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Every Belt That Ever Hit Someone (Is Still Made to Hold Something Up)

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Logan joins the Navy because he's always considered the word no a dare.

His sophomore year of college is not going well. It's not exactly that Veronica is gone, although his mind wanders up to Stanford more often than he would care to admit. It's more that without Veronica and Duncan, he's forced to confront exactly how vapid his so-called friends are. By which he means they're not his friends at all; they're people who hang onto him because he has money and a story, so basically he's a status symbol. That's how he ends up drinking alone more often than not, and when sitting in the shadows with a glass of whiskey makes him feel too much like his mom, he decides he ought to at least get the fuck out of the Grand. With a flask, naturally.

Wandering around Neptune late at night, drinking, is getting to be a habit when he finds himself on the bridge where his mother died. The last time he tried to retrace her steps, he got jumped by a bunch of thugs, but this time, he's alone. And no, officer, he could not pass a sobriety test, which makes it the perfect time to walk along the railing of a bridge. Some shred of common sense in the back of his head is wondering what the fuck he's doing, but the drunk part -- which, unfortunately, is the only part that can stand to live in reality -- isn't exactly sure what he would lose if he went right over the edge.

Making it to the pavement on the other side is anticlimactic, but what was he expecting? The voice of god telling him that he was meant to live? Instead he finds a Navy recruiting office, and he decides to sit outside till it opens.

The recruiting officer takes one look at him and says, "No."

By this point, Logan's in that awkward phase between drunk and hungover, so he goes home instead of arguing, but he's back the next day. This time, his clothes are freshly pressed and his hair is combed, so he thinks he looks pretty credible when he salutes and says, "I'm here to join the Navy."

The recruiting officer, who clearly recognizes him from yesterday morning, rolls his eyes and says, "Why?"

"To defend my country of course, sir!" Logan says, flashing his very best shit-eating grin.

He looks at the recruitment brochures arrayed on the counter, and wonders if he'll really go through with this. The officer is coming around from his desk, and Logan imagines himself signing the enlistment papers. He wants to know what will happen; it's the same sick urge he used to get when he'd provoke his father just to find out how hard he'd hit.

And sure enough, the recruiting officer is looming over him now, a lot like his dad used to.

"Get the fuck out of my office," he says, every word as crisp as his uniform.

Logan takes a step back. "Really?" he asks. "Because I was under the impression that you guys were pretty desperate for a few good men."

"You think you're the first little shit to come in here and mock me?" the officer asks. It's really kind of impressive how intimidating he looks, standing straight, his voice just a little too soft for a real shout. "Get out of my office. I'm not asking again."

If he leaves this office, he has no place to go. He takes a step back and swallows. "I want to join the Navy. Sir. I need to join the Navy."

The officer raises an eyebrow. "Why?"

"I don't have anything in my life that means anything," he says quietly. "Give me something. Please."

And then he's shaking hands and signing his name on a dotted line.

***

Before boot camp, Logan throws wild parties with his not-really-friends. It seems like the kind of thing someone should do before joining the armed services, which is better than partying because there's literally nothing else to do. The night before he leaves, he ceremoniously gives away all his possessions. It's supposed to be the party to end all parties, but they all drink too much too fast, and Logan is sobering up on the couch at midnight while everyone is passed out around him.

The first thing he does is drunk text Veronica. That's better than sober texting, because drunk texts don't really merit a response. Anyway, his cell service will be shut off by morning; he'll never have to face her silence. He clicks send, and then the suddenly the cavernous beach house they'd rented feels stifling. The high ceiling, the elegant modern furniture, the beer cans littered on the ground feel like some kind of absurd metaphor for the emptiness of his life.

Outside feels better, and he lays down on the beach at the edge of the ocean, not caring that the water is lapping over the designer loafers he’d bought with his inheritance, just because he could. Footsteps crunch over the sand behind his head, but Logan keeps on staring at the stars. It's a girl, he supposes, one of the many he hadn't invited but who had shown up at the party nonetheless. Even though he's not exactly in the mood, he readies his very best panty-dropping grin because anonymous one-night hook-up is the last box to tick before surrendering his life to Uncle Sam. But the person leaning over him turns out to be Dick Casablancas.

"Gee whiz," Logan says. "Here I thought I was about to get a pre-Navy blow job."

Dick sits down on the sand next to him. Well, sits is a generous term. It's more like a controlled fall.

"You're going to the Navy tomorrow," Dick says. His words are slow but not slurred, and Logan guesses he's sobering up.

"I think we covered that in the pre-Navy blow job comment," Logan says.

"You could, like, die or something out there," Dick says, looking out at the ocean.

"Yeah, that happens sometimes in a war," Logan agrees. The truth is, he hadn't thought about it until now. Joining the Navy meant going away; he hadn't considered that war was going to be an actual thing in his life now.

Dick is squinting at him now. "Are you....you know...okay?"

Logan ponders the question for a moment and decides that it's actually totally sincere. "Not in the slightest," he says. For once, he doesn't try to make it sound funny. When Dick doesn't turn it into a joke either, Logan props himself up on one elbow and actually considers Dick for once. "You know, you're actually not an awful person," he says.

Dick grins. "Thanks, man," he says, not in the sarcastic way Logan would have said it, but like actually not an awful person is a real compliment.

Logan wakes up when the sky is pink and the tide is coming in. His pants are soaked almost to the waist, and Dick is nowhere to be found. He throws his shoes into the ocean and reports to boot camp barefoot, just because he can.

***

Shoes are not on the checklist of items recruits are required to bring to basic training. His checking account number and the bank's routing number are on the list of required items, and he doesn't have them.

"You don't want to get paid?" the intake officer asks, and Logan feels sheepish when he says it's not important. He's never had a paying job before. Actually, he's never even thought about where money comes from - it just appears in his account, courtesy of his dead mom's financial planner.

Dick had driven him here in a yellow Mazzeratti they'd found at the end of the driveway. Their party guests were still passed out, and fishing the keys out of the big bowl in the entry table had been simpler than trying to find the drivers of all the cars parked behind Dick's Hummer. Pulling into the parking lot amid old Buicks and mid-sized SUV's was the first time that being rich had made Logan feel conspicuous in a bad way, and he'd tried not to make eye contact with any of the new recruits hugging their parents goodbye.

Instead, he'd stood awkwardly at the passenger door of the Mazzerratti. Dick gave him a look that said what the actual fuck are you doing? and also I'll take you out of here man. They'd exchanged this look countless times before, but only when one of them was about to fight someone really big (Logan) or fuck someone really ugly (Dick). Logan froze for a moment, then gave Dick a salute that was not nearly as snappy as he'd intended it to be. Dick nodded once and backed out of the parking spot fast enough to make the tires squeal.

"I'll wait for you, Logan!" he'd yelled, and then the Mazzerratti was nothing but a yellow blur in the distance.

Standing in line to get his head shaved, he reads the brochure for new recruits for the first time. The phrase you will be in harm's way appears with startling regularity, alongside other intriguing statements like every sailor is a firefighter and you must learn to survive in the water in case immediate rescue is not available. As he watches his hair fall to the floor, it occurs to him that he might -- for the first time in nineteen years -- have managed to do something real.

Basic training has rules for everything: making your bed, chewing your food, even folding your fucking socks. He breaks them, naturally. Rebellion is kind of his thing (and also, he doesn't actually know how to make a bed). Once he'd had to do push-ups in the rain with a drill sergeant shouting in his face just like a scene in a movie - and wouldn't that make dear old dad proud? He didn't realize he'd flinched, but he must have because Sarge's eyes had gone soft and he'd said, "Stand down, kid, nobody here's gonna hit you."

Most nights he falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow. That night he'd laid in bed, staring at the bunk above him. Nobody here's gonna hit you. Was he that transparent?

Logan decides to follow all of the rules the next day -- purely as an experiment, of course. Nobody yells at him for anything. So he tries it again the next day, and then the one after that. That night, the drill sergeant leans in close. Logan's body tenses so tightly he's surprised it doesn't snap. He steels himself for the blow and readies a good retort. When the sergeant says, "good job, son," he doesn't know what to say.

Firefighting training starts. Onboard a ship, you are all firefighters. You can't call 911 and wait for help to arrive. You all depend on each other to stay alive.

The cynic inside Logan wants to roll his eyes and make a snide remark about U.S. government propaganda. Unfortunately, the rest of him is too busy fixating on the flames shooting out of the floor of their training ship. He ought to raise his hand and say that he doesn't belong here. He's sorry for the mistake, but he's just a spoiled rikid who's never even cleaned his own room before, and they should probably just let him go before anyone dies of his incompetence.

If only his mouth and brain were still connected, he would do that. Instead, his memory keeps dragging him back to the day he drove away from a burning hotel in Tijuana with Mercer half-laughing and half-crying in the seat beside him. Mostly he remembers the look in Veronica's eyes when he'd finally told her the truth, and he doesn't want to be that guy anymore -- not to please ex-girlfriends past, but because he'd like to be someone he can respect.

While the rest of his class stands frozen around him, he swings into action, picking up the heavy fire hose and blinking the smoke out of his eyes. He doesn't really know what he's yelling, but maybe it's the instructions he'd heard in class, because suddenly a phalanx of wannabe sailors is forming around him, following his orders until the fire's out.

Maybe joining the Navy had been a game. Maybe -- if he's honest with himself -- it had been the world's elaborate suicide plan, but if he dies here, he's probably taking someone else out with him. Actually, now that he thinks about it, he was well on his way to taking out people he loved back in Neptune too. What he'd done in the past three years hadn't exactly been easy on Veronica, or Duncan, or even Dick; he'd just been too caught up in his own pain to notice. Rescuing a training simulator that can't actually burn down probably doesn't make up for any of that, much less the community pool he'd actually burned down, but it's a start, right?

That’s the nice thing about the Navy: there’s always a path to follow. None of those paths are explicitly labeled HOW TO STOP BEING A DRUNKEN FUCK-UP IN FIVE EASY STEPS; in fact, they’re mostly mundane procedures that, in sum total, prevent boats from sinking and people from dying. Fortunately, the Navy -- and the people in it -- seem prepared to overlook a fairly questionable personal history so long as you’re willing to do your part to protect the aforementioned boats and people. And maybe also attend some alcohol responsibility classes and anger management counseling if you have, say, ever assaulted a sheriff’s car with a baseball bat and then attacked a fellow inmate in the county jail.

And that’s how Logan Echolls becomes a walking recruitment brochure: the Navy changed my life, and it can change yours too!. If Dick or Veronica were here, he'd say it was his very own Oscar-winning role. Except it's not. He's become the one thing he's avoided his whole life: completely fucking sincere. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe he'd wasted all his sincerity on people who didn't deserve it, and now he's stumbled onto a whole organization based on doing the right thing.

The night before graduation, a gray-haired man in a white uniform talks to him about leadership opportunities and officer candidate school, and Logan tries not to panic.

***

Logan hadn't told anyone about his graduation from basic training, but when the day comes, Dick is in the front row, drinking from a flask and screaming his name even when other people are walking across the stage.

"How did you even know about this?" Logan asks -- though, to be fair, Dick has a sixth sense for finding places where he can make an inappropriate scene.

Dick offers him a drink from the flask, but Logan waves it away. He has Liberty privileges now that he's done with basic, but that's an awfully funny name considering that he's not allowed to drink, drive a motor vehicle, travel fifty miles from the base, or wear anything other than his uniform.

Dick shrugs and empties the flask himself. "I told you I'd wait for you, man."

Logan surveys the chain link fence surrounding the training ground. "But not, like, at the gate, right?"

"No," Dick says, stowing the flask in his belt buckle. "The internet. Duh. I read the family section of the Navy website."

There's an awkward pause while they both consider what that means. Is Dick Casablancas his family now? Logan isn't sure whether he should feel touched or disturbed -- but then, those feelings aren't really mutually exclusive.

"Well, Young Master Dick, tell me what you've been doing these past few weeks," he says says, clapping Dick on the back. Dick grins and launches into a story about twins who can shoot pingpong balls from improbable orifices, and Logan feels weirdly at home. Somehow he's not surprised when Dick shows up on his next Liberty day, and he doesn't even complain that Logan can't do anything fun.

***

Logan's in A-school, finishing specialized training, when Logan Echolls: The Unauthorized Biography debuts. An advance copy from the publisher shows up in the mail, and Logan feels stupid for actually thinking it was a care package for a minute. He gets in real trouble for the first time since Basic when he burns the book in the bathroom trashcan. Apparently the Navy frowns on setting fires...well, mostly everywhere, it turns out. When he finally gets back to his bunk, the cardboard box the book had arrived in is still sitting on his bed, and he's angry with himself all over again for thinking something nice might be inside. He slams it viciously into the trash can -- which isn't actually very satisfying -- and flings himself backward onto the bed.

Technically, he could be receiving care packages. Dick had offered.

"Should I be, like, sending you stuff in the mail?" Dick had asked.

"You mean care packages, Dick?" Logan had asked, feeling once again touched and disturbed.

"I guess so," Dick had said. "Like a box of porn or something."

Logan pictured the type of care package Dick might mean. There would be porn all right, and probably marijuana leaves and little baggies of white powder stashed between the pages. Maybe even some stale cookies baked by whatever girl he was fucking, accompanied by a note saying sorry dude, there were supposed to be more but I ate them.

"Better not, Dick," Logan had said. "Dishonorable discharge is no longer on my list of life goals."

Dick had nodded sagely and studied the crowd of white-suited sailors amassed around them. "So do you fuck dudes now?" he'd asked. "Or do you just give each other blow jobs?"

And that had been the end of that conversation.

So Logan usually makes himself scarce on mail day, so he doesn't have to watch everyone else open packages while he thinks dark thoughts about his mostly dead family. Lately though, little bags of M&Ms and travel-sized deodorant have been showing up on his bunk at mail day -- almost like his buddies have been pooling leftovers from their care packages to make one for Logan. Once a guy he barely knew had presented him with a Ziploc of chocolate chip cookies and said, "Hey man, my mom made some extra for you." Logan had eaten them in his bunk in the dark and tried to remember if anyone had ever baked him cookies before.

Having a chosen family of sailors has been pretty nice, but all good things must come to an end, right? He pictures twenty guys reading his so-called biography in their bunks, and the awkward questions and awkward silences that will follow. It'll be just like high school, all over again.

He's not really surprised when he comes to class early one morning and finds twenty-four copies of Logan Echolls: The Unauthorized Biography stacked on a chair in the corner. Had he thought this was going to be just like high school? How naive. Sailors were much more clever than that, and way more vicious.

"Let the games begin," he mutters when the first guy walks into the room.

He picks up a copy of the book, contemplates it for a moment, and throws it into the trash. The guy who comes in afterward does the same. The next woman says, "Oh hey, I found a piece of shit. Too bad it's too big to flush." The book hits the metal bin with a resounding thunk. Twenty-three books are in the garbage, and the whole class is standing at attention when their instructor strolls in.

She picks up the last book and says, "You know, I bought a whole crate of these at Costco yesterday. They're at the bottom of the lake now."

For the first time in a long time -- possibly in ever -- it seems safe to believe that life might turn out okay in the end.

***

For the first time in his life, he likes to run. At Basic, he'd thought he might die. Before he'd enlisted, he'd imagined he was in pretty good shape thanks to his newfound interest in weightlifting. But that had been mostly for vanity. The Navy, it turns out, doesn't give a shit what he looks like; they want him battle ready. For weeks, he woke up dreading the morning runs that made him feel just as weak and exhausted and inadequate as his father had always said he was, but without him even noticing it, the dread had leeched away and anticipation had slowly grown in its place. He likes running in formation, surrounded by fifty people with the same purpose, the steady slap of thier feet obliterating everything else from his mind.

Weight training is no longer some meathead hobby to replace loftier academic interests, as Veronica had once implied (even though she'd never complained about the results). Now it's a necessary component of physical fitness, something that guarantees that he can save lives and survive emergencies when the time comes. It doesn't hurt that it's an interest he can share with the other guys, people with whom Logan doesn't honestly have much in common.

People look at him differently when he's in uniform. It takes him awhile to catch on that the look is respect. An man behind the counter at a deli gives him a free cookie and thanks him for his service. A gate agent mysteriously finds him a boarding pass for an oversold flight. Old men tip their hats at him, and women -- well, women give him lots of things. Nobody suspects him of murder, not even once.

At the end of A-school, Logan asks when he can deploy and how far he can go.

***

It transpires that Dick has bought a house. A porn den on the beach, to be exact. There are mirrors on the ceiling and a jacuzzi in the living room, and the bathroom boasts a gold faucet shaped like a swan and a replica of the claw-footed toilet Elvis had died on.

Logan discovers these things after his first deployment. Without even thinking about it, he'd agreed to spend his first leave with Dick. It's harder to fall asleep than he thought it might be. The windows are open, so he can smell the salt in the air and hear the roar of the ocean, but the house is too silent after six months of sharing a berth with one hundred and fifty-eight other guys. He's staring up at the mirror on the ceiling, wondering if he should've gone home with a friend, when Dick pads into the living room.

He curls his toes into the green shag carpet and says, "It's a sweet place, isn't it?"

"Yeah, Dick," Logan says, not managing to sound sincere. "Ron Jeremy would be proud."

Dick smiles, a little sadly, Logan thinks -- although it's hard to tell in the dim light.

"It's a little weird, I know," Dick says. "I just thought it would be cool to have someplace to call home, you know? After you left, I mean. " He looks down at the floor. "Guess I should've looked at the balance in my trust fund before I bought it. Wanna help me trash it before it goes into foreclosure?"

***

Working out a deal with the bank is easy. Logan had a pretty good grasp on how his trust fund worked, but he hadn't really understood the intricate financial details of everything he'd inherited when his father died. He'd been too preoccupied with deciding whether to grieve or dance on his father's grave. It turns out there's rather a lot: property, royalties, investments, cash, the insurance settlement from when the house burned down. Even after paying for two years at the Neptune Grand and all the family legal fees, taking over half of Dick's mortgage isn't a stretch.

After the papers are signed, Logan stands on the back porch, staring out at the waves. A year ago, he'd been acting out some slow suicide plan; now he's in the Navy and owns a house. It ought to scare him, but it feels good, permanent in a way nothing has since the day Lilly died.

Dick joins him on the porch and presses a cold beer into his hand. "I guess you should probably take the master suite now," he says, trying and failing to be nonchalant.

"Keep it," Logan says. "That's not what this is about." Technically, he owns sixty percent of the house, not half, but as far as Logan's concerned, legal technicalities don't have much place in their friendship.

Dick swallows, shifting on his feet. "Yeah, well, thanks. For bailing me out and all."

"Don't mention it," Logan says with enough force to show he really means it. Dick had always been there for him, after all -- a stumbling, unsteady, and frequently drunk presence through Lilly's death, his mother's suicide, his father's trial, Duncan's disappearance, two murder investigations, and countless break-ups with Veronica. A house is probably the least that Logan owes him.

In the morning, they start tearing out the jacuzzi to build an alcove where Logan can sleep.

***

The two years Logan takes shore duty to finish his degree are actually the hardest. Hanging out with the old high school crowd has its uses. If he drinks too much or starts a fight, word will never get back to the Navy, for example. But the truth is, he feels like he's trying to crawl back into a skin he shed long ago, and getting a degree while serving active duty is not exactly easy. Like the good junior serviceman he is, he lives on base in San Diego, but when he has leave, he wants the beach house to study -- which is kind of hard, considering how Dick likes to throw wild parties every night of the week.

"You've changed, man," Dick says, shaking his head at the books and papers spread across the kitchen table.

"Yeah, well, you haven't," Logan snaps.

Dick answers with a belch, and a wire trips somewhere inside Logan. Without really meaning to, he's standing in front the table with his hands clenched into his fists.

"Do you know why I'm doing this, Dick? Do you?" he asks. "Because I have fucking goals in my life, and I don't need some competitive surfer wannabe complaining about what I want to do in my house."

"So what, you're better than me now or something?" Dick asks.

That, in retrospect, was the moment to stand down. Instead, Logan says, "Yes, yes I do, Dick. I think that because I am better than a walking boner who pretends his entire life is a frat party even though he can't fucking bother to go to school."

Logan thinks Dick might hit him -- he certainly would have hit Dick had their positions been reversed -- but instead Dick just shakes his head and says, "You really have changed."

"I have a test tomorrow," Logan says and sits down in front of his physics book with his back to Dick. He can feel Dick looking at him for awhile, and then he hears the door open and close and Dick's Hummer roars out of the driveway.

He doesn't see Dick for at least a week after that, although sometimes he hears him stomp into the house early in the morning to get a few things from his bedroom. Logan tries not to let it bother him. Yeah, Dick was his oldest friend, but he'd been naive to think that friendship went any deeper than wild parties when Logan's home on leave. Maybe he ought to buy his own house after he finishes school and finally let go of his past.

But then Dick appears on the doorstep and pushes a package of yellow number two pencils into Logan's hands.

Logan stares at him blankly. "What are these for?"

Dick shrugs. "Your homework. Duh." He stands awkwardly on the porch, his hands pushed deep into his pockets, until Logan opens the door wide enough to let him in.

Logan knows he ought to apologize, or at least tell Dick about Officer Candidate School and the possibility of flying fighter jets after that. He ought to tell Dick how absolutely terrifying it is to have expectations he might not be able to fulfill, and opportunities that might slip out of his grasp if he can't figure out how to get an A in Calc III.

Instead he says, "You want a beer?"

Just like that, Dick is his best friend again. Or his large, unruly house pet. Logan isn't really clear, but either way, he's glad to have Dick back.

***

Logan calls Dick from Officer Candidate School and tells him he's going home with his girlfriend, Claire, for Christmas.

Dick says, "Cool. Give me a call when she cheats on you and you want to set her house on fire."

Logan frowns and hangs up the phone. Claire is standing next to him, her Navy tank top dark with sweat. She's just come back from PT, where she can outrun most of the men, Logan included. It's one of the many things he admires about her.

"Judging from your expression, he didn't take that very well," she says. "You know, you could invite him to come with us. My parents wouldn't mind."

"Believe me, they would mind." Logan's unsavory past is public record for anyone with a rudimentary grasp of google; he's not adding another strike by showing up with Dick Casablancas in tow.

When they pull up to Claire's family's big brick house on Christmas Eve, Logan thinks he knows what he's in for. Claire hasn't told him a lot about her childhood, but Logan thinks he can fill in the details. The posh zip code, the shiny black cars in the driveway, and the conspicuously homey candlelit windows all speak of classic Neptune-style dysfunction overlaid by a veneer of wealth. This, he thinks, is the kind of family where he can fit right in.

But he feels off balance as soon as he sees the front door. The wreath on the outside is a child's craft project, exactly the kind of thing his mother would have pretended to be pleased with and then thrown away. When Claire's mom opens the door, she's not wearing any makeup and there's no drink in her hand. Her father, the retired rear admiral with a multi-million dollar aviation company, doesn't flash money around and doesn't try to intimidate Logan.

At Christmas dinner, the conversation flows freely and nobody drinks too much (except for Logan). The turkey is dry with a burnt spot on the skin, and the cranberry sauce is the weird kind that slides out of the can in a gelatinous cylinder. Clearly, it was not made by the help. This is a real Christmas, not a carefully arranged facsimile of a magazine photograph.

"Jesus fucking Christ," he says. "You guys are actually happy," It's the first awkward silence of the meal.

When Claire leads him upstairs to her childhood bedroom, he expects a Talk about Ruining Christmas Dinner and Making Everyone Uncomfortable with Your Mouth, Young Man.

Instead she looks at him with concern in her eyes and says, "Logan, was your childhood not happy?"

He leans his head against the wall. A dull headache is forming behind his eyes, and he could really use another drink, but apparently there is no more alcohol in the house. Happy families don't need it, he assumes.

"I take it you haven't been on the internet in ever," he says, his voice a little sharper than he intends -- but only a little. If there's no dysfunction in the house, he's happy to supply some himself.

He tries to get comfortable lying in bed next to Claire, but he can't. The weight of her hand on his chest makes him feel trapped, and he throws off the covers and puts his feet on the floor. He means to go downstairs, drink a glass of water, and figure out how to explain his impossible past. Instead, he throws a basket of gold-wrapped Harry and David pears into the pool one by one. Then he swipes the keys to their rental car and drives three hours to Neptune, where everyone is fucked up and nobody talks about it.

Logan finds Dick passed on the living room floor wearing Rudolph boxers, bathed in the dull blue light of the flat screen TV. It's bukaku porn, naturally.

"Thanks, Dick," Logan says, grabbing the half-empty bottle of vodka from the coffee table. He mutes the TV and flops down on the couch.

"Man, she cheated on you fast," Dick says from the floor.

Logan snorts. "If she'd cheated on me, I'd still be there." He'll stick by a cheating girlfriend for a good six months, but a nice girl with a happy family is a deal breaker.

He really has no idea what he's going to say to Claire, but he never has to figure that out: after he ignores a few of her calls, she won't take any of his.

After the holidays, he pours all of his energy into Officer Training School because the Navy is clearly the only place he knows how to be a functional human being. The downside is that he manages to alienate all of his friends by never talking them. The upside -- which he thinks is pretty significant -- is that he makes perfect grades and gets the kind of abs someone could actually do laundry on. Oh, and they pick him for flight training.

***

You might think that flight training consists of flying airplanes, but you'd be wrong. At least at first, it consists of doing PT until you vomit and then being yelled at by a drill sergeant because you didn't fold your handkerchief into a perfect 3 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch rectangle. Sometimes you get dumped into the ocean in full flight gear and have to stay afloat till the rescue copter can get you (and yes, you can definitely drown if you try to untie your steel toed boots while treading water, and yes, Logan did learn that lesson the hard way). If you survive all that, you get the pleasure of SERE training, which is really a lot like the Hunger Games if you think about it -- lots of fit young people dumped into the woods to survive by their wits, until they get captured by deranged instructors impersonating enemy troops. Logan learns several useful lessons:

Water boarding sucks.
If someone puts you in a small box for a really long time, your legs will go numb, and then they'll start to burn with the fire of a thousand suns. They'll collapse right under you when you finally get out of the box, which makes water boarding you even easier.
The reason you recite your name, rank, and serial number while being tortured is so that your captors can tell the Navy exactly who they tortured to death. That makes it much easier to send a nicely folded triangular flag to the right family (or to Dick Casablancas, if he happens to be listed as your next of kin).
You should ignore the "Escape" part of survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training because you'll only get captured and tortured again as a lesson to the other prisoners. (Logan escapes twice anyway, because he's never been one to learn a lesson the first time).

A lot of people wash out before they ever touch an airplane, but they don't have the finely honed mixture of fortitude and masochism that only an Aaron Echolls upbringing can provide. He'd like to tell someone that flight training feels like coming home, but the only people who know what his family was like are in hiding (Duncan), dead (Lilly) or not speaking to him (Veronica). Instead, he contents himself with changing his voicemail greeting on graduation night: just think, everything that happened in your life might be preparing you for this very moment.

***

They say landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier is like jumping out of a ten story window and trying to hit a postage stamp with your tongue. They’re right. Mostly. The metaphor doesn't capture certain essential features of carrier landings, like how the flight deck actually moves. Logan had known this, of course. It was flight training 101: no matter how big an aircraft carrier is, the ocean is bigger, and therefore people who expect the flight deck to remain in one steady position will invariably die. He only heard it about a thousand times, so he's prepared. Sort of.

The first day of his first tour on the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, the flight deck is moving. A lot. He's practiced for this, of course; the Navy is big on practicing for every sort of extreme. It's the best way to avoid losing very expensive aircraft, and the very expensively trained pilots who fly them. But practice isn't really adequate for fifteen foot swells and veteran pilots muttering "I haven't seen waves like this since the Gulf War" and "why the fuck are we out in this?" into their headsets.

Most of the time, when confronted with a bad situation, Logan can summon a fucked-up memory from his childhood and remind himself that he's already survived worse. He's doing that now -- thanks, Aaron -- but he's also unintentionally counting the number of cut passes (when the landing approach is so jacked up they won't let you even try to land) and bolters (when you do land, but you have to take off again immediately because there's no way you're actually going to stop in time to avoid sailing off the end of the runway). There have been six in a row by the time it's his turn to land.

But it's no big deal, right? Just because four experienced Naval aviators couldn't successfully land on their first try doesn't mean some rookie pilot who's technically still supposed to be on shore duty can't land. It just means the odds are really, really bad.

At first, it seems like it's going to be okay. He sees the ball of amber light that means he's on the right path, and Paddles -- the Flight Signal Officer -- is crooning, "little power, little power" softly into his ear. Logan slides the throttle forward, and suddenly the voice in his ear grows remarkably urgent: "power, power, POWER!" And now the deck -- which used to be fifteen feet below him -- is somehow soaring above him, and he is going to crash into the fantail and break in half and die. Here lies Logan Echolls, smashed to pieces on his first day at sea, and Dick will get a neatly folded triangular flag and he will fuck girls on it at an epic beach party hosted in his memory. And it's better than getting drunk and jumping off a bridge, but it's still not how Logan wanted his life to end --

-- and it's okay, because somehow he's coasting down the tarmac. His tail hook catches the arresting wire, just like it was supposed to, and the plane stops in sixty seconds flat. He's alive. Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Well, except for where his harness had slammed him backward into the seat. Also, he can't get out of the plane because his legs are shaking too badly to stand up, and he might have peed himself. Just a little. Nobody ever has to know, right?.

***

Logan comes home with shiny gold wings, and Dick -- as is his custom -- greets him on the dock with confetti and a noisemaker. There are no strippers this time, which is progress. The guys tease him about his hetero life mate, and for once, Logan wishes he could come home to someone to who understands exactly what the journey from poor little rich kid to fighter pilot entails. Really, anyone capable of articulating a full range of human emotion would do, but when his thoughts wander to Veronica, he reels them in fast. He'll settle for being grateful to get home in time for March Madness.

The six pack in the fridge lasts for three days.

Dick cocks his head at Logan's almost-full beer bottle and asks, "Are you okay?"

Logan contemplates the bottle too. Not only has he failed to get wasted, he has failed to fuck anyone, fight anyone, or drive fast enough to get a reckless driving ticket.

"You know the funny thing about flying?" he asks.

"Girls wanna fuck you but your mistress is the sea?" Dick responds.

"Close. Actually -- and bear with me here, because this is new territory -- I think doing something extremely dangerous every day has quenched my inner drive for self-destruction."

Dick narrows his eyes. "So are you okay or not okay?"

"I think I'm actually okay."

They stare at each other over the white-tiled kitchen counter, digesting what being okay might mean for their relationship. To be fair, they've already weathered a number of interesting changes. Dick had to learn, for example, that no part of Logan's uniform is a toy, not even the hat. With a great deal of training, he came to understand that "conduct unbecoming of an officer" is an actual thing, and because of that, certain of their exploits cannot be posted on YouTube. Still, if Logan's no longer overwhelmed by self-destructive impulses that border on suicidal ideation, it's difficult to see what they might have in common.

And then Dick flops down on the couch and turns the television on to something that isn't even porn.

"It's cool. We'll order Chinese," he says.

***

He gets a medal, and then the Navy really does put him on a recruiting brochure. Logan frames it and hangs it above his bunk.

His buddies say, "Echolls jacks off to the sight of his own face."

Logan says, "It's better than jacking off to the sight of yours."

The truth is, the brochure reminds him that his life is real.

He is not the doomed son of a murderous movie star.

He is not an over privileged, under loved kid with anger management issues and a drinking problem.

He is not the nine-year-old who choked on pears, nor the nineteen-year-old who accidentally sold that story to a Vanity Fair reporter.

It's hard to believe that he is Logan Echolls, fighter pilot, but it's even harder to doubt it when the evidence stares him in the face every time he wakes up in the morning.

***

Every time Logan goes home, he vows that he's done with Neptune for good. A guy who's really okay would be able to give up the ghosts of his past, right?

He'll request a transfer to Okinawa.

He'll sell his share in the beach house and buy Dick an occasional ticket to Japan.

He'll stop talking to people he doesn't like because nothing good can come from maintaining a connection to his past.

He's actually filled out transfer paperwork the day he meets Carrie. Well, meets isn't technically the right word -- she's been around since high school, a sharp-eyed gossipmonger on the periphery of the cool crowd, exactly the kind of person children of celebrities learn to avoid. And he'd like to keep avoiding her, because pop stars with overly fashionable haircuts and weird Egyptian-style eyeliner are decidedly not his type. But given the choice between Carrie Bishop, Gia Goodman, and the tanorexic waifs lingering at the bar, Logan picks the lesser of three evils.

He slides into the seat across from Carrie, and she regards him steadily, letting a few ashes fall from the tip of her cigarette.

"Logan Echolls," she says, her voice surprisingly husky. "Why the Navy?"

"That's direct," he says. Nobody in Neptune had ever asked him that question. Rumor has it he'd shown up drunk and accidentally enlisted for ten years.

Carrie blinks slowly. "You didn't answer the question."

"All right," Logan says. "When one ex is dead, your mom kills herself, and your dad's a murderer with a get out of jail free card, you kind of want to set fire to your life. And that's before you count all the murder investigations and the ex who wants to stomp on your heart."

"That's direct," Carrie says, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "You trying to scare me off?"

"Did I succeed?" Logan asks, his grin sharp. Is he flirting over the tale of his tragic past?

"Nope," Carrie says, leaning closer. She takes a sip of her drink: whiskey on the rocks. Logan approves. "Of course," she says, "there's lot of ways to set fire to your life without joining the Navy."

Logan snorts. "Like what? Jumping off a bridge?"

Carrie raises her eyebrows. "That's one of 'em."

"Yeah well, maybe I wanted to live after all." Logan leans back in his chair and studies her. Unlike most people, she doesn't look fazed by the ghosts of his past. In fact, she looks like she might have a few of her own. "Buy you another drink?" he asks.

***

He gets one of Carrie's Christmas cards in the mail two weeks later. MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOUR PERFECT FUCKING FAMILY, it says. There's a picture of Carrie drinking tequila straight from the bottle in front of a garishly lit Christmas tree. He calls her immediately.

"You have to explain this," he says. The card is already stuck to the fridge with a magnet. It's the best thing he's ever seen.

Carrie's voice is husky over the phone. "Mom kicked me off the family Christmas card. She said it was awkward to only have the one single daughter, and Grandma's pissed about the purple hair."

There's a pause, and Logan pictures her lighting a cigarette. He doesn't even know if she smokes, but suddenly he wants to know very badly.

"I made a whole series," she says. "I think they're going viral now. My manager's pissed, but I don't care."

"A whole series? And you only sent me one?" he asks. Clearly, Carrie is immune to the charms of a man in uniform, and he's going to have to do something about that.

Carrie makes a noncommittal noise on the other end of the line. "You want 'em, go find 'em. But google's cheating."

Tracking down the other four cards takes until Christmas Eve and requires him to associate with a lot of people from his past whom he doesn't particularly like. Still, it's worth it, especially for the one with the Elf on the Shelf setting fire to a nativity scene while Carrie smiles ghoulishly in the background. The best one, though, is one where she's inexplicably dressed as a purple haired Princess Leia. That's the one he steals from Sean Freiderich's refrigerator.

Three years after he'd driven away from Claire's house, he rings the Bishops' doorbell at eleven on Christmas morning. In uniform, because that couldn't hurt, and cradling a box of Franzia under his arm. He dimly recalls that Mr. Bishop had the best wine cellar in Neptune, and Carrie seems like the type to appreciate a man willing to troll her father.

Carrie answers the door with a cocked eyebrow and a drink in her hand. "Logan Echolls," she says. "You're a punk ass bitch."

He smiles, easy and carefree. "Yeah well, no one who demands their daughter be married by twenty-six would kick a serviceman out of their house on Christmas."

Carrie reaches for the box of Franzia. Her sweater is slipping off her shoulder, revealing the edge of an intricate geometric tattoo.

"My father is going to love this," she says, cradling the box of wine against her hip. "Mom's vacuuming the driveway. A leaf got on it this morning."

Logan follows Carrie's gaze to the spot where the driveway curves behind the house. Sure enough, Mrs. Bishop is standing there in high heels and a Burberry scarf, moving a contraption that looks kind of like a leaf blower over the cement. Even from a distance, Logan can see the light glinting off her diamond earrings.

"Your family is spectacular," Logan says.

Carrie smiles and opens the door wide. "Wait till you meet Aunt Muffy."

They tell her grandmother that she's two months pregnant with Logan's twins, and they've invited TMZ to provide live coverage the birth.

They tell her oldest sister that she doesn't know who the baby daddy is, but Logan's agreed to act as the father anyway.

They tell her brother that Logan is about to get kicked out of the Navy for being gay, so Carrie's agreed to marry him and be his beard.

They tell her mom they're getting married just so Carrie can be on the next family Christmas card.

They tell her dad that Logan actually isn't in the Navy, that the uniform is just a costume to get him into pop stars' pants.

"We met when he threw his underwear on the stage," Carrie says fondly, and Mr. Bishop chokes on his Chauteauneuf-de-Pape.

The whole glorious web of lies collapses spectacularly at Christmas dinner, except the boring one they'd told her aunt about spending New Year's in Tahiti together. They book the tickets together from Logan's iPhone in Carrie's childhood bed. Logan has leave and they both have money to burn -- and after ruining Christmas, it seems like making good on one of their stories is the least they can do.

***

Carrie has Lilly's wildness and Veronica's sharpness, and a little bit of his mom's fatalism, and there's really never a point when their relationship isn't serious. In between whirlwind trips, sunset cruises, and picnics on the beach, cracks appear. Not that Logan thinks of them that way, at least not at first. They're problems, obstacles, the kind of thing any functioning adult in a committed relationship has to deal with -- and Logan is a functioning adult now, right?

You'd think that the child of an alcoholic mother would be good at spotting the signs of substance abuse, but you'd be wrong: being the child of an alcoholic makes you very good at ignoring addiction until it’s screaming in your face.

Carrie always pours herself a drink as soon as she walks in the door, before she even takes off her jacket or puts down her purse.

Logan only challenges her once. He tugs the corkscrew out of her hand and says, "Hey, let's wait for dinner."

She gives him a hard look. "Please," she says, "Not you too."

He ought to say Other people have noticed? Instead, he gets a second glass so they can drink together.

And Carrie cries a lot. It amps up before the anniversary of Susan's death, but it never really stops. Sometimes she wakes up screaming in the night.

Logan's lost a lot of people too. He knows grief. But this is something more.

"Tell me," he pleads. "I can help."

Carrie only ever shakes her head and sobs into his chest. He tilts her chin up so he can look her in the eye and says, "I get it. I promise. Just tell me."

But she never does, and there's only so much crying he can take before he ends up in front of the punching bag in the garage. Hadn't he told her all his ghosts on their very first night together? It doesn’t seem fair that she wants to hide hers.

When he comes home from deployment, he finds beer cans behind the curtains and a bottle of vodka under the sink. The track marks on her arms make him want to run for cover, but he challenges himself to be a better man than he was at seventeen, when his mother's problems were too large for him to bear. There must be rules for this, right? A procedure he can follow? He reads about interventions, follows the instructions to the T.

Rehab is supposed to last for thirty days, but she comes home in twenty-one. Logan refuses to pick her up, so Gia Goodman gets her instead. Logan swears he'll be strong: go back to rehab or I'm done. But when he sees her, he gives her a crooked grin and says, "Close enough, right?"

He takes her to meetings -- or he offers, anyway. She doesn't often want to go.

One night he smashes a vase on the floor. "Can't things just be about me for once? Is that too much to ask?" His face is red; his temples are pounding.

They both stare at the shards of glass on the polished hardwood, and he doesn't tell her about the eleventh anniversary of his mother's death, or the friend who died in a training exercise in Okinawa.

He pulls her aside at parties and says, "These people aren't your friends."

In the Navy, people listen when he talks. She just shakes her head and says, "You have a problem with them now, after all these years?"

He's one man against the army of their childhood friends, not to mention all the fans and producers who don't care what she does as long as she can sing. They whisper when his back isn't quite turned: Logan's jealous. Logan doesn't want you to have a good time. You're not the one with the problem, he is.

He pleads quietly, "Carrie, I'm not my father's son."

***

A video surfaces of him shoving one of Carrie’s so-called friends, and Logan couldn't care less -- until the Navy brass warns him about conduct unbecoming of an officer.

“You are in trouble, son,” the Commander says, his pale gray eyes more disappointed than angry. Logan doesn’t need a reminder to know what’s at stake: being a pilot doesn’t come with the luxury of separate personal and professional lives. Erratic behavior in one will get him grounded in the other.

Even when he tells Carrie it’s the end, he knows he doesn’t mean it. Carrie's the one with the problem, but it's Logan who behaves like an addict, refusing to quit until they reach rock bottom together.

"That chick's fucked up," Dick says, which is as close as he'll ever come to you can do better.

"Thank you for the pithy advice," Logan answers, leaning back on the couch and taking a long pull of his beer.

"She must give good head," Dick says, and Logan buries his face in the couch cushions, but it's not enough to muffle his hysterical laughter.

Rock bottom comes when he catches Carrie cheating. It's another scene in the movie of his life: clueless boyfriend comes home early with a surprise and catches his girl in bed with another man. Carrie chases him into the hallway, wearing nothing but her underwear and the other guy's goddamned t-shirt, crying that she had to, that he didn't understand.

"All I've tried to do is understand," he yells, grabbing her shoulders with enough force to startle them both. "Now it's your turn to understand. I don't care what happens to you anymore. I'm done."

He throws his hands up in the air so he won't slam her into the wall. Even after all that, he can't let I don't care what happens to you be the last words he speaks to the woman he'd thought would be the love of his life. That's why he answers the phone every time she calls, and that's why he goes back that one last night when she says she needs him.

He finds her in the bathtub and wakes up in the county jail.

***

The right thing to do is call the family lawyer and arrange bail. The second best thing is to call Dick, who's gotten picked up on drunk and disorderly often enough to understand the process. The worst thing he could possibly do is call Veronica.

She'll hang up the phone. Hell, she probably doesn't even have the same number. She'd been smart enough to burn Neptune out of her life nine years ago; she would've gotten a New York area code by now.

Well. No one's ever accused Logan of having a self-preservation instinct. He taps out the number he's known since high school.

Veronica answers the phone.

"I need your help, Veronica," he says, and closes his eyes. He pictures her at her desk in her father's office, ripping up the check he'd given her for proving his mother really was dead. They'd both known how much she needed the money, and absolutely nothing he'd seen in his life had suggested he should expect altruism from anyone -- but she still cared more about being his friend than making money, even though he didn't deserve it. He's not surprised at all when she says she'll come home to help him.

Logan leans back in the metal folding chair. He gets exactly one second to wallow in relief before Sheriff Lamb pokes him in the chest with a spray tanned finger.

"Did I hear that right? Did you just call Veronica Mars? Boys! Veronica Mars is coming to visit!" Sheriff Lamb cackles, and the rest of the office joins in, except for one guy in the back with a mustache, who frowns like a visit from Veronica might not actually be a good thing. The Sheriff turns back to Logan, frowning in mock sympathy. "Wait a second. Did you just use your one phone call on someone in New York? And isn't she still in law school, up to her eyeballs in student loans? Guess you're not going to make bail anytime soon."

Logan stands in one smooth motion and swipes an apple off the Sheriff's desk. "Funny how you've been keeping track of Veronica," he says. "Counting down the days till she comes back from New York with a law degree and destroys you?"

In the corner, the deputy with the mustache winks. Logan sets about making a nuisance of himself so they'll let him call someone who can actually post bail.

***

"Your life sucks," Dick says in the car.

"A most astute observation." Logan stares out the window at the sunset. The pretty part is over; now there's just a wedge of orange light framed by clouds that are more gray than violet.

"Do you need to ask if I did it?" Logan asks. He has nineteen text messages and twenty-four voicemails asking just that. Maybe later tonight he can make a game of classifying them according to tone from blunt ("did u kill ur girlfriend?") to apologetic ("I am so sorry! I mean, there's no way you did it...right?")

Dick shoots him a quick glance. "No," he says with barely even a pause.

Logan slumps against the window, feeling some of the tension slide out of his body. "Hey, Dick, you remember that time I called you some...things? It was a few years ago. Anyway, I'm sorry."

They're stopped at a red light, and Dick stares at him. "Did you get raped in there?" he asks. "It's okay, man. You can tell me."

Logan manages a smirk. It feels good. "Thanks for you concern," he says. "Luckily, I was able to defend my virtue from the public intox cases and the johns."

Dick nods. "A stripper's bringing pizza in an hour."

"What?" Logan says, and Dick prepares to repeat himself, but Logan shakes his head. "No, I heard you. I just didn't know the stripper pizza delivery service was a thing."

"It is if you put a C-note in their g-string at the club," Dick says.

"A c-note? Have you been watching Orange Is the New Black again?"

"It's a good show," Dick says. "Chicks are banging and stabbing each other and stuff."

Logan's laugh is too high-pitched, and he stifles it fast; if he lets himself go, he'll fall over the edge. He clenches his fingers around the armrest and takes stock of his life: dead ex, murder rap, career in jeopardy, oldest and truest friend incapable of saying anything sincere. One thought keeps him together: help is on the way.

***

Logan watches Veronica watch him, and tries not to feel like long-missing pieces of his life are sliding into place. He doesn't say I missed you and neither does she, but it hangs in the air anyway.

"You aren't planning to carry me through the airport, are you?" she asks, eyes locked on his white uniform.

Logan shakes his head. "Some guys from the JAG corps wanted to talk to me," he says. They were actually not pleased about the murder charges, or his most recent escapade with the paparazzi. But hey, at least he gets the fringe benefit of looking good for the ex.

"You should only ever wear that," she says, and Logan feels the tension in his spine release. Apparently, they can deal with mild awkwardness and unresolved sexual tension with sarcasm and smirks, which is pretty much the only way he and Veronica have ever dealt with anything. The familiarity is comforting.

Watching Veronica interview defense attorneys makes Logan feel like he's fallen backward in time. Veronica is softer now, both her body and her eyes, but everything else is the same: the relentless competence, the dogged pursuit of a goal. That, and she can see exactly how much trouble he's in, even if nobody else can.

When she says, "part of clearing you will be finding a compelling alternative theory," he can practically see the wheels turning in her head. Maybe he shouldn't take her to the karaoke bar on the pretense of a casual drink -- but he wants her to know he's innocent, and if she somehow ends up helping him prove it? Well, she probably still owes him for that one time she had him arrested for Lilly Kane's murder. Anyway, she's not Carrie; she can taste her favorite drug without being consumed by her addictions.

***

In the morning, he's standing in front of his closet fingering a black suit when Veronica calls.

"Wanna come stalk bonniefan23?" she asks.

"Sounds better than crashing my dead ex's funeral," he says. "I'll pick you up in ten."

And he could have had such an excellent altercation with the paparazzi. Or with Carrie's dad. Or both, actually. Maybe he could have even gotten into a fight with Carrie's father in front of the paps, and then he could have smashed their cameras.

"Thank you," he says when Veronica climbs into the car. He leaves out the part about how he was about to brilliantly and publicly self-destruct.

Veronica shakes her head. There's a light in her eyes that he hadn't seen when she talked about law school and New York City. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun."

Somehow, when he recounts what happened the night that Carrie died, he leads off by telling Veronica that it wasn't a happy relationship, and he wonders why he feels the need to make that so clear. Maybe he’s supposed to feel guilty, but he can’t summon the feeling. He’d done everything he could for Carrie -- far more than any of her so-called friends or her overly proper family had. It’s not like she’d ever held herself back from having fun, even when they were together. Maybe now it’s finally his turn.

Though, of course, his version of having fun is quite a bit more mild than Carrie’s sexcapades with various of their high school classmates. Flirting is a thing he does without even thinking about it, and flirting with Veronica is more fun than flirting with most other people. Might as well take the chance while he has it. It’s not like anything is going to happen.

Then she says, "take the long way home," and Logan surrenders to a sliver of hope. Except it's not really hope. It's knowledge. They are bigger than nine years, dead exes, and Navy deployments. They're epic, and always will be.

Well, except for the part where she has a boyfriend, one serious enough to come to the reunion. That would have been a good thing to mention...oh, maybe before take the long way home. A part of him wants to ask what she was playing at when she covered that up, but he forces himself to shake his head and walk away. It's been nine years. He's got no claim to her anymore; she's already giving him far more than anyone else has since he started seeing Carrie.

***

Two nights later, Logan stands next to Veronica, watching her father’s gurney disappear into the OR. Veronica walks toward the doors as if she plans to follow him inside. Then she stops, shakes her head, and walks toward the row of plastic chairs at the edge of the hallway. She sits down, but springs up again almost immediately and begins to pace the hall. Finally she turns to face him, her mouth opening and closing, her eyes blank and wide. It’s as naked as he’s ever seen her.

“Logan, I don’t -- I don’t know what to do,” she says finally.

“He’s going to be okay,” Logan says quietly. “I’ve seen a lot of guys come through worse.”

“Worse than getting hit by a truck?” Veronica snaps.

Her father wasn’t hit by a truck, at least not directly; that was sort of the point of his whole daring rescue.

“Yeah,” Logan says quietly, letting her anger glance off him. “There was a war. I went there.”

Technically, he was supposed to fly over the war, but a broken fan blade in his engine had other plans.

“Oh,” Veronica says, looking a little stunned. “I keep forgetting.”

“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage,” he says with a crooked grin.

He lays a hand on Veronica’s shoulder, intending to guide her back to the chairs and maybe bring her a cup of coffee. Somehow he ends up hugging her instead. He’s about ninety percent sure that she’s going to push him away, probably with a stinging one liner, but instead she folds her body into his. He stands in shock for a moment before he pulls her more tightly against his chest. If she’s crying, he can’t hear it, but her breaths are long and ragged, just this side of a sob, and he takes a long breath of his own. When she pulls away, his shirt is wet.

He wonders if she would have let Piz comfort her longer. Then he realizes she hasn’t even called Piz. He pushes aside the feeling of triumph and tells himself that he will do the right thing by Veronica.

“Do you want me to call anyone?” he asks. “Wallace? Mac?” He forces himself to say the name. “Piz?”

“No,” Veronica says quietly. She looks up at him, and he gets the message: you’re enough. At least, he thinks that’s the message. A guy can hope.

This time, he manages to lead her back to the chairs without any sudden losses of emotional control. She sits, but her whole body is angled toward the OR, and she stiffens every time one of the doctors or nurses moves even slightly in the direction of the door.

Logan nudges her gently. “You’re going to make yourself crazy.”

"You got something else for me to pay attention to?" Veronica asks.

"Sure," he says. "We can talk about anything you want." It's a dangerous promise, given his recent past and his history with Veronica, but at least he ought to be a good distraction.

"All right,” she says slowly. Her eyes wander up and down the blank hallway, and then, in a surprisingly small voice, she says, “Tell me something you're afraid of."

Logan snorts. "Well, I can see we've moved past talking about the weather.” Had he really expected Veronica to start with a softball? He knows why she's asking though: wanting to know what he’s afraid of is as close as she’ll ever come to admitting she feels afraid.

"Turkey buzzards," Logan says finally. Veronica stiffens next to him, and he squeezes her arm so she won't pull away. "Hear me out, V. I never worry about getting shot down. Most terrorists don’t have the kind of RPGs that can take out a jet, and most countries that would want to take down an American fighter got their last military tech from Nikita Khrushchev. The stuff that's really dangerous is the stuff you can't watch out for."

Veronica looks up at him, smiling crookedly. "Like people who try to frame you for murder?"

"Yes," Logan says. "And also turkey buzzards."

"You sure know how to impress a girl, Lieutenant Echolls," Veronica says. He can practically see the willpower she’s exerting not to look back at the OR.

"Yeah, well, the sad truth is a turkey buzzard gave me this scar," Logan says, tracing a finger along the edge of his chin. "I was in flight training, and it flew straight through the windscreen and into my head. It pretty much exploded, and I was too busy passing out and bleeding profusely all over the cockpit to fly the plane. If I hadn't had an instructor in there with me, I would've died."

"Be still my beating heart," Veronica says.

"I hate to tell you, but Top Gun is pretty much a lie," he says.

Veronica's jaw drops in mock surprise. "You mean none of the ribbons on your chest are for shooting down enemy fighters? I'm going to have to rethink our association."

"I was disappointed too, but dog fights are pretty much not a thing," Logan says. The sad truth is, he actually had been disappointed, but those hopes had pretty much been dashed on the first day of training. "G-LOC -- gravity-induced loss of consciousness -- is kind of a tactical disadvantage."

Veronica narrows her eyes. "You know how much I hate to admit I don't understand something."

Logan shifts a little lower in his seat. Their knees brush against each other, but Logan doesn't move. Neither does Veronica.

"When you turn at high speeds, the force of gravity increases about seven times. Your heart isn't strong enough to pump blood into your brain, so you pass out. And then you might die, because if you exhale all the way -- which tends to happen when you're unconscious -- your lungs can't expand enough to take a real breath." Logan isn't honestly sure whether he sounds like a pompous ass right now or not, but he can't help himself. This stuff is just cool.

"You should only ever tell stories like this," Veronica says.

Logan grins. "But wait, there's more. The best way to stay conscious is to clench your ass cheeks as tight as you can to force more blood into your brain. And there's this nifty mouth-breathing thing you do so you don't exhale too much and die."

Veronica's smile is wicked and sharp. "Let me get this straight. Basically, you're a mouth breather flying through the air with clenched butt cheeks?

"Well, I also clench my manly and rock hard abs," he says, and then the doors to the OR finally swing open.

They stand to face the doctor together.

***

He ought to wake Veronica up and walk her to the door. He could offer to stay the night, or they could say goodbye awkwardly on the porch (again), letting unspoken feelings hang in the air between them. But if he does that, she'll probably never go back to sleep and --

No. He's not going to rationalize this. He's going to carry her into the house, but it's because he wants to, not because she needs him to do it. When he picks her up, her breath hitches, and he wonders if she's awake, but her body is heavy in his arms and her head lolls listlessly against his chest. He could leave her in bed, but he's never been a man to leave a job half done, so he slides off her boots -- more slowly than he strictly needs to -- and pulls the covers up to her chin. He hopes that when she wakes up, she understands she's not alone.

Careful not to make any noise, he cleans the remnants of dinner from the kitchen island, closes the blinds, and checks the doors. No matter what anyone might say, he is at his best when he's taking care of someone else. The trick is to find somebody who won't pull him under.

Call me when you wake up, he writes, and folds the notepaper in a perfectly straight line, creasing it an extra time with his finger just to make sure it's sharp. It would be the easiest thing in the world to unfold the note and write three little words at the bottom, or better yet, wake her up and say them. Ten years ago, he would have; today he's a good enough man to walk out the door. Someday, when this is all over, he'll find a way to tell her that he's here for her. Always.

Of course, in his life, someday often shows up sooner than he expects. His hand is literally on the doorknob when Veronica asks him to stay.

"Okay," he says automatically. All he's thinking is that he wants to be there for her, even if he's too much of a redblooded human male not to notice that she's not wearing any pants, and the way her eyes lock on his fill his head with a strange buzzing. He's about to ask what she wants, if he can give her a hug or make her something to eat or maybe just sit by her when she falls asleep, when she hurls herself across the room and kisses him.

At frst, he doesn't kiss her back. It's more like he stands there and lets it happen, and when she doesn't stop, something in his brain switches on and realizes this is Veronica, and she wants him. He doesn't really remember deciding to pick her up, just that he wants to put all nine years of wondering and wanting into a single kiss. When he opens his eyes, they're leaning against a pillar, and Veronica's eyes are wet. They kiss and lean their foreheads against each other and just breathe, and then Veronica actually tears his shirt off. The rest is a blur: fumbling to undo his fly, pushing Veronica's panties aside, the way her eyes lock on his when he pushes inside her. She nips his neck and bites his earlobe and whispers his name over and over again into his ear, and then they're both shaking and coming at the same time -- faster than he meant for them to, but it's as long as either of them can manage after nine years apart.

Afterward he lets her down gently and stands uncertainly in front of her, wondering if what felt like a rekindling had been nothing but the last of her adrenaline, but then she twines her fingers through his and leads him back to her room.

He pulls her shirt over her head, and she helps him slide boxers off, and they fall onto the bed together, her head resting against his shoulder, his hands running down her back.

"I missed you," she says. Her hand is warm on his chest. "I didn't always know it, but I think I always did."

He tightens his arm around her waist. "I missed you too." No matter how hard he'd tried to pretend otherwise, he'd always wanted to pick up the phone and call her. There was nobody else he didn't have to explain his life to, and no one who understood exactly how far he'd come.

Veronica shifts against him, raising herself up on one elbow, her face going serious. "Logan, I want you to know --"

He cuts her off with a kiss. Maybe it's selfish, but he doesn't want to have to think about whatever serious and important thing she has to say. He just wants to feel, even if it's only for a night.

Veronica tilts her head back, leaning into the kiss, and he cups his hand around the back of her head. She lets him roll her over onto her back, and he looks for the first time at her naked body, running his hand over the unfamiliar curves. He imagines kissing her breasts and down her stomach, his fingers parting her folds, but her legs are already falling open underneath him.

She tilts his chin up, and her eyes are as open and vulnerable as he can remember seeing them.

"Logan, please," she breathes, wrapping her arms around his back.

He traces his cock down her clit and slides inside her. They take it slow this time, their eyes locked on each other until Veronica buries her face against his neck. His hand is still cupping the back of her head, and he rakes his fingers through her hair, pulling her closer against him. He'd meant to hold on, to make her come over and over again, but he can feel her breath getting faster against his skin and her sharp, tiny moans growing louder in his ears. Then suddenly she's scraping her teeth down his neck and over his collar bone, clenching herself tight around his dick. Her fingernails are digging into his back, and it's the pain that sends him over the edge, his hips shuddering against her while she comes.

In the morning, it's like nothing happened, except for the awkward moment he asks for a sewing kit to put the buttons back on his shirt. Veronica watches him as he sits on the couch in the sunlight, sliding the thread through the eye of the needle.

He looks up at her questioningly, and she says, "Competence looks good on you."

After that, it's all business, which is pretty much what he'd expected. Once upon a time, that would have hurt. Now it's oddly reassuring that he still knows Veronica so well.

***

There's a sick feeling in his stomach as he drives away from the bath house where Gia's gay fiance is holed up for what would appear to be an extra-long orgy. Nothing had felt right since Veronica had said she was going to knock on Gia's door, and ignoring instincts is one thing a pilot is never supposed to do. But he'd done it anyway, just so he could avoid an argument with Veronica. You were supposed to look out for the man beside you, no matter what the consequences, but he hadn't done that. Whatever happens to Veronica, it's on him too.

By the time he arrives, Gia's place is already surrounded by police cars and ambulances with flashing sirens. The first thing he sees is a gurney covered with a white sheet. He's trying to get out of the car, but everything's gone into slow motion and he can't feel his feet -- and then he hears a very familiar, very annoyed voice saying, "I told you. I. don't. need. a. blanket. See? I have a jacket, nice and warm."

He looks up and Veronica is standing next to the ambulance. Her face is pale and there's mascara streaked down one side of her cheek, but she's okay enough to glare at the paramedic who's trying to drape a shock blanket over her shoulders.

They drive back to the beach house with their fingers twined together over the gear shift. If they say anything, Logan doesn't remember it. In any case, thank you would be a stupid thing for either of them to say; she saved his life, he saved her father. It's the kind of thing they do for each other, because apparently their lives are still fucked up enough to need that kind of service. They fall asleep in his bed, still dressed, his fingers sliding through her hair.

After that, they fall into a routine. Veronica shows up at the house after the ICU's visiting hours are over. He makes sure there's always something in the fridge for dinner because he doubts she remembers to eat when she's camped out next to her father's bed. Sometimes they watch movies; sometimes they fall into bed. Mostly they don't talk, although Veronica volunteers a confidence or two every night.

Her father is in pain but recovering ahead of schedule.

What good is a law degree if she's not going to fight for justice?

She's missed her dad every day for the last nine years and missed Wallace and Mac almost as much.

The job in New York is gone. She'd given it up for herself, not for him.

She and Piz had broken up. It was and was not because of him.

He says again that he'd missed her and slides a key to the house onto her keychain.

It would be easy never to talk about this, but easy and right are so rarely the same. She's dozing against him when he tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and says, "Veronica, we need to talk about this."

She cracks her eyes open. "Tomorrow?" she asks hopefully.

"Scarlett O'Hara I'll think about it tomorrow?" he asks. "Or actually tomorrow?" There's really only one answer that works for him.

She sits up straighter, running a hand through her hair where it had been smashed against his shoulder. "Actually tomorrow," she says. "You can meet me at the hospital before my dad's next procedure."

***

Logan slides into the booth across from Veronica at the hospital cafeteria. Honestly, he’d rather sit next to her, but they’ve actually got to talk sometime, no matter how appealing it is to fuck and ignore the large and potentially important issues looming before them.

"Novel to see you with your clothes on," he says. As an opening to a Relationship Discussion, it could use some work, but everyone has to start somewhere, right?

"Indeed,” Veronica says, and her smile is sharp and familiar. “Remember how I thought I was coming to Neptune for the weekend? I'm kind of running out of things to wear."

"And here I thought the sight of me made you spontaneously tear your clothes off. Seriously though, you should buy something." He slides his credit card across the table.

"How Pretty Woman of you," she says, eyeing the card skeptically.

"Is that how you're paying for law school?" Logan asks.

"I tried, but it was hard to study while laying on my back," Veronica answers with barely a pause. Logan wonders if it’s possible to base an entire relationship on banter, and decides that he and Veronica probably can. It’s possible it wouldn’t be a healthy relationship though.

"You should take this." Logan slides the card closer to Veronica. "You did get me off a murder rap. A couple shirts and some new underwear is kind of the least I can do."

Veronica narrows her eyes, and to his surprise, she slides the card into her purse. "Fine. But this is not a habit."

"Speaking of habits…” Logan takes a deep breath and reminds himself what he'd actually come here for. “We probably ought to talk about this thing we're doing. And also, you know, the past nine years."

"Fair enough." Veronica checks her watch and winces. "You've got twenty minutes before my dad's next procedure. They just told me they were moving it up."

"Predictable,” Logan says and wishes there was something on the table to keep his hands busy. Last night, he'd known exactly what he wanted to say, how the conversation should go. Now that he's sitting across from Veronica in a decidely unromantic hospital cafeteria, he's not so sure of himself anymore.

Veronica looks down at the table for a fraction of a second. "I didn't mean for this to happen. If you want to put this whole conversation off till some other time, I get. But if there's something you want to know, ask away."

Veronica Mars, an open book. It's hard to believe -- probably a lot like Lieutenant Logan Echolls, Naval aviator.

"All right," he says and asks the first thing that's been on his mind. "What happened exactly between you and Piz?"

Veronica sighs. "Nothing that makes me look particularly admirable, I'm afraid. I wasn't fully committed. I just kept thinking that if I waited a little longer, I'd feel...whatever I was supposed to feel. His parents were coming to New York to meet me, and I didn't get on the plane." She shakes her head. "There you go, grade A girlfriend material."

Logan catches her hand. "I'd judge you, except for how I once went home with a girl for Christmas and ended up throwing a bunch of pears in her swimming pool before I drove away in the middle of the night. Without saying goodbye, naturally."

"Good one." Veronica looks genuinely impressed. "What did she do?"

"Nothing," Logan says. "Her parents were too nice to me."

Veronica smiles wryly. "Then you'll be happy to know my dad still hates you."

"Thinly veiled scorn is well within my comfort zone. And my parents are still dead, so you'll never have to meet them. Still sorry my dad tried to kill you, by the way,” Logan says. He's failing at this relationship discussion, but hey, at least he's being honest - he is, and always will be, sorry that his father tried to kill her.

Veronica smiles wryly. "It's alright. I tried to get him life without parole."

"I have a dim memory of testifying at that trial," he says. "We've been through a lot together, haven't we?"

Veronica's smile softens, and so do her eyes. "Yeah, we have," she says quietly, and for the first time, the conversation feels safe.

He reaches across the table and takes Veronica's hand, running his thumb absently over her fingers. "With as much history as the two of us have, whatever we do isn't going to be casual. At least, it's not going to be casual for me. So I kind of need to know what you want from me."

"That's fair," Veronica says, nodding. She licks her lips. "I wouldn't want this to be a casual fling either. But if you're asking if I want to get married and have a baby and all those eHarmony profile questions, the answer is no. I don't know if I'll ever want those things."

"eHarmony? Really?" It kind of breaks the rhythm of the whole relationship discussion thing, but Logan can't help but ask.

Veronica reddens faintly. "Twenty-six was a dark year in my life. I'd rather not talk about it."

"Well, then, you'll never hear about the time I went on the Millionaire Matchmaker," he says, then shakes his head quickly when Veronica's eyes widen. "That never happened, I swear. Someone tricked me into making an audition tape for it, and he paid. Handsomely. In ways that I will never disclose to an attorney."

"You know, there are some things that even I don't want to know," Veronica says. She takes a breath. "Where were we, exactly? Something about how I might not ever want to get married or have kids, and that's been a problem for some -- well, actually, a lot -- of men?"

"Well, I know this might come as a shock given my parents' stellar marriage and child rearing skills, but I'm in no hurry for the white picket fence," Logan says. "Seriously, Veronica, I don't want you to be someone you're not. I don't think having a ring or piece of paper is the best way to prove you care."

"Shared priorities, such a healthy foundation for a relationship," Veronica says, looking relieved. “Is there anything else we need to talk about while we’re having this mature and adult discussion?"

Logan tightens his hand around hers. "Well, there's the thing where I leave for a hundred and eighty days at a time. It's not ever going to change."

Veronica smirks. “Believe it or not, I’m not really into guys who give up major life opportunities for me. Face it, Logan. Your parents are dead, you're a borderline nymphomaniac, and you're partially unattainable. You're my dream come true."

Logan leans forward until his forehead is resting against Veronica’s. “So are we actually doing this?” he asks.

Veronica takes a breath, and Logan is oddly relieved that it sounds a little shaky. He’s glad he’s not the only one hiding actual feelings beneath a veneer of quips and sarcasm.

“I think we are,” she says. “And to be clear, this means mild but bearable dysfunction, parental disapproval, and wild sex, with a side of fighting crime. You’re going to leave every six months, which will suck and not suck at the same time because we respect each other’s independence too much to want to change it. Oh, and we'll save each other from certain death or murder charges when the need arises.”

Logan leans back in the booth, studying Veronica. “It's a deal." He checks his watch. "By my count, that was sixteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Fastest relationship discussion ever."

Veronica smirks. "Whatever are we going to do with the leftover three minutes and twenty-three seconds?"

"Have sex in the janitor's closet?" he asks, wriggling his eyebrows. "Just a thought."

Veronica gasps in mock indignation. "Logan Echolls, I am a woman of virtue, I'll have you know."

"I don't think that's what you were saying last night," Logan says, and smirks when he sees her face go red. He stands up and starts piling her trash onto her empty tray. "Go see your dad. I'll take care of this."

Veronica stands up, suddenly looking vulnerable. "Are you going to be here? Afterward, I mean? It's only supposed to take an hour, and the doctor said it was a routine procedure, but..."

"You don't have to explain, Veronica. He's your dad. It's okay to be scared." He leans over and kisses her forehead. "And yeah, I'll be here. I'm here for you pretty much always."