A/N: I've always been intrigued by non-canon pairings of HSM characters (especially what with the UC kick I'm currently on, haha). So this is my contribution to that field. My knowledge of the HSM trilogy is limited (I only watched the first movie in its entirety, and relied on YouTube videos to fill me in on the second and third ones). So tell me if there are any major errors as far as canon and continuity are concerned, so I can fix them :)
Disclaimer: Nope, no part of the HSM franchise belongs to me. Neither do She's All That and Notting Hill, for that matter (speaking of Notting Hill, the title of Kelsi's song comes from a quote from Hugh Grant's character, William Thacker, in that movie).
The first time she ever sees him, she's sitting in her sophomore biology class when he walks in, surrounded by a horde of friends, grinning from ear to ear as they all laugh raucously at whatever joke he's telling. She's a new student at East High, so unlike the rest of the female population in this classroom, she hasn't yet been introduced to the swoon-worthy looks and charm of the one and only Troy Bolton. Having belonged somewhere in the middle-lower end of the social hierarchy back in elementary and middle school, she knows enough from experience, observation, and movies about high school to identify him immediately: golden boy.
But perhaps precisely because she's watched way too many of those same high school movies, maybe precisely because her heart melts every single time she watches Laney Boggs walk down the stairs in those high heels and that red dress toward a speechless Freddie Prinze, Jr., she can't help but screw popularity and social hierarchy standards and be mesmerized by him anyway. In his East High Wildcats basketball jersey, he is muscular and tan and devastatingly handsome, and when he smiles – goodness, just one smile is enough to send butterflies fluttering in her stomach. And she doesn't even know him.
She scolds herself immediately, but then she thinks: she's had crushes on boys like him before, and they've all ended pretty easily and painlessly. So she figures: what's the harm?
And so her gaze on him lingers, and the butterflies continue fluttering every time he walks through that door. On and off, on and on for the rest of the school year.
The first time she ever meets him, it's her junior year, and her crush on him has subsided (though that's mostly because he's no longer in her biology class). He's with the new girl, Gabriella Montez. She's heard people talking feverishly in the hallways about how Troy and Gabriella want to sing in the winter musical, despite the social stigma it would obviously create for both of them. So when they walk in late into the auditorium on audition day, Kelsi realizes with a start that, against all odds, the rumor is indeed true.
She's so startled by this knowledge, in fact, that she trips unceremoniously over a crack in the floorboard, sheet music scattering to the floor. Immediately, Troy and Gabriella rush over to help.
He breaks the silence. "So you're a composer," he says conversationally.
Subsided? Ha. At the sound of his ever-charming voice, and at the sight of him kneeling beside her, closer in her proximity than he has ever been, the crush is now back in full force. Not to mention that she's stunned that he, the golden boy of East High, is even acknowledging her presence, let alone picking up her music and starting a conversation with her: Kelsi Nielsen, mousy, shy, quiet, piano-playing dork (some would argue that Gabriella is also supposedly a geek, and Troy certainly has no problem hanging out with her. But Kelsi thinks that's bull, because Gabriella is also sweet and lovely and well-dressed and charming and drop-dead gorgeous. Geek, her foot). As such, she can only stare dumbly at him while Gabriella looks on with a friendly smile.
"You wrote the song Ryan and Sharpay just sang?"
She gives him a little nod.
"And the entire show?"
"Well, that's really cool. I, uh—" he extends his hand for her to shake it. She grasps it dazedly, not quite believing that this moment is actually occurring. The butterflies start to flutter wildly in her stomach when he gives her one of his trademark breathtaking smiles and says, "I can't wait to hear the rest of the show."
"So why are you so afraid of Ryan and Sharpay?" he continues. "I mean, it is your show."
This possibly (probably) untrue remark finally gives her the words to speak. "It is?"
"Isn't the composer of a show kind of like the playmaker in basketball?"
"Playmaker…?" she replies uncertainly. She's never felt this dumb in front of a boy, ever. And believe her, she's had plenty of experience in that department.
"You're the one who makes everyone else look good," he explains. "I mean, without you, there's no show. You're the playmaker, Kelsi."
She beams from ear to ear. Playmaker. She likes the way that sounds (and if she thinks a little longer on it – which, later, she will, and often – she likes the way that sounds because it came out of Troy's mouth. Because it's almost like he's created his own little nickname, just for her). "I am?"
He nods, and both he and Gabriella give her encouraging smiles.
This particular moment is what prompts her to say, "Do you want to hear how the duet's supposed to sound?" She's not sure why she's doing this. She doesn't truly trust anyone with her music (her real music, not the fake, revised crap that Sharpay's making her play), so why on earth is she trusting Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, possibly the least likely people at this school to be leads in the musical? But when she regards Troy again, something about the way he's smiling at her makes her believe that he really believes in her, in her music, and that he can do something amazing with what she's written.
(Then again, maybe it's just the butterflies messing with her good judgment).
At any rate, she plays the song, and Troy and Gabriella sight-sing along without a hitch. They're good together. Really, really good. Better than Ryan and Sharpay, even.
(This is the first indication that her apparently unceasing infatuation with Troy is idiotic and pointless and, in a nutshell, doomed to unfulfillment. That she should stop being so foolish and end it immediately. But she won't think any longer on that until a while later, and by then she'll be too far in to quit. Besides, it's all harmless, anyway.)
She ends the song and smiles at Troy. He looks flabbergasted. "Wow. That's nice," he says dazedly. He's looking right at her, and she knows he's (probably, definitely) saying this and looking like this because of Gabriella, and that he's only looking straight at her and not at Gabriella by an accident of his body not quite catching up to his brain. But for a desperate, dizzy moment, she believes he's talking to her. About her.
Suddenly Ms. Darbus comes out of nowhere and grants Troy and Gabriella a callback - and finally Kelsi snaps back to focus and starts talking (okay, babbling) about where and when they can practice the music.
And just like that, the moment (if it was a moment; probably not, but her heart refuses to heed her brain) is over.
It's the third time Troy has come in for practice for "Breaking Free." He's alone; he and Gabriella won't practice it together until two days before the callback, because they think it'll sound better that way – more fresh, more natural (Kelsi thinks this is very practical, and also incredibly romantic. Which of course makes her wistful and envious, because it's like she's watching a romance movie unfold before her very eyes. She supposes she kind of is).
After their second-and-a-half run-through of the song, Troy plops down next to her on the bench. "I think that's good enough for today," he says, slightly out of breath.
She chuckles. "I agree. Same time on Thursday?"
He nods. While he catches his breath, she takes several pages and books of sheet music from the piano's shelf, neatly arranging them and putting them back into her bag.
He glances over at her while she works. "So what kind of music do you play besides the stuff for the musical?"
She looks at him, surprised at his curiosity. "Um, mostly pop music. A little rock. Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Anna Nalick." She swallows, not sure why she's saying these things to a guy she barely knows, especially a guy who for all intents and purposes is still miles away from her on the social spectrum – even after he and Gabriella have arguably bridged numerous gaps in their unconscious quest to uproot the status quo. And yet Kelsi presses on (after all, it's nice to speak to someone who actually cares about her music. Or seems to, at least). "Ben Folds. Lots of Jack's Mannequin and Coldplay. Stuff like that. And, you know, a couple of songs I've composed, just for fun."
"Really?" he sounds genuinely impressed. Then he turns to face her directly and says, "Would you play one of them for me? If you don't mind, of course. I'd like to hear some of your music. But not stuff you wrote for Twinkle Towne; that doesn't count."
She chuckles nervously. "Um, okay. Sure." She isn't sure where to start. The first song she can think of off the top of her head is "Stay Forever" a song she wrote several days ago after watching Notting Hill and getting into one of her "romantic moods," as she calls them (as opposed to her "pensive," "angsty," "lighthearted," and "upbeat" moods, which have also produced numerous songs in her repertoire). She tells him so (well, except for the part about her songwriting moods), and begins to play.
She's nervous, obviously, because Troy freaking Bolton, of all people, is hovering over her as she shows him something so personal, so close to her heart that nobody except her parents and her little brother has ever listened to it. But after the first stumble, she orders herself to play as she always plays when it's one of her own songs – as if it's just her and the piano, her and her fingers pressing and gliding with practiced ease against the keys, her and the ebb and flow of the melody she knows by heart and has crafted note by note, chord by chord – and before she knows it, the song is over and she has to shake her head a little to bring herself back to the reality that Troy has been sitting right next to her the entire time.
"Wow. That was amazing," he says, seemingly awestruck, and she's reminded keenly of a similar moment, the one that happened after she'd finished showing him "What I've Been Looking For." Except this time, there's no Gabriella to make her doubt that Troy is saying these things and looking this way because of her, and her alone. She feels giddy and dizzy and a little strange, because honestly it's surreal that right now, she and Troy Bolton are sharing a moment that seems almost … intimate.
In the days and weeks and months and years to come, every single moment they'll have together, just the two of them (she'll be able to count them on one hand), will be like this.
And days and weeks and months and years later, she'll look back at this moment and realize:
This is what they are when they're alone together. Nothing more, nothing less.
"Composer! Here's your game ball. You deserve it, Playmaker."
And although there's a horde of people cheering around her (who, she notes with amusement, don't even know what on earth Troy's talking about) to witness this moment, somehow, for those few splendid seconds, those words are hers and his and no one else's.
(And then, of course, Jason Cross comes out of nowhere and sweeps her off her feet, and she stops thinking things like that for at least a little while.)
That summer, when they're in the piano room at Lava Springs Country Club singing "You Are The Music in Me," she can't help but notice how well Troy's voice fits and harmonizes with her own.
(And Gabriella's. Always Gabriella's.)
(But she knows she can't be too resentful, because they really do sound perfect together. Always.)
"I can't learn a new song!"
"Kelsi'll help you with it."
Giggling, Kelsi pulls him to the stage. And her heart skips a beat as, for the first and last time, she feels his warm hand entwined with hers.
But the show (or reality, whatever you want to call it) must go on – and sure enough, he starts singing with Gabriella (beautifully, as always), and life is again how it's always been.
The last time she ever sees him is at East High's graduation ceremony. They're on the football field, having cheered and whooped and thrown their caps into the air, having hugged and promised to keep in touch, and having taken a truly exhausting number of group photos.
Finally the group disperses, until somehow, only Troy and Kelsi are left (Ryan is a few yards away, talking to his parents, and Gabriella is off taking group photos with Taylor and the rest of the scholastic decathlon team).
"Kelsi," he says simply, closing the distance between them and embracing her. As his arms wrap around her small frame, she notes in the back of her mind, with startled bemusement, that this is the only time in the two years they've been semi-friends (friendly acquaintances? she doesn't know what to call it) that he's ever hugged her.
She also can't help but think that his arms feel really nice around her. She knows she has Ryan, who makes her infinitely happy every single day they spend together. And yet here she is, closer to Troy than she ever has been, tiny little butterflies fluttering in her stomach that she can't quite pretend are merely from shock or leftover excitement from the ceremony.
"Thank you so much for everything," he mumbles above her shoulder. "You've helped me and Gabi so much, and you've been a great friend to all of us. I'm so, so happy you got the Juilliard scholarship. You're going to be freaking amazing. Just don't forget about us little people when you're a famous songwriter or music producer or whatever."
Kelsi laughs into his chest and steps away from him, looking him in the eyes and smiling happily. "'Us little people'? What are you talking about, Mr. Crazy-talented singing star basketball player? You're going to be amazing, too."
He beams at her. "Thank you," he says sincerely, and she can't remember him ever being this candid with her in a public setting (or vice versa, for that matter). "Seriously, I can't thank you enough, for everything you've done for me and for the rest of us. You're the most humble and underrated person I've ever met…" he pauses, and then continues, "playmaker."
She lets out a startled, delighted laugh. "You haven't called me that in a long time," she replies. She looks down at the grass and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear, suddenly self-conscious.
And all of a sudden, in a fleeting nanosecond, he leans down and kisses her on the cheek. "Don't ever forget it," he murmurs, and she can hear the smile in his voice – and something else, too, something uncharacteristically (at least, when it comes to her) tender and unfamiliar and indescribable.
By now the combined shock and nerves and excitement and butterflies are making her more than a little dizzy. But at the same time, it strikes her with a jolt of clarity how ironic it is that this is the closest they'll ever be to… something, and yet she's quite sure that after this summer – or maybe even after this ceremony – they'll never see each other again (Berkeley, California and New York City? Come on. They've never even pretended to be that close, even with the rare few between-the-lines moments they've shared). And her heart begins to ache inside her chest, as if she's striving against some invisible, impossible boundary (which she supposes she is, in a way), because she can't help but think that this unresolved… whatever between them (interest? attraction? possibility?), although entirely inconsequential, in the scheme of things, is also kind of tragic.
But she knows that moments like this are bound to be broken, and sure enough, Gabriella comes up behind Troy and kisses him. And as if in slow-motion, Kelsi turns and sees Ryan heading her way.
Ryan kisses her soundly on the lips and grabs her hand in his, walking her toward his parents and talking a mile a minute about how he can't believe how amazing and fortunate and wonderful it is that they're both going to Juilliard together. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Troy and Gabriella holding hands and Gabriella resting her head on Troy's shoulder as they chat with Mr. and Mrs. Bolton.
And she thinks, yes - I suppose this is how it's meant to be. And with that, she turns and gives Ryan her full attention.
(Still, occasionally and much later, looking back at those years and glancing over old photographs and pages of sheet music faded and crinkled with age, she'll wonder what might have been.)