Disclaimer: I don't own Veronica Mars or any of the characters created by Rob Thomas & friends. A vague disclaimer is nobody's friend.

Chapter 1

Veronica

I shouldn't have had that third cup of coffee, Veronica thought as her leg jittered against her airplane seat. It's bad enough being trapped in here without the added caffeine. Alcohol would have made a lot more sense. A downer, not an upper. And I shouldn't have left my fake ID home. As if the feds were going to search me and send me packing. I'm getting paranoid in my old age.

She looked down at her watch again. Her plane had landed over fifteen minutes ago. What's the hold up? She just wanted to get off the plane, she felt like she couldn't breathe. Veronica wasn't a big fan of enclosed spaces. Her leg continued to shake. She ignored the dirty look of the old woman seated next to her, who had spent the entire flight circling items in the Sky Mall magazine.

Bored with the novel she was reading, Veronica had decided to surreptitiously watch her and try and predict which items she would circle next. Will it be the Elephant-head candle holder or the orthopedic dog bed? Haha, the Elephant-head, I knew it! Veronica had gotten pretty good at it by the time they'd landed. The only major surprise was the voice-activated R2D2. What the hell is she going to do with that? Maybe she has a grandson.

Finally, the pilot's voice came over the speaker, welcoming them all to Neptune and thanking them for choosing to fly American Airlines. Veronica grabbed her backpack and purse, and headed for the terminal. As she stepped out of the passageway, she suddenly felt incredibly overwhelmed. I'm back, Neptune. Be nicer to me this time around, will ya?

"There's my girl!"

Before she had time to feel too sorry for herself, her dad caught her in an enormous bear hug and lifted her off the ground. Suddenly, she felt a lot better. "Hey, Dad," she said into his collar, not even minding that he was making a spectacle of himself.

He let her go and looked at her with what Veronica thought of as his "sheriff" expression. "You're too skinny. Didn't they feed you there?"

"Oh, I ate," she assured him, laughing.

"I like your hair."

"Thanks."

"You ready to hit the road? There's a certain pit bull who's been moping around all summer, who just may want to see you." He reached down and grabbed Veronica's backpack for her, and they started for the baggage claim.

"So how's business?" she asked, trying to hide her discomfort. After her father had lost the election, he'd been forced to go back into the PI business. Veronica knew that she was responsible for that, and she knew that he knew. At least I did what I could to make it up to him. I had to make a deal with the devil to get the charges dropped. But you don't know about that, and you never will.

"Booming!" her dad answered. "Being the only game in town has its perks. I even had to hire help."

"Really?" Veronica asked, surprised. "Who did you hire?"

Keith just smiled at her. "You'll see."

"Oh right, because I just love surprises," she said, stepping onto the escalator next to her father. She turned to him, crossing her arms and raising her eyebrows.

Keith just chuckled to himself. Veronica searched his face, just as she had every day after she'd read about the charges against him; looking for any sign that he was angry with her, or disappointed in her. Nothing. In fact, he seems happier than ever. As they stepped off the escalator, Veronica decided to test the waters.

"I have to start packing, like, the second we get home," she said nonchalantly. "I only have a week to get everything together."

"I'll help. Don't worry, honey, we'll get it done."

"Thanks. Mac e-mailed me a list of stuff we still need. I'm going to meet her tomorrow to go shopping." Veronica hesitated, still watching her dad carefully. They had arrived at the baggage claim, and Keith stared intently at the conveyor belt, looking for Veronica's suitcases.

"Dad, are you sure you're okay with this? Because if you want, I-"

Her father turned to look at her and put his hand on her arm. "Honey, we've talked about this. I'll be fine. I am an adult, in case you've forgotten." He smiled warmly. "With your course load this semester, and your job at the library, moving on campus just makes more sense."

"Yeah," she said unconvincingly. She hated thinking about him all alone in the apartment.

Keith laughed. "Relax. We'll see each other every Sunday for dinner. And if you miss me during the week, I may be able to pencil you in for the occasional lunch, too. So, tell me more about the internship. Did they sell you on the joys of becoming a government employee?"

She shrugged. "They certainly tried."

"Not buying into the propaganda?" he teased.

"I don't know. It was definitely interesting. It gave me a lot to think about. Got a couple of new tricks up my sleeves, got to meet some people that I can namedrop the next time I'm arrested."

"That's my girl," he replied fondly. "Always looking ahead."

xxXxx

"Okay, the state of the kitchen is a little appalling, frankly. I mean I know this is your bachelor pad now, but can you at least take out the recycling from time to time? It looks like you threw a kegger here last night," Veronica said, emptying the remaining soda out of a can and into the sink.

"Nah, just a little get together with me and a couple of my Pi Sig buddies. Don't be such a square, man." Keith took the empty from her and tossed it into the recycling bin.

Veronica looked at her father, eyes suddenly welling up. "Dad, seriously, thinking about you being here all alone…"

"Actually Veronica, I wanted to talk to you about that. Can you sit with me for a minute?" Keith gestured to one of the bar stools at the kitchen island. Veronica sat, looking at her dad a bit warily. Is this it? Is he finally going to yell at me for costing him his job? She felt almost relieved.

"Alicia and I are dating again. And it's serious."

"Huh?" Wasn't expecting that at all.

"We actually ran into each other when she was dropping Wallace off at the airport. I had to catch a flight to El Paso, and- well anyway. We've been seeing each other all summer. I didn't want to tell you over the phone. I'm sorry to drop this on you now; I know you've got a lot on your plate. So…" he studied his daughters face, looking for her reaction.

"Wow. That's… unexpected. But, that's actually great. I really like Alicia. I'm glad that you have someone who makes you happy," she said genuinely. "Wait a minute, is this the big secret that Wallace has been tormenting me with for the last two weeks?"

Keith laughed. "Darrell spilled it to him, like, the second he got back from Africa. He's been gloating for weeks that he knew something that you didn't."

"Oh, he better watch out. I can't believe he didn't tell me."

"I can't either, to be honest. So, if you can stomach being away from your boyfriend one more night, Alicia invited us to dinner tonight. I'd really like you to go, but if you're uncomfortable or you need some time, that's ok too," Keith said.

My boyfriend. Piz. Veronica felt slightly relieved at the thought that she may not be meeting up with him tonight after all, followed immediately by surprise at her own reaction. I do want to see him. Of course I want to see him. She glanced back at her father, who was waiting patiently for a response. "A home cooked meal sounds fantastic, actually. Plus, I can slip the poison into Wallace's mashed potatoes and no one will ever suspect it was me," she added in a singsong voice.

xxXxx

Piz had been disappointed to hear their plans to meet for dinner and a movie had changed, but he said he understood and Veronica knew that he did. She decided that the relief that she'd felt earlier was a response to her own insecurities about where her relationship with Piz stood. The end of the previous semester had been pretty… intense. And although they'd talked, things felt far from resolved. At least, for her…

Veronica suggests they eat outside, on one of the picnic tables in front of the food court, to avoid the aftermath of the fight. They sit down and make quiet small talk for a few minutes, she has no idea what about. Her mind is a million miles away.

Piz clears his throat and says, picking his words carefully, "Listen, I feel like I have to ask you what was up with you and Logan. Back in the cafeteria. I mean, I get that he beat up the guy who made the tape of us. Or at least," he chuckles, "the guy who Logan happens to be accusing today-"

Veronica quietly interjects, "He was the one who did it."

"So what I really want to ask you is… what was up with the way you were looking at him?" Piz searches her expression. "I mean, I know he's still in love with you, Veronica. That's abundantly clear. But the way you looked at him…" he trails off and looks down at his food.

Veronica hasn't processed this yet. She doesn't know how to answer because she doesn't understand it all herself. She feels a number of emotions. Fear for Logan, pride that he's so fearless, anger for the careless way he put his life in danger, confusion about her own primal reaction to him defending her honor… She wants to be honest with Piz, but she's not sure how.

She takes a deep breath and begins. "It's so hard to explain, especially to you. Because he beat you up, and you hate him. I've known him for so long. It's an understatement to say that we've been through a lot together. I guess what you saw, was maybe… me understanding some things about him that I didn't before."

"Understanding that he's insanely violent?" His usually pleasant voice is edged with anger.

"No. I mean, he is, sometimes, but it comes from a place of him wanting to protect the people that he cares about." Veronica takes another deep breath. She realizes that she's babbling, but she's trying to work everything out. "I've been really hard on him all year, and I think, what you saw was me realizing that I've changed, and maybe not for the better. I'd say, definitely not for the better."

Veronica is almost speaking to herself at this point, musing on her behavior over the past few months. What she's thinking is that looking at Logan in that moment was a little like looking into a mirror. Except the mirror reflected, not her own image, but her true self back to her. Her true self, not the persona that she so convincingly projects to the world.

She'd known instantly that Logan had seen it too. And no one should know you that well. The intensity of that moment has her reeling, her mind in a million places at once. She feels off balance, naked. Much more exposed than she was on the video that more than half the campus saw. She's a little unaware that Piz is there, for a minute. But when she focuses back on him, he looks confused, and a little hurt. She carefully puts her mask back in place.

"I'm sorry if none of this makes sense. It's kind of impossible for me to explain eight years of history." Veronica knows that she's not being 100% truthful, but her emotions are too raw to even understand at the moment, let alone explain. She takes his hand. "Please don't dwell on it. I'm with you. And I really care about you."

He feels the honesty of that last statement. He nods and squeezes her hand. "Well, okay then."

After that, it had been kind of a whirlwind, between finals and getting ready for her trip to Virginia. On top of that, she was actively trying to avoid campus (and Logan) which inadvertently meant seeing less of Piz. She was confused about Logan. She was confused by her reaction to him. She was desperately trying to hold onto her anger towards him, but she wasn't sure why it was so important that she stay mad at him. She wasn't even sure what it was that she was supposed to be mad at him for, anymore. So I did what I do best. I avoided him. I avoided everyone. Before she'd really known what was happening, or had even had proper time to process everything, she was on a plane to Virginia.

When she had time to really think about it all, alone at night, she finally saw the truth. She was still in love with Logan. And she always would be.

But with that knowledge brought the realization that she couldn't be with him. There was too much pain, too much resentment that she just couldn't move past. And she was different now. Harder. She needed to be hard to face what life had thrown her way. He was part of what had made her tougher. But somehow, he was also the only one who still made her vulnerable. Vulnerability, in Veronica's world, was weakness. And she couldn't leave herself open to the pain. Not anymore.

She understood that she would have to end things with Piz. It wouldn't be fair to him to try and continue their relationship, not when her heart belonged to someone else. But just as she'd come to this conclusion, she'd gotten a text message from him.

Well I woke up in the city that never sleeps. And it turns out I really am king of the hill. Top of the heap! Hope they're not working you too hard. Miss you.

Veronica smiled. He was such a good guy, he really was. He was very… uncomplicated. She always felt relaxed and comfortable with him. He's kind, he says what he's thinking, he's funny, she mused. She genuinely cared about him. And if what they had together lacked the intensity of, well, other relationships, that was ok. The intensity and passion was what ultimately caused all of the pain. Without it, she was safe. Her heart was safe.

Maybe, if I hang in there for once instead of running away, I can make this work. She paused for a moment and then typed her reply.

Glad to hear your little town blues are melting away. Miss you too.

And just like that, they'd fallen into an easy routine. They couldn't speak on the phone too often, because Piz was mostly working nights at Pitchfork and she was strictly 9 to 5. But they sent each other frequent text messages and e-mails, and he entertained her with stories about the crazy New Yorkers he'd met. Before she knew it, she was making plans to meet him for dinner at Mama Leone's when she got back to Neptune.

xxXxx

Dinner at the Fennel house had turned out to be a lot of fun. The noisy, relaxed atmosphere was a nice change from the austere offices at Quantico. Wallace told them all about the work he'd done in Uganda, and about some of the kids that he'd befriended over the summer. Darrell showed Veronica his new Nintendo DS, and explained how he could take a picture of someone and make it look like they were wearing a funny pink wig. Keith gamely volunteered to have his picture taken, and they all got a kick out of the results.

After dinner, Veronica got up to help Alicia with the dishes. "Thank you so much, that was delicious."

Alicia smiled at her. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. Your dad thought you might like a home cooked meal when you got back."

"What can I say, the man knows me," she joked. Everything felt so easy, so comfortable. She'd really missed feeling like she belonged somewhere. "Really," she said, "it's so nice to be around family again."

Alicia caught her true meaning, but didn't make a fuss. She just smiled kindly at Veronica, took the empty water glass from her and said, "I can manage in here. Why don't you go catch up with Wallace."

Happy to avoid dish duty, she headed into the living room and flopped down onto the couch next to her best friend.

"So what's up, girl?" he asked. Like her, he seemed to be completely fine with the fact that their parents had reunited. It didn't seem necessary to talk about it. "Did you leave the FBI with any cases left to solve?"

"Nah, I took care of all of it for them. Found Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, D.B. Cooper. Figured out where Atlantis is. I even found out who put the bop in the bop sh-bop sh-bop." She leaned back and put her hands behind her head. "All in a day's work."

Wallace laughed. "Word on the street is, 50 Cent put the bop back."

"Close."

He laughed again. "You all set for school?"

"Ha! Not even a little. I'm meeting Mac tomorrow to go stock up on goodies."

"I ran into her about a week ago. I guess her and Parker kinda threw down, huh?"

"I don't know if either of them actually threw any punches," Veronica laughed. "But yeah. Mac didn't get into specifics, but I got the distinct impression that it had something to do with me. I didn't want to pry."

"Yeah, I bet," Wallace snorted. "Veronica Mars, spreading sunshine and joy wherever she goes. Up high."

She high-fived him, shaking her head, but smiling. The truth was, she'd been dying to find out what had gone on between Mac and Parker. But trying to pry anything out of Mac when she didn't want to talk about it was as futile as a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. Veronica cleared her throat and said casually, "So, have you seen anyone?"

"Anyone meaning Piz? Or anyone meaning Logan?" he teased.

Veronica made a face at him. "Just… anyone we know."

"I've seen both of them."

Veronica waited expectantly, but he didn't continue. "You're killing me, Smalls."

Wallace grinned at her. "One of them asked me what time your plane was getting in, and the other one told me he met a six-fingered transvestite who offered to give him $100 if he let him paint his toenails. I'll let you figure out which is which."

She paused, looking thoughtful. "So what color are Piz's toenails?"

Wallace laughed. "It's good to have you back. It'll be nice to have you on campus this year."

Campus. The place where I was laughed at and ridiculed for the last two weeks of the semester. The place where I already have more enemies than I ever did in high school. The place where I might run into…certain people that I'm not quite ready to see.

She managed a small smile for Wallace. "It should be fun."

xxXxx

Veronica was in bed by 9 o'clock. To her, it felt like midnight, and she was exhausted. Yet she was having trouble falling asleep. She couldn't seem to quiet the thoughts running through her head.

It had been a tough year. Her first year at a new school, and she'd almost gotten raped, she'd gotten drugged (twice), broken up with Logan (twice), been videotaped without her knowledge (twice). She'd lost two more people from her life who she'd admired. And she'd lost another friend.

Parker… I should feel worse about the fact that she's gone. She had a tough year too. A memory of seeing Parker and Logan, sitting in the cafeteria and smiling at each other, flashed through her mind. And then another one, of Parker beaming like a little kid on Christmas morning, all because Logan had gotten her a birthday cake with a cheesy picture of the two of them on it. That stupid cake. He seemed so sappy when he was with her. Or is the word happy? Admit it, Mars, that was the part that really stung. How could he be so happy with someone else, so soon after we…? He seemed like a normal teenaged boy when they were together. Smiling, holding hands. Just like he was with Hannah…

And then they asked me if I was okay with it. I mean what was I supposed to say, no? Of course not, Veronica, then you'd have to admit to having actual emotions about something. Besides, I was still mad at him, for Madison.

Ugh, why am I still thinking about this? I need to let it go. Logan deserves to be happy, and I just don't seem to be the person who makes him happy. Who am I kidding, if he'd gotten me that cake I would have burst out laughing…and then spent the next hour looking for the hidden camera. We're just not good for each other. We bring out each other's destructive tendencies. I can be mature about this, and just stay away.

She thought she'd resolved all of this over the summer. Her internship had given her a lot of time to think. Aside from analyzing her relationship with Logan, she'd thought a lot about herself. What she'd discovered was that she wasn't as good of a person as she'd thought. She'd spent the past year jumping to the wrong conclusions about people, even people who she should have trusted.

Weevil would never have stolen Lilly's necklace from her. Why had she accused him? And then, the situation with Mercer… she'd blackmailed her own boyfriend instead of just believing him. And the tape of me and Piz, no, I couldn't just let that go. And look at how well that turned out. At least no one knew who I was in Virginia. No whispers, no suggestive looks. It was a nice change of pace…

Veronica sits on the edge of a black leather couch, flipping through a Time magazine. It's my first day, and I'm already getting called into the principal's office, she thinks.

"Miss Mars? Agent Daniels is ready for you."

Veronica stands up, walks to the door, and hesitantly opens it.

A tall, bald, black man gets up from his seat and extends his hand for her to shake. "Miss Mars. Agent Daniels. Thanks for meeting with me. Please, have a seat." His voice is very deep.

She takes the offered seat and gives him a small smile, trying not to show how intimidated she is by him. She has absolutely no idea why she's been singled out for a meeting with one of the FBI's top agents.

"You came very highly recommended by a number of people, Miss Mars. Including a very old and dear friend of mine, Mr. Clarence Weidman."

Veronica keeps her expression blank as her thoughts race. Why would he call attention to me like that? Unless he thinks this will make things easier for me?

"Wow, I'm honored that he thought to mention me," she says, her voice just slightly higher than normal to convey naivety. She falls into the part with ease; she's not even aware that she's doing it.

"Clarence is a good man, and a good friend to have on your side. As loyal as they come."

So loyal he'll even cover up a murder for you, if you ask nicely, she thinks sarcastically. "Absolutely," is all she replies.

"Really I just wanted to welcome you to the program, and ask you if there's anything we can do to make your stay here more comfortable?" He smiles benevolently at her.

She thinks fast. She can't miss an opportunity to get something out of this meeting. "Actually," she begins, and she can tell Agent Daniels is surprised that she's speaking up, "is there any chance that I can go by the name Veronica Reynolds, while I'm here?"

Agent Daniels studies her in silence for a moment. She knows that he's well aware of her past, of course, and aware that a perceptive batch of interns will be familiar with the name Veronica Mars. But there's a speculative look on his face that says he may know more about her than she's realized. What, exactly, has Clarence Weidman said about me?

"I don't see why not," he finally replies. "I'll call down to admissions and have them make the change." He stands and holds out his hand once more. "It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Reynolds."

The anonymity had been a blessing. Especially on one particular occasion…

Veronica stands on line, toying absently with a button on her blouse as she thinks about what she'll have for lunch. The man in front of her finishes paying and she steps up to the counter.

"What do you want?"

"Logan Echolls."

She can't help spinning around to see who said that. "Huh?"

It's Arianna Hayes, a fellow intern. She's standing in line behind her, flipping through a Star magazine. She shakes her head. "He's at it again."

Veronica chooses a garden salad and a water, pays quickly and begins to leave the cafeteria. She doesn't want to hear what he's been up to. She'd avoided tabloids the whole time they'd dated. She would've driven herself crazy trying to figure out what was real and what was made up.

But her friend Becca sees her and says, "Hey, I saved you a seat." Becca moves her purse off the seat next to her.

Veronica hesitates, but sits down. She's been lying low all summer, and she doesn't want anyone suspecting that this conversation makes her uncomfortable. Arianna sits down next to them with her magazine.

"So, what'd he do this time?" Becca asks, gesturing to the tabloid.

"Don't you mean 'who'?" Arianna counters, a sly smile on her lips.

"That boy just can't keep it in his pants, can he?"

"I don't think anyone's complaining."

They both laugh. Veronica stabs a cucumber.

"Yeah, there's all of these pictures of him partying his face off down in Cabo," Arianna says.

"That kid is a mess, huh?" Becca states.

"Oh yeah."

"But he's a hot mess."

"Oh yeah."

They both laugh again.

Veronica sneaks a glance at the picture on the front cover. It's Dick and Logan, clinking together twin bottles of Jack, huge grins on both of their faces. They're on a beach somewhere, shirtless. The headline says "Party Boys". Veronica looks back down at her salad.

"There's a story about his sister Trina in here too. Apparently she keyed Lindsay Lohan's car? Supposedly, it was caught on a security tape." Arianna rolls her eyes. "Fucked up family."

"Yeah, well, to be fair, I'd be pretty messed up too if my dad was a murderer," Becca says, a note of pity in her voice.

"He's a spoiled brat," Arianna says dismissively. "People like him contribute nothing to society. I mean really, when is Logan Echolls ever going to do anything useful?"

"Come on Ari, you can't believe everything you read. Besides, sometimes people will surprise you. What do you think, Veronica?" she asks.

Yeah, what do you think Veronica?

She just shrugs, and stares at her salad. But she's lost her appetite.

Veronica didn't know too much about what Logan had been up to over the summer. Mac had mentioned in passing that he and Dick were out of the country. Aside from Mexico, she was pretty sure they'd traveled to Brazil and Costa Rica. Mac and Logan were keeping in touch so they could continue working on their business venture. Apparently, they'd decided to expand their franchise. Veronica could only guess what they'd want to have people "grade" next.

And then, of course, there was the text message she got from him for her birthday.

Happy Birthday, Chuckles.

Such a little thing, but it made her smile. He'd remembered her birthday, and he was letting her know everything was okay with them. That thought gave her comfort, and she finally drifted off to sleep.