But I’m just trying to love you any kind of way
But I find it hard to love you when you’re far way.
- The Kooks
Chad hears his name being called from across the street, and obediently turns. It’s Kelsi, wearing a purple knitted hat and waving frantically, her other arm looped through Ryan’s. Ryan is wearing a very purple trilby and a slight smile, a couple of shopping bags dangling from his free hand. Chad crosses the street to join them and Kelsi immediately runs up to him, hugging him.
“Save me!” she insists, though she is smiling so Chad reasons she isn’t in immediate danger. “Please Chad, save me!”
Ryan follows Kelsi at a more leisurely pace and smirks at Chad when he finally catches up.
“Is the Big Mean Drama Boy bullying you, Kels?” Chad asks, wrapping a protective arm around her shoulders and trying to glare at Ryan, though he can feel his lips twitching.
“Yes I am,” Ryan agrees, folding his arms across his chest and attempting a scowl. “I’m buying her a dress, so of course I am the meanest person who ever lived. Even my sister has started calling me cruel.” He sighs theatrically. “I don’t know how I live with myself.”
Chad looks to Kelsi for an explanation.
“Eleven stores,” she says sombrely, though her eyes are sparkling. “Eleven stores and we still haven’t yet found a dress that his highness likes.”
Chad frowns. “Eleven? Dude.”
Ryan looks a cross between amused and self-conscious, shifting his folded arms a little. “I’m just trying to find Kels the perfect dress,” he says.
“But it has to go with his tux,” Kelsi tells Chad, as though determined to prove to him just how draining the situation is being. “And also my skin tone. And some other things I’ve forgotten. And I keep having shop assistants prodding me and measuring me and…” She looks up at Chad with big eyes. “It’s very traumatic.”
“You’re having fun,” Ryan replies, his usual sunny smile returning to his face. “And I let you stop for sustenance.”
“Three hours ago, Ry,” Kelsi replies. “I’m exhausted.”
Chad is meant to be meeting Taylor but not for like nearly an hour, and he’s amused now. Moving quickly, he bends, tucking his arm behind Kelsi’s knees and scooping her into his arms. Kelsi and Ryan both stare at him.
“So, Evans?” Chad smiles. “Where were you headed?”
Ryan laughs, a slightly wicked/scheming expression worryingly like his sister’s crossing his face.
“Traitor,” Kelsi groans, burying her face in Chad’s shoulder. “You’re not going to rescue me at all, are you? You’re just going to carry me to my doom.”
Ryan claps a hand against Chad’s back, pushing him slightly. “This way.”
They get a lot of weird stares walking down the street, but Ryan doesn’t seem to notice at all – he does get stared at a lot, after all – and Chad quickly finds himself distracted by Kelsi’s chattering about the different dresses she’s been trying to wear and how Ryan wouldn’t let her have them and how she would never have agreed to go to the prom with him if she’d known he was going to be like this.
“It’s like going to the prom with a girl,” she informs Chad gravely, “Only bitchier and with more arguing over shoes.”
Ryan makes a soft choking noise, and Chad finally realises that Ryan’s hand is still resting warm between his shoulder blades. It makes him think of last summer, a weird swooping sensation because he thought he had problems then and now he knows that it was nothing compared to this: the feeling of being dragged into growing up against his will, and everyone around him pulling in weird directions.
“Here,” Ryan says, stepping away from Chad and stopping at a boutique that Chad has never noticed on this street before. Kelsi stifles a giggle in Chad’s shoulder and he carefully sets her back down on the sidewalk.
“Save yourself,” she warns him, eyes twinkling, and Ryan pauses, holding the door open.
“What the hell,” Chad sighs, and follows the two of them into the store.
“Hey Camille,” Ryan says cheerily, greeting a glacial-looking woman with a lot of dark hair. Her carefully-painted lips curve into a smile.
“Mr Evans. What can I help you with today?”
“I need the perfect dress for my prom date,” Ryan explains, indicating Chad and Kelsi, who are standing kind of frozen near the door.
Camille looks at the two of them for a moment, and her eyes linger on Chad. She opens her mouth.
“For Kelsi,” Ryan adds swiftly.
Camille looks momentarily bemused, then sweeps over to Kelsi.
“What colour scheme were you thinking?” she asks Ryan over her shoulder.
“Creams, champagne, you know…” Ryan waves an airy hand.
“I think I can help,” Camille tells him, and ushers Kelsi off towards what are apparently the fitting rooms.
Ryan glances at Chad. “Coming, Danforth? If you want to run off screaming like a girl, I won’t blame you. I know this can all be a bit…intimidating.”
Chad raises an eyebrow. “Are you calling me chicken, Evans?”
Ryan’s mouth curls. “Maybe.”
Chad shakes his head, a real grin breaking across his face. “Oh, it is so on.”
And he follows Kelsi and Camille determinedly, ignoring Ryan’s soft snigger behind him.
There’s a large, comfortable-looking couch opposite three curtained-off areas. One of the curtains is moving, so Chad is going to assume that Kelsi is behind there somewhere, and there are mirrors everywhere. He doesn’t know how girls do shopping; he’s already feeling small and self-conscious and he’s not even here to buy clothes. He plops himself down on the couch and begins playing with the edge of a pillow, trying not to look too out of place.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look more uncomfortable ever,” Ryan observes, walking in and sitting down at the other end of the couch. “And I’ve hit on more straight guys than you’ve scored baskets.”
Chad stares at him, and kind of desperately wants to say slut, but restrains himself because he’s not sure how Ryan would take it.
“Pre gaydar days,” Ryan adds. “It took a little fine-tuning.”
Chad smiles, and then a thought occurs to him. “Hang on, you’re taking Kels to prom.”
“I am,” Ryan nods, in a and your point is? kind of way. “I’m not buying her this dress so I can rip it off her, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
If Ryan carries on like this then Chad is going to start blushing and then he is actually going to run out of here screaming like a girl. He’s beginning to suspect that agreeing to go prom dress shopping with Ryan and Kelsi might have been a bit of a stupid idea. Camille emerges from behind the curtain, heading back into the main part of the store.
“So you’re going as… friends?” Chad asks carefully.
Ryan nods. “I could probably find a guy to take me to prom if I thought it wouldn’t give Principal Matsui a heart attack, but I think I might be kind of fulfilling my pretty dress fantasy here,” he admits.
“So you’re not going to show up to prom in a dress?” Chad adopts as innocent a tone as he can manage. “I’m disappointed in you, man.”
Ryan rolls his eyes. “I know I wear kind of a lot of pink and am clearly very very gay and I do enjoy singing and dancing but I’m not sure where you got drag queen from.”
Chad resists the urge to mention Ryan’s over-the-knee boots that he’s been wearing kind of a lot, and doesn’t mention the fact he’s noticed that Ryan and Sharpay share several pairs of unreasonably skinny jeans because that makes it seem like he’s been paying a creepy amount of attention to Ryan. Possibly he has.
“It is a lot of pink,” Chad mutters, attempting not to pick a hole in the pillow.
Camille hurries past, arms laden with dresses. She gives Chad a thoughtful look before she vanishes behind the curtain again.
“I think she thinks I’m your prom date,” Chad observes.
Ryan turns to him, fluttering his eyelashes. “I’ll buy you a dress too if you like,” he offers.
Chad screws up his face. “Uh…”
“Sorry,” Ryan says quickly, and it really sounds like he means it. “I know you’re going with Taylor.”
Chad considers not saying it, but it spills out anyway: “As friends.”
Ryan’s eyes go very wide, his mouth opening just a little in what is apparently shock. “But… but you spent all last summer going on about cars and how you were going to get one and do her in the backseat-”
“Dude, I don’t think I ever said that,” Chad says, clenching his fingers in the pillow and he’s probably going to owe the store a new one by the time they leave.
“It was implied,” Ryan protests. “Fine. But I thought, you know…”
Chad nods. He kind of thought too, but they fizzled out months ago. Now they’re just friends, really good friends, and Chad is more ok with that than he would have believed.
“There was that whole thing, though,” Ryan murmurs. “You know, with the standing on the table and the flowers and all…”
“What can I say?” Chad smiles slightly. “The science club apparently don’t mind Troy stealing half their roof garden, and, you know, Tay has standards.”
Ryan nods, smiling. “Good girl.”
They’re interrupted by Kelsi walking out from behind the curtain.
“I hate it,” she says.
The dress is a weird sort of beige and it’s too long, making Kelsi look tinier than ever. Chad knows very little about girls’ clothing and even he knows that it’s all wrong.
“Eugh.” Ryan shakes his head emphatically. “Camille, it’s a prom. You know? Something lighter, floatier. Fairytale.”
Camille nods, hustling Kelsi back inside.
Chad turns to Ryan. “Man, are you sure you don’t want a dress?”
Ryan gives him a very good imitation of Sharpay’s favourite death-glare, which he manages to keep up for all of about five seconds before it slips straight off. Ryan can’t be as hostile as his sister, no matter how hard he tries, and it’s something Chad finds, well, sweet about him, though he won’t ever mention it.
“I don’t want a dress,” Ryan sighs, not-quite looking at Chad, and he realises that there’s something else kind of going on here.
“What?” he asks, shifting on the couch to give Ryan his full, undivided attention. Ryan appears to be picking at his fingernails, and won’t look up. “Evans… Ryan, what’s up?”
Ryan shrugs, body language defensive and awkward and closed-off. “I was just… wondering if… I’m too much sometimes, you know?”
Chad drops the pillow and scoots a little closer on the couch, unable to believe that Ryan just said that. Of course Ryan is too much a lot of the time, but that’s the point; a huge chunk of Ryan being Ryan is the fact he’s kind of a bit too much, and that’s fine! It really is.
What he manages aloud is: “What the hell?”
Before Ryan can elaborate, Kelsi steps out from behind the curtain again. The dress is better than the last one, but although it’s shorter and has a fluffy sort of thing underneath it to make the skirt stick out, it has a hideous amount of frillyness on it.
“No?” Kelsi says, lips curling a little.
“No,” Chad and Ryan agree in unison.
Kelsi sighs. “You owe me cake,” she says with a little pout, and stomps back into the cubicle again.
Chad turns back to Ryan, fixing him with a glare. “So what’s with the identity crisis?”
Ryan’s lips twitch a little. “It’s not an identity crisis,” he replies. “It’s just… we haven’t hung out that much since last summer, and I wondered if maybe it was ‘cause, you know…”
It’s true. Ryan is at all the Wildcat parties and he’s always around Gabi and Kelsi, so they hang out in big groups, but Chad and Ryan haven’t really been alone together since last summer. They got really close, playing baseball and hanging out at Lava Springs, but once they got back to high school all that kind of… well, stopped, and even Chad can’t say exactly why.
“Dude, I don’t care about that,” Chad replies. “You’re you, you know, with the sparkles and the jazz hands and the…” – he waves a hand – “The stuff.”
Ryan finally quirks the beginning of a smile. “Eloquent,” he says.
Chad realises that he’s kind of really missed Ryan’s casual bitchiness, and he wishes that he hadn’t spent the last year forgetting that Ryan is fun to hang out with, even when they’re sitting in an incredibly expensive boutique shopping for a prom dress, of all things.
“We’re going to hang out a lot before the end of term,” Chad decides firmly.
Ryan’s smile is broad and genuine and boyishly charming. “Really?”
“Make up for lost time,” Chad says, nodding. He leans over a little, draping his arm companionably around Ryan’s shoulders. “Though possibly we shouldn’t do any more dress shopping.”
Ryan laughs. “I promise next time we will do something manly and heterosexual and all that.”
Chad is about to tell Ryan that he doesn’t care what they do together; it doesn’t have to be all straight and awkward, he just wants to hang with Ryan, but Kelsi comes out, and the grin on her face tells Chad that she’s found it.
“Wow,” he says, looking at the dress. It’s a sort of pale creamy colour, like the lattes Taylor likes drinking so much, frothy without being too much, and is just the right length for Kelsi. “You look amazing.”
Kelsi’s cheeks go a little pink, and she turns to Ryan. “Well?”
“Wait here,” Ryan orders, hopping off the sofa and disappearing into the store. Kelsi twirls in front of the mirror for a minute, ruffling the skirt, which appears of be made of lots of layers of netting and things and Chad spends a moment wondering how girls put up with it; it just looks inconvenient to him.
Ryan returns, holding a pair of strappy shoes with little heels in his hands in the exact same colour as the dress. He drops to his knees, holding one out. “Foot.”
Kelsi giggles. “Are you my Prince Charming?” she asks, obediently sliding her foot into the shoe and watching Ryan carefully buckle it at her ankle.
Ryan doesn’t reply; just looks up at her and winks, before holding out the other shoe. Once that one’s on, he stands up and looks appraisingly at her.
“She looks good, Evans,” Chad says. “And if you drag her to thirteen stores then I think that counts as cruel and unusual torture.”
Ryan smiles, but keeps his eyes on Kelsi. “You are gorgeous, you know that?”
She smiles sunnily, and Ryan grabs her hands, impulsively waltzing her around the small space. They look happy together, keeping step easily, and Chad suddenly remembers that he’s meant to be meeting Taylor; both to hang out and so she can give him very specific instructions related to the prom and what he may or may not be allowed to do, say, or wear.
“I gotta go,” he says quickly, backing out of the room, which seems to have gotten too small all of a sudden.
Three days later, he ends up walking over to the Evans’ worrying gigantic house, rehearsing all the way what he’s going to say. He’s not sure he should just be arriving unannounced, but he needs help and Troy is so caught up in this oh Jesus, Gabi is going a thousand miles away in like six days thing that it seems a little harsh to drag his friend into his own, considerably less emotionally traumatic, problems.
Ryan answers the door himself. He’s still in the dark, and way too tight, jeans he was wearing at school today, and has popped a couple of buttons on his lilac shirt; Chad glances down and notes that Ryan’s feet are bare. It’s strange, seeing Ryan in this kind of state of relaxation; he’s no longer wearing the fedora he had on earlier, and it makes him look kind of…naked.
And Chad is not thinking like that because it makes his brain stutter and crash.
“Hey,” Ryan says, smiling slightly. “What’s up?”
Chad decides to just come out with it. “Will you come pick out a tux with me?”
Ryan raises a delicate eyebrow. “I thought we were going to hang out in ways that didn’t involve clothes?” he asks, smiling.
Chad shrugs. “Kind of turns out that, like, a lot of activities at the moment seem to involve clothes. And you, you know, know clothes.”
Ryan considers this. “I do know clothes,” he agrees, a hint of arrogance in his tone. He shrugs. “Ok, give me ten minutes and we’ll go tux hunting.”
Chad grins, following him inside. “Thanks, man, you’re awesome.”
Ryan doesn’t reply, instead heading upstairs, gesturing for Chad to follow him. Sharpay and Ryan have held a few parties so Chad has been here before, but never in Ryan’s room, which is where he’s lead now. It’s approximately half the size of Chad’s entire house, with lots of empty floorspace – for dancing, Chad assumes – and a really, really big bed. There are some tastefully-framed posters for musicals on the walls, and a gigantic stereo system, and a keyboard in the corner. Ryan’s room suits him perfectly, Chad reflects, though he’s distracted when the other boy walks over to a set of double-doors and pulls them open, revealing a walk-in closet that’s about the size of their homeroom. Ok, maybe not, but it’s really big, and Chad walks over out of sheer curiosity.
Ryan’s entire hat collection is laid out on neat shelves in front of him and it is indecently huge. Chad has never seen so many hats in one place at one time, and although he recognises a few of them, he thinks that Ryan seems to be making a point of never wearing the same hat twice.
“Jesus,” he says, finally tearing his eyes away from the hats to look at Ryan. Who has found a deep purple vest to go over the shirt and is hastily buttoning it – because, of course, Ryan cannot go anywhere without accessorising his outfit just so – a look of amusement on his face. “You have some kind of really disturbing hat fetish, don’t you?”
Ryan shrugs. “No worse than Shar’s shoe thing. I should take you next door, show you her shoe collection. It makes Carrie Bradshaw look like she just kept a few pairs in the back of her closet.”
To his eternal shame, Chad actually knows what that means because Taylor and Gabi dragged him and Troy to the cinema to see that movie. And Ryan seems to know that he knows because his smirk broadens.
“Please don’t show me your sister’s shoe collection,” Chad says, a little faintly. “Or I will have officially overdosed on clothes for one day and then I won’t be able to go through with this tux thing and then Tay will do something painful and it will suck.”
Ryan selects a hat with navy blue rhinestones on it – that match the jeans, Chad can’t help noting – and angles it carefully. Chad wanders back into Ryan’s room, staring at the photographs pinned neatly to a huge, music-note shaped board above Ryan’s desk. Lots of photographs of his family, of course, and of Ryan and Sharpay in various musicals, and some of Ryan and Kelsi and Ryan and Gabriella, and even a couple of Ryan and Taylor, and some shots of them all together. Almost obscured by a shot of Ryan and Martha attempting some sort of dance and laughing hysterically at the camera, Chad finds a picture of himself and Ryan in each other’s shirts and hats, after the staff baseball game, arms around each other and grinning matching grins.
It feels like a million years ago and also like yesterday, simultaneously, and it makes his stomach do a strange little twisting thing.
And Chad knows he should have made more of an effort to stay better friends with Ryan, because even if their worlds are so different that it’s both hilarious and scary, Ryan is just plain awesome and fun to be around and Chad should have damn well remembered that.
“Ready to go?” Ryan asks behind him. Chad spins around, to find Ryan has found and put on some shoes.
Ryan disappears for a moment when they get downstairs, and comes back triumphantly holding up a set of car keys.
“We’ll borrow my dad’s car,” he says, “Since I don’t think we should take my scooter and I’m not really in the mood to drive Shar’s Big Pink Narcissism-Mobile.”
Chad chokes on his laughter, following Ryan to the Evans’ garage.
“Does Taylor have specific tux instructions?” Ryan asks, once they’re walking into the store.
Chad shrugs. “I think she just wants me to look like I made an effort.” A moment of panic grips him; it suddenly feels exactly like the prom number Kelsi wrote for the musical. Panic!
“Do you trust me?” Ryan asks, looking at him.
Chad exhales slowly. “Yeah,” he says. “I trust you.”
“Good.” Ryan smiles, fluttering his fingers in a way that would look stupid if done by anyone but him, and strides off. “Then let’s get you a tux.”
The guy working there looks a little suspiciously at him, and Chad reflects that he should probably stop doing prom-related shopping things with Ryan, because everyone just seems to assume that they’re going together.
“He does have a date,” Ryan tells one of the guys working there. “With a girl.”
Chad realises that he’s less bothered by the idea that everyone thinks he and Ryan are dating than he should be, and files that thought away for proper consideration later. Instead, he’s sort of horrified and mesmerised by the way Ryan strides about, choosing and rejecting suits until he’s got five in his arms.
“There you go,” he says, handing them to Chad. “One of these should do it.”
There are three black ones, a navy blue one, and a white one. Chad sighs, and obediently goes to try them on. Ryan sits patiently on a hard chair that’s nothing like the squishy couch they were sat on while shopping for Kelsi, and judges each tuxedo as Chad walks out in it.
He rejects one black one and one navy blue one almost immediately, giving a damning wave of his hand. And Chad suddenly begins to empathise with Kelsi.
“I’m not doing a twelve-store trek,” he warns Ryan, walking out in another tux.
Ryan smiles distractedly, but remains business-like. “Put the white one on,” he orders.
Chad has serious doubts about the white one, but having told Ryan that he does trust him he kind of thinks he should probably listen to him. He obediently puts on the white one and finds himself kind of… liking it.
“Well?” Ryan demands outside the cubicle.
Chad obediently walks out to show him. Ryan’s eyes narrow and he carefully reaches out to straighten the collar of Chad’s shirt and shift the shoulders of the jacket carefully, and Chad lets him because Ryan’s touch is light and impersonal and for some reason doesn’t feel weird at all.
“This one,” Ryan tells him firmly. “Yeah?”
Chad nods. “Yeah.”
“See?” Ryan winks at him. “I told you to trust me.”
Chad’s parents have given him the money to rent the tux and it seems a ridiculous amount of money for clothing, but doesn’t say this out loud because he can picture what Ryan’s expression would be.
Ryan keeps talking about how much Taylor will like it while Chad is paying. As they walk out, the tux draped carefully across Chad’s arm in its black bag, Chad turns to him.
“Seriously, man, you don’t have to keep emphasising that we’re not going to prom together,” he says. “It’s cool.”
Ryan looks confused. “It is?”
“You’re wearing a hat with rhinestones on it,” Chad points out, turning to look at Ryan, “And – oh my God, is that glitter mascara?”
Ryan’s cheeks flush a little. “I was wearing it for rehearsal,” he mutters, “I forgot to take it off. Sorry.”
Chad shakes his head, swallowing a laugh. “Like I was saying, I’m out clothes shopping with a guy wearing make-up; I’m not surprised people are drawing conclusions. It is the tiniest bit gay.”
Ryan looks faintly stunned. “And that doesn’t bother you?”
Chad bumps him companionably with his shoulder. “I wouldn’t hang out with you if it did,” he says.
Ryan smiles slightly, but there’s a sad edge to it. “I kind of thought that’s why you weren’t hanging out with me,” he admits softly.
“I wasn’t hanging out with you because I’m an easily-distracted, self-centred ass,” Chad corrects him.
“Maybe you should put that on a t-shirt,” Ryan suggests, but his smile is genuine now.
They get back to the car and Chad carefully drapes his tux across the backseat.
“Do you have anywhere to be?” he asks.
Ryan shrugs. “Not particularly. Why?”
Chad grins; and they end up sitting in a nearby café, eating very chocolatey cake. Ryan has a pink smoothie, which is so stereotypically him that it makes Chad laugh.
“Not that this hasn’t been fun,” Ryan says, sucking chocolate frosting off his thumb in a way that’s obscene, although mercifully he doesn’t seem to have noticed this, “But shouldn’t you have been doing this with, you know, your guys?”
Chad shrugs. “Your sister is picking out Zeke’s tux,” he points out, “And Jason is borrowing his dad’s, I think, ‘cause Martha isn’t that bothered.”
“What about Troy?” Ryan asks carefully.
“He’s kind of bothered about Gabi moving away,” Chad explains. “I didn’t think he’d be in the mood to go pick out prom clothes.”
Ryan nods, but there’s an edge to his jaw that Chad kind of hates and immediately feels guilty about.
“And I wanted to hang out with you,” he adds. “I trust your judgement way over everyone else’s.”
“That’s because I have impeccable taste,” Ryan smirks, tipping his chin up arrogantly.
Chad nudges their knees together under the table. “Brat.”
Ryan nudges back. “Philistine.”
Their knees stay pressed together as they finish the cake; Ryan doesn’t seem to notice, but Chad really does.
The day before Gabi leaves, Ryan catches him in the hall just before rehearsals.
“Got a minute?” he asks. He seems more energised than usual, maybe a little agitated.
Chad smiles his most charming smile, and watches a cheerleader give him a come hither sort of look. It’s silly and amusing, but satisfying.
“For you, Evans,” he says graciously, “I have five.”
Ryan rolls his eyes, shoving Chad surprisingly hard with his elbow. “I’m flattered,” he says mildly.
Chad slings an arm around his shoulders as they head for the theatre, weaving amongst the students. He likes how East High has suddenly become all scarily-accepting and pod-people-filled over the last year because no one thinks to comment at all.
The auditorium is empty for the moment, and they stop by the front row of seats.
“I’ve… I’ve got you a present,” Ryan admits quietly, looking a little embarrassed.
Inside his head, Chad’s mom orders him to say something polite like: how kind of you, you didn’t have to do that, but outwardly he remains him and so blurts out with: “A present? What is it? Can I have it? It’s not going to be glittery is it?”
Ryan smiles. “You remind me of Shar,” he remarks, but Chad doesn’t retaliate because Ryan opens his messenger bag and pulls out something wrapped carefully in silvery-blue wrapping paper. Chad takes it from him and sits down to open it up.
It’s a white jacket, just like the one on his tux that they picked out nearly a week ago, but when he picks it out of the wrappings he feels something on the back and turns it over. His mouth drops open. Carefully sewn onto the back in deep purple is the word Danforth and the number eight. Just like his costume in the show, except that this isn’t sparkly and it’s considerably better made. He just stares at it, and can’t find any words.
“If you don’t like it,” Ryan begins hesitantly, “You don’t have to wear it. I mean, I had a white jacket at home and it looks damn awful on me, so I took it to our tailor and had her adjust it for you and then embroider the back. And the purple will match the purple of Taylor’s dress, I checked that with her.”
Chad still doesn’t know what to say, but manages: “You have a tailor?”
Ryan coughs. “Well, not personally, but we have someone who can adjust our clothes for us. How else do you think Shar has her initials everywhere?”
Chad nods, still clutching the jacket; his throat feels like it’s closing up.
“Sorry,” Ryan says softly. “I mean, it’s not a big deal if you hate it…”
“Shut up, Evans.” Chad gets to his feet, putting the jacket carefully over the back of the seat, and pulls Ryan into a tight hug. Ryan seems shocked, but after a moment carefully hugs him back. “It’s awesome, ok? It’s completely and utterly awesome and you’ve actually figured out like the one way to make me feel less awkward about dressing like an idiot for the prom so just shut up because I love it.”
“…Ok,” Ryan murmurs.
Hugging Ryan is nice; he’s slim but not skinny and Chad can feel all his hidden muscle from dancing and yoga and whatever else he does, and he smells good too, not in a girly flowery way, just in a… nice way, and his hair is very soft against Chad’s cheek.
“Are you going to let go of me before rehearsals start?” Ryan asks cautiously, after a while, and Chad quickly lets go and steps back.
“You’re…” – he mentally flails for words, and manages to settle on: “Fabulous, Ryan, you know that?”
“Of course I do.” Ryan tips his head back and laughs, really laughs, though he’s looking a little flushed. Chad scoops up the jacket.
“I’m gonna go put this away safe and then I’ll be here to dance about, ‘k?”
Ryan nods, and shoos him away. Chad finds himself grinning all the way to his locker, one of those awkward grins that you just can’t shift, even though you know you look totally stupid and should stop before someone just punches you.
When he gets back to the auditorium, Ryan is trying to teach an extremely doubtful group of basketball players how to dance with basketballs. Chad hurries up onto the stage, where a giggling Martha winks at him.
Jason raises a hand. “Could you… show us again, Ryan?” His tone is somewhere between panicking and hysterical.
Ryan nods, holding a basketball he’s got from… somewhere. And then he proceeds to do what looks like a really awkwardly complicated routine, singing along at the same time.
“Well?” he asks.
Zeke looks kind of like he’s going to be sick. Or run away. Or be sick and then run away.
“Dude,” Chad says, “You can do things with a ball that I can’t do, and I’m, like… good.”
“And modest, apparently,” Ryan replies. “Look, it’s going to be fine. We’ll just take it slowly.” His eyes linger on Jason. “Really slowly.”
For the next hour Chad finds out what it feels like to not be in any control of a basketball at all, gets repeatedly hit by balls from other members of his team, and decides that he shouldn’t have mocked the less able students in gym because it’s really horrible to feel this incapable of handling a ball. But, finally, in the few minutes before the bell rings, they all start to get it. They’re moving painfully slowly and Jason is still a beat behind everyone else, but it is definitely progress.
“See?” Ryan’s eyes are lit up with triumph; he’s all sweaty and his hair is stuck to his forehead and he still manages to look bright and happy and sparkly, whereas the rest of them just look deflated and sticky and generally disgusting. “You guys are really getting there.”
Everyone high-fives him on the way past, slinking off to go home and not worry about dancing and singing and things. Ryan goes off to get a drink of water and Chad goes with him, the two of them sitting against the wall and watching as Martha and the other cheerleaders run through their routine. It’s kind of ridiculous, the whole year getting this caught up in this musical and trying to learn to dance and sing, but apart from that, it’s actually kind of… brilliant.
Chad nudges Ryan with his shoulder. “Hey, Evans?”
“Mmmm?” Ryan pulls the water bottle away from his mouth.
“This had better fucking get you into Juilliard, you know that?”
Ryan grins. “Here’s hoping.”
Troy is inconsolable without Gabi, which at first starts out as understandable and then just becomes irritating. Chad knows that Troy loves Gabriella more than he loves anything, and eventually he is going to have to be best man at the wedding and Taylor will be the maid of honour and they probably won’t have sex and Ryan might even sing and Kelsi will write incredibly mushy music to be played while Gabi walks down the aisle and he has the horrible suspicion that this wedding is going to take place, like, next year; he knows all of this, but it doesn’t make Troy’s moping any less frustrating.
He’s practising the Stupid Basketball Dance Of Bruising, as he’s come to mentally call it – possibly not very snappy but true, he’s always accidentally hitting himself in the face when the basketball bounces the wrong way – in the theatre during lunch when Ryan walks in.
“What are you doing in here?” Ryan asks. It doesn’t sound hostile like it would if it were Sharpay asking it; just plain curious.
Chad shrugs. “Hiding,” he admits. “I’m running out of sympathetic things to say. I’m not normally the optimistic one. I’m normally the judgy one with prophecies of doom and all.”
Ryan cracks a smile, climbing up onto the stage. “Hiding from your best friend in his hour of need?” he asks. “Bad Danforth.”
Chad shrugs, clutching the basketball to his chest. “I wouldn’t care if it was an hour of need, but it’s been like a week.”
Ryan looks at him teasingly. “And people call me self-centred.”
Chad throws the ball at him; Ryan uses some kind of weird dancer reflexes and catches it, the sound of it smacking on his palms reverberating around the auditorium.
“I do care,” Chad insists, sighing. “And of course I miss Gabi. It’s just… there’s other stuff going on, you know?”
Ryan bounces the ball back to him; it’s a great pass, and Chad becomes suspicious. “If you turn out to be awesome at basketball as well as baseball I will have to do something drastic.”
“Don’t worry,” Ryan replies, walking up to him, “I’ve been spending about a million hours with one of these in my hands choreographing the Championship sequence, of course I’ve picked up a few things.”
“Hmmm.” Chad pretends to consider this. “I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”
Ryan nods. “Good.” He folds his arms, tapping one foot, and he’s wearing those weirdly distracting black boots with pale blue pants tucked into them. “Can you waltz, by the way?” he adds.
Thrown, Chad just gapes at him. “No?”
“Taylor asked me to ask you,” Ryan explains. “It’s prom, you kind of have to be able to dance a little bit.”
Chad thinks that prom is kind of really a lot of trouble and it had better be worth it in some way because otherwise he is going to be pissed.
“I can’t waltz,” he says, tone very close to panic, staring at Ryan.
For a long moment, he thinks Ryan is going to teach him how to dance, and he thinks about spending hours and hours and hours twirling around in empty rooms with their arms around each other and the idea seems strangely appealing. It really does.
“Go talk to Kelsi or Martha,” Ryan suggests. “I’ve taught both of them, they should be able to pass the basics onto you.”
Chad nods. Of course. Ryan is busy with the musical and his sister and other stuff, and wouldn’t have the time to teach Chad to dance. It makes perfect sense.
So Chad is in no way disappointed that Ryan doesn’t want to teach him, and doesn’t in any way feel like he’s had one potential piece of light in his life extinguished.
Because it would be stupid to feel like that.
“I’ll do that,” he says into the silence that’s rapidly becoming awkward.
The bell goes.
“You’re really coming on,” Ryan tells him, waving a hand at the basketball. “I’ll have you tutoring Jason at this rate.”
Chad drops the ball to grasp his hair theatrically. “Oh God no, what have I done to deserve that?”
Ryan grins his sister’s evil grin. Chad scoops the ball back up.
“Hey,” Ryan says, as Chad turns to go. “If you’ve got any time… I mean, we could catch a movie or something. If you need a break from… you know.”
Chad sighs. “I would,” he says heavily, “But you know, Troy. I need to be around to… whatever.”
Ryan nods. “Yeah, I get it. See you in rehearsals.”
His smile isn’t quite as sunny as usual and Chad is left with a really weird feeling in his chest.
With the exception of a few things to do with the musical, they don’t really talk for the next few days. And Chad really isn’t sure why.
The day before the prom, Troy goes awol. He’s not in homeroom, and when Chad sends him a frantic text in the hall between homeroom and math, he gets the reply that Troy… Troy has gone to fucking Stanford. He thinks he should have known that Troy wouldn’t leave Gabriella for a second, that he would pick her over all his friends; they were all meant to go to prom together and now Troy isn’t here to do that.
Taylor is upset that Gabi’s not coming back for prom, but she doesn’t seem to feel quite as irritated and betrayed as Chad does, and everyone else just shrugs, like they were expecting this and Chad is just an idiot for not figuring out where Troy’s priorities really lie. Chad begins to suspect that his plans of going to U of A next year with Troy and playing basketball are going to fall spectacularly through, and he kind of hates that thought because for all of Troy’s assurances that they’re best friends now and forever they’re pulling so far apart he’s not sure he’s got the strength to drag them back together again.
Kelsi has taught Chad the waltz and is very proud of herself; Chad ends up sitting with her and Ryan as they change one musical number around, because they don’t seem to care about prom the way everyone else does and it’s sort of a relief. Ryan and Kelsi are sharing a pot of tea, and Kelsi plays the piano and adjusts lyrics while Ryan shimmies around the empty stage, moving with an easy fluidity that Chad kind of envies. There’s a companionship and quiet domesticity between Ryan and Kelsi that Chad is a little jealous of; but he can’t work out why, and this just makes him feel more angry and frustrated with the world.
“I should go,” he mutters at last.
Kelsi catches his wrist. “Chad, are you-”
“I’m fine,” he insists, pulling his wrist away carefully. He can’t snap at Kelsi because she’s tiny and sweet and it would be mean and wrong.
Ryan has stopped dancing, but he isn’t saying anything; he just watches in silence as Chad storms from the theatre.
It’s not about the prom, not really, not when you get right down to it. It’s just that Troy is his best friend and Troy has chosen Gabi and will always choose Gabi, and the nice tidy future Chad had laid out for himself has now found itself with a couple of unexpected holes in it.
He will get over it, he knows this. He just isn’t sure when.
“You will smile,” Taylor informs him firmly. “Because this is prom and it is going to be fun, understand?”
Chad stares at her. “You are really scary sometimes, you know?”
Taylor smiles, fingering the lilac corsage he actually remembered to get her. “I do know,” she replies.
Chad slides an arm around her shoulders and they walk into the gym together. It does look kind of pretty, all decorated with fairylights and sparkly things and a big banner across the back wall. Martha and Jason hurry over to meet them, grinning, and Chad musters up as much happiness as he can because he’s not going to let Troy ruin tonight for him. It’s not Troy’s fault, much as Chad doesn’t want to admit it, and he deserves to have whatever fun he can manage.
Ryan is in a cream top hat and Kelsi looks utterly beautiful; they come over too, eyes sparkling. They are, Chad notes, wearing matching glitter mascara. It’s kind of sweet, and also kind of disturbing.
“So,” he begins, “Was twelve stores actually worth it?”
Kelsi nods, grinning. “Yeah, I think so.”
Ryan looks a little smug. “Told you so.”
Martha glances at Jason, who nods. “Ryan,” she begins, “Can I have the next dance?”
Ryan nods, sweeping off his top hat and bowing and then putting it back on. Chad is reasonably certain that no one else in the world would be able to carry that off, but he kind of makes it look charming. He sweeps Martha off to the dancefloor. Chad glances at Taylor.
“I learned to dance for you,” he says. Taylor smiles, and takes his hand.
“Are you ever sad we broke up?” he asks, when the two of them are slowly swaying around the floor and it’s way more graceful than Chad expected it to be.
“Sometimes,” Taylor admits. Her fingers tighten slightly on his arms. “But overall I think it’s better like this.”
Chad smiles fondly down at her, in her purple dress that matches the jacket Ryan decorated. “You’re so awesome, Tay.”
She grins back. “You’re pretty awesome too, Chad.”
And he thinks maybe prom has been a little bit salvaged.
When Kelsi is dancing with Zeke, Chad notices Ryan sitting at the edge of the room, watching everyone with a faint smile. Chad gets punch – the unspiked kind, though he thinks there’s some pretty strong stuff being sneaked around too – and goes to join him.
“Thanks,” Ryan says softly, accepting the cup, but there’s a slight edge to his smile that Chad doesn’t entirely understand.
They sit and watch the light sparkling off Sharpay’s very pink dress for a while. “You were right, you know,” Chad begins.
“I was?” Ryan raises an eyebrow. “Gosh, is the world going to end?”
Chad elbows him, carefully, so as not to spill punch anywhere. “Prom is actually kind of…great.”
Ryan smiles serenely. “Told you.”
They sit, shoulder to shoulder, and it’s pretty in here. It’s pretty and the music is cheesy but ok and they’re surrounded by their friends and Chad thinks that, well, maybe he shouldn’t have been so scared in the first place. Ryan turns to look at him, an intensity in his blue eyes that Chad can’t look away from. They’re sitting too close, he reflects in the back of his mind, touching right down their sides and faces mere inches apart.
“So you’re having a good night?” Ryan asks softly. Chad can feel him exhale.
“I think so.” He looks away from Ryan, and sighs. “I just… I just wish Troy hadn’t gone to fucking Stanford.”
Ryan stiffens a little, and then shifts so he and Chad aren’t touching any more. “I’m sorry,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like he’s apologising for Troy’s absence.
“For what?” Chad asks, frowning.
“I can’t do this,” Ryan murmurs, taking his hat off and turning it over and over in his hands. “It’s… it’s just… I… I just can’t.”
Chad wonders if he missed the part where this made sense at all. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says.
“I’m tired of being your friend when it suits you,” Ryan explains, and he doesn’t sound angry, just sad. “Last summer, Troy hung out with new people so I became your friend. But then Troy came back to you all and so we haven’t really been proper friends at all this last year. Then Troy pulls away from you because of all this university stuff and suddenly we’re hanging out again. Then he needs you ‘cause Gabi’s gone and you don’t have time for me any more. But he’s in Stanford and you’re here and suddenly I matter again. I get it, Chad, I do. I just can’t do it any more.”
Chad can’t think of anything to say; there’s a horrible ring of truth in Ryan’s words.
“I don’t mind being second best,” Ryan explains, finally raising his eyes to Chad’s, and he looks so miserable that it takes Chad’s breath away. “But I can’t be a substitute. I want to be around people that I matter to all the time. That’s all. So I’m going to walk away now.”
Words stick in Chad’s mouth. “Ryan, I don’t… that’s not… I don’t think of you like that!”
Ryan shrugs. “Well, not consciously.” He puts his hat back on.
“Please,” Chad says softly, catching his sleeve, but Ryan pulls himself gently but firmly away.
“I’m sorry,” Ryan mumbles again. He meets Chad’s gaze. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re dancing really well tonight. And you look hot in that tux.”
And then he turns and walks gracefully back across the gym to talk to Jason; the two of them start laughing over something and Chad feels his stomach churn. He never meant to make Ryan feel like that, and he feels like a complete bastard. Ryan matters to him, always matters to him, but apparently he really sucks at showing it.
Ryan and Kelsi return to the dancefloor; though they’re still moving smoothly they seem to be talking intently. Chad walks back over to Taylor.
“Wanna dance some more?” he offers, doing his best to be the perfect prom date for her.
About half an hour later, Kelsi comes running over. “I’m heading home,” she explains, hugging Taylor. “I’ve got to sort out a few things for the musical and I’ll have to be up early tomorrow, so I should go now.”
“Is Ryan going with you?” Chad asks quietly when Kelsi hugs him.
Her eyes narrow. “Yes,” she says, and there’s a closed edge in her voice.
Chad wonders if he’s somehow accidentally managed to ruin Ryan’s prom for him, and really hopes he hasn’t because this was so important to Ryan. When the other boy comes to say goodbye to Taylor, Chad catches his sleeve and pulls him away from everyone else.
“Don’t-” Ryan begins.
“I just have to know if I ruined your prom,” Chad says quietly. “Because I really don’t want to have ruined your prom.”
Ryan smiles for him, real and smooth. “You haven’t ruined my prom,” he promises. “But Kels and I have a lot to do for this show, so I really have to be going.”
Chad clenches his fingers around Ryan’s wrist. “And what about us?”
Ryan shrugs. “Troy will be back in time for the show. You can sign my yearbook. It’ll all be fine.”
Chad wants to be sick. He knows this last year he’s kind of taken Ryan for granted, which was shitty, but he knows he would not have gotten through the last month without Ryan. Ryan has become increasingly important to him and he doesn’t think it’s because of Troy at all.
His anxiety must show on his face because Ryan gently cups Chad’s face, fingers on his cheeks, and leans forward. Chad honestly thinks that Ryan is about to kiss him and while his brain doesn’t know what to do with that thought his lips open slightly. But all Ryan does is touch their foreheads together, quick and weirdly intimate.
“Goodnight, Chad,” he murmurs, and walks away to catch Kelsi’s hand and lead her from the gym.
Chad wants to scream.
The post-performance adrenalin is unbelievable. It’s even stronger than the adrenalin rush after a basketball game, running through Chad’s body and leaving him feeling a little weak. Troy is going to California. Ryan and Kelsi are going to New York. And, oh God, he’s going to be going to the same college as Sharpay. And somehow they’ve pulled through it, and it’s graduation tomorrow and then… then they’re done. Like, actually done.
Ryan is in the dressing room he shares with Sharpay, still wearing those painfully pink pants, breathing slowly in front of his mirror. He gets to his feet when he sees Chad.
“You did it, man!” Chad says, ignoring whatever it is they may or may not be doing together in favour of the bigger picture. “Fucking Juilliard!”
He flings his arms around Ryan and hugs him insistently tightly. Ryan laughs, or maybe chokes, and hugs him back.
“I’m so damn proud of you,” Chad mutters. “You know that, right?”
“I do.” Ryan is definitely laughing a little now. “Listen, about what I said…”
“You had a point,” Chad admits, letting go of Ryan but keeping his shoulders gripped. “And it was stupid and mean and I didn’t mean to hurt you because you rock, ok?”
Ryan nods. “Wanna go for a walk?”
They weave their way through the students excitedly congratulating each other, leaping about and hugging, and Chad doesn’t even notice as his fingers entwine with Ryan’s.
“Where are we going?” Ryan asks.
“Roof,” Chad replies. It’s the one place he knows no one will interrupt them and right now he doesn’t want all these damn people; he just wants Ryan, easy and natural and uncomplicated. The way it should have been since last summer, but he hasn’t let it be because, well, he’s really, really stupid. Maybe Darbus kind of does have a point about opportunities and taking them when they’re there.
“I don’t want to get detention the day before I leave school,” Ryan says, but he sounds amused.
“You don’t have a choice,” Chad replies firmly, tugging him up the steps.
The sun is shining and the view across Albuquerque is gorgeous from up here; Ryan leans against Chad’s shoulder and murmurs about how he can’t believe he’s actually leaving.
“You’ll come back to visit Sharpay though, won’t you?” Chad says.
Ryan grins. “Probably way too much. People will be begging me to leave.”
Chad squeezes his hand. “I won’t be.” He turns to look at Ryan, steeling himself. “Will you come back to visit me?”
Ryan smiles a little. “Yeah.”
“We can go shopping,” Chad suggests.
“I shall look forward to it,” Ryan replies. “Though shouldn’t we be doing manly, heterosexual bonding too?”
Chad drops his hand and turns so he can look at Ryan face-on.
“I do not want to bond heterosexually with you,” he says firmly.
Ryan frowns, which is not the response Chad wants. “Careful,” he almost whispers. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying?”
“Yes,” Chad says patiently. “Come back here and visit me. Bond with me in a non-heterosexual manner. I’m pretty sure I’ve been crazy about you all year and haven’t noticed because I’m unobservant and self-centred and kind of an asshole some of the time. Did I miss anything out?”
Ryan smirks. “Just one thing.”
Chad wracks his brain to work out what that could be. “What one thing?”
Ryan’s smirk broadens. “This.”
He leans forward and his lips touch Chad’s. It is, for want of a much better word, awesome. Ryan pulls away first.
“I can’t believe you worked all this out the day before we leave school,” he says, sounding a little exasperated. “And only about three months before I move out of Albuquerque altogether.”
Chad is going to deal with that later. “Shut up, Evans,” he murmurs, “We’ll figure it out,” and he pulls Ryan in for another kiss.
This one lasts longer, and Ryan licks his mouth open, his tongue twining with Chad’s, fingers knotting in his hair. It’s hungry and urgent but underneath it there’s that careful sweetness that is just so Ryan.
Clattering footsteps are coming up the stairs and Chad recognises Troy’s voice; Ryan shifts like he’s going to pull away but Chad doesn’t let him, fingers closing over Ryan’s hip and tugging him insistently closer. Right now, this is more important than explaining all of it to Troy. Anyway, by the feel of things, this must all be pretty self-explanatory anyway.
“We’ll come back later,” he hears Troy say, voice shaking with what is probably amusement, while Gabriella gives a sunny giggle.
Ryan laughs against Chad’s lips. They’re growing up too fast and the final few hours of high school are tumbling through their hands and after this summer the world changes forever, but it’s not all bad. After all, things are coming to an end, but… well, this is just starting, and hell, maybe it’ll turn out to be enough.
They pull apart, flushed and grinning, bathed in sunlight and doused in adrenalin, and Chad shakes his head slightly, keeping his fingers tight on Ryan’s unsettlingly magenta hips.
This? This could definitely be enough.