The long (very, very long) one-chaptered full version of A Briefer History of Clichés. If you've read that, you have a very short outline of how this goes and what the ending is. I can't even remember when I started writing this, but it's finally finished to somewhat of an acceptable degree (Some of it fails and doesn't flow well because I started writing it when I sucked at writing and just can no longer find the energy to overhaul the structure/dialogue.). Things to know: Haley is an only child, Nathan and Brooke are siblings, the NCAA Championships will probably never be played in the Oracle Arena, and time skips—badly and often. And if you ever tell your children how you met their mother/father, à la the TV show, for the sake of their sanity, don't tell them these kinds of things.

Updates to ASTTS are forthcoming, probably on my 12 hour flight home this weekend or if I get snowed in at the airport.

A Brief History of Clichés

Haley supposed it all began before she could even remember. It was a rather uninspiring beginning but she couldn't recall a single moment of her life that didn't involve Brooke Scott and family. On the other hand, many would be surprised to learn that she and Nathan Scott didn't always get along as famously as people believed.

Not surprisingly, the boy, older by almost two years, often treated her like his little sister, especially when he was forced by his parents to take them to play basketball or to his friends' houses. Haley easily remembered more than a few years of her and Brooke being mercilessly teased for being the only two girls around.

Like the omnipresent Brooke, Haley also easily recalled the very first time Nathan Scott acknowledged her existence beyond, "Why do I have to take them, too?" She had been nine and her mother had sent her across the street to play with Brooke. Unfortunately, Brooke had been at the orthodontist getting those wonderful inventions known as braces. Her mother had taken her and Dan Scott was locked up in his study, leaving Nathan to answer the door when she arrived.

Haley immediately took a step back at seeing Nathan. Most times he would just glance at her before yelling for Brooke or his parents. "Mom and Brooke aren't here and Dad's busy," the eleven-year-old informed her before trying to shut the door.

"Wait," Haley suddenly spoke up and almost changed her young mind when she saw Nathan's look of irritation. "There's nothing to do in my house. Can I stay here until Brooke comes home?" she questioned timidly. The boy didn't answer but he held the door open wider and waited for her to step inside before closing and locking it.

"I'm going to tell Dad you're here," Nathan announced and Haley nodded, watching him disappear into a familiar hallway. She heard the television on and wandered into the family room, taking a seat on the couch and staring at the Paused screen of the video game. Nathan came back in and sat down in front of the couch, using it as a backrest, before picking up a controller and handing her the spare one.

They did nothing but play Super Mario Kart for the next two hours, Dan Scott checking in every once in a while to make sure they weren't hungry. Haley, always a fast learner, was just starting to catch up to Nathan when the garage door opened and Brooke came rushing in. Nathan made his little sister show him her new braces before laughing at her misfortune and returning to his video game. Haley threw down the controller and followed the tearful Brooke upstairs to her room.

After that day, Nathan never seemed bothered by having them around. He stopped complaining as much when they would tag along with his friends and even made his friends stop teasing them. Haley and Brooke soon got used to the preferential treatment from the older boys and delighted in being able to hang out with them during recess.

When she was twelve and just starting junior high, Nathan began to hold her hand when they went places. He would do it during family outings, around school, and even in front of his friends. At the time, this did nothing but fuel Haley's crush for the older boy. It was only natural that she start daydreaming about the boy who had been nice to her for the past few years and who clearly didn't know the meaning of "awkward teenager."

When she was fourteen and starting high school, Haley realized that it was useless to crush on Nathan especially when his high school reputation told her that he was anything but a gentleman. He still held her hand or put an arm around her shoulders when walking through the halls but she learned it was more for protection than anything else. Brooke had the Scott last name and boys knew better than to mess with her so that was Nathan's way of ensuring the same thing for her. Plus, it was fun to have all the girls glare at her enviously while walking to class.

When she was sixteen and watching him graduate, Haley knew that it would be one of the most outstanding moments of her high school career, save her own graduation. She clapped proudly as the class of soon-to-be-college-freshmen threw their caps into the air and let out screams of their newfound freedom. She stood watching as Brooke dodged and weaved through the crowd, launching herself into her brother's arms before anyone else could even hope of reaching him. She smiled brightly when she posed with the very proud Scott family for pictures and forced a smile on her face when Tim Smith tried to hit on her for the thousandth time, only to be stopped by a harsh look from Nathan.

Suddenly, she found herself alone with Nathan, at least for a few brief moments. Nathan reached for her hand as he had been doing for the past four years and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Thanks for everything, Hales. You've been a great friend," and with those words, he leaned forward and gently kissed her. The next thing she knew, he had pulled back and Tim ran past, latching onto Nathan's arm and dragging him along.

For a second, Haley wasn't even sure if it had actually happened. Maybe hallucinations were a side effect of sitting under the hot sun for two hours while waiting for four hundred names to be called and diplomas to be handed out. Of course, no one had been paying attention to them at the time. The Scott's were talking to some other couple, most likely basketball parents, and Brooke was chatting with a few of their friends who also had older siblings and friends graduating.

That night, she went along with Brooke as the other girl insisted on crashing the "Seniors Only" party, insisting that no one would dare turn them away for fear of Nathan. Haley didn't even bother dressing up, no matter how much Brooke nagged at her. She knew she would stay just long enough for Brooke to get wasted but drag her best friend out of there just before the cops showed up.

As always, Brooke was right and no one said a thing as they walked into the party. Brooke made a beeline for the keg and Haley milled about until she caught sight of Nathan who motioned her over with a tilt of his head. "Playing babysitter?" he questioned with a lazy smile. Judging from the slightly glazed over look in his eyes, Haley could easily tell that he was just past tipsy and contemplating raging drunk.

"No, I figured this would be the perfect outfit to come and pickup guys in," Haley retorted gesturing to her UNC sweatshirt, jeans, and Converse. "What do you think?" she asked sarcastically, sending him a saccharine smile and a roll of her eyes.

"I think you look great," he returned seriously, going along with her game. His eyes swept the crowd and his expression grew solemn. "Come with me outside. I need some air," Nathan demanded, grabbing for her hand. Haley cut worried eyes in Brooke's direction but he kept pulling, "She'll be fine for ten minutes. Come with me."

They walked out the front door and continued a ways down the lengthy driveway before settling under a large tree in the yard. "What'd you see?" Haley questioned immediately, tilting her head to get a better look at his face. Nathan remained stoic and Haley rolled her eyes. "Come on, you dragged me out here. Now what'd you see that made you run out of there like a little girl?"

"Everyone," Nathan replied simply before glancing over at her. "I just saw nearly all my friends and all those people I barely remember passing in the hallways and I realized that I'm never going to get to do that again. There are some people who are going to be leaving tomorrow morning. Tree Hill's done, gone, a passing memory."

Nathan turned silent and Haley was left speechless. So many times Nathan had talked about leaving Tree Hill and never coming back, she had no clue what to say to him now that he figured he would actually miss it. "I'm really going to miss you, Haley," he spoke softly and she turned surprised eyes his way.

He just smiled at her before once again leaning forward and brushing his lips against hers. A moment passed before he stood up, offering her a small smirk, and walked away. She sat under the tree for a few minutes before hearing a scream that sounded suspiciously like Brooke. Hurrying to her feet, she sprinted into the house and followed the crowd of on-lookers to the kitchen.

Pushing past the drunkards, Haley burst into the room, finding Brooke on the verge of tears, an angry Nathan, and some random guy sprawled on the floor next to a broken table. It didn't take a genius to put together what had happened. Nathan looked up and noticed her standing frozen in the entryway before grabbing his younger sister and flinging her into Haley's arms. The look in his eyes clearly told them to leave and Haley quickly dragged her best friend away from the scene.

Haley awoke the next morning, expecting to find Brooke passed out on the right side of her bed and finding a note instead. She glanced towards the clock, reading 11:53, and opened the note. The Scott's had called sometime around nine and Brooke left to take Nathan to the airport with them. Thanks for taking care of her and she'd be sure to say bye to Nathan for her.

She sat there in her bed, processing the news, and before she knew it, Brooke came bounding back into her bedroom, admonishing her for still being in bed. She apologized for running out, but hadn't wanted to wake her, and then pulled her out of bed, exclaiming that they needed to celebrate the end of Nathan Scott's reign.

Not wanting to seem overly interested, Haley casually inquired as to the return of King Nathan. Brooke shrugged, saying it would probably be Thanksgiving but who knew because basketball was sure to get in the way of things but Christmas for sure. Brooke then wanted to know why she wanted to know. Haley just shrugged, claiming that her mom wanted to know if they were doing their traditional holiday thing: Thanksgiving at the James' and Christmas at the Scott's.

Their summer passed peaceably, taking the time to tan and shop and celebrate laziness itself by sleeping in till the early afternoon. The beginning of senior year came and went and Haley hardly had time to celebrate being at the top before she was swamped with homework assignments. Senioritis wasn't as predominate as Nathan made it seem.

With the heavy workload, Haley let her own eighteenth birthday sneak up on her. Only when Brooke had shown up on her doorstep at exactly midnight with their traditional cupcake in hand, did she remember. Later that day, she found a voicemail on her phone from Nathan. His teasing voice warned her against letting Brooke drag her to a strip club, which the other girl had actually suggested, and promised her a present for their next encounter.

Thanksgiving rolled around and she and Brooke weren't too happy with the school's new policy of only Thursday and Friday off as opposed to the whole week. As Brooke warned her nearly five months ago, Nathan didn't turn up. Practices ran too long and he was way too tired to come home for just two days.

Then came the surprise from Dan Scott. The man had made himself scarce the past couple months and Haley had occasionally wondered why. He had been Uncle Dan for much too long for her to not notice. Apparently he spent too much time traveling to and from Nathan's games to spend time with the girls. Brooke informed her that Nathan was playing a game the Saturday after Turkey Day and Dan had gotten tickets and accommodations for both families. Since Nathan couldn't make it back, they would bring Thanksgiving to him.

Haley reluctantly agreed, college applications were coming up and she really needed to finish. The families headed down and so did she, armed with her laptop and wireless Internet. She felt the slightest bit out of place, standing in front of Nathan's dorm room while a few of his teammates walked past, wondering who in hell they were.

The door swung open and Nathan greeted them, all smiles. He gave Brooke a hug first, letting her into the space behind him, before shaking hands with the dads and hugging the mothers. Haley mustered up a smile and didn't protest when he happily hugged her before placing a kiss on her cheek. He pulled back and smiled before taking her hand and leading her into the room.

Nathan had obviously made an effort to straighten up a little bit. His books and papers were stacked on the desk, the clothes that would normally fill his floor had been kicked into a corner and his bed had been made. The two mothers immediately started clicking their tongues and went about picking up his room, which Nathan seemed more than happy to let them do.

He bade Brooke scoot over and plopped down on his bed, pulling Haley down next to him. The families spent a little while catching up before Nathan jumped up, saying he had to get to the gym for pre-game. They were then kicked out and sent to the hotel to freshen up and rest before the game started.

Nathan's team won but that had been expected considering the remarkable season they had so far. For a freshman, Nathan played a considerable amount of time and seemed more than happy to display his talent for his family. After the game, Dan led them all down to the court where they waited for Nathan while he talked with some of the staff.

Haley and Brooke hung out a little closer to the locker room to avoid being embarrassed by their parents. As soon as some of the players came out, Brooke went into flirt mode and Haley just rolled her eyes, moving away to check her phone for messages. Someone touched her shoulder and she turned around, expecting Brooke or Nathan.

Instead, she found a tall, very muscular guy with a lopsided smile. He pointed out Brooke who was becoming very friendly with one of the other players and mentioned that Nathan was almost on his way out. Haley then spotted him coming out of the locker room and saw his gaze flicker from her to Brooke as if indecisive about whom to interrupt first. Haley rolled her eyes and thanked the guy before heading over to him, ending his internal debate.

They tag teamed Brooke. Haley set out to distract her best friend and Nathan pulled his teammate away no doubt to give him a stern talking to. Brooke just quirked an eyebrow and discreetly flashed the inside of her palm, which had a seven-digit number written on it, as they walked back towards the parents. Nathan joined them a few minutes later, his teammate looking properly scolded, and shot Brooke a look before demanding her hand. He dutifully smudged the telephone number and they all went out to dinner.

At the restaurant, Haley was caught in the middle, acting as the natural buffer for Brooke and Nathan. Though they normally squabbled during family get-togethers, they were nowhere near as bad as usual and Haley couldn't help but notice when Nathan reached an arm around and rested it on the back of her chair.

Brooke enquired after the weekend parties and both sets of parents stopped their conversation, interested in the answer. Quickly, Nathan ground out that he hadn't heard of any but their wine-loosened parents encouraged him to tell the truth and take the girls out for some fun. Without any more hesitation, Brooke popped out of her seat and insisted that Nathan drive them back to the hotel so that she could get ready.

After a short drive they reached the hotel room she and Brooke were sharing. The brunette flew about the room, perusing the small selection she had brought with her, all the while lecturing Haley on the merits of loosening up. Haley, seeing Nathan's warning glare, jokingly answered that she could get loose enough for the both of them. Nathan just sat on the bed and frowned as his sister escaped into the bathroom to change.

When Brooke emerged from the bathroom, she threw the top she had decided against at Haley's head, demanding that she change. With a quick eye roll, Haley performed a much faster version of Brooke's transformation behind the security of the locked bathroom door. The thin-strapped, low-cut top was a far departure from her usual t-shirt and Haley didn't have to look at Nathan to sense his disapproval as the excited Brooke practically dragged her out of the room.

The knee-jerk reaction when they got to the frat house was to head for the bar. All three were handed beers at the speed of light, Nathan being Nathan and she and Brooke being girls. Haley nervously downed her cup and after receiving an ominous "Slow down" from Nathan was pulled onto the dance floor by Brooke. They quickly attracted some male attention and Haley shrugged off her guy to stand near the brooding, groupie-less Nathan.

As she approached him, she noticed that he was still sipping on that first beer and wagered that at this rate she would be more inebriated than him. He looked her over carefully, as if to judge if any damage had been done out on the dance floor, and then nodded approvingly while she leaned on the wall next to him.

For a while, they watched Brooke interact with the crowd around her and when it became apparent that she was paying more attention to the boys than the alcohol, Nathan grasped her hand and led her towards the back door. Haley, as usual, could feel the jealous eyes on her as she left with the star freshman and could only wonder what was going through the girls' minds.

"You've been quiet," Haley observed when they were out of earshot of most other people. Nathan just nodded in response, letting go of her hand to lean against a tree. When he didn't offer any other response, Haley moved forward, coming up next to him. "What's going on? Is it the game? Because you played amazingly."

"Not the game," Nathan spoke quickly. "I asked Dad to bring you guys down here. I want to show you and Brooke around campus this weekend. I know you two are choosing your colleges and I want you guys to come here." Haley opened her mouth to respond but shut it, knowing that he wasn't finished. "It's a good school. The classes are really challenging and I'm not just saying that because I'm me. There are a lot of organizations even though it's a pretty small school so you really get to know people. You'd fit in great here, Hales."

Suddenly tired, Haley shut her eyes. "Nathan," her voice sounded weak to her own ears and the look on his face was clearly defeated. "I chose my colleges a long time ago, you know that. And you are right, this is a really good school but it doesn't have the right programs for me. Plus, I've always wanted to try to be a little farther from home. I just…it can't last forever, Nathan."

Nathan jammed his hands into his pockets and toed the dirt beneath his foot. His head bobbled up and down, taking in her words while repressing a sigh. "You're right. I know you're right. Forget it, it was stupid of me to ask." He quickly pulled away from her and began shuffling back towards the house. "We should get back to Brooke," he called over his shoulder, not giving her a chance to respond.

For the rest of the weekend, Brooke barely had a second thought to give to partying and college guys. She was much too busy playing referee to the normally friendly Nathan and Haley. Not that they were actually fighting, just ignoring the other and leaving the clueless parents with completely awkward silence. Every once in a while, she would catch Haley giving Nathan incredibly apologetic looks which would momentarily soften his demeanor then bring back the jackass in full force.

As they were loading up the cars to leave, Nathan pulled her off to the side and handed her a small box, neatly wrapped in silver paper. She looked up questioningly at him and he shrugged disinterestedly, telling her it was her birthday present, the one he had promised her. She took it with a soft 'Thank you' and before she could change her mind, tiptoed and kissed his cheek. Dan called him over for some help with Brooke's too large suitcase and she used the distraction to quietly and carefully stow the gift in her messenger bag.

Only after spending hours as Brooke's personal pillow and in the privacy of her own room did she open his present. Inside the turquoise box rested a pair of simple yet gorgeous white gold earrings. Her mind quickly skipped over Nathan's thoughtfulness and straight to how much he must have spent on the pair. She guessed he must have put himself out at least two months of his generous allowance and immediately picked up the phone to call him: both to thank and yell at him. His voicemail sounded and she left a short message.

The next morning she bounded down the stairs, uncharacteristically running late. She popped into the kitchen to grab a piece of toast, as Brooke was already waiting at the curb, and almost ran smack into her mother. "New earrings?" she questioned with a barely concealed look of curiosity.

Nodding her head, she quickly said "Nathan" and understanding seemed to dawn on her mother's face. As she rushed out the door, yelling a goodbye over her shoulder, she thought she heard chuckling from her mom and dad and something that sounded suspiciously like "…just a lover's spat." Haley rolled her eyes to herself and pulled her hair out of its ponytail, effectively covering her ears, before hopping into Brooke's car.

"Hope you two kissed and made up because Nathan's back today," Brooke quipped as she breezed through her bedroom door the week before winter break. "We're having dinner here, by the way. Your mom and dad insisted."

Haley just nodded her head. Her mom had mentioned having the Scott's over for dinner but no one had breathed a word of Nathan coming home. She was starting to think it might have been on purpose. "That's nice," she answered diplomatically, continuing to work out a Calculus problem. "Haven't seen him since Thanksgiving."

"He might have a girlfriend," Brooke divulged conspiratorially. "Mom was making up the guest room this morning and she looked pretty pissed off about it."

"Doesn't mean your brother has a girlfriend," Haley reasoned. "She was probably just mad because he's Nathan and didn't think to tell her that he was bringing someone until this morning or sometime." She quelled the tightening in her chest and ignored how her earrings seemed to weigh a bit heavily. Nathan was a crush, one that was slowly, finally dissipating.

Brooke just shrugged, obviously more content with her own explanation, and pulled out her own homework. She scooted over on the bed to make room for her best friend and winced as the girl lay down. Briefly she wondered if Brooke could feel the lumpy shape of the thick envelope hidden beneath the mattress. What she had planned on telling her parents tonight, she hadn't even worked up the courage to tell Brooke, or Nathan for that matter.

A few hours of barely studying and Brooke rushed home, both to meet her brother and to change for dinner. She finally forced herself down the stairs after the doorbell had rung and the din of welcoming the dinner guests died down. Through her open doorway she was able to pick out the recognizable voices of the Scott family but no one unfamiliar. Maybe Brooke had been mistaken. Maybe Deb Scott had just felt the urge to change the sheets in the guest room.

Freezing halfway down the steps, she unconsciously smiled at the figure still hanging up his coat in the hallway. Their combined family dinners were never formal but everyone did take the occasion to be dressier and tonight was no exception. He wore a light blue button-down and pressed black slacks with the tips of his shiny black dress shoes showing.

His name barely escaped her lips but he turned and smiled at her anyway. His eyes moved up and down her body and she tugged nervously at the hem of her black and white patterned dress before stepping into the arms he held open for her. She was barefoot, after all she was at home, and stepped onto his shoes for height. Taking a step back, she disentangled herself from him, wondering how his attitude could have changed so much in comparison to less than a month ago.

She kept still as he reached a hand out toward her, his thumb moving lightly over the upper portion of her left ear. His smile was noticeably wider, recognizing the earrings, and she bit down on her bottom lip. "I applied early action to Stanford. I got in."

Immediately he dropped his hand and stepped back. His expression turned cold and his eyes bore into her, making her regret blurting out the words. "You're the first person I've told," she admitted weakly when he continued to stare. They had never been at a loss for words with each other and even when they were quiet, it was comfortable and familiar. This wasn't.

Before she had a chance to run from his judgmental silence and stare, they heard the voices of their parents calling them for dinner. She turned on her heel and entered the dining room, Nathan a step behind her. For the first time in six years, he wasn't at her side, her hand in his or an arm around her shoulders, and it felt odd.

"Something wrong, honey?" her dad questioned worriedly, causing the five other people in the room to stop their fussing and stare at her.

Haley tried to shake her head 'no' but Nathan cut her off, urging her to tell them in a strange, detached voice. Stepping further away from his cold demeanor, she looked up and pushed a smile to her face. "I got into Stanford. I'm going," she stated surely, forcing her eyes away from Brooke's devastated expression. The two sets of parents beamed proudly and congratulated her, silently wondering at the unhappiness in their children's expressions.

When a week passed, Brooke finally approached her. She felt the girl crawl onto the right side of her bed, as usual, and practically held her breath waiting for something. "I'm happy for you. I'm proud of you," Brooke whispered repeatedly, almost like a mantra, sobbing openly into the soft pillow. Haley turned and hugged her best friend tightly to her, ignoring the uneasy feeling of dread rising up in her stomach.

Nathan hadn't bothered sticking around; there were practices and tournaments to attend to. She hated that he hadn't said goodbye to her, that they were constantly being pulled apart when they were both angry and things open-ended. It wasn't in her nature to be apologetic for her accomplishments but that's exactly what she had planned on doing: saying sorry for…leaving? Graduating? Not going to his university?

He was back a week later, just in time for the Scott's annual New Year's party. His Christmas present had been tucked in the bottom drawer of her dresser but she hesitated in bringing it to the party, not knowing if he even wanted it or if he had bothered getting one for her.

Currently, her attention was focused on the ruckus Nathan and Brooke's Uncle Cooper was making somewhere in the middle of the living room which he had turned into an impromptu dance floor. She'd climbed a few stairs to get a better look at the debacle and quietly chuckled at the mixture of fury and amusement that was written all over Deb Scott's face. It turned out the spare bedroom was made up for Cooper but the reason for Deb's agitation was that her younger brother had brought one of his "girlfriends," who she undoubtedly could not stand.

Another person joined her on the stairs and she followed, with some surprise, when Nathan pulled her up the staircase by the hand. Silently he led her into his dark blue bedroom and turned to face her. She hesitantly nodded towards his desk where the festive wrapping paper covering her present stood out drastically. She had snuck in there earlier, placing it there for him to find in case they were still…whatever.

The woman in the store had assured her that the gift wasn't at all feminine but she was still nervous when he pulled apart the paper, exposing the box beneath. He pried the box open and lightly fingered the thick white gold links of the necklace, before muttering a "thanks" her way.

"Why are you mad at me?" she blurted out, her fingers instantly grabbing for the pendant hanging from her own necklace. She twisted it nervously but kept her eyes trained on him.

"I'm not," Nathan answered slowly.

"Good because you don't have the right to be," she spoke up, meeting his startled eyes with false confidence. "I mean, I've worked hard for this. I earned it. I deserve it. I'm not going to let you guilt me into feeling bad just because you're acting like a five year-old and can't use your words."

He chuckled lowly. He always laughed whenever she tried to defend herself. She never knew why and it always infuriated her to no end. "Okay, Hales," Nathan agreed, with a small smirk twitching at his lips. "Whatever you say."

She sighed tiredly at his inability to be moved. "Why did you drag me up here, Nathan? For all we know, Coop's doing a one-of-a-kind rendition of the chicken dance. We could be missing the event of a lifetime." He laughed slightly at her pathetic attempt at a joke before turning and rummaging through his dresser.

"I thought you'd want your present," he stated nonchalantly, his back still towards her. She peeked over his shoulder and rolled her eyes, of course Nathan Scott would hide her Christmas present in his sock drawer. "Before you open it," he began, handing her a small box almost identical to the one he'd given her for her birthday, "I want you to know that I talked to Brooke about this. We both agreed and we want you to have it. So you have to accept it."

Haley looked up at him in confusion before beginning to unwrap the gift, catching a glimpse of his jittery hands out of the corner of her eye. She opened the cover and the words flew out of her mouth the moment she saw what lay inside, "Nathan, I can't accept this. You know I can't."

"Why not?" he frowned menacingly at her. "Even my mom wants you to have it, Haley." He, too, stared down at the beautiful antique pearl ring that had belonged to his grandmother. While it wasn't her engagement ring, it had certainly been of great value and importance to Deb Scott's deceased mother. "My dad probably would too if anyone bothered to ask him."

"This should be Brooke's," Haley insisted, closing the box and holding it back out to him.

Nathan briefly shook his head, taking a step back from her outstretched hand. "Brooke wanted the engagement ring and she wants you to have this. So will you just—?"

"No, I will not just, Nathan Scott! I don't want you to be doing things like this for me, okay? I'm not the girl you buy jewelry and give family heirlooms. You're supposed to be doing this for your girlfriend, not me," she ignored his pained expression, attempting to pry open one of his clenched fists to place the gift back in his hand.

His grip remained like a vice and she finally stepped back, resisting the urge to run a hand through her perfectly done-up hair. "Just take it, Haley," he intoned coldly, "You already have everything else." He threw open his bedroom door and stormed back down to the party, leaving her alone and immensely confused.

Haley thought about leaving the gift on his desk but decided that it would only anger him more. Instead, she wandered back down the party and found Deb Scott mingling in the kitchen. She pulled the older woman off to the side and explained what had happened before trying to give the ring back to her.

"Haley," the blonde woman began softly and surprisingly soberly considering the free-flowing supply of alcohol, "my children inherited that ring. They decided that they want you to have it and I'm going to respect that decision. But if you were to ask me, I'd like you to have it, too. You know you're like a daughter to me."

With a warm hug and a kind smile, Haley was left alone in the quiet corner of the kitchen. A brief glance outside and she spied Nathan, still dressed in his suit, half-heartedly throwing up shots in the backyard. Steeling herself, she slipped out of the screen door and carefully approached the worn pavement. He tensed and missed the next shot and she knew he was aware of her.

"I don't like to wear jewelry," she began oddly, "It's too much of a hassle, too high-maintenance for me."

Nathan dropped the basketball, letting it roll onto the grass, and reached her in a few long strides. "You wear the earrings," a hand almost reached up to touch them but he pulled it back down awkwardly.

"Every day," Haley agreed, nodding. Before he could ask, she answered, "You gave them to me."

"I did," he almost smiled, repeating her nod. "I'm giving you the ring."

"You shouldn't be," she shook her head, her small fist tightening around the velvet box. He took a step closer to her, a hand sliding onto her neck and the other tilting her chin up towards him. "Why is kissing me not a big deal to you?" she whispered quietly, not receiving an answer before his lips descended on hers.

When they finally parted, his stormy expression fully cleared for the first time in a long while and was replaced with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a boyish smirk. "You can wear the ring on whichever hand you want," he told her seriously, a thumb brushing over her bottom lip. "But I've got a preference," he winked and smiled charmingly, jamming his hands in his pockets and contentedly strolling back inside.

She quietly caught her breath, her hand grasping her necklace for some semblance of stability. Her mind belatedly processed the full meaning of his parting words and she flew up the walkway, furiously chasing after his frustrating self.

Brooke had always told her that while she was difficult to anger, she was almost always blind in her rage. She spotted his tall, broad shoulders leaning against a wall and chatting up a pretty blonde. Without a second thought, she grabbed a bicep and yanked him towards her, ignoring the look of outrage on the blonde.

Before she could begin to lay into him, he shrugged his shoulders, almost in a "what the hell" kind of way, and effortlessly slid his hands up to grasp the sides of her face again. Haley widened her eyes, knowing what was coming but unbelieving that he would do it again, before his mouth found hers for the second time that night. Her eyes slowly opened, and she briefly wondered when she had closed them, to find Nathan Scott once again smirking at her.

"Happy New Year, Hales. Looks like it's going to be a great one," he quipped, popping another kiss on her shocked lips before sauntering away.

Haley glanced around, wondering what he had been talking about and whether or not anyone had seen them. To her surprise she found people cheering and smiling with a few couples, including her own parents, still connected at the lips. Her eyes found the big screen TV and again her mind finally caught on to the situation, informing her that the New Year had just begun.

She spat out a few choice adjectives to describe Nathan Scott under her breath before renewing her search for him. She hadn't gotten very far when Brooke latched onto her arm and chastised her for her disappearance. Brooke then dragged her into the basement where the young adults of the party were commencing with an impromptu drinking game.

Brooke immediately settled into the black leather recliner, overseeing the operation as if she were queen, and belatedly noticed the lack of seating. The brunette had just opened her mouth to suggest a solution when Haley found herself pulled backwards and onto Nathan's lap. Haley waited quietly and nervously for her best friend to protest but the other girl just gave a shrug and began going over her version of the rules.

Haley's mind reeled as she felt the fingers of one of his calloused hands tracing lazily over and behind a bare knee and the other hand grab tightly onto hers. She stiffened and nearly bolted up and out of his grasp when his soft lips landed on her bare neck, pressing languidly against her skin. How no one else, especially Brooke, noticed their situation she didn't know. When her mother appeared at the top of the steps, calling for her, Haley ripped herself off his lap, yelling a quick 'bye' over her shoulder, and absolutely fleeing.

The next day, through her open bedroom door, she heard her father greet him at the door and invite him in. She forced herself to concentrate on the English project in front of her and not on the sounds of him and her father yelling at the football game on TV. Considering she was practically holding her breath waiting for him to climb the stairs, her attempts to work were more than useless.

His footsteps thudded behind her when she was still staring blankly at her computer screen and it took all her will power to not jump in surprise. He closely leaned over her shoulder, as if reading the few lines that she had managed to type into the word processor. Nervously, she swung her desk chair around, forcing him to take a step away from her.

"Why'd you do this, Nathan?" she questioned quietly, staring at her intertwined fingers. "We're friends, great friends, the best. Why are you doing this?" He didn't answer right away and she finally looked up at him, finding his intense gaze settled below her face. She opened her mouth, ready to chew him out for being a perv, when he reached out and his fingers caught the pearl ring that hung from a long silver chain around her neck.

"You haven't decided yet," Nathan observed, ignoring her questions. "That's alright. Take your time. I just thought I'd say goodbye since I'm leaving tomorrow for practice." The hand that had been fiddling with the ring easily transitioned to grasp her chin and tilt it his way. He bent, more than slightly considering his height, and pressed his lips to hers in a kiss she knew was meant to shake the floor beneath her.

He murmured his appreciation when her lips involuntarily parted for him, allowing him to deepen the kiss. Startled by the sensation of his tongue brushing against her own, she pulled back sharply, turning her head to avoid his gaze. He chuckled quietly at her reaction, his fingers tracing over her jaw line and cheek and through her long hair. "Alright, well," he paused, pushing a long kiss to her cheek, "I'll be here for your graduation. Let me know when you decide."

She sunk to the floor and stared forlornly at the sign that proclaimed "Closed practices. Approved visitors must check in at the front desk." It had taken months for her to work up the nerve, or maybe the insanity, to borrow her mother's car and drive to Nathan's university. The familiar and almost comforting sounds of basketball shoes on polished hardwood slowly lulled her mind to a peaceful state of overanalyzing what exactly she needed to say.


The sound of her name forced her to look up, past the twelve sets of long legs and into the curious and surprised blue eyes of Nathan Scott. Damn were basketball players tall. She continued to stare at him as he fidgeted with the hem of his soaked sleeveless t-shirt while the entirety of his team gave her the once over.

When it became obvious that she wouldn't, or couldn't, respond, he grabbed hold of her hands and pulled her upright, keeping her within the circle of his arms and close to his chest. "I, uh, I'll see you guys later," Nathan spoke over his shoulder, a clear sign for his teammates to beat it. A few of them smirked and mumbled something at him before they all disappeared into the locker room down the hall. "Haley? How did you…did Brooke drive you here?" Immediately, his head turned in search of his younger sister and she wanted to slap the obliviousness out of him.

"Did you propose to me?"

So that was what her mind needed to say. At Nathan's wide-eyed blink, she let out a frustrated sigh. "Over break when you gave me your grandmother's ring, you told me to choose a hand to wear it on. Nathan, this was like two months ago. Was that a proposal? Do you think we're engaged?"

He cleared his throat uncomfortably and she realized that she had nearly shrieked the last question. Taking a step back and away from him, she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, waiting for his answer.

"Why's it matter?" he mumbled, unconsciously rubbing the back of his neck.

"Okay," Haley sighed impatiently, "we're going to take a step out of Nathan-land where being cryptic and mysterious is just dandy and oh so much fun and we're going to enter Haley-land. In Haley-land, things like almost proposals and giving a girl priceless family heirlooms require clarification. So clarify."

"I'm not trying to be mysterious," Nathan sighed just as impatient. "I don't…I don't understand what the big deal is. You know we're going to get married," he stated matter-of-fact and she gaped wordlessly at him.

"Who in the hell says that?" Haley burst when she had regained use of her facilities. His expression contorted and he looked almost insulted. "I mean, why would you think that?"

Nathan arched an eyebrow at her, letting her know that she hadn't recovered well. "I just do," he ground out, waving dismissively at his buddies who were leaving the locker room.

Haley shook her head in disbelief. This…this was such a departure from the Nathan who'd said 'good-bye' to her, who'd been so sure of himself, who'd been so affectionate with her, who'd nearly made out with her in her childhood bedroom. Suddenly, it hit her. They weren't at home. "Have you been acting like you're engaged?" she questioned curiously. Before he could open his mouth to feign innocence she cut him off, "You know what I'm talking about. Have you?"

"God, Nathan, you'll kiss me all you want, talk in circles all day long, give me all these nice things but the moment I ask you a direct question, you don't even remember how to talk. What is up with you?" She arched an eyebrow at his silent form, finally dropping her shoulders in exhaustion. "Are you going to answer the question?"

"I don't even know if there is a question."

Her eyes flew open and Haley resisted the urge to punch him in the throat as he'd taught her as a defense mechanism all those years ago. "Well, guess! I'm leaving for the other side of the country at the end of the summer and you tell me we're supposed to get married. What do you think my confusion is about?"

"I have kissed one girl since Thanksgiving and it was after you destroyed my world by announcing that you were going to California for college. I was wasted and I thought she looked like you. I think that was basically the point. My lips touched hers and," he swallowed deeply, his head turning to the side, "she wasn't you at all. I spent the next half-hour dry-heaving over a toilet."

"But you don't want to marry me," he spat out bitterly, a false laugh ringing out. "So why in hell does it matter? I wasn't cheating on you."

"No, you weren't," she mumbled quietly, "But that doesn't mean you're supposed to marry me, or even feel like you should."

"It means something," he insisted, ignoring the latter part of her sentence. "You don't want to admit it yet, fine. We'll talk at your graduation, after you've thought about it some more." He started to walk away, heading for his locker room.

"Nathan, you didn't eve—"

"Oh, right, sorry," he spun around, reaching her in two determined steps. His hands easily gripped the sides of her face, angling her towards him, and before she knew it, he was once again kissing the daylights out of her. Her lips parted involuntarily and this time, she didn't jump away when he deepened the kiss. "That's better," he smirked, quickly leaning down to peck her lips once more.

In the time it took him to do so, she recovered. "You should take this. It doesn't belong to me," she softly said, pulling the chain out from under her shirt. He recoiled immediately, almost tripping backwards since his eyes hadn't moved from the ring.

He laughed in disbelief, continuing to back away from her. "It's yours, always has been. Grandma adored you. Can't imagine why."

His hard words froze her in place, her hand clenching the ring. Briefly she wondered if she'd ever see him again. His cold eyes had left her with the impression that she wouldn't. Somehow, she made it back home and to her mother's work in time to pick her up as she had promised. She felt as if her world had been, in Nathan's words, destroyed.

She managed to return to normal by the time her mom stopped ranting about her day to ask where she had gone. If anyone noticed a change in her, they didn't bother commenting. Maybe because this thing with Nathan had also always been under the surface and so far from normal that neither of them really knew how to deal with it.

It was a long three months. Him not coming home for spring break made it better. Having March Madness on in her home and Brooke's for its entire duration made it worse. Finally, finally, finally it was close to graduation. Brooke was a wreck, naturally, but she could only see the light at the end of the tunnel. No more confusing Nathan, not that he'd contacted her after her little trip, and nothing but the future to look forward to.

The voicemail she found on her phone one lunch period was enough to jerk the rug out from under her. She sped to the library, a distant corner she knew no one frequented, and shakily held the phone up to her ear for the message.

"Haley, I know you're in class right now. Dad told me you were named valedictorian. That's really…well, who wasn't expecting it? Congratulations. I'm coming to graduation, by the way. Not just because Brooke would kill me if I didn't, but I…I want to see you. I have something to tell you. Just…congratulations."

It was the closest Nathan might have come to rambling. His words at the end absolutely terrified her. What could he possibly have to say? "I want to marry you"? Or worse yet "I don't want to marry you. It was a moment of temporary insanity because let's face it someone like me would never want to be tied down to someone like you"? Both filled her stomach with dread but that second option absolutely made her want to vomit.

Graduation could stay the hell away.

It didn't. It came quickly and with much prepping on Brooke's end. Everything had to be perfect. In her mind, she knew her best friend wasn't planning on some altercation between them but she also knew it was inevitable.

Being fawned over by her parents went fine. The valedictory speech went fine. Walking across the stage to get her diploma went fine. Throwing her cap went fine, even having to find it amongst everyone else's. She knew absolutely nothing would be as nerve-wracking as facing Nathan after the ceremony.

Before she could even reach her parents, a pair of hard arms caught her in a bear hug. They lifted her off the ground in a familiar manner and her heart immediately began to pound furiously against her ribcage. When she felt he'd held her there for far too long after whispering 'Congratulations' in her ear, she wormed her way out of his grip, almost falling over when her heels sunk slightly into the grass.

As expected, she glanced up into Nathan's eyes. Hurriedly, she cast her own down, taking in his wrinkled tie and dress shirt, probably from her wiggling against him. A hand came up to lightly caress her cheek and she nearly jumped at the contact, finally looking up at him sheepishly as her teeth worried her lower lip.

His smile almost giddy, he reached for the chain that always lay around her neck and the ring that always hung from the apex of it. "This is wrong," her words almost sent her reeling backwards. "This shouldn't be here." She'd been saying it for months but the words coming from Nathan's mouth felt like a blow to the back of her head, bright spots flashing before her eyes.

"Haley," his whisper was soft, almost loving. For another person? her mind immediately questioned. His smile widened and his lips pressed against hers, rendering her speechless for longer. "I know where this goes," he said it as if it were a secret, one she weren't really meant to hear.

By this time, he'd managed to undo the clasp of the chain, carelessly dropping it to the grass below. He tugged her hand into his own, briefly intertwining their fingers. Smiling softly at her, one hand held hers carefully and the other poised the ring at her ring finger. Understanding finally dawned in her mind.

"Nathan, I can't," she whispered, shaking her head. His earrings moved with the movement, guilting her. "You don't mean that…"

His hands reached out, landing on her shoulders before sliding up to cup her face. He leaned his forehead in to rest against hers but she avoided his gaze, keeping her eyes trained downwards. "Haley, please…"

He was begging. Nathan Scott never begged. In all her years of knowing him, she couldn't ever remember a time when he didn't get exactly what he wanted and, thus, he had never before begged. Yet, here he was. His voice pleaded with her, his deep, shuddering breaths told her how much this tore him apart, and his eyes, if she had dared to meet them, begged her.

It was graduation. She was valedictorian. She was going to her dream school. She felt like the scum of the earth. "You don't love me."

"Yes, I do. Of course I do. Why else would I feel like you're tearing my heart out right now? Why else would I have asked you to marry me?" His frustration was evident in the growl. She watched as his hand clenched tightly around the ring as she had done during times of nervousness and anger.

"You didn't! You didn't ask me that! You said you were supposed to, Nathan. There's a difference," she tried her hardest not to yell. A crowd had to have been forming. He pushed her away at that and just from his stance she knew he had never been this angry before. It was apparently a day of firsts.

"There isn't a difference, Haley. You love me, I sure as hell love you, and we're getting married. End of the fucking story. Learn to accept it because, let me tell you, your life? It's going to be exactly that." He was yelling at her, sure, but her mind was stuck on that one statement.

"I never said I love you."

Her eyes followed him as he staggered backwards as if she had struck him. She opened her mouth to say something, anything that wasn't as stupid as her last sentence, but he shook his head, his eyes now blank and devoid of fight. He turned and walked calmly, purposefully through the gathered crowd.

The gathered crowd.

Belatedly, she realized they had definitely drawn an audience. Before she could have an absolute panic attack, her mom took her arm, whisking her away and murmuring words of comfort.

The words fell on deaf ears. Her mind whirled and caught on one thought. She was sure that she would never see Nathan Scott again. The boy who loved her now wanted nothing to do with her.

The next few weeks flew by in a blur. Her parents had no idea what to do with her, and she, in turn, made no effort to explain the situation to them. Brooke hadn't been by in what felt like years and she could only imagine what the Scotts thought of her. Breaking the heart of their little boy, the one they were so sure would never settle down, the one who'd brought them so much pride and accolades throughout the years.

"He's gone," Brooke spoke softly and Haley shot up from under the covers to see her friend leaning against the doorway and looking very much worse for the wear. "He went to stay with a friend until summer school and practice starts. You can come out now."

The furrow that formed on Haley's brow said it all. She couldn't tell if her best friend was confused, disappointed in her, hated her, or just wanted her to die. "Brooke, I'm sorry. I didn't…" Her voice faltered when Brooke raised an eyebrow and stiffened her posture, obviously preparing for the worst. "I didn't know how serious it was. How serious he was."

"To be honest with you," Brooke began slowly and Haley cringed instinctively, "if he hadn't proposed, if it had just come out that you two were dating, I'd have thought he was taking advantage of you."

She breathed out a sigh of relief, instantly regretting it. Did she seriously think it was better that Brooke think poorly of her brother than of her? "No, he was just confusing me." She paused, not knowing how to explain things further. Hell, she could hardly remember how they had gotten here. "What are your parents saying?"

Brooke's eyes widened and her expression turned furious and accusatory. "You really don't love him. He proposed, Haley! And all you can do is think of my parents?"

"I do, too, love him. As my first crush. As the guy who scared off every boy from asking us out in junior high. I was supposed to be a little sister to him, like you. I've been telling myself for years that he would never see me like that, that he was like my older brother and it was all wrong. So excuse me for being concerned about the opinions of the people who may as well be my second parents!" Haley dropped back onto her bed, not able to look at her best friend. They'd never once fought over a boy, and she certainly never thought they'd be fighting over this boy.

"They don't blame you. You're about to move across the country. This blindsided just about everyone involved. Nathan has a habit of doing things and just expecting everyone else to go along with it. So, no, they're not upset with you for not wanting to get engaged at eighteen to a nineteen year-old, who's proven to be less than reliable in the romance department.

"Nathan thinks he's supposed to marry me. How would that make you feel? To hear the boy you've loved your entire life tell you he's with you because he's supposed to be? Not because he wants to but because he feels some misplaced sense of duty telling him to?" Haley heard the quiet click of her door closing, grateful to Brooke for granting her privacy when she didn't have the frame of mind for it.

Brooke frowned, gingerly sitting on the edge of the bed, "What makes you think that? That he thinks that?"

Sighing heavily, she briefly explained her trip out to his school, Brooke looking slightly insulted at not being invited along. When Haley finished, Brooke shook her head in denial, "Come on, Grandma adored you. She would have left you that ring if she hadn't wanted it to stay in the family."

"Oh god. That's why he wanted to marry me. Grandma Mae practically told him to by leaving that ring," Haley surmised, shock and understanding appearing on her face. Brooke simply shook her head in frustration. "You just said she wanted the ring to stay in the family, otherwise she would have left it to me. What better way than to leave it to Nathan and insinuate that he should give it to me?"

"Haley, listen to me. Nathan was not possessed by our dead grandmother's spirit when he proposed to you. If Nathan was that concerned about following her wishes, he would have handed it over for a birthday and claimed that's what she asked. There was something there. Why won't you tell me what it is?"

"Because I have no idea what it is! I don't have the slightest clue why Nathan would go from seeing me as his little sister's best friend to someone he wants to spend the rest of his life with. Why in God's name do you think I said "no"? I'm in love with him, not irrational about it." She rolled her eyes heavily.

"Well, maybe that is the problem! You should be irrational about it! It's love, Hales!" Brooke defended, hand to heart, and Haley wouldn't have been surprised if she started to swoon.

"You're not seriously blaming this on me," Haley deadpanned, arching a brow at her friend, who merely shrugged in response.

Brooke sighed quietly. "He's my brother, you know. I don't like to see him hurting, not unless I'm the one causing it, and I feel like I should be blaming someone for causing him all this pain. On the other hand, you're my best friend and I know it's not your fault and I just don't know."

Two weeks later, she packed a few suitcases of essentials and took off for Stanford. At the time, Haley thought the summer program for incoming freshmen was a good way for her naturally shy self to ease into the college lifestyle. Now it was a convenient excuse for her to get away from the town and its judgmental eyes. She was suddenly branded the hussy who'd broken the town hero's heart. Even her parents and the Scotts sometimes slipped in their well-crafted façade of normalcy, giving her searching and inquisitive glances. Brooke had grown passive-aggressive and surly when faced with her impending departure. On the second to last day, she had thrown herself onto Haley's bed and begged for forgiveness, clutching Mr. Waffles desperately. Haley had readily handed it to her, more than eager to leave the town and its drama behind.

She lived a quiet three years at Stanford. Her introverted persona had kept her from making friends for a few months and even after the first year, she had only a very small group of close friends. The Scotts had willingly paid for Brooke to bounce from coast to coast on the few long weekends she had and it seemed Brooke had more friends on campus than she did.

Nathan was never home when she returned for long vacations. Thanksgiving and Winter break was always filled with basketball, though he'd managed a few weekends home during his freshman year she recalled uneasily. And the one year their Spring breaks had coincided, he'd been off at the conference championships.

Her peace was broken in that third year, right around March. At dinner her male friends had been babbling on incessantly about the NCAAs and as with all things basketball and Nathan-related she had discreetly tuned out of the conversation.

"You want to come, Hales?"

Her eyes perked up and she looked quickly back to her friends who stared expectantly. Further inquiries brought her more guilt and distress. The NCAA Championship would be played in the nearby Oracle Arena. She paled before stuttering out a negative response.

The next few weeks were full of anxious jittering. Her roommate blatantly told her that if she didn't calm down, she'd refer her to the campus psychiatrist. Haley reluctantly took the jumpiness down a level. She settled for hand-wringing in front of her laptop to view final scores from games played on the East Coast. Much to her horror and nervous anticipation, Nathan's team logged victory after victory, until finally his trip to Oakland was assured.

Jimmy had called her, completely overjoyed. Both families would be flying out. Dan had secured tickets long ago and there was one with her name on it. No amount of begging or fabricated schoolwork could get her out of the occasion. She was certain they all had some sort of debilitating memory loss problem because no one seemed the slightest bit concerned over her and Nathan meeting again.

Every time she tried speaking to Brooke about it, her best friend had, very cowardly, changed the subject or faked the call dropping. She had no choice but to count down the minutes while her male friends bemoaned her situation, jealously whining about how she had family seats and they were relegated to the cheapest seats they could find.

Reluctantly, she took a cab to the airport to meet the family. For those first few moments, the comfort of being with family won out and she greeted them happily at the baggage claim. Dan had told her they wouldn't be able to see Nathan at all before the game, but definitely after he'd promised. She did her best to fake remorse.

She'd thrown herself into her schoolwork over the last few days, hoping to take her mind off the coming event. With all her free time, Brooke was only too happy to drag her around to all the parties she'd heard about through her unreasonably large network of Stanford connections. Worse was being stuck at meals with the families, while Dan and Jimmy discussed potential weaknesses and strengths of Nathan's team and the opposition.

Unfortunately, the night arrived and she was forced into the unfamiliar stadium, having never been to a basketball game there before. The teams took the court for warm-ups and against all protocol, Brooke shrieked Nathan's name, standing and waving her arms hurriedly before someone could stop her.

Nathan looked over and after a moment, a light of recognition came into his eyes. For once, he waved back unashamed, a proud smile on his face for the cameras to catch. Haley couldn't help but smile back, starting when his gaze seemed to stop on her. Although his smile dropped, she was relieved to see his expression hadn't turned into one of disgust and revulsion. He looked almost pensive, though she wasn't sure why since he had to know she'd be there. Without further reaction, he turned and resumed his warm-ups, Haley unmindful of the hand Brooke supportively squeezed.

Nathan's team won, without a difficult battle and with much fanfare. Analysts would say that the young star was simply hungrier than any player on that court, hungry for his last chance at a Championship and for the draft status it would give him, and that he had elevated every one of his teammates to the same level. Many of the lower rows spilled onto the court in spite of the security's best efforts. Despite losing the parents and Brooke in the hoopla, Haley hung back, certain she would ruin his celebration.

She watched with quiet pride as his tired arms lifted the heavy trophy in the air, surrounded by his teammates. Security guards pushed fans back to the sidelines as the ceremony continued and she was not at all surprised when the MVP trophy was also presented to him.

For some reason, she told the parents she wanted to find her friends and talk for a while. Though it was impossible in the madness, they believed her and went with Brooke back to the hotel. Haley pleaded with the cleanup crew to let her sit for a few minutes and promised to leave before they were done. Both jubilant and tired, they broke down quickly and went on with their jobs around her.


Her head snapped up from her hands to find Nathan fast approaching from the tunnel across the court. In spite of the suit, a Championship hat sat on his head and she couldn't help but smile at how out of place it looked. "I'm glad you came," he replied to her smile, reaching out to briefly pat her hand that rested on the railing.

She stared at it forlornly, positive it wasn't feelings of disappointment that he didn't hold on or interlock their fingers. "What are you doing here still? Hell, I'm already done with all the press interviews. Where're Mom and Dad?" Nathan carried on, unconcerned with her lack of response.

"Haley?" Her eyes met his at the question in his tone. "Will you come hang out with me? Tonight's important."

Nathan seemed on the verge of another thought and she bit her lip nervously before he stopped entirely and looked at her expectantly. "What about everyone else?"

"They won't even notice I'm gone. I'm tired and this is all a really big deal but maybe all of that can just start tomorrow." She nodded briefly and he helped her climb over the railing and down to the floor. "Here, I swiped another hat," Nathan stated before plopping said object on her head.

"Okay," Haley laughed nervously, as the brim fell over her eyes. She used it as cover, somehow feeling as if he were still staring at her.

Nathan spoke briefly with a security guard who called them a cab. As they walked to the yellow car, he called his coach and left a voicemail as to where he'd be. Once they reached the hotel, he left another message with the concierge and then dragged her into the gift shop. "I have to celebrate somehow," he shrugged as he paid for the purchase.

The hotel lobby was seemingly abandoned. No doubt all guests were in town for the game, and all were out celebrating or lamenting. Once in the room, they settled in with the cheap bottle of vodka, no shotglasses despite Nathan's best efforts to find a Stanford one, and she turned on the TV as he went to change.

Almost every channel was an infomercial or a news outlet replaying highlights from the game. She located ESPN with some difficulty and waited for Nathan to emerge. He did so in a pair of basketball shorts and a white t-shirt. Reaching for the remote, he turned off the television even though the commentator was in the middle of singing his praises. "Tomorrow, remember?" he reminded her with a crooked smile and she obligingly nodded her head.

"You drink?" Nathan questioned after taking a long, wince-inducing pull from the bottle.

Haley raised an eyebrow at him, "Not often and not straight vodka."

He repeated the action before tilting it her way. "It's not so bad. Try it."

Under a watchful gaze, she did so, sputtering as the liquid unwillingly slid down her throat. "You've got to be kidding me!" Haley muttered after a lengthy coughing session, helped by Nathan patting on her back. "How is that not so bad?"

"Lightweight," he teased unapologetically, taking another drink with no visible reaction. He cocked an eyebrow challengingly and without thinking of the consequences, she joined him on his celebratory bender.

"Hey now, you were not my first kiss," she protested, slapping at his shoulder. "I did not wait till seventeen to have my first kiss." At his slightly insulted but still curious expression, she sighed, "It was Riley Gallard. Sixth grade."

"Riley Gallard," Nathan repeated, laughing. "Didn't he grow up to be the varsity quarterback? Why him?"

Haley shot him a dirty look. "He was the cutest boy in my grade. Still is pretty cute," she mumbled under her breath. So she might have left the TV on a few times when the college football team he played for had a game.

"What about me?" Nathan returned, sitting up straighter and puffing his chest out. "I was the cutest boy in school," he commented cockily. "Still would be too," he murmured and she flushed heavily, "if we were still in school together."

She shrugged her shoulders lightly. It was hard to argue with him there. "You were out of my league." The response was casual as she deliberately studied the worn fibers of the carpet.

He smiled sadly, his gaze dropping to her bare left hand. "Never."

"Here, drink more. You look sad. Championship MVP shouldn't be sad," Haley urged. She knew what his mind dwelt on and wanted the thoughts gone from his head. Impatiently, she shoved the bottle his way, belatedly wondering when the liquid had ceased to burn as it slid down her throat.

He shook his head "no" before sliding further down the wall to rest his head on her shoulder. With hardly a moment's hesitation, he turned and buried his face in her neck, disregarding the way she tensed and how the nearly empty bottle fell lifelessly to the carpeted floor, clear liquid seeping into the dark fibers. "God, why wouldn't you marry me?"

With one arm, she pushed at his large frame to try and move him, uncomfortable with the change in topic, but he slid an arm around her waist and dragged her closer. "I tried…I tried so fucking hard to make you love me. And you don't," he finished tiredly, finally releasing her and dragging himself out of reach.

"Nathan, I do," she protested faintly, stretching for his leg that he jerked away roughly.

"My Haley doesn't. Nope," he shook his head emphatically, "my Haley is young and gorgeous and can't be bothered. She never loved me. You're not her. She'd throw my grandmother's ring back at me and tell me she didn't love me. And I'd still beg her to marry me, to love me."

His expression turned to disgust and self-loathing and he kicked the now empty bottle listlessly, the force just enough to send it crashing and breaking against the opposite wall. Haley winced, the sound bringing her to startling sobriety. Briefly, she wondered how many girls had been subject to this particular rail of desperation when all they'd wanted was a night with the star player.

Mindful of the shattered glass strewn about the floor, she crawled her way over to him, pulling his hands down from his face and making eye contact with his downcast ones. "Haley?" he questioned blearily and her expression became concerned. How long had he been like that, so easily capable of hiding his drunkenness before just completely crashing?

"You're not her," he slurred again, pushing off her hands that were gently caressing his cheeks. "Get off me. I want my Haley," he gave her a slight shove, knocking her off her heels and onto her butt, more confused than hurt. Of course, with her hair color and his…state, he legitimately couldn't recognize her, couldn't reconcile her eighteen year-old self with the 21 year-old, who sat before him.

Watching him begin to breathe heavily, she picked herself up, swaying a bit as her physical body was still obviously intoxicated. "Nathan, get up. I'm going to put you in bed," she urged, tugging at his arms to coerce him into a standing position. "I swear it's me, Haley. You just have to get up."

Almost like magic, the dead weight she'd been pulling at lifted himself to his full frame but still leaned heavily against the wall. "'Kay, I'm up. Prove it. Prove you're my Haley," he demanded in a heavy but wide-eyed slur.

Hesitating momentarily, Haley eyed him warily before popping up on her tiptoes and planting an unexpected short kiss on his lips. By the time her heels hit the ground, a lazy smile was beginning to take over Nathan's features. "You're definitely Haley," he announced, swaying unsteadily. His smirk suddenly fell into a serious expression, "Do you love me yet?"

Blinking back the tears at his lost question, she took him by the hand and carefully guided him to the hotel bed, regretting ever coming to see the game. He willingly slipped under the covers she held up for him before tiredly wrestling out of his shirt. Cautiously, she reached over and helped him, her breath catching at the sight of the necklace she'd given him that last Christmas.

"Haley? Do you?"

She knelt by the edge of his bed, her fingers stroking lazily over his cheek as he stared unblinkingly back at her. "How many times have I been here, Nathan?" she questioned, needing to know if this is how all night encounters with girls ended.

His expression hardened and his eyes slid shut, an obvious frown forming on his lips. "Only in my dreams," he finally sleepily mumbled. "You're not her," he stated rather than questioned, his eyes opening to an empty room.

Without any warning, he was shaken awake by his roommate the next morning and all but thrown into the shower. Barely hustling onto the bus on time, he received suspicious looks from his coach and the staff. Nathan nodded along innocently when his roommate and assistant coach attested to finding him last night in the room, passed out sleeping, and not a girl or drop of alcohol in sight. The coach looked skeptical but rolled his eyes and motioned him onto the bus, obviously more amiable due to the circumstances.

His eyes widened and he gaped silently when Nathan found that what he could remember seemed to revolve around vodka and Haley. He shook his head at himself. There was no way in hell that girl would come near him, not with their history. Over the years, there had been plenty of fantasies, drunken and not, featuring Haley James, usually in various states of undress but occasionally involving him as a lovesick puppy. Last night had been a rare occasion.

"Hey man," he leaned across the aisle to a teammate not listening to his headphones, "do you know how far we are from Stanford?"

Nathan received a strange look and a shrug in reply. "I don't know, Nate. Why do you even care? You're about to trade in college girls for professional groupies."

"I got a friend there. That's all," Nathan returned defensively, fingers digging into the plastic armrest.

"Who didn't come to the game? Some friend, Nate. Don't worry we got your back."

And Haley didn't.

He sent him a grateful smile before shifting back into his seat and leaning against the window. She'd made that perfectly clear by not being there to celebrate with him. She'd shown up, sat through the game, most likely to appease their parents, but hung back when it came to him. That's what he needed to do. Fade her into the back of his mind and forget whatever attachment they'd had.

"Shit," he cursed, his eyes sliding shut and squeezing closed for a minute. He prayed he was just imagining it. His arm had slid around her waist for a quick hug. It was most definitely not resting there comfortably, holding her close and intimately. "Shit," he repeated louder when his eyes opened and the sight had refused to transform into something else.

He should leave. He should just leave and go back to relying on Brooke for updates on her life. Updates that obviously did not include talk of any current or past love interests. He couldn't do this to himself. He knew now that she had been too young and that he had come on too strong: well-meaning but smothering and distant all at the same time. He could not and would not taunt himself with things that could have been.


It wasn't the voice he had been expecting but someone had called his name nonetheless. He turned slightly and caught sight of a blonde man, lifting a hand to shield the sun and squinting in his direction. "Nathan Scott?"

"Son of a bitch," Nathan muttered under his breath, glaring daggers into the arm that was still wrapped firmly around her waist, "you've got to be kidding me." He received a funny look from the man now approaching him, unknowingly dragging the girl along with him, and repeated in higher spirits, "You've got to be kidding me! Luke, how are you?"

Haley had detached herself from her companion and crossed her arms in front of her body, as if shielding herself from him. Nathan rolled his eyes at her reaction before turning back to greet Lucas with a handshake. As if he could hurt her any worse than she had hurt him.

"I'm great. How've you been? It's been…three years since we saw each other?" Lucas questioned, paying no mind to Haley who was edging into the crowd, looking for an escape route.

Nathan pushed a smile onto his face. "Yeah, three years," he replied, jamming his fists into his pockets and hoping he wouldn't end up greeting his old friend by punching him in the face. "I've been good. Busy."

"Must be if you can't even spare a few seconds for the little people," Luke teased lightly. He reached a hand behind him, blindly searching for the girl who was well on her way to disappearing. "Hey, this is Haley, one of my best friends," he introduced, intercepting her without a second thought as to why she was leaving.

A smirk briefly flashed across Nathan's face in place of a sigh of relief. "No, Luke, you got it wrong. This is Haley, my little sister Brooke's best friend," Nathan deflected, his smirk growing along with her obvious discomfort.

"You two know each other?" Luke questioned, a jovial grin on his face indicating that he thought it a pleasant surprise. Haley managed a weak nod and shrunk further into herself. "Hales, you never mentioned that and I know I've made you sit through one of Nathan's games before."

Nathan wanted to roll his eyes again but knew he shouldn't, not with the way Lucas' gaze kept flickering back and forth between the two of them. There was no reason for her to be acting this way. He was the one who had his heart publicly trampled and proposal blatantly shot down.

"It wasn't a big deal," she finally shrugged nonchalantly, pulling herself together under the ever watchful gaze of the two men. "It's just Nathan, Brooke's dumbass older brother."

"How do you guys know each other?" Nathan interjected before Lucas could begin an interrogation into her discomfort. Lucas was his age and though two years became less significant the older they got, it was still a notable difference.

"Ah, Hales interned at the publishing house the summer right after I got hired. We were like the only people under 40 there that summer so we became good friends. Now she teaches at the school my little sister goes to. Haley's actually a junior high teacher but it's a small school and we ran into each other when I dropped Lily off one time," Lucas jumped in when it was clear Haley wasn't going to answer.

"Oh yeah," Nathan faintly recalled. "Your mom was pregnant our last camp. She'd be seven or eight now?" He grinned triumphantly, glad he'd remembered such details about his friend.

Luke smiled in return with just a hint of disbelief, "She's seven going on forty. Good memory, Nate. Now I can tell my mom that the great Nathan Scott remembers what she was like pregnant," he joked and they both shuddered on cue. "Hey, Hales, I've got to take off. Second date with Lindsey, remember?"

Nathan watched carefully as Haley brightened, her smile stretching wide across her cheeks. He reveled in the warmth of her voice as she wished Lucas luck and told him to say hi to Lindsey for her. As if sensing his darkened gaze, she turned and shot him a dirty look once she had dropped back to her heels from pressing a kiss to Lucas' cheek. Quickly, he shook Lucas' hand, telling him to get his number from Haley before turning back to the blonde, a smirk threatening to overtake his face.

"Haley James," he let the name drop from his lips from the first time in years and watched as she fidgeted uncomfortably. "It's amazing. The way you're acting I'd think that it was me who rejected you in front of friends and family. That I was the one who yelled to the world that I didn't love you," Nathan finished softly, angrily.

"Don't be like that Nathan," Haley commanded determinedly. "You're not the only one who had a hell of a time recovering from that graduation." With that, she very nearly stomped her foot before turning and melting into the crowd.

His anger steeled into determination and he took off on the foot race she was bound to lose. "If you don't talk to me, I'll just follow you around all day. Strange things might happen if I find out where you live, Haley," he teased, taking one stride to every angry two of hers. His eyes followed her backside with a small smirk. Haley James had become everything he'd imagined and then some. She was already glaring when his eyes moved upwards. "See? You still know me. It won't be good."

"What will the press say when it comes out that a NBA star is all but stalking a middle school teacher?" she bit out angrily, weaving through an approaching crowd of people to attempt an escape.

Within seconds, he was back by her side. "How romantic?" he tried with a mocking lilt in his tone. He grabbed her arm gently, flinching away when she turned and swung her purse at his side in one graceful movement. "Stop, we're having this talk. We're too old to run away from the past."

"Maybe you are," she returned childishly, "But in case you're forgetting, I've got plenty of time to do things I'll regret." He reached out and swatted her coffee cup into the grass beside them, hand nearly moving faster than her eye could see. "What was that for?"

Taking advantage of her shock, he gripped the crook of her elbow and marched them over to a refreshment cart by a small park. "I'm buying you a coffee to apologize for spilling yours. Don't you dare refuse or I will tell your mother. And we are going to sit and talk about this because I am freaking tired of wondering all the damn time."

He ordered the coffee just the way she used to take it, paid, and dragged her over to a bench off a quiet path. Mothers with small children and strollers occasionally passed and that would hopefully force them to keep a lid on both their infamous tempers.

"Why didn't you love me?" he mumbled, staring at his hands. He knew she'd gone still beside him and patiently waited out the silence.

"Because you didn't really love me." His head whipped around in surprise but now she stared firmly at her cuticles. "You couldn't possibly. You were a nineteen year old college hotshot. You had girls throwing themselves at you. There was no way in hell you were in love with your little sister's best friend, make that your little sister's eighteen year-old virgin of a best friend. And you made that perfectly clear after I—my graduation."

"What was I supposed to do? Sit there and pout because you didn't love me? Maybe go out and dig myself a nice, big hole to die in?" His words were mumbled lowly, as he glared at the feet of passerbys, but that didn't take the sarcasm out of them.

The tone had its intended effect and Haley rolled her eyes. "I don't know, Nathan! And stop saying I didn't love you! I just thought…if you wanted to marry me at eighteen, you wouldn't go out and sleep with the first girl that crossed your path when I said no. I mean that's not exactly the strongest declaration of love," she hissed, then smiled at a young boy leading his little sister by the hand.

Nathan's jaw dropped and it was only the sight of the two children, so like Brooke and him, that kept him from shouting at her. "I proposed! I was nineteen, you were eighteen, and I proposed! How much more committed did you want me to be! Who I've slept with has absolutely nothing to do with you considering we were never even together. And what do you mean you loved me?"

"You were Nathan Scott, Brooke's big brother, basketball player extraordinaire, the boy who always gave me his ice cream cone when mine fell on the ground. You were supposed to be a crush, okay? I was supposed to go to college and get over you! You're supposed to marry some model and have ridiculously good-looking kids so when we'd come home for the holidays our families would crack jokes about pathetic I was as a moony teenager. We were never supposed to be heartbroken over each other." Haley took a deep breath and chanced a peek at his shell-shocked expression before soldiering on.

"I was seventeen, Nathan. Of course, I loved you. I'd spent my entire childhood dreaming of what my wedding day would be like and it was always you at the end of that aisle. But I was seventeen and I already knew that life doesn't happen that way. So, yes, I loved you. I loved you like a nine year-old loves the boy who lets her play with his toys and tells his friends to shut up when they make fun of her. I knew how to love the boy version of you but I was scared shitless of the man you were becoming—of everything that would be offered to you and all the ways I would come up short. As much as I wanted to say yes, I couldn't let you marry me."

"Go out with me," he blurted the words out quick and fast, not bothering to look in her direction.

Her breath caught and she barely choked out, "Did you not—?"

He nodded jerkily, hastily trying to justify his requ—demand. "I know what you just told me. I already knew all of those things, worked them out in my head a long time ago, okay? I just…I saw you and I had to say what I said. Had to. I couldn't live with those thoughts bouncing around in my head anymore. I said them and now I'm saying this. Go out with me. Fall in love with me the way a 24 year-old would. Prove that we were right the first time."

They sat in silence before Nathan realized she wasn't going to, or couldn't, give him an answer. Nervously, he began his own tirade of their history, the ramble falling out of his mouth almost faster than he could think of the words. "I think I was sixteen when I realized that I wanted you. Wanted you in ways I already had other girls at school and in ways I didn't really understand. I thought it was wrong though; you were fourteen, fifteen in the months I was lucky, everyone called you my second little sister, and you were Brooke's best friend. So I ignored it, pushed it to the back of my mind until I couldn't.

"I kissed you at my graduation because I knew it'd be my last chance. After I left, all the guys I'd been scaring off would go after you and it was okay for them to do that and it was okay for you to like them back. It's why I asked you to come to college with me and why I asked you to marry me. By then, I knew I loved you and I knew I wanted to marry you. I was scared you'd go off into the world and find out how little I had to offer you. Scared you'd find a guy who hadn't been afraid to love you for years. I knew who I was in high school, okay? Nathan Scott, basketball player. I decided to grab you while I could, before you could realize there was more to life than marrying your childhood crush, the hotshot jock. If I was lucky, in a few years, I'd be able to shower you with millions but I knew you, too, and that wouldn't be enough. If I could just keep you mine, until I became something, someone better…"

He trailed off and again she did nothing to fill the silence. Haley couldn't believe they'd had this entire conversation while barely even looking at each other, but she was grateful for it now. "I don't think that's a good idea, Nathan. Everything we just went over…I definitely haven't come to terms with it. And I have my life here and yours…isn't here. Maybe we should just chalk it up to a bunch of crap timing and just leave it."

This time it was her turn to wait and wonder until he finally expelled a long breath. "You're right. Of course, you're right. You're the smart one. It's bad timing, just not a good idea. You've got a life here and I wouldn't fit into it." Slowly, he pushed off the low bench and turned to walk away. "Maybe it'll be better now, Haley. We can finally stop acting like strangers."

"Sure," she agreed to nobody.

"Look," Haley breathed harshly into the phone and fumbled for her keys, "it's not like I meant to run into him. I was perfectly okay with only having our lives intersect through you and your parents."

"But you were okay with becoming best buddies with Lucas Roe of all people?"

Haley jumped in place and looked over her shoulder to find 6'2" of idiotically grinning male. "I have to go. Your brother's stalking me again." She ignored Brooke's throaty laugh of "Tell me something I don't know" and dropped her phone into her purse.

"What are you doing here?" She didn't mean the words to come out so harshly, but after the absolute drama of last week, his agreement that their lives didn't fit together, and Brooke calling her several times a day, Haley didn't expect to see Nathan Scott for a long, long, long time. "I thought we agreed—"

Nathan gave a careless shrug. "I was sent here for some media interviews—private plane and everything—and that's when I realized, I have enough money to make our lives fit." And an insane younger sister who won't let the past go and definitely won't let him let the past go. "So…Lucas?"

Haley gaped silently at his nonchalant answer, observed his casual demeanor, and came to a quick conclusion. "You're not going to leave this stoop are you?" Nathan merely smirked until she sighed. "He said he knew you a long time ago during high school. I never heard you mention him whenever you got back from basketball camp," she shrugged briefly. "Luke told me you probably wouldn't even recognize him if you guys ran into each other. It seemed safe enough. And apart from being one of the only people I knew in this city when I first moved here, he is a really good friend."

"I didn't," Nathan returned with a guilty look. At her raised eyebrow, he elaborated, "Recognize him. Not at first. I saw you. And then I saw some douche's arm around you."

"He was your friend," Haley frowned in disapproval and confusion.

"And if it turned out you two were dating, I'd still be calling him a douche. But now he's Luke again, guy I roomed with at basketball camp in high school," he smirked at her scoff and rolled eyes.

Haley crossed her arms defensively. "Not that it's any of your business but Lucas and I have never been about that. He's like a brother to me, like you—" she flushed instead of finishing and shook her head when he stared back challengingly. "Forget it."

"I spent the majority of my formative years in love with you. Excuse me if the concept of being just friends with you is lost on me. Seriously? He's dating other women when you're—" Her hand clamped down heavily on his mouth and judging by her expression, she knew he was smirking underneath it.

"Lindsey is amazing and they're great together," she asserted before lowering her hand.

Nathan shrugged listlessly at her. "Let me guess. He wanted to try something and you freaked and set him up with this "amazing" girl instead."

"Are you seriously ill in the head?" Haley scoffed back. "Just because you developed some weird childhood fascination with me doesn't mean the rest of the world shares your opinion, Nathan. Trust me, I would know. You're kind of the exception to the rule when it comes to me and the opposite sex."

The smile was immediate and blinding. "Trust me, Hales. It's a rule, not an exception. I'm probably just the only one who had the guts to put myself out there. All the other not-brokenhearted fools were too scared to, and rightfully so. You're a maneater and you don't even know it."

"I am not your sister," Haley returned with a delicately arched brow.

Nathan grimaced openly, "Now that you've given me a reason to bleach my brain." She rolled her eyes enthusiastically and made a turn to leave him at the door. "How's about that date?" he continued, unperturbed with a small grin. "Don't say no. We'll go to some 50's diner and get ice cream."

It was all she could do to keep from melting into a puddle in front of her building. Completely and totally unfair that Nathan Scott knew her as well as he did. "I bet you they've got Rainbow…whatever it is that's super sweet and colorful."

"You're not playing fair," Haley whined openly, hating that a smile crept onto her face when he laughed heartily, that they fell so easily back into this camaraderie with the past out of the way, and that she was once again becoming enamored with the boy with the stupid orange ball.

"Hales, I asked you to marry me when you were eighteen. I think it's been established that I'm willing to fight dirty for you," he smirked at her hesitation, knowing it was only a matter of seconds now. "Come on, I have to leave tomorrow morning. Make it the best night I've had in years."

Her jaw dropped noticeably and he realized the implication of his words moments too late. "I am not some one night stand, Nathan."

Nathan cut her off with a wave of his hand. "I realize that. Again, with the marriage proposal thing. I just meant I miss hanging out with you. Even if you ignore me all night and have a conversation with your ice cream cone, it'll still be the best night I've had in years."

"I don't talk to my ice cream cones," she muttered defensively. They both mouthed "anymore" at the same time and Haley shook her head, biting back the laughter. "Fine," she sighed, "but I've got to teach tomorrow."

A smile spread across his face and she ignored the stupid drop in her stomach. "Alright. I'll have you home by 10 at the latest," he added with a wink. "Of course, I'd be willing to stay for a proper good night if—"

"Nathan, tomorrow you're getting on a plane. Just like years ago when I had to get on a plane to Stanford. Would there be an actual point?" she cut him off quickly, surprised when he did nothing but lift his eyebrows in slight surprise. Somehow, Haley knew her last line of defense was about to be brushed aside.

"It's you and me. Of course there is," he smiled down at her, completely undeterred by her change in mood. "Now just in case you bail on me later today," Nathan backed her quickly into the brick wall, pressing his smiling lips against hers. Haley sighed when she felt him nip her bottom lip before pulling away. "I'll be back at six."

"This is not a date!" She rolled her eyes at his overconfidence, ignoring his swagger down the sidewalk. It took a moment to catch her breath and unlock the door and Haley was just grateful he didn't take a look back.

Her phone rang sharply and she snatched it up off the dresser. Haley answered distractedly, her voice muffled over the speaker.

"You're going out with brother dearest?" the chirpy yet still annoyed voice trilled from the receiver, coming in clear from states away. Haley winced before settling herself and the items in her hands onto the bed.

"No," she mumbled unconvincingly, wincing again at Brooke's haughty laugh. For a girl who preferred small town, North Carolina, she did bitchy city girl surprisingly well.

A length of silence then, "So you're not picking through your closet right now?"

Haley blushed though her best friend couldn't see it. Glancing around at the mess she'd made of her wardrobe and bedroom, she felt compelled to deny it. "Of course not. I'm just cleaning some old things out."

"Wear a dress, Hales. The blue one we got the last time I visited," Brooke instructed, not paying any mind to the poorly-constructed excuse. "I mean it. Nathan may have said ice cream but I'd bet you money he meant dinner at some ridiculously fancy place, movie in a renovated theatre older than all of us put together, then ice cream. I know my brother and the boy does not skimp when it comes to you and grand gestures."

"I realize that," she grumbled reluctantly, a hand flitting down the material of the previously mentioned dress. It would certainly serve him right if she wore sweats and refused to go along with whatever master plan he'd cooked up.

She chanced it, staying in the jeans from before but changing into a light sweater. The knock came a few minutes early and she peeked through the eyehole to find him in jeans and a button-down. "Hi," Haley smiled nervously, noting his own nervous habit of hands in pockets and feet rocking slightly.

"Hi," he grinned back, immediately stepping into her space. "Let's go."

Her feet shuffled backwards and her hands tugged lightly on the just too long sleeves. "Am I…do I need to change?"

"It's ice cream, Hales," Nathan replied with a confused expression. He turned and began to walk away, perfectly aware of the relieved yet disappointed sigh that escaped her. Waiting patiently by the elevators, he slipped his eyes down her figure as she locked the door and quickly wiped the smirk off his face when she spun and caught sight of him.

"What?" her eyes narrowed suspiciously and Nathan shrugged, plastering on an innocent expression. His arm pressed against the side of the elevator, holding the door open, and Haley lightly kicked his knee on her way past. "Perv."

Nathan bit his lip to suppress the chuckle and shook his head lightly. Not a thing had changed.

"So you and Luke?" Haley goaded over the noisy din of the small café. "Sitting in a tree yet?"

Lindsey shot her a dirty look over the table. "And I actually wondered why you teach junior high," came the quick quip. "Four dates does not a boyfriend make. Slow it down, Hales. If I catch any wind of you and my mother and wedding planning, you're going to meet a ridiculously early demise."

Haley simply made a face, letting her know she didn't like being cut off from her line of questioning. "You're way too used to getting your way, teach. Enough about mine, how's your boy?" Lindsey inquired with a quirked smile, which only grew when Haley stabbed at her salad in annoyance.

"Three dates does not a boyfriend make," she mocked back with rolled eyes. "For the record, I'm not acknowledging those as dates and I don't foresee things going that way."

"You, the girl who trips over the curb in front of my building every time, aren't very good at foreseeing things. For the record," was the teasing retort, complete with proud smile and raised eyebrows. "Come on, Hales, you've seen him three times in less than three weeks. A record for you I might mention. And two of those times were him flying out here just to see you. Not for a game, not for an endorsement, not for an autograph signing, for you."

"Brooke's too busy to visit me and using him as some kind of messenger. It'd be awful rude if I refused to spend time with him," her voice had taken on that haughty tone her mother mentioned was her way of getting defensive and Haley inwardly cringed. No doubt Lindsey would pick up on that.

"The lady doth protest too much methinks." Haley rolled her eyes as if it say "really?" and Lindsey shrugged. "Okay, but you get my point. Guy's making a huge effort here and you're acting like it's some kind of burden. You've finished your education, for the time being at least. You have a job you enjoy and that is pretty secure. Isn't the next obvious step here companionship? Unless you swing—"

Haley's eyes widened comically and she cut Lindsey off with a quick shake of her head. "No. Not there's anything wrong with that for people who do, but no. It's complicated, okay? I'm sorry that sounds like such a copout but we have a long history and it is complicated."

"Just go out with him! What's complicated about that? It sounds a hell of a lot simpler than "he's a childhood and family friend who I have a long history with and I feel obligated to spend time with him but it's too complicated to be anything more than that and blah blah blah!" God Haley that's like seventeen different excuses strung together and it still sounds half-assed. No one's asking you to marry him!"

The incredulous stare was back. "He is! Okay? There's the big secret! He asked me to marry him seven years ago at my high school graduation even though we'd never gone out. Dating him is the fastest track to a marriage proposal ever. If I say yes to a date, a real date, I'm pretty sure somehow in his mind that's me saying yes to forever."

"Wow, why haven't you said yes?" Lindsey snickered, appreciating the full on glare she was receiving. "Alright, I get it. You're a commitment-phobe being chased by one of the few worthy guys on the planet who's not."

"Worthy? You've never even met him, Linds," she grumbled, stabbing at the salad with a renewed vengeance. "Can we just drop it? If you didn't know his name and had a vague idea of who he was, you'd think he was a stalker, honestly."

"A—he's Brooke's brother and even she wants you two together. B—he's an NBA player so I'm pretty sure he's the one with stalkers, not doing the stalking. C—I'm done. Hey, maybe he'll take the hint and be done with you too." Lindsey couldn't resist snickering at Haley's pout. She couldn't have it both ways and giving up Nathan Scott was obviously nowhere near her intention, no matter how hard she pushed him away.

She stared blankly at the rotating image behind the tour guide's head. As much as she personally liked astronomy, nothing on the field trip was keeping her attention. She'd barely stopped some of the boys from climbing all over a replica of the observatory and had copped an evil look from a security guard for stepping in so late.

"Yeah, he's putting me to sleep too," mumbled a deep voice from behind her. Haley jumped in place, stifling a scream in the relatively quiet room, and sighed heavily when she felt a hand come to rest on her shoulder. "Hi, Hales," Nathan chuckled, drawing a few stares from the kids directly in front of them.

"Not now, Nathan," Haley shook him off insistently. She was sure the dimness of the exhibit was the only thing keeping the boys from recognizing him and for that she was grateful. "Seriously? I'm chaperoning. These are my students."

A hand came up to sheepishly scratch at the back of his head. "Right, sorry, I didn't mean to—" he sighed briefly. "Could I—I don't know, lunch or something?"

"We're eating on the lawn and I'm still responsible for them then," she hissed, subtly backing out of hearing range of the children. He looked genuinely contrite and she was more than a little interested about how he found her. "They'll be watching a film for twenty minutes in a bit. I'll meet you at the front entrance. Can you just stay out of sight for now?"

"Sure, I'll go learn something," he cheekily responded with a quick smirk and she rolled her eyes, knowing that was highly unlikely.

Her group of kids settled restlessly in the small theater. Only threats of cutting the field trip short and going back to class got them to quiet down. After a brief talk with the other chaperone, she headed out to the front entrance, finding Nathan fiddling with a telescope and ignoring the flirtations of a female curator.

He obediently followed her outside and around the side of the building, out of sight of the entrance and buses. "I can't stay for long," her arms crossed defensively over her chest. "Marcus, one of the boys' dads, thinks I'm—"

"Hot," Nathan filled in for her, a disgruntled look on his face.

"Returning a phone call from my mother," Haley deadpanned, raising an eyebrow at his outward jealousy. Okay, so the man was only a handful of years older than her and constantly hinted about going to dinner. However, divorced or not, she found it damn awkward to even think about going on a date with one of her student's fathers. "How did you know I was here, Nathan?"

"Lindsey told me," he answered quickly, sensing her frustration. At her skeptical look, he elaborated, "I stopped by Luke's office. They were just leaving for lunch. She told me that you were chaperoning a field trip today. I asked where. She told me."

"So you met Lindsey?" He responded with a hesitant nod. Great, as if the woman needed more ammunition to provoke her with. Nathan looked damn good in photos and on TV; his looks in person were just short of too ridiculous to be believable. "Wonderful," she muttered sarcastically. "What are you doing here?"

Nathan shrugged lightly. "Honestly, I didn't think too much about it. I wanted to see you so I flew here and this is where you were so I came here. I don't know…maybe I could watch you with your kids. You must be a great teacher, Hales," his response came with a soft, proud smile and she couldn't stop her stomach from flipping.

"You're not playing fair," she muttered and he responded with his own confused look. "Never mind. You can't be here right now, Nathan. I'm serious, okay? If the kids see you and recognize you, they're going to flip out and then they're really not going to learn a damn thing. I can't have you around."

Working around a pained expression, he nodded. "You're right. I should have thought of that. Sorry."

"It's okay," she gave him a small smile. "And you know what? We should talk. It's ridiculous for you to keep flying here every time you have a couple days off. Do you have anywhere to go?" He shrugged noncommittally, avoiding her eyes. "Okay, I'll give you the key to my apartment. You can wait there as long as you promise not to snoop."

Haley purposefully ignored his smirk by pulling out her keys and working the apartment key off the ring. "I mean it, Nathan, no funny business. We get back to school by two so I should make it back by three at the latest."

He wrapped his hand lightly around her outstretched palm with the key, tugging her into his chest. "Thanks, Hales," Nathan worked the lopsided grin that immediately softened her eyes and met no resistance when he bent to press his lips to hers. "I'll see you at home," he mumbled against their fullness and received a small nod in return.

She'd barely regained her wits before realizing that nearly twenty minutes had come and gone. The bleary eyed adolescents met her at the doorway of the theater and she herded them quickly onto the bus to grab their lunches. They ate peacefully out on the grass, even the loudest boys seemed lulled into a daze by whatever they had watched, and she sprung for ice cream for the class from a sidewalk vendor.

Marcus invited her to dinner—once he dropped his son off with his mother—but she politely declined. Instead she sat in her car for thirty minutes and mentally calculated how late she could leave and still make it home by three. Turning the ignition sharply, she swore under her breath. Haley James was never late and she wasn't going to let the idea of a conversation with Nathan Scott change that.

"Nathan," she called, frowning at the unlocked door. There was no reply so she ventured further inside, spotting his shoes and duffel bag in the corner, and quickly turned the lock behind her.

The apartment was comfortable but small, not a single nook or cranny for his hulking frame to hide in. Of course he would.

Haley pushed open her bedroom door, ready to yell at him for doing exactly what she warned against—snooping—only to find him napping on her bed. His long legs seemed to barely fit on the double and he was clutching the part of a pillow his face wasn't half-buried in. With anyone else, she would have found it creepy as all hell, but Nathan somehow made it adorable.

She perched on the side of the mattress, prodding his shoulder gently. "Come on, Nathan, wake up," she nudged and a hand reached out, settling on her knee. "Jerk, you better not be drooling on my pillow."

"I'm not," he mumbled, smacking his lips together a few times. "You smell good," came another sleepy mumble, nose returning to the pillowcase, "Really good. Didn't know how you smelled before."

"Can we just acknowledge, out loud, how weird that statement is?"

"Kind of is," he admitted with a droopy smile. "Come on, nap with me, Hales."

"You barely fit on that bed, Nathan," Haley replied with a barely suppressed grimace. Why did he have to make that sound so tempting?

"It's okay. We'll just be cozy," he pushed deeper into the mattress, the sheets tangling further around his legs. "Come on, I'll wake up in a few hours. You sleep more while I get some dinner together and then we'll have that talk of yours. I bet those preteen monsters wore you out today."

"They're not monsters," she protested half-heartedly. Slipping into the bathroom, she reemerged in sweats and a tank top and, ignoring his triumphant smile, edged her way onto the bed.

Despite her hesitant approach, Nathan wrapped an arm round her middle and pulled her solidly against his chest. "Mm, real thing smells better," he mumbled, lips pressed against her neck.

Failing to hide her immediate shiver, Haley reached back and lightly swatted his head with her hand. "Lay off, weirdo."

"Can't, Hales, nowhere else I want to go," he chuckled but pulled back slightly, leaving only his arm lightly resting on her waist.

The ghost of a smile rested on his lips as he knelt by her bed. Nathan had already run to a grocery store he'd spotted on the last visit, grabbed a few items for dinner, and began preparations in her well-equipped kitchen. "Hales," he called, a finger tracing down her cheek while he sat back on his heels. "Wake up."

Her eyes fluttered just like in the Disney movies and he rolled his eyes at himself before leaning in to press a chaste kiss to her lips. Haley began to sit up in a panic but collapsed back against the pillows when she recognized his face. "Scared the crap out me, Nathan," she near scratched out, an arm splaying above her head. "Next time you might want to remember that unwelcome sexual advances are not a good way to wake up unsuspecting girls."

"Unwelcome? I'm pretty sure there are at least ten women in this building alone who would gladly let me warm their beds," he shot back cockily, carefully observing the stormy expression she'd suddenly taken on. The arm that'd been above her head shot out, wrapped around his neck, and pulled him to her. He was still in shock as her mouth crashed into his and took full advantage of his parted lips.

"You're killing me," he mumbled. If he weren't so overcome by the unexpectedness of the situation, Nathan might have heard himself practically giggle. He'd wanted to more than kiss this girl since Diane Westen took him behind the bleachers sophomore year. His knees ached from kneeling on the thin carpeting and his hands itched to touch more but the position made it damn uncomfortable.

Haley sighed happily when his mind and mouth finally caught up and began a thorough exploration. "You started it," she muttered as a reminder. Her hands caught the collar of his t-shirt and tried to pull him onto the bed, his knees shuffling forward till they hit the bed frame.

"And I want so badly to finish it. But I've been chasing you for damn near ten years now and I'm not going to lose you just because we didn't hash out the details beforehand. We're doing this damn thing, Haley," Nathan practically panted, pressing a gentle hand to her shoulder when she tried to follow him. "Give me a second, would you? Damn," his forehead dropped to the bed and he released a shudder when her hand immediately began twining through his hair. "Stop," he strangled out, ignoring her incredulous chuckles.

"Big bad Nathan Scott freaking out cause he's kissing a girl?" Haley questioned in disbelief, marveling at his frazzled state.

"Kissing the girl of my freaking dreams. Correction: being kissed by the girl of my dreams who, in case you haven't noticed, has been pretty damn unresponsive to my advances for years. Excuse me if I need a second," he retaliated, delighting in the blush that flooded her cheeks and spread down below the cut of her tank top. Haley swatted at his hand that still crept up her thigh and then swung her legs over, sitting on the edge of the bed.

Nathan blew out one last sigh, dragging himself up to sit next to her. "Well?" she questioned when he still hadn't said anything.

"You're a really good kisser," Nathan smirked happily, ignoring that she buried her face in her hands. "I mean…just, damn. All aggressive and taking what you want. Now that I've had a chance to think about it, how about I just lay back and you, uh, do your thing? I don't want to know what lucky bastard has been on the receiving end of that before but holy hell, Hales."

"Nathan Scott, are you saying that I was a bad kisser?" The words came out in a huff. She arched an eyebrow crossly and folded her arms over her chest.

"Hell no. Our first kiss—kisses—those are in an entirely different league. I mean, those were all sweetness and innocence and everything I wanted in the world. And this now? It's everything I wanted, everything I didn't know I wanted, and just a hell of a lot more than I deserve period. And while we're on this…you want to go over why now?" The transition was none too smooth and he could see it on her face but he needed answers.

Haley's shoulders dropped. Did she really want to explain why her head had been pulled out of her ass? Or how selfish only child syndrome had kicked in and she was not at all pleased with Lindsey's suggestion of letting him go? Not really. In fact, she could go for some more of the making out and a lot more of what would come after.

"I'm still in love with you," she blurted out, noting the look of quiet relief on his face. "Or at least the idea of you. I know that's not exactly what you want to hear but you're doing the same. We're still in love with the people—kids—we were back in Tree Hill and that obviously isn't going away."

"I already told you that I expected you to be married with kids and, you know, teasing me for being that annoying girl who was in love with you. You're not and I still am so…don't we kind of owe it to our high school selves to give this a try now that there's an actual chance it could work out?"

His forehead creased and she knew he found something very wrong with how she had worded that statement.

"Okay, you proposed to me when I was in high school and you've been kind of stalking me for a few weeks now," she rushed out, chuckling at his immediate offended look. "So you obviously think we have…something. And I always wanted to be with you except, you know, I was young and scared."

"Basically, you want me, I want you, we love each other—have for a really long time—and I'm sick of looking for excuses. Because, really, that's all that was keeping us apart before, some less than desirable circumstances and my excuses. I'm sorry it's taken me this long to realize it and admit it and to be perfectly honest I don't even know why you're still tryi—"

Nathan grabbed her hips and dragged her onto his lap, falling back onto the bed with some careful rearranging. He smiled brightly at her face, which he'd squished between his hands, and planted a grateful kiss on her lips.

"And before you get all into this," Haley continued as if he hadn't done a thing. She pushed a hand against his chest to gain some leverage and sat up, straddling his legs. "You should just know in spite of previous…events I'm still totally on board for the whole forever thing. A large part, and by that I mean about 90%, of the childhood dream was you in a tux at the end of an aisle. But don't feel pressured or anything cause if this doesn't work out…you gave it a ridiculous amount of your time and energy and sometimes…"

Sensing her hesitation, he flipped them over, pressing her solidly into the mattress. "What?" Nathan questioned softly, brushing a piece of hair over her ear.

"Sometimes reality doesn't live up to the dream. It's a cliché but we've spent years building up fantasies about this and again I don't want to freak you out but dream Nathan is pretty perfect," Haley tried for a joke when Nathan looked wholly unimpressed with her line of reasoning.

His lips brushed against hers, drawing out a sigh. "Dream Haley never kissed half as good as real Haley," Nathan smirked at her blissful expression. "I know you're not perfect, Hales. I know you've changed since high school. Same goes for me. Loving you isn't dependent on any of that. I just…I love you. I think I know a lot about your "quirks" already and if not I'll learn. There's no dealbreaker here, never will be."

"You don't know that, Nathan. That's what I'm trying to say! In spite of our best intentions and how much of ourselves we've given, we don't know how things are going to turn out. I would love to marry you and have your kids and live happily ever after, but that's based off a fantasy I've had since I was nine! I don't want you—us—to feel pressured into anything, just because of our history or our families or—"

"I got you, Hales," Nathan muttered into her hair when she buried her face into his chest. "Can we just—why don't we just date? We'll stop with the high school proposals and childhood fantasies. We'll stop saying "I love you" for four months or however long it's supposed to take. We'll go on dates and learn about each other again and make out a lot. I'm positive I'll still love you and want you always but we can take it slow."

"I'm a jerk again. Why are you bending over backwards to be with me? I didn't get it then and I don't get it now." Her admission was quiet and his eyes widened enormously when his mind finally processed the words.

He sighed heavily and dropped his forehead to her shoulder. They were so alike in their opinions of each other: unworthy. Except he knew it and scrambled to hold onto her and she knew it and was scared to try. "You're not a jerk. You're protecting your heart. And I'm glad because it's got to be the most valuable thing I've ever come across. That's why I want to be with you. You're the best person I know and I love you and some reason you love me and I know we'll be great together. But Haley I'm not going to spend our relationship convincing you that I love you. It's ridiculous okay? Being a good basketball player doesn't make me worthy of anything. I'm pretty sure if you didn't grow up with me, you would have hated me in high school. I'm going to need you to accept that I love you and want to be with you."

Haley gave him a tenuous smile before replying, "I can't chase you like you chased me. I'm not confident or secure enough for that, Nathan."

"Not asking you to. I just really want you to stop running because I can't keep chasing you like I've been chasing you."

Finally, a teasing grin broke out and he swore she hadn't aged a day since her high school graduation. "A slow jog then?"

Nathan smirked slowly, letting her rolling eyes settle and then drop into shifty and flustered. "How about you just lie down in your bed and take off all your clothes? More than capable of keeping up with you there." He didn't let her answer, instead swiftly covering her lips with his and once again taking the lead in their relationship.

"What happened to taking it slow?" Lucas mumbled, his eyes wide as he surveyed the two people before him, who were doing a crap job of trying to hide their blissful smiles. He lifted an accusatory finger at Nathan before fixing him with a cold glare. "You! You said you'd do it right this time! You said you'd take it slow and prove yourself and all other sorts of…bullshit! It was all bullshit!"

"Lucas!" Haley quickly cut in. "Actually, yeah, you act like an older brother. You," she turned with an assessing stare to the dark haired man beside her, "never did. Sorry, not the point. The point is that I'm an adult and I make my own decisions and this was my own decision."

The blonde didn't miss the slight flush that accompanied the word "decision" and how she pulled on her sleeves. His eyes narrowed further. "You were drunk!"

"Luke, no one goes to Vegas and gets married by an Elvis impersonator because they're sober," Nathan drawled, a smug smile forming slowly. His old friend went red in the face and he quickly backtracked, "I mean, we were sober when we got married, just not when we decided to get on the plane."

Lucas gaped silently until finally blurting, "But it was your first date."

Haley shrugged and gave a content smile, sliding her arm around Nathan's waist. "Yeah, well, it was bound to happen eventually."

Nathan, in turn, gazed fondly at the pearl ring that finally resided on her left hand. "I'm glad you're finally seeing it my way. This entire thing could have been a lot shorter if you'd just listened in the first place."

Well, I hope this teaches you to listen to your mother when she's trying to tell a story. You wouldn't have had to read this not-so-brief history of how I'd met* your father if you'd just listened in the first place. I know you didn't appreciate my many attempts to sit you down and spin a tale so I'm leaving it for when I'm dead, gone, and actually being missed and valued.

Love you all,


*More like how I met, grew up with, fell in love with, proposed to, got rejected and humiliated by, tried to forget about, met again, "dated", "proposed" to again, married, and lived happily ever after with your mother. You forgot the 'happily ever after' line, Haley, and don't you dare erase this.



They're our children, Nathan. They're living products of the happily ever after, and smart, too. I'm sure they figured it out. Hah, I got the last word.

Still love you all,