Tara Maclay stopped sweeping for the umpteenth time, resting her chin on top of the broom handle as she surveyed the hangar forlornly.
With a 100 billion dollar budget and presidential endorsement couldn't they have thought about inventing an automatic sweeping robot? Or hiring more cleaners? She sighed and returned to her task. It never ended. There was always more dust, or shreds of paper, or food remains, or worse. She shuddered at some of the truly grisly discards she'd had to clear up.
Her mother's voice rang out in her head. Self-pity gets you nowhere my sweet girl. You've got a job, which is more than your father and brother ever managed.
Not for the first time, her mind began to wander and soon she was in her familiar dreamzone. Between fantasizing that she was Mickey the Apprentice orchestrating an army of buckets and brooms to clean the vast space and Gene Kelly tap-dancing around lamp-posts while singing in the rain, she didn't hear her name being called until a small female hand swatted her on her shoulder.
She dropped her broom sharply and jumped in fright.
"Buffy! Damn, don't scare me like that!" she exclaimed.
"I called out to you a few times. You were in La-la land as usual." Buffy Summers looked after security at the space center, working night-shift like Tara. They were a different breed, the night-shift folks. It paid more but it took a certain mental attitude to have their body clocks and personal lives turned upside down like that. It also meant that they stuck together, regardless of job or level.
"I was, um, contemplating," Tara huffed.
Buffy shot her a 'yeah, right' look but didn't pursue the matter further. "Your girl's here," she said simply, before shoving her hands in her pockets and making her way back to the staff room.
Tara's frown turned into a warm grin and she ran the few steps to catch up with Buffy, the task of keeping the thousands of square feet of space spotlessly clean was abandoned as her mind filled with the image of 'her girl' as Buffy called her.
The smell of piping hot pizza greeted them and Tara's stomach did a few somersaults. Of course it wasn't just the pizza, though she knew the selection that the night-shift folks were such experts at ordering would be delicious as usual. No, Tara's insides flipped and fluttered because of how they were delivered.
She grabbed the bringer of the feast by the waist and planted a light kiss on surprised lips.
It didn't matter that object of her affections wore a 16th century sailor's outfit that was required of all employees of the Magellan Pizza Palace. It didn't matter that the same object was sweaty from running about and sticky from the grease from the kitchen. It didn't matter because Tara was hating her job, miserable about life in general and the sight of Willow Rosenberg, regardless of dress or condition, was the perennial bright spot in her life.
"Hey, baby," Willow returned the kiss, this time a little firmer than Tara's.
"You brought me pizza. Sweetie, you shouldn't have. You have no consideration for my waistline," Tara mock-pouted.
"There's nothing wrong with your waistline," Willow chuckled. "Besides, you think I'd care if you were Fred Flintstone, as long as you're mine?"
"I'm a prehistoric caveman who works a crane?" Tara's eyebrow shot up toward her hairline.
"Well, cave something," Willow whispered conspirationally.
"Oh geez, I need insulin," a friendly voice interrupted their banter.
Tara waved to the newcomer, space engineer Xander Harris, looking quite ragged as he staggered in, throwing his utility belt on the floor and himself on a hard plastic chair. He groaned as he tried to find a more comfortable position.
"You look like you did ten rounds with the Karate Kid," Willow said, as she propped an extra slice of pizza vertically on top of the round pizza, the Sunny Sundial Extra Slice Extravaganza being a Magellan signature offering. Tara always thought it looked more like a doughnut shaped sailboat than the pretend sundial that Willow's boss insisted it was. The extra slice (on the house!) was a big draw with Magellan customers though.
"Oh, man. Don't," Xander closed his eyes and tried to rub the tiredness out of his temple.
"The sequel's coming out soon," Buffy added between mouthfuls.
Xander reached for a slice himself and sighed heavily as he bit into the soft filled dough. "Your boss is a weirdo, Will. But he knows his pizza."
Willow shrugged. "Willy's okay, if a little crazy. But I have to cut my hours; I've enrolled in more units this semester."
"Way to go, Will," Xander, who was taking a sip of his Pepsi, saluted her. "When you graduate, see about getting a job here."
"That's the idea," Willow nodded. "All my life, I've wanted to work at NASA. I'll really need your recommendation, Xand, I'm not exactly Ms Big Brain."
Tara put her arms around Willow's shoulders in encouragement. "You'll be fine. I can't wait till you join our little space family, sweetie."
The group made small talk as they chowed down the pizza, Willow politely refusing. Having to work with pizza all the time, she couldn't actually eat a bite without being sick.
Xander finished his portion quickly and stood up, patting his firm stomach. "Gotta go. It'll be an allnighter," he said. "So much to do."
"When are they gonna actually launch?" Tara asked.
Xander snorted. "There's always a delay. We'll be lucky if it makes it this weekend. But what's new? They want a reusable rocket, they gotta make sure it comes back," he said.
"Is it really busy in the hangar?" Willow asked, with a longing in her eyes. "I-- I'd ..."
"No, just the maintenance crew. Most people are off for the night. The delays are cuz of weather, not mechanical problems," Xander added. "Hey! You want to see it up close? Not inside the cabin or anything, but you can take a look at the tank and the boosters."
Willow's eyes lit up. "Are you sure? You won't get into trouble?"
"Nah. A quick look-see won't do anyone's harm, right Buffy?"
Xander glanced over to the security chief, who continued eating her pizza. "I'm having my pizza; and for those interested, I'll be enjoying my pizza for the next 20 minutes," she said to no one in particular.
Xander and Willow hastily made their way from the staff room. Tara, after one look at Buffy and receiving a slight nod, ran after them.
"Oh my god, look at the size of that thing," Willow gasped as she stood underneath the external tank of the huge vertical craft. "How can it lift off all the way to space, and come back. Wow."
"A lot of energy, a lot of dedicated people," Xander said quietly. They marveled at the sheer engineering miracle that was the Space Transportation System, or Space Shuttle as it was more commonly known.
Tara walked up to Willow and took the redhead's hand. She had gotten used to the spacecraft and had almost forgotten the feeling of awe and inspiration that hit her the first time she was within touching distance. Seeing the same in Willow's eyes brought back memories, as well as love for the girl in her life.
"Shit," Xander's hiss spoiled the mood, and she looked over at him in annoyance. "Sorry, I left my tool belt in the rec room. I'm getting forgetful in my old age."
Willow's disappointment was so obvious that Tara's heart instinctively reached out to her. The visit had to be cut short now.
Xander thought for a moment. "Look, I'll run back real quick, okay? Don't do anything or go anywhere. If someone asks you, Tara flash your pass and tell them you're waiting for me," he said in a rush, and ran off before either of them had a chance to say anything.
Tara mentally made a note to buy him a beer next time they were at the pub.
She held onto Willow's hand, but didn't say anything, preferring to let Willow absorb the sight before her.
"Come on," Willow said suddenly, as she dragged Tara toward the support tower.
"Will! What are you doing?" Tara squeaked as she quickly righted herself to stop herself from stumbling.
"I want to get closer. Touch it. Any part of it. So I know my DNA has gone into space. How often do you get a chance like this?" Willow said as they reached the lower levels and began climbing up the steep steps.
"But --" Tara started to protest.
"No one's looking," Willow shot Tara a pleading look and Tara was unable to resist.
They stood inches from the lower part of one of the external boosters. Willow continued looking up, and Tara could tell she was debating whether to continue further up or stop where they were.
"How did they come up with the names of these shuttles?" Willow mused.
"Well, they had Columbia, and this is the Challenger," Tara started.
"Names beginning with 'C' may be," Willow guessed.
"Not when the next ones are called Discovery and Atlantis," Tara pointed out. "May be it's to do with adventure and the pioneering spirit."
"I know a couple of 'C'-words that are pioneering and adventurous. Not to mention very, very satisfying," Willow winked mischievously.
Despite her worry about being discovered, Tara couldn't help but react to Willow's innuendo. She knew what her girlfriend was thinking of. "And these words are ...?" she gave Willow the perfect opening.
"Climax of course," Willow smirked. And stepped closer to Tara so their bodies connected fully. She kissed Tara, and worked her way to biting on Tara's earlobe gently.
This was one of Tara's erogenous zones, and Willow knew it.
Tara's whimper shivered down her body. "Of course," she hummed at the pleasure that proximity to Willow always brought.
"And there's also--" Willow whispered seductively, the salient word only heard by Tara's ears.
Tara's smile grew broader. "Gutterbrain," she accused, but was secretly aroused by the suggestion.
Willow's kisses grew more insistent, and soon hands had found their way underneath layers of clothing. They were beginning to reach the 'zone' where soon they'd be oblivious to their surroundings.
Tara took Willow's tongue when it slipped inside her mouth, the taste and the texture were so exotic and yet familiar. It was the only sensation she'd ever known, or would want to know. Spurred on by a sudden hunger, she threw Willow against the booster tanks, with little regard to what these were. Her mind had only one mission -- find a solid surface to hold her girlfriend against.
Slowly, gently, rhythmically, firmly they rocked against each other with increasing urgency.
Willow threw her head back with a deep sigh, and reached her arms back to steady herself. Tara's lips firmly planted on her face, neck and rapidly moving lower. Their arms were wrapped tightly around the other and how their legs intertwined so naturally.
---- CRA-CKKKK ----
"What was that?"
"I think we pushed too hard, sounds like something fell off."
All thoughts about soft skin and interlocking parts and frottage vanished as they looked at each other in mortification.
Without further discussion they ran down the steps of the support structure. Only to be confronted by Xander, who had just walked in with utility belt firmly secured around his hips. His eyes narrowed as he saw the pair jumping off the last few steps.
"Where've you been?" he asked.
Willow was scanning the immediate floor area for anything that looked like it just fell off a multi-million dollar space shuttle but couldn't spot anything. Tara was studying the floor intently in embarrassment.
"It's my fault. I made her go with me," Willow said.
Tara looked up and shook her head violently. "No, no. It's my fault. I didn't tell her about procedures," she tried to explain.
"Did you go up there?" Xander pointed at the exact same spot they were just moments ago.
The silence was finally broken by Tara. "Y-yes."
"I wanted to get closer, to touch it. We didn't mean to break it!" Willow blurted out.
"Whoa! Break?" Xander had to clamp his mouth shut forcefully, he was on the verge of shouting.
"We only touched it briefly," Tara said quietly, having regained her composure. "There was a sound, like when the door hinge is loose. I don't think it was us."
Xander sighed, and then made up his mind. "How high did you go?"
"Only to the first platform," Willow said.
"Okay, I'll check it out. Are you sure you only touched the external boosters?"
They were adamant. "Yes."
Xander took them back out to the public area and Willow sheepishly went back to her bike. She gave Tara's arm a squeeze before she left. "I'll see you at home."
By the time Tara turned around, Xander had left.
She didn't run into him again until the night before the launch, when she was taking a rest in the staff room. With all the activity and hustle-bustle of pre-launch activities, she and the entire sanitary department had been working overtime.
"Hey Tara," Xander made the first contact.
She was still embarrassed about the incident, she knew that they, and especially her since she was a staff member, had broken important rules. "Xander, about the other night, I'm really sorry. We got too excited."
Xander shrugged as he popped open a can of soda. "May have been a blessing in disguise. There was a defect in the lower segment of the right booster. It may or may not have been detected, but they did a thorough inspection. Replaced some parts, applied an extra coating of sealant to the joints, put in new o-rings. The vessel is as solid as we can make it," he recounted.
"Still, we could have gotten into trouble," Tara said quietly.
"But we didn't, although I'm not sure I'd risk it again, you know what I mean?" he said.
She placed her hand on his arm and thanked him. "I really appreciate this."
He finished his soda and tossed it into the trash can. "Are you watching the launch?" he asked as he prepared to go back to work.
"Yeah, I think so," she said, as she too made her way back to the drudge.
It was beautiful and impressive.
Tara and Willow had a clear view of the launchpad from their spot in the semi-public viewing area. They watched excitedly as the preparations went underway and listened, enraptured, at the countdown sequence from mission control.
"T minus Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Three main engines up and burning."
There was a big cheer as the engines ignited with smoke and gas billowing out in all directions. The shuttle seemed to be briefly suspended on top of the cloud of gas before rapidly gaining speed and climbing its way up into orbit.
The loudspeakers continued to broadcast the exchange between mission control and the crew.
"Houston, Challenger. Roll program."
Another big cheer as the shuttle reached milestones checkpoints.
"There's 10,000 feet and Mach point five."
Seventy seconds into the flight was one of the most important points, as the main engines began throttling up to full thrust just before it passed through Max-Q, or the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure that was experienced during its ascent.
Tara had hung around Xander long enough to know that if anything were to go wrong, these were the vital seconds. Willow had her arms around her waist, and she leaned in closer to feel the intimacy and comfort.
"Engines are throttling up. Three engines now at 104 percent."
A sigh of relief seemed to be heard from KSC all the way to Houston and around the world, when the maneuver was successful. Shortly afterward, the rocket boosters and main tank separated, allowing the plane-shaped orbiter to continue into orbit.
"STS-51-L launched successfully. Good job."
"I'm going to be in the space program one day," Willow said quietly but with resolve.
"I'll be with you all the way." Tara turned and regarded her serious-looking girlfriend, her heart bursting with pride at her determination. "Mission Specialist Willow Rosenberg, I like that."