A/N: My muse does what it wants to. I know I have a ton going on right now and that I could've (and probably should have) just left the five chapters of this I have written around on my computer...but what fun would that be?

All you need to know for now is that Peyton said "someday", and that was the last time she saw Lucas. It's been six years. I stole Dr. Ethan Cooper and twisted his character a bit because I loved him but nothing ever came of his character, and did basically the same thing with Mia to insert a semi-familiar face into the mix. And the "medical" joke Ethan makes as one of his first lines is not a product of my own mind, but actually something one of my teachers said to another, which is honestly not as weird as it seems.

Reviews are love. :)

Near To You

{'cause near to you, I am healing, but it's taking so long}

Chapter One: but you didn't know all the ways I loved you

There is nothing in the world like September third on the campus of an east coast prep school. It's not amazing, not breathtaking, not life-altering – it just feels good. It's autumn leaves in deep, dark oranges and heavy reds blending together with pale green grass and bright blue skies, making the world that much prettier. It's leaves crunching beneath boots on sidewalks and crisp air that heightens the senses. It's limos circling smooth streets, doors swinging open to reveal perfectly groomed teens. It's girls giggling and flipping their hair, guys laughing and kicking soccer balls around. It's a lot of hugging, both hellos and goodbyes.

It's happiness, even though there's a little bit of separation anxiety and dread of the school year mixed in.

And as much as Peyton Sawyer wanted to hate it, she just couldn't.

The world around her was happy, and as odd as it felt at times, so was she. Or at least, she was very close to getting there. She was happy with the way she felt, the small smile she couldn't help but allow to play on her lips. She was happy with the way she looked, curls loose and shoulder length, wearing black pants and a flow-y shirt, feeling both feminine and professional. She finally felt the familiar rush, the thought that maybe she could take on the world; maybe she could even beat it.

"Peyton!" she heard a high-pitched voice squeal excitedly, and a blur of black hair and long arms adorned my bracelets rushed toward her, engulfing her in a hug.

She was momentarily taken back, but relaxed happily into the embrace after a moment, returning it wholeheartedly before she let the girl go. "Hey, Mia," she said softly, lifting her eyebrows. "You look great."

The younger girl shrugged blithely. "I have a good feeling about this year. Don't you?"

"I'm sure it'll be awesome for you," Peyton replied neutrally, doing her best to subtly avoid the question. Optimism wasn't her natural state of mind.

Mia wasn't stupid, and she caught that, rolling her eyes. "I'm sure too," she said with emphasis, grinning brightly. She glanced over her shoulder at a group of friends and said, "I have to go, but I'm really glad to see you again."

Peyton watched her rush off, feeling a little amused. Mia struck her as a well-balanced mixture of herself and her best friend, Brooke – it was impossible not to love her for that reason. She felt a pang in her chest as she thought of the bubbly brunette she'd always called a sister. It had been too long since they'd talked, much too long since they'd seen each other.

"Hello, Miss Sawyer."

She whirled around at the sound of the deep voice with a trace of a Southern accent and smiled warmly. "Mr. Ambrose, hi."

He lifted his eyebrows calmly. "Do I have to ask you again to call me Charlie?"

She scrunched up her nose and shook her head. It was just too weird. No matter her status, she was his junior by at least thirty years, if not more, and she just didn't feel right calling him by his first name. "No can do, sorry," she said, shooting him her sweetest, most bashful grin.

He reached out and ruffled her hair. Even though she's too old and they're in public and she put work into those curls, she couldn't get mad, because it's such a fatherly gesture.

"How was your summer?" he asked warmly.

She shrugged, smiling wanly. "Fine. A little…lonely."

His smile was full of understanding. "You've got to get yourself a fella, darlin'. There are a million who'd kill for you, I'm sure."

Peyton let out a breathy laugh, keeping the sarcasm out of her voice and trying to sound hopeful as she said, thinly, "Someday."

He grinned at her before he walked off, responding to another teacher, who'd called him over.

She sighed as she watched a group of girls squeal as they all tried to hug one another at once, ending up as a mass of tangled limbs. She'd been a loner for much of her life, fiercely independent. Every person she got close to was another risk, another potential heartache. As much as she adored the resigned-yet-giddy buzz that ran in strong currents through the slightly chilled air, charging the campus' atmosphere, she never felt as though it truly reached her. She was on the outside looking in.

The day stretched out as she made her way around campus. It was a never-ending hub of activity; she was constantly waving and stopping to exchange pleasantries. Even as the sun began its descent, cars kept pulling up and kids kept piling out.

Peyton shielded her eyes from the glare of the setting sun as she watched a sixteen-year-old girl launch herself out of a black car and into the arms of her boyfriend. Peyton felt a twinge in her chest she was determined to ignore, and she knew she was done. It was time to go back to the same room and read the same book while she listened the same music, hiding in the same way that she always had.

Her demons would still be there tomorrow. The only difference was that she'd be ready to face them.

{x}

"G'morning, darlin'," Mr. Ambrose greeted her as she strode through the hallway the next morning, her confidence refreshed as she walked in her kitten heels and deep green dress. She winked in reply before stepping into a room, totally prepared for her first class: Visual Arts 11. She'd undergone a change, she knew that – it had almost been a purposeful transformation, out of self-preservation. She was different than how she had been, both in appearance and attitude, but she chose to believe it was for the better.

She slipped the strap of her bag over her head and let it fall to the floor beside her desk. She shook her curls out of her face and took a deep breath. "Okay, people; your attention, please."

Nineteen fresh-faced teenagers turned obediently to face her, their eyes curious but not hostile. She smiled.

"Welcome to VA-11," she greeted them, glancing down at her attendance list. "I hope this class is everything you hoped for. I'm Peyton Sawyer. You can call me Peyton, or Miss Sawyer. I'll answer to virtually anything." She cracked a grin. "Virtually being the key word. You've got to give me some respect. Everyone clear on that?"

One hand inched into the air. She regarded the boy it belonged to warily, arching an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"I'm clear on it, Miss Sawyer," he said hurriedly. "I was just wondering…are you the Peyton Sawyer?"

She sucked in some air. There it was, the inevitable, unavoidable question. She had to tell the truth. Even if she lied it would become obvious to them, in some way, eventually. She chose honesty and bravely replied: "Yes. I am."

Jaws dropped and eyes widened; a whisper coursed through the room, carrying the one name she really didn't want to hear. She sighed inwardly. That damn book was going to haunt her forever. She abandoned her attendance list for the moment. These kids needed some distraction. She grabbed a pile of thick sketchbooks, with anonymous black covers hiding creamy white paper, and held them up. "Who wants to draw?"

{x}

In the staff room, during her lunch break, she flopped onto a couch on her back, propping her feet up on the arm of the soda. She folded her arms over her face and groaned.

"Uh-oh," a voice sing-songed as footsteps approached her. She lowered her arms to see Ethan Cooper moving toward her. She knew his story – he'd attended this school and was now back, teaching Biology and pre-med prep classes. Peyton gave him a scathing glare he didn't entirely deserve, but he was undeterred as he cheerfully commented, "Better check for a pulse."

She sighed impatiently as he gently grasped her wrist. After waiting for a moment, making a big show of consulting his watch, he released her hand and stated, "Nothing." He smirked. "Okay, take your clothes off: full body examination."

She laughed in spite of herself, sitting up so that he had room to join her.

"Tough morning?"

Peyton shrugged. "Sometimes I just wish I was known for something other than being a character in a book."

Ethan's smirk stayed in place. "You could be known as the hot teacher who's dating the even hotter teacher."

Rolling her eyes, she retorted, "And who would that be?"

"You wound me."

"You wish," she huffed, referring to his earlier comment.

"I do," he agreed seriously.

She let her eyes flutter closed and rubbed her forehead wearily. "Ethan, today is not the day."

"Y'know, Peyton," he mused. "One day, you're gonna have to let someone try to deal that broken heart of yours."

She rolled her eyes yet again and grumbled, "Thanks for the daily dose of philosophy."

"Peyton."

"It'd be easier if I wasn't reminded of it all the time," she murmured, allowing herself a moment of vulnerability. She sighed and plastered on a smile. "I have class."

"Let me buy you coffee after," he said quietly, and she saw the sympathy in his eyes.

"I have practice," she shot back, glad to be able to provide a legitimate excuse.

Ethan sat back, stretching his arms out. "One day, Peyton Sawyer."

She shook her head and smiled fondly. He was a really good guy at heart, but he was also incorrigible. "If you say so."

"Someday," he insisted, and her heart cracked just a little bit more at the sound of the word that had come to represent all she'd lost.

{x}

"If you read half of chapter one tonight I'll be happy!" Peyton called loudly as her last period Art History class trekked out of the classroom, already babbling about their evening plans.

Ethan appeared in her doorway as the last of her students meandered into the hallway. She perched on the edge of her desk and placed a hand over her heart, pretending to swoon. "Safety goggles," she said breathlessly. "You're playing dirty; you know how those get to me."

He rolled his eyes, slipped off the plastic glasses, and tucked them into the pocket of his lab coat. "Coffee offer still stands."

"And I still have practice."

"You're not going to get rid of me this easily, you know."

"Oh, believe me, I do," she laughed. "I've only been trying for the past two years."

"I'll see you later, gorgeous," he sighed, and gave her a quick wave before he got lost in the hallway crowds again.

She shook her head, trying not to smile, as she turned back around and gathered a couple books off of her desk, placing them in her bag. She knew she'd attracted attention when she came here. Her name was well known even if she herself wasn't. Most of the faculty was older and, while kind to her, kept their distance, watching over her and her progress from afar. (guy) had always been kind to her, adopting a fatherly role toward a girl who'd never had a lot of parental attention, and keeping an eye on her while the junior and senior boys gossiped about her in the halls. Ethan was the only faculty member close to her age. He'd been very serious and a bit shy at first, but as they grew closer, she came to realize that he'd made her his conquest. She loved him and she valued his friendship more than she ever let on, but she wished he'd get over her already.

It was obvious not only to Ethan, but to her colleagues and probably half of the student body, that she was still very much hung up on one man.

{x}

"Questions? Comments? Concerns?"

She looked at each of the faces of the girls, aged fourteen to eighteen, who sat in front of her. Most of them looked pleasant enough, but she caught some attitude on a couple faces. That would be great to deal with.

One of the younger girls raised her hands and Peyton smiled. She was always trying to recruit freshmen for the squad, but they were often intimidated. "Go ahead," she said.

"I was just wondering…" she began nervously, "are you Peyton Sawyer, like…Peyton Sawyer?"

Mia, a reluctant cheerleader just like Peyton had always been, caught the disgruntled look that passed over their coach's face and stifled her laughter. Peyton shot her a glare.

"Yeah," she said simply, as patiently as she could. "I am." She smiled hopefully again, crossing one leg over the other. "Anyone else?"

Nothing. A sea of blank, bored faces stared back at her, with the exception of Mia's smirk. Peyton sighed. "Okay. Well, tryouts begin, as I said, on Thursday. You know what you need to have prepared, you know what grades you need to keep up to stay on the squad. And everything's still open, so if you have friends who are interested, make sure to bring them along. And good luck!"

They all got up after the gymnasium floor and wandered out the doors. Peyton shot Mia a playfully annoyed look as she slipped by, still laughing to herself.

She had to admit, of all the way she'd imagined her life could potentially turn out, teaching art classes and coaching cheerleading at a high-class, exclusive prep school really never had been a plausible option. And yet, here she was.

She picked up her bag and her thick binder of cheerleading-related routines, rules, and more. She walked into her office at the back of the gym and turned on the light. It looked just like she'd left it last year. She set the binder down on the desk and frowned. She would just leave it for now.

When she turned around, Ethan was standing in the doorway, and she jumped nearly a foot off the ground. She glowered at him as she placed a hand over her wildly pounding heart. It wasn't his fault. People weren't obliged to remember that she'd once had a stalker.

"Way to scare a girl," she grouched.

"Practice is over," he replied, ignoring her annoyance. "At least let me buy you dinner."

She laughed lightly. "Okay. Fine. I'll meet you at your car in…twenty minutes? I'm supposed to close up the gym."

"Sure," he said, perfectly at ease now that she'd finally said yes to him. He let his hand hover over the small of the back as he leaned in to kiss her cheek before disappearing back out the door.

Part of her wanted to call after him. This wasn't the start of anything, and it only seemed fair to let him know that. But several things stopped her, the first of which was that she was lonely. Teenagers and fellow teachers floated in and out of her life every day at a constant rate – she very rarely had any time to herself. She was occupied, her mind and her body was busy, she didn't have much time to think. But after school hours, on days when there wasn't cheerleader practice in particular, she was all by herself. All of the older faculty and staff went home to their spouses and kids and pets. She went home to empty rooms decorated with things that only served to remind her of all the people she'd left behind.

And, she had to admit to herself that in some strange way, she wanted things to work with Ethan. He clearly liked her, and it would be so perfectly easy to let herself date, fall in love with, and marry the guy. They already both lived in the same place. They had stable jobs. He was never boring. He liked music. He was great with kids.

But she knew as well as anyone that you can't always get what you want. She could want for things to work with Ethan, but that didn't mean that thing should have worked. She'd found and lost the person things should have worked with.

So she flicked off the overhead light in her office, locked the door behind her, and prepped herself to give him yet another you know we can only be friend, right? lecture.

She stepped out to turn the lights off and lock up the gym doors, and it was then that she noticed that someone was there, at the opposite end of the expansive room, shooting hoops in the low lighting and moving in ways that struck her as oddly familiar.

Peyton frowned. There were two possibilities. Either this was a kid who earnestly wanted a little extra practice time to improve his game, in which case he'd probably leave cooperatively if Peyton promised to talk to the coach about it. Or, this was some snobby jock who thought he was just so cool for sneaking into the gym after hours behind basketball tryouts had even begun, and she'd have to argue it out. She just wasn't in the mood.

She paced toward him. Either he didn't hear the click of her heels against the hardwood floor, or he chose to ignore her. When she was about five feet away, she planted her hands on her hips and called, "Hey! You're not supposed to be in here right now."

He caught his rebound smoothly as it bounced off the background and turned to face her. There was a split second in which she thought she was going to faint. He wasn't a boy; he was a man, and one she knew very well. His eyes, his mouth, the set of his chin, the way he carried himself – all of these things were painfully familiar to her. She hadn't really expected to see him again, at least not anytime soon. And of all the places in the world, she'd never expected to see him here.

She smiled, amazement, disbelief and happiness merging together to create a shy sense of some kind of elation. He was looking back at her with the same kind of appreciative astonishment as he propped the basketball against his hip, resting his arm over it casually and confidently. He smirked, realizing that she was speechless, a cocky smirk forming on those lips that she knew so well as his eyes traced up her body before landing steadily on her face, locking with her green orbs.

"Hey, Sawyer."