AN: Okay, so uh... I can't look back on this story without wanting to claw my eyeballs out. I'm sure you all know how it goes when you take a peek at writing you did long ago... But, nevertheless, I still feel this story deserves an ending, so I'm going to do what I can to bring it to a close. Thanks to everyone who reviewed this back when I was still writing, and maybe of you will get to see the finished product after all this time! This is NOT the final chapter, but I needed to get back in the groove before I could figure out how to actually finish this dang thing!

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Gabriella's head was still reeling. And not for the reason she'd predicted it'd be.

As soon as she'd finished being stunned speechless at Ryan's confession, her brain had kicked back into gear. The obvious answer was that she would have to gently turn him down, and agree to his request to remain friends. And her friend was clearly prepared for this result. He knew that she and Troy were still together, after all...

But when she'd opened her mouth to deliver the words, her voice had failed her. Her lips flapped a few times as she strained to speak, but her mind had become a blank canvas. The words would not come.

Ryan took her continued silence as shock, and gave her a somewhat sad smile. "Relax, Gabriella." He put his hands on her shoulders gently. "This isn't going to change anything between us. I promise. All I wanted was to tell you how much I care about you, and you let me do that. I'm not going to start acting all different because of any of this... and you don't have to walk on eggshells around me. I know it might be a little weird at first, but we'll get through it... okay?" His eyes searched hers, hopeful and anxious.

Gabriella gazed back at him quietly. Then she closed her eyes and breathed in, and when she opened them again, her smile returned. "I know we will." She hugged him tightly, surprising him. "That must have taken a lot to say... Thank you, Ryan. It means a lot to me that you told me."

Ryan's tensed shoulders sagged with relief at her gentle acceptance, and he hugged her back.

Gabriella hid her face against him, her heart racing erratically in her chest, her thoughts whirling as she tried to understand why it had been so hard to answer him the way she knew she needed to do. Why it had taken his soft coaxing to finally pry words out of her throat's death grip. Why she now felt as if the warmth of the sun had filled her from head to toe, as he held her in his arms.

But the warmth vanished as Ryan stepped back, and he adjusted his hat awkwardly. "Anyway, I... should go. Do you, um, want me to walk you home before I leave?"

Gabriella looked at him - saw the relief mixed with sadness in his eyes, the way his shoulders hunched in just slightly as if to protect himself, his hands tucked back into his pockets once again. It was clear that it truly had cost him a great deal to say what he had, and she knew he would need some time alone to recover. She shook her head, smiling softly. "No, I can make it. I'll see you at school, okay?"

He smiled back at her, nodding, then turned and left the way they had come, making his way back to his car.

And so Gabriella was left with her head still reeling - not because of the confession.

No, it was because she hadn't been able to summon the words to turn him down.

And on top of that, her heart was still beating so fast...

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Troy fiddled with his pencil, flipping it back and forth and back again over his fingers. It was an absent-minded gesture; his thoughts were elsewhere, as strains of Kelsi's most recent masterpiece floated through his mind. Even though he yet barely knew the song, it had stayed with him to a surprising extent. He was beginning to itch for her to play it again. Though he was too busy for musical activities this year, the love of music was still strong in his heart... and he wanted to remember more of her song. Maybe when he finished his homework, if she was free... This thought motivated him, and he sat up straight in his desk chair, bending over the sheet of equations before him.

After what felt like an eternity of formulas and numbers parading past his math-wearied eyes, at long last the final problem was solved. Or at least, completed. He wasn't entirely sure he'd been... accurate.

Troy shoved the homework into his math folder, threw the folder into his backpack, and lifted his phone from where it sat at the side of the desk. A few seconds later he was tapping out a text to Kelsi, preparing to send off a request. He smiled for a moment, wondering if she often got texts - and wondering if she would be easily startled this time around, too. He could see it now: Kelsi sitting amidst a sea of sheet music, scribbling away with her musical inspiration guiding her, until a text alert broke her concentration and sent her flying out of her chair. Then he winced as he imagined the landing. He hoped he didn't surprise her too much.

He was surprised to find that his phone beeped a notification at him only sixty seconds later. Then he was smiling again, a grin that spread ear to ear.

The teenager hopped out of his chair, shoved his wallet into his back pocket, and snagged his car keys off the hook on his bedroom door.

As he left the bedroom, he whistled strains of a half-remembered piano piece...

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Sharpay, having just arrived home, wanted nothing more than a good long nap in the sun.

Her stomach was content, and her taste buds remained tingling with the pleasant aftermath of Zeke's parade of baked goods.

When he'd first told her he was taking her on a picnic, she'd been less than thrilled. How utterly cheap and boring! But that was before he'd laid out the blanket and begun to remove the food spread from the picnic basket. The scents almost immediately began to tease at her nose, tantalizing and mouth-watering in every way. She'd barely been able to restrain the urge to grab a dessert at random and shove the entire thing into her mouth.

Instead she busied herself with her phone, pretending to ignore his work as she checked her emails and shot off a text or five.

At least, until she found a sliver of cheesecake and a dessert fork on a plate being offered to her, held out by a hopeful Zeke. It was all she could do not to snatch it right out of his grasp, taking the dessert fork and purposely cutting the tiniest bite for herself. She realized her mistake as soon as the cheesecake settled into her mouth - a bite that size was not nearly enough. The second bite was cut twice the size of the first, and the third even larger still. She said nothing - aside from a small noise that might just pass for approval - but Zeke's face lit up just the same, watching her clearly enjoy one of his culinary masterpieces.

By the end of the picnic, she was stuffed to the brim with dessert. Certainly, her date had made sure to cut her only a small portion of each one before offering it to her... The problem was, he'd made so many different things, and well... she couldn't very well not try them all.

Over the course of the afternoon, the dessert had loosened her tongue some, and the two of them had idly discussed some subject or another. She couldn't really recall the dialogue that took place amidst the delicious tastes assaulting her mouth, although it seemed to have been fairly pleasant.

All in all, she supposed that her decision to join him today hadn't entirely been a waste of time...