Ryan stared blankly at the ceiling. He was sprawled back across his bed, his hat for the day hanging on the bedpost to his right. Were any of his family to have found him there, they would have immediately noted that this was odd behavior for the blond teenager. Perhaps as a result of Sharpay having turned him into her personal assistant when they were each five years old--and having kept him permanently at her side ever since--he had a problem with being alone. He constantly felt the need to be with other people; when he was by himself, he felt empty and lonely.

Yet here he was, voluntarily lacking in companions. Likely it was because he was, for once, having thoughts that he wished to keep entirely private. Thoughts which swirled around his mind perplexingly, leaving him dazed and bemused. For the first time since he could remember, Ryan Evans truly desired something for himself. So why in Heaven's name did that something have to be out of his reach?

He hadn't asked for much in life. He'd always done what his parents and his sister asked of him--up until now, at any rate. Certainly, he'd finally managed to break free of his twin and regain a little of his own personality. But he hadn't left Sharpay to be completely humiliated, as another might have done in his place. And he'd finally been allowed to bond with his peers, something he'd been deprived of since elementary school, thanks to Sharpay's aloofness and his imitation of her. Just this once, couldn't he have what he wanted?

Seeing as what he wanted was Gabriella Montez, the answer was a resounding 'no.'

It had all started innocently enough, with Gabriella's invitation to Ryan to accompany them to the staff baseball game. Her warmth and acceptance had left no room for Ryan to decline, nor had he wanted to. Finally, someone was offering him a chance at friendship, with no strings attached. He recalled the smile that had blossomed on his own face as he clambered into the back of the golf cart, the grin stretching so widely he thought his cheeks might split in half. It had felt so incredible, to know what it was like to be accepted and brought along.

And then, when she'd invited him to her home for the first time, in light of Troy's sudden absence in her life…

Gabriella had been in the back room with Kelsi; the two girls were chattering and laughing as Kelsi tried different things on the piano, experimenting for some new piece she was writing. Then Kelsi had taken her leave, heading home for the night. Ryan, who'd been listening by the door, was embarrassed at being caught by the small redhead as she came out of the room. However, Kelsi had only smiled at him once she'd gotten over the initial surprise of finding him there, and gave him a small farewell wave. He'd waved back awkwardly and then stayed where he was, unsure of what exactly to do with himself.

Minutes later, when his senses finally returned, he realized that Gabriella had not followed Kelsi out of the piano room. Curious, he pulled open the door and poked his head inside, finding the dark-hared Hispanic girl staring blankly in front of her, seated on the piano bench. Ryan could see that her eyes were wet, though she was bravely keeping the tears from spilling down her face. Before he could decide whether or not he should say anything, a tentative, questioning word slipped out of his mouth.

"Gabi…?"

He was surprised at himself; he'd used the nickname that Taylor usually called her by, though he hadn't intended to. Startled, Gabriella jumped slightly as her gaze darted to the door.

"Ryan?" She blinked, her eyes beginning to dry as she smiled at him. "What are you doing here?"

"Well I… I mean, you and Kelsi were in here…and then Kelsi came out but you didn't…and so I…er…was just checking to make sure you weren't, y'know, dead or anything. Er."

Already she was laughing, a tinkling bell sound that brought warmth flooding through Ryan's veins. "Don't worry, Ryan, I think I know better than to attempt anything, uh…life-threatening…with a piano. How did you know we were both in here, anyway?"

Ryan fidgeted slightly, still only halfway through the door. "I could hear you guys…giggling and stuff. Since the walls aren't, well, soundproof."

Gabriella's eyes twinkled. "I see." She stood, stretched, and slung her purse over her shoulder. "I supposed I'd better be going. Thanks for checking in on me." She gave him a dimpled grin as she walked towards him and the door.

He backed out hurriedly, allowing her passage. "No problem. So uh…do you actually need to get home right away?"

She paused and glanced at him. "Not really; tomorrow's Sunday and I have the day off, so I can afford to be out a little later. Why?"

"Then…" he rubbed the back of his head. "…Did you wanna go for a walk or something? Cuz I…"

Sensing his loneliness, and feeling proud of his progress in the direction of friendship, Gabriella slipped her arm through his. "I'd love to go on a walk."

Embarrassed and pleased with this unexpected turn of events, Ryan allowed Gabriella to lead him out of the building before he began to guide her along a route of his own. The pair chattered as they went, swapping crazy family stories, interests, and various philosophies on life. Gabriella was amazed at the depth of Ryan's personality, a depth that had been previously hidden behind a happy-go-lucky and slightly idiotic façade. Even more surprisingly, he was able to get her to laugh just as easily as Troy could.

Suddenly, Ryan paused. "Here, why don't you close your eyes, just for a minute?"

"Hm? Oh, alright." Gabriella complied, and Ryan slipped an arm around her shoulders to steer her forward and prevent her from stumbling.

He savored the feel of her pressed against his side, marveling at the perfect way she fit, tucked into him. So this was what it was like, to hold someone that wasn't your sister. Then he shook himself mentally and brought her to the spot he felt would provide the best view. "Alright," he said softly, "go ahead and look."

Gabriella's eyelids lifted; she breathed in sharply and glanced around, marveling at the sight. "Ryan, where are we?"

A tiny, carefully tended-to paradise lay before her. Beautifully green grass that had been given all the watering it had ever wanted sprawled across the ground, frosted by the moonlight. A miniature waterfall rippled down decorative rocks and ran through the little garden as a stream. Flowers of every shape and size were scattered around the fringes, and fish could be seen swimming in the water.

"It's my family's private hideaway at home," the blond boy told her. "Sharpay and I do a lot of our rehearsing back here, where we're much less likely to be bothered."

"I can see why," Gabriella commented, nodding. "It almost feels like a crime to disturb anything in this place. It's so serene…"

"Yeah. Although since Sis and I haven't really come here together recently, it's…just not the same."

Gabriella turned to him. "I know she's making things difficult right now, but you know…I think she will come around someday, whether it seems like it or not.

He gave her a half smile. "Let's hope you're right."

"Say," the brunette said suddenly, poking him. "Would you like to come to my house tomorrow?" She found herself wanting very much to do anything she could to ease the hurt that Sharpay had caused him, and it seemed like the best way to do that was to make him feel welcome and wanted.

His smile widened slightly. "I'd love to."

And so, that night, once Gabriella had finally taken her leave and Ryan made his way to bed, he felt for the first time since he could remember that there was something he was truly looking forward to.