It starts with him yelling at her, waving that stupid letter in her face like she’s wronged him, somehow.
She gets it. She does. He’s mad that she didn’t tell him and he doesn’t buy the excuse she gives him about him being absent — which, okay, he has been absent, but that’s beside the point, apparently. They’re both yelling and she’s crying and they’re both coming to realize they’ve kept secrets from one another, and she is so, so tired.
They solve the cipher, sure, but Betty feels the absence of his hand in hers every step of the way, watches how he catches himself as he goes to massage her shoulder, knows he’s seen the way she’s been digging her nails into her palms and hasn’t moved to stop her. She’s not sure exactly how, but in the week since they stood in his living room and exchanged i love yous, he’s gone from the person she knows the best to a person she tiptoes around. Sure, she can still read him like a book, but Betty doesn’t like what she’s reading, doesn’t like how they orbit each other with several feet between them, doesn’t understand where his behaviour is coming from. She hears FP’s warning about Jughead hiding himself away when he’s in pain but she needs him, right now, and her usually attentive boyfriend is now nowhere to be found. She doesn’t like how her mind is slipping into darker, uncharted territories, doesn’t like how she feels herself retreating inwards and away and all Jughead can seem to do is get involved in a turf war between his former best friend and his new south side associates.
Betty tries very hard not to think about Toni.
One night, she has a panic attack in her bathroom after answering a call from an unknown number, and she calls Jughead. She hears the Black Hood’s voice, she hears him promising to cleanse Riverdale of sinners, to kill the ones who deserve it. She hears his warning not to tell her mystery-loving boyfriend, but Betty thinks having a panic attack is a plausible enough excuse -- so she calls Jughead. She calls him eight times, and he doesn’t pick up, doesn’t even return her calls until the next day, and when she sees him next he’s sporting a bandaged palm and a frown that she’s never been on the receiving end of before. She kisses him before she she can overthink it, and for one, glorious, single instant, his lips on hers, Betty swears she feels the blood in her veins still.
The relief is gone as soon as it comes.
They sit on opposite sides of their booth, and Betty leaves her phone on the table. Jughead asks about her mom and the article and Betty lies, and she asks him about his palm and Jughead lies, and Betty feels numb through it all. She goes for a smile and fails, and though he tries, his eyes are distant. She cries when he asks her to run away with him, hop on the back of a motorcycle and never look back, but he doesn't ask her about the tears, and he doesn't ask her about the phone. She doesn't ask him about Toni, though, so Betty figures they can call it even, not that it matters.
Not that anyone's even keeping score anymore.
They leave the diner and go their respective ways. Jughead goes to Southside High on a motorcycle he rides so well you'd forget that it doesn't belong to him, and Betty goes home and waits for a phone call from an unknown number, tears staining her cheeks, her fists clenched the whole time.
Jughead's calls get less and less frequent, and his texts reduced to single words, sometimes not even fully spelled out, and she doesn't bring it up because for once, just for once, she doesn't want to be the one to fix it. Not when -- not when it isn't her fault to begin with, not when he should have fucking noticed, not when she has so many other things on her plate. She's busy cutting Veronica out of her life, busy trying to keep a deranged serial killer distracted, too busy to worry that he's grown tired of her ponytail and her crazed mother and the scars on her palms, and definitely too busy to worry about Toni. Besides, she knows what's coming, knows the Black Hood doesn’t want to share her, knows the journey she’s about to embark on will be dangerous for the people she loves. She stops calling him, too, because she is Betty Cooper, okay, she can sacrifice herself for the people she loves, and pretty soon it’s been a week since she’s seen him.
She knows sending Archie was cruel but -- well, it would have been more cruel to do it herself, Betty thinks, not when she doesn't mean it, not when it would be so much harder to make it believable in person. She tries very, very hard not to think about the other reasons, she doesn't want to know if he'd agree to it, doesn't want to read his face and see relief written across it. She tries even harder not to think about Toni.
It doesn't work, the thoughts won't be kept at bay, and Betty screams into her pillow until her lungs hurt and her throat is sore and she is so lightheaded she can’t even see straight, falling apart on her bedroom floor like she’s done so many times. She hyperventilates, catching her breath as she sees the red streaks of blood from her bloodied palms, feels the darkness inside her growing and growing and she cries until she has no tears left to shed. Her mother is out, and Polly is gone, so she screams and screams until there is no air left in her lungs, no tears left for her to cry, until she is numb from the pain and the blood on her palms has dried.
Then, methodically, she puts herself back together, just like she’s done so many times — after Archie, after Polly, after her mom and everything else that has ever led her to breakdown. She imagines what Jughead would look like with a bullet between his eyes, pictures Polly, carved up like a jack-o-latern, focusses on building herself back up for them. Only this time, Betty Cooper builds herself a strong suit of armour to hide behind, and cuts her hair off in the bathroom sink.
If the Black Hood wants her for her perfect, pretty, pink self, then Betty will give him dark, deranged, determined. He knows her well enough to know she'll sacrifice herself for her loved ones, but she wonders if he realizes she'll erase every last piece of herself to do so, as needed.
She hopes it irks him.
A day later, she throws every pastel sweater, shirt, and skirt she owns into a duffel bag and drives it down to the local Salvation Army. She spends her babysitting money on some low-cut tank tops, some ripped up jeans, a pair of overalls, a red bandana. Anything that doesn't remind her of childhood bedroom, anything she can picture her mom sneering at her for wearing. She drives to the drugstore to by some more red lipstick, some eyeliner, some black nail polish, too. Her mom does sneer at Betty's new clothes, and Kevin tells her he's very worried about her, but she ignores them in favour of focusing on more productive things. Her notebook, detailing the calls she receives, the clues he leaves, what she knows about the killer and her list of suspects, grows to two notebooks, then three.
He tells her to give her a name, the name of someone guilty, and Betty only hesitates for a second before giving him Nick's. She only needs to picture Polly with lifeless eyes, Veronica, with a knife in her back. Jughead. She tries to feel bad about it and fails to feel anything at all.
She sees Jughead at the drag race the day after Nick is killed, and tries to tell herself he isn't hers to worry about anymore -- even as she wants to yell at him for being so reckless when she's paying so dearly for him to stay safe. He eyes her down challengingly, as if daring her to approach, and Betty gets blood on her new white tank top from reopening the scars on her palms, trying to stop herself from taking the bait. She makes Archie promise to keep him safe and leaves as soon as they've driven off for the bus stop, phone in hand.
She refuses to cry, or maybe, she has no more tears left. All Betty can feel is numb, faded, beside of herself, like she's erased the outline of who she was and left behind only scattered remains. She sees Veronica's cold looks, her mother's sneers, the arm Jughead drapes behind Toni at a booth at Pop's, and only briefly does she stop to wonder if it was worth it.
She only has to picture Jughead being shot, picture blood seeping out his chest and staining his S shirt, and she knows.
She stays focussed on that.
Later, much, much later, he will ask, "why didn't you tell me?"
They will be sitting in a booth at Pop's, the neon lights will reflect off of the buttons on his beanie, and Betty will spill coffee on her blouse because her hands will not stop shaking.
The news will play an endless cycle of the same pictures -- Betty, coming out of the Sheriff's office with blood down the front of her shirt and her head held high, her parents behind her, and dozens of flashing cameras pointed in her direction. Alice will have her daughter by the shoulder, guiding her to a car, and Betty will see herself, dead eyes and choppy bangs and black nail polish, smeared across the front page of every newspaper her parents subscribe to, the star of a viral news video, the topic of every news show on TV. Headlines will proclaim her a hero, a victim, an accomplice. The police will have confiscated her phone, and the Coopers will have disconnected the landline, so it will take a little while for them to get to this booth, but eventually, they do.
He will wear his serpent jacket, and his beanie, and a frown. Betty will wear a shirt she borrowed from her sister and a sweater she borrowed from her dad, both solid shades of grey, and some leggings. Neither of them will know how to apologize.
Jughead will ask his question, and Betty will think about the phone calls he dodged, how distant his eyes were, how she felt when he told her he had already starting working on the cypher with someone else, how he'd laughed at her expense instead of defended her.
She will think about her hair cut, the low-cut shirt she wore to his drag race, how Toni had held him by the waist when she wished him luck. She will think about the black nail polish she started wearing to hide the blood stains under her nails, and she will think about the bags under her eyes she barely even attempted to conceal.
She will think of the pieces of herself that she's lost along the way, like little clues, a trail for him to follow.
"I did," she will say, because Betty Cooper is done putting others before herself.