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Brian landed in L.A. to find a frantic voicemail message from Nick on his phone.

“Yo Brian, call me back when you get this, man; I need to talk to you. I’m looking up flights to Atlanta, and I was wondering if I should book a hotel too, or if I can just stay with you. I’ll only be there a couple of days, just so I can see Santa and apologize for making him sick and ruining Christmas, so… call me!”

Brian wrinkled his nose in confusion. What on Earth was that all about? he wondered. “I think Nick might be doing drugs again,” he said slowly, as he set down his phone.

“Aw, that’s too bad,” said Leighanne absently as she rifled through her Wylee carry-on, sounding less than concerned. “Babe, have you seen my lip gloss?”

“Check your boobs,” Brian replied automatically, Nick’s message still on his mind.

“Oh, duh, of course!” Leighanne stuck her hand down her cleavage. It emerged two seconds later, triumphantly clutching a tube of lip gloss. “Thanks, Husband!”

“You bet,” Brian muttered, picking up his phone again.

“So… Nick called?”


“And…? What’s going on with him now? Did he get another DUI?”

Brian sighed. “No. He babbled something about coming to Atlanta… to see Santa Claus? He wanted to know if he could stay with us.”

“Well, since Santa lives at the North Pole, and we’re now in L.A., I guess the answer to that is no,” said Leighanne, none-too-kindly.

Brian sighed again. “I know. I’ll call him back.”

He waited until they were on their way to the L.A. house to call Nick, who answered on the second ring. “Dude, I called you, like, three hours ago! Didn’t you get my message?”

“Nice to hear from you too, Nick,” Brian replied sarcastically. “I did get your message, which is why I’m calling. Sorry it took me so long, but my phone was shut off because I was on a plane. See, I’m not in Atlanta right now; I’m actually in L.A.” He spoke slowly and enunciated every syllable, like he was talking to a small child with a processing disorder - or like his cousin Kevin talked to foreign fans.

“You are? What for?”

“Baylee’s got an audition. Now what were you saying about Santa?”

Nick sighed. “It’s a long story, Brian; you better just come over. See ya soon.” He abruptly hung up, leaving Brian staring down at his phone again, bewildered.

“Sorry, babe, but can we swing by Nick’s place?” Brian asked Leighanne. “You can just drop me off; I’ll have him bring me back to the house later.”

“What, now?? No way! We have to help Baylee rehearse!”

“It’s okay, Mom,” Baylee spoke up from the back seat. “I don’t mind if Dad goes to see Nick. You and I can run lines together.”

Leighanne sighed. Brian knew she didn’t approve of their son’s adoration of Nick, but there wasn’t much she could say about it in front of him. “Alright, alright,” she consented reluctantly. “Don’t stay too long, though. You’re taking Bay and me out to dinner tonight!”

“I won’t,” Brian promised. “Two hours, tops.”

But when Brian arrived at Nick’s condo, he could tell it was going to take a lot longer than that. “Why didn’t any of you tell me about Nick Plague?!” Nick ranted, waving his arms around wildly, as he paced back and forth across the living room. “We could have saved so many lives! W-” He suddenly stopped, mid-word, and stared at Brian, who had just removed his jacket. “Dude… what the fuck are you wearing?”

“Huh?” Brian looked down at the black-and-white striped cowl neck tunic he had on. “Oh. It’s one of Leighanne’s tops, from the new Wylee B&G Collection.”

Nick stared. “You’re borrowing your wife’s clothes now? Dude, that is fucked up.”

Realizing he had misunderstood, Brian quickly shook his head. “Oh no, no, it’s not literally Leighanne’s top. It’s mine! I mean, it’s clearly unisex, right?” He did a quick spin, making the long, asymmetrical hem of the tunic spin like the blades of a helicopter.

Nick blinked and then closed his eyes, shaking his head like he was trying to erase what he had just seen. “Brian, we’ve been friends for a long time, so I hope you know that I only have your best interest at heart when I tell you this: That is the fugliest-ass shirt I have ever seen, and no man - or woman, for that matter, but definitely not a straight guy - should be caught dead wearing it. Like, ever.”

Brian sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I know,” he whispered. “It’s awful, isn’t it? Please don’t tell Leighanne I said that. She works so hard designing all this stuff. I agreed to model the new line because I knew it would help bring more fans to her site and maybe even sell some clothes.”

Nick snorted. “Well, you may be whipped, but at least you’re not as brainwashed as I thought. Please, though, for the love of God, take that thing off. I promise I won’t tell your wife.”

“Thanks, buddy.” Brian smiled with relief as he slipped the striped tunic over his head and tossed it aside, revealing the black wifebeater he’d worn underneath. “Now… what were you talking about before? What’s ‘Nick Plague’?”

“You mean you didn’t know either? I thought everyone knew but me. Apparently it’s a ‘fandom thing,’” said Nick, making air quotes. “You know, like Backstreet Time. Except instead of being late for everything, I’ve been making fans sick!”

Brian snickered. “You mean cause you’re always sick yourself and do gross stuff like wipe your nose with your hand and then touch fans without washing it?”

“Uh-huh,” Nick said miserably.

“So you’re, like, Patient Zero?”

“Worse,” sulked Nick. “I’m the Host.”

Brian grinned. “Like the monkey in Outbreak. Heh… Nick Plague. That’s pretty funny!”

“It’s not funny!” Nick insisted. “I think I infected Santa Claus! Christmas is ruined!”

“Santa Claus?” Brian snorted. “What, did you take a ride on the Polar Express and not tell me? When did you see Santa? I mean… you do know the one at the mall isn’t the real Santa, right?”

Nick rolled his eyes. “I know that. But I’m pretty sure the real Santa came to my show in Calgary and did VIP. Did you see the news? They flew a suspected case of Ebola in to Atlanta from Siberia. Siberia, Brian! You know where Siberia is?”

“Yeah,” said Brian, grinning. “I’m pretty sure my heart did time there once.”

“Heh.” Nick smiled briefly. At least someone shared his sense of humor. “Yeah, but Siberia is also near… the North Pole!”

Nick expected a big dramatic prairie dog moment, but Brian seemed disappointingly underwhelmed. “Siberia’s a pretty big place, Nick. It’s also near China.”

“So? They didn’t say what part of Siberia he was coming from. It could’ve been Northern Siberia. And you know what they did say? That, before he got sick, the patient had been to Canada. Guess who else was in Canada? This guy!” screamed Nick, pointing at himself.

“Nick, man, chill out!” Brian placed a comforting hand upon Nick’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “As a matter of fact, I saw that guy arriving at the Atlanta airport earlier today. They were out on the tarmac while I was waiting for my boarding call. And sure, he was a big guy and all, and he was wearing a red suit - but it was a Hazmat suit, not a Santa suit. Underneath that mask, he could have been anyone… anyone but Santa Claus.”

“Oh yeah, and why not? They won’t say his name on the news. They won’t show his picture. They’ve done that with all the other Ebola patients, but not this guy. Know why? Because he’s Santa Claus, and if the world knew Santa was sick three weeks before Christmas, they’d lose their shit!”

“Nick…” Brian laughed and shook his head. “Buddy, I hate to break this to you,” he said, patting Nick on the shoulder again, “but you’re almost thirty-five years old now, and it’s time you learned the truth. Santa isn’t real.”

Nick looked affronted. “How can you, of all people, say Santa isn’t real?”

Brian knew what was coming and steeled himself, sucking in a deep breath. “Nick, please don’t bring my faith into this. Santa isn’t the same as God, okay? And it’s a historical fact that Jesus was a real person.”

“Jesus Christ, Brian, I’m not talking about freaking Jesus!” shouted Nick, managing to offend his friend all the same. “I’m talking about pandaskunks! Did you forget all about poor Patches the Flying Pandaskunk? I mean, if a mystical pandaskunk can take us into space for a magical Christmas adventure and save the world by blowing up an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, then why can’t Santa Claus be real? Seriously, dude, the whole Santa story is much less fucked up than the one we starred in two years ago! Are you gonna tell me you don’t believe in The Force anymore, either?”

Brian opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, as he realized that Nick had a point. “Huh,” he said, scratching his head. He quickly stopped when he saw a few of his precious, wispy curls float to Nick’s floor. “I guess you’re right. Maybe Santa Claus does exist.”

“Yes! He does exist, and right now, he’s in the hospital in Atlanta, suffering the same flu-like symptoms that make Nick Plague resemble Ebola in its early stages, and if I don’t get there soon to apologize and offer to help him out, then Christmas could be ruined!”

“Nick, Christmas is still three weeks away. I don’t think you need to start panicking yet, especially if it’s not actually Ebola.”

“Uh, yeah, so apparently, Nick Plague is nothing to mess around with. I did some research on Twitter while I was waiting for you to call me back, and while it doesn’t have the high fatality rates of Ebola, it’s way more contagious and can last up to a month! A month, Brian! Christmas is in three weeks! And if Santa’s quarantined, who’s going to supervise his workshop? And what if he’s not better by Christmas Eve? Who’s going to deliver all the presents? I’ve got to do something! I’ve got to make this right!”

Brian sighed. Nick was known to get overly passionate about things, but it had been a long time since Brian had seen him so worked up. “It’ll be okay, Nick. Hey, why don’t I go with you? We can figure this out together.”

Nick blinked in surprise. “Really? You’d do that? You’d go with me?”

“Well, you do need a place to stay in Atlanta, right?” Brian smiled and squeezed Nick’s shoulder again. “You bet, buddy. Why don’t you go get packed while I call Leighanne?”

“Heh, good luck with that,” said Nick as he walked away.

“Good luck? Why?” Brian called after him.

“Cause…” Nick stopped and smirked over his shoulder. “You’re about to call your clingy-ass wife, who doesn’t like to let you out of her sight, to tell her you’re flying back to Atlanta without her? And, to make matters worse, with me? Yeah… you’re gonna need it, bro.”