AU. Gabriella never meets Troy at the lodge, because he doesn't go that year. For the sake of this story, Freshman Honors Program considers extracurriculars, and since she wasn't in drama, she didn't have enough to get in so she stays at East High until graduation. All of the other differences found in this story are due to these changes.
One For The Road
It's her last week at East High, and Gabriella Montez isn't going to miss a thing about the place.
She was never a pessimist, but she'd had a sinking feeling she was going to hate her new school ever since the day her mom had burst in her door and squealed that they were moving. Again. It was the middle of junior year, and while she wasn't exactly Miss Popular at her old school, at least she knew people.
When they had arrived in Albuquerque, the sinking feeling just became worse. The school was run by a perfectly awful queen bee, the drama club and the jocks seemed to be on the verge of war, and all of the nerdy kids (like herself, naturally), found themselves at the bottom of the totem pole. Or, perhaps more accurately, the ground beneath the totem pole.
She had enjoyed a few things about East High. She had excelled in her classes, and a couple of the teachers really were quite nice. She had become friends with Taylor and a couple of other girls in the same mold, but she had never felt that friendship spark that had led her and her best friend from two cities ago to declare themselves inseparable. She was friends with Taylor because it was convenient, and because even she couldn't just bury herself in her books for a year and a half. She counted off the days till graduation like she was getting out of prison.
Now her calendar has only a few more days left of red "X"s until she can move on to the rest of her life.
She's sitting in homeroom, doodling absently on a notebook and pretending to captivated by Sharpay's speech about this year's one-woman show, when she sees him staring at her. Her skin prickles.
Gabriella has never spoken to Ryan Evans, save an "excuse me" in the hall. She thinks, perhaps, one morning he told her "hi" before Sharpay entered the room. They are far from friends, at any rate, although she has often admired his dancing and acting. It really is a shame that he wasn't in this year's show, but he obviously hadn't had the spine to stand up to his twin.
From what Gabriella could tell, the two couldn't be more different. Ryan was reserved when not on stage, and he always seemed to be in his own little world. He followed Sharpay around like a lost puppy, which was both sad and kind of cute. Sharpay, on the other hand, was boisterous, bossy, and some other b-words that Gabriella refrained from using. On or off-stage, she had a spotlight on her.
Sharpay sits back down and Gabriella finds herself applauding absently. Ryan has looked away, but he's still turned toward her, as if to remind her.
She seriously needs some more social contact.
Tuesday. She glances over at Ryan from time to time, trying not to seem obvious, but he studiously examines everything that is not her. Maybe it was all in her mind, she thinks, with some relief and some disappointment. For the rest of the day, he (his strange behavior, she tells herself) is all she can think about.
Wednesday and he's meeting her eyes once more, this time with what seems to be determination. Her heart flips, and she doesn't want to think about why. She's leaving in just a few days, the last thing she needs is a "friendship spark" (or something more, even scarier) now.
As they file out of the room, she can't help but twisting her head to look for him, until a hand brushes her shoulder. She jumps slightly and catches her heart.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," he says in a voice, so familiar to her. She isn't used to him addressing her, however.
"No, you're fine," she manages to get out. She feels like she sounds completely unintelligent.
He's walking with her, which makes no sense because they're definitely headed in different directions, class-wise. "So...hi. I know we've never exactly talked before, but I'm Ryan Evans." He offers his hand awkwardly, but she forgets to take it.
"I know who you are," she says, immediately regretting it. "I'm Gabriella Montez."
"I know who you are," he echoes, smiling. At some point, they must have stopped walking, because now they're standing in the hall as the other voices die down. She's going to be late, but somehow she doesn't care. It's her last week here, after all, and she has perfect attendance.
He obviously has a different kind of perfect attendance. At Sharpay's screech, he stiffens, eyes still locked on her own. "I...have to go," he mutters before bolting out of sight.
She watches the space where he was even after the bell rings.
Thursday. They sit in homeroom and he smiles at her. Her stomach does contortions, but it isn't entirely unpleasant. Sharpay turns to glare at her brother, but, remarkably, he doesn't stop looking at Gabriella. She swallows and flushes.
After class, he approaches her again in the hallway. "How are you?" he asks pleasantly.
"Fine, and you?" she answers mechanically, still a bit shell-shocked.
Ryan nods his head. "I was wondering," he says slowly, "if you were free after school."
Gabriella knows that it's impossible for a human brain to completely short out due to a simple English phrase, but she's having a hard time believing that now. He's watching her expectantly, and she finally forces her mouth open. "Yes."
His face clears. "Great. I was thinking maybe that coffee shop on the corner of—" He cuts off, seeing her expression.
"Sorry, I still don't know my way around this city."
"We can take my car," he says.
Gabriella is incredibly thankful that the last week of class is always light, because she finds herself paying absolutely no attention the rest of the day. At lunch, Taylor asks her if she wants to come over after school.
"I...can't," she says awkwardly.
Taylor looks shocked, and understandably so. Gabriella never has plans, except for the rare trips with her mom, and those are always planned weeks in advance. "With whom?"
She hesitates. What if the whole thing is some big misunderstanding? She remembers the way he looked at her, and can see him out of the corner of her eye now, sitting way up there on the second level of the cafeteria. She feels the blush spread in her cheeks as she replies, "Ryan."
Her attempt to sound casual fails. Taylor gapes at her. "Ryan...Evans? No. It has to be some other Ryan."
Gabriella shakes her head slowly. "Ryan Evans."
There is simply not enough air here, Gabriella thinks desperately. By the faces Taylor is making, she seems to think so too.
"You're going...on a date...with Ryan freaking Evans?"
"It's not a date!"
Taylor seems to relax a bit.
"At least, I don't think it's a date," she says thoughtfully, biting her lip. She'd never been on a date before.
Her friend appears to have stopped breathing for good.
Gabriella smooths her hair for the fifteenth time. New Mexico in late May isn't good to her texture, and normally she doesn't care, but now she hears Taylor's voice echoing in her head: "A date with Ryan Evans?"
"Maybe," she whispers to herself. She suddenly becomes aware of a presence behind her.
"Hi," Ryan says, looking as uncomfortable as she feels, but still possessing that certain grace he always has. She smiles unconsciously, replying with her own quiet greeting. "Are you, um...are you ready to go?"
She nods and smiles and tries to remember that oxygen is essential.
The car ride is really awkward. Ryan's car is nice, of course, and when Broadway music starts to blare, he offers her a slightly embarrassed smile. He turns it down and goes to change the station, but she shakes her head.
"You like this?" he asks in surprise, hand still hovering over the button.
"I don't know it, but I could. Besides, I don't really listen to a lot of music. You keep playing what you like." This is probably her longest speech thus in his presence.
Silence (well, Broadway) reigns for a minute before he speaks again. "So...Stanford, huh?"
It doesn't occur to her to be surprised that he knows. "Yeah. Where are you going?"
"Oklahoma City. I wanted to get into Juilliard, but I just don't have enough experience to do the choreography. Still, they've got a really good dance program." This might be his longest speech in her presence.
"Are you excited?" she asks, feeling a little foolish, but he smiles at the question.
"Yeah, I really am. And you...?"
He pulls into a parking place and opens his door quickly. By the time she's standing outside, he's next to her. "I was going to get that," he says, and she realizes he means her door.
"Sorry," she says, blushing.
Ryan smiles, and it's the most natural look she's seen on him yet. "Don't be. You're an independent woman." His tone is joking, and she smiles back at him, feeling the now-familiar fluttering in her chest.
She recognizes the café as they enter it. "I think I came here when we first moved here," she says, thinking out loud.
"Did you like it? Because if you don't, we can go somewhere..."
"No, no, this is good." She smiles again, sure that she looks like a ditz.
"Good," he repeats.
They order and find a table. She feels like she's already in college, leaving her high school self behind. Here she is, drinking coffee on a maybe-a-date with a really attractive guy, not even spilling her drink on herself or anything.
He's watching her, but he seems to be on the verge of saying something. "I'm sorry that this was all so out of the blue."
Gabriella gulps down her coffee, trying not to choke. "What? Don't be sorry." She laughs, although there really is no reason to do so. When did she become so incredibly irrational?
Ryan is fidgeting. She realizes that her presence actually makes him nervous, which is almost enough to make her laugh again just at the absurdity of it all.
"I like you a lot, Gabriella."
And her heart stops beating completely. She feels her cheeks turn bright red, but she doesn't trust herself to reply without sounding like a complete imbecile. He seems to take this as a signal to continue talking.
"I've been thinking of asking you out for...for awhile...but then there's Stanford and graduation and we'll be so far away from each other and then Sharpay tried to talk me out of it but then I thought, you know, this is my last chance, so I hope this isn't really awkward..."
The boy definitely has the lungs of a singer.
"I like you too," she says, not realizing the truth of the statement until she sees it hanging in the air. "I mean, I don't know you well, but I'd like to know you better."
"But Stanford and Oklahoma City." She laughs again.
They sip their coffee for a minute, but somehow the discomfort seems to have dissipated.
Goodness. She is on a date with Ryan Evans.
"So do you think it's hopeless, then?" he says as he sets down his cup.
She thinks for a second, then shakes her head. "I just don't want to have to say goodbye."
"When are you leaving?"
"In a week."
"And classes start..."
"That's perfect!" he beams.
She's pretty sure that she's the one with the 4.0, but it's beyond her ken how this is anywhere near perfection. "I'm sorry, what?"
"We can talk on the phone. If you want, that is. My classes don't start until the middle of August. Just because we're far away...if we're not that busy, we can still talk."
Gabriella considers this. "That's true, but what if...I mean, we won't be near each other. I've never had a boyfriend before. I don't even know how a close-distance relationship works. What if one of us meets someone new?"
Ryan thinks for a second. "Well," he says, drawing out the word. "We could just be friends. Good friends, and if we still want something more..."
A smile is creeping over her lips again. "That sounds wonderful."
The next week is a whirlwind of graduation and packing and Ryan. She tells everyone the truth, that they aren't dating, but only Taylor knows the whole truth, that they both wish they were. Well, Sharpay presumably knows it too, from the indecipherable glances she keeps shooting Gabriella. It's an interesting situation, to be sure.
He comes over on the day of the move and helps her load boxes into the car. Her mother quirks an eyebrow at this, but doesn't say anything. Gabriella's positive that she will have a long interrogation in store during the car ride.
They're taking a break, hanging out in her room, when she makes up her mind. "Ryan, I know we decided to be just friends..."
"For now," he says, quietly.
"Yes, for now. But um. I was thinking, maybe, just..."
She can't keep her mind off of how close they are and she blurts it out. "Kiss me."
He opens his mouth as if to say something, changes his mind, shuts it. Ryan complies.
It's beautiful and bittersweet. She wonders if he's ever kissed a girl before, and can't imagine it. Sharpay has kept him on too tight a leash, and most of East High is convinced that he likes guys. She also decides to count this as her first kiss, even though technically that was the time she played Spin The Bottle during a short-lived phase of popularity a few cities ago.
When they break apart, she sees the determination in his eyes. "Don't give up on me," she says.
"I won't," he replies, and she believes him.