It was just after eight in the morning on a sticky August morning when Nathan Scott returned to Tree Hill. A short walk back to his dorm, a longer wait for a cab, the taxi to the airport, a short jaunt back to Charlotte, another short wait for a cab and a ride home had brought him back to where everything somehow still made sense. It had taken him nearly a year and many modes of transportation to make it to where he stood. Staring up at the house where he had spent countless hours, he finally felt that familiar sense of coming home. A few hours ago, he was sleeping on a too-narrow bed in a dingy dorm back in Florida, surrounded by people who understood his passion for the game but could never understand him as a person. Now, he was standing in the one place where someone might be able to help him figure all of this out.
It had been a long summer at the basketball camp, one full of relentless drills and endless practices and mind-numbing strategy meetings. He had honed his skills and managed to rehabilitate his knee stronger than he had actually been before his injury. For a few short weeks, he had managed to block out anything but basketball, refusing to think about his father or his wife. Haley had faithfully sent him a letter every week, all of which were still unopened in the bottom of his duffel bag. Buried beneath sweaty gym shorts and his favorite basketball were the words his wife thought might save their marriage. However, in Nathan's mind, their marriage ended the day she left Tree Hill on that tour bus with another man and reached the point of no return when he came back home without her shortly thereafter.
And now, he was standing in front of a two-story house he had frequented almost as much as his own at this time last year. He tried to work up the courage to knock on the front door of her house but decided against it. She had never kept her front door locked. He quietly let himself into the house and headed up the staircase toward her bedroom. He noticed her halfway up the staircase, hunched on the top step. Silky blonde hair covered the slender girl's face. Her shoulders shook, making it evident that she was sobbing silently Although they had parted ways many months ago, there was something unnatural about letting a woman cry. No one else knew that he was home, but he had needed her to know.
"Peyt," Nathan said softly as he kneeled beside her. He tenderly pushed the hair back from her face as she turned and gaped up at him with a look of dismay in her clear green eyes. Wiping away the tears with the back of her hand, her face slowly lip up with her signature sly smile.
"Nate!" she squealed excitedly, throwing her arms around him. The eagerness of her embrace nearly knocked him off his feet. "What are you doing here? No one told me you were coming home."
Nathan smiled at her genuinely as he settled onto the step next to her. "No one else knows," he admitted. "They offered to let me spend the rest of August down there or to come home with about twenty minutes of advanced warning. I took advantage of both and took the first flight I could get home."
Peyton could hardly imagine why Nathan would want to come back to Tree Hill early after everything that had gone down at the end of the last school year. The late days of spring had been especially cruel to both of them. They had shared in their losses of the people that they loved. As hard as it had been when Jake left, she knew it had been harder for Nathan to see Haley leave him to pursue her dream. In the short time they had been married, his wife had almost become his only dream. Once Haley left, Nathan had been determined to push her out of his mind and focus on first true love, his first dream – basketball.
"Your mom is going to be thrilled," she said softly. "I'm sure you want to go over there and see her. You probably want to see everyone, especially Luke and Brooke. I heard Haley was home, but I haven't especially gone out of my way to see her."
"Haley's home?" he asked in shock. If he had read any of his letters, he probably would have known that by now. Shaking his head, he once again convinced himself that he didn't care. The past was the past. Haley had signed the annulment papers when Lucas had gone to visit her, and their marriage was officially over in the eyes of the law. It wasn't his fault if Haley hadn't accepted that yet. "I guess I've been gone a long time."
"It's okay, Nate, you can go see them," she assured him, despite the fact she felt safe for the first time in months when he slung his arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him. "Maybe you should go see her. I'm sure she would be thrilled to see you."
He smiled down at the blonde next to him. "I'm not ready to go home, to have everyone know that I'm here. That's not why I came home," he confessed. He had always been able to tell Peyton things that no one else could ever understand. "It's weird, part of me is thrilled to be back in Tree Hill. Another part of me knows that everyone is going to expect me to be the same person I was before I left for High Flyers. I'm not."
"I understand," Peyton replied, and Nathan knew that somehow she did.
"Can I stay here?" he asked, immediately realizing that he could be putting her in an awkward position given her relationships with the other people in their lives. But when she didn't make a sarcastic remark as usual, he knew that maybe he wasn't the only one who had changed.
She reached down and patted his hand affectionately. "Of course, Nate," she answered. "My dad is still out to sea. He'll be gone for a few weeks, so I could really use the company. It's been a long and lonely summer. I don't really feel like being alone anymore."
"You're never alone, Peyt," he promised as he helped her to her feet and pulled her toward her bedroom. "You have me. No matter what, I'm here."
Peyton offered him a wide smile as she tucked his bags into her closet. "I need to run a quick errand. What do you say to your first little foray into Tree Hill? You can put on sunglasses and a hat, do the whole incognito thing."
He laughed at her as she handed the keys over to her prized black convertible. She hadn't let him drive it since that night he had the hit-and-run accident back when they were still together. That had truly been the beginning of the end, and he wanted to go back in time and shake that kid for not knowing what he was giving up. "I'm sure you've missed driving. I know that my car isn't your badass truck or anything, but I'll let you drive it anyhow."
"Thanks, Peyt," he grinned impishly as he twirled the key ring over his index finger and followed her down the staircase.
"Sure," she said as they came into the warm morning sun. Peyton reached for the silver door handle, not expecting Nathan to open the door for her because he never had before. And the old Nathan wouldn't have brushed her hand away and insisted upon being a gentlemen and helping her into the passenger seat. With a surprised smile, she slipped into the car and waited for the tall brunette to join her behind the wheel.
A few minutes later, they were on their way to the magazine office so that Peyton could drop off her latest set of sketches. Nathan still remembered when her first strip was published and the embarrassment he felt when she revealed a small intimate detail about their life together. He had been angry at the time. He had thought it had been at her but now he realized he was mad at himself for treating her that way. Nathan couldn't help but smile at himself. He really had changed this summer.
It was a short drive across the small town, and Nathan had missed every street corner and storefront. As it passed by in a blur in front of him, he tried to take it all in. About two blocks from the office, he paused a stop sign and snuck a glance at his companion. The simple white tank top hugged her every curve perfectly, glowing radiantly against her suntanned, flawless skin. She was staring straight ahead, frosted lips purse and blonde curls wild around her hooded eyes. She was beautiful.
Nathan smiled secretly to himself again, trying to push those familiar urges out of his mind. Thoughts like that could not lead him anywhere good, especially when it came to someone he actually cared about. He had long ago accepted that although their relationship had not worked out, she was still a beautiful girl and a great friend. She had managed to forgive the arrogant player he had been and openly welcomed the determined man he had become. She was really the only one who had been able to fully do that.
After dropping off her sketches at the Thud office, Nathan made the short return trip back to her house. "Nate, I'm really glad you're home," she announced softly as he pulled in front of her house. As he turned of the motor, neither of them made a move to get out of the car. "It's been so hard lately. When Jake and I broke up, I didn't know what to do with myself. And then when you left and Brooke went to California, I didn't have anyone. I fell apart. Now I don't feel like I have anyone."
"What about Brooke? She's your best friend."
"She's busy with Lucas," Peyton answered. "And the two of them are always with Haley now, and I can't be around her after what she did…" Her voice trailed off as she realized that her response had the potential to hurt Nathan. The last thing she wanted was anyone to feel as sad as she did. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, I am the one who ended our marriage," he reminded her. "She was friends with Luke before the two of us could stand each other. I knew that their friendship wouldn't end just because our marriage did. I expected her to move on."
Peyton immediately called his bluff. "No you didn't. You never expect anyone to move on when you break up with them," she told him knowingly. "Like with you, last year, I thought that breaking up with you would make you realize how much you actually did love me, how much you wanted to be the guy that I needed even if you wouldn't admit it. Instead, you went and fell for Haley. It wasn't what I expected, but I guess it's what had to happen."
Nathan leaned forward and tugged playfully on one of her blonde curls. "I saw it, Peyt, I just thought that it was too late," he revealed before averting his gaze back at the house. He ordinarily would have expected anger or hatred in her voice when talking about their past and making such a comment, but Peyton had seemed resigned and calm. It was as if the whole experience of losing Nathan and then Jake had left her numb, and she was looking for anything that would make her feel again. He understood that emotion, losing the only two girls he had loved in the span of a year had done that to him as well. "I did fall in love with Haley last year, probably more than I realized if I'm really honest with myself. It's just that it got to the point where enough was enough. I couldn't see her in my life anymore, not with everything that was going on. Our relationship didn't fit the people we had become by last May."
"Come on, let's not tell our sad stories," Peyton implored. "Let's just go upstairs, and you can tell me all about High Flyers. I'm sure you have some stories that need to be told." She jumped out of the car, waiting for him to follow her inside. He couldn't believe that they were back here, with Peyton escorting him willingly back into her life.
Peyton had redone her bedroom over the summer, something he hadn't noticed earlier. The walls were mostly bare except for a few new sketches. He recognized himself in one of them. It was her drawn snapshot of the day they had cleaned out his apartment. That had been a good day. Her trusty record collection still took up much of the room. Peyton dropped her keys on the desk and collapsed on her bed. Smiling expectantly at Nathan, she motioned for him to sit with her.
"Thanks again for letting me stay, Peyton."
"You're welcome," she murmured as she laid back. Nathan fell back next to her, resuming their usual positions as they had for all those months they had shared a bed. His hands folded behind his head as he stared at the ceiling, her turned slightly toward him propped up on her elbow. "So, tell me about the basketball thing, Nate. What was it like to be amidst the nation's greatest talents? I want to hear everything."
And for the next hour, she did. Nathan told her about the players he had met, how they had actually heard of him even before he showed up. He had gotten on with many of the coaches and had even managed to make a few key connections with college scouts. He told her about working on his knee and the exhilaration he felt when he had ran his first mile in months without any pain. The last thing he had done before he had come back was see if he could lift weights at the same level he had been last year. When he had let the machine fall back to rest, he had smiled triumphantly as he etched a pair of letters into the cold metal. He would never forget the satisfaction that poured through him as he left everything that had happened last year behind.
"Wow," Peyton gasped in amazement when he finished. Her feet were now bare, her battered sneakers long kicked off next to the bed. They rested easily beneath Nathan's legs for warmth, something she had always done when they were together. She had retrieved a knitted afghan from the foot of the bed and pulled it around them. They hadn't been that close in a very long time, and neither was really sure how that made them feel. "I really admire that you went after this, Nate. To have the courage to let go and leave everything behind for a dream, I know it took a lot. I've never done anything like that in my entire life."
"You will, Peyton," he promised her. "Like Luke said, you're destined for greatness. You'll find your own way to make your dreams come true. Whether that means starting your own label or pursuing your art, you can do anything. That's one thing I've never doubted. You have the strength to survive anything."
She grinned as she thought about the way that Nathan saw her. "You have no idea how much that means, especially coming from you," she retorted. "It's funny how your dreams change, you know? I used to think that I knew what would make me happy, but now, I kind of like not knowing. It means that I might just get to find myself when I go to college. I want to find the unexpected."
"You can do that, too," he said with a yawn.
"Are you tired."
Nathan nodded as he turned over to face her. "I've been up all night. It was a bumpy flight, and I barely slept on the plane. I was just anxious and nervous, I guess."
"I can leave and let you sleep," she offered. "I'm sure you could use a quick nap."
"That sounds like a good idea, but I don't want to kick you out. I just don't think I'll get much sleep if you're here next to me. I know how much you like to talk, Sawyer."
She rolled her eyes and jabbed him gently in the ribs. "It'll give me a chance to run to the market and pick up a few things. Any requests?"
"You know what I've really missed? The turkey club sandwich from Karen's."
"I'll pick up a couple on my way back from the store. I think I remember some of the other things you like. I should be back by the time you wake up.
"Sounds good," he muttered sleepily as Peyton grabbed her keys and headed for the door. Just before she disappeared out of sight, he turned back and looked at her. "Thanks again, Peyt."
She nodded silently and smiled before disappearing down the stairs. Alone in her bedroom, he finally kicked off his own scuffed tennis shoes and looked around the room. The walls had been painted a sunny yellow, much different from the angry black and bold red hues that had come before it. A row of framed photographs lined the window sill. Nathan leaned over and inspected the colored snapshots of their past. Their little group of friends was all in those pictures, different combinations captured in each chrome frame.
There was Brooke and Peyton at Tric, smiling at the camera before one of the shows last year. Another snapshot portrayed Mouth, Skills, Lucas and Nathan taking a break to pose for a photo during a basketball game at the Rivercourt. The next was of Lucas, Peyton, Haley and Nathan after a game. Peyton was standing between Luke and Nate, with Haley flanking Nathan's other side. He had never realized before but he was standing closer to his ex-girlfriend in that picture than his wife. And Peyton was standing closer to him.
Sighing, he sank back into the bed and pulled the plush down comforter around his tired body and settled against the thick mattress. He didn't remember a time in the last year when he had felt that good, that relaxed. Sleep quickly overtook him, and the last thing he could remember thinking was that her sheets smelled like vanilla and lavender.
When he woke up again, the sun had dropped lower in the sky, and the air was filled with the distinct aroma of rosemary chicken. Yawning and stretching, Nathan slowly crept out of Peyton's room and headed down to the kitchen. She was bent over the stove, stirring a pot with one hand and singing along with the acoustic rock song coming from the radio on the counter. She didn't know he was there yet as she dropped the spoon on the counter and spun around in an intricate dance move. Her body moved easily to the beat as she ran her hands over her hips until she faced him fully. Nathan broke out in laughter as she realized she had been caught.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he insisted through his laughter.
She turned a deep shade of scarlet for a second before erupting into her own fit of giggles. "It's okay, I'm sure it was funny," she managed.
Once they were finally calmed down again, Nathan looked around the kitchen to admire her work. She had set the table with a white sheet for a table cloth and two tall white taper candles. Two goblets filled with a purple bubbly liquid sat on either side with platters of sautéed potatoes, rosemary chicken, steamed vegetables and wheat rolls. Peyton turned off the burner and poured the contents of the pan over her final dish. Drizzling the chocolate glaze expertly over her cheesecake, she seemed satisfied with what she had done.
"Peyt, this smells amazing," Nathan mused as he took in everything she had done for him.
"I'm glad you like it," she said softly. "I know you wanted that sandwich, and there is a couple in the fridge. I just wanted to make your first night home special. Besides, I love cooking, and I don't really get the chance to do it that often."
"You do? I didn't know that."
"There's a lot you didn't know about me," she reminded him seriously. "Please sit down before it gets cold." She tried to usher him over to the table, but he insisted on pulling out her chair for her. She smiled politely at him as he sat down across from her. Leaning over the food, Nathan gazed at Peyton and struggled to find the right words, but before he could, she found them for him. "I know, Nate, you don't have to say it. This is just as much for me as it is for you."