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This Christmas
Chapter Eight


Golden sunshine filtered through a lightly shaded window, coloring the wooden floors a lovely bronze. The quiet rush of the ocean permeated my sleep-foggy brain, lulling me back to dreamland with its tranquil rhythms. The gentle, off-key humming of a far-off voice caressed my ear, teasing its edges with a hint of familiarity.

See? Be impressed. Even when I'm mostly asleep, I can still be poetic. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I'm the musician in our lovely castaway duo.

Unfortunately, I'm also the later riser.

"Wake up, little darling! The ocean is calling us!"

I groaned loudly at the sound of Taylor's voice. Well, on second thought, it wasn't so much the sound of her voice as the annoyingly high-pitched, patronizing tone she had chosen.

Damn women. They know exactly how to get under a guy's skin.

I lazily opened one eye and glared threateningly at my tormentor. "You realize this is the second time in the past two days that you've woken me up, right?"

Taylor arched a challenging eyebrow. "You realize this is the second time in the past two days that you've fallen asleep on me, right?" She continued before I could answer. "I'm going to develop a complex soon, man. Am I really that boring?"

"Yes," I fired without a second thought. She took a moment to glare at me, and I used the lapse in conversation to stretch. "However, I was also really that tired."

She grinned hopefully. "So it's not entirely my fault, right?"

"Maybe." I squinted at the clock, tried to read the neon numbers, and failed miserably. "What time is it?"

She chuckled. "Ten-ish. You slept for a good fifteen hours."

Then, despite the ridiculously early hour of the morning (okay, so ten isn't really that early, but--work with me, my body clock sucks), I smiled. "Cool."

Taylor rolled her eyes. "Not cool. You fell asleep on my stomach."

I shrugged. "So you should've smacked me or something. Why didn't you move me?"

She smiled softly which, for Taylor, is a rarity in itself. "I didn't have the heart to wake you. I know you needed the rest."

And damn, she wasn't kidding. Because I felt more rested at that very moment than I had in the past year, and for that reason, the smile remained firmly in place. "Thanks. I actually feel human again."

"Funny," she mused, stroking her chin á la Sean Connery.

Inwardly, I rolled my eyes, but only because I could feel another smartass comment coming on. "How so?"

She winked at me. "Well, you don't exactly look human, if you know what I mean..."

Had I not still been half-asleep, I would've smacked her. Maybe. Or maybe not. My mother always told me not to hit girls.

Funny how Taylor can make me wish that I wasn't raised to be a gentleman.

As a tribute to my mother, I bypassed the smack for a convincing pout. "That's not nice."

She shrugged idly. "I'm a bartender, babe. It's not in my job description to be nice."

"Maybe not, but here you're a best friend. Isn't it in the best friend's job description to be kind and nurturing?"

She frowned. "It might be, but I distinctly remember a line in bold print about being honest."

"Brutally honest?" I persisted, and she laughed.

"Age, you should know well enough by now...I'm ALWAYS brutal."

I groaned, but only because she was right. I hate it when Taylor's right. It usually means that I'm going to hear about it for the rest of the day.

Okay, maybe not for the rest of the day, but at least for an hour, and gloating in the morning is never a good thing. Not unless I'm the one gloating. Maybe it's just me, but that seems to happen only once in a blue moon.

Suddenly, I had the inane urge to look for a calendar.

"Is there supposed to be a blue moon anytime soon?"

Like every other ridiculous question I've asked, that inspired a confused and amused look from my hard-headed best friend.

"I think I seriously lost my board in that brain wave."

I sighed heavily. "That's too bad, you know. It's a very happy world inside my head."

She cringed. "I'm sure it is. I just feel more sheltered when I know there are a few layers of cranium between us."

I shrugged. "Your loss."

"Yeah, my loss. And have I mentioned just how sad I am to have lost that one-way ticket to the insane asylum?"

I couldn't think of a suitable comeback, so I just stuck my tongue out at her. Luckily for me, she laughed. See, I'm cute like that.

Don't think I can't see you shaking your head, either.

"Nice, J. That's a really mature look for you."

I fluttered my eyelashes for her amusement. "Does it brighten my flawless complexion?"

"Something like that."

I knew it! Even at ten in the morning, I can still make witty conversation. Am I a bartender's best friend, or what?

"Can I interrupt that ego trip of yours to say that the ocean might just be my new best friend?"

Go figure, ladies and gentlemen. We've been here for approximately twenty-four hours, and I've already been replaced.

"I get the feeling that I should take offense to that."

"Well, if you'd get your lazy butt out of bed and catch a few waves with me, you might just see my reasoning in that assertion."

Meh. Have I mentioned yet how much I hate moving in the mornings? Especially in the mornings following a particularly long, particularly draining, particularly fucking drawn-out tour.

Insert a groan here, and you'll have the exact equivalent of my response to Taylor's suggestion.

"You're such a baby."

Funny, but I'd heard that so much that I knew better than to argue. "Can we at least get food first?"

She grinned widely at me, a sure sign that I was in for a long day. "I was hoping you'd say that. Being the nice person that I am, I actually grabbed you a few things from the café down the beach."

At last, evidence as to why I like this girl.

I gave her a haphazard hug in return for her favor. "Thanks, chick. That totally makes my day."

She chuckled. "No problem. Everyone knows that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

I gave her a pointed look. "That goes double for a woman, you know."

She winked at me, and I had the sudden urge to start calling her Howie. "Yeah, I know. Hence the reason that I'm sure you're going to buy me dinner tonight."

I buried my head in my pillow. "You drive a tough bargain, you know that?"

I knew her well enough to know that she was nodding. "Yeah, but it's only because I'm the best."

"Damn straight." So sue me. The woman brought me food. She deserves some kind of an ego trip, don't you think?

Eh, what the hell. Lord knows I owed her enough that the compliment was probably only the beginning of my repayment. It should be, at least. Taylor's kicked my butt in gear since I've known her. Couldn't hurt to show my appreciation every now and then.

"Love ya, Tay-Tay."

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, whatever. You're just saying that because I brought you breakfast."

"Nuh-uh. I'm saying that because you were cool and swept me off that bar stool a year ago and came with me to the beach."

I must have looked pretty damn serious, because her features softened long enough for her to ruffle my hair.

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else over Christmas, J. And enough about the bar thing, okay? Friends are friends are friends..."

"And that's what friends are for," we finished in unison. Unfortunately, my voice was high and mocking and...dammit. Normally, I really hate it when she goes all broken record on me. Of course, that particular saying isn't so bad. It makes me feel loved.

Taylor makes me feel loved.

I grinned, and I knew it was going to be a good Christmas, early mornings and all.

"Does that mean you're going to eat now?" Taylor asked hopefully. It's funny, because she's a pretty badass bartender, but she's got this giddy side to her that reminds me a little of Nick and even more of the kids that come to our concerts. Deep down, I think she's still, like, five years old.

Don't tell or anything, but I think I may be too.

"Yeah, I'm going to eat now."

"And then we can go get in the waves?"

Suppressing smile. Really. Or at least trying really hard.

"Yeah, and then we can go get in the waves."

She grinned again, and the smile on her face about lit up the room.

God, I'm such a sap in the mornings. Ignore me. I'm suffering from substance deprivation. I'll be better when I get some food and testosterone in me. Testosterone, of course, being the more important of the two.

"You didn't happen to grab a Playboy while you were out getting breakfast, did you?"

Feminists would've cursed me. The fellas would've scorned. Certain pals would've given me a high five. Taylor merely narrowed her eyes.

"Hell no. We're in bungalow number sixty-nine, AJ. Besides, you've got me at your disposal. What more do you need?"


Note to self: Taylor making any jokes of a sexual nature is a BAD thing for a sex-deprived AJ. BAD.

See, you've gotta know Tails. She's actually pretty hot. Months ago, I would've tapped that ass and called it a night. Fortunately, she's a better friend than a piece of eye candy. That's a line that we don't cross. It's one of those horrible unspoken rules in our friendship. Guy. Girl. Friends. No touching.

Fuck if I don't hate that rule occasionally.

Right. Moving away from that train of thought now.

"Didn't you say something about food and a beach a few minutes ago?"

She smirked that God-awful Taylor smirk. "Feeling a little uncomfortable, Alex?"

Dammit. I will NOT be victim to the smaller of my two heads. Not this morning, at least. Maybe later, when we're both a bit drunk and horny and...

Nope. I'm sober now. Smiley face.

"Not at all. Why would I be uncomfortable?"

She shook her head and left it at that. That's another one of those things that I love about Taylor. She knows when to leave well enough alone. She also knows when I've had enough teasing.

"Let's go get your food. The faster you eat, the faster I can swim, and I'm already suffering from wave withdrawal."

"Oh, so THAT'S what the twitching was..."

Finally, I get the upper hand in the argument. About damn time, don't you think?

Apparently, Taylor did too, because she refrained from beating my ego with the usual sarcastic retort. So, to appease her, I ate breakfast and slipped into my swim trunks in record speed.

Aren't I a good best friend?

Of course I am, dammit! Suddenly, we were standing in the surf staring out at the waves, and I knew that I was the best freaking friend in the world. How, you ask? Simple. Taylor chose that moment to hug me. Tightly. Almost too tightly, but I was too pleased with myself at that point to really remember how much I like my ribs.

"Alex, have I told you in the past five minutes how much you fucking ROCK for bringing me to this place?"

I had to laugh, despite my dwindling supply of oxygen. "Um, no?"

"Well, you do. You rock. You rock my socks off."

I grinned cheekily as she let go of me. "It's a good thing I'm here, then, or you wouldn't be able to feel the sand between your toes."

She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. "You know, that's the other reason you rock."


"Yeah. You're a bigger dork than I am, and that's saying a lot."

It was my turn to grin. And about fucking time, dammit. "Really? What exactly does it say?"

"That you're seconds away from a mouthful of seaweed."

I frowned. Deeply, too. See, I know from past experience that Taylor always makes good on her threats.

"A mouthful of seaweed, huh?"

Before she could answer, I hit an incoming wave headfirst and choked on a generous amount of salt water. I'm a singer, dammit! I don't need that kind of shit burning my vocal chords!

Of course, that weekly pack of cigarettes probably isn't helping any.

But back to the problem at hand, because there is revenge to be had and a very wet Backstreet Boy sitting alone in the surf while the waves shove sand at his crotch.

"What the hell was that for?"

Taylor's grin eerily resembled the look Nick gets when he gets caught in the act of short-sheeting all of the bunks on the bus.

"I always keep my promises, man, and I can't have a tiny wave of weakness dirtying my track record."

"When did you promise to shove me into the Atlantic?"

The grin widened. "Just now."

"I SO didn't hear that promise..."

She shrugged. "I made it in my head."

Man, everyone's a smartass these days. Why didn't I get the genes for that? Why? Is being the unique one really worth the absence of wit?

For those of you still stumped, allow me to give you the answer to that question: HELL NO!

"You realize what this means, right?"

Taylor bit her bottom lip, and I could feel the devil horns sprouting on either side of my head. Somehow, that girl always manages to bring out the most obnoxious side of me.

Of course, she also manages to bring out the best side of me, so it's all good.

"Not exactly..."

"This means that I'm entitled to revenge."

She winced. "Not that your revenge is worth trembling for, but...what kind of revenge, exactly?"

I pretended to think on the idea for a moment. "Well, let's put it this way...how much do you like being thrown shotput-style into an oncoming wave."

Taylor arched a doubtful eyebrow. "I can't say I have enough experience in that area to have formed an opinion."

I gave into my inner kleptomaniac's urges and stole a grin from the Cheshire cat. "Oh, good."


"Because you're about to gain that experience."

And this, kids, is where Backstreet Boy and bartender throw in the towel together and become not AJ and Taylor, but Alex and Tay-Tay, a pair of five-year-olds with the collective common sense of a cocker spaniel. We dunked, we jumped, we swam, and we ran. In general, we threw caution to the wind and goofed off for a few hours.

When Taylor went under for the first time, though, it hit me that I hadn't had that much fun in years, and I wasn't too upset to see maturity sitting on the sidelines.