I'm afraid of what you guys will think of this. Seriously. There's a lot of closed-minded people on this site that can't see past the Disney profiles of each of these characters and can't read or enjoy AU stories. What if Sharpay isn't the drama queen? What if Zeke didn't love to bake? What if Troy -gasp!- didn't like basketball? Come on, AU's are fine. And I happen to love this story idea, so please pleaseee give me some feedback. It doesn't have to positive, but I would appreciate it if it was.

If you give this story a chance, everything will work out. I'm sure after reading this you'll have a lot of questions, and feel free to ask them, although I may not be able to answer some of them. All questions will be answered in future chapters, I promise you. I needed a new story idea for when "Deep" and "Un Año En La Vida" end, and I thought of this one night and really really wanted to write it. Hopefully you'll like it as much as I do.

Um. I don't own anything. Clearly.

Chapter One: Return to Cold Water Lake

"Gabriella, will you marry me?"

Her heart shuddered at the memory and she shook her head, wishing it away in the worst way possible. Hugging her gray sweatshirt closer to her body, suddenly feeling chilled, she glanced out of the window of the aircraft, watching the miles fly by and the clouds fluff away in memory. She couldn't believe she was doing this. She couldn't believe she was going back, after all of these years. It wasn't a matter of visitation, though she hadn't seen any of the occupants in nine, no, ten years. It was more of an escape. An escape from the life she knew she didn't want, and more importantly couldn't have.

But she couldn't marry him. She wouldn't. She didn't love him the way he thought she did. Their relationship had been nothing short of a fling, or so she thought. She never thought he'd propose. Never thought he'd take her to a fancy, upscale restaurant overlooking the Manhattan harbor and get down on one knee, causing the whole restaurant to look over in awe as he asked for her hand in marriage. Couples awed at the sight, women chided the men for not being as romantic, and Gabriella, even though she felt obligated to agree, declined.

How could he have proposed? She told him from the beginning that she never really wanted commitment. As much as she needed it, to settle her raging emotions, she could never settle down with Jacob Symonds, future millionaire or not. She believed his love was merely infatuation. And she never loved him anyway. Whenever he'd say he loved her, she'd always reply with a cute little smile and, "I know," which Jake thought was "Simply adorable." Did he not understand that she never loved him back?

Every time Gabriella closed her eyes she saw Jake's shocked and horrified expression from when she turned him down. It was painful, yes, but did he really not see it coming? Was he that dense? He stood and cleared his throat afterwards, sitting back down in the chair across from hers, calling over the waiter for the check. The entire restaurant watched in shock, scorning Gabriella with their downcast glares. It was an awkward ride home and an even more awkward conversation followed. It had started with a simple "Why?" And Gabriella had proceeded to tell him that she didn't feel the same way and that she was sorry but she didn't think she could go through with it. Jake said nothing. She felt terrible.

It was only two days later, and here she was onboard a non-stop flight to New Mexico, revisiting the hometown and life she'd left behind all those years ago. Nobody knew of her homecoming; not her parents, not her ex-in-laws, not Troy... oh, most certainly not Troy. If Troy had known she was flying back to escape from her new life, he would've already packed up everything and skipped town. That's how bad things were between the two of them, ever since the fateful horrid night she left her family and her life behind.

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. We've received the 'okay' to land and should be on the ground in about ten to fifteen minutes. Please make sure your seats and tray tables are in the upright position and your seatbelts are securely fastened. Thank you for flying with Delta Airlines, and we hope you have a safe trip in Albuquerque."

Upon arriving at the gate, Gabriella stepped off the plane and into the warm New Mexican air. It was a beautiful day, she decided, and made her way quickly to the baggage claim. She glanced around at the crowds of people she was walking with and found she barely recognized any of them. Of course, she never knew anybody in Albuquerque, since she grew up in a town just south of it. But once in a while, there would be a few travelers who would stray into Cold Water Lake asking for directions, and they'd have to turn them back, telling them they've gone too far.

After gathering her luggage, Gabriella hopped a Greyhound that traveled to the brink of Cold Water Lake, nervously awaiting her arrival at the town she'd called home since birth. Would anyone recognize her? Did anyone miss her when she'd gone? She watched the busyness of Albuquerque fly by her eyes, wishing that was the kind of town she lived in. It was just like New York, in a sense, that it never slept and there was always something to do. Cold Water Lake was a little hick-town. Everybody knew everybody's business, and there were never any secrets.

That's why Gabriella figured everyone knew that she'd gone.

She paid the driver and hopped off the bus, noting that the roads were still unpaved. She glanced around, adjusting the weight of the suitcase to her other hand and began to walk up the road, knowing exactly where she was going. There was a long main road- named Stone Springs Road ironically, since the roads were not paved, just gravel- that had all of the necessary things a town needed. There was a bank, a doctor's and dentist's office, an old historic museum, a hospital and a daycare center on the right side, and a grocery store, a school, a bar, and a restaurant on the left side. That main road then broke down into one large, circular road, named Pebble Drive, which stretched all the way around the ovular lake, with houses all around it. Each house had a dock, and each dock had a boat, whether it was the old, row-boat kind or the new motor-powered one.

This was where Gabriella grew up. This small town that was ages behind in technology.

Her parents' house, the house she grew up in, was 14 Pebble Drive, about halfway around the lake. She'd never forget it. When she was eight and had to write her address for the first time, she figured that her driveway had fourteen pebbles. So when she came home from school that day, she got out into her driveway and began to count all of the pebbles in it. Once she got to six hundred and ninety-eight, she got tired and went inside, complaining to her parents that they in fact did not have fourteen pebbles in the driveway, and needed to move. Her parents laughed so hard Gabriella thought they thought she was joking. She smiled now at the memory.

Gabriella took a deep breath as she approached the oak front door of her parents' house. Stepping onto the porch, she knocked three times, awaiting an answer. The door swung open after a minute, revealing her mother who, after ten years, still looked the same as when she last left. She was wearing a pair of jeans and a peach-colored shirt with a white, stained, apron over the top of her outfit. Her dark hair, which she cut, Gabriella noticed, was pulled back halfway with a hair clip. She wore a confused look on her face as she took in the situation- here was her daughter, the daughter she hadn't seen in ten years standing on her doorstep with a suitcase. How should she react?

"Maria? Who's at the door?"

She turned back at the sound of her husband's voice. "It's... Gabriella."

"Hi Mom," Gabriella spoke softly. "How are you?"

"Fine, fine. Come in, sweetheart. You look tired. Are you hungry? I'm making dinner. Your sister's supposed to be coming over soon too." Maria urged her daughter inside, placing her luggage by the foot of the stairs. "Nicholas, can you bring Gabriella's bag to her room please? I think she'll be staying awhile."

Gabriella smiled gratefully at her mother. "Thanks Mom."

"It's good to see you, Gab," Her father commented, placing a kiss to her forehead as he headed for the stairs.

"So look at you! Twenty-nine, huh? That's amazing; you don't look a day over twenty!"

"Thanks," She laughed. "I'm sorry I just dropped in on you like this... you know, without calling and everything. But-"

Maria waved it away, as if it were nothing. "Don't even worry about it. You haven't visited in so long!"

"At least I called you," Gabriella sulked guiltily. "Which is more than I can say for anyone else down here."

"Oh don't feel bad about that," Her mother assured her. "They came to me for the answers. And you had a perfectly good reason to leave."

"I guess..."

"So what brings you here?" Nicholas returned to the living room, sitting back down on the couch.

"Well, Jake- my boyfriend, remember him? - he proposed to me."

"Oh!" Maria squealed. "That's so exciting!"

"But I said no," Gabriella finished. "I just... didn't love him."

"Is that the same reason why you divorced Jack and Laura's boy?" Nicholas asked curiously.

"No!" Gabriella shrieked. "I had a much better reason, Dad! You know that!"

"Nick," Maria chided. "That was a horrible thing to say."

Gabriella shook her head, forgetting the subject. "I just decided I needed to come back down here to... patch things up a bit."

"And gain your accent back," Nicholas commented. "Your New Yorker's tone isn't the same of that of a southerner."

She laughed slightly. "Okay Dad, I'll work on it."

"Well I'm making fried chicken, baked beans, and potato salad, so you better be hungry, young lady!" Maria cheered.

"Did you say that Sam was coming?" Gabriella inquired, heading into the kitchen to give her mother a helping hand.

"Yes ma'am. Samantha should be here any minute."

As if on cue, the doorbell rang, and Gabriella had a wonderful reunion with her older sister. The four then settled down to a scrumptious meal of Maria's town-famous fried chicken, delicious baked beans, and moist potato salad. Gabriella hadn't had such a meal since she was back here ten years ago, living the life of a small-towner she'd always known. After dinner, Gabriella had helped her mother clean up and then retreated to her old bedroom, which was still filled with everything high school. Her ribbons and plaques from various scholastic competitions, pictures of her and her three best friends swimming in the lake, a prom picture of her and Troy. Troy. Troy was the whole reason she'd come back in the first place.

Troy, and the little girl she'd left behind...

"You remember where you two used to live, right?"

Gabriella nodded. It was the morning after her arrival, and she'd just notified her mother that she was going to pay a visit to Troy. Immediately she'd received question upon question from her mother, and she reassured her, telling her everything would be okay. Troy wasn't one to hold a grudge, right? The whole argument and her leaving was his fault anyway. He was the one who told her to leave, wasn't he? How could he be mad at her?

She started out the door and headed down Pebble Drive. Her relationship with Troy had been one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. They'd been friends since birth, since their parents were friends in high school, and everyone knew everyone in this town anyway. They grew up together and Gabriella was always convinced that Troy was harboring a little crush on her. Well, her hunch had come true when, in tenth grade, he asked her out, all awkward and nervous-like, and she agreed. They dated all throughout high school, won 'Cutest Couple' in senior year, and then graduated, heading off to the University of New Mexico together. Their parents were proud.

In college, they were still going strong, knowing that eventually they'd graduate and marry like both their respective parents. But the summer after freshman year, after the big party a friend threw for surviving the first year of college, claiming it was 'the hardest,' Troy and Gabriella partied a little too hard. A few months later, Gabriella became pregnant, but neither worried. Their parents knew that it was better getting pregnant in college than in high school, like so many other couples had, and approved of their decision to drop out and marry. And when they did, their daughter was born and they moved into a recently vacated house down the street from the Boltons.

But a year into the marriage, things got rocky. The stress of being only twenty years old with a one-year-old child was getting to them, and they got into argument after argument before the big one hit. Gabriella had threatened to leave and Troy told her to go, to abandon them because they didn't even need her. It hurt so much to hear that, but she left, promising her daughter, who didn't understand, that she'd be back someday. She jetted off to New York City, rented out a loft apartment, finished her college years, and started a whole new career.

And Troy didn't come after her.

Now, she stood outside of their old home, staring back at it and wondering whether she should be there or not. The main front door was open, but the house was closed off behind a screen storm door. A shutter on the top left window on the front of the house still hung loose and Gabriella laughed slightly, noting that it had been that way since they first bought the house. She heard commotion coming from the dock and glanced around the white house, waiting for Troy to come around. She knew it was him. She'd know it was him anywhere.

And then, there he was, standing right before her with a long plank of wood tucked underneath his arm. He wore a pair of faded denim jeans, with holes in the knees and near the ankles, obviously from work and wear. His white sneakers were tinged a grayish color, and one seemed as if it were coming untied. He wore a white tank top topped by an open button-down red flannel shirt. His face was gruff looking, like he hadn't been getting much sleep, and his hair was tousled slightly from the work. But those same blue eyes she fell in love with twinkled when his gaze fell upon her, and he dropped the plank on the lawn in front of him.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Troy sneered.

"You don't have to act like that," Gabriella stated calmly. "I deserve to be treated with more respect than that, Troy Bolton."

"You deserve to get the hell off my property, Gabriella Montez."

"I believe my name is on that property document too, thank you very much," She stated matter-of-factly.

"Documents mean nothing nowadays," Troy laughed scornfully. "You lost the right to call this your property when you stepped off it ten years ago."

Gabriella shrunk back, biting her lip. "That's what I came here about..."

"Yeah, I'm sure. What did you expect, huh? A homecoming party? A fancy dinner at the restaurant up the road where I'd apologize a million times over and beg for you to come back?"

She shook her head. "No... I just... I wanted to... fix things with us, Troy."

His back was to her now, and he froze in his spot. "There's nothing you can do."

"I can try," Gabriella started optimistically.

Troy spun around to face her again. "You can't try, Gabriella! You can't fix things between us! We're way beyond repair! You left!"

"You told me to!"

"You thought I was serious!"

"You didn't come after me..."

Just then the screen door banged open and a young girl, around age eleven, stepped out onto the porch. She was wearing pale pink shorts, a gray tank top, and a white hoodie with the sleeves rolled up. She was also barefoot, and her brown hair sat half-brushed on her shoulders. Gabriella felt as though she was gazing in a mirror when her eyes fell upon this young child. Her bright blue eyes scanned the situation slightly, but not enough to see the argument that was taking place.

"Dad, Mocha got into the sugar cane again and it's all over the kitc-"

She seemed to notice something was wrong and looked from her father to the woman talking to him before uttering, "Oh god," and heading back indoors with a slam of the screen door.

Gabriella glanced back at Troy. "Was... Was that...?"

Troy looked down. "Yes."

There was a short silence before Troy broke it again. "Look, I've really got a lot to work to do with the dock. Come by another time, alright?"

She nodded speechlessly and headed off in the direction of her house, the promise of seeing him again soon hanging in the air. Troy sighed and carried the plank of wood to the back of his house, dropping it on the dock before walking the short distance up the steps to the house. He slid the glass door open and stepped inside, glancing around for his daughter and noticing she'd done the dishes without being asked again. He grinned, knowing he'd have to thank her later, before calling out for her.

"Becca Jane!"

"In the kitchen, Daddy!"

He crossed into the room and found her sweeping up the sugar their new puppy had gotten into. "Sweetheart, you didn't have to-"

But Rebecca Bolton was not falling for this change of subject. "Who was that, Dad?"

Troy sighed. "That... was your mother."