AN: So this is it, the last chapter! I want to thank everyone who has read this story and taken the time to review. I appreciate your support. I'm sad that this fic and trilogy are ending. It was so much fun to write, and I truly loved the journey of these characters. There will not be another sequel to this story, but I do hope you enjoy the epilogue. I think it'll answer most of your questions. Thanks again and happy reading!
Four years later...
Haley had been asleep when she heard the soft ding signaling that the "fasten seatbelt" light had been turned on. A second later, the captain's voice announced their descent into Charlotte. She sat up straight and rubbed the last bit of sleep from her eyes. Despite the long, cramped flight, it felt like Haley had been given a sudden boost of energy. She pulled out a compact mirror from her purse and began to freshen up.
"Meeting someone special, dear?" asked the little old lady next to her.
Before Haley could answer, a male voice interrupted, "She already has someone special. Right, Frosting Doodle?"
Haley didn't even roll her eyes. After so many years of dealing with Chris Keller, it wasn't worth the effort.
"I need that mirror when you're done," he added.
She tossed him the mirror across the small aisle and turned to the old woman. "Yes, as a matter of fact. I am meeting someone special." As she spoke, Haley could feel the nervous butterflies in her stomach. She couldn't believe this day had finally come.
Chris continued to primp his spiky hair when the tall blonde flight attendant approached him. He smirked in Haley's direction. "Here it comes." The whole flight Chris had been convinced that the pretty young woman was eying him.
"Excuse me, sir," she said.
Before the woman could get another word in edgewise, Chris interrupted, "Yes, I am the Chris Keller. I'd be more than happy to give you an autograph. That offer includes body parts as well as memorabilia." He wriggled his eyebrows suggestively. "Or we could just skip the formalities and really get to know each other. You and the Keller in the baggage compartment, and ten minutes later we're both members of the Mile High Club. What do you say?"
For a second, Haley thought the woman almost bought it when she saw her smile. Then: "As tempting as that sounds, whoever you are, I think I'll settle for reminding you to put your tray table up and your seat in its forward, upright position. Think you can handle that, Fabio?"
Haley put her hand to her mouth, barely able to contain her laughter. Grumbling, Chris snapped the mirror shut and did as the flight attendant instructed. He muttered a few choice words at her retreating back.
"Really smooth, Chris," Haley commented, unable to help herself.
"Not another word, James," Chris warned. He crossed his arms and sat back, obviously pouting. "It always works in L.A."
Shaking her head, Haley fastened her seatbelt and waited for their descent to be over. The airport came into view, and it made her positively giddy. She needed to be off of this plane already.
Chris let out a grunt when the wheels touched down on the runway, and the entire plane bounced. Haley was practically bouncing in her seat herself but for an entirely different reason. The captain's voice announced their arrival in Charlotte and went through the gate listings. Haley tuned him out after that. She didn't need to catch another flight, because she was finally home.
"Do you see her?"
"Not since you asked me ten seconds ago."
Nathan ignored his brother and continued to scan the crowd. According to the arrivals board, Haley's flight was on time and should have landed by now. He'd practically been counting down to this day, which Lucas unabashedly teased him for. Nathan didn't care, though. After four years of waiting, he was allowed to get a little impatient in the final stretch.
"Wait, I see her," Lucas announced.
"You better not be screwing with me, Luke," he warned.
"No, I'm serious. There she is." Lucas pointed ahead of them.
There was no stopping the grin that spread across Nathan's face as Haley made her way through the crowd. She wore a short white floral dress with a jean jacket. Immediately his eyes went to her shapely tan legs. Her long chocolate waves of hair fell just past her shoulder. Already his fingers itched to run through them.
Haley's expression was a mirror of his own. The closer she got to him the wider her smile became. Not caring that she'd dropped her numerous bags on the ground, she practically flew into his arms. Nathan wasted no time enveloping her in his embrace. They hugged for a few seconds before he leaned down and kissed her.
"Hi," she whispered once they'd parted.
"Hi." He stroked her hair, unable to divert his eyes. "Welcome home."
Standing on her tiptoes, Haley leaned up to kiss him once more. Every time she saw him she swore he'd gotten taller. That wasn't the only change. Nathan had always been fit, but now his shoulders were broader and his body more muscular. Clearly a seasoned athlete after four years of playing college ball.
His eyes, though, remained the same. That piercing blue still managed to make her weak in the knees, especially when he looked at her like she was the only person in the room. She sighed in contentment as he showered her with kisses.
A throat cleared, and they reluctantly parted. "You guys do realize that you saw each other just two weeks ago, right?" Lucas joked. He was referring to Haley's graduation from Stanford. Her parents, Nathan, and Lucas had flown in to see her and celebrate.
Haley blushed but defended, "That was forever ago."
Nathan pulled her tightly into his side. "Yeah, and this time she's home for good. Totally different."
"Any chance you can loosen your grip on her so I can give my best friend a hug?" Lucas requested.
Nathan rolled his eyes but let go of Haley. She threw her arms around Lucas. "I've missed you, too, Luke."
"Welcome back, Hales."
Nathan grabbed the bags she dropped. Afterward, Haley pulled him next to her so she was sandwiched between the brothers. They were the only family she had left in the state. Her parents had sold the house and were living in the RV indefinitely. Haley would be moving in with Lucas to the apartment they'd gotten in Tree Hill. It was why Haley hadn't immediately returned after graduation. She needed the time to sort things out and send her stuff back. Plus, she wanted to spend time with her college friends before she left. They'd all promised to keep in touch.
"Babe, do you need to get the rest of your bags?" Nathan questioned
"We can just wait here. Chris went to get our stuff."
"Tell me again why you couldn't just leave him back in Cali where he belongs?"
"I told you. He's agreed to help me record the rest of my album out here."
Haley had reconnected with Chris during her sophomore year of college. His band had played a show at her school. She wasn't sure he'd remember her, since he hadn't returned to Camp Aldrich. But he did remember and had taken an interest in her new music. Chris had even let her play in some of his shows when he was in the area, which gave her great exposure. She recorded a few demos last year, and his record company was so impressed that they offered her a deal. As odd as it seemed, they'd sort of become friends.
"Which is awesome, by the way," Lucas complimented. "Congrats. Haley James, you're officially a rock star."
"I've already called dibs on the first autograph," Nathan announced. He was so proud of Haley for pursuing her music. He loved when she sent him a new recording or video of a performance. It made him feel like he was part of the journey even though he couldn't be there in person.
"Um, shouldn't I be congratulating you, Mr. Great American Novelist? How dare you let your brother break the news that you're going to be a published author," Haley chided, nudging him.
"I'm sorry. I swear I was going to tell you. It's just been crazy with these manuscript deadlines and graduation."
Nathan smirked mischievously before adding, "He's also dating his editor."
"What?!" Haley exclaimed, ready to let her best friend have it.
"Nate, shut up," Lucas growled. "We're not dating, really. We're talking, which is what we have to do anyway because of the book. "
Nathan was unconvinced. He knew what his brother looked like when he was into someone and, judging by the goofy expression on his face lately, Lucas had it bad. "I'm pretty sure most editors don't stay on the phone talking to their authors for three hours about the best 80's rock bands."
Haley, intrigued, asked, "What's her name?"
Realizing he wasn't going to get out of this, Lucas answered, "Lindsey Strauss."
"I'm totally Googling her later," Haley declared, making Nathan chuckle and Lucas groan.
"If it isn't the Three Musketeers back together. Nate, Luke, lovely to see you again," Chris huffed as he lugged their suitcases. "What the hell have you got in here, James? You're going to give Chris Keller a hernia."
"Oh please, don't even start," Haley retorted. "I wasn't the one who had to pay an extra fifty bucks because my bag was over the weight limit."
"I'll take that," Nathan said and picked up the luggage easily.
"Someone has been eating their Wheaties," Chris observed, while glancing at his own meager biceps.
Nathan smirked, clearly enjoying having the upper hand. He then turned to Haley and asked if she was ready to go. His graduation was tomorrow, so she'd be staying at his and Luke's apartment in Durham.
"That's my cue," Chris announced. "If you need me, shoot me a text. Though I might not answer right away. I'll be staying with a special lady friend for a few days." He wriggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"I think I'll manage," Haley assured him.
"See you in the studio, then. Later brothers from different mothers." With a salute, he was off.
"Honestly, I don't think he's changed one bit over the years," Nathan commented.
Haley nodded in agreement. "That's because he hasn't." She looked between Nathan and Lucas. "So, are we headed to the apartment? Please tell me you guys actually cleaned up this time." Individually, both guys were slobs. Together, they were a complete disaster.
"Actually, we'll be making a little detour before we head back," Lucas informed her.
"Is that why you had me fly into Charlotte?" There was an airport closer to Duke and UNC that Haley usually flew into when she visited them. This time, though, Nathan had insisted that she go to the Charlotte airport. "What exactly is this detour?"
Smirking, Nathan replied, "It's a surprise."
"Tell me again why I need to be blindfolded for this 'surprise'?" Haley inquired, using air quotes. About ten minutes into their drive, Nathan had pulled the black sash out of his pocket. Despite all her pleading to Lucas and efforts to kiss Nathan into spilling the beans, neither would budge.
The only perk was that she had an excuse to cling to Nathan. With her sight gone, her other senses were heightened and his presence overwhelmed her. One touch from him sent shivers up her spine. It almost made her forget about their ominous surprise. Almost.
Haley wasn't sure how much time passed, but it felt like a while before Lucas announced that they'd arrived. Nathan guided her out of the car and finally took off the blindfold. It was a few seconds before her eyes adjusted to the sunlight. When she finally saw where they'd taken her, she couldn't contain her delight.
"Camp Aldrich," Haley exclaimed affectionately. As promised, she and her friends attended every summer to work as counselors. It was the highlight of her year, and Haley had been bummed that the tradition would end after graduation.
Nathan draped his arm across her shoulders. "We thought one last visit couldn't hurt."
"This is awesome."
"This isn't the full surprise," Lucas informed her and took the lead.
Haley raised a curious brow and followed. It felt good to breathe in the fresh air while taking in the place that had become so dear to her. Nathan seemed to be doing the same. They'd shared so many memories here.
"Are you excited about tomorrow?" Haley asked him as they walked.
It took a moment for Nathan to realize she was speaking to him. He had so much on his mind today. He kept going over the plan in his head. Everything had to be perfect. It had been a while since something made him this nervous.
"If it means I never have to write another term paper again, then yes," he joked.
"It wasn't that bad."
"Probably because I still had my tutor on speed dial." He'd lost count of the times he'd needed Haley's help on a project or assignment. Lucky for him, his girlfriend was always happy to help. It was just in her nature. The few times he'd actually gotten an A, Haley had teased him that he was turning into a nerd like her. Nathan wouldn't dare admit it, but it had meant a lot that he could succeed in his classes.
"You bet your ass you did," she teased and giggled when he squeezed her side. "I know you hate school, but I'm so proud of you for sticking it out."
The NBA recruiters had taken serious notice of him during his junior year. He had offers to go pro. Nathan had always assumed that he'd jump at the chance but seeing what Lucas went through made him realize how important it was to get his degree. His brother had only played for two years at UNC when he was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition called HCM. Players could literally collapse and die if they pushed themselves too hard.
It had been a really tough time for Lucas and himself. They were brothers and the odds were 50/50 that Nathan could have it, too. Just another family perk passed down to them from their jerk of a father. Basketball was such a major part of him. It was the only thing he was truly good at. He didn't know who he'd be if he lost it. If it weren't for Haley and his mom, Nathan might've considered not getting tested. But he'd learned a long time ago just how much his family meant to him. To make them worry like that and put his life on the line every game would've been selfish. Thankfully, they'd all worried for nothing because Nathan didn't have the gene. Despite that, it reminded him that he wasn't invincible and that he needed a backup plan no matter what happened.
"What about the NBA draft next month?" Haley questioned. "I know you must be excited for that. I was watching ESPN the other day and-"
Nathan literally stopped in his tracks. "You were watching ESPN? Willingly?"
"Don't sound so shocked. I wanted to see what they were saying about it," she explained. "Anyway, it seems like you have a few teams courting you."
"Courting me," he repeated, laughing. "Are we back in medieval times?"
They started walking again to catch up with Lucas. "Oh, shut up. My point is it seems like you're going to be pretty high up in the draft pick."
"It's nice to see you taking an interest."
"I wouldn't be a good girlfriend if I didn't. And you know I never miss one of your games."
He smirked. "That's just because I look so sexy in my uniform."
"Yes, there's that, too." Her cheeks colored, which made his smirk widen.
Haley's friends at Stanford used to constantly tease her about her almost obsessive need to watch Nathan's games. It was as much about supporting him as it was feeling like she was close to him. The first time Nathan came to visit at Stanford, she couldn't help the smile of satisfaction at the way her friends practically drooled over him. That included the guys, who were major college ball freaks. Nathan had fit right in with all the sports talk.
"So are you going to tell me who will be the lucky team?" Haley inquired.
"Clay is still filtering and negotiating the offers." Clay Evans was Nathan's agent. They'd actually met during Nathan's sophomore year of college. He'd been one of the first agents to approach Nathan, and they had kept in touch. That's what Nathan liked about Clay. It wasn't always business with him; he really seemed to care about his clients. When the time came to choose representation, Clay was his guy.
"Ah, Clay. The bromance continues." Haley had only met Clay a couple of times, but her first impression of him was that he was a good guy. He and Nathan got along really well. She would've thought they were bff's if she didn't know any better. They hung out a lot.
"Ha ha," he deadpanned.
"Come on, just give me a hint. Which team? Please?" She batted her eyelashes and gave him her infamous puppy dog face. She knew exactly how to get him.
"I don't want to jinx it but fine. I'll most likely be signed by the Bobcats." They were Nathan's favorite team and first choice. He wanted to stay close to home and was confident that Clay would come through for him.
"Aw, I love Bobcats. They're so cute!"
"You are such a girl, Hales." He kissed her affectionately.
"Less smooching and more walking," Lucas called back to them. He'd been good about giving them some space.
"If we're having dinner here, I'm going back to the car," Haley declared. There were a few staff members walking around, no doubt getting the camp ready for its official opening in a couple of weeks. The thought of eating the slop they call food still gave her nightmares.
Her anxiety about the food gave way to calmness when the lake came into view. Seconds later she was filled with excitement at the sight of the group gathered on the shore.
Brooke was the first to run up and hug her. "Welcome home, Tutor Girl!"
"You, too, Tigger," Haley exclaimed, holding her tightly. They hadn't been able to talk much recently, since they'd both been busy with graduation and their post-college plans.
More greetings and hugs were exchanged. Jake and Peyton were next, followed by Tim and Kat. It never ceased to surprise her every year how they could all look so different but remain relatively the same person.
"Now this is an awesome surprise," Haley declared.
Brooke helped Lucas break out the beer and champagne. "Even though we're all graduating, we needed at least one last reunion."
Tim tried to pop the top off the champagne and almost got himself in the eye. He shrugged. "You know you've all missed the Tim."
"Give me the other one before you hurt someone," Kat said and gestured for the second bottle.
"No thanks," Peyton said when Brooke offered her a beer.
"P. Sawyer, college is over and you're already going soft on me?"
"Believe me, I would love a drink but I can't." She and Jake exchanged a look. "We were going to wait to tell you guys later but what the hell. I'm pregnant."
"What?!" Brooke screeched loudly and practically pounced on Peyton. They were swarmed with questions and congratulations.
When the excitement finally died down, they took a seat in the chairs and caught up. Haley explained about finishing her record and possibly going on tour at the end of the year. Lucas talked about his book. When Nathan let it slip that Lucas was bonding on a personal level with his editor, Brooke started teasing him about sleeping with the boss. He threatened to cut the character in his book based on her out, which quickly made her pout but shut up.
It turned out that Peyton and Jake would be staying in Savannah. Jake got accepted into law school but was still performing his music on the side. Peyton was doing freelance design for several publications. It was the best thing for her. She could make her own hours, which was good now that they had a baby on the way. She was due in the fall.
Kat would be staying in L.A. permanently. She'd just gotten a job as an assistant agent at a modeling agency and would be moving in with her boyfriend of two years, Rob. Haley had hung out with him when she went to visit Kat. He was kind of shy but a good guy, nonetheless.
Tim would begin his job at his uncle's marketing firm after he graduated from UNC. It turned out that all of his wacky ideas were pretty useful when brainstorming interesting campaigns. He'd also started dating Bevin, an old classmate of theirs from Tree Hill, about six months ago.
Brooke, with the help of her mom, was launching her own clothing company. It was as exciting as it was stressful, by the way she talked. Victoria Davis wasn't the warmest motherly type, but it was important to Brooke to have at least one of her parents taking an interest in her. Haley was mostly sad that Brooke would be living in New York but was also happy to see her friend's dream finally coming true.
Everyone wanted to know what would happen with Nathan and the draft. When the guys started talking teams, they broke off into their separate conversations. It gave Haley a chance to quietly ask about the new guy Brooke was seeing. She was being super secretive lately, which wasn't like her when it came to her love life.
"When I tell you, you have to promise not to laugh," Brooke warned. She glanced around as if someone could be eavesdropping on their conversation. "It's Julian Baker."
The name didn't ring a bell. "Who?"
"You know him as Julian Norris. He was in the same cabin as the guys our first year training. You starred in his movie."
"Oh my gosh, that Julian?" Haley whispered, remembering. "How did you meet him?"
"I'm doing costumes for his new movie. He heard about my new line and sought me out. He's a producer now and took his mom's last name. I guess he didn't want to be connected to his father who is a big film exec. Anyway, he is totally different now."
"So the glasses and awkwardness...?"
"Totally gone. He's sexy. And I do mean sexy," Brooke gushed. "He's got this crazy hot smirk. You know what that's like."
Haley giggled, sparing a glance at Nathan. "Yes, I do."
"Plus, he's amazing in bed."
"You slept with him?!"
"I couldn't help it," Brooke pouted. "He gave me that smirk, and we'd been drinking wine while working late. It just sort of happened. And then it kept happening. I don't know what I'm going to do. I can't really tell anyone about it yet."
Haley patted her friend's back. "Oh Brookie." The girl clearly had it bad.
"I really like him. I'm in so much trouble."
"Well, if you want my honest opinion, I think it'll work out. He did have a huge crush on you before. And if he sought you out like you said..." Haley hinted.
Brooke's phone went off. "It's Julian." She murmured for Haley to give her a couple of minutes while she took the call.
Haley watched her friends laughing and talking loudly. Despite the breakups and drama over years, there were also plenty of good times that allowed them to remain connected.
Nathan glanced over at Haley and noticed that she was alone. Taking a deep breath, he knew it was time. He approached her just as he was about to join Peyton and Kat. He held out his hand. "Come with me."
"Where are we going?" she asked, although her tone suggested she already suspected.
"We're going to take a walk," Nathan told the others.
"You mean to your super secret hideout," Peyton replied.
"Watch out for poison ivy when you get naked. It's a bitch," Tim advised.
Haley's cheeks were bright red, which made everyone bust out laughing. Nathan shook his head at his friend before leading Haley away. This moment was five years in the making, and he couldn't wait another minute.
Walking the trail to their lake spot was like second nature to Haley. It made her smile to think of how she'd gotten so lost the first time she'd ever happened upon it. Nathan often liked to tease her about it, obviously embellishing his role as the knight in shining armor.
They reached the tiny beach. It looked relatively the same. It was comforting, especially when almost everything about their lives had changed in college. And would change again after graduation. Haley slipped off her shoes and dug her toes in the sand. When she glanced at Nathan, she noticed his eyes weren't on the lake but on her.
She blushed at the intensity of his stare. "What?"
Nathan took her by the waist and brought her toward him. "I don't think I've told you how beautiful you look today." Haley had shed her jacket earlier, allowing him to run his hands up and down her bare arms.
Goosebumps formed from the trail of his fingertips. Haley rested her hands on his chest to steady herself. To be away for long periods of time and then back with him was like sensory overload. Not that she was complaining. There was nowhere else she'd rather be than with him.
"You're looking quite handsome yourself."
Nathan leaned down to kiss her, and she met him halfway. With no one around, they could finally have a proper kiss. Haley moaned as his lips claimed hers completely. Opening her mouth, she deepened the kiss. It was the kind that made her toes curl in the sand, and erased the distance that had been between them.
It was a few minutes before Nathan pulled back. Her hands ran along his muscular biceps to his shoulders. Finally, she stroked his cheek. To her surprise, he felt slightly tense. "Is everything okay?"
He lifted her left hand and stared at the ring she wore. "Do you ever take it off?"
She shook her head. "Not really. If I do, I feel naked without it."
"I've missed you," he murmured, kissing her again.
They did everything they could these last four years to stay connected. It wasn't always easy. Their busy schedules and new friends constantly fought for their attention. There had been a couple of big arguments, followed by heartfelt make-ups. Every day they had to work at it. When a few of his friends from the team suggested that Nathan move on and find a girl at Duke-there were certainly many eager to take Haley's place-he wouldn't speak to them for days afterward. She may not have been there physically with him, but Haley was always in his heart. And always would be.
"I've missed you, too. But I'm home for good now." It was a relief to say those words.
Haley loved everything about Stanford. She'd made the most of her college experience, meeting new people and trying new things. Being on her own had allowed her to grow as a person. Some of her friends had warned her that it might mean outgrowing Nathan, since they'd lost relationships of their own. Brooke and Lucas were a prime example. They'd started out with the best intentions, but their lives had ultimately become so different. They tried to make it work as a couple, but there was no going back. In the end, friendship was all they could offer each other. Tim and Kat eventually succumbed to the same challenge.
Haley had been a little worried that she and Nathan would follow but quickly realized it was a wasted effort. Yes, she and Nathan lived miles apart and were changing. But they made their relationship a priority and learned to bring the pieces of their separate lives together along the way. It actually made them stronger. As bittersweet as it was to leave Stanford, Nathan mattered more.
There was a nervous vibe coming from him. It wasn't like Nathan at all, which made Haley frown. "Seriously, is everything okay? Are you worried about graduation tomorrow? The draft?"
"No," he murmured. "I mean, yes, I don't know what's going to happen. There are a lot of things I don't know but when it comes to you, I couldn't be more sure. Whatever happens, I need you by my side. And I want to be by yours, always. Always and forever."
"Nathan, I feel the same way," she assured him. "What is this about?"
"I don't think you should wear that promise ring anymore."
"What?" Haley clutched at it protectively. "Why?" There were so many thoughts swirling around in her mind. She could barely settle on one.
"I gave you that ring, because I told you I would marry you someday, Haley James." A smile slowly started to form on his handsome face. "I think it's time I finally made good on that promise, don't you?"
Haley's breath caught as Nathan knelt down in front of her. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, black velvet box. It opened to reveal a platinum, princess-cut diamond engagement ring. The stones glinted in the sunlight. Haley was utterly mesmerized, looking between Nathan and the beautiful ring.
"Oh my God," she whispered in awe. Moister began to build behind her eyes as he clasped her hand.
"I love you so much, Hales. From the first moment we met and you tried to ignore me, I knew you were going to change my life forever." They both chuckled at that. "You have taught me so much about life and love. We've faced a lot together and even if I could take away all the bad stuff, I wouldn't. Because it brought us here to this moment. This place. Our place. I want to build a life with you, and I want that life together to start right now." He took a deep breath and focused beyond his pounding heart. "So, Haley James, will you marry me?"
"Yes," Haley answered. "Of course I will." She watched as Nathan removed her promise ring and replaced it with the engagement ring. When he stood, Haley threw her arms around him and kissed him with everything inside of her. "God, I love you."
"Should we go tell the others?" Nathan suggested when they finally separated. He couldn't stop smiling if he tried.
Haley held him tightly and rested her head on his chest, staring out at the lake. "We will. I just want a few more minutes in this place." Their spot felt almost magical. It had brought them together so many times. It never ceased to amaze her.
Nathan kissed her forehead. "We have all the time in the world now."
The mirror of the sun and trees on the lake was beautiful. When the water rippled, it grew bigger and distorted the images. If Haley looked hard enough, she could almost see the moments that had brought her and Nathan here playing out. They expanded before becoming a part of the calm surface. Not to be seen again until something else caused them to form. Haley thought about what she and Nathan had yet to create with great anticipation. Whatever happened, they would face those ripples together.
"Yes," she sighed contently. "We do."