A/N: Let me preface this by saying that it's not what you think...You'll know what that means by the end of this chapter. And I won't keep you hanging for 10 chapters either. The next one will reveal all.

This is basically the prologue. Everything up to the end of S5 happened, except Peyton never returned to Tree Hill.

I know it's kind of a 'dry' chapter, but I have to set up the story somehow! Let me know what you think.

----

She glanced around the room one last time, just like she had to do with every room in the small house to ensure everything she owned was packed into boxes and labeled correctly. Her torn jeans were covered in dust and her hands were dry from handling so much cardboard in the previous weeks. But everything was set. The Sharpie in her pocket was pulled out only to mark the fragile boxes as such.

This had been her home for nearly three years. It was the first home she'd bought on her own, and she'd loved it. It had been a blank canvas when she first moved in, but now it felt like her. She'd hand picked the wall colours and furniture and art. She'd single-handedly renovated the bathrooms, which was great since it upped the resale value.

She had loved L.A. For a while. It had been good to her. Her 'career' in the music industry lasted almost four years, but when she realized she'd never be more than the assistant to the assistant, she decided she needed to move on. She started doing illustrations for a few local magazines, making a name for herself, and giving herself free time to paint. Her first piece sold for a lot more than she'd ever expected, and her work allowed her to buy her home. She could work when she wanted and had a ton of spare time, which ended up being more than just a convenience. It became a necessity.

Her life had changed dramatically in the eight years since she arrived in L.A., and it seemed that she only realized it now, staring at the empty rooms of the house she'd called her own for so long.

Things hadn't been easy. She had left Tree Hill feeling unstoppable and fearless and independent. She stayed that way for a long while, thinking that she would get everything she ever wanted.

And then it all came tumbling down.

One surprise visit and unexpected marriage proposal, and it was all over. She and Lucas were done, and she couldn't figure out if that was her own fault, or his. She hadn't said no, but she hadn't said yes. He hadn't stayed, but she'd broken his heart. She had only spoken to him once since.

And for a long time, she missed him. Her heart ached for him for a long, long time. She held out hope that somehow, all the words they'd said to each other, all the words he'd written for the world to see, were still true. Somehow, they'd both come to their senses and get back together.

But that, too, flew out the window. He'd called her and invited her to his book signing, and she thought that was their chance. She'd lost count of what chance that would be, but it had to mean something that he called. But it had been a cruel punishment. He was clearly with someone else. She hadn't thought him that malicious; that he would call her and ask for her to be there only to rub in her face that he wasn't hers any more. They were really and truly over.

So she moved on.

She met a man and fell in love. They lived together and laughed and joked and were happy. Until he accused her of still being in love with her ex-boyfriend. She had wanted to argue; to tell him that he was talking crazy. But she couldn't. He was right, and it took someone else pointing it out for her to realize it.

She could have gone back to Tree Hill to be with him. She could have changed her entire life, but it was bad timing for a lot of reasons. Brooke had just moved back, and she wanted desperately to be there in her hometown among her friends, but she just couldn't. So she kept in touch as best she could, given the busy lifestyle she lead, but it was always in the back of her mind that she would return someday to the sleepy little town she'd grown up in.

She heard from Brooke that Lucas was engaged to be married. The news hurt her, she wouldn't deny, but she was happy for him. It was hard to explain, but if he was happy, even if it wasn't with her, she was alright with that. She figured that's just what love was - the willingness to put your own feelings aside for the sake of someone else.

Her heart broke the day Brooke called and told her that he'd been left at the altar. She didn't ask for details, and none were offered. It didn't matter. It was almost as though she could feel his heartache. His pain hurt her. She'd thought so many times of calling him or writing him, but what would she say? She could never find the right words. They were either contrite or seemed insensitive. So she stayed quiet and went about her life. After all, he hadn't contacted her either.

But he was always in her mind and in her heart. No matter what was going on in her world, she constantly wondered what was going on in his. She found herself wondering what he'd think if he could see her. What would he say to her if he was observing her choices? It wasn't an obsession or anything unhealthy, it was just there. He was always there, even though she had much bigger things to worry about.

She had never been a material person. Money hadn't ever really mattered that much, as long as she had enough to get by. But when her paintings started to sell, she found herself with a nest egg that was large enough to allow for some luxuries. She didn't live outside her means whatsoever. She did buy an expensive SUV, knowing it was one of the safest models on the road. There were things she wouldn't sacrifice. Her priorities had shifted drastically since she left Tree Hill, and she worried that no one would understand that.

Brooke had assured her that everyone would welcome her back with open arms, but she was still skeptical. How could they? She'd been an outsider for so long, and she only knew about her friends through secondhand information. She talked to Nathan and Haley on birthdays or special occasions, but that was all. They didn't know what her life had been like for the past few years. She'd made Brooke promise not to divulge any details. Her painting career was a secret to most - she used a made up name to keep her anonymity. Brooke wouldn't even know she was an artist if Peyton hadn't told her. Her life was shrouded in mystery to the people who'd once been such a huge part of it, and she wondered if they'd be able to just accept her pushing her way back into theirs.

But she was going home.

She wandered around the top floor of her house - well, her old house - taking one last look at her bedroom, her studio, and the other rooms she'd spent so much time in. It had been a great chapter in her life, but it was over, and she was eager to move on, no matter how terrified she was.

There was a knock at the door, and she knew it had to be the movers. She let them in with a smile and told them to get started with the boxes and furniture from upstairs. Brooke had agreed to meet the movers on the other side of the country when they arrived at the new house. Her best friend was coming through for her big time, and she owed the girl a huge thank you.

It was all becoming real. She was leaving L.A. This time tomorrow, she'd be on the road, making the long and scenic drive to her hometown.

She didn't really have time to be scared (she never had) but she still was.

----

Lucas' life was filled with a few things; coaching, writing, his nephew, his brother, his best friend, his ex-girlfriend/current close friend, his mother, his sister. That pretty much covered everything.

He didn't date. After the Lindsey fiasco, he just couldn't. She'd left him at the altar, claiming he'd always love the leggy blonde he hadn't spoken to in years. Even worse was when Haley accidentally let it slip that he'd proposed to Peyton once upon a time. He'd conveniently left that part out, and that pretty much ended any hopes that he would win Lindsey back. And if he was being honest, amid the pain and heartache, there was a sense of relief in knowing that. It wasn't that he didn't love her - he did - it was just that he knew she was a substitute. She hadn't been in the beginning. She had been the one to heal his heart and show him that he could fall in love again. But as soon as she implied that he loved someone else, he knew that on some level it was true.

For a while, he had turned himself into a person he'd never been and one he wasn't meant to be. He'd drink and stay in his house for days at a time. Everyone assumed it was because he'd lost Lindsey, but it was actually all the pain he'd pushed aside after losing Peyton. She had been his life, and they'd broken up. He asked himself if he'd made the biggest mistake of his life, walking out of that hotel room. It still hurt that she'd turned down his proposal, but he had let his own foolish pride get in the way, and he had left her. He wondered what it was about the two of them that made them continually hurt each other.

No one knew how he felt. He told them he wanted to focus on his writing and his coaching. And he did, not only because he wanted to better his careers, but also because they served as the easiest distractions from what his heart and his mind truly wanted.

He hadn't spoken to Lindsey in almost two years. She'd edited his second novel, the one that had broken her heart, and then she'd assigned him to a different editor. He was grateful. He couldn't bear to hear her voice and know that she was yet another person who was hurt by the toxic and overwhelming relationship that was Lucas and Peyton.

But there was no Lucas and Peyton. Not any more.

His third novel was about searching and yearning for something you're not sure exists any more. It followed a young woman as she made mistakes and sacrifices and dealt with more tragedy than any one person should have to. He hadn't come out and said it, and no one had questioned, knowing he didn't even want to hear her name, but it was another book that, in a roundabout way, was about Peyton.

He knew Brooke, Haley, and Nathan kept in contact with her, and he'd wanted so desperately to ask about her, but he knew he wouldn't be able to take it if she were with someone, or married. God, she could be married to someone else. He almost had. He wondered if that was how she'd felt when she heard he'd gotten engaged. Brooke had told him that she'd mentioned it to Peyton. At the time, Lucas hadn't been too concerned - he didn't love her then. Well, he didn't realize it; wouldn't admit to it.

But now, the mere thought of her with someone else hurt him. He wanted her all to himself.

But those days were over.

He walked into Brooke's house, shortly after getting a call from her requesting that he come over for coffee. The two of them did this about once a week; had one-on-one time. They'd meet for lunch or a walk or coffee. They'd become close friends over the years, to the point where she called him her 'substitute Peyton' and he called her his 'substitute Haley'.

"Hey Brooke," he said casually as he flopped down onto the couch next to where she was working, pinning the hem of a new dress.

"Don't be mad," she said quickly, taking her eyes off the mannequin in front of her and looking at him.

"Okay...?" he drawled out confusedly.

"Peyton's coming home," she said, avoiding eye contact.

Peyton. Home. Peyton. Coming home. His blood ran warmer just hearing her name.

"Home," he managed. "To visit?"

"Moving," she said with a skeptical glance.

She wasn't sure what he'd think of all of it. He hadn't outright admitted that he loved her, but he also hadn't been on a proper date, despite Brooke's attempts to set him up with everything from models to librarians. She'd found out from Peyton a month earlier that she was moving for good, and had, by request, held off on telling Nathan and Haley. Peyton had called them herself a week before she was set to leave L.A. They had all been happy, but had all been worried about Lucas' reaction.

"Moving," he mumbled. "When?"

"She's driving, so a little less than a week," she specified. She really wished she could read his mind.

"Okay," he said with a resolute nod.

"Okay?" she asked.

"Yes," he said with a slight laugh. "I appreciate the concern, but what do you want me to say?"

"I don't know," she said softly as she shrugged her shoulders. "I just thought you'd want to know, that's all."

"Well, thanks for the warning, but it'll be fine. I mean, it's been what, nearly 8 years since we've seen each other? Nothing to worry about," he assured Brooke.

And yet, inside his head, he was asking a million questions that he knew couldn't be asked. If he asked, they'd all know what he knew. They'd all know that he still had feelings for her. He didn't know why she was coming back, and he didn't really care. She would be there. And surely, if she was seeing someone, Brooke would have told him, right? If they were so worried about his reaction to her simply coming home, they certainly would have mentioned something.

And really, none of that mattered. Peyton was coming home. The one person who'd always read him better than anyone. She was coming home. If nothing else, maybe they could be friends. He'd take what he could get. He'd take whatever she could give.

Lucas left before Brooke could find the words to tell him the other bit of information that he probably deserved to know before Peyton returned to Tree Hill.

----

Peyton stood in front of the brown stucco house for the last time, smiling at the memories made there. The car was packed and she had music ready for each leg of the trip. She had snacks and drinks and changes of clothes. She had reservations in cities she'd be sleeping in along the way. She was ready to go, but she needed one last glance.

"Mom!"

She spun around to see the little girl waiting impatiently by the SUV, arms crossed just the way Brooke used to do when she was just this side of furious.

"Yes, Gracie. I'm coming," Peyton laughed. "Stop pouting and buckle in."

"I'm not pouting, I'm just bored," the girl corrected as she climbed into the vehicle.

"Okay." Peyton laughed again as she walked to the car, she buckled her own seat belt and looked to the 7 and a half year old in the back seat.

"Am I going to like Tree Hill?" she asked nervously, meeting Peyton's eyes in the rear view mirror.

"I think you will," Peyton said with a smile. "Ready?"

"Ready." Grace nodded her head and grinned in the rear view mirror.

"Okay. Let's roll."

They fought traffic getting out of the city, but as soon as they were on the open highway, it finally set in. It finally hit her.

She was going home.

----

It was early morning, and Peyton awoke to the shrill sound of her cell phone ringing next to her on the night stand. She was disoriented. She had no idea where she was for a moment, before remembering they were at a hotel in the middle of the country. The last thing she wanted to do was wake up, but she reached for the phone to stop it from waking the little girl sleeping in the next bed.

"Hello," she grumbled sleepily.

"Hi buddy. How goes the road trip?" Brooke's cheery voice rang out.

"Fine."

"Aren't you excited?" Brooke asked.

"Too early for excited," Peyton mumbled.

"Still not a morning person, huh? You'd think being a mom would change that," Brooke teased.

"Brooke," Peyton scolded. "What can I do for you?"

"Just wanted to make sure you're alright and on schedule," Brooke explained.

"Yeah. Everything's fine. We'll probably grab a bite and hit the road soon," the blonde said, sitting up in her bed and glancing over at the sleeping girl.

"Yeah, about that. I know that Nathan and Haley know that 'you' are now a 'we'," Brooke pointed out. "How are you going to explain that?"

"What do you mean?" Peyton asked, still oblivious and sleepy.

"I just mean, you've talked to Nathan and Haley and they know, but they don't know details. Don't you think you're going to have to face a lot of questions?" Brooke said delicately.

"It's okay. It's not like she's some big, scandalous secret, Brooke," Peyton laughed. "Maybe I should have said something earlier, but I know that if I had, Nate and Haley would have come to visit, and then...you know, Lucas would have known, and it just would have been too much. I was...kind of actually hoping you might be able to fill them in. Nathan and Haley."

"Peyton, I..." She didn't know what to say, but she didn't get to finish anyway. She did notice, however, that Peyton was implying that she wanted to tell Lucas on her own. That had to mean something, she thought.

"Please, Brooke," Peyton pleaded. She heard a sigh on the other end of the line and she knew that her best friend would do as she asked.

"And what about Lucas?" Brooke asked. Her voice took on the tone she reserved for when she wanted the latest gossip.

"What about him?" Peyton asked exasperatedly.

"Are you excited, scared, nervous, anxious, happy..."

"Yes. All of those," Peyton said softly. "Brooke, I have to wake Gracie. I'll call you later, okay?"

She just needed to hang up the phone before she let her mind get carried away. She wondered if anything would change when she saw him. That she was still in love with him after close to 8 years was...well, crazy. He could be with someone. He could be a totally different person than she remembered. She wondered if she'd love any version of Lucas Scott that existed. She was about to find out either way.

She looked over at the brown-haired little girl as she lay on her back, sprawled on the queen sized bed. She slowly crawled into the bed with her and started pressing kisses to the girl's face until she woke up and squirmed away.

"Mom," she groaned. "That's so gross."

"It's not gross! Kisses aren't gross," Peyton insisted, standing from the bed and pulling the covers off the tiny body.

"I'm trying to sleep!"

"No, you're getting up. We need food, then we have to get back on the road," Peyton instructed.

"Fine," Grace mumbled. "How many days till we get there?"

"Just today, then one more night in a hotel, then we should be there late tomorrow," Peyton explained as she grabbed clothes for both of them out of the suitcase and set them on the bed.

"And we can see aunt Brooke?" Grace asked excitedly, sitting up and taking her toothbrush from Peyton's outstretched hand.

"Yes, and we can see aunt Brooke," Peyton said, rolling her eyes. She was, however, possibly just as excited to see her best friend. "Brush those teeth well, okay? 60 seconds. No less."

"Yefh mawm," the girl muttered with the toothbrush in her mouth. Peyton just shook her head and laughed. Yes, her girl was really something.

And of course, she was afraid of the reactions of her friends when she returned to her hometown, but she knew everything would work out. What she'd said was true. Grace wasn't some big scandal. She was Peyton's little girl. She only hoped everyone would welcome the both of them as well as Brooke had been insisting.

As she pulled on her clothes for the day, she realized there wasn't much time until she found out, one way or the other.