A/N: This was inspired by one of the VM Fic Rec August fic prompts ("The way you flirt is shameful.") I read that one line and the entire story kind of popped into my head. Unfortunately, the story then grew, and grew, and ended up being about five times as long as the maximum length allowed for a fic prompt submission. So here it is instead.

Many thanks to ELSchaaf for her continuing encouragement, and for being the most helpful and eagle-eyed beta on the planet.

When everything imploded, it was with a swiftness that amazed Veronica. They'd been a foursome for so long, first as friends, and then as two couples and two sets of best friends (but always with that other, odd, undefined but still important, diagonal relationship).

Then everything happened at once. Or so it seemed.

Veronica saw Logan kiss Yolanda at a party and told Lilly. She didn't know why she was so angry with him, considering he wasn't her boyfriend, but she was. Veronica didn't often do self-righteous, but there was just no other name for her attitude when she ratted him out to Lilly, who, predictably (and somewhat hypocritically if she were ever to be honest about some of her own clandestine activities) broke up with Logan immediately.

Logan was angry with Veronica for tattling, but she remained firmly convinced that she was justified in her actions, and things became a little strained across their diagonal divide.

Veronica knew it didn't matter anyway. Lilly would eventually take him back and all would be well again. But before that had a chance to happen -

Duncan broke up with Veronica. Maybe. Either that, or he just lost his voice. Because he suddenly stopped talking to her. Not a single word. Not even "hey."

Veronica was mystified as to what she could possibly have done to earn the silent treatment. She couldn't ask Logan because he was still angry with her. And besides, she didn't think he knew what was up with Duncan any more than she did.

She did ask Lilly, but Lilly was uncharacteristically evasive. More or less told her to get over it.

Veronica was sad and perplexed about Duncan - as well as a little cross with Lilly - when Lilly arrived to pick her up for the pep squad car wash. But Lilly was all coy smiles and infectious giggles that day, and pretty soon Veronica had shrugged off her peevishness - as usual.

Lilly kept going on and on about some big secret - some hot little tidbit - the whole time they were getting soaked washing cars, but Veronica just shook her head and laughed. She knew Lilly's "secret" wouldn't be a secret much longer, because Lilly would bust a gut if she had to keep anything to herself for very long. And she just knew that whatever it was that Lilly wanted to tell her would surely be outrageous.

But Veronica never heard what had kept Lilly giggling to herself for three hours straight. Instead, the other shoe dropped. Or maybe the other, other shoe. Or perhaps the other, other, other...

Veronica sighed. It seemed like footwear was falling from the sky with increasing frequency.

But this...this seemed...unbelievable. After they left the car wash, Lilly found a note in her car from Logan. It seemed that this time there would be no reconciliation. No abject apologies or hot make-up sex. No totally inappropriate PDA to let everyone know they were "on" again. Logan had declared - and he'd put it in writing - that he and Lilly were completely, absolutely, unequivocally over. In other words, Logan had broken up with Lilly. Lilly was outraged. It was simply not to be borne.

"But, does he say why, Lilly?" Veronica was supportive and concerned.

"Oh, yeah, he says why. He says we don't fit. That we don't work together. That he wants something that I can't give him." Her face twisted in anger. "Like what? Like a better quality blow job?"

"I...I'm sure that's not what he meant." Veronica flushed with embarrassment, but tried to be sympathetic.

"Oh, yeah? And what do you know about it?" Lilly turned on her in a flash.

"Nothing, nothing at all!" Veronica said hastily. Although in truth, she understood exactly what Logan meant. "Um...does he say anything else?"

"Yup, there's more. He wishes me well. He fucking WISHES ME WELL! What the hell does THAT mean?!"

If ever Veronica knew a time when she Should. Not. Answer. this was it.

Lilly's eyes narrowed and she gazed at Veronica speculatively. Nope, she thought after a moment's consideration, just not possible. There was cute, after all. But that was light years away from fabulous.

"What about your big secret, Lil?" Veronica asked a little later, when Lilly dropped her off at home. "Aren't you going to tell me?"

"Never mind that now," she said petulantly. "I'm not in the mood."

Veronica hopped out of the car and didn't even have to ask what she was in the mood for. Lilly was going to do what she always did when thwarted. She was going home to sulk, and to make everyone else in the Kane household as miserable as she was.

Veronica was perfectly happy to be out of the line of fire.

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Over the next few weeks,Veronica came to realize just how much her world had changed. On the surface, she and Lilly were still BFFs, but it seemed like something had come between them. For Veronica's part, it was that little niggle in the back of her head that told her that Lilly knew something about Duncan's strange behavior that she wasn't telling her. And try as she might, she couldn't get rid of that niggle.

And then she'd catch Lilly staring at her, eyes narrowed, brows raised, mouth quirked in a puzzled frown. Like she was wondering...what? It unnerved Veronica more than a little. Did Lilly not...trust her? But she was the one who'd squealed...um...did her BFF duty and told Lilly about Logan and Yolanda.

And why the hell had she ever done that?! Nothing but trouble had followed.

So Duncan was playing the mute, and Lilly was prickly and unpredictable. And Logan? Well, he hardly spoke to her, and when he did, it was with a smirk and a wink. She hadn't had a real conversation with him in weeks.

But Veronica was weighed down with guilt over his break-up with Lilly. She just knew that if she could get them back together, everything would return to normal. So she took a deep breath and approached him one day when she found him alone by his locker.

"Logan."

"Mars." For once, Logan was looking at her without his usual smirk, but the expression on his face baffled her.

The intensity of his gaze somehow made Veronica's palms begin to sweat as she wrapped them tightly around the wide strap of her messenger bag. This was ridiculous! She'd had conversations with this boy about everything from the best way to kill spiders (he was for a quick stomp, she for a slower poison) to the easiest way to sneak into the house when drunk. (Veronica hadn't really had any use for this particular piece of wisdom at that moment, but that never stopped her from having an opinion.)

She knew she'd been silent too long when he quirked his brow in that sardonic way he had and asked, "Cat got your tongue?"

Veronica felt pretty darned stupid. "Lilly," she finally said.

"What about her?"

"Um, why did you break up with her?"

Logan's look was quizzical. "I told her why. I gave her a letter explaining everything."

He paused and looked straight at her. "I'm not Duncan."

Veronica flushed. "Yeah, she told me about the letter. But...but is there some other reason? Lilly seems to think there is, and somehow, I don't know why, it's like she blames me. Is it...is it the Yolanda thing?"

Logan looked thoughtful. "So Lilly sent you to interrogate me?"

"No, no, of course not! I just thought if I could tell her...something, she'd stop, I don't know, blaming me."

"Why should she blame you? It was my decision."

"I don't know, but I can't think of anything else to do." Why did Lilly blame her?

"Don't you ever get tired of being Lilly's errand girl, Veronica?" he asked abruptly. He almost sounded angry.

"Errand girl! I'm not her errand girl!"

"Errand girl, shadow, clone. You choose."

"I'm none of those!" Her original objective forgotten, Veronica was furious now. "I'm my own person!"

"Well then you should speak for yourself."

"Huh?"

"Ever heard of Priscilla Mullens, Mars?"

"I don't know any Priscillas. Is she your latest conquest? Your rebound girl?" There was a tartness to Veronica's tone now.

Logan's lips turned up in just the barest of smiles. "Come see me after you figure it out," he said, closing his locker and walking away down the hall.

Veronica frowned. She couldn't go back and tell Lilly that there was a new girl in Logan's life, Priscilla Whatsis. So she'd humiliated herself for nothing. And she was still at odds with everyone who used to be her second family.

She was beginning to think she really needed to expand her social circle.

xxxxxxxxxx

Dick Casablancas had had a crush on Cindy Mackenzie since the seventh grade, when they'd been paired up on a science project. While Cindy had ended up doing most of the work, Dick had ended up with a yen for Cindy that hadn't gone away in the three years since. If anything, it had intensified, as the girl of his dreams blossomed in her own unique way.

She was nothing like any of the girls in Dick's crowd, with their brittle manners and slavish devotion to fashion. Dick didn't care anything about fashion. He was far more intrigued by Cindy Mackenzie's open smile and the interesting streaks of color that she put in her hair. He'd sometimes make bets with himself about what color she'd choose next. When he guessed right, he felt ridiculously happy.

Of course, despite his multi-year fascination with all things Cindy Mackenzie, Dick had never actually approached her. In fact, Dick hadn't had a real conversation with Cindy (exclusive of "sorry" when he accidentally-on-purpose bumped into her in the hallway) since the completion of that seventh grade project. Because everyone knew it wasn't cool to "like" someone like Cindy Mackenzie.

She wasn't an 09er, and Dick understood the rules, even if they were all unwritten. So instead, he was forever getting stuck with that bitch Madison Sinclair, who'd been pushed in his face by his dad practically since the cradle. (If only, he thought, there were some way to magically switch Cindy and Madison so that Cindy was the well-connected girl that his dad would approve of. But he knew that was just wishful thinking.)

So Dick had kept his yearning to himself until one day he'd had an epiphany. (Not that Dick had any idea what an epiphany was. Or had ever had one before. Or would probably ever have one again.) But on this particular day, he suddenly thought, "Hey, what about Veronica Mars?" Dick had no personal interest in Veronica Mars, of course. The very thought made him shudder. She kind of scared the bejesus out of him.

Nope. What had finally penetrated his brain was that Ronnie wasn't an 09er, either, but she and Duncan Kane had been sucking face for almost a year before Duncan dumped her. Okay, so they were broken up now, and anyway Duncan was like some golden boy prince of the 09ers who could do whatever the hell he wanted. But wasn't that pretty fucking unfair? Why couldn't Dick make a move out of their zip code, too?

As they approached their usual table at lunch time that day, Dick decided to ask Logan for his opinion, because Logan always knew about shit like that.

"Hey, Logan," he dived right in. (As always, with Dick, the thought was followed almost immediately by the sound of his voice.) "What if you liked this girl, I mean, really liked her a lot, and she wasn't an 09er?"

Logan eyed him suspiciously. "What the hell are you talking about, Dick? What non-09er girl are you suggesting that I like?" Logan was suddenly agitated, his long arms flying around and his entire body tensing.

Why the hell was Logan getting so torqued up about this?

"Not you, me."

Logan's expression shifted from suspicious to perplexed. "Huh?"

"Geez, Logan, and I'm supposed to be the dumb one. How hard is this question? What if I liked a girl who wasn't an 09er?"

He couldn't be any plainer than that.

"You? You like some girl who's not an 09er? How do you even know any other girls? And what about that princess of sweetness and light, Madison?"

"Madison's a bitch. And never mind how I know her. Anyone. Any other girl." Dick was becoming frustrated. "Can you just answer the question?"

Logan studied Dick for a moment, finally shrugging.

"Hey, Dick, if you like some girl, then just go for it. What the hell difference does it make where she lives?"

"So...that's it? Just...ask her out? But what about everyone else? They'll give me shit."

Logan shook his head. "If you really like this girl, why would you give a fuck what any of those assholes think about it?"

Dick's mouth dropped open as he contemplated this new concept. Not to care what everyone else thought. Maybe Logan was onto something there.

xxxxxxxxxx

Cindy Mackenzie, who hated her first name, and preferred to be known simply as "Mac," was beginning to wonder. She knew she must be crazy, but it almost seemed like Dick Casablancas was...um...noticing her. Even possibly staring at her. And he'd been doing it for a while now. It made her squirm, because while statistically she knew it couldn't be true that the popular 09er even remembered who she was, she now had weeks' worth of empirical data that proved that it absolutely was true. She just didn't know why it was true.

Dick hadn't so much as grunted in her direction since that seventh grade science project that she'd had to do all the work for, so why the sudden interest now? As she watched him cross the courtyard toward her lunch table, she quickly realized that she was about to find out the answer to that question right now. He stopped beside her abruptly and she looked up at him quizzically.

"Uh, hi, Cindy." As openings went, he thought that one was pretty reliable.

"Mac," she said.

"Uh, no, Cindy, it's Dick." Shit, she didn't even remember his name?

She smiled suddenly. "Yeah, Dick, I know it's you. I meant me. I go by Mac now."

"Okay, cool." What the hell did he care what she called herself?

Dick had spent a lot of time (well, a lot of time for Dick) trying to come up with a reason to talk to her. It had been three years since they'd spoken, and even Dick knew that he couldn't just say what he wanted to, which was, when stripped to the basics, you're the one I want to be getting busy with at parties.

Perhaps just a tad too direct.

So he went with something plausible and hoped it might get him a foot in her door.

"So, I'm kind of having trouble in Geometry and I thought maybe, you know..."

"Dick, I'm not going to do your homework for you. Seventh grade was a while ago, but I haven't forgotten exactly how much work you didn't do on our science project."

"No, Cin...uh Mac. I thought you might help me learn that shit...uh...stuff."

Mac eyed him quizzically.

"Dick, are you asking me to tutor you?"

"Uh, yeah. I'll pay you, of course. I'll even double the usual rate. I...uh...just really need some help."

Mac eyed him suspiciously. She was a good student, but there were others who were better. And Geometry was not her best subject. So...why was he asking her to tutor him? On the other hand, she really couldn't afford to turn down easy money. She was saving up to buy a car, and this would put her a lot closer to her goal.

"Um, okay, I guess I can do that. When do you want to start?"

"Today after school?"

"Why not?" Money in the bank and the chance to study Dick's chiseled jaw line.

Oh, shit, she did not just think that!

xxxxxxxxxx

Veronica studied herself in the mirror with the same concentration and focus that made her such a successful student. And she didn't like what she saw.

What had Logan called her that day, now several weeks ago? A clone. That's what he'd said. That she was Lilly's clone. She'd rejected it at first, would have denied it with her last breath, but she was coming to the conclusion that Logan had been right all along.

And Lilly, who used to like picking out Veronica's clothes for her and telling her how to fix her hair and her makeup, now seemed to be avoiding her.

Veronica narrowed her eyes and squared her shoulders. It was definitely time for a change. Time for her to take a step away from that corner she'd been hiding in. Time to create a different, edgier Veronica, to make the outside Veronica a little more like, well, the inside Veronica. And she was going to start today.

If she had Logan's comments in mind when she made her decision, well, she couldn't help that.

If she had Logan himself in mind, she wouldn't be admitting that to anyone. Especially not herself.

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When Veronica arrived at school a few days later, Logan was in his customary spot in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by his usual coterie of lackeys and wannabe girlfriends. She sailed right past him, just as she generally did these days, since they'd never recovered the free-and-easy relationship they'd once had, when they'd been the opposite corners in that tight-knit four-way friendship.

Although he usually tried not to be too obvious, he always noticed, always knew when she was within sight. But today, he just couldn't help himself. He practically gawked. Because the Veronica who had once played the part of Lilly's Shadow was no more. In her place was a hot, hot, hot enchantress.

Her shiny blond hair was still long, still swung down across her shoulders, but it had been cut into layers that framed her face and emphasized her classic features. Gone were the fuzzy pink sweaters and modest skirts, and in their place was a short, short skirt, a sleek off-the-shoulder sweater, and high leather boots. And every other guy in the courtyard noticed, too, he saw, as the eyes of a dozen different males followed Veronica's progress as she walked toward the school.

Shit! This was not supposed to happen. Logan was not pleased.

The two leggy brunettes who had been hanging all over him reclaimed his attention just then. He smiled at them automatically, and threw an arm around each, just as Veronica turned in his direction and locked eyes with him. He smiled at her and her eyes narrowed when she saw the girls draped across him.

Veronica changed direction suddenly, moving quickly until she was standing right in front of him. His heart sped up as he studied this new Veronica up close.

"New friends, I see," she said with a smirk. "And is one of these lovely ladies by any chance 'Priscilla'"?

Logan grinned, delighted that she'd remembered that comment, but frustrated that she hadn't yet figured it all out.

"Nope. These are my new neighbors, Lola and Lana." He smirked at each of them in turn. "I'm just showing them the ropes here at Neptune High."

"That's right," one of them (Lana?) said, wrapping her arm around his waist. "Logan's been so helpful."

"I'll just bet he has," Veronica muttered.

"Ladies, it's been a pleasure making sure that you feel welcome here in Neptune." Logan's grin got even wider as the girls simpered at him, and Veronica appeared to become correspondingly more agitated.

She rolled her eyes as she turned to leave but before she'd taken three steps away from them, Veronica pivoted around and marched back toward him, studying the tableau he made with the girls stretched across his lanky frame.

"The way you flirt is shameful!" Her expression hovered somewhere between haughty and disdainful.

He was momentarily startled, but only just, and then his usual smirk returned in full force.

"Shameful, is it? That doesn't sound good. I certainly don't want to be ashamed of my proficiency as a flirt. I'll just have to try a little harder. What do you think, ladies? Practice makes perfect?" This last was directed at his new neighbors.

They giggled right on cue, as Logan faced a now furious Veronica Mars.

"You know very well that's not what I meant!" she fumed, stalking away in her sexy boots, the unknowing dream girl of every guy in the vicinity.

Including the one she'd just upbraided. The one whose eyes never left her hot little body as she disappeared into the school.

The one who wondered, as he often had lately, if he'd been crazy not to just tell her how he felt months ago, instead of waiting until he thought she was ready to turn their relationship in a different direction.

It had taken him a little while to put it all together last fall. His emotions had been all over the place, like pieces in a puzzle, but without any pattern to follow.

His extreme restlessness after Duncan had broken up with Veronica. His angry overreaction when Veronica had ratted him out to Lilly. His impatience with Lilly. He'd thought it all over during that weekend in Mexico with Dick and Beaver, and was sure he'd figured it out. He'd come back early, determined to apologize to Lilly, to try to make amends, to make it work.

But then he had seen them at the car wash, side by side, their hair full of soap suds and their eyes sparkling with mirth, and he'd known what he wanted. And it wasn't Lilly. So what would be the point of trying to salvage a relationship he was more than ready to let go of?

It was a spur of the moment decision to write that letter, but he'd meant every word, and he'd never regretted it. But he'd had two goals in mind that day. The first was to break up with the girl it was never going to work out with. That one he'd accomplished. The second was to figure out a way to be with the girl he really wanted. And that one was still a work in progress.

Inwardly, he'd been ecstatic just now, because she'd seemed a little...jealous...but he really couldn't wait much longer. This new hot Veronica was going to have a line of admirers forming pretty soon, and he couldn't let that happen.

xxxxxxxxxx

Over the past months, while Veronica Mars and Lilly Kane had never officially severed their friendship, the relationship had eventually become so strained that they rarely spent much time together. They weren't enemies, they'd simply drifted apart.

It was the inevitable fallout from the Duncan-Veronica-Lilly-Logan round robin of unpleasant events that ultimately loosened the ties that had once bound them so tightly together. It pained Veronica to admit that the once tight-knit group was no more, but she'd finally recognized that it was time to expand her social circle beyond the Kanes and the other 09ers.

In English class one day, she'd found herself exchanging amused glances with a girl with blue streaks in her hair over Ms. Murphy's obsession with romantic poetry. The amused glances had led to even more amusing conversation and in what was probably a surprise to both of them, a friendship soon blossomed between Veronica Mars and Cindy Mackenzie.

They discovered they had a lot in common. They were both good students and already in a lot of the same classes, and their worldview was remarkably similar. Neither was into girl talk or spending hours at the mall, and both suffered from an innate skepticism. Not many new friends could bond over their mutual misanthropy, but it worked for Mac and Veronica.

Mostly, they hung out over lunch in the computer lab or chatted between classes, so Veronica was pleased but a little surprised to see that Mac was waiting for her at her locker that morning, eyes widening as she took in Veronica's new look.

"Well," she said, looking amused. "I don't think anyone will be calling you a pale imitation of Lilly Kane when they see you in that outfit."

No sooner had the words left her mouth when they saw Lilly herself approach from the other end of the hallway.

"Veronica Mars, what have you done to yourself?" Her eyebrows raised, Lilly inspected Veronica from head to toe. "Is there some special reason for this sudden transformation?" Her tone was suggestive.

"Not really." Veronica could hardly tell her she was tired of being in Lilly's shadow.

The smile Lilly turned on the two girls was wide, but it didn't quite reach her eyes.

"And who's this?" She eyed Mac as though she were an altogether different species.

Veronica had always known that Lilly could be dismissive, but Mac was her friend, and she bristled. Lilly spoke right over her as Veronica tried to make an introduction.

"I'm having a party, Veronica Mars, and I want you to be there." When Lilly was on a mission, she was not to be denied.

Veronica hadn't been to the Kane house in months, and Lilly could see her reluctance now.

"Bring your new friend, if you want," she glanced at Mac curiously.

"I don't know, Lilly..." But Lilly waved away her objections with a flick of her hand.

"Saturday night," she said. "And bring that new attitude."

Mac watched as Lilly sashayed away down the hall, shaking her head in disbelief. "So that's Lilly Kane, up close and personal," she said.

"That's her," Veronica said, her lips starting to turn up at the corners. Soon they were both dissolved in giggles, and Veronica felt more light-hearted than she had in months. Maybe, she thought, she'd needed to get just a little more perspective.

"Did you have a special reason for waiting for me today, Mac?" Veronica asked.

Veronica was amazed to see the red tide of a blush rise across Mac's cheeks. Intrigued, she pulled her into the nearest empty classroom.

"Okay, Mackenzie, spill!" she demanded.

Mac, who never had girly conversations, couldn't for the life of her figure out how to begin.

"Um, a b-boy," she finally stammered.

Veronica waited patiently for further details, but when none were forthcoming, she grinned.

"Mac, am I going to have to guess my way through every boy in this school?" she teased.

Mac laughed at herself. If she wanted Veronica's opinion, she'd have to provide at least a few details.

"Okay," she said. "There's this guy I've been, uh, spending a lot of time with. I've been sort of...helping him with something. But, um, yesterday, he kind of, well, he kissed me."

"Kissage, you say! Well, that sounds promising." Veronica smirked encouragingly. "So are you gonna tell me who you've been making out with?"

"Not making out!" Mac was quick to point out. "He just kissed me that one time."

"One time tells the tale, Mac. This guy obviously likes you. And I get the feeling you're right there with him. So what's the problem?"

Mac hesitated. "Well, he's, um, an 09er." Her voiced trailed off as she glanced at Veronica out of the corner of her eye. "You know the 09ers, and so I thought maybe..."

Mac stopped when she noted the dismay on Veronica's face.

For her part, Veronica was torn between rooting for Mac's new romance and warning her that 09er guys were sometimes - often - not to be trusted. She suddenly felt very protective of her newest friend.

"Who...who is he?" Some of the 09ers were pretty good guys, but others were sharks just waiting to mess with those they considered their social inferiors.

"I'd rather not say right now. But he kind of...well he kind of asked me out."

"Okay. What did you say?"

"I said I'd let him know today." Mac was practically wringing her hands in an agony of indecision. "What should I do?"

Veronica sighed. "Well, if you like him..." she glanced at Mac, who confirmed this with a curt nod, "then I guess," reluctantly, "you should give him a chance."

She continued in a rush. "But make sure he takes you to a public place, and...and don't let him take advantage of you."

Mac smiled for the first time since their conversation had begun. "Okay," she said. "I think I can handle that."

xxxxxxxxxx

No one had been more surprised than Cindy Mackenzie when she'd begun to look forward to her tutoring sessions with Dick Casablancas. Dick was...different from what she'd expected. What she remembered. He was funnier, kinder. Even, maybe, just a little bit sweet.

It didn't take her long to realize that he really didn't need much help in Geometry. Or that she was having a lot of fun hanging out with him.

They discovered a mutual passion for video games. Dick was pretty good, but he rarely beat Mac, and when he did, he was always wildly excited. Mac found it impossible not to respond to the sheer enthusiasm that governed Dick's personality, and if he wasn't hard to look at, well, that was just a bonus.

For the first time in her life, Mac was having a good time with a boy without even thinking about it.

And then one afternoon, after Dick had beaten Mac for the very first time at his favorite game (well, maybe she had slacked off just a little), the exuberance that was everyday Dick reached new heights and he'd suddenly grabbed Mac by her shoulders, bent down quickly, and kissed her.

Mac, who'd never, ever been kissed before, was astonished, and embarrassed, and some other emotion she couldn't even identify, all at the same time. Dick was abashed, as though he couldn't quite believe that he'd had the balls to actually kiss her, after dreaming about it for so damned long.

And on the heels of that thought came another. He cleared his throat and glanced nervously at Mac out of the corner of his eye.

"So, um, Mackie," she couldn't remember when he'd started calling her that, "do you wanna maybe go out sometime?" The words came out all in a rush.

Mac was sure she must have heard him wrong (but then, she was equally certain he hadn't kissed her, so her perception receptors were maybe just a bit...fuzzy.)

"Uh, what did you say?" she heard herself ask, but it seemed like her voice was coming from somewhere else, somewhere that wasn't her mouth.

"Maybe we could go out," he said. "Sometime," he added. "If you want," he finally finished, the last words nearly strangling him.

And at last she had to acknowledge that Dick Casablancas had not only kissed her, but was now asking her for a date. Mac felt the beginnings of what she was sure was a panic attack, although she'd never in her life had one. She grabbed her books, shoved everything in her bag, and was nearly out the door before Dick could even react.

Oh, shit, I've scared her away. "Mac!" he yelled, just as she reached for the doorknob. She turned, her face a study in confusion.

"Aren't you even going to answer?" he asked, flustered.

"Tomorrow," she finally said. "I'll, uh, meet you in the back parking lot after school and give you an answer."

Dick, ever the optimist, smiled, relieved. It wasn't a "yes," but it wasn't a "no," either. He went to bed that night happier than he'd been in a long time.

Mac, on the other hand, didn't sleep at all.

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The next morning, Mac had found herself receiving some very unexpected advice from Veronica. She'd been so sure that her friend was going to warn her off, but she hadn't. And Mac was happy to give it a chance, give Dick a chance.

After school that day, Mac was running late, as usual, so she was hurrying through the courtyard toward the back parking lot, excited to be meeting Dick, and paying no attention to her surroundings. And so was startled when she suddenly ran headlong into a solid wall of rangy, six-foot male.

"Oof," she said inelegantly, as she sprawled on the ground with the wind knocked out of her, and watched as all her possessions went flying out of her bag.

"Oh, geez, I'm sorry. Guess I wasn't looking where I was going," a voice said, and she looked up into the apologetic brown eyes of Logan Echolls.

"Not your fault," she said. "I was kind of in my own little world, too."

Logan helped her up, checked to make sure she wasn't hurt, and then stooped to gather her belongings, which were scattered all over the ground. And he did it all with grace and a sympathetic smile that she hadn't expected from someone who held such a lofty position in the social hierarchy of Neptune High.

Well, of course he can't be a complete jerk if he's a friend of Veronica's. Or had been a friend. Mac wasn't really sure, because the one subject that Veronica never, ever talked about was Logan Echolls.

She smiled at him then, a friendly smile which he returned. He patted her on the shoulder, gave her a wink, and said, "It was nice bumping into you. Maybe we'll run into each other again some time."

She giggled at that, and thought to herself, witty, too. Too bad they're not still friends. They seem like they'd fit.

But Mac didn't have time just at that moment to ponder the vagaries of Veronica's social life, not if she was going to have one of her own.

When she finally reached the back lot, it was just in time to see that Dick was already in his car and looked like he was about to drive off. Mac was puzzled, and a little panicked. Perhaps she'd been so late that Dick thought she wasn't coming. But she was here now, wasn't she? And Dick was looking at her with an expression that wasn't even remotely welcoming.

"Dick?" Mac tried tentatively.

"Well, Cindy Mackenzie, it looks like you hit the jackpot." Dick sounded angry and upset.

"What are you talking about, Dick?" Mac's confusion grew as she took in the scowl on his face.

"You know, I've had other girls do this to me before, use me to get to what, I mean who, they really wanted. But, you know, I didn't think you were like that." In his hurt and disappointment, Dick had somehow managed to forget that it was he who had initiated their current friendship.

"Dick, I don't understand..." But that was as far as she got.

"I saw you, so don't even try to deny it." Dick was so unused to the feelings that were churning in his gut and crushing his heart that he could think of nothing but getting away from this girl. Of retreating to his own world.

"I should have just stuck to my own kind. At least when an 09er girl is a bitch, she doesn't pretend she isn't."

And with that parting shot, Dick drove off in a cloud of dust, leaving a very unhappy girl in his wake. A girl who just two short minutes ago had thought she was admired, even desired, but who had instead been called a user and a bitch. And told her zip code wasn't high enough for her to be bothered with.

Cindy Mackenzie dropped to the ground for the second time in just a few minutes, but this time she really wasn't okay.

xxxxxxxxxx

Dick Casablancas hadn't been the only observer of the interaction between Mac and Logan that afternoon. While Dick was approaching from the back lot, Veronica was coming from the opposite direction, having just left the school. But like Dick, Veronica hadn't seen the collision, only its aftermath.

And had, unsurprisingly, jumped to the same conclusion. They were, after all, in thrall to the same possessive feelings.

When Veronica had seen the smiles and the shoulder pat, the wink and the giggles, she felt like she'd been punched in the gut.

Logan? Logan is the 09er that wants to date Mac? I didn't even know they knew each other. And...and Logan kissed Mac?

Poor Veronica. She hadn't known, hadn't realized just how much she would hate the idea of Logan actually finding a "nice" girl to date. As long as he was flitting from one 09er bimbo to another (like that Priscilla, whoever she was) she was able to pretend she didn't give a damn what he did. But now? She was astonished at how hard it was going to be to watch Logan date yet another good friend.

Veronica spent the rest of the afternoon psyching herself into being okay with a Logan/Mac hookup. She knew Mac was great, and that Logan's taste in women had gone up several notches if he'd chosen to date her.

No wonder Mac hadn't wanted to tell her the boy's name. Well, she could just knock any idea that Veronica might be upset about this right out of Mac's head when the inevitable excited phone call came that evening, as she knew it would. And she'd be good with it. She'd be happy for Mac. And for Logan, too, of course.

Of course.

Veronica had been so successful at creating the perfect happy reaction, that when Mac finally called, it took her a while to understand that things had not gone precisely as Mac had hoped. Veronica hadn't understood. Not for several minutes. After all, she'd seen the grinning and the giggling, but then she realized that she'd left before they'd parted ways. Perhaps after that...

She'd only been half-listening, still lost in her own confused thoughts, when something Mac said suddenly made her sit up.

"He called you a what?" Veronica was incensed! Not only had the mighty Logan Echolls led her good friend on for no apparent reason, and then dashed her hopes in the most callous way possible, but he had actually called her a bitch!

Mac was still crying when Veronica made up her mind that Mr. Logan Echolls was going to be one sorry SOB by the time she got through with him!

xxxxxxxxxx

Veronica dressed with a purpose the next day, in the brightest, sexiest outfit she owned. The daring little red sundress barely conformed to the rather flexible Neptune High dress code. If you were going into battle, she figured, why not put on your shiniest armor? And as far as she was concerned, her war with Logan Echolls had only just begun.

As soon as she walked into the school courtyard, there he was, as expected. For once, she was gratified by his predictability, as well as the inevitable audience that gathered around him. She had invited Mac to the party, but Mac had preferred not to know what Veronica had planned and to remain quietly in the computer lab, soothing her hurt feelings with dependable binaries and cryptic passwords.

So Veronica was going into battle alone this day. But she was ready. These days, Veronica was always ready.

She squared her shoulders and marched purposefully toward the crowd gathered around Logan. And there was no mistaking her gait. She didn't amble, and she didn't stride. She marched - as though there were a Sousa anthem playing in her head.

As Logan watched her approach, everything else fell away, so focused was he on the picture of fiery feminine perfection that was making its way towards him. Today, he had already decided. Today he was going to do something, or say something, or he would simply go out of his head. He'd use this opportunity to ask her to meet him later on, somewhere more private than the Neptune High courtyard.

When she stopped in front of him, a huge grin spread across his face as he waited for the inevitable snark. But there was no snark on this day. Like a Valkyrie maiden, but with words as her sword, Veronica was practically quivering with self-righteous anger as she landed the first punch.

"You. Are. Disgusting."

Logan's grin faded when he saw the expression on her face and finally understood what she'd said to him.

"Veronica, what the hell?" His face was a mask of bewildered hurt. They'd never said that sort of thing to one another before.

But before he had a chance to get out another word, Veronica forged ahead. She had a plan, a series of killing blows, and she intended to stay on point.

"It's one thing, Logan, when you charm one of your 09er bimbos into believing that they're anything more to you than a..a..fuck-buddy," her face flamed as the crude expression came out of her mouth, "but when you lead on a nice girl like Mac, that's just beneath contempt."

Logan's face showed more and more confusion. But Veronica didn't notice, so intent was she on winning this first battle.

"And to call her a...a...bitch? I expected better from you, but obviously, I shouldn't have. You made a big mistake this time, Mr. King of the 09ers. Mac is a friend of mine, and just so you know, I've got her back."

Veronica was vibrating with fury by the time she finished, but Logan stood stock still, his mouth hanging open, shaking his head as he made an effort to process her words, to make sense of it all. And eventually, one question stood out.

"Who the hell is Mac?" he muttered under his breath, far too softly for her to hear.

But when he looked up, she was gone, a blonde blur in a crowded courtyard.

"Who the hell is Mac?" he shouted after her, but by then she'd already been swallowed up by the usual early morning chaos.

He never got an answer to that question, because no matter how many times Logan called or texted Veronica, she refused to respond. By the end of the day, Logan Echolls was one seething mass of frustration.

For her part, Veronica had thought she'd feel a sense of satisfaction after she launched her pre-emptive strike at Logan, but instead she felt empty, and more alone than she had in a long, long time.

Later that day, when Lilly Kane stopped her in the hall to congratulate her on her epic put-down of Logan Echolls, Veronica just shrugged.

"Well, I can't imagine what the hell Logan did to get you so pissed off, but if you come to my party tomorrow night, you can just get down and dirty until you forget all about it."

She looked at Veronica intently. "The Donut won't be there, if that's what's keeping you away. He's going to Napa with Celeste for the weekend." Lilly smirked. "A little mommy-son bonding time, I guess."

In truth, Veronica hadn't given Duncan more than a passing thought in weeks, but she wasn't about to tell Lilly that. But then she thought, why shouldn't she go? And bring Mac with her. Surely they could both use the distraction.

Veronica's lips curved into her first genuine smile of the day. "Maybe we will come, Lil."

Lilly laughed. "Knew I could talk you into it." She looked Veronica over carefully. "And be sure to wear something hot, Veronica Mars."

xxxxxxxxxx

It took Veronica longer than she anticipated to talk Mac into going to Lilly's party.

"Look, Mac, we don't have to stay long, but we need something to distract us from...everything."

Mac finally agreed when it occurred to her that Veronica seemed to need cheering up even more than she did. When Mac arrived at her house, Veronica even convinced her to borrow a halter top to pair with her jeans, instead of the t-shirt she'd been wearing.

"Come on, Mac, live a little," she laughed, as she coaxed her into using just a touch of makeup.

Soon, they were both giggling as Mac helped Veronica choose an outfit for herself that was guaranteed to turn a few heads. The high spirits continued as they said good night to Veronica's parents, hopped into Veronica's car, and headed toward the Kane house in anticipation of at least a little bit of fun.

So much for planning. As it turned out, they'd barely walked through the door to the Kane mansion when everything went to hell.

xxxxxxxxxx

Standing in opposite corners in the rear of the Kane living room, glowering like a pair of antagonistic prizefighters, Logan Echolls and Dick Casablancas were both astonished to see who had just walked through the door. They began to make their way from their respective corners toward the middle of the room, eyes never leaving the objects of their desire. They nearly collided as they met in the center.

"Can't keep your eyes off her, can you, Echolls?" Dick was belligerent, and even louder than normal.

"What the hell is your problem?" Logan responded angrily. Dick had been treating him like a leper ever since he'd arrived and he wanted to know what the fuck was up. Had everyone gone completely nuts?

Dick and Logan, nearly the same height, squared off against each other then, eyes bugging, fists clenching, ready to do battle right there in the huge Kane living room. Not ten feet away, Mac and Veronica heard the exchange and their eyes widened in disbelief as they stood gaping.

The other 09ers, sensing that something was afoot, some juicy scene that would become legendary in the annals of party lore, looked from the two angry boys to the two astonished girls, and cleared the path between them immediately. All the better to have a front-row seat to whatever it was that was about to happen next.

Even Lilly herself decided to give them all a wide berth, waiting in gleeful anticipation for the fascinating developments she just knew were about to make her party the most talked-about 09er bash in ages. And she didn't have to wait long.

"You want to know what my problem is, Logan?" Dick wasn't backing off now. "It's you. You thinking you can just...just...swoop in and take any girl you want! Even when you knew I liked her."

He was practically quivering with righteous indignation.

"Dick, I think you've gone off the deep end..."

"Don't even try to deny it! I saw you just now. You were practically fucking her with your eyes!"

Two soft little gasps were heard then, and Logan and Dick turned almost in unison to face the two girls standing so close by, taking in every word. But they were on a roll by then, and nothing was going to stop this train wreck from happening.

"Since when have you ever been interested in Veronica?" Logan's anger was now laced with confusion, and he shook his head slightly as he turned back to face Dick.

"What the hell does this have to do with Ronnie?" Dick practically bellowed into Logan's face. "You know damn well I'm talking about Mac!"

Logan's always-short fuse was at last burnt through. This again. This mythical Mac. He'd had enough and he wanted some answers.

They were so close to each other by then that the hot breath of their anger mingled in the small space between them. And Logan asked it again, practically spat it out, the question he'd been trying to get an answer to for 36 long, miserable hours.

"Who the fuck is Mac!?"

Before Dick could explode, Veronica decided that she had heard enough. She rushed into the fray, crossing the short space that separated them from the boys, and pulled at Logan's arm, forcing him to turn and face her.

"You are worse than disgusting. You are contemptible. First you play with Mac's feelings, then you deny you even know her! Maybe you can do that with people like that Priscilla...Mullens," there, she thought, she'd finally remembered her full name, "but you can't treat good people like Mac that way..."

Veronica broke off suddenly as she felt a tugging on her arm, and heard Mac urgently saying her name.

"Veronica, Veronica, no, stop! You've got it all wrong. It...it wasn't him." She tried to keep her voice low, but it was impossible not to be overheard by their now silent audience.

"But...but, I saw you. In the courtyard. You were laughing together, and I thought..."

"I literally ran into him in the courtyard because I was racing to meet," she broke off, half-glancing up into Dick's astonished face. "Anyway, he helped me up, picked up my stuff. He was...nice. I promise you, Veronica, that is the one and only time I've ever spoken to Logan Echolls."

Logan looked at her then. This was Mac? The sweet girl who'd bumped into him? He'd heard the saying 'No good deed goes unpunished,' but this was the first time he'd actually seen evidence that it might, in fact, be true.

Mac turned to him. "I'm so sorry. I had no idea she thought...well...what she thought."

Logan nodded. She was clearly not to blame for this fiasco.

Veronica, however, stubbornly, was not giving up. "Well if it's not Logan, then who...?" And then her gaze lighted on Dick, who was looking down at Mac as if the sun had just come out after the world's worst thunderstorm. And she finally understood. Omigod! It's Dick?

"Is that true, Mackie?" Dick was asking. "You're not trying to get with Logan?"

"Of course it's true, Dick. I wish you had let me explain."

Dick pulled Mac into his arms and kissed her then, oblivious to, or perhaps uncaring of, their audience. (And if a little gasp was heard from the far corner of the room where a certain blonde 09er had been watching the unfolding scene with increasing anger, well, that part never made it into the official version of the story.)

"You can explain it to me now," Dick said, grabbing Mac's hand to pull her away from the others.

"In a minute, Dick," she said. "First I need to talk to Veronica."

Veronica glanced at their faces then, Dick's happy, Logan's tight with anger. She didn't have the courage to even look at Mac. She knew she'd screwed up royally, and that Mac had every right to be pissed, but she was so hoping...

"Come on, Veronica, we need to talk," Mac said, pulling her out of the house and toward Veronica's car.

xxxxxxxxxx

"Mac, I am so sorry..." she began, as soon as they'd settled themselves into the front seat. But Mac cut her off with a laugh.

"Veronica, I'm not mad, if that's what you think. Dick made the same mistake you did. But he made that mistake for a reason...and I think you did, too."

Veronica looked puzzled. Mac sighed.

"I didn't bring you out here to talk about me. I want to ask you about something you said while you were, uh, yelling at Logan."

"Which part?" Veronica asked ruefully, shame flooding her cheeks as she began to understand the enormity of her error.

"The part about Priscilla Mullens."

Veronica was surprised by that. "Well, I think that's Logan's girlfriend. Or maybe part-time girlfriend? I don't know. I've never actually seen her."

"How did you hear about her? Hear that name?"

"It was months ago, when I was asking him about why he broke up with Lilly. He accused me of being Lilly's errand girl. He said I should...what was it? Oh, yeah, I should speak for myself. And then he mentioned this girl, Priscilla."

A huge smile broke out across Mac's face. She was absolutely certain now that she'd got it right.

"Veronica, there is no Priscilla. Or, maybe, strictly speaking, Logan is Priscilla."

"Um, Mac, if you think that Logan has some kind of, well, alternate personality as a girl, I can assure you..."

Mac burst into giggles then, amazed at how the brilliant Veronica Mars could be so far off the mark.

Still smiling, she asked, "Veronica, don't you remember eighth grade English? We read a poem by Longfellow called The Courtship of Miles Standish. I know you were in that class and so was Logan."

Veronica's face scrunched up, but the reference eluded her. She was surprised that she didn't remember, but then of course -

"I had a bad case of the flu that winter. I was out for almost a month. Mr. Garvey said my average was high enough that I didn't have to make up everything I'd missed. I guess I missed...that."

Mac sighed. "Okay, but you must remember that everyone went around saying 'Speak for yourself, John,' pretty much for the rest of that school year."

"I do remember that!" Veronica recalled. " I kept wondering who 'John' was." And she was wondering now what all this had to do with...anything.

"Well, I think that in this particular instance, Veronica, 'John' is...you."

Veronica sat in silence for a moment. "Okay, Mac, I'm not getting it, whatever it is, so why don't you just go back inside. I'm sure Dick will be happy to take you home. I'm just going to..."

"Veronica! Just listen. The Courtship of Miles Standish is a narrative poem about Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullens, whom they both loved. It takes place in Plymouth Colony. You know, the Pilgrims."

"Sounds exciting so far," Veronica said with a smile.

Mac continued. "So Miles Standish sends his friend, John Alden, to Priscilla to ask if she'll marry him. Marry Miles, that is. But Priscilla, well, she's secretly in love with John, so she says to him..."

"Speak for yourself, John." Veronica looked up, understanding finally dawning. "And he said, Logan said, I should 'speak for myself' because..." Her eyes locked with Mac's.

"Exactly."

Veronica sat there stunned for a few seconds, and suddenly she was grinning from ear to ear, happier than she'd been in a long time.

"How did you figure it all out, Mac?"

"Well, it wasn't hard, once I actually saw you in action with Logan. I mean, you never talk about him, but it was clear tonight that there are some seriously strong feelings there."

Veronica blushed.

"And then when I heard 'Priscilla Mullens'," Mac grinned, "my brilliant mind put it all together. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?"

Veronica and Mac looked at each other, and as though on cue, they both jumped out of the car and ran back to the Kane house. Dick was standing just inside the doorway.

"Took you long enough," he complained, but he had a smile on his face. "What do you girls find to talk..."

Veronica cut him off abruptly. "Where's Logan?"

Dick looked a little sheepish. "Well, we decided to just forget about it. It was a big misunderstanding..."

"Great! That's great, Dick, really. But where is Logan now?" Dear god, was she going to have to pull the information out of him?

"Uh, I'm pretty sure he went home. Said he didn't feel like partying..."

But Veronica was already racing out the door.

"Good luck, John," Mac yelled after her.

"Hey, who's this John?" Dick asked, confused.

"Never mind, Dick." Mac smiled up at him. "He's no one you know."

xxxxxxxxxx

Veronica drove to the Echolls house fueled by impulse and adrenaline. She needed to do this now, before she lost her nerve. Unexpectedly, the gate was open when she reached it, but the house was dark, not a single light showing as she pulled up and parked in the driveway.

Veronica knew that Logan spent a lot of time in the pool house, so she moved towards it in the dark, hoping that she'd find him there. Her heart began to beat faster when she saw a soft light shining through the pool house windows.

Come on, Veronica, you can do this. Don't chicken out now.

Before she could change her mind, Veronica moved swiftly to the door, knocking firmly. She waited what seemed like an eternity before the door opened, and Logan was standing there framed in the doorway with the light shining behind him. He stood stiffly, warily.

"Veronica," he said.

She cleared her throat, agonizingly nervous, as she thought about what to say. And then, suddenly, she knew exactly what she needed to say.

"I'm looking for Priscilla Mullens," she said firmly, her eyes on level with Logan's chest, "Is he here?"

"He?" Logan asked. "Isn't Priscilla usually a girl's name?"

"Usually," she said, "but not this time. This Priscilla is most definitely male, about six feet tall, brown eyes, great smile, although I have to say I haven't seen it much lately."

She chanced a look at his face then, noting the smile that had begun to crinkle at the corners of his mouth and his eyes. His body had relaxed, too, and he'd shifted to lean against the door jamb, arms crossed in front of him.

"And if I should run across this poor sap with the girl's name, who should I say is looking for him?"

"Well, that would be me, John Alden, come to speak for myself. Now I know that's usually a boy's name, but..."

Veronica never got to finish that sentence because strong arms reached down, pulling her firmly against him, and then soft lips were kissing her, and she was drowning in sensation, from the arms, and the lips, and the warm body that was wrapped around hers.

And once they'd started, they couldn't seem to stop kissing, until finally Veronica remembered that they were standing in the doorway, and that maybe they should move into the house. She pulled away, and they smiled at each other. In fact Logan was grinning hugely as he tugged her into the room and onto the couch.

"Finally," he said. "What took you so long?"

"Mac just explained it to me, about Priscilla Mullens and...and...John Alden."

"But you were there, Veronica, in that very same class." He was perplexed.

"I had the flu. Never read it. Didn't know what you were talking about."

He laughed ruefully, rubbing the back of his neck in one of those signature Logan gestures that she remembered so well.

"Serves me right for trying to be clever, instead of saying what I really wanted to all those months ago."

"Which was what?" Veronica asked a little breathlessly.

"You asked why I broke up with Lilly. There were a lot of reasons, and some of them I put in that letter. But the truth is," he ducked his head, embarrassed. He sighed, finally, and shook his head, knowing that he'd have to say it if he wanted her to stay.

He looked into her eyes, reached up and stroked her cheek softly, and began again.

"The truth is, I couldn't stay with Lilly when all I could think about was being with you. I thought I could, thought I could just get everything back to the way it had been, but then I saw you at the car wash and," he stopped and took a deep breath, "I knew I'd never be able to be with Lilly and hide how I felt about you."

"Well, you hid it from me long enough," she said, leaning her face into his palm and covering his hand with her own. "But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. I don't think I would have been ready for this, us, before now."

"And now?" he asked, wanting just a little reassurance.

Veronica grinned. "Now, all systems are go."

"You know, you really put me through the wringer this year," Logan reminded her.

"I know," she said. "I'm sorry."

"You didn't let me finish. What I was going to say was, you really put me through the wringer this year," he grinned as he leaned down, beginning to kiss her again. "But it was all worth it, every single miserable insult."

And then the talking part of that evening's program was pretty much over.