A/N: There's something about this that feels weird to me, but I can't pinpoint it, and after rereading it 20 times, I'm just going to post it. It's also wayyy longer than I intended, for which I apologize!

It's AU, but it follows the general timeline of the show once they hit high school. I have, however, removed or changed certain details.

----

"Guess what!?" she shouts, running into the room and practically jumping onto his bed. His book falls closed, losing his page, and he stares at her.

She's never this happy.

"What?" he asks. He's barely said the word before she's talking again.

"Dad says I can go to Tree Hill High next year!" she cries excitedly.

"What?" Lucas asks. He heard her perfectly clearly, but he can't believe it. She's been talking about this for two years.

He'd love to be as excited about this as she is. He really would. But the thing is, and they've said it before, it's always been kind of a cool thing that none of his friends really know her, and none of her friends really know him. She calls him her dirty little secret (she set the All American Rejects song as the ringtone for when he calls her). In his 13-year-old mind, that's a really, really good thing to be called.

They've lived across the street from one another since she and her dad moved there four years ago. Her mom had just passed away the year before, and not only was the house they used to live in too big, but there were also just too many memories there for her dad to be able to live there. Of course, Larry never came out and said that, but Karen had explained it very delicately to Lucas at the time. He wondered why he'd never seen her at school or anything, and he learned quickly that it was because she went to a big private school, one of the best in the state, the next town over. It was the same school her mother had gone to, and so she'd been enrolled there since kindergarten.

All that meant was that, when they were younger, he'd get home from school at 3:30, and she'd get off the bus at 4:00, and they'd both run to change before playing in one of their back yards. In recent years, that has changed, however. They're in the eighth grade, and eighth graders don't play on swing sets or in tree forts. They've started doing their homework together, or, after dark when they know there'll be no one around, she'll watch him at the River Court as he works on perfecting all those moves that she doesn't really understand.

Her father isn't overprotective, but he's protective, and he never wanted his girl thrust into the public school system if she wasn't prepared for all that might go along with it. At least that's his explanation, and he almost makes it sound convincing. Peyton thinks that maybe he just wants her to have that link to her mother. But, as she told him during their latest discussion on the topic, she'll be linked to her mother in other, bigger ways, even if she doesn't go to private school.

And so maybe it's only December, and there's a whole semester of school left, but she won her case, and she's really happy to be able to go to school with 'real kids', as she says. She just wants to be normal.

"He says as long as I keep my grades up and 'behave myself', then I can go to Tree Hill next year!" she practically yells. "Isn't that amazing!? God, I never thought he'd cave!"

He smiles and shakes his head, because it really is amazing. It'll be really great to have her around.

But he will probably miss this uniform. It's nothing crazy, just a grey and burgundy plaid wool skirt and a white button down shirt, but she certainly wears it well. She's kind of the first girl he's ever really noticed. Sure, there are girls at his school who are pretty or whatever, who have boyfriends and wear makeup and are on the cheerleading squad, but none of them are like Peyton.

Peyton is beautiful. And the crazy thing is, she has absolutely no idea. She walks around in her school uniform or her ripped jeans and tee shirts, completely oblivious to the fact that people look at her differently than they look at other people. The only reason Lucas notices is because lately, he's been looking at her differently too. He always thought she was great, obviously, and he loves her in that way that you love a close (best) friend. But now she's...she's got legs and boobs (he's noticed, of course) and her eyes are even more green with the little bit of mascara she wears. She's still the same girl, the one who talks about books and music and art and wants him to teach her about basketball (he's been trying, but she loses interest really quickly).

She's always been amazing, he knows that, he's just finally in a position to realize it.

"Peyton, that's so awesome," he says sincerely.

"I know!" She jumps up off the bed and he laughs at her when she (clumsy as ever) trips a little and steadies herself with a hand on his dresser. "I'm gonna go tell your mom, then I have a massive report to write on The English Patient."

"That's a great book," he says, watching the way her skirt sways as she walks to the door.

"I know." She turns around and gives him a flirty look, one he knows she probably is completely oblivious to. "Ondaatje is so awesome!"

He laughs as she steps into the hallway, because she's not giddy over the book or the author, she's giddy because she's gotten her way.

Lucas is a little giddy because starting in September, he'll have her around him even more. Despite every reservation he may have, he can't see that being a bad thing.

----

New Year's Eve, they spend in her living room watching the countdown from Times Square and talking about how lame the television personalities are. She pulls two wine coolers from the fridge and tells him that her dad left them there before he went to his own party, but told her not to tell Karen. Lucas promises not to say anything, and Peyton pours the drinks into two fancy champagne flutes at 11:30, and they sip and laugh and talk about how awesome the upcoming year is going to be. She'll be starting at public school (in September, but still) and he'll be starting his job at Keith's shop (Keith always promised that once Lucas turned 14, he'd go on the payroll).

"Don't you think 14 sounds so old?" she asks. "I mean, 13, you're still kind of a kid, but 14...you're...you're two years away from driving, and you're in high school, and you're...you're...I dunno. Old."

"I don't think so," he says, shrugging one shoulder. "And who cares?" She raises her brow and looks at him skeptically. "I think that...I think we spend too much time thinking about our age and not enough time actually acting our age."

"How do you figure?"

"I dunno. The older you get, the more responsibility you have. Old people always want to be young, and young people always want to be old. Why can't everyone just...be?" he asks, and she starts laughing. He doesn't want to be offended, but it's probably one of his more profound thoughts (though he may not have explained it quite perfectly) and he doesn't think it warrants her laughing. "What?"

"Nothing!" she insists. He doesn't believe her. "It's just that...we're 13. We're...We've barely even started living, and we're already over-analyzing it."

"Exactly."

"Okay!" she says, crossing her legs indian-style and turning towards him, holding up her glass. "New Year's Resolution."

He smiles and turns to her, mimicking the way she sits. "Hit me with it, Miss Sawyer."

"Live in the moment. Whatever that is."

They share a smile and he nods, then they clink their glasses together and each take sips as they notice that there's only 30 seconds until midnight. She loops her arm through his and they turn back to the television. She's not drunk, but she definitely feels a little buzzy. She and Lucas are generally pretty affectionate like this, always leaning against one another or hugging or whatever, but she rests her head on his shoulder and it feels pretty good, actually. It feels even better when he weaves their fingers together.

She's had a few crushes. Silly ones on boys at her school that never quite worked out. Her first kiss was at a stupid snooty rich kid's party right after he'd broken up with one of the really popular girls. Peyton found herself in an empty room with him, and he asked her if she'd heard what had happened, and she hadn't (she's never cared about gossip at all). He told her the story of how the girl dumped him that Monday in the cafeteria in front of everyone, and Peyton told him that she felt bad for him. He leaned over and kissed her, and he told her it was because no one, hardly even his friends, had shown any amount of sympathy for him. She's barely talked to him since.

But Lucas is different. Lucas is something like solid ground. She knows where he is and who he is and that if she ever needs anything, he'll be there for her. He's already helped her through so much, though she's almost certain he has no idea. He helped her grieve for her mother (she hadn't done it, hardly at all, when she moved). He listens to her secrets, and she listens to his, and they don't judge one another. They don't fight, and when they do, the arguments last all of ten minutes before one of them trudges across the street and they talk it out.

And he's totally cute.

The seconds tick past and the ball starts to drop, and they shout "10, 9, 8..." as loudly as they can. Peyton pretends not to swoon when the camera (inevitably) pans to a guy down on one knee, proposing to his girlfriend. The host says, "New Year's Eve is the only night of the year when it's completely okay to randomly kiss the person next to you! Go for it!"

Peyton turns to Lucas and he turns to her, and their faces are only inches apart. She leans in and presses her lips to his, just once, quickly, and whispers a Happy New Year that he barely hears, because he's too busy thinking that he wishes she'd prolonged that particular moment a little bit more.

----

The summer before they start high school feels strange. She's oddly nostalgic about her private school, knowing she's going to miss some of her friends and teachers, and when her father asks her about it and tells her that it's not to late to change her mind, she insists she'll be fine. Nine years is just a long time to spend at the same school with the same people.

And it feels, to her anyway, like Lucas is wary of her going to the same school as him.

She's not dumb, and she's not blind. She knows he's not in the popular crowd, and she knows he studies a lot more than he even has to. His group of friends at school consists of a few people she's met before. Haley, Mouth, Skills, Junk and Fergie. She doesn't know the guys all too well, because they all care about basketball and she doesn't, really. She'll watch him play for hours, but it's not like she really knows the rules and whatever. She watches for him, not for the game itself. She and Haley know each other best, because they're both his closest friends, and they're both girls. They've spent some time together, always with Lucas, so they're friendly enough.

Her dad gets her a cell phone for her birthday, and it's a great gift until he tells her that he'll be going away more and more. She tells him that it's great (she's lying) when he tells her how good the money will be, but Lucas finds her crying in her room when he comes by with a devil's food cupcake (just like he's done for all her birthdays). He consoles her and tells her that it won't be so bad, that she'll have his mom and Keith to look out for her, and she tells him that it's not the same as having your own dad there.

He looks down at his lap and she wipes her eyes. "Luke, I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

He shakes his head and waves her off. He doesn't want to talk about it. She's usually so careful, just like he is when he's talking about his mom. They're both in weird situations with their families, and they both know how hard it can be for the other.

"It's okay," he promises. She smiles tearfully and he reaches over and wipes her cheek. "And I'll be here too."

She smiles, sits up and throws her arms around him. "I know." She thinks about all the times he's already done this, found her crying and made her smile. "You always are."

"I always will be."

"You promise?" she asks, pulling away from him. She starts laughing and it makes him grin at her. She's so adorable. He wishes he knew what she was thinking almost all the time. "That's so cheesy. You don't have to promise."

"Thank God," he teases.

"Lucas!" She hits his arm as they both laugh.

"I promise," he says.

She smiles all wide and hugs him again, and then she stands up, telling him that they're going to the beach and then shopping so that she can spend all her birthday money, and he doesn't argue, because he likes seeing her happy. He likes making her happy.

Sometimes that's a task that takes a lot of effort.

They have their biggest fight ever at the end of August. Her dad is away and her air conditioning is broken, so she's been staying at Lucas' house with he and Karen, and she learns that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. He says something about wanting to get away from her, and he doesn't realizes that the words are harsh until they've left his mouth. She tells him that if he doesn't want her there, then she can just go home, it's always an option, and he insists that's not what he wants, but she's already throwing her things into her bag and walking towards the door.

It slams behind her and he doesn't go after her, because it's a stupid fight, and he assumes she'll realize it and come back and apologize.

It's two days of extreme silent treatment before he starts to think that maybe he's the one who should be apologizing. And when he seeks her out, she's sitting on the pier with Nathan Scott. She's sipping a diet coke, her flip flop dangling from her foot as she laughs at something or another, and he wonders if maybe he should have known all along that she'd break his heart.

So he doesn't talk to her, doesn't apologize, and it's not until another week goes by that he admits to himself that he misses her a lot and that maybe he jumped to conclusions. By now, her dad is home, and she's gone to Fayetteville to visit her grandparents for the second last week of summer vacation. They haven't, since he's known her, gone so long without talking.

He tries calling her cell, only once, and she doesn't answer, and she doesn't call back. And he misses her. Way more than he should, he thinks at first. But then, they've seen each other nearly every day for years, and they tell each other everything, and he's almost started writing things down, saving them for when she gets back and they make up. He doesn't even remember what they were arguing about.

But he does remember watching her talking to Nathan. Nathan, of all people. That part, he's still pissed about. She knows who Nathan is in relation to Lucas, and that she wouldn't use Nathan to get back at him. The only conclusion he can come to is that she actually wanted to talk to Nathan, and that makes him far angrier than it should. She's her own girl, of course, but there's a part of him that has always thought that maybe when they got older, they'd be together. Maybe it's crazy, since she's so gorgeous and everything, but the more he thinks about it, the more he thinks that maybe it could work. They get along so well (the previous week and a half notwithstanding) and they just get one another.

The only thing he never really took into consideration was that she might not want the same thing. That's no small detail.

He's waiting on her front porch when she gets home, and Larry laughs and says hello to Lucas in passing as he walks into the house, carrying all their luggage.

"Hey," Peyton says nervously. She looks really tanned, and she's wearing a pair of denim shorts and a bright yellow tank top.

"Hi."

"Are we done fighting?" she asks, sighing and sitting down next to him. He laughs and nods his head, because he thinks they are, as long as she wants them to be. "Good. It sucks not talking to you."

"I was thinking the same thing," he admits. He wraps his arm lazily around her shoulder, and she leans against him, her arm falling around his waist. "You have fun with your grandparents?"

She starts laughing (God, he's missed that laugh). "You realize what you just asked me?"

"Grandparents can be fun!" he says, but his brow furrows and he looks at her. "Can't they?"

He really wants to know; he's never spent any time with his grandparents. His mom's parents practically disowned her she got pregnant, and the high and mighty Scotts would have nothing to do with him (not surprising).

"Sometimes," she admits. "Grandpa taught me how to shoot pool."

"That's cool."

They catch up over the course of the afternoon. He tells her about working at the shop and in the café, and how Brooke Davis practically took his head off in the mall when she flung her shopping bag around and he was standing behind her in line at the record shop. Peyton laughs and laughs, because even though she's never actually met Brooke, she knows who the girl is, and she jokes that that's probably the most he'll ever come in contact with the brunette. Lucas puts his hand over his heart like he's really hurt by that, but he doesn't really care. Not only does he not want to have anything to do with the popular kids at all, but he's already got his eyes on one girl. She just doesn't know it.

"I have to tell you something," Peyton confesses as they sit in her bedroom sipping pink lemonade.

"Okay," he says quietly.

"I...last week, before I left, I hung out with Nathan," she says, bracing herself for the backlash she's sure is to come.

He sighs and nods his head, but avoids eye contact. "I saw."

"Shit," she mutters, though neither of them ever really curse. "I'm sorry."

He shrugs his shoulder and looks up at her. "Don't be. I guess...I can't tell you who to hang out with."

"I know that," she says confidently, like no one can tell her to do anything (it's pretty much true.) "I just...I ran into him, and...he doesn't know we're friends. I mean, if he does, he didn't say anything."

"So?"

"No, I mean...it's not like...It's not like he was like, trying to use me or make you jealous or something," she explains, though she hates how much she's rambling, so her voice trails.

There's something about what she's saying that leads him to believe that there's something she's not saying. She's a girl, and he's just starting to figure girls out (it's a process, one that Keith tells him he'll never really be able to complete). Maybe she likes the attention she got from Nathan. If he didn't know any better...

"If you...do you want to hang out with him?" he asks seriously.

"No!" she says, a little too quickly. "No, it's just...I mean, I don't know a lot of the people we'll be going to school with. I just thought...I dunno. I guess I just don't want to...be alone or whatever." He looks legitimately offended, and she knows she's said the wrong thing completely. "Lucas, I know you'll be there, and Haley and the guys, but..."

"I get it, Peyton," he insists. "Just...be careful around Nathan."

She doesn't ask him what he means by that, because it doesn't really matter. He's always been a bit protective over her, and she likes that. She thinks Nathan is pretty harmless, but she has only talked to him once; she's almost certain Lucas has a bit more insight into the guy than she does. So she nods her head and smiles, and she tells him all about her new wardrobe for school. She thinks it's really, really cute how he sits there and pretends to care.

----

Peyton spends her entire first day of school with her assigned 'student guide' (every freshman has one), a sophomore with braces and a bad outfit. The girl is actually really nice, and Peyton thinks that they could be friends if it wasn't social suicide, and then she hates herself right after for even thinking something so mean. But Andrea shows Peyton to all her classes, tells her how to go about using the complex new electronic card catalogue system in the library, helps her find her locker and gives her pointers on her teachers. Peyton sees Lucas a few times but she doesn't have time to chat. She's got two classes with Haley and one with Skills, but none with Lucas, which kind of sucks, since they picked all their classes (advanced courses for both of them) so they might be together.

So they walk home together and do homework at the table in her kitchen while they listen to The Beatles, and he laughs at her when she goes on for five minutes about how cool it is that they have the same teachers.

Her second day of school, Brooke Davis compliments her on her black pleated skirt and insists that she sit with the cheerleaders, and Peyton shoots Lucas a pleading look in the cafeteria as he walks past. He just laughs and shrugs his shoulders. He's not really sure what she expects him to do about it; it's not like he knows Brooke...at all.

"Homegirl already crossed over to the dark side," Skills notes as he bites into his sandwich.

"Dark side?" Haley laughs.

"Nathan Scott and all his people," he specifies. He notices that Lucas is eating quietly, maybe not even paying attention. "I heard he's gonna try for varsity this year."

"I heard he's a lock for varsity this year," Junk adds.

"I heard Whitey told him that he's for sure on the team, and that trying out is just so the other guys aren't pissed," Fergie says.

Haley waves her hand in the air and dumps her salad dressing onto her salad. "Who cares?" she asks. "We've never paid attention to him before, so why would we start now?"

Skills, Junk and Fergie share looks, noticing that Lucas' attention has been stolen by a blonde girl across the room as she talks to Brooke and sits beside Nathan.

"Because now one of our girls is over them with him," Skills explains.

"One of your two girls," Haley laughs.

They spend the rest of their lunch hour talking about school and basketball and organizing some sort of charity game to raise money to install some lights at the River Court, but Lucas kind of tunes in and out. When Peyton comes over and says hi just before the warning bell rings for the next class, she punches Lucas' arm and tells him to walk her to her next class, and she links her arm through his as they make their way down the hall. Lucas notices (she doesn't) that guys who have never even looked at him before are paying attention, because the hot new freshman (he heard one of the senior guys call her that this morning) is on his arm.

They say goodbye at her classroom door, and she shouts, "Wait for me after class, or I'm never talking to you again!" and he laughs and nods his head and tells her he'll see her later. He thinks it's weird, but a good weird, that now he's the guy everyone wants to be.

And maybe if these other guys see Peyton with him enough, they'll have the good sense to leave her alone. He's never been jealous before. He certainly is now.

Three weeks into the school year, the big thing around school is that Nathan is definitely on the team, and that Brooke is the first freshman co-captain of the cheer squad. Lucas really doesn't want to care about either of those things, but he cares about basketball, and he knows that Brooke and Peyton have become friends (or something like it).

Peyton walks into his bedroom one evening with a sheepish look on her face, wearing one of his sweaters. She'd gone to the mall with Brooke and Bevin after school, and he didn't expect to see her until the following day. It's a Friday night, after all, and he just assumed she'd be invited to some party or have a girls' night or slumber party or something.

He doesn't hate that she's sitting on his bed with her hair in a ponytail and her knee pressing up against his. "Hey," he says. "Buy anything good?"

She shrugs her shoulder and grins. "Some CDs." He laughs and shakes his head, because she rarely ever goes shopping without buying some new music. "So...you wanna hear something crazy?"

"Um, sure?" She rolls her eyes and he nudges her with his leg, his foot hitting the seam of her pants at her hip. "What's up?"

"So, I was talking to Brooke, and...Well, you know there are auditions this week. For cheerleading. And...she says she wants me to...She thinks I should try out," she says, though it's clear she's nervous and unsure of what he'll say.

"Okay?" he draws out in confusion. She stares at him blankly and blinks a few times. "That's kind of cool."

She smiles, finally, and moves a little closer to him, so he's forced to place his hand on her leg. Well, he's not forced, but he does it and she doesn't seem to care. "Really?" she asks hopefully.

"Yeah," he says, shrugging his shoulder. "If she thinks you have a shot, you should do it." She smiles and nods, and she doesn't know why she wanted his approval so badly, but it feels good to have it. "And didn't your mom cheer?"

She smiles even wider, throws her arms around him and makes him laugh. "Yeah," she whispers. She loves that he knows that; that he knows that's a part of why she might want this. "She did."

So the following week, after a little coaching from Brooke and encouragement from Lucas, Peyton tries out for the squad. It's a closed audition, but Lucas knows his way around the back of the auditorium, so he and Haley wait and watch from the wings without anyone's knowledge. Haley, of course, teases Lucas relentlessly for the rest of the day for even cracking a smile when they were watching Peyton 'cheer'.

She flies into his arms as he stands at his locker at the end of the following day. "I made it!" she cries, maybe a little too loudly.

But he picks her up and spins her around and she laughs until he sets her on her feet. Maybe it's a bit of an overreaction, but this is important to her, and as much as she's been telling him that it doesn't matter either way, he knows she wants this. So they laugh and he congratulates her, and as they walk towards the café for a celebration of hot chocolate and ice cream (it's been their thing since two winters ago) Lucas lets himself think it's really cool that his best friend is now a Ravens cheerleader.

He ignores the voice in the back of his head that's telling him that she'll just have less and less time to spend with him, and more and more time to spend with the idiots on the varsity ball team.

If things were different - if everything was different - he'd think of trying out for JV or something. But he likes his place at the River Court, and he likes the game without the pressure. But Peyton never wore a little tiny skirt and bore her midriff and cheered for him the way she's going to cheer for Nathan.

Still, he shows up to her first game, because he knows she's nervous and he promised to be there. He sits with Skills, way in the back, and he waits for her after the game (a win, and he does want to smile because Nathan played less than five minutes and doesn't look happy). She throws one arm around each of the guys' shoulders and insists that they go back to her place for root beer floats.

And Lucas doesn't have to say anything about the way she looks, because Skills makes all sorts of comments, and at least he can play them off as a joke. Lucas isn't sure he'd be able to do it.

----

He's laying on her bed one Friday night in January after a game, and she's in her closet, simultaneously changing out of her uniform and picking something for them to listen to. They were talking about one of the seniors' recent acceptance to NC State, a full ride. It's a big deal, since he's the only guy on the team going on to play ball, and Lucas can admit to Peyton that he's a little jealous.

Except that she told him to "shut up for a second so I can pick something epic!"

It took him a second to realize she was talking about the music, not her clothes.

"You bitch, you're not..." Brooke bounds up the stairs and into the room, and she stops in her tracks when she sees Lucas sprawled out on Peyton's bed. She tilts her head, puts on a flirty smile and points at him. "You're not Peyton."

"He's not a bitch either," Peyton says, stepping into the room. "And hey! Neither am I."

"You have your moments," Lucas says, laughing already, cowering when she throws a pillow at his head.

Brooke just stands and watches. She thinks their relationship is really cute, Lucas and Peyton's.

She also doesn't buy for a single second that they're 'just friends'.

"What's up, Brooke?" Peyton asks, swatting the pillow away when Lucas throws it back at her.

"You're not coming to the party," Brooke states.

This is the part of cheerleading that Peyton isn't quite so into. The way she sees it, her duties end when the final buzzer sounds. She doesn't buy into all that shit about having to make appearances at parties and drink and flirt with the players. She doesn't judge the other girls for doing it, she just doesn't want to. She's been to a handful of post-game parties, and she had an okay time, but she's not about to blow Lucas off for one of them. And she's tired, and an evening of laying on her bed with him and talking as they listen to Owl City seems pretty perfect.

"No, I'm gonna hang out here," Peyton says casually.

"But you have to come to this one!" Brooke argues. She sees the wary look Lucas and Peyton share. "You haven't come to the last two, and you have that hot outfit we bought you last weekend. Not to mention, the guys just played their best game of the season."

"Is that it?" Peyton laughs. She sits down next to Lucas, and Brooke sits down on his other side, and he smiles and clasps his hands behind his head. Brooke doesn't notice, but Peyton gives him a bit of a face wash.

"Oh! And, I have a bottle of vodka that I really should not drink on my own," Brooke says.

"Have you no self control?" Peyton asks, faking seriousness.

Brooke pretends to think about it, looking over at the wall and scratching her chin pensively before. "Nope."

Lucas laughs and shakes his head. It's not like he knows Brooke very well at all. Actually, this might be the most time they've ever spent in one another's presence. Peyton tends to keep her two social circles far, far away from one another, and Lucas doesn't know how she's managed it, but she's done it really well. No one feels left out, and she's good to all of them. She fulfills her obligations with the squad and she hangs out with him and Haley and the guys. Of course, it's easy for the two of them to spend time together since they live across the street from one another.

But he knows that Brooke isn't as slutty (though he hates to use that word) as people might think. She's not stupid, no matter how much she might act like a complete airhead from time to time. She's lighthearted and, according to Peyton, pretty fun. And Lucas thinks it means a lot that since Peyton joined the squad, Brooke has been really nice to him, not that she was ever really mean (more like oblivious to his existence), and she's even gone shopping with Haley and Peyton a few times.

This is one of those cases where he doesn't mind that he was completely wrong. He had written her off before ever even talking to her.

"Lucas can come too!" Brooke says, squealing it like that'll seal the deal and Peyton won't be able to say no.

Peyton shakes her head as Lucas looks at Brooke like she's insane. "No thanks," he says seriously. He turns to Peyton and she almost looks relieved. "If you want to go..."

"No!" She tries to make it sound convincing, but it really isn't. "No, I don't want to. It's fine."

"Peyton," Brooke tries.

"Brooke, no one's gonna miss me," Peyton says with a laugh. "And if they do...well...they can deal."

Brooke sighs, but stands. She and Peyton have only been friends for a few months, but she can recognize when she's fighting a losing battle. The girl is stubborn and hardheaded, and usually when she gets her mind set on something, there's absolutely no changing it. So she heads for the door, but before she leaves, she turns around.

"Well, have fun then," Brooke says sincerely. "But I'm telling everyone that you're doing something cooler than...this."

Lucas laughs, but Peyton doesn't really see the humor, and she hurls that pillow towards the door, listening to Brooke's laughter as the brunette walks back into the hall. Peyton honestly thinks that these mellow hangouts with Lucas are probably some of the cooler moments she's ever had. Sure, she's young, but she likes that they can just sit like this and talk about anything from books to politics (only sometimes) to music to just life. So she reaches for her remote (completely unaware that Lucas can't stop himself from looking down her shirt as she leans forward) and presses play on that album they're both in love with at the moment, and she lays on her back next to him so their shoulders are touching.

"How come you didn't wanna go?" Lucas asks.

"Just didn't," she says, shrugging, which nudges him a little. He doesn't believe her, and she can tell without even looking at him. Her voice goes soft. "It's at Nathan's beach house."

"Oh." She sighs and turns on her side because she thinks this is going to start a serious conversation. But as much as he adores her for being so thoughtful and considerate of his situation, he doesn't want to ever hold her back. "Peyton, if you want to go, you should go. I know it's...messed up, but...you shouldn't have to miss out because of me."

She smiles a little. He really doesn't get it. "I'm not missing out on anything," she insists. For some reason, she reaches over and slips her hand into his, weaving their fingers together as she lays on her back again. "I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing tonight."

"Just...don't pull away from that scene for that reason," he says, though he's totally distracted, because they haven't held hands like this since they were little kids.

"Stop acting like my whole world revolves around you," she says teasingly, making him laugh. "And...whatever. I love you, so hanging out on a Friday night isn't exactly a chore."

He doesn't know how she means that, but he doesn't doubt that she does mean it. He doesn't say the words back, because he doesn't think she wants him to. It's kind of a weird situation. They've said them before, usually jokingly. Like when she brought over coffee the other morning when he was running late for school ("Oh, you're a live saver. I love you.") or when he found her copy of The Wall underneath his bed ("Luke! I love you!"). But she's never said it quite like this, with her hand in his as she lays next to him in her pajamas. He likes it this way better.

She knows he probably doesn't even realize he does it, but he squeezes her hand twice after she says those words. She doesn't question that she means it; they've practically been best friends for years. She thinks it's sweet that his response was physical and not verbal. It seems right that way.

She doesn't know that in a few hours, at a house on the beach after everyone else has left, Nathan is going to tell Brooke that he's into Peyton.

----

Lucas is sitting alone in the caf one day in the middle of February and he sees Peyton walk through the doors. Then he sees Nathan jog up behind her and reach for her elbow, and he takes her to the quietest corner of the room and sits across from her. He starts talking, is visibly nervous, and Lucas really wants to know what's going on during that conversation.

As much as he hates it, he's gotten kind of used to this. Hanging out with the star player comes with the territory when you're a cheerleader, and Lucas has come to accept it. It's not like Peyton and Nathan are best friends or anything, and she's never given Lucas any reason to believe that he has anything to worry about; she knows Nathan isn't the best guy, and openly admits that even though he's not as bad as she always assumed, he's still no saint.

"He's asking her out, you know."

He looks ahead and sees that Brooke is sitting across from him. He doesn't need to ask, but he does anyway. "What?"

"Nathan. He likes Peyton," she explains. Lucas shrugs his shoulder because he's not supposed to care. "I was just telling you. You know, in case you needed a warning."

"A warning?"

She leans forward a bit and gives him a genuine, soft smile. "You don't have to hide it from me," she almost whispers. Before he gets a chance to deny anything, she's talking again. "You like her."

"I..." He stops talking when she raises her brow. "It's not a big deal." She rolls her eyes, so not believing him. "You think she knows?"

"No."

"You think...you think she likes him?"

Brooke shrugs and they both look over to where Peyton and Nathan are talking. "I don't know. She could."

"Will she say yes?" he asks quietly, looking down at his plate of food.

"Maybe," Brooke admits. "But look, maybe...maybe that's not such a bad thing!"

"Excuse me?"

"Maybe it's a sign or something. You know? Like maybe you should find someone else too."

He scoffs, looks over to Peyton as she gets up, runs her hand through Nathan's hair and smiles as she walks away. Lucas has no idea what any of that means. But he knows that he doesn't want it to mean anything, and that alone is proof enough that he doesn't want anyone else.

"No," he says, shaking his head. "That wouldn't really be fair to the other girl, would it?"

Brooke plasters on a smile and straightens her posture. "No, I guess not."

Since he didn't pick up on her subtle hint, Brooke doesn't push the issue, which is something new for her. She doesn't even know when it started, but Lucas is really cute and really sweet and really nice to her, and that's not something she finds in a guy very often. But if he's hung up on Peyton, and if Peyton doesn't go out with Nathan (Brooke knows 'letting him down easy' when she sees it) she's probably got no shot with him. If he doesn't realize that he should move on, then she's not going to force it, not like she normally would.

She sits with him through the rest of lunch, and Lucas has no idea that Peyton has just told Nathan that she'd rather they just stay friends, that she's flattered that he asked her out, but she doesn't want to lead him on.

Later that night, when she tells Lucas (he doesn't ask, she offers it up) he feels like his heart is going to explode, because maybe there's still a chance for them after all.

He just has no idea how to take it.

----

Sophomore year passes by far too quickly, considering not a whole lot happens (not in comparison to what comes after).

Peyton's dad travels more and more for work, and she comes to like the silence of her house, though Lucas, Haley or Brooke are generally around to fill it.

Haley dates a freshman on the school's mathletes team, earning her relentless (however harmless) teasing over both the fact that he's younger and the fact that he's a mathlete. But he's cute (all the girls think so) and he treats her well.

Brooke dates...everyone. That's an over-exaggeration, but she goes to her fair share of parties and kisses a lot of girls' shares of boys. Sometimes she'll 'date' them, go out with them once or twice, but she always finds some reason not to make it serious, and to her credit, they're usually good reasons.

Lucas, after realizing that attempting a romance with Peyton could, and probably would, seriously change and possibly jeopardize their friendship, decided that maybe he should move on. When a new girl transfers in during the middle of the first semester and he's paired up with her in chemistry class, he's kind of taken with her. She's beautiful, with dark brown eyes and long brown hair, and she's goofy like Haley and cynical like Peyton and she's kind of the best of both his favourite girls. Her dad is a Marine (totally intimidating, but he seems to like Lucas well enough) and her mom is a freelance writer. Save for the moving around the country, she's got a stable home life that's a rarity in Tree Hill. And she and Lucas come to realize that they have a lot in common.

So one night when they're putting the finishing touches on a report, Lena leans in to kiss him and he lets her, wants her to, even. And the next day when Peyton asks him what's going on, he shrugs his shoulders and says nothing, but she pokes him (literally) until he gives in and tells her what happened between he and Lena (that they finished their report, made out, and decided to be a couple, all in one night). She squeals excitedly, tells him she's really happy for him and that she thinks Lena is really cool.

So Lucas has his first girlfriend, and she's really great. She understands that he's got two close girl friends and doesn't care if he spends time with them. She's just getting to know some people, since Brooke and Peyton have kind of taken her under their collective wing. She has a job at the local library (Lucas loves that about her) and volunteers at the hospital on Saturday afternoons. But they spend a lot of time together, too, because she really loves basketball and will watch him play or sit with him while he watches games on TV. Karen adores the girl and Keith thinks she's a sweetheart.

And about a month after he and Lena start dating, Peyton and Nathan start spending a little more time together. Lucas and Nathan have learned to tolerate one another. They don't interact unless necessary, and they kind of just...avoid one another when they're in a group, but they can be in a group. It's a step in the right direction.

Nathan and Peyton kiss at a party one night. They're seeking refuge from the drunk idiots (though neither of them are all too sober), both leaning against the railing of the long pier that leads from his beach house to the sand. They're just talking, they do that all the time, and she doesn't know what she says or he says (one of them says something that impresses the other) and she doesn't know who kisses who first (it doesn't really matter). They're kissing, and he's good at it, not a surprise to her, and they part only when he drops his empty cup in favour of putting his hand on her hip. And he may be good at it, but there's something really wrong about it too.

And then they both start laughing.

"What the hell?" she manages, though she's trying to catch her breath. "What was that?!"

"I don't know," he says, shaking his head. They laugh even harder at that, because they're drunk, and it's also fairly obvious what it was. "Awkward."

"Totally awkward," she agrees. She moves away from him, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and giggling. "I mean, it was nice and everything, and if I was...I mean, if I wanted to have a...you know, friend with benefits..."

"Careful what you wish for," he comments lowly, and she shakes her head. They've just proven that they don't really work together, not that way, she just didn't want to hurt his feelings. "Friends?"

"Friends," she states, and instead of shaking hands or whatever, like they do in the movies, she punches him in the chest. "Without the benefits."

"I don't want your benefits!" he laughs. He slings his arm around her shoulder and they both look out on the water. "Besides, he'd never forgive you."

"Who?" she asks tiredly, suppressing a yawn.

"Lucas," he specifies. She looks up at him, and he rolls his eyes. It's not like it's a secret that there's something beneath the surface of that friendship.

"He's with Lena."

"For now," Nathan says, pulling her a little closer for no reason.

She doesn't know what that means. She doesn't want to ask, for fear that it'll just plant ideas in her head that she doesn't want to think about. Because as much as she hates to admit it, it is kind of hard (only sometimes) to see Lucas and Lena together. They're a cute couple, and they're good for one another, she knows, and that's exactly why. She always thought that maybe she and Lucas would someday happen, and while they're still young, just 15, this is the first real thing that's come between them to give her any reason to think they won't someday happen.

So when Lena's dad gets posted in Texas and she and Lucas decide to break up, Peyton comforts him (though, if she does say so, he doesn't really need it because he doesn't really seem too hurt) and they drink hot chocolate and have ice cream, and she ignores the way her heart swells when he lays his head in her lap while they watch movies in her living room.

"And hey," he says at the end of another conversation about his breakup. "I've still got you."

He always has her. They both know it.

----

Lucas thinks it's insane when, at the beginning of their junior year, Whitey seeks him out and asks him to be part of the team. He says no at first, because there's no way he and Nathan can play on the same team. No way. They went from tolerating one another, back to barely acknowledging one another when Nathan decided that the River Court was his territory and no one could play there while he was working out. Peyton tried to intervene, and Brooke talked to both guys, but their reception was icy.

So Lucas, over the course of the summer, figured out Nathan's workout schedule. He practiced early in the mornings, which used to be Lucas' favourite time to play too, but the blonde's workouts started taking place at night, later and later, as he learned that he actually really liked the way the court feels at night. The river, the lights, the way the air kept its humidity but cooled down enough so it wasn't unbearable.

And now, in the early fall, it's the perfect weather to not be too hot in a sweatshirt at about 10:00 at night when he should be at home and his mom doesn't realize he's out.

He knows it's hypocritical when he sees Peyton approaching the court and he sends her a reprimanding glance. "What are you doing here?" he asks.

She shrugs her shoulders and wraps her arms around herself. "I saw you leave. Figured you'd be here."

Sometimes it's really annoying that her bedroom window looks down upon his bedroom door.

"Just wanted to spend as much time here as possible before school gets crazy," he says, sending up another shot. She catches his rebound and holds the ball against her hip.

"You aren't maybe out here wondering if you should take Whitey's offer?" she asks. He rolls his eyes and looks away. "Whitey told Nathan, Nathan told Brooke, Brooke told me."

"I'm sure Nathan loves all this," he mumbles.

She sits down on top of the picnic table and waits for him to join her, because she knows he will. He does, and she throws her arm around his waist, leaning against him. She doesn't push him, knowing that he's got a lot on his mind and she'll either just have to wait it out or beat it out of him. Knowing Lucas, it could go either way. They're quiet for a few minutes, both just looking out at the blacktop, and she's sure the thoughts in his head are a little heavier than the ones in hers.

"I just hate how everything in this town goes back to Dan," he finally says.

"Yeah."

"Like, if I wanted to, you know, I could...I mean, I might be good enough to be on the team, but...with Nathan, and..."

"Don't worry about Nathan," Peyton interrupts.

She doesn't know why he cares so much about that. Sure, the boys have their issues, but surely they could set them aside in favour of working together on the team. They've already proven that they can be civil (though this turf war over the River Court is kind of ridiculous) and she thinks that if they were both on the team, the Ravens could really push for state.

He makes some indeterminable scoffing sound, and she rolls her eyes. "Seriously, you and him...you have to just stop," she insists. "You two have this...this really shitty thing in common..."

"Dan."

"Yes, Dan. And yeah, it sucks, but you have this really great thing in common, too," she says eagerly, turning towards him a bit. "If you just joined the team, then...then the rest might follow."

"What, are you implying that we could be...?"

"Brothers?" she supplies. "Yeah." He looks at her blankly, like he really can't believe that she's saying that, and doesn't she know him at all? "Lucas, just...just don't let all the rest of it stop you from playing the game you love to play."

He sighs and looks at her, rolling his eyes because he can tell that she just knows she's right. She jumps off the table, grabs the ball and gives him the most adorable attempt at a come hither look (she kind of misses the mark, but the effect is the same) as she bounces the ball on the concrete. She taunts him, making threats they both know are pointless. But she doesn't stop until he at least cracks a smile and stands up.

They spend the rest of the night, well into morning, though Karen revokes Lucas' cell phone privileges because of it. They meet in front of her house for school the next morning, both of them nursing travel cups of coffee and sporting bags under their eyes.

The most awake she looks all day is when he finds her at lunch and tells her that he talked to Whitey and his first practice is the next day after school.

No one is as excited as her. In fact, most of the team is downright mad about it. But Brooke and Peyton corner Nathan one day and tell him in no uncertain terms that if he doesn't treat Lucas with respect, they'll spread some really nasty rumors about him (something about his 'size', and though neither girl can verify it, he can't risk it). So he agrees, tells his teammates not to give Lucas a hard time, and though he won't admit it to anyone, Lucas is a hell of a ball player. Not to mention, Nathan has had to seek out Haley's help with tutoring, and her barbed insults and sarcasm, coupled with the fact that she's never liked him and clearly doesn't want to spend any time at all with him, and he's really trying to get on everyone's good side.

Nathan finds himself being pushed back against the hard metal of his locker in the boys' locker room. He's a little surprised, not only because he's wearing just a towel around his waist, but also because the person pushing him is Peyton.

"Did you tell them to do it?" she asks angrily, poking at his chest with her index finger.

"What are you talking about? And how did you get in here?"

"They kidnapped him!" she cries, moving away from him.

"What?" he asks, and maybe they're both surprised, but he actually sounds concerned. "When?"

"Last night! He was supposed to meet me and Haley, but he never showed. They drove him out to..."

"To Airport Road and dumped him with no shoes, no phone..."

"You did do it!"

"No," he says insistently. "No, I swear, Peyton. It wasn't me."

"So your gang of idiots just went and did it on their own? That doesn't happen," she says, and normally, it'd be true. But he knows better than to lie to her, so she wonders if she should believe him.

"I wouldn't, Peyton, okay? I'm hanging by a thread already, here. If I did something like that and Whitey found out, I'd be off the team for sure."

She stops to consider it, then looks him up and down, laughing when she realizes that not only is he telling the truth, but he's also in just a towel, and she's in the boy's locker room, and it totally smells disgusting.

"I'm so...mad," she admits quietly. He doesn't think he's ever seen her like this, so concerned, so worried and angry.

"I'll talk to them," Nathan promises. She smiles at him and laughs when he reaches for his clothes. "Is uh...is he okay?"

She grins a little wider and nods her head, and her eyes are saying something like, 'I know you care about him, no matter what you say.' But he doesn't say anything, just purses his lips like he isn't relieved, and glances around the room, as though he's wondering why she's still standing there.

She's about to turn and leave when Jake comes in and stops in his tracks, really surprised at what he's walking into. "Whoa," he mutters.

"This isn't...I wasn't...," she tries, before putting her face in her hands. "I was just yelling at him."

"Whatever does it for you," Jake teases, winking at Peyton. Nathan notices the way she smiles at the other guy, like she's nervous or something. None of them know Jake very well, since he keeps to himself and does his own thing a lot, but Nathan thinks he knows flirting when he sees it.

"I'll uh...I'll see you guys later," she says, glancing between the two boys before walking to the door.

Jake watches her go. Nathan watches Jake watching her go. When Jake turns around, he stares at Nathan with a furrowed brow. "What?"

"You're into her," Nathan says with a smirk.

Jake's a little surprised, because he and Nathan rarely talk, and when they do, it's always been about basketball. "I...She's just...she's cool," Jake says as he heads for his own locker.

"Yeah." Nathan pulls on his shirt and steps into his shorts. "She is." He realizes he's just spend far too much talk talking about emotions and caring about other people, so he slams his locker door closed and slips into his more common persona. "Don't fuck with her."

Jake actually laughs and shakes his head, and Nathan smirks to himself as he walks from the room. He's going to have to talk to Peyton about that one.

----

Within the span of about two weeks, Nathan and Haley start dating (though it takes a lot of conversations with his two best friends for Lucas to actually accept that), Brooke gets Lucas to go out, get drunk, make out, and get a tattoo, and Peyton and Jake start spending more and more time together.

For the first time, their two groups kind of feel like one group, and when they go to a party one game night, it doesn't feel weird at all to be paired off. But even so, it's still not weird when Peyton and Lucas drive home together; they live so close, after all. And Lucas is having a hard time both not laughing at Peyton, because she gets super touchy-feely after a few drinks, and not worrying about her because she's had a few drinks.

"Okay, boozy," he says with a laugh as she sings one of the commercial jingles that comes from the radio. "Maybe we should get you something to eat before bed time."

"I'm not that drunk," she says, and she really believes it. She's a bit more versed in this world, drinking and partying, than he is at this point. Maybe she had one too many, but it's not like she's incoherent. "Not enough to get tattooed, anyway."

She starts laughing at the indignant look he sends her, and he shakes his head, because her laughter is one of a kind.

And he doesn't really want to go home yet.

"You wanna drive around a little?" he suggests, shrugging his shoulder when she looks at him questioningly.

"Sure." Her eyes light up as he makes a left to take them towards their favourite back road to drive (they've been doing it ever since they each got their licenses), and he laughs at her again. "Guess what I have?!" she asks excitedly, rooting around in her bag. She pulls out a can of Bud and holds it up triumphantly. "Road beer!"

He shakes his head. "Peyton, that's...Come on, you're gonna get me arrested."

She rolls her eyes. "Just don't do anything to get arrested."

He looks at her like she's insane. "That's what's gonna get me arrested!" he reminds her, pointing to her can of beer. But it's too late, because she's already popping the tab. It's not very often he gets legitimately mad at her, but he's really not a fan of all this. "Maybe we should just go home."

"Lucas," she says seriously, "it's fine."

There's five minutes of silence, and she tries not to be annoyed, because he can just be such a prude sometimes. Although, now that he's with Brooke, she's pretty sure she can't call him a prude anymore. Even as she thinks it, she gets a little jealous, which is so stupid, because she's whatever she is with Jake, so it all evens out. And she likes Jake, she really does, and she wants to be with him, despite the fact that he's a 16 year old dad and has a world of responsibilities that she shouldn't have to deal with. But it's okay, because she understands it, understands him. And yet it's Lucas she goes to when she needs to vent her relationship issues and insecurities (but it's not really a big deal, since she goes to Lucas for pretty much everything).

And Brooke is good for him, and he's good for her. Peyton is happy to see him coming out of his shell a little bit, and for Brooke to learn a little bit about what it's like to be with someone who actually cares about her. Brooke told Peyton, just tonight, that she's 'super into Lucas', and Peyton's happy for them.

It's just that Lucas has always kind of been her boy, and sharing him has proven to be kind of difficult for her. Brooke is one of her best friends, and they've done some double dating kind of things, but Peyton still really likes spending time one on one with Lucas with no one else around, and she likes the way they look at each other sometimes, like they know each other better than anyone, and like maybe someday.

And it's so stupid to ever even think that because they've each got other people, and neither of them has ever even shown an interest in the other (though she can convince herself, on a good day, that he's had an interest in her at one time or another), and why not now? She has to believe that if they were supposed to be together, they'd just be together.

And Jake is nice. Jake is good. They really like one another, a mutual interest that they've actually talked about, so he's already a step ahead of Lucas. (Even in her buzzy state, she knows he's not.)

She tips back her beer and drinks it fast, and when she looks over at Lucas, she realizes the car has stopped and he's staring at her like he's worried about her and he's ready to have her talk to him, whether she's ready to speak or not.

"Just drive," she says, looking back towards the road.

"Not so fast," he says. He grabs her arm, tugs her towards him and she slides across the vinyl seat. Of course, she can't help but laugh, and he smiles. "What was that about?"

"Nothing," she lies. "I just don't like you mad at me."

"I wasn't mad," he insists, looking at her like she's the cutest thing in the world. "Keith would just kill me if he had to bail me out." She rolls her eyes at his lame joke. "You know it takes more than that for me to get mad at you."

She moves even closer, leaning her head against his shoulder. She's suddenly so sleepy, and she smiles when he wraps his arm around her after putting the car in drive again. "I like Jake," she says softly, though she doesn't mean to say it out loud.

Maybe drinking that last beer so fast wasn't a brilliant idea.

Lucas laughs and glances down, though he can pretty much only see the top of her head. "I know you do." She sighs and wraps her hand around his as it's draped lazily over her shoulder. "But?" he asks knowingly.

"But then...there's this, too," she says sleepily. He doesn't know why his heart races (Brooke, Brooke, Brooke echoes in his mind) and Peyton runs her thumb along the skin of his hand. "I'm okay as long as there's this."

"There always will be," he says, and kisses the top of her head, but she misses all that because she's already fallen asleep.

----

The guys' season ends in a heartbreaker. Nathan and Haley get married (like, married married). Jake leaves to protect his daughter, and Peyton's heartbroken (because as much as she always felt that underlying sense of this isn't right, she really did think she was falling in love with him). Brooke breaks up with Lucas because (though she doesn't tell him the real reason) he spends more time consoling Peyton and helping her through her breakup than he does helping Brooke deal with the insanity that is her parents.

It all gets pretty fucking tense for a while, since Lucas is pissed at Nathan (and Haley a little bit, too) and uncomfortable about that whole situation. Brooke is trying to keep her distance from Lucas, and since he and Peyton are practically joined at the hip (which, she realizes, really isn't anything new) means she spends less and less time with Peyton. Haley tries to appease everyone, like they all knew she would, but she's also building a marriage, working and going to high school, so her time is pretty much all taken up.

So it's Nathan and Haley, Lucas and Peyton, and Brooke and the cheerleaders. They can all get on board with the marriage thing, but, as Peyton learns, it's a lot harder to deal with your two best friends breaking up. So they all deal with the new reality of their situation until the end of the school year, when Brooke heads to California and Nathan heads to High Flyers.

It's just Lucas, Haley and Peyton in their hometown for the summer, and Haley's working like crazy, keeping two jobs to try to keep all the bills paid and add to she and Nathan's savings. She's so supportive of Nathan and his dream that Peyton goes to a specialty shop in the mall one day and makes a big white button with blue block letters that reads Wife of the Year, and Haley wears it on her apron for the rest of the summer.

So the summer really belongs to Lucas and Peyton, because they're the ones who are free to spend most of their time at the beach, or reveling in the air conditioning in Peyton's bedroom. They do stupid things, like build a massive sand castle that draws spectators (though Lucas knows that the group of college guys that stands watching is only gathered to ogle Peyton in her black bikini). They get their picture printed in the newspaper on the Fourth of July because Lucas organizes a kids' basketball game at the River Court and Peyton colours the flag on the entire surface of the court in chalk. They drive to Charleston for a Dashboard Confessional concert, and the two of them go on a camping trip, which basically consists of them throwing some stuff into Peyton's car and driving for a while without a map. They end up in Tennessee and find a campsite and spend two days roughing it and cooking food over a campfire.

Everyone who sees them assumes they're a couple. Sometimes they don't bother to correct them.

She calls him one day and tells him to come over, and it almost makes him laugh, because she never calls him. If she wants to see him, she just goes to his house. But there's something in her voice and he just can't make fun of her, because he's getting the distinct feeling that there's something going on with her, that she needs him. And even though he's reading up on colleges like he promised his mom he'd do, he drops everything and runs across the street and up to her room.

She's crying, sorting through albums in her newly decorated bedroom and trying to make it appear as though she's not freaking out about something.

"Peyton."

"Did you see?" she asks angrily, turning to him.

"See what?"

"The woman. The woman who came here today," she says. She's frustrated (pure transference) that he doesn't just know what she's talking about. He can order for her in any restaurant they walk into, but he doesn't know this?

"No," he says, sitting down at the edge of her bed. "C'mere." He reaches for her wrist, but she pulls it away before sitting next to him, and he'd be hurt if he didn't understand that this is just the way she is; when she's mad, she doesn't want anyone to touch her. "Who is she?"

She turns to him, fresh tears in her eyes and her chin quivering. "She says she's my mother." He looks completely confused, as confused as she is, if not more so. "My mom...she died, Lucas."

"I know," he says, and he's no sooner opened his arms than she's falling against him, her head buried in his shoulder. "Did you talk to your dad?"

"He says...he says he wants to talk about it in person," she says, her words muffled by his tee shirt. She sobs, and it absolutely breaks his heart. "I'm adopted."

"You don't know that," he says, though it's pretty clear that's the most logic answer. "Maybe you should wait until your dad comes home before you..."

"Oh, come on, Lucas," she says in frustration, pulling away from him. "What other explanation could he possibly have!? I watched my mom die." The tears come harder and faster, and when he runs his hands up and down her arms, she doesn't even have the presence of mind to pull away from him (she doesn't really want to anyway). "I don't want this. I just want...I don't want this to be happening."

He pulls her against him again, because it's the only thing he can think of to comfort her at all. "I know," he whispers. "I know, baby."

He has no idea why he called her that, but she doesn't say anything, just clings to him a little tighter. It just slipped out, for whatever reason, and it's funny, because he's never called another girl that before in his life. He's not a huge fan of pet names (even 'Broody' always sounded stupid to him, though he never mentioned it). But somehow, this girl and helping her through this (at least he hopes he is), makes him feel different. He's always been protective over her, but right now he's teetering between anger and disappointment and heartbreak, because he knows that's what she's feeling, and whether or not they're trying to ignore it, they're connected somehow. Whether it's through history or friendship or something they haven't even tapped into yet, haven't explored, their stories are intertwined. And even though he never met her mother, he knows how much Peyton misses the woman and still loves her and bears the burden of having lost her so young.

They end up lying on her bed, her in his arms, pressed against his side and her head on his shoulder, and he stays awake long after she falls asleep. He's thinking about her and this situation and how he'll do anything to help her through it, that there has to be more he can do than this. She he closes his eyes after a while, thinking that she shouldn't have to wake up alone, and there's no way he could ever leave her now anyway.

She's the one he runs to (literally) when her dad comes home and tells her that her suspicions are correct. She races towards the River Court, though it's really far from the pier where she met her dad, and she throws her arms around him, not caring that he's disgustingly sweaty and in the middle of a game with Skills. She doesn't say anything, knows that he knows, and she thinks (for the first time ever) that she's in love with him (in the real way) when he lets her cry in his arms as he murmurs soothing things that she doesn't even really hear.

She doesn't know when Skills leaves, but he does, and she doesn't know when the sun goes down, but it does. She hates that she's crying so much, but everything has just changed, her whole entire world, except for this one thing, this one boy, and holding onto him seems like the only thing that makes any sense at all.

He doesn't walk her home, he walks her to his home. She doesn't ask it of him, but he knows that she isn't in any frame of mind to talk to her father, not calmly, so he pushes open the door to his bedroom, and she lays down on his bed, looking like a little girl as she curls up with her hands tucked under the pillow. He orders pizza, and then searches Youtube for hilarious videos to watch, just to make her smile. He doesn't ask her how she's feeling, because he either knows, or knows better.

She's sleeping with her head in his lap and a blanket covering her when Larry knocks at the door before stepping inside. Lucas, wide awake and still concerned, closes his book and looks up at the man. Larry manages a bit of a smile and a curt nod, then tells Lucas to send Peyton home once he's woken her up.

Lucas knows that means 'wake her up now and send her home...now.'

After the door is closed again, Lucas shakes Peyton gently and says her name a couple times until she opens her eyes and blinks up at him.

"What time is it?" she asks.

"1:30."

"Oh my God," she mumbles, sitting up and rubbing her eyes, not caring at all, because any makeup she was wearing has been all cried away anyway. "My dad..."

"He just came over. You should talk to him," Lucas says encouragingly. "He's worried."

"He said that?" she asks.

"No." He shrugs his shoulder. "I can tell."

She toys with the corner of the blanket as she sits there cross-legged, and it takes her a second before she realizes that this is really the most they've talked about this all night. She loves him for that too.

"I don't know what to say to him," she admits, doing her best not to cry again.

"Just tell him the truth," he insists. "However you're feeling, tell him. He deserves to know."

"Just like I deserved to know I was adopted!" she shouts. He doesn't say anything, just purses his lips, and she closes her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"No, you're...you're so...perfect, and I'm this bitchy, crying mess of a girl," she says, shaking her head.

"Aww," he says, and the smirk on his face lets her know he's about to make some kind of joke. "You're not a crying mess."

She punches his leg as hard as she can, and he laughs because he's gotten her to smile. She leans forward and hugs him. "Thank you. For...for everything."

"Any time," he says quietly. She kisses him on the cheek.

"Hopefully I'll only get this kind of news once in my life," she says, smiling a little bit more.

His heart falls (fitting, he thinks) because he's keeping his own secret from her, and it's one he's just not ready to tell. It's one he might not ever be ready to tell. The truth is, it's not just her heart that's hurting. His is too, in a more literal way. And there's never a right time to tell her (the only person who knows is his mom). He's just starting to pray that Peyton never has to find out. She doesn't need that to worry about too, and he knows her; he knows she'd worry.

She takes a deep breath and stands, smoothing out her top, and she tosses a paper plate from their dinner at him like a frisbee before she slips out his bedroom door.

She's not even halfway across the street when it dawns on her that almost every big change, every huge event in her life, she can picture Lucas there, helping her through it.

She's pushing open the front door of her house, stealing a glimpse back at Lucas' bedroom window (he's watching her, just like she knew he would be) when she starts to really hope that's always the case.

It just makes sense, him in all her big moments.

----

With encouragement from her father and from Lucas ("If Dan was a good person, I'd want a relationship with him...") Peyton gets to know Ellie. They meet for lunch a couple times before the summer's over and Ellie has to go back to her own home, and they keep in touch after that.

The school year starts and everyone comes home, but things don't necessarily go back to normal. The only thing is, no one can really remember what normal was, if they even ever had a normal. Brooke and Peyton go back to cheering, and they recruit Haley (who joins the squad begrudgingly) and Nathan and Lucas go back to carrying the team, though Lucas can only play 15 minutes a night. No one, not even Nathan, questions it, because Whitey, who knows of Lucas' situation, simply barks that he's the coach and tells Nathan to worry about his own job.

Nathan and Haley go through a rough patch that probably stems from spending so much time apart, then having to go back to living with one another. Brooke likes Lucas again, but won't admit it to anyone, though Peyton can totally tell. She doesn't bring it up because she's not sure she wants Lucas to get together with Brooke again (or anyone, for that matter). But he has, as recently as the end of their summer vacation, told her that he wants to just focus on school and basketball this year, not on girls.

Then a new girl comes in and shakes everything up.

She's full on, in every sense of the word. Her clothes just barely fit the acceptable dress code at their fairly liberal high school. She's got red hair and fake...everything and a voice that's akin to nails on a chalkboard. She joins the cheerleading squad by complete fluke (Teresa just had to move away mid-semester) and wedges herself in everyone's life.

And she's also got her eyes set on Lucas, but only because she figures out really quickly that Brooke does, too. Peyton takes Brooke's side, and it doesn't take much, because if anyone's going to date Lucas, of these two girls, she'd pick Brooke any day. (But only if she had to.)

They're all caught up in the pointless (by comparison) drama that Rachel brings, when Peyton decides to drive out of town and meet Ellie at her place. As Ellie has said, her door is always open, and Peyton doesn't even have to call before stopping by.

This time, she really wishes she had.

She calls Lucas, though she knows he's got plans with Nathan, because talking to paramedics and police officers (who knew that when you dial 911, all three emergency response units have to arrive?) is getting really tiring and really depressing and she just doesn't want to do it anymore. But as soon as he picks up the phone, she can't bring herself to speak the words (Ellie died just seems a million times too final) so she just tells him to meet her, and when he asks what's wrong, she breaks down again and just tells him to please hurry.

He makes the hour and a half drive in 45 minutes. And it takes him all of about two minutes (after marching through Larry Sawyer's front door and asking if there was anything to know) to figure out that Ellie has succumbed to the cancer that neither Peyton nor he even knew she had.

Peyton is sitting on the porch of Ellie's house, a blanket around her shoulders and a young, friendly-looking police officer standing nearby. Peyton's eyes are red and she looks devastated as she shrugs off the blanket and runs towards Lucas, throwing her arms around him like she needs him to hold her up. He offers a nod to the officer, who sends him a smile and then makes his way to his car at the curb.

"Luke."

"I know," he whispers, cradling the back of her head with his hand. She cries a little harder, falls against him completely, and he feels like he's going to cry too. It breaks his heart every time he has to do this. "Shh. I know."

"Why does this always happen?" she asks, and he knows she doesn't mean just the fact that every time she finds a mom, they pass away (because that's a little silly). She's wondering why she's always the one hurting, why everyone else can just go about living their lives with, no matter how much drama, nothing as big and certain as death. "I'm just...I'm so tired, Lucas."

"I know," he repeats. He figures it better to just say that than rattle off a bunch of words that may or may not mean anything. Right now, she needs to feel like she's not alone, and so that's what he'll give her.

Mostly because she's never alone. Not as long as he's around.

"Can we just stay here for a while?" she asks, pulling away and wiping her cheeks. He searches her eyes as he holds her arms. "I just don't want to leave yet, okay?"

He does nothing more than nod, and she slips her hand into his, leading him back towards the porch. They sit down together on the front steps, and she rests her head on his shoulder after he's draped the blanket around them both. She doesn't say anything for a long time, and he has no idea what to say that's of any solace or importance, so they're quiet until she starts telling him how she found Ellie, how her body was still warm and how powerless she felt (and still feels) because there was nothing she could do. Lucas apologizes in the most sincere way, and she smiles at him because this is what she needs. She doesn't want false assurances or meaningless words. She wants this boy who knows her well enough to just let her deal with things in her own way.

The sun is going down when a neighbour comes by with a sad look on her face and talks to Peyton. Lucas can tell from the conversation that the two have spoken before, and he almost smiles, because as much as Peyton was reluctant at first, she and Ellie have spent a lot of time together. He knows that's probably making her feel terrible right now, but he knows she'll have a lot of good memories to hang onto too. That's the most important thing. And he tells her so before they get into their respective cars to drive back to Tree Hill. She gives him the first smile he's seen from her all day and hugs him again.

She spends the next week and a half crying, and pretending she's not about to cry, and being angry with her dad for knowing about Ellie's illness and not telling her. No one mentions it when she starts staying in the Roe home and sleeping in Lucas' bed.

After all, it's not the first time she's needed to hide out from her problems, and she always seems to do it with Lucas.

It's a Saturday morning, and her dad leaves the next day, so she's been a little more chipper than lately, even though Lucas has been trying for days to get her to talk to her father. Her looks have told him to back off, but he doesn't, because if anyone can get away with pushing her, it's Lucas, and they both know that.

They've got plans to go to the mall a few towns over, because Karen has been telling Lucas he's in desperate need of some new dress shirts for game days, and Peyton volunteered her 'personal shopper' services. Lucas was critiquing Peyton's choice of pajamas as Karen walked out the door, on her way to the café for the day.

"Hey, do you have those earrings I left here that time? I wanted to wear them today," she says, setting her mug on the table.

"Yeah, they're in the box on my dresser," he says distractedly as he pours over the boxscores at the back of the sports page.

She gets up and heads to his room, and his heart sinks when he realizes that his medication is in that box, and he doesn't want her to find it. She's the last person he wants to find it. She'll freak out about his condition, but worse than that, she'll be really pissed at him for keeping it from her.

He shoots up out of his chair, the newspaper falling to the floor. "Peyton!" he calls, running towards his room and hoping to catch her before she opens that box. He doesn't. She's got a bottle of pills in her hand, reading the label with a horrified look on her face.

"Luke, what is this?" she asks, turning to him. She needs to look him in the eye, because she can tell when he's lying, and she knows he won't even try if she's facing him head on.

"It's..." He sighs, runs a hand through his hair in frustration and grabs the bottle from her hand. "It's for my heart, okay?"

"Your heart?" she asks in confusion. He just looks at her, then, shrugs one shoulder as he waits for it to dawn on her. "You...You have it." He nods solemnly and she sits down on his bed, suddenly winded by the weight of this knowledge. "So what does that mean? And why are you still playing? Aren't you supposed to quit? Lucas!"

He sits next to her, rests his hand over hers because he thinks it might calm her down a little bit. "It means I have to take a pill twice a day. And I'm still playing because...because I can't...I can't leave it behind," he says seriously.

"But what about your mom? She wouldn't let you..."

"My mom knows," he assures her. She looks even more surprised, because she can't believe that Karen would let him play if she knew about his condition. "And so does Whitey. That's why my playing time is limited."

There are tears in her eyes, and she looks away from him, but she's really not sure why, because she's seen him cry a million times in their lives. But it's very different, this feeling. She's always cried when she's lost something, or when she's been deceived, or when her heart has been broken. She's crying right now at the very scary, very real prospect of losing him, and he's deceived her. And her heart would absolutely shatter if she ever lost him, in any way.

"I'm sorry," he says quietly, sincerely, and when he leans towards her, resting his hand on her back, she doesn't pull away like he was almost positive she would.

She turns towards him, tears falling down her cheeks and onto the leg of her Paul Frank pajama pants. "Luke, why didn't you tell me?" she asks, shaking her head.

He shrugs his shoulder and looks to the ground, ashamed or something over having mislead her. "I dunno."

"Lucas," she pleads. She knows there's something he's not telling her, and he should really know by now that he can't hide things from her.

Well, at least she thought he couldn't.

He sighs and looks up at her, her green eyes sad (over either the story or the fact that she didn't know the story, but either way, it has to do with him). "I guess...You see me a certain way, Peyton, and...I just didn't want you to think..."

"What are you talking about?" she asks, like what he's saying is absolutely absurd.

"I'm the guy...Peyton, I'm the guy you turn to," he explains quietly. "You look at me sometimes like...like I'm some kind of...hero or something." Her eyes are softer now, devoid of tears and full of affection. "I love that."

She smiles and tilts her head as she looks at him, and she might start crying again if he keeps saying stuff like that and using the word love with regards to anything that has to do with her.

"But that's not a physical thing," she assures him. "That's...this." She squeezes his hand with her own to get her point across. "I'm...I need you and you know that. Maybe that's why I'm so...I wish you would have told me." He shakes his head and looks down at their hands, wondering how they can, at this age, be so strong for one another. "Maybe you could let me help you every once in a while."

He scoffs, pulls her closer to him and kisses her hair, because she just doesn't get it.

"You do help me. All the time."

And if she's crying, it's just because he's being so sweet, and not because she loves him or anything.

----

The Ravens win the state championship. Keith and Karen get engaged. They all graduate on a hot day in June. That same day, Nathan and Haley welcome their gorgeous baby boy, and Peyton accepts an internship in L.A. that she's been mulling over for weeks.

There are plenty of reasons to go. It's the chance of a lifetime, something she'll never have an opportunity to do again. She's been aching to go out on her own, and see a little more of the world beyond this small town. She wants to see new things and try new things, and she can't do that in Tree Hill.

The hesitation stems from the fact that Nathan and Haley are going to Duke and Brooke's going to New York.

Okay, that's a lie. The hesitation stems completely from the fact that Lucas is going to UNC, and she was also accepted there, and the choice is really fucking hard to make, when one option gives her him, and the other doesn't.

The thing is, she thinks that she needs to get away, because if she stays and nothing ever happens with him, she'll always wonder what would have happened if she'd taken this chance. L.A. is big and scary and she'll be completely alone there, but Tree Hill is small and comfortable and she'll be surrounded by all the things she's always been surrounded by. Both those options are terrifying.

She thinks she needs to take the chance. Tree Hill will always be there.

And if she and Lucas are meant to be together (and she's gotten really, really great at convincing herself that they aren't) they'll have time for all that later.

And the look in his eyes as he says goodbye to her at the airport says the same thing, she thinks.

She settles herself into a life in L.A. that's got a perfect amount of uneasiness to it. She makes very little actual money, so she gets a job at a local Hot Topic (she hates herself for it, schlepping band tee shirts to kids who don't get it at all). She works her ass off at her internship and makes friends with some of the younger people there, executive assistants and some of the guys in the mail room. They go to underground clubs that don't ask for ID, and drink cheap beer as they listen to bands they all agree will probably be signed to majors within the next year. Then she goes back to her little 500 square foot studio apartment and checks her email (always, no matter how late it is or how much she's had to drink). Lucas will have emailed her, without fail, and she'll email him back.

They talk all the time. They've upgraded their text messaging packages to accommodate how much they use that form of communication, and every night before he goes to bed, he emails her.

It's absurd, and she knows it, but she doesn't care. Mostly because she'd miss it if it didn't happen.

----

It takes him a while to adjust to life without her around. He lives in a house with an infant, a basketball player with an insane schedule, and a woman who, if she could have, should have been on maternity leave. Add his own schedule and school work on top of that, and his life is insane.

Sometimes he feels like the only thing keeping him on solid ground is knowing that at any given moment, he could be hearing from Peyton.

But that makes it sound like he doesn't like what he's doing, which isn't really the truth. He loves his classes, and he's doing really well. Watching Nathan's growth is amazing, and getting to spend so much time with Jamie is more than he could have hoped for. He's still got Haley, which grounds him, and he makes friends in his classes who make him feel older, smarter and like he's always thought college would make him feel.

Peyton doesn't come home for Christmas, since her dad isn't going to be around and she can't really afford it anyway. Lucas sends her a UNC sweatshirt and a loaded Starbucks card (since she's always complaining that she spends half her paycheck there). He receives from her bootlegs from a few of their favourite bands that she's gotten a chance to see, and an autographed Kobe Bryant jersey (her boss' lawyer is Kobe's agent's lawyer).

She calls him from her bed on Christmas morning, and he's already awake and holding Jamie as he stands in the kitchen eating cookies. They've already opened their presents, since Jamie (meaning, Haley) couldn't wait. When Haley sees who's calling him, she smiles and rolls her eyes, takes her son back into her own arms and points Lucas towards his bedroom.

"Hey you," he says as he answers.

"Mmm hi," she murmurs. She's in the middle of stretching; he wasn't answering and she figured she'd have enough time before his voicemail picked up. "Happy Christmas."

"You too." He laughs because she sounds all cute and tired. "I miss you around here."

She scoffs and curls up in her bed a little more. "Only because I always made you gingerbread men."

"Um. Those were awful."

"Were not!" she cries, and they both laugh. An even if they were awful, he still knew her well enough to pretend he liked them. "How are things?"

"You mean since we talked at 11:00 last night? Pretty good," he says. It's not exactly a lie, he'd just be better if she was around. "Tell me this will get easier the longer we're apart."

"Luke! That's a terrible thing to wish for!"

"How is..."

"If it gets easier, that means we're changing," she states. He smiles to himself and glances at a picture of the two of them from the championship game, him hugging her and her ecstatic looks on both their faces. "And we promised we wouldn't, remember?"

"Barely," he laughs. "We were drinking."

"Well then promise me again right now," she says, and if he could see her, he'd see her raised brow.

"I promise that I'll deal with the misery of missing you as long as our relationship doesn't ever change," he says seriously.

And she'd be happier if she didn't think he was clumping a change to something more into that, too.

----

He visits her the summer between his sophomore and junior years of college. He saves the money he makes working at a local bar slinging beer two nights a week (he makes good tips, and Haley makes fun of him every time there's a girl's name and phone number written on a dollar bill) and he buys a plane ticket. He laughs at how excited Peyton is, because ever since he told her he was going to visit, she's been telling him all the places she's going to take him and things he just needs to see when he's in town. He's not really lying when he says that all he really wants to see is her.

She's waiting for him at the airport, though he insisted that he would just take a cab to her place when he landed, and the way she hugs him has the people around them talking. He laughs, drinks her in a little bit, and when he pulls away, he almost can't believe it, but she's gotten even more gorgeous since he saw her last Christmas. She's tanned, wearing a gorgeous summer dress, and her hair is longer and wavy and a different shade of blonde, lighter, he thinks.

They spend the first night in her apartment, sitting on her sofa and talking over Chinese food and cheap beer. All he can think is how great it is to be around her again. And she smiles a lot, she's funnier (something he hadn't thought possible) and she's more sure of herself. It's beautiful, the way she's growing up, and as much as he hates that she doesn't live closer to him, he knows her growth has everything to do with the fact that she's moved away.

He doesn't mention any of it, other than telling her she looks great and he's happy to be there with her.

He sleeps on the sofa that night, but only because they fall asleep there together, and it's worth it to wake up with his arm completely numb, because her gorgeous face is staring up at him as soon as he opens his eyes.

They spend the entire day walking the city and hitting up all Peyton's favourite spots. There are book stores that remind her of him, record stores that remind him of her, and a coffee place that reminds them both of Karen's. They eat their lunch from a hot dog cart, and they're laughing down Sunset with all the tourists, neither of them caring in the slightest. She takes him to her favourite restaurant, a Mexican place with buckets of Corona and complimentary tequila shots for anyone who orders a full meal.

They eat and drink until they're full and drunk, and they walk, laughingly, back to her apartment. She holds his hand at one point, whispering none-too-quietly in his ear that her across the hall neighbour likes to spy through her peephole.

They walk into the apartment and he wisely gets them some water before they fall into her bed together. He's wearing only his boxers, and she's got on a pair of shorts and a tank top, her hair pulled up, and he grows a little uneasy with the way she looks at him. Her apartment, because of light pollution and smog or whatever else takes up the airspace in L.A., is never completely dark, so he can still see her well, though the curtains are drawn.

"What?" he asks, squinting at her across the pillow.

"Tonight," she says, shifting a little bit to get comfortable. "So fun."

"It was fun."

"I love this," she says. Her eyes are closed, but her hand still somehow finds his. "Us." She realizes what she's said and adds, "our friendship."

"Me too," he says, because he's not sure what else to say, but he can't just not speak or he'll do something crazy like kiss her.

She moves closer, leaning her head right next to his on the pillow, and her eyes flutter closed again. She doesn't know if it's Lucas or the alcohol or the heat in her apartment, but she feels tired and restless and insanely comfortable, all at the same time.

She says it before she can stop herself, "I love you, Luke," and it doesn't really matter anyway, because they say it all the time and he won't read into it. He leans over, kisses her forehead and says the words back to her, and she pretends for a moment that he means them the same way she does.

He leaves after six days, and Peyton waits until she's back in her apartment before she lets herself cry.

Lucas goes back to Tree Hill, and he doesn't even have to question it anymore when he feels like something's missing.

----

She's away for four years. She does something stupid (tells herself she's fallen in love with someone else, and realizes only after she's hurt him that she hasn't). She does something crazy (stands up to her boss, who happens to be one of the heavy players in the industry). She does something she never thought she'd do (it involves ladies' night at a strip club and losing a bet, going on stage and...the rest, she'd rather forget, though she had enough brainpower to keep most of her clothes on).

And she does something absolutely fucking terrifying.

Lucas has just graduated and moved back to Tree Hill. He got a job as an assistant editor at the local paper. With the help of a trust fund he didn't know he had (who knew that Royal Scott cared?) he buys a little two bedroom bungalow in a nice part of town. He's got a good life. And he misses Peyton.

All the time.

He tried his hand at a couple relationships, the longest being just under a year, but when he couldn't say I love you to her, and when he kept saying it to Peyton (every time they spoke, they ended their conversations with the words), the girl told him he needed to think about who he wanted.

He didn't have to think very hard.

He's seen Peyton over the years, weeks or weekends here or there, mainly her coming to Tree Hill for holidays, or vacations during the summer. She'd sweep into his life for days at a time, remind him of all the things that got lost in translation over the phone or through email, and then she'd leave again, and true to his word, it never, ever got any easier.

But no matter how much time they've spent together, laughing, drinking, reminiscing, sleeping in one another's beds, it's like they're both always very, very aware of the line. There's a line between them, there always has been, and it's like they're scared to cross it.

He actually thinks it's funny, in a really sad, stupid way, that they never just acted on their feelings. Or, he never just acted on his feelings. Because she might not have them. Except that he knows her well enough to know that she must. She must.

All the signs are there and all the signs have been there. Maybe forever, or since they were freshmen in high school, or since they were helping one another through senior year. It seems like ages and ages ago, but it wasn't, really, and every time they talk about it, they end up saying how it feels like yesterday that they graduated.

He doesn't know what the hell's going on. Over the years, they've gone from talking or emailing every day, to only once every few days, which is totally understandable.

But he misses her like crazy and wonders how she's doing practically all the time.

And he's an idiot, so one night (early morning? whatever) after he's gone out with the guys and had a whole lot too much to drink, he calls her. The voicemail he leaves her, he recalls in the morning, isn't his finest moment. It's slurred and nonsensical and totally pointless, and his I love you at the end, he's sure, is full of all the honesty that he usually has the good sense to hold back.

She quits her job because she hates it, trying to make headway and running into a brick wall (that brick wall that's in the form of an arrogant jerk with a bad hair cut and horrible taste in everything from women, to art, to clothing, to music). And, even though they don't talk about it, Lucas' drunken rambling message about Tric and their friends and how he misses having her around ("We should be able to drink beers together!"). And she's always loved the way he says I love you.

She calls her dad to tell him, and the first thing he asks is how Lucas reacted to the news.

"I haven't told him yet, but I'm sure he'll be...happy," she says. She looks around her apartment, all her things packed up into boxes. It's only been three days since she quit her job, and her friends, despite the fact that they don't want her to leave, helped her pack so she could get out of L.A. faster.

Larry scoffs, "okay."

"What?"

"Peyton," he says, his tone somehow fatherly and teasing at the same time. "Lucas is...He's your man."

She starts laughing, because if she doesn't, she'll let herself think about how true those words are. "Dad."

"Come on," he says seriously. "Am I still not allowed to say anything, even after all this time?"

"No, it's just...I don't exactly know what you're saying," she admits. She thinks she does, but she doesn't want to chance it.

"I'm saying that you and Lucas have always tried to pretend that you're just friends, but, honey, don't you realize that it's more than that?"

She's not sure she ever gave her father enough credit for understanding what was going on in her heart and in her life.

So when she hangs up with him, she scrolls through her contacts to Lucas' number, but she totally chickens out and closes her phone before she can hit send, and she hates herself for not just telling him the truth. But if this is their shot, if this is the only chance they get, she doesn't want to put any pressure on them before she even sees him.

And none of that makes any fucking sense at all.

She's just scared.

But it's the good scared. The kind of scared you are before you get the one thing that maybe you've always wanted.

----

He's at the River Court because he doesn't know where else he should be, really. He just got home from work and decided that he didn't want to be cooped up inside, so despite the fact that it's drizzling a little bit and he's sure that he'll eventually fall sick because of this, he's outside.

She's almost ethereal, the way she appears as if out of nowhere. He's sure his heart races and his palms sweat and he might just be a little breathless. She's wearing jeans and a black sweater, and maybe that's nothing special, but she sure is. She's smiling at him and walking towards him, and it's been so long since she did either of those things that he doesn't really know how to respond.

It's not until she has her arms around him, tucked beneath his in kind of a forced effort to get him to hug her back, that he reminds himself to breathe and has the good sense to say something.

"Hi," he manages, instantly berating himself, because that's just about the lamest opener ever. "What...what...?"

"Hi," she sighs. It's so cute, that sound, that he holds her even tighter; their hugs never did have a time limit on them.

"You're here." She nods against his chest, breathing him in, and everything she's done, every reason she came back, she now will never question again. This feeling, her in his arms, is proof enough that her decision was a good one. "How long?"

She pulls away then, bites her lip as she smiles at him. "Forever?" He merely blinks. "L.A. wasn't for me."

She wishes she had the nerve to say 'You are', but she doesn't. She just watches as he smiles all wide and wraps her into another hug. She's wet, since she chose to walk from her place, but she's so warm and comfortable in his arms that she doesn't care, and the only thing that would make this better is if he kissed her, and she's almost certain that if she kissed him, he wouldn't mind.

But when he lets her go again and she looks in his eyes again, she's so overcome with nerves, knowing this is something big, their first kiss, that she just can't do it. Sure, the rain, her first day back, this surprise, would all make it amazing, but she doesn't want to rush it.

Rush it? she thinks later. This has been years and years in the making, and now she's just stalling because she's afraid. She's always been afraid. She's tired of it.

But instead of doing something that would change everything, they just go to her house and sit in her living room with tea, and they listen to jazz and talk for a couple hours until he says he has to go. They've covered all the bases, the why's, where's, how's, and all that, and God, by the time he leaves, he's absolutely convinced that they'll have their chance.

Even as he thinks it, he thinks that their 'chance' is and will be so much more than just that. It'll be forever, and it just needs to get started. For years he's been too afraid to broach the subject with her, but now she's back, and she can say that's about the music or the climate or 'home' or whatever she wants, but he knows that he's a part of that mix. He just knows it. He knows her too well to think that he didn't factor into the decision making process, and he knows her too well to believe that she doesn't feel the same things he does. Even if she feels less of it, she still feels it, and he's going to spend as much time as he has to making her fall as ridiculously in love with him as he is with her.

That actually sounds like a lot of fun.

It's two days before they see each other again, since he's so busy with work and she's so busy with unpacking and catching up with everyone else. He understands it, that her life has changed again. He just wants her all to himself.

It's almost scary how little has changed between them. They meet for coffee and walk on the beach one night, and it's late, but she needs to see him, and when he calls and says he has time, she jumps at the chance. She feels like a teenager with him, which is kind of ironic, because when she was a teenager, she never really acted like this with him.

And every time they talk now, she wishes they were doing something else. She notices the way he makes even the simplest task look sexy as hell, like reaching for his wallet or kneeling down to pick up a shard of glass on the beach to toss in a trash can. The wind picks up at one point and three inches of his stomach show and she blushes, actually blushes, at the sight. He kisses her forehead as he says goodbye to her at her door, and she has to bite her lip to keep herself in check. She's sure that if she didn't stop herself, she'd just throw herself at him, and it really doesn't help that he winks at her before he leaves.

The next time they get together, it's for dinner with Nathan and Haley, and they sit together on one side of the table, and every time he drapes his arm over the back of her chair, she feels like her heart is going to explode. He leans across her to grab the check and his shoulder grazes her chest and she swears that she's going to just grab him, so she sits on her hands, because attacking him in a restaurant with their best friends as witnesses wouldn't exactly be appropriate.

She doesn't know it, but it kills him to leave her every time he drops her at her door.

They've hung out five times before she can't take it anymore.

They're at his place, sipping beer on his front porch swing, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders because she complained of the cold. She gets to it quickly, before he can do something annoying like blame her confession on the beer. It has nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with 10 years of pent up tension and escalating feelings and life-changing moments that weren't so scary because he was there with her. And that hasn't changed, that desire to have him with her through everything. And he has been, whether it be through a telephone line or helping her unpack boxes from her move. He's there for her, always, and no one else is, not in the same way.

And the way he looks at her sometimes makes her feel somehow completely uncomfortable in her skin, and like she's the most gorgeous woman in the world. She's sure he doesn't even know he's doing it. It's subtle, probably, and she's reading too much into it, but he'll get just a little grin on his lips, and his eyes will get all soft and sweet, and he'll let out a breath. And she's never felt more adored by anyone.

And maybe it's that look alone that has her pulling the beer bottle from his hand and setting it on the ground with hers, turning towards him and taking his hand in hers.

He has no idea what's going on. He has a feeling he's going to like it.

"Can we just...Can we talk about this? Because I'm going crazy just sitting here pretending that I'm not..." She pauses, takes a deep breath and tries to read the mostly blank look on his face.

"Not what?" he asks.

It's not until he runs his thumb over her knuckles that she gets the courage to just say it already.

"That I'm not in love with you," she almost whispers. She looks down before she can see him smile. "And I realize that I could be making a huge mistake by even saying anything, but I can't...I just can't do this anymore without saying it, and even if you don't feel the same, I just have to tell you, and..."

"Peyton," he interrupts, and when she looks at him, he's smiling. "Really?"

She scoffs a little, almost like a laugh, and were his eyes always this blue? "Yes, really. Of course, really."

He leans in close and his hand slips into her hair, and she takes a breath, because she's afraid that if she doesn't do it right now, she won't remember how.

She feels like she's waiting forever to kiss him, just silence and cool night air around them, and just when she's starting to get really impatient, he breaks the tension in the best possible way.

He kisses her full on the lips, years and years of being in love (or in something) with this girl all coming out around them, and they move even closer together, so she's kind of half in his lap and they're facing one another. His hands tangle in her hair and hers rest on his back. She had no idea that he was this good a kisser, that he could make her feel so amazing, her whole body tingling, and she actually has to pull away at one point, just so she can smile.

"I never wanted you to go," he finally admits, for the first time. She looks surprised, and he rolls his eyes, because she really shouldn't be. "I wanted you to stay here. With me. I hated every second of you being away."

"Lucas."

"I just didn't say anything because I knew that you had your reasons," he says. She smiles and closes her eyes.

"I thought you didn't..."

"How could..."

"I thought that this was just...high school, and us always being together," she explains, and he shakes his head, not that he has to remind her that this is very clearly more than just a high school crush. "I had to go and see if I could get over it."

"You shouldn't have," he says, and he's very aware that if she didn't love him, she'd hate him for that. "You should have stayed with me."

"I know that now," she admits. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize," he says, almost laughing. "I could have told you sooner. I wanted to, I just...with you there, and me here, and...I didn't want to put that on us. The distance and...I dunno. I guess I always just thought you'd come back someday."

She smiles and leans forward, her forehead resting against his, and she honestly can't think of a time in her life when she felt this happy. And of course he knew she'd be back. For him. "Could have told me what?" she asks coyly as she toys with the collar of his shirt at the back of his neck.

She's so much more amazing than she even knows, and in a weird way, he's so proud of her for being able to say it first. He knows how she is with her heart, how she hides her emotions, and he knows that it must have been terrifying for her to say the words first. He almost laughs when he realizes that the only reason she did it was because she was probably near 100 per cent certain that he'd say it back.

"I'm in love with you too."

As he says it, his lips brush against hers, and she wants to cry, because she's sure that there's never been a better I love you than that in all the history of I love yous. Not that it matters, since this is really the only one she cares about anyway.

-Fin-