The Off-Season
By: SterlingQuill
Rating: T
Dedication: This was written for The Romantics 1000th thread over at Fan Forum. I hope you all enjoy!
Length: 24000+
Disclaimer: I don't own One Tree Hill or any of its characters. In addition, I have no affiliation with the NBA or the Los Angeles Lakers (which should really be quite obvious since I can't even toss a crumpled piece of paper into a trashcan) and I have used fictitious characters/names for the NBA portions of this story.

A/N: I'm still working on finishing the next chapter of World You Desire, but I thought I'd share this for now. I've had this finished for quite awhile (in honor of the 1000th NH thread over at Fan Forum) but I've been waiting until the thread was unveiled to share. It's not quite what I had originally wanted it to be, but I hope you will still enjoy it. Thanks for the support!

The Off-Season

The alarm trills loudly as he blindly slaps his hand in the direction of his nightstand. He silences the noise eventually and then rolls over with a groan. Clearly he hadn't consumed enough water during the previous night's festivities, and attending practice while nursing a killer hangover is hardly his idea of a good time.

A small feminine hand clutches excitedly at his forearm and he's met with a pair of hazel eyes as he turns to face the insistent woman. She stretches coyly, her body writhing beneath the thin sheet, and she gives Nathan her best pout. "Come back to bed, Nate."

Tugging his arm away in annoyance, Nathan turns to perch on the edge of his king-sized bed as he tugs a wrinkled t-shirt over his head. "I've got a game tonight," he announces. "You'll let yourself out." His tone is more commanding than questioning, and the blonde glares for a moment before nodding with a pout.

"Fine," she mutters petulantly.

Nathan finishes tying his shoes and then nods as he stands. "Thanks," he says casually as he leaves her alone in his bedroom. "It was fun."

He grabs an apple as he jogs through his gourmet kitchen on his way out to his three-car garage. He pulls his sunglasses from the glove box of his brand new Range Rover and then glances back towards the second story of his beachfront home as he pulls out through the front gate. He hopes she's gone by the time he gets back.

He hates it when they cling.

************

"This is going to be the best trip ever!"

Haley James smiles at the excited murmurs of her eager students as they wait in line to board their flight. "Okay, guys! You all have your boarding passes and IDs out, right?"

Five hands pop up into the air with boarding passes and IDs held out for examination.

Haley nods. "Good. Okay, so we've got Tara, Brandon, Tony, Jasmine, and Maria. Gang's all here!" Finally, she allows a smile to creep onto her face. "Now let's have fun! You guys have earned this!"

The small group breaks into a chorus of cheers, and Haley chuckles as she sees smiles appear on the faces of the people nearby.

They make a charming sight. A young and enthusiastic teacher who has a clear rapport with her students, accompanying a group of polite and well-spoken teens on a trip to a national leadership conference. The students are kids who have been deemed "at-risk" due to various circumstances--foster care, socioeconomic challenges, or tumultuous home lives to name a few, but Haley James knows better than anyone that these are students who will be successes in any field of their choosing. They're a part of a college-preparatory program that she advises, and she's known these students--all juniors--since their freshman year. While some of her colleagues had moaned and groaned over the very idea of chaperoning students on a cross-country trip, Haley had been thrilled by the prospect.

"Are you sure you're up to it, Haley?" Principal Hackett had asked her with concern. "That's a long trip. We wouldn't want you to over-exert yourself."

But Haley had insisted that she was beyond excited by the opportunity and her colleagues had given her the reluctant go-ahead.

Ushering the small group forward as the line moves, Haley quickly double-checks to make sure that she has all of the appropriate paperwork for the trip.

"Are we going to get to go to Disneyland, Ms. James?" asks a wide-eyed blonde.

Haley gives the girl a smile and shake her head. "Not this time, Tara. Disneyland is in Anaheim and we're going to be at UCLA. But the conference does provide tickets to a Lakers game," she announces in an attempt to soothe the disappointment over missing a trip to Disneyland.

Tara shrugs. "That's cool. I've never even been on a plane before, so this is totally awesome."

A dark-haired boy exlaims, "Yeah, it's awesome! We can see Nathan Scott play!"

"You're probably right Tony," Haley agrees, her mind wandering at the mention of his name.

Nathan Scott.

It's a name she really hasn't thought of in years. Sure, she knows that he's a player for the Los Angeles Lakers, but Haley's never been much of a basketball fan, so she doesn't keep up with the happenings of the world of professional sports. Still, she certainly remembers what Nathan Scott was like in high school. She just likes to think that people are capable of change.

"Hey, Ms. James, do you think he'll sign something for me?" asks a tall, African-American boy excitedly. "You know, since I'm a Tree Hill High student and all?"

Haley shrugs and gives him a smile. "I don't know, Brandon. We'll give it a shot."

"Man, Nathan Scott is my hero!" Brandon continues to rave.

Tony chimes in. "Dude, he's a legend!"

"And he's hot!" chirps Tara excitedly, her green eyes sparkling wickedly.

"Mmm-hmmm!" Jasmine agrees heartily as she flips her glossy black curls. "You said it!"

Ever the thoughtful one of the bunch, Maria shakes her head solemnly. "I think professional athletes are totally overpaid. I mean, what do they actually offer to society?"

Tony and Brandon both eye the petite girl with twin looks of disbelief.

Jasmine quickly assesses the situation and breaks in. "Well, overpaid or not, the man is fine!"

With that, the group breaks into a noisy flurry of discussion.

Rolling her eyes, Haley shakes her head good-naturedly. This would be an interesting trip.

*************

The cell phone is noisy as it buzzes and rattles against the shelf of his large locker space. Lifting the phone, he glances at the display and scowls at the name as it flashes persistently.

"You gonna answer that, man?" DeShawn Harris asks curiously. "That damn thing's been ringing off the hook since you got here."

Nathan shakes his head. "It's nothing," he mutters.

Shawn eyes Nathan for a moment before shrugging. "Alright, Scott. Fair enough. So we gonna do this thing tonight or what?"

Skills Taylor joins in with a grin. "That's right! You know those pansy Kings ain't gonna know what hit 'em. Sacramento? I'm surprised they even got courts there. Those fools probably practice in a field with cows."

The three buddies bump fists as they engage in their usual pre-game ritual of trash-talking their upcoming opponents.

"Hey, Nate!" David Spires, one of their assistant coaches, pokes his head into the locker room and the entire team quiets at the serious expression on his face. "You've got a phone call, man."

Nathan sobers immediately and follows David out of the locker room, attempting to ignore the concerned faces of his teammates. They arrive in David's office and Nathan immediately tries to avoid taking call.

"Look, Dave, if it's my mom, just tell her..." he starts to protest.

David stops him. "You need to take this."

Nathan stares at his coach for a moment before finally reaching out to take the receiver.

His voice takes on a steely quality as he speaks into the receiver. "This is Nathan Scott."

*************

"So this is California."

Haley glances back at her students who are standing in a cluster just outside of LAX.

"See, I told you there were palm trees," insists Maria.

"Yeah, yeah," admits Jasmine. "I thought that was just a television thing. I mean, nothing is ever the way it looks on television."

"Well, I don't care about palm trees," announces Tara. "I just want to see the Pacific Ocean!"

"Ditto!" Tony and Brandon cry out.

"Okay, okay," Haley laughs. "We'll try to get to the beach. But first we have to get to UCLA and check in. And don't forget, one of the reasons we're here is so you can all check out the college options here in LA."

The kids groan mockingly before smiling and nodding. "But do you really think we could get accepted to a school out here?" Maria questions honestly.

"I think each one of you could get accepted to a school out here," Haley answers confidently. "Listen, I've known you guys for the past three years. I've had you in class and I've worked with you on an individual level. I'm here to say...you wouldn't even be at this conference if you didn't have the stuff."

"Oh God," Tara remarks teasingly. "You got her started on 'the stuff', Maria."

"Hey!" Haley exclaims.

"Well, I'm fine with having 'the stuff'," Brandon announces as he pantomimes the perfect free-throw, "so long as it's the same 'stuff' that got Nathan Scott to the NBA."

The group stands waiting for the shuttle they'd requesting, Haley looking almost like one of the kids in her jeans and sneakers. The flight had been long and turbulent. Since most of the kids hadn't ever been on a plane before, Haley had found herself spending much of her time easing the nerves of her students at each bump and bobble during the flight. Feeling a sudden wave of fatigue, Haley takes a deep breath and sighs. She lets her eyes fall closed and then lifts her face to the sun, reveling in its warmth. She feels herself sway slightly and immediately opens her eyes.

"Ms. James," Tara asks hesitantly. "Are you okay?"

Haley looks up to see her students watching her with odd expressions.

"I'm fine!" Haley exclaims brightly. "Just a little tired after our flight."

The five heads nod in understanding, but Jasmine narrows her eyes. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes, Jas!" Haley assures her. "Now come on, you guys. I think that's our shuttle. We've got things to do!"

The small group lets out a cheer of excitement and Haley smiles as she follows them down the sidewalk.

*************

"And Nathan Scott is on fire tonight!" the announcer cries excitedly. "I don't know what's gotten into him, but the Lakers fans are LOVING it!"

The crowd is roaring wildly and Haley can't help but smile at the way the excitement has caught on with her own students. Even the vendors who have been pacing the aisles with food and souvenirs have stopped to watch the nail-biting final minutes of the game.

"Yeah!!!" Brandon cheers. "Nathan Scott is unstoppable!"

The three girls glance at each other. "And HOT!"

"Let's go, Lakers!" they all cry out. "Come on, you guys! Defense!"

Haley reclines as much as she can in the hard plastic seat as her students leap, clap, and whoop with the intensity of the game. Apparently the game is an important one. As Brandon had so patiently explained, winning this game will mean advancing to the semi-finals...whatever that means. Thought Haley's certainly not a basketball fan, she's enjoying watching her kids having so much fun. It's also not terrible to watch Nathan Scott so clearly in his element. The announcer is right: he's on fire tonight.

"Nice job, Nathan!" Haley exclaims. "You're on fire now!"

Despite her somewhat cheesy exclamation, Nathan looks up wearing what looks to be a genuine smile. "I don't know about that, but it definitely makes more sense now."

"See?" Haley says encouragingly. "I told you that you could do math."

"I guess so," Nathan replies. "Thanks to you."

He gives her a smile then. Not a genuine one, but a Nathan Scott smirk. The kind that makes her remind herself that she's a nerd and he's a jock and he'll smirk at just about anyone to get what he wants. It's the smirk that makes her remind herself that she's nothing special. While all of her siblings had blossomed in high school, Haley is discovering that she is an utter failure at socialization. Sure, she's acing her classes and she's a freshman tutoring upper-classmen...case in point: Nathan...but she hasn't made any friends. She spends most of her days by herself while watching people like Nathan and Lucas Scott rule the school with Peyton Sawyer and Brooke Davis by their sides.

Peyton Sawyer and Brooke Davis. As different as night and day, and yet, they're somehow two sides of the same coin. Girls like them make Haley feel inept at femininity. After all, she doesn't know the first thing about hair--aside from brushing it on a fairly regular basis. As far as cosmetics go, she seems unable to expand her repertoire beyond moisturizer and chapstick. And clothes? Well, Haley's fairly certain that fashion will always be something that's just out of reach. It's much safer to stick with t-shirts and sweaters. Easier on the wallet too.

Haley watches as Nathan gathers up his stuff. She feels herself flush slightly when the strap of his basketball bag lifts the hem of his shirt to reveal a pretty flawless six-pack.

Nathan glances down and then grins when he realizes what she's looking it. She may be a mousy little freshman, but she's female. And hey, she's got potential underneath the green sweater and the mop of hair. Plus, if he remains on good terms with her, there's always the possibility that she'll help to bail him out when it comes to school work. Shooting another grin in her direction, he nods at her.

"Haley."

"Yeah?" she glances up quickly, her eyes shining eagerly.

"You coming to the game tonight?"

Haley considers his question, ready to shake her head no, when she realizes that she was just bemoaning her own lack of social life. Another second passes and then she nods. "Yeah," she agrees casually. Or at least she hopes she's casual. "I'll be there."

The sound of the final buzzer jars Haley from her thoughts.

"Did you see that, Ms. James?!" Tony screeches in disbelief. "That was unbelievable. How did he make that shot?!"

Ripped from her daydream, Haley glances around to see that the Lakers fans are in an uproar.

"What happened?" she asks curiously.

"Man, the Kings just won it in the last second. A half-court shot at the buzzer. That was amazing!" Brandon yells. "And I hate the Kings!"

"Too bad about the Lakers though," Tony comments. "But they had a good season."

"Yeah," Brandon agrees. "Scott must be devastated though. It must suck to give something your all and have it blow up in your face."

Haley watches as her students absorb the excitement with wide eyes.

If only they knew.

*************

His face is dark and stormy when he finally emerges from the locker room. His shoulders are hunched, his bag hiked up, and he keeps his eyes fixed on the floor to avoid any kind of conversation. After the phone call he'd received earlier, he'd been in a foul enough mood. Their loss to the Kings has just exacerbated his already wretched attitude.

"Mr. Scott, Mr. Scott!"

Nathan turns to see a small group of teens with a plethora of Lakers memorabilia piled in their arms. With a heavy sigh, he shakes his head and continues walking. It's been hours since the game ended and he'd purposely waited to leave so he'd have a chance at avoiding the fans and the media. He should have known there would be at least a few persistent fans left.

"Mr. Scott!" they yell more loudly.

"Not today, guys," he finally mumbles. He's got way too much on his mind to deal with a bunch of overenthusiastic fans. And now he's got to book a flight so he can go back home to make the proper arrangements.

"Please, Mr. Scott!" they call back pleadingly. "We're from Tree Hill!"

Whirling around, Nathan glares. "Did you hear what I said? I said NOT TODAY! And I meant it. I've got things to do."

He regrets the outburst almost as soon as he sees their excited faces fall.

One of the boys, probably a high school player himself, shakes his head and gives Nathan a look of disgust. Something falls out of the kid's hand and Nathan sees that the boy has dropped a program which has been folded back to a photo of Nathan. Hell, the kid probably just wanted it signed.

"Okay, you guys. Why don't you head back to our meeting point. We want to make sure we don't let anyone get lost."

Nathan is surprised to hear the mature tone of an older female. He's even more surprised when he sees the attractive woman who's currently herding the teens away. Her voice is light and the smile on her face is cheerful. Fitted jeans hug what he can see is a serious ass while her brown hair falls in shiny waves around her shoulders.

But nothing compares to the surprise he feels when he sees her whip around, a menacing glare pinching her features. He finds himself taking a step back as she eyes him with . She's clearly not a Nathan Scott fan.

"You should be ashamed of yourself, Nathan Scott," she hisses. "Those are high school kids who have worked incredibly hard to earn a trip out here. They've been looking forward to meeting you all evening. If you're busy, that's one thing, but don't you dare yell at them for admiring you!"

Nathan watches the woman rant, his face screwed up in a look of confusion. Who the hell is this tiny little spitfire? And why does he feel like she's about to rap him across the knuckles with a ruler?

She continues ranting, "Kids like that are the reason that players like you earn the ridiculous and exorbitant amounts of money you do! They idolize you for some godforsaken reason! The least you could do is sign a few things and give them an encouraging pat on the back!"

He's still squinting in confusion. A vague sense of familiarity washes over him as he watches her lecture him and he interrupts when he sees her pause to take a breath. "Do I know you?" he asks finally.

Haley isn't surprised at his cluelessness, and yet she's somewhat insulted that she doesn't even register on his radar. Of course, they weren't friends, but she likes to think that she would be able to recognize most of her former classmates if she was to come face to face with them. Of course, she realizes, this is Nathan Scott. She should know better.

"And the Scott boys are on a roll! With these two on the court, the Tree Hill Ravens can't lose!" the announcer calls enthusiastically.

Perched in a far corner of the bleachers, Haley James fiddles with the edge of her cable-knit sweater. She's been at Tree Hill for several months now and this is the first time she's attended any kind of school event. Although she doesn't know anything about basketball, it's obvious enough to her that Nathan is very, very good at the game. For the first time, she understands why it was so vital to the team for him to remain eligible. So while she certainly doesn't have any athletic ability to contribute, she can't help but smile to herself as she thinks she's played some small part in the success of the Ravens. After all, without her help, Nathan probably wouldn't be playing. Just that little bit of knowledge causes a surge of pride and confidence that she hasn't felt in a very long time.

She's still seated in the bleachers after the game is over. She figures it won't hurt to tell Nathan that he played a good game. He doesn't talk about his parents, so she's not sure he gets much support at home. She plays with her hair as she waits, combing her fingers through the auburn strands. Her hair is naturally blonde, but she'd died it a dark reddish-brown in a fit of rebellion.

Her parents hadn't even noticed.

The locker room door slams open and when players start filtering out, Haley begins hopping down the bleacher seats until she reaches the gym floor. She spots Nathan and another player laughing and socking each other in that annoying way that boys do. Then she hears the other guy, she thinks his name is Tim, ask Nathan what his plans are.

"I don't know, man," Nathan replies with a stretch. "I'm feeling kind of restless. I think I may head over to Brooke's party and see what kind of entertainment I can scrounge up. Maybe that'll tire me out."

Haley waits politely for the two to finish, but not before Tim spots her and realizes that she's waiting for Nathan.

Tim nods towards Haley. "Or you could just skip going to Brooke's and get a piece of that," Tim snickers. "She looks like she'd do just about anything to get you to learn her name."

Nathan looks uncomfortable for a split-second before he smacks Tim and lets out a riotous laugh. "Yeah right, dude. I want entertainment. I don't want to have to babysit some chick in bed."

Horrified, Haley stands frozen to the spot, her face heating up with humiliation.

"What's she even doing here?" she can hear Tim whisper.

"I don't know man," Nathan answers. "I mentioned the game during tutoring...just being polite, you know? I didn't think she'd actually show."

"Well, good luck with that," Tim remarks before leaving. He passes Haley on his way out and gives her a quick smirk. "Tutor Girl," he nods.

Turning back towards Nathan, Haley can feel the tears welling up in her eyes. She blinks, hoping to prevent them from spilling over and giving her away, but she knows it's just a matter of time before she's a sobbing, sniffling mess.

Nathan starts to approach. "Hi Haley."

Narrowing her eyes, she glares at him for a moment before she chokes back a sob and jogs out of the gym.

Confused by what he sees as a girlish display, Nathan shrugs to himself. "That PMS thing is a killer." Then he jogs quickly towards the exit. "Hey, Tim! Wait up!"



Nathan is totally baffled as he takes in the sight of this enraged little...pixie. He's used to having women angry with him, but normally he can recall screwing them over...or at least screwing them.

"I'm sorry, did we...?" he trails off and gestures between them suggestively.

She's certainly hot enough enough to have been a hook-up of his. Shawn is always joking about how much Nathan likes small and tight. The fact that she's got a face to match the body is just a plus--although she's slightly less alluring when her wide eyes and full lips are narrowed and pursed with utter hatred. Still hot though.

Her eyes widen slightly at his implication and he's hit with a wave of deja vu. He's seen these eyes before. Not recently, but they're definitely cataloged somewhere in the far reaches of his brain, which is interesting since he's generally a sucker for blue eyes. These eyes are special though. He's willing to bet that they've probably been described as cat-like with their wide-open shape. And they're dark--incredibly dark--which fascinates him for some reason. She's really very pretty, but not in an overly obvious way. He's willing to bet that most men do a double take when they pass her on the street, and she probably never even notices. Yeah, she's definitely the type that warrants a second look. He studies her for several moments, frustrated by his inability to put a name with her face.

"No, we did not!" she spits. "I do have some standards. And I certainly don't want to catch whatever," she wiggles a finger at him, "you've inevitably picked up from your buffet of slutty groupies."

"I do know you," he remarks finally, expecting her to fill in the blanks.

"No," she replies coldly. "You don't."

Nathan watches in disbelief as she turns on her heel and struts right out of his life.

*************

The hotel shuttle is quiet as it whizzes through the blur of city lights against the night sky. A Lionel Richie song begins playing over the radio and Haley smiles when she hears the driver whistle softly with the melody.

"Sooo....Nathan Scott is an asshole!" Brandon announces suddenly.

"Brandon! Language!" Haley scolds. The boy has the decency to look ashamed when he gives her an apologetic shrug.

"What took you so long, Ms. James?" Tara wonders. "We were waiting for, like, ten minutes."

"I just had a few things to say to Mr. Scott."

"Like what?" Tony asks. "Oh! Did you wiggle your finger at him? Because there's something really scary about the finger wiggle."

The other students nod and murmur their agreement.

"I did not wiggle my finger at him!" Haley lies indignantly. "I just reminded him that it's his duty as an NBA player and as a former Raven to set a good example for his fans. I think Mr. Scott has forgotten his roots."

"Did he hit on you?" Tara inquires solemnly.

"Tara!" Haley says sharply.

"What?" Tara raises her hands innocently. "The guy's a player! You're really pretty, Ms. James! We all just figured..."

Haley shakes her head. "Inappropriate."

"Sorry," mumbles Tara.

The group is quiet once again and they all realize that Celine Dion is now crooning over the radio airwaves.

"What station is this?" Jasmine whispers in disbelief.

The comment lightens the mood and the group chuckles together.

"So the guy got a good old fashioned Ms. James smackdown?" Tony asks.

"I was just making a few things clear," Haley responds.

"Clear?" Brandon echoes with a smile.

The teens all exchange looks and then nod in unison. "Right."

*************

He's heading out to his car when he hears footsteps pounding just behind him.

"Nate, man! Wait up!"

Nathan turns to see Skills hurrying to catch up with him, his footfalls echoing through the parking complex.

"Good game, man," Skills comments as he offers a fist. "Tonight was a tough break."

Nathan offers his own fist and nods in agreement. "You too, man."

"So you got any plans for the off-season?" Skills questions conversationally.

Nathan shrugs. "I didn't, but apparently things change. I've gotta head home to take care of a few things."

"Home?" Skills echoes. "To...Bumfuck, Nowhere?"

"Tree Hill," Nathan grins. He nods. "And yeah, it might as well be. It's nowhere and it's got nobody. Should be a quick trip. I've just gotta tie up some loose ends. I'm leaving tomorrow night."

"Alright, dawg. Well, I guess that means you'll miss all of the end of the season festivities."

Nathan shrugs it off. "Yeah, but there's always next year. The sooner I get this taken care of, the sooner I can get back here to the stuff that really matters."

"Like hot women and good scotch?" Skills questions knowingly.

Nathan smirks. "I can't help that I lead the good life."

"And next year, we're goin all the way!" Skills chants.

"You know it, man," Nathan grins.

Skills grins. "Okay, Nate. Well, if I don't see you this summer, I'll see you in the fall. You enjoy your time off."

Nathan nods and gives his buddy a wave. As soon as he turns away, the friendly smile is wiped from his face.

Enjoy Tree Hill?

Fat chance.

*************

Nathan's flight is nearly and he finds himself thanking God that he opted to go ahead and take the late night flight out of Los Angeles. He's absolutely exhausted from the season, but the sooner he gets things taken care of in Tree Hill, the sooner he can get the hell out of there and get back to life as he knows it.

He's pretty beat, so he leans back into the comfort of his first class seat and lets his eyes fall to a close.

The bass pounds at a nearly unbearable level through his ear buds.

Standing at the counter, Nathan quickly chews the rest of his peanut butter sandwich. He's got a game in an hour and he's got to eat something before he plays. Turning off his iPod, he tugs on the ear buds and leaves them sitting on the counter. He opens the refrigerator door and leans down to survey its contents before he finally settles on a half-empty bottle of Gatorade. Tilting it back, he drains the contents of the bottle into his mouth and then crushes the plastic with his fist.

With a quick glance at the clock, Nathan hurries upstairs.

"Mom?"

His mother doesn't stir from her position in bed.

"Mom? I've got a game. I'm leaving."

A muffled groan can be heard from beneath the covers and Nathan waits as she gathers the energy to turn herself over. The pills are strewn about her nightstand and the neck of an empty bottle is poking out from beneath the bed skirt. "What?" she asks. "What do you want?"

"I'm leaving for the game," he repeats.

She remains still, her eyes closed. Finally, he sees her nod.

He pauses in the doorway for just a moment, hesitant. "Mom?"

"Hmmm?"

"You could come," he points out neutrally. "It might be good for you to..."

He jumps when she sits up suddenly as though she's been ratcheted. "Good for what?!" she hisses. "It might be good for me to get out and see people? I'm surprised you want people to see me! I know you're ashamed of me," Deb remarks cruelly.

"Mom, that's not..." Nathan tries to protest.

"Well, I've got news for you," she interrupts, a bitter smile on her face. "It's not exactly a joy to have to deal with Dan Scott's son on a daily basis. So why don't you just go to your game while I stay in bed? We'll both be better off."

With a tired nod, Nathan leaves the room and heads downstairs.

Pulling his cell phone out of his pocket, he dials a familiar number.

"Tim?" he greets. "Hey, man, what's the scene looking like for after the game? I don't think I feel like coming home tonight..."



A patch of turbulence causes the plane to hitch, and Nathan is jarred right out of his sleep.

"Damn you, Mom," he murmurs under his breath. "I always knew I'd end up having to clean up your mess in the end."

Heaving a weary sigh, Nathan tugs an iPod from his carry-on bag and plugs the earbuds into his ears.

He falls back to sleep somewhere in the middle of Warren G's "Regulate".

*************

Two days later and Haley can't believe that she's got to return to work the next day. Thankfully though, the year is nearly over. Just final exams for the next couple of days and then she'll be home free.

Sort of. She has lots of plans for the summer, none of which include a whole lot of rest and relaxation. She is what her sisters fondly refer to as 'a masochistic workaholic', but then they don't understand her choice in careers. They don't understand that she eats, drinks, and breathes the world of her students.

Huffing and puffing, she finally manages to yank her heavy rolling suitcase up the last of the stairs which lead up to her condo. Her keys jangle from her fingertips and she smiles upon seeing the familiar blue door. Unlocking the front door, she leaves the suitcase sitting in the entryway and immediately falls into a heap on her couch. The trip had been a huge success. The kids had had a blast and they had learned a lot, but she'd definitely underestimated just how much it would take out of her physically. Closing her eyes, Haley slows her breathing and focuses on the relaxation of every muscle in her body. Just when she thinks she'll never leave the comfort of her couch cushions, she looks up to see her answering machine blinking obnoxiously.

Groaning, she heaves herself into a sitting position and makes her way across the room and press the 'play' button.

"Hi, Haley-Bop! It's mom and dad!" her mother's voice chirps over the speaker. "Your dad and I just wanted to say hi. Listen, baby, it looks like your father and I won't be able to make it home next weekend. I know we had planned on it, but we decided to come out to California for a few days and there's just no way we'll be able to make it all the way back out to Tree Hill. I'm sorry, Bop. But we'll see you soon!"

Haley rolls her eyes at her parents' typical brush-off. She doesn't know how many times they've canceled on her in the past year. She hasn't seen them for more than two years, and even then they'd been pretty much obligated to be with her. Realistically speaking, she knows she probably won't be seeing them any time soon. Her only comfort is the knowledge that her parents do the same thing to all of her siblings--not just to her.

The machine beeps and then another voice filters into the room.

"Ms. James, this is Emily calling from Dr. Schuman's office. This is just a reminder that you have an appointment with Dr. Schuman on Thursday at four o'clock. We look forward to seeing you!"

Haley lets out a sigh and then reaches over to press the 'Delete' button.

The flashing '2' immediately morphs into a flashing '0'.

*************

As he enters the hallowed halls of Tree Hill High School for the first time in ten years, Nathan can't help but feel a mixture of nostalgia and eeriness. Of course, the nostalgia is wiped clean from his brain when he realizes that the school has undergone some remodeling. A new wing has been added and room numbers have changed, so when he walks into the room that used to be Whitey's study hall, he's met with the very attractive backside of a teacher who's in the process of writing on her chalkboard.

"So the quote is 'For nonconformity the world whips with its displeasure', but the question is whether or not you believe this is true. Does the world really punish those who dare to be different?"

She finishes writing and turns, and Nathan practically chokes.

Or maybe he actually chokes considering the fact that the entire class is now staring his way.

She's wearing a silky top and a tight skirt...a pencil skirt, he thinks it's called, and damn if she's not beautiful. She's small and soft and curvy and glowing. She's the woman from the basketball game! And she's glaring furiously in his direction.

"Can I help you?" she asks politely, her contempt thinly veiled for the sake of her wide-eyed students.

"Uh," he chokes again. Damn it! "Whitey Durham?" he finally utters.

"Room 132," she responds primly before immediately turning her attention back to her students.

He looks around helplessly for a moment before she finally glances back and takes pity on him. With a disapproving sigh, she gestures to a student. "Dennis will show you."

As the door closes behind Nathan and Dennis, Nathan can hear the awestruck murmurs of "Why is Nathan Scott here?"

Unfortunately, he also hears the dislike in their teacher's voice when she replies, "It doesn't matter."

*************

Whitey is squinting at a pile of paperwork when Nathan taps lightly on the open door to his office. The old man's face immediately splits into a grin and he takes off his reading glasses to get a good look at his former star player.

"Well, well, well." Whitey lets out a deep, throaty chuckle. "Look what the cat dragged in."

"I can't believe you haven't been dragged out," Nathan responds with a smirk. "What are you....100 years old, Coach?"

"I think they figure the longer they keep me here, the less trouble I'll cause out there," Whitey drawls while gesturing out the window of his small office. "You know, I was wonderin if you'd stop by. I've been expectin you. Thought you'd have been here sooner to tell the truth."

Nathan nods with a smile before sobering. "I came into town a few days ago, but I've been laying low," he explains vaguely. "I just thought I'd stop by since it's so rare that I'm in Tree Hill these days."

"Yeah," Whitey agrees. "And why is that?"

"I don't have much reason to come back, Coach. Lucas is in LA working at a publishing company. He's the only family I really have left."

"He's not your only family," Whitey reminds Nathan gruffly. "Even if you wish that was the case."

"He might as well be," Nathan murmurs darkly.

"Look, son," Whitey starts off. "I heard the news and I'm very sorry. But this is your hometown. Nothing you say or do is ever going to change that. Like it or not, this is your home and your family is still here. Now I know you've had a rough go of things. Your daddy certainly wasn't any prince, but he's gone now. And your mom...well, I think you just need to be real careful about the choices you make. I'd hate to see you end up with the kind of regrets that plagued your daddy for so many understand me?"

Nathan nods. "I got it, Coach."

Whitey nods. "Good. Now how long are you staying?"

"Well, I was planning on staying for just a day or two."

Whitey frowns at this. "Well, now, I hope you're rethinking that plan, 're kidding yourself if you think this is something that can be taken care of within a day or issues have been building for the past ten years and it's time you face them and deal with them head-on. Besides, it may just do you some good to stick around for awhile. Remember your roots a bit."

Nathan is shaking his head. "I've just got a lot to deal with back at home, Coach. It was a tough season and...."

"Son, you are home. And you're right. You do have a lot to deal with. If you really think I'm going to buy into your stash of pre-packaged excuses, you've really been away for too damn long." He pauses and looks Nathan in the eye. "You got a place to stay?"

"Yeah, I'm staying at the beach house."

"Good." Whitey remarks approvingly. "Then you'll stay for as long as it takes and you don't even have to blow that piddly NBA salary on a motel." He reaches over to clap Nathan on the shoulder. "Summer break starts on Monday. You can help me with a little project I've got in the works."

Nathan nods eagerly as though he's excited by the prospect of volunteering his time to whatever crazy pursuit Whitey's got going. If the stern look on Whitey's face is any indication, Nathan doesn't think he has a choice.

**************

The pint of ice cream is sitting on the coffee table, a trail of vanilla spilling over onto the surface of the wood.

Haley giggles and then shakes her head at her sister's ridiculous antics.

"You work too much," Taylor insists.

Haley rolls her eyes and lets out a short laugh before collapsing back into an overstuffed armchair. "I don't!" she protests.

"Haley, it's your summer break. You should be sleeping in or hanging out by the pool. You should not be voluntarily returning to that hellhole."

"First off," Haley argues, "I have no pool. And secondly, I happen to enjoy the time I spend in that hellhole. I know it's shocking, but I happen to like my job."

"Good!" Taylor exclaims. "Then love it enough to let it go for the summer. Come out here and visit me!"

"You want me to drop everything and come to Hawaii?"

"You say that like it's a bad thing. Come on, Haley-Bop! Quinn and Viv have already come out! And Jase is coming out this fall!"

"And Mom and Dad?" Haley asks.

"You're joking, right?" Taylor deadpans. "Where are they anyway?"

"I don't know," Haley mutters carelessly. "Europe? Canada? Arkansas?"

"Our parents are so challenged."

"Probably because they had to raise you!" Haley teases.

"No," Taylor replies seriously. "They're just...not good at being parents."

The sisters are silent for several long moments.

"So how are you?" Taylor asks. "You know, despite your dreadfully boring day job."

"I'm fine," Haley insists. "And I'll have you know that my job is anything but boring."

"Oh really?" Taylor questions skeptically. "And just how many dates have you been on since you became Tree Hill's very own schoolmarm?"

Haley gasps indignantly. "I'll have you know that Nathan Scott himself was in my classroom on the last day of classes," she announces.

"Really? You're sure?"

Haley rolls her eyes. "I'm fairly certain."

"And you didn't have sex with him right there on your desk? You really aren't my sister."

"First off, ew. And second...he's an asshole!"

"A hot one!" Taylor exclaims. She quiets for a moment and Haley knows that she's getting serious. "Really though, Hales. I don't want you to miss out and let life pass you by. It's a gift! Especially for you."

"I'm twenty five years old, Tay. I'm fully capable of living on my own!" Glancing around her small condo, she smiles in satisfaction. Her life certainly isn't glamorous, but she's doing just fine on her own. She's got a nice little condo, comfortable furniture, and food in her cupboards. She can't complain.

"Hey!" Taylor exclaims defensively. "Quinn played the worrywart role for me and Viv did for her. It's my turn to do it for you."

"Yeah? And who do I get to worry about?"

"Easy! You can have Jase. He needs all the worrying he can get. The boy is a train wreck."

"That 'boy' is a corporate attorney, Tay!" Haley laughs. "I hardly think he qualifies as a train wreck."

Taylor snorts. "He spends the majority of his day with a sixty year-old paralegal named Gladys, Little Sis. And you're not going to be far behind him if you continue the way you've been going. You've gotta get out there, Haley-Bop! If not with Nathan Scott, then with someone else."

"I don't know," Haley murmurs uncertainly. "Is it really worth it?"

"Sex?" Taylor asks. "Absolutely."

"No," Haley corrects softly. "I just...I feel like I'm doing fine on my own. Not to mention the fact that I've got enough baggage to fill an airport. Why burden some poor, unsuspecting soul with my issues?" She shakes her head. "No," she remarks decisively. "I won't do it. Not now."

"It's the James curse," Taylor murmurs sympathetically. "Mom and Dad forced us to be so independent that none of us know how to depend on anyone else. But you have to make the leap sometime, Haley-bop."

"But is independence so horrible?" Haley wonders aloud. "Because I'm not sure it is."

"It's not so bad," Taylor agrees. "Until you look around and realize that independence has just become an excuse for your loneliness."

**************

Nathan has no idea what he's getting himself into. All he knows is that Whitey had ordered him to show up at the school gym by nine o'clock. Glancing his watch, he's satisfied when he sees that it's nine o'clock on the button. At least the old man can't nail him for tardiness.

The gym is already swarming with kids by the time he arrives. Several teenagers are manning a check-in table and Nathan nods awkwardly in their direction when he sees them watching him suspiciously. He feels more than a little guilty when he realizes they're probably the same kids he had snubbed at the game. Yes, it's true. Karma is indeed a bitch. Needless too say, he's relieved when he spots Whitey and immediately makes his way over to the older man's side.

"So what is this anyway?" Nathan asks uneasily as he watches a particularly energetic group of boys as they race around the gym's perimeter.

"Good mornin to you too," Whitey grumbles.

Nathan rolls his eyes. "Good morning, Coach."

Whitey nods. "That's better. This," he gestures around the gym. "is a day camp. It's a low-cost program for kids whose parents are still working during the summer months. We keep 'em safe and occupied without charging their parents an arm and a leg."

"Safe and occupied doing wh...oh man." Nathan mutters under his breath when he happens to glance over toward the entrance.

"What the hell are your mumbling under your breath for? You forget to take your crazy pill this morning?"

"What's she doing here?" Nathan asks, gesturing to the petite frame of the latest arrival. Her hair is in a loose ponytail and a pair of sunglasses are perched atop her head. She's wearing a pair of faded jeans and a black t-shirt, and the kids who have already arrived are flocking to her like she's some sort of pied piper. Hell, even the grumpy-faced teens who are manning the check-in table are waving like fools at her.

"Ms. James?" Whitey a questions, his tone softening at the very mention of her. "She's the one that wrote the grant that pays for all of this. She helps out around here as well. We offer all sorts activities and many of the high school students get work experience credits for volunteering. Ms. James usually runs the administrative end of things." Whitey turns to face Nathan. "Why do you care?" he barks.

"She just...isn't my biggest fan." Nathan admits sheepishly.

"Well, can you blame her?" Whitey demands. "She had to put up with your moronic ways for too damned long!"

"What are you talking about?" Nathan asks confusedly.

"I do believe Haley was the one who tutored your sorry butt to keep you eligible your senior year." Whitey grins evilly. "Always thought it was hilarious that it took the help of a quiet little freshman for a big, pain-in-the-ass senior to be eligible to play."

Nathan considers Whitey's words for a moment and his eyes widen slightly as he recalls the petite, blonde tutor.

"Nathan, I'd like you to meet Haley James. Haley, this is Nathan Scott." Mr. Parker steps back and glances between the pair of them looking as though he thinks he's they are a match made in heaven.

Nathan glances skeptically at Mr. Parker who is still grinning in a dopey manner. Nathan shakes his head. Dude seriously needs to get laid, he thinks to himself. Then he takes a moment to get a good look at his new tutor. After all, if there's going to be any possible way for him to...ahem...benefit from this arrangement beyond just tutoring, he's going to find a way.

She's cute, he supposes, although she looks kind of young. Her hair is blond and wavy and has been tugged into a ponytail, as though she doesn't quite know what else to do with it. She's got what his mother would have called a 'sweet face' with eyes which are both dark and wide. She slightly hunched in a denim jacket, and she's sitting at a table, so he's surprised when she stands and the top of her head doesn't even reach his shoulder.

"How old are you?" he questions with a curious frown.

She flushes and squirms for a moment, shifting her weight back and forth between her two feet before finally shrugging. "Fifteen."

"Fifteen?! What are you? A sophomore?"

The flush deepens and he almost feels himself squirming at the sight of her looking so completely uncomfortable. "A freshman," she finally utters. "I just turned fifteen."

"A freshman?!" Nathan exclaims. He immediately turns back to Mr. Parker, ready to protest.

Unfortunately, Mr. Parker anticipates Nathan's reservations and is prepared. "Now, Mr. Scott. I'm aware that Haley is young, but she's also one of the strongest tutors we have. Please keep in mind that you're re-taking Geometry while Haley aced the course last year."

Haley is still standing at his side, her eyes down and fixed on her Pumas. After a moment, she raises her head and looks him directly in the eye. She doesn't say a word, instead opting to return to the table where she begins sorting through her own backpack.

"Look, um..."

"Haley," she supplies.

"Look, Haley," he starts off. "It's nothing personal. It's just that I'm a senior and getting help from a freshman..." he trails off.

Looking up at him once more, she shrugs. "Don't worry about it. I'm not the one failing my classes." She quirks an eyebrow pointedly before continuing. "I'm not the one who needs to make grades to play basketball. It's not a problem on my end."

Nathan stands stunned for several seconds before he reaches up and scratches at the back of his head. As much as he hates to admit it, she's right. He's screwed. And she may be his only hope.

He sighs heavily before lowering himself into one of the chairs at her table. "When do we start?"



"Wait," Nathan breaks in. "Haley? That's Haley James? But Haley James was, like, this tall," Nathan raises a hand to his chest. "And she was so shy and quiet and...still kind of a pain in the ass actually," he realizes.

"And she grew up!" Whitey declares. "It happens!" He glances at Nathan. "At least for most of us."

"Well, at least now I know why she hates me so much."

"What'd you do to her?" Whitey wants to know.

"I don't know. A lot of girls hated me in high school," Nathan admits.

Whitey smacks him upside his head. "Not in high school! I meant what did you do to her recently?"

"It wasn't her so much as...her students."

"You mean those students?" Whitey nods in the direction of the sign-in table where the teens are still glaring at Nathan.

"I guess so," Nathan admits.

"Even worse," Whitey observes. "Surefire way to piss off a good teacher is to mistreat her students."

"Yeah, well, it wasn't my finest moment and I had my reasons. But I was kind of a jerk and she definitely let me have it." He makes a show of examining his arms. "I probably still have claw-marks from her attack."

"Haley?" Whitey chuckles. "She's a bit of a spitfire. But she's one of the best people I know. She's got a good heart. She's got her priorities straight. More'n I can say for some people," he remarks pointedly.

"Whatever," Nathan mutters under his breath. He sees Haley approaching out of the corner of his eye.

"Now you listen to me, Nathan. Whatever you do, you will be a perfect gentleman to that young lady. She's had to deal with more than enough. She's not going to put up with your surly attitude when she's volunteering her time!"

Nathan protests, "I'm volunteering my time!"

"No," Whitey disagrees with a wide smile. "You're paying me back for the four years I had to put up with your back talk."

"Hey, Coach!" Haley greets with a friendly smile. She nods curtly in Nathan's direction.

"Ms. James," Whitey replies. "How are you, darlin? Got enough energy to get through today?"

Haley takes a breath and smiles as though she's trying to collect as much enthusiasm as she can. "Let's hope so," she answers.

"You remember Nathan Scott, don't you?" Whitey questions, a wicked gleam in his eye.

Haley's expression sours, but she nods politely. "Hello."

Nathan fights the urge to grimace at the awkwardness of the situation. "Hi," he responds.

The group is silent for a moment and Nathan is trying to think of a way to ease into an apology for his behavior at the game. He's not sure why, but the thought that Haley is harboring such a strong dislike for him is weighing on his mind. Women are supposed to swoon and blush and giggle in his presence. Her aloofness is throwing him for quite a loop. Unfortunately, just as his mouth is trying to wrap itself around the very unfamiliar word 'Sorry', they are interrupted.

"Ms. Haley! Ms. Haley! Ms. Haley!"

The trio turns to see a small blur of blue and blonde hurtle across the gym floor and then wrap around Haley's leg.

Squatting down to meet the child's eye, Haley gives the girl with the blonde pigtails a wide-eyed smile. "What's up, Miss Maggie?"

"Jacob won't leave me alone!" she whines. "Mommy said he has to, but he's not. He said I can't play basketball with him because I'm a girl!"

Sensing an opening, Nathan kneels down. "Well, why don't we go and teach Jacob a lesson, huh?"

Taken by surprise, Maggie turns to face Nathan...and immediately bursts into tears. "That big man is going to teach Jacob a lesson!" she wails. "Please don't hurt my brother! Please!"

Haley tugs the girl into a comforting hug and then rolls her eyes at Nathan over the girl's shoulder. "Nice work," she comments with an amused smile.

"Come on, Miss Maggie," she announces in a perky voice. "You can fix my hair in pigtails just like yours. Then we'll go and challenge those boys to a game."

Nathan watches as the two girls walk away, his head shaking in disbelief.

Turning to face Whitey, he sees the old man trying to contain his laughter.

"A bit of advice, son," Whitey offers. "Don't try to impress her. She can smell bullshit from a mile away, and she could smell your stink all the way from California. A little hint? You might try saying you're sorry."

Nathan scowls as he looks around the gym which is now filled to the brim with running, screaming kids.

Well, damn.

*************

The whole camp thing is something like a nightmare.

Nathan has never been good at not knowing what to do. He's usually the leader of the pack, the one with the plan, the calm in the midst of the storm. Unfortunately, he's none of these things when he finds himself surrounded by squealing children who expect to be entertained for the entire day.

He wonders if he's missing some kind of gene or something. It would make sense given his parents and their lack of...well, parenting. As he looks around, he starts to buy into the gene theory even more because it seems that every other adult or teen is perfectly comfortable in their respective positions of authority. Whitey is currently guiding a group through some dribbling exercises while Haley is strumming a guitar as kids sing along. Even Haley's students are leading various games and activities while Nathan is...being stared at by a dozen bored fourth graders.

"I'm bored!" whines a redheaded little boy. He jabs a small finger in Haley's direction. "I want to be in that group!"

"Aren't you a basketball player?" questions a little girl in braids.

Nathan nods. "I play for the Lakers."

"Then why are you here?" she asks curiously.

"Good question," he mutters in response.

"Can we play a game?" the redheaded kid whines again.

"Okay, uh..." Nathan trails off at a loss.

"How about frisbee golf?" An enthusiastic voice pipes in suddenly. The kids immediately cheer with excitement at the proposal.

At the sound of the voice, Nathan turns to see a pair of teenage girls approaching. And it looks as though they'd rather be walking to their deaths than towards him. The girls are slightly stand-offish, but they introduce themselves politely

"I'm Tara" the blonde explains. She gestures to the scowling girl next to her. "This is Jasmine. Ms. James thought you could use our help."

Relieved, Nathan nods sheepishly. "I'm not really very good at this sort of thing."

"Really?" Jasmine mutters sarcastically. "You were such a charmer after your last basketball game."

"Jas!" Tara murmurs scoldingly. She immediately turns to the kids. "Okay, guys! Let's head out to the field. We'll go over the rules out there."

"Look, girls," Nathan starts as they begin their walk out to the field. "I owe you an apology for my behavior that night. Normally I'm happy to meet with my fans, but I'd had a really terrible day. I'd received some very bad news just before the game and I wasn't handling it very well. I'm sorry that you and your friends had to bear the brunt of my anger."

He sees the girls exchange questioning looks. Finally, Jasmine nods. "Fine."

"Apology accepted," Tara nods.

A grin breaks out over Nathan's face and he's surprised by the intense relief he feels at their acceptance of his apology. "I'll just have to get you guys tickets to another game so I can make it up to you. Maybe Hale...I mean Ms. James...can bring all of you to another game. Maybe to a game in Charlotte?"

Tara shrugs. "Oh, that's okay. We don't really like basketball anyway."

Nathan stops dead in his tracks. "Wait...what?! You don't like basketball?"

"It's kind of boring," Jasmine explains. "But the food was good!"

Shaking his head disapprovingly, Nathan continues walking. "Okay, girls. Now we really need to talk..."

*************

When five o'clock rolls around, Haley finds herself cleaning up and attempting to organize the equipment and supplies for the following day. Since it seems that most of the other adults have disappeared, she's relieved when she sees Tara and Jasmine approaching her with giddy smiles on their faces.

"Girls, how did things go with Mr. Scott?"

"Good!" they both chirp.

Haley looks up in surprise. "Just good?"

"Yeah," Tara nods. "I think he was just overwhelmed at first. He didn't really know what he was supposed to do. Once we got the kids started with a game, he was actually really cool."

"So there weren't any issues?" Haley probes skeptically.

"Nope," Jasmine replies. "And the kids all loved him. He's really nice, Ms. James!" She lowers her voice slightly. "And he's so fine!" Both girls nod in agreement before high-fiving.

"Oh!" Tara exclaims. "And he says that he's going to try to get us tickets to another basketball game to make up for the last one. He was telling us all about basketball."

"I think I actually understand it now," Jasmine remarks.

"Well, he does have a reputation to maintain, I suppose," Haley murmurs.

"Ms. James!" Tara exclaims sharply.

"What?"

"You're still mad at him."

Haley pauses for a moment and then nods. "Yes, I guess I am still a little bit upset with him."

"He apologized," Jasmine points out. "And aren't you the one who is always saying that we have to allow people to be the best versions of themselves?"

"Well..." Haley starts off when she realizes she's been backed into a corner.

"He's really nice, Ms. James. You should really give him a chance," Tara urges.

Jasmine nods in agreement.

Sighing, Haley gives the girls a knowing look. "Did you girls just use my own words against me?"

They both nod triumphantly.

Raising her hands in mock surrender, Haley nods. "Fair enough. You've made your point. Now why don't you go and attempt to sweep up the glitter at the arts and crafts table."

With heavy sighs, the girls both nod, but not before they seem to spot something just over Haley's shoulder. "Sure, Ms. James!" Tara agrees suddenly. Within seconds, the girls have scurried away and are busily attempting to sweep up the glitter, which Haley has decided truly is the bane of the arts and crafts world.

"Ahem."

Haley whirls around at the sound of a throat clearing behind her. Immediately she realizes why Tara and Jasmine had suddenly been so keen to begin clean-up duty. Nathan Scott is standing just a few feet away and looking at her expectantly.

"Did you need something?" Haley inquires in a civil tone.

"Yes," Nathan answers gruffly. "Look, at the game the other night...I just wasn't feeling my best. I waited around to avoid fans...and then your students were there and..."

"And?" Haley probes impatiently.

"And I didn't handle it as well as I could have," Nathan finishes. "It's just that the players are under a lot of pressure and post-season games are stressful as it is and..."

"Is this supposed to be an apology?" Haley asks in confusion.

Nathan looks bewildered. "Well, yeah."

"Well, that's not like any apology I've ever heard," Haley comments. "Besides, it's not me you should be apologizing to. It's the kids."

Nathan nods. "Look, I don't do this very often. Actually, I never do this."

"Apologize?" Haley asks. She nods. "That's pretty obvious."

Nathan ignores her. "I'm sorry, okay? I feel like an ass. I'm going to make it up to the kids. I swear I will."

Haley pauses and stares searchingly in his eyes for a long moment. Finally, she nods. "I hope so. They deserve it."

Frustrated, Nathan watches once again as Haley James turns on her heel and leaves him standing speechless in her wake.

*************

By the fourth day of camp, Nathan realizes there's no way he'll survive the day without having a strong cup of coffee beforehand. In addition to the kids being insanely hyperactive, Haley has been giving him the cold shoulder and Whitey has been bullying him about it. In fact, the only bright spot of the week has been the fact that Nathan is realizing that he doesn't despise kids or teens nearly as much as he would have suspected. In fact, he's kind of starting to think that maybe someday...a someday that's located way down at the other end of a long and winding road...he might even like to have a kid of his own.

Who knew?

He's a little bit disappointed when he arrives at what used to be Karen's Cafe and, instead, finds a place called Jitters Java. He knew that Karen was no longer the owner of the place--she's living on a yacht with her millionaire husband, which is something Lucas loves to remind Nathan of on a regular basis. Still, he'd always loved the homey feel of the place. He pauses just outside the entrance and weighs his options. After a few moments, he realizes that he needs coffee more than he needs to reminisce. Homey or not, he needs his caffeine fix. A bell chimes as he enters and he hears the voice of the friendly barista welcoming him. With a quick smile, he glances around and then moves to the end of the line.

The place is packed.

Glancing around, he searches for an open table and then looks for an open seat at the bar. As he surveys the room, his gaze falls onto the petite form of a familiar brunette. Haley James is just across the cafe seated at one of the small round tables. Not for the first time, Nathan catches himself watching Haley with curiosity. She really has changed since high school, but then there are parts of her that are exactly the same. She's still stubborn as hell, and she's still totally unimpressed by him--something that drove him crazy back then and still does today. She's still unbelievably intelligent, which shows in nearly every conversation (or non-conversation) he has with her. Her students adore her and can't say enough good things about her, but then that's nothing new. He can still remember his teammates talking about what a "sweet kid" she was when she was tutoring about half of the Tree Hill Ravens. She was always petite, but she's leaner now. Her hair, now a rich brown, falls just beyond her shoulders, and although it's minimal, she's clearly discovered the wonders of make-up. She's obviously embraced her beautiful figure by ditching the shapeless clothing--something he can totally get behind. Haley James is a very impressive woman and, for some inexplicable reason, he feels compelled to win her over.

Looking around the cafe once more, he realizes that he's going to be taking his breakfast to-go if he can't find a place to sit. After a moment, his eyes find their way back to Haley, and he wonders whether she'd be willing to spare the second chair at her table. She's got a glass of water in front of her and he watches curiously as she takes a small orange pill bottle out of her purse. Plucking one pill from the container, she pops it into her mouth and takes a swig of water before dropping the bottle back into her purse. She smiles just then as a waitress arrives with a cup of coffee, and he watches as she stands and begins to move in his direction with the steaming cup in hand. Carefully, he places himself right in her path and gives her his best lopsided smirk.

"You," she observes icily.

Nathan is surprised by her cool greeting. Generally the lopsided smirk works wonders in cases of skeptical girls. He decides to try a different approach.

"Hi," he smiles.

Haley is gripping the cup of coffee and eying him impatiently, her foot tapping against the her conversation with her students, she forces a smile as she nods in greeting.

"Cat got your tongue?" he questions teasingly.

"No," she replies. "But you're blocking the cream and sugar." She nods to the small cart just behind him and he jerks around quickly in surprise. As he turns, his elbow catches the carafe of half-and-half, sending it careening to the floor with a crash. Shocked by his own uncharacteristic clumsiness, Nathan can feel his face heating up. Embarrassment, he thinks. It's something he hasn't felt in a very, very long time. And it's something he hasn't missed. He wonders (not for the first time) why he keeps placing himself in these situations with Haley.

"Nice job, Hot Shot," Haley comments dryly. "Kind of like your way with kids."

Haley's dry tone of voice is the last straw.

"What's your problem?" Nathan explodes angrily. "Is this still about the game or what?"

"Yes, it's about the game!" Haley snaps. "And it's about you!"

"What do you know about me?!" Nathan demands. "You know nothing about me!"

"I know that you're someone who has been given a free-ride. I know you've hardly had to work for anything a day in your life because everything has either come naturally or been handed to you. You've been pampered, and it shows in your treatment of people. You act as though people should feel lucky to be graced with your presence, but then when they're in your presence, you treat them as though they are inferior!" Haley is slightly breathless after her rant, and she glares challengingly at Nathan who is shocked by the outburst.

"You know what? Forget it," Nathan mutters. "I'm really trying to be nice here, but you're not making it very easy. I apologized about the game, but you've got to remember that you don't know what kinds of things I have going on in my life. Did it ever occur to you that you may have caught me on a bad day? I mean, do I have flaws? Of course. You just listed several of them. But you don't know a goddamn thing about my life. You know, everyone keeps talking about how wonderful you are and about how I should give you a break," he sees Haley stiffen at this, "but so far you haven't returned the favor. So I'm done trying."

Haley opens her mouth, ready to fight fire with fire, and then she reconsiders. There's an earnestness in Nathan's eyes. For whatever reason, it seems that he's really trying to make a good impression on even more strange is the fact that he seems genuinely distressed by her dislike. Remorse flickers over her features and she nods. "You're right," she admits.

Nathan looks up in shock at the quiet surrender. "What?"

"I'm sorry," Haley remarks simply. "I've had some preconceived ideas about who you are, and those ideas are based on a combination of who you were in high school, tabloid rumors, and what I saw at the game the other night. It wasn't fair for me to hold those things against you. Can we start over?"

Nathan relaxes slightly and then nods. "I sure hope so," he replies. "Because I don't think we could do any worse than the first time around. Besides," he shrugs, "there aren't any open tables. I was hoping you might be willing to share yours."

She narrows her eyes suspiciously.

"All in the name of fresh starts," he pledges.

She gives him an odd look before nodding. "Fine," she agrees. "But you'd better not chew too loudly. Or slurp. I hate slurping."

************

"You did not."

"Oh, yes I did. I could not make this stuff up."

"So she hit you with a candy bar?"

Haley nods. "Jase had taken us all trick-or-treating and he wanted to check to make sure we didn't have any suspicious looking candy."

"Which means he just wanted to steal the good stuff," Nathan interjects.

"Exactly," Haley agrees. "So we have our candy spread out all around us and Taylor notices that I've got all of the good brand-name

chocolate bars while she ended up with a bunch of candy corn and raisins."

"And she just couldn't handle it?"

"Nope," Haley responds. "When I refused to give up my candy, she picked up a king-sized Tootsie Roll and launched it at me. It nailed me in the eye and I started screaming that I was blind. They were all making fun of me until I opened my eye and it was filled with blood."

Nathan is laughing hysterically at this point of the story and Haley frowns.

"Hey!" she exclaims. "I was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and then I was on bed rest for two weeks."

Nathan gasps for air and guffaws loudly. "Because...you got...hit...by a...Tootsie Roll!" he cries out through his laughter.

He's not sure how it happened, but the coffee thing has become a kind of unofficial routine for them. If he arrives first, he makes sure to order her latte just the way she likes it--with extra foam. And if she arrives before he does, she orders his Americano with an extra shot of espresso. They crowd themselves around a small bistro table and talk about the camp or about Whitey or about Tree Hill.

She's still a little bit leery of him. He knows this. But he thinks she's starting to come around. He's never been friends with a woman before. Not like this, at least. This is a relationship that's easy. Haley laughs like she means it, and she does it right in front of him. She tells him humorous stories of what it was like to grow up with so many sibling--tales of missing shoes and accidental haircuts and broken furniture. She also tries to laugh off the anecdotes that cut more deeply: the devastation she'd felt when her parents forgot to attend her 8th grade promotion or her embarrassment over the fact that she'd never had anything but hand-me-downs in high school.

She fascinates him.

Every so often Nathan stops and wonders how he could have been so blind in high school. How is it possible that this woman, this woman who has his palms sweating as he wonders whether or not to call, was someone he had failed to truly notice?

She makes him laugh hysterically without worrying about looking ridiculous. She's a total klutz. She'll trip over absolutely nothing and Nathan has learned that he has to be on his toes when he's around her. He's had to keep her from faceplanting into the ground on more than one occasion. She's beautiful, but it's not a result of the clothes she's wearing or the way she's done her make-up. She has an aura about her--something that draws people to her. People want to be near her.

But the real miracle is that, for some supremely bizarre reason, she seems to want to be near him.

************

Nathan Scott isn't as bad as she thought.

As much as it absolutely pains her to admit it, he's actually a pretty stand-up guy. At least, he's pretty stand-up when he's sitting across from her with an Americano in his hand. Of course, there's the obvious. His physical appearance pretty much epitomizes perfection: dark brown hair with shockingly blue eyes and features that look to have been sculpted in an effort to capture the physical beauty of man. He nearly dwarfs her with his size, but she feels a strange sense of security, of safety when she's with him. A small part of her occasionally reverts back to the jilted freshman girl at that Tree Hill High basketball game. In those moments she starts to wonder what the hell he's doing sitting a table with her.

But then he leans forward when she speaks. His eyes are bright and he wears a sort of half-smile as though he just enjoys hearing her voice. He listens to her. He laughs with her--and sometimes at her. He teases her for being incurably clumsy, but then he's always right there to catch her when she's about to fall hard. He treats her like she matters.

Their growing friendship is easy. It's natural. But she can feel that it's starting to turn into something different, and it's the something different that terrifies her. She knows she can't go there, that she shouldn't go there, but she doesn't know if she's going to be able to stop.

The campers are all happily engaged in activities at the various stations all over the gym. Tara is helping some of the younger kids make paper mache puppets while Maria and Jasmine are supervising several games of indoor four-square. Whitey is lecturing some boys on teamwork while another group is learning to play 'Hot Cross Buns' on the recorder.

"Girls, have you seen Mr. Scott?" she questions. Maria and Jasmine both shake their heads.

"Not for awhile," Jasmine replies. "But earlier he said he was going to take some kids outside for some games. They're probably still out there."

Haley nods before venturing towards the far end of the gym. Sunlight pours through the back door as she pushes it open, and before she can even see the kids, she can hear them. There are enthusiastic cheers erupting from the small group of younger boys who are watching a group of older boys playing a game of basketball. Nathan is frantically running back and forth as the players move from one end of the court to another. Haley can't help but chuckle when she sees that a cluster of about five young boys and scampering after Nathan every time he moves. She laughs even harder at the sight of little Maggie, who is sitting on his shoulders and holding onto his hair for dear life.

"Okay, Mikey! Defense, buddy!" Nathan yells. "And Brandon, be aggressive, man!"

Haley is surprised to see her own students Tony and Brandon playing with the group.

"That's it, boys! That's it!" Nathan calls out, clapping his hands excitedly. "Nice play. Alright, last point! Let's go!"

"Let's go!" Maggie shouts cheerfully from her perch.

Haley can see Nathan chuckling and then she watches as he glances up at Maggie and murmurs something which causes a huge grin to break out on the girl's face. Although he'd gotten off to a rocky start, Haley can safely say that he's brilliant with the kids. And what's more is that he looks like he's having the time of his life.

"Ms. Haley!"

Maggie's sharp squeal catches Haley off guard and she realizes that she's been spotted. Nathan turns and gives her a sheepish smile before he reaches to set Maggie on the ground. Haley envelops the little girl in a warm hug and then pulls back.

"What have you been up to, Miss Maggie?"

"I was coaching," she remarks solemnly. "Coach Scott says I have what it takes."

Haley raises her eyebrows and then nods in understanding. "Well, if anyone would know, it's Coach Scott."

"That's game, boys!"

Haley looks back up when she hears Nathan's announcement and approaches him with a smile on her face. "You seem to have found your niche."

Nathan waves her off. "Nah, this is a blast. I love turning kids onto the game."

"Well, I think it's safe to say you just won back a couple of your fans." She nods in the direction of Tony and Brandon who are gesturing excitedly as they rehash the game.

"Good," Nathan answers seriously. "I'd hate for them to think I'm really the guy they met in LA."

"They know you're not," Haley assures him. Shyly, she reaches out to grasp his arm. "For what it's worth, so do I."

Nathan can feel the grin that's forming slowly on his face. Genuine praise is something that's always been lacking from the people who matter the most in Nathan's life.

Coming from Haley, it feels pretty damned good.

************

Haley presses the cotton ball against the crook of her arm and looks up expectantly.

"Okay, Haley. Everything looks good." The older man looks up from his clipboard and peers at her over the rims of his reading glasses. "Any other questions or concerns?"

Haley smiles and shakes her head. "Nah, I just figured I'd make the appointment since I'd been feeling a little bit rundown. But I know I was probably just doing too much at the end of the school year. The last thing I need is to end up sick."

Dr. Schuman nods. "Well, I'm glad you came in. It's better to be safe than sorry." He offers a fatherly smile. "And Haley?"

Haley glances up questioningly.

"You're only twenty-five. You've got plenty of time to try and save the world. Take it easy this summer, will you?"

Haley grins and shrugs helplessly. "You know me. I get bored without a project of some kind."

"And what's your project this summer?" Dr. Schuman asks kindly.

Haley is thoughtful for a moment before offering the doctor a shrug. "There's one thing in particular that's captured my interest." She smiles vaguely. "I guess you could call it a...work-in-progress."

************

He's been staring at the same sign for at least ten minutes. He knows exactly where she is. The handy little sign is pointing him right down the hallway to the room where he can find her. But he can't seem to make his feet move. He's been here every day for the past week and not once has he managed to move beyond this point.

"Nathan?"

Startled, Nathan turns to see a tired looking Haley who has just emerged from the hallway on the other side of the medical complex. She looks a bit different than her normal put-together self in a pair of yoga pants and a tank top. Her hair is in a ponytail and she's got a pair of flip-flops on her feet. This is what she probably looks like when she's just relaxing at home, Nathan thinks. Her skin is flawless and her wide eyes are curious. She seems even more tiny than usual and Nathan realizes that he likes her petite stature. She's beautiful. And probably waiting for a response.

"What are you doing here, Haley?"

If Nathan didn't know any better, he'd say Haley James was nervous. He's never witnessed it for himself, but she's glancing around and fiddling idly with the rings on her hands. There's also a rosy tint to her cheeks.

"Why do you care?" Haley finally retorts. She kicks herself mentally for the juvenile response. Could she be more of an impertinent five-year-old? "Uh...I mean...I just had a check-up. Why are you standing here staring at that sign? Are you lost?"

"Yes," Nathan answers.

"Well, did you ask the receptionist at the front...?"

Nathan cuts her off. "Not that kind of lost, Haley."

"Oh," Haley remarks quietly. "Well, what kind of lost are you?"

"I'm trying to find the guts to walk down that hallway."

"For what?"

Tearing his eyes away from the sign, he turns to face her fully. "For something I've been putting off since I arrived in Tree Hill. It's the only reason I'm even here. Every day since I arrived in town, I've been here. Every day I stand here. I just can't bring myself to go any further."

Haley is concerned as she watches him. "Are you okay?"

Nathan turns to face her. "You want some coffee?"

Haley looks confused. "What?"

"Coff-eeee," Nathan enunciates slowly. "Brown stuff. Makes you drink it every morning."

She makes a face at him. "Thanks for clarifying. But why?"

"Because I'm not ready to walk down that hallway. Because you're here and I like being with you. Because I'm hoping that I will be ready to walk down that hallway in another half hour."

Haley is taken aback, but she's also very tired and a bit hungry.

She nods. "Okay."

*************

There's a tiny cafe in the lobby where a frail, little, white-haired woman cheerfully serves strong coffee and delectable pastries. Nathan insists on buying, so Haley seats herself in one of the several available chairs and waits. There's barely enough space for the three tables which are arranged in the seating area, but there's no one else there and it proves to be the perfect spot for a quiet conversation between friends.

Nathan, however, seems to have interesting ideas about what makes for friendly conversation. He's quiet as he lowers the steaming latte and the blueberry scone (how did he know they're her favorite) in front of her and sits down.

"My mom tried to commit suicide," he remarks out of nowhere."She's still being treated and she's in one of the rooms at the other end of that hallway."

He catches Haley mid-gulp and he watches with concern as she coughs and sputters gracelessly. "What did you say?"

He looks her in the eye. "You heard me. You talked about how I lived such a charmed life in high school. And I know you thought I was an asshole to the kids at the game that night. You were right," he admits. "I was. But my mom had tried to commit suicide. I'd gotten the phone call just before the game that day."

Haley is stunned silent for several moments. "Oh God, Nathan. I just...I'm so sorry. I feel like such an idiot." She looks truly distressed and she begins wringing her hands as she thinks about some of the terrible things she'd said to him during the first few days they'd worked together.

Nathan shakes his head. "Don't be. That's not why I'm telling you this. I guess...I just want you to realize that I'm an asshole for a reason. It's not like I led this perfect life and just decided to be horrible because I could. My parents kind of made me horrible from a young age."

"You're not horrible," Haley protests with a soft smile.

"My dad left when I was a freshman, did you know that?"

"No, I didn't."

"Well, he did. Just packed up and took off because he said he couldn't deal with his wreck of a wife or his disappointment of a son any longer. And my mom didn't take it too well. Actually, she didn't take it at all. She just curled up in her bed with a bottle of wine and a stash of pills. The whole time I was in high school, I don't think I saw my mom sober more than three or four times. And those were the times when she'd tell me that she wished she could go to sleep and just never wake up."

"Why are you telling me this?" Haley questions.

"I guess..." Nathan pauses uncertainly. "I guess because I have a pretty good idea of what you probably thought of me when we were in school. I know I wasn't the nicest guy."

"No," Haley agrees. "You weren't."

Nathan looks started by her quick agreement. "Did I...did I ever do anything to you?" He looks pained to even be asking the question. It's as if he knows the answer, but wants desperately to believe that he'd demonstrated some shred of mercy to a younger, meeker Haley James.

Haley considers for a moment. She thinks about lying, but then realizes that lying is something that has only caused Nathan grief and pain. So she tells the truth.

"Yeah, you were mean to me."

He looks truly pained and Haley is caught off guard when Nathan suddenly takes her hand and gives it a squeeze. "I'm sorry, Hales."

Her eyes widen slightly at the use of the endearment, but then he continues.

"What did I do?"

Allowing her hand to remain enfolded in his, Haley sighs. "I was just an easy target. I was a shy and scrawny freshman tutor. You were the big man on campus."

The pained expression becomes more pronounced. "I'm sorry, Haley," he repeats, his tone genuine. "But I guess the joke's on me, huh?"

Haley chuckles awkwardly. "What do you mean?"

Nathan gestures between them. "Look at us. You're the beautiful and intelligent teacher who makes a difference in people's lives on a daily basis. You've got an entire town that adores you."

"And you've got an entire city that adores you," Haley points out. "A city that's a hell of a lot bigger than Tree Hill."

"I've got a city that will love me for as long as I can play," Nathan explains. "The moment I become either injured or old, I'll be lucky to get much more than an occasional second glance at the grocery store. It's not all it's cracked up to be. I'm just starting to realize that."

"So why not look for more?" Haley questions sensibly.

"I don't know," Nathan replies thoughtfully. "I guess I never really thought I wanted more. I was always so determined to escape the nightmare that was my life here in Tree Hill. Once I did that, I never really pushed for anything else. I just accepted things as they were."

"And now?"

He's looking at her as he responds. "Now I want more."

*************

Their mugs are empty and there's nothing but crumbs left on each of their plates. Their eyes meet across the table and Haley glances down at their joined hands. She gives his hand a squeeze. "You should go," she urges softly.

"Will you come with me?"

Haley's eyes widen with surprise at his request. "Come with you?" she asks.

"I don't think I can do this alone."

Haley observes him for several moments. His shoulders are raised slighly and his jawline is tense. His eyes are pleading and she can see his hands clenching and releasing anxiously. "Why is it so difficult for you to do this?" she asks softly.

He shrugs. "Because I'm mad at her. I thought I hated her for awhile, but...she's my mom. It's just that my life has been really...peaceful since I left Tree Hill." He sees Haley's skeptical look and he quickly amends his words. "I mean peaceful as in...no having to hold my mom's head over the toilet. No having to stay up all night with her because I'm afraid she'll drown in her own puke. Definitely no knock-down, drag-out screaming matches over how much I remind her of my father. My high school years were all just one endless battle. I just tried to coast through those years feeling as little as possible. Basketball was my escape. I knew it was going to be my ticket out of Tree Hill."

A look of sorrow flickers over Haley's pretty features, but it's quickly replaced by one of deep thought. "It's not what we thought, is it?"

"What?"

"Life," she remarks simply. "As teenagers, we feel like no one has ever felt the same we do. Like...even though adults say they understand, there's no way they could possibly get it. We we're sixteen or seventeen, it seems like there's no way our lives could possibly be anything short of spectacular."

Nathan chuckles. "Yeah, pretty much."

"But it looks different from this end. Now I look back and I realize that all of those adults were looking at me and smiling at my naivete.I look at my students who think I don't get it, that I don't understand what it feels like to be stifled by authority, and I want to laugh because I absolutely get it. But what kind of message is that? Am I supposed to tell them that life probably won't ever live up to their expectations?"

Nathan is serious as he watches her engage in this obvious mental struggle. "But what if it does? Maybe not in the ways they expect, but what if they're surprised by the things that end up making them happy? Isn't that possible?"

Haley can feel her own smile growing. "Yeah," she agrees heartily. "I guess it is. So maybe your mom will end up surprising you."

Nathan looks up and sighs. "Point taken." Then he looks at her pleadingly. "Please, Haley. I just don't know if I can face her on my own."

Finally, she nods.

************

The nurses direct them to Deb Scott's room and they can hear the television blaring from just outside the door once they arrive. Nathan's steps are slow and deliberate as he knocks politely and then enters.

Deb Scott is a frail shell of the woman Haley can remember from more than a decade before. At one time Deb had been lively and beautiful, but the woman before her is obviously weak and desperate. The sight of her just serves as further proof that Nathan Scott, asshole that he can be, is a miracle for having made it out of Tree Hill in one piece.

Nathan doesn't say anything when he enters the room, but the sound of his footsteps cause Deb to stir slightly.

The sight of Nathan seems almost surreal to the older woman as she takes a second and third glance before dissolving into tears at the sight of her estranged son.

"Nathan! Oh, Nathan! Sweetheart! I didn't think you'd come!" she sobs joyously.

"I wasn't sure about it either," he admits gruffly. "Are you okay, Mom?"

Even from the doorway, Haley can see Debs eyes flooding with ears at the sound of the simple endearment on her child's tongue. She shakes her head. "Not yet, Nate. But I will be."

Nathan's voice becomes wobbly and he nods several times. "Good," he chokes out. "Cause I'm not sure I can go back to the way things used to be, Mom. This is it. It's now or never."

Recognizing the seriousness of Nathan's tone, Deb nods fervently. "This is it, Nathan. They're going to send me to a rehabilitation clinic the day after tomorrow and I'm going to stay there for as long as it takes. I'm going to do things right this time, Nathan. I've already missed most of your life," she whispers tearfully. "I don't want to miss your wedding day or the birth of my first grandchild. I realized that as I was on that bathroom floor after taking those pills."

"No more pills, Mom. No more alcohol."

"No more. I'm so sorry, Nathan," Deb sobs desperately. "I'm so sorry. Will you ever be able to forgive me?"

Nathan is frozen in place, a serious look on his face, and he shrugs. "I don't know. Living in that house with you, watching you hurt yourself day after day...it was a nightmare, Mom. I hated you. I hated my life. I...I can't promise you anything. But this is a start."

Haley watches the emotional display for a moment before excusing herself. Deb deserves to have some privacy and Nathan deserves the chance to speak candidly with his mother. She's halfway out the door when she hears Nathan protest.

She turns, a smile on her face. "I'm going to give you some time."

Rising from his seat near his mother's bed, he quickly approaches.

"I don't think thank you even begins to cover it," Nathan mutters uncomfortably. "But thank you."

Haley smiles and reaches out to give his hand a squeeze. "We're friends, right?"

Nathan is silent for a moment as he watches her. Finally, he nods. "Right."

"So, coffee tomorrow? Usual time?"

"I'll see you then," Nathan agrees. He watches her leave before he finally turns and reclaims his seat at his mother's bedside.

"She's lovely, Nathan," Deb comments with a tired smile.

"Yeah," Nathan shrugs nonchalantly. "We're just friends."

"Honey, I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid," Deb comments sweetly. Rolling her eyes, she lets out a chuckle that sounds something like the mother he remembers from the early years of his childhood. Then she makes a comment which leaves no doubt in his mind that his mother is on the path to recovery.

"Friends my ass."

*************

Haley is barely able to keep her eyes open as she sits on the couch with the TV muted. The screen flickers in the dark room, but the lack of sound allows Haley to doze.

An abrupt knock at her front door startles her. With a quick glance at the clock on the wall, Haley realizes that it's just ten o'clock. "Ten o'clock and I'm ready for bed," Haley grumbles to herself as she makes her way to the door. "Taylor would be so proud."

Standing on her tiptoes, she squints through the peephole and frowns when she recognizes Nathan on the other side. She quickly unlocks the door and swings it open. "Nathan?"

He looks nervous or anxious...like he's going to jump out of his own skin. His eyes are slightly bloodshot and he's raking his hand through his hair, causing to stand on end. He jumps slightly at the sight of her and then greets her. "Haley."

They both stand staring at each other for several moments before Haley finally takes a step back. "Did you want to come in?"

"Oh...uh...sure," he finally agrees.

Closing the door, Haley glances down at the raggedy pajamas she's wearing and fights the urge to smack herself. Of course Nathan shows up when she's wearing the faded cotton pajama pants with classic books scattered across the fabric. They'd been a gag gift from her sisters when she'd become an English teacher and, while she's always thought them clever, they're not her first-choice of the sleepwear she'd like Nathan to see.

"Well, if he didn't think I was a total nerd before, he certainly does now," she mutters under her breath as she follows Nathan into her small living room.

"So...can I get you anything?" she offers courteously.

"No," he shakes his head. "I'm fine." As he stands in her living room, Nathan takes the opportunity to look around at Haley's home. As he does, he can't help but smile fondly. Everything about it, every little knick-knack, every rich color just screams Haley. The place is small, especially compared to his family's beach house, but it's comfortable. She's decorated the room in cool earth tones and she's chosen furniture that's not overly fancy, but is incredibly inviting. Shelves line the far wall and he can see that they're filled to the brim with books and photos. Moving to examine them more closely, he chuckles when he sees photos of Haley as a child posing with four other kids. There are photos of her at her high school and college graduations, photos of her with students, and photos of her with friends and colleagues. Then he arrives at one photo that catches his interest. Turning, he holds it up. "What's this?"

Moving closer, Haley's eyes widen when she sees the one he's picked up. It's a framed photo of her looking rather pale as she sits in a hospital bed. Quinn, Vivian, Taylor, and Jason are all clustered around her with huge grins on their faces as they hold up glasses of champagne. "Oh," she remarks dully. "I had to have a small procedure done right around New Years a few years ago. I was feeling sorry for myself, so sisters and my brother came to spend New Years with me."

Nathan looks back down at the photo and then back to her. "You have a nice family," he comments. "Your siblings, I mean."

Haley nods. "Yeah, I do." Slightly confused by his behavior, she narrows her eyes. "Are you okay, Nathan?"

He laughs it off. "I'm fine."

"You sure about that?" she questions skeptically. "Listen, I know today must have been really difficult for you. If you need to--" she doesn't have the chance to finish because Nathan cuts her off.

"I went out tonight," he announces suddenly.

"Okay..." Haley replies awkwardly.

"Right after I left the hospital, I went out with plans to get piss drunk and find some random girl and..." he colors slightly as he lets Haley fill in the blanks.

She flinches slightly and purses her lips as she regards him. "And you're telling me this because?"

"Because, for the first time in my life, I couldn't do it. I was sitting at that bar with my drink in front of me just waiting for the numbness to kick in. But all I could think about was how I would have rather been sitting with you over a cup of coffee. Here's the thing, Haley. I care about you."

"Well, I care about you too, Nathan."

Nathan is already shaking is head. "No, I don't mean in a superficial "I care about you, buddy" kind of way. I mean I can't stop thinking about you. I think about how beautiful you are, how smart you are, how amazing you are. I think about the fact that I've never told anyone about my mother, but then...I told you and it was the most natural thing in the world. And then I think about the fact that I can't stop thinking about you." He chuckles. "It's kind of sick actually. We've just been spending all this time together and I want that to continue, but...I told you today that I want more out of life. That's true. I want more, but I want it with you."

"Nathan..." Haley starts to interrupt while shaking her head.

"I don't know where the hell this is coming from," Nathan starts off. "You're nothing like any of the women I've ever been with. Hell, you're not even my type."

Haley frowns. "Uh, not impressed with the infamous Nathan Scott charm so far."

Frustrated, Nathan presses the heel of his hand against his forehead and tries to regroup.

"God, Haley! I don't know how to make it more clear. I want to be with you. Just you."

Haley raises a hand to her mouth and stands frozen to the floor, her stomach churning and her brain spinning. Here is Nathan Scott saying all of the things that Haley's ever wanted to hear from a man. And yet all she feels is sick and terrified. This is what she's been so afraid of. Once again, the timing in her life totally sucks. Here he is, the perfect guy for her. She likes him. She cares about him. But she just can't be with him. Not at this point in time. And it hurts like nothing she's ever felt before.

"I can't, Nathan," she whispers helplessly. "I wish..." she shakes her head. "I just can't be in a serious relationship. Not right now. But I want us to be friends, Nathan,""

Nathan scoff, "We're not friends, Haley! We haven't been friends since the day Whitey re-introduced us. I'm not going to play games here and try to pretend that we're something we're not. I just want to spend time with you. I can't understand what's so wrong about that."

"Nothing's wrong with that," Haley retorts. "I just..."

"Can't do a serious relationship," Nathan finishes for her. "Yeah, I know. But I'm in Tree Hill for another couple of months. I'd like to spend those months with you. So why don't you give me the chance to prove to you that this can work? I know you don't trust me yet, Haley. I don't blame you. But give me a chance."

Haley's forehead is creased as she ponders his suggestion. "I'm not one of your groupies," she warns him.

Nathan scowls. "You think I don't know that? Hell, Haley, I think you've made it pretty clear that you've never been my biggest fan."

"I can't make any promises to you, Nathan. I can't commit to anything," she warns.

Nathan steps forward and lets his hands fall to her hips. "I'll take what I can get."

"And if it gets to be too much?" Haley counters.

"You call the shots," he offers. "If you want out, you get out."

Releasing a little sigh, Haley reaches up and begins fiddling with the fabric of his shirt. "And you're really okay with this?"

"It'll do," Nathan agrees. He smiles. "For now."

"So how exactly does this work?" Haley questions. "I mean, where do we go from here?"

"Well," Nathan remarks thoughtfully. "I'm going to kiss you and say good night. Then tomorrow, when I get to the coffee shop, I'm going to kiss you and say good morning. We'll just wing it from there."

Then leaning down, he brushes his lips across hers and then gently tweaks her nose.

"Night, Hales."

************

She smiles when she sees him now. Not a forced smile. Not a grin-and-bear-it smile. She gives him a genuine glad-to-see-you smile whenever he enters the room.

He's pretty sure he always wears a genuine glad-to-see-you smile upon seeing her.

She's got a way with kids. He knows that much.

He's never paid attention to those kinds of things before, but he finds himself watching Haley with piqued interest whenever she's interacting with one of the kids. She seems to have some sort of aura which draws children to her. She's always down on her knees or sitting on the ground so she can look them in the eye. And she's certainly not afraid to look ridiculous. Her current get-up is proof of that.

"Nice outfit," Nathan comments teasingly as he approaches.

"Why thank you," she responds grandly. "Maggie and Olivia are designing my ensemble for the day, right ladies?"

The two girls giggle madly as they continue to fuss over Haley's clothing and hair. With a gleam in her eye, Haley glances at Nathan before turning her attention to the girls.

"Hey, girls," she whispers conspiratorially. "Why don't you make Nathan as pretty as you've made me? He can use all the help he can get."

Giggling wildly, both girls nod and Nathan finds himself being tugged down to their level. Before he knows it, he's wearing blue eyeshadow, false eyelashes, and red lipstick. Maggie is currently in the process of adding glitter for an extra special touch.

"Just a little," she explains. "You don't want to be too sparkly."

Nathan nods as though she's just made the most logical comment in the world.

"Are you and Ms. Haley going to get married?" Maggie questions casually as she begins sprinkling some of the sparkles in his hair.

"Uh...." Nathan glances over to where Haley is sitting a few feet away. She's got Olivia in her lap and they're obviously engaged in deep conversation. "I don't think so, Maggie."

"You should get married," Maggie urges seriously. "Ms. Haley is the nicest person in the world. Even when she's sick, she's not too tired or grumpy to play."

"So does Ms. Haley get to wear any glitter?" he inquires curiously, attempting to change the subject.

Maggie steps back and eyes him for a moment. "Nooooo," she replies. "She doesn't need any glitter."

"Why is that?"

Maggie rolls her eyes before giving Nathan a wide smile. "Because she already sparkles."

"She does, doesn't she?" Nathan agrees. Turning to look back at Haley once more, he catches her eye and smiles.

She smiles back.

*************

The sun is shining brightly through the large windows of the cafe and Nathan is enjoying the rare quiet that seems to have befallen the place. Haley has already called to warn him that she's running late, so he's waiting to order their drinks for today. He knows she prefers her lattes to be extra hot.

She looks fresh and cheerful when she finally breezes through the front door, and he can't help the wide smile that appears on his face at the sight of her. It's a Saturday, so they both have the day off from the camp, and she's wearing an emerald sundress for the occasion.

"Hey," she greets easily.

Skipping the verbal greeting, Nathan stands and immediately tugs her into his arms to press a quick kiss against her lips. He laughs when he sees her flush with embarrassment.

"Nathan!" she scolds as she glances around the cafe with embarrassment.

"What? It's not like we're sixteen year-olds engaging in extreme PDA I'm a grown man greeting a beautiful woman with a simple kiss. Don't be such a baby."

"I'm not a baby!" Haley protests sits down and folds her hands primly. "I'm just able to control myself in a public place."

"Yeah, right. My poor baby is embarrassed about a harmless little kiss," Nathan laments teasingly.

"Nathan..."

"Baby, baby, baby."

"Nathan!"

"Yes, baby?"

Cocking her head, Haley gives him a stern look. "First off, grow up. And second, go get my latte, smart ass."

"Whatever you say..." Nathan agrees with a mock salute. He turns just before he walks away. "...Baby!" he exclaims. He laughs as he dodges the balled-up napkin Haley launches at him and then proceeds to the end of the line where he finds he has an excellent view of her. Glancing over to the table, he sees her still scowling at him, but the scowl fades away and is replaced by a pretty blush the moment he offers her a genuine smile.

He could get used to this relationship thing.

*************

The following Friday is declared "Sundae Fun Day". Somehow Haley and Nathan have found themselves in charge of making enough sundaes for the eighty kids in attendance. Unfortunately, Nathan seems more interested in how the various fixings taste on Haley than in getting the ingredients ready for the kids.

"Nathan," she giggles as she attempts to push him away. "We have to get back out there! The kids are waiting."

Nathan grins. "They're fine. Whitey's with them." Reaching out, he takes her hand and pulls her close. Resting his hands on her slim waist, he takes a moment to just stop and look at her.

Haley watches him searchingly. When she recognizes the intensity of his gaze, she blushes slightly. "What?" she questions, squirming uncomfortably.

Nathan shrugs. "I like to look at you."

"Well, stop," Haley insists. "Look at the ice cream you're supposed to be scooping instead."

"But, baby, you're so much sweeter than a sundae!" Nathan remarks in a smarmy tone as he gives her sides a gentle tickle.

Haley squeals at the feel of his fingertips wiggling against her sensitive middle and she breaks out into a raucous peal of giggles. "Nathan!" she cries. "Nathan, stop!"

He does. Quite suddenly. And then his lips are on hers and his hands are at her waist. Caught up in the moment, Haley reaches up to wrap her arms around his neck. She can't help the tiny moan that escapes when she feels Nathan's attention shift to the soft skin along her throat. She tilts her head to encourage him and she lets out a squeal of surprise when he reaches down to lift her up onto the countertop.

"God, Nathan," she gasps. "One of the kids...could...come in."

"Don't care," he murmurs against her neck.

Haley grows impatient after a few moments and gently tilts his chin up so she can cover his lips with hers once again. God, he's a good kisser. His lips are soft and seeking. And she never fails to get swept up in his passion when he kissing her, touching her.

She can feel his hands sliding up and down her sides. He runs them up her back and then lowers them down to her ass. She swallows a giggle then because he's mentioned on more than one occasion how much he likes her ass. Their kisses are growing more frenzied when she feels him start to fiddle with the hem of her shirt, and then his palms are flat against her flesh and sliding up towards...

Her skin is unbelievably smooth and he nearly groans at the feel of it sliding beneath his fingertips. He feels the lacy edge of her bra when suddenly she tenses in his arms.

She jerks away, yanking his hands out from under her shirt. "Nathan," she utters warningly.

Surprised, Nathan lifts his hands in surrender. "What? Haley? Baby?"

Hopping down from the counter, she paces back and forth a few times. She's breathing heavily as she braces against the counter top, and she shakes her head. She manages to collect herself and then offers him a smile.

"Not here," she explains as she tugs awkwardly on the hem of her shirt. Crossing her arms, she nods towards the abandoned ingredients for the sundaes. "We should get back to work."

Frowning, Nathan nods.

"Are you sure you're okay?" he asks.

"I'm fine," she insists. "Let's just get back to work."

*************

The next several weeks are one long blur of blissful decadence.

Nathan has never seen himself as the type to do well in a monogamous relationship. It's not so much that he doesn't believe in it, it's just that he figures he's too much of a trainwreck to ever be any good at it. Why would any normal, sane, well-adjusted woman want to have anything to do with somebody like him?

Haley has changed that.

They spend nearly every waking moment together and in just a couple of months, he feels she knows him better than just about any other person on the planet. They've settled into a sort of routine. They meet for coffee before heading off to the camp for the day. Then they make dinner plans--barbecue at his place or take-out at hers. They like to take walks in the evenings when the temperature is cool and the streets are quiet. Then, late in the evenings, they'll settle down to watch television or a movie despite the fact that they both know Haley will be asleep within the first thirty minutes. And while, sure, he'd really like to have sex with her, waiting hasn't been the torturous experience he would have believed. It's just one more thing he's doing to try and make her happy. And making her happy makes him happy.

It's the last week of camp and Nathan can't help but watch Haley as she attempts to play basketball with several of the boys. She's absolutely terrible. Clumsy and awkward and graceless, she can't maneuver the ball to save her life. When she tries to dribble, the ball bounces off her foot and goes skittering across the court. When she tries to shoot, she gives a ridiculous little hop and sends the ball about halfway towards the hoop before it falls with a resounding thud. Still, she scampers around the court, encouraging the younger boys, and laughing at her own lack of skill whenever she makes a mistake. Nathan lets out a loud laugh when he watches her hunch over as she makes another attempt to dribble.

Hearing Nathan's laughter, she immediately looks up and loses control of the ball. With a sheepish shrug, Haley blows him a very subtle kiss and then returns her attention to the game.

"Oh Lord," Whitey mutters. "You've got it bad, son."

"Got what?" Nathan replies cluelessly, his eyes still fixed on his girl.

Chuckling to himself, Whitey pats Nathan on the shoulder. "Do me a favor. Stop by my house on your way home from work today. We need to have a little talk."

*************

The porch creaks beneath his weight. A bottle suddenly appears in his line of sight and he looks up at Whitey in surprise.

"Well, don't look so shocked," Whitey barks. "You're of drinking age. I'm not committing a crime."

Hesitantly, Nathan accepts the beer. Whitey gestures towards a set of chairs he has arranged on his front porch and they each have a seat.

"So," Whitey starts. "How's your mom?"

Nathan takes a swig of his beer and then nods. "She's actually doing good. She's in a different facility now. I try to stop by a visit her every couple of days. I think she's really trying to turn things around this time."

Whitey nods.

"I mean, there are still issues," Nathan admits. "It's not like we can just pretend that the past decade didn't happen, but we're talking more now. She's trying to be supportive of me now."

"Glad to hear it," Whitey comments gruffly. "See, I told you that you'd stay for as long as it takes."

"Yeah," Nathan agrees. "And I'm still here."

"So are you about done?"

"My mom was just released!" Nathan exclaims. "You were the one who told me I just had to stay and you're trying to get rid of me now?"

"I'm not talkin about your mom, boy. Hell, I was never just talkin about your mom."

"Then what are you talking about?"

"When you came home, you were about as mixed-up a guy as I've ever seen, Nathan. There's a reason I put you to work this summer."

"I know, I know," Nathan mutters. "Help others, help yourself."

"What the hell are you blatherin about?!" Whitey exclaims. "I never said anything of the sort."

"Well, I don't know what you're getting at, Coach!" Nathan growls in frustration.

"Haley!" Whitey finally explodes.

"What about her?"

"Are you about done falling for her?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Whitey lets out an impatient sigh and then looks around as though he's trying to find a way to explain himself to Nathan. "I don't know two people who are more different than you and Haley James."

"Yeah, yeah," Nathan finishes. "I'm a piece of shit and she's an angel. Don't I know it?"

"No," Whitey protests. "You're just lost. You don't have any kind of plan or direction. And Haley, well, Haley never lived a day of her life without a plan. Until you showed up. You're good for each other. But you need to take a good look at how you're going to handle things when you go back to LA."

"What are you trying to say?" Nathan asks impatiently.

"I'm saying that you need to be careful with her," Whitey explains.

Nathan fights the urge to laugh at Whitey's suggestion, but he doesn't bother to correct the old man by telling him that he would never hurt Haley. He doesn't tell Whitey about the fact that he never wants Haley to leave his place or how he mopes when she finally does. He doesn't tell Whitey about the fact that words like 'adorable', 'beautiful', and perhaps most notably 'Sorry, baby' have become regular parts of his daily vocabulary. He certainly doesn't mention to Whitey that he hasn't had sex with Haley James yet because, after all, she's made it clear that they're not in a serious relationship--they're just enjoying each other's company.

"Relax, Coach," Nathan urges. "I'm not about to break her heart."

Whitey chuckles. "Hers isn't the heart I'm worried about."

*************

"Do you have to go?" Nathan whines petulantly, his arm looped around Haley's waist as they lay on the couch watching television.

"Yes, I have to go," she mimics him with a grin. "Besides, aren't you supposed to help Whitey get things set up for the field day today?"

"Eh, the old man can wait," Nathan mutters jokingly. "But you..." He presses his lips to the crook of her neck and breathes in her unique vanilla scent.

"I," Haley declares, "have to go. I've got to get home. You should have woken me up so I could go home last night. I mean this couch is probably the most uncomfortable thing ever. I don't think I'll ever walk upright again. Plus, there's no way I'm going to show up in the same clothes I wore yesterday."

"So borrow some from me," Nathan insists.

"Yeah, because that'll look a whole lot better," Haley laughs. Leaning in, she presses a quick kiss to his lips. "Look, I'll just hurry home to change and then I'll see you there."

Nathan frowns as he watches her scramble up from the couch. "It's a field day, Haley. I'm sure I can find a t-shirt for you to wear. And you can just wear the jeans you wore yesterday." He grins teasingly. "You're just lucky I love you. I don't exactly make a habit of loaning my clothes to women."

Nathan is confused when he sees her tense slightly and then take a few steps back. Her mouth is hanging slightly open and her eyes are wide with shock. She shakes her head sadly. "You really shouldn't have said that, Nathan."

Nathan frowns and tosses his hands up in confusion. "Said what?" He lets his mind comb through what he's just said and he realizes what's scaring her. "I shouldn't have told you I love you? I'm sorry, Haley, but that's the way I feel! It shouldn't exactly be a shock to you! We've been spending every minute together for the past six weeks!"

"God," Haley groans. "I told you I didn't want this. We're friends, Nathan! Why are you pushing this?" Haley questions incredulously, brushing a strand of hair out of her face.

"Because!" Nathan exclaims. "You're always doing this!"

"Doing what?!" she snaps back.

"Pulling away! Every time we start to move things to the next level, you run like you're being chased. What are you so afraid of?!"

"Oh, like you're the poster child for healthy relationships!" Haley hisses sarcastically. "Mr. Love-Em-and-Leave-Em wants to know why I have reservations about being in a relationship with him! That's a laugh!"

Hurt flickers over Nathan's face, but anger quickly replaces it. "You're right, Haley! I have some issues. But as far as I can tell, I'm the only one who has struggled to work through those issues. I told you about my mother! I came to you and told you that I wanted to be with you! What have you done?"

"I'm trying, Nathan!" Haley cries out. "But I have to be careful here! I made it clear to you in the beginning that I wasn't going to be able to give you what you wanted! There are things you don't understand!"

"Of course there are!" Nathan roars. "But that's because you haven't explained them to me!"

By now, there are tears streaming down Haley's face. She's standing awkwardly, her weight forward and then backward as though a part of her wants to run into his arms and another part of her wants to run out the door. "Why do you have to push me? I'm trying, Nathan, but this is the one thing I just...I can't."

"Because I..." Nathan falters for a moment, but then regains his composure. "Because I love you, Haley. I'm ridiculously in love with you. I think about you constantly. I think of ways to make you happy. I plan my days around you. I didn't ask for this, you know? I just came here to take care of things with my mom. I thought I was perfectly happy with my life in LA. I played basketball, I had my choice of women, and I didn't have to answer to anybody. But then there you were. And goddamn, it's nice to have someone to call...just because I feel like talking. It's nice to have someone who calls me out on my shit and makes me apologize. I love you, Haley! But I don't know how you feel about me."

He aches as he watches her standing there like she's in agony. The sight of her crying nearly breaks him, and the knowledge that her tears are because of him makes him sick. He gives her an out. "It's okay," he grumbles. "You don't have to say anything. I just thought you should know."

"I love you too," she squeaks out suddenly, her eyes widening with surprise at her own admission.

"Haley," he begins to protest, "you don't have to--"

She weighs her options for a split-second and then makes her choice. It's now or never. She steps forward and places a finger over his lips. "I. Love. You. Too." She smiles through her tears. "Now if you ruin this moment, I'll kick your ass."

"And there's the girl I love," Nathan jokes. Reaching down, he wraps his arms around her waist and tugs her into his arms. Leaning down, he whispers into her ear, "So does this mean you'll stay?"

"No, Nathan," Haley laughs through her tears. "I can't. I'm going home to change. But I'll see you in a little while."

"Fine," he groans. "Fine. Drive carefully."

The words of caution are simple, but the love and concern behind them bring a smile to Haley's face.

She nods. "I will."

"I love you, Haley."

She's nearly giddy when she turns to reply.

"I love you too."

*************

Haley feels as though she's floating all the way back to her condo. After all of this time and all of her hesitation, she can't believe that falling in love is really so simple. He loves her. Nathan Scott loves her.

"He loves me," she murmurs to herself. And then she giggles. Actually giggles like a smitten teenager.

But the true miracle of the whole thing? She loves him.

For once, Taylor had been right. Being in love definitely beat being alone.

She's not foolish enough to think that the relationship will be without its issues. There are a lot of things to work out. After all, Nathan knows nothing about her past. He knows nothing about the many risks he runs if he's in a relationship with her. It's only fair that she is honest with him before expecting him to commit to being with her.

She's still smiling giddly as she guides her Honda along the narrow stretch of highway between Nathan's house and her place. She's contemplating ways that she and Nathan can spend the evening when the serenity of the morning is destroyed by the piercing sound of tires on pavement. Startled, Haley looks up and sees several of the cars in front of her careening all over the road. Then another moment and she understands why. Her foot immediately finds the brake and she grips the wheel tightly as she fights to maintain control of the car. The shining grill of the semi-truck is fast approaching and it's close enough for her to recognize the 'Freightliner' logo when she feels blunt force of the truck as it strikes her car. She's spinning then and the twisting of metal makes the most raucous sound while Haley desperately tries not to be sick. The twisting and groaning stops as she realizes she's in freefall for a split-second. Then the roof of her car makes impact with the earth and Haley is knocked unconscious when her head smacks violently into her driver's side window.

*************

Nathan takes another look at his watch and shakes his head irritably. She was supposed to be here already. Actually, she was supposed to be here almost an hour ago. "Damnit, Hales," he murmurs to himself. "Where the hell are you?"

"Nathan," he hears Whitey call, his tone serious.

"Yeah, yeah," Nathan mutters. "She's late. Don't look at me. I'm here on time."

"No, son."

"What is it?" Nathan asks, glancing up at the older man. "Is it my mom?"

"No, son." Whitey shakes his head. "It's not your mom."

"Then what?"

"It's Haley."

The simple mention of her name in Whitey's ominous tone and Nathan feels his skin crawl. He shivers involuntarily and then swallows several times. His mouth is suddenly dry, and his throat feels impossibly tight. "No," Nathan shakes his head. "No. No. No."

Nathan sees the small group of Haley's students stand up immediately.

"What's wrong with Ms. James, Coach?" Brandon asks grimly.

"Is it the cancer?" Maria whispers with dread.

"Cancer?!" Nathan exclaims. "What the hell..."

Whitey cuts him off. "Ms James had an accident, kids. The doctors are doing everything they can for her, but we won't know anything more for a little while." Maria lets out a small, wrenching sob, and Whitey's face and voice both soften. "Now there are kids who need your attention, so why don't you all head to your stations and get to work."

Nathan watches as the group retreats reluctantly and then he turns back to Whitey. "Cancer? What the hell is going on, Coach? Is she okay?!"

"She had an accident," Whitey explains. "It looks like she was on her way home, but she ended up in a collision with a semi-truck that crossed into her lane. The truck managed to stop, but not before it pushed her car off the side of the road and into a ravine."

"No," Nathan murmurs weakly. He shakes his head. "Haley drives like a ninety year-old woman. I told her to be careful. It's not her."

Whitey nods his head. "It's her, son."

"What was Maria talking about?" Nathan asks. "The cancer."

"I just assumed she would have told you," Whitey states, his brow quirked with confusion. "You didn't know?"

Nathan is frantic now, pushing his hands through his hair like a madman. "Do I look like a guy who knows?!"

"That girl of yours is a fighter, Nathan, but I'd rather let her tell you the details. I'm sorry, son. I know she doesn't like to talk about it...hates to talk about it actually. But I assumed that she'd told you."

Nathan drops into a chair and lowers his face into his hands. He looks up. "Well, she didn't."

It all makes sense. All of sudden all of the little pieces are coming together. Whitey's concern for her well-being and his protectiveness over her. The pills he'd seen her taking at the cafe. Maggie's mention of Haley's sickness. Haley's tendency to get tired easily. The photo at her place. Her reluctance to be physically intimate. They all should have pointed to some kind of illness or condition. He'd missed the signs.

"I've gotta go," Nathan announces.

Whitey nods. "You go and take care of your girl. I'll join you in just a little bit."

Nodding, Nathan turns and breaks into a jog as he heads in the direction of the parking lot.

"Nathan!"

The voice is sharp and pleading. He stops suddenly and turns to see Maria, Tara, Tony, Brandon, and Jasmine standing in a group. Tears are shining in the eyes of the girls, and Nathan can see the tension in the posture and expressions of the boys.

"Is Ms. James going to be okay?" Maria questions timidly.

Nathan thinks about lying and assuring them that she'll be just fine. But then he changes his mind. They're nearly adults. They deserve his honesty.

"I hope so, you guys."

"Will you tell her we're thinking of her?" Brandon requests.

Nathan nods. "Absolutely."

*************

"Jesus, Haley, why didn't you tell me?" He plays with her hands, traces the creases and curves, and presses kisses to her palms.

He's not even supposed to be in the room with her. When the hospital had initially asked if he was immediate family, he'd answer no and had been refused. Whitey had saved the day by assuring the nurse that it was alright.

"He's her fiance," the old man had explained kindly.

Nathan hadn't stayed to hear the rest of the conversation. At the nurse's nod, he'd raced to Haley's side, unable to bear the thought of her being alone.

So here he is.

"Your students are worried about you, Hales. Damn, I've never met a group of teenagers who actually liked their teachers...forget a group who actually loves and protects their teacher. You must have done something right with those kids."

"Mr. Scott?"

Nathan turns around to see an elegant looking woman in a white lab coat. She's carrying a clipboard and he can see from the embroidering on the pocket that her name is Dr. Mahoney.

"I'm Nathan Scott," he announces.

Dr. Mahoney nods. "Mr. Scott, I understand you're the fiance of Haley James?"

Nathan nods, not comfortable enough to be able to lie out loud.

Dr. Mahoney smiles and Nathan has a sneaking suspicion that she's not buying his story.

"And what about the accident?" he prods impatiently.

The smile fades from the doctor's face and she sobers before continuing. "She sustained some pretty serious injuries as a result of the accident. Her pelvis was fractured and she had some internal bleeding, but we were able to go in and surgically repair the damage. She also sustained a minor concussion, some cuts, and some bruises. She's resting now, but she should be just fine. I'm going to want to keep her here for a few days, so it might be a good idea for you to pick up some of her personal items from home. Pajamas, a pillow, or anything else that will make her more comfortable."

Letting out a noisy sigh of relief, Nathan nods.

**********

When Haley finally wakes up, Nathan nearly cries with relief.

The sight of Nathan looking so fractured causes an extra ache in her heart. Hospitals have been just a way of life for her over the past several years. She sometimes forgets how terrifying they can be for those who don't spend a lot of time in them.

"Thank God, baby," Nathan gasps as he presses his face into the edge of the mattress.

Haley gives him a shy shrug. She can tell he finally knows about the secret she's been keeping. "Who told you?"

His eyes close and then open again. "Maria mentioned it when Whitey told me you were in the hospital."

"God, Hales. Cancer?"

Haley nods. "I needed to get home to change, but I also needed to take my pills. Hormone therapy is a big part of my treatment plan. Another year or so and I'll be done with those damn pills for good. Normally I have the pills in my purse, but I'd just gotten had the prescription refilled, so I needed to pick it up."

"So that's why you in such a hurry to go home? God, Hales, I wish you just would have told me. It's not just about you anymore."

"What do you mean?" she wonders, her forehead knit with confusion.

"What I mean is you're a part of my life now. I need you to stick around. And I need you healthy."

Haley stares at him thoughtfully for several moments. Finally, she speaks.

"When I was twenty-two, I had just finished my first year teaching in Tree Hill and I was planning on going overseas to teach English for the summer," she explains. "I needed a complete physical before I would receive my placement at a school, so I went to my doctor thinking it would be quick and painless." Haley sighs tiredly as she gets to the more difficult part of the story. "My doctor paused when she was doing a breast examination and then asked me how long I'd had the lump in my right breast. I didn't even know there was a lump. I was twenty-two! I didn't think I needed to worry about breast cancer until I was in my forties! I was mostly annoyed by the whole thing. They did a biopsy, but I was convinced that the lump would turn out to be a benign cyst and I was in a hurry to go to Europe."

"But it wasn't benign," Nathan surmises.

Haley shakes her head. "Nope. It was cancer. So my trip was canceled and I was suddenly a cancer patient. I had to make decisions about my treatment plans and the types of risks I was willing to take. After my lumpectomy, I went through chemo and then radiation therapy. The hormone therapy is the final step."

"Jesus," Nathan mumbles. "That's why you've been fighting me the whole way about our relationship," he realizes. He leans down to press a kiss against the inside of her forearm and then waits for her to continue.

Haley nods. "It didn't seem fair to get involved with somebody when there was a chance that I could relapse. I mean, cancer isn't pretty. I know that seems like an obvious statement, but the treatments can be devastating. I would never want you or anyone else to feel obligated to make white cell counts and hospital stays and chemo cocktails a part of your life. I always just thought that...if I could wait...just until I hit my five year mark, it would be like a reward. I could go back to dating and thinking about things like marriage and families without worrying so much about dragging someone down with me."

Nathan can't help but laugh wryly at the irony of the situation. "You still don't get it, baby."

Haley furrows her brow. "What?"

"The love thing. You don't stick with the one you love because you're obligated. You stick with them because, even during the worst times, there's nowhere else you'd rather be." Nathan raises their joined hands and presses a kiss to the inside of her wrist. "If being with you means sitting in this hospital room, then this is where I'll be."

haley watches him closely for a moment and she can see the sincerity shining in his eyes. Tentatively, she undoes the first two buttons on the pajama top she's wearing and she exposes the long line of scar tissue that still puckers along curve of her right breast. "I haven't...been with anyone since the surgery. I don't look the same as I used to and it's not really something I like to show off," she explains apologetically.

Nathan's eyes widen at the sight of the scarring, but then he brushes his fingertips gently along the line. Leaning in, he presses a soft kiss to her forehead and then grasps her hand within his."The scar is part of what saved your life, right?" he questions earnestly.

Haley nods.

"Well, then it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," he murmurs to her before taking her lips in a kiss. They kiss hungrily for several moments before they finally pull away breathlessly.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Nathan questions finally.

Haley gives him a sad smile. "Because you were the first person in my life who didn't know," she responds simply. "It was nice. Everyone else was always trying to be so nice or trying to make excuses for me. 'Oh, Haley's running late? She must be feeling sluggish from her treatment' or 'Haley's being a bitch today? She must just be feeling under the weather after the cancer'. It was nice to have someone treat me like I was a normal, healthy human being."

"So that's why you enjoyed fighting with me," Nathan remarks teasingly.

Haley smiles and then sobers as she looks him in the eye. "You have to know that I wasn't trying to keep it from you. It wasn't that I didn't trust you to know--I was just so enjoying the normalcy of our relationship that I was afraid to change anything." She lifts a palm to his cheek and her eyes are searching his face for some sign of understanding. "You have to know that, Nathan. I would trust you with my life."

Nathan is silent. Finally, he replies, "Good. Because I would do anything for you."

************

In the two months since the accident, Nathan has hardly left Haley's side. As a result of her accident, Haley had been forced to take a leave of absence for a semester--something she regretted since she'd missed so much work during her chemotherapy. While the two have been living in a sort of blissful bubble, September (and the start of the NBA season) is fast approaching and the idea of leaving Tree Hill has become less than appealing.

Heaving a sigh, Nathan flips idly through an ancient copy of National Geographic as he and Haley wait for her name to be called. When she'd asked him to come along to her latest check-up, he'd recognized it as an effort to include him in all aspects of her life. He's been doing quite a bit of research lately and is waiting for a very important phone call, but he's also concerned about the news they're about to get regarding Haley's recovery.

The doctor enters the room and gives the young couple a wide smile. "Haley," he greets. Then he turns to Nathan with a smile. "I'm Dr. Schuman."

Nathan offers his hand. "Nathan Scott."

"Good to meet you, Nathan. I understand you've been taking good care of Haley."

Haley rolls her eyes. "I believe I said he was being crazy overprotective, Dr. Schuman."

"And knowing you, I'd say that means he's taking good care of you," Dr. Schuman chuckles. "Now how are you feeling, Haley?"

Haley smiles sleepily. "I can't complain, I guess."

"Well, I won't burden you with a long wait. The good news is it looks as though you are still in remission." The doctor's smile wavers as he continues to skim the clipboard in front of him. "Unfortunately, the symptoms you described during your last visit were troubling to me. I've consulted with had a look at the records from your treatment after your accident and I've consulted with the attending surgeon. Your description of your symptoms would lead me to believe that you have have some pelvic adhesions. As you know, your accident resulted in a significant amount of trauma to your abdominal and pelvic areas." He looks at Nathan and Haley closely. "Pelvic adhesions are an unfortunate side effect of these surgeries. On the other hand, your pain might just be lingering from your injuries."

"So what do we do?" Haley asks.

Dr. Schuman gives them both an apologetic smile. "We wait and see. You said your pain isn't severe. Adhesions are difficult to diagnose or identify without surgical exploration. Even then, there's not much to be done and further surgeries can exacerbate the issue. If your pain goes away, it's likely just a remnant of your initial injury. If not, we'll take a closer look at the potential issues caused by the adhesions. For now, we can rest easy knowing that the pain isn't cancer-related."

"And what are the potential issues?" Nathan probes worriedly.

"In addition to pain, this type of scar tissue can and often does limit fertility," he explains apologetically.

"Oh." Haley's shoulders slump.

"You said 'can'," Nathan observes. "But it's not a sure thing,"

The doctor gives him an optimistic smile. "No, it's not a sure thing. There are plenty of options out there to try."

"And if not," Nathan says, taking Haley's hand and pressing a kiss to her palm, "there are plenty of kids out there that need homes."

Haley's eyes widen at the implication of Nathan's words and she wonders if he's forgotten that they no longer have to keep up the charade of their

ngagement.

Dr. Schuman, recognizing that this is an intimate moment, makes a quiet exit.

"Nathan, what are you saying? I mean, you do realize that we no longer have to play the engaged couple card, right?"

"And what if I liked the engaged couple card?" Nathan responds.

Baffled, Haley shakes her head as she tries to process his words. "Wait, what...um, excuse me?"

"The engaged thing," Nathan answers easily. "I thought we did it pretty well. I think it's something we should talk about."

"Oh really?" Haley questions.

With a smirk, Nathan gives her a confident nod. "Most definitely."

"And have you forgotten that you're due to be in Los Angeles in another two weeks?" Haley inquires coyly.

"Yeah," Nathan replies. "About that..."

Haley's eyes widen with dread. "Oh God. What did you do?"

Nathan leans over and presses a kiss against her forehead before pulling back with a smirk. "I've got something in the works. Now it's just a matter of waiting for the phone to ring."

*************

Nathan Scott had always felt totally in his element in the city of Los Angeles. It had always been the place where he was respected and admired. It had always been a place where he had been able to escape his past and his family. Just a few months ago, he had been desperate to get to Tree Hill, take care of business, and get the hell back to LA. Which is why he finds it so ironic now that he's so desperate to tie up loose in Los Angeles and hurry back to Tree Hill. He glances down at the platinum band on his left finger. Back to his wife.

"Yo, Scott!" Skills Taylor calls out when he sees Nathan emerging from the owner's office. "What's this I hear about a trade?"

"Got the call last week," Nathan explains.

"And you're okay with this?" Skills asks incredulously.

Nathan shrugs with a smile. "My priorities have changed, man. I called in a few favors and it worked out."

"So where you headed?"

"Tree Hill," Nathan explains. "Actually, Charlotte."

Skills gives Nathan a disbelieving look. "Weren't you the one tellin me that Tree Hill was nowhere with nobody in it?"

Nathan shrugs. "I was wrong. Happens all the time."

"So..." Skills prompts him. "What changed your mind?"

Nathan smiles distantly and nods. "There's most definitely somebody."

"She pretty?" Skills wants to know.

"Gorgeous. And smart and funny and kind and tough as nails."

"I like her already. What's her name?"

Nathan glances up with a wide smile. "Why don't you just call her Mrs. Scott?"

"Oh really? And where is Mrs. Scott now?"

Nathan pauses for a moment before answering with a single word. "Home."

*************

Sasha Scott's parents call her their surprise baby.

When the doctors had informed Nathan and Haley that she was still in complete remission on their two year wedding anniversary, they had also reminded the couple that children would be highly unlikely due to the injuries Haley had sustained in her accident as well as the effects of her cancer treatment. While Nathan and Haley had been understandably disappointed, Nathan had been the first to bounce back from the news.

"So?" he'd questioned while cradling a sobbing Haley in his arms. "We'll adopt."

And so it was settled. They'd been in the research stage of the process--learning all they could about adoption--when Haley had started to suspect that she was pregnant. They'd both been skeptical at first. Haley had cried when Nathan had given her the home pregnancy test because she'd been so convinced that they were setting themselves up for disappointment. The pregnancy hadn't been an easy one. Haley had automatically been classified as high-risk. She'd had issues with low weight gain, high glucose levels, and severe abdominal cramping. Nathan had been unbelievably protective and had been the strict enforcer of the doctor's orders for bed rest. Despite the challenges, however, Nathan and Haley had relished the opportunity to experience the ordinary miracles that were a part of the pregnancy. The moment that Sasha took her first breath of air, they were completely smitten.

Bouncing the baby girl gently, Nathan smiles into her pretty face. She had spent the previous night with her Grandma Deb since he and Haley had attending the celebration banquet for the Bobcats' championship. Even twenty-four hours away from his baby girl is difficult and he tries to spend as much time with her as possible while he's home. With her wide brown eyes and dainty features, Sasha is a stunner. Nathan still isn't quite sure how he went from being a miserable bachelor living in lap of luxury to being a blissed out husband and father living in a small-town colonial, but he's glad he did.

"Did you have to change her?"

Nathan turns as Haley walks into the nursery, a tender smile on her face.

Nathan nods. "Yeah, but she's all cleaned up now. Aren't you, beautiful?" he croons to his daughter.

Haley bites her lip as she feels a wave of emotion at the sight of her husband holding her daughter. It's been over three months since Sasha was born, but Nathan's natural abilities as a father still bring her to tears on occasion.

"Sasha, did you tell your daddy congratulations?" Haley asks in the silly voice she reserves for her daughter. "He's an NBA champion."

Sasha stares at her mother and then giggles triumphantly when she manages to blow a small spit bubble.

"She's obviously very impressed," Nathan remarks dryly. He turns his attention back to his smiling daughter. "You want to go to Mommy, Sash? Huh?"

Haley smiles up at him before taking the baby and pressing a kiss against her downy head. After a few quiet murmurs of love, she places Sasha carefully in her crib. Turning to face her husband, she wraps her arms around his waist and snuggles her face into his chest. She smiles when she feels him rest his chin against her head.

"So, Champ," she starts off, "how are you planning to spend the off-season?"

Nathan takes a breath as he ponders her question. Sasha is babbling happily from her crib. Haley feels soft and warm in his arms, and he can smell the coconut shampoo on her freshly washed hair. Finally, he has his answer. "In a perfect world?" he asks.

Haley looks up at him and nods.

He smiles. "Just like this."

END