Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters or places created by the High School Musical franchise or by Disney nor the songs used in this story by various artists.

Prologue

Today was Gabriella Montez's 13th birthday party, the day she had been anxiously waiting for because it was her first time to have a big birthday party with friends she knew, the first time in a long time where she had been at the same place for more than two years. She stared in the mirror in her bedroom and surveyed her reflection, toying with her shoulder length wavy dark brown hair and adjusting the little silver bear necklace she received from her boyfriend, Troy Bolton, last night as an early birthday present. Gabriella toyed with the pendant while she sighed, thinking how wonderful her life was at the moment. 'Mom and her job have finally settled down, Dad just got promoted for the second time at his job, I have two great best friends in Taylor McKessie and Kelsi Nielson, and a dreamy boyfriend in Troy. What more do I need?' wondered Gabriella, straightening her dress before leaving her room.

She slowly walked down the stairs and smiled as she saw her mother and her mother's friends rushing around, gathering the decorations and other things they were driving over to Gabriella's favorite park with the pond. Maybe it wasn't a huge birthday party at an extravagant place but it meant the world to Gabriella to even have one, especially knowing how much her mother and father put into it.

Richard Montez glanced up from where he was finishing up one emergency phone call for work and grinned as he saw his now teenaged daughter come down the stairs. "Good, is that all? My daughter is now ready and I need to get her to her birthday party. I'm sure you'll all understand. Please call only if there are complications with today's deal."

With that, Gabriella watched her dad hang up the phone, getting up from the couch to greet Gabriella in a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, his stubble tickling her. "Happy Birthday sweet Gabriella," she heard him murmur before letting her go. "Finally a teenager! How does it feel?"

"So far… AMAZING!" exclaimed Gabriella with a smile.

"Good, that's the way it should be," Richard stated, kissing Gabriella's forehead one more time before he turned his attention to helping his wife, Maria, carry the large cake through the house and then into the minivan waiting outside on the driveway.

Within the next fifteen minutes, everything was loaded into the minivan and car including Gabriella who was riding shotgun with her dad. Once at the park, Gabriella did her fair share to help make sure everything was set up by doing things like tying balloons and tossing soda cans and water bottles into the coolers full of ice. She also helped her dad set up the different meats that were brought along for the BBQ, smiling back at him as he thanked her for all her help despite it being her birthday.

Before she knew it, Taylor and Kelsi scrambled out of Mrs. McKessie's car with presents in their hands and grins on their faces. After Richard nodded his head in permission to abandon helping him, Gabriella ran off to meet her two best friends, giving them each a big hug before taking the presents from them and adding them to the present table that was set up. Taylor and Kelsi both signed the poster board with pictures of Gabriella as a baby and growing up, each making sure they wrote a special message for their best friend before the three went down to the pond's edge to feed some of the ducks.

"Did Troy give that to you?" asked Kelsi, noticing for the first time the new necklace Gabriella had on. "Birthday present?"

Gabriella grinned, throwing the last piece of bread she had in her hand out towards a duck before fingering the bear pendant on the chain. "Yup, he gave it to me last night. Isn't he so sweet?"

Taylor just smiled in return, happy to see Gabriella in such great spirits. "Troy definitely is. How long has it been now that you've been together?"

Without hesitation, Gabriella replied, "Since the start of junior high so that's seven months. I still can't believe that he liked me too and asked me to that first dance we had. God that was so awkward!"

"At least you didn't have Jason Cross stumbling all over your toes," Kelsi shot back, wincing at the memory of dancing with one of their friends. "It's been seven months and my baby toe still doesn't feel the same way."

"True, Troy didn't nearly break any of my bones," admitted Gabriella, thinking back to how Jason really did stumble over Kelsi's feet quite a bit that night.

"How many people are coming today Gabs?" asked Taylor, glancing over her shoulder to see the slowly gathering group of people back under the overhang where the picnic tables were set up for Gabriella's birthday party. "A lot of tables look covered."

Shrugging her shoulders, Gabriella said, "Honestly, I don't know. Lots of family and friends of the family are coming and then there's you two, Troy of course, the rest of the gang, and then some other kids I know through the library peer program."

As if on cue, Maria called out to Gabriella to come back to the picnic tables. "GABRIELLA! COME GREET YOUR GUESTS!"

Never being one to disobey, Gabriella waited until Kelsi and Taylor quickly threw the last of their bread to the hungry ducks before all three skipped back to the covered patio to greet the latest newcomers including Martha Cox, Zeke Baylor, Ryan and Sharpay Evans, Chad Danforth, and Jason.

"Happy 13th birthday Gabriella!" exclaimed Sharpay, pulling her friend into her embrace. "You look absolutely fabulous!"

Gabriella laughed as Taylor, Martha, and Kelsi rolled their eyes. "Thanks Sharpay! Thanks all of you for coming!"

Chad just grinned at the brunette. "Come on, free food? Who couldn't pass that up?"

Zeke rolled his brown eyes. "Of course that would be the first thing out of your mouth instead of us not missing her birthday. You are such a dork!"

"That's Chad Danforth for you though, always thinking of his stomach," added Taylor, a smirk on her face as Chad just stuck his tongue out at her. "Oh, real mature there Chad."

"Well excuse me brainiac!" Chad retorted, blowing an extra raspberry Taylor's way just to annoy her.

"Lunch is served! Come and get it!" announced Richard from the grill he was manning, causing both Chad and Jason to spin around and sprint towards the food.

Ryan shook his head, swearing he could practically see the drool come out of both of their mouths. "You'd think neither Cross or Danforth had eaten in weeks."

"Well we all know neither of them know how to cook to save their lives," Zeke threw out. "The last time Chad tried to feed himself, he almost blew up the microwave by popping frozen leftover pizza wrapped in foil in there, using the foil as a pseudo plate."

Sharpay rolled her eyes. "Always lazy that one."

The rest of the group of friends waited in line to get their food, Richard being sure to give Gabriella a well done hamburger with jalapeño cheese on it, just the way she liked it. She smiled at her dad before sitting down with her close friends, taking a bite into her cheeseburger as she began to wonder where Troy was.

"Hey Chad, do you know where Troy is?" Gabriella asked, gazing around the park, feeling disappointed when she didn't see a single sign of her boyfriend.

"Mph mmm mph mmm," muttered Chad, a mouthful of burger still in his mouth.

"Say what Neanderthal?" questioned Taylor, scrunching her forehead together as she tried to translate Chad's grunts.

"He said he didn't know," answered Jason, taking a big bite of his own burger.

Kelsi just stared at the two in disbelief. "Seriously? You actually understood that?"

Jason shrugged. "It was easy."

Ryan laughed, popping a chip in his mouth. "Maybe for you."

When everyone was done eating, including the thirds both Jason and Chad had, Gabriella became worried about Troy, knowing it wasn't like him to be late to anything, checking her watch to see that Troy was now an hour and some odd late. Gabriella forced a laugh at a joke that Jason just told but Kelsi and Taylor could tell that Gabriella was increasingly distracted on a day that she should be blissfully happy.

"Gabriella? You okay?" Kelsi dared to ask, seeing almost blank brown eyes turn towards her. "What's wrong?"

"Just Troy not being here, I'm worried," confessed Gabriella, nibbling on her lower lip.

"Don't be, I'm sure he's fine. Maybe his dad just made him practice extra today or something," soothed Taylor, wrapping a comforting arm around her best friend.

Sharpay was the first to spot Troy emerging from behind the building where the bathrooms were, instantly alerting Gabriella to his presence at the park by pointing him out. "Look, there's Troy now!"

Gabriella snapped her head up and grinned as she saw Troy sauntering over, a crooked smile on his face. Without a moment of hesitation, Gabriella was on her feet and running towards Troy, meeting him more than halfway and throwing herself into his arms. "Troy! You made it!"

"Of course babe, where else would I be?" answered Troy, wrapping his arms around her slim waist. "Happy Birthday Brie!"

Gabriella buried her head in his neck as she felt herself shiver at his use of her nickname. "Thank you Troy. I was getting worried!"

Chuckling, Troy shook his head, kissing the top of Gabriella's dark head. "Now why would you be worried?"

"Just cause you weren't here and you are never late for anything," replied Gabriella, stiffening suddenly as she smelled a scent that didn't belong to her boyfriend and was distinctly feminine. "Were you visiting an aunt or something?"

There was a stretch of silence instead of an immediate answer, forcing Gabriella to pull away out of his hold and stare at his face, Troy's now dark blue eyes not meeting her gaze. Gabriella's throat became tighter as each millisecond continued to tick by without an answer until Troy finally muttered, "No, why would you say something like that?"

Narrowing her eyes, Gabriella moved to her left to be in his direct eye line and felt the erratic beating of her heart speed up as she saw something in Troy's eyes that she had never seen before… guilt. The final piece of the puzzle arrived not twenty seconds later when a tall, slender brunette approached, calling out Troy's name, making him wince.

"Troy! You forgot your basketball back in the alcove," said the older looking girl, smiling as she handed Troy the basketball. "Who is your friend?"

Gabriella watched as Troy nervously shifted, spinning the basketball in his hands. Seeing that he wasn't going to answer, Gabriella decided to. "I'm Gabriella, his girlfriend."

The girl's green eyes became smaller as she openly glared at Gabriella. "I don't think so. I'm his girlfriend and have been for the past month!"

A gasp escaped Gabriella's throat as she ripped her eyes away from the other girl to look at Troy, seeing absolutely no denial on his face as Troy rubbed the back of his neck furiously. "Is this true Troy? Are you seeing this girl too?"

"Well… you see… Mandy and I met here a few weeks ago and we just clicked. She loves basketball and is really into it. We play here a few times in the week," explained Troy, nervousness clearly etched in his voice.

Forcing herself, Gabriella asked the question she already unfortunately knew the answer to. "Is that all you do together?"

Mandy scoffed at this, shaking her head at the younger girl. "Look, do you really think I'd be wasting my time with Troy if that was all? Troy is one of the best kissers I've ever known! If you want proof, check out my neck, he marked me as his."

Tears gathered in Gabriella's eyes as she saw the brunette draw back her long hair to reveal a series of dark marks on her otherwise pale skin, making it clear that they weren't just bruises. Gabriella's attention refocused on Troy as she tried to hold back the tears, feeling the world around her become darker. "Is this true? Did you give her those hickies?"

Dragging in a deep breath in, Troy let it out, meeting Gabriella's eyes as he nodded. "Yeah, I did."

"Why?" asked Gabriella. "Was I not enough for you? Not beautiful enough? Not old enough?"

"Mandy is only fourteen, a little over a year older and it all just happened without me realizing, honest. I didn't mean to hurt you Brie," admitted Troy, reaching his right hand out towards Gabriella's face to place his palm on her left cheek.

As the first tear escaped Gabriella's eyes, quickly followed by others that rolled down her cheeks and dripped off her face, she quickly took several steps back, putting a great deal of distance between her and the boy she thought she had known so well. "Don't touch me!"

"Babe, please, don't be like this," Troy pleaded, taking a step forward only to see Gabriella step back again. "You know I really like you Brie."

"Obviously not enough! I can't believe you Troy!" yelled Gabriella, swallowing several times as she felt more tears coming, turning her attention on the other girl who was just watching with an amused smile. "And you! How could you be with him knowing he has a girlfriend?"

"I didn't but I don't think that's a problem as you clearly are history. Otherwise why would he carry on with me?" Mandy smartly answered, smirking at Gabriella. "Come on Troy, let's go."

Gabriella wiped away the tears furiously as she watched Mandy place a possessive hand on Troy's arm only to see him not shake her off as Gabriella secretly hoped he would. "I'm really sorry Brie…"

Realizing that Troy was actually breaking up with her as he took a few steps back following Mandy's lead, a sob burst forth, shaking Gabriella's body with all its might. Not caring she was still standing in front of her now ex-boyfriend and his apparent current girlfriend, Gabriella crumpled to the ground, more sobs pouring out as Gabriella felt her chest constrict, cutting off her air and crushing her heart in one solid sweep.

While Maria was lighting the thirteen candles on Gabriella's cake, Richard looked around and saw that their daughter was no where around, zeroing instantly on the girls closest to Gabriella as they ran away from the covered patio and towards a crumpled body on the ground yards away. Forgetting everything else, worried only for his daughter, Richard ran after them, recognizing one of the two quickly disappearing figures as Troy Bolton, Richard's heart plummeting as he could already deduce what happened based on how tightly Troy was holding onto the brunette's hand.

Taylor and Kelsi reached Gabriella first, falling to the ground next to her, trying to soothe their best friend while trying to find out what happened.

"Gabriella, what's wrong?" asked Taylor.

"Are you hurt?" Kelsi questioned.

"Troy… hurts… so badly," mumbled Gabriella between sobs, each heave of breath twisting Richard's gut, turning in the direction in which Troy left, seeing the brown haired boy throw a guilty look their way.

Anger boiled inside Richard but he knew better than to even think about taking it out on a thirteen-year-old boy as much as he deserved it, his main concern now being his daughter, who was clearly heartbroken. He looked up and saw Sharpay and Martha, along with Ryan, on their way, knowing Gabriella was not in any condition to be smothered by her friends. "Taylor, Kelsi, can you ask the others to just go back to the party? You can go with them. Let me talk to Gabriella."

Fighting the want to be there, both Taylor and Kelsi did what Mr. Montez asked, gathering their friends before they reached Gabriella, glancing back to see Richard scoop Gabriella up into his arms like he always used to when she was five years old.

Spying an empty bench down by the water, Richard quickly walked over to it, making sure that they were at least partially hidden from the party by a large tree. He felt the wetness seep into the cotton of his t-shirt and closed his eyes for a few brief moments as Richard's own feelings of pain resurfaced, shaking his head as he more than understood what Gabriella was probably feeling right now.

Gabriella just stayed in her dad's lap, finding slight comfort in having him hold her, close to his heart with her head resting right there on his chest as he just let her cry. When Gabriella felt like she could, Gabriella drew in several slow but deep breaths, controlling herself before wiping away the last of the tears, at least for that moment. She glanced at her dad's shirt and saw the large water stain, grimacing as she realized that was all her doing. "I'm so sorry Daddy."

Richard shook his head, kissing Gabriella's forehead softly. "Don't be. Now, what happened?"

Unsure of what exactly to say, Gabriella decided to speak plainly. "Troy, he umm, he broke up with me for another girl, an older and prettier girl."

She felt her dad's hold on her tighten and looked up to see her dad's eyes darken with anger.

"Those Bolton males, I swear it, need to be terminated." After the words passed his lips, Richard quickly glanced down and recognized that Gabriella was looking quizzically at him, realizing that he had let something slip.

"What are you talking about?" asked Gabriella, suddenly clear headed enough to know that there was a darker meaning behind her dad's words.

Richard let Gabriella slide off his lap and onto the bench next to him before standing up, pacing back and forth in front of the bench, wondering what to tell his daughter. 'I want to protect her and not hurt her further but maybe she should be told. Gabriella is more than intelligent and will know I'm lying and I don't think she could handle that right now.'

"Dad? What is it?" asked Gabriella, her hoarse voice begging her dad to end her curiosity as she hiccupped softly.

Deciding that Richard owed it to his only child, he stopped his walking and kneeled down in front of her, taking both of her hands in his. "Gabriella, we wanted to wait until at least after today, to give you a birthday party you'd remember but for happy reasons, not like what just happened and what is about to happen."

Feeling her pulse increase again, Gabriella watched as several emotions crossed her dad's face, Gabriella becoming more worried and scared as the moments ticked on, knowing that whatever it was, it was definitely huge as her dad never was at a loss of words.

Taking in one last deep breath, Richard started going down a path of confession he knew there was no turning back from. "Gabriella, your mother has filed for divorce. She has been seeing another man since right after Father's Day and, well, they are talking about getting married as soon as the divorces are settled."

Gabriella's sight blurred as tears filled her eyes again, a few being pushed out as she shook her head. "No, no, this can't be happening! Mom and you love each other! You are meant to be! I'm supposed to have a happy and loving marriage like you in my future!"

Hating to do this, Richard affirmed his earlier statement. "Gabriella, it is though. We didn't want to tell you and ruin today for you and here I am doing it on your birthday, at your party. I just, I don't want you to feel like you're alone. I know what betrayal feels like, raw, brutal betrayal. I'm so sorry sweetheart."

"No, how could she? How could Mom do this to us, to you, to me?" demanded Gabriella, angry tears now spilling out, feeling herself sink down further into the black abyss Troy had already sent her down. "How could Troy? Why Daddy? Why?"

Gabriella's questions tore at Richard's heart as tears filled his own eyes, wrapping his shaking daughter in his protective arms that failed to try to protect Gabriella from the onslaught of pain she was experiencing, something akin to Richard's own emotions that he had lived with ever since Maria told him about her leaving him. "I don't know sweetheart but they did. It's nothing that you did though, in either case, I want you to know that. Your mother loves you and I'm sure Troy just doesn't realize what he had in you, the wonderful girl I know you are."

"Not great enough," bit out Gabriella, finding it harder to breathe the more she cried, distantly wondering if this was really what it felt like to have her heart torn to pieces, her lungs being crushed like she had a ton of bricks dropped on her chest.

Both father and daughter were so involved in their shared pain and heartache that they didn't hear Maria approaching, worry etched on her face. "Gabriella? Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

Gabriella lifted her tear stained face to meet her mother's caring brown eyes with her own red-rimmed ones. "No thanks to you! How could you Mom? How could you do this to us? Why? Just tell me, why?"

Maria winced at the hysterical edge Gabriella's raised voice took on in the last few questions, looking at Richard, who only shook his head in disgust at her. "You told her? I thought you promised we would wait!"

"She deserved to know that she wasn't alone in being cheated on after your fiancé's son just tore her heart out by doing the same to her. Guess the apple doesn't fall from the tree," snarled Richard, tasting bile in his mouth.

Gabriella stared open-mouthed as her mind worked in overtime to piece together what was just revealed. "Jack Bolton? That's who you are leaving me and Dad for? How could you?"

When Maria moved to sit down next to Gabriella, the young brunette sprung from the bench and moved to stand close to her dad, completely disgusted by the mere sight of her mother, forgetting the heartache she was feeling moments before. "It's not that simple Gabriella. I didn't choose to love Jack this way, choosing to hurt you and your dad both. It just happened."

Surprising both parents, Gabriella let out a sarcastic laugh, feeling herself barely hanging on to her sanity. "That's just rich! You and Troy both Mom! Victims of things just happening to you both! What happened? You tripped and your lips landed on Jack's lips? What about Lucille Mom? I could care less about Troy now but what about his older sister Ariana? Did you think of any of us?"

Unable to stand both Richard and Gabriella glaring at her with such open hate, Maria stood back up on her feet, her defenses coming up. "Is that what you think I set out to do Gabriella? To destroy both families in one selfish move?"

"Hey, don't put Gabriella in the middle of this. This was your doing Maria and don't forget that for a second!" yelled Richard, taking a step forward to put himself between Maria and Gabriella.

"That's rich Richard, really. Maybe if you hadn't been working so much, going on all those business trips, I wouldn't have gone looking for male companionship! Did you ever think of that? Just because I'm not as young as Gabriella or a bit older than her doesn't mean I don't have needs!" screamed back Maria, herself feeling fury flowing quickly through her veins. "I'm not the villain here and I will not let our daughter think that!"

"I'm not the one that cheated, God damn it! I work hard to support this family, to keep you in a position to buy all those extravagant items you want but don't need! I hope Jack knows what an expensive habit he just earned himself!" Richard shouted. "Don't even begin to use my working hard for the better of this family as a justified reason to do this!"

Maria just rolled her eyes. "Like I could ever get you to admit you are wrong in anything Richard, really. That's the problem with you! You are so fucking busy with your job that you didn't see that I needed you home with me, that Gabriella needed her father!"

"Gabriella is doing just fine! She's never complained, unlike you! Don't bring her into this when it's you that broke up this marriage. You are the one that stopped loving me!" shot back Richard, his breathing becoming harder to focus on as Richard's anger escalated past the pain that he had been wallowing in earlier. Seeing that Maria wasn't going to deny this, Richard turned around to check on his daughter when he realized that Gabriella was no longer standing behind him.

Richard looked around and spotted Gabriella a good distance away, walking rapidly towards the playground with her arms wrapped around herself. "Great, just great," he murmured to himself as he began to walk after her, stopping as he felt a hand on his arm. Turning to see it was Maria, he shook her hand off. "I'm going after my daughter."

"Let me, please Richard," begged Maria, feeling the reality of what she had done to this family, to her daughter, settle in. "I need to try to make this right."

Clenching his jaw, Richard just nodded, knowing he had to let Gabriella find her own closure with hearing her mother's side of things, recognizing though that Gabriella very well could be hurt worse too.

Without another word, Maria chased after her daughter, grabbing Gabriella's shoulders before Gabriella ripped herself away from her mother's hold, glaring at the older woman who seemed like a stranger now.

Richard watched from where he stood next to the bench as both mother and daughter seemed to be getting into a heated argument after Gabriella listened for a few moments to Maria. He moved to interfere as he saw Maria's hand come up but was nowhere close enough to stop it from happening as Maria's right hand made contact with Gabriella's left cheek, Gabriella's left hand quickly raising to cover the injured side of her face, her eyes wide.

Feeling the sting of the slap but more so the open wound dug open by the dull knife of betrayal that both Troy and Gabriella's own mother so happily stuck into her, tears gathered in Gabriella's eyes before she took off for the thick set of large trees she had always enjoyed exploring by the lake's south edge. Gabriella wiped away all the free falling tears as she ran, ignoring her father calling out to her, desperately needing to be alone physically as she already felt the solitude in her mind and emotionally.

Gabriella climbed the familiar tree as she spotted it, grateful for knowing exactly how to scale it quickly and without much focus as Gabriella's mind was on anything but how to safely climb the tree, still needing a safe haven as much as she needed air to breathe. Once settled on the branch Gabriella always sat on, she circled her arms around the thick trunk of the tree and rested her head on it, hating the tears that now didn't slow down as much as she wanted them to, an outward expression of the frustration, sadness, and heartache she felt with every cell in her body.

Part of Gabriella contemplated jumping from the branch that was several yards up, straight to the ground to hurt herself but Gabriella dismissed it, knowing that would solve nothing, especially as she most likely wouldn't mortally wound herself. Instead, Gabriella just closed her eyes as she leaned her forehead on the tree trunk as she continued to silently cry, watering the tree with her own salty tears, realizing only later that she had climbed the very tree that she often shared with Troy whenever they wanted to be alone or to just think. She recalled the many times that they had just talked up here on this very branch but also the few times that Troy had just held her, letting the silence blanket both of them in comfort.

'Well you better get used to this. Troy is definitely not coming here as your Prince Charming to save you from this mess he unknowingly helped create with Mom. She is definitely not going to come and comfort you as she used to when you were younger either. No one else loves you besides Dad…poor Dad…'

Uncaring of what Gabriella's best friends would think, let alone the rest of the party, Gabriella stayed up in the tree, undisturbed for a good part of the rest of the day, eventually drying her tears when there were none left, feeling void of any emotion in the end, experiencing for the first time just how blissful numbness could be.