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Sam Thomas sprinted across the lawn in front of the high school. “Hey!” he called in greeting, flagging down his new friend. “Sorry about that – last minute meeting of the Math Club.”

Mickey Smith shrugged. “No problem,” he replied, his expression amused as he watched Sam suck wind. “So, what do you want to do this afternoon?”

“I’m sorry,” Sam heaved, “but I totally forgot it was my day to watch my little brother.” He gave his friend an apologetic smile. “Things have been a little crazy at my house lately.”

“I definitely understand crazy,” Mickey mused sardonically. His own house was still chaotic from their move, and that was one of the reasons why he liked spending his afternoons elsewhere. That, and he was lonely – he’d never realized just how much of his time the band had taken up until he didn’t have it anymore. God, but he still missed his friends…

“You’re welcome to come over,” Sam offered, bringing Mickey out his morose thoughts. “We can shoot some hoops or something. David Michael’s pretty fun, for a six-year-old.” He glanced at his watch. “Ugh, but we have to go now – whoever is watching him is supposed to get home before him. Mom hates it if he has to wait – and believe me, David Michael’s a champion whiner.”

Before Mickey could respond, Sam grabbed his arm and dashed off. The two made pretty good time from Stoneybrook High School to the Thomas house on Bradford Court, though they were both out of breath as they came to a halt by the front door. Sam checked his watch again and frowned. “It’s three thirty,” he observed. “David Michael should be here already.”

“I am,” came the calm reply, startling Sam and Mickey. The two turned to see David Michael rounding the corner of the house from the backyard, licking a half-melted popsicle.

Sam dropped his backpack in surprise. “How did you get in?” he asked. “I thought you lost your key.”

David Michael wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I did,” he said, sending a happy smile in his brother’s direction. “Charlie’s here – he let me in.”

Sam looked completely confused. “Charlie’s here?” he echoed. “But I thought he had football practice?”

David Michael shrugged, more interested in his popsicle than in who was supposed to be watching him for the day.

Just as Sam opened his mouth to question him further, Charlie jogged into the front yard.

“Hey, guys,” he greeted, sending Sam and Mickey a friendly wave.

“Hey,” Sam returned, furrowing his brow. “What are you doing here?”

Charlie shrugged, ruffling David Michael’s hair. “Practice was canceled because Coach is sick. Ricky and Randy weren’t home, so I just figured I’d hang out here.”

“Hey!” David Michael cried, “does this mean you’re both baby-sitting for me?” His eyes lit up at the possibility of spending the afternoon with his older brothers. “Cool!”

The older boys exchanged a look over David Michael’s head.

“Sure,” Charlie finally relented, brushing his hand through his younger brother’s hair once more.

“You remember Mickey, right?” Sam piped up, gesturing towards his friend. “Is it cool if he hangs out with us, too?”

David Michael squinted up and nodded shyly, sucking on his popsicle stick.

“Hey, I know!” Charlie cried. He clasped a hand on his little brother’s shoulder. “How about we play a no-holds-barred world championship two-on-two basketball tournament?” He lowered himself to David Michael’s eye level and gave him a conspiratorial look. “It can be you and me versus the pretty boys over there. Think we can take ’em?”

David Michael considered his brother for a long, serious moment, before nodding resolutely.

Charlie grinned. “All right!” he cheered, slapping a high-five with David Michael. He glanced down at his now-sticky palm. “Uh, how about we wash up before the big game?” he suggested.

“And find our uniforms!” David Michael added enthusiastically.

Sam laughed. “We’ll put our stuff up and find the ball,” he said, watching with no small amount of amusement as David Michael grabbed Charlie’s hand and pulled him towards the backyard once more.

Mickey smiled as he watched the exchange. He didn’t have any siblings himself, but he’d spent plenty of time trying to keep the Kid and Stacy in line and out of trouble during his time with Kids Inc. His good cheer continued as he followed Sam into the house – it was pretty small for a family of five, but had a great, vibrant, lived-in feel that the Smiths were still trying to find. Their house felt cavernous by comparison, even though it wasn’t all that much bigger.

“Hi guys!” boomed a voice, the door banging open almost as soon as Sam had closed it. Kristy pushed past them, dropping her books on the floor near the stairs as she made a beeline for the kitchen.

“Kristy!” Sam called, sounding annoyed. “You know you’re not supposed to – ”

“Bye guys!” she cut in, reappearing with a bag of chips and rushing past them, throwing open the door once more. “Emergency meeting of the Baby-sitters Club! I’ll be back later!”

Mickey lifted a brow. “The ‘baby-sitters club’?” he echoed in confusion.

Sam shook his head, reaching into the hall closet for the family basketball. “It was Kristy’s idea,” he replied, “and now it’s the center of her universe.” He gave the ball a couple of test bounces. “She started it a couple of weeks ago with some other girls in her class. They meet a couple times a week and baby-sit for the neighborhood kids.”

“Ingenious,” Mickey mused.

Sam groaned. “Don’t let Kristy hear you say that,” he joked. “Believe me, her ego is big enough as it is!”

The two returned outside, where Charlie and David Michael were waiting not-so-patiently for them, with Mickey drawing the door closed behind himself as he exited the house. He turned, almost immediately knocking into Sam, who had stopped short, clutching the basketball between his hands.

“What’s up?” Mickey asked, taking a side-step and following his friend’s arrested line of vision. Four girls were huddled together on the front lawn across the street. That must be the rest of the club, he surmised. Not that this explained Sam’s sudden interest in them, considering the rather dismissive tone he’d had only moments before when he was explaining it.

Charlie leaned against the railing, crossing his arms over his chest as he gave his brother a knowing look. “Sam’s in love,” he intoned with a teasing smile.

“I am not!” Sam scoffed, averting his eyes as a flush rose over his cheeks.

Mickey lifted a sardonic brow, studying the girls across the street a bit more carefully. “Oh?” he remarked. “With who?”

Nobody,” Sam exclaimed, marching past his brothers and into the front yard. “Can we just play already? Geez.”

Mickey stayed put, sending a sidelong glance towards Charlie and David Michael, both of whom were still lingering near the front door. Charlie shrugged, content to keep his brother’s secret, but David Michael looked ready to burst.

“It’s Stacey!” he cried out, wriggling like a puppy. He pointed across the way. “See? The blond one!” He grinned, bouncing from foot to foot. “Sam likes Sta-cey, Sam likes Sta-cey – ”

Charlie casually clapped his hand over his little brother’s mouth, muffling the teasing sing-song as Sam stalked towards the driveway on the side of the house. Charlie made David Michael promise to stop teasing his brother as the two of them trailed after him, and Mickey followed at a slightly reduced pace, his eyes lingering across the street. The girls were sitting in a tightly knit circle, still deep in discussion, but he had a good look at the blonde nonetheless.

“She’s pretty,” Mickey observed, drawing to a halt under the basketball hoop near his friends. “Don’t you guys think?”

“Sure,” Charlie shrugged, “for a twelve-year-old.”

“Actually, she’s thirteen,” Sam quickly corrected him, looking distracted. “Her birthday was last week.”

“Oh?” Charlie tried not to laugh as he grabbed the basketball from his brother’s hands and began to dribble it. “And how do you know that?”

Sam flushed. “I just do, okay?” he shot back, chasing his brothers as they played keep-away with the ball. “Quit kidding around – let’s start before Mom comes home and blocks the driveway!”

“Actually…” Charlie’s voice trailed off as he handed the ball to Sam, casting a thoughtful look in Mickey’s direction. “She’s from New York City, just like you, Mick.”

Sam whirled around, his eyes wide as he stared at his new friend. “That’s right,” he choked out. “You’re from New York, too, aren’t you?”

Mickey lifted a brow. “Yeah…?” he trailed off. Sam made it sound like the city was on a different planet, instead of merely in a different state. “…so?”

Charlie grabbed the ball again, rousing David Michael into play as Sam crept ever closer to Mickey. He chewed on his lower lip as he shot another look in the girls’ direction. “How do you impress a girl from New York?” he asked in a low voice, his tone somewhere between embarrassment and pleading.

“The…same way you impress girls from Connecticut?” Mickey guessed, unsure of what Sam was fishing for. “Just be yourself, man.”

“He tried that already!” David Michael exclaimed gleefully as he rushed between them carrying the ball. “It didn’t really work!”

Sam flushed an even deeper shade of red. “I’ll get you for that!” he vowed playfully, chasing after his younger brother, who shrieked with sugar-high-aided delight.

Charlie slowed to a stop next to Mickey, and the two of them watched Sam and David Michael play. “I told him the same thing,” Charlie confided after a moment. “He didn’t believe me, either.”

Mickey laughed. “He really likes this girl, doesn’t he?”

Charlie simply smiled.

“C’mon, guys!” Sam called out. “Are you going to stand there, or are you going to play?”

“We’re in!” Charlie returned, jogging over to where David Michael was standing. “What’s the score?”

Mickey drew Sam to the side as David Michael animatedly filled his older brother in. “Listen, Sam, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he told him. “I think she’s cute, and that you should go for it!”

Sam looked pained. “I-I don’t really know how,” he confessed. “She’s not like the other girls around here. She’s very…uh, mature.” He cast an anxious look at his friend. “Do you think you could give me some pointers?”

Mickey shrugged. “Sure,” he said magnanimously. “Just let me see how you interact with her, and maybe I can steer you in the right direction.”

“Cool,” Sam nodded.

“C’mon, pretty boys!” Charlie teased. “Are you going to stand there, or are you going to play?”

Sam and Mickey joined them, and the four began to play in earnest, quickly finding themselves caught up in the lively two-on-two game. There was much shouting and laughing and teasing, though none of it girl- or crush-related. All of them were enjoying themselves, but David Michael was in absolute heaven, completely enthralled with his older brothers.

Mickey wasn’t sure how long they’d been playing when he glanced over and noticed that the emergency meeting seemed to be breaking up. He maneuvered closer to Sam and bumped him in the shoulder. “Hey,” he said, nodding towards the girls. “Now’s your chance.”

Sam swallowed hard, shooting a layup and looking relieved when the ball sailed through the net. “Time out, guys!” he huffed.

“Aww!” David Michael whined. “But we’re tied 19-19! You can’t stop now!”

“Every championship team gets a timeout,” Mickey informed him with a smile. He brushed the sweat from his brow as he glanced over at Sam, who suddenly looked very pale and nervous. “We, uh, have to talk strategy.”

He pulled Sam out of earshot of the others. “Chill out, man,” he advised. “Just talk to her, like a normal human being.”

“Right,” Sam nodded, struggling to catch his breath. “Normal.” He tucked the basketball under his arm as he watched the girls stand up and brush the grass from their clothes. Mickey gave him a little push as the girls began to drift apart.

Sam didn’t need another nudge. He strolled to the end of the driveway, waving at Stacey as she walked past him on the other side of the street. “Stacey!” he called. “Hey!”

She stopped, looking surprised but pleased when she realized who was trying to get her attention. She glanced back at her friends before looking up and down the street, making sure it was clear before she crossed. Mickey really got a good look at her then, and had to admit to himself she was even prettier at close range, with fluffy blonde hair and clear blue eyes. She could’ve been an older version of his Stacy, in fact, a thought which startled him far more than it should have.

“Hi, Sam,” Stacey returned eagerly, her eyes sparkling with excitement as she gazed up at him. “What’s up?”

Sam shrugged. “Just playing a little basketball with my brothers,” he replied, pulling the ball out and twirling it between his fingers.

Stacey smiled. “I’ll bet David Michael is really enjoying that,” she remarked. “I know he has a lot of fun whenever he can spend time with you.”

“Not as much fun as when he’s with you,” Sam returned.

She blushed. “I’ve only baby-sat for him once,” she reminded him, “and you were there! I think that’s why he had such a good time…” She trailed off and averted her eyes; it wasn’t hard for Mickey to guess what she was thinking: I know that’s why I had such a good time.

He smirked.

The two stood in silence for a moment, smiling at each other. “Stacey,” Sam finally said, his voice a note softer than before, “I just wanted to say – you look really pretty today.”

Stacey blushed. “Thanks, Sam,” she replied, clutching her notebook to her chest.

“Hey!” David Michael called out impatiently. “When is your timeout going to be over?”

Sam rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “I guess that’s my cue,” he sighed, twirling the basketball again. “I’ll see you around, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Stacey returned breathlessly, giving him a little wave as he sprinted back up the driveway. She lingered for a moment as he caught up with Mickey, looking very reluctant to continue on her way to wherever she was going.

Mickey’s attention shifted to Sam, who looked just as pale and nervous as he had five minutes before. “Oh, man, that was awkward,” he moaned, handing the ball off to his friend so that he could bury his face in his hands. “She thinks I’m a total dweeb!”

Mickey laughed, clapping Sam’s shoulder with his free hand. “Believe me, my friend,” he said, granting him a knowing smile, “nothing could be further from the truth.”