~*~ Every last word of the pages to follow is from an author's vast imagination and is therefore not supported in true reality. Although the characters to be featured are prominently factual, the numerous scenarios, situations, and events they will encounter throughout the course of the tale are not! Its principal objective is that of enjoyment and entertainment to you, the reader.
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~*~ Contextually Underlying ~*~
Nearly an hour before the charity basketball game is slated to begin, the entire roster of celebrities and basketballers alike are present and the teams are picked according to fierce competition. This is the second goal of the event, with the first being to raise the money for cancer research. On one hand, Justin Timberlake is on the same team as Chad Michael Murray, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and T.I. The other team comprises of the young rapper Bow Wow, Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas, Ashton Kutcher, and Kobe Bryant. Justin is confident in his team's ability, seeing firsthand how well T.I. handles himself on the court. The only person he is unsure about is Chad Michael Murray but he has never seen him play the sport before so he cannot jump to conclusions. The competition for supremacy and bragging rights is on. Chasez did not show up however. I'm going to kill you JC!
The locker room is filled with echoing and excited voices as everyone suits up in their respective team uniforms or prepares themselves mentally for the game ahead; it is only mere minutes away now. The stadium outside sounds decently full and Timberlake feels a fluttering butterfly trapped inside his stomach. JC ditched him again without so much as a call or text as to what is going on. But that cannot be his main focus now. The flailing butterfly will fuel his drive to win; it is the best way he can utilize it. When he was now starting out with N*SYNC, he used to turn his nervousness into a positive energy that propelled him onto stage; it's the same circumstance here. Some of the other men are still suiting up and Justin sits on a long bench and listens to T.I. and Chad Michael Murray tease and vent against Ashton Kutcher for putting them through hell on his prankster show. It is funny.
"Alright guys---let's do this for the kids!" Kobe Bryant is standing on one of the steel benches and bellows to the locker room. "Let's give it all we got. Wade, I'm gunning for you!"
"Bring it man! I'm ready for you," Miami Heat's Dwayne Wade comes back with and they laugh together as it is a friendly competition with no drama or underlying resentment.
"Too bad we're not on the same team," Kutcher addresses Justin after his makeshift roast stops.
"You boys are goin' down," T.I. says to the opposing team in his southern accent. "No doubt."
The turnout is very fair and each man takes note of it after they exit the locker room and file onto the court to begin their game. His heart skips a beat when he looks up into the stands to see fans; the television cameras are already rolling. There are enough people present to keep each man motivated to keep doing what they are doing for the great cause. No matter who wins, the children are placed first and will come out on top. Timberlake keeps his mind focused even though muscles are twitching with excitement. The two opposing teams shake hands with each other to promote good sportsmanship before a referee steps onto the freshly glossed wooden floor of the court, reaching into his pocket for what they all know will be a coin to officially get the game started. It is Justin Timberlake versus Kobe Bryant for the tossup. The proverbial battle of David versus Goliath.
"Heads," Bryant calls it in the air in his deep voice as his hands are on his waist.
His eyes are never off Justin's; even when the coin drops and dangles on the floor for the result of tails. He feels like the basketballer is examining him and he does not know what to think of it. It might be something the professional player does to his competition but it will not work. He is completely into the game and this tactic will not throw him off. He's not going to intimidate me! They break back into their respective teams and the ball is tossed to Timberlake, who dribbles it a few times before he gets the game started. Players run onto the newly buffed court to set up plays and ultimately win the game. All distractions aside, it's time to give all the people what they came here to see; a basketball game. Adrenaline starts to flow into them all.
The game is officially under way now and all the players have that look in their eyes. Even though his is concentrating on the game, his mind cannot help but to wander onto Chasez and why he stood him up. They were supposed to do this together to make up for the weekend in Florida he cut short by leaving and Justin does not understand what is going on. It is frustrating and becoming annoying but it does begin to make him worry even more than ever before. Maybe he's in some kind of trouble. God JC! Get out of my mind. His team has the lead, but it is not a stable one and it is still far too young in the game to get cocky. The former N*SYNCer is assigned to guard Bow Wow and shoots the ball to T.I. as soon as he sees his teammate open under the hoop. The southern rapper tosses it up easily for another two points and the crowd claps at the swift play.
"Nice one JT!" the caramel-colored rapper says as he is running back and their palms meet each other's in a loud smack.
"Don't get cocky fellas---" Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards throws to them. "Nothing's over yet! My team got this on lock."
The game is invigorating and competitive at the same time because Justin does not like to lose that often. He isn't a sore loser by any means but he would much prefer to win; it is somehow ingrained in his being. He has to prove something. Especially Kobe Bryant, who sized him up before the game even started. The Los Angeles Laker may brashly believe his time is going to come out on top but it will be a fight to the very end. The children deserve as much. Timberlake will not be intimidated by him, even though he is taller than him and plays basketball professionally. He will not allow himself to be rattled and will win this game with his team. Former model Chad Michael Murray passes the ball with force to Carmelo Anthony and when he sees the singer open he passes it to him. Like a stealthy shadow, Bryant steps in front of him to intercept the pass. Fuck!
The orange globe with black stripes is passed from one pair of hands to another in an attempt to get it through the hoop with a net attached to it on either side of the wooden court. Justin sometimes feels like a little kid lost in a forest of tall basketball players when he runs up and down in between them on the court. Kutcher gets the ball stolen from him and the look on his face is priceless but he soldiers on. Gilbert Arenas jumps high and slams the ball into the net with roaring applause behind them all. It is in exciting game to watch because, for the most part, everyone seems to be playing their best game and giving it all they have for charity. The pop star is out of breath on several occasions but puts it in the back of his mind and continues on. His team members are depending on him to be a contribution to the team and he will not disappoint. It is an addicting dynamic.
When the last precious few seconds of the clock finally run out, Justin closes his eyes and rests his palms on his kneecaps before trying to remember something, anything about the game. No sound, from the cheering crowd to any of the celebrity all-stars is able to penetrate his head. He sits the wooden floor to rest a little; his team lost by three insignificant points. Three menial points that determined the close game throughout its entire duration. Maybe it is irony. T.I. was the last to have the ball and could have made one final three-point shot to tie up the game if Tony Parker didn't jump in front of his shot and knock the ball away. It is a hard loss but a great game played and the crowd is on their feet when they exit the arena to the locker room to catch their breaths and shower. Timberlake is the last one to leave the court and enter the locker room with his former teammates and opponents.
Immediately, Bow Wow, Ashton Kutcher, and Tony Parker grab up their things and leave after shaking hands with everyone. They must have other plans so they cannot afford to stay and talk. Dwayne Wade and Carmelo leave a short time later, after they get a drink of water and stay around to make small talk. No one seems interested in taking a shower to get the sweat off them. The game was hard fought but the better team came out on top and Justin is not disappointed in his performance in the least. Now there definitely will be no dealing with Kutcher; he will be insufferable. He is a good guy though so nothing will be taken seriously. Everyone seemingly clears out of the locker room and as Justin Timberlake is at the locker housing his stuff, an effervescent red light flashes at the top right of his cell phone and it signifies that he either has a new voicemail message or text message.
I'm sorry Just. I'll call you later.
This is truly getting out of hand. The message instantly gets him mad all over again. The former N*SYNCer feels like he has been passed over once again by his best friend for unknown reasons. What the hell is going on with you JC? Deleting the message because he does not want to see it again, the sweaty singing star tosses the phone back into the duffle bag and uses the back of his hand to wipe more water off his forehead and cheeks. His face is hot and his arms are tired from all the dribbling on the court. Justin's skin is wet and he needs a warm shower in the worst possible way. The crowd from the arena is thinning because there are fewer sounds than earlier. Muscles in his back and legs feel tight and tense and his heart is still pounding against the insides of his ribs with adrenaline. The water will untangle all the knots inside his various muscle groups.
Timberlake steps into one of the individual stalls of the showering section of the Staples Center's locker room and strips off completely before turning on the water and letting it touch his hair first before drizzling down his neck and torso and then legs. It feels too good but it cold at first so his skin shivers at the intrusion. Since it is not a formal shower he is taking there is no need for soap; Justin only wants all the sticky water off his body and hair before he puts on clean clothes. He can only imagine how many basketball players have used this exact same shower stall before him. The songster hums Cry Me A River from his first album while warmer water rains down on him from the pressurized nozzle. His thoughts are nowhere near JC Chasez right now. The shower extends on until he hears his stomach growling for food. Justin stops it after that and starts drying his skin. He has to leave already.
"That was a good game," Kobe Bryant says to him when he returns to the room comprising of lockers.
He is the only one left now and Justin is emerging from the showering area with a damp towel around his neck and a pair of jeans hanging dangerously low on his waist. The belt is still inside his duffel bag. His hair is still wet and his exposed chest is cold against the draft of the room. He honestly thought he was the last one here but this is obviously not true. It suddenly becomes a bit uncomfortable in the locker room. Their eyes meet for a moment; Bryant is sitting on one of the many steel benches tying the lace on one of his shoes. He is already dressed casually in a pair of black jeans and a t-shirt. Timberlake does not know what to think at first because he is looking at him the same way he did when they were face to face on the court trying to get the first ball of the game. That intimidating look that should have no place off the court. Why does he keep looking at me like that?
"Yeah---it was," he says, slightly nervous.
"You played great."
"Thanks---but you guys were better."
"---You're shorter in person than I thought---" the tall basketballer gets up and looks back at him before smiling.
"Hey! Compared to you---I think most people are," Timberlake laughs and walks back to his locker.
He needs his shirt on now because the draft in the cool room will no doubt get him sick and he feels his nipples hardening on his chest. They have to be hidden. Justin digs into his locker to find his duffel bag and easily unzips it. A long belt snakes out and fastens the pair of low-hanging jeans to his slim waist to keep them there. There is next to no noise coming from outside now; the only few people are the event coordinators who are ordering banners down and things back into their original spots. Again, his stomach churns inside and craves food. He uses the towel to dry his hair even more before messily tossing it back into the duffel back and looking for the shirt he was sure to pack earlier. Timberlake can feel the pair of eyes on his back does not know why Kobe Bryant is looking at him the way he is. He feels like he is in some twisted private show. It's all in his mind; it has to be.
"I thought it was supposed to be the other guy coming---" Bryant notices while still watching him.
"Huh---oh JC? How'd you know he was supposed to be here?" the questions come out as he turns around and slips on a simple shirt to protect his chest and abdomen.
"Something my publicity agent said. What---he tossed it off on you?"
"No---he was supposed to be here but I don't know what happened to him."
"So I guess he stood you up then?" Kobe asks the singer.
"---I'm not that tall---"
"Are you kidding?" Timberlake asks as he sits on the nearby bench and begins putting his shoes on.
"Nothing. Hey, do you know if T.I. left already?"
The professional basketball player looks at him again and replies, "I think he already did. Why?"
"I wanted to ask him something---but now I guess I can't."
"Oh---what did you want to ask him?" he asks.
"I want him to collaborate on a song with me---for my new album."
"Oh---that should be interesting."
"Why do you say that?" Justin finishes fixing his shoes and looks up at his once competition.
He is in his duffel bag once again looking for his cologne and his hat to go over his still wet hair. His skin feels smooth and clean and he smells good after spraying the contents of the bottle on his neck and chest and forearms. A comb runs through his slick hair a few times to make it cooperate and he puts the hat on the right way this time. The Los Angeles Laker continues to look at him as he finishes getting dressed and ready to leave the stadium. There is a silence for a while and the question lingers in the air between them. The mention of JC forces him back into Justin's mind and he is really curious to know what is going on with him. This behavior is not like him. Kobe gets his phone from his pocket and responds to a text message before putting the device away. Eyes go back to where they were earlier and this silence in the locker room almost becomes painful.
"Don't know. Man---you came prepared huh?"
"Can I get that?" Kobe asks him practically out of nowhere.
Justin looks at him to see what he is talking about and clarifies, "What---the cologne?"
"Go ahead man."
Timberlake looks at the basketball player as he takes the bottle of cologne from the bench and sprays it three times around his neck and upper body. You are tall. Some of the anxiety goes away because he realizes he is over-thinking this. There is no need to be nervous and he just needs to relax and go with it. Kobe hands it back to him and he tosses it in his bag and the strong scent now fills the drafty air. They both smell like it as does a portion of the Los Angeles Lakers locker room. It is still silent as the singer thinks of what else to say. Losing is no longer on his mind but he is sure he is going to hear about it from JC Chasez later. It is not fair but he will deal with his best friend later. Right now he is only concentrating on finishing getting dressed and getting something to eat. Justin rubs his stomach and suddenly it growls loudly once again; he needs food right now.
"You sound hungry there."
"Yeah---all I had was breakfast. And then I came here and burned everything off and more."
"I didn't even eat breakfast this morning," Kobe Bryant confesses.
"Aren't you hungry?"
"Yeah---but I play like this all the time so my body's used to it."
"I doubt I could do that," Justin states matter-of-factly.
"I'm hungry now. You---want to grab a bite with me?" the baller offers.
The invitation catches him completely off guard and he looks away immediately because, for some reason, he feels that he is blushing. His cheeks feel hot and flustered and there is dead silence looming in the air again. It is just a bite to eat but Justin becomes shy and unable to answer or move for a moment. His stomach definitely welcomes the invitation but it is so out of left field that the words have to be physically processed. This only adds to the silence. A small part of Timberlake wishes someone would enter the locker room and interrupt the heavy moment between the two of them. But this is all only in his mind. Bryant smiles, completely unaware of what is going on in the other man's mind but the silence is painful. He has to say something, anything, to get the momentum of the conversation back but words cannot be found on the tip of his tongue or lodged deep within his throat.
"Oh---are you busy?"
"No---no," he musters out.
"You sound really hungry too and so am I so I figured---"
"---Okay," Timberlake cuts him off and replies back.
"Yeah. I'll go with you."
"Cool," the Los Angeles Laker never loses his simple smile.
All this has to only be in his head. This much pressure and intensity should never be added to anything and he is unsure of why his brain is playing this ruthless trick on him. For the most part, the locker room becomes silent again and Justin becomes uncomfortable and desperate for some sort of disruption once again. He does not know what is going on with him or why his body is reacting this way. The former N*SYNCer is suddenly not so sure about getting something to eat with the basketballer. Doubt lingers as his back is facing Kobe Bryant and he is digging through his bag to see if he has everything. It is far too much anxiety for a simple invitation to dinner. It isn't supposed to be this way. Timberlake feels the same pair of eyes on him again and wonders why he keeps looking at him. What is he trying to do? He finally zips up the bag and shuts the locker door before turning around.
"Are you ready?
"I've been waiting for you man," Kobe smiles as his strong voice echoes off the locker room walls. "I drove."
The singer shakes himself out of it and replies, "Let's go."
They walk together out of the Staples Center through a route Justin has not been on before and he realizes that they are in the back of the sports arena. This built up anxiety has to leave his body; he has to find a way to expel it and calm his nerves. Timberlake is never like this around anyone so this is strange and completely new to him. He gets nervous at times but never this badly before. Think about JC. Think about how strangely he is behaving. Think about anything else--- The basketball player strategically parked here so he would not get hounded by the media about the game and can make a clean break away from the stadium. It is a simple yet amazing shortcut. The secret hallway is long but there is finally what looks like an ending. Justin pushes a door in front of him open and they are outside and he is looking at a black Lamborghini Murciélago LP640 parked neatly nearby with no other cars around.
"I know my way around my house," Bryant says, referring to his basketball team's home, the Staples Center.
"You bet. You want to put that stuff in the trunk?"
"Okay. Sure---" Justin goes along.
Kobe Bryant digs into his pocket to retrieve his keys and presses a button on his remote control pad and the trunk pops up instantly. Pressing another button, the alarm disarms itself and the locks of the car doors click loose to allow entry. And when he presses the final button while they are still at the back of the car putting Justin's stuff in the trunk, the engine growls fiercely and the car starts almost magically. It growls and screeches at first until comfortably setting into a gentle purr. The car is pure power and oozes speed and extreme acceleration. The pop star notices the trunk is immaculately clean as is the rest of the exterior of the lustrous foreign sports car. It is a beautiful machine to behold. Kobe slams the trunk shut and they look at each other momentarily before making their way to their respective sides of the sleek piece of machinery. Damn this is a nice car!
The inside of the car is proves to be even sexier than the outside, if it is possible, and Timberlake sits in the passenger seat and buckles his seatbelt as he looks over to see Kobe's tall frame entering his car. Him being able to fit in the car is another amazement of its own. The seats are black leather and smell new while the steering wheel and dashboard is a shiny metallic gray color. The contrasting colors are powerful and create an alluring mood altogether. Again, they quickly glance at each other before the basketballer shifts the car into reverse and they head away from the Staples Center. It is a weird feeling of both comfort and still slight anxiety that is running through the singer's blood vessels. Bryant fetches a Los Angeles Lakers hat from a secret compartment and puts it on his head as he controls the car. Justin sits back to try and relax and enjoy the ride as well as the evening ahead.
"Do you have any place in mind?" he asks his passenger when he looks over to him.
The songster keeps looking straight and responds with, "I don't know---do you?"
"There was this place I went once---it's really small."
"What kind of food do they have there?"
"I think it was a Mexican restaurant. I had some tacos when I went but it was a really long time ago."
"Do you remember where it is? Mexican sounds good," he agrees.
"I think so---it was on the outskirts of LA so I doubt any cameras would be in our faces."
"I like it even more then."
"Don't you get tired of how they follow you around?" Bryant asks while juggling his eyes between the road and his passenger.
"Yeah---but I can't stop them."
"I guess not. A few were following me the other day out in LA and I just ignored them."
"I think that's what everyone in our position tries to do," Timberlake replies lowly.
The dusk breeze feels great against his clean skin and he can see the Sun setting to his left so he knows that they are traveling north to the hideaway restaurant. The smooth ride jumps onto the freeway and Justin starts to feel slightly lightheaded because of his lack of energy. Sleep is unwontedly creeping up on him because the charity game was hard on his body. Kobe's eyes look over at him from time to time as it is quiet in the car. The radio is off and the engine is so quiet that only the slashing wind of outside can be heard. Timberlake presses his head against the headrest of the seat and looks forward through the windshield to see if he can notice where they are. The natural light of the Sun is rapidly decreasing so he is having trouble noting where they are. He hopes the place isn't much further because he really needs something to eat. The car drives as if it is floating on inflated clouds.
When there is another silence in the car, his mind wanders to JC and the fact the he stood him up today. Again. Justin wants to know what is going on with him as of late but he is too annoyed and somewhat angry with his best friend at the moment to even consider talking to him. An inadequate text message does not make up nor does it excuse his selfish behavior. This was something else they were supposed to do together and he completely blew him off and left him alone. I hate being alone. Timberlake also tries to think of how he can get the southern rapper T.I. to collaborate on a song with him. The album has to be perfect through every aspect if the musical star is to gain the respect and trust of his label Jive. Recruiting Timbaland is only step one to making this forthcoming album great; Now so many other things have to be done. And there is always the promise of the demo to his record company.
"Why aren't you saying anything?" the basketball legend forces him back from his thoughts.
"Are you okay?"
"Umm---yeah. I'm just hungry."
Kobe Bryant looks around and street names and signs start clicking in his head, "I know where we are---it's not far from here."
Bryant is right. They reach a small establishment within the next few minutes and there is no form of paparazzi whatsoever when they pull up to the modest restaurant because of its seclusion. It seems to be the perfect spot to quietly grab something to eat without being hounded by cameras or fans alike. Kobe parks the fancy Italian sports car far away from any other car; their cover will not be blown this way. The engine stealthily shuts off and the pair of once rivals remains in their seats until they are sure this is what they want to do. Yes. Let's go! Justin does not pass judgment because it has been his experience that small, secret restaurants such as the one he is currently standing in front of often have the best tasting food and warmest service. Both men unconsciously adjust the hats on top of their heads before walking into the restaurant, following an intoxicating aroma.
Inconspicuously, they are seated at a corner of the restaurant by a waiter that Justin determines is around his own age and he secretly asks them for autographs, which the two men oblige him with. Their cover is already blown but it does not seem to pose any threat and they are both too hungry to worry about if others will recognize them or not. He leaves two menus on the table and disappears to get two glasses of water. Justin immediately opens up his menu and looks for something good to satisfy his body's hunger cravings. Kobe Bryant sips his water with a lemon twist drowning in it after the waiter returns and looks over at the singer momentarily before picking up the menu directly in front of him to look for something to eat. A silent blanket falls over the table with both of them studying the menu to see what they want to get. Bryant does look up and sips his water from time to time however.
The last time he was here it was because he needed to get away from everyone. To just fall off the face of the planet if only for an hour or two. He had just cost the Los Angeles Lakers the playoffs because of his missed shot at the last buzzer and it all fell on his shoulders. That's how it was splashed over the press anyway. Kobe remembers falling to his knees in front of everyone and staring at the rim that had betrayed him in the worst possible way and at the worst possible time. This place saved him from himself. No one recognized him as a professional basketball player when he came here that night and that was the only thing that mattered then. He wonders if Justin saw that game on TV or if he was there live to witness his failure. Continuing to peruse the menu, Bryant cannot decide what to eat but everything looks or sounds so delectable. They have to order soon.
"What are you getting?" the basketballer asks him while still engaged in his own menu.
"I don't know---everything sounds too damn good. What do you recommend?"
"I haven't been here in a while. Get whatever you want---it's on me."
"It's cool---I got it," Justin says and automatically knows he sounds stupid.
Bryant looks up from his menu and at him as dead silence lingers around in the air again. Those eyes. Their eyes meet for a split second before Timberlake jumps back into his menu to try and stop his nerves from getting the better of him. Dammit! Their waiter has yet to return to ask for their orders but it is fine because neither of them knows what they are getting. Kobe is not even sure what he wants to start out with but spicy guacamole and tortilla chips sounds appetizing. His eyes go back to the man sitting across from him in the small table. The former N*SYNCer nervously keeps his eyes on the menu but he is not studying it. Quite the opposite as a matter of fact. This feels weird; he feels uneasy. But there is nothing here to warrant him feeling as nervous as he does. Justin mentally slaps himself and finally looks away from his menu and across the table. Man---
"Relax man---winner buys today. Deal?" Bryant lays out his terms of their impromptu dinner.
"Okay," he replies softly.