Author's Note: Welcome! This story follows after my one-shot, Revelations. To understand some of the imagery, you'll need to read it, but you can make it through this without it. Again, there's no slash here, but if you want to see slash, you can. Please remember to review!

Disclaimer: I don't own High School Musical. If I did, we'd be getting more Kelsi, Jason, Martha, and Ryan, and we don't.


"Mmm. No. Not quite right. No, you definitely look better in blue," Ryan observes, shaking his head, then commands: "Try the azure one."

"Uh..." Chad starts, eyebrow raised.

"Light blue," Ryan amends, rolling his eyes playfully.

Chad grins and nods, turning around and returning to the changing room stall. He shuts the door with a click and begins to strip off the shirt Ryan had picked out for him, adding it to the ever-growing mound of those Ryan proclaimed to be "not quite right."

To the left of this pile, on the small, grey plastic bench, lay four shirts, with the azure one on top. The three beneath them were the only ones Ryan had liked thus far, a frightening contrast to the monstrous montage of clothes that Ryan had rejected.

It had been slightly scary to watch Ryan shop. Ryan immediately led him to the men's section of the clothing department, his step so quick and assured that Chad found himself straining to keep up. The haste with which Ryan's feet moved translated to his hands and mind as well, and before Chad could barely blink, Ryan had already placed four hangers holding long-sleeved shirts in Chad's hands. Ryan rifled through the racks at an alarming rate, pulling out things he liked and shoving them in Chad's direction to take. Occasionally he would pull out a shirt and hold it up to Chad's torso, but every time he would decide against it and fling it back into its previous position in the rack. By the time he was finished, Chad was holding at least seventeen hangers in his hands and being led to the dressing room, where a slightly bored, over-pierced, over-black hair dyed girl unlocked the stall for him.

Chad would pick a shirt, slip it on, and model it out---which usually consisted of him somewhat lamely holding up his hands with either a hopeful look if he liked it, or a tiny grimace if he wasn't overly fond of it---for Ryan to critique.

"Not quite right," Ryan would always say, although sometimes he'd add other comments, and then he'd send Chad away with a wave of his hand or a request to see a certain shirt he had picked.

Of the first seventeen, Ryan liked only one dark red shirt, and Chad was relieved that it was that one and not the dreadful pink shirt Ryan had selected from the rack. Chad was appalled that Ryan had picked that color, and in a small, too. When he modeled it out, he frowned so deeply that he swore his face might leap away from his body and go be a contortionist in a circus somewhere. The shirt was uncomfortably tight, and he barely got into it. His thick, muscular body showed through the fabric, and Ryan's gaze upon him was particularly long this time.

"Not quite right for you, but perfect for me! Set it aside, will ya?" Ryan asked, somewhat chipper now that he had found something for himself. Chad gave him one of those "If that's what you wanna do, dude, fine, but...damn, you're weird" looks and returned to the stall.

Of course, that had only been the exploits of the first circuit. Ryan dragged him back out into the store twice over, picking out at least forty more shirts in total for Chad to try. Of them all, Ryan liked only two more: a navy blue blazer-like idea and a red-and-grey striped collared shirt with a small lion on the front.

But now, Chad thinks to himself with a sigh, they're done. This blue shirt is the last one. He steps out of the dressing room stall with a neutral expression, not really caring one way or the other about this one.

Ryan frowns slightly.

"Nuh uh. Too bright. No, not quite right," Ryan decides.

"That's the last one," Chad informs him.

"Really? Wow, that was fast," Ryan replies, blinking.

Chad's head falls forward slowly, his jaw slightly ajar.

"Are you kidding? That took, like, almost an hour!" he screeches, checking his watch. "Okay, a little under an hour, but still!"

Ryan laughs, holding his hands up in a concilatory, "not my fault" sort of gesture.

"Hey, you asked for this, remember?" he reminds Chad, grinning.

Chad purses his lips, rolls his eyes, and trudges back into the changing room to redon his original clothing. Ryan is right---he did ask for this.

He had realized with a start, that morning, that his and Taylor's three-month anniversary was but two days away, and he had absolutely nothing in mind for Taylor, which was a very, very, very bad thing. Chad knew girls loved to be loved, loved to be taken care of, and thought about, and generally doted upon. While they proclaimed that they didn't care what their men got them for Valentine's Day and things like that, Chad knew they were lying through their teeth. Every promise, big or small mattered. Every gesture, kind and unkind, mattered. Every holiday, if it was important to her, mattered.

And so he knew he was screwed.

He'd sat on his bed, hands in his hair, trying desperately to think of something, anything. It was almost seven o'clock before he realized that if he didn't hop in the shower soon, he wasn't going to be ready when his ride---Ryan---arrived.

So, one hurried shower and haphazard stink check of his clothing later, he was downstairs piling cereal into his mouth and telling his mom that no, there wasn't anything she needed to sign, and yes, he'd done his homework, and yeah, he'd remembered to charge his cellphone last night. The conversation fell silent between them for a bit after that as Mrs. Danforth hurried about the kitchen, searching for a lost business report.

"Mom?" Chad asked after a bit, staring into his Lucky Charms as if they held all the answers of the world. (They didn't. But it was worth asking them, too.)

"Yes, honey?" Mrs. Danforth replied, running through the stack of papers on the counter, next to her pill boxes.

"Do you have any idea what I could get Taylor for our three-month anniversary?" he asked timidly, daring to look up in hope that his mother would have the answers he'd been searching for all morning long. She continued rifling through the papers, oblivious to her son's look.

"Well, honey, what does Taylor like? What are her interests?" Mrs. Danforth asked pragmatically, abandoning the stack with a sigh and reaching up into the cabinet where she kept her tax information.

"Um...she likes school. Particularly science. And she...likes...making lists?" Chad grasped at the air with his words, realizing with a sudden dread that he didn't really know much about Taylor at all.

"Hmm. Well...maybe you could get her a new notebook?" Mrs. Danforth proposed, sifting through papers in the cabinet, occasionally pulling out one that looked promising before replacing it with a sharp sigh.

"I don't think so, Mom," Chad replied dejectedly, stirring his spoon in his cereal absentmindedly. Something in her son's tone caused Mrs. Danforth to abandon her search and turn around, compassion seeping from her irises.

"Chad, honey," she prefaced, crossing to the island where her son and his cereal leant, "It doesn't matter what you get her. It's the thought that counts," she insisted, smiling.

"I know, Mom," Chad replied, sighing, "And thanks, but...I don't know. Maybe the guys will have some ideas," he added, hope re-dawning in his eyes.

"There you go," Mrs. Danforth assured, smiling as she resumed her search, "And I'll pick up some cookie mix when I'm in town today. Girls always love boys who bake for them," she teased.

"Very funny, Mom," Chad needled back. He had once asked for her help in baking cookies for his English class in eighth grade. It was a "explain how to do something" project, and the only thing Chad could think of the night before it was due was to make a video on how to make cookies. So his mother agreed and he stammered his way through the process, his mother not inaudibly whispering tips and suggestions as she filmed. In the end, the film turned out to be more of a "How Not to Make Cookies" motif; Chad burned nearly half of them, and those that weren't burned suffered from a terrible frosting job. And, through it all, Chad had never gotten the chance to go to the bathroom, so when his mother zoomed in on the final project at the end of the film, he zipped out of the kitchen and dashed for the bathroom. Unfortunately, he tripped over a storm window leaning up against the wall of the hallway. So, as the class took in Chad's cookies both before them and on the video, they got to hear Chad's crash and screams of pain all at once.

It was, in short, embarrassing.

His mother knew that, and so she kept the video for her own nefarious purposes. Chad swore he'd find it one day and burn it.

A gentle knock at the door---TAP TAP TAPPITY TAP TAP---revealed that Ryan was here to save the day. Chad shoved his bowl in the sink, zipped for his backpack in the living room, doubled back to give his mother a kiss on the cheek, and practically ran to leave. He wrenched open the front door, revealing Ryan, holding a bright blue umbrella with ducks splashing about happily in the vinyl. Chad raised an eyebrow.

"Ducks?" he asked simply, an amused look on his face.

"Oh, shut up, Chad," Ryan chastised in return, grinning, "Would you have rathered Sharpay's pink chihuahua one?"

"Ugh," Chad shivered, opening the screen and simultaneously shutting the front door behind him. He resecured the screen door as Ryan shifted right and turned in one swift motion, still holding the umbrella archly over the two of them. Together they descended the wooden porch's steps, slicked with the light rain that had been falling all night long and into the morning. Together they sloshed through the muddy lawn to Ryan's still-running car. Ryan handed the umbrella off to Chad as he slipped inside, a few drops of rain sprinkling onto the hat of a day: a white newsboy cap.

Umbrella stashed away and both boys buckled in, Ryan took off, driving through the September rain as best as he could, having to stop nearly every five seconds for something: a crossing guard, a red light, some idiot jaywalking across the road (to whom Chad yelled angrily through the rolled-up window and flipped off once they got past).

In time, though, the idea came to Chad to ask Ryan for help in his search for an anniversary gift. Sure, Ryan didn't have a girlfriend (had he ever, Chad wondered?), but he had a twin, who was luckily female. Surely he would know something about what girls liked because of that?

"It's Taylor's and my anniversary on Thursday," Chad blurted, trying to be nonchalant and failing utterly.

"Yeah? What're you getting her?" Ryan asked.

"That's a good question," Chad mumbled, sighing. "I've got no idea."

"Oof," Ryan replied sympathetically, taking his eyes off the road for a moment to give Chad a look of pity. "Nothing at all?" he checked.

"Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Notta. Complete and total air ball," Chad muttered.

"Hmm," Ryan replied, steering with one hand as he gesticulated with the other, "Maybe you could...I dunno...take her out to a nice dinner?" he suggested.

"I'm broke," Chad countered.

"Make her something?" Ryan supplied.

"Like what?" Chad asked, confused.

"Uh...d'you, like, draw, or paint, or anything like that?" Ryan listed.

"The last time I took art, my self-portrait came out looking like an overweight frog," Chad deadpanned.

"Okay...what about a picnic?" Ryan suggested.

"In this weather? It's supposed to rain all week long," Chad informed him.

"Okay," Ryan replied, sighing, straining his brain to think of something for his friend. "Write her a poem?"

"I don't do poetry," Chad grumbled.

"Right, like you don't dance," Ryan whispered under his breath before continuing, "Do a dramatic reading from her favorite Shakespeare play?"

"You're really running out of ideas, aren't you?" Chad fired back, shaking his head sadly, "Thanks, though, Ryan. Maybe Troy or Zeke will have something."

Ryan flushed slightly at that, and immediately Chad wished he could take it back. His friendship with Ryan was still young, having grown out of mutual, albeit somewhat misplaced, animosity towards each other's best friends. Although they'd had some fun times over the summer, and in these first couple of weeks of school, they still hadn't forged bonds as deep as Chad had with Troy, Zeke, and Jason. Reminding Ryan of that was clearly not the best thing to do---he always seemed to get a little touchy about it, for reasons Chad couldn't fathom---but he couldn't take it back once it was said. Apologizing couldn't erase words from memories.

After a few moments of silence, Ryan spoke up again.

"What about re-enacting your first date?" he suggested.

Chad opened his mouth to shoot it down, then closed it again, unable to think of anything immediately.

"You could take her wherever you guys went, do whatever you did, but this time, do it the way it should have been. You know, with nice clothes and none of that awkward conversation that you always get on a first date. And, of course, the goodnight kiss," Ryan finished, smirking.

Chad laughed. The idea actually sounded pretty solid. Their first date had been a trip to the movies---somewhat typical, but not too bad. They had argued so long over the popcorn ("I'm the guy, Taylor, I should be paying," versus "If you don't let me pay half, I'm not going to eat any, and I'm hungry, damnit!") that they missed the first five minutes of the movie and all of the opening trailers for other movies, which Chad always loved seeing. He had tried to snake his arm around her in the classic way about halfway through the movie; she snuggled down a little lower in her seat to use it as a neck rest, instead, sticking her tongue out at him in the pseudo-darkness.

"Not gonna work with me, Danforth," she whispered, and he removed the arm, grinning.

After that, it had gotten better, but having to catch the public bus home was a bit of a misadventure, as they missed their stop by at least three blocks, Chad having been caught up arguing with Taylor over the movie ("It's a graphics-embellished, story deficient cinematic embarrassment!" versus "I thought it looked kinda cool"). Then, of course, the goodnight kiss had been an unqualified disaster---he leant right, she followed, and the two of them ended up bashing noses instead of crushing lips. They pulled away, rubbing their foreheads, and in the end settled on promises to call each other. Chad remembered walking home (about seven or eight blocks, which wasn't that bad) feeling like a complete and total loser.

"Sounds good," Chad found himself replying. He paused for a moment before an idea came to his head, and he voiced it. "D'you think you could, maybe, I dunno...man, this sounds girly...help me figure out what to wear?" he asked meekly.

But Ryan didn't laugh, just turned on his turn signal and waited until the coast was clear to head into the parking lot.

"New or old?" he asked simply.

"Uh...well, if it's cheap, I guess something new wouldn't be bad," Chad began.

"Fabulous!" Ryan replied, chipperly, "You should definitely wear your dress shoes, the black ones, and those black jeans with the blue stitching down the side."

Chad blinked.

"You memorized my wardrobe already?" he asked, flabbergasted.

"It's what I do," Ryan said with a simple shrug, then laughed after peeking at Chad's expression. "Don't worry, Chad. You're going shopping with an Evans. We have impeccable taste," he placated.

Chad finds himself agreeing with that, now. Clearly, shopping brought out a whole new level of intelligence in Ryan that the classroom failed to produce. Chad felt Ryan's pain; he wasn't a whiz in school, either, barely scraping together passing grades to remain on his sports teams. He didn't let that get him down, though. Some people were great at school, like Taylor, Gabriella, and Martha. Others were great at sports, like himself, Troy, and Jason. Zeke could out-cook the cafeteria workers any day of the week; Kelsi could compose a song that needed few revisions in under ten minutes. Sharpay...well...she could ruin anything with just a few simple words, a master manipulator who needed nine of her classmates to bring her down. That left Ryan all alone, the uncontested king of the stage.

But there was so much more to him than that, and when Chad had resolved this summer to get to know him better, he found that out rather quickly. Ryan did love to shop, especially for clothes, but he also liked to shop for video games with about the same vigor. He liked to play sports, especially baseball, but never found the time because they interfered with drama rehearsals. And while he certainly didn't lash out as much as Sharpay, he wasn't as innocent as Chad had first thought him to be. Sure, he was amazed by some of the more simpler things in life, like microwaves and chicken wings, but every once in a while he'd make some lewd comment and catch Chad totally off-guard.

All in all, Ryan was a pretty complex person, but still a cool dude, and Chad really respected that---even if the whole shopping thing was kinda creepy.

Gripping three relatively decently priced, tasteful shirts, Chad re-exits the dressing room.

"Here's yours," Chad says, handing Ryan his tight pink shirt, "What about the no's?"

Ryan simply grins.

"Excuse me, miss," he says abruptly to the over-pierced girl who looks like a model for Hot Topic or something (but of course she'd say no if they asked, just to be rebellious).

"Yeah?" she growls, looking up from her book.

"We're done. What we don't want is in Stall Two," he informs her assertively, then turns to Chad.

"Let's check out," he says, smiling. Ryan zips out, his step just as quick as before, and it takes Chad a second to readjust. In that second, though, he catches a highly interesting comment.

"They always leave the most clothes behind," grumbles Enemy-of-Metal-Detectors underneath her breath, so low that Chad almost doesn't hear it. Almost.

He shakes the thought aside as he follows Ryan to the check-out lanes, where a girl with bleached blonde hair flips through a fashion magazine. When she notices that he and Ryan have moved into her lane, she peers over it, and with a sharp upward flip of her eyebrows, quickly tosses it underneath her register. She turns to them, but mostly to Ryan, who is in front, throwing her hair back behind her shoulder and flashing him a smile that Chad swears could make even little orphan Annie blush.

"Hello there!" she greets, her tone like honey that has somehow gone bad despite its resilience.

"Hi," Ryan politely returns, smiling stiffly. He sets his shirt on the counter and pushes Chad's into the pile as well. Chad lashes out with his hand to slide them back, fast as lightning.

"What are you doing?" he asks, brows furrowing.

"I'm paying for these clothes," Ryan says simply.

"No, you're not," Chad fires back, arms crossing defiantly, "I don't do charity."

"Neither do I," Ryan responds airily, lips pursing together in annoyance. "You need to save your money for the movie. I have money to waste. Think of it as seventeen years of birthday presents I never got you," Ryan insists, grinning a little.

Chad sighs. Ryan's right; he does need to save his money for Taylor, and the Evans' are pretty loaded...

"Fine," Chad relents, "But I'm getting us dinner."

Ryan shrugs.

"If you insist," he mutters, but smiles as he pulls out his wallet. Miss Poisoned Honey takes the money with a patronizing glaze and returns Ryan's change slowly, pressing each coin into his hand with flirtatious ease.

"Are you sure I can't interest you in...something else?" she asks lasciviously, leaning over so that Ryan could, if he so chose, look down her shirt. Chad grimaces. Ryan appears oblivious, simply tucking the change into the pocket of his jeans---which Chad had finally convinced Ryan to start wearing---and grabbing the bag of clothes.

"No, thank you. Have a nice day!" he politely wishes, and leaves the blonde tart behind. Chad follows him, but as it seems to be his luck today, overhears yet another comment.

"They were so cute together, weren't they, Sherry?" Miss Poisoned Honey's register companion gushes, and Chad flushes as he rushes out of the store behind Ryan.

"So, where are we eating?" Ryan asks.

"Oh. Something in the Food Court, I guess," Chad mutters back, and the two set off towards the Court. On the way, two girls pass them, chatting to each other. They stop their conversation to look at the two boys. Then they break away when Chad catches their eye and start giggling together, the one furthest from Chad pointing at them. Chad feels his face flame up again, but Ryan can't see---he's looking at the ads for the Bath and Beauty store across the way.

Chad isn't sure what to think. Had this been happening all this time? Had he not noticed all of the stares at the flamboyantly dressed boy next to him? The stereotyped conclusions in their eyes? The curled lip of digust, the titter of patronization, or even the lusty glaze of desire? Had the workers at Lava Springs---his friends---thought that, too?

His mind swims, confounded. He's not...like that. And Ryan? Well, Ryan does notice girls, but...

Well, there's the clothes thing. He wears the latest fashions, and even accompanies them with hats. He loves to shop for clothes, and he's really, really good at it. Isn't that just a little bit...you know...weird?

Then there's the whole staring thing. Sometimes Ryan just sits there, or stands there, or whatever, and just looks at people. It's like they're something he hasn't seen before. He cocks his head to the side and squints his eyes before he finally nods and comes back to reality. Isn't that a little...you know...different?

And who can forget when those two came together? Just a short time ago, Ryan was staring at him in that tight pink shirt. It was almost sensual, almost more than an appraisal of the clothing. It was a taking-in of Chad himself. Had Ryan licked his lips? Chad was almost certain he had, now. And didn't he give him an almost wink before he told him he wanted the shirt? Heck, he probably only wanted it because Chad had been in it, and looked so...well...whatever Ryan had thought he looked like. It certainly wasn't "not quite right", that was for sure.

These thoughts flood Chad's head until only one lonely willow stands amidst the watery destruction in his mind. The willow whispers that all of this is nonsense. He's making things up. Ryan doesn't think like that. Chad's seen him look at girls the same way Chad himself does. Has he ever seen Ryan take in a boy like that?

No, the willow whispers, he hasn't. Ryan was just trying to figure out if the shirt was going to work, or was picturing it on himself to see if it fit. Let these worthless thoughts go, the willow whispers, because they mean nothing.

But the voice is just a whisper, and Chad cannot hear it amidst the roaring flood of his thoughts.

"Subway cool?" Ryan asks, slightly hesitant. Chad turns to him with wide eyes. The flood in his brain masks all of his thoughts, even his words. He restricts his answer to a swift, shaky nod.

Ryan steps up to the counter and places his order. His meticulous way of ordering---"No cheese, and can you leave off the ham?"---allows Chad time to try and locate his thoughts from within the raging flood.

"No dressings. No mayonnaise, either, please."

He tries to wade in, staying close to the shore, but he can find nothing in the rushing water.

"Can you double the tomatoes for me?"

A sudden wave takes him by surprise and he bowls over, the current sweeping him along.

"That's too many olives. There we go."

He thrashes and plunges up and down in the water, trying to find air. The flood of thoughts choke him.

"Yes, please cut it in half. Yes, that's all."

Finally, he sees the willow, and grasps blindly for it. The branch holds in his grasp, and he clings to it. Eventually he finds the strength to pull himself up and into the willow, safe in its sheltering branches.

"Can I help you, sir?" the worker asks, and it's all Chad can do to reply:

"Pizza sub, please," he says, which he knows is the easiest to prepare. He needs to say nothing else, and that's good. He's spending all of his mental energy trying to stay in the willow as it bucks from the strength of the flood.

The worker finishes, sets the sub on the counter, and Chad digs out his wallet to pay. Ryan grimaces, he notes, out of the corner of his eye, but says nothing. The money exchanges hands quickly and now they look for somewhere to sit. Or, rather, Ryan looks for somewhere to sit and Chad follows, lost in his mind.

As he's done so many times before with Chad, Ryan immediately clasps his hands and starts murmuring underneath his breath. Chad, as has been his wont, waits until Ryan is done to start eating. It's more of a matter of respect, he's decided, than an acknowledgment or a belief in Ryan's God. Right now, though, considering his mental state, he wishes he had somebody upstairs looking out for him.

In the willow, a voice comes to Chad, and he realizes that he's overhearing yet another comment.

"...and Bless Chad, God, since he's the one who paid for this even though he shouldn't have. You made him special. Thanks, God. In Jesus' name. Amen," Ryan whispers.

As he opens his eyes, Chad feels the water underneath his feet start to draw back. It's just a little bit, but it makes it easier for him to hold on, takes a bit of the pressure away.

Ryan's voice echoes in his mind. Nobody's ever prayed for him before. They've wished him good luck before a game or helped him cram for a test, but that's it. Nobody's asked the higher power they trust in wholly to bless him.

And suddenly, like a divine inspiration, a shaft of sunlight shines onto the willow.

Chad knows what he has to do.

"Ryan," he starts, and stops. He's not sure how to phrase it, how to go about it, and his thoughts are still clogged by the flood. It's starting to slow down, now, the current receding its rampage, but it's not going away very fast.

"Never mind," he says quickly, and Ryan returns to his sandwich.

Chad forces himself to eat his own, although his stomach would rather leap out of his body and start doing somersaults on the table. He's nervous, more nervous than he's ever been before a game, even the championships. He's more nervous than the talent show at Lava Springs when he and Taylor were supposed to lead the charge onstage.

His mind, overwhelmed by the flood below him, cannot give him the strength he needs.

So he waits, and eats, and watches Ryan eat. They finish rather quickly, and when Ryan's just swallowing his final bite, the words come to his tongue at last.

"Are you bi?" Chad blurts out at last. It's the only way he can think of to approach the situation. It works; the water starts to swirl, faster and faster, like when flushing a toilet. It dissipates without a sound, and when it does, Chad feels that his mind is clear once more. Only then does he look at Ryan.

But he doesn't meet his eyes. Instead, Ryan is staring into his sandwich wrapper.

"No, Chad, I'm not. Why? Are you interested?" Ryan asks, his tone turning acidic by the end.

"No! No, I just...I..." Chad trails off. Not once since he's known him has Ryan been anything but kind. Sure, he's thrown a couple of teasing insults his way, and slung his fair share of testosterone-filled bragging, but never has he been this...

Hurtful. Cold. Pained.

Never before has he had to have been an Evans.

Suddenly the willow Chad still clings to in his mind snaps in half, and he goes tumbling down to the desolate ground of his mind.

He's never felt more alone.

"Is that why you've been hanging out with me all this time? To see which way I swing?" Ryan cuts. Chad raises his head---which he put down at some point, but can't remember when---and has his breath nearly ripped from him.

Ryan's usually warm eyes are cold. His mouth is curled into a sneer of disgust. He's even breathing hard, as if he's been dancing for hours nonstop.

Ryan is angry, and he's never looked uglier to Chad.

"I should have known. I should have known this was all a joke. Nobody wants to be the fag's friend! And here's the funny part: he's not even a fag! He's just...just..." Ryan stops at last, his eyes welling with tears. He sprung to his feet during the outburst, and now he looks as if he wants nothing more than to cut and run.

Each word Ryan says cuts into Chad. If for nothing else but self-preservation, Chad has to stop it. He has to stop it, he thinks dramatically, before it slices him apart. He knows it will slowly kill Ryan, or at least the Ryan he knows, if the process continues.

And he can't be responsible for that.

"Ryan, please, let me explain," Chad manages to whisper. Ryan purses his lips, breath coming in short gasps. For a moment, it looks like he's going to lash out again with his words, but instead he sits, furiously attacking his eyes with his pianist's fingers.

"All day long people have been...saying stuff," Chad starts, quietly.

Ryan scoffs.

"The goth in the changing rooms? The register girl? The people in the halls?" Ryan prompts, and for a second Chad wonders if the last one has a double meaning. "I saw it all. I heard it all. It's nothing new," he finishes, grimacing.

"But I haven't!" Chad insists, his voice screeching. He takes a breath to try and calm himself before continuing, "I haven't heard any of it. Maybe I haven't been paying attention or...something, but today's the first time it's happened. And I...I didn't know what to think. So I kinda freaked out. I'm sorry."

Ryan glares at him.

"Sorry doesn't cut it, Chad," he says simply.

"Well, what else can I say?" Chad yells back, finally breaking his own somberness and rising to his feet, "That I'm an idiot? That I'm an asshole for trying to hurt one of the nicest people I've ever met? That I've been too scared to even say 'Hi' to him for the past four years because I was too worried about what people would say about me?" Chad screams.

His breath returns to him, and so does his mind when he realizes what he's just said. His eyes widen as he looks to Ryan.

Ryan is staring at him again, that same look in his eyes: appraisal, mixed with something Chad doesn't know, but hopes isn't pity.

"'There's just one little thing that stops me every time.' That's it, isn't it?" Ryan asks quietly. Chad nods slowly, sinking back into his seat. Now, more than ever, he is fully aware of all the people watching the scene unfold before them. Ryan, ever the actor, ignores them.

"Why?" he asks simply.

Chad bites his lip.

"I...I don't know. I guess...I guess I just...got used to what people thought about me. You know, the 'basketball guy' with the big hair. But...people liked that. I mean, they cheered for me, and held pep rallies and stuff. And I thought they'd, like, I don't know, stop all that if I tried to be something else. If I tried to, like, talk to you, or Martha, or even Taylor. I was just...scared," Chad admits.

The words pour out with frightening ease. With each one, the landscape inside his mind transforms. The flood-ravaged land starts to grow grass, tickling Chad's body as it prickles into life. A peculiar fragrance that smells like barbeque sauce and boiling pasta starts to fill the air. Above Chad's spot on the ground, beneath the broken willow, the clouds begin to slowly clear.

Ryan shakes his head.

"I'm sorry, Chad," he says. "I jumped to conclusions, too. I forgot you're not that kind of guy. You're one of the nicest people I've ever met. Probably my first real friend, besides Sharpay, but she doesn't count," he rambles, waving his hand in the air.

"Don't let her hear that," Chad quips, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he can think to stop them. It seems to be the way he's working, now.

And it's for the best, because Ryan's face breaks into a smile. His eyes light up with the same life they had when he was pitching at the staff baseball game, when he first saw Chad's house, even when he met Chad at the door that morning with the 'ducky' umbrella.

Then he laughs. He laughs, and Chad finds himself unable to stop the smile that spreads across his features. He laughs, and Chad starts chuckling too. He laughs, a fully belly laugh, and soon Chad's matching him in volume. He laughs, and all of the anxiety and apprehension of the day simply melts away.

Finally, it decresendoes into a few small titters here and there. As Ryan wipes the tears---tears of laughter---from his eyes, Chad asks the last tentative question.

"Are we okay?"

Ryan turns to him, smiles, and pushes out his chair. Chad's brows furrow in confusion until Ryan hauls him up out of his own chair with surprising strength.

And suddenly Ryan's hugging him.

He finds his arms and returns the hug. It is brief, but tight and strong.

"We're okay," Ryan says as they break away.

The willow in Chad's mind goes through a rebirth. The old wood still remains, but out of it grow new branches, new leaves, in the greenest green that Chad's ever seen. The tree is breathtaking inside of his mind, with the sun shining down on it and that peculiar smell in the air.

Ryan grins, and punches him lightly on the shoulder. It's something Chad didn't think he would ever do to Ryan, or have Ryan do to him, but now it seems natural. It seems like it fits.

"C'mon," he says, reaching for his trash, "Let's get you home. Chemistry waits for no man," he jokes.

Chad beams in return, and as he throws away his sub wrapper, he feels like all of the old insecurities go with it. People are still staring at the pair of them, but he no longer cares.

He's going to be Ryan's friend, and nobody is going to stop him. Not even himself.


Author's Note: You made it this far? Good for you! Now please review.