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Chad and Zeke had stopped to try and decipher which way meant north on the newfangled map when an incredulous voice rose above the din of eight million people stuffed onto an island.

"Chad?!" An incredulous, familiar voice.

Chad turned...and blinked. "Ryan Evans?" he asked, hardly believing it.

Zeke gestured to himself. "Zeke. Now that we're done with introductions," he joked.

Chad swatted him and Zeke swatted back and then Ryan was there, in front of them, and he looked...different. Still with the hat and messenger bag, but his shoulders had broadened, his clothes weren't quite so look-at-me flashy, and his smile wasn't nearly as boyish.

Chad got over the awkward beat and clumsily pulled Ryan into a hug, then released him just as quickly. "Dude, what are you doing here?" he asked.

Ryan's smile turned rueful. "Getting an education, or so they tell me." He and Zeke bumped shoulders companionably and wow, Chad couldn't get over seeing him here, now.

Then he frowned as Ryan's words caught up with him. "Wait. You go to NYU?" He didn't remember that.

"CAP 21," Ryan answered instantly.

Their blank looks must have gotten across because his face fell a bit. "At the Tisch School. It's—you know what? Never mind." He gestured to Zeke thoughtfully. "You're at school here, right?"

"Yup. Up at The Culinary Institute of America."

"The good old CIA," Chad chimed in. Zeke rolled his eyes, failing to appreciate Chad's humor. Because no, it wouldn't stop being funny. Ever.

Ryan grinned—he, at least, had a grasp of what was funny—and nodded at Chad. "You up here visiting?"

"Moving's more like it. I drafted Zeke into helping me. The dude totally shows up without brownies. Who does that?" Seriously. Chad had been looking forward to the brownies. He might have neglected to mention that to Zeke...but Zeke should just know stuff like that, obviously.

"He only likes me for my baked goods," Zeke said with a grin.

"Who said I like you?" Chad shot back.

"Oh, you see that? I was going to whip up something for you but now? 'No soup for you.'"

"Wow. That just took me right back to high school," Ryan said. His smile was small and Chad couldn't tell if he was nostalgic or mocking them. Or himself.

Chad shook his head and cuffed him on the shoulder. "It's been what? Like two years, right? Man, where've you been hiding?" Because he hadn't seen Ryan at any of the impromptu high school reunions, even during the school breaks.

Then again, Central New Mexico Community College had been like one big high school reunion anyway. A reunion that never ended.

"Here," Ryan answered simply. "New York is good for hiding."

"What'd you need to hide—"

He was interrupted by a very familiar call: "Ryan! I've been waiting for almost five minutes. What could you possibly be—oh. You two!" As she approached them, Sharpay spared Chad a glance one might give a bug. On a generous day. Then she addressed her brother. "Explain."

Chad blinked at all the changes in her. No longer the stick-like kid from high school, she'd gotten curves in all the right places. She was rocking the progressive folk look...and actually making it hot.

She looked—like an adult. Chad supposed Ryan did, too, with the harder planes of his face, emphasizing blue, blue eyes.

Ryan ignored her tone and instead was Mr. Peppy, Upbeat Person. "Shar, look who I ran into. Our old friends from high school. Isn't that great?"

"Friends, indeed." Sharpay raked her eyes up and down Chad, then dismissed him with a flick of her hair. Her perusal of Zeke was much more thorough. And creepy and shark-like, if Chad was any judge.

"Nice to see you, too, oh, Fair One," Chad muttered. Ryan grinned and looked down to hide it. Sharpay's attention snapped back to Chad...which hadn't actually been his goal...

"Danforth. Playing tourist, I see."

"Or new resident." Her raised eyebrow prompted him. "I just transferred into NYU."

"We'll be going to the same school, how cool is that?" Ryan asked, excited.

Sharpay kept her face carefully blank, then nodded at Zeke. "Joining your old basketball teammate, here? It'll be just like old times."

Zeke frowned. "I'm not at NYU."

"Nah, he's at the CIA," Chad said.

Sharpay definitely frowned at that, but Zeke hastily jumped in. "The Culinary Institute of America, he means. It's—a really bad joke."

Chad grinned. "Still funny to me."

"Not that that's saying much," Sharpay sniped. Then she turned to Zeke again. "The Insitutute is well regarded." Not a question, more like an observation. Maybe a prompt? Chad had nothing.

Zeke didn't seem to, either, but then, he'd been half in love with Sharpay for forever and a day, so his fumblings made more sense. "Um, yeah. That is—it's the best." They both stopped talking and some kind of weird vibe was at work—

Ryan cleared his throat loudly. It successfully broke the awkward moment and made Sharpay turn her attention to him. Then she moved a few steps away. "You better not be getting sick, Ry. I'm already exposed to every germ from two schools. Getting sick from one I don't even go to is not okay."

Ryan rolled his eyes. "I'm fine, thanks for the concern," he said to her. Then he addressed Chad and Zeke. "Shar's in a very prestigious program so of course everything's a crisis."

"Wow, you're not on Broadway yet? Huh," Chad said, sweetly shocked. Ryan covered a laugh with another cough and Chad couldn't help himself, he just loved the way her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. There was nothing quite like needling Sharpay Evans.

Sharpay threw out her hands in disgust. Then she walked off.

Ryan stayed behind for a beat, scribbling something frantically on a torn-off piece of a flyer. He shoved it at Chad, just as Sharpay got impatient. "Let's go, Ryan! We're late already."

"My number. Call me and we can hang out. It's great to see you guys. Really," he said sincerely.

"Ryan!"

And with a long-suffering grin he was off, jogging to catch up with Sharpay, dodging the constant stream of people that never seemed to end in New York.

"Wow," Zeke said, watching her swaying hips as she walked away.

"No kidding," Chad agreed. Although...probably in an entirely different way.

***

Chad would be living in the residence hall designated for transfers...not that he could remember the hall's name or anything. Which was why he was at the general housing orientation, a madhouse scene where pretty much everyone was clueless.

He knew he was with the transfers and realistically, some freshmen were probably gonna be thrown in because of space concerns, but he was cool with that. As long as he didn't get some douchebag roommate he'd—

"Ryan?" Chad asked.

Ryan looked up and grinned, seemingly honestly pleased to see him. "We meet again."

"What are you doing here? This is for new students."

Ryan pointed to his nametag. "RA. They let me answer questions like I actually know something, can you believe it?"

"You're an RA?" Chad realized that might have sounded really offensive, so he backtracked immediately. "I mean, not that you'd make a bad one, just that I wouldn't have thought you'd be into, you know, hanging with the masses and all." It was possible that hadn't made things any better.

Ryan just laughed, though. "Hey, now, I'm not my sister."

"Ain't that the truth. Wow. Cool. Now I know who to go to if I have questions."

"I'm here for you, Chad."

"So what residence hall are you advising, anyway? Lemme guess: the theater one."

"3NTAC," Ryan said immediately.

Chad blinked. "Wow, I didn't think they actually had one, but—"

"That's an Exploration Community, actually. Not really the same thing, but you can apply for them so you know that everyone on the floor has your same interest. Just if you want to. I'm not the RA for 3NTAC, though."

"Why not?"

Ryan made a face. "I spend enough time with drama kids. I need to meet normal people once in a while."

Chad snickered. "You do realize you just called yourself not normal, right?"

"You should meet my classmates."

"Crazy artistes?"

"Like you wouldn't believe." He paused and Chad didn't really know where to go either, so it got kinda awkward.

"What hall are you in?" Ryan asked, clearly trying, which Chad appreciated.

"Uhh, I have no idea?"

"You're not with the athletes? Wait, you're playing basketball, right? I just assumed, but—"

"It's okay and yeah, I'm playing."

Ryan looked down at the stack of papers on his clipboard and ruffled through some of them. "You should be on the athlete hall list...and I see that you're not."

Chad scratched the back of his head. "I, uhh, might have forgotten to turn in that form."

Ryan didn't bother to hide his laughter. "Of course you did!"

"Yeah..."

"Don't worry about it. It saves you from rooming with the rest of the athletes and their wounded egos."

"Huh?"

"Well, you are called The Violets. Not exactly the Wildcats, ya know?"

"Dude, I'm just glad to be going to a school that has a basketball team, Division III or not."

"Good point. Oh, you're with the rest of the transfers. Cool. I'll be your RA."

Chad blinked. And shook his head while that information took a second to process. Ryan Evans. His RA. "Wait, really?"

Ryan showed him his name on the list. "I hadn't looked at the list or else I'd know that." He flushed delicately. "Sorry. Usually I try to have everyone memorized but this year's gotten away from me."

"School hasn't even started yet," Chad protested.

"I'm doing well, huh?"

"About as well as me. But, hey. At least I know one person."

"That's what I like to hear. Here's your map and instructional guide. We're meeting at the hall this afternoon for check-in and orientation. Don't be late. You wouldn't want to miss the name game." Ryan waggled his eyebrows way too excitedly.

"Oh, joy. I can hardly contain myself."

Ryan grinned, but was distracted as another new student asked him something and Chad got himself out of the way of the rest of the newbies.

Ryan Evans. His RA. How much weirder could this get?

***

"If it makes you feel any better, my choice would have been charismatic," Ryan offered.

"It doesn't," Chad said darkly, eyeing the overreaching freshman chick who'd piped up before he could get a word in. Freakin' freshmen.

"Charismatic Chad. Or maybe casual. Those both work."

"No, now I'm gonna be known as Cheerful Chad forever and it's all her fault. She won't think I'm so cheerful when I drown her in her bathtub," he said darkly.

"She doesn't have a bathtub," Ryan pointed out.

"You've foiled my plot. Guess she'll have to live." Chad grinned slyly at Ryan and Ryan grinned back and it was bizarre how they could just pick it up like this, their friendship that hadn't survived high school. But it was like nothing had ever happened.

Chad liked the feeling.

"Now what?" Chad asked. He looked around at everyone else, each as clueless as the last. Most of the group had stayed in the common room and still chatted, exchanged info. The ever-awkward process of making new friends.

Ryan shrugged. "Now you're a big-city college student. Now you get to do whatever you want."

"So what does a big-city college RA do for fun?" Chad asked.

"I'm meeting up with some friends later. You should come along. They'll probably drag us to a pub or one of their apartments, so nothing too exciting. But they're good people." He almost sounded like he was apologizing in advance. Jeez.

"Sounds good. I'll just go update my ensemble." Chad gestured to his body and affected a pretentious, Sharpay-type look.

Ryan eyed Chad's clothing with a slight grimace. "If only." Then he grinned and raised his eyes back to Chad's. "The entryway at 9:30, okay?"

"Done deal."

***

His roommate, Joey, was the awkward-but-not-smart kind of geek so it was basically kind of a nightmare. It'd be one thing if Joey were just geeky smart. Chad could handle geeky smart. He'd managed well enough with Taylor and even Gabi. But he could not do awkward, stuttered silences.

They'd met like five seconds ago and already it was a 'hi' and 'bye' kind of deal. Oh, well. It wasn't like he needed a new best friend anyway.

"Hey," Chad nodded to Joey and flopped onto his bed, wondering what to do until 9:30. But then his phone started buzzing and he dug through his pockets to find that yes, Troy must be psychic because he was actually calling.

"Dude," Chad answered the phone.

"What's up, bro? How's the first day been?"

"I'm at NYU," Chad said, settling back onto his pillow.

"No kidding. I hadn't heard."

"Screw you. Also, your psychic powers amaze me."

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I was just thinking about you and then you called!"

Troy lowered his voice dramatically. "What was I wearing?"

"I hate you a lot. And my first day was fine. You're never gonna guess who my RA is!"

"Um, using my psychic powers and your rambling e-mails I'm going to guess...Ryan Evans!"

"Shut up. How'd you know?"

"Wait, seriously? Like, Sharpay's brother, Ryan Evans?"

"One and the same."

Troy laughed hysterically and right in Chad's ear. He lifted the phone away until it sounded like Troy was done. "—is hilarious," Troy was saying. "What are the chances?"

"I know. Crazy."

"It means you'll be spending more time with Sharpay. Good luck with that, man. And hands off. Zeke still has a thing."

Chad gaped, then realized Troy couldn't see him, and scoffed audibly. "I can't believe you just said that. She's Evil. And Zeke is pathetic, but I'm not surprised. If there's one thing I'll give him, she's a hottie, man. Damn."

"Must be. He saw her for point five seconds and it's like Adrianna Lima walked up and started stripping."

"It wasn't nearly that hot, but yeah. I've gotten the e-mails, text messages, phone calls."

"And he's not far. Maybe you can hook him up and then you guys can double date!"

"Screw you, too, mophead."

"Oh, you've hurt me terribly," Troy said dryly. "How's the roommate sitch?"

"Ehh, ya know."

"Wow, don't get too excited."

"Oh, no worries there."

"Can't talk? Got it. I feel ya. But at least it can't get worse than my chainsmoking OCD Russian mobster."

"Dude, don't knock the Russian mobster. He probably tapped your phone and is putting out a hit as we speak."

"In that case, since this'll be our last conversation, I just wanna say...I love you, man," Troy cried dramatically.

Chad snapped his fingers. "Now I remember why I moved to New York. It's all coming back to me."

"'Kay, but when I have a convenient heart attack—"

"At twenty?"

"—you'll be sorry," Troy sing-songed. "TTYL, beeyotch." Then he hung up.

Chad did the same and looked at his phone. "My best friend is such a douche," he said.

Joey kind of laughed awkwardly. "Yeah, yes, I—uhh—yeah," he stuttered out.

Chad forced a smile and kinda nodded. Right. Nightmare.

***

"Ooh, he's gorgeous." Chad suddenly had fingers running through his hair. Male fingers to go with the male hands attached to the guy who was currently in Chad's face. And hair.

Ryan quickly slapped those fingers away. "Hey, now, William. Hands off the merchandise."

"Is he for sale?" The guy—William—asked it with a scary kind of relish. Thankfully Ryan seemed to know how to handle him because he just shooed him back and the guy obeyed.

"Chad, Will. Will, Chad. Will's in musical theater with me."

"Will dominates musical theater and Ryan worships the ground beneath his feet, is what he means," Will corrected with a charming grin. Which he turned on Chad. Which seemed less charming and more...predatory?

And Chad really got a look and even he could see this was the kind of guy that actors were made of: stunning good looks, with hugely expressive hazel eyes and a mouth. And freckles.

"Will wishes," Ryan shot back and oh, right, they were talking.

"But how do you get saddled with such a beautiful newb? Please tell me Ryan stalked you and forcibly made himself your RA," Will demanded of Chad.

"Because Ryan is just that pathetic," Ryan put in.

"I would say entrepreneurial, but whatever works for you." Will shuffled over and nudged Ryan companionably. Ryan gave in and smiled.

Good friends. Probably for a while. Chad felt distinctly like the outsider.

And he still hadn't said anything. Damn.

"Good to meet you, man."

"You, too, man," Will shot back, exaggerated. "You're such a Violet. What sport?" he asked dutifully.

"Basketball," Chad answered, sure of that, at least.

"He ran track and played baseball in high school, too," Ryan offered.

Will shot him a swift, unreadable look before turning his attention back to Chad. "So you're ripped, right?"

Chad was saved from having to answer that—or address the rather scary gleam in Will's eye—by the squealing arrival of a whirlwind of a girl.

"You're joking, this is Chad?" she asked, all bouncy and excited and...possibly high?

Chad shot Ryan a nervous glance. "What does that mean?"

"We've heard of you! Sharpay talks about you like you have a communicable disease." She tilted her head, considering. "You don't do you?"

"No!" Chad said, offended.

"Yay! Oh, I'm so happy!" She grabbed him in a hug, pulled back, then hugged him again. She didn't seem inclined to let go, but thankfully Ryan stepped in, got an arm between them, and pulled her back against him. He moved a couple steps away and took her with him.

"Chad, this is Katie," Ryan introduced, still holding the squirming girl.

"I'm Katie," she said brightly, in case he'd missed it.

Chad smiled. She was kind of charming. "Nice to meet you." And hot as hell with her long brown hair streaked with orange and hot pink, big brown eyes, smooth pale skin. The effect was striking. Hot little figure, too, from what he felt and could still see amongst the twirly skirt and bajillion necklaces.

She flashed Chad a grin and then kind of petted Ryan's face, still snug up against him. "Polite, polite. New Mexicans are so polite. Makes me wanna tie you to things with headscarves and see what'll get you to scream profanity at me."

"Please do. And let me watch," Will said.

"Wow, you have some seriously twisted friends," Chad said without thinking. Then he thought about it and nope. Wouldn't take that back.

Ryan looked down and flushed. Katie hmmed and traced it with her fingers. When she nipped at his chin he poked her in the ribs and she moved back, giggling.

"You're surprised? I thought you grew up with Ryan and her highness," Will said.

"If you mean Sharpay, then yeah."

"Then you get it," he said simply. And mysteriously because...not really?

Not that it seemed to matter. Will clapped his hands. "Onto this evening's activities. In honor of the newbie, methinketh we should have an old-fashioned pub crawl. Gotta get the boy acquainted."

"Must catch him up. Or catch him." Katie nibbled on a fingernail and looked like she couldn't decide which.

Ooookay. Ryan's friends? Bunch of freaks.

Chad was surprisingly cool with that.

***

Chad and Ryan stumbled back into the residence hall around oh-freakin'-early in the a.m. and it was all thick and slow fumbling up to their floor. Chad couldn't remember how to use his keycard, but Ryan the Brave was on the case and would not fail him in these dire times.

"Your friends are freaks," Chad said again, for the millionth time. Then he giggled.

Ryan giggled, too. "They liked you."

"Will wants in my pants."

"Will wants in everybody's pants. I think you have the wrong card thingy." He shook it like that might help.

Who knew? It might.

Chad frowned and tried to focus on the card. Cards. One of them, anyway. "Worked before. Does Will want in your pants?"

"Will wants in everybody's pants. Wait, did I already say that?" Ryan asked muzzily.

Then the light clicked green and the door opened and Ryan really was his savior. Chad was about to tell him so, when a sound reached their ears, a sound not unlike a lawnmower or woodchipper, an inhuman sound that nothing human could make.

"Dude," Chad said. "My room was invaded by mutant woodchippers."

"Think it's your roommate," Ryan said instead, peering into the darkness where said roommate apparently slept. "Do you have earplugs?"

"Not that I know of?"

"Do you have vodka?" Ryan tried again.

"I know I don't have that," Chad said mournfully.

"Well. Good luck with that." Then he patted Chad's arm and started off. Weaving his way down the hall.

"Ryan!" he hissed, over-loud, even to his own ears. "You're just gonna leave me like this?"

Ryan meandered back and focused on him, thinking intently. "I say we make a pact not to mention our welcome to NYU activities tonight," Ryan decided.

"But—that wasn't my question."

Ryan smiled, serene, then rubbed a hand over Chad's mouth in some kind of...petting thing? Then he wandered away again.

Ooookay, maybe there was a reason Ryan was friends with a bunch of freaks.

***

Evil mutant woodchippers had taken up residence in Chad's head. He thunked it down on the cheap wooden desk—a desk the chippers would just love—as he waited for Intro to Acting to start, God knew why he'd signed up for that. And now his head was pounding in time to the woodchippers' beat and he was surrounded by a bunch of wannabe actor-types and the girls in too-low tops weren't even hot.

The world hated him. Obviously.

Professor Holloway breezed in, reminding him eerily of Darbus in no kind of good way, and Chad managed not to fumble roll call too badly, which he figured would be it for him—

Until he saw the door open again and Ryan saunter in.

Ryan, who looked cool and collected and all sorts of other 'c' words which Chad was not, even cheerful, and Chad could just die. It'd be fine. Better, even.

"Now, class, I would like to introduce you to your TA for our time together, Mr. Ryan Evans. Ryan was a brilliant pupil of mine and he has so graciously offered to guide and aid you in our journey together. Please, bid him welcome." Scattered applause seemed to be what that meant, so Chad clapped dully along.

Ryan caught his eye and his mouth curled, just a touch, but Chad could tell.

He stopped clapping.

"Sadly, our time for today has run its course. Ryan will orient you further in your TA sections. Adieu!" And out she breezed, followed more slowly by the rest of the class. Ryan shook hands with some, offered quick tips, and Chad just sat there and took it all in. Because the energy to do anything but wince? No idea where that was gonna come from.

The second-to-last student finally left, the door swung shut behind him, and Ryan collapsed down with a groan. "Oh, my head," he moaned.

Chad stuttered out a laugh. "Really? You, too?"

"Next time, stop me. Remind me of this, tie me up, kill me. Whatever you have to do."

"Tie you up with headscarves and see what makes you scream profanity at me," Chad mumbled.

Ryan's head shot up, then he winced in pain at the movement. "Ow."

"Dude. You're my TA," Chad informed him.

"Yeah, noticed that."

"You're gonna, like, grade me and stuff."

"I'm also your RA who went out and got illegally drunk with you last night."

"So you're doing well with the whole responsibility thing," Chad said idly.

"Seems like it."

"Cool. Keep up the good work."

***

New York was...different. It was hard for Chad to get used to being constantly surrounded by people. Back home everything was spread out; there was so much space. Rolling hills and plains of nothing were typical, usual. Here—it was like New York was piled on top of itself. The weight of all that noise and sound and mass of stuff going on could be overwhelming.

So Chad made his little corner of it, filled it with Ryan and his friends and Zeke, and set about building it into something comfortable. It was a little shocking how easily it happened. After three days if he didn't see Ryan at least three times, it was a little odd. Regular calls, e-mails, texts, and instant messages kept him anchored with his old friends—Troy, Taylor, Gabi—while Ryan and his friends had set about adopting Chad. Or else he had a serious case for harassment, what with the relish Katie, in particular, seemed to adore pestering him.

The first weekend Chad got a text from Zeke that he was coming down to "visit" and could he crash on Chad's floor? Chad was instantly suspicious, but said yes anyway 'cause that was what friends did.

Somehow they ended up at a packed place called SOB's, which Chad found hilarious, and somehow Sharpay just happened to be there, holding court at the bar, wearing a gold dress and drenched in the gold and orange light. These things were far too unlikely to be coincidence and Chad's suspicions were confirmed when Zeke didn't even pretend surprise at seeing her.

"You set this up," Chad accused Ryan.

Ryan simply grinned and swiveled his hips to some kind of French-Caribbean beat. Which he shouldn't be able to make look easy, because Chad knew it wasn't, but since when did Ryan follow rules?

"Would I do that?"

"Yes," Chad said hotly. Possibly the atmosphere was getting to him.

Ryan tsked. "Please. She'll turn him down, for the hundredth time, and he'll sulk and get over it. What's the harm?" Ryan asked easily. He sipped on his cocktail—called a Brazilian Kiss, he'd been informed—his throat working, and Chad's thoughts got derailed a bit.

Ryan bobbed his head like the silence was agreement. "That's what I thought. C'mon. Come dance with me." He hooked two fingers in Chad's belt and tugged, but only the barest amount.

There was temptation there. Everyone was easy and relaxed here, the rhythms infectious, people singing and dancing along to music they seemed to know.

Chad stood rooted to the spot, mind taking in just how unconcerned people seemed to be with the gender of their dance partners, Ryan subtly moving to the rhythm already, and was he wearing glitter?

He leaned in close to Chad's ear and Chad smelled rum and Ryan's fancy cologne and passion fruit. "Downer," Ryan breathed, a laugh contained in the word, and then he let Chad go. He skipped off to join the dancing throng and a couple people immediately curled around him, moved with him. A couple guys, Chad noted.

Zeke walked up and nodded at the dance floor. "Ryan's good."

"Yeah, he is." Chad took a swig of his beer and wondered why he still felt thirsty.

Zeke grabbed his arm. "Oh, wait, wait—yes! He's leaving. Later." Then he was up and gone and if Chad didn't know how pathetic it all was, he'd have been confused. As it was, he simply looked over to where Sharpay had sent her latest suitor away and yep, there was Zeke, approaching with a gift and a curious lack of pleading.

A notable lack of pleading, actually. He marched right up to her, took her hand and placed whatever it was in it, looked right in her eyes and started speaking intently. Sharpay didn't scream, screech, flail, or do anything other than blink up at him and listen.

Chad's beer stayed suspended halfway to his mouth. That was different.

When Zeke finished he pushed back a little and Sharpay swallowed, then looked at what was in her hand. Whatever it was must have been good because she smiled a genuine little smile—for her—and hopped off the barstool. She caught Zeke's hand and pulled him onto the dance floor where he wrapped around her and pulled her close.

And that seemed to be that.

"Hey," Will called into Chad's ear, jostling against him in some kind of greeting. Chad nodded absently back. "Where'd Sharpay go?"

Chad gestured out to the floor with his beer, at the tangle of limbs that was Sharpay and Zeke.

Will made an appalled sound. "My lady!" he said in protest, not that anyone could hear him.

"Dude. Yeah, she's hot, but doesn't anyone else see that she's, like, evil?" Chad asked Will, Zeke...possibly the world.

"Blasphemy. But of course she'd run off with the new guy and ignore her devotees of many long years," he grumbled.

"Actually, Zeke's been after her longer than you have."

Will made an affronted sound, but Katie ran up and hugged both of them at once, then, squealing out, "My boys, you're such partyers, just look at you!" Her cocktail threatened to spill all over someone.

Chad smiled; Will lamented some more: "My true love has been lost to me."

Katie patted his cheek. "That's just the pot, honey. Come dance with me, mmkay?" She perkily ran off, then came back. "And you're invited, too, sad-Chad." She stroked the skin under his left eye. Why? Who knew?

"I think I'm good," Chad assured her.

"Yay!" She then handed him her drink. "Have some. It's Sex on Bubbles!" She bounced off and crooked a finger at Will, who seemed to have forgotten Sharpay's existence. He followed and tangled himself up with her as much as Sharpay had with Zeke.

And there he stood, leaning against the cold pillar at his back, a drink in each hand. Sad-Chad, indeed.

***

A couple weeks in, Chad's roommate found himself a girlfriend. Consequently, Chad found himself locked out a lot.

Chad stood in Ryan's doorway after practice—sweaty, exhausted, and fed up. "They're having sex again! All I want to do is take a shower and go to sleep and now I can't." Was he whining like a girl? Possibly. Did he care?

Nope.

"Yo, Junior College!" Chad heard from behind him. "Locked out again?"

"Eh, blow me," Chad shot back at Alan, who laughed and walked on. Freakin' freshmen.

Ryan grinned from where he sat on his bed. "Is that supposed to be off-putting?"

Chad rolled his eyes. "Don't fake-flirt with me. I'm pissed. My roommate is almost as evil as your sister."

Ryan gave him a vaguely sympathetic look and gestured to his private bathroom. "You can use my shower..."

"Can I sleep in your bed?" he asked, grumpy and not really meaning it.

"Oh, baby, any time you like." A beat. "Or you can use the futon I keep here."

Chad sighed and dropped his chin to his chest. A saving grace, right here. "I love you," he said, meaning every word.

"I would hope so."

Chad's head snapped up. "No, wait, I hate you. Where were you all those other times I got locked out and had to sit in the common room while the weepy girls watched 'One Life to Just Kill Yourself Now?'"

"Ahh, the other shoe drops. How fickle the love of a teenage girl can be." Ryan sighed dramatically.

"Yeah, whatever. I'm using your soap."

"That'll show me." He tossed Chad a clean towel. Chad tossed him a rude gesture.

***

One minor issue with showering in Ryan's shower: it smelled like him. Sure, this made sense. It had all his hair products and skin products and, holy God, bathing products. The number of products was, like, infinite and Chad was a tiny bit scared.

Of that and the fact that it smelled like Ryan. Which he, Chad, recognized. And which was absolutely not diminishing his hard-on at all.

...this might be another problem, but honestly, he was too tired to worry about it at the moment.

So he shrugged and turned on the water. He selected the bottles he deemed least likely to turn him blond by morning and slid under the spray.

The very warm spray in this very private bathroom that smelled like Ryan and really, it was only natural he was hard. His teammates at practice were still ragging on the new guy and he hadn't been able to properly jerk off in weeks, while his roommate did nothing but have sex.

Really, it was totally understandable that he'd take this one moment of alone-time, brace against the tile, and stroke himself until he had to bite his hand to keep from crying out, panting and weak-kneed, blond in his thoughts.

Totally understandable.

***

Chad smelled coffee. He sat up abruptly and his blankets slipped down to the futon, but he didn't even care because somewhere there was a source of caffeine and he hadn't made it his yet.

He rubbed at his eyes and zeroed in on the to-go cup in Ryan's hand. "I will pay you for some of that." Ryan looked amused...so Chad guessed his hair was not looking its finest.

"I'm ridiculously rich," Ryan informed him.

"I'll have your firstborn."

Ryan laughed. "Now that I'd like to see you pay off. You're just lucky I'm nice." Ryan produced another to-go cup from the bag sitting slightly behind him on his desk.

"No, you're not," Chad muttered. But Ryan handed him coffee then, so the fawning over caffeine might have detracted from his spite.

"Well...I'm nice to you," Ryan amended. And there Chad couldn't disagree.

He sipped and sipped and gulped and then it must have reached his bloodstream because everything looked sharper, especially how Ryan watched him.

"You're not one of those horrible morning people, are you?" Chad asked him when his coffee was all gone, but Ryan still there, perched on his desk.

Ryan gestured to himself with his cup. "Responsible adult right here."

"Oh, God, you should be years from that."

"Kids' lives are in my hands. It's a sacred duty."

Chad snorted. "You broke the rules the first night. You didn't even make it a full twenty-four hours."

"Since when are you a kid?" Ryan asked with a grin.

"Yeah, I'm a manly-man."

"Hey, manly-man, wanna get the hell up so I can put the futon away?"

Chad grumbled, but made his way to standing. He watched, forlorn, as Ryan efficiently tucked the quite comfortable futon away, blankets thrown into a basket. He was very efficient at that.

"Why do you have a futon, anyway?" Chad asked.

"In case Shar wants to stay over." Like that explained everything, no questions needed. Duh.

"Sharpay Evans sleeps on the floor?" Chad asked, aghast.

"Sharpay Evans kicks me out of my bed and I sleep on the floor." Oh. Right.

"No wonder it's so comfortable."

"Nothing but the best."

But Chad had gotten distracted because Ryan had pictures. Pictures which he hadn't noticed last night. Printed and in actual frames—how quaint—many of Sharpay, others of Will and Katie and some other guy, and then some more...touchy-feely ones of Ryan and some random guy.

"Who's the dude?" Chad asked.

Ryan glanced at the picture, then casually away. Too casually. "That's Tim. He and I went out for a while. It ended badly."

"Why?"

"Shar didn't like him."

Heh. "Then we know my virtue's safe," Chad joked.

Ryan blinked at him. "Shar doesn't hate you."

"She thinks I have a communicable disease!"

Ryan grinned like it was all some hilarious joke. Traitor. "That shows you're on her radar. She doesn't speak to people she really hates. Wouldn't even acknowledge Tim. I tried with him for a while, but, well...that's a deal breaker. And he turned out to be an ass in the end, so..."

"I'd say you were pussy-whipped, but that's so wrong given she's your freakin' sister." Chad moved on to the next photo—this time an Evans family portrait. Of course they'd have that.

When Ryan's voice came, it held something guarded and careful in it: "You know, most people don't even ask when they see the pictures."

Chad made sure to look over and meet Ryan's gaze. "Shuffle their feet, get uncomfortable, maybe blush and look away?" Chad guessed.

"Gosh, and I had you pegged as the blushing type," Ryan said, dry as the freakin' Sahara.

"I've got—" Chad counted in his head, "—five words for you: pink shirts and sparkly hats."

Ryan got it immediately and rolled his eyes. "My sparkly hats were works of art."

"Gayer than that dude from 'N Sync and that other Italian guy." Hmm, that could have been a more effective analogy.

"My sparkly hats were legendary," Ryan continued, still up-in-arms about the hats.

"Whatever, man. All I'm sayin' is you weren't exactly subtle."

Ryan smiled fondly. "Good times." He swung open his door and Travis was right there, hand poised to knock. "Jeez, Travis!" Ryan said, startled.

"Sorry, I know it's early, sorry, but I can't find my key and my multilinear algebra notes are in there and my prof is legendary for giving pop quizzes and we can use our notes, but mine are in my room and I'm locked out of it because I can't find my key," Travis got out in a rush since it was a Tragedy of Epic Proportions and all.

Chad felt him on the locked out part, if not the multilinear algebra crap. Notes. Honestly.

"Did you try knocking?" Ryan asked. The kid blinked, started to speak, shut his mouth, did an about-face, and walked away.

"Yeah, kids' lives are in your hands, all right," Chad said.

"Sacred duty," Ryan agreed, nodding. Then they both cracked up.

***

"Didn't you wear that yesterday?" Ryan asked him as they finished up with breakfast. This was composed of fruit, yogurt, and some type of oatmeal/granola for Ryan. Chad went with the grease: eggs, bacon, ham and cheese omelet, not to mention the fried potatoes of many delicious varieties. Ryan had taken one look at Chad's plate, blanched, and refused to look again.

Chad looked down at himself and finished chewing. "Yeah..."

"Are you going to change?" Ryan asked, just a tad faint.

Chad shrugged. He hadn't planned that far ahead. "I dunno. Joey and Michelle usually stay 'til morning and since it's, like, ungodly early and all, I doubt they're gone by now. What's the big deal? The pants are fine and my shirt even has buttons."

"Oh, in that case," Ryan drawled. He sipped at his orange juice and eyed Chad levelly.

And Chad didn't really give a crap what other people thought of his clothes, but the way Ryan was looking at him...

"I know just the thing," Ryan decided.

"This can't end well."

"You've been in New York for weeks and you probably haven't set foot in a clothing store. It's a crime. We're fixing it immediately."

Chad rolled his eyes and stuffed half a roll in his mouth. "Do I have to mention the hats again?"

Ryan grimaced. "Mid-chew is a good look for you. Besides, that was years ago. I promise we won't get anything you don't like. Think of it as an adventure." Ryan seemed genuinely excited, which was fun to see, so Chad simply shrugged. It wasn't like Ryan could force him to buy anything.

"Sure, why not?"

Ryan grinned, sunlight bright, then promptly grabbed the half-finished roll from Chad's hand and tossed it on his tray. "C'mon."

"Hey! I'm not done here yet," Chad protested. There was still the matter of dessert to consider.

"You've stuffed yourself full of more artery-clogging food than I eat in a week. I think you'll be fine."

Chad simply sat and stared at him.

"Up, up!" Snappy hand gestures accompanied the directive and suddenly Chad was standing and wow, Ryan really did have his Evans moments, huh?

Ryan's phone rang on cue, so of course Chad was left to take both their trays. And he could just guess who would call this early in the morning.

"I'm taking Chad to Calvin Klein to play dress-up. Hey! Wanna come?"

"No!" Chad barked, horrified.

Not as horrified as Sharpay, apparently. "Ew," Ryan muttered. "She says she'd rather eat her own intestines. Here, lemme put you on speaker."

"Don't go to Calvin, you unsubtle boor. They're doing an Astair classic retro thing. Go to Boateng. And you can pick up some things for me." She sounded quite pleased at that idea.

"Am I your errand boy?"

"Oh, brother dearest. When haven't you been?"

***

'Boateng' was apparently a guy who designed stuff and his store was modern and cold and off-putting like most designer's stores seemed to be. Like, you better have a trust fund to even enter the premises and Chad really, really didn't.

Ryan seemed right at home, ordering people around with relish and giving Chad these plotting looks that were just a tad disturbing. They'd even opened the store early for him.

"You realize you're, like, terrorizing these people, right?" Chad asked.

"They love it! Are you kidding? They're thrilled it's me and not Shar. Now she knows how to terrorize a staff. I feel bad for her future help," he mused. Then one of the attendants walked up with a suit and Ryan scoffed aloud. "Tell me you're joking. Did you see the sneakers on him?" Well if she hadn't she did now. Chad frowned and looked down. What? They were clean.

"Do you think sneaker-boy is gonna stuff himself into a suit any time soon?" Ryan continued. The woman's face cleared in understanding, then sympathy.

"Hey!" Chad protested.

"I'm just being realistic. That suit is the work of an artist. It'll just sit in your closet and soak up the smell of sweaty socks. Give it some respect and let some fabulous guy with impeccable taste actually wear it." The woman was in full agreement, nodding and taking it away.

"The key word is functional," Ryan said louder and Chad kind of wanted to die at the way they all nodded in mute agreement. People did this for fun?

"Oh, now that is fabulous," Ryan said at what Chad would swear was a ten dollar plain red t-shirt. "C'mon. They need to measure you."

Ryan steered him to an area surrounded by mirrors and lights that clearly showed every wrinkle in every piece of clothing he wore. A really good-looking, icy guy walked up, tape measure in hand, and started...measuring things.

Chad just kind of stood there, stiff and awkward.

Ryan made a disgusted noise. "Let me," he said, then grabbed the tape from the man's hands, who relinquished it almost gratefully.

Yeah, fuck you, too, buddy.

Ryan took the man's place and leaned in to speak lowly in Chad's ear. "Stop being paranoid. He's not trying to get your pants off...unless it's to destroy them in the office shredder. He likes girls, as, I might add, do you. And since you don't mind me touching you..." Ryan put word to deed and ran his fingers down the tape measuring his arm.

Chad blew a piece of hair out of his eyes. "Fine. Just tell me what to do."

"Now that's what I like to hear," Ryan said. He tossed the tape back to the guy, who now just seemed amused. And didn't these people talk?

"You can measure me, but no shredding my pants," Chad told him as he approached.

His eyes flicked down at said pants, then back up. "I'd need an industrial shredder for those."

Behind them Ryan laughed.

***

They—or Ryan, really—had picked out all sorts of crap: shirts, pants, a belt or four. Ryan simply tossed it at the woman who followed them around and muttered something about the 'usual address.' She promptly disappeared, then immediately reappeared holding a more modest bag emblazoned with the insignia Chad kept seeing on all the shirts. Ryan took it and meandered toward the door, but Chad had this nagging feeling that—

"Wait...what about that stuff you said I should get? I didn't pay," Chad protested at the door.

Ryan widened his eyes dramatically. "Eee gads, you're right. Quick; let's run for it."

"But I didn't want you to buy anything for me!" Chad hissed. "I was gonna—"

"Oh, trust me, you couldn't afford a sock in here."

"But—"

Ryan finally showed the faintest signs of embarrassment. He came back to Chad, still blocking the doorway. "Look, my family has tons of money and they insist I use it to make myself happy."

"Yeah and what? You're using it to buy me clothes. How does that—"

A dazzling grin made Ryan light up. People were, like, looking at him. "You joking? I'm euphoric I won't have to see you in those t-shirts ever again."

"Hey! Be serious. You could be doing good for the world—"

"I am! Especially my world." He gestured to their immediate surroundings.

Chad rolled his eyes. "And you only bought me new clothes. It's not like you burned the old ones or—"

Ryan clapped. "That's a brilliant idea! We should go—"

"Dude, you're not burning my clothes," Chad said, finally giving into the amusement, which was probably what Ryan had wanted all along.

Ryan sniffed like Chad had sucked all the joy from his existence. "Fine. But my point stands: this was fun. So quit your bitching and say 'thank you.'"

Chad shook his head and finally moved out of the doorway. Not that anyone else had tried to go in or come out, he'd like to mention.

"Thank you, Ryan, for being a controlling, psychotic dictator who makes the fashion gods cry."

"You're welcome. Now come buy me a latte. I'm practically dehydrated after all that."

"Coffee will just dehydrate—" Chad was interrupted by someone calling out from down the street.

"Hey, New Money! Shopping spree for your boytoy?" Chad zeroed in on the too-slick asswipe actually wearing a suit and tie as he passed them.

"Original, Kensington. That kinda creativity will make you famous one day," Ryan shot back.

Chad turned to Ryan who remained glaring at the dude. "You have a nickname, too?"

"Don't even ask," Ryan grumbled.

***

"Kensington called me New Money again," Ryan said.

This apparently had some meaning to Will and Katie because they both nodded. "Old money kids are such douches," Will decided.

"Except you, Liam, you're a lovely boy," Katie said, then returned to sucking Coke through a straw in a very...distracting way.

Will straightened and basked in the attention. "I am," he agreed.

Katie turned and hung onto Ryan in that way she had. "I'm sorry, Ry. Want me to destroy his manhood for you?"

"Yes. But Verve would be better."

"Ooh, I love Verve!" she enthused.

"That's all settled, then. Kensington's going on the list and we're going to Verve. And I'm lovely," Will added.

"And an old money traitor kid," Chad added.

"Yeah, but so's Katie. And Walker. But he's named Walker, so what the hell do you expect?" Will rambled.

Wow, Chad had so lost the plot. "I'm, like, the normal, focused, straight-down-the-middle jock. How'd I end up in the psychotic, orgiastic, stoner, trust fund, drama kid group?"

"You have a really pretty mouth," Katie offered, as if this was all the explanation needed. She bit her straw.

Chad turned to Ryan in despair. Ryan would make sense of it all.

"Orgiastic is a good word," Ryan said idly.

Chad gave up. Truly.

***

Verve was what they called a 'lounge' and was happily way less pretentious than it sounded. It catered to the sincere ecstatic drunken college kid, rather than the ones who wanted to be "seen."

Katie didn't care to be seen, but she'd be noticed anywhere, bounding up to him like she did.

"Chad, I love your hair!" Said like she'd never seen it before. Hands were thrust into his hair and Chad started to protest...only Katie was still talking and kind of pressed up against him, so he got distracted. "Really very pretty. Can I cut it?"

"What? No!"

"Good choice, man. She's an artist. You never know how you'd end up," Will chimed in as he appeared behind her.

"Beautiful. He'd end up beautiful." She pulled at one of his curls and kind of bit at the end.

"Oh, my God, you are never having cocaine again," Will stated with the air of one who had the right to make such a decision.

Katie ignored him completely. "Come dance with me," she decided, in that insane, non sequitur, not-even-a-question way she had.

Chad blinked. "But I don't—"

Katie wasn't even listening, instead she pulled him out to the dance floor and spun. Her skirt and hair and jewelry flared out and she was so not wearing a bra and that may have caught Chad's attention again—

—and then he was in a jumble of people and Katie was spinning him and he might have gone a little insane because then he was dancing, or at least spinning with Katie, her smile flashing bright every time the lights caught on her.

She moved in and out and against him and away, hands all over, and every time she left again it seemed like he'd lost more buttons until his shirt was hanging off him and she was stroking skin. And then Ryan was next to him, Will with him, and Ryan had lost half his clothes somewhere and Will didn't mind at all. It was a mish-mash of skin and hands and feeling Ryan behind him and Katie against him and hands running over his shoulders and then out to Katie who laced their fingers together.

Chad was caught between the two hottest people in the history of ever—dancing—and that was just fine. So long as he could stay with the beat and the hot and the incredible feeling.

"And you said you didn't dance," Ryan breathed into his ear. Katie bit his chest and pulled Ryan closer, hot skin all along Chad's back...and Chad wasn't capable of a response, not with the feeling making his brain swim.

"Thank you for my pretty boy, Ryan," Katie said above the din.

Ryan didn't answer and Chad felt him melt away, pull back into the crowd, only the odd stroke of a hand against his skin a reminder that he was still nearby.

Chad was hard-pressed to explain the sense of loss he felt.

***

"Back to the dorms," Chad said glumly. "Back to my roommate snoring like a lawnmower. If he's not screwing his girlfriend again." These were the college stories he'd wanted, he needed to remind himself of that.

Ryan didn't reply and instead rattled off an address to the cab driver. It took Chad a second to descramble it in his brain.

"That's not the dorm," he said.

Ryan's teeth flashed bright as they passed under a streetlamp. "Nah, we're going to my apartment."

"You...have an apartment." Not a question.

"Of course. I'm an artist, you know. I need my space."

Chad sighed and slumped in the seat. "I love your parents. Even if they did create your sister."

***

Ryan's 'apartment' was, like, a penthouse suite or something. Not in a hotel, but the building could have been a hotel. There was a doorman and everything.

Chad kept blinking at the open space—space that reminded him of home, space like there never was in New York. Or, it seemed there was, you just had to pay mega, beaucoup bucks for it.

Ryan walked them down the entry hall and that's when Chad realized: it smelled like someone was cooking.

And if this was Ryan's apartment he could guess who that someone would be.

"Oh, God, my eyes," Ryan said suddenly, covering said eyes with his head and tossing his head away as if that would give him an added barrier.

Chad blinked and turned to look in the kitchen—and oh.

Oh.

"Dude, that's hot."

Had he said that? A quick flick of his eyes to Ryan, who was looking at him like he'd just committed a mortal sin, and yep. Must have been him.

"Never say that in my presence again," he demanded.

"Ryan? Chad?" Zeke was properly horrified, pulling his white button-down shirt back into place quickly and backing a couple steps away from Sharpay.

Sharpay who was on the kitchen table. Sharpay who had propped herself on one arm and skipped straight to glaring. Part of Chad's mind—the part that didn't recognize that she was the incarnation of pure evil—quite appreciated the fact that she wasn't making any move to pull her skirt down or her slinky top up.

"What are you two doing here?"

"I'm gonna need therapy," Ryan whined some more. Chad just stared.

"You were supposed to go clubbing and then collapse drunkenly into a cab. That would take you to your dorm."

"This was closer."

"And my roommate snores," Chad added. He sniffed the air. "Is there food?"

Zeke nodded and enthusiastically ran with the change in subject. "Tomato bisque with homemade croutons. There's also spinach fusilli in a light—"

"Don't reward them," Sharpay interrupted. "They're ruining our date."

"This was a date?" Chad asked blankly.

"This could be more painful...but how?" Ryan asked the ceiling.

Zeke shook his head, half-grinned in the way he had, and shuffled back to Sharpay. He helped her stand, brushed her hair over her shoulder, and kissed the tip of her nose. "C'mon. It's Ryan's place, too."

Sharpay huffed...and amazingly settled into baleful acceptance. "Fine. But I get to have the tiramisu first."

Zeke smiled indulgently.

***

"I can't believe we walked in on your sister and Zeke canoodling."

"Canoodling?" Ryan looked at Chad like he'd grown another head.

"What? It goes with the Italian theme. Or something."

Ryan smiled and shook his head. "Fine. But you could be a little more sympathetic seeing as I'm scarred for life over here."

"Oh, please. It wasn't like she'd lost any clothing. Yet," he added.

Ryan threw a pillow at his head. "Thank you for that."

"Anytime. So. Where am I sleeping?" Chad asked. He nodded to the sole bed in Ryan's room. Or suite. Whatever you called it.

Ryan also eyed the—really quite large—sole bed. "The couch," he said idly. Then he turned and smiled at Chad. "Unless you want to share."

"Awesome. How thick are the walls?"

"I think we're about to find out," Ryan said, peppy like he was finally finding the fun.

Chad grinned. It was about damn time.

***

Chad tugged the pillow out from underneath his head and sighed. Sharpay moaned. Again.

Fine. No more teasing Ryan. This was obviously retribution for—

"Shar! Wha—oh, God," Zeke gasped.

Chad firmly told his dick that it didn't want to know what Sharpay was doing. Really. Incarnation of evil and all that.

Zeke moaned something garbled, but full of praise, and that was it.

Chad sat up and grabbed his pillow. This was not on. Also, Ryan should totally feel his pain if he had to live through this.

He padded to Ryan's door, opened it, and slipped in. The slow snick as it shut was the last thing Chad heard beyond Ryan's breathing and blessed silence.

He let out the breath he'd been holding.

"Couldn't resist my manly charms, could you?"

Chad started as the light clicked on, illuminating Ryan. "Gah, I thought you were sleeping," Chad hissed.

Ryan chuckled. His voice was sleep-worn and gravelly and made Chad want to shiver. His hair was mussed and he wore no hat...which felt wrong. But Chad supposed you couldn't really sleep wearing a hat and all.

Ryan sat up as Chad shuffled over and plopped down on the bed. "Dude. All. Night. Long."

"All nii-ight," Ryan sang.

"Mocking me. You're mocking my pain." Chad shoved his pillow to the empty side of the bed and tugged the comforter down.

Ryan watched this oddly, but voiced no protest. "Darn right I'm mocking your pain. I seem to remember someone else mocking my pain. Turnabout."

Chad forcefully threw himself down onto his pillow and crossed his arms. "Now I'm taking over your bed. How's that for turnabout?"

Ryan rubbed at his eyes. "You were always welcome to it." He pulled at the comforter, still half under Chad's weight, until Chad shifted up and he could loosen it. Then he flicked it up so it covered Chad and turned toward the nightstand and the light.

Chad blinked in the sudden darkness. Huh. That was easy.

***

Chad slept deeply, but still had brief impressions of ever-present warmth, something solid to anchor him, something tickling at his nose. He woke to muted sunlight and an empty bed.

He was also on Ryan's side of that empty bed. He frowned at the implications, but shrugged it off. At least there weren't gonna be any awkward non-morning-afters.

Chad wandered out to the kitchen area, scratching at hair he was sure was everywhere, and he blearily nodded at Zeke in front of the stove and Ryan at the table.

"I hope you cleaned that table," he mumbled as he walked past.

Ryan paused with his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. He looked wide-eyed at Zeke.

Who smiled, embarrassed. "Yeah, this morning. Before you got up."

Chad made an approving noise and kept on going until he reached the coffee. Poured himself a cup, sugared it, and drank it down.

He made a pleased sound; Ryan and Zeke snickered.

Chad opened his eyes. "What?" he asked.

"Good coffee?" Ryan asked innocently.

"Shut up," Chad shot back. Then he pointed at Zeke. "And you should be fixing my coffee since you're the reason I'm so tired."

The smile slipped away from Zeke's face and Chad nodded, triumphant, before leaning around him to peer at the stove. "Are those eggs still hot?"

"Oh! Yes, of course." Zeke sprang into action, serving up some eggs, bacon, and pancakes. Chad grunted his appreciation, then dropped both the plate and his cup onto the counter and dug in.

"'S good," he mumbled. Zeke smiled and half-bowed his thanks. "Where's the sex goddess?" Chad asked.

"She's right here and appalled by your manners." Sharpay appeared, wearing what looked like Zeke's white button-down from the night before...and not much else. No make-up, hair tousled, in a word: hot.

"Part of my charm." Chad toasted her with his coffee and kept right on eating.

She wandered up to Zeke and pressed against him for a moment, something soft murmured between them.

"Can I look yet?" Ryan asked plaintively. He'd shielded his eyes, but angled so that he could still look at Chad.

Chad grinned at Sharpay's rolled eyes, but she stepped away from Zeke so he nodded. "All clear, dude."

"My brother, the prude," she said fondly. She walked over and gave him a loud kiss on the forehead. Then she sat down—providing Chad with evidence that she was wearing something else: a nice, lacy little thong—and snatched the Arts section away from Ryan.

"And just think of where that mouth has been," Chad said.

Ryan made a face. "Now I am. Thanks for that, too."

Zeke set a plate in front of Sharpay with some eggs, whole wheat toast, half a banana. She smiled in thanks and there weren't even any edges to it. It was...weird.

Zeke joined them at the table with his own plate and suddenly it was like a little family scene, with Chad as the outside observer. Ryan pretended to be enraptured by the front page while Sharpay ate half the banana and handed Zeke the Sports section. He grinned and stole a piece of her toast.

"Oh, my God, can you quit being so cute?" Chad demanded.

"I can't help it; it's in my blood," Sharpay said.

"I guarantee you that isn't true," Chad shot back. She smiled her viper smile at him and all was right with the world again.

***

"You slept with Ryan!" Katie crowed.

"What—wait—I did not!" Chad protested.

"Did, too. Did, too," she sing-songed. She used their linked arms to twirl them in a tight circle, which got a couple choice looks from the passersby. Katie made a face at them and they hurried on, away from the mentally-unbalanced girl who might just murder them in their sleep.

It was so possible.

"I crashed at his place—"

"In his bed after you walked in on Zeke and Sharpay getting groovy on the kitchen table. Ooh, Will will be so jealous. I can't wait to tell him."

"Dude, I already told him that Zeke has been after Sharpay for—"

"Oh, yes. He'll be jealous of that, too. I must mention it." She pulled out her phone, which Chad promptly confiscated.

"It's for your own good," he said. She pouted. Chad remained staunchly unaffected. Really. "And why else would Will be jealous?"

A fawning smile bloomed on Katie's face. "He's wanted in Ryan's bed forever. My poor slutty boy," she said fondly. "Ryan's much too much a prude. Sex with Will should not be missed, but nooo, he's so sentimental about it."

Chad blinked. "Huh?"

"With his friends," she clarified, clarifying nothing at all. "He certainly jumped Tim quickly enough. They were very pretty. Would have been prettier with Will, too, but then Ryan's so sentimental."

"Okay, you know I don't understand half of what you're saying, right?" Chad asked just 'cause, well, he liked being clear about things.

"Sure you do. You just don't want to."

"Katie-Kate," someone called and then a guy wrapped his arms around Katie from behind. She instantly let go of Chad, whirled, and pushed him back. Hard.

The guy stumbled back into a couple people behind him. "Whoa! Okay, fine. Simmer down."

Chad stayed by Katie's side.

"No touching without say-so, Marks." As she said it her eyes narrowed and she was no longer in the clouds and breezy and light.

She whirled again, hair swirling out, and then she snuggled up to Chad, linked their arms, and walked them on.

Marks, whoever he was, stayed behind, still befuddled.

"Let's have tea. Do you like tea? Tea would be lovely," she decided and it was like flipping a switch—this girl or that girl, nothing in between.

Chad laced their fingers together. "I could do tea."

***

"Aw, crap." Chad had thought Alice's Tea Cup was a place only Katie could pick. He was really, totally wrong because there stood Sharpay, the last of her companions to get up. She completely fit in with the décor, waitresses wearing fairy wings and all.

Oh, God, agreeing to tea was getting worse by the moment. He'd already spent breakfast with her. Did he have to be subjected to more?

"Sharpay!" Katie cried in delight. She skipped over a few steps and engulfed the other girl in a hug and you'd swear they hadn't seen each other in ages. Her friends rolled their eyes and ducked out to the small hallway that led to the stairs and the outside world.

Sharpay merely smiled at the adoration and let herself be hugged. "Isn't this a little far from your usual territory?" she asked.

Katie pulled back and grinned. "We decided on tea." Ha! As if it were a joint decision.

At the 'we' Sharpay looked over at Chad, standing a little ways back from Katie, and not cowering at all. Sharpay's eyes narrowed. "Ugh, you brought him?" Her eyes flicked over him. "At least he's dressing less like a street urchin."

"Sharpay, so sorry to hold you up. I'm sure you have other places to be," Chad said sweetly.

Katie leaned in then. "Chad slept with Ryan," she whispered. Then brightened. "And you and Zeke look pretty on the kitchen table. Why won't you let me take pictures?" Katie tugged on one of Sharpay's blonde curls, then wrapped it around her finger.

Sharpay blinked at that sudden influx of information. "Maybe later," she said absently.

Katie giggled and hugged her again. Sharpay couldn't help but smile and she looked almost...soft like that. It was very, very wrong.

But then she snapped out of it and pulled back. "Right. I've got very important things to do. Let's have lunch later, okay?" she asked Katie, apparently genuine.

"Yay! Chad and I are having tea."

"I know. Good luck with that." She disentangled herself and walked by Chad. "Try not to break anything."

"Good tip. I'll remember that. Ta!" Chad shot back.

The hostess came to collect them and redistributed them to another little wooden table and hmm, had anyone ever informed them that the cups and little plate things didn't match? Did he need to tell someone about this? He shot surreptitious glances around him, but all the other—exclusively female—tea drinkers didn't seem bothered.

Chad's phone rang and he picked it up automatically. "Yo."

"Why is my sister asking me if we had sex last night?" Ryan asked.

Chad slumped. "Aw, man. Dude, it wasn't me."

"Something I should know, Chad?"

Chad lowered his voice, but this was New York. These people didn't know the meaning of personal space. "Katie said we slept together and your sister might have taken it the wrong way."

"Okay, thanks." He clicked off. Chad shrugged and put his phone back in his pocket.

More annoying ringing, like, annoyed him. Katie drummed her fingers on the table and grinned at him. Chad flushed at the way the other tea-goers were starting to send them looks. He quickly pulled the phone open.

"Hello?"

"Why are you answering Katie's phone?" Ryan asked this time.

Chad looked at it to confirm that yes, this was Katie's phone, then brought it back to his ear. "I confiscated it so she couldn't tell Will the same thing. Apparently he's jonesing after you."

Katie noticed her phone and pointed to it. "Is that Ryan?"

Chad nodded. Katie leaned over the table and grabbed the phone from his hand. "Ryan!" she said happily.

Now they were getting even more stares. Chad slid down in his seat. Not that it would help since he could, like, reach over and grab the next table's chicken salad if he really wanted to. Ooh, that looked good, actually...

"Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm," Katie said. "Awww." Would Chad pay to hear this scolding? Yes, yes he would. "No fun," Katie pronounced. Then she hung up.

She looked at him, confessional: "I'm not supposed to say you slept with Ryan because he doesn't want to embarrass you and also, I'm a very naughty girl. Why would sleeping with Ryan embarrass you?" Wow, from confessional to shit-eating to confused. Like, in two seconds.

He was relatively sure she wasn't high. How long did drugs last, anyway?

Chad blinked. "It wouldn't embarrass me. But you know Ryan," he said vaguely.

"So sentimental." She sighed, woebegone. But then their waitress appeared and handed them bound tea menus with no less than five laminated pages just listing tea and did he mention the waitress had sparkly, pink fairy wings and glitter on her eyes?

Needless to say, Katie perked right up.

***

Tea took forever. He could have died sitting there, trying not to get his sleeves in anything. Which wasn't to say it wasn't amazing...because it was. Chad was pretty sure he might never eat again—or at least not before breakfast—and the dark chocolate mousse was pretty much the awesomest thing ever, but holy crap did it take a long time. Their bewinged, beglittered fairy-cum-waitress seemed to be unfamiliar with things like time and schedules.

Granted, in general so was Chad, but now—

Now he was gonna be late for Ryan's class.

"I knew we should have taken a cab," he muttered as he tapped his foot and waited for their subway stop to appear.

"Just breathe, sad-Chad. All will be well," Katie opined.

"All will not be well. I'll be late and Ryan'll be pissed." His voice might have been a bit loud because several of the other passengers looked up from their blackberrys and iPhones. He smiled sheepishly and they turned back to their business. Amazing, really. They were practically in each other's laps and yet each had created his own universe just by plugging in.

"Ryan doesn't get pissed; he knows the virtue of equilibrium."

"You didn't see him when Sharpay kicked him out of the summer talent show. That was pissed," Chad said, more lowly this time.

He'd piqued Katie's interest, he could tell. "Really?"

Chad nodded. "He plotted her downfall and everything."

"Hidden depths. No wonder he has such an intuitive grasp of the villain. I'll need to think of some proper punishment for keeping things from me." The subway slowed as it approached the right street and Chad made sure he was right in front of the doors and gripping a pole so that he didn't knock over anyone at the final jerk as they came to a full stop. Not that he had any experience with that or anything.

"C'mon, c'mon, yes!" The doors opened and Chad shot out of them, running full on, even up the subway stairs, dodging people who got in his way. He spared a brief thought for Katie, who he could hear distantly laughing behind him. She was nowhere close to keeping pace, but then he sighted his building and the thought withered and died.

Chad banged into the doors, ran up two flights of stairs, and paused right outside the door to the class. Maybe he wasn't so late; maybe he was just being paranoid.

The moment he walked in, he knew he was totally, truly late. And not paranoid at all. Everyone looked up at him. A couple people were already rolling around on the floor...for some reason.

"Sorry," he said, catching his breath.

Ryan raised an eyebrow. "You're late."

Chad hurried to his usual seat. "Sorry, sorry," he said to those he passed. Ryan was still watching him, like he was waiting for something. "I was—I—"

The door banged open again and—dear God—Katie entered, ends of her purple and red scarf flying behind her, coordinated with the purple and red streaks in her hair. "Greetings, fellow thespians!" she cried, waving her arms in a hello like everyone should know her, would know her, they were all bestest buds.

A room full of people looked at her askance. Ryan sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Everyone, this is Katie. She'll be very famous one day. Today she's just crazy."

"Eccentricity is another virtue. Equilibrium, eccentricity—I think e is our magic letter today."

Several twitters fluttered throughout the crowd. Ryan shot them an Evans look and they quieted. "To what do we owe the pleasure?" Ryan asked and turned back to her.

"Sizing up the competition. Any majors present?" A few people raised their hands. "Musical theater?" she continued.

"Please don't encourage her," he instructed the class. "And now for the real reason..." Ryan prompted her.

"To offer my sincerest apologies on making your student/pupil/advisee person late. And I wanted to say hi. Love the beret," she added.

Ryan sketched off a salute. "Goodbye, Katie," he said sternly as he turned back to the rest of the class.

"Ta!" she said grandly. She met Chad's eyes as she moved to leave. "Equilibrium, darling. In all things." That thought seemed to cheer her. She cheerfully bopped on out.

Which left Chad with a not-greatly-pleased Ryan. "We're doing a partner exercise. You can hand in your journals at the end," Ryan said.

Aw, crap. "Umm, about that..."

***

"So I know I already suck—" Chad started.

"At least we've got that cleared up."

"God, I'm sorry! I didn't know Katie was going to follow me—and—and—" Seeing Ryan's annoyed look again, he decided it was best not to go further down that road. "And I shouldn't have been late anyway. Again."

"This is also true." Not warming up at all. Damn.

"But I'd just like to say that we're friends and you like me."

Ryan sat up straight. "Uhh, okay..."

"Because I'm gonna have to bail on you again."

Something glinted in Ryan's eyes, but he blinked and it was gone again. "Oh. Everything all right?"

"Yeah, but coach just called an extra practice and I have to be there. I'm really sorry, man. I totally wanted to do the—cultural, ethical, meteorological excursion thingy with you guys."

"I can tell," Ryan said dryly.

"Next time, I swear."

Ryan shrugged. "No biggie. The residence hall activities are voluntary, anyway. You don't have to do anything."

"I know and I want to and I said I would and I suck. But now I gotta run before Coach kicks my ass for being late. Again."

"That seems to be going around. Go," Ryan said and he was half-smiling, so that was good.

"We good?" Chad asked, just to check.

"Go," Ryan said and shooed him out.

Chad went.

***

There was something pure about basketball. It was a purity of movement and form, just him and the ball—and all the other guys, but it was Division III, please—and at the end of it all, Chad shooting and scoring.

Things were simpler on the court. They made sense.

"That was a less-than-good practice. Next time I expect better," Coach said to him as they walked to the locker room. He wasn't yelling, but he was far from praising, either.

Chad nodded and pushed through the door. "Yes, sir." His muscles ached from several hours of drills and Chad found it oddly comforting.

"Just remember what I said, Danforth."

"There is no 'i' in team," Chad repeated dutifully. Coach was all over the basketball clichés. He used them as if the wisdom came directly from his own brain and Chad should whip out a pen and start transcribing.

Chad might be more worried if he didn't know he was one of the best players on the team. And really, how seriously could you take a guy who looked at you somberly and said 'you play for the name on the front of your jersey, not the name on the back of it?'

Not. Very.

Coach clapped him on the back. "Good man. Tomorrow: same time, same place."

Chad waved him away with a grin and grabbed his crap. "Yeah, yeah." He headed out of the locker room, just behind a couple of the guys exhaustedly giving each other crap.

"Hey, Danforth, 'there is no 'i' in team,'" Rivers called out as they spilled onto the street.

"You can spell? I'm so proud." Chad laid a hand over his heart, just to prove it. The other guys cracked up and continued on with the ribbing. Chad grinned and stopped to pull on his jacket since—

"Making friends?" Ryan's voice drawled from behind him.

Chad whirled and grinned at him. "Ryan! What are you doing here?" Stupid question, stupid. He'd obviously been waiting, propped against the building and all.

He glanced around him pointedly. "Practicing method acting."

"Become one with the brick building," Chad mocked. "Gotta say, Ry, you don't exactly blend in."

Ryan cocked his head and the sparkly newsboy hat thingy he wore winked at Chad. "Good thing I'm not playing a secret agent, then, huh?"

"Nah, then you'd say you were hiding in plain sight. What's up, man?"

"Hey, speaking of acting—"

"Smooth. Very smooth."

Ryan shot him a look but continued on. "I'm here to offer my tutoring services."

Tutoring? In...acting, which would mean Chad probably wasn't doing all that well, which, well, was hardly surprising. Chad sighed. "Look, man, if it's about the journals—"

"It's not about the journals," Ryan said firmly.

"Okay, then what?"

Ryan nodded his head in the general direction of their residence hall. "Walk with me."

"Oh, God, this isn't a 'we need to talk' talk, is it?" Chad asked. He dutifully followed Ryan out into the flow of traffic—steady even at this hour.

"Had a lot of those have you?"

Chad snorted. "Look, I'm sorry about the journals. Like I said—"

"It's not just the journals, Chad," Ryan said quietly. "It's—you're not...trying."

"You mean I suck."

"Well. That's one interpretation."

"You think I should drop?"

"No. I think you should try."

Chad let out a frustrated grunt. "I do! Seriously. I just—I'm not good."

"And thus, I offer my tutoring services. It'll be fine. You'll see." Ryan patted his arm in a way that was probably supposed to be reassuring.

It really wasn't.

***

"Ryan told me I'm, like, failing out of acting."

"Ryan's gonna fail you out of acting? Dude, that's awesome," Troy crowed at him.

Chad rolled his eyes and switched his cell to his other ear. "Yeah, thanks, man. Appreciate it."

"What? It's not like the first time you ever failed a class."

"Yeah, I dunno. It's just weird, I guess."

"Well, why are you failing?"

"I'm not good at it. You have to, I don't know, perform in front of loads of people."

"And that's different than basketball how?" Troy's tone told Chad that Troy thought he was being an idiot.

Stupid Troy not grasping the totally obvious.

"Because when it's basketball, that's me. With acting it's like you have to become another person and then...be that person." Chad sighed in annoyance. "It's hard to explain."

"Good thing 'cause you are not making sense, bro."

"I don't know what it is. I just get up in front of people and say the lines and it—doesn't work."

"'Cause you get twitchy in front of Ryan," Joey suddenly said, from where he was hunched over a Calculus book. Requirement to graduate, obviously.

"Huh?" Chad asked.

"What?" Troy asked back.

"No, not—hang on, Troy."

"Oh, fine. I'm just here," Troy muttered like the bitchy prima donna he was. Which Chad would tell him just as soon as he was done with more important things.

"Joey, what was that?" he asked again.

Joey dropped his pencil and turned in his seat. "Why you—you suck. You get, uhh, self-cons—nervous. Stiff."

Huh.

"Helloooo," Troy called into the phone.

"Yeah, I'm here. Look, can I call you back?"

"Uh-oh. Are you having a crisis? That's your crisis voice."

"No, it's not."

"Is, too, is, too. And now you're defensive about your crisis. Need me to hold your hand?"

"I hate you. And you're a freakin' prima donna, you know that?"

"Gabi mentioned it once or twice. Call me back after the crisis."

"I'm not having—" But the stillness on the end of the line told him Troy had already clicked off. "Ass," he muttered.

Joey kind of laughed awkwardly.

"Stiff, huh?" Chad asked him.

"When—uhh—Ryan watches you. Practice and stuff."

Chad tapped the phone against his bottom lip. Huh.

***

"You've got to be kidding me," Will called out. Chad looked up. And frowned. Nothing unusual except some random guy walking by.

...or not so much walking by as walking toward them. And not so unfamiliar. Chad vaguely recalled him from some of Ryan's pictures—tall, dark brown hair, square jaw, and he must play some kind of sports. Maybe something weird like polo or squash or—

But Will had a smile in his voice. "What are you—mmph!" His question was cut off when the guy grabbed Will's jacket and pulled him into an enthusiastic, biting kiss. Will made another little sound and gripped the guy's wrist and held on. Kissing back.

Chad blinked a couple times. Yep, still kissing.

He turned to look at Ryan—

Ryan, who watched them with some kind of unreadable expression. He looked over at Chad and seemed startled to find Chad already looking. Then he rolled his eyes.

"Hey, can't you two afford a room?" Ryan called. Then threw his pen at them.

Will wasn't nearly done with the kissing, not by the way he followed down the other guy's jaw when he pulled back and that was—something.

"See what he did there? He was mocking our combined net worth," he said to Will. Then to Ryan: "It was very funny."

"Better than telling the two drama queens to get a room. Despite how true it is," Ryan shot back. "Good to see you, Walker."

"Oh, you're Walker," Chad said...and then immediately hated himself for it.

Walker grinned a crooked, friendly kind of grin. "Guilty as charged. Chad, right? Good to meet you." He reached over and shook Chad's hand—firm, strong, capable—and then pulled Ryan into a friendlier hug. Back-slapping and all.

Will still appeared to have hold of his belt, though.

"I should go to Argentina for a semester more often," Walker quipped, still lightly holding onto Ryan's shoulders. Then he made a grab for Ryan's ass.

Ryan shoved him away, but he was smiling. "What are you doing here? I figured on at least a few more weeks of peace and quiet."

"I got bored."

"No, seriously," Will prompted.

Walker settled back against him and gave him a slow smile. "Would it be cheesy to say I got homesick?"

"Yes," Ryan said as he sat back down.

"Fine, fine. I couldn't take it anymore. Argentina's the Paris of South America, did you know? Oh, also? They still say there were no native peoples they offed or moved in the colonial days. And they eat all their meat bloody. No, not red. Bloody. You have a pool of blood left at the end of the meal. I'm never eating raw food again," he declared. Will's grin had gotten bigger the longer he talked.

"You missed me," Will said fondly.

"I finished classes early. They have a weird schedule," Walker sniffed.

Will tugged at his belt, pulled him closer. "You missed me a lot."

"Live in your fantasy world, but don't expect me to participate. I don't perpetuate delusions." He hmphed and crossed his arms, but Will had already gotten an arm around his waist. Walker half-smiled and Will smiled back and it was too—

Chad glanced at Ryan again, who was also smiling at the two of them in a kind of half-amused, half-nostalgic way.

"Oh, my God, Walker!" Katie squealed from afar. Then she ran over and jumped on both he and Will and kissed Walker like way more than a friend. And then it was a tangle of arms and legs and Katie giggling.

"Oh, my gosh, let's go have sex," Katie said. Chad's breath stuck in his throat, and no, that was not said to him.

It was directed at Will and Walker...who didn't protest at all when Katie tugged on their hands and started leading them away.

"Umm, see you guys later," Will called back to Chad and Ryan, left forlornly at their table.

"Guess we're the odd ones out," Chad muttered.

"I'm sure they'd love to have you join," Ryan said.

Chad blinked and looked over at him. His smile was off. "I can't tell whether you're kidding or not," Chad said.

Ryan just smirked at him.

***

Ryan's door was open so Chad ducked his head in and grinned at the boy bopping along to some kind of musical.

Chad knocked on the doorframe. "Hey, pizza tonight?"

Ryan's head snapped up and like that he was Mr. Serious. What the hell? "Oh, hi, Chad. Actually I can't make it tonight. Raincheck?"

"Yeah, sure," Chad said, uneasy. He lingered in the doorway and tried to figure out how to ask 'what the hell is wrong with you' without, like, offending him or anything.

"Did you need something else?" Ryan asked.

And—ouch. "No. It's cool. Thanks." He smacked his palm on the doorframe in some kind of goodbye and wandered off.

Chad shook his head as he walked away. That was—bizarre. They'd made plans. They had standing plans. And Ryan never skipped out on those, not without a good reason.

***

And so it went for the rest of the week. Ryan was the most pleasant, bland, inaccessibly accessible RA ever. He had papers to grade, rehearsals to plan, private tutoring to give. And apparently no time for Chad.

None of the others knew what the hell was going on, either. Not that he could really get ahold of Will or Walker since he was pretty sure they were spending most of their time in bed. But Katie had blown a raspberry at him when he'd asked her—which he took to mean she didn't know, either, so he was nowhere.

And now Ryan had even canceled their usual Thursday New York-acclimation night—still called as much even though Chad was pretty well acclimated—which was just an excuse for Ryan to take him to some awesome new place to eat. They'd gone to Artisanal last week, some renowned cheese place or something, but all Chad knew was that they included cheese in every single freakin' thing and there weren't words to describe the awesomeness. Or the way Ryan looked trying to get the fondue cheese to stop stretching out and just let him eat the damn tri-tip already.

The food in New York was just ridiculous. There were practically more restaurants than people and they were all brain-meltingly good. Hell, even the cart on the street was, like, freakin' gourmet food. And they were for such random things. Ryan had said there were at least three places that just served dessert. Chad had wanted to try them all—he missed good brownies, dammit—and now Ryan was bailing on him.

Thursdays were theirs. It was he and Ryan, hanging out. Always. Plus, canceling with a text message was not cool.

Which Chad was gonna tell Ryan, like, now. Because he should know how not cool it was and also, why the hell was he blowing Chad off?

And perfect. Ryan's door had the deadbolt out so it couldn't close all the way, which meant Ryan was available but probably alone because most people didn't look closely enough to see that the door wasn't actually shut. So Chad could tell him everything he was thinking without Alan-the-annoying-freshman playing the peanut gallery.

He pushed into Ryan's room...and stopped cold.

Because Ryan had his back to the door and that was definitely another guy kneeling in front of him. Kneeling and—

"Tim," Ryan hissed, but not hissed in a good, give-me-more kind of way. Hissed in a what-are-you-doing kind of way.

So Chad went with his gut, grabbed the back of Ryan's shirt, and pulled so he fell back against Chad's chest, where Chad kept him with the hand anchored in his shirt.

"What the fuck?" Tim asked, standing quickly, hand wiping at his mouth.

"Get out," Chad growled.

Ryan breathed in once, then started shifting, readjusting clothes, but not trying to get away. Chad refused to look down and anyway, he and Tim were a little busy glaring at each other at the moment.

"Fuck you. In case you hadn't noticed, we were a little busy."

Chad would probably be pretty pissed if some random guy came in and cockblocked him...but Chad would never be such a dick to be screwing with someone when they obviously had something going on, so it so didn't count.

"Yeah and now you're not. So get out." Chad nodded at the door.

"Who are you? You've got to be—Ryan—"

"Get out," Ryan said, low. Tim didn't move. It only belatedly occurred to Chad that Ryan might mean Chad should...

"Now, Tim," Ryan clarified.

Oh, good. Chad's fingers flexed in Ryan's shirt. Ryan kind of started.

Tim threw Chad a poisonous glance, but straightened and brushed himself off.

Chad simply raised an eyebrow.

"Fine. I'll call you later," he said as he walked around them.

Chad let go. "Don't bother," he called after Tim. When he turned back, Ryan was already halfway to the bathroom. Chad supposed that yeah...

Ryan slammed the bathroom door just as Chad shut the outer door. Then Chad flipped on whatever horrible musical had been playing last and kind of flopped onto Ryan's bed to wait. 'Cause if Ryan thought that Chad was about to leave he had another thing coming.

Chad was subjected to the musical for, like, ever by the time Ryan finally opened the bathroom door. And stood there. With his arms crossed. Watching Chad uncertainly.

"What's wrong with you?" Chad asked. Ryan blinked, but didn't say anything.

So this could be going better.

He leaned up on his elbows and started right in: "You've bailed on me the whole week. I was gonna tell you how not cool it is. And then I find you with your ex—who you say is such a jackass—and so now I wanna know what's wrong with you."

"Nothing."

Chad grunted and sat up straight. "Ryan—"

"Nothing is wrong. Moment of weakness. He caught me at a bad time."

"What was so bad?"

Ryan rubbed the bridge of his nose. "This has been the longest week," he muttered.

Chad frowned, but kept silent.

"I'm trying to figure out how to thank you for, you know." Ryan's illustrative hand-wave didn't really illustrate much...but Chad still got what he was talking about.

"Being a royal cockblock?" Chad guessed.

A hint of a smile touched at Ryan's lips, but it was gone just as quickly. He wouldn't look Chad in the eye. "Yeah. But I actually have a lot of work to get done, so..."

A lot of work—oh. Ryan was kicking him out?

"Oh. But...you sure?" Chad was completely confused. Completely. This was so not his area.

"Yeah. Thanks, though."

"Oh...kay." He scooted off Ryan's bed and stood. Then walked to the door when Ryan didn't move. "See you later."

Ryan didn't say anything as he left, either.

Totally, utterly confused. So Chad decided to do what he always did when that happened.

***

"You broke up Ryan and his ex in the middle of a blowjob?" Taylor asked incredulously.

"Taylor!" Chad hissed. Then he looked around to make sure—and yeah, he was paranoid. No one could hear her on this end. But still.

"What? Am I wrong?"

"No, just—do you have to say it like that?"

Her voice was dry and amused, like they both knew he was being an idiot and he just needed to catch up: "Does saying it any other way make it better?"

Chad sighed. "Why do I put myself through this?"

"Might I remind you that you called me?"

"I know, I know. But...you're good with this stuff." Chad waved a hand—as if she could see him...but it was Taylor. She could sense these things.

Taylor scoffed. "What? Normal human relationships? Yeah, unlike some people, I make an effort."

"Oh, my gosh, can we not talk about how much I suck right now?" Chad asked, exasperated. Because, yeah, they'd had that talk. Quite a lot during their relationship.

"Sure. You were telling me how Ryan was acting weird and you pulled his ex off of him in the midst of a blowjob. Gosh, I can't imagine why Ryan was acting weird about that."

"He wasn't acting weird about that part," Chad said, now kind of wanting to kill Taylor. Also not uncommon during their brief relationship.

"I'm listening."

"It's like—look, you know how cool it was that he ended up being my TA and RA and everything."

"You mentioned it a few times," she said, dry as could be.

Chad ignored it and moved along. "Right. So we got to be friends and hung out all the time and I, like, made friends with all his friends and we're all cool."

"Okay..." Like she wasn't seeing the problem.

"But for the last week or so he's been totally bailing on me. He's too busy to do anything, he doesn't have time for our Thursday dinners—which he texted me, didn't even call—and he's just been totally not cool about it all. The blowjob thing was the nicest he's been to me in a week and I was interrupting sex and stuff. What's up with that?"

Taylor was quiet for a couple long moments. Then Chad heard a suspicious sound. A suspicious sound that turned into the very familiar sound of Taylor snickering at him.

"Oh, great. I get laughed at. Thank you so much," Chad muttered, now beyond exasperated and moving quickly toward pissed.

She must have heard it because she quieted. "Sorry, sorry. I didn't mean it like that. But do you realize how you sound? 'He canceled on me with a text message! Didn't even call!' You're acting like a girl whose crush has spurned her advances."

"Laughing at me and questioning my manhood. Aren't you supposed to stop digging once you're in a hole?"

But Taylor went quiet again, this time that thoughtful silence that reminded him of lazy summer days shooting hoops with Troy—no pressure, just the two of them, asphalt, and the summer breeze. Perfection. He closed his eyes and let it wash over him, that feeling she still inspired in him even after the break-up.

"When did you say Ryan started acting weird?" Taylor suddenly asked.

Chad opened his eyes and frowned at the ceiling. "Uhh, about a week ago. We were all getting together at some tables. But Walker just got back from Argentina and he came and all of the sudden he and Will and Katie were, like, going at it."

"In public?" Taylor sounded vaguely scandalized.

"They started making out in front of us. These people have no sense of private activities, Tay, I'm telling you. Then Katie pulled them away so they could all go have totally hot sex together."

"And the part with Ryan is..."

"He said something weird. It was something about how I could go join them if I wanted. No, wait, how they'd love for me to join them."

Taylor made a noncommittal hmming noise.

"But—even before that there's been stuff that's just weird. Like one day I was late to his class because I was at tea with Katie and it ran long and he got really stuffy and pissy after that. And he got annoyed with Katie when she told Sharpay that he and I slept together."

"You slept with Ryan?" Taylor gasped.

Chad sighed. "No! I crashed at his place and Katie totally went to the bad place with it because that's what she does and then she told Sharpay and she and Ryan, like, share a brain so—"

Taylor interrupted: "Have you noticed, Chad, how a lot of this revolves around Katie?"

"Not...really." Silence from Taylor. "She's one of our friends."

"Yeah, but Ryan starts acting weird when you're out with her, gets annoyed with her for spreading rumors, and he made that comment about you joining them when Katie was making out with the other guys, right?"

"I guess."

A careful pause. "Do you, you know, like her?"

"Katie? No! I mean—" Where to go with this? He didn't really tell Taylor that stuff—talk about awkward—but it's not like there was much to talk about anyway. Hook-ups at his community college with random girls he never saw again didn't count anyway. "I mean she's totally hot and all, but she's also the most insane person ever. And she's slept with all the others and, I dunno, that just seems like it'd be weird."

"Wait, wait. Katie slept with Ryan?"

"Umm, I probably shouldn't have told you that, so you can't tell anyone," Chad said in a rush.

"On my honor," she said immediately. "I thought Ryan was gay."

Chad nodded. "He is."

"So, then..."

"Will and Walker are pretty gay, too, but she seems to be the exception. Which isn't the point because Ryan slept with her a long time ago—like back in high school, you know, the first time."

"Ryan lost his virginity to a girl?" Wow, he'd actually managed to shock Taylor, the girl who knew everything. That was kind of awesome.

Except she only got it half-right. "Well, Will was there, too, so..."

Taylor sucked in a breath.

"Yeah, do you see what I'm dealing with? And can we—stop talking about who Ryan lost it to, please? Which you know nothing about, by the way."

"I can't imagine what you're talking about," she agreed.

"Thank you," he let out with a breath.

"You know, if I thought it was about you and Katie, maybe Ryan does, too," Taylor offered in her throwing-out-ideas voice.

Okay, what? "No idea what you're talking about."

"Go with me on this one. You were late because you were out with Katie, Katie would love you to join their little bacchanalia, Katie talking about your sex life. Has Ryan been distant with Katie, too?"

"She didn't say anything about it. But I mentioned how she's crazy, right? She might not have noticed."

"And now Ryan's distancing himself from you," Taylor mused. Chad just let her work her magic. "Giving you space to be with Katie? No, he got annoyed with her. Giving himself space from you? And then he falls into the ex's arms..."

Chad made an annoyed sound. "More like his mouth."

Taylor hadn't even heard him. "Distance from you, consoling himself with someone else...Chad? Is there any possibility that Ryan likes you?"

"Huh?"

"Think about it. You get close to Katie and he doesn't like it. You have no idea so you wander around with her as you always do and it simply reinforces his belief that you like her. He pulls away from you to protect himself. His ex catches him at a bad time, when he's feeling sorry for himself because you like someone else. Like an affirmation. If you don't like him, well, that's proof that at least someone does."

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Chad said bluntly.

He could hear her immediately bristle: "I'm simply extrapolating from what you told—"

"No, no. Not you, Taylor. I mean, if you're right and that's what Ryan's doing then that's just stupid."

"He probably doesn't think so; he thinks he's protecting himself, keeping himself from getting hurt. Classic self-preservation."

"But he doesn't need to protect himself from me," Chad insisted.

Taylor sighed like he wasn't getting something. But he was. "You remember the part where it means Ryan likes you, right? That's why he'd need to protect himself. Instead of Will and Walker making out he wants it to be the two of you." She said it bluntly, like she was about to shock him or something.

"Yeah, thanks, I got that part, Tay. I'm not an idiot."

"I know; I'm just saying that you—hang on. You didn't freak out." A comment, not a question, but she stayed quiet afterwards.

"Why would I?"

"Because you're a small-minded jock who thinks it's icky if another guy wants in your pants."

"Do I really?" Chad asked, his tone light, teasing.

"You...don't?" He knew she wasn't trying to insult him or anything and that knowledge was what kept him from getting pissed off about the whole thing.

"What's up with people underestimating me? You, Ryan, Ryan again now that I think about it." With his question about that picture of Tim. Like he was gonna run screaming down the hall when he learned Ryan once had a boyfriend.

"I...guess we should stop doing that," Taylor said eventually.

"Totally. Give a guy a little credit."

Taylor's wheels were turning, he could hear it.

"What are you thinking?" Chad asked her.

"That if you wanted Ryan back, then you wouldn't think it was icky at all," she said, like fitting together the last pieces of the puzzle and finally seeing the whole picture. She kind of chuckled. "Which would make too much sense."

Wanted Ryan back. The idea wasn't as foreign to him as he would have thought. There was...possibility there.

"I—wouldn't turn him down," he said slowly.

Taylor chuckled again. "You wouldn't kick him out of bed, you mean?"

"Tay!"

"Oh, shush. That's why I'm your best girl."

"You are my best girl," he agreed with a grin.

"Maybe if you weren't in complete gayboy love with Ryan we could have had a chance."

"Taylor!"

"I get to be in the wedding," she continued.

"I will hang up this phone," he said sternly. Because he would.

"Okay, okay. Just be careful, okay? He's already trying to keep himself from getting hurt. Don't go hurting him more."

"Yeah," Chad said, gruff.

"Good." Her voice turned to her tutor lecturing tone. "Now. Onto the important things. I hear you're failing out of a class."

Chad made an appalled sound. "Troy is gonna die. You should run over to MIT and tell Gabi to say her goodbyes 'cause I'm gonna kill him."

"It's not that close to Harvard. And it's cold out there. But there is this wonderful thing called e-mail—"

"Yeah, whatever. E-mail her to say her goodbyes. Freakin' nitpick. You guys live in the same city and you can't meet face-to-face."

"You're a couple train rides away and you haven't come up to visit us, face-to-face," she pointed out.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, mildly guilty because well, she was kinda right on with that one.

"But no avoiding the subject. An ex of mine failing? What would the neighbors think?" she asked, all full of feigned shock.

"Oh, my God, I can't even talk to you."

***

He'd gone ahead and done it. It was the only thing he could think of. Now he'd just have to accept the consequences of making a deal with the devil.

One of those consequences appeared to be getting lost in New York. He might want to pay a bit more attention when Ryan rattled off addresses from now on, but he thought he was headed toward the right street. Maybe.

Thankfully, New Yorkers seemed to have a thing about coming up and directing people who held a map and looked vaguely lost. It was a little weird when those random strangers started arguing with each other about the best way to get anywhere, like they had all the time in the world and this was of utmost importance. But, well, it got him where he was going, so he shrugged and remained grateful.

Getting in was easier than he thought it'd be, but he did hesitate before knocking, just slightly. Still, he sucked it up and rapped his knuckles against the hard wood and he didn't even feel like he was heading toward his execution anymore, so there was that.

"What is such a crisis that you have to bother me?" Sharpay snapped as soon as she opened the apartment door, totally hot in a little minidress thing that showed off way too much leg.

Right. This was worse than heading to your own execution, he just knew it.

Chad blinked and reminded himself to play nice. Ryan's sister, best friend, and confidant. She wasn't going anywhere.

"Ryan wants me," he said.

Sharpay sucked in a sharp breath. Then she sighed and her posture totally relaxed. She even kind of leaned against the open door. "I do know that. He has terrible taste in men." Her eyes flicked over him, including him in that judgment.

But. She had confirmed that Ryan liked him. A surprising rush of feeling swept through him at that, something bright, something that thrilled at the thought.

Sharpay rambled on in her the-world-revolves-around-me kinda way. "I told him that he was being stupid, even if you don't look ridiculous anymore, but Ryan never listens to me when it comes to guys. Which he should," she reiterated.

Chad shook his head at her and forged ahead: "I want him back."

That made her pause. She tilted her head and regarded him again. But he could still see the spark of warmth in her eyes, even if she tried to cover with a coolly raised eyebrow. "And I should care, why?"

"Because he's your brother and you want to see him happy."

She held the door open wider. "I suppose I should let you in." As if she wasn't already doing it, but Chad decided not to point that out. He skirted around her and into the hall.

She shut the door, then turned to look at him. "We need vodka," she decided.

"That is such a good plan," he breathed, somehow relieved.

A touch of a smile appeared and flitted away. She led him to the kitchen where she grabbed two shot glasses and some Grey Goose. She poured each of them one, clinked glasses with him, and downed the first in one go. He followed suit and before the burning had even subsided she was pouring them another.

"He's been so impossible for the last week or so," she said, unprompted.

"I know. He keeps bailing on me."

Sharpay sighed, like this was all too tiresome to be believed. "I suppose you should declare your intentions, since you're here and everything."

"Um, huh?"

Her glass made a sharp sound on the wood when she set it down too hard. "Yes, about that. If you're going to spend time with my brother—and therefore me—please erase those two words from your vocabulary."

Chad smirked. "Sure, I'll get right on that. Right after I cut my hair and take a vow of celibacy."

Her lips curled again and she didn't move to refill their glasses. "Intentions?" she asked again.

"Are you speaking English?" Chad shot back.

"The proper kind. It may be new to you." But she was still smiling. "What was your crisis, anyway?"

Chad twirled his empty glass on the counter. "Ryan won't talk to me. I need him to stop being so stubborn and just sit and listen. You know him best. I thought you'd have an idea."

"I can get him here...but not if you just want to jump him," she said hotly.

Chad rolled his eyes. "If I wanted to do that I could walk down the hall in my dorm," he said obviously.

"Oh, fine. I give you permission to court my brother," she said, airily waving a hand like a royal speaking her will.

"I...never asked for your permission?" Seriously, why were all women crazy?

Sharpay rolled her eyes. "Honestly."

Which meant...what?

She walked a half-circle around him in some kind of perusal, heels clicking precisely on the wooden floor. Then she stopped and planted a hand on her hip. "Were you planning on wearing that?" she asked his shoes.

Chad sighed.

***

True to her word, Sharpay texted something and then vacated the apartment. Chad poked through their bookshelf and he was really a bit tempted to dust off the classic Nintendo console to see a) if it actually worked and b) if the graphics were as crappy as they were rumored to be.

But before he could put deed to thought the apartment door banged open and the sound of shoes pounding on hardwood reached him, coupled with Ryan's voice

"Shar? What's the emergency? I got your—" Rounding the corner, Ryan spotted Chad and quickly pulled up to a stop. "Chad?"

"Hey, Ryan. Sorry about the desperate measures but, uhh, well. I was kinda desperate." Should he be admitting that? Damn, he might want to have, like, planned out the way this conversation should go.

Oh, well. He'd just have to wing it. Not like he was a stranger to that, after all.

"But Shar texted me that—"

"Yeah. I asked her to."

"But—okay, I'm confused."

Chad frowned. "I needed to see you and she said she could make it happen," he explained.

"No, not about that. I'm confused that you and Shar were in the same room, alone, and I didn't come home to a dead body." Ryan glanced off to Sharpay's room. "I'm not gonna find her corpse in the bathtub, right?"

Chad threw the closest thing at hand, which happened to be one of those classic Nintendo games, so he hoped they weren't hideously expensive or anything. Ryan easily sidestepped it and Chad raised his eyebrows, impressed. "Not bad, Evans."

"I told you I got some game." Ryan preened...and then completely ruined it by readjusting his hat.

"Shocking I never noticed before."

Ryan smiled, self-deprecating, then opened his arms and gestured around. "What's going on, Chad? You and Shar plotting is like the sign of the Apocalypse."

Chad sighed wandered over to flop onto the couch. Ryan was polite enough to take that as his cue and he flopped down at the other end.

"Look, I know you've been avoiding me—no don't talk," Chad said as soon as he saw Ryan open his mouth to offer a defense. "Just listen. I know you've been avoiding me and I think I know why—"

"I doubt that," Ryan muttered.

Oh, and that was just—

"I don't want to date or sleep with Katie," Chad said straight up. Ryan blinked, like he had never in his lifetime expected to hear that. Chad was forced to amend the statement, though: "Well, I kind of want to sleep with Katie, but she's hot so that's normal. But I wouldn't ever because she's crazy and I don't do that."

Ryan blinked a couple more times. The silence stretched. "Okay," Ryan said after a beat.

And now the hard part...

"I know that you want me," Chad said, making very sure to maintain eye contact.

Ryan's jaw clenched, like he had to force himself to keep whatever he wanted to say buttoned up.

"And I'm kind of pissed that you've been avoiding me and acting like an ass all because you like me," Chad said, letting a bit of heat creep into that.

Ryan jumped in then, just as fiery. "Oh, what should I have said? 'Hey, Chad, nice acting journals, here's your grade, oh, by the way, wanna fuck?'" Ryan asked.

Chad took a breath and let it out slowly. "I was gonna say, 'but I know that that would have been horribly awkward and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, so I get it. Even if it sucked that you were being an ass.'"

"...oh." Ryan kind of deflated—looking down and slumping back against the couch.

"But if you'd, you know, even floated the idea, I wouldn't have turned you down."

Ryan looked back up in shock. He opened his mouth, but didn't say anything.

Chad rushed to finish before he could interrupt: "But I don't want it to be like Katie with the guys." He waved a hand, hoping that got across how he didn't want to just...be fuck buddies or whatever.

"Me neither," Ryan said.

Chad blinked at him. Did Ryan just agree?

"I can talk now, right?" Ryan asked. Chad nodded. "Good. I don't want that—I mean, like with Katie—either."

"Okay," he said.

"Okay," Ryan said and nodded. And kept nodding.

Right. So. Now what?

But Ryan knew these things, thank God, because before Chad could ask—or even do anything—Ryan's hand shot out, grabbed Chad's shirt, and hauled him close.

And then Ryan was right there and Chad's breathing had gone all to hell, but that was okay because Ryan's had, too, and God, he smelled good. Chad's mind went back to jerking off in Ryan's shower to that exact smell—

"Do you have any idea how long I've wanted to rip this shirt off you?" Ryan asked.

Chad opened his mouth, but Ryan must not have wanted an answer because he covered Chad's mouth with his so instead of talking, there was Ryan's tongue sliding against his, making him groan.

And then it was all heat and Ryan pulling Chad further on top of him while trying to undo the buttons on his shirt and Chad really couldn't think anymore. The buttons weren't cooperating, so Ryan broke away to look at what he was doing.

Only that didn't work for Chad so he flicked off Ryan's hat, grinned at the affronted noise that got, and twined a hand in Ryan's hair so he could pull that mouth back to his.

Hands on his skin made Chad jump, breathing high and thready.

Ryan chuckled and bit at his chin, still working on buttons. "Ever since I held that tape measure up to you, I wanted to peel you right out of the clothes I was putting on you."

Chad shuddered when Ryan plucked at a nipple. He grabbed Ryan's thigh and shifted them some more, trying to get closer. Ryan slid down on the couch and Chad was over him and then something just clicked because he was cradled between Ryan's thighs and with the smallest shift over—

"Oh, God, yes," Ryan hissed. He bucked up against Chad and Chad swore that light sparked behind his eyes.

Chad groaned and moved again, getting the same ecstatic reaction from both of them. He scrabbled at Ryan's shirt, trying to push it up, pull it off, something, anything to get at that skin. He only succeeded in baring his stomach, but that was fine, that was grand, because it was skin he could mouth and lick and nibble and Ryan was already making these sounds and—

And pushing him off the couch.

Chad landed half on the coffee table, lips bruised, hard, with his shirt hanging on by one button. "What?" he gasped.

Ryan pulled off his sweater and hauled Chad up into a heated kiss. "I'm not coming in my pants like some high school kid at Prom," he said into Chad's mouth—hot, desperate, and Chad was well on his way there, too. Only, the coming thing sounded pretty good to him, but Ryan was pushing him back and his mouth was on Chad's and Chad might have lost the will to protest...or do anything except mewl into Ryan's mouth.

They kissed a sloppy trail to Ryan's room, shucking shirts and shoes. Ryan kicked his door shut behind them and scrambled onto the bed after Chad.

"Wait, wait," Chad gasped. "Did you lock the door?" he asked when Ryan didn't wait at all, when he was halfway into Chad's pants.

"Screw it."

The zipper on his pants gave way and Chad groaned, helpless, at the feeling of Ryan's hand slipping into his boxers, gripping around him. But he couldn't—

"Door," he gasped into Ryan's mouth, the haze of lust making thought a little foggy.

Ryan sat up and swung a leg over Chad so he sat straddling his thighs. "We left a trail of clothes from the couch to the door," he said as he leaned over and found Chad's mouth again. "She'll figure it out," he finished against Chad's lips.

But Chad had no idea what he was going on about because that maddening hand was still stroking him, the grip just perfect, perfect like no girl ever understood, and Chad's brain had all liquefied and shot straight to his dick. Sorry, rational thought was good and gone.

Chad gasped when Ryan twisted on the next upstroke. He made a half-desperate sound and reached up to find something to grab onto. Pillows were useless, but the headboard didn't even budge when he gripped and tensed as Ryan sped up.

"So gorgeous," Ryan murmured. "You should see yourself."

"I see you." Eyes half-lidded, forearm working, lips shiny and red. Chad gripped the headboard tighter. Ryan looked like everything fantasy he never knew he wanted to have, playing out right in front of him.

"All stretched out for me," Ryan said, like he could hardly believe it. He leaned over and latched onto Chad's nipple and the heat shot straight through him.

Chad whined, then again when he felt Ryan's other hand playing with his balls.

"Too much," he rasped. Especially if Ryan didn't want this to end like a kid getting off at Prom.

"Tell me what you want," Ryan murmured, licking a path to Chad's other nipple. He bit that one and Chad shivered and bucked and would do pretty much anything to get more more more.

Was he seriously expecting Chad to be, like, coherent? Chad made a negative, pleading noise and hoped that got across how much coherence wasn't gonna happen.

"Ever had a guy suck you off?" Ryan tried. He leaned up and met Chad's eyes, hand gone slower on Chad's dick, the other one playing with his nipple.

And Chad could breathe, just barely, enough to comprehend the question and shake his head.

"Jerk you off?" Ryan asked, illustrating his point with a quick jerk up.

Again, Chad shook his head.

"Anything with a guy at all?"

"No," Chad gasped out. "Just you. Just—God—you." He thrust up, trying to get more, but Ryan's hand pressed his chest down and he made a noise like chiding.

Chad groaned, but subsided, letting the headboard take the brunt of his frustration as Ryan stroked him just hard enough to be mind-numbing, but not hard enough to get him off.

"Then I think we should make it something good," Ryan breathed out. Then he leaned over and they were kissing again. Ryan's tongue dipped lightning fast in and out of Chad's mouth, never really settling. Maddening.

Ryan finally slid his hands away from him and Chad could have sobbed at this exquisite torture, but Ryan had already started tugging at Chad's pants. "Off," he mumbled.

Chad winced as he pried his fingers from the headboard, then shook them out. He tried to be helpful, but feeling and coordination were both shot and his hands just ended up tangled with Ryan's.

Ryan growled, sat back, and started peeling Chad's clothes off on his own. Which was, like, brain-meltingly hot. Especially when Ryan was half-naked, his pants tented with obvious arousal.

Chad shifted and helped as much as he could and then Ryan was gone and Chad was left naked and panting on his bed. Which was so not what he had in mind.

"What—"

But then Ryan was back and it was skin on skin—everywhere, Ryan naked now, too—and it was too good, too much. Chad moaned and tried to thrust up and he'd kill for Ryan's hand again. Hell, anything.

"Patience," Ryan hissed into Chad's mouth.

Chad bit him. Hard.

"Is that what I can do with my patience?" Ryan rasped, only half-paying attention. Chad suddenly got interested in what Ryan was doing that would make him sound like that, his hand out of sight behind him and—

A hand again wrapped around his dick and Chad moaned as his eyes fluttered shut, none of it in his control. His body was molten—sex had never been like this—and trembling at anything Ryan did. He was at Ryan's mercy and wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Then Ryan took his hand away again and Chad found the voice to protest. "Ryan—" he gasped, pleaded, something.

"Hang on, hang on," Ryan muttered, not sounding like he was in great shape, either.

Then Ryan was slipping a condom on Chad, following with something slick, and Chad's mind blanked out at the implication, at the sight of Ryan shifting forward, levering himself up, at the feeling as he pushed himself back down, onto Chad's dick, hotter and tighter than anything he'd ever known.

Chad's hands settled on Ryan's hips instinctively and he could feel Ryan's muscles flex, the tiny movements of his body. Ryan circled his hips a couple times and Chad's brain promptly imploded.

He moaned and Ryan panted and paused, acclimating himself, then sank down a little more. It took forever and no time at all and then Ryan stilled because there was no further to go.

"Oh, my God," Chad said, clear on that thought at least. Which was something, what with Ryan like a vise around him, with the fire racing down his spine when Ryan wasn't even moving.

Ryan chuckled, a bit strained. "Ready for more?" he asked.

Chad's hands squeezed on his hips. "Gonna kill me."

"Mmm, but what a way to go," Ryan rasped. With that he pushed himself upwards and then sank back down, shocking a gasp out of Chad. Then he did it again and again, faster, harder, his own hand working over his dick in time to his thrusts.

Chad moaned and held on and tried not to come as Ryan rode him, whispering the dirtiest, filthiest things—all the things he wanted to do to Chad—interspersed with moans and grunts and pleads for more.

Chad's fingers flexed and on Ryan's next press down, he pushed up and Ryan sobbed out a broken "please."

Ryan's hand jerked himself off faster, his hips tilted, mouth letting out a steady stream of "yes" and "more" and Chad obliged, thrusting up into him and pulling Ryan's hips down and Ryan's cries got more frantic and Chad felt like a god.

Chad was gonna come any millisecond, but it was fine because Ryan was gone, practically abusing his dick and not even forming whole words anymore. And like that Ryan arched, threw his head back, and made a loud, helpless sound that had Chad coming before he even felt Ryan's body clamp around him.

Chad's whole body shook as the world went white and hot, pleasure searing into him like nothing else ever, beyond his comprehension or control, and all Chad could do was ride with it and hope he never had to come down.

And then he did, breathing harsh and loud to match Ryan's, both of them fucked-out and boneless.

"Oh, my God," Chad said again because it kinda needed to be reiterated.

Ryan grunted an agreement, sweaty and exhausted and Chad was still inside him, residual spasms around his dick just over the line of too much. He made a soft noise and Ryan seemed to understand because he slowly pushed himself up, Chad's dick sliding out by inches, until they were completely separated—bizarre, that—and Ryan could slump to Chad's side.

Tiredly Chad took care of the condom and Ryan disappeared for what felt like a mere instant, but then he was back and pushing down covers. Chad crawled in after him, curled himself around Ryan's body, and was promptly out.

***

Sometime later, Chad roused himself from the world's greatest catnap ever, breathed in, and wow, did it ever smell like sex in here. He and Ryan and tons and tons of sex.

That was kind of awesome.

"You have the most ridiculous grin on your face," Ryan murmured, close and warm and comfortable. His chest rubbed against Chad's arm every time he breathed in.

"Yeah?"

"Mmm-hmm. I believe the technical term is 'shit-eating,'" Ryan said.

"Damn right." He propped himself up on one arm, then leaned over and brushed a kiss across Ryan's mouth.

Ryan's eyes stayed closed for a while after Chad pulled back. When he opened them they were sparkling and tired and satisfied; Chad had never known he wanted to see that look there and now that he had it filled some warm place inside.

"You look pretty pleased, yourself," Chad said.

Ryan smiled and turned to face him. The sheet slid down a bit more and faint purplish coloring caught Chad's attention. He peered closer...and then realized what they were.

Chad brushed his fingers ever so lightly across the bruises already shadowing Ryan's hips. "Sorry," he murmured.

"Mmm, don't be." Chad wasn't convinced, but Ryan didn't seem concerned. He stretched like some kind of sleek cat, cracked his toes, and snuggled up to Chad some more. "This was basically my fantasy come to life, you know."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yup. You showing up at my place looking all lickable and then jumping me. Stuff fantasies are made of."

"Hey, hey. I think we need to be clear on just who jumped who here," Chad reminded.

"Yeah, that might've been me." Ryan didn't sound at all remorseful.

"That's what I thought. Thankfully Sharpay gave me permission...'cause I don't know what I would have done without that," Chad said.

Ryan stilled and raised his head. "You asked my sister for permission to jump me?"

"Not at all. But she thought I was—actually, she used the word 'courting'—and she, like, wanted me to declare my intentions or something."

"Did you?" he asked and propped his head up with his hand.

"Not that I know of? Your sister, man..."

"I know, I know: bride of Lucifer," Ryan said dutifully.

"No, that's what I'm saying. She's not evil; she's just completely nuts. I got the two mixed up...which is totally understandable and not my fault, of course."

Ryan was grinning again. "Of course."

"What?" Chad asked, suspicious of the grinning.

"You and Shar bonded," Ryan happily informed him.

"No, we didn't."

Ryan nodded at him. "That's bonding to Shar."

"Maybe in her psycho alternate universe where people wear pink fairy wings and have sex on tables."

Ryan rolled closer and started nibbling on his shoulder. "Mmm, you shouldn't count the table out. Could be fun," he breathed against Chad's skin.

Chad tilted his head and gave Ryan access to his neck. "Okay, maybe you have a point there." Ryan bit his ear, Chad yelped, and then promptly rolled them over. He'd think on that later; right now he had more pressing matters.

***

It took a couple days to figure out how to, like, leave Ryan's apartment, but Katie's text messages had gotten practically lucid with her pissed-offness, so Chad pulled himself together enough to meet her for breakfast at Nougatine. The fact that she had threatened to geld him if he bailed didn't have anything to do with the decision, though.

Her hair had streaks of red and orange now, that was his first thought when he spotted her sitting at a little table by the window. The morning light made everything look clean and fresh. Or maybe it was the bright, white walls. Something. He instantly liked the place.

Katie caught his eye, took a beat...and smirked. "Now can I say you had sex with Ryan?" she asked as he approached, then stood and pecked him on the cheek in greeting.

Chad chuckled and took his seat. "Not to Sharpay. Believe me; she knows."

Katie shook her head and motioned for their waiter to bring coffee. "It's about time. Silly boys."

"Wait. You knew that Ryan wanted me?"

"Duh."

"And you didn't tell me?" Chad asked, askance.

"I tried to. Some silly boy kept saying he didn't know what I was talking about."

"Because I didn't!"

"That's what happens when I try to tell you," she said simply. Okay this conversation was going in circles. And the waiter had arrived with coffee—thank God—so Chad paused and nodded to him in thanks.

Katie intently studied the menu, so Chad looked at his, too. Ooh, they had Eggs Benedict.

"Besides, I told Ryan to jump on you from the start, but did he listen to me? Noooo," she said. Then she tossed her menu aside like it had outlasted its usefulness to her.

"From the start?" Chad parroted.

"He just had to go through the whole drama of switching classes—"

"Wait, classes?"

"And Professor Holloway frowned at me! I had to act like I was spacey and flighty and I couldn't even use an artistic reason to switch. He should have just jumped on you," she said, exasperated.

And then it all kind of clicked.

"You were supposed to be my TA," he breathed.

Katie grinned, kinda maniacal, and tugged on an orange-streaked twirl of hair. "Wouldn't that have been fabulous?" She sighed. "The things I do for my boys."

Chad had kind of dropped the menu as the thoughts were rapidly processing in his brain and then their waiter appeared.

"I want waffles," Katie informed him. And then with grave seriousness—which Chad hadn't ever seen on her before—"And, very important, whipped cream. Lots and lots and lots. Umm, you should write it like that, too. The chef will understand."

The waiter scribbled dutifully and turned to Chad.

Chad was still kind of boggling.

"He wants Eggs Benedict. And muffins! We need muffins," she decided.

The waiter kind of ran away then, not that Chad blamed him or anything. Katie hummed and fixed herself a way-too-sweet cup of coffee. Then she threw a sugar packet at him to get his attention.

"I did want Eggs Benedict," Chad said idly, all he had for her.

Katie grinned and bounced a little in her seat. "I know! You know what? You really want to let me take pretty, pretty pictures of you," she declared. Then she launched into some kind of crack-addled description of her picture-taking project and Chad just kinda sat there dumbly.

Because dude.

***

Katie had something vague and faintly-illegal-sounding to do, so they parted outside of Trump Tower—International and Hotel as opposed to the World Tower...or any of the other fifty buildings he'd slapped his name on.

Something had been nagging Chad, so he pulled out his cell and found Will's number.

"What," grumbled a voice, groggy, and definitely not Will.

"Walker, lemme talk to Will."

"'s fuckin' early, man," Walker complained.

"It's eleven o'clock. Just roll over and hand him the phone," Chad said, annoyed.

"Your funeral," he muttered. Then there were shuffling sounds and low talking and something he probably didn't want to contemplate...

Thankfully, Will came on then. "Someone better be dead," he growled, all sex-drenched and raspy.

"Wakey, wakey," Chad said, channeling his internal Troy.

Will made a whiney, incoherent noise.

"Look, I need you to focus," Chad said more seriously.

"Stop trying to suck my dick. Chad needs me to focus," Will said loudly...and Chad assumed that was not to him.

Walker replied something not very complimentary and Will snorted, but Chad wasn't focusing on that right now.

"When we first met that night in the residence hall—" Chad continued.

"Yeah, Ryan called you merchandise. What about it?"

"You said something about Ryan making himself my RA. What'd you mean by that?"

Will chuckled. "You finally catch on and it only took a couple months," Will said, clearly amused.

"Dude," Chad threatened.

"Yeah, yeah. I know; you're a badass jock who can beat me up. I meant it as a joke. You know, about how Ryan figured out which hall you were in and pestered that RA to switch with him."

Chad made a frustrated noise. "Why doesn't anyone tell me this crap?"

"Not my fault you weren't paying attention," Will shot back, finally awake. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have...things to attend to."

"Yeah, yeah, I hope he chokes on it."

"Aww. I'm gonna tell him you said that, you big meanie."

"Be my guest. In fact—" But Will had already hung up on him. And he needed to go see Ryan now anyway.

***

Chad walked into the kitchen area, put his hands on his hips, and said: "You got yourself assigned to be my RA and TA."

Sharpay snorted into her coffee. "Told you so," she said to Ryan.

Ryan rolled his eyes. "Very helpful, Shar, thanks."

"The lesson we should learn from this? Sharpay is always right." She seemed pleased at that thought and smiled a little.

"Hello? Still standing here," Chad reminded.

"And that's my cue," Sharpay said. She stood, with her coffee and paper, and breezed over to her room. "Play nice, boys." Then her door shut and Chad waited for Ryan to acknowledge him.

And waited some more.

"Dude," Chad said.

"How was breakfast?" Ryan asked instead.

"Awesome. Why didn't you say anything?"

"I should take you to Jean-Georges sometime. It's even more amazing."

"Ryan," Chad said, serious, not letting himself get distracted by food—and, by the way, it was sneaky and wrong of Ryan to tease like that.

Ryan kind of half-shrugged. "I may have come across some information about your residence hall and classes and it's possible I suggested that I take over for those."

"And that day Zeke and I bumped into you at NYU?" Chad asked.

"Total coincidence." He grinned. "But a good one. Look, it wasn't something weird. I just wanted to see if maybe we could hang out. New York is huge; it's easy to get lost." He drummed his fingers on the kitchen table. Worried, probably.

Chad nodded. And nodded some more. "You could have just jumped me," he said finally.

Ryan laughed. "Oh, believe me, Shar suggested it. She said you'd never believe it was all pure happenstance. My way was more subtle, though."

"Too subtle, dude. I had to have Taylor figure it out." He inched closer to where Ryan sat, wanting to get hands on skin.

Ryan laughed, lilting and light. "I'll have to send her flowers." He took a breath and his smile dimmed just a shade. Something vulnerable glinted in his eyes. "You're okay with it, right? I mean, that I maneuvered myself into being your RA and TA and all that."

Chad smirked. "That's how hot I am: I turn normal people into obsessed stalkers."

"Hey! I was not—"

"Dude, you so were." Chad grinned some more and Ryan grinned slowly back and really, it was kind of awesome that Ryan wanted him that much, enough to rearrange his life. It made something warm in the pit of his stomach.

"Okay, maybe I got a little...focused," Ryan relented. He almost looked relieved.

Chad closed the distance between them and leaned into Ryan. He tilted his face up and their lips met, clung. Chad pulled back, just a breath, and smirked again. "And just so we're clear, I'm okay with any way you want to maneuver yourself," he murmured. He kissed Ryan again, even as Ryan smiled.

"Race you to the bedroom," Ryan muttered when they broke away.

Chad bounced on his toes. "Oh, it's on now. I expect you to bring it, drama boy."

Ryan hmmed and stood for a kiss, licking into Chad's mouth again. One arm went around Chad's shoulders, the other between them, Ryan's hand cupping him through his pants. "One thing you should know," Ryan panted into his mouth. Then he squeezed and Chad groaned and now he was a little breathless himself. "I cheat."

And Ryan was off, leaving Chad stunned still until it clicked in his head and he started after him. Yeah, he could handle that.

***

Fin.