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This Christmas
Chapter Three


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

I caught myself before I said it again. I was exhausted, but I wasn't about to go on autopilot. Once I went on autopilot, the men started stealing drinks, and the manager really isn't too fond of that habit.

"Awww, Tay, you love me. You know me. It's been a rough week, and..."

"And tomorrow morning's just going to be rougher if you keep it up," I countered, taking the empty glass from him. I'm usually more courteous, but it was late. I was tired. Finals were finally over, and I was ready to crawl into my hole of an apartment and die.

Well, maybe not die. But I was definitely ready to sleep for a few hundred years.

"Make it a shot of tequila, straight up."

I arched an eyebrow at Timmy. He's always been a regular. He has a wife at home, but they don't get along too well, and he's stuck in a job that won't allow him to be promoted. Needless to say, I've seen the guy a lot.

"Dude, you're drunk enough already. Your wife is going to hate me."

He laughed tiredly. "Tay, my wife isn't going to notice."

Out of sympathy, I poured him a shot. Of course. I hate being the sympathetic bartender. I'm supposed to be the freaking hardass, right? I've tried, but it doesn't usually work. Especially not when Tim gave me the trademark dopey drunk smile. He's not even cute, and he's about fifteen years older than me, but I still felt obliged to smile back at him.

I can't imagine what's going to happen when a cute guy finally walks into this place. Hell, with my luck, I'll turn into a puddle of liquid and fill his glass for him without any alcohol at all.

"I wove you, Taywor."

Oh, God, not the mushy stuff.

"Yeah, yeah. You just want another shot." I leveled a stern glare in his direction. "It ain't gonna happen, bud. You're due home about now."

Somehow, a full glass found its way onto the table anyway.

"Ah, what the hell, Tay, let him get plastered. He looks ten fucking times worse than one of those *NSYNC guys, and that's enough cause to get smashed on tequila shots, don't you think?"

I love my roommate. I really do.

Sometimes, though, I wouldn't mind locking her out of the break room and letting her deal with all of these people AFTER she's given them all they can drink. See, Diana never works the early morning shift. She saves that time for her "sexual favors". That way, I always get stuck cleaning up her messes.

As far as reality goes, though, she gets stuck cleaning up mine, so maybe I shouldn't complain.

"Hey, Heads, when do you leave?"

She grinned at me. "Tonight, babe, I don't."

I smirked at her. "You know what this means, right?"

"Yeah. You don't get to bitch at me about refilling glasses for guys you had to drag out of the bar and into a cab."

I rolled my eyes at her and filled another order. "The only way I won't bitch is if you actually do the dragging this time."

She winked at me. "Oh, babe, I drag well."

"Not half as well as I do."

It's a good thing that I had already handed the full glass of beer to the customer, because I would've definitely dropped it otherwise. I know I squealed.

"What the hell are you doing here?! It cannot be time already. I mean, hell, I just got finished, and I was ready to play Sleeping Ugly for a few years, and..."

"You know, there's this rumor going around that you turn purple if you talk too long without breathing," he informed with a smirk. I would've glared at him, but I was too excited at that point to do anything but smile and giggle like a moron.

"Oh my gosh! It's the Backstreet Boy!"

Funny how well Diana and I know each other. I mean, I could tell without even looking at her that she was rolling her eyes. She HATES sentimental "shit", as she calls it. Di wouldn't be caught dead giggling or fawning over some guy, even if the guy was her best friend.

Maybe that's why she chose me. She does a lot of things to me, but she won't ever have to even consider fawning.

He grinned at me. "So, could I talk you into pouring me a drink?"

My smile vanished immediately and the desired glare came in full force. "I seriously hope you're kidding."

He winked at me. "Nah, I was serious. I'm in the mood for some of that Odule's stuff that I see on the counter over there."

I know he heard my sigh of relief. Odule's is a non-alcoholic beer that few bars carry. Of course, I keep it handy for the customers that I know particularly well. I've learned that, once people are already drunk, they don't really care what you hand them. I've also learned that if you keep them from getting completely and totally smashed, they're more cooperative AND they have less of a headache in the morning.

Oh, the lovely lessons you learn while tending to drunk middle-aged men in Manhattan! It's enough to make a girl want to scream...really, really loudly...

"Yo, Taylor? You can't space out on me yet, okay? I just got here."

And, finally, it registered that I hadn't given him a hug or anything. "Get back here and say hi, dude! You know me too well to be on that end side of the bar, anyway." That, and I had every intention of putting him to work. AJ may not drink anymore, but that Boy can still mix drinks better than anyone I've ever met...including Diana.

He had me in a hug before I could say anything else. "Good God, it's good to see you again. Have I told you yet how much that tour SUCKED? I mean, I love performing and everything, but there's got to be a limit to how many cities one person can visit in a year. I'm going to develop a Nomad complex or something."

"Yeah, well, I'm voting for 'or something'. You've already got enough complexes, though, so what's one more?"

I knew that voice. Really well, actually. And just by the look on AJ's face, I knew he could tell I was going to squeal again.

The hardass thing I was talking about earlier? Damn it all to hell. I see Howie once in a freaking blue moon, and he's one of my favorite people.

"AH! Howie! You came with him!"

AJ groaned. "Yeah, he grabbed onto my pant leg and wouldn't let go. I would say that I came bearing gifts, but I think that in some foreign countries, his presence is a form of torture."

I beamed at him over Howie's shoulder. "Kind of like your fashion sense?"

Howie let out a low whistle of approval. "Ooh, babe, get him where it counts!"

AJ frowned deeply at me. "Tay...I'm wounded...don't you love me anymore?"

"Not half as much as she loves her paycheck," Diana smirked at him from five feet away, where she was mixing some weird concoction for a stockbroker who'd just walked in.

That's another talent I've acquired. One look at what somebody's wearing, and I could tell you what they do for a living. Well, maybe not everybody. Had I not known AJ, I would've mistaken him for a bisexual DJ on the verge of a mental breakdown.

I giggled at that thought, but decided to keep it to myself. Much as I love AJ, there are things that he's better off just not knowing.

"Hey, chick, don't you have customers to serve?"

I rolled my eyes at Diana. "Yeah, yeah..."

Howie grinned at me. "I'll take a scotch on the rocks, if you don't mind. AJ wasn't kidding when he said that it's been a long tour."

I managed a sympathetic smile for him. "I can only imagine."

AJ growled. "Yeah, just be glad you weren't there. One more second on that fucking plane and I would've ripped Nick's blonde head clear off."

I frowned at him while I filled Howie's order. "What's wrong with Nick?"

Howie shrugged. "He hates to fly, and he can be kind of annoying about it sometimes."

"Kind of?!" AJ hollered incredulously before turning back to me. "Look, babe, normally, I'm fine with everything and anything that Nick does because I'm used to it. Today, though, I just didn't have the patience, and neither did anyone else. It's a good thing this fucking tour's over, because we were damn near hanging by a thread."

I smiled and took another order before turning back to the conversation. "Wait, you flew into New York?"

Howie nodded solemnly, sipping his scotch. "Yeah. One of the buses broke down this morning, so we had to fly in order to make it in on time for the show."

"How was the show?"

AJ groaned. "It was a show. It was the one good thing about today. Well, that and the fact that I got to cover Nick and Kevin in silly string."

Howie grinned at me and leaned in, lowing his voice. "He would've gotten Brian and I also, but he ran out first."

I laughed. "Lucky you, huh?"

Howie nodded fervently with wide eyes. "Hell, yeah. Do you know how hard it is to get that stuff out of my hair?"

I looked over Howie's curly mane and decided that he was probably right. Of course, if he had it bad, I couldn't help thinking that Justin Timberlake probably had it worse.

I shook my head, trying to erase the thought. AJ hates *NSYNC with passion. Well, not as much passion as one would imagine, but he definitely doesn't like them. Something about how his old girlfriend used to date one of the members...

I'm such a horrible best friend. Details escape me. Of course, when it comes to AJ's love life, there are a freaking LOT of details.

I looked over to see Howie flirting with another girl by the bar, having totally abandoned his conversation with AJ and I. Something warned me that Howie's love life had infinitely more details than AJ's love life.

Of course, that's not my business, now, is it?

"...coming to that hotel?"

I cast a blank, guilty look in AJ's direction. "Um, sorry...what was that?"

AJ gave me a subtle glare. Okay, maybe not subtle. Subtlety isn't exactly AJ's strong point. "You weren't paying attention again."

Well, no shit, Sherlock.

I think I tried to look sheepish. I probably failed. "Nope, sorry. Can I rewind and try again?"

AJ looked around nervously before shooting me an incredulous expression. "Are you fucking kidding me? HELL no! This place is way too damn public for rewind noises. My reputation would fucking crash and burn. Drastically."

This might be a bad time for the younger kiddies, but AJ's R-rated. Profanity is his preferred tool when expressing his anger. Or his excitement. Or his joy. Or his frustration. Or his...well, you get the point.

I turned around to answer to another customer before continuing my conversation with the tattooed one. "Can you just repeat the damn question?"

AJ sighed heavily, like it was the most physically taxing thing he'd ever had to do. Such a melodramatic one, that Boy.

"The fellas wanted to meet you because I talk about you a lot and they think I'm hiding you from them. They're all exhausted, though, and they didn't believe me when I said that we wouldn't get mobbed in this place, so they're at the hotel. I was instructed to bring you back to Kevin's room when your shift is over so that you can meet the knuckleheads that I spend my time with."

I arched an eyebrow. "And what's in it for you?"

AJ rolled his eyes, so I knew it was something good. "Well, see, they've kinda been teasing me in that they kinda don't believe that you really exist and they kinda don't believe Howie when he tells them that he's met you before so it would kinda help if you..."

"Kinda proved to them that I'm kinda real?" I teased, and he grimaced at me.

"Yeah, that."

I laughed at the sheepish/belligerent expression on his face. "You know, I don't think I've seen you smile once since we got here."

He smiled his "meet-and-greet" smile at me. "There, now you've seen me smile."

I gave him the inevitable breadbox look. "A genuine one, man. I'm not an idiot."

He sighed heavily and drained his glass of beer. "Aw, Tay, I'm really not in the mood to be genuine."

I frowned deeply as I handed another businessman a class of white zifandel (we're not going to go into what a drink can say about this particular person). "Am I going to have to tickle you to see that smile?"

He rolled his eyes. "Does the word 'public' mean anything to you?"

I rolled my eyes in return, just to spite him. "Does the word 'brat' mean anything to you?"

He groaned. "Bitch."




He stuck his tongue out. "Dork."

I glared. "Freak."

Finally, at long last, I got my smile. It must have been my lucky day, too, because I got another hug to go with it. "God, I missed you, Tails. You're, like, the one sane thing in my life right now, you know that?"

I laughed lightly. "Actually, that scares me. I'm not anywhere near sane."

He grinned. "You keep me sane, though, girlie, and that's what counts." He ruffled my hair, and I growled at him.

"I love you too, nimrod, but leave the hair alone."

He rolled his eyes again and refilled his own glass. "Sheesh. You're as bad as Howie."

I watched him for a moment as he chatted with one of the other customers and poured them a drink. Diana was having it out by the microphone to one side of the room, and she had a few people dancing as she sang along to some old eighties track. When most of the regulars were dancing drunkenly by Diana's makeshift stage (I had a suspicion that she was getting toasted as well), AJ turned back to me with a tired expression and took a long drink. I couldn't help but frown.

"Was the tour really that bad?"

He sighed heavily. "Yes and no. It wasn't awful, but I felt so damn lonely most of the time that anything bad seemed infinitely worse. Add that to the fact that Kev and Bri are both married. Then, add THAT to the fact that everyone was watching me like I was going to blow a fucking fuse because of my rehab stint, and you can probably understand why I got a little stir crazy."

I rubbed his back sympathetically. "But they understood, right?"

AJ nodded slowly. "Oh, they definitely understood. They were wonderful. They were also really, really worried, though. They care a lot, and it shows, but it drove me nuts sometimes because I couldn't even think. Not only that, but that tour felt like the longest damn thing we've ever done. I don't even remember what my fucking house looks like, and I bet my dogs have forgotten who I am."

I tried to bite back the smirk on my face, but I have a feeling that I wasn't succeeding. "So you're escaping to the Bahamas to spend more time away from everything?"

AJ groaned again. "You sound like Nick."

I shrugged and poured a Cosmopolitan for a graduate student who usually comes on Friday nights. "I'm just trying to understand things."

AJ sighed again, and I turned to face him. "What's really going on?"

He looked down at me and frowned. "Honestly?"

I rolled my eyes. "No, I want you to lie to me..." Pause as I smack AJ. "Yes, you dork, honestly. What's up?"

His brow furrowed more deeply. "I need to be alone, but I don't really want to be completely alone. I just want a place where I can be me over the holidays, and not have to put on some stupid happy face so that the tabloids don't have a field day with my picture the next morning."

I nodded sympathetically. "Media sucks, huh?"

He shrugged. "Media comes with the job. Don't get me wrong--I love the job. I just need time away from the job. I love the music and I love what I do, but I don't always like the person I become when I'm doing it without rest."

I knew from experience that the job didn't always make AJ the most amiable person. "I can see what you mean. After a while, you must start to feel trapped."

He nodded fervently. "Exactly. You start feeling caged in, like you can't get away from whatever this thing has made you and what you're supposed to be and do for everyone that's watching. And it gets so damn confusing, because after awhile we don't know where the job ends and the real life part begins."

I nodded my understanding. "The lines get blurred."

He drained the second glass. "Too damn blurred. And when they blur, it's not fun anymore, and we start getting on each other's nerves, and then the tour just seems to drag."

"It's over now, though," I pointed out, and he gave that horrible, bitter AJ laugh that I hate so much. Whenever he's in pain, he laughs like that, and it makes me hurt.

"Not quite, darling. I still have to introduce you to the other victims of the job."

I groaned. "It can't be that bad. You always talk about how close the five of you are, and I already love Howie."

AJ chuckled. "Oh, you'll handle them just fine. It's them I'm worried about. They're just as tired as I am, and their tempers and their senses of humor are shot to shit. They're all gonna be using you as an excuse not to talk to each other."

I grinned mischievously. "Nah, I'll just be the excuse for civility and decency."

AJ snorted. "Probably. I mean, they don't know you yet."


We were back to our mindless bantering and friendly abusive ways. All was right in the world. When AJ insults me, I know that life as we know it cannot come to a screaming halt.


I sighed and plastered that same fake "meet-and-greet" smile on my face. AJ's world isn't always so different from mine, you see.


Just before I managed to go quiet the screaming customer, AJ's lips grazed my ear. "Between you and me? I can't believe I ever acted like that."

I sent him a smirk. "I can. You still get that way, occasionally. I think it's that whole pop star ego rearing its ugly head..."

Believe it or not, he actually laughed. Someone up there must really like me.

"I missed you a hell of a lot, Taylor, you know that, right?"

I grinned at him. "I missed you too, Age."