"Look, Haley, Coach always says, when we get down we gotta pull together – not apart. I think we can manage anything, if we just…" Nathan held out his hand and she twined her fingers with hers.
"Pull together," she finished. This is all happening so fast, Haley thought again, as she felt a shiver of…something.
Nathan glanced at the windows, light spilling into the night. The shadows of Deb and Jamie moving in the house. "Ready?"
"Lead on," Haley instructed, and they headed towards the door.
Nathan closed the door behind him and looked around the conference room. His new manager, Clay, sat alone at a long table.
"Nice digs," Nathan indicated the sweeping views out the massive window. He could see all the way to the deep blue waters of Lake Washington. Made him wonder exactly how much his cut to Clay came to.
"I'm guessing you've heard the news?"
"Bennet finally got his way and the team's moving? That news?"
"Yes. Word started leaking out about an hour ago, but we didn't get the confirmation call 'till just now. The game against the Clippers won't just be the last game of the season – it will be the last in Seattle."
"Oklahoma," Nathan's mind filled with images of dirt and strip malls. "So, what happens next?"
"We have a meet Monday to discuss your position - which is really strong. Your stats are some of the league best for a sophomore. Seriously, Nate - if you weren't still tied up in your rookie contract? You would be writing your own ticket."
"I know my stats, man. What I need to know is if I'm moving to a state I couldn't find on a map, OK?"
"Fair enough. My best guess? 50-50. Reps for both Pietro and Waring are quietly looking for new deals. Team loses them and they might be looking to trade you for some strong talent at Center. I know the Wolves would love to get you. The Suns, too."
"What about the Bobcats?" He looked back out of the window. Watched fog rolling in.
"Seriously?" Clay realized he should have seen it coming, but hadn't.
"Yeah, that's about what I figured."
Clay clapped his shoulder in sympathy. "I'll put out feelers, ok?"
"Look, I'm here for you. If it's the Bobcats you want, we'll get you there. It just may take some time. I gotta ask you though, I mean – this is your long-term plan? They're not exactly a top tier team. Weren't you the one saying you wanted a championship in the next 5 years?"
"Priorities change," Nathan shrugged.
"Just like that?"
"Just like that," he confirmed.
"All right," Clay responded with a shrug. He'd fought to land the Nathan Scott account tooth and nail, thinking this was a one-in-a-million athlete; the kind both with the skills and the guts to fight to the top and stay there. Now that he actually represented him, though, Clay realized how little he really knew the man.
"Your family is in Tree Hill, right?"
Nate shook off the fugue he was falling into. "What?"
"Family - parents, girlfriend, you know? People who know your favorite foods, call on your birthday, stuff like that?"
"Uh, I live alone."
"I know," Clay rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm here for you, Nathan. The more you let me know what's going on, the more I can help make it happen. Like those movers? And the local lawyers? Talk to me; what's happening with you?"
Nathan pictured himself, for a moment. Hanging with Clay at some bar, bitching about his brother. Talking about Haley and Jamie and his fears about relationships, fatherhood… Right. "Just keep doing your job, man. And I'll do mine," he grunted, grabbing his jacket off the conference table and heading out the door.
Clay watched him go and then exhaled slowly, glancing up at the ceiling as though hoping for some divine help.
Skillz and Jamie bumped knuckles; up, down, side to side.
"That's how we do it, old school," Skillz laughed, grabbing the ball up from where it landed. "You two want another round?"
"Uh, no, thanks," the pair of third-graders backed off the asphalt, then turned and ran.
"I think we intimidated them with our amazing footwork."
"Well, I think it was that you're a grown-up, Uncle Skillz."
"Shorties gotta learn to play tall. Like you," he tossed the ball to the boy and watched with a grin as Jamie sent it flying into the hoop. "That's the man!" he cheered. "Give me another one, just like that."
"I'm getting kind of thirsty," Jamie announced, the ball under his arm. "What about a slushie?"
"What about one? I have a better idea, you get that rock back in and I'll get you a shake and fries at the café."
Jamie pondered the deal and then nodded. It took two tries before Skillz loaded him into the car seat and they got on the road.
"Uncle Skillz?" he asked. "If I ask you something, do you promise to tell me the truth?"
Uh, oh – that question never leads to anything good, Skillz thought with the faint theme from "Jaws" playing in his head. "Uh, I tell you – the truth is hard to find sometimes. But I will do my best for you, little man."
"Do you think I'm crazy?"
"What? Hell – I mean oh, heck – no! You're one of the smartest kids I know."
"Aren't I the only kid you know?'
"Still holds true."
Jamie looked out the window and watched the world go by. "Smart isn't the same as not being crazy, though."
Skillz pulled into a parking spot in front of the café. "You listen to me," he said gruffly, unbuckling the car seat. "You're not crazy. I don't care what those kids at your school say, or anyone else. OK?"
Jamie searched Skillz' face and tried to nod. "But you don't really remember me, do you? Not like I remember you," he said sadly.
"C'mere," Skillz piggy-backed Jamie out of the car and sat him on the counter in the café, standing so the two were eye-to-eye. Skillz took a deep breath. "I remember the day you were born. Perfect day, too. I'm talking blue skies, no clouds. I'm telling you, it was a really nice day to be born. Third game of the playoffs that night. The pre-game show was on the TV in the waiting room, but I couldn't even pay attention."
"You didn't watch basketball?" Jamie said dubiously.
"I tried. Couldn't concentrate. I didn't know how long it took to give birth, or if everything was all right. All of us there, wondering how long it would take. Worrying. Mouth and Brooke talking about crazy stuff like moms who take weeks in labor, and even Junk and Fergie looking at the clock. But finally a nurse came and gave us the news."
"I was born," Jamie guessed.
"Yeah. And you were just…amazing. Grabbing my finger with a crazy strong grip. Blue eyes and all. Haley said, meet James Lucas Scott. And I knew, right then and there, that it was gonna be you and me. Day you were born, I looked at your face and I knew. You and me, Jamie. Always."
"Even though everything's wrong?" the boy's voice seemed very small.
"Yeah, even tho," Skillz promised. "Look, I know this world is really screwed up for you right now. If I could fix it, I would. And no, ok, we don't remember the same things. But you hear this and never doubt it – I know you, Jamie. Whether it's in your memory, or mine, or even the parallel universe of the Power Rangers – I know you. You're my boy. Nothing can change that. Nothing could. Nothing ever will. Got it?"
Skillz gathered him close and held him tight. Felt Jamie's face on his shoulder and his own heart squeeze.
"Got it," the boy whispered, so softly he almost didn't hear it. As customers came and went, and Deb watched quietly from the kitchen, Skillz rocked Jamie in his arms and never let go.
Lucas dropped his keys on the table by the front door and looked around. A little more than three weeks later and he still couldn't get used to the place. It's only temporary, he reminded himself – not for the first time.
He jumped when the doorbell rang right behind him. A few seconds later, Brooke was launching herself into his arms with a big grin. "Surprise! I thought we could whip up some take-out for dinner!"
"Sounds delicious," he kissed her quickly.
Brooke could feel something was wrong as they moved into the living room. "What's up, Cheery?"
"There was a note from Jamie's school."
He rubbed his hair, as though trying to erase his frustration. "The school was asked to submit a report for next week's appointment with the Judge. They wanted us… They wanted us to know that both the school counselor and Jamie's teacher feel that his current program is no longer meeting his needs."
"Meeting his needs?" Brooke frowned. "OK, what am I missing? It's nursery school – right? Play-dough and ABC's and snack time?"
"There's been some tussles, you know that. Kids can have a hard time with understanding."
"So can grown-ups," she reminded him, gently. "How long until the end of the school year?"
"Uh, just about 6 weeks. Damnit, that school was the one consistent thing left for Jamie. Look around. His parents, his home, his life, even his haircut – everything has changed."
Hurting for both Luke and Jamie, Brooke leaned her head on his shoulder.
He felt the warmth of her through his skin, but it didn't stop the anxiety pressing at his mind. Lucas felt like he was on the edge of the abyss, unable to stop his fall. I should have known, he thought. That moment in the hospital when he called me Uncle. I should have known right then that everything had changed. That our lives were never going to be the same.
"Brooke," he asked softly. "Do you think I should give up? Do you think he's ever coming back to me? This idea I have, that Jamie is going to wake up one of these mornings and remember who he really is – I'm beginning to wonder if I'm Don Quixote, feeling so certain when it's all just a fantasy."
"Oh, baby. It's not fantasy, it's faith."
Lucas met her eyes.
"Look, I don't know if he's ever going to call you 'Dad' again," she admitted. "And maybe he doesn't remember that you're the guy who taught him how to tie his shoes or make a free throw. But you'll find a way to make new memories, you know? And you'll still be the guy who loves him like a dad, and cares for him like a dad, and teaches him like a dad. No matter what you call each other."
"Yeah, I know. It's just…" he confessed, feeling broken and hopeless and furious all at once. "I want my son back. I need my son back. I miss him, Brooke. I miss him so much."
"I know, honey," she squeezed his hand in sympathy. "I know."
Jamie and Lily had been arguing over what game to play on the new Wii when Karen marched over and stood in front of the television with her hands on her hips.
"OK, Mom, I get it. We'll play Mario Brothers," Lily gave a long, dramatic sigh of long suffering.
"Then it will be her turn, Aunt Karen. Even though I hate Tinkerbell AND it's my birthday," Jamie complained, standing proud in his number 23 jersey and the red cape Haley had made for him.
"WILL be your birthday, you mean," Lily argued.
"Children…" her mother warned.
"OK," they both said, trying to look like angels.
Karen laughed and headed back over to the kitchen. "The Wii is a big hit," she told Skillz.
"It really is," Haley agreed. "How'd you know?"
"Uh, because it's all he's talked about for the last couple of weeks?" Skillz shook his head. "You wouldn't believe how many stores I had to go to find it." From the corner of his eye, he saw Deb escorting the creepy clown to the door. The dude's wig looked backwards, and there was something funny with his pants.
Lucas followed Skillz' glance and inwardly groaned. Having crazy Deb back in his life was not exactly a bonus situation. Which reminded him, "Any ideas how 'Granny Deb' is getting home?"
"Um, how did she get here?" Karen wondered.
"The clown," Lucas and Haley answered simultaneously.
"The one who just drove off, alone," Luke added.
"Well, what kind of ride you got today?" Skillz asked Mouth.
"The kind with two wheels and a banana seat," Mouth replied with a snicker. "And I'm pretty sure she wouldn't fit on the handlebars."
"All right, all right," Skillz pretended to put up a fight. He raised his voice and added; "But she's waiting 'til I take my turn on the Wii because I'm totally getting LeBron on my dream team!"
"Already called him!" Jamie shouted from the other room. "And my dad, too!"
"Nathan is in NBA Live?" Luke asked, feeling a little ambushed.
"Why wouldn't he be?" Mouth replied. "He was a Rookie All-Star last year; finished only a half-second off the winner at the Skills Challenge. And he's kept up the stats this season, too."
"I guess it just hadn't occurred to me that my brother would be in a video game," Lucas confessed.
"Just like it probably didn't occur to Nathan that his brother would have made the best-seller list," Karen pointed out.
"But the video game thing IS way cooler," Mouth said, decidedly.
"Those book signings coulda definitely used some cheerleaders," Skillz agreed. He ducked with a laugh as Luke tossed a sponge from the sink at his head. And laughed even harder when it landed with a 'squish' in Mouth's hair.
"Hey," Nathan's deep voice sent sparks up and down her body.
"Hey," she stopped her trek to the kitchen for a bottle of water and turned. She hadn't imagined it; he was standing in the living room. Haley took a step in disbelief and then just took the leap. Nathan caught her easily around the waist, bending his head to kiss her deeply even as she wrapped her legs around his hips. The kiss deepened and he slid his hands down – cupping her, holding her even closer.
Haley felt the warmth of his skin under her fingers, breathed in the smell of him – his soap, the faint staleness of the airplane, and something that was just… Nathan.
"Oh, God," she said, as he rested his forehead against hers. "You're really here." Haley could feel Nathan hard against her. Her own skin felt electrified and her insides hot and melted, like she couldn't get close enough. She leaned in to kiss him again, lingering over the taste of him. Wanting more.
"Whoa," he breathed when they finally pulled apart. Nathan gently lowered her back to the ground.
"We were just watching you beat Atlanta" Haley said, amazed.
"Ducked out of media. I knew you were nervous about court tomorrow. And it was just stupid to spend the night in a hotel when I realized it was only, like, a 30- or 40-minute flight."
"So you just ordered up a plane, like it was a cab?"
"Yeah," he caught her eyes, searching them.
"I'm glad," Haley pressed her fingers against his chest, as though trying to feel his heartbeat.
They found their way over to the couch and curled up. "How's Jamie? I'm sorry I missed his party."
"He understood, really. I think he watched the part of the Laker's pre-game interview where you said you dedicated your play to a certain someone having a birthday party only about a million times."
"Would have been cooler if we'd actually won."
"True," she giggled.
Nathan couldn't stop himself; he reached down and touched his lips to hers again. Felt her open, press, and the heat of it hit him like a punch. "I've wanted to do that for the last three weeks."
He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "So tell me more about Jamie. Does he know about tomorrow?"
Haley nodded. "Dr. Butler has been working with him in the mornings but everything seems to get harder and harder and it's so frustrating. I have to keep reminding myself that it has to get dark in order to see the stars."
"Whitey," Nathan responded with a nod.
"Uh, that quote. It's like something Coach used to say."
"Oh," Haley noted his expression. "How is he? Coach Durham?"
"Same as ever. Retired and living in some cabin out by Asheville. I should probably call him and give him the news - I got the word tonight, just as I was getting on the plane. It's Phoenix. They'll announce it after our final game on Sunday."
"You're going to be a Sun? That's good, right?"
"Stoudemire, Nash, D'Antoni. Yeah, it's good."
"And Phoenix is nice, isn't it?"
"It's hot, it's a desert. It will probably feel good after 2 years of rain. Hey," he noticed their surroundings for the first time. "This place looks really good. You were barely unpacked when I was here after the Bobcats game."
"Jamie's really specific of how everything should be - even the knick-knacks. He's got a phenomenal memory."
Haley gave him a confused look.
"It's not a memory, Hales. It's Jamie's delusion. I get pretending in front of him, but it's important we don't forget what's real."
Haley locked eyes with Nathan but couldn't think of what to say.
"What?" he demanded.
"It feels real," she admitted. "OK? Like…Jamie knows things about Peyton, like she was still alive."
"Of course he does. Lucas was hung up on Peyton his whole freaking life. He wrote a book about it, for God's sake. You don't think he's been talking about her for the last 5 years?"
"But there's other stuff too. I mean, I think I met this Carrie woman that…"
Nathan interrupted her with a disbelieving groan. "Don't tell me you're losing yourself in all this, Haley. That you're starting to believe in alternate realities and voodoo?"
"It's not like that."
He didn't want to fight about it. But that didn't mean he was comfortable with situation. Every time he turned around, it seemed like Jamie was losing more of himself into a land of 'what might have been' – and taking Haley along with him.
"I don't want to fight about it," Haley echoed his thoughts. "Not now. Not when you just got here. Not when we have to go to court tomorrow and watch a judge decide Jamie's life."
"Me, neither." Nathan cupped Haley's cheek in his palm and looked into her eyes. After a long moment, she tucked herself under his arm and Nathan rested his chin in her hair. She felt so familiar there, like she'd never really been gone.
Suddenly, his mind flashed with memories – kissing Haley in the rain, coming home to an apartment full of people and the police, losing the State championship, arguing with Lucas, getting drunk with Tim, waking up at Haley's old house and sneaking out the window…the day Jamie was born, the day he was drafted by the NBA, the day they buried Keith, the last argument he'd had with Peyton before they'd broken up…
"You all right?" she asked softly.
"Just ghosts," he dismissed, kissing the top of her head.
They stood, uncomfortable, in the hallway. Not meeting each other's eyes. Lawyers softly conversing by the water bubbler. The sounds of people coming and going echoing from marble staircase.
It had been an exhausting morning. Each had testified, and listened to the others testify. Dr. Butler's report of Jamie's condition had been full of jargon and melted down to a deepening situation. Jamie's Law Guardian had called the teacher from the nursery school to the stand, who had testified about the emotional minefields Jamie had been negotiating on the playground.
Wrenched dry, they stood like zombies staring off into space. Waiting. Waiting for an outcome that everyone had come to realize would have no winner; a standoff of people unable and unwilling to back down from what each had decided was the right thing to do.
At last, the clerk opened the door and stepped back, allowing the group to walk in and find their seats. Haley wanted so much to reach out and take Nathan's hand. Lucas watched as Skillz and Brooke settled into their spots in the gallery. Nikki crossed her arms and tried not to feel so alone.
"All rise!" the clerk instructed as an older man with a somber black robe re-entered the room. "Hear ye, hear ye, Case number 0403TH166. In the Matter of James Lucas Scott and: Lucas Eugene Scott, Nicole Eleanor Greenberg, Nathan Royal Scott and Haley James."
"Sit," the judge ordered, shuffling through a folder the clerk had slipped onto his desk. Then he glanced up at everyone and huffed a breath. "A parent's Constitutional right to custody, while not absolute, must be reconsidered only in extraordinary circumstances concerning the welfare of the child. However, in this situation none of the usual criteria for extraordinary circumstances apply. The parents have provided good care for their son, and are clearly able to continue doing so."
He took a sip of water before continuing. "The heart of this case is the illness of the child and determining the best course of treatment. During the recess, I had an opportunity to speak to Jamie in chambers. Traditionally, the contents of such interviews are kept private in the interest of the minor. But in this case, Jamie is the best example of the circumstances this court faces. So with his permission and that of his Law Guardian, I'm going to share some of what he said on the record before I give my decision."
The judge lifted his glasses for a moment and rubbed his nose. Then he nodded at the court reporter. "I asked the question; 'Could you tell me a little bit about where you are living, and what it's like?' Jamie answered; 'I live in a gray house, with Momma and Uncle Lucas and supposedly my Dad but he's on a time-out. It's a lot like my old house, but not exactly.' I asked the question; 'How do you feel about living there?' Jamie answered; 'The same as I feel all the time, I guess. Like everyone is pretending to be who they say they are. Some people, like Momma and Uncle Skillz, are kinda like they were. Other people aren't. I don't like it.' I asked; 'Do you think things will get better?' Jamie answered; 'I don't know. Sometimes when I go to sleep, I think that if things aren't back the way they used to be in the morning then I don't want to wake up anymore.'" The judge paused, and looked out at the people gathered in his courtroom.
Before he could start reading again, a second clerk stepped in and slipped him a note. He scanned it and looked up. "My apologies. I have to take this, so we're going to take a brief recess here. Resume in 30 minutes."
Everyone stood as the judge left, followed by the clerks. A stunned silence fell, broken only by shaken breathing.
"This is fucked up," Skillz announced from his seat next to Brooke. "Little man couldn't have meant it."
Lucas turned to look at his old friend, ready to argue. But the words didn't come.
"Jamie's saying he wants to die?" Nikki asked.
"He's only five," Nathan said, almost to himself.
"Not for another week," Haley corrected him automatically. Then she pressed her hand to her lips and fought back the emotions threatening to erupt.
"All right. All right," Lucas pushed back from the table and stood up. His chair fell to the floor with a crash. "We've got a half hour. We have to do something. We're the ones who know him, who love him. We're the ones who have to fix this. So...what can we do?"