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Stacy in Bloom

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.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.