February 8, 2010
As Peyton made her way through the crowded, familiar halls of East High she passed faces, not people. Her closest friends were now strangers who blurred together with the countless bodies rushing past her. So much had changed in her life and no one around her could possibly understand.

Ducking past the track coach she avoided the awkward, forced conversation that comes after someone turns in their uniform mid-season. He was a man known for his lengthy responses to everyday, non-expectant questions like "How are you?" or "What's new?" and she just didn't have time for that now.

As she pushed open the heavy doors the 4th block bell rang and students cleared the halls. With the bitter wind in her face and her coat in her hand she made her way through the parking lot to her "envy of the school" car. She stopped a moment before climbing in and sat on the hood looking out over the snow covered track field. As she turned the key in the ignition she wiped a single tear from her cheek.

Peyton walked through the newly built, state-of-the-art parking garage that had just been added onto the building and locked her car door over her shoulder. Her phone vibrated in her pocket telling her she was running late. She effortlessly quickened her pace to her record-breaking distance run. She let up when she reached the glass doors of Heartland Grace Hospital.

She dropped her bag at the door of the all too familiar room. The nurse looked up and smiled, obviously ignoring the fact that she was five minutes late for her appointment. "How are you feeling today, Peyton? Is the nausea getting any better with the weekend break?" She flipped through the charts, grabbing the only pink one in the pile and walk to Peyton's side who was now seated on one of the few empty chairs in the room.

"Yeah, it's a little better. I kept down the school lunch today and trust me that's saying something." Peyton smiled weakly up at the nurse and it was easy to see she wouldn't be able to hide her pain for much longer.

"That's great, honey, that's great." The nurse hooked the fluid to the top of the rack and opened two new needles. She reached for the thin, cool arms like she'd done so many times before and asked, "Have you told anyone yet?"

As the point of the needle pierced Peyton's skin she answered without a reaction. "No, no it's going to be okay though. I quit the track team yesterday so it'll be easier now. I don't want people to treat me differently, you know? I'm still me. I'm strong, I can take care of myself, it'd only make people worry." She pushed her soft blonde hair from her face with her free hand and placed it back onto the arm of the chair. "Do you think I'll lose my hair?" she asked as their eyes met again.

"Oh, honey let's not worry about that now, but even if it does you'll still be the same beautiful girl everyone here loves, trust me." She smiled down at her comfortingly. "It's all going to be okay."

She rubbed Peyton's arm and stood up to put in the next needle. Peyton closed her eyes and leaned her head back, she was no longer the same girl who'd come in just weeks before. Replacing the clear, tan face was pale skin, tired eyes and sunken cheeks. Where once were the lightly defined muscles of a runner were now her weak, fragile arms.

She finished the last needle and stood back up to start the session. "Are you ready Peyton?"

"Bring on the poison, baby." She said.

The next day at lunch Peyton sat alone. She was listening to music, racing through her homework and occasionally taking sips from her water. She looked up to see her best friend Cara staring down at her.

"Where have you been lately, Pey?" Cara asked, the pain clear in her eyes. "I've really missed you, did I do something?" She set her tray down next to Peyton's and pulled out the chair across from her. She was waiting for a response and anyone could see that she wasn't going anywhere.

"No, you didn't do anything, really. I'm just so busy lately." Peyton's eyes had long since been settled on her uneaten food and she closed her text book quietly sliding it out of the way and replacing it with the tray. She picked up her fork and plunged it sharply into the nearest pineapple chunk. She popped it into her mouth and dropped her fork back onto the table.

"Why can't you talk to me anymore? You can trust me with anything, I hope you know that. We've been best friends since third grade and now you can't even look at me." Cara's eyes filled with tears and she tried quickly to stop them from pouring out like they had so many times before when she was all alone in her bedroom.

Their eyes met for the first time in almost two months and it was hard to hold back the tears any longer, they'd been strong for far too long. Peyton held hers back for as long as she possibly could then stood up. "I have to go." She couldn't stay there. She couldn't risk telling Cara now, not when she needed her the most to stay strong for her. She carried her tray to the trash can and hurried into the bathroom. Finally locked in the empty stall and completely alone again, she let herself cry.

With the day finally behind her Peyton drove straight home after school was out. "Peyton, you're home! How was your day, sweetie?" Her mom ran to her and pulled her in to her arms. She'd been doing this ever since the doctors called to give her the news. Watching her own mother begin to treat her differently was the base reason behind her disease's secrecy.

Peyton had allowed her to tell her dad, but no one else. No aunts, no uncles, no grandparents. Not even her sister was told, the cancer would be hidden from her for as long as it possibly could be, and that's just how Peyton had wanted things. She now enjoyed the constant fights and the wrestling that happened often at home. It made her feel normal again.

"It was good Mom. Where's Haley?" Peyton reached for the box of cereal on the second shelf cupboard and poured herself a bowl.

"Your sister called to tell me she'd be staying after school to study and when I asked her who with she said 'No one, Mom' like I was born yesterday!" Her mom answered laughing to herself. "Looks like our little Haley's growing up."

Peyton smiled as she walked up the stairs to her room, "I'll find out who it is and invite him to a nice 'welcome to the family' dinner party very soon."

Her mother smiled at hearing the familiar teasing tone again, she'd been missing it for a while now. She thought to herself that maybe things would be okay after all.

Later that night with Haley sitting anxiously on her bed, Peyton sat looking into the mirror taking out her earrings. She reached for the hairbrush just as Haley started into her story about Jason Taylor, senior captain of the football team.

"He's so funny and so cute! He really likes me, Pey. He asked me to go to Prom with him next month so we can be in the same group if you want! His older brother Lucas has liked you for a long time. He always talks about you. Do you want me to tell him you'll go with him?" Her face was absolutely glowing and she was happier now than Peyton had ever remembered seeing her before.

As Haley sat waiting for Peyton's reaction she watched her slowly run the brush over her always perfect hair. She watched her strong sister's gorgeous face fall and she didn't understand. On the brush where the usual few strands of blonde hair always stayed was now piece upon piece of the soft, envied hair.

"Peyton, your hair!" She stood up quickly and ran over to the mirror where she sat silently. "What's wrong? Why is it falling out? Peyton-"

"Haley it's fine. Go get Mom for me." Peyton's blue eyes showed no signs of panic or fear, they were unbelievably calm and Haley let herself buy into their comforting state of visible bliss, without thinking twice about questioning them.

The next day Peyton and Haley walked through the school doors hand-in-hand both wearing matching head scarves. Wisps of blonde curly hair came from the edges of Haley's while the bare skin showed on Peyton's forehead. People stared but Peyton's perfect smile was all the dropped jaws got in return. Walking together, heads held high, not even cancer could stop them.

A month later, in the same scarves, the sisters stood on the last stair step posing for their parents' anxious cameras in the arms of their dates. The door bell rang and standing on the other side was Cara with her hair pulled back softly, her pretty smile painted a dark red with yellow flowers in her hand.

"Peyton..." Tears rolled over both Peyton and Cara's faces as they fell into each other's arms. With makeup running and eyes puffy Haley grabbed the camera from her dad's hands and took the greatly overdue picture.

"No more secrets, I promise." Peyton wiped her face as they got up. They stood together, posed for one more picture, smiled and headed out the door. Her parents watched as their strong, beautiful daughters walked side by side out into the world. Through cancer, love, and friendship they were completely, unbelievably fearless.

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