Reginald Mantle was benched from his university's baseball team. Participation in next week's game against Ohio was contingent upon him demonstrating the sort of behavior expected of every last man wearing black, gold, and a cartoon suit of armor on his batting helmet.
He was pretty sure the coach was serious, since he'd used his full name and all. And he'd said "contingent." That was a serious word.
Morosely, he sat in the dugout and watched the Knights cruise toward a win. A bat's handle, its butt end in the dirt, bounced between his hands. It wasn't like he'd meant for everything to get so out of control. He'd heard about panty raids. They sounded pretty funny, sure, but even better would be for someone else to get blamed for one. It was a perfectly college-aged prank for his new college-aged self.
He really hadn't expected that sorority to be so on their guard.
He also hadn't expected the nerd squad to have a Polaroid on them, putting the blame squarely on him. Couldn't they take a joke? They must not have a sense of humor. If, God forbid, he was a nerd, Reggie was pretty sure he'd welcome some forward-looking freshman giving him a little bit of credibility. You know. Underwear credibility.
The Hawks needed to bring home their men on second and third to win it. Instead the ball went straight to the shortstop, then to third, and then to home. Out. Out. Bottom of the ninth, not that the Knights needed it.
Reggie gamely put away his sulking moment in favor of standing and cheering for the team. It'd look really bad if the new guy was sitting in a pout. They, after celebrating on the field and shaking the Hawks' hands, jogged for the dugout.
A few seconds later, a horrible snapping sound was followed by a scream that echoed around the concrete chamber.
"Mantle!" bellowed the coach before he knelt down to the injured player, the first to have walked to the dugout.
The entire team stared at Barry Brewster, their star shortstop, clutching his leg as he rocked on the floor. Then they stared at the stray bat he had tripped on. Finally they stared at the player who had so thoughtlessly let that bat roll just to the base of the stairs: Reggie Mantle. The Knights' backup shortstop.
"I promise, guys, I didn't mean to!" Reggie promised, his hand held up like he was swearing on the Bible. "Oh geez, Barry, you need some help?"
Giant Frank the Catcher blocked Reggie from trying, in his panic, to help a man with a broken ankle to stand. The pointed stares of the team intensified.
Boy, college was hard.
"Smooth move, Mantle!"
"So much for your scholarship!"
Reggie gave the dining room a fearless wave. He was Reggie Mantle. Just because he was having a slight adjustment period of being one of seven thousand freshmen instead of one of three hundred seniors didn't mean anything had changed. He was still the best looking guy for miles and the most broadly talented athlete at the school. Okay, maybe he had the baseball team mad at him, but could any of them claim football and basketball uniforms, too?
Yeah. Yeah. This was a needle skipping. All he needed was to put it back in place and then his record would start playing again with perfect clarity.
He'd bet none of the other guys on the team had even thought of being in a band.
Then Reggie made a pointed, purposeful turn in the direction of some empty tables, stopped dead so he wouldn't barrel right over Betty Cooper, and wound up sloshing chicken and rice soup all over his shirt.
"Oh," she said, the little space between her eyebrows furrowed. "I'm sorry. There's... soup."
Reggie shot a dirty look at someone insulting his reflexes before he refocused on the surprising sight before him. "Betty?" he asked in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"I heard someone say 'Mantle' and 'scholarship,' and then I saw black hair...." She trailed off, slender shoulders raised. "I thought I would come look. Just in case."
"No. I mean, what are you doing here? You go to State!" 'State.' Such a funny, all-encompassing term. Most of his friends had stayed near Riverdale while Reggie moved a thousand miles away, chasing his best scholarship to his best school. When someone here said 'State' they meant that school just up the road. Where Moose wasn't the biggest player on the football team as a walk-on freshman. Where Archie Andrews and Veronica Lodge-Andrews weren't both majoring in business administration.
A passing student elbowed Reggie in the back.
"I think we're in the way," Betty said. Someone hadn't heard about the mishap in the dugout, clearly. "I haven't gotten lunch yet, and yours, well." She smiled. "You wanna go grab a burger?"
Reggie smiled back. "A burger sounds great."
Big Jim's was the most popular burger joint for this side of campus, Reggie explained as they slid into a booth. If you were an arts or psych student on the north side, you went to Helen's. Science nerds on the west side were stuck with McDonald's. The business students down south thought they were too classy for burgers. He didn't like them very much. Some of them actually wore suits to school.
"What?" he asked when he realized Betty was grinning at him.
"'Science nerds.' You haven't changed at all, Reggie."
"Yeah, well." He waved off the comment and tried not to think on how untrue it might be.
"The coach'll have your hide if he finds out you're eating in your jersey," the waiter said as he approached with menus.
"Can't get any worse," Reggie muttered quietly to himself. More loudly he added, "My other shirt's kind of wet and... chicken-y at the moment."
"Your funeral." He handed over a grease-stained paper menu to each of them.
Funny, Reggie hadn't processed just how sad-looking they were until that moment. He was ready to apologize for his choice in restaurants but saw that Betty seemed, of all things, pleased. "Well," she giggled, pointing to a spot that had somehow formed the exact shape of Florida, "I see you have proper diners out here."
He relaxed. Good old Betty. "You haven't changed at all, either."
The comfortable silence that followed abruptly morphed into something heavy and strange when they saw something in the other's eyes: Yes, I've changed. No, I don't want to talk about it.
"Okay, well," Betty said, staring at her menu. "Before we get into talking about why I'm here, I should probably read the menu. That waiter seems like he expects his customers to straighten up and fly right."
"Try the chocolate shake, or the strawberry," Reggie recommended. "They're both swell." He already knew what he was getting: two cheeseburgers, large fries, and two extra pickles on the side. Betty would probably get a cheeseburger, too. She liked cheeseburgers.
"I think I'll get the grilled cheese," Betty mused.
Reggie frowned. That wasn't right. That was like a fake cheeseburger: everything but the meat. He plastered on a smile when she looked up. "Never had one here, but I bet it's great."
The waiter returned, pad held expectantly in hand. Reggie recited his order, added a Coke to the end, and listened to Betty order her bizarre choice of a grilled cheese sandwich. Then, unexpectedly, she hesitated. The waiter seemed discombobulated by a customer not behaving after the two of them had been so well-prepared. "Now I can't decide whether to order a strawberry or chocolate shake!" Betty laughed.
"Bring both," Reggie told the waiter, "with two spoons. We'll share."
"Why, Reggie Mantle," Betty said, fluttering her eyelashes at him. "Is this a date?"
"Depends," he grinned. "How much money are you expecting me to spend?"
Any peculiar moment between them was long gone. Betty Cooper had to be the easiest girl in the world to spend time with: smart, pretty, and without the tiniest bit of pretension. Reggie had tried so hard to fight off his homesickness for Riverdale that he hadn't let himself process how desperately he missed her.
The next few minutes were spent catching up on the basics: everyone was fine, everyone's families were fine, and the weather was fine everywhere they looked. Their food arrived at the end of those niceties, where despite the different décor, different name on the front door, and even the different state, they felt just as comfortable as they ever had in the Chok'lit Shoppe.
Reggie was so very comfortable that he asked after her first bite, "Why didn't you get a cheeseburger?"
"I'm experimenting with vegetarianism," Betty replied.
"It means you can't eat any meat."
Reggie made a face. "What? Why?"
"So nothing has to suffer for my food, and just... oh, lots of reasons."
Reggie clutched one of his burgers in his hand like she was going to try to take it away from him. "I can still eat meat, right?"
He took a bite. Defiantly. Chewing, swallowing, and chasing it with a mouthful of Coke, then one of chocolate milkshake, he asked, "So why'd you come here?"
"I'm taking a few classes during summer semester. Ones that State didn't offer."
Things still weren't making sense. "Well, it'll be terrific having you here for the summer, Betty, but it sure is strange that no school closer to you had those classes."
"I'm not going back to State. I transferred here. These are the classes I need to be all caught up with the program for sophomore year."
A fresh spoonful of chocolate milkshake stopped halfway to his mouth. "You transferred here? Permanently, for serious?" Reggie just managed to bite down on his tongue before he asked if it was because of him. Considering she'd seemed unsure of whether he was even the 'Mantle' in the dining hall... probably not.
"For serious." She caught the unasked question. "The same reason you came here, Reggie."
"A football scholarship?" he joked.
"The best journalism program in the country." She studied a spoonful of strawberry shake. "I got in. I didn't think I would. I didn't think they'd take a transfer."
"I'm a journalism major," Reggie said dumbly. "That means... you're in my program? Taking all my classes?"
"I'm in your program, taking all your classes." She laughed at his gawking, growing smile and shoved her spoonful into it. "You're the one who did all the leg work of tracking down the best programs, Reg. I knew right where to apply. So this'll be super, huh?"
"Super!" he agreed after swallowing. "I mean, just... wow! You're moving here for real?"
"Why'd you apply to State to begin with, then?"
The soft, sad look in her eyes returned. "Well, I guess we'll be talking a lot now. I'd tell you eventually. Might as well get it out of the way. I was scared to leave, Reggie. Everyone else was staying, nearly. Dilton went to Caltech and Nancy went to that art school in Rhode Island, but almost everyone else stayed in Riverdale. I mean... you know that. But you left too, Reggie. You chased that big dream. And you left us all."
Feeling like he was being accused of something, Reggie said, "People leave for college, Betty. You make it sound like I did something wrong."
"No. No, of course you didn't. You just did something that I couldn't quite do." Her hand found her ponytail. She tugged at it. "I guess you really believed that Ronnie had made her choice, and moved on." No. No way was a smart, talented girl like Betty Cooper saying she'd stayed in her hometown because of Andrews. His disbelief must have shown up in his expression, because Betty nodded and looked ashamed. "I know. It was stupid. It's not like State had a bad program, though. It's, you know. Fine."
"So what happened?"
"He asked me to work on his car. Married to the richest woman in town, who held onto her big fancy name and everything, and he didn't go to a mechanic. He went to Betty Cooper." Her spoon dipped back into the shake, twirling uselessly. "His pal."
"Aw, Betty. You know he didn't mean anything by it."
"I know," she said ruefully. "He didn't mean anything by it, because there was nothing to mean. And you know what, Reg? If there was nothing holding me to Riverdale, well... I've got a whole lot of something that wants to break out and see the world. I don't want to work for the Gazette, writing about bake sales. I want to write about things that matter, in places that matter! I want to write about pollution in the Cuyahoga River, who's causing it, and what it means."
Reggie shook his head once, slowly. "You're something else, Betty. Walter Cronkite better look out for his job, the way you make it sound."
"And am I looking at the world's greatest sports reporter to be?"
"Reggie Mantle, modest?" Betty gasped. "Oh my, I have missed some interesting things this year!"
"Nah. I'm focusing on political reporting." He winked. "I'll be the best at that."
She laughed and scooped out the dregs of the chocolate milkshake. "So, Reggie. Why were the people in the dining room saying your scholarship was in trouble?"
"You will be a good reporter," he muttered. "Don't miss a thing." Well, she had shared that bit about Archie. A crush on that guy had to be a lot more embarrassing than accidentally snapping the ankle of the school's star senior athlete. So he told her. He told her about the senior girls who ignored him, what it felt like to be a second-string player, the way his pranks were condemned instead of tolerated, and feeling like a tiny star in the sky when he'd been the sun in Riverdale.
"Oh, Reggie," Betty said softly. "We're freshmen. We're supposed to feel like we're getting stepped on. It'll get better."
"I'm just not used to it," he said miserably. "I don't like being even second best, and they try to make me feel like... tenth."
"So what now? Are you off the team?"
He flinched. "Aw Betty, don't even say that! You'll jinx me! No, but it might be even worse: the guy with the broken ankle? I'm in that position as a replacement. The team probably wants to thump me, but they need me playing next week against Ohio. And I've gotta be just as good as Barry would have been."
"Reggie Mantle," she said in a pitch-perfect rendition of her earlier disbelief, "scared?"
"...Concerned," he corrected.
"Even that's a change. I'll come cheer for you, sound good? That way you know even if the team's mad at you, you have a smiling face in the stands."
"That sounds great, Betty. That would be just... yeah, that sounds great." He fished out some money to pay for their meals, covering hers without a second thought. "Yeah, it'll be great to have you up there in the stands as...."
"Your pal?" Betty half-smiled, half-sighed.
"Nah," Reggie said, slinging an arm over her shoulders as he walked them out the door. "You're my pal, yeah, but you're also the most fun I've ever had on a date. Now we've got our major together, and...." He trailed off, shrugging. "You're my... Betty. Gosh, it's swell to see you again."
"Oh, Reggie." She latched her arms around his waist and squeezed, forcing them to stop on the sidewalk. "It's so good to see you, too. I knew I should be able to find you with the same major and all, but I was worried the school would be too big. Or at least, that I wouldn't find you until the summer was over."
"Hey, good point. Since summer is coming up, you want to go to the lake any time? There's a nice one here. Big beach, lots of barbecues, great swimming...." She really was pretty. And Reggie was more pleased than he'd thought possible to think of them working together in classes for the next three years. But he probably shouldn't kiss her out there on the sidewalk, one hour after seeing her for the first time in a year. Even if they'd been each other's perpetual safety-date, that would probably be pushing things.
"Hey, Reggie." Betty smiled up at him. "We've probably been on three dozen by now, so I feel okay in asking: that trip to the lake, is that a date instead of just a day with friends? Because I think maybe I'd want it to be." She grinned proudly at his surprise. "If Ronnie can hold onto her name, I can ask a boy out on a date."
"Technically, I asked you out on the date. You just clarified." Maybe he should have kissed her. Rats.
"You'll be a good reporter, too," she giggled. "Okay. What's playing at the movies? I can ask you to that, then."
"Uh. Yeah. Sure, sounds great." It sounded better than great. "Hey, Betty," he said as they began to make the return to campus. "You're not really a... vegetable thing, right?"
"No, no, I am! I think it's very important."
"But we'd do barbecue at the lake."
"Oh. Well, maybe not that day."
"You're the best, Cooper."
"Just don't tell anyone in the program, I made a big deal about it."
"Lips are sealed."