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This Christmas
Chapter Two


I know I was smiling when I hung up the phone. Don't you just hate how, sometimes, where you're talking to someone, they make your whole world right for however long you're talking to them, and then you realize that you have to go back to your shitty reality?

Yeah, so do I.

"And what the hell are you so happy about?"

I looked up to find Nick staring at me with a curious expression. He's like that sometimes. Truth to tell, he doesn't have much of a life of his own anymore, so he gets all excited whenever the rest of us have something going on.

No, I'm kidding. Nick's got a life. Sometimes, Kevin might argue that Nick has too much of a life. Personally, I think Kevin's just bitter because he doesn't have one.

"I just talked to Taylor about Christmas, and she's all excited about going to the bungalow with me."

Nick's eyebrows rose doubtfully. "You mean she actually agreed to spend Christmas alone with you in a hut on the beach?"

I glared menacingly at him. "You say that like there's something wrong with it."

Nick gave me a pointed look. "AJ, did you drug her again, or are you just brainwashing her now?"

Believe it or not, I was in such a good mood after talking to Tay that I laughed. "No, man, she loves me. She really loves me."

Nick nodded slowly. "Okay..." He sighed. "Well, at least someone does."


The two of us looked at each other for just a minute before we both burst out laughing. Nick used to be a really big pest, but he's mellowed out in the past few years. We really do love each other like brothers, and he's more of a good friend now. Brian's been rather involved in his marriage lately--meaning that he's whipped like a freaking slave in the old African trade system--so Nick's been hanging out with me. We're cool together, and I'm really glad that we've gotten to know each other better. He doesn't always have his head screwed on straight, but his heart's in the right place, and I like to think that he'll turn out okay in the end.

He looked up at me with that poster grin. "So, are you excited about being alone in a bungalow with Taylor?"

I wasn't defensive until he wiggled those damn eyebrows. I shot him a warning look.

"Man, you know it's not like that between us. Tay's always been very cool to me, and I appreciate the fact that she's stuck around. Besides, she needs the break as much as I do. We'll probably spend the whole time sleeping."

It wasn't until Nick busted out with the hyena giggle that I realized exactly how that had sounded. "Okay, doofus, not THAT kind of sleeping..."

Nick nodded in mock belief. "Sure it's not that kind of sleeping. Come on, man, we all know that you're secretly in love with her."

I rolled my eyes and swatted at him to get him to shut up. "Nick, you're such a shit."

"What'd he do now?"

We both looked up at the new, deeper, slower voice and grinned. Nick tried to pull an innocent face--tried, of course, being the operative word there--and I sighed heavily.

"Nothing. He's just being a pest."

Kevin arched a lethal eyebrow. "And how is this any different from any other time of the day?"

Nick's innocent expression faded to an insulted look. "Hey! I'm not that bad, man. I used to be a pest, but I don't do half the shit that I used to do. I haven't short-sheeted anyone's bed in at least a year, and I don't even put salt in the sugar bowl anymore."

Kevin gave Nick a pointed look. "Then how do you explain that freaking whoopee cushion that ended up under my butt onstage the other night?"

Nick smiled boyishly. "Brian!"

Kevin rolled his eyes. "Brian. Right..."

I scoffed. "No, Leighanne would whoop his ass for it. It'd make him look retarded, and he's supposed to be a good boy." I heard Nick snicker, but Kevin gave me a look of disapproval.

"AJ, be nice to Leighanne and Brian. They're young and in love."

Nick looked up with a mischievous grin, but it was too late to keep him from saying anything. "So's AJ, but at least he doesn't act like he's on a freaking chain."

Kevin turned to me with new interest. "AJ's in love? With whom?"

I think Nick caught the death glare I was shooting at him--hard to miss--so he covered quickly. "Me!"

Kevin rolled his eyes and shook his head again before disappearing, muttering something about immaturity. Neither Nick nor I made any move to comment. After all, Kevin talks to himself a lot. I think it's because he's the only one who doesn't realize how slowly he's talking.

You've probably gathered by now, and if not, I'll just go ahead and tell you--we tease each other a LOT.

I looked at Nick after a moment and frowned inquisitively. "So, what's on the agenda for the rest of the night? Do we know?"

Nick shrugged. "I don't have a clue." He chuckled. "I get the idea that Kev was trying to tell us, though."

I laughed briefly. "Yeah, well, we scared him away."

Nick made a funny face. "Don't we always?"

I rolled my eyes at him, but laughed anyway. Much as I may pretend that the kid isn't funny, he really does crack me up. When the laughter died down, I sat in thought for a while until Nick broke the silence.

"What're you thinking about?"

I sighed. "How much I'm ready for this tour to be over."

Nick nodded his understanding. "Yeah, it's been a long one, hasn't it?"

I groaned. "It's been a long one, and it isn't over yet." I frowned. "I guess I just miss having time to myself. I mean, I love being onstage and everything, but I hate being cut off from the world because I'm too exhausted to pay attention to it."

Nick smirked. "So you're going to hole up in a remote cabin for a week with your best friend so no one else can get hold of you. Makes complete and total sense. Really."

I gave him a look, and he laughed. "No, seriously man, I can understand the need to get away. There've been a lot of times this tour where I wouldn't have minded hiding under the bed when Kev came to get me and staying in the hotel for a few more days just because no one would know where I was and I could finally relax. I guess I just know how much I'm going to miss it when we're finally done with the tour." He blew out a stream of air, sending his bangs askew. "I mean, you all have somewhere to go and someone to go to, but I'm kind of stuck with the dogs, my boat, and my family."

I frowned at the lost look on his face. It's a shame, really, 'cause Nick's a great guy with a really crappy work schedule. As a result, he hasn't seen too many girlfriends in the past year, and the kid gets lonely much more easily than the rest of us. "Where are you spending Christmas?"

Nick grinned at that. "I'm going to spend it with the whole family. Aaron and Leslie are going to be off tour by then, so we'll all be home. It's going to be so cool..."

Howie smiled as he walked in. "Yeah, Christmas with the family is always cool."

I rolled my eyes at him. "Must be why it took you so long to move out of the house, huh, D?"

He blushed slightly, but laughed anyway. Howie's like that--he's usually cool with us teasing him. Must be why we do it so often...

"So, AJ, where are you going for Christmas?"

Nick answered before I had a chance to. "He's going off to hide in a bungalow with the bar chick from New York City."

Howie frowned lightly and looked at me. "Is he talking about Taylor?"

I nodded. "Yeah, he's talking about Taylor. She's stressed from school and I'm stressed from touring, and I don't want to go to the beach alone. We're just really good friends, so it'll be cool to have some normal company for awhile."

Howie smiled. "Yeah, she's been really good for you in the past. It must be nice to have someone so close to you that isn't a part of all this madness."

I grinned. I know I was smiling. I'm supposed to be the hardass, but something about my favorite other hardass just makes me go all Hallmark again. "Yeah, Tay's one of a kind. She's seen a lot of shit, and she's not afraid to deal with it."

Brian raised his eyebrows as he walked into the dressing room. "Are we talking about AJ's bartender in New York?"

Howie nodded. "Yeah."

Nick, on the other hand, burst into a grin. "Hey, you managed to detach yourself from the wife and come hang with us!"

The look of obvious disgust on Brian's face was totally priceless, but D and I had to smile. Truth to tell, Nick and Brian have always had a connection between the two of them that's out of this world. They know each other really well, but they haven't been nearly as close since Brian got married. It's no fault of his, 'cause Leighanne really is a lovely woman, but Nick misses Brian more than Brian will ever know.

"I'm gonna ignore that comment," Brian muttered, turning to me instead. "When are we going to get to meet Taylor, anyway? You go on and on about her, but we've never seen her."

I didn't answer right away. In all honesty, I hadn't really realized that I'd been avoiding letting the fellas meet her. We're all really close, and we tend to use each other as a means of approving the girls that we let into our life. Taylor hadn't ever really needed approval, though. She didn't even know whom I was when we first met, and she's managed to stick by me through the worst of times. Of course, I'd be a fool not to admit that part of her appeal was the fact that our friendship was completely separate from anything and everything Backstreet. She'd met Howie a few times when we'd stopped in New York, but she hadn't met any of the others. She and Nick would get along well, but I wasn't too sure how Kevin would take to her. She's not exactly what you'd call a proper lady, if you know what I mean.

I looked up to find Nick nodding his agreement. "Yeah, man, you've kept her to yourself for too long. Can we meet her on the last night of the tour? I know we're going to be in the city then."

Howie looked at him in approval. "Wow, Nicky, I'm impressed that you know anything about our schedule."

Nick winked at him. "Well, you know, there's a comic convention in NYC the next day, so I wanted to make sure that I'd have time to go."

We all laughed at that, and Howie rolled his eyes with a smile. "Go figure."

Brian turned to me expectantly. "So invite her to the last show."

I shook my head immediately. "Believe me, I would if I could, but I can't. She's got to work. Her tuition has been really heavy this year, and she's been working days and nights to pay it off."

Kevin walked in again--apparently we hadn't scared him TOO badly that time--and arched one of those lethal eyebrows at me. "She works two jobs to pay for school?"

I nodded. "Yeah, she's a really independent chick."

Kevin's other eyebrow rose. "I'm impressed, man. You don't usually find such decent women."

I rolled my eyes. "You know what? I'll drag her to the hotel after her shift so she can impress the four of you a little bit more. I know how to find a decent woman, thank you very much."

Nick giggled. "Welcome, Elvis."

I don't know where he gets his jokes, I swear. Sometimes they're funny...but you can usually look out the window and see pigs flying by if you catch yourself laughing your ass off.

Howie smiled at me. "Taylor's a very cool girl, J. It'll be good to see her again."

I had to grin at that. It would definitely be good to see Tay again. "Yeah, it will be."

Nick stared at me curiously for a moment before I got annoyed enough to pay attention to him. "What, Carter?"

Nick smirked. "J, are you sure that you only have platonic feelings for this chick?"

I groaned, having known that the question was coming. The fellas are great, but they're also predictable. "Yes, Nick, I'm sure."

As we were leaving for the stage, Howie looked at me knowingly. "You may be sure now, but remind me to ask you again when Christmas is over, okay?"

I rolled my eyes. "Whatever, D. We've got a show to do."

Another night, another city.

Me? I was just waiting for New York.