Author's Note: Ok, so…it's been over a year. Again. I'm sure so many of you have forgotten about this story (rightfully so) but I feel genuinely guilty about the fact that I borderline abandoned this story. I've been working on other projects, but it's always been gnawing at me that I haven't finished this, especially when I have all the chapters outlined and drawn out. I finally decided to man up (it's an expression!) and start writing what I should've written years ago. I've been reading a bunch of stories in this verse lately and I've even noticed a few that bear a remarkable resemblance to this story, but I hope you remember that this was the original. The OG. The first. Ish. Basically, what I'm saying is, please read this, and please like it. I tried reading some of the reviews that had been left for this story, but it really hurt so much. I feel incredibly guilty, and I'm going to make it up to you guys. I promise.

This one is a pretty long chapter, but I knew what I wanted to include in it, so there you have it. Don't worry - it's not the end!

Chapter 11 – To Be Loved By You

Disclaimer; Don't own anything

"Way to make me think we were in trouble, dude." Troy shoved Chad with his shoulder as they folded up the tent side by side.

"People were going to eventually look for you," Chad pointed out. "But we just happened to need help taking down the tent first."

"You guys are dorks," Gabriella commented lightly as she and Taylor took the tent from the two boys and proceeded to fold it up correctly, to make sure it fit in the bag.

"We could've done that."

"Sure," Taylor patted Chad on the cheek. "Of course you could've."

"You ready?" Troy asked Gabi softly as they finished packing everything up.

"Yup." She took a look around the cafeteria at everyone slowly making their way out to the parking lot and didn't bother to hide the sigh. Such a great night, and now it was over.

"There's always next year," Troy told her as they walked out with the rest of the group.

"If I'm here next year," she said softly, finally saying what was truly bothering her.

"I thought your mom said you were here until you graduate?"

"She says a lot of things, Troy. I'm just worried that maybe I won't get to do this next year."

"Let's just take it one day at a time, ok, Gabi?"

"You're right." She leaned against the driver's side door of her new Focus and gave him her best smile. She wanted to cherish this moment forever, not remember it with the fact that lingering doubts were plaguing her.

"Here," Troy shoved his backpack at Chad who just happened to be walking by, his own backpack as well as the tent bag.

"Oof!" He staggered, but only shot Troy mere glares versus saying something.

"So," Troy swept his hair out of his eyes and leaned one hand on the car next to Gabi, his other rubbing the back of his neck.

"So…"

"Last night was pretty great," Troy confessed self-consciously.

"Yeah. It was."

"I didn't in a million years think that you would ever have gone to the New Years Eve Party with me in September."

"Me neither," Gabi laughed. "But I can't say that I'm not happy I am."

"Me neither," Troy echoed, then laughed nervously. "It's been a good 4 months."

"Yyyyyyeah," Gabi's attention was diverted to the scene surrounding them. Sharpay on Zeke's back, piggyback style, with Chad and Taylor wrapped up in their own little world next to the truck. Troy was right. It has been a good four months.

"Whatcha thinking about?" Troy asked, curious about her silence.

"These past 4 months haven't been good, Troy." She managed to maintain a straight face, despite the solemn look on Troy's face. "They've been perfect. I don't know if I ever thought this would be my life, not in a million years. I'm just…blissful."

She grinned happily up at Troy, allowing him to capture her lips in a sweet kiss.

"Now if we only didn't have to go to school in a few days…" Gabi said this purely for Troy's benefit: she actually enjoyed school, and was looking forward to the spring semester curriculum.

"And the talent show, don't forget about that," Troy mentioned, a pensive look on his face.

"I know. We're royally screwed for that, I think."

"I don't know…you don't think maybe we were on to something, do you?"

"You mean with the singing thing?" Gabi bit her lip, mulling it over.

"Sure, I mean…it's not the most original thing, but we didn't really suck, and I think we could pull it off, sort of."

"Sort of?" She was about to burst out laughing. 'Sort of' was not what it took to get up in front of her entire high school and sing her heart out.

"Think about it?" Troy asked as he backed away from her to Chad's beckoning. "Promise me you'll think about it."

"I promise," she told him with a grin. She climbed into her car with Taylor and laughed aloud as Chad and Troy drove past them with the windows down.

"Think about it!" Troy yelled at her.

And think about it she did.


In only a few short days, school was back in session, and while Gabriella and Troy hadn't discussed singing in the talent show again, she kept her promise to think about it. Her mom was due to return that evening after school, and as angry as she was with her mom, she sort of wished she were there to discuss this with. On the one hand, singing in front of everyone was just…a terrifying notion. But, at the same time, Gabi acknowledged that it was something that the old Gabi would never do. She wasn't that person anymore. She wasn't the old Gabi, she was the new and improved one. She was determined to not let anything hold her back, especially now that she felt like she was making a lot of progress with her life.

"Looks like you made quite the entrance, Miss Montez." Troy snuck up behind her at her locker and snuck a kiss on her cheek. "Someone just asked me where you got your Rolls Royce."

Gabi had to laugh at the ridiculousness of high school rumors, when a kid from her Physics kid passed by.

"Hey, nice Mercedes, Gabs!"

She let out a weak smile and waved at him, looking at Troy incredulously.

"Are they serious? It's a Ford Focus!"

"It's shiny and black, Gabs. Unfortunately, that's all the students of East High see. It's a travesty, really, the idea of someone confusing a Ford with a Mercedes…"

"Yeah, yeah, that's the travesty of this. People not knowing the difference car brands." She rolled her eyes at him as she took the last of her notebooks out and started walking with him to homeroom.

They walked quietly for a while, content to just be together, when Troy gave her a sideways look as they approached the door to class.

"So, have you given any thought to my talent show idea?"

"Have you?" She countered.

Their conversation was cut short as they took their seats and were pounced on by Chad and Taylor.

"We're so sorry!" Taylor started out with.

"Huh?" Gabi had never seen Taylor so serious before.

"You guys can't be mad at us," Chad insisted. "We had to."

"Had to what?" Troy was almost as confused as Gabriella – slightly less so, since he was used to Chad's antics.

"Well you see, once upon a time there were four people, let's call them friends, and they all decided to-"

"We found something to do for the talent show," Taylor interrupted, sensing Chad's impending epic tale.

"I was getting to that."

"Sure you were, sweetie."

"Wait, you guys found something to do for the talent show? Like, without us?" Gabi put on her best hurt face. "Even though we were going to find something for us all to do? And you…I guess, didn't want to do that?" Troy could've sworn he saw a bit of a trembling lip going on there, too.

Taylor looked absolutely flummoxed at her friend's emotional response, combined with the immense guilt she felt surging through her too. She tossed a pleading look to Chad to help her out.

"Well, no, it wasn't like that Gabs, you see, um…" Chad looked just as guilty as Taylor and at a loss for what to say to Gabriella.

Gabi got over it shortly, as she shrugged and turned to Troy.

"I guess we don't really have much of a choice except to do your idea!" She told him brightly. He let out a hearty laugh at the look of shock that crossed both Taylor's and Chad's faces.

"Yeah, I guess so. Bummer."

"Gabriella Montez, you had me so worried!" Taylor smacked her arm playfully. "I was just convinced that we had crushed your dreams!"

"Maybe I should do a dramatic scene for the show then?" She teased as she flipped through her day planner.

"Well, what are you guys going to do? Is it together?"

"What are you guys doing?" Gabriella asked curiously. Chad and Troy were currently engrossed in a playbook and didn't seem to care for anything they were discussing.

"Stage hands," Taylor grimaced. "The Harper twins are doing this strange ventriloquist act…I don't even know. But they need people to do the lights and wouldn't you know it, Chad and I were available!"

"Do you guys even know how to work the lights?"

"Well, no, but they don't know that! This is one of the few things that require absolutely no stage time and we still get credit for participation. Talk about a huge relief!"

Gabi smiled indulgently at her OCD friend.

"I know how hard it must have been for you to wait this long before deciding on something to do, Tay."

"There are only like, three weeks away! Other people have had all Christmas break to practice their routines or whatever. Or at least feel a sense of ease about knowing what they were going to do. Whoever's plan it was to 'not think about it' until after break clearly did not take my anxiety into account."

Gabriella just stuck her thumb towards Taylor's boyfriend instead of responding. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Taylor smack him upside the head and had to smile to herself. She loved her friends.


"So?"

It was lunchtime when Troy finally cornered Gabriella about the talent show. She wasn't avoiding it per se, she just wanted to make sure her decision was the right one, and she wasn't sure she'd be able to do that with Troy looking at her with his baby blue eyes.

"La."

"Huh?"

"Ti, Do." At Troy's still confused look, she continued with a giggle. "The scale, Troy. Solfeggio. Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. For singing."

"Ah, right, of course."

"You have no idea what I'm saying, do you?"

"Nope, not really, but singing is good. Does that mean you and I are gonna duet? Gonna do a duet? Do it duet?" He wiggle d his eyebrows at his own lame puns and nudged Gabi, goading her into laughter.

"Yes. I mean, I think we can pull it off. Do you?"

"I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't think we could do it, Gabs."

"I somehow doubt it would be possible for you to humiliate yourself, Wildcat. Everyone here loves you." She didn't say this with contempt, but rather just as an observation. It was true: everyone at East High did look up to Troy, in sports and in regular life.

"Look around, Gabs. Everyone here loves you, too."

She let out a little derisive snort at that.

"Troy, I have like, 6 friends. Maybe more if you count Sharpay. Does she count?"

"Sure she counts. Her definition of friendship might be a little different compared to ours, but she counts. And that's not what I'm talking about."

"What are you talking about?" Gabi asked innocently as she ate her lunch. She didn't want to make Troy mad, but she genuinely didn't understand what he was saying.

"You're smart, your beautiful, and you are nice to absolutely everyone." As he said this, Mallory Dutton sauntered past with her lemmings, muttering 'bitch' under her breath. "Almost everyone. I think people are a little intimidated by you, but…a lot of people at East High like you."

"Really?"

"To the point where I might have started issuing threats to some of the guys on the team if they kept talking about taking my girlfriend out on a date."

"…Girlfriend?" Gabi asked quietly, her face as red as it could get. It wasn't that she was opposed to the idea; it was just that they hadn't put a label on themselves yet. She wasn't sure when it got to the point where they were boyfriend and girlfriend.

"Well, I mean…yes? Or no? I just…I don't know, what do you think we are?" It was absolutely adorable to see Troy get all flustered and embarrassed. Gabi felt herself fall for him a little bit more.

"I would love to be your girlfriend, Troy," she managed to get out. He simply beamed at her and grabbed her hand, squeezing gently. She felt herself float to a place higher than Cloud 9…she was suddenly very aware of what all that hype about love was about. This feeling she had, right here, right now, was just…insurmountable.

"My girlfriend that sings cheesy duets with me in the talent show, right?" Troy asked as they got up when the bell rang.

"I must really like you for me to be doing this," she pointed out happily. At that moment, she felt like she could sing in a sold out arena in front of thousands. She felt untouchable.


"So, Miss Montez, what's it like to be dating East High's 'Golden Boy?' Do you feel the urge to break out into a cheer at any point in time?"

Gabriella rolled her eyes as a makeshift microphone – in the shape of a ladle – was shoved in her face as she found her seat in Home Ec. Taylor looked absolutely beside herself with excitement and even Kelsi seemed to be brimming with happiness. Gabi could only imagine what she looked like right then.

"Chad?" She questioned the goofball in front of her.

"Chad," Taylor confirmed as she tucked the ladle back into the drawer in front of her.

"And Troy told me that you guys are going to sing in the talent show! I have the perfect song that you guys can sing that I composed myself, it's just perfect."

"Sounds…great?" Gabriella was in such a good mood that she couldn't even let the idea of singing in front of the entire student body bring her down. And as the first day of a new semester, she was even more thrilled to have her last period of the day be with her friends in what is supposed to be a cakewalk class – Taylor and Kelsi had even already taken it, but were allowed to take it again due to the ever changing curriculum.

Unfortunately, it seemed as if they weren't the only ones who thought having Home Ec last period would be a great idea – Mallory Dutton and company came flouncing in, laughing lightly as if they were in some sort of blockbuster movie. Gabi could practically feel the majority of the class roll their eyes as the four girls tossed their hair in unison.

Gabriella felt her stomach drop as the girls stopped at her table with Taylor and Kelsi. She prayed against all hope that Mallory wouldn't ruin her good mood.

"Hey, Montez." A sickeningly sweet smile was plastered on Mallory's face and to Gabi, that was worse than the scowl she usually wore directed towards her. Not eliciting a response from her, Mallory continued. "So, I heard you and Troy are like, official now, or something."

"Or something."

"Well, I hope we can be friends then! You know, the cheerleaders always have such great after parties for the games, and it'd be really great if you could come and support your boyfriend."

"How…nice of you," she responded noncommittally.

"Well, yeah, I mean, we shouldn't let little petty things get in the way of us being friends, should we? I promise, it won't even be awkward with everyone knowing that I used to hook up with Troy at those parties."

Not even flinching, Gabi just smiled benignly at Mallory.

"Well, that's good then. I was worried it'd be awkward due to the fact that you're a bitch."

Taylor suddenly erupted in a cough that sounded suspiciously like laughter and Kelsi couldn't seem to formulate any sort of response. Gabi herself was in a state of shock; she couldn't believe she had just done that. Said that. Felt that confident. It was…overwhelming.

The fake smile that had been pasted all over Mallory's face vanished and in it's place was the sneer that Gabriella was familiar with.

"I'd watch what you say, Montez. Just because Troy Bolton seems to like you for reasons beyond my knowledge doesn't mean that anyone else does." She tossed her a wink, then with a toss of hair, stalked off with her floozies in tow.

"Don't worry Gabs, 'Beyond her knowledge' is pretty much everything; I've seen her report card." Taylor gave a fake shudder. "Yeesh."

Gabriella still didn't let Mallory's threat, if it could even be called that, get to her. She was in a great mood despite anything the world could throw at her.

"Room for one more?" Before they could even give her a response, Sharpay practically threw all of her stuff onto the table they were occupying. "Of course there is! There's always room for me."

"Sharpay? You're in Home Ec?" Taylor could hardly believe her eyes, but that could have been the hundreds of shiny beads reflecting off Sharpay's pink vest.

"Don't you have like, chefs?" Kelsi had been making an effort to get along with Sharpay for Ryan's sake, but the girl still grated on her nerves.

"Of course I do!"

"Then why would you take a cooking class?"

"I think I know why," Gabriella interjected before Sharpay could answer. All attention was suddenly directed towards the door and Kelsi and Taylor's groan could be heard even over the chatter of the classroom.

"Zeke is teaching this? How did we not know this?"

"He's just the TA, Taylor, take a chill pill. But he did say that the teacher pretty much lets him run the show. Doesn't he look great in that apron?"

"If I had a nickel for every time I heard that," Gabi joked.

"You'd be rich if you hung out with Sharpay," Kelsi muttered darkly.

As far as Home Ec went, it was pretty standard for everyone involved, except for the excessive drooling on Sharpay's part. But when Taylor and Kelsi turned to Gabriella after class to discuss the sheer ridiculousness of Sharpay's bedazzled apron she had made, she was no where to be found.


"Gabi, there you are!" Troy caught up with Gabriella as she exited Ms. Darbus's homeroom, heading towards her locker.

"Hey Wildcat!"

"What were you doing with Ms. Darbus?"

"Oh! Um, I was just signing us up for the Talent Show!"

Troy gave her a strange look.

"But I already did that last period," he pointed out.

"Right! You did. Which is why she told me that you…did…that. You did. So, no need for me to be in there. All done!" Gabi gave up on her pathetic ramblings and decided to switch gears. "So, where are you going?"

If Troy was confused by her, he made no mention of it.

"Oh, I was looking for you! Kelsi brought some copies of the Talent Show song she wrote. I looked it over and it doesn't look too bad…it could probably be fun."

"Great! I just have to stop by my locker real fast and then we can go check it out."

With an over embellished bow, Troy made a grand sweeping gesture with his arm.

"After you, my lady!"

With a giggle and a grin, the pair were off.


The next few weeks progressed as such, with more weird behavior on Gabriella's part. She would stay for practices with Troy and Kelsi, but as soon as Troy would leave for basketball practice, she would disappear to places unknown. Troy was genuinely baffled, and if things hadn't been progressing so great with her, he would've been worried. But things between them had been better than ever; she would routinely eat dinner at his house and they had a standing Saturday night date.

"You nervous?" Troy asked her as they left homeroom Friday morning. The morning of the Talent Show.

"I'm…something. I'm not sure what I am. What about you?"

"I don't know…I'm not sure if nervous is the word I'd use either. But then again, it's not the same feeling that I get before a big game. Maybe it's something different all together."

"I know what you mean. I just keep wondering if it will all go to plan…"

"Plan? I think we'll be okay, Gabs. I mean, we have Kelsi with the music and some random dude that is getting Talent Show credit do the lights, I mean…what could go wrong?"

"Lights! I'm so dumb!" Gabriella smacked a hand to her forehead and stopped in the middle of the hallway.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. It's just lights, and it's taken care of. Don't worry about it."

"No, you're right, I just – I have to go check something."

"Gabi?"

She started to walk backwards, away from him.

"It's nothing, I promise. I'll see you at lunch!"

Troy didn't respond, he just stood, slightly hurt that his girlfriend was obviously hiding something from him. Seeing this, Gabriella stopped her trek backwards and walked back up to him, cupping his face with her hands.

"I promise you, that once this whole Talent Show mess is over, things will be back to normal."

"Normal?" Troy questioned, a weak grin on his face.

Gabi shrugged with a small smile.

"As normal as they get around here anyway. I promise."

"I trust you."

"Good." And in a rare burst of self confidence that was becoming less rare as of late, Gabriella leaned up and kissed Troy gently before scampering away. "See you at lunch!" She called back haphazardly.

After standing there for what felt like a few seconds, Troy realized he was alone in the hall and the warning bell was ringing in his ears.

"That girl is going to be the death of me," he muttered softly as he jogged to first period, praying he wasn't too late.


"I can't tell you."

"You want me to help you choose out an outfit for tonight, but you won't tell me why."

Gabriella looked at Taylor with pleading eyes and she knew she would help her friend out, despite her secrets.

"Haven't you and Troy already decided on outfits?"

"This isn't for that. Please, Tay…"

"Fine, fine, but you owe me."

"I always owe you."

"…This is true." The two lapsed into giggles and continued to flip through Gabriella's clothes, searching for the ideal outfit, even if only one of them knew why.


You can do this, Gabriella told herself for what had to be the fiftieth time in the span of a minute. Don't think about anyone else except yourself and Troy. You can do this.

"I can't do this," she moaned to Troy who appeared next to her, grasping her hand tightly. He opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted by Ms. Darbus's voice booming over the loudspeaker.

"And now ladies and gentlemen, Caroline Dupree, who will be dancing to Swan Lake."

"We're next, Troy!" A look of pure panic flashed across Gabi's face and Troy was at a loss for how to help her. She had seemed so confident when the show had started, but as it progressed, she became more and more nervous.

They were the last to go on before intermission and Troy was sure that this was as good a time as any. Now he found himself wishing that he had pushed for an earlier time slot.

"What's wrong, Gabs? You were okay an hour ago…tell me what's up."

"It's just…" she struggled with words for a minute. She had so many feelings coursing through her body that she couldn't get her head around what was making her feel the most nervous.

"What is it?" He lifted her chin so that she would meet his eyes. "Tell me, and I'll try to fix it."

His soothing voice comforted her to a degree and she finally spoke the words that she hadn't even realized were bothering her the most.

"She's not here." Troy looked confused for about a second before realization dawned in his eyes. "She said she'd be here and she's not. She knew how important tonight was for me and she didn't come."

Things with Gabriella and Maria Montez had still been strained lately, but Gabi was at least making an effort with the invitation to the Talent Show. She had really wanted her mom to come, despite whatever differences they had. She wanted to show her what she was capable of, what she had accomplished. And she hadn't shown.

An idea sparked in Troy's head and he tugged her hand, leading her to the side of the stage.

"She's not here, Troy, I've already looked a zillion times," Gabi whispered as they drew closer to the stage.

"Here," Troy pointed to the audience who was currently engrossed in the ballet performance on stage. "What do you see?"

"I see everyone's families. Everyone's except mine." Gabriella didn't usually feel defeated, at least not lately, but at that moment, she just felt like the world had beaten her. She wanted to be happy and the world just couldn't let her. It's not fair, she thought petulantly.

"That's not what I see." Troy slipped behind her, his hand on her waist and put his mouth close to her ear. "Want to know what I see?"

Gabriella could only nod, not sure where her boyfriend was going with this.

"I see countless people who love you. You see my family? Well, I see yours. Your family is in every single one of those people sitting out there. My dad rescheduled basketball practices so that I could do this because it would make you happy. You have him wrapped around your finger, Montez, you don't even know. And you have Taylor's mom, who has adopted you as one of her own. You have all of your friends who would do anything for you. You have me, whether you want me or not."

Gabi let out a little huff of laughter at that. Like she would ever not want him. Just his presence behind her was enough to make her lose her mind a little bit.

"And you see that, right there?" She followed to where Troy was pointing and she felt her eyes water with unshed tears.

Lucille Bolton sat in the third row center, her husband at her side (head back and eyes closed, mind you – Gabi figured ballet just wasn't his thing) and she was smiling at Gabriella. She gave a little wave and mouthed 'Good luck!' eliciting a smile from both her son and the girl she now considered family.

"I see a person that sees you as a daughter, regardless of blood. She cares about you just like a mother should, Gabs, and I know she's not your own mom but she could help fill that void, just a little bit. Just if you need it, you know?"

Gathering her strength, Gabi turned to Troy, shaking away the few stray tears that had escaped her eyes. Giving him a smile that could light up the entire auditorium, she took his hand and led him away from the side of the stage.

"Let's do this."


"And now, ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez performing an original song, written and composed by Kelsi Nealson."

"Remember, it's just you and me, babygirl. Just you and me," Troy muttered as they took their places on stage.

With one last look at Troy, at Kelsi, and at her entire family in the crowd, Gabriella felt an odd sense of confidence. She could do this.

"We're soarin', flyin', there's not a star in heaven that we can't reach." Troy's silky smooth voice echoed over to her and she did it. She took the plunge.

"If we're trying, so we're breaking free."

Troy came up behind her as rehearsed and gave her a little twirl, effectively loosening her up.

"You know the world can see us in a way that's different than who we are…"

"Creating space between us," she spun away from him dizzily, "Until we're separate hearts." Troy quickly came up from out of no where and caught her before she could actually fall, singing with her.

"But you're faith, it give me strength, strength to believe…"

Gabriella almost laughed aloud as Troy was clearly putting on a show for her benefit – although she did entertain the thought that maybe he loved the dramatic aspect of performing more than he let on – as he belted out the lyrics as loud as he could.

"We're breakin' free!"

"We're soaring, flying, there's not a star in heaven that we can't reach." Troy had the biggest grin on his face as he sang to Gabriella.

"If we're trying- yeah, we're breaking free."

Gabriella felt the music take over as she danced freely as the song sped up, untying the crop top sweater she had over the dark blue sundress she wore. She was grateful, for this one time, that Sharpay had dressed her so well. Her, along with Troy's khakis and dark blue button down, made them quite the pair to look at. She tried to ignore the various yells from the audience as she revealed her spaghetti strap dress (although she was certain that the catcall was from Chad, thankfully).

"Can you feel it building? Like a wave the ocean just can't control."

"Connected by a feeling, ooh in our very souls," Gabi sang back to Troy, loving the way it felt like they were the only two in the auditorium. And as the song continued, she knew that it would feel like this every time they were on stage together. She just knew.

They danced around the stage, some of it choreographed, some of it not, and Gabriella felt herself having the time of her life. From the look that was on Troy's face, he was enjoying himself too, which meant a lot to Gabi for some reason.

Soon enough, she realized the song was over and the crowd was on it's feet, clapping emphatically for them. For her. For Troy. For what they just did. It about bowled her over.


"You were so great! Good job, Gabriella!" Another nameless stranger called out as Gabi sipped on her soft drink in the cafeteria with the others.

"Thank you!" She called out to whoever had just tossed the compliment to her. Her and Troy had managed to finally make it to their friends in the caf during intermission, fighting the throngs of people and well-wishers.

"Gosh, you'd think that I wasn't even up there," Troy teased Gabi as she got another compliment from some underclassmen.

"Listen here, playmaker, you're the captain of the basketball team and East High's Golden Boy. I feel like the majority of the student body believes you can lay golden eggs – singing is probably no surprise to them. They just assume you can do everything!"

"It's a surprise to us!" Jack Bolton clapped his son on the shoulder as him and Lucille greeted the Wildcats. Lucy enveloped Gabriella into a warm hug, congratulating her quietly before pulling away and giving a stern look to her son.

"Troy Bolton, next time you decide to be as secretive with something as you were with this, I won't stand for it."

"Huh?"

"Well you seen, son, you wouldn't let us hear you practicing or let us know too many details about the song, you see…" Jack Bolton ran a hand over his neck, a trait that Gabi had seen far too many times on the younger Bolton man.

"You thought I sucked!" Troy accused.

"Not 'sucked,' honey, just, well, we thought maybe you weren't prepared for an audience…" His mom looked just as uncomfortable as her husband.

"You thought I sucked!" He reiterated. Although he was trying to be serious, Troy couldn't help the smile that was tugging at his lips.

"I didn't say that!"

"Your mother might not have, but I thought you sucked," Mr. Bolton said with a wry smile. "Glad you proved us wrong with that performance." He started to scan the crowd. "Anyone seen Matsui? Ah, there he is…I'm just going to…"

He started to walk away before turning back to the group.

"Oh, and Gabriella – you were magical up there. I'm glad you were able to make my son look as good as he did."

She blushed under his praise but beamed back happily. Troy was right – this was her family.

"You guys hanging around for the second half?" Chad asked as he shoved another cookie in his mouth.

"Yes!" Gabriella said instantly.

Troy gave her an odd look at her insistence, but nodded along.

"We have to – all the active participants get called up to the stage at the end for the prizes or whatever."

"Right," Gabi agreed. "The judging."

"Whoa, stop right there." Chad held out a hand to Troy, looking distraught. "You mean that just because I wasn't on stage means I can't win first place?"

"You did lights, bro!"

"They were the best damn lights you've ever seen though, am I right?"

"You got the spotlight on them like, 40% of the time."

"40% of the time every time!"

As the boys continued their debate, Taylor, Gabi and Mrs. Bolton all shared a knowing smile.

Boys.


"Think we'll win?" Troy whispered in the dark as they watched yet another sub-par performance, the definite downside to forced participation.

"Troy!" Gabriella slapped his chest with the back of her hand, not even daring to think about such things. "Do you even want to win? I mean, we didn't really do this under the impression that we'd win…"

He shrugged, mulling it over.

"I don't really care who wins, you're right, but admit it…it'd be neat."

She laughed quietly, but still not allowing the idea to fester.

"You know who I don't want to win?" Chad leaned over both Taylor and Troy to get into the conversation. "Dutton. I heard they're doing that Christmas dance from Mean Girls."

The two girls couldn't help their sniggers. Oh, that would be good.

"Where'd you hear that?" Troy asked, hoping that the source was reliable.

"Well-"

Chad was cut off quickly when an old woman who had to have been pressing 110 turned around and pressed a finger to her lips.

"Shh!" She admonished them, her beady eyes intimidating all of the Wildcats to sit back in their chairs. They all shared an amused look out of the corner of their eyes, but none dared to talk again.

"Look, it says that they go on last, before the judging ceremony," Troy pointed out in between acts. "Only one more performance and then theirs. Hey, you okay Gabi? Are you hot?"

Gabriella was suddenly feeling all of the nerves that she had felt before come rushing back to her, full force. Was she okay? Maybe. Maybe not. She was sweating and dizzy and had to force herself to take deep breaths just to remain calm.

"Yeah, I'm fine – a little hot, but it's fine," she reassured him, trying to reassure herself.

They watched the next act together – or rather, Troy watched, as Gabriella tried not to fidget in her seat. As the dramatic scene from Oedipus wrapped up, Gabriella gathered her purse and smiled at her boyfriend. I can do this.

"Going somewhere?" Troy asked as his girlfriend stood.

"I'm just going to run to the bathroom – I want to really enjoy Mallory's performance," she lied.

"Want me to go with?" Taylor offered, already looking for her purse.

"No! I mean, no, that's okay," she hurried on at Taylor's taken aback look. "I'll just be two seconds and I, um, well, I want to call my mom."

The group nodded sympathetically at her and Taylor relaxed back in her seat, allowing Gabi to let out a sigh of relief as she turned and walked away.

When she didn't return shortly after and it looked like the next act was going to start, Troy started to get up.

"I'm gonna go find her, guys – she really wouldn't want to miss this."

The old lady that had scolded them before turned around once again.

"Sit down! The last act is about to go on!"

Troy gave her a wary look and seemed to be judging whether to listen to the old bat or continue to try and get out of the aisle.

"Down!" She screeched, drawing the attention of all the parents and students nearby.

"Ok, ok, down I go," Troy muttered, glancing at the door. Where was Gabriella?


"Are you ready, Miss Montez?" Ms. Darbus asked nicely as Gabi paced back and forth backstage. She could hear the Christmas music playing through the speakers and she knew that it was approaching that time. She didn't have a choice; she had to be ready.

"I…I think I am," she managed to get out.

"Good, good. You'll do great, just remember what I taught you."

"Focus, focus, and more focus."

"Right-o! Do not worry and have fun."

The Christmas music died off and once again, Ms. Darbus stepped onstage.

The cheerleaders, led by Mallory Dutton, filed past Gabriella, all of them rolling their eyes.

"Nice outfit, bitch. Did it take long to dumpster dive?" Mallory asked as she passed her. Gabi couldn't even formulate a response. Surely, her outfit of a white dress with blue sash was modest in comparison to the Santa-esque dresses those girls had been wearing. And dumpster diving was a far cry from what Gabriella did. If she had to wager, she'd assume that all the clothes her mother bought her, this dress included, cost more than what Mallory Dutton wore in a week. Not a fact that Gabi bragged about, but still. There were other ways to get under her skin, and she wasn't going to let them have that satisfaction. She was going to be ready for this.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there is one final act before the judging ceremony, one that is not listed on your programs. If you will please keep your seats, I would like to welcome back to the stage, Gabriella Montez."

She stepped gingerly out onto the stage and felt the bright lights on her. They seemed shinier and more glaring than they did when she was onstage with Troy. There was a single microphone stand in the center of the stage and she approached it cautiously, overly aware of the audience waiting with bated breath. She could practically feel the confusion rolling off of her friends and family.

"I, um…" Gabriella coughed nervously as she tried to formulate her thoughts into words. She hadn't really thought this part through. She leaned into the microphone more now, trying to get her voice to stretch out through the auditorium. "I just wanted to say thank you. To everyone that has taken the time to get to know me here. So…thank you."

She nodded to the kid on the piano – she hadn't trusted Kelsi to keep her secret, so she was working with a boy that Ms. Darbus had set up for her. He started to play the opening keys and Gabriella knew that it was now or never.

"How sweet it is to be loved by you," her lilting voice filtered through the speakers and straight into the crowd's hearts. "How sweet it is to be loved by you."

The piano wasn't overwhelming and there was no other noise in the entire room save for the sound of her voice and the sparingly tapped keys. This was her, all her.

"I needed the shelter of someone's arms – and there you were. I needed someone to understand my ups and downs – and there you were." She infused her voice with as much emotion and soul as she could muster. "With sweet love and devotion, deeply touching my emotions, I wanna stop: and thank you baby. I just want to stop and thank you baby."

She took the microphone of the stand and began to sing in earnest as the piano picked up.

"How sweet it is to be loved by you. How sweet it is to be loved by you." She tried to search out Troy in the crowd but she found his seat empty, and it was hard to maintain a search whilst singing and having countless lights on you.

"I close my eyes at night wondering where would I be without you in my life," she grinned at Taylor, who was still sitting where she had left her, clapping along with the crowd. "Everything I did was just a bore. Everywhere I went, you know I've been there before. But you brightened up for me all of my days with a love so sweet in so many ways, I wanna stop –" the piano player stopped on cue as she sang "And thank you baby, I just wanna stop – and thank you baby."

She was starting to really have fun and get into the song. It sounded silly, but she could still feel Troy's presence. She knew that he was still there, still watching her, even if she couldn't see him. That was more than enough of the confidence boost she needed to belt out some impressive notes.

"Oh, oh – how sweet it is to be loved by you! I said, how sweet it is to be loved by you!"

She clapped along with the crowd as the piano played a riff, while counting measures in her head until she was supposed to come back in. She couldn't believe how much fun she was having, ignoring the fact that her entire school was watching her sing her heart out.

"You were better to me than I was to myself, for me there is you and there ain't nobody else, I wanna stop – and thank you baby. I just wanna stop and thank you baby, whoa oh! How sweet it is to be loved by you, how sweet it is to be loved by you." She slowed her voice down as the piano slowed drastically. She drew the last line out and let it pour over the crowd like honey. "How sweet it is…to be loved…by you."

The crowd erupted. It was like nothing she had ever experienced.

She looked over to the piano player and mouthed 'Thank You' to him, as he had worked just as hard as she had on this performance, without even the ability to tell anyone about it. It was her secret, not his, but he kept it all the same. She truly appreciated that. She gave a little curtsy to the crowd, her smile hurting her face the whole time, and as she turned to leave, she found the path blocked by a tall, warm body. And suddenly, his lips were on hers, moving, and she found herself slipping under and falling harder than she had ever fallen before. Troy finally broke the kiss and sent her a sheepish grin and all she could do was grasp his arm tightly, quite sure that if she tried to walk on her own then her legs would be unable to carry her.

Troy grabbed the microphone and addressed the crowd once more.

"Give it up one more time for the amazing Gabriella Montez!"

She could feel her eyes welling up once more as she met the gazes of her friends and not-quite-blood-related family. Despite her mother not being there and despite all the things in her life that had gone wrong, she couldn't help but feel like she had finally, truly found her home. Her place in life.