A/N: This chapter is a little longer to make up for the last one. This story is winding down. I hope you enjoy! Please R&R!

The Highest Bidder – Chapter 17

Gabriella awoke from a not-so-particularly restful night. She realized it was her cell phone buzzing that woke her. She glanced at it to find a text from Troy: "Need to talk. Meet me at school at 10."

Her clock read 9:00 AM. She felt a sense of foreboding as she got up to get ready. She realized that the guilt of what she had let herself feel the night before, and if she were really honest, the entire week before, was starting to get to her. She had held it against Troy for being jealous, but she started to see that maybe he wasn't being so paranoid. Maybe he had seen something she didn't want to admit.

She realized she owed it to Troy to be honest, and she decided it couldn't wait any longer. She would have to tell him everything.

Ryan woke up with a headache, angry at himself for setting himself up for failure. He should be happy about the amazing date he had with Gabriella, but instead he just felt disappointed that this would be all he would have with his dream girl.

"Knock, knock," a female voice said, opening the door to his bedroom.

Ryan looked up to see a smug Sharpay bouncing into his room. "It is too early for this, Sharpay," he groaned.

"Aww, did somebody have a bad date last night?" Sharpay pouted. "I guess I'll just have to make up for it tonight with Troy."

"Happy Birthday to you, too," Ryan muttered.

"Why thank you," Sharpay answered. "Now get up. I need you to pick up some accessories for my date tonight with Troy." She emphasized the last part, knowing it would only serve to irritate him further.

"Sharpay, I'm your brother, not your minion," Ryan growled, clearly not in the best mood.

Sharpay's face softened for a moment, realizing that Ryan really was upset. "Okay, no need to get all dramatic," she teased.

"Can we not talk about Troy or Gabriella today?" Ryan pleaded.

Sharpay pretended to think for a moment. "Is that your birthday wish?" she asked. Sharpay and Ryan had a tradition of granting each other one wish on each other's birthdays ever since they were little kids. One year had led Ryan to a humiliating turn as Sharpay's butler for a week. Not that it was much different than his usual role, but she made him wear coattails and everything.

Ryan nodded, not caring that he was wasting his wish on something so small.

"Alright," Sharpay said. "But no takebacks when my wish is way more awesome and way more work."

Ryan pulled the blanket over his head. "Okay, now go away," he mumbled under the sheets.

"Ta-ta!" Sharpay said, departing.

Ryan didn't even want to think what her birthday wish was going to be.

An hour later, Gabriella arrived at East High. The campus was deserted for the most part, except for a few cars in the lot belonging to the basketball players. Gabriella remembered that Troy had a makeup practice that day.

Gabriella took a deep breath and entered the school, ready to have a heart-to-heart with Troy. "Hey Troy," Gabriella greeted as she saw the jock standing outside the team locker room with his gym bag.

"Hey," Troy answered.

"So you wanted to talk?" she said, approaching him warily.

"How was your date?" he couldn't help asking.

The annoyance in his tone did not escape Gabriella's attention. "It was fine," she said.

He eyed her carefully, but decided not to prod any further. He had made a decision that morning, and he realized he needed to make a change. It wasn't good for either of them to continue fighting. "Look, about the auditions. I don't think I can do it after all."

Gabriella's face fell. "Is it because of Ryan?"

"Yes," Troy replied. ". . . and no."

Gabriella stared at him, clearly confused.

"Gabriella, I don't like the guy I'm turning into lately. I don't pick fights. I'm not rude or mean. Especially not to someone I care about like you," Troy said, taking her hands in his. "I love you so much, but lately it's like I can't be myself around you. I turn into this jealous, possessive guy and I don't want to be that guy."

Gabriella's eyes felt moist. She knew what was coming next.

"I think we need to take a break," Troy sighed. "I think with basketball and senior year, we both have a lot to deal with."

"You want to break up?" Gabriella asked. Even though this was what she thought she wanted, it still hurt . . . a lot.

Troy clenched his fists. "I don't like the way it feels when you're mad at me. I don't like the way I treat you when we're together. I want what we had when we first met. No pressure. Just-"

"Just friends?" Gabriella supplied, her voice shaking.

Troy nodded slowly. "I'm sorry, Gabriella."

Gabriella looked at him tearfully. "Me too." Turning away, she ran toward the school entrance, wanting to find some place to be alone.

Troy looked after her departing image, wishing that things were different. He loved her so much . . . maybe too much.

"That was really brave of you," a female voice said from behind Troy.

Troy turned around to find Chad, Jason, Kelsi and Zeke looking at him. "You heard what happened?" he asked.

They all nodded. Kelsi stepped forward, putting a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "This doesn't mean it's over," she said softly.

Troy glanced at Kelsi. "I hate being like this. I hate being a guy she can't talk to anymore. I don't want to control her life, but being with her . . . I am always afraid to lose her."

"But you let her go, man. That was the right thing to do," Zeke said.

"It took guts to see that what you were doing was wrong," Jason praised him.

"Let's go run some drills," Chad suggested. "Get your mind of off the girl drama. Besides, you really need to practice to get ready for that date with Sharpay."

Troy groaned, but a smile started to form on his lips. "Okay, WHAT TEAM?"

"WILDCATS!" Chad, Zeke and Jason said in unison.





Kelsi smiled as the three players went into the gym. Things were starting to get back to normal. She glanced down the hallway. Well, almost normal.

Gabriella ran to the music room, not knowing where she was going, just knowing that she had to be alone. She had not expected this at all. She had come thinking she was going to be the one asking that they take a break, but Troy did it for her. What did this mean for them? What did it mean for her and Ryan? Was there a "her and Ryan"?

"Gabriella?" a soft voice whispered as the door to the music room creaked open.

Gabriella glanced up to find Kelsi standing in the doorway. "Hey," she greeted.

"Are you okay?" Kelsi asked. "I, um, heard what Troy said."

"I-I'll be fine," Gabriella replied. "I just need some time to think."

"About you and Ryan?" Kelsi wondered.

Gabriella looked up in surprise. "What do you mean?"

Kelsi sighed. "It's so obvious he's got a huge crush on you. I figured since you and Troy aren't together anymore, maybe you'd give him a chance. He's a really great guy."

"I know," Gabriella nodded. "He's so sweet and loyal and caring and funny and, just, so . . . unexpected."

Kelsi nodded in agreement. "He is one of a kind."

Gabriella bit her lower lip. "I-I don't want to hurt him," she said. "What if I do to him what I did to Troy? I don't want to poison him like that. He's so amazing and positive. I am afraid that if we get together, it'll be the same thing all over again."

"I don't think Ryan has it in him to react the way Troy did," Kelsi said. "Not that Troy's a bad guy, he just handles himself differently."

"I wish the timing wasn't so awful," Gabriella confessed. "It's all happening so fast."

"I think it's been there for awhile," Kelsi observed. "It just took you this long to realize it."

"I'm afraid that I could be wrong and that Ryan and I are better off as friends," Gabriella said. She gave an awkward chuckle. "I mean, I don't even know if he likes me that way."

"He loves you so much, Gabriella. He would break his own heart for you," Kelsi said softly. "Deep down you have to know that."

Gabriella looked at Kelsi skeptically. She wished that she could be as sure as Kelsi was.

Gabriella had been sitting at the piano in the music room for an hour, just wondering what she was going to do next. On the one hand, she felt like she was finally able to breathe again. Not being Troy Bolton's girlfriend anymore gave her back the freedom that she had been missing. On the other hand, did she want to be Ryan Evans's girlfriend now? Did Ryan want that?

"Gabriella?" a voice asked, causing her to look up.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. "I mean, not that I'm not glad to see you, Ryan."

He looked to the ground. "I was going to meet Kelsi for a short rehearsal." He forced himself to look up. "Are you-are you okay?" He immediately noticed she was slumped on the piano bench, looking exhausted.

She gave him a watery smile. "Troy and I just broke up," she confessed.

He froze, thinking that was the last thing he thought she'd say. "Wh-what happened?"

"He said he didn't like how he was acting lately," Gabriella explained. "Especially when it comes to you. He's been really possessive and paranoid and I was upset with him because he kept saying that you were trying to break us up."

Ryan didn't respond, not sure if Troy was right or wrong about that.

"I told him so many times that he had nothing to worry about, but I think that just made him angrier," Gabriella continued.

Taking a deep breath, Ryan knew that what he said next couldn't be taken back but it had to be said. It wasn't fair to Troy to come out looking like the bad guy. "What if I said he wasn't that far off the mark?" Ryan asked, his hands gripping the edge of a nearby desk, bracing himself for what he was about to say.

Gabriella's head snapped towards Ryan at that statement.

"Look, you're an amazing girl," Ryan confessed. "I think Troy is an idiot for treating you the way he does and I know for certain that I would treat you better than any jock, but he's not wrong. I do feel something more . . . but you love him. I know that. He should too."

Gabriella swallowed, not believing her ears. "Wh-what are you saying?"

"I know you only want to be friends," Ryan said quickly. "I know I'm quite possibly ruining our friendship by telling you this, but you deserve to know the truth." He glanced down shyly. "I keep trying to stop, but you make it so hard."

Gabriella's eyes grew wide, shocked by his confession. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"It's not your fault," Ryan interjected. "Having someone supporting you and believing in you when you've never had that before . . . that messes with a guy's head."

Gabriella felt like she was about to burst from all the butterflies fluttering in her stomach. His expression, eyes filled with adoration and a gentle smile across his lips, just made her want to melt into the ground.

Mistaking her expression for embarrassment, he quickly added, "I know this isn't what you wanted to hear, but I hope that this will help you forgive Troy and give him another chance."

Looking up at Ryan, a strange feeling came over Gabriella. The unsettling feeling in her stomach had turned into bursting firecrackers as she gazed at Ryan's kind eyes.

Something had changed, she realized. Ryan was no longer the generous friend with a compassionate ear. Suddenly, he was a boy she liked and nothing would ever be the same between them again.

"So, I guess what I'm saying is, Troy has a right to be jealous," Ryan sighed.

Gabriella stood up and walked towards Ryan. "Not yet," she whispered.

As she neared him, a part of him thought she might be coming closer to kiss him, but that couldn't be. "Wh-what do you mean?" he stammered.

She stopped in front of him, her eyes gazing up at his. "We haven't done anything for him to be jealous about," she murmured, searching his face for a sign, anything to let her know that she wasn't out of line for wanting something more.

"Wait, Gabriella," he said, holding her hands in his to stop her from coming closer. "I think you're hurt because Troy broke up with you." He felt the walls coming up, knowing he had to fight back before she did something they would both regret. If this wasn't real, he didn't want to be second best.

"I am hurt, but mostly because he saw it before I did," Gabriella confessed. "For a genius, I've been really stupid lately."

Ryan was in shock. What was she saying?

"I found this great guy that I wanted to spend time with and who listened to me, no questions asked," Gabriella explained. "I felt so much like myself again. No pressure to be anything other than who I am. I didn't understand why that bothered Troy. I made him feel bad for trying to jeopardize something I had come to enjoy so much. I-I didn't realize that he should have been the one I trusted, and his opinion should have been the one I valued, at least, if he was supposed to be the one I should be with."

Ryan's eyes grew wider. "Are you saying . . ." He couldn't get himself to finish the thought.

"I'm saying that Troy was right. Somewhere along the line I fell for someone else," Gabriella said, her voice barely above a whisper.

Then, while Ryan was transfixed by the look in her eyes, she drew her body up closer, stood up on her toes and leaned into Ryan with a soft kiss. The sensation that sparked between them lingered and time seemed to stand still.

At first, Ryan didn't move. He couldn't believe this was happening. He had come this afternoon ready to pour out his regret and disappointment into his music, and instead, he seemed to be getting exactly what he had been dreaming about all summer. When he realized this, he began to kiss her back. He tried his best to make the kiss last as long as possible, mainly because he didn't know if he was dreaming and whether he'd ever have a second one.

Gabriella finally stepped back, a look of surprise on her face. "Wow."

Ryan swallowed. "Umm, yeah, that was, uhh . . ."

"Wow," Gabriella said again.

Ryan's hands had somehow made their way into her hair while they were kissing, and his fingers curled a strand behind her ear. "Is-is this real?"

Gabriella looked up at him. "It feels real."

Ryan pressed a soft kiss on her forehead. "I never thought . . ."

"Me either," Gabriella admitted, as she leaned closer to him, wrapping her arms around him.

Ryan felt his heart beating furiously, as Gabriella rested her head against his chest. He held her as close as he could, feeling her fit perfectly within his arms. "So, what now?" he asked.

Gabriella smiled, a sense of belonging and calm falling over her. "I don't know," she said.

"Me either," he said, echoing her words. "That's okay, right?"

Gabriella nodded. "More than okay."

"Thanks for making this the best birthday I've ever had," Ryan grinned.

Gabriella laughed. "My pleasure."