Back to School -- Act III

"Enjoy the dance," Taylor called after the group of giggling freshmen girls. After putting their money away in the cash box, she glanced around, trying to figure out where Chad had gone to, but she didn't see him anywhere.

When she'd first volunteered to be in charge of the back-to-school dance, Taylor hadn't realized how much work it would be. The decorations alone had taken all afternoon so that she and Chad hadn't had time for a real dinner before the dance. And once they'd returned to the school, Taylor had remembered that she'd volunteered to take the first shift at the door. She wouldn't blame Chad if he was sore -- she was frustrated herself.

But in fifteen minutes she would be relieved by the next shift, and then she and Chad could go have some fun on the dance floor...that is, until she had to go work the refreshment table.

The door opened, and Taylor looked up to see a familiar face.

"Javier?" she asked, surprised to see him.

The tall good-looking guy turned and smiled at her. "Hey, Taylor."

"What are you do--?"

She didn't need to finish her question because the answer walked through the door Javier was politely holding open.

"Thank you, Javier," Sharpay said, smiling sweetly at the Spanish lifeguard.

"Of course, Miss Evans."

The blonde's smile disappeared as she hissed through clenched teeth, "You're supposed to call me Sharpay!"

"Sorry, Miss...Sharpay," Javier quickly corrected himself.

Sharpay turned and smiled sweetly at Taylor. "Good evening, Taylor. I believe you've met my date, Javier?"

Taylor tried not to laugh. "Your date, huh?" She shook her head. "Sharpay, I'm sure you know the rule that only students are allowed--"

"He's a student," Sharpay interrupted. "Aren't you, Javier?"

He nodded. "From West High," he said decisively before looking over at Sharpay, obviously seeking her approval.

"No he's not," Taylor said. "He goes to U of A. I can't let him--"

"Please!" Sharpay leaned across the table, grabbing the collar of Taylor's blouse. "You HAVE to let him in!"

"Well..."

It wasn't just that Taylor enjoyed seeing Sharpay suffer, though she had to admit that she did. But Taylor was in charge of the dance, and rules were rules.

"PLEASE! I'll pay you, if you want!"

As Sharpay started to open up her purse, Taylor suddenly remembered hearing through the grapevine (from Gabs via Ryan and Chad via Zeke) that Sharpay had been left without a date at the last minute -- no wonder she was so desperate.

But before Taylor could make a decision, Javier smiled winsomely at her.

"I understand you have rules, Taylor. But I promise not to cause any problems or spike the punch or anything. You can even search me for alcohol if you'd like."

He held up his hands, as if ready to be searched, and Taylor felt her heart soften.

"Well…," Taylor began.

"And here's a fifty," Sharpay said, thrusting a 50-bill into Taylor's hand.

Now Taylor was not one to take bribes. But she had gone well over the StuCo budget for this dance, so surely it wouldn't be wrong to accept, would it?

Taylor smiled. "Thank you for your DONATION to Student Council, Sharpay," she said pointedly.

"Yeah, whatever," Sharpay said curtly. She then turned to Javier, saying, "C'mon -- just pay for our tickets and let's go in."

"Right away, Miss….Sharpay." Javier pulled out a 10-dollar bill, which had obviously been provided by Sharpay earlier, and handed it to Taylor.

Then, offering Sharpay his arm, he started to lead her into the dance, calling back, "See you, Taylor."

--

Martha was thirsty and finding it hard to catch her breath, yet she didn't dare suggest that they stop dancing -- they were having too much fun.

For a guy who wasn't interested in girls, Ryan sure knew how to show a girl a good time. She'd never ridden in a convertible before, and the quirky pizza place with the singing waiters was a complete blast. They'd arrived early and had been the first ones on the dance floor, and they hadn't left it since.

In the past she'd always felt a little self-conscious at dances -- most of her friends merely shuffled along or stood at the wall and watched. But she and Ryan had claimed the dance floor as their own. All around them, the other students seemed to make way for their twirling and dipping.

Ryan had been eagerly teaching her various ballroom and swing steps, but he was also a willing student to her hip-hop moves. Together they were creating their own unique dance fusion, and Martha couldn't wait to blog about it on her Dancing with the Stars fan community.

As Ryan was spinning her once again in a flamboyant swing move, Martha caught sight of the cafeteria's double doors being flung open, and she paused mid-spin to watch Sharpay make her grand entrance.

The blonde stood in the doorway just long enough for heads to turn and take in her sparkly coral blue dress, her perfectly coiffed hair, and her gorgeous Latin escort. Sharpay smiled at the crowd, as if they were all there just to see her, and then continued into the dance leaning on her date's arm.

Her strangely familiar-looking date.

"Hey, isn't that Javier from Lava Springs?" Martha asked.

Ryan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's him."

"But he's not a high school student."

Ryan shrugged. "Sharpay never lets rules get in the way of getting what she wants."

"So…are they dating?" Martha asked, surprised. "'Cuz I thought…."

She trailed off, not wanting to voice her suspicions in case she was wrong.

Ryan eyed her, clearly curious. "You thought what?"

Martha shrugged, somewhat embarrassed. "I don't know," she said, lowering her voice so only Ryan could hear. "I just always kinda thought that Javier was probably gay."

Ryan looked surprised, and Martha blushed.

"Oh god, please don't tell him that," she said, humiliated that she'd been so wrong.

But Ryan was clearly impressed. "How did you KNOW that?"

Martha felt relieved. "Is he really?" When Ryan nodded, she continued, "He just kinda pinged for me from the start."

"Wow, you're good!" said Ryan. "It took me three years to figure that out."

His pleased smile slowly turned into a mischievous grin. "You and I have GOT to start hanging out more!"

Martha laughed, and for the umpteenth time that evening she wished that she had befriended Ryan years ago.

Glancing over to where Javier was helping Sharpay out of her wrap, Martha commented, "Your sister must be pretty desperate to bring a gay guy as her date."

Ryan smirked, arching an eyebrow. "Pot? Meet kettle."

Martha laughed. "Touche!"

"So," Ryan said, pulling her close to spin the two of them around, "anyone else around here ping for you?"

"Why?" she teased back. "Planning to ditch me for a better dance partner?"

Ryan shook his head. "Not possible," he said, grinning. "You're the second best dancer in the school."

"After YOU, of course," she said.

"Of course!" Ryan said matter-of-factly, a smug smile on his face.

Martha laughed. Even though a lot had changed over the summer, some things never changed.

Ryan was and always would be an Evans.

But Martha kind of liked him that way.

--

As Chad and Troy launched into a heated discussion about their Fantasy Football teams, Gabriella sighed. She'd been bugging Troy all week to talk to Chad about the Taylor situation, but every time she asked him about it, Troy claimed that he hadn't had a chance to bring it up.

But now Gabriella knew the truth -- Troy had probably had plenty of opportunities to bring it up, he just hadn't wanted to.

Not that she blamed him -- it was an awkward thing to discuss. But it NEEDED to be discussed. And SOON! Before it was too late!

So when there was a lull in the boys' conversation, Gabi jumped at the opening.

"Chad, we really need to talk to you," she burst out without preamble.

"You do?"

Chad looked with confusion from Gabriella to Troy, who merely looked awkwardly down at his feet.

Gabi elbowed her boyfriend. "Yes, we do," she insisted. "Troy and I need to talk to you about--"

"Taylor!"

Troy's cheery welcome made Gabi turn around just in time to see her best friend hurrying across the dance floor towards them.

"I'm here, I'm free!" Taylor said breathlessly as she reached them. "Becky FINALLY relieved me at the ticket table, ten minutes late but better late than never, so now I'm free to dance."

"It's about time," Chad grumbled.

"Actually, it's the PERFECT time," Troy said, gesturing towards the DJ.

It took Gabi a moment to realize what he was referring to: the opening strains of a slow romantic song.

Gabriella was overcome with a sense of panic and urgency. She couldn't just sit back and watch her best friend have her heart broken.

So she did what any caring best friend would do -- she grabbed Chad's hand and announced, "Sorry, Taylor -- Chad promised ME this dance."

"He did?!" "I did?!"

Gabriella nodded, determined to not let pesky facts get in the way.

"Yes he did. Now c'mon, Chad, let's go dance."

And she dragged him to the far side of the dance floor, as far from Taylor as she could get.

"What are you doing?" Chad asked as she dragged him along, obviously caught off-guard by Gabriella's sudden forcefulness.

"I'm trying to save my best friend from heartache and disappointment."

"Huh?"

Gabriella pulled Chad to her to start dancing. "You have to tell Taylor about Ryan," she insisted.

Chad tried to pull away, but Gabi held him close.

"What are you talking about?" he sighed before adding bitterly, "Did Ryan send you?"

"No! In case you haven't noticed, Ryan's been so depressed lately that he's barely spoken to me."

Unfortunately, at that very moment, Ryan and Martha went twirling by them on the dance floor, laughing merrily.

"Well, he WAS depressed," Gabi corrected, feeling somewhat chagrined.

Secretly, though, she was thrilled that Ryan was having such a genuinely good time tonight -- he deserved it, after what he'd been through this past week.

And after acting like such a jerk to both her best friends, Chad deserved to be miserable -- which he seemed to be.

But that wasn't going to stop Gabi from giving him the lecture he needed to hear.

--

Kelsi was thankful when the slow song was over because she could finally give her arms a rest. She'd never realized how tiring it was to dance with someone a foot taller than her.

She was also thankful because she could now watch Jason some more, which she couldn't do when her view was blocked by Zeke's chest.

Before tonight, she had thought she wouldn't want to see Jason on his date with Kim, but it turned out Kelsi was enjoying seeing Jason so happy, even though he was happy with someone else.

As Kelsi and Zeke exited the dance floor, she caught sight of Jason and Kim talking and laughing by the chairs against the wall. Kelsi was trying so hard to figure out what they were talking about that she accidentally collided with Zeke.

"You okay?" Zeke asked, looking worried.

Kelsi nodded, embarrassed. She felt guilty about what a terrible date she was being -- she hoped that Zeke wasn't upset with how distracted she'd been all evening, but she wouldn't blame him if he was.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled.

"It's not your fault," Zeke said, sighing wistfully, "it's mine." His attention was drawn elsewhere as he added, "I guess my head just isn't in this date."

Kelsi followed Zeke's gaze and realized he was staring at Sharpay as she giggled and hung all over her date on the dance floor.

'So I'm not the only distracted one,' Kelsi realized, feeling somewhat relieved as her eyes wandered back once again towards Jason.

Unfortunately, Zeke must've followed her gaze for he exclaimed, "Hey, there's Jason and Kim. Let's go say hi."

"Saying hi" was the last thing Kelsi wanted to do -- she preferred to keep her unrequited love at a safe distance. But she obediently followed her date over to where the happy couple was chatting.

As the three athletes launched into an animated discussion about their current practice schedules, Kelsi shuffled her feet uncomfortably. Not wanting to stare at Jason for fear that her crush would be revealed, instead she kept her eyes on the dance floor, watching Sharpay and her date with interest.

It took Kelsi awhile to figure out exactly what was going on. One moment Sharpay would seem to be having a great time, laughing and chatting with Javier, and the next she'd look annoyed and upset. Eventually, Kelsi realized that this light switch of happiness seemed to turn on the moment Zeke would glance her way and turn off the moment his attention returned to his friends.

'What a manipulator,' Kelsi marveled, knowing that it was Sharpay's own fault that she wasn't Zeke's date tonight. But Sharpay, it seemed, had not learned her lesson about treating Zeke better and instead was clearly trying to make him jealous.

And Zeke was falling for it! Kelsi saw his shoulders slump and his smile fall every time he glanced Sharpay's way. Kelsi wished she could do something about it, but she could only stand by helplessly and watch the drama unfold.

However, staring at them so long, Kelsi eventually caught Javier's eye, and his face lit up to see not one but four familiar faces. Despite Sharpay's protests, Javier hurried off the dance floor over to the foursome.

"What is this -- a Lava Springs reunion?" Javier teased as he joined them. "How you doin', Kelsi?" he asked, kissing her hand gallantly. He then turned to Kelsi's date, squinting his eyes as he tried to remember Zeke's name.

"You worked with Chef Michael, right?"

Zeke nodded, offering his hand. "I'm Zeke."

Kelsi jumped in. "And I'm sure you remember Kim and Jason -- they both worked in the kitchen."

Javier gave Kelsi a grateful grin before taking Kim's hand and kissing it, much to Jason's annoyance.

But Javier didn't notice Jason's reaction because his attention was focused on the hand he was now holding.

"Did you hurt your shoulder?" he asked Kim.

Kim nodded, surprised. "Yeah, I pulled something at volleyball yesterday," she said, massaging her shoulder with her free hand. "It's been killing me all day."

"You probably strained your trap," Javier said, quickly moving behind Kim and starting to massage her neck.

Kelsi watched Kim's eyes close tight in pain and relief.

"Oh yeah, that's the spot," she gasped as the massage therapist worked his magic on her neck and shoulders.

Jason, however, thought it was anything but magic.

And Sharpay wasn't impressed either.

"What are you doing?!" she barked as she hurried over to them. "You're MY date!"

Javier just rolled his eyes. "Calm down, Miss….Sharpay. The girl just pulled her shoulder and…."

"And you are not being paid to be a massage therapist tonight," Sharpay barked. "You're being…."

She trailed off, her eyes darting nervously in Zeke's direction.

Kelsi watched as Sharpay's happiness instantly switched back on. The blonde smiled coyly up at her date, linking arms with him and leaning her head on his shoulder.

"I mean," she began, her voice dripping with sweetness, "you're supposed to be having fun tonight, not working."

Kelsi sniggered -- it was clear to her that Javier WAS working tonight!

And she just hoped he was being generously compensated.

--

This entire evening was turning out to be a disaster, and it was all Ryan's fault! HE was the one who'd suggested hiring Javier in the first place.

Of course, he'd later confessed that he'd merely been joking, but Sharpay was still holding him responsible!

Javier had been the perfect choice -- older, suave, gorgeous. What girl WOULDN'T be jealous of her? And, more importantly, what tall basketball-playing baker wouldn't be jealous seeing Sharpay dancing in Javier's buff arms?

But Javier's dancing was marginal at best. And he kept calling her "Miss Evans", which might as well have been a marquee announcing: "Tonight the part of Sharpay's date will be played by Javier Ibarra."

Sharpay had also forgotten just how many of her fellow East High students already KNEW Javier from working at Lava Springs all summer, so the elaborate backstory she'd created for him was now simply going to waste.

But even worse, he was now CHATTING with the dishwashers! And HAD been for the past twenty minutes! They weren't even discussing anything INTERESTING -- they just kept rambling on about sports injuries and stuff.

How on earth was THIS supposed to make Zeke jealous?

Finally, Sharpay decided she couldn't stand it any longer, so she politely excused herself ("I'm going to talk to Ryan -- don't go anywhere, Javier!") and hurried off towards the dance floor.

It wasn't hard to find her brother -- he and his chubby date had been making complete spectacles of themselves all evening, dancing around like they owned the place.

As she approached the odd couple, she heard Ryan explaining, "The important thing about tango is that you need to keep your weight over both feet so that you can go in any direction at any time."

Sharpay was tempted to make her own comment about Martha's weight, but she was too intent on giving Ryan a piece of her mind.

"Ryan!" she barked, walking right up to him so that Martha had to jump out of the way so as not to get run over.

"Hey Shar," Ryan said, smiling happily. Then, peering around the dance floor, he asked. "How's your date going?"

"How do you think? It's a total disaster, and it's all your fault."

Ryan laughed. "I don't think you can hold me responsible, sis, 'cuz I told you I was joking about hiring--"

"Hush!" Sharpay snapped, nodding her head towards Martha. "I don't want everyone to know."

"Too late," Ryan quietly admitted. "I think they already do."

That was exactly what she'd been afraid of. And NOW what was she supposed to do?

"Well, I can't even get him to dance anymore, not that his dancing is anything to write home about," Sharpay whined. "He's just over there talking to Zeke and everyone about sports and trapezes and stuff."

"Trapezes?" Ryan sounded interested.

"I think she means 'trapezius'," Martha explained.

Sharpay and her brother both looked at the smart girl blankly.

"The trapezius muscle extends from your neck, across your shoulders, and down your back," Martha explained. "It's trapezoid in shape, which is why--"

"Do we care?!" Sharpay snapped. "Learning about muscles is not going to get Javier to shut up." She grabbed Ryan's hand, begging, "PLEASE won't you do something?"

Ryan shrugged. "Do what, exactly? Say 'Hey Javier, I have something to show you in the bathroom'?"

Martha laughed at this, but Sharpay could find nothing funny in his answer.

"Sure. ANYTHING. Just get him away from the group so that Zeke can be jealous of me some more."

Ryan looked skeptical.

But as the intro of a slow song began to play, Martha completely surprised Sharpay by encouraging him.

"Why don't you just go ask Kelsi to dance?" she suggested. "That would disrupt the conversation and maybe encourage the rest of them to return to the dance floor."

"What a great idea, Martha," Sharpay beamed. Perhaps it was good that Ryan had brought along someone smart.

"Are you sure you wouldn't mind?" Ryan asked his date.

"Of course she doesn't mind," Sharpay said, practically shoving her brother off towards the sports-talking group.

--

"You seem to be having a good time."

Ryan beamed. "I'm having a BLAST!"

He smiled down at the short girl in his arms. "Aren't you?"

Kelsi shrugged. "Tonight's going okay, I guess."

"Okay? Isn't Zeke treating you well?" Ryan suddenly felt very protective. "If he's not, I'll…I'll…." Ryan considered a confrontation with the towering jock and concluded, "I'll…hire someone to steal his baking supplies."

Kelsi laughed. "No need to torture him! It's not HIS fault."

"That's a relief," Ryan said, teasingly wiping his brow.

However, seeing Zeke leading Sharpay out to the dance floor, Ryan breathed a genuine sigh of relief.

"Yes!" he exclaimed -- now that his sister had gotten what she wanted, she'd stay out of his hair for the rest of the night.

But then Ryan remembered who he was dancing with -- Zeke's date!

"Oh Kelsi, I'm so sorry!" he said.

"It's okay," she said, shrugging it off. "At least SOMEONE got who they wanted," she added wistfully.

Ryan felt terrible -- Zeke never would've abandoned Kelsi if Ryan hadn't asked her to dance.

And he knew exactly how it felt to be abandoned -- in fact, he'd spent all week trying to get over it.

"If you want me to…," Ryan searched his mind for some way he could make things right, "…I don't know…drag Sharpay away…or--"

"Ryan, it's okay," Kelsi said, putting a hand on his chest to halt him. "I don't have a thing for Zeke, so I'm fine with him and Sharpay. Really!"

"In fact," she said, smiling as she looked over at them dancing together, "I'm really happy for him."

"Really?" Ryan asked, surprised. "Personally, I kinda pity him."

He then looked back down at Kelsi. "But know that the offer to steal his baking supplies still stands," he teased, and she laughed.

Yet despite Kelsi's reassurances, Ryan still felt a twinge of guilt that she was now on her own.

"Why don't you come hang out with me and Martha for the rest of the dance?" Ryan suggested. "We're teaching each other dance steps -- she knows all these awesome hip-hop moves that I'm SO gonna use in my next routine. And have you ever seen Dancing with the Stars?"

Kelsi shook her head.

"Me neither, but it sounds fabulous. And Martha has every episode Tivo'd, so we're gonna get together and watch them all. That's why she's so excited about learning all the ballroom steps, and luckily she's a quick study, unlike Shar."

Ryan rolled his eyes as he thought of the HOURS of lessons that he'd practically had to drag Sharpay through. Of course, that was because dancing was only a secondary goal for her, something she needed to do in order to get what she really wanted -- to become a star.

But for Ryan, dancing WAS the goal. And the same was true for Martha. Which was why he was having so much fun dancing with her tonight!

"Let's see," Ryan continued, thinking about all the dances they'd done, "so far I've shown her the waltz, tango, salsa, two-step -- oh, I haven't shown her the foxtrot yet! She'll LOVE the foxtrot -- it's really simple, but there are, like, a thousand variations and--"

"And," Kelsi smiled, interrupting, "this song's almost over, so why don't you go teach Martha that now?"

She stepped away from him, turning back towards the chairs.

"Come with me," Ryan said eagerly, grabbing Kelsi's wrist to lead her through the crowded dance floor. "I can teach you, too."

But the short girl shook her head, freeing her hand from his grip. "No, I don't wanna interrupt you guys. You two just go ahead."

"You sure?" Ryan felt bad leaving her alone.

But Kelsi smiled and nodded. "Of course. I'll be fine. You go dance."

Ryan was about to protest again when Kelsi added, "You need to show Martha that foxtrot, right?"

"That's right!" he said, excited to have another new dance to teach. "Okay, see you later, Kels."

And Ryan was off to go rescue Martha from Javier -- the massage therapist may have magic fingers, but he sure had two left feet!

--

Slinging an arm over the mezzanine railing, Chad watched the movements of dancers on the floor below. He now understood why Sharpay preferred to hold court up here during lunchtime. From here, he could see everyone having fun down below.

While HE was stuck up here with Taylor watching the punch bowl!

All week he'd been looking forward to tonight, to showing Taylor a good time on the dance floor. But they'd barely gotten to dance at all! And they'd been so crunched for time that they hadn't even gotten to eat a real dinner. Tonight didn't even feel like a date -- it just felt like a LONG day at school.

Taylor suddenly waved a hand in front of his face. "Hello? Earth to Chad."

"Huh?" Chad pulled his gaze away from the dancers below long enough to address her. "What did you say?"

Taylor sighed, and Chad could tell she was annoyed. "What's with you tonight?"

Chad frowned and snapped, "Nothing!"

"Was it something I did? Something I said?"

"What? No!" Chad was taken aback by how pissed off he sounded and he quickly softened his tone. "Sorry. I just..."

'…can't keep my mind off of Ryan,' he thought before offering her a warm smile. "I have a lot on my mind tonight, that's all."

Taylor put her hand on Chad's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Anything I can do?"

Chad shrugged. "Save a couple more dances for me?" he suggested. If he was busy showing her his new dance moves, maybe he wouldn't have time to think about Ryan.

"Definitely!" Taylor said, smiling. "We'll hit the floor as soon as my shift is over."

However, her smile faded when she caught sight of one of her fellow dance committee members gesturing wildly at her from the kitchen doorway.

"I have to go see what's going on with the refreshments. Will you watch the punchbowl for me while I go see what's wrong THIS time?"

"Sure, babe." Chad smiled winsomely. "You can count on me." He gave her a mock-salute.

Taylor rolled her eyes and laughed as she stood to leave. "You are SUCH a dork."

"All part of my charm," he proclaimed to her retreating form before settling back into the metal folding chair next to the refreshment table.

As a slow ballad started, Chad could see Gabriella coaxing Troy out onto the dance floor below, giggling all the while. Over on the side of the cafeteria, against the wall, Kelsi sat alone in a metal folding chair, staring wistfully out at the dancers. Chad followed her gaze to Jason, who was dancing with Kim from the girls' basketball team -- Chad silently thanked the basketball gods that Jason moved better on the court than he did on the dance floor. Nearby, a starstruck Zeke was now dancing with Sharpay, who seemed to have ditched her mystery date.

But no matter how hard he resisted, Chad's gaze kept settling on the same person: Ryan. Chad justified this by the fact that everyone else was just shuffling in place, while Ryan and Martha were gliding all over the dance floor. Naturally, the twirling couple was going to catch his eye in the midst of all that stillness. The fact that Ryan was one-half of that couple had nothing to do with it.

And there was something strangely familiar about the dance Ryan and Martha were now doing. Chad gave up all pretense of watching anybody else so he could concentrate on deciphering the steps Ryan was teaching Martha. Chad listened to the music and watched the way Ryan confidently stepped in time: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow.

Though the DJ was playing a modern pop ballad, Chad could suddenly hear Peggy Lee's sultry voice in his head.

'He's teaching her the foxtrot,' Chad realized, thinking back to his own dance lessons.

The way he had held Ryan in his arms as they moved together. The way Ryan's skin had felt beneath his fingertips. The fiery touch of Ryan's fevered lips to his as they had shared their very first--

"Hey Chad!"

Startled by the sudden intrusion into his reminiscence, Chad yelped.

Taylor gave Chad an apologetic smile as she set out a large tray of cookies on the table. "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we were able to save the cookies, despite Alan putting them..."

Taylor continued with a long explanation about cookies in the freezer and ice not in the freezer and someone having to go out and buy more ice, but Chad wasn't really listening -- his mind was still back in the yoga studio with Ryan, reliving every sound, every smell, every touch.

"...and, of course, the dance committee isn't going to contradict popular opinion."

Taylor looked at Chad eagerly, obviously expecting him to comment, but Chad had no idea what she was talking about.

"Oh, yeah, that sounds great," Chad said tentatively, hoping that was the right answer.

Apparently it was because Taylor flashed a self-satisfied grin as she sat back down next to Chad.

--

It was the imminent threat of dehydration that finally got them to stop dancing. While Martha wished she could've danced all night -- a comment that had inspired Ryan to burst into song -- she realized that they needed to get something to drink before it was too late.

As they climbed the stairs to the refreshment table, Martha suddenly realized that she should've warmed up before she started dancing. She could already feel her muscles protesting with every step, and she knew she would pay for it tomorrow.

And possibly the day after.

And maybe even the day after that!

But she didn't care. Tonight was the most fun she'd EVER had at a school dance. And she suspected Ryan felt the same way. She'd never seen him smile so much when he wasn't on-stage. And his voice was even sounding a bit strained, as was hers, from trying to be heard over the music as they taught each other their dance moves. A cold glass of punch was just what they both needed to soothe their throats and rehydrate.

As they reached the mezzanine level, Martha caught sight of Taylor alone at the refreshment table.

"Hey, Taylor," Martha greeted her friend cheerfully. "Awesome dance! And great job on the decorations -- it doesn't even LOOK like a cafeteria."

"Thanks, Martha," Taylor said, grinning at the couple. "You two look like you've been having fun."

Ryan nodded enthusiastically. "We're having a BLAST! Martha's been teaching me all these hip-hop moves," he said, starting to roll his shoulders around to the beat.

"Me?" Martha teased. "What about all the ballroom steps you've been teaching me?"

Ryan nodded smugly. "Yeah, I am a good teacher."

Taylor laughed. "We all know that, Ryan -- we would've looked like fools dancing at the midsummer talent show if it hadn't been for you."

"That's true," Ryan said in a tone that made Martha unsure if he was joking or not.

So she put her arm around him, giving him a friendly hug as she teased, "And you're modest, too."

"Guilty as charged," he said, flashing a mischievous grin.

"So why are you up here?" Taylor asked. "Shouldn't you two be downstairs cutting a rug, or a linoleum or something?"

Martha laughed. "Actually, we are desperately in need of some liquid refreshment."

Before she could pick up a cup of punch, Ryan quickly grabbed one and handed it to her gallantly. "Here, m'lady."

Martha laughed and graciously took the punch. Although it was only 7-Up mixed with fruit juice, Martha had never tasted anything so refreshing and she downed it quickly.

Taylor refilled Martha's cup, saying, "Yeah, you've gotta be careful to stay hydrated -- you don't want to have a hangover in the morning."

Ryan abruptly stopped drinking and looked warily into his cup. "What's IN here?"

Martha laughed. "No, Taylor's just saying that we'll FEEL like we have a hangover if we get dehydrated tonight."

Taylor nodded. "That's what a hangover is."

Ryan looked confused. "I thought it was when you drink too much."

"It is," Taylor said, starting to launch into a lecture about the dehydrating effects of alcohol, but Martha cut her off.

"I'll explain it to him later," she said, eager to get back to dancing.

But she needed more punch first, so she let Taylor pour her a third cup.

Suddenly Martha heard a voice behind her.

"Hot stuff, coming through -- and I don't just mean the cookies."

Chad made his way through the crowd, skirting around Martha to set the tray down on the table in front of her.

"Don't tell me YOU'RE baking now, too," Martha said, grinning at Chad.

He opened his mouth to answer, but Taylor jumped in, saying, "Yeah, the cookies are fresh from the oven. Please help yourselves."

Martha grabbed for a cookie and turned to ask her date, "Do you want one?"

But the Ryan Evans that she'd been dancing and having fun with all evening was suddenly no longer there.

In his place stood a quiet and tense boy who was staring at his feet, shifting his weight back and forth, clearly uncomfortable to be there.

"Don't you like cookies?" Martha asked, not sure what had caused such a change.

"C'mon, Ryan," Taylor encouraged. "You'll need to keep up your strength if you're going to keep dancing all night." She sighed as she added, "Hopefully Chad and I will get a chance to join you out there soon -- after Alan gets back with the ice." Turning to Chad, she continued, "You promised to show me the steps Ryan taught you this summer."

Martha noticed that Chad didn't seem to be listening -- instead, he too seemed to suddenly find the floor tiles immensely interesting.

Taylor prodded, "Remember, Chad?"

"Huh?" Chad looked up at Taylor, saying awkwardly, "Oh, yeah, I can show them to you."

Martha felt Ryan take her hand as he said curtly, "Let's go."

She smiled warmly at Taylor. "We've gotta get back to the dance floor -- Ryan…loves this song," she improvised.

But Taylor was distracted, intently watching Chad with a puzzled expression. "Okay, see you later," she said absently.

As Ryan practically dragged Martha down the stairs, she asked, "Ryan, are you okay?"

Without meeting her eyes, he merely stated, "Let's just dance."

--

Taylor held the kitchen door open as Chad carried the large glass punchbowl inside to refill it. Although Taylor could've easily carried it herself, she thought it was a good excuse to get Chad alone.

She'd so been looking forward to the dance all week, but tonight's date was turning out to be another disappointment. What had happened to the charming boy who had asked her out and flirted with her all week? Tonight Chad had seemed distracted at best and oftentimes downright grumpy.

And clearly there was something going on with him and Ryan -- they both seemed upset, withdrawing the instant they saw each other.

Taylor was determined to get to the bottom of this.

She waited until Chad had set the glass punchbowl down on the counter before she opened with, "So what's going on?"

"Nothing." Chad turned to her, confused. "I'm just helping you with the punch like you asked."

"That's not what I meant," Taylor said. "What's up with you and Ryan? Did you two have a fight or something?"

"NO!"

Chad's adamant denial made it clear that they had.

Taylor thought back over the school week, realizing that she hadn't seen the two boys talking or hanging out for days. And obviously Ryan had been upset about something, but when she'd asked Gabriella about it, her best friend had been evasive and immediately changed the subject.

"Did you two fight last weekend or something?"

"No! Why are you even talking about Ryan?"

Taylor stared at Chad. "Because YOU haven't been, and you usually do. You two became such good friends over the summer, and yet just now you wouldn't even say hi to him at the punchbowl. So what's going on?"

"Nothing!" Chad repeated vehemently. "You know how the Evanses are -- I just got sick of all his drama."

Taylor eyed Chad warily. "Ryan's not Sharpay, or at least that's what you've been saying all summer. So what happened? What changed?"

Chad shrugged. "HE changed -- why don't you ask HIM?"

Heading for the kitchen door, Chad added, "You don't need me anymore, right? I'm sure you can make a bowl of punch by yourself."

Taylor sighed frustratedly -- why wouldn't he just tell her what was wrong?

"C'mon, Chad. We're friends. If something's bothering you, then tell me so I can help."

Chad let out a bitter laugh. "There's nothing YOU can do."

"Maybe I can," Taylor insisted. "But I CAN'T help if you won't tell me what's wrong."

He shook his head, mumbling, "You don't want to know."

Taylor took hold of his hand. "Yes, I do. You and Ryan are my friends, and I don't like seeing you miserable."

"I'm NOT miserable," Chad insisted, pulling his hand away.

But Taylor wasn't buying it. "Well, you've been sulking all night."

"Well, YOU'VE been working all night," Chad snapped, "so I've been stuck sitting around watching everyone else have fun."

"Don't blame this on ME," Taylor shot back. "You KNEW I had StuCo obligations when you asked me to this dance, and you seemed fine with it until today."

"That was before I had to sit and watch THEM all night."

Taylor didn't need to ask whom he was referring to. "Ryan and Martha are having a good time tonight -- you should be happy for them."

When Chad didn't answer and merely sat there in sulky silence, a possible solution to this quandary suddenly occurred to her.

"Do you…like Martha?" She hoped she didn't sound as panicked as she felt.

"No!" Chad snorted. "Why would you even think that?"

Taylor shrugged, breathing a sigh of relief -- since she and Martha were good friends, it would've been awkward if Chad liked her.

But if Chad's problem wasn't with Martha, then that brought her back to Ryan.

She gave another sigh, feeling she was getting nowhere. "So then what's your deal?" she asked once again. "Or Ryan's deal? Or whatever? Did you do something to upset him?"

"No!" Chad snapped defensively. "All I did was ask you to the dance! HE'S the one that freaked out."

Taylor tried to make sense of this new information. Now that she thought about it, Ryan had seemed sad and upset all week, ever since Chad had asked her to the dance. And thinking back, she realized how hurt Ryan had looked every time Chad had flirted with her.

"So…does Ryan like ME?" she asked tentatively, knowing it was a stupid question but not seeing another potential solution.

"No," Chad said, looking chagrined. "Not…YOU."

It took Taylor a moment before she realized what he meant. "So…Ryan likes you?"

Chad nodded, not meeting her eyes.

Talk about awkward, Taylor thought. "Well, he knows you're not interested, right?"

Chad didn't answer, merely staring at his feet, shifting his weight uncomfortably.

Taylor was annoyed -- boys could be such idiots.

"Chad, you've got to talk to Ryan. He'll understand. Just be honest with him. You don't want to ruin your friendship over something so stupid."

Now it was Chad who gave a frustrated sigh. "Just because you're smart doesn't mean you know everything."

"Well, I know that you shouldn't lead him on if you're not interested."

"I never led him on. I was just…confused." He paused, and a shy smile crossed his face. "And then I wasn't confused. But now…." Chad sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Now I'm even more confused."

Taylor stared at Chad, unable to compute this new info. "So wait…are you saying…you like Ryan?"

"No!" he quickly insisted.

Shrugging, he hedged, "Maybe?" before staring down at his feet and admitting quietly, "Yes."

Then Chad raised his eyes to her in a look of confusion and helplessness. "I don't know!"

Taylor stood there in silence, not knowing what to say -- none of her sister's Boy Rules applied to this situation.

But now that she'd opened the door, it seemed Chad couldn't stop talking.

"Everything was so much easier this summer, just spending time together. And since Troy was busy, off doing his thing, and Sharpay was busy, off doing her thing, Ryan and I had lots of time to just hang out and be around each other. And then we had those stupid dance lessons. It just…happened. I just…had to." Chad stopped, obviously lost in the memory.

"Had to what?" Taylor prodded, not sure she wanted to know the answer.

Chad didn't seem eager to spill, mumbling something under his breath.

"What?" she asked again.

"Kiss him," Chad said quietly.

Taylor gasped so quickly that it caused her to cough. "What?!"

Chad was back to staring at his feet. "I kissed him. And then he kissed me back. And then…I just freaked. I didn't know which weirded me out more -- that I'd kissed an Evans or that it was a boy. So I…."

Taylor was too impatient to wait for him to continue. "You what?"

Chad shrugged, looking sheepishly at her as he answered, "I…took you out to the drive-in."

"You WHAT?!"

Taylor could feel her face flushing with anger. "So that debacle of a date was just a failed attempt to prove your heterosexuality? What, so you would've taken advantage of me just to prove something to yourself? I can't believe you! Even if you don't like me that way, I thought we were at least friends! But friends don't use each other like that!"

"Yeah, I know! It was stupid, and I'm sorry! But I'm not the only one who uses people, you know." He pointed an accusatory finger at her. "Did you or did you not say that you were glad you'd have 'someone tall to stand on the ladder' to help you with the stupid decorations for this dance?"

Taylor frowned. Obviously Chad had heard that from Troy, who had heard it from Gabriella. Well, she was going to put this little game of Telephone to an end! "Yes I did say that, and yes I was glad…and I already thanked you for helping me. But that's not what we're talking about -- we're talking about you throwing yourself at me last summer just because you were scared that you might like a guy."

"Nothing happened that night!" Chad insisted defensively.

"Yeah, no thanks to you!"

Taylor suddenly remembered her dreamy thoughts about Chad driving her home after the dance. "And what were your plans for tonight?" she asked. "More of the same?"

"No! I wasn't even THINKING about that."

"So what WERE you thinking?" she demanded, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

He put up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "I was just thinking that it was a school dance and you and I would have fun -- I didn't think it would turn into such a huge deal. I mean, it's just a DANCE, right? It's not like it's a real date or anything. And it never even occurred to me to ask Ryan."

Taylor stared at Chad, trying to figure him out.

"Wait -- are you saying you and Ryan…went on a date?"

Kissing Ryan was one thing, but DATING him? Maybe this was more serious than she'd thought.

Chad nodded. "Technically we went on two, though I don't know if the second one should count, since you guys all went bowling, too."

Taylor thought back to that group outing to the bowling alley and how much fun she'd had hanging out with Chad. She'd enjoyed their competitive banter and thought that perhaps it was the start of a new relationship for them.

But apparently it'd been a new relationship for him and Ryan instead.

"So…are you guys…together?" Taylor asked hesitantly.

Chad shrugged. "Kinda?" he said, making it sound more like a question than an answer. "I mean, things were going great between us…until school started. And then this dance came along, and I asked you because…just because I did. But Ryan threw a fit, since he'd just ASSUMED we'd go together, and he's been acting like a drama queen ever since, moping around school in his stupid black clothes and his stupid sexy eyeliner, and then showing off tonight, dancing all over the place, rubbing it in my face about what a good time he's having without me. He even taught Martha to foxtrot -- that's OUR dance!"

He lowered his voice. "But I didn't mean to upset him by asking you -- I just…I mean…I guess I'm just not ready for everybody to know…whatever." Chad finished with a shrug.

Taylor could feel her anger starting to dissipate, and as it did, she began to think more clearly, realizing she needed more information in order to fix things.

"So…who DOES know?" she asked. "Does Troy know?"

Chad nodded sheepishly. "Yeah, he knows…now."

His chagrin made it clear that he felt guilty for not having told his best friend sooner. Taylor realized, though, that this was the sort of thing that could be awkward to talk about, even to your best friend. Were she in Chad's shoes, she might not feel comfortable telling Gabriella.

Gabriella!

"Gabriella knows, doesn't she?" Taylor asked.

Chad nodded. "WAY more than she probably should -- I think Ryan tells her everything." He blushed, adding sheepishly, "Well, not EVERYthing." A look of panic flashed across his face. "At least, I HOPE not!"

"Now it all makes sense," Taylor said, thinking about Gabriella's strange behavior whenever Taylor brought up her date with Chad and her evasiveness about why Ryan was upset. "But why didn't she tell me?" she asked aloud.

"Because it wasn't for her to tell," Chad said. "Gabriella definitely knows how to keep a secret -- she didn't even tell Troy. She felt it was up to me to tell him. And to tell you." He laughed as he admitted, "Actually, she was just nagging me tonight about that."

Taylor smiled. "So THAT'S why she dragged you onto the dance floor."

Chad nodded. "Yeah, you should've heard her lecture -- she's obviously been taking lessons from you!"

He gave her a teasing smile, and she couldn't help but smile back.

"So…is that it?" Taylor asked, feeling somewhat relieved that she wasn't the last person at East High to know.

"Yeah," Chad said. "That's it. Unless you count Sharpay and the Evanses."

Taylor raised an eyebrow. "Sharpay knows…and you're still ALIVE?" she teased.

"Well, she was actually really cool with it…until I asked you to this dance. I've been kind of…avoiding her all week. I'm afraid of what she might have in store for me since I..."

Taylor nodded as Chad trailed off. An affront to Sharpay's twin brother was as bad as an affront to her, and even the most daredevil skater dudes at East High cowered in the face of Sharpay's wrath.

"So what are you going to do about it?" Taylor asked, already formulating possible solutions.

Chad looked confused. "About Sharpay?"

"No, not about Sharpay!" She placed both hands firmly on his shoulders. "Focus, Chad! What are you going to do about Ryan?"

Chad shrugged. "What CAN I do?"

"Well, you can start by talking to him."

"Don't you think I TRIED that?" Chad snapped back. "I tried calling him all last weekend, and he wouldn't answer or return my calls or anything. And then he shows up at school all dressed in black and acting like a jerk and he won't even LISTEN."

"So you're just gonna throw away your friendship because he's being a jerk?" Taylor asked. "You're still friends with Troy, and he was a MAJOR jerk over the summer."

Chad nodded, considering, "Yeah, that's true."

"Of course it's true. True friendships don't end that easily. And if you and Ryan are…."

Taylor trailed off. She wasn't even sure what they were anymore. Friends? More than friends? Boyfriends? It seemed so weird to think about.

She started again. "You and Ryan obviously like each other, and I know you guys care for each other, as friends if nothing else -- and that's something worth holding on to."

Chad nodded.

"So," he began tentatively, "are…WE okay?"

Taylor nodded, giving him a sympathetic smile. She'd be lying if she said she wasn't upset, but now that she'd uncovered that missing puzzle piece, things were starting to make sense. She knew she'd get over it. Boy Rule #11 -- there are other fish in the sea.

"Of course we're okay," she said, walking over and pulling Chad into a friendly, comforting hug.

"Yo, McKessie!"

Chad and Taylor turned to see the kitchen door fly open and Alan stick his head inside.

"Stop making out with your date and hurry up with the punch -- I didn't go buy all that ice just for my own amusement."

"Oh, whatever, Alan," Taylor said, annoyed that her conversation with Chad was being interrupted. "We'll be out in a minute."

Alan slammed the kitchen door shut behind him, leaving Chad and Taylor alone once again.

"So…," Taylor said.

"So…? Chad asked.

"So…you need to go talk to Ryan."

"Oh yeah," Chad said sarcastically, "I'm just gonna walk out onto the dance floor and talk to Ryan in front of everybody!"

"Hmm, good point," Taylor admitted, chewing her lower lip as she considered their options.

She then got a mischievous glint in her eye as she declared, "I think I have a better idea."

--

Chad watched with some trepidation as Taylor purposely led Martha off towards the girls' restroom. He couldn't believe he'd agreed to let Taylor fill Martha in, but as he couldn't come up with any other way to get Ryan alone, he'd finally consented. He was surprised Taylor was willing to help him at all, especially after he'd taken her out on not one but TWO disastrous "dates"; considering the circumstances, he felt he was getting off easy.

But that still didn't mean he was comfortable with the idea of yet another Wildcat learning the truth about him.

Chad watched from a distance as Ryan followed behind the girls, stopping to get a long drink of water from the fountain when they disappeared into the restroom together.

With Ryan finally alone for the first time all night, Chad hurried over to him, but once there, he wasn't quite sure what to say.

"Hey," was all that came out.

Ryan turned his head to see who was there, but when he saw it was Chad, he rolled his eyes and resumed drinking.

Chad took a deep breath, knowing he needed to say more. At this very moment Taylor was no doubt telling Martha everything, so the least he could do was to try to "communicate his feelings" as Taylor had instructed him to.

"So...uh...Evans -- can we talk?" Chad asked hesitantly.

Ryan straightened up from the fountain and fixed Chad with a hard glare. "What's to talk about?" he asked before turning on his heels and disappearing into the boys' room.

Chad merely stood there a moment, equal parts hurt and pissed off, before storming in after the other boy.

"Don't be like that," Chad said as he marched over to where Ryan was starting to unbutton the fly of his pinstriped jeans.

Without a word, Ryan turned and walked into one of the stalls, slamming the door shut behind him.

"C'mon, Evans!" When there was no reply, his voice softened. "Please, Ryan -- we need to talk."

"About what?" Ryan's tone was angry through the door of the stall. "Did you just give your girlfriend your class ring or something? Is that why Taylor was so eager to talk to Martha? And now you want to gloat about it to me?"

"No!" Chad snapped back. "Don't be stupid. You know I don't even like her that way."

"Could've fooled me, the way you've been flirting with her all week."

"I was only flirting with her to get back at you," Chad said, surprised at how angry he sounded.

The toilet flushed, and Chad jumped back surprised as the other stall door opened. Scott Michaels walked out of the stall, eyeing Chad suspiciously before walking out of the bathroom.

Chad was mortified that someone had overheard their conversation. And since things were liable to get even more personal, Chad hurried over to the outer door of the restroom and turned the deadbolt. At least now they were ensured of some privacy.

When Chad turned back from the door, Ryan had exited his stall and was washing his hands. Turning from the sink, he repeated coldly, "Get back at me? For what? I'm not the one who asked out Taylor."

A part of Chad was so happy to have Ryan alone again that he wanted to throw caution to the wind and kiss him like there was no tomorrow.

But a part of him was still pissed that Ryan was acting like such a drama queen.

"Look, I already apologized about asking out Taylor," Chad said, even though technically he knew this wasn't quite true. "But you're the one who over-reacted and shut me out. And yeah, I admit maybe I was trying to make you jealous. But at least I didn't completely rub it in your face like you tonight. I can't believe you taught Martha our dance!"

It took a moment for the look of confusion on Ryan's face to turn to bemusement. "You mean the foxtrot? I'd hardly call that 'our' dance. It's been around for over a hundred years. They even do it on Dancing with the Stars, which was why Martha was so eager to learn it."

"Yeah, but..."

Chad suddenly felt stupid. He now realized that Ryan teaching her that dance had had nothing to do with him.

Which was good, in a way. Because it meant that Ryan's joy this evening hadn't merely been manufactured just to manipulate him -- Ryan's joy on the dance floor had been genuine.

Considering how his own date had gone, Chad was glad that at least SOMEONE had enjoyed the evening.

"Look," Chad began, but Ryan put up his hand to stop him.

"I get it," Ryan said, his voice sounding less cold and more dejected. "We had some fun this summer, and now it's over. I get that now, and I'll get over it. It's...it's just gonna take me some time," he said sadly, his voice almost cracking.

Chad hated to see Ryan so sad, and hated even more that he was the cause. He put a gentle hand on the other boy's cheek and met his sad blue eyes.

"You didn't let me finish," Chad said.

Ryan stared at him, and Chad took a deep breath and tried to collect his thoughts, realizing that if he said the wrong thing now, he could lose Ryan forever.

"I screwed up," Chad began. "I was freaking out 'cuz I just wasn't ready for people to know. But I'd rather the whole school know than for us to be like this." He removed his hand from Ryan's cheek in order to gesture vaguely between them. "This! This...not talking to each other, not being friends, not being...together. I WANT us to be together. And if people have to know, then...I guess they'll have to know."

He paused before finishing, "And I guess I'm okay with that."

As he said the words aloud, he realized that they were true. Being with Ryan meant enough to him that he was okay with other people knowing about it.

But Chad suddenly worried that maybe being with him didn't mean enough to Ryan. And if that was the case...

Chad never even finished the thought, for Ryan's lips were suddenly on his.

It was a short kiss, but it spoke volumes.

"So," Ryan said coyly as they parted, "you realize you're gonna have to tell Taylor."

Chad smiled smugly. "I already did -- and she's next door right now telling Martha."

Ryan's jaw dropped in surprise.

Chad attempted a nonchalant shrug but realized his self-satisfied grin probably ruined the effect.

"It was MY idea, too...well, partly anyway. But I figured it was the only way I could get you alone and off that dance floor long enough to--"

Ryan pushed him against the wall and covered Chad's mouth with his, stopping him mid-sentence.

Chad could no longer remember what he'd been about to say.

And he didn't even care.

--

Eleanor Darbus yawned and absently looked up at the clock on the cafeteria wall. It was almost 11:15pm! She yawned again, wondering how much longer the students were going to be -- she was looking forward to falling into bed and sleeping off this first full week of school.

Of course, it was her own fault that she was still here. Not being a Student Council sponsor, she could've left immediately after the dance like the other chaperones. But Eleanor had taken pity on the two StuCo sponsors and volunteered to stay on in their stead. After all, Irene had a baby to get home to and Coach Moore had a cross country meet early in the morning, whereas Eleanor had a free weekend stretching out in front of her, the last one she'd have before play practices started next week.

So Eleanor was eager to get this last weekend of freedom started.

"Ms. McKessie," Eleanor said, approaching the girl in charge, "how much longer do you think you'll be?"

Taylor turned to face her teacher, not releasing her grip on the ladder she was steadying.

"We're almost done, Ms. Darbus. These are the last of the streamers, and we're almost done with the chairs." She nodded towards her fellow StuCo members who were stacking the remaining folding chairs onto a cart. "Maybe…10 more minutes?" she guessed.

Eleanor nodded -- that would get her out of here by 11:30 and home in bed by midnight. That wasn't too bad -- she knew she'd be up much later during the upcoming tech rehearsals.

Martha descended the ladder, shaking her head.

"We've got to move the ladder closer, Taylor -- I can't quite reach them."

Martha then turned towards her teacher, adding, "Hey, Ms. Darbus. Did you enjoy the dance tonight?"

Eleanor smiled. "Not as much as you and Ryan, it seems."

She had enjoyed watching the odd couple kick up their heels all night. After Ryan's depression earlier in the week, Eleanor had been thrilled to see the boy thoroughly enjoying himself.

"Yeah, we had a blast," Martha agreed as she and Taylor carefully shifted the tall ladder over closer to the last bunch of streamers.

"I think that'll be good," she said, scurrying up the ladder while Taylor steadied it once again.

As Eleanor watched the girl ascend, she suddenly realized who was missing.

"Where's Mr. Danforth?" Eleanor asked, looking around the nearly empty cafeteria. It had been so nice to see the tall jock helping to hang streamers after school -- she'd been impressed that he'd finally taken an interest in something other than that round orange football of his.

Taylor and Martha shared a look.

"He's…uh…," Taylor began.

"Busy," Martha finished for her as she reached the bottom of the ladder once again, crumpling together in her hands the streamers and tape she'd just torn down.

Taylor and Martha shared another knowing look before Taylor repeated, "Yeah, he's busy."

She then turned to Eleanor, asking, "Ms. Darbus, would you mind helping Martha take down the ladder and putting it back in the theatre? I want to check and make sure everything else is finished."

"Why, I'd be happy to help," Eleanor said as Taylor hurried off towards the chair crew, who were now wheeling the folded chairs away.

Eleanor and Martha carefully folded the ladder together, and Martha walked forward as they tipped the ladder down sideways. Then they started off down the hallway towards the theatre.

"You're quite a dancer, Ms. Cox," Eleanor said as they carried the ladder through the empty hallways. "You should consider auditioning for the winter musicale."

Martha nodded. "Ryan said the same thing. But I have Scholastic Decathlon at that time, too, and I don't think I can manage both." She turned her head to smile back at her teacher as she added, "But Ryan can be pretty persuasive, so who knows -- maybe you will see me at auditions."

The two of them safely delivered the ladder to the theatre, and by the time they returned to the cafeteria, the only person left was Taylor, who was looking around and checking things off her clipboard.

"I think that's it, Ms. Darbus," Taylor said, triumphantly checking the last thing off on her list. "Now we just need to hit the lights, lock the door, and we're done."

"Another success for the Student Council," Eleanor said grandly as she went to grab her purse from where she'd stashed it.

"Goodnight, Ms. Darbus," the two girls called back to their teacher as she locked up the doors behind them.

"Goodnight, girls. See you Monday."

As Eleanor headed out into the parking lot, she saw only three cars remaining -- her 14-year-old Geo Metro, a red Toyota Corolla, and Ryan's bright yellow Mustang convertible.

Watching from a distance as the two girls approached the convertible, Eleanor wondered why Ryan had stayed out here instead of coming inside to help take down the decorations.

And then she watched as the answer got out of Ryan's car. Chad said goodnight to Ryan and Martha and, taking Taylor's hand, walked over to the red car.

'Busy, huh?' Eleanor thought to herself. Smiling, she climbed into her car and headed for home.

THE END