Title: Fire on the Ocean, Lines in the Sand (2/?)
Author: chichuri
Pairing/Character: Veronica, ensemble

Word Count: 4558
Rating: R for mild language
Summary: AU Season 1: What if Duncan had died, not Lilly?

Spoilers: Season 1, although all aired episodes to be safe.

Disclaimer: Characters not mine, of course.

Author's note: Flashbacks are in bold; thoughts in italics. Much thanks to vmtranscripts for cannon versions of dialogue. Inspiration and some dialogue also taken from the original pilot script, original project notes, and pilot commentary, all available at Rob Thomas's website.

Author's note 2: Much thanks to vagajammer for reading over each chapter, bouncing ideas back to me, and continually asking "where's the next chapter in your AU project?" when my muse hijacks me to write something else. Next chapter as soon as I finish writing it, but the aforementioned fickle muse may (okay, probably will) interrupt me with something else first.

Author's note 3: I promise you, this is slowly splitting off into more AU territory; it's just taking a little while to get there.

Chapter 2

Good morning day
Sorry I'm not there
But all my favorite friends
Vanished in the air
It's hard to fly when you can't even run
Once I had the world, but now I've got no one
Three Days Grace--"Drown"

An enthusiastic pit bull waiting at the door is an antidote to a nearly unlimited number of poisons. The first honest smile of the day stretched Veronica's face. She scratched Backup's head and then knelt to envelop the dog in a hug, burying her face in the fur of his neck. The dog's tail wagged hard enough to shake his entire body as he expressed his delight at his mistress returning home. Muscles she hadn't even known were tense relaxed and she murmured happily to her eager audience.

When Veronica could deal with the world again, she stood. "Want to go for a run on Dog Beach?" she asked Backup, grabbing his leash and favorite ball. "You can chase the waves and any 09ers you find, I promise." She laughed at the delightful image as she clipped the leash to his collar. "And you know how you love the wind in your fur." The dog eagerly dragged her out the door, and once at the car jumped into his accustomed spot on the backseat. Veronica couldn't help but grin affectionately. The love and adoration of her dog was one of the only constants left in her world.

Few people were at the beach when she arrived, which suited her just fine. As she unleashed Backup and tossed the ball, she realized she recognized one of them.

Huh. Hope the PCHers don't spot him.

Veronica watched the boy skillfully maneuver a radio-controlled airplane through an acrobatic display. She couldn't make up her mind if he was brave or stupid, out here alone and unprotected.

A warm body leaning against her legs recalled her to the reason she'd ventured out. She grabbed the slimy ball from Backup's jaws and tossed it in the direction of the waves. The dog danced forward to grab the ball, then back as the waves rolled in. She caught herself smiling again.

A glance up, and she saw that Wallace was now watching her. He waved when he realized she had seen him, a small smile on his face. Waving back, once an automatic gesture, had become a conscious decision. One that she realized she had made only when she lifted her hand.

Is it weird that I keep doing stuff without thinking it through today? And that every time I do, he's involved?

Wallace's smile became larger and he nodded in acknowledgment, then turned his attention back to the whirring airplane.

Brave, she finally decided, pushing her choppy hair out of her eyes. Brave and terribly naive.

Eventually Veronica led the pit bull from the beach. All members of the Mars family needed to be fed, and the Mars Investigations paperwork wouldn't file itself. A quick trip home and she fed the four-legged Mars while preparing dinner for the two-legged ones.

"Backup, guard the apartment," she called as she left with dinner in hand. The dog lazily wagged his tail and settled on the couch.

The only good thing to come out of the hell that had been the last year, she decided, starting her car and pulling into the sparse traffic flow, had to be the increased rapport between father and daughter. She and her father had always been close, but his long hours at the sheriff's department had limited the amount of time they could spend together.

If she was going to honest with herself, back then she had been her mother's daughter. She had loved her father, had enjoyed being spoiled by the deputies at the department, and had found the bits and pieces of crime trivia that they all dropped fascinating. But she had enjoyed playing the pampered princess for her mother even more. Lianne had delighted in her girly daughter and Veronica had been desperate to please her even while it seemed her mother was slowly slipping away.

A flash of red worth more than the contents of her entire apartment caught her eye as she pulled onto the downtown street where Mars Investigations had their offices. One of these things is so very not like the others, Veronica mused, maneuvering the decidedly less glamorous LeBaron into a parking spot. The only thing more surprising than the sight of the red Jaguar convertible was the license plate on the car. KANE 2, Celeste Kane's car.

"Lilly . . ."

"Veronica, if you say we shouldn't be doing this one more time, I'm gonna leave you at home. And then it will be poor little me, all alone and vulnerable at a club in LA with no one to defend me." Lilly fluttered her eyelashes at Veronica before returning her attention to the highway, her blonde hair whipping back in the wind.

"Vulnerable, my ass," Veronica muttered, fidgeting as she adjusted the skimpy blue top Lilly had insisted she wear. She knew she sounded more than a bit sullen, but she was still annoyed that Lilly had steamrolled over objections to any and every flaw in her plan.

"Chill, Veronica. Dad and Celeste won't be back until tomorrow, so there's no way the Ice Bitch will notice her precious car is gone. Your dad thinks you're at my place, and no one will notice if I don't come home." Lilly tapped her scarlet tipped fingers against the steering wheel in time to the heavy beat from the radio.

"And sneaking into the club?"

Lilly waved one hand in dismissal. "As fabulous as we are? The bouncer will, like, bow down to our hotness and let us in without a blink."

Veronica glanced over at Lilly's barely-there outfit, then pulled down the visor and angled it so she could see her own clothes in the mirror. She evaluated the ensemble critically. "I think you overshot hot and descended into slutty on this one."

"And trust me, oh conservative one, in these getups we both look totally hot."

Veronica shook her head. "Next time, we take seducing our way into the club out of the equation. I'm sneaking us into the back room at the sheriff's department and making us fake IDs."

"Why Veronica Mars! How very criminal of you!"

"Not criminal, Lilly," Veronica grinned. "Just . . . enterprising."

The Jaguar had handled like a dream, the club had been a blast, and Celeste had never been the wiser. Veronica had smiled and kept her silence when, later in the summer, Duncan had borrowed the car to take her to dinner on her sixteenth birthday.

The familiar pain tightened around her heart and she gasped for air. Three heartbeats, and she fought back control. Just as quickly as the memories overwhelmed her, she choked them back.

Veronica stared at the car and wondered what had brought Celeste slumming. She couldn't imagine anything that would bring the illustrious Mrs. Kane voluntarily back into the orbit of the Mars family. And sitting out here examining her car won't help you figure out what she's up to, Veronica. Although I can now say with conviction that the body shop commissioned to put the car back together after Lilly wrapped it around that tree last spring does excellent work. After a final moment of hesitation she opened the LeBaron's door, grabbing up her messenger bag and dinner as she exited.

There was no sign of Celeste in the outer room of Mars Investigations, but the closed door and muffled voices indicated the inner office was occupied. Veronica put dinner in the kitchenette's refrigerator, her bag on her desk, and her ear to her father's door.

Damn these suspiciously soundproof doors. She couldn't quite make out sentences, just maddeningly incoherent snatches of words and phrases. For the hundredth time she contemplated the wisdom of bugging her father's office. On the one hand, she would be able to figure out what was going on in these 'confidential' meetings. On the other hand, if her father ever found out he'd be less than pleased with his daughter's ingenuity.

"Veronica Mars!"

Crap. Veronica abandoned the door and returned to her desk. Well, at least it was Cliff McCormack and not someone looking for a private investigator. Finding someone spying on confidential meetings was not likely to impress potential clients as to the discretion of Mars Investigations. At least Cliff probably wouldn't tell Mars Senior that Mars Junior had been caught snooping.

"My dad's with a client," she said with a trifle more force than necessary.

"Apparently. That's okay, I'm happy out here chatting with you."

Damn. Under normal circumstances, Veronica liked Cliff. The lawyer was one of few people in Neptune who had publicly stood by her father when he was unceremoniously booted out of office. Given the seedy nature of the Public Defender's clients, he knew well how the corruption of the current sheriff's regime had screwed anyone who wasn't rich or powerful. His timing, however, was terrible. She knew by the way he had planted himself in the chair across from her that he wouldn't leave until he got what he wanted.

She sighed and resigned herself to dragging answers from her father later.

Veronica and Cliff opened the conversation with the usual fencing match. He only gave amused lip service to the illusion that her duties were limited to filing and the occasional online searches. She refused to tell him any different, offering up plausible deniability if anyone in court challenged that evidence was obtained by an unlicensed, underage, junior PI. After a few minutes of familiar bickering he dropped a file folder on her desk. The case he presented balanced the tawdriness Cliff so admired with the sheriff's department corruption she so delighted in exposing. She made no promises, but Cliff knew her. She would take the case just for the chance to thumb her nose at Lamb.

Cliff had left and Veronica had just started flipping through the file when the door to the inner office opened and out walked Celeste Kane. The impeccably dressed woman stopped mid-sentence and mid-stride to glare at Veronica.

Ooh. And hatred wafts towards me on a cloud of expensive perfume.

"I didn't realize your . . . daughter worked here," Celeste said acidly.

"She helps in the office," her father returned flatly. "If that's a problem, I'm sure that there are other private investigators who'd be glad to have your business."

Celeste returned her attention to Keith, but didn't look any happier. "I hate the fact that I'm here but I do know if anyone would be dogged and resourceful in this matter, it'll be you." She swept to the door then turned. "Don't call me at home, I'll call you. And I'll need it right away." The parting shot was punctuated by the bang of the closing door.

Some days Veronica had no question where Lilly had gotten her sense of drama, although the restraint had passed her by. Duncan had been at the other end of the spectrum, with all of his mother's emotional reserve without the understated theatrics.

Veronica shot a curious look at her father, but he shook his head and retreated into the inner office. Explanations would have to wait until later and she hoped they would be damned good ones. Why Celeste would allow any Mars the opportunity to explore the dirty laundry of the Kane dynasty was a mystery. The woman hated the remnants of the Mars family: Keith for attempting to put her husband in jail and Veronica for coveting a place in her son's affections. Hell, the woman probably hated Backup for not conforming perfectly to breed standards. Veronica also suspected that Celeste held her at least partially responsible for her son's death. She couldn't blame Duncan's mother for that when it was probably true.

After all, if Veronica had answered his calls, gone to talk with him as he'd asked, maybe he wouldn't be dead.

Veronica huddled on the plush grey carpet, phone held loosely in one hand. It shuddered and indicated that Duncan was trying to reach her again. She didn't check this message either. She couldn't talk to him. Not now. Not after . . . she shied away from the thought. He broke up with her. He didn't want her anymore. She wondered what Duncan had heard, to be this desperate to get in touch.

She wanted to call Lilly, to cry on her shoulder and figure out what to do, but she couldn't. The betrayal cut too deep. It was possible her volatile friend may not have intended to break her promises, but experience should have shown that nothing came between Lilly and her hedonism. Not even friendship. Veronica wasn't sure if she could ever trust Lilly again. But whom else could she talk to? Logan? Even if she hadn't made his 'people I'm ignoring calls from because they're connected to that bitch Lilly Kane' list last week by reporting the kiss, anything he was liable to do would only make things worse. Meg would be sympathetic, but would never understand. Madison was an untrustworthy elitist bitch, as were the rest her 09er kin. Veronica wouldn't tell any of the 09ers anything beyond the superficial, and she had no friends beyond that exclusive circle.

She certainly couldn't talk to her parents.

She curled into the corner until after dark, trying to organize her thoughts and bouncing wildly between possible courses of action. She had just about convinced herself that despite everything the only person in whom she could confide was Lilly when she heard light footsteps on the stairs. The steps paused outside her room and were followed by a soft knock.

"Veronica? I need to talk to you." Her mother's voice was hesitant. Something in the tone made Veronica's stomach clench. She stood, closing her phone and tucking it into a pocket, as her mother opened the door and flipped the light switch, banishing the shadows from all but the darkest corners. Veronica's sense of dread increased at her mother's serious expression. She rubbed suddenly sweaty palms against her arms then crossed them defensively.

"Mom?" Did she . . .?

"It's Duncan."

Veronica froze.

"They think he's been . . . taken. Kidnapped, probably. At least they hope." Her mother's voice caught and she twisted her hands together. "They found a lot of blood out by the pool, and think that maybe . . . well, head wounds bleed a lot, and they have to do tests to determine . . . things."

In her worst nightmares Veronica hadn't expected anything like this. Her head filled with static and the roaring in her ears overwhelmed all but a few scattered words from her mother.

Veronica pulled herself together when her father emerged. Given her distinct lack of planted listening devices she would have to resort to interrogating her father and hope he wasn't in one of those 'protect the virgin ears of my poor innocent daughter' moods. After all, no matter how gruffly paternal her father insisted on being she was no longer virgin or innocent. Besides, he should know by now that she would just find his case files and read them if he was stubbornly uncommunicative.

Dinner and small talk softened up her father, but the case was disappointingly plebeian. Not that Veronica wouldn't be happy to prove Jake Kane was cheating on his wife, but it wasn't a particularly interesting story. And prove it she would; with her father going out of town to chase a bail jumper who chose a surprisingly convenient time to consider sampling Mexican hospitality, she was clear to take point on the case. Celeste wanted the information quickly, and Veronica was happy to demonstrate that Mars Investigations catered to their client's needs.

If I get bitter satisfaction from the thought of bringing pain into the Kane family, well, that's just one of the perks of the job, right?

Veronica had picked up Jake Kane at home, tailed him to Kane software, then followed him to his newest stop. Late hours at the office could simply be the sign of a workaholic. Late hours at the Camelot hotel? Sign of a marriage in trouble and money in the bank. The seedy motel always seemed to be the favored location of Neptune's philandering spouses for tawdry affairs, no matter what their tax bracket. Now she waited, hoping for the incriminating picture that had eluded her when he entered Room 6.

Ok, first, cheating spouses need to get some originality . . . and some class. I mean, easier for me to get the money shot here than at the Neptune Grand, but you would think more of them would learn . . . and that by now the desk clerk would have pictures of my car posted in the lobby. And second? Tawdry? I have got to stop talking to Cliff so much.

She sipped coffee and watched the motel, glad she had remembered the thermos. The caffeine and bitter taste prodded her mind into alertness while the heat warmed her fingers. She put the container back in the cup holder and lifted her camera, snapping a few shots of license plates of the cars in the parking lot. When she returned her camera to her lap, she glanced at her watch. Ten minutes and nothing; she probably had at least another twenty before anything interesting happened. If she was particularly unlucky and had a spouse who thought he was in love with the object of his lust, she could be here all night.

Time to make constructive use of my time. Studying it is. She balanced her calculus book on top of the camera, trying to keep Room 6 in her peripheral vision while she reviewed the chapter. Granted, the second day of school was unlikely to merit a pop quiz, even from the most sadistic of math teachers, but full scholarships to the school of her choice were elusive. And as a bonus, she could play another semester of 'confound the teacher', wherein she demonstrated her ability to wake from a doze to recite the day's lesson despite the fact no one thought she was paying attention.

Besides, long stakeouts were boring, and calculus slightly less so.

At the grumbling roar of motorcycles and blinding headlights in the rear view mirror, the night abruptly became less boring.

Well, this can't be good.

Veronica debated leaving before the bikers surrounded her, but that would be running. Running invited an enemy to chase and these were certainly not friends she wanted to lead home. A display of strength, and they might back down. Or, she reevaluated as she watched boys rendered faceless by motorcycle helmets position their bikes to surround her, they might try to chew her up into little, biker-sized pieces. She needed to have weapons at hand and be ready to bolt if the tide turned against her. Fortunately, as on all stakeouts, her arsenal lay within easy reach.

She identified Weevil by the gold cross around his neck even before he removed his helmet and motioned for her to roll down the window. She hesitated, complying only when she saw the other bikers were also unmasking. If they meant harm certainly they wouldn't be so stupid as to give her a chance to identify them.

"Car trouble, miss?" Weevil asked aggressively.

She breathed in and prepared herself. Never look scared in front of the enemy, no matter what. Look scared and you give them an opening. Besides, they're smart enough to know not to fuck with you. "Yeah, as a matter of fact. I think it might be a loose belt but if you wouldn't mind checking under the hood?"

She didn't recognize the biker that approached her car. He reached towards her, looking back at Weevil. "Hey Weevil, who gets the first danc-"

Backup, alert from the moment he had heard the rumbling of the motorcycles, was a tan blur as he jumped out of the back seat and fastened his jaws on the guy's wrist. The biker's cocky arrogance abruptly shifted to pants-soiling terror. "Get him off me! Get him off me, get him off me!"

Okay, my mistake. They're not so smart.

Felix she did recognize, and she thought at least Weevil's second would have known better. However, putting that knowledge into action appeared to be beyond the impulsive biker's repertoire for the evening. He loomed over her threateningly and waved a fist in her face, growling, "Girl, you best call off your dog."

A taser to the chest, and Felix dropped with a comical expression of shock.

Veronica raised an eyebrow at Weevil, who looked embarrassed. "Y'know, both you and Logan should really look into getting more intelligent lieutenants," she commented dryly. "Your current models have demonstrated a shocking lack of self-preservation." Almost feeling sorry for Weevil over the state of his troops, she called off Backup and offered a compromise. "I'll tell you what. We'll call it a draw."

With hard eyes, Weevil watched the biker that Backup had taken down scurry away. He did not look happy when he turned back to her. "Baby, come on, it's too late for that."

She tilted her head, trying to figure out exactly how pissed off Weevil was and running scenarios for resolution of this skirmish through her mind. Finally she settled on the offer that was most likely to get them all home with dignity intact. "Here's the deal. Leave that kid at school alone for a week and I'll make sure your boys walk."

The proposition seemed to have the desired effect, since Weevil settled into talking rather than kicking her ass. "Why you care so much for that skinny Negro anyway? Things I heard about you, he must really lay the pipe right."

"Yeah, that's it." She couldn't explain why she was helping him. Maybe she simply wished someone had been willing to stand by her, once upon a time.

Felix chose that moment to claw his way out of the electricity-induced daze and used her car to pull himself upright, only to go very still as Veronica demonstrated the taser's arcing electricity. His eyes crossed as he watched the blue-white stream crackle three inches from his nose.

Weevil broke the standoff. "All right, all right. Felix, we get it, you're a badass, okay? But for once don't be stupid."

"Not bad advice," she told Felix, taser still pointed at him. He backed away slowly, delighted by the opportunity to get away yet save face. Veronica thought the Hispanic boy looked more intimidated than impressed. Weevil, however, looked impressed and a touch amused.

"All right, one week," he conceded. "After that, we come for you, your boy and your little dog too." He started his motorcycle, signaling to the rest of the gang that the confrontation was over.

"So . . . does that make them," she gestured towards the bikers that surrounded her, "your flying monkeys?"

Weevil laughed and shook his head. "You get lonely out here, remember: Weevil love you long time."

Veronica watched the bikers return to faceless anonymity and ride off with a screech of tires and the stench of exhaust. Backup, aware the danger had passed and he had once again successfully defended his mistress, wagged his tail. Once she was sure everyone was well away from her car and not coming back for a return engagement, she opened her door so the dog could leap into the back.

The adrenaline rush left her restless, euphoric, and far more awake than she needed to be at this late hour. By the time she came down off the high she'd be getting up for school. I am so gonna miss the summer. Late night stakeouts are gonna suck now that school's back in session.

Movement at her target's door snapped her back into focus, and she grabbed her camera. As she watched through the viewfinder Jake Kane emerged, turning to talk to someone still in the room as he left. She could see a woman's hand holding on to the doorjamb, but no details.

Come on, come on, Veronica silently urged as she took pictures. Come out into the light . . . or at least lean in for a kiss, so I can show that something is going on, if not with whom. Her pleas fell on deaf ears, and the critical picture once again eluded her. She was left with evidence suggestive that an affair was taking place but nothing to merit closing the case. Damn.

"Come on, Backup, let's go home," she said to the dozing pit bull. "I need a few hours of sleep so I'm not a walking zombie tomorrow."

Veronica's second day back at school was similar to the first, minus the drama at the flagpole. The vapid teenagers trying to make more of themselves than they would ever be were the same. The stares, the whispers, the debates at snide confrontation, those were the same. Logan Echolls disdainfully tipping her books out of her arms as he sauntered by, almost comforting in its familiarity. The new guy sitting at her table? Well, that might be a repeat of yesterday, but it was alien to every day before.

She hesitated then walked over to the table, sitting down and pulling out her apple and a notebook. Everyone knew this spot was hers; Wallace was the one intruding on her ground. If he had a problem sitting with her, he could damn well move.

"Girl, you should hear what people say about you," Wallace said, amused, as she settled into her seat.

"So then what are you doing sitting here?" she snapped back. She didn't know which rumors the new boy had heard, but by now there were thousands to choose from. She was surprised disappointment churned in her stomach at the thought that the kid had joined the rest of the herd.

"You sat next to me," Wallace countered. Unlike yesterday, he appeared more amused than repelled by her tone of voice.

He still seemed friendly, but Veronica knew better. She'd dealt with this situation before, back when she still thought she might have a few friends at the school. "This is my table."

"And what a fine table it is." Wallace grinned and rapped on the shiny red surface next to his lunch. "What do you suppose this is made of? Oak?"

"Look, if people are saying such awful things…" she rolled her eyes and trailed off, leaving him the opening to leave. Or insult her.

"Well, I figure I've got a choice," Wallace said. "I can either hang out with the punks who laughed at me and took pictures of me while I was taped to that flagpole, or I can hang out with the chick who cut me down."

Or . . . support her? Veronica couldn't recognize any sign of insincerity, and she'd become expert at detecting bullshit in the last year. An odd sensation spread through her. It took her a moment to identify it as hope, tinged with a bit of happiness.

Maybe, just maybe, she had found a friend, one untainted by the scandals of the past year. She smiled at the thought.

First things first. She would have to keep this boy alive long enough to be her friend. "So you want to get the PCH Bike Club off your ass?"