Aftertaste

And I really didn't need this. Don't want to be this. Don't want to see this.

I'm falling in, I'm going there again, and it's not my fault.

A/N: Don't hate me. The thing is…I can't stop writing. And the other thing is, though I'm sure a lot of you don't…I really like Julian. While I thoroughly support L/P…I really, really like Julian. He's pretty irresistible – physically and from a fan fiction perspective. And I want more of him, more of his relationship with Peyton. I don't know exactly how things are going to go on the show, but they're probably not going to go my way. This…is my way. Like I said, don't hate me. I'm writing pretty consistently; I have updates for all of my stories in the works. This isn't going to be very long, about ten chapters, so don't worry; it's not another seemingly unending story. Lyrics: "Aftertaste" – Ben Lee. Enjoy, and please review.

Crazy.

She's sitting in her office when he arrives, on the phone with the manager of a band, politely arguing with him about his band: their needs and wants, the manager's needs and wants, her needs and wants and everything in between. She wants to make this good, for her brother.

When he appears in her doorway, all of a sudden her businesslike persona is gone and she is left a stuttering mess, blurting out what she thinks and hanging up with a promise to call back.

He still gives her butterflies, and she hates it.

"What're you doing here?" she asks, the same question she directed to him weeks before.

He shrugs. "Wanted to see you."

She presses her lips together, trying not to betray any emotion, and gestures to the red chair across from her. At least in this swiveling chair, this position of authority, she's got a little power over him. "You can sit, I guess."

He smirks, because she's phrased it like she's doing him a big favour. "Thank you," he says sarcastically, but all she can think about is all the times she's seen that smirk before, the playful light in his eyes that is purposefully guarded today.

Playing with her pen, uncapping and recapping it, she says, "Luke's really beating himself up over that scene you're forcing him to write."

Her hostility wasn't quite as subtle as she'd hoped, and she can tell that he feels it full force, but he just shrugs again. "I told him I could get somebody else to do it."

For some inexplicable reason, tears prick at her eyes. "It's the moment his father pulled the trigger, murdering his uncle. You can't expect him to trust that in the hands of someone else. You can't expect him to go back to that day. You're not being fair to him."

When he gives her a knowing look, she's taken aback because he really does know. He knows her. He knew her for nearly two years. He knows her still.

"I'm not being fair to him…" he begins quietly, "or you're not being fair to him?"

"Stop," she says instantly, looking away from him, staring at the records on her wall.

"Peyton…" She hates the way he says her name, with such familiarity. "I just don't understand why you haven't told him yet. I haven't because I know you wouldn't want that. I'm trying to respect your engagement, here. It's a business deal; I'm trying to be professional. But it's been three weeks. Why haven't you told him?"

"Why haven't you left?" she snaps back illogically.

"Peyton." He says again. Her name is a statement and a question at the same time when he says it like that.

"It'll upset him," she argues.

"Him, or you?"

"I…both, okay? Both."

He shakes his head. "I don't understand you."

Shaking her head as well, she asks point-blank, "Are you back for me?"

His grin is cocky as he leans forward, and it infuriates her. "Babe…I left you, remember?"

She frowns at the memory, the abrupt way he disappeared from her life, the third time in her life that she felt powerful heartbreak and a disconcerting sense of abandonment. "Yeah, I remember," she snaps angrily. "Out the door in two seconds flat, nothing but a goodbye, and all over a stupid book."

"Stupid book?" he retorts, raising his eyebrows. "You clung to that book like it was Lucas himself…and look at you now. Isn't that love story what brought you back together?"

Again, she looks away from him. No, Ravens didn't give her back the love of her life, but Lucas' second book did. In most senses, he's right. That love story, no matter which book it existed within in, was what brought them back to one another – even if it took a tearful runaway bride, a whirlwind trip to Vegas, and a failed book tour for them to realize this very fact.

Instead of saying all of that aloud, she turns back to her ex-boyfriend with steely green eyes and says, "It's so nice that you've finally lowered yourself to the level at which you can bring yourself to read it. And you like it so much that now you want to make a movie," she scoffs.

"Honey," Julian says condescendingly. "If I'd read that book earlier, we would've been over a hell of a lot sooner."

Her frown grows so deep and pained that it surprises them both.

"What did you think, Peyton, seriously? That we'd be together forever?"

She wants to scream at him that no, she would never entertain that thought, not even for a minute, but the truth spills out of her mouth instead. "I guess sometimes maybe I did."

Fully prepared for some moronic comeback on his part, her eyes open wide when he admits, his voice contrite, "Yeah. I guess sometimes I did, too."

Even though she's just said the same thing, there is something entirely inappropriate about this moment. She and Julian have been over for nearly two years, and they haven't been alone in the same room since he unceremoniously walked out of her apartment. Two weeks later she returned home to find that all of things had disappeared. Her anger flares up again, just for a moment, and she takes the opportunity to blurt, "You hurt me."

She can see it in his eyes, the solemn knowledge of that very fact. "I'm sorry," he says. "But you hurt me, too, Peyton, clinging to the words Lucas wrote for you. The idea that he was, and would always be in love with you."

As she looks at him she wants so badly to be mad, but all she can think about is that she really did love him. He swept her off her feet when she was down, really down, saved her from Lucas-induced misery…taught her that it was possible to still be happy. More than happy. In love.

She was so infatuated with him, with his semi-nomadic, impulsive lifestyle, those cute grins he gave her. She remembers the vulnerability in his eyes the first time he said he loved her, how content she'd felt in the rightness of that moment, straddling him and teasing him. She remembers every concert they went to together; he always had backstage passes and he'd always find a dark, private corner where he could pull her away to kiss her and tease her with the ideas of everything he'd to do her when they got back home. She remembers Sunday afternoons in the summer with the fan on at full speed, never leaving bed. She remembers arriving at parties with his arm around her waist, leaning up to whisper in his ear about the snotty wives of the seemingly-dignified movie producers, feeling his chest shake with laughter. She remembers the reading glasses he wore in bed when he was looking over a script at night, she remembers pulling them off and tossing them aside, his hands and lips everywhere, falling asleep and waking up with her body tangled up with his.

Lucas had followed her everywhere in the form of his bestselling novel. Every time she saw it there was the slightest tug on her heartstrings, and she coughed up the fifteen dollars and stuck another copy in her bag. Then she'd get home or to the restaurant or his office, and Julian would smile at her and all of sudden her heart wouldn't hurt anymore.

"You should tell him." Interrupting her train of thought, Julian's voice seems particularly loud. "It's not even going to matter that he knows. It didn't mean anything."

Her heart drops to her stomach as she gasps out, "What?"

"Be honest," he chides her, in that gentle voice that he used to save only for her. "Lucas Scott was always a third party in our relationship. He always had a greater grip on your heart than I did. The book says it all. You've read it enough times to know that," he adds, the slightest bit of bitterness leaking into his voice. "What we had was good. It was fun. And when we broke up, I…I did read the book. And it was good, and I thought: this deserves to be on the big screen. So I sought the guy out. I had no idea that you'd be with him now…though I guess I really should have expected it, epic love story and all." He pauses as if he's scared to speak any more, but forges on. "I never really knew why I read it only after we broke up. But then I saw you again, that other night, and you looked so good…and I've missed you. I guess I needed to read An Unkindness to understand why you could love him but you couldn't love me."

"Julian," she breaths softly, incredulously, much like she did on the day he walked out of her life. She wasn't honestly a big fan of his name when they first met – it was stupid, but it was something that irritated her. Soon enough, though, she learned to appreciate it, and naturally adopted inflection that caused his name to leave her lips almost as a caress, an indicator of how she felt about him.

"That's all I had to say," he mutters, his voice possessing only the slightest bit of its regular confidence. "You should just tell him. End this awkwardness."

Peyton opens her mouth to speak but no words come out. She can't think of what to say to him right now.

"I'll see you around…Mrs. Scott," he adds the last part with an arched eyebrow that's meant to be teasing, but just seems like a sad, painfully forced attempt at lightheartedness. Basically, it sounds like exactly what it is.

He stands, turns, and makes it almost all the way to the door before she calls out, her voice tight, "Julian…wait!"

When he looks back at her his eyes are tired. "Yeah?"

She pushes back her chair and storms over to him, blonde curls and venom, like Lucas described her on first meeting in that novel of his that touched a million hearts. "Have you lost your mind?" she demands, placing both hands on her chest and shoving him so that his back makes momentary contact with the glass doors.

"Uh…no?"

"It didn't mean anything?" she asks, raising her voice as she takes two steps, closing the distance between them and staring straight into his eyes.

"Peyton, I –"

"Are you crazy? I loved you!" she cries. "Maybe I…I had trouble letting go of my past, but that's because I didn't want it to lose its value. And yeah…I really feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be right now with Lucas…but don't you dare for a single second think that I didn't love you! Because I did. I did, and when you left me it broke my heart." She shakes her head, letting her softly waved her fall into her face. "Didn't you love me?" she asks vulnerably. "Was everything a lie?"

He cups a hand under her chin, tilting her head up so that she has to meet his eyes. Pushing the hair out of her face, he just looks at her for a moment, and she's reminded that there is a gentler version of this man, one she knew so well. One without arrogance and confidence, one without devious schemes and a know-it-all manner. One capable of sincere affection. "Of course I loved you. It just hurt too much to think that you couldn't love me back the same way."

She studies his face, an unsettling feeling washing over her. She bites down momentarily on the corner of her lower lip before murmuring, "Julian, I…"

His eyes ask her a silent question, one she saw in them on a starry night in an impressively quiet restaurant in L.A., and she gives him the same answer she did then, and it feels just as right.

She can't initiate the kiss, and he understands that, he must, because seconds later his lips are pressing softly against hers. The kiss goes from soft to anything but in the space of about three seconds.

His arms wrap around her waist, pulling her closer, and hers twine around his neck naturally. It's hot and heavy and passionate, sad and raw and demanding, tongues battling as one of her hands cups the back of his neck. But this isn't lust and it isn't love…it is the goodbye they never got to have because they both hurt each other too badly. And it's a goodbye that they both need to settle into any sort of comfort with the man whose life they are both irreversibly involved in.

This is final, this is the end, and she thinks that she might whisper those words against his lips as they pull away from each other, rest her forehead against his one last time, and be free to go back home to her fiancé and flippantly describe this old relationship to him, assuring him that the past has no effect on their perfect present.

But of course, because this is Tree Hill, it turns out that there is no way in hell that her fiancée will ever believe those words, because he chooses that exact moment to seek her out at work. His words are what tear them apart, spoken with anger and betrayal and panic gleaming brightly in his tortured blue eyes.

"What the fuck is this?"