Once upon a time in the great Eastern Kingdom, there lived a young boy named Chad. Everyone knew Chad was a good boy -- he worked hard, he liked to entertain his friends, and everyone agreed he was going to be quite handsome when he was grown. But his days of happiness came to an end all too soon, for his mother died when he was only seven. Nothing was quite the same after that: his father, who Chad loved dearly, had to spend much of his time out of town for business, so Chad spent many nights at the house of his best friend, Troy.
Then, tragedy struck Chad's life again: when he was 11, his father, too, became ill. Chad's father begged Troy's family to care for Chad, and, because Chad and Troy had become almost like brothers over the years, they agreed. But in the months after Chad's father's death, things began to change.
Troy was also a good boy, but he wasn't very thoughtful. He was, however, beloved by his parents, his friends, and even random passers by. As the years wore on, it became clear that everyone favored Troy, and Chad found himself relegated to the background. Worse, Troy's parents, who had once cared for him as their own, decided that they couldn't afford to feed another bottomless pit of a teenage boy unless Chad was willing to contribute to their family income, and so Chad found himself cast into the role of servant to earn his keep. (It didn't help that Troy's father was prone to random fits of angry yelling, and that Troy's mother, though she was rarely around, was always extremely cranky.)
And so the years went by. Troy, the favored son, grew up well; he excelled in all sorts of athletic tournaments, had a fair singing voice (actually, it wasn't as good as everyone claimed, though Chad didn't really get the whole singing thing either way), and was quite handsome (in a shaggy haired, harmless, none too bright way -- not that Chad had opinions on the matter). Chad, on the other hand, while equally handsome, mostly grew up to be known as That Guy Who's Usually Standing Slightly Behind and to the Left of Troy. But Chad didn't mind. He toiled away for Troy and his family, always working hard, and he never let it bother him.
Though Chad spent all of his time busily cooking, cleaning, and doing general servant-like things for Troy's family, one evening he was allowed to go to one of Troy's many performances, though of course he didn't sit with the family and instead skulked in the back. (Which was fine with him. He really, really didn't get the whole singing thing.) There, he saw a wistful looking girl, also in servant's clothes, who introduced herself as Gabriella. She was new to the Kingdom, didn't know anyone yet, and she was hoping no one would notice her so she wouldn't end up a servant to the ruthless Academic Decathalon Team, whatever the heck that was. (Chad didn't really pay much attention to the schooling Troy's family was required to give him, actually.)
Chad saw trouble coming the moment Troy walked on stage, for Gabriella's face lit up. "He sings beautifully," she sighed at intermission.
"Yeah, I guess," Chad answered.
"Oh, but a handsome, popular boy like that would never notice a girl such as me."
"I don't think that's true," Chad said. "True, Troy isn't thoughtful and sometimes he forgets that we're sort of brothers, but he's actually quite nice when he remembers to care about other people. He never judges people before getting to know them, and he'd treat the lowliest servant like the princess herself."
"Speaking of whom, this program says that the prince and princess shall perform in the second act! It's the talk of town. I hear they're singing a love song."
"Oh, you're not from around here," Chad remembered. "The love song may not be quite what you expect. They sing it to each other."
"Isn't that sort of inappropriate?"
"Very. I mean... verily," Chad said, remembering that this was supposed to be a fairy tale.
The show started up again, complete with Troy's somewhat tuneful warbles. Then, ten minutes in, Princess Sharpay and Prince Ryan took the stage. And in that moment, Chad's life once again changed forever -- but this time for the better, though he didn't yet know it. As Chad watched the twins on stage, he found himself spellbound. Their voices were golden, a gift given at their births by good fairies, and they were both almost inhumanely beautiful, also a gift from the fairies. (The third gift Sharpay had been given was immunity to finger pricks of all sorts, which probably served her well in some regards, but it frustrated her doctor and she was tragically anemic for many years. The third gift Ryan was given was an ability to coordinate his hat with any outfit, which he felt was much more practical than Sharpay's, if only because he was pretty sure they weren't in that fairy tale.)
Chad was transfixed by their performance, almost bewitched. But oddly, though he could accept that Princess Sharpay was indeed beautiful and talented, he also found her intimidating and cold. Prince Ryan, on the other hand, had the grace of an athlete, the beauty of a starry sky, and the voice of a particularly melodious songbird (or something; not getting the singing thing meant Chad a had a hard time finding a good metaphor for that one). Chad was immediately smitten, though slightly confused. Prince Ryan was like no one he'd ever seen before, and Chad was struck by the odd idea that perhaps they might have something in common -- could be good friends, or even more -- but he knew that was ridiculous. It could never be, for Ryan was a prince, and Chad was only a servant.
Even so, it became his fondest wish, his constant obsession. He longed to meet Prince Ryan. Yet it seemed as if it would never happen, and several months passed.
That summer, Troy's parents decided that, though the free domestic help Chad gave them was nice and all, they really needed cold, hard cash. They sent both Chad and Troy to the royal palace at Lava Springs to work as servants, though everyone knew they were really only sending Troy to network, with the hopes that he'd catch Princess Sharpay's eye.
At Lava Springs, Chad met and befriended many other servants. There was the Official Royal Baker, Zeke; the Court Musician, Kelsi; the General Scribe and Accountant, Taylor; and the Court Jester, Jason. He also learned that Gabriella was employed to watch over the moat and make sure no one drowned or was eaten by the moat monster, quite a task for one so young. Though their days were long and busy under the watchful eye of the exceedingly cranky seneschal, Sir Fulton, it was not an altogether bad summer.
Within only a few days of their joining the palace staff, Gabriella and Troy were finally introduced. It turned out that Gabriella's voice was a perfect complement to Troy's, and they fell in love at first sight. Everyone clapped as Troy made his sincere promises to Gabriella that they would be together for the summer, and never part again.
Yet it was not to be. As their first month of work continued, Princess Sharpay took an interest in Troy. Even she was not immune to his shaggy-haired handsomeness. Soon, rather than serving all of the courtiers in the dining hall, Princess Sharpay demanded that Troy attend only to her. So his days were spent following her around with a dazed smile on his face, for despite being kind of terrifying, Sharpay was truly captivating. (He also left most of his work for Chad to do, though Chad was largely used to that.) In the space of only a week, all of Troy's pretty promises to Gabriella were forgotten. Gabriella was left to watch the moat alone, and lo, she languished in sadness.
Though Chad was saddened by Gabriella's plight, and angry at his unintentionally wicked semi-brother, there were moments of joy as he worked. Every now and then, Chad's position as a servant allowed him to catch glimpses of Prince Ryan. At first, when Chad saw the prince, he was always at the side of the princess. As the summer continued, Chad noticed Prince Ryan was now part of a group: Prince Ryan, Princess Sharpay, Troy, and the princess's three interchangeable ladies in waiting. But as the summer continued even longer, more often he saw Prince Ryan on his own, looking... well, lonely. Chad longed to approach him, but with the exception of Troy, who for some reason never had to follow the same rules as everyone else, servants and royalty simply didn't mix.
Shortly before midsummer, Sir Fulton greeted the servants with an important announcement. "Hark and attend to this, for it is quite an important plot point: This midsummer marks the beginning of the Royal Twins' seventeenth year, and so there shall be a ball in their honor. All guests at this ball shall be required to wear costumes, so that the twins might walk amongst the guests unknown. In this way, they will get to know all young lords and ladies of marriageable age and station with no preconceptions, and thus they may fall in true love! This certainly isn't being done because the king and queen fear their children are a bit shallow, mind you. And frankly, the whole thing seems a bit ridiculous, as everyone in the entire Kingdom knows by now that Princess Sharpay has already selected Troy for her consort."
Gabriella gasped softly. Chad said, "Does Troy know that? He's rather thoughtless."
Sir Fulton glared at him for a moment before continuing: "In order to be assured that no one will interfere with her evil plot -- I mean, spoil this very important ball -- Princess Sharpay has issued the following edict: all servants at Lava Springs shall work the night of the ball, on pain of death. That is all."
Gabriella wailed in despair, but Taylor asked, "Doesn't that apply to Troy?"
Fulton shrugged, and Chad said, "No rules apply to Troy. It's kind of annoying, frankly."
"There, there, honey," she said, and patted Chad's shoulder.
That evening, Chad walked Taylor home from the palace, and revealed to her the truth. "It just doesn't seem fair that Troy gets to attend the ball, and gets to try to impress the princess. The whole point is to be masked, so no one knows who you are! If only we could go, how would the twins even know the difference between a servant and a courtier?"
"I see," Taylor said. "Is that what this is about? You wish to attend the ball and try to impress Princess Sharpay yourself?"
"Not exactly," Chad said.
"I wouldn't have thought she was your type," Taylor continued.
"It isn't the princess I would want to impress. But it doesn't matter! It's forbidden for us to attend, and only Troy is granted an exception."
"That's true," Taylor agreed, and gave Chad a long, steady look. "But if you truly wish to attend... well, it's as you said. If everyone is in costume, how would they know?" She patted his hand in a friendly and completely non-romantic way. "When I was born, I was given the gift of wisdom, and though there are those who may find me boring, in truth I am the best ally you could have. I'll consider your problem, and perhaps I will come up with a solution."
Chad left her at her door and thought to himself that, if his heart hadn't belonged fully to Prince Ryan, Taylor would be a pretty wonderful girlfriend.
The day of the ball dawned bright. Chad had no sooner stepped into the palace at Lava Springs than Taylor took him aside. They had to be careful to avoid Sir Fulton's gaze, for he tracked all servants mercilessly, and seemed to know every move they made. Once they were hidden away, Taylor handed Chad a soft package. "This will be your costume," she explained. "Hide it away during the day, and when the clock strikes ten and the party is underway, I will create a diversion. You'll only have a few moments to slip away and change. I will explain your absence: I've been given charge of some of the servants for the evening and shall tell them you were assigned to another crew for some few hours. However, you must be back in the kitchen by midnight!"
"Why midnight?" he asked.
"That's when Fulton always checks on the servants in the kitchen. I can explain your absence to the others, but Fulton will know the truth, and if he catches you... well, the notice said pain of death. I understand they feed people to the moat monster so that it gets a taste for human meat."
Chad gulped. "Midnight," he repeated. "I won't be late. What's my costume?"
"Have a look," she said.
He opened the package and found soft white and red material. It was the athletic wear, the sort young lords wore at the Eastern Kingdom's tourneys, complete with a red cap, a mask to cover his face, and the royal family's crest, a majestic wildcat. (Had Chad's parents survived, he likely would have participated in true tourneys, but as Troy's parents didn't feel like enrolling him, he was forced to watch from the sidelines and, like other peasants, could only participate in JV tourneys, alas. Yet everyone agreed, Chad was the athletic match for any squire in the Kingdom.)
"This is very cool, but not much of a costume," he said.
"You'll pull your hair back and no one will recognize you, I promise," she said. "Then you'll have your chance to slip into the ball and charm... well, whoever it is you intend to charm."
Chad flushed. "We'll see, I suppose." He kissed her cheek. "Thank you."
The day seemed to take years to pass, as Chad feared with every minute that Sir Fulton would guess what he was up to. The ball began at eight, and as he served dishes, Chad could see all the fine costumes. Everyone of marriageable age and station was there, dressed finely, hoping to snare the interest of one of the twins. And though the twins themselves were supposed to be anonymous, they were easy to pick out. Princess Sharpay wore a gown of brightest pink, and Prince Ryan was decked out in a fine white tuxedo, mask, and tophat.
Soon, the time drew close. As the clock chimed ten, a huge clatter arose in the kitchen. Sir Fulton charged right past Chad to see what had happened, and as soon as his back was turned, Chad stole away. He hurried down the hall to his hiding place and changed into his costume. Then he circled around to the front hall, so he might enter properly. But he was not alone in the hallway.
Gabriella stood there, taking deep, heaving breaths, recognizable despite a bejeweled mask. She was decked out in a gown that shimmered with every slight move she made. It was so beautiful it could only be magic. She stared at him in shock.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I might ask you the same thing!" She paused. "These masks are rather pointless, aren't they? Ah, well. No one inside will know me, except..." She frowned.
"I'm sorry Troy's been so foul this summer. He truly doesn't mean it, he's just... very thoughtless."
"It will all be well," she said. "For there's one inside who is my true love. My fairy godmother told me. Perhaps it is Troy, perhaps it is another. Perhaps it is even the prince!"
For just a moment, Chad badly wanted to stab Gabriella with something. But the urge passed. Though he was occasionally as thoughtless and impulsive as his brother, Chad also truly meant no harm, and would not destroy Gabriella's chances... even if he felt sure that, if Prince Ryan laid his eyes on her, the prince would never look his way.
Then he realized what she'd said. "Wait, back up. You have a real fairy godmother?"
"Mmhmm," she said. "She made me this dress out of magic. She says I'm a true Disney princess at heart, but she did not explain what that means. I also have a pumpkin coach driven by my pet dog. Oh, I hope I don't get caught and fed to the moat monster! It's very fierce, you know."
"So I've heard," Chad said. "Well, best of luck. I should get back to work..."
"Aren't you coming in? You're all dressed for it!"
"I don't think I'd better. You want this to be a special moment, don't you?"
"Well... yes, but... will you at least walk me in? Perhaps something will happen inside that changes your mind."
"It doesn't seem likely," he said. "But I will escort you, I suppose."
He offered Gabriella his arm, and together, the two of them walked in to the main hall. Everything went still and quiet. The crowd parted in front of them, and at the other end of the hall, Chad could make out Troy, Princess Sharpay, and Prince Ryan.
Troy's gaze fixed on Gabriella, but it was Prince Ryan who moved first, and of course, Troy could not interrupt the prince. Which served him right, Chad thought.
Prince Ryan walked to them and bowed elegantly. "You are quite a beauty, mysterious stranger," he greeted Gabriella. "Would you do me the honor of dancing with me?"
"Oh -- oh, of course," she squeaked, and accepted his hand.
Chad didn't want to watch, but couldn't turn away. Prince Ryan led Gabriella in a series of gorgeous spins and turns across the floor, and they looked perfect together. Gabriella's fairy godmother must have spoken the truth, for the way they danced, it was clear they were meant to be. Yet when Chad managed to glance away and look at Troy, he felt pity. For, though Troy was truly thoughtless and often not a very good brother at all, it was clear he was entirely heartbroken. Perhaps he didn't deserve Gabriella, but then again, he probably also didn't deserve Sharpay.
The song wound down, and Prince Ryan laughed heartily. "A lovely dance, my dear!" he declared. "But you look sad. Whatever can be the matter?"
"It's... well, this is a little awkward," Gabriella confessed. "For though I'm grateful you wished to dance with me, I fear I may weep tears of true woe if you choose me as your beloved! For my heart belongs to another."
"Oh," Prince Ryan said. "This is awkward, for I thought it was known far and wide that I, ahem, ehrm, well... Let's just say that, beautiful though all the gathered ladies here are, I sincerely doubt any of them shall win my heart. The gentlemen, on the other hand... if you know what I mean, and I think you do..."
"Oh!" Gabriella squeaked. "Then why did you ask me to dance?"
He shrugged. "I like dancing, and wanted to see your obviously magical dress up close. It's quite lovely. But now that I've seen it, I shall not stand in your way. Please." He gestured to the side. "If your beloved is here, he ought run to you."
"Gabriella!" The anguished cry came from Troy, who ran forward and fell to his knees in front of her. He always did like things to be dramatic, Chad thought fondly. "My love, I have not forgotten the promises I made to you."
Gabriella put her hand on her hip. "Well, you seemed to have."
"I have been blinded by my own thoughtlessness, and I now repent! I shall try to be a better man, if only you will have me back."
At the end of the room, Princess Sharpay let out a furious scream. "And what of the promises you made to me?!"
"I made none! I worked for you to support my poor parents -- "
Chad bit down a knowing laugh at that.
" -- but I never promised you anything other than my services. My heart has always belonged to Gabriella and it can not be purchased."
"Well, fine! But know this, you swain," Princess Sharpay snarled. "You're not actually a very good singer!"
Prince Ryan cleared his throat. "Perhaps you young lovers ought to hurry out, before she remembers the 'pain of death' threat," he suggested.
Gabriella and Troy hastened to take his advice, leaving hand in hand.
"Well, now that that's done with and my dance partner has run off, are there any eligible young bachelors out there who'd care to dance with either of us? Any?" Prince Ryan continued.
Chad was overcome with nerves, but since he'd come so far, he forced himself to step forward. "I would, Your Majesty," he said.
Prince Ryan gazed at him for a long moment, then said, "If you tell me you're here to dance with Sharpay, I swear I'll throw myself into the moat and let the monster eat me."
"No, no," Chad said quickly. "I'm here to see you. There's just one problem."
Prince Ryan groaned. "Again? Really?"
"You see, I... well, I don't really dance."
Prince Ryan considered that for a moment, then said, "No, that's stupid. You came to the ball. What did you expect to do here?"
"I, um." Chad hadn't considered that. "I just... well, fine, in truth, Your Majesty, I can't dance."
"That's even stupider," Prince Ryan said. "It's a fairy tale. Everyone can dance in a fairy tale. And besides: how else are we to fall in true love?"
Chad could hardly fault that logic, so he allowed Prince Ryan to take his hands and lead him on to the dance floor. Yet he felt so awkward about it that in the first moment they danced, he tripped, fell against the prince, and knocked both of their hats off. In a hurry to get his back on (lest anyone notice his fairly distinctive hair, tied back though it was) Chad grabbed the first thing off the floor that came to hand: Prince Ryan's tophat. He put it on and Ryan laughed brightly and put Chad's red cap on himself.
"Sorry," Chad apologized.
"Think nothing of it. This outfit needed a splash of color anyway... and I have the magical gift of matching hats and outfits," Prince Ryan said with a wink, and then they began to dance in earnest. Though at first it felt strange, as soon as he picked up the steps, Chad turned out to be something of a prodigy, dancing almost suspiciously well for someone who claimed he'd never done it before.
If time had passed slowly all day, it seemed to make up for it by passing all too quickly as the night wore on. He and Prince Ryan chatted about many things as they danced, though mostly about the athletic tourneys. Chad tried not to let on that he'd never played officially, so Prince Ryan would not guess he was only a peasant; and Prince Ryan regaled him with tales of a championship tourney he'd participated in as a child, back on the Isle of Rhode where he'd been raised. Soon, they were talking like old friends, teasing one another gently, and dancing chest to chest and cheek to cheek.
But then Chad happened to look up. He first saw Prince Ryan's blue, blue eyes, and was enraptured. Then he saw the clock, just as it began to strike12. He gasped.
"Your Majesty, I must go!" he yelled, breaking away and already heading for the door.
"Wait!" Prince Ryan called after him. "Why? What's your name?"
"I can't tell you!" Chad called back as he reached the doorway. "Goodnight!"
"Why not? How will I find you again? Who are you?" But Ryan's voice faded into the distance as Chad ran through the corridors -- and he was fleet of foot, and surely had he been allowed to enter any of the Eastern Kingdom's annual races he would have won easily. He reached the secret place where he'd stashed his servant's garb as the clock continued to strike, and did not realize until he pulled it from his head that he'd run out still wearing Prince Ryan's tophat -- or that Prince Ryan still had the cap he'd borrowed from Taylor.
He slid back into the kitchen as the clock finished its toll, and shot a wink at Taylor. It had been, without a doubt, the best night of his life.
The next morning, Troy returned to his original job as a servant in the kitchen, and as they walked to work together, Troy said, "So, uh, about the last, like, six years. I'm sorry, brother. I was wickedly thoughtless, treating you like a servant and all."
And though it was not an elegant apology, Chad's heart was still full of joy from the previous night, so he found Troy easy to forgive. Finally, things were right between them. Rather than young lord and servant, they were truly two brothers.
Lava Springs Palace was in a tizzy when they arrived. Taylor explained quickly, "It seems that someone mysterious made quite an impression on Prince Ryan last night... and all he left behind was his cap."
Chad slapped his forehead with his hand.
"Now," Taylor continued, "Prince Ryan is riding from village to village, searching high and low for his mysterious dance partner."
"How will he know who it is?" Troy asked. "After all, everyone at the ball was masked."
"Ah, but Prince Ryan has the mysterious dancer's cap. He will allow anyone who claims to be the dancer to try it on -- and whoever it fits he will take as his consort."
That was all they had time to discuss, for Sir Fulton was in one of his angry moods and they had to get to work before he noticed them slacking. Now, with Troy truly doing his share of the kitchen duties, work went quickly.
Prince Ryan retuned home that evening, slumped on his mighty steed. Word spread quickly that though he'd searched every village and spoken to every young man of the correct age, he had found none who fit his missing dance partner's hat. And that was when Taylor decided to take the matter into her own hands. She broke into the dining room where Prince Ryan sat with his parents and sister and yelled, "Hark! I have found the mysterious dancer!"
Chad's heart raced as Taylor dragged him from the kitchen. Everyone gasped, and Princess Sharpay declared, "That's impossible, for he's only a servant!"
"Let him try the cap!" Troy yelled.
"It can't hurt to let him try, Ducky," the queen suggested.
"It will never fit," Princess Sharpay said. "His hair is so distinctive and large -- it's impossible."
Taylor handed Chad a tie for his hair, and he pulled it back. Then, nervously, he accepted the now-worn red cap from Ryan and placed it on his head. Everyone in the room gasped for, of course, it fit perfectly.
"I don't believe it!" Princess Sharpay shrieked. "It's a stupid, ugly cap, anyway, and frankly, it's probably one size fits all."
"It didn't fit any of the other people who tried it on," said Kelsi, the quiet musician who'd been playing in the corner.
"You, be quiet! No one likes a smartass!" Princess Sharpay stomped her foot. "I won't let my brother take some mere servant as his consort!"
"Technically Troy is a servant, and you were going to -- "
"I said shut up!"
Kelsi shrugged. "Just sayin'."
"A little more concrete proof would be nice, though," Queen Derby said.
Chad hesitated, not sure what to do, but Taylor cleared her throat. "Chad," she said firmly. "I believe you have proof."
"Well, if Prince Ryan had your hat..."
Chad stared at her blankly.
"Then you must have his. Honestly, what would you do without me?"
"Do you?" Prince Ryan asked Chad.
"Uh, well, yes," Chad said. "As a matter of fact..." He led the way to the secret spot where he'd hidden his costume and pulled it out. He presented the tophat to Prince Ryan, who gasped.
"Then it is you!" Prince Ryan exclaimed. He took Chad's hands. "Why did you run off?"
"I had duties," Chad said. "For I am only a servant, and did not believe you would still love me once you knew the truth."
"What does it matter if you're a servant? It's my sister who will one day be queen, and who must bear an heir for the Eastern Kingdom. I am free to choose who I like, man or woman; so why should I not choose a servant who I love?"
"Oh," Chad said.
"So will you marry me?"
"Of course," Chad said.
And with that, Prince Ryan leaned in and kissed his beloved, while all of the viewers cheered -- except one.
Princess Sharpay rolled her eyes. "So what, everyone gets a happy ending but me?" she demanded of no one in particular. "I wasn't even the wicked sibling, for a change!"
Troy, who had followed them from the dining room, cleared his throat. "Perhaps not, Princess, but a friend in the kitchen has asked me to give you these." He held up a bag of cookies. "He thought they might soothe your temper."
She ripped them out of his hand and snapped, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." And yet something moved her: she tried a cookie and suddenly was filled with joy. "This is amazing! I must have more -- whoever made these must be by my side at all times!"
So it came to pass: Princess Sharpay met Zeke the baker, and they fell deeply in love. They were wed soon after, as were Troy and Gabriella, and even Chad and Ryan -- because in fairy tales, true love trumps all gay marriage laws.
And they all lived happily ever after.