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no fear

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Ryan Evans, Chad concluded, was completely and utterly ridiculous. There was no other explanation for the way he danced from base to base, and frankly, Chad would be more bothered by that if he hadn’t been too busy being in awe of how good Ryan was at baseball. Chad levelled the blond boy with a glare as he made it safely to third base, and instead of receiving a glare in return, he was rewarded with a little dance step.

Against his better judgement, Chad smiled.

Chad took sports rather seriously, and he’d never been one to be friendly with the competition, but seeing the way Ryan beamed in response to his smile, he decided maybe just this once he could afford to be a little nicer. That didn’t mean he’d go easy on Ryan though; after all Ryan, despite the almost-teasing manner in which he pranced around the diamond, was giving the game his best, and Chad was nothing if not competitive.

A trait that Ryan shared, if the way he tensed whenever Chad’s team pulled ahead was any indication. Chad smiled as Ryan let out a little noise of frustration as one of Chad’s teammate tapped one of Ryan’s runners out before they made it to base – maybe he and Ryan had more in common than he’d initially thought – and when Ryan caught him staring and rolled his eyes, Chad only smiled wider.

It was a close game, both sides evenly matched, but then Chad slid home just a fraction of a second before the ball landed in Ryan’s hand and that was it. They had won, and Chad’s teammates surrounded him to celebrate, but Chad’s attention remained the boy who was picking himself up from the ground. Even though his back was to Chad, he recognised the defeated slump of Ryan’s shoulders.

Ryan might have lost the game, but it didn’t diminish the fact that he’d been brilliant on the diamond, and Chad didn’t think that anyone who was that amazing should look so down afterwards, no matter the results.

“Hey Evans,” he called, and Ryan stopped. “I’m not saying I’ll dance in your show, but if I did, what would you have me do?”

When Ryan turned around with a smirk on his lips, Chad immediately regretted his words. He shouldn’t have encouraged Ryan, he decided, because something warm blossomed in his chest at the happy glint in Ryan’s eyes, and Chad would probably do a number of crazy things to keep Ryan happy. So really, encouraging Ryan was not a good move for Chad’s pride.

“Actually, don’t answer that,” Chad interrupted as Ryan opened his mouth to reply. Instead of looking affronted at being cut off, Ryan’s smirk only turned into a proper grin.

Chad sighed, more for show than anything, walking away from his teammates and towards Ryan, throwing an arm over his shoulders and directing both of them towards the staff locker rooms.

Ryan attempted to put his arm over Chad’s shoulders as well, although he wasn’t quite tall enough to pull it off. Laughing, Chad used his free hand to pull Ryan’s arm, readjusting it so that Ryan’s hand curled around his waist instead. Ryan turned to him, wide-eyed and a faint blush dusting his cheeks, and Chad only smiled.

“Never pinned you as the touchy type,” Ryan teased.

Chad reached up to pull of Ryan’s hat, ruffling his hair before switching it with his own baseball cap. Ryan started to protest, but Chad spoke over him. “I play a contact sport,” he pointed out, finally letting go of Ryan once they arrived at the locker room.

“Fair enough,” Ryan replied, although his attention had already moved on from teasing Chad. His nose wrinkled in disgust as he pulled the front of his shirt away from him, inspecting the dirt streaked on it.

“Take it off,” Chad commanded, and Ryan’s eyebrows raised halfway to his forehead before Chad could clarify. “I’ll wash it for you,” he continued, gesturing at the row of sinks next to the lockers.

“Oh,” came Ryan’s rather eloquent response. It almost made Chad smile. And then blinking out of his stupor, Ryan pulled the shirt over his head without undoing any of the buttons, knocking the baseball cap off his head.

“Klutz,” Chad murmured almost fondly, softly enough that only Ryan heard it, despite the rest of the team filing in. He bent down to pick the cap up, placing it back on Ryan’s head – taking care to slant it a little, the way he’d noticed Ryan liked to wear his hats – before taking Ryan’s dirty shirt.

As Chad set about to wash the shirt, gently rubbing soap into the stain using his fingertips, he heard the other boys complimenting Ryan on his playing. Sneaking a glance over his shoulder, he saw Ryan shyly accepting the praise, even complimenting them back on such specific things – such as, “That was a wicked curveball, Jim!” or “I noticed you didn’t miss any pitches at all.” – that he couldn’t have been anything but sincere.

Chad had always assumed that Ryan was like a milder version of his sister, but now he realised that he had been mistaken. Apart from a love for theatre and performing, Ryan and Sharpay really weren’t all that alike. While Sharpay needed to be the star of everything she did, Ryan seemed content to share the spotlight.

Then again, with a sister like Sharpay, Chad supposed it made sense that Ryan wasn’t as hungry for recognition. Which was a pity, because Chad thought Ryan deserved to shine on his own for once, and not be hidden behind his sister’s shadow. 

He rinsed the soap off, pleased to see that most of the dirt washed out along with the soap. He repeated the process again until the dirt stains were barely noticeable, only stopping when rewashing no longer made any difference. Carefully, he wrung the shirt out before moving over to the hand dryer and holding the shirt out under it.

“I can do that.” He heard Ryan’s voice from behind him all of a sudden, and then the shirt was taken from his hands, although it continued to be held underneath the hand dryer by Ryan. “Thanks for washing it.”

“No problem,” he returned, moving to lean against the wall by the hand dryer. “I didn’t manage to get the stain out completely though...”

Ryan laughed, shrugging. “I suppose that’s what I get for taking a dive with a white shirt on.”

Chad watched Ryan for a moment; standing there in his undershirt and Chad’s baseball cap drying his shirt using the hand dryer, Ryan seemed a far cry from the prim and proper Ryan Evans that Chad had gotten used to seeing in school.

Chad had never really had anything against the Evans twins, but that was only because they had always appeared larger than life, so untouchable and distant that it was hard to feel anything personal about them. But now, just the two of them alone in the locker room, Ryan felt very much real and present. Chad liked that. 

Taking off his baseball jersey, he draped it over Ryan’s shoulders, laughing softly when the blond boy jerked in surprise. “You’re a proper Wildcat now,” Chad said by way of explanation, gently taking Ryan’s still slightly damp white shirt and pulling it on, “You should be wearing our colours to the party.” 

“Party?” Ryan echoed somewhat confusedly, but slotted his arms through the sleeves of Chad’s jersey anyway.

“Yeah, there’s hotdogs, and I think Gabriella brought her mum’s brownies.” Chad stopped fumbling with the shirt to sigh happily, train of thought momentarily caught on brownies. “Those brownies are heaven, I tell you.”

“I believe you.” Ryan laughed, fingers looping around Chad’s wrist and giving him a meaningful tug towards the exit. “So we probably better hurry before they’re all gone.”

Chad took the cue, starting to walk, although he felt something akin to disappointment when Ryan dropped his arm. In order to remedy that, he threw an arm around Ryan’s shoulders, pulling him into a run towards the benches where everyone else had congregated.

They needn’t have worried about the brownies being gone it seemed, everyone was still busy eating their hotdogs and chatting. It didn’t seem like Gabriella had even passed the brownies around yet. So they each picked up a hot dog and settled onto the closest available bench.

“You call that a little game, by the way?” Chad grinned, nudging Ryan lightly with his shoulder as he picked up the ketchup bottle on the table, shaking it and squeezing the condiment onto his hotdog.

Ryan turned to him, a matching grin on his face. “Little League. World Series,” he said, and had the decency to blush. Chad shot him a look, and his grin turned just this side of sheepish.

He cleared his throat. “Newport, Rhode Island. Champions.”

Chad could feel his jaw drop in disbelief. A week ago, if someone had told him that Ryan not only played in the Little League, but his team had also won the championship, Chad would probably have laughed. Now, after seeing Ryan play, he could believe it.

Just then, Gabriella descended on them, placing a container of her mum’s brownies on the table. Taylor was with her, and Chad caught the mischievous look in her eye.

“Nice outfit, Chad,” she commented, and he merely stood up and did a little twirl for her, to the delight of all three of his companions.

“And you said you didn’t dance,” Ryan teased good-naturedly.

“Hey, baseball, dancing, same game, right?” Chad replied, quoting Ryan’s taunt from earlier. Ryan laughed at the familiar words.

Gabriella dropped her hands onto Ryan’s shoulders, leaning in to give him a quick hug from behind. “You played really well,” she complimented, and Ryan turned to face her, smiling easily.

Vaguely, Chad wondered when the two had gotten close, the ease of their exchange too natural for two people who as far as Chad had been aware of weren’t friends before today. You’re pretty chummy with him right now, a voice in Chad’s head reminded, and you didn’t even look twice at him yesterday. 

“He’s a Little League champion,” he announced, unwilling to let his thoughts run away from him. There were some things he wasn’t ready to confront yet, and his subconscious had no business trying to steer him in that direction.

“You should try out for the baseball team!” Gabriella suggested, all happiness and excitement. Ryan didn’t look all too enthused about the idea, and Chad had a feeling that if it’d been anyone other than Gabriella, they’d receive a firm ‘no’ in response.

But since it was Gabriella, Ryan only shrugged and smiled politely. “I’ll think about it,” he conceded.

“We could use someone with your skills on the team,” Chad added, although Ryan didn’t seem to have heard him. Upon closer inspection, Ryan had a half-eaten brownie in his hand. Those brownies had the ability to take coherent thought away, so Chad wasn’t mad about being ignored.

“These are good,” Ryan marvelled, quickly finishing the rest of the brownie and reaching for another one. Not willing to have all the brownies eaten in front of him, Chad picked one up as well, moaning in appreciation as he bit into it.

“Boys,” Taylor huffed, shaking her head. When Chad turned to grin at her, she returned it, her fondness evident despite her tone. “You got a crumb... Right there...”

Taylor reached towards his face to wipe off the crumbs. It wasn’t like it was something she hadn’t done before, but for the first time, Chad jerked back from her hand, reaching up to brush the crumbs off himself. Taylor blinked, taken aback by his reaction. Her eyes narrowed at him for a moment, but she laughed when he pulled a face at her.

Good. That meant she wouldn’t start asking questions that Chad didn’t know the answers to.

He felt someone steal the uneaten half of the brownie he was holding, but when he turned to admonish the culprit, all he saw was Ryan popping the entire thing in his mouth before giving Chad a close-mouthed grin. “I think I liked you better before we were friends,” he joked.

He had expected Ryan to return the quip, so when there was no reply, Chad felt panic spike in his chest. “Listen, I didn’t mean––”

“We’re friends?” Ryan interrupted, and Chad almost laughed at the absurdity of the question, until he got a good look at Ryan’s face. The boy was wide-eyed, looking both pleased and slightly wary, as if he couldn’t quite believe that Chad considered them friends.

It was endearing, but at the same time a little bit sad. The fact that Ryan found it hard to believe that people would want to be friends with him made Chad’s heart ache. They were already sitting really close, with Ryan’s shoulder brushing against Chad’s chest, but Chad leaned in closer anyway.

“Of course we’re friends,” he said, tilting his head slightly to knock their hats together. Except he probably should have thought that through, because now his face was really close to Ryan’s, and the way Ryan glanced at him from underneath those long, blond eyelashes of his made Chad’s breath catch.

“We’re all friends!” Gabriella added, reaching over Chad to tug Taylor’s arm and pull her into a group hug. Ryan laughed as his face was pressed against Chad’s hair, and the moment was lost.

Which was just as well, because Chad had a feeling if Gabriella had not interrupted when she did, he might have done something he’d regret.

//

They had decided to head over to Gabriella’s place when Lava Springs closed. Technically, since Ryan was a part of the group, they could have stayed in the country club, but apparently heading to the Montez residence was something of a tradition after games.

Ryan didn’t think he was invited, and was already starting to take Chad’s jersey off when a bewildered Chad asked him what he was doing. They were in desert country –– the days might be sweltering but the nights were chilly.

“You’re letting me wear your jersey home?” Ryan asked in surprise.

“Who said anything about going home? We’re headed to Gabi’s place,” Chad replied, pulling the jersey back over Ryan’s torso and doing up the buttons as well. “But after that, you can wear it home if you’d like.” 

Ryan was so stunned that when Gabriella looped an arm around his and led him away, he hadn’t resisted. Instead, he let her pull him all the way to the lobby without saying anything. Those who had cars would drive themselves to Gabriella’s, and Ryan offered to drive those who didn’t.

After collecting his keys from the valet, he tossed them to Chad, who looked at him in disbelief. “You know the way to her house,” he explained, which really wasn’t much of a reason, considering Gabriella herself was riding with them and could easily provide directions.

But Chad was too excited at the prospect of driving the sleek silver convertible to question Ryan’s motives, although Ryan did catch Gabriella watching him curiously. He didn’t acknowledge the look, merely opening the passenger side door and gesturing for Gabriella to climb in. Her face lit up, her previous curiosity forgotten as she got in. Ryan smiled.

They arrived last, because Chad insisted on driving slowly even though Ryan kept telling him that it was okay. When they entered the living room, everyone was chatting amongst themselves, looking very at home despite Gabriella’s absence.

“Took you long enough,” Taylor greeted them when she spotted them. “The boys already finished another batch of your mum’s brownies.” 

“I’m surprised we didn’t get pulled over with how slow we were going,” Ryan grinned, thanking Taylor when she handed him a brownie. He’d already had plenty earlier, but he felt he needed to make up for lost time, when he’d been too busy being Sharpay’s shadow to be Gabriella’s friend. That was a lot of brownies he’d missed out on. 

“Shut up,” Chad whined, then pouted when Taylor refused to pass him a brownie. Ryan made a show of begrudgingly handing over the rest of his brownie to Chad, who didn’t even think twice before popping it into his mouth. “You have a nice car and I didn’t want to be responsible for wrecking it.”

Taylor pulled a face as some crumbs sprayed from Chad’s mouth, muttering something about boys being gross before she turned back to resume her conversation with Martha. Chad shrugged the dismissal off, walking over to the boys when Zeke called him over. Zeke was gesturing for Ryan to join them as well, but Ryan declined with a smile, ducking into the kitchen to look for Gabriella who’d disappeared.

He did find Gabriella; she was leaning over the kitchen island chatting to a woman who could only be her mother. “You must be Mrs Montez,” Ryan said smoothly, when both women turned to him, “Unless Gabi has a sister she never mentioned.” 

Mrs Montez smiled at that, and Gabriella hopped walked around the island to grab Ryan’s hand, pulling him to where she’d been standing. “Mum, this is Ryan Evans,” she introduced, and Ryan was glad she didn’t mention anything about his parents owning the place where she worked.

“Your brownies are amazing,” he complimented, and from the way Mrs Montez chuckled, he guessed it was a compliment that she was used to hearing.

“Glad to know you like them. There’s always more where that came from,” she smiled warmly, reaching over to squeeze the hand that Ryan rested on the counter. “Feel free to come over whenever you’d like.”

“I’ll be over as often as Gabi wishes,” Ryan replied, bumping his shoulder with Gabriella’s. 

“Gabi! How do you set up the karaoke system?” The yell came from the living room, and Gabriella excused herself to go help the rest of their friends.

Ryan knew that he should probably join them, but he still felt slightly out of place. And to be honest he was rather overwhelmed. Even if Sharpay could be overbearing at times, at the end of the day, she was only one person, and Ryan wasn’t used to dealing with spending time around large groups of people outside of the theatre.

“They’re quite the rowdy bunch, aren’t they?” Mrs Montez’ soft voice broke his thoughts, and he suddenly remembered that he wasn’t alone.

Flushing lightly at his thoughts being so obvious, he nodded. “Yeah. It’s nice, but I’m not used to having so many friends.” He paused, and then sighed, deciding he might as well be honest. “Actually, I’m not used to having friends, period.”

Mrs Montez looked at him, the surprise clear on her features. “I thought a nice boy like you would have plenty of friends.”

Ryan shrugged. “My sister isn’t exactly the friendliest person, and people are either scared of her, or assume I’m like her.”

“Sharpay?” She asked, and then laughed when Ryan turned to her in shock. “Zeke’s nursing quite the crush isn’t he? She comes up in conversation occasionally.”

Ryan nodded, and then they fell into a companionable silence. Eventually, Chad poked his head into the kitchen, excitedly calling for Ryan to join them. “Please?” Chad gave his best pout when Ryan didn’t budge, “I need you out there. I love them, but some of them should never be allowed near a microphone.” 

As in on cue, the sound of someone singing horribly off-key could be heard. Ryan winced. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed quickly. When he turned to Mrs Montez, she simply smiled and waved him away.

Chad’s arm came up around Ryan’s shoulder as soon as he came close enough – he’d been doing that a lot all day, every chance he got, and Ryan tried not to think too much about it – and he all but dragged Ryan to the area in front of the couches. The horrible singing turned out to belong to Jason, and Chad winced at a particularly flat note as he reached out to grab the microphone from the boy.

“Hey!” Jason protested, but otherwise didn’t resist being pushed back towards his seat, although he did seem to sulk a little at the murmur of relief that passed through the crowd. But he brightened up as soon as Gabriella offered him a brownie, so Ryan didn’t feel too bad.

//

Despite his earlier reservations, Ryan had fun singing karaoke. He sung plenty of songs on his own, but also did a duet with pretty much everyone present at least once.

As it grew later, one by one everybody left, until it was just Ryan, Chad, and Gabriella left. They were sprawled over Gabriella’s couch, giggling as Chad shared horror stories about some of the Lava Springs members he had to wait on, with Ryan occasionally providing additional commentary.

“I should probably head home,” Chad announced eventually, although he made no move to extricate himself from the mess of limbs on the couch. Gabriella pouted.

“I’ll drive you,” Ryan offered, and Gabriella pouted harder. Ryan pouted back at her. “Don’t be like that. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Fine, fine,” she huffed. “Now get out of my sight.” There was no real heat in her words, and Chad reached over to flick her nose lightly, jumping up before she could retaliate.

“Quick, Ryan! Get me out of here before she gets her revenge!” Chad laughed, unceremoniously pulling Ryan off the couch as well.

Ryan flailed a little, stumbling before he caught his balance. “Sure, just as soon as we say bye to her mum.”

Chad levelled him with a look. “I always knew you were a mama’s boy, but I didn’t think that extended to other people’s mums as well.” For a second Ryan tensed, but then realised that Chad was only teasing and rolled his eyes.

“I bet it’s all part of his ploy to get more brownies,” Gabriella joined in on the teasing, standing up as well. “C’mon, she’s probably reading in the kitchen.”

Mrs Montez was exactly where Gabriella had said she’d be, and she was so pleased at Chad and Ryan for saying bye to her before they left that she packed separate containers with leftover brownies for them.

“Seems like my ploy worked,” Ryan leaned in to whisper into Chad’s ear and he laughed, both of them thanking Mrs Montez for the brownies.

Gabriella walked them to the door afterwards, and they both lingered long enough to give her a hug. They said their goodbyes one last time before finally heading to Ryan’s car, where Ryan handed the keys over to Chad again.

“You’re spoiling me here,” Chad complained, even though he was happy to take the keys and get into the driver’s seat. “How am I going to be happy with the crappy car I get with the money from my crappy summer job after driving this?”

“Is your job really that crappy?” Ryan asked, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. 

“I’m pretty sure there’s no place where being a waiter isn’t crappy,” Chad assured him softly. For some reason, it was important that Ryan didn’t think he was unhappy at Lava Springs. Even if lately he had been feeling unhappy. Ryan didn’t need to know that. “At least at Lava Springs I get to hang out with my friends.”

Ryan nodded, although he didn’t seem to be any more at ease, staring intently at his folded hands on his lap. “Hey,” Chad called gently, reaching out and placing a hand on Ryan’s thigh, startling him enough to get him to turn to Chad. “And from now on I get to hang out with you, don’t I?”

Chad smiled, wide and bright, until Ryan returned with a smile of his own and a nod. “Maybe Fulton will think you’re bossing me around and lay off me a little,” Chad remarked with a laugh, removing his hand from Ryan’s thigh and starting the car.

“Maybe I actually will boss you around,” Ryan shot back, causing Chad to laugh louder. 

The drive to Chad’s place was short, and even when they pulled up in front of his house, Chad remained seated. They sat in silence for a while before Ryan laughed, pushing Chad’s shoulder lightly. “Lunch tomorrow?” 

Chad shoved Ryan back, grinning. “My lunch break starts at noon –– I’ve only got an hour, so don’t be late!”

“I won’t. Maybe I’ll even be early and steal you from Fulton’s micromanaging ways,” Ryan joked as Chad got out of the car.

“Please do,” Chad said, standing awkwardly by the side of the car. Neither of them really knew how to say goodbye, or wanted to, not that they realised it. Eventually, Chad decided that they were being ridiculous, shaking his head as he turned to go.

“Chad?” Ryan called, and Chad turned around faster than he cared to admit. He watched an unidentifiable emotion pass over Ryan’s features, before he settled on a small smile. “Goodnight.” 

Chad had a feeling that wasn’t what he meant to say when he’d called for Chad’s attention, but he only smiled. “Goodnight,” he said in reply before finally heading in. 

That night, for the first time that summer, Chad went to bed excited to go to work the next day.

Chapter Text

Ryan made good of his promise of lunch the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, until lunch with Ryan became part of his routine. At one point, the rest of their classmates had jokingly complained about the blatant favouritism –– Chad being the only one who got to have uninterrupted lunch breaks outside of the kitchen.

Flustered and worried about losing his new friends, Ryan had invited the entire kitchen crew to lunch with him in the restaurant as guests instead of wait staff, until Chad pointed out that if they all had lunch at the same time then there would be no one working. Ryan had gone as far as to suggest closing the restaurant for lunch so that they could all eat together, but the rest of the Wildcats insisted that it was okay.

“We were only teasing, you know,” Taylor laughed. Chad caught the fond look in her eyes that she often had whenever Ryan was involved. “We’re glad to have Chad out of the kitchen, believe me. He’s a nuisance.”

“Hey!” Chad sputtered indignantly.

“You’re always stealing my fries,” Taylor mock-glared at him, and Chad could not say anything in defence to that. It was true, after all. He was a growing boy, and the girls almost never finished their food.

They’d mostly been left alone since then, except for the occasional day where they’d eat in the restaurant, and then suddenly his food became a free-for-all for their classmates who had the bad luck to be working the lunch shift. Chad often used this as an excuse to eat elsewhere, and while that was indeed part of the reason why he didn’t like eating in the restaurant, mostly he just wanted to have Ryan for himself.

Whenever they ate at the restaurant, if it wasn’t their peers stopping by to chat between waiting tables, it was other patrons who would insist that Ryan and his ‘friend’ – Chad could almost hear the quotation marks in their tone, as if they didn’t quite believe that Ryan would willingly be friends with the staff – join them for lunch. They were usually friends of Ryan’s parents, so he’d be hard pressed to turn them down.

Whenever that happened, Chad would always excuse himself as soon as he was done eating and spend the rest of his lunch break in the kitchen. Sometimes, selfishly, Chad got mad at Ryan for not saying no –– couldn’t he see how uncomfortable Chad was? But Ryan’s gaze always followed him whenever he left early, sad and apologetic, and Chad would have to be heartless to stay mad.

When the weather was nice, Ryan would drop by the kitchen early to prepare a lunch basket, and they’d have lunch outdoors on a patch of grass close to the golf course, but far enough from the rest of the country club to give them some privacy. Not that they ever did anything that required privacy, of course. It was just nice to be away from the crowd.

And when they didn’t feel like being outdoors, they’d have lunch in one of the country club’s smaller dance studios, which had been converted to Ryan’s personal studio, of course. Despite Chad being adamant about not dancing, when it was just him and Ryan, it was easy to let go and let Ryan teach him a little choreography. To his credit, Ryan never tried to rub in the fact that he’d gotten Chad to dance.

He’d never admit it, but dancing could be rather fun. It wasn’t quite the same as shooting hoops with Troy, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself all the same. Or perhaps he just enjoyed the way Ryan lit up whenever he danced. Chad considered himself a triple threat, what with his involvement in the basketball, baseball, and track teams, but he’d realised that Ryan was a triple threat in his own right too. Except instead of sports, it was acting, singing, and dancing.

And it was clear that dancing was to Ryan as basketball was to Chad. Sure, Ryan could deliver the whole package deal, but he seemed to take extra pride in his dancing, and it really showed. Chad didn’t think participating in the talent show would suddenly cause him to take interest in dance, but at the very least he had learned to appreciate it –– especially when Ryan was the one dancing.

//

Ryan had just dropped by the kitchen to let Chad know that he couldn’t do lunch today – something about a promise to help Gabriella with the little nightmares in the pool – and that he was sorry. Chad was bummed, naturally, but it wasn’t like he had any right to Ryan’s company. Not over Gabriella at least, so he just said okay and asked Ryan to say hi to Gabriella for him.

So for the first time in almost three weeks, Chad found himself sitting in the corner of the kitchen, picking at his burger and fries.

“Wow, haven’t seen you around here during lunchtime for ages,” Taylor commented as she pulled a stool over to sit next to him.

Something dawned on Chad then, and he turned to Taylor with a look of horror on his face. “I’m just like Troy, aren’t I? I’ve been flaking on you guys to hang out with an Evans.”

Taylor’s first reaction was to laugh, but the smile slid off her face as soon as she realised that Chad was serious. “Chad.” Her tone was incredulous, staring at him as if he was being ridiculous. “Troy hasn’t just been blowing us off for Sharpay, he’s been acting like we don’t even exist. You haven’t been acting like Troy at all.”

“But...” Chad frowned. “Like you just said, I’m never here during lunch.”

Taylor rolled her eyes, and Chad would probably be offended if he wasn’t still worried about turning into his douche of a best friend. “Yeah, but you’re there at dance practice, or whenever we hang out after work,” she explained slowly, “We don’t mind that you and Ryan like to have lunch alone. Really.”

Chad wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn that there was a teasing lilt to Taylor’s voice at the last bit. He must be mistaken though, because he couldn’t figure out why Taylor would possibly be teasing him about having lunch with Ryan.

“Well, as long as you’re sure...” He trailed off, watching his kind-of girlfriend mildly suspiciously. She feigned innocence, swiping a fry off his plate, and that was that.

//

“Thanks for the help, Ryan.” They had just finished teaching a beginners’ swim class for kids, and after a quick look to make sure no one was in danger of drowning, Gabriella allowed herself a quick respite, sitting comfortably in the shallow end with her back to the wall.

Ryan slid through the shallow water, coming to sit next to Gabriella and patting his shoulder. With a laugh, she complied, leaning her head against him.

“No problem,” Ryan spoke kindly, “Kids can be a real handful.”

“I’m usually good at kids!” There was a slight whine to her voice, and Ryan found it oddly endearing. Whining was not a good look on most people, but Gabriella somehow made it sweet.

He leaned in, lowering his voice. “You didn’t hear it from me, but–– rich kids are a whole different species,” he whispered conspiratorially.

Although Gabriella elbowed him in the ribs lightly for that, she also seemed to relax, stretching out comfortably in the water, a little bit of tension leaving her body. It wasn’t much, and Ryan’s ribs would probably bruise nicely – she had sharp elbows – but he counted it as a win.

“No but really, thank you.” Gabriella sat up straight, angling her body towards him so that she could look him in the eye. The intensity of her gaze made him feel a little uncomfortable, but it seemed rude to look away, so he stared right back. “I know how much you enjoy lunch with Chad.”

Ryan felt the heat rise in his cheeks, and he knew there was no point denying it when his face was so kindly giving everything away. “It’s just lunch,” he mumbled.

“Sure,” Gabriella smirked, and Ryan was momentarily taken aback because he hadn’t realised that a sweet girl like her was even capable of an expression like that.

Somehow, knowing that she wasn’t angry or disgusted by his penchant for male company made Ryan feel comfortable enough to openly sulk at the teasing. He slid down the side of the wall until his chin brushed against the surface of the water, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Should you really be teasing me about spending time with your best friend’s boyfriend?” He wasn’t bitter about Taylor dating Chad, not at all. He liked Taylor!

Okay, so maybe he was a little bit bitter, but it didn’t matter.

Gabriella laughed, and Ryan pouted harder. It was unfair that her laughter could sound so sweet even though it was at his expense. “They’re not really...” Gabriella trailed off, thinking.

Except she never got to finish that sentence, because Troy appeared suddenly behind them, and Gabriella’s train of thought was interrupted. He gave Ryan a mildly suspicious look before turning to his girlfriend, and Ryan took that as his cue to leave.

//

Ryan liked the quiet of the country club after the facilities closed for the day. Despite it being summer, the nights were cool, and Ryan enjoyed taking strolls without the risk of running into people he knew and having to stop and chat.

His mind kept going back to the conversation he’d had with Gabriella earlier that day, trying to complete the sentence that she never finished in his head. They’re not really... Ryan sighed, rubbing a hand over his face.

He had no idea what she could possibly have been trying to say. Or, well, he had an idea, but it seemed too much like wishful thinking on his part for him to take it seriously. He refused to get his hopes up –– things were fine as they were, he enjoyed being friends with Chad. He wasn’t going to mess that up by wanting more than Chad could give.

As Gabriella’s voice looped in his head, he found his feet automatically take him to the pool, where he found the girl in question. She was sitting on one of the chaise lounges, with her knees drawn to her chest. She looked so small and so sad that Ryan immediately felt a surge of protectiveness overcome him.

“Hey,” he called softly as he approached.

It seemed he wasn’t the only one lost in thoughts that night, as she startled at the sound of his voice. She smiled as she realised who it was who’d interrupted her reverie, but Ryan noticed the flicker of disappointment anyway.

“Not the person you expected?” He sat down, and Gabriella shifted so that they were sitting side-by-side, and rested her head on his shoulder just like she had in the pool that afternoon.

“No,” she admitted quietly, “But you’re a welcome surprise.”

“Troy.” It was a statement, not a question, but Gabriella nodded anyway.

Ryan loved his sister, but he was no stranger to her scheming ways. Often, he even benefitted from it. But now, not only had he been discarded in favour of her newest conquest, she was hurting people that Ryan had grown to care for. He still loved her, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t angry at her for what she was doing.

“I know he’s really busy these days, with the guys from U of A and everything.” Gabriella’s voice wavered, and Ryan wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. “I don’t mind that. I just... I hate that he keeps making promises and breaking them.”

“Gabi...” He didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly he felt himself being yanked away from her, coming face to face with none other than Troy Bolton himself.

“What are you doing?” Troy hissed, and Ryan took a step back from him on pure instinct before catching himself –– an Evans never backed down.

“Troy, don’t be like that.” Gabriella stood up too, moving between the two boys, even though they continued to glare at each other over her head. “He was just keeping me company.”

“Oh, he’s been keeping you company alright.” Troy gently nudged Gabriella out of the way, stepping closer to Ryan. “Every time I see you, you’re hanging out with him.”

Ryan couldn’t resist rolling his eyes at that. “Yeah and every time we see you, you’re hanging out with my sister.”

For a moment Troy had nothing to say to that, although Ryan could see his face flush with anger. “Your sister has been using the U of A scholarship as leverage to parade me around like some kind of trophy!”

“My sister is not the one promising to meet Gabriella after work and then not showing up; you are! You’re allowed to do whatever you think you need to do to secure your future, including sucking up to my sister and my parents, but you don’t get to treat Gabi like an afterthought and then have to gall to get angry when someone else picks up your slack!”

He should’ve seen it coming, really. Except he didn’t, and all of a sudden he was on the ground, his jaw smarting and tasting blood from where he’d bit the inside of his cheek. He heard screaming, and for a moment he was thirteen again, lying on the ground with Sharpay’s cries echoing in his ears.

He felt someone’s hands on him, and he flinched instinctively, expecting to be hit again. It was only when the blow didn’t come that he realised it was Gabriella who had her hands on his shoulders. He could see the tears shining in her eyes, and even though his face kind of felt like it was on fire, he felt like he owed it to her to show he was okay. He tried for a smile, but working his jaw hurt and it ended up something of a grimace instead.

Troy bent down too, his hands hovering over Ryan as if he wanted to help him up, but wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to. Truth be told, Ryan would have let him, but Gabriella slapped Troy’s hands away, and the look on Troy’s face was so heartbroken that if he hadn’t just punched Ryan in the face, Ryan would probably have felt bad for him.

“I think you’ve done enough damage, Troy.” Her words were clipped, forced out through clenched teeth. Ryan had never seen Gabriella get angry before, let alone this angry. This time he was the one who reached out to her, rubbing his hands over her arms.

“Hey, I’m okay.” It was true; his jaw still ached and he would have a nice bruise when he woke up in the morning, but he’d gotten through worse. He didn’t mention that though, because he got the feeling it would only freak the girl out more.

It was slightly ironic, that he was the one who just took a fist to the face, and yet he was also the one doing the comforting, but he didn’t mind. At least it took his mind off things, like Troy’s face after he’d realised what he had done –– there was horror and regret there, but also a little bit of satisfaction, and that scared Ryan.

So when Gabriella barrelled into him, crying softly into his chest, Ryan just wrapped his arms around her and held her.

//

Ryan didn’t really feel up for interacting with people, so he texted Chad in the morning to ask if it was okay if they had lunch in the dance studio. Chad agreed without asking, because he could be sweet like that. Or perhaps he just didn’t care about the location as much as he did the company. Whichever it was, the lack of questions suited Ryan just fine.

Come lunchtime, Ryan was already in the dance studio when Chad appeared at the doorway, basket filled with their lunches in hand.

“Hey,” Chad greeted, and despite everything that went down the day before, Chad’s smile was infectious.

“Hey back at you,” Ryan grinned, patting the spot on the floor in front of him. Chad didn’t need to be told twice, crossing the floor and taking a seat before placing the basket down between them. “I know we usually eat outside, but I didn’t feel like being around people today.”

Chad paused in the middle of pulling his sandwich out of the basket, narrowing his eyes at Ryan playfully. “What, do I not count as people now?”

Ryan pouted, reaching over to shove Chad’s shoulder lightly, gratified when the boy’s – admittedly shaky to begin with – guise of being offended fell away and he laughed.

“Let me guess.” Chad grinned at Ryan. “I’m ‘special’.” The statement was accompanied by the appropriate air quotations and eye roll.

“You are,” Ryan insisted, digging into the basket to look for his own lunch. “It’s not my fault you refuse to believe me.”

“Whatever, Evans.” Chad waved the compliment off and then proceeded to do a very dramatic retelling of the antics that his little sister got up to the night before, which according to him, included but was not limited to: scribbling all over the walls in crayon (which Chad then had to clean off), hiding all of Chad’s underwear all around the house, and squeezing all the toothpaste out onto the sink.

Despite the fact that Chad was essentially complaining about how much a pain in the ass his little sister was, Ryan could tell how much he adored her still. There was plenty of whining and exaggerated sighs, but none of those diminished the affection in his eyes as he spoke of his family. It made Ryan feel all warm and tingly inside, until––

“So what did you get up to last night, dude?” Both of them had finished their lunches by this point, so Chad pushed the basket aside and slid closer to Ryan, nudging Ryan’s foot with his. They shared a meaningful look.

“I saw Gabi in the morning, and she mentioned that you defended her honour last night or something. And then refused to elaborate. So spill.”

Ryan didn’t panic often. He was always the more level headed of the Evans twins, and freak-outs were more Sharpay’s thing than Ryan’s. But frankly part of him was still a little on edge after that little exchange with Troy, and he hadn’t thought that anyone – much less Chad – would be so bluntly asking him for details.

“It was nothing,” Ryan started, and he tried so hard to leave it at that, but found that he simply could not stop talking. “Troy stood Gabi up again so I sat with her for a while but then Troy showed up and he got all weirdly jealous and possessive and I just thought it wasn’t right for him to act like that when he’s the one being a dick in the first place, y’know? So I told him that, and I guess I must’ve crossed a line because he punched me, but I’m sure he’s sorry because he looked a little freaked out afterwards and––”

“Ryan.”

That was all Chad said –– his name. But somehow it was enough to startle Ryan out of his endless rambling, and his attention fell on Chad once more. There was a serious look in Chad’s eyes, the intensity of it making Ryan shiver despite the warmth of the studio they were in.

“Ryan,” Chad repeated, slowly, as if it was an effort to keep his voice calm. From the way his jaw clenched, maybe it was. “Did you just say that Troy punched you?”

There was no way out of this now. Chad didn’t seem angry just yet, but it felt very much like the calm before the storm, and Ryan chose his words carefully, afraid to set him off. “I don’t think he meant to,” Ryan answered thoughtfully, “I provoked him.”

“Where?” Ryan didn’t immediately answer, and Chad moved even closer until their knees were touching, Chad’s hands moving to grip Ryan’s shoulders. “Ryan, where did he hit you?”

“My face,” he mumbled, and Chad frowned, not having caught that. “He hit me in the face,” Ryan repeated slowly, watching Chad’s reaction anxiously.

For a moment, the anger in Chad’s features turned to sadness. Gingerly, Chad cupped Ryan’s face in his hands. Ryan tried very hard not to react, but he couldn’t help but wince at the pressure against his bruise.

Instantly, the anger returned, except ten-fold this time. It was like watching the storm break, the way Chad pulled away as if burned the moment Ryan winced. Without another word, Chad stood up and was out of the room before Ryan even managed to scramble to his feet.

He managed to catch up to Chad, calling his name and tugging on his arm, trying to get him to stop. But Chad merely shrugged him off, continuing his purposeful stride towards the kitchen. Ryan didn’t really know what Chad was planning to do, but he could tell that Chad was furious, and Ryan didn’t want Chad to do anything in anger that he’d come to regret later. Especially since it appeared to be anger on Ryan’s behalf.

They turned into the kitchen, and Ryan automatically skidded to a stop right at the entrance, because there, standing in the middle of the kitchen was Troy Bolton himself. It was silly to be scared of Troy, especially since Ryan knew what happened was very unlikely to repeat itself, but he couldn’t help but feel the need to keep some distance anyway, just in case.

Chad didn’t stop though, walking right up to Troy and roughly grabbing his shoulder and turning him around to face him. “Bolton,” he spat.

Ryan watched various emotions flicker across Troy’s face –– surprise, confusion, before finally settling on anger when he caught sight of Ryan. Chad followed Troy’s line of sight, and growled when he realised who Troy was glaring at. It was such a guttural, angry noise, that those in the vicinity who’d heard it immediately turned to Chad, their expressions a mixture of curiosity and fear.

“What, you’re on his side now?” Troy said, his voice raising both in pitch and volume. “First he steals my girlfriend, then he steals my best friend? Just how badly do you want to be me, Evans?”

Ryan flinched at Troy’s yell, and he almost missed the way Chad shoved Troy in response. Troy crashed into a cart noisily and no one moved to help him. If anything, there were more people glaring at him now than before.

“Don’t talk to him,” Chad grabbed Troy by the collar, pulling him up into a standing position once more.

“Seriously, Chad? I thought we were brothers.” Troy laughed humourlessly. “And you and Gabi are letting him take my place just like that?”

“Fuck you.” Chad paused to let his words sink in. “Not everything is about you, Bolton. Ryan’s not a replacement for you. And even if he was, it’d be your own damn fault for never fucking being here.”

Ryan saw the way Chad’s hand that wasn’t fisted in Troy’s collar clench, and he found himself moving forward. As much as Troy probably deserved to be punched in face, Ryan wouldn’t let Chad be the one to do it. He was pissed off at Troy right now, but he and Troy were still best friends, and punching his best friend was exactly the kind of stupid thing Ryan refused to let happen. If he punched Troy, he would be stooping to Troy’s level, and Chad was much better than that.

So his hand closed around Chad’s first. Chad jerked a little in surprise, relaxing when he glanced back and saw Ryan, who held Chad’s gaze. Slowly, Chad’s fist unclenched, and he twisted his hand until his hand and Ryan’s were palm to palm before threading their fingers together.

He turned back to Troy, who was watching that little exchange and looked both confused and hurt. “You’ve been a real dick lately, Troy,” Chad sighed, “But we’ve been best friends almost all our lives. I’m not saying I forgive you, but I’m not throwing that away over one mistake either.”

Troy opened his mouth to say something, but Chad merely gripped his collar tighter and spoke over him. “But if you ever, ever lay a finger on Ryan again,” Chad glared at Troy, wanting to make sure Troy knew just how serious he was, “then we’re done.”

And with that, Chad let Troy go and turned around, gently pulling Ryan back out of the kitchen.

They walked for a while without talking, Ryan letting Chad lead him through the corridors. Eventually, Ryan decided that the silence had gone on for too long, and tugged Chad into the closest – thankfully unoccupied – room.

Ryan didn’t know what to say though, so he merely stood and stared at Chad until he said something. Chad looked slightly uncomfortable, and Ryan took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” Chad said after some time.

Ryan’s heart dropped. Was he already regretting standing up for Ryan? Did he realise how stupid it was to antagonise his own best friend for Ryan? Chad must have noticed the panic in Ryan’s suddenly stiff posture, and he squeezed Ryan’s hand lightly in reassurance.

Chad started to pull his hand away, and again the panic spiked, only settling again when Chad didn’t leave. Instead, his hands came up to Ryan’s face again, this time even gentler than before, so much so that Ryan barely felt any pain.

“I’m sorry you had to see me like that,” Chad clarified. “I just... I was so angry. He hit you, Ry.”

Ryan hated the way his heart jumped at the nickname, so he tried not to think about it. He didn’t quite understand why Chad was so mad about Troy punching him though; sure, it was an awful thing to do, but there had never been any love lost between the two of them anyway.

In fact, Ryan kind of thought the way Troy was treating his friends was even worse. But he didn’t ask Chad for any further explanations –– he had the feeling Chad himself wasn’t quite sure why he was so worked up anyway.

“And I’m pretty sure he won’t ever do it again.” Ryan’s hands came up, fingers circling Chad’s wrists, keeping Chad’s hands on his face. “Is this how it’s going to be from now on? I defend Gabi’s honour, get punched in the face for it, and then you defend my honour?”

Chad actually laughed at that, the sound especially soothing after seeing how angry he had been just five minutes before. He stepped closer to Ryan until there was no space between them at all, moving his hands from Ryan’s face and wrapping his arms around Ryan’s neck, effectively holding him in place.

Not that Ryan wanted to be anywhere else anyway. He wrapped his arms around Chad’s waist in return, pressing his face into Chad’s shirt and letting himself be comforted by the hug.

“Pretty sure I used up all my self-restraint and then some not punching Troy right there in the kitchen. Next time a guy touches you, I’m going to end up taking a swing at him for sure. So, I’ll defend your honour any time, but let’s try not to get punched anymore, yeah?”

Ryan laughed, wanting to draw the hug out for as long as he could. “Deal.”

Chapter Text

“One, and two, and three, and four, and five, and six, and seven, and eight,” Ryan counted, clapping along to the beat as he walked around the studio, weaving in between the Wildcats and occasionally correcting their movements.

For all the fuss Chad had kicked up about not dancing, he was a pretty decent dancer. Not great by any means, but at least he was competent enough to pick up the choreography which Ryan, bless him, had kept simple enough for them. The same couldn’t be said for Jason though, who stumbled through half the steps and missed every other one.

Chad watched Ryan stop in front of Jason, frowning slightly at the boy’s uncoordinated flailing. Chad didn’t care much for dancing – exceptions were only made when Ryan was the one dancing – but even he felt offended by the way Jason moved.

“Good job, everybody!” Ryan called after they finished another set, “Take five.”

Glad to be able to stop dancing, Chad headed to the corner of the room where he’d placed his bottle. He picked Ryan’s up as well, assuming that the boy would be right behind him, but when Chad turned around, Ryan remained in the middle of the room with Jason. He was saying something to Jason, and while he was speaking too softly for Chad to be able to hear, from the way Ryan smiled and the way Jason smiled back bashfully, Chad figured it was safe to assume that Ryan wasn’t chewing him out for his awful dancing.

He placed Ryan’s bottle back on the floor, taking a sip from his own as he leaned against the wall to watch Ryan and Jason. Ryan had taken up spot next to Jason, slowly demonstrating each step patiently. When that didn’t work, Ryan simply reached out to shift Jason’s arms and legs in the correct positions. Watching Ryan press up against Jason, even if only to move his arms, made something unpleasant coil in Chad’s chest.

Of course, Chad ignored the feeling, choosing to down half his bottle instead.

“Relax,” Taylor spoke suddenly from somewhere on his left, and he jumped in surprise, a little water sloshing down the front of his tank top. She giggled at his reaction, and he glared at her. Not that she was affected by it; Taylor was surprisingly unflappable.

“It’s not nice to sneak up on people,” he told her, putting the cap back on his bottle and placing it next to Ryan’s bottle.

“I wasn’t trying to sneak up on you,” Taylor replied, “It’s not my fault you were too busy glaring at Jason to notice me.”

“I wasn’t––” Glaring at Jason, his mind finished, but the words wouldn’t leave his mouth. Come to think of it, he hadn’t glared at Taylor after turning to her –– he had already been glaring when he turned to her. Chad’s gaze flicked over to Jason once more, confused.

“You were saying?” Taylor remarked smugly, and then rolled her eyes when she noticed Chad’s confusion. “Ugh, you can be really dense, you know that?”

Chad was still trying to decipher why he’d been glaring at Jason, and Taylor’s words only added to his confusion. She made a disapproving noise, almost like a cross between a groan and a sigh, before striding up to Ryan and Jason, picking Jason’s bottle up along the way.

“I’ll help Jason with the steps,” Taylor spoke to Ryan even as she passed the bottle to Jason. “You should go have some water.”

Ryan nodded, smiled in thanks, and then suddenly he was walking towards Chad, who froze for only half a second before leaning down to scoop Ryan’s bottle off the floor. He handed it to Ryan and received a grin in return. The unpleasant tightness uncoiled.

“What was it you’d said about not dancing?” Ryan teased, moving to stand next to Chad.

Chad refused to take the bait. He stretched his arms out, slung one over Ryan’s shoulder and gave him a squeeze. “What can I say? I have a really good teacher.”

Ryan slapped his chest in response, but when he looked over, the pleased smile on Ryan’s face gave his true feelings away. “Stop teasing.”

“I’m not teasing!” Chad insisted, turning to his side to properly face Ryan, both his hands firm on Ryan’s shoulders. “None of us have done anything like this before, but you’re making dancers of us. Imagine what you could do with people who are actually good at this kind of stuff! I can honestly see you being a dance instructor in the future.”

Chad paused, then added, “After a successful stint on Broadway, of course.”

Ryan laughed, although Chad could see the tiniest hint of doubt in his eyes as he looked up at Chad. “You really think I can do all that?”

Chad smiled, squeezed Ryan’s shoulders again. “I know you can.”

Ryan’s hands came up, and he ran them along Chad’s forearms with a smile. Chad knew he should probably pull away, but the way Ryan was looking at him kept him in place. The rest of the room seemed to disappear, and Chad completely forgot that they weren’t alone until he heard a crash and pulled his arms back so quickly he almost hit Zeke who’d been standing behind him.

Ryan looked equally startled, jumping back against the wall. Ryan looked disoriented for a moment, but then he spotted Jason on the floor and it was almost scary the way Chad could see Ryan go into instructor mode once more.

He clapped, getting everyone’s attention. “You’re all doing great! I won’t lie, it’s not perfect, but we’re getting there. Even you, Jason.” Jason, who’d been looking worried and anxious, seemed to brighten up at Ryan’s confidence in him. “But we’ll get there tomorrow. You’re all tired, it’s late, and you guys have work tomorrow.”

There were a few soft protests from the crowd. It made Chad smile –– they weren’t all performers, but whatever they did they always gave their all. Chad knew for a fact that Ryan was quite the perfectionist himself, but he seemed to have already made his mind up, shaking his head.

“Rest is important,” he insisted. “If you push yourself too hard and get hurt, then all that hard work would be for nothing.”

There were still a couple of unwilling faces, but no one tried to protest any further. With a smile, Ryan playfully made shooing gestures with his hands. “Now that we’re all on the same page, get out of my studio.”

Laughter broke out at his teasing, and everybody started to collect their things before leaving. Chad felt something akin to pride as he watched how comfortable Ryan seemed to be with the Wildcats, happily giving high-fives to those who came up to him on their way out. Gabriella walked over with her hands outstretched, and Ryan gladly took her hands in his and pulled her into a little spin that made her giggle. The sight made Chad smile.

“I thought I made it clear that everyone had to get out,” Ryan spoke, and Chad realised that he and Ryan were the only ones left in the studio. They had lunch in there so often that a small voice in Chad’s head had taken to calling it their studio. He didn’t mind the Wildcats being there, but Chad instantly felt more at ease once it was just the two of them. It felt right.

“And I thought I didn’t count because I was special,” Chad quipped back.

“Ah, I see it’s finally gotten to your head,” Ryan replied. Chad noted that he hadn’t said anything to dismiss the notion.

“Nah, I think it all goes to my hair,” Chad joked, and Ryan laughed. “Teach me that move you just used on Gabi? Might come in handy someday.”

Ryan’s expression darkened for a second, but when Chad blinked Ryan was smiling at him, and he wondered if he’d imagined it. “I’m pretty sure even Jason knows how to spin a girl without my help,” he teased.

“You going to show me or not, Evans?”

With a sigh that somehow managed to be both fond and long suffering, Ryan held out his hands to Chad, who gladly closed the gap between them to take Ryan’s hands. He spun Ryan easily, but didn’t let go of his hands.

“See? I knew you didn’t need me.” Ryan was talking, but Chad wasn’t quite listening.

Ryan was standing so close to him, close enough for Chad to be able to make out the light splattering of freckles across the bridge of the boy’s nose and cheeks. Apart from that, his skin was unblemished. But then again, Chad knew that Ryan used makeup to conceal the bruises.

“What?” Ryan asked, and this time he managed to get through to Chad.

He looked slightly worried; it was the look Chad recognised as the one Ryan always had whenever he thought Chad would make a run for it. Chad shook his head with a smile, and Ryan visibly relaxed, although he still looked curious to know what was on Chad’s mind.

And as always, whenever it came to Ryan, Chad obliged. “I was thinking about how weird it was to know that your face is banged up, but to not be able to see it.”

“The power of makeup,” Ryan said lightly, almost jokingly. There was nothing about Ryan needing to use makeup to cover bruises that Chad took lightly, but he didn’t want to make a big deal out of it when Ryan was clearly uncomfortable.

“Did Sharpay help you with it?” He’d meant it as a joke, but the smile slid right off Ryan’s face as he shook his head.

“Not this time,” Ryan replied, and then gasped, hands flying out of Chad’s grip to cover his mouth as he realised his slip of tongue.

To be honest, if not for Ryan’s reaction, Chad might have missed that little slip altogether. But now there was no way he could ignore what Ryan had said, or the implications of it. Chad normally wasn’t one for violence, but immediately he felt an urge to find anyone who’d ever laid a hand on Ryan and give them a taste of their own medicine.

“It’s not anyone from here,” Ryan admitted quietly. He sighed, taking a seat on the floor, back pressed against the wall and gesturing for Chad to take a seat as well.

Wordlessly, Chad slid down the wall until he was seated, his shoulder pressed against Ryan’s, the whole length of their arms and legs touching. Ryan seemed to be gathering his thoughts, so Chad remained quiet, waiting for Ryan to speak.

“I’m gay,” Ryan said eventually. “I’m gay, Chad,” he repeated, sounding so close to tears that Chad’s chest ached.

Chad had never really given much thought to Ryan’s sexuality, but he wasn’t exactly surprised by Ryan’s confession. If anything, there was a burst of relief and maybe even a little happiness that Chad attributed to feeling good about the fact that Ryan trusted him enough to be honest. He wrapped an arm around Ryan’s shoulders, pulling him closer. Ryan turned to him in surprise, as if he hadn’t expected Chad to be willing to be physically affectionate with him after finding out that he liked boys.

“You’re not... disgusted?” Ryan’s tone was hesitant, like he wasn’t sure whether he actually wanted to know the answer to his own question.

“I am.” Ryan tensed up, and Chad pulled him even closer in response. “But not at you. I’m disgusted that there are people out there who hurt you for it.” And then softly, “That’s what happened, isn’t it?”

Ryan paused, and then he nodded. “When I was thirteen, I kissed someone on the baseball team.” Ryan laughed, but the sound was mirthless. “As you can guess, I enjoyed it a lot more than he did.”

Chad didn’t say anything, although he did rub his thumb over Ryan’s shoulder. He could feel the heat from Ryan’s skin through the thin cotton of his shirt, but he tried not to let that distract him from Ryan’s story.

“It wasn’t so bad at first. The sneers and name calling weren’t nice by any means, but I could ignore it easily enough. I think the fact that they could never get a reaction out of me made them mad, and then things started to get physical.” Ryan paused, took a breath. Chad could still hear the tremble in his voice though.

“It started with shoving past me in the hallway, or stuff like that, where they could pretend it was an accident if they got caught. But then someone actually worked up the balls to properly hit me. I didn’t think being gay was that big a deal at first – Shar knew, had known for a while by that point, and she didn’t care – but suddenly I was very aware of the fact that it was considered ‘unnatural’ and ‘disgusting’.”

“It’s not,” Chad felt the need to interject. “You’re not disgusting for loving boys. You’re not.”

“Thank you,” Ryan whispered softly before continuing. “But because of that, I didn’t tell my parents about what was going on at school. I wasn’t out to them yet, and I was scared they’d react the same way my peers had. When a week passed after the first punching incident and the boy who did it hadn’t gotten into any trouble, the bullies realised I wasn’t going to squeal, so ‘beat the queer’ became a regular activity.”

“Fuck, Ry...” Chad wasn’t really sure what to say. He was unbelievably angry at the people who had done all these things to Ryan, but at the same time he was incredibly sad when he imagined how Ryan must’ve felt and he couldn’t decide which emotion was stronger. Chad removed his hand from Ryan’s shoulder, reaching for Ryan’s hand and threading their fingers together. “Is that why your family moved here?”

Ryan stared at their hands for a moment before nodding. “It got really bad... The beatings, I mean. A bunch of them cornered Shar and I while we were on the way home and––” Ryan let out a choked noise, and Chad realised with a start that he was crying.

“Ry... Ryan,” he called, worry sitting heavily in his chest. “You don’t have to talk about it. It’s okay. I– god, Ry, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

He didn’t know what else to say. The room was quiet except for the soft sounds of Ryan crying. Chad wanted to cry too. He felt so useless, not knowing how to comfort Ryan. He smoothed a thumb over Ryan’s knuckles, hoping that even that little bit of contact would be of help somehow.

“I ended up in the hospital –– broken ribs, concussion. Couldn’t hide that from my parents, never mind the fact that the hospital had called them up. They pulled us out of school and we were home schooled the rest of the year. We hated it, begged our parents to let us go back to school. They said no, of course, but dad had recently acquired Lava Springs, so we spent the summer after junior high there. We still wouldn’t stop asking about going back to school, and in the end mum caved. It was her idea to move here, and enrolling in public school was Shar’s idea.” Ryan smiled at that. It made the weight in Chad’s chest lift a little.

“It sounds awful to say, but money is power. Shar figured students in a public high school would be too intimidated by our wealth to try anything, and even if they did, our parents could use money to pressure the school into dealing with it.”

Chad had wondered why rich kids like the Evans twins would go to public school, and now he knew. He just wished the explanation didn’t make Chad feel like being sick.

“Chad?” Ryan had stopped crying, but his voice wavered still, soft and unsure. Chad realised with a start that he’d been quiet for too long.

He still had no idea what to say, or more accurately, how to articulate all the swirling thoughts in his head into anything coherent. He knew he should be trying to offer Ryan some comfort – even if he was awful at the whole ‘dealing with feelings’ thing – but he wasn’t quite sure he trusted himself to be gentle with Ryan when he was all too aware of the anger that had settled in, growing bigger with each passing moment.

It was strange. Just two months ago, he probably wouldn’t be too bothered by what Ryan had just told him. He’d be mildly horrified perhaps, but in the same way one might be horrified when hearing about bad things happening to strangers. Now it felt personal.

Suddenly, simply holding Ryan’s hand wasn’t enough.

Chad reached for Ryan with his other hand, pulling him into a hug. Ryan let go of his hand in surprise, both hands coming up as if to push Chad away before realising that Chad wasn’t going to hurt him and relaxing. Chad wrapped both arms around Ryan, feeling his eyes get suspiciously watery when Ryan’s arms came up to wrap around his shoulders.

It was awkward, because they’d been sitting side by side and now Ryan was kind of half on his lap in a position that surely wasn’t comfortable, but that didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that Ryan was here, Ryan was in his arms, and no one would ever hurt Ryan like that again. Not now that he had Chad.

They stayed like that for a while, long enough for Ryan’s breathing to even out completely and Chad’s anger to fade. Eventually, Chad let go when he felt Ryan shift, suddenly remembering that Ryan wasn’t in the most comfortable of positions. Ryan seemed reluctant to let go – for some reason it took a few moments for Chad’s own hands to move away as well – but once he pulled back he stretched languidly.

“I’m glad you told me, Ry.” Chad smiled when Ryan turned to him in surprise. “You can tell me anything.”

Ryan returned his smile, but it was tentative. Chad didn’t blame him. He had never gone through anything as awful as Ryan had, but even he knew it probably wasn’t easy to open up about such things. Chad wouldn’t begrudge Ryan’s privacy.

With a sigh, Ryan leaned back against the wall again. There was a soft thud as the back of Ryan’s head hit the wall, without any cap to muffle the noise. The newsboy cap had been knocked off at some point during the hug, and neither of them had bothered to replace it on Ryan’s head. The lack of cap made Ryan look oddly naked and vulnerable, which Chad supposed was fitting. That didn’t mean Chad liked it though. He picked the cap up, dusting it off before setting it on Ryan’s head, careful to slant it just the way Ryan liked it.

Ryan smiled at him, the expression warmer this time, and Chad felt a wave of fondness wash over him. He settled back as well, returning to their earlier positions, pressed up against the wall and each other.

“Not going home yet?” Ryan asked.

Chad shifted, knocking Ryan’s shoulder lightly with his. “Trying to get rid of me now, Evans?”

“No,” Ryan answered simply. Having expected to be teased back, Chad was taken aback by Ryan’s honesty. That wasn’t to say he wasn’t pleased by Ryan’s response though, and he grinned even as his face coloured.

“Good. Because I’m not going anywhere,” he insisted stubbornly, despite knowing that they had to part ways sooner or later. At least until the next day. The thought of having to get up early for work was off putting, but at least it gave him an excuse to see Ryan. And also the rest of his friends.

“You’re going to get into trouble with your folks for coming home so late,” Ryan pointed out, “And then you’re going to feel awful in the morning because you didn’t get enough sleep.”

Ryan wasn’t wrong, but Chad merely shrugged. “I’ll go when you go.”

“I might be here a while.”

Chad turned to look at Ryan, eyes narrowed slightly. He knew that the dance studio was Ryan’s sanctuary, but he also knew that Ryan was extremely close to his family, so it seemed odd that Ryan would want to stew things over alone at a deserted country club instead of going home to his family.

“I guess I’ll be here a while too then,” Chad replied easily. “Any particular reason why you’re avoiding your family?”

He felt Ryan freeze next to him, finally exhaling slowly after a long moment. “Shar found out I’m helping you guys, and now she’s pissed,” Ryan sighed, “She’s not very good at dealing with having competition.”

“It’s about the stupid talent show?” Chad huffed. “I can’t believe she still wants to do the show with Troy even though he––”

Chad saw the flash of guilt in Ryan’s eyes before he broke eye contact by looking down at his lap, but that split second was all it took for Chad to get it. “You haven’t told her.”

It hadn’t been a question, but Ryan shook his head in reply anyway. Chad reached out, gently placing a hand on Ryan’s elbow. “Why haven’t you told her?” he coaxed, keeping his hand on Ryan until the boy finally looked up again.

“I’m scared,” he admitted. “She picked Troy over me for the talent show, what if she picks Troy over me for this as well?”

“She would never do that to you, Ry,” Chad asserted, “Troy’s supposed to be my best friend but even I know that he fucked up big time. I don’t know Sharpay very well, but she’s your sister. She loves you, and she knows what you went through. She might have picked Troy over you for the talent show, but she’s got your back for this. I know it.”

“I know, I just...” Ryan went quiet for a while, then dropped his face into his hands with another sigh. “I guess I should tell her,” he relented, lifting his head once more.

“You should. And if you need me––” He was cut off by the sound of his phone ringing, and he swore under his breath when he noticed how late it had gotten, as well as the caller ID. He shot Ryan an apologetic look, but Ryan looked faintly amused, gesturing for him to take the call.

“Hi, mum,” he greeted as he answered the call, wincing slightly at the tone of her voice as she reprimanded him.

You were supposed to be home almost two hours ago, young man!” Her voice was so loud, Chad had to pull the phone away from his ear. And even then, he could still hear her clearly, which meant that Ryan could hear everything as well.

“Mum,” he pleaded. “I’m sorry. I was with Ryan and we kind of just got caught up and forgot the time.”

He knew saying that would reveal the fact that he had talked to his mother about Ryan before, even though the two of them had never met, but it was his only option. When his mother got angry it was in his best interest to tell the truth. But he refused to look at Ryan, although he could tell that Ryan was watching him curiously. Embarrassed as he was, Chad had to admit that he’d be curious too if he were in Ryan’s position.

It was only when Ryan started gesturing wildly that Chad turned to him, trying to decipher Ryan’s improvised sign language. It looked like he was asking if he could talk to Chad’s mum, and Chad didn’t have any qualms about handing his phone over. He was already in trouble anyway, he doubted Ryan could say anything that would get him in even more trouble.

“Mum, hold on, Ryan has something to say,” he informed her as Ryan took his phone.

“Hi Mrs Danforth,” Ryan greeted.

Hi, Ryan,” his mother replied, all the anger that had been in her voice suddenly gone. Chad eyed Ryan suspiciously –– his ability to deal with mothers bordered on witchcraft, honestly. Chad had never met anyone who was as good at charming mothers as Ryan was.

“I’m sorry about keeping Chad,” he apologised. “I was really upset about something, and he stayed with me because he didn’t want me to be alone.”

Oh, honey...” Chad turned his narrowed eyes to his phone. She’d been angry at Chad just two minutes ago, and here she was, sounding warm and concerned when talking to the reason she was even angry at Chad in the first place. Life just wasn’t fair sometimes. “How are you feeling?

“Much better now, thanks to Chad.” Ryan smiled at Chad, and he forgot he was bitter about his own mother seemingly preferring Ryan to him. “I’ll hand the phone back to Chad now.”

Chad took the offered phone back, but instead of putting it to his ear, he placed the call on speaker and held the phone between the two of them. “I’m sorry I didn’t call to tell you I’d be late.”

That’s okay, I’m glad I raised a good boy who knows how to take care of his friends.” Ryan snickered a little – although he really had no right, considering his own relationship with his mother – and Chad whined. His mother only laughed. “Do you need me to pick you up?

Chad glanced at Ryan, who mouthed ‘I’ll drive you’, and then shook his head before he realised his mother couldn’t see him. “No, I’m good. Ryan says he’ll drive me,” he replied.

Alright, baby. I’ll see you when you get home. Drive safe, Ryan.” Ryan looked a little taken aback at being addressed, but Chad smiled. Of course his mother would know that he’d put her on speaker.

“I will, Mrs Danforth,” Ryan dutifully replied, “Have a good night.”

Chad, in contrast, merely said a quick bye before hanging up. At Ryan’s almost offended look, Chad rolled his eyes. “I’m seeing her later, and she’s my mum. I don’t need to go all polite and formal on her.”

Seemingly appeased by that, Ryan got up and started collecting his things. Chad was already waiting by the door when Ryan returned from unplugging his phone from the speakers. Neither of them said anything, walking in companionable silence to the lobby. The valet had gone home for the day, but he had left Ryan’s keys in the booth.

“You want to drive?” Ryan asked, picking up his keys and walking over to where his car was parked.

“Nah, I’m good,” Chad replied, “I’ll let you drive your own car this time.”

Ryan rolled his eyes at the tease, but didn’t otherwise respond. He unlocked the car, sliding into the driver’s seat. Chad got into the passenger seat, immediately checking the glove compartment to see if Ryan kept any CDs in his car. There was a single CD case in there, and Chad laughed when he got a good look at it.

“Jesse McCartney, really?” Chad teased. “I thought you’d have musical soundtracks in her, not Jesse McDreamy.”

“Aha!” Ryan exclaimed, eyes fixed on the road as he pulled out of Lava Springs. “You admit that Jesse McCartney is dreamy!”

“Well, I have eyes, you know,” Chad retorted, taking the disc out and inserting it into the player. He then proceeded to surprise Ryan by singing along to the track.

“My sister loves him,” he shrugged. Ryan took his eyes off the road for a second to shoot Chad a teasing look, which Chad ignored. “Oh, stop teasing and just sing with me.”

With one last laugh, Ryan obliged, and then they were both belting out Jesse McCartney lyrics like their lives depended on it. By the time they arrived at Chad’s house, both of them were out of breath, from both the singing and laughing. Even when Ryan pulled over, Chad didn’t move, staying in his seat to catch his breath. But even after his breathing returned to normal, he remained seated.

Ryan sent Chad home after work occasionally, and this was where they always got stuck. Somehow, saying goodbye to Ryan was easier at Lava Springs. Here, outside his house, in Ryan’s car, Chad always lingered. He wasn’t quite sure why, just that the short distance from Ryan’s car to his front door always seemed impossible to cross.

Chad didn’t like the thought of walking away from Ryan. He liked the thought of Ryan watching him leave even less.

The silence was broken by a loud yawn on Chad’s end. Immediately, Ryan looked worried. “You should go in. Get some sleep,” Ryan told him, and Chad nodded, finally getting out of the car, although he didn’t leave yet because Ryan was still talking.

“Thanks for staying with me and listening to me,” he said shyly. “I’m sorry I kept you out so late.”

“Well I’m not sorry,” Chad replied immediately, shrugging with a small smile. “Whenever you need to talk, or whatever, I’ll be there.”

Ryan smiled back, before chewing on his lip thoughtfully. “If you’re too tired to get up for work tomorrow just text me and I’ll cover for you,” he offered. “You won’t get into trouble with Fulton, I promise.”

Chad laughed and shook his head. “A little less sleep won’t kill me. Although, I’ll be counting on you to have my back if I mess up on the job because I’m asleep on my feet. You’re my only defence against Fulton.”

“I’ll keep you safe from the evil micromanaging Fulton, I swear it,” Ryan laughed.

Chad snickered, placing a hand on his forehead and emulating the stereotypical damsel in distress pose. “My hero,” he called in a high pitched voice before shaking his head and returning to his normal voice. “See you tomorrow, Ry.”

“Tomorrow,” Ryan confirmed with a small smile, sending Chad off with a wave.

As Chad began to walk to his front door, he couldn’t help but think it had sounded almost like a promise. By the time he reached the door, Ryan was already gone. Chad stared at the spot where the car had been just a minute ago and smiled to himself.

Tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Chad had been in a good mood the whole morning, greeting Taylor with a wide grin as he entered the kitchen, even giving her a quick spin –– the way he’d seen Ryan spin Gabriella. She barely managed to get a ‘good morning’ in before he was walking away, although she did try to hold onto his arm. He raised an eyebrow at her, lips still curved into a smile and a quip about her finding him irresistible on the tip of his tongue, but then he noticed what Taylor had been trying to pull him away from.

Troy Bolton was standing in the middle of the kitchen, looking confused with his apron in hand as Fulton seemed to give him a reprimanding. Immediately, Chad’s good mood dissipated.

“What is he doing here?” Chad hissed as he finally let Taylor pull him away.

Taylor shushed him, reaching a hand up to rub his shoulder. It had the intended effect, draining the tension from Chad away, even if the annoyance at having his mood ruined remained. “I don’t know. I just got here when Fulton dragged Troy in here too,” she told him, gaze flickering over to Fulton who was still lecturing the still confused-looking Troy.

“Didn’t he get upgraded to golf instructor?” Chad wondered aloud, more to himself than anything, but Taylor still shrugged in reply.

“Maybe he pissed the Ice Princess off and now he’s getting demoted?” Taylor suggested. Both of them were openly watching the pair now.

He wondered what Troy could have done to make Sharpay this angry, especially since she had been so ridiculously biased towards him before, and then promptly realised that he was an idiot. Ryan must have finally told her about everything that happened. Frankly, Chad was surprised that Troy hadn’t immediately been fired, but he had the feeling Sharpay kept him around just so she could make his life hell.

Finally, Troy would get a taste of the awful summer that they’d been having. Or well, the awful summer that Chad had been having before he became friends with Ryan. He had to admit, Fulton had been a lot laxer with them – especially Chad – ever since Ryan became one of the Wildcats. Chad hoped that Fulton would take out all that pent up frustration on Troy.

And judging from how long he’d been talking to Troy, Chad had a feeling that was exactly what Fulton was doing. At this point, Chad and Taylor had given up all pretence of being good employees and were straight up just watching them. A cursory glance around the kitchen let Chad know that he and Taylor weren’t the only ones watching; almost the entire kitchen staff was openly staring.

Fulton soon came to the end of his lecture though, and as soon as he dismissed Troy, everyone scrambled back to their stations. Chad didn’t manage to tear his gaze away fast enough though, and he found himself staring right into Fulton’s eyes when the man turned in his direction.

“I’m sorry,” he apologised automatically as he jolted into action, reaching for his apron, only to be shocked into freezing with his arm outstretched when Fulton merely waved him off.

“You and Mr Baylor are caddying for the Evanses this morning,” Fulton informed, pausing as Zeke let out an excited yelp. “They’ll probably keep you till lunch, so you can have a break after and then return to the kitchen afterwards to resume your normal duties. Understood?”

Chad had dropped his hand sometime during Fulton’s elaboration, and Zeke was already at his side with his apron removed. Both boys nodded enthusiastically, almost running out the door as soon as Fulton signalled for them to go.

Chad noticed Taylor watch them leave, so he blew her a kiss. The last thing he saw before they were out was Taylor turning away as she laughed.

//

Sharpay had been positively smothering the entire morning, so much so that Ryan almost regretted telling her about what went down between him and Troy. He appreciated the concern, of course he did, but it started to grow old after half an hour had passed and Sharpay still adamantly refused to leave his side.

A week ago, he might have revelled in this sort of attention from Sharpay – it wasn’t everyday that Sharpay was willing to answer to anyone’s beck and call – but now it was just getting on his nerves. Maybe because he already had his fair share of coddling from Chad and Gabriella the past week. Maybe because he’d already gotten over this altercation, and Sharpay’s constant hovering was forcing him to remember things he’d rather forget. It was probably a combination of both though.

Ryan was just thankful his parents hadn’t caught on to their daughter’s odd behaviour, because the last thing he needed right now was his entire family suffocating him. Also, unlike Sharpay, Ryan wasn’t really the type to hold grudges – he’d done enough yoga to know that holding onto negative energy like that wasn’t good – so despite everything, he didn’t really wish any ill will on Troy.

He imagined all the things that might happen if his parents found out, and promptly decided it would be best if they were left in the dark about the whole incident. Thankfully, he knew Sharpay wouldn’t say anything unless he brought it up first.

Now he just had to figure out how to convince her that nothing would happen to him if she moved more than three metres away from him. He had been in the middle of pondering this when he spotted Chad and Zeke headed towards them, and immediately broke away from Sharpay to meet them halfway. Or, quarter-way. The details weren’t important.

“She’s all yours,” he whispered to Zeke as he passed by, patting the boy on the shoulder in what Ryan hoped was an encouraging manner.

It didn’t really matter though, because most of Zeke’s attention was on Sharpay anyway, and once he had Ryan’s approval, he went straight from her, cutting her off from following after Ryan. Perfect.

“Did you miss me that much after a whole seven hours apart? Or are you just using me to shake your sister off?” Chad’s tone was unimpressed, but the grin on his face gave away how he really felt about being ‘used’.

Chad threw an arm around Ryan’s shoulders once the boy was close enough, starting to pull Ryan back towards the family he had just left. “Why can’t it be both?” Ryan replied sweetly, pouting up at Chad.

Rolling his eyes, Chad gave Ryan’s shoulder a little squeeze, but didn’t reply. Soon, they had made it to where his parents were standing, and Chad unwrapped his arm from Ryan’s shoulders. Disappointment prickled at Ryan at the loss of contact, but the way Chad straightened up to greet his father was quite endearing.

To their credit, none of their parents commented on Troy’s absence, despite being subject to his presence almost constantly the past few weeks. Instead, Mr Evans called Chad by name, probably remembering the dark-skinned boy from the last time he caddied for them. Ryan stifled a laugh at the way Chad perked up at the attention.

Zeke was still preoccupied with Sharpay, and Chad and Mr Evans seemed to already be deep in conversation, so Ryan sidled up to his mother. She had an eyebrow raised at him, rolling her eyes at the confusion on his face. She tilted her head slightly in Chad’s direction, and Ryan immediately felt his face heat up.

Mum,” he hissed softly, “we just friends.” With emphasis on the word ‘friends’, even though Ryan felt a twinge of something in his chest.

His mother simply waved him off. “If you say so, ducky.” She had a sly grin on her face then as she leaned in to whisper, “but for what it’s worth, I approve.”

Thankfully, they had approached the first hole, so he was spared from his mother’s teasing by his father calling for her to take the first swing. She patted his arm lightly before leaving though, and he groaned outwardly.

“What?” Chad’s voice was suddenly really close and Ryan jumped in surprise, having not noticed Chad make his way over. Chad laughed at his reaction before repeating his question, though he elaborated this time, “What did your mum say to you? You’re as red as my Wildcats jersey.”

Ryan was about to just brush it off, but a part of him was curious as to how Chad would react. They had gotten really close in the span of the last month, and Chad was awfully touchy; surely he must’ve known how it might have come across to other people. So he opted to tell the truth instead.

“She thinks we’re dating,” he answered, shrugging slightly, although he grinned at Chad, “She approves, by the way.”

Chad’s eyebrows rose in surprise and he looked contemplative for a moment. For Ryan, it felt almost as if time had frozen as he eagerly watched Chad’s expression. Ryan finally managed to breathe again when Chad broke into a grin and slung an arm around Ryan’s shoulder, pulling him uncomfortably close.

“I’m glad your mum approves of us,” he teased, laughing into Ryan’s ear.

“Chad!” Ryan screeched, flailing uselessly in an attempt to shove Chad off him. Chad only laughed and held onto him tighter. By the time he managed to escape, Ryan realised that his entire family – and Zeke – had been watching them. Ryan felt his face begin to burn again, although a quick glance at Chad showed that the boy didn’t seem the least bothered by the attention.

Ryan huffed, pretending to be annoyed as he stalked off to try his hand at the first hole. His club hit the ball with a solid thud and the ball went soaring into the distance. He stepped away to let Sharpay have her turn and immediately Chad was at his side, looking worried as he grabbed Ryan’s elbow.

“Hey dude, you’re not mad about earlier are you?” Chad asked.

Ryan blinked, taking a moment to understand what Chad was referring to. When he did, he laughed, shaking his head and snaking an arm around Chad’s waist. “I’m not mad, doofus,” he clarified.

Chad’s anxious expression melted into a smile, and he reached up to flick Ryan’s forehead lightly. Ryan gasped exaggeratedly, faking an offended expression and they fell back into their usual teasing easily enough.

Despite seeming more than happy to chat with Mr Evans earlier, Chad stuck to Ryan for the rest of the morning, and by the time they were done with the last hole, he caught Mrs Evans watching him and Ryan knowingly. He thought back to what Ryan had told him, and found that the fact that Ryan’s mother thought he and Ryan were a couple didn’t bother him or even make him feel uncomfortable.

He supposed that he and Ryan were close enough to be comfortable with their friendship, and that was why he didn’t really care how other people saw their relationship. Besides, he’d seen how Ryan had hesitated to divulge what his mother had said, as if he was worried Chad might have gotten upset or weird about it, so he felt determined to prove Ryan wrong. He wasn’t an idiot –– just because Ryan liked boys didn’t mean he liked Chad, so there was no reason for him to act weirdly with Ryan, no matter what people thought.

“Zeke, you’re welcome to join us for lunch if you’d like,” Mrs Evans offered. Zeke beamed, nodding so hard Chad was worried he might pull a muscle in his neck.

Ryan cleared his throat, and when Chad looked over at him he noticed that Ryan was glaring pointedly at his mother. It was only then that he realised he hadn’t been invited to lunch. They weren’t obligated to, but Chad couldn’t deny he felt a little disappointed.

“Oh don’t look at me like that, ducky.” Mrs Evans seemed wholly unaffected by Ryan’s glaring. Her gaze flickered between Ryan and Chad as she smiled. “You’re not invited to lunch either. I figured you’d rather have lunch alone with Chad.”

“Oh,” Ryan replied dumbly. Chad didn’t blame him; Mrs Evans’ reply had taken him aback too. “In that case,” Ryan recovered quickly, “we’re leaving now, bye!”

And then before Chad could say anything, Ryan had grabbed his hand and was dragging him away. He did manage to shout out a goodbye before they turned around a corner though, and he hoped that it would suffice.

“Ryan!” Chad chastised lightly, “Your parents might own the place, but I’m an employee. Fulton will have my head if knew I didn’t wait to be dismissed.”

Ryan seemed unconcerned however. “What Fulton doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Besides,” Ryan grinned, squeezing Chad’s hand lightly, “you really think Fulton would dare to try and fire my favourite employee?”

“I thought Gabi was your favourite employee,” Chad returned. It had been a jest, but for all the time Ryan spent at the pool, it might’ve been the truth too.

“Nah, you are,” Ryan replied easily. “But only by a tiny margin, so you watch yourself, mister.”

Somehow, despite the constant reminder that he was technically working for Ryan – Ryan had enough pull over Fulton to count as Chad’s employer, if he were being honest – Chad didn’t really mind. Ryan never made him feel like he was any lesser of a person, and the only time Ryan ever made use of his authority was when he was getting Chad special privileges, so really, Chad was actually kind of grateful to be working for Ryan.

“Since we just spent the entire morning outdoors, a nice air conditioned studio sounds like the perfect spot for lunch,” Ryan said, and Chad whole heartedly agreed. “You can head over first. I’ll go grab food from the kitchen.”

Chad was about to protest and offer to go and get the food, especially since Troy was back working in the kitchen now. Ryan no longer flinched whenever he caught sight of Troy, but the thought of them together in a room without Chad there made Chad uneasy. But Ryan seemed to have read his mind, because he was giving Chad a look that clearly said ‘don’t argue with me’ and despite his reluctance, Chad knew Ryan well enough to know that the look warranted no arguments.

He sighed and nodded, dutifully heading to the dance studio without Ryan. To be entirely truthful, a part of him was glad he didn’t have to go to the kitchen. While he was mostly worried about Ryan, he also wasn’t keen on seeing Troy himself. He knew it was childish, but he just wanted to not think about Troy. After all, he’d spent the better part of the past month getting over Troy turning into a jerk. He didn’t want to waste more time being mad at Troy, and the only way he could do that was to not think of Troy at all.

By the time Ryan reached the dance studio with food, Chad had worked himself into a sulk. He had managed to put Troy in the back of his mind while on the golf course with the Evans, but now as his shift at the kitchen drew closer, he couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d have to work with the boy who ditched his friends and punched Ryan.

Ryan took one look at him and was by his side in a blink of the eye, lunch basket placed to the side. “What’s wrong?” he asked, sounding so concerned that Chad felt silly for sulking about having to see Troy when Ryan had likely just seen him –– and Ryan had much more reason to want to avoid Troy than Chad did!

“Nothing, I just.” Chad groaned. “Just not looking forward to having to work with Troy again.”

Chad thought maybe Ryan would laugh at him, or think he was being unreasonable, but Ryan only gently took one of his hands, knocking their shoulders together lightly to get Chad’s attention. “I get it. I’m glad Sharpay’s being supportive, but I still want some distance from her.”

“Yeah,” Chad sighed, “and the fact that he’s only back in the kitchen because Sharpay ditched him and not because he realised he was being a jerk really annoys me.”

“I figured,” Ryan said sympathetically, “which is why I had Fulton rearrange your shifts so you’re not working the same ones. You’ll both be working in the kitchen, but when you’re on waiter duty, he’ll be on kitchen duty, and when you’re on kitchen duty, he’ll be waiting tables.”

Without warning, Chad threw his arms around Ryan, pulling him into a crushing hug. “You’re the best!” he exclaimed, drawing laughing for Ryan.

“It’s just until you cool off, okay,” Ryan said as he pulled away, “you’re going to have to make amends with him eventually.”

“Yeah. Eventually.” Chad brushed the words off, reaching over Ryan to grab the lunch basket. He didn’t have to see Troy later, which meant Troy was a problem he could put off dealing with until much later, and right now his stomach was more concerned with getting lunch. “But first, I eat.”

“Ugh, you only ever think about eating,” Ryan complained, but he was laughing as he shoved Chad off him, so Chad didn’t worry too much. He tossed Ryan’s sandwich to him before digging into his own meal, all annoyance from earlier vanishing at the sight of Ryan’s smile.

//

Troy was miserable. Ryan hardly saw Troy and even then he knew that Troy was miserable. Most of the Wildcats still weren’t talking to him, and if they did talk to him, it was usually work-related or painfully civil –– definitely not the way they talked to Troy just a short month ago.

To be fair, he kind of brought this upon himself, but Ryan was never the vindictive sort. He did not find watching Troy withdraw further and further into himself enjoyable by any means. And that was exactly what was happening. As the week passed, Troy seemed more and more quiet, not even bothering to strike up conversation with any of his schoolmates and simply disappearing during his breaks.

“I’m worried about Troy,” Ryan divulged to Gabriella halfway through the week, while he was keeping her company during her lifeguard duty.

Gabriella rarely looked at him while they chatted while she was on duty – she refused to take her eyes off the pool despite Ryan’s assurance that no one had ever come close enough to drowning to actually require a lifeguard ever – but she was fine with talking. She was scarily good at multi-tasking like that.

But the surprising statement from him caused her to turn to him, mouth open in shock. She quickly recovered though, closing her mouth and returning to her vigilant watch of the pool patrons. “I’m worried too, but I didn’t think you’d be,” she replied.

“I think you’re mistaking me for my sister,” he commented dryly.

“Sorry,” Gabriella squeaked. “That’s not what I meant though. It’s just...”

“It’s just what?” He urged, but she seemed unable, or unwilling, to finish the sentence. Ryan sighed softly. “We all make mistakes, Gabi. I highly doubt I’ll be best buddies with him any time soon, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy to see him being ignored by all of his best buddies.”

Gabriella didn’t reply immediately, but Ryan could see her chewing thoughtfully on her lower lip so he knew he wasn’t being ignored. “He does seem rather miserable lately, doesn’t he?” she commented.

It was more of a rhetorical question, but Ryan agreed anyway. “I don’t blame him though. His friends barely talk to him, his girlfriend – well I suppose you’re his ex-girlfriend now – refuses to talk to him even though she’s admitted to being worried about him.”

“I’m not exactly looking to things between us to go back to normal, but to be honest I wouldn’t mind trying to be friends again. Or at least talking to him –– he looks like he could use someone to talk to,” she paused, glancing over at Ryan briefly, “To be honest, the only reason I’ve been keeping my distance is because I didn’t want you to think I was taking his side over yours or something.”

“That’s sweet, thank you,” Ryan replied, pausing before reaching over to flick Gabriella’s ear lightly. She shrieked in protest and swatted his hand away. “And completely unnecessary,” he continued. “Does the fact that I’m on talking terms with Sharpay again even after what she did to you upset you?”

“Of course not!” Gabriella sounded surprised that he would even ask such a thing. “Why would I be upset? She’s your sister! Oh––”

“Yeah. Oh,” Ryan repeated. “Troy may not be your boyfriend any more, but I know you still care about him. Just because I don’t want to say more than two sentences at a time to him right now doesn’t mean you can’t.”

Just as Gabriella was about to reply, she stopped, seemingly distracted by something. Ryan turned his gaze to the pool and immediately noticed what had caught Gabriella’s attention –– Troy was walking by the pool, looking like he was headed towards the golf course. He was walking with his head down, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, and walking briskly.

“Go talk to him,” Ryan encouraged.

For the second time that day, Gabriella turned to him in surprise. “I can’t, I’m still on duty,” she replied glumly.

“It’s okay,” Ryan insisted, nudging her lightly to make her get up, “I’ll watch the pool for you while you’re gone. No one’s going to drown, I promise.” Gabriella still looked worried, so Ryan nudged her a little harder. “You’re not going to get in trouble either, so go.”

Gabriella debated it for a moment before nodding, squeezing Ryan’s shoulder lightly before rushing off after Troy. Ryan settled back into his chair, watching club members splash about in the pool. It only took two minutes before Ryan felt bored, and he wondered how Gabriella managed to do this for hours on end everyday. Bored and disinterested as he was, he kept his gaze on the people in the pool, determined to sit there for as long as it took Gabriella to talk things over with Troy.

It seemed like hours before Gabriella returned, especially since there was no clock by the pool and Ryan wasn’t wearing a watch, but she did return eventually.

“How did the talk go?” Ryan asked, curious.

She smiled at him; it was a little weary, but it was a genuine one. “Good. We decided to just be friends for now, but we’re okay. We really needed that talk.” Gabriella’s smile brightened a little as she leaned in to kiss Ryan’s cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Ryan replied warmly.

//

Almost a week later, Ryan found Troy – entirely by accident – in the corner of his dance studio. At first he thought he was imagining things, but when Troy didn't didn't disappear even after a few hard blinks, Ryan decided he wasn't hallucinating after all. He didn't say anything as he approached, but the sound of his footsteps drew Troy's attention anyway.

"Fuck, I didn't think this room was in use. It wasn't on the class schedule," Troy explained. "I'll leave."

Ryan found himself shaking his head, settling onto the floor next to Troy, with a safe amount of space between them of course. "It's okay, it's a good place to be alone with your thoughts," he shrugged. "Fair warning though, sometimes Chad drops by to chat when he's not needed in the kitchen."

Troy visibly tensed at the mention of Chad, and Ryan would be lying if he'd said he didn't feel any measure of satisfaction at that. Ryan wasn't a bad person by any means, but he wasn't good the same way Gabriella was either. He knew Chad was a sore spot for Troy at the moment, so he poked at it. He figured Troy kind of deserved it for being a dick anyway.

"Listen, Evans." Troy sighed, pausing to run a hand through his hair. Ryan arched an eyebrow at him to indicate that he was listening. "I'm sorry."

"Are you sorry because that was a shitty thing to do? Or are you sorry because you lost Gabriella, Chad, and Sharpay over it?"

Troy didn't reply. When Ryan looked over at him, he looked vaguely horrified again, that same expression he had worn right after punching Ryan, as if he couldn't believe that he was capable of being an awful person. To be quite honest it made Ryan feel sorry for him. At least Ryan was aware that he could be a petty asshole sometimes. It must have come as a shock to Troy when he realised that he wasn't quite as golden as everyone thought.

"It's okay," he said eventually, when a long silence had passed and Troy seemed like he wasn't going to say anything anytime soon. "You're the first person to apologise for hitting me, so I'll be nice about it. At least you tried, eh?"

Troy looked at him, startled. "Shit," he muttered under his breath, and then almost as quietly, as if he didn't want to hear the answer, "I'm not the first person to punch you in the face?"

"Nope," Ryan replied candidly. It wasn't usually something he talked about openly — it had taken quite a bit for him to even tell Chad about it — but somehow the admission came easily this time. Maybe telling Chad had made him realise that it wasn't something to be ashamed of, even if he highly doubted he would start going around and telling everyone about his deepest, darkest secret.

He felt okay about telling Troy though, not because he trusted Troy, but because he knew that he could count on Troy's silence. Troy was already on the outs with Gabriella and Chad, who were both clearly on Ryan's side, and considering how miserable he looked, Ryan hardly doubted that Troy wanted to antagonise them further by betraying Ryan's confidence.

"I didn't know that... it doesn't excuse my behaviour though. I'm sorry." A pause. This apology seemed sincere, but Ryan didn't know whether he was ready to forgive Troy just yet. Nevertheless, he nodded in acknowledgement, and Troy accepted that it was as close to forgiveness as he was going to get for now. "Did Gabi and Chad know? Is that why they were so mad?"

Ryan shook his head. "Gabi doesn't know," he answered, and pretended not to notice the way Troy bristled at his casual use of the nickname, "and Chad only found out a couple of days ago."

"Listen," Ryan sighed. "I'm not my sister, Troy. I'm not trying to get between you and Gabi, or you and Chad."

Troy scoffed, and Ryan went on the defensive until he realised that Troy wasn't even looking at him. "Yeah, I messed up before you even came into the picture. I just didn't want to admit that it was my own fault so I pinned the blame on you."

"Wow, did I hear that right? Troy Bolton admitting that he was in the wrong?" Ryan teased lightly, and Troy laughed. He reached over and shoved Ryan's shoulder lightly before freezing. Instead of saying anything, Ryan just returned the favour and shoved Troy back. Instantly, Troy relaxed, but then went pensive again soon afterwards.

"Chad refuses to even be in the same room as me," Troy lamented, all traces of laughter gone from his voice. "He somehow got Fulton to change all his shifts so we never work any together."

"Actually, I asked Fulton to keep you two on separate shifts." When Troy looked like he was about to get angry and snap, Ryan held up a hand to tell Troy he wasn't done talking. "I think you know better than anyone else how hot-headed Chad can be when he's mad."

Ryan paused, and Troy grunted in agreement. "He might be angry enough to want to punch you right now, but I know if he actually does it he'll only regret it later. So I figured the less he sees you, the less likely he is to hit you."

Troy looked thoughtful. "You really care for him, don't you?"

There was no judgment in his voice, no sneer, nothing accusatory. It was a simple statement, one that Ryan didn't really need to confirm or deny, but wanted to anyway, just so there was no room for any doubt. Except he never got to reply because they were interrupted by the very person they had been discussing.

"Ryan?" Chad called from the entrance of the dance studio, lunch basket in hand and a frown growing on his face. He didn't acknowledge Troy, who shifted uncomfortably next to Ryan.

"Is it lunchtime already?" Ryan remarked casually, rolling his eyes slightly when Chad's frown only deepened. "Come here, you goof."

He waved Chad over, and Chad finally looked over at Troy, casting a suspicious glance his way as he walked over to where they were sat. Ryan shifted, gesturing for Chad to sit in the space between him and Troy. Chad obliged, sitting down with his back completely to Troy, and Ryan wondered how he managed to be both amusing and frustrating at the same time.

Ryan sighed audibly, the same time Chad asked, "Did he hurt you anywhere?" The question was accompanied by concerned hands, palm gently feeling Ryan's face and shoulders for any bruises. Ryan reached for Chad's hands when they slipped down his sides, partly because it tickled and Ryan figured this was a wholly inappropriate situation to giggle, but also because he could see the curious look on Troy's face over Chad's shoulder.

He considered teasing Chad about the unnecessary worrying, but the genuine concern in Chad's eyes gave him pause. He had never had anyone look at him like this before, with their concern for him displayed so openly. It wasn't that no one had cared about him before Chad — he had Sharpay and his parents, but any decent parent would care about their child, and Sharpay's concern manifested in much more covert ways.

“I’m okay,” he reassured, squeezing Chad’s hands lightly. “We were just talking.”

Chad looked doubtful – Ryan wasn’t quite sure which part of what he’d said was the one that Chad couldn’t believe – but he nodded and eased back anyway. Ryan felt a twinge of disappointment when Chad moved out of his personal space, but he didn’t protest. He reminded himself not to want things that he couldn’t have, and when his focus returned to the present situation, Chad was already taking food out of the basket and Troy was still watching him curiously.

When Troy realised that he’d been caught staring, he shook his head slightly, as if to jar himself out of his thoughts, before making to stand. “I’ll, uh,” he paused, looking between Chad and Ryan, “I’ll leave you two to it.”

Chad still didn’t acknowledge Troy, but Ryan stood up, blocking Troy’s way. “Actually, I just remembered I promised Kelsi I’d help her finalise her song, and this is her only break today so I better go.”

“Not that I’m calling you a liar, Evans,” Chad started, and then stopped, rolling his eyes slightly. “Actually, scratch that, you’re a liar. I saw Kelsi earlier and she told me to tell you to feel free to drop by anytime to help with the finishing touches.”

Ryan winced slightly, raising his arms slightly in defeat. “Okay, okay, I haven’t actually got anywhere to be, but you two need to sort things out. I figured I’d give you guys some space.”

Chad scrambled to his feet too, not willing to be the only one seated when both Troy and Ryan were standing. “You’re the one who changed my shifts so that I wouldn’t have to see Troy!” Chad pointed out. He wasn’t quite yelling, but Ryan flinched slightly anyway.

He was hoping that Chad hadn’t noticed, but from the way the dark haired boy’s face fell, Ryan knew he had. “Shit, Ry. I’m sorry.” Chad sighed. “I’m not mad, just confused.”

“You don’t have to apologise,” he started, but that only made Chad frown, so he dropped the topic. “I had your shifts changed because you were really mad then and I was afraid you might do something you regret. But you’ve cooled down enough to not yell at Troy the moment you see him, so I figured it was time you guys talked. You’re the one who said you weren’t going to throw away all those years of friendship over this.”

Chad bristled a little at the reminder, but he had said that, so he couldn’t exactly disagree. “I made Jason make a soft shell crab roll for you,” he said instead, a small pout on his face.

Ryan’s gaze dropped to his lips, and it barely lingered, but Chad felt a shiver pass through him anyway. He licked his lips as soon as Ryan looked away.

“Have you ever had soft shell crab, Troy?” Ryan asked.

Troy looked confused at having been dragged into the conversation, but he shook his head in answer anyway. Ryan made a clicking noise with his tongue before humming softly. “Oh well, there’s a first time for everything,” he shrugged, patting Troy on the shoulder. “It’s great, you’ll like it.”

“Ry,” Chad started, but was cut off by Ryan shushing him with a small smile.

Ryan looked over at Troy, and then gently led Chad a few steps away by the elbow. “You’re stubborn,” he remarked softly, sounding both fond and reproachful, “and you try to act like you’re still pissed at Troy, but I know you miss him.”

“No I don’t,” Chad insisted, “You’re a much better friend than him anyway.”

Ryan raised an eyebrow slightly, taking his hand off Chad to cross his arms. “There was so much wrong in what you just said that I don’t know where to start.” An eye roll accompanied the dry remark. “One, you’re still lying about not missing him. Two, it doesn’t matter if I’m a better friend because I’m not a replacement for him –– you said that yourself. Three, he’s been a jerk lately, but he’s trying to make it up to you, which he can’t do if you won’t give him the chance to. Four––”

“Okay, okay,” Chad interrupted, raising his hands in defeat. “I get it. Talk to Troy. Just... wow, you sounded so much like my mum there for a moment, it’s scary. I dread the day you two meet properly.”

“You’re just worried she’ll like me better than she likes you,” Ryan retorted, cheshire grin on his face as he stuck his tongue out at Chad.

“Can you blame me? You’re a hit with the mums.” Chad teased back, reaching up to grab Ryan’s face and pinch his cheeks lightly.

Ryan faked a wince, and Chad looked worried for a moment before he noticed Ryan’s grin and just pulled at his cheeks harder. He opened his mouth to say something, but a soft cough broke his train of thought, and he was suddenly reminded that they weren’t alone in the dance studio.

It seemed Ryan had forgotten about Troy too, if the way he spun around in surprise was any indication. “Right,” Ryan cleared his throat, slowly inching towards the door, “I’ll leave you boys to chat. I’ll see you around.” And before either of them could reply, Ryan was out the door.

Chad watched him go, but when he turned to face Troy, he realised his best friend’s eyes were firmly on him. He hadn’t actually been doing anything wrong – watching someone leave a room was normal, after all – but he felt his face heat up anyway. And it was clear that Troy noticed, from the way his gaze dropped to the floor awkwardly.

“So,” Troy started, “you guys seem close.”

Chad knew that Troy was just trying to suss out his and Ryan’s relationship, but he felt annoyance flare in him anyway. “We are,” he replied, refusing to mince his words, “we bonded over being abandoned by the people who were supposed to have our backs no matter what.”

Troy winced, which brought Chad a small measure of satisfaction. “About that...” Troy started, “I don’t know what else to say but I’m sorry.”

Chad finally took a proper look at the boy he’d called his best friend almost all his life for the first time in almost a week, and he had to admit that Troy looked absolutely miserable. He looked truly sorry too, and Chad sighed, realising that he couldn’t stay mad at Troy any longer. “Apology accepted, I guess. But I’m not really the one you should be apologising to.”

“I already apologised to Ryan,” Troy replied. “He didn’t exactly forgive me, but I didn’t really expect him to. We’re cool so it’s fine, I think.”

“That’s not who I meant.” Chad took a seat again, retrieving his lunch. “I mean, I’m glad to hear you and Ryan sorted things out, but I was talking about Gabi actually.”

“Oh.” Troy didn’t say anything else for a while, taking a seat next to Chad and pulling out the nicely wrapped soft shell crab roll that had been meant for Ryan. He looked at it sceptically as he pulled back the paper wrap.

“I already talked to Gabi,” he said after taking a bite and deciding he liked it. “You’re the only one who’s been avoiding me.”

Chad stared at Troy, who seemed content to continue eating. “You’re not going to tell me how that conversation went down?” he asked.

Troy shrugged. “It went alright. We talked for a long time actually, worked things out. Hashed out our problems and all that.”

“So you’re back together?” Chad unwrapped his own sandwich and took a bite, nearly choking when Troy shook his head. “Let me get this right –– you guys had a long talk, and then decided not to get back together?”

“That’s right,” Troy replied, his mouth full with the last bite of the roll. Chad still looked perplexed, but he waited until he was done chewing before he elaborated. “I like Gabi, I like her a lot, you know that. But we’re just... not on the same page right now, y’know?”

“No, I don’t know,” Chad deadpanned. “If she still likes you, and you still like her, then what does it matter if you’re not ‘on the same page’, whatever that means.”

“Sometimes just liking someone isn’t enough, Chad.” Troy sounded serious, and Chad vaguely wondered how the same person who had childishly thrown away his friends just a month ago could seem so grown up now. “I’m serious about her and I know what I want out of our relationship, but she’s more concerned with school and friends than us –– which I have no place to be bitter about, considering I pretty much threw her away for a shot at the U of A scholarship. But yeah, we decided it was best for us to just be friends for now.”

“Shit...” Chad sighed, reaching over to place a hand on Troy’s shoulder. “I’m sorry to hear that, dude. It must suck, to be friends with the person you like even though you want more.”

Troy looked at him oddly for a moment, but eventually just shrugged. “It’s not so bad,” he said, finding a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice in the basket and drinking it all in one shot. “It might suck a little if she and Ryan ended up becoming a thing though.”

“They won’t,” Chad replied immediately, wincing internally at the speed of his own response. Troy looked curiously at him, but thankfully didn’t ask him to explain his conviction.

“If you say so,” was all Troy said on the matter instead, before settling on a different topic. “For real though, you and Ryan seem really tight.”

“Jealous?” Chad teased, and Troy laughed, throwing an arm around Chad’s neck and pulling him in to his chest to rub his knuckles over Chad’s head. It didn’t take long for Chad to squirm out of his grasp though, and soon they were grappling on the floor, just like they had done often when they were much smaller.

“He seems like a good guy,” Troy commented afterwards, both of them still sprawled on the floor.

“He’s a great guy,” Chad corrected with a light slap to Troy’s chest. Troy laughed, and Chad felt a weight lifted off his chest. He had thought he’d grown used to the distance between him and Troy, but having his best friend, his brother back finally made him realise just how much he had missed him. “Amazing at baseball too –– you really have to see his fastball.”

“Oh yeah?” Troy sat up, grinning down at Chad who remained on the floor. “Does that mean I’m invited to this week’s staff game?”

“Sure, but if you mess up any of the pitches I’m replacing you with Ryan for good,” he threatened, not serious at all.

Troy laughed again, offering him a playful salute. Chad had the Wildcats, had Ryan, and now had his best friend as well. He reminded himself to thank Ryan the next time he saw him. Chad checked his watched, and Troy snorted lightly.

“You’ve still got time before your post-lunch shift if you want to check up on Ryan,” Troy pointed out. Chad wondered if he really was that transparent, and considered denying it before ultimately deciding that it wasn’t worth the effort.

“He forgets to eat when he’s working on music,” Chad attempted to justify, but Troy wasn’t even paying that much attention to him, simply waving him off as he repacked the trash into the basket.

“Go,” Troy urged, “I’ll bring this back to the kitchen.”

Chad muttered his thanks as he got up to leave. He paused by the doorway though, and Troy just rolled his eyes and made an impatient shooing gesture. Chad returned the eye roll, although his voice was soft when he spoke. “Hey, man. It’s good to have you back,” he confessed. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too, buddy,” Troy replied with a smile. “Here.” He threw Chad an apple that he’d found in the food basket. “For Ryan. Growing boys need to eat.”

Chad caught the apple, momentarily distracted by the tone of Troy’s voice. It reminded him of the way Taylor often sounded when she spoke to Chad about Ryan, but he couldn’t quite decipher the subtext of their words. Deciding it was a fruitless endeavour, he thanked Troy for the apple and left. He figured their behaviour would make sense eventually if it were important. Until then, he had one Ryan Evans to fuss over.

Troy watched Chad leave, and wondered how he’d never noticed something quite so big about his best friend until now. He resolved to talk to Gabi and Taylor about it –– they always knew when something was up.

Chapter Text

Despite being a teenager, Chad didn’t actually go to the mall all that much. He and Troy had grown up mostly playing basketball, and when they weren’t doing that, they were messing around at the junkyard. Going to the mall just seemed like something one might do on a date, and Chad hadn’t been on very many of those. He blamed the lack of car for that.

But then Ryan had called that morning, asking if they could hang out that day because Sharpay would not leave him alone for more two minutes at a time and you don’t understand, Chad, she’s driving me crazy. Truth be told, Chad would have agreed to meet Ryan even without all the pleading. Ryan was good company, and it wasn’t like Chad usually had plans on the weekends. Although he had to admit, it felt kind of nice to hear an Evans plead for something. Chad had a feeling they never had to plead for much in their lives.

He found his mum in the kitchen, the entire island counter occupied by baking ingredients while his mother rolled out the cookie dough. Chad pinched a bit of the dough from the bowl and popped it into his mouth, and despite her immediate vocalisation of her disapproval, his mother did not actually try to stop him. He had been stealing cookie dough for years after all –– at this point the chastisement was probably just a habit.

“Honestly, boy, you’re going to get salmonella from all the raw eggs you consume,” she chided softly, barely even looking up from the dough.

Chad made his way to the fridge, pulling out the milk and drinking it straight from the carton while his mother was distracted. Cookies – baked or not – and milk was always a good combination. “Hasn’t happened yet,” he retorted, “I’ll take my chances.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you though,” she replied, although there was more of a teasing edge to her voice than a warning should have, “Any plans for today?”

“Uh, yes.” Chad returned the milk to the fridge, walking over to lean against the island where his mother could see him in her peripheral vision while she worked on her cookies. “I’m going to the mall with Ryan. Don’t know exactly what we’re going to do there, but knowing Ry, I’ll probably end up becoming a personal assistant as he shops.”

He had said it with a laugh, but when he stopped, he noticed his mother had put the rolling pin down, levelling him with a curious, albeit slightly serious, look. He returned her gaze, although he started to feel uncomfortable when she simply stared without saying anything. “What?”

“Nothing!” His mother gathered herself, resuming rolling out the dough once more. She cleared her throat slightly. “You spend a lot of time with Ryan, don’t you?”

“Yeah, he’s fun to hang out with.” Chad shrugged, “Is there a problem with me spending time with Ryan?”

“No, no, not at all,” she responded quickly, before they fell into another beat of silence. “You’re going shopping.” There it was again, the teasing lilt in her voice became audible once more.

Chad raised an eyebrow at her, wondering what her point was. “You hate shopping,” she pointed out.

“We might not shop, I just figured, knowing Ryan...” Chad trailed off for a bit, and then resumed with a little more conviction, “Besides! If he does drag me shopping, I could probably convince him to buy food for me in return. That’s a pretty good deal, I’d say.”

“If you say so.” She seemed to drop the subject, not commenting further and finishing up the rest of the cookies in silence. Chad remained in the kitchen, simply watching his mother work.

She didn’t turn to him until she had placed the cookies in the oven and set the timer. “You need a ride to the mall?” she asked, to which Chad shook his head in reply.

“Nah.” He checked his phone, just as a new text came in from Ryan, letting him know that he was just about to leave his house and that he’ll be there in fifteen minutes. “Ryan’s picking me up. He’s on his way now.”

“Let me give you some money then.” She wiped her hands on her apron, walking out of the kitchen and gesturing for Chad to follow.

Chad did follow, but he also tugged lightly at his mother’s hand, stopping her at the bottom of the stairs. “You don’t have to give me any money. I’m working, remember?” Chad grinned, “For once, I have my own money.”

“But...” she protested lightly, seemingly still not letting go of the idea of giving Chad some allowance. “Isn’t all of that going into your car fund? I think you it’d be nice to get Ryan a little gift for being such a good friend.”

“A gift for being a good friend?” Chad chuckled softly. “Am I supposed to buy gifts for the rest of the Wildcats too, in that case?” His mother seemed to have been serious about the gift buying, because her face fell slightly at Chad’s dismissal of the idea. Chad would never admit it, but he could be quite the mama’s boy as well.

“Hey...” he continued, “Maybe I will get him something, who knows? But all the more I’d want to buy a gift with my money, not yours. I appreciate the offer though.”

His mother had that strange look in her eyes again, but she didn’t say anything else, so Chad didn’t press the issue. He let her return his room as he meandered off to the living room to wait for Ryan. Thankfully, his sister was at a friend’s house, otherwise he’d get hell from her for going to the mall without him. He loved her, he really did, but she could be a real handful sometimes.

It didn’t take too long before Chad heard the sound of someone pulling up in his driveway. Yelling a goodbye to his parents, he grabbed his things and left the house, greeted by the sight of Ryan just about to leave his car.

“I haven’t said hi to your parents,” Ryan protested a little as Chad got in and buckled up. “They’ll think I’m rude.”

Chad snickered lightly, but then he saw the genuine concern on Ryan’s face. Sighing fondly, he reached out, grabbing Ryan’s arm and pulling him back into the seat. “They won’t think badly of you, I promise,” he smiled, hoping that it would be enough to reassure his friend.

Ryan bit his lip lightly – Chad’s eyes followed the movement, and it was innocent enough, but for some reason he had to look away – before acquiescing, buckling his seat belt and then pulling out of the driveway.

Chad tried to ask Ryan about things at home, but Ryan merely pulled a face and said that he’d invited Chad out so that he could not think about home for a while. Sheepishly, Chad apologised, but his guilt dissipated when Ryan glanced over at him with a small smile.

The rest of the car ride passed in silence, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable one. Granted, Chad had never been much of a talker, but he usually did need something to do with his hands; it was the reason he’d picked up basketball as a kid. And yet, he felt content to just sit next to Ryan. The top was down, and Chad leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes and enjoying the feeling of the wind blowing through his hair.

He only opened his eyes when he heard Ryan’s voice announcing that they’d arrived, and he was greeted with the sight of Ryan grinning at him. It made his heart skip a beat, although Chad attributed that to the surprise of seeing Ryan so close to him all of a sudden.

“What?” he asked, slightly defensively, although it was hard to feel self-conscious when Ryan was grinning so brightly.

Instead of answering, Ryan merely reached over, his fingers dragging through Chad’s curls as he tried to make the windblown mess look somewhat presentable. Normally, Chad didn’t like it when people touched his hair, but he found he didn’t really mind when Ryan did it. In fact, it felt kind of nice, and it took some effort on his part to keep his eyes from closing again to savour the feeling.

But then Ryan decided that he looked decent, pulling away to get out of the car. For some reason, Chad felt strange at the sudden increase in proximity between them, so he got out of the car as well, jogging lightly around to Ryan’s side. Ryan closed the top of his car and locked it before they headed into the mall.

The air-conditioned mall was a nice reprieve from the summer heat, and with school out, it was mostly filled with other teens their age. As Chad had predicted, Ryan took his arm and started dragging him towards the closest clothes shop almost immediately. Ryan didn’t actually make Chad carry his bags – mostly because he’d just asked the shops to send his items to his home, but Chad appreciated not having to lug shopping bags around the mall either way – but he did insist that Chad give a second opinion on everything he tried on.

None of the outfits Ryan tried on were anything close to something Chad might wear, but somehow he thought Ryan always managed to pull it off. Eventually, after another compliment, Ryan stood at the entrance of the changing room, hand on his hip and pout on his lips, asking if Chad was being sincere, and offering to find something else to do if he was bored. Chad was bored, but he was also more than happy to continue complimenting Ryan on how great plaid vests looked on him, and he told Ryan so.

Pouting even harder, Ryan huffed a little before returning to get changed. For a moment, Chad wondered if he had offended his friend, but Ryan’s expression looked almost fond when he left the changing room, pulling Chad’s arm once more and leading him out of the store.

“You’re not getting anything from there?” Chad asked, mildly surprised. So far, Ryan had gotten at least one item from every shop they’d entered.

Ryan shrugged, still pulling Chad someplace. “Nah, I didn’t like it that much.” Ryan stopped, dropping Chad’s arm, and Chad felt a small twinge of something at the loss of contact. “Let’s get something to eat.”

Chad finally looked around, taking stock of their surroundings, and found that Ryan had dragged him all the way to the mall’s food court. His face lit up unknowingly, and he only realised he was grinning when he noticed that Ryan sported a similar expression while watching him. Ryan told him to go ahead and find a table for them first while he went to the restroom, and Chad agreed.

They split up then, and Chad was headed to the seating area when he passed by an accessory shop. For an inexplicable reason, he decided to go in. It was a rather small shop, and he was the only one in there at the moment, apart from the girl behind the counter. While glancing at the girl, a bracelet by the counter catches his eye, and he moves closer for a better look.

It was a bracelet made of several thin leather straps, and hanging in the middle of it was a little baseball pendant. It made Chad think of Ryan, and he picked the bracelet up from the shelf, turning towards the girl. As cute as it was, it was still missing something.

“You don’t happen to sell charms on their own too, do you?” Chad asked.

The girl smiled and nodded, opening a drawer on her side of the counter. “We do, as a matter of fact. You want to add some charms to that bracelet?”

“Yeah,” Chad replied, handing the bracelet over to her, “Can I get two musical note charms? One on either side of the baseball, please.”

She took the bracelet from him, searching through the drawer to find the charms he’d asked for and then carefully threading them into the leather straps of the bracelet. “There we go!” she smiled again once she was done, holding it up for Chad to see, “Do you need a bag for it?”

Chad shook his head, thanking the girl as he took the bracelet from her and pocketed it. He paid for the accessory and then left the shop, bumping into Ryan right outside, who seemed surprised to see him there.

“Did you get something?” Ryan asked, peering into the shop curiously.

Chad was acutely aware of the bracelet in his pocket, and the fact that he’d bought it for Ryan. It would be easy to take it out now and to just give it to Ryan, but somehow it didn’t feel right. “No,” he said instead. He felt a little bad for lying, but he figured it was a little white lie that wouldn’t hurt anyone. “I was just looking.”

“Cool.” Ryan started walking towards the seating area, and Chad followed. “I’m going to get us some pizza. Can I trust you to find a table or are you going to get distracted again?” Had it been anyone else, Chad might have taken that jab the wrong way, but all Ryan received was a light shove and laughter.

“I want the cheesiest slice they have,” was all Chad said before stalking off towards the tables, leaving a chuckling Ryan to make his way to the pizza shop.

Chad found an empty table by the fountain, watching the other patrons of the mall while he waited for Ryan. There were groups of friends hanging out by the fountain, some families, and a good amount of couples. He was just watching a couple walk by holding hands when Ryan slid into the seat across him, nudging a plate of pizza towards him.

He hadn’t realised how hungry he was until the food was in front of him, and he was more than happy to take a large bite out of his pizza. Ryan gave him a fondly exasperated look – he manages to get this look out of Ryan quite often – and he shrugged unapologetically. Ryan, in contrast, picked up his own pizza and took a more manageable bite.

“What do you want to do after this?” Ryan asked. After he’d swallowed his bite of pizza of course.

Chad was about to open his mouth to reply, but caught the disapproving look Ryan sent his way, dutifully swallowing the food he had in his mouth before speaking. “How about a movie?” he suggested. He had been wanting to watch Transformers, although he was doubtful that Ryan would want to watch it.

Ryan seemed enthusiastic about the idea of watching a movie, nodding in agreement, although he seemed to be looking at something over Chad’s shoulder. Curious, Chad turned around, and while it took him a moment, he eventually found the object of Ryan’s attention –– it was a movie poster, for some film called Hairspray. That wasn’t even the worst part. One of the guys on the poster looked disturbingly like Troy, and judging by the part of the poster Ryan was staring at, it seemed that he liked that Troy lookalike, which was even more disturbing.

“No,” the word was out before he’d even thought to say it. Ryan’s expression had fallen when Chad turned back to him, and he felt a little bad. He realised that he’d never said no to Ryan before then; from the very first moment they became friends, at that baseball match, even though Ryan had lost, Chad had been unable to say no, agreeing to dance in the show. But his discomfort at watching a movie with someone who looked like Troy in it outweighed his apparent inability to say no to Ryan it seemed.

He figured it was because he wouldn’t be able to see Troy the same way after the movie – which upon closer inspection at the poster was actually a musical, of all things – and also because the thought of Ryan liking Not-Troy didn’t sit right with him. Chad knew that Ryan and Troy had made up, but still. It was weird.

“I’m not watching that movie with the giant robots,” Ryan huffed, and Chad was too amused by the fact that Ryan knew him well enough to know what he wanted to watch to be disappointed that Ryan had shot down his suggestion before he had even made it.

“What makes you think that’s what I would have suggested?” Chad retorted, trying to look affronted, but Ryan shot him a look that made it clear he knew very well that it was exactly what Chad wanted to watch.

“Okay, fine,” Chad relented. He paused the discussion to finish off the rest of his pizza slice, wiping his hands and mouth on a napkin. “If not either of those, then what?”

“I don’t know.” Ryan pulled a face, seemingly thinking about their options as he finishes his food at a much more graceful pace than Chad had finished his. “How about we just go to the ticketing booth and watch the next movie that’s playing?”

Chad made a sound in the back of his throat, something between disagreement and consideration. “What if the movie is awful?”

“Well that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?” Ryan leaned forward, grinning. Chad found himself glancing down at Ryan’s lips, which were shiny with grease from the pizza.

Ryan noticed Chad staring and startled slightly, picking up an unused napkin and proceeding to wipe the grease off, leaving his lips dry. He grabbed a tube of something from his back pocket – it looked like lip balm – and applied it to his lips. It wasn’t as greasy as the oil from the pizza, but it did make Ryan’s lips look pinker than usual.

Chad tore his gaze away from Ryan’s lips, standing up abruptly. “Okay, fine, let’s go.”

Ryan seemed a little taken aback by his sudden enthusiasm, but he did not question it, simply getting up as well. He gathered the trash on their table, heading over to the bin to throw it away. It was the little things like this that made Chad wonder how he’d brushed Ryan off as a snobby rich kid; he blamed Sharpay mostly.

The pair of them walked over to the cinema’s ticketing counter, staring at the screens and trying to find the movie with the soonest show timing. “Can I help you?” the boy behind the counter asked. He didn’t seem particularly enthused about helping, but they were the only people there at the moment, so it wasn’t like he had much of a choice.

“What’s the next movie screening?” Ryan asked, stepping closer to the counter.

The boy checked the timings before informing them, “It’s The Game Plan.” Ryan and Chad shared a look, neither of them familiar with the movie. Realising that they both had no clue what it was about, Ryan shrugged and asked for two tickets.

As Ryan was about to take his wallet out, Chad beat him to it, handing the money to the employee. Ryan seemed faintly amused at how quickly he’d moved to pay. “I could have paid, you know,” Ryan told him.

“You already paid for the pizza,” Chad shrugged. He knew Ryan had more than enough money to pay for both the pizza and the movie tickets, but it was the principle of it really.

Besides, he hadn’t befriended Ryan for his money, so it really wasn’t fair for him to make Ryan pay for things that he could afford. Even if it meant it would take him a little longer to save up for a car –– not that he’d tell Ryan that; he didn’t trust Ryan not to do something crazy like buy him a car. The Evans were unpredictable like that.

“The movie starts in half an hour, but the theater is already open if you want to head in early,” the guy told him as he handed their tickets to Chad.

Half an hour was a strange window of time. If they went in now, they’d be ridiculously early, but there wasn’t much they could do in half an hour either. If they hadn’t already eaten, Chad would have suggested that they got some snacks for the movie, but as it was neither of them were feeling particularly hungry.

“Should we just go in now?” Chad asked, and it seemed that Ryan had also thought it over, because he agreed immediately.

They bypassed the snack counter completely, heading straight for the entrance of the cinema. The staff there gave them an odd look as they passed the tickets to him, but didn’t comment, simply directing them to the correct theater. They were, unsurprisingly, the first people there. But it was nice to be able to have first pick of the seats.

Chad walked towards the rows near the back, picking a row about a third of the way from the top. He shuffled towards the middle of the row, only realising when he had already sat down that he’d somehow managed to pick the row with couple seats. There was an armrest on his left, but not on his right, nothing separating his seat from the one Ryan had just settled onto. Ryan didn’t say anything about Chad’s choice of seat though, so he said nothing either.

“What do you think this movie is about?” Ryan whispered, even though they were the only ones there and there was nothing playing at the moment.

“I don’t know,” Chad replied, “But I saw the poster while we were walking over and I think I saw The Rock on it, wearing a football uniform.”

“There was also a little girl in a tutu,” Ryan pointed out.

Chad laughed lightly at that, and Ryan turned to him, confusion evident in the light crease that had appeared between his eyebrows. Chad shook his head lightly. “A football player and a ballerina?” Chad emphasised. “I think we somehow managed to pick the perfect movie.”

Ryan blinked, and then he was laughing too. Chad’s awkwardness about the couple seat eventually faded away, and he got used to feeling Ryan’s arm brush against his as he animatedly explained his plans for senior year, which included not letting Troy and Gabriella steal the show. He made sure to remind Chad that he loved Gabriella, but he also loved performing, and he was determined to end his high school theatre career with a bang.

Chad didn’t really have any plans for senior year, besides winning the basketball championships, but that didn’t really count because that had been his yearly plan ever since freshman year. He also didn’t really want to think about senior year, because that meant thinking of graduation and college, and Chad hardly knew what he was going to have for breakfast the next day, much less what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

He envied Ryan for being so sure of what he wanted to do, and envied the fact that he had the means to do it. Ryan’s parents were probably able to afford to send him to any college of his choice, and even if they weren’t, Chad was certain Ryan was talented enough to land a full scholarship wherever he decided to go. Chad knew he’d probably go to the University of Albuquerque for the Redhawks, because that’s where Coach Bolton wanted him to go, and he didn’t want to go anywhere else badly enough.

Ryan seemed to notice that Chad didn’t share his enthusiasm for the new school year, and he went quiet all of a sudden, a sheepish look colouring his expression. “Sorry... I’m probably breaking the rules of summer by talking about school.”

Somehow, that made Chad laugh. “It’s alright,” he shook his head, “It’s nice to know at least one of us is looking forward to the new school year.”

By this point, the theater had filled up considerably. Chad was just about to check the time when the lights went out, the screen lighting up with previews before the movie started. Both of them settled back in their seats, falling into silence despite the bustle of moviegoers trying to find seats around them. From the corner of his eye, Chad could see Ryan kick off his shoes before curling up on the seat, causing him to press against Chad’s arm harder than he had been when he was sitting normally.

It was rather chilly in there, and neither of them had dressed to go to the movies. To be fair, they hadn’t planned to catch a movie, and it would have been impractical to wear anything with long sleeves in the summer heat.  Chad didn’t get cold easily, but it seemed that Ryan did.

Ryan was a warm weight pressed against his side, and although Ryan seemed comfortable, Chad wasn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t like that Ryan was leaning against him, it was that he liked it too much, and he didn’t want to move for fear that Ryan thought he was uncomfortable and shifted away. But sitting still as he was – spine straight, arms at his side – wasn’t the greatest. Eventually, he decided that his best course of action would be to put his arm around Ryan, which he did.

He felt Ryan stiffen for a moment, and he almost drew his arm back and apologised, but then Ryan relaxed against his side once more, and this time Chad’s arm didn’t feel awkwardly trapped. His hand curled around Ryan, and he didn’t protest when Ryan rested his head against Chad’s shoulder.

The movie started soon after, so Chad didn’t really have time to dwell on his and Ryan’s positions. They stayed like that for the entire movie, not counting the times Chad’s arm almost slipped off whenever Ryan laughed too hard. He’d repositioned his arm every single time, and Ryan never brushed him off. When the lights come on, they’re still very much leaning into each other, having gotten used to sitting like that.

Faggot,” a voice hissed from behind them.

Laughter rang out after the remark, and when Chad turned around, he found a group of boys around their age. They weren’t from East High though, or else Chad would have recognised them. One of the boys repeated the earlier slur when he noticed that they had Chad’s attention, with the rest of them chiming in with other equally awful names.

Ryan had gone stiff from the very first remark, and with every name, he flinched a little. The rude names alone had annoyed Chad, but the realisation that Ryan was used to physical violence following such taunts made Chad’s blood boil. Ryan tried to pull away, but Chad held on firmly. He looked up at Chad, wide-eyed, as if surprised that Chad hadn’t already tried to put distance between them or deny their association.

It was strange, seeing normally unflappable and poised Ryan Evans curled in on himself, as if trying to be smaller, as if the bullies would go away if he did. Chad knew that the Ryan he was seeing now was the boy that Ryan had been he was thirteen, and he hated the fact that the confident Ryan that he knew was reduced to the boy he once was by these idiots.

So he held only Ryan firmly, not once moving his arm off Ryan’s shoulder even if he gently nudged Ryan to stand. “Fuck off,” he spat at the boys with as much venom as he could muster, and then without waiting for a response, he led Ryan out of the movie theater, head held high.

By then, it was close to dinner time. Wordlessly, Ryan shrugged Chad’s arm off, and even though he had an inexplicable urge to hold on, Chad let him go. “I’ll drive you home,” was all Ryan said, and Chad nodded.

Ryan seemed like he was deep in thought, and Chad didn’t want to push him into talking if he wasn’t ready, or if he didn’t feel like it. The drive back to Chad’s wasn’t as carefree as the drive to the mall, the air between them thick with the lingering tension from the earlier altercation.

They pulled up in front of Chad’s house, but as usual, neither of them made any move to say goodbye. They sat in the silence for a good while, and while normally Chad’s desire to prolong the moment was a result of not wanting to say goodbye, this time Chad was more concerned about leaving Ryan when he was obviously troubled.

“Thank you,” Ryan said eventually. The words were whisper-soft, so quiet that Chad had to lean in to hear properly. “Mostly for earlier,” he clarified, “but for everything else too.”

Chad smiled softly at that. “I haven’t done anything, Ry.”

Ryan scoffed lightly at that, confusion showing in his eyes when he realised that Chad was being serious. “Chad...” he started, frowning as he tried to find the right words. “You’re the first person here that I came out to, that I told about... what happened at my last school.” Ryan’s gaze dropped at the mention of his past, and Chad reached for Ryan’s hands that were folded in his lap. He could tell that Ryan wasn’t finished yet though, so he remained quiet.

Eventually, Ryan let out a shaky breath, squeezing Chad’s hand lightly as if drawing strength from the touch before continuing. “When that thing with Troy happened, you stood by me, even though Troy’s your best friend, your brother. You didn’t coddle me the way Sharpay is doing now, you just... you were just my friend through it all.”

Friend. Something seized in Chad’s chest at the word – too sharp to be pleasure – at being called a friend. Vaguely, he wondered why the word stuck a chord of disappointment in him, although he had the feeling he knew exactly why, he just wasn’t ready to acknowledge it.

Ryan looked down again, and with his other hand, Chad gently cupped the blond boy’s face, nudging it up so that he could look into Ryan’s eyes. He wanted Ryan to see just how sincere he was. “Ryan...” he breathed, “I’m never going to let anyone hurt you ever again.”

Ryan’s eyes widened, and Chad could see them fill with tears, although none fell. He didn’t say thank you – he didn’t really need to, Chad thought – but he freed one of his hands from Chad’s grasp, placing it over the hand that Chad had on his cheek, leaning into Chad’s palm. Even without words, Chad could feel Ryan’s gratitude, although there was a tinge of sadness there too that Chad didn’t understand.

He didn’t like the thought of Ryan being sad. And he liked even less his helplessness, not knowing what to do to take that little bit of lingering sadness away. He found himself leaning in, a hair’s breadth every so often, giving himself plenty of time to come to his senses, or for Ryan to push him away. Neither of those things happened.

They were so close now, their noses brushing, their breaths mingling in the barely-there space between their lips. Ryan felt too close and too far away at the same time, he could feel every bit of Ryan’s skin that was pressed against him, every sensation overwhelming. He wanted to be closer, closer, closer, but he couldn’t do it. The short space between them could have been a chasm for all Chad knew, and Chad was standing at the very edge, the drop calling his name, although he could not seem to take the leap.

He half hoped Ryan would meet him halfway, but the boy was strangely still, the only movement from him was his chest brushing against Chad’s every so often when he took a breath. Chad took a deep breath and closed his eyes, deciding to count to three and then close the distance. Just when he reached three, the front door of his house opened, and he heard his mother’s voice asking if that was him.

Ryan had driven with the hood down to provide them some shelter from the evening chill, and it had gotten dark in the time they’d spent sitting in the car, so Chad didn’t worry that his mother could see the position they were in. And strangely enough, with Ryan so close, he almost decided he wouldn’t care even if she had seen.

They remained like that for a beat longer, and then Ryan sighed, his eyes falling shut. “You should go,” he said, his voice at a normal volume now, unlike the hushed whispers they had been speaking in earlier.

That was how Chad knew the moment was over, if the dismissal in Ryan’s words hadn’t been clear enough. He pulled back, hurt and shame and guilt swirling in his gut. He wondered if he had something wrong, if he had crossed a line. Maybe he should have been more concerned about the fact that he’d almost kissed Ryan Evans, but instead all he worried about was what Ryan thought.

The silence stretched between them, and Chad’s anxiety only grew. What if Ryan thought Chad was messing with him? What if he thought Chad was making fun of Ryan for being gay? He wanted to say that wasn’t the case, that he wasn’t trying to mock Ryan, but he was afraid that Ryan would follow that up with ‘why then?’ and Chad wouldn’t be able to answer because he wasn’t very sure himself.

“Chad?” his mum called again, and this time he could hear the worry in her voice.

“I’m coming!” he called back, and he watched as his mother turned around and went back into the house, leaving him and Ryan alone again.

Chad let out a low chuckle, because this was familiar. Him and Ryan sitting in Ryan’s car at night outside of Chad’s house, not knowing how to say goodbye. Although he did wonder if Ryan was silent because he was angry at him, even though he rationalised that if Ryan were actually mad he would have been kicked out of the car ages ago.

So lost in his thoughts, Chad startled lightly when he felt a cool hand wrap around his. He looked at Ryan in surprise, and found him smiling. It was that smile again, that vaguely sad one that Chad thought had no business being on Ryan’s face, but at least Chad didn’t find even a hint of anger in his expression. Ryan squeezed his hand lightly, and Chad squeezed back.

“Goodnight,” he spoke quietly. It wasn’t exactly a whisper, but he was hardly speaking at normal volume either. Ryan’s smile grew a little.

“Goodnight, Chad.”

Chad nodded, and Ryan let his hand go. He opened the passenger side door and got out, never looking back at all the whole walk to his front door. He heard the sound of Ryan driving away as he made it to his front porch, and he paused to collect himself before entering the house.

His mother was in the living room. The television was switched on, but Chad could tell from the way his mother was sitting that she wasn’t actually paying attention. He caught her glance his way, but he didn’t call her out on it.

“I’m going to bed,” he announced instead, bypassing her on the couch to go up the stairs. Chad wondered if she would come up to his room to try and talk to him, because she always seemed to know when something was up with him in the way only mothers did. He could use a hug, but he also didn’t really feel like explaining things to her, especially when he hadn’t made sense of it yet himself either.

His mother didn’t follow.

Chad couldn’t tell if the relief or disappointment was stronger.

Chapter Text

Going to work the next day was rather anticlimactic. Chad wasn’t quite sure what he had been expecting, but after what felt like such a momentous incident the night before, Gabriella’s chirpy morning greeting felt strangely dissonant with his mood. It didn’t help that Ryan was nowhere to be found among the kitchen staff.

Chad chastised himself for being disappointed about the blond boy’s absence –– it was hardly as if Ryan hang around the kitchen purely to be able to see Chad when he got to work; the boy was friends with all of the Wildcats after all. Anyway, it wasn’t like Chad saw Ryan before work everyday, even if it was true that Ryan was usually present more often than not.

“What’s wrong?” Gabriella’s soft, concerned tone caught his attention, jarring him from his thoughts.

She was looking at him, worry clear in those doe eyes of hers, and Chad felt his face burn. “Nothing,” he mumbled in response, “Just tired.”

Gabriella eyed him somewhat sceptically, but Chad refused to budge. “What? It’s true,” he insisted.

It was true, even if it wasn’t exactly the main reason why he was a little out of sorts that morning. After he’d gotten home, he’d washed up and tried to go to bed, but sleep had refused to come. For a while, he had entertained the idea of texting Ryan, but after ten unsent drafts – each one needier than the last – Chad had chucked his phone at the wall.

He had proceeded to stare at his ceiling for what felt like hours before pure physical exhaustion pulled him into slumber. But even in his sleep he couldn’t take his mind off what had transpired, his mindscape replaying the moment over and over again in his dreams, as if berating his inaction. For the first time ever, the sound of his alarm in the morning had been a relief.

And even if the anxiety that he’d irrevocably messed up his friendship with Ryan was taking precedence over the sleep deprivation, it was at least part of the reason he felt a little cranky, and partial truths were all he felt like divulging at the moment. 

“If you say so,” Gabriella responded, dragging her syllables in a way that made it quite clear that she didn’t quite believe him, even if she was too considerate to probe. Chad knew he should just leave it at that, but...

“Have you seen Ryan this morning?”

For a split second, Gabriella’s eyes narrowed curiously, but she schooled her expression into something much more neutral soon enough. Which was a relief, because that might she wouldn’t pry into his reasons for asking after Ryan.

“Yeah,” she replied, and Chad felt his heart sink, leaving his chest feeling oddly empty. “He was here when I clocked in. You just barely missed him, honestly.”

“Oh.” That was all the response he could muster in the moment. Chad was finding it hard to try and come up with a more eloquent response when he was too caught up in trying to make sense of everything.

He felt whiny and needy even just thinking it, but on the days – which was most days, really – that Ryan hung around the kitchen before the club’s opening, he always, always stuck around until Chad had to work. Maybe it’s a little self-centred of him, but after last night’s almost-kiss, Chad couldn’t help but interpret Ryan’s every action in relation to what happened. And more and more it was looking like what happened had been a mistake.

There was a light touch on his arm, and Chad nearly jumped in surprise. It was only when the slender fingers curled around his bicep did he realise that Gabriella was still standing with him, and it was her hand that was gripping his arm right now –– tight enough to get his attention, but not enough to hurt.

“Are you okay?” It was almost amusing, the fact that their entire exchange was unfolding to be nothing more than Gabriella expressing her concern and Chad brushing it off. But Chad already had enough confusing emotions in his head without adding amusement to the list.

“Yeah––” he started, but never got to finish, interrupted by Fulton sweeping into the kitchen.

Gabriella glanced at the clock, realising that she had to hurry if she didn’t want to be late for her shift. Her gaze returned to Chad, looking torn, and Chad did his best to pretend that he wasn’t being eaten inside out by a myriad of feelings. After what felt like an eternity, Gabriella decided that she couldn’t afford another strike and left, but not before giving his arm one last squeeze.

Chad appreciated the concern – honestly, he did – after all, it was exactly what he’d been kind of hoping for from his mother last night, but the exchange only served to remind him why he also hadn’t wanted his mother’s concern.

He could barely articulate his thoughts to himself, and as someone who rarely shared his feelings, he didn’t think he could ever talk about it unless he knew what exactly those feelings were.

So when Fulton barked at them all to get to work, Chad gladly tied his apron around his waist and went off to set up the breakfast buffet with enthusiasm that he couldn’t even dredge up on his first day. Troy might’ve given him an odd look, but now that they were officially on the clock, he couldn’t be pulled aside for a chat.

Chad never thought he’d come to see the day where he would be glad to be working.

//

It was one of the busiest days that summer, and Chad found himself taking up back-to-back shifts since the morning. After working there for a good part of the summer, he had gotten rather adept at his job, switching from waiting tables to bussing them seamlessly. Normally Chad was impatient to give his feet a break, but one of the perks of being busy was that it kept his mind off Ryan.

Even if his heart lurched whenever he caught sight of a head of blond hair among the patrons. None of whom turned out to be Ryan, and the thoughts of him were easily pushed to the back of Chad’s mind when Jason pushed out dish after dish.

He had just stepped into the kitchen to drop off some dirty dishes when he bumped in someone, having completely missed the person standing in his way since he’d been operating on autopilot almost all morning.

“Sorry, I didn’t see––”

Ryan.

Chad froze, the perfect picture of awkwardness, limbs stretched out to avoid spilling any leftovers on himself. His gaze fixed on Ryan, who had stepped back since their collision, putting some distance between them. Frankly, Chad liked it better when Ryan was in his space, but he supposed a little distance was warranted while standing in a kitchen full of their peers.

He pulled away then, at the sudden thought of the other Wildcats, sweeping away to place the dishes in the sink and washing his hands before turning around to find that Ryan had followed him.

“Can I help you?” Chad asked, wincing internally at how clipped his words were. He might as well have hung a sign around his neck that said I’m annoyed at Ryan Evans.

Ryan, for his part, didn’t seem too bothered by the curt tone. He rolled his eyes, lips quirked in the barest of smiles, and it’s such a familiar expression that Chad found his hastily raised guard crumbling just as quickly as it had been put up.

“Troy told me that you haven’t taken a break all morning.” Ryan’s tone was conversational, with nothing in his voice giving away the fact that he and Troy could barely stand to be in the same room not too long ago. Something about his casualness annoyed Chad.

“You came all the way down here to chat with Troy?”

Another fond eye-roll. This one didn’t make Chad relax though. On the contrary, it only made him tense further, crossing his arms, a retort ready on his tongue for when Ryan inevitably teased him.

“No, I came all the way down here to steal you for lunch,” Ryan returned, and suddenly Chad forgot what he had been about to say.

Maybe he had been overthinking Ryan’s absence that morning after all, since he highly doubted Ryan would be standing before him and asking him to lunch if he was bothered by their almost-kiss.

“Well, let’s go then. I’m hungry,” he replied sheepishly.

Ryan laughed, tugging at his apron before turning around to grab their usual lunch basket off one of the trolleys. “You’re always hungry,” Ryan laughed, and Chad found himself smiling as well. Maybe their friendship didn’t have to change after all.

“So uh, you didn’t stick around this morning.” It was meant to sound conversational as they walked towards the green, like a thoughtless remark. He sure as hell didn’t want Ryan figuring out just how much his absence had bothered Chad.

“Oh yeah. I would’ve waited for you to get to work, but the queen called.” Ryan sounded somewhat apologetic, and Chad wondered if he was sorry because he had missed Chad or because he was lying right now.

Chad shook his head at his own thoughts. At this rate, it would be his own insecurity that would upend their friendship. “I’m guessing you mean Sharpay? What did she want?”

“Well, now that she’s without a partner for the talent show, she wanted to go back to our humuhumu performance.”

Ryan had said it like it wasn’t anything big, but Chad felt his heart sink. Ryan was supposed to do the talent show with the Wildcats. Sharpay had abandoned Ryan once already, it wasn’t fair that she got to have him back just because she had no one else. He was about to tell Ryan that when Ryan laughed.

Immediately, his indignance on Ryan’s behalf was replaced by confusion. When he turned to Ryan questioningly, instead of getting an answer, Ryan only laughed harder.

“What?” Chad asked, just as they found their usual spot.

Ryan plopped down on the freshly cut grass, looking up at Chad with an amused grin. “Frankly, I’m a little hurt that you think I’d leave the Wildcats after all the work I put into whipping all of you into shape,” he pouted.

Chad really wished Ryan would pout less. His gaze was always pulled towards the dancer’s lips whenever the boy jutted his lower lip out like that, and while it had been a problem for a while, it was made even worse now because all Chad could think about was kissing him.

“Hard to believe that Sharpay would take no for an answer,” he replied, taking a seat next to Ryan and trying to pretend that his heart wasn’t racing a mile a minute.

“Sometimes she’s willing to compromise for me,” Ryan said, digging out a burger from the basket, “she’s decided to let me stay with the Wildcats. I just have to come up with a solo routine for her.”

“How generous of her,” Chad deadpanned, earning a snort in response. “No, really. By Sharpay’s standards, this practically makes her a saint.”

“Oh, lay off my sister.” The remark was accompanied by a smack on the arm, but Ryan was laughing, and there was no real force behind the hit.

Ryan’s hand lingered on his arm, long enough that the air between them started to charge with something like the electricity from last night, and Chad almost called Ryan’s name when the boy abruptly pulled his hand away. Ryan cleared his throat and took a bite of his burger, ending the conversation.

Suddenly the silence didn’t feel quite so comfortable anymore, and when he looked at Ryan, his friend seemed intent to keep his eyes trained on his food. Something in Chad bristled at being ignored, but he also understood where Ryan was coming from. After all, just twenty minutes ago he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge Ryan’s presence.

It was a slow dawning, the realisation that Ryan wasn’t as comfortable with him after what happened as he had appeared to be earlier. He remembered belatedly that Ryan had been acting almost his entire life, and that he had ample experience in hiding things from people.

Technically, Ryan was hiding some pretty major things from most of the Wildcats, but with the way he acted around them – so candid and so open – any onlooker would have been fooled into thinking that Ryan had no secrets at all.

Chad wondered why on earth he might have thought that he would be the exception to Ryan’s tendency to keep secrets when even Sharpay had been shut out before.

Actually, he had a feeling it had something to do with the way Ryan looked at him sometimes, when it was just the two of them, often when they were seated in Ryan’s car right outside his driveway. Under the streetlights, Ryan’s eyelashes would glow golden, and the way he looked up at Chad from underneath them... it was like Chad was the only person who existed in Ryan’s world, like nothing else mattered besides the two of them.

No one had ever looked at Chad like that before.

And now Ryan could barely look at him at all. Somehow, that hurt more than when he had become invisible to his oldest friend.

The rest of Chad’s lunch hour passed in relative silence. At one point, a stray golf ball had flown by them, startling them both enough that they made eye contact and broke into fits of laughter. But when the laughter died down, the dreaded silence returned.

As his break drew to a close, Chad couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed to have to part ways with Ryan or if he was relieved that they wouldn’t have to stew in that awkward silence any longer.

Just as he was about to excuse himself to get back to work, Ryan suddenly stood up, smiling as he offered Chad a hand. It was an abrupt change of mood, but no matter how much Chad squinted at Ryan’s looming figure, his smile seemed nothing short of genuine. Still, despite his doubts, Chad took Ryan’s hand, allowing himself to be pulled up.

“I’ll walk you back,” Ryan offered.

Chad would have told him that it wasn’t necessary, but he knew Ryan well enough by now to know that when he offered to do something, arguing wasn’t really an option. It was probably because hardly anyone ever challenged his authority.

Despite his fondness for his friend, Chad acknowledged that it might be good for Ryan to learn that he can’t make decisions on his own and expect people to accept them without question. But then again, Ryan was a lot more considerate than Sharpay was, and while he could get a little bossy occasionally, he lacked the condescension that often came with Sharpay’s orders.

Chad was the one to pick up the basket though, since Ryan had been the one to carry it earlier. Ryan didn’t protest that, pushing his hands into his front pockets as he started to head back towards the staff building.

“You know, I’m surprised you didn’t ask me about my humuhumu performance,” Ryan grinned, bumping his shoulder against Chad’s lightly.

It was a little disconcerting, how quickly Ryan could go from one mood to another in a blink of an eye, but Chad was too glad that their walk back wouldn’t be awkward that he was all too happy to indulge in Ryan’s abrupt shift in mood.

“Should I care about it?” Chad teased.

Predictably, Ryan pouted. By this point, Chad had accepted that his gaze would invariably drift to Ryan’s lips, although he made sure not to stare for too long. Ryan either didn’t notice or was ignoring it, both of which suited Chad just fine.

“Humuhumu is a masterpiece,” Ryan insisted, “It’s about a prince who was cursed to be a prince until a princess frees him.”

Chad raised an eyebrow at that description. It suddenly occurred to him how odd it was that the Evans twins routinely portrayed couples and performed love songs, but the two of them had this uncanny ability to remove any trace of romance from the sappiest of love songs. Romantic chemistry was probably the only aspect that they lost out to Gabriella and Troy, and thank god for that.

“So... the frog prince, but with sea creatures?”

Ryan’s eyes widened, as if he hadn’t noticed the similarity between the two stories before now. He recovered in a second though, frown settling in place as he sulked about presumably his compromised artistic integrity. Despite himself, Chad found Ryan’s sulking rather endearing.

“Aww, don’t be like that,” Chad grinned, “I’m sure humuhumu is amazing. The frog prince, who? The fish prince might just be the next Disney prince.”

“You jest, but I do think the fish prince has the makings to be a Disney prince,” Ryan retorted, “I would voice the character, naturally.”

“Naturally,” Chad repeated, nodding seriously. He broke character when Ryan’s elbows found his ribs though, laughing as he shoved Ryan off him.

“What, you don’t think I could be the voice of a Disney prince?” Ryan challenged, crowding back into Chad’s space as soon as he regained his balance. Chad didn’t push him away again.

Chad paused, sizing Ryan up playfully. Until suddenly it wasn’t so playful anymore. They stopped walking as his gaze drifted down Ryan’s body, taking in the light blue polo shirt, the knitted argyle vest that he wore over it. Chad couldn’t help but think about the lean dancer’s body that was hidden underneath those clothes.

He thought about all the times Ryan’s shirt lifted whenever he stretched during their dance practices – just enough to catch a sliver of a toned abdomen – and felt his mouth go dry. When his gaze returned to Ryan’s face, he found Ryan staring right back at him. His blue eyes looked darker than usual, but maybe it was just the result of standing in a dimly lit corridor.

Ryan licked his lips, stepping closer. Chad was almost afraid to breathe, afraid that even the slightest movement on his part would startle Ryan into running. He held his breath until it started to hurt, but then Ryan placed a hand on his chest and he let out an involuntary gasp, taking in a lungful of air.

“Breathe,” Ryan commanded, his voice somehow firm and soft at the same time.

Chad looked down at his own chest as he breathed, watched it go up and down with every inhale and exhale, watched as Ryan’s hand remained steady. When he looked up again, Ryan seemed a breath closer–– not much, but enough to make his heart hammer. Chad wondered if Ryan could feel Chad’s heart going wild, feel the effect he had on Chad.

Ryan paused. The moment of will he won’t he seemed to last an eternity, and just when it seemed like Ryan was about to lean in and finally finally kiss Chad­––

“I’ll go look for him­­–– oh.”

The two of them shot back as far away from each other as they could. Which meant that Chad smacked his head against the wall behind him, and Ryan had his back pressed against the wall across from Chad. Between them stood a rather stunned Taylor McKessie.

Ryan was the first of them to regain his ability to speak. “I, uh, I have to go. Sharpay probably needs me... I–– okay, bye.”

He took off down the corridor, the same way they had come from, and Chad was left alone with Taylor. Chad felt like he was going to be sick. Taylor had walked in on them in such a compromising position.

Taylor, his girlfriend, had almost caught Chad and Ryan kissing.

It was probably awful to admit, but Chad had been so caught up with Ryan, and his strange, new burgeoning feelings that he had completely forgotten that he technically had a girlfriend. Who had just almost caught him kissing someone else.

It seemed those were only two thoughts that he could think of at the moment, his mind constantly cycling between I have a girlfriend and she almost caught me cheating on her. He was stuck ­–– unlike Ryan, he couldn’t run away, but there was also no way he could explain that it wasn’t what it looked like. Because it had been exactly what it looked like, and as shitty of a boyfriend as he’d been thus far, he would never lie to Taylor.

Chad didn’t even dare to look at her, still staring at the wall that only just recently had been hidden behind Ryan’s figure. From the corner of his eye, he saw Taylor’s hand move and he squeezed his eyes shut, anticipating a slap... that never came.

Instead, he felt a hand wrap around his arm, not unlike the way Gabriella had that morning. When he finally dared to open his eyes and look at Taylor, she didn’t look angry at all. She had the same concerned look that Gabriella had, and maybe it should have been a relief to know that she wasn’t mad, but honestly it just made Chad feel even worse.

She had every right to be mad at him. She should be mad at him. And yet she only looked worried for him, as if Chad needed to be reminded that Taylor deserved so much better than to have him as a boyfriend.

“Hey... want to go somewhere more private so we can talk?”

Chad managed to choke out a laugh at that, nodding as he pushed off the wall. “Yeah... yeah, somewhere private might be a good idea.”

Taylor nodded in response, but didn’t move. Chad eyed her curiously. “I don’t know any private spots here,” she admitted, almost sheepishly, as if Chad would somehow think less of her for it.

Which was ridiculous. He honestly did think the world of Taylor –– she was smart, and she was beautiful, and she took no shit from anyone, which was why Chad was surprised that he hadn’t been chewed to bits yet.

He didn’t say anything in response to Taylor’s admission of not knowing where they could go to talk. There was only one place that came to mind; it was where pretty much all of the serious conversations Chad had had this summer had taken place.

It was only when he was five steps away from Ryan’s studio that he wondered if he’d made a mistake. What if Ryan was inside the studio, mulling over what had happened? Tentatively, he pushed the door open, his shoulders crumpling in relief when the room was absent of one Ryan Evans.

He opened the door fully, gesturing for Taylor to enter. She seemed apprehensive, shrugging when Chad looked at her curiously.

“I know we come here for dance practice, but I’ve never been here without the rest of the Wildcats. This is your place. You and Ryan’s,” Taylor explained.

And just like that, Taylor managed to take him by surprise once more. There was no venom in her tone when she spoke about him and Ryan, nothing to suggest that she was angry or upset or jealous.

“Well, you obviously want me to talk about me and Ryan, so.” Chad decided he wasn’t going to skirt around the topic. It was better to rip the band-aid off in one go after all, and he highly doubted Taylor would let him beat around the bush anyway. “Seemed fitting to have the talk here.”

“Do you think Ryan would mind?” Her voice still had that worried undertone to it, and it still made Chad feel weird. He was used to Gabriella being the mother hen, not Taylor.

“Ryan’s not important right now.” The words didn’t feel right, but nevertheless, he persevered. “Why aren’t you mad?”

Taylor blinked. “Why would I be mad?”

For a moment Chad considered that maybe the position he and Ryan had been in hadn’t been as incriminating as he had thought, but then he remembered that there had barely been two inches between their faces, and surely a girl as smart as Taylor would be able to put two and two together easily enough.

“Because you caught your boyfriend almost kissing someone else?” Chad was probably digging his own grave here. Perhaps he should’ve just accepted that Taylor wasn’t angry and went on his merry way, but he couldn’t. He’d fucked up, and he was more than willing to face the consequences of his actions.

Taylor gave him a look that looked as if she was trying to decide whether he was being serious before breaking into laughter. “Oh my god, Chad. Is that why you looked like you were going to be sick?”

Chad didn’t quite see what she found that funny, but she was doubled over with laughter, and it took her a while to compose herself. “Chad, honey,” she called once she could speak without laughter threatening to overcome her again. The worry from earlier was gone, replaced with amusement. Chad was just getting more and more confused by the second.

“You haven’t been my boyfriend for a long time, Chad,” Taylor explained.

Chad frowned. “Wait... when did you break up with me?”

Taylor raised an eyebrow at him, bracing one hand on her hip. “Were we ever really dating?” she questioned.

“I mean...” Chad tried to think back on all the things he and Taylor had done as a couple, and he realised that they hadn’t really done anything that a pair of friends wouldn’t do. Hell, he’d done more couple things with Ryan than with Taylor––

Oh.

“Judging by the look on your face... I assume you’ve just figured out that you’ve been dating Ryan for most of the summer, not me.” There was an edge of laughter to her words, and while Chad was glad that she wasn’t angry at him, he was slightly miffed that she found amusement in this.

“Why did no one tell me?” Chad groaned, burying his hands in his curls in frustration. “Does everyone think I cheated on you?”

Taylor stepped closer, reaching out to pull his arms away from his face. “Well, I might have gone on a date or two with one of the pool boys, so rest assured, the Wildcats know that we’re not a thing.”

Chad sighed in relief at her words, but now that the worry about being a terrible boyfriend to Taylor had been put to rest, his other dilemma came to light. Namely, his relationship with Ryan.

“Ryan and I aren’t dating,” Chad stated. Taylor looked sceptical, but she didn’t argue. “How many people think we are?”

“No one,” Taylor replied. “Gabi and I noticed a little something might’ve been brewing – good to know that we were right, as always – but as far as I’m aware, everyone else just thinks you two are just friends.”

“That’s because we are just friends,” Chad insisted.

Taylor pulled back from him and crossed her arms. He recognised that stance. It meant that she was ready for an argument. Frankly, he had never seen Taylor lose an argument, so Chad didn’t really like his chances at the moment.

“So what was going on in that corridor before I came along? Ryan was just helping you check if you had food on your teeth, like a good bro?”

Chad winced. She certainly didn’t pull her punches, and she went straight for the one thing she knew Chad had no viable explanations for. “Okay so maybe we almost kissed,” he conceded. “Twice.”

“Twice?” Taylor sounded surprised, and Chad gave himself a mental pat on the back for being the one to surprise her this time and not the other way around. “When? How long have you guys been skirting around all that sexual tension?”

“Sexual tension?” Chad felt absolutely mortified. He was willing to admit that there was something between him and Ryan, but to call it sexual tension just seemed too much. It wasn’t like he wanted to jump Ryan’s bones... just kiss him.

But oh god, now that Taylor had said that, Chad could feel his mind starting to go places he hadn’t even allowed himself to think about going. His face felt like it was on fire, and he didn’t need to look at Taylor’s face to know that she was currently wearing a smirk.

“There is no sexual tension between us, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chad said with as much dignity as he could muster. “I just want to kiss him, maybe. I think maybe it’s been on the back of my mind for a while now, but I only really realised it last night.”

Taylor went quiet once more, contemplative. Chad wondered what she was thinking, and then decided maybe he was better off not knowing.

“Does that bother you?” she asked, her voice quieter, more unsure of herself, as if she was afraid it wasn’t her place. Which was silly. Even if they weren’t dating, Taylor was one of Chad’s closest friends. Plus, he knew she only had his best interests in mind, so he highly doubted there was much she could say that would tick him off. “That you want to kiss Ryan?”

“Because he’s a guy?” Chad thought about it for a second. The fact that Ryan was also a guy was probably the reason why it took him so long to notice – perhaps the better word here would be to acknowledge – that he wanted to kiss him.

But he’d had a lot of time to think it over last night when he couldn’t sleep, and he was surprised that Ryan’s gender didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would. The biggest hurdle had been admitting to himself that he wanted to kiss Ryan, and now that he had done just that, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.

After all, he’d never thought that there was anything wrong with being gay. And if he was okay with other boys kissing boys, why shouldn’t he be okay with kissing boys himself? Besides, the more he thought about it, the more everything started to make sense. He had never really shown much interest in girls, and he’d used to chalk it up to basketball being his first love, but clearly, he’d just been paying attention to the wrong gender.

It took him a moment to realise that Taylor was still waiting for a reply, so Chad shook his head in response to her question. “To be honest, I’m mostly worried that my feelings are going to mess up our friendship.”

“And what feelings might that be?” Taylor probed, prompting an eye-roll from Chad.

She really wasn’t going to make this conversation easy for him at all. “I like him, okay? I like Ryan Evans as more than a friend. Happy?”

“It’s not me you should be trying to please,” Taylor quipped, but despite her words, Chad could tell that she was pleased, and despite himself, it made him smile.

It was nice, to finally admit to someone how he felt about Ryan. The thought had lingered in the dark fringes of his mind for quite a while now, but he had refused to let the thought grow. Now that he finally said it out loud, it was out in the world now, there was no taking it back.

Chad Danforth had a crush on Ryan Evans.

It was like the floodgates had been opened. Chad had been apprehensive to give any weight to his feelings before this, but now that he was being honest with himself, he had to admit that the thought of Ryan caused a giddy little thrill to go through him.

“Anyway, I don’t think you need to worry about ruining your friendship,” Taylor continued. “I’m fairly certain that Ryan feels the same way.”

And oh, Chad wanted more than anything to believe that, but even the smallest of doubts was enough to make him hesitate. So maybe he was finding it harder and harder to be around Ryan without thinking about kissing the other boy, but if Ryan didn’t want the same thing then he’d hold onto whatever restraint he had left to make sure he didn’t make Ryan uncomfortable.

“Yeah, well. I don’t share your certainty,” Chad sighed.

“That’s because you don’t see the way he looks at you when you’re not looking.” Taylor stated, matter-of-fact. It sounded so corny, even as Chad felt his cheeks heating up, he couldn’t help but laugh and was rewarded with a light shove. “I mean it! And all the private lunches? The sneaking away? Hanging out on the weekends?”

Chad paused, tried to think of a way to put his thoughts to words without sounding patronising, even if Ryan wasn’t here to hear him. “You know how the Evans family is. They hardly do anything half-heartedly, including friendships, I suppose.”

Taylor took a step closer and Chad resisted the urge to take a step back. He wasn’t sure what Taylor was playing at, but he knew better than to show any sign of weakness. “You’re scared,” she pointed out.

When Chad didn’t say anything to dispute the fact, she sighed. “I get it, Chad. Making the first move is scary, and you have to decide whether what you feel about him is worth the risk. If you’ve got your mind set on never acting on your feelings, I’ll respect that. I just don’t want you to regret never trying.”

Chad went quiet, trying to decipher the depth of his feelings for Ryan and wondering if it was reason enough to take a leap of faith. The thing was, so many teenagers their age believed that a romantic relationship was the end all to be all, but Chad didn’t share the sentiment. It seemed silly and counterproductive to rank relationships like that, so technically a friendship with Ryan should be as good as a romantic relationship with him.

But then again, Chad had been berating himself for not closing the distance between them sooner the night before. He wanted to kiss Ryan, and he’d be lying if he said he would be okay with never knowing what kissing Ryan might feel like.

“You don’t have to make a decision now,” Taylor spoke up, breaking the silence. “And even if you decide on something right now, you can always change your mind later.”

Chad nodded, opening his arms and pulling Taylor into a hug. She yelped in surprise before wrapping her arms around him as well. He squeezed her as tightly as he dared to, trying to convey all his appreciation and love for her in the simple gesture. From the way she squeezed back, Chad was pretty certain she got his message.

He wasn’t quite sure where he wanted to go from there, but the knowledge that Taylor had his back no matter his decision was enough for Chad to be okay with not knowing. There was a part of Chad that really, really wanted to run off to look for Ryan – to make sure he was okay, that they were okay – but for the most part he was content to just stand there in the studio hugging Taylor.

“We should probably head back to the kitchen,” Taylor reminded him as they pulled apart, drawing a displeased groan from Chad.

He’d managed to forget that they were at work, and his eagerness to wait tables earlier that morning had all but vanished now. Chad had gotten away with quite a bit of slacking thanks to his friendship with Ryan, but he wasn’t sure where he stood with the other boy at the moment, and he didn’t want to make Fulton any angrier than he probably already was with them, just in case Ryan decided he wouldn’t bail Chad out this time.

“Back to facing the reality of our future as the working class?” Chad joked.

Taylor scowled lightly, ushering him out of the room. “If waiting tables is the crux of your aspirations for the future then so be it, but I’ve got bigger plans.”

“I know, I know,” Chad laughed as she caught up with him, “You’re probably going to find a cure for cancer. Now c’mon, we better hurry.”

He glanced over at her, mischievous twinkle clear in his eyes. Taylor seemed to be able to interpret the look, her arm darting out to try and grab him but she was just a little too slow. He managed to slip from her grasp, tearing down the corridor after initiating an impromptu race back to the kitchen.

Chad could hear Taylor whining about the unfairness of the competition – he could see where she was coming from, after all he was an athlete – but the whining was accompanied by the sound of her running footsteps. He laughed, momentarily pushing the Ryan situation to the back of his mind.

He supposed talking to Ryan could wait till the end of the work day.

//

Except, of course, things weren’t going to be that easy. Chad had just clocked out when his phone started ringing, Ryan’s name flashing across the screen.

“Hey, Ry. Where are you? We need to––”

“Sorry, Chad,” Ryan interrupted, “Sharpay called an emergency.”

It felt like a door had been slammed in Chad’s face. Obviously, it wasn’t Ryan’s fault that Sharpay was bossy and didn’t no how to take no for an answer, but he’d been wanting to talk to Ryan for half the day, and now he’d have to stew in his thoughts even longer. Frankly, Chad just wanted to talk to Ryan before he talked himself out of it.

“Chad?” Ryan’s voice sounded tinny through the phone, and it served as a reminder that the boy was elsewhere at the moment. Chad felt terribly alone all of a sudden. “Are you there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” he replied, not wanting Ryan to worry. “You shouldn’t keep Sharpay waiting.”

A wry chuckle from the other end. “Knowing her, she probably just chipped a nail or something,” Ryan muttered. “I can still give you a ride home though? I haven’t left Lava Springs yet.”

There was movement in the corner of his eye, and when Chad turned to look, he found Gabriella waving at him as she walked over. She probably just ended her shift and was headed over to clock out before going home. He hadn’t spent much time alone with Gabi in a while – and an awful lot with Ryan – so Chad figured he’d just ask Gabi if he could hitch a ride home with her.

“Nah, it’s okay. You shouldn’t keep her highness waiting. I think I can get Mrs Montez to drop me off.” Chad paused, not quite sure whether he should give voice to the question he had in mind, eventually deciding he had no reason to be anxious. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

For the briefest of moments, Ryan didn’t respond. The quiet yeah followed his question, but not soon enough. Chad couldn’t tell if he was just overthinking things, but he couldn’t help but feel like there was something akin to hesitance in the split-second between his question and Ryan’s answer. Nevertheless, he shook it off, saying goodbye and hanging up just as Gabriella reached him.

“Was that Ryan?” Gabriella asked. Chad recognised the teasing lilt to her voice easily enough – having endured hours of Taylor asking about Ryan in a similar manner – and he wondered if Gabriella had gotten a chance to talk to Taylor already.

“Yeah, called to say he had an emergency.” Chad accentuated the word emergency with an eye-roll, lest Gabriella got the wrong idea and thought that it was an actual emergency and not a Sharpay situation. “I was wondering if I could hitch a ride with your mum?”

“Of course,” she responded easily. “I’m sure mum will be more than happy to drop you off. Want to go wait by the pool? She’s still twenty minutes away, so we have some time.”

Chad nodded, waiting for Gabriella to clock out before falling into step with her as she started to head back in the direction she came from. There was amicable silence as they walked, which was nice. The sky was a dark purple, and there was a cool breeze blowing as they walked. For a moment, Chad wished that it was Ryan he was with and then promptly felt bad.

“Did you get a chance to talk to Taylor today?” Chad broke the silence, hoping that some conversation would keep his mind from straying to Ryan again.

“No?” she turned to him, looking vaguely puzzled. “Should I have? Did something happen?”

Chad went over his options really quick. He didn’t know if telling Gabriella would be worth the teasing, but the girl was also really close to Ryan and maybe he could get some insider information on how a potential confession might go.

“Well, I found out that Taylor and I aren’t dating,” he confessed. Better to start slow, he figured. That way he could still change his mind about telling Gabriella about the almost-kisses and his feelings.

Gabriella laughed and Chad feigned being hurt by pouting, which only seemed to make her laugh harder. “Took you long enough,” she teased, “How’d you find out?”

Chad shrugged. “I apologised for being a bad boyfriend, and she laughed for five minutes straight before telling me that she’s been dating some pool boy.”

And that sent Gabriella into another fit of giggles. He watched her struggle to compose herself, tears in her eyes that showed both mirth and fondness. It made him wonder why he ever thought Troy would be better off without someone like Gabriella in his life, but that train of thought only reminded him that the two had broken up. This time it was not by any machinations of his design, but it still sobered him some.

Troy and Gabriella had become something of the golden couple, and if even they couldn’t get a relationship to last... then what hope did the rest of them have, really?

“So what made you realise you’d been a bad boyfriend?” Now that Chad knew that Taylor and Gabriella had been aware of the possibility of blossoming feelings between him and Ryan, he could definitely pick out the expectant tone of her voice.

He considered telling her, since he’d figured she would hear about it from Taylor anyway. But then he realised that even though Gabriella was Taylor’s best friend, so was he – in a way – and he highly doubted that she would tell Gabriella about something he had shared with her in confidence, no matter how much it killed her to keep it to herself.

Chad still didn’t know whether he wanted to keep his friendship with Ryan as it was or to try for something new, and while part of him definitely wanted to tell anyone who was willing to listen all about his feelings for Ryan, there was a bigger part of him that wanted to keep his cards close to his chest. Because he was scared, just like Taylor said.

He looked at Gabriella, and even though she looked perfectly fine, he couldn’t help but think about her split with Troy. If something more didn’t work out with Ryan then, the less people who knew about it, the better. Chad didn’t think he could stand to be around people if he knew that in the back of their minds they were thinking about how much of a pity it was that things didn’t work out for him.

“No particular reason.” He felt bad about lying to her, but still, the lie came easily enough. “Zeke was talking about all the things he wanted to do with Sharpay and it made me realise that I haven’t really been doing much with Taylor. Besides group stuff, y’know.”

The only reason Chad caught the disappointment in Gabriella’s expression was because he knew to look for it, but she masked it well with a smile and a light punch to his arm. “As if I’d let you get away with neglecting Taylor if you guys were dating,” she teased.

Chad managed a laugh. It seemed she wasn’t going to try and press for more information. Good. “I don’t think Taylor would let me get away with neglecting Taylor if we were dating,” he responded. “I suppose that should’ve been my biggest clue.”

“Probably,” Gabriella agreed.

They fell quiet. Chad settled onto one of the poolside chaise lounges and Gabriella took a seat on the one next to his. His gaze was focused on the night sky – almost completely dark now – but he could see Gabriella watching him in his peripheral. Just as it seemed like she was going to say something, they were startled by the sound of a car horn.

Silently, Chad thanked Mrs Montez’s lucky timing. Gabriella seemed to forget whatever it was she had wanted to talk to Chad about, jumping up and grabbing her bag before leading the way to her mum’s car. Mrs Montez was watching them approaching with the windows down, and she smiled at Chad when they came close enough.

“It’s been a while since I drove you home,” she remarked. Maybe it was all in Chad’s head – Gabriella did take after Mrs Montez, after all, so he was probably just getting them a little mixed up – but it seemed more than just a simple remark.

“I appreciate it, Mrs Montez,” he said as he got into the backseat.

Gabriella sat up front with her mother, which Chad was thankful for. The seating arrangement made it slightly awkward for her to chat with him, so most of the ride passed in silence. Chad had a feeling what she wanted to talk about with him required privacy as well, and Mrs Montez’s presence saved him from further conversation.

//

“Ryan didn’t drive you home today?” His mother was sitting in the living room with a book when he arrived home. He had almost missed her on his way to the stairs, jumping slightly when she suddenly spoke to him.

“No,” he responded. “How’d you know?”

His mum put down her book, patting the spot on the couch next to her. She wasn’t the type of woman one could say no to easily either, so Chad deviated from his path towards the stairs, dropping his bag by the couch before taking a seat. She opened her arms and Chad dutifully leaned in, pressing himself into her arms.

“I heard the car pull up and then you’re in the house two minutes later,” she explained. “Usually you’re out there for ten minutes before you come in.”

“Oh.” He burrowed further into his mum’s side, breathing in the familiar scent of her perfume – faded from being worn the whole day – and detergent from the clean pyjamas she was wearing. It was nice. It’d been a long day, filled with plenty of highs and lows, and he felt like he could finally relax.

“Everything okay with Ryan?” There was concern in her voice, but none of the expectation that usually came with questions from Taylor and Gabriella. It didn’t feel like his mother was pushing him for information and even though he loved his friends, he was grateful to not feel pressured to divulge everything.

Truth be told, he wasn’t sure that everything was okay with Ryan. He couldn’t say that there was something wrong, but things didn’t feel right either. Chad couldn’t quite explain it, but his gut was telling him that something was up. Or maybe that was just baseless anxiety. Things had been so confusing for him lately, and even though there had been moments of clarity, his thoughts returned to being murky soon enough.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” he told her, even though the words left an odd taste in his mouth. He didn’t want her to worry, not when he wasn’t even sure there was something worth worrying about. “He just had a family thing.”

Chad could tell that his mother wasn’t entirely convinced, but she simply nodded, carding her fingers through Chad’s unruly mop of her. He hated that it reminded him of Ryan doing the same just the day before. Funny. It felt like it had happened forever ago.

He pulled away from his mother then. Chad was tired, having not had enough sleep the night before and also after being on his feet most of the day. He just wanted to go to sleep and couldn’t afford thoughts of Ryan keeping him up all night again.

“I’m tired,” he piped up all of a sudden, pulling away and stretching.

His mother didn’t try to hold him back. “Go on then, off to bed.” She nudged him once before picking up her book once more, although Chad could feel her gaze follow him all the way up the stairs.

It didn’t take too long for a quick shower and to brush his teeth. Soon enough, he was lying in bed. Chad had a feeling that if he wasn’t so physically exhausted, it might’ve been another sleepless night for him. As it was, he fell asleep rather quickly.

Ryan’s quiet assurance that Chad would see him tomorrow was the last thing on his mind.

Chapter Text

Chad didn’t see Ryan the next day–– or, well, he did, but Chad didn’t think a two-second greeting as they crossed paths in the hallway outside the kitchen counted. There was a weight in his chest that refused to go away, a niggling thought that Ryan was avoiding him.

He tried his best to ignore such thoughts, although he wasn’t quite sure whether it was because he believed he was being irrational or because he was in denial. Either way, Chad tried to put all thoughts of Ryan out of his mind, which was harder than he’d thought – when he wasn’t worrying about Ryan possibly avoiding him, his mind kept drifting back to how close their mouths had been – but work was a useful distraction.

Kelsi popped by the kitchen sometime before Chad’s break, looking both exhausted and frustrated. Chad wasn’t exactly close to Kelsi, but the poor girl looked as if she was at her wit’s end, and he felt bad enough to nick some food for her.

“Long day?” Chad asked as he slid the plate of pasta towards the girl. 

Kelsi nodded, although her attention was less on him and more on the food that was now in front of her. It was past the lunch hour rush and the orders were thinning, so Chad sat with her, waiting for her to elaborate.

She only turned to him after a few more bites, and Chad noticed that she had a little more colour in her cheeks already. “Sharpay’s been holding Ryan and I hostage,” she complained, “She was literally breathing down our necks as we worked on her routine, and she’d start yelling if we paused for even a minute.”

Chad tried not to sag too visibly in relief. At least now he knew why Ryan had been in such a rush that morning, although he did wonder why he wasn’t here with Kelsi.

“She finally let you guys off for lunch, eh?”

He had attempted to sound casual, but Kelsi blinked and stared at him for a beat too long before clearing her throat. “She let me go, but poor Ryan’s still stuck with her.”

“Poor Ryan...” he echoed with a soft sigh.

Kelsi was looking at him strangely again, but just as it seemed like she was about to say something, Taylor yelled for him from across the kitchen. Thankful for the escape, he excused himself and went right back to waiting tables. 

When Chad returned to the kitchen after tending to his last table before his break, Kelsi was gone and Ryan was in his place. Chad felt something in his chest stutter at the sight of the boy, and he wondered how he’d managed to be so oblivious to his own feelings before now.

“Hey...” he called out softly as he approached Ryan.

Ryan swivelled around to face him, looking startled until he recognised Chad, and the look of surprise melted into a soft smile. “Hey back at you,” Ryan returned, gesturing at the seat across from him. “Shall we just eat in here today? It’s the first time I’ve been off my feet the entire day, and I don’t think I can get up from here anymore.”

Chad didn’t quite buy the excuse, not after having seen Ryan looking as if he’d barely broken a sweat after dance practice while everyone else guzzled their water, and it would be hard to broach the topic of their almost-kiss in the kitchen with all their peers around.

Vaguely, Chad wondered if that was exactly why Ryan wanted to stay in the kitchen, but when he looked at his friend again, he was staring off into face, slightly slumped in his seat, which was unusual for the boy who usually had terrific posture. Suddenly, Chad felt bad for doubting Ryan, and he slid into the indicated seat with an easy smile.

“I hear Sharpay’s been a demanding client,” Chad said, trying to coax Ryan into talking.

Ryan scoffed at that. “Demanding is putting it lightly,” he replied, “But I guess I get it. The show is approaching and she’s got about three quarters of an unpolished routine right now. If I were her, I’d probably be snapping people’s heads off too.”

“You? Snapping people’s heads off? I don’t think so,” Chad teased.

Indignant, Ryan threw a fry at his head. It bounced harmlessly off his nose, and Chad picked it up from where it had landed on the table between them and popped it into his mouth. Ryan’s nose wrinkled in disgust, but the expression didn’t linger, turning into a smile too easily for Chad to believe that the disgust had been genuine. 

“You’re gross,” Ryan mumbled.

“You love me.” It had been a thoughtless remark, something he often said in jest. But the sudden quiet that had fallen after he’d said the words this time made Chad want to take them back.

But then Ryan smiled, letting out a little scoff as he shook his head, eyes dropping to the table. “Yeah, I do.” His voice was quiet, almost like he was talking to himself, but Chad could hear him anyway. And then he cleared his throat, smile widening as his gaze found Chad’s once more. “I guess there’s no accounting for taste, eh?”

The earlier surprise from Ryan’s quiet admission was quickly replaced by offence, and Chad picked up another fry from Ryan’s plate, chucking it at the blond this time. Ryan shrieked, nearly falling off the stool in his attempt to avoid being hit by the food projectile. Chad couldn’t stop himself from laughing at the sight; he’d seen Ryan stare down a baseball flying right at him, but a measly fry was enough to nearly topple his balance.

“I just don’t want any grease on my clothes,” Ryan whined, as if he’d read Chad’s mind somehow and was justifying his reaction. It only made Chad laugh harder.

Visibly sulking, Ryan chewed on a fry angrily, and the sight made something in Chad’s chest ache. It wasn’t an unpleasant ache, and now that Chad knew better, he wasn’t completely oblivious to the longing that curled in his gut. Once his laughter had died down, quiet fell upon them once more. It was a comfortable sort of silence, Ryan wordlessly picking at his food while Chad watched, and if Ryan felt uncomfortable under Chad’s gaze, he didn’t say.

There was a lock of hair that had fallen loose from Ryan’s cap and was hanging in the boy’s face as he looked down at his food. Chad watched quietly as Ryan flicked his head every so often, an unconscious attempt to get the hair out of his face. It was pretty adorable, but after the fifth unsuccessful attempt, Chad took pity on his friend, reaching out to tuck the long strand behind Ryan’s ear.

Ryan looked up at him in surprise at the sudden contact, and Chad froze, his fingertips still grazing Ryan’s ear. It was the lightest of touches, but he could feel the tips of Ryan’s ear growing warm, and it made his fingertips tingle. Vaguely, he thought that he should probably pull his hand back, but Ryan’s deer-in-the-headlights look had melted into something fond, and their joined gazes kept Chad’s hand in place. It would be so easy, too easy, to just slide his hand down a little, to cup Ryan’s face in his hand and lean in for the kiss he so desperately wanted.

Despite his hesitance, Chad felt his hand start to move, his palm moving down to cradle Ryan’s jaw. He saw more than heard the soft gasp that Ryan let out, his lips parting ever so slightly. Chad had leaned in just a fraction of an inch when Kelsi appeared by them all of a sudden, and both of them leaned back so quickly Chad thought he might’ve given himself whiplash.

“You had, uh, sauce on your face,” Chad explained lamely, blurting out the first excuse he could think of for having his hand on Ryan’s face.

“Thanks,” Ryan murmured.

Kelsi looked between the two of them oddly, eyes narrowed slightly in suspicion. Either she decided there wasn’t anything weird going on, or she didn’t want to broach the topic in the middle of the kitchen, but she shrugged and seemed to let it go. Chad was infinitely grateful for that.

“Sharpay’s yelling for you,” Kelsi informed the blond boy, “I tried to tell her that you were having lunch, but she wouldn’t have it. She was convinced you’d run off and holed yourself away with that Wildcat boy.”

Kelsi’s gaze flickered over to Chad at that, and there was no doubt in any of their minds that Chad was the Wildcat boy that Sharpay had been referring to. Chad forced his expression to remain neutral, refusing to give away the fact that he really liked the idea of other people seeing them as a pair, inseparable. It was only when Kelsi looked away that Chad let himself breathe a little easier.

Ryan heaved a long suffering sigh, finishing the rest of his burger in one bite and pushed his leftover fries towards Chad, who was more than happy to help him finish them. “Alright, let’s go before she does something crazy,” Ryan said once he had swallowed his bite of food, “like try to cancel the entire talent show.”

Chad popped a handful of fries into his mouth, lifting his other unoccupied hand to wave the pair of them off. “I’ll see you later,” he called after them as they walked off.

Ryan turned back to wave, but he was tight-lipped as they left. Chad could have sworn there was something guilty about the boy’s expression, and suddenly the fries felt like cardboard in his mouth. Had it been anyone else, Chad wouldn’t have given a second thought to his ‘see you later’ not being parroted back, but Ryan’s silence just didn’t sit right with him.

Chad had never been the religious sort, but he found himself praying to god that he was overthinking anyway. 

//

Chad was definitely overthinking. Or at least, that was what Taylor insisted when he’d cornered her after work two days later and demanded her opinion on the matter. 

“I used to spend at least an hour with him everyday,” Chad re-iterated, and tried to ignore the way the words had come out more like a whine, “But now I’ve spoken to him for all of fifteen minutes in total maybe in the past two days. And that’s including all the ‘hi’s in the hallway when he runs by.”

“I told you, he’s just busy,” Taylor repeated herself with a sigh. She had been pretty patient with him for the first ten minutes of his mini freak-out, but it seemed like that patience was already stretching thin. “Since he and Sharpay made up, she’s gone back to bossing him around, you know how Sharpay can be––” 

Chad heard the sound of someone walking into the kitchen behind him, and a soft but sharp intake of breath from Taylor as she suddenly stopped talking. When he turned around to see who it was, he found Ryan smiling at them, looking tired, but not mad.

“Bossy and unreasonable?” Ryan offered as he walked over, an indirect assurance that he wasn’t mad at them for gossiping about his sister.

In a sudden moment of panic, Chad wondered how long Ryan had been there. Had he actually just gotten to the kitchen, or had he heard Chad’s entire spiel? Ryan was standing next to him, so close that he could feel the boy’s body heat emanating from him, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at him at all. He vaguely registered Ryan and Taylor talking, but he wasn’t listening to the conversation, only snapping out of it when he felt Taylor shake his shoulder lightly.

When he finally turned to look at where Ryan had been standing, the boy was gone. His attention returned to Taylor, and she was watching him with a small frown.

“What?” he asked after a minute of silence, her frown never once faltering.

“I think you’re right,” she spoke slowly, and then clarified, as if mistaking Chad’s silence for confusion instead of the heartache that it actually was. “I think Ryan’s being weird with you.”

“I don’t know whether to be relieved that I’m not just driving myself crazy overthinking things, or to be disappointed that I was right,” Chad admitted. He felt like maybe he should have a bigger reaction, but despite the tightness in his chest and the disappointment settling in his gut, he felt rather numb to it all. “What made you change your mind?”

“Just... the way he was holding himself next to you. You know you have this thing where you guys kind of just draw each other in?” Taylor paused, waiting for some sort of acknowledgement from Chad that he understood where she was getting at, and he did.

Sometimes he noticed it, the pull he felt towards Ryan whenever they were in the same space. Sometimes it happened without thinking, and he’d only realise it after they came together and then moved apart once more. “Yeah?” he prompted Taylor to continue.

“It was the first time I’ve seen him resist the urge to lean into you. And it can’t be because I was here when I’ve seen you guys basically cuddling on Gabi’s couch.” Taylor chewed on her lip thoughtfully, her frown only deepening. “Or maybe it is because I was here, I mean, I did walk in on you guys almost kissing–– Okay, yeah, I see why this has been driving you crazy.”

Finally some sympathy,” Chad groaned, running a hand through his hair. “What do I do, Tay? I don’t want things to stay weird between us.”

Taylor watched him for a moment before shaking her head lightly, and that was how Chad knew that he was in a real mess. She always had a solution to every problem, but now even she was stumped, which didn’t inspire much confidence in him.

“He might be a little stand-offish right now, but he’s not actively avoiding you, which is a good sign. I’m pretty sure Sharpay is actually running him dry, and he’s just not fighting her on it as hard as he probably would be if things weren’t weird between you two. So maybe you should make more of an effort to reach out to him, show him that you’re not going to let him withdraw so easily.” Taylor sighed. “And then hopefully, if you keep acting like nothing’s wrong then he’ll get the memo and be back to normal as well.”

“You really think that would work?” Chad asked, managing to sound only slightly sceptical.

“Well, your other option would be to tell him how you feel about him, and that could really go either way right now. It might be exactly what he needs to hear and you’ll finally get to kiss him, or he might completely freak out and never talk to you again. Which would be bad.”

“Which would be bad,” Chad echoed with a wince. “I didn’t want to push him to spend time with me if he wasn’t comfortable with it, but if you think I should push a little then I’ll do that.”

Taylor’s gaze softened, and she reached out, taking his hand in hers and squeezing lightly. “People are dumb. Sometimes we run from the things we want, and sometimes we need someone to hold onto us, to keep us from running too far, to fight for us to stay.”

Chad let her words sink in for a moment or two, and when the weight of them became too heavy to bear, he lightened up the tension with a smile that was just this side of teasing. “Which one of the pool boys broke your heart? I’ll break their nose in exchange.”

Rolling her eyes, Taylor pulled her hand from his grasp, using her now free hand to punch his shoulder lightly. “No one broke my heart, stupid. Artemis was the goddess of fertility and childbirth even though she was a virgin. I think I can be an expert on love even without actually experiencing love. Sometimes you need to stand on the outside in order to see things more clearly.”

 Chad raised an eyebrow, cocking his head at her slightly in question. “Artemis?”

That’s the part of what I said that you’re choosing to focus on?” Taylor choked out a laugh, shaking her head at him. “Unbelievable.”

Chad laughed as well, slinging an arm over her shoulder and pulling her against his side as he started to drag her out of the kitchen. “Obviously I think you’re an expert on love. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be confiding in you about these things, would I?”

She jabbed her elbow into his ribs lightly in protest at being manhandled, but didn’t actually make an effort to pull away, instead wrapping an arm around his waist so that they could walk together more easily. “I thought it was just because you didn’t have any other non-Troy friends,” she teased.

Chad stuttered out some indignation at that, but Taylor was laughing and he felt a little lighter after talking to her, so the light teasing was pretty welcome. For the first time, he wondered if he would have properly fallen in love with her had he not gotten close to Ryan. She looked over at him then, and as if reading his thoughts, went quiet as well, leaning her head against his chest as they stood in the parking lot and waited for their rides to come pick them up.

“Don’t think too much,” was her last piece of advice when her mother pulled up to them, and Chad nodded, giving her one last hug before she left.

Easier said than done, really. The thought of reaching out to Ryan scared him mostly because he was afraid of the possible rejection, or of inadvertently pushing him away further. But he knew that Taylor was right, that he couldn’t just passively sit by and do nothing as Ryan slowly drifted away from him.

Tomorrow, he resolved. Tomorrow he would talk to Ryan. He thought about how distant the blond boy had been the last couple of days, and how different it was from before, when they’d spend almost all of their free time together, and he hoped that there was still a relationship worth saving.

//

The day passed by torturously slowly. Chad had meant to try and, well, to say he had wanted to corner Ryan before work in the morning sounded a little extreme, but that had pretty much been the plan. Except he caught sight of dozens of helium balloons in the kitchen as he clocked in and remembered belatedly that there was to be a birthday party during brunch and he was supposed to be on duty the entire morning through lunch.

Ryan had breezed into the kitchen at one point to grab a bagel, and Chad had only managed to get a ‘hello’ in before Fulton whisked him away once more. So his plan was a bust. But at least he got to see Ryan –– he felt incredibly pathetic that just seeing the blond boy for two seconds made him this happy, but at least he was reassured that Ryan still wasn’t completely avoiding him or anything.

It was that small reassurance that kept him going the entire day, even though he caught no further glimpses of the blond boy. In fact, as evening drew closer, Chad found his energy – which had taken a serious dip sometime post-lunch rush – returning to him full force. By the time he threw down his apron to clock out, he could barely contain it, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Didn’t know you loved dancing that much,” Jason mused when he caught sight of the excitable boy.

“Just excited to get off work,” Chad lied, offering his teammate a sheepish smile as he forced his feet to still. “It’s been a long day; I’ll take dancing over running after 10-year-old kids any day.”

Jason laughed, nodding in agreement as he clocked out as well. When his back was turned, Chad let out a soft sigh of relief, his tense shoulders sagging once more. Not that he was ashamed of his feelings or anything, but still, he didn’t quite want everyone to know that the reason he was looking forward to dance practice so much was because he would finally be able to spend more than five minutes around Ryan for the first time in a week.

The pair of them were the last to leave the kitchen, and by the time they made it to the dance studio, they found everyone already in the middle of warming up, led by Ryan. Ryan, whose lips twitched into a fond smile the moment he caught Chad’s gaze. Chad beamed back, only to end up frowning when a shadow passed over Ryan’s expression and he turned away.

Chad’s heart clenched, his frown deepening in conclusion. He didn’t understand Ryan, didn’t even know where to start to try and make sense of Ryan’s headspace. Even as his body moved to join the warm up, his gaze never left Ryan, his heartache only growing. Chad wondered if maybe it would have been better if Ryan was outright ignoring him, instead of... whatever this was.

So close, yet so far away.

That was what he had thought in the moments when their foreheads had been pressed together, breathing each other’s air. Now, that feeling had become constant. A bitter part of Chad, ever the cynic, wondered if maybe Ryan knew about his feelings and was just toying with him.

Shaking his head, he tried to rid himself of all thoughts of Ryan –– which was difficult, to say the least, considering the fact that the boy was never more than five feet away from him the entire time. So he never quite succeeded, but he managed to focus on not tripping over his feet as he danced, finding with some surprise that the moves came pretty naturally to him after all the practice.

It seemed that he wasn’t the only one who had improved vastly. Almost everyone seemed to have their parts down, and really all they needed was a little polishing and they were good to go. Sure, they weren’t quite on Sharpay’s and Ryan’s level, but Chad was plenty proud of them anyway. It seemed Ryan was too, if the broad grin on his face was any indication.

They finished running through the entire routine, and Ryan turned off the music before it looped back to the beginning, earning a few odd looks. Ryan’s grin seemed to brighten, if that was even possible.

“You guys have come so far,” he praised, “Sharpay’s going to have real competition this year.”

Some of the guys let out a loud whoop at that, and everyone else broke into applause. Chad found himself cheering as well, trying to wrap his mind around how far he’d come. He had been adamant on not dancing, yet here he was, actually excited about not just dancing, but performing in front of a crowd. If someone had told him at the start of summer that he would develop a crush on Ryan Evans huge enough to agree to take part in a talent competition, Chad would probably have hurt himself laughing.

Life worked out in funny ways sometimes.

It was only when everyone started shuffling about to collect their things did Chad realise that Ryan had let them go for the day, a whole hour earlier than usual. His eyes flew around the room, panicking slightly when he couldn’t find Ryan. He startled when someone touched his arm, but broke into a stupid grin when he found Ryan smirking at him.

“Penny for your thoughts, Danforth?” Ryan asked, amusement clear in his blue eyes.

Chad managed an awkward chuckle; had they been alone, that would have been the perfect opening for him to confess his feelings. But even though quite a few of their peers had cleared out of the studio already, there were still a couple of stragglers, including Taylor, who was aggressively wiggling her eyebrows at him. He couldn’t help the bark of laughter at the sight, despite the light blush that heated his cheeks. Ryan turned to see what Chad was laughing at, but Taylor was already gone.

By the time Ryan turned back, they were the only two left. The room was quiet, but Chad didn’t mind. Even though he had wanted to be alone with Ryan, a part of him had been worried that things might be weird between them still, but this felt familiar.

Him and Ryan, in the small dance studio, standing close enough that their arms brushed, that point of contact grounding Chad. He could do it, he could reach out and pull Ryan closer, could finally press their lips together the way he had wanted to for ages now.

“Ryan––” he started to say, before being cut off by the sound of Ryan’s phone ringing.

Ryan fished his phone out of his pocket, and Chad saw Sharpay’s name on the screen, his heart sinking. She was probably summoning him to run some errand or another, and Ryan would probably go running to her, just when they were finally alone.

Except... Chad watched as Ryan rejected the call before turning back to him, and his heart swelled.

“You were saying?” Ryan asked.

But Chad had already lost his nerve, and the slightly doe-eyed, expectant manner in which Ryan was currently looking at him wasn’t helping. He felt naked under Ryan’s gaze, and he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“Do you want to shoot some hoops with me?” The words rushed out in a blur, and Chad winced internally.

Ryan’s eyebrows rose, and he pressed his lips together, as if fighting back a smile. Chad felt pretty proud of himself for amusing Ryan, even as back of his neck burned in embarrassment. For a moment, he feared that Ryan would say no –– it was late after all, and even though summer meant that the sun was still out, it had been a long day and Chad wouldn’t have held it against Ryan had he wanted to just go home.

So lost in his thoughts, he almost missed the soft sure that Ryan uttered. Instead of letting the surprise root him to the spot though, Chad rushed to grab his bag from where he’d dropped it in the corner earlier. He returned to where Ryan stood only to take his hand – looking far more confident than he actually felt – and drag him out of the dance studio.

He had been afraid that Ryan might pull away, but to Chad’s pleasure (and surprise), the boy held on tighter as they navigated the empty corridors of Lava Springs, only letting go once they arrived at the outdoor court.

Pulling his treasured basketball out of his bag, he tried to ignore the curious look that Ryan shot him. He brought his basketball almost everywhere he went, and would claim that he just liked to get some practice in whenever he had any free time, but the truth was that it was something of a comfort thing. Ryan had his hats, Chad had his basketball.

It seemed like something straight out of a dream; the weight of the basketball solid underneath his palms, the amber glow of the slowly descending sun setting Ryan’s hair alight. For a moment, all Chad could do was stare, thinking not for the first time just how beautiful the other boy was.

But then he blinked and the ball had been smacked out of his hands, Ryan’s laughter filling up the silence of the empty court.

“Get your head in the game, Wildcat!” Ryan yelled, dribbling around him before tossing the ball into the net.

It was unfair, really, how effortless he made it look –– was there nothing he wasn’t good at? Chad was tempted to admire the line of Ryan’s body, hints of hard muscle showing underneath the thin polo shirt that he wore. But then the blond boy turned to him, lips pulled into a smirk, and he’d always had a hard time backing down from any sort of competition.

He caught the rebound just as Ryan moved towards it. Despite seemingly being a natural athlete, he hadn’t had the training Chad had and unknowingly telegraphed his every moment, making it easy for Chad to side step him. It went on like this: Ryan would score, and then Chad would score as well immediately after, sometimes twice in a row. 

They were pretty evenly matched, and Chad would despair and the unfairness of it all if he hadn’t been in the lead. It was a narrower lead that he would’ve liked, but it was hard to be truly resentful of Ryan’s athleticism when it afforded him such a nice view. He was especially a fan of the way Ryan’s shirt would ride up every time he stretched on his tip-toes to shoot, exposing the tiniest sliver of pale skin.

The ball was in Chad’s hands, and as he lifted it over his head, he could see Ryan lunging towards him in his peripheral vision and knew what was going to happen even before the boy in question did. The sheer speed at which the blond had thrown himself in Chad’s direction completely threw off his balance, and Chad turned towards him just in time to catch the panicked look in his eyes as he tipped forward.

Chad’s shot went wide.

The ball was carelessly tossed away in favour of reaching for Ryan, and if Taylor had been here she would probably have laughed at the dramatic way in which Ryan literally fell into his arms. Chad let out a small grunt at suddenly having a whole other person’s weight on him, but mostly he was relieved that he managed to stay standing. It would have been so embarrassing if this had ended up with both of them on the ground instead.

But he couldn’t dwell on that, not when the object of his affections was suddenly so close. Ryan’s lips were parted slightly, staring wide-eyed up at him. Chad watched as the red in Ryan’s cheeks spread all the way down his neck, into the collar of his shirt, and before he could think about what he was doing, yanked Ryan towards him.

There was a soft gasp of surprise as their chests collided, but it was quickly muffled by Chad’s lips. 

In the split second it took for his brain to catch up with what was happening, Chad was saved from spiralling into a panic by the way Ryan’s hands had come up to grasp his jaw, kissing him back. Standing there, fingers tangled in blond hair as they stood, mouths pressed together, the sky above set ablaze by the slowly setting sun –– it was everything Chad had wanted and more.

Ryan kissed with an edge he hadn’t expected, just this side of desperate. One of his hands had moved to curl at the back of Chad’s neck, fingers digging into flesh almost painfully, as if he dreaded having to let go. Chad could understand that; he, too, had an iron grip on Ryan’s shoulder, crushing the boy against his chest.

Ever since that baseball game, they had been hurtling towards this moment, this inevitable collision. Chad never wanted to let go, and neither did Ryan, it seemed.

Ryan’s lips were chapped by the desert heat, but the press of them against Chad’s was soft, if insistent. Chad’s hands moved from Ryan’s hair to his neck, shoulders, chest, mapping every inch of the boy that he couldn’t before.

If it had been up to Chad, they would have stood there forever, hands tangled in each other, Ryan’s breath hot on his face. Every time Ryan moved to break the kiss, Chad moved as well, chasing after his lips, and Ryan would relent. But eventually, eventually, Chad let him pull back.

And oh, the sight of Ryan, cheeks flushed, breathing heavily through kiss-swollen lips, made Chad want to close the distance between them once more.

He reached out for Ryan, to draw him back into another kiss, but the blond took a step back, putting himself out of reach. Chad frowned.

“Ryan?” he called, not liking the way Ryan couldn’t seem to be able to meet his eye. 

“I’m sorry,” Ryan replied, “I can’t do this.”

Once, when Chad and Troy were eight, Troy had tackled him a little too hard during a play fight, and he’d had the wind knocked right out of him. Chad remembered lying on the ground, chest stuttering as he struggled to draw a breath.

He felt a little bit like that now.

What do you mean? he wanted to ask, or: What can’t you do? But his thoughts were racing far too quickly for his mouth to keep up, and the only question he managed was a pathetic little, “What?”

“I can’t––” Ryan huffed, finally looking up. Chad didn’t know whether it made him feel better or worse, knowing that Ryan was just as at a loss for words as he was. “I can’t do this,” he finished lamely, gesturing vaguely between them, “I like you too much.”

Chad laughed –– did Ryan think that Chad was just fooling around with him? Was that it? “I like you too,” he said, taking a step closer, the tension in his chest easing a little when Ryan didn’t move away. But Ryan wasn’t laughing either, and the smile slid off Chad’s face, even as he repeated, “I like you.”

Something in Ryan’s gaze softened, just a little. “I know, I figured as much when you kissed me,” he replied, voice soft, “But do you like me enough to date me?”

Of course I do, was his immediate thought, but then he opened his mouth and the words died in his throat. Did he really? He’d been so caught up in wanting to kiss Ryan and tell the boy what he felt about him, but he’d never really given much thought about actually dating him. 

Chad thought about it then, about being Ryan’s boyfriend, holding his hand and kissing his whenever he wanted, and he liked that, wanted it even. But then he thought about telling his friends about it, and he just–– he didn’t think he could do it. The crush on Ryan had crept up on him so quietly that he’d completely surpassed the sexuality crisis, but he wasn’t sure if he was comfortable with the rest of his peers knowing that he liked boys so soon after he’d just realised it himself.

Chad really, really, really liked Ryan–– but Ryan was right; he wasn’t sure whether he liked Ryan enough to openly be in a relationship with him. For the briefest of moments, he considered asking Ryan if they could date in secret, but then immediately felt sick with shame at himself.

He knew Ryan’s past, knew that it would’ve been so easy for him to hide away after what had happened to him, but instead he was so unapologetically himself; it would be so selfish of Chad to ask him to hide their relationship, and the last thing Chad wanted was for Ryan to think that he was ashamed of him. Because he wasn’t. At all. He was just... not ready to be himself, not yet.

Unbidden, Troy’s voice rang in his mind: Sometimes, just liking someone isn’t enough. 

Ryan must’ve seen some of the anguish he was feeling on his face, because his expression softened even further and he moved towards Chad, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” he called, ducking his head slightly to catch Chad’s gaze, “It’s okay.”

It’s not okay, Chad thought.

“I’m sorry,” he said instead.

Ryan’s grip on his shoulder tightened for a split-second, the blond’s face fell like he was about to cry, but then Chad blinked and Ryan was composed once more. “It’s okay,” Ryan repeated, “We’re still friends, right?”

“Friends,” Chad confirmed, mildly surprised that he hadn’t choked on the word with the way his throat tightened almost painfully.

Ryan nodded, then dropped his hand and took a step back. Chad never knew he could miss someone who was right in front of him this much.

“I’ll drive you home,” Ryan offered.

“Okay,” Chad replied, and that was that.

Unsurprisingly, the entirety of the drive back had been spent in silence. It wasn’t quite awkward, but it was far from the comfortable quiet Chad had gotten accustomed to between them. It was a weird place to be –– he wondered why it felt so much like he’d just been broken up with when they were never even dating in the first place.

Ryan pulled into Chad’s driveway and killed his engine; the familiarity of it made Chad want to laugh. Or cry. He wasn’t quite sure which would happen if he opened his mouth at the moment. Ryan didn’t rush him to leave, and as much as hated the weird silence between them, Chad wasn’t sure he wanted to leave just yet either.

“Chad,” Ryan called eventually.

“Yeah?” Chad returned, a little too enthusiastically, his head snapping towards the driver’s seat a little too quickly. But Ryan wasn’t looking at him, just staring straight ahead.

Chad waited for him to say whatever it was he’d wanted to say when he’d called Chad, but it wasn’t until almost a full minute had passed that Ryan finally turned to him.

“I’ve liked you for a really long time, you know,” Ryan started, and then huffed something that might have been a laugh, “No, of course you don’t know. But yeah, I’ve had a dumb crush on you since freshman year.”

Chad’s eyes widened, going slack-jawed in surprise, and earning a soft laugh from Ryan. The sound was intimately familiar, and Chad wished he could pretend this night wasn’t different from any other night that Ryan dropped him off. But Ryan’s laughter faded into silence once more, and they were right back where they’d started.

“First day of school, you sat down next to me at assembly and you said hi. It seems stupid, to develop a crush on someone just because they’d said hello, but––” Ryan paused, swallowed some of the grief that threatened to overtake him whenever he thought about his past, “But you were the first one in a long time to look at me and see a person, and not the gay kid who also doubled as a punching bag. At the time, it meant the world to me.”

“Ryan...” Chad started, but then quieted when Ryan shook his head. It was just as well, because he had no idea what he would’ve said anyway, and he didn’t quite trust himself not to say the wrong thing at the moment.

“What I’m saying is:  I’ve liked you for a long time now, and I will probably like you for a long time more. It’s okay that you’re not ready for a relationship yet, and I don’t want you to feel like you need to jump headfirst into this just because you don’t want to keep me waiting, or you’re afraid that I might move on.”

Ryan stopped to smile, and even though it was small, it was genuine. It made Chad’s chest ache. “You can’t get rid of me that easily, Danforth,” he finished, the ghost of his smile still lingering, even though his gaze had turned decidedly wistful.

It was equal parts reassuring and upsetting; reassuring to know that he hadn’t quite lost Ryan – and wouldn’t lose him, as long as he didn’t do anything particularly stupid – but upsetting to know that he was the problem. It seemed so incredibly ridiculous, that he wanted to be with Ryan so damn much, but still couldn’t bring himself to bridge the last tiny gap between them. He didn’t even know what he was afraid of, really, just that he was.

He didn’t say any of that though, only offered a smile in return and a light-hearted jest: “Wouldn’t dream of it, Evans.”

Ryan leaned in then, and for a crazy moment, Chad thought he might kiss him. But then he felt a pair of soft, chapped lips on his cheek, and he let out the breath he’d been holding. It wasn’t what he’d wanted, but it was all Ryan could give him at the moment –– anything more would be unfair to both of them. So it was better this way, even if it hurt. Ryan lingered, and Chad closed his eyes, trying to commit the feel of Ryan’s lips against his skin to memory. 

But then Ryan was back in his seat, and Chad felt lonelier than ever. Still, he knew there wasn’t any more to be said or done between them, and he moved to get out of the car.

“See you tomorrow, Wildcat,” Ryan called to his back.

Chad turned his head to the side, not quite looking over his shoulder, and nodded. He closed the passenger side door behind him and made the trek up the rest of the driveway to his house. He could hear Ryan start the car and begin reversing out, but he forced himself not to turn around. Orpheus lost Eurydice the moment he turned back to look at her, and Chad was unwilling to lose Ryan just because he was too pathetic to resist one last look.

It felt like an impossible task, but he kept his gaze trained on his porch, only allowing himself to look back once he reached the front door. By then, Ryan was long gone.

He stepped into his house, but instead of going straight up the stairs as he normally would, he wandered into the living room where his mother sat. She only turned to him when he sank into the cushions next to her and it only took one look at his face before he was being pulled into her arms.

“Oh sweetie, what’s the matter?”

“I kissed Ryan.” The words tumbled from his mouth without thinking. His mother didn’t seem surprised at all by the confession, and it made Chad laugh because of course she’d known about his feelings for Ryan. The sound was wet, and he had to stop before he burst into tears, so he kept talking instead.

“He kissed me back, and I like him so much, mum, but I’m so scared. I’m not ready. I want to date him but I’m terrified and I don’t think I can do it, and he says it’s okay, but it’s not––” he broke off with a sob, realising too late that he’d already started crying. “It’s not okay, but I don’t know what to do.”

Before, in the car with Ryan, he’d felt a little numb about it all. He’d been upset, but in an almost detached manner, almost as if he’d been watching it happen to somebody else. Now, though–– now he felt it all catching up to him, his feelings pouring out first in words, then in tears, clutching at his mother as he sobbed into her shoulder.

She didn’t say anything, only held him tight, rocking him back and forth as she murmured oh sweetie over and over again.

He couldn’t say for sure how long he’d spent crying, but when the tears finally subsided, he was completely exhausted, only being held upright by his mother’s arms around him. Even through the heartbreak, he was struck by a rush of love and admiration for his mother.

“It doesn’t bother you?” he asked tentatively, when he’d calmed down enough to speak again. She wasn’t quite holding him anymore, but she still had an arm around his shoulder as he slumped into her side, rubbing comforting circles on his shoulder. “That I like Ryan? That I–– kissed him.”

Her hand stopped moving, but only so she could pull him even closer against her, pressing a kiss to his temple. “There is nothing you could do that would make me love you any less,” she replied, her voice quiet but her tone firm. And then, softer, “And I’ve had time to come to terms with it –– it was kind of obvious that you had a little crush.” 

“It was not obvious,” he returned with a scowl, just on principle. Thinking back now, it was a small miracle only a handful of people seemed to have figured it out.

“It was very obvious,” his mother teased.

Chad sighed. “It was a little obvious,” he allowed. He paused, and then, “I think I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have let him pull away from me. I want to date him, mum.”

“But if you’re not ready––”

He sat up then, turning to his mother. Now that he’d cried most of the sadness out, he could think more clearly, and he was starting to realise that he’d made the biggest mistake of his life by letting Ryan walk away from him. Ryan had caught him by surprise when he’d asked if Chad liked him enough to date him, but the more Chad thought about it, the less he cared about what other people would think of him. Sure, he was still apprehensive, but if he got to be with Ryan... well, that was what really mattered, wasn’t it?

“That’s the thing. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready, not completely. This is all new to me... but I want to date him, I want to. And I’m scared, but––” A thought occurred to Chad suddenly. “He’s scared too.”

His mother had looked a little sceptical at first, but Chad watched as understanding dawned on her. “He’s scared to let himself get too involved with you, because he’s scared you’re going to change your mind about him.”

“I’m not going to change my mind about him. I just... I need to convince him that I’m serious about liking him,” Chad said, frowning slightly before turning to his mother. “How do I do that?” 

“You do that by getting a good night’s sleep,” his mother returned, ignoring Chad’s groan. “I hear what you’re saying, and it makes sense, I think he pushed you away partly because he’s scared. But I also think he is worried about you, that you might not be ready.”

Chad opened his mouth to argue, but his mother shot him a look that made him click his mouth shut.

“Sweetie... I love you, no matter who you choose to love, but not everyone will be as accepting, and I want you to be with who you want to be with, but it’s hard, and some people take a really long time to get to a place where they feel comfortable enough to be open about these things.” She sighed, putting her arm around his shoulder and tugging him against her side once more. “If you wake up tomorrow, and you’re still sure you want to pursue a relationship, I’ll give you my full support. I just don’t want you to rush into things.” 

As much as he hated it, Chad knew that she was right. He still wanted call Ryan and tell him I don’t care if I’m not a hundred percent ready yet, please date me, but that was probably both a terrible idea and proof that he should get some sleep before he did something rash and stupid.

“Okay,” he relented, “I’ll sleep on it.” 

“That’s all I ask,” his mother said, dropping a kiss against the top of his head.

Chad was fairly certain he’d still feel the same way in the morning, but it was late anyway, and the spike of energy he’d gotten at the realisation that things weren’t quite as dire as he’d thought they were had faded, the exhaustion of the day’s events catching up to him once more. After thanking his mother again – to which she responded with another fond kiss and hug – he trudged up to his room to get ready for bed. 

Despite knowing that he couldn’t do anything at the moment, Chad couldn’t stop himself from trying to think of possible ways he could convince Ryan that he was serious about him. He’d thought he might have some trouble shutting his brain up long enough to fall asleep, but it seemed that the physical exhaustion coupled with the thought of seeing Ryan again the next day was enough to lull him to sleep the moment his head hit the pillow. 

And just like it had been most nights ever since the baseball game, Chad’s last thought before sleep claimed him was of Ryan.