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As much as Brian hated to admit it, Nick had been right. Leighanne hadn’t reacted well to his call. “You want to what?!” she’d screeched, when he’d told her his plan. “Go back to Atlanta by yourself? Tonight? But… what about Baylee? He needs you!”

“Right now, Nick needs me more. Bay’ll be fine. Just keep running lines with him. I’ll call him before the audition tomorrow to tell him good luck.”

“I can’t believe you’re going to go off and leave your son on the eve of what might be his big break! And I thought we had dinner plans!”

“I’m sorry,” Brian had said. “I love you both.”

“Hmph! You have a funny way of showing it. I’m very disappointed in you, Husband.” Leighanne had hung up without a goodbye, but Brian wasn’t too worried. He knew she would come around, especially if he did manage to save Christmas again.

In the meantime, he and Nick flew back to Atlanta as planned and headed straight for Emory University Hospital. Brian had been there before to visit sick kids who were fighting cancer or facing heart surgery, but he didn’t exactly know the place like the back of his hand, and it wasn’t like the hospital directory was going to advertise the “Ebola wing.” He and Nick scanned it for several minutes as they tried to figure out where to go to find Santa. Finally, he spotted the words Infectious Disease. “There!” he said, pointing. “Infectious Disease Clinic. I bet he’s there.”

They found their way to the right floor, where they were faced with another obstacle: a pair of locked doors, with a sign that said ISOLATION UNIT: Only authorized personnel admitted beyond this point.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” asked the woman who was monitoring the doors from inside a small cubicle.

Brian and Nick looked at each other, wondering which of them would do the talking. When it came to younger women, no one could turn on the Backstreet charm better than Nick, but this woman looked too old to have been a fan even back in the day, which meant that it was up to Brian to convince her to let them in. He had a way with older women. A nod from Nick was all the encouragement he needed. Putting on his most irresistible smile, he stepped up to the glass partition.

“Good evening, ma’am,” he said, laying his Kentucky drawl on thick. “My name’s Brian Littrell. I’m a singer - with the Backstreet Boys?” He tried to sound humble, like he would never be so bold as to presume she knew who he was. “You might’ve seen me around the hospital before; I come here sometimes to sing to the patients.” The woman watched him coolly through the glass, not smiling. He could tell he wasn’t getting very far with her and decided to turn it up a notch. Time for the sob story, he decided. “You see, I’ve been in the hospital before - spent two months there as a child, actually - and I know how boring it can be, especially in a unit like this that’s… well…” He gestured to the sign on the door. “…isolated.”

He smiled. The receptionist blinked up at him.

Clearing his throat, he continued, “So, um, my friend Nick here - who’s also a Backstreet Boy - and I were wondering if we could sing some Christmas songs to the patients in here, hopefully cheer ‘em up some. Whaddya say?”

The woman arched her eyebrows. “You want to sing Christmas songs.”

“Yeah… like, you know…” Brian glanced at Nick and gave him a quick wink. Then he sucked in a deep breath and started to sing, in a perfect impression of Alvin the Chipmunk, “Christmas, Christmas, time is near…”

Grinning back at Brian, Nick joined in on the next line. “Time for toys and time for cheer…” His high-pitched chipmunk voice wasn’t as spot-on as Brian’s, but his harmony was impeccable.

Linking arms, they rocked from side to side as they sang together, “We’ve been good, but we can’t last. Hurry Christmas, hurry fast!”

Brian nodded at Nick to take the next line: “Want a plane that loops the loop…”

Nick pointed back at Brian to ham it up on Alvin’s solo: “Me, I want a hula hoop!”

“We can’t hardly stand the wait. Please, Christmas, don’t be late!”
they finished together.

Finally cracking a smile, the receptionist gave them a polite golf clap. “Alright,” she said, with the air of someone admitting defeat. “I suppose anyone who can harmonize like that should be allowed inside. The patients are going to love you two. But you’re going to have to gown up in protective garb: gowns, masks, hats, and gloves.”

The two men nodded seriously. “Whatever you need us to do.”

Once they were “gowned up” so that not an inch of skin was exposed, they were finally let in to the infectious disease unit. A nurse lead them into the room of a dying AIDS patient, where they sang another Christmas duet, then made a quick escape.

“Doesn’t this kinda creep you out?” Nick as Brian, as they slunk down the halls, peeking into windows in search of the white-bearded man they sought.

They passed a custodian who was singing morosely to herself as she mopped the floor. “Douse the halls with disinfectant. Fa-la-la-la-la… la-la-la-la! ‘Tis the season to contract Ebola-la-la-la… la-la-la-la! Don we now our masks and glo-oves. Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la! So we stay protected from Ebola-la-la-la… la-la-la-la!” Strains of the song followed them as they made their way down the hall.

Brian looked back at Nick. “Yeah, it’s a little creepy,” he admitted, “but I’m trying to be brave, like Patches. For Santa’s sake.”

“For Santa,” Nick agreed, smiling behind his mask. “You know, I feel like Darth Vader, all suited up like this. Luke… I am your father. Weird, I feel like I’ve made that joke before, like in some strange parallel universe or something.”

“Search your feelings,” said Brian. “You know it to be true.”

“Yeah, getting some serious déjà vu here. It’s like we’ve… HEY! IT’S HIM!” Nick tapped the glass window outside one of the rooms. Peering inside, they could both just barely see the patient’s bushy white beard over the top of his protuberant belly. “SANTA!!!”

“Shh!” Brian hissed. “Keep it down, or you’re gonna get us kicked out! Jeez, have a little self control, would ya?”

“Sorry, I just got excited for a second. C’mon, let’s go inside and see him!” Nick was like a little kid on Christmas. For a second, he’d almost forgotten the real reason they were there.

“You gonna sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas, too?” Brian rolled his eyes behind Nick’s back, but followed him into the room, where the eerie silence was broken only by the steady beep of a heart monitor.

Santa was lying absolutely still in the bed, his covers turned down, dressed in a pair of red pajamas. His pajama top was open, and underneath it, he was wearing a white shirt with a big red heart in the middle. Nick’s suspicions were confirmed when he recognized it as the crop top given out at all his VIP events the past tour. “Wow,” he said, wrinkling his nose at the sight of Santa’s silvery chest hair spilling out of the top of the shirt, his round belly bared by the bottom. “We should have really reconsidered handing out half-shirts, huh?”

“What?” Of course, Brian was clueless; it wasn’t like he had bothered to come to a show, not even the one in Atlanta.

Nick rolled his eyes. “Never mind.” He took a step forward, unable to tell if Santa was unconscious or merely asleep. “Santa?” he asked timidly, leaning over his bed. At the sound of his voice, Santa’s twinkly eyes fluttered open. “Santa, it’s me… Nick Carter.”

“Nick…” Santa croaked.

Brian stepped forward. “How are you, Santa?”

It took Santa’s groggy eyes a few seconds to focus on Brian’s face. “Brian…” he whispered. “Santa is… very sad…”

Brian and Nick exchanged stricken looks. Nick’s chin quivered, like he was about to cry.

“Ho, ho… ho!” Santa chuckled weakly, coughing in between. “Santa’s only kidding. The looks on your faces. Do I look so old to young eyes?”

They glanced at each other again, then quickly looked away. “No… of course not,” said Brian.

Santa smiled. “I do, yes, I do! I’ve become sick. Old and weak.”

“Santa, I’m so sorry!” Nick sobbed. “I’m sorry I got you sick! This is all my fault! I should really start washing my hands after I go to the bathroom!”

“Yes,” said Santa, pointing a gnarled finger at Nick, “Yes, you should. But not because of me. Do it because using the bathroom without washing your hands is gross and unhygienic. Do it because you want to stay healthy and live a long, fulfilling life. But just know that even if you reach nine hundred years old, you won’t look as good as me.”

He chuckled again at his little joke, but the effort cost him. He coughed long and deep, drawing air through labored breaths. “Soon I will rest. Yes… forever sleep. I’ve earned it.”

Brian’s eyes widened. “Santa Claus, you can’t die.”

“Santa, please!” Nick begged. “We’ve come to help you. What can we do to make it up to you?”

Santa took another shuddering breath. “You can deliver presents… to good little girls… and boys… around the… world…” It was getting harder and harder for him to speak. His words were cut off as he began to cough uncontrollably. The heart monitor began to beep faster.

Brian looked worriedly at Nick. “Should we call for someone?”

“No,” Santa gasped. “Wait!” He took a few more raspy breaths, and after a few seconds, the coughing fit subsided, and the heart monitor slowed.

“Santa,” Brian said, “we would love to deliver gifts for you, but how can we? We don’t have a sleigh… or flying reindeer…”

“Duh, Brian, we’ll just borrow his! You can make that happen, right, Santa? Just summon Rudolph and the rest on down from the North Pole. The elves can help, too, right?”

Slowly, Santa shook his head. “No… I’m s-sorry. The North Pole is… under quarantine. No living thing… is allowed to leave… not even the reindeer.”

“Then how are we supposed to fly swiftly and silently to the house of every good boy and girl on Christmas Eve?” Nick asked desperately. “We’ll never be able to do it without the flying reindeer!” He sank to his knees, burying his masked face in his gloved hands. The situation seemed hopeless.

“Nick…” Santa wheezed. “Niiiiick…”

Nick looked up, leaning closer to Santa’s bed.

“Nick…” Santa seemed to be struggling to stay awake. His eyes were drooping, and his voice was weaker than ever. Nick strained to hear him. “There is… another… p-panda… skunk…”

On the last syllable, Santa’s eyes lost their twinkle, as the lids slowly lowered over them. “Santa?!” cried Nick, searching his broad face. The features had relaxed, and he looked quite peaceful. But even so, Nick threw himself across Santa’s chest, sobbing, “Santa, NOOOOOO!!!”

“Nick… NICK!” Brian shook Nick’s shoulder. “Calm down, dude, he’s not dead! Look at the heart monitor. He must have just passed out.”

“Huh?” Nick looked up and saw the line on the heart monitor peaking and dipping at regular intervals, accompanied by a series of steady beeps. He realized that Santa’s chest was still rising and falling underneath him with every wheeze breath he took. “Oh.” Feeling embarrassed about his over-the-top reaction, Nick quickly scrambled off Santa and stood up straight. “So… um, now what?”

“He said there was another pandaskunk. We have to find it! If it’s a magical flying pandaskunk like Patches, it could pull Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas!”

“Okay, but how are we going to find this other pandaskunk?”

“Hm…” Brian perched on the edge of Santa’s bed to think. “I guess we’ll just have to wait for Santa to wake up so we can ask him.”

Nick cast a doubtful look in Santa’s direction. “What if he doesn’t wake up? I mean, he’s, like, old. Nine hundred years old, according to him. You know how Nick Plague wreaks havoc on the elderly.”

“Not really, but you have a point. We need to either find a cure for Nick Plague, or find this other pandaskunk on our own.”

“We’d probably have better luck curing bloody Nick Plague,” muttered Nick, raking a hand through his hair. “If only we… HEY!”

Brian stared at Nick. “What?”

Nick’s eyes were as round as cherries. “Blood! Antibodies! If I’m the host animal, like that monkey in Outbreak, then my blood must have antibodies that have made me immune to my own virus. That means my blood can be used to make an antidote!”

Brian’s eyes widened, too. “Dang, Nick… that actually sounded smart! Where did you learn about antibodies?”

“I dunno, probably some science article I tweeted about.” Nick shrugged. “Or maybe I’m just remembering it from the movie. But either way, we should tell someone so they can take a blood sample from me and get started! Come on, let’s-” But as Nick spun around, he smacked right into a nurse who had just walked into the room. “Oh, shit, sorry!” he apologized quickly.

The nurse looked from Nick to Brian, her eyes narrowing suspiciously behind her protective goggles. “Who are you?”

They looked at each other. “We’re, uh… from the Backstreet Boys?” Nick said awkwardly. “We came to sing Santa some Christmas songs.”

Frowning, she shook her head. “You two shouldn’t be in here.”

“We’ll go,” Brian said quickly. “C’mon, Nick.” He put his gloved hand on Nick’s shoulder and nudged him toward the door, but Nick dug his heels into the floor.

“Wait!” he cried. “Ma’am, I don’t think he has Ebola. I’m pretty sure he’s suffering from something called… Nick Plague.”

The nurse looked at him skeptically. “Nick Plague?”

“Please, I know it sounds crazy, but you’ve got to believe me! If he does have Nick Plague, then my blood probably has the antibodies you need to make an antidote! Here… take my blood!” Nick insisted, extending his arm.

“If you don’t leave this second, I’m going to have to call security.”

“Wait!” Brian cried, as the nurse reached for the phone. “Please don’t. We’ll get out of here right now, I promise. Come on, Nick.”

“Okay, we’ll go, but before we leave the hospital, could you please just take a blood sample from me? Just in case?” begged Nick.

The nurse sighed. “Fine. Come with me.” She took Nick by the wrist and led him out of the room, Brian following on their heels. “There’s a waiting area down the hall, just outside the unit,” the nurse told Brian, pointing him in the right direction. “Please wait there. I’ll bring your friend back when we’re all done.”

“O-okay. Um… thanks.” He walked slowly away, hoping the nurse would really bring Nick back after drawing his blood. What if she took him straight to the psych ward instead? What then? “I need you, Nick,” Brian whispered. “I can’t do it alone.”

“Nick will be back with you soon enough.”

The sound of a familiar voice caused Brian to look up, startled. “Patches?!” he gasped.

The pandaskunk was hovering several feet above the floor, its skunk-like tail shimmering in the fluorescent light. Brian realized he could see right through it.

“Oh no… first Nick starts ranting like maniac, and now I’m seeing ghosts?! If we’re not careful, we’re both going to end up spending Christmas in the psych ward!” Brian cried. “Aaaaand now I’m talking to myself. Awesome.”

“Actually, I prefer the word ‘spirit’ to ‘ghost,’” said Patches, a smile appearing on his furry, slightly translucent, panda face. Brian shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut, but when he opened them again, the flying pandaskunk was still there, though his smile had faded to a frown. “Aww, you’re not trying to will me away, are you? That makes me a saaaaad pandaskunk spirit.”

“I’m sorry, Patches, but… what are you doing here?”

Patches smiled again. “I’ve always been here,” he said softly, placing one of his paws close to Brian’s heart. Brian tried to cover it with his hand, but his fingers slipped right through Patches’ shimmering fur. “Not physically, of course,” he added gently. “Only in spirit.”

“But… why can I see you now, when I never could before?”

“Because your visit with Santa Claus left you with unanswered questions, did it not?” Patches gave him a knowing look.

Brian nodded. “He spoke of another.”

“The other he spoke of was my twin sister.”

Brian blinked. “You have a sister?”

The pandaskunk nodded. “In a matter of speaking. We aren’t related by blood, but we are the same rare breed, created by a mistake in the lab, a simple switch of sperm. You see, my skunk parents were having trouble conceiving, so they opted for artificial insemination, but instead of inseminating my mother with my father’s sperm, her egg was accidentally fertilized with panda sperm that had been collected as part of a panda breeding program. My father’s sperm was mistakenly sent to the San Diego Zoo, where it was used to inseminate a female panda named PopoZao. Like my mother, she eventually gave birth to a half-breed, a hybrid, part panda, part skunk. Unlike my mother, she survived, and so did her spawn. My... ‘sister,’ Petunia.”

“And where is this Petunia now?”

“Still in the same place where she’s spent her whole life: the San Diego Zoo. If you’re going to use her to pull Santa’s sleigh, you’ll need to free her from captivity first.”

“Wow…” Brian felt a sudden headache coming on. He closed his eyes, trying to sort out his jumbled thoughts. This whole mission was becoming a lot more complicated than it had seemed when he’d first agreed to fly back to Atlanta with Nick. “Well, hey… if I have to head back to California anyway, maybe I can help my son prepare for his audition after all, huh, Patches?”

There was no reply.

“Patches?” asked Brian. But when he opened his eyes, the pandaskunk was gone.

Nick came bounding back to him a few minutes later, unscathed except for a Band-aid covering a cotton ball in the crook of his arm. “Well, that sucked,” he complained. “You’d think that woman was trying to drill for oil instead of drawing my blood. ‘Quick prick,’ my ass!”

“Aww, and she didn’t even give you a sucker for being such a good boy?” Brian teased.

“No!” Nick pouted.

“Well, maybe this’ll make you feel better.” Brian could hardly contain himself. “While I was waiting, I saw Patches’ spirit! Or, rather, his spirit came to see me. I asked him about what Santa said, and he told me the craziest story.”

Nick raised his eyebrows. “Crazier than your story about being visited by the ghost of the Christmas Pandaskunk, you mean?”

“Yeah, now shut up and listen,” said Brian, and he started to tell Nick the story of the other pandaskunk.