Pulling into the parking lot of the tourist area at the Kennedy Space Center, Justin, Lance, and Mac searched for an open space. It should not have been as busy as it seemed with all the school buses taking up several spaces at once, but they shrugged it off. It was a school day after all and probably was the designated day for a field trip. After finding a spot near the back of the lot, the three jumped out and headed for the Lunch Pad, the center's cafeteria.
"You sure we're supposed to meet him in the Lunch Pad," Lance said. He had a hopeful expression on his face. Lance was ready to jump into the deep end at the space center; there were so many things he wanted to see and experience before the day was out.
Mac and Justin exchanged amused glances. During the entire drive, Lance had regaled them with stories about one shuttle mission or another, and many discoveries that had been made by each team. "The guy's giving us a guided tour," Mac said, "the least we can do is feed him before the hike."
"Hike?" Lance asked distractedly. His mind was envisioning all the things he had read about the center, and hoping they would be able to get inside one of the shuttles.
"Yeah ... hike. You do realize we'll be walking the whole day, right?" Mac asked. Mac shook his head at the faraway eyes Lance turned toward him. "Ya know, I didn't think that someone who was so used to being chased by young girls would go gaga over a space center. Lance, are you in there?" Mac waved his hands in front of Lance's face, while Justin laughed.
"Huh ... uh ... yeah, I'm here." Lance said, after shaking his head. "I'm sorry, but this is gonna be great!" The three of them laughed as they crossed the parking lot.
As they drew closer to the to the Lunch Pad entrance, a group of teenagers raced through the doors. Their excitement was contagious and the three men found themselves smiling at their enthusiasm. Justin reached up to adjust his baseball cap, a necessary part of the disguise he often wore in public. Expecting to feel the brim in his hand, his fingers closed on nothing but air. Immediately, his hand rubbed over his head, finding that he had no hat on at all. Oh man, how could I have forgotten? Justin thought to himself.
"Uh ... guys," Justin said, as he quickly stepped behind Mac. "Guys, I forgot my cap and sunglasses."
Lance stopped and looked over at Justin, "What ... a bad hair day? Come on, science is waitin'." He got about five steps before it hit him. "You forgot your hat and glasses?" Lance turned suddenly, while he reached up to check his own disguise. "Oh man, you're not the only one! Okay, I can plead excitement ... what's your excuse?"
Mac looked from one to the other then started laughing. Their affronted glances instantly escalated his small laughter to an all out belly laugh. Mac tried to cover his mouth, but his ribs were beginning to hurt. "Hold up," he managed to gasp, when his laughter allowed. "Just do your best to stay inconspicuous."
Justin and Lance turned toward him with a 'Yeah right' look, then started back toward the Lunch Pad. They continued on, trying to stay away from any large groups of teenagers. Having almost made it inside the doors, they came upon a young man and woman exiting the building, and the three of them stepped aside to make way for the couple. As they passed the men, the young man turned to in order to thank them and stopped.
Mac saw close up the look of startled recognition, which Justin had described when talking about meeting fans while out shopping. Grabbing the young man's arm, Mac pulled him back into the building, motioning to Justin to take the girl's arm and bring her along as well. Looking around briefly, Mac spotted a recessed doorway and headed toward it. Lance and Justin followed quickly, all the while talking to the young woman. It hadn't taken her long to realize who held her arm as if he were her best friend.
The guys gently pushed the couple into the doorway, and Mac asked quickly, "If they give you autographs, will you forget you saw them until you're back at school?"
Getting a speculative look in her eye, the young woman waved the camera she held in her hand and said, "How about an autograph and a picture?" She grinned and giggled when Justin and Lance immediately agreed.
Mac gaped at his friends. "Why did you agree so fast?"
"We're used to it," Justin said. "Besides ... she didn't scream." All of them laughed, then Lance and Justin scooted in beside the couple for the picture. Mac took the photo, then Lance picked up a couple brochures from a nearby table and signed them.
After handing the brochures to Justin for his signature, Lance took the girl's hand. "Thank you for helping us out. I've been waitin' to visit the space center for a long time."
"I heard you were a space buff, too, but I didn't believe it," she said. "I didn't think any of you guys would be interested in stuff like this."
Having signed the brochures, Justin handed them to the young couple. "Oh, believe it ... Lance is a space freak," he said, then laughed as Lance stuck his tongue out at him. "Seriously ... thanks." Justin leaned in quickly and gave the girl a kiss on the cheek, then shook the young man's hand.
As Justin shook his hand, the young man said, "You know, she made me take her to your last concert ... but I might just make her take me to your next one. You guys are kinda cool ... and the new music isn't that bad either."
The guys laughed, then, stepping back, they waved good-bye to the two and walked quickly toward the employee lounge.
As they neared the door to the lounge, the guys began to feel more comfortable. Most of the cafeteria had cleared out, and only older people remained. That was before the second wave of high school kids came through the doors. One glance in their direction was all the men needed to increase their pace and shoot through the lounge door.
On the other side of the door, Lew sat at a round table in front of a wall of windows waiting for them. He watched as first Justin, then Lance, and finally Mac almost jumped through the door and closed it quickly behind them. For a moment, all three were leaning back against the wall as if they had just raced from the jaws of death. The other employees in the room gave them a cursory once over, then went back to their meals. Each of them had felt that way at one time or another since they had begun working at the center, particularly on field trip days.
Lew tried to keep a straight face, but the look of utter relief on the guy's faces was more than he could take. His shoulders shook while he looked out the windows, carefully avoiding looking at the guys as they took seats at the table. Lew glanced around at them, noting the exasperated looks being sent in his direction. "So," he asked, between small fits of giggling, "what happened? You looked like the hounds of hell were hot on your heals."
"They were," Mac said, " and most of them were wearing makeup and had their nails done." A shiver chose that moment to worm its way up Mac's spine, and everyone laughed as he shook.
"They aren't that bad," Lew said, sending a side-long glance at Justin and Lance. "Not if you have a few very large bodyguards."
"Well, since we're fresh out of that variety," Justin said. "I guess we'll just have to count on Mac here." Justin grabbed Mac's shoulder, unconsciously caressing it a bit before letting go. Being used to fan interruptions was one thing, but them breaking into the few days he would have with Mac was something all together different. Without any type of disguise, and having busloads of teenagers around, the odds of them being stopped for pictures and autographs all day heightened. A frown overtook Justin's countenance.
While Lance filled Lew in on the scene they had just escaped, Mac leaned over to Justin. "What's wrong, baby?" he asked quietly. He wanted to pull Justin into a hug and comfort him, but the public location kept him from it.
Justin pulled himself from his thoughts, "Uh ... nothin', babe. Don't worry about it." He tried to paste on the false smile he sometimes used, but Mac was having nothing to do with it.
"Don't even try that with me," Mac said. Under the table and protected from view by Lance and Lew, Mac gripped Justin's thigh tenderly. "You know you can't fool me with that ... 'I'm Justin, I'm always great' ... smile, so you might as well spill. You'll end up telling me one way or another anyway."
Shaking his head and bringing forth a real smile, Justin said, "It's just that ... well ... I knew I was going to have to share you with Lew and Lance today, I just didn't think that I'd have to share what time we might have together with a bunch of fans, too. I can't believe I forgot my hat and sunglasses." Justin took a quick look around the room, an automatic reaction to any public situation for him.
Bringing Justin's eyes back to his with a squeeze of his hand on Justin's leg, Mac said, "I wish we could spend all our time alone together, too." The warmth and feeling in the look that passed between the two of them, eased Justin's worries instantly. Mac understood that dating Justin was going to be a lot more complex than any other relationship he could have gotten into, not only did they have to keep it private for his sake, they had to pretend to be nothing more than friends in public for Justin's. It was going to be a tough situation, but when Mac looked into Justin's eyes, he knew it was more than worth anything that might happen. "I also know, though, that the guys worry about you and they need a chance to get to know me better."
Justin fleetingly caressed Mac's hand where it rested on his thigh, then smiled devilishly. "I know ... but that doesn't mean I have to like it!" Justin said.
Across the table, the conversation had slowed to a stop and the other two men sat watching the interaction between Justin and Mac. Lew leaned forward with his elbows on the table and his fingers laced beneath his chin, "Ya know Lance, watching the two of them could be like watching a daytime soap."
Lance sat similarly situated next to Lew. "Yeah, I know. Never a dull moment and always some kind of drama goin' on."
Mac and Justin drew their attention away from each other to listen to their friends' banter. As they slowly released Justin's thigh, Mac's fingers slid along the cloth covering his skin causing him to shift in his seat as the tingling sensations worked their way up his thigh. Justin cleared his throat and looked over at Mac who had an angelic expression on his face.
"See," Lance said, grinning at the pair. "There they go again. Guys, I'm finding this entirely enthralling, but I'm not going to miss a day at the space center for it." Lance leaned back in his chair, then turned to Lew. "So, food first?"
"That's what I was just going to ask," Lew said, as he too straightened in his chair. "I'm planning on doing my best to wear all of you out, so it might be a good idea to get some fuel while you have the chance."
The next few minutes were spent discussing menu choices, and deciding who was going to go after the food in the cafeteria proper. Justin and Lance looked decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving the lounge area, so Lew and Mac offered to get their food for them.
Once in the food line, Mac turned to Lew, "Jus is gonna be a bundle of nerves all day without his hat and glasses. If it weren't so far to his place, I'd go back and get 'em."
The line moved forward and the men followed the flow of people a bit farther. "I think the gift shop carries hats and things. We could stop by over there after we eat," Lew said.
A twinkle was born in Mac's eyes, "I think I have a better idea. Do you think you could handle getting the food?"
Lew shook his head and laughed, "Ah, the restlessness of youth ... go! I'll take care of getting the food." Mac quickly handed him the extra tray, and began making his way through the other people in line. "Just make sure you're back in time to help me carry all this!" Lew called to him just before Mac was out of sight. Mac looked over his shoulder and waved before disappearing through the doors leading out to the gift shop.
Roughly 15 minutes later, Mac and Lew entered the employee lounge, their hands filled with trays and bags. Lance and Justin cast curious looks at the bags, but stood and took the trays instead. The two passed out the food and drinks, then sat down. Exchanging quick glances, Mac and Lew simultaneously thrust the bags at their two friends and proceeded to chow down on their food.
"What's this for?" Justin asked. He looked at Lance who shrugged and opened his bag. Justin opened his own and a slow grin crossed his face. Reaching inside the bag, he pulled out the baseball cap and sunglasses that Mac had bought for him. Another quick look at Lance found him with his own set of cap and glasses in hand.
"Oh ... Cool!" Lance said, as he examined the logo. "I was hopin' to visit the gift shop before we left, but this is great! Thanks guys!" Lance adjusted the band of his cap and put it on immediately, his food forgotten.
"Well, we couldn't have you guys sticking out like sore thumbs, now could we?" Lew said, laughing. He regretted his choice of words when he saw how Justin looked around the room and hurriedly put his hat on. Justin worked any stray curls under the edges of the hat then pulled it as far down on his head as he could get it without bursting through the top. Lew closed his eyes for a second, then he reached around the table to take the top of the younger man's head in his cupped hand. Shaking Justin's head a bit, Lew then leaned down to his ear, "I didn't mean it like it sounded. If the teenies come we'll beat them off with ... uh ... Mac what will we beat them off with?"
Mac had noticed the worry in his boyfriend's eyes and understood that Lew was trying to bring Justin out of it. "Hmmm ... let's see. Damn, I left all my really good stuff back on the base. Give me a few minutes ... I'll think of somethin'," Mac said, then picked up a spoon. Brandishing his weapon, he pretended to do battle with a fan who had gotten too close.
The men laughed and Justin reached over to snatch the spoon from Mac's hands. "I don't think we'll need that, besides we don't wanna be chased around the center by a cafeteria employee bent on retrieving stolen property," Justin said.
The rest of the meal was taken up by jokes and Lance's enthusiastic recitation of everything he had learned about the space center. Soon, they were clearing the table and dropping off the trays of dirty dishes and garbage at the return window, and heading out for a day of fun.
Having evaded the wandering groups of young people, the men managed to leave the Lunch Pad without further incident. Mac, Lance, and Lew crossed the quad without bothering to worry about who may see them, while Justin was more concerned with the teenagers than checking out the sights.
As he glanced around, Justin's eyes were captured by the spire of a rocket against the brilliant blue backdrop of the sky. Without getting the others' attention, he headed toward the rockets.
After a few minutes, Mac turned around to point out to Justin the gift shop where he had gotten the hats and glasses. Turning a full circle without seeing him, Mac said, "Uh ... guys? Where did Justin go?"
Lew stopped immediately and turned back to Mac, "Huh? He was right there." Lew motioned behind them and looked around for their missing companion. Grabbing Lance's shoulder and shaking him a bit to get his attention, he pointed out to him that Justin was missing.
Lance looked at him vacantly for a moment, then recognition dawned in his eyes. "What? Oh shit," he said, as he too looked around for Justin. "This may sound really bad, but if I have to miss my tour to find his scrawny ass, I'ma hurt him."
"Oh God ... any girls around looking very pleased with themselves?" Mac asked. His concern over Justin's disappearance was gaining on him fast. All his training was telling him to keep calm and be in control of the situation, but the idea of someone spiriting off his boyfriend added a completely new dimension.
"Did you hear any screams?" Lew asked. After both men shook their heads, he said, " Then no one's found him yet." Mac shot him a disgusted look and continued his visual scan of the area.
Concern was evident on Lance's face, but a war was in the making with his desire to see the rest of the space center. "Uhm ... y'all don't know how bad I wanna say 'we'll find him on the way out'," Lance said, laughing slightly. Lew sent him a stern parental look, while Mac suddenly turned toward him with an almost murderous expression. "What?" Lance asked. "I only said I was I thinking of saying it ... I didn't really say it!"
Spying a baseball cap and familiar, slim body, Lew sighed. "Bingo, there he is!" he said, then motioned toward the retreating baseball cap. "Looks like he's headed for the Rocket Garden."
The men quickly caught up with Justin, and Mac grabbed his arm. "What are you doing?" he asked heatedly. "With all these kids running around here, they could have kidnapped you and got you out of the space center before we even knew you were gone!"
Justin turned toward him, not understanding why he was so worried at first. Being used to having the security guards around all the time, he hadn't stopped to remember that they were alone today. "I'm sorry, Mac," Justin said repentantly. "I totally forgot about the security guys not being here. I kinda saw those huge rockets and forgot. They're like ... wow! I couldn't believe someone would actually get in there and let someone light 'em up."
Mac shook his head and laughed. "Just be careful next time, okay?" Mac asked. Moving in closer to his boyfriend, he continued, "I finally got you, I don't wanna loose you."
"Do you guys think we can go over and look at the rockets now?" Lance asked. His almost whiny voice brought head shakes and laughs from the others.
They continued on as a group toward the Rocket Garden and stood in awe of the raw power the devices represented. "Man, look at that one," Justin said, as he pointed at the largest of the assembly. The Saturn V rocket was laid horizontally along the back of the garden and easily stretched its full length.
"That's the Saturn V," Lance said, as he, too, stood in awe of it. "Did you know it's like 360 feet tall? Well, when it's upright, that is."
"Talk about one hell of a bottle rocket!" Justin quipped. "Ya know, I put a one under a bucket one summer up at Granny and Paw's place. Paw wouldn't let me light it on the dock. I didn't understand what his problem was, 'til after I lit the thing. Man, that rocket blew the bucket clean into the lake!" Lew, Lance, and Justin laughed as they imagined the look on Paw's face. He was a wonderful older man, but he had a temper the size of the Appalachian Mountains.
"So, did Paw take a switch to ya?" Lew asked.
"Naw, he just told Granny on me," Justin said. "It was her bucket! She threatened to make me go fetch it!"
"Uh, Justin, do you realize you've just gone from 'regular' speech to country twang in a heartbeat?" Mac asked, laughing. "Who are Granny and Paw anyway? I think I like 'em already."
"Oh, it's my grandmother and grandfather. That's just what we've always called 'em," Justin said. "They're great. Hopefully, I'll be able to take you up there to meet them sometime."
Lance had wandered off during their talk and was walking as close as he could get to the rockets, studying them from every angle. The others strolled over to where he was standing, staring up at the tip of the rocket high above. "I would love to ride one of those," Lance said, quietly.
"Well, maybe you'll be the first pop-star in space," Lew said, behind him. "Ya know, that could probably be a TV series."
Lance jumped at the voice coming from so close behind him. "Good Lord!" he said. "Don't dothat! So, what's next oh great guru of the space center?" Lance said, as he smiled a lopsided grin at Lew.
"Yeah, I thought you were leading this tour," Mac said, giving Lew a critical look, then smiling. Expecting to hear Justin chime in with something, Mac looked around to find Justin staring up at the rocket, much like Lance had been doing only moments before. "By the end of this day, he's gonna be as enthralled with space travel as Lance is," Mac said to Lew. They shared an understanding smile, then Mac went on, "So, where to commander?"
"Hell, Lance probably knows more about the center than I do," Lew said, grinning. "He can lead as far as I'm concerned."
Lance preened under the compliment, then realized it meant they would be unable to get into any classified areas. "Naw, Lew, you know way more about this place than I do!" Lance looked around disgustedly at the others as they laughed, then zeroed in on Justin since he didn't have anything on the others. "Hey," he said, shoving Justin playfully, "do I make fun of your basketball trivia?"
Pausing to consider it, Justin said, "No, I guess not ... well, not all that often anyway!" Moving quickly, he dodged the swat Lance sent his way, then scampered behind Mac only to lean to one side and stick his tongue out at Lance.
Lance started to go after Justin again, but Lew caught his arm. "Hey now!" he said. "Don't make me separate you two. If you keep acting up, I'll take you right back to the car and make you go home!"
Almost under his breath, Lance said, "Like he'd mind as long as you weren't separating him from Mac!" He pasted an angelic look on his face, then lurched forward as Justin shoved him.
Mac moved between the two as Lance turned around to retaliate. Blushing slightly and holding out his arms to keep the two apart, he said, "Okay ... where did you say we were going, Lew?"
"I have no idea," Lew answered. He watched as all three men turned to him with dumbfounded expressions.
"You mean 'Laid-out Lew' doesn't have a plan already laid out and ready to go?" Mac asked, with an exaggeratedly shocked expression. He tapped Justin's ribs with his elbow, "This has got to be a first. He's never without a plan."
"Oh, don't I know it!" Justin said, getting into the game of teasing Lew. "He always has somethin'. There was this one time...." Justin broke off and started laughing at the disgusted look on Lew's face.
Mac's use of the old nickname earned him a glare that Lew used liberally on the others when they started laughing. "Well, you guys did kind of spring it on me!" Lew growled. He tried valiantly to maintain an air of indignation, but failed miserably as a smile played at the corners of his mouth. "Nah, I made some calls, so I have an idea of where we might go, but I don't wanna get anyone's hopes up," Lew said, as he laughed and nodded toward Lance. "But, after what you guys just did ... I'm not sure I wanna take you anywhere."
For a moment, Lance had the crushed expression of a little boy whose favorite toy had broken, but the satisfied look on Lew's face brought him out of it quickly. "That was just mean!" Lance said, then joined the other guys as they laughed.
Lew waved his arm toward the Exploration in the New Millennium exhibit like a tour guide moving spectators along, and they all headed in that direction. As they walked, Justin glanced at Mac, then nodded ahead of them toward Lew, silently telling Mac that he would be right back. Justin skipped ahead and caught up with Lew. "Are you sure this wasn't a problem?" Justin asked. "I'm sorry we dropped this on you at such short notice."
"Yeah, it's fine, don't worry," Lew said, patting Justin's back. "I'm mainly a consultant, so I don't have a set schedule or anything." Lew shrugged, "Besides, they're pretty flexible where I'm concerned, and I don't drop 'em often for you guys," Lew said, then winked at him.
They laughed for a bit, then Justin frowned. "You've already dropped 'em twice for me, though. I just don't want to get you in any trouble because of us."
"I said not to worry about it," Lew told him, wrapping his arm around his shoulders and hugging him lightly. "You're not gonna get me into any trouble ... well, unless you try to reenact the script for Space Camp," Lew said, a thoughtful look overcoming his face. "Hmm ... note to self ... steer clear of pad 39-A!"
Justin's eyebrows wrinkled as he tipped his head to the side to look at Lew, "Uhm ... huh?"
Though Justin and Lew had walked ahead of Lance and Mac while they talked, the two managed to catch up in time to hear Justin's question. From the other side of Lew, Lance said, "Atlantis is on the pad." Lance rolled his eyes as Justin gave him a little shrug, still unsure of the meaning of Lew's comment.
Replacing Lew's arm with his own around Justin's shoulders, Mac said, "You know ... the movie ... Space Camp?" Justin gave Mac a look that begged for further enlightenment, and Mac sighed as he chuckled. "They got the chance to sit inside the shuttle while mission control ran an engine test..." Mac told him, "but then the kid's little robot friend launched it. Remember now?"
A look of dawning recognition took over Justin's face,
and he said, "Oh!" Justin shook his head at his own faulty memory. "Duh!"
The laughing men drew several curious looks from the people they passed as they entered the Exploration in the New Millennium exhibit. The exhibit covered phases of exploration from the original Vikings landing in Greenland and Iceland to space exploration and the Mars Viking Lander. It culminated in the visitors being able to touch a Mars meteorite.
Lance had studiously examined each part of the exhibit they passed through, while Lew took up the position of teacher. Lew had always been a multifaceted type of personality, a partial explanation for his various degrees in physics, math, and engineering. He had jokingly said that he was unable to decide on one, so he just did all of them. His consulting position offered him the best of all those disciplines, but his other great love was teaching and he was having a wonderful time explaining the changing aspects of exploration.
As they neared the end of the exhibit, Lance quickened his pace. He jumped in line to touch the Mars meteorite and motioned to the guys to hurry up. No sooner had they joined him in line, than he started talking nonstop. "Oh, this is so cool. I can't wait to actually touch a piece of Mars. Ya know they found microscopic bacteria in one of these meteorites that might mean that there was life on Mars. I wish I could go there some day, that would be so awesome!"
The other three looked at each other and smiled. They completely understood Lance's fascination with space travel and let him continue to talk, especially since stopping him would take an act of congress.
Soon, Lance was standing before the chunk of Martian rock and excitement was radiating off him in waves. He slowly reached out and ran his fingers over the rough surface of the rock, and not only his friends were watching him with a fond smile. Everyone around him could see this was a great day for him.
When each of them had taken their turn touching the meteorite, they left the exhibit and found themselves back in bright daylight. Blinking his eyes several times to accustom them to the change, Justin said, "Man, that was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be."
"I've always loved seeing how far humanity has come in the short time we've been exploring this world," Lew said, then turned to look at Lance. "So, what did you think of the exhibit?"
Lance stood there with a daydream expression on his face until Mac nudged him. "Huh?"
Mac rolled his eyes, then said, "Lew asked you what you thought of the exhibit."
"Oh, it was even better than I thought it would be. I can't believe I got to touch a piece of Mars!" Lance said. His enthralled smile took in his friends, and, for a moment, everyone shared his excitement.
"It was great!" Justin said. Walking over to stand next to Mac, he went on, "I thought this was gonna be boring, but it's lookin' up all the time." His eyes connected with Mac's, and a silent message passed between them. Though both of them would rather be alone, building on their growing relationship, they were enjoying the time with Lew and Lance. Justin would have loved to have been able to hold Mac's hand as they strolled around the center, but knowing that he could be recognized and photographed at anytime kept him from it.
"Well, if you thought that was great ... just wait," Lew said, devilment coming into his eyes.