Spirit of Steel -- 2


When Justin stepped out of the bathroom he looked up from where he was concentrating on his crutches and found her writing a note.  His hands were now clammy--due to--his mind stuttered a little while he tried to figure out why he was nervous, why his stomach was churning and why his eyes weren't focusing correctly as he watched her.  "Can't leave home without telling the parents?"

She pursed her lips but didn't look at him, her eyes stayed trained on the paper in front of her as her hand moved gracefully over it.  He always admired the way a woman could even do something as simple as writing and turn it into something graceful.  He used to sit and watch ESPN while Britney would sign autographs and even he couldn't keep his eyes off her even with the distraction of sports in front of him.

"It's a common curtsey to leave them a note considering that I haven't taken my car out since I had my surgery."

His eyes glanced down at his foot knowing that it wasn't likely that he'd be able to drive them down to the store.  It was strange to be the helpless one like that.  He normally would be the one to go jump in the car and speed off to some great club or movie or friend's house, but for the moment he could barely make it next door on his own.  "Are you ok to drive?"

"Yeah," she said with a laugh.  He watched her flip her hair over her shoulder and smile.  He liked the attitude that she had with him.  It was rough around the edges, but gave him an idea of what it would be like to actually be friends with a person not because he was JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, but because he was just Justin. "I haven't been drinking."

"Good one," he said with a nod.  "You're pretty quick that wit."

She grabbed her wallet off the counter and shook her keys a little wiggling her eyebrows at him. "You ready?"

He imagined her being a very independent person in her real life and wondered if being stuck at home with a bum leg was hard on her.  When he'd touched her leg earlier he hadn't let it slip his mind that she'd cringed away from his hands and had held her breath for most of the time that he was holding her foot.  "I should go and get my wallet," he said, "I closed up the house, but--"

"This time is on me," she explained and motioned towards the door.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Look," she said putting her hands on her hips, "If you want to stumble all the way over to the other house, root around for your wallet then walk all the way back over here then sure--go ahead--but I'd like to actually get down to The Bait Shop before it closes."

"Point taken," he said trying not to notice how much he actually liked her.  It had been a long time since he'd been able to have a conversation with a woman his age that didn't involve the girl screaming at him and that included his messed up relationship with Britney, not just the fans.  "But not forgotten.  I'll pay next time."

"It's a beer," she said, "It's not going to break the bank."

"Ok then," he said with wide eyes swinging his bad foot a little in the air.  If he thought he'd be able to do it without falling over he would have put up his arms in surrender.

"Why I don't get the door for you," she suggested.  "I don't know if I can handle you falling down outside with it getting dark and all."

"Hey," he said, "Don't make fun.  You seem like you've got the advantage now, but wait until I get back on my feet."

She rolled her eyes at him then smiled, "I'm sure."

Holding the door open for him was such a switch for him.  He might have traveled for most of his childhood and teenage hood, but one thing he'd learned early was to hold the door open for a woman.

"What?" she asked.

"Girls usually don't hold the door open for me."

She moved her hands away from the door.  "Why are you trying to be such a tough ass about this?"

"This time I won't mind too much," he said, "But don't think I'm--I'm normally like this."

"Want my advice?"

"Why are you handing out so much advice to me?" he asked.

"Because you seem like you need it," she said.

"I do?" His eyes widened.  He knew deep down he probably could use some, just like every other person in the world could use some, but having this woman who didn't know him at all tell him how to live his life when it came to his foot really disturbed him.  It had the inklings of too many conversations he'd had with managers in his earlier career."

"Maybe you don't," she said, "But from the way you act around me I'd guess that you were a hermit instead of being someone that a million and one people interact with on a daily basis."

"You don't have a clue about me," he said.

"Don't I?" she asked, "I predicted that you were going to stomp your foot yesterday and would probably have broken your foot if you'd done it."

"That was one incident."

She opened her mouth and started to say something, but shut it again and sighed, "This isn't doing us any good by standing here and arguing.  I say that we go we our beers and fight there sitting down instead of being out here and yelling at each other."

"Fine," he said, "I wasn't yelling though."

He actually loved the way she rolled her eyes at him before speaking.  "Well you weren't using your southern charm."

She pulled open the door of the car and went to grab one of his crutches away from him.  He let her have it and settled himself into the seat of the car.

"I'm gonna hang these out the window," she said and opened up the back door.  She opened up the window then shut the car door and put the crutches inside.

"Make sure that they don't fall out," he said.

"Hmm," she said, "I wouldn't even have thought of having them fall out if you hadn't said anything."

"Come on," he said, "Right now that really isn't something I want to be joking about."

"It seems like though that you do better more without the crutches than with them."  She smiled, "You did fine yesterday standing on one foot if you hadn't tried to stomp your foot."

"Yeah," he said, "But bouncing across the house or whatever on one leg really isn't the way I want to spend my days."

"Then don't," she said.

He hated the way she could cut off a conversation.  By the time she got into the driver's side seat he'd totally lost his train of thought.

*****

When they got to The Bait Shop Justin instantly felt as if coming there was the wrong thing to do that evening.  It looks like every good old boy and every kid in the town have showed up and he was now stuck walking into the place on crutches without a bodyguard to break through the crowd for him.  The room was fairly small--a twenty foot by twenty foot room that contained a small store, bait shop, and restaurant that all the locals had used as a hang out since he had been born.

"You ok?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said trying to be a man about things.  He wasn't about to admit to her that he was paranoid about going out alone these days and that what he really wanted to do was to go back and sit in the car again.  "Just a little nervous still about these crutches."

She stood on her tiptoes looking past a few men who were standing around talking fishing stories near the drink coolers.  "I think there is a seat in the back," she said, "Grab a chair and I'll grab you a beer."  She started to turn to walk away then turned back, "What kind?"

"Anything," he said, "Except light.  If Buck is up there he knows what I like."

"Ok."

Justin moved on his crutches slowly across the room and found soon that people were saying hello and moving out of the way on their own.  He found that most of his neighbors were eating dinner and kicking back beers.  It wouldn't normally be the way that he'd spend a night, but that evening it was the perfect atmosphere to be in.  No bouncers or loud music.  The only thing that could be heard was the radio playing the broadcast of some old radio programming show from the forties.

"Justin Timberlake," an older man's voice came from behind him.

His eyebrows raised and he knew that he was in trouble.  If his mother and father and step parents and grandparents were lurking in the corners he knew he was about to get an earful.  When he turned around though he only found his grandfather standing there with a beer in his hand watching him with a critical eye.

"What are you doing here Pops?" he asked with a smile trying to search the room for his parents.

"I thought you were staying off your foot."  He pointed at his leg with his beer bottle.  "Your grandma and Momma are gonna kill you when they see you out here."

Justin swung his foot a little knowing that his grandfather was right and he was going to get in major trouble when he got home.  "Not before they kill you for sneaking away from the fundraiser to come and have a beer."

His grandfather chuckled a little and smiled, "Got a point there kiddo."

Justin found her standing at the counter paying for the beers and she looked bored.  He wondered for a moment what he really was going to do with her.  In LA or Orlando he'd go clubbing, but in Millington, this was the club.  "So you and the boys playin' poker tonight?" Justin asked.

"Naw," he said, "Charlie and Henry had to go see their grandkids and playing with Mikey ain't as fun."

Justin looked around for a seat when his toes started to throb a little.  He had been pretty good about the pain that had come along with his ankle.  Since they'd put him in the brace, his leg had started to feel better, but standing for a long time made his toes swell.

"Go catch a seat boy," his grandfather finally said seeming to see the slightly pained look on his face.  "I won't tell your momma you were here if you don't tell grandma I was here."

Justin nodded.  If he hadn't been caught up with his crutches he would have given him a hug, but since he needed both his arms to keep himself standing he just gave his grandfather a smile.

"Hey Mr. T," she said coming back to them.

"Carolina," Justin's grandfather said.

It was strange that he'd been talking to her for almost an hour or so now and never had figured out her name.

He loved her smile.  "I thought I saw you walk in here.  I haven't seen you in a few days.  How's the foot doing?"

"Good.  Good," she said, "I took pity on Justin here and figured that the two gimps should get out of the house and have a beer since our Momma's are so insane about our ankles these days."

"Hmmm," he said, "You better not tell Mrs. T that I was out here.  I'll leave that little bit out when I see your daddy at the school next week."

"You're going into Memphis next week?" Justin asked.

"I'm goin' out to visit the baseball coach with Travis Walton and his father next week since they've been recruiting him this year."

"My Pops--the diplomat," Justin joked.

"Well I should get back over to Mikey over there and make sure he didn't throw the bill onto my tab," Justin's grandfather said, "You guys have fun, but don't stay out too late."

"We won't Pops," Justin said.

"Wanna plop down?" she said.

"How about we go and sit out on the porch," he said, "It's claustrophobic in here."

She looked around for a minute, "Sure.  Whatever you want."

They made their way back out and sat down on the edge of the porch of the place, letting them dangle their legs over the side.  Justin leaned his crutches up against the porch and swung both his legs a little when the weight was off them.

When she handed him his beer he noticed that she did it without touching his hand.  She sat next to him, but far enough away so if someone was watching them it'd just look like they were sitting in the same area instead of together.

"Cheers," he said and reached to clink bottles with hers before lifting the bottle to his lips.

She drank a smaller drink than he did then spoke to him while he swallowed, "So are you gonna get in trouble because your grandfather was here?"

"No," he said, "Not really.  I'm sure he's just as worried about me seeing him here.  He was supposed to be at dinner with my parents."

"When was the last time you were here?" she asked.

"I did a day in the life kind of thing with twenty twenty a while ago and came down here to get a drink, it was more just to get away from the house and show that I have a life more than to show my real life."

She laughed, "My mom told me about that.  She was upset because she thought the camera people were going to get into her flowers."

He nodded, "They didn't miss anything up did they?"

"No," she said, "Their trucks just looked ugly for the day or so that they were here."

"Tell her I'm sorry.  I know it's a hassle to have them here."

"I thought that you'd love that type of stuff, but you don't sound like it."

"I love it," he said, "It's addicting actually."  He took another drink.  "I just know that whatever crap that follows me around that I'm used to really can mess up other people's lives."

"At least you notice the difference between real life and your life."

"Hey," he said, "I should be offended by that."

"Are you?"

"No," he said, "I mean I am, but I'm not.  I know that my life is insane and no one understands how I live the way I do."

"The question is though...do you understand the way you live?"

"What do you mean?"

"I know that with my sports obsession people totally couldn't understand how I could train forty hours a week just to perform my sport for a few hours every month."

"Sounds like my career."

A little bit of silence fell over them as each other sorted their thoughts.

"So are you going to go back to fencing when your ankle heals?"

"Yeah," she said, "I mean I think I am."  She frowned, "It's all up to my ankle."

"Miss it much?"

"Yeah," she said, "You know how you were griping about not being able to play golf?  I'm totally that way when it comes to fencing.  Now that I'm in my brace and out of the cast I can at least work on my arms a little, but my legs aren't as quick when I start to want to work out."

"I'd love to see you fence," he said, "I mean--I've never seen anyone fence except for that one girl on the Real World London.  We got a tape of that show on the road and I watched all the episodes of her training one day."

"Oh yeah.  Kat," she said.

"You know her?"

Carolina shrugged, "I competed against her a few years ago.  She's good and probably ruined her career going off to do that show.  She was up at her peak at the time and moving away from training really set her back."

"What about you?" he asked looking at her leg.

Instead of talking to him she moved away from him and walked out into the grass next to the bait shop.

"Ok," he said, "Note to self.  Don't ask Carolina about her sports."

"I'm sorry," she said, "It's just--I haven't really talked to anyone about it."  She took a breath and drank more of her drink.  "It's hard not to be into a sport that I've done every day of my life for over ten years."

"As much as you don't want to believe it," he said, "I totally understand where you're coming from."

"Look," she said and started to pour out her beer, "Think we can get back to the house?  I have rehab in the morning and it's getting late."

Justin tipped back the rest of his beer and set the bottle on the wood decking before he got to his feet.  He put his crutches underneath his arms then looked at her.

"Don't kill the poor helpless beer.  Donate it to a neighbor if you don't want it."  He reached for the bottle after hobbling over to her, but slipped a little and fell into her a little.

"Whoa," she said, "Note to self.  Don't give a man using crutches a beer.  He may run into something."

"Sorry about that," he said, "I hope this stuff gets a little easier.  I'm not sure that I want to be hitting into EVERYONE that I try to have a conversation with in the next few weeks."

"No worries," she said, "You'll get better at it."  She moved away from him and put her beer bottle down next to his on the deck then came back over to him, "You can bump into me any time."

"Thanks," he said with a sigh and wondered if talking to her was ever going to get easier.  First he was pissed off and now she was pissed off.  This definitely wasn't the way to live.

"Come on gimpy," she said, "Let's get you back into the car and back home before your momma and grandma gang up on you."

He nodded and walked towards the car.

*****

The car ride was quiet as they drove the short distance between The Bait Shop and the houses.  Justin usually craved the peace and quiet that was between them, but that night he couldn't stand it.

"So were you still living in Colorado before all this?"

"Yeah," she said, "Colorado Springs is home for me."

"Never been there.  Closest I got was Denver and of course I've been to Salt Lake City during the Winter Olympics, but never got out to CS."

"It's the most beautiful place on the planet.  I miss it actually.  I wish that I could rehab there, but my dad got wind of what happened, sent me to some specialists and now he's heading up my rehab."

"At least you've got someone close in the family to help out.  I don't know what I'm gonna do...my manager probably is already looking for people to fly in and see me."

"Why don't you do it locally?" she said, "My dad could probably figure out a program with your doctors."

"I can't," he said, "I wouldn't even be here if my grandmother hadn't insisted that I be flown in.  I was planning on spending my time in LA at the new house, but grandma's voice is tougher than just about anyone's."

She looked over from where she was driving, "You sound like you don't want to be here."

"It's strange, but Tennessee is home for me even though this trip home will be the longest I've been here since the early nineties."  He rubbed his forehead.  "I love it, but at the same time there are sooo many other things that are on my mind right now."

"Girlfriend?" she asked.

"Nope," he said, "That one got taken care of a few months ago."

"Bad break up?" she asked.

"You really don't know about this?" he asked.

She turned back to the road and pursed her lips, "I know who you are Justin, but really what you do outside of the fact that you're Mrs. T's grandson I really haven't paid much attention to what you've been up to."  She sighed, "Even if I did know more than I do, I wouldn't really think that it would be appropriate to talk about.  I only asked if you had a girlfriend because I don't want to be seen with you--"

"You can drop me off right here if it bothers you that much."

"No," she said, "It'd take you all night to walk home from here."  She sighed, "I meant that I didn't want to hang around and cause issues for you since I do know that people like to take pictures of you."

"Oh," he said, "That."  He took a deep breath.  "Yeah...someone might care what I'm up to, but really you don't have to worry about it.  I'm sure that after the way we have both gotten on each other's nerves the last few days that we won't be hanging out much after this anyway."

"Great," she murmured, "Now I've offended you."

"No," he said, "Really.  I've heard worse."

"I didn't mean to--"

"Look, he said, "I thought you were a cool girl the other day when you didn't freak out and scream at me and truthfully as scary as it sounds, it doesn't happen very often for me.  I was thinking I could hang out with you and maybe get some help with my ankle and maybe give you someone to hang out with.  I didn't mean anything by it, but I thought it'd be good for the both of us to be around someone that is our age since we both are kind of stuck at the house."

She sighed, "Ok. Ok.  I get it.  Retract the claws."

"I'm going to be hanging around the house tomorrow watching movies probably then maybe work out my arms some if you want to come over.  You don't have to come over, but you're welcome to."

She nodded, "If I go into town again I'll give you a call and maybe you can come with me for a little bit.  I'll save you from your grandma's and momma's worrying."

"Deal," he said.

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