Stacy frowned, furrowing her brow as she glanced around the corner behind the stage at the P*lace. Her heart thumped heavily against her ribs as she valiantly attempted to summon her courage. She was so lost in thought that she was nearly startled out of her skin when she heard another voice pipe up close by.
“Hey, Stace,” greeted her best friend, the Kid, as he sidled up beside her. “What’s up?”
He was slightly surprised when she didn’t respond, instead drawing a deep breath as she refocused her concentration across the way. Curious, he glanced in the same direction, only to notice their bandmate, Ryan, sitting on the steps in front of the stage. He was tooling around on his guitar, lost in his own world as he waited for the others to straggle into the P*lace for afternoon rehearsal.
The Kid lifted a brow as he turned back to his friend. “See something you like?” he intoned suggestively, bumping Stacy’s shoulder with his own.
“What?” she murmured, shaking her head slightly and blinking. She glanced back at him, a rosy red flush coating her cheeks. “Oh – hi, Kid.”
“Hi yourself,” he replied, his smile growing ever wider as he took in his best friend’s spacey expression. “What’s going on?”
Stacy blinked again. “What? Nothing! What makes you think anything’s going on? Nothing’s going on,” she babbled, clutching the curtain that separated the stage from the wings in a tight fist. She shot a furtive glance towards the stage steps again, pulling her lower lip between her teeth as she did so.
This time, both of the Kid’s eyebrows shot up. “Yeah, right,” he deadpanned. “Nothing’s going on. Uh-huh.” He paused, pursing his lips as he leveled an assessing study on her. “Then can I ask you a question?”
“What?” she asked distractedly.
“Why are you staring at Ryan?”
Stacy’s eyes fell, her fist clenching the curtain even tighter. The question hung in the air between them for a long moment, long enough for the Kid to lean back on his heels and cross his arms over his chest. “Because he’s going to notice, eventually,” he continued, “and he’s going to want to know why, too. So – spill it!”
Stacy opened her mouth, then closed it, chewing at the corners of her lips as she debated whether or not to share what was on her mind. Finally, she exhaled sharply. “You wouldn’t understand,” she sighed.
“And Ryan would?” the Kid yelped. “You wound me, Stace. How long have we been best friends? Face it, I know you, and…” He frowned, realizing her eyes had drifted back to the steps, and their bandmate. “I know this look.” His expression turned incredulous as he watched her watching Ryan. “You don’t – like him, do you?”
“No!” Stacy protested, though the blush that rapidly spread across her cheeks told him otherwise. “It’s not that! It’s just…” Her words trailed off as she heaved another heavy sigh, her expression forlorn as she gazed at her best friend again. “I need him to help me with something – only, he can’t know he’s helping me.”
“What?” The Kid frowned, resting his hand on Stacy’s shoulder. “Now you’re worrying me. Have you gotten yourself into something?”
Stacy looked sheepish as she lowered her eyes to the floor. “Sort of,” she admitted. “But it’s not my fault!”
The Kid gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Maybe you better start at the beginning,” he suggested, doing his best to appear patient, though he was deadly curious as to what she trouble she was in – and why she wanted Ryan’s help instead of his own.
Stacy looked up at him, her gaze solemn as she studied him for a moment. “Okay,” she assented, “but you have to promise you won’t laugh.”
“Promise,” the Kid replied, holding up three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
Stacy let go of the curtain, turning away from the stage completely and giving her friend her full attention. “Okay, so, we were having this conversation at lunch, right?” she began. “Gina, Andrea, Nicole, and me. Well, it was mostly them, actually – I was just listening.”
“Yeah?” the Kid prodded, gesturing for her to get to the point.
“Well…” Stacy twisted her hands. “They were talking about their first kisses.”
The Kid perked up. “Yeah?” He’d personally given two of those girls said kisses, and wondered what they’d said about it – and, possibly, him. “And?”
Stacy looked pained. “And – I’ve never been kissed.”
The Kid blinked. “So?” he questioned with a shrug.
“So?!” she echoed incredulously. “It’s embarrassing! I didn’t want to be the last one. I’ve always been the youngest, and the one who gets left out.” She sighed. “I didn’t want to be left out of this conversation.”
The Kid furrowed his brow. “Okay,” he replied slowly. “And Ryan fits into all of this…how, exactly?”
Stacy gave him an impatient look, planting her hands on her hips. “I need someone to kiss me,” she said firmly, “and, well, Ryan’s the only one.”
The Kid crossed his arms over his chest again. “How do you figure?” he asked, amused by this turn in her logic.
Stacy glanced at him skeptically. “What – do you want to kiss me?”
That gave the Kid pause. “Well, not really,” he admitted, tightening the brace of his arms. “But, I mean, I would, if it really meant that much to you.” He gave her a weak smile. “That’s what friends are for, right?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said softly, “and that’s exactly it. I appreciate the offer, Kid, but I’d kind of like it to be someone who might have feelings for me, beyond friendship.”
The Kid stifled a snort. “And you think Ryan does?”
“No!” Stacy flushed a deep red again, and the Kid had to admit, he liked that he could practically summon such a response on cue now. Stacy wasn’t a very good liar, and besides, he’d known her so long now that he could read her like a book. The more he thought about the idea, the more it made sense. Ryan was the oldest member of the group now, and he’d certainly learned how to turn on the charm in the last couple of months. Stacy was hardly the only girl nursing a crush on him.
“Look,” she was saying, “what other choice do I have? Kissing you would be like kissing my brother. Riley’s too old, and Richie’s too young. So that leaves Ryan…” Her words trailed off as she glanced in his direction again. “Who else could I ask? The boys at school would laugh at me if they knew, but he wouldn’t. At least, not to my face.”
“Are you kidding me?” the Kid replied, pulling Stacy’s attention back to him. “You’re one of the most popular girls in our class, Stace. I’m sure any of the guys at school would be more than happy to relieve you of this burden,” he reasoned.
“But don’t you see?” she protested. “That’s exactly why they would all laugh. How can I be one of the most popular girls in school, and I’ve never been kissed? Even the other girls at lunch today had just assumed I had been – only the bell ringing saved me from having to tell them otherwise.” A worried look passed over her features. “I don’t think I’ll be so lucky the next time that happens.”
The Kid looked at her doubtfully. Girls are weird, he thought to himself, if this is what they spend their time debating. Still, Stacy was his best friend, and who was he to stand idly by when his best friend was in need?
She was looking off in Ryan’s direction again, her expression a mixture of sadness and shy determination. “No,” she was saying, partly to him but mostly to herself, “it has to be Ryan. I just have to figure out a way to ask him.”
The Kid smiled broadly, looping his arm around Stacy’s shoulders. “Leave everything to me,” he said grandly.
The Kid wasted no time in pulling together a plan of attack. Operation First Kiss was set into motion the very next day, though it was almost derailed before it started. Ryan was a couple of grades ahead of his bandmates in school, and his schedule was almost completely different from the Kid’s, so it proved fairly difficult to track him down. The Kid didn’t give up, however, finally managing to catch up with him before the final period of the day.
Ryan was standing at his locker, focusing on the books that he was piling into his backpack. He furrowed his brow as he searched for one that appeared to be wedged in the back.
“Hey!” the Kid called as he approached. “Can we talk?”
Ryan glanced up, shooting him a friendly smile as he extracted the book. “Hey, Kid,” he greeted him, sliding the rest of his things into his bag. “This isn’t the best time. I’m on my way to an editorial meeting for the newspaper, and Renee will kill me if I’m late. Again,” he added sheepishly.
“Well, this won’t take long,” the Kid replied. “I just wanted some advice.”
Ryan considered him for a moment. “Okay,” he finally agreed, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. “If you can talk while we walk, then let’s go.” He closed the door to his locker and set off.
The Kid quickly fell into place beside him. “All right,” he began. “So I have this friend, and she has this problem.”
Ryan shot a wry glance in his direction. “Yeah?” he drawled with amusement.
“Yeah,” the Kid repeated sardonically. “You see, she really likes this guy, and she needs to ask him a pretty big favor, but she’s shy, especially around him.” He shrugged. “I’m not sure what to tell her, and I was wondering what you would do.”
The Kid congratulated himself for his cunning use of the hypothetical, especially when Ryan appeared to be seriously considering the awkward scenario. His plan was simple, really: plant the suggestion in Ryan’s head, and then massage the conversation in Stacy’s favor. If he played his cards right, he could drop some fairly heavy hints, and never have to say, outright, what was going on. Ryan was pretty sharp, and would quickly grasp just what the Kid was telling him. The way the Kid saw it, it was his mission to take as much of the discomfiture out of the situation as possible.
Besides, he kind of liked the idea of playing matchmaker.
“Well,” Ryan finally replied, looking quite thoughtful, “I’d probably just tell her to be direct. After all, you don’t really know what you can get until you ask for it.”
“That’s true,” the Kid conceded, “and that’s normally what I’d advise, but she’s really, really shy.” It can’t hurt to really play up that part, he considered silently. After all, this is a hypothetical…sort of. “And the favor she needs is a pretty big one.”
Ryan’s expression turned curious. “Oh yeah?” he mused. “What is it?”
This is it, the Kid thought, biting back a smile. “She wants this guy she likes to kiss her,” he said triumphantly.
Ryan stopped in his tracks. “Whoa,” he breathed, looking impressed. “That is a big favor – and not exactly one you can ask for outright.”
“Exactly,” the Kid agreed, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “So you can see her dilemma.” He rocked back on his heels, measuring his next words very carefully. “And – I was wondering if…maybe you could help her?”
“Me?” Ryan’s expression dissolved into surprise as he started walking once more. “What about you?”
The Kid shook his head. “She doesn’t want my help,” he replied.
The two walked in silence for a few moments, the Kid eyeing his companion closely. As they approached the newspaper office, understanding finally dawned across Ryan’s features. “Oh,” he intoned knowingly, “I get it now.”
He turned to the Kid with a broad smile. “I think I know the solution to your problem,” he announced.
“Yeah?” the Kid asked eagerly.
“Yeah,” Ryan replied. He leaned forward, his grin still wide, clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You should kiss her.”
The Kid’s smile froze on his face as he absorbed this highly unexpected answer. “Wait,” he sputtered, “what?!”
Ryan laughed. “Come on, isn’t it obvious?” he said. “I mean, okay – I know you’re pretty savvy, Kid, so I’m kinda surprised you didn’t see it before now. But let me guess. She couched it in these terms, too, right? ‘I have a friend who has a problem’?”
The Kid opened his mouth to protest, but Ryan barreled on, not giving him a chance to respond. “Trust me, she’s talking about you,” he assured him. “So, go for it! Sweep her off her feet. Make it the best kiss she’s ever had,” he advised.
The Kid could only stare at Ryan in disbelief. “That shouldn’t be too hard,” he muttered under his breath. How can you be so completely thick-headed? he wondered, shaking his head in absolute amazement.
Ryan grinned. “Glad I could help,” he replied grandly. He nodded towards the door to the school newspaper office. “Look, I’ve got to run, okay? Good luck with everything – and let me know how it goes!”
The Kid rolled his eyes. “Right,” he responded, shaking his head again as Ryan disappeared into the office. Idiot, he added silently.
Ryan couldn’t help but feel triumphant as he walked towards the P*lace that afternoon. He’d hit a home run in gym class that morning, then he’d received a completely unexpected A on his history test, and finally, he’d scored the front page feature for the next edition of the school newspaper. It had been one hell of a day, and he wanted to enjoy his good fortune while it lasted. Still…there was something niggling at the back of his mind, some little doubt that was throwing the rest of his amazing day off-kilter.
As he rounded the corner towards the P*lace, he spotted the Kid, gesturing avidly as he chatted with someone. Seeing him triggered the memory of their hasty conversation from a few hours before, at the end of school. Ryan slowed his step. Oh, that’s right, he thought to himself, the friend with the problem…
He frowned, ducking behind one of the pillars at the side of the P*lace, just out of view from the Kid and his companion, not wanting to intrude on such a private moment. Though, he considered, lifting a sardonic brow, if it really is supposed to be a private moment, why would they be having it in public?
It was another piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit. He’d known the Kid for awhile now, and felt like they were pretty good friends – so when he’d reacted with astonishment instead of understanding to the conclusion of their earlier conversation, it had given Ryan pause. Maybe he hadn’t given the Kid enough credit – he’d certainly had his share of girlfriends before, so he was obviously pretty perceptive when it came to girls. Was it possible that his ‘friend’ was, indeed, just exactly that – a friend?
“…and that’s what happened,” the Kid was saying, heaving a sigh. “I’m sorry, Stace.”
‘Stace’?! Ryan’s eyes widened as he inadvertently eavesdropped on the Kid’s conversation. He’s talking to Stacy? Wait a minute – is she the friend? He knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t resist peeking around the corner. Stacy was his friend, too, after all. He racked his brain, trying to remember what the Kid had said the problem was.
“Great, that’s just great!” Stacy wailed, the frustration in her voice hitting a helpless note that made the Kid – and Ryan – wince. “At this rate, I’m never going to be kissed!”
Ryan lifted a brow at this confirmation of his memory. She’s worried about being kissed? he thought to himself. But why?
“I never should’ve told you,” she continued, sounding as if she was growing more upset with each passing moment. “I haven’t even talked to Renee about this yet, and now Ryan knows. Ugh, what a mess!”
What do I know? Ryan wondered, his curiosity piqued now that his name had officially entered the conversation. He pushed aside the guilt he felt over listening in, inching closer to the corner to get a better look at the pair of them. Stacy was standing next to the double glass doors, her arms wrapped tightly around herself as she trained her eyes to the ground, looking just as forlorn as she sounded. The Kid was standing in front of her, his hands resting on his hips, the picture of sympathy.
“Believe me, Ryan doesn’t know,” he was saying, shaking his head. “He doesn’t have a clue.”
Ryan smiled wryly. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to know? He was finding the conversation rather hard to follow.
The Kid shrugged. “I just don’t get it, Stace,” he admitted. “Kissing – well, it’s just not a big deal. Really.”
“Maybe not,” Stacy sighed, “but being kissed is.”
The Kid frowned. “I hate how much this is bothering you, Stacy,” he remarked. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to help?”
Ryan watched Stacy carefully as she considered the Kid’s question. “We-ell,” she responded after a long moment, “Gina and Nicole did rave about your technique…”
The Kid preened. “What can I say?” he exclaimed with a wide smile. “They obviously have great taste.”
“Oh, obviously,” Stacy teased. Her expression sobered in the next moment, and suddenly Ryan felt as uncomfortable as the two of them looked, each shifting their weight from foot to foot.
“Well,” Stacy said again, averting her eyes to the sidewalk.
“It would get it out of the way,” the Kid reasoned uncertainly, his gaze shifting upward.
Stacy nodded once, bracing herself. “Before I change my mind?” she blurted out, squeezing her eyes shut.
The Kid complied, leaning close, and pressing the fastest kiss against his best friend’s mouth that Ryan had ever witnessed. The two of them leapt apart the second it was over, opening their eyes and wearing identical expressions.
“Wow,” Stacy said, her voice strangely neutral.
“Wow,” the Kid echoed, his tone similarly deadpan.
“That…really was like kissing my brother,” Stacy continued after a moment. She lifted her hand, pressing her fingertips lightly against her lips, as if she expected to feel different, now that it had happened.
The Kid nodded numbly. “Yeah,” he said, plastering a smile across his features. “But – well, look at the bright side. At least now you’ve been kissed?”
Stacy shrugged. “I guess,” she replied doubtfully, trying her best to hide her disappointment.
The Kid reached out and gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “C’mon,” he said, “I’ll buy you a malted.”
Stacy nodded silently, her hand falling away from her mouth as the two of them entered the P*lace. When they cleared the double glass doors, Ryan emerged from the shadows of the building, his expression thoughtful as he gazed after his friends.
A few nights later, the members of Kids Inc gathered in the store room at the back of the P*lace, hustling about to put the last minute touches on their performance outfits – and trying to squeeze in some last-minute practice. Richie sat at the big table in the middle of the room, tapping out his part to their first number with his drumsticks. Connie sat beside him, studying sheet music and humming along. The Kid had busied himself in front of one of the vanities; Stacy had positioned herself across the room at the other, toying with her lipstick while her sister brushed her hair. Ryan stood close to the door, quietly observing them all as he tuned his guitar.
It had certainly been an interesting couple of days.
Ever since their impromptu kiss, Stacy and the Kid had been studiously avoiding each other. They weren’t hostile towards each other, or indeed, any sort of emotional at all. It was as if the one didn’t even exist to the other, and it made for awkward rehearsals – not to mention performances. If Ryan hadn’t been aware of what was going on, he would’ve been just as worried as Renee appeared to be, hovering over Stacy like a mother hen.
“Stacy,” Renee tried again as she brushed her sister’s hair, “are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m sure,” Stacy insisted, picking up a tissue to blot the excess of her lipstick.
Renee frowned, casting a furtive look across the room at the Kid. “You two aren’t having a fight, are you?”
Stacy heaved a deep sigh, and even from his place by the door, Ryan could see that her patience was wearing thin. “No,” she reiterated for what had to be the millionth time. “We’re not having a fight. I’m not mad at him, and he’s not mad at me.” She glanced up in the mirror, catching her sister’s skeptical expression. “Nothing’s wrong, okay? Just – please, Renee, leave it alone.” She lowered her eyes once more as she reached back, taking the brush from Renee’s hands.
Renee threw another helpless glance in the Kid’s direction, frowning fiercely as she debated what to do. Finally, she pressed her hands to her sides, stalking across the room to where Ryan stood. “Something’s going on with those two,” she said, her voice low and full of determination, “and I intend to find out what.”
Ryan leveled a measured gaze at her as he tightened a tuning peg. “Maybe you should just leave it alone,” he advised. “Let them work it out.”
Renee’s mouth dropped open in protest, but before she could speak, Riley poked his head into the room. “Three minutes, guys,” he informed them, twirling a dishtowel in his hands.
Renee gave Ryan a mutinous glare before following Riley out the door, Connie and Richie quick on her heels. Ryan sighed, shrugging away Renee’s concern and its accompanying friction. Their friendship hadn’t been the same since the whole school newspaper editor fiasco, and she was still a little miffed that he’d won the front page feature story over her at the last editorial meeting. Attempting to co-lead the band with someone as strong-willed as her was challenging, to say the least.
Not that he didn’t understand Renee’s worry over her younger sister. Quite the opposite, in fact – he’d been rather concerned about Stacy himself of late. It hadn’t taken much to drag the whole, sorry story out of the Kid, and that, along with the scene he’d witnessed outside the P*lace a couple of days before, had played on a loop at the back of his mind, as he struggled to decide what he could do about it.
He found himself in an awkward position – on the one hand, he was flattered that Stacy apparently held him in such high esteem, though said flattery was accompanied by a hefty dose of surprise. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense, though: how quiet she’d been around him, how she seemed to close herself off, the shy smiles and rosy cheeks whenever he talked to her…
On the other hand, he felt guilty for giving the Kid such bad advice, even if it was with the best of intentions. He wished more than anything in the world that he’d never eavesdropped on their conversation, or seen their kiss – if anything, he only felt worse, for having witnessed the exact moment their friendship had forever changed. And there was no doubt about that – those two, thick as thieves since the age of eight, could barely stand to be in the same room anymore.
He had to do something – but what?
The Kid stood at that moment, the legs of his chair scraping against the floor and bringing Ryan back to the present. The Kid turned, his expression carefully controlled, his eyes pinned to the door as he walked from the room. Ryan gave him a supportive pat on the shoulder as he passed, and the Kid cut his eyes in his friend’s direction, his expression softening for a fleeting moment. They exchanged a silent, loaded look before the Kid walked out of the room.
As if on cue, Stacy stood up then, and Ryan marveled at how much they were still attuned to each other, even when they were in avoidance mode instead of friendship mode. She put down her hairbrush, gave her makeup one last look, and turned for the door. Her eyes widened when she noticed that Ryan was still standing there, twin hints of color deepening in her cheeks, and suddenly, it all became crystal clear just what his decision was going to be.
Stacy hesitated before she crossed the room, looking everywhere but at him as she headed for the door. When she was within reach, he made his move. “Stace, wait,” Ryan murmured, taking her arm. He led her through the doorway, but blocked her path to the stage, letting go of his guitar as he reached for her instead, curling his fingers into her hair. She looked up at him then, and he caught her expression in the diffused light from the store room – her eyes were wide, her lips parting slightly as he leaned into her, capturing her mouth with his.
He felt the wave of surprised that washed over her at the unexpected caress – it was the same one that coursed through him a moment later when her arms slid around his shoulders, her hands meeting behind his neck and sinking into his hair. Without thinking, he drew her closer, tilting her head slightly to find the better angle, urging her lips apart in order to deepen the kiss. His intention was to be gentle, firm, and sweet, but now that he was here – in the moment – he was rapidly losing the plot.
He pulled away before he was tempted any further, his hands slipping down to her shoulders, and he gave her a warm, reassuring squeeze. She was breathing heavily, her eyes still wide with surprise and wonder as she gazed up at him.
It took her a moment to find her voice. “What – what was that?” she whispered, her hands still warm around his neck.
He smiled lightly, lifting one hand to touch the side of her face. “That,” he replied softly, tracing his thumb over the crest of her cheek, “was a real first kiss.”
A slow smile curved up the corners of Stacy’s mouth. She tightened her arms around him, pressing herself against him as close as she could, considering the guitar still looped around his shoulder. “I don’t know how you knew,” she whispered, her breath warm against the shell of his ear as he closed his arms around her waist, “but thank you.”