A/N - STOP! Have you read chapter 33?

I'm posting both chapters at the same time, so if you just clicked on the latest chapter, you might want to click the previous chapter button and double check that you've read 33.

Logan

Day 12
Dock of Introspection
Nicholas Key, Florida

Holding his breath, Logan leans forward and peers over the back edge of the party dock. To his immense relief, the source of the faint music he'd heard on his approach is none other than Veronica.

Relief floods through him and his shoulders relax for what feels like the first time in a year.

Even with her rental golf cart parked over by the street, he'd braced himself to come face to face with the real estate broker, or maybe the property owner.

Veronica is stretched out on the rope net hammock below, eyes closed and arms bent back to support her head. An iPod resting on her chest pipes music into a pair of white earbuds.

Logan runs a hand through his hair. How to proceed? Wake her up and check on her? Or return to the boat, knowing she's safe and sound?

Veronica makes the decision for him, pulling a bud out of one ear. "You plan on joining me down here? Or would you prefer to stare at the top of my head all day." The hint of a smirk on her lips tells him that even with her eyes closed, she knows his identity.

"I don't know, it's a very attractive head. I'm especially enjoying that side-part."

"Shame that it's a wig." Veronica opens her eyes and sits up, patting the rope net in invitation with one hand, while the iPod drops to her lap.

"One sec." Turning around, Logan signals to Zadie that she can leave without him. He'll catch a ride back with Veronica. He moves to the left side of the structure, descending the steps down to the lower level.

He takes a seat on the deck under the overhang and removes his shoes and socks. "Are you okay?"

Stupid question. Of course, she's not okay. She may never be okay.

"Never better." Fake smile.

Logan swallows. "Veronica...?"

"Don't." Her tone is harsh.

Don't what? He opens his mouth, but hesitates to ask for clarification.

She hears his unspoken question. "Don't do whatever you were about to do. Don't try to take all the blame. Don't try to fix things."

Logan nods. "Okay."

It's not okay. But it's the same thing Zadie said, more or less. Support Veronica, and 'whatever you do, don't make it all about your guilt'.

She nods at the insulated tote at his side. "What's that?"

"Food? I don't know what kind, exactly, but Zadie insisted I bring it."

"What is it with that girl and feeding us?" Veronica shoves her iPod into her pocket and crawls over to join him on the deck, music still streaming from the dangling earbud.

"I think it's her love language or something." Logan reaches out and helps her up onto the deck next to him. Before he can take his hand back, she turns it over and examines his bruised knuckles.

Fuck!

He braces himself for a lecture, but, after a moment, Veronica releases him without a word. She looks…wrung out, exhausted, and he wants so badly to pull her into his arms.

Where do they even stand right now? She doesn't look angry, but she doesn't look inclined to cuddle either.

"Let's see what we've got." Logan unpacks the bag, lining the contents up on the deck: three aluminum food containers (still warm), two bottles of Coke (still cold), a small paper bag holding several cookies and a plastic handle bag containing all the disposable supplies required for an outdoor meal. He almost makes a Duncan joke as he pulls out some styrofoam plates, but catches himself just in time.

Veronica goes to work on the containers, peeling back crimped foil edges to remove the lids and revealing fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits, and some mac and cheese and with stuff sprinkled on top.

He makes a face. "I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this."

Veronica looks thoughtful. "It's comfort food."

They clean their hands with wet wipe packets, the antiseptic stinging Logan's knuckles, before transferring a bit of everything onto their plates.

Veronica returns the lids to their containers and the containers to the quilted bag, then gestures to the right. "Let's eat out there."

"On the cargo net? That seems a bit…messy."

"Not on the net." She tucks both Cokes into the plastic handle bag, grabs her plate, then walks across the net's frame like a balance beam and sits down on the outside edge.

Logan joins her with his own plate, taking a seat to her left.

She divides the contents of the bag between them — drinks, napkins, plastic silverware packets, then loops one of its handles multiple times around a silver boat cleat on her right for them to use as a makeshift garbage. Logan follows Veronica's lead, tucking his napkins under his outer thigh.

With his longer legs, the waves lick at the bottom of his feet. "Good thing I wore shorts."

"Good thing I am short," Veronica looks over at him. Squints.

"What?"

"Your hair is blowing."

"Yeah? It's windy down here."

"I didn't know it could move. Did you run out of gel or something?" She runs her fingers through the front.

"Ha. Ha. Nope. Just run off the boat before I could finish getting ready." Not that he'd even cared about his appearance at that point.

She glances down at his knuckles again, and Logan quickly changes the subject, zeroing in on the faint music still streaming from her iPod.

"I don't know what you're listening to. I can only hear the drum beats, but it sounds like the same song over and over."

After a moment's consideration, she offers him the dangling ear bud, holding eye contact as he lifts it to his right ear.

This shattered dream you cannot justify

We're gonna scream until we're satisfied

What are we running for?

We've got the right to be angry

What are we running for?

When there's nowhere we can run to anymore

He can see his mom behind the wheel of her old convertible, racing down the PCH, hair blowing in the wind, as she belted out the lyrics. Glancing over her shoulder every now and then to smile at him in the back seat.

Veronica is watching him for a reaction.

"Good song. Is that…Pat Benatar?"

"It is, indeed." She seems surprised that he recognizes it.

We can't afford to be innocent

Stand up and face the enemy

It's a do or die situation

We'll be invincible

"I feel like we should be weaponing-up, or something."

"Weaponing-up?"

Logan gestures to his ear. "Just picturing this song for a 'lock and load' montage."

Veronica's brow furrows. "A what and what?"

"You know what I mean. Gearing up for battle. Me, gathering an arsenal of weapons. Loading guns and sheathing knives. You, strapping on a sexy thigh holster and.." He trails off. "Shit, I'm sorry, Veronica."

"You should be." Her deadpan expression gives way to a smile. "Your thighs are much sexier."

He lets out his breath. Okay, innuendos are still on the table.

"Agree to disagree. Yours have teeth marks."

Veronica smirks. "We can always give yours a matching set."

"Fuck! I didn't need that image." And…there he goes again with the dirty thoughts.

Her smug expression remains.

Won't anybody help us?

What are we running for?

When there's nowhere

nowhere we can run to anymore

"This isn't like…" he begins, hesitantly, "…some kind of battle anthem for going up against Liam Fitzpatrick, is it?"

"Well, it wasn't before."

He playfully slaps his forehead. "Me and my big mouth."

The song plays to the end, then starts over at the beginning. Logan doesn't return the earbud and she doesn't ask him to.

They eat their dinner in companionable silence. The chicken is delicious, spicy and juicy, the potatoes, lump-free. The mac and cheese could use a lot more cheese, but it's edible enough.

The song is starting over for the fourth time, when a soft laugh puffs out of Veronica.

"What?" Logan asks.

"'Lock and Load' montage." She shakes her head. "I'm imagining you dramatically tying on a headband."

"Ahhh…the sacred headband." Logan nods, sagely. "It's all in the wrist. You have to sorta give it a snap. I can teach you."

She responds with faux wonder. "Will you really, Sensei?"

Smartass. He affectionately bumps her shoulder with his own.

"I'm surprised the battery lasted that long," Veronica says, minutes later, when the music stops abruptly, "I've been listening to it for hours."

Right. Because she'd suffered a terrible experience — one he'd directly contributed to — and needed something anthemic to make her feel strong again.

Logan silently hands over his earbud.

She winds up the cord around her palm, looping its end around the center several times, before tying it off into a compact bundle and shoving it into her pocket.

They finish eating, clean their hands with more wet wipes and stuff their garbage into the plastic bag.

Logan waits to take his cue from Veronica. She ties the bag closed and stands up, but waves him off when he attempts to join her.

"Wait here. I'll be right back."

That's fine with him. The longer they put off returning to the yacht, the longer he can delay her discovering his fuck up from earlier.

Okay, fuck ups. Plural. Neither of which he regrets.

But Veronica will definitely have opinions. Possibly, opinions that lead to yelling.

She returns a minute later with two cookies. Handing one to Logan, she sits back down on his right side.

His guilt must be written all over his face, because she sighs wearily. "Logan…"

"Veronica…"

She touches a fingertip to his lip, cutting him off. "I know. I remember what you confessed to me that night in Bluebell and how it relates to what happened with Duncan. You have a lot to answer for."

He swallows. "I know."

"But…over the past two weeks, you've proven yourself in a million different ways. You're not the same jackass, and you've become so much more than just my old friend. I've learned to count on you. I've learned to trust you. And that's what I need from you now."

"To be trustworthy?"

"To stay the course. Be my rock. Don't wallow in self-recrimination or use it as an excuse to regress back into the jackass."

"You're letting me off too easy," Logan whispers. "You should at least make me grovel."

She shrugs. "Maybe. But I'm making a choice. I could live in the past. Gleefully watch you self-flagellate while verbally eviscerating you for your crimes against me."

"Did you intend for that to sound sexual?"

"I know my audience." She smirks and pats his knee. "Or…I can live in the present, with the person you've become. With this relationship we've built." Veronica makes eye contact. "I choose This. US."

A whoosh of love slams into Logan so hard he's surprised it doesn't knock him off the beam into the ocean.

"Thank you. I promise, I won't make you regret it."

"Eat your cookie, Logan."

He glances down at his hand, surprised to find that he's still holding it. He's pretty stuffed from their meal, but suspects she's trying to drop the subject.

As cookies go, it's pretty damn good. Chocolate chunk with pecan chips, but a bit too soft and chewy.

Maybe someday, he'll open a specialty bakery where all the cookies are crispy and leave crumbs on your shirt. Of course, he knows nothing about cooking, so he'd have to hire a baker who understands the value of crunch.

Veronica finally breaks the silence. "I really didn't want you to find out that way. I've spent days trying to figure out a way to…I don't know…slip it into the conversation?"

"Slip it into the conversation?" Logan repeats. Did he hear that right? "That's not the kind of bomb you can just drop in passing."

"I don't know!" Veronica looks up to the sky. "I couldn't keep the truth from you, but it's the one thing I've never wanted to discuss. Not with you, or anyone else."

"Why couldn't you keep it from me?"

She looks at him like it should be obvious. "Our first night in Dallas, I told you I wasn't a virgin. You called me a liar and presented me with evidence for why I must still be one."

"Fuck. I'm the world's biggest asshole."

"To be fair, I think telling me a minute later that I 'belonged to you' ranked a little higher on the asshole scale."

"Wait. You don't?"

"Nope. You had it backwards. You belong to ME." Faint smile.

"Ahh…I can see the logic in that. Speaking of Dallas, did Peggy call you?"

"Yeah. We talked for over an hour, and it was exactly what I needed. She gave me a lot to think about."

"I'm glad it helped. And I'm sorry for saying something so insensitive."

"You came to a conclusion based on the facts available to you. I'm not mad about it. But things have changed between us." She looks out over the waves. "The kissing and the touching and…eventually you were going to figure out that I wasn't lying that night in Dallas. And you were going to have questions."

The way she phrased it, as if sex between them is something inevitable produces a flutter in his abdomen.

Logan takes her hand, leans over, and kisses the side of her head. "When we get there, my only questions will be about how you're feeling and what you need from me."

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do." He squeezes her hand. "Lilly showed this article to me once, where hundreds of women were polled about their first time, and more than half said they didn't bleed. I wouldn't have figured anything out, Veronica."

She tilts her head skeptically, lips pressed into a fine line.

"Wait. You don't think I actually care about that, do you? Whether you're a virgin or not?"

"Don't you?" There's a bite to her words that stings.

"Seriously? You think that matters to me? Look at my dating history."

"I have! And it mattered enough that you spent years rejecting me." Her voice wobbles, like she's trying to keep it together. "'Veronica is too innocent. Too pure. Don't want to dirty her up', right?"

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

"Duncan told you that?"

Head shake. "I overheard you talking one day."

She eavesdropped. Fuck!

"Veronica. That wasn't really about you. It never was." Logan's throat constricts painfully. "It was about my own self-loathing. And my dad's voice in my head, telling me I ruined everything I touched."

"One of these days we're going to discuss all the little ways your self-loathing broke my heart and crushed my confidence, long before you ever tried to hurt me," she says, wearily.

His vision blurs and there's a tightness in his chest that makes breathing hard. "I only wanted to protect you from myself."

"Right. And protecting me meant stepping aside, so I could be ruined by the 'Nice Guy' with the healthy self-esteem, whose dad told him he could possess anything he desired. I suspect your brand of ruining would've been a lot more enjoyable."

Logan can barely speak around the lump in his throat. "You're not ruined, Veronica."

"No? I'm hard and vengeful and I won't give an inch. What were you so afraid of me becoming if it wasn't exactly this?"

Fuck. Maybe she's right. But what does it say about Logan that he loves this Veronica twice as much?

"I think…" he begins, searching for the right words. "I think young Logan was a complete idiot. If I could go back in time and knock some sense into him, I'd tell him to give young Veronica some fucking credit. She was strong and knew her own mind, and never would've let him push her into anything she wasn't ready for. And that ultimately, her ruination — or lack of it — should be her own choice alone, and not decided for her by some stupid boy playing martyr." He pauses, then adds, "Also, I'd tell him there's nothing sexier than a hard and vengeful woman who won't give an inch."

That gets a genuine smile out of her. "Older Logan is very wise." Her right hand finds his left one on the beam and her pinky curls around his.

Logan inhales sharply and turns to look at her. It feels like forgiveness. Like a promise of much more still to come. And he won't make the same mistake this time. Never again.

Her gaze meets his, soft and receptive, then drops to his mouth.

"Can I?" Logan whispers.

She answers by inching closer.

He leans in, eyes falling closed. Meets her at the top, forehead to forehead, then nose to nose. Closer still. Until her mouth is a hair's breadth away. "You sure?"

"Absolutely." Her answer ghosts across his lips and he's glad she chose one with four syllables.

Smiling, he presses his mouth to hers. Gentle. Lingering. Non-threatening. The kiss young Logan should've given young Veronica all those years ago.

He wants to tell her he's in love with her — if he hasn't already — but she's not ready for that. So he pours it into the kiss and hopes that some deep, primordial part of her can speak that language.

Veronica lifts her hand to his cheek, and there's something tentative and shy about the way her tongue darts in, tangles, retreats. Even so, an involuntary moan escapes him at the contact and he feels her mouth stretch into a smile.

Then she shoves him in the chest. They're both falling. Laughing as they land on the net.

She swings a leg over his hips. Straddles him. "So about that ruination…"

Veronica's phone buzzes in her pocket. She ignores it. Leans down to kiss him, until there's a second buzzing. This time from Logan's pocket.

Their eyes meet, brows furrowing as they pull out their cell phones.

"It's from Duncan," Veronica says.

"Mine too."

Declan Marshall 8:21 PM
A friend told me that everything that went wrong last year can be traced back to my self-absorption. I've been thinking about that, and I realize now that if I'd only considered what was best for Veronica long-term instead of what was convenient for me, short-term, her entire life would be different now and she wouldn't have suffered the way she did.

He'd better not be talking about Harley Quartermaine. It's bad enough Zadie knows everything. Then again, it sounds like something she'd say. Harsh, but absolutely factual.

More texts comes in. First to Veronica's phone, then to his. Logan's blood goes cold as he reads.

Declan Marshall 8:23 PM

I can't change the past, but I can try to be better. And what's best for the two of you now, would be for me to turn myself in to the police. If I'm out of the picture, Fitzpatrick will stop hunting the two of you, and you can live your lives in peace. Stay safe. I love both of you and I'm so sorry for all the pain I've caused.

Declan Marshall 8:25 PM

P.S. Don't worry, I'm not stupid enough to lead Liam here. I thought I'd make my way back to Dallas and do it there, so the trail circles back to somewhere we've already been sighted. Take care of each other. I love you. - D

Veronica is a second faster than Logan.

He has to settle for screaming into voicemail. "What the fuck do you think you're doing? Are you completely brain dead? He will MURDER you, you fucking idiot! Do you want that? Do you? Do you think he can't get to you in jail? Or prison? Do you think he'll kill you quickly and painlessly? NO! He'll drag it out, you dumbass!"

In the background, Veronica is yelling, "Don't you dare get on that ferry. Do you hear me? Don't do anything stupid until we've talked. I don't care. I don't CARE! You're family! Fine. FINE! We'll meet you back at the yacht."

They hang up and face each other.

She bites her lip. "So…I just un-evicted Duncan."

"Yeah." Logan blows out a breath. "Let's go."

Veronica

Day 12
Titan's Trigger
Nicholas Key, Florida

If it wasn't for the wide open hatch and the light streaming up from below, Veronica might believe the yacht was vacant.

Logan steps aside, gesturing for her to take the stairs ahead of him.

She catches sight of Duncan first, face buried in his hands, as if still frozen in time from this morning.

At the opposite side of the couch, Zadie glances up from a thick book and stands to greet them. "Hey. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I think so." Veronica's mouth turns up a fraction at the corners. A silent acknowledgment of what happened earlier.

Without warning, she finds herself pulled into a tight hug. At a loss for words, all she can think to do is feebly pat the girl on the back. It's weird, but she's experienced weirder.

Stepping back, Zadie examines Veronica's face. "You look like you could use a drink."

"That's…an understatement."

"What's your poison? I'm no bartender, but—"

"I've got it." Logan cuts her off, and something in his tone leaves no argument.

"Sure." Zadie backs away, leaving her with an unencumbered view of Duncan.

"Veronica." Duncan stands, hands at his sides, eyes bloodshot, and anguish written all over his features. "I am so, SO sorry."

She offers him a curt nod. "I know you are. But let's save any further discussion for after I've had a chance to clean up."

"Yeah. Sure."

Zadie shoots Logan a questioning look. 'Did you tell her?'

He responds with a tiny head shake to the negative.

Oh what the fuck now? They're keeping secrets?

"I need to tell you something." Logan slides an arm around Veronica.

She glances longingly at the stateroom door. All she wants is a shower. "Can it wait just a few minutes?"

"Not really? I kinda need to tell you right now. Before you go into our room." He scans the galley, looking everywhere but at Veronica. "Um…while you were out, I went to the mainland for a little while, and on my way back…"

He trades another nervous glance with Zadie, and her brow lowers threateningly, in a 'You tell her, or I will' expression.

He sighs and drops his gaze. "I guess you could say I made a new friend."

"And she's in THERE? In MY bed?" Veronica hears the hysterical note in her own voice. She'd forgiven him for everything! She'd chosen them, and now THIS?

He makes a 'Can you keep it down?' hand gesture that only makes her angrier. "It's not what you're thinking. I promise."

"No? Neither was Zadie the night she followed you home, but look where we are now."

"If you'll just let—"

"You've had hours. Time's up." Veronica storms over to the stateroom door and roughly slides it open. She walks into the room, and freezes. "Logan!"

"I know!" He speaks quietly from right behind her. "I fucked up."

"Logan!"

"I'm sorry! Please don't be pissed. I couldn't just…walk away."

"Logan…" She exhales his name on a sigh as she turns to look at him.

She should be angry. This is insane, and he knows better! But she can't fight back the smile taking over her face. "What is it?"

Logan circles around her to sit on the bed, next to the…whatever it is.

If not for the faint rise and fall of breath, she might have mistaken it for a tiny fur coat, dropped negligibly into a wrinkled heap.

Logan runs his knuckles softly over its side. Or maybe its back? She can't really tell what's what with all the wrinkles. The creature lets out a sleepy sigh and lifts its head.

And just like that, Veronica is a goner. Absolutely gone.

"Loooooogan." She sighs and joins him on the bed. "You know we can't keep it."

The puppy's fur is a pale reddish brown, except for around the muzzle, where it's a bit darker. Its ears are half the length of its body, and it looks at Veronica with soulful brown eyes that somehow appear both newborn and ancient at the same time.

"The woman at the pet store says he's a Bloodhound. Or at least part bloodhound. And ten weeks old, give or take."

Veronica lifts up the precious, adorable, VERY GOOD BOY to get a better look and he lets out a huge yawn.

The smell of puppy breath triggers some biological imperative in her, making her heart expand a little bit more. She pulls him snug to her chest and kisses his wrinkly head. "Bloodhound, huh? You've brought home the fugitive's natural enemy."

"Yeah, I didn't even make that connection. You think he was bait?"

"Must've been."

"The old 'puppy in a box' trick." Logan shakes his head and gives a rueful snap of his fingers. "I fell right into their trap. We'd better keep him, or else, he might use his super nose to lead the authorities back to our lair."

"We can't keep him." Veronica lifts her head. "Is that how you ended up with him?"

"Yeah. I went over to the mainland, thinking I'd look for a job, but the truck was missing from the garage. I assume you had it?"

She nods.

"I heard him crying when I was walking back to the ferry. Took me a while to find the right box."

She opens her mouth, aghast. "Was he the only one?"

"Yeah, I checked around to be sure. No more puppies."

"How could anyone…" Veronica exhales her frustration. "There's a special place in hell for people who are cruel to animals."

"No doubt." Logan strokes the puppy's cheek and then stands up. "I should probably get him some water."

He leaves the door cracked as he exits the room.

"Who's a sweet baby boy?" Veronica lays down, rolling onto her left side and setting the puppy on the bed. He walks four steps before tripping over his big paws. "Whoever dumped you is so lucky I wasn't there."

The puppy rolls onto his back, paws flailing in the air. His Dumbo ears flop back onto the bed like propellers in a ceiling fan, and something silver glints in the light.

Veronica twists the skinny orange collar so the tiny bone-shaped dog tag sits in front.

"Cupid," she reads the engraving aloud and the lump in her throat feels a lot like grief.

This is why you don't get attached.

"So, Cupid, did Logan even try calling the phone number?" She pulls out her cell and types in the phone number from the back of the tag. "Or were you hiding your tag under those ears and folds and wrinkles?"

"Who's a thirsty boy?" Logan enters the room, a tiny silver dog bowl in hand, just as she hits the Send button.

He pauses at the sound of a ringing phone, pulls his cell out of his pocket, and looks at the screen, brow furrowing. He looks at Veronica and then back to the phone. Finally, with a smirk and shrug, he lifts the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

"Hi, Logan. This is Veronica." She speaks in a sugary tone.

He maintains eye contact. "Hey you. What are you wearing?"

"I'm just curious…" She twirls her hair around a finger, then drops the fake voice. "Did you seriously have a dog tag made for a puppy we can't even keep. With your OWN phone number on it?"

"What? There was this machine at the pet store where you can watch it being engraved. And it seemed like the smart thing to do." A slow smirk forms on his lips. "Why, just the other day, I found the same missing poodle four times. I can say with confidence that Fluffy's owner understands the value of dog tags."

Veronica rolls her eyes and hangs up the phone. This is what she gets for bringing him in on her plans.

Logan shoves the phone into his pocket and takes a seat on the bed. He sets down the water, but the puppy's too busy biting his own toes to notice.

"Cupid?" Veronica tilts her head.

"What? I couldn't keep calling him Puppy." He shrugs. "We could choose a different name. I suppose."

She has nothing against the name. It seems to fit the little guy.

"But why Cupid?" She raises an eyebrow in challenge. "Are you hoping he'll shoot me with his golden arrow?"

"Oh, Veronica…" Logan glances at the door to make sure nobody's watching before pressing a chaste kiss to her cheek. "Try looking in the mirror sometime. That arrow's been sticking out of your back for years."

She stares at him. Blinks.

"But think about it. Could there be a more fitting name for the son of Mars?" He gestures to Veronica.

She groans. "Let it never be said that Logan Echolls can't manipulate with the best of them. I suppose that makes you Venus?"

The words are out of her mouth before she can take them back.

If anyone was the living embodiment of Venus, it was Lilly Kane. With the fidelity to match.

Logan's gaze turns inward. He's clearly thinking the same thing, but he plays it off, leaning his face on his hand and fluttering his lashes.

"Right." Veronica sighs and shifts gear. "We can't afford a puppy. They need shots and supplies and tons of attention."

"There was a vet clinic at the pet store. He's up to date on his shots and healthy. His crate and supplies are over in the closet, and I have plenty of attention to spare."

"We can't keep him."

"Well, technically, we definitely can." Logan picks up Cupid. "But I'll get him out of your hair, so you can get cleaned up."

・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・

Alone in her stateroom, Veronica stares at the stranger in the bathroom mirror as she peels off her wig, dropping bobby pins one-by-one into a mug on the vanity.

She first started experimenting with disguises last winter. Not long after Shelly's party, when she'd felt the most alone and alienated. When she'd most feared for her safety.

Veronica Mars had a target on her back, but Amber, the ditzy flirt, was welcome everywhere, Shannon, the obnoxious social-climbing wannabe, could clear out a room faster than Backup at his gassiest, and Anna, the frumpy wallflower, was practically invisible.

She honed her skill at makeup application. Practiced voices and accents. Collected props — wigs and colored contacts, glasses and eye-catching accessories. What started out as a necessity, turned into a hobby. She'd enjoyed disappearing into characters, walking amongst her enemies undetected.

But lately, the thrill has waned. Maybe because she can never leave home without a disguise. Maybe, with Logan around to slay dragons, she's not that afraid anymore. She just misses being Veronica.

But does she miss it enough?

Had she passed up her sole opportunity to take back her life when she stopped Duncan from turning himself in? Who is Liam Fitzpatrick really after? All three of them? Or just Duncan? Could she have lived with herself if she'd just ignored his text?

Veronica sighs. No point in asking 'what if' now.

She already showered this morning, but opts for a second one, setting the water so hot it turns her skin pink. She soaps away the heavy not-Veronica makeup. Scrubs her body, raw, as if she can wash away the sick, filthy feeling of losing her virginity to her half-brother. Wash away the shame of contracting Chlamydia.

After, she dries off and dresses in a silky white camisole and the feather-soft cashmere hoody and yoga pants Logan had gifted her. It feels like comfort food for the body. She leaves her hair wet and loose.

She takes a few steadying breaths and opens the door.

"Veronica." Duncan stands, takes a step toward her. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I think so. We need—"

She stops at the sound of Logan's footsteps descending the stairs behind her. His hand comes down on her shoulder, steering her away, in a not-so-subtle attempt to put space between her and Duncan. He guides her over to the spot on the couch closest to the exit. "Why don't you get comfortable? I'll grab your drink."

Duncan, fluent in Logan's non-verbals, withdraws from the living area entirely to perch on one of the stools at the far end of the kitchen counter.

What she should tell Logan is, 'knock it off with the hovering'. It's not like Duncan's going to attack her. Instead, she thanks him and sits down. She'll allow him one overprotective day.

He holds up the puppy to look into its eyes. "Your job, little guy is to keep your mom company. Think you're up for it?"

"Um…not his mom."

Logan ignores her, unsnapping a thin orange leash from the puppy's collar, then placing him on Veronica's lap. He snags a tiny stuffed lamb from the counter, squeaking it a few times before handing it to Cupid. "Back in a second."

She knows exactly what he's doing, but who knew manipulation could feel so sweet?

Cupid rips at Lamby's fur with his tiny teeth. Not a good sign. Backup used to do that, and he grew up to be a prolific unstuffer.

Logan returns with a reddish drink. "Vodka cranberry okay? I can make something else if you prefer."

She tentatively sips. "No, this is fine."

Rather than sitting at her side, he sprawls at her feet like an overprotective guard dog. If he started growling, she wouldn't even be surprised.

Across the room, Duncan's knuckles are bright red as he rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand. Is he developing a shiner?

"Boys…" Veronica sighs exaggeratedly to break the ice. "I know it takes work to maintain a bromance, but matching bloody knuckles seems like overkill."

Duncan lowers his gaze, guiltily.

"I'm sorry." Logan leans his head back to look up into her eyes. "That was my fault."

Duncan lets out an annoyed sigh. "No, it wasn't."

"Yes it was. I hit first."

"But I deserved it. And then I came after you and you wouldn't even fight back."

"Because I deserved that," Logan says.

"But I was—"

"BOYS!" Veronica yells and they both go silent. "You're both assholes."

This seems to pacify them.

"I have to ask you a serious question," Veronica addresses Duncan.

"Sure. Anything."

"Was that night your first time too? Or had you been with somebody else before that?"

Duncan hesitates, a deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face.

"I'm not going to be upset if you say yes. I just really need for you to be truthful with me. It's important."

He bites his lip. Exhales. "I hooked up with Shelly one night, a few weeks before her party. I think she felt sorry for me. She was trying to comfort me about Lilly, and then one thing led to another."

Veronica nods, lips turned down. "Well, that little pity fuck gave us Chlamydia, so we should probably find a way to get a message back to Shelly."

Duncan's eyes bulge out of his head. "Wait. What?"

She keeps her gaze fixed on him, so she won't have to look at Logan. "I went to a clinic the other day for a checkup. They called me with the results today."

If Logan hadn't put the brakes on the past few days…

"What did they give you to treat it?" Zadie takes a seat on Veronica's right, her own drink in hand.

"Not sure. I have to take it for three days."

"He's going to need meds, too. I can get them for him."

"It's called um…" Veronica pulls the prescription from her bag and hands it to Zadie. "How can you get it?"

Zadie hands it back. "My uncle, Dima, has a guy who can fill prescriptions. A pharmacist. Not black market."

"Right. Because we can't possibly inconvenience poor Duncan by making him go to the doctor and get his own prescription," Logan says, "He might have to face embarrassment or something."

Duncan stands. "I know I fucked up, Veronica. I'm still willing to turn myself in to the police. But if you really don't want me to do that, I should at least find someplace new to live, where you won't have to look at me."

"Stairs are that way," Logan mutters.

It would be so easy to just let him leave. To wash her hands of him. But he's hugging himself, like he used to in the aftermath of Lilly's death, and she knows there's no way he can fend for himself.

He's not just her ex-boyfriend and possible half-brother. He's Lilly's brother, Logan's best friend, and, before they started dating, Veronica's good friend.

"Will you shut the hell up?"

Duncan silences with a nod.

"You can't leave."

"He really can."

"No. If he goes, who's going to be boat treasurer? Logan?"

Logan opens his mouth, offended.

"What?" Veronica runs a hand through his soft hair. "You think two-hundred dollar face cream is a necessity, and have a habit of bringing home strays."

All eyes turn to Zadie, who lifts her brows with an exaggerated 'Who me?' gesture.

Veronica keeps her laugh on the inside and gently tugs Logan's head back to make him look up. "Face it. You have a lot of skills, but you can't be good at everything."

"Bet me." The twinkle in his eyes is answer enough. They're both thinking it.

"So?" She turns back to Duncan. "Are you staying?"

"I'll stay if Zadie stays."

The room goes silent, and Zadie seems as surprised by this turn of events as Veronica. "I didn't put him up to that. Swear!"

"Did she damage your brain when she body slammed you?" Logan asks.

Duncan rolls his eyes. "I think she's good for us. She sees through all the bullshit to what's really going on."

"She wouldn't be a very good grifter if she couldn't," Logan says.

Veronica signals with her eyes for him to drop it, and turns back to Duncan. "I'm angry right now. With you. With our parents. With life in general. But I'm going to have to get over it, because we're family. You and me. And Logan. And…I suppose…" Exaggerated sigh. "…even Goth Bondage Barbie here."

"You say the sweetest things," Zadie pulls Veronica against her side, and brushes a lock of hair back from her face.

The gesture reminds her so much of Lilly, that her throat goes tight.

"Don't get used to it. If you were family, you'd be the bratty little sister who won't go away."

"Sounds accurate."

Veronica points at Logan and Duncan. "The question is, do the two of you still want to be a family? Not with me, but with each other?"

Both boys shrug.

Veronica rolls her eyes. "Do you really want to destroy a ten-year friendship?"

"No," Duncan says. "I don't."

Logan is still pouting.

Veronica sighs. "Logan!"

"Yes, dear?"

"Remind me again why you walked away from your life, your money, your friends, and everything you knew? And don't say it was for me, because we weren't even on speaking terms."

Logan rolls his eyes, points at Duncan, and glares. "To keep him alive. Not that he appreciates any of it."

"How can you say that? When have I ever been unappreciative?"

Logan quirks an eyebrow. "Should I make a list? Would you like that alphabetical or chronological?"

"OKAY!" Veronica yells, "You two obviously aren't going to get your shit together with me around. Why don't you go out and get a beer?"

"I'm not in the mood for a beer." Logan mumbles. "You shouldn't be alone right now, anyway."

"It wasn't a suggestion," Veronica says.

He flashes her that smirk that always makes her belly flip-flop. Why does he always look at her that way when she's bossy?

"Yes ma'am!" He uses her thigh to help himself stand.

"Fine," Duncan says.

"Don't forget your disguises this time."

Both boys sigh, and head off to opposite staterooms.

Logan returns first, wearing a snug black, long-sleeved tee shirt and tight jeans, nerd glasses and a baseball cap.

Veronica examines him, scrunching up her face. "Change your shirt. Something looser."

"Isn't the point to dress differently than I usually do? I always wear loose shirts."

"The point is to blend in. Not to define your muscles so clearly, that cougars can sketch you shirtless on a bar napkin. Didn't you learn anything from the Rammer Jammer experience?"

A delighted smile lights up his face. "Well apparently you did. Okay. Don't get checked out by other women. Got it." He retreats back into the stateroom.

Ugh. She's created a monster.

He returns, wearing a nondescript, baggy tee shirt.

"Much better."

Duncan emerges a moment later, in his white-blonde wig, brown contacts, and the cowboy hat Logan wore in Texas.

Veronica snorts, but doesn't outright laugh. "Enjoy your boy-bonding time, guys. And no bar brawls this time."

Neither boy looks too eager to spend time together, but they shuffle up the stairs, obediently.

・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・

Veronica tilts her head, listening, until the footsteps trail out of earshot.

"God, I thought they'd never leave." She jumps up, retrieves her new heating pad from her messenger bag and plugs it in. Sitting back down, she leaves enough space between her and the arm of the couch for a sleeping puppy, then arranges the pad on her lap and sighs.

Zadie, wearing a knowing expression, abruptly leaves the room. She returns moments later with a large gold box of chocolates, pausing next to the trash can to remove the outer wrapper.

"You need these more than I do right now." She sits back down, placing the box on the couch between them.

"Gift from an admirer?" Veronica carefully examines the selection, before taking a chance on the lumpiest piece.

"I bought them for myself, so…definitely."

Veronica bites into the chocolate. Closes her eyes and lets out a hum of satisfaction. Crisped rice and pecans. About the only thing that's gone right today.

"So you planned that? Sending them away?"

"Of course, I did. I've put up with too much shit over the years for the sake of their friendship. I'm not letting them destroy it now. As for you…"

Zadie sips at her drink and calmly holds eye contact.

"You're an admitted con artist, and I still don't trust you." Veronica lets out a long sigh. "…but I believe what you told me this morning, and I owe you an apology. I could have gone about it more sensitively."

"How? You couldn't have known."

"Sure, I could've. What other motive would a teenage girl have for stabbing her stepfather?" Veronica drops her gaze. "I struck gold with my web search, and I couldn't even wait for Logan to get out of the shower to confront you."

"I get it. You're protecting what's yours. And you see me as a threat."

"Seems that way from where I'm sitting."

Zadie raises her cup in a 'cheers' gesture. "I do what it takes to survive, and if you're smart, you'll learn to do the same."

She's not wrong. A year ago, Veronica forced herself to 'get tough', just to make it through high school. Now, with Liam Fitzpatrick hunting her and emotional landmines everywhere she steps, she needs to get even tougher.

"So, teach me."

Three simple words, but speaking them makes her heart pound.

Zadie's face splits into a wide smile. "Thought you'd never ask."

"Not tonight, though."

"No. Tonight we relax and eat chocolate. Can I ask what brought about this change of heart?"

"Advice from a very wise woman." Veronica chooses another lumpy piece of chocolate, peanuts and caramel, this time. Score! "I told her about this morning and she said, 'Surround yourself with women who defend other women. Especially when there's no incentive for them to do so.'"

"Hmm…She does sound wise."

"I only knew her for a few days, but she's exactly the woman she described. I miss her already." Veronica exhales and changes the subject. "So, what kind of sorcery did you cast over Duncan, to suddenly make him your defender?"

"I call that spell…listening," Zadie circles a finger over the chocolate box like some kind of psychic divining rod, stopping on a round piece with a curly top. "I don't know. I think he's carrying around a lot of baggage about his sister and her death and needs somebody to talk to."

"Um…he has me and Logan."

"But do you guys ever actually talk about her? I sense that all three of you have Lilly Kane baggage of one sort or another that you refuse to discuss."

Do we? Veronica thought she'd left her baggage behind in Bluebell, Alabama, when she overheard Logan's version of their history. Learning he hadn't really rejected her out of a preference for her best friend, had eased her most pressing insecurities. She hadn't even realized she was holding onto anger about the true version of events. Not until she confronted him earlier about her virginity mattering. She'd honestly surprised even herself.

Zadie bites into her piece of chocolate and the look of disgust that crosses her face is so comical Veronica has to bite her lip to keep from laughing. She drops the other half onto a napkin, revealing the pink center, and points at it. "That. Should. Be. Illegal."

"Strawberry?"

"It tasted like bubble gum." Zadie shudders and takes a long sip of her drink.

"So, what's your story, anyway?" Veronica asks.

"Same as yours. And every other tragedy in history. 'Once upon a time, a man was told no'."

"Chaos ensued."

Zadie nods slowly. "Go ahead. What do you really want to ask?"

"Should I bother? You're just going to lie, anyway."

Zadie tilts her head. "How many times have I evaded one of your questions, or declined to answer?"

"More times than I can count."

"Exactly. Any one of those times, it would've been easier to lie. I chose not to."

"Alright." Veronica chooses another chocolate, this one with white chocolate zig zags. "Tell me how you became…this. Not the WHY, obviously. I get that. But how? How do you go from a middle-class suburban teenager with a promising future to…"

"Goth Bondage Barbie?" Zadie quirks a brow.

Veronica offers her a rueful shrug.

"I had family in Miami."

"The infamous uncles?'

"Yeah." Zadie blows out a breath, eyes distant. "Let's just say my expectations weren't very realistic. I mean, obviously, they couldn't just welcome a fugitive into their homes, but…"

"They left you to fend for yourself? Duncan said you were living in a condemned building."

"By choice. My uncles have…enemies, and one of them caught wind of my existence."

"Enemies? What are they, the mob?"

"I could answer that but…" Zadie grimaces and drags a finger across her throat.

"That's reassuring."

"Somebody snatched me, right off the street, and pulled me into an SUV. He wasn't expecting me to claw up his face, and luckily, I was able to escape out the other door." Zadie must also be a seasoned practitioner of 'Mask up. Face of stone', because she relays this information as calmly as if describing the weather. "Two of my uncles have old-fashioned views about what's appropriate for women. Uncle Anton insisted on a hotel suite and twenty-four/seven bodyguard detail. I gave it a month, but I'm not really a jeweled-cage kind of bird. Then Uncle Yuri, that cold-hearted bastard, decided I would be shipped off to some kind of 'stash-em-and-forget-em' boarding school in Vermont."

"How'd you get out of that?"

"Uncle Dima." Zadie smiles and her whole face lights up. "The youngest - only six years older than me. We just connected the moment we met. He actually listens when I tell him what I want."

She finishes the last of her beverage and stands up. "Need another?"

Veronica waves her off. "I'm good. What do you want?"

"Control of my own life. I'd rather make it on my own than be some kind of pampered prisoner. Or a pawn in some chess game I never asked to play." Zadie gathers bottles from the fridge and mixes another vodka cranberry. "To be respected and left alone because I'm a force in my own right, not because of who I'm related to. To be like him."

"And he helped with that?"

"As much as he was able to. He made me his protege. Sort of. I mean, I'll never be welcome in the family business, but he taught me what I needed to survive, and his network of contacts is at my disposal." She returns to the couch and sits. "And he interceded for me with the uncles, volunteering the top floor of a hurricane-damaged apartment building he owned for me to live in, and bribing the building inspector to put up a condemned sign."

"That still doesn't sound safe. Something Duncan saw disturbed the hell out of him."

"He saw what he was supposed to see. Every squatter in that building watches out for me. The last thing they want is to get on the wrong side of my uncles. Half of them are on the family payroll, actually. I'd argue that I was safer there than I am here."

So, we're definitely talking about the mob.

"Where is your friend, Alecs? The kid you ran away with?"

Zadie swallows hard and her mask slips - only for a second, but it's enough to reveal some complex emotion. "I told you I won't lie to you, so let's talk about something else."

"But—" Veronica's cell rings.

She jostles Cupid as she's pulling the phone from her pocket. He lifts his head, grunts a few times, in a way that would make great sound effects for a Gremlins sequel and goes right back to sleep.

"It's my dad." She lifts a finger to her lips. "Stay quiet."

"Sure."

Veronica accepts the call. "Hello?"

"Hey honey…" Her dad sounds exhausted. "Can you talk?"

"Can I? Of course. Do I want to? Something about your voice tells me the answer is no."

"I'm afraid I have some bad news."

Veronica's heart skips a beat, and her body tenses. "Of course, you do. Just go ahead and pile it on."

"What does that mean? Did something happen?"

Other than learning I lost my virginity to my half-brother, and gained an STI in the same night? Nope. Nothing at all.

"I'm just PMS-ing. You know how whiny I get."

He lets out a relieved chuckle. "Good. I mean, I'm glad it wasn't something worse."

"So, spit it out. What's the bad news?"

"It's not actually news. More like information. I interviewed Killian McFarland yesterday. I believe you called him 'Tomato Meltdown Guy'."

"Tell me you didn't offer him tomatoes."

He groans. "Very funny. Since Abel Koontz was released from jail, I've been reviewing Lilly's murder file, looking for anything I might have missed."

"Okay? Find something?"

"There was a phone number tucked into the mirror of her dressing table. It's visible in one of the photos from her bedroom."

"There were dozens of phone numbers tucked into the mirror. You're saying one of them was McFarland's? That sounds weird."

"To her best friend, it sounds weird. But it didn't to investigators. He was a classmate. The number showed up on her call records, but not often enough to raise any flags, and it was written in her own handwriting. Lilly was a very popular girl and there could have been a dozen logical reasons for her to have his number. But when I searched for a corresponding witness statement, I discovered that he'd never been interviewed."

"Lilly had no interest in Tomato Guy. I can promise you that." Veronica pauses in the midst of raising her drink to her lips. "Wait, are you saying he murdered Lilly? Over that stupid video she passed around?"

"No. Not at all. That kid is not a killer. He is, however, easily coerced. Lilly was calling his phone number to make contact with an adult man. One of two adult men she was having affairs with."

Veronica almost corrects him. Almost tells him it was Weevil that Lilly was seeing. But she owes him too much to put him in the cross-hairs without good reason.

"Did Tomato Guy give you any names? Or did he just impugn Lilly's memory for funsies?"

She knows better than to ask. Her dad wouldn't have shared this information with her if he wasn't sure.

"He gave me one name. Are you sitting down?"

"I am. Heating pad set to high, and chocolates within reach. Let me have it."

Several seconds of uncomfortable silence pass before he answers. "Killian McFarland was acting as a go-between for Lilly and Liam Fitzpatrick."

"WHAT? No way! He's so…greasy, and…"

"I figured you wouldn't believe me. That's why I waited to tell you until I could confirm it with a former River Stix bartender. It's true, Veronica. She met Liam when her other…companion went to the River Stix to purchase drugs. I couldn't get a name, but he was described as rich, married, and prestigious in some way. She may also have had a sexual encounter with Kendall Casablancas."

"Dick's stepmother? With or without Logan?"

"Without. Wait, are you telling me Logan slept with her too?"

Way to endear the almost-boyfriend to the dad, Veronica.

"No! He's just like catnip for predatory women." And non-predatory women, and pretty much anyone else with a working set of eyeballs. "I heard rumors that she had her eyes on him. I know for a fact that she slept with Aaron Echolls, though."

"For my own peace of mind, I'm going to assume you learned this from Logan. But as Aaron Echolls and Mrs. Casablancas are consenting adults, I'm not going to focus on that at the moment. My main reason for calling was to demand that you stay the hell away from Liam Fitzpatrick. He's extremely dangerous, and is now a suspect in Lilly's murder."

"Really? And here, I thought he was just misunderstood."

"Veronica!" He speaks in that way that can't be ignored. "Don't try to bullshit me."

"What?"

Sure, he's perceptive, but there's no possible way he could know about her plan to take down Liam. Unless… "Wait. When you talked to Logan yesterday, did he say something to make you…?"

"You mean, something like your intention to frame or blackmail Liam Fitzpatrick? Why would he do something like that?"

"I'm going to murder him! Wait until I get my hands on him!"

"And see…? I actually trust Logan more now. He's proven that he cares more about your safety than he does about staying in your good graces. That's a true friend, Veronica. Don't be too hard on him."

"Oh, I'll show him hard," she mutters, and it's such a Logan-type line, that she can't help but laugh.

"Let me talk to him. I probably owe him an apology. And maybe a pep-talk about staying strong in the face of your wrath."

"Sorry, I sent the boys away, for a manly bonding session. Mainly, so I could endure my cramps without them squabbling."

"They left you alone?"

"It's fine, Dad! Liam Fitzpatrick is somewhere in Ohio right now, according to the tracker on his car. He can't get me from there."

"Well, there's also his injuries."

"What injuries?"

・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・

"What was that?" Zadie asks, when Veronica hangs up with her dad.

"Don't pretend you weren't eavesdropping."

"Of course, I was, but I could only hear your side. What happened to Liam Fitzpatrick?"

"Girl Scouts."

"WHAT?"

"My dad heard about it from Liam's cousin, but was able to confirm the story with his journalist contact."

"I'm waiting."

"I only know what my dad told me. They set up a cookie booth outside some Ohio Home Depot. A handful of girls and one mother to supervise."

"Is it even cookie season? I would kill for some Thin Mints about now."

"Tagalongs, for me, and I wondered that too, but…Ohio. The girls recognized Liam exiting the store — probably from that video of him threatening me and Logan, which they were obviously way too young to watch — and they started following him across the parking lot, chanting, 'LEAVE VERONICA ALONE!' I guess he got aggressive with one of them, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her back to the booth, where the mom was just obliviously chatting on her phone."

"Not good." Zadie makes the understatement of the year.

"Nope. They all started pelting him with anything that wasn't nailed down. Mostly boxes of cookies. A smarter man would've run away, but not Liam. A group of fraternity brothers showed up in two trucks to purchase supplies for a backyard bowling lane. When they saw all the chaos, and Liam shaking a little girl by the arm, they dove right in."

"Cowabunga!"

"Yeah. He ended up getting away, but I guess he was pretty beat up."

Zadie gives a slow shake of her head. "The heroes we deserve."

"No. This isn't good. I never asked to be a role model, and I don't want children putting themselves in danger for me. I should film another video statement."

"Exactly what a role model would do."

"Fuck!"

"That video of Liam Fitzpatrick gave me the willies. You can tell he's psycho just by looking."

"You think? They found his bag in the parking lot where he dropped it, and there was a heavy chain and some kind of bolt cutters inside."

"I'm here to help in any way I can, but I'll be surprised if you make it another month without being caught."

Veronica narrows her eyes. "Watch me. Do you think I'm an amateur?"

"Don't get me wrong," Zadie waves a hand. "You have a brilliant and devious mind, and you could go years without him finding you. But you have two six-foot liabilities."

"The boys." Veronica sighs.

"The boys. They're soft, and sheltered, and have the combined street-smarts of jewel-collared lap dogs."

Veronica snorts and pulls Cupid onto her own lap. His fur is velvety, and – with his skin being three sizes too big – petting him feels a bit like kneading..

"The smart move would be to cut them loose," Zadie continues. "You'll have a much better chance of survival without them."

"Possibly," Veronica says, noncommittally.

"I can teach you everything. You're a natural."

"It's not that I don't appreciate—"

"Yeah, yeah," Zadie waves off her rebuttal. " You love them, and you could never leave them."

Veronica shrugs. "They're my family."

"Love will get you killed, Veronica."

"I would already be dead – twice, actually – if it weren't for them."

"Well then love is going to get them killed. If they don't kill each other first." Zadie laughs softly. "You should have seen those idiots this morning. I had to knock both of them on their asses to make them stop fighting."

Veronica raises a skeptical eyebrow.

"Yeah, they underestimated me, too." She heads into the galley and grabs two bottled waters. Returning, she hands one to Veronica, and sits, curling her foot up underneath her. "If you're not going to cut loose the dead-weight, we'll have to figure out how to keep them alive."

"We?"

"Despite your compulsively suspicious nature, I like you Veronica. I even like the boys - at least enough to not want to see them get murdered by a psycho. They need to toughen up. And smarten up."

"Have any specific ideas, or do you just plan to ridicule them into shape?"

"Both?" Zadie chuckles. "I mean, I'm incapable of not ridiculing those two. But I do have a plan. We'll start tomorrow."

"And what exactly does this plan entail?"

Logan

Day 12
Nicholas Key, Florida

"So, how long have you been in love with Veronica?"

Logan's golf club swings down and…whiffs.

"What the fuck, dude?" He rounds on Duncan. "You did that on purpose."

Duncan shrugs, unapologetically. "If I had to ask a question like that, you can't blame me for timing it perfectly."

They'd been enjoying themselves up until now, playing night golf and avoiding any discussion of Veronica and Shelly's party. Until Duncan had to go and ruin it.

Logan pulls back, swings again, and hits his ball with a satisfying thwunk. It sails through the air in a glowing, neon orange arc, and lands on the fairway. Way past Duncan's blue ball.

"Come on." Logan slides behind the wheel of their golf cart, allows Duncan to plant one foot inside before hitting the gas pedal.

Duncan lands on his ass and glares up at him.

"What?" Logan shrugs, unapologetically. "You can't blame me for timing it perfectly."

"You're an asshole."

"Takes one to know one."

Duncan grabs the bar this time, slipping onto the passenger seat before Logan can zip away without him. "I noticed you didn't answer my question."

"It was a stupid question."

"Why?"

"I never said I was in love with her."

"You didn't have to." Duncan twists in his seat, grabs two bottles of water from the cooler in back, and shoves one at Logan. "You threw me out this morning."

"You deserved it!"

"I know! But the old Logan never cared about who was at fault and he never would have sided against me."

Logan's brows pull in and he struggles to find the words. "You think…I should've stood by you out of some kind of blind loyalty? I should've just 'gotten over' all the ways you hurt Veronica, for the sake of our friendship?"

"Nope." Duncan looks off into the distance. "Not that you should've. That you would've."

"Same thing."

"No, it's not. The Logan from a year ago, in the same scenario, would've made all the wrong choices. He would've defended me, even knowing I was the guilty party, and probably would've kicked Veronica off the boat."

Logan stares at him for a long moment. "What is this? Jealousy?"

"A little?" Duncan shrugs. "It hurts a little to come in second place. But you made the right choice today. That's how I know you love her."

Fuck.

"Because I'm incapable of morality otherwise?"

"Hey. You said it."

They make it to Duncan's glowing blue ball first. Logan stops the cart nearby, but neither gets off.

He untwists the lid on his bottle and swallows half the water in one go. "Even if I was in love with Veronica, it wouldn't matter."

"It matters. And I guess that's my answer."

"No. It doesn't." Logan's hard gaze locks with Duncan's. "It doesn't matter what I feel about Veronica. You broke her, man."

Duncan inhales like he'd been punched.

Logan gets out and stretches his arms while Duncan circles around from the other side. "Veronica knows how I feel about her. Maybe I didn't use the word 'love', but she knows." He gestures to Duncan's ball. Take your shot, man."

"You told her?"

"More or less. But your actions robbed her of her ability to trust, and to have faith in other people. She told me, point blank, that she doesn't believe in happy endings, because everyone she's ever loved ended up leaving her. And that's on YOU, man." Logan sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "And me, too, I suppose. I definitely contributed."

They reach Duncan's ball and he puts a foot on it to stop the blinking. "Sucks that it took you four years to figure out what you wanted. We all would've been better off if I never even had a chance.."

"You think I haven't thought about that five hundred times?" Logan swigs down the rest of his water. "The point is, maybe I do love Veronica, maybe I'd do anything for her. But Veronica isn't interested in being my girlfriend, and I care too damn much to settle for crumbs. Now take your fucking shot."

Logan

Day 12
Titan's Trigger
Nicholas Key, Florida

The mattress dips as Logan crawls into bed and he freezes, trying not to wake Veronica. After a heartbeat, he turns over and gets comfortable on his back.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to be stealthy." Veronica rolls onto her side, facing him, runs her hand over his chest. "Interesting sleeping attire."

"Sweatpants and a tee shirt?"

"Are you drunk?" Veronica's face tilts toward his own.

"Nope. We went night golfing instead. Only drank bottled water."

"So what is all this?" She sits up in bed, crosses her legs. "The pajamas? The two feet of space between us?"

"I don't know." Logan sits up as well, resting his elbows on his raised knees. "I just didn't want to presume..."

Zadie warned him earlier that Veronica might need physical space, and, while she'd seemed into kissing him down at the dock, that didn't mean she'd be ready for the usual near-nudity and spooning.

"You've been presuming since the night we left Neptune, when you climbed in bed with me."

"Yeah. I guess I did. But that was before."

"Before?"

"Are you going to make me say it?"

She sighs. "And this is exactly why I didn't want to tell you about Shelly's party."

"I'm trying to be considerate. What do you need from me? How can I make you feel safe?"

"I need you to act normal."

She crawls closer, and Logan straightens his legs, allowing her to climb onto his lap. She presses her cheek against his heart, and wiggles her shoulders to get comfy. "I need you to NOT start treating me like I'm made of glass.

"I'm sorry." Logan closes his arms around her and rests his chin on the top of her head. "I feel like such a piece of shit."

Veronica inhales, and he touches his fingers to her lips to stop her from speaking. "Just…let me say this, okay? Zadie said something this morning that stopped me from going after you. She told us to give you space and not make it all about our guilt."

"Zadie…might not be the asshole I thought she was. I mean, she's an asshole, but maybe not that asshole."

"Agree. So here's the deal. I forbid you from absolving me or making excuses for what I did."

"Forbid me, huh?" Veronica's tone doesn't set off any alarm bells. She gets what he's saying.

"Yes. I don't want to be reassured. I just want to offer you my heartfelt, sincere apology. I fucked up the night of Shelly's party, and a hundred other times, and it kills me knowing how much you've suffered for my actions."

"I accept your apology," Veronica whispers.

"Thank you." Logan kisses her temple. "Between the salt lick and Duncan's drink, I feel guilty as sin. And I need to, if I'm going to learn anything from this and become a better person. But I promise to try my best not to treat you like glass."

"Good. Because I would really miss the dry humping."

A laugh escapes him, both exasperated and amused.

"How did things go with Duncan?"

"We didn't murder each other, so…" Logan exhales. "I won't lie. I'm still furious at him, but I'm not going to punch him, or anything."

He startles at the sound of whimpering right outside the closet. "Shit. I forgot about him. I should probably take him outside."

"I'll go with you."

"You've had a hard day. Get some rest."

The whimpers escalate to cries.

"No. I want to." Veronica slides out of bed and one of the tap lights comes on, just barely illuminating her. "We need to talk, Logan. About a few things, actually."

Logan shivers. "Every time you say that, it feels like a ghost walking over my grave."

Veronica's 'Ha', sounds pointed.

He gets out of bed and crouches before the crate. "Hey, little guy. You need to go outside?"

"You realize he's going to grow out of that thing in five minutes."

"We'll get him a bigger one later. The vet said it shouldn't be much larger than the dog. Too much space and he won't feel safe and secure." He unlatches the door and picks up Cupid. Accepts a face-full of puppy kisses before clipping the leash to his collar.

They both slip into flip-flops, Veronica pulls her hoody on over her tank top, and they climb up the stairs to the deck.

"I'm going to carry him for now." Logan nods at the puppy cradled against his chest. "So he doesn't walk right off the edge of the dock or something."

"Sounds reasonable." Veronica takes his free hand, entwining her fingers with his, and they walk quietly through the dark marina, across the back parking lot and out the gate to a small stretch of shoreline too rocky and inaccessible to attract beachgoers.

He sets the puppy down, and Cupid immediately begins a game of tug-of-war with the leash.

"You can take it off him," Veronica sits on a large rock and gestures to their surroundings, "There's no cars or people around."

Logan unsnaps the leash and drapes it around his neck, takes a seat beside her, while the puppy makes it his mission to sniff every inch of the ground. "You wanted to talk?"

"Yeah. I should probably begin with a confession."

"What do you need to confess?" He wraps an arm around her shoulders and kisses the top of her head.

"Remember the night Zadie followed you home?"

"Barely. Why?"

Veronica stiffens a little. "Yeah, that's exactly the problem. Things were a little tense between us. For obvious reasons."

"Obvious reasons? You mean accusing me of murdering Lilly?" He keeps his tone light. 'No hard feelings'.

"Well that, and the fact that you stumbled in drunk with another girl and didn't bother to clue me in that she wasn't there for sex." She shoots him a reproachful look. "You were going to sleep on the couch with Duncan. But when you came in to grab some clean sheets we squabbled, and bickered, and made up, and…snuggled. I knew how wasted you were when we fell asleep."

"Okay?"

"I woke up in the middle of the night, and your mouth was there right in front of me, so I kissed you." Veronica leans up and gives him a soft peck on the lips. "Just like that."

"Wait. Can you repeat that? I didn't catch it the first time."

She rolls her eyes. "I don't know why I did it, but I immediately felt embarrassed and tried to roll over. But you grabbed me and kissed me, and we ended up making out."

"Wait, what?"

"Yeah. I guess I thought enough time had passed for you to have slept-off the alcohol. I didn't realize you were still drunk." She goes quiet for a second. "It's not quite the same thing that Duncan did. You were drunk, not roofied. But I kept thinking about it today. I wanted to kiss you, so I let myself believe you were sober."

"Veronica…" Logan sweeps his fingers down her jawline. "It's not even close."

"How can I be angry at Duncan, when I did the same thing?"

He sighs. "Imagine this. What if I hadn't drugged Duncan the night of Shelly's party? What if he'd given you a ride home and walked you to your door? How would you feel later if you learned that the two of you had kissed goodnight. You and the boy you were still in love with?"

"I might have been thrilled. If I took it as a sign he still cared about me, I mean. I just think it would be hypocritical of me to hold a grudge."

"Don't you get it? You're allowed to be hypocritical. You're allowed to feel anything you want. There are no rules when it comes to this."

She nods and squeezes his hand and they watch the puppy drag a piece of driftwood three times his size across the sand.

"Persistent little guy," Veronica says.

"Just like his mom. I still can't believe we made out that night. Is that all we did?"

"Well, it got a little hot and heavy. Nothing really happened. I straddled you, and there was a bit of dry humping, but then, out of nowhere, you just rolled over and went back to sleep, without so much as a 'Goodnight, Veronica'."

"Dry humping? How unlike us." He runs a hand down her arm. "So that's why you were so jumpy the next morning?"

"I didn't realize I was jumpy. What did you think?"

"I knew you were mad at me for blacking-out something important, but I assumed it was a conversation. Like the sappy, emotional kind of conversation."

Like, 'I love you, Veronica. Please love me back!'

"Mad at you? How could I have been mad at you? You should be mad at me. I'm the one who took advantage of you when you were drunk."

"Wow." Logan shakes his head. "I'm only mad at myself for not remembering the good stuff."

"Hmmm. That's unfortunate." Veronica finally seems to catch on, because she speaks low and suggestively. "Maybe I should recreate the moment for you? Just to jog your memory?"

He laughs, low in his throat and kisses the tip of her nose. "Let's press pause on the reenactment until you're my girlfriend."

"Your loss." She pouts. "It was pretty amazing, as far as makeouts go."

"Oh Veronica," Logan nuzzles that spot on her neck, making her shiver. "Every makeout with you is amazing. But wait until I start making you come. You ain't seen nothing yet."

"And when—"

"When you're my girlfriend." They recite, simultaneously.

"Well, it's a good thing you're so stubborn." Veronica pointedly breaks eye contact to watch Cupid frolic.

"I thought that was a bad thing?"

"Not as bad as Chlamydia."

"Oh. God, that makes me want to kick Duncan's ass all over again."

"For what it's worth, it can't be spread by kissing. I asked."

"I wasn't worried."

"Logan, there are a few more things we need to discuss." She plays with his fingers, in an obvious stall tactic. "Actually, before we get to that, is there anything else you might be feeling guilty about?"

"Um…no?"

Crap. Does he have any more secrets? Of course, he does. But of the ones that come to mind, neither would prompt Veronica to guilt trip him.

"Confession is good for the soul, Logan."

"Fine." He huffs out a breath. "I kissed Duncan on a dare in seventh grade, and I think he was disappointed I didn't use tongue. Um…I've paid Beaver to do my homework so I can go out with the guys. Oh, and I flirted with Ms. Mills, hoping she'd raise my grade, and she tried to lure me out to some hippie commune."

"Anything else?" Veronica asks. "And I'm going to have a hard time getting that image of you and Duncan out of my head."

"Well… There's this one girl I've crushed on for years. We had this big falling out, where I pretended to hate her, but that didn't stop me from buying a bottle of her perfume just to torture myself with."

"Uh…" Veronica seems at a loss for words. "And who would that girl be?"

"Who do you think?" He breathes in the scent of her hair. "Read your wedding ring."

When she doesn't say more, he prompts, "Just spit it out, Veronica. Why am I in the doghouse?"

"And here, I was having so much fun making you sweat. How about we narrow the field. Did you, perhaps, betray my confidence to anybody recently? Maybe an authority figure? Short, bald, used to be a sheriff?"

"OH SHIT!" Logan drops his head back. "I asked him not to tell you!"

"I'm going to take a wild guess that his answer was a noncommittal Hmmm?"

That sounds about right. "So, how mad are you? On a scale of one to ten?"

"Six? Maybe."

That's it?

"Strangely enough, betraying me was the one way for you to endear yourself to my dad. It showed him you cared more about my safety than keeping me appeased. Apparently, he's Team Logan now. Said something about ordering a T-shirt"

"Wait. Did you tell him about THIS?"

"And by 'this', you're referring to…? Because from where I'm sitting, nothing's going on."

"You know what I mean. Did you tell your father that my tongue and your tongue have playdates, and that we occasionally get carried away and grind our pelvises together?"

"Do you think I'm crazy?"

Logan's shoulders relax. "Is that rhetorical? Because…"

"There's a reason he confronted me about my plan, and that's the part I'm not looking forward to telling you about."

His stomach tightens up, prepared for the next blow. "Did something happen to my mom?"

"No, it's nothing like that." She shifts slightly to the side and nuzzles into his neck. "My dad's been investigating Lilly's death again, now that Abel Koontz was cleared, and he came across some new information about her last few months."

"Fuck." Logan drops his head back again. "Okay, just rip off the Band Aid. Is it Weevil?"

"I'm afraid not."

"A different guy?"

Veronica sighs. She shifts around enough to wrap both arms around him. "God, I don't want to hurt you."

"And Duncan didn't want to hurt you, either. But by keeping secrets from you, he made everything much much worse."

"Okay, you're right." She exhales. "From what my dad learned, Lilly may have had multiple…um…extracurricular partners."

"Do you know who they were?"

"To start, she may have hooked up with Dick's step mom."

Logan almost chokes. "Kendall?"

"All I know is that they left a bar together. Maybe they drove off in different directions."

"Yeah. Right." He laughs bitterly. "I guess, as a guy, I'm supposed to think that's hot, but it really just makes me sad. I mean for Lilly to get mixed up with somebody as toxic as Kendall Casablancas."

"There was also a married man. The person dad talked to didn't have a name, but described him as rich, married, and prestigious. And at least once, he took Lilly with him to purchase drugs."

Suddenly, breathing seems to elude him..

He knows. That description could apply to any man in Neptune Hills, but he KNOWS with every cell in his body.

All the times his dad joined them out by the pool when Lilly was around. The way she'd adjust her bikini to display more assets.

He feels weirdly empty. Like a shell that's been hollowed out.

Veronica makes a coughing sound.

"There's more, isn't there?"

He feels her nod against his chest.

"And you saved the worst for last?"

"Mmm hmm."

"Worse than Kendall Casablancas? Worse than Weevil Navarro?"

Nothing could be worse than his father. Nothing.

'There's a reason he confronted me about my plan.'

"Oh God. NO!"

Veronica exhales and whispers, "Lilly was having a fling with Liam Fitzpatrick, and it lasted for a few months."

"Fuck!" Tears flood his eyes and that hollowness spins and whirls into a tight ball of pain.

So much for nothing could be worse.

Liam. Fitzpatrick. Violent, meth-head, Liam Fucking Fitzpatrick.

It's past time to give up the fantasy that Lilly ever loved him at all. That she was just some free spirit with too much passion for one person.

"Wherever your head is right now, Logan, stop it." Veronica braces his face between her tiny hands. "No matter what else she did, you were the only one Lilly ever loved. The only one she called her boyfriend. That has to mean something."

"No!" He jerks free of her grasp and stands. Pulls Cupid away from a tall weed he's battling and hugs him to his chest. "She never wanted a relationship with me at all."

It's all so clear, suddenly. All her veiled and not-so-veiled hints that he belonged with Veronica. All her little set-ups and nudges.

"All I ever was to Lilly was a coveted front row seat she was saving for a friend."

"That doesn't even make sense." Veronica joins him at the water's edge.

"Sure it does. Throwing your jacket over a chair doesn't mean it's special or that you care about it. It just makes it unattainable until your friend finally arrives."

He hears Veronica inhale, is eighty percent certain she understands what he's telling her, but when she answers, it's only to repeat, "I know Lilly loved you."

"When you love somebody, you don't betray them to fuck the friendly neighborhood psychopath, okay?"

And you don't fuck the OTHER psychopath, who spent a decade making your boyfriend's life hell.

"That was just Lilly. It had nothing to do with you."

"It had EVERYTHING to do with me. Don't you get it? There's just something wrong with me." He hates how raw and broken his voice sounds. "I'm too needy and I cling too tightly. I pretended she loved me and that we would have a future together." His tears are flowing freely now. "And now I'm making the same fucking mistake all over again with you."

"What do you mean?"

"Pushing you to be my girlfriend. Making demands. Imagining the two of us as some kind of Epic Romance story. Fuck, you've already told me you don't believe in happy endings. What more proof do I need?"

She gets up in his face. "Logan, stop! Please! That's not what you're doing, and I know it."

"Promise me, Veronica." He leans his forehead against hers.

"Promise you, what?"

"That you won't settle for me."

"What?" She jerks her head back angrily. "What the fuck, Logan?"

"Just…promise me." He kisses her cheek, tasting tears. Hers? His? A mixture of both? "You can have your pick of anyone. I would rather never have a chance with you at all, then to be someone you settle for on your way to something better."

"Will you shut the fuck up?" Veronica grabs him by both ears, preventing him from pulling away. "Never talk about yourself that way again. Being with you is not settling. Are we clear?"

No. Not even close to clear. Especially since she refuses to be with him.

He nods.

Veronica releases his ears and takes his free hand. "I won't defend Lilly anymore."

"No. It's fine."

"No, it isn't. I loved her and I always will. She was a phenomenal best friend. But she was a TERRIBLE girlfriend, and a mediocre sister to Duncan. She was something different to everyone she knew. Warm and loving, callous and cruel, indifferent and insecure, jealous and vibrant and thoughtless and broken inside. All at the same time."

"She was definitely…something else."

Veronica's arms come up around his neck. "You're allowed to feel angry and betrayed and devastated. You're allowed to hate her. And I won't waste your time with any more platitudes."

"None?"

"None. Maybe she didn't really love you. Maybe she was too blind to see that the worthless lump of coal she was carrying around was actually a diamond. I always saw it. I still do."

The warmth flooding through Logan's chest calls his attention to the absence of cold.

He still feels sadness, but it's for Lilly. Her last few months were spent with the dregs of humanity - Liam Fitzpatrick, Kendall Casablancas, definitely his abusive, piece of shit father - while Logan gets to live out his days and nights with this beautiful, compassionate, ass-kicking, fierce girl.

He tugs Veronica's hips closer. "Her loss."

She gets that gleam in her eyes that always makes his heart quicken. "My gain." She pulls his head down, and they kiss for several, blissful seconds, until Veronica jerks away with a small cry.

"What? Did I do something wrong?"

She wags a finger in Cupid's face. "We. Do. Not. Eat. Mommy's. Hair. Understood?"

The puppy yawns and despite Logan's best efforts, a huge smile stretches across his face.

"Shut up." Veronica ducks her head, trying to conceal her own grin.

"I didn't say anything. Mommy."

"We can't keep him."

"Mmm hmmm."

・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・

Back at the yacht, Logan carefully puts the sleeping puppy back into his crate, covers him with his little blankie and silently closes the door.

Veronica points an imperious finger at him as he turns around. "Strip."

His eyebrows shoot up.

"To your underwear." She smirks. "In this bed, we sleep like the perpetually-horny newlyweds we're pretending to be."

Logan sheds his tee shirt and sweats, crawls into bed, and hovers over her, kissing her chastely on the lips. "Who's pretending?"

Veronica's arms wrap around him, preventing him from rolling away and her hands glide up and down his bare back. "God, I love touching you."

God, I love YOU. Every single part.

"Oh!" She nudges him off her, shifting into business mode as abruptly as ever. "Zadie and I started planning the 'survive Liam' portion of the story. And we should probably get to sleep, because we need to be up bright and early in the morning."

"Surviving Liam plan? Tell me more."

So she does. She rests her head on his chest, slides her thigh over his leg, and describes their strategy for the upcoming weekend.

Logan continues stroking her hair long after she stops speaking and her breaths lengthen. He thinks about Zadie's plan. About Lilly. And Liam.

That psychopath might have murdered Lilly, but Logan will die before he'd ever let him lay a hand on Veronica.

・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・

IT'S A BOY!

Nolan and Victoria Ellis-Marshall are thrilled to announce the arrival of their new bundle of joy, Cupid!

Cupid arrived Friday, at ten weeks old and a whopping twenty pounds.

Mom, dad, and baby are doing well and are registered at Petsmart and Pet Supplies Plus. Quality dog food donations will also be accepted.

(see AO3 version for Cupid's photo)

・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・

"Logan?" Veronica calls out, sleepily.

"Hmm?"

"What are you doing?"

"...nothing?" He closes the laptop, guiltily. "Just...um..." Scrapbooking?

"Too early. You're wasting valuable cuddle time."

Logan dives back onto the bed, assuming his rightful big spoon position. "I would never waste cuddle time."