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This Christmas
Chapter One


Cherry stem with her mouth she could tie in a knot
Favorite trick she does, one in ten that she's got
Making friends, setting trends, hardly having to try

"Hey, lady, over here! I need another! And my, don you look purdy..."

I'm swooning. Really.

Good Lord, I needed a vacation...

"Look, dude, I think you've had enough..."

No, I needed a tape recorder. That way, I could just set it on the bar, and let it roll over and over and I wouldn't ever have to repeat that stupid phrase again...

"Nuh-huh! I ain't done yet!"

I arched an eyebrow. "What's my name, then, Jones?"


I rolled my eyes. "Okay, you're done. Water or Sprite?"

"I wanna drink!"

Yeah, and I want a break. We don't always get what we want.

It then occurred to me--not for the first time, mind you--that drunk men are like three-year-olds.

"Gimme drink!"

No, scratch that. They're like toddlers.

"Last one, okay?" I handed his scotch on the rocks to him carefully. I don't know why I bothered, though, because he spilled it the moment I let go.

"Thank yas, Taylor."

Oh, NOW they remember my name...

"Do the sherry?"

I didn't even have to ask to know what he was talking about. Without any further prodding, I took the marischino cherry out of his drink and bit off the end, chewing it carefully before putting the stem in my mouth. When I stuck my tongue out to reveal the stem, tied in a knot, he applauded happily.

"Thas it! Thas it! You rock my worls, Taylor."

I ran a hand through my brown hair and sighed. I'm not usually like this, see. I really do like my job, I just get tired sometimes. And finals were just about over, so I had been cramming in between shifts and attempting to gain some kind of knowledge from my co-workers. In fact, I'd been studying like crazy and going batty trying to juggle all of that crap. I could have a boyfriend--a shoulder to lean on, a friend to study with--but I spend too much time around men as it is. I don't need a boyfriend. I have a best friend. Nevermind that he hadn't called me in three weeks...

I wasn't bitter. I really wasn't. I was just jealous, because he was stressed out too, and I didn't have anyone to vent with. Just...

"Di! Thank God! Can you take over for me for three seconds? I'd stay a bit longer, but my head's going to explode, and then you'll have to clean up brain bits after your job tonight."

She laughed at me. She does that a lot, actually. Somehow, Diana manages to stay totally stress free, despite the fact that she has to keep a much tighter schedule than I do. See, Diana is the other loyal best friend. We've known each other forever, and close friends know us as Heads and Tails. I'm Tails, because it's a short version of Taylor, and she's Heads because she's a genius. She only works at the bar so that she can earn enough money to keep her in school. She's way ahead of me, and her courses probably cost three times what mine do. So she's Heads. Of course, my other best friend--the one that didn't deserve a name because he was ignoring me right then--calls her Heads for an entirely different reason. Why? Well, we'll just say that, since the bar job doesn't always cut it, Diana performs sexual favors on the side for a pricey sum...and buys textbooks. I think it's pretty cool that she's willing to go to any lengths for an education. My other best friend...he just thinks it's funny.

Diana chose that moment to smile at me. "Tails, you're in luck, chica. You've got a phone call."

I groaned. "Who the hell would call me at work? Don't they know that I can't hear a damn thing?"

She just laughed again. "Trust me, when you find out who it is, you aren't gonna care."

I rolled my eyes again. "I'm going to take your word for it. Cover me."

I walked back into the break room and over to the phone, kicking the vending machine on the way. A bottle of water slid out (old trick) and I took that with me to the phone and the couch. Then, I kicked back, popped the bottle open, and picked up the receiver.

"Who the hell is this?"

A raspy chuckle answered. "Look, Tay? I think you've had enough..."

Okay, so he had a better phone record now. He'd called within the last five seconds. However, he's got really bad timing...like, REALLY bad.

"Bite me, AJ."

"Damn, you really missed me that much?"

"I wouldn't have to miss you if you'd actually call me," I returned hotly, and he sighed.

"If I could've, I would've, believe me. I haven't had a moment to breathe. I was seriously turning blue. They let me out because they were scared that I'd faint...and I ran to the phone to call you."

He's cute, he's goofy, and...he's completely unfair. Because I wasn't pissed at him anymore.

"How's the tour going?"

His heavy sigh told me that he was ready for it to be over. "It's still going, unfortunately for me. This has to be the most grueling one yet. I've barely slept at all."

I groaned. "Yeah, tell me about it. Finals are killing me. I mean, I'm a freaking senior, so you'd think that I'd be used to it, but everything hit really hard this year."

"Yeah, I know."

He did know. When I had first met AJ, it was in the very bar that I work in now...only he was one of the many that I was serving. I got to know him through his visits, and he--much to my chagrin--got to know me. Of course, he recognized a problem in his own behavior and cleaned himself up. I'm proud of him. Really proud, actually. While he was going through his mess, he kept talking to me, and I kept talking back. We started listening to each other until we realized that we understood each other.

And then we married with flowers blooming and birds singing and lived happily ever after. Good God, when did I get so sappy?

Seriously, though, he's my best friend. He cares without smothering, and he understands without prodding...well, without prodding too much. But he only prods because he cares, and that's why I love him.

And, of course, one way of showing the love is to avoid spacing out during a phone conversation, right?

"Well, I just figure that the holidays are coming up, and looking forward to Christmas keeps me sane."

I could hear the smile in his voice. "Oh? No more coal in the stocking? Has Taylor been a good girl this year, then?"

I rolled my eyes. "I've probably been better than you've been, J. Lord knows what you and your pretty boys have been up to this time around."

His response came in the form of a soulful song. "Well, we all come tumbling down...No matter how strong, we all return to the ground..."

Immediately, my coy smirk faded to a frown. "It's been that long already, huh?"

He sighed heavily. "Babe, you have no idea how ready I am to get out of here. I love the guys, and I love the road, but I can only last for so long before I just get tired."

I smiled sympathetically into the phone. "Just so you know, I'm giving you a hug right now."

"You feel my pain?" he teased, and I laughed.

"Most definitely, dude. You're breaking up my heart."

His raspy laughter filled my ears. "Well, in that case, I'm hugging you back right now...just so you know."

I grinned at his goofiness like a freaking teenybopper would've. See, that's the thing about AJ--he can make me feel like a kid again. "Well, aside from hugging me, what are you planning to do for the holidays?"

He sounded suspicious. "Why, girlie? Are you planning on stalking me?"

I rolled my eyes. "Oh, yeah, man, I was going to grab my teenybopper friends and raid your house for half-eaten toast so I could make thousands like that idiot that sold Justin's toast! I figure that, like, since you're AJ of the Backstreet Boys and all, it'll go for way more."

He laughed. "Girl, I refuse to pay your tuition with my breakfast leftovers, you hear?"

"But AJ," I whined. "What're friends for?"

"Well, see, friends are for spending the holidays together at a mega-cool hangout on some island in the Bahamas..."

I groaned. "Okay, you know what? You are so not funny, Mr. Backstreet Boy. If I had friends that invited me for holidays at some mega-cool beach hangout, I wouldn't even be talking to you."

I could hear him smirking over the phone, I swear. "Guess it's lucky that I asked you to my mega-cool beach hangout first then, huh?"

I nearly dropped the phone. "McLean, you're not funny anymore. You may have the opportunity to go to the Bahamas with your boyfriends, but I'm stuck in Jersey with the grandparents again. Quit teasing and just agree to send me a postcard, okay?"

"I wouldn't have to send you a postcard if you'd just agree to come with me, you stubborn punk. Am I going to have to come and kick you out of that bar, stuff you in my suitcase, and shove you under the seat in front of me to get you to come?"

I squealed. I know I squealed. I squealed like a freaking girl. Better yet, like one of AJ's freaking teenyboppers. "You are SO kidding me!"

He laughed. "I am SO not! Seriously, Tay, why the hell do you think I called? I need a vacation like a crack addict needs a hit, girl, and there's no one else I'd rather spend it with."

I was speechless, to say the least. "Aw, J, I feel the love, but what about your mom?"

He sighed. "She actually wanted us to do Christmas with the Doroughs this year, but I really need some down time. I love my mother more than anything--you know I do--but I don't think I could take a house full of Howie's relatives. They'd wink me into oblivion, and I'd start to wonder why no one ever got mad at anyone else, and..."

I was laughing too hard for him to continue. I'd met Howie on numerous occasions because he is AJ's best friend, but the idea of a house full of Howies was hilarious. "Okay, okay, I get the picture...don't make me puke, please. I just got Di to stop watching Brady Bunch re-runs in front of me."

AJ chuckled at the mention of Diana, and I braced myself for the expected sarcastic comment. "How is old Heads? Studying hard, I take it?"

I groaned. "No harder than I am, that's for sure. I really need a break, J."

"Tay, believe me when I tell you that I feel your pain."

I rolled my eyes. "You're mocking me, you dork."

He sounded indignant. "I am not! I'm, like, the epitome of sincerity. I'm the king of genuity! Just believe me, Tay..."

My eyebrows rose. "Where the hell did you find a dictionary?"

He was ignoring me, though, singing one of his sporadic songs again. You've got to know AJ. He sings everywhere. You'd think that, having a career with it and all, the guy would get sick of belting out tunes for public approval, but he never shuts up.

"I believe in you and me. I believe that we could be..."

"Vacationing together in the Bahamas?" I said hopefully, and he cut the song off immediately.

"Does that mean you'll go with me? Please, Tay, I promise you'll have fun. I'll carry you over the damn threshold, okay? I'll make you breakfast, I won't let any of the guys bother us, I'll let you sleep in as late as you want, I'll let you play in the ocean..."

I laughed as he kept pledging to do various things to entertain me. "Yo, J, you could've stopped at 'I'll let you play in the ocean.' I mean, if I get to splash around in the water, I'm totally sold."

He sounded surprised. "You mean you don't care about leaving your grandparents alone for the holidays?"

I laughed again. "And miss a chance to torture you, who hasn't called me in three weeks? Babe, you're nuts. I'm going to make you sick of me."

"Couldn't happen if you tried!" AJ sang out cheerfully. "Listen, Tay, I'm really not kidding about this Christmas in the Bahamas thing. I rented this little bungalow and everything. I really, really want to have a nice private holiday without all of the hustle and bustle of the read world this year, you know what I mean?"

If he only knew how much I knew...

"Yeah, dude, I hear you. And, much as I hate the thought of leaving everyone on Christmas, a break sounds really nice."

"So we're on?!"

I had to laugh. He sounded like a little boy at...well, Christmas.

"Yeah, J, we're on. Just let me finish finals first, and you go get through the rest of that tour thing you do, okay?"

He groaned. "Yeah, yeah. Completely ruin my mood by reminding me about work, why don't you? You know what? Go do that cherry thing you do and I'll catch you later."

I couldn't resist getting a dig in. "Not three weeks later this time?"


I knew he was getting angry at the thought of the tour, so I made a retarded attempt to smooth things over. "'Cause you can't do that this time, you know. I know that this tour ends in New York, and I'm expecting you to come and carry me out of my roach-infested apartment and into a happy little plane flying to the beach."

He smiled. "Babe, you have so got yourself a deal. I'm all excited now."

I laughed. "You're not the only one. AJ, this is really awesome of you to do."

His voice got softer all of a sudden. "Yeah, well, I owe you one."

I knew the tone, and I hated him using it. "No you don't. Friends are friends are friends..."

"And that's what friends are for," AJ recited dully. He'd heard my speech before, obviously. Of course, it's not like I preach to the people I love or anything. I'm just a very impressionable person. I talk, and people listen.

"Do you know how many times you've said that to me this past year?"

Okay, so maybe not. "Funny how it still hasn't sunk in yet."

"Oh, whine, whine. Go sell drinks to the drunks and tie a few cherry stems for me."

I made a face. "I'm sticking my tongue out at you."

"You won't be for long. I'll be thinking of you when I sing all of our sappy love songs tonight."

"You're grossing me out," I retorted, and he laughed.

"Listen, babe, I've got to go, but I love ya, okay? Take care, and I'll be in touch."

"Night, Age. Thanks for hooking me up for the holidays."

"Pleasure's mine, babe," he shot back, and then he was gone. I stared at the phone for a few minutes before a newspaper landed across my head.

"Quit daydreaming, babe! You've got work to do! They're all calling for you again."

I looked up to see Diana smirking at me. Go figure, right? Back to work. "Okay, okay, I'm coming."

"What did the charming freak have to say for himself?" she asked as we made our way out of the break room. Diana and AJ have a love-hate relationship.

"Not much...but I'm going away for the holidays."


I grinned. "Yup. J and I are going to the beach."

Diana rolled her eyes and swatted me with the paper again. "You are so not fair, you know that? I work my ass off with you, and then the Backstreet Boy comes to take you away. You sure you couldn't hook me up with one of them?"

I laughed. "Which one would I hook you up with?"

"I dunno...someone."

Before I could respond, however, I was forced to join Diana in breaking up some stupid bar fight. Another night at work. One look at the rowdy crowd, and I knew I wouldn't get to study that night.

It didn't matter as much, though. Thanks to the ignorant best friend, I now had something to look forward to.

"Money Bought"
lyrics and music by Nickelback