It wasn't until the third time Bing Crosby started singing about a white Christmas that Nick finally snapped. "What the fuck do they keep singing about snow for? Do you see any snow on the ground? There's no fucking snow in Orlando at Christmas!"
A young mother, who had been towing her three-year-old all over the store looking at serving platters, shot Nick a dirty look and towed her child right out the door again.
"That would've been a sale," said Howie.
"Who cares? We'll have a hundred more," said Nick. "Besides, I did that kid a favor. Who wants to be hauled around a ceramics store when you're three?"
"You," said Nick, "were a freaky little child."
"How much is this?" a woman asked him, thrusting a box in his direction. Nick tilted his head to the side and read the price tag.
"It's twenty-four ninety-five, ma'am," he said.
She smiled at him approvingly, the 'what a nice young man' look that Nick knew well, and handed the box to him as she reached for her purse. Nick shot Howie a smug look as he turned to ring it up. He knew which customers to keep.
He was just bidding her farewell when the a man in green tights and a hat with a bell on it stalked into the store.
"Brian!" said Nick, perking up. "What's up, man? Did Santa send you to come rescue us from our dreary lives? I can be an elf too, you know. I look great in tights."
"Ha ha," said Brian, and handed him an envelope. "Just making a special delivery. How's business?"
"It's Christmas," said Nick dryly, and gestured at the full store. Brian grimaced knowingly. "You?"
"It's Christmas," Brian echoed him. "And I gotta run. See you at lunch!"
"Wait," said Nick quickly, "who's this from?" But Brian was already out the door and heading back toward Santa's Village. He contemplated the envelope for a moment, then tucked it under the counter as he was approached by another customer.
"What is it?" asked Howie, right at Nick's shoulder the moment they were undisturbed again.
"Oh!" Nick pulled the enveloped out and looked at it and sure enough, it was the same handwriting as the other two. "It's from her. It's from my secret admirer."
Howie giggled and pressed his face into Nick's shoulder for a moment as Nick opened the message. "Nick, you've gotta do something about this..."
"And it looks like I'm going to get my chance."
He showed the message to Howie, which read "Meet me at Santa's Village at 1 p.m." He leaned in and sniffed the paper.
"Thank god, no," said Nick, sighing as he tucked the note back inside and stashed it under the counter again. "There's only one thing to be done, I guess."
"Just let her down easy," said Howie, "It's Christmas." He gave Nick's waist a brief squeeze before the endless stream of customers started up again.
* * *
Nick took a hundred and two fifties out of the till and tucked them away. "I'm going on a change run," he said. "You hold down the fort."
"What?" said Howie, whipping his head around. "Don't you dare. It's totally my turn to hit the bank."
"Nuh uh," insisted Nick. "You went first thing today, you remember? It's my turn." And he fled the store before Howie could stop him, for at least a few minutes of blessed relief from the consumer crush. Not that the rest of the mall was any better, but at least he didn't have to be nice to them.
Large bills secure in a zippered pocket, he slowed down to a leisurely pace, waved at his friend in the boutique, deliberately passed right by the candle kiosk without looking because his ex-boyfriend had a seasonal job there and that was something he just did not want to get into.
He was planning on stopping and saying hi to Justin and maybe Chris in the sporting goods store, but they were twice as swamped as he and Howie, and about ten times as frazzled. He just managed a wave on his way by, and hoped Justin at least saw him.
He bumped into a pair of girls as he headed past the plants in the courtyard, both of them giggling a little and looking back over their shoulders at him as they passed. Nick narrowed his eyes and wondered if one of them was the one who'd been sending him the notes. Wouldn't that be fun.
Santa's Village, with its cotton snow and walk lined with giant candy canes, had a lineup that snaked all the way around the red and white buildings and up the corridor past the dollar store. Nick was surprised Brian had even gotten away for a few minutes; it was probably tit for tat for someone else's desperately needed smoke break.
The speaker overhead started filling the air with the cheerful sounds of 'Let it Snow'; Nick swore at it as he slipped into the lineup at the bank.
* * *
"You notice how I'm back after exactly forty-five minutes?" said Howie, tapping his watch and he stepped back behind the counter again. "Is it too much to ask that you do the same?"
"Believe me," said Nick, ringing up his last sale before lunch with a flourish. "I'm not going to be lingering with my heartbroken little secret admirer any longer than I have to."
"I'm holding you to that," said Howie, smacking his ass below counter level. "Go, go. I got it."
Nick went, completely ignoring the woman who was tugging on his sleeve as he swept past her. He was on a break, he answered to no one.
Chris jumped on his back as he passed the sporting goods store, clinging for dear life as Nick tried to shake him off onto a nearby bench. "I'm going craaaaaaazy!" he said, and finally let himself fall to the ground again. Nick offered him a hand up.
"That bad?" he said.
"It's Christmas," snorted Chris, "and I think every second song today has been encouraging me to play in the snow. I'll tell them where to go play, just give me half a chance...."
"A-fucking-men," said Nick, and made a beeline for Fatone's Fish and Chips for lunch. "Joey!" he said. "The usual, por favor."
"Carter! Kirkpatrick!" he said, turning around to face them. "What, they let you guys out of your stores this time of year? I thought they kept you chained up behind the counter, feeding you only candy canes and water."
"We're on a time-lock tether system," said Nick. "Forty-five minutes from now we automatically snap back to our posts."
"Which, really, is hell on the ceramics," said Chris. "The usual for me, too."
Joey was already slapping it on a plate, though, and grabbing them two trays. A line was forming behind them; 'twas the season of lines.
"Thanks Joe," said Nick, handing over his money. "See you later?"
"If we all survive," he said, and waved them off. Brian was already saving them a table by the Baskin Robbins, his pointy green elf hat sitting on the table next to his tray.
"Hey," said Nick, sliding into an open seat, already stuffing a french fry in his mouth. "I've been meaning to tell you, I adore that blush. It makes your cheeks so rosy."
Brian laughed into his sweet and sour pork. "I know, it's just so attractive, isn't it? I should wear it every day."
"I'm sure Leigh would just adore that," said Chris, claiming one of the other seats, just as JC skidded into the last. "Hey, Jace. You look like you're ready to kill someone. May I offer you a list of possible candidates?"
"Why," said JC around a mouthful of hamburger, "do I work in a toy store? Someone please tell me, because I swear I'm about two seconds away from quitting."
"For the fantastic bonus they give you in January?" suggested Nick. "Which is more than the rest of us will get? Cause that's the only thing I can think of."
"Right, that must be it," said JC. His burger was already almost gone. "I have thirty-two minutes to find my Zen place again. No more talking about work."
"No argument here," said Nick. His fish was hot and crispy, just the way he liked it. "Where's Timberlake anyway, Chris? He hasn't locked himself in the supply room again, has he?"
"Alternating lunches," said Chris.
"Too bad," said Nick, sliding his latest letter on the table. "He'd get a real kick out of this, I'm sure."
"Another one?" laughed Chris, snatching it up before anyone else could. "Talk about barking up the wrong tree..."
"And this guy," said Nick, jabbing his thumb in Brian's direction, "knows who it's from and won't tell me. That's cruel, Bri!"
Brian paused with his forkful of rice halfway to his mouth. 'Who, me?' he seemed to say with his eyes. "I just deliver the messages," he said after a moment. "It was left for you, Nick. I honestly have no idea who it's from."
Nick watched him suspiciously, but he didn't call him a liar. It was Brian, after all. And even if it wasn't, how could you call a guy in a cute, green elf outfit a liar? "Well," he said finally. "Whoever it was, I'm meeting her at Santa's Village soon."
"You're meeting who at Santa's Village?" said Joey, appearing at the end of their table and squatting down, resting his arms on the edge and his chin on his arms.
"My secret admirer," said Nick, rolling his eyes. "Aren't you working?"
"I'm on a break," he said. "Steve's covering. And only you, Carter, would be annoyed at some girl lusting after you. Where's Timberlake? Is he having lunch with Britney?"
"Britney?" said Nick, scrunching up his nose. "No way, they broke up ages ago."
"Yeah?" said Joey. "I heard they were back together. I hear he got her this real nice bracelet for Christmas, too. I know a guy who works in the jewelry store."
"You know a guy everywhere," said Nick, sighing and snatching the note back from Chris, tucking it away again. "For real?"
"That's what I heard," he said, shrugging apologetically.
"Well, at least he's got someone," said JC, finishing off a second burger. "Some of us are dating our left hands for Christmas again this year."
"Gross, Jace," said Nick, finishing off his own lunch. "But speaking of being alone for Christmas, it's time to face the music. Wish me luck!"
* * *
Nick patted the note in his pocket and practically had to force his feet to propel him the short distance between the food court and Santa's Village. It was swarming with people, of all ages, and there definitely was no shortage of teenage girls. Nick would just have to wait for her to come to him, and hope she wasn't late because he wanted to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.
He was about to perch himself next to one of the palm trees overlooking the village when he spotted Justin, heading past. "Hey," he said, snagging his arm before he could get far. "Hey, Chris said you didn't have lunch till later."
"It is later," said Justin, grinning at him. "I just got off a couple minutes ago. Hey."
"Hey," Nick said again, and realized he was still holding Justin's arm. "I'd, uh, I'd join you, but... it's stupid. I'm supposed to meet someone here, actually. I've got this... I feel terrible, but I've got this secret admirer."
"I know," said Justin.
"Oh, did Chris tell you?" said Nick "Poor girl, huh? What a drag, and right at Christmas, too."
"No, I mean...Chris didn't tell me," said Justin. "I know."
Nick frowned at him for a moment. "You..." His eyes suddenly widened with realization, "know!"
Justin smiled shyly and shrugged. "I probably look like a real idiot now, huh? I swear it seemed like a good idea at the time..."
"No!" said Nick quickly. "I mean...no, you don't look like an idiot at all. It's...but what about Britney?"
"What about Britney?"
"Well, aren't you two getting back together? That's what Joey said..."
"Oh Joey," said Justin, rolling his eyes. "Joey doesn't know half the shit he think she does. "So, um--" He broke off mid-sentence and sent a scowl up at the speaker. "No, Jack Frost is not nipping at my nose, thank you very much." He look back at Nick again. "Where was I?"
"I think you were asking me out..." suggested Nick slowly.
"Right," said Justin, and gave him a smile that was both sheepish and charming. "You wanna maybe do something tonight, after we get off work?"
"Totally," said Nick, grinning back at him. "Totally."
Somewhere behind them, Santa rang his bells and exhaulted "Merry Christmas!"