Wow, your response to my author's note was just incredible. Everyone has been so kind and understanding, and I am so thankful! I hope this is worth the looooooong (understatement of the year) wait!

Thanks times a billion to laughxoutxloud for sticking with me this whole time and for all your guidance. And rachrep! You're amazing, girlie! I don't know what I would do without you two :-)

The story is up and rolling again, so enjoy!

Chapter 20

A picture is worth a thousand words.

But if you could trade in those words for a small fortune, you would…wouldn't you?

The room glowed brightly as golden streams of sunlight poured in from the large bay windows lining the wall as the sheer white curtains flapped in the breeze, creating what Gabriella considered to be heaven on Earth. The young woman stretched languidly underneath the crumpled, teal sheets, as she adjusted to her surroundings, her brand new room. Suddenly, Gabriella stiffened, her legs caught in a bent position and her arms flung over her head when she caught a glimpse of the sole picture frame in the room. It was taken when she was only days old, and she couldn't help but smile as she gazed upon her tiny form that was nestled lovingly in her aunt's arms. Gabriella had done very little unpacking the night before, but she had made sure to dig through all of her haphazardly packed boxes to find the plain, pink frame and set it up on her bedside table. It was her favorite possession, and she treasured it deeply.

Suddenly Gabriella shot upright in her cushy mounds of heaven as the sound and smell of crackling bacon drifted into the bedroom. The young girl was famished, as evidenced by the hungry growling of her stomach, and her face lit up when she considered the delicious breakfast her aunt was making waiting for her downstairs. It was so unfamiliar to her, a loved one taking the time to cook a meal for her. But as she would discover during the following weeks, a home-cooked meal was only one of many novel experiences she would have with her aunt in Chicago. Isabelle proved that she deeply cared for Gabriella, and she wanted to treat her as she should be treated. The younger Montez deserved what her mother had failed to give her.

A loving family.

Gabriella finished stretching her limbs and sat up, an ecstatic smile stretched across her delicate face. She couldn't wait to start her new life, and what better way to begin than a hot breakfast with the woman who had taken her in?

She jumped out of bed and inhaled a huge gulp of air to fill her lungs, a grin still plastered across her face as she left her room and skipped down the stairs to the kitchen. The sight of Isabelle flipping pancakes on a steaming griddle greeted her and the scent was intoxicating. Gabriella couldn't even remember the last time she had had a satisfying breakfast.

"Auntie, this smells amazing! Did you do this for me?" Gabriella asked, her voice clearly displaying the amazement she was feeling.

"Oh no, this is just for me. I was in the mood for pancakes," Isabelle responded jovially in a teasing tone. After seeing her niece's face fall into a sorrowful expression, she added, "Gabi, I'm just kidding! Of course this is for you!"

Gabriella instantly cheered up as she skipped to the bright mosaic table made for two that sat in the kitchen corner. "Well, I knew that," she lied easily as her aunt set a plate in front of her, knowing that her aunt saw right through her.

"Of course you did," Isabella said, adding a sly wink, "So what would you like to do today? I have to go to work for a few hours, but we can do something after. Maybe see some of the city?"

"That sounds perfect," the teenager responded through a mouthful of the fluffy round cake. After swallowing her food, she added, "Ooo, can we do some shopping?" Gabriella had never lived a normal teenage life. Her mother had a personal shopper in France that took care of Gabriella's wardrobe, keeping it up to date with the latest fashions, usually in a slimming, and unnecessary midnight black. So shopping for fun was not something she was familiar with.

"Well, of course! This is your first day in Chicago, after all. It wouldn't be complete without a little retail therapy." Isabelle perched on the edge of the center island counter as she watched the young girl stuff a strip of bacon into her mouth. "So you and Troy seemed to hit it off yesterday… well after that initial awkwardness. He's a cutie, that one," she said as an impish smile crossed her face.

Gabriella face heated up to an almost intolerable level as she blushed, her thoughts returning to the boy who was impossible to get out of her head. It had to be a crime to be that gorgeous. Weren't fourteen-year-old boys supposed to be all pimply and awkward? Troy Bolton was certainly neither of those things. His skin was so smooth and clear, and all Gabriella wanted to do was run her fingers over it, savoring the feeling of him under her skin…

"Gabriella, you still there?" Isabelle teased with a knowing smirk. Her niece was smitten with the boy next door.

"Oh yeah…um, yeah he's cute, I guess," Gabriella responded as she tried to keep her cool. Oh who was she kidding? "Okay, he's a magnificent specimen of the male species. Happy?"

"Very. Maybe you should see what he's up to today while I'm at work…" Isabelle suggested. She loved to play matchmaker and for a young teenager, Troy was as good as it got. And the fact that the two adolescent thespians had so much in common was just the icing on the cake.

"Auntie, I just don't want to deal with the whole guy thing right now. Yeah he's absolutely perfect from what I've seen, but I need to focus on school right now. I'm just starting on Monday and the first audition is that afternoon! I can't afford to be distracted." She finished adamantly.

"You have such a great head on your shoulders, Gabriella." Isabelle said fondly, her expression turning somber as she slipped into memories from her past. "When I was your age…I made many mistakes. And I just know that you'll never go down the same path I did. You're such an amazing young woman." Moisture collected in the corners of her eyes as she thought for the hundredth time of whether her child would have turned out like her niece. But she couldn't let her thoughts go there. If she dwelled on what could have been if she hadn't made such horrific errors, then she would fall apart. And she had Gabriella now, someone who depended on her. She had to be strong.

Gabriella's face scrunched in confusion as she absorbed her aunt's words. What kind of mistakes had her role model made? "Auntie, what are you talking about?"

Isabelle mouth curved downwards as her mind began to formulate an escape from the conversation. Even if she had to lie, Gabriella could never find out about her past. As she reluctantly opened her mouth to respond, the doorbell rang, saving her from having to mislead her niece. But she wouldn't be as lucky in the last four years of her life. She would deceive Gabriella over and over again, and it absolutely destroyed Isabelle to have to do so.

Gabriella was easily distracted, and after one last glance at her aunt she ran to the front door to peep through the hole, a luminous smile overpowering her face as she got her first view of Troy for the day. Was it crazy for her to have missed him when she had just met him the day before?

Yes, it was absolutely fucking insane.

But the strange part was that it felt so completely natural.

Gabriella eagerly flung open the door and she just barely stopped herself from drooling as she took in the boy's entire appearance. Her eyes were drawn to his shoes that were in pristine condition, as if he'd never worn them before, and a little part of her hoped that he was trying to impress her. But that was silly right? Her gaze continued to travel up his body, and to her embarrassment, her eyes lingered for a second on his crotch. Only for a second. After all, her hormones wouldn't kick into full gear for another year or so. But Troy was in impeccable shape for a fourteen year old, obvious from the way his periwinkle polo shirt clung to his upper body. And then his eyes. God, his eyes! Gabriella could feel her organs liquidating in a pool of heat as she stared into their depths. Wait, why was his mouth opening and closing like that?

Oh fuck, he was talking to her!

"I'm sorry, what?" Gabriella asked, mentally kicking herself for acting like such an idiot.

Troy felt a surge of confidence surge through his body as he realized that the breathtakingly beautiful brunette in front of him was checking him out. God, he was a lucky bastard. "I was just asking how your first night in Chicago was…" he responded, a slight smirk displayed on his chiseled face.

"Oh! Yeah, it was um…good," Gabriella responded, trying desperately to recover from her slip-up.

Troy felt the nervousness he was feeling before when he was preparing himself to ring the doorbell seep back into his bones. "I was just wondering…well, I know your aunt works on Saturday mornings, and well…I figured since you're new here…well, obviously you know that…but um, anyway…would you like to maybe check out the neighborhood?" he finished as he took in a large gulp of air. For fuck's sake, could he have been anymore pathetic?

"Yes!" Gabriella exclaimed eagerly, and then cleared her throat, "I mean, yes, that sounds really great," she finished with a sincere smile. Yes, he was unbelievably attractive, but what really mattered was that she had a new friend. All thoughts of what her aunt had mentioned flew out of her head as she looked ahead to the bright future that loomed before her.

Yes, life in Chicago was going to be absolutely incredible.

If only it would stay that way forever.

"Fuck, fuck, FUCK!" Troy hissed as quietly as possibly, doing his best not to wake his slumbering girlfriend, as he tiptoed out of her bedroom.

"It's bad, dude. I'm not going to lie." Chad said, mirroring his best friend's despairing tone. "You know I hate that Shar reads these stupid things, but here it is, a full fucking front page."

"This is the last fucking thing we need right now. It took her hours to fall asleep last night after we…well, you know. The dinner with her mother was as awful as it could have possibly been. I don't know if she's strong enough to deal with this." Troy finished in a distressed whisper as he slowly slid to the ground when he reached the front door, resting his head in his hands. He couldn't believe all of this was happening at one time when things had been so utterly perfect. He remembered all too clearly how Gabriella reacted when faced with such agonizing twists. "Listen, I'm going to run out and grab one of these pieces of shit magazines, and I'll talk to you later. Please, do not let Shar call Gabriella until I figure out what to do, alright?"

"Okay man. Good luck." Troy heard Chad respond as he ended the call, running to the garage to start his car. There was a little- known newsstand about ten minutes from Gabriella's house, and if he drove over the speed limit, he could make it there in seven. As he backed out of the driveway, his mind immediately began to run through his options. He could keep the news from her for as long as possible and hope to God that no one spilled the beans. But then there was the possibility that she would be furious with him for hiding something from her. Or he could tell her immediately and risk the meltdown that would inevitable follow. Or he could whisk her away from Los Angeles and hope that the change in location would help her to overcome all of the shit the world had thrown at her.

Option number three, it is.

Troy felt his hand shifting the gear into park before he even realized he had arrived at his destination. With a deep breath in, he slipped on his baseball cap and dark sunglasses, praying to God that he wouldn't get caught.

After a brisk walk to the newsstand, his eyes quickly scanned his options before they stopped abruptly on the picture that could quite possibly ruin everything he had worked for.

There, in a full color, eight and a half by eleven print, was Gabriella and himself, kissing as if it were their last seconds on Earth, just moments after they had confessed their love. Bile began to rise in the back of his scratchy throat as he began to realize the full implication of the photograph. He reached his trembling fingers forward to grab the disgusting tabloid, only to realize that the shelf was full of five other magazines, all showcasing the same picture with different headlines. As calmly as he could manage, he swiped every issue of the filth off of the shelf and brought it to the register. The man standing behind it did a double take as he realized exactly what was happening. "All of these, sir?"

"Yes, every single one," Troy managed to squeeze out between clenched teeth, aware that the old, wrinkled man knew exactly who he was. All he could focus on was keeping the vomit down as he averted his eyes from the magazines in front of him. But the picture seemed to be speaking to him, calling his eyes forward. The ancient man read off the total and Troy slammed a giant wad of cash down beside the register, telling him to keep the change. Troy grabbed the enormous pile and practically sprinted to his car, tossing the stack into the passenger seat before throwing the vehicle into reverse. Soon he was speeding along the highway, but he couldn't fight the vomit any longer as he swiftly pulled to the side of the road. He quickly threw his door open and heaved all of the contents of his stomach onto the street. Once he was done, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and reached into the glove compartment for a stick of gum to tide him over and rid his mouth of the taste of bile until he could brush his teeth. As he pulled back into traffic, all he could think about was the vacant look in Gabriella's eyes after they had made love the night before. Sure, she was completely present during the act, and it was as electrifying as ever, but as soon their heartbeats had settled and the sweat began to dry, Gabriella's mind immediately returned to her aunt's deceit. Troy had simply stroked her hair in silence for hours until she was able to fall asleep, but Troy was not so lucky. He had to think of a way to prevent her from turning into 'Impassive Gabriella.'

And now, to add to her bitch mother and deceitful aunt, Gabriella had to deal with the entire world being privy to such an intimate moment in her life.

Troy pulled into the driveway and was startled out of his misery by the vibration of his cell phone in his pocket. Pulling the phone out, he flipped it open without checking the caller ID. "'Lo?"

"Troy Alexander Bolton! Why, pray tell, am I finding out about my son's relationship with the woman we love as if she were our own not from the before mentioned son, but from breaking E! News?!" Troy cringed as he absorbed the shrill pierce of his mother's best scream.

"Mom, this isn't exactly the best time. As you can imagine, we have something of a mess on our hands and…" Troy began before he was cut off abruptly.

"Not the best time? Troy, I am your mother and I had to find this out along with the rest of the world? This is unacceptable!" Lucille Bolton continued to scold as Troy cradled the phone in his shoulder and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.

"I swear we would have told you when the time was right, but this is still really new and we weren't really planning on getting caught this early in our relationship." Troy explained, hoping to calm his mother down even just a decibel.

"So there is a relationship?" Lucille asked, hopefully.

"God, yes, Mom. This is Gabriella we're talking about. I…well, I'm in love with her, Mom." Troy finished, and he couldn't help the stunning smile that graced his features at the thought of the love of his life.

"Oh, Troy," his mother began through tears of exhilaration, "I can't even begin to tell you how happy I am for you two. This is everything I've hoped for and more, you have no idea. Oh please, both of you have to come to Chicago sometime soon!"

Troy stopped all of his movements as he considered that option. He wanted to get her out of LA, and what better way then to the comforts of their second home? It was absolutely perfect.

"You know what, Mom, that is a great idea. How about tonight?" Troy asked knowingly, his hope growing by the second. Maybe his Gabriella would be all right, after all.

"Tonight?! Honey, you have no idea how happy you've made your dear old mother. I'll set up your separate bedrooms right away. Yes, separate, Troy Alexander. I don't care how old you two are, there will be no funny business. I mean it!"

Yes, Mom," Troy said, a mischievous smile lighting up his face as thought about all the sneaking around they would have to do.

"Oh I don't even know why I bother. Whatever you do, don't let your father catch you, or you'll never hear the end of it." Lucille said. "Now give me a call when you know what time your flight will be in at O'Hare. Oh my goodness I can't believe I'm going to see my baby boy tonight! I have so much to do!"

"Mom, don't go overboard. And I still have to make sure it's okay with Brie, but I have a feeling it will be," Troy warned.

"Whatever you say, darling. Now I must run to the supermarket. Call me with the details!" Lucille's excited voice trailed off as she pulled the phone away from her ear, and Troy ended the call, hoping that Chicago would be the fix to all of their problems.

The first thing she noticed was that she was very cold. After that, it was how soft her pillow had become overnight. And then it was the ache in her thighs. Her only conclusion was that Troy had been in her bed, and now he was gone.

Lifting her heavy head, she looked around the room in search of her boyfriend, only to find that he wasn't there, nor had he left a note like usual. A frown marred her delicate features as the pain of his absence began to set in. But something else was wrong. It was there, lingering on the precipice of her mind.

Premonitions. Dinner. Lies.

Oh yeah.

So what does one do in her situation? Break down completely? Block everything out and pretend that nothing ever happened? That her aunt hadn't died and left her to her mother's mercy? She had no answers.

A rush of running water from her adjoined bathroom brought Gabriella back to the present as she recognized the sound of Troy brushing his teeth. Suddenly the water stopped and seconds later the door was cracked open as Troy peeked his head out, doing his best not to wake his sleeping beauty.

"I'm awake," Gabriella said in a flat tone, making Troy's washboard stomach drop to his feet. He detested that sound.

"Good, because I very much need someone to warm up these lips of mine. They were getting a bit chilly," Troy said with a gentle smirk, hoping that he could bring back a hint of that breathtaking smile that he cherished.

"Well then bring them over here and let me do my job," she responded, needing desperately to feel the comfort only the statuesque man in front of her could bring.

A full, sparkling grin lit up the room as Troy slipped beneath the covers and leaned in to place his soft lips against hers. Their nerves shot off at the speed of light and their bodies tingled at every spot they were joined. Troy carefully deepened the kiss, sensually licking her bottom lip as she opened her mouth to eagerly accept him. Every kiss between them was like the first, and this one was no different. But Troy knew that he was treading dangerous waters, and every step he made had to be extremely cautious.

Gabriella whimpered as Troy pulled away, only to feel her heart skip a beat and pound against her rib cage when he whispered his next words against her lips. "I love you, Brie. So fucking much."

"God, I love you too, Troy," Gabriella said with a sweet smile as she caressed his baby smooth cheek, gazing into her very own bright blue oceans. Her smile faltered though as she saw that he was holding something back. Something big. "What is it? What's wrong?" she whispered urgently.

"Brie, I want you to know that whatever happens, I'm not going anywhere, okay? We're in this together until the end, no matter what," Troy said as he tried to convey the sincerity in his words. He searched Gabriella's eyes, looking for any hint that she believed him, and after finding what he wanted he slid from the comfortable bed to pick up one of the magazines he had left outside the door. He walked slowly, as if he was walking to his own death, and took a deep breath before he returned to his spot cradling the brunette and placed the rag before her eyes. His eyes slammed shut as he heard her quick intake of breath. "I'm so, so sorry, Gabriella."

For sixty excruciating seconds, the air quivered with unspoken words. Gabriella's expression was carefully blank as she tried to process the life-changing photo in front of her. It wasn't so much painful that everyone knew their secret. No, that she could deal with. What her mind couldn't grasp was that someone had witnessed such a private moment between her and Troy. The whispered words and sweet kisses that she had waited so long for were now gossip for the entire world. Every minute detail of the picture would be analyzed, and it would never be the same.

"I know what you're thinking, Brie, and you're wrong." Troy whispered urgently. "It doesn't matter how many people have seen this, it's still our moment. The moment I finally found my balls and told you everything I've wanted to tell you for… fuck I don't know how long anymore. And best of all? It's the moment you told me you love me too. And nothing, I mean absolutely fucking nothing can take that away from us."

"Oh, Troy," Gabriella gasped as she gripped her boyfriend's face in her palms to bring him to her lips in an earnest kiss. Troy sighed as he tasted her salty tears on his tongue; he hadn't noticed their presence in the heat of the moment and he longed to make them disappear completely. So ever so slowly, he pressed the tip of his tongue into the hot recesses of his lover's mouth until she opened wide to allow him complete access, Gabriella pulling him on top of her so that he was nestled between her legs, their pelvises connecting in a rush of tingling energy. Gabriella whimpered as Troy gently broke the kiss with a small smacking sound, causing a large grin to form on his face as he transferred his lips to her neck to suck on her tender pulse point. A loud moan reverberated throughout the room and it took Gabriella a moment to realize that it was her throat the sound came from. "Troy, please don't make me beg," she groaned, frustrated at how quickly Troy could wind her so fucking tight.

Troy lifted his head to stare heatedly into her eyes, doing his best to convey just how much she affected him without words. Gabriella held her breath as he stared back, afraid that even the slightest movement would ruin the moment. But Troy couldn't stand it any longer and leaned in to place a delicate kiss on the lips of the love of his life, never once breaking their connected stare. He let out a decidedly non-masculine whimper when Gabriella reached down to grip him in her palm, giving him a gentle squeeze through his boxers, signaling that she was more than ready for the main event.

Troy took the hint and hurriedly stripped himself of his t-shirt and boxers, intently watching his girlfriend as she whipped off his t-shirt that she had worn to bed, baring her bronzed body to his hungry eyes. "God, I want you," Troy whispered fervently as he leaned down to take a nipple in his mouth, causing Gabriella to cry out in ecstasy. Again, she took his heavy length in her fist to position him at her entrance, rubbing him up and down her slit to get him ready for her. Troy lost his focus the moment he felt her warmth, his head dropping down to rest on her breast for a second before he regained his senses and leaned up to capture her lips in an earth shattering kiss that Gabriella could have sworn reached her very soul. Then, with one smooth, long thrust, Troy was completely seated in the heat of his girlfriend as she clenched him tightly in place.

"Give…me…fuck…give me a…second," Troy breathed as he rested his lips on Gabriella's shoulder as he regained control so he wouldn't lose it right away. But she tasted like sweat and candy and woman all at once and he couldn't help pulling out and driving back into her hard. So he cautiously built up a rhythm that had them both gasping for air until Gabriella was digging her nails into his back so hard he knew there would be marks there for several days. But it felt so fucking good. Finally, he felt the telltale signs that Gabriella's orgasm was approaching fast… her walls started to clench him hard, her mouth dropped open into a silent scream, and her legs that were wrapped around his waist only gripped him tighter. So they both let go together.

And it was bliss.

The room was filled with the sounds of heavy breathing and the smells of sweat and sex as the two lovers returned to earth. Troy realized that he must have been crushing his girlfriend, so he rolled off of her, and brought her back into his arms so she was cradled against his chest. Suddenly he remembered the newspapers and his conversation with his mother and then he not so tactfully blurted out, "Let's go to Chicago, Brie."

"What?" Gabriella asked, completely shocked, as she lifted her head to stare into the deep blue eyes of her sated boyfriend.

"Before you say anything else, just hear me out, okay?" Troy asked and continued after he received a nod of her small head. "I just think we need to get the hell out of LA. Too much has happened here in the past twenty-four hours, and my parents really want to see us, and Chicago is beautiful this time of year, and no one knows where my parents live, and…"

"Troy, let's go," Gabriella stated confidently, cutting off what would surely be a very long ramble.

"Wait…seriously? I don't have to convince you?" Troy asked with a gentle smirk on his chiseled face.

"No, I think it's a great idea. You're totally right that we need to get out of this town for a while. And of course I want to see your parents, Troy," Gabriella finished with a distant smile, still distracted by everything that had changed in the last day.

"Mmmm…I love you," he whispered against her lips, "and I will take care of everything. Plane tickets. Getting time off from the movie. I know the producers will understand, given everything that's going on. And I'll talk to your assistant and get her to reschedule any interviews and events…"

"Troy, I'm not an invalid. I can help out, you know," Gabriella said with a touch of irritation marring her usually honey sweet voice.

"Just let me do this for you, okay?" Troy asked with a convincing pout.

"Fine, but…" Gabriella began but was interrupted by the buzzing of Troy's cell phone on the bedside table. Troy eyebrows screwed up in annoyance as he checked the sleek iPhone, seeing a text message from Chad.

I'm so sry. Tried to stop her. U know what she's like. Told her about Chicago. She's bringing wardrobe. Warn Gabi.

"Oh, shit," Troy grumbled as he scrubbed his hands over his face, regretting calling his best friend to tell him about Chicago and already feeling the tension only one specific blonde could cause.

Then as if on cue, Gabriella's matching phone rang on her side of the bed, and Gabriella cautiously picked it up as she gauged her boyfriend's distressed expression. "Hel…"

"Gabriella, don't worry, I'm on my way with everything you need from Ben and Jerry to a cheery pink wardrobe for Chicago. I know how gross and overcast it can be there, so just think of how much you'll stand out! Oh wait. You probably don't want to stand out what with the whole…thing…and you already standing out since you're famous and all. But it can't hurt to add at least one pink accessory to your ensemble! I mean really, it won't hurt. I can promise you that. And I swear, I will track down whatever bastard took the…thing…and I will unleash my inner…oh fuck! I'm getting pulled over. Well this is just unacceptable. Don't worry! I will be there ASAP! I'm sure this cop will understand that coming to the rescue of THE Gabriella Montez."

"Sharpay, you really don't have to come over," Gabriella said, knowing her efforts were futile. She was proven correct when she was completely ignored.

"Oh, hello, officer! I know I was going a little over the speed limit…okay, forty-five over the speed limit, but you see, I have a rescue package to deliver to Gabriella Montez, the actress, and…"

Gabriella didn't wait to listen to the rest of the conversation as she looked up into her boyfriend's eyes. He gave her a sympathetic smile, not even needing to hear the one-sided conversation to know that the blonde would be making an unwanted appearance.

Yeah, they needed to get the fuck out of Los Angeles.

Next up: Chicago!