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Stacy in Bloom

Chapter Text

.26.
“Music for the Modern World”

Every day the world is changing, rearranging
All the rules and regulations
The nation’s looking for a groove
Every woman, man, and child is going wild
They feel the rhythm moving with them
Look around you, watch ’em begging for more…

© 1985 Michael Cruz

~*~

Renee and Stacy walked arm-in-arm to the P*lace the next evening, laughing and joking the entire way. They were both loaded down with bags, but that didn’t slow their stride or their stream of chatter, which had been flowing nonstop since their reconciliation the night before. It felt as if they were attempting to cram two weeks of catching up into the span of about twelve hours – desperate, perhaps in vain, but worth a try anyway.

They headed in through the backstage door behind the P*lace, and were greeted with utter pandemonium in the store room, as everyone even tangentially related to the concert hustled about, grabbing for hats and gloves and instruments, shoes and sheet music and microphones alike.

Ryan was holding court by the door, and he pulled the sisters aside as soon as he spotted them. “Does this mean you two have made up?” he asked with a smile, gesturing to their still-entwined arms.

The girls grinned at each other. “Yes,” Stacy proclaimed happily, throwing her arms around her sister in an impulsive embrace.

“That’s wonderful!” he replied, folding them both into a hug, before pressing kisses to each of their cheeks. “Now we really have something to celebrate tonight!”

Stacy was smiling so hard that her cheeks hurt, and she let go of her sister, bouncing up on the balls of her feet. “I’m so excited!” she cried, hugging her boyfriend tightly.

“You aren’t the only one,” Ryan laughed, dodging out of the way as a member of the high school jazz ensemble hurtled through the door, carrying an oblong saxophone case like a battering ram. “This is like pre-set mania x1000!”

“It was a good idea to call everyone together a couple hours early,” Renee commented. “Maybe you’ll burn off the collective excess energy.”

“I hope so,” Ryan replied wryly. “I’ve never seen it this crazy before!”

“You’ve never planned such an ambitious concert before,” Renee observed.

Ryan shrugged. “The only difference is the finale,” he countered, though his point was undercut with another surge of guest performers pushing through the door. The store room was suddenly feeling very small, as the lot of them began to unpack instruments and break off into small groups to warm up.

Stacy sighed dreamily. “And what a finale it’s going to be,” she breathed, hugging Ryan close once more.

A burst of excited squeals cut through at that moment, as Kimberly glided through the door rather dramatically, holding out a black garment bag with exaggerated care.

“Ooh, is that the dress?!” Devyn cried, trailing after the statuesque dancer. “Can we see it?”

A crowd gathered around Kimberly, all begging for a sneak peek at her final costume. She tried to hold them off, but eventually acquiesced, making her way to the farthest corner of the room and hanging the bag before theatrically opening the zipper and sliding the peach-colored creation out for all to admire.

“Ohhh, it’s beautiful!” Connie breathed in awe, carefully caressing the lightly colored silk of the skirt.

Devyn enviously fingered the beaded bodice. “Did you do this all yourself?” she marveled as the others crowded around for a closer look.

Kimberly nodded, a pleasant pink blush burnishing her cheeks. “Gina and Nicole and I worked on it for hours,” she revealed. “Wait until you see the skirt’s flounce!”

Renee, Ryan, and Stacy hung back from the crowd, as did Richie and Tommy Morgan, who appeared equally confused and disgusted by the entire dress affair. They settled in another corner, determined to run through a couple of their more complicated sequences.

The eldest trio was still conversing by the entrance. “So, Renee, can we interest you in a place in this mayhem, or are you going to abandon us and run screaming into the night?” Ryan joked.

Renee pretended to consider his words. “We-ell,” she finally responded, “technically I’m still on chaperone duty through the end of the evening” – Stacy gave her a put-upon look, at which Renee cracked a grin – “but I also promised my loving little sister I’d make her look marvelous tonight, so I guess we’d better get started.”

She slipped the bag from Stacy’s shoulder and headed towards an empty vanity. Stacy made to follow, but was brought up short when she felt Ryan’s hand slip into hers. “I think you already look marvelous,” he whispered into her ear, sending a shiver racing down her spine. He was gone before she could respond, heading back to his setup, just beyond the huddle of dancers cooing over Kimberly’s dress.

The backstage chaos continued for another hour before various groups began to filter out of the room. The high school jazz ensemble had agreed to be something of an opening act, as well as contributing to featured parts in the concert itself; they were the first to leave. The dancers followed soon after, Kimberly carefully tucking her dress back into her garment bag and stowing it safely before joining the others to limber up in the hallway.

Kids Incorporated put the finishing touches on their colorful costumes – golden shoes and colorful, dyed-to-match bowties. Renee and Stacy helped Connie and Devyn with their hair and makeup, and even convinced the boys to wear mattifying powder to counteract the bright stage lights. The collective was quiet and relaxed as they lingered in the store room, enjoying the jazzy, if muffled, music of their opening act, as partygoers packed in through the front doors of the P*lace.

Renee eventually left them as well, albeit after having a few private words with her sister. The band gathered around the long table in the middle of the room, only to them realize that they were missing a member.

“Where’s Kenny?” Devyn wondered aloud, glancing around the room, meeting concerned and confused expressions as she looked at each of her bandmates in turn.

“Did he mention to anyone that he wasn’t coming?” Richie asked, only to be answered by awkward silence.

Ryan and Stacy shared a worried look over the other kids’ heads. Surely not…

Just then, the backstage door slammed open, startling the lot of them. Kenny burst into the room, his bowtie dangling around his neck as he fought to catch his breath.

“Sorry I’m late,” he wheezed, hastily buttoning his sequined vest, “but I have good news! My dad is moving out of our apartment!”

His bandmates looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.

“That’s good news?” Connie piped up, sounding skeptical.

Kenny nodded, unable to stop the grin spreading across his features. “He’s moving out, because my mom agreed to stay in the city after the divorce! She’s keeping the apartment,” he barreled on, “and my brothers and sister and I are going to live with her during the week. We’ll be with my dad on the weekends. He’s moving to Forest Park, a couple of streets away.”

Devyn’s face lit up. “That’s my building!” she squealed, throwing her arms around her best friend in an excited hug.

Kenny nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said with a grin. “Remember when you invited me over for dinner a couple of weeks ago? When he came to pick me up, he was so impressed that he started looking for an apartment there right away! I was floored when he told me! That’s why I’m late,” he added, a guilty flush coating his features as he turned to his other bandmates.

Ryan dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. “You made it, that’s all that matters,” he responded, gesturing for the two of them to re-join the group around the table.

The six of them huddled together, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, and were silent for a long moment. Ryan took a deep breath before thrusting his arm into the middle of the circle. “Let’s make a pact, you guys,” he vowed, “to have the best New Year’s Eve concert this P*lace has ever seen!”

“Yeah!” the others cheered, each laying their hands on his in turn, the arms of their brightly colored tuxedos offering a vibrant kaleidoscope in the middle of the circle. “Gooooooooooo Kids Incorporated!” they bellowed in unison, throwing their arms up in the air in a collective flourish.

They laughed, gathering up their instruments as they made their way backstage. Stacy tied Kenny’s bowtie and Devyn frantically fluffed powder onto his face as they walked, making for quite the spectacle.

Ryan was the last to leave, and he chuckled to himself as he watched his bandmates. He clutched the neck of his guitar until the steel strings bit into his fingers. “Let’s rock this place,” he murmured, pulling the garish pink door closed behind himself.

~*~

Ryan lingered behind the curtains at the back of the house. He was pleased to note that the P*lace was packed out, and that there was already a thrum of excitement in the air. Two long rows of risers branched out from the sides of the front stage steps, breaking up the crowd and carving a wide, spacious path down the middle. This choice of staging had been made mostly for their big finale, but the band and dancers would also utilize the arrangement to their advantage throughout both sets.

Starting with his own grand entrance, right from the start.

The P*lace suddenly went totally dark; the crowd was stunned into silence. Before they had the chance to question it, however, the first notes were struck on Richie’s bass drum, followed by a distinctive percussive pattern: stomp-stomp clap; stomp-stomp clap.

“Buddy you’re a boy / make a big noise / playing in the street / gonna be a big man someday,” Kenny’s voice rang out, strong and sure over the hefty beat. The spotlight found him, standing off to one side of the stage as he continued to sing. “You got mud on your face / you big disgrace / kicking your can all over the place / singing – ”

“We will / we will rock you,” the group chorused around him as the spotlight shut off again, washing the P*lace in utter darkness once more. “We will / we will rock you!”

Devyn, standing on the opposite side of the stage from Kenny, took the next verse. “Buddy you’re a young man / hard man / shouting in the street / gonna take on the world someday,” she crooned, garnering the solo spotlight. “You got blood on your face / you big disgrace / waving your banner all over the place!”

The spotlight shut off again as the group swelled through the iconic chorus, with some of the audience members joining in this time. Ryan smiled to himself as he watched the effect ripple through the room, from those closest to the stage to those just in front of him at the back of the house, joining in on the foot-stomping action.

It was Richie’s turn in the spotlight as the third verse kicked off: “Buddy you’re an old man / poor man / pleading with your eyes / gonna make you some peace someday,” he sang, his baritone voice clear and true. “You got mud on your face / big disgrace / somebody better put you back into your place!”

The spotlight stayed on him this time as the collective belted out the chorus again, slowly expanding over the group and bringing into focus the sheer number of bodies on stage. Everyone, save Ryan, was up there – dancers, guest musicians, and bandmates alike. Tommy Morgan struck the first, famous note of the song and tore his way through the beautiful, intricate guitar solo as the house lights came up and the spotlight focused in on him.

The crowd went wild as the song drew to its end, and Ryan felt the swirl of excitement and anticipation as he stepped forward from the curtains. The group had decided to let him have his own entrance as a fun way to work in his personal song of choice. He waited while the stage cleared off, one of the jazz players quickly helping Tommy move away from center stage as the dancers fanned out over the risers in the audience. He caught Richie’s eye and gave him the signal, poised and ready, and together, they struck the first notes of the next song, a Neil Diamond classic.

“Daytime turns me off and I don’t mean maybe,” he sang, launching himself into the cleared middle path, towards the stage steps. “Nine-to-five ain’t taking me where I’m bound…”

He glanced up, spotting Stacy near the stage steps, where she was dancing along with Connie and Devyn. “When it’s done, I run out to see my baby,” he crooned, directing the line at her before turning his attention to the stage steps in the run up to the chorus – “We get groovin’ when the sun goes down…”

He spun on his heels, facing the audience as he launched into the chorus. “I thank the Lord for the night time / to forget the day,” he continued with a smile as the cheers swelled up around him. “A day of up-up tight time / baby, chase it away / I get relaxation / and it’s a time to groove…”

He backed up the steps onto the stage. “I thank the Lord for the night time,” he sang again, sliding a long, flirtatious look at his girlfriend. “I thank the Lord for you…”

“Mmhm, mmhm,” the girls responded, all smiles.

He moved around the stage through the second verse and chorus, ending up at Tommy’s side just in time for the featured guitar line. The blond boy shone, unable to stop the infectious grin that spread across his face as he grooved along in his chair. The reprise brought out the trumpet players from the jazz ensemble; they formed a line behind the front and center bandmates, and help them blast the song to a close with a final flourish.

Riley made his way on stage as the band took their bows and the dancers began preparing for the next number. “Are you guys ready to rock?” he asked the crowd, earning a chorus of cheers and clapping.

“I can’t hear you!” he taunted good-naturedly, whipping the audience up into a frenzy of eagerness and exhilaration, before turning it back to the band.

Ryan lost all sense of time passing; the rest of the opening set flew by. A rousing ensemble rendition of “Here to Stay” was followed by Stacy belting out Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” her dips into the crowd bringing especially ardent whistles of admiration, as people reached over the barriers of the risers, trying to get to her.

Her solo was followed by another for him, a cover of the uber-popular “Faith,” during which he had to concentrate hard to keep the song at a moderate tempo. He earned his own whistles and catcalls from the swooning girls, though he didn’t venture down into the audience to tease them.

After that, he eased into the background as Connie and Devyn stepped forward for a beautiful duet of Exposé’s “Seasons Change,” followed by a rare Richie solo, covering Whitesnake’s “Is This Love,” for which he amiably moved out from behind his drum set. Ryan and Tommy shared the heavy guitar riffs, before really turning it on for Kenny’s performance of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” his voice soaring into the rafters, along with the collective spirit of the room.

They brought the first set to a close with the quirky “Pop Goes the World,” followed by Devyn’s high energy cover of Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love.”

Riley ambled back on stage as the band took its final set of bows. “Kids Incorporated, everybody!” he announced, gesturing towards the collective group on stage, earning another swell of cheers and applause. “We’re going to take a short break before the second set, but stay tuned! This is one performance you don’t want to miss!”

~*~

The Kids filtered into the store room, quickly shedding jackets and bowties as they reached for the waiting stack of towels just inside the door. The long table in the middle of the room was overflowing with refreshments, including a huge bucket of bottled water floating in rapidly-melting ice. The younger kids made a break for the food, but Stacy was drawn up short when she realized that Renee was sitting at a nearby vanity, a phone receiver clutched to her ear.

“Renee, don’t tell me you’ve been in here the whole time!” she yelped, making a beeline for her sister.

Renee covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Of course not, Stace,” she laughed. “I gave Riley a hand bringing back the food and water for your guys, and then I got a call.”

“Oh.” Stacy frowned, not wholly convinced by this bland explanation of her sister’s curious presence backstage, but she didn’t question her further, instead tugging at the towel draped around her neck.

Renee grinned wolfishly. “Actually, you guys got a phone call,” she clarified, lifting her voice over the low buzz of conversation and garnering the band’s attention.

Ryan made his way over to Renee’s vanity. “We got a phone call?” he repeated skeptically. “From who?”

Renee didn’t respond; instead, she lowered the receiver back into its cradle and hit the hands-free button.

“Hey guys!” called a warm, familiar voice, crackling over the static of the long distance international line.

“Kid!” Stacy cried, running over to the table. Renee quickly slipped out of her seat. “Oh my God, how are you?!”

The Kid chuckled. “I’m good, Stace, I’m good,” he replied. “I just had to call and wish my best friends a happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year,” the group chorused in return.

“Wow, Kid, this must be costing you a fortune,” Richie piped up.

“Is that you, Richie?” the Kid asked. “Since when are you so concerned about money?”

Richie flushed. “Uh…” he stuttered in response, to which the Kid laughed.

“I’ve heard all about the saga of the band jacket debt,” the Kid said, putting Richie out of his misery. “Although from the sound of that crowd out there, you guys have to be close to paying it back in full, no?”

Connie smiled. “How long have you been on the line?” she asked.

“Long enough to hear a couple of songs,” the Kid replied. “You guys sound amazing!”

“It just isn’t the same without you, Kid,” Stacy sighed, twisting the phone cord around her fingers. “You were the heart and soul of the group!”

He laughed. “Oh, go on,” he joked.

When silence met his remark, he laughed again. “I said go on!”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “Yup, there’s the ego we all know and love,” he teased, taking a long sip of water.

“Well, anyway,” the Kid said pointedly, “I just couldn’t let this momentous occasion pass without reaching out to my best friends. I’ve been thinking about all our past New Year’s Eve concerts today, and it really made me miss you…” He trailed off, before bursting into laughter. “Do you remember the time that Riley creamed the P*lace and we had to move it, wholesale, to the Garage at the last minute?”

Stacy groaned. “Oh, talk about a nightmare!” she proclaimed.

Ryan smiled, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and giving her a little squeeze. “But it all worked out in the end,” he reminded her. “We pulled together and made it work, because that’s what we do best.”

Stacy felt her heart swell in her chest as she gazed at him. “You’re right,” she said softly, her eyes falling to his mouth, and then to the open collar of his shirt. She resisted the urge to touch him, to take the towel around his neck and wipe away the dampness along the long, lean line of his throat.

She swallowed hard, suddenly feeling overheated as she stood there. Being here with him, like this – so casual and relaxed, chatting with their friends – was absolute torture for her. He was so close, and yet so far. It would be so easy to return his half-embrace, to smile and touch and flirt, to spirit him away from the others for a stolen moment alone. She’d fantasized about such things for months – from the moment she’d nursed her crush to life, way back in the fall – and now that it was absolutely and expressly forbidden to her, the impulse was that much harder to control.

It was so tempting… It would be so easy

“Stace?”

She blinked, rapidly becoming aware of a hand passing back and forth in front of her face.

“You still with us, Sunshine?” Ryan teased as he released her. He nodded towards the phone before picking up his bottle of water and walking away.

“Huh?” Stacy mumbled aloud, feeling the heat of embarrassment flood her face.

“Spacey Stacy,” the Kid teased in a sing-song voice. “Are you going to pick up the phone or not?”

She grabbed the receiver. “Sorry, Kid,” she apologized lowly. “You wanted to talk to me?”

“Of course,” he replied loftily. “I had to get the latest scoop, while I had you on the line. What’s up with you and Renee? Are you still fighting?”

She smiled. “No,” she confirmed. “We had a long talk last night, about a lot of things. We’ve patched things up and moved on.”

“Good,” the Kid said firmly. “I was worried about you after I read your last letter. You two have had some real doozies in the past, but this whole situation just sounded a lot worse. I’m glad you found a way through it; being estranged from your family is no joke.”

Stacy nodded solemnly. The Kid knew of whence he spoke – he’d gone five years without talking to his brother, and it had been an extremely painful experience for him. He hadn’t told his best friends that he even had a brother, until said sibling showed up out of the blue one day.

She couldn’t imagine how much that must’ve hurt.

“This is why you’re my best friend, Kid,” she told him. “You really know how to put things into perspective for me.”

He chuckled. “Happy to help, as always,” he responded grandly. “So tell me, how’s everything else? You and Ryan still going strong, I take it, in spite of your parents?”

Stacy looked up, finding Ryan across the room, engaged in conversation with Kenny. She gazed at him longingly as he swept his hand through his hair. “Yes,” she replied, a dreamy note slipping into her voice.

“Oh, man, you’ve got it bad,” the Kid teased, choking back his laughter. “I mean, I knew it was pretty heavy from the way you were writing about him, but to hear it in your voice…! Personally, I have no idea how you managed to keep it a secret from anyone.”

“Well, it certainly helped that your big mouth was 6,000 miles away,” she replied drolly. She had known he was going to get his witty repartee in at some point; at least it was now, when they were all in a relatively jovial mood.

“Touché,” he returned with a snort. He paused, his tone sobering. “Listen, Stace, just – be careful, okay? Don’t do anything you’ll regret someday.”

Stacy frowned, not sure of what he was getting at. “I won’t,” she assured him, otherwise allowing the enigmatic comment to slide. “Happy New Year, Kid.”

“Happy New Year, Stace,” he replied. “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” she said, tangling the phone cord around her fingers. “It’s just not the same around here without you.”

She could practically hear him smiling through the phone. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he told her, “but I’ve gotta go for now. ’Bye, girl.”

“Bye,” she murmured, still holding the receiver to her ear as he hung up and the international dial tone buzzed to life. An overwhelming wave of bittersweet sadness engulfed her as she ruminated over the fact that her best friend was so far away – and soon, her sister would be, too.

She leveled her gaze on her boyfriend, now surrounded by their bandmates. I need you now, more than ever, she thought to herself, wishing desperately that she could just run across the room and fling herself into his arms. She longed for his comfort and his touch, his nearness and reassurance that everything would be okay.

Instead, she lowered the receiver back into its cradle, and pressed the ends of her towel to her face, soaking up the tears that crept from the corners of her eyes.

A warm set of arms engulfed her just then, offering her a comforting squeeze. “C’mon, Stace,” Renee murmured, brushing her sister’s hair from her brow, “let me fix your makeup before you go back out there, okay?”

Stacy took a deep breath and nodded, willing her tears back as she pasted a patently false smile on her face before turning her attention to her sister once more.

Renee saw through her an in instant; she took one look at Stacy’s expression and folded her into another hug before leading her over to a free vanity to touch up her makeup.

~*~

The band’s intermission lasted the standard fifteen minutes, leaving Renee just enough time to freshen up all the girls’ makeup and re-powder the boys’ faces, in spite of their protestations. Richie was the first to escape, as the rest of the group reluctantly donned their jackets and ties again, only too happy to help Tommy back on stage and then settle in behind his drum kit once more.

The two opened the second set with a lively version of the Sufaris’ “Wipeout,” accompanied by the bassist from the high school jazz ensemble. The dancers were also featured, performing complex but energetic choreography reminiscent of ’60s beach movies.

The rest of Kids Incorporated watched on from the wings. Stacy felt, more than heard, Ryan’s approach. He picked up his headset and put it on, feeding the wire into the transmitter fitted on his guitar strap. “Are you okay?” he asked softly.

She nodded. “As much as I love talking to the Kid, hearing his voice just now made me realize how much I miss him,” she replied, her voice low.

“We all do,” he told her, slipping his hand into hers. “He’ll be back before we know it, though.”

She nodded again, averting her eyes. She was determined not to cry; she didn’t want to ruin her eyeliner, especially not after Renee had reapplied it so carefully.

He gave her hand a comforting squeeze and pressed his lips to her temple in a soft, soothing caress. “Breathe, Stacy,” he whispered, his breath warm on the shell of her ear. “Just – breathe.”

A swell of applause from the audience shattered the moment; Stacy was jarred back to reality as she and the others made their entrances on stage for the next number, a jazzy cover of George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You.”

Her spirits began to lift as the set went on; Devyn did plenty of justice to Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” followed by Kenny’s fun rendition of Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams.” Stacy’s second solo of the night was also her favorite; not only did she get to belt out her favorite dance hit of the year – Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It to My Heart” – but she got to dance while doing so. It felt incredibly freeing and cathartic to perform the high energy song, a chance to shed the negative energy of her sadness once and for all.

It was duly received with great enthusiasm by the audience; she took an extra bow at the end before clearing off the stage with the others. Ryan fronted the high school jazz ensemble’s rhythm section for a soulful cover of U2’s “With or Without You,” swapping his trademark headset for a lone microphone on a stand. The beauty and simplicity of his performance struck her into silent awe, as did the look he swept her way at the climax of the chorus, sending shivers down her spine: “I can’t live / with or without you…”

His performance received a thunderous ovation, the audience immediately on its feet and fervent in its applause. Ryan appeared dazed by the response, but recovered nicely, gesturing for the members of jazz ensemble to take another bow as the band quickly set up for their next number.

Stacy had no idea how she was could follow the intensity of his number, but she did her best, launching into a cover of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” losing herself in the warm memories of their day in the city as she trailed into the audience during the verses.

This was followed by Pretty Poison’s heavy electronic hit “Catch Me (I’m Falling),” performed admirably by Kenny and featuring the dancers performing an original routine on center stage. The band members fanned out onto the risers in the audience over the course of the song, sparking a surge of curiosity from the audience.

Riley rushed onstage as the dancers cleared away, holding up a gigantic analog clock face. “It’s almost midnight, you guys,” he informed the audience, to a burst of applause. “Let’s count them down!”

“Ten, nine, eight…” The band started counting, and the audience soon joined in. “Seven, six, five, four…” The curtain furled closed behind Riley. “Three, two, one…!”

“Happy New Year!” everyone chorused, as twin houselights quickly came on, focusing on two lines of band members – three on each side, in equally spaced intervals – on the risers lined parallel to the front stage steps. The band members launched into an acapella version of the standard “Auld Lang Syne,” and audience members began singing along with them. They soldiered through the first and second verses, and three reprises of the chorus, until Connie, closest to the stage on the left, finally received the signal from Brian in the wings, indicating that they were ready to begin the big finale.

The group wrapped up the old classic, and the P*lace went totally dark for the third time that evening. A low buzz of anticipation filled the air as the band members quickly scattered to the back walls of the P*lace, where their instruments had been relocated during the interval.

The curtain slowly opened as a solitary spotlight lit upon Kimberly, standing alone in the middle of the stage in her pale peach-colored dress.

Stacy gazed across the way. She and Ryan were the only ones left on the risers, standing opposite each other at the ends farthest from the stage. She could just make out his silhouette in the shadow of the spotlight, catching the glint of the silver-plated microphone he held loosely in one hand. She followed the shapely outline of his arm around his shoulder, along the column of his throat, and eventually up into his face, her eyes coming to rest on his. He smiled, the corners of his lips curling up languidly, unleashing a host of butterflies in her midsection.

She smiled back, grateful for the general darkness of the room as she felt a flush of heat rise to coat the back of her neck.

The first chord was struck on the keyboard at the back of the house, bringing Stacy’s attention back to the fore. She swallowed hard as she watched Ryan lift his microphone, but as he opened their duet, the world around them began to melt away away.

“Now I’ve / had the time of my life,” he sang, his voice clear and true and directed at her, “no, I’ve never felt like this before / yesn I swear / it’s the truth / and I owe it all to you…”

“Cause I’ve / had the time of my life,” she responded, her voice sounding full yet hesitant in her ears. She took a quick breath, summoning every bit of her resolve to push through the opening bridge. “And I owe it all to you…”

Mercifully, the song’s beat picked up then, and the crowd whistled appreciatively as Brian spun Kimberly into the opening steps of infamous dance. Stacy didn’t dare look at the stage, however; she didn’t want to lose her place in the music – or the growing intensity of Ryan’s scrutiny. The heaviness of the bass line thrummed through her, her heart picking up speed as she continued to hold his gaze from across the way. They held the entirety of each other’s focus as they launched into the first verse.

“I’ve been waiting for so long / now I’ve finally found someone to stand by me,” Ryan crooned, the slightest undercurrent of huskiness in his tone.

“You saw the writing on the wall / as we felt this magical fantasy,” she replied with a knowing smile.

He smiled back.

“Now with passion in our eyes / there’s no way we could disguise it secretly,” they continued in unison, her voice rising over his in perfect harmony. “So we take each other’s hand / cause we seem to understand the urgency…!”

“Just remember,” he enjoined, as they both took a step to the side, sidling their way up their respective riser, moving in perfect harmony to the call and response of the bridge:

“You’re the one thing,” she sang.

“I can’t get enough of,” he responded.

“So I’ll tell you something…” she continued, before their voices rose in unison again: “This could be love…”

Their eyes were still on each other as they came to halt in the middle of their respective riser and launched into the chorus. At the swell of the crescendo, a shadow suddenly passed between them, following by an awestruck collective gasp – Brian’s leap from the stage, perfectly timed with the introduction of the horns from the jazz ensemble, blaring loudly from her left.

When she found Ryan’s gaze again, she was struck by the darkness of it. They were slowly but surely moving into the light; he was becoming more of a solid figure and less of a silhouette, but even from five feet away, she could see that the emerald of his eyes had deepened into a rich forest green, heavy and full with latent desire.

Her heart began to throb in response; the butterflies in her stomach broke free, fluttering into her chest and causing her to tremble. “With my body and soul / I want you more than you’ll ever know,” she sang, unable – and unwilling – to mask the sultry quality of her voice.

He lifted a single brow, as if in invitation. “So we’ll just let it go / don’t be afraid to lose control, no,” he replied.

“Yes, I know what’s on your mind when you say / stay with me tonight,” she sang plaintively, curling her free hand into a fist.

“Stay with me,” he implored, “and remember…”

It was their cue to start moving again, but this time, she felt like she was moving through mud as they completed the call and response of the bridge. Time seemed to slow to a standstill as they continued to eye one another, mirroring each other’s steps as they drew closer to the stage.

They launched into the chorus again, but this time, they didn’t stop moving. Kimberly was lifted down from the stage and started her run into Brian’s arms; Ryan and Stacy mounted the stage steps as they sang, coming together as if in a trance.

Neither the sudden burst of the confetti canons onstage, nor the roar of the crowd for the perfectly-timed lift down below, could break the spell that had fallen over them. Ryan reached for her hand; his grip was firm, and she could feel his warmth seeping into her skin, through the thick cotton gloves they both wore.

The second chorus drew to a close, and he lifted his microphone, making an obvious show of flipping the switch to turn it off. Her eyes flickered from the microphone to his face, and suddenly, it all seemed to happen so fast – he leaned into her, capturing her mouth in a sweetly sensuous kiss; he let go of her hand to cup her face, his thumb cresting her cheek as his fingertips traced the shell of her ear.

She shuddered in response, her hands rising over his torso with surprise and need – to ground herself in the reality of the surreal moment; to return the heated urgency of his touch. She felt him smile against her lips, and some heretofore unknown instinct relaxed her jaw, but he eased away from the temptation she offered, before she even realized what she’d done.

His eyes were half-hooded as he drew away from the heat of their embrace, drawing the hand still holding her microphone up between them. “Now I’ve / had / the time of my life,” he sang softly, his voice heavy and full over the minimalist chords, as confetti continued to fall softly around them. “No, I’ve never felt this way before…”

“Never felt like this,” she murmured, her eyes searching his.

His smile was tremulous. “It’s the truth / and I owe it all to you,” he intoned, flipping the switch on her microphone off before guiding her arm over his shoulder, his forehead coming to rest on hers.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close, bringing his body flush against her own. She squeezed her eyes shut and hugged him tightly, wishing there was some easy way to convey the flood of emotion and desire that he’d stirred in her. Her heart was racing; her chest felt constricted; sweat beaded on her brow; every nerve ending in her body was tingling, making her skin feel two sizes too small.

It was exhilarating and terrifying, all at once.

“Happy New Year, sweetness,” he whispered, his breath warm on the shell of her ear, before pressing a kiss just below it.

She felt those three little words rise up the back of her throat, but she couldn’t bring herself to give them voice – nor the other one that arrived in a sudden surge of pride and possessiveness: mine.