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On Thursday, when Ryan shuts his locker door—with one last glance into his Bedazzled mirror to check that his lip gloss screams “kissably soft!” and not “hooker!”—Chad is waiting behind it like some creepy stalker, staring at him intensely, with crazy jock eyes. And after jumping back to plaster himself against the wall of lockers, Ryan manages to get his heart rate under control enough to say:

“What? ”

Chad says, urgent, “I need to talk to you.”

Ryan frowns. “What’s wrong?” he asks, and resists the urge to flick one of those ridicutarded corkscrew girlcurls out of Chad’s face. It looks sagging and lifeless, like Chad’s suddenly discovered conditioner but started using the wrong kind. “Even your hair looks distressed.”

“I need a favor,” Chad says, flushing deeply.

Scowling, Ryan says, “I don’t care what Rory told you—I don’t do that with everybody.”

Looking confused, Chad says, “Who’s Rory?”

“Nobody!” Ryan yelps, and vows to have Sharpay arrange a bitch-choking this afternoon; he can’t have this wretched reputation dragging him down any longer. It’s starting to make him paranoid. “What did you need help with?” he asks, since it’s obvious Chad doesn’t want a handjob behind the old Romeo and Juliet sets.

And glancing around the hallway, Chad leans in to whisper something in Ryan’s ear.

*

“Wow,” Ryan says, a week later, feeling as demoralized as Chad’s hair. “You really don’t dance.”

“Shut up,” Chad mutters, gasping. “Cramp, cramp, cramp.”

“We’re not even doing ballet,” Ryan says in disgust, glaring down at where Chad is writhing (unattractively) on the floor of the Ryan’s in-house dance studio. It’s top quality, blond-wood, hand-jointed, with gleaming mirrors all up and down the walls so at any time, Ryan can discreetly check that his hat is cocked just-so, and that his too-casual t-shirt falls at the perfect jut of his hip. It’s complicated being Ryan Evans, but the effort is worth it. “You can’t be cramping.”

“I’m cramping,” Chad moans, clutching at his hamstring.

“We’re waltzing,” Ryan sighs. “God, I’ll be back—I need a protein shake for this.”

Actually, he ends up needing two protein shakes, one of which is a sickly-green color from the three tablespoons of powdered spirulina he adds when he watches Chad limp into the kitchen, sweaty and whining. He wishes, abstractly, that Sharpay’s personal trainer wasn’t there that day so he could engage her in an afternoon of pore-cleansing bikram yoga, but he figures that she—as anybody should—deserves to be able to do her pilates in peace, undisturbed by the outside world.

“Is there any reason your usual hopping up and down won’t work for the prom?” Ryan asks, rubbing an ice cube of Ty Nant over his cheek. This is all extremely trying.

Glaring, Chad says, “I want to impress my date, okay?” and reaches for the fridge handle—presumably for water—only to crunch three fingers in the process.

Ryan sighs and adds another scoop of spirulina to the blender.

*

At the end of the first abortive afternoon of lessons, Ryan feels stressed to his very limits, and so he’s lying flat on a yoga mat, reaching his fingertips down into the center of the Earth to re-negotiate the boundaries of his existence with the spiritual forces when Chad thumps into the studio—disturbing the murmur of Tibetan monks over the surround-sound system.

“So what do you think—you think you can fix me in like, three weeks?” Chad asks.

“You’re ruining my concentration,” Ryan complains, and adds, “Plus, prom is in ‘like,’ four weeks.”

“I gotta have some time to put some signature moves in,” Chad explains, as if this is obvious or as if he actually has signature moves other than falling down and injuring his dance partner. Ryan sighs, long-suffering, and listens as Chad lies down next to him, flat on the cool wooden floors—he doesn’t even complain about Chad’s sweat degrading the high-gloss wax.

“So what are you doing, anyway?” Chad asks the ceiling.

“I’m centering myself,” Ryan explains. He stretches out his fingers and toes and all his muscles, expands inside his skin, and feels like he’s lengthening, reshaping—all the oxygen rushing through him like a stage high. “Becoming one with the Earth. Reaching down inside of it.”

Chad’s silent for a while before he says, “But you’re not moving.”

“You don’t have to move to move,” Ryan says, not-so-patiently. “Now either get out or shut up.”

“I’m shutting up,” Chad promises. And he does, so that the next time Ryan opens his eyes, ten minutes of perfect, untouched mediation later, it sounds like the single, sweet, high note of a singing bowl to look at Chad, eyes closed, fingers flat against the floor—moving and not moving at all—reaching toward the middle of the Earth.

*

The next three dance classes are no better, and Ryan’s starting to run out of excuses to feed Sharpay, now that she’s no longer preoccupied with mastering the roll-up—she does an amazing one; Ryan would tell her so if it didn’t make him hate her a little—because for some reason he doesn’t really feel like advertising that he’s teaching Chad Danforth to dance.

Chad hasn’t said anything like, “Don’t tell anybody,” or “Don’t tell anybody, you little queer, or I’ll punch your lights out,” either, which is both heartening and a little weird—East High is still, at heart, East High. They all suffer fugue states during certain musical productions (of which he and Sharpay have vowed never again to speak) and last summer, but with the exception of Troy and Gabriella—who, gag—defy the paradigm, jocks keep to the jocks and drama kids to the drama kids and etcetera and so on. The system works and it has for a reason; Chad likes rocking the boat but not when they’re sailing so gloriously along.

“Okay, seriously, Ry,” Sharpay says to him over dinner one night, picking at her macrobiotic meal, “what’s going on? You’ve been holed up in that studio all the time and you’re keeping secrets from me.” She narrows her eyes at him in sisterly worry, the idle pink feathers in her latest Juicy Couture boa shivering in concern . “Has something happened with that Rory person again? I already arranged to have him appropriately choked.”

“And you did fabulously, he’ll never show his face at another East High event again,” Ryan comforts her. Sharpay arranges shut-downs like no one else in the world. “I’m fine—I’m just working on a project.”

Sharpay raises her newly-threaded brows at him, and Ryan makes a note to call his waxer.

“Well,” she says, the tines of her fork rolling a broccoli floret across her plate, “as long as this doesn’t end in utter and total social tragedy.”

*

Sharpay is head of the senior prom committee, so naturally it promises to be fabulous. Ryan had—for once and exercising his newfound independence—abstained from participation.

It’s in part because it’s Sharpay’s moment to shine and in part because Ryan would rather occupy himself putting together choreography for the community theater that had heard about his work through somebody from somebody else or whatever—the important thing is he gets to wear loose pants and act bitchy to a good baseline.

It’s senior year and everybody is thinking about their futures—even Troy and Gabriella have deigned to take a moment away from staring sappily and with wholesome affection from one another to dissect which colleges have offered what scholarships, and talk about how they will describe their (abysmally vanilla) relationship on their Facebook profiles. Sharpay is bound for Tisch and Kelsi (aka, piano rat) is going to Oberlin, because of course she needs a place to luxuriate in being a social outcast and a musical genius all at once.

Chad Danforth, Ryan is given to understand, has been recruited by some school with a basketball team.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” Chad explains during their fourth lesson. He looks red and his man-hands are all sweaty—Ryan makes a note to have somebody open the skylight windows on fair days. He’s doing this out of charity, he shouldn’t have to endure sweat.

“I don’t know how you think you can play basketball if you can’t even do a simple two-step,” Ryan grumbles, and stomps on Chad’s foot after Chad steps on his. “If you damage me permanently, Danforth, I’m going to make you eat your jockstrap.”

Sheepish, Chad says, “I’m not doing it on purpose.”

“Yeah,” Ryan agrees, “that’s the scary part.”

They’re barefoot now in the studio, since Ryan had gone through the first part of the lesson terrified that he was going to end up with a broken toe just weeks before his final Julliard auditions. He’s got a soul or and they sort of bonded over baseball or whatever, so he wants to help Chad score with whichever bubbleheaded dance nazi he scored off the cheer squad—but he’s not risking his future as a fabulous Broadway dancer in Chad’s pursuit of an STD.

Chad’s feet are calloused and nearly as sweaty as his hands, so Ryan knows that this—standing around, swaying awkwardly to old, sultry clarinet, echoing through the room—should not be as nice as it feels. But Chad’s hands are ginormous wrapped around Ryan’s and he always smells like Tide detergent and cheap deodorant, the wax off of the gym floor and the industrial cleaner they use in the locker room. Chad smells like one of his basketball games and he thumps around Ryan’s dance studio like he’s at one of them, too.

“Hey!” Chad says suddenly, sounding excited. “I think I’m getting it! I’m getting it, right?”

“Shut up, you’ll ruin it,” Ryan snaps, but Chad’s right, he’s getting it. And they box their way across the floor to the beat, barefoot in blue jeans and Ryan thinks that if this doesn’t get Chad pussy, he’s going to go choke a bitch with his own two hands.

*

This year’s prom theme is “The Garden of Eden,” so he’s helping Sharpay individually hand-glue fake leaves onto the decorations when he suffers some kind of total psycho brain fart and he blurts out, “I’ve been teaching Chad Danforth to dance and I think I’m liking it a little too much. Maybe. Probably. Anyway, he has enormous hands.”

Sharpay only blinks her eyes twice before she asks, “American or International style?”

Ryan scoffs, and Sharpay waves her hands, saying, “Right, right—stupid. American smooth.”

“The waltz,” Ryan admits. He makes a face. “He’s terrible. Like, really appalling.”

“Ohmigod,” Sharpay says, reaching over to put a hand over Ryan’s—they’re covered in glitter and tacky glue and he hasn’t seen the sun in nearly 72 hours. Her voice is shaking when she asks, “And—you—you’re still teaching him? You haven’t you know, backhanded him?”

She’s his sister, his twin, so of course she knows exactly what this probably means. It’s also probably why he hasn’t said anything to her until now, until the afternoon after he sees Chad leaning against the lockers, grinning wry and crooked as he talks to that unfortunate—okay, not that unfortunate—girl who runs the academic decathlon. May she die a virgin, Ryan remembers thinking, and then followed that up with, oh my God, that’s horrible—nobody should die a virgin except for Troy and Gabriella! so he’d known that this was bad, bad, totally wretch.

Swallowing hard, Ryan imagines that this is the moment he has to face the truth of the whole business.

“No,” he finally says, wrenching it out of his chest. “I didn’t even threaten to.”

Sharpay slaps a hand over her mouth, wide-eyed with shock. “Oh, Ry.”

He covers his face, feeling himself gluing star-shaped sparkles to his face. “I know.”

*

In solidarity, Sharpay wakes him up the next morning to hot him up. It takes longer than it normally would since Ryan feels all defeated and stupid and anything but fetching—but Sharpay busts out the Tigi Bedhead and rubs the hairwax hot in her hands before she attacks him, saying, “Buck up, Ry, we can’t be defeated by stupid ballwhores all the time, all right?”

“God,” Ryan had moaned, covering his face, “don’t say ‘ballwhores.’”

And then she’d shown him the brand new Paul Allen shirt she’d gotten him and ‘miraculously found’ his best and most favorite pair of skinny jeans and his most fabtacular pair of checked Boho Beachcombers and shoved him into her car, stuffing a round of Carmex into his hands as they went and so Ryan knew that even if everything else went to hell, Sharpay loved him—in a kind of great white shark sibling sort of way.

“I should have known, really,” Sharpay tells him when they walk into home room, “I mean, Rory—why else? They have the same stupid hair.”

“Shut up,” Ryan says, sliding into his seat, and adds, “And his hair isn’t stupid.”

“Who’s hair is stupid?” Chad asks, coming up behind them, and Ryan manfully keeps himself from doing anything particularly crazy and embarrassing by burying his face into the latest US Weekly.

“Who invited you to the conversation, tall person?” Sharpay snaps, and fluttering her hands, she says, “Disappear from my field of vision.”

Chad decides to sit down on Ryan’s desk—giving Ryan an eyeful of the smooth elastic of black boxer-brief material. Ryan makes a soft, helpless noise, and tells himself, so what, he has a giant, impossible gay crush on Chad Danforth—at least he isn’t wearing cokepants and doing bikram detox in the Utah desert or trying to whiten his baby’s teeth or anything.

“Somebody’s hostile,” Chad mutters, and then, conspiratorial, leans in to say to Ryan, “Hey, can we talk later? I gotta ask you something.”

Ryan slumps down further into his seat. God knows what this episode is doing to his spine. He mumbles, “I’m busy.”

“It’ll only take a few minutes,” Chad says.

“A few minutes is a few minutes too long,” Sharpay says, coming to the rescue, voice acidic. This is like the one time in fifth grade when Jordan Newberg had realized he and Ryan were going out and called him a ‘doofus,’ and how Sharpay had punched him in the face and then drawn an L for loser on Jordan’s forehead. “You realize that prom is in just three days, right?”

“Hey,” Chad snaps, glaring, “you get that I’m trying to talk to your brother, right?”

He sees Sharpay stand up on her fabtacular silver wedges and get right into Chad’s face before she says, “And do you get that I asked you to remove yourself from my presence, ball giant?”

“And I—” Chad starts, but Ryan interrupts by slapping the magazine flat onto his desk and rocking up to his feet, because really, the last thing he wants to see is Sharpay break a nail on Chad’s perfectly chiseled features.

“And I’m leaving,” he tells them both, and stomps off to hide in the boys’ bathroom—which he realizes is kind of a miscalculation when not four seconds after he bangs into a stall to do some breathing exercises he hears Chad bang into the bathroom after him, shouting, “Ryan, we need to talk.”

“Oh, sweet mother of Botox,” Ryan moans, leaning his forehead against the closed stall door. “What? I already taught you to waltz—there is no way I can show you the quickstep in three days, okay?”

“It’s not about dancing,” Chad protests through the door, and after a beat admits, “Okay, it’s sort of about dancing—just—can I come in there? I feel stupid talking to you through this door.”

Ryan thinks the only thing worse than having to talk to Chad right now would be having to talk to Chad in a confined space. So Ryan says, “No! Leave me alone.”

There’s a long silence, and Ryan’s almost convinced himself that Chad’s left when instead, he hears abominable thumping and Chad’s voice say, “Move or I land on you,” from overhead—giving Ryan just enough time to squawk and shove himself into a supremely uncomfortable position, half-perched on top of the toilet seat before he hopped over the top of the stall wall and landed in a half-crouch.

Beaming, Chad says, “Hey, Evans.”

“Freak,” Ryan hisses.

“Dude, I just want to talk,” Chad says, and he has the audacity to look hurt.

“Well, I think it’s pretty clear I don’t want to talk to you,” Ryan mutters and tries to push past Chad and to the stall door. “So if you don’t mind, I’d really appreciate it if you’d just let me go.”

Chad, who has clearly suffered a multitude of head injuries, didn’t seem to understand, and just grabs Ryan by the shoulders and shoves him up against the stall.

“Hey,” he snaps, “Ryan, come on man, I just want to talk to you—we got along fine before, how did you suddenly become allergic to me?”

Ryan opens his mouth for a witty riposte and comes up completely blank. He blames his proximity to Chad, the fact that they’re crushed together in a space small enough that he can feel the sleek muscles of Chad’s thigh through Ryan’s designer jeans. That’s enough to make anybody’s thoughts fly a little bit out of their heads.

“Fine,” Ryan says, resigned. “What do you want, Danforth?”

“I wanted to say thanks—the moves you showed me really helped me seal the deal,” Chad says, beaming, and Ryan has horrible, brain-boilingly awful mental images of Chad’s afro shivering in lust as he pins some fat-thighed thin-brained girl to the gym mats. “You’re a pal, Ryan.”

“Oh, spare me,” he mutters. “I’m glad you’re happy. Did you really need to chase me into the bathroom to say that?”

“I didn’t say that was it,” Chad points out, and he goes from excited to worried in a snap. “I was also hoping you could teach me one more dance. Nothing fancy, but—”

Ryan thinks about getting stuck in his home studio with Chad again, smelling Tide on his clothes and feeling Chad’s big, oafish hands on his, getting his toes stomped on by Chad’s big, oafish feet, and is so overcome with—horrifically shameful and totally inappropriate lust—that he blurts out, “Absolutely not.”

“What?” Chad yells. “Come on, man!”

“No,” Ryan says, annoyed. “My toes have already suffered enough attempting to teach you the waltz, so I’ll just pass on going down that path of agony again.”

Chad makes a face. “I wasn’t that bad.”

“You really were,” Ryan says with complete honesty, but he can’t help but smile.

Pouting, Chad says, “Please?”

Ryan considers capitulating, and then he thinks about the lasting emotional damage it would inflict, and how the last thing he needs in life is to deepen his helpless crush on a terminal straight, and steels himself to say, “Danforth, no.”

Chad leans in, grinning. “Aw, come on, Ry—it’ll be quick, I promise.”

“No!” Ryan tries again, because suddenly the lasting emotional damage seems like small price to pay in return for the cheap groping he could get in teaching Chad say, the Samba.

“Aw, Ry, you love me,” Chad says confidently, “just do this one thing for me and—”

“Well, I don’t love you yet,” Ryan says again, but he knows he sounds a little like a feeb, and Chad seems too quiet about it until Ryan rewinds and fast-forwards and hears what he said again: “I don’t love you yet,” and gasps, “Ohmigod.”

“Yet?” Chad asks, eyes widening.

“I meant ‘never,’” Ryan explains, “I meant, ‘I hate you forever and will never love you.’”

“Yet?” Chad repeats, voice faint and looking speculative.

“Okay, so,” Ryan decides, and cupping his hands around his mouth, he yells, “Sharpay!”

Chad continues to look baffled. “You like me? Like, one dude to another, or like a man loves a woman?” Ryan’s look of searing hate must make an impact, because he corrects himself with, “Or uh, in this case, a man loves um, another, um—really?”

“Shar-PAY!” Ryan wails.

Chad runs his hands through his hair, looking torn. “Wow. I didn’t know,” he says.

“Oh, my God,” Ryan mourns, “This is hell. This is shopping at T.J. Maxx hell.”

“Hey, come on, Ry,” Chad teases, grinning nervously, “I’m not that bad a catch, am I?”

Ryan’s jaw drops, and for a second, he wants to say something about how, no, of course not, how Chad is handsome and funny (not on purpose) and oddly attractive in that way most sweaty, short-sighted teenaged athletes are, and that Ryan would totally teach him the foxtrot, the quickstep. Ryan, to his horror, would shop at T.J. Maxx for Chad.

But thank God, before he can do anything irrational like tell Chad he wants to be his special homoerotic high school gay-speriment or grab Chad’s muscular ass, the door to the stall’s ripped open by Sharpay’s superhuman strength and she shouts:

“Chad Danforth, unhand my brother or face the consequences!”

*

Ryan feigns sick for the next three days, spending most of his time detoxing himself with a combination of grapefruit and bottled Fiji and comforting himself with reruns of America’s Next Top Model, because nothing makes you feel less wretched than watching Tyra’s bad wigs slash bad extensions slash bad grammar. She’s amazing. Ryan can’t wait until he’s a supermodel and has absolute access to television cameras and unlimited lines of cocaine, too. He’s in the middle of looking up the qualifications for cycle 12 (still vagina’s only need apply, how uncouth) and eating tofutti when he hears Sharpay’s fiercest baboon scream echo through the west wing of the house, shrieking, “Danforth! You will remove yourself from my house post-haste!”

Ryan’s halfway out his bedroom window by the time Chad bursts into his room.

“What are you doing?” Chad yelps, rushing over to grab him by the foot. “Look, there’s no need to kill yourself over this!”

Ryan always knew Chad was retarded, but he hadn’t known the extent of the brain damage. It’s tragic that somebody so young and lithe would be so tragically incapable of human function. “Oh, please,” Ryan mutters, shoving Chad away and resigning himself to one of those agonizing talks about their feelings. “There’s a zipline outside the window that goes straight to the pool house—I just didn’t want to talk to you.”

Scowling, Chad says, “Oh, that’s mature.”

“So was cornering me in the bathroom,” Ryan shoots back.

“Touche,”Chad agrees, and then an awkward, uncomfortable silence falls, which Ryan endures for about five minutes before he clears his throat to say:

“Okay, well, that was awesome. Now, you can see yourself out, or I can have Sharpay show you the door with her sharpest pair of Jimmy Choos.”

Chad rubs his shins. “She already introduced me to them,” he mutters. “But look, Ryan, we should talk.”

Ryan decides he can either be a smartass or get his feelings hurt, so he obviously opts for smartass. “Danforth, I am still not teaching you any other dances. I told you, my feet can’t bear it. I need those for my Julliard auditions.”

“Understandable,” Chad says, mouth twitching into a smile, “but I just wanted to see if you’d save a dance for me—at the prom.”

Everything in the room goes very still.

“Um, pardon?” Ryan asks.

Chad’s blushing so hard his hair is red. “A dance. At the prom. I mean, I’m kind of locked into a date, and it’d be rude to blow her off—but I wanted to show you my moves, you know, the ones I developed on my own?”

“May Michael Kors preserve us all,” Ryan says, but he doesn’t really mean it, and he can’t help but to ask, “Um, does this mean you?”

Shrugging, Chad says, “To be honest, I’m not sure, but I mean, you managed to teach me to dance.” He looks down at his gigantic feet, and Ryan tries not to think about that, or Chad’s gigantic hands. “That’s got to mean something.”

“I see,” Ryan says, because he does, in a weird way.

“So do we have a deal?” Chad asks, eyes bright when he looks back up.

“Maybe,” Ryan sniffs, trying very hard not to smile, but it’s hard. This is like Bagley Mishka day at Fashion Week, like Barney’s holiday party when all the personal shoppers get drunk, like the rave at Promises of Malibu—awesome.

Chad starts to back out of his room, and his smile is big enough for both of them.

“Yeah,” Chad says, “you’re gonna dance with me. I know it already.”