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Stacy in Bloom

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.1.
“Don’t You Forget About Me”

Tell me your troubles and doubts
Give me everything, inside and out
Love’s strange / so real in the dark
Think of the tender things that we were working on

© 1984 Keith Forsey, Steve Schiff, & Simple Minds

~*~

Stacy settled at one of the stone tables in the park, crossing her feet at the ankle as she pulled out a clothbound book. She couldn’t contain her sigh as she flipped through it, the sight of the familiar handwriting causing tears to well up behind her eyes. Of all the times for Renee to leave, she thought morosely. Did it have to be now, when I need her the most?

Line after line of neatly printed poetry leapt up from the page. It had always been her sister’s dream to stay with their cousin Samantha in England, a stone’s throw away from Oxford and its prestigious colleges. She certainly had the talent and skill to be accepted into a program there, too, once she finished high school. So, in a way, Stacy couldn’t blame her for jumping at the chance to move one step closer to her ultimate goal. Still, there was something to be said for timing – and this turn of events couldn’t have come at a worse moment, as far as Stacy was concerned.

She’d always felt a little hesitant about starting high school – she’d long been the youngest of all her friends, lagging behind by whole grades in some cases, so she was acutely aware of the fact that only a precious few of them would still be around when she finally made her debut there. Now, over the course of four weeks, two of those closest friends had moved oceans away, and as a result, she felt more alone than ever.

So much had changed over the summer. Not only had Renee been busy packing for her dream trip to England, but the Kid – her absolute best friend in the entire world – was off to Africa on student exchange. It had been hard enough losing Gloria from the band, but now? It had almost been too much to bear, the idea of finding more new talent to fill the ranks of Kids Incorporated. Stacy could hardly believe she was now the second oldest member of the P*lace house band. She’d always been the baby, the youngest, the one who was coddled and sheltered – but now, with the rapid loss of three of the four older kids in just a few months’ time, she felt totally out of sorts trying to assume one of their roles.

Mercifully, she wasn’t yet the real leader of the band. Even with Gloria, Renee, and the Kid gone, that still left –

“Hey, Stace!”

Ryan.

Stacy glanced up, unable to stop the tiny smile curling the corners of her lips as she spotted him across the way, waving excitedly to her. His grin was as big as his stride as he approached, folding his lanky body onto the bench across from her before she could blink. “I just got a postcard from Gloria,” he said excitedly, dropping his bag on the table. “Wanna see?”

“Sure,” she managed to choke out, ducking her head behind her own pile of books as she took the postcard from him. She could only hope that her face wasn’t as red as it felt. He was now a senior at the high school, and his reputation as a stand-up guy largely preceded him. He’d mellowed out quite a bit in the five years that she’d known him, his friendly smile and steady demeanor drawing others to him like bees to honey. He was smart, athletic, musically gifted…and sometime over the last year, had blossomed into his looks as well. Half the kids who came to watch their shows were adoring girls with eyes only for him.

The fact that she was rapidly joining that number made Stacy long for the comfort of her sister – and the companionship of the Kid – even more.

“Gloria must really love being at school,” she said wistfully, tracing her fingers over the image of the conservatory printed on the back of the card.

Ryan nodded. “She said she’s training in opera now,” he said, tapping the card with his finger, indicating that Stacy should turn it over and read the message. “Can you believe that?”

She giggled. “I find it hard to imagine Gloria singing opera,” she agreed. The Latina was vivacious and energetic, the exact opposite of the formal and staid nature of the genre. She quickly scanned the note. “It’s certainly not the same without her.”

“Yeah,” Ryan sighed. “Even though the new kids are great, the dynamic is just – different.”

Stacy found the courage to glance up at him again, quirking a brow. “Good different, or bad different?” It seemed too much to hope for, to share this same hesitancy about all these changes with someone else…

He shrugged. “Different different,” he replied. “No one can ever really replace Gloria, or Renee, or the Kid – or all those years we had together as a band. So, we don’t try to – we just do the best we can, with what we have now.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, though somewhat reluctantly. Could she really have expected him to say otherwise? He was the de facto leader of Kids Incorporated, the very backbone of the band. The others followed him without question – well, most of the time, anyway. And, she had to admit, he’d done a damn fine job of meshing together all their disparate styles into a quite pleasing sound. If the size of their audience was anything to go by, Kids Incorporated had weathered cast changes with relative ease.

“Speaking of former members,” Ryan continued, bringing Stacy out of her reverie, “have you heard from Renee or the Kid lately?”

She dropped one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I talked to Renee on the phone last weekend,” she told him. “She’s settling into life over there pretty easily, what with Cousin Samantha there to show her around. I couldn’t get her to stop talking about poetry, or prose, or whatever it is that Shakespeare wrote in – ”

“Iambic pentameter?” Ryan teased, interrupting her train of thought.

She flushed. “Whatever,” she mumbled, lowering her eyes to Renee’s writing journal again. English wasn’t exactly her strong suit. “As for the Kid…well, I guess it takes a while for mail to reach Africa, period. He promised he’d write me…” She trailed off, chewing on her lower lip.

“And he will,” Ryan assured her, reaching for the hand that was lying across the journal and giving it a quick squeeze. “I’m sure he misses us just as much as we miss him.”

At that moment, her mind couldn’t be further from thoughts of her effervescent friend as she stared down at their joined hands, Ryan’s last words tumbling around in her brain. ‘Us’? ‘We’? Her heart gained traction in her chest. His fingers were long and slender, curling over her closed fist in perfect measure. She liked that he didn’t let go right away, but at the same time, it made her wonder why he was lingering. Could it possibly be – ?

Oh, get a grip, Stacy, she reprimanded herself silently. He’s seventeen to your fourteen, and there is a line of girls a mile long that he’d consider dating before you. She blinked. Waitaminute – dating?! This is Ryan we’re talking about here, the same dork you’ve known since you were nine years old. He’s just being considerate, that’s all.

Really, really considerate…

“Earth to Stacy, Earth to Stacy – !”

Another flush stole across the back of her neck as she registered the smirk on his lips and the teasing glint in his eye. “Come in, Stace, let me know you’re still here and not circling the clouds…!”

She pulled out of his grasp. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “What were you saying?”

His smile waned. “I was asking you about the songs we should go over in rehearsal this afternoon, and how you think the Saturday set should shape up. How confident are you feeling about the guitar part from ‘Who Will You Run To’?”

“I – I think I need more practice, don’t you?” she replied, still a bit distracted by the warmth that lingered on the back of her hand from his touch. “It’s the first time I’ll be singing lead and playing lead.”

He frowned as he continued to study her, his assessing gaze almost unnerving in its intensity. “Is everything okay, Stacy? I know it’s been tougher for you than any of the rest of us, what with starting a new school and all… Is something else weighing on your mind that you maybe wanna talk about?”

“Well…” She hesitated, but figured he had the right to know. “There’s this assignment in English that’s kinda getting me down. We’re supposed to write a daily journal, and use one of the entries to write a short story for the midterm.”

“Ahhh.” Ryan nodded sagely. “I remember that assignment. Mr. Moritz?”

Stacy nodded before throwing up her hands. “I have no idea where to even begin. I was hoping that maybe looking through some of Renee’s old notebooks would give me inspiration, but…” She shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Don’t sweat it, Stace,” he replied. “Just start with the daily assignments. He still gives prompts for those, right?”

She nodded.

“Your response doesn’t have to be anything major. Just write whatever comes to mind,” he advised her. “After a few days, just look back over your entries – you never know what might ultimately inspire you.”

“I don’t know, Ryan,” she hedged. “This has always been more my sister’s thing than mine.”

He graced her with a patient smile. “And if Renee was sitting here instead of me, would she tell you anything different than what I already have?” he challenged gently. Before she could respond, he barreled on, pushing a hand through the thatch of black hair falling over his brow. “If it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll dig up my old assignment from that class and let you look through it, how’s that? I mean, this doesn’t have to be a masterpiece or anything.”

“Spoken like someone without a big sister like Renee,” Stacy muttered good-naturedly. “I’ll never be able to top what she’s done.”

“So don’t try to,” he responded with an encouraging smile. “Your friends already know you as someone other than Renee’s little sister – give your teachers the same chance.”

At that moment, Stacy couldn’t help but wonder – what did he see her as, beyond Renee’s little sister? Fellow bandmate? Friend? She pushed the thought down almost as soon as she realized it had floated, unbidden, into her mind. We are friends, she reminded herself. And, now that we’re suddenly the leaders of Kids Incorporated, maybe we’ll become even better friends than we were before.

And anything beyond that…?

“Ryan!”

Whatever moment was brewing between them was suddenly broken, as both turned to see a tall, thin girl with long, dark hair rapidly approaching their table. “Oh, Ryan, can I speak with you for a moment?” she asked breathlessly, dropping a gorgeous smile on him almost as soon as she arrived.

“Sure,” he returned, with equal pleasure, before turning to Stacy once more. “I’ll see you later, at rehearsal?”

“Right,” Stacy nodded, standing abruptly and gathering her books. Here was that epic Ryan charm, about to work its magic on another beautiful classmate. She turned blindly, taking a wide step to clear the bench, none too keen to watch this girl flit and flirt around him. He was still Ryan, after all, the same kid who had spent most of his first year in town playing the tough punk, trying to impress everyone who crossed his path.

Sometimes old habits die hard – and now, that sort of rough and tumble charm probably landed him more dates than he had days of the week.

She cast a glance over her shoulder as she left the park, but almost immediately, she regretted it – whoever she was, it was clear to one and all he had eyes only for her, this dark-haired beauty. Stacy frowned. She was much more used to being the center of her own whirlwind, not on the outside looking in. But with her best friend and only sister gone to far-flung parts of the globe, is this what she had to look forward to?

Could she really count on Ryan to fulfill those roles left behind by their former bandmates?

Did she even want him to try?

Her heart was heavy as she turned towards downtown, heading for the band’s rehearsal space at the Garage, across from the P*lace. Only time would tell what was to come in her future – and luckily (or, perhaps, unluckily) for her, it was worth half her English grade this semester to chronicle the journey.

Chapter Text


.2.
“Time After Time”

Watching through windows
You’re wondering if I’m okay
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time…

© 1984 Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman

~*~

“That was awesome,” Ryan declared as the band brought another song to an end. The others looked over at him gratefully, if not quite convinced that the praise was warranted. He understood; it had been a long day already, an hour and a half into rehearsal after a full day of school. He’d long ago fallen into this role of cheerleader, however, trying to keep the enthusiasm rolling and the encouragement flowing.

“Can we take a break?” Devyn sighed, wiping her forehead with her sleeve. The Garage, though certainly spacious enough to house the group, their practice equipment, and even a corner for their dancers to rehearse, wasn’t exactly well-ventilated. “I’m dying for a malted.”

Ryan quirked a brow. “Do you think you could hold off on death for another three minutes or so? We’ve got one song left to play through – ”

He was interrupted by a chorus of groans, but he took it all in stride. “Come on, guys, it’s been on the slate forever and we keep putting it off,” he cajoled. “I think it’d be a great one to kick off our new Saturday night concert series with.”

“Okay, okay, okay, if it’ll get us to those malteds faster,” Kenny relented. “What is it?”

Ryan picked up a stack of sheet music from the top of the old pink-and-purple piano, keeping a copy for himself before passing it around. “Not that I think you guys will need it, but…”

Richie gave a whoop as the stack passed by his drum set. “All right!” he cried. “I’ve been wondering about this one!”

Even Devyn grinned. “My audition,” she breathed, curling the sheet music in her hands while simultaneously turning awestruck eyes at Ryan. “You think its good enough for a Saturday?”

The weekend concerts were always a bit more special, more pulled together than the afternoon sets at the P*lace. The band members wore matching outfits, had special stage effects, and played a themed set list. It was a step closer to a true real concert experience, in comparison to the lighter, more relaxed atmosphere of the weekday shows.

“I do,” Ryan confirmed, returning her smile before turning his attention to the dancers’ space. “Hey Brian,” he called, catching the blond boy’s attention. “Have you guys picked choreography for ‘Here to Stay’?”

“We have,” the lead dancer confirmed, though with a rather annoyed air about him as he gathered his troupe. “And by the way, thanks for bringing us a new recruit at such short notice!”

“I told ya she’d be a quick study,” Ryan returned swiftly, his tone full of sweet sarcasm. This was Brian’s first year as head choreographer, and it was obvious he felt more than a little territorial over his group. With one final, wary glance at them, he turned his attention back to his bandmates.

“All right,” Ryan said, grabbing the neck of his guitar and stepping out front, turning to face the band so that he could gauge the full effect of the number. Kenny and Connie were also holding instruments, while the others had grabbed mics. The dancers took their starting positions as well, intermingled with the singers. All were waiting for his cue. “Let’s do this!”

Richie counted off, and the band launched into the high-energy dance hit. Though it had been Devyn’s audition piece, all of the singers took parts now, which was why it had become one of Ryan’s favorites – and why he was anxious to have it on the Saturday set list. This incarnation of the band had only been performing together for a few weeks, and all during summer, when they only played daily afternoon sets. This would be their first “concert” together as a group, and Ryan thought it important that they pull out a big ensemble piece to begin with, a way to officially usher in the new lineup.

Rehearsing the song was having a more immediate effect at the moment, just as he’d anticipated – it had energized his friends, who were beginning to sing louder and move more precisely as their fatigue slipped away. Stacy had the first bridge of the song, and was busy watching Brian and Dee for cues of the choreography as the three moved in sync across and in front of the others.

“Hold on / hold on / can’t you see what’s going on?” she sang, the boys flanking her and moving with the beat of the music. The three pivoted, forming a conga-style line, their hands falling onto the waist of the person in front of them, and they dipped their hips in short, low circles alongside the staccato rhythm. “Hold on / hold on / don’t let it slip away!”

Ryan’s eyebrows shot up at the risqué move, but he rolled with it, watching as the boys immediately pirouetted away. Devyn moved center stage then, surrounded by the girls – Gina, Nicole, and the newbie, Kimberly – and the four were in the midst of a complicated, synchronized routine. As the girls fanned out, the boys slid into their positions, one on either side of Devyn, before jumping up and bending at the waist, one hand on a hip and the other flung up in the air behind them. It was quite impressive, really, but then – Brian had a flair for mixing modern dance with classical ballet.

The dancers angled off then, Connie and Kenny commanding center stage as the reprise lyrics started. Stacy emerged between them, in the middle, while Devyn took one flank – Ryan noted his position on the other for the actual performance – to finish the song. “We’re here to stay / no one can take us away,” crooned the girls, while the boys picked up the backbeat: “Keep holding on / can’t stop us now.” Stacy, Devyn, and the dancers – now behind the band – did the same swinging hip move from before; the others, holding instruments, wouldn’t be able to.

The group finished with a natural flourish; his friends let out little shrieks of delight, satisfying sounds to Ryan’s ears. He liked leaving off on high-energy numbers for just that reason: adrenaline coursing through their bodies would make them much more likely to return for another hour or two of work after the standard fifteen-minute break.

“I think we’ve earned those malteds,” Kenny huffed, turning with a big grin to slap hands with best friend Devyn. “I’ll race ya to the P*lace!”

“You’re on!” she laughed, the two taking off and leading the rush out the door and across the street.

“Hey, Brian,” Ryan called, grabbing his co-leader’s attention as his dancers followed the band members. “About the choreography….”

The blond boy grinned knowingly. “Let me guess,” he proposed, crossing his arms over his chest, “tone it down?” He lifted his chin, his expression superior, as if he was spoiling for a fight. This wasn’t the first time they’d had a variation on this conversation – and, Ryan suspected, it wouldn’t be the last.

“It’s just a bit…suggestive for a middle-school audience,” he hedged, his tone somewhere between irritation and deference. He wasn’t the sort that sought out confrontation, much preferring to play diplomat where he could. “Maybe you and Dee could do without touching the girls so much?”

Brian lifted a brow, but seemed to think better of challenging him directly. “All right, Captain Prude,” he replied. “But if you want me to tone it down with my dance moves? Maybe you shouldn’t pick such suggestive numbers.” He shrugged. “Or, you know, you could always just mind your own business.” With that, he trotted off after the others, leaving Ryan alone in the practice space.

Ryan frowned, his brows knitting together as he contemplated Brian’s final words. He didn’t think he had been overstepping his boundaries in offering Kimberly an audition with the dancers; after all, she’d asked him because she knew he was the de facto leader of the group. He made a mental note to refer all future potential dancers to Brian, hoping that would be enough to nip that burgeoning problem in the bud – goodness knows he didn’t have a shortage of such niggling issues to deal with already.

But, something else had caught him off guard as well. He’d been called a lot of things in his time – including “bossy,” “pushy,” and “know-it-all” – but “prude”? That was new. Though, really, it had never really been his concern to worry about the image that Kids Incorporated was projecting to its audience. After all, there were always older members of the group to keep things in order, if necessary.

Plus, he contended, there hadn’t been nearly as much upset in the ranks of the dancers over the last couple of years as there had been in the line-up of musicians. It was only natural, he suspected, for Brian and the others not to see the problem with exploring flashier, riskier dance moves, because they were used to everyone in their squad being the same age – and interested in the same things – as themselves.

Sometimes Ryan wondered if he was the only one of the lot who looked out over their afternoon audiences, only to see a sea of ever-younger faces staring back.

It was something that had been bothering him more than he cared to admit lately.

He shrugged, walking back across the room to where his guitar was plugged in. He sat down on the amp, plugging in a pair of nearby headphones and shuffling through the papers on his music stand. Between school, college applications, the band, and fall workouts with the baseball team, he had little time to work on his own music. He missed these few, quiet, precious moments, just him and his guitar and the melody that manifested in his mind.

His eyes slipped shut as his fingers found familiar frets, sliding across the coiled steel strings in a haunting refrain, darker than the usual Kids Incorporated fare. In what little spare time he had, he tuned his radio to punk rock from the late 60s and early 70s. He liked the way it transitioned into the realm of the experimental, the way simple chords became minor keys, mixing with off-kilter time signatures to become something almost bizarre, and yet, strangely intoxicating all the same. It was music meant to challenge the listener, not only with its lyrics but with its very timbre, tone, and structure.

It was music that pulled at something deep inside him, that inspired him to write, to play, to analyze and examine.

As much as he enjoyed playing with Kids Incorporated, he felt stifled by it at the same time. Their standard fare consisted mostly of pop music covers, the sort of extremely catchy but ultimately mindless fluff that played well to a young audience. It was trickier to pick songs now that the vocal – and musical – composition of the group had changed.

Richie, their cheerful and charming drummer, possessed a beautiful voice, but he much preferred to stay behind the scenes. He constantly conceded solo parts; it was hard enough getting him to take a verse or chorus during one of the ensemble pieces. He had been recruited at the same time as Connie, the youngest member of the group. She had auditioned with a Madonna song, and usually took the lead when one of the Material Girl’s numbers made it to the slate. She had also shown interest in learning how to play an instrument, which Ryan encouraged at every turn.

The two newest members of the band, Kenny and Devyn, were each quite talented in their own right. The two had been partners for years before joining Kids Incorporated, mostly plying their trade in the school yard or on street corners. Kenny could hit Michael Jackson’s high notes almost as well as the Kid, the singer he’d replaced. Devyn had the ideal voice for a pop princess, and could produce pitch-perfect harmony on a Motown classic, or project the innocence of Debbie Gibson or Tiffany on a solo. Musically, she was likely the second-strongest vocalist of the group, after Stacy.

The pretty blonde had stepped into Gloria’s shoes as lead singer with aplomb, carrying hits from Taylor Dayne to Whitney Houston to everyone in between. Her voice had gained a seductive strength as she matured; it could be belted out or whispered quietly with equal ability and control. In the last year or two, she’d taken an interest in instrumentation as well, experimenting with everything from guitar to steel drums in an effort to help him and the others out on that score.

For his part, Ryan was hardly ever without his guitar on stage; it might as well have been an extension of his body by this point. His voice fell into a range between Kenny’s high tenor and Richie’s smooth baritone, which meant he found himself singing lead, or partnering in a duet, more often than not of late. He preferred songs with a little grit, covers from bands like Bon Jovi and Foreigner, when it came to choosing his own numbers. These types of songs came closest to his originals, exploiting the best features of his voice and playing ability.

Such choices were a necessary evil, as most of his free time these days was spent working on things for the band – vetting songs, learning stagecraft, giving lessons – and it was beginning to wear on him. He’d taken up baseball for the sheer chance to get away from it all, to be a part of a team instead of the leader, to have someone else hold cheering duties for a change. As much as he enjoyed performing with his friends, he wanted more time to write and sing his own songs. Music wasn’t just something he was good at – it was the way he expressed himself. His biggest dream was to get into Juilliard on a music scholarship, and he couldn’t help but wonder how much – if at all – his presence in Kids Incorporated was holding him back.

“That’s beautiful,” ventured a quiet voice, breaking into his reverie.

He opened his eyes, his gaze rising to find Stacy standing in front of him. He felt a jolt of surprise at her presence, but quickly recovered himself, pushing the headphones off his ears. “Thanks,” he replied with a soft smile. “So’s my inspiration.”

He missed the flush that colored her cheeks, busy scratching down a few notes on the variation of the melodic line. She thrust one hand forward, offering him one of the two sodas she held. “I thought you might be thirsty, too,” she said sheepishly.

“Thanks, Stace,” he replied, glancing up at her gratefully as he took a sip. “You didn’t have to do that.”

She shrugged. “I know, but you’re always taking care of us.” She downed a bit of her own drink, her eyes wandering to his music stand at the same time.

He eyed her carefully. He knew that if he was patient enough, she’d get around to the real reason why she’d returned so early. Stacy had many endearing traits, but punctuality was decidedly not one of them.

Mercifully, she didn’t make him wait that long. “I was wondering if you’d go through ‘Who Will You Run To’ with me again? One-on-one?” she blurted out in a rush, almost as if she expected him to decline.

“Sure, Stace,” he replied, giving her his best encouraging look. He scooted over to give her sitting space beside him on the amp. “Pull up a guitar and stay awhile.”

Her expression melted into a grin as she set down her soda and picked up the band’s communal pink guitar. Ryan switched the cord for his headphones with one for her instrument and pulled the music stand close, between them, before laying out the sheet music. The two sat side by side, straddling the amp, almost mirror images of one another.

“I’ll play you in,” he said, to which she nodded, poised at the ready with her left hand already forming the first chord. He struck the first note of the rhythm line and she followed, hesitant at first, but quickly gaining confidence.

“You’re not sure what you want to do with your life,” she sang, “but you sure don’t want me in it…”

Ryan listened quietly, trying to concentrate on her playing, but found himself distracted by her voice. There was a quiet confidence lingering there, perfectly controlled in the alto range, but with the promise of something beyond…something that invariably made his heart pump a little faster in his chest.

He loved listening to her sing, the sort of emotion she could effortlessly evoke no matter what the lyrics, the way it echoed through him and yet embraced him all at once. He looked upon her now with a strange mix of pride and protectiveness, conflicting thoughts and feelings forever intertwined. They’d practically grown up together – musically, at least – and their respective sounds complemented each other quite well because of it. It felt natural to sing with her, to sit beside her and exchange guitar tracks, to perform with her on stage. Her presence was comforting, steadying, grounding. He’d looked after her when she was the youngest, along with everyone else, because he had always appreciated how open and honest she was with him. When he’d first rolled into town and rather arrogantly asked to be let into the band, she had walked right up to him while the others held back, prodding at him with curious hands, as if she’d never seen a real leather jacket or felt real spiky hair before. It was a memory that would always stick with him, and part of the reason why he was just a bit concerned about how down she’d been since Renee and the Kid had moved overseas.

Her fingers slid off the frets and she strummed a dead chord, bringing him crashing back to reality. “It’s all wrong,” she groused, slapping the body of her guitar with frustration.

Ryan gave her a sharp, surprised look. “You’ve got this, Stace,” he assured her, laying a hand on her shoulder. When she didn’t respond, he ducked his head, trying to capture her gaze. “But somehow, I get the feeling you’re not talking about the song anymore…”

She bowed her head, her lips thinning into a grim line as she eyed the tops of his sneakers.

Another patch of silence stretched between them, Ryan’s concern mounting with each passing moment. “Is there something you want to talk about?”

She shook her head, stubborn in her refusal to look up. “I’ve just had a lot on my mind lately,” she reluctantly admitted.

When she didn’t elaborate further, Ryan finally spoke. “Well, you know if you ever need anything, you can come to me, yeah? I hate to see you so down and out, so anything I can do…”

The corners of her mouth turned up in a hint of smile. “I know, Ryan. Thanks.”

He gave her shoulder another reassuring squeeze before pulling away, reaching down to flip off the low buzz of the amp. He knew something was bothering her, and he wished she’d share it, but at the same time, he knew better than to push. All he could offer was the reassurance that their friendship hadn’t changed just because the others were gone.

Besides, she was resilient; he’d rarely seen her down for more than a couple days before returning to her normal, bubbly self.

Desperate for a change in conversation, he asked, “So, how goes the English assignment?”

“Terrible,” she sighed, pulling the strap of the guitar over her head. “I’m almost a week behind on the daily prompts already.”

“Well, that I can help you with,” he announced, digging through the stack of papers on the ground next to the amp. He pulled out a sheaf of loose notebook paper, hastily stapled together in one corner. “Here – I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten about it.”

She finally looked at him then, her expression a mixture of surprise, awe, and gratitude, as if she was being handed a piece of the holy grail. “Wow, thanks,” she breathed.

“A day in the life of the mundane,” he joked, seizing the opportunity to lighten the mood. “If you read my assignment, you’ll realize you really can’t do any worse!”

She shot him a surprised look. “I doubt that,” she snorted. “You’ve always got your nose buried in a book!”

“Ah, but just because I enjoy reading a good story doesn’t mean I can write one,” he clarified. “Look, there is such a thing as overthinking. Stop doubting yourself and your abilities, and just start writing. You’ll probably find inspiration in the last place you’d ever expect.”

When she still looked skeptical, he switched into cheerleader mode. “You’re a terrific person, Stace. You’re one of the most popular girls in your class, you have loads of friends, and you’re a talented singer – that’s more than a lot of other kids can lay claim to.” He clapped a hand over her shoulder, giving her another reassuring squeeze. “There’s plenty there, just waiting to be mined. You just have to have the confidence to know it’s worth writing down.”

Finally, mercifully, a genuine smile curved her mouth. As her eyes traveled from the hand on her shoulder back to his face, understanding seemed to blossom across her expression. “I think I understand this whole ‘inspiration’ thing now,” she said. “Thanks, Ryan – you’re the best!”

He grinned in response. “Glad I could help,” he replied. “Now, are you ready to give that song one more try?”

She nodded, looping the guitar strap over her head, and he turned his attention back to the sheet music. It always seemed like whenever he was close to contemplating pulling away from his duties with the band – to his friends – some crisis always sucked him back in. For now, he was content to continue along this same path, but eventually, something would have to give.

He glanced at Stacy as he played her in. I just hope it’s not you, he thought as she began to sing once more.

Chapter Text


.3.
“I Saw Him Standing There”

Well he was just seventeen / if you know what I mean
And the way he looked / was way beyond compare
Well he looked at me / and I could see
That before too long / I'd fall in love with him…

© 1963 John Lennon, Paul McCartney, & the Beatles

~*~

Devyn sighed, stirring her straw through her rapidly-melting shake. One glance out the double-glass doors to her right confirmed the weather was still as dreary as it had been that morning, when she and the others had trudged down to the P*lace for one final rehearsal before their first Saturday night concert. The continual lack of sunshine certainly hadn’t dampened high spirits, though, as the band and its dancers put the finishing touches on the set.

It was certainly shaping up to be an exciting evening – in addition to opening with what had been her audition piece, each member of the band would sing lead on two songs, highlighting their vocal ranges and preferred styles of music. Ryan had suggested it as a way to ‘re-introduce’ the band to the Saturday evening crowd – the ones who would pay money to see them, instead of merely paying their dues in ice cream – and the others agreed it was an awesome idea.

Still, for Devyn, the newbie, it was also a little nerve-wracking. Even though she and Kenny had been performing with the band for almost a month, it had never felt quite so high stakes as this. As nervous as she was, however, she also couldn’t help but feel excited. If someone had told her two years ago, when she first met Kenny on the playground and discovered their mutual interest in music, that she would be a part of the beloved neighborhood band before she graduated from middle school? She would’ve laughed in their face. And yet, here she was, at twelve years old and in seventh grade, doing exactly that.

She still pinched herself from time to time, to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.

Kenny was the one who had introduced her to Kids Incorporated, though the band was quite well-known around the neighborhood. Shortly after befriending her, he’d brought her to one of their afternoon sets. She’d been impressed and amazed that such a talented group of kids had found each other – and a stage – for their sound. The two started attending the shows regularly, always interested to see what was old, what was new, and what the Kids would be performing next.

One of the best things about the band was their chemistry – how much they all seemed to just like each other. In some cases, it wasn’t that big a leap – Stacy and Renee were siblings, and the Kid was everyone’s best friend, sassy and outgoing (and his Lionel Richie covers were among Devyn’s favorites). Gloria was the show-stopping lead singer, and Ryan? Well, he was the glue that held them all together. They were as versatile as they were creative, and they had turned Saturday nights at the soda fountain into the place to see and be seen among the middle- and high school set.

In spite of the loss of three of the original members of the band, the audiences crowding into their summer afternoon sets hadn’t lessened. That was heartening, indeed, for the newcomers, because being associated with the band in any capacity was highly desirable. Anytime they held auditions – to find dancers, or musicians, or singers – the P*lace became a mob scene. So, it was an extra special feeling for Devyn, not only to be accepted and encouraged by the band, but by the audience.

And, well, it was just fun to be around the others. In addition to Ryan and Stacy, their dance corps included some of the most popular girls from the high school, which was absolutely thrilling. Not that Devyn didn't enjoy her time with Kenny, Richie, and Connie – but she saw them all day, every day, at school. Hanging out with high-schoolers? That was another thing she didn’t expect to be doing until she was in high school herself.

She was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t realize Kenny had slid into the seat beside her. “Penny for your thoughts,” he offered, playfully elbowing her arm.

She smiled. “I’m just feeling a little nervous, I guess,” she replied. “You?”

“Same,” he agreed, before directing his attention over the counter, towards the stage. “Do you think it ever gets easier?”

Devyn followed his line of vision. Ryan was standing with Riley on the stage, going over production details. Two of the dancers were chatting as they set up the backdrop, while Richie was “helpfully” directing them from his perch on his drum set. Connie was helping the other dancers set up the temporary staging on the floor – it was always a crowd-pleaser for the audience to be within reaching distance of the lead singer, whoever that might be for a song. Nearby, Brian and Dee were going over choreography with Stacy, fairly simple moves she could do while singing full-blast.

Devyn watched her carefully, a mixture of awe and curiosity settling over her. Stacy's numbers would probably be the most popular of the night, if their past performances were any indication. There was just an irresistible, attractive quality about her – when she started to sing, everyone dropped what they were doing and gave her their full attention.

Her eyes traveled up five feet, to where Ryan and Riley were standing. Sometimes those people aren’t just in the audience, she thought. She’d been noticing lately just how much Ryan and Stacy seemed to gravitate towards one another on stage. Maybe it was merely because they were such good friends, or because they had spent so much time together that they were just naturally more comfortable while in the other’s presence, but Devyn couldn’t help but wonder….

She glanced at Kenny.

And wonder if the others had noticed the same thing.

Well, there’s no better way to find out than to ask, she reasoned. “Hey, Kenny,” she said, recapturing her best friend’s attention. “Have you noticed anything – different – about Ryan and Stacy?”

He furrowed his brow. “Different? How do you mean?” He glanced over at them again.

“Well, you remember how they acted around the others, before we joined the band, since we used to come to their performances all the time,” she mused. “Do you think they’re acting any differently now?”

Kenny still appeared confused. “Because we’re around?” he asked skeptically. “Not really – they’ve always been nice to me.” He turned back to her suddenly, his eyes wide. “Why? Have they been treating you differently or something?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” she assured him. “I just wonder about them sometimes. They seem so close.”

He shrugged. “They’ve been performing together the longest,” he said. “Is it really a surprise that they’re closer to each other than they are to the rest of us?”

She huffed a sigh, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “That’s not exactly what I mean,” she said. Boys can be so dense sometimes, she amended silently.

Kenny looked at her, glanced back at the others, and then back to his friend once more. “I think you’ve been reading too many of those Sweet Valley High books,” he suggested. “Boys and girls can just be friends, you know – I mean, look at us!”

“That’s true,” she hedged, “but I can’t help but wonder. They’re always together, even off-stage.”

A new voice entered the fray. “What’re you talking about, guys?”

The two turned to see the youngest member of the band, Connie, standing next to their table, soda in hand. Oh, good, Devyn thought, another girl might understand! Even though she was only eleven, Connie was incredibly smart and perceptive for her age.

Kenny beat her to the punch. “Devyn here thinks Ryan and Stacy are more than just friends,” he explained, his tone making it clear he thought she was totally off base.

Connie clapped her hand on Devyn’s shoulder, and a huge grin lit up her face. “Really?” she breathed, absolutely enchanted by the idea. “What makes you think so?”

Devyn's expression mirrored hers. “Well,” she began excitedly, “have you ever noticed how much they are together, on stage and off? Like, always standing next to one another, or picking songs to play together, or holding conversations just with each other?”

Kenny stared at them, a mixture of surprise and mild disgust sweeping across his features. “Girls,” he sighed dismissively with a roll of his eyes, standing up and moving away, obviously glad to be free of conversation about the hidden meanings of looks, sly glances, and hand-holding.

They were all saved from continuing speculation when Ryan called out, waving them over to the stage, apparently finally satisfied with whatever plans he and Riley had worked out for that evening’s show. “Everything looks great, guys,” he announced, nodding his approval to the backdrop and temporary staging. “Let’s run through these last couple of songs, so we can get out of here early!”

This proclamation was met with much cheering. Considering how late they’d be there that evening, the prospect of an afternoon off, even in dreary weather, was invigorating.

Ryan turned his attention to his bandmates. “Let’s meet backstage at six-thirty,” he advised, “so we can make sure everything’s good to go tonight, yeah?” When he was met with nods of agreement, he smiled, pointing to Stacy.

“‘Tell It to My Heart’?” he suggested.

Devyn elbowed Connie in the ribs, and Kenny could only shake his head when he noticed both striving to suppress smiles.

She nodded. “Sure,” she replied. “Brian just finished teaching me the dance moves, so I’m ready to try it out.”

“Awesome,” he said, turning his attention to the others. "Let’s go!”

They climbed the stairs to the stage, taking up their starting positions. Kenny, Connie, and Devyn grabbed tambourines and mics, heading stage right, where they would be singing backup as a group. Ryan went left, picking up his guitar, while Stacy was center stage with two dancers flanking her. The others headed for instruments, and, as Richie counted them off, Kenny heard Devyn whisper “just watch” to Connie.

The band whisked through the performance. Stacy completely owned Taylor Dayne’s dance-pop hit, her vocals aggressive over the up-tempo beat, her movement across stage fluid and focused as she worked through the pre-set choreography that accompanied the verses. Devyn watched her from the corner of her eye, careful to keep her concentration on her own cues, and noticed how much the older girl seemed to drift stage left as the song moved into the chorus – and how, anytime she got close, Ryan seemed to instantly know, shifting the entire orientation of his body towards her and smiling.

Any post-performance discussion to be had between the younger girls, however, was interrupted when Riley rounded the counter, bearing a gigantic cardboard box. “Delivery for you guys,” he called, setting the box down on one of the pieces of staging. “And, uh, it's a big one.”

Devyn squealed, racing down off stage. Kenny, Connie, and Richie were fast on her heels, while the others lingered, uncertain of what was going on.

“I can’t believe they're already here!” Connie enthused.

“Me either,” Kenny agreed, pulling the lid open.

As the younger kids dug through the box, Riley appeared with another one, of equal size.

“What’s going on, guys?” Ryan called, strumming a chord. He shot a glance to Stacy, who was busy setting up her own guitar, in preparation to run through her other number.

Devyn looked back at him and grinned. “It’s a surprise,” she replied.

That caught Stacy’s attention. “A surprise?” she echoed. “For us?”

Richie nodded. “One of my brilliant ideas,” he proclaimed, his voice full of indulgent modesty.

“Why do I not find that reassuring in the least?” Ryan deadpanned.

Richie pulled away from the box, putting up his hands defensively. “Hey, even you said we needed new performance outfits for Saturday nights,” he protested. “We just took the liberty of picking out a design and ordering them – enough for the whole band, dancers included!”

Murmurs of appreciation arose from that crowd, who had been looking on with interest at the proceedings.

“Hey, Richie, these are awesome!” Kenny said, pulling a black jacket from the box. “Even better than we thought they’d be!” He held it up for them all to see. The Kids Incorporated logo was emblazoned on the back, over a star field of twinkling white rhinestones. A twist of colors rose up from the bottom of the logo over the right shoulder – red, green, and blue, in jewel tones, accented by sparkling silver sequins laid out in an intricate design.

The buzz of the crowd grew louder as the jackets were passed around and admired.

“And we had special ones made for the two of you,” Connie added, as Ryan and Stacy joined them. She handed them each a jacket, identical in every respect, save the color scheme on the shoulder – Stacy’s was purple over pink, while Ryan’s was teal over blue.

“Thanks, you guys,” Ryan said, blinking in surprise as he accepted his. “These are really, really great!”

Stacy nodded in agreement, sliding her arms into hers. “You didn't have to do this,” she added. “We’re all in this together, as equals.”

Devyn shrugged. “But you guys are special,” she explained. “You've been here the longest, and done the most to make this group what it is today.”

“Do I feel a group hug coming on?” Connie asked from her spot in the middle. The others laughed and complied, folding their arms around one another in a moment of group solidarity. It didn’t escape Devyn’s notice that the two oldest members had managed to stand next to one another, even though they’d approached the group from opposite sides to receive their jackets.

“Wait a minute,” Ryan piped up after a moment, pulling away from the lovefest. “Richie, you said this was your idea?”

The younger boy nodded, a self-satisfied smile creasing his face. “That’s right,” he replied.

Ryan’s eyes fell closed, albeit momentarily. “Do I even want to know how you paid for these?” he asked warily as he eyed his friend once more. Richie, the consummate showman, was always the first to offer an off-the-wall marketing or fundraising idea. Though he certainly had the charisma to charm others into giving him what he wanted, he didn’t always have the brains to get himself out of any resultant jams.

And he had a bad habit of involving his friends in his schemes without telling them.

“Well, technically, we’re still paying for them,” Richie said, his confidence faltering just a bit.

The smile eased from Stacy’s face. “‘We’re’?” she echoed. “I don't like the sound of that.”

“Well,” Richie hedged, “since we still don’t have a band fund with which to pay for our extras, I took the liberty of securing a small advance from Riley, so that we might order these in time for the first Saturday show of the year.” His eyes bulged out of their sockets as Ryan advanced on him, and he quickly added, “Riley was very amenable to our terms, and agreed to let us pay him back!”

“Richie! How could you!” Stacy cried. The jackets were not inexpensive, and he’d ordered so many…!

Ryan nodded. “Come on, Rich, not all of us have this kind of money right now,” he said. “And if you have another one of your hare-brained schemes up your sleeve to fix this – ”

“All you have to do is eat ice cream,” Richie interrupted. “Lots and…lots of ice cream.”

“Riley agreed to let the profits of one of his ice cream flavors be payback for the loan,” Kenny jumped in, sensing the drummer on the verge of flailing. Ryan was a nice guy, but he could be intimidating as hell when he wanted to be.

Ryan and Stacy exchanged a puzzled glance. “Which one?” Ryan finally asked, unsure how any of them could ever eat enough – or even just pay enough – to repay the cut in profits their friendly soda jerk was taking on this deal.

“Rocky Rahsaan Ripple,” Connie supplied, finally finding her voice.

“It’s going to be the featured flavor all next month,” Devyn added.

Stacy bit her lip, her indignation deflating. “You guys are really sweet,” she finally said, a soft smile curving over her lips. “I think the Kid would appreciate knowing how much a part of the band he still is, even from so far away.”

“Are you kidding?” Ryan snorted. “His head would inflate so much we’d be lucky to see any of the rest of him.”

The two shared a knowing look over the others’ heads before Ryan spoke again. “All right, guys, let’s break for the afternoon.” He struggled to make himself heard over the re-explosion of cheers and renewed excitement over the band’s jackets. “Make sure you take a set list before you leave – see you tonight!”

As the others streamed out of the P*lace, Devyn hung back, shooting a long, speculative gaze at Ryan, Stacy, and Riley, who lingered behind, ostensibly to discuss payment for the jackets. Why does no one else see it? she wondered silently to herself. Or do they just not want to?

The second thought brought her up short. No matter how exciting the prospect of burgeoning romance between her friends, there was still the very real way it would affect the rest of the band. Even though the others were fairly easygoing, what brought them together was a love and desire to perform. As it stood, duties were split evenly – everyone had their fair share of time in the spotlight, be it in singing lead, playing lead, or dancing lead, while the others backed them up. The older, more experienced members made it a point to play fair – but if they became wrapped up exclusively with each other, would that change?

How could it not?

Devyn shook herself from her thoughts. Nobody wants to rock the boat, she reminded herself. I’m sure they’ll keep what’s best for the band in mind, just like the rest of us do.

Chapter Text


.4.
“Paperback Writer”

Its a thousand pages give or take a few
I’ll be writing more in a week or two
I can make it longer if you like the style
I can change it ’round and I want to be a paperback writer

© 1966 John Lennon, Paul McCartney, & the Beatles

~*~

Stacy stifled a frustrated sigh as she stared down into her notebook, absently tapping her pen on the corner of the binder. The only word written on the page resided at the top, underlined twice for emphasis: “confession.” That was the day’s prompt, and she was having no better luck coming up with a response to it than she had for the prompt from the day before, or the day before that, or the day before that…and this was not good.

English sucks, she thought morosely, and midterms suck even harder. Her journal was due by the end of the following week, and she’d only filled in five of the thirty prompts – she hadn’t even started the short story part of the assignment. She’d never been one to fall so far behind on her schoolwork before – and, indeed, was keeping up with her other classes with something less of a struggle than this – but it seemed like every time she pulled out her English notebook, determined to work on the assignment, her words just dried up. Whatever creativity she had evaporated, and she found herself staring at a blank white page, the pristine blue college-ruled lines mocking her.

The rest of her life hadn’t exactly been peachy lately, either. She was still struggling to find her place in the high school social strata. In middle school, she’d been one of the most popular girls in her class, but somehow she’d lost that aura in the few months they’d been at the high school. Everyone was still nice enough to her, but no one had asked her to the homecoming dance – and even Billy the Gweeb had a date for homecoming! She couldn’t even count on Ethan Green looking longingly in her direction anymore.

For the first time in her life, she felt totally out of place, and she didn’t quite know how to handle it.

Her social circle mostly consisted of her friends from the band now – she sat with a few of the dancers in her grade at lunch, and of course saw the younger kids at rehearsals and performances. But if she’d hoped to see Ryan more often now that they attended the same school, she was sadly mistaken. She was lucky if she caught a glimpse of him across the hall on most days; his locker was in the senior wing clear across the campus from hers on the freshman quad, and he had a different lunch period. She was beginning to feel dissatisfied that she was only able to see him during rehearsals or sets at the P*lace – and she couldn’t stop herself from fantasizing about spending more ‘alone’ time with him, away from the others, just chatting one-on-one…or maybe more…

A flush stole across the back of her neck. I’m not good enough for him, she thought morosely, glancing at the copy of his old English assignment that she’d stuck between the pages of her notebook. When he was in ninth grade, he’d written a full-blown detective story, replete with ’40s slang, an unexpected caper, and a love scene. Discovering that he was a romantic at heart only fed into her schoolgirl crush, one that was threatening to rage out of control with every passing moment. When she was around him, she felt flushed and tongue-tied and clumsy – except when they shared the stage. Performing was the one outlet she still had where she felt completely confident. And when they were on stage together? It was as if they were the only two people in the world, even when they were surrounded by others. It was the only time she ever felt bold enough to indulge the magnetic attraction she felt for him, and it made her giddy when he seemed to flirt back.

She glanced up covertly from her secluded corner of the storeroom, spying Ryan sitting across the way, his back to her, engaged in a high-stakes card game with Richie and Connie. It was rare to see him actually taking a break between sets – lately he’d been spending most of his time with his nose in a book or elbow-deep in staff paper, working on some new song or other. Even though he was just as present as ever, leading rehearsals and making decisions with the others about concerts, choreography, and set lists, there was a definite distance between them. He’d started to seclude himself on stage, standing apart from the others, singing backup if he sang at all – which, considering how many trios and girl group numbers they’d been performing of late, wasn’t much. Though it gave the others a chance to shine in the spotlight, Stacy couldn’t help but worry a little. If Ryan left the band…

Her gaze fell back to her still-blank paper. When he leaves the band, she corrected herself silently. It’s going to happen sooner or later – I doubt he’ll want to commute from college just to play with us every day. She chewed on her lip, an overwhelming tide of sadness washing through her at the idea of him suddenly excised from the band, and from her life. Her eyes drifted up to her prompt word again, and she became aware of the tapping of her pen, which seemed to take on a familiar rhythm of its own volition.

Suddenly it hit her, inspiration flashing full-force into her mind. “In my midnight confession…” she murmured, setting pen to paper, her words suddenly flowing faster than she could write them down. She was so lost in her headspace that she missed the strange, assessing look Devyn shot in her direction after overhearing the snatch of misplaced lyrics.

“I wonder…” Devyn mused aloud, her interest piqued as Stacy began to scribble in the notebook she’d been staring at for most of the afternoon. She was distracted from her thoughts when Kenny suddenly poked her in the ribs, and glanced over to find him smothering a laugh. She followed his line of vision, having the perfect view of the card game that was growing in intensity between Ryan, Richie, and Connie.

“Do you have any…jacks?” Richie asked, his voice a mixture of disbelief and incredulity. He only had a few pairs of cards turned down in front of him, whereas his opponent…had many.

“Go fish,” Ryan advised, fighting back a smirk.

Richie sighed, pulling another card from the deck and tucking it into his already-overloaded hand. Connie was standing at his side, one hand tucked under her chin as she observed the game from close range.

“Do you have any fives?” Ryan queried.

Richie was decidedly unimpressed with the request, sending a narrow glare across the table as he handed over the card he’d just picked up. He felt the brush of Connie’s long, dark hair against his shoulder as she flipped one of her pigtails back. “I can't believe how lucky you are,” Richie groused, frowning as Ryan turned over another pair of cards.

“Oh, skill, Rich – it’s all skill,” Ryan replied, his confident grin growing with each word.

Richie remained skeptical. “Yeah, right,” he muttered under his breath, examining his hand once more.

“Do you have any – eights?”

Ryan’s smirk got wider, as if that was even possible. “Keep fishing,” he responded.

Richie picked up the next card from the deck. He didn’t even have it in his hand good before Ryan piped up. “Got any kings?”

Connie coughed and gave a curt nod, which Richie noticed out of the corner of his eye as he once again handed over the card he’d only just drawn. This time, it didn’t take long for him to put two and two together, and he directed his glare at the youngest member of the band before speaking next.

“All right, I’ve seen enough,” he announced, folding his cards on the table and standing up. Connie slid into the seat beside him, her expression cast in perfect innocence. “This game seems awfully fishy – ” he directed that word right at Connie, who simply blinked back – “you know what I'm saying?”

Ryan tidied his cards on the table. “Well, as I see it, you have two options,” he replied, standing up and leaning forward, clasping his hands on the sides of the table. “Either you can keep playing, or you can quit.”

“Oh yeah?” Richie shot back, leaning forward as well, sending his best glare the short distance between his face and Ryan’s.

Ryan’s eyes glittered with restrained mirth. “Yeah,” he challenged.

The boys faced off for one tense moment before Richie pulled back. “Well,” he drawled, turning a circle and heading for the table that Devyn and Kenny occupied. Kenny was near hysterics by this point; Devyn merely curious to see how this would play out. “There’s one option you forgot about, partner.”

Ryan straightened, quirking an amused brow as Richie turned to face him once more. “Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

“My trusty – equalizer,” Richie replied, whipping out a can of silly string and sending a straight shot at his cheating opponents. Connie and Devyn shrieked, ducking under tables as Richie made good on his attack. Ryan was laughing as he crossed the room, trying to put anything and everything between him and the string. Eventually the boys switched sides, with Richie still spraying as he backed into Stacy’s little corner.

The others begged for mercy as they picked bits of string off their clothes, and Richie took a moment to preen. Suddenly noticing Stacy, he shot a lap full of goo at her as well, bringing her out of her sudden, near-feverish writing reverie.

“Oh, Richie!” she cried, shooting up, clutching her binder to her chest. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Richie swallowed hard, obviously not expecting such an upset reaction from her, considering the others were laughing. “I was just fooling around,” he offered lamely.

Stacy picked up a wad of silly string to clear her notebook, her expression twisting with distaste. “Well, fool around over there, okay?”

An awkward silence filled the room as she stomped over to one of the now unoccupied vanities. She was so intent to get back into her reckless headspace and finish her response to the prompt – inspiration was so fleeting, she knew she had to grab it where she could – that she didn’t notice the confused and concerned glances the others were exchanging.

After a moment, Richie shrugged, redoubling his grip on the nozzle of the can. “There's not escape from Richie the Squirt!” he bellowed, sending another wave of string flinging across the room as he charged for Ryan once more. The others collapsed into giggles as they worked to avoid the assault.

“Hold on, hold on, stop!” Ryan wheezed, fleeing for the safety of the door. The others stopped and stared when they recognized the seriousness of his tone. “We’re on!”

“Huh?” Richie mumbled, confused.

Ryan grabbed the can of string from his hand and blasted him, forcing him to lead the way out the door. The others chuckled as well, streaming out of the room behind the boys.

Stacy was merely glad that they’d left, mercifully giving her some peace and quiet again. It wasn’t until she heard the muffled sounds of the opening strains of the next song that she realized she was needed on stage. She scrambled up, slamming her binder shut and running from the room, grateful for having the foresight to leave her microphone in the wings during the band break. She grabbed it on her way, closing her eyes momentarily and focusing herself for the first song of the next set, her solo.

When she finally made it to stage, she realized, only too late, that she’d entered from the wrong side. Kenny, Devyn, and Connie were bopping along to the beat on the opposite end, forming her trio of backup singers. Between them and her stood Ryan, content once more to seclude himself from the others, who shot her a surprised look when she suddenly appeared from the corner of his eye.

Undeterred, she met her cue and began to sing, settling in beside him. He tried to sidestep and let her pass, but she remained where she was, falling into a simple dance, mirroring the shuffle of his feet as he played guitar. When her verse ended and the backups carried the chorus, he leaned close enough to say, “What’s going on? I thought you needed to be over there!”

She shot him a bold, provocative smile. “I’m right where I want to be,” she replied, before singing the next verse to him instead of the audience.

~*~

Stacy had never been quite so glad to be done with an afternoon set as she was that day. Her heart was pumping hard as she raced back to the storeroom, eager to take up writing on her assignment again. Not only did she want to recapture the momentum of before, but she had to get away from the others – especially Ryan – before she did something impulsive, something stupid, something she’d ultimately come to regret.

Like, for instance, giving in to the suddenly overwhelming need to kiss her crush.

Very possibly, in front of witnesses.

She resumed her place at the vanity, a heady smile drifting to her lips as she picked up her pen. Being near Ryan on stage gave her such a rush that she could barely contain it. Today, she had been rewarded for her foolishness – being late – and her bravery – invading his space – and she wanted to enjoy it while it lasted. She reran the set in her head, savoring every delicious moment, every memory of their interaction, the way he started really getting into the numbers, swaying closer to her, or smiling at her, or even just looking at her. His expression when she directed the second half of “Paperback Writer” to him was enough to leave her elbow-deep in absolute bliss for the rest of the day.

“Hey, that was a hot set, guys!” Kenny announced, throwing open the door to the storeroom.

“Yeah, great solo, Stace,” Ryan added, sweeping into the room and setting his guitar back on its stand.

“That’s the best I’ve ever heard you do that song,” Devyn marveled.

“Yeah, it had a lot of feeling,” Connie added, impressed.

You don’t know the half of it, Stacy mused, her pen flying across the page as the words poured out of her mind.

Nothing could bring her down.

Nothing, perhaps, except…

Heavy, deliberate footsteps sounded over the threshold of the door. “You know what I think, Ryan?” Richie drawled, entering the room with a slight swagger. He turned his attention to his card-cheating foe, lifting up a new can of silly string. “I think this is the end of the trail for you.”

Ryan was unimpressed. “Think again, kid,” he intoned, revealing his own can of the stuff.

“No!” Richie shouted with a laugh, aiming but missing his opponent as the two began spraying at once. Kenny, Devyn, and Connie hit the deck, squealing and laughing as they became casualties in the silly string war, crawling this way and that to avoid the two still standing – and shooting.

Richie wound his way across the room, moving to the far side of Stacy, where she sat still writing up a storm, and Ryan followed. Neither was paying attention to anyone but each other, until Stacy stood, arms akimbo, and shot them both murderous glares. Ryan picked up on her annoyance and quickly moved away, assailing Richie from another angle and pulling his attention elsewhere.

Kenny and Connie shrieked, scrambling up and shooting out of the room, Richie hot on their heels, moving backwards as he worked to supply continuous fire in Ryan’s direction. The bait worked, both as a deterrent and as a lure, and Ryan quickly followed them out.

“This was my favorite blouse,” Stacy wailed, pulling a wad of string from her hair and clothes and throwing it to the side.

“It’s only string,” Devyn reminded her from her perch on the floor. She had been watching the older girl intently, her sharp mind still processing all of the innuendo that had flowed forth on the stage during their last set, as well as the chaos that was this after-set mania.

The assurance did little to comfort Stacy. With a frustrated huff, she gathered her things, kicking back the stool she’d been sitting on as she pulled another string of goo from her hair. Absently, she crossed the room, attempting to sidestep the remnants of the war piled like little landmines on the floor.

“Going home?” Devyn called.

“What? Oh, no – I don’t know,” Stacy replied, flustered. “I’m just – I need to be by myself for a while.” She barely registered brushing against someone as she left the room, clutching her notebook to her chest. I refuse to let their idiocy ruin my good mood, she vowed.

Devyn frowned, spying a sheet of paper left behind in Stacy’s wake. A pair of sneakers entered her field of vision just then, and she glanced up to see Ryan. “What's wrong with Stacy?” she asked, figuring if anyone knew, it would be him.

Ryan shrugged, glancing warily over his shoulder. “I guess she has something on her mind,” he answered noncommittally.

Devyn blinked. “And you don’t know what it is?”

Ryan gave her a strange look, as if he didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. “I’ve had a lot on my mind, too,” he added. After a beat, he changed the subject, holding up his can of string. “C’mon, it’s two against one out there – Kenny’s playing Switzerland and refusing to take sides.”

Devyn laughed. “Okay, I’ll be right there,” she relented, for which she earned a spray of silly string as Ryan wandered back out of the room.

She picked up the stray piece of paper and walked over to put it back on the vanity, where the older girl had been working. She’ll come back for it eventually, Devyn reasoned, her eyes idly coursing across the page. She turned, taking a step forward before turning back, her eyes wide as what she read registered in her mind.

She lifted the sheet with shaking fingers. No way, she thought incredulously, taking a second, closer read. No way can this be what I think it is! Another inspection confirmed her suspicions, however, and she curled the sheet between her fingers as she tried to decide what to do. Reading the hastily scrawled words on the page warranted further action…but what?

A slow smile crept across her features as a plan formed in the back of her mind. Yes, she thought, glancing down at the paper once more, this is it – this is the perfect way to prove to the others that there’s more than meets the eye with those two!

Before she could change her mind, she charged out of the storeroom, through the main hall of the P*lace, and out the double glass doors, determined to find the silly string war. Judging by the shrieks and screams, it wasn’t far away. Indeed, she turned the corner to the Garage and there they all were, covered from head to toe in the goopy mess. Richie held Connie hostage as he attacked, Ryan moving swiftly and ducking behind Kenny, who held up a garbage can lid as a shield.

“Let go of the girl, Richie!” Ryan cried. “This is between you and me!”

“No way, Ryan!” Richie yelled in response as Ryan made a break for it. “The girl is my ticket to freedom!”

“Guys!” Devyn called, waving an arm to grab their attention. “Hey, guys!” She was caught off-guard when an arm shot out and around her, pulling her back against a tall, solid figure.

“Haha, we’re even now!” Ryan announced, pulling Devyn back against his chest and sending another wave of string in Richie's direction.

As much as she might have enjoyed this unexpected closeness at literally any other point in her existence, Devyn fought against Ryan’s hold, squirming out of his reach. “Cut it out for a minute!” she pleaded, finally breaking free.

The desperate note in her voice was enough to bring all shenanigans to a screaming standstill. Richie released Connie, who joined Kenny by his side as the three approached, curious at this sudden turn of events.

“What’s going on?” Ryan asked, brushing the string from his clothes. He didn’t like the serious gaze Devyn had affixed on him, or the way she was clutching a piece of paper that look mysteriously like it belonged in Stacy’s notebook.

“It’s Stacy,” Devyn said, confirming his worst suspicions. “I think she’s in trouble.”

“What do you mean?” Connie asked.

Devyn’s gaze never wavered. “Well, you know that notebook she’s been writing in lately? She dropped a page out of it – and I read some of it.” Her shoulders tugged down into a guilty shrug. “I know it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t help it – she’s been acting so weird lately.”

The others exchanged concerned glances before turning their collective gaze to Ryan. “She’s hardly said two words to me all week,” Connie supplied.

Kenny nodded. “She’s been lost in that notebook for most of the day, and she got really irate when we started playing with the string.”

Richie flushed. “I didn’t mean to upset her,” he added. “Maybe I should go apologize again – ”

“No,” Devyn interrupted, making a grab at him before he could leave. “That’s not what upset her.” She turned her attention back to Ryan, lifting her chin a little. Now that the moment of truth had arrived, she found she wasn’t quite as confident as she thought she’d be in the fail-proof logic of her plan.

“I think you should talk to her,” she finally said, handing the paper to Ryan.

He accepted it, reluctantly, his gaze dropping as he read it silently. His eyes widened as he took in the total impact of what Stacy had written, his heart beginning to pound wildly against his ribs. “Yeah,” he finally managed to say, blinking rapidly, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just read. “I’ll talk to her.”

Abruptly, he left the rest of the band standing there, settling off in the direction of the park.

“What was that all about?” Kenny asked, his brows knitting together. “I feel like I’ve missed something…”

“Don’t worry,” Devyn assured him, unable to mask a bubbly smile now that she’d sent Ryan on his way. “I have a feeling everything’s going to be just fine.”

Chapter Text


.5.
“Say You Will”

I get the feeling / I’ve never been here before
’cause no one I’ve known’s ever moved me the way that you do
And I know / this is the real thing / it’s all I’ve been searching for
I put it all on the line / now I’m hoping you feel that way, too…

© 1987 Mick Jones, Lou Gramm, & Foreigner

~*~

Stacy suppressed a frustrated sigh as she entered the park. Richie can be so annoying, she thought darkly, sliding onto one of the stone benches near the pond. She squeezed her eyes shut, allowing her annoyance to fully wash through her for a solitary moment as she hugged her binder tight to her chest.

Try as she might, though, she couldn’t stay mad. Her thoughts almost immediately drifted back to her English assignment. After staring at it in horror for the better part of six weeks, suddenly inspiration had burst forth, and she could hardly contain all of her thoughts. It was as if a dam had broken in her mind – now that she’d successfully answered one of the thirty daily prompts, suddenly she had ideas for all of them, so many it was hard to keep them all straight. The manic high of inspiration was mixed with equal parts relief, in that she wouldn’t fail her first major assignment as a high school freshman. However…

A happy, guilty grin broke across her gloomy expression. This was the sort of euphoria she usually only had when performing, when she was standing on stage next to Ryan, inexplicably drawn to him, like a moth to a flame. How smart was it to channel these feelings into writing she would be graded for? As much as she enjoyed having lots of friends and social activities, she wasn’t exactly good at exploring any sorts of serious feelings. It had almost gotten her into trouble only last year, in fact, when she asked her sister to invite a boy to the Sadie Hawkins dance for her – and he’d agreed, thinking it was Renee who wanted the date! It had taken all of her courage to screw up the nerve to explain to him what had happened, and she’d almost waited too late – only hours before the dance was to start, in fact.

What were the odds that lightning would strike twice on that score?

And yet, somehow, as reckless as it was to indulge and admit this crush she'd been nursing for the better part of the school year, it also felt – freeing, like a weight lifted from her shoulders. Without Renee or the Kid around to talk to, she had no one to confide in. Now that burden had eased, somewhat. Sure, it wasn’t as courageous to simply write down her feelings for a nominal assignment as it was to confront the object of her desire with them, but it was something. The world hadn’t ended, friendships hadn’t changed. She was still the person she’d always been, albeit with a somewhat lighter heart.

And, now that she was alone, she could allow herself the fantasy of believing her feelings were reciprocated. It wasn’t that much of a stretch – he was always smiling at her on stage, inviting her presence during their numbers, expected or not. And, for whatever reason – age? height? singing ability? – most of the choreography Brian had been designing for their Saturday night concerts put the two of them together in some capacity. She certainly wasn’t going to complain about that, even if she did realize that they were mostly being played up to put on a good show.

Still, she could have her secret dream and, until Ryan said or did anything to the contrary, she could pretend that he felt the same way about her.

Besides, it had given her a great idea for the short story portion of her English assignment, and she was ready to ride this wave of inspiration through the first draft of that.

She finally settled her notebook on the table and opened her eyes. It’d probably be best to reread what I have, she reasoned, and refocus myself. I can save the tangents for the other daily prompts. Her fingers were poised on the edge of the binder, and she let out a giddy little laugh. She could practically feel the page she’d been working on so diligently, burning through its cardboard cover, calling out to her to add, edit, and rearrange.

“In my midnight confession,” she sang softly, opening the notebook, “when I tell all the world that I love you – ”

Her breath caught in her throat then, as she found herself staring at a blank sheet. She flipped through the bound pages of looseleaf paper, a growing sense of panic gnawing at the back of her mind. Back and forth she went, twice, before noticing her hands were shaking.

She was halfway out of her seat by then, her palms sweaty, her vision swirling, her heart beating heavily against her ribs. No, she thought madly, it has to be here – it has to be!

“Don’t tell me I lost it,” she wailed, her gaze rising to inspect the table, the bench, and the ground around her. Here was the danger in writing down anything, much less deep, dark secrets full of potentially embarrassing feelings – the chance that it could be lost, thrown out or picked up or –

Read.

She pushed the thought from her mind almost immediately. There was no use entertaining worst case scenarios, after all. Chances are, she’d simply dropped it on her way to the park from the storeroom, and the paper was lying innocently on the ground. It was already after six, so the likelihood of someone finding it was slim to none.

I’ll just retrace my steps and find it, Stacy told herself, taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm down. There’s no need to panic just yet.

Drawing on the full strength of her resolve, she grabbed her notebook and stepped away from the stone table, careful to check and make sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind. She had just passed by the pond, two steps away from the gates of the park, when a figure appeared, blocking her path.

“Stacy,” Ryan said quietly, his eyes lighting upon her.

Stacy stopped short, clutching her notebook to her chest. As if she had summoned him from her thoughts, the object of her affection stood before her, a vision in black Converse and leather. Her heart picked up speed at the sight of him, a rogue flush coating the back of her neck and rising to color her cheeks. Her eyes quickly fell away from his face, latching onto his hands…and the paper that was curled between them.

Oh, God, she thought, please don’t let that be –

“I think this belongs to you,” Ryan continued, holding the offending sheet out towards her.

Stacy just stared at the piece of paper, tinted a faint purple and covered with her handwriting. She was mortified, absolutely mortified, right down to her very bones. “You didn’t – read it, did you?” she choked out, hoping against hope that he’d merely happened upon it on his way home or something.

He took a step closer to her. “I did,” he admitted.

Stacy winced. In that moment, she wanted nothing more than for the ground to open up beneath her feet and swallow her whole. Here was the moment she’d been dreading, not only since striking pen to paper that afternoon, but for the entirety of the school year, for the length of time she’d allowed this stupid crush to grow and grow and grow, blossoming far beyond her control. She’d only just become comfortable admitting her feelings for him, even if only to herself – she wasn’t ready to face his rejection.

“I’m – I’m sorry,” she blurted, tearing the paper from his hands and pushing past him. She ran out of the park, as fast as her feet could carry her, clutching her notebook to her chest. Tears of horrified embarrassment splashed down her cheeks, but she let them fall unabated, wanting more than anything to flee from his presence and be by herself – to lick her wounds, yes, but also figure out how the hell she’d ever find the nerve to face him again, now that he knew how she felt about him.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t so accommodating.

“Stacy!” Ryan called, the range of his footsteps growing closer as he caught up to her.

She dodged the piles of silly string in the street, remnants of the war that had apparently carried itself outside the storeroom of the P*lace. The others had left; the P*lace was dark, the street was quiet. When she realized that he was right behind her, she cut sharply to the left, climbing the stairs beside the Garage. Halfway up, she stumbled, throwing her arms out to catch herself, dropping her precious notebook in the process, papers flying everywhere.

But her bare knees didn’t meet sharp concrete, as she had anticipated; instead – somehow – amazingly – he was there, reaching out to catch her before she could fall.

“Hey,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her close, easing her upright once more. “It’s okay, Stace, I’ve got you.”

But it’s not okay, she thought as she absently snaked an arm around his shoulders, working to regain her balance. After a moment of awkward silence, she let him go, reaching up to wipe away the tears still sliding down her cheeks.

“I’m – okay,” she said haltingly, keeping her eyes trained to the ground, trying to ignore the heat curling around her midsection where he still held her. “You don’t have to stay.”

His grip loosened, but didn’t fall away. “We should talk about this,” he urged.

“What’s there to talk about?” she tried again, her tone full of false cheer. She finally broke through his hold by sinking down to the steps, pulling together the remnants of her assignment.

“Well, first I could apologize for reading your notebook,” he suggested. “I’m sorry, Stace – you know I’d never knowingly invade your privacy.”

Her face heated with a painful blush as she reached for the last of the scattered papers. “I know,” she replied softly.

“And,” he continued, “I’ll go ahead and apologize on behalf of the others, who brought this to my attention.”

Stacy wilted in defeat, turning to sit on the stair next to his foot. “The others read it, too?” She’d never live this down, if that was the case…

“Only Devyn,” Ryan admitted, “and, I think, only part of it.” He sank down beside her on the staircase, careful to keep some distance between them. “She raised the alarm, though – so the others are worried, even if they don’t know the specifics.”

“Great, just great,” Stacy muttered, covering her face with her hands. Now there’s no way I can turn this in, she thought morosely, and I’ll have to start over from scratch! I’ll never be able to finish this in time…oh, God, if only Renee was here, I could really use a hug right about now…

As if he could read her mind, Ryan reached for her, cupping his hand around the base of her neck, his fingers curling over her shoulder in a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry about the others, I can take care of them,” he assured her. “But I do think we should talk about what you wrote.”

Stacy couldn’t speak, flushed with awkward shame. She’d never been in this position before, her heart laid bare for another to take – or break. She wasn’t good with her emotions, or acting on crushes, and this was no different. No, she decided, this was worse – because it was Ryan; because he was her friend, someone she couldn’t escape, even if she made a fool of herself.

“Would it help if I told you I’ve felt the same way?” Ryan asked, breaking the heady silence that surrounded them.

Stacy looked up sharply, her eyes wide as they met his. “W-what?” she whispered, suddenly feeling very lightheaded. It was too much to ask for…!

He nodded sagely. “I’ve given serious thought to leaving the band,” he confirmed, “on a couple of different occasions.”

She worked to hide her disappointment, not that it was hard, considering the surprise now coursing through her veins. “I – wha – when?” she finally managed, shaking her head in utter disbelief.

He shrugged, dipping his thumb in a smooth caress over the base of her neck. “When Gloria left,” he replied. “When I joined the baseball team last spring. Just a few weeks ago, when this cold war with Brian over choreography started.”

Stacy felt at an utter loss for words. “But – I thought the band was the center of your universe,” she sputtered.

He nodded, a slow smile curving the corners of his mouth. “It has been a very important part of my life,” he conceded. “I love all the time I get to spend with you guys” – he gave her shoulder another squeeze – “and I love playing music. That’s why I’m applying to Juilliard.”

“Juilliard, really? Wow,” she breathed. Her thoughts were beginning to coalesce. “I guess that’s why you’ve been so distant lately…?”

He winced. “You noticed?” he asked, earning a sage nod in reply. “Wow, sorry about that. Yeah, I’m applying in composition, and I have to write two original pieces for the application, which is due in December.” He shrugged sheepishly. “I guess that’s been taking up more of my time than I realized.”

She scooted a bit closer to him on the step. “That’s great, though,” she said, fighting back a wave of bittersweet melancholy. “I hope you get in.”

“Thanks,” he replied, his hand sliding from her neck to her shoulder.

She leaned against him as a patch of silence stretched before them, relaxing into the half-embrace. It was so comforting to be near him, to let him hold her, even nominally. She loved the way the worn leather of his jacket felt against her cheek as she rested her head on his shoulder. She loved the way he smelled, like a mixture of rain and soap with a hint of cologne, even after a sweaty afternoon set under the stage lights at the P*lace. She loved the weight of his arm on her shoulders, the way his long, tapered fingers rested lightly on her arm, the way he let her curl into his side, so naturally, as if they always sat this way when they were together.

And yet, as much as she wanted to enjoy this moment, she found she couldn’t – thoughts nagging at the back of her mind, about how much of her essay had been about acknowledging her secret feelings for him, and how little about her desire – nay, willingness – to leave the band in order to act on those feelings. Though he might have chosen to pursue that particular line of thought in order to calm her and get her to stay and talk, she realized belatedly, now that the can of worms was open, she couldn’t very well leave it be.

Her eyelids fluttered shut, and she tried to imprint this moment on her memory – how close they sat, the warmth of his embrace, the way her stomach churned and her chest constricted and heart sang at this indulgence of her attraction to him – as she simultaneously gathered up the nerve to move into uncharted territory.

“What about the rest of it?” she finally asked, gesturing to her notebook. “Have you ever felt that way about anyone?” About me? she silently amended.

He released her, bringing both of his arms forward as he rested his elbows on his knees. “I have,” he admitted with a slight, knowing smile.

Her heart stopped.

“Believe it or not, I had a similar conversation with Gloria,” he continued. “Hmm…maybe a year before she left?”

It was much harder for Stacy to fight her disappointment this time, though mercifully, Ryan appeared to be too caught up in his memories to notice. “You know that scene I wrote in my ninth grade English assignment?” he said, tapping her notebook with one finger. “She was the inspiration for it. I think we both knew it’d never work out, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.”

Stacy felt another twinge of embarrassment, for being such an oblivious kid. “I never realized,” she remarked softly.

“I don’t think anyone did,” he replied. “At least, I hope not.”

Stacy was silent for a moment, another question burning on her tongue – one she figured she’d probably regret asking, though she found herself unable to resist. “Did you ever kiss her?”

He chuckled, turning to catch her gaze. “I tried,” he said, “but she shut me down pretty fast.”

She managed a watery, sympathetic smile, one that didn’t quite meet her eyes. I’d never do that, she thought, but then, you’d probably never try to kiss me

“You know, it’s funny,” he mused aloud, bringing her back to the present. “I never thought I’d have another conversation like that, with another bandmate.” He reached for her, his fingers grazing her cheek as he tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, his expression growing serious. “I can only hope this one goes better.”

Stacy chewed on her lower lip, puzzled by his almost cryptic words. “What do you mean?”

His hand found hers where it rested on the step between them. “Even though she didn’t mean to, Gloria hurt my feelings back then – and I don’t want to make the same mistake with you.”

Her gaze fell to their hands, and she turned hers upward, lacing her fingers through his. I don’t know if that’s possible, she thought, enjoying the current of electricity that seemed to ignite under his touch.

“I’m really flattered by what you wrote about me,” he continued. “We’ve been friends for so long, that I guess it was hard for me to realize just how much you’ve changed over the last year or so. You’ve really grown up a lot, Stace, and I like the person you’ve become. A lot.”

Slowly, she lifted her eyes back to his face. “So what are you saying?” she asked carefully, unable to discern his tone, her breath shallow in her chest as another wave of tears welled up behind her eyes, anticipating sharp rejection.

He took a deep breath, measuring his response as his eyes met hers. “What I’m trying to say is – ”

And then she felt it, all at once – five, six, ten different sensations: the way his mouth slanted over hers, his lips soft, pliant, guiding; the rough calluses on his fingertips as he touched her face, cupping her cheek; shock and surprise and pleasure coursing through her veins at this most unexpected answer to her question. She was frozen in place, her mind reeling, her body flushing hot and cold and then hot again, but she fought through it all, lifting her chin and kissing him back, wanting to hang onto the moment for as long as possible.

All too soon, he pulled away, though the intensity and electricity his kiss had stirred in her remained. She opened her eyes, startled to find him still so close, his gaze intense as he studied her, waiting for her reaction. She could barely breathe; she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to, if it meant shattering this moment.

“Wow,” she finally managed.

“Yeah,” he agreed, his voice a mixture of surprise and relief. He withdrew a little further, his hand falling away from her face. “I – um, yeah.”

It was faintly amusing for her, to see him at such a loss for words – he, the great encyclopedia of knowledge, always ready with an explanation for anything and everything, warranted or not.

“I really like you, Ryan,” Stacy said after a moment, amazed at how easily the words seemed to roll off her tongue.

“I really like you, too, Stacy,” he replied.

Tentatively, she reached for him, linking her hands behind his neck. She was encouraged when he responded in kind, his arms circling her waist, and she moved closer, drawing herself level, her eyes trained on his mouth.

“And I’d really like to kiss you again,” she said softly, swaying closer with each word, until their lips met once more – and this time, neither one held back.

Chapter Text


.6.
“So Emotional”

I’ve got to watch you walk in the room, baby
I’ve got to watch you walk out
I like the animal way you move
And when you talk, I just watch your mouth
I remember the way that we touched
I wish I didn’t like it so much…

© 1986 Billy Steinberg, Tom Kelly, & Whitney Houston

~*~

Stacy floated home that night, breezing through the door of her family’s apartment and heading straight to her room. It was quite late, and she’d missed dinner, but she didn’t care – after the immense events of earlier, she could never eat again and be content. She had just settled at her desk, opening her notebook to that final page, when there was a knock at her door.

“Stacy?” called her mother's voice. Stacy turned to see her poking her head in the room. “Did rehearsal run late, dear?”

Stacy’s cheeks tinged pink as she bit back a blissful smile. “Yeah – something like that. I’m sorry.”

Her mother smiled. “It’s okay, honey. Just remember to call next time, if you know you’re going to be late? I know you guys work awfully hard, and can get carried away….”

Stacy could only shrug in response.

Her mother eyed her curiously, as if she could tell her daughter was hiding something, but seemed content to not pry. “Anyway – your dinner is warming in the oven, if you still want it, and you have a letter on the hall table.” She paused, allowing a moment of time to draw out between them; when Stacy didn’t fill the silence, perhaps as he mother had hoped, she simply smiled. “Don't stay up too late, dear – I know you have homework, but sleep is important, too.”

“I won’t, Mom,” she promised, though she had no idea how she was going to be able to sleep when she was still riding the wave of gushy, mushy happiness that Ryan’s kisses had ignited in her. She followed her mother out of the room, more interested in the letter than in food, and she squealed with delight when she realized who the fat envelope was from.

“A letter from the Kid!” she cried, clutching the oversized packet postmarked from Togo to her chest. “Can this day possibly get any better?!”

She raced back to her room, ripping open the envelope and devouring its contents. The Kid had written her several letters, in fact, the last of which indicated that he’d received the first ones she’d sent to him at the beginning of the school year. He regaled her with tales of life overseas, the challenges of learning a new language and fitting into a completely different culture, while retaining his own identity. He told her about his school, his classes and teachers, and new friends he’d already made, one of whom played guitar. The last letter assured her he was receiving her mail, though sometimes a week or even two passed between letters she’d mailed only days apart, and that he missed her greatly. He’d even sent her his telephone number, in case she ever wanted to call.

She immediately sat down at her desk and started a new letter, replying to some of his questions and comments, filling him in on the status of the band and how things weren’t the same without him, and telling him of the latest happenings in her personal life. It was only fitting, she thought, that he be the first to know about how things had shifted between her and Ryan; he was her best friend, after all, and she had only rarely ever been able to keep secrets from him. They’d been thick as thieves ever since they were eight years old; his outgoing, vivacious personality the perfect match for her more sheltered innocence. It was really great, having a guy for a best friend; the Kid could always been counted on to offer up his perspective on matters, whether invited or not. Only within the last year or two had he properly adjusted the filter from his brain to his mouth.

A quick glance at her bedside clock surprised her; she hadn’t realized it had gotten so late. She rushed to get ready for bed, changing her clothes and brushing her teeth before falling across her mattress. She set her alarm and curled beneath the blankets, but when she closed her eyes, all she could picture was Ryan after he’d kissed her that first time. It was an absolutely perfect moment, frozen in time – the way he was gazing at her, his eyes so warm and intense; the way his hair fell over his brow, the longer locks of it still tangled with hers; the way he cupped her face with his hands, his touch so light and delicate despite his guitar-playing calloused fingers. The memory was enough to make her heart pound all over again, excitement flooding through her, winding her brain up like the ultimate sugar-high, her thoughts racing a mile a minute across the back of her mind. She could still feel the whisper of his lips against hers; she remembered the way he smelled, the way he tasted, and she wanted nothing more than to relive these beautiful, simple, special moments over and over again.

After all, it wasn’t every day a girl received a kiss from her crush – much less two!

But eventually, exhaustion began to creep over her still form; her mind dulled, the images blurring together, lingering warmth and heat combining and enveloping her. She could almost imagine him lying there beside her, wrapping his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder. This new fantasy of being held did little to calm her racing thoughts, however; if anything, it made them worse. Here she was, dutifully tucked into bed in her darkened room, trying to pass the quiet hours in sleep before her alarm went off. And yet, she couldn’t quite push herself over the precipice into unconsciousness; she wanted to cling to the sensations as long as she could. So what if it meant she was a walking zombie in the morning? It would be totally worth it…

She opened her eyes.

…until she saw Ryan again.

She sighed, turning over onto her back. She didn’t know what any of this meant. Yes, he’d kissed her and told her he liked her, but…? Did that change anything? What would happen when she saw him again (hopefully before rehearsal with all the others the next afternoon)? Did this mean they were going out? Did this mean that she was his girlfriend? She wasn’t totally naïve; she’d been on dates and kissed boys before…but it have never felt like this.

This was truly uncharted territory – she’d never had a crush of this magnitude, fueled by such desire and longing and yearning, much less had those feelings returned. Never before had she been interested in a guy for more than a couple of weeks; never before had she fought conflicting feelings of familiarity and anxiety while in his presence; never before had she ever felt so relaxed, confident, and at ease in the aftermath of an intense moment. She could almost liken it to performing on stage – being with him, touching him, kissing him – it just felt right, something solid and strong and unwavering, as if a set of puzzle pieces had fallen perfectly into place.

Only – where did they go from here? What did she do next? A goodnight kiss after a dance was one thing, but these kisses felt like they could – they would – lead to something more.

She turned slightly then, her eyes lighting upon the glowing figures of her alarm clock. 12:30 am, it read. The dead of night, too late to talk to anyone about this – and besides, who would she call? Her best friend was half a world away; even though she’d written him a letter, he wouldn’t receive it for weeks, not even if she mailed it first thing in the morning. She wasn’t ready to share such big news with her parents, and she still felt a little humiliated about losing the slip of notebook paper that her other friends had found – and read, alerting all and sundry members of Kids Incorporated to her secret feelings for their bandmate.

Not for the first time since the school year had begun, Stacy found herself wishing Renee was still right across the hall…

She bolted up in her bed. Renee! she thought excitedly. I have to tell Renee what’s happened – she’ll know what I should do next! Never mind that her sister had never had a long-term boyfriend (to Stacy’s knowledge); never mind the fact that she was half a world away; never mind the fact that it was the dead of night there and only barely morning in England. Stacy reached for her phone, the need to physically tell someone – to verbalize and put into words what had happened that magical evening – absolutely overwhelming in the moment. Not until she heard the slightly jarring ringing of the international dial tone did it occur to her that anybody at cousin Samantha’s could pick up the phone.

She was in luck, however. “Hello?” came a cheery, if slightly confused voice.

Stacy swallowed hard. “May I speak to Renee, please?” she asked, doing her best to sound nonchalant and, well, awake.

“One moment, please,” the voice said, followed by the muffled sound of the phone being set down. Mentally, Stacy calculated the time zone differences between herself and her sister as she waited for the latter to pick up the phone, and felt only slightly guilty when she realized it was almost six am in the UK.

“Hello?” Renee sounded sleepy as she picked up an extension; the first was clicked back into place almost immediately.

“Hey, sis!” Stacy greeted her, picturing her lying in her own bed half a world away as she took the phone call. It brought a smile to her face.

“Stacy?” Renee sounded quite confused. “Is that you?”

“Unless you have another sister I’m unaware of,” Stacy joked, reaching to turn on her bedside lamp. She kept her voice low so as not to wake the rest of the household.

“Why are you calling so late?” Renee asked, her voice becoming sharper and clearer with each passing moment. “Is everything okay? Are Mom and Dad – ”

“Everyone’s fine,” Stacy assured her, amused when Renee heaved a huge sigh of relief right into the receiver.

“Geez, Stace, don’t scare me like that,” she chided lightly, relief flooding her tone. “So what’s going on? It must be important if you called.”

“It is,” Stacy replied, biting her lower lip. “Renee, he kissed me.”

She could practically feel Renee’s grin through the phone. “Oh, Stace, that’s awesome!” she said excitedly. “Who?”

“Ryan,” Stacy responded dreamily.

There was a slight pause on the other end of the line. “Wait a minute,” Renee said slowly. “Our Ryan?”

Stacy sighed. “Yeah,” she confirmed, her voice trailing off as another excited smile broke across her features.

“I’m going to clobber him!” Renee exclaimed, her voice rising a notch in volume with each word. “Stacy, how dare he – !”

“Renee!” she hissed, interrupting her sister’s righteous indignation, which had undoubtedly been provoked on her behalf. “I wanted him to!”

That seemed to take the wind out of her sister’s sails. “Oh,” she said, though not without some trepidation in her tone.

Stacy pouted. “I thought you’d be happy for me,” she huffed, her own mood deflating.

“I am, I am,” Renee rushed to reassure her. “If you wanted it, and he wanted it – well, then, of course I’m happy for you!” She sighed. “It’s just – you’re my baby sister, Stace. It’s practically my job to worry about you.”

“I guess,” Stacy said slowly, somewhat mollified by her sister’s apologetic tone.

“Besides, I know him,” Renee added, “and I don’t want him to hurt you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, come on, Stace,” Renee responded skeptically. “You remember Suzanne…and that Russian ballerina girl he liked? He doesn’t exactly have a great track record in these things!”

She did remember those girls, now – and Ryan’s reaction to each of them…not to mention how differently he’d acted with her, by comparison. “Well, neither do I!” she reminded her sister.

“Yeah, but you’re young,” Renee pointed out under a huffy sigh.

“Gee, thanks,” Stacy grumbled.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Renee replied. “All I’m saying is – he’s seventeen, and that can be a huge difference at your age – ”

You’re seventeen, and you’re not that much older than me!” Stacy shot back.

“Don’t be so sure of that,” Renee returned drolly.

Stacy’s good cheer was rapidly deteriorating, which was not at all the result she wanted from squeeing with her sister over kisses and potential boyfriends. Renee and Ryan had always had a competitive edge to their friendship, so maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that her sister wasn’t 100% enthusiastic about this turn of events. “All I wanted to know is what’s going to happen next,” she finally said, unable to disguise the hurt from her tone.

Renee let out a long, slow breath. “I don’t know, Stacy,” she finally admitted, “but I have faith – that Ryan is a good guy, under all that show-offy gruffness, and he’ll do right by you, whatever comes of this. But if he hurts you? I am going to punch him in the face.”

Stacy smiled.

“Maybe even through the phone,” Renee added teasingly.

“Thanks, sis,” Stacy replied, holding back a sniffle.

“You’re welcome,” Renee said firmly. “Now, I should probably let you go before Mom and Dad find out you’re running up the phone bill in the middle of the night!”

Stacy’s eyes widened as she swung another glance at her clock. “Oh my God, you’re right!” she whispered furiously. “But – it was important.”

“Right,” Renee smiled. “Look, keep me posted, okay? Oh, and maybe you could give me Ryan’s number as well…?”

~*~

Ryan slumped against the railing, pulling his trusty leather jacket a little tighter around himself. He glanced up from the stack of staff paper he held steady against one knee, eyeing the grey skies that had dawned over the low buildings of the neighborhood. It’s just as well, he thought to himself, idly calculating how long it would be until the clouds opened up and released the rain that hung heavily in their bellies. At least this weather matches my mood.

Not that he was in a bad mood – just a conflicted one.

A cool breeze lifted his hair from his brow and caused the sheets in his lap to flutter menacingly. He sighed, adjusting his seat on the uncomfortable concrete steps of the stoop, and stared at the composition he’d been working on for the better part of the morning. It had come to him in fits and starts, rearranging itself as he played it through in his mind, hence the messiness of the notes and erasure marks on the page. In spite of that, though, he felt like it might be some of his strongest work ever.

Too bad it had to come at a time like this.

He hummed the last few bars on the page quietly to himself, adding a technical flourish and jotting down a note about the transition between keys he was fast coming upon. But, before he realized it, he found his gaze lifting up to the darkened sky once more, his heart as heavy as the clouds appeared.

Absently, he twirled a pink flower in his right hand, using the nail on his thumb to scrape away at the tiny thorns on the stem. He couldn’t stop thinking about her – or about the situation he suddenly found himself in, one he was totally unprepared for…and yet, one he couldn’t stop himself from wanting. It had prevented him from getting any sort of decent sleep the night before; eventually, he’d just given up, gotten up, and pulled out the stack of sheet music he was working on for the band. He arranged all of the songs for the group, transposing them into different keys to match the singer’s best range, and sometimes even reworking some of the instrumentation. When that frustrated him, he’d turned to his own compositions – and flourished.

A little angst was good for the musician’s soul, it seemed.

And yet – he couldn’t help but feel absolutely torn. He recognized where he was in his life: a senior in high school, applying for college, for Juilliard, leading a band with a full-time gig in his spare time and playing baseball on the school team, to boot. His calendar was perpetually full. He’d always found the time for a date or two, when he came across an interesting girl he wanted to get to know better. “Casual” was about all he had time for, in that department – but, two kisses with Stacy and he could tell:
there would be nothing casual about this.

And then there was Stacy herself. She’d blossomed over the summer, growing a good six inches or so and filling out, her personal style becoming a bit more sophisticated and grownup than it used to be. Part of him marveled at how pretty she was, with her sunny blonde hair and trim figure and gorgeous long legs, while the other part of him was mildly disgusted he’d even noticed these things about her in the first place. This was Stacy, after all; when they’d first met, she was only nine, a cute kid with a big voice and the potential for so much more.

Now, five years later, she was growing into that potential – in more ways than one.

He was hardly the only guy around who found her attractive; her numbers during their concerts were perennial blockbusters, with crowds gathering around to hear her sing even on a Wednesday afternoon. Brian was constantly designing ever-more risqué choreography for her to perform during her songs, much to Ryan’s chagrin, but he did it because that’s what the audience wanted – also much to Ryan’s chagrin. He still felt incredibly protective of her, an instinct that had taken root from almost the moment he’d met her, and it was difficult for him to come to terms with the idea that perhaps his feelings for her were changing, growing, moving beyond friendship into something…more.

Yesterday, when Devyn had given him that piece of notebook paper, his world had completely tilted on its axis. He’d suspected something was up with Stacy, but never in a million years did he expect to find himself at the center of it. And reading all of those thoughts and feelings she’d jotted down – it was incredibly flattering. Then he remembered how he’d felt when he’d confronted Gloria with his feelings, hoping against hope for the same happy outcome, only to have his dreams dashed with the single, gentle curve of her smile. He was determined to protect Stacy’s feelings, as he always had, but then –

Something had changed, almost in an instant. In that moment, when she was looking at up him, her hand warm in his on the step between them, he felt it – the shift of his feelings, from flattery to desire; the need to touch her, hold her, kiss her; how right it all felt, like scattered pieces of a puzzle slipping into place; how it felt like he could stay there forever with her, until they were the last two people on the planet, and be content forevermore.

It had been sudden, overwhelming, and more than a little scary. Even knowing the way she felt about him, he had no idea how receptive she’d be to his kiss…but now he did.

And now he wondered if he’d made a mistake. Not because he didn’t like her, but because he did.

He was a passionate person, and he tended to live his life by moving from one intense moment to the next. He wasn’t really one to do anything by halves; he enjoyed being able to throw himself into his projects, his friendships, his love life. But with Stacy, everything became incredibly complicated. There was the band to consider – how would the others react? Not to mention that Renee had probably already put out a contract on his head. Then there was his schedule, stuffed so full at the moment he barely had time to sleep – and his number one priority at the moment was Juilliard. That was absolutely non-negotiable.

By the same token, however, he wanted to pursue this new avenue in his relationship with Stacy – which was why he was sitting on the stoop of her apartment building this morning, hoping to catch her as she left for school. So, it was just as well that the weather was dreary and he’d gotten no sleep and he’d skipped morning workouts with the baseball team – there was nowhere else he'd rather be.

“Oh!”

Ryan started, turning as he heard the clatter of books falling to the ground directly behind him. He glanced up, his lips parting as his eyes locked with Stacy’s. She was wearing a lavender-colored skirt with matching purple-and-white cardigan over a pink polo shirt, and her face was as dark as her blouse as she stared down at him, her expression a mixture of shock and surprise.

He started to stand, gathering the papers in his lap so they wouldn’t fly away. “Stacy, I – ”

He was most definitely not expecting what happened next. She looked dazed as he rose to his full height, two steps below where she stood on the landing; suddenly, she leaned close to him, slipping her arms around his shoulders and pressing her mouth to his, sending a jolt of fiery surprise coursing down his spine. After a moment, her embrace tightened around him; curls of heat swirled through him, burning brightest at her touch.

What she lacked in experience she more than made up for in enthusiasm.

She trailed her fingers through his hair as she pulled away, drawing her lower lip between her teeth and looking adorably sheepish. “I just wanted to make sure it was real,” she breathed, the corners of her mouth curving up into a smile.

Oh, this is most definitely real, Ryan thought to himself, struggling to find his breath. He squeezed his eyes shut, furrowing his brow in frustration. And that's the problem.

“Ryan?” Stacy’s voice was suddenly very quiet, her tone uncertain. “Is something wrong?”

Doubt was impossible to hide in such close proximity. He opened his eyes, her immediate expression making him want to pull her close into a reassuring hug. He fought that instinct, however, instead reaching up to unfurl her arms from his shoulders.

Her face was the color of a tomato again, her gaze falling away from his. “Did I – did I do something – ” she stammered, withdrawing from his grip.

“No,” he said swiftly. He pinched the stem of the flower he still held. “It’s just… Do you remember what Gloria always used to tell us? The first rule of being in the band?”

Stacy’s eyes were trained to the ground as she nodded. “Don’t date your bandmates,” she replied softly.

“Right,” he confirmed. “And I know how important the band is to you – it’s just as important to me. So, we have to think about this, before anything…else…”

She dared to look up again, determination lighting in her eyes. “But there are exceptions to every rule,” she said defiantly.

“I know,” he responded, reaching out to caress her cheek. “I’m not taking back anything that’s happened, I’m just saying – we’ve worked really hard to get to where we are with Kids Incorporated. Are you really ready to give it all up, for me?”

She bit her lower lip, but didn’t immediately respond – which was reassuring to him. As much as he wanted to explore this, he wasn’t ready to hear that she’d give up something she’d devoted her life to for it – because he wasn’t sure he could say the same, in response.

“Besides which…” He shrugged, presenting the flower her. “The last thing in the world I want to do is hurt you, but I also don’t like to start things I’m not prepared to finish. I can’t promise you anything. My life is chaotic, my schedule is intense – my mind is a million difference places at once. I don’t know – ”

“This?” Stacy interrupted, taking the flower from him. “This is enough for me.”

Ryan could only stare at her. Any other girl he’d ever pursued had been upset upon learning he would no sooner carve out a block of “quality time” for her than he would give up one of his activities. They had all been displeased at the notion of not immediately becoming the center of his universe, around which the rest of his life revolved.

Indeed, amazingly enough, Stacy’s expression had gone from one of near misery to one of absolute delight, as she stared down into the luminous pink bloom he'd picked up on a lark on the way over from his building.

“No one else needs to know,” she continued, breaking the stem just under the bud and tucking the flower behind her ear. “I don’t need to proclaim it to the world. I don’t even know what ‘it’ is!”

He smiled weakly. I don’t, either, he thought.

She touched him again, tentatively this time, laying her arms on his shoulders and linking her hands behind his neck. “All I know is – as long as I can see you, and hug you, and kiss you” – she flushed a little – “that’s enough for me. Knowing you feel the same way about me as I do for you? That’s…beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined.”

She closed the distance between them, and he reciprocated, drawing his arms around her waist and pulling her into a close, heartening hug. Her breath was warm against his neck, a welcome change from the chilly breeze that enveloped them, bringing along with it the threat of a storm.

“Whatever this is? It can be our secret, for now,” she vowed.

He smiled, tightening his embrace enough so that he could lift her up off her feet. “You’re irresistible, Stace,” he replied with a smile. “Okay, okay – we’ll figure ‘it’ out.” Reluctantly, he put her down again. “But for now, I guess we should go to school.”

She graced him with a small smile before letting him go. “Do you think we can make it before we get totally soaked?” she asked, stooping down to pick up her books, dropped earlier and long forgotten in the intensity of the moment.

He grinned, taking her hand and lacing his fingers through hers. “Only if we run,” he replied, leading her down the steps, holding her hand tightly the entire way to school.

Chapter Text


.7.
“Cherry Bomb”

The winter days / they last forever
But the weekends went by so quick
When I think back about those days
All I can do is sit and smile
Laughing, laughing / with our friends
Holding hands meant something, baby…

© 1987 John Cougar Mellencamp

~*~

Richie and Kenny chattered lightly as they strolled into the P*lace on a Monday afternoon. Devyn and Connie were already there, giggling with a flock of girlfriends at one of the tables, so the boys made a beeline for the counter instead. It was a rare rehearsal-only afternoon, and both were determined to make the best of their free time until the others showed up and the work began.

“What can I get you guys?” Riley asked, looking pleased to have two more customers stepping up to his counter.

Kenny shrugged. “The usual,” he ordered, counting out his money and passing it across.

“Same here,” Richie said, digging into his pockets. Boy, what a great idea this was, striking a deal for the band’s outfits, in exchange for Rocky Rahsaan Ripple ice cream, he thought to himself. It’s my favorite flavor – I could probably eat my weight in it and not even get sick!

“Here you go,” Riley announced with a flourish, placing two dishes of the special flavor in front of them. Kenny murmured his thanks and left, wandering over to an empty table near the entrance.

Richie counted out the last of his change, shining his last penny on his shirt before passing it over. “So, Riley, how are we doing?” he asked. “Have we made up much of our debt to you yet?”

“Some of it,” Riley replied, smiling as he dropped the money in the cash register.

Most of it?” Richie asked hopefully, digging his spoon into his sundae.

Some of it,” Riley reiterated, with emphasis. “We did well, making it the featured flavor last month, but you still have a ways to go. You did buy a lot of jackets, after all.”

Richie shrugged, stuffing a huge bite of the delectable treat into his mouth. Riley had done the band a huge favor, and was taking it all in stride, for which Richie was eternally grateful. He didn’t always think his schemes completely through before launching them, but so far? He’d been lucky – they’d all worked, even if it meant his friends bailing him out on occasion.

He turned, about to set off towards the table where Connie, Devyn, and their friends were congregated, before noticing Kenny sitting by himself a few tables away. Furrowing his brow, he altered paths, sidling up to Kenny’s table and sliding into the seat next to him.

“Hey, man, is everything okay?” he asked, dipping his spoon into his ice cream again.

Kenny shrugged. “Yeah,” he replied noncommittally. He shot a baleful stare across the way at the girls before lowering his eyes to his own dish.

Richie glanced from his friend to the girls and back again, the gears in his mind grinding together. “So – is there a reason you're not sitting with Devyn and the others? You guys didn’t have a fight, did you?”

Kenny sighed. “No,” he replied, “but I’m so tired of listening to them. All they talk about is boys and clothes and who’s going out with who.” He made a face. “It gets boring after a while, know what I mean?”

Richie shrugged. “I suppose,” he remarked, taking another bite. It was obvious something a little deeper than idle gossip was needling his friend. “Are they talking about anyone in particular?”

Kenny nodded. “Oh yeah,” he confirmed, rolling his eyes. “If you’re curious, go sit with them – I’m sure they’re still talking about it. It’s a losing battle to get them off the subject.”

Richie’s brows shot up – he’d never heard Kenny speak with such vitriol before, especially not aimed at his supposed best friend, Devyn. Curiosity claimed him and he stood up, wandering over to where the girls had gathered. He was pleased to see that they had also ordered the usual, which meant, slowly but surely, everyone truly was pitching in to help with their ice cream/performance outfit debt.

The girls’ conversation reached his ears long before he reached their table. “Well, like I said,” Devyn was saying, eyes sparkling, “Ryan came to rehearsal the next day, and told us that Stacy was writing a story for a huge English assignment, and she was feeling a lot of pressure because it was due at the end of the week. He insisted that she wasn’t mad at us – and when she showed up a couple minutes later? She definitely wasn’t angry.”

Devyn looked triumphant at the end of this little soliloquy, but Richie just felt confused. They were talking about Ryan and Stacy?

“I don’t get it,” he piped up, drawing the girls’ attention.

Devyn couldn’t contain her grin. “Don’t you see? Something happened between them, and they’re keeping it from us,” she clarified. “Isn’t that totally romantic?”

The girls sighed dreamily in unison.

Richie nearly choked on his ice cream. “Um…”

I think you’re just delusional,” another voice interjected. Richie glanced over his shoulder to see Kenny, his arms folded across his chest as he stared defiantly at the girls. “Face it, your little plan didn’t work!”

Devyn dismissed his protest with a wave of her hand. “You didn’t see the note I found!” she contended with a grin. “It was all about how she’s in love with him, and willing to leave the band because of it. Don’t you get it? He must’ve said or done something to make her stay.”

“And you read the note out of context,” Kenny argued. “Ryan told us that Stacy was writing a story – how do you know the page you saw wasn’t part of that?”

Context,” Devyn asserted. “And subtext. Didn’t you guys see the way they were acting during our concert on Saturday?”

Connie nodded. “You know Ryan and Brian haven’t always seen eye to eye on the staging, but he was totally into it.”

“And he’s not exactly coordinated,” one of their friends remarked ruefully.

Connie grinned. “Right – and yet, he willingly went along with everything that Brian had designed. When was the last time that happened?”

Devyn clapped a hand on Connie's shoulder. “He had eyes only for Stace,” she agreed with a dreamy sigh. “Did you see it, during ‘Seven Wonders’?”

Connie nodded in response. Their “Seven Wonders” performance had been pretty straightforward – the band had lined up by height, with Stacy in the middle, flanked by Ryan and Kenny, with Connie and Devyn on the ends. There was little actual choreography during the song, as each member took turns contributing on the lead vocal line, but the transition from the stage to the risers in the audience between verses had produced material worthy of conversational fodder, apparently. The five members not playing instruments had completed a complicated figure-eight style sequence, moving from one end of the stage, to the other, to the staircase, and finally moving to the opposite end of the risers from where they started on stage – with the tallest kids on the outside this time, and the shortest in the middle.

Another of their friends, Rosie, spoke up. “He was always looking at her.”

During the entire sequence, Ryan had kept his eyes trained on Stacy, which Devyn, Connie, and their friends found so romantic – but the boys just thought was practical.

“Well, yeah, for the steps,” Richie supplied. “You just said it – the dude isn’t coordinated.”

The girls only laughed.

“Then how do you explain, when we were back on the stage, why he was still looking at her?” Devyn countered.

“And fondly,” Rosie added.

The boys simply stared at them. “You guys are nuts,” Kenny deadpanned.

“Ooh, how about the encore, ‘Cherry Bomb’?” another friend, Emily, piped up. “I had a front-row seat for that one!”

The girls nodded and grinned knowingly.

“What about it? They’ve had that song planned for weeks,” Richie remarked.

Connie gave him a disbelieving stare. “You really can’t see anything from behind your drums, can you?”

He shrugged, taking another bite of his ice cream.

Emily shot up out of her seat. “Then allow us to demonstrate,” she said, grabbing Devyn’s hands and pulling her to her feet. “Will you be my Ryan?”

“Of course,” Devyn giggled.

The girls gave a blow-by-blow of the performance as they imitated it. “They came out into the audience from opposite wings,” Emily noted, “and met in front of the stairs to the stage to sing the first verse.”

To each other,” Devyn emphasized.

“Right,” her friend laughed. “And they climbed the stairs in unison, so that – wait, what was the chorus?”

“‘That’s when a sport was a sport,’” Devyn sang, picking up Ryan’s line of the duet. “‘And grooving was grooving!’”

Emily laughed. “Then they were on stage together, and that’s when it happened.”

Devyn took her friend’s hand, twirling her around. “‘Dancing meant everything,’” she crooned dramatically. “‘We were young and we were improving!’”

“‘Laughing, laughing, with our friends,’” Connie chimed in.

The two clasped hands. “‘Holding hands, that’s something, baby!’” the three sang in unison, before collapsing into giggles.

“So romantic,” Rosie proclaimed. “And then at the end – loved it! The way he practically growled that line, ‘outside the club Cherry Bomb / our hearts were really thumping’ at her as they climbed the stairs again, and then they held hands all the way through the end!”

The girls practically squealed with delight at the memory.

Richie and Kenny exchanged skeptical looks. “Did it ever occur to you that – maybe all that was staged?” Kenny asked. “Like, you know, every other performance we've done this season?”

“Oh, come on, you guys! We had the perfect view!” Devyn teased. The three had been at center stage for the entire performance, actually playing the song as Ryan and Stacy sang. “I don’t know what you were looking at – ”

“ – the audience?” Kenny grumbled under his breath.

“ – but I was watching them, and it looked real to me,” she concluded.

Connie and the others nodded in agreement.

Kenny turned to Richie, throwing up his hands. “See what I mean? Losing. Battle.”

Richie shrugged. His mind was still stuck on a remark Devyn had tossed off at the very beginning of the conversation. “But…if they’re keeping something from us, how can that be good?” he wondered aloud. “We work together so well because we communicate so well.”

Devyn shot a pointed look at his ice cream dish. “Really?” she drawled, as if she couldn't believe he was the one to belabor that point.

“I’m serious, guys,” Richie said, setting the cup down. “And with Ryan as our leader, it’s even more important that he be honest with us. I don’t like it.”

Connie sighed. “You guys just don’t understand,” she mused dismissively.

“No, you don’t understand,” Kenny shot back. “If something’s going on, it’s going to affect all of us.” He tightened the brace of his arms. “I don't want the group to splinter off over this.”

Richie put a hand on his shoulder, giving him a reassuring squeeze. “If it helps, I don’t think they’re like that. Ryan and Stacy wouldn’t keep anything from us, not intentionally. They’ve been members of Kids Incorporated the longest…” After a beat, he continued. “Anyway, I agree with you – I think the girls are making something out of nothing.”

Devyn’s smile flattened. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Whatever, guys,” she said flippantly. “Be blissful in your ignorance.”

The factions glared at each other, the tense silence that rose up around them broken only by the swinging of the double glass doors.

“Is everything okay?” a new voice interjected, somewhat skeptically.

Richie, Kenny, Devyn, Connie, and their friends turned their attention to the source of the comment, tense stances and folded arms dropping instantly. Ryan was looking at them, concern and confusion clouding his features. Stacy was standing next to him with a similar expression, her arms wrapped around her books.

The girls seemed quite disappointed that the two weren’t all over each other.

“Yeah,” Richie finally said. “We were – just discussing how much we still owe Riley for our jackets.”

Ryan quirked a brow, clearly not believing him, as he came to a halt by the counter. “Yeah, it’s a lot,” he said, swinging his backpack onto a barstool and digging into it for some cash. He passed a few bills to Stacy and set off for the table. “Riley told us it’d probably take us until spring to pay him back in full.”

Richie gulped. “Really?” he asked, suddenly feeling a pang of guilt.

Stacy returned just then, with two fresh sundaes in hand, and sat at the table formerly occupied by the gaggle of girls. Ryan sat beside her, and the others quickly followed suit, pulling up chairs to accommodate them all.

“Well, yeah,” Ryan clarified. “I mean, especially since you ordered them for people who don’t even eat ice cream.” He shot a dark look over his shoulder, directed towards the dancers outside, who were warming up under Brian’s watchful eye. “Anyway, we have a lot to do, so let’s get started, okay?”

“Okay,” the others sighed. Kenny cleared away the empty, drippy ice cream dishes, and Connie and Devyn waved goodbye to their friends. When Kenny returned to his seat, Ryan pulled out a gigantic stack of sheet music, piling it in the middle of the table.

“Whoa,” Connie said, her eyes wide. “That's a lot of music.”

“So we have a lot to choose from,” Stacy remarked.

Ryan nodded, noshing on his ice cream. “I figured we could plan out a week’s worth of shows off this – I’m just trying to stay ahead of the game.” He took another bite, gesturing with his spoon. “So, come on guys, choose what you want to do, and we’ll start putting set lists together!”

The others dug into the pile while Stacy and Ryan enjoyed their after-school snack. Truth be told, there was more than enough music to plan two or three weeks’ worth of concerts around – the band played five-song afternoon sets three times a week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and one longer, twelve-to-twenty song concert on Saturday nights. They rehearsed every day of the week, save Sunday, so they went through a constant rotation of songs. Monday and Friday afternoons were the most grueling, but most of the time, they were also the most fun.

Everyone began talking at once – “This would be great for Saturday!” or, “you should do this one afternoon, Kenny!” or, “Connie and Stacy and I could turn this into a trio without much work, I think,” – but Richie mostly kept to himself. He didn’t volunteer for lead singer duties, much preferring to stay in the safety of his drum kit. He watched the others, however, looking for signs that the tension from earlier had dissipated.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Ryan pulled a sheet from the stack. “I nominate you for this one, Stace,” he commented. “I think it’d make a good solo, maybe for a Saturday?”

Stacy smiled. “How appropriate,” she mused knowingly, accepting the music. “I accept.”

Devyn elbowed Connie once she caught the title of the song – “Out of the Blue,” by Debbie Gibson – and the two stifled triumphant snickers. Neither Ryan nor Stacy seemed to notice, but Kenny did, frowning in their general direction.

Richie glanced from one to the other, a knot of uneasiness setting in his chest. He didn’t like the idea of his friends fighting, and over something so stupid, no less. He could only hope this question of, “are they or aren’t they?” would be answered soon – and satisfactorily – before it tore the band apart.

Chapter Text


.8.
“I Get Weak”

With a kiss you can strip me defenseless
With a touch I completely lose control
All that’s left of my strength is a memory
Like a wave you keep pulling me under
How I’ll ever get out of this I don’t know
I just know there’s just no way to fight it

© 1988 Diane Warren & Belinda Carlisle

~*~

Stacy shivered in the chill of the morning air, never quite so grateful as now to feel the welcome blast of heat as she pushed open the doors of the high school. She immediately took off her hat and gloves, running a hand through her hair to make sure it hadn’t been flattened during the walk from her building. As much as she enjoyed winter weather, it did no favors for her personal sense of style.

She grinned as she started down the main hall, toward the freshman wing. I wonder what’s waiting for me this morning, she thought excitedly to herself. If he keeps it up, I could totally get used to this absentee boyfriend thing!

Her steps slowed as the thought floated across her mind. Could she really call Ryan her boyfriend? She wasn’t completely sure. A few weeks had passed since that embarrassing evening in the park, but at least on the surface of it, things hadn’t changed all that appreciably between them. The only times she saw him were at school (rarely) and at rehearsal (mostly), as well as their performances and concerts. But, he’d taken to waiting for her after school at her locker, and they usually walked hand-in-hand to the P*lace… and it seemed like those strolls were taking longer and longer every day, not that she minded.

They hadn’t been out on a “real” date yet, and, aside walking to and from rehearsals together, they hadn’t had much time to simply be alone with each other. Ryan still had morning workouts with the baseball team every day before school, and he always had a ton of homework to catch up on after finishing up with Kids Incorporated in the evenings, but Stacy didn’t mind. She still got weak in the knees just looking at him, much less anything else.

Besides, the boy had a serious romantic streak, one he could indulge even while not in her presence. Every morning since that fateful conversation in the park, he’d put a flower of some sort in the top vent of her locker. He’d left her roses, tulips, and orchids, in every possible color, from red to pink to white to yellow to orange; sometimes there was an accompanying note, sometimes there wasn’t. But, every morning, she always had a little something to look forward to, something that would brighten her day and make her smile and make the world seem a little less stressful.

What’s more, she’d taken to wearing the flower in her hair, tucked behind her ear or pinned back in a barrette, and she'd started a trend among her classmates, boosting her status almost back to junior-high levels. No one knew where this sudden fashion trend had come from, but rumors were burbling about a mysterious, terribly romantic boyfriend. Stacy would neither confirm nor deny her classmates’ suspicions, merely adding fuel to their envy-driven fire.

Either way, she was content. She'd managed to get through her mid-terms, including that massive English assignment, without completely falling apart. She had some of her old social circle back, not to mention the band, and a wonderful new relationship she couldn’t quite define. What more could she ask for?

Stacy stopped short as she turned the corner into the freshman wing of the school. Her breath hitched and her eyes widened as she looked down the hall toward her locker. Instead of what she’d been expecting – a flower, and maybe a note, perched prettily in the upturned vents – Ryan himself was there, leaning against the locker bank, holding a single red rose. He twirled it between his fingers as he waited, lifting it to inhale deeply of its fragrance for a moment, a slow smile curving his mouth.

Somehow, she managed to propel her feet forward, weak knees and all. He glanced up when he heard her footsteps echoing down the mostly empty hallway. “Good morning,” he called, holding the rose out to her.

“Good morning,” she echoed, taking the flower as she drew near. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Hmm,” he mused, wrapping his arms around her waist and drawing her into a warm embrace. “I have good news.”

She curled her arms around his shoulders, taking a moment to enjoy the scent of the rose as he held her. “Oh?” she breathed, her heart pumping furiously in her chest. No matter how many times he hugged her, being so close to him still sent a wave of excitement and pleasure washing through her.

He gave her a squeeze before withdrawing, his hands still resting at her waist. “Baseball workouts are over till spring,” he informed her.

Her eyes lit with understanding as she brushed her fingers through his still-damp, post-shower hair. “Okay,” she said hesitantly, not completely sure how this news was relevant to her.

He smiled, taking her free hand in his and lacing their fingers together. “That means two things,” he continued. “One – I can give you these flowers in person now…maybe on the way to school in the morning?”

Stacy grinned, lifting the rose to her nose for another sniff. “Really?”

He nodded. “And if your reactions are always this great, that will be something to look forward to.”

She blushed.

“And two,” he continued, sliding his hand across her cheek in a soft caress, “I have a free period during the day, that I can take at any time. I was wondering – when do you have study hall?”

“Oh, Ryan!” She threw her arms around his neck once more, hugging him as tightly as she could beneath her layers of winter clothes. She thought her heart would burst with outright adoration for him; this simple request made her happier than ten or twelve bouquets of winter flowers ever could. The only thing she’d ever wanted was to spend time with him, and now he was bending his schedule to make that happen. It seemed whatever ‘it’ was that was happening between them was beginning to coalesce.

He chuckled softly at the sweet onslaught of her embrace, the sound reverberating through him into her. Electric heat prickled between them, and she was content to hold onto him for a moment longer, reveling in this amazing feeling. Finally, however, she found her voice. “Fifth period, after lunch,” she managed, pulling away from him.

His gaze lingered on hers. “All right then – fifth period, after lunch,” he repeated. “I’ll meet you in the library?”

She nodded. “I’d like that,” she said softly.

The shrill ring of the warning bell pierced the air then, breaking the heady moment. Ryan glanced up at the clock across the hall as Stacy let go of him completely.

“I’d better run,” he said reluctantly, looking back at her. On impulse, he leaned forward, pressing a soft kiss to her lips. “I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah,” Stacy replied, struggling to catch her breath in the aftermath. She waved as he made his way down the hall, now filled with students rushing to their homerooms. As soon as he was out of sight, she collapsed against her locker, unable to contain the sheer bliss that enveloped her. “I can’t wait.”

~*~

Fifth period couldn’t come fast enough in Stacy’s estimation. The idea of spending forty-five minutes with her boyfriend – and he had definitely earned that label now, at least in her head – eclipsed all else. She breezed through her morning classes, taking everything in stride – not even the prospect of receiving a grade on her English assignment was enough to wipe the cheeky grin from her face.

She floated back down to reality, however, as her lunch period rolled around. She made it through the line and to her usual table in the crowded cafeteria, but found she wasn’t very hungry, now that it was time to eat. Fifth period was a mere twenty minutes – and a plate of food – away, but other thoughts crowded her mind – and her stomach.

What am I going to do? she asked herself as she stared at her plate, pushing the food around with her fork. How in the world will I be able to spend forty-five entire minutes alone with him? What if I have nothing to say? What if I do something stupid? What if he regrets ever asking me when my study hall was?

“Oh, please don’t tell me the hot lunch is disgusting!” a voice wailed dramatically. Stacy glanced up to see Nicole and Gina, just as they set their trays down and pulled up chairs across from her. “I just paid five bucks for it, and I’m actually hungry for a change.”

Stacy shook the cobwebs from her brain. “What?” she mumbled, blinking rapidly.

Gina was confused. “You just look like you’re ready to barf, that’s all,” she informed her friend, digging into the noodle concoction most generously called ‘spaghetti’ on the cafeteria menu. “Is something up?”

“No,” Stacy replied hastily. “I…just have a lot on my mind, that’s all.” There was still this tacit agreement not to tell anyone about their new ‘relationship,’ much less two of the band’s backup dancers.

“Well, that’s no surprise,” Nicole commented, picking at her salad greens, “considering you are the subject of some pretty hot gossip.”

Stacy felt the blood drain from her face. “I am?” Mentally, she backtracked over the events of that morning, wondering if anyone had actually seen Ryan at her locker. He’d left after the warning bell, when everyone was hustling off to homeroom, so…maybe?

Her friends’ expressions quickly clouded with concern. “It’s nothing bad, Stace,” Gina rushed to assure her. “We’re all just curious – what's with the flowers?”

Stacy reached for the bloom tucked behind her ear. “Oh, nothing,” she said, forcing a bit of false cheer into her tone. “I just thought it’d be a cool way to brighten up my winter wardrobe.” A shiver of excitement fluttered across her abdomen. The flowers were such a wonderful, personal gift already…

The idea of receiving them from him, in person? Thrilling didn’t even begin to cover it.

Nicole quirked a skeptical brow. “Oh yeah? Where are you getting them? Fresh flowers in winter are pretty expensive, just for the sake of making a fashion statement.”

“Not that that’s stopping the other girls from copying you,” Gina added with a smile.

Stacy shrugged. “I just get them from Flower Express – you know, just down the street from here?”

Nicole’s eyes lit up. “Oh, really?” she queried, her interest suddenly intensifying.

Stacy swallowed hard. She didn’t like the way her friends were eyeing her. “Really,” she confirmed.

“But…” The other girls exchanged a glance before Nicole continued her thought. “You don’t live just down the street from here. That’s awfully far to go out of your way every day, merely in the name of sparking a trend.”

Before Stacy could respond, Gina jumped into the fray. “C’mon, Stace, we’re your friends,” she reminded her. “You can be honest with us.” She cut a sly look to her left, and then her right, before leaning forward. “They’re from a boy, aren’t they?” she asked, her tone conspiratorial.

The nervous knot in Stacy’s stomach doubled. “No,” she replied, rather lamely.

Their grins widened. “You mean – they’re from a secret admirer?” Nicole squealed.

“And you’re wearing them in your hair to get his attention? So you can figure out who it is?” Gina added hastily, eyes sparkling.

The two looked so hopeful that Stacy hated to disagree. Yet, she couldn’t quite find it within herself to admit the truth, either.

Finally, she found her voice. “No, that’s not it, either…”

“Oh, come on, Stacy!” Nicole huffed. “We’re your friends! We won’t tell!”

“Unless, of course, you want us to,” Gina added, grinning wolfishly.

Nicole elbowed Gina, shooting her a look that plainly stated she was serious, before turning her attention back to Stacy. “You can’t keep the truth from us forever, you know.”

Before Stacy could respond, the bell rang, signaling the end of the lunch period. She pushed out of her seat and grabbed her bag, her heart pumping furiously even as she felt light-headed.

“Gotta run, guys,” she mumbled, picking up the tray of mostly uneaten food and dashing off.

The moment of truth had arrived.

Still at the table, Gina and Nicole exchanged an amused glance. “Now…when have you ever known her to be in a rush for anything, much less study hall?” Gina mused.

Nicole’s response was accompanied by a wry smile. “Something’s going on – and I intend to find out what.”

~*~

Phew, that was close, Stacy thought to herself as she made her way down the crowded hallway. She’d just secured a library pass from her study hall teacher, and was presently fighting her way out of the freshman wing and into the main hall. The library was gigantic, centrally located in the main building and taking up multiple floors, all of which were braced with reinforced double doors for maximum quiet. She slipped in, glancing around the lobby to see if he’d waited for her – or if she should wait for him. The bell rang again, so she lingered for a few minutes, nervously twisting the library pass in her hands.

Just when she was about to give up and starting searching for him in the stacks, Ryan appeared, waving silently to her from the reference section. She waved back, clutching her books to her chest as she made her way over to him, having to cross the path of the distinctly unfriendly first-floor librarian along the way. Once she was clear of that hurdle, she relaxed, taking the hand Ryan held out for her.

“Sorry about that,” he said softly, leading her to the back staircase. “I should’ve just told you to meet me back here, instead of just leaving you to wonder where I was.”

“How long have you been here?” she whispered furiously, following him up the stairs. They emerged on the third floor, which was even quieter than the first, if that were even possible.

He shrugged. “Since my lunch period,” he replied. “I often come here to study, or just find something interesting to read. It’s easier than dealing with the drama of the cafeteria.”

“Yeah,” she sighed wearily, knowing all too well what he meant.

He slid into a seat at one of the long library tables and she followed suit, sitting opposite of him. His side was covered in open books and papers, and she was uncertain, her immediate instinct being to not disturb him when he was so obviously in the middle of something. She also couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed – this wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind when she’d fantasized about spending their study period together.

“Well – I have – good news,” she stammered, glancing at the reams of staff paper and music theory books piled on his side of the table.

“Oh?” he queried, glancing up at her.

She nodded. “I got an A on my English midterm,” she said with a smile.

His eyes lit up. “That’s awesome, Stace!” he cried, reaching for her hand and giving it a squeeze. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” she replied. “Mr. Moritz especially liked my story, about a girl who actually goes after what she wants, instead of just dreaming about it.”

“Mmmhmm,” Ryan mused, a knowing smile sneaking across his features. “I might just have to give it a read sometime.”

She smiled back. “You might,” she teased, fighting the flush that rose up the back of her neck. “Anyway, I’d like to thank you for inspiring it.”

It was his turn to flush at that, until she handed him his old assignment, at which he could only laugh. “You’re welcome,” he chuckled, tucking it behind his notebook. “Glad it came in handy after all.”

His eyes drifted back to his own work, and soon enough, he was immersed in it again. Reluctantly, Stacy pulled out her own homework, opening her algebra text to the problems she’d been assigned that morning. Though she attempted to concentrate on her own work, she found her mind wandering off, her gaze lifting and settling on Ryan.

A little smile played on the corners of her lips. He was absolutely adorable, even in full-on study mode. He held one book open with his right elbow, and another to a certain page with his hand, as he hunched over the pages of sheet music, transposing the printed notes as he hummed softly to himself. Every so often he’d look up, referencing one of the books spread out around him, before diving back into his work again, his left hand working steadily across the page. A thatch of dark hair fell into his eyes as he worked, and he’d occasionally brush his fingers through it absently. She was mesmerized by his hands – his long, elegant fingers, topped with clean and neatly trimmed nails. He was one of the few people she’d ever met who didn’t bite his nails compulsively, or otherwise abuse his fingers in any way – quite impressive, especially for someone who played contact sports.

“I can’t be that fascinating…can I?” Ryan's amused voice broke through her reverie.

A guilty blush burnished her cheeks as she realized he was staring straight at her, a bemused expression on his face. “What are you working on?” she asked, deflecting his question with one of her own.

He shrugged. “More songs for the band,” he replied.

The answer surprised her. “But you just finished a whole stack!” she exclaimed.

“I know,” he sighed, “but I’m hoping if I can stay far enough ahead on the arrangements, then I can devote more time to my original compositions as the deadline for Juilliard gets closer.”

She was quiet for a moment, furrowing her brow as she studied him. “Kids Incorporated takes up a lot of your time, doesn’t it?” she finally asked. “I mean, beyond the time you actually spend with the band.”

He nodded. “Yeah – I arrange all the songs, teach people how to play instruments, do stagecraft with Riley…” His voice trailed off, as if he was only now realizing just how many duties he performed on a weekly basis. “But, I mean, I wouldn’t do it all if I didn’t enjoy it.”

“But it does take up a lot of time,” Stacy clarified.

He nodded again, his eyes drifting down to the staff paper on his left, where one of his original compositions was housed, half-completed. “I have a little over a month to finish these, and polish them up for the application.”

“And how much have you done so far?”

Ryan picked up the handwritten composition. “This one is almost finished – maybe three-quarters of the way? And the other…” He shrugged.

A cold bolt of fear wrenched down Stacy’s spine. She suddenly had this great urge to do something, to help lighten his load. Getting into Juilliard obviously meant a great deal to him, and she wanted to do everything she could to help him – even if it meant shouldering more responsibility with the band, before she was necessarily ready for it.

“But don’t worry,” he continued, speaking more to himself than to her. “If I finish all these arrangements today, I can devote all of my free time to my own work, from here on out.”

The lingering note of doubt in his voice resonated through Stacy. She swallowed hard, feeling her grasp on this precious block of his time already slipping away. It was frustrating, the idea of giving up this ‘alone’ time with him when she’d only just won it, but if he was going to be doing something else anyway

“Ryan,” she began, “I know how important this is to you, and I don’t want to get in the way of that – ”

“Stacy,” he cut in, reaching for her hand. “You’re not in the way. I want to spend this time with you.” He smiled. “You have no idea how much I was looking forward to baseball workouts ending, for just this reason.”

“But – ”

“No ‘buts’,” he insisted, interrupting her protests again. “I’ll work it out.”

We’ll work it out,” Stacy corrected him. She glanced down at the scatter of papers and books around him. “Wouldn’t it be easier to work on all of this in the music room, instead of here, in the library?”

“Yeah,” he admitted, “but I’ve maxed out the lending privileges on my library card, so I have to come here to get the theory books.”

She smiled triumphantly, squeezing his hand. “See? Now, this I can help you with,” she proclaimed. “I’ll borrow the books for you, and that way, you can spend your free period in the music room instead.”

He eyed her as he considered her bargain. “Okay,” he finally said. “But – only on one condition.”

She tilted her head. “What’s that?”

“Meet me there,” he said, reaching for her other hand. “Every day, in the music room, so we can still have this time together.”

She smiled, sliding out of her seat and rounding the table to sit beside him. “Okay,” she promised. “I can bring the books.”

He took her hand once more, lacing his fingers through hers. “You can bring more than that,” he teased softly, leaning closer, until his mouth was a whisper’s breadth away from hers.

“Ryan!” called a voice, shattering the anticipation of the moment. “I need to talk to you!”

The two broke apart quickly, looking up to see a tall, raven-haired figure. The girl had clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes wide as she realized just what she’d interrupted by barreling through the stacks.

“What’s up, Kimberly?” Ryan asked, pushing a hand through his hair before leaning heavily on the table.

“I’m really sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” she apologized. “I – um, I can come back, if this is a bad time?” She took a step back, pointing over her shoulder.

Stacy eyed their newest addition with no small amount of trepidation, feeling instantly insecure in the presence of such a beautiful, older girl. The fact that said girl was also a dancer and in Ryan's grade? Did nothing to help matters.

“No, no,” Ryan sighed, gesturing for her to sit. “What’s on your mind?”

Kimberly sent a weak smile Stacy’s way as she slid into the seat abandoned by the girl only moments before. “It’s about the band,” she began, “or, more specifically, someone in the band – ”

“Listen,” Ryan broke in, sitting up in his chair, “maybe you should talk to Brian about this first, especially if you’re having a dispute with another dancer.”

Kimberly twisted her hands. “But what if it’s Brian I'm having the problem with?”

Stacy’s gaze slid to Ryan. She hated to see him look so weary, but anytime Brian’s name came up of late, it inspired this reaction. The two had clashed already this year, over several different issues; while Ryan didn’t mind confrontation, he didn’t seem to relish it with quite the same zeal as his rival.

An idea formed in the back of her mind. One of the ways she could help him was to take some of the conflict out of his life. The others looked to her as a leader, too, so maybe it was time for her to step up and become his equal, at least when it came to Kids Incorporated.

“Why don’t I handle this?” she piped up, swallowing hard when the two turned their attention swiftly to her. “You have a lot on your plate, and besides – maybe the best way to deal with Brian is with honey instead of vinegar?”

Ryan’s weariness dissolved into relief. “Thanks, Stace,” he said, squeezing her shoulder. “I appreciate it.”

Stacy felt triumphant as she stood, letting him turn back to his work. “No problem,” she replied, inviting Kimberly to follow her. The girl herself appeared torn between surprise and suspicion at this sudden turn of events. Stacy ignored that, leading her purposefully into the stacks, leaving her boyfriend to work in peace. She wasn’t sure that she could solve this problem, but at least she could make sure it was one less thing he’d have to deal with.

Chapter Text


.9.
“We Can Work It Out”

Try to see it my way
Only time will tell
If I am right or wrong
Why do you see it your way?
There’s a chance that we might
Fall apart before too long

© 1965 John Lennon, Paul McCartney, & the Beatles

~*~

Stacy strode purposefully towards the P*lace, her heart banging against her ribs in rhythm with her steps. The general sense of uneasiness that had pervaded her otherwise-normal Friday had doubled by the time she’d made it to her locker after school. Instead of finding the reassuring embrace she’d been hoping for, she found a note stuck in the top vent, from Ryan, saying he had to meet with one of his music teachers that afternoon to discuss his Juilliard application. I’m sorry, he wrote in a flourish at the end. I’ll see you at rehearsal.

She was sorry, too – there was little more she loved more than being able to decompress with him after a long day, and then stroll hand-in-hand with him to rehearsal – but, in a strange way, maybe it had worked out for the best. She’d become increasingly concerned about him over the last few days, after spending time with him during their now-shared study period after lunch. He had a lot on his mind, and he seemed frustrated with the slow pace of progress on his compositions. She felt helpless, sitting beside him in one of the rehearsal rooms, but any time she worked up the courage to suggest maybe not disturbing him while he was trying to work, he rushed to reassure her she was doing nothing of the sort. He’d even gone so far as to label her one of his muses, which had been – and still was – incredibly flattering.

But what good was she, as a girlfriend or a muse, if she couldn’t help him when he needed it?

She had a very bad feeling about this impromptu meeting with his advisor. Something had to give, and she had an awful feeling that she already knew what it was.

Still, there were things she could do. She’d been mulling over the problems amongst the dancers that Kimberly had brought to her attention, and she felt close to figuring out a solution. And this was as good an afternoon as any to talk to the other band members about stepping up to take some of the pressure – and work – off Ryan’s shoulders.

Her expression was grim as she thought back to how she’d reacted to a similar request when she was younger. I was a total brat about it, she thought morosely. I don’t know how they put up with me…but at least I’ll know how to deal with it if the others act the same way.

“Hi, Riley,” she sighed as she pushed through the double glass doors of the soda shop.

“Hey, Stace,” he returned with an easy smile. “Would you like something to drink?” He glanced over her shoulder, his brow furrowing slightly. “Where’s Ryan?”

“He had to stay at school for a bit,” she replied absently. She glanced about the deserted front room. “Are the others around?”

Riley nodded. “They’re back in the store room,” he said. “Are you sure I can’t interest you in one of my fine ice cream delights? You look like you could use the cheering up.”

Stacy’s return smile was weak. “No, I’m sure,” she replied. “It’s Friday – what do I have to be upset about?” She turned to her right, towards the stage, closing her hands into fists in anticipation of this meeting with the others. “I’ll see you later, Riley.”

“Later, Stace…”

Riley’s voice trailed off as Stacy walked around to the stage, ducking off into the wings and heading for the store room backstage. She paused as she came upon the garishly painted pink door – it had once been a dressing room for the stars, back when the P*lace was still the Palace – and took a moment to collect her thoughts.

When she finally pushed into the room, the low din of conversation came to an abrupt halt. She was surprised to see Devyn and Kenny standing in the middle of the room, their arms crossed tightly over their chests as they squared off. Richie and Connie looked on from a nearby table, their expressions laced with concern. When she appeared in the doorway, the collective’s attention leveled on her, and suddenly, the wave of dread flogging her stomach intensified.

Her first instinct was to ask what was going on, but she checked it, not wanting to derail herself from her mission. “Listen, guys,” she greeted them soberly, “we need to talk.”

Devyn’s and Kenny’s stances instantly eased, and the two slipped into seats at the table, deliberately making sure to keep Connie and Richie between them.

“Yeah, I think we do,” Kenny replied, his tone quite serious. “Where’s Ryan?”

“He’s still at school,” Stacy said, approaching the table. “But that’s what I wanted to talk to you guys about.”

She frowned when she noticed Devyn and Connie exchanging excited grins and sitting up a bit straighter in their seats. She didn’t like the way they were eyeing her, like kids on Christmas morning with an endless pile of unopened presents before them.

“Oh?” Devyn prompted eagerly.

“You have something to tell us about him?” Connie added.

Stacy swallowed hard. “Well, yeah,” she confirmed, completely confused when this affirmation garnered another excited exchange between the girls. She glanced at the boys, feeling even more discomfited when she noticed their darker, gloomier expressions. What’s going on? she wondered. I feel like I’ve walked into the middle of a war.

Now that she’d stopped to think about it, she realized that things had been a little tense at rehearsals this week. She’d been so focused on herself – and Ryan – that she hadn’t really noticed it until now. And if the younger kids were having a fight, the last thing she wanted was to get sucked into the middle of it.

“Ryan’s a senior this year,” she finally said, breaking the silence of the room. “And he’s been working on his college applications, but it’s taking up more of his time than he originally thought.” She figured it wasn't her place to tell them about Juilliard, or his dream, since he’d only told her in the privacy of a personal moment. It wasn’t a secret, exactly – but, well, it was his news to tell, not hers.

“I thought it’d be cool if we could all help him out, by taking more responsibility for the band,” she continued. “You know, take some of the work off his shoulders, so he’d have time to devote to this? It’s really important to him, and he’s done so much for us, that he kinda deserves to have the free time, you know?”

The others’ reactions were not exactly what she expected. Connie and Devyn looked deflated, while Richie and Kenny suddenly had reason to smile and sit taller in their seats. Something strange is going on here, she thought.

“That’s a good idea, Stacy,” Kenny put in. “I'm for it!”

“Me, too,” Richie chimed in. “He does do a lot for us.”

Heartened by their support, Stacy turned back to the girls. Devyn’s eyes were trained to the table top, while Connie chewed on her lower lip.

“Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to tell us?” she finally asked, her tone meek and slightly embarrassed.

Before Stacy could respond, another voice joined the conversation. “Yeah, c’mon, Stace,” the new addition sneered from the doorway, “why don’t you tell them what this is really about?”

Stacy glanced sharply over her shoulder, her heart quickly gaining traction in her chest. There stood Brian, looking far too triumphant to have merely stumbled onto the conversation by chance, flanked by Gina and Nicole, both of whom were wearing knowing, excited grins. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Kimberly, looking very guilty, and Dee, the other, quieter male dancer, who just looked uncomfortable, bringing up the rear.

Brian led the troupe into the room and they stood off to one side in a tight little group, eyeing the band members still sitting at the table.

Stacy’s stomach turned under the intensity of Brian’s study. She hadn’t seen him since listening to Kimberly rant and rave about him four days earlier in the library stacks, and suddenly she wondered if the new girl had blabbed about what she’d seen. “And what would that be?” she finally managed.

Brian grinned triumphantly, closing his arms across his chest as he stared her down. “That you want to have Ryan for yourself,” he returned. “I mean – you two are an item, aren’t you?”

Stacy felt all of her blood rushing to her head. “What?” she sputtered, only vaguely aware of the impact this shattering accusation had on her fellow bandmates. “How can you say that?”

He shrugged, the gesture thoroughly insincere. “It’s true, isn't it? Or maybe we should just ask him?”

“Yeah, maybe you should,” came the terse reply, from the vicinity of the doorway, “instead of just making baseless assumptions.”

It was Brian’s turn to falter as his attention was drawn to the doorway, along with everyone else’s. Ryan stood, framed in the doorway, his expression dour as he rested his hands on his hips. Stacy felt her breath constrict as she looked at him, taking in the tight-drawn lines of his features. He was obviously upset…but not about this. Brian’s taunt had annoyed him, but it was only the tip of the iceberg.

Something else had upset him, and she had a sinking feeling that she knew what it was.

“So, consider this us asking,” Kenny said softly, his eyes steady on Ryan as the latter strolled into the room, dropping his arms loosely to his sides. “Are you and Stacy an item?”

Stacy’s heart stopped.

Ryan ignored the question, marching straight up to Brian. “I don’t see how this is any of your business, anyway.”

Brian appeared affronted. “I’m just as much a part of this band as you are!”

“Oh, yeah?” Ryan scoffed. “Then why don’t you act like it?”

Gina and Nicole faded away, their expressions turning troubled as they glanced from one hot-headed boy to the other. Brian had always relished a good challenge, whereas Ryan…was just angry.

“You don’t think I do?” Brian taunted.

Ryan narrowed his gaze. “Well, let’s see.” He gestured to the dancers, clustered together in a tight knot behind his rival. “How many times have you guys gone home early, or skipped rehearsal altogether? We’re” – he indicated the band members, bunched together around the table – “down here five days a week, working on our sets. You slip in for what, two or three of those rehearsals?” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Did you even know we practice after the afternoon shows?”

Brian flushed a deep red, but didn't have a chance to respond before Ryan barreled on. “And how much have you guys contributed to the jacket fund, to repay Riley? And I don’t mean just lately, I mean at all.”

Brian scowled, tightening the brace of his own arms. “You know we don’t eat ice cream,” he said shortly. He sent a disdainful once-over down the length of his foe. “Some of us care about our appearances, after all.”

“I didn’t realize it’d kill you to pay cash out of hand,” Ryan replied sarcastically. “Or do you think it’s fair that only half of us pay for something we all enjoy?”

“Hey, we didn’t ask you to order those for us,” Brian countered.

“No, but you accepted them,” Ryan replied, smoothly interjecting and deflecting that particular argument. “And it’s only fair that you guys help us pay for them.”

Richie had the good grace to look guilty about that particular source of conflict.

The other dancers had turned away from the argument, but Brian paid them no heed. His expression was thunderous as he faced down his adversary, and a great deal more flustered than it appeared at first glance.

But Ryan was on a roll, not allowing the blond boy to get a word in edgewise. “Not to mention – how many times have I been put in the middle of your disputes because you couldn't keep your house in order? Even just this week, Kimberly came to me with another problem.” He shook his head in disgust. “Dude – I’m trying to let you handle your business, but you’re obviously not doing a very good job of it, if people are coming to me instead!”

He took a deep breath. “Face it, Brian, there should be more pressing matters on your mind than my personal life. So again I’ll ask – why is it any of your business?”

“Is it not any of ours?” Kenny tried again.

“So what are you saying?” Brian asked, resetting his jaw after the flurry of accusations. “You want to take this outside?”

Ryan took a step closer into his personal space. “No,” he vowed lowly. “I want you – to lay – off.”

Finally, Stacy could take no more. “Guys, guys!” she pleaded, breaking between them, her hands shaking as she lifted them to separate the two. She’d never seen Ryan really lose his temper before. “Let’s all just take a step back here, please!” She couldn’t resist taking Ryan’s hand and squeezing it, sending him a concerned glance – only to feel her trepidation redouble when he reciprocated the gesture.

Ryan retreated a few steps, closing his eyes and taking another deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, “but my concerns still stand.”

“So do mine,” Brian shot back.

“We have to find a compromise, then,” Stacy said, “or else we’re just going to be at a standstill.”

“We’ll have our half of the money for the jackets by the end of the year,” Dee piped up. He shot a wry glare at Brian while adding, “Some of us already figured we’d have to kick in for that.”

“Thanks,” Ryan acknowledged, nodding gratefully to the dark-haired boy. “That’ll be a big help.”

Stacy glanced at Brian, feeling very intimated after his display of temper. Part of the reason she’d been hesitant to approach him was just exactly this – his attitude, and the confrontational way he dealt with others. She was hardly his equal, in any regard, but obviously it was worth a shot, trying to reason with him, even if only to defend Ryan’s honor.

“Listen, I was thinking,” she began tentatively. “Maybe it would just be easier on all of us if you guys – the dancers – just concentrated on working something up for the big shows, on Saturday nights? That way, you wouldn’t have to worry about coming to rehearsal every day.”

Brian appeared thoughtful as he considered Stacy’s suggestion. “That could work,” he said slowly.

“Yeah, and that way, we can really focus on putting on the best possible show when it really counts – when people are paying to see us,” Ryan agreed.

“We can handle the afternoon sets,” Devyn supplied. “They’re pretty casual anyway.”

“Fine,” Brian replied, somewhat mollified. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?” Richie asked.

Brian directed his answer at Ryan. “You’ll comply with whatever I design – without complaints.”

“Within reason,” Ryan countered.

The two stared each other down for another long, tense moment, before Brian relented. “Okay,” he assented, holding out his hand.

Ryan shook it firmly. “Okay.”

“C’mon, guys,” Brian called, turning his attention back to his dancers. “Let’s go.” He glanced back at the band. “Meet you on stage in ten minutes?”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah, we'll be there.”

The dancers filed out of the room quietly, the girls offering apologetic looks as they went. Obviously, none of them had expected Brian to blow in with both barrels that afternoon, confronting Stacy – and then Ryan – with a suspicion they all shared.

As Kimberly pulled the door closed behind herself, Ryan sank heavily into one of the chairs at the table. “Damn,” he swore under his breath, burying his face in his hands.

Stacy stood beside him, laying her hands on his shoulders and giving him a reassuring squeeze.

The others looked on curiously, unbeknownst to Ryan – with his head down – or Stacy, who was trying to calm her own nerves as much as soothe her boyfriend’s. An awkward silence filled the room as Richie glanced at Kenny, who glanced at Connie, who glanced at Devyn, before they all turned their attention to the oldest members of the group.

Just as Kenny opened his mouth to speak, Ryan sighed. “I’m sorry, guys,” he apologized, dropping his hands. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“What’s wrong?” Devyn asked. It was obvious to one and all he was upset about something, but if not the Brian situation…then what?

None of them were quite prepared for his answer.

“I met with Mr. Miller this afternoon,” Ryan replied, dropping the name of his musical mentor and instructor from the high school. “About my application for Juilliard.”

“You’re applying to Juilliard?” Kenny breathed, jaw dropping.

“Wow,” Connie chimed in, obviously impressed.

Ryan nodded, smiling weakly. “Right. I’m applying in composition, which means I have to write two new pieces for the application. If they’re good enough, I’ll receive an audition with the acceptance committee.”

Stacy's brow furrowed. “And Mr. Miller had some concerns about your pieces?”

Ryan slumped in his seat. “More like, concern over my lack of pieces,” he replied. He glanced around the table at each of his bandmates before speaking again. “He suggested that I take a break from the band so I could concentrate on finishing them.”

The others were torn between horror and disbelief at this bombshell of news. “What?!” Richie sputtered incredulously.

“I don’t believe it,” Devyn breathed, eyes wide.

“But – what are we going to do without you?” Connie wailed.

Kenny glanced thoughtfully at Stacy. “So this is what you wanted to talk to us about,” he surmised.

Stacy, for her part, was at a total loss for words, still reeling internally from Ryan's announcement. It had only confirmed her worst suspicions. The more time that she spent with him, the more she realized the amount of pressure he was under – from Mr. Miller, the Juilliard application, school, even himself – the more she feared something was going to have to give. A small, selfish part of her was relieved that it wasn’t their relationship – however they chose to define it – but a much larger part of her was absolutely terrified.

She wasn’t ready for him to leave.

She wasn’t sure she could step up and take his place.

She could barely handle dealing with Brian and the dancers’ drama – how in the world was she going to be able to lead the entire group? The very notion scared the shit out of her.

“It’d only be for a few weeks,” Ryan said, bringing Stacy out of her reverie. “I’ve been working so hard, trying to get ahead on stuff for the band” – he gestured to the pile of sheet music stacked on the table of one of the empty vanities – “but it hasn’t been enough.” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “The application is due at the end of the month, and I’m only about half-finished. I just don’t see any other alternative… This is really important to me. I hope you guys understand.”

Stacy gave his shoulders a firm squeeze, earning a grateful glance in her direction. “Don’t worry,” she said, pushing past her own fear and insecurity. “We’ll figure out a way to work this out. Its only temporary, like you said.”

“I’ll stay on until we find someone else to fill in,” Ryan promised, “but that really needs to be sooner, rather than later.”

The others shared a worried look. “How soon?” Richie asked.

“I’ve asked Riley to put up the audition sign for Monday,” Ryan replied.

A grim silence fell over the group, as each member contemplated this turn of events. It was hard news to take, especially on the eve of a Saturday night show. Stacy’s heart went out to Ryan; it was obvious how hard it had been for him to make this decision, even after having lived with the idea for a few hours. The others looked as distressed as she felt, but she was determined. If she was going to be thrust into this role of leader, even against her will, then she would make the best of it.

After all – Ryan wouldn’t be around forever.

“Come on, you guys,” she finally said, shoring up her resolve. “Let’s not get down about this. It’s only for a little while.”

The others appeared doubtful; Ryan merely bowed his head.

“We’re Kids Incorporated,” she reminded them, “and, together, we can meet and beat any challenge. Isn’t that what you always tell us?” she cajoled, squeezing Ryan’s shoulders again.

A hint of a smile curled the corners of his mouth.

“So things are changing a bit,” she continued. “So what? I know the rest of us can step up and carry on with band business, and support you in your work. You deserve to have the chance to send in the very best application you can, Ryan – and none of us would say otherwise, right guys?”

“Right,” the group said, their flagging spirits rising a bit.

“So let’s go out there and give it all we’ve got,” Stacy encouraged. “And before you know it, the month will be over and we’ll be back to our old selves again!”

Genuine smiles broke out among the crowd. “Yeah!” the others agreed.

“Thanks, you guys,” Ryan said gratefully. “I really couldn’t ask for better friends.”

The younger kids stood, heartened by Stacy’s pep talk, and began filtering out of the room, heading for the stage to meet up with the dancers and rehearse for their weekend show. Ryan lingered behind, glancing about with a somber hint of nostalgia. “I’m going to miss this place,” he mused.

Stacy smiled. “How can you miss something before you’ve even lost it?” she teased…even know she knew exactly what he meant.

Chapter Text


.10.
“Who Will You Run To”

You’re not sure what you want to do with your life
But you sure don’t want me in it
Yeah, you’re sure the life you're living with me
Can’t go on one single minute
And there’s a new one waiting outside this door
Now’s the time to begin it
You found a new world and you want to taste it
But that world can turn cold, and you better face it…

© 1987 Diane Warren & Heart

~*~

No one had expected the near-surreal atmosphere that permeated the P*lace during and after the Saturday night concert. Tensions were high already, with the cold war between the band and the dancers locked in a shaky truce, but there was also an air of the bittersweet, as everyone present was well aware it would be their last set with their de facto leader for a good long while. As per usual, Ryan had made the announcements from stage between sets, and the revelation of the Monday afternoon audition had set an excited buzz about the crowd. There was a rush during Stacy’s closing number – a heartfelt rendition of Debbie Gibson’s “Out of the Blue” – for signups at the counter, and no shortage of questions for the band members after the concert itself: what were they looking for? Was it a permanent position, or a fill-in? What was going on that they suddenly needed someone in the middle of the semester?

Ryan busied himself with the clean-up and tear-down of the set, avoiding the questions that inundated his friends. It was easier this way, to not think about it too much or too hard, to focus on mindless tasks and keep busy with his hands. Eventually, the crowd thinned out, and his bandmates pitched in to help him and Riley. Instead of the usual jovial, if tired, atmosphere that generally surrounded this part of the evening, an awkward silence reigned. It seemed as though everyone else’s hearts were just as heavy as his. He felt guilty for being the cause of their concern, but he had to put himself first for a change. He’d done so much for the band that it only seemed fair they grant him this time away, to pursue his own dreams.

Still, he knew he was going to miss it. Song and stagecraft had been his life for the better part of five years. Suddenly giving that up, no matter how necessary, left a void that would be tough to fill.

The others finished quickly, murmuring their goodbyes as they headed home. Ryan couldn’t say he blamed them, really; it had been a tough night, keeping the energy up beneath the looming apprehension of what was just around the corner. He was grateful to them for giving their all, even if they didn’t necessarily feel it – they’d probably never understand how much that meant to him.

And so, he lingered behind, even after the last table had been wiped down, the last chair picked up, and the last of the confetti canons cleared away. He sat on the steps of the stage, his guitar case at his side, and stared up into the now-dark lights. He remembered the first time he’d been on that stage, a nervous performance of “Tough All Over” in front of a very vocal audience, thrown into the fire before even knowing if it’d be more than a one-time performance…

…and now, here he sat, the senior-most member and leader of the band. Sometimes it still amazed him, how much – and how little – had changed in the interim.

“Hey,” came a quiet voice, bringing him out of his memories.

Ryan looked down, unsurprised to see Stacy standing before him. “Hey,” he replied softly, offering his hand.

“Riley’s ready to close up,” she informed him, sliding down beside him on the stage steps as she took his hand in both of hers. “He sent me over here to tell you.”

Ryan glanced to the side, acknowledging Riley’s sheepish wave with a nod of his head. “Oh, really?” he murmured. So he knows, he surmised, rather surprised Riley had already caught on to the shift in his relationship with Stacy. While an awesome friend and inventive soda jerk, he wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Stacy pulled their joined hands into her lap. “We’ve had a lot of great times on this stage,” she sighed.

Ryan looked at her, reaching out to touch her face with his free hand. “And we will again,” he promised, smoothing his thumb across her cheek in a soft caress. “This is only temporary.”

Her hands curled around his in her lap, and he could feel the race of her pulse under his fingertips. “I know,” she replied, her gaze steady on his. Her skin heated beneath his touch. “That doesn’t make it any less hard. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.”

He leaned forward, brushing his lips against hers, only to feel her pull away after only the briefest touch. “Riley,” she whispered furiously, pulling out of the embrace altogether. “I think – I think he knows.”

“He does,” Ryan confirmed with a small smile. “But I don’t think we have to worry about him.”

“Hey, you guys,” Riley called out, as if on cue. He was standing beside the front double doors, waving to get their attention. “I’m locking the doors. You can get out, but you can’t get back in if you leave, okay?”

The two waved to him as he hit the last house light and left, shrouding them in semi-darkness.

Stacy ducked her head, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear. “I haven’t told anyone about us,” she said after a moment, “but I think the others suspect – ”

“I think the others know,” Ryan sighed. “I’m just not ready to deal with it right now.”

Stacy looked up at him, stricken.

“With telling them, I mean,” he assured her, clasping her hand once again. “Look – I’m already leaving the band for a little while. It’s not fair for you to have to deal with whatever fallout there is on your own. We’ll tell them when I come back.”

Stacy’s expression melted with relief. “Thanks,” she said softly.

Ryan smiled, curling an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. “You’re going to do fine, Stacy,” he said, “even without me. The other kids respect you. And besides, you’ve been in the band longer than I have!” He rested his temple against hers. “Anyway, it’s not like we won’t see each other…”

Her returned smile was grateful. “Not that I think you’ll need this, but…” Her voice trailed off as she broke away, pulling something out of the pocket of her jacket and pressing it into his open palm.

“I can’t believe you kept this,” Ryan marveled with a laugh, holding up the gaudy ruby ring in the diffused side lights of the stage. Stacy had found it years earlier in an old magician’s trunk in the store room, on her quest for luck before a big audition at school.

Stacy shrugged, leaning into his shoulder. “It’s a good luck charm, after all,” she replied, “even if I carry it around to remind myself that I don’t need luck.” She paused, before shyly recalling that moment from her memory. “I’d given up on it, until you found it at school and brought it back to me.” She blushed. “That meant a lot to me, that you cared enough to do that, even though you didn’t believe in its magic.”

Ryan furrowed his brow. “So you kept it because of me?” he wondered aloud.

She nodded with a smile. “So I could give it back to you one day.”

Ryan chuckled as he turned, folding his arms around her in a tight, warm hug. “I’ll treasure it always,” he whispered in her ear. He held her for a long moment, allowing the warmth of his memories to wash through his mind, suddenly seeing old events from a new perspective. Dimly, he wondered just how long she had harbored feelings for him…?

Before he could become too unnerved by the prospect, Stacy pulled away, reluctantly standing and brushing the back of her skirt. “It’s late,” she said abruptly. “I…guess we should leave…?”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he sighed, standing up and reaching for the handle of his guitar case. “We have a long week ahead of us, don’t we?” Even if it is for different reasons, he added silently, taking her hand as they walked out of the P*lace.

~*~

I’m late, I’m late, I’m late! Stacy thought hurriedly, barreling into the double front doors of the P*lace on Monday afternoon. But of course I’m late, she reasoned, her cheeks flushing slightly. And it was worth it. She’d bumped into Ryan unexpectedly before her last class, which apparently had inspired him to leave a note in her locker. She’d lingered behind at school to read it, momentarily forgetting that auditions for the band were to start precisely at four.

Devyn, Richie, Kenny, and Connie were sprawled out on the stage, their chatter light-hearted, if a bit nervous. They eyed her curiously as she came in, and she could only hope that they thought the color in her cheeks was due to walking into a warm building from the chilly afternoon weather. Now that she suspected they knew about her ‘secret’ relationship with Ryan, she was wary of the other kids, knowing just how she would’ve reacted to such news had she been their age. After all, how much grief had she given her own sister about having a crush on her classmate Jules?

She cringed at the memory.

The others sat up as she approached them, sheet music in hand. “Hey, guys, sorry I’m late,” she apologized, passing around the audition number.

Devyn and Connie exchanged an amused, excited look as they glanced over the song they now held in their hands. “Any particular reason you chose this song, Stace?” Devyn queried.

“Because it has a guitar solo, a lead line, and a rhythm line,” Stacy hastily replied.

“No other reason?” Connie pressed, while Richie could only roll his eyes.

“She just said that was the reason,” Kenny jumped in, before Stacy could reply. “Whatever happened to taking people at their word?”

Stacy’s eyebrows shot up, her wary feeling redoubling as she stared at her bandmates. They definitely suspected something was up; she could only hope Ryan was right about waiting to tell them.

“Whoa, hey, come on, guys,” she urged, casually stepping between Kenny and the girls. “Let’s not fight, okay? This is going to be hard enough as it is.”

Devyn sighed, setting the sheet music down beside her. “Yeah, I don’t know who we’re going to get to replace Ryan,” she said, already sounding discouraged about the prospect.

“It’s only for a couple of weeks, while he finishes his compositions for Juilliard,” Stacy reminded her sympathetically.

Kenny shrugged, looking a little deflated himself. “Yeah, but Ryan’s the best guitar player around,” he said.

“You’re lucky, Stacy,” Connie piped up. “You get to see him all the time.”

Stacy eyed her suspiciously. “What makes you think that?”

Connie’s eyes were wide and innocent, though Stacy wasn’t sure the expression was totally sincere. “Because you go to the same school as him,” she replied. “Can you tell him that we miss him already?”

Stacy stifled a snort. “Why don’t you tell him yourself? He’ll be here this afternoon for the auditions – or did you forget?”

Connie’s cheeks burned as she shot a sharp look at Devyn, who held her face in her hands. “N-no, I mean – oh, yeah! I guess it just slipped my mind – or something.”

Hmm, Stacy thought, eyeing the two with an assessing look, this might be harder than I thought.

At that moment, Riley turned the corner. “Hey, sorry to interrupt, guys,” he said, “but the natives are getting restless. Who wants to help me sort them all out?”

“I will!” Richie volunteered, making a beeline off the stage. The two hurried to a side door off the front room which, when opened, revealed the loud din of a crowded waiting room.

“I hope we’re ready for this,” Kenny muttered under his breath, his eyes widening as he caught a glimpse of what was yet to come.

Just then, another voice entered the fray. “Hey, guys!”

The group turned to see Ryan, who was dropping his backpack off at one of the tables near the counter. Stacy felt a great wave of relief at his presence, and the way it seemed to instantly calm the uneasy atmosphere.

They all greeted him at the same time, but Stacy realized he only had eyes for her as he approached their loose huddle near the stage. “What song did you pick out?” he asked, reaching for the stack of sheet music she’d left to one side.

“‘I Think We’re Alone Now’,” Devyn announced, her tone suggestive as she watched the new arrival closely.

Stacy felt her entire body flush at the implication, and hated that her reaction was so immediate – and so guilty.

Ryan, however, obviously had better control of his faculties, as he merely nodded, not rising to Devyn’s bait. “It’s a good choice,” he said appreciatively. “This arrangement requires a variety of skills.”

“I thought so,” Stacy insisted, though she sounded anything but confident about the decision.

Ryan gave her an encouraging smile.

“I just hope we can find someone suitable,” Kenny noted as the side door opened and closed again, with Riley popping back into the room, looking rather bewildered.

“It certainly sounds like there are a lot of them,” Ryan remarked, glancing towards the noise. “I’m sure we’ll find some talented kids in this audition.”

The door opened again, heavy footsteps treading into the room. The group’s attention was immediately drawn to the newcomer, who had pushed past Richie completely and was looking around the room, sizing up the place.

“Guys, this is ‘Dude,’” Richie said hesitantly, closing the door once more.

Dude strode into the room, nodding his head with slight approval at his surroundings. He was dressed from head to toe in black, with a ripped t-shirt, hole-laden jeans, and steel-toed boots to match. A shredded denim vest and a red bandanna over gelled hair completed the look; he carried a red and black electric guitar, the ends of the strings dancing precariously around the tuning pegs.

Ryan stepped forward, extending his hand. “Nice to meet you, Dude,” he began, only to have the other boy walk straight past him without acknowledgment. He turned his hand over in the air, frowning as he looked at Richie, who only shrugged in response.

The others gathered in a knot a few steps away from the wannabe punk rocker, unsure of how to approach him. “So, uh, what’s your real name?” Connie asked.

Dude removed his pick from between his teeth as he glared down at her. “That is my real name,” he insisted.

Devyn looked skeptical. “‘Dude’ is the name your mother gave you?”

He narrowed his eyes as he swung his attention to her. “No, Dude is the only name I answer to,” he replied, lifting his gaze back to the group as a whole, “and that’s all you guys need to know.”

Ryan and Stacy exchanged unimpressed looks over the other kids’ heads.

“Let’s go!” Dude growled a moment later. “Where do I plug in?”

That spurred the group into action. They all stood up, clearing the steps as Dude climbed up, Ryan fast on his heels. “The big amp, right here,” Kenny supplied, patting the amplifier Ryan usually used on stage.

Dude walked over, grabbing up the cord and plugging himself in. “All right, what are we playing?” he grunted, his question sounding more like a command than a query.

Ryan picked up his guitar as well, plugging into the secondary. Kenny also picked up a guitar, while Richie settled behind his drum set. The girls crowded around, and Dude looked at each of them expectantly in turn.

“‘I Think We’re Alone Now,’” Stacy said, lifting her chin as she looked at him.

“No, I don’t like it,” Dude declared, leering at her. “What else you got?”

Stacy could only stare at him in disbelief. Who the hell says that during an audition? she wondered incredulously.

Ryan took a step closer, drawing Dude’s attention away from his girlfriend. “Is there something you’d like to play?” he asked pointedly.

Dude looked up thoughtfully, before elbowing Ryan in the ribs. “Hey, you guys know ‘I’d Pierce My Nose for You’?” he asked, finally sounding at least semi-interested in the whole endeavor.

Stacy rolled her eyes as Richie pushed past her, planting himself between her and Dude, perhaps also in a misguided attempt to ‘protect’ her. “That’s not necessary,” he said. “We just want to see if you can play lead guitar.”

Dude was completely unimpressed with Richie’s posturing. “It’s a song, dingbat,” he informed him.

Richie stood on his tiptoes so that he was on eye level with the older boy. “My name is Richie,” he replied hotly.

“Yeah, his mother gave it to him,” Ryan added drolly.

The others gathered around, interested to see if the interloper would challenge their leader.

“All right, look,” Dude said, his tone disgusted, “I’ll just play a couple hot riffs or two, all right?” He glared at Ryan, and then Stacy, before pushing them out of the way. “Stand back – you’re crowding me! Geez.”

The entire group took an obligatory step back, allowing Dude his precious space. He planted his feet, bending his knees as he launched into his riffs – which resembled the high-pitched squeals of feedback more than anything else, the sounds of a guy far too taken with himself and his mad skillz. Devyn, Connie, and Kenny covered their ears in protest; Stacy stood with her hands on her hips, unable to do much more than just shake her head. Finally, Ryan put them all out of their misery, pulling the plug from the amp and rendering Dude's nonsensical sound nil.

It took him a few seconds to catch on. “Hey, where’d the music go?” he protested, looking at Ryan accusingly.

“Audition’s over,” he replied, lifting the jack with exaggerated patience to show him what he’d done, before dropping the cord into a heap on the stage. “Dude.”

~*~

Unfortunately, the rest of the auditions went about as well as the first – though no one was quite as rude as Dude. Word of the open spot with the band had spread like wildfire, and they seemed to have attracted a variety of talent, even from kids in different neighborhoods. Most of them were fairly easy to dismiss – they simply didn’t have the chops to play the type of pop music covers the band was accustomed to – and of the precious few who did have the skill, something else crossed them off the list.

One girl? Picked the strings with her teeth.

“That was a disaster,” Richie sighed unequivocally as they neared the end of the painful process, finally finishing the entire list of entrants. The group had taken up residence around one of the tables in front of the stage, arranged in a loose circle around a stack of sheet music and an even bigger stack of rejection slips.

“What are we going to do?” Stacy asked mournfully. She sat opposite of Ryan, though her stance mirrored his, resting her arms on the back of her chair as she leaned forward. The others’ attention swiveled towards him, as if they were all asking the same silent question.

“Keep looking,” Ryan insisted with a shrug, his answer only serving to disappoint the others.

“Hey, guys,” Riley called, rounding the corner from the front of the shop. “There’s a kid out there who wants to try out.”

Stacy felt as tired and discouraged as the others looked. “Time’s kinda tight, Riley,” she said, “and we’ve still got to rehearse. Do you think he could come back tomorrow?”

Riley shrugged, clapping his hands on Ryan’s and Connie’s shoulders. “I – think you better see him now,” he suggested.

“Why?” Connie asked, curious.

“We-ell,” Riley wheedled, before making up his mind. “Hold on. Hey, Tommy!” he called, gesturing for someone to come around the counter. “Come on in.”

A blond boy in a wheelchair made a tentative entrance, wheeling over to the group as they murmured their greetings to him. He settled at their table, adjusting the maroon-colored electric guitar in his lap. “Hi, I’m Tommy Morgan,” he introduced himself, smiling shyly at the others.

“Hey, Tommy,” Stacy said, sticking out her hand, figuring there was no time like the present to take charge of things. “I’m Stacy. It’s nice to meet you.”

Tommy took her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, too,” he replied, unable to hide the awe in his voice.

Stacy smiled at him. She liked him already. “We’ve still got a few numbers to rehearse, but then you can audition for us. Are you okay to stick around?”

Tommy beamed. “Sure thing!” he replied, a bit more enthusiastically this time.

“Great!” The others stood up, grabbing sheet music along the way, antsy to get themselves up on stage.

Stacy held back, looking down at Ryan with a hopeful expression. “One last time?” she asked, holding out her hand.

Ryan smiled. “Sure,” he replied, squeezing her hand and standing. The others cheered as he joined them on stage. Kenny also strapped on a guitar, while Connie and Devyn picked up mics and tambourines. The group launched into the audition number, with Stacy on lead vocals. It was easy for them to slip into their perfectly honed sound, rhythm and bass and guitar harmonizing well under the melody line on the first try. Stacy’s vocals were infectious, and soon the entire band was swaying to the beat, the girls even breaking into simple, easy dance moves.

It was just this sort of spontaneous creativity that made Ryan love playing with the band, and he realized that, even as into the moment as he was, he was already missing it a little. It was going to be hard to give this up, even for a few weeks. Composition was all well and good, but ultimately, it was a lonely pursuit.

He noted with interest that Tommy seemed to be subconsciously fingering the chords as he watched them perform, his ever-widening smile belying the fact that he was totally enjoying their sound. By the time the group finished, Ryan felt even more sure that they had finally found their guy, and it filled him with far more relief than he expected.

“You guys are terrific!” Tommy enthused.

“Thanks,” the group chorused, gathering and settling on the stage steps.

Ryan slid down next to Stacy, adjusting the strap of his guitar over his shoulder. “We figured you could just audition for us here, if that’s okay?”

“Actually…” Tommy lowered his eyes, his expression a mixture of awe and intimidation. “After watching you guys play, I’m not sure this is the right gig for me. I mean – I can’t jump up and down and all that.”

“Can you play?” Ryan queried.

Tommy shrugged. “Sure, I can play.”

“That’s what we’re looking for!” Kenny assured him with a smile.

“Want me to plug you in?” Devyn offered, fast on the heels of her best friend’s words.

Tommy glanced at each of them in turn. “No, thanks, I can get it,” he finally said, rolling over beside Devyn and picking up the cord to the amp.

“Hey, Tommy,” Ryan said, seizing the younger boy’s attention once more. “I’ll give you the lead-in to the guitar solo, all right?”

“Okay,” Tommy replied nervously.

Ryan counted off, leading Richie and Kenny into the rhythm section of the bridge, and Tommy ripped into the guitar solo, playing with far more confidence than his demeanor would imply. The girls could only marvel at his sound, nodding their heads to the beat and sending smiles all around.

They erupted into a cheer as the solo ended, which the boys quickly joined.

“I – I was a little nervous,” Tommy admitted bashfully.

Stacy stared at him in disbelief. “How do you play when you’re not nervous?” she asked incredulously.

Tommy's face lit up in a smile. “Better.”

“That’s hard to believe,” Connie said breathlessly. The others chimed in agreement.

Tommy watched them as they discussed his performance animatedly, before breaking into the conversation. “So – when do you think you’ll make your decision?” he asked, glancing from Stacy to Ryan and back again.

The younger kids looked to their leaders, nodding in agreement. Stacy slipped her hand around Ryan’s arm as they exchanged a long look. “How about right now?” Ryan finally said, breaking into a grin. “Tommy, welcome aboard!”

Kenny and Devyn shot up, giving their newest bandmate simultaneous high fives. Richie and Connie gathered around as well, all of them in a rush to tell Tommy about the band’s schedule, their rehearsal space, and any number of other things about their music and practice habits. Stacy and Ryan hung back, watching them welcome their newest member with such open arms.

“They’re still going to miss you, you know,” she assured him, giving his elbow a squeeze.

“I know,” he replied, catching her gaze. “I feel like I’m leaving everyone in capable hands.” He glanced at his watch. “Speaking of which – I’ve got to go.”

Reluctantly, she released her hold; they both stood, and he gave her shoulder another reassuring squeeze. “You can do this, Stace,” he murmured. “I believe in you.”

He turned to the others, waving goodbye as he packed his guitar in its case again. “I’ll see you guys!” he called, picking up his backpack. He slapped hands with Riley on his way out the door.

Stacy watched him leave, pushing down the trepidation that clawed up from her gut before turning to the others. “So, you guys,” she announced, clapping her hands together. “Ready to rehearse?”

Chapter Text


.11.
“With or Without You”

Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails she makes me wait
And I wait without you
Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all, but I want more
And I’m waiting for you
And you give yourself away …

© 1987 Larry Mullin Jr., David Evans, Adam Clayton, Paul Hewson, & Gavin Friday

~*~

Stacy lingered behind at the counter the next afternoon, dawdling with her soda even after the others began wandering towards the Garage. Their first afternoon set without Ryan (or a lead guitarist, period) had gone fairly well, at least if the other kids’ attitudes were anything to go by – they seemed as bubbly and energetic as ever. The audience reaction was encouraging as well, even if there was a large contingent of Ryan fangirls who moped through the entire performance. Stacy was fairly certain even they didn’t miss her boyfriend as much as she did, though – for the first time in a long time, she actually felt weary after a performance – as if the worst was still yet to come.

She stirred her soda with her straw and sighed. Having a defeatist attitude will get me nowhere, she told herself. Besides, I’d better get used to this – Ryan isn’t going to be around forever. Maybe that’s what scared her the most: she never realized how much she’d leaned on him, and the other older kids in the band, to keep things running smoothly. She’d always been the youngest, and now suddenly she wasn’t – it was a tough adjustment to make.

Only now was she beginning to feel the burden Ryan seemed to shoulder with little complaint.

“Come on, Stace,” came a voice from behind her. She turned, seeing Kenny standing behind her, looking slightly concerned. “We should go – the others are waiting.”

Stacy forced down the rush of insecurity and offered him a weak smile. “I’m right behind you,” she promised.

Kenny nodded, turning to push through the front double doors of the P*lace. Stacy watched him leave. He’d always been fairly quiet and thoughtful, but it seemed he had a lot on his mind lately. He’d been short with the others, Devyn especially, and she wondered if he was having just as hard a time adjusting to this transition in their lineup as she was.

With another reluctant glance at her soda, Stacy pushed herself up, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves. She had to face this with a positive attitude, and she had to put on a strong front for the others. Yesterday’s rehearsal had been pretty good, even if they hadn’t gotten much actual rehearsing done. Instead, they’d decided they would hold off on premiering Tommy until the weekend, giving him a chance to get comfortable playing with them, and on the stage, before presenting him to an audience. That meant more work for the veteran members of Kids Incorporated, as now their afternoon sets were heavily reliant on girl group numbers and other, simpler tracks – but everyone seemed to be taking it in stride.

She walked the short distance to the Garage, pulling the flower from her hair as she went. It was a pretty pink and white blossom today, one that had only just opened its petals. She still couldn’t quite find the right words to say when Ryan gave them to her, but he didn’t seem to mind when she crushed herself against him instead, burying her burning cheeks in the hollow of his neck. Their walks to school moved by necessity at a faster clip than those long, leisurely strolls they used to enjoy in the afternoon, but it was a wonderful way to start the day. No matter how crummy she felt, just being around him lifted her spirits.

She’d kept her promise to bring him music theory books during study hall as well; though she loved sitting with him while he worked on his Juilliard application, he could only pay her scant attention. She understood – or at least, she tried to – but she couldn’t help feeling a bit hurt and disappointed that he spent so much of their ‘alone time’ doing something else.

Especially when he couldn’t spare an hour in the afternoon to come by and watch his bandmates perform.

Even composers needed breaks every now and again, right?

Stacy pushed the troubling thoughts from her mind as she entered the top level of the Garage. The others were already there, chattering away – Richie was jamming on his drum set, providing a steady beat for Devyn and Connie to experiment with dance moves, while Kenny was reading sheet music off to the side.

“This is a beautiful song,” Kenny mused aloud, paging through a sheaf of rumpled papers. “It’s too bad we don’t have a sax player.”

“What is it?” Devyn inquired, walking over to him and looking over his shoulder. She read a few bars before beginning to hum the melody line. Richie quieted, listening to them and recognizing the song himself – and, rather unexpectedly, began to sing.

Stacy observed them from above, her heart wrenching in her chest. “You Belong to the City” was a Glenn Frey number that the band had performed a few seasons before, and it had always been one of her favorites. She and Ryan had shared lead vocals, with Gloria and Renee harmonizing on the bridge, while the Kid played the hell out of the saxophone part.

It made her a little nostalgic that no one she’d shared that experience with was standing in the room now.

It was also interesting to see – and hear – how this group interpreted the song. Kenny and Richie sang a cappella while Devyn and Connie swayed along and listened, enraptured by the sweet, soothing blend of their voices.

The heady tension of the room was shattered by the creaking of the back door of the building swinging open and shut. Tommy rolled into the now-silent room, his cheeks flushed a deep red. “I’m sorry I’m late, guys,” he apologized, clutching his guitar to his chest. “I wanted to get some last minute practice in.”

“That’s okay,” Stacy replied, announcing her own presence to the group as she descended the stairs. “We try to stay pretty relaxed around here.”

The others nodded in agreement, but no one else offered to add to the conversation. After a few awkward moments, Stacy spoke again. “Did you get a chance to look through the songs we gave you?”

The blond boy nodded sheepishly, digging his sheet music out of the bag on his wheelchair. “It’s a lot,” he remarked. “You guys go through this many a week?”

Kenny shrugged. “You get used to it after a while.”

“I don’t know if I could get used to this,” Tommy replied, skepticism high in his tone.

Stacy’s eyes widened. Surely he wasn’t psyching himself out already? He hadn’t even played a concert with them yet! “It’s not that big a deal,” she rushed to assure him. “Just work at your own pace.”

“I don’t want to slow you guys down,” Tommy murmured.

“The only thing slowing us down,” Devyn piped up, “is all this talk. Come on, you guys, let’s start!” She sent an encouraging smile in Tommy’s direction. “Once we get going, you’ll see that you’re not as far behind as you think you are.”

“Good idea,” Stacy agreed. “Let’s run through the Saturday show. I thought we’d open with ‘Man in the Mirror’ – how does that sound to you guys?”

“Sounds good to me,” Richie said, with the others chiming in agreement.

“Great,” Stacy replied, a wave of relief washing through her. “How about we take it from the top?”

The others shifted positions, moving to take up mics and instruments. Stacy joined Connie by the electric keyboard, while Devyn picked up a tambourine, checking the cymbals as she took a seat beside Richie’s drum kit. Kenny pulled up a milk crate, turning it on its side and making himself comfortable, mic in hand – he’d been elected to sing lead vocals on this smooth-tempo Michael Jackson tune. Tommy rolled across the space, plugging his guitar into the amp and flipping the switch. As he settled himself near the girls, Stacy nodded to Richie, who counted them off.

The group launched into the song tentatively, though as Kenny’s vocals slid in, those playing instruments gained a bit more confidence. It felt shaky and unsure, but at least it was something to work with. Kenny pushed forward into the chorus, his voice rising in crescendo over – nothing.

Stacy glanced to her left, where she saw Tommy frowning as he hurried to catch up and get back on beat. “Hold on, you guys,” she called, waving her hands to grab everyone’s attention.

The others broke off, Tommy’s eyes rising to meet her guiltily. “Sorry,” he said meekly.

“No worries,” Kenny assured him. “How about we just start from the chorus?”

Richie counted them off again, and they started, straight into Kenny's lead line, but by the time they were halfway there, it was obvious Tommy was still struggling to play in time.

Stacy waved her arms again, and the others broke off. “I think you’re playing off beat, Tommy,” she said gently.

He flushed, nodding his head. “I know,” he said, his voice a bit forceful. “I’m trying.”

Stacy frowned. “Let’s just start again, okay?”

Once again, the band began to play, and this time, they made it through the chorus on time and in sync. Stacy and Richie transitioned into the guitar solo, which Tommy attacked with a vengeance – only to hit a dead, shrill chord.

The others jolted to an abrupt stop. “What is it now, Tommy?” Stacy queried, fighting to keep the annoyance out of her voice.

“My string broke,” he sighed, lifting the offending metal wire forlornly.

Devyn hopped up from her seat. “I’ll get you your backup – ” she began, only to be met with a proud, narrow stare, one that brought her up short. “…unless you'd rather get it yourself?”

Tommy glowered at her, obviously bristling over the implication that he couldn’t get the other guitar himself. “Yeah, I’ll get it,” he muttered, turning sharply in his chair – only to have the head of the guitar in his lap push over one of Richie’s empty drum carrying cases.

“Look out!” Connie cried, swooping down to catch it before Stacy tripped over it. The older girl stepped to the side awkwardly, reaching out to grab the backup guitar that was on a stand next to her as she regained her balance.

Tommy’s expression was halfway between misery and frustration as his eyes met Stacy’s. “Did I do that?” he asked sheepishly, his lip curling worriedly.

“Uh – no, it was me,” Connie said hastily, pushing the case away. “I’m always dropping things.”

Stacy gave the communal pink guitar to Tommy, who set aside his other on the amp. It took him a moment to disentangle the jack and plug it in again, during which the others watched him in awkward silence. Devyn had retreated with her tambourine across the room, while Kenny and Connie wore matching pained expressions.

“Okay, guys, let’s try this one more time,” Stacy said, turning her attention to the others. “One – two – one, two, three, four – !”

The others launched into the song as Stacy came around behind Tommy, who turned in his chair just as she crossed his path. She very nearly tripped over his feet, flailing clumsily to catch herself with the help of Devyn and Connie, who rushed to her aid.

“I’m okay,” she assured them, turning to face Tommy and offer profuse apologies. “I’m just – ”

“ – not used to dancing around a wheelchair? Right?” Tommy supplied hotly, his entire body flushing with embarrassment. “Listen, this isn’t working.” He pushed himself back. “I’m just – cramping your style.”

“No, Tommy,” Devyn tried, approaching him. “I guess we’re all just a little nervous, that’s all. It’s a new situation for all of us.”

“Yeah, it’s going to take a little while to work it out,” Richie added.

Stacy nodded. “We want you to play guitar with us, Tommy,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah – we stand behind you,” Connie encouraged him.

That’s the problem,” Tommy cried, wrenching away from them and their sympathetic expressions. “You can stand – I can’t!” Shameful and self-conscious, he pulled the jack from his guitar before turning and wheeling away, out the same creaky back door from whence he came.

Kenny shot up and went after him, while the others simply stared at each other, concern clouding their expressions.

“Now what do we do?” Devyn murmured.

Stacy sighed heavily, sinking down on Kenny’s abandoned crate. “I don’t know,” she admitted. She was frustrated and annoyed, but she was also worried. They were counting on Tommy to be able to play with them on Saturday, so they could get back to their normal sound – the sound their audience paid to hear. It was one thing to be guitar-less for the casual afternoon sets, but quite another for the concert-style weekend offerings. “Maybe Kenny will have some luck…?”

But when Kenny came back empty-handed, even that hope was dashed. “I couldn’t find him,” he sighed. “I don’t know where he went.”

Stacy bit her lip as she contemplated possible solutions. “Maybe one of you can talk to him at school tomorrow?” she suggested. “Is he in any of your classes?”

Richie raised a drumstick. “We have geometry together,” he confirmed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Never before had Stacy been quite so grateful for Richie’s failproof charm. “Thanks,” she replied. “That’s a huge help.”

“I don’t know how huge,” Kenny hedged. “What if he doesn’t want to come back? What do we do then?”

“Can’t we just hope for the best?” Connie wondered.

Devyn shrugged. “Maybe we should have a backup plan, just in case.”

Stacy glanced at each of them in turn. “I’m open to suggestions, guys,” she finally said, throwing up her hands.

Richie tapped his drumstick against his cheek as he thought. “What about Randy Kaparski?” he suggested.

Connie rolled her eyes. “He plays the accordion,” she reminded him witheringly.

Richie shrugged. “It’s better than nothing,” he replied.

“I think I’d rather have nothing,” Kenny mused skeptically.

Another silence fell over the group. Connie and Richie shared a long look with Devyn, seemingly silently urging her to say something. Kenny noticed the exchange and his expression immediately turned wary, as if he knew what they were going to ask.

“Can’t we just ask Ryan to come back?” Devyn finally said, her eyes pleading as she met Stacy’s gaze.

“No, you guys,” she immediately responded. “We have to figure this out ourselves. Ryan isn’t always going to be around.” Upon seeing their disappointed faces, she felt compelled to remind them, “One way or the other, he’ll be in college next year.”

“We’ve already held an audition,” Kenny said, his shoulders falling. “Tommy’s the best there is.”

Stacy nodded, her expression grave. “I agree,” she replied, “but if he doesn’t want to play with us, we’ll just have to find another way…even if that means picking up the mantle ourselves. Kenny, you can play a few songs on the guitar, right? And Devyn, didn’t you say you wanted to learn?”

Both nodded wordlessly.

“Well, there’s no time like the present,” Stacy advised.

“They offer lessons at school,” Connie put in.

“Okay then,” Stacy continued. “And if worse comes to worst, we’ll just pick songs that we can play, until we can play them all again.” She didn't want to add that Ryan had been playing guitar since he was younger than all of them, even though it was true.

“But we’ll lose that signature Kids Incorporated sound,” Kenny said, hesitant.

Stacy shrugged. She knew he’d worked hard to get to where he was already, and that he took his music quite seriously. “Sometimes sounds change,” she finally said, pulling a stray piece of sheet music – “You Belong to the City,” by Glenn Frey, read the title – out from under her. “For better, or for worse…”

~*~

“Oh, Stacy, there you are!” her mother called as Stacy entered her apartment later that evening. “We were getting worried about you!”

Stacy quickly hung up her coat and hat in the hall closet. “Sorry, Mom,” she apologized. “Rehearsal ran late.” She walked down the foyer and to the left, into the kitchen, where she heard the low din of her parents’ voices, chatting with someone. As she rounded the corner, she saw her mother holding the phone, one hand covering the receiver. Her father sent a pointed gaze to the kitchen table, where one plate of food still sat, growing cold.

“Stace, you know you need to call if you’re going to be late,” her mother reprimanded gently.

Stacy nodded, sliding into the chair at the table and picking up her fork. The last thing she wanted to do was have yet another argument on her hands; the afternoon have been hard enough, dealing with the other members of the band following Tommy's explosive departure. Parental units were a whole other kettle of fish.

“We’re glad you made it home safely, honey,” her father added, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pressing a kiss to her temple. “Just – don’t make us worry next time, eh?”

“Okay, Daddy,” she replied, take a bite of her food. “Who’s on the phone?”

Her mother’s concerned expression broke into a smile. “It’s your sister,” she informed her. “Renee just wanted to call and say hi.”

Renee, Stacy thought, eyes widening. She’ll know what I should do! “Do you mind if I talk to her?” she asked, allowing her fork to fall through her fingers, hitting the side of the plate with a loud klank! “Alone?”

Her parents exchanged a look. “What do you need to talk to her about?” her mother questioned slowly.

Stacy thought fast. “It’s something I can only talk to my big sister about,” she hedged. When that didn’t appear to alleviate her parents’ fears, she quickly added, “I’m not sick and I’m not in trouble. I just want to talk to her – about band stuff.”

Her parents nodded wordlessly, still curious but not willing to press further. Her mother lifted her hand from the receiver. “Stacy wants to talk to you, honey, hold on.”

Stacy shot her mother a grateful look as she raced out of the kitchen and down the hall to her bedroom. She closed the door with her foot as she reached across her bed, picking up her extension. “I’ve got it, Mom!” she yelled, two seconds before realizing her mother could hear her perfectly well on the line. Mercifully, her mother merely hung up the phone without comment – or at least, without a comment that she was privy to.

“Hey, sis,” Renee greeted, her tone warm and curious over the faint crackle of the line. “What’s going on?”

Stacy clutched the receiver for a long moment, her emotions welling up inside her. How could she even begin to explain everything? The last time they’d talked on the phone was the night that she’d called Renee up out of the blue to gush about being kissed, so as far as her sister knew, everything was peachy keen – between her and Ryan, between her and the band, between her and her classmates. And yet, so much had happened these last few weeks – some good, some bad, some otherwise – that she didn’t know where to start.

“Stace?” Renee was starting to sound worried. “Mom said you wanted to talk to me. Is something on your mind?”

“Renee – ” she started, her voice hitching in her throat. “Oh, Renee, I don’t know what to do.”

“Stacy, what’s wrong?” Renee pressed, her tone growing urgent. “If it’s Ryan, so help me God – ”

“Renee, he left the band,” Stacy burst out. “He didn’t want to leave, but he had to, and we held an audition to replace him, but then the replacement blew up today and left, and now we don’t have a lead guitarist and we’re down a singer and I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down, Stace,” Renee said. “Start from the beginning, now. First of all, why did Ryan leave?”

Stacy sniffled, working to keep the threatening tears firmly behind her eyes. “He’s applying to Juilliard, and his deadline is coming up.” She paused, wondering if she should bring up the other reason tensions had risen within the band. “And… he thinks the other members know about us.”

“You mean you haven’t told them?” Renee replied incredulously. “Stacy, you’re treading dangerous water enough as it is by dating him, but keeping it from everyone else? I – do Mom and Dad know?”

“No,” Stacy whispered mournfully.

“See, this is why I never wanted you to get mixed up with him,” Renee began, but before she could get worked up, Stacy redirected her righteous indignation.

“That’s not really the problem right now,” Stacy argued. “He's gone, but only temporarily, which means I’m the oldest – and I’m the one in charge. It’s not even been a day and I’ve already messed up. How do I fix this?” Please, Renee, she added silently, closing her eyes momentarily, tell me what to do.

“Well, I can’t tell you what to do, Stace,” Renee replied. “Why did the new guy leave?”

Stacy shrugged, grasping the phone a bit tighter in her hand. “He’s really self-conscious because he’s in a wheelchair.”

Renee sighed into the phone. “Well if that’s the case… I’m not sure there’s much you can do, except try to make him feel welcome. You can’t really give anyone else self-esteem, though. It’s something they have to find in themselves.”

Stacy eyed the phone suspiciously. “Have you been reading psychology textbooks again?”

“I’m serious, Stacy,” Renee shot back. “Just like how dating a seventeen-year-old boy isn’t going to make you magically feel more confident and competent in your abilities, all the encouragement and support in the world would make someone who’s uncomfortable with themselves because they are handicapped only feel pitied and patronized.”

What? Stacy thought, practically feeling the words fly straight over her head. “I hate it when you start talking academic at me,” she grumbled.

“The point is,” Renee said with exaggerated impatience, “the only way you can feel happy, or comfortable, or confident, is to find those qualities within yourself.”

“Okay,” Stacy said slowly, allowing the words to sink in. “How would you handle this situation, if you were in my shoes?”

“Well, first of all,” Renee began, “I’d dump the boyfriend who left me with this problem – ”

Renee,” Stacy interrupted with a groan.

“Just – don’t try so hard, okay? You come on really strong when you do that.” Renee paused thoughtfully. “If it were me – I’d invite the kid back, tell him we really wanted him to play with us, and that we chose him for a reason.”

“Okay,” Stacy said. “I pretty much told Richie to do that. They’re in the same class at school.”

Renee couldn’t quite stifle her snort. “You’re relying on Richie for this?”

“Oh, come on, Renee,” Stacy cajoled. “He can be really charming, when he wants to be.”

“Let’s hope,” Renee replied with a chuckle.

A jovial moment passed between the two, before Renee spoke again. “So – other than this – is everything okay between you and Ryan? Is he treating you okay?”

“Yeah,” Stacy replied, albeit rather weakly. He still made her weak in the knees with just one glance, but she was really antsy to spend some quality alone time with him. They had been together for nearly a month, but still hadn’t gone out on a real date! His Juilliard application really ate up a lot of his time.

“You don’t sound very convincing,” Renee deadpanned.

“I just – I never really get to spend time with him,” Stacy clarified. “He has a lot on his mind… and I’m not sure how far up that list I am.”

“Oh, Stacy,” Renee sighed. “He’s not good enough for you. I wish you could see that.”

“Geez,” Stacy remarked. “I thought you guys were friends!”

“We are,” Renee said, “but you’re my sister. More importantly, you’re my little sister, and I have to protect you – it’s pretty much in the job description.”

“You always say that,” Stacy teased.

“The truth is always worth repeating,” Renee replied jokingly, though her tone turned serious on a dime. “And so is this: don’t let him break your heart, okay, Stace? I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I won’t,” Stacy vowed, crossing her fingers. “I promise.”

Chapter Text


.12.
“Faith”

Baby, I know you’re asking me to stay
Saying please, please, please don’t go away
You say I’m giving you the blues
But I’ve got to think twice
Before I give my heart away
I know all the games you play
Because I play them, too

© 1987 George Michael

~*~

A small annex of music rehearsal spaces had been added to the local high school in the fifties, when it became known, first locally and then at a state-wide and even national level, for its concert orchestra. Stuck on the back of the auditorium, five windowless rooms, each barely large enough to contain a full-size piano and bench, clustered together in a dark but dry alley. The rooms were fiercely fought over, oftentimes booked months in advance by members of the orchestra and choir who needed regular rehearsal space. Independent musicians needed someone in the administration to step in for them, and Ryan was forever grateful his music teacher, Mr. Miller, believed enough in him to do just that.

Music Room #3 had become his second home over the last few weeks, as he worked slavishly on the compositions that would comprise his Juilliard application. He spent two hours during the school day and three hours in the afternoon locked in this tiny room, and it seemed his perseverance was finally beginning to pay off. He had become completely engrossed in his work, to the detriment of nearly everything else in his life. The only time he saw his parents was at the dinner table; the only time he saw his friends from school was passing them in the hallways between classes. He lived, breathed, ate, and slept music, his focus completely on this application – which wasn’t even the true application, more like a ‘pre-screening’ process. If he passed this, he’d have a shot at an audition with the faculty, but it was certainly no guarantee that he wouldn’t be weeded out with the other pretenders first.

The stakes of the application process were high, the hurdles presented here tougher than any others he’d ever faced. It’s why he kept his head down, why he kept chipping away at it, through spells of frustration and self-doubt. He knew that if he focused on the grim realities of the situation – the fact that only 8% of applicants were accepted every year, the fact that his body of work to date mostly consisted of prog rock songs, the fact that unlike most of the others gunning for the same spot, he hadn’t been classically trained on a major instrument since childhood – he’d lose his nerve, and he’d never be able to forgive himself for that. He’d wanted this for too long and had worked too hard to chicken out so close to the finish line.

Even if it meant putting the rest of his life on hold for the duration.

Ryan slipped into the room and quietly closed the door, settling at the piano with his backpack at his side. He began pulling out all the materials he needed to continue his work – not only his sheet music and pencils, but also books on music theory, copies of classical compositions he’d been studying, and even a collection of classical music he could practically play by now, having listened to it so much. The last two items he pulled from his bag were the two most unrelated to the task at hand, but the two most special: a collection of letters from Gloria, and Stacy’s magical good luck charm.

He turned the stack of letters over in his hands. Of all the people he’d known in his life, only Gloria really understood how much this meant to him. She’d gone through the same process herself, applying to many conservatories around the country (including Juilliard) before being accepted to one in the Midwest. He’d kept up regular correspondence with her, because he found her experiences so interesting, and because it had taken him awhile to work up the nerve of asking for her help with this process. Even though it’d been nearly two years since the embarrassing episode of confessing his feelings for her, only to have them so sweetly rejected in turn, it was still something of a stumbling block for him. Even though they had weathered the awkwardness and become quite close, he still felt vulnerable around her, even with the distance mailed letters could provide.

Still, her assistance was proving invaluable. She’d related to him her own trials and tribulations of the application and audition process; though she had gone the route of vocalist instead of musician, she’d advised him that he would do well to heed Juilliard’s conservative, classical reputation. He’d taken a few local classes on musicology and music theory, and had been taking private guitar lessons for nigh on seven years, but his competition would have been well-groomed practically from birth to take a place in a professional conservatory.

Gloria had recommended that he write compositions for the piano instead of guitar, and that he study more seriously the scores of famous symphonies and concertos. He already knew the body of his work would be examined in full if he made it to the audition phase, so he accepted this change of focus with little fuss. He’d loaded up his Walkman with classical tapes, pulling music from every major composer he could think of, not only the ones who’d written for piano. Gloria sent him a few albums as well, things her friends in composition recommended, or said they’d studied during their first year of classes.

All that was left to do was sit – and write – and polish.

His first composition was dark and melodic and complicated, but nearly finished. His second piece was far more traditional in nature and scope, one that he’d spent serious time building according to all the theories of classical composition. This was perhaps halfway completed. He’d played snippets of both for Mr. Miller, and had been encouraged by his teacher’s reactions to them. He knew he still had a load of work ahead of him, but at least he felt confident that he was on the right track.

He played through the first piece, which was quickly becoming his favorite of the two. He had started working on it the night he’d found Stacy in the park, and it was something of a culmination of the emotions he’d felt during that time – uncertainty, wonder, desire. The melody line was dark, in a lower register than most pieces written for piano, with intricate flourishes in the crescendo of the climax. Playing this piece always left him with a sense of calm, even though it sounded anything but to the ears of others. The first time he’d played part of it for Stacy, she’d clutched his arm tightly, her expression a mixture of awe and rapture. It had touched her, quite deeply it seemed, and that gave him no small thrill – considering she was the inspiration for it.

As for Stacy… His eyes fell to the ring, its shiny faux ruby twinkling at him in the overhead light. He felt guilty for neglecting her, even though he’d told her from the start that this application process came first, no matter what happened between them. She hadn’t complained, but still, it felt like things had stalled between them somewhat, and he was fairly certain this was his fault. There was nothing he could do about it, though – he felt lucky that he hadn’t had to give up his time with her along with the time he once devoted to Kids Incorporated.

A pang of penitence struck him as the band crossed his mind. He hadn’t missed them nearly as much as he’d expected. As much as he was struggling, at times, trying to work in a traditional, classical musical medium – in the same breath, it felt freeing, this exploration beyond pop music and punk rock. He missed his friends, and he missed the camaraderie that came along with playing in a band, but he didn’t miss much else – all of the work behind the scenes, worrying about setlists and dancer drama and production numbers. He was looking forward to returning – performance was as much a need to satiate as writing was – but in the meanwhile, he couldn’t say he spared much thought for what was going on in his absence.

And, he suspected, something was most definitely going on.

The door of the tiny room opened almost soundlessly, and a figure slipped in on quiet feet. Ryan glanced over as the door closed once more, his heart picking up speed as he caught sight of her, this beautiful girl he was privileged enough to call his. “Hey,” he greeted her softly, his hands falling away from the keys of the piano.

“Hey,” Stacy replied, pressing a light kiss to his cheek as she crossed the room, heading for the extra chair wedged in the corner. She often sat there, propping her feet up on the edge of his bench, which put her long, gorgeous legs on display while she studied or worked on her homework. Of course, this being November, they were covered, but still very well defined by her stylish clothes. Today she was wearing a pair of sleek khaki slacks, with a red blouse under a patterned shirt. The white rose he'd given her during their walk to school that morning was tucked behind her ear in a cloud of blonde curls.

The entire pretty package was marred, however, but her troubled expression as she slumped into the chair, pulling her bag onto her lap. Ryan narrowed his eyes assessingly as he gazed at her. He hated to see her so down, and he hated that she thought she had to keep whatever was on her mind to herself. Even though he was in the middle of something very important – something that had the potential to decide the very direction of his life – that didn’t mean that he didn't want to be there for her, if he could.

When it became apparent she wouldn’t speak unless prompted, he gave in. “What’s going on, Stace?” he asked.

Her eyes met his. “What makes you think there’s anything going on?” she replied, her tone weak and shaky.

“Because it’s obvious something’s bothering you,” he replied, laying his hand on her crossed ankles beside him. “And if I had to wager a guess, I’d say it had something to do with the band.”

She sat up straight, a denial fast on her lips, but in the space of a breath, her shoulders slumped once more. “How did you know?” she asked cautiously, miserably.

He gave her a grim smile. “Maybe because I received an irate phone call this morning, at six am.” He shook his head. “My parents weren’t exactly pleased.”

Stacy furrowed her brow. “But… Who would’ve called you at six – ? Oh.” Understanding bloomed across her features, and she ducked her head as her cheeks flushed.

Renee had called him, seemingly out of the blue, with the added bonus of waking his parents, who’d answered the phone. Ryan himself was only barely awake when he reached for the extension in his room, though the righteous indignation shooting through the receiver brought him to his senses soon enough. Oh, yes, she’d had a grand old time, laying into him for leaving Stacy high and dry in her hour of need, explaining that his replacement had left in a huff, leaving Kids Incorporated without a guitarist and a lead singer. There was also something in there about how he didn’t deserve someone as wonderful as her sister fawning over him, but he’d really stopped listening by that point. He’d even gotten up and showered in the interim, picking up the phone afterwards only to hear her still ranting and raving. In fact, he was fairly convinced if it was feasible, she would’ve reached through the phone and clobbered him.

So, really, it was only a matter of time – and he’d wanted to give Stacy the chance to bring it up first. She’d been uncharacteristically silent during their walk to school that morning, and it seemed she was content to have more of the same here, which is why he finally said something. No matter what it was, he didn’t want her to feel miserable if there was even a small chance he could help her.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Stace?” he asked.

She looked ready to cry. “Because it’s not your problem,” she burst out. “Because I didn’t want to burden you, when you already have so much on your plate. Because you left me in charge, and I thought that meant – I had to deal with it myself.” She sniffled, covering her face with her hands. “I guess I wanted to prove to you that I could be a leader in your absence. After all, that’s the reality of next year – you’ll be gone.”

Ryan slid across the bench and pulled her into his arms. “Oh, Stace,” he sighed, hugging her tightly. “One of the things about being a good leader is knowing when to ask for help.”

She curled into the warmth of his embrace, wrapping her arms around him in kind. “I need help, Ryan,” she whispered against his shoulder. “What should I do?”

He continued to hold her, reaching up to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, letting his fingers to twine through the blond waves. “Well, what have you done already?” he murmured. She’d always been something of a peacekeeping force, even when she was a child; there was little doubt in his mind that she’d already tried something, even if it hadn’t worked.

“Well,” she sniffled, pulling herself upright just enough to face him, “I asked Richie to talk to Tommy, because they’re in the same class.”

Ryan nodded slowly. “That’s a good plan,” he replied, continuing to stroke her hair.

Instead of being reassured, she continued to look skeptical. “But what if Renee’s right? Should I really be putting all my trust in Richie for this?”

“Have a little faith, Stace,” Ryan advised with a smile. “In yourself, and in the others. You may be the captain right now, but you’re all in the same boat. Kenny, Devyn, Connie – yeah, even Richie – they all want this to work, because they want the band to stay together.” His hand drifted forward, cupping the side of her face, his thumb cresting her cheek. “Just – trust that they can handle this, okay? You can’t do everything by yourself – and you shouldn’t have to.”

She pressed herself against him, wrapping her arms around his waist. “I just want it all to be over, you know? I want to get back to playing music and having fun – with the others, and with you.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he assured her. He glanced up, eyeing his half-finished compositions. At least, not yet.

~*~

Ryan was surprised when, during his trek home from school a few days later, he found Tommy Morgan lingering outside the Garage. Ryan had thought the matter with the band’s lineup settled following his heart-to-heart with Stacy, especially considering she hadn’t mentioned it again during any of their –albeit scant – time together since. He furrowed his brow as he studied the younger boy, who looked positively miserable as he listened to the muffled sounds emanating from the rehearsal space.

“Hey, Tommy,” he said, veering off his path towards the boy. “What’s going on?”

Tommy turned his attention to Ryan, his mouth curling in a sneer. “Don’t you guys ever give up?”

Ryan’s brows shot up. “No, I don’t,” he replied, wondering just who else constituted ‘you guys’. “Why do you?”

“Spend some time in my shoes, Ryan, and you’ll see,” Tommy shot back hotly. He glanced back mournfully at the Garage, before diverting his eyes to his lap.

Ryan sighed, settling down on a nearby bench. It seemed Tommy was battling more with himself than with anyone else. It was becoming clear that Richie’s charms hadn’t been enough to convince him that the other kids truly did want him to join the band, at least for reasons other than patronizing pity. Maybe it wasn’t his place to step in, but for the good of the band – for all that he’d worked for already, and for his girlfriend’s happiness – he was willing to try.

“Look, Tommy,” he began, “I can’t imagine what it’s like, not being able to walk. But I also can’t imagine going through life without hope.”

Tommy turned to face him once more, though he didn’t lift his eyes from his lap.

Ryan paused, the muted strains of music from the Garage dying down in embers. “We picked you to play with us because we thought that you were great, and felt that you could do the job.”

Tommy shook his head vehemently. “You brought me in the band because you felt sorry for me – that’s the real reason, and you know it,” he argued.

“You’re wrong,” Ryan returned, his tone as calm and patient as Tommy’s was miserable and frustrated.

“Don’t lie,” Tommy cried. “I saw the looks on your faces when I first came in!”

Ryan shrugged. “We were a little surprised, that’s all. We weren’t expecting someone to come in, in a wheelchair.”

“Oh, yeah?” Tommy huffed. “Then why did you leave when I came on board?”

Ryan shook his head. “You’ve got it wrong, Tommy – my leaving was the reason we held the audition in the first place. It had nothing to do with you, other than I thought – just like all the others – that you could be the one to replace me, successfully.”

Tommy pursed his lips. “Let’s say I do stick it out, and play a concert with the band. What do you think the audience is going to do – how do you think they’re going to react?”

“I don’t know,” Ryan admitted, crossing his arms over his chest.

“They’re gonna look at me like I’m some sort of freak,” Tommy predicted, “and then they’re gonna point, and they’re gonna laugh.”

Ryan’s patience was rapidly wearing thin – he could only spare so much sympathy and understanding for someone determined to see only the worst in others. “No one wants to laugh at you,” he countered, “they want to cheer for you.”

Tommy scowled, making Ryan wonder just how much he’d gone through up to this point. He was a sensitive person, and he wore his emotions on his sleeve – that much had been clear even during his audition for the band. Still, if all he saw were the negatives of his situation, he’d never find a way to pull through – it was a self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling cycle.

“They want to feel sorry for me,” Tommy insisted stubbornly.

Ryan shook his head. “You know what I think?”

Tommy pouted, but didn't respond.

“I think that the only one who feels sorry for you is you,” Ryan continued. “Because you’re afraid you don’t have the courage to do what you really want to do. I know that’s hard – believe me, I’m facing some pretty tough odds myself right now. But you know what else? I think that if you had the courage to audition for us in the first place, you’ll have the courage to play a concert.”

Tommy’s gaze rose to meet Ryan’s; though still defiant, it was thoughtful, as if some of his words were sinking in.

Ryan shrugged, standing again as the band’s sound picked up once more. He sensed he’d pushed just enough – any further, and he’d given Tommy even more justification for feeling the way he did. “Or, maybe you're right,” he considered, looping the straps of his backpack onto his shoulders. “Maybe you’re just not good enough.”

He turned, stepping back onto the sidewalk, and continued walking towards home. It’s funny, he thought, a wary smile rising to his lips. Even when I’m not in the band, I’m in it… I wonder if it’ll always be this way…

~*~

“All right, guys,” Stacy nodded, stepping out from her position behind the keyboard, “that sounded pretty good. I think we’ll be ready for Saturday night.”

The others nodded, murmuring their agreement, but looked weary all the same. It’d been a long, tough week; one more rehearsal, and their first Saturday night concert minus Ryan would be upon them. Stacy dreaded tomorrow’s rehearsal, with the dancers, when they realized they weren’t going to have very much to work with – mostly Motown hits from the ’60s, before the electric guitar became such a prominent fixture in pop music.

Still, it would be nice to have another throwback set – and it gave the others a chance to show off their burgeoning harmonic skills. Each of the girls would take lead vocals at least once, while Kenny and Richie had combined to rock some Temptations and Four Tops covers.

“This week, maybe,” Kenny put in, “but I don’t know how many more shows we can put on without a steady guitarist.”

“Come on, Kenny, be positive,” Devyn said, throwing her arm around her best friend’s shoulders. “We’ve both signed up for lessons at school, and when Ryan comes back, he can help us even more. Until then, we’ll just have to be creative.”

And hope for the best, Stacy added silently. “Devyn’s right – sometimes attitude makes all the difference.”

Richie looked sheepish from his position behind his drums. “Sorry I didn’t have any luck with Tommy,” he apologized, for what seemed like the millionth time since Tuesday. “He’s pretty shy. He’s a really interesting guy, though, and I wish he’d give us a chance to get to know him better.”

Connie nodded. “I guess we can be pretty intimidating,” she observed, “even if we don’t mean to be.”

The group shared a collective shrug. Just as Stacy was about to speak, the creaky back door of the Garage opened and closed. When the kids turned, they were shocked to see Tommy rolling in, approaching them with a very serious expression.

“Tommy,” Stacy managed to choke out. “Hey!”

He halted a few feet from them, directing his determined gaze at her. “Listen,” he said, “I was thinking… If you haven’t found anyone to replace me yet? I’d – I’d like to give it another shot.”

Stacy could merely stare at him in utter disbelief, and she sensed that the others wore similar expressions. “Can I ask what changed your mind?”

Tommy shrugged. “I had a very special talk, with a very special friend,” he replied. He glanced at Richie, returning the drummer’s encouraging smile. “You guys deserve a chance, after giving me so many. I’d be honored to play with you, if you'll still have me.”

Stacy quickly glanced at the others, who seemed equal parts flattered and relieved at his sudden change of heart. “Any objections?” she queried, only to receive a mass of shaking heads in response.

“Welcome back, Tommy!” she cried, giving him a high five. The others crowded around, clapping his shoulders and chattering excitedly. Stacy smiled as she watched him bask in the glow of her friends’ acceptance. Finally, it seemed, things were back on track – now she could only wait and wonder how long their good times would last.

Chapter Text


.13.
“Lost in Emotion”

From time to time I wonder
What I am in your heart
I keep showing emotions, not knowing
Just where it all stands for us
I’m lost in emotion
Telling you things you really shouldn’t know
Oh, baby, I’m lost in emotion
Am I a fool? At least my friends think so…

© 1987 Full Force & Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam

~*~

After three solid weeks of work, Ryan finally emerged from under the weight of his strict writing schedule. At first, he didn’t know what to do – he felt light and heavy and weird and dissonant now that everything was suddenly, abruptly done. That first afternoon, he could only sit and stare – in relief, in trepidation – at the erasure-filled pages that constituted his masterpiece. By the next afternoon, he’d gained a bit of his sense back, and had invited Mr. Miller down to the practice room to hear the finished pieces. After gaining his approval, the gates of excited satisfaction had truly opened – and that, mixed with the fact that the following day was Friday, was enough to bring anyone a sense of giddy euphoria. Years of work, and a solid few months with his nose to the grindstone, and he was so close to reaching his goal that he could practically taste it.

In the meanwhile, Ryan once again joined the land of the living, and was surprised to find his classmates all abuzz about something. His curiosity piqued after morning classes; he decided to forgo another lunch period in the library, and cautiously joined his fellow students in the cafeteria, merging with the massive lunch line as he eyed potential places to sit. It was a rare fad indeed that could capture the attention of the entire student body, but the same social rules were still in play – certain groups were more likely than others to discuss said excitement in public. Would it be more fruitful to sit near the cheerleaders, or the chess club? Ryan contemplated his eavesdropping choices as he pushed through the line, choosing the least evil of the unidentifiable foodstuffs, paying for it, and standing at the front of the room, gazing out over the sea of humanity.

This is why I don’t even bother, he reminded himself, standing on his tip-toes as he tried to find an empty seat. Just as he was about to give up and go outside, someone on his right jostled him. He glanced over, his concern melting into a smile. “Hey, guys,” he said, greeting fellow members of the baseball team.

A trio of tall, stocky boys stood beside him. The ringleader of this particular group, Ricky “Stubbs” McKinsey, was balancing two trays loaded down with food, one in each hand. His eyes lit up as he recognized his teammate. “Hey, Ryan, just the man I wanted to see!”

“What’s up?” Ryan asked, following the group as they trooped over to one side of the cafeteria, joining another pair of bat-wielding friends at a table. The boys sat, making themselves comfortable as Stubbs arranged and rearranged his trays in front of him.

“Hey, listen,” Stubbs began, “you play in a band, right?”

Ryan watched with some amusement as Stubbs fiddled with his trays. “Yeah,” he replied, digging into the gray mass most graciously called ‘chow mein’ on the menu board. It was chewy and gluey, but otherwise tasteless.

The others – Bobby, Ethan, Michael, and a guy they called by his last name, Steiger – elbowed each other as Stubbs dug into the chow mein, seeming to inhale it without even chewing. “So, like, you know all the local bands around here, right?” he continued, around a mouthful of food.

Ryan furrowed his brow, amazed as he watched his teammate pack the food away. “Yeah…”

Stubbs rolled his eyes heavenward, his big, blocky shoulders sagging with triumph. “Oh, awesome,” he declared, shoveling another portion of food in his mouth. “There’s this band that plays on Saturdays at this local joint, right? And the lead singer is a total babe. Who is she?”

Ryan briefly ran down a list of bands from the area in his brain, but with such little information to go on, it was hard to narrow down the possibilities. Lots of local groups played on Saturdays, and many of them had club gigs. “I’m not sure, man,” he finally said, reaching for his fruit cup. “Where do they play?”

“Umm, some local place….” Stubbs searched the air for an answer, glancing confusedly at the others, before elbowing Michael in the chest. “Oh, yeah, the P*lace, man! That funky ice cream shop just down the street.”

Ryan nearly choked, but the others didn’t seem to notice.

“Hey, listen, man,” Stubbs barreled on, “rumor has it this chick goes to our school. And, you know, I was just wondering, because I’ve never seen her here.”

Ryan took a deep breath, managing to recover as Stubbs methodically cleared one tray and stacked the second on top of it without missing a beat. “Oh, yeah, I know who she is,” he admitted, “and there’s a reason you haven’t seen her around.”

Stubbs very nearly dropped his fork. “Dude, you know this chick?” He exchanged glances with the others. “So you could, like, introduce us, right? She is totally smokin’ – ”

“She’s a freshman,” Ryan cut in, suddenly not all that hungry anymore. It was totally surreal to hear his friends unknowingly macking on his girlfriend. Either he had been out of it longer than he’d thought, or something huge had happened over the last month. Just what was it Stacy was doing onstage that had attracted the attention of the almighty senior baseball squad?

Ryan’s words had shut Stubbs down momentarily. “A freshman?” He wrinkled his nose. “Well, that it explains it, then.”

Ryan narrowed his gaze at his teammate. “Explains what?” he asked warily.

Stubbs grinned. “Why the rest of the band looked like middle-school feebs,” he replied, earning hails of laughter from his buddies.

Ryan was distinctly unimpressed with their assessment of his bandmates. He was also rapidly remembering why he didn’t hang out with the baseball team much, outside of practice.

“Either way, man, you totally need to see this group’s shows,” Stubbs carried on after a moment. “The whole school’s buzzing about them.” He continued to work his way through a second disgusting hot lunch. “Lucky fucking freshmen, they just don’t even know,” he added enviously.

Dimly, Ryan wondered if Stubbs realized that he’d just suggested that Ryan go see his own band play. Stubbs wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the box, after all. Still, he felt an odd sense of pride and ownership that Kids Incorporated had managed to grab and sustain the attention of a high school crowd…even without him.

Might as well find out how and why, Ryan reasoned to himself. “So, how did you guys find out about this band?” he asked innocently, glancing from Stubbs to the others.

Bobby leaned forward with a grin. “Steiger’s girlfriend was baby-sitting her kid brother and sister, and they wanted to go see the band’s show a few weeks ago – ” he started, before Steiger himself cut in.

“ – Yeah, and I met her there to give her a ‘reprieve’ from her ‘work’ ” – he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively at the others – “but when we started paying attention to the music, and I saw the hot blonde on stage?” Steiger let out a low whistle of appreciation. “I had to share my good fortune with my friends, man.”

“We’ve been going the last few weeks,” Ethan added, “and word has obviously spread. You can’t get into the club these days.”

And you can’t get near the girl,” Michael added woefully.

Stubbs leaned forward, towards Ryan, a conspiratorial look in his eye. “So could you, like, introduce us?” he tried again, as if he’d forgotten his own reaction five minutes earlier to learning she was a lowly underclassman.

You really are as dumb as a rock, Ryan thought to himself. “She’s a freshman, guys,” he reminded them, only to earn the same chorus of groans this pronouncement had the first time.

Michael looked thoughtful. “You know who I’ve seen sniffing around her?” he asked, elbowing Stubbs in the ribs. “That Brian guy – you know, the fairy dancer.” He wriggled his fingers to punctuate the derogative nickname as he motioned to the blond boy, sitting across the room at another table.

Ethan nodded. “He probably wants her for himself,” he grumbled derisively.

Stubbs snorted. “I don’t think so,” he put in, catching Ryan’s eye. “But I suppose you can never be too sure, eh?”

Ryan could practically see the gears grinding in his teammates’ minds. His stomach flipped as Bobby turned to the others, a new idea practically shining a light bulb over his head. “So it’s, like, our duty to rescue her from that, right guys?” Bobby said, as if he was talking about a fate worse than death.

Though, Ryan considered, being stuck with Brian’s undying affection perhaps qualified for such a dubious honor.

He shook himself from his thoughts, just in time to see his five classmates staring at him, interested expressions settling over their features.

“So what do you say, Ryan?” Stubbs asked, his tone hopeful.

Ryan worked hard not to roll his eyes as he pushed himself out of his seat. “I’ll see you later, guys,” he replied, giving them his back before he burst out laughing in their faces. If you think I’m going to help you help yourself to my girlfriend, you have another thought coming, he added silently, heading for the tray return as the bell sounded.

~*~

Ryan lingered in the hallway outside the auditorium, clasping the straps of his bag as he leaned against the wall next to Music Room #3. The next time he entered the little practice hovel, he was to play his Juilliard compositions for a captive audience…and, he had to admit, he felt a little nervous. Weird, even, considering he’d spent his lunch period unexpectedly dancing around the very same topic.

He glanced up as a figure darted into his field of vision, and his breath caught in the back of his throat. Stacy was walking towards him, her steady stride belayed by effuse excitement, her entire face lit up with a brilliant smile. She was wearing red that day, a mini-dress over white tights, a white belt settled low across her hips. Her hair fell over her shoulders in blonde waves, a luscious red rose peeking out behind her left ear. He’d gotten lucky with his choice of flowers that day, but it really completed her look.

His teammates might be tree stumps, but they had one thing right: she was absolutely gorgeous.

“Hey,” she greeted him, reaching for his hands.

He was unable to resist drawing her closer instead, wrapping his arms around her waist and pressing his lips to hers. A shiver of surprise scored her spine, but she yielded eagerly to the kiss, melting into him, her hands sliding around his shoulders. I’ve missed this, he thought muddily, slanting his mouth over hers as he found a better angle. I’ve missed you.

“Wow,” Stacy breathed a moment later, her fingers drifting up into his hair. Her cheeks bore the stains of a pretty pink blush, and he could feel her heart racing in her chest. “When you told me that you had a surprise for me this morning, I had no idea to expect this.”

Ryan smiled indulgently. “That’s because this” – he pressed another, lighter kiss to her lips – “is not your surprise.”

He felt her fingers curling into the nape of his neck as she gazed up at him uncomprehendingly. His smile widened into a grin, and he tightened his embrace, suddenly awash in excitement.

“I’ve finished my comps,” he informed her. “My application for Juilliard.”

Her lips parted with surprise as her eyes lit up. “Oh, Ryan, that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed, hugging him. “Does this mean – ”

“I’m done,” he confirmed, pulling away slightly. “We can spend our study period somewhere besides the music room from now on.”

Stacy’s answering grin was cheeky. “I don’t know,” she mused, “it’s so quiet back here…”

“Hmm, I like the way you think,” he replied, kissing her again. “But – business before pleasure.” He let her go, taking her hand in his as he pushed into the practice room and flipped the light switch. He turned to her once more, lacing his fingers through hers in a tight squeeze. “I want to play my compositions for you,” he said softly, his tone serious as his eyes searched hers. “I want to know what you think.”

Stacy nodded, exhaling in a rush of breath. “I’d be honored,” she replied, her cheeks again turning pink.

The two settled in as they had for the last three weeks’ worth of study periods. Ryan took up residence on the piano bench, pulling his sheet music from his bag and arranging it on the music rack. Stacy let her book bag drop to the floor beside the extra chair, but instead of sitting in her usual spot, she slid down beside her boyfriend on the bench, eager to feel the music as well as to hear – and see – it.

Ryan played his newest composition first, the staid, traditional, classical piece that had eaten up so much of his time. He’d written it by the book, with all of the conventional time, key, and pace changes, and it was the one he’d wavered over the longest. It felt so strange, even now, to play it, because he felt like he was forcing himself to fit into a box not of his own making. Even though he was satisfied with it, to his own ear, he could hear all of the effort that had been put into composing the piece, and that still made him a touch uncomfortable – exposed, vulnerable, and wary.

The other song, on the other hand, fueled different emotions in him. Its roots were classic, but its execution was experimental, with a low melody line, unexpected flourishes before, during, and after the climax, and a haunting section played using only the right hand. He loved it – it was as if he’d translated raw passion into music, much closer to the songs he’d written on his preferred instrument. It was a piece that was successful on every level above musicality, at least when he played it for himself. Time tended to race by when he found himself lost in it.

When he was finished, when his shaking fingers slipped from the piano keys, when he turned to face his girlfriend, he was at once surprised – and yet, not surprised – by her reaction. Stacy sat perfectly still next to him, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes closed. Her expression was indescribable, caught somewhere between rapture and sorrow – and when her gaze finally met his, tears glistened behind her eyes.

"Well?” he prompted after a moment, releasing a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding.

Wordlessly, she slid across the bench, wrapping her arms around him. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, her breath warm against his neck. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”

He chuckled nervously. “You don’t have to go overboard, Stace,” he replied.

She broke away from him, her eyes meeting his. “I’m not!” she protested, entirely serious. She touched his face, her eyes searching his for a long moment. “It really is the – most – beautiful – ”

He cut her off with a kiss, grateful and satisfied and worthy, pulling her closer, until she was practically in his lap. This is what he loved about her – how she was no less than completely open and honest and accepting of him, his work, his life, his shortcomings. She’d always been the one who was there for him when it mattered most. As much as it had been his duty to help shelter and protect her when they were younger, she’d also been there for him when he needed it.

She was eager and willing in his arms now, as urgency edged into their deepening kisses. Dimly, he became aware that he was approaching the line, one that would be all too easy to cross into uncharted territory, if he let his emotions get away from him. As much as he was enjoying this – and he was, no doubt about that – it would be far too easy to make a mistake that couldn’t be undone.

Reluctantly, he pulled away, dialing back the intense pleasure he took in her warm and willing embrace, breaking off one last, breathless kiss and immediately opening his eyes. Some primal, male part of him was deeply satisfied with one glance at her thoroughly kissed mouth, her tousled hair, her heaving chest, but the rest of him fought the urge, tamping it down into his hidden recesses.

The air between them was heavy with tension and anticipation, and Ryan wracked his brain for something to say that would lighten the atmosphere. “So,” he finally managed, sliding a few inches away from her in order to regain some semblance of calm, “I hear you’re the talk of the school.”

Stacy immediately flushed. “Oh?” she answered weakly, still fighting to catch her breath. “Why?”

Ryan tilted back a bit on the bench, sending his smile heavenwards. “The band’s Saturday night shows – they’re a big hit with the baseball team.”

Stacy’s eyes lit up. “Wow, really?” she enthused, grabbing his hand. “I mean, I have noticed the P*lace packing out these last few weekends, but I had no idea it was people from our school.” Her gaze fell to her lap as she bit her lip, but she didn’t let him go. “I wish you had been there.”

Ryan finally looked back at her, his heart warming. He turned his hand under hers, lacing their fingers together. “Yeah, me too,” he said. “But I’ve been so busy with all this” – he waved his free hand, gesturing around the music room – “and…well, it felt kinda weird, you know? Hearing the band going on without me – and apparently becoming a huge hit in the meanwhile!”

Tentatively, Stacy slid closer to him again, laying her arm across his shoulders. “It’s not the same without you,” she assured him, adding, “and don’t be fooled, you have plenty of fans of your own who have missed you.” Her expression turned wary. “Very vocally, in fact.”

“Apparently not as many fans as you’ve made in the last few weeks,” he teased.

She treated him to another cheeky smile. “Jealous?” she intoned innocently.

He lifted a brow. “Should I be?” he replied, taking both of her hands in his. “I’ve also heard that you and Brian were getting close.”

He almost had to laugh at Stacy’s expression, which had turned reviled almost immediately at the mention of the head dancer’s name. “That’s all in his head,” she insisted with a shudder. “He’s been doing some good things for us, production-wise, while you’ve been gone, but I wouldn’t exactly say that we're friends – much less anything else.”

“Hmm.” Her answer satisfied him more than he’d anticipated, considering the fact that he didn’t really view Brian as a serious threat to their relationship. His fellow classmates, on the other hand…

“So – does this mean – you’ll come to the show tomorrow?” Stacy asked, bringing Ryan out of his thoughts.

He squeezed her hands. “We’re recording the demo for my application tomorrow afternoon,” he said, “but after that?” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Good,” Stacy replied, leaning forward and pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I promise to make it worth your while.”

~*~

Shit, Ryan thought, glancing at his watch as he hurried down the street the next evening. I hope I’m not too late. He hunkered down in his leather jacket, pressing into the wind as he walked as fast as he could towards the P*lace. I hate breaking my promises.

His recording session that afternoon had run overtime, thanks to the ancient – and thus, malfunctioning – equipment at the school. It had taken an extra hour to set it up and test it, and then Mr. Miller had trouble making the copies he’d promised. Juilliard would get one set, Ryan would keep another, and he had every intention of giving a third to Stacy, considering how much she had enjoyed hearing the pieces the day before.

But, the path to hell was paved with good intentions, and Ryan feared that’s where he was headed if he didn’t make it to the P*lace before the band’s show was over for the night. He felt awful now for missing so many of their concerts during his hiatus, but at least before, he had an excuse, however lame. His absence tonight would feel spiteful, especially if Stacy had told the others that he was finished with his application.

Finally, Ryan slid through the double glass doors of the building, breathing a sigh of relief – cut short when he ran into the wall of people. He pushed through the crowd, winding his way towards the front counter, all the while marveling at how packed the place was. Stacy – and Stubbs – hadn’t lied; if they weren’t at the building’s fire capacity, they were a damn sight close to it.

“Riles, my man,” Ryan called, reaching forward to tap Riley on the shoulder. “What’s the good word?”

The soda jerk turned, looking genuinely surprised and pleased to see him. “Hey, Ryan!” he greeted him, reaching out for a quick thumbs-up handshake. “Welcome to the craziness!”

“This place is full, man,” Ryan observed, taking a seat on one of the barstools.

Riley nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, Kids Inc is turning some great business for me!” he agreed. He leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, as the number blaring from the stage came to a close. “Are you ready to see why?”

Ryan gave him an odd look, curious. “Yeah, of course,” he sputtered, when he realized Riley was actually waiting for an answer.

Riley grinned, lifting the mic that he kept behind the counter so that he no longer had to run up to the stage to make announcements and then run back to serve his hungry customers. “And now for something a little different,” he intoned, reaching down to flip the switch for the solitary spotlight. Ryan followed his line of vision as the band began to play.

The deep rumble of a bass guitar accompanied the electric keyboard as the stage lights went down and the spotlight went up on the middle riser. Stacy was seated on a barstool in the middle of the platform, flanked slightly from behind on either side by Connie and Devyn. The girls were wearing purple shirts and matching skirts, along with their band jackets. Each held mics, though a lone mic stand stood off to one side, shrouded in the darkness – for the moment.

On stage, Kenny was revealed behind the keyboard, while Richie sat steady on his drum kit, and Tommy Morgan played a sweet rhythm guitar line nearby. The dancers had left the stage, save Brian and Gina, who were apparently going to interpret the storyline of the song – which Ryan immediately recognized as a favorite Diana Ross standard.

The spotlight was soft as it lit the girls from above. Stacy sat primly on her stool, in profile to the audience, turned away from Ryan's vantage point at the counter. Her hair fell over her shoulders, glossy and straight, pinned back on one side with a barrette. It shimmered in the golden glow of the spotlight, as did her gold-colored shoes, perched prettily on the bottom rung.

Connie and Devyn began to sway as their backing vocal line began, but Stacy stayed still, lifting the mic to her mouth. “Someday / we'll be together,” she sang, her voice soft and low, “oh yeah / oh yeah.”

“You’re far away / from me, my love,” she continued, slowly turning to face the audience. Her free hand lay relaxed in her lap. “And just as sure, my baby / as there are stars above / wanna say wanna say wanna say it…”

A surge of people crowded around the riser as soon as they realized that she would be singing to them and not the far wall. From what Ryan could see, it appeared to be kids his age, pushing the younger ones out of the way. He frowned.

“Someday,” Connie and Devyn crooned, still swaying in time with the music, “we’ll be together.”

“Yes we will / yes we will,” Stacy continued, her attention turning up, her face lighting in a beautiful smile. “Some sweet day, we’ll be together.”

As the next verse started, her gaze wandered back to the audience. “My love is yours, baby,” she sang, “oh, right from the start.” She reached for a boy standing near the riser, only to draw her hand back as her fingers barely brushed his shoulder. “You possess my soul now, honey / and I know, I know you own my heart / and I wanna say it…”

“Someday,” the girls sang, bringing back the chorus, “we’ll be together…”

Connie darted out front for a moment as they moved into the third, most climactic verse, bringing the mic stand closer to Stacy in the spotlight, before resuming her place behind her. Absently, Ryan moved to the edge of his seat, peering through the crowd, watching his girlfriend intently.

“Long time ago, my sweet thing,” Stacy began, sliding off the worn crimson leather of the stool, her skirt riding up her leg the barest inch all the while, “I made a big mistake, honey / I – say I – said goodbye…”

She reached for the stand, holding onto it with her left hand, her knees dipping dramatically as the song’s intensity ratcheted up. “Ever / ever / ever since that day,” she continued, her eyes falling shut as an expression of world-weariness settled over her features, “all I / all I wanna do / oh is cry, cry, cry!”

By the last, loudest repetition of the word, she had fallen to her knees, her hand sliding down the length of the stand. She quickly stood, regaining her composure in an instant, and opened her eyes, gazing out over the top of the audience, her expression dreamy and hopeful. “I long for you,” she sang, her voice back to its soft, breathy quality of before. She had put the mic in its stand, freeing both of her hands. “Every, every night / just to kiss your sweet, sweet lips, baby / hold you ever so tight / and I wanna say it…”

The rest of the song faded from Ryan’s consciousness as his eyes followed Stacy’s every move on the middle riser. The number had been simple, but brilliant – intense and sensual without being overtly sexual. He didn’t even care what was happening on stage, because he only had eyes for this beautiful creature who held him – and the rest of the audience – captive with every note of her voice and every movement of her hand. Balloons silently fell from the ceiling as the song ended, capping the performance on a high note.

“You might want to pick up your jaw, man,” Riley advised as the room filled with wild ovation.

Ryan sat perfectly still, his eyes still glued to this wondrous girl he had known for so long, but was only really beginning to see for the first time. He couldn’t quite pinpoint it, the moment it had happened, but now he could feel his heart beating heavily in his chest, his blood coursing through his veins, his breath deep and jagged in his lungs. A litany of emotions stormed his mind and his body, everything from fierce pride to jealous possessiveness, all tinged with the slightest edge of burgeoning lust.

He wanted nothing more than to march over to her and sweep her into a tight, heated embrace, but he found he was absolutely rooted in place, unable to move. Helpless, he could only watch as she received her adoring public, the boys from the local high school crowding around the stage and talking excitedly, making her smile and laugh and blush. He was less than pleased when he noticed that Brian had stationed himself steadfast at Stacy’s side, acting like some sort of bodyguard, grasping firm one of her elbows, almost as if he was staking a claim.

“You should be proud of your girl,” Riley mused beside him. “She’s really stepped up and taken charge in your absence – and she’s obviously reaping the rewards.”

“So I see,” Ryan murmured, his attention more focused on Brian and Stacy than Riley. The rest of the band had taken up places around her as well, and even they appeared uncomfortable as the head dancer tried to take charge of the situation. Finally, Stacy brushed him off, purposefully walking to the other end of the stage, her legion of adoring fans trailing in her wake.

The crowd lingered much longer than Ryan anticipated, but he patiently waited them out. Now that he was here, there was no other place he’d rather be.

Finally, even the stragglers began to head for the exits. Ryan was amused when Stubbs and his crew passed by, although his good cheer deteriorated exponentially when they felt the need to leave him with comment.

“See?” Stubbs proclaimed, gesturing over his shoulder to the stage when he spotted Ryan. “She’s a total hottie.”

“Yeah,” Michael agreed, adding woefully, “but she said she has a boyfriend. What a waste.”

Stubbs elbowed the despondent boy in the ribs. “Yeah, for him!” he laughed. “No guy can keep a girl like that under wraps for long!”

Ryan very nearly shot out of his seat at the crack, only to be stayed by Riley’s hand on his shoulder. The baseball brutes just laughed and moved along, finding their joke far more amusing than anybody else around them. After a few minutes, the only people left in the club were Riley, the members of Kids Incorporated, their dancers, and –

“Ryan!” Devyn called, finally noticing him and waving furiously. “Look, everyone, Ryan’s here!”

Stacy jumped from the corner of the stage and raced straight into his arms, before he even had the chance to stand up. Riley immediately vacated his customary spot behind the counter, but before the others on stage could react, Brian stepped forward, blocking their path down the center stairs. He watched the couple closely, his eyes narrowing into slits.

But Stacy and Ryan only had eyes for each other. She held him tightly, her shoulders trembling violently under the weight of her own relief and happiness at seeing him. “I’m so glad you came,” she whispered, her breath heavy and hard against his neck. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“I told you I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied, edging forward in his seat, pulling her body flush against his own.

“I know,” she sighed, “but when you weren’t here at the beginning, I – ”

“I’m sorry,” he cut in, his tone apologetic. “The recording session ran way overtime. But holy Christ – at least I was here for the end.”

She tightened the brace of her arms around him as her hands slid up the planes of his back. “I was so upset that you weren’t here,” she confessed softly, burying her head in his shoulder, “and I poured it all into that song…when you were.”

Ryan shifted, giving his back to the stage, ducking his head closer to hers and pressing a soft kiss just below her ear. “Is that how you feel about me?” he mused, wondering if she realized just what she did to him by being like this, and singing like that.

She shivered in his arms under the intimate caress, turning her head against his shoulder so that she could look at him. “I’ve been waiting for you to come back,” she admitted.

“Well, I’m back,” he informed her. And I’m all yours.

She pulled away slightly, her hands rising to clasp his shoulders. “For good?”

He shrugged. “For now,” he replied. “I’ll come back to the band, starting Monday.”

Stacy grinned, hugging him again. Just as she was about to turn to their friends and convey the good news, he stopped her, catching her gaze with his own once more. “Just – one more thing,” he hedged.

“What?” she asked, a happy smile settling over her features.

His eyes searched her for a long moment. “I want you to come with me, to Manhattan,” he said, “on Monday, to drop off my application at Juilliard.”

She wrinkled her brow in confusion. “You can’t mail it in?” she asked slowly.

He shook his head. “I’m hand delivering it, so I can make sure it's there before the deadline,” he responded. “I’m not taking any chances.”

Stacy hesitated, drawing her lower lip between her teeth, making Ryan wonder if the possibility of cutting classes was really so distressing for her. “What about the others?” she finally asked. “Missing rehearsal would be a huge clue…”

“Nah, we’ll be back in time,” he assured her, “and we can tell them then. Together.” He touched her face. “And face the consequences, whatever they might be.”

Chapter Text


.14.
“I Think We’re Alone Now”

Look at the way we’ve got to hide what we’re doing
What would they say if they ever knew?
And so we’re running just as fast as we can
Holding onto one another’s hand
Trying to get away into the night
And then you put your arms around me
As we tumble to ground, and then you say
“I think we’re alone now…”

© 1967 Ritchie Cordell and Tommy James & the Shondells

~*~

Stacy couldn’t sleep. No matter which way she tossed or turned, no matter how much she fluffed up her pillows or smoothed out the quilt over her legs, she still felt restless, unable to find that magical position that would instantly lead her to slumber. She stopped moving, squeezing her eyes shut and concentrating on breathing slowly, deeply – but nothing seemed to help calm the thoughts racing through the back of her mind.

Finally, she gave up, sitting up and peering into the inky darkness of the room. Between the trepidation and excitement swirling through her, there was plenty keeping her up in the middle of the night. How was it possible that so much had happened in the space of a few short weeks? So many wonderful, amazing, mind-blowing things, all in rapid succession: the band’s sky-rocketing success, thanks in no small part to their packed-out Saturday night concerts; her own burgeoning personal popularity, fueled by a new fashion trend – as well as several unconfirmed rumors – amongst her classmates; not to mention her deepening relationship with Ryan, which was fast moving into uncharted waters after weeks of stalled (im)patience.

It was hard to deal with it all; everything was happening, all at once, on top of the fast-approaching close of the first semester at school (with all the anxiety and worry that finals wrought), not to mention the Christmas season. As ecstatic as she was about her budding social life, she couldn’t help but feel a cloud of apprehension looming as well; one wrong move in this dance of delicate balance, and she would be absolutely snowed under by it all. Everything was happening too much, too fast, too soon; she barely had time to process it before something else hit, demanding her attention.

What she needed was a friend, and the only friend that she felt she could confide in to this degree was half a world away, having the time of his life on his exchange year abroad. She knew this because she’d just received another packet of letters from said best friend in Togo, detailing the highs and lows of his life in a foreign country. She appreciated the fact that he told her not only of the good – meeting new friends, visiting exotic locales, exploring a culture and lifestyle beyond what he’d known in the US – but of the bad, like how much he missed her and the rest of their friends, his homesickness for his family and Coney Island and macaroni and cheese. She was comforted by the idea that he felt like he could share the downsides of being so far away from home. It made her feel less guilty when she complained about the drama in her own life, however inconsequential it felt compared to his adventures. She still felt close to him, even when so many miles separated them. They weren’t best friends for nothing, after all – they knew each other through and through, inside and out, the best right alongside the worst.

With an impulsive grin, she crawled out of bed, settling at her desk and turning the lamp on its lowest setting. For a moment, she paged through his latest letters, a tiny smile playing at the corners of her mouth as she gathered her thoughts. There was so much to reply to, and so much to tell… Maybe writing everything down, separating it in order to make it make sense for him, would help her figure out how to deal with it all as well.

She took out a fresh stack of stationary from her drawer, dating it and noting the time with an ironic smile. Dear Kid, she began, her hand moving across the page in an excited flourish, Can you believe I’m writing to you in the middle of the night – again? I guess we’re still on the same wavelength – I think it’s, like, 9 am on your side of the world right now, so at least you have a reason to be awake, whereas I…

She shrugged.

A lot has happened over the last few weeks – some good, some bad, most of it confusing. First, let me give you an update about the band…

The kids had weathered the Tommy Morgan crisis well enough; both Kenny and Devyn had started taking lessons at school, and slowly but surely, they were able to add a bit more diversity to their sets, moving away from the Motown classics and back into present-day pop hits. A few days after that crisis had blown over, Stacy had reluctantly approached Brian regarding the tension that Kimberly had brought to her attention. She had been wary, considering what a hard time Ryan had had in his dealings with him, but he’d surprised her, nothing but smooth consideration and studied thoughtfulness as he listened to her detail the other dancers’ concerns. He had promised to take care of it, thanked her for her concern, and then had casually mused that he was surprised that she’d brought this to his attention, instead of Ryan. Caught off-guard, she’d told him the terms of her boyfriend’s temporary hiatus from the band.

Which, she reflected now, had probably been her first mistake.

The entire group had been surprised when Brian showed up for their rehearsal the next day, though he didn’t really say anything – he’d just observed. He came the next day, and the next, and when Devyn finally asked him why he was there, he’d simply said that he was trying to come up with some fresh ideas about the choreography, and was curious about the Saturday night set list. Since no one had given him any hints as to what would be on it, he’d graciously taken it upon himself to come to their rehearsals and find out. Stacy had been embarrassed by the gaffe – yet another screw-up she’d inadvertently made as the band’s new leader – but Brian took it all in stride, offering to organize the list himself. He’d made a few suggestions, outlined his plan, and their Saturday afternoon rehearsal had turned into a surprising success – and the show, even more so.

Soon, Brian was showing up to every rehearsal, making suggestions about songs and singers and stage positioning. The others were wary of his sudden interest in their afternoon sets, considering he and the other dancers had barely shown up for daily rehearsals back when they were required to, but Stacy was grateful for all the help she could get on the organizational side of things. And his suggestions were good ones, for the most part. She’d worked hard to make sure singing duties and spotlight time were shared evenly, and had even sweet-talked Richie out from behind his drum set for lead vocal duties one time.

Soon enough, however, it became clear that Brian had ulterior motives for this seemingly selfless intervention. He had confessed to her that he thought the band was stymied in their current style, and that the only way they would ever attract the elusive high-school audience was to shake things up a bit – namely, by molding the entirety of their show around their newly-minted leader (and, coincidentally, only high school student), Stacy. She’d shot down the idea – after all, they were all equals; they shared everything, from singing duties to instrumentals, no matter what their age – but the other kids had been intrigued and enchanted by the idea of being popular with “the cool kids.” Richie then reminded her of their jacket debt to Riley, and she’d relented, however reluctantly, allowing their lead dancer full reign over their Saturday night shows.

Unbelievably, it seemed that Brian’s theories were right. Though the band had long been a beloved neighborhood institution, their audience tended to skew a bit on the younger side – but that week? It was high schoolers who were lingering behind to chat. They started coming to the afternoon sets during the week, and crowding into the P*lace on the weekends. Brian had argued that in order to sustain their newfound momentum, the band had to keep pushing the envelope – even if that meant pushing Stacy, and Stacy alone, out into the spotlight.

She’d tried to protest, but the other kids were so excited about their success that at first, they didn’t put up much of a fight. She worked hard to make sure they still shared lead singing duties, but more often than not, it was she who opened and closed the shows, it was she who received the complicated, intricate new dance moves, and it was she who was seemingly universally adored by the audience.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the attention, she admitted to the Kid, her hand flying across the page as the words tumbled out of her, but some of the fans can get a little pushy. It’s a little creepy how many guys keep asking me out, even after I tell them I have a boyfriend. And then there’s Brian…

Brian seemed to be trying to channel her popularity, or at least take credit for it. He had taken to stationing himself at her side when the inevitable stream of admirers came to speak with her after their shows, and more than once he’d attempted to direct the flow of attention and conversation back to himself. Stacy didn’t appreciate the way he would often take her elbow or slink his arm around her shoulders, as if he were showing off some sort of prize. He seemed to think that with Ryan out of the way, he could step in and take over.

She could sense the others’ resentment against him growing, now that the sheen of success was starting to wear away. Yes, he had good ideas, and yes, he’d helped catapult them into fame with an older audience, but that didn’t mean he could simply run roughshod over the rest of them. It was hard to stand up to him, though, considering how much he’d turned the band’s image around. They held firm where they could – limiting his oversight to Saturday nights only, rejecting his ideas more and more often, reducing his input into the set list as much as they dared – but it was a precarious situation. How could they balance their newfound fame – based in no small part to Brian’s daring ideas and the execution of more and more risqué outfits and choreography – with being true to what the band was really about – having fun, making music, and sharing all things equally?

Mercifully, for all his faults and antics, Brian didn’t seem to have any romantic interest in her. He was one of the few with no overt interest in her love life, no matter how much she wished she could say the same for her fellow bandmates, classmates, and fans. She was becoming more and more convinced Devyn, Connie, Richie, and Kenny knew about her relationship with Ryan, even though she tried hard to conceal it – if only because the minute she’d admitted to having a boyfriend in order to deter the constant, sometimes creepy offers from their older fans, the girls had started grinning like Cheshire cats.

Her classmates at school were no better. Rumors were spreading like wildfire among the ninth grade, and the pressure was mounting for her to reveal this mysterious, terribly romantic boyfriend who gave her flowers every day. Some speculated she was dating someone from another school; others whispered she was going out with a boy from Columbia University or Brooklyn College, meeting him on the sly for weekend dates or trips into the city. A few others hit closer to the truth, hypothesizing that he was a fellow student at their school, but as of yet, no one had been able to suss that it was Ryan. That was small comfort, however; she wasn’t sure if it was better or worse that no one knew it was him. It felt strange to be the subject of so much intrigue and gossip; though she’d long been one of the most popular kids in her class, she used to be considered untouchable, unimpeachable, unassailable.

Apparently high school was a whole different kettle of fish.

As for Ryan…

Stacy’s hand slowed to a stop as she chewed on her bottom lip. So much of what she thought and felt about him was private. How could she admit, even to her best friend, how attached she’d grown to him in such a short period of time? It’d barely been two months since their first kiss, and they hadn’t even gone out on an actual date yet, but already she could fully admit to herself that she was helplessly, hopelessly in love with him. She thought about him constantly, longing to be with him when they were apart, and cherished what little time they did spend together. He’d been a little distant before, so focused on his Juilliard application that she felt guilty and selfish for wanting to spend his free period with him, but on Friday, that had all changed.

Her heart skipped a beat as her memories floated through her mind. Had it really only been three days since he’d told her that he’d finally finished his application, since he’d played his beautiful compositions for her (and only her), since he’d held her so close and kissed her so passionately? She flushed as she remembered the way he’d held her after the concert on Saturday night, the fire in his eyes as his arms wrapped securely around her waist, the soft words he breathed in her ear, as if they were the only two people in the room. There was something sinfully intimate in the way he’d kissed her, his mouth ghosting over her racing pulse, finding the soft spot where her neck met her shoulder.

She wanted nothing more than the chance to spend real, quality alone time with him, to explore this deepening facet of their relationship. Was it too much to hope that, now that he was finished with the toughest part of the college application process, his attention might finally shift to her? After all, he had invited her to go into the city with him, to cut class and visit Juilliard and drop off his application, with his words – and his eyes – promising more adventure than a mere college tour could offer. Why would he say that – and look at her like that – unless he wanted the same thing she did?

The idea of cutting an entire day of school was a bit nerve-wracking – it was hardly the same as skipping out during seventh period to go to the mall; she’d never missed a full day unless she was sick – but that was totally superseded by the excitement that she felt at the prospect of spending an entire day in Manhattan with him, capping off the trip by coming home and finally telling everyone – well, the rest of Kids Incorporated, at least – about their relationship.

As for Ryan, she finally wrote, after tomorrow, our secret won’t be a secret anymore.

~*~

Stacy awoke with a start the next morning, reaching out to hit the snooze on her alarm clock before curling back into bed. She’d been up till three o’clock writing her letter to the Kid, which had calmed her enough to finally fall asleep. She’d been having the most wonderful dream as well, strolling hand-in-hand with her boyfriend through a snow-covered Central Park…

Her eyes opened, and she smiled. It was rare that she had dreams with any distinct possibility of coming true, but that one? Could very well happen before the day was out.

She pushed herself up, stretching one arm over her head as she contemplated her clock. It was the same time that she usually rose during the week, though generally she’d be in the midst of a mad dash to get ready for school. Today, however, she planned to make full use of the extra time, because she wanted to look perfect for her date. Even though they’d been together for two months, she still wanted to make a good impression on him.

The apartment was quiet as she slipped out of bed and into the shower, but that was to be expected – she was usually the last one up and out the door, her parents rising early to catch the train into the city. She hummed to herself as she washed her hair, mentally taking stock of her closet, and wondered if she might be able to sweet-talk Ryan into a quick jaunt to Fifth Avenue that afternoon, after dropping off his application at Juilliard. She didn’t have the chance to go into Manhattan by herself very often, and she never turned down the opportunity for some high-fashion shopping when she did.

She sailed back into her room, brushing her hair and putting on her makeup before standing in front of her closet. There was much to consider, after all: aside from the all-important fact that this was a date, it was also smack dab in the middle of winter, and if she was going to be trying on clothes, she wanted something that would be easy to change in and out of. She pulled together several outfits, modeling them in front of the full-length mirror on the back of her door, before rejecting them. Finally, she settled on a royal blue mini-dress over white tights, with a contrasting oversized pink belt. Just as she sat to pull on her shoes – blue Doc Martens that would definitely keep her feet warm – a knock sounded at her door. She froze, her heart seizing in her chest.

“Stacy, honey,” her mother’s voice chirped, causing her to relax and then almost immediately freeze again, “hurry up, or you’re going to be late for school!”

Mom?!” she replied incredulously, pushing her feet into the shoes and shoving her arms in her bathrobe before pulling open the door. The scent of bacon and eggs floated down the hall. “What are you doing here?”

Her mother gave her an amused look. “The office called and asked me to cover a later shift today,” she explained. Her lips twitched, her eyes sparkling with mirth. “Besides, I thought it’d be nice to share breakfast with my darling daughter before seeing her off to school.”

“Breakfast?” Stacy echoed, her stomach churning. What were the odds that her mother would stay home on the one morning that she needed her to be out of the apartment?!

“Yes, sleepyhead, breakfast,” her mother replied, “and something a little more nutritious that your usual Pop-Tart and juice routine.” She gave her daughter a quick once-over, her smile fading a bit. “Now hurry up and finish dressing, and come out to eat. I have a surprise for you.”

Stacy bent to tie her shoes with shaking hands. Now what? she thought to herself. She’s going to make sure I go to school, or at least in the direction of school, since she’ll be able to see me from the kitchen window. This certainly threw a wrench in her plans right from the start, considering that she was still planning to meet Ryan as usual out on the stoop of her building. She shuddered to think of what he’d do or say when he arrived to pick her up, only to not find her, because she was dawdling on the other side of the block, pretending to go to school for her mother’s sake.

Calm down, she admonished herself, standing up. You’ll think of something. As an afterthought, she grabbed her backpack, adding a book or two to it to make it appear even more convincing, and trailed down the hall after her mother. The mention of a surprise hadn’t fully registered in her brain until the two turned the corner into the dining room, her mother continuing on to the kitchen, stepping aside to reveal none other than Ryan sitting at their table, stuffing a piece of toast into his mouth.

Stacy flushed a deep red, ducking back out into the hall and yanking off her bathrobe, running it back to her room as quietly as she possibly could. She smoothed the front of her dress and ran her fingers through her hair before walking into the room again, catching the end of her mother’s words, “…who I found out on the stoop this morning! I didn’t want him to freeze out there, poor dear.”

Stacy glanced covertly towards the kitchen as she sidled up to Ryan, pressing a quick kiss to his cheek. “You should’ve buzzed the bell,” she hissed under her breath. “I would’ve let you in!”

He smiled at her. “It’s okay,” he murmured, “I wasn’t out there for very long.” His eyes traveled down the length of her frame and back, his gaze lingering appreciatively. “You look beautiful.”

She blushed. “Thanks,” she replied softly, taking a step back. He was wearing his usual T-shirt-sweater-jeans-Converse ensemble, his customary leather jacket slung across the back of his chair. She wasn’t sure if she should feel disappointed that he hadn’t felt the need to dress up more, or relieved that his casual attire made their cover all the more believable.

Her mother reappeared just then, holding a vase of flowers. “And he was thoughtful enough to give me these,” she gushed, “as if he needed to bring a gift just to pick you up for school! You have very sweet friends, dear.”

Stacy eyed the flowers, recognizing not only the one that was probably meant for her – a beautiful pink carnation, its bloom barely opened – but also the others that surrounded it, which looked suspiciously like the hotbox flowers their downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Peterson, grew. It was certainly an unusual bouquet, pretty yellow and white and lilac orchids…with the single, disparate carnation.

Nice save, she thought, cutting her eyes back to her boyfriend as her mother headed back into the other room. He merely smirked and shrugged his shoulders, lifting a glass of orange juice to his lips and taking a healthy swig.

“So, what would you like, Stace?” he mother called, bustling back into the kitchen. “Bacon, eggs, toast? I even have time to make you a pancake or two, if you’d prefer.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary, Mom,” she replied, gesturing for Ryan to get up, so they could leave. “Ryan and I, uh, actually have to be somewhere right now. You know, that special project for school.”

Ryan merely furrowed his brow, continuing to eat the meal her mother had so lovingly prepared.

“Oh, come now,” her mother intoned, walking back into the small dining area, “you always have time for breakfast. I’m sure Ryan doesn’t mind waiting a few more minutes while you eat, do you, sweetie?”

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” Ryan concurred teasingly, lifting up another piece of toast.

He gestured to the seat beside him, quirking a brow in invitation, but she couldn’t move, her feet firmly rooted to the floor. Now what was she going to do? If she sat next to him, he’d do something to indicate he was more than just a courteous friend – like hold her hand, or maybe even try to kiss her…but if she sat across the table from him, then her mother would think they were fighting or something, and she’d demand to know why – and then probably tell Stacy to suck it up, be a cordial host, and sit next to him anyway.

She continued to hesitate, trying to communicate to him her absolute need to escape the increasingly uncomfortable situation.

“Stacy,” her mother continued, her tone indicating she was fast running out of patience, “you need to eat. I’m not letting you go out in that weather without something in your stomach!”

She had also finally noticed what her daughter had chosen to wear that day, and, as Stacy suspected, while it may have been a boyfriend-approved choice of attire, it was decidedly not a Mom-approved outfit. “In fact, I don’t think I’m going to let you leave this house until you change your clothes. It’s December, young lady – can’t you at least put on some pants?”

A hot rush of mortification washed over her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, not even wanting to know how Ryan had reacted to that exchange.

“Bagel, Mom,” she finally ground out, fighting to keep some semblance of composure. “I’ll eat a bagel, but I’ll have to take it with me.” She reached out, grabbing Ryan’s arm and practically pulling him out of his chair, barely able to look at him. “We’re going to be late for school if we don’t leave right now.”

“Right,” he choked out, reaching for his jacket as Stacy hustled him into the hall. His expression clouded with confusion and concern as she dug into the hall closet, extracting her coat, hat, scarf, and mittens, working hard to keep the hot tears of embarrassment firmly behind her eyes. Mercifully, he was finishing his toast, so he was quiet at her side while she finished dressing.

Her mother reappeared then, holding out a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese. “I just worry about you,” she fretted, “that you won’t be warm enough. I don’t want you catching cold for the sake of fashion, honey.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” she replied, taking a cursory bite of the bagel to prove that she would eat it, even though her stomach felt like a pile of stones at the moment. “I’ll be inside most of the day.” Even if it’s not inside school, she amended silently.

“We-ell,” her mother hedged, glancing over the layers of winter gear that covered the admittedly skimpy dress. “Okay.”

Stacy shot her a grateful smile, hoisted her backpack over one shoulder, and turned, more than ready to flee her mother’s hovering presence. She pulled Ryan towards the front door of the apartment, barely listening as her mother called out as they crossed into the hall. “If you’re going to be late tonight, don’t forget to call! And Ryan – don’t be a stranger! You’re welcome over any time.”

“Thanks!” he replied with a wave.

“She wouldn’t say that if she knew you were my boyfriend,” Stacy muttered, stalking down the hall and pressing the button for the elevator.

Ryan glanced at her, amused. “So she doesn’t know about us?” he drawled, understanding dawning in his tone.

Stacy shook her head, grimly eating her bagel. They stepped into the elevator and rode down to the lobby in silence. She was still smarting over her mother’s words, not yet able to look her boyfriend in the eye. He probably thinks I’m a total baby, she thought mournfully, a flushing rising up the back of her neck.

They walked out of the building and down the stairs of the stoop. Stacy turned in the direction of school, only to hear Ryan call out to her in confusion. “Stace?” he queried. “The station’s this way.” He pointed in the opposite direction.

“I know,” she replied, “but considering my mother’s up there, and she can see us? I don’t want to take any chances that she’ll figure out what we’re doing.” She hugged her arms around herself, wishing she felt any other way than like she was about to cry. This was not the start to their first date that she’d wanted. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” he assured her, reaching out to drape his arm around her shoulders. She immediately shrugged away, shooting him a pained look, before setting off in the direction of school. She took another bite of her bagel, though she might as well have been chewing on cardboard.

The two walked in silence for the length of two city blocks, Ryan trailing slightly behind Stacy, his hands stuffed in his pockets. As she stopped at the crosswalk and waited for the signal to change, he finally spoke. “So you haven’t told your parents about us?”

She shook her head, pressing her lips into a thin line. “Have you told yours?” she asked.

He shrugged. “No.”

For some reason, his reply made her burn with embarrassment. Luckily, at that moment, the lights changed, allowing them to cross. Ryan slipped his hand into Stacy’s as they pressed forward, moving with the sea of people around them.

“I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” he said softly, drawing close to her as they reached the other side of the street.

Stacy stopped, squeezing his hand as her gaze fell to the slushy sidewalk. “You didn’t,” she finally admitted, “but my mother did. I can’t believe she criticized me in front of you!” She shook her head, feeling the tears again, but not wanting to cry in front of him over something so stupid. “Even if she didn’t know…”

He laughed softly, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into an embrace. “I think that’s just what mothers do,” he mused aloud. “My mother still hates the fact that I won’t wear any other coat but this one, and it’s been at least five years since she’s had any say in how I dress.”

Stacy smiled in spite of herself, burrowing into his warmth. “But it’s leather,” she protested, laying her head on his shoulder. “It’s warm!”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “She says it makes me look like a punk,” he informed her.

“Mmm,” she contended, tightening the brace of her arms around his torso “I think it makes you look hot.”

He couldn’t help but smirk as he gazed down at her. “Well then,” he murmured, touching her face with a gloved hand, “I suppose it’s good that I’m more interested in impressing you than her, hmm?” He lifted her chin with his fingertips, and the soft brush of his mouth against hers was enough to soothe her frazzled nerves.

She leaned into him, one kiss leading into another, and then another, her hands smoothing up the planes of his back under his jacket, sending a shiver of delight reverberating through him and into her. “Why can’t we stay like this forever?” she murmured with a sigh.

He pressed a kiss just below her ear before replying. “So I take it you’re feeling better?” he inquired with a sly smile, folding his hands over the small of her back.

She nodded, resting her forehead against his.

“Good,” he replied. “Then we should get going.” He pulled away from her slightly, glancing up as if to regain his bearings. “Actually, I’m glad we came this way.”

She furrowed her brow as she took in their surroundings. “Why? It’s only going to take us longer to get there.” They’d traveled the length of an entire extra subway stop in the opposite direction from their destination.

He took her hand and continued walking, leading her to the end of the block. “Because of this,” he replied, pointing to the top of the building, where the Flower Express sign seemed to glow in the midst of the early morning haze.

Her heart skipped a beat.

“I had to sacrifice your flower this morning, but it for a good cause,” he explained ruefully. “So in order to start the day off right, I wanted to stop and get you another one.” He glanced at her. “The perfect one – and I even have you with me this time, to make sure.”

She bit her lip as she turned to face him, wanting to cry all over again. “How is it that you always know exactly the right thing to say?” she murmured.

He shrugged, not bothering to hide a triumphant smile. “It’s a gift,” he replied nonchalantly, leading her up the stairs and into the small shop.

~*~

Their ride into Manhattan was mercifully uneventful; the subway was crowded with fellow morning commuters, forcing them to stand the entire time. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel, but, she considered, if she had to be pressed up against someone for half an hour, it might as well be the boyfriend she hardly ever got to see. Ryan seemed quite content with the arrangement as well, wrapping one arm around her and using the other to steady himself against one of the vertical poles for the length of the journey.

They disembarked at Broadway and 66th, braving the cold to cross the street and enter Lincoln Center Plaza. The square was teaming with life as students crisscrossed their paths on their way to class, and tourists stopped to take pictures of the surrounding historic buildings. The two walked hand-in-hand at a leisurely pace, simply soaking up the eclectic, electric atmosphere of the creative arts center. It was an impressively laid square, flanked by the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, and the newly-constructed Lincoln Center Theater, with the Juilliard School nestled right in the center.

Stacy glanced up at the nondescript building, excitement and anticipation washing through her. She could feel Ryan tensing up beside her, his grip on her hand tightening as he, too, gazed into what he hoped would be his future.

“Are you nervous?” she wondered aloud, glancing at him inquisitively.

“A little,” he admitted. He nodded towards the small crowd of people standing on the steps of the building. “They only open the place up to visitors for tours, so our window of opportunity to get in is small.”

“You didn’t sign up for the tour?” she asked, surprised.

He shrugged, grinning ruefully. “I’ve been here a million times,” he replied, “so I know the place like the back of my hand. All we need to do is be able to get into the building, and then I think we’ll be safe.” He looked at her. “I think we look enough like students that nobody will question us.”

She stood a bit taller in her shoes at that, feeling flattered that he thought she looked good enough to pass for a college girl. They quickly crossed the street, joining the other stragglers on the sidewalk, and patiently waited for the tour to begin. Just as Stacy thought she was going to lose feeling in the hand not attached to Ryan’s, the doors swung open, welcoming perspective students and parents into the warmth of the building.

The two exchanged excited, if nervous, looks, following the crowd of people into the building and then swiftly turning down one of the long, narrow corridors right off the front foyer. Ryan seemed to know where he was going, so Stacy just followed, trying to take in as much of the place as she could. It was beautifully wrought, lush carpets covering the hallways, awards and posters hanging on the walls, each one lit from above and below by a tiny floodlight.

They came to an abrupt halt in front of an ornately carved dark wooden door, one that bore a gilded golden name plate: “Admissions Office.” Stacy glanced at her boyfriend, her heart beginning to thud heavily in her chest. This is it, she thought.

He took a deep breath, his eyes running the length of the door. Finally, he dropped her hand, reaching into the inside pocket of his coat and withdrawing a long, flat manila envelope, carefully addressed and postmarked. He turned it over in his hands, smoothing out the corners with precise care, but still, he made no move to enter the room.

“Aren’t you going to go in?” she prompted softly.

He shook his head. “No,” he replied, sinking to his knees, and she finally noticed the mail slot cut into the door three-quarters of the way down. He tested the slot first, pressing one finger across the length of it, before finally pushing the envelope through, leaning forward to listen for the reassuring thud of the package hitting the floor inside.

As he rose back to his full height, Stacy wrapped her arms around him. She’d never seen him look so nervous or uncertain before – he was Ryan, the most confident and self-assured person she’d ever met – but she understood the weight of the situation and thus, the reverence with which he treated it. She wished she knew how to reassure him – what words to say, what actions to take – but the only way she knew how was to hold him.

He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, giving the door one last, long look, before turning away. They silently walked back down the hallway, each lost in their own, heavy thoughts. As they emerged back into the relative brightness of the sky-lit foyer, she glanced up at him. “Are you okay?”

He nodded. “It’s just weird,” he replied, “knowing that I’m going to be judged on my work when I’m not even in the room. Those tapes – those compositions – are going to decide my future.”

And mine, she thought, her stomach twisting into a knot as he withdrew from her embrace, walking over to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows and gazing outside.

She glanced down, at a loss for words, feeling uncomfortable and strange that he suddenly wanted a moment to himself. Just as she was about to approach him again and suggest that they leave, a voice rang out.

“Ryan?” someone called. “Ryan, is that you?”

Stacy turned just in time to see a petite, lithe, dark-haired girl dressed in a ballet dancer’s leotard and skirt throw her arms around Ryan, drawing him close enough to press kisses to both of his cheeks. The girl looked vaguely familiar, but Stacy struggled to place her in the midst of her astonishment and horror.

She felt her world tilt on its axis when she heard his reply, realizing this was no ordinary old friend – or dancer.

Katrina?!” he breathed, his eyes lighting up as he recognized her. “Wow – what are you doing here?”

Chapter Text


.15.
“Stop! In the Name of Love”

Is her sweet expression
Worth more than my love and affection?
I’ve tried so hard, hard to be patient
Hoping you’d stop this infatuation
But each time that you are together
I’m so afraid I’ll be losing you forever…

© 1965 Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, Edward Holland, Jr. & the Supremes

~*~

Not even the look of utter shock that passed over Ryan’s features at the unexpected greeting was enough to quell the rising tide of horror in Stacy’s gut. Her breath hitched in her chest as she tried to move, only to find she couldn’t, her legs suddenly feeling like lead weights, her feet rooted firmly to the floor as she stared at the scene unfolding in front of her.

Ryan seemed to recover remarkably fast, a small smile rising to his lips as he stared down at this girl from his past. “Katrina?!” he breathed. “Wow – what are you doing here?”

The pretty Russian ballerina ignored his question, instead reaching up to smooth one hand through his hair – much to Stacy’s consternation. “Your spikes,” she marveled, her heavily accented voice nonetheless light and lilting as her eyes danced with mirth, “they are gone?”

“Uh, yeah,” he replied sheepishly, flushing slightly under her gentle caress.

Katrina’s bemused expression softened into an intimate smile. “I like it,” she informed him, brushing her fingers through his hair once more. Her other hand curled over his shoulder and she drew herself close to him, as if no time had passed since their last meeting – as if she hadn’t left just as suddenly as she had arrived – as if she hadn’t broken his heart in the process.

Stacy averted her eyes, unable to bear witness to such a personal scene. The knot of uncertainty already twisting in her stomach doubled, fresh waves of dread and anxiety adding to the already deadly mix. She didn’t know how to feel, really, beyond surprised; Ryan’s dalliance with Katrina happened long before Stacy herself could ever lay claim to his affections.

The sound of Ryan’s voice drew Stacy’s attention back to them. Mercifully, he’d taken a step back from the cozy embrace, but the petite dancer still had hold of both his hands, and still earned a friendly smile from him. “So what are you doing here?” he asked again.

Katrina twirled, lifting one of his arms so she wouldn’t have to let him go, the soft material of her wrap skirt brushing against his legs. “I am student here,” she replied. “It is – exchange?” – she frowned slightly, unsure if she’d chosen the right word – “with Bolshoi Theatre program.”

Ryan gazed at her thoughtfully. “But what about the Russian Youth Ballet?” he asked, dropping the name of the program that had brought them into each other’s orbit in the first place.

Stacy’s lips thinned into a grim line. How bitterly ironic, indeed; she and Renee had been so psyched about the idea of going to see a real live performance of the famed Russian ballet, and had tried (without success) to interest their bandmates. Meeting Katrina had seemed like a dream come true; she’d peppered her with questions, most of them probably stupid, about dancing and performing and traveling around the world. The entire band had noticed Ryan’s growing infatuation with their exotic guest, but none of them had known until the end just how deep his interest in this girl ran. When she left so abruptly, he was absolutely crushed, devastated in a different way, a way no other girlfriend had ever left him.

“It is merely traveling program, for promising students,” Katrina explained, “to learn experience with performing, and to decide who continues in university program. This last year I now study to be professional ballerina with Bolshoi. When they announce exchange program with Juilliard in New York, I jump at chance to come back.” She smiled. “I never forgot New York, Ryan. I never forgot you.” The grip of her hands on his tightened. “You were so kind to me.”

Stacy scowled, feeling her blood heat in her veins at the cloyingly sweet words. Okay, maybe she could accept the petty jealousy she felt over the fact that Ryan had once loved this girl, but she’d be damned if she was going to let Katrina get away with hurting him again. Did she have no clue of the effect she had on him, even now?

Or was that just it – did she know?

Even now, over the course of their conversation, she hadn’t let him go, still clasping both of his hands in hers, even as they stood a comfortable distance apart.

“So, what about you?” Katrina piped up. “You are student here also?”

Ryan shrugged sheepishly. “I hope to be,” he replied. “I just dropped off my application this morning.”

Katrina tilted her head as she studied him. “They teach rock-and-roll classes in music program?” she queried, sounding quite serious.

Oh, gag me, Stacy thought, rolling her eyes. She was fast losing patience for this, her anger –and fear – mounting with each passing moment. Did this girl really think she could just step back into his life with no consequence?

“Not exactly,” Ryan laughed. “I’ve applied in composition.”

Katrina’s eyes lit with new understanding, and she nodded sagely. “Of course,” she murmured, directing an adoring gaze at him, “of course you are writer, as well as musician.”

Stacy stared at her boyfriend in disbelief, still waiting for Ryan to catch on and see through this girl’s overly friendly façade, but he merely smiled back at Katrina in his casual, friendly way. As their conversation turned to a comparison of Russian and American rock music, a horrifying thought pervaded Stacy’s mind: maybe this beautiful, cultured, lithe, petite, older woman would slip back into his life – maybe she would take Stacy’s place – and maybe, just maybe, there wasn’t a damn thing Stacy could do about it.

Or was there?

She felt her blood roaring in her ears as, finally, her feet shifted beneath her. She closed the gap of space between herself and the chatting twosome, reaching forward to curl one hand around Ryan’s arm and tug at his elbow. “Ryan?” she interrupted, a touch more forceful than she’d intended, her tone full of false cheer. “Weren’t we going to lunch?”

Stacy felt triumphant when he turned to her, his eyes lighting up as he gazed at her. “Hey, yeah,” he said, before turning back to Katrina. “Would you like to come with us?”

Stacy’s heart dropped.

Katrina looked at her, blinking in confusion, as if she hadn’t even been aware of Stacy’s presence in the room until now.

“You remember Stacy, don’t you?” Ryan asked.

Katrina narrowed her eyes at Stacy as she tried to place her, then smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Oh, yes,” she replied with a nod, “your sister?”

Stacy glared at her, tightening her very obvious grip on Ryan’s arm, but Ryan merely smiled. “No, no,” he laughed, “Renee’s sister. Do you remember Renee?”

Katrina shrugged sheepishly, shaking her head. “I do not think so,” she said apologetically. “I remember you, and the Kid, and ‘Burgers Romanov’, but not much else.”

“Then you should come to lunch with us,” Ryan urged. “It’d be fun to catch up.”

“I cannot,” Katrina demurred, blushing prettily as she ducked her head, sending her gaze to her left with a smile. “I must go back to my friends.”

A trio of similarly-clad girls were giggling and waving at her from a distance.

“Good luck with your application, Ryan,” Katrina said, glancing back at him and giving his hands one last squeeze. “I hope to see you again soon.”

“Thanks,” Ryan replied, letting her go with a smile. He stared after her for a moment, an unreadable expression settling over his features, before turning his attention back to Stacy. “Shall we?” he murmured, gesturing towards the front door.

She merely nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak. As far as she was concerned, they couldn’t get away from Juilliard fast enough.

~*~

Ryan found himself momentarily mired in his past as he and Stacy descended the steps of the Juilliard building. He barely felt the biting cold of the wind on his face, so focused was he on trying to process what had just happened. Katrina was just about the last person he’d ever expected to see again, much less here, much less now.

It was so strange, as well, how much could change over the course of a year. The last time he’d seen her, she’d kissed his cheek and bade him a hasty farewell…and he’d feared that she’d taken his heart right along with her, back to Russia. The song he’d long come to associate with her – Cutting Crew’s “One for the Mockingbird” – ran through the back of his mind now as he found himself confronting long buried memories. It had taken him a long time to move on after her, to feel like he could open his heart so freely to another person. Rather than the devastation he might have anticipated upon such an unexpected reunion, he instead felt strangely calm, maybe even a little pleased with himself.

She was just as beautiful as she had ever been – with the same petite dancer’s frame; the same gorgeous, brown, almond-shaped eyes; the same fine-boned, delicate features, jaded yet enriched by world travel and culture. He was not immune to her beauty or her worldliness, but it didn’t have quite the same gut-punching effect on him as it had in years past. He was happy to see her, and pleased to know she was still pursuing a career in dance, but beyond that…there was nothing. No longing, no sadness, no regret. If anything, seeing her again had merely cemented his own belief that he was over her. Knowing that she still felt so friendly towards him eased his conscience as well; perhaps, one day, they could be friends again – she was too interesting of a person to lose completely.

But his heart? Belonged to another.

He glanced at Stacy by his side, rapidly becoming aware of just how tightly she still gripped his arm, and just how painfully upset she looked, her mouth drawn in a thin line, her eyes downcast to the sidewalk in front of them.

He slowed to a halt. “What’s wrong?” he asked, concern crowding his voice as he gazed at her. Any time she was this quiet, something was most assuredly not right in her world.

She didn’t look at him. “Why didn’t you tell her?” she burst out after a moment.

Ryan was completely confused. “What?”

Stacy lifted her eyes to his, and he was stunned at the level of anguish reflecting back at him. “Why didn’t you tell her – ‘she’s not my sister, she’s my girlfriend’?!” she clarified, her tone a clear cross between anger and tears.

He frowned. “Why didn’t you tell your mother about us this morning?” he countered.

She wrenched away from him, crossing her arms defensively over her chest. “That’s different, and you know it,” she shot back. “You haven’t told your parents, either.”

Where is this coming from? he wondered to himself. She’d been fine ten minutes earlier – wonderful, actually, giving him the support he needed, seemingly on instinct – but now she was in pieces.

Finally, it dawned on him. “You’re jealous,” he drawled, unable to hide his smile.

“No, I’m not,” she replied petulantly, swiftly averting her gaze, the defensiveness of her stance belying the truth in her words.

Yes, you are, he thought, strangely amused. Sometimes it was so easy to forget three years separated them in age and maturity – and sometimes, it was glaringly obvious. “Then why are you so upset?” he asked patiently, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “And don’t say you aren’t – I know you too well for that.”

She shrugged, her mitten-covered hands sneaking out to hug her elbows. “I’m just – anxious,” she hedged.

“About Katrina?” he cut in knowingly. “Don’t be.”

She shot him a withering look. “You learned Russian for her,” she intoned painfully. “Of course I’m anxious about the idea of you being here with her next year!”

“Oh, Stacy…” he sighed, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. On the one hand, he was flattered that she thought he was such a shoo-in for Juilliard that she could already start worrying about what would happen between them if he came here. On the other, he was slightly annoyed that the reappearance of a former girlfriend in his life would immediately send her into such a tailspin of insecurity about their relationship.

She accepted his embrace, burrowing into his warmth and tentatively curling her arms around his waist. “Can you tell me she means nothing to you?” she murmured softly against his chest, her words slightly muffled by his sweater.

He carefully considered his response. “No,” he finally replied.

She pushed away from him, exhaling sharply, but he reached for her, clasping her shoulders before she could walk away from him. “It’s because we’re friends, Stacy,” he continued, attempting to draw her gaze. “I’m not going to lie to you, and tell you that I wasn’t happy to see her, or hear that she’s doing well.”

Stacy continued to stare down at her feet, worrying her lower lip between her teeth, shivering slightly as a biting blast of air blew past them. Generally, he found her stubbornness an endearing trait, but sometimes, it worked on his very last nerve.

“I am allowed to have friends, aren’t I?” he asked pointedly. “Other than Kids Inc?”

That broke her silence. “Of course,” she sighed, finally finding the courage to meet his gaze, though the look in her eyes told him that she was anything but convinced that he considered Katrina a mere friend these days.

He took a deep breath, relaxing his hold on her shoulders, running his hands down the length of her arms and taking her hands in his own. “Katrina and I have a past,” he said, “but that’s all it is – and it’s in the past.”

“I don’t know if Katrina thinks that,” she replied, her brow creasing with concern.

“It doesn’t matter what she thinks,” he insisted. “Katrina has nothing to do with us.” He pulled her close once more, snaking an arm around her waist and cupping her cheek with his free hand. “How can I reassure you that you’re the only girl for me?”

Before she could answer, he brushed his lips over hers, lightly, gently, trailing soft kisses along the line of her jaw before finding her mouth again. She melted into him, her hands curling into his sweater where she held him, sending spikes of heat and pleasure crisscrossing over his torso. Not for the first time did he wonder if she realized what she did to him when she kissed him like that.

“I promise you, I never did this with Katrina,” he whispered against her lips, “and it’s not because I didn’t have the chance.”

He felt her breath hitch in her chest at that, felt her body pressing closer to his, greedy for his warmth as she shivered again. She rested her head in the hollow of his neck, her hands rising up the planes of his back to grip the battered leather at his shoulders, and he let her cling to him for a long moment.

“I’m sorry,” she finally said, “I know it’s selfish, but I just wanted you to myself for a while. I’m so tired of having to share you with everyone else.”

He nodded, brushing his hand over her hair. “I understand,” he murmured.

She buried her face in his sweater. “And now I feel really dumb,” she admitted, “because I was thinking…hoping, really…”

He narrowed his eyes, lifting her away just enough to look at her, taking note of her now blush-stained cheeks. “Hoping for what?”

She shrugged helplessly. “That this would count as our first real date,” she finished.

And, suddenly, everything fell into place: her words, her actions, her anxiety and jealousy. He couldn’t help but laugh, just a little. “Stacy,” he declared, “I can’t promise you much, but I can promise you this – I would never act like such an asshole on a date.”

Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to find the same humor in the situation as he did. “So – you didn’t ask me to come with you because – this isn’t – a date?” she choked out, sounding equal parts confused and rejected.

He smiled, hugging her close once more. “I asked you to come with me today because I wanted you here with me,” he explained, “but I had something different in mind for our first ‘real’ date.”

His answer seemed to hearten her. “Really?” she replied hopefully. “I haven’t ruined it, have I?”

His mouth found hers in another sweet kiss. “Never,” he assured her. “But I do like the idea of getting a head start on this ‘alone time’ of ours.”

She smiled softly. “A head start?” she questioned, quirking her brow. “Don’t you mean catching up? It’s been two months, after all – ”

“– but who’s counting?” he broke in teasingly. “All I’m saying is, we have the whole afternoon ahead of us, three glorious hours until we have to head back home. What’s say we start with some lunch, and see where the day leads us?”

“Okay,” she agreed, taking his hand, “and maybe on the way, you can tell me about your plans for our date?”

He shook his head as they set off down the sidewalk, heading back for the relative warmth of the subway station. “That’s going to be a surprise,” he promised. “Just know – it is going to happen.” He tucked his free hand into the pocket of his leather jacket, finding and fingering the gaudy faux ruby ring he’d hidden there. And it’s going to be magical, he added silently, a small, knowing smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

~*~

Ryan and Stacy settled on spending their afternoon on Columbus Circle, eating lunch at a little restaurant there before hitting the vendors who had set up shop on the Strand. Stacy rifled through the nearby boutiques while Ryan logged some serious time at the bookseller; as the afternoon sun warmed their shoulders, they decided to take a walk through Central Park, one final, leisurely activity before heading home – and back to reality.

They caught the 3:12 train back to Brooklyn, pleasantly surprised to see that their car wasn’t packed to the gills with afternoon commuters. Stacy was uncharacteristically quiet as she slid into one of the seats, lifting her gaze to stare at the advertisements posted on the grimy subway wall.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Ryan offered as he sat down beside her, wrapping one arm around her shoulders and pulling her discarded backpack into his lap. He was glad she’d thought to bring it along, considering some of the finds he’d made at the secondhand book cart.

She shrugged. “I guess I’m just a little nervous,” she admitted, “about telling the others about us. I’m not sure how they’re going to react.”

Immediately, visions of Devyn and Connie whispering furiously behind their hands floated to the forefront of Ryan’s mind. “I think I have an idea,” he replied dryly, absently amused by the idea of the younger girls actually squealing in his presence. “Besides, I don’t think we’re going to tell them anything they don’t already know.”

Stacy’s thoughts, however, were weighing heavily on Brian. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” she muttered.

She missed the concerned glance Ryan shot her way as her train of thought meandered. “You know, I get it now,” she said a few moments later. “For a long time, it didn’t make sense to me.”

“What’s that?” Ryan inquired.

“Why Mickey and Gloria chose only certain rules for the band,” she replied. “I mean, I was eight when I joined the group – what did I care about dating? Besides you, Mickey, and the Kid, boys were still icky at that age.”

He laughed. “Well, it’s nice to know you never thought I was icky,” he teased.

She elbowed him playfully. “It was a really big deal,” she insisted, “Mickey’s number one rule: don’t date your bandmates.”

Ryan considered her words. “Sounds like Mickey had some pretty good foresight,” he mused. “Bands have split because of less.”

She nodded. “He was really great. I wish you could’ve met him.” She eyed her boyfriend with amusement. “You two had a lot in common – including crushes on Gloria, I’ll bet.”

Ryan returned the teasing look with one of his own. “What can I say?” he replied. “The guy obviously had great taste.”

Stacy made a big show of rolling her eyes, just as the train pulled into their station. Ryan clasped her hand as they stood, throwing her backpack over his shoulder. “After all,” he continued as they pressed out onto the platform, “not only did he like Gloria, but he found you – and then he conveniently left so I could join the group. I need to find this guy’s address, send him a fruit basket or something!”

“Oh, Ryan,” Stacy laughed, blushing a deep rose as they headed for the stairs. “Be serious!”

As they emerged at street level, Ryan turned, taking both of Stacy’s hands in his. “I am,” he insisted with a smile. “Even though I never knew him, I’m grateful to Mickey for a lot of things. I think it’s kinda cool that we’ve managed to carry on his legacy with the band. I like to think he’d like that.”

Stacy studied him carefully as the sea of humanity coming up to the surface slowed to a trickle around them. “I think he would’ve liked you,” she commented. “And everything you’ve done for Kids Incorporated.” Her eyes fell to the sidewalk as she heaved a sigh. “But he might not have liked the idea of us breaking his cardinal rule.”

Ryan shrugged as the two set off towards the P*lace. “I don’t think it was so much about punishing us if we ever started liking each other,” he offered. “It’s really more of a protection for the group. The problem is when you start dating someone and they become your whole world. I played with a band back in Ohio, before we moved here, and it pretty much fell apart at the seams when the lead singer found himself a girlfriend. Suddenly, he didn’t have time for the rest of us.”

Stacy’s mind wandered back through her own crushes and flings, and how much some of them had carried her away from her responsibilities with the group. “It’s always been a delicate balance,” she observed, “but I get where it’d be doubly hard when it’s a bandmate.” She glanced at him. “You’d see them at rehearsals as well as school.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “And it’s so easy to just let all that time you’re spending with the band count as time you’re spending with your girlfriend, too.”

Stacy slowed to a halt as they turned the corner, the P*lace’s neon lights beckoning them from the far end of the street. “But that won’t be us, will it?” she murmured.

He squeezed her hand. “No,” he promised, gazing down at her. “Band time is band time, and our time will be our time.”

“But will you have enough time?” she asked. “You have so much on your plate already…”

He smiled as he lifted her chin, his searing gaze lifting a new wave of butterflies in her stomach. “I’ll make the time,” he vowed, “I promise.”

He lowered his mouth to hers, the brush of his lips fleeting before he spoke again. “You’re very important to me, Stace,” he whispered, his breath warm against her lips, “and I don’t want you to ever forget that.”

Stacy felt herself flush hot and cold and hot all over again as he kissed her once more, her nerves tingling with anticipation and delight. “Keep it up and I won’t,” she replied breathlessly as he pulled away.

His eyes sparkled as they shared an intimate look. “Always,” he promised. He turned away from her then, his gaze finding and settling on the doors of their rehearsal space at the Garage. “Are you ready?”

She nodded, breathing deeply and squeezing his hand. “As I’ll ever be.”

Chapter Text


.16.
“How Can I Forget You”

My friends are saying you’re the kind I could do without
They think that I’m too young to know what love is all about
I guess they love me and they’re just trying to help, but
Sometimes I think that I am better off with no advice
How can I forget you? When I close my eyes, you’re all I see

© 1989 Elisa Fiorillo

~*~

Devyn heaved a dreamy sigh as she pushed through the front doors of the middle school. “Amarylis is so lucky,” she said, pulling her coat tighter around herself as she stepped out into the chill of the afternoon air.

Beside her, Emily nodded. “I can’t believe Jason asked her to the winter formal!” she bubbled, adjusting her hat. “He has to be the cutest boy in the eighth grade.”

“No,” Rosie contended, “he’s the cutest boy in the entire school.” She exhaled sharply as the trio descended the steps to the sidewalk. “How many girls would kill to be in her place right now?”

“A lot,” Devyn agreed. The winter formal was not just any school dance – it was the school dance, the biggest social event of the season for the thirteen-and-younger set. It was very exclusive (only seventh and eighth graders could attend), very prestigious (it was held in the ballroom of a hotel), and very, very formal. She supposed it made up for the fact that there were no formal dances in the spring, when the area high schools held their proms; either way, the prospect of attending was very exciting, even if it was ridiculously heavily chaperoned.

“Are either of you going?” Emily asked, brushing her dark hair out of her eyes as she gazed at her friends inquiringly.

Devyn shrugged. “No,” she replied. “No one asked me.”

“You could always go stag,” Rosie suggested. “Or we could go as a group – nobody asked me, either.”

Devyn made a face. “I don’t think you can go stag to the formal,” she said. “It seems like a dates-only deal. I mean, you have to buy tickets for it, and everything!”

Emily nodded. “Nobody asked me, either,” she informed her friends, “and today was the last day to buy tickets, I think.” She sighed. “Sometimes it sucks being a seventh-grader.”

“Oh, come on,” Rosie cajoled. “It’s not that bad. Look, we can always go next year, right?”

Her friends just looked at her glumly.

The three were quiet for a moment as they wound their way through town, headed towards the P*lace. It was Monday afternoon, which meant a long day of rehearsals for Devyn, and she couldn’t exactly say she was looking forward to it.

“I have an idea,” Emily suddenly piped up. “Why don’t we have a sleepover that night? Just the three of us. We could have it at my place.”

“Your parents wouldn’t mind?” Rosie asked dubiously.

Emily waved her off. “Nah. Besides, my sister just got Dirty Dancing on VHS.” She waggled her brows. “I’ll bet you cold, hard cash there would be none of that going on at the formal, not under the watchful eyes of Principal Markus and Ms. Knightbridge!”

“I love Dirty Dancing,” Rosie enthused. “I’m totally in.” She turned to Devyn, her eyes lighting up. “Hey, you guys should do the final number from it sometime! What’s it called – ‘Time of My Life’? It’s so romantic.”

Devyn smiled at her friend. “That would be pretty awesome,” she agreed, “but I think I’ll wait until Ryan comes back to bring up that idea.” She shuddered. “I can’t wait – I’m tired of Brian pushing us around just because we’re younger.”

The trio of girls turned the last corner towards the neighborhood soda fountain. “Yeah, how’s that going?” Emily asked. “It certainly seems like he’s trying to take all the credit for turning the band’s image around.”

“Well, a lot of it is due to him,” Devyn conceded, “but he doesn’t have to be so obnoxious about it.” She rolled her eyes, feelings of exasperation already rolling through her at the very idea of having to spend another week under his thumb. “Believe me, I can’t wait for Ryan to come back.”

“Me, neither,” Rosie echoed dreamily, blushing as she realized she’d spoken her innermost thoughts out loud. “Um, I mean, when do you think he’ll be back?” she added hastily, averting her embarrassed gaze from her friends.

“I’ll bet – ”

Devyn stopped abruptly, her eyes widening and a huge grin curving her mouth as her gaze settled at the end of the street, on a lone couple locked in a sweet embrace. She grabbed her friends, squeezing their arms tightly and directing their eyes along the same course. “I’ll bet it’s going to be today!” she squealed.

“Is that –?” Emily gasped.

“No way!” Rosie gawked at the same time.

“Shh!” Devyn hissed, pulling her friends into the safety of the shadows cast by side wall of the P*lace. The three peeked around the corner, unable to contain their excitement as they spied Ryan and Stacy in the distance, holding hands and talking softly to each other between kisses.

“I don’t believe it,” Rosie breathed, excitement high in her tone. “I don’t believe it!”

“They are so adorable,” Emily sighed dreamily.

“And they thought they could hide this from us,” Devyn intoned knowingly. “Who were they kidding?”

“Well,” Rosie reasoned, pushing her long, blonde hair over her shoulders, “they weren’t exactly this obvious about it before. How long do you think they’ve been together?”

Devyn shrugged. “I don’t know,” she replied. She eyed her friend mischievously. “You’re not jealous, are you?”

Rosie flushed. “No,” she insisted. “I like them both, okay? I’m glad it’s Stacy.” She studied the couple with a determined gaze. “She’s pretty cool.”

Pretty cool?” Devyn scoffed lightly. “She’s the epitome of cool.” Well, she would be if she didn’t allow Brian to push her around, she amended silently. Although, maybe if Ryan’s coming back –

“Well, she’s going to think we’re total losers if she catches us staring at them,” Emily said hastily, breaking into Devyn’s train of thought. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

The others nodded. “Good idea,” Devyn agreed, noting that the two were starting to come out of their own little world. She had to admit that she saw her friend’s point – there was little more potential embarrassment in the world than to be caught gawking at the supposedly secret resident lovebirds.

The trio of girls were none-too-conspicuous as they slid through the double glass doors at the front of the P*lace, giggling with excitement as they made their way to the counter. Devyn felt a wave of inordinate relaxation pour over her, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. The idea of being unexpectedly freed from Brian’s oversight sooner than anticipated filled her with downright glee.

“Ladies,” Riley greeted them, smiling as he approached from the other end of the counter. “What can I get for you on this fine afternoon?”

Devyn contemplated her choices. “Do you have any hot chocolate?” she asked.

“Of course,” Riley replied, feigning insult at the idea that he wouldn’t, considering it was December. He glanced at her friends. “Hot chocolates all around?”

The girls nodded.

“Coming right up,” he promised, turning away to prepare their drinks.

“I’m way too excited about this,” Devyn admitted with a grin as she shrugged out of her winter gear.

“I didn’t realize Riley’s hot chocolate was worthy of such praise,” piped up a new voice.

Devyn turned, delighted when she noticed her youngest bandmate a few seats down at the counter. “Hey, Connie!” she greeted her, leaning forward with a conspiratorial grin. “Did you see anything interesting on your way over this afternoon?”

“Actually, I did,” Connie responded, looking thoughtful as she stirred her straw through her cherry soda. “And I wanted to ask you about it.”

Before Devyn or her friends could respond, Connie glanced over her shoulder. “I was wondering – do you know what’s going on with Kenny?”

Devyn followed her line of vision. Kenny was sitting at one of the nearby tables with Richie and Tommy Morgan. The other boys were joking about something, their smiles bright as they talked a mile a minute around each other, but Kenny was hanging back, his eyes trained to the table instead of his friends. He was listlessly pushing a spoon through a dish of melted ice cream, his head propped in his free hand.

Devyn frowned as she studied her best friend. “No,” she replied slowly. “I can’t say I’ve really talked to him recently.”

Connie tilted her head as she gazed at Devyn. “Really?” she questioned. “I thought you two were best friends.”

“We are,” Devyn said. Or at least, I thought we were… It was hard to tell these days. She felt like she hardly saw Kenny outside of band rehearsals anymore; he’d stopped hanging out with her at lunch and between classes. They had English class and music lessons together, but even then, he had been unusually quiet of late. Anytime she tried to strike up a conversation with him, he just drifted away, into whatever he was working on.

She was more than a little afraid that she was losing his friendship, but she had no idea how to reverse course. Could she help it if the rest of the male population of the middle school had suddenly become fascinating in the last few months? She wasn’t trying to ignore Kenny, but it was hard to talk with him now that her interests had shifted towards boys and clothes. It didn’t help that he still teased her about reading Sweet Valley High books, either. A girl had to get her vital information from somewhere!

Riley delivered the girls’ hot chocolate with a flourish; as they dug through their purses to pay him, Devyn glanced covertly at her friends. She’d been friendly with Emily and Rosie since grade school, and when they found themselves in the same home room this year, they’d totally clicked. They shared her emerging fascination with the cute eighth grade boys, and they understood the importance of outfits and makeup and SVH. Sure, Rosie was a bit of a bookworm, whereas Emily wouldn’t be caught dead in the library unless it was for a research project, and neither one of them could carry a tune in a bucket if their lives depended on it, but they had become very good friends.

She’d never really had close female friends, until now…but that didn’t mean she thought they were worth losing her oldest friend in the world, either.

Maybe I should talk to him, she thought, feeling reluctant about the task – and feeling guilty that she thought of it as a chore.

“I’m concerned about him,” Connie mused, turning her attention back to the boys. “He hasn’t been his usual self for a while now.”

Rosie patted Devyn’s shoulder. “Maybe you should talk to him?” she suggested.

Devyn smiled at her. See, this is why you’re my friend, she thought. “I’ll try,” she hedged. “It does bother me that he won’t tell me what’s wrong.”

Connie opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, a new voice rang out. “Hey, everyone!” it called. “Guess who’s back?”

The group collectively turned in their seats, smiles breaking out all around as Stacy and Ryan strolled into the P*lace. Devyn frowned slightly as she noted the two were standing a comfortable distance apart, not even holding hands – though Ryan did appear to be carrying Stacy’s backpack instead of his own, which was…odd.

“Ryan!” Connie cried, jumping down from her stool and tackling him, throwing her arms around his waist. “Thank goodness you’re back!”

Ryan was trying not to laugh as he carefully extracted himself from the unexpected embrace. “Well, I can’t say I was expecting such an enthusiastic welcome,” he mused aloud, “but I’ll take it.”

“You have no idea how relieved we are to see you,” Richie contributed from his place at the nearby table.

Ryan quirked a brow. “Really?” he asked, a little incredulously. “You guys have flourished in my absence.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Devyn replied, shooting knowing glances at the younger bandmates.

“So does this mean you’re back from your hiatus?” Rosie asked, flushing a little as Ryan turned his attention to her.

He graced her with a smile. “Yes,” he confirmed. “I turned in my Juilliard application today.”

“All right!” the others cried, slapping high fives. Even Kenny managed to crack a smile at the news. Riley hustled over to join the celebration, offering a free round of drinks on the house as the others began chattering, all at once, trying to fill Ryan in on the details of his absence. Only Tommy Morgan lingered behind, not leaving the table even when Richie and Kenny joined the others at the counter.

Ryan and Stacy exchanged a look over the other kids’ heads before Ryan gently pushed out of the circle his bandmates had formed around him. He approached Tommy on quiet, steady feet, pulling up a chair and sitting down beside the blonde boy, whose eyes were locked to the tabletop, tracing the grain of the plastic as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world.

“Hey, Tommy,” he greeted him.

“Hi, Ryan,” Tommy replied, his voice soft.

Ryan studied him for a moment. “Listen,” he started, “I’ve heard about all the wonderful things you’ve done with the group while I was away. So, I was wondering – would you like to stay on with the band?”

Tommy frowned, cautiously lifting his eyes to his companion. “But you’re back,” he stated, as if confused that he had any choice in the matter.

Ryan nodded. “That doesn’t mean you have to leave, though,” he responded.

Tommy furrowed his brow. “But with you here, you guys don’t need me anymore,” he said slowly.

Ryan smiled. “We still like you, Tommy,” he assured him, “and we’re still your friends. We’d love to have you stay on with us, but it’s your decision.” He gave him a pointed look. “I’m not going to kick you out of the band just because my schedule has cleared up.”

“We-ell,” Tommy hesitated, running the nail of his thumb along one of the grooves in the table as he contemplated the offer. His expression was sheepish as he faced the older boy once more. “I guess I’d have to say…thanks, but no thanks? It’s been a lot of fun playing with you guys, but the schedule around here is intense.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I could handle the band and finals.”

Ryan nodded. “I understand,” he said, extending his hand. “So let me thank you, Tommy, for stepping into my shoes when we needed you the most.”

Tommy took his hand with a firm shake. “Thanks for giving me the courage to stay,” he replied with a smile.

“Any time,” Ryan laughed. “And, listen, would it be all right to call you up sometime and ask you to play a gig with us? I know for sure we’d love to have you for our New Year’s concert at the end of the month.”

Tommy nodded. “Sure!” he responded enthusiastically. “That’d be awesome!”

“It’s a deal, then,” Ryan agreed.

The others slowly trickled over to the table. “We’ll miss you, Tommy,” Stacy said, hooking her hands through the spirals on the back of Ryan’s chair.

“Yeah, don’t be a stranger,” Richie put in.

“Thanks for playing with us,” Connie smiled.

Tommy’s gaze passed over each one of them in turn, his smile growing wider as it settled at the last on Stacy. “You guys sure know how to make a guy feel welcome,” he replied with a slight blush.

“Never forget that you were a part of the band’s success,” Ryan told him. He glanced at his bandmates. “I know we won’t.”

The others nodded in agreement.

Tommy shot him a grateful smile. “Thanks, guys,” he murmured appreciatively. He glanced down at his watch. “Well – I guess it’s time for rehearsal to start, so I’ll see you guys later?”

“Sure,” Devyn replied. “We’ll be looking for you in the audience tomorrow!”

Tommy just laughed as he gathered his things. “I’ll see you,” he said, rolling away from the table and maneuvering towards the door.

“Hey, Tommy!” Riley called out. “Any time, man – you’re welcome.”

Tommy waved goodbye to the group before wheeling himself out of the P*lace. The remaining six members of the band lingered for a moment in silence, lost in their own thoughts. As happy as they were to have their leader back, it was still a little hard to let go of Tommy. Sure, his beginning with the group had been rough, but he’d settled in quite nicely near the end.

The silence was broken when Emily and Rosie slid off their stools as well. “I suppose we should go, too,” Emily announced. She and Rosie began to wind their scarves around their necks. “We’ll see you later, yeah?”

“Sure thing,” Devyn replied, sharing a secret smile with her friends as they pulled on their coats.

“Ciao, chica,” Rosie called with a wink and a wave, before heading out the door, Emily fast on her heels.

Devyn’s eyes drifted away from the front as her friends exited, falling onto Kenny, who was scowling. She frowned as she regarded him, feeling a chill of ice slide down her spine. Is he mad at me? she thought, a trace of worry easing into the back of her mind. Does he feel alienated that I have other good friends now, besides him?

She swallowed hard, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. She hated to see him so obviously unhappy, and she hated feeling helpless in the face of it – but things had become so awkward in their friendship that she was afraid to talk to him about it.

She wasn’t sure she could face the end, if that’s truly what this was.

“Well, guys,” Ryan sighed, bringing Devyn from her thoughts, “It is four o’clock. Are you ready to get to work?”

“With you?” Connie asked, grinning. “Of course!”

“There’s not a moment too soon,” Richie hastily added, pulling his drumsticks from his back pocket.

Ryan just shook his head in disbelief. “Don’t think that buttering me up means I’m going to go easy on you guys,” he teased. “Now c’mon – off to the Garage with you!”

“Yes, sir!” Devyn replied, clicking her heels together and giving him a salute. The others laughed, gathering their winter gear and school bags, chattering away as they headed off to the rehearsal space. Devyn lingered behind for a moment, casting a curious glance at the older members. They were exchanging a long look themselves, before Ryan reached out and clasped Stacy’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

Devyn grinned, finding herself unable to leave them without comment. “So I take it you two have something to tell us?” she queried.

Ryan glanced at Stacy before turning his attention to his younger bandmate. “Yeah,” he admitted, “but we’re going to tell everyone at once – so go.” He gave her a pointed stare, even as a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.

Devyn couldn’t resist the triumphant expression that beamed across her features. “All right,” she replied in a knowing, sing-song voice, excitement pushing away all the doubt and trepidation her thoughts about Kenny had dredged to the fore. She turned, grabbing her coat, and was nearly out the door when she heard Stacy speak.

“Hey, Devyn?” the older girl called. “Let us tell everyone, okay?”

“Don’t worry,” Devyn reassured her, throwing a knowing smile over her shoulder as she pushed open the double glass doors at the front of the shop. “Your secret’s safe with me!”

~*~

Neither Ryan nor Stacy were sure what they expected to see when they walked into the Garage a few minutes later, but, much to their relief, it wasn’t the scene that unfolded before them. Though wary that Devyn would somehow spill the news before they had the chance to, they stuck with their plan, which was to keep everything cool and casual. As they descended the stairs to the spacious rehearsal space, they were pleased to see the band members settling down in their usual places – Richie at the drums, Connie and Devyn by the old purple and pink piano, while Kenny curled up next to the stack of sheet music they kept handy on a nearby desk, fingering the chords for a potential number on one of the band’s communal guitars. The atmosphere was light, an undercurrent of excitement and anticipation over putting the old lineup back together thrumming though the place.

It’s good to be back, Ryan thought, his gaze appreciative as he looked out over the room.

He was still a bit confused over the sheer relief that everyone seemed to feel now that he mingled among them again; he tried to dismiss it as simple enthusiasm or delight, but it didn’t quite fit. Even Tommy’s words rang cryptic in his ears – since when had the band’s schedule been “intense”? Busy, yes, but even grinding rehearsal days like today were fun – or at least, they were supposed to be…

“Hey, guys?” Ryan called, coming to a halt at the bottom of the staircase. “Before we get started, I have an announcement to make.”

All eyes turned to him, and he could feel Stacy tensing up beside him. He wasn’t sure why she was so nervous – if Devyn’s reaction was anything to go on, they weren’t going to be telling their friends anything they didn’t already know.

“We” – he declared, sliding his arm around Stacy’s shoulders – “are a ‘we.’ Now – ”

“I knew it!” Devyn leapt to her feet, clasping her hands in front of her as her eyes positively sparkled with giddy joy. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!”

Ryan gave her a dubious look, but before he could continue, a movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. Kenny had also risen to his full height, his head bowed, his hands fisted at his sides.

“How could you?!” he burst out angrily, looking up. “What was the first rule you drummed into our heads when we joined the band?”

“Kenny – ” Stacy tried, as her boyfriend spoke at the same time.

“This doesn’t change anything,” Ryan argued, “and it hasn’t – for months.”

“For months?!” Kenny echoed incredulously, his eyes widening. “You’ve been lying to us for months?! I don’t believe this!”

“Whoa, Kenny,” Ryan said, holding up his hands. “Let’s calm down for a minute.” His brow furrowed with concern as he gazed at the younger boy. Of all the possible reactions he’d anticipated from his friends, this one was so out of left field as to be completely stunning. He’d never seen Kenny lose his cool about anything, but here he was, on the verge of a total meltdown.

Calm down?!” Kenny screeched, his voice carrying across the room with such force as to cause him to bend forward slightly. “You betrayed us – you betrayed our trust – and you’ve been doing it for months! Don’t we mean anything to you?!”

Connie and Richie openly gaped at their friend, while Ryan could only stare at him in disbelief. Stacy was cringing beside him, one of her hands balling into a fist at his back, pulling at his sweater where she held him. Devyn’s back was turned to her best friend, but even she held her eyes closed, her expression twisting with surprise and pain.

The room was utterly silent for a long moment, awkward silence reigning as Kenny’s accusations hung heavily in the air. He was close to the point of tears as he sent a long, hard stare at the leaders of the group. Finally, he turned away, the tension shattering as he pressed past the rest of them and ran out the back door.

The remaining members could only stare at one another, still quite astonished by Kenny’s abrupt exit. Finally, Richie struggled to his feet, resting his drumsticks on his snare, before wordlessly setting off after their erstwhile friend. Connie took a step towards Devyn, pulling at her still-clasped hands, trying to shake her from her own static shock.

What the hell was that?! Ryan thought wildly, sliding a glance to Stacy, who, for the third time that day, looked like she wanted nothing more than for the ground to open up beneath her feet. His arm fell from her shoulders as her free hand rose to cover her face, but she didn’t let him go.

Just as Ryan raised his inquiring gaze to Devyn, opening his mouth to ask her if she could share any insight on what had just happened, the sound of a slow clap filled the room. Ryan narrowed his eyes as a figure emerged from the back shadows, a tall, blonde boy with an irritatingly triumphant cast to his features.

“Oh, way to go, Ryan,” Brian intoned, turning to face his co-leader. “And just for the record? I knew it, too.”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Ryan sputtered, utterly confused as to why the head dancer would be gracing one of their Monday afternoon rehearsals with his presence.

Brian smirked. “Didn’t your little girlfriend tell you?” he sneered. “I made her.”

Ryan glared at him. “What did you just say?”

“Popular,” Brian clarified, returning Ryan’s icy gaze with equal measure. “I made her popular – in fact, I made the entire band popular, in your absence.”

“Oh, Lord,” Stacy groaned, cringing by Ryan’s side, flushing a very guilty shade of red. Devyn and Connie rolled their eyes as they shrank away upon Brian’s continued advance.

Ryan lifted a sardonic brow as he narrowed an assessing stare in Brian’s direction. “When did you turn into Brendan Roberts?” he muttered, crossing his arms over his chest.

Brian pretended to contemplate the rhetorical question. “When you decided to leave the band high and dry, paving the way for me to step up and take over.”

Ryan’s expression turned dubious. “I don’t think that’s quite how it happened,” he mused sarcastically. “But it doesn’t matter, because I’m back now – and you can back off.”

Brian laughed. “No, see, that’s going to be a problem,” he replied, circling ever closer to his rival and his protégé. “If you want the band to maintain the level of popularity they currently enjoy – the level I brought them to, by the way – that means you’re going to have to do things my way.”

Ryan was completely unimpressed with Brian’s posturing. “Don’t you think that’s putting the cart before the horse, Brian?” he finally asked, his tone as level as he could muster under the seething torrent of rage this boy always managed to stir in him.

Brian eyed him warily. “How so?” he challenged.

Ryan stepped forward, mercifully feeling release from the grip Stacy held on the back of his sweater, and pushed past Brian, resisting the urge to shove him out of the way. “First we have to make sure we still have a band,” he intoned darkly as he passed, not breaking his stride as he headed for the back door of the Garage.

He could deal with Brian’s bullshit later. Right now, the only thing he wanted to do was find Kenny and figure out what the hell was going on – and whether or not it was too late to fix it.

Chapter Text


.17.
“Seasons Change”

Don’t hide your feelings from the inside
Seasons change / feelings change
It’s been so long since I found you
Yet it seems like yesterday
Seasons change / people change
I’ll sacrifice tomorrow just to have you here today

© 1987 Lewis Martineé & Exposé

~*~

Richie stifled a sigh of relief as he passed through the gates of the park, spotting a lone figure curled up on a stone bench near the fountain. He burrowed a bit deeper into his winter coat as he moved forward, wishing he’d thought to grab his hat and gloves on his way out the door. The sun was beginning to sink beneath the horizon, the already cold breeze acquiring an extra bite as dusk fell.

He’d been looking everywhere for Kenny, his concern growing into panic when the store room, the stage – in fact, the entirety of the P*lace turned up empty. Richie had then tried the middle school, and the high school, and the even local playground where Kenny and Devyn used to ply their trade – all places with secluded spots to sit and think, safe from the frigid falling temperatures. The park had been a last, desperate resort…and yet, here he was.

I should’ve known, Richie thought as he circled around the bench, sending a covert and assessing stare towards his friend. Kenny was curled up in a ball, his arms crisscrossing as they wrapped around his legs, his knees drawn tightly to his chest. He looked tired and sad and lonely, and Richie felt his heart wrench in his chest. For a moment, he could only stand there, feeling helpless, unsure of what to do or say. He had no better clue than any of the others about what was bothering the otherwise easygoing boy, but if his earlier outburst was anything to go by, it was something big.

“Hey, man,” he finally said, sliding down at one end of the bench, “are you okay?”

Kenny shrugged, tightening the brace of his arms around his legs.

Richie dared a more direct glance, trying desperately hard to formulate his next question around what he suspected was a touchy subject. “Is this about Ryan and Stacy?” he asked uncertainly. “Because I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean to hurt us.”

Kenny turned away from his friend, but not before Richie noticed a solitary tear slipping down his cheek.

When no other response was forthcoming, Richie swallowed hard, averting his gaze to the barren landscape of the park. “I don’t just say that because of the band,” he continued slowly, “but because they’re our friends.”

“Hmph,” Kenny grunted. “I don’t call lying to us for months being ‘good friends.’”

Richie shrugged helplessly, at a loss for words.

Luckily, Kenny’s venomous remark seemed to open his floodgates. “I mean, why couldn’t they just have told us when it happened, instead of keeping it a secret?” he barreled on. “Do they just not trust us, or think we wouldn’t understand? Or did they realize – did they know – that it would rip the band apart?”

Richie was surprised when Kenny turned suddenly, his eyes wide with frustration and fear, staring at him like he expected an answer. “I-I don’t know,” he stammered. “I want to believe they did what they thought was right.”

Betraying us was the right thing?” Kenny screeched incredulously. “They lied to us, Richie! And nothing good ever comes from lying.”

Richie was hesitant to respond, feeling a rising tide of panic at the intensity of Kenny’s words and actions. “I guess I just don’t see this as a betrayal,” he said slowly. “Their personal business is their personal business.”

“Not when it affects the rest of us,” Kenny shot back. “What’s the point of having band rules, if all they’re gonna do is break them?” He swiped angrily at the tears falling faster from the corners of his eyes. “I don’t want the band to split up.”

“Neither do the rest of us,” Richie insisted. “We can work it out, but only if all of us are there.”

“Richie is right,” interrupted a new voice. The two looked up just in time to see Ryan advancing upon them, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his leather jacket. His expression was grim as he approached, but nevertheless Richie felt a wave of relief cascading over him. He was glad someone else had decided to talk to Kenny – though he found it a little odd Devyn was, as of yet, nowhere to be found.

Ryan stopped a few steps away from Kenny. “I’m sorry if what I said hurt you, Kenny,” he apologized. “That was not my intention at all. Neither Stacy nor I want the band to break up over this – that’s why we told you guys what was going on.”

Kenny just stared at him, his features falling into a scowl. “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” he asked, his tone cold and harsh.

“We didn’t know earlier,” Ryan replied, sliding down on the free end of the bench. “It’s only been in the last couple of days that everything’s…coalesced.”

Richie furrowed his brow. “Coalesced?” he echoed in confusion.

Ryan shot him an amused look. “Come together,” he clarified.

“Then why did you say it’d been going on for months?” Kenny cut in.

Ryan shrugged. “It’s complicated,” he said. “It takes a lot for friendship to develop into something more...” He paused. “The point is, we told you guys as soon as we were ready.”

Kenny looked down, absorbing the offered explanation. He eased the stiffness of his frame, freeing his legs to swing over the bench.

“We haven’t been lying to you, and I don’t want you to ever think we would,” Ryan continued. “You guys are my friends, and I’d never intentionally hurt you.”

Richie patted Kenny’s shoulder. “We know,” he replied with a grateful smile, prompting Kenny to grudgingly nod his head.

Ryan’s eyes slid from Richie to Kenny. “Are we cool?” he asked.

The words hung in the air as both Ryan and Richie turned to Kenny, whose eyes were still directed to his lap. He pressed his hands in the pockets of his coat, pulling it tighter around himself, his ankles still swinging over the side of the bench.

Ryan glanced at Richie before placing a hand on Kenny’s shoulder, stilling the younger boy’s movements. “We don’t want to lose you, Kenny,” he said softly, “from the band, or as a friend.”

Kenny inhaled sharply. “I don’t want to lose you guys, either,” he finally said, tears burbling in his tone. “The band is all I have left.”

“What?” Richie breathed.

“What are you talking about?” Ryan asked at the same time.

Kenny shook his head, biting his lower lip as he willed the tears to stay behind his eyes. “My parents are getting a divorce,” he replied in a rush, “and my mom wants to move.”

Richie’s stomach dropped at the sudden revelation. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.

One look at Ryan’s expression confirmed he was similarly shocked by the unexpected news. “Wow,” he sighed. “That really sucks.”

“Yeah,” Kenny nodded, “especially when you don’t have anyone to talk to about it.”

Ryan winced, squeezing Kenny’s shoulder supportively, but Richie merely stared at their friend curiously. “What about Devyn?”

Kenny’s expression twisted into a frustrated sneer. “I can’t talk to her,” he replied morosely. “Anytime I try, she starts talking about boys and clothes and her new best girlfriends.” He glanced at Ryan. “She’s been going on and on about you and Stacy for months, and I guess I kinda resented it.”

Ryan smiled wryly. “I don’t blame you.”

Richie nodded. “Yeah, the girls have been a little unbearable about it,” he agreed, “and no doubt they’ll be even worse now that you’ve confirmed their suspicions.”

No doubt, Ryan mused, remembering Devyn’s ecstatic reaction to the news. “Well, girls tend to like the idea of being in love,” he said, “but I can promise you guys, I intend to keep my personal life as separate from the band as possible.” He gazed at his bandmates with a somber expression, conveying just how serious he was about that promise.

Kenny shot him a grateful look.

Richie turned his attention back to Kenny. “Do you want us to talk to Devyn for you?” he asked.

Kenny shrugged. “If you want,” he replied weakly.

“You guys are best friends,” Ryan pressed, “and there’s nothing best friends can’t work out.”

Kenny looked unsure. “But what if we don’t have a chance to? What if my mom decides to leave, and wants to take me and my siblings with her?”

Ryan shrugged. “I guess that’s all the more reason to talk to her, as soon as you feel comfortable,” he suggested. He paused, looking thoughtful for a long moment. “Do you feel comfortable talking to us about what’s going on with your parents?”

Kenny directed his eyes to the ground once more, his feet beginning to swing nervously again. “They’ve always fought, ever since we moved here,” he began, “but this year it’s been worse. Well, especially during the summer, right around the time I joined the band.” He glanced up, first at Richie, then at Ryan. “That’s part of the reason I was so excited about joining you guys.”

“At the beginning of the school year, things got really intense,” he continued. “They were just screaming at each other, and at us – me and my brothers and sister. Then they just – stopped. The silence was eerie at home, so I really threw myself into school and the band…and it seemed like things were beginning to fall apart at the seams. That’s about the time you left,” he said, directing the ‘you’ at Ryan with a nod of his head. “About a week or so later, my parents sat us down and told us they were getting a divorce.”

“Ouch,” Ryan murmured.

Kenny nodded. “Yeah, it really hurts,” he confirmed. “They made this huge decision without taking the rest of us into account.”

Richie frowned. “I don’t know about that,” he said skeptically.

Kenny scowled. “I do,” he said darkly. “Why else would Mom threaten to move out, threaten to take us kids and move back to her hometown?”

“What’s her hometown?” Richie interrupted.

“Charleston,” Kenny sighed. He twisted his hands together in his lap as he continued. “Doesn’t she care that I’m in a band, and my brother’s playing basketball this year, and my sister’s ballet school is about to give a recital?” He folded his arms across his chest. “It’s not fair.”

“Parents don’t always make great decisions,” Ryan said, dredging up the memory of having to give up his room for his grandmother when she moved in with them, “but they are reasonable people. Have you told yours about your concerns? Have your brothers, or your sister?”

Kenny shrugged helplessly. “What’s the point in talking to them now, after they’ve already made these huge decisions? They’re still going to get divorced whether we want them to or not.”

“But maybe your mother will reconsider moving back to her hometown,” Richie suggested. “If she knows how happy you guys are, maybe she’ll stay closer. Or maybe you can live with your dad.”

Kenny tightened the brace of his arms as his eyes turned filmy. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” he murmured. “I don’t want to think about this anymore.”

Ryan slipped a supportive arm around his friend’s shoulders. “You still have some time, right?” he asked. “You aren’t moving tomorrow, yeah?”

Kenny nodded wordlessly.

“Then it’s okay to breathe for a second,” Ryan said with an encouraging smile. “Maybe you could talk to your counselor at school – that’s what they’re there for. Figure out a way to talk to your parents and tell them how you feel about all this.”

“Yeah,” Richie agreed, patting Kenny’s back. “And we’re here for you, too, if you ever want to vent. All of us.”

Kenny put his arms around his friends, drawing them into an awkward hug. “You guys are great friends,” he replied. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.”

“We’ll worry about that when it happens,” Ryan assured him. “If it happens.”

Richie nodded. “I’ll cross my fingers, my toes, and my eyes that it won’t come to that,” he offered with a grin.

Kenny smiled, his first genuine smile since the early afternoon. “Thanks,” he replied, “…I think.”

The boys drew back, settling on the bench in companionable silence and watching the last rays of the sun sink below the horizon. The park’s street lamps flickered to life, flooding them in a soft cascade of light. Richie glanced at his friends as his eyes roamed the landscape near the pond. Kenny’s expression seemed much more relaxed, albeit still troubled, his arms still folded across his chest. Ryan slumped beside him on the bench, his feet crossed at the ankles as he contemplated the middle distance. Richie himself felt a little glum, still trying to digest Kenny’s news and the possibility of losing him, just when the band was beginning to hit its stride again. All this on top of finals and the jacket debt, he thought to himself. I guess life never stops, even when it’s spinning out of our control.

“I’m sorry,” Kenny said, breaking the stillness of the air. He turned to his right, eyeing Ryan beside him. “I didn’t mean to blow up at you guys earlier. I guess it wasn’t really you or Stacy that I was angry with.”

“That’s okay,” Ryan replied, “I understand.” He nodded to Richie. “I think I can speak for both us when I say, I’m glad you let us know what’s going on.”

“Yeah,” Richie agreed. He elbowed Kenny in the ribs. “We really are glad you’re back, though,” he said, directing the comment to Ryan.

Ryan leaned forward, shooting an assessing look at his bandmates. “Yeah, about that,” he said suspiciously. “What, exactly, has been going on in my absence?”

“Brian,” Richie replied with a roll of his eyes, as if that explained everything.

Ryan frowned, his gaze sliding from one friend to the other. “I don’t follow.”

“He’s taken over,” Kenny explained with an exasperated sigh. “As much as we’ll let him, at least.”

“The dude’s everywhere,” Richie cut in with a knowing nod, “sticking his nose into set lists and singing rotations and every little detail.”

Ryan quirked a brow. “He has time for this, along with bossing the dancers around?” he queried skeptically.

“Apparently,” Richie answered, though he sounded rather dubious. “It started maybe a week after you left. He came by for a set list – ”

“ – and never left,” Kenny finished.

“Hmm,” Ryan mused, settling back against the bench. Stacy hadn’t mentioned much to him about the band following the Tommy Morgan crisis, and he’d just assumed she’d gotten a better handle on everything herself. It was, admittedly, a big transition to make, especially on such short notice, but it was also safe to say that it wasn’t hard being the leader, just time-consuming.

“At first, it was pretty cool,” Richie conceded. “He had some good ideas about attracting the high school crowd.”

“Yeah, but then it got out of hand a little,” Kenny put in. “He kept trying to favor Stacy over the rest of us.”

“Trying to?” Ryan asked curiously.

Richie sat up, curling his hands over the bench by his knees. “Stacy fought him a lot,” he admitted, “trying to give the rest of us equal time, but there was really no denying that Brian’s intuition was right – when she became front and center, the high school kids starting pouring into our shows, even on afternoons.”

Kenny and Richie exchanged a glance. “And, well, we liked that,” Kenny confessed. “I mean, it’s one thing to play to your own classmates, but to the older kids? Wow.”

“Having paying customers helped with our debt to Riley, too,” Richie added.

Ryan nodded as understanding bloomed across his features. “I see,” he murmured. Kids Incorporated had had a previous brush with high school fame during their time with Gloria as their lead singer, and he remembered that feeling, the rush of confidence and esteem that came with being admired by older peers. He could definitely understand why his younger bandmates had been enchanted by the idea, and how that might have translated into Brian taking more and more control of things.

“But what we didn’t like was the way Brian treated the rest of us,” Kenny said, drawing Ryan out of his thoughts. “He treated Stacy like his queen, and the rest of us like his minions.”

“He started showing up to every rehearsal and just bossing us around,” Richie added. “Eventually, not even Stacy could get through to him or make him back down.”

“He’s not a bully, exactly,” Kenny observed, “but he doesn’t let the rest of us contribute our ideas in any way. As far as he’s concerned, we’re just there to back up Stacy, even if she’s not thrilled with the idea.”

“Well, that explains why he was acting like her personal fan club manager,” Ryan noted wryly, recalling Brian’s actions following the previous Saturday night concert.

The other boys nodded morosely. “And, well, that’s why we were hoping…” Richie began, allowing his thought to trail off as he averted his eyes away from Ryan.

“Hoping for what?” Ryan prompted, though he already had an idea of what they were going to request of him.

Kenny squared his shoulders, facing his friend with a lifted chin. “We were hoping that you could stand up to him,” he declared. “He’ll listen to you, even if he doesn’t like what he’s hearing.”

I don’t know about that, Ryan thought, scowling at the memory of Brian needling him after Kenny’s dramatic departure earlier that afternoon. He always seems to know how to push my buttons. “How have you guys tried to deal with him?” he asked instead.

Richie shrugged. “Stacy’s always been really nice to him,” he replied. “She tries to compromise a lot.”

“The rest of us are a little more direct, but he just ignores us, because we’re younger,” Kenny said.

“And I’ve yelled at him the last few times I’ve dealt with him,” Ryan sighed. “Obviously, he can be tough to handle. I think we have to come up with a plan, because neither yelling nor compromising seems to do much.” He was quiet for a moment. “Has he said anything about the New Year’s Eve party?”

Richie shook his head, while Kenny merely looked confused. “New Year’s?” he queried, puzzled.

“We have a tradition of throwing this huge bash every year on New Year’s Eve,” Ryan told him. “It’s a really big deal – we practice for two weeks straight and make a really elaborate show out of it. Most people are watching the ball drop on TV, so we have to do something big to get them to come out and celebrate with us, instead.”

“Wow, cool!” Kenny replied.

“But it’s good, if he hasn’t mentioned it,” Ryan continued. “The fewer plans he tries to set in place, the easier it will be for us to plan the whole thing ourselves, with limited input from him. It’ll be tricky, because the dancers play a big part in the New Year’s Eve concert, but if we can band together and present a strong front, I think he’ll get the message.”

“I hope so,” Richie said, though he sounded skeptical. When Ryan sent a quizzical look his way, he added, “I don’t want us to lose our audience by crossing him.”

Ryan frowned. “We aren’t going to cross him,” he said. “Even though he’s being a jerk, he’s still a friend. The band works best when we’re being friends, and trying to understand where the other is coming from. I’m sure we can come to some sort of workable solution that won’t involve bloodshed, or the loss of an audience.”

He stood up, taking a moment to shake the cold that had settled into his body. “C’mon, guys,” he cajoled, glancing down at his younger bandmates. “We still have to rehearse for tomorrow’s set. Are you feeling up to it?”

Richie glanced at Kenny, waiting for his answer before he moved, one way or the other.

“I think so,” Kenny replied, standing as well.

“Okay,” Richie agreed, hopping up from his spot on the bench.

“Cool,” Ryan replied with a smile. He set off towards the gates of the park. “Listen, Kenny, I saw you with one of the guitars when we first arrived at the Garage. Can you play?”

Kenny nodded, happy to let his thoughts shift to his burgeoning musical abilities. The boys chattered a bit about instrumentation, and how much it’d mean to have another, even semi-regular guitarist in their midst. By the time they made it back to the Garage, Richie was feeling much better about the entire situation – Kenny’s crisis, Ryan’s return, and the future of the band. As long as we’re friends, he thought, we can do anything.

Chapter Text


.18.
“Bad”

So listen up / don’t make a fight
Your talk is cheap / you’re not a man
You’re throwing stones to hide your hands
I’m giving you on count of three
To show your stuff or let it be…
I’m telling you, just watch your mouth
I know your game / what you’re about

© 1987 Michael Jackson

~*~

Stacy, Devyn, and Connie huddled near the staircase at the entrance of the Garage, eyeing Brian warily from across the way as he wore a path into the concrete flooring. The head dancer was pacing at a slightly up-tempo rate, his arms crossed and his head bowed, as if he was deep in thought. Every so often he would halt, raising his finger as if ready to announce a new idea, only to then shake his head and resume his restless walk.

Stacy frowned as she watched him. Devyn rolled her eyes and sighed, while Connie worried her lower lip, before turning her attention to her friends and fellow bandmates. “Now what are we going to do?” she whispered furiously.

Stacy shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know,” she replied under her breath. “I really hope Ryan and Richie have some success in bringing Kenny back. If they don’t…” She shuddered. We’re going to have much bigger problems than a scheming lead choreographer, she added silently to herself. Not only did they still have two weeks of performances to get through on top of finals, but it was already time to start planning for the big New Year’s Eve party. Trying to find another vocalist on such short notice would be even harder than it’d been finding a last-minute replacement for Ryan.

“I hope so, too,” Devyn sighed mournfully. “I feel like I’ve been a terrible friend to Kenny, because I have no idea what’s going on with him.”

Stacy put her arm around Devyn’s shoulders in a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she advised. “We all noticed something was wrong with him, but none of us said or did anything about it.”

Devyn tugged at the ends of her sleeves. “I know,” she replied, “but I’m supposed to be his best friend. I should’ve tried harder.”

“Nobody said you’re not best friends anymore,” Connie spoke up, taking one of Devyn’s hands in her own. “You two can still talk about this, and work it out – regardless of whether or not Kenny comes back to the band.”

“I guess,” Devyn mumbled guiltily. She lifted her gaze once more, spying Brian still muttering to himself from across the room. “In the meanwhile – what are we going to do about him?”

Stacy followed her line of vision, the corners of her lips turning down into a frown. She didn’t need to even look at her bandmates to know that Brian’s presence wasn’t welcome at that moment, no matter what was on his mind. Especially with the way he’d gone after Ryan in the wake of Kenny’s dramatic exit, he was just about the last person any of them wanted to see, much less deal with.

As anxious as Stacy was to cede her role as the band’s leader back to her boyfriend, she didn’t see that she any other choice but to deal with Brian herself, at least for the moment. She squared her shoulders, taking a step forward and lifting her chin.

“Hey, Brian,” she called, striving to make her tone as friendly and apologetic as possible, “there’s no telling when the others will be back. Maybe you should come back tomorrow, if you have something to discuss?”

The blonde boy turned, shooting Stacy a happy smile as his gaze settled on her. “Oh, that’s okay,” he replied, his voice full of almost giddy excitement. “I’ll wait.”

Stacy glanced back at Connie and Devyn, who appeared just as puzzled by his enthusiastic response as she was. A sudden wave of dread washed over her as she turned back to him, wary that maybe he was spoiling for a fight. Maybe he was preparing to unleash a verbal attack as soon as Ryan walked back through the door!

“Listen,” she said, her heart picking up speed as she took another step forward, “was all of that really necessary? I mean – is there any particular reason you dislike Ryan so much…?”

Brian considered her for a long moment as her question trailed off. “Actually,” he replied wolfishly, “right now, Ryan is my second favorite person in the world, after you.”

Stacy forced herself to keep moving forward, furrowing her brow as she approached. “I don’t understand,” she said slowly.

As soon as she was within arm’s reach, Brian grabbed her, startling her when his hands closed around her upper arms. “You are the star of the show, Stacy,” he said, his eyes sparkling with a wild, anticipatory gleam, “and don’t you even try to deny it. The band’s popularity spiked when I put you front and center, and the rumors of your alleged boyfriend have only made you more desirable.”

Stacy could feel the blood draining from her face, but before she could speak, Brian barreled on.

“Turns out, your little relationship bombshell might just be the best thing that’s happened to this group – and I think I know of a way to capitalize on it,” he continued with a flourish.

“Well,” a new, most welcome voice cut in, “I’m sure we’d all like to hear about that.”

Stacy pushed out of Brian’s hold as Ryan, Richie, and Kenny rounded the corner, the creaky back door of the Garage swinging back into its frame behind them. “Ryan!” she burst out, rushing towards the trio, taking in the concerned look darkening her boyfriend’s features. “Is everything all right?”

He nodded, taking her hands and giving them a reassuring squeeze. “Everything’s going to be just fine, I think.”

The two of them glanced over at Kenny, still hanging back slightly, as Devyn approached from the other side of the room.

“Hi,” she greeted him uncertainly.

“Hey,” he replied, his eyes falling away from her face.

Devyn bit her lip, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Are you okay?”

Kenny shrugged. “Not really,” he admitted.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she tried, hesitantly laying a hand on his shoulder, as if unsure of whether he’d accept the reassuring gesture or not.

He glanced at her hand before dragging his eyes back to her face. “Maybe later,” he murmured.

Devyn nodded silently, letting her hand fall away.

Stacy’s stomach knotted over as she observed the exchange, and she felt Ryan squeeze her hands once more. She looked up at him gratefully, checking the strong urge to close the embrace already brewing between them.

“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Brian announced, gesturing to Ryan and Stacy as if one look at the pair would explain everything. “You two can’t leave each other alone for two seconds! Yes. Yes – the more I think about this, the more I know it’s going to work.”

Ryan turned to face his rival, narrowing his eyes as he dropped his hold on Stacy’s hands. “What are you talking about?” he inquired directly. “And drop the attitude, please. I’m willing to talk to you, but I’m not willing to fight with you.”

Brian’s triumphant smirk disappeared, and he shrugged, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Fair enough,” he agreed. “We certainly have a lot to talk about.”

Ryan quirked a brow. “If you say so,” he replied. He glanced over his shoulder, where the rest of the band had assembled behind him. “Whatever you want to say to me, you can say to all of us. We’re all equals here – no royalty, and no minions.”

Brian appeared momentarily confused by the cryptic comment, but dismissed it easily enough. “Fine,” he said, narrowing an assessing stare at the group at large. “Should we sit?”

Ryan nodded, and the group broke apart momentarily, dragging milk crates and the piano bench to the center of the room and settling down in a slightly haphazard pattern. Ryan and Brian faced each other at the center of the makeshift circle, each quiet for a long moment as they collected their thoughts.

If Ryan was hoping that the interloper would open with an apology, he was sorely disappointed.

“There’s a difference between you and me,” Brian began, sitting up a bit taller in his seat. “This isn’t playtime to me. I care about the long-term future of this group, and I want to leave the band in a better place than it was when I started. I took the reins in your absence because I had a plan. I set out to find what would bring us the most success, and I did that, whatever it took.”

“And I think you’re missing the point of Kids Inc,” Ryan interjected smoothly. “This group is just as much about friendship, having a good time, and sharing the spotlight as it is about entertaining people or, I don’t know, advancing careers or whatever.”

“Oh?” Brian deadpanned. “But isn’t that why you left, because Kids Inc was holding you back?”

Ryan glared at him. “No,” he ground out, “and that isn’t the point.” He paused, closing his eyes momentarily as he tried to keep hold of his temper. “All I’m trying to say is – we’re friends first, no matter what. Yes, we take our performances seriously. Yes, we like playing to huge audiences, and entertaining everyone who steps through the doors of the P*lace. But – ”

“Well, I’m glad you said that,” Brian broke in. “Because I have a proposal for you.” He turned his gaze to the others in turn. “All of you.”

Stacy glanced at each of her friends, gauging their responses to Brian’s sudden deference. A mixture of surprise and skepticism colored each of their expressions, and Stacy couldn’t say she blamed them. While it was nice that Brian was being calm and considerate for a change, it would be naïve to think he wasn’t also being calculating.

“Go on,” Ryan prompted warily, settling back on his crate, as if bracing himself for something unpalatable.

“When I took over, I put the group on a long-term arc,” Brian explained. “Putting Stacy front and center was a calculated risk, but one that paid off. With her as the star, the band’s popularity went through the roof, and we found that elusive older audience. Now, all that work is about to pay off – everything was going according to plan, until you showed up again and derailed it.”

Ryan scowled, but didn’t respond.

“I don’t think I like the sound of this,” Stacy commented with a frown.

Brian turned his attention to her. “But don’t you see? Half the guys at school are drooling over you, and now they’re willing to pay for the privilege!” He cut his eyes back to Richie. “And don’t you guys have a certain debt to pay back to Riley, one that hinges on having a good turnout for the Saturday night concerts?”

Richie had the good grace to blush guiltily under Brian’s sudden scrutiny.

“We’re not the only ones,” Ryan reminded him pointedly.

Brian dismissed his words with a wave of his hand. “Oh, we have our part covered,” he replied, allowing the cut of his tone to bleed through. “I was just doing this out of the goodness of my heart, and concern for my fellow bandmates.”

“Cut the crap, and get to the point,” Ryan said bluntly, his tone all business. “We still have some rehearsing to do, and we don’t have the time or the patience to listen to your rambling.”

Brian bristled. “The point is,” he said emphatically, “Stacy is the key to our popularity, and her having a boyfriend – a known boyfriend – throws a wrench in the works. If we want to have the highest possible turnout in a month’s time for the New Year’s Eve party, we have to hook these people now, and give them a reason to come back.”

Ryan was decidedly unimpressed with this little turn of logic. “So let me guess,” he mused, “the big plan was to reveal the boyfriend’s identity at New Year’s Eve – after all the guys at school paid to come see the performance.”

“Right,” Brian acknowledged, earning a chorus of groans and “I can’t believe it!”s from the rest of the group. “But since you two can’t keep your hands off each other, there might just be another way to spin this.”

The members of the group exchanged quizzical glances, while Ryan continued to look unimpressed and Stacy, just embarrassed. Finally, Richie spoke up, his own curiosity getting the best of him. “So what’s your proposal?”

Brian lifted his chin, eyeing Ryan and Stacy defiantly. “We’re going to play your fans against each other.” He cut a cunning glance in Devyn’s direction. “And, of course, we can’t forget that contingent who’d just love to squeal over your relationship in general.”

Kenny shot a dark look at his best friend, and Devyn looked momentarily horrified.

“No way,” Ryan ground out, shooting to his feet. “Trading on my personal relationships is off limits.”

Brian stood as well, cutting ever the cool figure. “Ah, but you can’t say no,” he remarked drolly. “Don’t you remember that deal we struck, back before you left, where we agreed that I could have free reign over the choreography, and you promised to go along with whatever I designed?”

“Within reason,” Ryan reminded him curtly.

Brian threw back his shoulders. “And what’s more reasonable than two songs in two weeks?” he asked, his tone turning quite jovial. “This is my offer: two songs, during which you two are blatantly flirtatious with each other, to be performed one at a time over the course of the next two Saturdays. After that, we break for the holidays anyway, but kind placement in the set will draw just the reaction we want, and the demand we need to fill up the New Year’s Eve party.”

Ryan considered him for a long moment. “And if I say no?”

Brian’s smirk only widened. “How can you say no, after you’ve been playing it up on stage all year? Do you really want to deflate the sails this close to the finish line?”

Stacy touched Ryan’s arm. “And what are you offering in return?” she asked, hoping it would be something compelling enough to at least get her boyfriend to consider it.

Brian’s stance melted into something a bit more modest. “I’m willing to cede control of planning the New Year’s Eve concert. You guys choose the set list, you guys choose the production values, and you guys tell me what songs I need to prepare with the dancers.”

That brought Ryan and the others up short. Considering his power-grubbing ways over the last few weeks, the last thing in the world they expected was for him to give up the biggest prize of the year. The group went all out for the New Year’s Eve bash, turning out a real spectacle of a performance. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun, and one of their most – if not the most – successful events of the year. The band took the final two weeks of the year off, just as school let out for the winter break, in order to plan and practice at a feverish pace leading up to the performance.

“If you agree to do this,” Brian added as the patch of silence stretched between them, “I’ll even let you pick the final song of the arc. You two,” he said, pointing at Ryan and Stacy, “would have total control over the revelation of your relationship to the audience.”

Stacy tugged at Ryan’s hand, urging him to sit again. He complied with a sigh, turning to look at her. He wasn’t surprised when he saw the interest in Brian’s deal sparkling in her eyes, but that didn’t change the way he felt about it himself.

“I don’t like it,” he finally said, turning back to Brian, “but we’ll think about it.”

Brian shrugged. “I’m only thinking of what’s best for the band.”

I’m sure you think you are, Ryan thought wryly to himself, but somehow I always come out on the raw end of your ‘deals’. He still didn’t like the idea of making his relationship fodder for their audience – especially not after promising Richie and Kenny he’d keep his personal life under wraps.

But, ultimately, the decision wasn’t his alone to make. How painful could it be, two songs in two weeks? Would it be worth it if it meant having control over planning the New Year’s Eve party, and possibly bringing an end to Brian’s ruthless management of the band?

Ryan met Brian’s gaze. “We’ll give you our decision after the set tomorrow afternoon,” he promised.

Brian nodded in assent. “Fine,” he murmured. “Then I’ll leave you to discuss it.”

With that, he turned on his heel, the tread of his footsteps heavy as he made his way out of the rehearsal space via the back door of the Garage. As it creaked to a close behind him, Ryan leaned forward, burying his head in his hands.

“This sucks,” Richie declared to no one in particular.

“Yeah, he shouldn’t have put you guys in that position,” Kenny added supportively.

Connie shuddered, twisting her face into a disgusted expression. “Audience manipulation is gross,” she agreed.

Only Devyn had the courage to speak out against the prevailing tide. “He had a point, though,” she considered carefully. “Half the fun of putting on the show is playing up for the audience…” She glanced guiltily at Ryan and Stacy. “…and you two have certainly been doing plenty of that, whether you mean to or not.”

And we need all the help we can get to repay Riley for the band jackets,” Stacy added with a frustrated sigh. “No matter what, we need a big turnout for New Year’s Eve if we want to pay him back before the next millennium.”

“I’d rather bake a million cakes or wash a million cars than make you guys do this,” Richie cried out in a burst of defiant loyalty.

Ryan straightened in his seat, tossing an amused look in their drummer’s direction. “That won’t be necessary, Rich,” he mused aloud, “but thanks anyway.”

Stacy put her hand on Ryan’s shoulder, drawing his attention and meeting his gaze with an equally somber expression. “Are you seriously considering this?” she asked softly.

Ryan shrugged. “This is about more than just me,” he replied. “You guys have catapulted the band into success we used to only dream about.”

Devyn stood, closing the ranks of the group as she settled again next to Ryan. “We’re friends first,” she reminded him, “and there’s no way we’d ask you to do anything you’re uncomfortable with.” She glanced up, meeting Stacy’s eye. “You guys deserve the chance to keep this private, if you want.”

Kenny nodded in agreement. “We can always come up with another way to keep the audience around. Even if it’s just the younger kids.”

“I appreciate the support, guys,” Ryan reiterated, “and I’ll definitely be giving it a lot of thought.” He paused, glancing covertly at his girlfriend. “We’ll talk about it later, okay?”

He stood, turning to his friends as he pushed this little quandary from his mind. “Let’s not forget, we have a set to rehearse for tomorrow,” he reminded them. “Now that all this drama is out of the way, let’s get back to what really matters – having fun, and playing music!”

Chapter Text


.19.
“Help!”

And now my life has changed in oh, so many ways
My independence seemed to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before
Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?

© 1965 John Lennon, Paul McCartney, & the Beatles

~*~

Devyn clutched her tray with white-knuckled force as she stood near the front of the middle school cafeteria, gazing around the room with no small amount of trepidation. Come on, she thought fiercely, her heart hammering heavily against her ribs as she searched the faces of her classmates for one in particular. Don’t flake out on me now.

She was nearing the end of her rope. Something was wrong with her best friend, and she had to find out what, before she lost what little sanity she had left. Between the stress over finals and the topsy-turvy rollercoaster ride that was Kids Incorporated these days, the last thing she wanted was to have her best friend mysteriously in crisis – and hiding it from her. She’d barely slept the night before, worry over Kenny overriding her mind. She began to feel horribly guilty about the way that she’d neglected him over the last few months, almost taking him for granted, and even for being so surprised when he’d exploded the day before and stomped out of rehearsal.

By morning, she’d come up with a plan, and she’d already gone forward with the first part of it. In homeroom, she carefully composed a note, asking Kenny to meet her so they could talk. She held onto the note until third period English class, because she knew she couldn’t wait until the afternoon for their music class. It’d been tricky, getting it into Kenny’s hands, considering the watchful eye their teacher kept over the class, but she’d managed it, and had waited in mind-numbing suspense for him to respond, unable to concentrate on anything but the back of his head while he considered her offer. She’d never been so nervous about passing a note to a boy before, and it was with bitter irony that she realized just how high the stakes were. This wasn’t some silly invitation to a dance on the line – this was the future of one of the strongest friendships she’d ever had.

Mercifully, he’d responded, passing the note back just as class ended, agreeing to the meeting and suggesting the cafeteria at lunch. Hence why she was standing here now, indifferent to the classmates streaming around the bustling room, hoping that he wouldn’t change his mind at the last minute. As her eyes fell to her usual table near the far wall, Rosie gave her an encouraging smile and a thumbs up.

Just as she was about to give up and start searching for him, Kenny materialized at her side, his ever-present gloomy expression in place as he held a similarly laden tray. “Hey,” he greeted her quietly.

“Hey!” she replied, startled. “I didn’t even see you come in!”

Kenny shrugged.

“I really want to talk to you,” Devyn reiterated, tightening her grip on her tray. “Thanks for meeting me.”

“No problem,” he replied, his eyes drifting off over the crowd of classmates before them. “Where should we go?”

Devyn’s gaze followed his, and she furrowed her brow. “Maybe outside?” she suggested. “It’s probably too noisy in here.”

“Okay,” Kenny sighed, turning in the direction of the enclosed patio, attached to the side of the cafeteria building. In the spring and autumn, the space was completely open, spilling out onto the spacious quad nearby; in the winter, it served as unheated overflow seating, where only the bravest of those willing to tolerate the cold ventured.

Devyn followed him wordlessly, already prepared for the thirty-degree drop in temperature by having her coat on, and noted, with some relief, that they weren’t the only students lingering in the space. The two took their seats at a table away from the other stragglers, however, each concentrating on opening their milk cartons and poking the inedible masses that served as their unidentifiable entrees.

Occasionally, Devyn would sneak a peek at him, opening her mouth to crack a joke, but the seriousness of his expression stopped her. Kenny had always been pretty laid-back and quiet, the type to think before he spoke, but total silence was a bit much, even for him. A pang of guilt struck her as the awkward silence reigned; she couldn’t remember the last time they’d had lunch together or even just hung out, one-on-one.

Did they not even know how to talk to each other anymore, without the presence of others?

Finally, she could stand it no longer. “Please, talk to me, Kenny,” she pleaded softly, leveling her eyes at her friend as anxious butterflies fluttered in her stomach. “I don’t want to fight with you.”

Kenny frowned, tearing a chunk out of his roll and shoving it in his mouth. He was staring at his succotash as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world. “Have Ryan or the others talked to you since yesterday?” he finally asked.

She shook her head. “No,” she replied, brushing aside the fact that Richie had tried to stop her before the first bell that morning, only to have her dismiss him out of hand. A rising sense of alarm pervaded her now, however, especially at the idea that their other bandmates knew what was going on, while she didn’t.

She lowered her eyes. “Are you mad at me about something?”

He shrugged. “A little.”

She frowned, a guilty flush coating the back of her neck. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I suppose I haven’t been a very good friend lately.”

“No,” he replied tonelessly, “you haven’t.”

Devyn bit her lip, summoning up the last vestiges of her resolve. “Well, I’m trying to be a better one now,” she said firmly, pushing aside her wounded feelings. “So will you tell me what’s going on? Please?” She racked her brain for possibilities, something the others could know about that didn’t necessarily have to do with a rift in their friendship. “Are you moving?”

Kenny chanced to glance up at her, meeting her gaze momentarily before dropping his eyes once more. “Maybe,” he hedged.

Surprise and dread coursed through her. “I don’t understand,” she pressed, unpleasant feelings of panic rising in her chest. Suddenly the urge to repair their friendship was taking on new, more desperate meaning.

Kenny bided his time to measure his words, agonizing moments during which it took every fiber of her being to keep from peppering him with probing questions and pushing him into a response. She was used to dominating their conversations in such a fashion, but something stopped her now – whether it was the focused look of concentration on his face, or all of the possible reasons for moving suddenly that were taking shape in her own mind.

“My parents – ” he began, his breath hitching in the back of his throat, “my parents are getting a divorce.”

“What?” she whispered, absolute shock coating her tone.

He shot her an agonizing look, silently pleading with her to not make him repeat it.

“Kenny!” she cried, reaching for his hands. “I – I can’t believe it! Did they fight?” she blurted out, immediately feeling stupid for asking such an obvious question.

He didn’t seem to notice. “All the time,” he confessed, looking away. “Even when we lived in Chicago. And when we moved here, it just got worse.”

Devyn furrowed her brow. “But I thought you guys moved here for your dad’s job?” she ventured. “It wasn’t a family decision?”

“It was,” he replied, “but it wasn’t a happy one.” He shrugged, squeezing her fingers. “We’ve moved around a lot, and I think my mom just got tired of it. She hates being so far away from her family.”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, unsure of what else she could say.

He shook his head, pressing his lips together in a thin line, like he was trying to hold back tears. “It’s why I’ve never invited you or anybody else over to my apartment,” he said haltingly. “I never knew what it was going to be like at home – who’d be there, who’d be fighting. It was always really stressful.”

Devyn stood, rounding the table and throwing her arms around him as she slid down beside him. She absolutely hated to see him in so much pain. They’d grown fairly close fairly quickly, bonding over their love of music and performing, but she’d never known much about his home life. She’d assumed his was just like her own – uneventful – because she had no reason to think otherwise.

“And then – about a month ago – it just stopped,” he continued after a moment. “We thought they’d worked it out, you know, figured out how to stop fighting and screaming…and they had, all right: they decided to get divorced.” He pulled away from her impulsive embrace, swiping angrily at the tears seeping silently from the corners of his eyes. “My mom wants to leave, and she wants to take us kids with her.”

Devyn’s stomach knotted over. “Where does she want to go?” she asked softly.

“Back to Charleston,” Kenny sniffled. “That’s her hometown. My grandparents are still there, and one of my aunts, and some of my cousins.”

Devyn watched helplessly as he reached for a napkin, struggling to regain his composure. What could she say to all this? What could she do? She felt bad enough, knowing that she’d been taking him for granted while she bonded with her girlfriends, but this? This was a thousand times worse.

Kenny glanced at her. “I don’t want to go,” he said, as if reassuring her of his own feelings on the matter. “None of my siblings do. We like it here, which is more than I can say for Chicago, or Memphis before that.” He shuddered. “But here? I like school, I like the band – I like you. You’re the first best friend I’ve ever had.”

Though he hadn’t meant it to, the sincerity of his words cut her like a knife. “How long have you known about this?” she asked, fidgeting with her hands in her lap.

His expression closed at her redirected question. “A couple of weeks.”

She gaped at him. “A couple of weeks?!” she cried incredulously. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?!”

He scowled. “I tried,” he insisted sharply. “I tried to, a bunch of times – but every time I’d start a conversation with you, you’d go off on some tangent, about Ryan and Stacy, or your new friends, or whatever.” His lips thinned. “You wouldn’t listen to me, so eventually, I just stopped trying.”

Devyn felt her entire body flush with shame at his entirely-too-true accusations. “Kenny…”

He would hear none of it. “I don’t make friends as easily as you do,” he said, standing up stiffly and taking a few steps away from the table, before turning to look at her again. “You’re my best friend in the whole world, and I’ve never had a friend like that before. Maybe you have, I don’t know – but I haven’t. And now, when it feels like I’m losing you?” He shook his head. “I didn’t know who else I could turn to…”

“…so you just kept it all inside,” she surmised, pushing to her feet as well. She shrugged helplessly, turning her palms out. “I’m sorry, Kenny. I don’t know what else to say.”

His expression clouded. “I don’t know if there’s anything else to say,” he responded, his tone heavy and somber as he turned away.

Devyn stepped forward abruptly, reaching out for him. “I don’t want you to go,” she declared, resting her hand on his shoulder. “You’re my best friend, too, even if I have other friends. A million of them couldn’t make one of you, and I mean that.”

He glanced back at her, not appearing entirely convinced of her sincerity.

I mean it,” she said fiercely, tugging at him until he turned towards her. “I’ve never had a friend like you, someone who just – gets me, you know?” She smiled. “I remember the first time I met you, on the playground. I was listening to that David Bowie tape, and trying to transcribe the lyrics.”

“And I already knew ’em, so I helped you out,” Kenny continued. “I even had the sheet music in my locker.”

Devyn nodded. “You were the only kid in our class who understood what made Bowie so awesome,” she reminded him. “We had that connection, right off the bat. It’s no wonder it was so easy to put our act together!”

“Yeah.” Kenny’s somewhat cheered expression faltered.

“And when you were invited to join Kids Inc, and I wasn’t,” she said softly, “I was so jealous, but you saw past all that. I don’t know many friends who would’ve done what you did,” she added, referring to his sneaking her into his first rehearsal with the band and turning it into an impromptu audition for her, “…but I would have. Because you’re my best friend.”

“Or at least, I was,” Kenny contended, his gaze falling away from hers.

“You still are,” she insisted. “It’s just… I’ve never had girlfriends before,” she confessed hastily. “I was always a real tomboy when I was a kid, and I preferred playing with my brother’s friends, instead of those prissy girls who didn’t like to get their dresses dirty at recess.”

A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of Kenny’s mouth.

Heartened, Devyn continued. “I guess I just got a little caught up in the whirlwind is all,” she said wistfully. “Suddenly, all that girly stuff became interesting – stuff I couldn’t really talk to you about.”

“Yeah, I kinda don’t care about rating the hotness of the eighth-grade boys,” Kenny teased wryly.

She flushed. “Right,” she managed, “so I didn’t want to waste your time with stuff like that.” Her smile faded. “I guess I just got carried away with Rosie and Emily, and how much I suddenly had in common with them. They’re great girls, Kenny, and they’re great friends – but there’s no reason to think it has to be you or them.”

“I don’t,” he said. “Not exactly. It just feels like maybe one of them is taking my place.” He looked down. “Like, we’d still be friends, but we wouldn’t be best friends anymore.”

“No way,” Devyn said fiercely, the determination clear in her voice drawing his attention to her once more. “No one can take your place.” She reached for his hands. “I think we should make a pact, here and now, to spend more time with each other, just the two of us – no other friends, not even the band. When was the last time we just hung out together?”

Kenny shrugged, shaking his head. “I don’t know,” he mused.

“And that’s the problem,” Devyn said. “There’s just something wrong with best friends who never see each other. How about this – why don’t we set aside one day of the week, just for the two of us? We’ll eat lunch and hang out and just catch up.”

Kenny eyed her suspiciously. “Just the two of us? Nobody else?”

“Right,” she promised. “I think you’d like Emily and Rosie, once you got to know them, but I’m not going to force them on you. Besides,” she lowered her voice, “just between you and me? Even I need a break from the gossip every once in a while.”

Kenny smiled, his first genuine smile of the conversation. “Thanks, Devyn,” he said, pulling her into an impulsive hug.

“Anytime,” she replied, tightening the brace of her arms across his shoulders. She could feel the tension melting out of him, which made her own heart feel lighter as well. “And listen, why don’t you come over for dinner tomorrow night? My mom’s been bugging me about having you over again, because you’re ‘such a nice young man.’”

Kenny laughed. “Okay,” he agreed. “That sounds great.”

“Good.” She nodded firmly as he pulled away. “And listen – any time you need a break from the world? You’re welcome over at my place. No questions asked.”

He nodded. “Thanks,” he said softly, and she could hear the sound of tears in his voice.

She broached the subject with an unusual amount of care. “Have you – thought about seeing somebody about all this?” she asked gently. “The counselor, or a maybe one of your teachers? Don’t get me wrong,” she hastened to add, “I’m glad you told me, and I’ll do everything I can to help you get through this, but…” Her shoulders tugged down in a sheepish shrug. “We’re just kids.”

Kenny nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “Ryan suggested the same thing when I talked to him yesterday.” He glanced down. “I…actually have an appointment with the guidance counselor this afternoon.”

Devyn wasn’t quite expecting the wave of relief that washed over her. “Good,” she replied. “Great!” Catching his expression, she ventured, “Do you want me to come with you? For moral support?”

He considered it, but ultimately shook his head. “Nah, that’s okay,” he sighed. “I’m just – I’m glad we talked, you know? I’ve missed you.”

She nodded. “I’ve missed you, too,” she responded. “Let’s not fight again, okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed happily.

They smiled, moving back over to the table and sitting in front of their half-eaten lunches. “This is totally gross,” Kenny stated, poking at the entrée.

“I can’t believe they get away with serving us this,” she smiled, picking up her old, mealy apple. “You know, I have this theory – they just pick the fruit right out of the garbage if it’s untouched, and throw it back in the bin.”

Kenny glanced up at her, two seconds away from biting into his own apple. He made a face. “Well, there goes my appetite,” he replied wryly.

“You know, there’s one way to test this hypothesis,” she mused. “Maybe if we cut these up before throwing them away…and then, if we see ‘fruit bits’ on the menu tomorrow, we’ll know for sure they go fishing in the trash.”

“That’s disgusting,” Kenny declared. His eyes met hers, and twin devilish grins bloomed across their faces. “Let’s do it!”

They set to work, shredding their apples with their forks, laughing and cracking jokes all the while. Eventually, their conversation circled around to the band, and a general rehashing of the showdown between Brian and Ryan that had occurred the afternoon before.

“I wonder what Ryan and Stacy are going to decide,” Devyn mused, glancing thoughtfully at her friend. “I mean, I know how I want them to play this, but then – it’s also not my relationship.”

“Exactly,” Kenny reiterated, “it’s not your personal life that’s going to be on display.” He shook his head. “I just wonder what Brian’s deal is.”

“What do you mean?”

Kenny took a moment to consider his words. “Well, what’s his goal in all of this? I mean, Ryan told me that the New Year’s Eve party is pretty much the biggest deal Kids Incorporated has going for the entire year – so wouldn’t that be the ultimate feather in Brian’s cap? Why would he give that up? I mean, look at the way he just took over while Ryan was gone, and then all that stuff he said yesterday about the long-term arc or whatever. If his end goal wasn’t the party, then what was it?”

Devyn frowned. “Stacy?” she guessed.

Kenny shrugged. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I just can’t help but feel like this is all a big trap, somehow.” He sighed. “I certainly hope they know what they’re doing.”

“Well,” Devyn intoned as the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch period, “I guess we’ll find out this afternoon.”

~*~

Devyn and Kenny arrived at the P*lace at very nearly the same time that afternoon, and she was pleased to see him smiling as he walked into the store room backstage. She knew things wouldn’t work themselves out overnight, but just knowing what was going on with him was a huge relief.

Just as she was about to cross the room and ask about his meeting with the guidance counselor, a knock sounded on the door, which opened to reveal Brian on the other side. Five sets of eyes swiveled across the room to where Ryan sat, tuning his guitar. Both he and Stacy had been mostly silent during the band’s pre-set preparations, neither giving a hint as to whether or not they’d even discussed the terms of Brian’s deal.

Ryan’s expression was grim as he stood, looping the guitar strap around his neck. “Brian,” he acknowledged.

“Ryan,” Brian nodded. “Have you made a decision?”

Ryan exchanged a quick look with Stacy, before turning to face the head dancer once more. “Yeah,” he said. “We’ll do it.”

Chapter Text


.20.
“Prove Your Love”

Prove your love / got to prove your love
If you want to be with me tonight
Show your stuff / ’cause words are not enough
I want to hear your body talk to mine

© 1988 Arnie Roman, Seth Swirsky, & Taylor Dayne

~*~

Stacy hesitated as she turned down the hallway outside the auditorium of the high school, drawing her lower lip between her teeth as she ventured forward, towards the annex of practice rooms. It had practically become routine by now, stopping by her study hall to pick up a library pass after lunch before heading this way. Generally, this was the period of her school day that she cherished the most, because she was able to spend it with her boyfriend, but today was different, for a myriad of reasons – first and foremost of which was the way their relationship was going to be tested if Brian got his way.

So far, Ryan had been uncharacteristically silent on the matter, and it was beginning to worry her. She’d left rehearsal Monday evening in a breathless rush to make it home before her parents were too upset. Then, perhaps foolishly, she had waited by the phone for the rest of the evening, neglecting her studying completely, just in case he called her – a risky proposition, indeed, considering her parents’ ignorance of their relationship.

He didn’t call.

Her fears were merely compounded when he arrived to walk her to school this morning, his expression preoccupied and grim. Oh, he smiled and kissed her and tucked a flower into her hair like always, but somehow, these familiar gestures felt empty. He barely spoke on their way to school, though he held her close against the bite of the December breeze; all in all, there was little to reassure her that the situation wasn’t weighing heavily on his mind – and his silence was deafening.

Stacy found herself unable to concentrate in her morning classes, her mind constantly wandering back to her boyfriend, and Brian’s troubling offer. Ryan was passionate, but he was also private, never one to really draw attention to himself, warranted or not. He took the spotlight as it came, but it was always on his own terms. She wasn’t sure if Brian understood what he was really asking of Ryan – and, at the same time, she was anxious that he understood just exactly that.

She furrowed her brow as she approached Music Room #3, leaning against the door as her hand closed around the knob. She had made up her mind during her lunch period that she was going to talk to him about this, whether he was ready to discuss it or not – after all, Brian was expecting an answer that afternoon – but still, she had to push herself forward, before she could change her mind.

She stopped short, however, when she entered the room and found nothing but silent, inky darkness in greeting. He’s not here? she thought to herself, her heart skipping a painful beat. She backed out into the hallway, staring at the door in disbelief. But where could he have gone? And why didn’t he tell me? She glanced down, absently eyeing the pass she crumpled between her fingers. Maybe the library? she considered, smoothing the paper in the palm of her hand. It would be just like him to escape into the stacks, especially if he needed to think…

Figuring it could never hurt to look – or get some legitimate use out of the pass her study hall teacher had so blithely written for her – she shrugged and continued down the hall. Just as she was about to turn back towards the main building of the school, she heard something – or, at least, she thought she did. She hesitated, glancing back to the annex of practice rooms, her eyes narrowing as she honed in on the low hum of an electric instrument. Curiosity claimed her and she turned, retracing her steps until she found herself in front of a nondescript room with a faded goldplate, oh-so-helpfully lableled ‘Equipment.’ On impulse, she pushed open the door.

Relief flooded through her when she spotted her boyfriend wedged in the corner of the room, sitting on an amp and strumming an ancient-looking bass guitar. For a moment, she merely watched him, cherishing this rare glimpse into his music-immersed world. Whatever he was playing, he was also listening to on his Walkman, which he’d attached to the body of the bass. His eyes were closed, his brow furrowed in concentration, but his fingers slid effortlessly over the frets, tapping out a beautiful, sweetly melodic bassline that sounded faintly familiar. Her heart swelled with pleasure and trepidation; though he was musically gifted, bass was not generally his first choice of comfort instrument.

She cleared her throat, trying to catch his attention, but it wasn’t until she drew closer to him that he opened his eyes and looked up, never missing a beat of the bassline that thrummed between them. She was surprised to see a tiny smile gracing the corners of his mouth, and even more surprised when he began to sing. “While I live only to hold you,” he began, his eyes drawing level with hers, “some other men – they long to control you.”

She plucked the headphones from his ears and placed them over hers, immediately recognizing the iconic Four Tops song. “But how can they control you, Bernadette?” she sang, “when they cannot control themselves, Bernadette / from wanting you, needing you, but darling – ”

“You belong to me,” Ryan finished, reaching over and turning off the tape before taking Stacy’s hand.

She pushed the headphones back as she leaned down to kiss him, relishing the feel of his calloused fingers under hers, still warm from the steel strings. “Hi,” she whispered, pulling away gently. “You were hard to find this afternoon.”

He shrugged, flipping the switch on the amp and settling the bass back on its stand while she glanced around, trying to find somewhere to sit. She was startled when he pulled her down into his lap instead, but she settled quickly enough, wrapping her arms around him and smiling blissfully as she tucked her head into the hollow of his neck. He smelled of fresh soap and black leather, and for a moment, she was tempted to simply lose herself in his warm embrace.

“I’m sorry,” he sighed, breaking the heady silence that stretched between them. The brace of his arms tightened around her waist. “I just needed to get away for a little bit…”

She sat up slightly, her expression somber. “Have you been thinking about Brian’s offer?”

“Are you kidding?” he snorted, his dark green eyes meeting hers. “I haven’t been able to think about anything else.”

Stacy shrugged, biting her lip. “And?” she inquired after a moment.

He sighed again, rolling his eyes heavenward. “And,” he replied, “I don’t know. I mean – it’s just two songs, so how bad could it be? Two songs in two weeks…” He shook his head. “But this is Brian we’re talking about here. He seems determined to exact his pound of flesh directly from me, for whatever reason.”

“We don’t have to do this,” she reminded him, brushing her fingers through his hair.

“I know,” he said, “but this shouldn’t be just about me. After all, you guys have already taken the band so much farther than any of us ever thought possible. I don’t want to jeopardize that.” He sighed again, his shoulders falling into a helpless shrug as his gaze returned to her. “What do you think?”

Stacy’s eyes widened momentarily, surprise coursing through her at the unexpected question. Of course, she did have a say in this – she was just as much a part of this relationship as he was, and, in some ways, she had more at stake than he did – but even she could recognize Brian’s bargaining was completely directed at Ryan, for whatever mystifying reason. Either way, she was torn: as much as she wanted the entire world to know how they felt about each other, she didn’t want that revelation to happen at the expense of Ryan’s happiness. He already had so many others things clogging his mind –Juilliard, finals, Christmas, the New Year’s Eve concert – that it hardly seemed fair to force his hand like this.

“Stacy,” he pressed, “come on – talk to me. I can see the gears turning in your head. What are you thinking?”

She stilled her fingers at the nape of his neck. “I think – you’re just as much a part of this band as any of the rest of us,” she said slowly. “If you don’t want to play by Brian’s rules, you shouldn’t have to.”

Her heart was pounding in her chest as she watched him carefully, trying to gauge his reaction, so afraid that she hadn’t said what he’d wanted to hear, even if it was truly what she thought and felt about the situation.

“Kids Incorporated will survive,” she continued, finding the force of her own conviction, “even if the world doesn’t find out how we really feel about each other. And – maybe that’s for the best…”

“Stacy,” he interrupted quietly, “I don’t want to hide in dark closets with you forever.”

The intensity of his words sent a shiver of anticipation shimmering down her spine. “Me neither,” she confessed, shifting restlessly in his lap. “So what are we going to do?”

He swallowed hard in response to her movement. “It’s just two songs in two weeks,” he muttered, mulling it over. “And it’d be worth it, if it meant having control of the New Year’s Eve party.” He sighed. “I suppose we’d just have to trust he wouldn’t cook up anything too embarrassing.”

She eyed him carefully. “So does this mean…?”

“It’s settled,” he said firmly, drawing her even closer into him. “Now, if you don’t mind me changing the subject – ”

“I don’t,” she broke in, smiling as she pressed a tiny kiss to the corner of his mouth.

He shifted slightly, chasing her kiss with one of his own, capturing her mouth with sweet intensity. “Hmm,” he mumbled against her lips, “I’ve been thinking…about that date I owe you.”

She smiled. “Oh?”

He kissed her again. “Yes,” he said, “and I was wondering – are you free December seventeenth?”

That’s the Saturday before Christmas, she thought murkily. The date rang some faint bell in the back of her mind, but she was far more focused on the here and now, the fact that she was sitting in his lap while he kissed her. “Of course,” she replied breezily, brushing aside the niggles of doubt and tightening the brace of her arms around his shoulders. For you, I’m always free.

His eyes sparkled with mirth as he studied her. “The whole day?” he inquired.

She couldn’t stop herself from grinning. “What do you have planned?” she asked curiously, watching him intently, searching for any hint of his plans.

“It’s a surprise,” he replied loftily, sending another shiver of anticipation racing through her as he drew his hands up the planes of her back. “But I think you’ll enjoy it.”

She gazed at him adoringly. “I’d do anything with you,” she said breathlessly.

“Good,” he demurred, his lips finding hers once again. That’s exactly what I’m counting on…

~*~

Even though his conversation with Stacy during their shared study hall at school had reassured him (to some degree) that he’d made the right decision, Ryan couldn’t quite bring himself to brush aside the lingering doubts about the whole Brian situation. Normally, he would’ve been on board for any sort of plan that brought much-valued publicity to the band, but he couldn’t trust Brian’s intentions on this one. It was one thing to exploit the chemistry that happened naturally between bandmates – and quite another to force into public something so very private. Ryan had long ago learned his lesson about exposing the ins and outs of personal relationships to others, even to his friends; but being under the microscope of a high-school-aged fanbase? He’d never find a way to be comfortable with that idea.

And besides, just what exactly was Brian getting out of all this, other than yet another way to antagonize him? They’d always had a prickly working relationship, and it had only gotten worse when Brian had taken over leadership of the dance troupe. It was obvious the boy had ambition for something – but what?

Such were the thoughts that consumed Ryan as he sat in the store room that afternoon at the P*lace, absently tuning his guitar while his fellow band members milled around and warmed up for their afternoon set. The band had worked late into the evening the night before, hustling to put together a five-song set with only the bare minimum of rehearsal time, and the last thing Ryan wanted to deal with was all of this doubt and uncertainty. He was already a bit nervous about rejoining the group and upsetting the vibe they’d cultivated in his absence. His last hope was the chance to gauge the audience’s reaction to his unexpected return – maybe it would help him decide if Brian’s offer was really worth pursuing.

He was so lost in his own world that he didn’t even register the knock on the door until the low hum of conversation around him fell silent. He glanced up, noting with something less than surprise that it was Brian who stood there, hanging onto the knob of the garish pink door, an irritating little smirk playing at the corners of his mouth.

Ryan could feel five sets of eyes swivel his way at this most unexpected appearance. How like him, he thought darkly, to not even give us time to perform before showing up and demanding his answer. Didn't we agree to discuss this after the set today?

Silence stretched between them, nervous apprehension radiating in waves off the others. Obviously, it would be up to him to speak first, with only served to irritate him further. “Brian,” he acknowledged, standing up and looping the strap of his guitar over his neck. It was a comforting weight against his torso, almost like a shield.

“Ryan,” the blonde boy nodded, leveling an exacting stare at his rival. “Have you made a decision?”

Ryan glanced around the room, his eyes landing on Stacy for a brief moment. Obviously, the moment of truth was here, and he couldn’t allow doubt to cloud this decision. He might have the most to sacrifice, but if it would ultimately serve the good of the band…

“Yeah,” he finally replied, forcing his shoulders into what he hoped was a nonchalant shrug as he turned to face his adversary once more. “We’ll do it.”

His announcement was met with stunned silence, with even Brian looking momentarily surprised. It was only a split second, though, before a Cheshire-cat-like smirk rose to his lips. “Good,” he responded, looking far more satisfied than he had any right to be. “I’ll see you on Friday to discuss that first number.”

With that, he turned and left. Ryan rocked back on his heels, gripping the neck of his guitar, feeling the bite of the strings digging into his fingers, and could only hope he’d made the right decision.

Mercifully, before any of the others could ambush him and question his sanity, Riley wandered by, sticking his head into the room. “Hey, guys,” he greeted them jovially, “you’re up!”

“C’mon,” Stacy said suddenly, moving across the space and sweeping the others out of the room behind Riley. “We can talk about this later. Right now, we have a show to do!” She tossed a sheepish glance back at Ryan as she herded their bandmates backstage. He followed at a more sedate pace, watching them carefully as they picked up instruments and microphones, all the while exchanging quiet words and confused glances.

The moment the stage lights came on, however, they were ready, moving forward with smiles over a surge of up-tempo music.

Ryan lingered in the wings, as planned; the group had decided the day before that they really wanted to emphasize his return, “saving the best for last,” as Devyn had so helpfully put it. He would sing the last song of the set – a solo rendition of Elisa Fiorillo’s “How Can I Forget You” – while making a grand entrance at the center of the stage. They agreed that it would send a pretty strong message, to Brian and everyone else, that he was retaking his rightful place as their leader.

In the meanwhile, it gave him a chance to observe – not only the band, but how their dynamic with the audience had changed in his absence. It was one thing to walk in on a sexy number at the end of a Saturday night concert in front of a filled-to-capacity audience, and quite another to see what sort of crowd was attracted by their bare bones, casual afternoon sets. Perhaps not surprisingly, the front room of the P*lace wasn’t packed quite so tightly now. Most of the kids there were from the middle school, though it was a bit of a surprise to Ryan just how many of the faces he didn’t recognize. The audience seemed equal parts interested in what was happening on stage as well as their own conversations, digging into ice cream and hot chocolate as they absently swayed along to the beat of the music. Ryan frowned slightly as he watched, all of those doubts from before rushing to the forefront of his mind. These were the people they were going to hook with Brian’s oh-so-brilliant plan?

The Kids’ third song drifted to a close, the band wasting no time launching into the fourth. This time, it was Stacy who took center stage, leading Devyn, Connie, and Kenny in a lively cover of the Supremes’ early ’60s hit “Come See About Me.” Almost immediately, Ryan noted a lift in the audience’s interest level, as everyone seemed to sit up and pay attention. It wasn’t hard to figure out why – Stacy absolutely shone in the spotlight, her voice strong and full and even a little bit coy. She had real presence on stage, and it had only grown stronger in the last few weeks.

His eyes traveled down the length of her as she sang the chorus of the song, his heart gaining traction in his chest as her voice swelled into the hook. “So won’t you hurry / come on, boy / see about me,” she crooned, one hand settling flirtatiously on her hip.

As if on cue, a group of boys rushed the stage, only too happy to fulfill the plaintive plea.

Ryan glanced from them to Stacy, who smiled in response and strolled down the length of the stage as she prepared for the next verse. “I’ve given up my friends just for you,” she sang, indicating the distance between herself and her backup trio. “My friends are gone / and you have to.”

It was almost amazing, he thought as he watched the crowd hang on her every word, their collective gaze intense and adoring. She had them eating out of the palm of her hand – not only the high school boys, but the younger kids as well. As begrudging as he was to recognize Brian’s brilliance in staging, he’d obviously made the correct move here. Some of the boys were even leering, especially when Stacy drifted down the steps into the crowd, only just out of their reach.

Ryan wasn’t sure whether to feel proud or jealous as he continued to watch – but one thing became crystal clear, as the itch of possessiveness burned through him: it was time to stake his claim.

Stacy made it back to the relative safety of her trio as the song drew to a close. She dipped into a bow, accepting the audience’s wild cheers and whistles, doing her best to not interrupt the flow of their routine. The Kids quickly set themselves up for their final number, Ryan moving out of the wings and surfacing beside Richie’s drum set. He nodded to Richie, indicating he was ready, and caught Stacy’s lingering stare and brilliant smile from across the stage as he stepped forward, into the spotlight.

The roar of the crowd shocked him, quite frankly, almost as much as the desire to perform that was suddenly tumbling through him. He thought he hadn’t missed this during his time away, but the adrenaline coursing through his body obviously told him otherwise. He loved it, he absolutely loved it, being in front of the crowd, feeling the rush of energy in his bandmates as they surrounded him, his voice ringing out, strong and clear, his fingers moving nimbly through the chords of the lead guitar line.

It was all so easy, and effortless, and over far too soon. The band took a final bow in unison, smiles all around as they soaked in the ecstatic applause from the audience. When Ryan finally came back down to earth, he was surprised to take note of a gaggle of girls standing right in front of him, giggling and whispering with each other as they gazed up at him shyly.

He felt Stacy’s hand on his arm. “Welcome back,” she said softly. “It was never the same without you.”

Chapter Text


.21.
“Never Gonna Give You Up”

Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you
Never gonna make you cry
Never gonna say goodbye
Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you

© 1987 Mike Stock, Matt Aiken, Peter Waterman & Rick Astley

~*~

The next week passed by in more or less a complete blur, as the Kids – and their audience – hustled to get through their finals at school. Suddenly, it wasn’t such an uncommon appearance to see books and papers strewn across the tables at the P*lace, or the spacious interior of the Garage. It amused Ryan when his bandmates started asking for study breaks instead of soda breaks at practice, but he could certainly understand their desperation. He considered himself to be a pretty good student, but even he was feeling the pressure brought on by the close of a semester. Between drama with the band, the cold war versus Brian, and his Juilliard application, he hadn’t been quite as on top of his schoolwork as he usually was.

With a bit of urging, he managed to convince Stacy that their shared study time at school would be better spent working in the library, though it was rather difficult to get any actual studying done. She had taken to resting her head against his shoulder as she thumbed through her class notes, making him all too aware of her constant and very near presence. It made it hard for him to concentrate on such immaterial things as the long list of dates corresponding to the Hundred Years’ War that he was supposed to be memorizing for his history exam. At the same time, however, he didn’t begrudge her presence. He remembered how tough it had been the first time he’d taken finals in high school, and he did his best to bolster her confidence in her academic abilities.

When she wasn’t studying her class notes (as freshman exams were spaced out further than those for upperclassmen), she was studying him, and he could never quite feel comfortable being the object of such close scrutiny. Any time he looked at her, he noted a dreamy, faraway cast to her expression, and wondered what, exactly, was so fascinating about himself that it would elicit such a reaction. Watching someone else study was about as thrilling as watching paint dry, in his opinion. When, at the last, his curiosity got the best of him, he was surprised to suddenly be inundated with questions about his plans for their big date in a week’s time. He’d steadfastly refused to give her details, not wanting to ruin the surprise he’d been working on for her over the last few weeks; only when she reminded him of the fact that her parents didn’t know about or approve of their relationship did he concede a bit of ground. They were going back into the city, he informed her, for – if she could manage it – the entire day.

He couldn’t wait. And, by the look of her expression when he told her that, neither could she.

Their relationship might have been holding steady, but the end-of-the-year crunch wasn’t as kind to everyone else. There was such a hue and cry raised about not having enough study time during one afternoon rehearsal that Ryan suggested the band not perform during the final two weeks of school. The others looked at him with collective horror, as if he’d just suggested burning down the P*lace or something equally unthinkable.

It had only been a joke, brought on by his annoyance at their complaining, but it led to a pretty serious discussion of the band, their performance schedule, and the time commitment it demanded of them. Kenny and Connie wanted to seriously consider a hiatus during finals week, but they were outvoted by the others. Secretly, Ryan was glad of it – performing was something of a stress relief for him (and, he suspected, the others). It allowed him to put the craziness of the week into perspective and blow off a little steam at the same time – and, judging by the others’ reactions, it served some sort of useful purpose for them as well.

The group did make a few temporary changes, though. Taking a page out of Richie’s book, the others dragged a couple of the stools from Riley’s counter on stage, and began playing truly stripped down sets, picking simple songs with strong harmonies or instrumentation that allowed the others to show off their newly acquired skills. Ryan rocked the house with his take on George Michael’s “Faith,” Devyn led a beautiful rendition of the Beatles’ “Help!,” and even Richie got into the spirit of things, leading a lovely cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.”

By the time Friday rolled around, Ryan had forgotten about how anxious he’d felt about retaking his place in the band. The group’s popularity hadn’t waned in the least with him on stage, though he wasn’t sure he’d ever get over the disconcerting feeling of having a gaggle of lovestruck girls watching his every move. It was a bit amusing – he’d never really noticed fangirls before – and more than a bit unnerving, because he could practically feel the collective swell of jealousy whenever he paid a modicum of attention to Stacy on stage. It was an ugly reminder of Brian’s master plan of audience manipulation, and yet another seed of doubt planted in Ryan’s mind about this so-called bargain. Their afternoon audiences were mostly populated by kids from the middle school; playing on their loyalties could very well prove disastrous.

The band’s trepidation over Brian’s cunning plan was soothed somewhat by the time that first Saturday concert rolled around. As it turned out, he wasn’t asking for much – and he’d done his homework, attending each and every one of the afternoon sets to observe the audience. That, together with his notes from previous performances (which, if Ryan was totally honest with himself, he found it a little creepy than he’d actually taken notes), had culminated in a fairly simple set piece of production, mercifully devoid of any choreography. Ryan wasn’t too happy about the fact that he didn’t have a say in picking the song, but had ultimately agreed to Brian’s choice – he’d been dying to bring in some music with a bit more edge to it than their usual fare of happy pop covers.

With a bit of work, discussion, and compromise, the band had mastered it rather quickly. The performance itself was flawless, much to everyone’s satisfaction. Near the end of their Saturday night show, Stacy and Devyn positioned themselves at opposite corners of their middle riser, swaying along to the beat of the mid-tempo ballad. The song was Foreigner’s “Say You Will,” and they were singing an improvised harmony of the chorus. The audience – and mixture of ages, some familiar faces as well as new, curious ones – seemed primed for whatever was to come, easily enraptured by the girls’ perfected sound – as well as Ryan’s sudden appearance on stage, emerging from the depths of the dance corps sans guitar.

He descended into the audience under the glare of the spotlight as the first verse began, climbing the stairs of the riser behind the girls, who turned back to look at him on cue. Though he’d been instructed to look straight ahead, his eyes instead drifted down to his right, where Stacy sat, gazing up at him adoringly. He just couldn’t help it – whenever they were together on stage, he was drawn to her, as if they were the only two people in the room, and the rest of the world just seemed to melt away…

When he did rouse himself from his reverie, turning his attention to his other “admirer,” Devyn, his expression shifted from dreamy to amused – the younger girl was staring at him with a big dumb grin on her face, totally enjoying the moment. He finished his verse and turned around, descending the steps as the girls launched into the chorus. He circled around the riser on Stacy’s side, settling himself in the middle between the girls. This time, according to Brian, he was supposed to his attention to each girl for exactly half of the second verse, but again he found himself lingering on his girlfriend, unable – or, maybe unwilling – to fight the natural chemistry that blossomed between them.

A slow smile curved over his mouth as Stacy rested her hand on his shoulder, the song building to its highest point in the final chorus, and he could plainly see that she was just as affected by their strong attraction as he was, her eyes glittering in the golden glow of the spotlight. He was nearly jolted out of his skin when Devyn grabbed his other shoulder and pulled him towards her, and he couldn’t help but crack a smile. She was having serious fun with it, really playing it up to an obvious degree, so he did the same, gazing back at her plaintively. Kenny and Connie joined them on the riser as the song swelled into a close, and when the final note was struck, the audience very nearly erupted out of their seats with applause.

Obviously, song number one had gone perfectly to plan.

Well, almost.

Beyond the starstruck expressions of Devyn’s friends down front (and the cat-calling, whistle-blowing noises coming from the displeased contingent of Stacy’s admirers further back), Ryan had noticed the one group he’d hoped he wouldn’t see once this plan was set into motion. They hadn’t shown up during the afternoon sets at all that week, and, perhaps foolishly, he’d let down his guard, thinking that maybe they’d found some other way to occupy their time on Saturday nights as well.

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Stubbs McKinsey and his band of bone-headed baseball players were staring straight at him, their expressions an odd mixture of total disbelief and amusement, hiding behind Cheshire-cat-like smirks.

~*~

“Well, well, well.”

Ryan paused momentarily, his eyes falling shut as the snarl of a voice washed over him. He’d been dreading this moment for the last two days, and had spent most of that morning attempting to avoid it.

“All hail the king of the feebs!” crowed Steiger, still from behind him.

“Cradle robber,” Bobby put in gleefully.

“I never took you for the type to chase a piece of junior high tail,” Stubbs drawled.

Ryan kept walking, not wanting to give them the satisfaction of acknowledging them. Of all the possible scenarios to arise from playing along with Brian’s oh-so-cunning publicity plan for the band, this was what’d made him vacillate the most about the whole endeavor. He didn’t play along with the rigid high school social strata, but he was acutely aware of how it would judge him, and Stacy, now that news of their involvement had spread. He didn’t care that she was three years younger than he was, but to everyone else, their age difference was the first – and most glaring – thing they saw.

He would have been content to just ignore them and their juvenile teasing, but found himself stopped short when Michael, the quiet one, suddenly stepped in his path. “How could you?” he hissed, a hurtful glare etched into his features.

Before Ryan could answer, Stubbs chimed in once again. “Yes, how could you?” he chided, throwing his arm around Ryan’s shoulders and giving him a playful squeeze. “Seriously, Ryan – slumming for freshmen? Look at yourself! You could have any chick at this school!” The big, blocky boy topped off this remark with a ‘you’re one of us!’ smile, waving his free hand at the other members of the senior baseball squad, as if to indicate that they were responsible for his supposedly-envied social status by virtue of their association alone.

Ryan worked hard to control the rush of anger that burned through him as he looked from one teammate to the next, each wearing that same, stupid, twisted smirk – save Michael, who looked seriously angry and hurt. The one I want is her, he thought, and I shouldn’t have to explain that to you guys – nor take heat for dating a freshman, or being friends with middle-schoolers. His friends were more than just their age to him. They worked hard on Kids Incorporated, and the fact that they were so different and yet still such good friends is what made the band so special.

He turned his attention to Stubbs, who was still laughing and joking with his friends, his arm a heavy weight on Ryan’s shoulders. He considered the bulky team captain for a moment, his memory fading back to the previous year. It seemed a lot of the locker room chatter after practice and between games had focused on finding/dating/leering at girls. No girl at the high school was exempt, or so it seemed to Ryan, who, admittedly, had only half-listened to the conversations. At one point, Stubbs and his pals had even put together a ratings list of the girls from that year’s graduating class, an exercise Ryan thought pointless and cruel – so he didn’t participate in the antics.

It’d be useless trying to reason with him, Ryan decided. He thinks of girls as objects to be conquered, instead of human beings in their own right.

As Ryan was studying Stubbs, he became aware that Stubbs was staring just as intently at him, and he felt his stomach weaken a little bit. It was obvious that Stubbs and crew weren’t done with him yet – and wouldn’t be, until he’d given them the reaction they were fishing for.

“For her, though, I’d consider it,” Stubbs announced, tightening his grip on Ryan’s shoulders. “Slumming, I mean – I don’t usually go for fresh meat, but she looks like a tasty little morsel. So tell me – what’s she like between the sheets? And how willing are you to share? Maybe the rest of us would like a turn under that skirt!”

Ryan felt nothing but heat and rage at that moment, but before he could act on it – and potentially embarrass himself, right there in the hallway – Michael shoved Stubbs roughly, breaking the captain’s hold on Ryan’s shoulders. He looked as angry as Ryan felt, though on the surface of it, he had no reason to be.

Stubbs found the maneuver funny. “Geez, Mike, be cool!” he admonished with a thin smile. “You can have her next if you’re so hot to trot!” He glanced back at Bobby and Steiger, who were now flanking him. “The rest of us are having our needs taken care of.”

Steiger’s eyes lit up as they fell upon Ryan, who was still working to keep his temper in check. “Are you kidding?” he drawled. “Ryan here is practically a saint! I’ve never heard a word spoken against him, have you? In fact,” he continued, taking a step closer and grabbing Ryan’s chin, his thumb and index finger pressing into the corners of his jaw, “I’ll bet he hasn’t even made it to second base with this chick yet!”

Ryan narrowed his eyes, doing his best to look unimpressed as he wrenched out of Steiger’s hold. The rest of them were laughing uproariously, as if Steiger was incredibly clever to use the old, crude baseball metaphor.

“I don’t know,” Bobby mused. “The way she was looking at him on Saturday night? I certainly hope he’s getting some from her!”

“Adoration like that only comes once in a little girl’s life,” Stubbs observed knowingly.

Ryan’s hands fisted at his sides, the desire to punch one – if not all – of their sneering faces becoming more overwhelming with each passing second. He wasn’t a violent person, prone to lashing out with his fists rather than his words, but it was very definitely one thing to insult him, and quite another to insult her. Stacy had done nothing to warrant their cruel remarks, and using her to get to him? That was weak. It was obvious that they were pushing him, testing him, trying to make him admit that he was ashamed of this relationship. He thought back to what he’d told Stacy last week: I don’t want to hide in dark closets with you forever.

It was true. He didn’t. And he felt no shame in admitting that.

Maybe, Ryan considered as he stared long and hard at his teammates, they were the ones who felt shamed. It had been scarcely a month since they had all been openly drooling over her, proclaiming her hot and worthy of their attention, and wheedling him into setting up an introduction. Maybe – now that it had somehow been made real to them, that she really was just a freshman, and yet still worthy of a senior’s attention – it was them who felt uncomfortable, unable to reconcile the fact that they found her attractive with the fact that they thought her – quite literally – beneath them.

“Look,” he said shortly, swallowing his anger as best he could, “it’s really none of your business what we have or haven’t done. Some guys don’t kiss and tell.” He shrugged, relaxing his hands flat against his sides, but kept a sharp eye on those he was addressing. “I’m sorry she blew you guys off from the start, but the fact of the matter is, we’ve been together for a couple of months now. She was never free, and never interested.”

Stubbs narrowed a challenging glare at Ryan. “Oh yeah? We’ll just see about that,” he retorted in a low voice. “Good luck trying to keep a good-looking girl like that to yourself. Who knows? Maybe once she gets a taste of the world beyond what you’re able to offer her, she’ll find out what satisfaction really means.” He shrugged, elbowing Bobby and Steiger in the ribs and signaling that he was ready to go. “All I’m saying is – watch yourself. You’re not nearly as badass as you think you are.”

And you’re not as clever as you think you are, Ryan thought darkly, watching the trio walk away, Michael trailing a few steps behind them. If you think you can steal her away, you’ve got another thought coming.

~*~

The final week of the semester was a long, tough slog. For the members of Kids Incorporated, it felt like they were doing little more than studying feverishly, freaking out while taking their tests, rehearsing like fiends, performing briefly, and somehow falling asleep at the end of every day, only to get up and repeat the cycle come morning.

Finally, however, Friday rolled around – sweet, merciful, no-performance Friday.

That afternoon, the group drifted in the store room backstage at the P*lace, and proceeded to drape themselves across the various pieces of furniture in somewhat dramatic fashion.

“Sleep,” Richie murmured from his spot at one of the vanities, his head tucked into his folded arms. “Precious sleep!”

Connie was sprawled out on the floor. “I thought finals would never be over,” she moaned with a low sigh.

“But I’m glad they finally are,” Devyn replied agreeably from her perch in the ratty old armchair across the room. She slung her legs over one of the arms and settled in place. “I think to celebrate, we should do ‘School’s Out’ tomorrow night!”

The younger kids giggled at the thought, just as Kenny came trudging through the garish pink door.

“Hi, guys,” he greeted them glumly.

Devyn immediately sat up in her seat. “Kenny!” she said, her face etched with concern. “What’s wrong?”

“I have bad news,” he replied, slinging his backpack to the ground and sinking into a seat at a nearby table.

Ryan wasn’t paying attention to the conversation around him. He was sitting across from Stacy at the long table in the middle of the room. A book was open in front of him, but he wasn’t looking at it, either. Instead, his eyes lingered on his girlfriend, who was sitting as silently as he was and paging through a magazine. In contrast to him, she was completely engrossed in her reading material, her lips quirking into a smile each time she ran across something amusing. She seemed relaxed and radiant, no trace of the anxiety or fear that had claimed her during her first, rough run through high school final exams.

He might not understand why she found him fascinating, but he could look at her forever and never get enough – he loved to let his eyes linger, tracing every delicate feature. She was wearing her hair long that day, shiny and full and falling over her shoulders in waves of soft curls. She had yet to unpin the flower he’d given her that morning, an unusually dark colored winter rose, one that was striking in its contrast to her honey-blonde locks. At some point – he wasn’t sure when, but he’d only just noticed it – she’d taken to matching her lipstick to the flower as well…and, well, that made it hard not to stare at her mouth, especially when she was smiling, a hint of white beyond ruby red lips.

It still struck him as slightly amazing to know that he could kiss those lips whenever he wanted, and it was probably during downtime at rehearsals when it was hardest to resist the urge. Just as he was trying to think up some excuse to get her alone and away from the others for a minute – they had arrived separately to rehearsal, straggling in with the younger kids as their finals ended at school – she glanced up, meeting his gaze, those lips curving into a knowing smile.

He smiled back. They kept their distance at rehearsal, living up to their promise to keep their relationship on its own time and not the band’s, and it really was for the best. Any time he was alone with her, aside from the good feelings that bubbled up inside him, there was also the memory of Stubbs’s threat. He hadn’t seen any of the other baseball players since the ugly confrontation in the hallway on Monday, but the atmosphere between teammates had definitely lost its playful camaraderie. Nevertheless, he’d decided to keep the guys’ crude teasing to himself; he knew if he told Stacy about it, it’d only upset her, and that was the last thing he wanted. Between the scrutiny of their classmates and the band’s loyal fans, it had already been a rocky coming-out party for their relationship.

What she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.

“Earth to Ryan,” she teased.

He blinked, breaking himself from his thoughts. “What?” He glanced up, noticing the long faces surrounding him. Devyn and Kenny were sitting together on the armchair, while Richie had propped himself up at the vanity and Connie was standing beside him, no longer sprawled on the floor. “What’s going on?”

“I have bad news,” Kenny repeated with a sigh. “My family’s going on vacation next week. Well, my mom and my brothers and my sister and I are.” He shrugged, averting his eyes to the floor. “She wants to take us to Charleston to visit her family before Christmas.”

Ryan felt his stomach twist. It was obvious Kenny wasn’t looking forward to a family vacation without his father, and what that meant for the future of his parents’ marriage.

“I’m really sorry,” Kenny murmured. “I’m going to miss rehearsal all next week for the New Year’s Eve party. I hope that doesn’t mess up the plans too much…or else I guess I could always just not perform…”

“Not perform?” Ryan repeated incredulously. He shook his head. “That’s not going to happen. All this means is that we need to start working on it before you go. We’ll still have a week to pull things together when you get back – that’s usually when we start working with the dancers anyway.”

“And speaking of dancers,” Stacy sighed. “What are we going to do about Brian and the final number? We’re supposed to choose, after all – to finally ‘reveal our relationship’ to one and all, as if it wasn’t already obvious.”

“I don’t know,” Devyn contended. “You guys are definitely the talk of my class at school. Everyone loves the flirting, but they’re about evenly split on whether it’s more than that.”

I wish my classmates were still in the dark, Ryan thought wryly. “Well, I’m not too concerned about that just yet,” he said instead. “It’s just one number of about twenty, after all. We should start trying to pull together a list of songs we want to perform. There are a couple that we do every year, because its tradition, but the rest? It’s totally up to us to choose.”

Kenny shook his head, his eyes wide. “Where do you even begin?” he asked.

Connie nodded. “The possibilities are endless!”

Ryan smiled. “Well, we usually start by going through the entire year of Billboard,” he replied, pointing to the Kids’ collection of magazines piled in the corner. “It’s hard to remember what all the biggest songs were by the end of the year, especially after finals have fried our brains.”

“Oooh, good idea,” Devyn agreed, pouncing on the stack. “Come on, you guys, let’s start going through these!” She, Kenny, Connie, and Richie dived for the magazines.

Ryan retrieved a fresh piece of composition paper. “I’ll start making the list,” he announced, writing down the traditional lineup of songs near the top. “Just call out the possibilities, okay? Then we’ll narrow it down from there.”

Stacy went up front to see if the year-end issue had arrived yet – it had gigantic, fold-out charts of the year-ending Billboard Hot 100 singles and Top 200 albums in the back – while the others settled in with stacks of back issues. Every once in a while one of them would call out the title of a song, and Ryan would dutifully write it down, along with other notes to keep in mind: how many numbers the dancers would need to work up, which songs would work best for which singer, and a reminder to call Tommy Morgan and bring him back on board for rehearsals, starting next week.

He was beginning to feel excited, the fatigue of the semester’s end quickly melting away with the anticipation of planning this big project. There was only one more Saturday night concert to get through before they could throw all of their energy into planning this, their biggest performance of the year. They were already hanging signs around the neighborhood to advertise, but somehow, it hadn’t felt real until now.

Stacy returned, empty-handed. “Nothing yet,” she sighed. “Riley said it probably wouldn’t be here until next week.” She sat down beside Ryan to look at his notes.

“Wow, I had no idea the Dirty Dancing soundtrack charted for so many weeks,” Devyn noted. “Months, even.”

Kenny looked up. “It’s on your charts, too?” he asked. “Because I’m looking at May and it’s the #1 album. How’s that for crazy?”

“I just love the final number from that movie,” Connie sighed with a reminiscent smile. “I could re-watch that dance over and over again and never get enough.”

Richie looked up suddenly, a huge grin cracking the corners of his face. He began to wriggle like an excited puppy, much to the bemusement of his bandmates.

“Are you okay?” Stacy asked, lifting a concerned brow.

“That’s it!” he cried, not even acknowledging her words. “That’s it, that’s it, that’s it!!!!”

What’s it?” Kenny asked.

“That’s our final number!” Richie said triumphantly, standing up and throwing his arms out wide.

The others simply stared at him, a mixture of concern and skepticism clouding their expressions. Richie was well known for his wild and crazy ideas, and by now, his bandmates knew that it was usually best to just ride them out. His schemes rarely harmed anyone…well, anymore.

“Don’t you get it?” Richie continued. “It fulfills all of the requirements!” He glanced from Kenny to Devyn to Connie to Ryan and Stacy as he spoke. “Number one, it’s a show-stopper. Number two, it’s memorable. Can you imagine how many people would pay to see us recreate that performance? Number three, it’s a love song – so it’s the perfect piece for Brian’s deal that you guys choose something about your relationship! And number four – best of all – it’s a dance number.”

Stacy nodded, understanding dawning across her features. “Richie, you’re a genius!” she declared.

“Now there’s a sentence you don’t hear every day,” Ryan drawled.

Stacy dismissed his comment with the wave of her hand. “No, it’s really perfect if you think about it. If we can get the dancers to agree to do that infamous final dance – ”

“ – it’ll put Brian out front,” Ryan concluded, warming to the idea with an approving nod. “Which is what I suspect he’s wanted all along.”

“You don’t think he’d let Dee do it?” Connie asked.

Ryan shook his head. “No way. A chance to recreate the most famous dance of the last decade? He’s going to want it for himself.”

Kenny looked at the others thoughtfully, taking in their growing excitement. “So let me get this straight,” he mused. “You guys will still be singing a schmoopy love song, but because it’s this schmoopy love song, all the attention will be on him instead?”

Devyn nodded. “It’s like beating him at his own game,” she put in. “But he won’t even realize it, because he’s going to be getting the attention he wanted all along – and he won’t be able to humiliate Ryan or Stacy or the rest of us to earn it.”

“Then we’re all in agreement about this?” Ryan asked, only to be met with a chorus of nodding heads. He grinned. “Awesome. I haveta say, I’m impressed! I like the way you guys think.”

Devyn smiled. “We have to stick up for each other, you know,” she reminded him enthusiastically.

“And it’s such a memorable number that if we advertise that we’re going to perform it, we’ll have a gigantic crowd,” Connie added.

“Think of all that money!” Richie breathed, his eyes growing wide.

“Yes, think of all that money going to repay Riley,” Ryan corrected him wryly. “First, though, we have to make sure this happens. Here’s hoping Brian thinks it’s just as good a plan as we do – though obviously for different reasons!”

~*~

Much to the band’s surprise and delight, Brian was completely agreeable to the idea of concluding the New Year’s Eve concert with a full-scale, true-to-life recreation of the famous final dance from Dirty Dancing. He didn’t offer the slightest hint of skepticism or curiosity as to why the others were so insistent on the song, and it quickly became clear why when he laid out his plans for the final, flirty Saturday night number.

Ryan pursed his lips as he stood in the wings of the stage that Saturday night, watching as the others set up for their final number. His grip on the microphone was hot and clammy. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d performed in the last four years without his guitar, but, unlike tonight, those had all been by choice.

From the moment Brian mentioned the name of the song he wanted them to perform, Ryan had been against the idea. Rick Astley had one-hit wonder written all over him and his cheesy pop sensibilities, but it seemed Ryan was alone amongst his friends in harboring that opinion. When Brian outlined the performance notes that went along with the song, he’d flat out refused to do it. It had taken the entire band begging him to play along – and Stacy promising to make it worth his while – for him to concede his position.

He could only hope Stubbs and his cronies weren’t in the audience tonight, because they’d never let him live this one down.

It was a shame, too, because the concert had been a total success to that point. The girls had led a sassy rendition of Dolly Parton’s early ’80s crossover hit “9 to 5” to kick things off, a performance which had only been topped by a rousing cover of Alice Cooper’s classic “School’s Out” which had every kid in the P*lace singing, stomping, and dancing along. There was obviously a lot of excess energy to blow off now that winter vacation had officially begun.

And, now, it had come down to this – Ryan sacrificing himself on the altar of dignity in order to insure a large crowd at the New Year’s Eve party. He tried to tell himself it was worth it, but the only measure of consolation he took was in the fact that none of his bandmates looked too jazzed about the idea, either. Brian had obviously chosen well, however; when the music began, the already wound-up audience let loose a great cheer, which sounded suspiciously like the swoon of preteen fangirls.

Ryan made sure to shoot Brian a dirty look as he ambled on stage, in order to make his disappointment crystal clear. Brian merely smirked in response, twirling out of the spotlight as the first verse of the song began.

“We’re no strangers to love,” Ryan began, walking across the stage to where his girlfriend stood, her cheeks stained red and her eyes downcast. “You know the rules and so do I / a full commitment’s what I’m thinking of / but you wouldn’t get this from any other guy...”

Another rush of cheers sounded as Kenny, Connie, and Devyn bounced onstage behind Stacy, half-leading, half-dragging Ryan back to the opposite corner as he continued to sing out to his beloved. “I just want to tell you how I’m feeling,” he sang plaintively, “Gotta make you understand…”

He tried hard to concentrate on Stacy as the others launched into the chorus behind him, but now, he was all too aware of the audience around them – he couldn’t just melt into their own, private little world. It didn’t help that she was looking anywhere but at him, like she was embarrassed to be serenaded – almost as embarrassed as he was to be doing it.

Undeterred, he soldiered on through the song, taking the second verse into the crowd – and onto the riser standing in the middle of the stage. He smiled flirtatiously at the dancers who flanked him, all the while sneaking glances out into the audience. When he was satisfied that his baseball “buddies” weren’t darkening the corners of the room, he relaxed a bit – until he turned to Kimberly and winced at the way she was beating up his precious guitar. It had been Brian’s brilliant idea to let the girls mock-play guitars for the number, but Ryan had been hard-pressed to part with his vintage Fender Strat. He didn’t let just anybody touch it, especially someone who obviously had no idea how to play it.

He was relieved to turn and make his way back to the stage for the reprise of the second verse, and he headed straight for Stacy. “We’ve known each other for so long,” he sang, “your heart’s been aching but / you’re too shy to see…” He was pleased to see that she’d gotten over whatever had been occupying her mind before. She smiled at him now, more than receptive to his flirtatious advances.

“Inside we both know what’s been going on,” he continued, amused himself when she nodded sagely, “we know the game and we’re gonna play it…”

He took her hand and brought her to the middle of the stage as the band launched into the chorus, and together, they walked up to the middle riser. Her grip on his hand was surprisingly strong, and when he glanced over, he recognized that adoring look on her face. As the song drew to a close, he ad-libbed from Brian’s script, turning to face her and taking both of her hands in his. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, but the look in his eyes as he gazed at her was one that told her he was going to hold her to her promise to make this embarrassment worth his while.

The audience erupted with manic cheers, with Devyn’s friends Emily and Rosie leading the pack right down front. Brian recognized his opportunity and took that exact moment to push between the happy couple, grabbing Ryan’s microphone and announcing a reminder to the crowd about the New Year’s Eve concert. “You won’t want to miss it!” he crowed happily. “It’ll be a night to remember!”

Ryan and Stacy exchanged a glance behind his back. He doesn’t know the half of it, Ryan mused, reaching for her hand once again.

Stacy pulled him close the moment the show ended, before they went back to join the rest of the band on stage. “There’s a day I’m looking forward to more than that one,” she admitted in a low tone, as the audience slowly broke up all around them.

“You and me both,” he murmured, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. December seventeenth can’t come fast enough.

Chapter Text


.22.
“Heaven is a Place on Earth”

When you walk into the room
You pull me close and we start to move
And we’re spinning with the stars above
And you lift me up in a wave of love
Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?

© 1987 Rick Nowels, Ellen Shipley, & Belinda Carlisle

~*~

In the hazy dawn of December seventeenth, Stacy awoke before her alarm, her lips already curving into a smile even before she rose to full consciousness. She burrowed further into her mattress, drawing the covers around herself as she glanced over to her bedside table. She narrowed her eyes to see the glowing display of her alarm clock: 5:45 am. She still had fifteen minutes of blissful slumber, if she wanted it – but, considering how much she’d tossed and turned during the night, it wasn’t worth the trouble of trying to force herself back to sleep.

She unfurled her arms into a long, lazy stretch before settling back against her pillows, relishing the anticipatory tingle that shimmered down her spine. She could hardly believe that it was finally here – a day she had been looking forward to for more than two months. Finally, finally, she would have her boyfriend all to herself, for an entire day, for the first time since he’d kissed her in the park back in the autumn. It was nearly impossible to quell the tide of excitement that rushed to the fore as she stared up at her ceiling, so she didn’t even try.

The last week had simultaneously felt like it was never going to end, and as if it had flown by at the speed of light. School was out of session for winter break, and all that lay ahead were the best holidays of the year (including her all-time favorite, Christmas) and the New Year’s Eve concert. On Monday, the band had dutifully gathered together at the P*lace to begin preparations in earnest for the biggest concert of the year. Usually, the first day of such grueling rehearsals was pretty laid back, allowing the Kids to ease into the strict routine, but not this time. When they all learned that each of their families had plans for the week leading up to Christmas, they’d immediately shifted into high gear – and Kenny didn’t feel nearly as guilty as he had three days prior.

Their first order of business was to put in a call to Tommy Morgan, inviting him to play a few featured numbers with them during the big concert – an arrangement to which he happily agreed. The Kids then turned their attention to the song list they’d compiled on the previous Friday, arguing amongst themselves – good-naturedly at first, then a little more fiercely – as they pared the list down to a manageable twenty. Two days and a shaky truce later, they began learning their chosen songs, working out who would play what and who would sing when. By Friday, Ryan and Riley had also begun discussing the modifications that would have to be made to the stage in order to accommodate their big reproduction of the final number from Dirty Dancing.

It had truly been an exhausting week for all of them, but doubly so for Stacy. Band business wasn’t the only thing on her mind during their rehearsals – she was also mentally cataloging the entirety of her winter wardrobe, trying to decide what she was going to wear for her big Saturday date. It was surprisingly tough to make up her mind; with no idea of what they’d be doing, she was at a loss to choose the perfect ensemble. This was made all the more difficult when she was unable to wheedle even the smallest detail out of Ryan, who stood resolute in his determination to keep his plans for them under wraps. By Wednesday, she’d considered breaking down and telling him about her dilemma, but ultimately, she’d decided to keep it to herself – after all, he wasn’t the only one who could plan a surprise!

She reached over and quietly turned off her alarm before it could ring and wake up the entire apartment. She shivered as her bare feet met the cool carpet, quickly slipping into her bathrobe and padding down the hall towards the bathroom. As she brushed her teeth and stepped into the shower, she once again thought about her wardrobe decisions, beginning to wonder if she’d truly made the right choice.

Her first idea was to pair her favorite cream-colored cashmere sweater with a similarly colored skirt and tights; she’d rejected this choice on Monday after witnessing Connie accidently spill hot chocolate all over herself during one of their rehearsal breaks. Next she considered the dresses in her closet, including a gorgeous lace-trimmed crimson-colored velvet one, her favorite to wear around the Christmas holidays. This choice was discarded on Tuesday – it was a dress to wear to a fancy dinner, or to midnight mass, not out in the daytime. On Wednesday, she managed to get the only bit of information regarding their date out of her boyfriend that he was willing to share – he wanted to meet at seven o’clock in the morning, so they could have as much of the day as possible together. That pretty much cut out all of her other dresses and skirts, as seven o’clock on a December morning spelled sub-freezing temperatures. The cashmere sweater came back into play on Thursday as she considered pairing it with a sleek black jumpsuit – only to have it fall right back out of contention that evening, when she discovered the sweater missing from her closet…and belatedly remembered that she’d lent it to Renee after listening to her sister complain about the damp, chilly weather that epitomized the English winter. On Friday – quickly running out of options, and desperate to find something versatile that could hold up to every scenario she could possibly think of – she finally settled on her new pastel pink pantsuit, which she hadn’t yet worn.

Stacy stepped out of the steamy shower and wrapped herself in a towel, using another to thoroughly dry her hair. It was going to be tricky to run the blow dryer without alerting the rest of her family, so she took both towels back to her room and used them to muffle the sound as she worked on her hair. She’d decided to wear it loose, pinned back on the sides with simple silver barrettes. Satisfied with her hair, she next set to work on her makeup, keeping it simple and classic – eyeliner, a hint of rouge, and a pretty pink lip gloss, a perfect shade match to her chosen outfit.

She’d pulled together the pieces of her ensemble the night before, hanging it on one of the doors of her closet, hoping to save herself the trouble of rifling through her massive collection of clothes with little more than sunlight as a guide. She was glad of that foresight now, as she reached for the pieces with shaking hands. Adrenaline coursed over her nerves as she slipped into a sleeveless white bodysuit, layering the tapered pants and cropped, long-sleeved top of the pantsuit over it; her white button belt and cream-colored boots completed the look. She smiled happily as she gazed at herself in the mirror – she felt chic, sophisticated, and ready for whatever Ryan had it store for her. Large silver hoop earrings and a star-shaped silver ring were her only accessories; the pièce de résistance was a new, white, three-quarter length down coat.

Her excitement quelled as she stepped into the hallway once more; her stomach flipped as she strained her ears, listening for any sign that another family member might have stirred. She’d been so completely wrapped up in the band’s grueling rehearsals and daydreams about her date that she’d totally forgotten about Renee’s flight home for the holidays. Her plane had touched down the evening of the fifteenth, and though Stacy was happy to see her, and eager to spend some quality time with her sister, her arrival had put a serious damper on her long-anticipated Saturday plans. Somehow, Stacy just knew that her parents would never let her go on a day-long trip into the city a mere day after Renee’s return, especially not on a date – so she’d hastily told her family that the plans she just couldn’t break involved the entire band. She didn’t like lying to her parents, but she didn’t see how she had any choice – there was no way she was going to break this date with Ryan.

Stacy breathed a sigh of relief as she walked down the stone-silent hall. She was up far earlier than anyone expected, and was hoping to make a clean escape – and that her parents would sleep a couple of hours longer than usual. If they woke up around, say, nine, and saw that she was already gone, they would safely assume she’d only left minutes before, instead of hours.

A small, excited smile played on the corners of Stacy’s lips as she turned into the kitchen, where she planned to watch for Ryan’s arrival from the window. She was brought up short, however, when she noticed she was not the only person awake in the household.

“Renee,” she hissed, making a beeline for her sister and trying to tamp down on the surprised horror that rushed through her all the same, “what are you doing up?”

Renee glanced at her from her spot by the counter, where she was miserably nursing a cup of hot tea. “Jet lag,” she replied crabbily, grimacing as she rubbed one hand across her temple. She eyed Stacy for a long moment. “What are you doing up? And why do you look like a cotton candy cloud?” She snorted disbelievingly. “Aren’t you a little overdressed for a shopping trip with the band?”

Stacy swallowed hard, clasping her hands together and averting her eyes as a hot flush stained her already rosy cheeks. Renee lifted a brow as she studied her sister, a wave of dread suddenly washing though her.

“Well…” Stacy began reluctantly, “I’m not exactly – doing that.”

“Doing what?” Renee asked suspiciously, lowering her cup to the counter.

“Going shopping with the band,” Stacy confessed in a quiet rush. She suppressed the smile that rose to her lips, but couldn’t hide the dreamy cast that lit up her eyes. “I have a date.”

“At seven o’clock in the morning?!” Renee’s expression turned dubious as she stared at her sister. “Wait a minute – do Mom and Dad know about this?”

Stacy hesitated, wringing her hands together. “Not exactly,” she replied.

Renee swallowed hard, the dread she felt twisting her stomach into a knot. “Do they know about you two at all?” she pressed.

Stacy’s eyes fell away. “…not exactly,” she murmured.

“Stacy! You have to tell them!” Renee hissed, grabbing her sister’s arm and giving it a shake.

Stacy pulled away from Renee’s firm hold. “Why?” she questioned stubbornly. “They know him. They like him.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Besides, isn’t who I date my business?”

Renee’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head and her jaw fell slack as she stared at her sister in utter disbelief. She couldn’t believe Stacy was still keeping her relationship under wraps, or that she would go to such lengths – as lying – to keep said relationship concealed from their parents. What is she thinking?! she wondered to herself. There’s no way this will end well.

Renee pursed her lips as she considered her words. “They have a right to know that you’re off traipsing around the city with only one other person, instead of five,” she declared in a low tone. It was impossible to keep the note of warning tone out of her voice; she could only hope her sister heeded it. “Safety in numbers and all that, Stace,” she added after a moment.

“I’m not a child,” Stacy shot back, tightening the brace of her arms as she swiftly looked away.

Renee sighed – whenever her sister turned stubborn like this, it was impossible to change her mind. “I know,” she replied, leveling her voice with empathy. “I just – I think you need to be honest. With yourself, and with Mom and Dad.”

Stacy’s mouth quivered as she clasped her hands around her elbows. “You know they wouldn’t let me go,” she finally said, her voice barely more than a whisper, her eyes still averted to the picture window above the sink. “Not into Manhattan.”

Manhattan?! Renee thought wildly. Her heart was in her throat by now, nausea roiling in her stomach. Their parents would be livid if they knew! Please don’t do this, please don’t do this, she silently pleaded.

Renee blinked rapidly when she felt the full bore of Stacy’s attention once more. “Look, Renee,” her sister continued softly, “I’ll tell them, okay? Just – not today. Not now. I need this time with him.” Her arms dropped from their defensive position, and Stacy turned, walking closer to the window, directing her gaze outside.

“This is our first real date,” she said, her tone full of shy determination. “This is the first chance we’ve had since this whole thing started to really be alone together. By ourselves. Out in the open.”

Stacy’s breath hitched in her chest just then, her hands curling around the lip of the counter by the sink. Renee felt prickles of trepidation score her spine when she caught the blissful change to her sister’s heretofore morose expression.

“He’s here,” Stacy informed her, another smile rising to her lips. She raced over to the counter, closing her hands around Renee’s and gripping them tightly. “Please, Renee – please, don’t blow my cover?”

Renee swallowed hard, searching Stacy’s eyes for a long moment. She felt tired and out of sorts as she fought through the haze of jet lag; the last thing she wanted to deal with was her sister’s insistence on keeping her relationship a secret from their parents. Renee saw no other way for this all to end except in tragedy, and the impulse to shield her sister from pain was a very hard one to suppress. Still – she barely had the energy at the moment to hold this conversation, much less do much else.

The buzzer by the front door sounded, causing Stacy to redouble her grip on her sister’s hands, turning on her best pleading, puppy dog expression.

I just know I’m going to regret this, Renee thought, releasing a long, slow breath. “All right, all right,” she conceded, pushing the corners of her mouth up into some semblance of a smile. “Go on, enjoy your boyfriend.” While you still can, she amended silently.

Stacy’s expression dissolved into one of pure bliss. “Thanks, sis,” she breathed, wrapping her arms around Renee in a quick hug. “You’re the best!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Renee mumbled, fighting off a guilty flush. She watched silently as Stacy grabbed the rest of her things, answering the buzzer before quietly slipping out the front door of their apartment. She picked up her cup, her tea now tepid, and took it over to the sink. As she rinsed it out, she glanced down from the window, watching as her sister threw herself into her boyfriend’s arms.

Her heart twisted painfully in her chest. I hope you know what you’re doing, Stacy, she thought, her eyes lingering on the happy couple as they descended the snow-covered steps of the stoop. And I hope Ryan is worth all of the trouble he’s about to put you in.

~*~

Stacy’s stride was as big as her smile as she stepped off the elevator in the lobby of her building, streaming past the front desk and pushing through the heavy outer doors. Ryan turned at that moment, opening his arms as drew nearer, and she pressed herself against him. She sighed happily, winding her arms around his waist, her eyes falling closed as she buried her face in his shoulder. A little thrill of excitement jolted through her stomach as she felt his hold tighten around her, his arms wrapped securely around her middle, one hand rising up to squeeze her shoulder.

For a long moment, they simply stood there, ensconced in their warm, welcoming embrace. The morning was silent, the sun still rising above the nearby buildings, the bite of the December breeze mercifully scarce. Stacy reveled in the intimate moment, breathing deeply of his scent – a heady mixture of rain and soap and the tiniest hint of cologne – and concentrating on the rise and fall of his chest under hers. He lowered his head, his breath tickling the small patch of exposed skin just below her ear before he pressed a soft, fleeting kiss in the same spot. She shuddered, closing her hands around fistfuls of his sweater where she held him, as the hand at her shoulder drifted into a caress at the nape of her neck, his fingers trailing into her hair.

He kissed her again, a little lower this time, sweeping her hair away from her neck as his mouth ghosted over her pulse point. She inhaled sharply in response, her hands climbing up the planes of his back under his leather jacket, still haphazardly clutching at fistfuls of his sweater. She felt her resistance give way as he continued the trail of soft kisses along the line of her jaw, until finally, his mouth met hers, and she was absolutely sure that she’d melt into a boneless puddle of mush if not for his still-strong hold on her.

After a moment, she broke away, cracking her eyes open as crisp, cool air filled her lungs. She smiled, gazing up into his luminous emerald eyes, relishing the reflected anticipation and excitement she found there. He was wearing a hunter-green knit cap, pulled low across his forehead and the tips of his ears, and the color made his eyes a shade darker than usual. She liked it.

Little by little, she released her hold on him, inching away so that she could take in the entirety of his appearance on this fine winter morning. His hat was accompanied by a matching scarf wrapped loosely around his neck; she smiled to herself as her eyes drifted down to his cream-colored cable knit sweater, so close in hue to the one she’d almost chosen to wear (or would have, if it wasn’t halfway around the world in her sister’s English closet). She noticed the hint of a dark gray Henley at his neck, tracing a gloved finger across the patch of ribbed cloth that peeked out from under his sweater. A quick glance down added black pants and battered black Converse to his ensemble, which was finished, of course, with his customary black leather jacket.

She hugged him again, a wave of relief washing through her. He’d dressed up this time, leaving no doubt in her mind that they were on the same page this time, unlike their last trek into the city to drop off his Juilliard application. “You look amazing,” she said, another happy sigh escaping along with the compliment.

“Hmm,” he replied, the sound reverberating through him and pleasantly into her. “Not half as good as you taste.”

She flushed, her entire body flooding with heat as she pulled away from him and glanced up sharply, only to note a thoughtful cast to his upturned eyes as his licked his lips. “New lip gloss?” he guessed, his tone playful as his gaze met hers. “What flavor is it, cherry?”

She smirked. “Strawberry, actually,” she informed him, digging into the pocket of her coat and extracting the tube.

He took it from her, examining it closely. “Hmm,” he murmured again, his eyes roving over the label. “We’ll have to find a way to put this to good use later.”

“Or now,” she teased, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. She curled a hand around his neck, her fingers drifting into his hair as she pulled his head closer to hers. “I could stand here like this with you all day and be blissfully happy,” she confessed, her breath warm against the shell of his ear.

He chuckled, reaching up to touch the hand at the base of his neck, smooth electricity flowing from his fingers into hers. “That’s true,” he considered, “but I like to think my plans will be a little more fun – and private.”

Stacy let him go, lacing her fingers through the hand that still held hers. “Oh?” she asked curiously. “Like what?”

Ryan smiled. “I thought we might start with ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza,” he replied. “At 8 am, we’d practically have the whole rink to ourselves.”

Stacy’s eyes lit up. “Really?” she breathed, feeling absolutely enchanted by the idea. She hadn’t been skating at the Plaza since she was a little girl, but she knew the venue well – it was small and intimate, a perfect way to start their day together.

He nodded, his smile widening into a cheeky grin. “And I have it on good authority that they don’t start with the incessant Christmas music until nine,” he added.

Stacy tilted her head, her expression turning skeptical. “Oh?” she intoned. “Good authority?”

“Okay, so I know the guy with the Saturday morning shift,” he confirmed with a shrug. “His boss doesn’t get there until halfway through the first session, so he plays whatever he wants to until then.” He tightened his grip on her hand. “C’mon – he’s agreed to sneak us in early, if we get there before the first session starts.”

She giggled, drawing close to him as they descended the stairs to the sidewalk. “You’re amazing,” she said playfully. “Just as amazing as you look. I guess appearances don’t lie!”

Her smile faded when he looked at her, his expression equal parts reckless and intense. “Yours never did,” he informed her, giving her hand a warm squeeze. “You’re even more beautiful than you look.”

His words stole the very breath from her lungs, and she stared after him as they started down the sidewalk, wondering how it was possible to fall even more in love with him than she was already.

~*~

The two walked hand-in-hand to the subway station, arriving just in time to catch the early morning D train into the city. Even though their car was mostly empty when they boarded, they elected to stand, huddled close together around one of the poles, Ryan’s arm draped across Stacy’s shoulders. It turned out to be a wise decision; the train stopped several times before reaching their destination, filling quickly with eager Christmas shoppers and early bird tourists. The final leg of their journey found them in tight quarters, caught between obnoxious sightseers and bickering bargain hunters, but Stacy didn’t care. She was unable to suppress her happy smile as she nestled against her boyfriend, one hand wrapped securely around the pole and the other locked around his waist. They hadn’t let go of each other since their morning greeting, and this constant touch felt heart-meltingly gratifying. In some ways, this unbroken physical contact felt as if they were making up for lost time. She felt free and relaxed and exuberant simply to touch and be touched while in public. It was a small gesture, but a triumph all the same – no longer was there a sense of worry or fear or disquiet hanging over their heads, dealing with the everyone else’s silent judgment.

They were strangers to the world outside their neighborhood, and those surrounding them now couldn’t care less how lovey-dovey they acted while in each other’s presence.

They disembarked at Sixth Avenue and West 48th Street, walking the last two blocks until they came upon Rockefeller Center. Hand-in hand, the two slipped down the steps to the sunken Plaza, moving hastily but quietly to the doors of the rink. Ryan’s friend met them there, making a big deal out of looking both ways before unlocking the gate and letting them in. The trio chattered happily as they walked down the long corridor to the skate-rental shop, where Ryan paid the small fee for tickets and skates. The pair then set off on their own towards the communal locker room, just beyond the barriers of the rink, and settled side-by-side on one of the benches to change into their skates.

Stacy took off her long white coat, taking care to make sure all of the zippers that closed the inside pockets were securely fastened. She’d elected to leave her purse behind, unsure of what adventures were in store for her today, so her keys, ID, and wallet were safely stowed away in her coat. When she’d told her parents about the planned “shopping trip with the band,” her mother had insisted Stacy take her credit card, and she definitely didn’t want to lose that. She wasn’t planning to actually use it, either; she’d felt guilty enough when her mother hoisted it into her hands with such trusting good cheer.

She stowed her coat, hat, and boots in a locker before sitting down to lace up her skates. She watched her boyfriend covertly as he took off his jacket and sweater, mildly surprised and intrigued when he only put the latter in the locker, hanging it on the opposite wall from her coat, before tossing his shoes alongside hers. She lifted a brow when he slipped back into the leather jacket, closed the door and twisted the key in the lock, which he stuffed into his coat pocket.

He sat beside her on the bench, picking up a black-booted skate and loosening its laces. She debated whether or not to say something about his unexpected change of clothes – wouldn’t it be warmer to skate with a sweater instead of a jacket? – but dropped her eyes when he glanced in her direction, concentrating instead on making sure her skates were laced properly around her ankles. Snug at the toe, loose around the instep, she reminded herself, looping the laces around the metal hooks at her ankles. The boots were stiff, the leather a pristine white, an indication that these were nearly brand-new. She counted herself lucky, as rental skates were usually grimy and well-worn.

When she finished with her skates, she watched Ryan lace his. He hesitated as the lacing transitioned from the metal eyelets over the front of the foot to the hooks at the ankle, letting out a loose chuckle. Stacy inclined her head, her eyes rising to his face as curiosity claimed her.

“So, I have a confession to make,” Ryan began, still fidgeting with his laces. “I, um…well, I kinda don’t know how to skate.”

Stacy blinked in surprise. “What?” she asked, not completely sure that she’d heard him correctly.

He caught her gaze, his emerald eyes dancing with mirth. “I don’t know how to skate,” he repeated with a smile, absolutely no shame in his tone or written across his features.

She couldn’t help the giggle that escaped, though she shielded her mouth with a glove-covered hand nonetheless. “But, wait,” she contended, “aren’t you from Michigan? Or Minnesota, or one of those other frozen tundra states?”

Ryan chuckled again, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. “I was born in Ohio,” he replied, “but the last place I lived before we moved here was Texas – not exactly the ice skating capital of the world.” He sat up, taking her hand in his. “Besides, even if I had grown up in the Midwest, that doesn’t mean I’d be able to skate.”

She studied him carefully, enjoying the sensation of pleasant warmth snaking up her arm at his touch. “So why did you bring me here?”

He dropped one shoulder in a shrug, all cool confidence as his gaze lingered on hers. “I thought it would be fun,” he replied, a slow smile curving the corners of his mouth.

Stacy’s stomach constricted with a quiver of anticipation as she returned his smile. “Does this mean I need to buy you a lesson?” she teased. “The skating instructor is probably around here somewhere – we might even be able to arrange for something private.”

Ryan shook his head slowly, his eyes warm and intense. “I’m not afraid of falling,” he replied, lifting his free hand and pushing a lock of her hair behind her ear, “as long as you’re there to catch me.”

Stacy flushed, averting her eyes as a wave of flattered pleasure washed over her, only to feel her breath catch in her chest when his thumb brushed across her bottom lip.

“So what do you say?” he queried softly, his words – as well as the gentle caress – igniting curls of heat in her abdomen.

She could think of nothing better than being alone with him, on ice or no. “Let’s get started,” she murmured in reply, sending him a coy look before sliding away from him on the bench. She ignored the surprise that bloomed across his features, instead reaching for one of his skates. “C’mon,” she urged, motioning for him move his feet. “It’s hard to skate unless your boots are laced properly.”

His gaze turned sardonic as he silently complied with her request, swinging his legs up and onto the bench between them. She worked diligently, her hands deft as she tied the laces around his ankles. When she was finished, she stood up, adjusting her scarf around her neck before reaching for his hands. “Let’s go.”

He smiled at her as she pulled him to his feet, and she found herself alternately enjoying the magnetic attraction she felt whenever he looked at her like that, and wishing he wouldn’t, so that she could concentrate on getting them both to the ice without tumbling over herself. Now that he’d admitted his lack of skating skill to her, she had an incredible urge to impress him – and falling over while still in skate guards was decidedly not impressive.

They made it to the ice without incident just as the Zamboni machine finished its morning run. Stacy glanced at Ryan from the corner of her eye. His balance on the thin blades had been perfect as they walked across the carpet from the locker room to the entrance to the rink, without even the slightest wobble in his stride. She frowned, hoping he wasn’t keeping the truth from her in some misguided attempt at flattery.

“Are you sure you can’t skate?” she asked as she leaned against the opening and pulled off the hard plastic covers that protected the blades of her skates.

Ryan mirrored her movements, laying his skate guards next to hers on the top of the barrier. “I’m sure,” he reiterated – and as if to prove his point, he placed both skates on the ice and pushed away from the wall, gliding about two feet before collapsing into a heap.

Stacy skated over to him, sliding into a perfectly executed hockey stop before reaching down to help him up. “Okay, okay, okay,” she laughed, bracing herself as he leaned heavily against her to hoist himself up, “I believe you!” She dug a toe pick into the smooth surface of the ice, awkward in her direction as she worked to keep him upright and balanced on the now-slick surface.

“All right,” she began, only to have her voice completely drowned out by the opening strains of a vaguely familiar song. Her eyebrows shot up when the lyrics to “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” blasted from the sound system, and she looked at her boyfriend with an wry glance.

“Your friend certainly has interesting taste in music,” she observed dryly.

Ryan offered an amused smile in return. “Where else can you skate to the likes of the Doors, Steppenwolf, Queen, and the Clash?”

Stacy wrinkled her nose. “Well, at least it’s not disco,” she conceded. She released his hands and began to skate around him in a slow circle. “All right,” she tried again, “the key to ice skating is having the correct body positioning.”

Ryan grinned as she circled around in front of him, but Stacy resisted when he reached for her, already yelping “toe pick!” as he swayed off balance and fell. She watched as he collected himself, easing back to his full height and dutifully digging a toe into the ice.

“As I was saying,” she continued, gliding close to him again, “the key is holding your body properly so that you can stay balanced. So, back straight – ” she instructed, touching his back, “ – shoulders firm – ” she clasped his left shoulder, gently pressing it into the proper position, “ – and chin up,” she finished, her gloved fingers brushing against his chin as she tilted his head back ever so slightly.

“Good,” she murmured, pushing away from him a little bit. “Now pick up your toe, and try to stay balanced.”

He did as she instructed, wavering slightly and instinctively holding his arms out. She guided his arms into the correct position, a graceful line with his hands at shoulder height and slightly behind him, and gave him a gentle push. He locked down every muscle and joint in his body when he realized he was moving, looking like a statue as he slid ever so slowly towards the center of the ice.

“Haha, cool!” he marveled, glancing down at his feet – and tumbling face forward to the ground.

A Neil Diamond classic boomed through the speakers as Stacy skated over to him and helped him to his feet. “Are you ready to move?” she asked, brushing stray shavings of ice away from his clothes.

“You mean at faster than a snail’s pace?” he joked in response.

She giggled. “You’re better at this than you think,” she encouraged, taking hold of his hands.

“Yeah, when I’m standing still,” he returned, his gloved fingers closing over hers.

She pushed away, until they were both at arms’ length, barely able to keep hold of each other’s hands. “Okay, now this time, turn your feet outward just slightly,” she coached, “and bend your knees.” She sent a smile in his direction as he dutifully followed her directions, adding, “Now just let your feet follow mine.”

She pushed off into a graceful backward arc, her hold on his hands firm. He caught on quickly, his body moving in time with hers, bending and lifting his knees as she did. She was able to stroke the ice, crossing one foot behind the other, gathering speed as they circled around the empty rink, while he kept both skates firmly planted, learning how to curve the path of his feet to mirror hers so that he stayed upright and balanced. As he grew more confident, he began to loosen up, moving along with the beat of their quirky soundtrack. Stacy let his right hand go, floating back so that they were side by side, and was surprised to note that they were no longer the only ones on the ice.

As the rink became more crowded, it became harder for both of them to stay upright. Stacy did her best to lead Ryan into open spaces, but nevertheless, it was impossible not to bump into other skaters. When the music abruptly changed – a startling record scratch right in the middle of “Magic Carpet Ride” – both lost their balance, wiping out near the end of the rink and sliding close to the barrier.

“I guess the boss is here,” Stacy noted, rubbing her sore hip as she climbed back to her feet.

The traditional Christmas music dampened their enthusiasm somewhat, but they continued to circle the rink along with the other skaters, all of them following the same, loose ring of a path. The ice became choppy and slippery as more and more people crowded onto the surface, and the skating instructors, who doubled as referees, had their work cut out for them, trying to keep the collisions to a minimum.

Stacy was growing weary, exhaustion beginning to creep over her as she tired of having to concentrate so hard on keeping Ryan on his feet and staying out of others’ ways. She sensed his growing fatigue as well and glanced over at him, a little bit alarmed to see his eyes close and his head beginning to droop. Just as she turned away, making a move to bring them closer to the safety of the barrier, another skater shot past her on her right, slamming aggressively into her and pushing both her and Ryan towards the center of the rink. Ryan stumbled over his toe picks, collapsing on his side, and Stacy landed heavily on top of him as her own blades tangled together. They slid into the relative safety of the center ice, but neither made an immediate move to get up.

Finally, Stacy cracked her eyes open, blinking rapidly as her vision cleared. With great effort, she pushed herself up on her elbows, inhaling sharply when she realized Ryan was lying flat on his back beneath her, his eyes still closed and his face twisted in a painful grimace.

Her heart took a painful beat as she stared down at him. “Are you okay?” she murmured, pulling off one of her gloves so that she could touch his face.

Ryan sighed as she brushed her fingers through his hair, his features relaxing as his eyes fell open at the last. “Yeah,” he replied, his voice gravelly. “Only my pride is wounded.”

Stacy leaned over him, gazing down at him sympathetically. “Are you sure?” she asked, drawing the backs of her fingers across his cheek, his skin warming beneath her touch.

His dark emerald eyes found hers, locking her gaze and arresting her with luminous intensity. Slowly, she became aware of the way her heart raced against her ribs, the shallow rise and fall of her chest, the way the entirety of her core constricted and tingled and burned, glowing brightest where her torso met his. The world began to fade away, the music growing dim and the other skaters becoming fleeting images as she closed the gap between them, her eyes falling closed as their lips met.

She lost herself in the moment, emotions cascading one into the next – relief that he was okay after taking such a scary tumble; dark, desirous indulgence as adrenaline scored her nerves and warmth climbed into her chest at their physical nearness; wicked, reckless abandon when she felt his fingers sliding across the nape of her neck and tangling in her hair, urging her head closer to his.

The ear-splitting sound of a whistle pierced Stacy’s consciousness. “hey Hey HEY HEY!” thundered an indignant voice. “No PDA on the ice, please! Ugh.” Two hands grasped Stacy’s shoulders, pulling her away from Ryan with more force than was strictly necessary.

She turned swiftly, her eyes widening as she took in the none-too-pleased look on the face of the bald skating-instructor-turned-referee. She struggled to get her feet under her as he continued to tug her upright, her knees numb from prolonged direct contact with the ice.

Once she was safely standing, the ref offered a hand to Ryan. “Are you okay, son?” he asked gruffly.

Ryan eyed him dubiously, pushing himself into a sitting position. “Yeah, fine,” he returned, ignoring the helping hand as he righted his skates. Stacy reached down, grabbing one of his arms as he rose to his full height once more.

The referee rolled his eyes, poking his whistle back into his mouth as he turned away, gliding over to another fallen skater.

Ryan rubbed his temple with one hand. “I think I’ve had enough for one morning,” he confessed.

Stacy nodded in agreement. The ice was packed to full capacity, and the din of conversation was beginning to drown out the music. “Let’s go,” she agreed, stooping down to retrieve her glove before taking his hand and guiding them safely to the entrance of the rink. Amazingly, their skate guards were exactly where they left them; they re-covered their blades, moving slowly and wearily towards the locker room.

Both sank down onto the bench – now littered with random bits of clothing and skate guards – and unlaced their skates in companionable silence. Ryan fished the key from his coat pocket and unlocked their locker while Stacy quickly checked her clothes for damp spots, satisfied to only find one, fading fast at her knee from their final fall. She was incredibly grateful that the fabric of her pantsuit was so forgiving to moisture.

After retying her boots, Stacy stood up to grab her coat, and her stomach burbled audibly. She blushed, wrapping one arm around her middle, hoping against hope that Ryan hadn’t heard it.

No such luck.

“Hungry?” Ryan mused, tying his sweater around his waist.

Stacy nodded, embarrassment burning through her as she busied herself with her coat, checking the pockets to make sure everything was still there.

“So am I,” he remarked. He glanced down at his watch. “Ha, no wonder,” he continued, touching Stacy’s shoulder. “It’s almost eleven. How about brunch?”

Stacy looked at him, relieved and impressed that he’d tactfully ignored her stomach’s rumbling. “Sounds great,” she agreed, slipping her arms into the sleeves of her coat. “What did you have in mind?”

Ryan closed their locker. “The Russian Tea Room?” he offered with a smile.

Stacy’s mouth watered at the thought. Their Saturday brunch was the stuff of legend, thanks in no small part to the fact that it was open to the public, no reservation required. This day was getting better and better, and it wasn’t even half-over!

“Perfect,” she declared, grabbing up her skates in one hand and taking his hand with the other. “I’ve certainly worked up an appetite!”

~*~

Ten minutes on the F took the couple up to West 57th, where they strolled hand-in-hand down the block. The Russian Tea Room was a short, narrow building nestled in the shadow of the ostentatious Metropolitan Tower, but the sweeping red canopy above the entrance made it hard to miss. Rumors were swirling around the city about the infamous tea house – the developer of the neighboring skyscraper wanted to buy the property to erect an office tower in its place, but the owner was staunchly refusing to sell – making it even more of an attraction for the tourists than it already was.

Ryan glanced ruefully at Stacy. “I know it’s silly,” he acknowledged, gesturing to the bustling crowd around them, “but this was the first place my family went to after we moved here, and – I don’t know, I guess it’s special to me.”

She squeezed his hand. “It’s not silly,” she replied, feeling absolutely enchanted as she admired the white lettering that stood out in contrast to the crimson-colored awning. “It’s wonderful,” she breathed, her eyes drifting over to him. “Visitors aren’t the only people who love this place, you know.”

He smiled, releasing her hand and pulling her close instead, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “Shall we?” he mused softly.

The two continued on, slipping into the entrance, taking a moment to transition from the loud bustle of the street into the tranquil restaurant. Declining to check their coats, they walked ahead into the green salon, waiting only momentarily before being shown to their table. Stacy’s eyes widened as she marveled at the décor – sage green walls covered with rows of famous paintings and portraits, brilliant golden chandeliers with exquisite embellishment hanging from the patterned ceiling, the famous crimson leather banquettes that lined the walls. The feel was that of imperial Russia, tiny tables set up in a close-knit European design, covered with white tablecloths and the finest silverware.

Her heart skipped a beat when they were seated at one of the banquettes. She smiled as she sank into the plush leather, accepting the tall menu and opening its pages. Brunch was a weekend specialty, a light menu of the finest cuisine on offer: pastries, fresh fruit, salads, caviar, and, of course, tea. Everything sounded absolutely scrumptious; she had no idea how she was going to decide what to order.

She glanced up, her expression turning amused as she watched her boyfriend lower himself very gingerly down beside her. “Are you okay?” she inquired lightly.

Ryan winced. “I have a feeling I’m going to be very sore tomorrow,” he replied, opening his menu and placing it flat in front of him.

Stacy couldn’t suppress her ladylike snort. “You?” she teased, reaching over and pulling the knit hat from his head, her eyes dancing with delight as his glossy black hair tumbled over his forehead. “Mr. Baseball-playing athlete?”

He narrowed a playful glare in her direction. “It’s been a while, okay?” he returned wryly. He fidgeted, twisting his shoulders. “I have knots in muscles I didn’t even know I had.”

She understood exactly what he meant – she was feeling pretty battered and bruised herself – but she gave him a sympathetic look anyway, sliding across the supple leather until her hip brushed against his. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, clasping his shoulders and digging the heels of her hands into his back.

Ryan’s eyes fell closed, a pleased expression settling across his features. “I’m not,” he sighed, relaxing into the therapeutic caress.

“Ahem.”

They glanced up, surprised to see a waiter standing before them. Stacy dropped her hands as Ryan picked up a menu, skimming its contents quickly. “Do you know what you want?” he asked her, to which she could only shake her head. Ryan absorbed this silent response, turning his attention to the waiter – and proceeded to converse with the man in Russian.

Stacy was at a loss as she watched them communicate, her eyes moving from the waiter to Ryan and back again as if she was following a tennis match. Finally, her boyfriend handed the menus back to the waiter with a smile and a nod, turning back to her as the man left.

“Wow,” she sputtered. “I’m impressed.”

Ryan grinned. “I knew those Russian lessons would come in handy,” he joked, smoothing the tablecloth in front of him.

Stacy sank back into the banquette, averting her eyes to her lap as she chewed on her bottom lip. She didn’t want to be reminded of the reason why he’d taken those lessons in the first place – and for a fleeting moment, she felt absolutely stifled by her surroundings, in all their Russian glory. She swallowed hard, pushing all of the unpleasant thoughts of his former girlfriend from her mind, determined not to let an offhand comment sour her mood. “So what did you order for us?” she asked instead, forcing a note of cheer that she didn’t really feel into her tone.

Ryan paused before replying, his eyes sweeping over his girlfriend in thoughtful study. “A little bit of everything,” he finally said, leaning back beside her and taking her hand in his. He laced their fingers together, tracing his thumb over hers in a light, soothing caress. “I think you’ll like it.”

Stacy nodded, resting her head on his shoulder. “I’m sure I will,” she mused, feeling strangely mollified that he’d noticed her upset. She wasn’t good at dealing with her emotions, especially the troubling ones like jealousy and insecurity. She liked that he could acknowledge and pacify her wounded feelings without saying a word. “I’ve liked everything else so far.”

“Good,” he murmured, pulling their joined hands across his lap, reaching over with his free hand to stroke her arm, “because there’s still more yet to come.”

The headiness of the moment was broken by the arrival of their food, each dish laid out with exquisite care before them. Stacy smiled, gazing with wide eyes over the impressive spread. “You really did order everything!” she exclaimed.

Ryan laughed. “Well, almost,” he corrected her. “This is just the sampler, with croissant, Russian yoghurt, fresh fruit, petits fours, and blintzes.” He pointed out item after luscious item. “And, of course,” he added, gesturing with his free hand, “a complete tea service with the finest selection of Russian blends.”

She didn’t know where to begin.

In the end, they simply dove in, tasting everything and comparing notes. Every dish was just as delicious as it looked – the croissants were buttery and flaky; the slices of fresh citrus tart and tangy. The Russian yoghurt was a thick, sweet cream, swirled with fresh blueberries and spicy roasted almonds. They agreed on their favorite dish – the blintzes, a crispy, crepe-like shell housing a warm, rich cheese and cherry filling.

Stacy felt incredibly indulgent as she sipped her tea, nibbling on the special selection of cookie-like biscuits that were served alongside it. “That was amazing,” she sighed, a contented smile curling over her lips. “Though I still think it’s sinful to have cake for breakfast.”

Ryan laughed, popping the last petit four in his mouth before replying. “It’s not a crime if the finest restaurants in town have it on their menu,” he contended. “And even if it was – what’s wrong with being sinful every once in a while?”

“Nothing,” she agreed, settling back into the crimson-colored cushion, leaning into him as he draped an arm across her shoulders. “Nothing at all.”

They lingered over their tea for a while longer, enjoying the intimate moment. When the table had been cleared and the bill paid, Stacy turned to Ryan, eager to find out what else he had planned for the day.

“So what’s next on the agenda?” she asked loftily, pressing her arms into the sleeves of her coat.

“Whatever you want,” he replied casually, replacing his hat and pulling it low over the tips of his ears.

His answer brought her up short. She glanced at him, lifting a brow in curiosity. “Really?” she questioned skeptically. This was hard to believe, considering the lengths he’d gone to in order to keep his meticulously laid-out plans a secret from her. After all, he had said that he’d wanted to spend the entire day with her – surely that encompassed both the morning and the evening?

His eyes danced with mirth as he observed this fleet of emotions flitting across her features. “Really,” he confirmed. “The only other plan I’ve made is for the evening performance of the Nutcracker Suite at Lincoln Center. The afternoon is yours.”

Stacy’s expression dissolved into one of pure, blissful rapture. “I’m free?” she whispered disbelievingly. “On Fifth Avenue? For the whole afternoon?!”

Ryan nodded. “Well, at least until seven,” he said with a smile. “Whatever you want to do – I’m game.”

Stacy squealed, throwing her arms around him. “You,” she declared, pressing an impulsive kiss to his cheek, “are the best boyfriend ever!”

~*~

Ryan was beginning to have second thoughts about his magnanimous decision to let Stacy choose their afternoon activities. When he first started planning this day all those weeks ago, he took into account the fact that all of these different ideas – skating at Rockefeller Plaza, brunch at the Russian Tea Room, and a performance of the Nutcracker at the newly constructed Lincoln Center – would put them squarely in the heart of Manhattan, the cultural capital of the city. It’s why he’d chosen those activities, truth be told – he wanted to do everything and more with the wonderful girl he so cherished, and make up for the fact that it had taken nearly three agonizing months for this much-anticipated date to happen.

And, even though he had taken charge of the planning, he hardly thought it fair to make every single decision about how they spent their time together. They were equals in this relationship, after all. Besides, he was curious to see what she’d choose – after all, they were in the midst of amazing museums, breathtaking art and music, and even within reach of Central Park, an oasis of green in the middle of the concrete jungle – and the only place in the city to truly enjoy the snow.

All of these wonderful possibilities to choose from, but Stacy still managed to pick the one thing he hadn’t even given serious consideration.

“Shopping?” Ryan echoed incredulously, stopping in his tracks as the two joined the crowds streaming up and down the sidewalk in front of the Russian Tea Room. “You want to go shopping?”

Stacy’s grin was wide with excitement as she looked at him. “You bring me to Fifth Avenue and tell me I’m free to do whatever I want for an entire afternoon? What did you think I was going to suggest?!”

He squeezed her hand. “I should’ve known,” he murmured ruefully. The uptick in her personal style over the last year must have come from somewhere, and Fifth Avenue was home to the veritable who’s who of the fashion world. It wasn’t something that he cared much for, personally, but he certainly appreciated her dedication to the cause.

Stacy’s happy expression faltered as she continued to gaze at him. “Oh,” she said haltingly, averting her eyes to the sidewalk. “I guess you don’t want to…”

“It’s not that,” he insisted. The last thing he wanted to do was disappoint her, especially here, especially now. The narrow box in the inner pocket of his jacket began to feel heavy as it wedged against his side. Shopping might prove a dangerous endeavor indeed, but he was willing to risk it if it meant seeing her beautiful smile again. “It’s just – it’s the last Saturday before Christmas,” he continued, tightening his grip on her hand. “It’s going to be a nightmare.”

She chanced to look up. “Oh, ye of little faith,” she murmured. “The stores I patronize are never crowded.”

He quirked an interested brow. “Patronize?” he drawled.

Her eyes sparkled as they met his, an all-knowing smile playing at the corners of her lips. “Oh, this is going to be fun,” she declared. Her look turned coy. “I promise to make it worth your while.”

His thoughts immediately turned to that tube of strawberry-flavored lip gloss and just how well it could be put to good use. “Okay,” he acquiesced. “Where do you want to begin?”

Her gaze turned thoughtful. “Actually, we should probably start at Bloomie’s,” she considered. “I want to find something to wear to the theater tonight.”

Ryan laughed. “But, Stace,” he remarked, “you can wear what you have on! You look gorgeous,” he continued, allowing his eyes to trail appreciatively down the length of her frame and back for the fifth time that morning, “and there isn’t a dress code.”

“I know,” she said with a sheepish shrug, “but I want to look just as special as I feel.” She pressed herself against him, wrapping her arms around his waist. “And I love the way you make me feel,” she added, her words slightly muffled by his shirt.

That feeling is definitely mutual, he thought, enjoying the curls of heat and anticipation that were ignited by her touch. If her hands drifted any lower, he’d be in trouble.

“Besides,” she continued, fingering the soft material of his Henley, “we could also shop for you.”

“Me?” he echoed dubiously.

Stacy pulled away slightly, her fingers blazing a trail of fire across his torso before coming to rest against his abdomen. “Yes, you,” she rejoined, looking more excited over this idea than finding something for herself. “You want to impress those Juilliard judges, don’t you?”

He still didn’t even know if he’d landed an audition – he certainly hadn’t given much thought to what he’d wear if he did win the coveted tryout. Gloria’s reminders about how stiff and conservative the committee was ran through the back of his mind. “Well, yeah…” he trailed off uncertainly.

“Then we have to find the perfect suit,” she asserted.

He found his resistance weakening as he gazed down at her. Having her input can’t be a bad thing, he considered. Every little bit helps in competition as fierce as Juilliard auditions. “Okay, okay, okay,” he finally relented, earning another cute squeal of delight from his girlfriend. “I place myself entirely in your hands,” he said, gesturing grandly. “Lead the way.”

She pressed another excited kiss to his cheek and grabbed his hand, her eagerness to begin this shopping expedition leaving him feeling like he had to run to keep up with her. They hopped back on the subway, traveling to Third Avenue where the flagship Bloomingdale’s store stood in all its glory.

Just as Ryan suspected, it was absolutely mobbed with people, both inside and out. It was a literal fight just to get in the door, but Stacy was determined – and seemed to know where she was going, so he let her pull him through the crowds. The juniors department upstairs wasn’t quite as bad as the showroom on the first floor, but he still found it stifling – and he soon grew tired of being jostled by teenage girls on a mission (and the poor hapless parents attempting to find the perfect Christmas gift). He zipped his leather jacket, wanting to make damn sure he didn’t lose the precious cargo he was carrying in its pocket, but this move only served to make him feel worse. Sweat began to bead at his brow.

Mercifully, Stacy didn’t linger. She appeared less than impressed with the picked-over racks and displays and moved swiftly, unafraid to push her way through the masses as necessary. All told, they probably only spent thirty minutes in the department, but to Ryan, it felt like a lifetime.

Their luck didn’t change as they headed for menswear – it was slightly less crowded, but similarly low on inventory. Ryan watched Stacy with fascination as she examined shirts and ties and blazers, more than a little impressed with the seriousness with which she was approaching this endeavor. She asked for his opinion a few times, filing the information away for later use, but ultimately, they left empty-handed.

And not a moment too soon, in Ryan’s estimation.

The sun was high in the sky as they surfaced back on Fifth Avenue; again, Stacy took the lead as they headed down the infamous boulevard. They’d walk down one side, she suggested, and come back up on the other – that way, they wouldn’t miss anything, and they’d be perfectly positioned to catch the train to Lincoln Center. Ryan was agreeable to this plan, so they set off at a leisurely pace, soaking in the ambiance of the high fashion world that spread out before them.

He relaxed as they continued strolling down the sidewalk, hugging close to the buildings and browsing in the windows of the tony boutiques. The first flat-out stop they made was in front of the glass display case at Tiffany’s, where Stacy actually let go of his hand so that she could lean forward, bracing herself with both hands against the brick façade.

“Isn’t it just breathtaking?” she sighed wistfully.

“Hmm,” he mused, his gaze sweeping away from her and onto the display. It was certainly a beautiful collection, a tasteful assortment of items inspired by a holiday theme – rubies, emeralds, and diamonds all sparkled in their settings, threaded through ropes of gold and bands of silver.

“This is my most favorite spot in all of New York,” Stacy continued, drawing Ryan’s attention once more. “I could stand here for hours and never be bored.”

Ryan considered her words as he snaked an arm around her shoulders. “What do you see?” he asked, knowing there had to be something more captivating for her than simple pieces of jewelry.

She curled into his caress, though her eyes never left the display. “So many possibilities,” she replied softly. “So many different ways that your life could turn out so that you could own something this beautiful.” A rueful smile touched her lips as her gaze shifted heavenward. “It’s silly, but it makes me feel optimistic, you know? Tiffany’s is a symbol of glamorous, timeless New York – and I like that something so special is still within my grasp.”

Ryan studied her as her thoughts meandered, recognizing this fleeting moment as an indulgence in passion, and absorbing it all the same. He’d spent most of the day appreciating her beauty and indulging in the magnetic attraction he felt for her, but never before had he seen in her this sort of gut-wrenching need – a driving force, spurring her forward in life and giving her hope of accomplishing her goals. The display was more than just pretty jewelry to her – it represented a place in the world she’d like to one day occupy. He understood that desire all too well, and witnessing it now, even for a brief moment, only deepened his regard for her.

“I’ll tell you, though,” she said, breaking into his thoughts, “the piece I love best isn’t even here right now. They take it out of the window for the holidays, but come April, it’ll be back.” Her eyes met his. “It’s a beautiful sapphire ring, with a center stone surrounded by diamonds, and set in silver.”

“You’ll have to show me some time,” Ryan mused, his heart beating a little faster as a pleased smile rose to her lips.

“We’ll come back in the spring,” she promised. With one final, longing look at the display, the two set off, continuing down the sidewalk.

Stacy’s mind quickly reverted back to the matter at hand, and she dragged him into all of her favorite high fashion flagships – Dior, Armani, Gucci, Givenchy. Ryan found himself growing more and more fascinated with the way she handled the intimidating sales staff in each store – she was bubbly, but somehow still in control, feeling no fear or shyness as she directed them to do her bidding. She seemed to be focused on her primary goal of finding something for herself, for which Ryan was mercifully grateful. He felt incredibly uncomfortable in these chic boutiques, like a gangly, badly-dressed adolescent, which made Stacy’s endless ease all the more impressive to him. She tried on a stunning array of outfits at each place – some he had the privilege to see, some he didn’t – but walked out each time empty-handed and disappointed.

Ryan was at a loss for words about her outfit dilemma, but his curiosity in her dealings with the sales staff was insatiable. “How do you do it?” he asked abruptly, drawing to a halt as they exited the Gucci boutique.

Stacy looked at him inquisitively. “Do what?” she asked.

“Communicate with those people,” he burst out, gesturing openly. “They’re so – snotty, and holier than thou. Where do you find the patience?”

She smiled. “It’s not patience,” she told him. “It’s control.”

He shook his head in amazement. “I’m impressed,” he intoned.

She took his hand and drew him close. “Shopping is all about attitude,” she confided. “If you act like you belong in their store, they’re going to treat you like you belong there. If you have the edge right from the start, there’s no way they can walk all over you.”

Ryan considered her words as they continued on, trudging up the sidewalk to their final destination. Stacy’s downtrodden expression evaporated as she gazed up at the giant letters that spelled out PRADA above the entrance. “Here it is!” she announced with a smile, squeezing his hand for good measure. “I’ve saved the best for last!” She pulled open a silver-handled, heavy plate-glass door and ushered him inside.

Two sales staff stood in the far corner of the room, each dressed from head to toe in black. “May I help you?” the female half of the duo said, lifting her head as a tiny bell announced their presence. Ryan was surprised when her haughty expression softened ever so slightly, her eyes lighting with recognition as she approached them.

“Ahhh, Miss Brisbane,” she greeted Stacy, clasping both of her hands around Stacy’s free one. “It is so good to see you again!”

“Giuliana,” Stacy returned with equal pleasure, exchanging European air kisses with the woman. “I’m so glad you’re here – I’m having a crisis!”

Giuliana’s thin lips stretched into some semblance of a smile. “Ah, but you are always in crisis,” she replied wryly. “Come, come, let us take care of it.” She led Stacy to the side of the long, narrow shop, and the two of them climbed a staircase that seemed to be cut into the side of the wall, rendering it invisible to the naked eye.

Ryan followed their ascent with his eyes until they were out of sight. His gaze swept over the length and breadth of this ground floor room, the blindingly white walls standing in stark contrast to the minimalist displays. He was relieved to note that the male salesperson was paying him no heed; after a long moment’s thought, he stepped further into the shop, wandering over to the nearest display.

He took his time, studying the offerings with reserved interest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were only three collections on display, and each was severely simple – and all in black. Not exactly a great selection, he mused, brushing his hand across the sleeve of a buttery-soft sweater. I guess the ladies’ boutique has more to choose from? I can’t imagine why this place would be her favorite…hell, I think I’d even take the stifling crowds at Bloomie’s over this – at least there’s stuff to look at there. In colors other than black, no less!

He was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he didn’t realize that he was edging closer and closer to the corner where the salesman was standing. He was contemplating a pair of ridiculously expensive Italian loafers when he first became aware that he was no longer alone.

“Mm-hm,” hummed a voice behind him, followed by the quick, whispery snap of a measuring tape. “Mm-hm…molto bello, molto bello...”

Ryan stiffened, slowly turning his head to glance over his shoulder, only to nearly jump out of his skin when he realized that the salesperson was standing right behind him, muttering to himself in Italian as he took Ryan’s measurements.

“Ah, signorsì, I did not mean to startle you,” the man said smoothly, his voice halting over his heavy accent. “I am Giovanni, and I am here to help you.”

Ryan eyed the man dubiously. “What makes you think I need any help?” he asked cautiously.

Giovanni lifted a brow. “Miss Brisbane recommended to me that I help you,” he explained, pronouncing Stacy’s last name as ‘briss-bin’. He bowed his head. “Forgive me if I am mistaken…”

Ryan opened his mouth to reply, only to hear a sing-song voice drifting down to him from above. He looked up, not surprised in the least when he noticed Stacy leaning over the balcony and smiling down at him. “Juil-li-ard, Juil-li-ard,” she teased, sending a small wave his way before disappearing once more.

I’ve been set up, he thought, glancing back at Giovanni with wry amusement. The salesman caught his eye, the lines of his expression descending into condescension, as if challenging Ryan to speak – and expecting him to speak badly. Ryan felt his ire flare, before remembering Stacy’s words of wisdom about shopping among the well-heeled – “act like you belong in their store, and they’re treat you like you belong there.” He took a deep breath, forcing the corners of his mouth to turn upward as he narrowed his eyes in response. “It appears I’m in need of a new suit,” he finally said, keeping his tone as smooth and even as he could muster.

Giovanni acquiesced to the silent pressure. “Molto bello, signorsì,” he replied with an approving nod. “Please, follow me.”

Ryan hesitated as he watched Giovanni disappear into a hidden hallway, unsure just how far he wanted to take this little charade. Well, he reasoned, it’s not like I have the money to actually buy this stuff anyway. Still – what could it hurt to look? Reluctantly, he set off in the same direction as the erstwhile salesman.

He was slightly amused when they emerged into a much larger room. So this is where they hide the clothes, he thought, his eyes roving over the fitting area off to the left and racks upon racks of clothes to the right. Giovanni directed him to the left and told him to disrobe before hustling into the forest of designer clothes.

Ryan had worn plenty of suits in his relatively short time on the planet, but that afternoon, he learned there was a difference between what he knew to be “formalwear” and haute couture design. He hadn’t been poked, prodded, or accidentally stabbed with shirt pins so much since he had been fitted for a tuxedo to wear at his cousin’s wedding – when he was still young enough to serve as a ring bearer. Giovanni was almost as fussy as his seamstress grandmother had been, tugging at endless pairs of shirt sleeves and trouser legs, only to ultimately reject whatever suit pieces he’d worked so hard to arrange around Ryan’s frame.

After six complete changes of clothes, Ryan was well past his amusement with the endeavor. “How can girls stand this?” he mumbled to himself as he set to work buttoning up yet another a long-sleeved Oxford shirt. He tucked the tails into the dark grey trousers of suit number seven, not even bothering to give himself a cursory look in the mirror before pushing aside the curtain that separated him from Giovanni’s scrutiny.

The salesman’s assessing stare lightened into one of delight. “Molto bello!” he cried, clapping his hands together. “Now we are getting somewhere!”

Giovanni set to work, picking out suspenders, a tie, even a pair of cuff links, all of which Ryan dutifully donned. He didn’t have a chance to actually see the final look for himself until Giovanni helped him into the coat – and he was slightly amazed at the image reflecting back at him.

“Looks like the seventh time’s the charm,” he murmured, buttoning the jacket. The suit they had settled on was simple, yet elegant. A thin pinstripe lined the dark grey material of the trousers and jacket, almost shimmering under the hot lights of the fitting area. Paired with the pale lavender shirt and a monochromatic tie, Ryan had to admit, he looked pretty impressive. He was also surprised at how well the pieces fit, as if it had been tailor-made for him.

Giovanni was all smiles as he approached, holding out one more item. “The finishing touch, signorsì,” he announced, adding a dark grey fedora to the ensemble.

“Wow,” added a distinctly feminine voice, drawing the guys’ attention.

Ryan glanced up in the mirror, his mouth going dry as he glimpsed Stacy standing in the doorway of the room, looking more gorgeous than he’d ever seen her. She stepped into the room, walking towards him, wearing a black cocktail dress that fell to her knees and hugged her figure in all the right places. The suit that had been so well-fitted a moment ago suddenly felt very hot and restrictive.

Ryan turned as Stacy approached, feeling immensely pleased at her reaction to him. “Wow yourself,” he returned, smiling as she reached up to straighten the knot of his tie.

She brushed her hands over his shoulders as her eyes drifted down over his torso. “You look amazing,” she breathed. “If you walk into that audition wearing this, you’ll knock their socks off.” She lifted her eyes to his. “You have to get this.”

“Are you kidding?” Ryan returned, turning away so that Giovanni and Giuliana – who had apparently accompanied Stacy down from the women’s boutique upstairs – were out of earshot. “I can’t afford this! Hell, I could barely afford to even try it on!”

Stacy fingered the lapels of his jacket, drawing her bottom lip between her teeth as she contemplated his words. He wasn’t sure what he expected her to say in response, but it certainly wasn’t what actually came out of her mouth.

“Then let me buy it for you,” she offered.

He grabbed her hands. “No way,” he protested. “It’s way too expensive!”

“Even for a gift?” she countered, her eyes meeting and locking with his.

Especially as a gift,” he sighed, squeezing her hands. He wasn’t entirely sure she understood what she was proposing – no way in the world would she ever owe him this much. Advice was one thing, but actually purchasing a top-label suit for him was quite another.

Stacy wasn’t prepared to give up so easily, however. “What about Juilliard?” she queried softly.

“Indeed, signorsì,” piped up Giovanni, who had apparently not taken the hint that this was a closed conversation. “A good suit is a good investment.”

“It won’t be here forever,” Stacy added in an undertone. “They’re less than a week away from changing out their inventory for spring.”

Ryan looked away, giving her hands another squeeze. She had a point – every detail mattered when it came to making a good impression on Juilliard – but still, he was reluctant. As he grappled to find the words to express this sentiment, Stacy suddenly pulled away from him, turning back to the sales staff.

“Giuliana,” she announced, “Put this on my tab.” She held out a price tag Ryan hadn’t even realized she’d pulled from the suit, along with a credit card that seemed to have materialized from thin air.

“Stace, I – ” he sputtered, only to be silenced when her fingers brushed over his lips, her gaze finding his once more.

“Put it on my tab,” she repeated, her eyes never leaving her boyfriend’s.

“Of course, Miss Brisbane,” the saleswoman agreed, grabbing her associate’s arm and pulling him into the front room, leaving Ryan and Stacy alone in the middle of the fitting area.

When the others were truly out of earshot, Stacy spoke again. “You really do look amazing,” she said, pulling the fedora from his head with one hand and lacing her fingers through his glossy black hair with the other.

“Thank you,” he replied quietly, resting his forehead against hers, still reeling with astonishment over this unexpected turn of events. “I’ll pay you back,” he vowed. “I promise.”

Stacy merely smiled, allowing her hand to drift out of his hair as she took a step back. “I’m going to go change,” she said. “I’ll meet you out front.”

She turned towards the door and was nearly out of his grasp when he reached for her hand.

“Stacy, wait,” he enjoined, the somber note in his voice stopping her in her tracks.

She looked back at him, her lips parting slightly as curiosity creased her brow.

“At least,” he continued with an appreciative smile, gesturing at her own stunning outfit, “let me enjoy this.” He didn’t even wait for her response, his eyes already traveling down the length of her frame, his gaze lingering over the swell of her breasts and the curves of her hips. She was barefoot, her hair swept up into some sort of impromptu hairstyle, but in his estimation, she had never looked so breathtakingly gorgeous. He closed the gap between them, pulling her body flush against his, winding an arm around her waist and letting his hand drift lower, relishing the soft fabric of her dress and the way it felt beneath his fingertips. She twined her arms around his neck as he lowered his mouth to hers, and not for the first time did he wonder how it was possible to fall even more in love with her than he was already.

~*~

Stacy sighed with total contentment, resting her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder as her gaze settled on the now-quiet stage. The performance of the Nutcracker Suite had been simply magnificent, one of the best ballets she’d ever attended – and it had not escaped her notice how much Ryan seemed to enjoy it as well. They had managed to find good seats, even though they’d lingered behind at Prada longer than they anticipated, and had to pick up a super-fast dinner between subway transfers on their way to the theater.

For two hours, they sat in complete silence, enraptured by the elegant, classic performance. There was little better, she decided, than sitting next to her boyfriend at a command performance of the New York City Ballet, his hand warm and electric in hers. Even now, with the performance over and the audience filtering out of the theater, the atmosphere was still full of magic and enchantment.

It didn’t matter that she was dressed once more in her pink pantsuit, or that they’d had to leave his suit behind for alterations. It didn’t matter that they’d had to rush through their meal, or press through the crowd already assembling in the performance hall ten minutes before show time. It didn’t even matter that her boyfriend’s ex had danced in the corps, and thus, her name would forever be branded on a keepsake from this wonderful evening.

All that mattered was the way she felt in this moment, and the warm, reckless, exciting feelings he inspired in her.

“I think they’re ready for us to leave,” Ryan murmured, bringing Stacy out of her reverie.

She lifted her head, glancing to the side and noticing the discreet but insistent presence of the ushers standing in the aisle and lingering nearby. “Okay,” she said softly in response, taking her time to stand and stretch and allow her weight to resettle over her bones.

She gripped his hand tightly, her arm twining through his, as they exited the performance hall at a leisurely pace. Both seemed reluctant to take those final steps out of the building, each taking a moment to adjust their scarves before meeting the chill of the late evening. They were two of the sparse few who remained, not quite willing to give up the dreamy, romantic ambiance. They stood on the wide landing just beyond the theater doors, bathed in the soft, golden glow of the overhead lights.

Stacy leaned into Ryan, enjoying the softness of his sweater against her cheek as they watched the last of their fellow concertgoers slip off into the night. “I’m not ready for this to end,” she confessed with a quiet sigh.

Ryan’s arm slipped around her waist, drawing her into his side. “It doesn’t have to – not yet,” he replied.

Stacy smiled, warm tingles of anticipation racing up and down her sides as their bodies brushed together. She liked how easy it felt to be this close to him, how quickly the lines of his body were becoming familiar to hers. “I’m not sure what could make this night any more perfect,” she mused, her eyes sweeping out over their surroundings. Lights from the nearby Philharmonic building twinkled in the darkened sky…and for a moment, Stacy wondered if they were winking at her.

She took a step forward, barely noticing the rush of cool air that enveloped her. “Wait a minute,” she breathed, straining her eyes for a closer look, “is it snowing?”

She pulled away from Ryan completely, crossing the small space to the stairwell, leaning out over the railing as the snow began to fall faster. She giggled, thrusting her arms out from the safety of the extended covering, watching with incredulity as fat white snowflakes dotted the sleeves of her coat. “Now it’s a perfect evening!” she declared, shivering with delight as she threw an excited smile over her shoulder at her boyfriend.

He was watching her intently, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth as he stepped forward. “Well,” he intoned, measuring his steps as he approached her, “far be it from me to try to top perfection, but I do have one more thing for you.”

Stacy’s eyes widened with surprise and curiosity as she turned to face him. It was nearly ten o’clock at night – what more could he possibly have in store for her?

“I have something of yours that I wanted to return,” he continued mysteriously, slipping his hand into the pocket of his leather jacket.

Absently, she shook her head as she tracked his movements, trying to remember anything she’d want back – and only drawing a blank. Her confusion was quickly abated, however, when he pulled out her magic ring, its faux ruby gleaming in the overhead light.

“I hope this day has been as magical for you as it was for me,” he said softly, depositing the ring in her open palm.

“It has,” she returned, her eyes glittering with all of the happiness, fulfillment, and adoration she felt for him. “I’ve never had a more wonderful first date.”

He chuckled at that. “Well, good,” he replied, sounding inordinately pleased, “because it isn’t over just yet.” He reached into the inside pocket of his coat, withdrawing a long, narrow box, and when he pressed it into her hands, Stacy momentarily forgot how to breathe.

“A gift?” she questioned softly, holding the box as reverently as if handling a holy relic. Her eyes met his once more. “You didn’t have to do this.”

“I know,” he said, brushing an errant lock of hair from her brow.

She flushed, averting her eyes from his as embarrassment welled in her chest. “I didn’t even think about presents,” she confessed in a rush, “so I’m afraid I don’t have anything to give to you in return.”

He laughed again. “Um, wrong,” he declared wryly, drawing a sharp look of surprise from her. “You put up with my sad attempts at skating, which would’ve been enough – but there’s also that lip gloss, and the matter of a certain little black dress…” He shook his head. “And let’s not forget the Juilliard suit. You’ve definitely put me to shame in the gift department today.” He nudged her hands. “So, go on – open it.”

Stacy considered the gift, slowly removing her gloves as she turned the velvet-topped box over in her hands, looking for the opening. When she finally managed to pry it loose, her breath caught in her chest – and for a moment, all she could do was simply stare, a myriad of emotions tumbling through her, causing a lump to form and rise to the back of her throat.

“It’s beautiful,” she finally breathed, tracing the thin gold chain reverently with one finger. Nestled in the middle of it was a delicate pendant, a gorgeous, crimson-colored ruby in the shape of a teardrop.

She swallowed hard as she traced the shape of the gemstone. Never in a million years had she expected this, and yet –

“It isn’t from Tiffany’s,” he began ruefully, “but it is real – ”

“ – and it’s perfect,” she finished for him, her voice heavy with the weight of the tears gathering behind her eyes. She gazed up at him, feeling very light-headed, her heart hammering so hard she was sure that it would burst right out of her chest. “It’s absolutely perfect.”

His answering smile seemed to be equal parts relief and excitement. “Why don’t you try it on?” he urged, taking her hands and guiding her back towards the doors of the theater. The large plate of glass in the center of the frame served well as a reflective surface under the lights. She carefully extracted the necklace, holding it up to her neck with shaking fingers. His hands met hers behind her head, and Stacy could only stare at herself with a dazed expression as she lifted her hair, allowing him to close the clasp and rest it against the nape of her neck.

The pendant felt cool against her chest, an unfamiliar, yet pleasant weight. She closed her hand over it, smoothing her thumb over the stone as she caught his eye in the reflection of the glass. “I’ll never take it off,” she vowed.

He wrapped his arms around her in response, his hands meeting over the flat expanse of her abdomen, and he leaned down to press a soft kiss in the hollow of her shoulder, one she felt even through the layers of her clothes. A shiver of pure, blissful anticipation shimmered down her spine as he drew her close, blazing a fiery little trail with his mouth from her shoulder to her neck before burying his nose in her hair, his breath warm on the shell of her ear.

She closed her eyes, relishing the way she felt in this moment, so safe and warm and secure in his arms. Her mind shifted back to that moment in the Prada boutique, the way she felt when he pulled her so close, so quickly, so intimately. She’d felt the heat of his body then, just like she felt it now; it warmed her from the inside, igniting something different, something deeper, something heretofore hidden even from her awareness. The muscles across her torso constricted beneath his touch, her breath growing short and shallow in her lungs, her heart racing against her ribs, throbbing faster and faster with each whisper of his breath against her skin.

She tried to claw these feelings back, to resist the urge to give in to this new, strange, unfamiliar temptation, but ultimately found herself powerless against it. She twisted around in his arms, turning to face him, catching the merest glimpse of his mouth before tasting it, her eyes slipping closed as she curled her arms over his shoulders. A mild jolt of surprise scored his spine, but his reaction was quick and instinctive – his arms closed around her, drawing her body even further into his; his hands smoothing across the planes of her back, venturing down over the curves of her hips. So many different sensations flooded through her, all at once: the rush of adrenaline, the jangling of her nerves standing on end, the fire that burned through her chest and pooled in her abdomen.

One kiss melted into another, and another, each slow and intense and full of unfamiliar anticipation. So many feelings were crashing together, in her mind and in her body, building strange and enticing combinations she’d never felt before and didn’t know how to deal with. She felt weightless and boneless and free; she wanted to laugh and cry and sing and smile and feel, and never, ever let him go.

I love you, she thought, the words startling her, tumbling unexpectedly through her mind as her hands tangled in his hair.

“Stacy, Stacy, Stacy,” he mumbled against her mouth, his breath fast and hard as it rushed past her lips, “do you know what you do to me?”

She opened her eyes, her gaze finding and lingering in his, and she was unable to suppress the violent tremble that shook through her. She became hyperaware of just how close they stood, how he leaned over her, the way his hands clasped her hips so possessively, and for a split second, she didn’t care. She felt those words – I love you – climb up the back of her throat, choking away her air. This emotion – this feeling – served to simultaneously make her feel exhilarated and oh, so terribly afraid – the same way the intimate press of their bodies made her feel, as well as this dark, luminous desire that shined in the depths of his eyes.

“The same thing you do to me,” she whispered in response, tightening her grip on him, her hands curling into fists and tangling in his sweater. She hesitated, biting her bottom lip as her eyes fell to his mouth, ruddy and well-kissed and offering the promise of so much more, and felt an unnerving wave of regret roll through her. “And that has to be enough, for now.”

Chapter Text


.23.
“Love Will Save the Day”

You try so hard to make sure everything goes right
And you find you’ve only wound up with a mess
It’s a common situation, even though you feel abandoned and alone
Child, you ain’t the first to experience a hurt
So don’t panic when you hit the danger zone

© 1988 Toni C. & Whitney Houston

~*~

The snow was beginning to swirl menacingly by the time Ryan and Stacy made it back to Brooklyn. They almost missed their stop, in fact, as they were far more interested in each other than their surroundings, desperate to eke out as many kisses as they could. Only with reluctance did they step out onto the subway platform, their arms woven together as they climbed the stairs back to the surface – and back to reality.

The walk back to Stacy’s apartment was leisurely, if quiet; Stacy felt as if she might float off if not for Ryan’s steady, solid presence at her side to keep her grounded. She was surprised when they rounded the corner to her building and found themselves mostly shrouded in darkness – very few lights dotted the windows above; only the security beams illuminated the street below.

Stacy turned to Ryan as they drew to a halt, drawing her arms around his neck. “This is a night I’ll never forget,” she told him softly, earning a pleased smile in response.

“Me, either,” he agreed, brushing his thumb across the crest of her cheek. “It was worth the wait.”

She gazed at him as a bolt of dark pleasure scored her spine. “Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait so long for the next one,” she replied cheekily.

Ryan laughed, shaking his head as he rested his forehead against hers. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to top this,” he remarked ruefully.

“You won’t have to,” she breathed, curling her fingers into his hair. “It was perfect, beginning to end.”

He leaned into her, his mouth finding hers in the darkness, pressing one final, searing, satisfying kiss to her lips. It was one she felt in the core of her being, and one that roused those three frightening words – I love you – from the depths of her heart, making her feel giddy and weak and terrified and light-headed all at once.

“Goodnight, Stacy,” he whispered, his breath warm on her lips as he pulled away.

“Goodnight,” she returned, reluctant to let him go, but knowing she had to all the same. She started up the steps to the landing, one hand rising to her chest and closing over the pendant. She turned as she approached the front doors of the apartment building, her eyes lingering on him as he left, ultimately slipping out into the night.

Exhaustion began to creep over her as she turned her key in the lock, pressing through the heavy outer doors and into the lobby. She retraced her steps from that morning, walking past the front desk and into the elevator. It felt a little strange to stand there, alone, after spending nearly every waking moment of the day in her boyfriend’s presence, but it was nice to have some time with her thoughts. A dreamy smile drifted to her lips as she considered the long, meandering day and all of its accompanying twists and turns. Her left hip began to ache as she thought about their skating escapades; her mouth watered all over again at the remembrance of all that luscious food from brunch; her heart throbbed at the memory of glimpsing Ryan in that suit at Prada. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel a whisper of his touch, so warm and soft and secure, and the taste of his kisses, so dark, reckless, and intense…

She shuddered as the elevator doors snapped open, bringing her out of her reverie. With a sigh, she continued down the hall to her apartment, working quickly and deftly as she unlocked the door and slipped into the mostly dark foyer. She’d arrived home much later than she’d intended, and she didn’t want to wake her family. She crossed the hall with a purposeful stride, opening the closet and busying herself with stowing away her winter gear. Her coat would need a thorough airing out; it was still wet from all that time they spent making out in the falling snow.

Stacy was so wrapped up in her ministrations that she didn’t register the light suddenly illuminating the hall, nor the quiet tread of footsteps that accompanied it.

“So, did you kids have fun?” a voice inquired brightly, nearly startling Stacy out of her skin. She closed the closet door, having the presence of mind to quickly slip the pendant beneath her top as she did so. She was faintly surprised to find her entire family standing in the hall, her parents and sister all dressed in pajamas and wrapped in bathrobes. It was her mother who had asked the question, but Stacy directed her response to all of them.

“It was wonderful,” she replied with a happy sigh, unable to help the dreamy smile that accompanied her answer.

“Did you buy lots of presents?” her father asked, his tone somewhere between indulgent and strained.

Stacy flushed, suddenly feeling incredibly guilty that she’d broken her own self-imposed vow of simply ‘holding onto’ her mother’s credit card. “Well,” she managed, averting her eyes to the closet door, “we spent a lot of money, if that’s what you mean.”

She’d tried for a joke, but the levity in her tone fell flat.

A patch of awkward silence stretched between her and her family. Her mother leaned into her father’s side, casually looping her arm around his waist. Stacy swallowed hard; her parents had always been affectionate with one another, but witnessing this simple gesture felt positively alien now. It was weird to think about her parents ever feeling the way she did when she was with Ryan.

“You know,” her mother mused, “it occurred to your father and me this afternoon – isn’t it odd to go shopping with the very people you were supposed to be buying Christmas gifts for?”

Stacy’s heart began to race, a wave of uncertainty washing through her. “No?” she tried.

Her mother’s gaze was resolute. “Are you asking me, or telling me?”

Before Stacy could respond, her father spoke. “We also thought it strange that Renee here wasn’t invited on the outing,” he put in, gesturing to his eldest daughter with his free hand.

Stacy thought fast, pulling out the first coherent explanation that came to mind. “We made these plans weeks ago, before we knew for sure when Renee was coming home,” she burst out. “We didn’t intentionally leave her behind.”

“Stacy,” her mother intoned, her mouth set in a grim line, “you’ve known about Renee’s flights since Thanksgiving. You helped us book the reservations.”

Stacy felt another wave of heat and embarrassment flood through her. How could she have forgotten that? She’d felt so grown up when her parents let her put in the call to the airline to make the arrangements.

“Besides,” her father said, “when we asked Renee about the shopping trip, she didn’t have the faintest idea of what we were talking about.”

Stacy’s gaze shot over to her sister, who averted her eyes – and suddenly looked incredibly guilty.

“You didn’t,” Stacy hissed incredulously, her embarrassment twisting into absolute fury as she glared daggers at Renee.

“Anastasia Elizabeth,” her father warned abruptly.

Stacy’s stomach churned as she chanced to glance in her parents’ direction again.

Her mother stepped forward, releasing her husband and laying a heavy hand on Stacy’s shoulder. “Your father and I give you girls quite a bit of freedom and independence,” she said, her tone as deadly serious as the expression on her face, “and the only thing that we ask of you in return is to be honest with us.”

“I know that, Mom,” Stacy acknowledged, her voice coarse as she spoke over the lump that had risen in the back of her throat. There was nothing she hated more than disappointing her parents, and she could practically feel the anger that radiated from them now.

Well, she was feeling pretty damn angry, too. From the corner of her eye, she noticed her sister slipping out of sight, undoubtedly down the hallway and back to the safety of her room, now that her job here was done. How could you? Stacy thought menacingly. She’d never felt more hurt or betrayed in her life.

“And yet, for some reason,” her mother continued, drawing Stacy’s attention once more, “you decided to lie to us anyway.”

Stacy squirmed under her mother’s scrutiny. “Mom, I can explain – ”

“I certainly hope so,” her mother returned sharply.

Stacy opened her mouth, and then closed it without saying anything. She felt flushed – hot with rage at Renee for blowing her cover, sick with panic as she faced her parents’ wrath. Tears welled behind her eyes as she struggled to find the words, but she didn’t even know where to begin. The kiss in the park? The flowers and walks to school? The secret hand-holding and kissing and oh, God, what about all the things they’d done that very night?

“Anastasia,” he father intoned, his impatience crystal clear by the cut of his voice, “do you have a good reason for lying to your mother and me about your whereabouts today?”

“Don’t you know how worried we were?!” her mother immediately added. “To find out that you’d run off to another borough of the city with some boy – ”

“It was only Ryan,” Stacy interjected, her heart hammering in her chest as the words spilled from her mouth.

Only Ryan?” her mother echoed incredulously, as if such a simple explanation could possibly smooth everything over. She tightened her grip on her daughter’s shoulder, fairly shimmering with upset. “Need I remind you that he is seventeen years old and a senior in high school?!”

“No,” Stacy replied shortly, wrenching away from her mother’s hold.

Her father laid a soothing hand on her mother’s shoulder. He was calmer than his wife, but no less angry. “Do you realize the danger you put yourself in?” he asked of his daughter. “Especially this time of year, with all of the criminals and thieves and pickpockets out in full force?”

Stacy scowled as she faced her father. “We were on Fifth Avenue, Daddy, not down in the slums!” she replied hotly, feeling even more righteous indignation over the fact that her parents obviously didn’t trust her to mind her own safety.

She immediately regretted her caustic comeback, as her mother’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “You took my credit card to Fifth Avenue?” she cried. “Fifth Avenue – the one in Manhattan? And you purchased things?!” She looked ready to faint at the very idea.

Guilt joined its sister emotion of regret, both joining the nauseating churn that threatened to return Stacy’s dinner. “I’ll pay you back, I swear,” she managed to respond, pushing back the bile that lined the back of her throat.

“Yes, you will,” her father agreed, disbelief and disappointment high in his tone. “Every penny. And, since you’re grounded for the next two months, that should be plenty of time to save your pocket money.”

Grounded?” Stacy screeched. She’d seen it coming, of course, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear.

“Grounded,” her father reiterated grimly. “That means no TV, no phone, and no friends. You are to go straight to school in the morning and come promptly home in the afternoon. Every day. For the next two months.”

“But – what about the band?” Stacy asked, fear churning back to the fore. Being grounded was one thing, but being kept out of the band would feel incredibly cruel, especially so close to their big New Year’s Eve concert.

Her parents exchanged a long look, seeming to have a conversation only with their eyes. “All right,” her father finally acquiesced. “You may continue on with the band during your punishment – there’s no need for the others to suffer because of your mistake.”

Stacy knew she should’ve felt grateful for this concession, but she was too busy mourning the loss of her social life. “Two months?” she whispered incredulously. How am I ever going to survive for two whole months without my friends – without Ryan?

“Would you like to try for three?” her mother questioned sharply, folding her arms over her chest. “Let’s not forget, you went into the city with a seventeen-year-old boy. Alone. And you lied to us.”

Stacy closed her hands into fists. She was so tired of people judging her relationship over something that simply couldn’t be helped. “What does age have to do with anything?” she cried. “I’m fine! I’m safe! I’m sound! I’m responsible! I’m mature!” she snapped, though she was well aware that she was acting anything but mature at that very moment.

“And Ryan is an adult,” her father interjected calmly. “Stacy, there could be – legal consequences.”

“Which is why this ends, here and now,” her mother announced, her voice trembling, but firm.

Stacy was shocked to look over and see tears coursing down her mother’s cheeks – she looked so hurt, so angry, and so disappointed. Stacy had never seen her mother this upset, and under all of her own anger and grief rose up a tidal wave of remorse and regret. She was almost afraid to ask the meaning of her mother’s cryptic statement.

As it turned out, she didn’t have to.

“I forbid you from seeing Ryan,” her mother decreed. “Him, or anyone else. You’re not allowed to date until you’re sixteen.”

Stacy’s own tears spilled over at that. “W-what?” she choked out, feeling as if she’d been punched in the gut. She could feel her world crumbling all around her, and suddenly, it seemed so incredibly unfair. “How could you?!” she accused, her shoulders shaking with unbroken sobs. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and all you want to do is ruin it!”

Stacy’s mother lifted a hand to her face, brushing away her tears. “You ruined it yourself when you decided to go behind our backs,” she returned quietly.

Stacy only cried harder at that, her chest constricting and her throat closing up and her knees threatening to give out from under her. The idea of giving up her relationship with Ryan was more than she could bear – and, in the end, her reasons for keeping her feelings for him to herself made ironic, if bitter, sense.

“I never wanted this to happen,” she blubbered. “Now you know why I didn’t tell you.”

Her father sighed heavily with defeat. “And now you know that there are consequences for your actions,” he replied, laying a gentle hand on Stacy’s trembling shoulder. “I’m sorry, Stace, but your mother’s word on this stands. You’re grounded for two months, and you’re not allowed to go out with Ryan – or anyone else, for that matter – until you’re sixteen.” He ducked his head, trying to capture his daughter’s gaze. “Are we clear on this?”

Stacy covered her face with her hands, hating the way her tears left hot, clammy trails between her fingers. “Crystal,” she replied brokenly, pulling away from her father’s soothing caress. She barreled blindly past her parents, down the hall, towards her room. Just as she was about to push through her bedroom door, she stopped short, slowly turning on her heel until her eyes landed on Renee’s still-ajar door.

With great effort, Stacy swallowed her tears as she crossed the hall. She glimpsed into the room and spotted her sister sitting at her desk, her head bowed and shoulders hunched over. Renee looked up when she noticed Stacy’s presence in the doorway, opening her mouth to speak, but it was obvious that her sister would hear none of it.

“I hate you,” Stacy seethed, with all the venom and vitriol she could muster, before gripping the knob and slamming Renee’s own door in her face.

~*~

The next day dawned bright and white – outside of Stacy’s window was a veritable winter wonderland, a thick, pristine blanket of snow settling over the landscape for as far as the eye could see. It was a rare sight, indeed; usually the city was too warm to keep much more than a constant coating of gray slush. The last time Stacy had experienced a true snow day was nearly ten years ago. She remembered how enchanted she’d been by it as a five-year-old – waking up to find herself in Santa’s backyard; begging and pleading with her mother to be allowed to go outside and play; making snow angels with Renee and then laying in the imprints, staring up at the sky as the snow slowly melted beneath her.

Yes, snow was right up there on Stacy’s favorites list, wedged somewhere between bunny rabbits and Whitney Houston, but not even the breathtaking scenery just beyond her window was enough to lift her mood.

Stacy sighed, adjusting the pillows beneath her head. She was lying on her side, on top of the bed covers, one hand curled around her favorite worn-to-tatters stuffed bunny while the other clutched at the ruby pendant around her neck. Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes; she’d long ago given up on trying to contain them, or the upset and anger and sorrow that fueled them. Her sleep the night before had been fitful, at best; every time she dozed off, she had anxiety-filled nightmares of losing her boyfriend – because of her parents, or her sister, or some gorgeous, nameless girl his own age. She was helpless to stop it, any of it, all of these torturous scenarios that forcibly separated her from him – and caused her to wake up in a cold sweat.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d lain awake now, but her emotional state hadn’t seen much improvement since the explosive argument with her parents the night before. The apartment was eerily silent, filled to the brim with tension so thick it could be cut with a knife. Renee had knocked on her door a few times, but her parents seemed content to just let her stew. Neither had come by her room since she’d locked herself in, not even to make sure she was still alive, or even in there – for all they knew, she could’ve climbed out the fire escape and run away.

Well, fine. She could dig in her heels, too, and be just as stubborn as them.

Stacy smoothed her thumb over the crimson-colored gemstone at her throat. True to her promise, she hadn’t taken it off – she’d barely been able to even let it go, holding onto it like a lifeline. It was the only tangible piece of Ryan that she had at her fingertips, and she was clinging to it accordingly. She could only hope that it wouldn’t be the last thing left of their relationship.

She’d warded off the nightmares with memories of their date, especially its cozy, intimate ending. It was hard to believe that, over the course of a day, so much could change and shift and grow between them, but it had. By the end of the evening, she no longer felt so shy of him, the way he touched her, or the way he invited her to touch him. Thoughts of that heated clinch in the Prada boutique still raised goosebumps on her skin. She’d felt so confident and beautiful in that little black dress, and he’d responded in a way that she hadn’t even realized she’d wanted him to, until it happened. She remembered it all, like it had been seared into her brain: the look in his eyes as his gaze lingered on her, the heated, almost possessive way he held her, the feel of his hand on her backside as they kissed. It was all equal parts thrilling and terrifying.

So when it happened again, on the steps outside the theater, when they were themselves instead of some fantasy version thereof, she didn’t know what to think – or how to feel. It was all so strange and new and exciting, to indulge and explore this magnetic physical attraction. It felt precious and fragile, but also intimate and intense – and maybe that’s why she thought she loved him. As in, real, true, “I love you” love. She’d never felt so close to him – nor any desire to undress him – until last night.

And, as amazing as all of that made her feel, the idea of telling him that she loved him scared her to death.

What if he didn’t feel the same way?

She felt fairly confident that he was attracted to her – he’d admitted as much, after all – but was there anything beyond that? If she told him “I love you,” would he be able to say it back?

Or willing?

And how would she ever find out, if her parents were so bound and determined to keep them apart?

Her grip tightened over the pendant. There’s no way he’d wait two years for me, she thought, and there’s no way I could ever ask him to do that. Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks, her heart positively aching at the very idea of giving up their blossoming relationship. I can’t lose him – not now, not after everything that’s happened…not until I know for sure what I feel for him – or how he feels about me….

A soft knock sounded on her door. “Stace?” offered a muffled voice.

Stacy felt her blood turn cold. She had never been as angry at Renee in her life as she was at that very moment. It was nigh on impossible for her to wrap her head around the fact that her sister had betrayed her trust so thoroughly, so viciously, and so cruelly. Renee couldn’t deny it, either – their parents had even admitted as much, when they informed her that it was Renee who’d told them where she was, and who she was with.

What Stacy didn’t understand was why. Did Renee truly hate her – or Ryan – that much? She’d never approved of their relationship, to be sure, but this was so far above and beyond that. This was taking an active stance to destroy the one thing she knew her sister cherished most – and for what?

Renee rattled the knob, huffing a peeved sigh when she realized that the door was locked. “Come on, Stacy, you know we’re not allowed to lock our doors,” she intoned.

Stacy made a face, knowing exactly what was coming next and mouthing the words as her sister spoke them: “It’s a fire hazard.”

She is such a goody-two-shoes, Stacy thought, rolling her eyes and clutching her bunny ever closer. Her minded faded back their conversation the morning before, and how Renee kept begging her to tell the truth, to “be honest with herself” and their parents. I guess she decided to be honest for me, Stacy concluded grimly. She always thinks she knows what’s best for me…

Renee knocked again, and again Stacy ignored her, narrowing her eyes and setting her jaw. She was facing away from the door anyway, and hoped that her sister would eventually take the hint and leave her alone.

No such luck.

“I’m not leaving until you let me talk to you,” Renee called, rattling the knob again. “I’ll stand here all day if I have to.”

“Suit yourself,” Stacy mumbled in a low voice. “I’m grounded anyway, so what do I care?”

Silence reigned, long enough to give Stacy belief (and hope) that her sister had given up, so she was surprised when Renee knocked again, softer this time. “Please, Stacy,” she pleaded, her voice low and clear, as if she was leaning against the door, “just give me the chance to explain. It’s not what you think.”

Stacy squeezed her eyes shut, pressing back a fresh round of tears. “It’s not what you think”?? she echoed silently. What – you mean it’s worse? As much as Stacy was loath to truly fight with her sister, there was no way she could just forgive and forget. Not this time – this betrayal cut far too deeply.

“Won’t you just listen to what I have to say?” Renee asked. “Then you can decide if it’s worth hating me for the rest of your life.”

Fine,” Stacy huffed, wrenching herself away from the solace of her bed. Her heart pumped furiously as she crossed the room, her footsteps quiet against the soft carpeting. She flipped the lock and immediately turned on her heel, walking straight back from whence she came, resuming her supine position.

Renee hesitated, mildly surprised when she heard the lock turn. She’d stopped by Stacy’s room several times already that morning, and figured she’d have to come back several more times before her sister finally relented and allowed her entrance. Even from the other side of the door, she could feel Stacy’s wrath – and she alternately felt guilty about it, and a little hurt by it.

With a deep breath, she pushed through Stacy’s bedroom door, unsurprised when she was met with the sight of her sister’s back. She closed the door behind herself and leaned back, folding her hands over the knob. She considered her words carefully as she gazed pointedly at her sister, half-wondering if she could will Stacy to turn around and face her.

Renee didn’t like confrontation, but she’d rather meet it head-on, if given the choice.

“Do you know why I came home so early for Christmas?” she began. She gave Stacy the chance to respond, but wasn’t surprised when she didn’t. “It’s because it takes a week to completely get over jet lag. I was asleep yesterday afternoon when Mom and Dad woke me up to ask if I knew where you were. They were worried about you, because they expected you back before supper.”

Renee shook her head, taking a step forward and crossing her arms over her chest. “I wasn’t even totally awake when they asked me, and – I don’t know, I guess I said something like, ‘she’s still on her date’…or, something. I know that’s not an excuse,” she rushed on, moving closer and closer to Stacy’s bed, “and I’m not trying to say that it is – only that, I didn’t mean to betray your trust. I didn’t mean to tell them, and I’m sorry.”

She tightened the brace of her arms as she rounded the corner, directing her gaze to her sister’s stony face. “This is me apologizing, Stacy,” she told her solemnly. “I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt you.”

Stacy exhaled sharply, hugging her worn-to-tatters rabbit even closer to her chest as she turned her eyes to her sister. “But you don’t approve,” she sneered, her eyes filmy with tears.

Renee chewed on her lower lip, feeling her own upset rising, making her chest feel tight. “No,” she admitted, “but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to run to Mom and Dad and tell on you, either. Give me a little credit, please – I didn’t tell them that you two had been carrying on for months, doing who knows what, who knows where.” She sighed. “I didn’t tell them your secrets, Stacy. I didn’t then, and I won’t now. I won’t tell them about that, either,” she added, nodding to the hand still curled around the pendant at Stacy’s throat.

Stacy sniffled, turning her gaze pointedly away from Renee’s. Her upset was writ large across her features, her chin trembling as she worked hard to keep her mouth closed. It seemed she was bound and determined not to speak, nor to even acknowledge Renee’s apology – so she tried a different tack.

“I think they came down too hard on you,” Renee conceded, unfurling her arms and making a move to sit near Stacy’s feet. “But, you know, they are reasonable people.”

Stacy snorted derisively. Renee took it as a good sign – it meant she was listening, at least.

“Don’t you remember when Mom stopped smoking because you asked her to?” Renee prodded. “Or when Dad came home extra early to spend time with you, to make up for the fact that you couldn’t bring your class bunny home for the weekend? Come on, Stace, you know they care about you. They’re hurting over this just as much as you are.”

“They certainly have a funny way of showing it,” Stacy grumbled in reply. “They don’t even care if I’m still alive in here.”

Renee rolled her eyes at her sister’s melodramatics. “Oh, come on, Stacy, you know that’s not true,” she chided. “I mean – look at this. What are you doing? You think they owe you an apology; they think you owe them an apology; so what – you’re just going to wait each other out, see who blinks first? That’s stupid, and you know it.”

Stacy scowled, turning away, curling even further into herself.

“Look, Stace, you want to change their minds? Then be mature about it,” Renee advised in her most patient, reasonable tone. “Talk to them. They don’t want to make your life miserable – they just want to know what’s going on. They want you to be safe, and happy…just like I do.” She placed a supportive hand on Stacy’s ankle, only to feel her sister flinch and push away.

“Will you just leave,” Stacy choked out, her tone more order than request.

“W-what?” Renee replied incredulously. She thought she was really beginning to make some progress with Stacy, getting her to understand it was a mistake, not a pointed betrayal, and that their parents were just as upset as she was about this whole mess. Renee’s mind reeled as she wondered what she’d said – or done – to make Stacy shut down so abruptly.

“Just – leave me alone,” Stacy commanded coldly, forcefully, her gaze focused straight ahead. Her expression had shuttered completely, her jaw set, her lips thinned into a grim line.

“Okay,” Renee acquiesced softly, lifting her hands palm-out as she stood once more. “Just – think about what I said, okay?” She rounded the corner of the bed, swallowing hard as she crossed the small space and reached out for the door. She turned, eyeing her sister for a long moment, and wondering if anything she’d said had gotten through. She was used to arguing with Stacy, but it had never been like this. Stacy’s temper usually burned brightly and rapidly, but this…this was completely different.

“I truly am sorry, sis,” Renee murmured. “I hope you can find a way to believe me.” And forgive me, she added silently. She quickly opened the door, wanting to escape the hurt that would accompany the silence surely to follow, and slipped out, hoping against hope that she hadn’t just made things worse, instead of better.

Stacy might not have acknowledged her sister’s advice, but she was certainly contemplating it. Renee’s words had given her hope – could she really find a way to change her parents’ mind about her relationship with Ryan? She was desperate enough to try just about anything. Be mature, Renee had suggested, talk to them.

Stacy’s heart sank. She’d tried talking to them about it last night, but that had only ended in disaster. And she wasn’t feeling particularly mature, either, cowering in her room and drowning in her sorrows. So what can I do? she asked herself, absently allowing her gaze to wander. When her eyes landed on her telephone, she was seized by a sudden, crazy, reckless idea.

Before she could change her mind, she reached for it, dialing a number she knew by heart with shaking fingers. This went against the rules of her punishment, and she would surely suffer her mother’s wrath if she just happened to pick up the line, but what other choice did she have? Her relationship was at stake, and she would do anything to save it.

Her heart thrummed in her chest as she waited for the line to connect. It rang almost four times before it was answered, and breathlessly at that.

“Hello?”

Stacy exhaled sharply at the sound of her boyfriend’s calm, easy tone. “Ryan,” she managed to choke out, her throat constricting painfully as a fresh wave of tears spilled over her cheeks.

“Stacy?” he replied, his tone sharpening with concern. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“No,” she sniffled in response, reaching up to wipe her tears away. She hadn’t meant to start crying again, but the sound of his voice brought everything rushing back to the fore – somehow making this nightmare seem all the more real.

“Tell me what’s going on,” he urged.

“Oh, Ryan,” she sobbed, “they know.”

There was a long pause. “Your parents?” he finally guessed, sounding none too surprised.

“They went ballistic last night,” she burbled, her heart aching in her chest as she clutched at the pendant. “They won’t let me see you anymore. Please, Ryan, you have to fix this. I don’t know what to do.”

“Okay, okay,” he murmured soothingly. “Just sit tight, Stace – I’m on my way.”

Stacy hung up the phone, covering her face with her hands as she gulped back her tears, wondering if she’d done the right thing – or if her rash response had only served to make the situation worse.

Chapter Text


.24.
“Someday We’ll Be Together”

My love is yours, baby
Oh right from the start
You, you, you possess my soul now, honey
And I know, I know you own my heart
And I wanna say it
Someday, we’ll be together

© 1961 Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers & Harvey Fuqua

~*~

Renee sighed as she wandered through the apartment, feeling at a complete and utter loss. Her parents had retreated to the living area, while Stacy continued to keep herself sequestered in her room, and none of them were really in the mood for small talk, it seemed. Renee felt horrible for what had happened, and horribly hurt that Stacy hadn’t accepted her apology, but what could she do?

Absently, she pulled open the door of the hall closet, running her eyes over its contents. She stopped abruptly when she spotted Stacy’s white coat hastily wedged into the corner. She was surprised when she touched it, fingering the still-damp fabric, and for a moment, wondered what in the world could’ve happened for Stacy to actually forget about keeping it pristine.

Renee smiled wistfully as she removed it from the closet, straightening it on the hanger. It wasn’t hard to guess – she remembered what it felt like, falling head over heels in love for the first time. Nothing else in the world was as important as that person – or at least, so it seemed. Renee was trying very hard to keep this in mind, to help mitigate some of the hurt she felt over Stacy’s preoccupation with her boyfriend. She’d thought, perhaps foolishly, that her return home for Christmas would also mean a return to her place in Stacy’s life: as her main confidante, best friend, and constant companion. She’d dismissed her sister’s infatuation with Ryan as fleeting and silly – and, obviously, that was a judgment call she’d made at her own peril.

Instead, Renee had returned home and found that her sister had changed, in ways that confused and frustrated her. She was used to sharing Stacy’s affection – she and the Kid had played complementary roles in Stacy’s life for as long as she could remember – but now it felt like Ryan had superseded them both. He was the one that made Stacy’s face light up whenever he entered the room; he was the one she shared her secrets with now; he was the one she turned to first in her moments of crisis.

It sucked, and it hurt, and for once, Renee was at a loss of how to deal with it.

As long as Ryan held such a coveted position in Stacy’s life, Renee was unsure of her own place in it – and that’s why she disapproved of their relationship so adamantly.

Well, that, and she was thoroughly unconvinced that Ryan wouldn’t end up breaking Stacy’s heart in the end. He was a flirt and a charmer, and seemed to quickly bore of the girls he dated. A breakup would probably mean very little to him, whereas – as Renee was already witnessing – it would completely devastate Stacy.

Maybe, she considered, smoothing her hand over the front of her sister’s coat, it’s for the best if their relationship ends before they have the chance to get any closer. She frowned. Maybe…

She was jolted from her thoughts when the buzzer by the front door sounded. She hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder to see if anyone else was expecting something. When no one appeared in the hall behind her, she went over and pressed the button. “Yes?” she inquired crisply.

“It’s me,” came a soft, familiar reply.

Renee quirked a brow as she regarded the intercom. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, though she couldn’t quite place it. A knot of trepidation formed in her stomach. “Ryan?” she finally asked, hoping she was wrong – but somehow knowing that she wasn’t. What is he doing here?

“Oh – hi, Renee,” he replied abruptly, his tone becoming all business-like. “Listen, are your parents around?”

“Yeah, they’re here,” Renee sputtered, casting a dubious glance over her shoulder toward the living area.

“Well, can I come up?” Ryan pressed. “I’d like to speak with them, if at all possible.”

Renee pursed her lips as she debated how to put him off. “I – damn!” she swore under her breath, realizing she’d accidentally pressed the wrong button, the one that allowed him entrance into their building.

Now what am I going to do? she silently asked herself, feeling her heart flutter with panic. He’s the last person my parents want to see right now. She took a calm, steadying breath, trying to work through her astonishment and aggravation to formulate a plan that would keep World War III from erupting right there in the foyer.

I’ll tell him to just go away, she considered, pacing nervously back and forth. That I made a mistake, and that my parents are out shopping or something. She chewed on her lower lip, wrapping her arms around Stacy’s still-damp coat as she waited; staring at the door, she valiantly wished for a way to make him simply disappear.

She swallowed a yelp when she heard the sharp knock against solid wood, giving herself a moment to gather her wits before opening it. Before she could change her mind, she wrenched the door open, ready to tell this unexpected and unwanted visitor to go away, but felt the words evaporate as she laid eyes on him for the first time since summer.

Ryan greeted her with a disarming smile. “Hey, Renee,” he said, giving her a casual nod. “Welcome back.”

All she could do was stare in response. Stacy wasn’t the only one who’d changed in her absence, it seemed. Renee barely recognized the boy who stood before her. He was a little bit taller, his features a bit sharper, his hair no longer in those obnoxious spikes – and he was wearing something other than head-to-toe black. Amazing, she thought with a wry shake of her head. I never thought I’d see the day when he actually looked like a normal human being, instead of a teenaged wannabe rock star.

Not that this apparent taming of his appearance changed her opinion about him as a person, or his singular ability to quite possibly ruin her sister’s life.

“Can I come in?” he asked pointedly.

“No,” Renee replied, blinking back her shock over seeing this – un-version of her former bandmate. “Listen, I made a mistake before,” she apologized hastily, pushing him back into the hall. “I’m still feeling a little off from the whole jet-lag thing, and I’m not even completely sure that my folks are home right now.” She put on her best sheepish, exhausted expression. “It may be better to come back later.” Like, a million years from now, she added silently.

Ryan’s expression turned sardonic. “Look, Renee, Stacy called and told me about the fight last night,” he informed her, crossing his arms and rocking back on his heels. “And, well, I think your parents have the wrong idea about what happened yesterday.”

I don’t, Renee thought, feeling singularly unmoved to stand aside and let him in. She wondered if her parents knew about this radical change in his appearance – they didn’t often attend the Kids’ concerts, and Stacy obviously hadn’t been bringing him around and showing him off. She realized, with a sinking feeling, that he looked as reasonable as he sounded – and that meant he had half a chance of convincing them that he wasn’t a total player.

“So I’d like the chance to sit down with them,” he was saying, oblivious to Renee’s churning internal monologue. “The last thing I wanted to do was to get Stacy into trouble for taking her out.”

Renee swallowed hard. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” she started, only to find herself unexpectedly interrupted.

“Renee, honey?” her mother called, wandering out into the hall as she wiped her hands on a dish cloth. “Who’s that at the door?”

Renee gave Ryan a hard, pleading look, but he stood firm, glancing over her shoulder and dropping his defensive stance as her mother appeared behind her.

Renee looked back, just in time to see her mother’s lips thin into a grim line. “Hello, Ryan,” she said coolly, clutching the dish cloth between her hands.

“Mrs. Brisbane,” he acknowledged politely. “I’d like to speak with you and your husband, if you don’t mind.” He cleared his throat, offering her a hopeful smile. “About yesterday?”

Renee’s mother narrowed her eyes as she regarded him. Renee hugged Stacy’s coat to her chest as she glanced between the two of them, wondering if she was the only one who felt the sudden, suffocating tension that permeated the air around them.

“Please, come in,” her mother finally said, her tone no warmer than before. She pulled the door open wider, allowing Ryan to sidestep Renee and grace their threshold.

“I believe Mr. Brisbane is in the living area,” Renee’s mother continued, gesturing down the hallway. “If you’ll follow me?”

Ryan shot Renee a pointed look as he passed her, before dutifully falling into line behind her mother. Renee trailed after them, the knot in her stomach intensifying with each step. He’s not stupid, she kept telling herself as she eyed the back of Ryan’s head. Surely he knows that he’s walking into the tempest?

She stopped short when, as her mother turned left into the living area, Ryan shot a covert look to his right, down the corridor that lead to the girls’ bedrooms, before following her. Renee looked over as well, spotting Stacy standing in her doorway, watching the proceedings with an apprehensive expression. She continued to gaze at her sister as the doors to the living area clattered shut on her left, separating them from the others.

For a moment, Renee was frozen in place; when she came to her senses, she took off down the hall, skidding to a stop in front of Stacy’s door before her younger sister could shut her out. “Stacy, what’s going on?” she asked urgently. “Why is he here?”

Stacy’s features hardened into a scowl as she pressed past her sister without a word, striding purposefully down the hall, into the foyer, and out of the apartment, closing the door resolutely behind her.

“Great,” Renee muttered under her breath. “Just – great.” With a sigh, she entered her sister’s bedroom, crossing the small space to hang the still-damp coat on the closet door. She smoothed her hand over the front of it, feeling a slight twinge of envy. She didn’t agree with all of Stacy’s fashion choices, but her sister had a knack for picking interesting pieces – things Renee loved, but would never know how to find. This coat was one of them. Two days ago, she wouldn’t have even hesitated to ask if she could borrow it…but now, she felt like an unwelcome intruder – not only in her sister’s closet, but in her life.

Renee took a step back, glancing around the small space with wistful eyes. She’d helped Stacy decorate it last spring, getting rid of the babyish pink wallpaper and ruffles. Now the walls were a tasteful, neutral cream, with tasteful splashes of color, thanks to new furniture and accessories. She really is growing up, Renee had to admit to herself, wandering over to the bureau and running her hand over the clutter of makeup tins and hair baubles that resided there. She found it a little disconcerting to see Stacy’s stuffed rabbit collection displayed proudly next to posters of Duran Duran and Michael Jackson, along with candid snapshots from their shared time in Kids Incorporated, but that was her sister – not yet ready to let go of her childish comforts, but not yet willing to totally disavow them, either.

Renee smiled softly as she moved closer to these framed photographs of their friends, enjoying the memories recalled – meeting a real, live princess at the P*lace; her celebratory lunch from Café Paris for winning a poetry contest; giggling over Riley’s latest wacky invention; a group shot with Gloria, who was beamed as she clutched her high school diploma. Stacy had even managed to snag one of their old promotional posters, bought and paid for by Richie’s brilliant scheme of auctioning off a date with Renee…

Her expression turned sad. Never before had there been such a disconnect between her and her sister. It made her feel hopeless inside. Sure, they’d had their fair share of fights over the years, but it had never been like this. Of course, it was difficult to actively fight with someone who managed to elevate the silent treatment to an art form.

Renee was startled from her morose thoughts when she heard the doors to the living area open. She’d lingered longer than she’d meant to in her sister’s room; she peeked out into the hall to see if the coast was clear enough to make her escape.

Her parents stood just beyond the living area with Ryan, their expressions cordial, if solemn. Her father clasped Ryan’s hand. “Thank you for stopping by,” he said somberly. “We really do appreciate you shedding more light on the situation.”

“My pleasure,” Ryan returned, giving her father’s hand a firm shake. “Thanks again for giving me the chance to speak with you.”

“Of course, dear,” her mother added, offering Ryan a warm, if tight-lipped, smile as she touched her husband’s arm.

Ryan turned away from them, as if to leave. “I can show myself out,” he noted, pointing his thumb in the direction of their front door. “Thanks again.”

The trio parted ways; as soon as her parents returned to the living area, however, Ryan doubled back, turning the corner towards the girls’ bedrooms and moving quickly, if quietly, down the hall. Renee swiftly ducked back into her sister’s room, closing the door as silently as she dared and hoping that none of them had noticed her eavesdropping. She wasn’t quite fast enough, however; a soft knock sounded just behind her head before she could ease the door back into its frame.

“Stace?” Ryan called softly, pushing into the room. He seemed surprised when he found Renee there instead, a slight flush rising to color his cheeks. “Oh, sorry – I was just looking for Stacy. Is she around?”

Renee swallowed hard as she stared at him. What the hell did he think he was doing? Did he really have the gall to go behind her parents’ backs after what she could only assume was an absolute inquisition? Even if it had all ended with a subdued handshake…

She narrowed her eyes. You have a hell of a lot of nerve, she wanted to say, but when she opened her mouth, even she was surprised by what actually came out. “I think she’s outside somewhere,” she told him, her tone soft and bordering on the apologetic.

“Thanks.” He nodded abruptly and disappeared into the hall once more. After a moment’s hesitation, Renee followed him, watching him finally walk out the front door of the apartment – only to be immediately tackled by her sister, who wrapped her arms around him so fiercely that she wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to extract himself from her embrace. Their intimacy was immediate, obvious, and intense, instantly making Renee feel uncomfortable, even from a distance.

With a quick look around to make sure the foyer was empty, she crept closer to the door, gently closing it from the inside. As she grappled with her own conflicting emotions over the situation, she figured the least she could do was give them their privacy to sort things out.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

~*~

Stacy huddled in the hallway just beyond the front door of her family’s apartment. Ryan had been inside for what seemed like forever; she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a desperate, last-ditch gamble to save this relationship, but even as she stood there, her stomach twisting into knots and her heart throbbing painfully in her chest, she didn’t regret it. Calling him had been the right thing to do – even if, in doing it, she had to go against her parents’ word.

After all, he had the right to know what was going on – even if he, too, proved powerless to stop it.

Stacy sank down to the floor as she waited, wrapping her arms around her knees. She tried to concentrate on her breathing – in and out, in a deep, steady, calming rhythm – but it was nearly impossible to not think about what was going on inside. It had been a calculated risk, not coming out of her room when he arrived; she hadn’t wanted to enflame her parents’ ire any further by being visible when he finally showed his calm, mature, and sensible self.

But she hadn’t counted on Renee barging in and questioning his very presence.

Her features shifted into a scowl as she thought about her sister. She couldn’t even stand the idea of being around her right now, much less actually talking to her, but Renee was nothing if not persistent. Stacy could only hope that she would take the hint from the cold shoulder she’d received whenever she attempted an approach.

Stacy wasn’t quite ready to forgive and forget, no matter how much Renee pleaded and cajoled. She wasn’t sure what it would take to repair her friendship with her sister, but considering the bitter, ill-fitting hurt her betrayal still inspired?

She knew it was going to take some time.

After what seemed like an eternity, the door to the apartment finally opened, a pair of very familiar Converse filling her field of vision. Stacy bolted to her feet, throwing herself into her boyfriend’s arms, pressing herself against him as her hands found the smooth planes of his back. He was wearing the same white cable knit sweater from yesterday, and she found it particularly comforting now, so soft and warm against her cheek as she buried her face in his shoulder.

“Hey,” he whispered softly, returning her embrace with equal fervor, one arm secure around her waist as the other crossed over her back, his hand rising to her shoulder in a reassuring hold.

Stacy squeezed her eyes shut, drawing her lower lip between her teeth and biting down so hard she was afraid she’d draw blood. She didn’t know what to make of his breathless, one-word greeting, and she was too afraid to look at him, fearful that she’d find only disappointment and defeat lurking in his features. A fresh round of tears welled behind her eyes, and frantically, she began trying to memorize everything – the way they were standing, the softness of his sweater against her cheek, the heat that burned between them, aching and intense and raw.

Her hands closed into fists against his back. She loved this, and wanted this, and maybe she even needed it. One thing was for sure – there was no way she would give it up willingly.

He must’ve sensed her growing distress, for he tightened the brace of his arms around her, gently rocking back and forth in a calm, soothing manner. “Everything’s going to be okay, sweetness,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to her temple.

Stacy sniffled. “I find that hard to believe,” she replied morosely, unable to hide the accompanying tremor in her voice.

The hand at her shoulder drifted into her hair, his fingers combing through her honey-colored locks. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said softly.

“It only feels like it,” she sighed, shifting slightly and curling into the warm caress. “Two months of being grounded, I could deal with – but I won’t give you up. I can’t.”

He pressed another warm, soft kiss to her brow. “And you won’t have to,” he assured her, “not completely.”

Stacy felt her heart skip a beat at his words; she didn’t entirely trust that she’s heard him correctly. “What?” she whispered, pulling away from him just enough so that she could look into his eyes. “But – how…?”

Ryan’s smile was as soft as his tone. “Let’s just say I had a little luck negotiating with your parents.”

Stacy did her level best to quell the hope that flared in her chest at that. “What did you say to them?”

He shrugged, brushing her hair from her brow. “I just told them what happened yesterday,” he replied. “Well, the PG version, at least.”

She couldn’t help but smile at that.

“I assured them that we didn’t go anywhere dangerous, or do anything illegal,” he continued, his eyes sparkling as he gave her a very meaningful look. “We were just two kids enjoying each other’s company.”

“You’re amazing,” she breathed, leaning into him, feeling the burden of her sorrow beginning to ease its hold on her heart.

“I have my moments,” he conceded with a careless shrug. “Anyway, your parents agreed to reduce your sentence – ”

“To what?” she cut in.

His expression turned wry. “To one month of grounding, starting after the holidays.”

She stared at him incredulously. “How did you manage that?!”

“By agreeing to two conditions,” he replied. “First of all, that I help you repay your mother for the incredibly generous gift you gave me – which, you know, I promised to do anyway.”

Stacy nodded, remembering the whispered vow that she’d so easily dismissed in the Prada boutique. That doesn’t seem so bad, she reasoned, though it irked her that he would have to pay for something she bought him. “And what else?”

Ryan’s expression faltered for the first time. “Well,” he sighed, smoothing his hands across her shoulders, “your father made it clear to me, in no uncertain terms, that if I laid a hand on you before you turned fifteen, he’d break me in half.”

What?!” Stacy cried, redoubling her grip on him, crisscrossing her arms over his back as she pressed her head to his chest. “No way. I’d rather be grounded for life than to be kept away from you.”

“It sucks,” he agreed, drawing her close, “but it’s only for a little while. Look, your birthday’s in February, right?”

She nodded wordlessly, gathering fistfuls of his sweater between her clenched hands.

“Two months is better than two years,” he reminded her, sweeping his fingers through her hair.

“I know,” she murmured in reply.

“We’ll make it, Stace,” he said softly, reassuringly, sounding far more confident than she felt. “Nothing has to change, not really. We’ll still see each other at school, at rehearsals…”

“That’s not enough for me anymore,” she whispered fiercely, tightening her hold on him.

“I know,” he sighed. “Me, either – but we’ll make it through.” He drew away from her slightly, his gaze resolute as his emerald eyes met hers. “You are incredibly important to me, Stacy,” he told her, brushing his thumbs over the crests of her cheeks, the light touch sending a shiver of desire reverberating down her spine. “Don’t ever forget that.”

I love you, she thought, choking back the words – and the fear and temptation that always accompanied them. She simply nodded instead, a curl of heat igniting in her torso as he leaned into her, his arms warm and solid around her as his mouth captured hers in an electrifying kiss, one she felt right down to her toes. She clung to him, pressing forward, beyond, knowing that this moment would have to last her until her birthday.

He pulled away before she was ready for it to end, nipping at her lower lip as he withdrew, and heaved a shuttering sigh. “Damn,” he swore, resting his forehead against hers for a moment, “how am I going to live without that for two months?”

She curled her hands into his hair, her eyes glittering as they met his. “I don’t know, but we’ll find a way,” she promised.

~*~

The sun sank below the horizon before Stacy returned home; she lingered on the front stoop of her building with Ryan, cuddled up in his sweater as they sat together, talking and simply holding each other, drawing out this last bit of alone time together as much as they dared. She’d been reluctant to let him go, but eventually he had to, leaving her with a peck on the cheek and the reassuring promise that this wasn’t the end – of their relationship, or of the world.

When she finally returned to her apartment, she felt cautiously optimistic that things would work out. Ryan had given her a brilliant rundown of the conversation he’d had with her parents, and with it, granted her the hope that maybe they’d come around, eventually. He also gently pointed out that maybe she’d handled the situation badly, from the original cover lie all the way to their blowout fight, and suggested that her parents weren’t so much angry with her as simply concerned about her.

“That’s just the way parents are,” he reminded her.

She slipped into the foyer on quiet feet, carefully closing the front door behind herself. The apartment was quiet, save for the faint sounds of the television set emanating from the living area. Stacy hesitated for a long moment, drawing up every last shred of her resolve, before pressing forward, following the canned laugh track and hoping to find her parents on the other end of it.

When she walked into the room, she found her entire family there – her father, watching TV; her mother, sitting beside him on the sofa with a book, and Renee, laying across the overstuffed armchair, her eyes trained forward but not really looking at anything. Well, at least I’ll only have to say this once, Stacy thought to herself, pointedly turning away from her sister.

“Mom, Dad,” she announced, drawing their attention away from their passive entertainment. “I just wanted to say – I’m sorry about last night.” She looked down at her hands, curling her fingers together and flattening them against her palms. “I didn’t mean to make you worry, and I shouldn’t have lied about where I was, or who I was with.” She shrugged helplessly. “It’s just…”

Her parents exchanged a glance as her voice trailed off, her father picking up the remote and turning the TV off. After a moment, her mother beckoned her youngest daughter to her side, patting the free cushion next to her. “I’m sorry, too, dear,” she replied, curling her arm around Stacy as she sank down beside her. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.” She sighed wistfully, taking her husband’s hand. “I remember what it was like to be young, after all.”

Stacy chanced a glance at her parents. “So you’re not upset with me?” she prodded.

“Well,” he father mused, “I wouldn’t say that.” He took in his daughter’s crestfallen expression. “But I’m sure you realize that all is not lost,” he added with a wry look. “Given your mysterious disappearance this afternoon, I’d guess it’s safe to assume that Ryan has filled you in on the particulars of our conversation?”

Stacy flushed, averting her eyes to her lap. It was so easy to become swept up in him whenever they were together, even if staying outside on the front stoop in the freezing cold had started out as a conscious, defiant decision on her part.

Her father nodded indulgently. “He’s a very thoughtful young man,” he observed. “And it was quite considerate of him to come over and sit down with us, to shed more light on the situation.”

Heat rushed to Stacy’s cheeks, and she became aware of the weight of her mother’s arm across her shoulders. She pointedly ignored Renee’s eye-rolling response to this shower of compliments for her boyfriend.

“But don’t think that we’ve confused his sense of maturity and responsibly with yours,” her mother said softly, giving her daughter a squeeze. “And don’t think that you can call him to come over and bail you out every time we have a disagreement, either.”

Stacy smiled weakly, her eyes rising to meet her mother’s. “Right,” she agreed, swallowing hard.

“Now,” her father cut in with a business-like tone, commanding Stacy’s attention once more, “after taking into consideration a few things we’ve learned from this young man, your mother and I did decide to make a few small changes in your punishment. You’re still grounded, of course – ”

“ – and that’s only fair,” Stacy interrupted, feeling magnanimous. “Thank you.”

Her father arched an amused brow. “But more importantly, I suppose, is that we have agreed to let you begin dating at fifteen instead of sixteen. Not a minute sooner,” he warned, “and when you do start to date, there will be some conditions.”

“Think of it as probation,” her mother suggested.

Stacy glanced uneasily from one parent to the other. “Oh?”

Her father shifted forward in his seat. “When you turn fifteen, you’ll be allowed to start seeing Ryan again, but only if you tell us – in advance – what sort of plans you’ll be making, and agree to call us if those plans change.”

“Okay.” Stacy nodded tentatively. “I guess that’s fair.”

“You’ll also need our permission before accepting a date,” her mother added, “with him, or with anybody else.”

That one was a bit harder to swallow, but, with reluctance, Stacy agreed to it as well. It won’t be so bad, she thought. Being with him will be worth any strings my parents decide to attach…

“Now, we’re aware that you have two weeks of rehearsals coming up with the band over break,” her father announced, drawing Stacy from her thoughts. “And, though your sentence has been technically delayed until after the holidays, we’re not quite letting you off scot-free.” He paused. “We think it’d be a good idea if Renee accompanied you to those rehearsals – and to the concert – as a sort of chaperone.”

What?!” Renee screeched in dismay, bolting upright from her spot in the armchair.

“I don’t need a baby-sitter,” Stacy argued, feeling just as distressed as Renee looked as she pulled away from her mother’s embrace. “Can’t you trust me on this?”

“It’s not that we don’t trust you,” her mother replied, while her father added, “It’s the principle of the matter.” They exchanged a look. “Either you go with Renee, or you go with one of us.”

Stacy sighed in defeat. “Fine,” she acquiesced, crossing her arms over her chest. She sent an icy glare in Renee’s direction. “I suppose they’re your friends, too.”

Renee sank back into her seat. “Well,” she sighed, her tone unenthusiastic. “Won’t this be fun?”

Chapter Text

.25.
“Who Found Who”

How come you can’t explain it
The way you’re acting recently?
It seems that everything is changing
I can tell, the way you’re treating me
I believe that you still love me
But you find it hard to show
Don’t throw away the chance
Cause it might just be your last
And I won’t let you forget…

© 1987 John Benitez & Elisa Fiorillo

~*~

“Stacy!” Renee called out in a plaintive tone, hugging her arms around herself, struggling to keep pace with her sister as they made their way towards the P*lace. “Will you slow down, please?” The sun was out, shining brightly on the late December morning, but it was definitely not warm; the frigid, biting breeze swirling between the buildings only added to Renee’s misery. It cut straight through her, chilling her to the bone, whipping against her face and chapping her already parched lips to the point of pain.

Stacy shot a glare over her shoulder, but didn’t slow her stride. “Why don’t you just stop following me?” she suggested snidely. “Or do you not have anything better to do?”

“Yeah, right,” Renee replied sarcastically, lifting her voice over the call of the wind. “Like I really wanted to spend my entire Christmas vacation chaperoning you!” She burrowed her gloved-but-frozen fingers under her arms, seeking out any pocket of warmth. It had been an especially frozen winter for New York thus far, but nothing could match the cold shoulder that Stacy had elevated into an art form over the last couple of weeks.

Renee finally caught up with her sister at the corner of a cross street. “It’s your own fault,” Stacy informed her frostily, not bothering to look at Renee as she came to a halt beside her. “If you hadn’t opened your big mouth, we’d both be spending our holidays exactly the way we wanted to.”

Renee’s cheeks heated. “If I hadn’t opened my big mouth, you’d be in more trouble than you already are,” she retorted.

Stacy’s scowl only deepened. “You know nothing about my relationship,” she bit off vehemently, stepping out into the street the moment the light changed.

“You mean the relationship you’re not supposed to be having?” Renee called out after her, cursing herself as she watched Stacy’s huddled form scuttle away, increasing the already-strained distance between them.

Renee sighed as she stepped into the street, her boots crunching through the ever-present gray slush as she carefully navigated across the pavement and back onto the sidewalk. She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a stick of lip balm, slathering on another layer as she walked, and thought about how her relationship with her sister had gone completely pear-shaped with seemingly little hope for recovery.

She thought they’d made some progress during Christmas itself; Stacy had been cordial enough on Christmas Eve, and downright nice on Christmas Day, as they sat under the tree and unwrapped presents with their parents. She’d smiled after opening Renee’s gift, a beautiful lavender sweater, and had offered sincere, heartfelt thanks. It wasn’t quite the reconciling hug Renee had been hoping for, but it was better than nothing. Stacy obviously hadn’t scrimped on her gift, either; Renee had been elated upon opening her package and finding a beautifully bound volume of the complete works of William Shakespeare nestled inside. Stacy had also given her the lip balm she was carrying, exclaiming about its supposedly unbelievable healing and moisturizing abilities. It was a nice product, Renee had discovered, but not quite as miraculous as proclaimed.

She’d gone to bed that evening with a light heart, sure that her sister had finally forgiven her and that they could move past this ugly experience. She was bitterly disappointed the next morning, however, when Stacy fell back into the old routine, pointedly ignored her at the breakfast table, during their walk to the Garage for band practice, and, indeed, for the rest of the day. She was pleasant enough in mixed company, but whenever it was just the two of them, the silence resurfaced.

Renee was sick of it. She was beyond ready to make up with her sister, but Stacy seemed bound and determined to stay mad at her, no matter how many times she apologized, or extended the metaphorical olive branch. For every step forward, they’d taken five steps back, and time was starting to run out. The New Year’s Eve party was tomorrow night; she’d be back in the UK by the end of the week. She didn’t want to leave without reconciling with Stacy, but she was out of ideas for how to patch things up.

Stacy had been in a particularly foul mood that morning, and was obviously looking to take it out on someone. She’d left Renee at the breakfast table even earlier than usual and had taken off for the P*lace, leaving her sister quite literally running to catch up with her.

Renee had an inkling of an idea as to why Stacy was so desperate to get to the P*lace early, and her suspicions were confirmed when she finally pushed through the familiar blue-framed doors. Her eyes swept over the chaos of the front room – the dancers, huddled around Riley’s counter; Richie, Kenny, Connie, and Devyn noisily moving tables and pushing risers into place in front of the stage; Tommy Morgan nearby, tuning his guitar; members of the high school jazz ensemble milling around – and eventually landed on her sister, who had pressed herself into Ryan’s side, her arms wrapped around his waist, her head burrowed against his shoulder. Ryan had been deep in conversation with Riley and was visibly surprised by Stacy’s sudden appearance; his expression softened as he draped his arm around her shoulders, but his gaze was searching as he looked around the room. Renee felt herself flush when he spotted her, his mouth thinning into a grim line.

She turned to the counter, watching from the corner of her eye as Ryan excused himself from Riley and gently led Stacy aside. The two conversed privately for several moments, their arms still around each other, and then he folded her into a reassuring hug that lingered a few beats too long for Renee’s taste. She pointedly turned her attention away from them, settling herself a few seats away from the cluster of the dance troupe, and swiveled towards them as their conversation grew louder and more intense.

“See?” Brian proclaimed triumphantly, jabbing his finger at the screen of Riley’s portable TV. “I told you it was two twists and a turn.”

“What are you talking about?” Dee countered, grabbing the remote and rewinding the sequence. “It’s two turns and a twist – or are you just afraid you can’t do it right?”

“I can do it right,” Brian declared, wresting control of the remote again. “It’s just hard to actually see what they’re doing, since it’s mostly shot from the waist up. You have to go all the way back to the dance at the Sheldrake – ”

“ – but they don’t do the lift at the Sheldrake,” Dee broke in, ”so it’s completely different!”

“Will you two give it a rest?!” exclaimed Kimberly, making a grab for the remote. “We are trying to study Baby’s dress for the finale. If we get the proportions wrong, it will totally ruin the visual!”

Brian held the remote out of her reach. “You’ve had three weeks to study the dress,” he taunted her. “If it’s not right now, it never will be.”

Kimberly crossed her arms and glared at him. “As if you’d even know,” she responded haughtily. “All you have to do is dig out a pair of black pants and a black shirt – I’m the one wearing an underskirt!”

Renee slowly spun away from the ongoing quarreling, dangling her legs over the edge of the barstool as she turned her attention to the band. They were going through their paces on stage, concentrating on the blocking and simple choreography for their numbers. They were working together smoothly and quietly, like a well-oiled machine, in sharp contrast to the squabbling dancers.

Whatever Ryan had said to her sister seemed to have worked; Stacy was calm and composed as she played her part. She both followed and dispensed direction with confidence and aplomb; the others listened to her just as attentively as they did to Ryan. Today was the final dress rehearsal at the P*lace; the last two weeks had been spent hunkered down in the Garage, working diligently to learn two ten-song sets, lyrics and music alike.

As much as Renee hated to admit it, she had been thoroughly impressed with how professionally her sister and Ryan were running the band’s NYE concert rehearsals. They kept things casual, but structured; they presented a united front, working with care to resolve any issues before they could become full-scale problems. Tommy Morgan had integrated seamlessly back into the group for his featured numbers, but Kenny’s week-long absence had been much more difficult to manage. He struggled from the start, but Ryan and Stacy had quickly made the decision to pull him aside at separate times, working with him one-on-one to bring him up to speed.

Standing to the side and watching Kids Incorporated work on their biggest event of the year made Renee feel wistful and reminiscent of her time in the band. She missed the rush of adrenaline during a performance, and the easy camaraderie and built-in friendships that came with spending so much time in sheer proximity to other talented people. Her absence had been keenly felt by the others as well; Devyn and Connie had asked her several times to join them on stage for at least one song, but she’d demurred. Even when the others got in on the act, encouraging her to join them, she’d declined.

Maybe, if she and her sister weren’t so completely at odds with each other, she’d consider it. But as things stood…

Renee was there for one reason only: to be Stacy’s chaperone – much to their mutual consternation. Renee suspected that Stacy and Ryan were still carrying on with their relationship in spite of her parents’ directive to cool it, but her suspicions were all that she had. The two didn’t act as if they had a deeper relationship with each other than with their other bandmates; there was no kissing or hand-holding or sneaking off to be alone. Their private aside that morning had been the first such interlude in all two weeks of rehearsals. The only hint of a clue that it was all an illusion was the longing looks they sometimes shot in each other’s direction, when they thought no one was looking.

It was impossible to deny their chemistry, however. The air fairly crackled with tension whenever they were together onstage, even if they were on opposite sides of the room.

The band had fanned out over the risers, lined up in parallel with the edge of the front stage steps, as their walkthrough of the second set came to the end. Their traditional acapella version of “Auld Lang Syne” would immediately lead into the Dirty Dancing finale, and even though all eyes would be on Brian and Kimberly as they performed the famous dance sequence, the band had planned some choreography for themselves as well, culminating with Ryan and Stacy holding hands at center stage – a rather tepid “big reveal” of their relationship, but a happily-agreed-upon compromise, one that worked well within the confines of Stacy’s punishment, and with Ryan’s desire to keep his private life as closely guarded as possible.

“Okay, you guys,” Ryan announced, dropping Stacy’s hand, “let’s take a break. We’ll run through the whole show again this afternoon, without stopping. Will one of you go tell the dancers?”

“I can’t wait to see Kimberly’s dress for the big finale,” Devyn enthused from her spot near the wings.

“They’ve been working on it for weeks,” Connie added. “She told me that she wasn’t going to actually wear it until the concert, but that she’d have to practice in the underskirt, since she wasn’t used to wearing one.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing that,” Richie put in with a smirk as he climbed down from his drum set.

“Speaking of costumes,” Stacy broke in, joining the others, “we need to find ours. There’s no telling where Riley put them the last time he took inventory.”

Connie giggled. “Last year they were under five boxes of waffle cones,” she informed Devyn and Kenny. “We aired them out overnight, but they still smelled like caramel.”

Kenny smiled. “That doesn’t sound so bad to me,” he joked.

Connie made a face. “Believe me, it’ll put you off cones for months,” she deadpanned.

The corner of Renee’s mouth turned up as she watched them discuss the ancient multicolor tuxedos they’d unearthed years ago, souvenirs left over from a vaudeville act during the Palace’s heyday. It was something of a rite of passage for a band member to pass through the colors of the rainbow, moving from the smallest size (purple) to the largest (magenta). The lot of them had been completely refreshed last year, when they’d had to have a new one made just for Connie. Personally, Renee had been grateful for the lingering waffle cone scent the year before – even stale caramel was a far more pleasant fragrance than dry cleaning chemicals, in her estimation.

The group wandered backstage, all except for Ryan. He turned a determined gaze towards Renee, and she immediately turned away, grateful that the dancers had left Riley’s portable TV on after they’d decided to take their own break from rehearsing (and squabbling). She began flipping channels, looking at the screen but not really seeing anything, her stomach sinking as she listened to the range of Ryan’s footsteps growing closer.

“We need to talk,” he said, without preamble, leaning against the counter beside her.

“About what?” she mused, doing her best to sound disinterested, her attention still pointedly directed at the TV.

He reached over and turned it off. “Stacy is still fighting with you, isn’t she.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

Renee scowled at the now-blank screen. “Why do you care?” she muttered, crossing her arms. “It’s none of your business.”

Ryan clasped her shoulder, deliberately spinning her around until she was facing him. “If it’s about me, then it is my business,” he replied, dropping his hand. “It’s obvious to me that Stacy’s still upset – ”

“Yeah, thanks to you,” Renee cut in rudely. Her scowl deepened as she took in his casual, yet calculated, slouch next to her. “I don’t get you. Why Stacy?”

He frowned. “What?”

Why Stacy?” she repeated with emphasis. “She’s fourteen years old, Ryan! Isn’t that a little young, even for you?”

He exhaled sharply and stood up straight, bracing one hand on the counter. “Give me a little credit, Renee,” he responded, “and while you’re at it, give her some, too. She’s been through a lot in the last six months.”

Renee felt her blood rush to her head. “So you’re saying that it’s my fault that neither one of you can find someone your own age to date?” she squawked.

He snorted. “That’s a little rich, coming from you,” he returned sardonically. “I don’t recall anybody objecting when you went out with Brian Robbins last year, and – correct me if I’m wrong – isn’t eleven years a little bit more of an age gap than three?”

“That was different!” Renee cried, a hot flush rising up the back of her neck to burnish her cheeks.

“Was it?” he challenged smugly.

“First of all, it was one date,” she informed him, unfurling her arms as she sat up straighter, “and second of all, he didn’t promise me the moon and the stars and everything in between!”

He lifted a brow as he regarded her. “It was one date,” he reminded her, drumming his fingers against the counter. “Did he even have the chance?”

“He didn’t have the chance to hurt me,” she replied indignantly.

Ryan gazed at Renee intently, his fingers stilling on the countertop.

“Is that what this is about?” he finally asked. “C’mon, Renee – I’m the same guy I’ve been for as long as you’ve known me – and you know I would never hurt Stacy.”

“Sometimes you don’t have to try to succeed,” she replied archly.

He frowned. “You know what’s really hurting her right now? This.” He gestured between the two of them. “And this idea that she has to choose between us – a choice that you’re forcing her to make, not me.”

Renee crossed her arms again. “She’s already made her choice,” she proclaimed with a pout. “You. Her boyfriend.”

He planted his free hand on his hip. “Are you so sure about that?”

Renee shot him a pained look. “She’s talking to you, isn’t she?” she grumbled.

“Yeah,” he said swiftly, “about you. She’s your sister, Renee. She loves you, and she misses you.”

Renee sighed, averting her eyes back to Riley’s TV. “I didn’t betray her,” she insisted for what felt like the millionth time – though she was beginning to wonder if she was trying to convince him, or herself.

He touched her shoulder again. “I believe you,” he said quietly. “I think, deep down, Stacy does, too. But you know how stubborn she can be.”

“I know,” she murmured ruefully. She looked at him, and was startled to see her misery reflected in his features. It was obvious that her fight with Stacy was taking a toll on him, too. She had no idea how much Stacy was confiding in him; based on her own experience, it was probably a lot. Considering the way he’d taken her grief on board, it was plain to see how much he cared for her – and, as hard as it was for Renee to admit, that meant she had been wrong about his motives.

That didn’t mean she had to like it, though.

“Look, Ryan, I’m sorry for taking out my frustration on you,” she apologized. “I guess I thought that I could walk right back into Stacy’s life like nothing had changed, but obviously that isn’t the case.” She toyed with the cup of straws in front of her. “I still consider you a friend, but…”

“Yes?” he prompted.

“I still have my reservations about you and Stacy,” she admitted.

He shrugged. “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” he replied, “but I’m not asking for your approval, or your permission – and I’m not going to let your reservations break us up.”

Renee shook her head. “Not even my father could do that,” she observed wryly.

“Nope,” Ryan confirmed, the corners of his mouth quirking into a smile. “Two months is nothing – I can wait. But you can’t, Renee,” he continued, redoubling his hold on her shoulder. “You’ve got to make up with Stacy before you go back to England, for your own sake as much as hers.”

She looked at him as if she was seeing him for the first time. “You’re really going to wait for her?” she asked incredulously.

He granted her a full smile. “Yes, Renee, I’m really going to wait for her,” he assured her. “I care about her a lot – and I care about you, too,” he said, giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze. “You guys can’t leave it like this. If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know, okay?”

Before she could respond, Stacy burst into the room. “Hey, Ryan, you’ve got to see this!” she laughed. “Devyn unearthed a pair of fairy wings from the old costumes and managed to get them on Richie, and it’s – ”

She stopped short when she saw Ryan with Renee at the counter. Her amused expression crumbled as her gaze flitted from him, to her sister, and back again.

“…hilarious,” she finished flatly, averting her eyes.

Ryan released Renee immediately and went over to Stacy. “I hope you guys took a picture,” he joked with a grin.

She smiled back. “We’re trying, but Richie won’t stay still long enough.” She reached for his hand and tugged him in the direction of the store room. “You should come see, before he escapes.”

Ryan shot a look over his shoulder at Renee before turning back to Stacy. “Okay,” he agreed, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Lead the way!”

Stacy’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes this time as she dutifully led him away without sparing her sister another glance.

~*~

Ryan and Stacy trekked backstage towards the store room in companionable silence. They’d only made it halfway before Stacy’s curiosity overwhelmed her. “So,” she said brightly, forcing a note of levity that she certainly didn’t feel into her voice, “what were you two so deep in conversation about?”

“You,” Ryan replied loftily, swinging their joined hands between them.

Stacy frowned. “Be serious,” she implored.

Ryan slowed to a stop, his arm extending along with hers as she continued on. “I am being serious,” he replied, bringing her to a halt. “C’mon, Stace, she’s your sister. You can’t fight with her forever.”

“Wanna bet?” Stacy muttered under her breath. She sighed, shaking her head. “She really hurt me, Ryan.”

“But you know she didn’t mean to,” he countered.

“Yes, she did,” she insisted stubbornly. “She knew how much you meant to me – ”

She broke off, a flush rising over her cheeks, and she was forever grateful that this particular hallway had the tendency to be dim.

“…but she never supported me, when it came to you,” she finally managed to continue. “All she ever did was make it crystal clear how much she didn’t approve.”

He took a step towards her, lifting his hand to run his fingers through her hair. “I hate to break it to you, Stace, but I don’t think anyone ‘approves’ of us,” he observed dryly. He slipped his arm around her shoulders, closing the space between them. “But it really doesn’t matter how anybody else feels about us – all that matters is how we feel, about each other.”

She leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his waist and pulling him close, burying her face in his shoulder. I love you, she thought, feeling the now-familiar rush of adrenaline and fear that accompanied those three little words. “Sometimes I think you’re too good to be true,” she sighed, closing her eyes and cuddling against him.

He chuckled, the sound – and sensation – reverberating through her. “Ditto,” he replied softly, leaning into her, his breath warm against the shell of her ear.

Her heart throbbed in response, her breath shallowing in her lungs as they stood there, the world around them melting away for a single, solitary moment. She desperately wished that they could stay like this forever, just the two of them, wrapped in a warm, comforting embrace…

…but she knew that they were treading in dangerous waters. No doubt her sister would be along any minute to pull them apart and ruin the moment.

“Promise me something,” Ryan said softly, breaking the stillness of the air as he cupped his hand over the base of her neck.

“Anything,” she murmured, tightening the brace of her arms around his waist.

He drew his thumb along the collar of her shirt. “Promise me you’ll talk to your sister. Don’t let her go without straightening things out between you.”

Stacy chewed on her lower lip, but didn’t respond.

“She’s the only sister you’ve got,” he reminded her, “and when she leaves next week, she won’t be back until the summer. Can you really endure six more months of this? It’s already eating away at you.”

Tears welled up behind her eyes. “I don’t want to be mad at her,” she confessed with a sniffle.

“Then don’t be,” he urged, easing away and gazing down at her. He traced the crest of her cheek. “Don’t let this become a wedge between you two. She’s already apologized, so the ball’s in your court. What will it take for you to forgive her?”

Her eyes searched his for a long moment. “I don’t know,” she whispered, her tears spilling over.

He gently wiped them away. “Then think about it,” he advised softly, continuing on towards the store room, leaving her standing alone in the hall.

~*~

Ryan’s words stayed with Stacy for the rest of the afternoon – through the final rehearsal, the walk home from the P*lace, at dinner, and as she lay in bed that evening, staring up at the ceiling in the darkness of her room.

What would it take for her to forgive her sister? She had no idea.

Stacy sighed, fisting her hands against her blankets. She hated fighting with Renee. Sure, they’d had their bouts of sibling rivalry, and had even dragged their friends into their spats on occasion, but they’d always found a way to make up before things had truly gotten out of hand. It had been nice, dropping her guard on Christmas Day, talking and laughing with her sister as if nothing was amiss. In fact, it was only when she returned to her room that evening and caught sight of her ruby pendant while she dressed for bed that all of her anger had come rushing back.

She wanted to believe that Renee hadn’t intentionally spilled the beans about her relationship to their parents – and maybe she could’ve, if Renee hadn’t gone out of her way to get a dig in at Ryan every time they’d talked about him over the last couple of months. She’d made her disapproval crystal clear right from the start, and it had only served to make Stacy feel even more protective of him and the feelings they shared. Seeing the pendant, being reminded of their wonderful date – and then the disastrous way that night had ended – had hardened her heart all over again.

She’d clung to that anger for the last week, even when she felt her resolve slipping, because she was fighting for Ryan just as much as herself. But seeing the two of them this afternoon at the P*lace… Ryan had said they were talking about her, but knowing him (and Renee), they’d probably also broached the subject of their own frayed friendship. She couldn’t tell if they’d made up or not; their expressions were serious, but not hostile, though certainly not warm.

If Ryan wasn’t mad at Renee, then why was she still hanging on to her pain?

Stacy sat up, pushing her blankets aside and swinging her legs to the floor. She groped for her slippers and robe before slipping out of her room and tiptoeing across the hall. She slowly pushed open the door to her sister’s room and peeked inside.

“Renee?” she whispered, blinking rapidly as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. “Are you awake?”

A lump in the vicinity of the bed stirred. “Stacy?” she heard her sister mumble, moments before her head appeared above the blankets. “Is that you?”

Stacy nodded, stepping into Renee’s room and quietly closing the door. She hesitated for a moment, long enough for Renee to sit up and switch on her bedside lamp.

“Do you want to – talk about something?” she asked hesitantly, her expression was wary, but curious, as she braced herself against the head board.

Stacy crossed the room on silent feet, toying with the belt of her robe. “I don’t want to fight with you anymore,” she burst out, sinking down onto the corner of Renee’s mattress.

A wave of relief crested over Renee’s features. “I don’t want to fight with you anymore, either,” she replied, reaching for her sister’s hands and giving them a squeeze. “Does this mean you’ve forgiven me?”

Stacy bit her lip, her eyes falling to her lap. “I know you didn’t mean to do what you did, but you still hurt me,” she murmured. “I trusted you with my secrets, and you betrayed my trust.”

“I’m sorry, Stace – ” Renee began.

“I don’t know if I can trust you again,” Stacy broke in, her gaze rising to meet her sister’s, “but I’m willing to try.”

Renee’s eyes widened, and she looked at Stacy expectantly.

Stacy smiled. “Yes, I forgive you,” she assured her, reaching out with open arms.

Renee met her halfway, throwing her arms around her. “Oh, thank you, Stacy!” she cried, hugging her close. “You have no idea how relieved I am!”

“Yes, I do,” Stacy laughed. She pulled away, tucking her legs under herself. “It’s been really hard this year, not having just you across the hall, to come to with all my problems.”

“That’s part of growing up, Stace,” Renee mused, tucking a lock of hair behind her sister’s ear. “Learning to stand on your own two feet. You seem to be handling it pretty well.”

Stacy snorted. “Not by choice,” she muttered.

“Give yourself a little credit,” Renee urged. “You’ve survived quite a bit already this year – your first semester of high school, your first go at leading the band by yourself, your first serious relationship.” She smiled. “Even though I’m not ‘just across the hall’ anymore, I hope you know I’m always here for you, cheering you on.”

Stacy clasped her sister’s hand. “I know,” she affirmed. “And the same goes double for me.”

The two shared a jovial smile.

Renee drew her legs up, resting her chin on her knees as she studied her little sister. “Are you nervous about the concert?” she asked.

“A little,” Stacy admitted. Renee could feel her hand turning clammy. “I’ll be wearing the magenta tux this year.”

Renee gave her hand a supportive squeeze. “And you’re going to look great in it,” she assured her.