Author's Note: Am so very sorry for the delay. I'm just not enjoying my writing. I've rewritten this particular chapter twice and this (though I do not like this either) is by far the best version of what I want to happen. Perhaps... I am losing my touch? oO Oh, almost forgot... this chapter is not Naley friendly. As much as I like the idea of Always & Forever... they bore me to tears.

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Chapter IV: The Lovers We Left Behind

Lucas arrived at his office later than planned. He'd meant to meet Skills - Antwon 'Skills' Taylor - here an hour ago to go over their strategy for the new basketball season but was sidetracked. The two of them were head and assistant coach of the Tree Hill Raven's basketball team respectively and Lucas had a clear vision for his team. They had not gone to the state championship since he and his friends graduated four years ago, and Lucas felt it was time to change that.

He walked through the door with so many ideas in his mind, but they all faded away as his thoughts reverted to Peyton. He could not, no matter how hard he tried, get her out of his mind. He kept remembering the sheer joy in her smile when she saw him last night… he likened it to her smiling through the pain.

Like she had so many times before…

"Please tell me you're in here coming up with a game plan for the new season," Skills was saying as his bounded into Lucas' office. "I really don't want to lose 11-straight again." The other man stared at him curiously and it was all Lucas could do not to cry. "You okay?"

No. "Yeah," Lucas lied a little too smoothly.

Skills looked from his solemn face to the blank television screen, then to the empty space on his desk and then finally back to his face. "Uh huh," he replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He sat down in the chair in front of Lucas' desk and folded his arms across his chest. "You must be thinking about Peyton." Lucas's eyes grew cloudy with emotions before he had a chance to hide them.

"Mm-hmm," Skills voice was full of knowing and a small smirk came to his face. "I knew soon as that girl came back to town, you'd be no good." Skills looked content in his knowledge, while bringing a hand to stroke his bearded chin. "She's still fine… and that LA tan works on those long legs," he rambled mostly to himself and could see Lucas coming unhinged with memories of the past and the future that will never be. "So, what is it, you saw her and all those old feelings came rushing back?"

Lucas gave a long blink, one that clearly stated he was thinking very hard and wasn't particularly paying attention. It took him a moment to answer. "Yes," he breathed out.

"I bet," Skills replied. "You and Peyton had the kind of relationship most people dream about. But it ended. You ended it." He purposely pointed that out to his friend. "And you're good with Lindsey… right?"

"Yeah," Lucas agreed. Skills looked skeptical but didn't voice it. "Lindsey's great, fantastic, wonderful."

"Then why are you so bent out of shape just because Peyton came back?"

"Because…" Lucas wanted to tell Skills about Peyton dying but figured that was something she would need to do herself. He couldn't very well tell him about the baby and the other terrible things he and Peyton said t each other last night either. The pain was still too near. The thought that what happened to Peyton was completely his fault gnawed at the pit of his stomach. "I don't know."

Something in the way Skills looked at him made Lucas think he didn't believe him. "You don't still love her… do you?" Skills asked.

Lucas didn't have a chance to answer when the door to his office opened a bit further and his best friend Haley appeared in the office. Her arms folded across her chest defensively and there was a certain glint in her narrowed gaze.

"Now there's a question that deserves an answer," she said in quiet tones.

Lucas was sure she'd heard, even before she said anything, from the way she looked at him.

"Do you still love Peyton, Lucas?" she asked again, while Skills sat silently awaiting the answer, too.

If ever there was a question that deserved an answer…

Problem was… Lucas didn't know the answer.

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Peyton watched Nathan from behind her large shades. The shoulder length hair and goatee made him look like more of a man than the boy she remembered. He had always been handsome… but now he looked… sexy.

Sexy and… sad.

Peyton knew from experience how devastating and tiring it could be to turn your life around after facing tragedy. Though her tragedy was different from Nathan's (and she couldn't possibly know what it felt like to be a prisoner in your own body), she wanted to find a way to help him. Wanted to find a way to let him know he wasn't alone.

But first… she had to get him to talk.

"You look good, Nate," she told him, her green eyes drinking him in behind the dark shades. "The long hair and goatee are seriously doing it for me. Very rockstar." She tried to keep the tone of her voice light and jovial. Hoping that maybe if she teased him a bit, he would let down his guard.

Nathan smirked, not happily or sadly, just a smirk. One to show he was paying attention but was skeptical. Peyton was sure he knew deep inside she meant it as a compliment but the sting of old wounds left him raw and numb.

"I'm serious," she said and laughed softly while taking off her shades. "If you weren't already married…" she began to say but didn't finish when she saw Nathan's jaw tighten with anger. His eyes grew dark and cold, colder than she'd ever seen on Nathan Scott, and she immediately wished she could take back whatever she'd said that offended him. "Nathan… I'm sorry."

He looked at her, long and hard, searching her eyes for the pity he always saw. When he didn't see it there and saw only the sorry for hurting his feeling (though she didn't know she had), he relaxed and felt horrible. She hadn't done anything to him to warrant his anger. Had only wanted to sit down and chat with an old friend. But there was something else. Something in her eyes that seemed familiar.

Sorrow and loss?

"Don't worry about it," he told her. "You don't… have to be sorry for me." He shifted his gaze away from her face so she could no longer see his eyes. "I've accepted the fact that I'm…" He couldn't say the word.

"What?" Peyton pressed, leaning forward to get a look at his eyes. After living in LA for four years and living with her disease, she's become good at reading people just from their eyes.

"Nothing," Nathan replied in a quiet and resigned voice.

"What?" Peyton exclaimed, clearly confused. Nathan still wouldn't look at her, but his shoulders slumped forward as if he carried the weight of the world on them. The corner of his mouth was turned down in a petulant frown. He looked so broken. So unlike Nathan Scott. "You're not nothing, Nate. You are Nathan Scott. You're not nothing," she told him as she reached for his hand.

Nathan moved his hand away before she could touch him. He turned his head to look at her and the indignation in his eyes reminded Peyton of the party-boy he used to be. "Please! The name Nathan Scott doesn't mean anything to anyone anymore. All I am is a washed up, would-be-great college basketball player."

"So you can't play basketball anymore. So what! You still have your life and you're not paralyzed anymore! That's something to be proud of, Nathan!"

"You just don't get it, do you, Peyton?" Nathan replied snidely. "You've had the great music career you dreamed of. My dream was ripped away from me! I held it in the palm of my hands and it got ripped away! I've lost everything!"

"You've lost basketball-"

"Everything," Nathan interrupted. "Basketball, the NBA, my dreams, Haley and Jamie. I have nothing."

"What?" Peyton asked, surely she didn't hear that correctly. "What do you mean you've lost Haley and Jamie?"

Silent tears slipped down the young man's cheeks. His eyes had grown cloudy again with pain and emotions that made Peyton want to reach out and hold him. "Haley left me and took Jamie with her. She's living with Lucas and his girlfriend Lindsey."

"When did this happen?" Peyton wanted to know.

"Two months after my accident," Nathan revealed while wiping away tears. He looked again to find the pity in Peyton's eyes but found only shock. "I guess having to help her invalid husband use the bathroom while raising a child wasn't Haley's idea of 'happily ever after'." He seemed so sad now. More than he had before and Peyton reached out to grab his hand and this time, he let her.

Truth was, Nathan Scott missed and needed the company of someone - other than his brother. He and Peyton had been friends once upon a time but their friendship had been reduced to periodic e-mails across time. Having her here, right now, looking at him without pity and showing concern has helped him more than the past few months of physical therapy.

"I'm so sorry, Nathan," Peyton said after they lingered silent for a while. "I know you're probably tired of hearing that, but… I am. I wish… oh, I don't know what I wish," she said and rushed into his arm, rocking them both backward and nearly knocking Nathan on his back. His hands immediately found the small of her back and he held her close to him, breathing in her scent and feeling the warmth of her skin against his.

They stayed that way for a long moment. Long moments as neither wanted to let the other go. Their quietness had given way to tears (from both) and that lead to consoling.

"I'm sorry," Nathan said when she finally pulled back and returned to her seat on the bench. "I didn't mean to ruin your homecoming with my crap life," he told her. She swatted his arm playfully at his comment. "How long are you back for?"

"I'm home to stay," she told him. "Both Brooke and I are."

"Yeah?" he seemed excited at having two of his friends home. He'd missed them terribly.

Peyton nodded. "We wanted to come see you yesterday but Deb said you were at your physical therapy. It's just by chance that I ran into at the hospital."

Nathan's brow creased with curiosity. "I wanted to ask about that but I thought maybe you were just there looking for me after my mom said you dropped by," he began. "But now you say it was just by chance so… what were you doing at the hospital?"

Peyton cursed her big mouth and shook her head. "Long story,"

That look of sorrow was back in her eyes and Nathan really wanted to know now. "I have all day."

Peyton wasn't sure if she wanted to tell him. Of course he, and all their friends, would find out eventually about her disease, but Nathan had enough to deal with. Still, there he was, staring at her intently, waiting for her to begin and willing to listen. How could she refuse?

"It's not an easy story to tell," she said and swallowed hard.

"You listened to me bitch about Haley and basketball," he said simply, as if his statement of actions gave her a free pass to unload her burden upon him. "I've never seen you look that way before. Even with everything that's ever happened in your life."

"What way?"

"Like you're dying inside," he said. "Like you have immense sorrow and pain that you can't escape."

Peyton stared at Nathan with a blank expression on her beautiful face. She had no idea that she wore her scars so visibly. But, perhaps Nathan could see them clearly because he carried similar scars. His family and dreams had been taken away just the same way the disease was taking away her life.

Suddenly, she rushed back into his arms, this time for her comfort more than his. Nathan once again wrapped his arms around her and held her close to him. They stayed that way for a longer while this time as Peyton cried on his shoulder.

He didn't push her.

She would tell him when she was ready.

"What do you wish, Peyton?" he asked, echoing her earlier sentiment. Hoping she could sense his meaning in the words. Hoping she could trust him enough to tell him.

He heard her muttering softly against his ear. "I don't know what I wish…"