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cover art by the lovely and talented lilamadison11

****cover art by the lovely and talented lilamadison11****

THREAD ONE

Logan banged my worst enemy to punish me, because he felt unloved, and I’m the one who can’t sleep at night. The life of Veronica Mars: seldom fair.

I lie on my twin-sized water bed in my shitty apartment, a bath-needing pit bull grunting beside me, and I clutch Lilly’s necklace, and I cry. The phone rang a few minutes ago, Logan’s left a message, but I can’t talk to him right now. I don’t have the bandwidth to spew, or listen to, bile.

I felt crazy, earlier, ranting that I’d never get past this, watching his face crumble above his half-knotted tie. Like everyone’s gonna think I’M the harpy, the caustic, intolerant, unreasonable bitch. It’s a broad joke Friends spent a season retelling: We were on a break!

Four out of five acquaintances agree: I’m psycho, he was a free agent.

They don’t know it’s his pattern…flip the bird to rejection, by hitting back where it hurts. Kiss Yolanda to torture Lilly, who fumed when minions disobeyed. Shun me, shun Caitlin, when we prove disloyal, because we crave the safety of popularity. Fuck Kendall in the room next to Duncan’s, make me listen, unsatisfied, to her moans. Fuck her again the night I need space, to process his claims of epic love. Hell, I should probably brace myself: he’s likely planning my next punishment while I lie here, pining. It’s gonna be a challenge, drawing blood this time, because the only female friend I still have is Mac. But I’m sure he’ll find some way to score and flaunt it, right in my sightline. Some way that really, really wounds.

“Did you turn him into this, Lilly?” I ask the ceiling. “Did you teach him, by example, to go straight for the throat? Was it Aaron, modeling cruelty? Is it innate? Because he’s got me doing it too, now, and I can’t seem to stop. I just keep ripping and ripping, until there’s nothing left but bones.”

I get up and slam into the bathroom. Dig through the medicine cabinet for the sticky green bottle of Nyquil. Take a couple healthy slugs, because I’m sick of my own thoughts.

I lie back down and try to make my mind blank. In my bag, the phone rings again: I ignore it. After a long swath of time, the world goes hazy, and my thoughts lose coherence. I wish I could unlearn that particular lesson, I muse, drifting towards blackness. I wish Logan and I could start again.

THREAD ONE INVERTS

The crack of knuckles against my door jerks me awake. “Breakfast, honey!” dad yells, to punctuate. “Up and at ‘em! I’ve got paperwork to do, and bad guys to collar!”

I sit up, knuckling my eyes and yawning, struggling for consciousness. I pry one sticky lid open, and that works out OK, so I try the other.

Spread in front of me, pristine in its dry cleaner wrapping, is the pink Jessica McClintock I wore to Sophomore Homecoming. It’s draped across the white desk chair, before the photo-strewn desk, in my barely-09’er childhood bedroom. This is the house we sold, after my mom took a powder, and my dad lost his job. The dress I burned, a week after Lilly died.

My breath goes, and I realize, I’m dreaming. One of those pastel-tinted Lilly dreams I had so often in high school, that’ve given way to grim nightmares this year. I touch the dress and smile, study the pictures on the desk. Lilly and I, mugging in our pep squad uniforms: Logan, running, with me tucked under his arm like a football. A strip of photo-booth photos, all four of us crammed onto the stool. A curling white Good Citizenship ribbon. I’m still a Good Citizen in this dream. It’s not too late for me.

I fling open my closet, and select from the sea of pinks, lavenders and mint greens I find there. I French Braid my long golden locks, and lace on Keds. I gather up the keys to my Le Baron, and decline breakfast, giving dad a kiss on the cheek as I pass. “Can’t stop to chat!” I tell him, breezy. “You’re not the only one with stuff to do!”

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” he calls after me, but I’m not wasting this dream on pancakes.

Instead of turning right, to head to Neptune High and first period, I turn left, towards the mall. If I’m rewriting history, the first thing to go is that insipid Jessica McClintock. I’ll be rocking THIS limo party in strapless red satin. Second time around, I’ll make Lilly proud.

My savings buy me one aptly-named Miracle Bra that gives me cleavage, and matching lace panties. Four-inch heels, which raise me to the height of a normal person. A tube of blood-red Chanel lipstick that evokes Rita Hayworth, and hot rollers, for Veronica Lake waves. Also, a crimson Jessica Rabbit dress, slit to mid-thigh, which shimmers like gemstones in the lamplight.

My dad raises his eyebrows, whistles, and says, “Oh, you doll!” when I emerge that evening from my lair. My mom giggles, “Hubba hubba!” and takes 800 photos. Duncan literally gobbles like a turkey, when he knocks to pick me up: he’s distracted the whole time we’re posing for mom, his hand in mine clammy.

And Logan drops his handheld DS on the floor, and stares, mouth open, when I sashay into the Kane house. “Holy shit, Mars!” he says, the corner of his mouth curling as he shakes his head. “How did Duncan drive you all the way back here, with his brains leaking out his ears?”

I blow to shift the wave of hair hanging over my eye, grin at him. He grins back, the slow appreciative smile MY Logan gets, right before I get laid (which I’ve never seen directed at me, by this one).

He poses, when I whip out my camera to document the moment, while Duncan paces, lost in thought. But instead of clowning and showing his guns, the way he did in my memories, he keeps his hands in his pockets, and watches me. Pinning me with his knowing, coaxing, dark-brown gaze. Making it impossible to look away.

I shrink back into the shadows during Lilly’s grand entrance, smiling at the way she glows, golden with youth and health and beauty. She’s more arresting, somehow, than the average person: her vivid star power the perfect complement to Logan’s stealthy, fatal glamour. It’s incredible to me that someone as vital as her could ever die. She’s like a conscious flame.

Logan moves forward to kiss her, but she’s spotted me. Her face fills with delight, and she pecks him coyly and disengages, making a beeline. “Ooh la la, Veronica Mars!” she says, hugging me close, shimmying against me. “You’ve embraced your destiny! Lilly ALWAYS knows best!”

Celeste rolls her eyes and Duncan groans, and Logan spreads his big hand across my whole abdomen to draw me in, when we huddle for group pictures.

Four glorious hours of three-way-flirting later, Lilly and I sit on the beach in our sand-spattered finery, a bottle of champagne between us, and watch the boys splash around. Their tuxes lie discarded on the ground and they’re barely visible at the sightline, two wet heads bobbing up through the waves.

“If they crack their drunken skulls on a rock and wash up dead onshore, I’m saying I told you so,” she announces, taking a swig.

“I’m sure they’ll be sorry,” I agree. And then I ask her the thing I didn’t, when she was alive. The thing I always regretted letting slide. “So Lils, what DID you mean, back when we were telling all our deep, dark secrets? I have never not had sex?”

She huffs a laugh, shoots me a wry look out of big blue Bette Davis eyes. “Logan will be pissed. He did such a masterful job of distracting you, after I let slip.”

“By making me admit my boyfriend isn’t hot for me? Presumably, because Duncan’s a creeper? I find that disturbingly easy to believe, by the way. Why IS my boyfriend a creeper?”

“For the same reason I’ve never not had sex. Uncle Bob.” Off my questioning look, she elaborates, “Celeste’s brother. Starting when I was eight. She eventually figured it out and chased him away, but of course no charges were filed. Can’t have a sordid scandal scotching her precious’s path to the White House.” She makes a face. “And thus the family patterns were born. I act out, Celeste shuts down, Duncan disappears into his own disturbing imagination….and Jake drifts quietly away, wrapped in some floozy’s arms.”

“And Logan protects you, so it doesn’t happen again,” I realize, returning my gaze to the boys in the water. I put my arm around her shoulder, and squeeze, just to let her know I care. Because no way does she want my pity.

“We protect each other,” she shrugs, squeezing back, resting her head on my shoulder. “Or try. He keeps my secrets, I keep his. I’m not sure we even love each other, so much as we recognize our own kind. And know how to tiptoe around the damage, so we feel functional and real.”

I stay silent, staring out at the water, and she says, “You’re not going to ask?”

I shake my head. “Someday he’ll tell me himself.”

She laughs. “Veronica Mars, red satin has CHANGED you! But how much, is my question?”

“Meaning?” I quirk an eyebrow, swigging from the bottle.

She smiles just with her eyes, in that ‘I dare you’ way she does, stands, and unhooks her dress. She shimmies it off and goes running for the water, tossing a laughing glance and her panties behind her. Her approach is heralded by Logan’s whoops and Duncan’s “OH my God!” and I giggle, because this dream feels so real.

I get up too, take my gown off, and lay it carefully across the rocks. I remove my fancy matched lingerie, and I walk across the beach to join them.

The Pacific Ocean is cold, and Lilly’s a diva. So she rubs against Logan, kisses me lingeringly on the cheek (to Logan’s obvious delight): she rolls her eyes at Duncan, as he swims back to shore, and strides, boxer-clad, away: and then she’s gone, a blur of bouncing flesh and compact limbs, towards her sand-covered dress, and the climate-controlled limo. Logan’s floating on his back, gazing up at the stars. He seems peaceful, the way he always is when he swims. I watch him for a moment, and then I move to join her, digging my toes into the still-warm sand, collecting my dress from the rock.

“Ronica!” Logan calls, and I turn to face him, clutching satin to my chest.

He comes sauntering out of the sea, Surfer King of Neptune High, full-frontal and unembarrassed, because frankly, he has no reason to be. A bolt of longing shoots through me, as I stare: not so much for THIS Logan (who, although seriously UNF, is still mostly chubby cheeks, smarm and clowning, to distract from his wounded eyes). But for MY Logan. The one who aimed an empty gun at Fitzpatricks to save me, who told me our love was epic. Who says things like, “You know I only want you, Mars”, and brings me espresso in bed.

He smiles that smile, just one corner of his mouth crooking, and approaches, long sure strides across the sand. He bends down, not touching, breath hot on my ear. “That’s one more drink you’ll have to take, next time,” he tells me. Then he wrestles his pants on, winks back over his shoulder, and walks away.

The night ticks down, all warm, drowsy pleasure, and then, abruptly, it’s done. Lilly and Duncan slink into their house, under the weight of Celeste’s glare, and my dad announces, “Logan’s coming home with us. We couldn’t reach his parents this morning, and he’s in no shape to drive.”

Logan gets a look on his face like he’s about to say, “Gee, Mr. Mars, I didn’t know you cared,” and I put a hand on his arm, and shake my head. He rolls his eyes, but lets me shove him into the back seat, climb in beside him.

“You can wear the Padres jammies I got my dad for Christmas,” I inform him, in a whisper. “And I’ll take your dad’s tux to be dry-cleaned, while you sleep off all the booze.”

He looks at me then—really LOOKS at me, intense, startled, wary. I shrug, faking nonchalance. “Duncan spilled champagne all over you because I distracted him. It’s the least I can do.”

Logan’s hand comes down over mine, where it curls against my thigh, squeezes. I twine my fingers with his, and rest my head on his shoulder, drifting towards sleep. My dad’s eyes meet mine, in the rearview mirror, and I smile.

THREAD TWO

I wake the next morning in my waterbed, with Backup panting in my face: the dream lingers in my memory, like an echo of song. I don’t feel angry, anymore. I feel….wistful.

I dig through my bag, on the floor by my bed, pull out my phone. I listen to Logan’s drunken message, once because I owe it to the boy who held my hand, and five more times, because I love the boy who left it. I press save, because as much as I hate his burgeoning alcoholism, he makes a hell of a drunken speech.

Maybe he really does love me, truly is sorry. Maybe this time he’ll wait for me to calm down and forgive, instead of finding the girl who hurts the worst, and using her to make me pay.

I don’t tell Dick what happened in Aspen, the next time we cross paths. I figure Logan needs at least one steadfast friend.

When I see him with the little girl in the elevator, her so manically cheerful, him so wrecked? And she mentions the musical travesty she radio-dedicated to me, like it’s 1982? I say, “Thank you. That was a nice gesture.” And I smile at her, and so does he, and then he turns his smile on me.

That night, I get an email from him, no subject, one line. “I would have picked Sway.”

I think for a minute, and write back, “Me too.”

When Logan visits me in jail, after the Peanut Butter Cookie Fiasco, I pose for his photo. And when he goes to leave, I call out, “Hey!”

He spins, still doing Smirk 2.0, which is about ten times less brutal than the old-school version. “Thanks,” I say. “For caring enough to show up here, and offer help. Not many people like me that much. It means a lot.”

“No problem,” he says, and the smirk turns tender. “I’ll be back later with the dynamite and the getaway van. Try not to sing like a canary, meanwhile.” He doffs an imaginary hat to me, and saunters down the hall.

“They’ll never break me!” I shout, as I sink against the bars. “I’m red satin to the bone!”

“I remember!” He calls back. I wonder when he spotted me, the night of Junior Prom.

My dad shows up a half hour later to spring me. Logan’s paid my bail.

I try to call him that night, to express my gratitude, but he’s busy, or screening. I listen to his inspirational voicemail (“Life is hard: it’s harder when you’re stupid.”) shake my head, and hang up before the beep. Yeah, it’s come to this: chastised for my sins by a recording of Logan Echolls.

Red Satin Veronica wouldn’t give up so easily, I muse, as I drift off to sleep. If she had something to tell him, she’d do it to his face.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWO INVERTS

I dream I’m at the old Echolls place, the one that burned. I walk up and up the curving staircase, and Duncan follows, obedient as a well-trained pet. With a semester of Abnormal Psych under my belt, I can tell his disconnection’s not just pensive, Jake Ryan brooding: it’s Thorazine. Because there IS no medication that causes hallucination when you stop taking it, except for medicine designed to SUPPRESS hallucination. Type 4 Epilepsy, my ass. Duncan’s been having psychotic breaks.

We squeeze onto the sectional where Logan’s holding court, Yolanda perched on his chair arm like a gangster-movie gun moll. It didn’t occur to me, the first time I lived this, that they might have already slept together: I took their mutual, “Just a kiss! Not my fault!” at face value. But her pose is possessive, while his is indifferent, so it occurs to me now.

Logan passes us shots, mid-Tarantinoesque-rant, but looks surprised when I actually drink mine. Grinning, he hands me another, and I swallow that, too. Duncan frowns at me and shakes his head, and I make Logan snicker by rolling my eyes. Duncan has one drink and no more, I notice. Which is what he always does. I wonder if alcohol interferes with his meds.

When the clock strikes 11, Duncan tries to hustle me out, reminding me of homecoming like it’s my spur to never sin again. I watch Yolanda flirting, and Logan imbibing steadily while he smirks at me, and remember how good sin felt. How Logan rose naked from the ocean, whispered hot in my ear: how he snored on my couch in too-short Padres pants, and smiled when I brushed back his hair. How he mocked me over Bisquick pancakes, because I drown my bacon in syrup.

“I’m staying,” I tell Duncan, because I’m red satin this time, and I do what I want. “You go on, pacify Celeste. I’ll call a cab, when I’m ready to leave.”

He tries to argue with me, but Logan slides over another shot (half-full this time, because he’s Mr. Protective), and I take it. Finally, Duncan stands. “Walk me out?” he asks, extending a hand.

I sigh. I know what will happen when I turn my back: and I’m not prepared to watch Logan take the revenge on Lilly I’m dreading in my waking life. So I let Duncan draw me toward the stairs, out of hearing range but still in view, and then I dig in my heels.

“I really don’t think…” he starts, and I cut him off with a wave of my hand.

“You know what, Duncan? This…us…isn’t working for me anymore. I’m not as nice as I seem, and I doubt you want the person hiding under the blonde. You should ask out Meg Manning instead. Celeste would be thrilled, and Meg really IS Cinderella, inside.”

“You’re drunk,” he says flatly. Not taking me seriously, because he never does. I pat him on the cheek, figuring he’ll realize the truth soon enough.

“I promise not to stay long,” I tell him. “I just have this one thing I need to do.”

He shakes his head, kisses my hair, and I head back to the couch. Logan is watching me, slouched way down in his chair, sipping Tequila like he can actually stomach the taste.

“Trouble in Paradise?” Yolanda asks, and I pour myself one more drink, although my head is spinning.

I fix her with my best Bad Cop stare. “Just a friendly warning, Yo. Lilly didn’t actually mean it, when she said you could have her man. And if she catches you two sneaking around together, Mary Sunshine over there will throw you under the bus. Any move he’s made was about revenge, not real interest, which frankly, I’m surprised you don’t get. You seem like a girl who’s clear on her own worth.”

She turns towards Logan, who raises his eyebrows. “You here as a spy, Mars? Currying a little favor with Lils, at our expense?”

I shake my head. “If you were my opponents, I wouldn’t interfere while you made a mistake. This is sound advice, which I save for my friends.”

I toast them with my last drink, drain it. Head back to the game room to call my cab, mission complete.

I hear the door shut as I pick up the phone: turn to see Logan by the lintel, twisting the lock.

“So what was that with Duncan, earlier?” he asks, because he always attacks obliquely. He slouches, distracting, against the doorframe.

“Oh, I dumped him,” I say, putting the handset down.

“You WHAT?” He laughs, shaking his head as if to clear it. “You dumped DUNCAN?”

“He’s creepy, Logan. You told me so yourself. I used to think he was dreamy and deep, but lately his vacant stare squicks me. Plus he doesn’t get turned on, when we’re fooling around. He can never keep an erection. I thought at first he might be gay, but maybe he just loses steam when someone’s watching? Regardless, I’m not hiding my nature anymore, and he doesn’t seem to LIKE the real me. I think I might actually frighten him.”

“OK, what the hell is going on with you, Mars? Not that it’s not strangely hot, but first the thing with the tuxedo, and then saving Yolanda from Lilly’s wrath—she chewed me out and left, by the way—and now you’re dumping Prince Charming, without shedding ONE TEAR?” He gestures at me, up and down, taking in my black halter dress and hoop earrings, and general non-pinkness. “Has there been a body snatching? Did you short-circuit the Stepford wife? Are you the evil twin?”

I laugh, just drunk enough to feel relaxed and open. “Lilly told me I was red satin, not yellow cotton, the day before Prom. And I realized she was right. So I thought about what ‘red satin’ means: and I decided it’s showing people who I am, doing what I want, and not pretending I’m Marcia Brady. Also, being a true friend to those who deserve it. As opposed to treating you guys like characters in a movie, here to provide my happy ending.”

“And I’m on this list?” he asks, standing up straight. “Of people who deserve friendship? Even though you just caught me messing around? I was sure you’d choose Lilly and Duncan over me, if she and I ever really split. I figured I’d lose you all.”

“Logan,” I tell him, softly, “I DIDN’T catch you. The only thing I saw was you and Yolanda sitting on the same chair, which is what I will say, if asked. And you will ALWAYS be my favorite jackass. Right on par with Lilly, who’s been driving me crazy lately, making passes.”

He fakes a frown. “Whoa, there, don’t go killing my dreams, Rons. Your imaginary pep-squad-uniform pillow fights are the duct tape that holds me together.”

I grin. “Sorry. I love her dearly, but not that way.”

A smug smile creeps across his face, and I wonder if the crush I’ve harbored on him since age 12 has ever really been secret. “So no eye-for-an-eye with Lilly, that’s your advice,” he says, as if confirming. He sidles a bit closer. “She fucks everybody I love, and everybody I hate, and I just take it, like a bitch?”

“You tell her you can’t handle the cheating,” I advise, tilting up my chin to maintain eye contact. “You break things off with her, if that’s what feels right. And you have sex with people you genuinely like, who like you back, the way normal guys do, instead of retaliating in kind. You have the right to be respected, and loved, and happy, Logan. Exercise it.”

“Do I?” His eyes follow his finger, tracing the desk’s edge. “Have the right? Honestly? Because, as you pointed out earlier, I’m kind of an asshole.”

“I’d say everyone does, but we both know that’s not true.” I shrug, curve a reassuring palm around his bicep. “People earn good relationships by treating others well. Which you do, when you care. You’ve got a warm heart, despite the smart mouth, and you’re an excellent friend. Any time I’ve needed you, you’ve always been there.”

His hand lifts, like it’s floating up, and he steps still closer to trace my hairline. Tucks a wayward strand behind my ear. It’s a tender gesture, so familiar, and I close my eyes, breathe it in. A shiver moves through me.

“I should get home,” I blurt, wrecking the moment.

“Call your cab,” he says, holding out the handset. “I’ll wait with you by the gate.”

THREAD THREE

The dream-induced goodwill lasts about five hours, this time: until I head into the cafeteria for a late lunch/ caffeine injection, and spot Logan chatting up Parker over tea. I can’t hear them, from where I’ m standing. But he’s making the especially-adorable faces he saves for attempts to score, and she’s lapping it up, dreamy-eyed. I remember, then, that the moment of connection and forgiveness we shared last night was an illusion. A fantasy. THIS is the reality about to punch me in the face. This is what Actual Logan thinks I deserve, for my sins.

So when Parker approaches me at the help desk, decked nervously out in ‘I want Logan’ red, I know what’s coming. I am a million percent not interested in having this conversation: my eyes narrow. Four days, it took her, to succumb to the guy I’ve wanted since tweenhood. Four days, to like him better than me, when I risked my LIFE to track her rapist down. The crap she spouts about ‘keeping my friendship’ is no doubt sincere, but it makes my fists clench until I bruise my palms. Because a true friend would steer clear. Mac would never, in a million years. Lilly would never, and would cut the bitch who tried.

So when she asks if I have a problem with her dating Logan, I mentally don red satin, and I say yes.

“Look, Parker,” is what actually comes out of my mouth. “I don’t control Logan, or you. You’re both single, and thus free to do what you want. But if you’re asking whether I’m COOL with you seeing the guy I love? The guy I dumped two weeks ago, and not because I stopped caring? That would be a big, fat, gigantic no. If you want to be his rebound, I can’t, technically, stop you. But I won’t pretend that I’m not angry. And…hurt. Wow, it’s such a relief to SAY that, out loud! Who knew? Veronica Mars actually has FEELINGS!”

I put up the ‘desk closed’ sign and stride off, because, let’s face it, I shut her down. I go back to the food court, buy a pint of ice cream, and snarf every fudgy, delicious bite.

XXXXX

“Mars!” Logan calls, two days later, as I’m headed into the government building. I raise my eyes to the heavens, because this is Conversations I So Don’t Need, Part Two. I have to go make nice with creepy TA Tim, who frankly, reminds me of Lucky the Janitor: and if Logan says the word ‘Parker’ to me, I’m likely to fucking lose it.

Which he knows. But it’s been weeks since he got laid, so I guess he doesn’t care.

“Listen,” he says, falling in step with me in that effortless way he does, “I feel like I owe you an apology.”

Okay, not what I was expecting. “For?” I ask.

He looks down, rubbing the back of his neck, and I cross my arms and tap my foot. “For what, Logan? Spit it out, I’m on a schedule.”

“For Parker. Mac told me what she said to you, and I….look, I just want you to know, we’re not dating. We’ve all been hanging out some, Mac and Parker and Bronson and I, since that Valentine’s thing, and I’ve been extra nice to Parker, so she gets her confidence back. And I think she…misinterpreted.”

“Misinterpreted,” I repeat, face like stone. “Does she realize that?”

“I talked to her this morning. And I know you’re probably not feeling forgiving, but she’s sorry for upsetting you.”

“OK,” I say, slowly. “OK, thanks for explaining. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with Madison, part II. I’m a bit overextended, at the moment.”

“Madison?” His brow wrinkles, and he seems genuinely confused. “Do you mean Sharon?”

“Do I mean who?” I ask, blankly.

“The um….the girl I started casually seeing, over winter break? The one you went ballistic about, even though I dumped her the day you came back? The reason you kicked me to the curb, and stopped returning my calls? You thought her name was Madison?”

“Yeah,” I say, because one of us has suddenly turned crazier than Duncan. “I thought her name was Madison Sinclair. Because she told me herself that she slept with you in Aspen, when I ran into her at a lingerie shop.”

His jaw drops. “You thought I’d scam my BEST FRIEND’S caustic, social-climbing ex? ME? I know I’m not the player I used to be, Veronica, but I’ve got more game than THAT. Jesus, I don’t know what Madison’s damage is, but she told you a full-on lie.

“No, the only girl I got near was Sharon, the massage therapist from Encinitas. You’ve never met. Ronica’s Rules #431, remember? Rebounds are about helping me feel better, not hurting you?”

“Hence the apology,” I say, voice faint. “For Parker.”

“You’re not mad that I’m hanging with Mac, right?” he asks, hesitant. “Obviously, it’s platonic on both sides. And not the kind of platonic you and I were, sophomore year.” He smirks, and full-on laughs when I punch his arm. “We have a website together. It’s actually making money.”

“No,” I say. “I’m not mad.”

“Veronica.” His voice turns serious. “Tell the truth. Did you ditch me and storm off because I was dating? Or because you thought I was dating Madison?”

“Madison,” I whisper. “Because that would be a vindictive strike, designed to cause maximum pain.”

“Veronica, I can honestly say screwing Madison would hurt me more than you. For one thing, I’d have to cede the moral high ground to Dick.” He stares at me for a minute, assessing. “Look…Mac said Parker said….when you were arguing, you told her you still love me. And that you didn’t really want to break up, which is such a huge…”

I throw my arms around him and press my face to his chest, and I’m not sure which of us is more surprised. “Hey, hey…” he soothes, resting a palm in the small of my back, reaching up to stroke my hair. “Hey, it’s OK, I get why you freaked. I’d feel the same way, if I heard you’d boned Weevil.”

“Are you dating anyone now?” I manage.

“Well, there’s this one girl I really like. Short, blonde, smells of marshmallows and…mmpf.”

I kiss him to shut him up, and he fists my hair in one hand, and the hem of my shirt in the other. He picks me up, spins me out of the flow of traffic, and when we break apart, we’re both panting.

“I love you, too,” he says, cupping the whole side of my head with his giant hand. “Never leave me again.”

“I’m supposed to be meeting my asshole TA right now,” I tell him, in a watery voice. “He smells like he rolled in Drakkar Noir, and creepily resembles School Shooter Lucky.”

Logan winces. “Want company?”

I hold out my hand, and he takes it. We walk into the room together.

Logan looms behind me with a smirk on his face, the whole time Tim lays on smarm. We work well as a team, Logan and I, because he’s comfortable being the muscle.

Chapter Text

THREAD THREE INVERTS

“Earth to Mars,” Lilly says, and I startle into a dream that’s maybe not one, after all. Five minutes ago, I was pasted up against Logan, watching him snore under the blue glow of the fish sculpture. Now I’m in Lilly’s SUV in my pep squad uniform, and I have a Very Bad Feeling.

“Smile, Ronica, for God’s sake! Tie a knot in your t-shirt. No middle-aged perverts are gonna pay you to wash their cars if you’re not looking hot and cheerful!”

Speaking of middle-aged perverts, I think, but she pulls into the designated lot, and private time is over. “Maybe I’ll spray you with the hose,” she warns, eyes widening flirtatiously, and I follow her out the door.

I’m so busy watching for Logan’s XTerra, in order to provide his alibi, that I almost miss it when she sidles up and whispers, “I’ve got a secret.”

“I know you do,” I snap, without thinking. I turn to find her eyes as big as plums. “You’re not that good at being sneaky. And it ends today, because I love you, and I don’t want you dead.”

The big eyes narrow. “OK, just what do you THINK you know?”

I lean in close. “I know Aaron is a violent psychopath. I know he’s been abusing his family for years. I know he has a thing for underage girls. And I know how you like to punish Logan, when he pisses you off. I don’t judge your sex life, Lilly, I never did, but Aaron will murder you if you smile wrong.”

She rolls her eyes. “You’ve definitely been hanging around Logan too much. His drama queen tendencies are wearing off.”

Across the parking lot, I see the XTerra pull up beside Lilly’s car. “So you’re not going to listen to reason, then? Fine, plan B.”

I grab her hand and drag her towards the yellow beast, while Logan watches, wide-eyed, through the window. “Oh, no,” she says, and digs in her heels. But I put every muscle I have to work, and shove her into the back seat. Logan obligingly engages the child safety locks, and rolls his window down.

“You’re just the guy I wanted to see,” I tell his tear-stained, hungover face. “Open the passenger door, when I come around.”

“Is this a kidnapping?” he asks with raised eyebrows, leaning across to help me up. He blocks Lilly’s lunge with his arm.

“It’s a rescue,” I tell him, buckling in. “Is anybody at your place right now?”

“Nope. Dad’s in London, doing voice-overs, and Mom’s at a Scottsdale spa. God knows where Trina’s been, the last six months. Some crack den, probably.”

“Perfect,” I say. “Drive to my house. And you two don’t kill each other, while I make this call.”

“Sweetheart!” my dad crows, when he picks up the phone. “To what do I owe…”

I cut him off. “You trust me, right, dad?” I don’t wait for him to answer. “Of course you do, so trust that I’m sure about this. Get a warrant for felony crimes against minors, go to the Echolls’ pool house, and look in the secret cabinet behind the bookshelf. Also in the ceiling fan. Nobody’s home except the maid. I’ve got Logan and Lilly with me, and we’re headed to our place right now, to hang with mom.”

“Veronica, what the HECK is going on?”

“Dad, I’m dead serious. Logan and Lilly are in danger. In fact, you should send a uniform to sit in our driveway while you take care of this, in case Aaron hops on a plane today. And call me back, as soon as you’re done.” I hang up, before he can argue more, and switch my phone off.

“What the hell, Veronica?” Lilly yells from the backseat. “What secret cabinet?”

“Has either of you ever had sex in the Echolls’ pool house?” I ask, turning in time to see them look askance at each other. “Then congratulations, you’re a porn star. There’s a camera in the ceiling fan, so Aaron can film his extramarital escapades.”

Logan slams on the brakes, and I put my hand on his arm. “Keep driving,” I say. “Seriously. You need to be at my house or the Kanes’ 24/7, until someone locks Aaron up. I want you both protected, and effectively alibi’d, at all times.”

“Why would we NEED an alibi?” Logan asks, his tone overly reasonable. “If this scenario is true, aren’t we the victims, here?”

“What do you think Aaron would do, if someone threatened to expose him? Say you two were making out in the pool house, and Lilly spotted the camera? Say one of you confronted him about it. You think he’d stay cool and collected? Or would he bash Lilly’s brains in with an ashtray, in a fit of rage, and then leave YOU to take the blame?” My voice is getting higher, shrieky, and I can tell I sound insane. Tears streak down in sheets, unchecked, but I’ve got to make them UNDERSTAND. “You have a documented history of instability and violence, Logan! And Lilly’s not strong enough to fight him. And you two are my BEST FRIENDS in the WHOLE WORLD, and I WON’T LOSE YOU! I can’t!”

Logan pulls the car over slowly to the curb, and I have a moment to notice we’re in front of my house before he draws me close for a hug. Lilly hesitates, then wraps her arms around us both.

“It’s OK, Ronica,” he soothes, voice husky. “It’s OK. We’ll stay right here, won’t we, Lil? Until your dad shows up, with all the answers.”

“Like you could budge me,” Lilly says, pressing a kiss to my hair. “I love you guys, even if one of you is a total dickhead.”

Nine hours of angsting and Cohen-Brothers-marathoning later, Dad finally makes it home. He turns off the TV, sets a dining room chair in front of the couch. He sits in it, looks at the floor, and runs both hands over his scalp.

Then he straightens up to face us, direct and quiet-voiced, and says, “We found the tapes. We’ll need to discuss the contents with each of you separately, once we’ve got appropriate parental permissions. Logan, your mother is on her way back from Arizona, she’ll be here in an hour. Lilly, there’s a car waiting outside for you, whenever you’re ready to go home.”

“Did you catch him?” Logan asks. He’s got one arm around my shoulders, and a hand on Lilly’s side: she’s resting her head on his lap.

Dad sighs. “Logan, Aaron was…not in London, as he claimed. We think he drove past your house during the raid, and guessed what was happening. He then proceeded to the Kane estate.

“Logan, I’m sorry to tell you that your father is dead. And kids…” he presses his lips together. “I’m even more sorry to tell you that Duncan is in custody.”

Lilly sits up so fast her hair smacks Logan in the face. “What, why? What’s wrong with the Donut?”

Dad puts his hand on her shoulder. “Lilly, he’s catatonic and on psychiatric lockdown. I’m so sorry, honey. We have two witnesses who say Aaron and Duncan fought, and Duncan killed Aaron with a glass ashtray.”

THREAD FOUR

I wake suddenly, panting. I’m in a huge bed, in a dark room, alone. But through a crack in the door, I can see the flickering glow of a TV.

I get up, pass the chill of an open window. When I go to close it, I see the beach, night waves foaming on a grey-tinted shore. I’m in a house, then. I pick up a man’s cardigan from a chair in the corner, and put it on. It smells like Logan, musk and salt, cologne and brine, and I relax. Wherever we are, at least we’re both here together.

He’s sprawled on a sage-green couch in his boxers, drinking a beer, watching a commercial about dancing spoons. His hair sticks up in every direction, and I run my hand through it, smoothing. He catches my fingers, brings them to his lips, and I relax even more.

“What are you doing up?” I ask, circumnavigating the couch and sprawling against him. Past the media stand, the giant TV, I can see a rustic dining table under a modern chandelier, a wall of windows with an ocean view. He puts an arm around me and kisses the top of my head, tucking me close.

“It’s on again,” he says, gesturing at the TV with his beer. “Anniversary of his death, and all that. They intersperse showings with a retrospective of his shittiest work.”

“Aaron Echolls: the Untold Story?” I guess, as the TMZ logo scrolls.

“Mmm, currently gracing our screen is “The Life and Death of a Hollywood Hedonist”. It’s a TV movie. Dad is played by Rob Lowe, in brown contacts and a bad wig.”

“Who’d they cast as me?” I ask, taking his beer away and sipping.

He grins down at me. “Hayden Panetierre. And I’m Chad Michael Murray. Lils is Jennifer Love Hewitt in a blonde wig, which pisses her off to no end.”

A phone rings on the side table, and he checks the display. “Speak of the devil…” he says, quirking a brow, and puts it to his ear. “You just getting up, or just going down?”

There’s a high-pitched buzz, and he laughs. “Why, whatever do you mean?” he asks, coyly, and the buzz gets louder. “Yeah, we’re watching it. They just had the scene where mom lays a single flower on her dad’s grave. Because, foreshadowing.”

He listens for a minute. “YES, she’s here.” More buzzing. “Of COURSE she’s here, Lils, she lives here, and it’s three in the morning.” The buzzing escalates in volume, and he covers the phone with his hand. “She wants to come over,” he says, apologetically. I smile and nod, and he looks momentarily taken aback.

“Yeah, it’s cool,” he says, into the phone. “I’ll put pants on, we’ll have a party.” More buzzing. “Lils,” he says, sternly. “Yes, it is still a party. Because I say so. Just get your ass down here, or the show will be over.”

He hangs up and tosses the phone onto the couch, with one of his big, hands-off Logan gestures. “Inappropriate as ever,” he says, sardonically. “Come on, get moving. She’ll be here in five, and you know how she is.”

“Get moving where?” I ask, sleepy, taking another sip of beer.

“Um, to change?” He raises his eyebrows. “You want to just go back to bed? You seem kind of out of it.”

I’m dressing for Lilly? I think, but keep quiet. Because apparently I know how she is, and how she is requires clothes. So I follow him into the bedroom, where he flings open the enormous closet with a theatrical spreading of arms. I stare at the forest of fabric, his stuff on one side, mine on the other: at the walnut shelving and the embroidered bench, and the endcap wall of mirrors: and I am momentarily taken aback. I must have 30 pairs of jeans.

He strips off his boxers, tosses them half-assedly towards a hamper, and I get my first good view of (imaginary?) Logan’s body. He’s all muscles, in this slice of space/time, and I want to lick every inch. He catches me staring and winks, warning “Five minutes…” in a sing-song tone. I smile, and go searching for panties.

“Wear these,” he says, coming up behind me, extracting something black and silky from a drawer. He curves his whole nude form around me, divesting me of my pajamas, his voice a hot murmur in my ear. “These, and no bra, and those jeans I like with the hole, right here.”

He caresses the crease just below my left ass cheek, and I smack his hand away. “Five minutes is not enough time,” I say, in a mock-stern voice, and he kisses me full-on, sliding a hand between my legs. He circles my clit with his thumb, and I moan, and suddenly I’m up on the dresser and he’s sliding inside: so hot and tight, no condom, I must be on the pill. He keeps his thumb on my clit as he fucks me, devastatingly slow and deep, sucking at my throat and ear. I dig my heels into his ass and my nails into his biceps, my moans escalating in volume…and then I’m coming, and he’s slamming me. He lets out a chesty groan and spills, sticky and warm.

He checks a pretend watch, and says, “Three minutes, new record.” I curl my fingers into his hair, kiss him with everything I’ve got.

“I love you,” I say, and he smiles his most beautiful smile at me. And the doorbell rings.

“Fuck,” he mutters, yanking a pair of jeans down at random, climbing inside. He finds a t-shirt, jerks it on backwards, brushes at his hair with one hand, then gives it up for lost. “You wash off, I’ll stall,” he says, laying a peck on my lips. “Jesus, you’re gorgeous.” He palms my breast, nips at my neck, and then he’s gone, and I’m sitting in the world’s most expensive closet, messy and spent.

I hunt through the jeans until I find his favorites, select a red t-shirt to go with. I carry them into the bathroom, turn on the two-person rainwater shower, and soap myself with some liquid that smells like coconut. I know I should be worried about whatever’s happening to me, which (if any) of these realities is real: but the only thought I can focus on is, I could get used to this. My hand lingers between my legs, testing the pleasant soreness. Then I remember Lils, who’s in college while not dead, and I rush to dry off and dress.

I smile at the sight of them, side by side on the couch, throwing popcorn at each other and laughing. I saved her, I think, my throat swelling with emotion. I don’t know how this is happening, but somehow I saved them both.

“Can we restrict the food fights to the kitchen?” I ask, mock-accusing, as I circle around. I grin, and Logan looks contrite, but Lilly’s eyes narrow.

“What the hell are you doing?” she demands, and she doesn’t sound friendly.

“Telling you not to make a mess in my living room?” I take a physical step back from her venom.

“I know what you said, moron,” she informs me. “And I know you’re Logan’s latest take-home stray. What I’m ASKING is, what the hell are you doing WALKING OUT OF HIS ROOM?”

I glance at Logan for guidance, and he shuts his eyes, as if in pain. “Lils…” he says, rubbing at the crease between his brows, and somehow, that’s the substance of a full confession.

“You are SCREWING HER!” She jumps off the couch, and points an accusing finger. “Little Miss Trailer Trash Mars, the swim team’s favorite plaything. I knew you had a soft spot for her, even after she BETRAYED US ALL, but I never thought you’d stoop so low as to actually stick your dick in!”

“EXCUSE me?” I demand, losing my temper, and Logan jumps between us, as if anticipating a catfight.

“Lilly, we’ve been living together for a year,” he says, reasonably, and the sick feeling in my stomach relaxes. “What did you think it meant?”

“What you TOLD me it meant,” she hisses, dangerous. “Platonic. Roommates. One of whom has all the money, and one of whom is Oliver Twist. This is…this is…” she gestures up and down with her hand to encompass us both. “Logan. EW!”

“Lils,” Logan tries, still sounding reasonable, but also tired. “Sweetheart. Light of my life and bestest, bestest friend. You know I would do virtually anything to make you happy. But if you think I’m dumping my fiancée just because you don’t like her, you are batshit nuts.”

Wait, what?

“And also, you do not get to insult her in her own home. We have been over this. When you’re at Madison’s, sure. When you’re at Dick’s, knock yourself out. But this house is an 09’er asshole-free zone. Here, Ronica is safe. Are we clear?”

“You’re MARRYING Veronica Mars,” she says, flatly.

“With bells on,” he agrees, holding out a hand for me. I take it, but this is all going a little fast. I’m not even 20, and we just reunited today.

“I hope you demand a good prenup.” Her voice is cold. “She only wants your money. And once she gets it, she’ll fuck your world, just like she fucked Duncan’s.”

“She can have my money,” Logan says, calm. “She gave me freedom. Aaron hasn’t laid a hand on me in 3 ½ years, and that’s a hundred percent down to her. And you know? He went to YOUR house that night, looking for trouble. If she hadn’t shoved you in my car, and dragged us to a safe zone, who’s to say you wouldn’t be dead instead?”

“Duncan was home.” She tosses her head. “We could have protected each other.”

“Lils, Duncan got the best of Aaron because he went nuts. In his non-berserker state, Duncan is the world’s shittiest fighter. I could take him down without breaking a sweat by the time we were 12.”

“Yeah, well, in my book, Duncan’s the one who gave you freedom, not HER—at the cost of his own, I might add. So you better dial that rhetoric back, and not ONE WORD, when you visit. Because HE WON the fight you spent your whole childhood LOSING.”

“Ok, that’s it,” I say, putting a hand on Logan’s chest, and pushing him gently aside. “You beg to come over to my house in the middle of the night, so you can flirt with my guy and slag me? That’s fine, I’m tough, I can take it. But you start trashing him, and you’re done. We’ve both suffered a lot because we loved you, Lilly. If you can’t be grateful for that, you need to be gone.”

“Whatever. Enjoy your little moment in your Barbie Dream House, Veronica Mars. He’ll get sick of your bitchiness eventually, and come back where he belongs. Won’t you, lover?” She pushes her boobs against him, twists her finger in his shirt. Lets it go, so it bounces back with a snap.

Logan sighs, and tilts his head skyward without answering, and she sashays out the door. “Don’t count on it,” he mutters, as it slams shut.

I crouch down in front of the couch, to pick up the spilled popcorn. “So that went well,” I say brightly. He laughs, and kneels to help me.

“You don’t mind that I told her about the engagement, right?” He does his apologetic wink-squint, looking a little shy. “I know you wanted to keep it secret from the high school crowd, but I felt like she was out of line.”

“My hero,” I purr, and he grins, tossing the last bit of popcorn in his mouth. “Take me to bed, or lose me forever.”

He tilts forward, pressing his shoulder to my belly, and suddenly he’s got me in a fireman’s carry, sprinting across the floor. He tosses me onto the big, soft bed, and climbs atop. Smirks down, with the direct, knowing gaze that will never lose its charm. “Now,” he says, toying with the snap that closes my jeans, “let’s see how well you followed instructions. Maybe you’ll win a prize.”

Chapter Text

THREAD FOUR INVERTS

Sleep follows, boneless, sated sleep, and then I’m pushing through a crowd in a long, white dress. Half-blinded by the glare of fairy lights in the trees, casting streamers across an ink-black sky.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckity fucking fuck. I’m at Shelly Pomroy’s pit-of-Hell, rape-culture-the-cautionary-tale party.

My adrenals go into overdrive, and time slows to a crawl. Flash, there’s drunk!Logan, guffawing by the bar. Flash, there’s Meg Manning, arguing with douchey Cole. Flash, there’s Dick, and Sean, and Luke, and Madison with her stupid bleached hair, primly spitting in a drink.

I clock my speed to reach the cup, just as she holds it out. I watch her press a smile from her lips, as I slide it from her grasp. I toss the contents in the nearest bush, because no one deserves to go through the hell I did. Not even her.

I take a deep breath, feeling jittery. I know it’s gonna be bad here, same as it ever was. I’m sure I’m not welcome, based on the way Lilly just acted in Possible Future Reality. She’s likely around tonight, since she’s not dead, and she’s certainly dating someone: and that someone might be Logan, so his loyalties are uncertain. Which means, step 1 is determine if I have any allies, and step 2 is destroy my enemies’ weapons. I hustle my princess-clad self over to the bar.

Logan makes a face of comical dismay when I approach, and spills his drink down his shirt. “Ronica!” he greets, brushing absently at the wet spot. “Fuck, you can’t be here.” He starts patting at pockets, as if searching for keys. “Seriously, you seriously need to get out of here yesterday. I have a car.”

“I know you brought GHB, Logan,” I say, holding my hand out. “Give it all to me. Now.”

Logan smiles knowingly, causing a weird vertigo flashback to the sex a half- hour prior. “You wanna party, Ronnie?” He bumps me with his hip. “Go to a rave? Dance?”

“I need all the vials, Logan. In my hand. Right this minute.”

“Okay okay okay, Jesus. So bossy! All right, here. But I’m just telling you, I gave most of it away. I’ve got these two, and then Sean, and, and….Luke, and Tad…”

“I know,” I say, patting him. “Now fork over your car keys, you’re wasted. You can have them back when you sober up.”

He relinquishes the ring, and says, earnestly, “Take my truck and leave, Ronnie. Really. Lilly and Dick would like nothing better than to make you sorry. Fuck, get lost NOW, Dick’s looking. I don’t wanna have to hit him again.”

“Thanks,” I tell him, and walk away.

I look down at the vials in my hand, and grit my teeth, remembering the years of shame and pain and rage this shit cost me. I storm into the house, into the bathroom. Fling them down the toilet, violently flush. Three down, one to go, because Sean Friedrich the druggie’s surely taken his.

Lilly moves to block my progress when I emerge. She’s decked out in a hot pink halter top, jean miniskirt and go-go boots, and she looks way too frosted-cupcake to be wearing this murderous expression. “And just who let YOU in the door?” she demands, arms folded.

“Fuck off,” I say, because I have more important things to do tonight than girl-fight. “I’m busy.”

She raises her brows. “Trolling for drunk, desperate rich boys?”

“Why, am I camped out on your corner?”

She laughs like she’s delighted, though clearly not. “Is that the beginning of a spine I see? Why Veronica Mars! You’ve finally stopped cringing when slapped!”

I roll my eyes. “You know, you were a great friend, Lilly, but you are seriously a shitty enemy. You need to go back and re-take Tormenting 101. Maybe keep better notes, this time.”

I push her aside, and she stumbles, because her heels are too high for balance. “You should ask Logan for pointers,” I toss over my shoulder, as I open the French door. “He can eviscerate with a smile better than anyone I know.”

Back out onto the patio, scene from my nightmares. There are the star lights, cheerful and deceptive. There’s the lounge chair. There’s Carmen in the hot tub, and it’s fucking too late, she’s unwrapping the popsicle. I grab her arm to stop her and she looks up, alarmed, like she has no clue who I am.

“Carmen Ruiz, right?” I ask, and she nods, giggling. “Can I talk to you for a sec? I have a…girl problem.”

“She’s busy,” Tad says, across from her, but Carmen laughs and gets up, stumbling over the pool’s lip.

“S’okay!” she slurs merrily. “It’s a girl problem! I’m a girl!” She runs a hand suggestively down her curves, winks. The pool erupts into bawdy laughter as I drag her away.

I haul her to Logan’s XTerra and shove her in, same way I did to Lilly in the last maybe-dream: the one that backfired, so badly. I engage the child locks. “Where do you live, Carmen?” I ask.

“I’m not going home!” she protests, indignant. “It’s early, I want to PARTY! Whoo!”

“Carmen, you’ve been roofied, and your boyfriend was about to videotape you fucking a popsicle. You need to go home and call a doctor. Carmen?”

I turn towards the backseat and she’s just lying there, half-smiling, staring at the ceiling. She’s got no clue where she is, or what she’s doing.

“Crap,” I say, feeling defeated. Then I sack up, and pull out my phone. Let’s see if I have any friends in this reality, other than clandestine pal Logan (who at least isn’t HELPING his buds torment me, this time).

Cliff is in my speed dial. Dad, my doctor and my dentist. Logan, some unknown quantity named Alice. Lily, my established enemy, which, why is she not deleted? And Weevil.

I grit my teeth, punch the number, listen to it ring and ring. Finally, he picks up. “This better be a supermodel with a winning Lotto ticket, and not Veronica Mars asking for a favor.”

“You’re friends with Carmen Ruiz, right Weevs?” I ask, in lieu of a response. “Do you know where she lives?”

“In a bad place,” he answers. “A place she’d be better off out of, and you don’t show your white face near. What do you want with her, anyways?”

“It’s more what I want FOR her,” I say. “Which is protection, and a doctor. I just rescued her from a date rapist, and she’s barely conscious in my backseat. I can take her to the hospital, but I don’t have time to wait there with her, and I don’t have money to pay.”

“I’ll meet you,” he says. “Where and when?”

There’s a knock on the window, and I look up to see Logan peering through. “Hold on,” I say, and pop the locks.

He climbs into the passenger seat. “Kidnapping again, are we?” he asks with a leer. “Why is it always hot girls in skimpy clothes?”

I hold up a finger to make Logan wait. “Neptune General, emergency entrance, 20 minutes,” I say.

“Who’s that with you?” Weevil wants to know.

“Logan,” I say. “I’m driving his car. Don’t worry, he’s almost as wasted as Carmen. He’s not a threat.”

“Hey!” Logan says, but Weevil laughs.

“See you in 20. Thanks for looking out for my girl, V.”

“There but for the grace of God,” I say, and switch off my phone. “Buckle up,” I tell Logan, gunning the engine. “It’s gonna be a bumpy night.”

Weevil is leaning against the wall by the entrance, arms folded, when we arrive. He rolls his eyes as Logan muscles up behind me, looming protectively: but he’s gentle, lifting Carmen from the car. Logan pulls a beach blanket out of the back to wrap her in, and Weevil cradles her on his lap while we wait for a doctor.

Once we’ve answered questions and she’s been treated, we leave Weevil holding her hand, and trail back outside. Logan seems more sober, but climbs into the passenger seat without comment.

“So where to now?” he asks, rolling his head along the leather to face me.

I look down at my hands, kneading them together. “Back to the party,” I say, but don’t start the engine.

“What? No! No fucking way!” He yanks the keys out of the ignition and folds his arms, secreting them in his fist. “I told you, it’s not safe for you there. Lils has been on the warpath, ever since your mom told that reporter you’re her sister.”

“I’m not,” I say. “I had a DNA test.”

“I don’t know if that makes it worse or better,” he replies, with a half-laugh.

“Logan,” I whisper. Clench my fingers in a knot, and meet his eyes. “I heard a rumor that Dick and Beaver Casablancas were planning to roofie and rape me tonight. And Madison gave me a drink that I think was doctored, when I first got to the party, but I threw it out. I want to go back there, and pretend to be unconscious, and get proof. I want to make them pay.”

His face goes pale. “GHB?” he asks. “Like I gave you? Like Carmen?”

I nod, and he pulls me into a hug. “Oh, Ronica,” he says. “Oh, baby, no.”

“I know it sounds awful,” I admit, feeling the tears come. “I’m scared. But I can’t let them get away with that. If it’s not me they go after, it could be someone else.”

“Ronica, look at me.” He puts his hands on my shoulders and pushes me upright, smoothing my hair. “Even if it’s true that they had something planned—even if it’s not just a nasty rumor---it didn’t HAPPEN. And no matter how justifiably angry you are…you can’t punish someone for evil thoughts. I mean, sure, make Tad pay—he drugged his girlfriend, so he could shoot a porno. I’ll be beating the shit out of him tomorrow, if Weevil doesn’t get to him first. But Dick and Beav, they’re only messed up kids with a crooked Dad. Don’t push them off a cliff because they made you angry. Just leave them alone.”

I close my eyes. The rape didn’t happen. To me, or to Carmen. I sigh, and really take this fact in, for the first time. I changed things tonight. I saved myself.

“Beaver was molested,” I say. “By Woody Goodman. Lots of kids on his Little League team were. It messed Beaver up worse than his family did, and I think he’s naturally a sociopath. He may do something evil someday.”

Logan kisses my forehead. “Then we watch Beaver. And we take down Woody Goodman. Because that’s our rule, right? Justice, not vengeance.”

“The Justice League.” I smile, and he smiles back. “We should get matching capes.”

“You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. I like it. Stick with me, kid, we’ll go far.”

I sigh. “Logan, do you think Lilly will ever forgive me?”

He leans his head back against the seat, closes his eyes. “Do you really even want her to?”

“I went pretty far to save her life,” I tell him. “Of course I want her to.”

“Look, I love Lils, and I swore a long time ago to always protect her. But she’s messed up, she truly is. More than me, and that’s saying something. And she finds it easiest to blame you, for how her life turned out. I mean, it’s just her and Celeste now, since Jake married your mom, and you know how much they hate each other. And Duncan…it’s like nobody in that family wants to admit he’s schizophrenic. The whole world's heard about it, ad nauseum, but they still act like it’s this big secret.”

He turns to look at me again. “And you knew. You broke up with him because he was creepy, before the rest of us fully realized. I have no idea how, but you find out all our secrets. You had prison-worthy goods on Aaron even I didn’t know existed, and I thought I’d seen him at his worst. I’m guessing you’ve heard things about Lils, too. Things she’d rather keep hidden.”

I nod, and he smiles. And because he’s Logan, he doesn’t ask. “Ronnie, if you say something is true, I will always believe you, no matter how unlikely it seems. Because Aaron DID tape my sex life, and Duncan IS a creeper. There’s this aide at the mental hospital I bribe, you know, so I can keep track of how Donut’s really doing? And the reason they have him on restriction is because of this girl in the ward. She’s…she’s little and blonde, and they restrain and sedate her a lot, because she has these violent fits. And they kept finding him in her room. Once they found him on top of her. So, you see? No matter how unhappy Lilly is about it, the Donut is where he belongs.”

He holds out his hand, and I take it, twining our fingers together. “You know, I’m not loving this night, but it’s nice to actually TALK to you for a change. It’s been so rough, lately, having to keep our friendship on the down low.”

“For me, too,” I say. “How have you been, since the last time we spoke?”

He blows out a breath. “Good,” he says. “Surprisingly good. My mom, she’s acting again. She found a competent plastic surgeon to fix up the hack the last one did, after my dad bashed her face in. She’s got this producer dude who actually doesn’t suck, sending her flowers.” I laugh, and he squeezes my hand tighter. “I won another surfing contest,” he tells me. “A guy from Sex Wax approached me about a sponsorship, if I decide to go pro, which I felt was strangely appropriate.” He grins. “How about you? How’s your dad?”

“He’s…hanging in there,” I say, because I don’t know.

“That’s great,” he says. “Heart attacks are no joke. Hopefully he’s laid off the extra cheese, and he’s hitting the gym?”

My throat closes, and I feel tears threaten. Because I understand now what Lilly meant, when she called me Oliver Twist. “He’s the strongest, best man I know.”

He puts an arm around me, hugs. “Yeah, me too,” he says.

“And you’re not so shabby, yourself.”

Logan leans his cheek against the top of my head, strokes it back and forth. “Meh, I’m OK. But every day, I try to be better.”

“That’s all anyone can do,” I murmur, and we slump together in the dark.

THREAD FIVE

I wake up slowly, to full California sun, storming knifelike through the sheers. I’m in the big fancy bed again, and I feel lazy, drowsy, unmotivated to move. I can hear a pleasant, feminine voice in the other room, and lots of clicking: but I lie there for a long time, stretching, and don’t get up. It’s been days, now, of titanic adjustments, waking and sleeping: I’m emotionally exhausted. And I feel strangely peaceful lying here, watching dust motes dance in shafts of sun. My body’s heavy and luxurious, and no part of me hurts.

Eventually I ease out of bed, shove my feet into slippers (shaped like gorilla feet) that rest beside. The brown sweater is back on the chair, and I realize it’s my robe—that Logan leaves it there, just for me. I shrug it on, and hug it to me, and wander out to face the music.

There’s a compact, dark-haired girl typing on a laptop on the couch, and when she looks up and smiles, I realize it’s Mac. A big grin splits my face because look! I have a friend!

“Hey!” I say, bouncing onto the cushion beside her. “Whatcha working on?”

“And good morning to you.” She takes a sip from an espresso cup, which smells like Logan’s fifty-dollar beans, and fixes me with an amused stare. “Aren’t you frighteningly alert and perky?”

“I just slept what felt like ten hours on the Platonic ideal of beds,” I say. “What’s not to perk about?”

The amused look morphs into a full smile, showing both her dimples. “Logan’s right,” she pronounces. “There HAS been a body snatching.”

“Logan needs new jokes,” I say. “He’s lost that creative spark.”

Mac succumbs to the siren call of her screen, and I notice a large gold signet on her finger, with the initials ‘JL’. “How do you even type with that gigantic thing weighing you down?”

She actually blushes. “Look, I get how geeky it is that I love my Justice League ring. But let’s face it, you guys knew I was a nerd, going in.”

I study the ring, then the computer, which has about 75 windows open, including one for Prying Eyez. A smile tugs at my lips. “Because…you’re a member of the Justice League.”

“I told Logan ten grand was excessive for a gag gift. But really, compared to the home mortgage you’ve got on YOUR hand, this is just a splash in the pond.”

I look down, and a gigantic blue rock surrounded by diamonds stares back at me, from my ring finger. Engaged, right.

“Well, you know I like to blend,” I say, and she laughs.

The door bangs open and Logan strides in, hefting grocery bags. “OK, I got it all,” he announces, heading over to the breakfast nook. He starts setting containers on the table. “Haagen Dasz Rocky Road ice cream, size large. Cornichons, NOT sweet pickles. Sesame chicken, extra broccoli, no MSG. And Mexican Coke in a bottle.” He lifts his hands in a ta-da gesture, skip-spins into the living room, and flops backwards onto the couch. “Appropriate thanks are required,” he informs me, puckering up.

I kiss him absently, my gaze drawn back to the food on the table. Weird food. Crazy, high-calorie, not-matching food.

Oh, shit.

I check out my stomach, which appears normal. My breath comes faster. I had untreated Chlamydia for TWO FUCKING YEARS, and there was scarring. The doctor said…

Wait. No rape. No Chlamydia. No condom, last night.

My brain zeroes in on three possibilities, none of which I’m prepared to handle. One, am I losing days of my real life? Because two, no way would I be having cravings yet if I just GOT PREGNANT yesterday. And three, Logan seems way more excited about impending fatherhood than either of us should ever, ever be. I mean, for fuck’s sake, we’re 19!

Aren’t we?

Oh my God, I am totally losing it. Please, Jesus, don’t let me have gone all Lost Highway, and be strapped hallucinating in a nuthouse bed somewhere, while Duncan lurks in the corner.

“I have to go back to sleep,” I say, abrupt. I stand and march into the bedroom, and slam the door, while they presumably roll their eyes and sigh, behind me.

XXXXX

God damn it, I’m wide awake. I’ve been lying here for half an hour, staring at the ceiling. Running my hands compulsively over my abdomen, which is, in fact, hard and convex in a small, but not-usual, way. I heard them muttering out there for a while, but now it’s silent. The only sound is my own panicked breathing, interspersed with the occasional sob.

I’ve managed to calm myself by the time Logan eases in, but I’m still frustratingly alert. He flops timber-style on the bed beside me, making me bounce, and props his chin on his hand.

“I can feel you admirably restraining yourself from making hormone jokes over there,” I say.

“Nothing easy is worth doing,” he replies. “Or, in this case, saying.”

“What if I’m the world’s shittiest mother?” I ask. “What if I’m just like Lianne?”

“What is it you always tell me, when I go into one of my doomed-to-Aaronhood, three-day fugue states?”

“You should be more worried about turning into Lynn?” I guess.

He laughs. “No fate,” he corrects.

“Sarah Conner,” I say, rolling to face him, “Is NOT a parental role model.”

“She was willing to give her life to protect her kid,” he corrects. “That makes her more like Keith than any of the other three.”

I want to ask about Dad giving his life, but I just can’t face knowing, at the moment. “Why are we all lounging around this late in the morning, anyway? Don’t we have things to do?”

“It’s Saturday,” he says. “I surfed and did my Powerpoint before you even woke up, and you don’t have class until Monday morning. Give yourself a day off from fighting crime, and put your swollen little feet up, why dontcha?”

“I want my phone,” I say. “I have to check my calendar.”

He reaches across me, opens my nightstand drawer, extracts my phone, and sets it on my chest. I wince, because apparently now my boobs hurt.

I turn the power on, and check the date. No days lost. In this reality, I’ve been pregnant since well before I started dreaming. I take a look at my schedule, and the only thing on it is ‘library-paycheck’. “I’ve gotta handle the library paycheck thing today,” I say.

He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, because no way can we wait ‘til Monday for THAT money.”

“What will you do, if I stay put?” I ask.

“Devote myself,” he kisses my temple, “to making sure” he kisses my chin, “you are completely” he sucks the spot at the juncture of my throat and shoulder, then bites, and I shiver all over, “happy and satisfied”. He kisses my mouth, to punctuate, and I put my arms around him, hold on tight.

XXXXX

Later, when we’re lying side by side, staring at the ceiling in tandem, and messing with each others’ hands, I ask, “When did you first know? That you loved me?”

“Honestly?” He looks over at me, and I quirk a brow. “When you called in that raid on Aaron, while screaming ‘You’re my BEST FRIEND!’ in my face, and sobbing. I mean, I wanted you for years, beforehand. But that was the moment I knew no other girl could compare.”

“But you didn’t tell me, then.”

“Well, my girlfriend WAS sitting in the back seat.” He picks up my hand, running his thumb over my ring. “It took me a while, you know, to feel like I deserved you. And to be sure you loved me back.”

“And when were you sure?”

“That night on the Nautilus,” he smiles. “When you said, ‘I don’t regret a minute’.”

Fuck. This tells me nothing.

“And when did you know dad was the best parent since Sarah Conner?” I ask, biting the bullet.

“When he stepped in front of the knife.” He shakes his head. “Bravest thing I ever saw. I will ALWAYS be grateful.”

“How grateful?” I ask, tears in my eyes.

He rolls his. “Like I haven’t busted my ass to be someone he could admire, every second since.”

“So is this hero worship?” I tease. “You want to be dad, when you grow up?”

“I want to be YOUR hero,” he corrects. “And you can be mine.”

“Just stay,” I say, pressing a kiss to his chest. “Be here for us. That’s what the hero does.”

“You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried,” he tells me, bringing my hand to his lips.

Sighing, I press my face into his shoulder. I feel calm, now. I could maybe even…..

Chapter Text

THREAD FIVE INVERTS

I’m clutching a stack of notebooks to my chest, and I’m walking down the hallway at Neptune High. I’m wearing knee-length motorcycle boots, which means Junior year, and I’ve got my English text, which means first period. I’m so focused on figuring out where and when I am that I’m jerked off balance when someone grabs me, and drags me into the girl’s bathroom. I stumble, notebooks spinning to the less-than-sanitary floor, and fall against Logan.

He rights me, shoving the stopper under the door with his foot, and I realize who’s standing next to him.

“Wallace Fennel?” I shriek, and I’m not sure which of them is more surprised.

Logan’s eyebrows are near his hairline. “You KNOW him?”

“Um, YEAH,” I cover. “He’s one of the highest-scoring high school basketball players in the U.S. How do YOU know him?”

“I cut him down from the flagpole this morning. The PCH’ers stuck him up there, because he reported them to your dad for theft. We need you to do some of your Weevil-manipulating magic, and get him off the hook.”

I cross my arms over my chest. I’M supposed to cut Wallace down from the flagpole. He’s MY best friend.

Is it wrong that I wish Logan was just a little bit more of a jackass, in Alternative! Reality?

“Pretty please?” Logan tries the looking-up-from-under-his-scrunched-brow face, which makes me roll my eyes and sigh, and do whatever he wants. I roll my eyes and sigh.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll check into it. But you BOTH owe me AND Weevil one, if I pull this off. And I get to collect whenever I choose.”

“Done,” Logan says, holding his hand out to shake. I take it, and he presses my palm to his heart. I shove him, and he laughs.

“Who ARE you?” Wallace asks. “Man, when he said he knew just who could save me, I thought he meant some biker!”

“THIS is Veronica Mars,” Logan says proudly, with a flourishing wave and bow. “She hears EVERYTHING, and she is the most dangerous person you will ever meet.”

“Mess with me at your peril,” I warn, narrowing my eyes. Wallace laughs, but he seems a little scared.

“So I assume the clandestine bathroom meeting means this whole deal is super-secret, and we dare not speak its name?” I ask Logan, sarcastic.

He mimes zipping his mouth shut, throwing away the key, pulling the binds down over his eyes, and hiding his face.

“I’m getting really tired of being your dirty secret,” I threaten. I point at Wallace. “YOU associate with me in public, or no deal. We don’t have to be buddies, but you’re not allowed to act like a dick.”

“I wouldn’t!” Wallace protests, indignant. “What did you ever do to me? You’re helping!” He smiles. “Besides, you like my moves. You’re not friends with any cheerleaders, are you?”

“Only if by friends you mean enemies,” I say. “Later, jackass. Things to do, people to bribe.”

“You light up my life, Ronnie!” Logan calls, as I kick free the stopper. “You give me hope to carry on!”

I flip him off as I walk out, and I can hear him laughing in the hall.

XXXXX

I emerge into the courtyard, carrying my lunch tray, and I can tell things haven’t changed that much, since the last time I lived this day. The outsiders ring the periphery of the patio: art geeks at table 1, Wanda Varner and Goth Boy at table 2, stoners at 3, PCH’ers at 4, mocking and throwing food. In the center, at the good spots with umbrellas, the 09’ers eat takeout. And grin while Logan holds court, an indulgent Lilly by his side. For a second I wonder why they’re still the alpha pair, before the pieces click into place. His dad’s the murder victim, not the murderer: his mom’s a movie star. Her brother’s a minor and mentally ill (meaning sealed court records), her dad’s a billionaire.

Directly across from the 09’ers, one table sits empty. My Throne of Shame. My shoulders slump, and I head on over.

I manage to catch Weevil’s eye while I pick at my meatloaf, and eventually he slouches up and sprawls beside me. He gestures with his chin at the in-crowd. “How you manage to eat while watching that, I’ll never get.”

“Suffering makes us strong,” I say, shoveling in a disgusting bite.

“You summoned?” he asks, after a minute. “’Cause I got plans that don’t involve your whims.”

“What do you want to leave the Fennel kid alone?” I ask, my eyes on Logan’s gesticulating hands. Wallace is on the other side of him, giving him a laughing shove, and I have a lump in my throat.

Weevil looks at me until I turn to face him. “Why do you care?” he asks, deliberate.

“I deal in favors,” I say. “Of the mercenary, but non-sexual kind.”

“Uh-huh,” he says. “I got eyes, V.”

“Then read my lips. What do you want?” I do pretend sign language to accompany my words, and he chuckles.

“Videotape from the Sac ‘n Pac of my guys shoplifting beer,” he says. “Your dad’s stashed it in lockup.”

My dad, I think. Oh God. My dad, who had a heart attack at some unspecified point in the timeline, and is still Sheriff, is not dead. I wonder about Leo, Lamb and Sacks.

“You want me to steal evidence from my DAD?” I ask, setting my fork down.

“It was just beer,” he argues. “You think they deserve jail for a couple Colt 45’s?”

“If I get it, you owe me two,” I say.

“You ask, I help,” he tells me. “There ain’t no more earning my friendship, after what you did for Carmen.” He gestures with his eyes at the 09’er table, but doesn’t look. “And Ashley Wilkes over there doesn’t get his face beat in, like he mostly deserves. That’s our deal.”

“Please. Logan is Rhett,” I say, smirking.

“Then Rhett’s an idiot,” he scoffs, bumping me with his shoulder as he stands. “Call me when you got it.” He saunters away.

I pick up my fork again, and turn back to my own personal Telenovela. Logan is taunting Lilly now, holding something up high so she can’t reach, poking her in the sternum. She jumps for it, laughing, and he yanks it away. Then he leans forward, and kisses her, and sets it in her hand. She wraps her arms around his neck, and presses close, and I realize I spilled my drink all over myself, when I jerked in shock.

Because after the Yolanda thing, and Shelly’s party, and that moment on the beach….after the Justice League, and him falling in love with me when I called in the raid…after she cheated with probably Weevil, and definitely with his EVIL, ABUSIVE FATHER….

She’s my best friend, and she’s back from the dead, and I want to rip her face off. Because Logan Echolls is fucking MINE.

He wouldn’t be with her, either, if he knew. If he saw cold, hard video proof of what she’s done.

And I have to break into the evidence lockup, anyway.

XXXXX

I sit in fourth period photography, staring, fulminating, at the wall. Plotting mayhem. I wonder briefly if this is what Logan went through, watching me with Duncan, senior year. Then I dismiss the idea, because (despite many arrests) he’s never actually committed murder. I’m not sure who I want to kill most, at the moment: right now, only the fact that he bought me pickles and ice cream is saving him.

Fucker. Listening to him banging Kendall in the next room was NOTHING compared to this. Lilly’s MEAN to me, and he’s DATING her, and he’s keeping our friendship a SECRET. The betrayal feels like…knives. In my gut, slashing. It’s like….

Argh. I’m going to find out which part of my brain creates dreams, and stab it with an icepick.

The bell rings. I get up and walk across the hall to journalism. Logan’s sprawled out over 3 chairs, twirling a quarter across his knuckles and smirking, and I have never hated him more.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” he snarks, and I draw back my foot and kick him, as hard as I can.

“What the FUCK?!” he yells, jerking his leg away from me, and then I’m slapping at him, and crying, and screaming “I hate you!” over and over, while the rest of the class ogles us, and he tries to grab my hands. And then the gym teacher’s yanking me off of him, and I’m kicking and yelling and writhing in his grip. Everybody’s murmuring in shocked undertones as the guy drags me out the door, and down the hall towards Clemmons’ office. And, oh God.

I’m gonna get suspended, and they’ll call my dad.

XXXXX

I’m sitting by the display case, waiting for Clemmons’ summons. Shaking my hand, because I bent one of my fingers backwards, when I was swinging at Logan like a crazy person. I feel even shittier than I did before. Because he’s an ABUSE VICTIM, and he’s my FRIEND (even if it is secret), and he TRUSTS ME, and I HIT HIM, which was SO, SO WRONG. And now he’ll HATE ME FOR REAL, and we won’t be ENGAGED ANYMORE when I wake up…

At this point I start sobbing, sheets of tears rolling down my face, and it takes me a second to register that someone is massaging my sore hand.

“You have to keep it moving,” Logan explains, gently testing each finger. “Otherwise the muscles seize. This one’s swollen, you should ice it.” He looks up from his careful examination of my middle finger, with an apprehensive expression, and I fling my arms around his neck.

“I’m SO SORRY!” I sob, into his shoulder. “I HIT YOU, which is the WORST THING that I could POSSIBLY DO!”

“Um,” he says. “You weigh 80 pounds, and have fists like a six year old. I think I’ll live.”

“But you’re somebody who should never, ever be hit. By anybody, for any reason. And I WAS SO MAD, and I FORGOT!”

“Veronica,” he says. “How many fights have I gotten into over the last year? 30? I get pissed off and punch someone like every week. I still kind of have a black eye.”

“YOU KISSED HER,” I hiss, and then I squeeze my mouth shut, because no way was that supposed to come out. “Oh, God. I’m as crazy as Duncan. All the stress finally did me in.”

He’s silent for a long minute, staring down. Then he looks at me, and I have rarely seen his eyes so serious. “Are you telling me you care who I kiss?”

I tilt my chin up, my wet gaze locked with his. From above, I hear the clearing of a throat.

We turn together to look at Vice Principal Clemmons, who’s manfully repressing the urge to roll his eyes.

“Miss Mars, Mr. Echolls,” he says. “My office, please.”

“Mr. Echolls,” Clemmons begins, when we’re all seated. “I don’t involve myself in the personal lives of my students, because they are none of my business. However, just because I don’t interfere, doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the relationships between you all.”

“Your point?” Logan asks. He’s leaning back, one foot bouncing on the opposite knee, in a pose that could best be described as negligent. Then again, he practically lives in here, so I guess he’s no longer impressed.

“I am prepared to let this incident slide. Provided I am NEVER required to adjudicate another one involving the Sherriff, your mother, and Celeste Kane.”

“Done and done.” Logan hops up, and theatrically dusts off his knees. “Always a pleasure doing business with you, Van. Mars, let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

I take his hand and get up, smiling uncertainly at Clemmons. He steeples his fingers and gazes back, from beneath lifted brows. “Miss Mars,” he intones, with that subdued sarcastic lilt I kind of love. “May I suggest anger management?”

XXXXX

Logan drags me out of the office and down the empty hall, straight into the janitor’s closet. He pulls the string to turn the light on, locks the door, and leans back against it with his arms folded. “So this caring who I kiss thing,” he says. “How long has this been going on?”

“Uh…” I tilt my head back to stare at the ceiling, unwilling to meet his penetrating gaze. “Always?”

“ALWAYS?” He stands up from his slouch and takes a step towards me, then runs his hands through his hair. “Always, always? Like since we met?”

“Pretty much, yeah. I mean, once you started being…physical with girls, I knew I didn’t stand a chance, because I knew I wasn’t ready to be…physical like that. And honestly…” I point my thumbs at myself. “Sherriff’s daughter. Waiting ‘til I’m 18. But after all the stuff we’ve been through together, and all the things we’ve said, and you secretly being my friend, even though you pretend….” I feel the tears coming back. Jesus, I’m not even pregnant at this moment. “It’s getting really hard to act like I don’t care that you’re running your purity points down to single digits, with Lilly Kane and who knows who else. I want to cut anyone who touches you.”

He laughs, nervous. “I feel lucky, now. I got off with slaps and kicks.”

“You should,” I say, very seriously.

“Yeah, well, don’t worry. As soon as Norris gets back from suspension, and hears about our little altercation, I’m sure my luck will run out.”

“As soon as who what?” I ask. “Norris CLAYTON? Has he been beating up people who look at me wrong again?”

“Well, YEAH,” Logan says, in his ‘duh’ voice. “But that’s his right. I mean, he IS your boyfriend.”

THREAD SIX

I wake up in the pitch dark, Logan still naked beside me, ring still on my hand. I feel over my belly carefully—yup, hosting the alien life form. The clock reads 4:30, so I don’t bother getting dressed. I just throw on my sweater and gorilla slippers, and head out to the living room.

“I can’t believe I DATED Norris Clayton,” I mutter, absent. “Seriously. Was he was the only guy other than Weevil Logan couldn’t intimidate away?”

I scout the bookshelves, peering at bindings in the dim light, until I locate photo albums. Dingdindingding, score! There are five!

I haul the stack to the kitchen table, get all the food Logan bought me out of the fridge, and inhale calories as I page through.

The top one, I recognize. Baby pictures, mom and dad. Birthday parties and Fourth of July. My first pony ride: the time I caught a fish and cried, because it was sharp instead of soft. Lilly and I, turning cartwheels. My formal picture with Duncan, at the 8th grade dance. Then the artsy black and whites I favored, when I got a camera for my 13th birthday, and decided I was Diane Arbus.

My foot. A candle flame. My dad mugging in an Al Gore mask. Lilly, blowing a kiss. And interspersed with all these, Logan, smirking, doing a handstand, arms across his knees at the beach, gazing pensively into the waves. Dick Casablancas, tongue out, eyes crossed. A starfish, cradled in a big hand, festooned with band-aids. Logan, holding me balanced in a Superman pose on his shoulder, cheek pressed to my side.

The second album starts in tenth grade, and at first, it’s a natural progression. Lilly and Duncan in Halloween costumes: he’s a knight, she’s a cat. Dad, crossing his eyes and making a face, while Deputy Sacks pretends to punch him. Logan carrying Lilly piggyback, she’s kissing his cheek. My mom, holding puppy!Backup, and laughing as he licks her face. Photos from the beach-Prom limo party (in which Logan almost always has a hand on me, somewhere). Lilly’s eyes peeking over a Cosmo, twinkling and mischievous.

And then, everything changes.

For a while, there are only art photos: the beach at sunset, a fruit stand in the rain, Backup chewing a ball, with a goofily deranged look on his face. There’s one of me staring into a mirror, eyes hard, hair pulled back tightly in a braid. A homeless man, slumped against his cart, gazing at a flower.

Then a few familiar faces come creeping back. Dad and Cliff, playing cards, clearly talking smack. Me, in a pastel blue bridesmaid’s dress, sporting a smile that means the opposite. Me with my mom and Jake in wedding finery, both of them ignoring me as they beam at each other. My dad, grilling steaks, glancing up at the camera with tender eyes. Logan, sprawled across a bed, looking intense and emo and impossibly young.

Two pairs of feet in biker boots, mine and a guy’s. Me, posed like a boxer in a white wife beater, blowing a strand of hair out of my eye. Norris Clayton laughing with a mouthful of something, pointing a fork at me. A whole section of what is, apparently, my life, which I don’t remember at all.

“I’m loving this look on you,” Logan says from behind me. He displaces me from my chair and resettles me on his lap, kissing my shoulder. “Very fashion forward.”

“Says the man not wearing anything.” I smile up at him, and he glances at the photo page.

“Ugh,” he says. “Taking a stroll down memory lane?”

“I still have a hard time believing I dated Norris Clayton.” I shake my head. “I mean, he was nice—to me—but he made you look like a choirboy.”

Logan pulls a face. “Yeah, he definitely had some anger management issues.” He takes the album away. “Let’s just skip this problematic little section of our lives, and get to…ah, yes. Fiji. The best vacation any human being has ever had.”

He spreads the book open to a shot of the two of us, covered in sand. I’m in a green bikini and a baseball cap: he’s in tropical swim trunks, and one of those ridiculous straw hats with frayed edges. He’s grinning down at me, and I’m grinning up, our arms around each others’ waists. Behind us, Lynn, minus the tragic duck lips, is photo-bombing with an expression of exaggerated delight.

The next page is a group pic around a restaurant table, which sports a central fire. It features me and Logan, in full on sarong and (unbuttoned) Hawaiian shirt: Dick Casablancas, embracing a grinning Meg Manning (!): Wallace with a marshmallow on a stick, roasting it over the flames, to everyone’s delight: a blonde girl and a suave-looking dark-haired man I don’t recognize: Lynn: and what looks like Kate Capshaw.

Then there’s me, in a black strapless formal with a poofy skirt. I’m lying back on my elbows on a bed, with one knee up, giving the camera a come-hither smile. Logan traces a finger down the picture, making a growl-purr in the back of his throat, and I figure I know why this vacation was so special.

The next picture is dad, with his arm around a short-haired blonde. They’re at a table at Mama Leone’s, checkerboard cloth and wine bottle candle, her hand reaching past his shoulder to entwine with his. Both of them are smiling, dad manically: and on their hands, I can just discern matching wedding rings.

The woman is Bettina Casablancas.

Which means I have a wicked stepmother, and am related by marriage to Dick.

“Oh, ugh!” I yell, slamming the book shut. “We didn’t skip far enough!”

Logan bursts out laughing. “We have talked about this, Ronica,” he warns, mock stern. “One big happy family, remember? You, and Lilly, and Dick. Just like the Brady Bunch!”

Well, I think, no longer sure I’ll keep down the six pounds of food I just ate: at least that solves the mystery of why I live with Logan.

Wait a minute, Logan didn’t mention Beaver. Holy shit, is Beaver my stepbrother, too?

I put my hand over my mouth, and run for the bathroom. Alicia Fennel, I have never regretted championing mom for dad more.

Chapter Text

THREAD SIX INVERTS

I’m standing at the bar in the Casablancas’ kitchen, wearing a floor-length blue-green formal, holding a drink that smells like whiskey. Beside me, Norris, in a tuxedo, leans backwards on his elbows, his feet crossed in front of him. He’s contemplating the ceiling with what looks like resignation.

I figure I’ll need it, so I go ahead and drain the glass.

“Why do we come to these things?” He asks the skylight. He turns to regard me, serious, and I’m struck by how gigantic he is. More than a foot taller than me, and bulky, with hands the size of Virginia hams. Fuck. I really do have a bad-boy fetish.

I shrug and mimic his pose as best I can, considering my elbows don’t reach. “Duty? Fatal curiosity?”

“I thought for sure you’d say Christmas spirit,” he tells me, reaching for what looks like club soda.

“Christmas spirit,” I parrot, and he cracks what’s almost a smile.

I survey the crowd, trying to figure out why I’m here, and which emotionally pivotal part of my life is about to happen. Then I spot my dad dancing by, with a smiling brunette. I grin, point him out to Norris, and move to intercept: because I haven’t seen dad in any reality since the night Aaron Echolls died, and I just want to squeeze him until he pops.

“Can I cut in?” I ask the brunette, and she concedes with a smile. Then dad’s spinning me around, and I’m holding him tight, and this is the happiest I’ve been since Logan said he loved me.

“You’re the most beautiful girl in the room,” Dad murmurs in my ear, as if confiding a secret. I pat his cheek.

“Good genes,” I whisper, and he smiles.

“Your boyfriend doesn’t seem too happy to be here,” he observes, twirling me. I glance back at the bar, where Norris remains unmoved, and notice Sacks beside him, nervous in formalwear. I frown.

“He’s not the champagne and chit-chat type,” I quip, and dad snorts. Because surely he’s aware of Norris’s troubled past.

“I heard a rumor,” Dad says, hardboiled-style, out of the corner of his mouth, “that there’s a card game going on in the pool house. Kids your age, and reasonably clean fun, and no need to put up with old fogies. What say you saunter out there, try your luck?”

He spins me again, and this time I notice Lamb, checking the cuff of his tux by a bay window. “OK, no way did you just encourage me to illegally gamble. What the heck is going on?”

“Probably nothing,” Dad says, overprotecting me in that way that used to make me secretly insane. “But I’d feel better if you and Tiny over there were off the immediate premises.”

My brain spins. Christmas party. Poker game. But Dad’s Sheriff, not detective, and Aaron’s already dead. Different house, different pool house, no Duncan, no diary. Lilly’s not dead, Norris is my boyfriend, I know Wallace and Weevil but probably not Mac, and I am likely not yet related to Dick.

God, I need to start keeping a spreadsheet.

“You know the brush-off just makes me more determined to solve this mystery,” I say, and he sighs.

“Pool house, Veronica. Stat. And don’t come back in here until I show up to fetch you.”

“Aye-aye, Captain,” I retort, mock-saluting. “But remember, if you die, I’ll kill you.”

“Duly noted.” He spins me off the dance floor, and over to Norris: then strides away, pretending to glad hand, but clearly on a mission.

“So,” I say to Norris, wondering how to work him into a gathering of likely hostile 09’ers, “how do you feel about a stroll in the moonlight?”

He looks down at me. “I could stroll,” he says, and takes my hand.

I lead him out by the pool, which is big and majestic, but not as big as the Echolls’, and gesture at the sky like a game show host. “Moonlight!”

He leans towards me, clearly interested in the romantic part, and I spin away to locate the gambling. “Oh, look!” I chirp, feigning nonchalance. “Nefarious activities are afoot!” I point at the pool house, which is packed and emitting rap music and laughter, and he frowns down at me.

“Veronica,” he warns, clearly aware that I’m up to something.

“Dad says I have to,” I tell him, apologetic. He sighs, and gestures for me to precede him.

We approach with caution. The pool house is a two-room affair, and sure enough, in one of those rooms, a poker game is in progress. And of course, Logan sits at the head of the table, a cigar in his mouth and his bow tie dangling down, like he’s Casablanca Bogie. I want to tackle him and fuck him on the felt, and I hope it doesn’t show.

Sitting around the table, like a gathering of America’s Most Wanted are: Lilly, by Logan’s left, in an electric purple dress that plunges to her navel: Drunk!Dick, smirking at me like I’m less opaque than I think: Carrie Bishop, dressed in black and smoking, even though nobody smokes anymore: Conner Larkin and Shelly Pomroy, both tipsy and patently bored: Sean Friedrich, coked up into an ill-concealed rage: and an almost-out-of-patience Weevil. I immediately begin scanning counters and tables for empty bottles of Mickey’s.

“Veronica Mars,” Logan says smarmily, shifting the cigar to one side of his mouth. He spreads his arms out over the chair back. “And her faithful hound. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“I heard there was a sucker game in town, and mama needs a new pair of shoes.” I figure this is a safe thing to say, since my mom’s married to Jake, and I’m proved right when the sycophant portion of the table erupts into laughter. Norris squeezes my hand in warning and I squeeze back, hopefully communicating that he should back the hell off.

“You want in?” Logan asks, waving his hand at the pot. “Sean and Shelly are out of chips, they’re just taking up space.”

“Why Mr. Echolls, we’d be charmed.” I yank on Norris’s hand, and he reluctantly follows. But he’s glowering at Logan, and I figure it won’t be long before he’s taunted into losing his cool.

I’ve clocked the bottle with the money in it now, and I use Norris’s bulk as cover, while I knock it into my evening bag. It’s my ace in the hole, I figure: because there’s no way this gathering won’t degenerate into mayhem.

Sean and Shelly vacate, her gratefully, him fulminating, and we take the empty seats. “Grand each buy-in,” Logan says, and Norris extracts his wallet, throws a wad of bills on the table. I remember then that his dad helped invent streaming software, and I suddenly realize: Norris and I ARE 09’ers.

I close my eyes, and breathe through becoming the thing I most hate.

“What are you up to, V?” Weevil mutters as I organize chips. Logan shoves our cash into a cigar box, without looking.

“You’ll see,” I whisper back. “Wait ‘til winner takes all. And keep an eye on Sean Friedrich, we don’t want him leaving.”

He leans back in his chair, arms crossed, amused now, interested in how it plays out. Logan pretends indifference, but Lilly’s watching me too. I wish she was stupid or liked me more, because she’s kind of a loose cannon.

Two hands in, I’ve got everybody’s measure. Lilly could give a shit if she wins, but she wants to stay in the game, so she must be here for the drama. Dick’s not the idiot I took him for, but he patently, gleefully could care less. Carrie Bishop is a phenomenal player with a phenomenal poker face, and she knows what I’m up to: she crooks the tiniest smile, when she catches me watching her. I remember how steely she was about taking out Mr. Rooks, and wonder if there’s any way to enlist her as an ally.

Norris is a competent and undramatic player, but he clearly has no interest in gambling, and is rapidly getting bored. Conner is exactly the idiot I took him for, and he’s been cheesily hitting on Carrie all night. Weevil’s good, but not as good as he thinks he is. And Logan, with his wheels within wheels behind a goofy, cocky grin, is a dangerous species of shark.

His deadliness makes me want him even more.

Conner is out of the game within half an hour: the level of play’s too high for him, and he’s been drinking a lot. Lilly’s been losing steadily for a while, but when she’s down to a couple of chips and lacks funds to call, she smirks and ups the ante. Reaching below the table, she wiggles around for a minute, and comes up with a pair of rhinestone-encrusted Jimmy Choos. She plops them on the felt with a flourish, and looks straight at me.

Logan laughs. “And the game just got a THOUSAND times more interesting,” he announces, polishing off his scotch. He stands up, locks the door, and closes the blinds. “What happens in the pool house stays in the pool house,” he clarifies, and sits back down.

Yeah, Logan’s drunk. Jealous, frustrated mean-drunk, looks like. And who can blame him?

I wonder what’s up in the home proper, and if it’s safe to come out yet.

Weevil looks at Lilly for a long moment, then at me. He sighs, throws his cards down. “I’m out,” he says, shoving his chips towards the center of the table. “I’ll keep an eye on Friedrich for you,” he murmurs in my ear, as he stands.

Logan locks the door after him, and surveys the room for a minute. “Three guys, three girls,” he intones, “willing to get naked for sport. And everyone HATES each other.” His eyes brighten gleefully, and he spreads his arms wide. “ANYTHING could happen!”

Dick throws a poker chip at his head. “Deal the fucking cards, bro.”

“Okay,” Logan says, putting the cigar back in his mouth. He sits down, and winks. “But the river’s gonna get you.”

Play becomes heated. Norris has doubled down, which doesn’t jibe with his personality as I know it: I expected a storm out / ‘Are you coming, Veronica?’ by now, or maybe just him lunging for Logan’s throat.

Frankly, Norris is a problem. Because I know all these people well, in Original Timeline! Reality, but he’s a virtual stranger. Whereas here, I’m his girlfriend, on terms of presumptive intimacy: and it’s my job to predict and defuse whatever he tries to do.

Wait, WHY am I still his girlfriend? Didn’t Logan and I confess all in the janitor’s closet, last time I turned up in the past? Shouldn’t we be done with the pretend hate, and the dating other people?

Ugh, keep your head in the game, Mars, or you’ll end up naked in front of Dick Casablancas.

XXXXX

Forty-five minutes later, Logan’s got every chip, and refuses to release them back into circulation. It’s strip poker all the way, now, and things are getting real.

Carrie sets her cards neatly down, and smiles that barely-there smile again. Only this time, it’s directed at Logan. “Take it off, Echolls,” she says, and I’m not sure how she sounds both gleeful and calm.

He smirks back at her as he removes his tuxedo shirt, revealing a wife beater underneath, which Jesus Christ. My eyes narrow, because IS SHE HITTING ON HIM?

I have no clue why Norris is still playing, even though he’s supposed to be my boyfriend. But I’m crystal clear on why I’M still playing.

Because both of these bitches want Logan, and I am going to TAKE THEM OUT.

Dick starts laughing, and when I glance up, he’s looking at me, and I can tell he knows. I amend my plan. I am going to take these girls out, and them I’m going to punch Dick’s FACE IN. And then I’m going to shove Logan UP AGAINST A WALL somewhere, and I WILL MAKE HIM PAY.

I’ve lost my earrings, my necklace, my bracelet, my shoes. Lilly’s down to an Agent Provocateur bustier and g-string, which look like they cost the earth (not that Lilly’s fazed). Dick’s still got a necklace on, but he’s in his boxers anyway, and Logan’s a shoeless Streetcar Brando. Carrie’s wearing a grey silk slip that’s just as elegant as the dress she had on over it, and Norris has played conservatively, and is mostly dressed.

Logan throws a straight down, and then he looks my direction. His eyes are glittering the way they used to, back when he hated me and wanted me at the same time. I feel like biting him.

“You lose, Mars,” he says, leaning back with his hands behind his head, preparing to enjoy the show. “Time to pay.”

I stare at him, and I feel the way I did on Prom Night at the beach, watching him walk out of the water, shielded only by my dress. Like I wanted him to SEE me, and all the ways we were the same: like I could care less who caught us, or knew I was turned on. It’s freeing in a way I never experienced, back in Original! Reality. I don’t have to be NICE to anyone, this time. I can be ME instead, and live the thrills and chills I once pretended to fear.

I reach for the tie behind my neck, and work at the knot, while Dick hoots approval and Carrie raises her brows, and Lilly cackles. And then Norris puts his hands flat on the table, stands up, and says, “No.”

Everybody turns to look at him, like he’s a piece of furniture that spoke. Logan’s the only one who smiles.

“Check your rulebook, Clayton. She lost, she pays.”

“You’re a piece of shit,” Norris opines, and he sounds even, calm.

Logan laughs, tilting his head sideways to crack his neck, and rises. He’s got that anticipatory look in his eye that never means anything good. “Ah, but I’m the piece of shit she wants,” he says, and everything goes to hell.

Norris vaults the table to get to him, scattering chips and cards, his movements focused and precise as an MMA fighter’s. But Logan’s like a cat with a Mensa IQ, and he’s already plotted the sequence. He gets Norris with a fist to the center of the face, all his weight behind it, Norris’s momentum increasing the force. There’s an audible crack as it arrests Norris’s progress, and sends him sprawling back: and Logan dances free, to an area devoid of girls. Drawing the fight away from the vulnerable.

Norris is up and on him in a second, blood streaming from his nose. His lips are pulled back from his teeth in a snarl, and it’s like he’s lost it, because he hits HARD. And Logan…he’s Muhammad Ali. He dances and dodges, and twists and quips, and then he feints one way and punches the other, like a high-speed train. Someone’s gonna end up in the hospital, because these two won’t quit.

I dig through my bag for my taser, and my hand closes, reassuring, around its stem. I switch it on: and I can feel it arc in my hand as I march forward, and plant it in the small of Norris’s back. He jerks upright, electrified, and then topples sideways, a majestic oak going down.

“That’s us, breaking up,” I say, to his twitching form.

I turn back to the staring crowd, and smile. “Sean Friedrich stole the money from the cash box,” I announce, extracting the bottle from my purse, and setting it on the table. “No one drinks Mickey’s Big Mouths because they like the taste.”

“So…great game!” I congratulate Logan, with a lift of my eyebrow. “Carrie…and maybe even a little bit, Dick….I won’t be underestimating you again.”

I switch off the taser with a snap, scrape my jewelry into my bag, grab my shoes, and make my exit. I don’t even have words for how amazing I feel.

I’m halfway past the pool when Logan catches my arm. He drags me—literally drags me, stumbling, backwards, over to the side of the house, where the bushes screen us from the ambling crowd. Then he pushes me up against the wall, and kisses the living hell out of me.

“THAT was the hottest thing I have ever SEEN,” he pants, when he has to break free for oxygen. He lifts me up farther so he can grind against me, his face dropping down to bite my shoulder: I wrap my arms and legs around him, and hang on. “Oh my God, I’m so hard right now it actually HURTS.”

I laugh as his hands close over my ass beneath my skirt, and he begins to work us against each other, tauntingly. I have no idea if I’m a virgin in this timeline, or how far Logan and I may have previously gone, and I realize I don’t care. Because I’m pulsing with adrenaline, and it’s just SO GOOD. “I told you, I’m red satin now,” I manage, and he shoves up against me, and comes.

“No shit,” he mutters, and then we’re both laughing. I say, “Dick’s right, I really am a Black Widow,” and we laugh even harder.

“You can bite me any time,” he tells me, pressing kisses all over my face and throat. “Consider this an engraved invitation.”

So I lean forward, and I open my mouth on his pectoral, and I do.

XXXXX

We stumble out of the bushes after a half-hour of fooling around (during which he never once tries to remove my clothes, but manages to get me off anyway). He leads me to one of the lounge chairs near the pool, and kneels at my feet to strap on my sandals, with his bruised and scraped-up hands. “So does this mean we’re going steady?” I ask, toying with his every-direction hair.

He looks up at me and smiles, and it’s the devilish smile, not the boyish one. “Are you prepared for the volume of shit that’s about to hit the fan?”

“Bring it on,” I say.

“Then yes.” He grins. “But let’s avoid the pool house for the time being. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not in fact have a death wish.”

He leads me around the side of the house, and up to a bedroom, which, based on the number of ‘Alyssa Milano in bikinis’ posters, belongs to Dick. He digs a pair of jeans, and a green t-shirt that reads ‘chicks dig me’, out of a drawer, and gives me That Look. “Watch or don’t,” he says. “I have to rinse off, and put on something not-bloody, before I inadvertently freak out my mom.”

I lock the door, lean against it, cross my arms, and watch.

He strips, lobbing his clothes in the direction of the laundry bin, not taking his eyes off me to notice that he misses. “Showering now,” he says, and walks into the bathroom.

I want to join him. Like, really a lot. But back when I was in high school for real, it was a big thing for me to wait until senior year: to be an adult, before I was intimate with someone. I stood by that decision in my original life, even though Beaver and Duncan tried to steal my right to choose. Even though I lost Logan, and the connection we shared, before the date arrived. I have to respect that wish here, too. Me, mentally experiencing this moment, is an adult with a long-standing sex life, familiar with Logan in bed. Me, physically present, is seventeen. And, despite his precociousness, so’s my sexy boyfriend.

Oh God. I remember the agony of practicing self-control in the XTerra backseat, while he tried his best to make me lose it. I’m looking at months of insane frustration, my will pitted against one that makes Disraeli look like a kitten.

Stupid morals. No wonder I used to feel safer repressed.

XXXXX

Dick’s waiting in the hall for us, when we emerge from his room, arms crossed, one foot up as he leans against the wall. He takes in Logan’s wet hair, the band-aids I’ve plastered all over his hands, and grins.

“Dude, that was the best sucker punch I have ever SEEN.”

Logan smirks, and they do some complicated handshake, and then Dick drapes his arm over my shoulders, laughing down. “And Ronniekins. Who knew you’d be the comic relief? I was like scared and turned on and laughing my balls off, all at the same time.”

“Where’s Norris?” Logan asks, pointedly taking my hand, and placing himself between me and Dick.

“Had security throw him out,” Dick says, casually. “Woulda called the cops, but they’re already all here, in civvies, downstairs.”

Oh, right. My dad’s ‘nothing to worry about’ operation. I can’t believe I forgot.

“And Lilly?” Logan asks, with a grimace.

“Yeah, she’s grinding on Enbom, making a scene.” Dick shakes his head. “Like she couldn’t see this coming. We ALL saw this coming.”

“You did not,” Logan says. He jerks a thumb at himself. “Unpredictable and inscrutable.” He points at me. “Loose cannon.”

“Man, there was a POOL.” Dick laughs. “Carrie had tonight, and damn if she didn’t make it happen. Friedrich had to pay up TWICE, and he’s off with that cholo you’ve got housetrained, having a ‘conversation’. “

“I told you, Mars.” Logan extends a palm, as if checking for rain. “Shit,” he says, then rolls the hand elaborately towards us, “fan.”

“And there’s a police sting going on downstairs, which I was specifically warned to avoid,” I tell them. “Maybe we stay up here, play some video games?”

“Now where’s the fun in that?” Logan asks, eyes lighting up. He takes a skip step forward, then turns to face us, inviting. “Whadda ya say we go stir the pot?”

I look at Dick, and he looks at me. I think about how nothing actually happened to me at this Shelly’s party, how Madison’s drink may have just been soda and spit. I think about my dad’s arm around Bettina’s shoulders, and the way Dick patched up Logan, last time I fled my emotions in terror. I think about Beaver jumping, and how wrecked Dick was after, because he felt responsible. I decide to cut him a tiny, and experimental, bit of slack. “I take left flank, you take right?” I ask.

“Get your taser ready,” he says. “There’s gonna be carnage.”

I know surf punks, so I’m sure Logan and Dick just want to fuck shit up. But personally? I’m hoping I can use this time, in this house, to figure out what’s going on with that nasty little pocket psychopath, Beaver.

THREAD SEVEN

“Unf,” Logan says as I roll on top of him, and begin feverishly sucking his neck. “Good….morning?”

“I dreamed about that fight,” I say, working my way down his torso, licking and nipping and tugging at the hair. I’m wearing pajamas, but he’s wearing his customary nothing. Which makes this all so much easier.

“Um…what fight?” he asks, as I lick at the juncture between his hip and thigh. Then I take him into my mouth, and he quits talking.

I tease him until he’s fighting not to thrust, and then he disengages and flips me, pinning me with his weight. “What fight?” he repeats, firmly.

“You and Norris, at the poker game,” I say, and his face relaxes into a knowing smirk.

“Ah. THAT fight.” He begins to leisurely unbutton my top, ignoring my struggles to shift my hips, and achieve friction. “I always get spectacularly lucky, when your thoughts drift that direction.”

“Well you would if you’d quit crushing me,” I say.

He finishes unbuttoning, and surveys my actually-heaving breasts. Almost casually, he bends to scrape his teeth along one nipple. “I learned something very important that night,” he confides, lifting a hand to massage the other breast. He gives a nip, and then a lick, and I moan.

“I’d been so earnest with you, for eight endless months.” He mouths the underside of my breast, his hand drifting down to toy with the drawstring of my pants. “Being your crime solving buddy, keeping a million tawdry secrets, following every one of your endless rules.” He slides his hand into the back of my pants, and adjusts me, so his cock and my clit align. I wind my legs around his, writhing.

“And then I get you alone in a closet, and you tell me you’ve always wanted me, and I figure FINALLY I can make my move. But when I go to kiss you? Total cock block.” He runs his hands down my throat, across my shoulders, along my arms, and spreads my hands wide. He slides my shirt completely open, and climbs abruptly off me to lick my navel. I whimper, and he laughs. It sounds dirty.

“’I have a boyfriend! I can’t!’ you say,” he mimics me, “and you run off, and the next day said boyfriend tries to send me to the ICU. So I quit fighting fair, and I paste him. And while I’m nursing my wounds with a bottle of whiskey, I decide I hate you.”

He tugs the pants down, and sucks at the placket of my g-string, pushing his tongue against the crease. “You’re a tease,” he looks up at me here, eyes twinkling, and smirks, “you’re myopically justice-obsessed, and uptight. And I have a perfectly willing, if unreliable, girlfriend I can ease my frustrations on, for hours and hours and hours.” He runs his teeth along the area he just licked, and a noise issues from the back of my throat that makes him smile.

“But then you show up at Dick’s poker party,” he continues, rising up to rest on his side next to me, chin in hand. His other hand trails between my breasts, down my stomach, to the area he’s just abandoned. It eases past the scrap of lace: he pushes two fingers inside me, deep, and my hips rise off the bed.

“And Lilly’s there, and she wants me.” He’s whispering into my ear, circling my clit with his thumb. “And Carrie’s there, and SHE wants me. And you’re there, and you look murderous, and then CLOTHES start coming off.”

He adds a third finger, and I’m so wet now his hand is making sounds. He bites my neck, shifts to thrust his cock against my hip. “And then you lose your last hand, and you’re looking right at me as you untie your dress, and I realize…it turns you on when I’m an asshole.”

He withdraws his fingers and pushes my panties to the side, and then he’s in me, looming over me from the full distance of his flexed arms, thrusting hard. I lock my feet around his waist and grip his forearms tight, my head thrashing: then he pulls out again, and goes down on me. I completely fucking lose it, when his tongue slides inside. He uses his mouth and both hands, one in, one not, and I’ve come three times and am sobbing for breath when he penetrates again.

He cradles my face with one wet hand, rocks sinuously against me, both of us rolled to our sides now, slippery with sweat. “When Norris came after me,” he says, “your oh-so-important boyfriend, you fucking tased him. And then you let me drag you off into the bushes, and lick you through your panties until you came. Ah, God.” His grip tightens on my ass, fingers sinking into the crease. My head falls back as he screws up, impassioned, into me, and then we both, helplessly, release.

“I love you,” he says, when he can talk again, his forehead pressed to mine. I laugh, breathless, and kiss him: arch down onto him, where he’s still half-hard inside me.

“I love you more,” I say. “Jackass.”

He laughs, and draws a heart around my clit with his fingertip, and I settle back to let him wear me out again.

“See,” he whispers, as I’m drifting off to sleep, much later. “SPECTACULARLY laid. You’re the best I’ve ever had, Veronica Mars. Got to put a ring on it, make sure the supply never dries up.”

Chapter Text

THREAD SEVEN INVERTS

I’m in a car with Dick Casablancas, I’m covered in blood, and he’s driving really fast. The shift from post-orgasmic torpor to adrenaline overload is jarring, to say the least: I shriek and grab the oh-shit handle, because what the FUCK is going on?

“I’m not gonna kill us, Ronnie,” he says, taking a corner on what feels like two wheels. He doesn’t look at me. “I’d tell you to relax, but I’m not sure you can, even under normal circumstances.”

“Where’s Logan?” I ask, because he’s in his tux and I’m in my green formal. I guess we stirred the pot more than we bargained for.

“Got in the ambulance with his mom,” he says. “Didn’t you see? It’s right up there ahead, I won’t lose them.”

Oh shit. Echolls Christmas Party. Knife. Jealous lover. Aaron’s dead, so she targeted Lynn. And then Logan’s words: “He stepped in front of the knife. Bravest thing I ever saw.”

“And Dad?” I grit out, heart pounding.

“I dunno. They were driving off with him just as I made it outside. But it’s the same hospital, Ronnie. I’ll get you there.”

We spin through a few more red lights and blind corners, and then he’s squealing to a stop at the emergency entrance, and I’m out the door. Lynn’s on a stretcher that’s unloading from an ambulance, and Logan’s beside her. I scan her rapidly for abdominal wounds: but she’s awake and alert, and other than a bandaged right arm, she looks OK.

Logan glances up at us and smiles faintly, then follows the stretcher inside. Dick puts a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, let’s find the Sherriff.”

Dad’s in surgery when we finally track him down: but we’re told he’s just getting stitched, and his life’s not in danger. I remember how he looked after he pulled me out of that fridge, all the terrible burns, and the grafts they required. I pray, silently, that this is less bad.

We settle in the waiting room. After a while, a young Pakistani doctor who sounds British appears, and guides us into a hallway. “Your father has a stab wound in the right shoulder, six defensive knife wounds to his forearms, and injuries to the palms of his hands, where he,” the doctor grimaces, “appears to have grabbed the weapon. All the trauma was muscular, except for some possible nerve damage to the left hand: there were no tendons or major blood vessels severed, thankfully. He’ll need physical therapy, and there may be some minor loss of sensation to the hand in question, but he’s not in any danger.”

“Can we see him?” I ask, taking my first deep breath since the car.

He nods. “Follow me. He may remain sedated until after visiting hours end, but you can watch him sleep.”

He leads us to a room, where dad is out cold, looking smaller than normal in the big steel bed. Both his arms are bandaged, like a mummy’s, but his vital areas are untouched. The doctor checks the chart and machines, moves to leave, then pauses by the door. “Your father’s a very brave man, Miss Mars. Not many people could muster the nerve to do what he did. He likely saved Mrs. Echolls’ life.”

“He’s a hero,” I agree, clenching my jaw to fight back tears. The doctor pats my arm, and goes.

Dick sits with me, even though I don’t ask him to. After a while, he wanders off, returns with two cups of coffee and some cheese crackers. “Logan’s down the hall with his mom,” he informs me. “She’s gonna be OK. He said to tell you the EMS guy complimented your tourniquet.”

“Competent in a crisis,” I murmur. “The Mars family motto.”

“Never let ‘em see you sweat,” Dick says. “That’s mine.”

I laugh, because it really is. “Can I ask you something?” I venture, after a while. “Or actually, two somethings?”

He shrugs. “No guarantee I’ll answer.”

“Remember Shelly Pomroy’s party, last year?”

He grins, gazing off into space. “How could I forget? You and Lilly were both hella scary.”

“Did you have GHB that night?”

He rolls his head to look at me. Not defensive, but not confiding. “Why do you care? Is this about Carmen?”

“No,” I say. “Carmen was dosed by Tad. He wanted to make a home movie.”

“Nah, man, no drugs. That was all Logan, Luke and Sean. They were planning to go to a rave after, but Logan disappeared with the car. To be honest, I didn’t even stay long, the party majorly blew. The only good part was when Friederich bet Lilly a grand she wouldn’t make out with Shelly.” He sat back, drinking his coffee. “So, I’m curious now. What’s your other question?”

“What’s your brother up to, these days?”

“Who the hell knows?” He shrugs. “Watching weird TV and not banging French chicks, probably. He went to live with my mom like six months ago, after Woody Goodman got arrested. He didn’t want to testify, and I guess she found a maternal instinct, somewhere. Why, you miss him?”

“Not even a little,” I say.

“Yeah, I gotta admit, I don’t miss Duncan much. I know everybody was all mad at you and shit, when that went down: even I was kinda mad, because you got Logan’s dad fucking killed. But I always thought the Donut was weird. Plus, boring as fuck. I’m surprised you didn’t dump him sooner, ‘specially now I’ve seen the kind of guys you really dig.”

“This from the person who dated Madison for years.”

“Hey, say what you will about that chick, she is NEVER boring.” He opens his cheese crackers and offers me one: I take it. “I had my doubts about you, you know. When Logan first started mooning over you all hardcore, and pretending he wasn’t, even though he explained how you ending his dad did him a favor. You may not realize this, Ronnie, but you kind of come off as an ice bitch.”

I level a cold stare at him, and he laughs. “You majorly had his back, though, tonight. You made some big-ass statements about where your loyalties lie, in front of everyone. So, like, you and me, we’re not besties…but I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re really on his team, you’re on mine, too.”

“You want to be on my team? Stop spouting sexist bullshit constantly in my presence.”

“What’s wrong with being sexy?” he asks, and I look at him, and he grins.

“Dick,” I muse, swallowing the rest of my disgusting coffee, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“Whatever,” he says. “You gonna eat your crackers?”

THREAD EIGHT

I’m awakened by the buzz of an alarm, and by Logan, prodding me. “Up,” he says, rolling me over, and when I play dead, rolling me back. “Up, school. And don’t hit the snooze again, or we’re gonna be late.”

I moan, and he climbs on top of me. “I know I fucked you into a stupor last night, Ronnie,” he says, in my ear, “but I didn’t realize it’d last this long.”

“You’re just that good,” I tell him, through a yawn.

“Why thank you, I was inspired. Now UP!” He yanks all the covers off me, and opens the curtains. I sit and blink at him: he’s fully, if sloppily, dressed, and gilded in pale, beachy light. He hands me a cup, which excites me until I realize it’s herbal tea.

“I miss espresso,” I whine, and he throws a t-shirt at my head.

I dress in the clothes he’s laid out on a chair, like I’m five years old, and follow him to the car (which is a Range Rover, same as he drove in Original!College, only this one is forest green). He hands me a paper sack, and I dig out a chocolate croissant, a sausage kolache and an apple (the last of which he filches). Then there’s only eating, and sipping hot drinks, and watching the sunlit ocean slide from view, as we turn inland, down the highway.

“Where’s my phone?” I ask, and he points toward the backseat, where two backpacks and a steel-grey messenger bag rest. I snag the bag, dig out a pair of sunglasses. Then I scroll through my calendar for the day, thanking God I’m a Type A anal-retentive.

Photography at 8:30, Abnormal Psychology at 10:00, library time—1 hour!! at 11:30, ‘History of the American Underclass’ at 2:00. I page through my cell photos, and sure enough, there’s one of my class schedule, showing all the teachers and halls. Damn, I’m good.

“Lunch at 1:00?” I ask, and he says, “Josie’s?” I nod, figuring I can Google it. Logan turns, parallel parks effortlessly, makes a ta-da gesture, and leaps out of the car.

He always was disgustingly chipper in the morning.

I open my door, and he holds out a hand to help me down. I glance around blearily as he settles my pack on my shoulders. Then, not so blearily. “Wait, where are we?”

He lifts his eyebrows. “Um, school?”

Shit, I think, as he kisses my nose, salutes me with two fingers, and saunters off, whistling.

Because the campus I’m standing on isn’t Hearst.

XXXXX

So guess where I go to college now? Come on, wild guess. Stanford? UCLA? San Diego State?

Nope. Berkeley. With the hippies. Where I’m apparently a criminal justice major, while Logan studies sociology. I’m not working very hard, either: I’ve got three classes per day, no job as far as I can tell, and a social calendar that consists of ‘lunch-Mac’ and ‘shopping with Alice’.

(Note to self: figure out who the fuck Alice is, before next week’s ‘shopping’.)

My morning classes, I manage to locate with the help of a map from the information center, and a friendly physicist. I skate through them, despite my lack of preparation, because, well, I’m me. Then, yeah, I spend ‘library time’ Googling.

I search for me, and find 47 feel-good articles about Jake and Lianne Kane, and their many charities: also, three about Sheriff Keith Mars, winning a landslide re-election. I search for Logan, and discover he has a fan club…that must burn him something fierce. In addition to being a ‘hot-hot-HOTTIE’, he’s apparently a Dean’s List student, a semi-pro surfer, and an ‘airplane enthusiast’, which, I don’t even want to know. He’s mentioned in a zillion Aaron and Lynn Echolls articles, but there’s no sign of the infamous Larry King interview: I guess his public outing as an abuse victim has vanished into the slipstream. There’s no mention of him in my media, or me in his, other than this tidbit: “When asked about his love life, Logan grinned and said, ‘definitely off the market’.”

I search for Trina, and she comes up in the cast list for a straight-to-video movie about killer polar bears, so I guess some things never change. I search for Lilly, expecting wall-to-wall Lindsey Lohan style paparazzi shots, and instead get more charity spiels. I realize, then, that all three of us have been scrubbed: because duh, Jake and Wiedman are tech security geniuses. Convinced that Googling has been a massive waste of time, I turn my focus to finding Josie’s.

I’m not sure what I expected: but the restaurant’s an upscale Thai place, lots of primary colors and wooden carvings, piped-in flute music with rippling trills. Logan’s waiting at a table when I get there, and has coconut bubble tea and egg rolls at the ready, which makes my heart do a funny lurch. He’s wearing my (his?) brown cardigan, and hops up to kiss me. I press my face to his chest and breathe him in, and hope this part of my life will never change.

“How’d the presentation go?” I ask, as he sprawls back over the two chairs he’s claimed, and takes a slug of condensed milk and coffee.

“Enh,” he does a see-saw motion with his hand, and I narrow my eyes. “Nailed it,” he says, with a smirk.

“And there’s the Dean’s List student I know and love,” I praise. “When are you done for the day?”

“Whenever you are.” He snatches an egg roll, laughs when I bare my teeth at him. “I need to park somewhere with WiFi, do some reading for English. You can just find me after Weird History is over.”

“You want to hang at the library? I have to pick up my paycheck anyway.”

He sighs. “If I must,” he says, unenthused.

Hmmm. I prepare to probe further, but a waiter sets a plate of lemongrass beef and a dish of mango pudding in front of me, and I lose my train of thought. “You ordered for me?”

He rolls his eyes. “Like you don’t get the exact same thing every.single. time.” He digs into his own vermicelli, gestures with his chopsticks. “Eat up. Feed the alien piloting your appetite, and then you can escort me into the pits of Hell.”

“The library is really that bad?” I ask, through a giant mouthful of ambrosia.

“I guess it’s more like purgatory,” he concedes, glum. “Mind-numbing boredom, resentment of the many rules. Penance for my sins. Thank God you showed some sense and quit.”

I frown, but I’m too starved to focus, and before I know it, I’m kissing him goodbye in front of a nondescript beige building. Then, king-sized, to-go bubble tea in hand, I head off to find out just how weird Weird History is.

Answer? Very. The topic is The Living Conditions of Ellis Island Immigrants, and holy cow. After an hour of photos of ethnically-based gang murders, starving kids with gruesome factory injuries, and the perils of tenement living (accompanied by a top-volume, spittle-slinging rant) I’m numb. I emerge blinking into the sunlight, figuring the library will be a breeze by comparison.

At least, I think so until I get there, and find Logan staring at the ceiling, wearing his ‘I’m about to verbally eviscerate Gia Goodman’ face. While Piz sits across from him, leaning forward on his elbows, monologuing earnestly about God knows what.

They turn when I approach. Logan’s eyes plead ‘save me’, and Piz’s whole face lights up. “VERONICA!” he squeaks, grinning from ear to ear. “You CAME BACK!”

Fuck me. No wonder I quit.

XXXXX

“Never again,” Logan warns as we leave the library, pointing a finger at my face. “I mean it. I’ve gotten better at tolerating idiots in general, but that guy is a bridge too far.”

I glance down at the check for $315.94 in my fist, and honestly, it doesn’t seem worth his agitation. “Come on,” I say, with a weak smile. “He’s nice.”

“Sure he is, if by ‘nice’ you mean ‘passive-aggressive, attention-starved omega male, with no discernable social skills’. Do you know what we, or rather he, discussed for 45 minutes? Celtic folk music and its impact on early U2. I am not even kidding!”

“It could have been worse,” I say, grabbing his gesticulating hand with both of mine. “He could have spent the whole time rhapsodizing about me.”

“Don’t even joke,” Logan says, entwining our fingers. He kisses my hand. “I have enough trouble not beating the shit out of that jerkoff as is.” He chirps open the locks on the car. “I’ve got no idea how Wallace puts up with him. The man is a saint.”

“Headphones, most likely,” I say, and then my phone rings, distracting me. “Mars crematorium,” I lilt, into the speaker. “We grill ‘em, you spill ‘em.”

“And here I thought going away to college would make you MORE mature,” my dad intones, voice warm.

“Pops!” I grin. “Come on, ‘away’? It’s Berkeley, not Jupiter.”

“Half a world apart, for a doting dad,” he says. “You still coming down for the party this weekend?”

“Party?” I mouth at Logan, and he gestures for me to hand him the phone.

“Hey Mr. Mars,” he says, then rolls his eyes and laughs. “Fine, whatever, dude. We’re all carpooling Friday after class, just wanted to ask you about the surfing thing. YEAH, I think she’s ready, I just want to make sure SHE thinks so. And you know she doesn’t always tell us…” he laughs. “Okay, then. Fine, we’ll bring the boards. Yeah, looking forward to it. Wait ‘til you see what we bought him. OK, here’s Ronnie.”

“Hey dad,” I say, as Logan hits the garage door opener, and parks the car.

“You didn’t get anything too extravagant?” he asks, and I say, “Now that would be telling,” because I have no clue.

“I am an officer of the law,” he warns. “I ferret out secrets for a living.”

“Oh look, it’s that urgent thing I have to do,” I say. “Right now. Urgently. Later, Daddy-o!”

“Veronica…” he protests, but I hang up.

“You almost spilled your guts, didn’t you?” Logan asks, laughing at me.

I squeeze my eyes shut. “I could picture his Disappointed Dad Face,” I admit, cracking one eye open. “It breaks me every time.”

“Funny, Aaron’s Disappointed Dad Face always made me faintly nauseous.” He hooks an arm around my shoulders, and kisses the top of my head, opening the door to the house. We’re greeted by the sound of yelling and explosions.

We find Wallace and Dick sprawled out over most of our living room, playing Halo. The coffee table is littered with beer cans and bags of snack, and Cypress Hill is playing loudly enough that it doesn’t qualify as background music.

“Dude!” Logan says, vaulting the couch and inserting himself between them. He yanks the controller away from Dick, and smacks him in the back of the head. “I can’t believe you started without me!”

“Whatever.” Dick gets up and circles the couch to plant a kiss on the top of my head. I cringe, because let’s face it: I may not loathe Dick in this timeline, like I do in my own, but we will NEVER EVER be on head-kissing terms. “At least Ronnie’s glad to see me, aren’t you, Rons? Hey, you got any of that chorizo queso from last time in the freezer?”

Mmm, Dad’s chorizo queso, I muse, momentarily distracted. “Maybe if you get OFF me, and turn that music down to a level that won’t give us nerve damage.”

“See?” Dick asks the room in general. “Boundless affection.”

A series of groans issues from the screen, and Wallace yells, “HA!” throwing his hands up and the controller down. “THAT’S what I’m talking about!”

“Dude, you only beat me because I took over Dick’s avatar,” Logan says, throwing a handful of chips at him.

“You keep telling yourself that,” Wallace says, standing up to stretch. “Hey, Dick, come school Logan for me, man, my eyes are crossing. I’ll keep V company while she pretends to cook things in the kitchen.”

“Oh, ha ha,” I say, but I follow him in, and go hunting through the freezer. Because, queso. There’s nothing already prepped, but we have cream cheese, salsa and chorizo, so I hunt up a skillet.

“You ready for the big get-together at the family compound?” Wallace asks, leaning back against the counter. He selects a grape from the fruit bowl, and pops it in his mouth.

“Um,” I say noncommittally, and empty sausage into the pan.

He laughs. “Yeah, there seems to be a lot of advance work involved. Which reminds me, Dick was looking for you guys earlier—something about which hat to buy—but neither one of you was answering.”

“Must have been when we were at the library, getting my paycheck.” I finish washing my hands, and reach for a towel. “I didn’t hear the phone.”

He stares at me. “You did NOT take Logan there.”

“He handled it,” I say, smirking at him. “I mean, he clearly wanted to strangle Piz after a 45 minute musical dissertation, but he controlled himself manfully.”

“Are you CRAZY?” he demands, reaching over to shut the kitchen door. He lowers his voice to a hiss. “Man, you’re gonna get Piz KILLED!”

“What? Why?” I ask, separating sausage with a spatula. “We were in a neutral public place on a business errand. It’s not like we showed up for group bowling, only to find Piz had asked me on a date.”

He crosses his arms. “You didn’t tell Logan, did you?”

I cross my arms back. “Tell Logan WHAT?” I demand.

“That Piz KISSED YOU!” He throws his hands up. “I can’t BELIEVE you, V! I kept my mouth shut because you said you were gonna handle it, and that you’d already figured out the right words to say, and that you’d quit the job, and never speak to Piz again. And this was your solution? To pretend the whole thing didn’t happen?” He shakes his head at me, and I cringe a little under the weight of his disapproval. “I don’t appreciate being put in this position, Veronica. Piz is my roommate, but Logan is my BEST FRIEND!”

Okay, that hurts. Logan cutting Wallace off the flagpole is the WORST thing about this timeline, hands down.

Well, except for the fact that Piz KISSED me. Because, EW. As if.

“What did Piz have to say about this alleged kiss, anyway?” I ask, turning off the burner. “What’s his version of the story?”

He’s staring at me, penetrating, and his frown deepens. “That you were crying about something, but you wouldn’t tell him what. And he figured it was your quote ‘Neanderthal boyfriend’.” He holds a hand up as I sputter, to silence me. “And the light was shining on your hair, and you looked like an angel, blah-de-blah-de-blah, you know how he gets. And then he told you he would do anything for you, and you could come to him, and he would protect you, and you just looked at him with big wet eyes, and whispered, “I have to go”. And ran. Then he asked what Logan would do when he heard, and I said, “Kill you.” And he turned white, and made this squeaky sound, and locked himself in the bathroom for twenty minutes.”

“Oh my GOD!” I say, and start pacing. Because I am SO mad. SO. MAD. I want to grab the car keys and drive back to the library: tase Piz until he pees himself, and can’t stop twitching.

“I am ENGAGED!” I grit, through clenched teeth. “I am PREGNANT! I would not willingly kiss that jellyfish, FOR ANY REASON EVER. THAT FUCKER!”

I punch the wall, hurt my knuckles, and make a dent. “He’s like Homer Simpson, only seeing what he wants to see. God, I’ll KILL HIM!”

“Wait wait wait wait.” Wallace holds up a preemptive hand. “Back up the truck. You’re PREGNANT?”

“YES,” I say. “Was I not supposed to tell you?”

“If Piz knowingly kissed a pregnant, engaged woman?” he announces, deliberately, “I’ll kill him right along with you. How many weeks gone are you?”

We both look down at my stomach. “Three months?” I guess.

He paces to the end of the kitchen and back. “Ok,” he says. “Ok. Man, but we REALLY gotta tell Logan everything now, or I’m afraid he’s gonna kill ME.”

“Fine,” I say, turning back to the chorizo to cover my nervousness. “Ask him to come help me in here. And distract Dick.”

“Thank you, V,” he says, and takes off through the door.

Logan enters a minute later and looks down at me, and I fold in on myself defensively. “You summoned?” he asks.

“Wallace says I have to tell you this, or he will,” I blurt. “Piz kissed me.”

“I know,” Logan says. “You kicked him in the nuts three times. I can’t believe he doesn’t curl up or flee, at the sight of you. Why are we talking about this again?”

“Piz told Wallace I gave him MELTING LOOKS and then ran off to ‘think’, like a romance novel heroine,” I say. “And I got SO MAD I may have punched a hole in the wall.”

Logan searches out the dent, and the corner of his mouth turns up. “Is your hand OK?”

“It hurts,” I admit. He takes it in both of his, examining, and my eyes well up. “I am SO SORRY I made you go there today!”

“I thought it was a test,” he confides. He looks up at me, smiles faintly at the expression on my face. “To see if I could keep it together, under extreme pressure. Since I’m gonna be a dad and all.”

“I would NEVER,” I say, very seriously, and his smile becomes genuine. “You’re gonna be the BEST DAD. Well, tied for best. I honestly didn’t think. You know how focused I can get, and other guys…just don’t register, sometimes.”

“To me either,” he says, mock-seriously, pulling me in for a hug. “I promise to never even LOOK at another dude.”

“What a comedian,” I mutter, and kiss his chest. “Now, can you please tell Wallace that he’s not trapped in the middle of a fiasco anymore?”

“Nah, I’m gonna make him sweat,” he says, dipping a chip into the salsa, and laughs when I smack him. “What?” he protests, fake-innocent. “HE didn’t say anything about this situation to ME.”

“Yeah, but he’s your best friend,” I scold, turning back to the stove.

“So he claims.” Logan bends over me, kisses my cheek. Whispers in my ear, “Personally, I think he likes you more.”

Chapter Text

THREAD EIGHT INVERTS

I’m doing homework at a desk that isn’t mine, in a red and gold room that looks my style (on a huge budget), but ditto. It’s calculus, ugh, and Garbage is playing quietly in the background. There’s a Husky puppy in a green rhinestone collar sprawled, snoring, on the floor.

The door opens, and I glance up as Logan walks in. He spins, back to the king-size bed, flops down, covers his eyes with his arm, and peeks out at me from under it. “I need your help, Veronica,” he says.

I let go a breath. Finally, something familiar.

“Tell me more,” I invite, flopping down beside him.

“See, I have this problem,” he confides, rolling on top of me, smiling. He brushes the bangs out of my eyes.

“Oooh,” I say. “Is it a BIG problem?”

“So big I don’t know if you can handle it,” he says, grin intensifying. He settles in, fitting himself between my legs.

“Never underestimate me,” I warn. “I can handle ANYTHING.”

He laughs and kisses me, deep, and he’s hard against me. I relax, accept him, hooking my heels around his knees, spreading my fingers, gently, through his hair.

“Mmmm,” he says, after a while. He presses his face into the crook of my neck, breathing deeply. “Parental unit in the next room, and I actually did come over here for an important reason.”

“More important than ME?” I ask, kittenish and mock-coy, and he groans and kisses me again, pressing me harder into the bed.

“You really are the most dangerous person I know,” he tells me hotly. He nips at my earlobe and sits up, and that’s when I realize it’s serious.

“Somebody’s been using mom’s credit cards,” he says, settling himself out of reach with a wry smile. “The bank called her, and shut them down, but she wants to report the theft to your dad. Thing is, based on the stuff that’s been purchased, I’m pretty sure I know who’s doing it. And I think that person’s in trouble.”

“Trina?” I ask, and he laughs and nods.

“Dingdingding! Cue balloons and confetti. Yeah, she does drugs and hangs out with asshole losers, same as always, but these are BIG charges. Like ‘pouring money into a black hole of a movie that will never get off the ground’ charges. Mom thinks if Trina takes a fall, it might teach her responsibility: she’s sick of bailing her out. Because, you know, Trina was Aaron and Pamela’s kid, not hers, and meant to be their problem. Only she’s an orphan now, and she’s still my sister. I hate to think of her starving in some alley somewhere, just because her next trust fund tier doesn’t kick in until 25. I feel like I should at least try to get her into rehab.”

“I’ll help you look,” I say. “But if it gets too dangerous, we take this to my dad. I mean, for all you know, she could be making meth. Or porn. Or, like, Porky’s 9: The Porkening.”

“Agreed,” he says. “Since all are well within her wheelhouse. I’ll email you the history of charges in the morning, and we can start there. Now, as for tonight…can I interest you in dinner, a brief stop at Enbom’s birthday party, and a long, leisurely exploration of the back seat of my car?”

“Oh, quit, you big romantic,” I say, play-swatting him. I retreat to my desk. “I have to finish calculus first. And I have a curfew.”

“Since when?” he asks, quirking an eyebrow. “And who does calculus on a Friday night? Not my red satin girlfriend, that’s for sure.” He prowls around behind me, and squats at the back of my chair. Begins nibbling my nape, and running his hands all over me, in a way guaranteed to make sure I get no work done. I huff with frustration, turn to kiss him, and he picks me up bodily and carries me to the door. The puppy lifts his head, barks once, half-heartedly, and drifts right back to sleep.

“Purse,” Logan says, setting me down. “Food. Party. THEN you get to have your wicked way with me, Miss Impatient.”

“You are EVIL,” I accuse, narrowing my eyes. He laughs, holds his fingers apart an inch to indicate ‘a little bit’, and ceremoniously opens the door.

I sail past him, still feigning indignation, and stop short. Because Jake Kane is sitting at the kitchen table, in a giant, open-concept living space. He’s got two laptops running, and a bunch of silicon wafers spread around the microscope in front of him: he’s barefoot, drinking a soda, and looks completely at home.

“Hi Veronica,” he says, smiling in the easy way of his that stockholders love. “Going on a date?”

I gape, and Logan intercedes. “Gotta wine and dine her,” he says, putting a protective hand on the small of my back. “Make sure she feels appreciated.”

“It’s nice to see how much you’ve matured, Logan,” Jake says. “I think Veronica’s a good influence.” He raises his voice to call, “Hey, Lianne?”

My mom comes fluttering into the room, saying her goodbyes to someone on the phone. She’s in a blue dress that’s all gauze and frills, and her hair’s up: she looks a lot younger than I remember, and she doesn’t seem trashed.

“Logan’s taking Veronica on a date,” Jake says, with a twinkle. He then goes back to work, clearly feeling his duty is done.

“Oooh, where?” Lianne gets a thrilled look on her face, and I realize, with an inner cringe, that she’s got one of her ‘soft spots’ for Logan. The biggest advantage of her being a lush was, she quit shoving me at the rich, popular kids all the time. “Somewhere FANCY?” She asks, hip-checking me as she flirts up.

Logan grins his smarmiest grin, and winks at her. “Only the best for my sugarplum,” he says. “In fact, we’re gonna miss our reservations, unless we hit the highway. And you don’t even WANT to know what I had to do to score them.”

I can’t help but smile at his dickishness. “Oh, you’re a keeper,” I say.

“Isn’t he?” mom agrees, and gives me her ‘we’re just two girls, gossiping’ hug. “Have fun, sweetie! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t!”

I clench my jaw to hold back the retort, and drag Logan out to his car.

“Ugh!” I vent, as soon as we lock ourselves inside. “Thank God I can’t ACTUALLY die of embarrassment.”

“It’s hard to believe you’re related to her,” he agrees, starting the engine. “Other than looks, do you have ANYTHING in common?”

We both run away when things get tough, I think. But don’t say, because I won’t BE that girl, this time around. “I can’t believe she got custody,” I mutter. “I guess Jake bought the judge.”

“Why wouldn’t she?” Logan asks, seeming genuinely confused. “I mean, I’m clearly no expert on normal families, but don’t moms usually? Plus she’s rich, and happily married, and does charity work all day long. Whereas your dad’s a single workaholic, with a tiny apartment. Besides, it’s not like she mistreats you. Or really, imposes any rules whatsoever.”

“Yeah, she’s the ‘cool mom’. She wants to be BFF’s forever,” I say snidely, as much to punish the adoring tween I once was, as to cope now. Because seriously, she was an adulterous drunk who left my dad. I’m pissed that she hasn’t PAID.

“Hey, my mom’s Blanche DuBois,” he says, with a half-smile. “No pity.”

“Oh, you win the fucked-up family sweepstakes, hands down,” I say. “It’s amazing you’re so functional.”

“I’m not functional,” he denies. “I’m just an excellent faker.”

“I KNEW your moans seemed insincere!” I exclaim, with a dag-nabbit snap. “Should I up my game, I wonder? Or should I find solace in the fact that you make nice, platonic arm candy?”

He hooks a sudden right, then a left. Pulls up behind a darkened donut shop, screened from the road by trees. He looks at me, and his dark eyes are intense, measuring. “Get in back,” he says, with a jerk of his head. “I’m ready for whatever you’ve got.”

I do, smirking, and he scrambles after me, pulling me onto his lap, kissing me full-throttle. His hands creep under my skirt and squeeze, grinding me against him, and oh, I remember this. Agony and ecstasy at Makeout Point: frantic, panting mouths, the abrasion of denim that chafed for days.

I unsnap his jeans and shove my hands inside, and he groans… begins that slow undulation of his whole body towards my skin that drives me insane. He works his fingers frantically at the crotch of my panties as I grip and stroke him, eating out the inside of his mouth, and then he arches and spills in my grasp. I grab his wrist, shove his hand inside my underwear, and he makes a nervous, excited sound, and gets to work.

“I want to push my fingers into you,” he says, breathless. “I want you to feel like I’m fucking you. I want to take off all your clothes, and lay you out on the hood, and….”

I come, hard, a series of gasps and sighs, and he pulls me up against him tight, wrenching us together damply. “God,” he says. “I can’t take it. Even without sex, it’s always so good.”

“Yes,” I say. “Of course. I love you.”

“You…?” He cups my face in his hands, searching my eyes, and then pulls me into a hug. “Are you drunk?”

“No.” I frown, thinking fuck, did we JUST start dating? All the different Logans are beginning to meld together in my mind, and it’s difficult to contain myself with any of them. I was supposed to keep my hands out of this one’s pants, for instance. But I lost my head when he LOOKED at me that way.

“You LOVE me?” he persists, like this is crazy talk. I sigh and say, “Yes,” because I do, and he starts peppering kisses all over my face and throat, until I’m gasping and laughing and squirming in his grip.

“Quit it!” I demand, giggling hysterically, and he says, “No way, you love me, get used to it,” and keeps going.

Eventually he winds down, and we hold each other, snickering, in the dark. “This is the best date ever,” he pronounces, into my neck.

“So far,” I say, and he snorts with laughter. “Quit cackling and feed me,” I demand, with one last kiss. I climb into the front, adjust my skirt, fasten my seatbelt, and glance back at him primly. He salaams, amused, and grimacing, fastens his pants.

“Burgers?” he asks, when he’s settled in the driver’s seat, cranking the engine.

“Drive thru,” I confirm, checking my makeup in the flip-down mirror. He salutes, and pulls out, turning smoothly onto the road.

“Hey Veronica?” he asks, as we slow at a red light. I look up from trying to restore order to my hair. He leans very close, and whispers confidingly, “I love you, too.”

Then he winks at me, and takes off with a squeal, humming a Faders song.

XXXXX

Logan’s skipping around like a tween girl with a secret when we get to the party, wanting to chat with everyone, whereas I feel pleasantly like napping. So I slump on the couch with my obligatory cider, and stare at the ceiling fan, and daydream.

After a while, Dick slumps beside me, draining his beer can, then crushing it as he belches. “Ronnie,” he says, tossing it backwards over his head.

“How’s things in Casablancasland?” I ask, not taking my eyes off the fan.

“Ah, you know. Palling around with my lonely, lost-youth-seeking dad, while he staggers through a bad divorce, and develops an obsession with guns. You?”

“Trying NOT to pal around with my pathetic, youth-seeking mom, while she moons over the rich dude she stole from Celeste, and pressures me to be similarly gold-diggy.”

He grins. “You mean you’re NOT with Logan so you can be Perez Hilton’s front page?”

“Sorry,” I say. “I’m in it for his body. I could care less about the trappings.”

“I heard that,” Logan interjects, sinking down between us. “Quit gossiping, you’ll ruin my reputation.”

“Relax, sweetcakes,” I soothe, patting his knee. “I promise I’ll respect you in the morning.”

“If you two start making out, I’m filming it with my camera phone,” Dick warns, holding his hand out. Logan puts a beer in it, and they both pop their cans open and drink.

“This party sucks,” Logan says after a while, during which we all study the fan and sip. “It needs, like, explosions or strippers or something.”

“I’d be offended that you’re jonesing for strippers in front of me,” I say. “But this party really does suck.”

“How’s your mom, dude?” Dick asks, replicating the chug/crush/belch.

Logan shrugs. “Making a movie about forty-something women reclaiming their power, with Meg Ryan and Goldie Hawn. Presumably there will be boomer music and tipsy revelations, and fat, balding has-beens playing the romantic interests.”

“Makes me glad my mom lives in France,” Dick observes.

“Man,” Logan says, “I don’t care if she embarrasses me, as long as she’s happy.”

“You are SO much more Zen than I am,” I say. “I HATE it when my mom embarrasses me.”

“Yeah, that’s Logan,” Dick says. “A Buddhist inspiration. Except, you know, when he’s punching the fuck out of someone, for looking at him wrong.”

“Well, sure, obviously not then,” I agree, and we all smile at the fan.

XXXXX

I’m headed upstairs to find a bathroom when I see Lilly.

She’s curled on a loveseat in a secluded reading alcove, drink in hand: she looks pensive, gazing out the window at the ocean and hills, with faraway eyes. I think about passing by. But she’s my BFF 4-ever, and she’s not dead. So I pause next to her, and try.

“What are you doing up here by yourself?” I ask. “Why aren’t you in the middle of the action, making your patented brand of mayhem?”

“Hmmm….” She takes a drink and rolls an ice cube in her mouth, thoughtful. Shoots me a sideways look. “My boyfriend’s downstairs with his new girlfriend. And it pains me to say so, but it hurts my stomach, watching them grin at each other all the time, like idiots.”

I study her for a minute. “That bitch,” I say finally, sitting beside her. “What’s she got that you don’t?”

“I know, right?” Lilly widens her eyes in fake outrage. “She’s brittle and flat-chested, and she doesn’t even put out. And he was MINE, for so long, even if I wasn’t faithful. He’s the only person who ever truly loved me.”

I watch her finger trace the lip of her glass, and so does she. “No, he’s not,” I say.

She shoots me a lascivious glance. “I always thought you were a closet dyke, Veronica Mars.”

I smile, just a little. “Lils, you know if I swung that way, it would have been, proudly, you.”

She cocks her head to one side, considering. “Well, Logan IS kind of girl-like, with his constant talking about feelings, and his readiness to go down. Don’t you think?”

I remember his heft in my grasp as he moaned. The way his hands spanned my whole ass, as he dragged me closer. The way he curled around me, twice my size. “Not really, no,” I say, sardonic, and for some reason this makes her laugh.

“He’s totally NOT,” she agrees, with a naughty inflection, and we both crack up. A vise I didn’t even know I had around my heart eases a little.

Logan comes up the stairs after a while and finds us together, sharing sips of the drink and watching the waves. He pulls the ottoman even with our feet, and sits down, surveying.

“So neither explosions nor strippers have appeared, in your absence,” he says, with a flash of his one-sided smile. “Anybody up for a trip to Cape Crescent?”

“Bonfire?” Lilly asks, languid.

He rests his elbows on his knees. “Natch.”

“Well, it has to be better than here,” she pronounces, setting her glass down with a clink. “Come on, Veronica, you can ride with me.”

She sashays off, hair swinging, and Logan fixes me with a bemused look. “You really CAN handle anything,” he observes.

“I told you not to underestimate me,” I remind him, giving him a kiss and a pat on the cheek. “See you at the beach, Surfer Boy. Save me a spot in the sand.”

THREAD NINE

When I emerge from bed the next morning, Dick, Mac and Lilly are sprawled around my living room in various poses of neglect, watching, for some reason, the Super Mario Brothers live-action TV show. I wonder briefly if my house is the hipster crash pad for everyone I’ve ever met: then I stumble into the kitchen, in search of sustenance.

Logan is there, scrambling eggs. He’s wearing red plaid boxers, a Cake concert shirt with a giant abdominal hole, and animal slippers of the elephant-foot variety. His hair looks like he stuck his finger in a socket.

“Morning sunshine,” he says with a smirk, as I pull an orange juice container out of the fridge and drain it.

“Feed me,” I moan, and he gestures theatrically at the table, indicating I should sit.

He puts a plate in front of me, deposits bacon and a chocolate-chip pancake on it, and goes back to the stove to fetch eggs. He scrapes some out into the last free corner, kissing the top of my head.

“Why is everybody we’ve ever met in our living room, on a school day?” I ask.

“Because we’re playing hooky,” he says. “It’s like senior ditch day, only with irresponsible adults.”

“Glad we cleared that up,” I mutter, and fall on my breakfast like a wolf. Through a mouthful of bacon I ask, “Mind telling me where we’re going?”

“Out on the yacht.” He ferries plates out into the living room. In a minute he’s back, setting two Sunkists on the table, and joining me with his own breakfast. “Do some seal-spotting, maybe lunch at the Cliff House. We’re just waiting on Wallace and Jessica. And Troy.”

I choke on my eggs. “Troy VANDEGRAFF?”

“Yeah?” Logan pats me on the back. “He’s Lilly’s latest boy toy. She says he’s just reformed enough.”

“We’re not gonna get stopped by the Coast Guard, are we? If we bring him along?”

“Okay, what do you know?” He sets his fork down.

“Well, he used to be a drug dealer, on a scale that made Weevil and Friedrich look like pikers,” I say. “I’m talking distribution, and kilos. Not sure how positive I am he’s changed his spots, either. Trouble follows that guy around.”

“Then he’s definitely Lilly’s type,” he says, grimly. “Should we refuse to let him in, or just frisk him before he goes on the boat?”

“Hey Veronica,” Dick calls from the living room. “Do you got any more syrup?”

“Why does he always ask me?” I demand, yearning for caffeine.

“You’re a tender and nurturing earth mother?” Logan guesses. I smack his arm.

“He gets any syrup on my couch, and he’s buying me a new one,” I warn.

Logan laughs, snags a squeeze bottle, and heads back out.

I polish off my last slice of bacon, and wander away to shower. When I return, Lilly’s at the kitchen table with coffee, reading ‘The Betsey’, Dick, Logan and Mac are missing, and Wallace is on the couch, shoveling pancakes into his mouth. The blonde girl from the Fiji photos is curled up beside him, channel-surfing with her head on his shoulder.

“Hey Veronica,” the girl says. She looks like someone I’ve met, but I can’t put my finger on it.

“Hey…Jessica,” I greet her. “Where’s Logan?”

“Went to get beer,” Wallace informs me, through a mouthful of food.

I sit next to Lilly. “THAT looks like an educational read,” I chirp, lusting for her coffee.

“Golden showers, Veronica Mars,” she tells me gleefully, marking the page with a finger. “And the family patriarch seduces his young wife by DRINKING HER BREAST MILK!”

“Ah, the 70’s,” I sigh. I give in and grab her coffee, enjoy a heavenly sip. I consider taking her to task for unsafe Vandegraffing, but hey, Logan’s turned into a model citizen: maybe Troy can, too. Besides, it’s not like I didn’t have a crack at him myself, back behind door number one.

Ugh, I had the WORST taste in men, in Original! Reality. Thank God for this never-ending series of traumatic dreams, or I’d probably be shacked up with PIZ.

“So what class is this for?” I ask instead, sarcastic. She grins.

“Womens’ studies!” she surprises me by saying, because I was totally kidding. “Can you believe it? We have to read all these potboilers from like 1980, Andrew Greely and Jackie Collins, and something called ‘Sweet Savage Love’. There’s a film list, too, with stars like Pia Zadora. My teacher is DEMENTED!”

I shake my head, because this must so be Lilly’s favorite class. At least she’s getting her perverse thrills vicariously these days, instead of literally. I hope.

Crap. I forgot how emotionally taxing it is, worrying Lilly will go off the deep end. At least LOGAN gave up his charter membership in the Crisis of the Week Club.

I hope. Fuck, I’ve only been living this reality for like 4 days, I shouldn’t take such things for granted. Logan, MY Logan, had the Platinum Premium Lifetime Membership, featuring penthouse, groupies, and all the Jack he could chug.

OK, pregnant, angst level rising, not a good combination, Veronica. Deep breaths. Calm blue ocean. Fingers crossed I dream about Kendall Casablancas tonight, because I really need to PUNCH somebody.

The doorbell rings, and I get up mechanically to answer it. Troy is lounging in the doorway, and no way is he in the same leaning league as Logan. Also, his Biggus Dickus haircut looks stupid.

“Well well well,” he intones, smarmily. “If it isn’t the beautiful and vivacious Veronica Mars. May I say, it’s an honor AND a privilege?”

Oh, look. Punching now.

Troy goes down like a sack of rocks, blood streaming from his nose, and everybody in the room stops what they’re doing to stare at me.

Yeah, red satin, hormones and stress. Not the best cocktail.

XXXXX

Logan, coming up the stairs, takes one look at Troy laid flat on the ground and bursts out laughing. “Nice!” he says, crouching to inspect the damage. “I didn’t know you could reach that high, bobcat.” He sets the grocery sacks he’s carrying down and grabs my hand, to inspect it. “We’d better ice this,” he decides. “You’ll have bruises on top of your bruises.”

“What the HELL?” Troy splutters, coming up to sitting. “All I did was say hello, and she DECKED ME!”

“Musta been the way you said it,” Logan tells him. He raises his voice. “Hey Lils, your piece-of-garbage, drug-dealer boyfriend has a broken nose, over here. Come show some feminine compassion or whatever.” He points at Troy. “And you, don’t bleed on my floor. C’mon, Ronnie.” He picks up the beer, and hauls me off to the kitchen.

“So,” he says, once he’s tenderly rinsed my hand, and blanketed it with a bag of frozen peas, “way to get the party started.”

“I can’t believe I did that,” I say. “Maybe I need a warning label.”

“Three hundred pounds of badass in a hundred pound bod,” he muses. “I like it.”

“You’re the one who’s supposed to be hitting people all the time,” I tell him. “I’m the brains, remember?”

“Babe, if you want to punch every guy who tries to scam you for the rest of our lives, you have my blessing.”

“Not babe,” I contradict, pointing at him.

“Sugar lumps? Snuggle bear?”

“Those would be acceptable.” I tilt forward, and press my face to his chest. “We need to tell everybody I’m knocked up. I have no other excuse.”

“Ronnie, I hate to break it to you, but everybody in that room has had your number since you tased Norris Clayton for defending your honor. Well, maybe Jessica still harbors illusions. But not for long.”

“Fuck,” I say. “I forgot about that.”

“That makes one of us,” he murmurs. “SO hot.”

“Come on,” I urge, unenthusiastic. “Red satin doesn’t hide in the kitchen.”

Troy is sitting on the couch, with an ice-filled highball glass pressed to his nose. Lilly stands beside him, arms crossed, an identical but booze-filled glass in one hand. She’s listening in amusement, not empathy, as Dick (elbows on knees in the armchair opposite) interrogates.

“Dude, did you hit on her?” Dick asks. “Seriously, never EVER hit on her. She will take you OUT, and that’s if you’re lucky. Because when Logan punches, he leaves fucking HOLES.”

“I said HELLO,” Troy protests, at a loss. “I said it NICELY.”

“But not suggestively, right?” Lilly’s eyes twinkle at us, as we pass through the doorway. She’s just giving him shit.

“I barely know Veronica,” Troy argues. “We’ve never even had a CONVERSATION.”

Oh no. Has this reality diverged so far from mine that the dirt I have on everyone is now useless? Because that was my ace in the hole.

“YOU may not have talked,” Mac says, emerging from the bathroom. “But she left a nice, long note in your bag of smuggled steroids, after you set Luke Haldeman up to take the fall.”

Oh thank God. So scared, there, for a minute.

Troy sends her a glance of pure loathing. “That was NOT my idea. My ex-girlfriend Shauna was the mastermind. I was just her dumb, besotted pawn.”

“I remember Shauna!” I say brightly. “She was like, totally bitchin’! What’s she up to, these days?”

He closes his eyes. “Jail,” he says.

“Instead of you?” I ask, wide-eyed. “What incredible luck!”

“Want me to Prying Eyez him?” Mac asks, picking her laptop up from the coffee table.

“Please,” I urge, crossing my arms.

Mac types for a minute, points at Troy, and says, “Lying liar who lies. Two more drug convictions after the steroid decampment. One involving jail time. And three months ago, he was arrested on suspicion of rape.”

“That wasn’t me!” he yells, as Logan, Dick and Wallace all stand up. “That was Mercer Hayes, and some dude he was using as his S&M gimp!”

“Mercer Hayes, Neptune High class of ’04,” Dick informs Jessica. “He was Valedictorian.”

Lilly nods. “He was stuck on himself, but he always had the good drugs. Right, Logan?”

I turn my glare on Logan, and he covers his face with his hand. “Thanks so much for that, Lils,” he says. “Really.”

“If you EVER,” I threaten, “BOUGHT GHB FROM MERCER HAYES, you will WISH you got off as easy as Troy!”

“I never,” he starts, “ever ever ever would do such a thing. Not ever. Except for that one time. And I gave it all to you.” He realizes how this sounds, and backtracks. “I mean, the sealed vials. In your hand. For purposes of disposal.”

“When I knocked on that door over there, did I stumble into a soap opera?” Troy whines, and Dick smacks the back of his head.

“Logan’s under pressure,” Wallace opines, from where he’s gone back to eating on the couch. “I’d shut up now, if I were you.”

“DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY GIRLS MERCER HAYES DRUGGED WITH GHB AND RAPED?” I scream, and Logan winces.

“Oooh, I read the answer to this one,” Lilly offers. “32. He is NEVER getting out of jail.”

“THIS IS NOT THE FRESHMAN DITCH DAY I WANTED!” I yell.

Logan closes his eyes, rolls his neck, flexes his hands open and shut, exhales. “Okay, that’s it,” he says, with resolve. He points at Troy. “You have 30 seconds to get shut of my neighborhood, or I will beat the ever-loving shit out of you.”

Troy stares at him for a beat, scrambles up, and makes a run for it, leaving the front door open.

“And you,” Logan says, pointing at Lilly, “Quit stirring the pot. Because you know full well that I’m the one who turned Mercer in.”

“You DID?” I ask, and fling my arms around his neck.

“Logan and Dick knocked him unconscious, and left him handcuffed to the door of a police cruiser,” Wallace confirms, reaching for his soda.

“Aaargh, I’m not hearing this!” Jessica cries, covering her ears and running into the kitchen.

“Jessica has to maintain plausible deniability,” Wallace confides to Mac. “On account of she’s too high-profile to be involved in y’all’s criminal shenanigans. Hey baby, are there any more pancakes in there?” he calls, to punctuate, and follows her through the door.

“When Mac told us about the rapes, we knew the guy was probably getting stuff from Mercer,” Logan says, putting an arm around me. He gestures at Dick and Lilly. “I mean, we ALL knew, because that was where you went, if you wanted exotic shit you couldn’t buy from Friederich. It was actually Lils who put us on to the idea that he WAS the rapist.”

“He never hit on me,” she confides. “EVERY guy who isn’t gay, or Donut, hits on me eventually. And he was always going off on these rants about how dating was a waste of time, when he had too much to drink.”

“Your dad totally knew it was us, too,” Dick says. “Even though we cleverly wore masks. That’s what that vigilante justice lecture was about, at the last family dinner.”

“And you guys froze me out of this whole case?” I demand. “You didn’t even let me analyze clues?”

There’s an uncomfortable silence.

“It was dangerous, sugar lumps,” Logan offers, manfully stepping up. “Like threat of major physical trauma to small, gorgeous blondes.”

Like Lilly? I think, and then I get it, and sigh. “You all know, don’t you? Every single one of you knows about the baby.”

“Veronica,” Mac says gently. “You just punched Troy Vandegraff in the face for absolutely no reason. Your hormones are out of control. How could we NOT realize?”

“Don’t look at me,” Jessica says, towing Wallace back in from the kitchen, Perrier in hand. “I just found out about 5 minutes ago, myself.”

I put my hands on my hips, and consider declaring war on my entire social circle.

“Wonder Woman doesn’t defeat every supervillain solo,” Mac tells me, arms crossing, because she has my number. “Sometimes Batman and Superman get a turn.”

“And who am I in this scenario?” Dick asks. “Superman or Batman?”

“Aquaman,” everyone answers, and now his arms are crossed, too.

“Ooh, I want to be the blonde in the black bustier and fishnets,” Lilly says, flopping Logan-style onto the couch. “Who’s that?”

“Black Canary,” Mac tells her. “Good choice, she’s even smarter than she is hot.”

They smirk at each other, and Logan bends down to whisper in my ear. “So does this mean you’re gonna wear the Wonder Woman costume?” he asks. “We could take turns tying each other up with the golden rope.”

I picture myself saying “I’d do it to make you confess your million evasions and lies”. I picture him retorting, “Ooh, pot/kettle. Between the two of us, who’s the bigger withholder?” I picture him storming off to the garage to decimate his therapeutic punching bag, and me laying into all of them, for interfering with my detecting. Me, marching off down the beach in a rage, because NOBODY CONTROLS WHAT I DO.

And then I realize…they all colluded to keep me safe from Mercer the Rapist because they CARE.

In Original!Reality, I don’t have truly intimate relationships with any of these people (not even the one who’s been physically inside me). We joke and snark, they do me favors I rarely reciprocate: but I’m too brittle and self-absorbed, too frozen and obsessed with paybacks, to really give unselfish love.

But that one innocuous choice I made, that donning of a red satin prom dress, was like a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo, creating an expanding circle of chaos. Changing everything, changing ME. It gave me the self-confidence to be THERE for these people, who are now here for me: all their diverse natures somehow cohering into a team. I EARNED this life, by being who I am, and saying what I want. I blossomed, the way Lilly hoped I would.

And now I’m going to enjoy my reward, because fuck if I don’t deserve a ditch day.

“I let you tie me down, and you’d better live up to your nickname, Man of Steel,” I whisper to Logan, and he actually wriggles behind me, like a delighted puppy. I give him a big smacking kiss, because I can.

“And as for the rest of you,” I say, pointing a finger around the room. “Gather up the gear, and get your asses on that boat. I was promised a super fun outing this morning, yet here we are, burning daylight.”

XXXXX

The yacht isn’t the Aaron Echolls monstrosity, with the full bar and mirrored cabins and dance floor, which sold, long, long ago. It’s the sleeker, smaller racing boat Lynn bought Logan last summer, so he could tool around the coastline with his friends. We discuss a stop at the Cliff House: but the water’s so calm, and the sunshine so balmy, we just drift, eat, drink and chat, enjoying an angst free day.

I’m reclining between Logan’s knees, my back to his chest, his arms wrapped loosely around me. Dick lies on his side by our feet, chin on hand. “Admit it Ronnie. You forgave us all for Mercer because you loooove us,” he coaxes, making kissy lips at me, and I shove him with my foot. He falls onto his back.

“Whatever, Aquaman,” I say, dismissive. “I never wanted a brother.”

Lilly settles to my side, head on Logan’s shoulder, and hands him a beer. He drapes a companionable arm over her, and kisses her temple. “So now that you know that I know,” she says, rubbing her hands together, eyes dancing. “Can I touch it?”

“It’s not very big,” I say. “Nobody moving around in there yet, or anything. But sure.”

She slides a hand carefully under the hem of my shirt, spreads it across my abdomen. “There’s no give,” she says, softly. “It’s like you’ve got a plastic shell, under the skin.”

Logan bends, kisses my cheek, and she shoots him a devious grin as she moves her hand away. “You chose well, boo-boo,” she tells him, ruffling his hair. “This one’ll be a lioness, protecting her young.”

She twists up, sinuously, departing, and Logan wraps both arms around me, tight.

XXXXX

“Hey Logan?” I ask. We’re back at the house, sun-baked and sleepy, eating ice cream on the couch. The ocean rolls, ceaseless, outside the wall of windows. “Do you think Lilly is outgrowing her self-destructive whatever? Do you think she’s happy?”

“She’s FABULOUS,” he says, flashing a little grin, and I smack him with my spoon. “I don’t know, Ronica, it’s hard to tell. She’s a better liar than I am, and I could go pro.”

“Novelist?” I guess, sucking strawberry-buttermilk off my spoon.

“Politician,” he corrects. “Although I might be too scandal-ridden even for that morally bankrupt crowd.” He takes another bite—his pint is green tea, which, frankly, I don’t get. His face is contemplative. “I haven’t seen her with many boyfriends in the last year or so. And the few she’s brought near me were a lot like Vandegraff: pretty rich dudes, vaguely smarmy. Which, to be honest, kind of burns me. Because it means that’s her type, and I’m lumped in.”

“You’re in a whole different cocky-asshole league from that guy,” I tell him, with a pat. “Your sarcastic dick game is virtually unparalleled.”

“Aw, quit, I’m blushing.” He makes a big show of licking his spoon clean, and dips it into my pint. “Why are you asking me this? You worried she’s getting dangerous strange on the side again?”

I cock my head, trying to guess what he knows. “Maybe,” I admit.

“Well, this is just my opinion, pumpkin,” he tells me, scooping up another spoonful of my ice cream, and presenting it to me, “but she led on Vandegraff all morning, just for laughs, and tried to entice us into a threesome all afternoon. So I doubt she’s got anything deliciously self-destroying in the wind, at the moment.”

“Like you didn’t enjoy her shenanigans as much as she did,” I scoff. “I was sitting between your legs when she was feeling up my belly, remember?”

He laughs, and I’m amused to note, actually blushes. “If you had any clue how much time I spent in tenth grade, fantasizing about deflowering you with Lilly’s full permission, you would not be shocked by this,” he says. “Seriously, I jerked off to that visual so many times, anything remotely similar guarantees a stiffie. It’s like an autonomic response, at this point.”

I cover my mouth and widen my eyes in faux shock, and he shakes his head at me. “She and I both had the same fantasy, I think,” he says. “Being the first to make you unravel. I mean, it’s not like Donut would have. But neither of us ever tried, for fear of upsetting the status quo. And threesomes are one of those concepts that seem good in theory, but aren’t built for speed.”

“I’m not even going to ask how you know that,” I decide.

“I will quote Sinead O’Connor if I have to,” he says, and off my look, “Nothing Compares 2 U? Come on, Ronica, branch out. There is music from decades other than this one. Some of it is good.”

“Says the man who owns every CD Marky Mark ever made.”

He sighs. “See, this is the dark side of marrying the girl you met at age 12.”

“You don’t ever miss being with Lilly, do you?” I ask. “I mean, not like I think you don’t love me. I know you love me.”

He smiles. “Look, don’t laugh. But I saw myself, once, as Lilly’s knight in shining armor. I swore all these vows to her, when I was 13, about how I would protect her from harm. And SHE swore she’d find ways to keep me out of Aaron’s hair, and we cut our wrists, and made a blood pact. It was all very over-wrought, very painfully sincere. But you know, I actually meant it. And I did protect her, as best I could. Even when we realized our competing dysfunctions were dragging us down, as a couple, and we’d have to cut each other loose, we still kept those vows.”

I study him, his post-Lilly rage in Original! Reality coming clear. I split them up, out of jealousy and spite: and in doing so, I made him break his vow. No wonder he hunted up every excuse in the world to hate me. Logan lives to play hero for all the wounded birds.

“You kept those vows because you’re a good person,” I say. “And so is she.”

“You know…” he leans his head back, gazing at the ceiling, as if debating whether to continue. He rolls to look at me. “About a month before Aaron died, he quit hitting me. Just totally hands-off, like he hadn’t been since I was maybe nine. I didn’t get it then, although you better believe I was grateful. But later, after Duncan killed him, I started to wonder. Why DID Aaron go to the Kanes’, if he was freaking out about the tapes being found? What could he have been looking for? Like, did he think Jake would save him? Why didn’t he lawyer up, or flee?” He takes my hand, thumb tracing over my knuckles. “And it came to me—maybe he went there for Lilly. To confront her about exposing him, or to convince her to run away. What if she was using him to destroy herself, in the cruelest possible manner, and keeping her vow to distract him, at the same time? Not that she’s ever admitted anything. But it seems to fit, yeah? It sounds exactly her style.”

I put his hand to my lips, kiss it. “If that’s true, he’s lucky he had her to deal with, and not me. Because if I’d known sooner he was hurting you, I’d have made him suffer ten times as much as you did, for ten times as long. I’m talking torments of the damned, here.”

“Yeah, she’s Aphrodite, you’re Athena. Her weapon is sex, yours is war. And turns out, an ass-kicking, justice-demanding goddess is exactly what I need. If it weren’t for you and your unswerving ethics, I’d be a drunk slut right now. Or in jail. Or both! Hey, that sounds fun!” He smiles down at me, a little shyly. “Or, you know, I might be dead. So thanks for keeping me in line.”

“You’ve heard that story ‘The Snow Queen’, right?” I ask. “About the princess who’s so lonely her heart turns to ice? I guarantee, without you to love me, that’s how I would have turned out. I think, all things considered, we’re even.”

“I am fully prepared to warm you up, anytime,” he says. He checks my container to make sure it’s empty, stacks it under his to throw away. “Fortuitous, huh? That my favorite fantasy involves making you melt?”

“It’s like we’re soulmates,” I say, and the joy in his smile is one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

XXXXX

“So what did you do to me?” I ask, after we’ve made out for a while, and watched half a movie. I’m tilted against his shoulder, inclining towards sleep. “In this well-worn fantasy of yours?”

“You know what I did,” he says smugly, kissing the top of my head. “You’ve lived it.”

“I mean the specific details, dork,” I retort, smacking him. “Every porny little nuance, please. In case you haven’t heard, pregnant women are insatiable.”

“You’ve lived it,” he repeats, and he’s definitely suppressing a grin now. His eyes are dancing. He leans in close to my ear, whispers hot. “The first few times I had you, I did it all. Every last thing I’d been wanting to, for years. And you LET me. And you LOVED it. When I said you were my dream come true, I totally wasn’t kidding.”

“You are a TEASE,” I huff, kneeling up to wrap my arms around his neck.

“You’re just now figuring that out?” He pulls me onto his lap, and adjusts me so I’m flush against his cock. “Wow, I’m not the detective you are, but all evidence here points to you enjoying this about me.”

“I like it better when you QUIT teasing, and put out,” I inform him, sotto voce, tugging at the hem of his t-shirt.

“Hmmm,” he says, blocking my efforts. “I don’t think so. I have a headache.”

I pout, and turn on my best Lauren Bacall. “Is there ANYTHING I could do to change your mind?”

His lips quirk as he looks at me. He shrugs.

“You’re not the only one who can tease,” I warn, shoving up his shirt, nipping at the hollow in the center of his chest. I repeat the action mid-abdomen. His head tilts back, and his hands fall limply to his sides.

“I’m not sure it qualifies as teasing if you go straight dow…” he starts, and then I’ve got my hands around the bulk of him, and my mouth around the tip, and he gives up. “Ah, God, whatever. Semantics.”

He starts doing the undulating-but-trying-not-to thing, tangles his fingers in my hair, and if I wasn’t turned on before, I am now. I don’t know why it is, but I really get off on blowing him. Maybe it’s the musky guy-smell of him, clean and earthy, even under 70 Hugo Boss toiletries. Maybe it’s his overwhelming response to being kissed, pampered and touched, because he full-throttle adores the attention. But it makes me feel sexy and powerful to turn him to jelly, and I’m sad that I wasted so much time, once, acting inhibited and afraid.

“Ng,” he says, after a few long, panting minutes. “Ronica. I want to fuck you now. I want to see your face.”

I release him with a pop: he grasps himself and watches me, half-lidded, as I strip and climb on top. I take him in slowly, head thrown back at the delicious, heavy pressure. Then I look into his melted-chocolate eyes, and put my hands on his shoulders.

“Headache better?” I ask, and he grabs my hips and shoves up into me, hard, making me gasp. Again he goes, again, setting a rough pace. He bends to suck at the juncture of my neck and shoulder, topping from below.

I moan, and he slides a hand between us, one finger on either side of my clit, teasing again. “Oh, man, you SUCK,” I say, twisting my hips, trying to get that little bit of pressure right where I want it. He laughs and relents, pounding me some more as he gives me just what I need. I come so deeply, with every inch of him inside me, that my vision blurs white: and the whole time he’s staring at me, and I’m staring at him. I know exactly when he loses himself, because we’ve become one.

Chapter Text

THREAD NINE INVERTS

We’re idling in a neighborhood of crumbling adobe, vinyl siding and dead palm trees. There’s nobody in sight, unless you count a stained, cracked lawn statue of the Virgin Mary, standing in a circle of beer cans. I’m getting a Very Bad Feeling again.

“I don’t like the looks of this,” Logan says synchronistically, drumming on the steering wheel in a rare show of nerves. “Letty Navarro lives in a better area. Are we sure Trina’s here? Because all that stolen money should have bought more style.”

I look down at my hand, which clutches a sheet of paper. On it is written ‘Dylan Goran, 6633 Las Palomas Way’. I show it to him, and his knuckles turn white.

At moments like this, I really miss Backup. I hope he’s still with my dad back in Original! Reality, filling up on Milk Bones instead of dinner, and slobbering in sleeping faces.

“Backup,” I say, snapping my fingers. “We should have some, on standby.”

I dial my dad, and he answers with, “What’s up, honey? Kind of in the middle of something, here.”

“Ooh, I hope you’re the good cop,” I say. “Listen, Logan and I decided to check on his sister, and she seems to have come down some in the world. Nothing’s wrong at the moment, per se. But we’re in a bad part of town, and she’s shacked up with a bad guy, and I’m getting that funny tingling at the base of my skull.”

“I know the one,” he says, grim. “You want me to send a car?”

“Would you?” I ask. “Have him knock, if I don’t call in about 15 minutes? Address is 6633 Las Palomas Way, boyfriend’s name is Dylan Goran. History of restraining orders, and straight-to-video exploitation films.”

“Be careful, honey. And tell Logan deep breaths.”

“Thanks Dad. Make sure to do the intimidation face with the v between your brows. I always know I’m in for it, when I see that one.”

I kiss at the telephone and hang up, hold my hand out for Logan. He takes it, squeezes, and leads me from the car.

Through the flimsy door we can hear loud Metal music, and a man yelling, but nobody answers the bell.

Logan looks down at me, dark eyes inscrutable. “Smash it open?”

“I can pick this lock with a paperclip,” I say. “If I have one, in my bag.”

I paw through, and hey, there’s my lock-pick set, plus a ring of master keys. I guess I’m not that good a girl in this timeline, either. It takes me about six seconds to get the door open: he half-smiles as I wink at him, and swing it wide.

The music slaps us, a wall of sound, although the yelling has abated. The place is a pigsty, dingy 80’s décor stained and burned, littered with fast food wrappers, chunks of decaying bun. There’s a bong on the coffee table, about an ounce of weed, and the room reeks of old bong water, dust and rot.

“Nice,” Logan mutters, going left towards what looks like the kitchen. But I figure fighting couples will be found in the bedroom, so I head right.

Yeah, I wish I hadn’t.

Trina’s got one wrist handcuffed to an old iron bed, her clothes in disarray. She seems half-conscious, and even from this distance, I can see the livid-bruise track marks on her arms.

Dylan Goran’s standing off to one side: as I watch, he fastens his pants, fishes a cigarette out of a pack on the nightstand, and lights up. “You hated those other tapes so much, let’s see what you’ll pay for this one,” he taunts, pointing at her with his cigarette. Her head shakes, almost languid, back and forth.

And that’s when I notice the video camera on a tripod, just beyond the footboard.

I ease away slowly, shaking my head just like Trina, and bump into Logan. I gasp, spinning. He cranes to see around me, and I grab his arms.

“No,” I whisper. “Logan, no, the cops are coming. Let’s get out, let’s get out now.”

“What?” he asks, and sets me aside, and then he sees. Everything drains out of his face but rage.

“What the fuck are you DOING?” he shouts, and his voice is low-pitched and hard, and really, really scary. “What the fuck are you doing to my SISTER, you fucking piece of GARBAGE?”

He’s across the room and on Goran in a second, and he literally throws him, into a wall. The guy bounces off, like it’s a cartoon, and goes sprawling to the floor. He scrambles backwards, as Logan advances and kicks him in the kidneys, and then he’s out the door running, and Logan’s giving chase.

I follow, scrambling through my bag for my taser, breath coming in harsh pants. I can see through the screen that Logan’s caught him a couple houses away: he’s got the guy on the sidewalk, and he’s kneeling atop, fist coming down as rhythmically as a freaking pendulum.

“Stop!” I scream, running forward, and God, Goran’s mouth is a bloody mess. “Logan, you’ll kill him! The cops are coming! Stop!”

He looks up at me, and his face is calm, grim: he seems determined, more than angry. He glances down at Goran, who’s not moving, gets up. Dusts off the knees of his khakis, with measured, focused flicks. “Come on,” he says, heading for the house. “You unlock Trina, I’ll grab the tape. I don’t want to be arrested until I have her safe.”

I’ve got a universal handcuff key on my ring, and I use it to free her. She’s crying now, looking both out of it and frightened. Logan picks her up, cradling her, and she’s like a junkie Raggedy Ann, her dyed red hair turned to straw.

I take the tape from his hand and stick it in my bag, and he carries her out to the car, stepping carelessly over Goran, who can’t even manage to crawl. I see a cop car appear in the rearview, just as we turn the corner.

Logan gazes down at his hands as I drive, examining, flexing. After awhile, he tucks his sleeves over his knuckles, and shoots me a sideways glance. “You scared of me now?” he asks.

“Nope,” I say, switching on my blinker, slowing to turn. “Mad, a little: you’ll be in trouble soon, because of that trash. But he deserved what he got, and more. Where to?”

He looks back down at his hands, very faintly smiling. “Neptune Grand?” he offers. “Book her a room? We can use the concierge service to find her clothes, and me a first-aid kit, and I can get cleaned up.”

“I don’t think he hurt anything but your knuckles,” I say, wry, but I drive there anyway, and use his black Amex to rent a room. We carry Trina in through the back, to avoid attention.

She can walk, when we get her upstairs, but seems spaced. So I lead her to the bedroom, tuck her in, and hold her hand while she drifts off. I’m sure one of the rich people we know has a doctor who makes house calls: I’ll check with Logan, once he’s patched.

I find him in the bathroom, shirtless, but with a robe over his khakis, hair wet from the shower. His right hand’s a mess, and he has scratch marks on his neck, but he’s otherwise unscathed. He meets my gaze in the mirror: his eyes are sad, but they soften as he looks at me. I take a tube of Neosporin out of my purse, and use a tissue to dab it on his wounds.

“We should erase the tape,” he says, voice low. “Buy a degausser.”

Oh, Logan, I think, and shake my head. “It’s evidence,” I remind him. “Proves he hurt her.”

“I can watch it,” he offers, and my heart breaks a little. “I can testify.”

“That never works in real life.” As I’m saying it, my phone rings.

“Honey,” my dad murmurs, when I answer. “I’m downstairs at the Neptune Grand. I’m by myself, and I’m headed up to your room.”

“What, are you tracking my cell again?” I ask, even though I know the answer. “We’re all here. Trina needs a doctor.”

“I’ll call someone,” he promises, and hangs up.

“Dad’s coming,” I say, sitting beside Logan on the couch with a sigh.

“Great,” he replies, eyes closed. “Well, I’ve enjoyed being allowed to interact with you.”

“I’ve had the time of my life,” I say, and he smiles when I take his hand.

Logan gets up and lets Dad in when he knocks, knotting the robe tightly together first, in an endearing show of modesty. He waves Dad in, shuts and locks the door, and leans back against it, hands flat along the wood.

“What injuries have we got?” Dad asks, crossing to sit beside me on the couch.

“Trina’s on something,” I say. “Heroin, maybe. We think she might have been raped, but we arrived after the fact, and we haven’t watched the tape.”

I go to extract the mini-cassette from my bag, but Logan pulls it from the pocket of his robe, holds it out. “I was going to erase this,” he admits, matter-of-factly. “But Ronica says you need it for evidence, if we want that piece of shit to pay. I’m trusting you, here, to make sure this never hits the web.”

“Nobody saw Aaron’s tapes,” Dad replies, equally calm. “Nobody ever will. You have my word, I’ll treat this with the same care.”

Logan nods. “Can we wait for the concierge to show up, before you cuff me?” he asks. “He’s bringing a clean shirt.”

Dad shakes his head. “You’re not under arrest, Logan. There weren’t any witnesses, and so far, Mr. Goran hasn’t expressed a desire to press charges.” He smiles. “However, ‘someone’ did fracture his eye socket, bruise his kidneys, and break his jaw, so he’s a little indisposed. We’ll see how it goes after he wakes up and smells the money. Also, after I watch this, and determine what charges I can bring to bear.”

“Okay,” Logan says, slowly. “So you’re here to get your daughter the hell away from me, then?”

“Logan,” Dad admonishes. He stands up, walks over, and puts a hand on Logan’s shoulder. “I don’t approve of violence, or any type of criminal activity, no matter how petty. I will certainly not tolerate threats, disrespect, or the slightest hint of aggression towards Veronica. But if I had walked into that house, and found my daughter on that bed, I would have felt what you felt. So while I don’t condone the actions of whoever beat Mr. Goran, and I won’t protect you from the consequences, should you be indicted….I understand. I even, to some extent, sympathize. And provided you continue to be an upstanding citizen in all other respects, I won’t ban you from Veronica’s presence.”

Logan shuts his eyes. For the first time today, he looks close to tears. It occurs to me to wonder how often he’s been treated with respect and kindness, by someone in a position of authority. “Can I hug her goodbye?” he asks.

Dad nods at me, and I go to Logan, putting my arms around his waist, and my head on his chest. He embraces me, tight, presses his cheek to my crown, and I kiss his pectoral, where Dad can’t see. “I love you,” I whisper, a breath of sound, and his hands clench on my lower back like he won’t ever let me go.

But he does, and I step away. Dad says, “The EMS techs should be here within 15 minutes to check on your sister. They’ll be discreet, no uniforms or sirens blazing.”

“Thanks, Sherriff,” Logan says, and dad leads me away.

“Do you think, sweetheart,” Dad asks, slinging an arm around me as we wait for the elevator, “that this weekend we could go to the zoo? I know you’re too big for that kind of outing, these days. But I could really use some uncomplicated daddy-daughter time.”

“For you?” I reply. “The moon. You’re the absolute best Pop a girl could imagine.”

“And don’t you forget it,” he says, out of the corner of his mouth, pulling me close.

THREAD TEN

I wake to the sound of thudding and grunting: at first, I think I’m still dreaming of the fight. But then I surface, and it continues, and I realize it’s happening inside my house.

I get up and follow the noise to the garage, night lights plugged at intervals down the hall guiding my way. Logan’s converted one side into a home gym, so I’m not alarmed as I crack the door open, and peer through.

He’s shirtless, shoeless, wearing nothing but gym shorts: he’s going after the punching bag with total focus, lips peeled back from his teeth. He’s bathed in sweat, it spatters from him as he moves, and he’s not just hitting, the way MY Logan does. This one knows some kind of martial arts, and he jumps and ducks and weaves, landing kicks that make the bag judder and sway, right hooks that connect with a crack. It’s mesmerizing. I mean, he was always graceful, but this is like a dance. No wonder he’s so muscle-y.

I don’t think I move, but something I do catches his attention. He stops, peering through the dimness at me, wiping sweat from his brow with one forearm. “Did I wake you?” he asks, tugging at the laces of a glove with his teeth.

I shake my head, and go to help him. “Bad dream,” I say, drawing the glove off, unwinding the tape beneath.

He grimaces as it tears free, flexing his fingers. “Yeah, same. Maybe it’s too hot in the bedroom or something.”

“Sure is hot in HERE,” I retort, removing the other glove.

He laughs, putting his bare hand on my shoulder, stroking my throat with his thumb. “You always did have a kink for watching me hit things.”

“Yeah, I think that’s a trait we share.” I uncover his right hand, and dig my thumbs into his palm, massaging. He groans and lets me, head falling back.

“At least I put on gloves first,” he chastises, cupping my jaw in his palm. “You’re a bare-knuckle brawler, sugarplum.”

“You wouldn’t like me half so well if I wasn’t wild and dangerous,” I flirt, with a toss of my head. He kisses me, deep and earnest and sure.

“It’s your job to be a force of nature, Ronnie. It’s mine to keep you safe. And I am utterly focused, and devoted to my task. Nobody’s gonna get to you and Peanut, not while I’m breathing.”

I stare at him, sweaty and strung out, still panting: this guy who leaves his bed to fight demons, changes his whole body to keep me safe. Then apologizes, for waking me. It’s the bedrock of how he loves, I think, this unspoken and undemanding devotion. Underneath the jibes and lashing out, the attitude, he’s been putting himself on the line for me, all along. And I NEEDED that, depended on it, even as I took it for granted.

“If I have ever seen anything sexier than you, right this second,” I say, “I’m totally blanking on when.”

He laughs, hooks an arm around my neck, bobbing his eyebrows. “You should get a load of me on the gun range,” he murmurs, suggestive, and I give him my best feline growl.

“I love you,” he says, and I say, “Come back to bed.”

“Okay, Ronnie. But just so you know, I’m pretty wiped. I may have to lie there, while you do all the work.”

He picks me up, belying his words, and carries me inside, kicking the door shut with his foot. And I decide, as we lose ourselves in each other, that accepting our mutual fundamental violence is the only sane course of action.

Chapter Text

THREAD TEN INVERTS

I’m at the San Diego Zoo, navigating the Lost Forest. I’m walking on one side of Dad, and Logan’s on the other. Dad’s rambling about renovations, over-excited like he always gets, waving his cup of Starbuck’s around so some sloshes out the hole. Logan’s got a green wad of cotton candy, which makes my mouth water, but he’s just picking at it, disinterested. I don’t know if he’s ill-at-ease, intruding on daddy-daughter day: or if he’s having a Logan Echolls, Drama Queen sulk, because life sucks, especially his.

I reach across dad and steal a handful of spun sugar, eat it with exaggerated relish. Logan musters a faint smirk, and smacks my hand.

“Wanna go see the chimps?” I ask, because dad’s fascinated with the smart animals. He can watch them for hours on end.

Dad grins and puts an arm around me, steals some cotton candy too. Logan sighs, and theatrically holds the cone out of reach.

“You’ll like this,” Dad decides, shoving Logan’s shoulder in a way that seems almost…affectionate? “They’ve got an interesting group. The alpha male kinda reminds me of Nixon, and he has this big, dumb buddy who does everything he’s told.”

Like Logan and Duncan, I think, but am wise enough not to say.

Dad makes himself comfortable on his favorite bench, and we settle in, again on either side. “Chimps are our closest relatives, you know,” he informs us, warming up to his monologue. “99% of the same DNA. You can learn a lot about people, why they act the way they do, watching these guys.”

“The old, skinny one knows how to flip tourists off,” Logan drawls, sprawling his arms along the back of the bench, his long legs out in front. His cotton candy lands in my lap, in the process. “And does it, whenever someone holds up a camera. A chimp after my own heart.”

Dad rolls his eyes but doesn’t comment. “You ever hear of Jane Goodall?” he asks, instead. “She studies the wild ones, out in Africa. Says their culture is a lot like ours. The groups have territories, and the males form gangs to patrol them. If any strangers wander in, they do their best to kill ‘em. The females vie for power, too: some of them are pretty Lady Mac Beth, with what they’re willing to do to win. But you know, they’re also loving and heroic. They form life-long friendships. They play, and they grieve."

Dad sips his coffee, and I realize he’s going somewhere with this. I think Logan knows too, because he says, as if to keep the story rolling, “Sounds a lot like Neptune High.”

Dad smiles. “It’s the same at all high schools,” he says. “Human beings are chimps without fur.” He’s silent for a moment, pondering. Then he continues. “You know, when I was sixteen, I tried to blow up a romantic rival’s car with a Molotov cocktail.”

Logan chokes on a laugh, and I do a double take. “EXCUSE me?” I demand.

Dad shakes his head, a reminiscent smile on his lips. “I ended up burning my own car instead, but that’s beside the point. I hate to tell you guys, but I was a rowdy kid. Lots of fistfights, lots of shenanigans. We didn’t have much money, and I was touchy about my honor.”

He carefully doesn’t look at Logan, but Logan’s openly staring at him. Both sets of dark eyes are unreadable. “And now you’re the hero Sheriff who saved the movie star,” Logan says. “The most honorable man in the whole damn town.”

Dad glances at him, smiles wryly. Goes back to watching the chimps, sips his drink. “I’m a good cop because I understand why people do bad things,” he says. “I understand the frustration about not getting a fair shake, and the temptation to settle conflicts the old-fashioned way. I get how it’s possible to lose your head with passion or grief, and do something you later regret. If I’d been a holier-than-thou kid, always making the right choices, I couldn’t handle this job. I’d be judgmental and arrogant. I’d be unfair. I like to watch these animals so much because it reminds me—we all do what we do for very primal reasons. We dress it up in our heads, with rationalizations and logic, sure. But we’re beasts. And we should recognize that, and give ourselves a break. And use the knowledge of our potential weaknesses, to make ourselves stronger.”

“Huh,” Logan says. He turns back to the enclosure, a softness around his mouth and eyes he seems determined to repress. “You’re right. You CAN learn a lot about people, watching chimps.”

I smile, and lean into Dad, kissing his cheek. “So which one is Nixon?” I ask.

He points. “Over on the jungle gym, looking surly,” he says. “Probably plotting.”

I remember Logan tricking Duncan into running for student council, his smarmy ridiculous campaign video, and I can’t help but laugh. Logan looks at me over dad’s head, eyebrows raised, and I mouth, “That monkey is YOU.”

He flattens his lips, exasperated, then slides into showmanship, making a comical “Who me?” face, hand to heart. Dad shakes his head, amused by our shenanigans.

“So who wants funnel cake?” Dad asks, slapping his knees and standing.

“Oooh, me me me!” I shout, hopping up to clap, then jumping up and down. Because seriously, my father’s the BEST, and I love to entertain him.

Logan slouches to standing, muttering, “How you guys can eat so much…”

“Hollow leg,” Dad says, patting him on the back. He points, telling us, “Stand’s right over there,” and strides off.

“THAT was a weird conversation,” Logan informs me, draping an arm over my shoulders, stealing back a bite of cotton candy. “I will never look at the Sheriff the same way again.”

“I think it explains a LOT,” I counter. “Like why he’s SO obsessed with me being good, when genetically, I’m clearly NOT. And also why I’m infatuated with you. They say girls always fall for boys just like their dads.”

“Are you saying your DAD is Nixon monkey?” he demands, hiding his mouth in fake shock. “You think Sheriff Mars is weaving SCHEMES?”

“It’s a chimp-eat-chimp world,” I tell him, hooking my arm through his. “You’re either Nixon monkey, or you’re a big dumb dupe. I know which one I’d rather be.”

THREAD ELEVEN

“Ronnie,” a voice croons in my ear. I crack an eyelid, see messy morning Logan, and close it again. He kisses me, just above the lash line.

“Rooooonnnnnieeeeee…” he kisses my other eyelid, and my chin, and the back of my hand. “We have an ultrasound appointment in 45 minutes. Don’t you want to meet the Peanut?”

“We were at the zoo,” I say, and he kisses my nose.

“With your dad?” he asks, and I nod. “When he started his Sisyphean project to mold me into an upstanding citizen?”

“I think that lecture was meant as a lesson for us both,” I murmur, stretching languid beneath his attentions. “So we wouldn’t turn into Natural Born Killers, out of sheer native wildness.”

“Aw, you’re no killer,” he says, running his hands from my shoulders to my wrists, pulling me up to sitting. “Unless you count the way you slay me, in high-heeled boots and a miniskirt. Man, this zero-caffeine thing is a serious morning hurdle for you. I had no idea you were such a junkie.”

“Pot, kettle,” I manage, and force my eyes open. He looks delicious, all sleepy and mussed, so I throw my arms around him, and lick his neck.

“None of that,” he admonishes, peeling me off. Then, giggling, tries to evade me as I move back in. “No means no, Veronica,” he insists. “Get your clothes on. We’re out the door in 10 minutes max.”

He heads into the closet, and returns a minute later to drop yoga pants and a loose, swingy tank on me. “In the immortal words of Letty Navarro, move your nalgas. It’s an expression of love, I believe.”

I put on the clothes Logan gave me, and lie back down for a little doze. He returns, groans, and ends up carrying me to the car.

“I’m engaged to Sleeping Beauty,” he grouses, shaking his head as he buckles me in.

I watch him instead of the scenery, while we drive. The sun gilds his eyes to caramel and his hair to bronze, brings out faint spatters of freckles on his face and arms. I drink in his cheerful calm competence behind the wheel, steering with a palm resting atop: his bright, clever gaze that misses nothing. I marvel at how he’s become, here, his best self, just because someone had faith he could. Logan’s behavior is a perfect barometer of how much he’s loved.

“What?” he asks, smiling, as he notices me mooning. “You OK? Not worried, or anything?”

“Nah,” I scoff. “Just marveling at how adorable and amazing you are. And gloating, ‘cause I bagged you.”

He manages to look, simultaneously, mocking, pleased and shy. “Not afraid Peanut’s gonna have gills? Or flippers?”

“Well, she will,” I say, “because fetuses go through all stages of evolution during development. But she’ll outgrow them.”

“Even a tail?” he asks, fascinated.

I nod. “And fur. But they go away. If you’re asking will she be deformed, though? Nah, I’m not worried about that at all.”

“I dunno, Veronica,” he says. “I drank a LOT, at one point. And I did drugs. Plus, I’m a purebred, whereas you rock that whole middle-class hybrid vigor. I’d say her chances are 50/50.”

I smack him, and he laughs. “I’m not worried,” I say, ‘because despite everything we’ve been through, we’ve both thrived. We must have the strongest genes in the world. Peanut’s gonna be President.”

“As long as she’s not an actor,” he says, and I can’t help but smile. “Gotta draw the line somewhere.”

Logan’s excited, it turns out. He bounces all over the waiting room like a gas molecule, startling the other patients, fiddling with magazines. When the cute redheaded technician leads us to the ultrasound room, he’s so fascinated by the machine, I’m afraid he’s going to break it.

He bobs his eyebrows suggestively at me, as she smears jelly over my gut: and then the baby comes onscreen, across the room, and he forgets about masks.

Peanut’s a tiny shrimp, with an outsized, pulsing heart. She’s got a big head with bulging eyes, little stumpy arms and legs, and she’s restless like her father, spinning to her own secret music. When she feels the sound waves, breaking over her, she turns TOWARDS the source, and begins waving her limbs madly.

“Look at her, wanting attention!” I laugh/breathe, transfixed. “She’s an Echolls, all right! She must think we’re shooting a photo spread for ‘People’.”

His grin blooms as he points at the screen. “I told you no acting, Peanut! And DEFINITELY no exclusive interviews! Echolls household 2.0 will contain zero media whores.”

“Yeah, you just cursed us. Future star of ‘Breaking Point: Third Generation’, right there.”

The technician is giggling, and giving him the bashful-admiring eye, like every straight female. “All the measurements look good,” she says. “Do you want a DVD of the scan?"

“For sure,” I say. Logan’s ignoring her again, the way he does most of humanity, while he watches Peanut dance.

“We made that,” I tell him, resting my hand on his forearm. “You and me. We made a PERSON.”

He looks at me then, and there’s something on his face I’ve never seen before—something wilder and fiercer than joy. More like the exultant mask he wears into battle. He’ll burn down the world for you, Peanut, I think: and maybe for me, because I made you happen.

“Amazing,” he says, taking my hand. “That, right there, is the best thing I ever did.”

I catch him, that night (when he thinks I’m asleep) watching the DVD over and over, touching the screen with his fingertips. I don’t let him see me: but I take a picture, so Peanut will know.

Chapter Text

THREAD ELEVEN INVERTS

I’m on a couch in a tiny apartment with my Dad and Backup, watching Key Largo for the 8 millionth time, and the phone is ringing. I kiss Backup on the head, because I’m so happy to see him, and go hunting for it…it’s mine. Dad pauses the movie, points to my bag on the pass-through bar.

“Yeah,” I manage, mouth full of popcorn, fumbling it open. Weevil says, “V, you need to get your ass to the Coronado Bridge.”

“What? Why?” I ask, slow on the uptake. It feels, these days, like I’m never getting any rest.

“Because I’m stuck here with a blowout, waiting for Thumper to bring me a new tire. And Richie Rich’s junkie sister just drove up in a red convertible. Now she’s standing on the edge.”

“Trina?” I ask, and Dad turns to look.

“I’m gonna try to talk her down, but she’s wasted and she’s crying, so you MOVE,” he says, and hangs up on me.

“Jumper on the Coronado Bridge,” I tell Dad. “It’s Trina. I’m going now.”

“WE’RE going,” he corrects, grabbing his keys and our jackets, already heading out. Backup whines, then dives headfirst into the bowl of popcorn, as I lock the door.

Dad’s already reached dispatch as we peel out, so I call Logan, only to be met with one of his inspirational messages (Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence). I huff frustration and hang up, the only words in my head havetostopherhavetostopher. I won’t let Logan go through this again.

“Shooting down in the barrio,” Dad informs me, closing his phone. “They’ve sent a unit to the bridge, but we’ll arrive first. Were you able to speak with Logan?” I shake my head, and he says, “Don’t leave a message. Call Dick instead, or Wallace.”

Obedient, I try Wallace, get no answer, try Dick. He picks up on the fourth ring. “Ronniekins! Missing me already? I just saw you yesterday!”

“Are you with Logan?” I demand. There’s a light mist coming down, and Dad’s got the wipers on, but I can see the bridge in the distance. “It’s an emergency, I need to find him now.”

“He’s here, Rons. We’re all hanging by the pool, having some brews. His phone’s probably back in the house, in his jeans. If you…”

“No, Dick, listen. You have to get him to the Coronado Bridge. Trina’s on the edge, acting like she’ll jump. I’m almost there, but he needs to know it’s happening. And he needs to not be alone and driving, if he tries to follow. You come with him, and you’re behind the wheel, got me?”

“On it,” he says. “I’ll bring Wally along, he can mellow anybody out. Act totally unlike yourself, Rons, and DON’T push her buttons. I’m so not kidding. Because if she goes over, his shit’s coming unglued.”

“Agreed,” I say. “Just be his friend, and do what you can.” I hang up, and then we’re approaching, and there’s no time left for calls.

“Let me lead,” Dad says, squeezing my hand. “I’ve been through training for this. I should be the one to take the blame, if it all goes wrong.”

I squeeze back, and he pulls over, puts on his hazards. Then Weevil’s by the window, collar of his motorcycle jacket up, in a futile attempt to block the rain.

“She’s doing this crazy Mary Lou Retton thing,” he says, without preamble. “Just walking back and forth, balancing. I tried to talk sense, but she’s got a mouth on her like her brother. If I piss her off too much, I’m afraid she’ll jump just to give me the finger.”

I can see Trina in the distance, up on the rail. She’s wearing a black dress, holding sandals in one hand and a flask in the other, her hair and clothing drenched. She’s taking big, exaggerated steps. As we approach she spins, dramatic. Then pauses. Lifts a hand to shield her eyes, as she peers in our direction.

“Veronica Mars?” she shouts, her high, clear, mocking voice incredulous. “Did your pet vato call in the cavalry? Where’s Logie? He’ll miss his chance to rate my swan dive!”

“Nobody wants to see you jump, Trina,” Dad says, loudly and calmly. He moves closer: but she stumbles back out of reach, almost unbalancing, and he quits trying. “You need to come down.”

“Oh, you sentimental angel,” she says, saccharine. “You BET Logan wants to see! He HATES me, even though he tries his best to act noble. He’s got all the visible scars, you know? And I never lifted a hand to save him.”

Weevil shoots a glance at me, which I ignore. Dad says, “You and Logan were victims, Trina. No blame attaches to either of you."

“HA,” she shouts, and takes a drink. Salutes the sky with her flask. “That’s number three on the list of Dumb Things Therapists Say. Number one is: You Deserve Love.” She swings her left leg out over the void, places the foot behind her. Repeats the move with her right. “You’re the Sheriff. You’ve seen the videos. You know what I’ve done.”

“The contents of those videos won’t ever be made public, Trina,” Dad assures her.

She laughs. “Sure they will,” she pronounces. “It’s Hollywood. Everything eventually comes up for sale. I’m small potatoes, but Dad was A List. The whole WORLD would love to see him fall.”

“He already fell,” Dad argues. “He’s dead. It’s over.”

“Not in my head,” she says. She smiles. “And I just can’t take the noise, anymore.”

She throws the flask, a high arc, and then gazes up at the full moon, instead of watching it splash down. Dad and Weevil both try to sneak closer, but she rounds on them again, forestalling capture. “Hey, Veronica, you’ll tell Logie, won’t you? That he wasn’t the only one? Maybe he’ll believe the truth, if he hears it from you.”

I can see how this is gonna go down. Goran ripped the tourniquet off a gushing wound, when he made that video. She’s the same kind of determined Lynn was, once upon a time. And Dad and Weevil will never reach her, before she’s gone. Stiffly, I nod.

Trina bows, like she’s on a stage, and people are throwing roses at her feet. She comes up laughing. Then she steps backwards, and disappears.

XXXXX

It’s a mess, after, cops everywhere, helicopters and searchlights, nets dragging the water. Logan, Dick and Wallace screech up in a roar of exhaust: when Logan sees my face, he crumbles. Then he’s on his knees, sobbing, and I’m wrapped around him like a sleeve, stroking his hair. Wallace talks to him non-stop in a low, calm voice, and Dick watches, arms folded, like he’s not sure what to do. Dad stops by to pat Logan’s shoulder, and Logan tries to get it together: but he’s let go control, and now he can’t call it back.

I stay silent, allow everyone else to talk, because I have nothing good to say. I let her jump. I didn’t even TRY to stop her. I allowed her to go, when he wanted her to stay, and sooner or later, he’ll find out. He’ll hate me, the way he hated me the first time, for being the knife that severed Lilly. There won’t be a baby, or a house on the beach. There won’t be Fiji, or Epic, or any form of Happily Ever After. I killed us, when I nodded my head: and somehow, he’ll make me pay.

We get separated, amid the chaos, and then I’m sitting in the open back of an ambulance, drinking cocoa, with a blanket around my shoulders. Dad’s gone, Logan, Dick and Wallace and everyone, like they were never here. But Weevil’s still waiting, leaning on the bridge rail with his arms crossed, the lone defiant criminal in a swarm of busy cops.

I’ve never really understood Weevil’s presence in my life. I use him, he uses me, I help him, he helps me—we’re a series of transactions. I haven’t bothered to discover how we became entangled, here: why he does me favors in every time line, yet never makes a pass. He lends a hand even though I’m awful for his rep, by which he lives and dies. Weevil’s a bad person, a torturer and murderer. He steals for a living, and sells drugs to kids. But every time I need backup, he comes.

I look right, see my car, still parked, flashing hazards: left behind for me. I cast off the blanket, set my cup down. I approach Weevil and he says nothing, just blinks away wetness, and unfolds his arms.

“Come on,” I tell him. “Thumper’s never gonna show here, with all these cops around. I’ll give you a ride home.”

XXXXX

In the car, wipers swishing like a metronome, it’s silent and humid, like quiet makes steam. Weevil doesn’t try to reassure me: he knows there nothing to say, and he’s not a Chatty Cathy, like the guy I love. I drive automatically, turning when he tells me to, and I breathe through the fear, and keep on living.

“Pull over here,” he says, indicating a residential street. “I gotta run inside that house a minute, grab something.”

“Am I coming, too?” I ask. “Or am I sitting on this dark cul-de-sac in this soft-top convertible, all by my lonesome?”

He smiles, just a little. “Ain’t that how we first met?” he asks. He gets out, and smacks the roof frame, as if to reassure me. “Back in five,” he says. “Turn on your taser, if the Mexicans surrounding you start to feel too scary.”

He walks up to the door, knocks twice. I watch through the rain as it opens, light haloing the dark-haired woman who lets him in. I sit, breathing night and regret, various streams of fear. My phone rings.

I pick it up from the cup holder, glance at the display. Logan. Old me would have sent the call to voicemail, pre-emptive self-protection. But old me was an interpersonal coward. I press the button to accept.

“Ronica?” His voice is hoarse, like he’s been yelling. “Where are you?”

“Driving Weevil home,” I say. “He called me from the bridge, to tell me Trina was there. He had a flat.”

“I looked up, and you were gone,” he says. “I thought you came to the station with your dad, so I followed.”

“I was in the ambulance,” I correct. “I’m not hurt, though, just…they gave me cocoa. Logan, I’m so, so sorry. I know that doesn’t mean much, but I am. I’m sorry, and I love you.”

“Why did she jump?” he asks. “No one will tell me.”

“She said you weren’t the only one. She wanted you to know that. She was afraid someone would publicize the pool house videos, so I guess…”

“Oh, Jesus,” he moans, voice cracking. “MOTHERFUCKER!”

There’s a crashing sound, and then some more crashing sounds, and then it’s like he drops the phone. All I hear is yelling. The line goes dead.

“Logan?” I say, staring at the ‘call ended’ message. I press the go button again, and I’m listening to it ring, when my door is jerked open.

I look up at the man above me, all in black, ski mask. I fumble in my bag for my taser as he drags me from the car: but everything spills out over the ground, contents rolling into puddles. I scream, and kick, and something cloying covers my nose and mouth. Then I’m suffocating, gasping cloth, sinking down into blackness.

I come to lying on the ground, in the rain. There’s blood trickling down my temple, congealing at the corner of my eye. My vision’s blurred. Wet wind blows a piece of newsprint into my face, and I claw it off, jerk to a sitting position.

I’m in an alley, somewhere dirty and urban, garbage cans and detritus, happy home for rats. Lying next to me, a neat round hole in his forehead, is the corpse of Felix Toombs. His eyes are fixed, unseeing, on mine. And in my hand is a gun.

I hear a gasp, and look up to see two kids and a woman at the mouth of the alley. They’re clutching grocery bags, as horrified by me as I am by them. She screams in Spanish, and they all take off running. I stagger, panting, to my feet.

I’m fucked. So, so fucked. And I don’t have a clue where I am.

THREAD TWELVE

When I wake up, the bed I’m on is narrow and hard, the blanket covering me coarse and scratchy. I’m afraid to open my eyes.

I run my hand down my belly and it’s flat, like the pregnancy never was. Whatever I’m wearing is as unpleasant to the touch as the blanket: there’s no ring on my left hand. So when I lost Trina, I lost Logan too, I guess. It’s Lilly all over again, me tearing him apart from a woman he loves. My eyes fill with tears.

Something lands in my hair with a wet plop. A similar something strikes my cheek. I know this sensation, from Original! Reality, sophomore year. I’m being pelted with spitballs.

“Rise and shine, princess,” a Southern-accented voice says, from my right. “It’s almost time for breakfast.”

I open my eyes to a grey wall, turn my head. There’s a skinny woman on a cot, facing me, a half-destroyed Bible clutched to her chest. Her hair is black and coarse, her skin and eyes an indeterminate brown, common to ten different ethnicities. Her sparse eyebrows are raised, and her foxy face shows faint amusement.

She’s wearing an orange shirt and pants that look like hospital scrubs. But aren’t.

I sit up fast, turn, and am confronted by iron bars. They frame a view of a railed white walkway, down which identical cells are arrayed, ad infinitum, as far as I can see.

That trip to the bridge cost me everything. Including, it seems, my freedom.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWELVE, CONTINUED

Lunch in jail goes about like you’d expect, for a five-foot, ninety-pound, cute, blond Sherriff’s daughter. I’m taunted, someone spits on me, and much like Neptune High, I find myself eating alone. But when some chubby pig-eyed chick reaches for my roll, I snarl at her: and she jerks back so fast I realize I’ve cultivated the psycho rep, which protected me so neatly from the likes of Original! Dick.

Good. Because gouging someone’s eye out with a spoon would suit my mood a little too well, today.

Back in my cell, I can feel something sharp and hard wedged into my pillow, and I’m glad, because my roommate makes me nervous. There’s something cagey/calculating/cloying about her that’s seriously off. It’s insolence, but not the in-your-face kind I’m used to, the kind with rules. Hers lurks below the surface, waiting for a lowered guard, a turned back. I don’t look forward to sleeping, locked in a cage with her. But I’ll have to, if I want out of this place.

It’s ironic. I pride myself on my steel-trap logic: but that’s proved no match for simple bias. I assumed the dreams were straightforward, a child’s puzzle… retcon wrongs done, reap the rewards. I assumed this, because every time I changed something, my life got better. And I was too busy gloating over the spoils to question my good fortune.

Now I realize, I’ve been foolish. My knowledge of my own past gives me an advantage, in the new one, but it’s not a cure-all. I need to be more aware of the motivations of people around me, the ways they might have changed. I need to re-evaluate my friends-and-enemies list, in light of slipstream happenings. I need to gather my steely resolve, and figure out who put me in this place. And then I need to save myself, and make the bastards pay.

A long time passes while I lie staring at the wall, strategizing: my cellmate watches me, pretending to read. Then two guards come to collect me, shackle me up. Escort me through the white barred labyrinth to a dirty, green room. They chain me, there, to a bolt in the ground. And Dad comes in, sits opposite.

He’s in civilian clothes—of course he is, no one’s gonna keep a Sheriff around who’s got a daughter up on murder one. Plaid shirt, beige windbreaker, chinos and loafers, typical dad gear from the time before the dreams. His face is more lined, his hair more grey, then I’ve ever seen. “How you holding up, honey?” he asks, his voice as kind as ever.

“The hot mud baths are substandard,” I say, because I always front. “I don’t think I’m getting my money’s worth at this spa.”

“Then you’ll like my news,” he tells me. “The woman in the house, the one Weevil visited, came forward.”

“The woman in the house. Who saw me yanked out of my car by a guy in a ski mask, that woman?”

“I never thought I’d be glad your mother married Jake,” he admits. “But I am today. It was the 60 minutes interview he did that changed her mind. She provided conclusive evidence that you were kidnapped, in return for protection. Apparently there was a plot 'to get rid of people who knew too much', and Toombs was also 'in the way'. They’re transferring you to Neptune lockup, right now. Your lawyers will meet you with clothes, then you appear before the appellate judge. And then, sweetheart, God willing, you finally get to go home.”

I start to cry, and he smiles at me. “I wanted to be the one to tell you,” he says. “I can’t wait to take you to the zoo.”

“No more cages,” I protest, and he laughs.

“No more,” he agrees. “Maybe the movies, instead.”

The ride in the prison wagon is an adventure in jouncing. Cell B still has the best light. My lawyers are the expensive kind Logan had, when HE was charged with this murder, and I wonder how I ended up convicted. The judge is stern, and permed and grey: but when she looks at me, her face softens. Then I’m bracketed by cops in my skirt and bun, pumps and button-down, and I’m exiting the courthouse, blinking away sunlight. Shell-shocked.

There’s a limo just past the mob of reporters (which my lawyer parts like he’s Moses at the Red Sea). I’m herded towards it, flinching when touched, as people shout and cameras flash. I’m tucked inside, where it’s quiet and cool.

I never had to go to sleep in the cage with my creepy cell mate, as far as I can recall. I didn’t experience much in the way of prison violence. I’m free, it seems, without enduring God knows how many days of unremitting ugliness.

But Logan’s not waiting in the car, to hold my hand.

Instead, it’s Lianne, garbed in floaty lemon-yellow, engulfing me in perfumed embrace. “Oh honey,” she weeps. “Finally, our little bird flies home.”

“Thanks, mom,” I say, the words sticking in my throat. And because she and dad are all I have, apparently, I hold her tight. “For whatever you did to get me out, and for being here now. Thank you for not giving up.”

“You’re my daughter,” she says, and hugs me again. And I think how strange fate is, that there’s a world where everyone I love abandons me, yet somehow my mother holds strong.

She takes me back to the house I remember, where Logan first asked for my help. To the fancy big room, bed half-occupied by a now-giant Husky. He gets up to investigate, sniffs me, and promptly goes nuts, knocking me backwards on the mattress, sprawling atop. He doesn’t lick: he tucks his head under my chin. I lie there, holding this unknown dog that loves me, and stare dry-eyed at the ceiling. And pray that I wake up somewhere else, on every morning to come.

THREAD TWELVE INVERTS

I’m in an interrogation room at the Neptune Sheriff’s station, talking to what looks like my lawyer. Lianne sits beside me, in a mint green sheath dress, a watercolor scarf. Her eyes are red, like she’s been crying or drinking, and she keeps trying to grab my hand.

“They can’t hold you,” the man in front of me is saying. He’s got distinguished silver hair, a matching bespoke suit, and square silver glasses that catch the light: he looks like he’s covered in a thin layer of frost. “There was no murder weapon at the scene, no gunpowder residue on your hands. Traces of chloroform on your skin and in your bloodstream, obvious blunt force trauma to your temple. A $50 lipstick and a tracking device, matching your description of purse contents, were found beneath the sewer grate, at the abduction location you specified: and those are not objects most women would carry. A record of a phone call made to Logan Echolls exists at the time of the assault, and the person who answered, a Mister…Dick Casablancas, reports hearing scuffling sounds, and a scream. All these pieces of evidence corroborate your story, and the only thing the prosecution has is a terrified non-English speaker with an outdated work visa, who saw you from a distance, and claims you held a gun. Frankly, even if they manage to locate a weapon covered with your prints, we’re confident of proving reasonable doubt. This was clearly a gang killing, followed by a poorly-staged cover up, and no sensible person will believe it was perpetrated by you.”

What the hell did I do with the gun? I think, but don’t say. “So as it stands, I won’t be charged with any crime,” I clarify, instead.

“Miss Mars, you’re more of a victim here than Toombs. He presumably ran afoul of his cronies, and was dealt with accordingly. You’re just a nice, law-abiding girl, who gave a casual acquaintance a ride home.”

“Sugar and spice, that’s me,” I say, and he doesn’t smile exactly…it’s more like he marginally thaws.

We stand up and shake hands—his is, appropriately, cold—and he guides me, with a no-contact gesture, out the door. We walk down the Neptune Sheriff Station’s hall: I’m striding, anxious to get outside, and Lianne’s circling me, fluttering, like an agitated bird. And there, on the bench by the candy machines, sits Logan. He’s slumped way down, so his crossed legs block the aisle, hands in pockets, blowing a big pink bubblegum bubble. When he sees me, he slides the gum into his cheek, and shoots me a one-sided smile.

“Dangerous criminal does perp walk of shame,” he intones, framing the image between index fingers and thumbs. He hops up, nods at Frosty, and nudges me with a shoulder. “Come on, Mars, I’ll buy you ice cream. You can tell me all about life on the inside.”

“FUNNY,” I say, looking to Lianne for permission. She nods a lot and grins, patting his cheek, so I fall in step with him. “Not really up for prison jokes, though, after the day I’ve had. I’m gonna need at least 3 scoops. In a sundae.”

“Your wish,” he promises, draping an arm over my shoulder. I can feel the fine tremble in him, smell the flop sweat and booze: I realize he’s either spectacularly hung over, or still wasted. Usually, this combination of devil-may-care showmanship and self-abuse is enough to send me into a worried rage. But his sister just died, and it was my fault (my fault). And he’s still here to support me, in my hour of need. Right this moment, I’ll forgive him almost anything.

“Beach?” he asks, and I nod. He holds open the XTerra door for me, turns towards my favorite Amy’s: the one where the servers have blue and orange hair, and throw ice cream to each other, across the street.

“Hanging in there?” I ask, when we’ve settled down to eat, backs to an outcropping. We’re watching a toddler and mom build sandcastles in the surf.

He eyes me askance as I dig into my blueberry custard banana split—it’s smothered in butter pecan sauce, and sports extra whipped cream--but refrains from comment. “You know me.” He shrugs. “I like my regret on the rocks.”

“So I smell,” I say. “Hopefully you’re past the puking portion of the evening, because Guinness Beer flavored ice cream, Logan? Really?”

He crunches into his waffle cone, hiding a smile. I’m convinced he secretly likes it, when I call him on his crap. “Just trying to stay in the same flavor family.”

“Well, today I narrowly avoided prison,” I say. “So I’ve got no moral superiority cards left to play.”

“Enh,” he shrugs. “Your best friend is Lilly Kane, and you’re dating me. You were bound to fall off your Pink Sparkle Princess pedestal, eventually.”

“True that. But honestly? EVERYONE we hang around with is shady. Well, not Wallace. Dick, though? And Weevil? Not to mention Donut? Our friends cover the whole socioeconomic spectrum of unsavory characters.”

“Veronica,” he says, in his serious voice. “Weevil is NOT your friend. Please tell me you know he’s the one who set you up. If not the one who actually chloroformed you, and hit you over the head.”

I close my eyes. I promised myself I’d stay objective, this time, but I can’t help believing Weevil would NEVER. “No, actually, I think that was Thumper.”

“It was who? Ronica, remember the chimps? I’m the leader of my social group, not because I’m so heroic or accomplished, but because I’m SMARTER than all those idiots. And Weevil’s the same way. He left you sitting alone on that dark street for a reason, and you KNOW it!”

“What if he’s NOT the smartest?” I ask. “What if one of his subordinates is sneakier, and is planning a coup?”

“Occam’s Razor,” Logan insists, with a flat, negating gesture. “The simplest explanation is usually right. Besides, even if this WAS some elaborate plot, the fact that he refused to support your story, then disappeared without a trace, should tell you something. You cannot trust Weevil to have your back. Maybe he likes you, just not enough to get involved, or maybe he tried to screw you over. But either way, he’s always gonna be on HIS side, not yours.”

“Noted,” I say, sucking sauce off my spoon. “But I’m warning you now, if you’re planning some war of retribution against Weevil, because you think he framed me? You need to call a halt. I can cope with your depression, and nascent alcoholism, and your complete lack of a self-preservation instinct. I’ll even claim partial responsibility, because I should have stopped Trina, and didn’t. You cruising around in the Banana Mobile with Dick and Enbom, though? Picking an escalating series of fights with a gang in crisis? Is the one thing you could do that would actually make me dump you. Are we clear?”

He looks at me for a minute. Turns back towards the ocean. Takes a bite of his melting cone. “Three things,” he says, finally. “One, nobody got Trina like I did, and she would not have let you stop her. Echolls spawn don't quit unless we’re DONE. Two, your knowledge about the contents of my brain is truly scary. And three, if you think I’m gonna let some ghetto piece of trash mistreat and railroad my girlfriend, you don’t understand the stuff you know AT ALL.”

“IF he had me kidnapped,” I say, “we make him pay, together. But we prove it, before we act. Justice, not vengeance. Right?”

He rests his head against the rocks. “I’m torn here,” he says, after a while. “Between the desire to be the hero, fighting the righteous fight, and the urge to do the opposite of what I’m told.”

“You skipped the unit in kindergarten about good and bad choices, didn’t you?” I ask. “What, were you in Cannes?”

“Sundance,” he corrects. He eats the last bite of ice cream, and tosses his napkin on the sand, in complete disregard of environmental laws. “Someone may have ambushed Weevil at his shop last night, and kicked the shit out of him, and left him tied up for the cops to question. Does that someone get a pass, since the beat-down happened pre-ultimatum?”

I huff a laugh. “Someone is quite the multi-tasker.”

“Gotta stay busy,” he says. “I’m easily bored.”

“No shit,” I sigh. “Okay, clean slate. You didn’t happen to plant a bug, did you?”

“Never leave evidence.” He points at imaginary words in the air, as if reciting. “Never take souvenirs.”

“I hope you at least gave him a black eye,” I muse. “I’m not any happier about his self-serving testimony than you are.”

His lips curve into a comfortable smirk, and he twines his fingers through mine. “Ronnie,” he says, “I’m beginning to think you never WERE a good girl, deep inside.”

Chapter Text

THREAD THIRTTEEN

There’s an alarm going off. Abrasively loud, right next to my ear. I fumble, find a snooze, hit it. Drift back down.

“Veronica!” a voice snaps. A female voice. A hand shoves my leg. “Wake up, you have a test! Wake UP!”

Test, I think. College. It’s not like coming to under Logan, but at least I’m not back in Lianne’s house, fresh out of jail.

Wait. Why am I not in Lianne’s house? All I did last night was talk to Logan and my lawyer. What important thing did I inadvertently change?

I open my eyes. I’m in a dorm room—a Hearst dorm room, looks like—and Mac is sitting on the bed opposite, lacing up her Chucks. She checks her watch, throws a pillow at me, and ties the other shoe.

“I left coffee on your desk,” she says. “You need to quit taking Ambien. And I have computer lab in 15 minutes, so you live or die by your own hand. Later, Bond.”

She rushes out, long, dark, cherry-striped hair swirling, and I sit up with a groan. I have Snoopy pajama pants on, and my toenails are painted green.

I stagger over to the desk she indicated, chug the coffee there. It’s a vanity actually, with a mirror over top, so I sit and look at myself. Long hair, hanging in snarled waves. Remains of gold eye shadow, smeared around my eyes. No distended abdomen. No ring. I look a lot like I did in Original! Reality, which does not exactly thrill me.

There’s a green messenger bag strung over the chair back, and I dig through it until I find my Sidekick. I hunt for the photo of my class schedule. It’s Thursday, by my count, so Criminology II. Ok, then. At least I know where to go, for the test I’m taking.

I tidy up with a brush and a pack of wipes, pull my hair back into a ponytail. Shove on fresh clothes and yikes, it’s 8:47. I really AM late. I grab a bristling Cowabunga! key ring, lock up, and take off at a run.

The test is administered by a proctor—Landry and TA Tim are both, weirdly, absent. I studied this material literally the DAY before my life went to Shifting Realities Hell, though, so I finish first (despite the fact that Ratner won’t stop glaring).

I stride out of the classroom with a twofold purpose—caffeine, and answers. I’m sticking with my jailhouse resolution: learn to control what’s happening to me. Because, while I’m undecided about the current scenario, the last one completely blew. A reality where I’m an ex-con, stuck living with my mom, is not a long-term option.

I wonder if I should make a chart, so I can search for patterns: what I did differently, in Retcon! Past, how it changed my world. Of course, if I do this and someone SEES the chart, I may end up locked away again.

“Veronica!” a guy calls, behind me. I turn to see Piz approaching, sporting his weird, rictus-like grin. Great, just what I DON’T need, before noon.

“Piz,” I say, on a sigh. “Kinda busy right now.” Then I flinch, because he’s coming closer and closer, and NOT STOPPING, and he puts his arm around me, and TRIES TO KISS ME ON THE MOUTH.

Ok, confession time. I ought to handle this setback in a mature fashion. I shouldn’t shriek, or scramble backwards, like I’m the black cat with a stripe made of paint, and he’s Pepe LePew. But NO FREAKING WAY am I going down this road with this dickhole, not ever again. I’m unsure why karma keeps throwing His Pizness in my face: but I am officially declaring all Veronicas, in all realities, a Piz Free Zone henceforward.

Like Logan said, RE Peanut and acting, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

My cartoonish cringe actually penetrates his self-absorption, and he frowns. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “Didn’t you have time to brush?”

I struggle not to kick him. “Piz,” I manage. “You and I were a mistake. A very bad, never-to-be-repeated mistake. Please, for the love of God, go find some smug hipster girl who loves Neko Case as much as you do, and obsess over her instead. And never, ever speak to me again.”

I leave him standing there, shell-shocked, and march off towards the cafeteria. When he begins to pursue me, determinedly calling my name, I break into a run.

I reach the coffee bar, order a quadruple espresso, and chug it, which makes me feel human again. Then I turn, search for a free table on which to construct my insane manifesto. I freeze.

Logan has his stuff sprawled all over the one center-stage, along with a Big Gulp, and a plate of fries. He’s got his feet up on the chair opposite, and he’s chewing a straw, while reading, “The Plight of the Underclass in Mexico.”

I am totally not kidding.

I approach from behind, so he can’t flee, like I just did from Piz. I sidle into view.

“If that’s not a sign of the apocalypse, I don’t know what is,” I say, gesturing at the book.

He folds his arms over his chest, but looks amused. “Veronica,” he greets me.

“Listen, I want…” I say, but then Piz storms up, and seriously, WTF? I thought this guy was anti-confrontation!

“Veronica,” he pleads. “Can you just tell me what I did? Can I have a chance to explain?”

Logan starts laughing. Like, deep hysterical belly laughs, and I’m afraid he’ll fall off the chair. I shoot him a dirty look. “No,” I say. “It’s over. Get lost.”

“But we just…”

“Over!” I insist, and Logan stands up, still chuckling. Piz decides discretion is the better part of valor, and flees.

“So,” I say, as Logan sprawls back down. “How’s things with you?”

“They’d be better if you’d strung that guy along for a few more sentences. I wanted an excuse to belt him.” He shoves some fries in his mouth. “But otherwise, can’t complain.”

“May I sit?” I ask. He studies me for a minute, then takes his feet of the chair opposite, kicks it out for me.

I sink down, clutching my bag on my lap, and realize I genuinely have no idea what to say. We stare at each other. After a while, his eyes crinkle, and he pushes his plate towards me. “Fry?” he offers.

I take a handful, which I don’t eat. He holds out a cup of ketchup, and I take that, too.

“What do you want, Veronica?” he asks, more gently than I expected.

“My life back,” I say, deciding on honesty. I close my eyes, because really, it’s all too much. The constant struggle to cope with new realities, the lack of a dull moment. God knows I love my roller coasters, but not when the car’s unbolted from the track.

“What exactly is wrong with your life?” he asks, and I open my eyes. I stare at him while he stares at me, crushing clammy, cold fries in my grip.

“If you could go back,” he persists, “and change just one thing, what would it be?”

“The part where you stopped being in it,” I say. And somehow break the tractor beam of his gaze.

I feel his hands on mine, extracting ketchup and fries. He clasps my fingers between his: and when I turn back, he’s ramped up The Look another notch.

“I will NEVER,” he says, very seriously, “stop being in it. Unless you leave me zero choice, the way you just did poor Piz.”

“You hate Piz,” I say, with a watery smile.

“True,” he concedes. “Then again, I hate almost everybody. Strangely, I still want to help.”

“And that’s why I love you,” I tell him. “It’s why I’ll never stop.”

“Ronica,” he says, voice gentle. “Don’t jerk me around. Seriously, you can’t yo-yo me like this, when I’m trying to move on. I have a girlfriend now—a REAL girlfriend, one I actually LIKE—and I’m not dumping her for ‘we have too many problems, and I’m not ready to commit’. YOU may not be ready to commit, but I AM. And I won’t be your disposable fuck toy, every time you’re overcome with nostalgia for The Way We Were.”

I sit back, as the pieces click into place. “This is because I wouldn’t move in with you,” I guess. “And I wouldn’t get engaged.”

“Correct,” he says. “And because, when a guy asks, ‘Do you have any regrets?’, you’re not supposed to make a list. You’re supposed to smile, and tell him, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing.’.”

(When did you know you loved me? My voice echoes. That night on the Nautilus, he replies. When you said 'I don't regret a minute'.)

See, universe? I AM paying attention.

I take a deep breath. “Okay,” I concede. “Thank you for being honest. And for continuing on as my friend, even though I let you down. I’m glad you’re happy, and I’ll be a friend to you, too, by not jeopardizing that.” I extract my hands from his, dust them together to brush away salt.

“You’re the most wonderful guy I know,” I tell him, shouldering my bag. “You deserve the best, and I hope you find it.”

I turn and walk off, shoulders up and back, so it looks like I’ve left by choice. Because what right to I have, really, to change the fate of this Veronica? Maybe she PREFERS life without Logan. Maybe I’m just stirring up heartache. And maybe I should learn that some mistakes can’t be fixed, in a stray half-hour, with the aid of a taser.

I don’t expect him to follow, and he doesn’t. Instead, I go through the motions, head for my next class.

When my day’s over, I pick up a to-go salad from the caf, and carry it back to my room. Mac’s not around, and I wonder if she’s Bronsoning in this reality, or working late, or doing something wholly new.

I turn on the small TV by my desk, and channel surf while I eat, until I hit an airing of ‘Clueless’. Sticky-sweet Jane Austen is just what I need: so I sit back, and munch salad, and let it play. I maybe cry a little, here where no one can see, but I’m not giving up. When the movie’s over, I’ll make my crazy flowchart. I’ll find the winning pattern, get back to where I want to be. I have a Titanic-load of flaws, for sure, but let it never be said I lack tenacity.

There’s a knock at the door, and I wonder if the Cowabunga! keys are really Mac’s, left behind in her haste. I get up, swallowing, and slouch over to let her in.

I swing it open, and Logan’s standing there, hands in his back pockets, looking awkward. I stare at him, and he stares at me, and the look in his eyes is so raw it stings. My heart seizes up, then pounds a hard, staccato rhythm. He steps through the doorway, grasps my face in both hands, and kisses me like he never wants to stop.

I lock my arms behind his neck, tight, and he picks me up and spins me, kicking the door closed. Then we’re on the bed, and I’m on top, and I say, “I’ll move in with you, Logan. And I’ll marry you someday, too.”

“Don’t leave anymore,” he warns, reaching behind him for a fistful of shirt, pulling it over his head.

“Never,” I vow, and kiss him. We roll together in the cathode glow, like waves beneath the moon.

THREAD THIRTTEEN INVERTS

I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a silver convertible I don’t recognize, in front of a luxury house I don’t recognize either. I’m in a low-cut, leaf-green sundress, with a tomato-red bikini beneath. I have little gold hoops in my ears, and I’m applying red lipstick in the rearview. My hair is wound up in two knots at the crown of my head, and I look, if I’m being honest, mildly feral. Embracing my no-longer-hidden inner bad girl, perhaps?

I bare my teeth at my reflection, then grin. No Piz, no Duncan, no specter of prison violence. My odds are already improving.

I get out and ring the doorbell, and a uniformed maid answers, guiding me inside.

The lower level is one big room, decorated all in white, with splashes of sawgrass and beachy blue to break up the monotony. Lynn Echolls gracefully occupies 2/3 of a loveseat, endless legs crossed, and tilted to the side: she’s chatting flirtatiously with a dark-haired man, whose polished look screams money. She sees me and waves gaily, points towards the French doors behind her (through which I’ll presumably find Logan).

I wave back and head out, my shoes clacking against the hardwoods. I’m sporting chunky green cork-heeled sandals, with leather flowers on the toes. I reflect that mom marrying Jake has had a beneficial effect on my wardrobe.

Logan’s sprawled across a chaise lounge, looking up at clouds through $300 shades. He’s got on green flowered board shorts, and a clashing (and unbuttoned) orange flowered Hawaiian shirt. He seems peaceful and reflective, hands behind his head.

I lie down next to him: my skull fits neatly into the hollow above his collarbone. His arm rises to wrap around me. “I see a dragon,” I say, pointing. “Playing a bagpipe.”

“I see an incredibly hot chick in a skimpy dress, pasted up against me,” he retorts, pressing a kiss to my temple. “Which would feel like Christmas, right down to the color scheme, except my mom is watching through the window.”

“So climbing on top of you and kissing your brains out is a bad idea?” I ask, tracing his ear with one fingertip. Something sparks in his eyes, a recognition, maybe, of my aggressive mood, and a thrill courses through me.

“OK, that’s it. Up.” He hoists me bodily off the lounge, and stands as well, adjusting his shorts with a grimace. “No way am I walking past Harvey Weinstein with a boner. Even if you ARE the very best kind of heartless tease.”

“So what have you got in store for me today?” I ask, rubbing my hands together, evil-genius-style. “Something tawdry?”

He points at my face, prohibitive. “What did I say?”

“No heartless teasing,” I parrot, mock-obedient, and he tucks me close to his side, kisses my cheek.

“Yet,” he clarifies. “First, pool party at Dick’s. Second, surprise. Third, even bigger surprise, which you will really, really, really like. But only if you can restrain yourself from uncovering what it is, beforehand.”

“Ooh,” I say, as he gathers up a bulging beach bag, ushers me through the door. “That sounds like a challenge!”

“Of course it does,” he mutters. He shakes hands with Lynn’s guest and introduces me, bends down to kiss her cheek. “Headed over to the Casablancas’,” he tells her. “I’m spending the night there, so don’t worry when I don’t come home.”

She puts her hand on his cheek, smiles at him, kisses his forehead. “Be polite,” she warns. “And charming in the GOOD way!”

He laughs. “But the bad way is so much more fun!” he protests. He takes my hand, and leads me out the door.

“Hey, how come YOU get to be bad?” I demand, and he pushes me against the car with his whole body, then kisses me until I can’t breathe.

“Keep it up,” he warns. “See where it gets you.”

Hmm, I think, climbing into the car and checking my lipstick, which he’s now wearing more of than I am. I really don’t miss being nice.

The Casablancas pool party is hopping when we arrive, just after dark, and there’s nary an adult in sight. Retro surf music blares from the speakers, paper lanterns and torches abound: there’s a giant buffet laid out, with every kind of fruit in piles, and a central whole, roast pig.

The host is mixing drinks at a Tiki Bar, decked out in a clear green visor and lei, a grass skirt over his swim trunks. When we approach he yells, “Aloha nui, dude!” above the noise. Hands us giant umbrella’d beverages, housed in coconut shells.

Logan takes a sip and grimaces. “Jesus, it’s like Gilligan’s Island out here. What do you think, eat, pool or mingle?”

“Pool,” I decide. “Dinner has a face, and I’m not sure yet who to mingle with.”

He grins. “Dress,” he demands, holding out a hand. I pull it over my head, and give it to him. Set my own hand on my hip, as his gaze travels down me.

He shrugs off his shirt, tosses our clothes on a lounge. “Shoes,” he says, holding his hand out again. I rest my palm on his shoulder for support, as I slip them off.

He adds them to the pile. Then he grabs me, and cannonballs into the water.

We surface, me gasping and spluttering, and he laughs when I smack his chest. His hands, beneath the water, spread over the curves of my ass, holding me up since I can’t stand.

“This is a very small swimsuit,” he whispers in my ear, as if confiding a secret, still managing to slip his fingertips beneath it.

“I wanted to wear the giant ugly grandma suit,” I whisper back, “but it was in the laundry.”

“Too bad,” he says, spinning me slowly in a circle. My hair swirls out behind me, unfurling from its knots. “Maybe this one will get dirty, too.”

“It might,” I say. “Stranger things have happened.”

“Hey, keep it PG, you two,” Wallace interjects, kneeling by the pool. He does some weird slap/shake thing with Logan, and grins at me. “Impressionable minds in the house.”

“Back off, man,” Logan says, good-naturedly. “You’ll infect me with your wholesome family values.”

Wallace smacks him on the side of the head. “Treat this girl right, my friend. It’s four hours ‘til her BIRTHDAY.”

“Oh, I’m treating her JUST right,” Logan smirks, and I punch him in the shoulder. Wallace laughs.

“Imma be a caveman and rip a leg off that pig,” Wallace tells us, clapping Logan on the back and standing. “I’ll check in later, provided you’re not off macking in some dark corner.”

“Hasta, man,” Logan says, and twirls me like we’re dancing. He snags one of our coconuts off the pool rim, drinks, and offers me a sip.

“Mmm, pina colada,” I say, looking up at him coyly, with my lips around the straw. I know what game we’re playing now, and what he wants the finish line to be.

He takes the cup away from me, and I lick my lips. He traces his thumb along the bottom one, wiping off moisture.

“We should separate and mingle,” he says, voice low and gravelly. “Because if you stare at me that way much longer, I’m likely to do you here in the pool.”

I trace a finger down the center of his chest. “Who says you’ll be doing me anywhere?” I ask, and flick his chin. Then I climb the ladder, don my dress and shoes, and head off in search of a bottled drink.

Yeah, sue me. I may be living a different reality each day, but on this point, I’m not budging. No way do I ever plan to experience Roofie Number Four.

There’s a cooler by the Tiki Bar, with a girl sitting atop it, turned away to watch the crowd. I figure there must be beer inside, so I tap her on the shoulder and say, “Hey, could I just ask you to…” Then she spins to face me, and my question changes to, “Mac!”

“Um, hi,” she says, with a little nervous wave. “Veronica, right? I’ve seen you around, but I didn’t think you had a clue who I was.”

“I’m disappointed,” I retort. “I was sure I had a rep for knowing the dirt on everyone.”

“You’re certainly talked about,” she says, with that dry Mac undertone I’ve so missed. “Not in a bad way!” she adds, when I maybe don't hide my fear of infamy well. “Just…you lured Logan Echolls away from Lilly Kane. And you’re not even a supermodel!”

I give her my best blank, please-continue face, entertained by her spiral of fail, and she keeps on digging. “Not that you’re not…really pretty, but,” she covers her face with her hands. “How about I just get off the cooler, so you can flee with your beer in peace?”

I extract a Negro Modelo, twist the top, and take a deep, welcome swallow. “You need to breathe,” I advise. “And I didn’t steal Logan so much as he beat up my boyfriend, and dragged me off into the trees. Like Tarzan.”

Logan chooses this moment to pass by, put his hand on the small of my back, kiss my forehead and growl at me. As he walks away, we both burst out laughing.

“See?” I say. “He’s a pussycat, really. In the sense that he’s much more deadly than he looks.” I wink. “And so are you, if the rumors are true. My super secret sources tell me you’re a HACKER.”

She blushes faintly, but her expression doesn’t change, because Mac is the queen of self-possession. “Just a computer nerd,” she corrects. “Your average layperson gets confused.”

“OK,” I say. “You can be ‘just a computer nerd’. I’ll be an adorable blonde cupcake. Dick will be an idiot, and Lilly a free-spirited vamp, and Logan the jovial 09er ringleader, without a care in the world.”

“What about your friend Wallace?” she asks, entertained by my badinage. “And Cassidy?”

“Angel and Devil,” I retort. “The best and worst guys I know.”

“Wow,” she says, deadpan, big eyes wide. “You’re a little frightening. I’m intrigued.”

“Beware,” I tell her, pointing. “People like me can put talents like yours to good use.”

“Spying?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Justice,” I correct, and toast her, and drink. “Come find me sometime, if you feel like playing Batman.”

I see Logan chatting with a group, over by the outdoor dining: I head that direction, but am intercepted by Dick. He throws an arm around me, which still makes me stiffen, and says, “Nuh-uh, Ronnie, you want to hang around here for a sec. Come on, sit down.”

He leads me to a barstool, and helps me up, then sticks his fingers in his mouth and whistles. “Yo Logan!” he yells. “We’re ready!”

Logan grins, and jogs over. He curves in behind me, arms around my waist, chin on my shoulder. “OK,” he says. “Remember how I told you there was a good surprise and a really good surprise? This is the first one.”

He nods at Dick, who shouts “GO!”, and the piped music changes from ‘Secret Agent Man’ to something bongo-heavy.

A line of Polynesian dancers files out, boy-girl/boy-girl, in two parallel columns. They do a brief routine that involves jumping, spinning and fire-stick twirling, greased bodies gleaming in the torchlight. Then they all face in, to make an alley, and reach towards the side of the house, beckoning.

From around the corner, Logan’s cronies appear, in swim trunks and leis, carrying what can only be described as a Cleopatra litter. On it sits Lilly (of course), in a navy blue bikini and hip-tied sarong, along with heaped tropical flowers, and a giant tiered cake. The cake matches her outfit: it has fondant stars, and lit sparklers in lieu of candles.

They run the gauntlet, Enbom snickering, Luke Haldeman blushing, and set the whole mess down in front of me. Lilly yells “Happy birthday, Ronica!” and leaps off for a hug.

“It’s your party, Rons!” Dick crows, horning in on the hug action. “We totally tricked you!”

I can’t help it. I start laughing. I’m used to loathing everything 09’er and over the top, but this scene seems designed to disarm me. “Yum!” I say, scooping up frosting with my finger, sticking it in my mouth. “What’s everybody else eating?”

Logan laughs and kisses me, cake-flavored, and Lilly passes out slices, and the surf music blares back on, double volume. Logan feeds me a piece, bite by bite, and then drags me to an open swath of patio where people are dancing.

Time stretches as we jump and writhe, spinning and rubbing close, mugging and laughing. It’s hot and loud and bright—it’s the anti-Shelly’s-party—and I feel a wound I didn’t know I had, healing inside me. This is what normal is, I realize. This weird, incoherent extravagance. This moment is me, being myself-- brassy, paranoid, suspected of criminal acts-- and still being accepted. Celebrated, even. This life stayed beyond my reach, even before the tragedy, because I lied and played parts, seeking it. But I’m not lying now. Everyone sees who I really am, and some of them like me BETTER.

Eventually I need a break. I put my hands on Logan’s shoulders to still his bouncing, and yell, “Bathroom!” in his ear. He nods and yells back, “Beer!” and heads off to the Tiki Bar. I turn the opposite direction, enter the house.

It’s dark inside, except for a glow from the den, clearly signaling ‘off limits’. I glance towards the light as I pass, and stop short. Kendall Casablancas is there, wearing a slinky black dress: she’s curled up with a glass of whiskey, watching Antiques Roadshow.

She looks up when she notices me staring, and says, with a complete lack of interest, “Oh, hey. It’s the birthday girl.” She toasts me, takes a sip. “Happy no more being jailbait. Take advantage, while you’ve still got a hot boyfriend.”

I’m swamped with rage. This is the chick who made Logan moan and come, who begged ‘harder’ and he obliged, while I listened through the wall. This bitch and her Fitzpatrick cronies stole 8 million dollars, and got my dad shot. I want to take her apart brick by brick, or at least terrify her with the fact that I have her number. But she’s smart, under the lips and hair and tits, and maybe more ruthless than I am. So I just say, “Thanks, I will,” in a tone of matching blandness, and continue, fists clenched, down the hall.

The baths on the lower level are occupied, so I head upstairs. It’s not until I’m washing my hands in a guest-room sink that I realize I cut my palms with my nails.

I switch on a lamp as I emerge, examining the damage, and from the shadows of the canopy bed, I hear, “Veronica.”

I glance up, startled. There, lounging back against the pillows, toying with a Slinky, is Beaver.

My heart begins to hammer. “Wh…what are you doing here?” I manage, to the little monster I last saw splattered across the hood of a Subaru.

“I wasn’t in a party mood.” He shrugs: the coy, pretend-modest, self-effacing gesture that deflected attention from his sociopathy for too long. I do a full-body shiver. “But happy birthday.”

I nod. I won’t ever express gratitude to him. “Dick told me you were in France.”

“I was,” he agrees. “But mom came back because she stopped enjoying herself, so I came too.”

“Wow,” I say. “I’m gonna head downstairs.”

I turn to go, and he asks, “Did you meet my new stepmom? She’s pretty, huh? All the guys think so.”

I grit my teeth, and remind myself that murder is wrong. “Yes,” I mutter, and flee. Walking as fast, and as confidently, as I can, out of the bowels of the house, into the light.

Lilly’s by the door as I emerge, likely pale and shaken. She takes one look at me, grabs my hand, and drags me off into the flower garden, where it’s dark and private. “What the hell?” she demands.

“I just ran the gauntlet of Very Bad People,” I say.

“Who?” she wants to know. “The stepmonster? Because I had her scoped already. She runs her eyeballs all over John and Logan, whenever they’re in view, and she’s somehow overspending her very generous allowance.”

“Wow, you are GOOD!” I say. “Didn’t they JUST get married?”

“Custom couture evening dresses,” she explains. “20k per. I’ve seen 6 on her, so far, and she doesn’t have the milkshake to bring designers to her yard.”

“She’s a con artist,” I reveal. “With a fake name. Pass the word discreetly, steer clear, because she may be looking for a boy toy. She’s not the big problem, though. Beaver’s back.”

Lilly makes a face. “I kind of feel bad now about calling him that,” she says. “Considering.”

“Well don’t,” I retort. “He’s not like those of us who gained strength through adversity. He’s a rotten apple, of the cruel-to-animals variety, and he may be considering upgrading to girls.”

“Check,” she says. “Does Dick know? Or Logan?”

“Logan, yes. Dick, no clue. Not from me, because Beav’s his brother.”

She studies me. “So that’s your policy? No-tell about the sins of loved ones, as long as they’re not doing crimes?”

“Yeah,” I say, directly meeting her eyes. “Your secrets stay secret, as long as they’re victimless. It’s just illegal, predatory behavior I uncover, and stop.”

She nods, the faintest hint of soft sentiment curving her mouth. “I need to warn you about something, too.”

“OK.” I sit on a wrought iron bench, and she perches beside me.

“Look, I know you and Logan haven’t…” she rolls her hand in a circle, uncharacteristically circumspect. “And I know he has PLANS, tonight. And I just want to say…” she takes a deep breath. “Don’t make him show you his back. Don’t ask about the scars. And let him…learn what you like, even though it feels vulnerable. And hold him, after. He’ll pretend he doesn’t need those things, say he’s cool with being out of control. But he does. He’s not. Underneath the snark, he’s got issues, and he doubts that anyone cares.”

I’m touched. And this speech makes me wonder if Logan was right—if her thing with Aaron was more about hurting herself, leading the abuser away. If perhaps the pattern of retributive wounding I saw between them was based in self-destruction, not revenge.

If maybe Madison Sinclair didn’t happen to make me sorry, but to definitively sabotage Logan’s own future. Because he thinks he doesn’t deserve love.

“Lils, I know,” I say, putting my hand over hers. “I’m aware of it all. But thank you, so, so much, for caring about him enough to tell me.”

She grins. “Thanks for keeping my secrets,” she replies. “Because you and your dad did, I got a second chance. Which maybe I don’t deserve, but you know I’ll take it.”

“You do deserve,” I say. “You just proved it.”

She kisses my cheek. “Run along and get yourself deflowered, Veronica Mars,” she says, making a flicking motion with her hand. “Be sure to enjoy every dirty second.”

Logan’s doing his patented Loganlean against a palm tree, when I circle back to the patio, his legs nonchalantly crossed. He’s clearly waiting to ‘casually’ intercept me: and he’s got one of those unfurling-spiral noisemakers they hand out at elementary school parties. I watch him play with it, enjoying himself, and can’t help but smile. He’s equal parts mouthy asshole, world-weary debauche and spastic six-year-old, all in one elusive package.

“Hi there,” I call, emerging into the light, wrapping my arms around his waist. “Miss me?”

“Every second,” he says, tucking back a strand of my hair. “Ready to hit the road?”

“Why?” I tease. “Is this the part where the REALLY big surprise is revealed?”

“Maybe,” he says. “If you don’t come along for the ride, you’ll never know.”

“Logan Echolls!” I gasp. “Was that a double entendre?”

He laughs. “And this is the reason I love you,” he says. “Well, one of the reasons.”

“Let’s show some gratitude to Dick,” I say, figuring once more into the breach. “Then it’s green lights for you, all the way home.”

Dick’s on the dance floor with a bottle of tequila, shimmying his grass skirt at Meg Manning, and generally making an ass of himself. I march on over and pull him into a hug, which startles him so much he almost drops his booze.

“Thanks for the party,” I say, while he blinks at me. “It was unforgettable.”

He grins. “Hey Logan!” he yells. “You need to keep a better eye on your woman. She’s all OVER me, dude!”

“Have fun shaking your moneymaker,” I tell him, stealing his stupid visor, and putting it on my own head. I take Logan’s hand. “Come on, sugar lumps, let’s roll.”

XXXXX

“Hey Ronica?” Logan ventures, when he’s ushered me into the car, and we’re driving again. “Listen, you deserve some gratitude, too.”

“For what?” I ask, surprised. “You’re the one who pulled out all the stops to give me a good birthday. I mean, shirtless slaves? Sparklers? Thank YOU!”

He laughs. “No, it’s just…I appreciate you letting my friends be YOUR friends again. I know when you and Lils were fighting, it got ugly for a while, and I…it means a lot, that you’re willing to forgive. And not to sound like a girl, but it may mean even MORE to Dick and Lil. Because at least I know I was always privately on your side. Whereas they were total caustic assholes.”

“Yeah,” I say. “You’re welcome.”

He takes my hand and kisses it, turns his eyes back to the road.

“Hey Logan?” I ask, after a minute, and he glances at me. “Thanks for letting my forgiveness be on my schedule, and by my choice.” I take a deep breath. “And for making no demands. I’ve never told you this, I guess, but the fact that you just accept me as is, and don’t insist I change? That’s something I truly need. Even if I rarely return the favor.”

He laughs. “No problem. It’s all part of the Luxury Full-Service Boyfriend Package I offer.”

“Well it’s top of the line,” I say. “I’m completely satisfied.”

He drives up the highway towards the Land of Big Money, passing more and more exclusive enclaves. Eventually he chooses a guard station, presents a card, and the gate rolls ostentatiously back.

He turns into the drive of a bougainvillea-festooned, Spanish-style on the beach, and I realize with a start that it’s OUR house: the one where I kept waking up, in the present reality I crave. “Mom’s private retreat,” he explains. “For when she gets tired of pretending she can handle things.”

“It’s beautiful,” I say, wondering if it’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Because how did it get all the way from here to Berkeley? Did he cut it in half at some point, and stick it on a truck?

“Wait ‘til you see the inside.” He helps me down—the amount of chivalry from him today is entertaining—and glances over his shoulder with an eyebrow bob, as he unlocks the door. “Happy birthday,” he sing-songs, waving a conjurer’s arm.

Somebody’s clearly just been here, prepping. There’s mood lighting and mood music, a gourmet meal laid out on the table. I look at it, the green couch, the pretty-but-different ocean view: and the desire to just chill with fiancée-him, eating ice cream and bantering, wearing his sweater, is almost overwhelming.

I walk back towards the bedroom, because I know that’s the grand finale. I push the door open, and gasp. Because it’s done up with about a hundred candles, it smells like cinnamon, and there are flower petals scattered on the lacy white bed.

“This isn’t pressure,” he assures, earnest, coming up behind me. He leads me to the couch, guides me to sit. Follows me down. “You say whether you want to do anything, you say how much, and anytime you tell me stop or no, I’ll quit. This is just…a place where your first time can be special. If you want. Where we can have privacy, and learn each other, and take however long we need. And you can feel like you’re the most important person in the world to me, like you have my total focus. Because you are, and you do.”

Okay, I ought to say no to this, right? In case there really is an Improved Past! Veronica, whose life I’m borrowing? I should be mature and responsible, tell him I’m not ready, and then jump the next Live-in Boyfriend Logan I see.

But here’s the thing. I never had a true ‘first time’. I was raped, and that doesn’t count, except in the ways it made me feel foreign to my body, frightened of it. And then I tried to normalize that rape by dating Duncan, which maybe shouldn’t count either (although back then, both Logan and I were sure it did). The sex in that faux-relationship was rare, and uninspired: partly because my subconscious didn’t want him touching me, and partly because he loved like he lived. In bed, as in life, Donut was uninspired, bland, and severely inhibited about giving or receiving pleasure.

Logan realized, when we finally slept together, that he was way more experienced. But he assumed I knew what I was doing. In truth, his physicality, his savant-like ability to induce orgasms, his anything-goes attitude, were new and overwhelming (and frankly, kind of intimidating). I pretended to be unfazed until I actually was: it was a steep, terrifying learning curve, though, and hiding my fears was exhausting.

So this gesture…the flowers, the candles and music, the setting and speech…touches me in a place so vulnerable, so secret, even MY Logan doesn’t know it’s there. The place that wants to learn intimacy with someone in tandem. The place that would like to start fresh.

“But what about you?” I ask, because I’m still the Sheriff’s daughter, and I OUGHT to be good. “Your birthday’s not for six more days. Shouldn’t we wait, and then everybody will be legal, and there won’t be any…”

“Veronica.” He cuts me off. “I’ve been emancipated for fourteen months now. Mom’s gone for long periods, filming, and she and I both thought…after Aaron…that I needed more control over my life. Like if she gets married again, and I’m not into hanging with the guy, I don’t have to. She…wants me protected, even when she can’t take care of me.” He sees my face go soft, and waves a hand to forestall comment. “It’s not a big deal. I mean, we still technically live in the same house. I only brought it up because I’ve been a legal adult since before you and I got together. I was just waiting for YOU to feel ready.”

“Wow,” I say. “You really DID think of everything.” I get up, walk to the middle of the room, and spin around. Taking it all in, trying to imprint every detail on my memory. “This is an incredibly kind, amazing, beautiful gesture,” I say. “How can I possibly reward you, for being so sweet and generous?”

I walk over to the bed. Recline slowly backwards onto my elbows, amidst the petals. Crook a finger.

He smiles and approaches, stopping by the foot. Pulls out his phone, takes a picture. “Perfect moment,” he says, smirking as he checks the image. “Got to capture it, for posterity.”

He sets the phone down and crawls on top of me, easing me back to the mattress, his forearms braced on either side of my head. Takes a deep breath, lets it go.

“So you’re a virgin,” he says, conversationally, nuzzling the spot below my ear. He scrapes his teeth along it very gently, licks, and when I shiver I can feel his lips curve. “But you know how to have an orgasm.”

“Well, there’s this one boy,” I murmur, my skin rippling with excitement, because he’s giving me cues from his favorite fantasy. “Sometimes I let him do things. I shouldn’t, but he’s so sexy, and he makes me feel so good.”

“What does he do?” he asks, running his nose under my chin, softly kissing there. I realize he’s smelling me. “What makes you want to say yes?”

“He’s romantic,” I breathe, running my hands down his chest, tugging lightly at the hair. “And he’s funny, and handsome, and he loves me. But really, I think it’s the way he moves, so fluid and overwhelming and physical. And the fact that he’s wicked. He knows a million ways to turn girls on, and he tries them all.”

He bites my shoulder, less gently, and his hand curves down my throat, palms my breast. My legs get restless, shifting, wanting to curl around him, but he keeps them braced between his knees.

“And he talks,” I say, while he sucks my throat, runs a thumb over my nipple. “He says naughty things while he DOES naughty things, which makes me SO excited.”

“Do you masturbate?” he asks, mouthing my breast through the fabric of my dress. His hand slides down to my waist, his thumb dipping into my navel.

“Yes,” I admit, sighing. I can feel the flush spreading over my throat and chest, and my nipples are swollen knots. He’s experimenting with them now, nibbling and licking, massaging and pinching, and I’m so wet and turned on, I’m having trouble remembering which Veronica I’m supposed to be. “Almost every night.”

“Do you put anything inside yourself, during? Or do you just touch, here?” He runs two fingers over my clit, pressing cloth between my legs, and I moan. I want him in me.

“It feels better,” I manage, “with my fingers inside.”

“And what do you think about?” he asks, untying the knot behind my neck. He peels the straps of my dress down and returns to my breasts, pushing the cups of the bikini aside, circling a nipple with his tongue. He nips, and my hips rise off the bed. He grins, gently licks the wound.

“You like biting,” he murmurs, opening his mouth wide to scrape his teeth along the slopes. His hand eases down between my legs, rubs gently: I rock against his fingers, seeking contact. He sucks at the spot just below one under-curve, like he’s leaving a hickey, and I make a sound of frustration.

He rises up then, kisses me deep, and his hand slides inside my bikini bottoms, delving through the wetness. “Jesus,” he says, breathing harder, and pushes a finger in.

Oh God, it’s good when he circles my clit with his thumb, even though the penetration burns. I guess mentally, I expected it: I mean, I’ve heard the first time’s painful. And I was so sore after Shelly’s party, though I was also badly bruised. But I’ve never felt anything like this itch, slightly too much friction deep inside, delicious even as it stings. I want it. I want him to coax me open.

I lift my hips, taking him deeper, sucking at his tongue as he works me: and abruptly I’m coming, fierce and fast, big pulsing contractions. He crooks his finger against my g-spot, coaxing forth a second wave, and eases another finger in, keeping up the massage.

“What do you think about?” he asks again, as I gasp and it eases, still very gently fucking me with his hand, nibbling at my ear.

“His mouth,” I say, and my voice sounds hoarse. “He licked me once, through my underwear. And I wanted him to do with his tongue what you’re doing with your fingers.”

He lets out a groan, grinds his cock against my belly. I’ve always loved it, the size and heft of it—like everything else about him, it makes me feel dainty. But this time, I’m actually a little worried about whether it will fit.

“Would you do that to him?” he asks, teeth to my neck now, penetrating with his fingers more deeply and insistently. “Would you suck his dick?”

“Oh yeah,” I say, and he commences writhing, finally sharing my frustration. “His skin tastes good. And I love to watch him get turned on.”

He pushes my dress off, down over my legs, and my bikini bottoms too. He nips at my nipples, one and then the other, until I moan every time his teeth touch. He replaces them with his hand, pinching and kneading, and licks a stripe across my belly, delving his tongue into my navel. And he goes down, laving lavishly over my clit, then doing just what I told him to, fingers along for the ride.

“Oh,” I say, because I’m starting to clench very deep inside. “Oh, God, Logan, please now. Please.”

“Not yet,” he says, and pushes in a third finger, and I convulse all the way to my womb, wracking shudders as fluid spurts.

I make a hungry noise, spreading my legs wide, and he relents and climbs back up. He extracts a condom from his shorts and takes them off, and I slide the shirt from his shoulders. Now we’re both naked, and I want him.

He tears the condom open, hands it to me. “Put it on,” he says, and I take him in both hands and smooth it down, his jaw flexing as I work. He kisses me, laces his fingers through mine, and says, “OK. Tell me if I hurt you.” He starts pushing in.

Man, it aches, like the skin is raw, a weird juxtaposition of pleasure/pain. I pull my knees to my chest, to relieve the pressure, and he eases his shoulders under, and oh, that helps. He goes all the way in, and I come again, so over-sensitized any stimulation gets me.

He kisses my cheek, looks into my eyes, and we’re past games, past words, onto full union. He rolls into me, deep gentle waves, and I roll back, accepting him. We barely fit, but it’s somehow perfect. He’s tender, and I love him so much it hurts. I slide my legs down, wind them around his waist, and embrace his shoulders, my lips on his face and throat. “I love you,” I say softly, between butterfly kisses, remembering Lilly’s advice. “I love you with my whole heart.”

He moans and pushes deeper, undulating, insistent now: I stroke him gently with my hands and feet, urging him on. I kiss his chin, his nose. Run my hands softly over his ass, then my nails. He huffs and fucks me harder, so I do it again, and he groans, so I nip his neck. He loses restraint, kissing me roughly, driving me up the bed. He reaches down between us, starts rhythmically squeezing my clit, and I slide into a stream of contractions that last and lasts, until I’ve finally sucked him dry.

“Holy shit,” he mumbles, when he relaxes from his full body clench. He sags boneless on top of me, breathing hard. “That was EPIC. Who says dreams don’t come true?”

I laugh so hard tears roll out, twining all my limbs around him. “You think,” I manage, “they’ll still be writing songs about us, in a hundred years?”

“I’d write a song about you NOW, if I was a pretentious asshole.” He rolls us sideways with a grunt, kisses my nose. “And if I was capable of more than just lying here, stunned.”

“A wise man once told me that the best things in life don’t come easy,” I chastise, with a pat, and succumb to another gust of laughter.

“You were a hell of a lot easier than I thought you’d be,” he murmurs. He brushes the hair back from my face, and the corner of his mouth crooks. “You came like 40 times. And now you’re GIDDY!”

“I have no point of comparison,” I say. “But that may have been the best first time the world has ever seen.”

“I’VE got no point of comparison,” he says. “Wow, Ronica. And I only explored maybe the top quarter of your front half, before you turned all greedy. This getting-to-know-you project could take DAYS.”

“I live with Jake and Lianne,” I say. “They probably wouldn’t notice I was gone, unless the dog made a fuss.”

He smiles at me, his rarest, sweetest, most infatuated smile, and my heart lurches in response. “We could just stay here,” I urge, tracing his hairline with one finger, “now that we’re both adults. You could surf every morning, and we could do THAT every night. Think how well you’d sleep.”

“Veronica,” he chides. “You know there’s no rest for the wicked.”

“Fine,” I say, rolling onto my back. “At least do me again, before we have to leave.”

“Uh-uh.” He shakes his head. “I’ve never been a girl’s first time either, but I can tell based on how tight you were that you’re gonna be sore. You need a hot bath. And I will wash you, and pet you, and dry you off, and kiss you everywhere. But I’m not going back in until you can walk without wincing. So get your mind out of the gutter.”

“Can I kiss you too?” I ask, wistfully.

He groans, curving around me. “Because I taste good?”

“I want to try it all,” I say. “Everything you like. Show me.”

He presses his face into the pillow. “This is one of THOSE dreams, right?” he asks, peeking sideways at me. “Because no way is my karma this good.”

“How about that bath?” I suggest, instead of answering. He gets up, and offers his hand.

Chapter Text

THREAD FOURTTEEN

I wake to the sound of an air conditioner hissing, a wet snuffling at my ear. I turn my head to the side, open my eyes, and the big husky gazes diffidently back at me.

Oh no, I think. Oh nonononononono.

Tears well up, but I don’t let them fall. I reach a hand out, ruffling through the lush fur: locate the green collar, the nametag. Loki. Trickster god. I gaze into the dog’s one blue and one brown eye, and decide it seems appropriate.

I hug him, and he tucks his head under my chin the way he did before, like there’s no place he’d rather be. Okay, I think. I’m Veronica Mars. If I could survive my life post-Lilly, I can handle this. Step one, find the best sources of information, and exploit them. Step two, discover if I have any friends left.

I search out my closet, dress in jeans and boots, a grey t-shirt with a graphic of a kitten hanging from a tree branch. It feels right. I put my hair up in a ponytail, grab a hoodie from a chair. I whistle for Loki, using Backup’s old commands, and he comes.

I know my mom’s organizational schemes, so I’m not surprised to find a bench in the mudroom, with cubbies and hooks for everyone’s gear. Mine has a shelf that contains several college letters of deferment: a bin with a dog leash and harness, a collapsible water bowl full of bagged treats: and a black leather messenger bag, with a post-it stuck to the front.

“Cash, bank card, credit card, DL in wallet,” the note reads. “Pls eat breakfast u r thin. Home by 5 Luv Mom!”

I shake my head, remembering my dad shouting at me, in my very first not-dream (‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day!’). I wonder where Dad is, how he’s coping. Then I realize, and I smile.

I harness Loki as he shifts from paw to paw in excitement, dig through my bag for keys. Then I latch on his leash, and we head off in search of the garage.

XXXXX

I park my grey convertible Mercedes in front of the Dim Sum House/ massage parlor, and gaze up at the Mars Investigations sign.

“This is the place outcasts go,” I tell Loki, rubbing his ears, “to find out who wronged them, and seek their deadly revenge.”

Inside, it looks the same: ancient brown furniture, shabby fake plants, stained glass that paints the light red/gold. I trail my fingers along the receptionist’s desk, wondering who does my job. I knock on Dad’s office door, walk in.

He glances up, surprised, but smiles when he sees me, coming around the desk for a hug. “Hey, honey!” he exclaims. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“I want to work for you,” I say. “I’m a good investigator, and I need a job.”

Dad bends down to pat Loki, eyeing me shrewdly. “If I give you a job, Veronica, it’ll be answering phones. I just got you out of the joint. I’m not taking any risks.”

“Yeah, but why was I IN?” I ask, the question that’s been haunting me, since the morning I woke up in jail. “I’m innocent of the crime, there was tons of evidence PROVING that, and I had a high-dollar lawyer who was cool under pressure. No way should the cadre that offed Felix Toombs have had the power to take me down, with both the right of law and Jake Kane behind me.”

“Officially? Because a very respectable person came forward as a witness, and described the murder. Unofficially, because the Fitzpatricks, and the bigwig who’s backing them financially, set you up to take the blame.”

“How can we prove it?” I loop Loki’s leash tight around my fist. He’s a great dog, sitting patient at my feet. “I want the person who really killed Felix to pay.”

Dad puts his hands on his hips. Sighs. “That’s your desk,” he says, pointing through the door. “My receptionist quit last week, anyway. Go make yourself comfortable, I’ll bring you the file.”

Three hours later, I’ve read (and digitized) every piece of paper in the accordion folder. And I have a pretty good idea who was and wasn’t behind my fall from grace.

For one thing, Weevil was attacked about a month after my arrest, and he’s been in a coma ever since. And for another, the ‘very respectable person’ who ‘witnessed’ my crime wasn’t cokehead Dr. Tom Griffiths.

It was Meg Manning.

According to court transcripts, Meg came forward in late August 2005, claiming we were kidnapped as part of a gang initiation. She testified that we woke up in a warehouse, guarded by Felix Toombs, who said he had to ‘look us in the eyes, and kill us both’. She claimed I tased him, appropriated the gun, and shot him in cold blood, quipping ‘Guess I get that teardrop tattoo now, instead of you’. I then, apparently, turned the gun on her, to eliminate the witness.

She told police the gun jammed, so she hit me in the head with a rotten board, and managed to escape. She kept silent for several months, in fear of gang retaliation: then tearfully confided all to her father, who convinced her to come forward. She led police to the warehouse, where my messenger bag was found behind a pile of rusted pipes.

How do you incriminate a rich, pretty blonde girl for a gangland murder, in Neptune? Start with a sweeter blonde girl, to make the defendant look like a bitch, add a cup of racist urban legend, and stir.

XXXXX

I wait until Dad’s at lunch to hunt up the password in his desk calendar, and Prying-Eyez Logan. Much to my surprise, I find almost nothing.

I figured he’d fall apart, after the 1-2 whammy of his sister’s death and his girlfriend’s jailing, because that’s how Logan rolls. I thought there’d be drunken brawling, and OD’s, and DUI’s, and reams of unpaid tickets. He’d likely skip college, or flee to Europe, or become a tabloid staple, screwing his way through the latest crop of starlets.

But no. He attends Hearst, majoring in criminal justice, and his grades are good. No spouse, no kids, no arrest record of any kind, not even the juvie vandalism stuff he was infamous for in Original! Reality. One ticket in the last year and a half, for running a stop sign, and he even took defensive driving.

I log off and Google him, which is again unfruitful: even the fan-club media presence of Ideal! Logan is absent, here. This Logan seems serious, composed and driven, determined to fly under the radar. When I locate a red-carpet photo of him, posing with his mother, he’s not scowling, smirking or mugging. He just stands there silently, expressionless, adult and calm.

I sigh, clear my cache and cookies, shut the computer down. I whistle for Loki, who’s curled up on the ancient couch, watching me. “Come on, boy,” I say, gathering up his leash. “Let’s be psychos, and go stake out the ex.”

XXXXX

Logan’s listed residence is a small house near the Hearst campus, on a tree-lined residential street. It’s nice, but way less ostentatious than his usual style, and nowhere near the beach. I know his rhythms, so I arrive at 3:00, assuming he’ll show up after class, change, drink a beer: then head out for dinner, and evening activities.

Sure enough, just after 4:00 a black Range Rover rounds the corner. I glimpse him in the driver’s seat as he rolls past me. He goes into the garage, lights appear in the house, and he opens all the windows, so I can hear the White Stripes playing. I settle back to wait him out.

At 4:22, a blue Mini Cooper with a white roof pulls up, coming from the other direction: the garage door slides open. I straighten. Logan’s the only one on the title, but apparently, he has a roommate.

At 5:13, the front door opens. Logan appears, dressed in cargo shorts and a black t-shirt, hair shorter and more severe than I’ve ever seen it. He’s got a bag slung over his shoulder with a tennis-ball atlatl sticking out, and a black mutt with white paws frolics around him. He turns back toward the door, smiling, cupping his hand around his mouth to call out: in a minute, a short-haired girl in a sky-blue sundress emerges. She’s got a punky style, long bangs, eyeliner so thick I can see it from my car, purple Converse on her feet. It’s not ‘til she tosses her hair and puts her hands, laughing, on her hips, that I realize the girl is Mac.

He skips backwards a couple steps, luring her, and she locks the door and joins him, shaking her head. He slings his arm around her, rests the other hand on her belly, in a protective gesture I immediately recognize. She gazes up at him, still smiling, and I know that look—I’ve worn it.

Mac’s in love with my boyfriend. And he’s living with her: he’s knocked her up. I stole Logan away from Lilly, once upon a time: and, now, apparently, Mac’s stolen him from me.

I drive back to MI in a daze. I enter dad’s office, lock the door, and sit in the corner on the floor, until I feel calm.

XXXXX

I emerge from the kitchenette, which I’ve just disassembled and scrubbed like it harbored Ebola, to find Logan sitting on the client couch with Loki. He’s still in his going-to-the-park clothes, and the traitor dog is sprawled across him, panting happily.

“I thought that was you,” he says, pinning me with his most inscrutable, assessing gaze. “Veronica Mars on a stakeout. I can spot it from half a mile away.”

My face flushes red, and I look at the wall. “Just checking up. Surveilling from a distance, you know, since I’m not sure where I’ll be welcome.”

“I heard you got out.” He draws his fingers hypnotically through Loki’s fur, while I try not to watch. “Congratulations. I knew justice would triumph, someday.”

My head jerks sharply as I meet his eyes. “You don’t think I did it.”

He rolls his eyes. “Veronica, Dick was on speakerphone with you when you got abducted. None of us think you did it. You KNOW that. You know I would have been in that jail every week, visiting, if you hadn’t refused to see me. God, we’re your FRIENDS, Rons! You don’t need to hide in a car and spy on us. We’re the Justice League, and you’re Wonder Woman!”

I feel tears spill, and I turn my back. “I appreciate that.”

“Okay…” his voice is slow, like light is dawning. “Okay, now I get it. This is about Mac.”

I tense, but keep my face averted. “It’s been a long time, Logan. Life happens.”

“You didn’t know.”

I shake my head, once. “Don’t make me talk about this,” I say. “True confessions: not my style.”

“Look,” he murmurs, and I can tell he wants to get up and embrace me, but he doesn’t. “You remember, when you went down, I was in a bad place.”

I nod.

“My sister was dead,” his voice cracks on this, but he continues. “My dad was dead. My girlfriend was sentenced to life in prison, and told me, in so many words, I should leave her to rot. My mom was being…my mom. She went to Fiji for six months, to ‘decompress’. And Dick and Lils, God bless ‘em….were not so helpful.

“Mac got me through, Veronica. She did some hacker shit, and I was magically enrolled in college. She made sure I studied, and went to class. She came to my room and flushed my drugs, and told my potential drunken hookups I had herpes. And she showed me how to research your case. We have SO much information, we can help you do what I KNOW you will, put the right person away. Mac was a great friend to both of us, Ronica. She saved my life.”

I turn, and he’s on his feet, looking down at me. He takes a step closer. “What I have with her, it’s not like us,” he says, waving the back of his hand at me, and the palm at himself. “It’s not…epic. But she’s good for me. She deserves the gratitude of everyone who cares if I make it. And we’ve…there’s a kid on the way, now. So you should know. She and I, we’re like, grown-up together.”

“I could tell,” I say, twisting my fingers into kanji. “Congratulations.”

He sweeps me up in a hug, holding really tight, and I grip his biceps, not sure whether to pull or push. “I still love you, just the same as ever,” he whispers. “I always will. You should know that, too.”

“Logan,” I say. I press my face into his neck.

“So the door’s open,” he tells me, fierce. His mouth is on my temple, and I feel like if either of us moves, we’ll end up screwing. “Come and let us help you. Because we can.”

I clear my throat, disengage. Someone has to be the asshole here, if we’re not going to spend the rest of our lives pining, and it looks like that job falls to me. “How about we dispense with the melodrama and you just TELL me what you know, right now? Like, who killed Felix, really? And who framed me?”

“We think Chardo pulled the trigger—he’s Weevil’s cousin-- and Thumper gave the order. As you suspected.” Logan studies me while I back away, mask coming down. “And Stewart Manning bullied and bribed a lot of people, to make sure you took the fall. What we don’t know is why—he’s got no motive. And unless Weevil wakes up with his brain intact, which is extremely unlikely, we’ll never be sure how it all went down.”

“Weevil was in on it?” I ask, shocked.

He shrugs. “That’s the thing,” he says. “Nobody who’s still alive knows.”

“The Fitzpatricks are the connective tissue,” I say. “Thumper was dealing drugs for them. Felix was dating Liam’s niece Molly. My best guess about Stewart is that he’s the investor behind the operation. And Kendall Casablancas is Bonnie, to Cormac Fitzpatrick’s Clyde.”

“Kendall?” he asks, sounding shocked. “Dick’s stepmom, Kendall?”

I narrow my eyes. “PLEASE tell me you didn’t bone her. Or say anything of importance, within her hearing.”

He grimaces, and there’s my confirmation. “Then you were the leak. Seriously, Logan, she’s plastic and evil! What the hell has she got that guys find so irresistible?”

He looks at his shoes. Looks up at me, from under his brow. “Veronica, you dumped me two weeks after my birthday for no reason: you wouldn’t even speak to me when the Meg thing went down. I was circling the drain. I was angry and drunk 24/7, and she was hot, and great in bed. It was easy.”

“Easy for YOU,” I say, shaking my head at him. “I did hard time. Look, just go, Logan. You, and your idiot dick, and your tendency to be BFF’s with the worst person in the room, are Mac’s problem now. You need to back off, until I can look at you without wanting to punch you in the face.”

He laughs, and I remember this, the mirthful smirk clashing with the angry eyes. “Ah, here we go. Get jealous, dive for the throat. This is why people believe you killed a man to watch him die, Veronica. Because you’re violent as fuck, when someone pisses you off.” He points at me. “But I’m not an idiot, like all the losers you've taken out. I WELCOME the challenge. And I can handle the pain, if it gets you justice. So pull yourself together, and quit attacking, because you’re stuck with me whether you want me or not. I swore to you, and you NEED me. And I’m not letting you chase me away again, no matter how mean you get.”

“Bite me,” I say, and he clacks his teeth, eyes alive. Like fighting and screwing are the same thing, in his brain. Which is, basically, true.

“Call by next week,” he warns, giving me a finger wave over his shoulder as he walks out. “Don’t make me pull out the big guns.”

“I hate you,” I mutter, slumping against the wall.

THREAD FOURTTEEN INVERTS

I’m sprawled across the bed in the beach house, with Logan, and I’m dozing. I’m in a purple bra and nothing else, for some reason: he’s nude, except for Puka shells, watching Seinfeld on a little TV that’s perched on the dresser.

I press my face into his neck, inhaling his scent. I’m still feeling raw and angry from the events of the day, and it makes me possessive. Like I should mark him, so they all keep their hands off. “I hate you, Kendall Casablancas,” I mutter, and he glances at me, amused.

“Pardon?” he asks, muting the TV, tossing the remote on the floor. He turns and cups my throat in his hand, kisses me just the way I want him to. When he pulls back, his eyes are laughing. “Are you having dirty dreams about Dick’s stepmom?”

“Promise me,” I demand, and my voice is slurred, like I’m half-awake. “If I die, or you dump me, or I’m kidnapped by aliens, or whatever. Promise you won’t sleep with her, specifically. Or trust her, or talk to her, or tell her any secrets. She looks like a cupcake, but she’s mob, Logan. She’s dangerous.”

“Does Dick Senior know he married a moll?” he asks, brushing my hair back with his palm.

I shake my head. “She’s the bag man for his real estate crimes,” I say. “But he thinks she’s just a hot, corruptible cheerleader.”

“Veronica,” Logan says. “I don’t want other women. I can barely keep up with you. But if it makes you sleep better, I promise to avoid that one specific bimbo under any and all circumstances.”

“I’d rather you join a monastery,” I say. “But if you move on, make it someone you trust, please. Someone who loves you. Swear.”

He puts his forehead against mine. “I swear. You want a blood vow, like I gave Lilly?”

I make a face. “Not necessary,” I say, and hug him tight.

He rubs my back, gently. “Wow. What the hell did you dream?”

“She manipulated information from you,” I tell him. “And I went to prison. And you moved in with Mac, and the two of you had a baby.”

“I moved in with WHO?” he laughs. “Wait, I was sleeping with both of them?”

“Mac,” I say. “This girl I met at my birthday party. She’s a hacker, with blue streaks in her hair.”

“Not my style,” he informs me. “Either one. I like hot blonde pep-squad girls, with real tits, and tons of prickly-sweet attitude. And I like them to be loyal,” he sucks at the hollow of my throat, “and scary smart,” he scrapes his teeth over my breast, captures the nipple, licks it, “and phenomenally uninhibited in bed. Which, frankly, is hot enough to make external fantasy objects unnecessary.”

He presses his face between my legs, where I’m already pretty sticky from a presumptive previous round: and it’s clear he’s completed that full-body exploration he threatened, because he gets me off twice in about a minute and a half. He eases up, slides gently inside, and while the fit is still extreme, there’s no longer any pain.

I kiss him, loving his unselfconsciousness, the way he tastes of me. He tucks me close, sits up so I’m straddling him. And then we rock ourselves to completion, embracing loosely, gazing into each others’ eyes.

“I love you,” I say, as he trembles with the aftershocks of orgasm, face pressed to my throat. “I don’t think, at this point, I’ll ever be able to stop.”

“Good,” he says, voice muffled. “Because I never plan to let you go.”

Chapter Text

THREAD FIFTEEN

I start awake in a convertible Mercedes, in the parking lot of the Neptune Grand. It’s the middle of the night: no traffic, very little moon, sky alive with stars. I look down at my hand, and I’m holding the key card Logan gave me, so I guess I know what I’m here to do. I sigh.

I foresee angst in any scenario that involves me invading his room at night. At best, it’ll be angsty sex. And frankly, after the events of the last few days, an ambiguous hate-fuck holds zero appeal. I deserve better than that. I deserve the Logan who watched our ultrasound video on a loop, the one who made my second first time perfect. The one who only wants me, and proves it regularly. I’ve seen how amazing he can be when he tries, now, and I won’t settle for less.

I sigh, and lever myself out of the car. I feel exhausted and unmotivated, like I’m coming down with the flu. I enter the lobby, wave at Tina (who’s covertly knitting), and board the Express Elevator to Hell. Going Up.

His room’s dark—of course it is, it’s 3:32 AM—and he’s sprawled unconscious across his big orange bed, in Superman boxers and one sock. I have no idea if this is the reality where I’m Mac’s roommate, so I’m nervous about the reaction I’ll get. I cross my arms, and switch on the light.

Logan wakes immediately, but stays stock-still: the better to assess unpredictable threats, my dear. He blinks up at me in confusion, then his face curves into a cold smirk. Great.

“Guess it’s drunken booty call o’clock, huh?” he says, sitting up and knuckling his eyes. “What’s wrong, Ronnie? Piz wouldn’t take you back?’

“My life is a permanent Piz-free zone,” I tell him, the one thing I know to be true.

“Yeah, well, it’s a Logan-free zone, too,” he says, lying back down. “Leave the card on the dresser when you go, so I don’t have to reprogram the locks.”

“I thought we fixed this,” I say. “I thought we got back together, and decided to buy a place on the beach, and I promised never to leave again.”

His eyes narrow, and he really LOOKS at me. An unpleasant feeling skitters through my gut, like he’s re-evaluating my sanity. “We did,” he agrees, slowly. “And then the next morning you freaked the fuck out, said it was all a big mistake, and fled your own dorm room to get away from me. I haven’t heard a word from you since.”

God, the Veronica of this reality is an ASSHOLE. I think I might prefer the ex-con. She was too dumb to stay out of jail, but at least she seems like she cares.

“Hormones,” I claim, daring him to argue.

He battles a smile. “Veronica, I have two tests tomorrow. Tell me what you want, and then go. And please don’t say sex, because I already kind of hate myself for giving in last time. I mean, I hate myself more than usual.”

Since I have no clue why I’m here, I’ve got no response. Just thinking of all the shitty things Shitty Hearst! Veronica might be up to makes me faintly nauseous. Am I here to harangue him for his failings? Accuse him of a crime? Do I need information about one of his soul-destroying lovers?

Okay, I’m Kendall-flashbacking. Really nauseous, now. Like I think I might actually hurl. In fact…

I turn, and sprint for the bathroom. I barely get the lid up in time.

I puke for three minutes straight, until I’m just spitting bile, my forearm pressed to my sweating face. I can hear Logan behind me, moving around: then a cool wet cloth comes down on my neck, smelling of his aftershave.

I sit back, pressing my palm to the rag, and he hands me a cup of water. “Rinse and spit,” he says. “I’m afraid I trashed your toothbrush and stuff, in a fit of pique.”

“I’m sure I have gum in my purse,” I rasp. “Never leave home without Juicy Fruit.” I gag again as he walks out, and mash the cloth to my lips.

“Um, Ronica?” Logan calls, from the living room. “What the hell is this?”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” I groan. “I lug around all kinds of weird stuff.”

He strides into the bathroom, holding a Ziploc bag. Inside is a pregnancy test stick, used. One with two pink lines showing in the window.

I press my fist to my belly, which is gurgling ominously again. “Shit,” I say, and bend for one more bout.

XXXXX

“So is it mine?” he wants to know, when I emerge into the living room. He shoots me a quick, loaded glance. He’s sprawled on the couch, aggressively changing channels.

“That or immaculate conception,” I guess, bracing against the wall. “Because there is no way on God’s green earth I would actually have sex with Piz, no matter how pissed off at you I was.”

Please let this be true. I may not like Hearst! Veronica much, but she does NOT deserve to be tied by 18 years of soccer tournaments and orthodontist payments to HIM.

Logan fixes me with his most unnerving stare. “What do you want to do?”

“I think the question is, what do WE want to do?” I correct. “It’s my body, but you’re not an innocent bystander, here.”

“I’d like to keep it,” he says, and turns back to the TV. “If you’re not into parenthood, but you’re willing to carry to term, I’ll assume custody after. If you want to be involved, we can share. If you decide to have an abortion, I’ll pay for it and take you, but only because, like you said, it’s your body. If I were the one knocked up, no way would I go that road.”

“So the option where we raise it as a couple is off the table?” I ask.

He sets the remote aside, and gets up to loom over me, moving in close. “You tell me,” he says. “You know how I want this movie to end, not that you usually care. You’ve always known.”

“Say it out loud,” I insist. “All cards on the table, face up.”

“I wish you would love me as much as I love you. Same as it ever was. I thought you did—I was SO SURE—and then we came to Hearst, and ever since, the whole house has been crumbling down around me. I’m not going to have a miserable marriage, Veronica. I’m not either one of my parents. The way you’re acting, right now—the way you acted the other day, in the cafeteria—reminds me of the girl I could count on. The girl I adored. But if you can’t bring a level of commitment like this, every minute,” he shakes his head. “I’m not getting back on that train.”

He walks over to the espresso machine, braces his hand against it. “Make your choice,” he says. “Let me know. And just so we’re clear, I appreciate you involving me in the decision, and giving me a vote. I realize you didn’t have to.”

“I would never not,” I assure him, approaching to touch his arm. And I go.

Because I MYSELF would never not. I doubt I’d CHOOSE to get pregnant at age 19, in any reality: but it happened once, and it was his, and I was happy. Until I’m sure I’ll be stuck here permanently, though, dealing with the consequences, I can’t impose my value set. It’s Hearst! Veronica’s life to manage, not mine.

Red satin, I’m discovering, has its limits as a personal code. Because sometimes, what you want to do most ends up hurting everyone involved.

XXXXX

I make it as far as my car and then collapse against the seat. I don’t know where to go from here: I’m genuinely at a loss, now, as to how to handle the slipstream.

My dilemma is this. I’m starting to fret about what happens to the Veronica I displace, when I appear in some random timeline. And it’s bringing up sticky questions, about ethics and consent, that I’d honestly rather ignore.

I mean, it could all be a dream, or an insane hallucination, right? I could be dead: is it even possible to OD on Nyquil? In which case it doesn’t matter what I do, how I behave, except insofar as it pleases me. The slipstream may be my New Normal, now and forever, amen.

OR it could be we’re switching places, other Veronica and me, and while I’m tangling with her Logan, she’s getting Freaky Friday with mine. In which case, God knows what I’ll find when (if) I get back home. She could be jacking with my reality as hard as I’m jacking with hers.

But what if I’m possessing her? What if she’s watching from behind my eyes, helpless and out of control? Or blacking out, while I’m playing around in her life? What if she’s coming to, only to realize I gave up her virginity, or dumped her boyfriend, or settled on a course of vengeance that might land her back in jail? I know how I felt when I woke up in Shelly Pomroy’s guest room, with bruises all over my hips and thighs, and a black hole where my memory should be. What if Shitty Hearst! Veronica actually LOVES Piz, and the baby she’s carrying is his? What if Prison! Veronica’s Mac dumps Logan, for endangering their kid to help me? What if Jailbait No More! Veronica wasn’t ready to go all the way? Do the other Veronicas hate me, for the things I’ve done? Will they take it out on Logan? Or themselves? Will any of my loved ones be hurt, because I was selfishly red satin, stealing the life I wanted, leaving them holding the bag?

I need an ally. Someone who knows all my secrets, in each timeline. Someone who’ll tell me what happens, when I’m not around. Someone who won’t think I’m nuts, and call the lab-coated professionals, when I rehash my supernatural tale of woe.

And I've got to stash all the data I’ve collected in the past, where it won’t be found. Where I can access it, in all possible futures, and my ally can, too. If I’m ever going to figure this out, navigate through the maze, end things? I have to quit dicking around.

I drag myself back to the dorm, eat four granola bars, and crawl into my narrow (but extra long) bed. Wallace, I think, is the best choice. He’s helped me with crazier (?) schemes, and never complained. All I need is an hour alone to convince him, and a laptop loaded with Excel. And a day free of crises, to make the spreadsheet happen.

THREAD FIFTEEN INVERTS

No such luck awaits me, though. My dream sets me down on a beach, in a bikini, no desk, computer, or electrical plug in sight. And my companions are distant shapes in the water, bobbing on boards among the waves.

I yawn and stretch, uncurling from the ball that’s my standard sleeping posture. I blink against the light. Then I watch, because there’s nothing else to do, as each successive crest rolls in, a figure balancing astride. The ocean’s hypnotic: slow, full undulations, like Logan during sex, green and foam at the peak, boiling blue in the trough.

I can tell the surfers apart by the way they move, Dick flashy, Wallace abrupt and stiff, Logan relaxed and effortless, a sentient part of the cycle. There are a couple other guys out there with them, maybe Bodie and Casey, one burly and skilled, one lanky and average. It strikes me that riding the slipstream is like being lost at sea: and instead of finding a boat, heading for land, I’m just thrashing around, treading water. Trying not to drown.

I’m so absorbed in contemplation, I don’t notice Wallace approaching. He flings himself onto the blanket, scattering water droplets, and wipes his face with a towel. “Supafly,” he acknowledges, with a half-smile.

“You’re getting better at the surfing,” I observe, trying to disguise my happiness at this unexpected alone time. Maybe I should wait ‘til next conversation to tell him I’ve gone nuts, so I can savor the moment? “You rode that last wave ALL the way down.”

He shrugs, unperturbed: there’s a twinkle in his eye. “I’m a basketball superstar. No need to excel at everything.”

“And you’re modest, too!” I say, which earns me a real smile. “No wonder you’re friends with Logan!”

He grunts, noncommittal. “I don’t see how we could NOT be friends, to tell you the truth. We’re practically the same guy.”

“Seriously?” I turn to look at him, incredulous. “He’s hyper, verbal and dramatic, and you’re sublimely chill! I mean, you’re two great boys, but in completely different ways!”

“We both have dead dads,” he says flatly, reverting to the disapproving look I SO don’t enjoy. “Moms who survived an abusive relationship, and still bear scars. We’re both athletes who could go pro, but also dig the idea of helping people. And beyond the concrete, we’re both the guy who’ll go all the way to the wall, doing what we think is right.”

His gaze shifts back to the water. “Like I said. Dick’s his friend who gets the world where he grew up, the one who has his back when things are fighty. I’m his friend who gets the person he is inside, independent of the trappings.”

“And who am I?” I muse, watching the silent figures in the distance, silhouettes against the setting sun.

“You’re the girl he’s wanted since he was old enough to have a preference,” Wallace tells me. “And I think, maybe, a long way back, you taught him right from wrong. He’d never admit it, but he kind of worships you, Veronica. You’re like his angry goddess, holding scales.”

I laugh. “Funny. He called me Athena once. And I stood right on this spot, the night of Sophomore homecoming, and decided he was Poseidon.” I lean back, onto my elbows, spare Wallace a brief glance. “Do I really come off angry? Because inside, I’m a marshmallow.”

“You seem scared, to me,” he says, and I do a double take. “Let me ask you this,” he continues, holding my gaze steadily, in his gentle Wallace way. “Why are you the only one in our social group who never tries to surf?”

I scoff. “Because I’m terrible. Not an ounce of athletic prowess in this bod.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s true.”

I’m left without an answer. Because he’s right. And because, up to this point, no one has ever questioned my deflection: cute, blonde cheerleaders aren’t expected to love boy sports. “Do you know how big the Pacific Ocean is?” I ask. “Water covers most of the Earth. Miles deep in places, filled with hidden dangers, and people can’t breathe, once they sink. There are sharks, jellyfish, giant squids. And I’m small.” I huff a laugh: this is something I don’t admit. “I mean, my personality is huge, but my body is child-size. One wave hits me wrong, psssht. I’m done.”

“There’s always gonna be waves,” he says. “A smart person learns to ride them, instead of shrinking away.”

“YOU can’t ride them,” I point out, getting a bit pissed at his wise-words-of-wisdom routine. “Most of the time, you face-plant.”

“Yeah, but at least I try.” He tosses the towel aside, hops up. Looks down at me, hands on hips. “You should too. Logan would be a big help, I bet.”

He lopes off, and I’m left alone. I stare at the dangerous, dark ocean, stretching out past the horizon.

XXXXX

The beach gathering drags on into the small hours, morphing from surf day, to cookout dinner, to co-ed beer fest around a bonfire. It swells in size to maybe 50 people, at one point, then wanes, as all but the hardiest turn into pumpkins. In Original! Reality, I would have been one of them, if I was even willing to waste the day. I still have a hard time believing that here, I have no curfew, no job and plenty of money for college.

Those of us that remain—Logan and myself, Wallace, Dick, Luke, Shelly, Casey Gant—sprawl lazily around the fading fire, half-heartedly staying awake. I’m the only one not drunk. Logan’s got his head in my lap: he’s staring into the flames, half-lidded, while I toy with his hair. Shelly’s going on about some trip her family’s taking to Monte Carlo, but I’m not really listening. I’m gazing down at Logan, lost in thought.

He looks sweet, stripped of vicious angst, serene. His cheeks still hold a hint of baby curve, deceptively innocent, and he’s soggily relaxed. I remember this face, sneering while he mocked me, eyes bright with hate-lust, friendship turned inside out. I remember how swift the flip from tormenter to protector was, how much I didn’t trust it: how badly he hurt me, when I rejected him, and exalted me, once I caved. All along, what he wanted was this, me adoring him, a sense of safety in my arms. And all along, it’s the one thing I wouldn’t give. Because he ring-led my humiliation, facilitated my violation, and I wanted to make him pay.

Here, in this place, where he’s only ever been kind, I can admit it: I was cruel, too. I estranged him from his girlfriend and his two best friends, because he kissed Yolanda instead of me. I escalated, by planting the cock bong, because he told the whole parking lot my mom was a drunk. I refused to date him publically, dumped him without a word, paraded Duncan like a prize to underscore the insult. I allowed him to be beaten, abused, framed, and didn’t offer help. He had to plead for a hand to hold, a friend to bind his wounds. A knight to slay his dragons. He had to play on my ego, my guilt.

I never told him I loved him, even when he begged. I was vindictive, not just. I went pyrrhic.

His behavior in Original! Reality was awful, Sophomore Year: our crimes were not comparable, and I wasn't obligated to forgive. But my inability to do so was destructive to us both. Because I wouldn't forgive him, but I couldn't let him go.

The truth is, I always wanted what we have, here, as much as he did. I cared for him still, even as I raged. What Wallace said about him preferring me, since he was old enough to have a preference—that was both of us. It was mutual. We were entwined since that first mixed-gender soccer game, when he tricked me to score a goal, and I engineered his red-carding, as payback.

I stroke his cheek with a fingertip, and he glances up, smiling. He takes my hand, kisses it, enfolds it in his own.

It was always you, I think, turning towards the fire. My gender preference, my aesthetic, the traits that make me tender. It’s why we keep entangling, in every reality, obstacles be damned. Sometimes you’re a gigantic asshole, and sometimes you wound and lie. But you never went so far off the path my heart couldn’t follow.

“Hey Logan,” I say, breath of sound. He rolls onto his back, gazing up with big dark eyes, one shade warmer than the night. “I want to learn to surf. For real.”

He smiles, lazy. “Can I call you Gidget?” he asks. “Like, every time we have a lesson?”

“If I can call you Kahuna,” I say. “Or daddy-o.”

“You’re bent,” he observes. “I like it. You’ve got yourself a deal. Just prepare for a challenge. Because it’s not easy, and you can’t control nature, and it’s a long road even to basic competence.”

I glance at Shelly, who is, insanely, still talking, and think, just like the slipstream. Maybe learning to ride one will help with the other. I nod, and settle down behind him. Make the big spoon around his much larger body, and press my face to his neck.

XXXXX

Dick slumps into the sand beside us, who knows how much later, and I startle from my doze. He hands Logan a beer, and in an undervoice says, “Dude. We’ve got company.”

Logan sits up and yawns, pretend-casual, kisses my cheek: but he’s wide awake, and tense, and his eyes are covertly scanning. “Check your cellphone in your bag,” he murmurs, by my ear. “See if it has service.”

I nod and dig for it. I can’t see anything at the periphery of firelight but rocks, waves and sand. “Yeah,” I tell him, when the screen activates.

“Good. Text your dad, ask him to send a car. Looks like we’re surrounded by the 02’s finest.” He leans over and mumbles to Dick, while I do as he asks. Dick grins and hops up, ambling towards Casey.

“I want you to sit by Shelly,” Logan instructs, pressing his car keys discreetly into my palm. “You’re cool-headed and competent, and she’s useless under pressure. Casey’s staying close to you guys: he knows Krav Maga. He can get you to the car, if things turn dicey. Then you go for help, if we’re mobbed, or 4 wheel over to collect us, if we’re not.”

“Why does this routine seem so rehearsed?” I demand, eyes narrowing. My taser and purse aren’t in my beach bag, but I’ve clocked a pile of sturdy sticks, stacked innocuous by the fire. As well as three PCH’ers, lurking near the pier.

His mouth curves, hint of the arrogant smirk. “I promised you I wouldn’t cut these guys off at the knees,” he reminds me. “They didn’t return the favor. This is the third incident this summer—they catch a few of us alone, attack with knives. If some genius among them ever has a lightbulb moment, and shows up with a gun, we’re screwed.”

“We learned a valuable lesson when you got kidnapped.” Dick reappears on my left, having apparently overheard. “If we’re not holding weapons, we won’t go to jail.”

I sigh, because apparently I’M the bad influence. “Don’t’ get hurt,” I warn Logan, spreading a palm across his chest. He smiles, and kisses me.

“I’m the muscle,” he says, with a shrug. “You stick to rhetoric and sarcasm, I’ll nail peoples’ heads to the floor. Now, go sharpen your wit on the weak link.”

He hops lightly to his feet, like he weighs 18 pounds, not 180: I head over to Shelly, the biggest key protruding from my clenched fist. I touch her arm and murmur, “Stay close to me and Casey.” And I notice the boys have moved into formation, holding sticks, so we stand protected at the center of a circle.

“You know any self-defense skills, Veronica?” Casey asks over his shoulder, as a line of four leather-jacketed guys appears. They approach the spot where Logan and Dick stand.

“I took a class,” I say. “And I’m wily.”

“Won’t argue with you there,” he smiles, and then we brace ourselves, because the enemy’s drawing near.

“Where’s your fearless leader?” Logan drawls, as soon as they’re in range, not bothering to raise his voice. He’s speaking to Thumper, who seems to be point man. “Not so fearless? I thought Weevil was the brains behind your ragtag band of merry men.”

“That’s what WE want to know,” Thumper retorts, coming on heavy with the macho. “You beat him up, deliver him to the Sheriff. He won’t say the right words, to clear your little girlfriend of murdering his boy. And then he conveniently disappears. I’m thinking your pal Duncan Kane ain’t the only 09’er with a temper problem.”

“Wow, it’s a shame I’m not half your size, and distraught. You could ineptly fail to frame ME for your crimes, too.” Logan laughs. “Sure is interesting how you’re the one who benefits, from the Weevil/Felix power vacuum.”

The dude on Thumper’s left, whose name escapes me, looks at him sharply: but Chardo muscles forward, blustering. “You don’t know nothing about loyalty, Echolls. Your best friend went to jail for defending himself against your dad, so you dumped his sister, and started banging his girl. Nobody wants to listen to what you’ve got to say.”

“Aw, now you’re hurting my feelings.” Logan flexes his hands, limbering them up. “Clearly you don’t read Tiger Beat, or you’d know I’m sensitive and deep.”

Casey smothers a laugh, and I kick him, for attracting attention to us.

Chardo zeroes in. “Oh, you think that’s funny, Gant? You like how ‘sensitive’ Echolls is? Hey, maybe Veronica can give you tips on how to suck his…”

Dick’s fist plants itself in Chardo’s face, turning the rest of the taunt into a crunching gurgle, and then it’s mayhem. PCH’ers descend from the rocks all around us and close in: Shelly starts screaming like it’s a 70’s horror movie: and Casey turns into a whirling dervish that reminds me of Logan, decimating his nightmares via punching bag.

Things go adrenaline-slow as I lock my hand around Shelly’s wrist and brace myself. I can see all, hear all, because I’m optimal in situations like this.

Dick’s got Chardo in a headlock, punching his face over and over, but staggers back when he takes an elbow to the mouth. Logan’s efficiently fighting dirty, putting one guy down with sand to the eyes and a foot to the jaw, punching another in the nuts. Wallace has a stick he’s wielding like a baseball bat, while his opponent tries to stay clear: Luke’s wiping a trickle of blood from his brow, looking a little frightened.

“VERONICA!” Casey yells, and I duck just as a hand grabs for my throat, making Shelly scream again. I jab up and in with the keys, twist, and my assailant goes staggering back, bleeding from the sternum, eyes wide with shock. Casey flattens him with a roundhouse to the side of the head, and the guy drags himself over to the rocks and falls, panting.

I bare my teeth in a snarl and let go of Shelly to gather a handful of sand, because that’s a GOOD trick. “Throw it in their eyes,” I tell her, pouring it into her palm, and collect another. She nods, and we commence blinding every PCH’er we can reach, because the 09’ers are DEFENDING ME, and HOW FUCKING DARE THEY JUMP US?

Logan turns from whaling on Thumper, notices what I’m doing, and laughs, which I can see but not hear over the fray. “QUIT BEING BLOODTHIRSTY AND FOLLOW THE PLAN!” he yells, focusing back on his beat-down, and I sand-face one last opponent with a fuck-you smirk. I grab Shelly and yank: pass Casey as I march up the beach, clutch the back of his shirt, yank him, too. He spins around to walk backwards while I pull him, guarding our retreat.

“We get the car,” I tell them, “and we do just like Aliens. You both strap in and jerk your seatbelts to lock them, in case we hit any leather-jacketed speed bumps.”

Shelly nods a bunch of times, which reminds me of Lianne, and I notice she’s dragging a big-ass stick she probably can’t lift. “You need to drop that,” I say. “It’s way too…”

“WALLACE!” Casey shouts, distracting me. I turn, and to my horror see the Asian guy who ripped off the Sac n Pac, on top of Wallace with a butterfly knife raised.

I yell “NO!” and start forward, but Casey grabs me around the waist and won’t let go, no matter how much I kick. He’s dragging me now, and I’m screaming, “WALLACE!” and then Logan’s on the guy from behind, yanking his knife arm back until he squeals, yanking it some more. Wallace scrambles up and punches the guy in the face, then the stomach. He backs off, leaving the dude to Logan’s tender mercies, and I can breathe again.

“Ng,” says Casey behind me, and falls to the ground. I turn to see a very young PCH’er with a rock in his hand, who grabs me by the wrist and cocks his arm.

I’ve still got the keys in my fist, and I go for his eye, but he jerks his head back out of reach. “Uh-uh, play nice,” he says, swinging, but I’m writhing so much the rock glances off my shoulder with barely a graze. He lifts it again, grinning not-sweetly at me: and then Shelly jumps off the bumper of the Banana Mobile, bringing her stick down on him with all her might, and he crumples to the ground, and lies still.

“Holy shit!” Casey marvels, staggering to his feet and rubbing the back of his skull, and I snarl, “IN THE CAR!”

We pile inside and buckle up, and I yell, “Hold on!”, throw it into reverse. Because Logan told me once I’m not a killer, and I believe him: and I’m not running over some unconscious 15 year old, even if he DID try to brain me with a rock.

I veer around Shelly’s victim and barrel down the hill, splashing through surf, wondering if the stupid car snorkel might actually see some use tonight. I put my hand on the horn and hold it down, and I guess that’s a signal they all recognize. The guys disengage from the six PCH’ers still standing and present, Luke half-carrying Dick, and then Logan’s shoving them all in the car, stick-swiping anyone who gets close without mercy. He stage-dives across their laps and screams, “GO!”, before the door’s even shut. I spin my wheels in wet sand for a heart-stopping second, then take off with a lurch, scattering the pursuing gang members like ants. And we’re up the beach, onto the road, free at last.

I pant, short sharp breaths, driving way over the speed limit. Behind me, Logan goes, “Ease back, you’re grinding metal,” and I laugh, because he KNOWS what I was thinking. He KNOWS me. He knows how I feel, how I think it’s wrong that I feel GOOD, and he’s brilliantly misdirecting, because that’s how he plays.

God, the stars are bright. And the moon’s as huge in the sky as Elizabeth Taylor’s pearls.

XXXXX

I’m speeding along the PCH again, and we’re like a clown car, Casey and Shelly piled in front, Wallace, Luke, Dick and Logan half on top of each other in the back seat. It smells like sweat, blood, beer, and what’s probably testosterone.

Dick’s rubbing his jaw, I notice, as I glance in the rearview, searching for pursuers. It’s swollen and red, and he’s got a big contusion across his cheekbone. “I think that asshole knocked a tooth loose,” he mutters.

“Dick,” Logan says on a sigh, covering his eyes with his hand, and slumping back. “What’s the first rule of fighting?”

“Make the other guys think you’re crazy,” Dick parrots, like Logan’s Socrates, and this is his daily lesson.

“Make them THINK you’re crazy,” Logan clarifies. “Don’t actually BE crazy, because then you just lose it and go sick. We were surrounded and outnumbered, and you threw the first punch. You put us all in danger.”

“He called you a fag!” Dick protests, incensed. I notice Wallace, wedged against the door, disgustedly shaking his head.

“Dick,” Logan says again, sounding tired. “It’s 2005. We don’t use the word ‘fag’ as an insult, anymore.”

“Whatever, fag,” Dick mutters, sullenly, and Logan cuffs him on the uninjured side of the head. “At least I didn’t stab some PCH’er in the chest with your car keys, like your girlfriend did.”

Logan sits forward to check out the keys, which are, admittedly, bloody. “Are you okay, Ronica?” he asks, anxious. “He didn’t hurt you?”

“I’m FINE,” I insist, turning up the incline towards the Pomroys’ hilltop enclave. “It was just a SMALL stab. He got up and ran away under his own power.”

“Jesus, Veronica, remind me never to get on your bad side.” Luke scrubs his hands over his face, still freaked. “Man, how much longer will this stuff go on? Don’t we have LAWS in this town, to protect us from the criminal element?”

“The criminal element thinks we killed Felix and Weevil,” Wallace reminds him. “Or some of THEM did it, and they’re trying to make us scapegoats. Either way, things are getting ugly all over town, even as far out as my neighborhood. People saying 09’ers are above the law. First Duncan gets ten years in a cushy private sanitarium, then Casey’s DUI is dismissed, then Veronica’s played up in the press like she suffered worse than Toombs.”

“Hey, I had a clean record,” Casey protests, his demeanor mild as ever. “And it’s not like I hurt anybody. I just broke that telephone pole. And my new Porsche.”

“And SOMEBODY tried to burn down the public pool,” Wallace continues, shooting him a look. “That didn’t help, from a PR standpoint.”

“That was Lucky,” Logan says, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. “The janitor? Dude who used to buy us kegs? I tried to stop him, Ronica, I swear, but he pulled a big-ass knife on me, and started screaming about how this was a war, and I was either with him or against him. So I just backed off, and called in an anonymous tip from a pay phone.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t catch him ‘til he’d soaked the whole area with gasoline,” Wallace chides, patiently. “Same result, because they had to remediate.”

“NOT the same result!” Logan snaps. “I did my fucking best! I feel sorry for the dude, I didn’t want to hurt him. Or, you know, get gutted. That thing was like a scimitar.”

I pull into Shelly’s driveway, and she bends down to give me and Casey a hug. “Thanks for being a human shield, guys,” she says.

“Thanks for saving us!” I reply. “If you hadn’t bashed that guy with your stick, he would have brained me. Didn’t know you had it in you, Pomroy.”

She grins and does the rock-and-roll thing with both hands, then climbs down out of the car. I shake my head. Shelly P, avenging angel. Whooda thunk it?

“Who’s next?” I ask, and Casey says, “My folks are in New York for some publishing gala. You guys want to crash at my place, so you don’t show up at home all bloody, in the middle of the night?”

“Dicks’ got a messed up face,” I say. “He needs an x-ray.”

“Ronnie Mars, mother hen,” Dick snarks, with what would probably be a smirk, on his normal mouth. “Dude, you still got the number of that EMT who makes house calls for cash?”

“Texting it to you now,” Logan says, pulling out his phone.

“See, Rons, I’m covered. But nice to know you caaaaarreeee.” He makes a kissy face at me, and I roll my eyes.

I turn the corner towards the Gant mansion. “OK if I just drop you at the gate, so I don’t have to run the key-pad, guard-dog gauntlet?”

Casey does an eyes-closed thumbs up, so I roll to a stop by the spike-finialed fence. “I appreciate what you did, you guys,” I say, before they can open the doors. “I’m sorry I got you all into this mess.”

“Veronica, the PCH’ers were looking to stir up trouble,” Casey chides, opening his eyes. “If it wasn’t you they framed, it would have been someone else. All this, it’s just…Neptune.” He shrugs. “One more year, and we’re off to the Ivy Leagues anyway.”

“If we live that long,” Luke mutters, climbing down: and I sigh, because even though they’re on my side, this time, they’re still so freaking elitist. I kind of enjoyed being the scrappy Robin Hood of Neptune High, I realize. More than I dig being Maria, in the battle of the Sharks and Jets.

“Sweet dreams,” Logan calls, as they wander away, and Wallace waves goodbye over his shoulder. Logan climbs into the passenger seat, kissing my nose, and I head off to find a quiet place, where we can let down from alt in peace.

XXXXX

“Are you OK?” Logan asks, as soon as we’re parked in the donut shop lot (where we lost our heads and fooled around, what seems like a million years ago). He grips my hands and spreads my arms wide, giving me a quick visual exam. “You’re not just putting up a tough front?”

“I’m not hurt,” I insist, and he curves his hands around my face and kisses me. “Are you?” I ask, when we break apart.

“Check my ribs, right side, near the back. Chardo got me with a switchblade. I don’t think it’s bad, but I can’t see it.”

We climb out of the car, and he turns so I have a better view. Sure enough, there’s a big red stain on his shirt, and an angry slash beneath. I’m shocked by the flood of rage I feel. “It’s not deep,” I manage, forcing my voice to calmness. “It’s not even bleeding anymore. We should clean it up, though. Maybe put some butterfly bandages on it, so it doesn’t scar.”

“What’s one more?” he asks, with a shrug. Strokes my cheek, reading my expression. “In the glove box,” he says. “Give me a penicillin cap, while you’re at it. And there’s Valium and Xanax, too, if you want one.”

I shoot him a dirty look, and he laughs. “My bad little good girl,” he says, affectionately, then winces when I spray alcohol on the wound. “With the gentle nature, and the tender touch.”

I hand him the antibiotic, and he dry-swallows, while I smear Neosporin on gauze, tape it down.

“Tidy,” he praises, craning his neck to look. “Very professional.”

Of course it is, I want to say. I’ve been entangled with you half my life. But I grit my teeth, and instead ask, “What would you do? If you were gonna cut those guys off at the knees, I mean?”

He cocks his head, considering me. His hair is sweat-stiff, standing straight up, and full of sand. “Same thing the US Government does,” he replies, “when confronted with an unfriendly foreign revolution. Find the old leader, determine if he’s someone we can work with. If he is, reinstall him. If he’s not, find a substitute who’ll keep the peace and leave us alone, and install THAT guy in his place.” He shakes his head. “I’d prefer the first option, because Weevil is to those assholes what I am to Dick—the steadying hand. But I don’t trust Weevil to keep to his side of the fence, anymore, after what he let his peons do to you. Besides, there’s about a 50% chance Weevil’s dead.”

“How would you even go about this plan?” I wonder. “Why would the PCH’ers let you pick their leader? And what makes you think you can locate Weevil, if he, or whoever killed him, doesn’t want him found?”

“I’d need help,” he says, gazing at me steadily. “Middle men. People with common interests, on both sides of the law.”

“Oh, NO WAY!” I recoil back a step. “NOT the Fitzpatricks. Logan, that’s not just playing with matches, that’s setting the house on fire!”

“Veronica, I tried your turning-the-other-cheek-like-Jesus tactic, and amazingly, it didn’t work. One of my friends is gonna end up dead. Or more likely, me, or you, since we’re the ones they’re targeting. Wallace almost got pasted tonight, in case you didn’t notice: I’m not letting him become a tragic statistic because I fucking lacked nerve. Alicia’s gonna kill me as is, just for putting him in danger. I may never get invited to Sunday dinner again.”

“So we go to my dad!” I say. “He always gets his man.”

“Sure, eventually,” he counters. “He’ll be meticulous, and by the book, and when he finds the answer, it’ll be the right one. Meanwhile, those guys just got their asses kicked, and now they’re gonna escalate. I expect drive-bys. Maybe ambushes at school, maybe attacks on family members. Don’t go anywhere alone anymore, and keep your taser handy. Myself, I’m considering buying a gun.”

I close my eyes. This is where I bailed from the brakeless car, last time, and went running back to Duncan. And Logan spent all of senior year sinking deeper into quicksand, until he latched onto Weevil and Hannah, and pulled himself free.

But I can’t run this time, because I’m the target. I’m the one who was framed. And the fight that just went down happened because my friends and boyfriend were protecting me.

“If we don’t go to the Fitzpatricks, what are our options?” I ask, opening my eyes, giving back his resolute stare.

He shrugs, corner of his mouth quirking. “Russian mob, Irish mob, rival gangs, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Hollywood producers. That’s who runs Neptune, with some real estate speculators and politicians thrown in. Shall we play compare/contrast?”

“There’s someone among those categories who can get us the results we want, but won’t make us kiss his ring,” I say. “Jake being the obvious choice, since he lives in my house, and is fond of my mother.”

“You think Jake Kane’s gonna get his hands dirty restructuring a Mexican street gang?” he asks, amused.

“You think Liam Fitzpatrick’s gonna do you a favor out of the goodness of his heart?” I counter.

“Well, he IS a church-going man,” Logan retorts, with a smirk. “Fine, how ‘bout we start with Weevil, and work our way up to the big stuff? I’ve got a carrot and a stick to hold over that family, so if one of them, other than Chardo, knows where he is, they’ll probably give him up.”

“The carrot being money, or a job with your mom?” I ask, and he nods. “What’s the stick?”

“I own the mortgage on Letty Navarro’s house,” he says, with an eyebrow bob.

Chapter Text

THREAD SIXTEEN

I jerk into the present behind the wheel of a car, and if that’s not a fucking nightmare, I don’t know what is. I narrowly miss a Miata as I run a stop sign, slam on the brakes…sit for a minute, while my adrenaline recedes. I’m in the neighborhood where Jake and Lianne live: so I decide to decompress in my room, with Loki the Breathing Security Blanket cuddled alongside.

I slow as I approach the house, though, because Mac is waiting for me on the steps. She sees me, so I can’t escape, and she smiles. But she doesn’t get up from her comfortable sprawl, and she doesn’t speak.

She looks like Mac—blue TARDIS t-shirt, the purple Converse again—yet not. She’s got that long-bang, short-hair thing going on, threaded liberally with electric blue: little skull earrings, lots of eye makeup, woven friendship bracelet, cut-off jeans. The self-conscious air of emotional repression, the sense that she’s trying to fly under the radar, are gone. She seems relaxed, happy and actualized, which must be Logan’s sexual healing at work. I both love and loathe the look on her.

“Hey,” she says, when I close in. She gets up, tucking her thumbs in her back pockets. “Got a minute?”

I shrug, and sit on the step, and she drops back down beside me. I look at my hands, twisting the strap of my bag between them: I can feel her staring.

“So Logan told me he came by,” she begins, same calm, logical Mac as always. “He said it went badly. And I’m thinking he probably explained things like a guy, in the way most calculated to piss you off. I hoped, if I explained things like a girl, maybe you could understand.”

“Logan’s great with words,” I say, looking up. I love her, but God help me, it’s taking all I’ve got not to punch her in the face. “He didn’t mince any.”

“Veronica,” she says. “Logan and I are living together. And we ARE having a baby. But we’re not involved anymore. Romantically, I mean.”

“Okay, hold up. He said you were ‘grown-up together’, which is code for ‘committed’. He was specific.”

She pulls a face. “See, this is why I came,” she says. “Even though I doubted you’d want to see me. It’s why I told him not to rush straight after you, too, the second you made contact. But you know how he is. Passionately emo to the core. I’m guessing he lied in self-defense.”

I quirk an eyebrow at her, and she laughs. “You know how he is,” she repeats. “So you get that he has no problem being faithful. But he’s not going to stay celibate indefinitely, either, when he’s not attached. After you told him to disappear, Veronica, he pined for like nine months, and then he hooked back up with Lilly. You probably didn’t hear this part.”

I shake my head, because what I heard was immediate drunken debauchery, with Kendall. It seems this reality has shifted, since last time.

“Well, he did, although it was strictly a FWB deal. Only APPARENTLY, she’s gotten heavily into the girl-on-girl, and was demanding threesomes. And he wouldn’t go along.”

I raise both eyebrows at this, and she smiles. “I know. I was surprised too. But he says he promised you that if you, and I quote, were ever ‘abducted by aliens’, he would only sleep with women he cared about and trusted. And he said since he couldn’t keep any of his other promises, to stay with you, to protect you, he was damn sure keeping that one. So they broke things off, and he was miserable.”

“At that point,” she continues, “we were already roommates, and my love life had…spectacularly imploded. And it felt… easier than trying to date. We were never in love, or anything. I just enjoyed the way he’s open-minded, and doesn’t judge—I could explore who I was, what I wanted, with no repercussions. Like I was free yet safe, like he expected nothing, but wouldn’t let me fall. And I think HE was grateful I was steady, and reliable, and called him on his crap. And I understood we weren’t long-term, because he was completely gone on someone else. Do you see?”

I nod, because I’m clear on the way Logan holds up a mirror, showing you everything you are, and then celebrates it all. It’s why he’s so addictive, never mind the superficial.

“We’re not lovers anymore, Veronica,” she says. “We were only together for like two months, and the baby was an accident. You must know he wants you back. But he thinks he let you down that summer, by failing to protect you, and you rejected him for it. So he’s not going to make a move. He’ll just hover around and piss you off, because then at least he can get you to interact.”

I snort—I can’t help myself, because he WILL. “I’m mad I can’t tase or convict any of you, to make myself feel better.”

“I’m mad that you went to jail for a year, and we couldn’t get you out,” she says. “And it depresses me that the fling I had, when I was at my lowest ebb, might ruin things between us. I’m sure you feel like I betrayed you, Veronica. But the truth is, I was just lonely, and so was he, and we made a mistake.”

“Look,” I sigh. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m a big ball of rage right now. I don’t trust easily, and this whole scenario is my Achilles heel. I feel like he’s MINE, like he always was, and always will be, whether we’re broken up or not. And yet he’s been with every attractive girl I’ve met. He’s the one thing I’m not willing to share, and I HATE that I’m never given the choice. I’m left seething with jealousy I can’t even admit, like there’s a black hole, inside me. Whether he was trying to hurt me or not, when he got with you and Lils, he DID. And I’m so, so ANGRY.”

She takes a deep breath. “You’re not going to like this. And I feel like I’m messing with the bull, by even saying it. But you have no right to play dog in the manger. You dumped him, without any explanation. You wouldn’t speak to him, or look at him: every time he got close to you, you walked away. He adored you, Veronica. He tried so hard to make you listen, and when you wouldn’t, he grieved. I understand that you feel jealous and possessive…he’s the same. But he’s a person, not a belonging. He’s not a toy you can toss away, and then attack someone else for picking up.”

“I have always loved him,” I say, because it’s true. I don’t know why the Veronica in this timeline dumped him, but it wasn’t because she got bored. “And he’s always loved me.”

“I believe you,” she says. “But he hasn’t always been your boyfriend. He used to be Lilly’s, and he loved her, at least a little bit, too. And you stole him from her at a party, in front of all her friends, and never apologized or looked back. What I did was no worse than that, Veronica. Look, I’m not asking you to do the ‘nice’ thing, or behave against your nature: but you may want to mull over the fact that Lilly eventually forgave YOU.”

She stands, brushing dirt off the back of her shorts. “You know where to find me, if you feel so inclined. I’ve said what I had to say, and I won’t push again. But know that, if you do arrive at a headspace where you want to be friends again? I want that, too.”

I nod and she walks away, confident and self-assured, thumbs still tucked in her pockets. I don’t like the way I feel, as I watch her leave: as if I want her to come back and comfort me. And as if I’m the one who’s wrong.

XXXXX

It takes me two hours, cuddled up with the dog, to unravel the changes between my last Prison! Reality visit, and this one. Usually, puzzle pieces click into place for me easily: but when it comes to Logan, and betrayal, I’m so swamped by emotion, I literally can’t think.

He spirals, when he believes no one loves him—I know that, I’ve seen it. He drinks, and drugs, and screws every girl in his social circle. He risks his life, because what’s so great about living? My Google search made me think that didn’t happen here, but it did. It did, and he fell in with Kendall, and she dragged him all the way down. Mac saved him, the way I did once, after Lynn jumped. And he was needy, and grateful, turned the full force of his charm on her, in thanks. She was dazzled, like everyone is, and along came baby.

But he listened to me, when I warned him off Kendall: and somehow, staying away from her kept him from pushing self-destruct. He was whole enough to grieve for me for 9 months, before moving on. To set ‘no-third-party’ limits on his reunion with Lilly. To be clear on the boundaries of his affair with his roommate, so there were no unmet expectations, or broken friendships. I may loathe the results, but Logan did exactly what I asked. He restricted his liaisons to girls he cared about and trusted. He treated himself with respect.

I’m not just changing situations, when I take action in the past. I’m changing PEOPLE. I saved LOGAN from a year and a half of rock-bottom shenanigans with one petty, jealous, half-awake demand. Who else have I changed, without realizing? How far do the ripples of the slipstream spread? And what’s gone on, in the cracks and chasms between my past visits and now, as a result of those epiphanies?

Ugh, I hate the uncertainty of this situation. I deal best with cold, incontrovertible, black and white facts. There are too many variables, too many unknowns. I need DATA.

And I know where to find it, if I can just nerve myself up to ask.

XXXXX

It’s dark when I ring the doorbell to the little house, after 9:30. There’s scratching and whining, and I wonder if anybody but the dog is home. But then I hear footsteps, the door’s flung open, and Logan’s blinking at me in his threadbare lounging clothes, like I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“I brought dinner,” I say, holding up a big greasy bag of Chinese. “And my dad’s file.” I pat my messenger bag. “And every dirty secret Neptune’s ever had, lodged in the dark corners of my brain.”

He pulls the screen aside, gaping, as if he’s not sure what to say. “Mac’s not here,” he tells me, while I sidle past. “She has African Dance on Fridays.”

“I scanned everything,” I say. “I can email her any of it you think matters.”

“Did she find you?” he asks, easing down on the couch, gesturing for me to set my bag on the coffee table. “This afternoon? She said she would.”

“Yeah,” I tell him, and make it a point to look him in the eye. “Congratulations, by the way. You managed, in my absence, to screw the only two girls in the world I’d feel guilty about destroying. I’m here for business, not bloodshed.”

He busies himself extracting cartons, focusing carefully on the food. “You want a fork?” he asks. “Or a drink? A plate?”

“Sure,” I say, and he looks at me, and his eyes are like quicksand. “Don’t stare at me that way. You are nowhere near forgiven.”

“What way?” He smiles. Glances down at the floor, then up from under his brow. Damn him, this is an unfair tactic. “It’s just, you came,” he says, steady gaze holding me prisoner. “Of your own free will. And you know everything. And I’m not bleeding out, on the floor, from a slashed jugular.” He pulls a dumpling from a carton, rolls it between his fingers. In a soft voice, he asks, “You’re not going to make me pay?”

“For what?” I roll my eyes. “Believing life in prison meant life in prison? Seeking comfort with a trusted friend? Yeah, it hurts, and I’m jealous as all hell. But Mac managed to convince me that you didn’t do anything WRONG.”

“I’m…dumbstruck,” he says, after a minute. “I’ll get dishes.”

He wanders off to the kitchen, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck and head. I open all the cartons, and boot up my laptop. I can picture him, hands braced on the counter, head down, eyes shut, trembling as he breathes in control. I wish we were in a place where we could comfort each other.

He comes back, sets a bunch of tableware down, and gently takes my hands. “I will do anything for you,” he says, dead serious, squeezing my knuckles. “Just tell me what. Anything at all.”

“Eat,” I say. “And talk to me. No evasions, no fibs. I need to know exactly what happened to Weevil, and what information you guys may have found that dad didn’t. If there’s a whiteboard, or a chalk board, or a corkboard around, that will help. I’m taking you at your word that Mac wants to pitch in, too. We’ll make her a list of tasks.”

“OK, the truth and nothing but.” He breathes for a minute, deep ins and outs, like he’s using yoga techniques to calm himself down. “It was us that put Weevil in the hospital. Me, Dick, Casey, Luke, Enbom. He could have backed you up in his testimony, and kept you free, but he didn’t. He lied on the stand. He took out one of ours, so we took him out. But we got proof first, like you wanted. We KNEW he lied.”

He shoots me a defiant, not-sorry look, but I say nothing, so he continues. “We didn’t put him in a coma, though. Just broke some ribs. Someone got into his room and injected insulin into his IV, or at least that’s what Mac speculates. We don’t know who, or why. So many people hated his guts, or had a reason to shut him up.”

“Okay,” I say. “Your story had a better ending than I thought it would. Good to know.”

I pick up the Kung Pao Chicken and start eating, while he stares at me. After a minute, he laughs, and digs into the dumplings, also eschewing a plate. “Justice, not vengeance,” I remind him, when he shakes his head for the second time. “I told you myself. If we had proof he framed me, we’d make him pay. I couldn’t, you did. Fair enough.” I take another bite. “What was the proof?”

“Eleven year old girl,” he says. “Watched him watch the kidnapping go down, and not lift a finger. Said he made a call after, then finished his drink before leaving. He didn’t grab you, but he didn’t save you. And he said on the stand he never saw a thing.”

XXXXX

“I wish I could talk to Weevil,” I whine, tossing down the whiteboard marker in disgust. We’ve been over the labyrinthine dealings of the Fitzpatrick gang for 3 hours now, and it just gets more convoluted, the more detail we add. Never less, and never the slightest connection to Stewart Manning, as far as I can see. I flop down on the couch beside him. “I need to know where he went, after he left that house. I feel like whatever he did between then, and when you found him at the shop, is the key to the whole mess.”

“Lot of people wish that,” Logan says, grim. “Of course, most of them don’t have your skill at ferreting out hidden truths.”

“He’s not easy to read,” I say, with a sigh. “More opaque than you, even, or maybe it’s just I don’t know him as well.”

“Enh, I have faith,” he says. “You’re Wonder Woman. You make everyone give up the dirt you need, sooner or later.”

I yawn and lean back, putting my feet on the coffee table. “That’s what my name means, you know.”

“What, Veronica? Like veritas?”

“Yeah, Latin. Vero icon, ‘true image’. Veronica was a saint who put the shroud of Turin on Jesus’s face, and it came away bearing his divine image.”

“So your superpower is seeing people the way they really are. That’s scary accurate.” He leans back, mirroring me, hands behind his head. Glances at me, sideways. “I wonder what mine means.”

I smile. “Yours is Gaelic. It’s like a little hollow in the woods. A safe, secret place to rest.”

His mouth works. He closes his eyes. A shudder runs through his body, not a fine tremor, but a series of wracking jerks. Tears start to leak silently from beneath his lids, and I realize he’s sobbing, without a sound.

The heels of his hands come up, obscuring most of his face, and I reach towards him, tentative. Touch his shoulder. This doesn’t soothe: if anything, his fit intensifies. His breath sounds like he’s hyperventilating.

“Hush,” I say, stroking his arm. “It’s OK, you don’t…”

“I FAILED you,” he says, and his voice is so raw, it hurts to listen. “I couldn’t keep you safe. I love you so much, and I lost track of you that night, and I FAILED.”

“No,” I correct. “I failed YOU. I went to the bridge without you, and I let Trina jump, and I waited for Weevil in the car alone, even though I knew it was stupid. I was impulsive and arrogant and reckless. I always have been. I work myself into a rage, and then I act before I think. Or I get so smug about how smart I am that I don’t listen, when other people talk. This time it cost me, and everybody paid. But I’M the one that failed. Not you.”

He grabs the hand that’s touching him, and uses it to tug me close, then wraps me up in his embrace. Arms, legs, cheek to my skull, and he shudders, and clutches me, and cries. “You’re so small,” he says, cradling me against his chest. “I don’t see how anyone could physically hurt something so delicate and little. It’s like kicking a kitten.”

“I’m vicious,” I say. “And kind of an asshole. It’s just, that’s a plus for you, because you are, too.”

“Please don’t go away again,” he murmurs. He’s still shivering, though the tears have stopped. “Please, I need you. When you’re gone, it’s like I’m trapped underwater, and nothing is real.”

“No,” I say. “I won’t be tricked a second time. And the ones who put me in a cage? I’m going to ruin them all.”

He holds me tight, while we both quiet and still. I feel warm for the first time today, protected. I nestle my head into the hollow of his shoulder, and drift down deep into sleeping peace.

THREAD SIXTEEN INVERTS

I’m snoring on a couch—Alicia Fennel’s couch—and the alarm on my Sidekick is blaring. I sit up, running my hands down a sweaty t-shirt, jeans, then over my face. I don’t see my phone anywhere, so I can’t make it stop.

Lilly comes bubbling in and bounces down beside me, draping a companionable arm over my shoulder. “Veronica Mars!” she chides, doing her best Celeste impersonation. “You are making a VULGAR amount of noise!”

I laugh, and she extracts my bag from under the cushion, my cell from inside it. Shuts off the alarm, with a dismissive flick. “Tea time with Alice?” she giggles, eyebrows raised, and I see she’s shamelessly rooting through my calendar. “Are psychedelic mushrooms the entrée?”

“Alice wants a favor,” I guess, swiping my phone back, bumping her with my shoulder. I don’t know why I’m not mad at her, the way I was at Mac: maybe because I know sex and love live in different rooms, in her brain? Or maybe I’d forgive her anything, since she’s practically my sister.

Of course, in this reality, she technically IS my sister, by marriage. God, my life is a soap opera.

I check the time and entry, realize I’ve got an hour to get there. “Can I help it if my services are in demand?”

“They’re TOO in demand,” she grouses, flopping back on the couch with a dramatic sigh. “Between your favors, and the boys’ asinine turf war, and the Echolls-Mars Humpfest 2005, I’m not getting NEARLY enough BFF face time. I had to play VIDEO GAMES to hang out with you today. And then you fell asleep!” Her eyes twinkle up at me, mouth pursed in mischief. “There’s no telling what I may do, if I start to feel neglected.”

I shake my head at her, but can’t help smiling. She’s as irresistibly naughty, in her own way, as Logan. “Clearly we can’t let that happen,” I say. “Shopping and slumber party, after tea?”

“NOW you’re speaking my language.” She uncurls from the couch and grabs my wrist, dragging me through the living room, towards Wallace’s lair.

The standard Wallace-Dick-Logan, exploding-skull game-athon is playing out inside. All of them are dressed for the heat, in ratty shorts and tanks, and snarfing a bowl of Cheetos.

“You’re going to die of Vitamin D deficiency if you keep this up,” I say.

Logan grins, tosses his controller down, and leaps the Cheetos to get to me. Cries of “Dude, no way!” and “Watch it!” filter up from the peanut gallery: but he maneuvers me onto my back on Wallace’s bed, and kisses me anyway.

“Hey,” he says when we break apart, tucking hair out of my face. “Good nap?”

I smile: but before I can answer, Dick throws a handful of popcorn at us, and yells, “Logan you dickwad, look what you did!”

We turn to see that Lilly has taken over Logan’s avatar, and killed everything. She’s now examining her nails, with a not-quite-hidden smirk. “Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I can’t kick your ass,” she tells Dick provocatively, blowing him a kiss. Wallace laughs, and offers her his fist to bump.

“I’d better get her out of here,” I say to Logan. “She’s bored, and you know what THAT means.”

He rolls his eyes, kisses my nose, hops up, and extends a hand to help me do the same. “What’s the plan for tonight?”

“Shopping and slumber party,” I say, with a grin. “You can have me back tomorrow, after Lilly’s done her worst.”

“Ok, now you’re just taunting me.” He shakes his head, kisses my cheek. “Remember to stick together. You wear the brass knuckles, let her carry the Mace.”

“Will do.” I put my hand on his jaw, gaze up into his eyes. Lilly has to yank on my arm, to get me to focus.

“Ugh, you are SICKENING!” she pronounces, hauling me towards the door. “Honestly, Ronica, I thought you had more sass.”

XXXXX

Lilly scoffs at Logan’s protectiveness, but picks up Ashley Banks anyway: they drop me at Rose’s Tea Shop, and head off to ‘enjoy’ a Hot Room Yoga class. I examine the quaint blue-painted cottage, with lace curtains and twining roses, and feel I got the better end of the bargain.

It’s empty, since 2 pm is not optimal teatime for Californians: but it’s got a pleasant smell of baking, and a wall of books to browse. The cheerful 30-something Irishwoman behind the counter greets me by name, and asks if I want ‘the usual’: I guess Alice and I come here a lot. I smile and nod, then try to look busy by the shelf, so she won’t attempt conversation.

I’m engrossed in ‘The Art of War’, and halfway through a mountain of scones with clotted cream, when the bell over the door tinkles. Carrie Bishop strides in. We gaze at each other in silence for a moment: then she smiles, and eases into the seat opposite me.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says, picking up a scone, surveying it like it’s a museum specimen. “Cassandra didn’t show for her shift at the Hut, again. Are you SURE you don’t want a job?”

I feel a laugh bubbling up inside. Of COURSE Other Veronica’s got secrets like this in reserve. She’s probably hiding a million more, just as juicy, and I am walking in a minefield. “No thanks,” I say. “Not even for unlimited slices of German Chocolate Nutgasm. The only work I’ve got time for these days is favor-trading.”

“On which note…” She raises her eyebrows archly, extracts a Moleskine notebook from her pricey handbag. “This has been a veeeeery interesting week, gossip-wise.”

Excitement stirs in my gut, but I keep my face blank. “Do tell,” I say.

“Hmmmm.” She reads down a page, tapping a little gold pen against her lower lip. “You don’t care about cosmetic surgery, right? Or do you, since it’s Madison Sinclair?”

“Only if it went horribly awry,” I say, taking a sip of my (surprisingly decent) cinnamon tea.

“Deviated septum,” she pronounces, with the faintest of smiles. “She’s holed up in her house for the week, with two black eyes. It occurs to me that telephoto candids would be excellent to have in reserve, should you ever need to persuade her to help you.”

This time, I can’t contain the laugh. “Duly noted,” I say, typing a reminder for Other Veronica into my Sidekick. “What else?”

“Sean Friedrich’s getting high on his own supply,” she says, making a neat checkmark, with a flourish. “Like that’s news. Although you have to wonder how it’ll go over with his underworld crime boss. Marcos Oliveras got sent to ‘Pray the Gay Away’ camp, and came back all damaged and swaggery. Oh, and this will interest you. Rumor has it, Weevil Navarro was spotted in LA, buying peanut butter and body wash at a neighborhood bodega.”

“Spotted by who?” I ask, leaning forward on my elbows.

“Daphne Curtis’s cousin. Her name is…” she traces the pen along the page, “Cameron Prescott. Give me your phone, I’ll type in her number.”

I slide it across, and she does the double-thumb thing really fast, for someone with a hundred-dollar manicure. I will never understand how Carrie Bishop always looks so Haute Couture, when clearly she’s one of the have-nots, like myself.

Well, like I used to be, anyway.

I check out the entry when she hands it back, which reads, ‘Cameron Prescott LEAD!!!!’, and tuck my phone away. I smile at the proprietor, as she delivers a silver pot and cup for Carrie, but wait ‘til she leaves to ask, “You hear anything about Meg Manning?”

“Other than the email she sent to CPS in May, from the computer lab?” She pours, unwraps a sugar cube, stirs it in with a tiny, tinkling spoon. “No, Meg’s not one to blab her secrets. Her father’s fundraising, though, very quietly, behind the scenes. I think he may be planning to run for mayor.”

I sit back in my chair. Prison Veronica must have discovered something Stewart wanted kept hidden. Maybe his abuse of Grace, maybe a connection with the Fitzpatricks. Whatever it was, it was ugly enough he’d force his kid to frame her for murder. And he likely used the resulting fervor to fuel his political campaign. “How do Meg and Lizzie feel about that? And the little one, Grace?”

“Meg’s silent, Lizzie’s openly mocking. I didn’t even realize there WAS a little one. Meg and I aren’t exactly pals.” She takes a dainty sip. “Dick’s friendly with her. He might know.”

“Carrie,” I say, “I can’t tell you how glad I am you’re working WITH me, not against me.”

She laughs, a surprisingly throaty sound. It occurs to me that I haven’t heard her do that since maybe elementary school. “You’re hard to say no to,” she murmurs. “Mostly because you won’t stop asking.”

“Persistence pays,” I agree. I slather another scone with cream, and gesture at the shrinking pile. “Sure I can’t tempt you? They’re amazing.”

She makes a face. “One carb binge a week, that’s my limit. And no offense, but I prefer the liquid kind.”

“Your loss,” I say, and take a bite.

“So,” she ventures, when my mouth’s full, “I have to know. Has it happened again?”

“Has what happened again?” I ask, around a wad of scone. I’m not really listening, because is that crystallized ginger? Whatever, it tastes amazing with the tea.

“Your ‘what was I thinking?’ moments. When it’s like some alien takes over your brain, and you start channeling Logan? I haven’t seen you in several weeks, and you said, last time, that they were getting more frequent.”

I stop cold, scone lowering slowly from my mouth. I manage to swallow, but I’m not hungry anymore. “Is that how I described it?” I ask, faintly. “I’m watching an alien take over my body, and make bad choices?”

“I think your exact words were, ‘it feels like the morning after I’ve had one too many drinks. And I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed that I lost my inhibitions’.”

I take a deep breath. That’s….not as bad as I feared. I may be Cringeworthy Cousin Veronica with the over-large id, but at least I’m not doing things Past Veronica wouldn’t. “What’s the last incident I told you about?”

“Um, your birthday?” She says, raising her eyebrows. “When you had so much amazing sex you could barely walk the next day?”

I wince. I told CARRIE about that? Jesus, Past Veronica, get it together and quit SHARING! She keeps a Gossip Notebook, for Christ’s sake! “Yeah,” I manage. “Twice, since then.”

She leans forward, lowers her voice to a murmur. “Have you considered demonic possession? Because I’ve been reading up on it, and there’s some evidence it’s real.”

I straighten, offended. “This is NOT about demonic possession.”

“How can you be sure? The one time I saw it happen, you tried to take your clothes off in front of five people, and then tased Norris like it was NOTHING.”

“I’m sure!” I say, losing my temper. Because Norris was going to HURT SOMEBODY, and I can take my clothes off WHENEVER I WANT. “You’re TALKING to the alien. And I may be a lot of less-than-pristine things, but I’m definitely no demon.”

She gazes at me for a minute, eyebrows still raised, then sits back in her chair. “Well,” she says. “This calls for a cigarette.”

She digs around in her bag with, I’m amused to note, shaking hands, fishes out a gold lighter and a pack of Virginia Slims. Sparks one up, and the smoke swirls around her, smelling as cool as she seems. “So who are you?” she asks, expelling plumes from her nostrils.

“A regular girl,” I say. “From a different place. I’m not showing up here on purpose. It just…happens.”

“What’s up in your life, while you’re here?” She wants to know. “Do you just, like, slip into suspended animation or something?”

“I have no idea,” I say. “I haven’t been back home since this started. When I’m not here I go…somewhere else.”

“Are you a ghost?” she demands, brown eyes getting big. Whether from fear or fascination, I can’t tell. Maybe a bit of both?

“Not as far as I know.”

“Wow.” She shoves my scones aside, and ashes onto the plate. “So why do you come HERE? Why take over Veronica?”

“Aren’t you going to get in trouble for smoking in a restaurant?” I ask, instead of answering.

She rolls her eyes. “Mara doesn’t care. That’s why we meet in this place. Now tell me everything, because Veronica is stressing, and she can’t leave it alone.”

“I’m here to help her,” I say. “I know about events in her future that I’m trying to prevent. For example, something has to be done to neutralize Stewart Manning, like this week, or he’ll force Meg to lie about Veronica shooting Felix, and Veronica will end up in jail.”

“Are you SERIOUS?” she demands, stubbing out the cigarette on the plate.

“As taxes,” I say. “Stewart Manning’s a child abuser and a religious freak, he’s standing in a glass house. Somewhere around here, there must be a big enough rock to shatter it.”

“Why is Meg helping?” she wonders, as if thinking out loud. “Is she afraid?”

“Pretty sure it’s her sister,” I say. “The one you’ve never seen. Meg and Lizzie are close to grown, but Grace is much younger. He makes Grace fill notebooks with quotes from Scripture, and locks her in a closet when she ‘sins’. That’s what the letter to CPS was. Meg, trying to get her out.”

“Then we help Meg,” Carrie decides. “If we can get proof, he loses custody, and Meg has no reason to screw Veronica.”

“What kind of proof would be decisive?” I muse. “He’s a powerful guy, even a good cop wouldn’t arrest without something damning.”

“Video always works,” she says. “I bet it would convince the Sheriff, at least. Do you have a hidden camera?”

“If I don’t, I know where to buy one.” I sit back, arms crossed, and study her. “So I have to ask. Why are you helping me? Why is Veronica confiding in you? Because the last time I saw you here, I did NOT get the impression the two of you were friends.”

Her smile is marginally bigger this time: she enjoys having the upper hand. “That’s between me and Veronica,’ she says. “And I’m helping HER, not you. I’m not even sure I trust you: we’ll see whether I get burned, for pitching in on this.”

“Will you at least explain why she calls you Alice?”

She taps a fingernail against the side of her teacup. “Because we went down the rabbit hole together. And that’s all you need to know.”

“All right,” I say. “I’ll figure out how to get the proof we need, and be in touch. Expect to hear from me soon.”

She nods, and shoulders her bag. “I’m not sure it’s been a pleasure, exactly, but it’s been…interesting. Whoever you are.” She gives me a mildly mocking finger wave, and turns to go.

“Hey Carrie?” I call, when she’s halfway to the door. She comes back.

“When you talk to Veronica about this? Let her know I don’t mean her any harm. And tell her she can email me at the kittenfancy address, if there’s anything she wants to say.”

She quirks a brow. “Kitten fancy?”

It’s a joke account Lilly and I used, to send each other (and Logan) ridiculous celebrity fan mail, when we were 13. But Carrie has way too much sensitive data about me already. “Veronica will understand.”

She smiles, arch, and swirls away, long, cool confident strides. I slump in my chair, and fulminate.

Lilly comes bouncing in, a few minutes later, in the frivolous outfit/ sensible shoes combo she wears power-shopping. “Yum, scones!” she exclaims, flopping into the chair, selecting the biggest one. She examines it for ash. “So how did the favor-dispensing go? You’re wearing that face weak people fear.”

“We need to do something more important than shopping, tonight,” I say, looking up at her, intent. “It’s dangerous, and I don’t trust the person I just met to have my back. But I trust you. Are you in?”

“REALLY dangerous?” She widens her eyes, wiggles her shoulders in excitement. Takes a gigantic bite. “Do you even need to ASK?”

I smile. “Right, danger’s your middle name. How could I forget? OK, here’s what we need to do. And don’t tell anyone, because if the guys find out we’re courting trouble like this, they will NOT be happy.”

XXXXX

“Lils, we’re here. Are we clear on the plan?” I park my Mercedes around the corner from the Manning house, and poke her to get her attention.

She’s fixing her lip liner in the makeup mirror, but rolls her eyes at this. “It’s not like it’s complicated, Veronica. We sneak in, videotape the awful evidence, leave without a trace, and take it to your dad. The whole family’s at that stupid fundraiser, anyway, it said so on his website. You lied to me, when you told me this was dangerous.”

“It IS illegal,” I offer, and she shoots me A Look.

“I’m in it to help the little girl,” she warns. “Plus, I like the outfit. If nothing else, we got some EXCELLENT spy clothes out of this scenario.”

Lilly insisted we go shopping, for appropriate breaking-and-entering gear. She’s channeling Emma Peel, in a skintight catsuit and sensible flats, her hair pulled back in Heidi braids. I’m in black jeans, a black Nehru jacket, and a red v-neck with a ninja graphic, which is as far as I would bend. She’s got my new (and heinously expensive) spy pen tucked into a pocket on her chest, so only the lens peeks out: it makes a bump in the Lycra, because the pocket’s small and her boobs are gigantic, but whatever. I’m glad she’s here. She’s got twice Duncan’s brains, and four times his balls, so she’s a much better co-conspirator.

The house is relatively modest, considering the family’s wealth and prominence. Guess Stewart didn’t want to upgrade, and risk buyers finding his torture dungeon. Picking the lock’s easier than using a key.

“No security system?” Lilly marvels, as we enter the cozy, darkened kitchen. “What, are they Amish?”

“Maybe just smug?” I turn on my penlight and play it along the walls, searching for the path to Grace’s bedroom. “God only punishes the unbelievers, remember?”

Lilly snorts, and clicks the camera to start filming. “Lead the way.”

It looks just like I remember, cozy and normal, making me that much more queasy. I locate the stacks of notebooks with ease, and stuff one into my messenger bag as proof, then motion over Lilly to film the rest. “Ronica?” she murmurs, turning the pages. “I want to hurt this guy.”

“Wait ‘til you see what he keeps in reserve, to REALLY drive the devil out,” I say, locating the hidden latch, swinging the false closet wall open.

And there’s little Grace, in her sad, white nightgown, clutching herself and shivering. She’s pale and thin, with dark circles under her eyes, and she cringes in fear at the sight of us.

“Holy shit,” Lilly says flatly, her voice dipping dangerously low. “Veronica, get a blanket from the bed.”

She reaches for Grace, who flinches back, and Lilly crouches to make herself smaller. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m not going to hurt you. My name’s Lilly, what’s yours?”

“Grace,” the little girl whispers, soft breath of sound. “I’m supposed to be in here. I was bad.”

“Grace, you look cold,” Lilly soothes, through gritted teeth. “No one will know if you wrap up in a blanket, to get warm. Nobody’s here but us.” She holds out a hand, behind her, and I set a patchwork quilt in it. “Can I wind this around you?” she asks.

Grace nods, and Lilly tucks the blanket carefully about her arms and legs, making a hood for her head. “Sweetie, how long do you have to stay in the closet, before you can come out?”

“Until I repent,” Grace tells us, pulling the blanket tight.

“Repent? Does that mean sorry?” The girl nods, and Lilly says, “I bet you ARE sorry, right?”

Grace nods again, and Lilly offers, “OK, then how about you come out, and we get you something hot to drink? Apple cider or cocoa, something yummy and sweet.”

“Lils,” I warn, but she holds up a silencing hand.

“I don’t want to be tested,” Grace says, seeming agitated, and Lilly spreads her hands out flat in a calming gesture.

“OK. I understand. Nobody’s going to test you. Tell you what, I’m just gonna leave this door open, so you’re not in the dark. You get warm while I talk to my friend, here, and then we’ll figure out the safest thing to do.”

Lilly grabs my wrist and drags me into the kitchen. In the thin moonlight that filters through the sheers, I can see her face is white with rage. “What’s your PROBLEM? I’m trying to coax her out of there without terrifying her, and you are NOT helping!”

“Lilly, we can’t take that child out of her home! It’s kidnapping! We need to report this, and let the COPS rescue her. We can call them now.”

“Oh, suddenly you’re concerned about laws? What the hell, Ronica? I’m not letting her sit in the dark for weeks, waiting to get ‘tested’, while the wheels of justice spin!”

“So your answer is to ABDUCT her? You don’t want to end up in jail, Lils! It is NOT a NICE PLACE!”

“Veronica,” she says. “You don’t understand what it is, to have an adult you trust betray you. And I’m glad of that. But I DO. And there’s no FUCKING way I’m leaving that child in that SHOEBOX for one more minute. I don’t care how much trouble I get into, and you shouldn’t either. I’m taking her, whether you like it or not: and frankly, if you try to stop me, I’ll kick your ass.”

I swallow. The biggest mistake of my life was helping Duncan kidnap Meg’s baby, in light of his rage seizures, poorly medicated schizophrenia, and striking lack of empathy. It strained my relationships with my dad, and Logan, to the limit: and I still have nightmares, sometimes, about what little Lilly’s life is like, now.

But the reason I did it was to ease my guilt. Because I was too afraid to help Grace, and Logan, get free of their abusers, even though I knew what they were suffering.

“I’m in,” I say, taking a deep breath. “But we go STRAIGHT to my dad. Like first stop, do not pass go. Agreed?”

She nods, and hugs me, marches back to the bedroom. Nothing frivolous about her in the moment, all masks dropped.

Grace is peering around the closet door when we enter, small face framed by the patchwork quilt.

“Honey,” Lilly says, crouching down again. “I’ve been where you are, and I know grown-ups are hard to trust. But I PROMISE you this. I have a lot of money, and I am very, very strong. If you come with me, right now, I will make SURE you’re safe, and happy, and you never have to sit in a closet again.”

No one moves, for a long moment. Then, very slowly, Grace creeps into the light. She approaches Lilly, and puts a hand on her arm. “Can I have the cocoa?” she asks, her voice stronger. “And a muffin?”

“Absolutely,” Lilly says, and picks her up, surreptitiously brushing tears away on the blanket. “In fact, you can have two.”

Lilly carries her out, into the night: buckles her into the back seat of the convertible, blanket and all. She’s asleep before we’re halfway to the Sheriff’s station.

Chapter Text

THREAD SEVENTEEN

I’m sitting on a bench, on yet another college campus. I’ve got a hamburger in my hand, Loki sprawled across my feet, and I’m gazing blankly at a squirrel in a tree. I’ve never been here before, but this place I recognize, from brochures: it’s Stanford.

I know I should be freaked, about just appearing in some random present, AGAIN. But I’m shell-shocked from yesterday, and way tired, and hungry, besides. I unwrap the burger, take a bite.

There’s a commotion to my right, and I glance over as Logan flops down next to me. He’s in his standard going-to-class uniform of semi-clean t-shirt, shredded bell bottoms and skater shoes, and his hair looks like he just rolled out of bed. He’s got the black and white dog on a leash: she and Loki seem acquainted, because they immediately start wrestling, tangling each other up.

“You ready?” Logan asks, ignoring the chaos unfolding at our feet. He wipes a smear of mustard from my cheek.

“Sure,” I say, fatalistically, through a big bite. I seem to be in Prison! Reality, but not just out of prison, and Logan and I are interacting without angst. After the day I just had, that counts as a double win.

I unclip Loki, make him lie down while I unsnarl the mess: I’m hindered by the black dog, who keeps licking my face. I surreptitiously check her tag (Lulu), and tell her to sit. She does, albeit whining and fidgeting. I guess she’s just young and enthusiastic, not untrained.

Logan grabs the gym bag and surfboard resting against the bench, gestures me forward with his chin. “You want to stop for coffee, on the way?” he asks. “It’s about an hour’s drive.”

“Perfect,” I say, and he bumps my shoulder companionably, the way he used to when he was with Lilly, and we were friends. I smile at him, he smiles back, and I revise that to ‘friends, but he wants more’.

“So what have you been up to this morning?” I ask, as he straps the surfboard to the roof rack, along with several others. I open the back door, usher in the dogs.

“I had a test in my Legal Ethics class, and then I did Classical Civilizations. Today, my teacher showed up in a hooded cape, and we watched a slideshow of Greek monuments shaped like giant dicks.”

“Do you mean metaphorically?” I wonder, as he helps me into the passenger seat.

“No, I mean 20-foot-high stone carvings of erect penises. Apparently the Ancient Greeks liked their porn public, and visible from space.”

I laugh, because seriously, only in college. “I still don’t understand how you got into Stanford. But I bet you’re sorry, now.”

He arches a brow at me. “Hey, I may not have been Pan High Valedictorian, like you were, but I WAS number nine in my class. AND I almost aced my SAT’s, AND I’m a rich, hot celebrity, so everybody wants me. Face it, Mars, sometimes the silver spoon comes in handy.”

Pan High? I think, startled. I didn’t go to Neptune, Senior Year?

“You WISH you could have graduated from the normal, no-soap-operas school,” I try, fishing.

“Yeah, that wouldn’t have been awkward,” he says, voice bone dry. “Considering you spent the whole year pretending I didn’t exist. Besides,” he adds, eyes softening as he reads my face, “I can’t escape the soap opera. It follows me everywhere, like my own personal rain cloud.”

“Well, you ARE an Echolls, of the Hollywood Echollses,” I intone, doing my best Robin Leach. “Power comes at a price.”

He smirks at this, but doesn’t respond, focused on merging onto the highway. I continue to dig. “So what’s everybody up to these days? How’s Mac?”

“Mac.” He frowns, distracted by a road-ragey pickup. “Mac Mackenzie, that techie girl who hung around the Casablancases, summer before last? The one who came to a couple of our Justice League meetings, and hacked Weevil’s bank account? I think Dick said she got a scholarship to MIT.” He shoots me a glance. “Why do you care how she is? Is this one of your seemingly random questions that’s actually a subtle trap?”

I shake my head, heart hammering. “Just wondering about the old gang. No need to get paranoid.”

He sighs. “Well, AS YOU WOULD KNOW, if you’d kept in touch with anybody: Dick and Lils are at Berkeley, Wallace got a basketball scholarship to Hearst, and Casey’s off ‘finding himself’ in Tibet.”

“What about Weevil?” I ask. “And Beaver, and Meg?”

This time, he stares at me a lot longer, and I nudge him to keep his attention on the road. “Veronica,” he says. “Whatever it is you’re trying to find out, just ask. Because I know we stopped being friends, for a while, but there’s NO WAY you’ve quit obsessively reading the paper.”

“I’d just like to hear the Neptune High version,” I improvise. “It comes with juicy not-fit-for-print details, especially as told by the world’s second-biggest snoop.”

One corner of his lips curls up. “Thank you for qualifying,” he says. “To answer your incredibly bizarre question, Weevil and Beaver remain missing, and Meg remains dead. The gossip is that Weevil fled to Mexico and joined the Sinaloa Cartel, and Beaver is a serial killer, roaming the country under an assumed name. Meg, of course, has assumed her rightful place in heaven, beside all the other pretty, do-gooding virgins who died too soon. You want to ask me what my mom is up to, next? It’s not like THE WHOLE WORLD has heard about the David Fincher heist movie with Hugh Jackman.”

I shove his shoulder and he says, “Watch it, I’m driving,” and shoves me back. We tussle for a minute, then he puts his arm around me, kisses the top of my head. “I missed you,” he says. “And your bulldog tenacity, and your complete lack of sympathy for the losers in your sights. Ask as many pointless questions as you want, provided you stick around.”

“OK,” I say, fiddling with the air vent. “I’ll take full advantage. But I’m warning you, the next one’s off the wall, and probably offensive.”

He huffs a laugh. “Of course it is. Lay it on me, Veronica. I’m sure, at some point in my sordid life, I’ve heard worse.”

I breathe deep. “Knocked anyone up, recently?”

He looks at me, eyebrows raised to maximum height. Shakes his head, turns back to the road. “You know,” he says, conversationally, “sometimes I don’t understand you. I haven’t had a girlfriend, or even a sex life, in ten months, which is frankly the longest I’ve gone since puberty. And if that’s not obvious, you’ve got some serious cognitive dissonance going on.”

“Why?” I whisper, watching his face. “Why haven’t you dated, I mean?”

He laughs, without humor. “Because eleven months ago, you sent me a postcard of Laird Hamilton surfing in Hawaii, and wrote ‘This reminded me of you’. And ten months ago, you let me buy you a burger, put your head on my shoulder, and whispered, ‘I missed us so much’. Of course, you ran away shortly thereafter, when I said I was still in love with you, but it was progress from the silent treatment. You want me to keep going?”

I nod, and he continues. “Eight months ago, you showed up on my doorstep, even though I’d never told you where I lived, or even that I followed you to Stanford. You cried on my chest, said everyone in your pre-law program hated you, and asked if you could sleep on my couch.”

He smiles, running his knuckles along my cheek. “Six months ago, you suggested a weekly pizza and movie night. Three months ago, you told me you loved me too, but it was all very complicated, and I didn’t understand. Five weeks ago, you kissed me on the bridge, and said if we could take it really slow, you wanted to try again. And for the last four days, you’ve let me hold you all night, while you slept.”

He laughs, tears slipping down his cheeks, and he’s Logan, so he’s not even embarrassed. “Why would I date anyone else, if I had the chance to be with you, Veronica? With that kind of encouragement, after a year of nothing, I would have waited way longer. My life has been a series of epic fails: but even I’M not enough of an idiot to throw away my last shot at the girl of my dreams.”

I press my lips together and gaze out the window, curling my hand through his to indicate remorse. Because it doesn’t sound, to me, like he threw anything away. It sounds like I did. And that just feels WRONG.

Logan and I disagree, fiercely and often: but neither of us channels Duncan, making the problematic person invisible, making them wonder why they’re scorned. We name our issues, face to face. We explain why we’re walking away. If he’d done something horrible, something I wouldn’t forgive, he wouldn’t be here today, asking for a second chance. He wouldn’t feel he had the right. And I’d have made him pay on the spot, all guns blazing.

I assumed my problems in Prison! Reality sprang from, well, prison: I assumed my trial and conviction were what differentiated this timeline from the others. But that’s clearly not the case. There may have been a trial here (although I tend to think not, since Stanford accepted me), but there was no conviction. And in any case, I jettisoned my life before the trial could have occurred.

Something else happened in summer ’05 that made me feel the way my mother did once, as if the only way to cope was to run. It went down in this timeline, but for some reason, not the others, which means it’s the pivot point. And the evidence tells me it wasn’t Logan’s fault: on the contrary, I cut off all contact, to ensure he’d never know.

“I love your sappy romantic speeches,” I say, into the stillness, and he coughs out a surprised chuckle. “Thank you for giving me time.”

“You’re welcome,” he tells me, with a sidelong glance. He rests our joined hands on his thigh, and the corner of his mouth settles into a faint curl.

XXXXX

“You just want Starbucks because you crave the gallon-size, double-syrup, whipped-cream Frappucino,” Logan accuses. Like this is a crime. He pulls up by the lone pump at a tiny gas station, kills the engine. “And possibly some baked goods. Your hedonism is blinding you to their criminal lack of quality.”

“Oh yeah, I’M the hedonist in this car,” I retort. “All I had for lunch was a burger, and it did not stick to these ribs.”

“This place has REALLY good espresso,” he wheedles. “And clean single-person bathrooms, where you can change. There’s a cooler full of food in the back, too, in case your tapeworm gets peckish.”

“It’s not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’,” I correct, shouldering my duffel. “Make my shot a quadruple. And there had better be Nacho Cheese Doritos in that cooler, or we’re stopping again.”

The store’s a typical Quik-Stop, in a small coastal town: it’s got lifejackets and flares, bait and shades, ‘I heart surfing’ tees in yellow and pink. A coffee counter lines one wall, utilitarian but sparkling: and the ladies’ is, as advertised, clean, well-lit, and lockable.

I strip efficiently, tie on a black bikini, shaking my head at the off-again absence of Schrodinger’s Pregnancy. Then the light catches my skin, and I freeze. Creep closer.

There are nine long scars extending across my stomach, from just below my breasts to my bikini line, barely visible against my fish-belly coloring. They’re white with age, so at least a year old: and they flare out in a pattern, like sun’s rays. Somebody cut into my body, made it performance art, and never once faltered.

Was I drugged or tied, when this happened? Did I lose my mind, do it to myself? Did it serve as a warning, or some sicko’s daily fun? Suddenly, the weight of all I don’t know about my life is oppressive, panic-inducing. I’ve felt, for some time now, as if the slipstream was swallowing me: and the horror of this new discovery hurts. It hurts like seeing Lilly, dead on the ground.

I think about what Logan said, a couple days ago, at Mars Investigations: I’d have been in jail every week, visiting, but you told me to let you rot. God knows what I was hiding…a lot, it seems. I feel an ache of sympathy for Prison! Veronica. She had to cope with the derailment of her life, a Logan-impregnated Mac, his ardent desire to atone, and this.

I spent a year agonizing over forgotten atrocities, what-iffing my blackout at Shelly’s party: gang rape, internet videos, Dick and Sean, tag-teaming. The secret Jake Ryan fantasy of my tween years, Logan, spewing acid commentary as he defiled. And the rapists turned out to be two mentally ill nerds, ignorant of each other’s actions, who thought normal love beyond their reach.

I hope Prison! Veronica doesn’t have to imagine what happened.

I struggle into my rash guard and wetsuit, hands shaking, and find my way outside, blinking back sunshine. I fumble in my bag for shades. I don’t know what to say, what to do: I can barely remember where I am. I feel lost at sea, surrounded by submerged dangers, no land in sight.

Then I spot him, lying on the hood of his Range Rover, parked by a retaining wall. Same pose he chose Original! Junior Year, just before he smashed my headlights. He’s got the dogs sprawled across him, his black mutt Lulu, my Loki: all three content to just be. The dogs doze, and he’s tucked his hands behind his head, taking the world as it comes.

I feel a great weightless sensation, pain sliding south, like it’s dripping out my feet and draining into the ground. The one saving grace, across all these realities, is the small group of people who continue to love me. No matter what I do, or who I am. And Logan’s foremost among them.

I need him, I realize. Not as a sexual craving, a drug. Not as love’s young, shining dream. I need him to be my heart, my warm safe place to rest. To care for the parts of me I neglect. To shine a light on my shadows, so I can see I’m whole.

It doesn’t matter how the other Veronicas feel about me wanting him, I realize. I can’t fight this battle alone. Just like Piz is permanently out, consequences be damned? Logan, in every reality where he’s willing, is permanently in.

I walk to the car and climb up, wedging between him and Loki. They make room, encircle me, his arm, both dogs’ snouts.

“Suited up and ready to rumble,” I say, after a while, sun glowing red through my closed lids. He squeezes me silently, kisses my temple.

“No rush.” He shrugs, like it doesn’t matter. “The waves happen when they happen. We’ll do what you want, on your schedule.”

“I want to be wherever you are,” I tell him, turning my face into his chest. “You’re my home.”

XXXXX

Logan plants the boards—his big one, my little one—in the sand, nose up, and studies me, wiping spray off his forehead with the back of his hand. “So what do you remember?” he asks. “You still know how to chicken wing?”

I shrug, because I have no recollection of ever surfing. I’m not sure if it’s one of those body-memory things, like riding a bike: I might well flail.

He rolls his eyes. “Right, let’s just start over. This is your board.” He whips the towel out of my beach bag, spreads it on the sand. Toes a line down the center, making a dent. “There’s your midline, keep that under the arches of your feet. Now, lie down on your stomach, I’m gonna stand behind you.”

I raise my eyebrows at this, and he laughs. “To get you in position,” he clarifies, suggestively wiggling his.

I comply, with a snort, and he crouches at my feet. “OK, hands under your chest, arch your back, curl your toes. Like it’s Yoga Night, and you’re doing up-dog/down-dog. Bend your knee, this way.” He grasps my ankle, slides my foot up towards my hip. It feels sexual. I’m flooded with awareness, and when I glance back at him, I can see he thinks the same. He smiles at me, then gazes out to sea, breathing in calm.

“Good. Now, get on your toes again,” he continues, voice husky. “Push with your hands, and the foot of the chicken wing, then pop your left leg through to the front.”

“This isn’t the way YOU do it,” I accuse, letting him guide me. He keeps his touch light, doesn’t linger.

“Well, no,” he admits, coming around to the side, cocking his head to watch several iterations. “A little faster. See, Ronica, I don’t have tiny, frail twig arms like you do. It’s amazing you can lift any weight at all.”

I punch him in the chest, and he does an exaggerated wince, rubbing the spot. “Into the water,” he says. “You remember this part just fine.”

We paddle out, not too far from the beach, to a spot just past the baby waves, cresting. “OK, safety first,” Logan calls, straddling his board, not bothering to hold on. “When you can’t make it up the wave before it breaks, or when some oblivious hotshot veers right at you, turtle roll.” He grips the sides of his board and flips himself, submerging. A stream of bubbles surfaces, near the prow, and then he turns back over. “Keep your elbows bent, toes on the board, body up close. And hang on tight, because the sea will try to rip it out of your hands. Take a deep breath first, blow out slowly while you’re under. Show me.”

I inhale, grit my teeth, give it a try. Exhale a thin stream, while the water distorts the foam, and sky, and yellow board above me. It’s peaceful down below, just in that moment, an embrace. I wrestle the board upright, and sprawl atop.

“See?” he asks, from beside me, hand coming to rest lightly on my back. “Your body remembers everything. You want to practice duck dives, or catch a wave?”

“Wave,” I say, and he grins, spraying sunlit water droplets as he tosses his head.

“Watch me first,” he orders, and takes off paddling, mounting the crest and popping up like it’s child’s play. “What happens when I lean back too far?” he yells.

I know this, I’ve seen it, but I do a big, ingenuous shrug. He laughs, puts his weight on his rear heel, and obligingly pratfalls. In a minute, his board bobs up, then he does, and he bounces aboard and returns to me.

“I assume you know what happens if I lean forward? Or stand up straight?”

“You should demonstrate,” I say, and he flattens his lips in mock disappointment.

“Yeah, I think I’ll save my energy, so I can keep up with you. Now, recap. Paddle hard up the slope, while it’s still green, no foam. When you feel your tail lift, maybe five more strokes with your arms, then pop up. And you’re watching the wave over your shoulder the whole time, right? To make sure it’s not cresting.” He points two fingers at my eyes, then his. “You and the wave are one. You go straight at it on approach, perpendicular, and ride it forward ‘til it’s done, no turning or grandstanding. Got me?”

I thumbs-up, and he leans in to kiss my forehead. “Good. Get out there and show me how badass you are.” He gives a theatrical arm wave, like I should make the world my oyster. And I feel great, I feel brave. So I go.

I paddle hard: the rushing fills my ears, and I find my body DOES remember—it KNOWS this. I pop up, my arms swing out for balance, and then I’m hydroplaning down the water, like I’m sliding across ice. I glance over at him, and he’s cheering. The shift in position makes me fall, but that’s OK. I did it.

I sink down deep, foam crashing over me, into a green-grey forest of writhing kelp. Strands twine around my legs, fish stroke past, and I feel incredibly PRESENT: every millisecond seems separate, vital. Then my board floats up far enough to yank me by the tether, and I kick to it, grab hold. Drift through crystal blue, towards the sun.

I break the surface, shaking water out of my eyes, climb back on. I can see him, in the near distance, so I paddle that way. He’s grinning, I notice. Like he KNOWS.

“That was…” I say. Shake my head, seeking words. “I felt so FREE!”

His smile softens, lingering in his eyes. He grabs hold of my board, tugs me closer. “Imagine this times a million,” he says, caressingly. “Imagine shooting the curl of a big wave, balanced in the Green Room, belly of the beast. Crest curving around. All you can hear is the sea.”

He strokes across my forehead with the tips of his fingers, brushing back my hair. “That’s how it is for me, every day, when you’re in my life. That moment where I’m perfectly balanced on top of this…unfathomable force of nature. It could crush me, without even meaning to. But it doesn’t. I ride it.” He takes my hand, kisses my fingers. “God’s honest truth, Veronica. I’m a surf-or-die guy, and you’re the world’s biggest wave. It’s what I love best about you.”

I pull him closer by our linked hands and kiss him, his mouth a hot shock after the burning cold. We bob together, two small bits of human flotsam, insignificant against the great unknown. But somehow, it feels all right.

“I want to do it AGAIN,” I say, when we break apart, and his laugh is…joyful. A sound I’ve never heard, from any version of Logan Echolls. He seems more intensely himself, in this moment, than he’s ever been.

“No turning back,” he taunts. “You’re one of us now, Gidge.”

He jerks his head, and I paddle out after him, to wait for the next wave.

XXXXX

We get in the car and drive once we’re spent, holding hands on the gear shift. Peaceful silence descends. He doesn’t ask, I don’t tell, and that seems fine. He pulls into a Dairy Queen drive-through, gets the largest size of chocolate-dipped cones, and we chase the cracks and leaks with our tongues as he turns onto the highway.

He takes me to the house with the bougainvilleas, and the Spanish-tiled roof: like there’s a homing beacon in the weather vane, like it’s our supra-reality den. My mouth crooks as I catch on, and his does the same. I remember I lost my virginity, here, and know why he brought me. This is where he wants to reunite. This place feels ours, and safe.

We walk inside. It’s dusty and closed up, long-unused, half-forgotten. He goes around the den, sliding back curtains, unlatching windows, and light and air flood in, dazzling me.

“Better,” I say, half-lidded in the cool breeze, the buttery shine.

The dogs are sniffing, cataloguing, as Logan heads off to the bedroom, Lulu eager to tussle, Loki bent to his task. I follow him through the door, shutting them both out. I find him shaking the comforter and re-spreading it, making things clean.

“I have scars,” I say, as he smoothes it, and he looks up at me. His hair is bronze in this light, his stubble sparkles copper: his eyes are carnelians. There’s always been something magical about him, for me. Right now he reminds me of Native American stories, coyotes that turn into men, lie so well they trick the Gods. I guess that’s what love is. You look at the imperfect person who holds your heart, and see them as sublime.

He straightens. “Front or back?” he asks, approaching. He’s not surprised. I guess he knew only something awful had the power to tear us apart.

“Front,” I say, curling my hands around his biceps. “Don’t be upset, when you see.”

He takes his brown t-shirt off, reaching behind him to yank it over his head. He turns his back to me: and for the first time, in full sun, in any reality, he lets me look. “That means we match,” he says, over his shoulder. “And neither of us needs pity.”

I trace a finger through the mess Aaron made of him, lines crossing lines, rough spots that got infected. It’s all very faint, faded in the last three years to a subtle discoloration. Not even visible, from a few feet away. But when I touch, I feel each one.

I take off my own shirt, and his mouth tightens, as he registers the deliberate way it was done. He draws a thumb across my cheekbone, then kneels to kiss my stomach, all compassion, no judgment. A benediction flows from his lips. I grow calm.

“I love you,” I say, threading my fingers through his hair. “I always have.”

“Likewise,” he says, and stands to kiss me, in full acceptance, in full sun.

THREAD SEVENTEEN INVERTS

I wake in the back seat of Dick’s jouncing jeep, just before sunset on a warm summer night. I’m wedged in the center, leaning on Logan’s shoulder: he’s out cold, cheek pressed against the window. Wallace slouches in the other corner, rubbing his half-mast eyes and yawning. We’re all in beach gear, rash guards and suits, sandy and bleached. Somnolent, from too much sun. Even Dick and Casey, trading insults up front, seem ragged and wiped.

The car jostles to a halt, and Logan comes awake, in his usual still, unobtrusive way. “Hey, sunshine,” I say, and he blinks at me, smiles. I lean in to kiss him. His arms come up around me, pressing me close: he tastes of brine and salt.

“Last stop, Dog Beach!” Dick yells, making us all jerk. “Everybody out, I’ve got a date. I need to go groom myself, so I'm EVEN MORE devastatingly handsome!”

We tumble onto the heat-saturated, parking-lot cement. I dig my messenger bag out of the foot well, while Logan unstraps boards, yawning into his forearm.

I locate my phone, find a text from Dad waiting. ‘Having dinner with a mutual friend. Join us and say hello? 7:30, 8814 Serenity Terrace.”

I yawn and stretch: intercept Logan as he comes around the car, carrying our boards. “You look wiped,” I say, brushing sand out from under his eye. “I’ve got a dinner date with Dad. You up to joining us, or you want to head home and veg?”

“I was gonna play Call of Duty with Casey,” he says. “Lie in the air conditioning, have some beers. Let me check and see if he’s still up for it. I’ll be right back.”

I nod, and he heads for the XTerra, to stow our boards. I text back, ‘OK if I’m late? Just got dropped at my car, will clean up and see u in @ 40 min’. Then I make for my Mercedes.

“Whoa! Hey V, hold up,” Wallace calls. He abandons Logan with the boards, and jogs over, rubbing his salt-frosted hair. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Step into my office,” I say, sitting on the hood of my car, patting the adjacent spot. He joins me, leaning back on his hands.

“Listen, I just want to say thanks.” He scratches his nose, combining embarrassment with his usual Wallace good-heartedness. “Logan told me what you did, the other night at the beach: said he only noticed that guy about to stab me because you kept screaming my name. And according to Casey, you almost got your brains beat in, trying to come help.”

He holds up a hand, when I start to respond. “I know you’re gonna say it was nothing, because that’s what you do, right? You save people. You bribed Weevil to save ME, the first day we met, when you had no reason to care. But I want you to know I feel lucky, having someone like you in my corner. Even though I nag you like a Grandma, from time to time, about treating my boy right.”

I feel a smile bursting out, around the edges of my mouth: I can’t contain it. “What are friends for?”

He grins back, holds a hand out for me to high-five. I try, and he does the too-slow jerk-away. I laugh, and shove his shoulder, and this is SO much better than yesterday. I think maybe I’ll make a spirit box for his locker, next time I find myself near a kitchen.

“So where were you off to in such a hurry, anyhow?” he asks.

“Meeting my dad,” I say. “It’s already 7:45, I’m late, and I still have to shower and dress. You know where this address is?”

He takes my phone and studies it, frowning. “This is Dick’s mom’s house. Hey Logan!” He switches to a yell. “Get your pasty ass over here a minute!”

Logan jogs across the lot, Casey following. He rests a hand on my shoulder. “You rang?”

Wallace forks over my phone, and Logan frowns too. “Dude, I gotta take a raincheck,” he tells Casey. “Something just came up.”

“Something always does, when Veronica’s around,” Casey says slyly, and Logan flips him off. “OK, I’m gonna head over to Ashley’s party. Have some drinks, brood about Darcy. Give me a ring, if you free up later.”

He shakes with Wallace and Logan, kisses my cheek, saunters off. In the background, I see Dick’s jeep peel out, at high velocity.

“OK, what’s with the Praetorian Guard, all of a sudden?” I ask, narrowing my eyes.

Logan hands my cell back. “Beaver lives there. We’re coming with you.”

I look at Wallace, who shrugs, but doesn’t seem contrite. “He’s on the list of people we don’t engage alone,” he explains. “Your list, your rule.”

“I’m meeting my dad!” I protest. “You know, the Sheriff?”

“I like Keith,” Wallace says, implacably. “We’ll talk baseball.”

“Oh, whatever,” I grouse, tossing my bag into the car. “You two can rock-paper-scissors for who sits in back.”

“If you ever let me marry you,” Logan warns, “or even be your sugar daddy, the first thing I’m buying you is a car that actually seats four.”

“Like I trust your taste,” I say, revving the engine. “You wear orange break-dancing pants, and your SUV is YELLOW.”

XXXXX

“Man, I am moving IN to one of y’all’s houses, Senior Year,” Wallace declares, as I gun the engine, and we peel away from Jake and Lianne’s. “The hot water never runs out, you’ve got big, fluffy towels the size of football fields, and none of your parents even ASK what time you’re coming home.”

“That’s because they don’t CARE,” I say, rounding the corner and pulling up at a light. “Your mother micromanages because she wants to protect you. You’re LUCKY.”

“Look, I love my mom,” Wallace agrees, with an easy grin. “But those towels are a considerable temptation.”

“Dude, I’ll BUY you towels,” Logan says. “Shit you can fix by throwing money around so doesn’t matter. Whereas your mom, and her chicken cacciatore, are past price.”

“You said the same damn thing about the ham and cheese casserole, even though it had potato chips on top,” Wallce scoffs, giving me a look like he knows I’ll agree. “I think you secretly want to be part of the Waltons.”

I can’t contain a laugh at this, and Logan scowls at me in the rearview. But I can practically SEE him charming the socks off Alicia Fennel, to score an invite to One Dish Supper Night, and I find the image both touching and sad.

“I’ll never actually BE wholesome,” Logan admits, maybe reading my mind. “But yeah, I could play it on TV. My mom’s agent’s been trying to get me into the business since I was 11. He says I have MOJO.”

“You’d make an excellent Eddie Haskell,” I concede, which cracks Wallace up. He laughs for like 30 seconds and then gasps, “The sweater vests!”

“OR we could grease your hair into a pompadour,” I continue, pretending to get serious. “And you could do your sexy Ricky Nelson pout. What do you think, sugar lumps? 50’s bad boy, or 50’s Bad Boy?”

“I think I’m more of a Cool Hand Luke,” he counters, with a snarl, and this makes me laugh, too.

“That’s GOOD,” I say. “Keep that expression on your face all evening, it’s an EXCELLENT bodyguard scowl. Wallace, can you do it, too?”

“Nah, I’m more about action,” he says, as I pull into the drive of Bettina’s bungalow, park. “I’ll use my recently acquired skills, to neutralize threats.”

I raise my eyebrows as I climb out. Logan vaults the door, Dukes of Hazard style, to walk beside me. “Surfing?”

“Wallace and I have been working with Casey’s trainer,” Logan explains. “Alicia made me pay for five lessons a week, for both of us, because I got him into a fight. He’s way better than me.” Logan gives Wallace a shove. “Show her your moves, man.”

“V WISHES she could see my moves.” Wallace leans in, confiding. “I’m better because I can DANCE. Whereas he just shuffles around in a sad-ass circle, and tries to look brooding.”

“Don’t say that in front of your mother. She’ll make me take foxtrot lessons, too.”

“Maybe then you wouldn’t put up such a pathetic showing, next time we play Dance Dance Revolution,” Wallace counters. “I am NEVER letting you on my team again.”

Logan points at Wallace’s face. “Hey, I maintain it’s not a real video game unless someone’s spine gets ripped out.”

“I’ll rip out your spine,” Wallace says, and they start scuffling.

I shake my head, amused by their BROTP now that I feel included. I have to admit, as much as I think MY Wallace is the Most Amazing Human Ever? I like the look of confidence on this one. He doesn’t depend on me for protection, and that’s good for his self-esteem.

Logan shoves him off, laughing. “Dude, don’t make me look bad in front of my girl! She ‘s not gonna want to shuffle around in a circle anymore, if I get my ass kicked by the world’s shortest basketball player.”

“Spud Webb was short,” Wallace protests, like this is an old argument. “Curly from the Globetrotters? It’s all about the footwork and precision aim, my friend.”

“Which is why you’re good at Krav Maga,” Logan says. “Ronica? Little help defending my honor, here?”

“Sorry,” I say. “I’m on the short person side of this argument. But, for the record, I LIKE the way you duck your head and brood.”

Wallace rolls his eyes. “Love, man,” he mutters, shaking his head. “Makes the smartest people in the world stupid.”

I ring the bell, smile to myself, and hiss, “Look tough.” Wallace makes a Maori warrior grimace, and Logan repeats the sneer. We all snicker.

The door swings open, and there’s Beaver, in beige shorts and a t-shirt, holding a bowl of popcorn. “Hey, Veronica,” he says, with what seems like mild surprise. “Hi guys. What are you doing here?”

“My dad asked me to meet him,” I say, waving my phone. “Something about dinner with a friend?”

“Huh,” he muses, swinging the door wide: we pass through. “Weird. Are you sure he said meet HERE? Because they left like an hour ago.”

“Did they say where they were going?” I walk into the living room and turn, taking it in. The place is decorated in creams, grey-blues and earth tones, with decorator touches like framed butterflies, and seashells in jars. It could not look less like the evil lair of a sociopath.

Beaver shrugs. “They should be back soon, if you want to wait. Mom told me she wouldn’t be gone long.” He sets the popcorn on the table, wanders into the kitchen. “Drink?”

I start to say no, but Wallace shouts, “Coke?” I give him a death glare, and he goes, “What? I’m thirsty!”

Logan jerks his head towards the door and mouths, “Let’s go”. I hold up my hand to signal ‘5 minutes’, because I want to see how Beaver behaves. He slumps, dissatisfied, deep into his chair, and his right hand starts methodically flexing.

Beaver returns with a tray, carrying 3 iced glasses of soda, and sets it on the coffee table. He wanders to the media cabinet on the far wall, and calls, over his shoulder, “I was about to watch a movie. You guys like ‘Notorious’?”

I know Logan not only LOVES ‘Notorious’, he gets upset when Ingrid Bergman slut-shames herself (but keeps watching anyway, so he doesn’t miss the kiss). He’s staring fixedly at Beaver, though: and instead of answering, asks, “Hey dude, can I use your bathroom?” His voice, in contrast to his face, is completely blasé.

“Yeah, down the hall to your left.” Beaver gestures vaguely, glances back at us. “Would you prefer something else?”

“’Notorious’ is fine,” I reply, in my most nonchalant tone, and he starts digging through a pile of DVD’s. I pick up my Coke, dip my pinky into it, take the barest taste. And it’s salty: because unlike Improved Dick, this Beaver is still a drink-drugging piece of shit.

I grab Wallace’s wrist before he can swallow, and vehemently shake my head. He looks at me, wide-eyed, down at the glass. His face shifts, hardens. He gently takes charge of mine, pours the liquid from both into a potted plant. Then he sits back, watching Beaver, his expression turned severe.

Beaver settles into the chair opposite Logan’s, curling his feet up under him. He gathers a fistful of popcorn as the movie starts, and begins, serenely, to eat.

We’re halfway through the first Grant-Bergman scene when Logan returns, phone pressed to one ear. He’s got a hand over the other, as if blocking sound. “Yes, mom,” he’s saying. “Yeah, in ten, we’re right around the corner. Look, don’t freak out, that’s what security’s for. I’m with Veronica, she’ll bring me. Love you, too.”

He hangs up, rakes a hand through his hair. “Man, we need to take a rain check on the movie. Mom’s stalker just made it onto the property, and they found him in the garage.”

“Oh my God, is she OK?” I stand up and cross the room, take his hand. He squeezes reassuringly.

“Just shaken up. Can you guys drop me, though? Like now?”

“Sure,” I say. “Cassidy, will you tell my dad we came by?”

“Yeah, of course. Sorry about your mom.” He waves nonchalantly, turns back to the movie. We evacuate, Logan practically dragging me.

“So what happened?” I ask him, once we round the corner. He’s in the front seat, this time. “How did he get on the property? I’m assuming the stalker’s a he?”

“Pull over,” Logan says, staring straight ahead.

“What? Why?”

“Because I faked the phone call. Pull over,” he repeats, and when he looks at me, his face is dangerous.

I do, studying him intently. Once we’re parked, he gently takes my hands. “Remember when you showed me how to pick locks with paperclips?”

I don’t, but I nod. “Were you snooping, instead of using the bathroom?”

This earns me a reluctant half-grin. “I didn’t like it. The text instead of a phone call, your dad thinks texts are voodoo magic. Beaver being the only one home, playing the generous host. So I did a little recon.”

“Veronica told me the drinks were drugged,” Wallace contributes. “I poured them into a plant.”

Logan’s hands on mine tighten, and I say, “Roofies. Coke is not salty.”

“Son of a bitch.” Logan’s head falls back, face to the sky, and he does a deep exhale. “Veronica,” he says, refocusing on me, “I picked the lock on Beaver’s nightstand drawer. Inside I found a switchblade, a bunch of vials of GHB, and a framed piece of kid’s artwork.” He shakes his head: his eyes are shiny with distress. “It was a drawing of a smiling little boy, playing baseball, under a big orange sun.”

XXXXX

“We did the RIGHT THING,” Wallace insists, holding his ground for maybe the 47th time. He’s in the spot of honor, next to Dad’s office door. “I know y’all love your cloak-and-dagger secrets, but this is a POLICE MATTER. And Veronica’s father’s the police.”

“It’s just, the last time I asked for this much help, he was gone nine hours,” I fret, clutching Logan’s hand. “And when it was over, Logan’s dad was dead, Duncan was in jail, and Lilly hated my guts for a year.”

Logan’s been slumped in his chair since we arrived, toeing a petrified wad of gum: he seems unhappy to be present. He comes alert at this, though, and looks at me sharply. “You saying you regret that?” he demands. “Because I view it more in the light of a Hail Mary rescue.”

“Of course I don’t regret AARON,” I snap. “He was the scum on the bottom of scum’s shoe. I regret putting my dad in danger, without adequate warning. I regret not having a PLAN.”

Logan smirks and kisses the top of my head, draping an arm around me. “Have you got a plan now?”

“Public flogging in the town square?” I suggest, and this time he actually laughs. Wallace slowly shakes his head at both of us, then Dad comes softly striding down the hall.

He’s in street clothes, nice ones, and looks tired. But he gives me a hug and kiss, and shakes hands with the boys, before unlocking his door.

“Come on in, kids,” Dad says, shuts us all inside. He waves at the guest chairs. “Have a seat. Can I offer you a drink? Water? Soda?”

“I’d prefer Cassidy Casablancas’ head on a tray,” I say, not quite under my breath. Logan squeezes my shoulders, and Dad’s mouth shapes a pained smile.

“I searched the house.” Dad settles behind his desk, taking a sip of probably-cold coffee. “I found no illegal drugs, no switchblade, no framed child’s artwork. There was no potted plant in the living room, and the dishwasher was full, running on sanitary cycle. So I was unable to snag potting soil or glassware, to test for drug residue. Since none of you drank any, I can’t test you either.

“I also called Cassidy, under the pretense of tracking you down. He was at his father’s house, playing Halo with his brother. He corroborated the non-criminal details of your story: said the three of you came by, had a drink and stayed for a few minutes, then got a call from Logan’s mother, and left. He said you told him I had texted you, and asked you to meet me there. He wanted me to bring him spumoni, if we were still at Mama Leone’s. He didn’t behave like a person who felt guilty.”

“Wait, how did you get in?” Logan interrupts. “Because if you housebroke, wouldn’t that make any evidence you found inadmissible?”

Dad’s eyelids flicker, and I say, “He has a key. Don’t you?”

Dad nods, chagrined. “I have a key. Bettina gave it to me, in case of emergency. But in this case, I brought her home from dinner, and searched while she was having a bath.”

Logan raises his eyebrows at this, but says nothing. Beside me, Wallace covers his mouth with his fist and coughs, to hide a smile.

Dad sighs, setting the cup down, curling his palms around it. “I didn’t send you a text, Veronica, and there’s no record of one on my phone. And while I believe the three of you saw what you say you did, your assertions aren’t probable cause for arrest. No crime was committed, and there may be other explanations for the objects in the drawer.”

“Just the fact that the text EXISTS is evidence,” Wallace argues. “Veronica still has a record of it, right? Can’t you do some computer forensic stuff, figure out where it came from?”

“The listed number on Veronica’s text is mine,” Dad says. “Our resident guru suggests that either someone used my phone and erased the message, or this was a prank by a hacker. I dusted my cell for prints—there were only two, my thumbs.”

“You said there might be another reason for the stuff in the drawer,” Logan chimes in. “Can you explain?”

Dad looks down at his cupped hands. “I’m going to tell you something I promised to keep in confidence,” he says. “Don’t repeat it.”

He looks at me for confirmation, and I nod. “Veronica, you know Bettina and I have been friends for some time. You remember, she used to come to your mother’s bridge parties?”

I nod again, and he continues. “Shortly after they returned from France, she and I had coffee: she’s normally self-possessed, but she broke down, asked for advice. She had concerns about Cassidy’s mental state. Apparently he was acting out in Paris, associating with an undesirable crowd. She assumed he was abusing either alcohol or drugs: he kept coming home and passing out, getting into fights. She also saw some evidence that he was cutting himself. She thinks he’s traumatized, due to the Woody Goodman situation, but he refuses to discuss it, or go into therapy. And of course, she blames herself for allowing Big Dick custody, instead of going bankrupt, fighting him. The things you saw in the drawer fit that narrative, as well.”

“Why was the plant gone, then?” I ask. “Why did he run a load of dishes, right after we left?”

“He appears to have prepared and eaten a meal, then cleaned up after himself,” dad replies. “The plant, like the text, is an unanswered question. It wasn’t in any garbage can on the property.”

“So you believe us, then,” Wallace says, correctly reading Dad’s equivocations. “You think he’s guilty.”

“There’s cause for concern,” Dad concedes. “Methodical removal of evidence suggests guilt, and the text suggests advance planning. I’d advise the three of you not to be alone with Cassidy, or accept beverages from him that have been opened. I’ll be keeping a close eye on him, from now on. But I can’t take official action, at this time.”

I grit my teeth, and nod. I don’t like being checkmated by Beaver, but I don’t want Dad to damage his career (or, I guess, relationship) without legal grounds. “Thanks for checking into it, pops,” I say, and his face softens.

“If he makes the slightest threat towards any of you, I want to hear about it immediately,” he warns. “Job number one is keeping you safe. No matter what else I am, Veronica, I’m still your daddy.”

“Yeah, you are,” I say, and for the first time this evening, he smiles.

Chapter Text

THREAD EIGHTTEEN

“Veronica.” There’s a foot prodding me. “VERONICA. We’re at the gas station. Do you want Doritos? Do you want Sunkist?” Shove. “Speak now or forever hold your peace. VERONICA!”

I moan, turn away from the angry foot. There’s a deliciously soft pillow up against some hard surface, and I nestle down into it. Aaaahhh…..

“Should we be worried about this?” the voice asks, and it sounds like Mac. “Did she take something?”

“Nah, it’s just the pregnancy,” Logan says, from behind me. “Peanut’s an energy vampire. Ronica sleeps CONSTANTLY.”

Peanut?! I jerk awake, my hand flying to my belly and curving there. I grin, because it’s the size of a half-cantaloupe: and I can feel the weight of the gigantic ring, shifting on my finger.

I did it. I’m back where I want to be, in the best life, with the best Logan. Screw you, fate, you’re no match for Veronica Mars.

“Morning, sunshine.” Logan wavers into view as I open my eyes, smiling lopsidedly. He hands me a fresh, cold bubbly Sunkist, a straw in the hole, and I sigh with pleasure. “You need to pee?”

I shake my head and turn towards Mac, who’s rocking sun-streaked, short natural hair, her Justice League ring, a red v-necked t-shirt, and running shoes with jeans. She doesn’t look repressed: but she also doesn’t look like she gives a shit what Logan thinks. My grin gets bigger.

She raises her eyebrows, I guess because I look like a maniac. But before she can say anything, the passenger door opens, and Dick crawls in.

“OK, Fritos and bean dip.” He plops them onto Mac’s lap. “That’s the best I could do. Neither one’s got lard, I checked, because I’m considerate, and I rock the hardest.” He pops the tab on a Dos Equis and chugs half of it, his consideration apparently not encompassing laws of the road.

“I’ll put that on your tombstone,” Mac snarks, peeling the lid open. She elbows him, in what, for Mac, is an extreme show of affection, and he grins at her and belches. I raise my eyebrows at Logan, because something is GOING ON in my back seat. He rolls his eyes.

“Hungry?” he asks me, and I shake my head. “There’s a bag by your feet, just in case. When we get to Big Sur, we’re stopping for dinner: but I don’t want Peanut clawing her way out, alien-style, in search of sustenance, meantime.”

I grasp the back of his neck and pull him down for a kiss, which turns deep and sweet, orange-flavored. Mac throws a Frito at us, to break it up.

“Ugh, we have road trip rules for a reason,” she says, pointing with a bean-dip loaded specimen. “No PDA, no histrionics, and no grunge. Don’t make me get out the spray bottle.”

“Ronica, Peanut and I are outlaws,” Logan protests, cranking the engine. “We think rules are for suckers.”

I sigh happily, arrange the pillow behind my back, and sip my drink. I twine my fingers with Logan’s on the stick, and he smirks at me as we upshift in tandem.

I will watch Easy Rider 15 times in a row, and spend an HOUR talking about my feelings, if it means I get to stay here forever.

“Dude, this road trip blows,” Dick says, after five minutes of silent munching, popping open another beer. “I’m the only one drinking, nobody’s mooning passing cars, and you’re playing music that was trendy before I was BORN.”

Logan adjusts the volume of ‘Wish You Were Here’ infinitesimally (and somewhat defensively), and says, “Dude, I’m chauffeuring my fiancée, my unborn daughter, and the brains behind my lucrative internet business, here. You want to blast Icelandic Death Metal, and throw rocks at Vespas? I’ll slow down by the nearest Hertz. You can drop and roll.”

“Man, you are ONE STEP away from penny loafers and a mini-van, lately. I miss the Logan who used to car-surf the PCH at night.” Dick steals the bean-dipped chip Mac’s about to bite into, eats it. “Can we at least play ‘I never’ or some shit?”

“Dick, ‘I never’ is a drinking game,” Mac chides, shifting her Frito bag away from him, slapping his hand when he reaches for it. “You may not have noticed this, but you’re the only one drinking. And just because you LOOK like an idiot surfer stereotype doesn’t mean you have to ACT like one.”

Her pocket buzzes, and she puts up one finger, schoolteacher-style. “Hold that thought,” she says, pre-empting his next comment. “It’s Lilly. ‘Tell V to check her phone. 105.7’.”

I pause Logan’s CD, and scramble for the radio dial. He rolls his eyes. “Seriously, Veronica? STILL? We’re almost TWENTY!”

The strains of the Spice Girls blast through the car, and I dig out my phone, hit speed dial #2.

“Tell me what you want, what you really, really want!” she’s yelling as she answers, while Wallace laughs in the background, and Jessica sings along.

“I’ll tell you want I want, what I really, really want!” I snarl back. Logan obligingly cranks the volume, familiar with the ritual.

“What the fuck does that even mean, ‘I wanna zigazig’?” Dick asks no one in particular.

But I’m busy singing at the top of my lungs. “If you want my future—forget my past! If you wanna get with me—better make it fast!” I trace my finger down Logan’s cheek, and he grins at me, lecherous. “Now don’t go wasting—my precious time. Get your act together—we could be just fine!”

“Ah, what the hell,” Mac says, from the backseat, and starts singing, too.

XXXXX

It’s dark when we reach Big Sur, and I’m drowsing on Logan’s shoulder. We’ve got the windows cracked to let in the Pacific breeze, and we’re listening to some weird Jefferson Airplane album called ‘Surrealistic Pillow’: Grace Jones’ droning voice is soothing. We curve up a hill, past a wood-burned sign that reads ‘Nepenthe/ Phoenix Shop’, and Logan ducks his head close to mine to murmur, “We’re here.”

I rouse and yawn, kiss his cheek: in the back, Mac and Dick stir from their mutual sprawl, like puppies in a sleepy pile.

We park in front of a weathered redwood-adobe building, mount the stairs, all of us stumbling, somnolent. “Repent and quaff the fine Nepenthe,” Mac quotes, through a yawn, and we enter the brightly-lit cupola bar.

Logan wraps an arm around my waist, supporting me, and coaxes, “Big, juicy $40 steaks. World class view of the Pacific. And we have a surprise guest, too, if you can just manage to stay conscious.”

“Is it a pony?” I ask, and he says, “Better.” Kisses me on the nose.

We pass through onto the red stone deck, painted with a checkerboard dance floor, sporting a white stone fireplace that crackles ruddy flame. Benches line up by the railing, to maximize the amazing view, and old-fashioned streetlamps give it a quaint café ambiance.

Logan leads us to a round table, off on one side, where an old man sits, sipping a beer, gazing contemplatively at the dark shapes of the Santa Lucia Mountains. He’s tall and spare, slouched low, and his white hair sticks out every direction, Einstein-style. He rises as we approach, gazing down at me with disconcerting directness: and I realize with a shock that he looks like LOGAN. He's got the same clever dark eyes, the same Roman nose, even the same quirk to the eyebrows that means he’s about to spout smarm. “Veronica,” he says, in a deep, gravelly voice, taking my hands in his, and kissing both. “My Angel of Mercy.”

I laugh at this, because really? Me? But I let him enfold me in a hug. He’s all bones, quite warm, and smells of cigarettes and something resinous. Maybe frankincense.

“Hey Pop,” Logan greets, and hugs him too, a hug that seems tight, and lasts a while. “These are our friends, Dick Casablancas, Mac Mackenzie. My grandfather, Victor Lester.”

Holy shit. I stagger back a step, and Logan rests a hand on my lower back to keep me steady. The slipstream’s been pretty eventful, overall, but this is the first time I’ve encountered someone who’s supposed to be DEAD.

Okay, technically that’s not true. Beaver, Lynn and Lilly are still walking around, here, both fortunately and un. But didn’t Victor die when I was like five?

Ugh, if I could just spend a day staring at the wall and eating Cheetos, this would all seem so much easier.

“And you’re NOT contestants in a 1950’s golf tournament?” Victor’s asking my friends, with a disturbingly familiar tilt of the head.

“Mac’s a nickname,” Mac says. “Because I like computers. My real name is Cindy.”

“My real name’s Dick,” says Dick, “and many people think I am one. So feel free to use it, I don’t mind.”

“I like your friends,” Victor says to Logan, which earns him a smirk. “And good for you, surrounding yourself with smart women. I was afraid you’d be doomed to gorgeous, scatterbrained pushovers like your mother, but you managed to buck the trend.”

“Are you saying my girl’s not gorgeous?” Logan slides his hand down my arm, entwines our fingers. “I knew you needed glasses, but I didn’t think your eyes were THAT bad.”

“She’s TAKEN,” Victor says, with an eyebrow wiggle. “If I charmed her away from you, I’d feel guilty. Besides,” his gaze rises past my shoulder, his grin blossoming, “I have my eye on her friend.”

“Grandpa Victor, you’re a cad,” Lilly croons, from behind me, and skirts us to throw her arms around his neck. She’s in a blue Berkeley sweatshirt and cat’s eye glasses, her hair knotted sloppily atop her head, yet she somehow looks more gorgeous than ever. “Stop hitting on all the ladies and buy me a drink. Wallace chugged my Gatorade while I was napping, and I’m PARCHED.”

“Lillian Jean,” he says, smiling down. “Be still my heart.”

She laughs at him, shoves him away, and Wallace offers his hand. “Sir,” he says. “Heard a lot about you. Most of it good.”

“Well, that’s surprising.” Victor shakes, grins at Logan. “Kid must be too naive to know better. And you,” he turns to Jessica, gives her the double-hand kiss, “look like your mother. We ALL won the jackpot with our dates tonight.”

I glance at Lilly as we take our seats and she winks, seeming undismayed by the claim Logan’s grandfather has staked. It’s Mac who freaks, and blurts, “This isn’t a date.”

Everybody looks at her, and she goes red. Turns to Dick like she wants him to back her up, waving her hand between them. He just grins. “I mean, we’re not…it’s not…” she does a little self-conscious hand toss, and subsides into silence.

“We’re not dating,” Dick elaborates, spilling a couple ice cubes from his water glass into his mouth, crunching down. He glances at Mac with ill-concealed glee and adds, “We’re just friends with benefits.”

Mac glares at him, kicks him under the table, and Logan buries a snort of laughter in his drink. Lilly and Wallace share a look, like this is an oft-discussed topic. And I flash back to the Freshman Yacht Ditch Day, when Logan, Dick and Mac all disappeared ‘to buy beer’, but Logan came back alone. Which means this has been going on since before I stumbled into Ideal! Reality...and everybody knew.

I wonder if Dick had anything to do with Mac’s love life exploding, in Prison! Reality. But I doubt, after all the changes I’ve made in the last few days, that there’s enough of Prison! Reality left for me to ever know.

I wonder if Mac’s compulsive relationship-denying has anything to do with my fiancée.

And I hope, fervently, that Prison! Reality has permanently vanished. Because, idyllic surfing outings aside, that one totally blew.

“I told dad we were coming to Nepenthe, and he said order the Ambrosia Burger,” Jessica informs us, smoothing over the awkward moment with an ease that screams good-match-for-Wallace. “He ALSO told me Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made a movie here once, and danced on the patio.”

“The Sandpiper,” Victor says, leaning back, reclaiming his beer. “Idiotic film, but Taylor was a real star.” He shakes his head, remembering young Liz, I guess. “Rita Hayworth used to own this place, you know.”

I raise my eyebrows and Logan adds, with a sideways grin at his grandfather, “Along with Orson Welles. They were in LOVE, unlike Dick and Mac.”

This makes Lilly collapse into giggles. I shake my head at him, which only causes his smirk to grow bigger.

“Yeah, for fifteen minutes,” Victor retorts, both amused and exasperated. “They bought it as a romantic hideaway, but split before they ever spent the night.”

“You know a lot about Old Hollywood,” Jessica observes, narrowing her eyes. “I guess that means the rumors are true?”

Victor grins, and I’ve finally figured out where Logan got his charm. “I suppose your dad told you that, too?”

“Dude, is your grandpa like an international man of mystery?” Dick asks. “Because this conversation is more secretive and pregnant than Ronnie.”

I make a face at him, and Logan bursts out laughing. “No secret, man. I’m just fourth-generation Hollywood royalty. Pop’s folks were silent film actors, and he was a CHILD STAR.”

“No shit.” Dick looks at Victor with new respect. “Man, your life is COLORFUL.”

“I was a Little Rascal,” Victor elaborates for the confused, with a slow smile. “I wore a beanie, and spoke in shrill falsetto.”

I can’t help it. This takedown of the legendary Korean War hero completely cracks me up. I laugh so hard tears leak out, and Lilly has to rub my back, hand me a napkin. “It’s just…” I gasp, when I start to calm. “I always thought Logan was a changeling. Turns out he’s NOT.”

Logan smiles at me, and Victor pats his shoulder. “Enh, the kid’s just high-energy,” he defends. “Nobody knew what to do with me when I was his age, either. Luckily, the war happened, and reckless sonovabitches with a wild hair for adventure were suddenly in demand.”

“You were a pilot, right?” I ask, as a waiter approaches the table, to hand out menus and take drink orders. I know this story, because MY Logan used to tell it ad nauseum.

“Among other things.” He smirks at me, and I’m afraid I’ll start laughing again. I blow a kiss to Logan instead: he catches it mid-air, and presses it to his heart. I roll my eyes, and he winks at me, and I never ever want to leave this reality again, not ‘til I’m 30 years older than Victor.

I peruse the menu, while Mac and Dick debate the merits of Halo, and Jessica and Lilly discuss vegetarianism. When a young, dark-haired waitress with a batik top and nose ring appears, I order a pricey steak with blue cheese and Cabernet sauce, and a Brussels sprouts appetizer. Because fuck it. Fourth generation Hollywood royalty can afford to feed me.

“So what brings you to Big Sur, anyway?” Jessica asks Victor, clearly feeling more simpatico. “Vacationing?”

“I live here.” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder, towards the black bulk of the mountains. “I have a cabin. I’m big on wide-open spaces, and not so much on people. When you live up on a hill, you can always see who’s coming. And plan accordingly.”

I gaze at him, contemplative, and he meets my eyes squarely. I guess being a POW will do that to a guy, I muse. And wonder if being trapped in a house with Aaron for 16 years is what brought out the same traits in Logan.

“Have you seen the baby yet?” Victor asks me, his gravelly voice gentling, and I nod.

Logan whips out his wallet, tosses a laminated copy of the ultrasound picture on the table. “Here, I made you a photo. She’s due in late November. We’re calling her Leilani.”

“We are not!” I protest, scandalized. He waggles his eyebrows at me in a way that says he’ll coax me into it, somehow.

Victor grins down at the picture, then sideways at Logan. “You remind me of your grandmother,” he says. “Now there was a dame. How she produced such wet blankets as Walter and Lynnie is beyond my comprehension.” He sighs, tucks the picture into his shirt pocket, gives it a pat. Shoots me a smile. “Thanks for this, I’ll keep it close. I want to meet the real article, as soon as she’s good to travel.”

“So, Logan’s grandma was sappily sentimental, then?” Wallace asks, and Logan flips him off while pretending to scratch his face. Mac tries to hide a laugh, but can’t, and Dick shakes his head at her.

Victor chokes on his drink. “Jesus Christ, no,” he says, wiping his chin. “She was a ball-buster from day one. Always running head-first into trouble. But she could love like no one else I’ve ever known. No matter what shenanigans I pulled—and believe me, I pulled a LOT—she stood by me. I wish Logan could have known her.”

“I know her,” Logan says, and smiles at me, and great. My stupid hormones are making me want to cry again.

“Veronica,” Wallace says, with an amused head shake. “A long time ago, you told me you were a marshmallow, and I didn’t believe you. But man, look at you right now. You really, really ARE!”

“I am not!” I protest. “I’m a stone-cold, vicious badass!”

“But in a totally loveable, squishable way!” Lilly wraps me in an embrace, bestows a smacking cheek kiss. “BFF’s forever, Veronica Mars,” she whispers. “I’ll keep your shameful secret.”

The food arrives: and I don’t know what we were up to before we got in the car, but it must have been hunger-inducing. We fall on it, and conversation grows desultory, words and laughter drifting smokelike over the mountains, slowly out to sea.

Replete at last, I fight stupor, because I don’t want to leave this place. I lean my head on Lilly’s shoulder, gaze out past the lights. She puts an arm around me, pats: and across the table, Logan’s face softens. I mouth ‘I love you’ to him, just so he knows, in case I go. He reaches across the table and takes my hand, running his thumb over my ring.

“Ronica’s had it,” he tells the table. “You want pie for later, sugarpuss? You can eat it at breakfast, if you crash early tonight.”

“Apple?” I ask, and he wanders off, probably to covertly pay the bill.

“Imma check out the the gift shop real quick, before we head to the hotel,” Wallace announces. “You think your dad might like a book about this place, baby?”

“Oh yeah,” Jessica says, twining both her arms around one of his, smiling up at him. “Want help picking it out?”

“Do you even have to ask?” He pulls out her chair, extends a hand for Victor to shake. “Pleasure to meet you, sir. I can see why Logan’s so proud of you.”

“I can see why you’re his friend,” Victor counters, shaking. “Thanks for stopping by.”

“They’re my ride,” Lilly tells him, getting up too. She squeezes my hand and leans over to hug Victor. “You ever need a getaway driver, you give me a call.”

“You’re number one on my list, Lilly Jean,” he says. “Also two, three and four.”

She blows him a kiss, shoots me a twinkly-eyed grin, and sashays off into the dark.

Dick and Mac have wandered over to the railing, where they seem to be arguing, or maybe angry-flirting, half in light, half in shadow. I cock my head, studying them, and Victor says, “I’ve got something for you.”

I turn to him, raise my eyebrows. He extracts a small object from his shirt pocket, drops it into my hand. It’s a thumb drive. I glance up at him, surprised.

“That’s all the information I have on the Sanitarium,” he says, gesturing at the device with his chin. “I made maps for you, too, they should help. They’re to scale.”

Help with WHAT? I want to ask. Because what the hell are you up to, Ideal! Veronica?

“Thanks,” I say instead, tucking it into my purse. “I hope this wasn’t too much trouble.”

He laughs. “Everything worthwhile is trouble. I enjoy the hell out of espionage capers, as you’re well aware. It’s been too damn long.” He pulls out a pack of cigarettes, a dull gold lighter that’s etched on one side. Spins them thoughtfully in his hands. “You know you can count on me, Veronica. For whatever you need. My knees are pretty much gone, and like your boyfriend said, I ought to get glasses. But my brain works fine.”

I nod, and then Logan’s behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist, lifting me out of my chair. “Come on, bedtime,” he says, kissing my neck. “Pop, we’re set for the beach at 6:00, right?”

Victor thumbs-ups and winks, and Logan laughs, claps him on the shoulder. “Great to see you, man,” he says, and they do another hug.

“No offense to your mother,” Victor tells him, gruffly. “But you’re the only member of this family left who’s worth a damn. The two of you better take care of yourselves.”

Logan salutes, jauntily, whistles to alert Dick and Mac, points to the car. Dick nods, says something that makes Mac emit an audible huff of frustration, and they follow us down.

“You good for half an hour?” Logan asks, helping me into my seat, fastening the belt around me. “Pass out if you need to. You’re still light enough for me to carry upstairs.”

I smack him, and he laughs, kisses me softly. I draw my finger down the long, straight bridge of his nose, and he kisses that, too. Then he hops into the driver’s seat, the disgruntled maybe-lovers pile in back, and we’re off down the highway, speeding through the night.

I rest against my window, trying to make my brain work. Fighting to stay awake, until I can unpack my laptop, read Victor’s files. Because the only Sanitarium I’ve heard of is the one where Duncan’s incarcerated. And I’m afraid whatever Ideal! Veronica’s up to will ruin everything: because I’m pretty sure Logan and Lilly are out of the loop.

Logan turns on music, soft and low, something I don’t recognize about a bed that’s too big when a girl’s not in it. His free hand comes to rest on my scalp, trails down my cheek, my shoulder, my arm. I reach for him, fingers twining with his….

And then sleep claims me, tugging me down. Flotsam on the slipstream, set to wash ashore who knows where.

THREAD EIGHTEEN INVERTS

I’m sprawled across a mattress, somewhere new: it looks like I’ve landed in a tropical photo spread for Architectural Digest. The canopy above me is honey-brown, made of polished logs, hung with gauzy white curtains that flutter in the breeze. To my right is a wrought- iron sofa strewn with sari-print pillows, a carved Balinese screen. A palm-leaf fan slowly rotates overhead: and through the French doors, past my feet, I can see the ocean, foaming up to a wooden deck.

I’m in one of those Indonesian houses, built above the sea on stilts.

“Fiji,” I murmur, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. “The Fiji vacation.”

“Almost didn’t happen,” Logan says, to my left.

My head whips around, and I locate him in the shadows by the bed: he’s curled up in a papa-san chair, glass of scotch in hand. He’s watching me, face blank and considering, and I wonder why he’s mad. What I’ve done.

“I didn’t see you there,” I murmur.

He lifts his glass and toasts me, so I get up. Pad across the floor, climb into his lap. I’m wearing a thin white gauzy gown, to match the room, I guess. His hand spans my abdomen to hold me in place, warmth seeping through.

“Welcome to Paradise.” He bends to kiss my throat, teeth scraping the skin. My breath spills out in a sigh, and I lift my chin to give him better access. He laughs. “I’d say let’s christen the bed, but that’s been taken care of.”

“We could christen the chair,” I offer, turning to straddle him. I wind my arms around his neck, toying with his hair.

“We could,” he agrees, watching me, “if we hadn’t already done that, too.”

I stare at him, and he stares back. We’re so deeply in shadow I can barely see his eyes.

“What, no glib explanation?” He supports my weight with one hand, lifts the drink to his lips. “Usually you’re quicker with excuses, when you flub Veronica’s life facts.”

“You KNOW,” I say softly. He smiles, the glittery-eyed, battle-ready smile, but doesn’t let me go.

“That you’re not my girlfriend? Yeah, I’ve had my suspicions since the night Aaron died. I don’t, however, have a clue who you ARE, or how you keep turning up here, taking her over. Much less how you’ve heard every secret the whole TOWN tries to hide.”

“You’re delusional,” I venture. He smirks and shakes his head, sets his drink on the floor. His hands settle on my hips.

“She won’t remember this conversation,” he tells me, serious and intense. “I mean, she’ll know we sat in a chair and talked, but she’ll substitute her own opinions and words for yours. She’ll insist her version’s true, too, no matter how tortured her logic. Like, that time you turned up when she was napping, and told me never to screw Kendall Casablancas? She claimed Kendall’s dragon-lady fake nails were the dead giveaway to her mob status, and denied ever mentioning Mac.”

“Wow,” I say. I shift, to extricate myself. His grip tightens, then eases, like he doesn’t want to release me, and he starts to get hard. “So you KNEW a complete stranger was inhabiting your girlfriend that night, and you still boned her? Good to see your inner jackass is alive and well, beneath the World’s Best Boyfriend mask.”

He cocks his head. “Now, how have you met my inner jackass? Because I’ve loved Veronica since 6th grade, so she gets the 24/7 Cadillac Treatment.”

I laugh. “Yeah, that’s not the case where I come from. And he’s not so much your INNER jackass there, as a TMZ tabloid staple.”

He flinches at this, and I say, impatiently, “I’m still Veronica, Logan. I’m just Veronica from a different place and time, where different choices were made.”

He considers me. “And not a nicer place, I’m guessing. Since you’ve got DefCon 4 level defenses, and you keep hiding out here.”

I make to climb off his lap, and his hands slide away, unresisting. When I’m up, he stands too, gazing inscrutably down. He’s in a wife beater and sleep pants, thin and white like my gown: the aroused bulk of him emits so much heat and force, it scrambles my senses.

“I’m not HIDING here. I just show up,” I say. “It’s not on purpose. You and I had a knock-down, drag-out and split, where I come from: I went home and drank Nyquil, to help me sleep. And I dreamed about Sophomore Prom Night, when we ended up at the beach. I thought nothing of it: just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, you know? Just imagining I chose a red satin dress, instead of good-girl pink. After which, things continued on as normal, for like a week.

“Then I dreamed about the party you threw, when your parents went to Nepal. And afterwards, I noticed changes in my waking life—your memory of our breakup was different from mine. We got back together, because my reason for dumping you had vanished. And when I fell asleep, I dreamed about dad busting Aaron, and Duncan murdering him. It’s been happening every night since.

“There are big gaps of time where I don’t show up here, I realize that. But for me, it’s a constant, shifting slipstream. I alter an event in this timeline, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not, and wake up in the morning to a different current reality. They vary in quality from sucky to great. But always, I stay trapped in the cycle. I don’t know how to make it stop.”

“Back up to the beginning,” he says, putting his hands on his hips. “You say we broke up, and you went home. So where you come from, we’re not living together? I mean, before the fight?”

I shake my head. “I live in the Sunset Cliffs Apartments with my dad. You live in the penthouse suite at the Neptune Grand.”

“And this is at some unspecified point in the future, because what you do here changes YOUR present.”

“I’m a college freshman,” I say. “It’s not like I’m 35.”

“So, 19.” He takes a step towards me, and I back up against the bedpost, curling my hands around it. “Since your parents put you in kindergarten a year late, hoping you’d grow.”

I sneer at him. “As opposed to yours, who redshirted you in the mistaken belief you’d mature.”

He grins. “Yeah, you’re much more caustic than my Veronica,” he says. “It’s one of the main ways I tell you apart. Well that, and you punch people, and you’re confident and relaxed in bed.”

“Thanks to the Logan Echolls School of Hard Knocks,” I retort, nails digging into wood. “Jackass you DID bang Kendall Casablancas, along with hundreds of other girls. Got in fistfights on a daily basis. Committed petty crimes. There’s not a lot he hasn’t done.”

“He’d have to be aggressive, to cope with you,” Logan says, tracing a finger down my cheek and throat, between my breasts. “Because you? Are TERRIFYING.”

Heat pools between my legs, and my breath shivers. “I can’t believe you’re just accepting this. I figured anyone I told would call me crazy.”

“If you are, so am I,” he says. “And so is Carrie Bishop. I blackmailed her into confessing all. She believes this is a case of ghostly possession, by the way. Like you’re dead, but you don’t know it. She also thinks you’re Mata Hari.”

I roll my eyes. “Blackmailed her with what? And how did you realize she even knew?”

He waves a dismissive hand. “She made some crack about me not having a clue who I was banging, because she loves to feel superior. As for what I’ve got on her, forget it. You’d tase her. And it’s not smart to antagonize people who know damaging secrets.”

I snort. That’s Logan Code for ‘I got drunk and nailed her, sophomore year’. “I can’t believe your Veronica confided in her. Carrie Bishop is the LAST person I’d trust.”

“Agreed. Although, truthfully, do you trust ANYONE?”

I shrug. “I don’t generally see the best side of people,” I admit. “I’m a private detective. I work for my dad.”

“Which is how you know everyone’s secrets,” he surmises. “And I’m a jackass, and a tabloid staple, who douches it up in a ten-grand a night hotel suite, entertaining strings of groupies. Sounds like infamy is the only thing I’ve got going for me, back where you come from.”

“Far from it,” I say. “You’re brave and heroic. You try to be a better man. And you’ve worked to make amends, for the jackassy things you’ve done.”

“What jackassy things HAVE I done?” he asks, softly, stroking along my hairline with the back of his hand. Like he’s in love with me, even though he knows, now, that I’m the broken version.

“You burned down the community pool,” I say, on a sigh. “You paid bums to box each other, and ran a betting ring. You led a salt lick on me once, when I was roofied at Shelly Pomroy’s Sophomore Party. You gave Duncan GHB that night, too: and subsequently, he stumbled upstairs and raped me. After Beaver puked and left, I mean. He raped me, first.”

Logan recoils, taking a physical step back. “And you DATED me?” he demands, hands going up to tug his hair.

“Not right away,” I say. “I dated Duncan first. I wanted to pretend like what happened to me was just nature, taking its course. I was…unconscious….from the drugs, so I didn’t know Dick and Beaver were in the room, until end of Senior Year.”

“Wait, DICK was involved in this? Dick my best friend, who freaking ADORES you?”

“YOUR Dick adores me, and he did nothing wrong. But he lives up to his name, where I come from. He hated me for years, even more than you did. He fed me drinks, after Duncan chased you off from the salt lick. He convinced me to make out with Shelly, and then he carried me up to a guest room. Told Beaver to have at me. Learn to be a man.”

“Jesus,” he says, spinning in an agitated circle. “This is why you ran around the party, confiscating drugs. This is why you dragged Carmen to the hospital, and knew not to drink the soda Beaver brought. You explained what they were planning, too, and I said you can’t hold people responsible for evil thoughts.” He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes. “Please tell me Jackass Me at least put them in the ICU. Because no matter how much you think I hated you, I can guarantee I didn’t want you hurt. No way would I have stood by while you got VIOLATED.”

“You didn’t know. You left the party after the salt lick, with Cindy Gaugento. And I never told you what Dick did, because I didn’t want to take away your only friend. He was your roommate, even, at the Neptune Grand, after Duncan ran away to Mexico.”

“My ONLY friend?” He rubs the spot between his eyes. “What about Wallace?”

“Wallace is MY BFF,” I say, crossing my arms. “I’M the one who cut him down from the flagpole, and saved him from Weevil. He didn’t even LIKE you much, until end of senior year.”

A smile curves the corner of his mouth. “And Lilly?” he asks.

“Dead,” I say. “Aaron…”

“Killed her with a glass ashtray?” His voice is gentle. I nod. “Which is why Duncan was free to creep into the room where you were passed out, and climb on top. And I gave him something that blocked his anti-psychotics.” He laughs, a harsh exhalation. “Jesus, you know the worst part? I can believe it. Under the right circumstances, I can believe I would do all those things. Just not to YOU, Veronica. I’ve always PROTECTED you from the ugly parts of my life. I can’t imagine letting some other dude LICK your SKIN, just because I was pissed off. ESPECIALLY not when you were wasted!”

“I told Lilly you kissed Yolanda,” I say. “I broke you up. I was jealous, you know? I wanted it to be ME you chose, when you moved on. So you weren’t around to play hero, the day Aaron came looking. And you blamed me for her death.” I swallow, turn away. “You ostracized me—King of the 09’ers, and all that. You called me a slut. You bashed in my headlights once, with a crowbar.”

I’m crying now, trying not to. “And I struck back hard. I planted a bong in your locker, got you beaten by your dad. I accused you of crimes you didn’t commit, had you arrested several times. I found out Aaron was hurting you, Logan, and I did NOTHING to help. Maybe you didn’t deserve my forgiveness, but I was no helpless ingénue. I didn’t deserve yours, either.”

“Ah, but I had all the advantage, didn’t I?” he asks, tilting his head to study me. “I was bigger and stronger, richer, more popular. A guy. You had a rep for getting drunk and slutty at parties, and you lived in a shitty apartment with your dad. No way could you have taken me on and won, let alone Two Time Oscar Winner Aaron Echolls. It wasn’t a fair fight.”

“I was smarter,” I say, with a faint smile. “And for all your posturing, meaner. I’m the only one who’s ever gotten the best of you. And I HAVE. Several times.”

He laughs. “See? Terrifying.” He moves a step closer. When I don’t sidle away, he puts his hands on my shoulders, thumbs stroking the sides of my neck. “Veronica,” he says. “The other me, the asshole me…you know he’s obsessed with you, right? You know all the anger, all the posturing, it’s just…it’s how I act when I’m pretending the person who hurt me, didn’t.”

“Yeah,” I say. “He’s in love with me, same as you.”

“Are you in love with HIM?” he asks. “I mean, despite the massive amounts of fuckery? Because I don’t see how you could be, but it sounds like you ARE.”

“I’m in love with every version of you I’ve met,” I say. “I’ve never loved anyone else.” I put my hand on his cheek. “Although, I have to admit. The you standing here, right now? And the person this you becomes? Hands down, my favorite. You’ve turned into the best version of yourself, and seeing that happen has been… a gift. This is who you would have been all along, if you’d felt accepted. I’m SO GLAD I could open up to you, here. Give you what you need.”

He kisses me, pressing me against the post, hands twining in my hair. Embracing me with his whole body, and everything inside it. I wind my legs around him, hands on his shoulders, and do the same.

“I’ve always been way into my Veronica,” he confides, when we finally break apart. He sounds both guilty and relieved, like he’s making Confession. “She’s brilliant, and funny, and gorgeous, and amazing. No one else compares. But she’s much more ambitious than me, and much less fucked up. And I’m not 100% sure she feels the same. When you showed up? It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz, where everything turns Technicolor. You don’t even have to SAY you love me, although it’s nice that you do. Because I watch the way you act, and I just KNOW.”

I trace the curve of his ear with my thumb. I can hear piece-of-shit Lamb, in the back of my mind, taunting ‘Go see the Wizard, ask for a backbone’: and I guess, in a way, that’s what I’m doing, by having this conversation. “I love my Logan,” I tell him. “Really a lot, to the point where it feels like I’m always falling. But I’ve never been able to fully trust him. There’s a part of me that fears he’ll get mad and backslide, hurt me all over again. You, though…you have most of the same damage he does, yet you’ve never turned on me. I’m not scared you will. When I’m with you, I feel…safe.”

He presses his face to my throat. “Veronica,” he says. “You have to realize, I’d take a bullet to keep you that way.”

“Yes,” I agree. “And YOU should know, it’s you and me, in every reality where you’re willing. Consequences be damned.”

He curves his palms around my jaw, tucking hair behind my ears. “God,” he says, pressing his forehead to mine. “Maybe I wouldn’t hate Christmas so much, if it was more like this.”

I give him my wide-eyed fake-surprise face, to lighten the moment. “And we haven’t even started unwrapping presents!”

He laughs, but doesn’t take his cue. Instead, he traces a fingertip down the bridge of my nose. Meets my eyes directly, because he’s Logan, and never takes the cowardly route. “I need to ask you something, before we go there.”

“Oh, no.” A wave of embarrassment washes over me. “Of course. You don’t WANT to unwrap presents anymore, now that you know the truth.”

“No, I do!” he corrects, alarmed. “I SO do. And I don’t have to feel guilty about how MUCH I want to, after today, because even Veronica can’t call it cheating when you’re basically her. It’s just…look, I know you’re comfortable with sex. We’ve been very intimate, and you clearly enjoyed yourself. But every time we’ve done it, I didn’t realize…I mean…that there might be things you’d like to avoid. Things that make you uncomfortable, in light of your experience. Can you talk about it enough to tell me WHICH things? Because we’re so into each other, you and me, we tend to get carried away. And I don’t want to cross a line.”

I bite my lip. I feel a pang: MY Logan asked me something similar, the first time we slept together. I said I was fine, because I really didn’t know WHAT I’d be OK with, then. But it turned out to be a minefield, making him guess, and I want to do things differently. “I prefer you keep your full weight off me, when you’re on top,” I say. “I don’t mind you BEING on top, just don’t collapse. And I need the lights on. Feeling trapped in the dark makes me anxious.”

“Done,” he says, kissing the center of my forehead. “Thank you for being clear. I want you focused on nothing but pleasure, during.”

I close my eyes and shiver as he caresses my throat with his teeth. “That should not be a problem,” I say, and he laughs.

“Excellent,” he murmurs, gathering my hemline, easing it up. “I’ll quit talking, then, and get to work. Because this nightgown is see-through, and it’s making me INSANE.”

I smile, sliding my hands under his tank, and he ducks his head so I can take it off. He shucks his pants and notches us together, rocking to coax forth pleasure. “I’ve dreamed about that night,” he confides, sucking lightly at the skin beneath my jaw. “With the candles in the beach house, the things you said. I love Veronica so much, I would NEVER sleep around. But it’s painful, how much I want to get inside you. Jesus, I’d love to give you hickeys everywhere. I can’t, because Veronica would freak. But if it was you, your body, would you let me?”

“If you let me do the same,” I say, and he sucks harder, just the right pressure. I moan, twist my hips, trying to mount him: he shifts his cock back, out of reach.

“You come, first,” he chides, and spins, tossing me on the bed. He wraps his arms around my thighs and lifts, using the underside of his cock to tease my clit, torturously slow, decadent. His head is thrown back in enjoyment, eyes shut, all the muscles in his chest and abdomen bunched, and Jesus Christ, the visual. I stroke my hands down his midline, caress him as he presses me. He groans, full-throated, but won’t increase his pace.

“Fuck me now,” I say, and he says, “Make me.” So I say, “Use your mouth, and I’ll use mine.”

He spins into 69, his body all eager tension, takes me deeply with his tongue and fingers. I do, as well. He starts moaning, little eager pant-grunts: and I wonder if this Veronica’s scared to get non-coital, because he barely even moves. He does something amazing inside me, and I come hard, wracking spasms. He tries to pull away, but I lock my hands around his legs and he comes too, with a soft, helpless groan.

“Oh God,” he says, working me gently with his fingers as I continue to suck him. “Oh, God, Veronica, please…” He shudders through another wave of sensation, and I release him with a pop.

“I warned you,” I say as he crawls up beside me, sinks down with a grunt. “Never, ever piss me off.”

He kisses me, tongue staking claim, hand curved gently around my face. “I have no words,” he says. “I adore you. And in 15 minutes, I will make you pay.”

“Big talk,” I taunt. “I know everything about your body. Maybe more than you’ve learned yet. You’re a much nicer boy than my Logan ever was.”

He presses a series of soft kisses to my face. “You didn’t deserve it,” he says in my ear, voice sated-slow. Slurred with sleepy pleasure. “The other me, mistreating you. And you couldn’t have stopped Aaron, no matter how smart you are. Mom and I both tried, so many times, to leave, to get him caught. But he’d throw money around, and nothing would change. Your Logan knows that: he’d never blame you. He just…probably believes he’s not worth your time.”

“I nailed Aaron to the wall for killing Lilly,” I say. “Cold, hard, video proof, although it took until end of Junior Year. And you’re right, he threw money at it, got himself acquitted. But then Duncan had him assassinated. However you slice it, in every reality, I threw the softball, Donut hit the homer, and Aaron lost the ability to hurt you forever.”

“When did we get together?” he asks, stroking a hand down my side. He props his chin on his hand, watching my face. “And why did we split up?”

“We fooled around in secret, junior year,” I say, palms flattening on his biceps, testing the muscles. “I accused you of Lilly’s murder, and you dumped me. Then we fooled around all summer, after Aaron got caught.

“Then I broke up with YOU, for starting a crime war with Weevil, and hooked back up with Duncan. And every time you dated someone, I made both your lives a misery. So you moved into Duncan’s suite at the Grand, and I had to listen while you banged Kendall in your room.

“Eventually, you saved me from Beaver, and we dated openly, for half of freshman year. Until one day, you just dumped me out of the blue, said I couldn’t trust or need you enough. You saved me again, and I asked for another chance, and we got back together. After which, I found out that while we were split, you had sex with Madison Sinclair.”

“Who did you punch?” he asks. “Her, or me?”

“I had Weevil steal her car and ruin it,” I say. “You…I’m not sure what I would have done, if these dreams hadn’t happened. Dated some All-American Boy to make you jealous, most likely. Mourned in secret.”

He pulls me into an embrace. “You’re so fearless,” he says. “I would never physically hurt a girl, but I’m not a safe person to piss off.”

“You’re a pussycat,” I contradict, kissing his shoulder. “You just want to sprawl all over me, while I pet you senseless.”

“Veronica,” he says. “Cats kill for FUN. They’re just too small to take humans out. But yeah, I’m YOUR pussycat. I probably leave the things I murder on your doorstep, as gifts.”

“You DO,” I say, with a laugh. “You SO do. Oh my God, you are damaged and snarly and twisted as hell, and I really, really love you.”

“I can’t change anything about the choices he made,” he says, stroking my eyebrows with one finger. “But I promise you this. I’ll make better ones. I won’t dump you for stupid reasons, or jerk you around, or cheat. I’ll always be sarcastic, but I won’t tear you down. You won’t ever have to feel frightened of me, or any of my friends. And I can GUARANTEE no contact with Madison Sinclair.”

“And I promise you,” I say, tracing his lower lip, “That whichever you I end up finding, at the end of this road? I’ll give him all I’ve got. I won’t freeze him out. Even if it’s someplace we can’t be together, he’ll never have to wonder how I feel.”

“We need a code word,” he decides. “And a response. So we can recognize each other, if we end up in the same room.”

“Like ‘the eagle flies at midnight’?” I push him onto his back, climb atop. Skim my nightgown off, toss it aside. “I’ll say, ‘I wore red satin, just for you.’”

“And I’ll say, ‘I lay all my victims at your feet’.”

*****

I burst out laughing. “Is it wrong that I’m glad you’re not as nice as you pretend?”

“Is it wrong that I’M glad you don’t bother to fake it?” he settles his hands around the curve of my waist. Gives me a smile that’s almost shy. “On which note. You told me what you DON’T like, in bed, and I appreciate that. It helps. But, for purposes of science, would you also tell me what you DO? Stuff that my Veronica will enjoy, with no qualms, but might be scared to suggest, the first time?”

I grin. “Are you asking me how to corrupt your girlfriend? Like suddenly I’m the Wife of Bath?”

He bobs his eyebrows. “Hey, you’re the one who showed up in my bedroom and crawled on top of me, Mrs. Robinson.”

“Hmmm.” I decide to torture him. “I don’t know. Can you be super slow and gentle, and make it seem romantic? Because I was never inhibited, deep down: but I needed romance, when I was her. I wanted to be coaxed, and flattered. Told I got you hotter than all the other girls. Unlike you, I was insecure about not satisfying an experienced lover.”

“You ARE hotter than all the other girls,” he says. “So MUCH hotter. 20 minutes ago you had me whimpering and begging.” He laces his fingers through mine. “Are you seriously worried about that? Because it’s not like any me would lie about emotions. It’s a total dick move to lead women on.”

“Maybe I’d be more secure if you’d saved yourself, just for me,” I say. “But you didn’t. No version of you that ever split with me did. The second we broke up, you were always inside some other girl. Usually gorgeous, with big lips and big tits and no hangups, who took you the way you came. And it hurt. I would pine.”

“I’m your weak spot,” he says softly, like he can’t believe it. “I didn’t think you had one, but you do, and it’s me. Wow.”

He disengages his hands and slides them up me, over my waist, my breasts, to cup my face. “I’ve never had anyone love me so much,” he says. “No one’s ever wanted MY love that much. You OWN me, Veronica. I’m YOURS. You’re so beautiful, and fierce. Like a blade. You’re my heart’s desire.”

His hands shift to my breasts, tugging and pinching my nipples, and my eyes drift closed. My head falls back.

He smoothes a palm down my belly, between my legs, toying with my clit as I begin to rock against him. “I’m yours,” he repeats, free hand ghosting across my skin. “I’ll do anything you want.”

He sits up, a surge of movement against me, and I keep my eyes shut, crossing my wrists behind his neck. He bends, nibbling and sucking my nipples, using two fingers on my clit. Making me sigh. He strokes down my back, over the curve of one cheek, fingers dipping idly into the crease. He kisses me, rubbing in small, hot circles, thrusting languidly in time. One fingertip traces my second entrance, very gently, then again.

I smile, realizing I’ve given the fox keys to the henhouse. “Fast learner,” I say, and open my eyes. He grins at me, unrepentant, and pushes the questing finger in, just a little. Then a little more.

“Mmmm,” I say, and he takes that as permission, working very gently, using my own moisture. I lift up on my knees, grasp the base of his cock and impale myself, sliding slowly down. His breath goes out in a long sigh. I tilt forward, pressing him flat on the bed, and begin to ride.

“Oh, man,” he says. He tries to kiss me and I ease tauntingly back: he huffs a laugh. I widen my stance so he has room to explore, and we both groan as he goes after my clit with a vengeance.

“I meant it all,” he insists, thrusting up as he strokes me everywhere. “I fucking worship you. Oh, God, Ronica, I wish I could lick you right now. Your soft little sex, and your perfect little tits, for hours, while I fuck you, just like this. I’d slide my tongue everywhere, while you moan, and come, and then I’d tell you how much I love you, because I do. And I’d tell you how unbelievably gorgeous you are, all wet and hot and greedy, and how I’ve never wanted ANYONE this much, because you fit around my cock and in my heart like you’re made for me…”

I give a little shriek-gasp as I come, deeply, and he surges hard twice and spills too, like he was barely keeping it at bay. His fingers keep caressing, feather-light, and I push back against them. He moans, and lunges up to kiss me for real.

“Have we ever done this before?” he asks, against my lips. “Or…anything like it?”

“Maybe,” I say. “Or maybe this was the first time. Maybe you were so hot, and so sweet, I couldn’t help myself.”

“We will again,” he promises. “Now that I know how to touch. And when it happens, I’ll be tender. I will worship at your altar like the goddess you are, and you’ll feel nothing but pleasure.”

“I’ve created a monster,” I say, and he laughs, wraps me up in his arms and legs.

“I love you so much, Ronica,” he says. “You have no idea.”

“Show me,” I say. “Show me, every day.”

“I promise,” he murmurs, and kisses me again.

Chapter Text

THREAD NINETEEN

I’m in the kitchenette of the penthouse at the Grand, and I’m making snickerdoodles.

Yeah, it happens again, me just appearing in the present. I stumble, spilling flour, before I recover and keep moving. Measure, stir. Roll, coat in sugar. Check the oven, six cookies per tray. Wash my hands, sip my water. It’s Zen.

Logan walks in, tosses his books on the couch, notices me by the stove in a frilly white apron, and bursts out laughing. “Are there slippers and a pipe, waiting near my easy chair?” he wants to know. “And shouldn’t you be in heels and pearls?”

“If you enjoy cookies, consider shutting up now,” I say, pointing my wooden spoon at him, narrowing my eyes.

He surveys the two dozen snickerdoodles already cooling on racks, and says, “That fetus is half Mars, all right.”

I fake-chortle, which makes him grin, and he approaches to sit at the breakfast bar. “How was your day, dear?” he asks, all innocent-smarm, while stealing a cookie. He balances his chin on his hand.

I shrug. “At the moment, peaceful. Yours?”

“Aced my Latin American Studies midterm, scored yet another campus parking ticket, and had coffee with Wallace on the quad. Came home to find my live-in girlfriend in the kitchen, in an apron, but tragically, she was dressed beneath.”

I close my teeth on my tongue, studying him, and then I take a chance. “For all you know I’m hiding red satin lingerie inside these sweats,” I tell him. “Chosen just for you. But you keep giving me attitude, you may never see it.”

He sets his half eaten cookie on the counter. Spreads his palms out flat. “If that’s true,” he says, ‘I’ll lay everything I’ve got at your feet. Including the bodies of my victims.”

I close my eyes. Wind my hand around the towel rack, to keep from falling. When I open them, he’s staring at me, the corner of his mouth curved up in a smile.

“Long time, no see, Mrs. R,” he says. “Until you screamed at Piz in the food court the other day, I wasn’t sure you were ever coming back.”

“You knew it was me?” I ask, dusting flour off my sleeve.

“Hoped,” he corrects. “NOW I know.”

I walk around the bar, into his arms, and he squeezes me tight. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t have any control over where I end up, or what the other Veronicas do when I’m not around. And don’t take this the wrong way, but your Veronica is my least favorite of the bunch. I mean, she let Piz kiss her on the MOUTH, which I just don’t GET. It’d be like Frenching a hyperactive spaniel!”

I do a full-body shudder, and I can feel him shaking with laughter, silent chuckles hot against the top of my head. “GOD, I missed you,” he says, and tilts my chin up for a kiss. He tastes like warm cookie, and the guy I love.

“You’re you everywhere,” I assure him, putting my hand on his cheek as we split apart. “It’s weird, this the first time it’s truly registered. But you’re the only person, in every reality, who sort of stays the same. Like you’re my lodestone, my North. And you love all the versions of me, even the shitty ones, with equal loyalty.”

“Um,” he says. “THIS me was actually dating a very nice swimsuit model, until you set Piz on fire the other day, and danced among the flames. Not that I don’t love the Veronica you’re bodysnatching. But I remain by no means convinced she’s not just shacked up with me to placate Keith.”

“She was camped out in your parking lot, the last time I showed here,” I say. “I’m pretty sure she likes you more than you think.”

“Maybe she was just terrified to tell me we’re stuck co-parenting forever,” he counters, stealing another cookie.

“Maybe she was afraid to turn up unannounced, in case you were banging some Playboy Playmate in a champagne bath,” I retort, folding my arms.

Understanding blooms behind his eyes. “Right, I forgot,” he drawls. “Your Logan’s the douchebag in the penthouse, racing through his trust fund, nailing countless hot babes. I was amazed, once, at how together you were, compared to Ronnie Junior Year. But jealousy was your hot button issue.”

“And me leaving was yours,” I say, quietly, because his perceptiveness stings. “Every time I did, MY Logan came unglued.”

“Do you know why I live here, Veronica?” he asks, sitting back down on his stool. De-escalating, his voice losing volume. I’m struck, again, by how mature the Alternate College Logans are, despite the drama that surrounds them.

“No,” I say. “I don’t know ANYTHING about this reality. I’ve been here twice, before now, and both times I mostly talked to you. I wasn’t even sure if Wallace was ALIVE, until you mentioned him five minutes ago.”

“I’m building a house,” he says, calmly. “We’re moving in this summer, it has a private beach, and a nursery for the baby. Wallace is the big man on campus, thanks to his mad basketball skills. And before you ask, your dad’s doing great. He took up jogging last year. He runs marathons, now.”

“My dad? Mister extra cheese and red wine?” I shake my head, letting that sink in. “Is he married?”

Logan grins. “Not yet,” he says. “Is there any reality where you and I are?”

Ah, yes. Logan’s favorite game. Reveal nothing, while gleaning all. “Not yet,” I counter, leaning against the wall. “Is he Sheriff?”

“Not since the second heart attack.” He settles in, well-pleased that I’m playing. “He’s retired. Every fall, he writes a true crime book for vacation money.” The timer dings, and he watches me extract the cookies, turn the oven off. “How many present realities are there, Ronica?”

“Four,” I say, perching on the counter across from him. “As of today. But the worst one may disappear, or change drastically, based on what happened last night. This reality is most like mine, because you’re living in the hotel, and we both go to Hearst. Where are Lilly and Dick?”

“Vassar and Hawaii,” he says, resting on his elbows. “She came out to her parents as bi, and she’s doing Women’s Studies. He owns a string of surfboard shops, but his business input is minimal. What happened last night, that’s going to drastically affect the worst reality?”

“I turned up in the bedroom in Fiji,” I say, and his grin goes naughty. “In the worst reality, I was indicted for murder during the Fiji trip, and you and I had split, so Lynn went alone. Have I ever had a run-in with Meg Manning?”

“Not to my knowledge,” he says slowly, clearly not expecting this. “She was very supportive, when you and Lils accused her dad of child abuse. Why do you keep asking where all our friends are?”

“Because I’m trying to figure out what’s variable and what’s fixed, between the different realities. Why did we break up, here?”

He frowns. Looks down at his hands. “I kept telling you I loved you, and you kept not answering. So one day, I hid in the cafeteria and phoned you, and watched you send my call to voicemail. And I decided I was tired of being a disappointment.”

My eyes fill with tears, as I make the connection to my own Logan. He asks, more softly, “Is there any reality where we’re happier than this?”

“Yes,” I say. “But we’re together in all of them. And in love. I mean, assuming we’re in love here, and not just going through the motions. Is this baby really yours? Because I actually wasn’t sure, when I told you it was. I mean, I can’t imagine your Veronica would jump in bed with someone else, right after being dumped…I certainly didn’t…but…”

“It’s mine,” he interrupts. “She swore, and I believe her. I think she got jealous when I started dating Candace, and found a way to make me suffer. Are any of the other Veronicas in a family way?”

I shrug. “Sort of. In my reality, I’m not so fertile, because Beaver gave me Chlamydia, and it went untreated for two years. In one, I turned up pregnant by chance, after you and I got engaged. In the prison reality, you slept with all my female friends while I was in the big house, and eventually knocked up Mac. So yeah, short answer, there seems to be a fixed ‘accidental pregnancy’ theme, with you being the dad, occurring about three months ago. Guess we can chalk it up to your generally shitty karma.” I sigh. “This is exhausting, and my back hurts. Can we sit?”

He reaches across the counter, traces a finger down my hairline, my jaw. Holds his hand out, palm up. I place mine in it. He leads me around the bar, to the couch, and pulls me onto his lap. Kisses the top of my head. “I love you,” he says. “I don’t want to fight.”

“Words I never thought I’d hear Logan Echolls say,” I murmur, and kiss his throat. “’I don’t want to fight’, I mean. Look, here’s what I think. Whatever this is that happening to me? It’s about you. You’re the center. Because I have yet to appear anywhere that you don’t show up, except, of course, jail.”

He shakes his head, like jail is an excessive level of suck, even to him. I say, “Yeah, that reality was hard to take, although I did have a really great dog, there. So. The pregnancy seems important. The Felix Toombs murder is a wild card: five or six people seem to have it in for me, in relation to him. And there’s a missing gun with my prints on it, which could cause trouble. Getting to Fiji, having it be a good vacation, was cited in a couple realities as critical. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing making you my confidante was the thing that needed to happen.”

I toy with his fingers, thinking. “Meg Manning and her dad went after me over Felix, and I'm not sure why. I mean I guess I’ll find out soon, since all the Meg drama happened first half of senior year, but right now I’m running blind. I’ll have to get a handle on Weevil, too, whether he’s my friend or enemy. I need to know if he’ll screw me over for protecting him, from whatever puts him in a coma. Oh, and there’s this one moment where I have to say something specific, and if I don’t, our relationship goes straight to hell.” I sigh. “Plus, a very important event happens on ‘The Nautilus’. I assume that’s a boat, and not Captain Nemo’s submarine?”

“The Nautilus was Jake Kane’s yacht,” Logan says, like I should know. “Celeste got it in the divorce, no clue if she kept it. Nobody ever found the gun that killed Felix Toombs, or at least it never went into evidence. And Meg Manning and her father are both dead.”

I sit up straight, but he keeps tracing circles on my back with his nails. “Dead how?”

“Car wreck.” He leans us sideways, watching me. “He was supposed to avoid contact unless a court-appointed supervisor was present, while the abuse charge was investigated. But they ended up in a car together anyway. They drove right off a cliff. Nobody knows if it was murder-suicide, or an accident.”

I suck in my breath, and he shakes his head. “He was killed on impact—the car went into the water—and she was in a coma for a while, and then she had, I dunno, a hematoma maybe? Something happened to her brain, and she died too. It was a bummer. Dick was really into her, and it messed with his head for a good year, after.”

“Wow,” I say. “So that’s two people I can save from comas, who tried to send me to jail. Talk about your double jeopardy.”

“No,” he corrects. “You’ve already successfully stayed out of jail, remember? They indicted you BEFORE Fiji.”

“Doesn’t mean I won’t end up there later, if I don’t figure out why I took the fall the first time. Wait, you said last night that we almost didn’t make it to Fiji. What did you mean?”

His mouth twists, sardonic. “Okay, that’s last night for YOU. It was a year and a half ago, for me. But basically, as I recall, you didn’t want to go. You were all fired up about some favor you were doing someone, which you wouldn’t discuss: and you were mad at me because I got smashed against a rock, surfing, and had to have stitches.You were on me about test results, too, getting accepted to good colleges. And then we took the SAT, and I scored higher than you did on verbal, and you were piiiiiissssseeed. Part of the problem my Veronica and I are having, here, is that Hearst wasn’t her first choice. She blames all the screwing around we did senior year, both literal and figurative, for the fact that she didn’t get a perfect 1600. And when I say ‘screwing around’, I mean ‘me’. She thinks I’m lazy, because I know I’ll never have to work for a living. I pointed out that I’ve knocked her up, so now neither will she, but that proved to be a bad move.”

I scrunch up my face. “You think?” I ask, mock-blonde. “What was her school of choice?”

He grimaces. “KEITH wanted her to go to Stanford. SHE wanted to go to Berkeley. So Stanford, plus a lot of angry cognitive dissonance, while she pretended Stanford was her idea, and the non-qualifying score was my fault. And Keith wasn’t angry, just disappointed. And Hearst was a better choice than Berkeley, being closer to 'family'. Like she gives half a shit about being anywhere near Jake and her mother.”

“Wow,” I say. “This reality IS a lot like mine. Although I totally DID get into Stanford, and my SAT score was higher than yours, overall.”

“In other words, YOU do whatever your dad says, too.” He lifts me off his lap, kisses my cheek, and wanders into the kitchen. In a minute he’s back, with a tray of cookies and milk. “Brain food,” he informs me, setting it on the coffee table with a flourish. “While your brilliant deductive mind unravels the Gordian knot.”

“Piece of cake,” I say through a mouthful of snickerdoodle, making a slashing motion with my hand. “Cut it in half. Wait, lightbulb moment! I know you meant that dad crack to be insulting, but you raise what may be a key point. About his importance to the overall scheme, I mean.

“Dad barely shows up in any of the alternative realities: even in this one, where I apparently crave his approval, he’s peripheral to my life. But in my own reality, he’s like my most important person. I live with him, I’m his partner at work, he dumps all his girlfriends to take care of me. He doesn’t want me to date you, so I mostly don’t. He expects me to get straight A’s, and choose a boyfriend with a future, and eventually leave Neptune forever: and the idea of failing him gives me stomach cramps. Because he’s the only one who stuck by me, when Lilly died, and you turned mean. The rest of my world went to hell.”

He studies me for a long minute, then looks down at the plate, tracing a finger around the rim. “Veronica,” he says, after a while. “I have a theory. Can I lay it out for you, without being accused of rampant bias?”

I nod, and he half-smiles. “In MY past, your dad loved you, but he was never around. I mean, he helped out when you needed him, and gave advice via chimp metaphors, and he’s a great guy, for sure. But he didn’t opt for joint custody, even though Lianne offered. And he worked ALL the time. He wasn’t really involved in your life, except as a heroic figurehead. It sort of broke my heart, to be honest, watching you jump through hoops to include him, while he gave you maybe two grudging afternoons a month.”

I absorb this, shocked. Logan does the one-eyed apologetic squint, and says, “Thing is, Jake and Lianne ignored you, too. I’m the person you confided in. The one you came to, when things got tough. And yeah, my Veronica gets mad at me a lot, for being frivolous and flighty. For any number of things. But like you said: she turns up pregnant, she heads straight to my parking lot, because I’m safe harbor. I’m her best friend.

“It sounds like, though, in your reality, I’m basically alone, and deeply unhappy. And I express that idiotically, sure, by making you a target, by lashing out like a tantrumming toddler. But I think I’m lonely there because we love each other, yet you kept away, to please Keith. Whereas, in all the other realities, the ones that stem from your dreams? I’m a lot more at peace, because you made US a priority.”

I press my lips together. “Red satin,” I say. “That first night, that first dream, I decided to be honest about who I was. And what…who… I really wanted.”

“And you stood naked on the beach, with your dress clutched in front of you, giving me come-hither stares.” He smiles, reminiscently. “You held my hand in the car, too. And cleaned my tux, to save me from a beating. That was the first night I even considered that you might actually be interested in me. Not just for harmless flirting, I mean: but like I could maybe kiss you, and you’d let me. Or tell you secrets, and you’d keep them. It wasn’t the day I fell in love with you, but it was day the seed was planted.”

He sighs. “So, at the risk of sounding like an egomaniac, which, no quips, please, could it be I’m central because this is your do-over? Like this is you, living the life of your choice, instead of staying stuck in weird co-dependent limbo with your dad until you’re thirty? Because the main thing you seem to want to do differently is make us work. That’s actually how I learned to recognize you as not-my-Veronica: every time you appear, you fight hard to get next to me and stay there, decimating anyone who stands in your way. Often with hilarious results.”

“Okay,” I say. “The part about my dad is extremely upsetting, but I’ll cope with it later, because the rest sounds right. Assuming it’s true, then: how do we make the dreams stop?”

He shrugs. “Well, if it’s a total do-over, it lasts until you end up back at the moment this began. And return to your own reality, with the chance to take a different road. Or it could be like Groundhog Day, and it's done when you get things right. Which means your choices shape where you wind up, and which version of me you wind up WITH.”

I lean against his shoulder, and he puts an arm around me. “Oooh, look at you, citing film examples! You’re so pretty, I forget you’ve got a brain.”

“That’s always your first mistake.” He crosses his feet on the table, next to the cookies.

“Hey Logan,” I say, after a long moment of reflective silence. “It’s been an exhausting week. Can we just lie on the couch all day, and watch bad TV, and gently banter?”

“You got it, angel face.” He reaches for the remote.

“And Logan?” I ask again, drowsily, a long time later, as the ‘Baywatch’ theme blares in the background.

“Mmm?” he murmurs, into my hair. I’m sprawled out full-length on top of him.

“Do me a favor,’ kay? Tell your Veronica you love her, and you wanting her has nothing to do with the baby. And tell her you’d never cheat. And the only reason you broke up was because you thought she didn’t love YOU anymore. I think she’s enough like me that she needs to hear those words.”

“I don’t see how it will help, since she’s aware of the things you just said,” he mutters. “But you know if you ask me to, I will. Because you’re my girl among girls, and I’m a sucker for your face.”

“Make sure you do,” I warn. “You’re too awesome to have an unhappy reality.”

“Back atcha,” he says, and switches over to the A Team.

It never occurred to me, I think, nestling my cheek into his sternum (where his heart beats strongest, and he smells most intensely him). That I would have to choose between Logan and my dad, I mean: between their competing visions of my happiest future. Sure, I always knew dad didn’t approve of Logan. But it’s not like he was the only one. Between the string of petty crimes, the lurid family history, the promiscuity and the mouth, Logan was every father’s nightmare for his Pretty Pretty Princess, even BEFORE he turned mean. Lying here on top of the non-criminal version, though, I can see that there may have been prejudice. Maybe dad chased all my boyfriends away at least partly out of possessiveness, just like I did his girlfriends. And maybe he chased Logan the hardest because Logan was the one I really wanted.

There’s no pressure here, in this moment, to prove my ineffable rightness: so I can admit I had trouble leaving the nest. And while I by no means want to lose my dad from his spot at the heart of my life? Maybe I clung too tight. Maybe when MY Logan vented his personal sense of betrayal, because I chose my dad over…basically, him…. he was making a deeper point. Teens grow up, and leave their parents. They go home for holidays, or when they’re out of clean clothes, and they ask for care packages, sent by mail. But if you really fall in love, you might stick with your lover forever. You might move in, get engaged, get pregnant. Your dad might find someone else to talk to, redecorate your room. He might buy a sports car, take up a hobby. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe that’s just life, lived right.

I press a kiss to Logan’s heart, and he reaches up lazily to stroke my hair. “Thanks,” I say. “For being accepting, and letting me rest. It’s been rough, this slipstream, and I’m always SO tired.”

“Veronica,” he says. “I love you. Whatever you need, it’s yours.”

“And that,” I say, “Is why, if I can, I’ll always come back.”

He puts his arms around me, and turns the TV off. We drift slowly, as the dusk gathers, into sugar-crash sleep.

THREAD NINETEEN INVERTS

I’m drowsing in a hammock with Logan, just outside the Fiji cottage: we’re naked and entwined. It’s approaching dawn, the sky growing pearly at the edges, and I can hear the rhythmic surf, beyond the garden wall. I feel weightless, content, as if the world’s momentarily on hold.

“Logan?” I ask, softly in case he’s sleeping, watching the breeze blow through the palm leaves, the red-flowered vines. “Why were you drinking in the dark, last time I showed up? Why were you sad?”

He smirks, not opening his eyes. “Why, Mrs. Robinson. Are you trying to seduce me?”

I shove him, and he laughs. Tucks me closer, kisses the top of my head. “I wasn’t sad, exactly,” he says. “More…melancholy. Coping with my issues, of which I have many.”

“Sad,” I say. “You drink when people hurt you. Spill.”

“You know, you don’t LOOK like a relentless force of nature. Your big-blue-eyed face is the perfect mask.” He sighs. “OK, let me ask you this. Did your Logan ever talk to you about Aaron? And his… routine?”

“No,” I say, and this is sort of a raw wound. He didn’t trust me not to use it as a weapon, and part of me can’t blame him. Because I might have. “He deflects and banters. He’s not a sharer. In his defense, a Vanity Fair reporter did pose as his illegitimate brother once, to get dirt for an expose.”

Logan winces. “OK, so maybe both of us will benefit if I tell.” He takes a deep breath. “Aaron had…a ritual he stuck with, most times. You know, to make him feel like he was disciplining his kid, and not just getting off on random torture. I’d pick a belt, and go to his office, and the number of lashes varied based on the seriousness of the ‘crime’.” He toys with my necklace, and I stay very still, afraid to say or do anything to break the spell. “But before he’d beat me, he’d trot out the lecture. Or I should say, the monologue. The stirring speech. About how I needed to try harder to be a good person, because I was living life wrong. And if I had just listened, and learned from his example, he wouldn’t have to punish, and it hurt him more than me, yadda yadda. Working up his righteous wrath.”

I wince, because I know where this is going now. “Yeah, you told me what Veronica’s up to yesterday. In the future. She’s judging you, right? Asking you to change, acting like you’re not good enough? And it’s pushing your buttons.”

“I don’t think she means to,” he says. “I think she just feels a lot of pressure to please and impress h….your dad, and it spills over. Which I GET.” He turns on his side, spooning me, as if he needs more skin contact. “I mean, your dad is great, I want to impress him, too. And it’s not like I can’t admit I’m headed downhill, when I am. But I’m not going to quit surfing or scuba diving or whatever, just to focus on test scores. That’s my release valve. Plus, my test scores have ALWAYS been high.”

I wrap my hands around his, tucking them between my breasts. “She’s afraid,” I say. “Of intimacy, of failure, of being wrong. Of you moving on to someone easier, because you love so openly, and she doesn’t. And that fear comes out as blaming you, and judging you, and withholding approval—push ‘em away, before they break your heart. She doesn’t know she’s mimicking Aaron. She’d be appalled, if she realized. And she’s probably only bitching about the extreme sports because she wants to keep you safe. I heard you got stitches, at some point in the recent past.”

He extends his right arm, and I notice a row of black x's, just below his armpit. I kiss them, and he wriggles like it tickles. “You don’t mind, though, right?” he asks, nibbling on my ear. “Because you seem fairly Zen about me not planning to quit.”

“Like you would, no matter what I said,” I snort. “Look, she’s a risk taker too, no matter what she pretends. There’s no way she’d date you if she didn’t live on the edge.” He shoves me with his shoulder, and I shove back. “You and I, we both live for the thrills. It’s just, you’re more about the physical and emotional risks, while I get my fix solving crimes. Sometimes I investigate awful ones. And you HATE it, but you let me, so I return the favor. I DO worry, though. SO much. About you, not me. Because me in danger, I can handle. However, living without you? Would be like living without my heart. I actually dumped you once, because you kept putting yourself in harm’s way, and I couldn’t stand to look.”

“Cruising around in the banana mobile, with Dick and Enbom?” He quotes, and I nod. He presses his face into my shoulder, and there’s silence for a long minute. “You really need me that much?”

“Yes,” I say. “And my biggest Logan-related regret is, I was too scared to say so out loud, and it tore us apart.”

“You need to be in control to feel safe,” he murmurs, into my skin.

“Me more than her,” I say. “I was raped. She’s just…the child of an alcoholic, you know? Trying to make sure everything looks perfect on the outside.”

His head jerks up. “KEITH’S an alcoholic?”

“No, Lianne.” I turn back to look at him. “That’s my big secret, like Aaron’s yours. Maybe she’s not one anymore, in this reality—she got what she wanted here, she’s married to Jake. But she started drinking ‘til she passed out when I was about 9, and I had to step up and fill her role. Grocery shopping, cooking, putting her to bed. Scrubbing her puke out of the carpet, making myself late for dance team. Dad had his hands full with work—he tried to help, but it was mostly me.”

“My mom abuses prescription meds,” he offers. “Xanax, Valium, even now. She prefers to be numb.”

“I know. It’s one of the first things we bonded about, in my reality. Both our moms are weak. But pretty!”

“I would never marry anyone weak,” he says, fervent. “I’d a million times rather cope with a bitchy withholding control freak than that.”

“Someone weak couldn’t handle you,” I scoff, ignoring the jab. “Talk about your relentless forces of nature. You’d Dangerous Liasons anyone wimpy or naiive into tears, every morning before coffee.”

“I’ll bet that’s why you like me,” he says, and he sounds smug. “I’m not meek, so you’re not bored. You need to FEEL in control, but when it comes to us, you aren’t, always. And that infuriates you, but it also makes you hot.”

“I enjoy matching wits with you,” I concede. “I love how smart you are, how you dance around my demands, and play with words, and never bend. When you’re in the room, I feel AWAKE.”

“I’m going to have to do you again, if you don’t stop with the dirty talk,” he warns.

“Oh no!” I gasp. “The horror!”

“Prickly sweet,” he says, with a sigh. “Vinegar and honey, dealing in secrets. Thanks for all the dirt. It’ll help.”

“Ditto,” I say. “I feel like we’ve become each other’s video game cheat sheet. She’s lucky to have you, Logan. I hope you know that.”

“When will we be together?” he asks. “This you and this me, I mean. Not just to visit, but for good?”

“Year and a half?” I guess. “Maybe a little less. When is it, now?”

“End of summer,” he tells me. “Next week we start senior year.”

“It’s April, where I am. I have to wear jackets. My favorite is this shitty brown cardigan of yours. You leave it on a chair for me because it’s soft, and I like the smell.”

“I thought we were broken up,” he says, stroking the back of his hand across my cheek.

“Before I started dreaming, we were,” I correct, yawning. “But everywhere I go, I try to win you back. Sometimes I don’t have to, because you’re already mine.”

“Any tips to tide me over, ‘til the next time you appear?” he asks, lips to my ear. “Other than no Kendall Casablancas, and no fighting Weevil?”

“We’re past the part where I dumped you for fighting Weevil,” I say. “We’re at that stupid fortune cookie. Next week, you say you’ll miss me, and I act mad, but really I want to cry. Oh! There’s a field trip. But Woody’s in jail, right, so maybe not to Shark Stadium? Anyway, don’t get on the bus. There may be a crash, where everybody dies. Or the bus could be safe, but there’s a car crash, instead.”

“Who dies?” he asks, gently.

“Meg,” I say. “In the bus OR the car, she’s the only one who bites it either way. Peter from drama, the one who played Malvolio. Dick and Gia and Duncan got a limo, so they were safe. Beaver used his cellphone, to set off the explosives.”

“On it,” he assures me. “What about you and me?”

“You were boning Kendall, in Dick Senior’s bed,” I sigh. “I was…arguing at the gas station, with Weevil. I followed Lilly’s ghost…”

“Arguing about what?” he asks, but it all goes black, and he’s gone.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY

“Veronica, we’re here,” Logan murmurs in my ear. I come awake to the sensation of fingertips, gently stroking my cheek.

“Mmm, hammock,” I agree, but that’s not right, because I’m shifting through layers of bedding, against hard surfaces. “Why’d we leave Fiji? We should have stayed.”

“While I agree with the sentiment,” he whispers, amused, “we’re currently at your dad’s house. You need to clear your mind of tropical hammock fantasies, and put your good girl face on.”

I open my eyes to bright California sunlight: a styled and gelled College Logan grins at me. We’re in the green Range Rover, and the back doors hang open, so Mac and Dick can unload luggage onto the driveway. “And here’s our happily ever after,” I say sleepily. He kisses my temple.

“Like there was any doubt,” he scoffs. “We’re fated. Murder, mayhem and familial dysfunction can’t make a DENT in the Teflon indestructibility of us.”

“Badasses in love,” I quip, and we share a smile. He kisses his fingertips, presses them to my belly, and hops out of the car to help with the bags.

I fight free of the travel blanket wrapped around my legs, and gaze at the grey clapboard Craftsman. Heave a sigh. Dad didn’t want me, in this reality I thought was so much better: yet here I am on his doorstep, anyway, begging for scraps. The urge to run, and ostrich all afternoon, is almost unbearable.

Logan comes around to my door, helps me down. He registers the look on my face, and the corner of his mouth quirks. “Chin up, armor on,” he says. “You deal with her a little better every time.”

Bettina, right. I completely forgot. By all means, let’s add some Casablancas dysfunction to this already treacherous Swamp of Suck. And oh, crap, the thumb drive. I hope it’s still in my purse, because no way can I sleep until I check that thing out. There’s enough trouble brewing without me running around blind.

I search for the car containing Lilly, but don’t see it. Which blows. Because I could seriously use one of her ‘we’re so awesome and everybody else is jealous’ pep talks, right about now.

We walk into the house, a showplace in blues, grays and tasteful French Provincial, which still manages to look homey. “Yoo-hoo!” I call, with completely forced gaiety, towards murmuring in a distant room. “Anybody here but us chickens?”

“VRONK!” a high voice screams, and someone about two feet high comes barreling around the corner, tackles my kneecaps. I wobble, but Logan grabs me so I don’t go over.

“HI VRONKA!” the little guy says, beaming sunshinily up at me. He has big brown eyes, silky dark hair, about six teeth total in his wide, cheerful smile, and chubby cheeks that even I have to admit are adorable.

And, minus those cheeks, he’s a dead ringer for Mr. Rooks.

“Hey, buddy,” I say, laying a tentative hand on his head. “How’s it going?”

“LOAG!” he yells, instead of answering, and flings himself with equal enthusiasm on my boyfriend. “Hi! Up up up!!”

“BOBBY!” Logan replies, crouching down to accept an actual hug. He grabs the kid around the waist, stands, and tosses him about three feet into the air, while the boy shrieks with laughter.

“Up!” Bobby insists, after five repetitions, but Logan shakes his head, tucks him under his arm like a football.

“No more up,” he announces. “It’ll make you puke.” He takes my hand and draws me towards the back of the house, calling out, “Is there a Sheriff Keith Mars in these parts? I caught a dangerous outlaw in the foyer, trying to make off with my girl.”

We emerge into a huge kitchen, done in blue, white and gold, with a red-chicken motif. Dad and Bettina are presiding tandem over a six-burner range, bumping hips companionably while Frank Sinatra plays. They turn, smiling, as we enter.

“I’ll take that,” Dad announces, and Logan hands Bobby over so he’s hanging upside down. More giggles and shrieks ensue, and Dad grabs, and pretends to eat, one of the wildly flailing feet. “He won’t make it far without his TOES.”

Dad sets the kid down, and he runs laugh-squealing off again, screaming “RICKY!” from the next room.

“Sweetheart!” Dad says, flashing his public-relations smile, opening his arms. “Who’s your daddy?”

“Ugh!” I groan, hugging him. Hopeful, because this at least SEEMS normal. “Will you QUIT with that, already?”

“Not a chance,” Dad tells me, winking at Bettina. He extends a hand to Logan, and they shake, then do one of those back-slappy brief-contact guy-hug things. “How was the drive?”

“Dick made us play car-trip games,” Logan says, while Bettina kisses me on each cheek, European-style: then he offers his face for the same treatment. “And Ronica made us listen to the Spice Girls, while she and Lilly sang over the phone. Other than that, it was cake.”

“Dude, there’s cake?” Dick asks, striding into the kitchen with Bobby on his shoulders. “Cause I’m freaking starving. Oh hey, mumsy dearest!” He leans down, and Bettina kisses him, too.

Bobby shouts, “MY MOMMY!” and winds his arms around her neck: she extracts him from his teetering position deftly, tucks him against her side.

“Of course I’m your mommy, darling,” she says, locating a tasting spoon, offering him a sip of whatever’s on the nearest burner. “But I’m Ricky’s mommy too. Isn’t that crazy? Someday, you’ll be as big as he is, and I’ll have to get a second stove so I can cook enough food!”

My brow furrows, but a glance at Logan shows he isn’t fazed by Domestic-Caring-About-Children Bettina. I wonder if this is how Cinderella felt, watching the wicked stepmother cozy up to her dad. Waiting for the ax to fall.

God, I hope Bobby has zero contact with Beaver.

“That child’s resemblance to Mr. Rooks will prove problematic someday,” I tell Logan in an undervoice, instead of naming my fears.

“Are you kidding?” he murmurs. “That’s the luckiest toddler on the planet! We need to check out the yard. I heard they installed a whole bouncy VILLAGE in back.”

“Yeah, right. All my childhood parties were the bowl-of-punch, ice-cream-cake, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey type. Dad doesn’t forget, but he’s not a large-scale event planner.”

“Never underestimate my mom,” Dick says, from his position by the window. “It’s like neon plastic Deadwood out there.”

I look, and what do you know. The yard is several acres, with at least 10 Old-West-themed inflatables ranged across it. Lilly and Jessica have claimed the saloon: Lilly’s demonstrating an old Dance Team routine, in between daring Jessica to do flips. As I watch, Dick drains his beer, races into the yard, somersaults between them, and joins in.

“I have to grit my teeth and pretend to be OK with this, right?” I mutter to Logan, who’s observing their shenanigans with the half-giggly/half-exasperated expression he saves for Dick.

He shrugs. “I’m good either way. You know how entertaining I find it when you tear a piece out of someone.”

This makes me laugh, in spite of myself. “I’m about to marry the world’s biggest shit-stirrer,” I marvel, and pat him on the shoulder. “I think I’ll get some air while I digest that.”

“Aw, peaches, you know you’ll never quit me,” he calls, as I retreat. “I may be infuriating, but I’m insanely smoking hot.”

I blow him a kiss and fan myself, and he grins. I push the screen door open, wander outside.

There’s a picnic table set up, with a whole Martha Stewart place-setting thing going on, safely distant from the action. Lawn chairs are arranged at intervals, with iced buckets of drinks between, about half supporting chatting adult partygoers. The patio is festooned with expensively cutesy cowboy decorations: even the carefully tended rosebushes sport Roy Rogers cutouts, planted below on stakes. I’m getting a major overcompensating-with-the-second-family vibe: I’m also guessing Bettina has WAY too much free time.

Then again, the Casablancas Christmas Extravaganzas of my childhood always DID rival Lynn Echolls’ for sheer over-the-top wackiness. Especially the circus-themed one with elephants, which ended so badly.

I find an empty lawn chair and sink into it, digging out a Snapple because there is no Sunkist. I drink, slump back in the chair, watch Bobby cavort among the bouncing college students: and I wonder if my life will ever be sane again.

Assuming, of course, that it was sane in the first place.

“Veronica!” someone yells, and I glance up to see Carrie Bishop and Susan Knight approaching. Susan looks to Carrie to lead, as always, while Carrie’s all dimpled smirks and good cheer. Susan’s in jeans and a t-shirt, Carrie’s in an Indian-print sundress: they both seem slim and tanned. They’ve probably been hanging at the yacht club again, scamming drinks off rich playboys, and doing surreptitious laps in the pool.

Bobby abandons the Bouncy OK Corral (where he’s having a shootout with Dick) when he sees them. He comes barreling across the yard, screaming “SUZE!” at the top of his lungs. He tackles her so hard she actually does fall over, but she laughs and hugs him anyway, cuddling close.

“Hey pardner!” she greets, managing to stand with him in her arms, surreptitiously brushing off grass. “You need some help getting rid of that dangerous desperado?”

“Wave a cold Corona at him!” Carrie calls, settling into the lawn chair beside mine. “I guarantee he’ll take a dive!”

Susan laughs, discreetly flipping her off behind Bobby’s back, and heads towards Dick, who’s still bouncing. Carrie pops the top of her Diet Coke, and takes a grateful gulp.

“Are there any children coming to this children’s party?” I muse, watching as Dick resumes playacting. He pretends to shoot Susan, who mimes ducking the bullet.

“Other than Damien there?” She gestures lazily at my stomach, smirks her tiny smirk. “Maybe one or two. Wallace’s little brother is a tween, I guess he qualifies.”

“Wow,” I say with lifted brows, sipping my tea. “Spawn of Satan. It’s almost like you’re not FOND of my fiancée.”

She snickers, so I guess this is an understatement. “I miss Norris,” she confides. “I wish you hadn’t tased him. He wasn’t as hot as Logan, but at least he took the direct approach when he went for someone’s throat.”

Interesting. “Logan’s sneaky that way,” I agree. “But it’s not like his boundaries are unclear.”

“Oh, they’re crystal,” she agrees. “He’s got a barbed wire fence around his beach house and his five friends, with a sign up front that reads ‘Keep Out, Unworthy Bitchez’. I’m just sorry you’re trapped inside.”

“I’m not TRAPPED,” I protest, beginning to lose patience. “I’m right where I WANT to be.”

“For now,” she says. “My fear is that someday you’ll change your mind.”

“Carrie, I’ve loved him since Junior High. I’m fairly sure it’s permanent.” I scowl, because what the fuck? “I don’t get why you think he’s some slick Svengali. He’s NEVER tried to prevent me from doing what I want. Even when he HATES it.”

“Well he doesn’t have to, does he?” She gestures at my belly. “Damien’s his. You’re bound to him for the rest of your life through that kid, and he knows it. He never has to be afraid of you running off again.”

OK, I’m mad now. Like genuinely losing-my-shit mad, because even the most messed up versions of Logan pretty much worship me. And Peanut is his treasure beyond price.

“There’s this funny thing called love,” I snap, “that makes committing to someone feel positive. You should try it! Maybe you’d stop framing all relationships in terms of coercion and rebellion.”

Across the yard, my dad yells, “Who wants CAKE?” and I get up, dusting myself off. My entire body is shaking with rage, and I’d like to tear into her with feral relish. But I can’t stalk out smugly, after. And Carrie knows too much to be handled the way I would a perp. And it’s a kid’s birthday: my little BROTHER’S birthday, which means no blood spatter. Much as that appeals.

“Well,” I say, instead of all the things I’d WAY rather. “They’re playing my song. Thanks for your concern, but I’d guess what’s pissing you off is Logan Echolls’ protective mask, not Logan Echolls the real human. There’s a significant difference, which you’d get if you bothered to look.”

I march off towards the house. It’s not until Dick stares at me strangely and whistles an alert that I realize my hands are curved into claws.

Lilly drapes an arm around my shoulders as I stomp across the patio, clearly the whistle-ee. “So this is a surprisingly eventful party,” she teases, gripping tight enough that I’m clear she’s not letting go. “SOMEONE just did a dramatic cat-fight/storm-away, and left her victim on the verge of tears. Now, I can’t name any NAMES….”

A smile tries to win through, but I’m too pissed. “Carrie called Peanut DAMIEN. She made Logan sound like AARON. And I couldn’t rip her in half the way I wanted, so I AM NOT HAPPY RIGHT NOW.”

“Duh.” She shoots me a wry, amused look. “She’s been loaded for bear all semester. Nobody ENJOYS being on Logan’s shit list.”

“She tried to poison me against him! It’s like she doesn’t know me at all.”

Lilly shrugs, unconcerned. “Huh. I thought she was smarter than that. Guess it's no fun being on the other side of the line from all the people with money. I don’t get why she fights so hard to stay close to us, when you’re the only one she can stand. But then again, even if I were the world’s poorest nobody, everyone would line up to adore me.”

She tosses her hair dramatically, and I shake my head at her. “I’m SO glad I have you in my life again, Lils.”

“See? And you could care less about worldly trappings. That’s the best thing about you, Ronica: all you require of friends is loyalty, and you pay us back in full. It’s why Logan worships you. You don’t care if I’m bitchy, or he’s emo, or Wallace acts like an ass, pretending to be a player. As long as we’re there with bells on, any time you need us, you love us just the way we are.”

She rubs her hand over my belly. “You’re not sweet little Princess Veronica anymore, requiring protection. But just know, I’ve got zero problem steamrolling coke-snorting wanna-be’s who call my goddaughter names.”

I hug her, but my brain sticks on the word wannabe. It’s an epithet I grew to hate, the first time around, along with gold digger, social climber, and outcast. I didn’t enjoy being on Logan’s shit list, either, once upon a time, and the realization burns me.

Because I’m really MAD at Carrie. And I do NOT LIKE sympathizing with her right now.

I spot Logan and Wallace by the door, strategically close to cake, and my angst eases. I thread my way through the crowd, put my arms around them both.

“Ten deep breaths,” Logan murmurs, against my hair, and I realize he saw, too. “Let it roll off. I don’t give a fuck what people think of me, present company excluded, and I never have.”

Wallace smirks and mouths “LIE!” at his back, and Logan says, “I heard that.” I smile and bump Wallace’s shoulder with mine. He bumps back, and I decide I’m going to be OK.

Dad boosts Bobby up on a chair in front of a giant cowboy cake, and we all sing Happy Birthday as his small face glows. Bettina takes pictures of him blowing out the candles, and Lilly says, from behind me, “You remember your 8th birthday? When Madison got overexcited and did your flame-extinguishing for you, and you ripped her a new one?”

“How could I forget?” I ask, as she slides between me and Wallace. He drapes his arm around her, and she leans her head on his shoulder. “Stupid of her, not to learn her lesson the first time.”

XXXXX

The pile of presents proves theme-coordinated, with a precision that has my fingerprints all over it. By the time Bobby’s waded through the boxes and bows and shiny paper, he’s got a cowboy outfit any movie star would envy, Stetson to six-guns to custom boots to badge. He’s so excited he’s running in circles, ambushing everyone with loud POW-POWS, shrieking with shrill laughter.

Logan glances over at Lilly, who nods, and he gently corrals the kid. “Hey hombre,” he says, “we haven’t gotten to the BEST part yet. Come on outside for a minute.”

He jerks his head at me and I approach, taking Bobby’s sweaty little hand in mine, leading him onto the patio. Where there’s a Shetland pony waiting, in full silver-concho tack, with a lackadaisically grinning real-life cowboy at the reins.

Bobby screams, goes at the horse running. The cowboy helps him feed it a peppermint, to get acquainted, then boosts him gently into the saddle. He leads the duo around the yard, while Bobby yells “GID YUP!” and laughs at the sky.

“It was Veronica’s idea,” Logan tells Dad, with a wink at me. “She said you guys could never afford to keep a pony, but things would be different for Bobby. We’ve donated the horse to this therapy camp for kids Lils told us about. But BOTH Mars offspring have special permission to visit. And Bobby can ride it whenever he wants, until he gets too big.”

Dad shakes his head, watching the boy make his circuit: his eyes are suspiciously wet. “You’re good kids,” he says, gruffly. “All of you. Thanks.”

He hugs me, and then Logan, then Wallace and Lilly. Turns back to watch Bobby, shakes his head again. “I think you made his year,” he says. “I hope that camp isn’t far.”

I wait for the private moment: him saying “I’m proud of you, kiddo,” pulling me under his arm, ruffling my hair. Cracking a bad Dad joke. But that’s MY father, not this one. Instead, he hugs Bettina, who approaches with a smile, and they wander off together to meet the pony.

It’s Logan who looks down at me and says, “One of your top ten finest moments,” kisses both my eyebrows. And it’s Logan who gives me the long, warm embrace I desperately need.

I watch, inside the protective curve of Logan’s arm, as Bobby flings himself at Dad, beaming like a new day rising. Dad hoists him up, out of the saddle, strokes the pony’s mane: he’s clearly making some smart remark, because Bettina covers her laughing mouth. I mentally frame the picture, bald head bent to dark one, Dad keeping him aloft, and feel the most horrible wave of jealousy. Worse than yelling at be-toweled Logan, while I stood in his sex-scented room. Worse than Jackie scamming Wallace and Logan BOTH, because she was tired of her old toys. Keith Mars is MY dad, and I’m his special only angel. Only he didn’t even want WEEKENDS with me here: he chose this kid instead. I can’t imagine a worse betrayal. The one person I trusted implicitly, who was always there, has left me hanging.

It makes me wonder if he really wanted me, in original reality. Or if he just did the honorable thing, taking charge, because he was left with no other choice.

And it helps me understand, with painful clarity, why Logan lashed out, Original Junior Year. Because I’d like to wound my dad, as viciously as possible, for abandoning me when I NEED him. Logan obviously felt the same.

XXXXX

Dick drags Logan off, then, to settle some argument about hotels in Hawaii: I park myself on the retaining wall that bounds the yard, the better to skulk and brood. Mac finds me there, after 15 unpleasant minutes, and nudges my shoe with her elbow.

“So Operation Will Rogers was an unparalleled success,” she observes, perching beside me. “General MacArthur couldn’t have planned it better.”

“Yeah,” I agree, gazing wistfully at the grass-munching pony. Trying to maintain. “Thanks.”

She sits silently for a minute, as if debating, then says, “Hey, Veronica.”

“That’s me.” I turn to look at her, and her customary poker face is marred by a slight frown.

“This kind of conversation isn’t my forte, so forgive me in advance. But you’re acting weird. My question is, why?”

“I am not,” I deny. “No weirdness here. Perfectly well-adjusted and normal and FINE, that’s me!”

Her frown deepens. “Let me amend that to ‘very weird’. Are you…mad at me for some reason? Like maybe because I’m not ready to acknowledge a relationship with your step-brother? It’s just that I’m not sure, yet, if I actually love him. And if it turns out I don’t, making a commitment would be unfair.”

I shake my head. “Any sane person would think twice before dating a member of that family. No shame.”

“OK, then why have you been avoiding me for this entire trip? And don’t say you haven’t. I recognize your Scarlett O’Hara tactics.”

Because you screwed my fiancée in an alternate reality, I want to say. And I don’t trust you anymore.

But I can’t. Because how crazy would it be, to blame THIS Mac for something she didn’t even do? How crazy is it that even the MEMORY of Logan smiling down at her, curving his hand around her belly, makes me all kinds of homicidal inside?

God, I’m a mess. But Mac was always my loyal SIDEKICK: we NEVER fished from the same pool. So the fact that she usurped my guy stings a hundred times more than Lilly doing the same. I mean, it’s not like Lilly didn’t act out the entire Kama Sutra with him, before we ever shared a kiss. It’s not like Lilly’s loyalty to me was stronger. And besides, she’s Lilly Freaking Kane: the most beautiful girl I’ve ever, personally, met. Of course he’d slink back to her, in his weak and lonely moments. Whereas Mac is someone a guy like him dates because he CARES.

“Okay, I HAVE been avoiding you,” I admit, finally, since she won’t believe a lie. “But it’s because I’m dealing with stuff I can’t talk about, and you’re too darn perceptive. You haven’t done anything wrong, honestly. And you’re not the person who made me mad.”

“Ooookaaaay.” She’s nonplussed, no doubt, by the ambiguous wording. “Well, that wasn’t illuminating at all. I’m going to take you at your word, and not push. But let the record show I was willing to endure excruciating girl talk for the sake of our friendship. And I’ll do it again, should such extreme measures become necessary.”

I smile, in spite of myself. “You’re a hero for the ages,” I say.

She nods. Subjects me to another penetrating stare. Walks off.

And I wish, not for the first time, that I could trade a fraction of my MENSA IQ for some warm and friendly people skills, of the non-bridge-burning variety.

XXXXX

Dinner is excruciating.

We’re eating at a picnic table, in an informal setting, so I expected burgers and coleslaw, like mom always made. But Bettina goes to cooking school, on the days when Bobby has play group: so the table groans under the weight of pates and terrines, exotic-cheese salads and wine-sauced meat. It’s not that the food is BAD, per se…it’s just not to Peanut’s taste. And the faint but persistent nausea I feel, as I try to pretend I’m eating, adds an extra-special something to this Day of Trials.

“So school’s out next month,” Dad observes, with the fake heartiness I remember best from his campaigns for Sheriff. “What’s everybody up to this summer?”

“Jessica and I are doing a UN Goodwill Ambassador tour,” Wallace says, with cheerful nonchalance. “Some of her industry friends invited us. We’re bringing public awareness to the political crisis in Uganda, and we’re gonna build a school. Jessica’s dad’s cinematographer is coming along: he plans to make a documentary of the whole thing.”

“That’s fantastic, Wallace,” Dad says. “Your mom must be proud.”

Wallace shrugs. Jessica elbows him, grinning, and I smile into my spoonful of Bitter Orange Nightmare, because they really are non-cloyingly cute.

“Richard, are you still taking that surf trip?” Bettina asks, not looking up from her plate. She’s cutting meat into kid-sized bites for Bobby, who sits sleepily in a high chair beside her.

“I can’t go,” Dick says glumly, starting in on his third serving of duck. “Dad asked me…”

Bettina holds up a hand, presumably for Dick to talk to, like she doesn’t want to hear it. “Just don’t loan him money,” she warns. “I didn’t sign over your trust fund so you could use it to finance his…activities.”

Dick rolls his eyes, because all his money CAME from those activities, but only says, “Logan and I are opening a surf shop next month—custom boards and gear, beginner lessons. He’s the silent partner, and I’m the loud partner. Because he knows all about business shit, whereas I’m a surfing badass, oozing Casablancas charm. Our swag totally has my FACE on it.”

He grins at his mother, as if daring her to comment, and I glance towards Logan. He’s fiddling with his silverware, and looks, amusingly, shy.

“I’ve been building my own boards for about a year, now,” Logan explains, manning up with a faint smile. “I enjoy the work, it calms me down and keeps me focused. Might as well monetize the skill, right? Support my wife in the style to which she’ll surely become accustomed?”

I put my hand on Logan’s, and he bobs his eyebrows at me. This plan plays to his strengths and reputation, while also giving space to the quiet-loving introvert inside him. It’s ambitious enough to not repulse my dad, and it gives Dick a constructive job. I approve.

Dad nods, donning his poker face, which is more positive than his response to MY College Logan. “How about you, Veronica?” he asks, and I realize with a start that he has no clue what I’m up to. And neither do I.

I gesture at my belly, like that’s my answer, and Logan says, “Come on now, sugarplum, don’t hide your light behind a bushel! Ronica just got an almost-perfect score on the California Private Investigator’s exam. She and Mac are starting a DETECTIVE agency.”

“We’re just picking up research jobs, at the moment,” Mac contributes, with a nervous glance at me, like I might not approve of her telling. “Veronica wants to be an FBI profiler, and I’m designing data-mining software, to make internet searches and ad-targeting easier. So she does the analysis, and I do the web work. We have a partner who prefers to remain anonymous handling the man-on-the-street stuff, since Veronica’s…she’s…”

“Pregnant?” Dad asks, setting his knife and fork down. The glare he shoots Logan this time is MUCH less neutral. “Is that what the hand gesture meant, Veronica? You got my nineteen-year-old daughter PREGNANT?”

“Um,” Logan says. “In my defense, I asked her to marry me first.”

Okay, that’s it. Temper officially engaged. Peanut and I have had ENOUGH of weird food, and strained relationships, and people driving wedges into our perfect little triad. Maybe I AM too young to be a mother: but I’m old enough to recognize hypocrisy, when it stares me in the face.

“No WAY,” I pronounce, shoving my chair back and standing. “You do NOT get to go off on Logan. Everything happening in my life right now is by MY CHOICE, and Logan has been loving, supportive and kind at every turn. If you cared about my future and safety, you shouldn’t have pawned me off on Jake and Lianne, back when I was a minor who needed guidance. And you should NEVER have married the woman whose son…who…”

I trail off, because Bobby is staring at me with big, unhappy eyes, and I can’t talk about what Beaver tried (what he DID) with a kid in the room.

“I’m not kissing your ass anymore,” I say to Dad instead. “It won’t make you turn back into the hero that stays. If you love me so much, you can be the person who tries.”

I toss my napkin down on the picnic table and storm off, and yeah. It feels good.

My name is Veronica Mars, and I HATE secrets and lies.

XXXXX

Logan finds me sitting in the front seat of the car, staring at the full moon, eating Cheetos from my emergency stash. He climbs in next to me and just sits, waiting to see what, if anything, I need.

“Look,” I say eventually, pointing at the sky. “Now we know why I turned into a werewolf.”

“Honestly? I’m glad you finally told him off,” he says. “Suppressing the urge has given you acid indigestion for years.”

I put my hand on his, where it dangles from the end of the armrest, and he entwines our fingers. “I have to show you something,” I confess. “Do you remember where my laptop’s packed?”

He nods. “Back in a flash,” he tells me, kissing my nose, and bounds off. In less than a minute he returns, with my laptop switched on and booting.

I plug the thumb drive I’ve secreted in my fist into the USB port, navigate down into the file directory. “This is supposed to be a secret,” I say, turning the screen so he can see. “But I’m not keeping those from you, anymore.”

He looks, as I do, at the folders Victor’s made. There are five: ‘Maps’, ‘Conversations With Patients’, ‘Conversations With Staff’, ‘Responsible Parties’, and “Notes on Duncan Kane’. The data is extensive—it fills up most of the drive’s available memory. And the Duncan file is the biggest of all.

The v-shaped wrinkle between Logan’s brows deepens as he reads. He turns an intent gaze on me. “Where did you get this?” he demands.

“Your grandfather gave it to me,” I say. “At Nepenthe.”

He laughs, unexpectedly. “He’s got serious ISSUES with waiting. Like other people I could name. Have you read it yet?”

I shake my head. “Haven’t had a chance until now.”

“If you think THIS is a chance, you’re wrong,” he informs me. “I give us five minutes, tops, before someone…”

A knock on the window interrupts, and he quirks ‘I told you so’ eyebrows. I roll the pane down and there’s Lilly, gym bag over her shoulder, grinning mockingly in the driveway.

“Sorry to interrupt the covert porn viewing, but I’ve got a situation brewing back home,” she says. “I can’t stay the night. Drive me to the airport?”

“Sure.” I power down the laptop, toss the USB in the glove box. “Let me just grab my purse from the guest room. I could use a cool-down period, before I suck it up and apologize.”

I hop out of the car and the world spins around me, going fuzzy and dim, spotted with black. I fall to my knees, feel denim tear: grip the door tightly, to protect my face. I know this sensation, because I had a heatstroke once when I was 11. I’m about to pass out. But I’m not sick, or weak, or dehydrated: so what the hell?

I feel Lilly’s hands on me, then Logan’s, rolling me onto my back. Faintly, I hear shouting. But it’s like my brain’s a radio dial, stuck between two stations: because I hear horns honking, and groups chattering, and my own voice, sharp and angry, too. I know it’s night, and cool outside. When I blink, though, my lids go orange, as if sunlight’s filtering through.

“Red satin,” I manage, I don’t even know why: it feels like the most important thing that hasn’t been said. “Wore it…just for you…”

Logan squeezes my hand, and I hear him talking…I hear two of him talking, one angry, one scared… but can’t make out words. The last pinpoint of light fades. Darkness swallows me.

THREAD TWENTY INVERTS

Then the static fades, and the sun comes out.

I’m walking through the Neptune High parking lot, tossing car keys with short, sharp jerks, which means I’m pissed off (because that’s the only time I fiddle). Logan’s keeping pace, long strides to match my angry bustle, and he’s doing the half-frustrated, yet deeply sardonic, vocal intonation that means he’s mad, too.

I manage not to stagger, to keep my gait smooth, but internally I’m freaked. Because what just happened? It’s like the slipstream got tired of waiting for me to sleep, and TOOK me.

Logan continues his rant, oblivious. “Come on, Veronica, you know it’s true. You wouldn’t recognize ‘normal’ if it punched you in the face, and that’s a GOOD thing. It’s a GREAT thing. You’re BETTER than normal. Don’t hide your light just to pacify losers. Everyone with a brain admires you for who you ARE.”

“Look at you, getting between Veronica and her quest for perfection,” I say, because the first order of business is to make sure he knows I’m me. “Didn’t they teach you not to rip steaks from the mouths of dogs?”

He stops, so I stop too: and this look I can’t even describe comes over his face, like a light’s turned on, within. He grins widely, and grabs me, spins me like 3 times through the lot, dizzyingly fast. Pushes me up against some random car, kisses me breathless.

“It’s you,” he says, when he finally pulls away, smiling the boy-in-a-girl’s-bathroom smile that makes me stupid.

“Hi,” I say, smiling helplessly back.

“Hey.” He presses his forehead to mine. “You’re here.”

I put my hand against his cheek and he nuzzles into it, and we stay that way for like a minute before he remembers to put me down. He takes my hand, running a thumb across my knuckles, and I lean into his side. He drapes his arm around my shoulders, kisses my temple.

“Where was I going?” I ask. Because if I tell him what just happened, he’ll only worry. He doesn’t have any more answers than I do about the slipstream. And even if he did, knowing likely wouldn’t help.

He shrugs. “Away from me? I dunno, Ronica, you have so many irons in the fire lately it’s hard to keep track. Maybe there’s a clue on your Sidekick?”

I extract it from my bag, check the date and time, then the schedule, but there’s no appointment listed. “Was I talking to anybody else, before you started chasing me? Or did I ask some weird random question? Because you wear that outfit like every week, it tells me nothing about why I’m here.”

“Hey, I just GOT this shirt,” he protests, inspecting the hem of his short-sleeved, green-plaid button down.

“Oh, shit,” I say, realizing. “It’s Field Trip Time, isn’t it?”

Understanding dawns. “Don’t worry,” he tells me. “I organized a ditch day. Nobody we even vaguely know will choose the county courthouse over a party of MINE.”

I start to laugh. “Is THAT why I’m pissed at you? For shirking your academic responsibilities, to extend sought-after invitations?”

He smirks and shrugs, and I shake my head at him. “You would make a great spy,” I say, and press a kiss to his chest. He puts his palm against the spot when I pull away, and looks down at me, and I think yeah, you’re formidable. I was intimidated by that, during my own Senior Year. But right now? Kinda turning me on.

“So when does the disco ball drop?” I ask, twining an arm around his waist.

He bobs his eyebrows. “Whenever I SAY it does,” he brags, tugging me close. He slides his hand into my back pocket, and uses it to steer me towards the front of the lot, past the empty school bus, into the pockets of people standing oh-so-casually near their cars.

“My MAN!” Dick shouts as we approach, bounding over like the human Labrador he is, to do some dude handshake with Logan, and muss my hair. “Let’s get this party STARTED! Caravan to the hotel?”

“I rented the penthouse suite at the Neptune Grand,” Logan informs me, an unholy twinkle in his eye. I find it impossible not to grin. “For maximum douchebaggery. We’ve got 10 kegs, a full bar, Deputy Leo’s band at one, and a performance by the Pussycat Dolls. I’m calling it ‘School is for Later’ on the flyers.” He leans in close to my ear. “And I sent Wallace around to clue the have-nots in to the code, because he’s universally likeable. So we should attract a good chunk of the student body.”

“Onward and upward!” I say, in my fake cheerleader voice, to Dick. My gaze glances off Beaver, who’s leaning unobtrusively against the jeep behind him. “Next stop, mayhem!”

Logan sticks two fingers in his mouth, whistles, does a rally-round circling gesture with one finger, and opens his passenger door for me. He extends a hand to help me up: then ruins the chivalry by smacking me on the ass, before I can sit, and shutting the door, before I can chide. I stick my tongue out at him, when he gets in, and he leans over and kisses me until I can’t breathe again.

“So what’s our plan?” he asks me, gunning the engine like he’s drag racing in ‘Grease’, squealing out of the lot. “I mean, since you showed up to quarterback, and I no longer need to pull one out of my ass.”

“We’ve got to steal Beaver Casablancas’ phone,” I say, reaching up to run my nails through the hair at his nape—something instinctive, something I know he likes, which I often do when he drives. This Logan’s clearly surprised by it, but he smiles and leans into my touch like a cat, puts his hand on my thigh.

“You mean Cassidy,” he corrects, but lazily. Like I’m stroking somewhere less G rated.

“No I don’t,” I say. “He’s a raping, murdering sociopath, he gets no respect from me.”

“In YOUR reality,” Logan corrects, turning smoothly, giving me an admonishing look. “Here he’s just a presumptive sociopath and Goodman victim, and we don’t want him to know we’ve seen through him. He prefers to be called Cassidy.”

“We’re not AWARE of his crimes,” I retort. “That doesn’t mean he’s presumptive. He admitted to some pretty vile things, right before he tried to shove me off a roof, and I doubt they occurred in a vacuum.”

“He WHAT?” Logan’s hands clench on the wheel. “What roof? I thought he raped you and blew up a bus?! There’s more?!”

“Sugar lumps, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Although, now that you mention it, it WAS the roof of the Neptune Grand, during one of your ostentatious parties. So we’re gonna need to steal his phone AND make sure he doesn’t sneak up there with anybody. Or find some other way to screw with me. Since I was his favorite torture victim, for years.”

“Jesus, Veronica, is there any shitty person in your reality who ISN’T fixated on you?” He looks at me instead of the road, while he shifts gears. “Myself included? It’s like you’re a vindictive asshole MAGNET!”

I’ve got a rare talent for pissing people off,” I say. “And not so much of one for the warm and fuzzy. I envy you your easy lovableness like you would not BELIEVE.”

“Mmm, I think you mean my money and celebrity,” he corrects. “Because you’re one of maybe 4 people on Earth who actually find me lovable.”

“Okay, adorable,” I concede, tracing his ear. “You can’t deny you are that.”

“It’s a gift,” he says, flinching away with a laugh. “But come on, you are too. That cute scrunchy-nose thing you do, right before you smack me down? Or when you laugh, and show your entire gumline? Or when you get all mad, and look like a pissed off Siamese cat, and clench your tiny fists? And I sort of want to hug you, but I know you’d punch me, so instead, I try to make you madder? Yeah, that’s the one!” I slug him in the arm, and he laughs. “Face it, Mars, you’re a sassy little kitten-voiced pocket blonde, and no amount of solid steel cojones will make you any less DARLING.”

“You ever hear the phrase ‘fiddling while Rome burns’?” I ask, pointing at him. “Because substitute the word ‘flirting’, and that’s what you’re doing.”

“You ever hear the phrase, ‘all work and no play makes Jack an ax murderer?’” he retorts.

“Says the guy who managed to turn our quest for Teen McVeigh into a penthouse suite orgy.”

“You know, you’re pretty handsy, bantery and provocative-word-using, for someone who claims to be all business,” he says, eyeing me as he pulls into the Grand’s parking lot.

“Because you keep kissing me!” I protest, indignant. “And flirting! And touching my ass! How am I….”

He leans across the parking brake as he jerks it up, and kisses me again. I sink into it, arms twining around his neck. Consuming him, as he consumes me. I wish we could just call the party off, lock ourselves in the suite with room service, and turn on the hot tub. But that’s not what Philip Marlowe would do, so I can’t either.

“Ready to kick ass and chew bubblegum?” he asks gently, when we break apart, tucking back a strand of my hair.

“I’m all out of bubblegum,” I say, and he smiles, and we head off to face the lions.

XXXXX

“Fuck, Meg Manning!” I groan, as he backs me into the corner of the Neptune Grand elevator, doing his patented undulating hip swivel, and sucking the spot on my neck that makes my brain blank.

“You want to WHAT?” he asks, lifting his head, messy now thanks to my clawing fingers. “Why Veronica Anne Mars!”

“No, where is she?” I demand, pushing at his chest, budging him exactly none. “We have to keep track of her. So quit being sexy and distracting, because if she goes over that cliff I’ll feel like a murderer.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t worry!” He draws my hands out of my own hair, now as messy as his, and grips them in his. Leads me off the elevator, around a corner to an empty stairwell. “Meg’s not going on the field trip. You said she died, back in Fiji, so I made sure.”

“No, you don’t get it. You told me yesterday, when we were eating snickerdoodles, that even if she doesn’t get on the bus, she still goes over the cliff. She climbed in a car with her dad the next day, in at least one reality, and he took them both out.” I start pacing. “I need you to help me make a spreadsheet. And possibly, some ethical calls. I mean, I can’t let her die, right? But how do I keep her from betraying me, somewhere along the line?”

“Meg Manning betrays you?” he says, with a snort of laughter. “Meg Manning who makes Maria Von Trapp look like a surly crackhead? Ok, A) no way, and B) she’s been up in the hotel suite decorating all afternoon, she’s not going anywhere near cliffs today. Tomorrow I can fix, too. Also C) I normally don’t give a fuck about the prospective futures of girls who aren’t you: but I like Meg, and Dick likes her even more. So I’m gonna have to shut you down, if you’re hatching murderous schemes.”

“Wait, Dick likes Meg?” I demand. “God, Dick dates EVERYONE! Last night it was Mac, and where I come from, it’s Madison.”

“Sinclair?” He sounds incredulous. “ Your Dick stuck with Madison past ninth grade? Wait, is douchebag me such a jerk that he’d cheat on you with Dick’s ACTIVE GIRLFRIEND?”

“He’s not a DOUCHEBAG!” I hiss, because really, I’m tired of all the other Logans slagging mine. “And he didn’t cheat! And Madison and Dick were only involved until she started sleeping with Sheriff Lamb!”

“Hoo-kay.” Logan does his hands-off gesture. “Message received. How about we put Meg on the watch list next to Beavs, and nip any potential betrayals in the bud? And maybe also get over to the party, ensure he doesn’t push her off the roof? Because you just made me think way too much for a Tuesday, and now I seriously need beer.”

I sigh. “OK,” I say. “But next time we decide to fight crime over cocktails, I want a more glamorous Thin Man scenario. Or at least Hart to Hart. Not ninety entitled assholes blasting Green Day in a hotel suite, while doing beer bongs.”

“You’re lucky I like high maintenance women,” he grouses, holding the door open for me.

When we walk into the suite, Meg’s there decorating, as promised: she graces us with the cheerful, sunshiny smile-wave of a third-year head cheerleader. She’s manning a helium pump, releasing countless balloons to hover hear the ceiling, and she’s wearing a bikini and flip-flops.

I shoot Logan an accusing look: he dons his most innocent face. “That had better not be the dress code,” I hiss.

‘Innocent’ changes to ‘gently chiding’. “Veronica,” he says. “You of all people realize how important it is to fly under the radar, while fighting crime. I have several selections in the bedroom bureau for you to choose from. Do you WANT to blow your cover, by sticking out like a sore thumb?”

“There is NO WAY high school me agreed to this,” I hazard, poking him in the sternum to emphasize.

“Hence the fight.” He spreads his arms wide. “But you’re a confident woman of the world, right? You’re not gonna let a little thing like unexpected beachwear slow your roll.”

“I hate you,” I say, and he says, “Show me how much.” I shove him into the bedroom, and kiss him until my shirt falls off.

“You have to change,” he explains when I gasp, deftly working down the zip of my jeans. “It’s not like you can put the swimsuit on OVER your clothes.”

“Logan,” I murmur, “Whoever said the female of the species is deadlier has never met you.”

“Mmmm,” he agrees. “Come into my parlor.” He lifts me onto the dresser, skims all the clothing off my lower half, spreads my thighs apart, and goes down on me for a good fifteen minutes. I forget all about the party. Then he stands up, smiles at the look on my face, and pushes into me, and I forget all about my name.

I remember his, though. So I say it, a bunch of times.

XXXXX

We emerge, much more relaxed, to find the party in full swing. I’ve got on the most modest bikini he offered (which is to say, not very) in emerald green, and he’s doing the unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt thing, in solidarity.

“Ronnie!” Dick calls, ambling up with a pony keg under his arm, bro bonhomie on full display. “I’d tell you you’re lookin’ goo-HOOD rocking your non-optional costume: but I feel weird about perving on you when you’re practically my sister. Plus, Logan would kick my ass. So how about I just say you’re a fine young flower of womanhood, who I love COMPLETELY for her mind, and offer you a brewski?”

He extends his fist for Logan to bump, and I roll my eyes as they do.

“Dude,” Logan says, putting an arm around Dick’s shoulders and leading him over to the bar. He gestures theatrically for Dick to set down the keg, and takes over assemblage of the tap. “I have an extremely important job for you, man, and it’s gonna take total devotion to the task. Can you step up? Have you got the right stuff?”

Dick shrugs, ripping open a sleeve of solo cups, tossing them on the counter. “I’m hoping this involves hot babes or cold waves, and not one of Ronnie’s weird investigations.”

“One hot babe,” Logan corrects, presenting him with a beer. “Waves at your discretion. Meg Manning needs a bodyguard for the next 48 hours: Ronica’s sources say her dad has something unsavory planned. You need to play it totally non-suspicious and creepy, though, man. She has to feel comfortable, like hanging with you is her idea, but you can never let her out of your sight. Can you handle that, or is it too much to ask? Because you’re the only guy I trust who she finds cute.”

Dick laughs. “Candy, baby,” he boasts, swiping the cup of beer Logan’s just poured for me. “Observe the master at work.” He saunters off in Meg’s direction, and Logan smirks.

“One down, one to go,” he says, dusting imaginary dirt from his hands. “Let’s play some Spy Vs. Spy with the Littlest Casablancas.”

I laugh. It never occurred to me, in original high school, how useful Logan’s manipulative skills could be, in an investigative capacity. But they are, they really ARE. He was BORN to mess with peoples’ minds.

“You are VERY good at this,” I say aloud, as Dick begins his chat-up routine, to which Meg seems surprisingly receptive.

Logan wraps his arms around me from behind, rests his chin on top of my head. “Haven’t you figured it out by now, Ronica? I’m good at EVERYTHING.”

I snort, sipping beer to disguise the fact that I’m casing the room. There are like 75 people in the suite already, half of whom I know, and it smells of coconut oil, sweat and beer.

I spot Mac, standing over by the balcony doors, drinking from a solo cup and people-watching. She seems to be alone: but frankly, I’m still not ready to deal. And I won’t send Logan over there so she can hit on him. My gaze slips past her, tracking: I notice Beaver slipping quietly into a bedroom.

“Logan!” I hiss, elbowing him in the stomach. He turns from the conversation Ashley Banks is having at him, ducks his head down by my ear.

“Beaver went into the bedroom,” I breathe, and he nods.

“What do you want to do?” he asks. “Check if there’s anybody in there with him? Because we could act like we’re looking for privacy to make out.”

“Perfect!” I say, and grab him by the hand, dragging him through the crowd (which is mostly bouncing in unison, singing ‘My Humps’ off-key).

Logan manages to get the door open and grab my ass simultaneously, and then we’re stumbling into the room, feverishly kissing, which provokes a response of…nothing. It takes me a minute to extricate myself, because neither of us wants to stop, only to find that we’re alone.

“Did he go out the window?” I murmur, and then we hear the toilet flush. We look at each other, appalled.

“Into the closet!” I whisper, and we stumble through the doors, slide them almost shut. I press my face to the crack, so I can see: Logan sits down behind me, pulling me onto his lap.

Beaver comes out, wiping his hands on his jeans, sits down on the bed. He pulls out his phone, reads something, then starts texting.

Logan’s hands curve around my waist, stroking the stretch of skin below my navel. I still them with my own: the idea of getting aroused with Beaver nearby makes me not-so-faintly queasy.

The door opens abruptly, and Peter Ferraire strides in. He checks after 3 steps, surprised the room’s occupied, but gestures with his chin in greeting. “Hey Cassidy,” he says. “You doing all right?”

“Dandy,” Beaver says with a brief smile, and turns back to his phone.

Peter rolls his eyes, brushes past dismissively to the facilities. So much for the big Goodman-related confrontation I half-expected.

Beaver closes his phone and gets up: shoots a look of distaste at the bathroom door, leaves. I let loose a breath, and Logan strokes his knuckles down my cheek.

“You OK?” he asks, tenderly, and I nod, softening against him. He kisses my temple, then my cheek, then my mouth, gentle, languid: in that way he has of expecting nothing, while being fully willing to give all. I kiss back, sinking into it. Really, I just want to make out for days, the way we used to, original Junior Year. When my joy at finding an outlet for the passion thrashing inside me overrode my common sense. When I both yearned and feared to lose myself, every time his mouth touched mine.

His hand slides into my bikini bottoms, his other up under the top, kneading and stroking like he’s rapidly losing the plot. He releases my mouth to press kisses along my shoulder and I gasp for air, spreading my knees to give him room. He groans, very softly, shifting his hips to align us. “I love you,” he breathes, everything about him tender. “I missed you SO much.”

My head falls back against his shoulder as he caresses me, and it all jumbles together behind my closed lids. Beaver, Mercer, Dick, Aaron. Sean, Lilly, Duncan, Parker. Yolanda, Madison, Kendall, Troy. The wear and tear of the slipstream, the sense that one wrong choice could spell death or doom. There are so many ugly parts of my life I’ve pushed down and never dealt with, so many moments where I’ve seen humans exploit and wound: and every bit of that is juxtaposed with THIS. Logan, who loves me, who gets pleasure from mine. Logan, the only person who apologized for the events of Shelly’s party, who learned from his mistakes, and changed. The only guy I’ve ever wanted inside me, sexually and emotionally. The man I most love.

I’m reaching some kind of crescendo, physical sensation and mental chaos, and I want him with me. I want us in this together, through the ugly and beautiful, the pain and tenderness. I fumble behind me at the drawstring of his trunks and he helps, lifting, easing, shifting. I take him into me, my back to his chest: he opens his mouth against my throat, silent gasp of pleasure. We begin to move.

He plants a hand on the floor for balance, and I brace against the door frame: his thrusts are deep and slow, excruciatingly good. His fingers are gentle on my clit, his lips sweet and soft against my jaw. As I slide into orgasm, tears rise up in my eyes. I’m on overload. It so much, so intimate, this joining. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt these things before.

He comes with a faint whine, panting exertion in hot bursts against my shoulder, and he kisses me there as his arms band around me tight. I cover them with mine. My tears fall, unchecked, hot splashes on our twined limbs, and he grips me tighter as he perceives my agitation.

A voice in the next room. Laughter. Peter.

I look up through the crack, and he’s sitting on the bed, talking on the suite’s phone. “Yeah,” he chuckles, toying with the notepad on the night stand, gazing out the window. “Crazy SOB. Right? Why would you WANT to? Whatever, loser, this party is awesome. All the 09’er perks you can imagine. You SHOULD! I DEMAND it! Ha, OK, picture me air-kissing. Yeah, 9:30. Sure, I will. Hasta!”

He twirls the pencil around his finger as he hangs up, shaking his head, laughing to himself. Tosses it down and ambles out. Silence falls.

Logan eases the closet door open, lifts me gently off him. Strides to the door, locks it. Comes back to pick me up, and carries me to the bed, cradling me against him.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, brushing my hair back from my forehead, intent concern, total focus. “Did I hurt you? Were you embarrassed?”

I shake my head and kiss him, curving my palm around his cheek. “I think I’m…healing,” I say. “Or falling apart, I don’t know. All the little compartments in my head cracked open and spilled together, and it was SCARY.”

He tucks me into him, chin on my scalp, caressing my back in long, slow strokes. “I wish I could have saved you,” he says, softly. “I wish I was there that night. I would never have let anyone hurt you. Not EVER.”

(I can’t take that I hurt you, when all I want to do is protect you. I’m responsible for what happened.)

“You didn’t,” I say, with a half-laugh. “You took the keys away, and talked me down. When Beaver tried again, at Bettina’s house, you lied like a pro to get me out. No version of you would LET it happen, Logan. Not this one, and not the one who was there.”

I cry harder, sobbing, and he makes an inarticulate noise of distress. “I’ll protect you from now on, Veronica. I always will. I swear.”

“I know,” I say. “You’re secretly a hero.”

He kisses my forehead, and I grab his hand, wiping my face with one forearm. “I need my clothes. I need to be dressed. And we have to watch Beaver today, all day, without getting distracted again. It’s important.”

He nods, goes over to the bureau, extracts our things. Helps me into them, and I help him, with gentle hands that can’t stop touching. I kiss him, slow and sweet, and he curls his fingers into my hair. “I love you,” I say. “Thanks for understanding.”

“I’m Frankenstein,” he says, with a half-smile. “My emotions are a cesspit. Like I’d judge other people, for the ways they’re broken.”

“You’re beautiful, scars and all,” I tell him, and his smile blooms.

“Wow, that….makes me both embarrassed and happy.” His focus turns to his hands, buttoning and unbuttoning the bottom of his green over-shirt. He looks up at me from under his brow. “You asked me before what we were arguing about, when you showed up in the parking lot.”

“I did,” I say, keeping still. Because it sounds like he’s about to give me information of his own free will, which would be the first sure sign of the Apocalypse.

“She told me she wished I could be more normal,” he says, quietly. “Instead of throwing crazy parties every week, and getting all kinky in bed. And I asked her what normal even means to her. Because this IS my normal.” He pins me with his gaze. “Do you understand?”

“She might wish she could go back,” I venture, stilling his hands with mine. “To the Fab Four days, when everything seemed easy. But she can’t. Once we lose our innocence and start growing up, we don’t get to be children anymore. We have to move on.”

He nods, two, three times, quickly. “If I pushed you too far,” he says, “in bed, or emotionally, you’d tell me, right? You’d say no?”

“I would definitely say no,” I assure him. “But you never have, and I’m not afraid you will.”

He takes a deep breath. “Good,” he says. “Now come on, back to work. A competent host mingles. And an effective detective spies.”

XXXXX

When we emerge, Beaver’s nowhere to be seen, again. But Chardo's here, along with Hector, and a couple PCH’ers whose names I never bothered to learn.

I glance at Logan, who sighs. “Great,” he says. “Out of the frying pan.”

He approaches Chardo, who’s picking over the refreshments, while singing along to ‘Candy Shop’ in falsetto. Wallace materializes from the crowd to provide reinforcements, shoving his beer off on a random gawker. “We’re not ready for the cleaning crew, yet,” Logan tells the intruders, tossing a cherry tomato into the air, catching it in his mouth. “You guys need to come back MANANA.”

Dick appears beside me, where I’m paused near Corny’s DJ stand, leading a sublimely unruffled Meg. “These douchebags,” he groans, with a head shake. “You already stabbed that one guy right in the heart, and now they’re back for MORE?”

He wanders over to Wallace and Logan. Meg raises her eyebrows at me, seeking explanation, and I shrug, embarrassed. I am NEVER gonna live that down.

“We got a message for you,” Chardo says, loud, like he WANTS the whole party to hear. “We had some great play-dates this summer with you rich assholes, but fun time’s over. We’ve got shit to do. So you have one week to produce Weevil, or turn in the person who killed him. And if you don’t, well…let’s just say Weevil ain’t the only thing around here that’s gonna disappear.”

“Are you threatening to commit CRIMES?” Logan asks, with mock incredulity, widening delighted eyes. “At this very crowded party, in front of a hundred witnesses? Wow, I guess IQ really ISN’T genetic.”

“I’m just the messenger,” Chardo says, with a clenched-tooth smile. “The people you pissed off are a lot meaner than me. One week, starting now. You decide whether protecting your girlfriend from the consequences of her actions is worth the price.”

He snatches a tray of canapés from the table and saunters off, friends closing in behind him. I shake my head as I watch them go, because the ‘sound and fury’ line from Shakespeare was MADE for guys like these.

“Well,” Logan says once they clear the door, spinning abruptly towards me, “not even the helium-voiced rendition of ‘Candy Shop’ could save THAT performance. I give it…the finger.” He turns again to direct two middle fingers at their wake, mouth flattened in disgust.

“Loan me your phone,’ I say, instead of responding, because really we’re on the same page.

He fishes it out of his pocket and hands it over, glaring like he wishes Chardo would come back and be his punching bag. I click ‘add contact’ and type in a name and number.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be here today, or when I’ll show up next,” I say in an undertone, by his ear. “First thing tomorrow, you call this guy. He’s unethical and greedy, and his taste in clothing is worse than yours, but he’ll find Weevil faster than anyone but me or dad. Provided you pay him enough.”

“Vinnie Van Lowe.” Logan reads the name off the phone, arches his brows. “I think I’ve seen his ad on a park bench.”

“Oh, believe me, Vinnie frequents ALL the worst places. Just don’t…trust him. And wash your hand, after he shakes it.”

He makes an OK sign with his fingers. “Beaver?” he reminds me.

“Fuck, there is WAY too much happening at this party.” I spot-check Meg, who’s over by the half-assembled stage, flirting with Dick again. Then I grab the first person I see, who happens to be Casey Gant, and ask, “Have you seen Beaver?”

Casey, clearly drunk, stifles a giggle with a side-eye at Logan, and says solemnly, “Casablancas, right? He WAS here, talking to some girl on the balcony. But I think he left. Or at least, I saw him in the lobby like fifteen minutes ago, when I went to buy gum.”He blows a bubble to illustrate, salutes us with a grin, and heads off towards a gaggle of cheerleaders.

“Great, wonderful,” I say. “All right, let’s quarter the suite. You go right, I go left, we check the bathrooms and bedrooms and under the coffee table. If that turns up nothing, we ask around discreetly, and you start with Dick. If he’s gone, we try to figure out where he went.”

Logan kisses me on the forehead and skips off to mingle, and we determinedly pursue what turns out, 20 minutes later, to be a lost cause. Nobody notices Beaver, so few people remember seeing him, and not a soul cares where he went.

“OK,” I say, when we reconvene by the stage: the band is setting up, checking their watches, and bitching about something. “Plan B. Does Tina work here yet?”

“Tina…” Logan drums fingers on his thigh, looking up at the ceiling. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Blonde, pretty, stationed at the front desk? Maybe has a crush on you, but is totally willing to spy for me?”

He snaps his fingers in recognition. “The one who disabled the smoke detector in the stairway, so she could take Camel 100 breaks!”

I point, click my tongue and wink at him. “That’s our girl. She sees all, knows all. Find a picture of Beaver on your phone. We’ll head downstairs, and I’ll quarter the lobby while you charm her.”

He grins at me. “You know?” he asks. “Being a detective is FUN. Death threats, disappearing psychopaths, Seven Minutes in Heaven and all.”

“It IS.” I smile back. “Because we like to live on the edge.”

We kiss in the elevator, all the way down.

XXXXX

When we get to the lobby, it’s clear there was an accident outside: several car alarms are going off, and cop-lights flash red/blue through the sliding doors. We split up to complete our tasks, wading through the rubberneckers: I’m so busy searching for Beaver that I run into Deputy Leo head-on.

“Hey there!” I greet him, backing out of his body space. Since the tape-stealing fiasco, I’ve regretted dating him for five minutes: but I can’t deny, he IS cute. Then again, he’s in full uniform, and I have a well-established fetish. “Aren’t you supposed to be upstairs with the rest of your band?”

He gives me a half-frantic look that screams, “SHUT UP!” and says, “Official police business. Were you at the party just now?”

I nod, and gesture at Logan, who’s conversing intently by the desk. He’s running a hand through his hair, never a good sign. “It’s Logan’s brainchild. Did we get a noise complaint?”

He shakes his head. “You know a guy named Peter Ferraire?”

“Sure,” I say. “My grade, former jock, wants to be a Shakespearean actor. He was up there a while ago, but I think he left.”

“Yeah, he did,” Leo confirms, grimly. “Via the roof. He’s splattered all over the street outside.”

I retreat a step, right into Logan, and he puts his arms around me. A glance up at his face tells me he knows. Fuck, I think. I was so focused on Meg, and Beaver, and my own emotional issues, I forgot the most important thing about the bus crash.

It wasn’t meant to take out Meg, or me. It was meant to silence Marcos and Peter. And even though the secret’s out, and Woody’s in jail, it seems that’s still Beaver’s intention.

“Marcos Oliveras,” I blurt. “He was Peter’s friend. You should find him, make sure he’s all right.”

Leo nods, looking at me strangely. “We’ll need to question everybody who might know what happened. Let’s go up to the penthouse, and make sure no one else leaves.”

I spot Dad, striding through the doors with several deputies, and sigh. Yeah, we’re smack dab into the fire, now. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY ONE

Refrigerated air strikes my face and my eyelids flutter. Someone is holding my hand.

I open to bright fluorescent light, Logan gazing down at me. He looks strung-out, haggard, but he smiles. “Hey,” he says. “Welcome back.”

My hand goes instinctively to my belly—still convex. But I’m in a hospital bed, and Logan’s wearing the thin green sweater from Bobby’s party, torn at one elbow. So I’m freaking. “Peanut?” I ask.

“Fine,” he says. “Both of you are fine. Just hungry, exhausted and overstressed, apparently. So your body took a time-out.”

“How long was I unconscious?” I ask, twining my fingers with his.

“Not long,” he says. “A couple minutes. You keep waking up and drifting off, though, so they held you overnight for observation.”

“Sorry I frightened everyone,” I say, because he’s missing all his usual bounce.

He shakes his head. “Enh, you know. I got a nice religious moment out of it. I prayed, and for the first time, somebody actually listened.”

I bring his hand to my lips, kiss it, and he curls down onto me, pressing his face into the slope of my shoulder. “Ronica,” he says, very softly. I curve a protective hand around his scalp.

A plump, sixtyish woman in a lab coat walks in, long grey hair braided and wound around her head. She’s reading a clipboard: when she notices us embracing, she cocks her head like a curious bird. Her eyes are a very bright blue, Mediterranean.

“Miss Mars. Good to see you awake. You gave your family quite a scare.” The doctor glances down to make a note, and Logan straightens, unobtrusively sniffling. "Your father, Mr. Fennel and Mr. Casablancas stress-consumed all the Cheetos AND coffee on the third floor, while they waited for news."

“You seem to be none the worse for wear, after your misadventure,” she continues, approaching the foot of the bed. “All your lab tests were normal: no gestational diabetes, no blood cell abnormalities, no indicators of disease. You’re not gaining as much weight as I’d like. I encourage you to eat healthy fats, peanut butter, avocado, perhaps an extra meal a day. And you clearly need more sleep.”

She hangs the clipboard on the bed and laser-focuses, which makes me feel, weirdly, like I’m being judged by an older me. “Miss Mars, I know you appreciate frankness, so I’m going to be very frank with you. You’ve got to take better care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well, possibly meditate to reduce stress. I understand that you’re young, active and ambitious: but pregnancy is physically demanding, and you’ve been pushing too hard. I’ve tasked Mr. Echolls with making sure you take your prescribed prenatal vitamins, and get enough calories. I’m also mandating two weeks of bed rest. Relax and watch some movies, study for finals if you like. The world will still be here to challenge you, once you’re back to full strength.”

I digest the reprimand in silence, both frightened and furious. Because it’s not like I can put the slipstream on hold, based on my OB’s say-so. “So basically I’m grounded?”

“Consider it license to self-pamper.” She extracts a pad and pen from her pocket. “I’m writing down the names of several superlative therapists, who can talk you through anything you find upsetting. If you don’t feel the need to consult them, of course that’s fine. But I strongly recommend that you discuss your problems with someone—if not your partner, a non-judgmental minister, a friend, perhaps a support group. Physical health and emotional health are deeply entwined, in ways we doctors can’t always see.”

I hold out my hand, and she tears off the prescription sheet, extends it. “Two weeks,” I say. “After that I’m good to go, right?”

“Two weeks and we’ll SEE,” she corrects, with a faint smile. “Nice try.”

“I’m not paying a shrink,” I warn. “I’d break her by the fifth visit. Logan’s the only one who can handle me.”

“Good thing you’re, marrying him, then,” she quips, and shakes my hand.

“This is going to test our relationship like nothing ever has,” I tell Logan, once she’s vanished down the hall. “I HATE sitting still.”

“I’ll start practicing my balloon animals,” he says, kissing my forehead. “Gotta keep the little woman happy.”

XXXXX

The Logan/Veronica détente holds through the morning (while we arrange to ship the cars back to Berkeley, and hitch a ride home on Jake's jet), then for six hours after. I watch TV, finish a paper on (ironically) impulse control, and leaf through notes for exams I won’t take. It’s when I get bored of academia, decide to study Victor’s files, and clock their absence on my laptop, that shit really hits the fan.

“Where are they?” I demand of Logan, who’s in the garage wearing safety goggles, serenely sanding a surfboard. He straightens, powers off the tool, and swipes the glasses back with his forearm, eyeing me warily. “The sanitarium notes Victor gave me. They’ve been wiped from my computer.”

“Do I play dumb here, or just brace myself?” he asks, of an invisible audience. He pulls a bottle of water from his pocket, uncaps it, drinks.

“I can review those files while sitting perfectly still,” I snarl. “I NEED to review those files. You have grossly underestimated my curiosity, if you think I can wait until later.”

His mouth wavers between a grave straight line and a smirk, succumbs. “It’s gonna be hard to do anything BUT wait, when you have no idea where they are.”

“YOU ARE NOT HELPING MY STRESS LEVEL!” I yell, and he laughs.

“What’s our rule?” he chides. “Ten deep breaths. Think of the ocean. Think of surfing. I promise that Victor is fine. I promise the files will keep. Mac has agreed to handle all the investigations for the next two weeks, and she knows where to go for help, if necessary. If anything of critical importance happens, you will be told. YOU need to gain ten pounds, sleep nine hours a day, and trust that the rest of us have your back, Veronica. You cannot continue to push this hard, or you will hurt yourself.”

“Don’t patronize me, Logan Echolls,” I warn, pointing. “You know I can make you pay.”

“I’m ready,” he says, steadily, setting the sander down. “Come at me. Nobody ever said loving you would be painless.”

“UGH!” I shout, my voice so loud it echoes off the garage walls. “I HATE you when you get all smug and un-forthcoming like this! I OUGHT to punch you! And I’m HUNGRY!”

“You know Dick went shopping for us this morning, so I wouldn’t have to, right?” he asks. “He bought SIX FLAVORS of ice cream. Sea Salt Caramel, Chocolate Cappucino, Strawberry Basil, Lemon Cheesecake, Butter Pecan, Double Brownie Rocky Road. And real whipped cream. And fudge.”

I glare at him, calculating.

“And Jessica arranged to have her dad’s chef’s catering company deliver pre-packaged meals, so we wouldn’t have to cook during finals. There’s a plate of filet mignon in the fridge, with your name on it.”

“You’re still not forgiven until I see those files,” I say.

He does his hands-off gesture. “It’s out of my control. I don’t have any idea where they are. You need to convince Mac you’re taking adequate care of yourself before she lets you near them. And for the record, removing temptation was not my idea. We had an emergency strategy meeting last night, and I was overruled.”

“You guys have MEETINGS about me?” I demand. “And why is MAC in charge of what I get to know?”

“Because Mac is not swayed by displays of emotion,” he says, in his reasonable voice. “And Mac is not a sucker for your face, like Lilly and myself, or a sucker for doing the right thing, like Wallace. Dick is too loyal to be trusted. It’s easy to press the right buttons with him, make him fold. But Mac can take you on, without getting trampled.”

“You guys are fiendish,” I say, not without admiration. “I’m going to enjoy kicking ALL your asses.”

“Ice cream first?” he asks, pulling the goggles off, tossing them on the board. “Steak?”

“Both,” I say. “I want all the chocolately ones in a bowl. With fudge.”

“Then nap,” he warns. “I will wear you out, if I have to.”

“I’d like to see you try,” I say, and he smiles.

It takes him an hour and a half of unremitting labor. But eventually, he does.

THREAD TWENTY ONE INVERTS

I’m barreling down I-605 in the X-Terra, headed North, and Logan’s behind the wheel. ‘Sitting, Waiting, Wishing’ is playing on the stereo, something age-appropriate AT LAST: I have my feet up on the dash, and I’m eating a foil-wrapped taco.

“You know, Veronica, I’ve seen crash-test dummy videos with passengers in that position,” Logan tells me, snagging a Big Gulp from the cup holder, slurping at the straw. “They ended badly.”

I smile, because he reminds me of Ideal! Logan, fussing over me on the road trip from Berkeley. Through a mouthful of food, I say, “What, you’re not gonna fling yourself between me and the approaching car, roll us out the door to safety? Don’t you WANT to be the kind of hero Aaron was, back in his ‘Long Haul’ days?”

He opens his mouth to answer, and a voice from behind me says, “We should be thinking less about bad action movies, and more about how Tracy Flick here will convince Navarro to care about her problems.”

I choke on my bite, and erupt in a fit of coughing: cover my mouth with my hand. “Jesus, Vinnie,” I gasp, after managing to swallow. “I forgot you were in the car. Although, I must say, I’m glad it’s not my BOYFRIEND, rocking Axe Body Spray in an enclosed space.”

Logan glances at me sharply, and I lift my eyebrows. The corner of his mouth quirks, and he switches off the radio: begins, nonchalantly, to whistle ‘Mrs. Robinson’. I write ‘Hi!’ on his thigh with my fingertip, and his smile deepens. He captures my hand, kisses it.

“I’ve been thinking about Weevil,” I tell them, settling my feet in a Logan-approved position, crumpling my trash. “He told my dad he didn’t see anything, when he was questioned about the kidnapping, but my sources say he watched it go down. So why would he lie?”

“Your SOURCES?” Vinnie asks, from the back seat. I look at him in the rearview, and Jesus Christ. He’s in a bright blue Members Only jacket, sporting his fake moustache. “Who are you, Bob Woodward?”

“Why, you wanna be my Deep Throat?” I arch a brow at him, and Logan barks out a laugh. “Weevil saw it all happen, after which he made a call. Then he left. And didn’t appear again, anywhere we know of, until he turned up at his shop. At which point, of course, Logan was lying in wait. When was this, again?”

“About seven the next morning,” Logan says. “I got agitated at the police station, after you told me about Trina. Smashed a trash can, tore a bulletin board off the wall. Your dad locked me in a cell for a while, so I’d calm down.”

I squeeze his hand. Vinnie rolls his eyes and says, “So Navarro calls his cousin, confirms they’ve got you, and heads off to arrange the frame. Then he returns to his place of legal employment to meet his uncle, who runs a Chop Shop. That’s where he’s nabbed by The Mouth, here. Navarro then denies all knowledge of a kidnapping, when detained and questioned, and ignores the friendly police warning not to leave town.”

“You got his phone records?” I ask, and Vinnie smirks, smarmy as ever. “Good, I knew I could count on you to dive as deep into the mud as necessary. So Weevil called Chardo, right after they took me?”

Vinnie nods, and I say, “OK, for the sake of argument. Let’s say Weevil DIDN’T orchestrate the kidnapping. He’d realize he’s the obvious suspect, possibly even the original intended patsy. So he’d turn to family, right? He’d seek help from people he thinks he can trust.”

“You’re saying he CAN’T trust his cousin?” Logan asks, ever-observant.

“Chardo wanted to ride away with Caitlyn Ford on a motorcycle last year, just like in that old teen movie ‘Reckless’,” I tell him. “He stole credit cards so they could date in style, and let Weevil take the fall. He does NOT hold the interests of the Navarro Clan foremost in his heart.”

“Seriously?” Logan shakes his head. “I’m sure THAT relationship ended well.”

I make a face in reply. “So clearly, whatever Weevil was up to, in between me getting nabbed and 7:00 a.m., didn’t damage him: at next sighting, he was unharmed and alone. And if he WAS waiting for Angel, that means he wanted an untraceable car. He was already planning to disappear. He knew there was a gang coup going on, and he wasn’t safe from the cops OR the criminals.”

Logan grimaces and clicks his tongue. “See, this is the sticking point for me. Weevil wouldn’t run. Whatever witnesses saw him watch the kidnapping? Also saw him not commit it. So unless they get proof the guy in the ski mask was Chardo, how could he be charged with anything?”

“We don’t know if he left town that day. We just know he wanted to slip under the radar. Maybe he was scared to stay at home? He’s tight with his Grandmother and niece. He wouldn’t endanger them by leading cops, or drive-by shootings, to their door.”

“We’re talking the leader of Neptune’s most beloved street gang,” Vinnie interjects. “He and the dead guy were the ones with the brains. I remain unconvinced the paint-huffing morons who followed them around could execute the elaborate double-frame of which you speak.”

“You know Thumper Orozco?” I ask, giving Vinnie a pointed look. “Drug dealer, fond of Lucky Charms? Believe me, he’s capable.”

Vinnie sits back, studying me with what looks like increased respect. “I’m more of a Frosted Flakes man, myself.”

“Suuuuure you are,” I croon. “Logan, you paid this guy a LOT, right?”

“Just like you told me,” he confirms.

“And there’s more where that came from,” I say to Vinnie. “Just so you don’t forget who your true friends are, in this scenario.”

“Aw, we’re FRIENDS? Gotta tell you, VMars, that warms the cockles of my heart.” Vinnie presses a hand to his chest, smiling insincerely, and I repress the urge to shudder. “Hey, remind me to trade addresses, when this is all over. I want to put you on my Christmas card list.”

Logan shakes his head, but I can tell he’s amused. Of course he’d find Vinnie hilarious—and see straight through the dated, bumbling-douchebag disguise.

“So how long to our destination?” I ask, hoping Logan will clue in that I have no idea where we’re going.

“Five minutes,” he says, with a smirk. “We just passed Huntington Park. It’s a hop, skip and jump from here, to the condemned rat trap where Weevil’s holed up with his sister.”

“And how will we encourage him to sit still and listen, while I persuade him to help?”

“Scooby snacks?” Logan offers, and I shove his shoulder. He laughs. “My rapier wit?”

“Money works best,” Vinnie puts in. “It’ll turn 95% of the human race. That last five percent is trickier, they require more concrete inducements.”

“Weevil won’t take my cash,” Logan says. “Unless he wins it at poker. He’s all about the dick-measuring contests, when it comes to Yours Truly.”

“He’s a man with a code,” I agree. “Like an Old West shootist. But he’s also pragmatic, and he believes in an eye for an eye. If we offer him something useful, like a way to make his enemies pay, he won’t let petty rivalries stop him from helping.”

“Also, I’ve got a foot in height, and maybe 30 pounds on him,” Logan says. “He’s a sturdy little Engine That Could, but I took him down in 30 seconds with surprise Krav Maga.”

“Krav MAGA.” Vinnie folds his arms. “So you’ve got fists of fury to go with the attitude.”

“Logan’s right hook is a thing of beauty,” I say, and Logan bobs his eyebrows at me, apparently clear on how MUCH I like it.

“Keith Mars and I don’t always see eye to eye,” Vinnie says. “Maybe we have different Meyers-Briggs types, I dunno. But I’m pretty sure he’d like me, at this juncture, to give a friendly warning to his only daughter. While copping attitude may seem impressive, when you two practice your George and Gracie routine at home? It won’t wow an audience with two strikes on his record, and a demonstrated ability to pull a trigger.”

I gasp, press a palm to my chest: bat my lashes as I grin delightedly. “Why Vincent Van Lowe!” I exclaim, Southern Belle style. “It’s almost as if you CARE!”

“You’re something,” Vinnie says, with a chuckle. “What, I’m not sure yet. But I’m starting to see why even The Mouth shuts up and listens, when you talk.”

“That’s a REALLY good nickname for you,” I tell Logan, who grins at me. “Vinnie, consider the moniker stolen.”

“You know why I listen?” Logan asks Vinnie, slowing to make a right turn. “Because nothing dull, stupid or unimportant EVER comes out of her mouth.”

XXXXX

Vinnie returns from casing the hideout, a run-down white clapboard with vinyl siding, in a mostly-decayed neighborhood. He climbs into the car with a sigh. “No one there but a kid, watching Ren and Stimpy on a crappy TV. What do you think? You wanna question him?”

“How old is he?” I ask.

“What do I look like, the Kid Whisperer? Not old enough to smoke. Old enough to use the remote and make popcorn. Kinda runty.”

“All right,” I say. “Which of us would seem least threatening to a nine-year-old in a bad neighborhood, who distrusts rich people on sight?”

Nobody says anything, because let’s face it. All of us ooze privilege, and none of us come off nice.

“Ok, let me rephrase,” I say. “Which of us HASN’T been all over the TV news in the last year, in conjunction with a high-profile murder?”

Logan and I both look at Vinnie. He sighs. “Fine,” he says. “Give me a hundred in twenties, I’ll see what I can do. But making me deal with children is gonna cost you extra.”

“Fair enough,” I say. I lean forward and rip off his fake mustache: he yelps and claps a hand to his face. “You had to lose that,’ I explain, with a smirk. “It does NOT inspire trust.”

Logan hands over cash, and Vinnie sidles out of the car. “I’m not getting any of that back, am I?” Logan asks, as our highwater-jeaned cohort disappears into the night. He rolls his head along the neck support to look at me.

“I’d bet it’ll cost EXACTLY what you gave him,” I say. “Make sure I pay you back, though, when we get home. I’m sure this version of me is ROLLING in dough.”

He laughs. “We’ll count this as date night.” He gathers my hand up in both of his, toying with my fingers. “The ‘School Is For Later’ party is the last time you visited, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I blinked out while we were in the lobby, talking to Leo.”

“So that was five days ago. Peter’s death was ruled a suicide this morning.” He looks up at me from under his brow, gauging my reaction: I manage to keep it together. “If we don’t present Weevil to the PCH’ers in two days, we’re gonna have problems, and the odds that he’ll go quietly to his doom are nil. I need your help on this, Veronica. I don’t know how to protect everybody from whoever’s pulling the strings. And I have no idea what Beaver is planning.”

“The Fitzpatricks are pulling the strings,” I say. “They’re using PCH’ers to distribute their drugs.”

“Yeah, I got that when you taunted Vinnie about his secret cereal preferences. What I DON’T get is why the Fitzpatricks care about framing you.”

“My theory is that Stewart Manning is their money man,” I say. “But I have no proof. As to why he wants to take me out? Either it’s the Grace thing, which means he’s also gunning for Lilly. Or else your Veronica knows something about him I don’t, and it’s made him lose his cool. As far as Beaver, he caused the bus crash to keep Marcos Oliveras and Peter from telling the world that Woody Goodman molested all of them. Only the world already knows that here, right? So I’m as clueless as you are, about what made Beaver kill Peter anyway.”

Logan shrugs. “I quit asking why evil things happen when I was like 8. People who are wrong inside just DO shit, and there IS no why, really. It’s important to know their triggers, though. And the names on their shit list.” He strokes his thumbs across my palm, massaging the muscles. “Oh, by the way, Meg lived. So that’s good. Dick really came through, protecting her, and they’re now officially dating.”

“OK, but that means Meg remains on the possible list of Stewart victims, along with me and Lilly. Now, as for Beaver’s plot… do we know who blew the whistle on Woody?”

Logan does his apologetic wink-squint. “That would be us, or more specifically me. Anonymously, of course. But your dad did theorize that Beaver was working with a hacker, so maybe he’s aware.”

“Well, that’s just dandy,” I say, grimacing. “We can now assume that Stewart Manning, the Fitzpatrick crime family, the PCH gang, and Beaver Casablancas are ALL trying to murder us. So much for cruising through Senior Year, playing Beach Blanket Bingo.”

“Nobody’s killed us yet,” Logan offers. I smile at him. He leans across the seat and kisses me, and my hands curve around his jaw.

“Thanks,” I say, when we break apart. “For your loyalty, and for working so hard to help me fix this. Thanks for not cutting me loose, when things got hairy.”

“You’d do the same for me,” he says, like he’s got no doubt, and oh GOD is that a fist to the gut. Luckily, Vinnie sprawls back into the car before I have to formulate an answer.

“Navarro’s at Magic Mountain,” he says, buckling in. “Meeting some dude named Rico at Batman: the Ride, around 11:00. The kid wants an X-Box. Sold him out without a qualm.”

XXXXX

“I can’t believe how expensive this place has gotten,” I say, as we walk beneath the white geodesic archway that’s the Magic Mountain entrance. “On the other hand, I just REALLY enjoyed paying with my very own black Amex.”

“It’s good to be the queen,” Logan agrees, with an amused glance. “Which way to Batman? And do we have a description of Rico, our mysterious informant?”

“He’s suave?” I guess, pointing right, and Logan fake-laughs. Vinnie shakes his head, like maybe our banter’s getting old, and I feel a spurt of satisfaction because I’ve managed to annoy him.

“He was described as ‘some vato with girl hair who lives in Neptune’,” Vinnie says, shading his eyes with his hand. “When I asked what girl hair was, the kid said, ‘You know, long. Curly.’ When I asked how TALL the guy was, he said, ‘I don’t know, man, bigger than Weevil’. He then reiterated that our conversation never happened, and asked for his money.”

“Charming. No wonder Weevil lives with his grandmother.” Logan points, and we cut across the section with the little-kid rides. “She’s the only one in his family with any loyalty.”

“His grandma knew about the credit card thing, and planned to let Weevil take the fall,” I correct. “Her logic was, he was still juvie, whereas Chardo was 18. If the girl involved had been less annoying than Caitlyn Ford, I doubt I could have swayed her.”

“See, it’s times like this I really miss Trina,” Logan says. “She bitched non-stop about me puking in her car, but she never quit giving me rides.”

“Trina was messed up,” I say, taking hold of his hand. “But she loved you.”

“I know.” He smiles down at me, glances back at Vinnie. “So how do you want to do this? Distract and surround, like a wolf pack?”

“The easiest plans work best,” Vinnie tells him, squinting against the sunlight. He sidesteps a herd of tourists drinking Slushies. “This place is crawling with security, in case you haven’t noticed. If you want to avoid getting arrested, I suggest we herd him into the trees behind that theater, before we induce him to cooperate.”

“Fine,” Logan says. “Ronica and I will chase, you bag him once he’s out of public view. I’ll whistle when we’re close.”

Vinnie salutes mockingly and heads off, hands in pockets. Logan glances down at me with a grin. “Luckily Weevil’s short: assuming you’ve actually been GOING to your dance team practices, you should be able to keep up.”

“I’m dating you,” I say. “I feel confident I’m getting plenty of exercise.”

He laughs and puts an arm around me: there’s a skip to his step as he guides me past the Lex Luthor Drop of Doom.

Batman: the Ride looms up ahead, big and dark blue, with the yellow and black emblem prominently displayed. Instead of cars, it has individual barred yellow seats, and the track loops around in demented corkscrews. It looks way more fun than chasing gang members through stifling September heat.

I guess Logan agrees, because he stops in front of me, head tilted back: watches the riders flip upside down, with much screaming and flailing of feet. He looks wistful.

“You want to try Batman: the Ride, don’t you?” I ask. “And all the other roller coasters.”

He smiles down at me. “I like the ones that loop.”

Me too, I think. Stupid constant crises. I want a date with my boyfriend.

“Tell you what,” I say, patting his shoulder. “When things settle down, slipstream-wise? And I’m not pregnant anymore? It’s just you and me, amusement park junk food, and every scary free-fall we can find. Twice.”

“When you’re not WHAT anymore?” he yells, then grits his teeth, as people turn to stare. “You’re PREGNANT?” he hisses, reducing his volume to the world’s loudest whisper.

Fuck. “Um,” I hedge. “Not…at the moment?”

Both his hands creep up into his hair and grip there, as if he’s considering tearing it out. “But you WILL be, is that what you’re telling me? I knock you up in HIGH SCHOOL?”

“No, college,” I sigh. “Look, you’re ecstatic about it, I promise. You keep a laminated photo of the ultrasound in your wallet. Now get it together, because I think that’s Rico, over by the ticket booth.”

The guy I’m scoping is medium-height and Latino, with a prominent nose and jaw. He’s handsome in a surly way--there’s a downward curve to his lips. He’s got on a Motley Crue t-shirt and baggy jeans, and his long, dark hair’s in a tail, bound at intervals with rubber bands. He’s flipping keys over his finger, again and again: his perusal of the crowd is not subtle. He’s nervous about whatever Weevil’s asked him to do.

I tug Logan back behind the Green Lantern coaster line, so we can observe without being seen. We stalk our prey.

“I go left, you go right?” he asks, pulling on his right elbow to stretch his bicep. He’s focused, now, battle-ready. His eyes glint, and he sports a faint, anticipatory smirk.

I nod, and he kisses the top of my head. “Don’t let Weevil grab you, Ronica. He’s short, but he’s strong. Once he’s got a grip on you, you’ll have trouble tearing loose.”

I thumbs up and wink, and he says, “We WILL be discussing this pregnant thing later.” Then Weevil saunters out of the crowd, in a white t-shirt and jeans, and it’s go time.

I’m impressed with Logan’s stealth. He gets right in Weevil’s blind spot and strolls up casually: he closes to three feet before whistling an alert, and the half-hearted grinning grab he makes almost works.

Rico freaks and takes off left, past the Batman ride, towards parts unknown. Weevil mutters “Chingado!” and goes the opposite direction, straight between Green Lantern and the Tidal Wave boat ride. He barely slows down when drenched by a splash.

Logan jerks his head at me and I veer right into the Midway Arcade, to intercept. I pop out between a ring toss and a shooting gallery, taser tucked close to my leg, and Weevil skids and swerves towards the Johnny Rocket’s. He knocks into a table as he surges past, sending fries and shakes flying.

Logan’s almost on him by the time he reaches the Drop of Doom, scary fast on long legs: but Weevil feints left and evades us both, making it past.

Weevil ducks between the Gearworks Theater and the First Aid center, right where we want him to go, and Logan heads around instead of following, miming a hide-and-punch with his hands. I nod, do the same in the opposite direction. Weevil disappears into the woods just as I clear the building.

Logan whistles, shrill and loud, as he jogs past the Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth, and says, “Let’s go, that chase was noticed.” He takes my arm, and we head after Weevil at a run. I grip my taser so tightly it hurts my hand.

Logan whistles again, and there’s an answer. We follow the sound and holy shit, Vinnie’s got Weevil handled, all right. Weevil’s hands up, facing towards us, and Vinnie has him pinned with a big-ass GUN.

“You brought that thing to an AMUSEMENT PARK?” I demand of Vinnie, my voice going shrill. “With KIDS? Are you INSANE?”

Vinnie shrugs. “Never leave home without it,” he says, adding a whole new dimension to my impression of him. Weevil glares at Logan like he won’t be forgetting this soon.

Logan smirks, the angry hate-smirk, circling up to Weevil in the loose-limbed way that means uh-oh: then unexpectedly punches, straight to the face. Weevil goes down, a smear of blood across his nose, and Logan shakes out his hand with zero regret.

“MISTER Navarro,” Logan says, doing his best Agent Smith. “Fancy meeting you in a place like this. Funny how, regardless of setting, the dynamics of our relationship never change.”

Weevil gets up, wiping his nose, rolls his head to loosen his neck. Checks Vinnie behind him, gauging his resolve. “THIS pendejo,” he says, an aside to me, deciding I’m most liable to help him. “If Dad Jeans back there wasn’t holding a piece, I’d teach you some manners, Echolls.”

Logan sneers, glancing pointedly at his knuckles, and I say, “Don’t do that. That thing where you crack jokes at me out of the side of your mouth, like we’re friends. We’re NOT friends anymore. You’re a fugitive, and I’m the unsuspecting dupe you dragged into your ‘bike club’ drama. You know how many people are trying to kill me right now, because of you? Like TWENTY!”

“Make it nineteen, then,” Weevil says. “Because I ain’t one of ‘em.”

“Hmmm.” Logan jerks his head sideways in disagreement. “Either that’s a fib, or you’re not keeping effective tabs on your minions. Your idiot cousin and his friends have done nothing BUT attempt murder, since you left under cover of darkness. Recently he extended the threat to our loved ones, unless Veronica confessed within the week. Or we managed to produce your corpse.”

“Wait, who did WHAT?” Weevil narrows his eyes. “You’re talking about CHARDO?”

“I’ve got two days left until the deadline. I won't be bullied by my social inferiors. And I believe I expressed my dislike of people roughing up Veronica the LAST time your face met my fist.”

“You morons sure know how to win friends and influence people,” Weevil mutters, rubbing a tired hand over his face. “I leave town for a few weeks, and you end up dodging bullets. Didn’t you learn ANYTHING from that lame-ass fake frame-up?”

“I learned the Fitzpatricks were behind it,” I say. “And Stewart Manning. And Thumper. I think I have a fair idea what’s going on. And I want the death threats to stop. I lose my usual sunshiny optimism, when people I love start getting hurt.”

Weevil laughs at this, a sharp burst of sound. “You’re like the world’s smallest pit bull,” he says, surveying me with a jaundiced eye. “Fine, white flag, peace talks, whatever. Let's call this park neutral ground. You corral your goons, V: we'll go somewhere private, and talk.”

XXXXX

We end up at the Mooseburger Lodge, because my special catered Jessica meal did not include fries: we’re sheltered from eavesdroppers by jukebox Top Hits Country, and the screaming of countless kids.

“So first thing, I’m not the one who set you up,” Weevil says, when we’re at the table with sodas in hand. “Which I think you know, or I’d be duct-taped in the trunk of your car, not sitting here sipping Fanta.”

“If that’s true, someone sure went to a lot of trouble to make you look like a liar.” I poke a straw angrily into my Sunkist. “Did you ride off into the sunset with Thumper’s dream girl or something? Pants him at the public pool?”

“It ain’t just ME that pissed the wrong people off,” Weevil says, shaking his head like I’m unbelievably dense. “Did you ever stop to think about WHY this went down like it did? Why it was you that got framed, when you’re an unlikely suspect at BEST? Why it happened when you were with ME?” He makes a disgusted face. “Or are you so focused on yourself and your own problems, you just naturally think you’re the linchpin? Twenty cops saw me climb in your car, V, and drive away from that bridge. A sweet mom and daughter, with crosses around their necks, can testify I left you alone on a barrio street. You know why I stopped at that house? Because Mona CALLED me, while I was waiting for Thumper. Said my niece left her Barbies, last time she came over to play. And Ophelia loses her SHIT, if she doesn’t have the Barbies on her nightstand at bedtime.

“You got popped because you were asking the wrong questions, and you shoulda known it was coming, because I TOLD you to quit. Thumper figured if the murder charge sticks, great, you’re out of the picture. If it doesn’t, great, he kills you in ‘retaliation’, you’re still gone. And your little dog, too.”

He sneers at Logan, who gives a toothy, dangerous smile in response, then continues. “And if the cops believe you were kidnapped? Who’s the obvious candidate to set you up? Who’s the leader of the gang where Felix was second in command? Besides, real talk, this is Neptune: your stepdad is Jake Kane. He’s gonna come down on anyone he thinks hurt you like an Old Testament God. I show my face back home, I’ll end up a lifer. This plan was designed to take all THREE of us down. And the two-week ultimatum was about making Echolls lose his shit, so he’d turn to crime. Which seems to have worked, as a strategy.”

“I’d like to contribute, at this juncture,” Vinnie puts in, “That my interest in this situation is purely financial. I’m sure the three of you will compensate me accordingly, if I have to move to Brazil.”

“As if you’re not storing away every word of this conversation, to sell to your Fitzpatrick cronies,” I scoff. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it worth your while not to slip us the Vinnie Special.”

He turns to me, tries his stupid pretend-ignorant duck face. “Have we MET, prior to this job? Because it seems to me I’d remember such a vision of loveliness as yourself, but I’m drawing a blank.”

“No comment,” I say. “And save your dubious charm for 80’s night at Singing Swingles.” I turn back to Weevil. “So why didn’t you hop on your bike and run?” I ask. “Why’d Logan find you puttering around at your shop, all those hours later?”

“Because I went looking for YOU,” he says. “I boosted a car, seeing as yours was gone, and drove to the warehouse where we have…friendly meetings sometimes. Checked out all the places my boys like to hide. But nada, and Chardo told me it wasn’t safe to go home, so I headed to the shop for my cash. I had it stashed there, you know? And I asked my uncle to bring me a car. If Mr. Vigilante Justice here, and his wake-and-bake friends, hadn’t ambushed me and called the cops, I would have done you the world’s biggest favor, and gone missing by morning. As it was, it took me three days of sneaking around to get my shit together and disappear, and this idiot forced me to say on the record that I didn’t see you get nabbed.”

“See you say 'forced', but I think that was a CHOICE,” Logan tells him. “You CHOSE to leave Ronica twisting in the wind, despite her saving your ass on multiple occasions. If you can’t control the backlash when your peons go off map, you don’t DESERVE to be their leader.”

“I’m no narc,” Weevil retorts. “I let my boys rot in jail, for following some coup-starting asshole’s orders? THAT would make me a bad leader. Once I take care of this little problem, they’re gonna need me, and some or all of them will come crawling home. Provided they still know they can trust me, to have their backs.”

“And you plan to RELY on this guy?” Logan spreads his arms, palms flat, gestures aggressively at Weevil. “He just ADMITTED he lied to your dad! Hell, he showed his hand when he saw us coming, and took off at a run!”

“Yeah, because it’s a GOOD idea for people from Neptune to see me with the two of you, acting friendly,” Weevil says. “You’re not so popular in my part of town.”

“I’m crushed,” Logan says. “Maybe I should double Christmas bonuses for the household staff.”

“Look, we’re all victims here.” Weevil turns his shoulder on Logan, with a scowl. “It ain’t the average Joe carrying out orders that’s the problem for us, it’s the people ordering him around. I didn’t tell the Sheriff V was guilty, I said I didn’t SEE nothing, which is what EVERYBODY in my neighborhood says, when the cops come calling. And besides, we got a common enemy. With my contacts, and V’s brains, we can stop whoever’s shaking things up in this town, and get the balance of power back to normal.”

Weevil looks at me, devoid of cockiness, dark eyes limpid. “I’ve been trying to handle this clusterfuck myself, but I’m stuck in LA until I get the law out of my face. I need your help, V. I need you to work your magic with the Sheriff’s department, so I can go home, and fix this in person.”

Logan settles back with a nasty, anticipatory smirk; he makes a production of putting his feet up, folding his hands. “GOD, I wish I had popcorn.”

“You got a problem?” Weevil wants to know, shooting him a look of distaste. “It ain’t easy for me to ask this favor.”

“I’ve just never actually WITNESSED you using Ronica’s sense of fair play to manipulate her, prior to screwing her over. It’s a RIVETING display of assholery. Please, continue.” He waves a hand, granting dispensation, but his eyes glitter like his temper’s frayed.

“I’m not that easy to manipulate,” I protest, clenching my teeth. “I’m kind of an overachiever, about uncovering the truth.”

“Which he KNOWS. So all he has to do is bat his big cow eyes at you, and go, ‘Oh, PLEASE save me from injustice, Veronica!’, and you’ll move mountains to play hero. Meanwhile, back behind the curtain, he’s using your moment of distraction to pull off some unsavory crime. You scratch his back by getting him cleared of charges? I want to hear how he’s scratching yours.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I steal your schtick?” Weevil demands. “Was your toying-with-people thing patented? Like you haven’t jerked around everybody you’ve met, since you got your big-boy teeth.”

Logan snorts. “Says the guy who rearranged Dad’s videotapes, every time Letty dragged him to my house, because he knew I’d get in trouble.”

“How many bike tires did you slash?” Weevil asks, pushing up from the table in a threatening move. “Who made Carmen the 09’ers 6th-grade pet, because he found out I had a crush, resulting in her getting stuck for YEARS with that douchebag Tad Wilson? I do what I do because I HAVE to. The cards are stacked against me. Whereas you get life handed to you on a plate, and you’re STILL the world’s biggest prick!”

“Children,” Vinnie says idly, balancing the penny he’s been toying with on its edge, giving it a spin. “How about we stick to the topic at hand? ‘Cause I gotta tell ya, I prefer the love stories where the characters were FRIENDS in childhood. Like ‘Splash’. You remember ‘Splash’? Tom Hanks, John Candy?” he sighs, reminiscently. “Now THERE was a movie. What ever happened to Daryl Hannah, anyway?”

Weevil sits down, still locked in a glaring contest with Logan, and I survey the assembled company with a sigh.

“My life would be SO much simpler,” I say, “if people used their powers for good, and not evil. Logan, I count on you to protect me from any nefarious plots: but use your brains, not your fists. Weevil, what do you know about Stewart Manning that might help us?”

“I know he hates drugs,” Weevil says, surly. “He’s always making speeches about it. And all the dead junkies lately give some oomph to his narrative. Once he calls Lilly a crazy slut enough times to get the CPS off his back, he wants to run for Mayor.”

“What dead junkies?” I ask.

Vinnie says, “Bad drugs. It’s happened twice for sure in the last couple months, pot with angel dust, meth cut with some cleaning product. Episodes of psychosis out of some after-school special, people trying to fly. Seizures, poisoning, brain damage. It’s why the Fitz-P’s switched suppliers and dealers, why they went after your guys so hard to sell. There’s no dime in the drug trade for them, if their customers end up dead.”

“So Manning’s distributing bad drugs, and making political hay out of the carnage?” Logan’s lip curls in distaste. “Why couldn’t we all grow up in Pleasantville, where the biggest dilemma is who will win the Pine Box Derby?”

“What’s Thumper’s motive?” I ask, ignoring this. “Why does he want you down and gone?”

Weevil shrugs. “Power? No clue, V, I thought we were tight. And I’m still not convinced Chardo sold me out.”

“The lady who called you about the Barbies,” I say. “She’s clearly vulnerable to threats or bribes. I’m hoping bribes? Like would she respond well to Jake Kane money, delivered quietly?”

Weevil laughs. “Mona? She’s a single mom, feeding four kids in the barrio. You frame it so she’s doing the Christian thing, I’m pretty sure she’ll bite.”

“Good,” I say. “She’s our ticket. She’s proof I got kidnapped and you got framed, because she knows who asked her to call you. And she saw the whole thing go down, same as you. She walks into my dad’s office, tells what she knows, and there’s no more threat of jail hanging over our heads, without you having to narc. She can relocate to Miami if she wants, afterwards, and never worry about food again.”

“I’ll pass the word,” Weevil says. “Make sure it comes from someone she trusts.”

“Do we have ANYTHING on Thumper?” I ask. “Any hard evidence of a crime?”

Weevil shakes his head. “Nothing comes to mind. But it shouldn’t be hard to find some. Or PLANT some. It’s not like he’s a choirboy. And it’s not like we even need the cops to take him out. Fitzpatricks would do it, no sweat, if he crossed them.”

“Nobody gets murdered on my watch,” I warn Weevil. “I’m not kidding. You start killing or disappearing people, I become unhelpful.”

“No murder,” Weevil agrees. “It’s not my first choice for a fun afternoon, anyway. But if anybody decides to quietly leave town, you can’t hang that on me.”

“Uh-huh,” I say. “My ultimatum stands. Now we’re letting you go today, despite Logan’s better judgment, because you volunteered to help. But we need a way to stay in touch. We’ll set up an untraceable email address and phone, and send you a text on your cell. Give me the number you’re using now.”

Weevil pulls a napkin from the dispenser, quirks a brow. Vinnie hands him a pen with a topless Hula girl on it, and Weevil writes.

He pushes the napkin across to me, and I give it to Logan, who sticks it in his pocket. “Anything you want to tell us, or if you need to arrange a meeting, send a text, mail or voicemail. In the meantime…” I snatch the receipt from the table, make sure it’s dated but without an address; offer it to Weevil. “Take this, stand by that nice white wall, and say cheese.”

He does what I ask, stone-faced, and I snap a photo. Check to make sure there’s nothing distinguishing in the background. “Proof of life,” I explain, to Logan. “Hand this over before the deadline, it might buy us time.”

“I’m skeptical,” Logan says, peering over my shoulder. “Chardo’s handler doesn’t want a photo, he wants a body.”

“It’ll separate the wolves and lambs,” I say. “Some members of that gang may care about Weevil, and be unaware Thumper’s turned. This photo will cause internal strife, which can only help us all. It could even win us an ally on the inside.”

Weevil offers the pen back to Vinnie, who waves it away. Weevil shrugs and pockets it, and I suppress a smile.

He slaps his palms on the table and gets up to go, and I stop him with, “One more question.”

Weevil quirks a brow, and I say, “Rico. Who is he, and why were you meeting?”

“Cousin,” he says, straightening. “Lives in Neptune, tight with Hector. He called me, said he had important info, needed to talk. So I arranged a meet. I doubt he’ll be back, after this circus.”

“Fair enough,” I say, waving goodbye. “May the force be with you.”

He makes a face, saunters off. Logan throws some bills on the table, and we all stand.

“I want a tracker for the bug in that Hula pen,” I tell Vinnie, pointing. “Give it to Logan. I want to know where Weevil goes over the next few days, and what he does. And I want you,” I turn to Logan, “to pay Vinnie more to locate Rico. We should find out what, if anything, Weevil may be up to, behind that curtain you mentioned.”

“So we don’t think Navarro is telling the truth?” Vinnie asks, frowning. No doubt wondering how I caught on to his pen trick. “Because I’m no talent scout, but that kid’s acting is on par with The Mouth's dear old dad.”

“I think he’s being honest about the kidnapping,” I say. “But Logan’s suspicious, and I’ve learned to listen when HE talks, too.” I pat Logan’s arm. “By the way, great job with the Bad Cop routine. I’m impressed by how well you kept him on the defensive. I didn’t even have to ask.”

Logan gazes off into the distance and doesn’t reply, but there’s a faint smile playing around his mouth: it looks like pride. He hands me my Sunkist, lifted from the table, and puts an arm around me as I sip.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY TWO

I wake in a library, a magazine on my chest; I can tell it’s Hearst Liberal Arts by the layout of the stacks. There’s a stale odor of paper and dust, sweat of a thousand humans coating the couch where I’m sprawled. My head’s pillowed on my jacket, Logan’s hoodie covers my legs; he’s seated next to me, reading, a pencil behind his ear. He absently bites his thumbnail, engrossed in his notes, and fails to notice I’m up.

I sit, embrace his shoulders, kiss his cheek. He smiles without taking his eyes off the page, so I dip and nip his neck. He wiggles impatiently away, saying, “Come on, Veronica, you know I have to finish this by 10:00.”

I slump back, arms folded. Because no Logan, in any reality, has EVER shut me down when I tried to get busy. I don’t care how tight his schedule is, Logan Echolls ALWAYS makes time for kisses. I am abruptly, intensely curious about the state of affairs with Other Veronica.

“Fine, maybe I’ll go socialize, instead of bothering you,” I say, in lieu of identifying myself. This earns a smirk, directed at his outline. I extract my phone from my bag, scroll through the contacts; Mac and Lilly (who lives in New York) are the only names I recognize. “I wonder what Weevil’s up to,” I muse, toying with the buttons.

“Theft, most likely.” He flips the page with exasperation. “Do we REALLY need to discuss this now? I have a final in 3 ½ hours, and another 2 hours after that. You’ve mandated straight A’s, right? And you KNOW how hard it is for me to focus, when shiny pretty things distract me.”

I check the date, just to be sure. “I still don’t see why you have to take these tests two weeks early.”

He sighs, exaggerated. “Veronica, we’ve been over this. I want to visit Victor and make sure he’s taking care of his gout, before I…”

He stops, and his head cocks to the side, like he’s considering something. He sets his papers down, and looks across at me appraisingly. “But I didn’t tell YOU, did I? That’s why you’re fishing. And I’ll bet it chaps your ASS, not knowing all the answers.”

I fight to keep the corners of my mouth from turning up. “Before you WHAT?” I challenge.

He smiles and topples me backwards, pressing me into the couch, trapping me between braced forearms. “Forget it,” he says, nuzzling my ear. “You’re bored and understimulated, Mrs. R, and that’s always dangerous.”

He kisses me, abruptly invested and passionate; I wind my arms around him and kiss back, even as my mind scrambles. His verbal slips have set off red strobes and Klaxons in my head: LYING! HIDING THINGS! NEFARIOUS! SHENANIGANS! He’s worked his way between my legs, and his cock feels REALLY good; but he is deliberately covering something up, and the mystery kills my focus.

“You may be able to distract me temporarily with these tactics,” I tell him, when he releases my mouth. “But don’t insult me by believing I’ll give up.”

“Privacy is what we need,” he decides, tucking my t-shirt aside with one finger, biting my shoulder. “Maybe the corner behind ethnographies? Is Hearst a big anthropology school, do you think?”

“I’m not agreeing to a quick and dirty public fuck until you stop lying, Logan,” I insist. I try to ignore his hand, as it slides inside my jeans.

“Veronica.” He lifts his head to look at me, and there’s something pleading, almost DESPERATE, in his eyes. “You’ll be gone an hour from now, at most; and who knows when, or even if, you’ll show back up. Please don’t let’s waste this time we have together on a stupid fight. Please?”

I curve my palm around his jaw. I’m sure I’m missing something that matters. Blowing this off is not smart. But my mind strays to the night he asked me to trust him, to let the Mexico trip with Mercer lie. Out of anger, I refused. Then shunned him, after he caved and confessed. And he felt like such a disappointment, according to this Logan, he actually dumped me.

A week later, I checked my calendar and realized: the night I blackmailed him into telling all? The night I stomped off, self-righteous, and left him lying there, ashamed? It was the anniversary of Lilly’s death.

I’ve felt guiltier than I did that day, in my short yet sordid life. Not a whole lot guiltier, though.

So fuck it. I owe him one. I’ll offer trust, here, not because I believe his inept cover up; but because I love him, and he asked.

“Fine,” I say, and let him kiss me. Let him lead me to a dark corner of the library, hoist me onto a shelf. (I make him pack up our stuff first, though, and bring it along. Because, seriously. No way could I cut loose enough to come, while worried about property theft.)

I frame suggestive replies to his dirty propositions; he uses every skill he’s got to please me. And when his thrusts devolve into unsyncopated desperation, and he’s whisper-moaning, “I love you,” every time he goes deep….I make sure he knows it’s mutual. I’m clearly, vocally appreciative.

I feel worn out when we’re done; I cling to him like a monkey, while he rights my clothes with shaking hands. “I’m so TIRED all the time.” I yawn, as he buttons my shirt. “I just woke up half an hour ago. Why do I want to sleep?”

“It’s a rough pregnancy.” He strokes back my hair with a sweaty palm. “You’re losing weight instead of gaining, and you’re still barfing all the time. I keep telling Veronica to take it easy, but you know. She thinks she’s invincible.”

“She needs to be careful,” I tell him. “I passed out in the other Knocked-Up Reality, because I pushed too hard, and woke up in the hospital. You need to convince her to rest, somehow. Surely you can play her, if you try.”

He rolls his eyes, opens his mouth to snark, but it’s Lilly’s voice I hear.

“I want that tiara,” she says, with a lilting laugh. “I deserve it, don’t you think? As two-time, virtually uncontested Neptune High Prom Queen?”

“….have any bright ideas that don’t involve pudding, you let me know.” Logan is saying. He notes the look on my face. “What’s wrong?”

“The slipstream,” I manage. “It’s yanking me to another reality again. Like the other day, only worse. Keep hold of Veronica, she might pass out. And promise me you’ll take care of her!”

“True royalty does not need bling,” Wallace says, and the light in the library goes blue, strobing. “Queenship is about DIGNITY. It’s about owning your power, rocking on with your bad self, not some lame-ass pretend crown.”

“VERONICA!” Logan yells. We’re sitting on the floor and he’s holding me, clearly scared shitless. “Do you hear me? I SWEAR I’LL MAKE SURE SHE STAYS SAFE!”

“I hear you,” I murmur. “Love you, cookie.”

Then the library goes blue and I can’t feel him anymore; there’s a sense of twisting, falling, morphing. Becoming. For a moment, I’m not sure I exist. I’m a shifter between worlds, a victim of non-linear time, possibly no longer real. Maybe stuck in a funhouse forever, just another one of the mirrors.

I don’t know what the slipstream wants from me. But I’m pretty sure, at this point, it’s not interested in being kind.

THREAD TWENTY TWO INVERTS

When my perception settles, I’m sitting at a table in the Neptune High gym, with Wallace, Lilly and Meg. It’s decorated for a dance, and the Faders are playing: so even though I’m in plunging-neckline emerald green, I’m guessing this is Fall Senior Prom.

Lilly’s leaning into Wallace, whispering what looks like wickedness in his ear, and he’s grinning his response. They seem, for all intents and purposes, a legitimate couple: but I can tell it’s fake. He’s relaxed with her, not showing off, and there’s nothing ferally calculating in her gaze.

“Cut it out, you two,” I say, throwing a wadded up napkin at them. Wallace bats it aside, laughing. “You’re making everybody jealous. What are you even DOING here tonight, Lils? Didn’t you GRADUATE?”

“I’m helping Wallace with his CRED, of course,” she tells me, widening delighted eyes. “EVERYONE wants to bang the guy who’s banging Lilly Kane!”

She gestures with her chin, and I follow her sightline to a striking girl with dark curls, trailing a desultory finger across Wallace’s teammate. Her tinkling laugh carries, pitched high above the music.

“Of course,” I say. “Jackie Cook. Wallace, I agree she’s a better catch than average. But if you want a long-term girlfriend, you’re wasting your time. She’s only in Neptune for a year.”

He does his squint-eyed scoffing face, grins. “I’d LOVE to waste time with that girl,” he croons, giving an admiring head shake. “Lots and LOTS of time.”

“TMI, Wallace,” I say, making the time-out gesture with my hands. I turn to Meg. “On which note, where are OUR dates?”

She looks up from the napkin she’s pleating, rolls her eyes. She’s wearing something floaty and modest, with a shallow v-neck; but the color is atypically rich, caramel-bronze, and her hair hangs in flirty waves. “Having ‘punch’,” she says, making air quotes. “They were pissed that Wallace forced us to actually ATTEND the dance, so they’re drunkenly rebelling.”

She gestures towards the refreshment table, where Logan and Dick are huddled with Luke Haldemann. Dick’s snickering as he slugs from a flask, Luke looks faintly bored. And Logan’s lounging back against the table, jacket off, cuffs unbuttoned, shirt untucked, tie dangling. In other words, he’s wasted. I sigh.

The last time I lived this night, Duncan and I ended up carting his projectile-vomiting ass back to the Grand, instead of dancing ‘til our shoes wore out. It seems this bit of history is doomed to repeat.

“Ugh, excuse me,” I say, getting up. My dress is slinky, body-hugging satin, and it tangles around my ankles. “I need to go wrangle my boyfriend. Who should know better than to court my wrath this way.”

I stride across the floor, pissed because I thought THIS Logan was better than alcoholism. I stop in front of him, fold my arms. He grins, sleepy and seductive, curls a hand around my waist. Slinks upright.

“Hey gorgeous,” he says. He trails a finger across my temple, around the curve of my jaw. Down my throat, into my cleavage. “You look AMAZING tonight.” His voice has gone husky, and he bends to kiss the juncture of my shoulder and neck, which both turns me on, and makes me more upset.

“And YOU look like you can barely walk,” I snap, jerking my head away from the temptation of his lips. “These are NOT the Senior Memories I want to be making.”

“Mmmm, not drunk, just…mellow,” he corrects, his hand slipping down to join the other at my waist. His pinkies dip lower, stroking the upper curve of my ass. “It’s you, right? My favorite you, the one I always miss.”

“How can you be sure?” I’m disarmed in spite of myself. I find the ends of his bowtie, hook them together. “Rumor has it, Veronica and I are hard to tell apart.”

“Not for me,” he says. “YOU’RE standing in front of me, lecturing while you pet my chest. SHE’S spent the last hour with her back turned, way over there.” He tugs me closer, into the cradle of his spread legs. “Come on, let’s go make NAKED memories somewhere. Ride around the block in the limo. It’s better if I don’t…but I at least want to TOUCH you.”

“Logan, you are blackout wasted,” I say, struggling to balance as he lists sideways. “If you think I’m having sex with you in this condition, you have a very low opinion of my morals.”

“No sex,” he agrees solemnly; pulls me, firm, against him. “I just want to make you come a bunch of times. I love the way your face gets after, all dreamy –eyed.”

I laugh, and he smiles too, like he just enjoys seeing me happy. “Logan, you are so…there are no WORDS for what you are.”

“In love,” he whispers, a hot secret against my ear. And in an aside, as if to himself, “Also, scared shitless.”

It all comes clear in that instant, a flash of insight: why he’s drunk, why he doesn’t want sex, when that’s what Logan ALWAYS wants. I’d completely forgotten my amusement park Freudian slip. “You don’t need to worry about the baby,” I murmur, twining my arms around his neck. “It’s a year away, and you’re not your father.”

“I won’t have children, Veronica,” he tells me, and he’s dead serious. He meets my eyes directly; I almost believe he’s sober. “Not ever, no matter how much I love you. If I hurt them, even by accident, I would DIE inside.”

“You WOULDN’T,” I say, putting a hand on his cheek. His eyes tear up. “I TRUST you.”

“You shouldn’t,” he says. “I mean well; but when it comes to doing the right thing, I almost always fail.”

I gaze up at him, hurting in so many parts of my heart. Because this is what he thinks of himself, beneath the competent cockiness: and not without cause. Because his damage is like the Bermuda Triangle, threatening to suck all the brilliant, shining parts of him down. Because it kills me, when I have to watch that happen.

“You know I’m right.” He reads me the way he always does, his smile relaxing into cynical resignation. “Your Logan’s failed you spectacularly, time and time again.”

“What I KNOW,” I correct, lifting a loose suspender from his hip, easing it over his shoulder, “is that you are the most maudlin drunk the world has ever seen. Now put your clothes back on; your best friend needs advice on how to ask out Jackie Cook. I’m going to buy you a Red Bull, which will hopefully sober you up enough to salvage everyone’s Prom Night.”

“Wallace is using Lilly to make Jackie jealous,” Logan explains, leering down at me. “I seem to recall that worked well with YOU.”

I smack his chest, and he grabs and kisses me. His breath could anesthetize a buffalo, but I sink into him anyway.

“Never leave me,” he whispers, when we break apart. “I don’t deserve you, but please stay.”

“I’m done running,” I tell him. “And YOU need to be done falling apart. Everything Aaron told you about yourself is WRONG. The best way to make him spin in his grave is to prove that, every day.”

“If I drink the Red Bull, will you help me live out my limo fantasy?” He lifts his hands obligingly as I tuck in his shirt.

“You want me to ride you until you beg for mercy?” I ask, glancing up from where I’m buttoning his cuffs.

“Mmm, that’s a rhetorical question, right?” He sniffs my hair. “You always smell like flowers.”

I locate his jacket, wadded up behind the punch bowl, shake it out. “Sober up,” I tell him, with my most dangerous smile. “And we’ll do it all the way home, you dressed, me nude.”

He groans and kisses me again, not even trying to be coy this time about grabbing my ass. I wiggle out of his grasp, finish grooming him, and jerk my head at Luke to help me get him to the table. Dick follows, still laughing. I guess after a fifth of whatever’s in the flask, the whole world seems funny.

“Look, Meg, I brought our Prince Charmings back!” I say, as Luke sprawls Logan into a chair. “Will one of you keep him from choking on vomit, while I find some caffeine?”

“I’ll go with you,” Lilly says, rising. She plants a kiss in the center of Wallace’s forehead. “I could use a break from the noise.” She’s wearing form-fitting silver sequins, which rise up to a collar around the throat, and her hair’s in a chignon. She looks elegant and glamorous, but not like she’s trying to enthrall. She looks…mature.

I bite my lip, because my mental version of Lilly is frozen in time, forever bubbly, secretive, hedonistic and young. But here, she’s growing up, too. Maybe even faster than me. And this is the first time I’ve noticed.

“So, A+ job jerking around Logan,” she praises, as we stride down the hall together. She flashes a sly grin. “First you drag him off for an LA weekend, and he comes back twisted up in knots. Then you saunter over just as he reaches peak drunkenness, straighten his tie, and all of a sudden he’s leaking sunshine. I feel like the proudest mama at the kindergarten talent show. I can see I’ve trained you well.”

I roll my eyes. “He got it into his head that he’s going to knock me up. The resulting abstinence is messing with his brain.”

“Switch to oral,” she says, with a shrug. “Or anal. No chance of getting pregnant, and that boy has a true talent for perversion.”

I burst into laughter at her matter-of-fact tone, because honestly. Only Lilly. “I’ll take that under advisement,” I say. “Meanwhile, how are things in the world of you?”

“Well…” she slumps, flat-palmed, against the soda machine as I root through my clutch for change, eyes wide, mouth puckered. She arches mischievous brows. “I’m thinking of declaring a Women’s Studies major. I’m volunteering at a shelter on weekends, which is difficult, but makes me feel useful. So THAT’S a novel experience. Also, I had my first overnight with the girl from biology class which didn’t involve a boy in the middle.” She grins. “Really, I’m a typical college student, except I haven’t gained the freshman 15.”

I smile at her, as the Red Bull tumbles down. “Was the boy missed?”

“Less than you’d think.” She shrugs. “Thanks to an impressive array of appliances. Take note, Veronica Mars. The key to happiness is a well-rounded education.”

I put my arm around her waist as we turn back, and she puts hers across my shoulders: in 4-inch heels, she’s taller. “Any new developments with the Manning fiasco?” I ask. “I heard Stewart’s been calling you some not-so-nice names.”

She growls. “That piece of shit. The deeper I sink into this mess, the more I wish he’d get hit by a comet. He’s TRYING to slander me. But Jake and Clarence had me, and everybody who knows my secrets, scrubbed across the web before I made it home that night. And all my paper records were clean the next day. Say what you will about Wiedman’s social graces, he is WELL worth his paycheck.”

“How’s Grace holding up?” I ask.

She makes a see-saw motion with her hand. “She likes her foster family,” she says. “Clarence vetted them, too, they’re nice. She’s scared, of course. Has lots of issues. I’m not allowed to talk to her, while the legal stuff is in progress, but I get regular reports from the social worker. She’s on my side.”

I want to ask if I’m in trouble with the law, too, but that’s a question I need to save for Sober Logan. Instead, I say, “Way to be a pal for Wallace, incidentally. Do you think this scheme you two cooked up will actually work?”

“Oh, it already has,” she says, unenthusiastic. “Jackie Cook’s chomping at the bit to taste whatever I’m having. I just don’t know if the girl is worth this effort. I mean she’s smart, and super hot, no doubt. But her constant name-dropping makes my teeth itch. None of the famous people she supposedly knows will stay her friends for long, if this is the way she keeps secrets.”

“What’s Logan’s take?” I ask. Because I’m curious as to how he sees her, when he’s not pissed at me, and looking to scam. “I have yet to watch them interact.”

“He encourages her,” she says, with a grin. “To double down on the lies. It’s actually hilarious.” Her expression softens. “He won’t rip into her, of course, because Wallace is smitten. But he became deeply sarcastic, last week, after they both left the room.”

“She’s only here for a year,” I say. “Not long enough to do permanent damage. She’s got a kid back in New York, she’ll head home after she graduates.”

“She WHAT?” Lilly stops dead, forcing me to stop, too. “She left a KID behind, so she could lead my Wallace on, hit some LA nightclubs? OK, that just slid her down the Lilly Kane approval rating from ‘Meh, whatever’ to ‘Search and destroy’. She does NOT get to rip the heart out of the world’s sweetest guy with those BABY-ABANDONING TALONS!”

“Lils,” I say. “The kid is with her mom. And she must have gotten pregnant when she was like 15. Cut her some slack.”

“Would YOU abandon a child, after making the choice to keep it?” she demands, and it’s not like I can say yes. “Of course you wouldn’t! Because you have metaphorical BALLS, Veronica Mars! Children need someone in their corner, and any mother who won’t be that someone is no better than Celeste. I was lucky enough to have you and Logan and Donut, backing me up, and Grace has me. But Jackie’s mother produced Jackie, so forgive me if I doubt her pinch-hitting skills.”

She fumes, pacing. I watch fascinated, because Lilly Kane, Mother Hen, is not a concept I’ve considered. “Jackie’s not mean to Wallace,” I coax, once she starts to slow. “She actually digs him. And he REALLY likes her.”

Lilly rolls her eyes. “He likes ALL pretty girls,” she says. “Up until he laid eyes on Miss I’m Too Sexy, it was nothing but Jessica Jessica Jessica, since you came back from Fiji. And Jessica NEVER name drops. She doesn’t HAVE to.”

“Jessica’s cool,” I say, nostalgically. “I wish he would choose her, too. But Wallace gets to decide how he distributes his Pimp Juice, not us.”

“You did NOT just use those words!” she accuses, as we re-enter the auditorium.

“I’m afraid it’s a direct quote,” I tell her, making fake-sad face. “As is, ‘don’t hate the playa, hate the game’. Sorry to break it to you, but your prom date’s a Mac Daddy.”

She laughs, flings her arms around Wallace as we approach the table. Kisses his cheek and says, “Wallace, sweetie, you keep me young.”

“I do?” he asks, with lifted eyebrows. “Because 19 is old? What did you SAY to her, V?”

I shrug, popping the lid on the Red Bull, pressing it into Logan’s hand. He leers at me over the can, but obligingly drinks. “I told her you’re a heartbreaker and a dream-taker, of course. And said she’d better check herself before she wrecks herself. Because you, my friend, have got the MAD love.”

He narrows his eyes at me, and I flash my biggest, cheesiest grin. Dick drains his flask, belches, and says, “Whatever, Ronnie. Quote shit I don’t recognize all you want. At least you quit torturing your boyfriend long enough for me to get some face time with my special lady.”

He winks at Meg, draping an arm along the back of her chair, and she favors him with a sunny smile. “Hey, can I have some of whatever you’re drinking?” she asks, eyes lowered modestly as she runs a finger along his forearm. She glances up at him through her lashes, and his grin gets bigger.

“You can have anything I’ve got,” he says, handing the flask over. She sloshes it experimentally, assessing the contents, arches her eyebrows at me with a grin, and proceeds to drain it. Gives it back with another sweet smile, and a kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks, Dick,” she says. “I was SUPER thirsty.”

Logan laughs, toasting her with the Red Bull. “ALL the best blondes are sitting right by me.”

“Got room for a brunette?” an arch voice asks, and I turn to see Jackie standing behind Wallace, trailing the basketball player I guess is her date. She’s in purple, a pleated, Grecian spaghetti-strap style that makes her skin seem gilded; I can see why everyone’s BFF is smitten.

“Jackie!” Wallace scoots his chair back with an enormous smile. “If the brunette’s you? No need to even ask.” He stands to shake her friend’s hand, as the guy returns from pilfering chairs. “Trey, man, how’s it going? You two having fun?”

Trey shrugs, placing his seat and slumping into it. He’s tall and baby-faced, with a squared-off buzz cut and a shaved-in part; he looks good in his tux, but like he’d rather not be wearing it. “Proms aren’t my scene, man. I’d rather be kicking it at a private party, with a drink in my hand.”

“Amen,” Dick says, nodding sagely. He pats one side of his tuxedo jacket, then the other. Extracts a fifth of bourbon, grins, winks at Meg, offers it to Trey. “Don’t worry, man, they’re not gonna bust us. This is the table the chaperones don’t see.”

“We’re sitting RIGHT in their blind spot,” Logan explains, resting a hand on my thigh. “It’s like MAGIC.”

“I always DID admire a good parlor trick.” Jackie takes the flask away from Trey, toasts the group, enjoys a healthy swallow. “Anybody up for a change of venue?” she asks. “Maybe something a little less…twee? The owner of the new dance club on 43rd is a fan of dad’s. I can get us all in without ID’s.”

Lilly crosses her arms and leans forward, a Queen Bee gleam in her eye. “We’ve got live music, booze, clever conversation, and all the hottest boys right here, and our limo’s parked outside. Do we look like we NEED any favors?”

Logan glances at me, surprised, then at Wallace, more measuring. Turns to Lilly, his faint anticipating-mayhem grin making an appearance. He laces his hands together, sets them primly on the table.

“Lils. Angel,” he says. “Jackie’s only trying to use her numerous connections to enhance our evening. It’s not like she’s moving in on your MAN.” He shakes his head at her in mock chagrin. “You need to learn from Veronica’s example, and let go of all that JEALOUSY.”

“Why would Veronica feel jealous?” she shoots back, acid-sweet. “Or Meg, or me, or JACKIE, for that matter? ALL our dates are MODELS of boyfriendly virtue.”

Trey leans towards Wallace. “Does either of them mean anything that’s coming out of their mouths?”

Wallace shrugs, a frown forming between his brows. “I’m hoping, for their sake, they mean ALL of it.”

Trey re-appropriates Dick’s fifth, takes another sip. “Rich people,” he says, with a sigh. “I can’t WAIT to move out of Neptune.”

“You know where I want to go?” I ask, wistfully. Because I can tell this evening is headed rapidly downhill, and gathering steam. “Berkeley. Far enough away that I have to drive for a day, to visit the people I love; but not so far I can’t. I’d like a nice house on the beach, near some really good surfing. And I want to bring my DOG, and my boyfriend, and all my best friends with me.”

“Well, I’D love to go to Paris,” Jackie says, with a venomous glance at Lilly. “Or failing that, someplace where I’m surrounded by fashionable ADULTS. Wallace, Dick, thanks for the hospitality. If anybody has the urge to meet us at Lestat, later, the offer stands. I’ll put your names on the list with Curly, at the door.”

“I want to go to Lestat,” Dick says, like he could care less if he starts shit. “Meg, you got a curfew? You up for some unchaperoned dancing?”

“As of last week, I’m 18,” she tells him, with a diamond-hard smile. “The days when I had to be in bed by ten, saying my prayers, are LONG gone.”

“See? Some of us are grateful when hot chicks offer favors,” Dick tells Lilly, meeting her glare with a smirk. Trey tries to hand the fifth back, and he waves it away. “Keep it, man. I’ve got a whole case of party supplies in the trunk of the limo. Logan, Wally and I haul the fun around WITH us.”

“Is that how you wound up plowed?” I ask Logan, in an undervoice. “Cruising with the boys in the limo all evening, partaking in ‘fun’?”

“Cut me slack,” he says, in my ear. “I’m lonely. Mom’s in LA, Trina’s planted, Dick has a girlfriend, and Wallace is wholly focused on getting laid. Lilly’s engrossed in her new life, Veronica fits me in between cases, and you come and go like a leaf on the wind. This is one night out with friends, not an addiction; and it’s important to me you understand that. I promised you, remember? Said I’d make better choices? You and I, we’re a team, flipping the bird to fate.”

“Justice not vengeance,” I confirm, with a faint smile. “Trust, not jumping to the worst possible conclusion. And ten deep breaths, not punching people in the face.”

He smirks. “Maybe we need to hold off on that last one,” he says. “Let’s call the fighting a work in progress.”

“We have possibly five minutes,” I tell him, “before this evening degenerates into chaos. You want to leave these idiots to fend for themselves, and sneak in a dance?”

“I thought you’d never ask.” He stands, helps me out of my chair. Angry voices rise in pitch behind us, as we walk away.

“Can we just…sway, though?” He drapes his arms across my shoulders once we’re out on the floor, pressing his face to my hair. “The room is spinning, and the foxtrot lessons really haven’t taken hold.”

I laugh. “Alicia strikes again?”

“We have to take turns going WITH HER,” he confirms, shuddering. “Penance for the ditch day. She dances circles around us BOTH, Wallace’s bragging notwithstanding.”

I can’t control my snickers. Alicia is the BEST.

“Yeah, laugh it up,” he says, but I can feel him smiling against my scalp. “Veronica, I have to tell you. Someone else died.”

I pull away to look at him, and he regards me, solemn. “Some dude I don’t know, Michael Showalter. Took a bunch of pills. I have no idea if it’s related to the Peter thing, but he used to pitch for Woody’s Little League team. Lucky’s out of jail again, he’s been raving a lot about how the Sharks are cursed.”

“Shit,” I say. “Should we pay Vinnie to follow Beaver?”

He shakes his head. “You’re not going to like this. Vinnie’s making noises about running for Sheriff. I’m thinking the Fitzpatricks are sick of your Dad’s interference.”

“Ugh, you have GOT to be kidding me!” I groan. “The puppet candidate is supposed to be LAMB!”

“Deputy Lamb,” Logan says, flatly. “The guy who let that crazy woman with a knife into the Casablancas Christmas party, because he was hitting on Madison instead of watching the door? No fucking way will that EVER happen. I hear he works at a GAS STATION, now.”

“Well, it happened where I come from,” I say. “I still have nightmares. What’s the latest on Weevil?”

“He’s back,” Logan says. “Your Barbie lady plan was a success. Oh, and somebody took a shot at us when we were doing it in the car, in the Dog Beach parking lot. If you notice a bunch of cuts along your right thigh, they’re from broken glass.”

“At least the PCH’ers didn’t catch us at the donut shop,” I say, philosophically. “We can continue to use THAT make-out location.”

“True.” He smiles, and kisses me between the eyes. “Veronica Mars, always looking on the bright side.”

He tries to spin me then, but stumbles to the side, momentum shifted by a shove from Dick. “Way to be a wingman, bro,” our third wheel says. “I forgive you ‘cause you’re all emo and horny right now, and not paying attention to anything but your dick. But you’re lucky I was there to smooth things over with Wally’s imaginary girlfriend; Lilly wanted to TAKE HER OUT.” He folds his arms, unfazed that he’s standing between a couple on a dance floor. “Someone whose name rhymes with Bonnie has been stirring the pot.”

I make a face. “Sorry about that. I told Lilly about the kid Jackie left behind in New York, and she got PISSED. She’s way maternal lately, and she’s focusing her protective instincts on Wallace.”

“Man, he’s got the worst chick mojo,” Dick marvels, shaking his head. “All the ladies want to bone Logan until they heal HIS pain, but Wallace they just try to CUDDLE. That dude NEEDS Jackie Cook, on a fundamental growing-the-fuck-up level. No more gossiping, Rons, unless you WANT him to be a virgin ‘til he’s 30.”

“I prefer to never think about Wallace’s sex life again,” I say, with a shudder. “He feels more like my brother than you do. So what’s the verdict? Are we headed to Lestat?”

“Depends,” he says. “Are you up to keeping Lilly out of Jackie’s face for the rest of the evening? Can you convince her to get back with the program?”

“Lils is not a problem,” Logan says, with a smirk. “Ronica and I had a tag-team system in place to handle her by age 14. I piss her off, and V helps her tell me to go to hell. Distracts her from wreaking havoc every time.”

“Be on your A game, then, man. Because she and Jackie were nose to nose, hissing at each other, for like half the time you’ve been dancing. I thought they were gonna have a girl fight.”

I thumbs-up. “Once more into the breach, sugar lumps?”

Logan rolls his eyes. “I need another Red Bull. And we are making out in the car for at LEAST half an hour, before I take you home.”

XXXXX

“Well, that was FUN,” I say, when it’s 3:37 a.m., and Logan and I are alone in the limo at last. “Thank God this is our Senior Year, because I don’t know how many more prom-night disasters I can take.”

“One down, three to go,” he says philosophically, slumping so his knees touch the opposite bench. “I’m nominating you for Queen of the Winter Carnival, just so you know. A plastic crown will add fake authority, while you stage-manage sturm und drang.”

“I particularly enjoyed the insults,” I muse, ignoring this. “’Name-dropping trailer-park cast-off’ was my favorite. Or maybe ‘out-of-control celebutante trash’.”

“Strictly speaking, I’M the celebutante.” Logan runs a forefinger gently down my arm. “Jackie was a little off her game, by that point. She should never have chugged the Mai Tai.”

“I really need to lock down my mouth,” I tell him. “I used to have the BEST poker face. But lately I keep forgetting who knows what, and which reality’s got its claws in me.”

“Hint,” he says, leaning in close. “This is the reality where I adore you.”

“That doesn’t help.” I smile and close the distance, pressing my temple to his. “You adore me in ALL of them. I’m irresistible.”

“You are,” he agrees. “I’m humbled by your five feet of furious magnificence.”

“If we weren’t exhausted and hung over,” I say, “I’d lock the doors right now, and remind you of your fantasy.”

“Mmmm.” He settles back, a dreamy, squint-eyed smile on his face, drapes his arm around me. “I’d ask you to take off your dress and get on top of me. But I’d make sure you wore the shoes.”

I laugh, extending a foot to study my gold, spike-heeled sandals. “All I have on under this dress is a little black g-string,” I say, leaning my head against his shoulder. “Just so you know.”

He groans. “Then I’d last about five seconds. I’d have to make you come first; keep you believing I’m a gentleman. Hands, or mouth?”

“I have to pick?” I lift one of his giant paws, toy with his fingers. “What kind of cut-rate fantasy is this?”

He laughs, kisses my ear. “Both, then. I’d rip off your panties and stash them in my pocket, for a souvenir. I’d spread you out on the seat, do that thing with my tongue that makes you shiver all over. Then I’d pull you onto my lap, use my thumbs ‘til you’re soaking wet. I’d watch your beautiful face. And I’d drag the sex out as long as possible. Make Senior Memories. Make it last.”

“I wouldn’t be in the mood to go slow,” I say, gazing deeply into his eyes. The moment seems more serious, suddenly, more fraught. Like we’re reciting vows. “This is where the riding you until you beg for mercy part would come into play.”

“You’re not merciful, Veronica,” he says, with a half-smile. “Begging wouldn’t do me any good.”

“No,” I agree. “I’m relentless. I would never, ever, ever quit, until I’d wrung you totally dry.”

He closes his eyes, blows out a breath; that image pretty much floors him. His lips curve into a rueful smile. “I’m so happy you showed up tonight,” he says, framing my face with his hands. “You put all my stupid fights with Veronica into perspective.”

“Just part of the luxury, full-service girlfriend package I offer,” I quote, and he cracks up, hugging me close.

“You never forget ANYTHING,’ he says. I counter, “Oh, like you DO.”

“Nothing that relates to you,” he agrees. “When I’m 106, chatting up the nurses at the home? My memories of you will be the last to go.”

“See that they are,” I admonish, and nestle into his chest. He rolls down the window, just a crack; and out past the highway noise, I can hear the reassuring rushing of waves.

XXXXX

“I wish we didn’t have to say goodnight,” he whines when we pull up at Jake and Lianne’s, all limpid puppy eyes in the half-dark. “I wish we could get a place together, the way you suggested once. We’re 18 now, it’s not like anyone could stop us. I mean, if you wanted to.”

“You KNOW I want to,” I say, touching his face. “You know I WILL. But it’s her that has to make the choice: your Veronica. SHE’S the one who needs to feel ready. And it sounds like you two were fighting tonight, not planning to kick commitment up a notch.”

“No more than usual,” he says, gazing out the window. “She’s afraid I’m cheating, I think, because I’ve been too scared to have sex: but I mean, I can’t tell her there's gonna be a baby. She keeps making veiled comments about not being good in bed. And she hates me drinking, I guess because her mom used to booze it up when she was little. Only she never told me that, did she? That was you. SHE just goes off, saying we need to get our acts together, turn our lives around, rise up above our sordid pasts, yadda yadda yadda. It’s way less fun than chasing Weevil through amusement parks and banging in the closet at parties, I have to admit.”

“She’s barely 18,” I say, with some compassion. “When I was her, I was all repressed rage, coping with Duncan Kane’s erectile dysfunction. You know the first time I had an actual orgasm during sex? The summer after senior year. You and I took your boat to Catalina, and spent the whole day anchored off-shore, doing it in the berth.”

“Veronica,” he says, with irony, “I’M barely 18. And she’s had nothing BUT good sex, with a faithful boyfriend who loves her. That’s not even why she’s mad at me, anyway. It’s just the current reason she’s voicing.”

“So why IS she mad at you, then?” I ask. “The REAL reason.”

He gazes at me for a long moment, and I think he’ll actually answer. Add a second rail to the bridge of trust we built, at the School Is For Later party. But then he shrugs elaborately and says, with a smirk, “’Cause I’m a loser, baby. Why else?”

“Ugh,” I say, shaking my head at him. “Go home, sober up. Tell Veronica you saw some Teen Mom after-school special that scared the crap out of you, so she understands your motives. And see if you can find out, very discreetly, who Beaver’s hanging around with, where he’s going. We need evidence of his involvement in these ‘suicides’; and if Dad, Vinnie and I are all off the table, investigation-wise, we’ll need to depend on you. Be subtle, though. Don’t let him find out you’re asking. He’s smart, and he’s a dangerous guy.”

Logan nods, pulls me into a hug. “Come back soon.”

“The minute I fall asleep tomorrow,” I promise, into the side of his neck. I kiss his cheek, his mouth, then just hold him until he calms and settles. I exit the car, and he leans out to wave through the window as it drives away.

The house is dark and silent, runner sconces the only illumination when I let myself in. A half-grown Loki pads up to greet me, pressing his head to my leg. I drop to my knees and hug him, too, fiercely glad he’s still around.

He follows me into my room, curls up at the foot of my bed, and I settle into my desk chair with a sigh. Alone, for the first time in what seems like forever. I’m not sure what to even do with a rare free moment.

A thought occurs to me, and I grin. Pull a notebook and pen from the desk drawer, and construct my comparative realities document.

It takes me more than two hours of crossing out and considering, before I have a clean, compact cheat-sheet, containing everything I know. I have to shred several trial runs, then wash the shreds down the sink, but finally I've got a fair copy. I conceal it in the air vent, with a mental nod to Lils; then remind myself to tell Logan it’s there, so he can access it if he wants. After which I sit back down, brain still buzzing, stare at the unicorn screensaver on my sleeping laptop, and wonder what to do next.

On a whim, I type in my most-often-used high school password (xF@33#oHn*95), and it unlocks with a beep. I grin, cracking my knuckles, and proceed to invade Other Veronica’s privacy.

She’s got no files on Beaver, and nothing on Manning that I can find: not even in the obscure sub-directories where I hide important stuff. Her Weevil notes are also routine, and about six months old. Which means Other Veronica’s not buds with him anymore, either.

I have a light bulb moment then, pull up AOL, and log into the kittenfancy account I told Carrie about, God—how long ago? A week? And bingo. One email new, from vmars@aol.com, written just before the start of school, on the last day of August. The title is ‘Question’.

I click it, read the sole sentence on the page, and my heart drops to my shoes. I rue, once again, the fact that THIS Veronica listens, when Carrie Bishop tells ghost stories.

Because what it says is, “Are you Lilly?”

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY THREE

I’m sitting at my desk at Jake and Lianne’s, reading email; half-grown Loki pants peacefully on the floor, and dawn lightens the sky outside. Then the world tilts sideways, upside down, inside out…and I’m standing in the living room, full-grown Loki on a leash, suffering an embrace from my mother.

“He’ll be company for you,” she says, through gratuitous tears, smiling in the needy way that both guilts me, and works my last nerve. “Since you’re leaving the dorm. He’ll have room to roam. You know how much he loves…” she chokes up again, and I manage to refrain from rolling my eyes.

Jake is standing behind her, a hand on her shoulder. She turns her face into his chest. His arms surround her, soothing, a look on his face I’ve only seen directed at Lilly; amused, affectionate, fond. Behind him, a mover bustles by, dollying a row of boxes out of my room. He calls to someone past the door, “This is the last of it, yeah?” Someone shouts back, “I THINK.”

Logan leans into my ear, and I startle, because I didn’t realize he was beside me. He whispers, “You want me to check the vent before we go? Make sure you don’t leave secrets behind?”

“The list!” I hiss back, striving for focus as Lianne begins to sob. “I made a chart of all the realities, and what differs between them; I stuck it in the vent over the bed. Lock the door before you unscrew, so the movers don’t see.”

“Oh, holy shit, Mrs. R!” he says, and pulls me into a hug. “Thank God! I was so worried about you!”

“I’m peachy,” I assure him, with a glance at Lianne and Jake. “It’s just, the slipstream’s yanking me from place to place now, without waiting ‘til I go to sleep. Is VERONICA OK? Did she faint?”

He shakes his head. “Just dizzy,” he says. “I gave her a fruit roll-up and a Sunkist, no harm done. The scare actually convinced her to take things easy; so despite my freak-out, I guess it goes in the win column?”

We’re interrupted by Lianne, who burrows between us to cling to me, saying, “Oh, my baby’s all grown!” This time, my eyeballs roll of their own volition.

Logan grins, jerks his thumb at my bedroom; I nod past Lianne’s shoulder, stroke her spine. He walks backwards, putting a hand over his heart. I blow him a kiss before he turns the corner.

XXXXX

I walk through my door, ten agonizing minutes of mother-comforting later, Loki padding behind me; toss my purse on the chair, and stop short. Logan is sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, staring vacantly at nothing. And he’s gripping my spreadsheet.

“Hi,” I say, circling him, to sit on the edge of the mattress.

He shifts his gaze to the page, doesn’t answer. The expression on his face is one I haven’t seen in a long time. Not since he found me on the beach, maybe, in Original! Junior Year, after I turned him in to the cops. It’s his look of profound betrayal, eyes tear-glassed.

“So I made it all the way to second place, huh?” he asks, with a caustic half-laugh, swallowing to hold back emotion. “I’m ahead of the douchebag who helped Donut rape you, and the guy who couldn’t keep you out of jail. But I don’t quite measure up to the dude who got a ring on you BEFORE he knocked you up, and successfully kissed Keith’s ass. Do I get, like, a smaller trophy? Or just a ribbon? Hey, thanks for participating, not everyone can be a winner!”

“Logan,” I say, in my most pacifying voice, not sure how to handle this. Because I DID organize the lives from worst to best, left to right. Without sparing a thought for how that might impact this Logan’s emotions. “It’s just a list of facts,” I try. “Not a popularity contest. I told you: you’re the exact same person everywhere.”

“I have LIED for you!” he yells, throwing the paper down and springing up, and yeah, here comes the wet-eyed rage. “I have committed CRIMES to keep you safe! I have hung on through a YEAR of my Veronica treating me like shit, because I was waiting for you to come back, Mrs. R. To love me like no one else EVER has; to be with me forever, the way you SAID you would. And now I find out, I’m not even your first choice. You’ve got a me that trumps Piz! A me that jumps, when Keith says how high. And all this work, this BULLSHIT I’ve been doing, to help you with your shifting realities, is so you can find a way to end the dreams, and be with HIM. Leave me in the dust. Right? Fuck, Veronica! I mean, everybody ELSE always drifts away and lets me down, but not YOU. Never YOU. God, I don’t even know what the POINT is, if I don’t have the hope of US to hang on to, anymore.”

“I’ve got zero CONTROL here!” I yell back. “I’m not ALLOWED to choose, the way you’re insinuating! It’s a fucking roulette wheel, and I’m the ball, and there’s a Logan on every number. ALL of them love me the same way you do, because all of them ARE you! And what the hell do you mean, you’ve committed crimes?”

He does the humorless smirk, glancing away. He has his sleeves wrapped around his hands, which are curled into fists; he’s shifting from foot to foot like he might leap, unexpectedly. “I kept the gun,” he says.

“Gun? What gun?”

He rolls his eyes. “The gun that killed Abraham Lincoln. Jesus, keep up, Veronica. You’re smarter than this.”

“The gun with my prints on it,” I say, slowly. “The one used to shoot Felix, which then disappeared.”

“You called me,” he says. “Or she did, my Veronica. She phoned me from a gas station. I went to get her, she was all torn up, with a knot on her temple. Said she came to standing over the body of Felix Toombs, with that thing in her hand. So I took charge. Told Dick to say he heard her screaming on the phone. Hired the shark of a lawyer Aaron used. Captured Weevil, handed him over to the cops. I figured she shot the guy to save her own life, you know?

“But then YOU showed up at the Sheriff’s Station the next day, with no idea what I’d done. I realized you were the one who got kidnapped, not her, and that’s why her memories were wonky. You were the one who went to the bridge to save Trina. And I could BELIEVE you, when you said you were framed, because no matter how harsh the truth is, you always tell it.

“My Veronica, though…she doesn’t have all the facts, like I do. She’s still not sure whether she murdered someone. It makes her neurotic and guilt-ridden, desperate not to sin again. And she’s ambivalent as fuck about me, because I did the dirty work that saved her. Which just goes to show…no good deed goes unpunished.”

“Who was the real killer?” I ask. “Did you ever find out? I’m thinking Chardo or Thumper?”

He laughs. “Wow, we are learning and sharing ALL OVER the place today! I have no fucking clue whodunnit, Veronica, and you asking means you don’t either. It’s a comedy of errors.” He puts one shirt-wrapped fist to his mouth, chews on the fabric. “I wasn’t interested in dispensing justice; I just played defense. I cleaned the gun and wallpapered it with Weevil’s prints, while I had him handcuffed and unconscious. I was all set to frame him, if you got arrested. But the lawyer earned his paycheck, you and I ate ice cream on the beach. And I swore I’d find proof, before I made Weevil pay.”

He does a huffing sneer-laugh, telegraphing disbelief. “Navarro has no CLUE how lucky he is, that you showed up at the amusement park, instead of Veronica. She hates his guts for framing her, and she was ready to play hardball; but you CLEARED him, and set him loose on Neptune. And the only thing I had as leverage, that whole insane year, was an eviction notice for his grandmother I didn’t want to serve.”

“And did you?” I ask, softly. “Serve it? Where IS Weevil, now?”

He shakes his head. “No way. I’m not feeding you information so you can skip back into the past, and retcon me out of the slipstream. I don’t give a fuck right now if you want me or not. I’m REAL, and you don’t get to wave your magic wand and make me vanish, just because I’m not as perfect as you’d like.”

“Ugh. Can you just TABLE your abandonment issues for a minute? This isn’t all about YOU!”

“But it IS,” he says, spreading his arms wide. “It IS about me! We established that last week. At which time, I made my opinion crystal clear. You have a choice, even if it’s not straightforward, and I need you to choose me. And if you won’t…if you decide you like the other guy’s grass better…well, then, I guess I have the right to do whatever the hell I want. Including not telling you a fucking thing.”

“You’re seriously asking how I FEEL?” I demand, as my temper snaps. “Really, truly? I want my OWN life back, the worst one on the chart! Because at least then, I’d know my circumstances are a result of my own choices. And not those of some mysterious Alt-Veronica I’ll never understand, and might not even like. Whose life I occasionally try on for size! I wish these dreams had never happened!”

“So do I,” he says, gently. “Everything was simpler, when I had no hope.”

He sets the spreadsheet on the bed, looks at it for a minute. Glances up from under his brow at me, smiles his half-smile. “It’s been a wild ride, Mrs. R,” he says. “The perfect wave. Good luck finding the reality that makes you happy.”

He kisses me on the forehead, and goes. I sink down onto the bed, shell-shocked and afraid.

I tip backwards across the mattress, palms up, gazing at the ceiling, wondering what the hell to do. Something pinches on my left hand, and I feel over the spot with my thumb. Metal band on my ring finger. Cold, a little too tight. Tears well.

A deep and wrenching dizziness strikes, and the ceiling goes hazy, then black. I close my eyes, hear Dick, talking. Water splashes against my hand; I dab it with my shirtsleeve. The slipstream threatens, hungry, and I let it swallow me.

THREAD TWENTY THREE INVERTS

I’m in the Casablancas Jeep, riding shotgun, and it’s almost sunset. The weather’s cool enough that I’m wearing a sweater; the wind stings, through the wet spot I’ve made on my sleeve. New Bomb Turks are playing on the stereo, just above the road noise, and Dick’s shaggy hair flaps around like a flag.

“So you and Meg…” I say, because it’s the last thing I remember learning about Improved Past Dick. “How’s that working out for you?”

He shrugs, unsurprised, which means I’ve managed a seamless transition. “It’s new,” he says. “So far, no complaints.”

“Can’t be THAT new.” I try to sound teasing, but my heart is pounding. My chest heaves with the effort I’m expending to stifle sobs, and how can he not TELL? “You were cuddly in Fiji. And I seem to recall you going on super-secret dates, as long ago as last summer.”

“That was a different girl.” He fiddles with the dial, lips pressed flat. “And no, I’m not telling you who, Rons, go be nosy with your other friends. I’m not seeing her anymore, anyway. Meg doesn’t have to worry I’m hound-dogging around.”

“Sounds like ‘someone else’ dumped you,” I guess, not without sympathy.

He frowns. “Look, it was complicated, topic closed. Things are easier with Meg. She’s super-hot, everybody likes her, and we have all the same friends. Also, she’s just crazy enough to be interesting. Like, I might throw a f…” he glances sideways at me, “pay ATTENTION to a boring girl, if she was gorgeous and stacked. But that’s not the type I’d DATE.”

“Dick. It doesn’t stop being a repulsive statement just because you cut out the dirty words.”

He snorts. “Whatever, Rons. Go harp on Logan, if you feel like criticizing someone for not being perfect. He’s so gone over you he’ll take it. But me, I’m OK with my animal nature.”

“You think I slag Logan too much?” I turn to gaze out the window. Pick at a loose flap of leather on the armrest.

He glances sideways. “You’re kidding, right? Did you just, like, see the light in my passenger seat? Because I am totally burning a candle in church. Or whatever the fuck religious people do, to thank Jesus.”

I shrug. “I can’t remember what happened when Felix Toombs died, and it’s stressing me out. I may have done some… projecting.”

He pulls the car over to the shoulder. Levels an incredulous look at me. “So this wringer you’ve been putting both of you through. This was GUILT?”

I shrug, and he flings his head back against the seat with a groan. “Man, the two of you worry like most people breathe. You were unconscious, Ronnie! They drugged you HARDCORE!”

He digs through his cargo shorts for his phone, hits a speed dial. “Dude, do me a favor,” he says, when it’s answered. “Bring my laptop to Cho’s instead of my house? Yeah, I need it in like an hour, and I don’t have time to go home. Yeah, thanks man, way to be a bro.”

He hangs up, levels a glare at me. “You need to tell Logan WHY,” he says, kicking the engine back on, peeling out. “It’s not like he won’t forgive you. But he needs to hear it’s not all his fault.”

XXXXX

When we pull into the parking lot of Cho’s, the XTerra’s there waiting. Logan’s got both doors open, his feet up, crossed, on the dash; I’d think he was asleep, behind his shades, except he curses as we roll into view.

“Dude, this is UNCOOL,” he accuses, while Dick pulls to a stop, yanks on the parking brake. He leaps out the passenger door, in his nimble and effortless way, slaps Dick’s laptop against his chest. “There’s no room on my schedule for ranting and angst today, as it happens."

“Ronnie wants to APOLOGIZE,” Dick says, letting this comment slide past. “And I gotta drain the python. Ten minutes ‘til mom and Keith get here, Rons. You should skip the part where you work up to making nice.”

He disappears into the restaurant, smirking at the expression on my face. I turn towards Logan, helpless. “Shouldn’t he be forced to wear the sparkly dress, and wave the magic wand, if he’s playing Fairy Godmother in our drama?”

“I thought we were taking a break,” Logan snaps, ignoring this sally. His arms are folded, sarcasm set to stun. “You’re sick of my immature bullshit, remember? You have no interest in watching me get killed? I mean, I can believe Dick would pull a patching-things-up stunt, because underneath the douche-bro attitude he’s a total mother hen. But I’m surprised you didn’t tuck and roll, when informed of his plan.”

“It’s ME,” I say, impatient. “TIME-TRAVELING me, and I have no idea what the hell is going on. Dick thinks I’m back here confessing that Veronica can’t remember the murder; I told him she gives you shit out of guilt. But you said as much to ME, when you were ripping me a new one half an hour ago. So I’m sure you’re already aware.”

He sighs. Tilts his head back and closes his eyes, as if in pain. He’s wearing the threadbare Killers shirt he saves for lounging; he looks bleary and mussed, like he just rolled out of bed. “Was I drunk?” he guesses. “Future me? And spilling my guts in the stupidest possible way? Because if so, I guess it’s time for a second ass-reaming, from a slightly more sophisticated vicious blonde.”

“You were UPSET,” I say. “And I won’t even get into why, because I’ll make damn sure it never happens. What the hell were you thinking, lying to me about the night Felix died, Logan? Hiding the gun? Convincing Dick to fib to the cops? Planning to frame Weevil, for a crime he didn’t commit? Have you been smoking CRACK?”

“I was protecting my girlfriend!” he says, through his teeth. “Because that’s how we DO!”

“You’re the most intelligent person I know, but you never THINK!” I yell, disgusted. “You were right about ONE thing. It WAS me who got kidnapped. And I’m the one who woke up in the alley, with a gun in my hand. But I don’t have any more memory of what went down than Veronica does. Either I was out from the chloroform the whole time, or I’ve got event-specific amnesia due to the head injury. Which, I still don’t know how THAT happened. I’m not convinced either one of us shot him; in my reality, it was Thumper. But at this point, I can’t rule us out. So hey, maybe she’s slowly turning into an asshole here because she IS the killer!” I shake my head at him, teeth clenched, because God! He’s so FRUSTRATING, when he dives headfirst into quicksand, playing hero. “Oh, and by the way? Carrie told Veronica I exist, and expounded on every single one of her nutty theories. Veronica now thinks you like me better, and is sporting an inferiority complex. She also believes I’m the ghost of LILLY.”

He stares at me for a minute, and then starts to laugh. Big, long belly laughs, making him gasp and wheeze. He slumps onto the pavement, buries his face in his hands. “You have been BUSY since fall prom,” he says, at last. “Or else, I’ve finally gone insane.”

“He dumped me,” I confide, sitting down too. “Future Logan. Because he got jealous of another future Logan, who he believed I liked better.”

This sets him off again. He presses his face into my shoulder, giggling hysterically. “Veronica dumped ME,” he manages, after a minute, “because she caught me investigating Beaver. The way you asked me to.”

I can’t help it. I snicker. We lean our foreheads together and laugh, even though everything is insanely complicated, and possibly we’re screwed. At least our pitch-black senses of humor remain intact.

“Why did he decide you liked another version better?” Logan asks, after a while. He tucks me into his side, kisses my temple.

“I made a chart,” I sigh. “Of all the realities, and what’s different about them, after prom. I hid it in the vent over my bed, at Jake and Lianne’s. I thought I was being so clever and organized. But he got mad, because his reality wasn’t the furthest to the right.”

Logan presses a smile from his lips. “I’ll retrieve it,” he says. “Before the end of the day, and burn it. Problem solved. He won’t freak out and dump you in the future, because he’ll already know what it says. And it won’t languish in the vent like a time bomb, until found by some random repairman.”

“I’ll pass a message to Veronica,” I offer. “Let her know who I am. I should have done it the first time I talked to Carrie, but I’m just…not a sharer.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want Carrie involved anymore,” he says. “We need to keep her knowledge about the slipstream, about us, at a minimum. She’s loyal to Veronica, but she considers ME fair game.”

“Agreed,” I say; I wasn’t planning to involve Carrie, anyway. “Logan, I need the truth. Are you playing cat and mouse with Weevil? Are you blackmailing him?”

He shakes his head. “Veronica, your dad and Bettina just pulled into the lot, I can see them through the door. I’m fine dealing with Weevil, I understand him better than you do. But Beaver is a loose cannon. I’m pretty sure he tried to run down Lucky last week, and I found…”

“Dude, thank GOD,” Dick says, emerging from around the corner, voice hinting at long-suffering. “You are SO pathetic when Ronnie gets your balls in a vice, and cranks up the pressure. Come on, pronto hustle, I gotta hand you over to your dad, Rons. Mom needs to be at the hospital in 20 minutes, to see the osteologist with Beav.”

“Man, broken legs SUCK,” Logan says, with emphasis. “I can’t believe he hurt himself that badly running into a parked CAR.”

“Are you HIGH?” Dick asks. “Because stay away from my mom if you are, she’s got like a sixth sense.”

Logan shrugs and mouths ‘too much?’ at me behind Dick’s back, and I shove him.

“Come on Logan,” I say, tucking my arm through his, tugging him in Dick’s wake. “You might as well learn to manage dad now. If he’s heard we’re fighting—and he probably has—you’ll need to grovel before you’re fed.”

XXXXX

Bettina’s brisk efficiency hurts to watch.

She sweeps in like a mistral wind, kissing everyone, paying for pizza, handing a box to Dick to stash in his car. She keeps up a steady stream of chatter; “Veronica, sweetheart, I love the bangs…Logan, be a dear, help Richard put the roof on the jeep, he never remembers to attach it everywhere…Keith, did you call Cathy? Remember, we’d promised to meet for Euchre on Saturday?”. But her eyes are haunted in a way I recognize.

She knows something’s wrong in her life, but she doesn’t want to admit it. Which I could sympathize with, to a certain extent, if PEOPLE WEREN’T DYING.

Dad embraces us all, between bouts of chivalry, and it’s weird: he’s the same old dad, married to his job, but putting in the effort to be kind. He gives both Logan and Dick handshakes followed by hugs, laughs and jokes when Logan makes a crack. He’s not acting overly hearty, or fake, or uncomfortable, the way he did at Bobby’s birthday party. But he doesn’t seem well.

He’s thinner than I can ever remember seeing him, which makes sense if he’s been working out. What remains of his hair is showing a little grey, and, OK, he’s 46. I can see that (even though he was still all brown, my first time through this year). But he’s got bags under his eyes, he’s moving slow; and his mouth turns down at the corners when he’s not smiling, in a way that will eventually wrinkle. He looks sick and sad. It tears at my heart, because I’m not sure what’s wrong.

I watch him, and Logan watches me, worried because I seem upset. Dick watches Logan, making sure we’ve reconciled. Bettina watches Dick, fussing over her less-problematic son, telling him to cut his hair. And dad watches Bettina, his eyes morose. The whole interaction lasts maybe five minutes, before Dick levels a ‘don’t fuck this up again’ look at me, and escorts his mother away. But it’s a perfect circle of dysfunction. And when it’s done, Logan, Dad and I sit shell-shocked around our pizza, none of us eager to eat.

“Soooo,” I say, after a minute, picking pepperoni off a slice, popping it into my mouth. “Helluva week, huh?”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Dad tries a faint smile, doing his best hard-boiled. Logan relaxes a little, grinning at me, like maybe he’s worried, too.

“So dish,” I urge. “Give each shitty development a number from one to ten. Cassidy’s broken leg, Vinnie Van Lowe seeking your job, Stewart Manning vs the CPS, Lucky the Janitor’s hit –and-run? Your bum ticker? Because I recognize the Keith Mars Stoic-When-Life-Is-Awful face. And as a wise man once told me? It WILL freeze that way.”

Logan shoots me an impressed raised-eyebrows look, and I smirk, because yes I DO keep track of current events.

“You forgot ‘the sarcasm of my beloved daughter, which cuts me to the bone’,” Dad retorts. “And, of course, incorporation, which is the only real ten on the list. It’s the fount from which the lesser evils flow.”

“How’s that idea still kicking around?” I wonder aloud. “Wasn’t it a Goodman initiative?”

“Guys like Woody and Manning are just figureheads,” Dad says. “They represent factions, tell the masses how to vote. Incorporation will make a lot of money for a few powerful guys; it hasn’t happened yet only because I keep arresting their candidates. Vinnie’s been tapped to replace me so they can eliminate that stumbling block. None of this is personal.”

Dad presses a fist to his sternum and makes a face, takes a sip of water. I watch with concern. “It’s personal if they’re fighting dirty,” I say.

“Which they are,” Logan contributes. “Alleging police misconduct in the Manning case, to minimize your involvement in the ‘kidnapping’.” He makes air quotes to emphasize his opinion, settling back with a smirk.

“They can’t prove misconduct,” Dad tells us. “Or kidnapping, for that matter. The Mannings keep a spare key hidden in a fake rock in the yard; it’s frequently accessed by friends of Lizzie who…visit, late at night. Meg claims she asked Lilly to use it, to check up on her sister, because Grace stayed home from the rally alone. Had Lilly and Veronica taken Grace anywhere but the police station…by way of Starbuck’s…Manning might have had a case. But as it stands, we’ve got permission to enter, a minor child left unsupervised and in peril, and prompt notification of authorities. There may not be a conviction in Stewart’s future, there’s no medical sign of abuse. But Lilly and Veronica don’t need to worry.”

Meg lies on the record once again, to protect her sister, I think, but don’t say. Her talent for acting verges on scary; but I have to admit, I’m impressed by her balls.

“The slander will hurt your reputation with voters, though,” I muse. “It could cost you the election, whether it’s true or not.”

“Veronica,” Dad says. “My main concern at the moment is not the election, or incorporation, or even my steadily improving health. I asked you to meet me tonight because I need to discuss something important with you.”

“OK,” I say. “Let’s hear it. And for the record, you can trust Logan not to gossip. He’s REALLY good at keeping secrets.”

Logan shoots me a jaundiced look, and I flash my ‘no, you’re not done paying’ smile.

Dad studies us both, sighs. “You know I began the paperwork about a year ago to adopt Susan Knight’s baby,” he says. Which is not at all what I was expecting, but I nod. “Well all this…questioning of my ethics in the press has had a negative effect on that process. I’m so sorry to disappoint you and your friends, sweetie. But it looks, at this point, as if the adoption’s not going to happen.”

I stare at him, nonplussed. “Dad, you’re the hero sheriff. And you’re engaged to a woman with a lot of money, who throws giant parties for charity. They’re rejecting you solely because of an unfounded allegation?”

Dad sets his napkin down, studying me with what looks like shock. “Veronica, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I am definitely NOT engaged. I’m not even currently DATING. I’m an older, single man with a history of heart problems, AND unfounded allegations swirling, who may soon be out of a job. I’m not an ideal candidate for fatherhood, I’m afraid.”

“But…Bettina.” I wave my hand in the direction of the door. “I thought…”

“Bettina is a dear friend, who’s going through a difficult time; and I’m supporting her, because it’s right. But I have grave concerns about Cassidy, both in relation to you, and to….other incidents. I can’t join a family that includes him, no matter how I might feel about his mother. It would be completely unfair to all of you…even Cassidy, should my concerns be unfounded. So I’m sorry if it scotches my chance of adopting Susan’s kid. But marrying Bettina is no longer an option.”

“Does this decision have anything to do with the Lucky Dohanic hit-and-run?” Logan asks shrewdly, glancing up from the napkin he’s folding. He’s been silently making paper airplanes.

“You know I’m not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation,” Dad chides, without heat. Which I guess is an answer in itself.

“Dad,” I say, and hesitate. Because this might be a linchpin moment in the slipstream, and I need to get my speech right. “I'm always happy to avoid Beaver, and I agree with your suspicions. But I’d like you to know three things, OK?”

He nods, and I continue. “One, you’re making the right decision. Bettina’s not evil or anything, but I’m pretty sure that, on some level, she’s aware her son’s doing wrong. And I think she brought him home from France because he was about to get in trouble. However two, I don’t want you to believe I’m against you dating, just because I have doubts about her. I’m fine with you marrying someone who loves you, and starting a second family. Maybe I used to be…possessive, but lately, I’ve grown up some.” I smile at him. “And three, I could care less if you’re Sheriff or not. You have my respect regardless.”

Dad produces a genuine smile this time, squeezes my hand. “You’re one in a million, kid,” he says, and he sounds like he means it. “And I’m proud to be your father. But don’t think this softens my stance on you moving in with your…boyfriend?” He glances at Logan, as if in confirmation. Yeah, sure enough; I may not live with Dad, here, but his grapevine remains intact. “You’re not THAT mature.”

“The roommate idea’s on hold, for the moment,” Logan says, giving me a look that’s both wry and self-deprecating. “Veronica knows I love her, but she’s got some reservations. Currently we’re just friends.”

“Fair enough,” Dad says. “It’s good that you respect her enough not to push. Senior year of high school’s not the best time to make long-term plans, even when your love feels rock-solid. Take it from a guy who knows.”

“Is this gonna be another out-of-nowhere Molotov Cocktail story?” Logan asks, grabbing a piece of pizza, biting down. “Because I LOVE those. And it’s been MONTHS since your last heartwarming lecture.”

Dad gives him a shoulder shove, but he’s grinning now. He picks up a slice, too. “Patience, Grasshopper,” he says, enigmatic. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

We all crack up, and suddenly, I’m hungry.

XXXXX

Half an hour later, replete with cheese, Logan and I stand by the XTerra, waving goodbye to Dad. The taillights of his cop car flash acknowledgement, as he turns out of the lot, and speeds from sight.

I put my arm around Logan, cuddling close. “Do me a favor?”

“I’m at your beck and call,” he says, stroking his knuckles down my cheek. “You should know that by now.”

“Tell Alicia about the baby dad’s adopting, and make it poignant. Explain how critical it is to Susan that her kid go to a good family, how I swore to Carrie I’d find the right home. Also, mention how disappointed dad is, that it might not work out. Allude to tears.”

“Why Veronica Mars!” he gazes down at me, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Are we playing MATCHMAKER?”

I shrug, feigning nonchalance. “Dad could use a friend right now,” I say, airily. “Someone who’s creative, about finding ways to cope.”

“You KNOW SOMETHING,” he sing-songs, and I grin. He pokes me in the side, and I shake my head. “I LIKE it,” he decides, opening the passenger door for me. “Keith and Alicia, sitting in a tree. I’ll make it my mission. Even if this is all part of your long game, to steal Wallace from me.”

“Hey, he was MY BFF FIRST,” I accuse, buckling my seatbelt. “I’m willing to share, but I’m not resigning my claim. And don’t think I won’t fight Lilly for him, either. I noticed her muscling in, the other night at the dance."

“Unless you’ve got Jackie Cook’s email address to hand over, you’re SOL,” he says, backing out of the spot. “Wallace is laser-focused, at present, and Jackie’s playing coy.”

“Oh, hey, that reminds me,” I say. “I need a computer with internet access for five minutes. What’s closest?”

“There’s a public library right around the corner,” he informs me. “That work?”

“YOU know the locations of local libraries?” I demand, feigning astonishment.

“I was forced to visit once for a photo op,” he deadpans. “Press roll-out for an Oscar-bait Hemingway movie. Dad grew a beard.”

“It bothers me that I can’t tell if you’re kidding,” I say, as he pulls into the lot. I kiss his nose. “Meet you by the recent releases display in ten. You can catch up on all the latest bodice rippers.”

“You know I’d rather be ripping yours!” he calls after me, as I move off towards the kiosks. I laugh, but the slipstream could take me any minute. So I don’t turn around.

I log in to kittenfancy, re-read the sole message that’s not from five years ago, consider my response. Take a deep breath, and type.

“No, I’m not Lilly,” I tell Other Veronica. “I’m YOU. And I’m not dead in the future, nor is she. So if you’re putting any credence in Carrie’s idiotic theories, you’re WAY off the mark. I’m here solely to fix mistakes that were made, mistakes that ended with people dead. And I’d appreciate it if you’d start working IN your own best interests, instead of against them.

“For example: Beaver Casablancas is currently enjoying a murder spree. And you dumping Logan for helping investigate is not going to STOP THE KILLING. I’ve saved you TWICE, now, from being roofied and raped by that waste of flesh. You think maybe you could show some gratitude?”

I pause, striving for tact; it’s not exactly my strong suit (or hers, for that matter). “And don’t blame Logan for any of this mess. If you’re mad, blame ME. He loves you, and you SERIOUSLY don’t want to know what your life would be like, without him. I have seen the future, Veronica, and Loganless, it is BLEAK. Take a lesson from me, because I am older and wiser; you think you want normal, but no. Normal will crush your soul. What you need is adoration of your true nature, and he’s the man for the job. Please, for all our sakes. Quit treating the guy like a weakness you’ll outgrow.

Oh, and also, you didn’t kill Felix Toombs. I was there, and I’m sure, and I will make the person who did pay. Quit feeling guilty, it’s not your fault.”

I study the last sentence, breathing sharply through my nose. It’s a lie, but one she needs to hear. On the darkest night of my life, Logan convinced me I wasn’t a killer, and that got me through. I’m maybe not the happiest with Past Veronica, at the moment; but the knowledge that she’s eaten up by guilt makes me strangely protective. I know how guilt rots, from the inside. And I don’t want her to feel that way, anymore.

I hit send, erase my electronic trail, and gather up my bag. Logan is lounging against a shelf, avidly reading ‘The Awakening’, biting absently at his thumbnail. I walk up to him, duck under the book; curl my hands around his biceps, kiss the center of his chest. He folds in around me, kisses the top of my head. We stand there holding each other for a long, long time.

XXXXX

He’s silent as we drive away from the library, reflective. He smiles at me, entwines our fingers, but doesn’t want to speak. I wonder if the book triggered something in him, but can’t remember what it’s about. Orgasms, maybe? Affairs?

“Would you like to …park somewhere?” I ask, when we stop at a light. Because his mood is strange, but I still feel raw from the throw-down earlier. I’d just like to affirm that I love him, and he loves me, and all of this won’t somehow end in tears.

“I’d love to,” he says, voice gentle. He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. “I can’t. Veronica and I…we’re broken up right now. And I wish that wasn’t true—I’m trying to fix it. Until I do, though, it feels…wrong to accept access to her body, just because you’re in it. Sex is exactly what the two of us need, and of course we love each other; but it’s not what SHE currently wants. Do you see?”

“Yes,” I say, and feel ashamed. “Of course, you’re right. I just…it’s been an all-over-the-place day, and I…”

“Hey, I know. Come here.” He pulls me into his arms, kisses the top of my head. He’s warm, and feels safe, and I’m so tired of all this BULLSHIT. I grit my teeth, fighting to hold back tears.

“Hey, no. No, baby, Ronica. Don’t cry!” He strokes the back of my head, his voice going desperate. “Really, I love you so much. And it’s my fault she’s mad, I was stupid, I got caught. I’ll fix it, I swear!”

“It’s NOT your fault,” I snap. “It’s MINE. EVERYTHING that goes wrong in the slipstream is because I screwed up, made a bad choice. I shouldn’t have asked you to follow Beaver. He’s unhinged and dangerous. It’s just, you’re so GOOD at skullduggery, which I never really took advantage of before.”

“And far be it from Veronica Mars to leave an Ace up her sleeve.” There’s a smile in his voice. Behind us, someone lays on their horn, and he lets me go, starts driving again. “Look, I’ve been coping with psychos my whole life, Ronica. I can help you, and not break a sweat. You should let me, I’ll be fine. Since you’ve got a full plate, and you’re nearing your limit?”

“PLEASE don’t be reckless,” I say. “Please take care of yourself, and Veronica, too.”

“I do solemnly swear,” he intones, with mock gravity. “Come on, you’re worn out. Why don’t you curl up under my jacket, try to rest? I’ll take you home, tuck you in. Tell you a dirty bedtime story?”

I nod, kiss his cheek. Ruffle his messy, stupid, highlighted high-school hair. “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” I say.

“We’ll always have your 18th birthday,” he paraphrases, with a smirk.

I smack his arm, cuddle up under his worn brown hoodie. Press the corner to my nose, the spot he rubs against his lips. It smells like him. I sigh, tucking my cheek into the fabric, shielding myself from cold glass. I feel frayed and fragile, like I’m coming unglued. I feel weary to the bone. It’s like I’m drifting, up, out of my body, into the night. I feel…

…gone.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY FOUR

The fabric against my cheek is rougher. The cold surface on which I lean is tile, not glass. I’m in a nightgown, on a strange bathroom floor, towel wrapped around my hair. My stomach clenches and heaves with nausea, and my nose informs me I’ve already puked.

I cough, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. Reach over to flush the stench away…which is not hard, because this room is the size of a stamp. The décor is stainless, white and beige; builder-standard, zero personal touches. Whoever lives here is not into making things homey.

I think about getting up, decide against it. I wonder where Logan is, and whether he’ll bring me tea.

There’s a knock on the door, and Dad’s voice filters through. “Veronica, honey? You all right in there? I can tie a brandy cask to Backup’s collar, send him on a rescue mission.”

“Pepto Bismol might be more effective,” I moan.

The door cracks, and his head peeks through. He eases past, barefoot in a t-shirt and sleep pants; closes the toilet lid, sits. Takes my hand. He’s greyer and balder than ever, but very fit, and the assessing look he gives me is #436; concerned father, out of his depth. “You remember when you were five, and you ate an entire box of ice cream?” he asks, lurking humor in his eyes. “I’m pretty sure you threw up less, that time.”

I make a face. “I don’t know why the morning sickness is so bad. This isn’t typical, right? It seems way worse than…” Peanut, I want to say, but of course, I can’t. My belly’s too small to be housing Peanut, and my Berkeley self remains nausea-free.

Dad shrugs. “I’ve had experience with exactly one pregnancy, twenty years ago. We could try peppermint tea. Logan says that helps, if you drink it first thing in the morning.”

“Is he here?” I ask, brightening. Because of course! I retconned our fight! Which means the Hearst Logan who recognizes me won’t be angry any more. And thank GOD; I REALLY need someone to rub my back, right now, and tell me I look great curvy.

Dad’s eyes crinkle in a faintly pitying smile; he shakes his head. “He stopped by this morning, early. But you were sleeping, and he didn’t want to wake you. Nine weeks will pass before you know it, though, sweetheart. And I’m sure as soon as he has a chance, he’ll call.”

I nod, wishing I could just interrogate, when confused. I’m starting to admire impostors and spies; living a lie is EXHAUSTING, and requires constant vigilance.

Dad’s unaware of my frustration, though. He’s gazing down at our clasped hands, clearly working up nerve. “I realize this isn’t an…ideal…situation for newlyweds, Veronica. I don’t blame you for being upset. But I agree with Logan; it’s important you not live alone, while you’re sick and dizzy so often. And I’m honored you chose to stay here.”

A creeping numbness overtakes me. I got married what, a day ago? And ALREADY I’m flying solo. Based on the way dad’s acting, something big went down; and once again, my shady-ass boyfriend…husband….has kept me in the dark.

Jesus, is there any version of Logan Echolls, anywhere, who doesn’t hide nasty surprises up his sleeve? I KNEW it was a mistake, to screw him in that library, instead of making him confess!

“You and I haven’t been close, the way we used to be, these last few years,” Dad is saying, and I jerk my attention back to him. Because this is what I want, right? My father, making a genuine effort to connect? “I respected your wishes, when you asked to live with your mom, and things have been a little weird, since. But you should know…”

I fling my arms around his neck, which silences his stilted efforts. He hugs me, a real Keith Mars bear hug, and my anger at Logan fades. “I love you, dad,” I say. “Even though I’m…sort of grown up, that hasn’t changed.”

“I love you too, kid,” he says, giving me an awkward pat. “Now. How ‘bout some breakfast? I just learned recently to make a mean omelet.”

My stomach gives a paradoxical lurching snarl, and I wrinkle my nose. “Apparently it’s possible to be starving and nauseous at once. My body really IS a wonderland!”

“Number two on the list of things fathers hate to hear,” he says. “Bacon, peppers and cheese? It’s hard to go wrong with the classics.”

“I’ll try,” I say. “But I promise nothing.”

He nods, pats again, rises. “Dad?” I ask, before he gets to the door. “Did Logan maybe leave a note for a woman named Mrs. Robinson?”

“Mrs. ROBINSON?” Dad’s eyebrows lift. “Oh, right, I forgot, because you’re a few weeks older. Nope, no note, but there IS a message. Hold on.”

He walks out, and I hear metallic things clanking, in the next room. I’ve just levered myself onto the toilet when he returns, carrying a screwdriver.

“Here you go,” Dad says, extending it handle first. “Logan said if you mentioned that name, I should give you this. I didn’t understand, but he assured me you would.”

I look down at the Phillips-head, smile. “Yeah,” I say. “It’s a bad joke. Listen, I need a few minutes to clean up and dress, then I’ll be out to drink that tea.”

Dad kisses my temple. “I’ll start chopping. Oh, and Dick’s in town tomorrow. He called to see if he could stop by? I told him you have water aerobics, and he sounded disappointed.”

WATER AEROBICS? Seriously? Sometimes I doubt Shitty Hearst! Veronica and I are even the same person. “Yeah, I might skip that class. I mean, I owe it to Dick, as a friend. Thanks for letting me know.”

I rinse off in the shower after he leaves, brush my teeth, don the stretchy black dress I’ve laid out. Slip on the ring in the soap dish, a plain platinum band with a two-carat diamond. It’s just slightly tight, clearly bought in a rush; a ring of taking-responsibility, not adoration. There’s a lump in my throat as I study it, turning my hand to catch the light.

I exit, cautiously; the bathroom is en-suite. The guest room’s beige and white as well, and bears the stamp of Dad’s bad decorating. Dumb-joke fishing plaques adorn the walls, along with framed articles about Dad’s books, and a toddler photo of me. The leg lamp from ‘A Christmas Story’ lurks lurid in the corner, and a cheap brown comforter covers the queen-sized bed.

My phone is on the nightstand, with a bottle of water, and some pictures in frames. There’s me and Lilly, arms over each others’ shoulders, her in a cap and gown. Me, age 2, sticking my tongue out at dad, wearing a red, white and blue bikini. Me with Logan in Fiji, our gazes locked and tender. I trace a finger over his smiling face, breathe through a wave of nausea. Take a sip of water, which thankfully stays down.

Then I climb onto the bed, unscrew the vent above it, and extract a letter, addressed in Logan’s loopy hand. I replace the cover carefully, and burrow beneath the blankets to read.

“Mrs. R,” (it says)

“I guess, by now, the cat’s out of the bag. You’re abruptly married, I’m in Illinois, and ten to one you’re breathing fire. You’ve likely figured out my latest crime, since you’ve got a nose for sin. But in case you’re flailing, I’ll confess. I joined the Navy, when Veronica dumped me for Piz.

“I didn’t think it mattered, to us. You’d been gone so long, I figured you escaped the slipstream, and I was done begging for scraps. Besides, you know how much I want to fly jets; you read my prize-winning essay. I kept quiet so we wouldn’t spend the short time we had together, fighting, and maybe that was dumb. But spectacularly bad choices are my forte. And if you’re pissed off and disappointed right now, at least I’m out of taser range.

“If I’m right about where you are in our story, we just had the talk at Cho’s. So I suppose, from your point of view, I’ve ditched you two days in a row. But from mine, the library was our last goodbye. And this letter is, I don’t know. A shout into the void, maybe? A hope that somehow, you’ll find a way to return, love, forgive. If you do, consider this a promise: I will, too. I want us to be together, more than anything.

“You should know, I found the spreadsheet and destroyed it, like you asked.”

And read it first, I think, gaze flicking up to the vent. I’m sure you’ve got it memorized, snoop that you are.

“I read it,” he admits, and I laugh. “Come on, you knew I would. So I realize this is not the reality you like best, the one you wished for, at Fall Prom. But believe me when I say, I TRIED to get you there. The choices that scotched your perfect life were yours, not mine.

“I told Veronica the things you said I should—that I love her with or without the baby, etc. She claims she also loves me, but things are moving too fast; the pregnancy at 19, me pushing to settle down. Said she needs a few more years, to figure out who she wants to be. She agreed to marry me, mostly to please Keith, I think. And I asked so she’d be next of kin, when I’m ready to deploy. I said I wouldn’t contest a divorce, if she ever chose to file, and she called me an asshole. I hope that’s a positive sign?

“She’s furious I enlisted during a war, needless to say; FYI we’ve been fighting, a LOT. She’s scared, as well as angry, and, hmmm…let’s just say, she shares your temper. We had a big blowout eight hours ago, in fact, which was six hours after our wedding. I’m currently alone at 2:00 AM in a honeymoon suite, writing to a ghost, feeling like a pathetic waste of space.

“That’s why I joined up, though, Veronica. So I WON’T be a waste of space. I can purge the entitled slacker inside me, become someone you, and my Veronica, and Keith admire. Maybe I’ll even make friends who know how to parent; because, no clue how I’ll cope with THAT, when the time comes. All my role models were addicts, or criminally inclined.

“I wish I could watch you read this. I’ll bet you’re angry, but focused; with that spark in your eye that says you’ve been down deep, to places that hurt, and know just how hurting feels. I miss you so much. Even if you don’t come back, I likely always will.

“Hearst let me finish the semester early, so I can check up on Victor before boot camp—fingers crossed he’s quit his shenanigans. And I convinced your dad to invite Ronica for a visit. I’m hoping he’ll encourage the closeness she craves, and make her feel—more at peace, I guess, with the way things are. She regrets choosing her friends, and her mom who wouldn’t restrict her social life, over him. I mean, that’s natural for a teenager, right? But she’s Veronica. She agonizes, always, over whether she’s chosen the best path.

“I’ll be home in a couple months, and my house should be done this summer. You may recognize it; but on the off-chance you’re sticking around, I won’t spoil the surprise. If Veronica wants to try with me then, living together or apart, I will.

“And you—well, I’ve known since Senior Year we might end right here. You wanting a different life than I’m able to provide, unable to guarantee when or if you’ll return. But whatever. You know I love you, so bygones. You’re my girl, if you want to be, and that’s forever.

“If you don’t, though, or for some reason, can’t… it doesn’t change how I feel. You were there for me, when no one else was, and you broadened my mind in ways I never dreamed possible. You are smart, and sexy, and amazing, and…yeah, I won’t wish you luck with some other guy. I hope your future is wonderful, but I’m not that selfless.

“Lils is picking me up at the airport, I’ll give her your love. Try not to punch anyone in the face while I’m gone. And remember to ice, if you can’t help yourself.

L.

“P.S. You can write me at the return address on the envelope. I mean, if you want. And I’ve heard care packages containing food are always, always welcome.”

I toss the letter down with a huff of laughter, through threatening tears. Sarcastic asshole. Some things never change.

He’s still helping me too, the shithead, though he clearly knows I’m furious. Going against his stated proclivities, to put truth on paper. Berkeley reality exists, apparently, because one Logan created it. And this Logan couldn’t, but not for lack of trying. Shitty Veronica must have dug in her heels for Hearst, and demanded he play along. So what convinced Berkeley Veronica to take the other road?

I wonder if my email to Past Veronica eased or increased tensions with Logan…if Felix Toombs is still the snag that threatens to unravel them. If the underwater reefs threatening to beach my ship are in the same place, in this universe, as they were yesterday.

I spread a hand over the curve of my stomach, the closest I can get to holding my guy; it churns with a hungry rumble. GOD, pregnancy is weird. I can’t believe I’ve gone from uncontrollable puking to ravenous and faint, in ten freaking minutes.

Dad’s setting his little round table, when I emerge into the living room (which is larger than, but depressingly similar to, the apartment we shared after mom left). He’s dressed in a schlubby brown suit, with a brown tie, proving that a fixed point in all worlds is his lack of personal style. He pulls out a chair for me, kisses my cheek. I notice he’s sprinkled extra cheese on the omelet, and laid six sugar cubes beside the tea. I don’t start crying, but it’s only because I’m hungry.

He sits across from me with a cup of industrial-strength Folger’s, polishes off the last slug. “I’m heading out,” he says. “My agent’s trying one more time to coax me into a book tour.” He shields his mouth with one hand, as if telling secrets. “He won’t take no for an answer.”

“Clearly he’s not aware you loathe traveling.” I dump all the sugar into my tea, give it a stir. It tastes like candy canes, so that’s a plus. “Unless it involves film noir locations. Or jazz. Which I’m assuming this tour doesn’t?”

“Tragically, no.” He smiles as I coat the eggs in Tabasco, cut a big forkful, and chew. “Although I am negotiating to wear a trench-coat and fedora at signings.”

The corner of my mouth tips up; this reality’s basically screwed, but DAD. I’m hanging with DAD, just the two of us, for the first time in months. And apparently I’M the one who chose not to live with HIM, in high school. So I’ve got some bridge building to do. “Bust his chops, daddy-o,” I say, staccato, lowering my voice an octave. “Keep him behind the eight ball ‘til he comes through with the goods.”

“I’ll be on Easy Street before he can say ‘lead poisoning’,” Dad informs me, the lingering smile growing. “And for the record? You’re aces, kid.”

“I am,” I agree, shoveling in a complacent bite. “A real hardboiled dame.”

He gathers a briefcase from the breakfast bar; pauses at the door, as if struck by a thought. “By the way…a friend of mine might hang out here today, while some flooring is replaced. It shouldn’t interfere with your studying, and you’re not required to entertain.”

“Uh-huh,” I say. “And this has nothing to do with me barfing all morning, while missing my brand-new husband?”

“Just a random, crazy coincidence,” he agrees, breezily, and walks out. I smile and shake my head, bend to my food with a will.

XXXXX

I’m washing dishes when the doorbell rings, soothing away images of Logan mid-battle with soap and routine. I reach for a dishtowel to dry off, and the ringing is replaced by pounding.

“Coming!” I yell, jogging for the door, wiping my hands on my shirt. I swing it open to reveal Wallace’s little brother Darryl, and my little brother Bobby, locked in a wrestling match over a toy hammer.

“You don’t knock with a HAMMER, man,” Darryl insists, employing leverage. You’ll ruin the paint!”

He tries to twist the toy free, but it’s futile; Bobby has an iron grip. He’s doubled down with both hands, screaming, “MINE!” at a volume sure to annoy the neighbors. Alicia’s in the driveway, closing her hatchback and juggling grocery bags, so clearly I’m on referee duty.

“Darryl doesn’t want your hammer, Bobby,” I assure him, kneeling down to child level. “He’s TEN. Old enough to help his mom, and WAY too old to fight with toddlers.”

“Whatever,” Darryl grouses. He lets go abruptly, so Bobby falls on his butt, and lifts his hands, palms out, in a classic Logan gesture. He heads towards an approaching Alicia, calling over his shoulder, “And his name’s BRYSON!”

“Bryson,” I repeat, under my breath. I help the toddler, who’s now wailing, to stand, and dust off his heavy-duty dungarees. “Hey Bryson? You wanna come inside and hit a pillow with that hammer? You can totally destroy it, if the urge strikes.”

He nods, sniffling, gazing at me with big, wet Mr. Rooks eyes. I wish, once again, that he looked more like Susan.

I set him up on the sofa with a sad brown decorative cushion, which he attacks, ferocious. Alicia walks through the open door, sets her sacks on the counter, and observes, “You know, he’ll tear that to pieces, right?”

“Enh,” I say, watching the carnage. “No great loss.”

“Sorry to arrive leading a parade.” She hands Darryl a yogurt tube and juice box. “School’s out for the summer, and basketball camp got cancelled. They found toxic mold in the YMCA gym.”

“Of course they did.” I watch as she removes a toy workbench from one bag. She carries it over to Bobby…Bryson…extracts the pillow, and leaves him smacking plastic nails into holes. “Neptune, California; the town where only the rich expect fun poison-free.”

Darryl slumps onto the couch, extracts a DS Lite from his pocket, and loses himself in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. The yogurt tube hangs, half-consumed, from his lips.

Alicia returns to the kitchen, begins stashing snack food. “Holding up OK?” she asks, over her shoulder.

“I’d rather be on my Italian honeymoon,” I say, leaning against the breakfast bar. “Enjoying pastries and cappuccino, in a room with a view. But what can you do?”

“How’s the nausea?” She folds the empty bags neatly, lays them on the counter. “Keith said you had a rough morning.”

Backup wanders through a door on the left, attracted by kitchen activity. I kneel to pet him. “Abnormal,” I say. “My limited experience tells me it shouldn’t be this bad.”

She shrugs. “Depends on the baby. Girls are rumored to be easier, but I wouldn’t know. After the first trimester, though, your stomach should settle. Then it’s just swollen ankles, back pain, and the occasional hard kick, until it’s time for childbirth.”

“GOGGY!” Bryson yells, and abandons carpentry to fling himself on Backup. The dog bends his head backwards, licks the kid’s whole face, and Bryson erupts into shrieking giggles. Loki pokes his head around a doorway, observing; Bryson shouts, “OTHER GOGGY!” and takes off at a run.

“DOG,” Darryl corrects, in disgusted tones, not looking up from his game. “With a D. Man, when will he learn to talk like a normal person?”

“First grade,” Alicia says, ushering both child and dog out of the distant room, firmly closing the door. Loki approaches, presses tight to my side, and Backup licks him, too.

Alicia extracts a small tin from her purse, hands it over; puts an arm around Bryson, helps him pat Backup. “For when you feel sick,” she tells me. “Ginger lozenges work better than medicine, and they’re also delicious.”

I taste-test one, and mmmm, more Christmas. “So are you REALLY replacing floors?” I ask, around the candy. “Or was that a clever ruse, on Dad’s part, to provide me with moral support?”

She laughs. “No, I honestly am remodeling. I can finally afford it, with Wallace and his appetite out of my house. I’m putting down laminate, because I have boys; but the kind they make now looks just like wood.” She halts Backup’s ongoing spit bath, with a hand around his muzzle, and adds, “Logan found it for me, when he was building your place. His mother’s not good for much, beyond looking pretty on camera, and charming rich men. But she taught her son how to shop.”

“So I’ll be living alone in a showplace? While he floats in a tin can, on enemy waters?” I ask, somewhat bitterly.

“Not for three years,” she says. “Or maybe four, I can’t remember how long Officer Candidate School lasts. He’ll be in the reserves until he finishes college, then he undergoes advanced training; your baby should be out of diapers, by the time he deploys. Did he not discuss this with you? He promised he would.”

“We fought,” I tell her. “Lots of insults, very little listening. I left him brooding alone in the honeymoon suite, and he skipped town before I woke up.”

She sighs, sits, and settles Bryson on her lap. Backup sprawls, panting, across both of them. “I don’t know you very well, Veronica,” she says, “but you’re clearly strong-minded, and prone to acting alone. I can respect that, I’m independent, too. In this instance, though, I can help; because I also got pregnant at 19. And my husband was a man with a dangerous job, who was often away from home.”

I raise my eyebrows, and she smiles. Clasps Bryson’s hand in hers, so he’ll stop poking Backup’s eye. “I loved him, my God I loved him, or I never would have married so young. He was handsome, and smooth, passionate about doing the right thing. He called me chere.” She shakes her head, banishing memories. “It didn’t last. He was an undercover cop, got in too deep. I left him, married a safer man, then that man died. Now here I am, raising boys alone.”

She strokes Bryson’s hair; he’s become sleepy, half buried beneath pungent pit-bull. He’s leaning forehead first into her shoulder, eyelids fluttering. “I didn’t plan this life, Veronica, but I want you to know, I don’t regret it. I love being a mother so much, I volunteered for a third round.” She smiles. “I was a mess at first; I knew nothing about kids, and worked crazy hours, establishing my career. But I proved the people who said I couldn’t do both wrong. You will, too. You may even have an easier time; Logan is wealthy, committed, and very deeply in love.”

“And reckless,” I say, because yup, still pissed. “Also foolhardy. He kept this whole thing SECRET from me, Alicia, because he knew I’d be mad. I am honestly not all right with him risking his LIFE.”

“Military service is dangerous,” she agrees. “But it’s honorable and heroic, too. And let’s be frank here. He was in peril every day of his childhood, until Aaron passed away. If anyone can handle the demands of wartime, without losing his cool, Logan Echolls is that person. I think the Navy will be good for him, myself. It will provide structure, and clear-cut rules his family didn’t; it will teach him better ways to be a man.

“And there are lots of people, here in Neptune, willing to help, when he can’t be around. If I were to give you one piece of advice, based on my own mistakes, it would be this; accept that help. Let others in. You’re not proving anything by going it alone.”

“I don’t work well with others,” I admit, very quietly, pressing my face against Loki’s head. I dig my fingers into the ruff around his neck. “Logan’s the only one who gets me. I wish he hadn’t left.”

I’m thinking of the slipstream, but Alicia misinterprets. She reaches across the small bodies between us, takes my hand; pulls me around the pile, into a hug. “You’ll figure it out,” she says, and I start to shake.

“Hush, now.” She strokes my hair, gently. Her hand is strong and capable, despite the delicate bones. “How about we check out your new house, ooh and aah at the extravagance? They’re landscaping by now, the interior’s finished.”

“I’ll bet he spent way too much money,” I say. “His wastefulness gives me HIVES.”

“You know, I tell my boys to take ten deep breaths, when they’re upset,” she soothes, rocking me. “I say, ‘Imagine, carefully, the result you want. Then choose the course most likely to make it real’. Whatever this house looks like, it’s the result of SO much effort and planning. And it’s Logan’s vision for the rest of your lives.”

I nod, pretty sure I know what the house looks like. I’m positive I’ll hate living there, without him.

THREAD TWENTY FOUR INVERTS

Alicia’s got her arms around me, stroking my hair; explaining ten deep breaths, which Logan made our mantra. Then the world spins, and I’m in Logan’s arms instead, in the back of the XTerra. He’s stroking my hair too, but for entirely different reasons.

Our clothes are in disarray, the areas of contact bare and sticky, and he’s kissing me; eyelids, cheekbones, temples, chin. “Are you OK?” he murmurs, both sweetly solicitous and somewhat smug. “Are you sore? It’s been a while, and you were very…enthusiastic.”

I shake my head, smiling because dork, and he continues the romance, soft brushes of lips that trail down my shoulder. He’s incredibly tender; no smirks, no sly innuendoes, no hints of perversions he’d love to try. It’s nice, after the weird distance of the last few days, but it also feels…off. Logan’s happiness is usually tempered by the knowledge that it won’t last.

He cups my face between his palms, and I realize what’s bothering me. He looks the way he did flirting with Hannah, or Parker; high on life, not cynical at all.

“I’d say this was a VERY successful first date,” he tells me, pressing his forehead to mine. He fixes me with his coaxing, laughing gaze, inviting me to agree. And I’m swamped by a wave of jealousy that feels like bile, rising.

Because when I was fifteen, and secretly infatuated, he was my rom-com hero; I dreamed of forehead kisses and spins, stage right into the sunset. I was Duncan’s virgin girlfriend, though, and later, Logan’s nemesis. I became the BAD girl in HIS teen film, the one who got what she had coming.

And now here I am, fucking Maleficent, crashing Other Veronica’s happy ending. I feel like KENDALL, peering smugly over Logan’s shoulder, that morning at the Neptune Grand. After the angst of the last few days, when I’ve tried so HARD to be understanding, my casting really, deeply HURTS.

“It must have been GLORIOUS,” I say, deeply sarcastic. “She went from blaming you for original sin to doing you in a parked car, in the space of what, a week? I know you’re smooth, but that’s a hell of a comeback, Echolls.”

He shifts my weight without letting go; his mouth curves, predatory, and his pupils dilate. “A month and a HALF,” he says, voice a caress, cock heating and rising in the space between us. “With no one to keep me company but Jack Daniels, and the hot doctor from Halo. Yet the MOMENT I patch things up with my girl, here you come, all snarky and spitting fire. The other woman. Jesus, your timing is IMPECCABLE.” He bends, pressing eager teeth to my throat, and I shove him back, furious.

“Uh-uh,” I snap, disentangling. I right my clothes with angry yanks. “SHE may be all warmed up, but I’VE had a shitty day. And I’m not interested in Other Veronica’s sloppy seconds. You’re gonna have to try harder, if you want to get your kink on.”

He sits back, assessing silently, then huffs frustration; wraps the condom in a fast-food napkin, pulls up his jeans. “Right,” he says, raking hands through his hair. “Sorry I overstepped. You’ve always, previously, been willing, when you turned up in bed with me.”

“Not surprising.” I gaze out the window, tracing the hazy shape of Jake’s Spanish Colonial with one knuckle. “You’re pretty irresistible, when you switch on the charm.”

He braces a heel on the seat, wraps his arms around his knee. “The other woman crack,” he decides, gazing at his hands. “That’s what pissed you off.”

“It didn’t help,” I say. “I’m THE woman in your life, not the OTHER woman. Or at least I am, in the movie playing in MY head. Clearly, however, Other Veronica plays Madonna in YOUR complex.”

He flops his head back against the bench seat, staring at the ceiling. “I am really struggling, because I really love you, to not be a world-class dick right now. But that was a low blow, Veronica. I have NEVER treated you—or ANY woman-- like a whore.”

“No,” I say. “But you’ve never been shmoopy with me, the way you just were with HER, either. Not even when I WAS her, and NEEDED it.”

He pins me with his gaze, and uh-oh. Temper officially engaged. “Is that what you want? You’d like me to role-play Prince Charming, to get you in the mood? You’d prefer I PRETEND?”

“That was not fake, the way you were acting when I showed up!” I accuse, breath coming faster. “That was HAPPINESS!”

“She’s my GIRLFRIEND, Veronica! She just admitted she loves me, and took my sorry ass back! Of COURSE I’m happy! And I thought you WANTED me to reconcile with her, so you and I can be together. I mean, am I wrong?” He throws up his hands. “Fuck, of course I am! It’s the old Veronica Mars double standard at work. You get to invest as much as you like in every version of me. But I have to be a cynical douche to the actual girl I’m fucking, unless she happens to be possessed by YOU!” He flings the car door open and climbs out, gripping the roof with both hands. “Your fascination with Asshole Trust Fund Logan finally makes sense,” he says. “I’m thinking you two BELONG together.”

I step down, too, the better to yell at him as he marches away. “If you believe I’ll chase you, you are SERIOUSLY delusional!”

He lifts his hand and flips me off, not turning, and I release a growl of frustration into the night air. Grab my messenger bag off his front seat, leave the car door dangling open as I stomp towards the house. Maybe someone will do me a favor, and steal the yellow piece of shit. Then sink it in the Pacific, so it offends only fish.

I dig through the bag for my keys, but can’t find them. My futile pawing grows more desperate, and I fling it into a bush, with a shriek of rage. I lean on the bell, pressing my forehead to the wood; the sound echoes through the house, but no footsteps approach. I smack the frame once, hard, and then just stand there, trembling with emotion. I wish Piz would show up, so I’d have someone to kick.

“They’re doing a Pan Asian Tour,” Logan says, behind me. I turn, and he’s standing three feet away, hands still in pockets. His brown hoodie’s zipped against the evening chill; he’s pulling the looking-up-from-under-his-brow move that’s saved him more than once. “Jake and Lianne, to debut some new phone tech. They’re gone for three weeks. Nobody’s gonna answer.”

I slump back, staring at him, and he scuffs his shoe against the sidewalk. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I get lonely, and jealous, and confused too. This whole slipstream thing is…incredibly difficult to navigate.”

“I HATE living in someone else’s skin,” I tell him. “I can’t even call my body, or my lover, my own. I want the best of you, US; not another girl’s crumbs!”

“Crumbs are NOT what I’m offering,” he says. “I never once told ANYONE the truth about myself, until you came along. That’s the part of me you get that nobody else does. You know the person behind the wall.”

I nod, and he says, “I wish I WAS your Prince Charming, Veronica. I’d feel GREAT about myself, if I could claim pristine heroism. But back when you WERE my Veronica, dating Duncan, before all these realities split? I had zero interest in romance. I used to lie on your bed, amidst your many teddy bears, and fantasize about corrupting you. Your innocence was a ROADBLOCK, not something I craved; I liked the wild thing with teeth that lived under your skin.”

He takes a step closer, then another, gently gathers my hands in his. “My Veronica is skittish, and a LOT younger than you, emotionally. When I don’t contain my moves, it intimidates her. I treat her with kid gloves because that’s what she needs, to feel safe and turned on; it’s her fantasy, not mine.” He presses my knuckles to his lips. “If you want hearts- and-flowers sex too, I’m fine with that. I’ll make it note-perfect, handle you like spun glass. The tenderness and love will be honest, but the part where I’m noble will be acting, Veronica. I’m not nice, or particularly good. And you and I, at this point in our relationship, are past lies.”

“You’re right,” I say. “We ARE past lies. And I’ve always had a closet mean streak, too, despite my aptitude for faking. But Logan, I WANTED to be nice. I tried REALLY hard to be the daughter my dad expected, once upon a time.”

“Veronica, you SHINE with goodness,” he says. “You’re just not an ingénue. But if you need it, tonight, we’ll play fairy-tale princess make-believe. And I’ll give you all KINDS of happy endings.”

He wiggles his eyebrows, to emphasize, and I laugh. “If I ever say I don’t love you, Logan?” I tell him. “Remind me about the lying thing, again.”

I lean up to kiss him, on tiptoe, and he pulls me close, his mouth hot and ardent. I fall back against the door, and he follows, notching himself against me, sliding me up the wood. True to his word, he’s exquisitely gentle, cherishing with lips and hands.

“We should go inside,” I say softly, when we break apart.

He kisses my temple. “Right, I forgot. You’re the nice girl. She’s the one who likes to scandalize the neighbors.”

“You know what we ought to do?” I ask, smiling as I nip his jaw. “Once we get into that big, empty house, all by ourselves?”

“Hmmm?” He nudges his nose behind my ear, as if he finds me especially fragrant, there. “Hold hands on the couch, watch a PG-rated movie?”

“I said act SWEET, not Duncanesque. So, no. First you should carry me to my room.” I spread my palm across his heart. “And set me on the bed, and do all the things you promised, until I swoon. Then we’ll segue into something really, REALLY raunchy, while all the stuffed animals watch. Because I believe in the spirit of compromise.”

He laughs, and this time his kiss is less gentle. “You are seriously the BEST girlfriend,” he says. “Let me help you find your keys.”

He picks me up with dramatic flair, once I get the door open; carries me through the house like Rhett Butler, climbing the steps to Tara. Tosses me on the bed, so I bounce, and theatrically locks the door. He spends an hour stripping me, stroking every inch of skin, until I’m limp and exquisitely sensitive, swollen with lust. He spouts compliments, and ridiculous flowery phrases, the entire time; we stop for two time-outs, because we can’t quit laughing.

Then he pulls me onto my knees and fucks me hard from behind, whispering an escalating string of inventive obscenities, pinching my clit with each stroke. It takes us approximately two minutes to fall apart. After which he cackles, demands I admit his fantasy was better, and drifts off, smirking. In repose, he looks wholly content.

XXXXX

I prop my cheek on my palm and watch him sleep, even though I’m tired. I’m hoping, if I focus, this moment won’t slip away.

Time dilates, as I stare, count the freckles on his face; it stretches and warps around me in the still dark night. The world seems wild, silent outside our circle of light…my brass bed and crimson comforter an oasis, inviting as wine. The slipstream waits to eat me, but I am focused, safe. I spread my hand over Logan’s heart, which, reassuring, thumps.

I smell smoke.

The scent creeps in, across the floorboards; it feels like imagination at first, a half-sleeping fantasy of campfires, in the deepest part of the forest. But it intensifies, and there’s noise, a groaning crackling. Ruddy light flickers through the space beneath the door.

Loki, sprawled across our feet along the foot of the bed, lifts his head and barks.

I shake Logan’s shoulder, and he comes awake quickly, squinting as his eyes adjust. “Problem?” he asks, voice raspy with sleep.

“Fire,” I whisper. “We need to go.”

He gets up; pads across the room in that boneless, silent way he has, which marks him as a predator despite his misdirections. He flattens a palm above the door and says, “Hot. We need to go out the window. Do you have a leash for the dog back here?”

“It’s kept in a mudroom cubby,” I say, tugging on my jeans. I dig my bra and shirt out from under the comforter. “I’ll improvise something from belts, you get the window open. Don’t let yourself be seen until you’ve scoped the area; this is probably arson, and the perp may still be around.”

He sidles up to the widow, twitches the curtain away. I dive into the big closet; locate a black studded belt and a gold one with hearts, buckle them together. Loop one end around Loki’s collar, while he shifts from paw to paw and whines.

“This side of the house is clear,” Logan says. He approaches, fully dressed; hands me my bag and shoes, bends to lace his own. “Unless the guy’s a sniper, there’s no place for him to hide. I’ll go first, so I can help you two down, then we stay low through the garden gate. We can take cover behind the tool shed to get a view of the street, before we make for my car. You approve?”

I nod as I toe my boots on. He lifts the dog, puts him in my arms, kisses me on the nose. Slides the window open and eases through. I hand Loki out, struggling under his writhing, whining weight, then climb over the sill. Logan catches me around the waist and lifts me down. No one shoots at us, so that’s one crisis averted.

We duck and run across the manicured yard, past a round infinity pool with a view of the city. There’s smoke, and heat, a flickering orange glow tingeing the sky, but the flames aren’t visible from the side with the bedrooms. Which means the arsonist either isn’t familiar with the floor plan, or is trying to scare, rather than injure.

Logan reaches the fence, but when I try to unlatch the gate he blocks me, shaking his head. He drags me to the cabana wall, behind a tree, and curves around me, holding the dog’s muzzle shut. He whispers, “Somebody’s by the shed already. Look.”

Sure enough, our hiding place is taken; there’s movement in the shadows, a slight body dressed in black. I can make out a hand, pressed to the corrugated metal, the curve of a head as he peers around the corner.

“He’s trapped,” Logan murmurs, breath of sound. “By a dog-walker on the street, with his cell phone out. Guy’s probably reporting the fire.”

“Should we go back?” I ask. “Climb the fence behind the pool, circle around?”

He shakes his head. “I’m going to take him down. Give me your taser, and hold the dog.”

“Logan, there’s a FIRE happening!” I hiss. “This is no time for fisticuffs!”

“The guy burned your fucking house, Veronica!” he snaps. “I’ll immobilize him, tie him up with the belts, and we can leave him for the cops. It won’t take long, he’s not that big.”

He holds out his hand, and I slap the taser into it. “Be careful,” I say.

He smirks, kisses my forehead, and eases silently through the gate.

It’s over fast; Logan seizes the advantage with a low tackle, and punches once, which seems to stun. The guy’s still struggling, as I approach, but he’s not much bigger than me, and is easily restrained. Logan hands the taser back, grimacing, rips the guy’s ski mask off, and his head jerks slightly, startled.

The arsonist is Arturo, and he hasn’t had his Badass Gang Leader growth spurt, yet. He looks about twelve.

“What the hell?” Logan demands. “Weevil’s gang is so decimated they’re bringing in freshmen? Has your VOICE even changed, yet?”

“His name’s Arturo,” I say, moving to stand beside them. “He’s probably here to prove he’s worthy of membership.”

“Someone has to fix things!” Arturo says, yanking hard against Logan’s grip, accomplishing nothing. “The Fitzpatricks are taking a blowtorch to anybody who doesn’t sell enough, and that’s ALL of us. Weevil tried to stop them, but he couldn’t do shit. I’m the only guy LEFT willing to act like a man!”

“How does burning down Veronica’s house help?” Logan asks. Arturo says nothing, and he adds, “Broken nose on the count of three, if you don’t answer.”

“I got paid a LOT to set this fire, and leave a clue behind,” he says, eyes on Logan’s fist. “Silver keychain, four-leaf clover, Liam Fitzpatrick’s name carved into it. Everyone knows Liam hates Veronica Mars, since she tried to get him arrested. Her dad thinks Liam tried to kill her, he goes straight to jail.”

“And framing Liam is worth a trip to juvie, for you?” I ask, examining his face for signs of lying. “Because that’s where you’re headed.”

“I’m supposed to testify that Liam was with me, if I get caught. That’s the deal. The money means my mom and sister pay rent, even if I do time. And there’s PCH’ers waiting to take care of Liam, and protect me, once we’re inside.”

Logan considers him, inscrutable. “If I let you go,” he says, “do you have an alibi?”

Arturo’s eyes narrow, calculating. “Man, I have the BEST alibi. I’m locked in a church right now. And if you let me go, I owe you one.”

“You owe VERONICA one,” Logan corrects. “If I pretend you weren’t here, nobody on your team tries to hurt her, ever again.”

The kid nods, and Logan climbs off. Arturo scrambles to his feet, and disappears, fleetly, into the dark.

“That’s the guy who leads the PCH’ers, when Weevil goes to jail next year,” I say, watching him run. “Setting him free was either really smart, or really stupid.”

“Two birds, one stone,” Logan opines, leading me towards the street by the hand. “It’s gravy that our arsonist has a future with clout. If Fitzpatrick gets convicted, and whacked in prison, he’s one less person trying to kill you. And I won’t cry in my beer over railroading a murderer.” He surveys the still-open door of the XTerra, sardonic, and hoists Loki inside. “Also? The fact that Weevil goes to jail before the year’s out makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.”

Sirens cut over his next words, and two cop cars and a fire truck squeal around the corner. The driver who emerges first is Sacks; he sighs relief when he spots us, comes jogging over.

“You two all right?” he shouts, above the noise of deploying firemen. “No injuries? Is anyone else inside?”

“We’re fine,” I call back, watching men unreel the hose. The neighbors on this side of the street wander onto their lawn, talk to one of the deputies. “It was just us and the dog. My mom and Jake are in China.”

“Any idea how this happened?” He turns to squint at the fire. The whole right wing is engulfed in flames; they’ll have to evacuate the neighborhood.

“We climbed out the window and ran,” Logan says, crossing his arms. “We didn’t stop to investigate.”

“How about you, Veronica?” Sacks asks, with a tilt of his head. “You have a theory on everything.”

“I think it’s arson,” I say. “But I’ve got no proof.”

Sacks frowns, scribbles on a pad. “You need medical assistance? There’s an ambulance coming.”

“I’d prefer sleep,” I tell him, wiping sweat from my temple. The fire's heat is intense. “Can we visit the station in the morning, give our statements then?”

He nods, tucking his notebook away. Logan gives a one-finger-to-the-brow mocking salute, and climbs into the car. I move to follow suit, but Sacks’ “Hey Veronica?” stops me.

“What’s up?” I ask, turning.

He smiles, first one side of his mouth, then the other, so his moustache does a caterpillar squirm across his lip. “Give your dad my best, next time you see him, OK? Tell him we hope he'll be back at work soon.”

“Will do,” I say, worried now, and open the passenger door. Sacks moves towards the deputies blocking off the street.

“Where to?” I ask Logan, buckling my seatbelt.

He looks at the ceiling, considering. “Our love nest? It’s the only place we’ll have privacy, and we’ve got clothes stashed there already.”

“Works for me,” I say, and he takes off, with one last head-shaking glance at the fire behind us.

“So what’s up with my dad?” I ask, going straight to my main fear, as he fiddles with the radio, settles on Snow Patrol. “Why is he not hard at work, while the campaign’s going on?”

Logan gives me a sympathetic look, takes my hand. “Your dad’s fine,” he says, “but he suffered a MILD second heart attack. The sheriff’s race is dirty, he’s running some tough investigations, and he’s pretty broken up about Bettina; Dick found out they were engaged, when he ended things, and now she’s planning to leave the country. I think stress just overwhelmed him. He won’t retire, because nobody wants Vinnie to be sheriff; but he needs to quit living for his job. He’s recovering quickly, though. Talking about taking up jogging.”

I nod, breathing out slowly. “OK, next question, what did Arturo mean? About Weevil trying, and failing, to fix things?”

Logan shrugs. “All I know is, Weevil had a confrontation with Thumper, and wound up getting shot. If he was trying to take his job back, he failed.”

“Wait, he’s not DEAD, is he? No, he can’t be, you were thrilled he might go to jail.”

“Nah, he’s not even hurt that badly. I mean, he’ll walk with a limp, but he’s mobile. He’s in school again; his strategic position is bad, though. Carmen took him back, after he got his name cleared, then re-dumped him, post-showdown. His former friends are shunning him. I never thought I’d say this, but I feel for the guy.”

“Shit,” I smack the dashboard with my palm. “I’ve got to help him! He threw in with us, we need to reciprocate.”

“I will NEVER understand your loyalty to that guy.” Logan spears me with a look, exasperated. “Sure, he’s influential in certain low-rent circles. But he had a chip on his shoulder when I met him at age 8, and these days, it’s more like a two-by-four.”

“Which I’m sure you’ve done nothing to encourage.” I settle back in my seat, cross my legs. “I don’t know much about this Weevil, or his relationship with your Veronica. But MY Weevil was loyal, when our agendas aligned. And he protected me from 09’er harassment, especially yours.”

“I’ll bet,” Logan says, sardonic. “Navarro REALLY likes to get between me and the girls I date.”

This statement makes my spidey sense tingle, but my phone starts ringing in the depths of my bag. I hold up a finger, while I extract it; it’s an unfamiliar number, from another country.

“Great,” I say, because this can only be my mother. “Hold that thought, while I talk Lianne down from her ledge.”

“Hey mom, what’s new?” I say into the phone, resigned. I rub my irritated eyes, which provokes a round of coughing. “Don’t worry, I’m fine. Nobody was hurt in the fire, but you may need to write off the house.”

“Sweetheart, I was TERRIFIED when I heard! Your stepfather and I were at a formal dinner in Singapore, and his assistant called him away…”

She froths and dithers, while I pay almost no attention. I’m gazing up at Logan as he drives. He’s got a black smear across his forehead, a cut along his clavicle; he’s keeping tabs on me with periodic peeks, which relax into smiles when our eyes meet.

“Mom, you don’t need to come home,” I say, catching the operative words. “I’m with Logan, and we’re headed to his mother’s getaway cottage. It’s in a high-security neighborhood, 100% peril-free.”

“Veronica, the Deputy told Jake this was ARSON!” her voice lowers on the last word, as if it’s obscene. “Someone tried to burn the house down with you IN IT!”

I sigh. “You KNOW we have the best sheriff’s department in California. And I’m weirdly certain they’ll catch the culprit. Besides, it’s not like Jake can’t dip into his billions, and replace everything next week.”

“That’s not the point, Veronica,” she says, as we approach the guard kiosk; I grit my teeth so I don’t say, ‘Then GET TO IT!’.

“Look, we gain nothing by speculating, during the investigation. Let’s just relax for a few days, let the arson squad do their job. In the meantime, I’m going to bed; I’ve been up all night, and I’m completely wiped. I love you, I’ll see you when your trip is over. Just… take a hot bath or something, and calm down.”

She starts babbling again and I hang up, because I can’t deal. Logan indicates that we’re parked with a sweep of his arm. “Home Sweet Home,” he says, and I slump forehead first into his chest.

We climb out of the car, arm in arm, holding each other up as we move towards the porch. Loki sticks close, still freaked by the fire, desperate for contact. I stroke his head as Logan inserts the key, whispering, “Everything will be all right.”

The door swings open, and Logan says from above me, “Still no answer?”

I look up, and it’s daylight; we’re passing into our sunny house from the Berkeley beach. I have my phone against my ear, he’s sea-bleached and tanned, and Mac’s voice invites me to leave a message, at the end of the line. I shake my head, and he rolls his eyes. Says, “Never go into business with someone who ducks your calls.”

A small form brushes past my hip, and I look down to see Bobby…Bryson…whatever the fuck his name is, rushing past, yelling, “TV! BARNEY! TV! BARNEY!”

“That TV doesn’t work yet,” Alicia calls, from behind me. When I turn towards her, the sky’s gone cool and cloudy, and the stretch of beach at her back is unfamiliar. She smiles at me, and adds, conversationally, “I’ll be SO glad when the Purple Dinosaur phase is over.”

To her left, Logan asks, “What’s wrong?”

I turn again, and it’s night. He’s standing in the living room of Original Howl’s, gripping my shoulders, face tight with concern. “You’re spinning in circles, acting like a drug victim,” he informs me. “What do you see?”

“All the realities are in this room, right now,” I say, and his fingers tighten as his eyes go wide. “Every single one of them, at once. This CANNOT be good.”

“All the who are what?” Darryl asks, to my right, and when I glance down, he’s watching me warily. “You’re not talking about Dr. Who, right? ‘Cause I’m not allowed to watch that show anymore, on account of Weeping Angel nightmares.”

“Don’t blink,” I say, and Logan asks, “Why not?” The sunlight blinds me as I turn to him, take his hand. My head spins, a nausea-making swoop.

He squints, lean, muscle-y Ideal College Logan, then says, with horror, “Oh, fuck, it’s happening again! Veronica, stay with me!”

I grip his fingers tightly. Time pulls at me from behind, a giant vacuum; I’ll be ripped away, sucked backwards into chaos, the second I let go. My circle of vision shrinks, narrows, until it’s just his face, mouth moving fast. Then my hold slackens, and everything turns black.

I drift through the nothing, and it’s peaceful, serene. I sleep, at last, and don’t dream.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY FIVE

I stir, in the sleek, soft darkness; there’s a palm against my forehead, checking for temperature. Mom, I think, because the hand is feminine, cool. I hear snatches of speech, nonsensical. “…334 Vista del Mar…young woman…son caught her arm…unresponsive…” It all seems so unimportant, though. So far away. I drowse back down, like a cat in a patch of sun. It’s been too long, since sleep brought rest.

THREAD TWENTY FIVE INVERTS

I roll, and his hand curves around my face. “Hey sugarpuss,” he says, thumb stroking my cheekbone. The light beyond my lids is painfully bright; he smells of smoke. “Please wake up.”

“Love you,” I murmur, my hand lifting, thumping back limply onto the bed. “So TIRED, though.”

He says something else, but I only hear his voice, a Charlie Brown murmur, low and sussurant. I bask in it, wrapping it around me like a favorite sweater. I drift on the dark, silent sea, towards emptiness. Towards peace.

THREAD TWENTY SIX

My lids flutter open, a million years later, and I gaze up through darkness at an unfamiliar ceiling fan.

It’s quiet in this big, strange bedroom, no trace of shifting, groaning life. Just the fan’s whir, a slight hitch in each rotation, and a whine behind the wall, water through pipes. I can make out the edges of two generic nightstands, past the white comforter that covers me; the grey bulk of a bureau, with a mirror atop. The door at the bed’s foot is open a crack, but the room beyond is dark as well.

I sit, reach back to gather my hair into its customary morning knot. But it’s too short to grasp; almost military-shorn, a pixie cut, with slightly longer bangs that sweep to the side. My belly is flat, my hands are bare, and I’m wearing a stiff Heineken t-shirt that smells like industrial soap.

I switch on the light to reveal a mostly-grey room, too bland to be a hotel—it looks like a furnished rental, up-market, but sterile and spare. The walls are blank spaces, packing boxes stacked, unopened, along them. The only thing on the nightstand is a half-empty glass of water.

I get up and go to the closet, and OK— it’s got two sets of clothes in it, mine and a guy’s. There’s a hamper in the corner; I pull out a man’s shirt, sniff, and yeah. Logan. My stomach relaxes.

I wander into the living room; it’s too big to be an apartment, so maybe a condo? There’s one bedroom, but the finish-out is luxurious, with grey leather furniture and a kitchen from a builder’s ad. I switch on the light, and two dog heads lift from opposite ends of the couch. Loki, and…Backup?

OK, what the fuck is going on?

There’s a note on the fridge, attached with a ‘Neptune Hills Pet Hospital’ magnet, Logan’s loopy yet strangely tidy scrawl taking up the whole page. “At Lane’s, come if you want, 5544 Starlight Trail’. Some big-ass house in the 09’er district, based on the address. I wonder where we live, in relation to it.

I go back to the bedroom, scope out my wardrobe. Select a pair of jeans and a satiny red blouse, a hooded grey sweater since I get cold at night. Motorcycle boots. Tiny gold earrings shaped like shells, I have to dig for a match through a hundred pairs. There are keys, and a studded, black-leather tote, on the hook by the door. I take them, head out into the breach.

It seems we’ve settled at Terra Vista; a high-end gated condo community near Kane Industries, where top-tier tech geeks live. I aim my keys at the lot, press the unlock button, and lights flash in a covered carport; my ride’s a black Porsche Carrera, sporting dealer plates and new car smell. It’s got a deluxe navigation system on the dash, so I enter the address, then use the backup camera to un-park. The coupe handles smooth as someone else’s dream, as I head uptown.

The party going on at ‘Lane’s’ is the kind I devoutly avoid; loud frat-favorite music and shrieking girls, dude both laughing and dry-heaving on the front lawn. I park the Porsche two blocks away for safekeeping and walk it, wondering if I’ll ever find Logan inside. There’s no phone in my bag, though, so a hands-on search is mandatory.

The crowd past the door is wall-to-wall, a gropey, scamming amoeba that stinks of strong perfume. It’s mostly Solo cups and bleached blonde, wasted people bouncing off each other like pinballs. I recognize one of Dick’s frat brothers, but no one else, which in itself is weird. Logan’s not the social butterfly he seems; despite his penchant for big-event-planning, he never ranges farther afield than friends of friends.

I find him slumped on the living-room couch, the center of a group he seems to be ignoring. He watches lazily as I approach, but doesn’t get up. His pupils are as big as dimes.

“Veronica Mars,” he says, voice a rasp that tells me bong hits happened. “In red satin. All dressed up with nowhere to go.”

“I wore it just for you,” I say, stopping by his feet. “You got a present for me in return?”

This fazes him: five or six expressions flit across his face, as his brain struggles to parse. He settles on cynical resignation, maybe tinged with pity. “No bodies left to sacrifice, Mrs. R,” he says with a sigh, his eyes drifting closed. “Everyone we cared about is dead.”

I stare at him—his focus has slipped—and contemplate kicking, yelling, throwing a drink in his face. But that won’t motivate Logan when he’s half past gone. He’s extra-stingy with data, if he feels uncooperative.

I prod his hip with my knee; when he opens his eyes, I hold out my hand. He takes it, the corner of his mouth curving in the smile that slays me. I pull him up and he comes bonelessly—coordinated, but unresisting. I lead him out, the throng parting to let us pass. He walks beside me down the street.

“I’m tripping balls,” he confides, lifting the hood of my sweater, draping it gently over my head. The breeze is cool, this near the water, bitter with traces of brine. “You’re trailing streamers behind you, like an angel.”

“Lovely,” I say, unlocking the car. “Keep in mind I’m the old-testament kind. Forbearance in the face of jackassery is not my forte.”

“Mmm, do your worst.” He leers, half-hearted. “It’s hot when you come down on people like the wrath of God.” He looks down at his hands and pauses, arrested, like there’s something wrong; brings them gently together in a prayer position. “I thought, for a minute, I mixed too many drugs; and there you were, my reward, waiting at the end of the tunnel. To be honest, I’m not sure I would mind. But I can’t leave Veronica, when she needs me so much.”

“She needs you why? Is she pregnant?” I look down at my stomach. “I don’t FEEL pregnant, right now.”

He glances at me sideways, over the hood, wry grin that turns to sadness. “I had a vasectomy,” he says. “After. You seemed sure I’d knock someone up, this year, and neither of us could cope with that. And I can’t…I NEED sex, Veronica. SHE needs it. Sometimes it’s the only thing that helps at all. But the birth control…we keep forgetting.”

I nod, even though I’m starting to feel sick. “You’re grieving, right? You said people died. “

He opens the car door and leaves it that way, slumps into the passenger seat. “Also it’s summer,” he explains. “We said fuck it to school, we have more money than God, why NOT get wasted? What else is there to do?”

“Unpack?” I suggest. “Take the dogs you seem to have inherited to the park? You live in a bare apartment with your stuff in boxes, Logan, and you’re too messed up to contemplate a baby. How about we take a stab in the dark at what I want, here, and you tell me what the FUCK IS GOING ON?”

“The Nautilus sank,” he says simply, gazing up at the stars. “And if we hadn’t gotten into a knock-down, drag-out, and showed up after it left dock, we’d be dead, too.”

“Who was on board?” I demand, gorge rising. “Families? Friends?”

“Celeste lived,” he says, making a profoundly jaded face. “Ironic, since it was her boat. She refused to share space with Jake and Lianne. Darrell was at a sleepover with a friend. He’s with Alicia’s sister in Chicago now. Carrie Bishop was your friend, right? She had the stomach flu, and didn’t go.”

“You mean friends AND family,” I say slowly. “You really do mean EVERYONE.”

“It was a graduation party,” he says. “We saw the whole thing from the dock. We were waiting for a water taxi to show up and ferry us out; the boat caught fire, and listed sideways.” He sniffs away threatening tears. “The coast guard got there in time, but somebody had…opened fire on the passengers, before lighting it up. Blew a hole in the hull, to make sure it went down. They got Luke to a hospital, and he survived, although he’s pretty messed up. And the divers found Lilly, Susan and Bryson in the engine room, unharmed. They somehow escaped the gunfire, radioed for help. Leave it to Lils to singlehandedly save the day.”

“Who did it?” I demand, though I have my suspicions. “Did they catch the killer?”

He shakes his head, face still that dreamy, sad, vacant space that makes my heart clench. “Nobody knows,” he says. “But you have to fix this, Veronica. You have to get us on the boat. I’ll shoot the son of a bitch if I need to. I could pull a trigger. Because this…” he gestures around him. “Veronica can’t go on like this. Maybe I could, I’m used to life being shit. But she’s…slowly drifting away. She gets much more brittle, she’ll crack. A lot of days, she just lies in bed and stares at the wall.”

I stroke his hair back from his brow, and he closes his eyes. “I promise,” I say. “You and I will prevent this, somehow.”

“I love you,” he tells me. “Nothing has felt right, ever, since you went away.” He smiles. “At least we had our dance.”

“Veronica has to find the killer,” I say. “She needs a reason to keep going. And it’s your job to take care of her, while she hunts, so she doesn’t get herself hurt. If either one of you gives up, before you solve the mystery, I will fucking HAUNT you, Logan.”

He laughs. Traces the line of my brow with one finger. “I’d expect nothing less,” he says. “I’m gonna pass out, soon. Take me home?”

I settle him in the bedroom at the condo, with a big jug of water and the TV set to cartoons; then I unpack, because it feels like the best way to help. I load the dishwasher and scrub the bathroom. Arrange the knick knacks, hang Lynn’s art. Flatten the boxes, stack them by the door. After a while, Logan emerges and flops down on the couch. He watches silently, wedging his lanky self between the dogs.

I find a stuffed bear at the bottom of the last box. It’s wearing a trench coat that swings open, flasher-style, to reveal a t-shirt with a big red heart. “Come on,” I say, nudging him to make him focus. “Hold me while I fall asleep.”

He follows me into the bedroom and we cuddle up, wrapping ourselves in the comforter against the chill. The dogs pad through the open door and climb up too, sprawling along the bottom, one on either side. I spoon the bear, Logan spoons me, and I drift at last into uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY SIX INVERTS

I’m sleeping, warm and comfortable; my face is pressed, secure, to Logan’s solid shoulder, while a mild breeze ruffles my hair. Voices surround me, rising and falling in rhythm, clinking, stomping crowd sounds that swirl harmlessly by. I feel profoundly rested in his arms. I hang suspended, in the calm, luxurious space between sleeping and waking, and listen while he speaks.

“…had a fifties beach movie marathon,” he’s saying, words vibrating through his chest. “I ordered Hawaiian food from that place on Escondido. The pineapple-chicken kabobs were surprisingly tolerable; she ate five. I might take her to Hanalei Bay, on our next vacation.”

“Veronica’s come to school exhausted every day, since you two holed up in your seaside cottage.” This is Jackie’s voice, light and tinkling. She sounds like a wineglass struck by a spoon; musical, prone to shattering. “Maybe you should save your…movie marathons for the weekend?”

“You overestimate my ability to say no to her,” Logan murmurs. He tucks in a loose corner of the jacket that covers me.

“Don’t let it get you down, cuddle bear,” I tell him, the words powder-soft. My lips slide against his shirt as I stretch. “NO ONE’S allowed to say no to me.”

I sit, open my eyes, and I’m in the Neptune High food court, sprawled across the bench at the center table. Jackie’s next to Wallace, whose total focus is his food; the sun is shining brightly over a world I just saw ruined. There’s no trace of that reality here… just the ordinary Neptune gold-plated rot. It’s another high school lunch, along the fault line between rich and poor.

I gaze at Wallace, grimly demolishing a mountain of fried rice; vow to keep him, no matter what, from winding up dead. I didn’t fix seventy zillion missteps in the slipstream, just so some maniac with an AK could turn my world back upside down.

But before I change the fabric of reality? I need to eat. My stomach is snarling like it wants to digest itself, and something at this table smells AMAZING.

Logan laughs; I guess I’m drooling. He presents me with a box of Chinese, flipping it under his palm as if performing magic. I smile, as I gaze down at the carton. “Pirate Points,” I say. “I’m SO GLAD I have PIRATE POINTS, here.”

“You’ve got more Pirate Points than ANYONE,” Jackie says, sarcastic. “You could start a black market, if you cared about money.”

“That would be irresponsible,” Logan chides, with suspect primness. He hands me a napkin, and unwraps a spork, which he presents to me across his wrist, like he’s a five-star waiter. “As student council president, Veronica has an IMAGE to maintain.”

I glance up at him, appalled, and he laughs with his eyes. “Welcome back,” he murmurs in my ear. “Sorry you had to find out the hard way that you’re disgustingly respectable.”

“You couldn’t be more All-American if you were wrapped in the flag,” Jackie agrees, adding edge; she glances at Wallace, to see if this comment passes muster. He doesn’t look up from his plate, though—probably his coach is making him jog again. That always kicks his calorie consumption into the stratosphere.

Logan clutches my thigh, drawing breath to counter-attack, and I write NO on his wrist with one finger. “That’s me,” I agree, breezy. “Barbie WISHES she had my Dream House. And SPEAKING OF All-Americans…how’s it going with your dad, Jackie? Is your beach-front senior year living up to the fantasy?”

“I’m still not used to pastels, OP, and SUNSHINE,” she says, tossing down the fork she’s used to toy with her salad. She lounges back with studied glamour. “Wallace has been a good friend,” (here she nudges him, and he musters a faint smile, directed at a carton of fried bananas), “introducing me around, showing me the ropes. But it feels WEIRD that it’s November, and I’m not in a coat, wearing a hat with flaps to keep my ears from freezing.

“As for my dad, he’s…busy. Life of a celebrity, I guess? I thought we’d get to know each other, during my visit, but he’s never around. And when he DOES come home, he drink beers and watches Sports Center, and isn’t in the mood to bond. I’m enjoying his car collection, and his home spa; but the lack of father-daughter interaction is a drag.”

Logan draws a question mark on my leg, and I tilt up to his ear to whisper. “He’s a high-stakes gambler. Millions of dollars in debt, casino owner has him by the balls. No point in telling her, there’s nothing she can do.”

He draws an exclamation point on my leg, and murmurs back, “Another loser spawns in the Neptune gene pool. No wonder she makes up imaginary famous friends.”

A frown appears between Jackie’s brows; she must think we’re talking smack. She handles it, though, with typical panache. “You know, it never ceases to amaze me that you two WALLOW in PDA. Separately, you’re all sharp edges, but together? Mildly sickening.”

“Well, you’re perfectly capable of being sickening, too!” I say, in my Amber the cheerleader voice. “Feel free to tackle Wallace on the table, just like Lisa’s doing to Caz, if you’re eager to show us up!”

Jackie smiles, the arch, faintly pitying smirk that enraged me, the first time I went ten rounds with her. “I prefer to keep my sweet nothings private. No offense: I’m just not a kiss-and-tell girl.”

“Are we officially living together?” I ask Logan, donning the jacket spread over me, to cut the biting wind.

“Hmmm, debatable.” He goes to work rolling one sleeve. “You still haven’t fessed up to your parents, but everyone here knows. It’s not like you’re underage, though. Lianne can’t drag you back to the nest, unless you actually choose to go.”

“The cat’s out of the bag with us, then,” I say, rolling up my other sleeve. I pull his arm around my waist, and get to work on lunch. “We’ve clearly done the deed. Might as well enjoy our fall from grace.”

I glance at Wallace, expecting SOME comment, probably of the brain-bleach variety; and it finally registers that he’s ignoring us, while not eating DESSERT. “I’m surprised at you, Papa Bear,” I say, concerned. “Making OTHERS field jokes about our icky public cuddling?”

Wallace shrugs, morose, and Jackie interjects. “I think Wallace took a vow of silence. I asked him how many points he scored in this weekend’s game, and he just shook his head.”

“Dude,” Logan says. “You SHREDDED on the court Saturday. What the hell?”

“Don’t tell me,” I say. “You’re TV’s next brooding heartthrob?”

“I found out today my dad really wasn’t my dad,” Wallace says, crumpling his napkin and tossing it aside. “And my mom kept it secret. Excuse me if I’m not up to banter.”

Logan whistles, Jackie puts a protective hand on his forearm; I think fuck, I forgot that bombshell was coming.

“Hey, you’ve got the only good mother in town,” Logan says, shooting me a ‘You couldn’t warn me?’ look that makes me grit my teeth. Because come on, I’ve been a LITTLE BIT busy, lately. “She must have a REALLY good reason for withholding that. You need to let her explain.”

“NO reason is good enough,” Wallace counters, incensed. “She told me her ex was a complete loser. But this guy, my real dad? Turns out he’s NOT. He’s a COP, the kind with commendations. He wrote me LETTERS, man, because he wanted to have a relationship, and she sent them back, unopened. HUNDREDS of letters. There’s NO excuse for the lies she told; I have a RIGHT to know my father.”

“Dude,” Logan says. “She’s clearly trying to PROTECT you. I’d bet this cop’s not as great as he seems, because Alicia doesn’t do malice.”

“Look, I know you have a shitty family,” Wallace says, scathing. “And I know you idolize my mom, and her stupid casseroles, and her tendency to pretend she’s wise. But I can’t even LOOK at her right now. I’m thinking about going to Chicago with my dad for a while, until I cool down. Get to know the guy she HID from me. Make my OWN choices, for a change.”

Logan starts to speak, and Wallace holds up a pre-emptive hand. “Uh-uh,” he says. “Back off. You’re doing YOUR thing, shacked up with Veronica; you haven’t spoken to Lynn since September. If you can’t be on my side, like a best friend should, I don’t have the energy to deal.”

He shoves his lunch aside, making the last stray grains of rice bounce; gets up, and stalks off. The rest of us sit, stunned, watching his retreat.

“Nice going,” Jackie says finally, breaking the shocked silence. She favors Logan with a venomous glare. “You’re supposed to be this consummate manipulator, but that was HAM handed! Wallace is the ONLY person who’s been consistently kind to me, in this school full of rumor-starters and snobs. And you tough-love him into another state, because you can’t handle the truth? Ugh, you two are POSTER children for privileged obliviousness. You run roughshod over EVERYONE, just to prove you CAN.”

She rises and stalks off, after Wallace, presumably. Logan tries to follow, but I put a hand on his chest to restrain him. “No,” I say. “Let him process. Jackie will talk him off the edge. You’re right, Alicia DOES have a reason; the cop got in too deep while undercover, and scared her badly. But Wallace needs to let go of his mad, before he’ll accept that.”

“Yeah, but where will he be decompressing?” Logan’s biting tone hides vulnerability. “Chicago? Is he leaving for good?”

“He’ll be back by New Year’s,” I say. “He’ll come to his senses. I doubt he’s as pissed at you as he was at me, either, so maybe he’ll even write.”

“Fuck.” Logan’s fist twines in the edge of the jacket I’m wearing; I realize, with a spurt of amusement, that I’m his security blanket. “He’s the one person I actually TALK to, other than you, Veronica. I can’t handle losing him as a friend.”

“You won’t lose him,” I say, deliberately softening my voice. I remember how sad he was when Duncan defected, and Duncan treated him like shit. So this must feel WAY worse. “Call Wallace later, leave a NON-SARCASTIC message, and apologize. He might not reply right away, but he’s a good guy. He’ll forgive.”

He nods; I kneel up to kiss his forehead, which makes him smile. He presses his cheek to the top of my head, enfolds me in his arms, and we sit that way for a while, until his breathing slows.

The mid-lunch bell rings, and Logan groans, head falling back. He gazes morosely at the grey November sky. “I REALLY don’t want to go to FBLA right now,” he says. “Can we ditch, park somewhere, and have LOTS of sex? And then cuddle?”

I take a deep breath. “Is Beaver in FBLA?”

“If I say yeah, we have to go, right?”

“Afraid so,” I say. “Raincheck? Since we’re past the scared-of-pregnancy phase of this relationship? Which, by the way, SUCKED, so I’m REALLY glad it’s over.”

“Veronica and I made a deal,” he confides, climbing off the bench. He extends a hand to help me up. “Double birth control, more non-coital, and nobody gets to be shy about asking for what they need. I’m guessing you know what she asks for most. And I must say, she’s a LOT more relaxed lately, as a result.”

“Imagine that,” I say, suppressing a laugh. “Vinnie’s nickname for you could not BE more apt.”

I kiss him, lingering, tasting his smile. He curls a hand around my ass, right there in the schoolyard, where everyone can see. And maybe it’s not fairy-tale princess romantic, the way I said I wanted; but it’s MY fantasy, the best version of Logan, staking his boyfriendly claim. I grin against his lips.

“You’re NOT helping with the having-to-stay-at-school part,” he murmurs, voice gone husky.

“Sorry,” I tell him, faux-repentant. I tuck my arm through his and turn him, walking towards the school. “Mysteries to solve, murderers to catch. Your libido can bide its time.”

“Ah, but I have a secret weapon, now,” he says, smirking down. “You LIVE with me. No matter how efficient and busy you get, you’ve got to sleep SOMETIME.”

“Yeah, in the school courtyard, apparently.” I squeeze his waist as he veers me through the door, down the locker-lined hallway. “But I’m glad at least ONE aspect of our lives is working out well.”

XXXXX

I inhale Chinese while Mr. Pope drones on, pleased I’m still near the top of the stock market race. Logan slumps in his seat, morose about Wallace. He’s carving ‘This Club is a Waste of Time’ into his desk, in ballpoint.

Beaver sits two chairs down, hands serenely folded; he seems unaware I’m clocking his every move. It’s been two months, at a guess, since he ran down Lucky…and God knows what he’s done, in the interim. He’s not wearing a cast, though, and he’s not in jail; so I’m sure he hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs.

I tear out a notebook page with determined jerks, fold it small. Keeping eyes on Beaver, I scribble, “Have any more Little Leaguers died, since Lucky?”. When Mr. Pope turns his back, I hand it to Logan.

He chews on his pen cap, writes rapidly. Tosses the note in my lap. “Very covert, super spy,” it says. “No. Plus I’ve had to investigate…creatively, because I promised V I’d stop. He’s spying on three guys who fit the profile. And he’s careful about covering his tracks.”

“Why was V so upset, when she caught you?” I write. “What does she know?”

He cocks his head, considering. “Some. She’s sure he drugged the drinks; thinks he’ll target me and Wallace, because we stopped him. She insists we all stay clear, until he screws up and gets arrested. But she sees the murder stuff as me, being vindictive. Trying to pin suicides on B, as payback.”

I sit back and consider. Senior Year Me would have investigated the hell out of a known evil-doer; all while over-protecting Logan, and taunting Beaver, in hopes he’d crack. I’d buy Other Veronica’s student-class-president, law-abiding schtick. But nobody who carries lockpicks, and hacks Weevil’s bank account, and investigates Liam Fitzpatrick, is innocent. I debate sharing with Logan the suspicion that he’s being played. But the last thing I need is the two of them, fighting again.

Mr. Pope is rhapsodizing about his sailboat, making Dick snicker off to Beaver’s left. Logan is slouched way down in his chair, the heel of one shoe balanced on the toe of the other, and he only has eyes for me. He’s watching me fulminate, with a slight smile, anticipatory; ready to execute, unhesitating, my every crazy plan. He’s got brains and badassery, a fervent desire to protect…and I was an idiot, last time, for not taking advantage. I won’t make the same mistake twice.

“Let’s follow him after school.” I write back, eventually. Logan rolls his eyes.

“Fine,” he prints, emphatically, with a raised brow for emphasis. “BUT I get a sit-down dinner, someplace Italian. And THEN we head home, and make up for lost time.”

“Fair enough,” I scribble. “V’s not the only one who needs to relax.”

He bursts out laughing when he reads this; crumples the note in his fist, so we won’t get caught. He winks at me, and my smile in response is smug.

Mr. Pope catches the look, but only says, “Miss Mars’ performance is no laughing matter.” He clicks the slide-projector remote, displaying my line, near the top. “She’s running a competitive second to the younger Mr. Casablancas, who seems to have inherited his father’s… business acumen.”

Dick snorts, and Logan shares a smirk with him. Beaver seems annoyed, and turns to focus that feeling on me.

“Too bad, Veronica,” he says, with a faux-regretful snap of his fingers. “You’ll have to work harder, if you want to get a step ahead.”

I glare at him, and he sneers, a faint, contemptuous curve of his upper lip. He knows I’m on to him, and he’s DARING me to continue; Like he’s Moriarty, I’m Holmes, and he’s confident he’s SMARTER. Son of a BITCH!

“NEVER underestimate the tenacity of a Mars,” I say, with my brightest, falsest smile. “We’re like pit bulls with toys, when it comes to competition. We don’t stop until the opposition’s in SHREDS.”

He arches his brows, my smile veers towards a snarl, and Mr. Pope says, “Looks like the prize will be HOTLY contested! Perhaps the rest of the class should step up, and change the game?”

Logan touches my knee; I glance over, and he just barely shakes his head. His fingers trail up my leg, to the fist clenched on my thigh. He takes my hand, kisses the back. I face forward, listen to the last of Mr. Pope’s lecture. And grind my teeth until my jaw aches.

XXXXX

Logan waits outside my last class, history book tucked under one arm. He’s slouched against the wall, ankles crossed, twirling a quarter absently across his knuckles. When he sees me he flips it into the air, catches and pockets it, and draws me into one-armed embrace.

“So what’s next?” he asks, steering me towards the exit. “Shenanigans? Skulduggery?”

“I want to pin Beaver to Styrofoam like a CAPTURED BEETLE, and watch him SQUIRM,” I say, glad I can finally vent. “And make sure he serves FIVE LIFE SENTENCES in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. That fucker DARED me IN CLASS to catch him! He TAUNTED me!”

“Well, now he’s done it,” Logan says, comfortably. “If you weren’t already motivated by innocent people dying, there’s no way you’d let someone DARE you and win.”

“Damn straight,” I say, as he salutes Dick, swerves us past a gaggle of guffawing jocks. “We’re on that guy like FLYPAPER, until he incriminates himself or cracks. And then I’ll DESTROY him, while I LAUGH!”

Logan beeps open the XTerra, gestures me inside. I give him a look. “You’re kidding, right? We can’t tail criminals effectively in this Day-Glo nightmare!”

“This is what we drove to school,” he says, with a shrug. “It’s not like your James Dean convertible is any less splashy.”

“Fuck,” I say. “If these are our options, we’ll have to bug his car. OK let’s try to follow, but hang back as far as possible. And we SERIOUSLY need to invest in low-key transportation. Range Rovers are nice, and you can drive them on sand.”

Logan points, and I spot Beaver in the distance, buckling into his black Volvo sedan. He cruises sedately away, obeying all traffic rules; my teeth-clenching headache returns.

“I’ve been following him off and on for months,” Logan says, veering around Caitlyn Ford and her crony Mia, whose Vespas block the exit. “He hasn’t caught me yet. Besides, it’s Friday, after school. So his first stop will be the car wash on Loma Vista. He’ll sit there for an hour, while his station wagon’s detailed, reading Agatha Christie; then he’ll head over to his dad’s house. Try to horn in on Dick’s party plans. He does most of his spying on weekdays, and takes weekends off, like the trust fund baby he’ll eventually be.”

I raise my brows, impressed with this summary. “Nice work, Marlowe! Every time I show up here, you’ve gotten more hardboiled.”

“Will you weep for my attitude on cold winter evenings?” he asks, smirking.

I pat his face. “Sweet cheeks, I already do.”

Sure enough, we circle around a shoe warehouse, park behind a tree, and there’s Beaver; sprawled in a chair at a luxury car wash, reading a slender book. Or rather, pretending to read. He’s keeping an eagle eye on his sedan, while the Neptune underclass scrubs.

Logan produces a pack of Gummi worms, quirks a brow at me as he tears it open. I take half, which makes his other eyebrow rise.

“OK, let’s recap, so you don’t get bored,” I say, chewing. “Beaver’s victims, thus far, include: Peter Ferraire, ten-story fall: Michael Showalter, prescription drug OD: and Lucky Dohanic, non-fatal hit-and-run. Did Beaver break his leg when he hit Lucky, I wonder? Or when he plowed into a parked car, to disguise the fender damage? Because driving around town with a fractured tibia, just to provide a cover story, takes some serious chutzpah.”

Logan shrugs, to show he doesn’t know, and I frown. “OK, whatever, that’s irrelevant. What does matter is, despite the cast, which took him out of commission for six weeks? He still managed to spy on three prospective victims.”

“All of them former Sharks,” Logan confirms. “He used someone else’s login to research them in computer lab, guy named Marcos Oliveras…ALSO a former Shark. I sat across the aisle and watched him do it, he was very matter-of-fact. I can’t BELIEVE I used to feel sorry for the dude.”

“What happened to Lucky?” I ask. “Was he badly hurt?”

Logan see-saws one hand. “Cracked ribs, cuts and bruises. It was a glancing hit on a residential street; Lucky rolled into the ditch, and the driver sped away. Seems to me it was a crime of passion, because the opportunity arose… not something meticulously planned. Lucky was ranting a lot about the cursed-Sharks angle. My guess is, the attention he drew pissed Beaver off.”

“And how’s our victim faring, in the aftermath?”

“Hmmm, interesting question. ‘Increasingly unhinged’ is the way I would put it. He’s currently unemployed, because Neptune High doesn’t re-hire convicted felons. He’s gotten even more into that weird church Meg went to, raving about choosing sides for the Apocalypse. Honestly, the guy’s always been nuts, especially since Iraq, but lately he’s also become violent. He’s not buying Beaver’s disingenuousness about the hit-and-run, either, and he’s furious the cops won’t arrest.”

Logan leans back into the corner, props a foot on the seat; sucks a Gummi worm between his lips, Lady-and-the-Tramp-style. “Also, I figured out Beaver’s schedule by tailing Lucky,” he adds, around the mouthful. “If we follow the guy long enough, Lucky’s sure to make an appearance.”

A passing red truck screeches to a halt in the road, as he speaks, and doubles around. It pulls into the lot, and Logan game-show-host gestures as his point is proved. He sits up straight to observe their showdown, tossing the packet backwards.

Lucky leaps from his truck, yanks Beaver up by the shirt, and yells in his face, spittle flying. He does indeed look unhinged; he’s barefoot and shirtless, dressed in ratty sweatpants, and a catcher’s mask covers his head. I roll down the window, trying to hear, but they’re too far away to make out words.

Beaver seems unfazed. He wraps his hand around both of Lucky’s, says something smug, and the attack abruptly deflates. Lucky grips the mask in both hands and wails, like the Rapture’s just left without him.

An employee comes running, separates them, and puts his hands on Lucky’s shoulders, talking slowly while Lucky sobs. Dohanic’s having some kind of breakdown, body contorted with grief; he slumps in Car Wash Man’s grip, as his fit abates. Eventually he nods, in defeat, and shambles back to his truck. He climbs in and drives away, weaving a little as he picks up speed. I shake my head, because THAT’S an accident waiting to happen.

Beaver straightens his shirt, sends a look of loathing after Lucky’s retreating form; picks his book up and dusts it on his jeans. The employee talks to him, too, clearly placating, and Beaver waves the guy away. His keys are brought, his car presented for inspection. He gets in and drives off, with an enraged squeal of wheels.

“Mush,” I say, as Logan cranks the engine. “Don’t lose him.”

He nods, cutting a perfect u-turn, and my phone rings.

“Dad,” I answer, while Logan burns rubber to catch up.

“Darling daughter,” he replies. “Who is certainly not guilty, at this moment, of anything that might require bail.”

I mime throat-cutting at Logan, and he abandons pursuit. “I admit nothing,” I say, into the phone. “Also, how do you KNOW this stuff?”

“I have eyes everywhere,” Dad informs me. “However, much as I’d like to discuss responsible decision making, in relation to suspected criminals? I actually called for a reason. Can you swing by the apartment, before embarking on evening plans? I’ve got news that won’t wait.”

“Drive to Dad’s,” I mouth at Logan, and he hooks a right. “On our way,” I say. “Is this news bad?”

“Semi,” Dad says. “And your boyfriend can’t wait in the car. This concerns him as well.”

“Roger that,” I say, and hang up. “We’re busted,” I tell Logan. “Time to present ourselves for a stern reprimand, without passing go.”

“He specifically asked for me, didn’t he?” Logan wants to know. “I felt that chill up my spine.”

“Sorry boo-boo,” I say, tucking my phone back into my purse. “Today we BOTH have to take it like a man.”

XXXXX

Dad’s still living in a mid-grade apartment complex called, oh so cleverly, Villas del Mar; same place we exited at a run, the night Trina took her nose dive. It’s your typical, mile-from-the-beach two-story, with a cleaner pool than the Sunset Cliffs, and white-collar childless renters.

When he opens to our knock, I’m glad of my poker face, because he looks FRAIL; like he’s the kind of sick that kills you, held at bay by sheer determination. My strength of character is down to Dad, but I HATE seeing his on display.

I glance at Logan, appalled, and he takes my hand, a silent show of support. “You rang?” he asks, with his most obnoxious smile. Typical Logan Echolls smarm-chivalry, drawing fire via jerkitude.

“I did,” Dad says, swinging the door wide. “Come on in.”

He shuffles into the living room, leaning heavily on a cane, and we follow; I grip Logan’s hand, tight enough to bruise. “Sorry for the mess. I have a housekeeper twice a week, while I’m in rehab. But her son caught a cold today, so she stayed home.”

The clutter's minimal, but I know how Dad gets about keeping the place ‘nice’. I watch him make his laborious way to the fridge, and my heart is BREAKING here.

Dad grabs our favorite sodas without asking, hands them over; gestures to the couch with a compact wave. We sit, and he lowers himself carefully into his armchair. He gives a wry smile, and says, maybe to my expression, “It’s not as bad as it looks. I’m following doctor’s orders, and improving every day.”

“You’d better be,” I say. Logan’s thumb strokes my knuckles, reassuring.

“I’ll be fine,” Dad reassures. “Not as soon as I’d like, but then again, the Mars clan isn’t known for its patience. Listen, kids, I have some bad news, and there’s no point stalling or sugar-coating. Someone saw my leave-of-absence as opportunity, and stole the Echolls pool house tapes from the evidence room.”

“WHAT?” Logan flies to his feet, outraged. “How did this HAPPEN?”

“Investigate Leo D’Amato,” I put in, giving Logan a look I hope conveys NO LAMP BREAKING. “He has a handicapped sister who’s being bullied at school. He doesn’t have the money to send her someplace safe.”

Dad studies me, penetrating, and says, “I’ll tell Jerry Sacks. He’s serving as interim Sheriff, while I recuperate.”

“You gave me your word this would NEVER happen,” Logan interrupts, voice low and clipped, like he’s trying not to lose it. “I trusted you, Keith, and that’s NOT my forte.”

Dad holds up a hand. “Before you get too worked up, Logan, you should know; the stolen tapes are blank. They were somehow…improperly stored in the evidence room, next to a large speaker. We learned this detail from a media contact, who works for the outlet that purchased them. The buyer was incensed, needless to say.”

Logan stares at him for a moment. Takes a deep breath, sits back down. “Well, I’d be lying if I said I was sorry,” he tells Dad, curling a hand around my thigh. “But I’m sure this wasn’t your fault.”

Dad sighs, meeting Logan’s eyes directly. “Of course not. I have to agree, though; in a way, it’s a blessing. Trina’s confession was heart-wrenching. I’m glad her secrets, and those of others, are safe.”

“Is this the headline yet, on TMZ?” Logan asks. “Because it’s sensitive information to trust to civilians.”

Dad laughs. “I’m trusting you to house my DAUGHTER…temporarily, at least, despite STRONG reservations. Everything else is easy.” He folds his hands on his lap, studies them. Looks up, squarely meeting Logan’s gaze. “But yeah, this incident will hit the 24-hour news cycle in a major way. Police misconduct was alleged, but not proven, in the Manning case; and here’s a second instance, occurring on my watch. I’ve been elected thus far because the public perceives me as ethical. So this…is a blow.

“The tapes won’t be splashed across the media, which is good. But there WILL be an investigation into how they got erased. There may even be criminal proceedings. And regardless of the outcome, I’m almost certain to lose the popular vote. Vinnie looks like a shoo-in, running against me. Which would be bad, because, as we all know, his loyalties are…uncertain.

“So I’ve decided to step down, claiming health as an excuse, and Jerry will run in my place. He’s the most intelligent and principled of my deputies, and he’s well-liked. He might not be able to beat an operator like Vinnie in a dirty fight, and he’s not as seasoned as I’d prefer. But he’s the best choice available and willing, at this time.”

“There’s NO choice as good as you,” I say, fiercely, which wins a half-smile from Dad.

“Obviously I agree,” he says. “But I’m no help to anyone dead. I just wish…I could have made my exit under better circumstances. Or at least RESPECTABLE ones, with a competent successor lined up. As it is… I’m uneasy about what the future holds, for this town. I’m not convinced the good guys will retain the upper hand.”

“Everybody who fights bad men eventually loses,” Logan says; offhand, like this view is just fact. “We grow old and die, or we just get tired. What matters is how well we acquit ourselves, while someone’s swinging for our faces. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the guy who’s saved, or tried to save, pretty much everyone I love. I’m sorry, truly, that you have to suffer for my dad’s crimes. But thank you for knowing you would, and doing the right thing, anyhow.”

Dad shakes his head at Logan, both exasperated and charmed. Which is the standard reaction to his brooding emo philosophies. “I want you kids to understand something else,” Dad says. “Regardless of the outcome of this election? The cases you care about are dead in the water. Local law enforcement is…hesitant to go up against organized crime. And neither candidate CAN do much about Cassidy Casablancas, without a LOT more evidence. I know this rubs against the grain, especially for you, Veronica; but you may have to resign yourselves to justice not being served.”

“In other words, we’re on our own,” I say.

“No,” Dad corrects. “You have my love and support, and a number of very loyal friends. But you may NOT have a cop car at your beck and call anymore. So scale back the freelance detective work accordingly, and be proactively self-protective.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I say, widening my eyes to the maximum. I attempt a little lash-batting, which makes Dad sigh.

“Sure you don’t,” Dad says. “And Logan? Get a more inconspicuous vehicle, if you plan to keep following people.”

Logan fights back a smile. “What IS it with the Mars clan and my car? I LIKE yellow!”

“The popular paint colors are grey, white, green and gold,” Dad says. “Learn to like one of those.”

I hug my father; he smells of medicine and disinfectant, which brings tears to my eyes. “I hope you know how grateful to you I am. For EVERYTHING.”

“Cookies are a good way to show that,” Dad informs me. “In case you were wondering.”

“All the cookies you can eat,” I assure him. “Tomorrow morning, guaranteed.”

XXXXX

Logan skips the restaurant and drives straight home. He’s silent the whole way, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, bouncing in his seat like a full-bladdered toddler. As soon as we park, he explodes from the car; and when I ask what’s wrong, words explode from HIM (accompanied by emphatic hand gestures, since he’s completely freaked).

“What, other than the fact that everybody who wants to kill us just got an engraved INVITATION? Well, the soon-to-be Sheriff’s in deep with the Fitzpatricks, and knows more about what we’re up to than I’d like. And any power players gunning for you can now use your dad’s alleged crime as leverage. But mostly? At this point, the only thing standing between you and Veronica, and those crazy sons of bitches with guns, is ME. I SERIOUSLY need to up my game!”

He paces furiously, gripping his hair with both hands, and I’m reminded of Lucky, wailing in the lot of the detail shop. I wonder what Beaver said; why it deflated him so totally.

“But at least my dad’s criminal perversions won’t be splashed all over the Internet, in high-res living color,” Logan says, spreading his arms wide as his angst fit spirals down. I take the keys from him, unlock the door, and he follows me disconsolately in. “So I guess that’s one win, on a field of losses. Jesus, I need a drink.”

He flops backwards on the couch, head falling slack over the edge; he stares pensively at the ceiling, and I take pity. “You know what?” I ask, heading to the bar cabinet by the living room entrance. I extract a bottle of Jack. “Let’s play a game. I’m not pregnant, the last few days have been EXCESSIVELY shitty, and I won’t turn into Lianne if I get my drink on one time.”

I collect two shot glasses and carry them over, plunk them top-up on the table. It seems Lilly’s fetish has spread to our residence; one reads ‘I Wish I Was In Tijuana’, and the other ‘Try Sex On the Beach—and Have a Drink, Too!’.

“You’re hot when you bustle around like a very small hurricane,” Logan notes, a reluctant half-grin quirking his lips. “Plotting mayhem, taking charge.”

“You bet I am,” I say. “Drink if your best friend once left you, to run off with his sketchy dad. And you didn’t want to be mad at him, but you WERE.”

I toss my shot back, and Logan follows suit, smacking his lips as the whiskey goes down. Sympathy rolls through me as he visibly relaxes; he carries so much tension, hidden, behind his languid, snarky mask.

“Drink if you found Veronica spinning in circles, while all the slipstreams attacked, scary as shit,” he says, keeping his eyes on his glass. “Resulting, in my case, in a week of insomnia, afraid she’d never return.”

We swallow our shots, and I lean sideways to kiss him. “I never get hurt, when that stuff happens,” I tell him, my lips brushing his. “I just go someplace else. It’s freaky, for sure, but there’s no need to worry.”

“I love you,” he says. “I’m going to worry, and you can’t stop me.”

“How about we channel this stress into a situation we can control, then?” I ask. “We may not be able to end our various cat-and-mouse-with-villains games, at a snap of the fingers. But we can prevent the latest awful reality from taking hold, with hopefully minimal effort.”

“Another one?” he asks fatalistically, eyeing the bottle like he’s not sure it’s sufficient. “Fine, lay it on me. It’s not like you’re spoiling a golden moment.”

I take his hand. “If ANYONE tries to throw a graduation party on Celeste Kane’s yacht? We need to discourage it, in the STRONGEST possible terms. And if we can’t put a stop to it, we need to make sure the minimum number of people attend, by fair means or foul. If we don’t, it’ll be bad, Logan. A lot of people we love will die.”

“Wonderful,” he says, and pours himself another drink. “I’m starting to see why you made a chart. This sounds like the kind of surprise Lilly would dream up, and spring on us the day of graduation. If I tell her not to, she’ll just call me an antisocial freak who pretends to be extroverted, and redouble her efforts.”

“Drink if you’re super glad Lilly’s not dead… but find her an adorably unstoppable loose cannon,” I say. We clink our glasses together, and toast her with a laugh.

“Lilly’s UP to something, by the way,” he says, speech slowing to a deliberate drawl as the liquor takes hold. “She’s sneaking around, acting evasive, and she’s got that high-octane-thrill-seeking twinkle in her eye. She doesn’t have a visible boyfriend, either, so it’s not about cheating. I haven’t got a handle on her secret, yet; but I’m pretty sure it’s bigger than a yacht party.”

“FABULOUS,” I say. “Is she still in trouble with the law?”

“No, that’s over, thank God, she’s free and clear. The Mannings lost custody of the kids.” He spins his glass between his fingertips, amber liquid catching the light. “Meg’s 18, so she’ll stay here and finish high school. The other two go to live with an aunt, I forget where. Nobody’s in jail, though. And Stewart seems to have gotten MORE religious in the aftermath, maybe because his Mayoral run imploded. He’s Neptune’s very own televangelist, these days. CONSTANTLY making speeches, which of course turn up on the news, because the media LOVES a train wreck.”

“What are the speeches about?” I ask.

“Cleaning up the city,” he says. “The same hypocritical bullshit, from a secret drug dealer; he’s like a closeted guy, getting his homophobe on. His church is MASSIVELY crazypants, but for some reason it’s growing. And that crowd APPROVES his disciplinary tactics, as the unspoken message goes. Dear old dad would have fit right in.”

“Drink if you wish Stewart Manning would get hit by a meteor, and vanish forever, like the dinosaurs,” I say.

He takes a sip. “Drink if you’re fucking sick of people in Neptune mistreating their kids, and getting AWAY with it. And you’re thinking somebody needs to stop it. Even if that somebody is you…me.”

I turn to focus on him, which is harder than it should be. “You sound like Lilly at prom,” I say. “Hey, you should team up with her on this venture, keep her out of trouble. I mean, if you can find the time, in between school, and investigating, and living with me, and death threats. You know, I never noticed this, last time through my life… but you are QUITE the efficient multitasker, Echolls.”

“Drink if you’ve found someone who believes in you,” he says. “And not as a dire warning slash self-fulfilling prophecy. Drink again, if you never thought you would.” He gestures at me with his glass, swallows, his eyes fixing warmly on mine. I feel both flustered and hot.

(You were there for me when nobody else was, Logan’s letter said. You broadened my mind in ways I never believed possible. You’re my girl if you want to be, and that’s forever.)

“Like I’d waste time on a guy who wasn’t amazing,” I scoff, lifting my pinky to take a careless sip. “I happen to have EXTREMELY high standards.”

“Drink if obsessive perfectionism is a TOTAL turn on,” he says, and I laugh and kiss him. Because how can I NOT?

His mouth is warm and whiskey-sweet; I sink into his solid, musk-scented embrace. I’m not a big believer in happily-ever-afters and forevers…Neptune ate my innocence, pretty young. But there’s something about HIM that makes it seem weirdly possible. Who else could see me this clearly, and still want me so much?

“It occurs to me,” I say, when he releases my lips to nip languidly at my throat, “that sex would be an EXCELLENT way to work off your angst.”

“Mmmm, great minds think alike.” He scrapes his teeth along the saddle of my shoulder, sucks, and I shiver. His hand slides across my belly. “I believe I also promised you an introduction to my latest relaxation techniques.” He catches the tab of my zipper, draws it slowly down. Smirks at me as he dips a finger inside. “Never let it be said I don’t keep my word.”

I sigh, and dedicate myself happily to the lesson. He makes sure, before we finish, that I’m very relaxed, indeed.

XXXXX

Hours later, Logan’s asleep on the couch, a chenille throw covering roughly half his nudity. I’m in the armchair adjacent, dressed in his t-shirt, sipping a cup of tea; I’ve logged into kittenfancy, and found an email, waiting.

“So I’m over my moment of superstitious weakness, and I’m sure one of three things has happened,” Other Veronica tells me, in her no-subject-line, bullet-pointed reply. “A) I’m possessed by a ghost from the future, who doesn’t know she’s dead, as per Carrie Bishop’s theory. In which case I’m about to go straight off the rails; jettison my scholastic efforts, become obsessed with adrenaline and sex, and risk my life on quixotic quests, because I’ve got a year to live.

“Alternatively, B) I may have gone insane, and developed split personalities of wildly varying natures. Which at least has the benefit of actually HAPPENING… rarely…in real life.

“Or C) and maybe you can see why I’m leaning towards this option: this is an elaborate prank, staged by someone I shouldn’t trust. I have a pretty good idea who that person might be, and by ‘that person’ I mean you. All I need is proof you’re the one dosing me, and I’ll be coming down harder on you than GRAVITY. So get ready. You won’t like the payback, I’ll make SURE it stings.”

I sigh. I find it somewhat hilarious that jaded unbeliever Logan Echolls accepted my insane story without a qualm; yet I MYSELF am having a total obstinate shit fit. It’s highly inconvenient, however. And annoying as HELL. Surely high school me is capable of ONE substantiated leap of faith?

“Look, I’m YOU,” I write back, clicking my nails on the keys perhaps harder than necessary. “A you who’s quit caring what the plastic people think, and focused on the stuff that matters. As I SAID. You seem determined to be a stubborn asshole, though, and I don’t have time for games. So how about I just prove it? I’ll tell you three things I KNOW I’ve never told a soul. Things that happened BEFORE our realities split apart.

“One, you’ve had a crush on Logan since 7th grade, when he eviscerated Enbom in class, for claiming you cheated on a Spanish test. Two, in eighth grade you bought a tub of Mammo Max, and rubbed it religiously on your boobs for a month. You stained every one of your bras, but all it won you was a rash. And three, when you were four, you stole a pair of lions, from the Noah’s Ark playset in your daycare. You couldn’t stand the thought of them alone at night, crying in the dark. You felt so guilty about it, though, that you hid them in a box in your closet, and never looked at them again. They stayed alone in the dark FOREVER.

“So there's your proof. And I’m not kidding with this, Veronica, I swear to God. If you unleash havoc on any one of your friends, let alone Logan, because of whatever paranoid fantasy you’re brewing? I will make you pay. They’re not the ones screwing with your life, you are (or rather I am). I didn’t ask to live high school over again, and believe me, I’d rather not…last time, I barely survived. But I don’t know how to go home. So for the time being, you and I are stuck coexisting; and you’re going to need to stop fighting me, if you want to stay alive.

“Now here’s what I need YOU to tell ME. Weevil said you knew the kidnapping, or something like it, was coming; because you were asking questions, after he warned you to stop. And Arturo said I tried to get Liam Fitzpatrick arrested, only I’m thinking that was you. So what dumb questions were you asking, Lucy Ricardo? And who did you piss off? You’ve got some splaining to do.”

I stare at the message for a moment, hit send. Then I gaze at my reflection in the sliding glass doors; wonder what I’ll do, if Other Veronica pulls the metaphorical trigger.

THREAD TWENTY SEVEN

I’m gazing at myself in the mirror, braiding my hair, and whoa. In Hearst Reality, in a one-piece swimsuit? I look like those mournful starving children from Red Cross ads. My belly is gently swollen, but the rest of me’s scary-thin, and my eyes are so dark-circled I seem Goth. There’s a pamphlet for a fancy gym on my dresser, folded open to display the class schedule. Water Aerobics is circled. I think damn it, BRIDGE TOO FAR, and angrily strip.

I rummage through the drawers for cutoffs, Logan’s threadbare White Stripes shirt; knot my hair atop my head. I head to the kitchen, procure BBQ chips and a Sunkist, a Tupperware of cubed melon for vitamins. The doctors keep saying Veronica needs calories and rest…and thanks to what I just saw, I’m forcing her to oblige. When I shut the fridge door, I notice a note from Dad.

“Veronica,” (it reads) “You’re not allowed to go to exercise class. You knocked Darryl over fainting, yesterday, and Alicia has to call the paramedics. Don’t even think about it. And bear in mind, if you DO think about it? I have disabled your car, hidden your wallet, and instructed your friends not to help.”

I laugh, murmur, “Great minds,” and settle into the living room for some trash TV. Probably I ought to be studying for finals, but fuck it. Other Veronica needs to do her own review, so the data’s stashed in the correct memory.

The doorbell rings halfway through the chip bag; I amble over, open it to Dick. He’s dressed in swim trunks, flip flops, and a muscle shirt that reads, “You Want It, I Got It”, so clearly he’s enjoying a relaxed morning too.

“Good,” he says, brushing past me to enter. “I caught you before your stupid-ass aerobics thing.”

“Yeah, I’m not going,” I say, flopping back onto the couch. “Because it’s stupid-ass. Have a seat, I’m watching Real Housewives of Orange County. You want chips? Beer?”

“Oh yeah, beer,” he says, with evident relief. “Maybe more than one.”

I fetch a bottle of Bud, with a quirked eyebrow. He uncaps and chugs it, in one long swallow. He belches, wipes his mouth with his forearm, shutting his eyes in bliss; I say, “Really flashing back to high school right now, Dick.”

“You know how sometimes guys do stuff, Ronnie?” he asks, instead of batting back a zinger. Sets the bottle carelessly on the counter, like there’s a maid coming. “Stuff girls think is gross, so we don’t tell you? But we still do it, in secret. And everyone pretends it’s not happening, so we can all continue to date?”

“Um,” I say. “Are we talking peeing in the shower, here? Or perving on lesbians, like they might actually be interested? Or do you mean less obnoxious, more harmful stuff, such as cheating? Please only answer if it’s not gross things YOU’VE done. Because I’d prefer to never know.”

“OK, I promised Logan I’d look out for you while he was gone; but I didn’t think it would be this tough, or maybe I wouldn’t have. I should have known better, since it’s you. Guys watch porn, is my point, Ronnie. I was watching porn, and I found something that’ll piss you off. But you have to see.”

He reaches into the pocket of his swim trunks—Jesus, even guys’ SWIMSUITS have pockets, whereas womens’ JEANS have fakes—and extracts a DVD, in a plain white sleeve. “I’m gonna wait in the back yard,” he informs me, handing it over. “You need to experience this solo. And when you come find me, both hands in the air, and no taser, please. This is, like, a mercy mission.”

He strides off, and I gaze after him in bemusement. Power up the DVD player, pop in the disk. I settle back on the couch with my chip bag, wondering if Logan’s swimsuit model decided to monetize their ‘relationship’. Consider how best to torment her, for extra payback.

Then the video starts, and a cold wash of fear slides over me. Because it’s a Hearst dorm room, one I recognize as Wallace’s, and Piz and I are standing in it. Kissing.

The me on screen retreats, with a shy smile, and says, “Just so you know. I was with somebody for a long time, and I’m not quite ready to be with anybody else. Like, full intimacy. But we could maybe…fool around?”

Piz gets a giant goofy grin going, and nods eagerly, stammering, “No, I mean yes, of COURSE. I COMPLETELY understand. I would never pressure you, I mean, I’m not that kind of guy. Well, I AM the kind of guy that would want to fool around with you, but only if YOU wanted to. Because I’m a sensitive 21st century male, you know, and I don’t…”

“Piz,” not-me says. “You’re killing the moment.” She smirks at him, shoves him on the bed, and climbs atop. I press the back of my hand to my mouth, as my stomach heaves.

I watch the whole thing through waves of rage, his pathetic eagerness, her (my?) dainty but competent blow job. The date stamp at the bottom means this happened HOURS before I dumped Piz in the cafeteria. So she wasn’t lying about the baby being Logan’s; but she wasn’t up front, about her activities during the split. Of course, I assume Logan and Candace weren’t playing bingo, but still. If he’s the more forthcoming party in this relationship, when it comes to extra-curriculars, Hearst Veronica has a PROBLEM.

The thing that burns is participant B in this amateur porn fiasco. Because the camera is focused directly on his bed. It’s HIS fucking camera. It’s HIM making me (her) into an Internet star. It’s Aaron Echolls all over again, and the only thing I can think is, if Logan sees this, Piz will DIE. And while I wouldn’t MIND that per se, in my current mental state? I’m guessing the Navy WOULD.

So it’s on me to make Piz’s existence a living nightmare. And I’m perfectly suited to the task.

I extract the DVD, march to Veronica’s room, slap it onto the center of the desk; write on the cover, in ballpoint, “You are a DUMBASS with terrible taste.” Then I check my watch, gather my taser. Because it’s 4:00, time for Piz’s radio show. So I know exactly where to find him.

Dick’s in the backyard, on the swing, and he watches apprehensively as I march towards him. “I want you to know I turned it off, when clothes started disappearing. I sort of saw your boobs, but I swear I didn’t look, much. But just to double-check… that thing wasn’t made on purpose, right?”

“Nope,” I say, and my voice sounds feral. “Total surprise. And not the ice-cream-birthday-cake kind.”

“Can we fix it?” he asks.

“We’ll probably never get it off the web,” I say. “Thanks to good old Jake and his streaming video. But I promise you, I’m gonna make the bastard who filmed it PAY.”

“WE’RE gonna make him pay,” Dick corrects, hopping off the swing, following towards the back door. “Pinky swear, Logan, remember?”

“You have to stand back and observe,” I tell him. “I may need you to spring for bail.”

“Ronnie, you’re pissed off and pregnant. Logan would kick my ass so hard if I stood back, it’s not even worth the effort. We get tapped, all you’ve got to do is call Wiedman. Whatever you’re planning, I’m sure Lilly’s done worse, and he always saves HER ass.”

We exit the house and I climb into my convertible, parked in the drive; Dick leaps the side, settles into the passenger seat. “I want to be Thelma,” he informs me, as I gun the engine. “And I want Brad Pitt to be played by Scarlett Johanssen.”

I roll my eyes, and head off towards Hearst at non-legal speed.

XXXXX

I can see Piz in the booth when I smack the cafeteria door open; blathering on about nothing with a self-important grin, while the whole student populace ignores him. People glance up from their food as we pass, abandon conversations to stare. Maybe they’ve witnessed my worldwide porn debut,…maybe they’ve noticed I forgot to don shoes. Either way, they’ll DEFINITELY notice what I do next, because the front of the studio is glass. And I honestly COULD NOT CARE LESS.

I enter the booth and sneak up from behind, the way Logan taught me. Rip off Piz’s headphones while he yammers about Dante’s Inferno, and press the taser to his neck. “If you think THAT sounds bad,” I tell him, menacing, “wait ‘til you see what I’VE got in store for you.”

Dick sits in front of him on the control panel, cracking his knuckles, and Piz starts fear-panting; probably he’s never been threatened in his whole cushy life. “You’re gonna take the video down, Piz,” I tell him, voice low. “You will destroy every copy. You’ll tell everyone you SENT IT TO to destroy THEIR copies, and you are going to spend THE REST OF YOUR LIFE atoning. Or I will make SURE you’re humiliated ten times as much as I just was. And you had BETTER not doubt me.”

“What video?” he squeaks. “What are you TALKING about?”

“Wrong answer,” I say, and tase him. He slumps over, spasming on the floor, and I kick him while he’s down. “Piece of shit,” I growl. “Exploitive, mumbly, passive-aggressive, needy, idiotic WASTE OF FLESH! I can’t BELIEVE I let you touch me!”

“I can’t believe it either,” Dick says, watching Piz squirm and groan. “This dude loses fights with GIRLS. But he’s not gonna answer your questions if you keep electrocuting him, Rons.”

“It makes me FEEL BETTER,” I say, and kick Piz again. Dick nods, like this makes total sense.

Piz groans, tries to sit up, and Dick lifts him by the armpits, shoves him against the wall. “Veronica here?” he asks conversationally, gesturing at me with his head. “Might as well be my sister. She is married to the scariest motherfucker you will ever meet. And hot tip, she’s meaner than BOTH OF US. So taping the only time you’re ever gonna get laid, and sticking it on the web like you’re a big man? Was a CRAZY stupid move. Now hold still, while my fist has major repeating problems with your face.”

“It wasn’t me!” Piz insists. “I didn’t post any videos, I swear! I wouldn’t, I’m a feminist! I mean, not that there’s anything WRONG with making a video, if everybody involved thinks it’s a fun idea, but…”

Dick punches him, twice, and he shuts up.

“The camera was focused on your BED, Piz,” I say. “Give me one reason why I should believe you.”

“I didn’t do this! I swear! If someone’s putting videos on the internet, I was violated too! Look, I’ll help you! I mean, that was a nice, sexy, intimate moment and I…”

“Let go, Dick,” I interrupt, and Dick does. Piz sways on his feet, catching himself against the wall, and I gesture at the chair. “Sit.”

He sits. I point a finger at his face. “First, I don’t want or need your help. I have people who love me, willing to do…pretty much ANYTHING I ask. Second, I don’t believe you, and here’s why; if that camera was intended for espionage, it would have been placed to cover more of the room. The light fixture in the ceiling, say. So third, even if YOU didn’t make the tape, someone who has it in for you, or me, did. And that someone can easily access me, when I’m with you; which means Wallace needs to move. However it falls out, I got violated, and you’re to blame. You FIX this, or your next visits will be from the cops. And the dean.”

I beckon to Dick, and he follows me out of the booth. Behind us, Piz buries his face in his hands. We stride through the cafeteria, where everyone is watching and whispering, and a few random jackasses applaud. We move out into the hall.

“Come on,” I say, hooking a right. “We need to extract that camera from behind his mirror, before someone else does. And before we get arrested.”

“Do you think Radio Wuss can really help?” Dick asks, pressing the elevator button that opens on the street. “He always struck me as kind of pathetic.”

“He is,” I say. “But he’s motivated to do SOMETHING now. If he feels guilty or scared, that plays in our favor, because he might delete what he’s got. Try to hush it all up. If he’s smug, he might want revenge; in which case he’s bound to do something stupid slash arrest-worthy. And if he’s NOT responsible, he’ll get in touch with the guy he thinks IS. At which point the bug I planted in his jeans pocket will come in handy. I count all those outcomes as a win.”

“At least I got to rough him up,” Dick says, pushing the door to the quad open with his back. “It’s been a while since my last old-fashioned throw-down. I’m screwed if we get popped, though. My mom’s in Italy again, and my dad’s assets are still frozen.”

“I’ll make sure Wiedman takes care of you,” I say, patting him on the shoulder. “You’re practically my brother, right? Might as well have access to the family fixer.”

XXXXX

Wallace ignores our first knocks, shouting, “Studying! Go away!”. He responds to repeated poundings with silence; then eventually curses, and stomps towards the door.

“What?” he demands, swinging it open. He’s wearing an old Pirates jersey and sweatpants, and has one earbud dangling. His finger’s tucked in his Mechanical Engineering text to save the place, and he’s in full Finals Freakout mode. His face softens some when he sees me, but he says, “V, I’ve got no time for intrigue right now. You need help with that cafeteria account theft thing, it’s gonna have to wait ‘til the weekend.”

“Go back to studying,” I tell him, happy to see his cranky, alive, not-in-Chicago face. Not just because I (platonically) love him; but because his presence here means Boat Reality is only one possible future. One which all my HEARST loved ones seem to have escaped.

Wait, did I PREVENT a Titanic-esque disaster with a drunken comment to Logan, wherein I told him to stop the party? Or is Horrible Boat Tragedy another Prison Reality? Will it keep popping up like that fucking clown in Poltergeist, until I fix some critical pivot issue?

Things to ponder. Later, though. When I’m not on a timetable, coping with crisis.

“I just need access to your room for five minutes. You won’t even know I’m here,” I tell Wallace, focusing.

“Doubtful,” he says, but lets us in.

He gazes at his work longingly as I march past him towards the mirror, but curiosity wins out; he trails behind. “Lift that off,” I instruct Dick, and Wallace helps. Together they detach the mirror from its bolt, set it down… and yep, the camera’s still there. It’s too high to reach, so I climb onto the dresser.

“What the hell is that?” Wallace asks, as I disconnect the wires.

“Dude, if you haven’t heard, don’t go online. Or check your email. And if you DO attempt those things, do NOT call Logan, and tell him what you found. We’re handling this, is all you need to know.”

“Piz made a dirty movie of the two of us, when he and I were dating,” I say. Because I learned my lesson Senior Year, about shutting Wallace out. “It’s all over the internet. And I’d prefer Logan not be goaded into murder and court martial, when he gets back from basic training. Wait, do the reserves even GET court martialed? The minute I find some free time, I have GOT to research the Navy.”

“Piz did WHAT?” Wallace asks, eyes widening. “Piz TAPED you? Doing ROMANTIC things?”

I study the little camera in my hand while Dick tries to answer; it’s a marvel of engineering, spy tech at its finest. Clean, compact and expensive. And the brand name on the side is in Cyrillic…which means this whole situation just got a lot more complicated.

“Yup,” I say, extracting my phone from the pocket of my shorts. I snap a picture of the text. “Piz, or somebody using Piz to hurt me. And whoever it was? Will shortly be VERY sorry.”

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY SEVEN INVERTS

I’m staring at a hidden camera, harboring hate in my heart. Then the world shifts sideways, twists under, and I’m manning the Slushee booth at Winter Carnival. Staring at pep-squad-pie-selling Madison Sinclair, who elicits the same emotion.

She’s simpering, natch, long hair held back with a coy pink ribbon; she smiles her reptile smile as she hawks her wares, which include baked goods and cleavage. Her affectations, as always, make my teeth itch. Lilly’s seductive because she enjoys seducing…but Madison FAKES naughtiness, while actually being repressed. I don’t know if she’s got low self-esteem, or truly believes putting out will raise her status. But it’s tough not to beg her to have some self-respect.

It occurs to me, as I watch her pout and flounce, that I’ve never known WHY I’m Madison’s focus. Our relationship is her competing with me, and me not caring, and it’s been that way since grade school. She tried to turn my friends against me with gossip, in junior high. She made passes at hapless Duncan. She mocked my hair and clothes, then turned up in the same styles, cut just a bit shorter and tighter. Sure, I tore her a new one, once, for blowing out my candles, but come ON. CAKE was involved. Surely THAT’S not the reason she’s unhealthily obsessed.

In this reality, I never fell from grace. I’m Logan’s long-term girlfriend, and Lilly Kane’s BFF, and Madison’s second-tier. Where I come from, she capped a lifetime of petty attacks by destroying my great love; but I can’t recall ever SPEAKING to her, here. I wonder, suddenly, how Other Veronica views her. Does Madison even register on her radar? Does this Madison care if I EXIST?

“You know, heat vision’s more a comic book thing,” Weevil says, from my right. I turn to find him watching me, hip cocked, hands in jacket pockets. His head’s tilted, so he looks up from under his lashes, and I have no clue what he’s thinking. “You can’t ACTUALLY burn people alive with your stare.”

I shrug, face forwards. “I’ll just have to do like Barney says, and use my imagination,” I tell him. “Want to help me brainstorm? When it comes to vengeful one-upsmanship, you’re practically a pro.”

“I’ll save my ideas for your boyfriend. He’s overdue to piss me off.” Weevil loops around the booth, leans on the counter beside me. “Look, we need to talk. Things have changed some, since our amusement park meeting of minds.”

“No shit,” I say. “For one thing, I’m homeless. For another, you’re limping, and I heard you ride the bus.”

He makes his ‘you got me!’ face, and I have to repress a smile. Despite the drama separating us, he still feels like my FRIEND Weevil, the boy who guards my back; tattooed Napoleon, tough-guy Mother Hen. Shepherding less-clever loved ones through the minefield of poverty, fighting people he secretly likes.

I can tell by his bluster-free approach that he wants something, and won’t leave without it. He’s also outing our secret alliance, which has to be deliberate. But his reasoning escapes me. Is he cashing in his chips because he’s just that desperate? Am I the only potential friend he’s still got left to lose?

“The FBLA Booth will survive without you, for half an hour,” he says, impatient with my musings. “You and I got things to discuss.”

“Seems to me we ought to invite Logan,” I say, because why is he trying to rush me? “The two of you have a whole Astaire-Rogers thing with fisticuffs going, this year, and I feel weird cutting in."

“His dance card’s full,” Weevil says, with a trace of amusement. “He’s practiced his Twinkle Toes routine enough this week, anyway.”

Hmmm. Sounds like Logan’s been doing battle. I wonder if ‘take the fight to the enemy’ is what he meant, when he said ‘I need to up my game’. And great, now I’m worried he’ll get hurt. “This had BETTER not be some long con, Weevil,” I warn. “I’m not kidding. If I end up in trouble because I chatted with you today, the two of us will have ISSUES.”

“I don’t screw people over for kicks, V,” he says. “I just want to talk. As for whether you should trust me? That’s all you. Trust me or don’t. Your call.”

Fuck, he’s playing on my STUPID CURIOSITY again! Weevil really DOES know how to manipulate me, which MASSIVELY pisses me off.

“Track field,” I decide. “In full view of the festivities, but out of hearing range.” He nods, and I add, “I’ll need a replacement, to man the booth. Meet you there in five?”

He gives a two-finger wave, ambles off, and I extract my phone from my pocket. “Where are you?” I demand of Logan, when he answers with, “GOD, carnivals are fun!”

“Same place I was five minutes ago,” he says, at his most sardonic. “I know I’m irresistible, but you have GOT to stop clinging.”

“You don’t even WANT to know where you were MY five minutes ago, sugar lumps. Or where I was, for that matter. Both significantly less fun than HIGH SCHOOL, let alone Winterfest.”

“Well, that’s just perfect,” he says, and I imagine hand gestures to match his precise diction. “My own personal Vivian Rutledge shows, and I’m stuck taking tickets at the bouncy house. I love you, Veronica, but I can’t fucking leave. I’m working this booth in lieu of detention. Clemmons is lurking by the sno-cone stand, to ensure I don’t bolt.”

“Well, I just got approached by your childhood nemesis,” I say. “He wants a private chat on the track field, I’m meeting him in five minutes. Can you send someone to man the Slushee stand, while I’m off gathering dirt?”

“Hang on,” he says, and there’s a muffled confab at his end. “Jackie will spot you. She’s just hanging around laughing at me, while she waits her turn in the dunk tank. But no way should you leave with Weevil, after what happened last time.”

“We’ll be on school premises, in full view of the fairground,” I say. “You can station someone to watch, if it soothes your nerves. I’ll find you when I’m done, so I can laugh at your plight, too.”

He huffs with frustration, but doesn’t argue. “Keep your taser handy,” he says, instead. “And stay at the near end of the field, so Luke can run to help you.”

“Aw, you’re the best, pookie,” I tell him, fighting a smile. “You may seem like a bad boy to Clemmons, but I know the terrible schmoopy truth.”

XXXXX

I find Weevil under a tree near the exit gate, a faded grey Jansport at his side. He’s got his legs crossed at the ankles, his arms folded on his chest; he’s leaned back with his eyes shut, soaking up hints of sun.

“Nice backpack,” I say, sitting cross-legged next to him. “It’s such a YOU accessory.”

“Got my work clothes in here,” he tells me, not moving. “I’m doing a shift at the garage, later.”

“Uh-huh,” I say. “You’re upstanding, and gainfully employed. You hang with the Student Council president, at school mixers. And probably rescue treed kittens, while flashing a white-toothed grin.”

“I knew you had a soft spot for me.” He opens his eyes, face in shadow. “But this fawning is a little extreme.”

“At least I’ve solved the mystery of our renewed public friendship,” I say. “But you know what? I’m letting your petty theft slide. I stand firm on my no-cruises-with-classmates policy, now more than ever. I mean, I’m a LITTLE curious how you sneaked the cash box past Clemmons, since you’ve got no accomplice. But whatever. Mazel Tov. Enjoy the car you’ll buy, with your ill-gotten gains.”

“I haven't heard about any cash box,” he says, with the faintest of smiles. “I’m just touching base on areas of mutual interest. Now that we got nothing left to lose, being seen together.”

“You must be using the royal we,” I say. I pretend to consider. “Although isn’t the king in this scenario dead? I heard the PCH’ers aren’t calling, writing, or even liking your Facebook posts, these days!”

“I’m down for the round, not the count,” he says, and frowns. “It’s tough to cut guys like me out of leadership roles, long term.”

“Cause you’re scrappy?” I ask. “Funny, I’ve noticed the same thing about Logan. Are you SURE you two weren’t separated at birth?”

“Yeah, he’s the prince, I’m the pauper,” Weevil retorts, with an emphatic tilt of his chin. “He gets to cross the line with no consequences, I’m the one who takes the fall.”

“Are you saying you’re Aaron Echolls’ secret love child?” I cover my mouth with my hand, faking incredulity. “Cast adrift from Castle Tacky, to wander the lonely streets? That would make a SURPRISING amount of sense.”

He laughs. “If I was, I’d be one of many. But nah. My dad’s rich, though.” Weevil settles back, watching birds fly in formation across the pale-blue, cirrus-streaked sky. “Or at least, he knows someone willing to throw money at his problems.”

He shoots a sideways glance my way, and I cross my arms, fascinated. Weevil and I weren’t sharing-is-caring friends, in my reality; most folks don’t feel safe, letting me see them vulnerable. I’m not sure what’s shifted here, that he’s willing to tell tales. But who cares? Secrets are my drug of choice. “No clue who the deadbeat dad IS?”

“My mom never gave us a name. But she worked for a family in the 80’s, had a daughter about her age. The two of them were friends, went to a lot of parties; it was probably some yuppie in that crowd. Some guy slick enough to tempt a nice Catholic girl, offer her a taste of the good life. She was beautiful, my mother, attracted lots of attention. Much like me, I inherited her eyes.”

He gestures at his face, and I have to admit; the eyes are gorgeous. “Quit fishing for compliments,” I say. “You know I want the dirt.”

He smirks. “My grandma doesn’t know what went down, exactly. My mom left the father space on the birth certificate blank, got a great big check in return. Then she disappeared. Sometimes she sends a postcard, but she’s never come home.”

“I could find her,” I say, since it seems that’s what he wants. “And him. Pressure them into paying a settlement, to compensate for lost child support? It would mean financial security for your Grandma, maybe money to go legit, for you. That’s what this fishing expedition is about, right? The shot to your leg was a wake-up call. You’re sick of a life of crime.”

“Gang leader’s not a long-term career plan,” he says, with irony. “I won’t leave my guys in a bad place; but once they’re safe, I’m done. Plus my Grandma’s not doing so hot. She deserves retirement and rest, after all she’s been through. I doubt my folks will part with their money nicely, though. And I don’t want the woman who raised me in danger.”

“Yeah, we’ll have to take a sophisticated approach,” I say. “All right, I’m willing to help, but I want quid pro quo. What do you have to offer, in return?”

“Information,” he says, succinct. “You remember my cousin Rico? The one I tried to meet at Magic Mountain?”

“Long hair, bad taste in music?” I ask. “Not fond of confrontation?”

He rolls his eyes. “I finally got him to talk. He says the FBI’s been hanging around Neptune lately, interviewing people, surveilling. Looks like they seized their moment, when Liam got convicted of arson last week . They mopped up some junior Fitzpatricks, the ones terrified of a power vacuum, convinced a couple to turn state's evidence. Liam and Cormac are gonna end up lifers, there's a ton of new charges pending. The Fitpatrick gang’s officially dead.”

“How do you know the details of the sting?” I ask. “Are YOU an informant?”

He shakes his head. “I got sources,” he says. “But that’s good news, right? One less group of people with our names on their shit list.”

“I assume Thumper’s still at large? And in charge of the PCH’ers?” I ask. He nods. “Then we’re not out of the woods. Also, whoever paid Arturo to torch my house, and make it look like Liam, could prove a problem. The guy doesn’t seem to be ACTIVELY gunning for us. But he could care less if we end up collateral damage.”

“OK, back up.” Weevil makes the ‘time out’ gesture. “Liam DIDN’T burn your house? Because if one of my boys framed him, and sent him to jail, that’s some cosmic justice.”

“It was a kid named Arturo,” I confirm. “We caught him by the shed. His plot seemed in our best interests, since Liam was pulling Thumper’s strings, so we let him go. I can’t tell you how glad I am his cockamamie plan worked.”

Weevil laughs. “And you call ME ruthless? Yeah, it worked all right; Fitzpatrick got five years. And if I had to guess WHO paid Arturo to do it, I’d say your friend Manning. I bet he carries a grudge. He’s got a fortune in bad drugs lying around, which Liam refused to unload.”

“Of COURSE,” I murmur, as it all comes together. “Arturo’s alibi, if the cops came calling, was that he was shut up in church! One of those teen chastity lock-ins at Stewart’s crazy cult, no doubt. Wow. Manning’s got BALLS, breaking the law on such a massive level, while pursuing a political career. How could he think his double life would stand? I mean he’s nuts, but is he also an IDIOT?”

Weevil shrugs. “Lots of powerful guys believe they’re untouchable. Maybe he wants money for something anti-government? Guns for the rapture, or whatever. Crazy people plus Jesus equals ten times the crazy, in my experience.”

“So Manning SHOULD be an easy take-down,” I say. “Because he’d be ruined by public exposure. But what then? Who replaces him? I mean, someone’s gonna fill the organized crime vacuum in this town, and the Mexican Cartels are next-level violence.”

“Well, the GOOD choice was those guys who set up a growing operation, in a federally protected park,” he says. “They’re who everyone used to buy from, Fitzpatricks, PCH’ers, Freedom Roaders, up until just recently. Couple of old hippies with a lab, obsessed with the perfect high. Something happened to their op, though: fields burned, equipment trashed. Both chemists, dead. Probably Manning did that, then took their place.

“Out of who’s left? The Freedom Riders are White Supremacist bikers, so I’m not in favor. Myself, I like the Russians.” Weevil picks up a rock, examines then tosses it. “Unlike the cartels, they could care less about me and mine. They won’t try to kill us, or make my guys deal; they bring relatives over, put THEM on the street. The family’s already in Neptune. We take down Manning, and they’re poised to fill his slot.”

I think about the Cyrillic on Piz’s camera, and feel uneasy with this choice. But what are my alternatives? The people actively trying to end me must go. And it’s not like I’ll let Piz near me, on my next trip through college.

“What about Thumper?” I ask, choosing discretion. “And any turncoats who still support him?”

“Don’t worry about them,” Weevil says. “I got a score to settle with Thumper, for putting a bullet in my leg. Once things settle down, I can handle the PCH’ers.”

“OK,” I say. “I’ll focus on proof that puts Manning away. You work on getting your gang off our backs. And I’ll solve the Mystery of the Missing Dad. Quid pro quo, like I said.”

“You can draw that line, if it makes you feel safer,” he says, looking up at me sideways. “I know the kidnapping messed with your head. But just for the record? Favors ain’t ever what we’ve been about.”

“What ARE we about, then?” I ask. “In your view? Because even back when I was sure we were friends, I never understood.”

“That first night we met,” he says, reflective. “When I was out looking for the guy who stole Grandma’s purse? And you were camped by the Camelot, watching your mom kiss Jake Kane? I looked at you, all big-eyed, acting tough, and saw me, when I was a kid. When my mom took off, and I had no one left, except one overworked Abuela, raising all the family rejects. I figured I’d be the friend you had in your corner. Only you were a good girl, who didn’t want to be beholden, so I made it about deals.

“But V? It was never about deals, even before Carmen. It was about how two days later, I found the purse in my locker, with her paycheck still inside, and a name and address on a piece of paper. It was about you treating me the same way you treat the rich kids. And not because you thought I was some hot, dangerous fetish object or whatever. Because you’re decent, and honorable, and that’s just you. You chew me out exactly like you chew out Echolls, for a lot of the same reasons, and it always makes me laugh. Not one other person I’ve met has held us to the same standard. You expect both of us to be good, which is crazy; but sometimes, it makes us want to try.”

“Why didn’t you SAVE me, then?” I demand. Because this is the crux of the issue, for me; everything else, I’ll forgive. “When the kidnapping was happening, if you’re so loyal? Why did you just SIT there, and WATCH?”

“Because while one guy was grabbing you, the other had a gun pointed at me, through the window. And there was a woman and a little girl in the room. I was afraid we’d all get shot.”

“But you didn’t SAY that, at Magic Mountain.”

“Oh, yeah, ‘cause Echolls would have believed me, if I had. I don’t waste time shooting my mouth off, when talking won’t help.”

I consider. His story, like all his stories, is plausible. And it sounds like MY Weevil, so I want it to be true. I guess in the end, though, his true feelings don’t matter. Right now, we need each other regardless.

Besides, I’m Veronica Mars. When someone asks for help, I’m not gonna say no. Finding justice for victims is what I do.

“OK,” I say. “You’ve got provisional trust. Because I liked you, before this shit went down, and I hope you’re still that guy. I’ll give you a fair shake, and the benefit of the doubt; you prove you deserve it, by having my back.”

“Deal,” Weevil says. “You got bad taste in men, V, but your heart's in the right place. Call me if you need me. I’ll be around.”

He hefts the Jansport and walks off. I shake my head, as I watch him go, and hope I’m not a sucker.

XXXXX

Carrie waylays me as I’m striding back towards the carnival; her green silk blouse and gold peasant scarf show her Pirate pride. Her face is flushed with cold, and the excitement of high-value gossip. Her grin is conspiratorial.

“Ooh,” she says, peering around for clues as to my recent activities. “Where have YOU been? You missed all the excitement! The cash box for the booths went missing, and they’re SEARCHING everyone!”

“It was Miss Hauser, with the candlestick, in the study,” I say, pulling out my beeping phone. It’s Logan, checking up via text, and I tell him I’m on my way. “She’s skimming money…to pay a shrink who specializes in bitterness, maybe? If you want to play hero, go tell Clemmons we saw her on a chair in the art room, messing with the ceiling tiles. The money’s in an envelope, over the big table. There should be footprints that match her shoes, in the glitter on the floor; be careful not to disturb them.”

She laughs. “Being friends with a future FBI agent is SO much fun!” she says. “Still on for manicures tomorrow?”

“My nails can’t wait,” I say. “I have to cut and run now, though, Logan’s getting antsy.”

“Tell him I’ve got the number for that jewelry designer,” she says. “The guy will do Lynn’s gift for cost, if she names him when people ask. I’ll text you, later?”

“Thanks, Carrie,” I say, bemused. She smiles, waves at Ashley Banks, and heads off gleefully to save the day. I guess whatever set her and Logan at odds hasn’t happened yet.

I find Logan buying cotton candy from The Gingerbread Haus, and try to sneak up; but he smells me or something, and hands a pink wad over his shoulder. “You’ll eat it all anyway,” he says, giving the cashier a $20. “I may as well relinquish it now.”

“That’s why you’re my steady guy,” I say, and kiss his shoulder with my mouth full.

He turns, and I gasp at his swollen cheekbone, his truly impressive black eye. He suffers me to touch it, wincing, but just shrugs when I ask him what happened. “The usual,” he says, gathering me in for a kiss; his enthusiasm is unaffected by injury. “Guy knew karate, got in one good punch. I’m fine, I swear. No stitches.”

“I’m NOT a fan of this,” I say, pressing the gentlest of kisses to his lid. “I like you pretty. And safe.”

“You and me both.” He grabs a blue Slushee off the counter, takes a healthy sip. “So how’d it go with Weevil?”

I synopsize the discussion, and he drinks as he listens, periodically shaking his head.

“Stewart Manning is a piece of work,” he decides, when I’m done. “Would it be bad to say I’m looking forward to his downfall?”

“Haven’t we established, on MULTIPLE occasions, that we’re both bad, and we LIKE it?” I ask.

“I’ll be your black-hatted cowboy,” he says. “You can be my card-dealing showgirl. With a pearl-handled revolver in your garter, and a dangerous glint in your eye.”

“Speaking of black hats,” I muse, tapping my chin. “I think you mentioned detention? What are you in for, this time?”

“Veronica,” he chides, draping a companionable arm around me. “It’s ALWAYS my mouth or my fists. How long have you known me?”

“So it’s something else?” I ask.

He sighs. “Mr. Daniels has held a grudge, ever since I put his car on the flagpole. He can’t prove I was involved, but he watches me like a HAWK.”

“That was YOU?” I demand. “No way! At this stage of your life, you can’t tell power tools APART!”

He puts a finger dramatically over his lips, for silence, then spins me a couple times, just because it makes him happy. We end up in front of a duck-hunting gallery. “Hey, you want to clap while I shoot things?” he asks, tracing my eyebrow with one knuckle. “Make me feel like a man?”

“You WILL be answering my detention question,” I say. “Because you know how I feel about secrets. But yes. I have a special fondness for your displays of virility.”

He fake-sneers, unloads a careless wad of tickets on the cashier, and debuts an eerie level of shot accuracy I had no idea he possessed. It’s sexy as HELL.

“And, of course, I win,” Logan says, surveying the carnage, blowing imaginary smoke off the end of the gun. “It’s exhausting, sometimes, being this awesome.”

“You get a prize,” the burly kid behind the counter says. He looks like Justin Smith’s Muppet friend, from the AV Club; but puberty’s struck him too hard to be sure. “Which one you want?”

“Got any bears?” I ask. “With slogan t-shirts?”

“I have this,” he offers. Holds up a beige bear in a trench coat, with a t-shirt underneath, sporting a big red heart. It’s the same one I fell asleep hugging, in Boat Reality.

I take the toy from his hand, and gaze down, bemused. “It’s crazy what’s fate,” I murmur, and look up into Logan’s eyes. “You won me a bear, with your ring-toss abilities.”

“Shotgun,” he corrects, with a slow grin. “What’s the big-eyed adulation about? You going soft on me, Mars?”

“I went soft on you YEARS ago,” I say. And then the slipstream tugs me away.

THREAD TWENTY EIGHT

I settle on the deck of the Berkeley house, gazing out over the bay, and yeah-- it's a PRIMO view. I’ve got a highlighted History text open on my chest, my feet crossed on the rail; and in my hands is the bear Logan just won, at the carnival. I trace the heart with one finger, smile, and close my eyes. The spring sun feels wonderful on my skin.

“You know, I came out to offer cuddling services,” Logan says, from my right. “In lieu of—or in addition to—the stuffed animal. But now I just want to stand here and stare at you, all beautiful and happy and barefoot in the sunshine.”

“Stare away,” I say, not moving. “Just FYI, a foot massage would also be welcome.”

He laughs. A chair scrapes across the deck, and then his big hands curve around my feet; he lifts them gently from the rail, deposits them on his lap. I sigh with pleasure, as he goes to work on one arch.

“Despite your protests,” he says, “you’ve taken to bed rest and pampering with surprising readiness. When it’s back to reality and finals next week, you’re in for a rude awakening.”

“I am willing to bet,” I say, “that if I provide enough incentive, you will keep right on pampering me. For YEARS, if necessary.”

“As long as you love me,” he says, “I’ll do my best to deserve it.”

“Enh. I love you even when you DON’T deserve it,” I say.

“So I can get trashed, and act like a dick, and watch that whole high-stakes poker tournament?” His voice is sardonic, but he doesn’t quit rubbing. “Because I crossed those things off my day planner, but I can go and add them back.”

“Mmmm,” I say. “Every choice has consequences. Choose wisely.”

He kisses me, warm press of lips, and I say, “Speaking OF people who get a pass, even when they don’t deserve it. Is Mac still ducking my calls?”

“Yup,” he says. “But in her defense, you ARE hounding her.”

“I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t,” I say. “And I’m about to escalate to the up-close-and-personal approach. She should see for herself that I’m sleek and pampered as Sadie Casablancas’s Persians. FULLY capable of reading files in bed.”

“You ARE sleek,” he concedes, caressing my shin. “But I want no part of this enterprise. And you’re not allowed to run all over town, hunting her.”

“I’ll bet you know where she hangs out,” I coax. “You know everything about everyone, despite pretending you don’t care. You could take me there; and watch VERY closely, while we chat. I promise, I'll make it worth your while.”

“I love how devious and manipulative you get, for practically no reason,” he says. “All right, Mac drinks power smoothies for lunch, I’ve been to her favorite shop. But I drive, you spend the whole time sitting, and when we come back, mandatory nap.”

“I’ll even try a smoothie with VEGETABLES in it,” I say. “THAT is how committed I am to following the rules.”

He rolls his eyes, skeptical, but goes inside for his keys.

Mac’s Jamba Juice is on the Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk, just below the roller coaster. Mac is, as promised, at an outdoor table, dressed in a pencil skirt and heels. She’s typing furiously away on her laptop, ignoring a drink both gross and mauve. Logan points an admonitory finger at me, before heading inside to order; I plop down in Mac’s second chair, and prepare to make my kill.

“Hey girlfriend!” I say, flashing my zero-ulterior-motives smile. “Fancy running into you!”

“I’d ask what you want, Veronica,” she says, drily. “But you only want one thing, lately. And the answer is still no.”

“Come ON,” I say, trying not to whine. “I’ve been good! I’ve been SO good, even LOGAN thinks so, and I’m going NUTS wondering what’s in those files. If you won’t let me read them, can you at least give me a summary?”

“You’ve got Logan wrapped twice around your finger, and tied up in a bow,” she says, arching a brow. “At the end of two weeks you get the files back, and not a day before.”

“Look, we’re business partners, right?” I ask. “So aren’t you legally and morally OBLIGATED to share both profits and responsibilities?”

She powers her laptop down, closes it with a snap. She looks irritated, which for Mac is strong emotion. “First of all, there ARE no profits, yet. Second, I’m not obligated to do anything. I teamed up with you on this venture because Dick convinced me it was smart; and I still have a soft spot for that guy, which he really doesn’t deserve. But I don’t have to do or give ANYTHING, other than hours of labor.”

“You WANT to, though,” I coax, nudging her with an elbow. “Come on, Mackenzie. You’re the kind of friend who ALWAYS helps, when there’s a mystery afoot.”

“No, actually I’m not.” Mac folds her arms, the foot of her crossed leg bouncing. “And I’m tired of being taken for granted. You’ve tried every bitchy and adorable tactic in your playbook this week, and all of them have failed. In fact, you’re making me regret this business arrangement, because I can’t stand wrangling TODDLERS. You were a smug- in-your-bubble snob in high school, which clearly hasn’t changed; and as one of the have-nots you spent four years ignoring, I’m fully aware you don’t care. Grow up, follow doctor’s orders, and leave me ALONE on my downtime. I WORK with you. We’re not friends.”

She gathers her things in two efficient moves and stalks off, high heels clacking. I stare after her, trying to process what’s happened.

Logan emerges a minute later with smoothies, sits beside me in the vacated chair. “Winning friends and influencing people again?” he asks.

“She just called me an insufferable snob,” I say. “So much for the Justice League.”

He sighs. Nudges my smoothie closer. I pick it up, sip, grimace, and set it morosely down. “Well, I knew you two weren’t close. But prior to this, she’s always been CIVIL. Maybe it’s time to find a new partner?”

“I didn’t realize she felt this way,” I say, faintly. “I mean I haven’t paid much attention to her, lately, until she was put in charge of those files. But I never thought…was that naive?”

“Ronica,” he says. “I am the wrong person to ask. There are maybe ten people in the world I give a shit about, and the rest I basically ignore.” He takes my hand in his, slides my ring back and forth. “Come on, let’s go for a ride. Roll the windows down, feel the wind in our hair? We can hold hands and snark at each other, pretend we’re having an adventure. I’ll even let you choose the music.”

I smile. “OK,” I say. “But I’m warning you now, it won’t be retro.”

He piggy-backs me to the car, a smoothie in each hand; lifts me bodily into my seat, his hand beneath my ass. “Where to?” he asks, pulling out of the lot. “Highway, tree-lined road, beachfront? What scenery soothes frustrated ambition, as well as wounded feelings?”

I gaze at him, overflowing with gratitude; I guess my heart is in my eyes, because he smiles, and boops my nose. “Come on, Ronica, this is business as usual,” he says. “We piss people off on a regular basis. At least Mac’s only frustrated, not murderous.”

“I love you SO MUCH,” I say. “It frightens me that I could have killed this relationship, out of fear, or pride. I'm scared that something bad will happen, and we'll END.”

“I’m here for the long haul,” he says, gently. “And if something bad happens, we’ll handle it together. Our lives have not been uneventful, but we’ve never been beaten yet.”

“You know what?” I say, biting my lip, gathering courage. “I’ve been wearing a surprise all day, which you have yet to discover. Red satin underwear, Logan. Chosen just for you.”

His eyebrows lift, and his fingers curl around the steering wheel, flex. “Are you serious?” he asks, with the direct, intense Logan look that thrills me.

I nod, and he scans the horizon; makes a quick right, searching the road.

“What are you doing?” I ask, frowning. “Aren’t you going to answer?”

“I’m looking for a place to park,” he says, eyes on the street. “So I can unwrap my present. You may not realize it; but you in red underwear, riding me in a parked car, is at the TOP of my list of fantasies. I can’t think of a gift more perfect.”

“How much is it worth to you?” I ask, not sure I even sound flirtatious; my throat is swollen with panic. “Me, wearing red satin? What do I get in return, for being sexy and amazing?”

He pulls onto a dirt road, conceals us in a stand of trees. His gaze is fierce and passionate, focused and serious. “You know I’ll give you anything, Ronica, regardless of what you’re wearing. I love you whether you deserve it or not, just like you do me. And I love you for EXACTLY the person you are.”

He leans across the armrest and kisses me; a hungry kiss, as if he feels the same longing I do. But it’s an illusion, a misunderstanding…he CAN’T. I kiss him back, and simultaneously start crying. Which sucks, but I'm out of control. Nothing makes sense, it’s all falling apart, and the Logan I want most doesn’t KNOW me.

“Hey!” he says, alarmed, withdrawing. “Hey, no, PLEASE don’t cry! Ronica, baby, come on, you’re all right. We don’t have to fool around, if you’re not in the mood!” He puts his arms around me, kissing my scalp. “God, it GUTS me when you get like this. Don’t be so upset!”

I nod. He rocks me, and I cry harder. Because I’m SURE this Logan went to Fiji: he HAS to know who I am, or everything I believe about the slipstream is WRONG. But if he recognizes me, and he’s not saying…why would he HURT me this way?

“All right, there’s only one solution,” he decides, when my sobs wind down to sniffles. “Executive decision, I’m taking you to Amy’s. You need a banana split, with whipped cream and cherries. Then we’ll go home, watch any movie you want, and Loki can get on the bed.”

I shrug; he kisses my cheek with agonizing tenderness, starts the car. He sneaks concerned looks at me as he pulls out, makes haste for the ice cream shop. I slump in my seat, gaze past the windshield, and listen to my heart shatter.

I clutch the smoothie so tight, it oozes up through the straw, spilling over my hands in a stream of noxious green. I close my eyes, lean back into the slipstream; I let it drag me away.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY EIGHT INVERTS

I’ve got ketchup all over my hands, my burger is a sodden mess, and Lilly is cleaning me with a wad of napkins, like I’m a clumsy toddler. “Honestly, Veronica,” she says, de-ketchuping my watch. “I can’t take you ANYWHERE.”

“The cap was loose,” I say, because it’s floating in the lake on my plate. Logan reaches over from my left, plucks it out, reattaches it, and sucks his fingers clean with a wiggle of his brows.

I smile at him, battling back tears, and he frowns as he registers how upset I am. He tucks an arm around me, pulls me close; Lilly follows, still wiping my hand. “Come on, Ronica,” he says, jiggling me, “it’s not that bad. You said yourself, Wallace will be back when he cools down. I trust your judgment.”

I gaze up at his long, mobile, sympathetic face, forlorn and confused. The upside-down v between his brows appears, as he gazes back. He cocks his head in question, and I mouth, “The slipstream SUCKS.” He pulls me against his chest, and curves his big hand around my skull.

Lilly finishes cleanup, tosses the napkin down; I yank her into the hug, too. She wraps her arms around us both, and says, “I’ve been emailing Wallace High School Musical song lyrics all week long, but he won’t respond. Not even to ‘Get Your Head in the Game’, and that’s about BASKETBALL!”

“I invited him to go with me and Dad, to see the Lakers,” Dick says, from the opposite side of the table. He leans back, arms crossed. “Which is something a person with balls would actually like. Same result; and Logan was being a stay-at-home douche again, because he’s practically married, so I had to take my brother. It was lame.”

“Has anybody checked with Jackie?” I ask, from my comforting cushion of flesh. “Or Jessica? Wallace might be willing to talk feelings, with a pretty girl he likes.”

“Jackie’s heard nothing,” Logan says, drawing a hand down my arm, twining his fingers through mine. “But Jessica’s a possibility. I’ll text her right now, I’ve got her number.” He contorts himself to reach his phone, then bends to it, giant thumbs flying.

“Since we’re on the topic of pretty girls…where’s Meg, these days?” Lilly flops against the bench and takes me with her, one arm around my shoulders. She spears Dick with her ‘don’t annoy the Queen Bee’ look. “A couple weeks ago, you two were making out on every available surface; but lately, I haven’t seen her ANYWHERE.”

“She’s in hiding,” Logan says, sardonic. He ketchups one of my fries, feeds it to me. “She believes she’s too young to wed.”

“Did you offer?” I ask Dick, with raised brows, and he snorts.

“Like I would deny next year’s college ladies a taste of this hotness?” He sweeps a hand down his front, in display. “Nah, Meg’s just holed up in her apartment, all freaked out because that janitor guy is stalking her. He’s been harassing my brother, too. They should start a club.”

Logan shoves fries into his own mouth, and says, “Dude, I thought that was a JOKE, until I saw it for myself. I didn’t know Lucky was INTERESTED in dating. I’ve only ever seen him get high and play video games, to cope with his mental illness. Oh, and occasionally, snap.”

“Meg’s dad promised Lucky he could marry her,” Dick explains, reaching for his soda and swilling half. “They go to the same weird church, or whatever. She’s, like, told him to his face she’s riding the Casablancas pony, but he keeps trying to get her to move in, anyway. So he can protect her when the cleansing fire comes, or I don’t know what the fuck. She’s trying to get a restraining order, but that shit’s harder than you’d think.”

“She wouldn’t feel safer hanging out with you?” Lilly asks. “That seems weird.”

Dick shrugs. “Who knows with that chick? She has like two moods; nice, sweet and cheerful, and the one where she frowns and acts sarcastic, but still looks pretty. I mean, she likes to party and get busy and stuff. But unless we’re drinking at a club, she rarely wants to hang.”

Wait, MEG MANNING likes to ‘party and get busy’? With DICK? Wow, I guess it really is true, what they say about preacher’s kids.

“Hot tip, Dick,” Lilly says. “When a certain type of girl tells you to have fun without her, because everything is FINE? Everything is not fine. She wants you to keep asking until she’s ready to talk.”

“I already KNOW why she’s pissed,” Dick says. “Lucky’s bothering her, and she HATES her dad. The thing is, I kinda don’t CARE. I mean, I care like I want her to be safe, and not get hurt. But I don’t care, like I’d rather date a chick who enjoys actual fun. One who digs video games, and surfs, and says ‘AWESOME!’ when I say ‘ROAD TRIP!’ Meg’s just making up for lost time, getting her wild on.”

I suppress a smile; DICK CASABLANCAS is upset, because a woman’s using him for his body. But I somehow manage to ask only, “Got someone specific in mind?”

Dick shrugs, a ‘yes, but I won’t admit it’ gesture. I cast my mind back to the conversation in his jeep, the day he played matchmaker at Cho’s. “A girl the rest of us don’t like, maybe? Are you Romeo, pining for Juliet?”

“Quit with the psychoanalysis, Dr. Freud,” Dick says, throwing a chip at me. “Everybody knows I don’t have deep thoughts. Meg’s super hot; but as soon as this Lucky thing is over, it’s Lone Ranger time for the Dickster.”

Lilly rolls her eyes. “Wow. Well, as much as I enjoy listening to Dick navel-gaze about the lack of meaning in his life, I have things to do. Can you guys drop me at Java the Hut, before you head home?”

“Oooh,” I say, like the intrigue is delicious. “Secret and NAUGHTY things?”

“Veronica Mars, you have NO idea.” Lilly grins back. “Someday maybe I’ll tell you. But today is not the day.” She favors Logan with an amused glance. “Don’t worry TOO much, though. It’s only a salacious secret, not a criminal one.”

“See you say that,” Logan grouses, “but it comforts me exactly none. I HAVE met you, Lils.”

“Oh, Logan.” She rolls her expressive eyes. “You are such a middle-aged DAD, sometimes. How Veronica keeps from strangling you, when you get overprotective, I will NEVER understand.”

“I don’t have your luck,” I explain, with a slight smile. “If all of you weren’t overprotective, I’d be dead by now."

“If you weren’t constantly in assholes’ faces, threatening them with life in jail, that might help,” Dick says, tossing a twenty on the table. “But what do I know? I’m just the dumb comic relief.”

“Ha ha. Serious suggestions only, Dick,” I say. “And on that note, let’s get a move on. Lilly has a scandalous engagement, and I’ve got some reckless confronting to do.”

We walk outside, and wave goodbye to Dick, who hops in his jeep and skedaddles. Lilly pauses to answer a phone call, complete with suggestive, lilting voice and hair twirling. Logan turns his back to the lot theatrically, beeps his car open beneath one arm. The lights flash on a new green Range Rover, and I stop short. He grins. “See? Not yellow,” he says.

I walk up to it, touch, and yeah. It’s our Ideal Reality car. I cast my mind back over Hearst Reality, and realize I’ve never SEEN Logan’s car, there. I look up at him, assessing….at this Logan, who DEFINITELY knows me….and I start to feel less agonized, more suspicious. Something is UP with Ideal Logan, and his refusal to say the code words. I can SMELL it. What, I’m not sure; but it’s probably going to end with me KICKING HIS ASS.

“Uh-oh,” Logan says, studying me. He calls across the lot, “Lils, avert your eyes! I’m about to get either punched, or laid!”

“You have nothing to fear,” I assure him. “As long as you don’t LIE to me, at any point in the future. Which you would never do, right? You would NEVER lie, about anything REALLY IMPORTANT?”

Lilly approaches, folding her phone shut and laughing; Logan lounges back against the car, crossing his arms. “Never,” he says, caressing, yet somehow provoking as hell. “You’d get pissed off, and declare war. And you know I HATE it when that happens.”

I glare at him, nostrils flaring, and Lilly whispers in my ear, “Veronica, your kink is showing. He’s messing with you. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”

I glance over at her, startled by how close she’s gotten. “YET,” I say, with one last warning look at Logan. I climb into the SUV.

XXXXX

I wave goodbye to Lilly, wiping a smear of pink lip gloss from my cheek, and immediately turn to Logan. He’s evaluating the contents of his CD case with great concentration. “Is your dash clock right? It’s 4:30? If so, we need to visit Neptune High for half an hour. I’ve got a mystery that needs solving.”

He salutes, extracts a CD, and slots it into the player. “Reliable transportation, at your service,” he says. “As I believe I promised you, one long-ago night.”

“So the girl Dick described, back in the restaurant,” I say. “That was Mac Mackenzie, right? Did he actually DATE her at one point, or is this an unacknowledged crush?”

He shrugs, adjusts the volume of the Killers, and kicks the car into gear. “They hooked up last summer, for a while. But he dumped her hard to serve and protect Meg, the night of the ‘School Is For Later’ party. I don’t know if he COULD get back on that train, even if he wants to.”

“Oh my GOD! She was there with HIM?” I ask, feeling shitty.

“Not WITH him, per se.” His eyebrows rise, like he doesn’t see the problem. “She showed up on her own. But I heard she was none too pleased, when he ditched her to hang with another girl. I never bothered to learn the details, because frankly, I didn’t care. You were slinking around the suite in a green bikini, and fucking me in every bedroom.”

I dismiss the 47 times we had sex at that party, with a wave of my hand. “You KNEW Dick was seeing someone, and you still hooked him up with Meg?”

“It was a matter of life and death!” Logan slows for a yellow light, hooks a right. “Besides, he’d been crushing on Meg hardcore for a year, and he barely ever talked about Mac. I thought he was just killing time with her, to be honest. Dick has an unfortunate tendency to fool around with girls not in his social circle, while only dating girls who are.”

“Don’t you only date girls in YOUR social circle?” I ask.

“I only SLEEP with girls I consider girlfriend material,” he says, acid. “I’m weird that way. In my opinion, Mackenzie fits the category; I’ve met her maybe twice, but I like her. Apparently Dick doesn’t agree, though. He said himself he prefers the bachelor lifestyle.”

“Ugh, untangling the ways Dick is different here hurts my brain,” I say. “I almost lost it when he hinted he was holding out for love. And a year from now, he’s still around, defending me…while claiming he’s practically my brother!”

“Dick has issues, but he’s loyal to the core." Logan pulls into the Neptune High lot. His phone beeps as he engages the parking brake, and he extracts it to read a text. “Jessica’s in touch with Wallace,” he confirms, voice husky. “Good call. She says, and I quote; ‘Wallace is fine, cool with all of you, not in a snit. But he isn’t interested in changing his mind. I’m talking him down from being mad at his mom. Don’t expect him home soon, though.’.”

He sits back and sighs. “Man, I like Jessica. Jackie’s not as bad as I used to think, but she’s complicated in ways Wallace is too whole to see. To him, she’s the hot, snarky fantasy; he’s mesmerized by her packaging. But if she ever gives in and bones him? The disconnect between the image in his head, and the actual damaged person, will ruin things. Wallace needs someone straightforward, honest, and calm. Someone who doesn’t play games. I hope this only-talking-to-Jessica thing is a sign he’s FINALLY got his head out of his ass.”

“We don’t get to hand-pick Wallace’s girlfriends,” I say. “I know you and Lilly protect the innocent lambs in your circle. But just remember, you two chose DUNCAN for me, and he ended up being a murderer. Please thank Jessica for the text, though.”

“On it,” he says. He looks a little vulnerable as he types into his phone. “And for the record? We only picked Duncan because we thought he wouldn’t debauch you.”

I pat his cheek, which makes him smile, and say, “I’m not sure how long I’ll be. I need to lurk in the computer lab, until my prey appears.”

“I’ll run errands,” he tells me. “We’re out of dog food, Pepsi, and dental floss. Just text me when you’re ready, I’ll pick you up here. Got your taser? Your phone charged, and on?”

I check my bag, thumbs-up. “I like how domestic you’ve gotten,” I say, kissing him.

“I like BEING domestic with you.” He traces my nose with a fingertip, taps the end. “Strange as it sounds, this short period of living together is the most normal my life’s ever felt.”

“Pinky promise: we figure out a way to make the good and safe parts last.” I extend my hand for the ritual, and his eyes soften as he completes it. I hop out of the car. He waves at me cheerfully as he drives off.

The halls of Neptune High are deserted; it’s just teachers catching up on paperwork, a janitor making his rounds. I head straight for the computer lab, find it empty. But some notebooks and a Discman are strewn over a workstation, so clearly Mac’s planning to return.

I choose a desk not visible from the door, with a view of the complete room, and sit. Then, because my Prying Eyez login doesn’t exist here, I spend my time checking kittenfancy.

Other V’s calmed down from the threats and accusations of the previous message; but she’s still not what I’d call friendly. Honestly, I can’t blame her. If she were taking over my body, and banging my boyfriend, while creating dangerous situations I imperfectly understood? I’d probably hate her, too.

(OK, she IS doing two of those things, though that’s technically her right. And I must admit, I DO resent her. I’m not a good sharer, in any sense of the word. I get the feeling we have that in common.)

“Right,” (the response to my email reads). “I’ve never told a soul about two of those things. So I’ll admit you might be me. Which is troubling, because I DON’T want to end up like Duncan.

“Explain what you’re trying to accomplish. All I see is you leading Logan astray, in every way you can manage. Beaver Casablancas is an asshole who tried to drug me, but he didn’t murder anyone, or Dad would have put him in jail. And I doubt, at this point, that Felix Toombs’ killer will be found. There are too many people who wanted him dead; and frankly, nobody in power cares.

“You seem to think you’re a detective, or James Bond, or something. I’m a high school student. I trade favors as a hobby, and find lost dogs. Once I followed a man who sold bad drugs to Trina, and saw a huge deal go down. Dad and I went to the FBI, because they’re trained in solving crimes. And BIZARRELY, that tactic worked; the Fitzpatrick gang’s in jail.

“I wish you’d quit involving Logan in your crazy games, he’s been through enough. You may not care if he lives or dies, but I DO. If you’re my id, taking leaps I secretly enjoy, you should know…losing control scares me. And if you’re future me, you’ve had time to get used to sex and violence. But I HAVEN’T. I’m not YOU, yet. I’m not sure I WANT to be you, ever. And how can Logan learn to like me the way I am, when there’s another, more exciting version, waiting in the wings?

“I get the feeling you don’t think I love him, by the way, but you’re wrong. I do. I’m scared for him, though. He’ll go WAY past the safety zone for the people that matter, and you’re standing by, cheering him on. He’s pushing too hard, because he wants me safe, and I’m having nightmares where he ends up dead. I don’t like to ask for help, people always let me down, but I’m asking you. If you love him too, don’t get him killed.”

I sigh, because I understand these feelings so well. I’ve felt them. But I can’t agree.

“When I was you,” I type, in response, “Logan tried to protect me, and I wouldn’t let him. He wanted to help, because he worried about my safety, and I blew him off to keep him from harm. It didn’t WORK, Veronica. He protected me anyway, without my permission, in the most reckless, semi-ethical ways possible. If you think you can stop him from daredeviltry, by wrapping him in cotton wool, you’re lying to yourself. He can’t be controlled. I’ve learned to respect that about him, even though it drives me nuts. He has strength of character, and a mile-wide heroic streak.

“I know, based on things others have said, that you remember the stuff I do; but you impose your beliefs and opinions on top. Do you understand that Liam Fitzpatrick was FRAMED? Do you get that Thumper Orozco, and Stewart Manning, are still running loose, and they’re dangerous to you? I don’t know if you’re aware of my pact with Weevil, or the extent of the villainy afoot in this town. You need to be informed, and proactive: it’s not only Logan who’s vulnerable. I’ll protect you any way I can, but I’m not always around.

“And as far as crime solving, if it isn’t your forte, leave it to me. All I ask of you is that you avoid being reckless. You’re clearly in the throes of self-righteous normalcy, right now, but I KNOW you, Veronica. I AM you. And your heedlessness puts Logan’s to shame.”

XXXXX

Mac returns while I’m typing this sentence, in all her blue-streaked, baby-faced, high-school-hacker glory. I hit send, log out, and erase my electronic trail, so no one can snoop, later on. Then I approach her desk, with what I hope is panache.

“Cindy Mackenzie!” I say, flopping into the chair beside her. “I’ve been looking for you! What are the odds?”

“Veronica Mars,” she replies, tearing open a bag of Skittles. “This must be an example of your amazing detective skills. Who could possibly have foreseen I’d spend my free time in the computer lab?”

“Hiring out your hacker talents to the highest bidder?” I ask. “Are you available to work for me?”

“Available? Yes,” Mac says, eyeing me over the candy package. “Willing? No. Your Justice League shenanigans are dangerous and eat hours, and I’m honestly only in this to make quick cash. Plus, you’re a smug, oblivious asshole, and when we interact, my teeth itch.”

Well, that was blunt. I sit back in my chair, surprised, and try another tack. “I owe you an apology for hooking up Dick and Meg Manning, at that party in September,” I say. “I was unaware the two of you were dating.”

“We WEREN’T dating,” she says, cool, contemptuous, and mild. “Dick doesn’t choose girls his buds don’t like, he’s a simple creature who lives by the bro code. And I don’t pick guys who won’t put me first. We WERE friends, though, which I kind of miss. Not only because he’s funny, and smarter than he looks; but because I learned all SORTS of things, hanging out at the Casablancas enclave.”

I lift my brows. This phrasing smacks of threat. “Such as?”

“Aw, Veronica, no need to tell YOU. You LIVE for gossip, and you know EVERYTHING. I’m sure Carrie Bishop will fill in the blanks, in return for your semi-gracious patronage. Perks of being Queen of the 09’ers, since Lilly Kane graduated, right? You’ve got hordes of peons eager to do your bidding. And it’s not like you suffer from cognitive dissonance, which would blind you to obvious clues.”

“Wow,” I say. “You are aware that failure to report a crime, because you want to make a classmate look bad, is behavior law enforcement frowns on?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t let VIOLENT crimes slide,” she says. “I’m not totally mercenary. But none of my ethical choices take your opinion into account. And I’m certainly not going to feed you data so you can snoop, and screw up my strategy. Now, please. Take your noblesse oblige and your righteous outrage elsewhere. I have to finish coding, before I pick up my brother from soccer.”

“I want you to remember that I came in peace, and apologized,” I say, gritting my teeth as anger floods me. “YOU’RE the one who went on the offensive. I told you I was fine with you dating Dick, and I offered to team up to solve problems. If you choose to be an obstructionist asshole, go for it, I’ll work around you. But if it turns out you’re involved with folks doing bad stuff, you should know, I WILL make you pay. You won’t see it coming, it will sting like a bitch, and no amount of computer skills will save you. And the worst part will be, you could have sidestepped the pain, if you’d had the sense to join the winning team.”

“Duly noted,” she says, smile curling the corner of her mouth. “Now move, please, you’re blocking my light.”

I text Logan as I stalk from the computer lab; he’s idling near the door when I emerge. “How’d the lurking go?” he asks, as I climb into the car.

“Mac Mackenzie HATES me,” I say. “How did I not know that? And she’s hoarding dirt about Kendall, Beaver, Big Dick, or all three. She just threw down the gauntlet, and declared she’s working AGAINST us, because apparently, I’m a giant snob. I’m not a snob, Logan! I’m a scrappy underdog! And until she STOLE YOU FROM ME AND GOT PREGNANT, she was my BEST FRIEND!”

“Veronica,” he says, calmly. “You’re the most popular girl at this school, loved and feared by all. You don’t NEED Mac Mackenzie. I have never slept with her, and I never will; on the contrary, if she treats you badly, I’ll END her. And if she’s hiding information we need, we have ways of making her talk.”

“That statement brings up many conflicting emotions,” I say, shaking my head. “I need ice cream to process. I didn’t get any in the last reality, despite EXTREME provocation, and sometimes ice cream is MANDATORY. Smoothies containing vegetables do NOT COUNT.”

“Obviously,” he says, and fake-shudders. “We’ll hit Amy’s on the way home.”

He takes me, and I get my cone, three scoops of dark chocolate drenched in cream and hot fudge. I’m six bites in, crunching as fast as possible, when the slipstream screws me over AGAIN.

THREAD TWENTY NINE

My mouth WAS full of chocolate, but now it’s full of fucking SALAD. I’m sitting in the Hearst food court with Wallace, while he rambles about Uganda. I stare at my meal, all green and non-sugary, and wonder if THIS is the travesty that will break me.

“I can’t WAIT until finals are over,” Wallace says, shoveling fettucine like he’s being timed. “I’ve studied so much, my brain is JELLO.”

“Do you have any friends who speak Russian?” I ask, apropos of nothing. Because I’m clear on my Hearst priority, so why mess around? “And interact with people that aren’t strictly…law-abiding?”

He gives me a sympathetic look. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about this, and I might know a guy. But you can’t ask HOW I know him, because I’m not prepared to say.”

“Oooh, intrigue! Ignoring juicy secrets is not my forte, Papa Bear.”

He makes a face. “This is not so much a SECRET, as just really embarrassing. I screwed up, nearly had to change my major, and I’d prefer it doesn’t get around. I’m thinking you can sympathize?”

I sigh, because I realize who he means. “The guy is Max, right? The ‘entrepreneur’ who sells ‘study guides’?” he sets his fork down, surprised, and I say, “What? I know mechanical engineering was tough for you. And Max has a reputation. What happened, you got caught cheating?”

“OK, Veronica, I love you and all, but sometimes the amount of stuff you know about people is creepy. Yeah, I got caught cheating; and the only reason I’m even IN engineering still is, my teacher gave me a chance to work my ass off for a B.

“But all that nonsense is beside the point. I’m pretty sure Max has the skills you need. He answered his phone once, while I was visiting, in what sounded like Russian. And he has business contacts in EVERY Hearst social circle.”

“Perfect,” I say. “Finish your eight desserts, and you can introduce me. In the meantime, I’m buying some ice cream.”

XXXXX

Max answers his door right after we knock; guess it pays to be readily available, during finals season. He lifts his eyebrows, when he sees who’s visiting, and I sigh. “You recognize me,” I say, resigned.

“Sorry,” he tells me, and sounds like he means it. “In my business, it's wise to stay current on campus gossip. I take it, based on the scene in the cafeteria yesterday, that you’re not happy with your newfound fame?”

Was the radio-station conversation BROADCASTED? I wonder, then give it up as irrelevant. I mean. There were witnesses to the assault, who surely spread the word. And it’s not like I could be MORE humiliated, if people knew I kicked Piz’s ass. “Can we not discuss this in the hall?”

Max waves us in, and I ask, “So I hear you speak Russian? Or some similar language?”

“My family emigrated from Minsk in 1990,” he says. “My last name is Dobrolyubov.” He wiggles his eyebrows; we stare at him blankly, and he adds, “Right. Russian joke. What can I do for you?”

I extract my phone from my messenger bag, display the picture I snapped in Wallace and Piz’s room. “Can you tell me what this says?”

He examines the photo, whistles. “This camera filmed your video, I’m guessing? Yeah, it’s the logo for a Russian tech company called Myedved. They’ve been around since the Cold War; used to make spy devices, for the KGB. After Gorbachev resigned, Russia developed large scale Mafia problems, and their merch ended up on the black market. I’d guess this was purchased back home, under the table; which in turn suggests to me that you need to leave, because I don’t want to mess with the people who bought it. You’ve seen Eastern Promises, right?”

“What this camera suggests to ME is, I’ve ALREADY offended the owner. I hear you’ve got mad computer skills. Can you help me connect the dots between the Russian mob, and our fine scholastic institution? So I have a face and name, on which to rain my righteous fury?”

“You’ll have to buy a study guide,” Max says, firmly. “And I’m officially not involved in this situation, moving forward. But the name you’re looking for is Gorya Sorokin. He was in one of my philosophy classes, and he’s got some identifying tattoos.”

“How much do the guides cost?” I ask, extracting my wallet.

“Three thousand,” he says, flatly. “I recognize you from the tabloids, Veronica Mars. For you, that’s pocket change.”

I examine my reserves and say, “I can give you a check, or $537 in cash.”

“Cash,” he says, taking the money I extend. He pulls a study guide from a drawer, slaps it against my palm. “Thanks for stopping by, have a nice life. I’m sorry for your troubles. Never come back.”

“An entrepreneur AND a gentleman,” I say. “We appreciate the assistance. I assume you’re as invested as I am, in pretending we were never here?”

He opens the door and gestures us out, in lieu of response. We walk off down the hall. Wallace looks back at Max’s shut door, shakes his head; looks at me, shakes his head again. Blind loyalty in the face of bewilderment has always been Wallace’s best quality.

“So we’ve got a place to start searching,” I say. “Or I do, since you have finals. The big question is, how does Piz tie in? Why would a nice boy from Oregon tangle with the Russian mob? I mean, is he buying study drugs? Hookers? Was he entrapped, because Sorokin’s after ME?”

Wallace doesn’t answer. When I glance at him, he looks troubled. “What?” I ask. “You don’t believe your wholesome roommate could be involved in terrible things?”

“Nah,” he scoffs. “I’ve lived in Neptune too long to be surprised. I don’t know, it’s just…that name Max gave us. It sounds familiar, I’m not sure why. Hey V, is Dick still in town? Or did he head back to Hawaii?”

I shrug. He pulls his cell out, and dials. “Yo, man. Call me when you get this.”

“Boys,” I say, smirking, as he re-pockets the phone. “Always leaving long, emotional messages. Logan really IS an aberration.”

Wallace gives me a squint-eyed look of amusement. “I’ll get back to you when I figure it out,” he says. “Sorry you’ve got to cope with this, V.”

“I’ve fought off a murder charge,” I say, attempting breeziness. “A sex tape containing zero actual coitus is small potatoes.”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t just discuss content,” he says. “And go back to my hotel room, and textbooks, and fake blissful ignorance. You need me for anything, or you want me to just beat Piz up again, you give me a ring, say the word.”

I’m touched. “I’m gonna miss you, when you take off across the globe, do-gooding,” I murmur, giving him a hug. “Thanks for your help.”

“What did you say, once? What are friends for?” He grins at me, offers his fist to bump. I do, we both make them explode, and he walks off with a smile.

Wallace my BFF. One of the best people in my life, regardless of reality. There’s no way I’m letting him die on that stupid boat, or anywhere else. I’ll take his bullet myself, first.

XXXXX

I don’t have any idea where my car is, so I head to the library, use a public computer to research Sorokin. It’s not ideal; but I select an out-of-the-way machine, in a secluded corner, and keep my back to the wall.

It takes me an hour to track Gory, via widely available data, back to his Uncle Lev…Neptune businessman, mob ties legally unproven. Gory was born here, but his father lives in Moscow, and seems to be swimming in money. So Gory’s not a playboy; he must be in line for a position that requires accent-free English, and an MBA. Successor to the throne, maybe? The American face of the family business?

If I had Mac or Max at my disposal, I could hack the Hearst system…get his class schedule, his address, maybe his GPA. But I’ve screwed the pooch with Mac, possibly irretrievably. And Max is unfortunately well-informed about the dangers he faces.

I wonder briefly if the hooker Max loves is floating around, here. Would saving her earn me a favor? I dismiss the idea—too much effort and danger, uncertain reward. I’m better off seeking help elsewhere.

Mac was my roommate in this reality, prior to my move-in with Logan…but surely that’s shifted, thanks to recent events? Even if she’s in the same dorm room, living the same life, she’d slam the door in my face. I failed to consider the damage dodging Mac Senior Year would DO, to my life, and to my team. I assumed she’d hang around, no matter how I treated her. I’m not a hands-on friend, under the BEST circumstances; but this debacle proves I at least have to TRY.

Other V’s living the dream of my 14-year-old self, in Improved Past; she’s super-popular and alpha, Queen of Neptune High. But her status has won ME nothing. My relationship with Logan is fraught, and his absence feels like an amputated limb; my best friend now hates me; Wallace is leaving, AGAIN; and there’s a sex tape of me with STOSH PIZNARSKI, which people on the internet have SEEN.

I’m no better off, in Hearst Reality, than I was in my own, where many more Bad Things happened. The Berkeley life I’ve yearned towards, since I started slipstreaming, may actually be a sham; and if I don’t stop that stupid boat party, before the yacht leaves dock? The death of everyone I love lurks waiting in the wings.

I want to take my frustration out on someone; do something that feels EFFECTIVE. I Google, ‘Who is the Sheriff of Neptune, California?’ and the answer comes back, Vincent Van Lowe.

Of course he is. This fucking town.

Well, I decide, slapping together my possessions. Vinnie may be a worm, but he has advantages, as an accomplice. I know where to find him; he can be bribed, with enough money (which I have); and he can locate the data I need, legally or otherwise. Also, he’s not my father, who’s now my sole other feasible partner. Because I’m damned if I’ll tell Dad I blew some stranger, and ended up naked on the web.

Logan’s not the only one who would kill Piz, if that information reached his hands.

XXXXX

I try my ATM code, since I gave all my cash to Max, but it doesn’t work. So I withdraw more money at the campus bank counter, call a cab, and take it to the police station.

I’m waiting in Vinnie’s car when he exits, promptly on the dot of 5:31. He’s in full, pressed uniform, clean-shaven, and his hair’s cut short; it curls on his brow in a way I’m sure he thinks is noble.

He checks when he sees me, makes the tsk-tsk gesture, and tries a paternal frown. He gets in anyway, and favors me with his bright, fake smile. “I remember you!” he says. “From my Wild West days, before I went legit! No need to congratulate me, VMars. Your dad’s crony’s concession speech was extremely gracious.”

“Jerry Sacks is one of ten decent people in Neptune,” I say. “Of COURSE you’d disgrace him, and drive him into obscurity. I’m not here to discuss miscarriages of justice, though. I need information on a family named Sorokin.”

“I fail to recognize the name of which you speak.” He gazes squint-eyed at the car roof, like he’s wracking his brain. “I am but the simple Sheriff of a humble beach community. My job is to patrol the streets at the center, and corral the riff-raff on the fringes.”

“And are the Sorokins riff-raff? Or residents of Centerville?” I wonder.

“Ah, Veronica.” He shakes his head, regretful. “You’re SLIPPING. I just TOLD you, I have zero knowledge of, or interest in, this family. But if you’re searching for someone evasive, try the Long Goodnight Detective Agency. Word on the street is, they always catch their man.”

“I’ll make that my next stop,” I tell him, taking the hint. Lev Sorokin isn’t the guy pulling Vinnie’s strings. I assume, based on what Weevil said, that the Fitzpatricks are defunct. If the Russians’ bid failed, too, the man behind the throne could be ANYONE. “I’d say it’s been a pleasure, Vinnie, but you know. My Sunday School teacher taught me not to lie.”

I move to get out, and he holds up a hand. “Hey, Mars?” he says. “You know princes with castles aren’t nice like in Disney, right? If you end up going after any, do yourself a favor. Don’t storm the drawbridge; sneak around the back.”

I nod. This labored metaphor’s clearly a warning. “It’s weird how I actually feel GRATEFUL, right now. It’s sitting in my stomach like indigestion. Hopefully, it will pass.”

“I like tequila, for that sensation,” Vinnie says. “Just a helpful hint.”

“As always, your unwavering moral compass astounds me,” I say. “I’m nineteen and pregnant, Vinnie, get a clue.”

I give him a finger wave, and make my escape. He shakes his head and looks worried, as he watches me go.

XXXXX

The County Courthouse phone book gives me the detective agency’s address; it’s in a bad part of town, between a pawn shop, and a check-cash place. I tell the cab to wait, despite the mounting tab. Then I head, cautiously, up the rickety stairs.

The door has a notebook page duct-taped to it, on which the name of the business is scrawled: not exactly trust-inspiring, plus it means the outfit is new. It’s unlocked, so I swing it open. The outer office is dark, despite the not –late hour.

I enter, turn the corner. And there, behind the desk, feet crossed on a pile of papers, is Jerry Sacks. He’s wearing a fedora, smoking a cigar…and squinting at the roof tiles, like they hold the key to the universe.

I knock on the wall, to attract his attention. His whole body jerks, sending the papers and a cup of coffee spinning to the floor. He stands up, hides the cigar behind his back, still wafting smoke. “Hi, Veronica,” he says.

“Jerry Sacks,” I retort, my smile growing huge. “Looks like I rolled a lucky seven at last.”

XXXXX

I leave the Long Goodnight with Gory Sorokin’s life history, neatly Prying-Eyez’ed, tucked in my messenger bag. I have his dorm room number, his class schedule, a list of his friends, and his school transcript. I’ve also found links to more in-depth media, thanks to our combined expertise.

(I pay Jerry to look for Weevil’s parents, while I’m at it. Because why not? It can’t hurt. Access to the tools of my trade has been spotty in the slipstream at best. Might as well take maximum advantage, when opportunity presents).

Here’s what I discover about Gory. A) he’s a big spender, a douchebag, and a player. B) his grades in his Business Major are excellent, however. And C) his police record is spotlessly clean. He’s clearly being groomed for some palatable public position. Which means his family WON’T be happy, if they learn he’s broken the law.

I don’t know Dad’s address, and he’s not listed. Nor does he answer when I call. So I direct the cabbie to the Neptune Grand, book a single, and order room service on the way up. I flop on the bed and register, for the first time, how much I depend on slipstream Logan. I know nothing about my own life, because I leave all the details to him.

His absence expands in my chest, a wingspan of ache. I pull my phone out of my bag, dial his number. He doesn’t answer, of course, and I ought to hang up. But our last communication was that letter, and I just…want him to know how I feel.

“Hey,” I say, when the phone beeps. “Should I call out ‘Honey I’m home!’? You’re in basic training, I just slipstreamed here, and I miss you a lot right now. Like it’s hard to breathe. Things have been…eventful, as usual, and since you’re not around, I had to ask VINNIE for help. It wasn’t so bad, really, aside from the lingering scent of brimstone. He proved useful; although his hints about princes in castles were weird, to say the least. But Jerry Sacks is a detective now, and he found me the data I need.

“I got your letter, you should know, clever delivery system, by the way. I guess this is MY message into the void, in return. I just want to say I love you. I realized, today, how heroic and dependable you’ve been, throughout this slipstream ordeal. I’m just so…glad I have you, to count on. You understand and accept my dilemma, and you continue to love me despite it. You really are extraordinary. I’m so proud of you. And I can’t wait for the day when I see you again.”

My call waiting beeps, so I hang up, and answer. Wallace’s voice comes, agitated, across the line. “Veronica, where are you? It’s dinnertime, and no one’s at your house.”

“Neptune Grand,” I say. “Room 1431. Waiting on a buffalo burger, leaving lovelorn messages on Logan’s voicemail. I forgot my address AND lost my keys, then couldn’t reach Dad.”

“Will you be there for like the next half hour?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, slowly. “Room service, remember?”

“OK, we’re coming over. See you in a few.”

He hangs up, and I look at the phone with concern. Give up, with a shrug, and decide to wash my face.

I study myself as I pat dry…I’m thin, but I look like REAL me. I realize there’s another mirror, hung on the back of the door. My reflection reflects, and reflects again, ad infinitum. I stare at the funhouse-repeating images, and have a slipstream epiphany.

I’ve assumed there are four realities, which change based on things I do. But what if that’s not true? What if there are INFINITE realities, only some of which I’ve visited? What if every choice I make leads to a different one?

Could I perhaps visit worlds spun from different high-school choices? Am I stuck with the results of adventures in Improved Past? If I turn the right corner, wish upon a star, could I find my way back home?

Yesterday, in Berkeley reality, I asked to be sent elsewhere; and the slipstream OBLIGED. Could I use that trick again, to navigate? Would being in a place that exists everywhere, like Neptune High or Howl’s, help? I mean, Howl’s hosted that freaky reality nexus, which scared the crap out of Logan. But it doesn’t exist, where I come from, and maybe that’s key.

I still think Berkeley Logan’s lying, about not recognizing me. But whether he’s playing a game or not? Kudos for making me think.

Wallace arrives right after my food does, Dick in tow. The concerned looks on their faces bode ill. As does the way Wallace says, “We need to talk.”

“OK, but I gotta eat,” I say, smothering my burger in curry ketchup. I take a huge bite. “Pregnant, underweight, you know the drill.”

“So you know professional adult life is all about connections,” Wallace begins. I arch my brows at him, chewing, and Dick says, “Dude, just get on with it.”

“We’re connected.” Wallace gestures between Dick and himself, willing me, earnest, to get it. “And everybody tells us, network more. Like Dick joined a frat, and I rushed, but decided too much temptation to party. I was interested in other organizations, though. Like, professional organizations, which help you get a leg up on your career, and we…”

“We got invited to join a secret society called the Castle,” Dick says, interrupting Wallace with a look. “Like Skull and Bones, you know? Or Opus Dei? We’re totally not supposed to tell anybody, this is a major secret.”

“Of course you did. The billionaire boys’ club strikes again.” A thought occurs to me. “Logan, too?”

Wallace winces, and Dick says, “We did NOT mention Logan, Rons. The only reason we’re bringing this up is that Sorokin guy.”

“Yeah, there were these newspapers we had to take, from a special box, at a special time,” Wallace says. “They contained information about a meeting. I showed up early to get mine with…somebody, and we saw this blonde guy putting them in. I said, look, another victim, and ‘somebody’ said, ‘That’s Gory Sorokin. He’s Russian mafia, my friend. We’re in a lot more trouble than we realized’.”

“Dude, she knows who somebody is. She’s not retarded,” Dick says.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dick,” I say, and eat a handful of fries. “No matter how offensively phrased. Too bad somebody’s shipped his stupid ass off to Illinois, to run ten miles a day in combat boots. I could really use his help with this clusterfuck.”

“Somebody always turns into a pathetic cautionary tale, when harshed by chicks,” Dick agrees. “It’s like his one fatal flaw.”

“Well, girls and booze,” Wallace says. “Got to keep somebody away from tequila, or stupid CRAZY things tend to happen.”

“Regardless,” I say; because bitching about Logan’s poor drunken coping choices will not help. “While I appreciate your candor, I don’t see what this knowledge buys me. Why would a rich boy’s secret society distribute sex tapes of a member’s wife?”

“No, V, you’re looking at this backwards,” Wallace says. “The reason I’m IN this society is YOU. Well, Logan and you. Logan told me the head of the Castle is Jake Kane.”

“Which means it’s cake to deal with Sorokin, Rons,” Dick says. “Jake will NOT be cool with that guy exploiting you on the web.”

Oh, boy. I rub at the headache between my eyes; Vinnie’s warning about princes in castles flits through my mind. “So I just tell my stepfather Piz taped me, and he’ll take on the Russian mob?”

“I’d tell Wiedman,” Dick says, and Wallace nods. They’ve obviously discussed this. “Like I said the other day. That’s dude’s effective.”

“Fine,” I say. “You win. By all means, let’s make him earn his paycheck.”

“You want a ride to Keith’s?” Wallace asks. “After you eat? My mom keeps his spare key, for emergencies. I’m pretty sure this qualifies.”

I nod, and they hang with me while I finish, making jokes to cheer me up. I know they both have places to be, but they care enough to stay.

I sprawl across Wallace’s back seat, on the way home, and listen to their banter. The sun shines warm through the windows, and the world fades slowly to black.

Chapter Text

THREAD TWENTY NINE INVERTS

Someone is humming. It’s a high, clear voice, soprano; pleasant, though not as good as mine. The tune sounds familiar, but my brain slips around it, not grasping. My stomach heaves, and I think GOD, enough with the morning sickness.

Love Hurts. That’s the song. No words, just humming, and I’m back in Java the Hut, watching that slideshow of Logan stripping for Kendall, while Karaoke Guy stabs spikes through my heart. The floor is cold under my cheek. I shift, but can’t get comfortable.

Wait. The floor?

My eyes snap open, but my vision’s blurred. I see grey…cement beneath me, dirty walls, cheap metal door, industrial and slick-surfaced. A girl’s feet, encased in brown loafers, smear of dirt across a long leg. I try to sit, waver, and go back down. Something is WRONG with me.

“It’s déjà vu all over again, huh?” the humming voice says, and I shake my head to clear my vision. Slowly, the room resolves; I gaze up at a very-much-the-worse-for-wear Meg Manning. She doesn’t look injured, beyond a bruise on her chin. But she’s dirty, her hair is snarled, and her pink halter top is torn along one side.

“What do you mean?” I manage. My voice sounds hoarse. “Where are we?”

She indicates our surroundings, like she’s Vanna White. We’re in a bathroom, of the gas-station variety…no windows, one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. “Same place we were last time those bikers kidnapped us,” she says. “Locked in the john, at their warehouse.”

“Last time?” Panic rises through my esophagus, gathers in my throat. “You mean the night Felix Toombs was killed? We were HERE?”

“You really don’t remember?” Meg looks mildly skeptical, and I remember what Dick said about her two expressions. Shouldn’t she be more upset? “I thought it was an act. I mean, I would have lied too, if it kept me from getting railroaded for murder. Don’t think I’m judging you.”

“I hit my head,” I say. “It’s common to forget the time period surrounding a head injury.”

“Maybe you won’t remember this either, then,” she says. She shifts against the wall, folding her arms, and stretches her legs out. “You screamed and fought so much, when they nabbed us in the mall parking lot, that they hit you today, too.”

“How long have we been here?”

She shrugs. “Sorry, I’m not wearing a watch. It’s been a while. Long enough that I was worried you wouldn’t wake up. Last time, I was here for three days before you came. They brought food at random intervals, usually burgers. From McDonald’s, which I HATE.”

“Did they take you out for any reason?” I ask. I sit up, stretch to test my range of motion. My back is knotted, painful, and the room spins. “Like to walk, stretch your legs?”

She shakes her head. “They’re not overly concerned with our comfort. We’ve got a toilet, and a faucet for water. I guess they figure that’s all we need.”

“WHY did they take us?” I ask. “Do you know?”

She makes a see-saw motion with her hand. “Last time, they said they needed leverage over my dad. I’m not sure why. I THOUGHT, back then, they wanted to extort money. But now I’m pretty sure Stewart’s committing drug crimes, and these guys are mixed up in it. Dick told me yesterday that their leader, some boy called Thumper, was taken in for questioning. I’m guessing he’s scared we’ll come forward, about the first kidnapping? And this is him, cleaning up loose ends?”

“I don’t remember what happened, last time,” I say slowly. Her matter of fact acceptance of this situation both impresses and disturbs me. “Like, at all. Mind filling in the blanks?”

“Why not?” she says, with a shrug. “It’ll pass the time, while we wait to be killed. Let's see...you showed up unconscious last time, too, but you didn’t seem hurt. I learned later that they chloroformed you, when they grabbed you from your car. But that was after I escaped.

“Anyway, you woke up eventually, but you were REALLY groggy. You kept talking about Logan, and how Trina dying was all your fault. Then that Felix guy came to get us, he had a revolver.

“They’d taken our purses, but I guess they didn’t search you, because you pulled a can of mace out of your pocket. You sprayed his face. He started yelling, clawing at his eyes, trying to grab you; hit his hand against a post, dropped the gun. I figured if we went back in the bathroom, we’d wind up dead. So I picked it up, and I shot him.

“You were incoherent, still, you could barely walk, so I tried to drag you out of here. But you wouldn’t leave without your bag. You said you had evidence in it about the Fitzpatricks, proving they were guilty of something bad. You said Trina gave it to you, after her boyfriend hurt her.

“So we came back, and Thumper was here, freaking out about Felix. He tackled you, and the two of you struggled; then he smacked your head against the ground, hard, and you stopped moving. I spotted our purses on a big table in the middle of the room, and I just...grabbed them, and ran.

“I’m sorry, Veronica. I know I should have tried to help you, but I was scared. I thought you might be dead. I figured at least I could give the bag to the police, to prove you were abducted, and tell them where the warehouse was. I could show them the evidence, and help get rid of the Fitzpatricks.

“But I went home before the police station, to clean up, because I just...I CAN'T be dirty in public. And my dad found me. He wanted to punish the gang, at first. But then he took your bag away, and got really mad because of this empty Ziploc inside it. He said I had to keep my mouth shut about being kidnapped, unless he told me otherwise, or God would make him test me. And I…I’m ashamed of myself, Veronica. He took your evidence. And I didn't say a word.”

I stare at her, my brain scrambling to assimilate. In THIS reality you didn't, I think. In Prison Reality, Stewart demanded that you testify against me, and you AGREED. I thought Meg made the whole story up, at the time; but it looks like, instead, she just twisted the truth, to shift the blame off herself.

Meg’s fabrications were never about saving Grace. She did what Stewart demanded out of fear for her OWN safety.

“Grace used those words,” I murmur, as the puzzle pieces start to mesh. “When we took her away from your house. ‘I don’t want to be tested’. She was so terrified, she wouldn’t come out of the closet. Whatever testing is, it doesn’t leave a mark. The court found no evidence of physical abuse.”

Meg looks at me, and something dark shifts inside her eyes. “It’s poison, Veronica. He makes you drink the stuff, in a cup of juice. If you don’t die, that means God forgives you. I’ve been tested 4 times, so I know God REALLY loves me. But I wish he’d showed it by setting me free.

“Instead, YOU’RE the one who did that, you and Lilly, when you went public about Grace. You gave me a chance to break loose of Stewart, once and for all. I felt so guilty, Veronica, I HAD to help you. Because I left you here, and ran, and you still saved my sisters and me.”

“That’s why you testified,” I realize. “You told the police we had a key, and an invitation to enter the house. You kept us out of jail as payback, which must have made your dad REALLY mad.”

“I was DONE.” She sneers, definitely a new expression. “I had one chance to get out from under his thumb, and I jumped on it with a vengeance. I pretended to be sweet and submissive my whole life… I’m SO good at it…but when I went to the cops, I blew my disguise.

“I knew I could never live with him again, once I’d betrayed him; he’d kill me. And I won’t let that happen, Veronica. Not after all I’ve been through, the notebook-writing and cups of juice, the praying for hours, and the dark, locked rooms. If he ever comes near me again, he’s the one who’ll find out how much God loves him. Saving myself from Felix taught me just how strong I am.”

Fuck my life, I think, struggling to keep my face blank. Stewart didn’t drive the car off the cliff in Hearst Reality, with Meg inside. MEG drove the car off the cliff, to get rid of STEWART.

Sweet little Disney Princess Meg Manning, who always wears a smile, and has her hair braided by cartoon birds? Harbors nascent homicidal impulses, on which she isn’t afraid to act.

And I have, all unwitting, hooked her up with Dick.

“You don’t have to worry about Stewart anymore, though, Meg,” I say. Gently, I hope. “He’s lost custody of all of you. And Dick’s very dedicated to making sure he stays away.”

She laughs. “Yeah, Dick Casablancas, knight in shining armor,” she says. “He’s handsome, and he’s funny; and I’ve enjoyed being FREE for once, to live an actual human life. But whenever I want some alone time, to GET STUFF DONE, he ALWAYS interferes. Deep down, I think party boy Dick is more goody-goody than he pretends. He loves talking about your Justice League; but he doesn’t have the stomach for actual justice.”

Okay, I have never even CONSIDERED a scenario where the non-Dick party in a relationship is the scary one. I’m reviewing and discarding approaches, when yelling starts, beyond the door. It’s faint, blocked by sheetrock, but something about it makes me anxious. I glance at Meg, and the concern in her eyes mirrors my own.

Shit is going down.

The noise ceases for a minute, then starts again, climbing in pitch, hysterical. It sounds like someone’s being TORTURED out there. It sounds like…

“Is that Logan?” Meg asks, and my whole body breaks out in goosebumps. Not the good kind.

“We have to get OUT OF HERE!” I shout, jumping to my feet, almost falling over. “We have to HELP!” I case the room frantically, but there’s no handle on the door, no window, nothing but the toilet; which, when I look, gagging, is just a foul-scented thing with no water.

“We can’t,” she says, her face faintly reflecting pity. “I’m sorry, I’ve tried.”

I kick the door and yell, frantic. It feels good, so I do it again. Maybe if I make enough noise, I’ll distract them. Maybe they’ll open the door and give me a fighting chance…at which point, anyone who’s hurt Logan will fucking DIE IN FLAMES.

“I’m gonna DESTROY YOU ALL!” I scream, pounding and kicking with every ounce of my strength. “You have NEVER SUFFERED LIKE I WILL MAKE YOU SUFFER!”

I keep shouting, every curse word and vituperation I can think of, and the noise outside dies down. I dent the metal with my kicks, and keep going. Maybe it’s thin enough to make a hole.

Then the door’s yanked open by two men in black, wearing ski masks. One of them points a gun at my face.

“What, you want to join the party?” he asks, cocking his head; I can tell by the machismo, the body language, that it’s Thumper. “We weren’t ready for you yet… but you miiiiight help move this information-gathering session along.” He jerks his head at his companion. “Grab the other one. She’s Echolls’ best friend’s girl, that’s twice the bargaining power.”

He yanks me out of the bathroom, his grip on my upper arm punishing. We’re in a warehouse, like Meg said, soaring ceiling, exposed plywood and beams. Boxes sealed with duct tape line the walls. Thumper drags me past, out into the room at large, and yeah.

There’s a table in the middle, like Meg said. And Logan’s tied to it.

He’s panting, sweaty, his eyes and mouth open wide with distress; but his wounds are consistent with a minor fistfight. Whatever they’ve done to make him scream, it hasn’t injured him. His gaze meets mine, and his jaw tightens with resolve. He blows me a kiss. I clench my teeth hard, to keep emotion in.

“So this pinche guey here,” Thumper says, gesturing carelessly with the gun at Logan, “ambushed me at the 7-11, tried to beat your whereabouts out of me. As you can see, that didn’t work out too good, from his perspective. What I want to learn is, how’d he hear I took you? And how’d he know where to find me? But he won’t say.

“We just played a couple rounds of Russian Roulette with his arms, and his dick; but he’s STILL not talking. So maybe we play with you cheerleaders, instead. See if that has a better effect.”

He cocks the gun, aims it at my head, and I say, “When I get my hands on you, I’ll make the Spanish Inquisitors look like amateurs. I am so not kidding. I don’t forgive people who mess with Logan.”

He laughs. “Sweetheart, if you’ve got a bullet in your brain, how you gonna stop me from doing anything I want?”

“Wow, every time I think you can’t get dumber, you prove me wrong,” Logan interrupts, voice mocking. “The police have an APB out on you already. Your Fitzpatrick overlords are in jail. If you think a torture-and-murder spree, through a field of your social superiors, will make you LESS of a target? I weep for the future of America.”

The gun swings back towards Logan. Based on the humorless smirk he gives, that’s where he wants it; the attitude-while-tied-to-a-table was him distracting the predator.

“The only thing I’m guilty of so far is kidnapping, and threatening,” Thumper says. His mouth spreads into a grin, filling the lower hole of his mask. “And you know what they say. No witnesses, no crime.” He cocks the gun, aims it consideringly at Logan’s chest. “They also say it’s better to burn out than fade away, and I’m starting to believe it.”

“Maybe so,” a dry voice allows, behind him. “But you ain’t gonna do either.”

Thumper and his crony spin; Weevil, Arturo and six other armed guys emerge from the shadows around us. Thumper makes as if to aim, and Weevil says, “I wouldn’t. You know I don’t point a gun unless I’m ready to fire.”

Thumper looks at the weapon in his hand, back at Weevil. I can see him considering options; burn out, or fade away? I tense, grabbing Meg's wrist so we can drop, if guns start firing. But Thumper just sighs, and tosses the gun to the ground.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath. Thank God I'm the only one around here who's seen the future. If Thumper knew what Weevil has in mind, he would have gone down shooting.

“Did you really have to time your entrance for maximum drama?” Logan demands, behind me, breaking the tension. “Because that’s MY shtick. Also, we need to have a chat about what constitutes full disclosure. When I signed up to play decoy, so we could flush out Thumper’s hiding place and cronies, I didn’t bargain on getting my DICK shot off!”

“Much as I enjoy seeing you sweat,” Weevil says, “Russian Roulette’s a scare tactic. I’ve never seen it played with a loaded gun. This type of situation, however, calls for plenty of bullets, and untraceable pieces. We were unavoidably delayed, waiting for some to show up.”

“Masks off,” Arturo says, from beside Weevil. “We want to see the faces of the assholes who betrayed us.”

Thumper and his friend glance at each other, then reluctantly concede. To my surprise, his assistant is Vinh, the guy who tried to stab Wallace at the beach. I wonder if Chardo switched sides again, when confronted with Weevil’s re-emergence to power. Or if he got run out of town, the way he did back home.

“You idiot,” Weevil says to Vinh, disgusted. “You’re out. Arturo, escort this gentleman to a more private location, teach him a lesson about defying authority. Then make sure he leaves town. Alive,” he adds, with a pointed glance at me.

Arturo walks over to Logan; gazes down at his prone form, with a slight headshake. “This makes us even,” he says.

“Wrong," Logan says. “The deal was, you're Team Veronica permanently. It was never about me at all.”

“You talk pretty big for a guy tied to a table," Arturo says. "But okay. As long as being Team Veronica doesn't land me in trouble.”

Weevil turns his gun on Thumper, ignoring the banter. “Now YOU pose a problem,” he says. “You shot me, as part of your power play, and I can’t let that slide. I’m betting you offed Felix, too, when he tried to set these girls loose. I’m thinking twice the disloyalty equals twice the punishment.”

“If that’s what you believe, you’re an idiot,” Thumper protests. He seems more outraged by the suggestion than scared, like he still doesn't understand his peril. “Felix was HELPING me. He needed a bunch of money pronto, so he could run away with Molly Fitzpatrick. She was like his forbidden love. I was offered a hundred grand by Liam to take these two girls, hold them until he needed them. And I cut Felix in so he’d be out of the way, when the time came for you to…retire. I didn’t want to fight him, I LOVED the guy.

“I showed up that night to get the tall one, because Liam said he was ready for her, and Felix was on the ground, dead. Veronica seems real sincere, when she says she didn’t off him. But she’s a fucking liar.”

A look of indescribable rage comes over Weevil’s face, and he struggles to battle it back. “Veronica,” he says, voice stifled. “I'm not gonna be happy, if it turns out you managed to play me.”

“I've told the truth from the start,” I insist, thanking God for the year of torment Logan rained down upon me; I'm very good, now, at making sure fear doesn't show. “The whole night of Felix's death is a blank, between getting pulled from my car, and waking up in that alley. But I was drugged to the point where I couldn’t walk, then hit on the head, and there was no gunpowder residue on my hands. The odds that I'm guilty are laughable.

“Meg tells me it was Felix who took us out of the holding cell, and I managed to mace him. Then Thumper showed up, knocked me out, and Meg ran, because she thought I was dead. Her story’s consistent with the evidence, so I believe it. Beyond that, it’s all conjecture.

“I can't tell you for sure who shot your friend; I have a theory, but no proof. Thumper's definitely CAPABLE, though. If you hadn’t showed up, he would have murdered US.”

Weevil considers me for a long moment, face inscrutable. Then he nods. And this tells me something I’ve never realized; Weevil believes I’ll be honest, even when I'm literally under the gun. Eli Navarro, who I’ve consistently failed to trust, trusts ME.

And he can—everything I’ve told him, I believe to be true. A confession with no supporting evidence proves nothing. I won’t subject a kidnap victim, who may have panicked in fear of her life, to possible Old Testament justice. And I won’t let Thumper, a clear and present danger, weasel out of the reckoning he deserves.

Weevil looks to Meg for corroboration, and she crumples. “The whole time I was here, I was so SCARED,” she says, and she looks so innocent and terrified, I almost believe her. Tears well up, spill over her lower lids. “I was sure we would DIE. I’m a coward, and when I got the chance, I ran. I’m sorry.”

Weevil studies her, gaze softening. He looks back at me, resigned, and I can tell he's realized she’s the culprit. I watch his face as the stories merge and mesh, in his mind; and see the exact moment lost, pretty Meg gets a pass. “Veronica, untie Echolls,” he tells me, turning away. “He’s gonna hurt himself, trying to break loose and save you.”

I walk over to Logan, stroke his face, and he nuzzles into my hand. I check the knots, but he's yanked them too tight to shift. “Got a knife?” I ask.

“Right front pocket,” he says. I pull out the little switchblade he uses to cut apples, and saw carefully through the ropes. He jackknifes up the second he’s free, enfolds me in his arms, squeezing so tightly I can’t breathe. “Jesus,” he murmurs, under his breath. I stroke his back.

“Yeah, enough with the tender moments,” Weevil says. “V, you need to take your friends and go. I got this, from here on out.”

“What are you going to do?” I ask, eyeing Thumper the way I would a bug. He’s not grinning anymore.

“Eduardo’s gonna plead his case,” Weevil says. “With no witnesses around who might sway events. He’ll lay out his reasons for betraying his crew to Irishmen, and I’ll explain my policy on dealing with rats. No need to worry, though, V. You ain’t ever gonna see him again.”

“Remember you’re Catholic, while you’re having this conversation,” I say. “Ask yourself, what would Jesus do? Not for Thumper’s sake, but for yours. Feel free to view him as a moneylender at the Temple, though; I promised him payback, and I expect you to deliver.”

This surprises a laugh out of Weevil. He shakes his head at me, mouth pursed. “So you and I, we’re good now, right?”

“Yeah,” I say, quietly. “We may not always see eye to eye, but you just proved how much you’ve got my back.”

“I do,” he agrees, with the bob of his head he thinks is so smooth. “I won’t always dance to your tune, V, because your tune don’t take into account practical reality. But you can depend on me to come looking, if you’re in danger of ending up dead.”

“Ditto,” I say, and turn to go.

Logan gets up carefully—his limbs are probably asleep--and nods his thanks to Weevil. Weevil nods back. Logan, Meg and I limp out slowly into the night.

Logan’s the one who shivers, and wants to be held, as we trek across to his Range Rover, which someone’s parked out front. I remain stoic, but note, from a distance, that all my muscles are clenched.

Meg, though—she sits silent in the back seat all the way home, composed and serene, unburdened by guilt. Meg Manning is used to suffering, and hiding her feelings. She’s a deeper, scarier person than I ever suspected.

THREAD THIRTY

One moment, I’m in the passenger seat of the Range Rover, reviewing my night at the warehouse, and slowly going numb. The next I’m sprawled on the couch of that horrible grey apartment, watching the family drive away before the Poltergeist house implodes. Empty beers and junk food bags cover the coffee table in front of me; Logan slouches alongside, unshaven and dirty. His eyes are so bloodshot they seem pink. I don’t even WANT to know what I look like.

Loki noses up to the table, eyeing me cautiously. When I don’t move, he knocks a bag of chips off with his paw, and starts eating.

“God DAMN it!” I say, because enough is ENOUGH. I jump up, causing a beer to tip over. Loki abandons the chips to lick the spill, one eye fixed firmly on me. “I CANNOT HANDLE this place right now! It's been a ROUGH FEW DAYS, Logan! I just this minute escaped kidnappers! I WON’T ACCEPT THIS LAME-ASS FUCKING REALITY, UNTIL I’VE HAD A CHANCE TO UNWIND!”

“Well, look who came a’callin’,” he says lazily, drunk off his ass and clearly amused. “Veronica Mars Robinson, inter-dimensional ass-kicker. Lost in space. So does that make me the tacky 50’s robot, shrieking ‘danger’? I do a better Dr. Smith.” He adopts a campy mien, hand to his heart, and intones, “Sarcasm is the recourse of a WEAK mind.”

“This is no time for your so-called jokes,” I snap. “We’re in the Neptune where the Nautilus sank, right? How many people were on board? And where’s Backup?”

Logan’s gaze sharpens, and the dance-among-the-flames-of-destruction look falls from his face. “Backup lives with your dad,” he says, slowly. “Same as always. As for who was on board: Lilly, Wallace, Dick, Jackie, Casey, Luke, Shelly, Enbom, Ashley and Bodie. The ‘best friends’ Lilly invited to our super-fab graduation surprise party. Oh, and Madison Sinclair. The ill-advised gate-crasher.”

“No parents?” I demand. “Dad is OK? Alicia? Jake and Lianne? Your mom? Susan Knight wasn’t there, or Bryson?”

“ALL FINE,” he says, with an emphatic, flat-palmed gesture. He gets up to face me, tense all over. “Are you saying you showed up here before, and those people WEREN’T fine? Are you saying you managed to CHANGE things?”

“YOU changed things,” I tell him. “You must have convinced Lilly somehow to downscale. You don’t remember the last time I came? You were tripping at some frat party. I rescued you, and brought you home.”

I take a good look around the apartment and wow; it’s unpacked and staged, but not the same way I did it. Despite the hedonism on the coffee table, it shows clear signs of an obsessive cleaning spree, the type that only happens when I’m angsting. And it’s been decorated in a flamboyant and haphazard way, heavy on the movie posters. I’m guessing I de-germed, Logan tried to make it homey, and we both gave up pretty quick.

“Are you kidding?” he asks, I guess rhetorically, because he continues before I can speak. “NONE of that happened! Do you know what Veronica would DO to me, if I took drugs among strangers? Not worth the pain, Mrs. R, no matter how fun it sounds. She’s EXTREMELY protective of those loved ones she has left.”

“Did anybody survive?” I ask. “Any passengers, I mean?”

“Lilly and Luke,” he tells me. “And Madison. Luke lost a leg; the shooter thought he was dead, and didn’t waste a second bullet. Lilly escaped to the engine room, and radioed for help. Madison hid.”

“I want to talk to them,” I say. “I want to talk to them all, right now. I need to read newspaper articles, and look at the case file, too, so I can figure out exactly what happened.”

“Neither of us can DRIVE, Veronica,” he protests. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been drinking all morning. We’re having a horror movie marathon.”

“Then we rent a fucking chauffeur,” I say. “We still have plenty of money, right?”

He smiles at me. With the messy hair, red eyes, and general air of debauchery, he looks like a cheerful maniac. “We do,” he concedes.

“Get your ass in the shower and clean up,” I say. “I’ll dig through the yellow pages for a car service.”

“Come with me,” he pleads. He tries to make his voice flirtatious; but when I glance up, there’s desperation in his gaze. “I haven't seen you in a year. And I hate to shower alone.”

“Give me a phone and phone book,” I say. “Write down our address. Then go heat the water up, I’ll be with you in five.”

I schedule the car, and head to the bathroom; strip, and enter the enormous, grey-tiled stall. He’s clean, still a little soapy, sitting on the floor while water pours down around him. He smiles at me, and stands.

“We have an hour,” I say. “What can I do in that time, to make you feel better?”

His grin turns naughty, but it’s got a frantic edge. “What’s on offer?”

“We’re past the coy phase,” I say. “Use your words. Let me know what you need.”

He steps closer, running a slippery hand down my spine. “I just want you,” he says, and his voice cracks, fervent. “Coming in my arms, telling me you love me. I’ll take you apart with pleasure, you’ll put my life back together. While I stand behind you, playing the role of muscle. Like we do.”

“Deal,” I say, and guide his hand between my legs. “Let's work on your job first.”

XXXXX

I’m afraid he’ll break down after he comes, he’s so needy and overwhelming, so desperate for touch. He keeps it together; but he does cry a little, holding me tightly, like the orgasm was therapy. I expect this is how it is for him and his Veronica now, both of them raw and damaged and sad. But for me, it brings up uncomfortable echoes of the way things used to be.

When we first dated, when I acknowledged I couldn’t stay away, his need swamped me. His life was so hard…abusive father, dead mother, shitty friends, unsympathetic sister. He was sucked up to yet mocked, by people jealous of his rise, eager for his fall. Desperate for love, he made me his everything, and expected me to save him from spiraling into the pit.

I was damaged too, though, and I responded by withdrawing. I didn’t WANT to be his everything. I knew, even then, that he had to save himself. I was young and scared, and it felt like too much pressure—it WAS too much. So in fear and self-preservation, I ran.

I’ve gotten used to him, in the slipstream, as a guy who’s learned to love himself. Who knows his own strength. Watching him go this route frightens me. I might be going this route too, here, and that frightens me even MORE.

I stroke his hair, tell him I’ll fix things. Tell him it will be all right. And I WILL fix things. Because I can’t end