Disclaimer: Don't own anything…unfortunately. Lyrics are by Sarah McLachlan.
Spoiler: Season 4.
Pairings: Lucas/Brooke/Julian, Nathan/Haley
A/N: So I've never done something like this before and I really hope I don't alienate some of my readers, because this is a risky step. Also, I'm not very good with timelines, but this takes place about three years after graduation. All the same things have happened, except that Lucas and Lindsay dated for a while, but broke up. Nathan just got drafted to play for Charlotte Bobcats and never had his injury. This takes place about four months before what season 5 would have been.
Warning: Character death.
Chapter 1: Hold Me Crying
"It's the bitter taste of losing everything
That I have held so dear…"
The cigarette ash makes a crackling sound as it falls on her bare knee, but she does not even flinch. Instead, she takes a deep inhale and methodically blows it out the window she has propped open with her elbow. The latch is broken so it swings back and forth, but she keeps her arm there, if only to let some breeze into the stuffy room.
The Los Angeles air is just as stifling at 5 in the morning as it is midday, especially since it is mid June and the ocean breeze is distanced enough to not allow much reprieve. She wipes the ash away and watches her skin flush from where it has been burned, but it doesn't evoke any feeling inside of her.
She knows it is beyond cliché, but she has never felt so numb before. She has become immune to temperature, to reactions, to normal bodily functions.
The only visible signs of life in her are her robotic movements as she brings the cigarette between her lips and sucks in her breath, as if drinking in life.
She focuses so deeply on blowing smoke out the window that she barely registers the light touch on her naked shoulder and before she knows it, he is sitting across from her on the alcove, all broad shouldered and bare-chested, and the only thing she can think of is how her now oldest girlfriend is one lucky woman.
This contemplation is fleeting, though, and is quickly replaced by guilt, sinking deep within her bones, freezing her from the inside, because as much as she is immune to everything, guilt still seeps through and she knows she can feel as carefree as she had before.
Everything is changed, the world has tilted on its axis, and nothing will ever be the same again.
"Can't sleep?" He murmurs softly, if for no other reason then to get her talking, but she shrugs, shaking her head as the cigarette hisses between her fingers.
"You shouldn't be here." She says instead, "Second hand smoke is bad for athletes."
"Then stop smoking." He counters and she can see his hand twitch at his side, itching to rip the cancer stick from her lips and throw it out.
So she takes another long, luxurious drag, because she has never been one to comply with anything.
He has the urge to roll his eyes but doesn't, because even in her act of defiance, he sees fractures.
He sees the sadness, the loneliness, the grief, but what makes him suck in a breath is the omnipotent guilt that's no doubt mirrored in himself.
"How's Luke?" She asks softly, so quietly in fact that he almost doesn't hear her, but he does and his brother's large limp body curled awkwardly into his wife's as she rocks him on the bed flashes across Nathan's mind and he takes another breath.
"Better." He mumbles.
The lie seems to require less effort, so the mumbled words fly out before his brain can even register them.
She obviously does not believe him, but she's equally tired, and knows how much of this rests on his shoulders, so instead of bothering with intricacies, she accepts his answer.
They don't say anything for a while and she notices him get agitated.
She realizes Nathan is hurting, hurting like each of them, hurting for all of them, so tempted to take over the protective role while his brother cannot do so. She also knows that Nathan hurts as much as she does, because there was a time before when it was just the three of them.
Before cheerleading, basketball, and most importantly love got in the way, they used to mean the world to each other, the three of them, and now despite how far they've drifted, now that one of their own is gone, their circle seems fractured, and when she looks into Nathan's eyes she knows that he knows it too.
They both know it's just the two of them now, and for some reason that realization hurts the most, because neither has thought about it until now.
Her cigarette has finished and she flicks the remainder out the window, closing the broken latch as best she can, trying to focus on anything but his defeated stare and the slumped shoulders that signify how broken he is, how broken they all are by the reality they've been forced to encounter.
She wraps the throw over both of them, and Nathan smiles at her gratefully, even though the edges of the blanket barely skim his thighs.
She leans back against the wall, wrapping her arms around herself, trying to stave off the chill that rises on her skin with each violating thought of the past. In hopes of shutting out those memories, she closes her eyes, which makes it even worse, because she is assaulted with images of her best friend at seventeen, her curls billowing in the soft summer breeze, as she sketches fervently in her art book, so focused and determined that she doesn't realize how beautiful she is, how full of hope and life her art is, how it transfixes those around her.
Her eyes sting as they overflow with tears and before she knows, she's shaking violently, pent up sobs wrecking her body as she's pulled into the past, hurled so treacherously into memories that she is sure will haunt her into many more nights like this.
When she opens her eyes, she gasps, because she finds herself no longer leaning against the cold wall, but safely enclosed in Nathan's arms. His warmth should make her feel better, as should his strong embrace, but she doesn't, she does not feel safe, or protected from the hurt and guilt that just wont go away.
He murmurs comfort into her ear but her heart beats so frantically in her chest, she can't hear him, only the vinyl records she detested so much in high school, and all she sees are the red painted walls she was always so amused by and most importantly she can almost feel the joy of laughter exchanged between two best friends, and when she realizes she'll never get to experience any of that again, she cries harder.
She digs her nails into Nathan's forearm and sobs against his chest, trying hard not to break down, but being unable to stop it.
It is only when her sobs give way to exhaustion and her eyes grow heavy that she manages to hear Nathan through the myriad of emotions fleeting through her.
"I'm sorry I can't make it better," he whispers in her ear and for a split second her heart swells, because for once someone is honest, for once no one is lying to her, telling her it will be okay and everything will tilt right back to normal.
Nathan cradles her limp body in his arms, and turns his head to the window just in time to see the sun peak over the horizon. His heart clenches at the sight, because he can never understand how in a world of such beauty, that has given him his amazing wife and a gorgeous son, he can ever stand in front of all his family and friends two days from now in his hometown and watch his best friend be buried.
And he is even more afraid, because the people in his life who he has seen fight everything have fallen and broken down. Because if his brother and the broken girl in his arms cannot stand tall in the face of such tragedy, Nathan is not sure how he will fair either.
A few hours after lying Brooke down on the pull out in the living room, Nathan sits at the kitchen table, stroking his wife's chilled hand as they sip tepid coffee from misshapen mugs in silence.
They both look tired, exhausted, as any parents of a three year old should be, but Jamie is back in Tree Hill with Deb, and Nathan suddenly yearns to hold his blond boy in his arms, to see his toothy smile and tickle him senseless.
Nathan wishes he was exhausted for an entirely different reason.
He looks up at Haley, and her eyes instinctively trail up to meet his, but before he can say anything to her, they both look up to see Lucas enter the small kitchen.
"Hi Luke," Haley greets him, only a hint of a smile on her face and Nathan squeezes her hand, because he understands exactly what she's going through.
Not only is she dealing with her own grief, trying to wrap her mind around the situation, but she is also holding on to Lucas for dear life, hoping he won't break.
Even though, they both know it's already too late for that.
"Hey." Lucas mumbles in reply and sits down at the round table across from the couple.
His blue eyes are cold, determined, his jaw is tense and he looks oddly normal, which makes Nathan think he is even worse than they anticipate.
His brother's tough exterior has always been transparent, but impenetrable. Not even for people he loved.
For a split second, Nathan wishes for the broken down Lucas again, the one who let Haley hold him all through the night, as he sobbed into her shirt, because that Lucas was relatable, that Lucas let people in, this Lucas, with his steely resolve, will block anything in his path, will be stubborn, and shut everybody out.
"How's Brooke?" He asks and Nathan suddenly remembers the brunette girl who fell asleep not two hours ago after having cried herself into exhaustion.
"Asleep, would you like some breakfast? I can make your favorite?" Haley suggests, but Lucas shakes his head, "I'm not hungry. When's your flight?"
"Seven tonight," Haley answers, not skipping a beat, but Nathan catches the flaw in his question,
"What do you mean, her flight? It's your flight too, Luke."
"No, it's not." The blond Scott replies and Nathan can already feel his wife tense besides him. They discussed the possibility of Lucas wanting to stay in LA for an extra day before the funeral and both vetoed the idea, but looking at Lucas now, Nathan knows it would be futile to argue.
And suddenly he is angry.
Suddenly, he's overcome with his own grief and his own emotions and inadvertent hatred for his brother, who seems to forget everyone else when he is hurting, everyone besides the curly blonde.
He forgets that Haley will be worried sick if he stays behind, that Jamie will not stop questioning about his uncle's whereabouts, that Karen will be left responsible for all the arrangements until Larry gets back from sea.
And Nathan has the biggest urge to throw something in his brother's face, if only to wipe the look of determination from it.
But he doesn't. Instead he stands up, kisses his wife, and drops his half full mug into the sink,
"That's fine Luke. Do what you want, I'm going for a run, Hales, I'll be back in a little bit okay?"
Haley nods but frowns as she sees the look pass between two brothers.
The silence grows in the kitchen as two best friends sit opposite each other with nothing left to say.
"I'd really wish you could reconsider." Haley eventually speaks out.
"I can't. I have to be the one to pack up all this stuff, to cancel the lease, to tie up all the loose ends."
"Why? Nathan will be here to help Brooke. Why do you need to?" She asks, even though she knows the answer, "So you can torture yourself some more about this?"
Haley doesn't need to look at him to know his jaw tenses, his squint deepens, and his fists flex. She's treading into uncharted territory, picking at scabs that threaten to release the wound, possibly forever.
The burn of tears is inevitable and she swallows to keep from breaking down.
She needs to be strong.
If not for herself, then for Lucas, and Brooke, and Nathan, and especially her son, who won't know what happened.
"If it were Nathan-…"
"Don't." Haley exclaims suddenly, the thought too much to bear as she stands up so quickly from her seat, the chair screeches against the linoleum, "Don't you dare say it!"
She hisses as she makes her way to the sink, dropping her coffee alongside her husband's.
Selfish thoughts enter her mind, thanking god that it wasn't Nathan, that he is still safe besides her, that her family still has some semblance of normality; and, suddenly she can't hold her tears back and they escape her eyes, pouring down her cheeks, blurring her vision as she holds onto the counter, trying to hold back, not break down in front of Lucas.
But as soon as the first tear escapes, Lucas is by her side, pulling her into his arms, holding her in a tight hug and whispering apologies, "I'm sorry Hales, I'm so sorry I even insinuated it, but I need to stay, I need to make sure everything is okay here before I, before we bury her."
Haley hears his words crack as he chokes out the last phrase, and she feels his throat constrict against her head. She wraps her arms tighter around him like she did the night before, "We will get through this Lucas. Just promise me you won't shut me out."
She waits for his reply patiently, tears leaking out of her eyes with every passing second of silence. Both know he can't promise her that, because that's going against his very character, against who he is, and as she stands in this strange kitchen, in this strange apartment, in a strange town, she's never felt more disconnected from her oldest and dearest friend.
And she realizes that she's shivering, not because the room is cold, but because Lucas is, and his hug, however strong and protective, is not warm.
Haley realizes he's already shut her out.
As soon as she opens her eyes, she feels the soreness in her eyelids and wants to fall back asleep indefinitely.
But the bright sun angled at her face reminds her that it is probably too late already to sleep a little more, and looking around at the half filled boxes on the living room reminds her of what needs to be done.
What she has to do.
Her breathing escalates with each passing second as the realization that has been haunting her since the phone call she received in New York two days before makes itself known again.
She tries to snuggle into the blanket, but the makeshift bed now feels cold and the deafening silence in the apartment does nothing to calm her nerves. She sits up quickly, rubbing her temples to stave off the headache she knows is coming.
She is about to get up when she feels a hand on her shoulder, "Good morning, pretty girl."
She turns at the soft voice, meeting blue eyes that don't seem to carry the sadness and grief she is consumed by, and instead of wondering why she squeezes the hand on her shoulder and smiles in spite of herself,
"Is it really morning?" She murmurs and he shrugs, "More like early afternoon, but don't worry about it, I think you needed the rest."
His words skirt around why they're here and all of the sudden Brooke can't bear the normality of it all. She drops his hand and moves away, mumbling something about taking a shower and getting to the boxes.
Lucas frowns, but doesn't say anything, just sits down on the bed and says,
"I'm staying with you."
Brooke stops, her hand midway into her suitcase, when she turns around and stares at him, uncertain of what to say.
"You need to go back to Tree Hill, Luke. You need to help Haley make arrangements and bring her safely back home, I'll be fine with Nathan."
Lucas sits up and rests his elbows on his knees, his frame now rigid and cold. He's trying to be strong, impenetrable, but Brooke can see right through him, all the way to the heart that she knows is breaking with every passing moment he is confronted by this reality, this world without his soul mate, or so she thinks.
"Nathan and Haley can handle it together. Larry is on his way back and my mom is there if they need anything." He stands up and stretches, still keeping his façade, but Brooke sees the cracks in it, in the way his hands slightly tremble and the way he refuses to look at their surroundings for fear that they might remind him of the past.
Before she can protest, he comes closer to her, meeting her strong gaze,
"I'm not leaving you alone to deal with this. I'm not leaving you in this godforsaken city like I left her."
His admission is so intense; Brooke actually has to step back.
This is the closest either of them has come to talking about her, about the missing piece from their love triangle, about the girl that brought them together, and tore them apart.
Suddenly, her heart is beating wildly and her mouth is dry. She tries to speak but nothing comes out, because there is nothing that could make this any easier on him, nothing that will erase what he said or make him think otherwise, so she turns around, picks up the change of clothing and walks past him into the bathroom.
In the doorway, she hesitates.
She knows he stands motionlessly in the same spot, waiting for an answer, and as much as she doesn't want to give him one, Brooke has never been able to resist the pull he has on her heart,
"Just so you know, she never thought you left her."
And although they both know she has just sugarcoated the truth, an agreement passes between the two ex-lovers.
No more alluding to the past, at least not until they've packed up her apartment, because if either one of them slips again, the ramifications threaten to undo them both.
By the time Brooke steps out of the shower, she feels slightly better but more alone than usual.
She realizes that she has no clue where Nathan and Haley have gone and that the small apartment is too quiet for Lucas to still be here.
She drops her things on the pull out and opens her phone for the first time in two days. There are messages from Victoria, Millicent, and other colleagues, but she pays no attention to them, suddenly the phone vibrates in her hand and she looks down to see a text message from Lucas.
"Gone to get more boxes, Nathan and Hales left to make arrangements for transportation."
His word choice is so mechanical, she sighs, flinging the Blackberry to the middle of the couch and sinking alongside it. She hasn't been alone in the apartment and it terrifies her.
She's surrounded by her best friend's things, by her essence, by the very definition of her personality and charm, and as her eyes glide over the book case and spot about four different copies of an Unkindness, she realizes she can't let Lucas see any of this, any of the things that will remind him of what they're losing in this, of all the guilt to be felt for never calling or keeping in touch.
For him, Brooke believes the guilt runs deeper, so she quickly stands up, grabs the nearest box and starts flinging random things into it.
It isn't until the box is so heavy she has to drop it on the floor and sees the haphazard compilation of items in it that she feels just as disoriented.
She feels like she won't make it out of this alive, like the thought of going through her best friend's things, her clothes, her records, her books will be the final straw, that after this experience she will officially forget how to feel anything but this deep, empty hole inside her, with guilt filling in the edges.
Just then, the doorbell rings and Brooke wonders if she really has gone off the deep end.
It occurs to her that it may very well be any of her friends, but for some reason it doesn't feel like it, so reluctantly, she approaches the door, and props it open to reveal a man she had only seen in pictures.
At first, she's taken aback by how extremely good looking he is, the dark brown eyes, the chestnut hair, the five o'clock shadow all paired with laid back attire would, on any other occasion, make Brooke put on her sexiest smile, twirl her hair, and time stamp him with a countdown until they end up in bed together, but that thought barely crosses her mind as she meets his brown gaze and realizes that her presence explains everything he's been wondering about.
"So it's true?" He murmurs, more to himself than her, as he sinks against the opposite hallway wall, his shoulders slump as he catches his breath and Brooke swallows hard. She had no idea it would be this hard to confirm it to someone, but she has to, especially because she knows this man's history in her friend's life.
After the disastrous proposal, Brooke made an honest effort to stay in touch with her best friend and for a long time they did, so she knew enough about the man in front of her to know how much he meant to the curly blonde, even if she hadn't spoken to her since they'd parted ways.
"Yeah," She nods as she leans against the doorway. Her vision doesn't blur from expected tears, nor does she feel her heart escalate.
She figures it must be the numbness that won't leave her; it hides behind the guise of normality.
"God…" He manages to choke out, hand running over his face, and Brooke sympathizes with him, because she can't imagine what she looked like when she found out, "Bad day to call an ex-girlfriend at work to say hi." He adds almost as an afterthought.
"Is that how you found out?"
"Yeah" He nods his head, still running his hand through his short, brown hair. He looks lost and Brooke frowns, finding this exchange almost inappropriate as it occurs in a public hallway where anyone can walk past them.
"You should come in." She suggests, because it seems like the rational thing to do, but even as she says the words, she feels guilty and awkward, because she can't imagine what this place represents to the man in front of her.
She knows enough about his involvement with Peyton to comprehend the look of complete devastation in his eyes, it reminds her of the gaze she encountered that morning when a certain blond boy bid her good morning.
"No, I can't, I'm going to go. I'm sorry for your loss Brooke." He is already halfway down the hall before she calls out to him,
He stops but doesn't turn around, and she swears that even in the distance she can see the slight tremor in his shoulders, but in a moment he turns around and his face is expressionless, not a hint of a breakdown in sight.
"The funeral's on Wednesday in Tree Hill. You're welcome to come."
"Thank you." He gives her a faint smile, but only because it is the polite thing to do, and then he's gone around the corner and Brooke is left standing in the doorway, staring down an empty hallway.
She tries to make sense of what just happened. Of this impromptu visit and the questions it left behind, questions her best friend would never answer, and her heart feels heavy again as she thinks about the many nights of gossiping over ice cream that will never happen again.
She will never know what truly happened between them and it kills her that she wasn't there for this important transition in her friend's life.
Her mind is so far away that she doesn't notice the couple walking towards her down the hallway until Haley walks close up to her, "Brooke, are you okay?"
The petite brunette stares at her with concern and Brooke blinks, burying her thoughts along with past memories, "Yeah."
"Were you expecting someone?" Nathan asks as he gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze and walks into the apartment.
Haley keeps looking at her and Brooke isn't sure what to say, should she tell the truth or should she pretend like nothing ever happened?
The brisk footsteps behind Haley cement her decision to lie.
"Hey guys." Lucas murmurs nonchalantly and slips past all three of them into the living room with a case full of folded cardboard boxes.
Lucas doesn't need to know who Julian is, more importantly, who he was to their best friend.
"No," Brooke shakes her head, "I just thought someone was at the door."