Spirit of Steel 29


Carolina had been in Hawaii for almost a full day now and still wasn't sure that this wasn't all just some dream and that she was going to wake up in Tennessee in the snow.  She leaned back in her chair for a moment as Justin pushed the sliding door open a little more then when he sat down again in the seat next to her instead of across from her at the four person table she sat up straighter for a moment.  "Pinch me."

"What?"

"Pinch me," she said and moved her arm in front of him.

"I'm not going to pinch you," Justin said, "What are we?  Five?"

"Just do it," she said and moved her arm in front of him.

Justin sighed, reached to touch her arm then moved his hand to scratch his forehead instead.  "Honey.  Really.  I don't want to pinch you."

"Do it," she said lifting her other hand, "Or I'll pinch you."

He took the hint and put his hand on her arm for a moment giving it a squeeze instead of a pinch.

"Come on," she said, "You're making this so difficult."

He pinched her lightly.  "Satisfied?"

"Yes," she said leaning towards him.  "I just wanted to make sure that this wasn't some crazy dream I was having."

"Awe," he said with a slightly mocking tone as he moved some hair out of her face.  He caressed her cheek for a moment then smiled a half smile at her.  "Such the little romantic."

"I know it's sappy," she said, "Believe me.  I'm totally not one to take the sappy approach, but I mean GOD we're in Hawaii for Christmas with our families and the beach today and you performing and me--well and me being here and not freaking out--"

"Whoa whoa whoa," he said and put an arm around her chair and turned towards her more.  "Freaking out?"

"Justin.  I don't know if you know this...but you're a HUGE star."

"Yeah."

"Well it just is strange for me to be here and be in this environment.  I'm not saying at all that it's a bad thing and I hate it, but it definitely let's me have a different perspective on life."

Justin instantly looked worried, which worried her.

"Justin," she groaned when his face turned sour.  "Honey.  I'm not complaining.  I just...I just have so many things that I want to be teenie about at this moment and I'm scared to death that I'm going to bust out with some stupid remark and you're gonna shove me on a plane and send me home if I do."

His eyes moved to his lap and he brought his arm back from around her.  "Oh."

"Justin."  She moved her hand to tip his chin up.  "Justin.  Today was the first time I ever got to see a sound check."

"You went to the thing in Denver."

"That was different.  That was me and a whole bunch of fans and you putting on a mini show for them.  Today was you and the band working.  The kind of thing that no one else sees.  I mean not to sound like a groupie, but it's something that I've always wondered about.  That whole mystery about being "with the band" or "backstage" is something that anyone would think more than a few times about."

"Oh."

"It was a great Christmas present.  I mean really.  Over the last few months I have to admit I've been watching a lot more television to see if I could get a glimpse of you.  It's strange to know that you're my boyfriend and you're on MTV at least three times a day.  I just--I just don't know if I should scream like a little girl because you're so freaking cool or if I shouldn't mention it at all because it'll turn you off to me."  She sighed.  "Well I mentioned it so I know that I can just sit here and pretend it doesn't exist--"

"Carolina?" Justin said with emotion in his voice.  He took a deep breath and waited for her to nod before he continued.  "I just want you to know though that all that hype downstairs, all the jets and the managers and the security.  That's not me.  I'm just--Just Justin," he said.  "I'm the guy that falls over my face in your kitchen when I can't get around on my crutches and I'm the guy that watches movies with you and I'm the guy that was scared to death that you weren't going to show up in Colorado.  I'm not cool.  Really.  I work my brain and butt off trying to be cool, but really I think that I'm a freak of nature at this point."

Carolina put a hand up to his cheek.  "You're not."  She moved her hand to his neck for a moment to fix the collar of his shirt then moved her hand back to his face.

"You're not telling me that if I took a pen and wrote on my t-shirt THE SKY IS PURPLE that I wouldn't have people wearing THE SKY IS PURPLE T-shirts by tomorrow?"

"Ok, well you are kind of a freak of nature," she said with a laugh then let her hand slid down his neck.  She pulled him close for a kiss, wanting to end this conversation before it got too much more intense.  "You're a freak in the bedroom.  Or at least I remember that you were--"

Justin cracked a smile and kissed her.  "I just don't want you to get caught up in all this.  I mean yeah it's part of what I do and how I live, but it's not me."

"I know."  She straightened her shoulders.  "I'll try not to let it get to me too much.  I just can't promise that tonight after this show that I'm not going to be jumping around like a two year old.  I'm gonna try to be as cool as I can, but really I doubt that I'm going to be able to keep my composure, considering that you almost melted me off that bar stool a little bit ago."

Justin let out a half laugh.  "So you liked that little trick?"

"That was a trick?" she said feeling a little bit hurt about the whole thing.  "You've used that on other people?"

"No," he said quickly, "I've seen other performers do stuff like that and I figured that it would work--"

The bartender appeared with their burgers and fries and set down ketchup and forks and knives before slipping away.

"I just figured that it would work on you.  You seem the type to be the hopeless romantic and well.  I was right."

"I'm not hopeless," she said and turned to her burger.

"Awe," he said, "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings or anything.  You know I wouldn't spread around that you were a hopeless romantic.  I wouldn't want to ruin your reputation."

"Reputation?" she asked moving the top of the burger off so she could put on ketchup and mustard.  "I have a reputation."  She giggled.

Justin turned to his burger and started to fix it how he liked it.  "You're just loving this aren't you?"

"Why shouldn't I?" she asked.  "This is the first time in my life I've had a reputation--at least for something that is outside fencing."

"Really?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said putting her burger back together.  "You don't understand how long I've been working at this."

He wiped his hands and leaned his arm against the table so that he could stare at her.  "Well tell me."

"Way longer than you've been singing."

He turned to his meal again and picked up his burger, moving it to lick some of the ketchup off the side before he started to take a bite.  He paused.  "First time I got into something big was when I was ten."

She clicked her tongue twice in her mouth then took a breath.  "First time I won a national championship I was eight, which means that I'd been training for probably three years before that."

"Eight?" he asked after taking a bite.  He spit a little bun out onto his plate when he spoke then put his burger down and grabbed for a napkin.  "Crap."

"You ok?"

"I never realized--"  He lifted his hand to his mouth to wipe his lips off.  "I knew you'd been doing it a long time, but not that long."

"That's why screwing up my ankle was so heart breaking for me.  The first time I really had to see what I wanted out of life and the second time--the second time I had to really sit back and think if I wanted this or not.  I mean the pain of therapy really was hard on me."

Justin took a deep breath.  "Why do I think you're about to tell me that you're retiring?"

Carolina sat back in her chair.  "I think I am."  She took a napkin and wiped her hands.  "I mean I am retiring."

"Honey," he said, "Don't do that."

She felt his eyes on her.  She kept her eyes lowered.  She didn't want to see his expression.  She somehow knew that he was disappointed.  She just didn't know why he would be upset about it.  If she ended up retiring she could do whatever she wanted.  Spending more time with him was certainly an option that she'd considered...at least for a month or two before she could get back up on her feet and get a normal nine to five job.

"Why not?" she asked.  "I don't love it anymore.  I mean not the way I used to.  If I can't compete I don't want to be sitting around bumming everyone else around me out."

"Are you really sure though?" he asked.

She nodded and felt tears form in her eyes.  "I can't just sit around and watch everyone else do what I want to do.  I need to find something else to be obsessed over."  Her shoulders pulled up into a shrug and she took a napkin and wiped her eyes.

"Honey, don't cry," he said.

"It's just--it's just the first time I've actually said it out loud.  I mean I told my girls that I was thinking about moving back home, but I didn't say that I was quitting the sport altogether."

"And that's why you didn't bring your foil?" he asked.

She nodded, still not looking straight at him.  "I wanted to see if I could go for a week without it...I mean I'm physically able to still train, but I can't do what needs to be done to compete and I thought that if I could get through this week that I could really do it for real."

"You'll be ok," he said and put an arm around her.  "If you really want to give it up then I'm going to be here to support you."

"Really?" she asked.

"Did you think I'd be mad?" he asked.  "I mean that's what it seems like."

"It's not that," she said, "I just didn't want to do that stupid thing that girls seem to do with guys like you.  Becoming a professional girlfriend isn't what I want to be, yet, I'm certain--especially after today--that I want to spend more time with you.  I was really cautious at first, but I want to be with you."

"Well that's good," he said and leaned to kiss her.  "I want to be with you too."

"Good," she said.  She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes once more.  "We'd better eat dinner so you can do your show.  I don't want your fans to be pissed off because you aren't done eating."

*****

When Todd appeared at the steps about twenty minutes later Justin had finished his burger and was watching Carolina play with her fries.  They hadn't done much talking since she said that they should get to finishing dinner before he had to go back downstairs.  It was strange how it worked between them.  Even just sitting there saying nothing they seemed to be comfortable with each other enough not to have to force conversation.

Todd cleared his throat and waved hello to them.  "You guys gonna be done soon?"

"Yeah," Carolina said throwing down her french fry so that she could pick up her napkin and wipe her fingers on it.

Justin turned towards him.  "We'll be down in a second."

Todd pointed over his shoulder.  "They're gonna open up the floor to those radio winners.  You knew about that didn't you?"

"No," Justin sighed then slapped on a smile.  "I'll be down in a second."  He grabbed up his napkin and threw it onto his plate then grabbed up the fork and knife that he'd used and cleaned up the area around them a little.

"Thanks Todd," Carolina said cleaning up her area.

"No troubles," he said and started to walk away then stopped and turned back towards them.  "During the show are you gonna be on the floor?"

Justin reached down to retie his running shoe knowing that he'd get downstairs and be instantly bombarded by people and things that needed to be done.  He was glad for one thing about this trip and that was the fact that there were five days of no work coming up for him.  He just hoped that Carolina wouldn't get pissy with him if he slept most of the next day.

"I'm not sure," she said and looked at Justin.  "Where do you want me?"

There were so many answers he could have given for that one.  If he could have her holding his hand the rest of the night he'd be good with that.  He'd taken a chance earlier singing to her like he had.  He didn't mean to cause a scene, but he wanted her to know that if he could have done that same routine during the actual show he would.  It just wasn't PC to sing to one girl while he was standing in front of thirteen hundred or so of his mostly female fans.

"Probably on the side of the stage," he said trying to remember how to do this.  When he'd been with other girls they knew the business,  knew where to stand and what to do, but with Carolina being so new to the business he still thought he should keep her close to him at all times.  "I don't know if you want to be out there in the crowd.  They jump up and down and I don't know that you'd want to be caught up in that."

Carolina looked up at Todd.  "I guess on the side of the stage then."

"Good deal," he said, "After we let these winners in stick near security or stay backstage, ok?"

She nodded and watched Todd slide back down the stairs to the main floor.

"He makes this sound scary," she said.

"It's not," Justin said.  "It's just easier to keep track of you if you're up near me.  Not that anything is going to happen, but we'll probably head out of here right after the show and finding you to come with us is easier if you're backstage."

Carolina got up from her chair took a deep breath and smiled at him.  He loved the way she could be half nervous, but still have a genuine smile on her face, as if the unknown of the evening was something she was looking forward to instead of dreading.  "Thank you for dinner."

"You're welcome," he said, "It's gonna be a late night--but we'll get a snack when we get back to the hotel."

She leaned and puckered her lips towards him.  He leaned and kissed her quickly before she smiled again at him.  "Ok."

"Oh," he said as they started down towards the stairs.  "If you want drinks and stuff tonight we'll set it up with the bartender so you can get something without having to pay and all that."

"I've got money."

"It's not a money issue," he said, "It's a time issue.  There isn't a bar in the back so if you come out from backstage--"

"Oh," she said.  "Are you gonna drink?"

Justin never would consider himself an alcoholic, but being in the party scene because of his job definitely had brought up his tolerance in the last few years.  He smiled at Carolina, half embarrassed about the idea of him being a few drinks down while he was on stage.  Her being an athlete and being a fairly healthy person didn't make him feel as if he was a saint by drinking a lot of the nights that he was around.  "I may have one or two or three.  Everyone else usually kicks back a few."

"Do you do that at all your shows?"

"Not the arena shows.  We've got pyro and stuff and it's just not good to do, but club shows it's a little more laid back."

"Hmm," she said, "I may have a mai tai or something like that.  You know...get into the Hawaiian spirit and all."

"Sounds good."


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