The email makes her feel suddenly sick. Betty reads it again in all of it’s succinct one-line glory.
Please come to my office at 9:20.
She looks at her watch as though time may have suddenly stopped or, who knows, sped up or even ceased to exist altogether. Unfortunately, the delicate hands of the timepiece given to her by her parents on her 21st birthday point to a 9 and a 3 respectively and so she resigns herself to five minutes worth of wondering what it is that she’s done to warrant being called to the editor’s office at such short notice - and so directly too.
Wracking her brain for memories of the Christmas party last Friday night, she tries to recall just how much eggnog she drunk before she made the excuse that she had to be up early in the morning. Had she said something unprofessional? Done something unprofessional?
She times her arrival to the second - her boss likes them all to be on time. Not early. Not late. Just...on time. Only upon knocking at his glass door does she realise her hands are shaking.
“Betty!” he announces, something akin to enthusiasm in his voice. “Come in; take a seat.”
It isn’t a reprimand, she realises, her shoulders sagging with relief. She takes the chair opposite him, crossing her legs so the material of her navy dress stretches over her tights.
“I have a story for you. Or, I suppose, I want you to investigate a story...about a story.”
Betty frowns at his words and then quickly rearranges her face so it’s impassive. She hadn’t meant to be rude. “Okay.”
Garrett sets a book on his desk so that it sits between them, its front cover a deep midnight blue with a picture of a single white feather on it. “Free,” she reads aloud. “By...”
The author’s name dies somewhere in her throat, its three syllables snatched like a hat on a thorn bush during a windy day.
“Jughead Jones,” Garrett finishes for her. “I take it you haven’t read it yet?”
Every single inch of Betty’s skin feels like it’s burning. She’s hot and somehow cold all at once and she’s back outside of her parents’ front door again, watching his truck disappear along the road until it’s out of sight. It was the last time she ever saw him.
“I said, it’s unlike you not to have picked up something like this already. It was in the latest delivery of upcoming releases.”
She doesn’t have to force some excuse about being busy with her articles out of her mouth because her boss has moved on to talking about how ‘Jones’ is on his way to Boston and they’ve managed to score an interview with him because her boss is an old friend of the company’s publicist. It’s only just dawning on her that she’s the one expected to conduct said interview. “He’ll be arriving at 1:30pm.”
She’s nodding, somehow, and then Garrett is handing her the book and telling her to read as much as she can before then.
“Here,” he says, halting her feet as she’s just about stepped out of the glass-walled office. He hands her a sheet of paper with what looks like questions scribbled on it in looping yet messy short hand. “I made a few notes when I was reading it myself but I haven’t read it thoroughly. There’s a story behind this one though for sure - go make some inroads.”
By the time Betty’s reached her desk, there are crescent-shaped indents in her palm and blood underneath her nails.
To everyone, she was that first ray of golden light signalling the end of a storm.
She can’t get past the first line. She reads it in his voice - that flat (yet somehow contradictingly lilting) tone he used to read her articles aloud in when they still worked together on the Blue and Gold.
“A spate of break-ins has sent shockwaves through the neighboring town of Greendale.”
His eyes speak the indignant ‘what?’ that his lips don’t say as he rests his hand against her hip. She can feel his warm breath on her neck and suddenly, she’s not so committed to her protest anymore.
“You know I get self-conscious when you read my work aloud.”
“I’m hearing your words Betts,” he tells her. “I have to read aloud to do that.”
“How about you hear my words tonight,” she challenges with the confidence he’s helped her acquire when he visibly folds beneath her. Pinkens at her public kisses. Scans a room until his eyes fall on hers and he looks like he’s found everything he’s looking for. “When you come over.”
Her eyes mist and she blinks quickly, snatching at the piece of paper to the left of her keyboard. Garrett’s first question - or statement, to be correct - is only language. Onto the blank document on her computer, she types ‘How do you select the language you use?’ and then promptly deletes it. She’s not in sixth grade. It’s replaced with ‘You clearly have a love of words. Where has that come from?’
She already knows the answer.
The next thing, scrawled in blue ink and slightly smudged, is Charlotte - should she have fought harder? It’s an easy enough question to type and Betty finds that with no frame of reference, transcribing her editor’s words seems the easiest option, and so that’s what she does.
At the final note, Garrett has simply listed ‘intimate details - inspiration? Betty finds herself wondering whether he means sexually intimate or privately intimate and then quickly decides it doesn’t matter. She types the question with deft fingers and and hits print. She’s the only one in the whole office who doesn’t trust the ubiquitous cloud.
Oliver, the intern, brings her a latte around 10:30 which grows cold without her having taken a single sip. Lunch time passes and she doesn’t eat the kale salad she prepared at home last night. She debates faking a sudden onset of vomiting or period cramps but what with it being Christmas in four days, she’s one of the only main journalists left in the office and Garrett won’t be about to let her duck out of her duties - even if this article is quite far removed from the pieces she usually writes.
Besides, Betty tells herself, it’s been more than five years. She can handle an hour in the same room as Jughead.
As it turns out, this optimism is seriously misguided.
He’s already waiting when she arrives to greet him, the deep inhale she’d taken before rounding the corner proving futile in helping her breathe in a normal manner. He disarms her immediately (without even trying, as he always had) first of all by the way in which he’s dressed: his lack of beanie crown, and also by the way in which he’s drumming his fingers against his knee. They’re still as long and nimble as she remembers, the sudden thought of what they used to do to her in their respective childhood bedrooms making her blush red and hot.
“Mr Jones,” she manages somehow to force out of her mouth, extending a shaking hand as his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat and he rises from the chair to meet her. “Thank you for coming.”
It’s a lie. She isn’t thankful at all.
He opens his mouth to say something but his words don’t reach the surface. Instead, he nods and swallows and takes her hand in his. Betty isn’t sure her legs are working.
Jughead’s publicist rises too and she turns her attention gratefully to the woman dressed in a dark grey pant suit who doesn’t smile, but does inform Betty she’s the first journalist to be granted an interview. The fact makes her feel sick but she swallows the bile and pushes the desire to be anywhere else right now to the back of her mind. She’s not entirely sure, but she thinks her left hand might be clenched into a fist again.
“Please,” she says, grateful that the word is only one syllable so evidence of her wavering voice can be kept to a minimum. “Follow me.”
They enter one of the smaller boardrooms and Betty offers both Jughead and his publicist a cup of coffee. They both accept and she sets about pouring the water into the machine, its gurgling a welcome distraction from the pounding of her pulse. As she’s automatically adding two sugar lumps to Jughead’s cup, Betty tells herself to calm down. It’ll be an hour, tops, she figures, and then she can go back to the post-Riverdale, post-Columbia world she lives in now. The world in which her ex-boyfriend plays no part (except, of course, he does).
She stumbles on the first question - the one about his choice of language - and feels the publicist’s eyes on her. She can almost hear her thoughts: Why has Garrett chosen such an incompetent journalist to interview her client? And so, after apologising as only Betty Cooper would, she reads the question again, only daring to look up once Jughead begins speaking about words being the equivalent of paint: there are so many shades and only in choosing the right one will you achieve the painting you want. He’s so eloquent in the way he tells her this that Betty wonders whether it’s rehearsed. But she hears the sincerity in his words and she knows the only scripted part of this is the questions on the sheet of paper in her hand.
When he’s finished answering, he waits politely for her next question and so she reels it off without any frame of reference.
“Should Charlotte have fought harder?”
Something in his eyes changes - his pupils seem to swallow the blue of his irises - but he clears his throat, appears to consider her for a moment (which makes her palms burn for the release of her fingernails, although she denies them this time) and then speaks.
“I don’t think the question is whether she should have. He didn’t want her to.”
He says no more and Betty feels her eyes prick with something she hopes isn’t tears.
“Can you tell me more about the narrator?”
“What do you want to know?”
This throws her because she has no idea what she wants to know. She also has no idea what Garrett wants to know either. “Um…”
“He’s a masochist, obviously,” Jughead says. “Allowing himself to love Charlotte like he does.”
That’s all she gets and so Betty improvises for the first time. “Is Charlotte a bad person?” She realises she hasn’t been clear and adds, “in your opinion - and the narrator’s opinion?”
“No, and no.”
“Okay,” she whispers, looking back to the paper. She asks each remaining question robotically and he answers and the words she scrawls down don’t sink in but they’re on the page for later. So Betty reads out the final question with relief (and yet with an unwelcome sense of disappointment too).
“Why don’t we know the narrator’s name?”
“Betts,” he queries suspiciously, but with that grin on his face that lights up his eyes. She’s close enough to feel the hairs on his neck stand up against her lips. She feels triumphant in being able to do this to him. “What’re you doing?”
“Rewarding you,” she whispers into his ear in a timbre that makes him visibly shiver. Her own grin widens.
“I only need to type my name and then I’m done.”
“I can see that,” she says, pressing her lips to his neck and sucking just enough to get him to grunt low in his throat. It vibrates her lips so she feels it all the way down to her toes. His fingers drift from the keyboard to reach blindly for her and she can already tell his eyes have slipped closed. “And you get one kiss per letter.”
She allows herself his temple first: breathing out through her nose so the hot air bounces back off his skin. Sluggishly, Jughead’s finger makes it to the ‘J’.
“Well done,” Betty smiles, heading next for the corner of his mouth so her lips are just out of reach from his.
The ‘U’ is an easy slide upwards from the previous letter. The other corner of his mouth gets the same treatment.
Finding the ‘G’ appears more challenging, but he makes it and Betty rewards him with a kiss at the top of his spine. Goosebumps break out across his skin.
By the time he’s typed the ‘D’, she’s unzipping his jeans and kissing him through his boxers and feeling so high on power that if principal Weatherbee were to burst into the room right now, she knows she wouldn’t be able to form a coherent cover story. Good thing she’d locked the door.
“Christ Betts,” he says, snatching at just enough oxygen to fill his lungs before he’s pulling her to him and crushing her lips with his.
“Because he doesn’t need to be specific.”
“Even when this is his story?” She’s improvising again.
“It isn’t.” Her face must state her confusion and Jughead says simply, “It’s hers.”
Betty has no more questions. Jughead drains the contents of his coffee cup even though she knows it’ll be cold now, then rubs his hands against the brown-grey of his pants somewhat nervously. “Are we done?”
She stares for a moment before she remembers to answer. “Yes. Thank you.” She manages, somehow, to shake his hand again without looking at his face, then shakes the publicist’s hand too. “Would you like me to show you to Mr Morgan’s office?”
“I know where it is,” she answers. Jughead follows her lead and rises from his chair. He doesn’t make it out of the room however, before he’s reaching into his bag. He hands Betty a copy of the book with the same expression he used to wear when she’d read his finished articles for the Blue and Gold: a cocktail of hesitation and self-doubt and accomplishment.
“In case you want to read it,” he adds.
He follows his publicist towards Garrett’s office and all Betty can do is stand there, face aflame and every single fibre of her being focused on not allowing the tears to fall. She wants to call out his name, offer her congratulations on the book she hasn’t read; tell him she always knew he’d make it; tell him that she’s proud of him.
She says none of those things.
Later, when she unlocks the door to her apartment and flicks on the lamp so the dark space is bathed in a soft light, Betty takes the book from her bag. It sits on the side table while she prepares a stir-fry she doesn’t eat, while she takes possibly the longest shower of her life, while she eyes herself in the bathroom mirror for at least ten minutes until finally, she picks it up and takes it with her into her bedroom.
Curtains closed and pillows propped behind her, she traces the front cover, lingering on Jughead’s name until finally, she manages to conjure enough calm to read past the first line.
To everyone, she was that first ray of golden light signalling the end of a storm.
She’d known that was coming: had the words memorised the very first time she saw them. She takes a breath and continues.
She was imperfect only in that she loved him when she should’ve loved somebody who was better. And that’s where we begin: with that misdirected love.