A/N: As always, I apologize for the wait. It feels like it's been a while since I've written a flashback chapter, but hopefully you'll get a sense of the timeframe for this one. Reviews rock; I hope you like it. :)

Nineteen: December 16th, 2003; Tree Hill, North Carolina

"Hurry up," Lucas whined from his position on Peyton's bed. He was sprawled out, his head on one of her pillows, flipping through the latest issue of Rolling Stone. He'd gotten her a subscription for her last birthday and she often complained that he'd really been buying himself a present in doing so, since he always read her copy instead of buying his own.

"Shut up!" she retorted from behind the closed bathroom door.

Sighing, he set aside the magazine and sat up a bit, folding one of his arms behind his heat. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, and his suit jacket, which he'd taken off when he got there, was lying at his side. He'd taken it off when he'd arrived too early for her liking, but he was now beginning to think that they'd miss the whole thing. "We're gonna be late!" he called.

"We are not."

"It's almost nine; it started at eight."

"Okay, I'm sorry, I know I'm being a total girl," she admitted. "But why are you in such a rush? You hate school functions."

Lucas sat up fully. "You are the one who's insisting on dragging me to this semi-formal dance even though neither of us really wants to go."

She stormed out of the bathroom and planted her hands on her hips, her green eyes flashing dangerously. "We are both going to this dance from hell as a service to our friends. Nathan's sunk into some kind of self-destructive depression since Haley left two weeks ago and Brooke is practically regressing – she'll sleep with half the basketball team by the end of the month if we don't intervene and remind her that she's got friends who care about her. We're going together just because it makes sense; we're both going and we're friends and we're supposed to have dates and –" She stopped short, frowning. "Why the hell are you looking at me like that?"

He smiled slightly. "You don't look like a total girl."

Her face fell but she quickly tried to cover her disappointment. "Well, it's not like I'm trying to be Barbie or anything…" she scoffed uncertainly.

"You look like an angel," he said simply as he got off the bed and reached out toward her.

She slipped her hands into his shyly, looking down as her cheeks turned pink. "Luke," she sighed.

"I'm serious," he insisted, squeezing her fingers gently. "Well worth the wait."

"Stop. My hair is doing crazy things and I've got a scar from a freaking bullet wound on my leg."

Her hair looked great in loose curls and her simple silvery-white dress emphasized her lean legs but didn't draw any attention to her scar. He shook his head, denying her words, and lifted one of her hands to kiss her knuckles. "You're gorgeous. And you're finally ready to go."

She giggled – he always felt a certain sense of accomplishment when he made Peyton Sawyer giggle – and nodded. "Yeah, let's go do this thing."

He shrugged his blazer on. "Love the enthusiasm."

Peyton rolled her eyes. "The sooner we get there, the sooner we can leave."

Lucas pouted at her. "We can't stay the whole time?"

"You were just whining about me dragging you there!" she cried exasperatedly.

"I take it back. That was before I knew I was going with the most beautiful girl in school." He winked at her. "I've got to show you off."

-x-

"Peyton!" Brooke cried, throwing her arms sloppily around the blonde's neck the moment Lucas and Peyton walked into the gym, which was decorated for the dance.

"Someone's drunk already," Peyton sighed, supporting some of her best friend's weight as Brooke stumbled. She threw Lucas an irritated look and he balked playfully.

"Hey, don't look at me! I'm not the one who made us late."

"You look so pretty," Brooke sighed, touching Peyton's hair. She turned to Lucas. "Doesn't she look pretty?"

"Yeah, we've already had this conversation," Peyton replied before he could answer for himself. "B. Davis, how much have you had to drink tonight?"

"Only a little," Brooke insisted, stage-whispering: "Vegas spiked the punch."

"Of course he did," Lucas muttered irritably. "Hey, Brooke, why don't we get you some water and go…talk about…how pretty Peyton looks…" he said impulsively, "while she goes to find Nathan?"

Peyton nodded, shooting him a grateful look as she transferred Brooke into his arms. "I'll be back soon," she promised.

As she turned to go, she heard Brooke talking loudly to Luke, informing him, "She looks pretty for you, you know." Peyton could only shake her head and hope that he wouldn't take Brooke's drunken words too seriously. They were friends, that's all.

It took her all of two minutes to locate Nathan, who was sitting alone at a table gulping down punch, his sit jacket gone and his tie loosened, his eyes bleary and sad.

"Hey, buddy," she said gently, patting his knee as she took a seat next to him.

"Hi," he mumbled.

Peyton sighed. "I'm worried about you, Nate."

"Don't be."

"Well, I am," she said bluntly. "Will you please talk to me about what's going on with you?"

He exhaled and met her eyes. "Do you think she's coming back, Peyt?"

"Oh, Nathan," she said sadly, "She promised that she would. Haley keeps her promises."

"I don't know that. I don't know anything, I don't know her like I thought I did. I don't know her at all. Her promises don't mean anything."

"Nate…" she whispered mournfully.

"Whatever," he said, shrugging off her concern as he stood up unsteadily. "People always leave, right?"

"They don't," she whispered. "I know that you're hurting and I know how awful it is to lose someone, but Haley's going to come back. People don't always leave. Brooke and Lucas are still here…and so are you."

"I wouldn't count on that," he said darkly. "I never promised you anything worthwhile, Peyton. I was a jerk to you most of the time we were dating and you're a better friend to me than I am to you now. I know Brooke is your best friend but one day she's going to move on with some guy and leave you behind. And I know Luke promises you the world and you believe him. But you shouldn't. You shouldn't." He cast one last look back at her before he stalked off to carry on brooding. "You look beautiful," he muttered, and turned to go.

Peyton toyed with the idea of going after him, but before she could make a decision, Vegas swooped in smoothly, straddling the chair Nathan had just vacated and grinning at her.

"Sup, P. Sawyer?" he asks self-assuredly.

She tilted her head to the side slightly. "I don't think we really know each other well enough for nicknames, dude," she told him with more patience than she actually possessed.

"So let's change that," he shrugged, his eyes raking down her body. "You look hot tonight." Getting to his feet, he held a hand out to her. "Let's dance."

"No thanks."

"Peyton," he sighed, "come on. I'm single, you're single, I'm sexy, you're sexy…" He stopped when he saw her scowl. "It's not even a slow song!"

She sighed, ten seconds away from telling him to fuck off, but Lucas and Brooke caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. They were sitting alone at a table, a glass of water in front of Brooke, talking with their heads close together. Brooke said something and giggled, Lucas laughed, and Peyton felt her heart constrict. It had been over a year since the school shooting, over a year since they'd broken up, but as she looked at them now she wondered if something was still there between them. Nathan's parting words resonated in her head and she wondered if they were over there laughing at her expense right now, at the dress that she'd worn for him so that they could attend the school dance that she'd thought, deep down, they wanted to go to. Maybe Lucas really wouldn't stay true to everything he'd promised her, and maybe Lucas would be the boy Brooke left her behind for. She sighed again and slipped her hand into Vegas'.

"Let's dance," she agreed.

-x-

"How're you doing, Brooke?" Lucas asked her, hiding his laughter as he watched her examine her water glass as if it were a mystery to her.

"I'm okay," she shrugged. "Nathan's not so good," she informed him in the ultra-serious way of an intoxicated person.

"Yeah, I know. Peyt's working on it."

Brooke scrutinized his face. "Are you good?" she asked.

"Yeah, sure, I'm good."

The brunette shook her head and leaned in close to him. "I mean, are you and Peyton good?"

"Peyton and I are just friends."

She rolled her eyes. "God, it's been over a year. Would you two just do it already?"

Lucas couldn't help but laugh. "Do you really think she came here for me tonight? That she got dressed up for me tonight?"

Brooke sat up in her chair and gave him a condescending look. "I don't think, I know."

He chuckled and looked around the gym, seeking her out. The moment his eyes landed on her his chest tightened. She was talking to Vegas, giving him a doubtful look, but then he said something and she nodded, slipping her hand into his and following him into the crowd of dancing teens. He watched as they danced. Peyton was a good dancer but a hesitant one, and Vegas seemed to recognize that; Lucas' jaw clenched as Vegas broke out all his best moves, making her relax and giggle. Giggle.

The song changed and Peyton went to move away, but Vegas grabbed her hand and pulled her body toward his, wrapping his arms around her waist as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Peyton looked resistant for a moment, but then he said something to her and Lucas recognized the bashful look on her face as she wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned into him. Lucas was glaring at them so fiercely that he was honestly surprised that they couldn't feel the anger in his stare.

He glanced over at Brooke, who was watching him, wearing an amused expression. She waved her hand lazily in the air. "Go, go. I'll be fine."

"I can't just go over there and…"

"No," she agreed, "you probably shouldn't." She laughed. "But you should see the look on your face right now. You're going over there, whether you should or not."

Lucas turned back toward Peyton and Vegas and watched as his teammate's hands slipped lower. That was the final straw, and he found himself charging over toward them and forcing them apart with a light amount of pressure on one of Peyton's shoulders and a not-so-light shove on one of Vegas'.

"What the hell, dude?!" Vegas demanded, scowling at him and reaching for Peyton's hand.

"Watch it," Lucas growled.

"Luke," Peyton hissed at him, and the deathly expression on her face told him that he'd be paying for this later.

He couldn't really have cared less. He grasped her hand, the one Vegas had been reaching for, and pulled her away. "We're leaving."

"Lucas!" she cried, but she wasn't as strong as he was, and she wasn't fully resistant, so it didn't take a lot of effort to pull her out of the dream.

"What the fuck, you idiot!?" she screamed at him the moment they were outdoors and he'd let go of her.

"What're you thinking, dancing with that guy?" he yelled back.

"They call it a dance for a reason, Lucas!"

"If you want to dance, you dance with me. You're my date."

Peyton's eyes flashed and she took a couple angry strides toward him until their faces were inches apart. "Oh, sorry, Mr. Caveman," she sneered sarcastically.

"You came here with me!"

"We came here as friends!" she cried.

"Well…maybe we shouldn't have!"

She took a small step backward, regarding him warily. "What does that mean?" she asked in a much quieter tone.

"It means that…I wanted to come here tonight. I wanted to come here and I wanted to come with you, and I think that maybe…you knew that, because you actually got dressed up. I know that Brooke and Nathan need us right now, but I wanted tonight to be about us, not just them."

"Lucas…" she warned him, shaking her head.

"No, Peyt…" He sighed, all of his anger fading away. "I know that this scares you and I understand that so I've let it go, I've let us just be friends, and we haven't talked about it since that day when you woke up in the hospital. And I've let that go because you've been going through so much with your leg and then Ellie and everything, and because Brooke's been lonely and Haley and Nathan were fighting and then she left and I we all miss her and we're worried about them and I just didn't want to add any more drama to our lives. But…I think we should have come here tonight as more than just friends. I think we should be more than friends, because I love you."

"I love you, too," she murmured, "You're my best friend."

He wouldn't let her get away with that. "Brooke is your best friend," he said adamantly.

"Okay, well yeah, but you're my best guy friend, and sometimes…sometimes it's like you know me better, like you get me more, like…"

"That's because I'm more than your friend. I'm in love with you, Peyton Sawyer, and I think you're in love with me too."

She gave him a pleading look.

"I'm tired of avoiding it. I'm tired of pretending it isn't there. I'm tired of pretending that I don't want to kiss you or dance with you, I'm tired to pretending that there isn't anything between us. I've loved you for a long time, so I think…I think we should both just admit it and give in to what we really want." He shook his head and smiled slightly. "I'm not going to hurt you, Peyt. I'm not going to leave you. I haven't yet, have I?"

She sighed sadly and gave him a long, hard look, tears shining in her eyes. Finally, she blurted, "Will you come home with me tonight?"

His eyes practically bugged out of his head and she rolled her sad, tired green orbs as a watery laugh escaped her lips.

"Not for the reason you're thinking, perv," she told him exasperatedly. "I just really don't want to be alone because I my dad's gone and I miss my…my moms, both of them, and I miss Haley, and Nathan's such a mess and I don't know what to do about it, and Brooke needs me to take care of her but sometimes I'm scared I'm not enough for her, and these stupid shoes are hurting my feet and Vegas is gross and I wore this dress for you but I didn't…that's just not something I do and it scares me because…because I need you," she confessed, her voice cracking, "so it's just really hard for me to admit that I…"

Lucas took four steps toward her, closing the distance between them and wrapping her up in a hug, one of his hands slipping into her hair as he cupped the back of her head. She melted into him, letting him support her weight, and sniffled as she curled up against his chest. "Okay," he murmured, "I know. It's okay." He rubbed her back and kissed her forehead. "Your feet hurt?"

She nodded.

"Okay." He released her gently and placed one hand at her back, bending slightly as he slipped his other hand just below her knees and swept her up into his arms, fully prepared to carry her to the car.

Peyton sighed, wrapping her arms around his neck and closing her eyes and she rested her head against his shoulder. "You're such a dork," she told him softly.

"And you love me," he muttered teasingly.

She made a disgruntled face, but she clung to him a little bit more and pressed her lips against his collarbone, and he knew that it was true.

-x-

They were both tired by the time they arrived in her room. She threw him a pair of basketball shorts that he'd left at her place at some point and grabbed one of his shirts out of the same drawer to serve as her own nightwear. They both changed in her room, backs to each other, but he caught a couple glances of her skin in his peripheral vision. She'd never been shy around him, and he was reminded of that fact when they crawled into her bed together and he noticed that she was wearing only that shirt of his over her underwear.

He laid on his back and she curled into his body, one of her legs draped over his, her arm lying over his chest, her chin tucked into his shoulder.

"Let's not make promises, okay?" she asked through a yawn, her eyes tired but still sparkling. "Promises can only get broken."

Lucas gave her a doubtful look. He wanted to argue, but she was looking at him in a way he couldn't resist, so he sighed and agreed, "Okay."

She reached blindly behind her to her bedside table and grabbed a book, which she placed on his chest. "Read to me," she requested quietly.

Never able to deny her, he picked up the book and opened it. A few lines into The Bell Jar, when he sensed that she was dozing off, he started to laugh. He tried not to disturb her, but the rumbling of his chest caught her attention, and she squinted at him.

"What is it?"

"This is your idea of a romantic evening?" he asked teasingly. "Drunken friends, lame school dance, Vegas, fighting in the parking lot, shoes that give you blisters, depressing literature?"

She laughed softly, tugging the book from his hands and tossing it to the side, resting her weight on one of her elbows as she propped herself up. "My idea of a romantic evening," she breathed, her lips less than an inch from his, "is one that includes you."

And then she kissed him.

-x-

Peyton's bed was empty when she woke up the next morning. She sat up instantly when she noticed that Lucas wasn't there, looking around her room. He knew he wouldn't have left without saying goodbye, and she was reassured of that fact when she saw his suit and his shirt still lying on the floor off to the side. She kicked off the blankets and ran a hand through her hair as she set off to look for him. She didn't bother checking a mirror – Lucas had seen her at her best and worst and insisted she looked beautiful either way and everywhere in between, so she figured it'd take a little more than bedhead and sleepy eyes to scare him away.

She found him in the kitchen still in only his basketball shorts, making eggs and pancakes and listening to a mixed CD she'd made for him years ago. She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms, smiling at him. "Aw, you're making my breakfast and you didn't even get laid?" she teased him.

He whirled around and grinned at her, eyes dancing mischievously as he arched an eyebrow. "Are you implying that you now officially owe me for every single time I've made you breakfast over the years? Because I haven't been keeping track, but I'm sure I could find some way to remember."

She laughed and walked over to him, tucking her arms beneath his as she hugged him and pressed her lips to his. "You seriously don't have to cook for me, you know."

"Yeah, but you never cook for yourself, so this is my way of making sure you don't get scurvy," he informed her, stealing one more kiss before he stepped away from her to flip his pancakes.

Peyton rolled her eyes as she took a seat at the kitchen table and propped her bare legs up on another one of the chairs, leaning back as she watched him cook. She watched him move around the kitchen appreciatively.

"See something you like?" he asked without turning around, and she could hear the smirk in his words.

"Maybe," she shrugged coyly as he turned to place a plate in front of her, his eyes flying directly to her legs. She blinked at him innocently as she asked, "Why…do you?"

He put her plate down on the table and leaned in close to her, his eyes dark. "I don't think you know what you're asking for."

She grinned at him, biting her lower lip. "Or maybe I do," she replied, arching her eyebrows, daring him to make a move. "Your pancakes are probably burning, honey," she told him sweetly, giggling as he glared at her before he moved away.

Seconds later, they both jumped when they heard the distinct sounds of a bag hitting the floor and a throat being cleared. Peyton turned toward the doorway of the kitchen, wincing, well aware of who was there.

"Hi, Daddy," she said in a very small voice.

"Peyton Elizabeth," he began, his expression softening slightly when she grimaced sadly at the sound of her middle name. "Would you care to explain yourself?"

"I…" She trailed off, shooting Lucas a helpless look. "Okay, I know that this sounds like a lie, but this really isn't what it looks like."

"Really," Lucas repeated in agreement, and she shook her head subtly at him.

Larry Sawyer crossed his arms as he regarded them seriously. "If you were me…would you believe the two of you?"

Peyton sighed heavily, tugging at the hem of her t-shirt as she pulled her legs off the chair they rested on. "No," she admitted.

He nodded slowly. "I'm going to go get some coffee. When I get back, I want you dressed," he said, giving Peyton a pointed look, "and Rakeboy gone. Is that understood?"

They both nodded quickly.

"Okay," Larry sighed. "I guess I'm going, then."

Peyton stared up at him, stunned. "That's it?" she blurted.

"Peyt," Lucas said shortly, his eyes widening.

"Sorry. I'm sorry, I just…Daddy, that's all you're going to say?"

"Well, I can't exactly kill him, honey. He saved your life. He's been good to you. So of all the boys in the world…" He sighed again, a long-suffering sigh, and leaned own to kiss the top of her head as he muttered: "At least he's making you breakfast."

They were completely silent until the door closed, when they took one look at one another and burst out laughing. Peyton buried her face in her hands and tried to catch her breath. She peeked up at him through her fingers. "Do you still love me?"

He grinned at her. "Even your dad thinks you so owe me for breakfast."

Her jaw dropped as he grabbed both of her hands and pulled her to her feet. She stumbled, her body pressing right against his, which had undoubtedly been his goal. Giggling, she wrapped her arms around him and said, "You've got to get out of here."

"Nah…we've got at least five minutes," he murmured as he kissed her cheek, causing her to squeal and gasp as he tilted his head, his lips attacking her neck.

-x-

"So wait," Nathan said from where he sat on the couch in his apartment. "Peyton's dad walked in on the two of you half-naked in her kitchen?"

Brooke, who was making popcorn in the kitchen, started laughing hysterically, hands pressed against the countertop to steady herself. "That's golden," she chuckled, walking over to join Nathan on the couch, two big bowls of popcorn in her hands. "He is so never forgetting that."

They were all gathered in Nathan's apartment, impatiently awaiting Haley and Chris' appearance on a late night talk show of some sort. Nathan was only watching because the rest of them were, or so he claimed. Nathan and Brooke, still both slightly hungover, were sprawled out on the couch while Lucas and Peyton were cuddled up in a nest of pillows and blankets on the floor. They watched Friends reruns until nearly two o'clock in the morning, waiting for the show to come on. Brooke fell asleep and Nathan pretended to so that he wouldn't have to watch, and Lucas knew thought that Peyton was dead to the world at his side until she grasped his hand and pressed it to her chest, just over her heart.

"Feel that?" she whispered sleepily. "You're making my heart skip beats."

He grinned. "Well, I promise that I'll be here to give you arrhythmia for the rest of your life."

She scowled at him. "I thought we said no promises."

Lucas smirked. "We didn't promise no promises," he said cheekily.

"Jerk," she murmured, resting her head against his chest.

"Go to sleep," he told her gently as the talk show finally started on the screen. "I'll be right here when you wake up."

She sighed as she gave in to slumber. "Everything's gonna be alright, right?"

The talk show finally began and Haley appeared on the screen, guitar balanced on her knee, sitting next to Chris Keller. The show's host asked if they'd play a song, and Haley nodded readily, her fingers pressing against her guitar's strings, forming the first chord.

"This one's for my family," she said softly, looking right at the camera, and she winked. Lucas felt his heart swell. He knew, with total certainty, in that moment, that she was coming back, and he hoped that Nathan did too.

"Yeah," he murmured to Peyton, kissing her eyelids and brushing his lips against hers as Haley began to play, "Everything's gonna be alright."