Three: Your Darkest Hour
Gabriella had watched him, and everything had suddenly made sense.
Whenever they passed in the hallway, he'd look over at her for the briefest second, and she'd see so much. There was this façade, this performance he was putting on: strolling around the school casually in all his high school royalty, seemingly basking in the attention swarmed upon him by willing beautiful girls, and laughing along with friends as they whooped and hollered their way around.
But then behind all that was hurt. Confusion. Loneliness. She even saw guilt.
But if she could see all that, why couldn't anyone else? Why couldn't his best friends even see it? Why was everyone carrying on as if nothing had happened, as if nothing needed to be discussed?
She didn't know him. She wasn't associated with him. She had no obligations to care - no rights, even. She wasn't anything to him; no-one special. How dare she even have a glimpse into a complete strangers life? A stranger who, by common knowledge, obviously didn't want anyone to have a look in.
But Gabriella couldn't help feeling that all of it just felt wrong.
It was the evening of Chad Danforth's party - the infamous party that everyone had been talking about for days. Why; Gabriella had no idea - it wasn't for anything special. It was just your typical, run of the mill getting wasted party.
No one knew if Troy was going to make an appearance. Gabriella had heard a few of the girls discussing it during gym a few days ago.
At that time, she hadn't really felt bothered by the revelation… up until a few hours ago when Sharpay and Ryan had turned up on her doorstep, armed with a multitude of clothes, make-up, accessories, and Tiara Gold. Ryan had given her a sympathetic look from over Sharpay's shoulder, telling her that the next few hours weren't going to be very enjoyable.
Tiara had sharply pushed Gabriella onto her desk chair and turned her towards the mirror before running her perfectly manicured nails through her matted locks, a look of pure concentration on her face. When she'd stopped primping for the few seconds to inform Gabriella they were attending Chad's party, she had suddenly become bothered by the conversation that had taken place during gym class.
"Honestly, Shar, I don't think sequins are the way to go," Ryan helpfully called out from the chair in the corner of Gabriella's bedroom. The brunette was currently dressed in a hideous dress covered in the most shockingly coloured pink and silver sequins. The colour drained from Gabriella's features as she took in her appearance.
Tiara put a finger to her chin in thought. "It does make her stand out," she offered to Sharpay. "And would clash considerably with your own outfit."
"Hmm." Sharpay span Gabriella around. "I guess not everyone can pull off my style."
"Well, it is uniquely fabulous," Tiara grinned. "But is Gabriella ready for uniquely fabulous?"
"No, she isn't." Gabriella put in, raising her hand sheepishly, too dazzled by the sequins to see properly.
"Hmm… maybe you're right. The world already has to prepare for me. I'm sorry, Gabriella, but I don't think you're quite there…"
"Apology accepted." She didn't hesitate.
"Tiara, take the dress off. We're back to square one." Sharpay eyed the rest of the outfits laid strategically on Gabriella's bed. "What to do? What to do?"
"Oh, how hard some life decisions are!" Ryan pondered, making Gabriella giggle as Tiara tried to free her of sequins. "How about something casual but nice? Pretty, but nothing that makes her stand out in the crowd? Something that doesn't involve vibrant pinks, sequins and glitter?"
Sharpay pulled a face. "How very dull!" She mauled over the pile of bright pink tops. "How could you even think of ruling these off the list!"
Ryan thought carefully about his save. He cleared his throat. "Well, as amazing as these look on you, Shar, I'm not quite sure they speak Gabriella to me."
"I think he's right," Tiara replied, sitting Gabriella back down on the chair and squaring her shoulders back a little too harshly. "She's incredibly plain. Plain and amazing don't mix."
"No, I didn't mean that…" Ryan said pointedly. "She clearly doesn't look comfortable in those types of clothing. If you really want to help her and her confidence, you'll let her choose something she's comfortable in."
Sharpay clapped her hands together. "I knew we shared the same genes somewhere down the line!"
"We look the same…"
"Apart from looks. Technicality. Did you know that most people - even scientists - think that twins can read each other's minds? Twins have this unbreakable bond that no-one else can share. We think the same! We function the same! And apparently, if one gets ill, the other automatically knows and gets ill too?"
"I wouldn't go that far, Shar…"
"Well, whatever! I'm pleased! We've had a scientific breakthrough this evening! Gabriella! You tell me what you want to wear and I'll judge whether you've made the right decision."
"Um, well," Gabriella glanced quickly towards her closet. "I was thinking… maybe jeans-"
"No! No jeans!" Sharpay folded her arms tightly over her chest. "Tiara, make a note. We need fashion lessons."
"What's wrong with jeans?"
"Nothing. They're fine for comfort. There are even brands out there that make jeans for special occasions - but that calls for real expensive taste. I know you don't mean those types of jeans, Gabriella."
"So, there. You simply cannot go to the party wearing those ugly things you choose to wear for school." She sighed a heavy sigh. "Oh, my this is tiring. Tiara, lets move along to hair and make-up. We'll need to re-think the outfit situation."
"Of course, Sharpay. What are you thinking?" Tiara bunched Gabriella's hair up, over and over. "Waves? Straight? Perhaps we'll go for pinning it all up? She would look semi-close to striking."
"Hmm… no waves. That's my preference this evening. Straight… perhaps. You did bring along my GHD's?"
"Of course." Tiara's smile was face-splitting.
Gabriella's eyes widened. "You're going to straighten my hair?"
"You'll look good, Gabriella; quit whining! I'm doing you a favour here; never forget that! I don't just let anybody use my GHD's."
Gabriella was silent as she watched Tiara and Sharpay through the mirror, and when they were about halfway through their straightening task, she decided she was starting to look pretty good. She could see Ryan still sitting in the corner of her bedroom, idly flicking through one of her magazines and pulling faces when he read a particularly disturbing article. The room was silent, save for Sharpay and Tiara's constant comments and random ideas regarding Gabriella's outfit for the evening.
When Sharpay mumbled something about Craig Jenkins going to the party, Gabriella's ears pricked; she liked the route this conversation may take.
"He's going?" She swallowed.
"Yes," Sharpay grinned. "Tiara has taken the liberty of putting a guest list together."
"I split it into three columns: definitely attending, maybe attending and not attending. Craig Jenkins is in the definitely attending column."
"Um. Who else is?"
Tiara looked lost for a moment and glanced at Sharpay in a panic. "I didn't memorise everyone on the list; y-you just told me to look out for Jenkins-"
"Yes, alright, Tiara, that's fine." Sharpay held a hand up to stop her rambling. "We really don't need to know about anyone else."
Gabriella didn't miss the flicker of acknowledgement in Ryan's eyes. He cleared his throat again and put on a posture of nonchalance. "Are any of his friends going?"
Sharpay scoffed. "Ah! Who cares?"
"I'm just wondering. I heard that if Zeke Baylor goes, he'll be baking those chocolate chip cookies for everyone."
Sharpay closed her mouth and looked to Tiara in silent question.
"Of course Baylor's going, you moron. He's one of Danforth's best friends."
"So, by that admission, that means Jason Cross and Troy Bolton are also in your definitely attending column?"
Gabriella kept her eyes on Tiara's reflection.
"Cross is a definite. Bolton is a maybe."
Gabriella's shoulders slumped just a fraction.
Again, this went noticed by Ryan. "He's a maybe? Did you find out why?"
That smug look re-appeared on Tiara's face. "Of course I did. I overheard him telling Zoey Fitzgerald that he had some stuff to do at home, but he might make the party later on in the evening. I don't know exactly what this stuff entails, but he seemed serious."
This time Sharpay shot a look towards Ryan that Gabriella couldn't decipher. "If he turns up, he turns up. He's not the one we're focusing on."
Both blonde girls turned their attentions back to straightening Gabriella's hair. Gabriella let out a small sigh and closed her eyes as she was worked on. The butterflies in her stomach began to die down slowly, rising only when she allowed herself to think of the possibility that he'd be there. She never was one for high school parties - not that she'd ever been, only that she'd never been invited. She wasn't even sure she'd had an official invitation to Chad's - only that Sharpay had demanded she go.
"You know, Gabriella, we really should work on flirting techniques while we get you ready. You want to be prepared for Craig, don't you?"
"Um, Sharpay?" Gabriella opened her eyes to look at her reflection again. "Thanks for… all this. Really. But I'm not really looking for anything-"
"You think that. It's only because you don't know any better."
"No, I know that. I really appreciate you helping me, but I don't want to flirt with anyone."
She saw Sharpay and Tiara exchange another knowing glance. When they failed to respond, she tried again.
"It's just that… I'm new at East High and need a while longer to settle in."
"Craig Jenkins could help you settle." Tiara giggled.
"I really need to focus on my studies right now."
Sharpay's mouth dropped open in a look of horror.
"I mean… with everything I need to learn from you, boys would just be a major distraction."
"She has a point," Ryan called out helpfully again. Gabriella shot him an appreciative glance in the mirror.
Sharpay chortled. "Gabriella, I think I'm judge of what you can and cannot handle right now. You're starting to make excellent progress. I think we can move onto the suitable dating stage now."
"But I don't want to date."
Sharpay and Tiara again proceeded with the exchanged looks; a habit that was starting to annoy Gabriella. She knew from that look alone, that no matter what she said or how much she protested, it would go ignored.
So, instead, she decided to sit back, attempt to relax and take Sharpay Evans and Tiara Gold one step at a time.
One teeny step at a time.
She definitely wasn't invisible anymore.
As soon as she'd waded into the Danforth household behind Ryan, Sharpay and Tiara, Gabriella had felt all eyes on her. Sharpay seemed to be beaming with pride at the fact, whereas she was standing with her head bowed and cheeks beet red.
Attention was never a good thing. Ever.
Ryan sensed her discomfort and stepped closer to her, slightly shielding her from prying eyes. Gabriella looked up and smiled at him in thanks. It seemed that through the horrors of becoming Sharpay's adoptee, she had earned herself a true friend in the process.
Clouds. Silver linings and all that.
She self consciously wrapped her arms around her torso, trying to hide the barely there outfit Sharpay had squeezed her into. It seemed that even with Ryan trying his hardest to help in the background, nothing was going to stop his sister once she'd found the "perfect" outfit for her.
A short black skirt and red spaghetti-strapped top.
Her arms were on show. Her legs were on show. There was even some cleavage on show.
She'd never felt more humiliated.
Still, she needn't have worried. She was wearing considerably more than the vast majority of female party-goers. Most were frolicking about wearing bikini's and skirts that could easily be mistaken for belts.
As the four squeezed through the main room towards the kitchen, Gabriella glanced around quickly, searching. The living room had been transformed into a dance floor; all the furniture had been pushed up against the walls and a DJ was situated by the window surrounded by two large speakers. Standing across the dance floor, Gabriella caught sight of Zoey Fitzgerald and three of her friends. Zoey, who she now knew as the over keen redhead who had had Troy pushed up against the lockers days before, seemed to be looking through the crowds herself. More than likely awaiting Troy's arrival. If he arrived. She seemed just as anxious as Gabriella did.
They finally made it into the kitchen and Gabriella grimaced when she heard the familiar whoops of Jimmie and Donny filling the room upon her arrival.
"Yo! Yo! Yo! New Meat's arrived!" Jimmie hollered, clapping his hands loudly over his head.
"Woo!" Donny responded. "Go, New Meat!"
"And day-um!" Jimmie whistled, sliding over to Sharpay, who looked nothing but disgusted. "Shar-pay Ev-ans! To what do we owe this pleasure?"
"You stay away, Freak of Nature!" She bit back, pushing his shoulders. "Had I wanted to be in absolute discomfort, I'd have sat on a bed of nails."
"You want me. You just don't know it yet."
"Ew, ew, and major ew!"
"Yo, Rocketman! Where're those drinks, dude?" Chad Danforth, all smiles and afro came bounding into the room with Jason and Zeke trailing behind. Gabriella was more than a little disappointed when Troy didn't appear behind them.
"They're coming, bro!" Jimmie replied smoothly, sloshing his own drink about in his drunken stupor. "I was just welcoming more guests! Say hi to Sharpay, her twin, her hot assistant and New Meat!"
"Evans. Evans. Tiara." Chad nodded at each of them individually before resting his eyes on Gabriella. "And I don't think we've actually been introduced. Really hoping New Meat isn't your official name or anything…"
"Um, no. Gabriella. Montez." Gabriella swallowed nervously. "Gabriella Montez."
Chad grinned and nodded his head in approval. "Cute. What the hell is she doing hanging around with you, Evans?"
Sharpay's eyes narrowed dangerously. "As a matter of fact, Danforth, I'm helping her settle in at East High. Didn't see you or any of your beasts being charitable on her first day!"
"Oi!" Jimmie protested. "I think you'll find Dion and I were more than helpful to New Meat on her first day!"
"And I think you'll find that I rescued her before she committed suicide in your presence!"
Gabriella saw Ryan roll his eyes from behind his sister. It seemed arguments between Sharpay and the jocks happened on a regular basis.
"Still, she looks a little too intelligent to be in your company. Don't go destroying her too quickly, alright?" Chad laughed when Sharpay's hazel eyes turned a deadly black. "Gabriella, pleasure to meet you. I'm Chad, the ultimate and magnificent host of this party. Drinks are laid out in the dining room and Zeke's cookies will be ready in approximately…" He drifted off to turn and look at Zeke for an answer.
Zeke promptly lifted his wrist to check his watch. "Ten minutes. Fifteen to let them cool."
"In the meantime, I have snacks - also in the dining room. Outside, we have a competitive game of Twister going on and the front room is for dancing only. You don't look the type of girl, but I'll explain the rules anyway. Make-out sessions only can occur upstairs. My room, my parents room and my little brother's room are off limits. There are signs on each of the doors."
"All hinting fuck off," Jason filled in.
"Exactly. And if you happen to lose Evans in the crowd, it wouldn't be the end of the world."
Sharpay growled at Chad in response.
"Um, thanks," Gabriella answered shyly. "You've, er, got quite the party going on."
"Hey, I live to please!" Chad turned towards Jimmie and Donny and threw them a walkie-talkie. "Outside. You're both on cop watch."
Both their faces fell. "What? Seriously?"
"Seriously. You're… too young."
"Too young? Dude, you know you're talking shit! And we're only younger than you by a few months!" Jimmie whined. Donny pouted from behind him.
"Everybody has to go through the cop watch stint, and you guys are the only juniors here. Out!" Zeke pointed in the direction of the door.
"Aw, man!" Donny moaned as he and Jimmie slumped and dragged their feet towards the front door, walkie-talkie grasped firmly in hand.
"This sucks, dude!"
Gabriella had managed to find a space on one of the couches in the main room, her red plastic cup filled only with lemonade as she watched everyone else grind shamelessly in the middle of the room. She'd lost Sharpay and Tiara about an hour ago as they feasted on Zeke's freshly baked cookies. She'd tried one and had to admit they were heaven, but while Sharpay and Tiara were distracted, she'd found the perfect opportunity to escape.
Ryan had found her fifteen minutes before but excused himself when he found a small group of his own friends to socialise with for a while. Jimmie and Donny had made several attempts to re-join the party, even insisting they'd run cop watch shifts between them as long as they got to join in on the festivities for a while. Chad had approached her again to ask if she was having a good time. Gabriella really wasn't, but Chad seemed to be nice and so she honourably lied and said she was enjoying herself.
A little while later, her people-watching was interrupted by a blonde guy who slowly approached and asked if the seat beside her was taken.
"Um, no?" It came out as a question, but then she was filled with dread. Was this Craig Jenkins?
"Hey," he smiled gently and extended his hand in greeting. "Craig Jenkins."
Oh. It was.
Had Sharpay already spoken to him?
"So, I was just speaking to Sharpay Evans…"
Oh. She had.
Her face felt heated in embarrassment. "Oh, right. Look, whatever she said…"
"I know, I know!" Craig laughed, holding his hands up in defence. "I've been on the end of her match-making games before. I know the drill."
"Half the time it's a cheerleader paying her to get me to ask them out on a date." He laughed and shook his head at the thought.
"Does it work?"
He shrugged. "Sometimes. It depends on what mood Sharpay's in. She can be very persuasive."
"You're telling me," Gabriella huffed with a small smile. "But she thinks her heart's in the right place," she quoted Ryan.
"I'm, er, just wondering how accurate she was being in all this…"
Uh oh. This couldn't be good.
"I mean, she was in the kitchen just now, telling me just how excited you were to see me. You didn't even know who I was until I introduced myself, did you?"
Her cheeks flushed again. "Um, no?"
Craig chuckled. "Typical Evans. Still, I can get past her incessant nagging just this once; you are gorgeous. She didn't lie there."
Gabriella felt the heat spread from her cheeks to her ears. "Um, thanks. I mean…" she shook her head pathetically. "I mean, I don't know what she told you, but I'm not really… um… looking for anyone…"
Lie. Lie. All lies.
"I just moved here. I haven't even adapted to living in Albuquerque. I haven't even adapted to being friends with Sharpay…"
"I can understand that," he winked teasingly. "I don't think any of us have adapted to her. Even Ryan."
Gabriella smiled. "Still, I don't know what she's said, but I'm not looking for anything. Here. With… us."
Craig laughed at her and leaned back on the couch. "I just told you that I think you're gorgeous. Did I propose to you?"
"I hadn't even gotten to the asking you out part yet. But that's okay, Gabriella; I can wait. You get yourself adapted to Albuquerque and East High and thaw a little bit towards Sharpay and then you'll find me at the end of that - a bouquet of carnations and an invitation out to the movies and dinner. You can choose the movie and restaurant."
"Oh, but, no - wait -"
"I'm not asking now. I said I'd wait. Sure, Sharpay's matchmaking is fucking annoying at the best of times but this time, I'd say she got my preferences just right." His eyes trailed down the length of her body appreciatively. "I've just got out of a relationship, so waiting would actually do me good anyway."
All Gabriella could do was nod in reply. But then the entire house seemed to erupt with excitement… and two minutes later, she saw the reason why. Craig leapt up, calling "Bolton!" as he scrimmaged through the throng of adoring Troy Bolton fans towards his friend. Gabriella's heart stopped. He'd come.
She saw him for the briefest of moments as he high-fived and knuckle-tapped various people. Zoey Fitzgerald swung herself about on his arm; her drunken state not allowing her to be in charge of her feet and Troy looked uncomfortable as he tried to keep her in an upright position.
When Chad reached his best friend, they shared a hug before Zoey was shaken off him and they headed to the kitchen. Gabriella had no other excuse to go into the kitchen except to see him, and she timidly rose from the couch and followed, only stopping in the doorway when she caught sight of Chad pouring his friend a beer.
"Everything okay, dude?" Chad asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
"Yeah, man. It's all good."
"And your dad? He's good?"
"Yes, Chad, he's good. I just need a fucking beer, man."
"Woah! Okay, forget I asked." Chad passed the cup over to his friend, who proceeded to gulp it down as though it was going out of fashion.
"Sorry," he breathed deeply as he placed the empty cup down on the kitchen surface. "Just one of those days, you know?"
"Grandparents called round. Pretty emotional shit."
"Yeah. But I'm here now and I need to catch up, right?" Troy picked up his cup again and held it out to Chad like a starving child. "Keep it coming, man. I intend to get so drunk, I can't walk straight."
"Slowing down may be a great option," Chad commented as he watched Troy down the lot again. "I've sobered down to tipsy within the last half hour, and Zeke and Jase have started a snooker competition in the basement. You hold off the alcohol long enough and we might just beat them again."
"I could fucking beat them with my fucking eyes closed." Troy held out his cup again. "You're slacking on the hospitality, Danforth. We both know I could be absolutely laced out of my face and still beat them at snooker."
"You're dreaming, Bolton. But, seriously, slow down. I've already lost every other moron to the devils of drink and you're the only one keeping me sane."
"Sorry, Danforth," Troy grinned, pouring himself another refill. "I've just got started with no intentions of stopping. Is there beer downstairs?"
"Always the perfect host, Bolton."
"Awesome. Lead the way."
Gabriella almost stopped breathing as the two walked past her.
Troy's gaze fell on her and connected for about five seconds until he walked out of sight. All signs of life had been knocked out of her with that single gaze, and she wondered how she was ever going to make it through the rest of her life with that mental image in mind.
And as overwhelming as it was, she felt a sense of loss when he disappeared with Chad.
Midnight came and went, and still there was no sign of Troy or Chad. Jimmie and Donny had taken advantage of their disappearance to the basement by abandoning their cop watch duties and making a show of themselves on the dance floor by attempting The Robot.
Gabriella had managed to get away from Craig Jenkins about two or three times before he found her again. And everytime he did, she could see Sharpay and Tiara in the background watching them both carefully. Tiara seemed to be taking notes - probably for those flirtation classes they'd threatened her with. Ryan had sensed her discomfort, and had interrupted a few times before Sharpay dragged him away by his ear with a threat of castration if he didn't stop butting in.
Craig wasn't drunk, but the alcohol he was consuming was certainly having an effect; with him droning on about his last failed relationship, Gabriella was more concerned about trying to magically make the ground open up so she could jump into the fiery pits of hell - anything but listen to an intoxicated seventeen year old who was still mourning a broken heart. There was denying that Craig was handsome, that he was charming; Tiara hadn't cut corners when she'd done her research on him. But that was all there was to him.
When he finally finished another cup of beer, Gabriella spied another opportunity to escape - everytime he finished, he'd offer her another drink, she'd politely decline, and he'd swagger back to the kitchen to grab himself another.
And she'd escape for about ten or fifteen minutes before he'd find her again and the cycle would start over.
"Aah, it's gone!" Craig declared, tipping his cup upside down to illustrate his point. "I'm going to get another. You want?"
"No - no, thank you," Gabriella responded, her smile wearing thin.
"Hmm." Craig eyed her for a moment. "You're a tough date, Gabriella."
She shrugged her apology and Craig winked before darting back towards the kitchen. There it was - another opportunity to escape. But she didn't get very far before Sharpay and Tiara approached her, not looking best pleased.
"Gabriella!" Sharpay huffed in annoyance. "When a guy offers you a drink, you take the drink!"
"But I'm not thirsty."
"Doesn't matter," Tiara replied, scribbling more notes on her bright pink 'SE' covered notebook. "It's about showing your interest. You can't decline every offer he makes you - he's trying so hard to please you."
"But I'm not interested. I don't want to be pleased."
"Ah, you think that, but only because you don't know any better."
Gabriella sighed loudly, tiring of this constant charade. Nothing she said would make any difference to the blonde duo; nothing.
"Can I just be excused to go to the bathroom?"
Sharpay eyed her suspiciously. "You can go, but I expect back here in five minutes time. When Jenkins returns, I don't want to fish out yet another story about how we lost you. We'll tell him you've gone to the bathroom and will be back as soon as possible. Don't get any funny ideas."
"What's the point? You'll only find me again."
"Exactly. So, go. Your time starts… now."
"You're timing me-?"
"Sh! Go! Now!"
Gabriella didn't hesitate. She was tired - exhausted, even. High school parties weren't half as fun as she'd originally expected. As she climbed the stairs in the Danforth household, she looked back and caught sight of Tiara and Sharpay inspecting their watches. They really weren't joking when they said she only had five minutes.
There were several rooms on the second floor - most were blocked with a number of couples who were making out against the doors. Gabriella tried to pretend she couldn't hear the sex noises that were coming out of some of the rooms… She found it hard to believe that anyone would engage in something like that in a place so public. It wasn't as though they could be discreet.
Thankfully, amid Chad's fuck off signs on three of the bedroom doors, he'd helpfully placed a bathroom sign on the door at the very end of the hallway. That definitely looked promising.
Gabriella gingerly placed her ear to the door, listening out for any occupants. "Hello?" She called out as she tapped lightly on the door. "Anyone in there?"
No answer. Doubly promising. But when she opened the door, she didn't expect to nearly trip over a pair of legs that were sprawled out on the floor. A pair of legs that, when she dragged her eyes up the offending person's body, she discovered belonged to none other than Troy Bolton.
He was half-laid on the floor; his upper body propped his by his arms that were resting on either side of the toilet seat. His sweaty head was hovering over the porcelain; the sounds emitting from the back of his throat were haggard. He'd obviously been vomiting. A lot.
He'd heard Gabriella's entrance, and turned his head slowly towards the door. Upon seeing her, his eyes closed and he grunted softly in the back of his throat, positioning his face back over the toilet. "S-sorry…" He stumbled, breathing deep. "I'll be done. …soon, think. Almost…"
Her heart stopped. He hadn't been lying earlier when he told his friend he'd intended to get so drunk he couldn't walk.
"It's okay." It came out as a whisper as she slowly approached him. "Are… you okay?"
"Fucking fantastic." Troy lifted himself away from the toilet and pressed his back against the tiled walls. Gabriella sat opposite him, resting her own back against the bathtub and hugging her knees to her chest.
"Did you want any water?"
Troy didn't answer. He lifted a tired hand to his damp forehead and held it there in pain. Strands of hair stuck to his face and forehead and he struggled to sweep them away. Thinking fast, Gabriella caught sight of a flannel hanging on the side of the tub and got up to run it under cold water. Ringing it out, she knelt down next to him, holding it out for him to take. When he didn't, she saw no other option than to run it softly over his face.
Troy hummed in approval, his eyes drifting shut with the motion. "I…" He slurred, struggling to open his eyes to see her. "I bumped you."
"Bumped me?" She frowned with a small smile.
"Oh. Yeah, right. You did." She swept his sticky hair back out of his eyes.
Gabriella shook her head softly, although he couldn't see the motion. His eyes had drifted shut once again as she continued to soothe him with the ice-cold flannel.
"It's okay. You don't need to apologise."
Troy groaned hoarsely, his eyelids flickering with his struggles to keep coherent. Gabriella watched him - every sharp, ragged breath, every twitch and flicker on his face… The hurt he was so obviously feeling flooded her entire being, and she felt that hard pull towards him.
She reached out again to dab the flannel against his jaw, but stilled her hand when Troy let out another involuntary groan and slid down the wall to lie flat on his back. His head hit the tiled floor with a small thump and he hissed at the contact, bringing his hands up to his head and pushing the heels of his palms into his scrunched up eyes.
Gabriella stopped breathing.
She'd already branded herself some kind of creepy stalker - because what else would you call a person who watched another person they barely knew so closely? But now it seemed she'd missed something very vital in all her observations.
Troy always wore long sleeved shirts. Sometimes he wore a light jacket over the top, or his varsity jacket… but that was all. She hadn't even seen him in his basketball uniform - not even thought it odd that the times she'd see him as he left the gym after practice, he'd be wearing a Wildcats tracksuit rather than a jersey. She had yet to see him play, but with what she could see now, she only guessed that he wouldn't wear a jersey then either.
As his hands had lifted to his weary eyes, the sleeve of his red and white shirt had ridden up slightly, revealing a glimpse of the skin on his wrists.
There were several cuts. Tiny cuts - not cuts that could have possibly been sustained through self-harm. At least, Gabriella didn't think so. She didn't know much about people who self-harmed; she didn't even know of anyone who had… but she was certain that injuries through that had to be longer, deeper… angrier?
She caught her breath. If only for a few seconds. The tiny indentations were on both wrists… a couple on the heels of his palms.
Her eyes clouded over.
He grunted, trying to turn himself to lay on his side. He didn't get very far; his head lolled to the side and his arms hit the floor; his body twisted in a way that looked far too uncomfortable.
Almost numb, Gabriella leaned forward slightly, reaching her small fingers out to run lightly over the cuts.
Gabriella swallowed. His eyes were closed, his brows knitted together.
"How did you hurt yourself?"
Troy, with as much effort as he could muster, pulled his hand from her grasp and tucked both against his chest protectively.
It came out as a long whisper of breath: "Clumsy."
And then he passed out.
It was only the sound of her heavily thumping heart that told her this was real. So many things were whirling around her mind… So many things she couldn't comprehend, yet didn't even want to think about.
There was a loud knocking at the bathroom door. Gabriella jumped at the sound, but didn't - no, couldn't - take her eyes away from the broken guy lying unconscious on the floor.
"Gabriella Montez!" Tiara's reprimanding voice shrieked through the door. "It has been exactly eight minutes and forty-two seconds since you left Craig Jenkins downstairs! That's three minutes and forty-two seconds - well, now three minutes and fifty-one seconds… but whatever! Don't you appreciate the hard work Sharpay is putting in to helping you fit in here?"
She didn't speak.
"Ugh!" Sharpay's infamous scoff rang through the door. "Preposterous! So ungrateful! This is going down as a black spot against your name, Montez, and you know how much I hate using anything black! Open the door, Tiara!"
"…it could be serious in there."
"Do as I say or find yourself out of a job!"
The door opened. The sound of both Sharpay and Tiara's heels clicking against the floor told Gabriella that they had entered - her mind was elsewhere. But then the clicking heels stopped, the frustrated growls stopped, and Sharpay gasped.
"Oh, Bolton, what are you doing to yourself?"
At this, Gabriella looked up at the blonde with wide eyes. Sharpay was looking down at Troy, her face expressionless. She nudged his ankle with the tip of her sparkling shoes and sighed loudly.
"Tiara." She addressed her confidante in a tone that was unrecognisable to anyone who knew Sharpay Evans. It was so soft, so delicate - had she spoken in that manner before? "Go get Danforth. Possibly Cross and Baylor if you can. They'll need to carry him."
Tiara nodded as she stuck her nose in the air. "Idiot boys. Drunken fools. Don't they learn anything from these experiences?"
Nobody answered. Tiara left gallantly.
Gabriella just watched as Sharpay leaned back against the far wall, continuing to nudge Troy's legs with her feet. The blonde shook her head.
"He's always been such a moron," she said quietly. There was nothing malicious in her voice. "Did you find him in here?"
Gabriella nodded. Sharpay sighed.
"Idiot just needs to know when to stop."
Gabriella nodded again. Should she mention the cuts? They were safely hidden away against his chest, concealed from the world. Sharpay gave no indication she knew anything - seemed she was just putting it down to drunken teenage behaviour.
But why didn't her voice and expressions reflect that?
Everything just felt like a blur to Gabriella. She remained sitting in that same position she'd sat in when she comforted him, when she saw the cuts, when he told her he was clumsy. Stayed like that when Chad, Jason and Zeke walked in, jokingly chastised their friend and leant over to lift him. Chad and Jason each lifted his upper body under an arm; Zeke took his feet.
"Dude, seriously," Zeke huffed as the three of them carried him towards the spare room. "You're gonna have to start paying us for the amount of times we do this." There was no humour.
Gabriella stood up on shaky legs, watching as Troy was carried from the bathroom. She didn't miss the look Chad and Sharpay shared.
A look she never thought she'd encounter between two people she originally thought wanted to kill each other.