She’s been crying again. He pretends like he doesn’t notice the way her blue eyes are rimmed in red or the thickness in her voice or the little smudges of black under her lashes. It could be about Polly, or her parents. Maybe Archie. There are all kinds of reasons for her to cry these days, and the thought breaks his heart just as many ways.
“Hey,” He cups her delicate jaw in his hand, thinks she looks so gorgeously, tragically fragile in that moment that he could shatter her just by squeezing. “Look,” he nods toward the window of her bedroom, and her gaze drifts over to meet the orange and gold streaked sky. Her lips, swollen and tantalizingly red, curve just the slightest bit at the sight.
“Beautiful,” she says.
“Yeah,” he agrees, eyes never leaving her face.
“You know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” he says, although he doesn’t have a clue. She lost him somewhere between roller skates and ginger beer and he was just barely keeping up before then anyway.
“She’s just so ugh you know?”
This time he does.
“Yeah,” he repeats, scooting his chair just a little closer to hers. They’re in the Blue and Gold office and she’s sitting at a desk with her arms crossed tensely across her chest and she looks so adorable when she’s angry, though he doesn’t think she’d like it much if he said so.
She’s cute when she’s this kind of angry, he corrects himself internally. Sometimes she gets the quiet, shaky kind of mad and that’s not cute so much as it is equal parts terrifying and fucking sad.
“Sometimes I wish she would just disappear, you know?” She looks immediately contrite, like maybe she meant to say that only in her head. “God, that’s awful. I’m a terrible person.”
He laughs darkly, drawing her big, heavy eyes.
“If you’re a terrible person I can’t even imagine what that makes me. Is there a more eloquent word for ‘selfish loser’?”
He expects an irritated tut, the same thing she always does when he says something self-deprecating. But her face transforms into something sweet, something a little pained.
“Sometimes, Juggie, I think you’re the best of all of us.” She means it too, he can tell. She’s gotten good at lying, but she’s mostly learned from him, and he knows his own tells.
He doesn’t know what to say to that, warmth and terror warring in his chest and when he opens his mouth all that comes out is “-maybe you are crazy.”
She snorts, and its unladylike and unlike her but also perfect and he just stares.
There are a lot of things Jughead would like to do.
Get a book published, build something with his own two hands, win some sort of pie or hamburger or hot dog eating contest. See his sister again.
“Climb Mount Everest.”
He blinks as this new voice disrupts his thoughts, looking up to see Betty sliding into the booth across from him.
She looks like an angel in the soft afternoon light, like she’s made of gold and pastel pink and a little bit of magic.
“You were thinking about things you’d like to do before you die,” she explains, tugging his chocolate milkshake across the vinyl tabletop to take a sip. “I was contributing.”
“Mount Everest wasn’t on my list,” he says, mouth dry as he watches hers perch at the top of his straw. “And how could you possibly know that’s what I was doing?”
She pushes the milkshake back toward him and smiles mischievously.
“I can read your mind.” She wiggles her eyebrows suggestively. He tears his gaze away from that to stare at his milkshake. He wants to take a sip, but doesn’t. He’s a little afraid that once he knows what she tastes like he’ll never be able to think of anything else again.
“Oh really?” he asks, thinking if you could you’d have run for the hills a long time ago.
“What am I thinking about right now, then?”
She scrunches up her nose in concentration, and he swears he can feel it then, her mind brushing up against his, the strangest sensation. Like the purr of a cat, a vibration that somehow manages to feel warm and soft and home like nothing does. But that’s all in his head, of course.
“You’re thinking…” She sits back in her seat, cocking her head. “That you want another burger, extra cheese and pickles with no tomato, a side of fries and another milkshake for your best friend Betty.”
It’s not what he was thinking at all, but he recognizes with an absurd pride that it’s exactly what some alternate version of himself who hadn’t spent the past thirty seconds considering whether she tastes like strawberries or vanilla would have been.
“That’s quite the trick,” he murmurs, and she giggles.
“You were talking out loud when I got here. I’ll go put the order in.” She gets to her feet, ponytail swinging with each bouncy step toward the counter, and he watches, wonders if it’s possible to be hypnotized by it.
When she comes back, he’s thinking about his list again.
“Climb the Eiffel Tower,” she says.
“That wasn’t on my list either,” he replies.
“So what was?” She mutters impatiently.
You, he thinks.
“Nothing realistic,” he says.
“What do you think sex is like?” She asks one day, when he’s laying on the floor of her bedroom, staring at one of those optical illusion puzzles in an issue of Highlights that he stole from Jellybean’s paediatricians office a year ago. He completely loses his concentration.
“Awkward,” he says. “Sweaty.”
The bed creaks as she rolls over to look at him, and he lowers the magazine enough to peer at her over the top. Her face is unreadable, which is kind of a red flag all by itself.
“You’ve done it before,” she says. He’s not sure why it sounds like an accusation, but it does. He shrugs.
Her lips press together, and it’s a face she’s made before, usually around Archie when Ronnie is there and for second he wonders is she jealous? But that’s ridiculous, so he decides that she must wear that particular expression for more than one emotion.
It’s not a secret, but he’s never had any reason to tell anybody, and it feels strangely anticlimactic as he tells her now.
Betty stares at him. He can’t tell what she’s thinking, and suddenly his palms are sweating and he puts the Highlights down before it can slide out of his fingertips.
“Was it good?” She asks, and she sounds a little angry and he doesn’t know why except that maybe it’s because he never told her?
He likes Ginger enough not to say anything bad about it, but he can’t think of anything very good to say about it either.
“Uh,” he shrugs again. “It was awkward. And sweaty.”
“Huh.” She says, and rolls back onto her bed so he can’t see her face anymore. After a few seconds she says, “I’ve never done it.”
He knows. She’s never said so, but she’s been in love with Archie for a long time, and she’s not the type to lose her virginity in the back of a Chevy with a guy who’s never going to be the one she wants him to be. He wouldn’t judge her if she was, she just…isn’t.
His own foray into the world of sex probably wouldn’t have happened if Ginger hadn’t been living next to him in the trailer park and angry enough about her parents moving her all the way to Cleveland to sneak out and into Jughead’s bedroom. She’d asked if she could come live with the Joneses, and he’d said probably not, and she’d said she was just joking even though they both knew that was a lie and then she’d asked if he wanted to have sex.
They’d never dated, never been anything more than friends. But she was leaving in the morning, and they were both sixteen and far lonelier than a kid living in a trailer full of people has any right to be. So. It was fumbling and unsteady and a little melancholy but he doesn’t regret it. He doesn’t think she does either, though they haven’t spoken since she moved.
He wants to tell Betty she’s not missing much, but he’s not stupid enough to believe that two kids grinding in the dark is really the pinnacle of the whole experience, so he doesn’t say anything even as the silence stretches on and she starts to fidget from her spot on top of the bed.
“Do you think I’d be good at it?”
He smothers a groan, thinks that an honest I’ve been trying very hard not to spend every waking moment thinking about you doing it at all might not be well received.
“I can’t imagine you’d be bad at it,” he manages.
“Thanks,” she says, and it doesn’t sound sarcastic, just sounds kind of small, and he wonders why he suddenly feels like getting so drunk that he can’t feel his face.
“God, did you fall asleep with a lit cigarette in your mouth?” He feels the cigarette in question being tugged from his lips, and blinks blearily at Betty as she sits on the porch swing with him. “Trying to burn the house down before you’ve even lived here a week?”
He yawns, then holds out his hand. She places the smoke reluctantly back between his fingers.
“I haven’t been sleeping much.” He’s been too busy thinking about her, and Jellybean, and his father, and his mother, and Archie, and Jason, and-
God, he’s so tired of thinking. He’s the other kind of tired too, which is why he’s half passed out on the porch swing at six-thirty.
“Those will kill you one day,” she mutters, as he raises the cigarette to his lips and takes a long drag. He exhales facing away from her, blowing a slow stream of smoke around the corner of the house.
“I’m counting on it,” he says, and she sighs. They’re a little more themselves around each other now. His bitterness leaks out when he’s not paying attention, and she doesn’t try quite so hard to hide her own shadows from him either. She drops her head onto his shoulder, and he lets out a deep breath. It’s incredible and more than a little cruel that she always manages to carve off pieces of the darkness that follows him around just by touching him. It’s like whoever is in charge up there, in the place that Jughead stopped believing in when he was four, thinks it’s a riot to remind him that he’s always going to be this close to happiness. It makes him think of that painting Michaelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel, the one with Adam and God and their fingers are almost touching but not quite. Adam was supposed to be getting the gift of life from God, but there he is, captured for eternity in the seconds just before.
He did get it, supposedly. That’s how the story goes anyway.
But this isn’t a story and Jughead is certainly not the first man and he’s now so lost inside this metaphor that he can’t decide whether Betty is supposed to be the apple or maybe Eve.
“Earth to Jughead.”
He turns his head to frown down at Betty, whose head is still on his shoulder.
“Where’d you go?” She wonders.
“The Vatican,” he answers. “And then the Garden of Eden.”
Her lips part a little in surprise.
“Have you found religion, Juggie?” It’s a joke, but she sounds a little unsure all the same.
He snorts, which is answer enough for her, if the exasperated noise she makes in response is any indication.
“Just pondering the origin of life,” he says over another yawn.
“Well,” She’s starting to sound sleepy herself, the weight on his shoulder increasing as she slumps against him. “When a girl and a boy love each other very much-”
“Ha ha,” he says drily, eyes drifting shut again. As an afterthought, he grinds what’s left of his cigarette into the ashtray balanced on the armrest. “I think you’ve been spending too much time with me, Cooper.”
“Not possible.” He thinks he hears her whisper, and as he recovers from the shock he thinks suddenly that if it’s possible to wish something into being then he may have done so this time entirely by accident.
“What were you thinking?” He shouts, swivelling on his heel so he can pace a bit away from her, try and put some distance between himself and the person who’s currently making him so angry he can no longer feel his hands. “Did you forget there’s a murderer out there? That Jason, your sister’s fiancé, was held and tortured for a week before he was killed? God, do you have any sense of self-preservation at all?!” He’s shouting at the wall now, but it’s safer than shouting at her face, because looking at her face involves seeing that big blossoming bruise again, and it’s not that it’s ugly, but that it doesn’t belong there, and every time he looks at it he loses a little of his resolve not to run into the sheriffs stations and beat the shit out of Chuck Clayton with a baseball bat.
“I-Jughead, would you at least look at me?” She sounds angry, which is just, that’s rich, considering, but he just folds his arms across his chest, glowering at the wall.
“No,” he says, surprised when the word sounds like thunder and echoes through his chest because he didn’t even know he was capable of making a sound like that.
“You’re being childish,” she mutters, and it’s enough to break the very tenuous hold he has on his emotions.
“I’m being childish?” He spins again, to face her this time, and whatever emotion is currently winning the battle of representation on his face right now is enough to startle her silent. “I thought you had died, Betty! I thought you’d been taken by the same person who took Jason, and that you’d been murdered! For hours!”
“It was just Chuck,” she says weakly, apparently finding her voice again. “He’s not the murderer, he’s just a creep, and you know what? I don’t answer to you, Jughead!” Betty manages to work up a decent head of steam as she goes on, but it falters in competition with his.
“Oh,” he laughs, and it’s more like a snarl, hand snaking out to catch her chin. Even in his half-crazed state he remembers to be gentle, tipping her chin up to the light so he can better see the patch of skin already darkening across her cheekbone. “Just Chuck. Because he wouldn’t hurt you, would he?”
Her cheeks flush scarlet under his touch, whether from embarrassment or anger he can’t tell. It doesn’t really matter.
“I was doing this for Polly,” she says. “And Veronica, and Ethel. Someone needed to protect them.” She looks so righteous, and he’s still so angry, but he’s also so fucking in love with her and he’s struggling to come down from the hours where he was out of his mind with worry.
“And who’s protecting you?” He’s deadly quiet then. Her parents are still at the police station, no doubt threatening all kind of legal action against anyone who has the misfortune to walk directly into their line of sight. The house itself seems to still for a moment, the lack of any sound at all settling in his ears like wads of cotton.
“I can protect myself,” she draws herself up to her full height then, and it’s nearly enough to look him in the eye. His gaze flits back to the bruise on her face, and then the one on her wrist, and she tracks the movement with restless eyes.
“That’s not enough for me,” he growls. Backing off a little, he shakes his head. “Maybe it should be, but it’s not. Not when you come back looking like that.”
A little self-consciously, she reaches up to touch her face.
“Is it that bad?” She catches her bottom lip between her teeth, worrying. Always worrying, and never about the thing that matters most.
“It’s bad enough that it’s there,” he mutters. “Oh my god,” he groans, scrubbing a hand across his face. “You have no idea what it was like while you were missing. I thought-”
“Okay, but I’m fine,” she argues, stepping forward to close the distance he’s put between them. “Juggie, look at me. I’m okay, I’m here.”
He does look at her, and as the anger slowly ebbs away he takes in her face with new eyes. Her cheeks are flushed from arguing, the bruise darker than it was seconds ago. Her eyes are wide and a little wild from all the adrenaline, and without the anger wrapping him like a shield it cracks his heart wide open.
He almost lost her. He thought he had. After a few nightmares about it, he’d begun to think maybe he knew what that would be like but-
He’d had no idea. It was so much worse.
And maybe she’s right, maybe she was never in any real danger of a fate worse than Chuck thinking his oversized hands had any right to teach her a lesson, but he can’t feel that now.
All he can feel is an echo of the fear, the all consuming panic.
“Please,” he says hoarsely, and his voice cracks spectacularly. “Betty, please, don’t ever go missing on me again, don’t go off with guys who you know are out to get you, just-”
“Okay,” she grabs his face in her hands, and they’re small and a little sweaty but it’s the first time she’s touched him since she went missing and it’s immediately not enough. He startles her by reaching out and catching her at the waist, jerking her into him. She makes a small, surprised noise in the back of her throat, but sinks into it as he all but crushes her against him.
He’s holding her so tight neither of them should be able to breathe, but for the first time all night he can, and it comes out in a shaky, rattling, gasp.
“God,” He mutters, “God, I love you.” It just slips out, as his body slowly relaxes now that he can feel her solid against him. He can’t find it in himself to care.
Her hands curl at his back, fisting in the flannel of his shirt. Then she lets go, pulling back far enough to be able to see his face.
“You…you mean like a friend, right?” She asks tentatively, and he stares at her. She looks wary, frightened even, which is a little ironic considering everything else that’s happened in the past twelve hours.
“No,” he says, and it feels like an exorcism coming out. “No, I don’t. I mean I love you like-I am in love with you, one hundred percent, the you have ruined me for all other women and it crossed my mind more than once tonight that I don’t want to ever live without you kind of love. I love you,” he adds again, just because he can, and he has been holding that in for so long.
He’s drunk on relief, of having her standing here in front of him unbroken and whole.
“I-“ She just stares at him, deer in the headlights, and it’s an effective visual given her natural doe eyes.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he says, and he means it. He’s expecting her to reject him, he’s prepared for it.
What he’s not expecting is for her break her silence with a sudden, shaky sob, and clap a hand over her mouth.
“Betty?” He gapes at her, horrified. He wondered if she might be little uncomfortable following his major declaration, but he doesn’t think it was so bad that she needs to cry. “Um, shit. I’m sorry. Don’t cry.” He grabs her again, pulling her into a slightly less fracture inducing embrace, and holds her while she continues to cry. His hands rub up and down her arms, and her stuttering sobs turn into big gulping ones, the kind that mess up your breathing for a while even after they subside, and he is completely at a loss as to what has happened. “I take it back,” he says, in a desperate attempt to calm her. “I was just kidding.”
Her arms are trapped against his chest, but she manages to get enough leverage to smack him heavily against the collarbone.
“Shut up!” She says, a little hysterically, and it leaves him even more confused than before.
“I’m trying to help!” He replies irritably, “I’m a little lost here, Bets.”
“I need a minute, okay?” She shoves him away, turning to grab a handful of tissues from her nightstand and wipe whats left of her makeup away along with the tears. She just stands there for a minute after, facing away from him, and he abruptly feels so nervous that his heart jumps into a staccato rhythm that makes him feel dizzy. Finally, she turns around, shoulders relaxing as she huffs out a deep sigh.
“Are you alright?” He asks uncertainly. The last half fifteen minutes have been a whirlwind of emotions, and he knows there’s a special kind of tired coming for both of them soon.
She nods, and takes a small step toward him.
“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “I didn’t mean to melt down on you.”
“It’s okay,” he says automatically, although it is, too.
“It’s just been a really long day, and that was a lot, on top of, you know.”
His temper flares again, underneath the exhaustion already setting in. He has a feeling he won’t be able to think about the events of the day without a surge of homicidal rage for a while to come. She watches the anger flit across his face, and raises her hand to his face, tracing his jaw with her thumb. It’s possibly the most soothing thing he’s ever experienced, and he has to fight the urge to let his eyes drift shut.
“I love you too.”
He stiffens under her touch, all traces of sleep abandoning him.
“You don’t have to-”
“I know I don’t have to, Jughead,” she cuts him off, exasperation clear in her voice. “But I do. I do. I am in love with you. All I have wanted since I got out Chuck’s car was to see you. I knew you’d tell me it was okay, and that it would be, because you were here. And then I finally find you, and I have all these romantic notions about you sweeping me into your arms or something, and instead you yell at me.”
He snorts, can’t help it, she just looks so indignant.
“Here I thought you’d be worried-” She continues, but he interrupts her there.
“I was worried. I was so worried I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attack, god, you-”
“I know,” she places a finger on his lips, silencing him. “But I was-I was trying to process everything that happened and then you were so mad at me and all I wanted was a hug, so I was pissed, and who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do, anyways-”
“Stop interrupting me! So I was mad at you and then you just come barreling out with the fact that you love me and I wasn’t expecting it at all, and I just-“ She waves her hands in the air, like maybe they’ll be able to shake loose whatever word she’s looking for. “I realized you were yelling at me because you love me and I realized how worried you’d been and it’s like I finally felt safe. And it all just kind of caught up to me, and-”
He doesn’t try to talk over her again, knows she’ll just keep going, so he tries something else instead.
He kisses her.
She tastes like peppermint gum and salt and it’s still the best thing he’s ever tasted. Her hand slides from his jaw to tangle in his hair, his beanie had been lost somewhere during all the pacing and the shouting, and when her nails scratch lightly against the nape of his neck he can’t help but groan against her lips. As he deepens the kiss, parting her lips, the desperation from earlier creeps in, heart thudding against his ribcage.
She must feel it too, gasping into his mouth, pressing tighter against him. They fit perfectly together, her body arching seamlessly into all his empty spaces, and the need to feel her skin on his has him breaking away long enough to tug at the hem of her shirt. He hesitates, just long enough to give her an out, but she reaches down, peeling the shirt off before reaching for his.
She’s so hot against him when they’re both bare chested and tangled together and all it takes is a gasped “bed” from her before he’s nearly tripping over both their feet to get them there. His shins bump against her bed frame, and his fingers are just closing over the top button of her jeans, when-
They leap apart like they’ve been thrown, Betty landing in a heap on her bed, Jughead flying into her dresser with a muffled curse.
She just stares at him for a moment, chest heaving and half-dazed, and the animal in him feels a sense of pride in that he’ll never admit to. Then her brain kicks back in, and she jumps off the bed, swearing.
“My mom!” She moans, horrified, finding his t-shirt on the floor and throwing it at him. “Jughead put your-“ he catches it, too distracted by the sight of her running around half naked to pay attention to what she’s saying. “Put your shirt on!” She hisses.
He does, tugging it on and jogging over to pick up his flannel off the floor and shrug that on as well.
“You should probably put your shirt on too,” he points out, after a few seconds have passed and she hasn’t moved.
“Right.” She grabs her sweater, pulling it on haphazardly. When her head gets stuck, he walks over to her, pulling it properly into place with a concerned stare.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she looks up at him, pupils blown wide, and that thing in his stomach that he’s trying to ignore stirs. “Why?”
“You’re really twitchy.” He says, surprised to be the voice of calm. “Your mom’s going to know something’s-”
“Betty!” The door bangs open, and the two of them startle apart again. Jughead’s starting to think he’s going to need a pacemaker soon if their lives continue on the way they’ve been going. Alice Cooper stands in the doorway, hair slightly askew, radiating all the manic energy of a mother whose daughter was just missing for hours, assaulted, and then disappeared from the police station after questioning. “Where have you been? Your father and I were worried sick, and-”
For the first time, she sees Jughead.
“What’s he doing here? Why did you leave?”
“Mom, calm down.” Betty walks slowly toward her, like a zookeeper approaching s jungle cat. “I’m sorry I left without telling you, I just kind of freaked out and I had to get out of there, and Jughead said he’d take me home, so-”
“Well, she’s home now Jug-head,” Alice says sharply, emphasizing the syllables of his name like she always does. “So I think it’s time for you to go.”
“Mom!” Betty protests. “He’s not-”
“It’s okay, Betty.” He doesn’t want to get in the middle of a fight between her and her mother, mostly because Alice scares him, but also because he figures that maybe her mother actually has good reason to be completely unraveled this time. He won’t begrudge her a little time to make sure her daughter’s alright. God knows what he’d been going through just an hour ago. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
He fights the urge to kiss her on the forehead as he goes, settling for a quick squeeze of her unmarked arm.
“Call me if you need anything?”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Cooper,” he says, treading carefully around her to the door. She nods, and as soon as he’s around the corner he pulls out his phone, firing off a quick text.
I’ll leave the back door unlocked.
They have a hell of a lot of explaining to do in the morning, when Fred comes in to wake him up for school and finds him tangled with the blonde, both fast asleep. But it’s worth it. He slept better than he has in years. It turns out Betty isn’t really a morning person, but he brings her coffee in bed, and tells her he loves her.
She doesn’t cry this time.
Later, when they’re walking to school, she keeps reaching up self-consciously to touch her bruise. He catches her hand instead, lacing their fingers together and bringing the back of hers to his lips.
He doesn’t know if he believes in Adam and Eve, or God, and he’s never actually seen the Creation of Adam. But he thinks now that he knows what it’s like to have the gift of life at his fingertips. And even with a black eye, she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.