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.
"Uh, oh," Mac said, nudging Justin. "He's got that look again."
"Ooo, you're right," Justin said, giggling. "We're probably in for it now." Each looked at the other, remembering times when they had seen that grin and twinkle come into Lew's eyes. Justin nudged Mac back when Lew turned toward them looking as if they had just killed his fun.
"Oh, shut up, you two!" Lew said, shoving them in the direction of the Lunch Pad, then reaching back to grab a still daydreaming Lance.
"Ya do know we already ate, right?" Justin said, still stifling his laughter. "See Mac, that's what happens when you get old!"
"Just keep walking, wise guy," Lew told him, as he pointed him down the path beside the cafeteria. "We're going around the food, not back to it." As they started toward the Lunch pad, Lew commented just loud enough to be heard by the men walking a few paces in front of him. "Besides, I don't have that many years on Mac. Hey Lance, does that make Mac a cradle robber or not? I forget."
"Naw," Lance said, winking at Lew. "If it you were you instead of him ... you would be, but Mac, he makes in just under the statute of limitations. Barely!"
"The two of you are so lucky ... right now you got two things going for you," Justin said lowly. "One ... we're in public ... and two ... I don't have anything to throw!"
Lew and Lance caught up to them with satisfied grins pasted on their lips. Mac merely blushed slightly and shook his head while rolling his eyes. Lew elbowed him playfully and gave him a wink, causing Mac's smile to broaden. Leaning over toward Mac, Lew whispered, "You know, you've been doing that an awful lot? The blushing thing."
"You didn't exactly warn me what I was getting in to, you know," Mac whispered, grinning.
"What?" Lew said, shrugging. "That second meeting didn't give you a clue? Oh, by the way, did you get the shark repellant yet?" Lew smiled broadly as Mac cracked up, at the memory of meeting them at the concert. "Fly boy's still got his head in the clouds even when his feet's on the ground ... did you get that from Kasey Kasum or what?"
"Hey, don't do that!" Justin said, reaching over to smack Lew on the back. "You're gonna scare him off!"
"Kiddo, if he hasn't run away screaming by now, especially after hangin' out with the rest of the guys ... I think you're probably safe." Lance started to agree, then strongly protested when it dawned on him that he was included in the insult.
"That was just wrong," Lance said. "I was just mindin' my own business, not even pickin' on you or nothin'...." Lance trailed of as he glanced forward. His eyes were now fixed on the beauty that caught his attention. "She's beautiful!" he said, breathlessly.
"Oh, gawd, he's in love!" Justin said, rolling his eyes.
"I don't know," Mac said, considering the vision before them. "She is beautiful, in her own way. If you're into that type."
"Oh, like you'd complain if you were able to get up close and personal with her?" Lew said, giving Mac a sideways glance.
"Eh, she's a little heavy for my taste," Mac said, wrinkling his nose slightly, "I prefer mine a little bit sleeker."
"I hope I'm sleek enough for you," Justin said, poking his lip out in a pout. He smiled as Mac gave him a wink and wiggled his eyebrows at him.
"Oh, would y'all just shut up," Lance said. "She's beautiful just the way she is."
"Touchy one, ain't he!" Justin laughed. "Hell, you'd almost think we were talkin' about his girlfriend or something."
"Like I'd have any competition from any of you guys if it were a girl!" Lance said, before sticking his tongue out at Justin. A loud cough from Lew prompted him to amend his statement, "Sorry, any competition from most of you." Lew nodded his head, making a gesture as if tipping his hat.
"Yeah, but it's not a girl," Justin said, "and as far as I know, Mac's the only one with any real experience in the matter." They all nodded in agreement.
"Hey, can I help it if I like mine a little faster?" Mac added with a shrug.
"Faster?" Lance said, incredulously. "I can't think of many that are faster than her."
"Hmm," Mac said, considering a moment. "Okay, I like mine with engines?" Lance still looked at him with an arched eyebrow. Turning to Lew, Mac found much the same expression.
"You're diggin' deep, buddy," Lew said, smiling back at him.
"Okay, fine," Mac said, an exasperated sigh coming from his lips. "I like mine to be more than just gliders when the get ready to land?"
"That works," Lance agreed, as they entered the Shuttle Plaza and approached the full-sized shuttle mock-up. "So, we can actually go inside her?" Lance asked, still marveling as they neared the queue for the exhibit.
"Yeah," Lew said, "if you want to."
"Are you kidding?" Lance said.
"Yeah, I was," Lew said, joining Justin and Mac as they laughed at Lance's reaction. "Just remember that we can't spend all day in here if we wanna make it anywhere else."
"Yeah, sure," Lance said. "You've been in before, right?"
"Yeah," Lew replied, "a time or two. Why?"
"Is it as detailed as the brochures say?" Lance asked, his eyes like a kid's in a candy store.
"Yeah, bud," Lew said, smiling, "everything but the microgravity."
"Alright, guys," Lew said, as they reached the end of the tour of the shuttle mock up. "I'm gonna run get the car and pull it around to meet you."
"Hey, wait up," Mac told him as he turned, "I'll come with ya." Justin, catching his arm, gave him a questioning look. "It's okay, I just wanted to thank him for helping me get here and surprise you," Mac said, stroking his arm and giving him a reassuring smile. "Besides, you need to stay and try and drag Lance out of here." They both laughed to themselves as Justin gave him a nod and turned back to find Lance. They both laughed harder as they heard a child's voice saying, "Mommy! This big, blond kid won't let me have a turn!"
Outside, Mac found Lew propped against a planter with his arms crossed across his chest and feet crossed at the ankles. "So, what's up?" Lew asked him as he approached.
"Nothing, why?" Mac said, shaking his head with a shrug.
"Well, I would have thought you'd have stayed with Jus for one thing," Lew said, starting toward the parking lot where all the facility's busses sat waiting for tour groups. He led them across the street toward the back of the lot where several official vehicles were parked.
"Well..." Mac began, he seemed unsure of just what he wanted to say. "You know Jus' birthday is Wednesday, right?" Lew nodded his response. "His mom just found out that she has to go out of town, she'll probably be gone by the time we get home tonight."
"Damn," Lew said, shaking his head, "they always have the worst timing."
"Yeah, tell me about it!" Mac replied. "Well ... I was thinking about trying to do something special for him."
Lew raised an eyebrow as they neared the cars, "What'd you have in mind?"
"I want to do a nice romantic dinner for just the two of us," Mac said, surveying the parking lot. "I already talked to Lynn, and she told me a little more about his likes and dislikes. She's also settin' me up with her good silver, crystal and stuff."
"Oh, man!" Lew laughed, stopping in front of one of the vehicles and indicating for Mac to head for the passenger door. "She must really like you if she'd trusting you with the good stuff." They laughed as Lew unlocked the doors and the two of them climbed in. "So, what do you want me to do?"
"I was gonna do the cooking and stuff myself, but I can't exactly surprise him if he's there while I'm doing it," Mac said, tipping his head and nodding to emphasize his point. Lew's mouth rounded in a silent 'oh' as he started the engine. "I'd ask the guys to help me, but I haven't found any time with them when Justin's not there."
"Gotchya," Lew said, starting down the street toward the Shuttle Plaza. "I'll talk with 'em and see if they can come up with something to keep him busy."
"Kewl," Mac said, a broad grin on his lips. "I knew I could count on you."
"So, what ya cookin'?" Lew asked, raising his eyebrows.
"What difference does it make to you?" Mac said, a sly grin forming on his lips. "You're not getting any ... private party!"
They pulled off to the side of the road as they reached the plaza, each of them turning to search for Lance and Justin. There was no sign for several minutes, until they finally caught sight of Justin almost literally dragging Lance from the exhibit. They chuckled as Lew rolled down his window to wave at them. As the two approached, Mac quickly jumped out of the car and hopped in the backseat.
"Problems, baby?" Mac said, noticing Justin's sigh of relief.
"I just thought I was gonna hafta break up a fight between him and that ten year old!" Justin laughed.
"Hey," Lance protested. "He started it!"
They all started laughing as Lew said, "Now, now, if you can't play nice then I'm just gonna turn this car around and take you back home!"
"Aww, I'll be good ... I promise!" Lance said, in a whiny tone. The rather odd sound, coming from someone with such a deep voice, caused the laughter to start anew.
"So, where to now, oh great one?" Justin asked, drumming on Lew's shoulders as he settled into the seat behind him.
"Guess we'll just head down the road and see where we end up," Lew said, shrugging as the others made themselves comfortable in the car.
"Well, we can't go too much farther," Justin said, "or we'll hit ocean!"
"Hmm," Lew said, leaning his head to the side as if considering the idea, "did you bring your trunks?" Justin rolled his eyes as he shook his head.
"Well," Mac said, imitating Lew's previous actions, "you don't have to wear any." He looked over to Justin and wiggled his eyebrows.
"Oh, now that sounds ... interesting," Justin said, grinning broadly at Mac.
"Would you two rather be alone?" Lance said, glancing over his shoulder at the two.
Justin opened his mouth as if to answer, but was quickly silenced by Mac's hand over his mouth. "He has no comment," Mac said, laughing. Justin's eyebrow arched slightly, before his eyes locked on Mac's with an evil glint. Mac felt a warm, wet sensation in the palm of his hand, which sent a shiver up and down his entire body as Justin's tongue darted back and forth.
"Don't start something you're not able to finish," Mac warned. He could tell that Justin was fighting to keep the grin from spreading beyond the hand covering his mouth, but he still made no attempt to remove the hand. Surmising that he might have met his match, Justin decided to escalate his side of the stalemate; opening his mouth a bit further he nipped at Mac's hand. Mac snapped his hand back and pointed at Justin. "Hey! Watch the teeth!"
"I'm not looking," Lance said from the front seat, "nope not me, not gonna do it. I don't wanna know!"
"Not like you haven't seen it before!" Justin said.
"Not Mac's!" Lance returned, tossing several of the brochures that they had obtained from some of the exhibits toward them.
Mac sat there for a moment, then, as the realization of what Lance had said sank in, he turned toward Justin with his mouth hanging open. Justin half grinned at him and shrugged his shoulder, "Long story ... tell ya later," Justin told him, stroking his forearm.
Lew glanced over at Lance to find his eyes closed tightly as he bowed and shook his head. Looking up, Lance noticed Lew and rolled his eyes in a manner that silently said, 'what kind of idiot am I?' Giving Lance a brief smile to allay his self-recrimination, Lew nodded toward the front window and returned his eyes to the road.
Raising his eyes, Lance found before him the most beautiful sight he thought he would ever see. A little over a mile farther down the coastline, perched upon its hulking grey home, was the gleaming white and orange bird. He must have gasped, because he heard a partial question from his friends in the back seat, quickly followed by an awed, "wow!"
"Which one is that?" Justin asked, leaning up between Lew and Lance to gain a better view.
"Atlantis," Lew said. "She's due to launch in a week or so."
"Kewl! So'd you get us a tour of that one, too?" Justin said, chuckling a little as Lance's eyes grew wider.
"Who do you think I am, the inventor of Tang?" Lew said, pulling back to look sideways at Justin. "I don't have clearance even close to that ... well maybe close ... but certainly not high enough to get guests in."
"Maybe if we rub your clearance and mine together we could get them a look at the toilet paper they're gonna put aboard her?" Mac laughed from the backseat. "No, wait, they don't use paper up there, do they? Sorry guys, guess you're just outta luck."
"You need new material!" Lance said, wrinkling his nose.
"Sorry, man," Mac said, squeezing Lance's shoulders, "I don't do improv."
"Hey, where are we goin'?" Lance asked, as Lew made a right turn onto a side road.
"Right over there," Lew said, pointing at the building
they were approaching.
There was a collective deflation of spirits as Lew pulled behind the building and their view of the shuttle was eclipsed. "Oh ye of little faith!" Lew said, pulling into the parking space and beginning to exit the vehicle.
"Where are we goin'?" came the question again, this time from Justin.
"You'll see," Lew said, waving an arm to tell them to follow. "Just come on."
Mac took Justin's arm and began dragging him toward Lew while pushing Lance. There was no real need for it, but it did allow him another brief moment of contact between Justin and himself. They watched as Lew entered the building; the three reaching the door just before it closed behind him. As they entered, they found Lew at the security desk, writing on a clipboard as he talked with the guard.
"Afternoon, gents," the guard said, as the guys approached.
"Sergeant," Mac said, nodding at the guard. Lance and Justin settled for a simple, 'hello'.
"You can take them all on up, Mr. Lewis," the guard said. "There's no one up there and nothing on the schedule for the day. Just grunt work till next week."
"Thanks, sergeant," Lew said, waving at him, then turning and pointing toward a door off to their right.
Finding themselves in a stairwell, they followed Lew upstairs. Once at the top, he opened the door and held it for them to pass. Inside they found several rows of auditorium style seats and large banks of windows. Passing through the rest of the guys, Lew headed for a doorway on the far wall.
"Anyone else feel like we're playing follow the leader here?" Justin said, chuckling lightly.
"Just walk!" Lew said. When Justin was within reach, Lew reached out, snatching his cap and ruffling his hair. "You need a hair cut."
"You always say that! Besides, coming from Mr. Ponytail ... you have no room to talk!" Justin told him, exiting onto the rooftop terrace. He stopped short as the view overwhelmed him. Surrounding them was the splendor of the Florida marshlands, and in the distance, the shuttle poised for its upcoming launch. "Wow," Justin said, "this is awesome!"
"This is as close as you can get to the pads when there's a shuttle out there," Lew said. "It's not like there's all that much to see out there except for a lot of charred cement, when she's not there."
Lance, noticing the binoculars set up around the perimeter railing, asked, "Do those work?"
"Sure, have a look," Lew said, smiling at him. "The big orange ones are the most powerful. You can even see the guys moving around up on the support gantry if they're out there."
"Kewl!" Lance said, jogging over to the closest set.
"Man, this is awesome, Lew," Mac said, watching Justin as he followed Lance to the rail. "This is all so beautiful ... you get to do this all the time?"
"Hell no!" Lew said, laughing. "I work here! I've only been over here once or twice since I've been here. I did get to see a launch once, though. That's absolutely spectacular, this close you feel it more than anything else," Lew said, shaking his head.
The two crossed the terrace to join Lance and Justin.
Walking up beside Justin, Mac leaned against the railing. "Man, this is
kewl!" Justin said, turning toward him. "Lew's right, you can see the little
guys out there working on it!" Justin said, offering Mac his binoculars
and pointing toward the base of the gantry.
The four of them spent nearly half an hour looking around the surrounding area. Their fascination with the maintenance crew out near the shuttle eventually waned, except for Lance, who was quite thoroughly enthralled with the whole experience. Justin and Mac amused themselves with a group of dueling birds, as they watched a number of smaller birds chasing a larger one out of their territory. Eventually, Justin turned to Lew and said, "Hey, Lew, this has been great and all ... but that coke I had back at lunch is kinda of ... begging to be recycled."
Lew and Mac laughed at his statement. "That was about as tactful a way as I've ever heard someone ask," Lew told him. "Come on, there's one just inside." The three of them grabbed Lance and drug him inside with them.
"It's been well over an hour, Lance," Mac said, when he protested. "The shuttle's not launching for at least a week, I doubt you'll miss much."
"Alright," Lance said, whining a little.
Mac laughed and playfully shoved him toward the restroom door Lew and Justin had just entered.
Minutes later, Lance waited outside the door, half leaning, half sitting on the back of one of the seats, impatiently tapping his foot. Justin leaned over to him and said, "He's just washing his hands, Scoop, he'll be right out."
"I know," Lance replied.
"Then quit that before I have to smack ya!" Justin said, through gritted teeth.
Lance halted his incessant tapping as Mac emerged from the restroom. "Where'd Lew go?" he asked, as he approached the two.
"He went to check on something," Justin said. "Our next little adventure, I think."
"Oh, okay," Mac said, nodding. "What's with him?" he asked, motioning toward Lance.
"Nothing a good swift kick wouldn't fix," Justin said, gaining a threatening, almost growl from Lance. Lew reentered the room a few moments later and asked them to follow him. "Great, another game of follow the leader," Justin said, chuckling.
"Shuddup!" Lew told him, swatting at him.
"Well, where to now?" Lance asked. "Back to the car?"
"This isn't the stairwell we used to come up here," Mac pointed out. Lew said nothing as he continued to descend the stairs.
"I was just wondering," Lance said, watching Lew as he opened the stairway door and walked through. "Well, he's just a wealth of information now, isn't he?" Lance's sentence trailed off once again as he crossed the threshold. The four of them were now in what appeared to be a smaller version of the room upstairs. Similar rows of seats surrounded them facing familiar windows, only these looked onto banks of control panels and large projection screens. "Is this what I think it is?" Lance asked, clearly awed.