“What were we thinking when we signed the lease?” Veronica Lodge stood in the middle of the empty apartment, hands on her hips as she surveyed the space. “This place is horrible. I’m going to that Collins woman and demanding our deposit back right now!”
Jughead Jones leaned against the kitchen counter and tried to see the place through her eyes. Tiny, of course. Living area that fed into the kitchen with a nook for a table between them. Two bedrooms. One bathroom. Wood floors, only slightly scuffed. Light gray paint on the walls—no huge stains; a few cracks, though.
“Beats the trailer park.” He shrugged.
Veronica spun on one of her high-heels and tapped the pointy toe in his direction. “How can that still be your frame of reference? You’ve lived with us for seven years.”
A slight shift in balance made him vertical again—Jughead had perfected the art of the lean years ago to better blend into the background. He crossed the room to slip an arm around his best friend’s shoulders.
“It’s an apartment they’re renting to college students, Ron. It’s supposed to be cheap, small, and kinda scuzzy. I think we got off light on the scuzz. It’s no penthouse with a view of Central Park, but what is?”
Veronica pressed her lips together so tightly that he couldn’t even see her lipstick, and Jughead regretted the last statement. Now she was thinking about her dad again. Veronica hadn’t put in nearly as much time as Jughead at learning how to avoid thinking about fathers.
Turned out, hers was just as big a clusterfuck as his; it just took longer for the world to figure that out. Hiram Lodge of the expensive suits and the charming grin always squeaked away from repercussions until the day last spring when he didn’t. Now he was in jail for the foreseeable future—pending high-priced appeals—leaving his wife, daughter, and the foster son he’d never really wanted (but accepted for aforesaid wife and daughter) in much reduced circumstances.
Jughead figured Hiram knew the end was coming, or the guy believed in safety nets. He’d managed to secure a small apartment in Hermione’s name in a decent part of the city, but it only had two bedrooms. Both Veronica and Hermione had some money in their names, as well, that the government couldn’t touch when they seized the rest of the assets. Enough, as Hermione had said, to get by.
But even though Jughead had been living in the lap of Lodge luxury since middle school, he still remembered the crappy trailer in Sunnyside that had gotten so cold in the winter that his breath fogged up inside. And his grandparents’ house in Toledo, with Jughead and Jellybean sharing the tiny second bedroom upstairs and his parents squeezed into the half-empty basement below. And the craptastic apartment in Queens after his parents’ acrimonious split—even more heinous to a ten-year-old boy crouched alone on a mattress with no company but the roaches. “Getting by” meant something totally different to Jughead.
However, he also knew what it was like to have your dad carted off to jail before your eyes, with no chance to yell, scream, or even say a real goodbye. Veronica had grown up spoiled and rich, true, but Jughead knew the girl behind the pearls who focused on the matter at hand instead of the pain underneath. They were alike that way.
“Look again.” Jughead turned her to face the windows. “There’s natural light. Good bones. If anyone can make this place livable, it’s you.”
“Maybe…” The word was drawn out, but the pressed lips had been replaced by a contemplative gleam in her dark eyes.
“Besides, you’re forgetting the most important perk,” Jughead reminded her. “We don’t have to take the train for an hour to get to class. I can sleep in. You have time to blow out your hair or whatever takes you so long to make yourself presentable.”
Veronica knocked his beanie askew. “Some of us don’t wake up perfect au naturel, Jay.”
He straightened the hat without complaint, glad to have his acerbic best friend back. “We should start unloading. Always forward, right?”
She squeezed his hand. “Always forward.”
They traipsed back downstairs to the U-Haul. There was a second one pulling in a couple of spaces down—must be that time of the semester. Jughead rolled up the door on theirs and lowered the ramp.
“We should’ve hired movers.” Veronica peered up at him from the curb.
“We’re college students on a budget.” Jughead contemplated which boxes to load on the dolly first. “We do our own dirty work.”
Veronica’s eyes fastened on something over his shoulder, and she grinned. Jughead knew that smile—it meant Veronica was going get what she wanted or there would be hell to pay. He was just glad the expression wasn’t directed at him (this time).
“Wait there,” she said. “I’m going to find us some help.”
Rolling his eyes as he imagined Veronica recruiting a few frat bros to help them schlep boxes and furniture upstairs, Jughead shifted boxes onto the dolly and rolled it down the ramp. Truthfully, Veronica was going to suck hefting the couch and the mattresses, so if she could bat her eyelashes and coerce some dudes into helping, he wouldn’t decline.
“You guys are lifesavers,” Veronica was saying behind him. “Jay, meet our new neighbor!”
He’d just clunked the dolly up the curb when a voice he hadn’t heard in a decade cried, “Oh my god! Jughead?”
Before he could react, Jughead found himself being squeezed by a blonde girl whose grip was surprisingly strong for her size. A familiar scent wafted over him—lemons and cookies and home. His arms clutched her instinctively, some part of him realizing how different she felt than the last time they’d hugged—softer, rounder, taller. (Yet, strangely, also shorter—regular meals at the Lodge house had sent him into a growth spurt almost instantly.)
He had to be dreaming. In fact, he might have had this dream before. Maybe not recently, but surely in Toledo or Queens. Before he realized the past was past and all he could do was move on.
She let go, and Jughead found himself staring into a familiar pair of blue-green eyes.
* * *
“I should’ve driven the van.” Betty Cooper frowned as she watched Archie Andrews try to maneuver the beast up to the curb. Somehow, they’d lucked into two parking spaces in front of the building, but they were tight, especially with the other moving van taking up room.
When it looked like Archie was going to plow into the back of her Corolla, she gestured violently until he started backing up again. She’d spent three summers working at the auto shop just to save up the money to buy that car.
“Boys will be boys,” Cheryl Blossom replied calmly. “Letting him drive that thing made him feel manly and saved me from having to listen to his new song on repeat the entire drive.”
“He wouldn’t…” Betty thought better of her statement. Archie totally would have.
Brakes squeaked as Archie eased backward and then forward again. Betty closed her eyes. “If he dents my baby, you’re paying for it.”
Cheryl rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mom.”
Betty didn’t take Cheryl’s antics personally. She used to, but that was before Jason died. All the turmoil following the murder tore down petty rivalries, mean girl facades, and school girl crushes, forging Betty, Cheryl, and Archie into family—and not just because the Coopers had Blossom blood and Archie had red hair.
The three of them had solved Jason’s murder when the cops couldn’t. Kevin had helped, too, of course, and Josie, and Ethel, but it had been Betty, Archie, and Cheryl there in the end, when Thornhill burned.
Afterward, with Clifford dead and Penelope in an asylum from a nervous breakdown, Cheryl moved in with her only relatives in town not in a nursing home—the Coopers. Hal and Alice hadn’t been too keen on the idea at first, but Betty never gave up once she believed in someone, and Cheryl needed them. The Cooper family wasn’t the most well-adjusted on the planet, but compared to the Blossoms, they were as wholesome as peach pie and Ugg boots.
Now, here they were—New York City. Betty looked up at the building. They’d been here once to see the place and sign the lease, but this was the real thing. No more Riverdale. No more perfectionist mother. No more being the girl who organizes dances and interns with the mayor. Heck, the mayor of New York City would never even know her name. College was a clean slate she could write on in the font of her choice.
Betty and Cheryl turned to see a svelte brunette bearing down on them.
“Are those pearls? Like, unironic pearls?” Cheryl murmured just loudly enough that Betty couldn’t tell if the other girl heard or not. Betty elbowed Cheryl in the side.
If the girl had heard, it didn’t slow her down. “Are you guys moving in, too? I’m Veronica.”
“Betty.” Betty smiled. “This is Cheryl. And, yes, we are.”
“Want to help each other out? I noticed you had muscle in your van. I have one heavy lifter over there.” Veronica pointed at the U-Haul. “The boys can do couches and stuff, while we move boxes.”
Betty and Cheryl exchanged looks. Cheryl’s said, Whatever. I’m not lifting anything heavier than my box of miniskirts.
Many hands did make light work, so Betty nodded. “Sure.” Glancing down at Veronica’s shoes, she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Do you want to change first?”
Veronica laughed. “You sound like my roommate, who you need to come meet, by the way.”
Just then, the van rocked as Archie stomped on the breaks. Betty gasped.
Cheryl shoved Betty none to gently in Veronica’s direction. “Go chat up the neighbors. I’ll make sure Arch doesn’t maim your baby.”
Veronica babbled, but Betty paid little attention, straining her ears for the crunch of metal, her faith in Archie’s driving abilities waning with each passing minute. She was never letting him behind the wheel of any car ever again.
It was the hat that clued her in. At first, all she noticed was a tall, dark haired boy with a dolly out of the corner of her eye. Then recognized that ancient beanie, and she knew.
It might’ve been ten years, but Betty of Betty-Archie-Cheryl used to be Betty of Betty-Archie-Jughead—before Jughead left town with his parents never to be heard from again. She’d written him letters, but they came back return to sender. Archie wasn’t a writer, but he’d snuck Betty into his house to make long-distance calls when his parents were out. The number Jughead had given them just rang and rang.
Right then, on the sidewalk, Betty saw two boys—the tall, lean (but strong) young man overlaid on top of the scrawny boy with holes in his shoes who could never get enough to eat.
She didn’t even know what she said, but the only way to make sure he was real was to hug him. Her arms didn’t pass through him. He even hugged her back, silencing the tiny voice in the back of her mind that said she was stupid and wrong. It said that a lot, usually with her mother’s intonation. Betty ignored it as much as she could.
When they let go, she stared up at him in bemusement, and he stared back.
“Betty?” The wonder in his voice echoed hers, until it was interrupted by Veronica’s strident tones.
“Do you have some secret life I’m unaware of? If you do, how come the only times you left the house during high school were when I forced you?” Veronica had her arms crossed over her chest as she gave Betty the evil eye.
Betty suddenly wondered if Veronica was Jughead’s girlfriend. Maybe she’d broken some kind of girl code by hugging him. Though wouldn’t Veronica have said boyfriend and not roommate?
“Not a secret life,” Jughead answered slowly. “More like a ghost.”
Betty wrinkled her nose. “If anyone’s a ghost in this scenario, it’s you, Juggie. You’re the one who vanished.”
Veronica’s eyes narrowed at Betty’s use of Juggie, but before any of them could say anything else there was a loud whoop and suddenly Archie was there, doing that manly hug-shoulder-clap thing.
“Damn, Jug!” A grin split Archie’s face from ear to ear. “Is it really you?”
“Seems to be.” Jughead’s smile was smaller and more awkward.
“How are you even here?” Archie demanded.
Betty winced at her friend’s tactlessness—as if Jughead were merely a player in The Archie Story. Of course, Archie had always been a bit like that, which Jughead must remember.
“Got into Columbia, got an apartment… you know, the usual.” Jughead shrugged.
“Columbia? That’s awesome!” Archie had more pep than the whole town of Riverdale. “Betty’s going to Columbia, too.”
Jughead’s gaze flashed back to Betty, and she felt it in her core. He’d always had the most intense stare. It just hadn’t been directed at her because she’d always been on his team.
It seemed as if some sort of response was expected, so she chirped, “Yep.”
“Lucky. You guys both already know someone,” Archie said. “I don’t know anyone at the Manhattan School of Music.”
“I’m going to Columbia,” Veronica piped up.
Cheryl tossed her long, red hair over her shoulder. “And I’m going to NYU. Now that we’ve gotten that settled, are we going to unload these vans or not? And by we, I mostly mean you guys.”