Summary: Chad begins to deal as his support network rallies around him. (Part of the Coming to Terms 'Verse; a direct sequel to Fallout, Part 3. Go here for Fallout, Part 1.)
Chad pulled into a parking space across the street from the counseling center and turned off the ignition. He shut his eyes and took a calming breath, starting when Ryan touched his hand.
"Why are you nervous?"
"I don't know," Chad replied. "It's not as though she's going to judge us, right? I was the one who suggested this meeting. I wanted her to know the person I've spent three sessions talking about."
"Aren't you going to be late if we sit here much longer?" Ryan asked, giving his hand a squeeze. Chad smiled weakly and opened the door. They entered the center and Chad signed in. When they reached the door to Chris's office, Chad hesitated again. He turned to look at Ryan, who smiled reassuringly. Chad took his hand and opened the door. He didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed when he found the room empty.
"Come on in and have a seat," he said, moving to his usual spot on the sofa. He got up as soon as he'd sat down and went to get water at the little cooler near the door. "Want some?" Ryan shook his head. Chad sat down again and Ryan smiled indulgently.
"Still nervous?" he asked sardonically. Chad looked up and smirked back at him. "Maybe if I remove my hat--is that better?"
"Dude, you are such a--." Chad leapt to his feet again as the door opened and Chris stepped into the room. "Oh, hey, Chris," he said.
"Hi, Chad," she replied.
"Chris Jenks, I'd like you to meet Ryan Evans," Chad said as Ryan rose to shake her hand.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Ryan," she replied, although she was more interested in Chad's behavior. Although he was apparently self-conscious about it, Chad fairly glowed as he looked at Ryan. He took a seat and Ryan sat beside him.
Chris took a few seconds to study Ryan as she opened Chad's file. He wasn't at all what she'd expected to see, even if she had no preconceived notion of what Chad's boyfriend should look like. He was wearing a blue oxford button-down, jeans and expensive leather boots--timeless, classic and rather preppy, down to the fedora perched on his knee. His appearance stood in direct contrast to Chad's more youthful and edgy jeans and tee layered with a shirt. But a second glance revealed a slight cross-pollination. Chad's shirt bore the same polo player logo as Ryan's. And on Ryan's wrist, next to his Cartier watch, was a leather bracelet with ethnic beads, something she was far more likely to expect on Chad.
"Chad's already used to this, but I since we have a guest today I'm going to ask if you mind me taping the session," Chris said. Her question was aimed at Ryan, who shrugged easily.
"Go right ahead," he said with a glance at Chad.
"Chad, why don't you begin by telling us why you wanted Ryan to come to a session?" Chris suggested.
"Oh, well, I thought--. Well, I talk about Ryan to you all the time and I talk to Ryan about you--I thought it might be easier if you met one another." He stared at his lap as he spoke and when he looked up he knew he was in for a rebuttal.
"Should I pencil in your parents for next week, then?" Chris said archly. Chad rolled his eyes.
"You know what I mean!"
"And you know that I need you to tell me what you mean, Chad. This is important to you. You have to tell us why. You have to tell Ryan why you wanted him to come today."
Chad's eyes dropped to his lap again; Ryan reached out and took hold of his hand. He smiled reassuringly and Chris noted that he glowed, too. Chad took a slow breath and exhaled. Ryan dropped his hand and Chad shut his eyes for a few seconds while Chris looked on, utterly fascinated by their silent communication.
"We've been trying to work through my insecurities since I started here," Chad began again. "A few weeks back you said that I wasn't convinced that Ryan and I were doing the right thing. No--that I'm doing the right thing," he said, with a worried glance at Ryan.
"What is it you hope to accomplish today?" Chris prompted.
"I want Ryan to understand. I need for him to know that I believe in him, that I believe in us enough to do this," Chad said, turning to him. "I don't want to be apart from you, Ryan, but I know how much it means for you to go to Juilliard. It's something you've wanted forever. I would never deny you that. I could never be so selfish as to force you to make a choice between your ambition and me. And I know that you'd never do that to me, either. I--." Chad shook his head. Ryan frowned in concern. "This is hard. I don't know why it's suddenly so hard," he muttered, rubbing his hands together, clearly distraught.
"Talk us through what's going on, Chad," Chris said patiently. "What are you feeling?" He exhaled a shaky breath before he spoke.
"I feel like I'm scared all the time. I feel as though the world is rushing by me and I can't keep up, can't catch my breath," Chad admitted, running a hand through his hair. "Sometimes my heart pounds and I feel a knot in my stomach. Sometimes I feel dizzy, too." Ryan looked at Chris, slightly alarmed.
"What you're describing is an anxiety attack, Chad," Chris explained. "How often has this happened?"
"A few times in the last couple of weeks," he replied with another glance at Ryan, who reached out and placed a steadying hand at the back of Chad's neck.
"Tell us about them. When did they begin?" she asked. Chad averted his eyes as he spoke.
"I guess it began after the sleepwalking incident. The first night I slept at home--I guess it was that Thursday." Chad buried his hands between his knees as he continued. "And it happened again the following week--a couple of times." Ryan sat forward, but held his tongue.
"Ryan, feel free to join in the conversation if you want," Chris said, sitting back. Ryan withdrew his hand from Chad's neck.
"I knew that you were experiencing some anxiety," he said in a calm, non-accusatory tone, glancing over at Chris, "but you never told me that it had gotten this bad."
"That's because I usually don't feel that way when you're around," Chad replied. He reached out to take hold of Ryan's hand. "And if I'm feeling that way and you aren't around, I usually feel better after I--." He colored profusely and shut his eyes to hide his embarrassment. "I just feel better when I see you or hear your voice."
Ryan smiled and gave his hand a squeeze. Chad opened his eyes and shyly returned his smile. Chris observed the couple and wondered how they succeeded in keeping their relationship a secret. Both young men wore their emotions like banners.
"Ryan helps to ground you," she said. "That's a good coping strategy, seeking him out when you're feeling anxious."
"But Ryan won't always be here," Chad objected. "And I'm a grown man. I can't call him every time I feel a little out of it."
"Of course you can," Ryan assured him. "You can call me whenever you want. I may not be able to respond right away but--."
"Yeah, and if you don’t it'll probably add to my anxiety," Chad carped, rolling his eyes.
"Well, there are other ways to deal with anxiety attacks," Chris said before Ryan could protest. "If you can't call Ryan, you can call one of your parents, or a close friend. Or you can use a technique like the breathing exercise you just did to get yourself out of an anxious state. You're an athlete; engaging in a half hour or so of physical exercise is often good for alleviating stress."
"Yeah," Chad sighed, clearly unconvinced.
"Let's shift gears for a moment," Chris said. "Tell me, how are you sleeping these days?"
"Pretty much the same," Chad replied, drawing away from Ryan and sitting back.
"Which means?" Chris prompted.
"Which means I'm not sleeping much."
"You're still having problems sleeping?" Ryan asked, obviously taken aback by Chad's revelation.
"Yeah," Chad said with a slightly petulant shrug, once again retreating into himself. "If you'd done what I did wouldn't you be afraid to fall asleep after that?"
"Of course, I would," Ryan replied. "But--." He glanced at Chris for help.
"Have you been keeping a journal as I suggested?" she asked. Chad nodded and reached into his shirt pocket. He produced a little notebook.
"Want me to read it?" he asked uneasily.
"Just give me an idea of how much sleep you've gotten since I saw you last."
"Well," he paused to study his notes before looking up. "I'm getting about four hours a night; closer to six on nights when I'm with Ryan."
"Well, it makes sense that you'd sleep better with Ryan, but I'm concerned about the other nights," Chris said worriedly.
"He's been napping," Ryan volunteered. "We generally spend every afternoon or evening together after school and I can't recall a single day when he didn't nap for at least a half hour."
"Do you nap on those afternoons when Ryan isn't around?"
"Yeah," Chad answered readily. But he frowned and rethought his response. "When was the last time I didn't see you, dude?" Ryan shrugged. Chad repeated the action. "I don't think we've had a day apart since the sleepwalking incident."
"How much time do you usually spend together in an average week?" Chris asked.
"In hours?" Chad asked bemusedly.
"We see each other most days," Ryan replied.
"The last time we didn't see each other was before the sleepwalking incident," Chad concluded, thinking back. "You guys went to Santa Fe for that wedding."
"That was nearly a month ago."
"So you spend a lot of time together," Chris said neutrally. But Chad looked up worriedly.
"You think we spend too much time together."
"That's not for me to judge."
"But the more time we spend together, the harder it's going to be for me to get over this," Chad asserted. "And the harder it's going to be when Ryan leaves."
"When are you leaving, Ryan?" Chris asked, turning to him.
"I don't plan on going to New York until school starts in August," Ryan answered. "I may go earlier, for a visit. My parents keep a place in the city, so I may go and scout things out, but that would be just for a week, at most." He looked at Chad. "And if I do that, I hope that Chad will come with me." Chad folded his arms and frowned.
"Do you think we spend too much time together?" he asked Chris bluntly.
"Chad, it's not for me to decide what is or isn't a good amount of time to spend together," she replied calmly. "That's for the two of you to decide. Do you believe that spending a lot of time with Ryan while you can is a good idea?"
"Yes, of course I do!"
"Do you agree with that, Ryan?"
"I want to spend as much time as I can with Chad while I'm here," he replied, smiling lovingly at his boyfriend. "And I don't think that's a bad thing at all."
"Well, if you two agree on that, there's no reason not to continue to do so," Chris told Chad, who was far from mollified.
"It's not enough," he said in a small voice.
"What's not enough?" Ryan asked warily. Chad glanced up at him and then resumed staring at the carpet.
"Being with you helps, but I'm still having anxiety attacks and I'm still not sleeping and I don't think--."
Neither Ryan nor Chris said a word. They waited for Chad to continue, watching him squirm uncomfortably. After a few seconds, he looked at each of them, then got to his feet and went for a cup of water while Ryan and Chris exchanged looks.
"I don't know if I can do this," Chad said, leaning against the door. Ryan and Chris looked at him. He drained the cup and tossed it into the waste bin. " I'm--. This is--. I'm sorry. I can't--. I can't." Chad opened the door and fled the room. Chris and Ryan exchanged a glance before Ryan took off after him.
Chad sat up and ran shaky hands through his hair. He stared at the dark walls for several minutes until the pounding in his chest subsided and then threw back the covers. He went into his bathroom, splashed his face with water and toweled it off. Then he shut his eyes and leaned against the wall for a few minutes more. He had to get a grip.
Earl Danforth had just awoken and was checking the clock when he heard a noise from down the hall. He climbed out of bed and slipped out of the master bedroom just in time to see Chad, dressed in a tee, shorts and sneakers, heading down the stairs.
"Chad!" he shouted, turning on the hall light. Chad continued down the stairs.
"I'm going out for a run."
Chad stopped and turned to look up at him. His mother appeared at his father's side; both parents looked ashen and worried. Chad sighed and went back up to the landing. His mother immediately reached out to cup his cheek. It was all Chad could do to allow the examination without wincing.
He'd taken to staying in bed until both his parents were up every morning--and either one or both of them had checked on him. It drove him nuts, but he endured it for their benefit. He knew how worried they'd been since he'd risen in the dead of night and driven sixteen miles in his sleep. Chad was freaked out about it, too, but the effect on his parents was possibly even worse. So he stood still and endured his parents' inspection. He knew that just telling him that he was awake would be insufficient.
"I'm just going for a run," he said evenly. His father peered into his eyes.
"I'll undoubtedly slow you down, but if you want some company--," he said tentatively.
"Or we can just talk when I get back," Chad suggested, rolling his eyes.
"Yeah, all right, son," Mr. Danforth said, reaching out and tousling his hair. Chad sighed in relief.
"It's cold out at this hour. You need a sweatshirt," Ms. Danforth said. Chad didn't argue. He dutifully returned to his room and grabbed one from a drawer.
A minute later he stepped out onto the porch and took a few deep breaths. He did a bit of a warm up before deciding on a route to take. After dialing up a favorite playlist he clipped his iPod onto the waistband of his shorts, slipped off the sweatshirt, hung it over the rail, and began to run.
It had been a while since he'd run in the morning like this. He'd gotten out of the habit since he and Ryan had gotten serious. Chad smiled at the notion--when hadn't they been serious? He ran past Gabriella's house and then turned east.
Chad did most of his running at school these days, but he preferred running closer to home. He liked touring the neighborhood, seeing the subtle changes from season to season. He liked waving at the neighbors who came out to get their papers or walk their dogs. He enjoyed the cool early morning air and the silence of the world just coming to life and greeting the day. He'd missed it more than he realized and vowed to start running in the mornings again; at least on weekdays.
Chad let the music and the rhythm of his steps transport him. He didn't think; he was glad for that. He wasn't ready to confront the dream that had awoken him in a cold sweat. Maybe Chris had been right--he needed to get more exercise. Halfway into his run he was feeling much better. He felt free: no doting parents suffocating him with guilt and concern, no worries about upcoming finals, no stress of trying to patch up his relationship with Troy. He didn't even think about Ryan. He just embraced the morning and ran.
When he returned to the house a half hour later, his parents were in the kitchen. His father was making breakfast and his mother was puttering around, obviously waiting for him. Chad recognized her nervous demeanor at a glance and felt his guilt returning.
"Hey," he said as he entered the kitchen and set down his iPod on the counter.
"Did you have a good run?" Mr. Danforth asked, looking up.
"Yeah," Chad replied, going to the refrigerator for the pitcher of water. "I did about five miles." He filled a glass, drained it and refilled it again before returning the pitcher to the fridge.
"If I'd come with you we'd still be on mile three," his father admitted with a smile.
"Or at the emergency room," Chad quipped.
"Where's your sweatshirt?" Ms. Danforth asked. Chad looked down. He'd forgotten to pick it up.
"I left it on the porch," he confessed, going back out to collect it. Chad's mother gave her husband a long-suffering look in his absence. But she didn't hassle Chad when he returned. She simply took the shirt from him as she passed on her way up to get her shower.
"You were up pretty early," Mr. Danforth said as he stirred a batch of pancake batter.
"I couldn't sleep," Chad replied as he leaned against the counter. "Chris suggested that I try to do a little physical exercise when I feel stressed. Are you going to put bananas in that?"
"Are you kidding? Your mother would have my head! Until I lose ten more pounds I'm only allowed to make banana pancakes on weekends--once a month."
"Well, it's been at least two months."
"I made it a week ago," his father said wryly. "It's not my fault you weren't here."
"Oh." Chad sighed into his glass. "You should have told me you were planning to make it. Your banana pancakes are much better than Maria's."
"The Evans' housekeeper," Chad said, placing the glass on the counter. "I'm going to take a shower."
"What's the rush? It's not even six o'clock yet. You left the house before sunrise."
Chad glanced at the clock on the wall and blanched. He hadn't given a thought to the hour when he left the house.
"Want to talk about it?" his father asked. Chad nodded and sat on a stool; he stared at the swirling patterns in the granite countertop.
"I had a weird dream," he said flatly. "Couldn't get back to sleep afterward." He sighed again and looked up. "Ryan went with me to therapy yesterday. I wanted Chris to meet him."
"Go on," Mr. Danforth said as he put the batter into the refrigerator to rest. Chad expected him to comment on Ryan going with him to therapy but Mr. Danforth merely looked at his son expectantly.
"Well, it was awkward."
"Yeah." Chad nodded. "Especially when we started talking about what's been going on with me. I've been keeping more from Ryan than I thought."
"You've been keeping things from him? Like what?" Mr. Danforth asked. Chad looked up, interpreting the real question behind his father's concern. He averted his eyes again and began to trace a line on the granite surface with his thumb. "Chad?"
"Well, apparently I never told him the full extent of my sleep problems," he said, propping his head with his free hand. "I've been averaging about four hours a night since the sleepwalking incident. I get a little more when I'm with Ryan so maybe that's why he never really noticed that anything was up. But I never told him that I was having difficulties--at least not directly."
"And he found out at your session," Mr. Danforth surmised. Chad nodded. "Did you have words?" Chad looked up and smiled.
"Have words?" Chad repeated mockingly. "No, we did not have words." His smiled faded. "But I think he was disappointed that I didn't confide in him."
"Chad, just because you're with someone--just because you love someone, even--that doesn't necessarily entitle him to know all of your secrets. You would probably do well to discuss your sleep issues with Ryan, because he's obviously involved in this, but you shouldn't feel that you have to tell him everything that goes on in your head."
Chad's smile returned and his father eyed him warily.
"So what are you keeping from mom?" Chad challenged.
"Maybe it's you I'm keeping things from," his father replied archly, rising to fetch a cup of coffee. Chad rose as well, and went to put on the teakettle. He also pulled out a teapot and a tea ball. His father frowned at him.
"Does your mother know you've been dipping into her tea stash?"
"It's our tea stash, dad," Chad replied. "I've bought as much of it as she has. And what I didn't buy, Ryan did. And stop trying to change the subject!"
"I will if you will," Mr. Danforth said as he pulled out a quart of milk. "You were telling me about your session yesterday." He sat down again and Chad leaned against the counter to wait for the kettle to boil. Mr. Danforth observed his son closely. Chad seemed to be deeply troubled. "You mentioned something about a dream. How is that related to all this?"
"Oh--I dreamed about the session, only it didn't go as well as the real one. Well, actually, I don't think either one went particularly well."
"Why? What happened?"
"Nothing happened," Chad said with a sigh. "I guess I just expected to clear the air and instead I think I just opened a can of worms."
"Well, maybe that's the same thing."
"How do you figure that?" Chad asked, pushing off the counter to open a cabinet. He dug around and pulled out a box of tea and sniffed it. Smiling briefly, he opened the package and began to scoop tea into the strainer. "Go on," he prompted.
"How much tea are planning on drinking?" his father asked bemusedly.
"I'm making a pot," Chad replied. "Mom will have some. Tell me what you mean."
"Well, in order for you and Ryan to come to a real understanding--and I'm only guessing that at least part of your stress is due to the fact that you two have some unresolved issues--then opening a can of worms, as messy and awkward as it sounds, might be just what you need," Mr. Danforth said. "Once you get everything out in the open, you can begin to deal with it."
"You just said that I didn't have to tell him everything," Chad protested.
"I did say that," his father admitted, setting down his mug. "Look, you have to decide what it is you want him to know. And you really need to think about that. Don't hold back on the important stuff. I may not tell your mother everything, but I damn well make sure that I don't keep anything important from her."
"How do I know what's important?"
"Chad," his father said with a tinge of exasperation. "Use your common sense! If you can't figure out what's important--."
"I can't figure out anything these days," Chad shot back. "I'm too damned tired."
"What did your counselor say about that?" Mr. Danforth asked. Chad shrugged.
"She was more interested in--."
"She was more interested in--." His father looked at him expectantly. Chad rolled his eyes. The kettle began to boil and he turned to pour the water into the waiting teapot. "Chad?"
"I've been having anxiety attacks."
"Chad, this is exactly the sort of thing you shouldn't keep to yourself!" Mr. Danforth cried, running a hand over his bald scalp. "Why didn't you tell us about this?"
"I didn't know!" Chad shouted back, spinning around. He immediately lowered his voice, afraid of drawing unwanted attention from his mother. "Did you know that you had high cholesterol before it was diagnosed?"
"No, but I knew something wasn't quite right," his father replied ruefully.
"Well, I knew something wasn't quite right, too. But--."
"Like what?" Mr. Danforth asked curiously.
"I don't know, exactly. There wasn't anything specific--sometimes I feel a bit off; sometimes my heart races so fast I feel like I'm going to faint. My palms sweat. I suddenly get scared. But mostly I just feel uneasy."
"About what?" Mr. Danforth asked as Chad reclaimed his seat.
"It's anxiety, dad. I feel uneasy about nothing. About everything," he said mildly.
"How long has this been going on?"
"It's been building. I don't know how long," Chad admitted. But it took his father less than a minute to arrive at his own conclusion.
"This began before the sleepwalking incident," he declared. Chad shrugged. "You said that you and Ryan had unresolved issues. It seems to me that the sleepwalking was a manifestation of your anxiety about whatever is going on between you two. And the longer those issues remain unresolved the more anxiety you're like to experience."
"I've got plenty of things to be anxious about," Chad said defensively. "Finals coming up, graduation, prom--."
"Prom?" Mr. Danforth replied.
"We aren't going," Chad declared. "Ryan and I decided that neither of us wanted to wear a mask for the sake of staying under the radar. If we can't be together, we aren't going."
"Are you all right with that decision?"
"Yeah! It's just a dance, dad," Chad replied, rising to pour himself a cup of tea. His father noted with mild amusement that Chad used a proper cup and saucer. "Anyway, once Chris latched onto the anxiety thing, she dug in. We really didn't have time to get back to the rest of it," he said reaching for the milk. "The whole session was really awkward and afterward Ryan had to go to some theatre thing with his folks so we didn't really have a chance to discuss what had happened. And I felt really bad about the fact that I'd dumped all that on Ryan and then sent him off to go see some stupid play," he said.
"Which only added to your stress," his father surmised.
Chad made a circular motion with his hand and then picked up his cup to daintily sip at his tea. Mr. Danforth smiled. Yeah, his son was definitely gay. But Chad was his son and he was determined to do whatever it took to help him. So he gently prodded Chad into talking about his fears and worries. By the time Chad finished his tea and went up to shower, his father had learned an earful.
"Dad?" Chad said from the steps. Mr. Danforth looked up. "Thanks for listening. And put some bananas and sugar in my pancakes. I'm not on a diet." He smiled disarmingly and disappeared.
Ryan sat on the low wall in front of the school waiting for Chad to arrive. His phone vibrated and he pulled it out to read the text message that came up. He frowned at it for a moment and then shut the phone.
"So where is your little darling?" Sharpay asked impatiently. Ryan shrugged. "Didn't he say? Gah! Men!" She started to pace again and Ryan sighed.
"You don't have to wait, you know. He's not your 'little darling.'"
"I know, but you--." Sharpay saw a flash of red pull into the parking lot. "There he is." Ryan rose to his feet and began to walk in that direction, but she grabbed his arm. "Let him come to you, Ryan. He's the one who should apologize."
"Apologize? Apologize for what?"
"For whatever he did to make you so upset last night," Sharpay replied reasonably. Ryan shook his head.
"Is that why you're here? You think we had a fight? What are you planning to do, referee? Mediate?"
"Excuse me for trying to be supportive," she said huffily as she picked up her bag and turned to leave.
"Shar," Ryan said repentantly, reaching out to catch her by the hand. "I'm sorry. Look, we didn't fight. Chad's just been going through a rough time lately and I'm worried about him."
"Worried about him? Why?"
"Why? He's not sleeping, he's been under a lot of stress of late and he's beginning to show signs of separation anxiety--."
"Welcome to my life, Danforth," Sharpay said with a sigh. Ryan felt a pang of guilt and pulled her into a hug.
"I'm sorry, sis. I know you're feeling it, too, and sometimes I forget that --until Chad reminds me. I just get all wrapped up in his problems because--."
"I know: love of your life, smokin' hot bod, yadda…"
"Yeah," Ryan said smiling crookedly. He kissed her hair. "But you're still my favorite person on the planet."
"Does he know?" Sharpay whispered conspiratorially.
"Yeah; he allows it only because he knows you have a higher claim," Ryan said hugging her fiercely. Sharpay hugged him back with equal fervor, but she abruptly pulled away.
"Go take care of him," she said. "He needs you." Ryan looked into her eyes and found himself torn between following her advice and remaining with her. But she brooked no argument. "We'll catch up at lunch."
"Okay," he finally said. "Oh! No! I've got something I have to do today. I'll see you at home." Sharpay nodded and walked off as Ryan turned back toward the parking lot. Chad was no longer there. Ryan scanned the area and saw Chad near the entrance to the building, surrounded by a group of cheerleaders. He rolled his eyes and, leaning against the wall, he pulled out his phone.
"Hey," Ryan said when he caught up with Chad in homeroom. "I see the cheerleaders were out in full force this morning soliciting tours of the Honda's backseat." Chad smiled at his notebook.
"It's prom season. They're just angling for the best looking date."
"Zeke must have turned them all down, then," Ryan replied easily as he pulled out his phone and checked for messages.
"Hah, hah. How was your play?"
"It was very good. Then again, Blythe Danner is such a great actress that she elevates everything she does--and you were just asking to be polite," Ryan surmised, slipping into his seat. Chad smiled and resumed reading his notes. "So what did you do last night?"
"Homework," was the reply. "Oh, and Troy came over for a while, too."
"How did that go?" Ryan asked softly. Chad rolled his eyes.
"He and Gabriella had a fight. He came over to vent," Chad reported. It was Ryan's turn to roll his eyes. Chad didn't need to be drawn into that drama. "On a brighter note, mom baked. I come bearing cupcakes."
"If you're a good boy, I may even share one with you at lunch," he said softly. Ryan's smile faded.
"Oh--I won't be here at lunch today. I've got an appointment."
"Too bad," Chad said grinning. "More cupcakes for me!"
"Hey! That’s so not fair!"
"What's not fair, Evans?" Troy said as he took his usual seat in front of Chad.
"Remember those cupcakes mom made last night?" Chad asked. Troy's eyes lit up and he smiled at the memory.
"Those were awesome," he said. "So what's not fair?"
"Chad's being a dick," Ryan said, sending a flirtatious look his way.
"Hey, you're the one who decided to make other plans," Chad reasoned, with an intense look of his own.
"It just came up!"
"Well, that's too bad. You skip out on me, you don't get any," Chad replied. Troy's eyes opened wide and Chad kicked him under the desk. "Cupcakes, asshole."
"Ow! I knew that!"
"Yeah, of course you did," Chad grumbled, sitting back. But he winked at Ryan impishly as Gabriella took a seat at the back of the room. "Hi, Gabi."
"Hi, Chad," she said, not meeting his eyes. Troy glanced over his shoulder at her, but she didn't look up. Ryan and Chad exchanged a meaningful look.
"Danforth, have you seen my brother?" Sharpay asked when she encountered him after fourth period. Chad shook his head.
"He said something about an appointment."
"Oh, that's right; he did." She started to turn away but stopped and walked back over to him. "Come with me." She strode away again; Chad remained rooted to the spot. After a moment she turned and glared at him. "Danforth!"
"So you do know my name isn't 'Baylor,' or 'Sycophant,' or "Spineless Sophomore,' or--."
"I get it!" she snapped. "Please come with me." Chad smiled and joined her.
"So where are we going?" he asked conversationally.
"The auditorium; we need to talk."
"Okay," Chad said warily. They entered the auditorium and walked down the aisle but Sharpay didn't stop until she reached a dressing room backstage. She shut the door behind her as Chad looked around.
"I didn't know East High had a casting couch," he quipped. "Although the idea of Darbus using it to--." He shuddered dramatically. And shook his head to clear away the image he'd just created. Sharpay rolled her eyes and patted the spot next to her on the sofa. "If you don't mind, I'll take the chair." He sat down and when Sharpay began to open her lunch bag he did the same. "So what's this about, Princess?"
"Well, a while back at freshman orientation, we agreed to help each other," she replied as she unfolded a napkin and spread it over her lap. "I thought it was time we began doing that."
"All right," Chad said. "What did you have in mind?"
"Well," she said, pausing to open a little bag of carrot sticks. "I don't know exactly. But I'm sure we can think of something."
"Would you like a cupcake?"
Sharpay tossed the bag of carrots aside.
Chad smiled and handed her the cupcake meant for Ryan. Sharpay smiled.
"I love cupcakes. Thank you!"
"Next time I'll bring three," Chad said, opening his sandwich.
"This is--was Ryan's?"
"Possession's nine-tenths of the law."
"And the evidence is about to disappear," Sharpay said smugly before taking a bite. "Mm! This is fabulous!"
"My mom's an incredible baker."
"Does Zeke know that?"
"He's eaten over my house often enough," Chad replied with a shrug. "So getting back to the topic…"
"Ryan worried about you," Sharpay said as she peeled back the paper and examined the naked cupcake.
"He said that?" Chad looked up from his sandwich, frowning.
"He said you were going through a rough time."
"I haven't been sleeping well since the sleepwalking thing," Chad admitted. "And since I'm not sleeping, everything feels like it's going to hell." He set down his sandwich and fished around in his backpack for his water bottle. "I've got exams coming up and for the first time in, like, forever, I'm worried because I can't concentrate on anything. Things are still shaky with Troy and he's not happy because he and Gabriella have been fighting. And since he inexplicably holds me responsible for Gabriella telling him to go to the U of A instead of that college in California, he spares me no detail of every tense word that passes between them."
"You didn't convince her to stop him, did you?"
"No," Chad sighed. "Ryan's the one who encouraged her to speak up if she was unhappy with Troy's decision."
"Why should Ryan care what college Troy goes to?" Sharpay asked. Chad rolled his eyes.
"He doesn't; he cares about Gabriella's happiness."
"If he really cared about her he'd talk her into dumping that--," Sharpay began. Chad glared at her, but she smiled brightly. "Getting back to you…"
"Life pretty much sucks," he said, picking up the thread easily. "And my poor parents are stressed out. I know they aren't sleeping well because every time I so much as sneeze during the night one of them is at my door to check on me." Chad shook his head and took a long drink.
"How are things between you and Ryan?" Sharpay asked as she rolled up the cupcake paper and tossed it into the wastebasket. She reached for the bag of carrots and held it out to Chad.
"That's the only bright spot," he said unconvincingly as he took one.
"Are you sure?" Sharpay asked perceptively.
"Did Ryan say different?" Chad countered suspiciously. She shook her head.
"I'm just going by your answer."
"There's nothing wrong," he said. "But I'm not sure everything's right, either. I--." Sharpay looked at him and he averted his eyes to his hands. She reached out and took one, drawing him over to the sofa to sit beside her. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and they sat in silence for a while.
"I think deep down inside Ryan's afraid that with everything going on you'll just give up on him," Sharpay said softly.
"I'm not going to do that," Chad said fiercely. "I'd give up everything else first."
"And that's the other thing he's worried about," she said. Chad sighed and she gave him an affectionate squeeze.
"So what do I do?"
Ryan stowed his messenger bag in his locker and left the school through a side entrance, hoping to avoid being seen by anyone who knew him. He walked briskly down the steps and off the campus and headed for a little park a few blocks away. He spotted Mr. Danforth sitting on a bench and made his way over.
"Hey, Mr. D," Ryan said with a small wave of his hand.
"Ryan," he replied, rising to his feet. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. Have a seat."
"I have to confess that I'm still not sure why I'm here," he admitted as he sat down. "Nor am I sure that meeting with you behind Chad's back is a good idea."
"We aren’t meeting behind his back," Mr. Danforth replied defensively.
"Then he knows you texted me this morning," Ryan said doubtfully.
"No," Chad's father admitted, raising his hands to stave off Ryan's protest. "Look, I'm not at all averse to letting him know about this. But I'd rather he learned about it after the fact."
"Why? What are you up to?"
"Here; I promised you lunch," Mr. Danforth said, handing Ryan a bag. "Turkey club on seven grain, seltzer and a banana." Ryan peered inside and smiled.
"You asked Chad what I like?"
"I'm fairly observant," he replied with a shrug. He opened his own sandwich--tuna and tomato on whole grain--and began to eat.
"Okay," Ryan said cheekily, after washing down a mouthful of sandwich. "What did you want to talk about?"
"I'm worried about Chad," Mr. Danforth replied. "He told me what happened at the session yesterday and I wanted to get your take on it. Chad seems to think it went pretty badly."
"I wouldn't say that," Ryan replied thoughtfully. "He was really nervous about it, though, so maybe that's clouding his perspective."
"What's your impression?"
Ryan gave the question a bit of thought, noting that Mr. Danforth had been careful not to ask him about the session itself. He assumed that Chad had already told him everything, but he respected Mr. Danforth's discretion nonetheless. It was one of the things that Ryan liked about Chad's parents. They were always there for their son, but they respected his boundaries--at least where Ryan was concerned.
"It was something of a revelation," Ryan said. "Chad's told me about his sessions before but it was quite a different matter to experience one. It was interesting to see how Chris--the therapist--got Chad to articulate his feelings. I've never been able to get him to open up that readily," Ryan concluded, shaking his head.
"Do you think he's--? Look, I didn't ask you here so I could pry into your business or violate his confidence. Chad was very troubled this morning and I don’t know how to help him. I was hoping that between the two of us… But if he won't talk to you--."
"Oh, he talks to me. I'm just nowhere near as adept at getting him to open up. Back in the beginning, when we first became friends, Chad was clearly distressed and he wanted to talk about his problems, but it was like--he couldn't bring himself to say things. I had to work on him for hours to get a few words out. Over time, though, he relaxed and we developed a really good rapport. He still crawls into his shell sometimes, though. Chris seems to have a real knack for getting him to open up without all the heavy lifting, but I guess with her training…" Ryan tried to give Mr. Danforth a reassuring smile. "For what it's worth, I think Chad's fine. He's having a rough time of it now, but I think he's just having a temporary crisis of confidence."
"What makes you so sure?"
"That he'll be fine or that it's temporary?" Ryan asked.
"I'll settle for either one," Mr. Danforth conceded.
"Well, actually my reasons would be the same, anyway."
"And those reasons are?"
"Number one: Chad is an amazing guy. He's not only smart and intelligent; he's also incredibly resilient. Number two: he's got a pair of loving, supportive parents who ground him and give him the strength he needs to take on whatever comes his way. And third, he's got me," Ryan said, smiling. "And I'm not about to let him fall."
"I'm having nightmares," Chad confided, handing Sharpay the other half of his sandwich. "Here--you need to eat more than rabbit food and sweets."
"I have a sandwich, Chad," she replied, but she accepted the offering anyway. "Tell me about the nightmares."
"Well, last night I dreamed about my therapy session. Ryan was there with me and I was trying to tell him something, but I panicked and ran out of the room." Chad shook his head. "I ran and ran and I could hear Ryan behind me calling my name but I kept running until I hit a dead end. Then I turned back and found myself in this long dark hall. I could still hear Ryan calling my name but I couldn't see him, so I started opening doors along the corridor looking for him. But I couldn't find him."
"In my nightmare, I fly to New York to visit him and when I arrive at Juilliard he's not in his dorm room and I have to look for him on campus. When I find him, he doesn't recognize me," Sharpay said glumly, leaning on Chad's shoulder.
"That'll never happen," he said.
"I know, but it hurts every time, anyway."
"So what do we do?" Mr. Danforth asked as balled up the remains of his lunch and tossed them into a trashcan.
"I don't know what the right thing is," Ryan admitted. "Chris suggested that we just keep the lines of communication open and I think that's a good idea." He checked his watch. "I'd better head back."
"I'll drop you off," Mr. Danforth said, gesturing toward his car. They rose and started walking. "What about you, Ryan? We've all been focused on Chad since the sleepwalking incident, but this has got to be stressful to you, too."
"Yeah, a little," Ryan admitted. "I'm really glad I went with Chad yesterday. I learned a lot--not just about him but about both of us. When Chad talked about his anxiety attacks, I realized that I was having them, too. Chris spent the bulk of the session talking about coping strategies we can both use."
"Good, well, you know if there's anything my wife and I can do--."
"You two have been awesome and I really appreciate it. I couldn't ask for more," Ryan said earnestly. Mr. Danforth smiled back at him. "Oh, would you stop here? I'd rather not have to explain arriving at school in Chad's father's car."
Mr. Danforth stopped at the corner and Ryan got out. He said goodbye and made his way back into the building.
"Your mom's a good cook."
"I made that sandwich," Chad said defensively.
"But she made the meatloaf, right?" Sharpay challenged. Chad conceded the point with an elegant shrug. "So what really happened at your session yesterday? You didn't really run out, did you?"
"No; when Chris realized I was having anxiety attacks she started grilling me about it. Then Ryan chimed in and said he was feeling some of the same things I was feeling. We spent the whole session talking about anxiety and ways of dealing."
"So that helped, yes?"
"Yeah, but I'm still worried," Chad confided. "Chris said we had unresolved issues and I can't figure out how to resolve them." He turned to look at her. "Ryan's your brother. No matter what happens, you can't ever lose him. But--."
"You aren't going to lose him, either, Chad," Sharpay insisted. "Have faith in what you two have built over the last six months. You and Ryan couldn't be more perfectly suited to one another and I honestly expect you to be together for the duration. In fact, I'll probably deny this if you ever repeat it, but I'd give my eyeteeth to have a boyfriend like you."
"Please," Chad said impishly. "There can be only one. And luckily for me, Ryan got him." She gave him a shove and he fell off the sofa. He checked his watch as he got to his feet. "We'd better get out of here," he said as he reached out to help Sharpay up. They gathered their things and left the auditorium. "Thanks for this. I think I do feel better."
"I feel full," Sharpay said with a wink. She wiggled her fingers at him and went off to her next class. Chad went to his locker and stowed his lunch bag. When he shut it he saw Ryan leaning against the opposite wall.
"First the cheerleaders and now my sister?"
"We had lunch. She ate your cupcake," Chad said as he hoisted his backpack and started moving toward his next class. Ryan smiled.
"Should I be worried?"
"Nah," Chad replied. "We were going to talk about starting a Ryan Evans fan club at the U of A, but we decided that we'd keep our slavish devotion to ourselves. We bonded over meatloaf sandwiches and chocolate cupcakes instead." Ryan smiled again and stopped outside the door to his class. "Coming over after school?"
"I'll meet you at the car," Ryan replied. "I wonder if I can get Taylor to whip up a batch of cheerleader repellent during chem." He slipped into the classroom, leaving a laughing Chad to walk on to his next class alone.
"You're supposed to be napping," Ryan said between kisses.
"You're not supposed to complain when I'm kissing you," Chad protested, rolling on top of him.
"I'm not complaining about the kisses," Ryan replied, or tried to; the last word was swallowed in a gasp as Chad nibbled his throat. "Seriously, Chad, you need a nap."
"You know, you sound amazingly like my mother--when I was four."
"Well, if you'd stop behaving like a four year old--."
"You know four year olds who do this?"
"Chad!" Ryan carefully drew Chad's hand out of his waistband. "What's gotten into you today?"
"I'm not sleepy."
"Can I put my hand back now?"
Ryan smiled, but before Chad could move, he sat up.
"I had lunch with your father today."
"He texted me this morning and asked if we could talk." He looked down at Chad, who was staring incredulously. "He was worried about what you told him this morning and wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him he was already doing a good job."
Chad smiled and pulled Ryan back into his arms. He kissed his temple.
"Thanks." He shifted slightly and got more comfortable, settling Ryan into a better position. "Maybe I will take a short nap." Ryan lifted his head and looked into his eyes. Chad kissed him again, and then they slept.
Shortly after five o'clock the following morning Earl Danforth felt a prickling in his senses. He turned over and nearly had a heart attack when he saw Chad, clad only in a pair of boxers, standing next to the bed. He was staring out the window at the early morning sky. Mr. Danforth glanced at his wife, who was still fast asleep, and then slowly and carefully slipped out of bed. He moved soundlessly, afraid of waking his wife or startling Chad. He tried to stay in the moment even as his mind was racing ahead, trying to decide whether he should call Chad's doctor or his therapist or both. He wondered if he could get Chad back to bed or if it would be better to let him stay in the room in one of the armchairs. And most importantly, he wondered how big a setback this incident would be in the larger scheme of things.
When he was on his feet Mr. Danforth gently reached out and cupped Chad's chin, turning his face so he could look into his eyes. Chad went willingly and Mr. Danforth, his heart full of love and concern for his son, drew him into his arms.
"Hey, dad," Chad whispered softly as he melted into the hug. "It looks like it's going to be a beautiful morning. I was hoping you'd come running with me today." The relief in his father was almost palpable. He drew back to look into his son's eyes again.
"I'd like that," he managed. Chad smiled and patted him on the arm.
"Be ready in ten," he said before slipping out of the room. Mr. Danforth stood there, a hand on his mouth for a full minute as a tidal wave of emotions washed over him. Then he went into the dressing room and found a set of sweats. Eight minutes later he found Chad in the foyer stretching.
"You don't expect me to do that, do you?" he said as he sat on a step and put on his sneakers.
"I thought I'd go easy on you this time," Chad replied. "We'll just walk today." He opened the door and held it for his father. They stepped outside and took in deep lungs full of the brisk Albuquerque morning. Chad bent and picked up the two bottles of water he'd filled and handed one to his father. "Let's go."
On to The Great Escape