The fight was inevitable. Ever since Chris Munson had confronted Justin that first day in town and ordered him to stay away from Samantha, Justin had known that they were going to tangle. In a different place and time, Justin would have immediately taken care of business. Now? He was surprised at how uninterested he was in fighting. Although, he decided, it would be interesting to see how much part, if any, his temper would play in the altercation-and how much control he would have over it if it did show up. Thus, he wasn’t surprised when, a week before school was to start, Munson and his two pet morons came strolling into Smiths like they owned the place, and without so much as a “hi” to anyone there, surrounded his table like they had done the first time.
Justin, who was waiting for Samantha to show up, looked pointedly at the two morons, then at Chris. “Don’t they have a leash law in this town?” he asked. As long as the fight was going to happen, he decided he might as well get some entertainment from it.
“You won’t be smart-talking when I’m through with you,” replied Chris, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. “Think you can come here and move right in on my girl? I told you to stay away from her, but no-you wouldn’t listen. So now you’re going to pay.
“I’m going to pay?” asked Justin. “Hang on a sec.” Digging into his pocket, Justin came out with two pennies. “Here,” he said, slapping them down on the table. “Any more would be blatant extortion. Now go away and leave me alone.”
Barks of laughter from several who had come over to see what was going on caused Chris to turn his head, looking at them in anger. They ceased their brevity.
Looking back at Justin, he continued. “We’re going outside, whether you like it or not. Walk out or be dragged out, it’s your choice. Either way, it’s going to happen.”
“Why don’t we make this easy?” asked Justin as he arose from his chair, then stood on it. “Listen up, everybody!” he said loudly. All eyes in the room turned to see what was going on. Justin continued, “You’re all invited outside to watch Munson here make a fool of himself. Actually, he thinks he’s going to beat me up, which will amount to the same thing in the end.” Looking at Munson, he uttered an uninterested “let’s go,” and walked towards the rear doors of the store.
“O-o-o,” said one of the pets, taunting, “you’re going to look like you’ve been hit by a freight train when Chris gets done with you.”
Naturally, everyone within earshot of his announcement flooded out the doors, forming a loose and scattered circle around the two.
After a few more threats from Chris detailing what was going to happen, Justin looked around at the crowd, then up at the sky. “Ah, can we stop with the boring threats and get on with it?” he asked, interrupting Chris but still looking at the sky.
Surprised that someone would mock him like this, Chris said “your funeral”, then raised his arms and assumed a boxing stance.
Justin stood in place, arms hanging down at his sides. He seemed totally relaxed. Mutters of “isn’t he going to defend himself” and other similar expressions drifted from the crowd.
“Smart man,” said Chris to Justin, loud enough for everyone to hear, “wants to get it over with quickly. Well, I can sure enough grant him that wish. I-” Suddenly, Munson delivered a roundhouse punch, calculated to catch Justin unawares. Justin was way ahead of him, however, leaning back far enough that the punch whizzed harmlessly past in front of his face with inches to spare.
“Missed,” said Justin seriously. “Perhaps you should-”
Suddenly, and without warning, time and space came to a complete halt, forced into that state by a strong “WHAT IN THE WORLD!?” demand slash question that came from the rear doors of the store. Unfazed by the number of people who had now gathered to watch the fight, Samantha McCallen walked straight through the crowd and up to Justin.
“Just great,” said someone in the crowd. “There goes the fight.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded Samantha.
After looking at her in silence for a few moments, Justin said, “Why don’t we get out of this crowd for a few minutes and discuss it?”
“There’s nothing to-”
“Samantha, please,” he asked calmly.
She looked into his warm, chocolate brown eyes-realizing her mistake as soon as she had done it.
“Oh, alright,” she said, trying to sound frustrated but not succeeding.
“Intermission, folks,” Justin yelled as he and Samantha made their way through to crowd for whatever privacy a little distance would afford. “We’ll be right back! Maybe.” Then in a slightly quieter voice that still carried to the crowd and caused them to roar with laughter, “I might as well be married.”
They gave themselves enough distance from the crowd that a normal level of speech would not be understood. Stopping, they stood, facing each other.
“I’ve missed you,” said Justin, reaching up and gently brushing Samantha’s cheek with his hand.
Samantha grabbed his hand and held it there for a few moments before releasing it. “Do you know what you’re doing?” she asked, the anger completely gone. “I mean, Chris is a head taller than you and weighs probably fifty pounds more. He even looks brutish.”
Justin enveloped her in his warm gaze. “Remember me telling you what a good fighter I used to be? Well, that hasn’t changed. Trust me, Samantha. Unless he’s some kind of super martial arts specialist, he doesn’t have a chance.”
“Do you know martial arts?” asked Samantha.
“No,” Justin replied, “but I haven’t survived and won as many fights as I have without learning a few things.”
“But why even fight now?” asked Samantha.
“So I won’t have to do it in the future. So that Chris Munson will leave me alone for good. So that he won’t ever bother you again. So that word will get around school not to mess with Justin Billings. So that people will know that if you mess with Justin Billing’s Lady Fair, you mess with Justin Billings himself, and that’s not a smart thing to do.”
Samantha thought that one over. “Samantha McCallen, Lady Fair,” she said, trying out the phrase. “I like that. I guess if I’m to have a Knight in Shining Armor, it’s only right that he has a Lady Fair.” A pause, then, “No more fights after this one?”
“Not unless someone gets extremely stupid,” Justin said.
“Okay then, Sir Justin,” she ordered, placing a hand on his shoulder, “Go forth, and show me what you’ve got.”
Justin grinned. “Yes, m’lady!” he said, bowing grandly. “Now, let’s not keep the croud waiting any longer.”
Justin walked through the crowd and stopped just out of Chris Munson’s reach. “Let’s get on with the show,” he said. His stance was as before: relaxed, with his arms at his sides.
“So your girl friend is going to let you fight?” Monson asked, snidely.
“Yes,” replied Justin, “that is, if one actually starts. So far, all these folks have seen is a lot of jawing and hot air. Tell you what. Why don’t you just skip the rest of the threats, so we can get straight to the fighting part.”
From the front of the crowd, where she had a good view of whatever was about to happen, Samantha yelled out, “KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF, MUNSON!”
For the second time that day, time and space came to a halt. Chris, who was about to swing again, didn’t. And Justin, who had been prepared to dodge whatever came his way, turned and looked at Samantha. “Who’s side are you on here?” he asked in mock indignation.
Samantha smiled sweetly, then stuck her tongue out at him. Several people in the crowd chuckled. “Maybe you should be married,” she told him to even more laughter.
“All right, that does it,” said Justin, loudly. Then to Chris, but still loud enough for the crowd to hear, “Hang loose while I take care of a mutiny. I’ll be right back.”
Stalking over to Samantha, he wrapped her in his arms and laid a Hollywood style kiss on her. The crowd, enjoying the entire show thus far, added their background musical score of ooh’s and ah’s. Some even whistled and applauded.
“There,” said Justin hamming it up a little as he released his hold on her, “that ought to take care of that problem.” Then, to an amused Samantha, “Don’t let it happen again.”
No sooner had he turned around, than Samantha yelled out, “BEAT HIM TO A PULP, MUNSON!” then added, “JUST DON’T DAMAGE HIS LIPS!”
Angry at being mocked in public, Chris Munson made no attempt to control his temper. “You think this is funny, moron?!” he screamed as Justin stopped in front of him. “You have no idea who you’re messing with! You’re about to find out what it feels like to be hit by a freight train. And after I’m through with you, I’m going to make that worthless girlfriend of yours regret the day she ever met you. I’m going to-”
Before Chris Munson could finish his statement, something slammed him hard between the legs. As he grunted and sank to his knees, hands grabbed the back of his head and jerked his head forward. A kneecap slammed into his face, and he heard-and felt-the sickening crunch of his nose breaking. Suddenly weak with pain and dizziness, he fell over sideways, moaning softly and curling up into a fetal position. Through stinging, watering eyes, he saw legs move into his line of vision. The legs folded into a squatting position. “I know you can hear me,” said the owner of the legs, calmly. “So I’m only going to say this once. If you threaten Samantha again, if you do anything to cause her harm, or if those two pets of yours do anything to her, I’ll find you, and I will kick you around this town until you look like road kill. Whether you have any more problems with me or not, is entirely up to you. I advise you to think about it.”
Justin stood from his squatting position and looked down at Chris. The boy was moaning and whimpering, obviously in a lot of pain. Justin shook his head slowly, then sighed. Perhaps he shouldn’t have broken the kid’s nose, he thought, but it was a bit late to change that now. Looking around at the now dispersing crowd, he spotted Munson’s two side-kicks.
“You two come here,” he said, motioning them over. Hesitantly, they complied. “He needs your help,” Justin told them in a kindly tone of voice. “His nose is broken. Have either of you got a car? Good. Then get him to a doctor.”
With that, Justin turned around, looking for Samantha. He spotted her by the rear doors of the store, talking to his friend Bart.
“Hey, buddy,” said Justin as he walked up. Samantha moved by his side and casually took his hand in hers, hugging his arm.
Bart was giving him a look akin to awe. “Dude,” he said, “That was the most…devastating…fight I’ve ever seen.”
Justin was somber. “Yeah, well, I wish he hadn’t forced me into it.”
“He’s going to be a different person from now on,” said Bart. “You broke him. He’s been a bully and a troublemaker ever since I’ve known him. No one has dared stand up to him. Then you come along and take him apart in a matter of seconds. I think that’s got to hurt him as much as the physical punishment. You’re going to be the talk of the school now, buddy.”
“O-o-o! Hey!” said Samantha, brightening in mock admiration, “I’ve got a hero for a boyfriend. This gets better all the time.” Then, grinning, “Can I have your autograph?”
Justin snorted. “Just great,” he said sarcastically. “Now everyone’s going to be into my business.”
“Hey, a new guy in the room,” impathed Charity. “Cute, too.”
“I wonder if he’s the Battle Angel Brother Aaron told us about last time?” Sister Isabelle replied.
“He doesn’t look like a Battle Angel,” answered Charity. “Of course, I’ve never actually seen a Battle Angel before. But still, I think he would have to be bigger, wouldn’t he?”
Before they could speculate any further, Senior Angel Aaron brought the meeting to order.
“Team, I’d like you to meet Leland Hays,” he said, “the newest addition to our group. As I mentioned before, he’s a Battle Angel.” Then to Leland, “Perhaps you could enlighten us as to why you’ve been assigned to our little group?”
“I’d be happy to,” said Leland, “if only I knew.”
Aaron was surprised. “They didn’t tell you?” he asked.
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Leland replied. “Very unusual. First time I can remember not receiving any instructions about what I’m supposed to do. I was hoping they had told you.”
“No,” replied Aaron. “What are we supposed to do with you then?”
“I don’t know that either,” Leland said. “I guess just team me up with one of the other Guardians for now. Maybe we’ll stumble over something that requires my attention and justifies my being on this team-no offense to the team, of course.”
“Heard you had a little problem in town yesterday,” said Lloyd at breakfast the next morning.
“Yeah,” Justin said. “Chris Munson. It was going to happen sooner or later. I know his type. Could you hand me the syrup, please?”
Lloyd passed the syrup. “So you challenged him?”
Justin glanced at Lloyd. “No,” he said, pouring syrup on his stack of pancakes. “He came into Smiths with his two buddies and told me that he and I were stepping outside, like it or not. So, I figured I might as well get it over with.”
“You know,” said Lloyd, forking some scrambled eggs into his mouth, “there are some who would have advocated just walking away. I’m not one of them, by the way.”
“If it had been just about me, I might have,” replied Justin. “But it was about Samantha too. I don’t think he’ll ever bother her again.”
“And she was okay with you fighting?”
“After I explained the reasons and told her this would be my last fight, she was.”
“And how do you feel now?” asked Lloyd.
“It was strange, but seeing how angry Munson was, kept me completely calm. I even felt sorry for him, afterwards.”
Lloyd was intently studying Justin’s face.
“What?” asked Justin.
Smiling, Lloyd said, “You look very similar to a smart-mouth kid we had staying with us for a time. But you can’t be him. He’d never admit to feeling sorry for anyone but himself.”
“I’ve learned some things since then,” Justin said seriously. “And I’ve found a girl who’s worth changing my life for.”
“No argument there,” said Lloyd.
It was Saturday, the last weekend before the start of school. After they finished the morning chores, Lloyd told Justin to take the rest of the day off, offering him use of the pipe truck so he could spend time with Samantha. Thus, after a grateful thanks, one phone call, and thirty minutes later, Justin pulled to a stop in front of Samantha’s house. Oddly, he had never been inside her house before-perhaps because he’d had no real reason to, up until now, he decided. Earlier, Samantha had told him over the phone that since both her parents were home, she wanted him to come in and meet them.
As he was walking up the sidewalk, Samantha came out to him.
“Come here, you,” she said, blushing slightly with pleasure at the sight of him. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she laid her head on his shoulder and squeezed him as hard as she could.
Justin returned her squeeze, burying his face in her hair. “This is a good day,” he said. “Of course, any day I’m with you is a good day.”
Samantha let go of him, then planted a quick kiss on his cheek.
“Hey,” said Justin, “that’s cheating. I wasn’t ready.”
“I was,” she said. “Right now, it’s time for ‘Meet the Parents’. Well, meet dad, anyway. You already know my mother.”
“I’ve met her once,” Justin reminded her. “That hardly constitutes knowing her.”
“Once is all it takes,” replied Samantha.
If Justin had any nervousness about meeting Samantha’s father, Ian, the nervousness was dispelled within the first minute. After the seating arrangements in the living room were taken care of-with Samantha and Justin sharing the same half of the couch-Ian leaned forward in his chair. “So,” he said with a twinkle in his voice, “I finally have the honor of meeting my daughter’s Knight in Shining Armor. Does she really call you Sir Justin?”
“Yes,” said Justin smiling. “But I refer to her as ‘Lady Fair’ every now and then, so…” Justin shrugged his shoulders and left the remark unfinished.
Ian repeated the ‘Lady Fair’ phrase to himself a few times, then smiled. “I think,” he said, looking Justin directly in the eyes, “that my daughter picked a good Knight in Shining armor.”
“Thank you,” said Justin, then grinned. “I’m trying my best to live up to the image.”
“Really?” asked Ian, sensing a good story behind the comment.
Before Justin could reply, Samantha broke in. “He fought for my honor earlier this week,” she said, a satisfied smile on her face. “Literally.”
“Oh, how noble,” said Samantha’s mother, Edith.
“What happened?” asked Ian.
“I’ll let him tell you about it,” said Samantha.
“Great,” said Justin. “First the whole school has to know, and now the entire town.”
Laughing, Ian declared, “You might as well tell, Justin. You’ll get no peace from her if you don’t. Trust me.”
“Okay,” said Justin, throwing his hands up in the air. “You asked for it.”
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t leave anything out,” Samantha assured them. Leaning closer to Justin, she said in a loud, conspiratorial whisper, “And don’t forget the part where you kissed me. That was the highlight of the fight, you know.”
Feeling a little uncomfortable, Justin told them about the fight, leaving nothing out. When he told about Chris Munson laying on the ground moaning, and how he came to be in that predicament, Edith remarked, “Oh the poor boy. I hope he wasn’t hurt.”
“Oh, he was hurt, alright,” Ian assured her. “Take my word for it. Serves him right, too, with all the bullying and mean talk he’s spread around here over the years. Sounds to me like he finally messed with the wrong person and got his come-uppance-royally.”
The meeting a success, the ice broken, and with offers of “come over any time” from Ian and Edith, Justin and Samantha decided to spend an hour or so at the park near Smiths Variety, then head to Smiths and hang out with whoever was there. Since the park was only a few blocks away, they chose to walk and leave the pipe truck at Samantha’s place.
At the park, they sat at the same picnic table as they had the first time, across from each other as they had the first time, and held hands as they had the first time.
“What’cha thinkin’?” asked Samantha. “You were pretty quiet coming over.”
“Oh, I was just wondering something,” Justin said.
“Wondering what?” she asked.
Justin enveloped her with his eyes as he had done their first time in the park. “I was wondering when you are going to let me tell you,” he said softly.
“Tell me what?” she asked.
“Remember what you asked me our first time here?”
Samantha lowered her head slightly. “Yes,” she said, “I remember.”
Justin stood up from the picnic table and walked around to Samantha’s side of the table, then held out both of his hands to her.
Samantha, whose eyes had been on him the whole time, placed her hands in his and let him pull her up. They stood facing each other, still holding hands.
As Justin gazed into her eyes, the yearning look come over her face again. She dropped her head and squeezed his hands a little harder.
Justin knew then. She wanted, almost desperately, to hear that he loved her. She may believe that he did, but she needed to hear it from him.
“Samantha.” He spoke her name with all the tenderness he could put into his voice. “Look at me.”
Slowly, she raised her head and allowed her eyes to swim in his warm, chocolate brown gaze. Tears came as his look turned to one of pure adoration. It seemed to flood throughout her entire body, wrapping her in a love that she had never experienced before. I want to be with you, the love said. I want to protect you and take care of you. Almost unknowingly, Samantha released Justin’s hands, then brought hers up to her chest and cuddled in close to him as he wrapped her in his embrace. Tears were running freely down her face now, but she didn’t care.
“I love you, Samantha McCallen,” said Justin. “I can’t go on any longer and not tell you. You don’t have to say anything in return. As long as I know that you accept my feelings for you, then that is enough for now.”
Samantha lowered her arms, then wrapped them around Justin, hugging him fiercely. Once she trusted herself to speak, she looked up at him. “You were right about what you said earlier,” she said, huskily. “This is a good day. This is a very good day.”