"My first Fourth of July party that's not also a farewell party!"
Ryan put his arm around Gabriella's shoulders and squeezed, not wanting to risk anything more while Troy was around. The guy just... It was almost cute, how oblivious he was, but sometimes Ryan wondered if he was being ignorant on purpose, because he couldn't handle the truth. Every time he saw Troy and Chad together the thought made his stomach clench, because if Troy had a problem odds were Chad did too.
The other Wildcats were squeezed into the Montez den, waiting for the sun to set before they set off the impressive collection of fireworks in the back yard. Taylor was nearest the kitchen door and had obviously overheard Gabriella's excited statement.
"That's awesome," she said.
"What is?" Zeke looked up.
"It's Gabriella's first Independence Day party that's not an immediate prelude to her departure," Taylor said.
"First's are awesome," Chad said, a knowing smirk on his face. Ryan's stomach flipped. Chad was lying on his back, bare feet propped up against the arm of the sofa. Ryan watched Sharpay push them away from her with disgust. When her attention was distracted by Zeke and his profiteroles Chad immediately put his feet back on the arm. She pushed them off again as soon as she noticed, and he put them back as soon as she was distracted. Ryan wondered how long it had been going on for.
"Like first kisses," Taylor said, something in her voice pointed enough to kill any other conversation in the room.
"Who was your first kiss?" Gabi asked her, settling herself in Troy's lap.
Taylor shot Chad a pointed look, which he ignored. "Jason, actually. Do you remember?"
Jason grimaced. "Yeah."
Ryan stood awkwardly in the doorway for a moment before his sister noticed. Sharpay scooted up a little on the seat (conveniently closer to the profiteroles) and gestured at the sliver of space she'd left.
As he sat down she hissed in his ear, "The feet are all yours." Chad promptly shifted his feet from the sofa arm to Ryan's lap. Ryan ran a finger down the sole of his left foot; Chad's stomach quivered and his jawline tensed, but he managed to hold the laugh in. Ryan grinned at him.
"What was so bad about it?" Gabriella asked, looking between Taylor and Jason.
"We both had retainers on," Taylor said. "We got... stuck."
The whole room laughed at that.
"We were, what, twelve?" Jason said, glancing over at Taylor for confirmation. "Yeah. Loooong time ago." He looked a little uncomfortable.
"Was it your first kiss too, dude?" Chad asked. Ryan took advantage of his distraction to tickle his feet again and nearly got kicked in the face for his trouble.
"Yeah," Jason said. "Um."
"Yours was Michelle, wasn't it, Chad?" Troy said. Of course he knew who Chad's first kiss was. Hell, Ryan was half surprised it wasn't Troy himself.
Chad snorted. "Yeah. You know she's gay now?"
"What about you, Gabi? Was it Troy?" The first question, Ryan realised with surprise, was genuine. If she hadn't followed it so hurriedly with the second Ryan might have thought his sister was starting to like Gabi.
Gabi giggled. "That would have been so romantic, wouldn't it?" she said. "No, it was back in seventh grade. He was a basketball player, though he wasn't nearly so good as Troy."
They made mushy faces at each other for a moment, before Gabi continued, "I used to go and watch him practice. When he worked up the nerve to kiss me... One of the cheerleaders took offence, and threw a basketball at us. It hit him on the back of the head, his face hit my face, and I ended up with the absolute worst bruise. Mom actually let me skip school for a couple of days because I was so embarrassed."
"Does anyone have a good first kiss story?" Ryan wondered aloud.
"I sneezed in her mouth," Troy volunteered.
"I'd made peanut brittle earlier that day, and she had a massive allergic reaction," Zeke added.
"How about yours, Ryan?" Gabi asked.
Ryan immediately regretted speaking.
"If you don't share, I will," Sharpay said.
Ryan shot her a withering glare. Sharpay's first kiss was boring. Normal. Nothing going to get her the attention she desired in company like this. If you couldn't compete to be best, then you competed to be worst. And they both knew Ryan would win that hands down.
"This sounds good," Chad drawled. He poked Ryan in the stomach with his foot.
"It really wasn't," Ryan said. He turned to his sister. When she saw the desperation in his eyes he saw guilt in hers, but that wasn't going to stop the ball she'd set rolling. He probably should have told her he wasn't out to the Wildcats yet.
Sharpay handed him the plate of profiteroles. At least if they took it badly he had ammo, Ryan supposed.
"So," he said, "it was a guy."
Troy's eyes widened, genuine surprise written across his face. Chad looked at Ryan through his curls, lips pursed thoughtfully. Ryan meant to check the other Wildcats, but for some reason he couldn't look away from Chad.
"Well, duh," Gabi said. "Go on."
The moment passed, and Ryan chuckled nervously.
"So, I grew up kinda sheltered," he said. "You know. Kinda." As sarcasm saturated the last word he realised he'd never told this story before, not even to Shar - not in its entirety - but that didn't have to matter. It was just the first run through of a script.
Act, Ryan. Act.
"There was never any fuss made about homosexuality. Like, it was just as likely a person would fall in love with someone of the same sex as the opposite. Okay, so even in the theatre there was a definite skew in the relationships represented, but, I don't know, it didn't really register. We didn't watch much TV and I was never a big reader. I just didn't realise not everyone felt the same way.
"We were living in Rhode Island, and I was playing baseball. And there was a guy on the team that I liked. Call him 'Romantic Interest Hash One, Bit Part'," Ryan said dryly. He didn't even want to remember his name. "We won the Little League World Series and we had a party to celebrate. Our leading man, yours truly, plucks up the courage to get the romantic storyline underway, curtains close on a kiss, and so on, and approaches Bit Part.
"Bit Part did not grow up in the same, accepting bubble as our leading man, and reacts as, apparently, anyone who grew up in the 'real world' would. Apparently."
"What happened?" Gabi asked quietly. Ryan became aware of how quiet the room was. His audience was enraptured. For the first time in his life, he really wished it wasn't.
Playing for time, fighting the urge to spit something out that would make the atmosphere even more awkward, Ryan popped a profiterole in his mouth and chewed for a second.
"So." Ryan swallowed. Damn, the chantilly cream was amazing. "So I went over to him. We were really good friends - we spent so much time together, and stayed over at each other's houses, and there was always a lot of physical contact between us - and I don't think he realised what was up when I led him to a more private corner. We weren't allowed to leave the room, except to go to the bathroom, and I didn't think that would be very romantic for my first kiss. I had plans for my first kiss. I wanted it to set fireworks off." His voice almost broke, but years of vocal training held it steady for him. "I didn't even really... Our lips didn't even really meet, not long enough to call it a kiss. He just jerked back, and stared at me, and told me exactly what he thought of me. Loud enough for everyone there to hear. I didn't realise what I'd done wrong, but everyone else was more than keen to explain it to me." Ryan's chest tightened until he couldn't keep talking. He stuffed another profiterole in his mouth, and waited.
"That's why you quit baseball?" Chad asked, after the silence had stretched just long enough to be painful.
Ryan nodded. "We were moving back to Alberqueque anyway, so I'd have had to leave the team either way, but I realised the theatre was probably going to be... safer for me."
Chad's outrage made his whole body jerk, his feet threatening the plate of profiteroles. Sharpay magnaminously rescued them, and Ryan squeezed Chad's toes.
"I was going to have to make a choice eventually," Ryan said, massaging Chad's feet like it would restore his own inner calm, "and I made the correct one for me. Maybe I made it earlier than I would have otherwise, but it gave me an edge over my contemporaries. I ought to be grateful to Charles."
Chad didn't look any happier, but at least Ryan wasn't in danger of getting kicked in the face. He was still tense, his shoulders knotted, his stomach burning. Chad didn't look any happier.
"Like you say, it hardly counts as a first kiss," Taylor said. "What about your second one?"
He ought to have been expecting that, but he floundered.
"Dude," said Chad, "that's not your only kiss, is it?"
"You try finding openly gay guys in New Mexico," Ryan snapped. He shoved Chad's feet from his lap and stood up. There was no easy way out of the room without stepping over piles of Wildcats, making what ought to have been a truly dramatic storming out into a somewhat gingerly-executed high step, like a horse doing dressage. At least they had the tact to let him do it in silence.
He hid in the upstairs bathroom for half an hour with a plate of Mrs Montez's brownies. Outside the frosted window the sky gradually darkened. Sharpay knocked on the door once to swap the brownies for more profiteroles, but she didn't even suggest he come back downstairs. Sometimes he loved his sister most when she was trying to make up for pain she'd caused him.
When another knock came on the door he opened it without thinking. Where he expected to meet Sharpay's eyes he read "Can't sing, can't act, can dance a little."
"Did you bring baked goods?" Ryan asked.
Chad shook his head. His hands were shoved into his pockets, his shoulders rolled forwards, and he was still peering through his curls.
"I asked Sharpay some stuff," he said. "You know Charles moved to Texas a few years ago?"
"I didn't," Ryan said, his voice tight in his throat. He couldn't see Chad's eyes through his hair, salt in the wound Chad insisted on reopening. "I don't want anything to do with him ever again."
"You know our baseball team made played some inter-state games last year?"
"I chose drama."
"We beat them. They were terrible. Really bad. We slaughtered them, Ry."
He didn't know what was bubbling in his chest until it came out as a laugh. His shoulders shook and he knew he was right on the edge of hysteria.
Chad straightened up, pushing his hair back out of his eyes.
"I just thought you'd want to know," he said, gracing Ryan with that million watt smile. Ryan's laughter died away, but he couldn't help but return that smile.
"Thanks," he said.
"Taylor's right, it doesn't count as a first kiss," Chad said.
"I'd rather have that than be seventeen and still unkissed. Well, unkissed off stage. It's bad enough that I've kissed my sister on the lips more times than I've kissed guys. It'd be worse if she was the only person I've ever kissed."
"Okay, I hear that. But you're a hot guy. Why hasn't there been anyone since then?"
Ryan shrugged uncomfortably. "I never want to go through that again. I don't wanna risk making a move without being 100% certain."
"And no one else has ever made the first move?"
Chad's incredulous tone started to raise Ryan's hackles again, but he knew the guy meant it as a compliment.
"Look, I get it if you're not feeling up to join the rest of the gang, but Gabi said you're welcome to watch the fireworks from her balcony." Chad put a hand on Ryan's arm. Not on the shoulder, which Ryan had learnt was the heterosexual man's body part of choice, but just above the elbow. It was weird. The heat of Chad's palm through Ryan's pure cotton shirt made his skin prickle with sweat.
"Are you rejoining the others?" Ryan asked, the question coming out more needy than he'd meant it to.
"If you don't mind, I'll stay with you."
Chad kept his hand on Ryan's arm as they walked to Gabriella's room. It was as charmingly twee as Ryan had expected, 'Hope' and 'Dreams' on the walls, and floral prints and mismatched furniture. He couldn't have colour co-ordinated for it better.
Ryan shook off Chad's hand and went to the balcony. He could feel Chad hovering behind him, radiating heat like the lingering warm patch on his arm. His stomach flipped at the thought of him, choosing to spend Independence Day up here, with him, while the other Wildcats laughed and jostled below them. Jason and Troy were putting a bonfire together while Taylor watched nervously, and Sharpay was attempting to choreograph the fireworks. He bit back the urge to tell her how to order them, but he figured Taylor would stop her from trying to light them all at once.
The night air was warm and dry, a light breeze bringing the tang of woodsmoke from dozens of bonfires in neighborouing gardens. Some fireworks were already going off, but it didn't seem to bother the fireflies.
"It's a beautiful night," Chad said from behind him.
"It really is," Ryan agreed. A night like this... Damn the Wildcats, all of them, for putting thoughts of romance in his head all evening.
He felt a hand on his hip, and Chad gently pushed until the rest of Ryan's torso was forced to follow his turning hips - well, not forced, because god knew he was flexible enough to stay facing the world if he'd wanted to - and they stood face to face. Something about the expression on Chad's face made Ryan's breath catch.
"Rhode Island doesn't count," Chad said. "It's kinda like Vegas. What happened with Charles... That wasn't your first kiss."
Ryan sighed. "I told you-" He was cut off by Chad's finger on his lips. He recoiled in irritation, but Chad wasn't even looking at him now. Fuck him. Fuck him and his stupidly warm hand still on his hip. That was slowly sneaking around Ryan's back.
Just as Ryan was about to demand an explanation, the hand on his mouth moved to cup his cheek. Chad's eyes were on his now, big and dark and a little... was he nervous? Why was he nervous?
They're bodies began to meet, starting at their hips. Ryan felt the press of Chad's firm stomach against his, their chests bumping, his hands coming up automatically to clutch at Chad's shoulders, and finally Chad's lips met Ryan's.
It was a simple kiss, warm and dry and close-mouthed, but Ryan's eyes closed anyway. The bang of fireworks was suddenly much closer, and Chad pulled back.
Ryan blinked at him, his lateral vision exploding with colour. Chad didn't let go.
"Fireworks went off," Ryan said, his voice small and stunned.
"This is your first kiss," Chad told him, a rough whisper. "With the balcony, and fireworks, and glowing bugs and everything. This is your big, romantic, curtain closing first kiss, okay?"
Ryan's breath hitched in his chest. What did Chad mean? He was searching Ryan's eyes for... something, but Ryan didn't know what and he was elated and terrified by turns, because he didn't think he could handle it if this was just a romantic gesture born out of some kind of pity.
"What about my second kiss?" he asked, his fingers digging into the material of Chad's shirt so tight the other boy would probably have bruises in the morning.
Chad's grinned, teeth white in the darkness, and kissed him again.
By the time the fireworks ended, Ryan had stopped counting and started looking forward to all the other firsts instead.