A/N: This started out as a oneshot, but quickly - far too quickly - became way too long for that. So I broke it up into chapters. I have no idea where it's really going, or how it'll end, but it'll probably only be 5 or so chapters. I hope you like it. I'm really enjoying writing this one.

All you need to know is that Lucas and Brooke never broke up, therefore Lucas and Peyton never got together. Everything else should be explained along the way.

----

She's wondering where it all went so wrong. Everything changed, and it was good for a while, but it's all wrong now, and she doesn't know how to fix it, or if she even can.

She probably can't.

L.A. seems cold, though it's August and it's too hot at the best of times. It feels cold in the sense that it doesn't comfort her. She is small and insignificant, and if she just picked up and left, no one would miss her. She's sure of it. She could pack her life into boxes and get on the highway and never look back, and no one would come after her or call and ask where she went.

She used to love that. The complete anonymity of being somewhere that felt so huge. It used to be a reminder that there's a great big world out there and she'd only just begun to live in it.

But now that great big world is telling her that she's not really seeing anything and she's not really living at all.

She needs to get out. Out of the city, and out of the life she's been stuck in for four years, and out of feeling like everything she's done since she left home has been a mistake.

She left home in a hurry, and it seemed like the best idea at the time. Isn't that always the way it goes? It didn't take her long to realize that she shouldn't have left at all. But she was there, and she was on her own, and she was going to make the best of it.

So she got a job she thought she'd love, and a small apartment above a tiny bakery, and she lives the L.A. life like so many people her age are doing. She goes to work after late nights and brings coffee to people who had had even later nights, and she makes her money and she goes home.

She has friends, of course, but they aren't real friends. She misses having real friends. People who would go to bat for you and stand up for you every single time. But she left all those at home, too, and even some of those are gone. She isn't sure she can call them friends anymore.

Getting fired from her job wasn't ever the plan, but when she hears that arrogant jackass talking to his assistant like she was trash, something inside her snaps. She finds herself hurling mostly-true insults at one of her label's senior VPs, and that is all it takes to find herself packing up her minimal personal belongings into a bankers' box.

So she's sitting in her apartment on her sofa, crying not over the job she lost, but over the shockingly harsh realization that she doesn't know who she is anymore. She wants to know, but she's as much a mystery to herself as she is to everyone else.

And that's pretty damn terrifying.

She really wishes she had a best friend to call. That somewhere in the world, she has someone who cares about her enough to answer the phone and listen to her cry and ramble on about things that probably don't make sense to anyone.

But there's no one.

She's alone in the most literal sense of the word, and she's not sure her heart has ever been broken more than it is upon coming to that realization.

So she grabs her keys, and she doesn't care what time it is, or that her favourite record store is clear across the city. That's where she's going. Music is the only friend she really has, and she needs it now more than ever.

She spends an hour sifting through vintage vinyl and making idle conversation with the overly eager college student who sits behind the counter. She knows he's hitting on her - he does it every time - but she can't find it in her to care. Maybe in another lifetime, she'd take him up on his offer, but his hair is the same shade of blonde as a boy she used to know once upon a time, and she just can't bring herself to go to coffee with this one.

Some arrogant suit in an SUV starts yelling at her at a red light for a perfectly legal lane change she just made, and before she knows it's even happening, she's crying. She's sitting there in her car with a formerly angry man who's suddenly turned worried staring at her through their two rolled down windows. The light turns green, but she's too wrapped up in breaking down that she isn't paying attention. A horn sounds behind her, and she finally moves.

Somewhere in the six blocks between that stop light and her apartment, she decides to move. She will just up and leave.

She talks to her landlord, a sweet old man who's always been good to her, and he says he's sorry to lose her, but he understands. She calls her dad, and he doesn't quite know what the rush is, but he knows his daughter, so he doesn't press for information. And truthfully, he's just glad she's coming home.

She sells her car, packs her life into boxes and sends them to the address of the house she grew up in, and two days later, she's home for the first time in years.

Everything's the same.

Except that it's all different.

And she's not sure if it's her or the little town that's really making her feel that way.

She walks down the main street with a jacket and a hat on, hiding herself from anyone who might recognize her. She realizes that the anonymity she had in L.A. was killing her, but she craves it in Tree Hill. She's not ready to be seen yet. She knows there'll be questions and she just really doesn't have answers.

She walks past Karen's Café, and she sees the woman pouring coffee and smiling, and part of her really wants to just run through the door and get one of those motherly hugs. She can't do it, though, and she's not sure if that's selfish or selfless.

There's a young woman, maybe only a year or two older than herself, and she drops her coffee when she looses her footing and she lands on her behind on the sidewalk. Peyton's about to walk to her and make sure she's OK, when a middle-aged man stops his car in the middle of the street and rushes out to help the woman up.

It's such a simple and compassionate act that it knocks the wind out of her. L.A. didn't have that. Compassion, when it even existed, wasn't that honest. She has to sit herself down on the one of the benches lining the street and take a moment just to think about things. It's all she's been doing for weeks, really.

If she hadn't been convinced of it before, she knows that this - moving home - was the best decision she's ever made.

She considers walking past the River Court, but it's just too risky. She doesn't know who'll be there, if anyone, but she doesn't want to find out.

So she walks home, taking her time and strolling through the neighbourhoods she used to know so well, steering clear of one in particular. Somewhere along the way, she sees a familiar face. It's one that she isn't ready to see, but of all the people who could recognize her, this is the one who just might understand. He's always known her just a little bit better than anyone else could tell, and she kind of loves that.

He's driving a big, expensive silver SUV, and he doesn't stop, but he sends her a genuine smile and a small wave, and she does the same thing in return. She's missed Nathan. She's missed the boy she grew up with, who always protected her from everything but himself.

She knows that seeing him means that everyone will know she's around, but she knows they'll find out soon enough anyway. She can't avoid reality forever.

She knows that eventually, she'll have to see him. The man who she once convinced herself would give her everything.

She'd be lying if she didn't still feel that way sometimes.

But she hasn't spoken to him since she left, and she knows he'll be hurt. So much has happened - too much, maybe - and she doesn't want to be hurt by finding out that he doesn't want to talk to her.

She really didn't think this through.

She didn't think that maybe the people she thought she was coming back to, aren't really the same people she left.

----

It's three days later when she finally ventures out of the house again. She's been holed up with the doors locked and the lights off most of the time, just sitting, breathing in the silence of the small town that she's missed for so many years. Her father's away, and all she has is music to keep her company. It's easy to pretend that she's 16 again and act like her problems are big and the world is small and she's going to conquer everything.

But she knows she needs to stop pretending.

She finds herself, not surprisingly, at the beach. She's just listening to the rhythmic pulse of the water, sitting just far enough away that it won't nip at her toes.

She doesn't know how long she's there before she hears her name in that gravelly tone that makes her close her eyes.

Turns out, it's easy to pretend she's 16 again when that boy says her name, too.

He sits down next to her, and she offers a weak smile. She doesn't hug him, and he doesn't hug her, and neither knows if the other wanted it. And they sit. In silence.

For at least another hour.

"You didn't come to her funeral," he says out of nowhere.

It's no secret who he's talking about, and he doesn't need to say anything more. She wants to respond. Apologize for not being there and laying her former best friend to rest. But with the way she and Brooke left things, she wasn't sure - she still isn't sure - if Brooke would have wanted her there. It's easy to say she wouldn't have. It's easier because it lets her think that they couldn't have worked it out, and she needs to think they couldn't have worked it out.

But she can't say anything, because there's a lump in her throat that she can't swallow, and she really, really doesn't want to cry in front of this boy - now man - who she's convinced doesn't know the half of it.

"She was your best friend, and you didn't come," he adds when she doesn't say anything.

She can only shake her head. She has nothing to say in defense of her actions and she knows it.

"I needed you," he admits in a whisper for the first time. He's never said those words about her to anyone. "I know it had been a year, but I needed you."

She's never hated herself more. It doesn't take her long to realize that she still, somehow, has intense feelings for this man sitting next to her. And he needed her, and she wasn't there.

"I'm sorry."

It's half whispered, half sobbed, and he looks at her for the first time, really, and he knows immediately that she's not the same girl who left town four years ago. She's hurt and she's different, and he can't really pinpoint it, but there's something making her so sad that it's almost killing him to not be able to let himself hold her.

But what's really bothering him, is that he's not the same man he was, either. He changed almost immediately after that blonde girl left, and though no one said the words, they all knew that her departure had everything to do with the shift. He and Brooke were drifting apart, and if she hadn't died, he knew they would have broken up. He's well aware of how horrible a person that makes him. He knows they both knew their relationship had run its course, but he still hates himself for not giving her better memories. He kind of hates her a little for not giving him better memories, too.

He doesn't really hate her, of course, and though he knows they weren't meant to be, he still misses her.

He thinks if he explained all that to Peyton, she'd understand. Out of everyone, she'd understand. But he won't explain it because he's mad at her, too.

And that's what's changed most about him. He's just angry. He's nice when he needs to be, and he still loves his family and he'll do anything for his best friend and his brother and his nephew. There's just an underlying sense of anger about him that won't go away.

That it's dissipating now, as he sits next to this blonde girl, is absolutely terrifying.

"I know," he whispers.

He does know. She's sorry, and he can tell, and he's pretty sure it's damn near impossible for her to be sitting next to him after all this time and talking about the girl they both once loved. He doesn't know what's brought her home, or if she's OK, or why she looks so skinny and so...sad.

And he really doesn't know why he wants to know everything about her again.

Well, he does know why. And it scares the hell out of him.

"What brings you home?" he asks. He asks it sincerely, and he really just wants to hear her say that she's home for good. He's missed her.

"Home," she mutters, still afraid to really look at him.

"Yeah. What made you...?"

"No," she says, letting out a weak laugh. "Home brought me back."

He sighs and nods his head, and he looks back out over the water. All she wants to do is wrap her arms around him and detail every emotion and every event that's happened in the years she's been away. She doesn't want to feel so disconnected from him. She doesn't want to feel like he can't even stand to be near her. She feels like she doesn't know him any more, and she's sure that's all her own fault.

She knows it is.

She hates herself for that.

"I should go," he says, placing his hands on his thighs.

"OK," she says, nodding her head.

"I'll um...I'll see you around?" He forms it like a question; like he's looking for confirmation of the fact.

"Yeah," she says, offering a sad smile as he stands and brushes the sand from his jeans.

It's not the promise she wanted. It's a casual acknowledgment that they live in the same small town and they're bound to bump into each other.

She's never gotten the promise she wanted from him.

But she's always taken what she could get.

----

She lays low for a while.

She doesn't want to cause ripples through the town's gossip circles, and she doesn't want to give anyone a chance to ask her why she left.

She doesn't have an answer anyone would want to hear, so it's best to avoid the question.

Nathan shows up one afternoon, letting himself into the house and into her bedroom, just like he always used to do. She's laying on her bed in her sleep shorts and tank top, sleeping away the day, and he makes a crude comment about all the ways he used to wake her up.

She gets dressed and they spend the day in the backyard of her childhood home, sipping sweet tea and soaking up the sun. She apologizes for everything, and he insists she doesn't need to. And she believes him.

She and Haley had tried to keep in touch in the beginning, but it was just too difficult for Peyton to hear about all the goings on in the little town she hadn't wanted to admit she missed. They'd exchange the odd email on birthdays, or Haley would forward photos of baby James, but that was the most contact they had.

Nathan insists that he's taking care of everyone. Haley and Jamie and Lucas. He notices how her jaw clenches at the mention of his brother, but he doesn't say a word. He simply says that Lucas has changed, and they all thought it was just a phase, but it's been four years. She corrects him and says it's been three, but he looks at her pointedly and tells her it's been four.

He doesn't leave until he has her agreeing to go to his house for dinner that weekend, promising her the best burgers she'll every taste off his backyard grill. She tells him she wouldn't miss it, but it's not lost on either of them that she was adamantly saying no until he told her Lucas wouldn't be around.

She really wants to keep to herself and let everyone get used to her being around.

But she thinks it's really selfish of her to just assume anyone cares.

So the day after her afternoon with Nathan, she walks the streets of Tree Hill in search of the best coffee she can find. She knows exactly where to find it, but she's a little afraid to step foot in that café just yet. She figures, after five minutes leaning against the building and trying to steady her breathing, that Karen Roe might be the least terrifying person in the town.

But nowhere in those five minutes did she think to actually peer inside and make sure that Karen was there.

So when she walks in, she sees Lucas with a towel flung over his shoulder and a pot of coffee in his hand, refilling the cup of an older gentleman sitting at a table in the corner.

He says nothing. He just offers her a tense nod and he purses his lips, and she walks to the counter. She can't just leave now, so she'll take a deep breath, be thankful that she's wearing a cute summer dress and her hair is cooperating, and wait for him to come pour her a cup of coffee.

"Hi," he says, slipping in behind the counter and punching something into the register.

"Hi," she echoes softly.

"How are you?" he asks.

She gets the feeling he treats every customer like this.

It probably doesn't bother anyone else the way it bothers her.

"OK," she says as nonchalantly as possible. "Caffeine deprived."

"That your way of asking for a coffee?" he asks. His head is down, but she sees a hint of that dimple on his cheek, and it makes her smile.

She didn't realize how much she'd missed that dimple.

"If it's not too much trouble," she says, and he lets out a laugh.

"What kind of café would it be if it was trouble to pour someone a cup of coffee?" he asks sarcastically, simultaneously overturning a mug and reaching for the fresh pot.

"Good point," she says. She reaches for the sugar as he slides the mug in front of her. "Thanks."

He waves to the customer that leaves, and then it's just the two of them alone again.

"I was..."

"So..."

They speak at the same moment, and it's an awkward indicator of how far their relationship is from where it used to be.

"Go head," he says, but she shakes her head at him after taking a sip of her coffee.

"No. You go," she insists.

"I was just going to say, there are a bunch of dishes back there that aren't going to wash themselves," he says, faking a smile. "I should probably try to tackle them while there's no one here."

She resists the urge to let out the bitter laugh that's right at the back of her throat.

She's no one to him.

"Yeah. You...do whatever it is you have to do," she says, hoping he won't hear the sadness in her voice. If he does, he doesn't let on. He just nods at her and slips into the kitchen, leaving her there to nurse her coffee alone.

She sits for a few minutes, able to hear the water running over the soft music he has playing in the café. It's painful. He can't even talk to her. He can barely look at her. She's sure that if she hadn't happened to step into the café that day, he wouldn't have sought her out or spoken to her at all.

So she abandons her cup of coffee, though she's hardly drank anything from it. She drops a $5 bill on the counter, and she does the one thing that - he thinks, as he hears the bells above the door chime - has always come naturally to her.

She leaves.

----

She and Haley start to rebuild their friendship, and it's all really easy. There's no blame laid, and Peyton tells the whole story about why she left immediately after graduation, and Haley just offers a smile and said she always knew that the only thing that would come between Peyton and Brooke was Lucas.

Peyton starts crying one day when they're talking about the brunette. It's nothing even remotely sad, Haley just says Brooke's name in passing and mentions something about a game the boys took them to, but it's enough to make Peyton break down. Haley comforts her as best she can, but she knows that there's only so much she can do.

So they drive to the cemetery together, and Haley says she'll wait in the car for as long as Peyton needs.

She has a few red gerbera daisies in her hand - they always were Brooke's favourite - and she makes her way to the stone she's never laid eyes on.

And she sits there in silence for a complete hour.

She can't find the words, and she doesn't feel like she deserves to say she's sorry, so she says nothing, and simply lays the red flowers against the stone, and toys with the grass in front of her.

She and Haley embrace in the car when they're parked in front of Peyton's house, and Haley drives away feeling like her heart is breaking for her old friend. No one should have that amount of heartbreak and confusion in their eyes.

It's late that night when she decides the empty house is suffocating her. She needs to get out, and she knows where she'll go. She pulls on a black sweatshirt and plugs in her iPod before pulling the hood up over her matted curls. And she starts walking.

She almost cries when she's crossing the street and a classic car comes to a halt mere feet from her knees. She looks up, tugs one of her earphones from her ear, and shakes her head at Lucas. There's a frightened, anxious look on his face, but there's a moment where their eyes lock and she knows they're both wondering what could have been.

But she keeps walking, and he drives away, and then the moment is gone.

She's sitting beneath the old bridge, listening to the Spice Girls on her iPod and dangling her feet over that ledge as she thinks of the best friend she never should have left. She can't blame herself - a pulmonary embolism isn't something that anyone has control over - but she can regret not being there and not being the kind of friend that Brooke deserved.

Her heart nearly beats out of her chest when she sees a male figure approaching.

And then she sees that it's Lucas, and she looks forward again as he sits down next to her. He lets out a resentful laugh and shakes his head, and she looks at him again.

"What?" she bites out, removing her earphones. He almost smiles at what she's listening to. Almost.

"Are you stupid?" he asks, and she raises her eyebrow incredulously. "You're out walking around in the middle of the night, not paying attention, and then sitting alone under creepy bridges."

"Whatever," she mumbles. "I'm fine."

It takes everything in her not to remind him of the time years ago when their roles were reversed and it was him not paying attention.

"Are you?" he asks hotly. "Because you really don't seem like it."

"And how the hell would you know?" she asks, turning towards him a little bit more. "We've had...what...a half a conversation? Don't pretend you're concerned."

"Don't pretend that coming here will make up for not being around when she died," he says, locking eyes with Peyton.

She can't tell whether or not he means it, but it doesn't really matter either way. He still said the words, and he still made it sound like an accusation. An accusation she doesn't appreciate in the least.

"You're a bastard," she says after a moment. She's so mad that she doesn't even bother to regret her word choice.

She just gets up and walks away, and leaves him in she and Brooke's sacred place.

----

She cries herself to sleep that night, wondering if just maybe he's right and her thinking of Brooke now really means nothing. She wants to think he's not right, but she really has no idea. That's the thing about death. The only thing certain is the hurt.

And she finds herself most of all worrying that he thinks less of her for it all. All those choices she made years ago and can't take back. She's terrified that no matter how much she's changing again, he'll always see her as the girl who walked away from them all and went to live a life he knew nothing about.

She's sleeping mid-morning when she feels someone's eyes on her and she wakes up in a panic.

"Jesus!" she yells when she sees him leaning against her door frame. "What the hell, Lucas?! How did you get in here?"

"I have a key," he says, holding the metal in his hand.

"I'd like it back," she says seriously, clutching the sheet to her chest as she sits up a little bit.

But he just looks at her with a devious smirk and slips the key back into his pocket.

"Fine. I'll change the locks," she says bitterly. "I want you to leave."

"I came to apologize," he says, sitting at the edge of her bed facing her.

"Save your breath," she says, narrowing her eyes at him.

Why the fuck is he smirking like that?

"You know that no one has called me anything but my name since she died?" he says, and she looks at him in complete confusion. "No one yells at me or talks to me the way you did. People let me in front of them in line at the grocery store, just because I'm that guy whose girlfriend died three years ago."

"Why are you telling me this?" she asks softly, shaking her head.

"Because you called me a bastard," he says with a laugh. "It was amazing."

"Well...I've got a few more things I'd like to call you," she mutters, and he just smiles a little wider and laughs a little harder. "OK, if I were wearing pants, I'd be kicking your ass out of my house right now. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"You aren't wearing pants?" he asks, looking over to where her legs are covered by red bed sheets.

"Can you...focus? Or...Stop staring!" she says, finally letting herself smile as she swats his arm. The sheet falls to her waist and he sees the lace-detailed black tank top she's wearing.

"I just wanted to apologize for being a jerk," he says sincerely. "And to thank you for being a bitch."

Her jaw drops and he laughs again, and she's shaking her head at him.

"You can go now," she says, glancing towards the door.

He's not sure she's serious and neither is she.

"Why don't we...I mean, we could hang out. Grab a coffee?" he suggests quietly.

"I actually have a lot to do today," she says. It's a lie, and she doesn't know if he can still read her as well as he used to.

"It's 10:30 and you're still in bed," he points out. She still has the same playful glare she shoots him when he's busting her chops. He's happy that some things never change. "Come on. One coffee, then you can do whatever."

"One," she says after a moment.

"Great," he says with a smile. She looks at him and raises her eyebrows when he doesn't get up. "What?"

"Luke!" she cries, moving her hand in a sweeping motion over her body.

"Right!" he laughs. "Put on pants. Or don't. Whatever."

"Shut up."

He gets up and walks to the door, but turns around before he walks out of the room.

"Peyton," he says, and she turns to him, "we'll...we'll get there, OK? Someday. It's just...it won't all be easy."

She knows he's only talking about friendship - nothing more - and she's surprisingly alright with that. She thinks that maybe that's exactly what she needs, too.

"I didn't expect it to be," she admits sincerely. "But I'm still going to call you on your shit."

He just laughs again and nods his head. "I'm glad."

"Good. Now get the hell out already, because no matter how long you stand there in my doorway, I'm still not getting out of bed while you're here," she says with a raised brow.

He winks and tugs the door closed, and there's something - a distant voice in the back of his head that might be leftover from his younger days - that takes that one simple word and repeats it with a different end result and meaning, and his heart beats just a little faster.

Someday.

And he realizes that what he thought, that day on the beach, was sadness, isn't really sadness at all.

It's anger.

He smiles to himself when he thinks that maybe they can be angry together.