Disclaimer: no one mentioned belongs to me. Title credit to Sarafu.

Generic season 2 spoilers.

Bad boys for life, claimed the poet P. Diddy. Over time, Troy had no choice but to take the interpretation literally. If you were a bad boy once, you were a bad boy, unfortunately, for life. That was the brand you carried. Sure, you could go to counseling. Military school. Electro-shock therapy. The moon. But it would make no difference. In the eyes of the populace, you were a Bad Boy. Leopards, after all, can't change their spots.

The thing is, he's not a leopard; he's a person. Troy has been branded a thief, a liar, a cheater, and a drug dealer. He earned all of those, but he also spent a lot of time regretting and repenting. At the time he made no distinction between good and bad, but nowadays, the line is bold and clear. And he can see how clearly he was on the other side of the line. He's not fond of who he was. But he's changed, damn it, he's a good person now, and that has to count for something.

Veronica, on the other hand, believes him incapable of change. According to Duncan (when Duncan still spoke to Troy, that is), Veronica had once upon a time been a shy, sweet girl. That image totally didn't gel with the firecracker that had fascinated Troy when they'd met. But if a person like Veronica could evolve from the girl Duncan had described, then her shooting down the very idea of his transformation is hypocritical.

And yet, Veronica's continued cynicism doesn't turn him off. He hadn't realized that that tiny empty part of him was even there until he recognized her face at the Hearst open house. And then he remembered everything: the first time he saw her in that ridiculous little hat of hers; the first time he ever talked to her; the first time she had ever let him kiss her. He had really liked her. His entire relationship with Veronica was the first time he had ever been genuine.

Troy sat in his bedroom, one that was still bare from his move-in a few weeks prior. He saw no point in unpacking any of his possessions; he would be going off to college in two months, and if he knew his family at all, they'd be moving again in three.

He was trying not to get excited about Hearst. He was going to keep his grades up, and keep out of trouble, because his parents threatened to put him in jail if he had even the slightest relapse. He'd been okay in juvie for a few months, but he'd turned eighteen since then, and he wasn't looking forward to being someone's ass candy. He knew he was pretty. So Veronica Mars walking into his life for the first time in over a year was like a sign from God. She'd saved him from that seemingly inevitable stay in jail this time. Not that he was looking to keep her around to stave off future instances of trouble. No, he was looking to keep her around for far more selfish ways.

They were two prospective Hearst freshmen, and if he was lucky, they'd soon be two legitimate Hearst freshmen. Maybe they'd have some classes together, some intro course held in a giant lecture hall, and Veronica, being as prickly as she was, wouldn't object when he sat next to her. After all, wouldn't she rather sit next to someone she knew?

Maybe, maybe not. Veronica took risks, after all, and she'd probably rather risk sitting next to someone she might end up hating than next to someone she already knew she hated. Except, he didn't think she hated him anymore. She'd helped him, right? That had to mean something.

Which was why he was staring at two of the few trinkets he had littered around his room. His phone, hooked up with a shiny new number so that certain nameless troublemaking exes couldn't get a hold of him (Veronica notwithstanding), and a scrap of paper that he'd salvaged from the wreckage of his old life, that had seven numbers written on it in jagged, laughing scrawl. He plugged them into his keypad, one by one, and lifted the phone to his ear.


"Wallace," he said, trying to sound casual. "It's Troy."

Wallace was drumming his fingers on the tabletop when Troy showed up, an embarrassing fifteen minutes late. "Sorry, man," he apologized, wanting to rectify the poor start as soon as possible. "I've got a new car, which is to say, a used car, and she's a little more used than advertised." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the large picture window, which was displaying Troy's junker sedan parked across the street. ('Parked,' right. More like, 'laid to rest.')

"That's yours?" Wallace said disbelievingly. "Don't you come from crazy money? I seem to recall a sweet ride in the not-so-distant past."

What was not so distant for Wallace was an entire lifetime for Troy. He smiled, shrugging. "After rehab, I had to find my own wheels. That was pretty much all I could afford on a part-time salary." Wallace blinked at him. "No more free money for me."

"You weren't kidding about reformation, huh," said Wallace.

"No," Troy agreed. "But could we not talk about it right now?"

"What do you want to talk about?" Wallace dug his fork into the piece of chocolate cake set out before him. "Veronica?" He shoveled the cake into his mouth, and studied his fork intently. He was no doubt hyperaware of Troy's stare.

Troy, meanwhile, was thinking about how in Veronica's shadow, Wallace appeared to be just a sidekick. But he was definitely far more intelligent and intuitive than he got credit for.

"I don't know," he said cautiously, "is there anything to talk about?"

"I'll put it this way," said Wallace, with a slight quirk to the lips. He chewed and swallowed another generous mouthful of cake before continuing. "The first time you left, Veronica wouldn't shut up about what a jerk you were. And after this last time, she didn't even bring it up." The quirk turned into a full smile. "I'd call that progress."

"Thanks for being honest, man," said Troy, ashamed of his own dishonesty in even calling the meeting. "And for coming. I really appreciate it."

"Hey, you gave a brother a chance when you didn't even know me," said Wallace. "And Veronica would kill me for saying this, but I always liked you. You were cool."

"So you won't pretend not to know me when you see me at Hearst next year?" said Troy.

"I might even wave."

Troy laughed, feeling a weight lifting from him, one he didn't even know was holding him down. It was weird having friends again, no matter how loose the definition. "Be right back," he said, and went up to the counter to order an identical piece of chocolate cake. Wallace's snack was making him hungry. When he returned triumphantly a few moments later, the sweet, fluffy treat inspired him to ask, "So is she..."

"Seeing someone?" Wallace filled in the blanks with a knowing look. Troy felt his face heat, and he prayed that he wasn't blushing. He was no longer attempting any sort of tough guy image, but that didn't mean he wanted to be painted as some sort of pansy emo kid who pined over that cute blond in chemistry that just refused to look his way. "I think she's seeing Logan Echolls again."

"Oh," said Troy, deflating. Then, "'Again?'" He must have missed the memo on that.

"Yeah. After you left, she started dating Leo, then broke up with him to go out with Echolls, then they broke up for like, two days, then got back together, then broke up again, then she went out with Duncan, but he fled the country with his daughter, and she was flying solo for awhile, but now she's back with Logan."

"I'm confused," was all Troy could think to say. He thought Veronica hated Logan. Did Wallace just say Duncan had a daughter? And who the hell was Leo?

Wallace shrugged. "I could draw you a diagram."

"That's okay. I'm getting the gist." In other words, Troy Vandegraff was persona non grata in the world of Mars. The thing was, he was neither surprised by the news, nor heartbroken that he'd been cast aside. He'd expected as much. He wasn't quite stupid enough to think that he and Veronica were going to get back together and just pick up where they'd left off, when he wasn't scummy yet (that she knew of), and when she didn't hate his ever-loving guts. Theirs wasn't a grand epic romance, he knew, and he'd just be satisfied with her smiling at him and meaning it sincerely. Friendship was an admirable and much-needed goal.

"Listen, Troy. Since I've been hanging out with Veronica, I've seen this stuff a bunch. You're not the first guy to get a love hangover from her, and odds are decent you won't be the last."

Just how transparent was he? Troy expelled a defeated breath. "You're totally laughing at me right now, aren't you."

"Only a little." Wallace apparently couldn't resist an ear-to-ear grin. "But the womenfolk make us do crazy things. So I feel you."

"Oh yeah?" said Troy, tapping his fork against his plate. "What woman is making you crazy?"

"We didn't come here to talk about me," Wallace deflected.

"She won't talk to you, huh?"

"Me? Are you kidding? The ladies love me. I have to fight them off with a stick." Wallace laughed. "But who's fighting?"

"I bow before you and your superior wisdom," said Troy.

"You bet you do. But that wasn't exactly the advice you were looking for when you came here," said Wallace.

"Hey, give a guy a little credit. I came here for gossip. The buzz. The 411. You are my grapevine, Wallace. Tell me all you know."

Wallace cocked an eyebrow. "You want to know everything?"

"Everything that's happened in Neptune High's hallowed halls since I left."

"All right, if you think you can take it, you're on. But two things first. One, I'm gonna need a refill on the cake. Two, you're gonna need a notebook. This is heavy stuff, and you're gonna need a scorecard."

Another of the objects bringing vague life to Troy's bland bedroom was a calendar. It was one he'd gotten from the bank, so it lacked the prerequisite supermodels that had decorated his walls in days past. At the end of every day, he crossed a giant X through the appropriate box. It was all counting down to another box, circled in thick red marker, a month away. The day he went to Hearst and was born anew.

Maybe Veronica would go, maybe she wouldn't. Wallace said that he didn't know; that he rarely knew what Veronica was doing. But that didn't much matter. Troy, for the first time in a long time, was filled with an odd sense of calm. It wasn't the calm that usually accompanied his bouts of cockiness, the feeling that he was going to get away with his latest scheme. This calm was more of a sense of peace. The red circle on his calendar wasn't oppressive, but welcoming. A beacon.

Most of his life, Troy Vandegraff had been a bad boy. He couldn't change that, and he'd only just begun making up for it. But P. Diddy was wrong; Troy won't be written off just yet.