looking for Mr. It's-So-Freakin-Good-It's-Gonna-Kill-You either." Rosella said frankly.
"Enough!" Rosalee said as she tried to restrain her chuckles. "Before it gets too late, it's time for our Christmas tradition."
"We need to go in by the tree." Phillipa said quickly.
Juan looked at her curiously.
"They're going to put up this year's new ornament." Phillipa said happily.
Juan smiled as he walked with Phillipa into the next room.
* * * * *
As Valentine stepped into the trailer, he was once again assaulted by the acrid stench.
"Oh good! Set up your trays and then git on into the kitchen and load up your plates." Mike's mother said as she scurried around in the small kitchen area.
"Trays?" Valentine asked cautiously.
"Yeah. We always eat in front of the TV. Just go with it." Mike said as he picked up two folded TV trays, then handed one to Val.
After a moment to see what Mike was doing, Valentine unfolded his TV tray and snapped the top into place.
"Come and get it!" Mike's mother said happily.
Before Valentine could even turn toward the sound, Jimmy shifted his massive bulk at an impressive speed from the living room to the kitchen, nearly knocking Val and Mike over in his rush.
"Remember to leave some for everyone else, Jimmy." His mother warned.
"The early bird gets the worm." Jimmy said unrepentantly as he mounded food onto his plate.
"Worm?" Valentine asked Mike apprehensively.
"It's just a saying, Val. No worms, I promise." Mike said with a grin.
Once Jimmy had shifted aside, Valentine moved forward to look over the available selections.
Although he had experience with Human food from his time at the academy, several of the foods were unfamiliar to him.
"Just grab a little bit of each thing you don't recognize and then come back for the ones that you like." Mike suggested.
"Thank you. I will." Valentine said gratefully.
"Where's the dinner rolls?" Gramps asked from beside Val at the table in his ever irritable tone.
"They're over by the sink. I don't have enough counter space to put everything out in one place." Mike's mother said patiently.
"Good, I want some of this ham on buttered rolls." Gramps said gruffly as he piled slices of ham onto his plate.
"I know, Gramps. That's the main reason I get the rolls, and before you ask, the butter is over there too." Mike's mother said with a smile.
"Is that all you're having?" Gramps asked as he looked at Val's plate.
"I'm not sure what everything is, so I'm just trying a taste of each thing so I can come back and get more of what I like." Valentine said carefully.
"That's good, 'cause I bet a big guy like you needs lots of food." Gramps said before moving away to get rolls at the sink.
On impulse, Valentine put a piece of ham onto his plate, then followed Gramps, so he could also get some buttered rolls.
* * * * *
The pond was idyllic.
Every leaf on every tree surrounding the pond seemed to be in it's perfect place.
Each and every blade of grass seemed to be trimmed to exactly the same height.
Even the color of the water seemed to be perfectly coordinated to create the illusion of optimal beauty.
Although it was pleasing to the eye, the entire scene served to put Terry ill at ease.
"Troy, please don't be mad at me for saying so, but I really hate this place." Terry said quietly.
After a moment, Troy nodded but didn't respond otherwise.
As their walk around the pond finally started them back toward the house, Terry hesitantly asked, "What are you thinking about?"
"I'm just thinking about how all of this used to seem normal to me. As far as I knew, this was just the way that people lived." Troy said distantly.
"I don't know about people on Earth, but I can tell you that people on Tellar don't live this way." Terry said frankly.
"Good for them." Troy said with a weak smile at his friend, then added, "Why don't we go in and have our dessert so we can get out of here?"
"That's all that's left? Eat and leave?" Terry asked cautiously.
"No. We'll have to visit with the family, but that doesn't take too long. It's all just obligatory chatter that we put on for show. You ask 'how are you?', as if you don't already know, then when they ask you the same thing, you say 'fine', knowing that they don't care in the least." Troy said frankly.
"Why is it like that?" Terry asked curiously.
"When my grandpa died, he left tons of money to the family, but he left the family business to my dad. I guess that kind of made dad the unofficial 'head of the family'." Troy said distantly. "Dad manages the business and everything and keeps making more money. I guess mom manages the family... and dad."
"Troy, you need to get away from this place and these people while you still have a soul." Terry said frankly.
With a smile, Troy responded, "That's the plan."
* * * * *
As Sharan walked into the house, he spotted Khari standing in the doorway of the family room, looking at the men watching the football game.
"What do you see?" Sharan asked as he stopped at Khari's side.
"Something I'll probably never have." Khari said quietly.
"Why do you think that?" Sharan asked curiously.
"I don't know, I guess it's because Ryan is such a great guy. The perfect guy, really. And if I couldn't get things to work with him, what are the chances that I'll find someone else?" Khari said honestly.
"What went wrong?" Sharan asked, in spite of himself.
"I did." Khari said frankly. "It seemed to work for a while, but... I'm just not good enough. Ryan deserves someone who can go out and do things with him. When I go out, all I get is stares and pointing. Sometimes the cops even get called."
"So Ryan broke up with you because of that?" Sharan asked curiously.
"No. I called it off. It just wasn't fair to him for me to always be holding him back and keeping him from doing things." Khari said regretfully.
Sharan thought about that for a moment, then said, "I know this is none of my business, but... well, I'm doing it anyway. Would you mind if I asked Ryan to talk with us for a few minutes?"
"What are you going to do?" Khari asked with sudden panic.
"I'm just going to ask him a few questions, and if I'm right, you'll be interested in his answers." Sharan said frankly, then added, "You've already broken up with him, I doubt that my meddling will make matters worse."
Khari thought for a moment, then finally nodded.
Sharan stepped past Khari into the family room and called Ryan's name to get his attention .
When Ryan looked up, Sharan motioned for him to join them in the hall.
* * * * *
Juan looked at the ornament and smiled.
It was a simple thing. It was glittery and beautiful, but not any more than the other twenty-two ornaments on the tree.
But to see the family placing such meaning into such a simple thing made Juan feel warm inside.
His own family had traditions that weren't so different, but somehow it seemed to him that his own family were just going through the motions. Phillipa's family actually seemed to feel the significance of what they were doing and honestly enjoyed their celebration.
"Juan." Eduardo said, then amended, "Little Juan. I think you're old enough now that you can be the one to put this special ornament on the tree."
The young boy reverently took the ornament by it's hook, then looked at his father with question.
"Right there." Eduardo said as he pointed at a spot low on the tree.
Little Juan stepped forward and carefully hooked the ornament in place.
The whole family cheered when it was done and Little Juan received several hugs for his fine ornament hanging job.
"I hope that someday we'll have a tree like this of our own." Phillipa said from Juan's side.
Juan was a little bit surprised by her words. Although they had been dating for nearly a month, neither of them had broached the topic of doing anything 'long term'. But as he looked around the comfortable little home and the loving family that surrounded him, he felt at peace with the idea.
"I hope so, too. And I want for us to have a family just like this." Juan said before leaning in to give her a kiss.
"The mistletoe is over there, by the door." Rosella said loudly.
Phillipa pulled out of the kiss enough to say, "We're past mistletoe, Ella."
"So are you two ready to get married and settle down, or what?" Rosella asked insistently.
Before Phillipa could respond, Juan said, "We're going to complete our training, then get posted to a starship or starbase somewhere. Once we've gotten that part of our lives settled, we'll decide what's next."
"So you two are going to be able to stay together?" Rosalee asked cautiously.
"Yes. We can request to be assigned as a couple. It usually takes longer to get assignments when you do it that way, but I don't think we'll mind waiting." Phillipa said with an adoring smile at her boyfriend.
"As long as we're together, waiting won't be a problem." Juan said happily.
* * * * *
Valentine choked a little and discretely tried to hide the fact that he was spitting food into a paper towel.
"Not good, huh?" Mike asked with concern.
"I like the green beans at the academy, but these have another flavor, I really don't know what it could be." Valentine said cautiously.
"Bacon grease." Mike said simply. "Mom adds it to just about everything she cooks."
Valentine gulped once, trying to keep his stomach contents at bay, then said, "Yes. That would be what I'm tasting."
"I'm sorry, Val. I didn't think about the vegetarian thing." Mike said regretfully.
"I'm not strictly a vegetarian and I don't mind experiencing new flavors. However, I detect a stale, somewhat rancid bacon grease flavor in the green beans that is most unappealing." Valentine said frankly.
"Did you find anything that you like?" Mike asked hopefully.
"Strangely enough, I like the ham on buttered rolls. Although the idea is rather revolting, the mix of flavors turned out to be somewhat pleasant." Val said consideringly.
"So Mikey, why did you really bring this guy with you? Do you feel like you need a bodyguard to visit your own family?" Jimmy asked, seemingly out of nowhere.
"Yeah. At least with Val's help I'd have a chance of surviving if your fat ass fell over on me." Mike retorted without hesitation.
"I thought when you left for Starfleet that they'd make a man out of you." Jimmy sneered.
"I've only been gone for a month. What did you expect?" Mike asked bluntly.
"I thought you'd stop being such a little pussy." Jimmy responded frankly.
"Jimmy, I'm 5'3" and I weigh 105 pounds. I don't know what it is that you want from me." Mike said honestly.
"Stop being such a fag." Jimmy said flatly.
"Jimmy!" Mike's mother gasped.
Before anyone else could respond, Gramps said, "So what if he's gay? Back in my day, you did stuff like that to help out a buddy in need. We never thought about being a couple or getting married or nothin like that, but if you had a friend who was doing without, you helped him. No harm done."
"That's just sick!" Jimmy spat.
"What about the time I caught you with that chink friend of yours?" Gramps asked frankly.
"We were just changing clothes so we could go out and play football." Jimmy responded quickly.
"And while you were changing, his dick somehow managed to slip half-way down your throat? I know you thought I didn't see, but I knew what you two were doin. The reason I didn't say anything about it is because there was no reason to. You weren't doing anything wrong. But now that you're bad mouthing your brother, condemning him for doing the same stuff that you used to do, it's time for me to speak up." Gramps said seriously.
"Dad, Jimmy was young and confused back then. He just needed to get it out of his system." Mike's father said firmly.
"Lloyd, stop making excuses for the boy. I ain't sayin that he's a limp wristed fairy, but he's got no room to be calling names." Gramps said firmly, then added, "Or maybe I should be telling some stories from when you were a boy."
"No. You're right, dad." Lloyd said nervously, "Jimmy, your brother is gay and you bullying him ain't gonna change that. God knows that you've hounded him enough over the years that if it was gonna do any good, something would've happened by now."
Some action on the television seemed to have drawn everyone's attention at that point.
After a moment, Valentine turned to Mike and quietly said, "But you're not gay."
"No. But I'm small. To them, real men are big and tough and little men are gay. I tried to tell them for years that I'm straight, but they wouldn't believe me. Now I just let them believe whatever they want. It's actually kind of funny." Mike finished with a smile.
"So, by their reasoning, because I am big, I am straight and because you are small, you are gay?" Valentine asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Pretty much." Mike chuckled. "Except that, because you're so much bigger than me, you could have sex with me and still be considered straight... well, as long as you're on top."
"The logic of this seems complicated." Valentine said slowly.
"Oh yeah. It gets worse. There's a whole list of rules." Mike said playfully, "I mean, if you're straight, you can never ever suck another guys dick, EXCEPT... if you're in jail, or if you're trying to get out of a traffic ticket, or if you're hitchhiking, or if you want backstage passes or if you lost your last match at wrestling practice... actually, I'm not sure about that last one."
"I think being gay is much simpler." Valentine said frankly.
Mike nodded, then said, "It's not so bad. I mean, yeah, they're a little bit nasty about it sometimes. But if it wasn't about that, it'd be something else. I'm really okay with the whole being gay thing... well, except for the part about having sex with guys. I think that'd be gross."
"As long as you're at peace with it, I see no reason to dissuade them from their beliefs." Valentine said frankly.
There was a commotion on the TV and all the others in the room started to hoot and holler.
"What happened?" Valentine asked as he turned his attention to the football game.
"They must have got a home run or something." Mike said with a disinterested shrug.
"It's a touchdown, you little fruit!" Jimmy barked.
"Whatever." Mike said with a grin at Val.
* * * * *
As Troy and Terry walked into the living room, Troy's mother said, "You're just in time for dessert! Come in and visit for a while."
"Oh God! She's having the turd cake again." Troy said with a wrinkled nose at the plates of cake lined up on the side board.
"The what?" Terry asked with a chuckle.
"It's a dark chocolate torte or something like that. It's really bitter, no one likes it." Troy said as he walked past the desserts.
"Then why does she serve it?" Terry asked curiously as he followed.
"I don't know; maybe because it's expensive. Or maybe because it's so dense it doesn't have crumbs." Troy said thoughtfully.
"If no one eats it, then crumbs don't matter." Terry said frankly as he stopped to see where Troy was leading him.
"Good point." Troy said as he approached a young man, then said in a formal tone, "Terry, this is my cousin Blaine."
The young man standing before Terry was impeccably groomed and somewhat attractive, but he had a coldness behind his eyes that was disturbing.
"I met your brother outside. It's nice to meet you." Terry said, trying to maintain a pleasant tone.
"I'm sure Calistair didn't have anything nice to say about me. You'll have to forgive him, he needs to grow up." Blaine said seriously.
"Actually, I thought he was very nice. I guess that probably means that I need to do some growing up too." Terry said with a grin. He didn't care what Blaine thought of him and realizing that was very liberating.
Blaine didn't seem to know how to respond to that, so he looked away to find someone else to talk to.
"Aunt Dee Dee, how are you doing?" Troy said suddenly and raced away.
Terry smiled and followed.
* * * * *
"I'm glad that I got to see you again before I left. I hope that you had a good Christmas." Dee Dee said as she hugged Troy warmly.
"Yeah. A lot better than I expected to." Troy said as he returned the hug, then added, "Sharing all of this with Terry has opened my eyes to a lot of things that I never noticed before."
"That's good. I'm so glad to see that one of the young ones is going to escape this pit of vipers." Dee Dee said warmly.
"Well, from the sound of things, Cal is about ready to go over the wall, too." Troy said frankly.
"I'll keep an eye on him from a distance and see that he gets any help that he needs." Dee Dee said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"What do you have there?" Troy asked as he noticed the ornament in Dee Dee's hand.
"It's my gift. Another egg." Dee Dee said as she held up the intricately decorated object.
"Do you collect those things?" Troy asked curiously.
Dee Dee chuckled, then said, "I'm thought of as something of a hoarder, and I guess I have earned that reputation. I have so many trinkets and treasures that you can barely walk through my house. But it seems that your parents have found the one thing on all the planet that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in collecting. This thing will be wrapped up in tissue paper and put in a box in the basement, along with the other six that they've bought me. If your mother ever deigns to honor me with a visit, I'll dig them out and put them on display for her benefit. Otherwise, I'd drop the ugly little thing into the first trash bin that I encountered on my way home."
"Do you happen to need a glass Christmas tree?" Terry asked simply, as he pointed at his gift on the nearby side table.
"No, sorry, Hun, I already have two of them. Actually, I think they're in the same box with the eggs." Dee Dee said with a chuckle.
"So, did you have a good visit with everyone?" Troy asked curiously.
"Good? I suppose that's a relative term. Let's just say that I saw what I wanted to see. Everyone is still alive and in reasonable health. They're all a little older, a little more bitter... I suppose it's selfish of me, but it makes me feel better to see that." Dee Dee said frankly.
"Because you know that while they're looking down on you and being judgmental, you're enjoying a much happier and more fulfilled life than they can imagine?" Terry asked speculatively.
"Yes. I think that's it." Dee Dee said thoughtfully, then smiled as she added, "I'm glad that Troy has made such a good friend at the academy. It's important that he get to know some 'real' people."
"You don't have to worry about that at all. He has lots of friends at the academy. All of us are very different, and definitely very real."
"I'd better be going before Troy's mother decides that I'm lucid enough to be drawn into one of her conversations." Dee Dee said dramatically, then finished with a visible shudder at the thought.
"It was good to see you, Aunt Dee Dee. I'll be sure to stop by and see you next time I'm on leave." Troy said as he moved in to give her a quick hug.
"Yes. And make sure you have plenty of time because I'm going to want us to have a long visit so I can hear about all your friends." Dee Dee said warmly.
"I'll definitely do that." Troy said gently, then watched as Dee Dee walked away.
"So, what next?" Terry asked curiously.
"Our next thing is to corner Dad and get him to fly us back to San Francisco." Troy said frankly. "I mean, unless you'd rather hang around here and socialize with the family."
"Let's hurry up and find him."
* * * * *
Once Sharan had Ryan and Khari alone in the hall, Sharan said, "I think that what's happened to you two wouldn't happen to an Andorian couple."
Both Ryan and Khari looked at Sharan with surprise at the vague statement.
"Just let me ask you a few questions, then I'll explain." Sharan said in prelude. "Ryan, if you wanted to go out to a club and Khari didn't want to go with you, what would you do?"
Ryan shrugged uncomfortably, then quietly said, "I'd try to talk him into going, because I know that it's good for him to get out of the house now and then. But if he absolutely refused to go, then I'd stay home with him."
Sharan nodded as if he expected that answer, then asked, "Khari, if Ryan wanted to go out and you didn't feel like it, what would you do?"
Khari glanced at Ryan, then reluctantly answered, "I'd probably end up going, because Ryan wanted me to, but then I'd end up being miserable all night because I'd feel like people were staring at me."
"If you two were Andorians, this wouldn't be a problem. Ryan would ask if you wanted to go, you'd say 'no' and then he would go to the club by himself and neither of you would have any hard feelings about it." Sharan said frankly.
"But I'm afraid that if I don't coax him to go out, he'll never leave the house." Ryan said with a concerned look at Khari.
"He's an adult, he's capable of making that choice. Let him know that he's invited, then allow him the dignity of making the choice for himself." Sharan said firmly.
Ryan looked at Khari with question.
"Khari feels like he's not good enough for you because you're always trying to change the way he feels. If you'll accept him the way he is and trust that he knows his own mind, then maybe you two can find some middle ground." Sharan said to Ryan seriously.
After a moment, Sharan turned to Khari and said, "You need to tell Ryan when he's pushing you to do something that you really don't want to do. If you'll stand up for yourself and declare your feelings, then I truly believe that you'll start to feel 'good enough'."
Ryan and Khari both seemed to be about to say something to each other, but both remained silent.
"One last thing." Sharan said firmly, drawing their attention. "You must not tell others that I said these things to you. I wouldn't want to be responsible for Andorians getting the reputation of being relationship counselors."
"Your secret is safe with us." Ryan said with a grin.
"Thank you." Sharan said, then turned to walk into the family room. Before he passed through the doorway, he said over his shoulder, "Merry Christmas."
* * * * *
Juan and Phillipa were snuggled together on the couch in the TV room.
The football game was going on, but neither of them were paying it any attention.
No words were being spoken. No great thoughts were being thought. They were simply drifting in the peaceful feeling of having full bellies and being surrounded by people who loved them.
Juan found that the feeling transcended words and held the essence of Christmas.
That was, indeed, a very sweet chapter. Things seemed to go pretty well for almost everyone, in one way or another. A lot of people learned some valuable lessons, and other people learned that there was very little they could do to change the people who should love them.
Mike's grandfather seemed to be the only person in that household who had a clue, misguided though it might have been, as to how things should be treated. Although his assessment of Mike's sexual orientation was not accurate, at least he wasn't hateful toward Mike, even if he thought his grandson was gay. Mike learned that he needn't feel guilty for trying to find a better life for himself, and that whatever his family chose to believe about him was their problem and not his.
Of course, Troy's family, for the most part, is a total waste of protoplasm. His mother is a controlling, overbearing, self centered bitch, with no real soul left, if she ever had one. His father is a trained puppet who will, without question, do her bidding, in order not to make any waves. No one besides Aunt Dee Dee has enough guts to tell the bitch to stuff it, and go ahead and live their own lives, in fear of losing whatever they think they might be able to glean from her generosity. They are all a bunch of simpering hangers on, hoping to someday get their 'fair' share.
Khari and Ryan seem to really care about each other, even though, they both felt their relationship was a hopeless one. Unfortunately, they didn't communicate with each other very well, but maybe Sharan has shown them that they really need to let one another know their feelings, and learn to trust each other, and follow their hearts.
Melanie and Sharan have made a connection and Melanie's family seems to be happy for them both. Only time will tell what will happen next.
Juan and Phillipa seemed to have found a very loving family, they are both being treated fairly and honestly, by Phillipa's family, over protecting though they may be, they all love her, and now they love and respect Juan, as well.
All in all, quite a bit of good has come from all this holiday activity. Perhaps there will be some changes made in several families. and maybe some people will get the chance they need to make the kinds of changes they really need to make to better their lives. Let us hope so, and let us also hope we will see more chapters of this wonderful story, very soon.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher