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Always Forward

Chapter Text

“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.

“Betty?”

* * *

“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.

“Hello!”

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.”

Chapter Text

The unloading took a while; both Veronica and Cheryl wimped out after only a few loads. Betty, on the other hand, was a box-moving machine.

Jughead and Archie fell into their old rhythm pretty easily. Turned out, moving dressers and mattresses wasn’t that much different, concept-wise, from hauling logs and rocks for river forts. When Archie cornered Jughead in the moving van, Jughead had almost fooled himself into thinking they’d moved past the awkward questions stage of the afternoon.

Jughead had just tugged a sheet off an old couch and was staring at the faded fabric. “Is this…?”

The flashback of sinking into that couch for hours while playing Burn Out on the Andrews’ first generation X-box was so vivid that Jughead heard the notes of Paradise City in his head.

Archie plopped down on the couch, leaning his head back. “Yep. The monster survives. Dad finally decided to buy a new one, but I think he just wanted to make sure the poor college students weren’t sitting on the floor all semester.”

Jughead sat more gingerly, ready for a breather after the massive endeavor that had been Cheryl’s solid oak armoire. The top of the couch used to rise over his head—now it hit him at the top of the shoulders, but it still had that sitting-on-a-cloud feeling. For a second, Jughead allowed himself to sink back—the Lodge couches had all been either covered with slick leather or firm and formal.

“So…”

The hesitant question in Archie’s voice made Jughead cringe. He shut his eyes and slumped down farther.

When Archie realized Jughead wasn’t going volunteer anything, he finally finished his sentence with, “What happened to you, man? Me and Betty tried to get in touch with you in Toledo.”

“Toledo sucked. Was there less than a year.” Eyes still closed, Jughead crossed his arms over his chest. “Parents split. Queens with Dad sucked worse. Then he got locked up, and I got placed with the Lodges. The Upper West Side was... OK.”

Archie didn’t reply, so Jughead finally opened his eyes. His childhood best friend stared back at him from the face of a clean-cut quarterback. There was a scar between his eyebrows that Jughead didn’t recognize, but the concern on his face was the same as when he’d heard Jughead’s parents screaming through the windows of the trailer.

“We missed you. After a while, Betty and I had to stop talking about it. Dad refused to drive us to Toledo to find you. I kinda…” Archie scrubbed his hand through his ginger hair. “I was afraid you’d died or something. Glad I was wrong.”

“Sorry,” Jughead offered. He wasn’t going to take that blame on himself; he’d dealt with too much blame that wasn’t his fault. However, he did wish their friendships hadn’t been a casualty of the war that had been his childhood. “I just… it was too much. I couldn’t see past the next day or, sometimes, the next meal. By the time things stabilized, it had been so long. My life was unrecognizable, and I figured you guys had moved on.”

Archie nodded as if he accepted that. “Maybe we can hang out sometime, since we’re neighbors now and all.”

Jughead smirked. “You gonna invite me out for milkshakes?”

Archie laughed. “Maybe. Is there a place here that makes ’em as good as Pop’s?”

“Oh man!” Jughead was practically drooling. “Pop’s. The city has great food, but nothing ever compared to Pop’s.”

Three sharp claps interrupted them, and then Betty pushed the dolly up the ramp. “If we don’t return this van by eight, we have to pay a penalty, and it’s not coming out of my budget.”

Archie groaned, but Jughead noticed how, at one word from her, his old friend was on his feet again. The boy and girl next door—the story was a classic for a reason. Jughead ignored the strange sinking feeling in his stomach. Probably some leftover reflex from the days when he’d worried about the Three Musketeers downsizing into a Daring Duo without him.

“We were just strategizing how to get this beast around the landings,” Archie was saying as he stacked boxes onto Betty’s dolly. The ones she’d pointed him to were all labeled with red X’s.

“Pivot.” Betty patted Archie’s arm, the gesture comfortable, instinctual. Her gaze skittered to Jughead and then away again. “I’d better get these up there. Cheryl needs to organize her shoes, like now, apparently.”

Her ponytail bounced down the ramp behind the dolly as Archie and Jughead began shoving the couch toward the edge of the van.

“How long have you and Betty been together?” Jughead asked as soon as the blonde was out of earshot.

Archie let out a bark of laughter. “Me and Betty?”

Jughead raised an eyebrow. “You’re not?”

“Betty and I….” Archie’s gaze unfocused. “There was a moment once, sophomore year, but I was too twisted up in a crappy relationship to take it. Then Jason died, and everything blew up. After that, family was more important than all that other stuff. Me, Betty, and Cheryl… we’re family.”

There was a fervor in Archie’s eyes that felt out of place on such an easy-going guy. For the first time since their curb-side reunion, Jughead started to think maybe Riverdale had left them with more than pep. But asking personal questions like those Jughead wanted to avoid himself would be hypocritical.

Instead Jughead said, “Jason Blossom is dead?”

“The Register’s archive’s online now.” Archie fixed Jughead with a stern gaze. “Go there if you want the grizzly details. We don’t talk about it, especially the girls.”

“Sure, man.” Jughead extended hands in peace. “There’s plenty of shit in the world that it sucks to remember.”

Archie visibly relaxed and gestured for Jughead to get the other side of the couch. “Let’s go. I don’t want to have to pay that freaking deposit. Betty’s as serious about money as she is about her car.”

* * *

After waving Archie off on his way to return their van, Betty grabbed the dolly her dad had insisted on giving them (“You never know when you’ll need to move something heavy, Elizabeth.”) and headed over to the Lodge express.

Sweat had practically glued her tank top to her back and her bad shoulder ached, but there were only a couple of loads left. She wasn’t going to abandon Jughead in the final stretch.

Parking her dolly next to his, she said, “Load me up, son.”

He stacked one last box on his dolly and swiped damp hair under his beanie. Some of it tumbled right back out. “I can finish these up. It’s just my stuff.”

“Coopers don’t quit!” Betty spoke in her mother’s voice and flinched.

Jughead didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he asked, “Are those the family words?”

“Our first choice was Winter Is Coming, but the Starks beat us to it.”

He laughed, and Betty thought it sounded nice. Jughead had never been much of a laugher.

She turned to a box that said J—Books—mediocre.

“Mediocre?” She arched an eyebrow.

He gestured at the one next to it. J—Books—good. “You can’t mix up your books—value judgments askew, worlds colliding.”

Betty giggled. “I organized my bookshelf by color once.”

Jughead winced. “No.”

“Book bloggers were posting these rainbow shelfies on Tumblr. I wanted to try.” Betty shrugged. “Then I couldn’t find anything because who the heck remembers what color one particular book is, so I went back to genre.”

He brushed past her to stack book boxes on her dolly, coming closer than he had all afternoon, save that one hug. Betty noticed the biceps under the short sleeves of his black T-shirt, so different than what she’d imagined him looking like, when she’d allowed herself to. She yanked her gaze away when she realized he was still talking.

“I would’ve pegged you for an alpha-order kind of girl.” He stacked the good books on top of the mediocre and the guilty pleasure box on top of that.

“Boring!” Betty shook her head hard enough that her ponytail swung. “My greatest reorganization was when I created my own genres. Children’s lit starring orphans had its own shelf. Bad ass female leads was another one—Alana of Trebond was a perfect match for Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior.”

His mouth had dropped open, and he was staring at her with the shock only a fellow bibliophile could have. “I don’t know if that’s brilliant or insane. No one could find anything.”

“I could.” Betty shrugged. “Who else matters?”

Jughead touched his fingers to his beanie and saluted her. “Touché.” He grabbed the last box of books and hefted it to the top of the dolly.

Ignoring his flexing muscles, Betty blurted, “Can I ask you something, Jug?”

He rested his arms on top of the box and narrowed his gaze. “I think Archie took care of the interrogation already.”

In that moment, Betty realized that if she wanted to be friends with this version of Jughead Jones—and she was kind of thinking she did—it required acceptance, not questions. No matter how much she wanted to know all the details of his life, he wasn’t ready to divulge them yet.

Betty had become pretty good at molding herself into what other people needed her to be. Once she’d stopped spending all her energy striving for her mother’s image of perfection, her eyes had opened to the wealth of other people in the world, all of them needing something. When she could provide that, it made her happy.

“I just wondered if you’ve decided on a major yet. If it violates the terms of your witness protection agreement to tell me, though, I understand.” She smiled when Jughead relaxed, and then she gripped the handle of her dolly.

“Let me take this one.” Jughead gestured to his dolly. “that one’s just clothes and stuff.”

“Are you saying I can’t move the books?” Betty lifted her chin and gripped the dolly more firmly.

“Go ahead, Katniss.” Jughead stepped back and gestured for her to take it away.

Betty tried to shift the weight of four boxes of books onto the back wheels of the dolly, but the stupid thing didn’t move. Glaring at it, she jumped up and pushed down. The dolly barely shifted.

“What do you have in there?” she demanded. “A set of 1970s encyclopedias?”

“All but the one I use as a door stop.” Gently, he nudged her out of the way and managed to shift the dolly enough to roll it down the ramp.

“Volume C, right?” Betty followed him down with the other dolly, secretly grateful to be moving clothes and whatever was in the J—Misc box. instead

He glanced back, a question in his eyes.

She grinned. “Volume D would be too prosaic.”

He rolled his eyes at her, but humor lurked in the depths of his gaze. When they reached the door, he held it open with his hip, and she called the elevator. Her unit was on the fourth floor, Jughead’s on the fifth.

As they went inside the elevator, Jughead said, “And it’s journalism. My major.”

Betty nodded, keeping her eyes on the numbers counting up as they rose. “Cool. Mine, too, though part of me wants to switch to English. Maybe we’ll have a class together or something.”

Chapter Text

JASON BLOSSOM MURDERED BY OWN FATHER
Southside Serpents Investigated for Involvement in Founding Family Drug Ring

By Alice Cooper, Editor

The Jason Blossom murder investigation came to a fiery close Monday when video evidence revealed that Clifford Blossom fired the gunshot that ended his seventeen-year-old son’s life.

After discovery of this evidence, Mr. Blossom held daughter, Cheryl Blossom, at gunpoint, along with Archie Andrews and Elizabeth Cooper. Using a little-known servant’s passage, the three teens escaped their captor and took refuge in the vast basement beneath the estate.

In what appears to be a failed attempt to hide the evidence of drug smuggling, Mr. Blossom set fire to the Thornhill mansion and one of its barns. Mr. Blossom perished in his own blaze.

“I’ve never been so scared in my whole life,” Andrews said. “Mr. Blossom flat out admitted that he shot Jason because Jason was going to report him for hiding heroin in the casks of maple syrup.”

Riverdale high school students Kevin Keller, Ethel Muggs, and Josie McCoy found Andrews, Cooper, and Ms. Blossom and helped them break through a sealed off door before flames engulfed the entire basement.

“Thank God for the Find My Friends ap,” said Keller.

After being extricated from the basement, Andrews, Cooper, and Ms. Blossom were taken to Riverdale Memorial Hospital for treatment. Cooper was rushed into surgery for a gunshot wound. Andrews and Ms. Blossom were treated for shock, smoke inhalation, and minor abrasions. All three teens will make a full recovery.

The death of Harvey “Mustang” Collins, a member of the Southside Serpents, has been linked to this case, and, according to a source within the sheriff’s department, the entire Serpent organization is being investigated for involvement in the heroin smuggling….

A knock pulled Jughead out of the Riverdale Register’s archive. He’d always thought his family was the darkest thing in town. Apparently not.

At his invitation, Veronica padded across the room in bare feet to perch on the other side of his bed. She still had on her slacks, but her blouse was untucked and rumpled. Her bedroom probably looked perfect, unlike the towers of boxes in his. The only things he’d unearthed for the night were a pair of sweats, his pillows, and the quilt over his legs.

“I thought you’d be asleep.” She leaned against the headboard. “You must be exhausted. You barely ate dinner.”

“I ate half a pizza,” he protested.

“And not the whole thing,” Veronica shot back.

He inclined his head, acknowledging her point. “Got caught up reading.” Jughead tilted the laptop so she could see the screen.

“The All-Americans have a dark past.” Veronica closed the laptop when she finished the article. “If you still lived there, you probably would have been involved in all that, too.”

“I tend to confine thrilling heroics to my novel.” Jughead set the laptop on his bedside table.

“You were my hero once.”

His fingers twitched at the memory—a loud crack, shooting pain, the warmth of someone else’s blood. There was still a tiny scar between two knuckles.

“The exception that proves the rule.” He flicked off the lamp.

She got up and, instead of leaving the room, grabbed one of the sheets from the open box where he’d found the quilt. Turned out to be a bottom sheet, but she came back and curled up under it anyway.

A strange half-light from the city came through the small bedroom window. It felt nothing like the Upper West Side; yet they were still here, still them. Veronica might be Caroline Astor or Blair Waldorf by day, but quiet nights allowed her insecurities to set in.

They didn’t cuddle—the last time Jughead had cuddled anyone was that final night in Toledo, trying to keep Jellybean calm while F.P. faced off against his wife and her parents downstairs. (“They poisoned you against me, Gladys.” “You poisoned us yourself.” “Take your ingrate son and leave, F.P. Our daughter deserves better.”) Jellybean had been three, and she’d fallen asleep crying into his shirt. When she woke up the next morning, Jughead and F.P. were gone.

“Want to hear something weird?” Veronica’s voice broke into his melancholy.

Jughead turned his head toward her. “I love weird.”

“My mom owns property in Riverdale. She went to high school there, apparently. She told me yesterday.”

“Huh.” After all the other shocks of the day, this one didn’t affect him like it might have last week. “I wonder why she never mentioned it.”

“She said you were doing well, and she didn’t want to derail your progress.” Veronica pulled the sheet up higher. “She wants to sell.”

“After what I just read, sounds wise.” Exhaustion crept over him, despite the many directions his mind wanted to run. Jughead yawned.

“You were happy to see them again.” Streetlights and shadows played across Veronica’s face.

“I guess so,” he admitted. “I mean, not Cheryl. When I knew her, she was a snotty rich girl making fun of my hat.”

Veronica laughed a little. “Sounds familiar.”

“I think she called me a hobo.”

Veronica frowned. “Bitch.”

They lay in silence longer this time. Jughead had all but drifted off when she spoke again.

“I’m not used to sharing you. I don’t know if I’ll be any good at it.”

He nudged her with his knee through the quilt. “You’re my sister. That doesn’t change.”

Veronica nodded and turned on her side facing away from him. Soon, they were asleep and it didn’t matter what part of the city they were living in.

* * *

Betty Cooper loved the first day of school. Fresh notebooks just waiting to hold great thoughts and ideas; pens brimming with ink; a backpack free of mid-semester detritus. On the first day, she had an A in every class, and she would face down every academic challenge like Wonder Woman conquered No Man’s Land.

After twenty-four hours of unpacking, Betty had gotten everything organized just the way she liked it. So, when her alarm went off the next morning, Betty showered and dressed extra quickly to make a breakfast worthy of the perfect sendoff: blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs (fully loaded for her and Archie; just whites for Cheryl), pan-fried bacon, and a pot of coffee.

Archie was the first to stumble out of his room, pulling a brown T-shirt over his head. He had only one sock on, and half of his hair stood on end. “Is that bacon?”

“Of course!” Betty flipped the last two pancakes and stirred the eggs. “Traditional first day of school breakfast.”

Cheryl wandered out a minute later in a tank and tiny boy shorts. Her hair was perfectly braided down her back. “This isn’t Riverdale High, you know. Some of us didn’t sign up for class until noon.”

“Humor me.” Betty dumped eggs onto a serving dish. “You can fend for yourselves tomorrow.”

“I’m in.” Archie grabbed plates of food and carried them to their small kitchen table.

Cheryl rolled her eyes, but she crossed into the kitchen and fixed three mugs of coffee—sugar and lots of cream for Archie, dark and sweet for herself, and a packet of Splenda for Betty.

“I have to be at school at ten,” Archie said after swallowing a huge bite of pancake. “What about you, Betty?”

“Nine. Intro to Media Studies.” Betty took a bite of pancake. The blueberries exploded perfectly over her tongue.

“Are you wearing that?” Cheryl eyed Betty’s light pink and cream top and jeans over the rim of her coffee mug.

“Yes.” Betty wanted to start as she planned to go on, which meant no fancy dress on the first day of school.

“She looks good,” Archie put in, reaching for more bacon. “Very Betty.”

Ignoring him, Cheryl said, “At least let me fix your hair. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

“All right,” Betty agreed and was rewarded by one of Cheryl’s genuine smiles. Her normal smile was smirky and calculated—a true one rare indeed. Betty smiled back.

Forty-five minutes later, she left the apartment with a map to the journalism school on her phone, a backpack over her shoulders, and her hair in loose waves. A chunk at the front was held back with a clip that matched one of Cheryl’s broaches (which Betty had refused—she’d never be a broach girl). The look had turned out surprisingly nice, but the mass of hair on her neck already annoyed her a little.

On the front steps, Betty paused to peer at the map. The door opened behind her, and she shuffled to the side so as not to block anyone’s way.

“Pro tip—staring at your phone marks you as a tourist.” Jughead paused next to her on the steps. He had a leather messenger bag slung across his chest and wore a gray-blue Henley that did nice things for his eyes. His hair was damp under his beanie.

“I am a tourist.” Betty slipped her phone in her pocket and followed him down the stairs. “I figure it’ll take at least a couple of weeks before I can claim true New Yorker status.”

“You’ve always been a quick learner.” Jughead gestured toward the right. “Intro to Media Studies?”

“Yep.”

“Me, too.”

They fell into step as they walked toward campus. Jughead had a long stride, but Betty worked out enough that she could keep up.

She cast her thoughts wide for an appropriate topic of conversation, but nothing caught. Not bugging him about the decade of silence was all well and good, but without any knowledge of his life since Riverdale, she was at a loss for conversation. Books, maybe? But she hadn’t gotten a peek inside his boxes to see what constituted good vs. mediocre.

She’d about decided on a generic comment about the weather when she felt Jughead side-eyeing her.

“Everything OK?” she blurted.

“I…” Jughead closed his mouth and shook his head. “Never mind.”

Betty scowled. “No never mind. What were you going to say?”

Jughead burst out laughing and then looked surprised at himself. “Sorry, I just had this memory of you giving me and Archie that face when we said girls couldn’t fish.”

That made Betty chuckle, too. “I was right. If memory serves, I’m the only one who caught anything.”

“Then you made us throw it back.” Jughead shook his head.

“You were wrong about the actual fishing, but cleaning a fish was beyond my comfort zone. Fish guts—ug—and the smell.” Betty shuddered.

They walked another half block, and then Betty asked, “What were you going to say before?”

“Eh… I promised Archie I wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t what?” Then she figured it out. “He told you not to talk about Jason’s murder, didn’t he?”

“Well, yeah.” Jughead rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s fine, though. Asking would be kind of hypocritical after the way I shut you down in the van.”

Betty sucked in a deep breath against the memories that rushed to the forefront. Normally they stayed where she put them, but she hadn’t been expecting to talk about it this morning. As she’d learned, Betty focused on all the sensory inputs that differentiated now from that night to ground herself in the present. Warm sunshine burned off the feel of snow. Instead of acrid smoke, the air smelled like coffee from the little shop on the corner. Her blouse felt clean and soft against her skin, not scratchy with blood. Jughead’s calm presence more solid and real than ghostly Cheryl and Archie screaming as they pounded against the forgotten door.

“Some people can be… ghoulish,” Betty said at last. “Crime writers and people who just want a gruesome thrill. We’ve been burned before, but I know that’s not you, Juggie.”

She glanced up at him, her attention caught by the naked expression on his face. Their footsteps slowed.

“How do you know?” He cocked his head, and a lock of hair escaped his beanie.

She touched his arm briefly. “I remember. Go ahead—ask. If I don’t want to answer, I won’t.”

They walked quietly for another minute, and then he said, “I read the Register.”

“They had to get the weekly edition out,” Betty agreed. “If I hadn’t been in the hospital, Mom might have let me write it.”

“It said you were shot…”

The fingers of her left hand brushed over the area between her chest and her right shoulder. “They said I was lucky. It went through clean. I lost a lot of blood, though. Cheryl and I turned out to be the same blood type.”

“But why shoot you?” His gaze was stark. “I mean… you’re you.”

The campus was in sight, but Betty’s gaze was still focused inward. Luckily, Jughead kept her on course.

Before he left town, Joaquin stole the video for them out of the White Wyrm. After they watched it, the five of them knew they had to get Cheryl out of Thornhill. Betty and Archie went for Cheryl, while Kevin, Ethel, and Josie went to find Kevin’s dad. They’d thought Cheryl was home alone. Penelope had been at her Women of Riverdale meeting. Clifford, as it turned out, had come home early from his night at the club.

“You did a bad thing, Daddy.”

“You’re weak like your brother—neither of you fit to inherit the Blossom Empire.”

Betty’s heart hammering against her ribcage. Archie stiff beside her. The gun trained on Cheryl. Sirens crying in the distance. The click, loud like cracking ice. The muscles in her legs bunching…

“He was aiming for Cheryl.” Her voice was so quiet he had to stoop to hear her. “I knocked her out of the way.”

A hand came down on her shoulder. Betty jumped, but her heart slowed when she saw Jughead, not Clifford Blossom.

An awestruck expression covered the boy’s face. “You are a badass, Betty Cooper—a complete and total badass.”

Laughter bubbled out of Betty’s throat. Suddenly, she didn’t have to struggle to be anchored to the here and now.

“I’m not just saying that,” Jughead protested. “I mean it.”

“I know you do, Juggie. Thank you.” Betty patted his hand, and then opened the door to the journalism building. “Let’s go study media.”

Chapter Text

“We’re throwing a party, Jay.” Veronica leaned her face over Jughead’s laptop, dark hair swinging over the blinking curser. Not that it mattered. He hadn’t written a thing he’d liked in the past hour.

“A party?” Jughead leaned back to gauge her expression—manic smile but true excitement behind her eyes. “Why?”

Veronica extended her hands and spun around in their small living area. “Why not?”

“Not a real answer, Ron.”

“Because I’m sick of pretending like I don’t care, and I’m tired of being a monk.” She punched something on her iPhone.

“Technically, you’d be a nun.

“Semantics.” Veronica thrust the phone into his face.

Jughead squinted at the screen. She’d pulled up the Instagram account of Katie, her best frenemy from high school—BFFs one day, at each other’s throats the next. Katie had been supportive after Hiram’s arrest (right before graduation), but that was before the penthouse was taken and the funds were frozen. The guilty verdict had been handed down in June, while Katie was on a graduation trip to Europe. These pictures, however, were dated last night—Katie and the rest of the Spence School socialites partying at some trendy club in Manhattan.

“Didn’t get an invite, huh?” Jughead eyed his former classmates posing for the camera. A few Spence kids, like Veronica, had depth, but for most, the shallow surface you saw was what you got. Katie was the worst.

“I’m too de classe for an actual text now.” Veronica turned off her screen. “Though I guess it’s OK to still be connected on social media, you know, just in case Daddy’s appeal comes through.”

“Fuck ’em,” Jughead declared. “We don’t need their shit stinking up our new life.”

“You’re right.”

He frowned. She never agreed that easily.

Veronica perched on the edge of the sofa. “Spence is done. A party will help us make new friends, college friends. We have to branch out.”

“This apartment is too tiny for branching out.”

“I’m inviting a select group of people from my classes who seem interesting. It’ll be great.”

Jughead groaned and buried his face in his hands. “I don’t want to get to know people. I know enough people.”

“I ran into Betty at the mailboxes. She said she’ll bring brownies.”

He peeked through his fingers. “Really?”

Veronica dropped her cheerleader persona for a minute. “I need to do something Instagram worthy—not just to show those Spence School losers, but to show myself. I figured, this way, at least there would be people here you wanted to hang out with.”

“All right, Ron.” Jughead heaved a sigh to let her know just how put out he was. “The unwashed masses can invade our house, but I’m not putting up streamers or doing keg stands.”

“Great!” Veronica punctuated her squeal with a little clap. “I invited some of our other neighbors, too. I figured they can’t get upset by a little noise if they’re partying with us. I told people to be here around eight.”

“But that’s in, like, three hours.” Jughead stared at her in horror. He thought he’d have a day or two to psych himself up for the invasion.

“You can’t celebrate the end of the first week of classes on Saturday,” Veronica informed him loftily. “I told people B.Y.O.B. You should have plenty of time to run to the store for snacks while I plan my perfect outfit.”

* * *

They heard the party before they even made it all the way upstairs. Cheryl had insisted on being fashionably late. Betty had the promised brownies in hand. Her mother always insisted on a hostess gift—a tradition Betty actually liked because it made the hostess smile. But in that crowded fifth floor hallway, her gift suddenly felt utterly prosaic. The two six packs Archie had used his fake I.D. (all the Bulldogs had gotten them senior year) to procure would be more appreciated.

“When she said party, I expected, like, a small group of people tasting fancy wines.” Betty paused just over the threshold.

Several apartment doors were open, not just Veronica and Jughead’s; people floatee between them.

Cheryl’s eyes glittered. “I expected lame, but this looks promising.”

“It doesn’t seem like Jughead’s kind of thing at all.” They hadn’t hung out a lot, but Betty and Jughead had been walking to Media Studies together every other morning and sitting together in class. They hadn’t discussed anything deep since that first day, but she looked forward to his acerbic wit. His normal reticence seemed the antithesis of this mob.

“Remember when he refused to go to Reggie’s 7th birthday party?” Archie laughed. “Even the seven-layer cake couldn’t convince him.”

Betty was seriously thinking about giving Cheryl the brownies and going right back downstairs. In Riverdale, even big parties were filled with people she’d known all her life. Right now, her brain was on stranger, stranger, stranger alert. The leather skirt and gauzy top Cheryl had insisted she wear felt ridiculous and uncomfortable.

Archie and Cheryl got several steps ahead before they realized she wasn’t following. They both turned, grabbed her by the elbows, and tugged her forward.

“C’mon, Betty,” Archie urged. “At least we can meet more neighbors. That’s good, right? What if you need to borrow a cup of sugar.”

“I’ll go to the store,” Betty muttered.

“You look hot,” Cheryl added. “I refuse to let you miss your college experience by hermitting in our apartment like a grandma.”

“Give it an hour,” Archie wheedled. “If you’re not having fun by then, we promise not to give you a hard time for going home.”

At a stern look from Archie, Cheryl rolled her eyes. “Fine. I promise, too.”

Unable to withstand the dual attack, Betty nodded. “Okay—one hour. After that, I’m leaving.”

“Maybe.” Cheryl threaded her arm through Betty’s. “Or maybe you’ll find your own Daniel Radcliff and decide to stay.” When both Archie and Betty stared at her, Cheryl added, “What? Everyone knows Betty prefers her boys to have a healthy dose of geek.”

When they finally reached Veronica and Jughead’s apartment, the raven-haired Latina spotted them immediately. She wore a canary-yellow dress that could have been spotted from the moon but looked fabulous on her.

“Happy end of the first week of classes!” Veronica exclaimed with a grand gesture. “Welcome to our humble abode.”

Ingrained politeness had Betty replying, “Thanks for inviting us.”

“Where should we put these?” Archie proffered the beer.

“You’re so sweet.” Veronica waved vaguely toward the kitchen. “Everything’s in there.”

Betty followed Archie toward the fridge, where he managed to squeeze his six packs in with the other beverages. She noticed food spread out on the small kitchen table and set her brownies down amongst several bags of chips; some sad, store-bought cookies still in the plastic divider; and a big bowl filled with a mixture of M&Ms and Skittles.

When Archie rejoined her, Betty pointed at the bowl. “Why would you mix those?”

“A surprise in every mouthful?” Archie handed Betty a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and threw some candy in his mouth. Betty giggled at his grimace.

“Not the greatest surprise.” He cleansed his palate with beer.

Needing something to do, Betty grabbed a paper plate with her free hand and started arranging the cookies in a pleasing pattern. She was almost done when Cheryl reappeared. She took the plate and set it on the far side of the table. “No.”

“I just…” Betty gestured to the plastic divider that still had three cookies in it.

“Come on, you two.” Cheryl turned and glanced back at them over her shoulder, red curls tumbling. “I found the fun.”

With a shrug, Archie followed, leaving Betty little choice but to trail along behind. As they slipped through the crowd toward the couch, Betty found herself scanning the edges of the room for the familiar gray beanie. If Jughead was loitering on the edges, maybe she could kill her hour with him. Archie and Cheryl’s propensity to mingle was overwhelming.

Cheryl’s fun turned out to be a guy in a blue T-shirt who’d taken over the coffee table with salt shakers, lime wedges, two bottles of tequila, and a huge stack of miniature red Solo cups.

“This is Tom.” Cheryl ran her scarlet lacquered nails through Tom’s brown hair. “He’s sharing.”

Tom gazed up at Cheryl, mesmerized. “I’ve got regular and anejo.”

Betty eyed the distance between the couch and the door. It wasn’t far, but with so many people in the way, Cheryl would surely catch her if she made a break for it. Then she caught the glimpse of gray that she’d been searching for.

Jughead looked nice. His hair was tamed beneath the beanie, and he was wearing a green button-up shirt rolled up to the elbows. His jeans were crisp and clean, no holes or suspenders. He smiled and said something to someone she couldn’t see. A tingle swept through her, catching her breath and pooling in her belly.

The crowd shifted again, and the tingle whooshed out with a long breath of air. Jughead was talking to a cute brunette wearing kicky boots and a top that bared her midriff. He said something else, and the girl threw her head back, laughing.

“Here.” Cheryl pressed a shot glass into Betty’s hand, bringing her back to Tom and his tequila. Cheryl and Archie each held one, too.

“To Riverdale,” Archie said, holding out his glass.

“To freedom.” Cheryl knocked hers against his, and they looked at Betty expectantly.

“Happy Friday.” Betty winced when the liquor burned its way down her throat.

* * *

Betty sat sideways on the couch, one foot tucked beneath her, a slightly swirly head propped on one hand. Cheryl and Tequila Tom had disappeared after the second shot. Archie had wandered off, as well; his seat on the couch claimed by a guy from her British History (1865 to 1951) class. He looked kind of like Rob on Game of Thrones without the Tully red in his hair. Sadly, he wasn’t nearly as interesting, and he didn’t have a direwolf.

“You’ll get an A easy,” Rob was saying. “History professors love students who can write.”

Betty nodded, which Rob took as an invitation to continue talking about the History Department. He was a sophomore and believed he had a wealth of information to share with a freshman like her.

Her eyes wandered around the room. Though still full, the apartment wasn’t quite as crowded as it had been when they first arrived. Some of the influx seemed to have moved across the hall.

Jughead was no longer talking to the brunette by the wall. Now he stood by the kitchen table, munching on a handful of Skittles-M&M mix and talking with two other guys and a blonde girl. The girl took one of the cookies that Betty had arranged. One of the guys said something, and Jughead shook his head.

Her attention drifted back to Rob. “…and never sit in the front row of Bascombe’s class….”

Her Mike’s Hard Lemonade was gone, but Betty knew she’d had plenty. How long had it been anyway? She shifted to get her phone, and her gaze went back over to the snack table.

This time, Jughead was looking straight at her. Her breath caught, and then she smiled. Jughead smiled back—just a tiny curve of his lips, private. For one moment, the room was empty save him and her. Then cookie girl touched his arm, stealing his attention.

Suddenly, Betty was done. She squinted at her phone. Five after ten—her hour was up. She stood, surprising Rob midsentence.

“Are you all right?” Rob looked up at her with concern.

“I’m fine.” Betty flashed him a quick “so sorry—it’s not you” smile. “I just have to go.”

“Really?” His disappointment was obvious.

“I’ll look for you in class next Tuesday,” Betty promised. “G’night, Rob.”

She’d gotten about three steps away when she heard him call, “My name is Jeff!”

* * *

Jughead had tossed snacks on the table with little thought or care. Once they arrived, people would eat anything at a party. The candy bowl, though, he filled with gusto. Despite Veronica’s moue of distaste, he mixed three parts M&Ms with two parts Skittles and then tossed back a handful with exaggerated relish.

To be honest, the mixture had started as a way to disgust Veronica. He’d been almost twelve, the new kid at Spender Middle. But not just the new kid—a Lodge by proxy. And Veronica was always there—school, home, everywhere—pretty much a princess in all aspects of her life.

Mixing them together made her squirm in the best way every time he took a bite. It had been disgusting, but Jughead could handle food, even gross food. He kept mixing them, and she kept squirming. Weeks later, he realized he actually liked the combination. Fruity and tart laced with velvety chocolate felt like safety, security, having a roof over his head and regular meals to eat.

He’d been with the Lodges close to six months when Veronica finally tried a bite—Jughead would never, ever forget the horrified look on her face, torn between the gaucheness of spitting it out or gagging when she swallowed.

“Jay,” Veronica called in a sugary sweet voice.

He quirked his eyebrows up in question.

“Change,” Veronica said with exasperation. “People will start arriving any minute.”

Jughead grimaced but followed orders. He was used to it. His main duty as a pseudo-Lodge—besides getting good grades—had been accompanying Veronica on her social whirl whenever she requested it. Hiram felt better because his princess had a “man” around to watch out for her (some 1950’s shit right there, but it gave the guy a story to feel good about). Hermione felt better because Jughead got a proper polish (“Money can open the doors of society, but only those smart enough to learn how to fit in stay inside.”) And Veronica felt better because having a cool, yet aloof, foster brother was preferable to a loner reject. (“It’s such a cliché, Jay. You’re better than that.”) It had taken some trial and error, but with enough practice even the biggest loner can learn to navigate the most crowded party. Occasionally, it might even be tolerable.

In the solitude of his room, Jughead pulled on his invisible party armor along with his Veronica-approved wardrobe and beanie (Veronica gave up asking him to leave it off after the first year). Each quiet breath brought in energy he’d need to make it through the night ahead.

He was actually more excited for this party than he’d expected to be. Probably because of the two non-strangers who’d been invited. He hadn’t seen Archie since moving day, but Jughead had started looking forward to talking with Betty on the way to Media Studies. He always worked so hard not to let people see his messy insides, but Betty already knew—if not everything, a lot of it. It was freeing.

He was in the apartment across the hall and one down meeting neighbors when Veronica darted in looking for him.

“There you are.” She giggled and grabbed his arm.

“What’s up, Ron?” He studied her face to gauge her intoxication level—relaxed, a little silly. Not that it was normally an issue. Veronica was image-conscious enough that she seldom drank to excess. But old habits die hard. He’d read an article once that said the children of alcoholics were often too conscious of trying to take care of people.

“Your ghosts are here.” She’d been more upbeat about the possibility of him rekindling his old friendships after that first night, but he rolled his eyes at her terminology.

When he walked into his apartment, his lips turned up in amusement when he saw Betty furtively organizing the snacks.

He was about to join them when Lana, a girl from his Geology class, cornered him. Objectively, she was attractive—long, curly hair; nice figure—but Jughead felt nothing other than a slight appreciation for her ability to impersonate their professor. When she started tossing her hair and looking up at him from beneath her lashes, he excused himself.

By that point, the Riverdale trio were doing shots in the corner. Definitely not his scene. Jughead refilled his Solo cup with water from the tap and retrieved the extra chips he’d stashed in the cupboard to replenish the snacks.

The next time he looked over, Archie and Cheryl were gone, and Betty was sitting on the couch deep in conversation with some dude with twelve o’clock shadow.

The snack table was popular; Jughead found himself in the role of host. After Betty finally noticed him and extricated herself from her conversation, though, Jughead made an excuse to the trio from Veronica’s art class and moved through the kitchen to intercept Betty at the front door.

He touched her shoulder. She startled and overcorrected, taking two wobbly steps back. Jughead hastened to steady her. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“S’ok.” Betty got her balance and glanced back up at him.

Jughead held out his cup. “You might need this more than me.”

She peered down at it and then back up at him. “No thanks. I’m over my limit. What is that? Vodka?”

He chuckled. “Water.”

Betty considered that for a second, then took the offered cup and downed it all. “Thanks.”

“Got a whole tap full.” He nodded toward the sink.

She shook her head and sat the cup on the door-side table that held mail and keys when they weren’t being invaded. “I’m leaving.”

His brow furrowed. He’d finally gotten a chance to talk with her, and she was leaving? “How come?”

Her cheeks, already slightly pink from alcohol, darkened a bit more. “I only promised to stay an hour. Time’s up. I’m going home.”

Something inside him relaxed. “Can I go with you?”

Chapter Text

Jughead opened the stairwell door, letting Betty out onto the fourth floor. Down here, the sounds of the party were muffled, like a dream letting him go from its clutches. At her unit, Betty leaned against the wall and handed him her keys. Just inside, there were three hooks with hand-lettered labels. He hung her keys on the one marked “Betty.”

The girl herself paused by the kitchen and tipped her head back to study him. “So, what did you want to do?”

For once, Jughead hadn’t pondered this moment in advance, but they had a big flat screen mounted on the wall. “Movie?”

“Sure.” Betty narrowed her gaze. “As long as that’s not code for ‘Netflix and chill.’” She made exaggerated finger quotes. “I’m not that kind of girl.”

He snorted—if only she knew. “I’m not that kind of guy, either.”

She contemplated him for a moment longer and a beatific grin wiped all traces of suspicion from her face. “You pick the movie. I’m gonna change.”

Betty stepped out of her heeled sandals, leaving them in the middle of the floor, and padded into the bedroom closest to the kitchen.

With the toe of his Aldo Porettas—one of Veronica’s many attempts to improve his wardrobe—Jughead nudged her shoes out of tripping range.

Betty poked her head back around the edge of her door. “I’m not in the mood for horror or anything too shoot-em-up.”

Jughead clutched his heart dramatically. “You just eliminated all the good stuff.”

“Be creative.” She vanished back into her room as Jughead picked up the remote and opened their iTunes movie library. Based on the number of romantic comedies and period pieces, Jughead assumed it wasn’t Archie’s account.

It took a little scrolling, but he finally chose one and queued it up. As he waited for Betty to re-emerge, a bulletin board hanging by the kitchen drew his attention.

It had the usual stuff: sticky notes for messages and a grocery list in three different sets of handwriting—but what really drew his eye were the pictures. Betty, Archie, and Cheryl in Pop’s with Kevin. (Jughead’s mouth watered for a strawberry milkshake.) The three of them at prom, standing stiffly with their dates—Cheryl with Reggie, Archie with Valerie, and Betty with Trev. That must’ve been Cheryl’s senior year and Archie and Betty’s junior year. There was another school dance picture with just the three of them, Archie’s arms slung around both girls. All three had much more natural smiles. In another, Archie and his dad leaned against a fence in front of an “ANDREW’S CONSTRUCTION” sign. Archie wore a hard hat. Polly smiled out of a Sears-style five-by-seven with two red-headed toddlers in her lap. There was a stiff portrait of Alice, Hal, Betty, and Cheryl with Betty in the center, creating a link between her parents and her (Jughead had been shocked to learn) cousin. There was another of Betty and Cheryl grinning cheesily at the camera in River Vixen uniforms.

“If you aren’t full of your weird candy combination, we have snacks,” Betty called, distracting him from the high school experience he might’ve had.

“Food sounds good,” Jughead called toward her closed door. “And M&Ms and Skittles together are a culinary masterpiece.”

“Sorry, Jug,” she replied, “but it’s just weird.”

Now that he had permission, Jughead prowled through the kitchen. Their fridge and the small pantry cupboard were bursting with goodness. (He and Veronica really needed to shop more!)

Jughead took two bottles of water and a container of chocolate chips cookies to the couch. When he popped the top, a delectable smell assaulted his nostrils, and he groaned—perhaps louder than he should have. Between that and the excellence of the couch, Jughead was in heaven.

“Everything all right out here?” Betty stood next to the couch wearing a pair of flannel My Little Pony pants, a white T-shirt, and a puzzled expression. The complicated hairstyle she’d had before was gone in favor of loose curls. She looked steadier than before. Maybe the water had kicked in.

“Did you bake these?” Jughead asked.

Betty nodded. “I already had flour and everything out for the brownies.”

Jughead stuffed one of the admittedly large cookies into his mouth and moaned at the buttery, chocolatey sweetness.

She cracked open one of the water bottles, watching him with laughter in her eyes. “I take it you like them.”

“OhmigodBetts,” he mumbled around the delicious flavor. After swallowing, he added, “These taste just like the ones you used to bring to the treehouse except better. Did you add crack to the recipe?”

She laughed and broke off half a cookie for herself. He crammed the remaining half into his mouth.

“I’ve been tweaking my grandmother’s recipe.” Betty nibbled on the edge of her cookie. “This is ten years of experience baking experience, mister. Though I might try crack next time.”

“Wouldn’t be any more addicting.” Jughead snagged a third cookie, but forced himself to take one bite at a time.

“So, hey.” He felt a little awkward, but there was something he’d been meaning to say to Betty.

“Yeah?” Betty looked over.

“I know this is a week late, but I wanted to say that if you ever did want to ask me questions, you can.”

“I don’t want to overwhelm you,” she murmured.

“You won’t.” His gaze fixated on the pink and purple ponies dancing on her pajama pants. “Besides, we have a rule; if I don’t want to answer, I won’t.”

“Noted, and appreciated.” Betty’s soft smile made a weight that he’d been carrying flutter away.

She curled up with her head on a throw pillow and her socked feet close to him. “Maybe later, though? I’m still a little muzzy. If I picked something now, it would be really lame, like, how did you get so good at going to parties? The Jughead I knew hid in the garage.”

“I’ll tell you my secret.” He leaned closer to her and lowered his voice.

She shifted so she could see his face better. “OK.”

“I write scripts in my head.” He felt heat building on the back of his neck. He’d never told anyone this before; an extrovert like Veronica would never understand. “I had to go to a lot of these things during high school, and I figured out that if I prepared a script of several anecdotes ahead of time and practiced them, it helped me get into character.”

He flashed her his party smile. “Jughead Jones. Nice to meet you. Have you tried the sandwiches at Milano Market yet? So good.”

“I never would have guessed,” Betty said. “Watching you in there, it seemed like you chatted people up every night.”

“Only when coerced.”

His phone vibrated—a new Instagram notification from Veronica. He clicked on it and scrolled down her feed. There was a picture of him and her at the beginning of the party. Whatever filter she’d used made her canary dress look amazing. His grin was the same one from his yearbook photos.

Below that was a shot of their crowded living room somehow framed so it looked way bigger than it was. It had the caption, “Columbia students really know how to party. Good bye high school; hello life!” He smirked imagining Katie’s reaction to that one.

The last photo was a selfie with Veronica’s face first and foremost. Behind her stood Archie with a guitar on his chest and another guy with his hands on a keyboard. Blake across the hall maybe; Jughead vaguely remembered him saying something about music.

Jughead stretched his arm out so Betty could see the phone. “Look what we’re missing.”

Betty raised up to glance at the picture and then flopped back down on her pillow. “You can see that show for free here almost any night.”

“Is he any good?” Jughead asked curiously. At eight years old, Archie had been a piano lesson drop out, much to his mother’s dismay. “I mean, I guess he had to be to get into the Manhattan School of Music.”

“He’s good,” Betty said. “Sometimes he channels John Mayer’s whininess, but in a good way.”

Jughead smirked. “I’ll have to hear them sometime.”

“Just don’t…” Betty paused, considering. “Don’t critique him too harshly. He had some stuff go down before the Jason Blossom thing. Writing songs is how he gets all that angst and anxiety out. I mean, his professors are going to do whatever critiquing he needs to improve, but I figure his friends need to be supportive.”

“I promise to listen with my optimistic ears.” Jughead reached for another cookie. “If you provide dessert, I’m sure anything he plays will be awesome.”

Betty tugged the blanket on the back of the couch over her legs. “The question is, did you pick an awesome movie?”

“Despite the limitations, I believe so.” Jughead pushed play.

As Vince Vaughn began getting ready for his day, Betty smiled. “Dodgeball. Choice approved.”

“Does this approval come with a prize?” Jughead asked.

“Beyond cookies?” Betty cuddled back down on her pillow. “How about the right to possibly pick future movies?”

While Average Joe’s patrons began their fitness routines, Jughead decided he’d take it.

* * *

Betty drifted off to sleep sometime after Average Joe’s started training with Patches O’Houlihan. Average Joe’s had just won the tournament when the loud slam of the front door against the wall woke her up. Cheryl was braced against the door frame, a drunk-off-his-ass Archie leaning on her.

Betty sat bolt upright on the couch, noting two things in quick succession. First, somewhere along the way, her feet had ended up in Jughead’s lap, and, second, he didn’t seem to care.

“Come on,” Cheryl urged Archie, her voice surprisingly gentle. “Just a little farther.”

Archie muttered something unintelligible.

“Can I help?” Jughead got up from the couch.

Cheryl took in the breadth of his shoulders and nodded. It took some finagling because Archie didn’t seem to understand why he needed to let go of Cheryl, but eventually they got him transferred to Jughead.

Cheryl pointed at the door closest to the living area. “That’s his room.”

As Jughead lurched across the apartment with Archie, Cheryl sat on the couch next to Betty.

“What happened?” Betty asked.

Archie drank regularly, but he didn’t typically go this crazy—not unless something was really bugging him. Like the weekend that his parents finalized their divorce, the night the Bulldogs lost the playoff game because of his fumble, or when he and Val broke up the second (and final) time.

“He started jamming with this guy across the hall,” Cheryl replied. “Come to find out, he goes to Julliard.”

Betty and Cheryl exchanged a long look. Talk of Julliard always brought Archie’s mind back to Geraldine Grundy. Just thinking of that lying liar with her almost-modest-but-not-quite dresses and the glasses that Betty still believed were fake still fired Betty’s anger. Grundy’d had Archie so wrapped up and twisted around that he thought he was doing something he wanted when really she was manipulating him. Nothing had been real about their relationship, and it had screwed him up in the head about girls and relationships. Her mother had gone about it all wrong, but at least her meddling had gotten Grundy out of town.

The therapy they’d all been forced to endure after the Clifford Blossom incident had been worth it if only for the fact that Archie was able to use it to finally open up to someone about Grundy. He’d never told Betty exactly what he’d talked about in there, but one day, after a session, he’d come over to tell her a long-delayed thank you for her efforts to get him out of that situation. Apparently, there were still triggers, though.

“He probably won’t remember it in the morning,” Betty suggested hopefully.

“It didn’t help that he was playing I’ll Try. That plus the tequila shots we’d already done…” Cheryl shrugged, but she couldn’t quite bury her worry.

Betty nodded, mentally running through the fridge inventory to see if they had the ingredients for the hangover breakfast Archie would surely need tomorrow.

Cheryl pulled her gaze away from Archie’s door and gave Betty a searching glance. “I want to know why you and the tall, dark, and handsome former childhood friend snuck out of the party. You might have done better than Daniel Radcliff.”

“First of all,” Betty said, “I don’t know if anyone could do better than Daniel Radcliff, and second, Juggie and I are just friends.”

“Juggie?” Cheryl raised an eyebrow.

Betty shrugged. “I used to call him that. It just stuck. He calls me Betts.”

“You already have pet names for each other?” Cheryl crowed quietly. “My darling little cousin is growing up.”

“You’re only a year older than me,” Betty reminded Cheryl.

Cheryl had deferred her NYU enrollment and spent a gap year, as she called it, “getting her fill of real life in a small town.” She even took a job at Victoria’s Secret that she didn’t need (there was still plenty of money in the Blossom coffers, even after the drugs and the fire) just for the full teenage experience. If Betty suspected real reason was anything else (like waiting for Archie and Betty to graduate), she never mentioned it to Cheryl.

“A year in life, but so much more in experience.” Cheryl gave Betty a lascivious grin. “But maybe you’ll level up soon.”

“Don’t gush over Jughead,” Betty told Cheryl sternly. “We’re just friends watching a movie.”

“No one leaves a party with a girl just to watch a movie.” Cheryl shook her head emphatically.

Betty lowered her voice to a whisper. “He’s only just starting to trust me again as a friend. I’d like to keep him in that regard, so please don’t scare him.”

Jughead came out of Archie’s room then, effectively ending the conversation. “I put the garbage can by his bed in case he needs to puke.”

“Good thinking. Thanks for the loan of your biceps.” Cheryl rose from the couch in one lithe movement. “I need my beauty rest. You party animals go on with… whatever.” She waved one hand around airily as she vanished into the middle bedroom.

On the television, the credits were rolling. Betty stood and awkwardly glanced up at Jughead. “Sorry you had to deal with them.” It was a toss-up which of her roommates was more embarrassing this evening.

“No worries.” Jughead jammed his hands in his pockets. “I’ve seen worse. Speaking of, I guess I should go check on Ron Make sure our apartment hasn’t caught on fire or anything.”

“Does that tend to happen at your big-city parties?” Betty walked with him to the door.

“I never rule it out,” Jughead replied.

They paused at the door, their easy rapport having somehow vanished along with Globo Gym.

“Good night,” he mumbled, reaching for the doorknob. “Thanks for the cookies—and the refuge.”

“Any time.”

As he crossed the threshold, Betty realized she really did want to hang out with him again in a non-scholastic setting. “Jug?”

He turned. “Yeah?”

“I was thinking about doing some sight-seeing tomorrow. I mean, I’m sure you’ve already seen everything, but if you’re bored and don’t have anything else to do…”

“Quit over-selling.” The corners of his mouth quirked up. “I actually know the perfect thing. Meet you downstairs at eight thirty?”

Betty bit her lip to hide a smile and made a show of looking at the clock in the hallway. It was just after one in the morning. “Sounds early.”

He arched an eyebrow. “I don’t remember that being a problem for you.”

“I remember it being a problem for you,” Betty returned.

Jughead grinned. “Some things are worth getting up early for.”

Betty waved good night and then walked off to her room. Archie would have to make his own hangover breakfast after all.

Chapter Text

Betty pestered Jughead with questions, but he was maddeningly silent during their whole subway ride. When they arrived at Pier 83, Betty grabbed Jughead’s arm and jumped up and down with excitement.

“A Circle Line cruise? Oh my gosh! I’ve always wanted to do this.”

“The Coopers didn’t come to the city much?” Jughead questioned as they joined the line for tickets.

“Not often, and when we did, Mom was only willing to shop, go to museums, or Broadway—plays, never musicals.” Betty channeled her tween-self’s ire at missing Phantom of the Opera by heaving a great sigh.

After getting their tickets (and refusing to let Betty chip in), Jughead led them to the outer deck of their boat. “I’ve been on all these cruises, but this one is my favorite.”

“Tourist boat rides don’t seem like a Lodge-approved activity.” Though she didn’t know Veronica that well yet, Betty instinctively felt that the other girl would deem the activity beneath her.

“I usually come alone.” He gestured for her to take a seat closest to the side and stretched out in the one next to her. “Boat rides have a certain Zen for me. I come when I have writer’s block or when I’m upset. It’s like a mini-break from the crap in the world.”

A toddler started screaming behind them. Betty gave Jughead a quizzical look. “Zen?”

“Ignore the white noise,” Jughead advised. “Concentrate on what matters.”

He pointed forward where a family of five worked together to help a teenaged boy down the aisle. The boy was obviously autistic, but instead of being frustrated when he flapped his arms and stopped to look at random things like sea gulls or gum wrappers, they admired them with him until they got him settled into one of the best seats on the boat. Then the rest of the family took seats around him and started talking excitedly about what they were going to see. He was a part of their group, not an inconvenience.

“People who come on these cruises are usually so excited to be in the city. It makes them better,” Jughead said. “There’s a certain, dare I say, pep.”

That made her laugh. “I’ll take real pep over the manufactured variety any day.”

They spent two and a half hours cruising around the city, seeing sights from all five boroughs and the Statue of Liberty (Betty bounced in her seat when they passed her) and chatting away. It turned out that they liked a lot of the same books and movies and had strong opinions when their tastes differed. Betty bought concessions halfway through. Jughead ate his sub, half of hers, and two bags of chips.

They were approaching the final landmark bridge when Betty dared to ask a question she’d been wondering about for a week. Hopefully, Jughead didn’t regret giving her permission.

“Don’t answer if you don’t want to, but how’s your dad? Archie told me he’s in jail.”

Even at eight, Betty had known Jughead’s home life was a problem. Gladys and F.P. would shout at each other so loudly that it seemed the trailer might shake apart. Those days, she and Archie would shepherd Jughead over to their houses and keep him there as long as possible. Even as a kid, Gladys had always seemed cold to Betty, only truly smiling at Jellybean.

F.P., on the other hand, with his booming voice and rampant unsteadiness, could be scary, but also kind. Once, he’d climbed a tree to fetch the Frisbee she’d accidentally tossed into the branches. When he gave it back, he’d tugged her Laura-Ingall’s braid and said, “You’ve got an arm on you, Betty.” It had made her feel strong instead of just stupid for having bad aim.

“He’s all right, I guess.” Jughead leaned his head back and stared at the bottom of the bridge as they passed underneath. “He really sucked as a parent, especially at the end. He was doing and dealing a lot of drugs, but he kept a roof over my head. A dirty, roach-infested one without much food, but at least I wasn’t homeless.”

Betty blinked back tears at the image of the boy her friend had once been having such a life that not being homeless was the up side. But she knew Jughead wouldn’t want her pity. It was there in the stiffness of his arms and the way he wouldn’t look at her.

“He had no choice but to get sober in prison,” Jughead continued. “I didn’t always visit, but now I go once a year on his birthday.”

“That’s coming up,” Betty commented.

Jughead turned to her, surprised etched into his expression. “How do you even remember that.”

Betty shrugged. “My mind has an endless capacity for birthdays and anniversaries. Remember that year Fred threw your dad the birthday barbeque in the Andrews’ back yard. We were, what, six?”

“Yeah.” Jughead ran his fingers through the curls that snuck out under his beanie. “That was before Fred had to fire my dad. The beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning—however you want to look at it.”

“The end of one thing is the beginning of something else,” Betty commented philosophically. “There’s no shortage of beginnings and endings in life.”

“You sound like a fortune cookie.” Jughead smirked. “One of those lame ones that just makes observations instead of actually giving you a real fortune.”

“Hey!” Betty slugged his shoulder. “If I were a fortune cookie, I would give out good fortunes. Everyone would be about to come into money or get their wildest dream or find true love.”

“People everywhere would clamor for a Betty Cooper fortune,” he agreed.

Their conversation lagged as the boat approached the pier. When it docked, Jughead stood and pulled her to her feet. “There’s one other important landmark that I know you, particularly, are going to like.”

* * *

Jughead took Betty to the Strand, his favorite bookstore. A true book lover could get lost in the miles of titles, and Betty did not disappoint. She darted from one shelf to another like a manic book fairy. He trailed along after her, unable to fully quash a grin.

“I think I could live here,” she murmured.

“They sell books by the foot,” Jughead informed her.

Her brow crinkled. “Why?”

“Decorating.” Jughead couldn’t stop a bit of scorn from leaking into his voice. “The perfect way to look well read without bothering to crack a book.”

“So insincere.” Betty clicked her tongue.

“The Lodges used to have a summer place in the Hamptons,” Jughead said. “They redecorated when I was fifteen. Their decorator gave one of the rooms a library theme. I don’t know how many feet of books she bought, but it was a lot. I spent several summers reading my way through them just so someone would have.”

“How long did that take?” Betty asked.

“Never finished.” He shrugged. “The beach house was seized with the rest of Hiram Lodge’s assets.”

“Yeah… the Register loosely followed that story.” Betty picked up a book, flipped through it, and set it back on the shelf. “Mom said Mrs. Lodge was from Riverdale. Anyway, I realized who Veronica was after that first day.”

“Veronica’s not what the tabloids said she is,” Jughead said gruffly.

“I can tell.” Betty smiled at him. “She likes you, after all.”

There was an awkward moment where Jughead didn’t know what to say. He turned and ran his finger over some random titles, his mind drifting toward the rumble of waves and the gentle cry of sea gulls.

“I do kind of miss the house in the Hamptons.” Jughead felt a tug in his chest at admitting that. Even though the Lodge trappings had been at his disposal for so long and he’d used them, he’d always taken some personal pride in the fact that he didn’t have to, that they were convenience not necessity. “There was this terrace with a view of the ocean and the perfect chair. I could sit there and write for hours. No one bothered me.”

“You really like the water,” she observed. Then her eyes widened, and Betty lunged to grab something off the shelf behind him.

Jughead jerked out of the way. “Geez, woman.”

“Sorry.” Betty hugged the book to her chest. “I’ve been looking for this book for years.” She showed him a book called Alanna: The First Adventure, and Jughead vaguely remembered Betty loving books about a girl who pretended to be a boy to become a knight.

“Don’t you have that already?” he asked.

Betty turned to Jughead, her face totally serious. “Not this edition. I have the other three with these covers, but this one I only have a newer version. Now I’ll have a matching set!”

Her green-blue eyes were soft and earnest, lips curved with excitement. The store lighting glinted off her hair, making it look like molten gold. The thought ran through his mind that this was what narrators were talking about when they said the heroine looked like an angel. All Betty needed was a pair of wings made from books…

Blinking, he came back to himself and shook his head until that weird thought dissipated. Then he gestured toward the check out. “Sounds like you’d better buy it, then.”

Betty grinned at him and bounced off toward the cash registers.

Chapter Text

“What do you mean you’ve never seen Stranger Things? It’s one of the best shows ever.” Jughead stared at Betty, eyes comically wide with shock.

The subway seats were small enough that it kept them in close quarters, so Betty could see the blue of his eyes up close and personal. Her throat felt a little dry, and she averted her gaze before she explained. “My parents don’t believe in Netflix.”

“Hours of cheap entertainment for a low monthly price?” Jughead sputtered. “Who doesn’t believe in that?”

“Alice and Hal Cooper think if it’s not on one of the regular networks, CNN, ESPN, or HGTV it’s unnecessary to life.” Betty rolled her eyes.

After the Strand, she’d begged and pouted until Jughead caved to her request to visit Times Square, though he muttered the whole time about it being overrated. She snapped some pictures of the famous buildings and billboards, fully embracing this as her tourist weekend. She even made him take a selfie with her.

Their picture was actually pretty cute, Betty noted, keeping her phone shifted away from him as she admired it. She wanted to post it to Instagram, but then Kevin would immediately text her to find out who the hot guy was.

Plus, she also hadn’t exactly mentioned to Archie and Cheryl that she was sight-seeing with someone else. Cheryl was already too interested in her friendship with Jughead. They’d texted Betty earlier that they were on the way to NYU for some kind of welcome-week concert if she wanted to join them. Betty did not.

Oblivious to her thoughts, Jughead said, “This gap in your television viewing history must be rectified. What are you doing tonight?”

“Roasting a pork tenderloin. It’s easy to heat up for dinner on school nights and good for sandwiches, too.” Betty cringed. She sounded like such a homebody nerd.

Jughead’s expression had gone slack at the words pork tenderloin. “Roasting… uh… requires a long time in the oven. You could watch while you wait.”

“I could,” Betty agreed, “but we don’t have Netflix at our apartment.”

“You said you had Netflix last night.” Jughead frowned.

“I said I didn’t want to ‘Netflix and chill,’” Betty corrected him, her finger quotes a little less exaggerated without tequila behind them. “I never said we actually had Netflix.”

“What a sad, Netflix-less life you live, Betty Cooper.” He shook his head. “We’ll have to watch at my place, then.”

“But… the pork.” Her protest was little more than token, though. This was the most carefree day Betty had enjoyed in a long time. She didn’t really want it to end.

“We might not cook, but our apartment does have an oven,” Jughead pointed out.

“Now, I get it,” Betty teased. “You just want me to cook for you.”

“I never said that.” His eyes danced with laughter. “But I wouldn’t refuse a free dinner in exchange for one of the best television experiences of the past few years.”

Betty tapped her cheek with one finger, pretending to ponder, even though she knew she was going to agree. “You have to help me carry everything upstairs. Do you guys actually own a roasting pan?”

* * *

“Is Barb dead?” Betty clutched Jughead’s arm and stared at him with big eyes. “Tell me she’s not dead. That would be so unfair!”

Jughead laughed. “Spoiler!”

“What if I beg?” Betty batted her eyelashes as the credits started to roll.

A warm feeling rushed over Jughead as he stared down at her. Later, he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint what caused it—her playful smile, the heat of her hand on his arm, the mouth-watering scent of her roast pork, or just the surprise of finding someone that he felt so comfortable with so quickly (it was like their friendship had just been on pause and picked up again eight years strong).

The warmth coiled in his stomach, and he shifted on the couch so they were face-to-face. She looked up at him, eyes still wide but her smile shifting into a tiny “o” of surprise. More than anything—more than hamburgers or chocolate chip cookies or milkshakes—Jughead wanted to kiss Betty Cooper.

Her eyes drifted closed as her chin tilted up.

Jughead froze. He’d seen this moment on screen a million times, read about it even more, but to actually experience it… The inches between them became an unfathomable chasm; his stomach churned, anxiety devouring the warmth.

He was saved by the door slamming open and Veronica calling, “Wherever you ordered take out from, it smells delicious.”

The pair on the couch sprang apart.

“I… uh…” Betty stood. Her mouth opened, then closed, and she took a big step backwards. “Food. Oven.”

As she disappeared into the kitchen, Jughead grabbed the remote and stopped Netflix from auto-playing another episode. Then he paced over to the window, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

Veronica walked farther into the room, setting her shopping bags down on the floor. When she saw him, she cocked her head to the side. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Jughead tried to temper his tone. Veronica didn’t need to bear the brunt of his emotional whiplash.

“Are you hungry?” Betty leaned over the bar and smiled at Veronica. “I made more than enough for three.”

Veronica gave Jughead one more concerned look, and then turned to Betty. Akin to a 1970s Wonder Woman transformation, as Veronica spun around on her heel her face went from worried to all smiles. “Sounds good!”

Dinner wasn’t nearly as awkward as it could’ve been. Jughead was actually grateful for Veronica’s presence. She engaged Betty in talk about their classes, Columbia, and life in general. Both girls gave Jughead a few sidelong glances, but there were no awkward silences despite the fact that he barely said a word.

Jughead shoveled the delicious food into his mouth without tasting it as much as it deserved. His mind kept spinning around that moment on the couch; he barely even noticed when his food was gone.

“Jughead?” Veronica’s voice nudged him out of his contemplation. Both girls were staring at him over their empty plates.

“Sorry?” he muttered.

“I just wondered if you wanted to watch another episode,” Betty said, her voice quiet.

“Would you mind if we raincheck?” Jughead rubbed his forehead. “I think the lack of sleep is catching up with me.”

“No worries.” The blonde’s smile seemed natural as she nodded.

Veronica laughed. “I couldn’t believe Jay was out of the house so early. He and mornings do not get along by choice.”

“Let me just clean up this mess, and I’ll get out of your way.” Betty loaded her arms with plates and carried them into the kitchen.

“Don’t worry about it.” Veronica followed. “You cooked. We’ll wash up.”

“Are you sure?” Betty frowned at the plates and serving dishes as if leaving them there was physically difficult.

“Absolutely,” Veronica replied.

Betty grabbed the now-cooled roasting pan with the rest of the pork loin in it. “This pan’s mine, and I need the meat to feed Archie, but you guys enjoy the rest.”

She turned toward the door. Jughead’s feet felt as if their floor were wet cement and he’d just sunk in down to his ankles. Veronica raised her eyebrows and jerked her head in Betty’s direction.

With effort, Jughead got his feet moving in time to open the door for Betty. “Sorry to end the night so early.”

“Are you sure you’re OK?” Betty gazed up at him worriedly.

“Fine.” Jughead summoned up a smile from somewhere, and then wondered where it fell on the spectrum of sincere to insane.

“OK.” Betty seemed to accept his answer. Maybe the smile was more believable than he thought.

“Thanks again for today. It was fun.” She stood on her tiptoes and, before Jughead realized what was happening, she’d leaned over the roasting pan to press a quick kiss on his cheek. Then she was gone.

Unbidden, Jughead’s hand came up to his cheek. To his fingers, the skin felt cool, but Jughead could still feel the imprint of her lips.

* * *

Bubbles and water filled the roasting pan. Betty stared at it, unseeing, her mind back on the evening she’d just had. The day had been so fun, but then it ended so confusingly. There’d been a moment on the couch—Betty was sure of it—but afterward Jughead had completely withdrawn.

Oh, god—had she imagined the whole thing? Maybe she made a weird kissing face at him, and he totally wasn’t interested in her like that. How humiliating! He probably thought she was a weirdo for that kiss on the cheek. She was never going upstairs again. She’d have to find a new route to Media Studies. Her hands started to clench. Then the door opened, and Betty blinked back into herself.

“Betty?” Archie called. “You home?”

“In here.” Betty followed her roommates into the living room. “You guys are home early.”

“We decided to skip the last band.” Archie pulled his guitar case out of his room and set it on the coffee table.

“He decided,” Cheryl pouted and flounced over to the couch.

“You could’ve stayed. Inspiration waits for no one.” Slinging the instrument over his chest, Archie strummed a couple of cords. “Have you guys seen my staff paper?”

“You put it in your nightstand,” Betty reminded him and sat on the couch as Archie wandered into his room. “How was the concert?”

Cheryl shrugged. “I’ve seen better, but I guess that isn’t the point of welcome week.”

“Do you feel adequately welcomed to NYU?” Betty teased.

Cheryl gathered her long, red hair into one hand and then pulled the whole mass over her left shoulder. Something about that made her seem younger, more vulnerable.

“It’s different than I imagined. Maybe I should’ve applied to Columbia with you. It’s not like Jason will know.”

NYU had been the school Cheryl and Jason had always talked of attending. Their parents had wanted them to go full Ivy—Harvard or Yale—so the young twins had seen NYU as a rebellion of sorts. Betty had only found out when she found Cheryl in Polly’s old room crying over college brochures.

“It’s only been a week,” Betty soothed. “I haven’t made any new friends yet either.”

“Jughead,” Cheryl pointed out.

“He’s an old friend, not a new one.” Betty sighed.

Cheryl seized on whatever she saw on Betty’s face, using it to drag herself out of her own melancholy. “All right—spill. Something’s going on in that head of yours.”

“It’s just… Jughead went sight-seeing with me today.”

“Hasn’t he lived in the city long enough to have already seen everything?” At Betty’s nod, Cheryl declared, “That’s a good sign. Boys don’t do boring things for girls they don’t like.”

Betty’s fists clenched again as that humiliation resurged. Not hard enough to break skin (she wasn’t doing that any more, damn it!), but hard enough to feel a twinge.

Cheryl took both of Betty’s hands and smoothed them with her own. “Tell me.”

“I just…” Betty cleared her throat and continued. “He asked me to come watch TV afterward. There was this moment… I swear he was going to kiss me. I know I’m not as experienced as you or Archie, but it’s just the kind of thing you know, right?”

“Describe.” Cheryl continued to massage Betty’s palms.

“One minute we were talking about TV, the next he was staring at me. It was like all the air had been sucked out of the room, and then… nothing.”

“He stopped?”

Betty shook her head. “He just sat there, and then Veronica came home. Maybe I imagined the whole thing and now he thinks I’m a freak! Cheryl, I kissed him on the cheek when we said goodbye!” She took her hands back but pressed them between her legs so she wouldn’t curl them again.

“That moment when someone wants to kiss you is pretty unmistakable,” Cheryl observed. “I doubt you imagined it. He’s probably just shy. I mean, he did OK at that party, but I remember him from elementary school—always lurking on the sidelines. So, don’t worry about misinterpreting the moment or about that kiss on the cheek. Everything is good.”

“Really?” Betty relaxed a little.

“I’m sure,” Cheryl said firmly. “And even if there was some other reason for his hesitation, it wasn’t you. You’re Betty Cooper—smart, gorgeous, great cook, great writer. You’re a catch, and if Mr. Fifth Floor doesn’t realize that, we’ll find you someone who does. Right, Archie?” The last she hollered.

Archie’s strumming squawked. “What, Cher?”

“I was saying that Betty is a total catch,” Cheryl answered.

Archie stuck his head out of his door. “Of course. Everything a guy could want.” His eyes narrowed. “Was there someone specific in mind?”

“Girl talk.” Cheryl waved him off. “Go back to your fiddling.”

“This is a guitar,” Archie muttered, but that dreamy, distracted look he got when he composed was already back on his face.

Betty laughed at her roommates’ banter. Though small, it was a real laugh. “Thanks, Cheryl.”

“True friends talk each other down from the ledge and will help you bury a body, if necessary.” Cheryl grabbed the remote and flicked on the TV. “I DVRed an America’s Next Top Model marathon. Let’s watch people with more neuroses than us.”

* * *

Jughead collapsed on his bed and threw his arm over his face. He felt completely out of sync. The world was moving forward like it always did, but he was stuck behind.

“Jay?”

He merely grunted. The other side of the bed dipped.

“What’s wrong?”

Her light fingers brushed against his elbow, and his body relaxed. Not because he felt something, but because he didn’t, and that’s what he was used to. (Well, friendship wasn’t nothing, but it also wasn’t that alarming surge of feeling from before.)

He blew out a long breath, allowing as much of the weirdness as possible to go with it. “Betty and I almost kissed.”

Sometimes words floated away, as if they appeared in balloons above speakers’ heads and then drifted away when no one looped the strings around their wrists. Not this sentence; it hit the floor with a thud Jughead was surprised wasn’t audible.

“Oooo-kay.” Veronica scrunched up her face into what Jughead decided was supposed to be some kind of tough-girl expression. “Is she taking advantage of you, because I don’t care what pop culture says, consent goes both ways.”

Jughead shook his head, though in his supine position it was more like rolling his head back and forth on the pillow. “No, I almost kissed her.”

“That’s… different.” Veronica fairly vibrated with questions, but she knew this wasn’t something he liked to talk about, so she let him to take the lead.

Jughead sat up and faced her. “What does it feel like when you want to kiss a guy?”

She the question seriously and gave it an appropriate amount of thought before answering. “My heart races. The world narrows down until we’re the only two people who matter. This tingle starts deep in my core, and when our lips finally touch, it explodes through my body.” She sighed with a little smile on her face. “When you both want it, it’s one of the best feelings ever.”

Jughead had been kissed four times in his life—Katie, in an ill-fated game of middle school spin the bottle; Madison, after Veronica set them up for the freshman dance; Paige, which had too many repercussions; and Richard, a cousin of some Spence kid that Jughead had known he’d never see again. Not one of them—either before or after—had ever felt like that.

“Why did you want to kiss her?” Veronica asked. “I thought you’d given up, that it wasn’t you.”

“I thought so, too.” Jughead grabbed the edges of his beanie and tugged it down as far as it would go, a shield for the conversation ahead. “But today… I wanted to kiss her. Not like I might as well try it or like it was something to get over with, but like I might… feel something.”

Veronica sucked in a breath. “So, why didn’t you kiss her?”

“I froze. Too many thoughts, too many expectations.”

“Do you think she wanted you to kiss her?”

Jughead thought back to that moment, how Betty’s eyes had drifted shut, her lashes sweeping down, and that peck on the cheek when she left. “Yeah… maybe.”

“Then you should kiss her.” Veronica gave him a small smile. “If you get that feeling again, go with it.”

A million arguments against flooded his mind, competing for prominence. What if he was wrong and Betty wasn’t interested? What if his technique was terrible? A pretty girl like Betty had probably been kissed loads of times by people with more experience than him. What if it ruined their friendship?

Veronica reached out and tapped his forehead. “Stop stressing. Stress is the opposite of a good kiss. A kiss flows out of the moment; it’s not planned.”

One worry shouted the loudest of all. “What if I lead her on?” He didn’t have to add like I did with Paige. Veronica had seen it all.

“One kiss isn’t a relationship label. It’s more like a free sample before you commit to the whole box. But if you’re that worried, tell her what you’re thinking. I don’t know Betty that well, but she seems like someone who knows how to listen.” Veronica’s face darkened. “And if she’s not, then she’s not worthy of my best friend.”

“Thanks, Ron.” Jughead laid back down. “I’ll think about it.”

Veronica got up to leave but paused in the doorway. “You should text her.”

“What? Now?” Jughead gave her a quizzical look.

“Girls analyze guys, Jay. If you two had a moment and she was into it, she’s wondering what happened. Make sure she knows things are OK between the two of you.”

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and typed out a text. Had fun today. I don’t usually get to share my boat rides with a friend.

“Nope.” Veronica leaned over the bed to read his message. “The word friend signals that your moment was a one off and there will be no more kissing.”

“Really?” His brow furrowed. “That subtext seems a little too intense.”

“Girls parse meaning into everything if they like a guy,” Veronica assured him.

“Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” Jughead groaned.

“If so, better you know it now,” Veronica said philosophically. “Then that text would be perfect.”

Jughead deleted the last line and tried again. Had fun today. Thanks for letting me introduce you to some of the best places in the city.

“Better.” Veronica patted the top of his beanie and left the room.

His phone buzzed a few seconds later. I enjoyed the insider’s tour. See you Monday morning before Media Studies?

See you then. Jughead set the phone down and felt good enough to take out his laptop. A little midnight writing would help put everything else in perspective.

Chapter Text

Sunday afternoon found Betty in the basement laundry room folding her whites as the darks danced merrily in the dryer behind her. She jumped when the door slammed open.

In stumbled Veronica, overloaded by a massive laundry basket heaped with clothes and a jumbo-sized bottle of detergent. She must’ve kicked the door open with the heel of her boots. (Who wore ankle boots and a dress on laundry day?)

Veronica swung the basket onto the table by the wall and then stood trying to catch her breath.

“Hey.” Betty greeted Jughead’s roommate with a smile.

“Hi,” Veronica panted.

After a minute, she started cramming clothes into one of the washing machines. Betty bit her lip as Veronica completely overloaded the machine.

Finally, Betty couldn’t stand it any longer. “Um, Veronica?”

The brunette looked up, one hand stuffing more clothes down into the top loader. “Yeah?”

“I hate to be a laundry nazi, but these machines won’t take that much at once.”

Veronica frowned at the washer. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Betty stepped over and pulled two handfuls of clothes. “See, you want to loosely pack it just to the top of the drum.”

“I guess my lack of laundry experience shows.” Veronica pushed her hair back from her face. “Someone always took care of that.”

Betty eyed the mix of lights and darks in the machine. “You know, it would be better if you separated your colors. May I…?”

“Be my guest!” Veronica sank into the one folding chair.

Veronica was smiling, so Betty took that as license to take charge. Quickly, she started divvying the other girl’s clothes into three piles. “If you wash the darks together, they won’t fade onto your lights.”

“You’re better than an instructional YouTube video, which I totally meant to watch before I came down here and forgot,” Veronica proclaimed. Then she gave the piles a puzzled glance. “What’s the third one for?”

“Delicates,” Betty explained. “You’ll want to wash those on a gentle cycle.”

Once she understood the process, Veronica started sorting, as well, and—after Betty explained the difference between the various wash cycles—they had her first two loads going.

“Do you just stay in here the whole time?” Veronica made a face.

Betty shook her head. “The cycle takes 50 minutes. That’s time to go back upstairs. But, make sure you get back before the cycle’s over. If someone’s impatient enough, they might take your stuff out.”

“Wet?” Veronica cried.

“I did this internship the summer before my sophomore year of high school.” Betty rolled socks while she talked. “Once, I was five minutes late to the laundry room and all my wet clothes were piled in a heap on the dirty floor. I had to rewash everything.”

“Not to sound too much like an early nineties sitcom, but how rude!” Veronica scowled.

“Turned out it was this guy from the floor below mine. I may or may not have snuck a red hoodie into his whites the next week.” Betty giggled. “All his dress shirts turned a lovely shade of pink.”

“Nice!” Veronica nodded with approval. “You are a secret badass.”

The dryer buzzed, and Betty grabbed an armful of sweet-smelling clothes. “I don’t know about ‘badass.’”

“It’s the quiet ones like you and Jay that people need to watch out for.” Veronica’s grin showed she thought it was a good thing.

“So, Jughead is a secret badass?” Betty concentrated on smoothing wrinkles out of a pink blouse.

“When Jay gets revenge, it’s art.” Veronica shook her head. “Of course, he’ll only do it for someone he really cares about.”

“He did it for you.” Betty’s words were a statement, not a question.

Veronica’s smile faltered, and then she inclined her head. “Yes.”

Betty could tell it was not a good memory, so she deflected. “Jughead, Archie, and I were friends since birth. Jughead’s dad and Archie’s dad worked together, and I was right next door. Anyway, when we were in kindergarten, Reggie Mantle stole my sandwich. Archie got all up in Reggie’s face. Even then, Reggie was super tall, but Archie was short until middle school and couldn’t reach it. Reggie ate the sandwich in front of us and then sat down in his chair. But Jughead had put a juice box in it. Reggie spent all of recess looking like he peed his pants. It was a beautiful thing.”

Veronica laughed, the sound exuberant and effusive, much like the brunette herself. “That story is so Jay. I love hearing about what his life was like before… well, before it got so fucked up.”

Betty folded her last skirt and laid it on top of her basket. “I’m glad he had you and your family. I wish… I mean, I know I was just a kid, but if we could’ve helped him, Archie and I would’ve done anything. I’m glad someone did what we couldn’t.” Pink rushed into her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I guess that sounds weird.”

“It’s not weird.” Veronica met her gaze straight on. “I’m glad that he had friends like you when he did.” Her eyes skittered away for a moment and then came back stronger than before. “And I’m glad he has you back.”

“He’s been really sweet to me since we got here.” Betty’s mind flashed back to the night before. His text had made her feel better, but she still wasn’t sure where things stood between them. She didn’t want to make an idiot of herself thinking there was more between them than there was. “But I don’t want to be a burden. I know he’s already got a life going on.”

“I’m sure this doesn’t surprise you, but Jay is really guarded with most people. He’s different with you.” Veronica shrugged one, slim shoulder. “I think being around you is good for him.”

“Thanks.” A small smile fluttered across Betty’s face as she hefted her basket onto her hip.

“You and I should get lunch on campus sometime,” Veronica announced. “I’ll get your number from Jay.”

Betty’s eyes widened at the idea of lunch with Veronica Lodge. Then again, Jughead liked her, and Betty was beginning to see why. “Sure.”

Already looking down at her phone, Veronica waved one set of fingers as Betty moved toward the door. “Great. Look out for my text.”

* * *

The apartment gym wasn’t anything to write home about. The gym in the building where the Lodges used to live had state-of-the-art machines of every type and took up a whole floor. There had even been a swimming pool with a lap lane and a sauna.

The gym in their new building was tiny and much less intimidating. Jughead didn’t have to feel bad for not knowing how to use all the various weight machines with their pulleys and hinges. He could just jump on the slightly beaten up treadmill and run.

(Whoever had decided that a mirrored wall would make the small room look bigger should be shot, though. Watching yourself work out was disconcerting at best.)

He’d been running for twenty minutes when Archie came in. The red head went straight for the free weights.

Their eyes met in the mirror, and Archie bobbed his head. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Jughead replied, trying not to pant when he said it. He mainly worked out to offset some of the incredible amount of food he ate (his metabolism was better than he deserved, but he didn’t actually want to end up being 400 lbs.). Based on the biceps under Archie’s sleeveless workout shirt, his former friend was more serious about fitness.

“Good party last weekend.” Archie selected some heavy-looking hand weights and brought them to the bench.

“Do you remember much of it?” Jughead’s wry chuckle was cut off by the treadmill beeping as it slowed down into cool-off mode.

“Not the end.” Archie timed his sentences between curls. “But the beginning was fun.”

“I helped Betty and Cheryl get you to your room,” Jughead mentioned off-handedly. “You were muttering about Geraldine. If you forgot to get her number, I can ask Ron for you. She knew enough people there that she could probably track it down whoever you met.”

There was a thunk as Archie almost dropped the weights on the floor, managing to set it on the bench beside him at the last second. The stark expression on his old friend’s face made Jughead nervous, but he was already too far in to back out now. Even at eight, Archie had always liked girls; it had seemed a good opening gambit for furthering their new acquaintance.

“But if you weren’t interested, don’t worry about it,” Jughead muttered lamely.

“Geraldine’s not…” Archie scrubbed his face with the towel he’d brought, even though he hadn’t worked out enough to sweat. “It’s an old memory. Not enough tequila in the world could make me forget.”

After reading that first article about the fiery conclusion to Jason’s murder, Jughead had gone back and read several months’ worth of the Register. He’d wanted to put what had happened in context, and some little part of him had wanted to find out more of what he’d missed in Riverdale. Fluff articles about the Taste of Riverdale and newly inducted RHS academic honor society members (the accompanying picture of which had included Betty, Ethyl, and Kevin) had been juxtaposed with grittier news—much of which was about Jason, his disappearance, his autopsy.

There had been one article, though, that had caught his eye because it seemed not to be fleshed out to its full potential. Every gruesome aspect of Jason’s murder investigation had been splashed all over the front page. This story—notice of the high school music teacher being dismissed for inappropriate behavior—had been buried on page eight and was little more than a blurb. It didn’t even specify what the teacher had done or to whom, but the phrase “inappropriate” created a picture in his mind that made Jughead uneasy. And the teacher’s name was memorable—Geraldine Grundy. Archie would’ve been sixteen.

The treadmill clicked off, and Jughead took a long swig from his water bottle as he tried to assimilate this new piece of history. The words popped out unbidden. “Was Geraldine the one who had you so twisted up that you and Betty never had your moment?”

The chill in Archie’s expression made Jughead regret asking. Personal questions always led to badness. His hand went up to adjust his hat but fell back to his side when he remembered that he’d left it upstairs, not wanting to get it sweaty.

“What did your dad go to jail for?” Archie fired back.

“Drugs.” That one was easy to answer. His dad’s arrest, though horrible, had been the catalyst of better things. “First degree criminal possession, and he was a third-time offender. He got twenty years; I got foster care.”

Some of Archie’s anger deflated. “Geraldine was a manipulative liar. I thought we were in love. I would’ve done anything for her, but she used me.” He picked up his weights and started curling again. “It’s in the past now.”

Jughead stepped off the treadmill. “Always forward. That’s my credo.”

Archie glanced at him in the mirror. “Good philosophy.”

“See you, man.”

Jughead made it to the door before Archie spoke again. “You know, I brought my Playstation with me. Still like video games?”

“I’ve been known to pick up a controller now and again,” Jughead admitted.

“Come by tonight,” Archie suggested. “We can play a few rounds, and if the timing’s right, you know Betty will whip up something good for dinner.”

“I wouldn’t want to impose.” Jughead left off the part where Betty had cooked for him last night.

“You wouldn’t be,” Archie assured him. “Betty loves cooking. It’s, like, her stress release or something. Why do you think I have to work out so much? Come by around 5.”

Jughead nodded. “See you then.”

* * *

 

Betty was the one who answered when Jughead knocked at the door of Apartment 407. He couldn’t help but smile as he took her in. She was wearing a yellow knit dress, one of those soft around-the-house kind of things that gently hugged her body. Instead of her usual ponytail, her hair was in two braids down the side of her head, Laura Ingalls style. On her feet were fuzzy pink slippers with tiny hearts all over them.

Her brow furrowed when she saw him. “Jughead! What are you doing here?”

“Archie invited me,” Jughead answered hesitantly. “But if now isn’t a good time…”

“Jug!” Archie’s bellow came from the living room. “Get over here. I just got the new Call of Duty, and it’s awesome!”

It was like a switch flipped. The crinkle in Betty’s forehead smoothed, and her lips curved up in a perfect hostess smile. The expression was nothing like the smile he’d seen when she found that book she wanted at the Strand or when she was pestering him for Stranger Things spoilers. Jughead decided he didn’t like it.

“Come on in,” Betty was saying. She stepped aside to let him by. “When Archie gets on a video game tear, nothing will stop him. I just put a lasagna in the oven for dinner, if you want to stay.”

Jughead grabbed her shoulder—not tightly; just enough to still her words and surprise her into looking back up at him. His fingers felt that tiny zing associated with Betty, but right now he had more important things to think about.

“I don’t want to invade your home, Betts,” he said softly. “No video game is worth putting you out.”

The hostess smile faded into something more genuine. Her fingers reached up and brushed his, and then she waved him inside.

“It’s fine—really. I was just surprised.” She raised her voice and directed it toward the living room. “Someone didn’t tell me we were expecting company.”

“Sorry!” Archie’s apology did not sound very contrite.

“You’re sure?” Jughead pressed. “It really wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you kicked me out.”

A little pink came into her cheeks, and this time the real Betty looked up at him. “I’m totally sure. I always like seeing you.” One hand fisted in her sunny yellow skirt. “I’ll just go change into something a little less comfortable.”

“Not on my account,” Jughead said as they walked into the living area. “If I’d known known it was pajama night, I would’ve worn my flannel pants.”

Her eyes drifted down to his well-worn jeans and then back up again with a laugh. “I doubt even flannels would be comfier than those.”

“Comfort before style; that’s what I’m saying,” Jughead joked.

Betty laughed again, and Jughead was glad to see that she didn’t actually go change. Instead, she curled up in their armchair and proceeded to read from various textbooks as she scribbled into a notebook.

Archie tossed Jughead a controller, and Jughead settled on the couch next to him waiting for the game to load. For an instant, it felt as if he’d gone back in time. Him and Archie on the same old couch playing video games. Betty’s comforting presence nearby as she did Betty things. The stress and pain of ten years sloughed off; in that moment, Jughead was eight years old again, and life was simple.

Chapter Text

Betty paced nervously past the door to Apartment 510 a third time and again didn’t stop. This was stupid and intrusive, and she should just go home. But if she went home, what would she do with all the stuff she’d bought? Cheryl would turn her nose up at it, and even Archie could only eat so much pre-packaged food. Betty had spoiled him with her home cooking. She turned, striding back to the door with resolve. This time she was going to knock.

It turned out, she didn’t have to. The door opened just as she raised her hand. Jughead smiled, but his expression quickly turned to one of confusion.

“Hey, Betts. You’re here early for a Saturday.”

“I…” The words got choked in her throat somehow, and her fingers curled around the edges of the paper bag.

Jughead waited patiently, not pressuring her or demanding answers. Instead, he quietly pulled the door closed and leaned against the wall.

When she had regathered her wits, Betty said, “I brought a care package.”

“You feed me multiple times a week.” He raised an eyebrow. “Not that I’m objecting, but how much more care do I need? In your opinion…”

“It’s not for you.” She extended the bag, which Jughead scrambled to take. “It’s… I made it for your dad. I mean, you don’t have to take it if you don’t want to, but I’ve been thinking about him and everything, so I just…”

He stared at her in amazement. “How’d you know what time I’d be leaving?”

“Just a guess.” Betty waved off his comment, but Jughead wasn’t falling for it. Under the intensity of his gaze, she muttered, “I looked up information on the prison to find out what kind of stuff was allowed in the care package, and it said what time visiting hours start, so I figured factoring in the train ride, you’d be leaving around now.”

Amazed changed to flabbergasted as she spoke. “You did all that for my dad?”

“I always liked your dad, Juggie.” She wanted to touch his arm, but after the couch incident a few weeks ago, she was being cautious, trying to let him take the lead. “I mean, I know he had problems, but he was kind to me—” she made a little face, “—when he was sober, and I thought it might be nice for you two to have a treat to celebrate his birthday. I’m sorry… I get too involved in things…”

She stopped talking when he reached out and squeezed her hand briefly. “Don’t be sorry. This was nice.”

“I wanted to bake cupcakes, but the website said all the food had to be pre-packaged.” She pulled up the corner of a box of Hostess cupcakes. “I figured maybe those would do. And there are other snacks in there, too, as well as some coins for the vending machine and a few magazines I thought he might like.” At Jughead’s look, Betty added, “There was a list of suggestions on the website.”

“I’ve gotta get going or I’ll miss my train,” Jughead said.

The pair started walking toward the stairs.

“Give your dad my best,” Betty said. “If he even remembers me.”

“No one could forget you.” Jughead muttered it, but the words warmed Betty’s heart nonetheless. His eyes skittered down like they did before he said something personal. “Do you want to come? I mean, since you’re already up and everything. Prison field trip. Great way to spend your Saturday.” He made an awkward grimace that Betty supposed was meant as a smile.

Betty’s smile was genuine, and this time she did brush her fingers against his arm. Just to get his attention, obviously. “Stop overselling. I’d love to go, if it wouldn’t be intruding.”

“Company would be nice,” Jughead admitted. “Sometimes I get lost in my own head on the ride.”

“OK, then,” Betty agreed. “We just have to stop at my apartment on the way downstairs so I can grab my purse. The website said you needed I.D.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “Let’s take my car!”

“Are you sure?” His tone was doubtful. “You don’t have to do that. The train is fine.”

Betty practically skipped with excitement. “I want to, Juggie. I haven’t really gotten to drive her since school started. Baby’s dying for some highway miles.”

He smirked. “Your car’s name is Baby?”

“Everyone always says I treat her like she’s my baby.” Betty shrugged as they opened the stairwell door. “It stuck. You’ll love her. She’s not the most exciting on the outside, but she’s got it under the hood. Can we take her, please?”

“Sure,” Jughead agreed. “Far be it from me to put Baby in a corner.”

That made her groan. “Just for that, I get first pick on music.”

* * *

Despite his impulsive decision to invite Betty on his annual pilgrimage, Jughead wasn’t 100% sure they would let her in. There were rules, searches, forms, and a visitor’s list. F.P. would have to sign off on it, since she wasn’t cleared in advance. Surprise guests at the prison were a no-no.

Jughead hoped his dad wouldn’t be a dick and leave her outside. Well, if he did, Jughead would just keep the visit short and sweet. It wasn’t like he really knew what to say on these visits anyway. If he knew, maybe he’d come more often.

He’d managed to keep up a conversation with Betty through most of the ride—teasing each other about music selections and going over current events that were sure to be on next week’s Media Studies quiz—but the closer they got to the imposing prison building, the less Jughead could think of to say.

When Betty pulled the car into a parking space, instead of opening the door, she turned on the seat so she was facing Jughead. “Are you ready?”

“No.”

She tipped her head to the side, her ponytail making a diagonal line pointing to her right shoulder. Her eyes were clear and calm. “Do you want to go back? I swear I saw a sign back there for a Precious Moments Museum. It sounds horribly fascinating.”

He let out a bark of surprised laughter. “You mean those Satanically adorable figurines? They have their own museum?”

“Apparently.” Betty put her fingers on the keys. “Just say the word, and we’re outta here.” Her voice softened. “Or, if you want me to wait out here, that’s fine, too. I brought a book.”

Jughead grabbed his beanie with both hands, pulling as far down as it would go over his unruly black hair, as if it were a battle helmet. “No, let’s go.”

* * *

In the end, the prison authorities let in both Betty and her care package. As they walked down the familiar hallway to the family visitation room, Jughead felt his heart beating—not in his throat, like so many narratives suggested, but in his fingertips, in his stomach, and behind his eyes.

The room would never be anything other than dingy. The walls were gray. The floor was some kind of tile that used to be white, but was now a weird mix of brown and scuff marks. The tables and chairs were monochrome, hard plastic.

Two other prisoners were having visits, but his dad hadn’t arrived yet. Jughead chose a table in the far corner, and sat with his back to the wall and his face toward the door so his dad couldn’t sneak up on him. Betty took one of the other chairs and slid it a little closer to his.

They didn’t have to wait long before F.P. strolled into the room in his orange jumpsuit and white sneakers. Every year more gray threaded through his hair, and more lines appeared next to his eyes. This year, his perpetual stubble had become a full-on beard. His eyes were clear, though, if his smile a little nervous.

At the same time, though—like one image layered on top of another—Jughead saw the other F.P. The one with bloodshot eyes who collapsed on his mattress in their nearly empty apartment without a word and brought home six packs instead of peanut butter or cereal.

The part of Jughead that would be nine years old forever cringed; that feeling of don’t notice me, don’t react creeping over his spine and into his head like a mantra.

At the same time, the eighteen-year-old stood and offered his hand. It was the thing he’d done at fourteen, the first time he visited, and it stuck. Jughead was in no way ready for a hug, but the handshake felt like a compromise.

His father’s shake was firm, and then they both sat back down. Jughead was grateful for the distance. F.P.’s gaze turned to the blonde next to Jughead.

“As I live and breathe, Betty Cooper.” F.P.’s smile for her wasn’t hesitant at all. “I barely believed it when they told me, but here you are, all grown up.”

Betty blushed a little at the comment, but her smile was genuine. “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Jones.”

“No need for formality here.” F.P. gestured at the room around them. “F.P. is fine. So, what brings you here. I didn’t know Jughead was still in touch with anyone from Riverdale.”

“We just reconnected,” Betty explained. “We’re both going to Columbia. It was kind of a shock, really.”

“Columbia?” F.P. turned an impressed gaze on Jughead. “Isn’t that something. What are you studying.”

Jughead lowered his gaze. “Journalism. Writing.”

“Well, well.” F.P. shook his head. “All those years of scribbling into notebooks paid off.”

Jughead knew he was supposed to say more. Part of him wanted to, but another part of him always clammed up when he and his dad were face to face. It was one of the reasons—the main one, really—that these visits were so awkward.

Before the silence could stretch too long, Betty picked the bag up from the floor and passed it to F.P. “We brought you a little something for your birthday. I hope you like it.”

F.P.’s face lit up like it had the day Jellybean came home from daycare and gave him a plaster mold of her handprints. It was one of his good days, and he’d made no secret how much he liked it, tickling the little girl and tossing her up in the air.

Memories like that made Jughead wonder what Jellybean was doing now. He hadn’t seen her or his mother since that day they left Toledo. When his father was arrested, he’d overheard one of the police officers say that his mother had refused to take him.

Jughead tamped down that old melancholy and refocused on his father taking the snacks and magazines out of his care package and exclaiming over each one like a priceless treasure.

He tried his best, Jughead reminded himself. He totally sucked at it, but at least he tried.

When F.P. pulled out the bag of plain M&Ms, the delight on his face was almost like he’d gone back to childhood himself. “I love these.”

Betty’s smile echoed F.P.’s. “I remembered you guys always had them at your house when we came over to play. And Jughead loves them, too, so I figured…”

“You figured right!” F.P. ripped open the corner and tossed a handful into his mouth. “God, these are the best.”

“Sorry I didn’t mix them with Skittles, but all the packages had to be factory sealed.” Betty gave Jughead a teasing grin.

F.P. made a disgusted face. “M&Ms mixed with Skittles? I don’t want to know.”

“You really don’t,” Betty replied in a sotto voice.

“So,” F.P. said, “if you don’t mind my asking, how is the old Riverdale gang? Full of pep as always?”

“Mom and Dad are fine. They still own the Register, and they have Polly’s kids to keep them busy.”

“Alice is a grandma.” F.P. shook his head. “That’s a hard thing to picture.”

“She was better at putting together those cribs than either Polly or my dad,” Betty replied.

“Alice could do anything she put her mind to, and that’s a fact.” F.P. leaned forward a little. “How are the Andrews?”

“Archie’s actually in New York, too—music school. Mary and Fred divorced three years ago, though they were separated a year before that, but Fred’s doing fine. He still lives in the same house, and the company is going strong. Everyone knows if you want something built right in Riverdale, you hire Andrews Construction.”

“I’ve thought of Fred time and again since I’ve been in here.” F.P. cleared his throat, and darted a sidelong glance at Jughead, then focused back on Betty. “There were a lot of people I wronged back in the day. I’ve been working on my twelve steps since I’ve been in here, and one of those steps is making amends. I’ve always wished I could make amends for the way I treated Fred back then. I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but he was right to fire me. I just wasn’t sure if he would even want to hear from me.”

“Dad, Betty’s not Fred.” Warning laced Jughead’s tone. He’d endured one of these painful apologies himself during that first visit. It made him cringe at the time because the things his father apologized for weren’t actually the things that hurt Jughead the most, but at fourteen Jughead didn’t have the words to explain. He’d just nodded and muttered OK a couple of times, hoping that the whole thing would be over soon. Betty didn’t need to be subjected to that.

“You’re right, Jug. Sorry, Betty.”

“Don’t be.” Betty’s tone was kind but firm. “There is nothing to be sorry for, Mr. … F.P. I know Fred pretty well, and if you wanted to write him a letter or something, I think he would appreciate that.” She leaned forward. “Maybe this isn’t my place, but even if he didn’t, I think if it helps you to write it, you should.”

“Thank you, Betty.” F.P. blinked away moisture in his eyes. “You’re a nice girl.”

Betty laughed softly. “That’s what all the parents say.”

“I know it’s not worth much, but this parent means it,” F.P. replied. “I hated taking Jughead away from friends like you and Archie. If I’d known what would happen, maybe we would have stayed.”

Jughead had to suppress a derisive snort. As if the location would have changed what ultimately happened. He had no doubt that his dad would have gone down the long spiral to the bottom whether he’d been in Riverdale or New York. Though, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d had friends around. But then he wouldn’t have Veronica and Hermione.

Jughead was surprised out of his thoughts by Betty standing up. Her grace seemed something apart from everything else in this dingy room.

“I’m going to let you two have a minute,” Betty said, giving F.P. one last smile. “It was really good to see you again. I’m glad that you’re doing so well with your program.” She turned to Jughead. “I’ll meet you at the car.”

And then she was gone, and it felt like she took most of the air with her, as well as most of the words.

Jughead looked back at his dad, not sure what to say. F.P. seemed just as stymied, leaning back in his chair, staring everywhere but at Jughead.

“Look,” F.P. said at the same time as Jughead said, “Well…”

They both laughed a little at that. At least it hadn’t been the same word. Jughead didn’t think he could’ve handled some dad joke about someone owing someone else a Coke.

After a moment where they had to decide who was going to speak first, F.P. finally said, “That is one quality girl you have there. I know I’m the last person you’re wanting advice from, but you should hold onto her.”

“She’s not my girlfriend, Dad,” Jughead muttered. “We’re just friends.”

“Well then, hold onto her as a friend,” F.P. replied. “You don’t meet a girl like that every day, so when you do, you should keep her in your life in any way you can.”

Jughead stood up, and F.P. did, too.

“Thanks for coming, son.” F.P. held Jughead’s gaze with a steady one of his own. “I don’t know what it costs you to make these visits, but I’m sure it’s a lot. I just want you to know that I appreciate them. And if you ever decide that you can’t make them anymore, I’ll understand. But it’s always good to see you.”

It was hard to keep eye contact, so Jughead looked at the concrete wall just behind F.P.’s head. “Happy birthday, Dad.”

“Do good at Columbia.” F.P. chuckled to himself. “Not that I need to tell you that.”

Jughead allowed himself one last glance at his father’s face, raised his hand in a final salute, and left. Betty was waiting at the car. For once, as he walked out of the prison, his steps felt almost free.

Chapter Text

One random Tuesday afternoon, Betty found herself sitting at her small kitchen table with Jughead, two pieces of poster board, a bottle of paste, and four newspapers. Her poster had four upside-down pyramids carefully color coded and drawn with perfectly straight lines. His had the same thing scratched in uneven lines with a black Sharpie.

“Does Dr. Schnider think we’re still in kindergarten?” Jughead griped. “This project is ridiculous.”

Betty continued cutting out paragraphs from an article about the latest political posturing. “I doubt kindergarteners know enough about the inverted pyramid to illustrate it with examples from real articles.”

Jughead scowled. “There’s literal paste, Betty. Paste! We could’ve copied text from an online newspaper into a spreadsheet in a quarter of the time.”

“Then you wouldn’t feel the newsprint.” Betty waggled ink-darkened fingers at him and giggled when he flinched away.

“I prefer pixels,” he muttered.

The door to the apartment opened before Betty could reply, and Cheryl swept in. Betty glanced up from her cutting and pasting and took a moment to wonder, not for the first time, how Cheryl could sweep into a room like royalty no matter if she was wearing pajamas, a skirt and blouse (like today), or a formal gown. Maybe it was something they taught at Thornhill.

“Betty! Archie! I need you.” Cheryl paused by the couch.

“I can hear you from here,” Betty replied. Jughead met her gaze, repressed amusement in his eyes. He’d gotten a bit more comfortable with Cheryl’s airs over the past few weeks. And, perhaps because she’d earmarked him as Betty’s future beaux, Cheryl had been treating Jughead with a thawed version of her usual disdain.

After a moment, Cheryl pounded on Archie’s door, and the soft plunking of guitar strings that had serenaded them for the past hour jangled to a stop.

“Archibald,” she said again, “come here, please.”

Archie came to the door and leveled an annoyed gaze at Cheryl. “What, Cher?”

Once she was sure she had everyone’s attention, Cheryl announced, “Josie called. It’s homecoming weekend, and a lot of our former classmates will be back in Riverdale.”

“Not for the dance.” Betty wrinkled her nose. She’d been glad to see the end of planning and attending school functions after last year’s senior prom—Moonlight Memories (though the black, silver, and light pink color scheme had been one of her favorites).

“Of course not, chickpea.” Cheryl grinned. “But there’s going to be a meetup for the alumni of our generation. The game Friday night, and a party on Saturday. I’m surprised Kevin hasn’t texted you about it.” She glanced at Archie. “Or Reggie or Moose.”

“I’ve been writing.” Archie shrugged.

Wiping her fingers on the paper towels she’d brought to the table for newsprint and paste emergencies, Betty dug her phone out of her backpack. It had been on silent since her geology lab that afternoon. She did have a text from Kevin—several in fact. And one from Josie, and one from Ethel.

Her eyes widened. “The party’s at Thornhill?” The mansion had been demolished after the fire, as had one of the barns, but the other buildings and the grounds themselves were still fine. Due to having power of attorney for her mother, Cheryl had control of Thornhill, though she hadn’t been out there (as far as Betty knew) since the night of the fire.

“I may have offered up the property for the occasion.” Cheryl lifted one shoulder.

“What the hell, Cheryl?” Archie’s brow furrowed.

Cheryl’s smile dropped. Her gaze skittered toward Jughead, then to Betty, and then Archie. “It’s time to exorcise old ghosts. You two are coming.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Truth be told, Betty wasn’t sure she wanted to.

“Not want,” Cheryl corrected, “need.”

Beneath his beanie, Jughead’s brow furrowed as he glanced from Cheryl to Betty. His expression conveyed what Betty was feeling—that this was a bad idea.

Cheryl’s eyes gleamed almost manically. “Bring Jughead, Betty. He can see all his old haunts. Bring Veronica, too—whoever you want.”

Need practically poured off Cheryl, setting Betty’s first instinct of refusal at war with her impulse to help. This was Cheryl, her cousin and one of her two best friends. How could she not go?

Cheryl had turned to Archie and grabbed his hand. “You’re in, right? Bulldog for life and all that.”

Archie looked at Betty over Cheryl’s shoulder. The set of his jaw said that he had just as many reservations as Betty did. Betty crinkled her nose at him, hoping maybe this once, Archie could be the heavy. Tell Cheryl to pick another weekend to revisit Thornhill—maybe one without an elaborate party plan.

“Please?” Cheryl’s smile faltered at she glanced from Archie to Betty and back again. “I can’t do this without you guys.”

It was the please that did it. Cheryl never begged. Betty saw the moment Archie capitulated.

“Of course, we’ll go. Right, Betty?” Now Archie gave her the puppy-dog eyes, too. She couldn’t refuse them both; not for something this big.

Betty smoothed her expression. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Cheryl squealed, hugging Archie first and then Betty. Then she disappeared into her bedroom, whether to study or to start packing early, Betty really didn’t know.

Archie scrubbed the back of his neck as he stared at Cheryl’s closed door; then, he went back into his room and shut his own door. The jangling chords did not start again.

Betty’s gaze drifted down to her project without really seeing it. Thornhill. When a warm hand clasped hers, Betty started.

“Hey, you OK?” Jughead leaned closer, oblivious to the bottle of paste precariously positioned by his elbow.

Betty clasped his hand tighter. “I will be. I just need a minute to get used to the idea.” She chuckled weakly. “Or maybe a few million minutes.”

“I’m there if you want me to be,” Jughead offered.

“Really?”

“I mean, it’s no prison or anything, but at least it comes with milkshakes.” His lips twitched into that little, wry smile she found so endearing.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of milkshakes.” But while her mouth talked about milkshakes, her eyes thanked him for so much more than she could ever say aloud.

Jughead, a fellow introvert, knew how to speak with his eyes, too. Of course, they said, you didn’t even need to ask.

 

* * *

Three days later, Jughead found himself sandwiched into the back of Betty’s Corolla with Veronica next to him and Cheryl next to her. Betty, of course, refused to let anyone else drive her baby. Archie had the passenger seat by virtue of having the biggest build. He was paying for that privilege by holding Veronica’s makeup case and shoe bag on his lap.

The trunk had barely closed around the rest of their luggage—mostly Veronica’s. Cheryl, Archie, and Betty still had things at home. Veronica was going to bunk in with Betty and Cheryl at the Cooper house, while Jughead would stay at Archie’s.

Over the course of the drive, Veronica pestered the others for tales of growing up in Riverdale. She had no concept of small-town life and found it, she said, utterly fascinating.

Jughead listened, but didn’t contribute much. Occasionally, Betty’s glance would find his in the rearview mirror, and he would remember why he was there.

When the scenery started to look familiar, Jughead felt a weird pressure. It was hard to explain. Of course, he’d had bad times here, but there had been good ones, too. Compared to those last months with his dad, Riverdale had been paradise. Expectations, who he’d been, who he was now—they all swirled around inside into a confusing mishmash of Jughead through the ages.

And then he saw it. The neon sign that he’d never forgotten. “Pops.”

Cheryl stopped mid-story about a prank the River Vixens had pulled on the Greendale cheer squad. “Excuse me?”

Jughead cleared his throat. “Can we stop at Pop’s?”

“Oh!” Veronica twisted in her seat for a view of the diner. “Is that the place with the milkshakes?”

“Later, I promise,” Betty said in a soothing tone. “My parents know what time we left. If we’re not at the house soon, they’ll call the sheriff.”

The street where the Coopers and the Andrews lived looked just the same. Paint trim might have changed on a house or two, and Jughead was fairly sure the house across the street hadn’t had a purple door back in the day. However, the neighborhood was still well-maintained houses and impeccably cut lawns broken only by the occasional bicycle or swing. Betty pulled into the Cooper’s driveway, and the five teenagers exploded from the car like clowns in the center ring.

As if they’d been watching, Alice, Hal, and Fred trooped down their respective front steps at the same time. Veronica and Jughead hung back as Betty and Archie were fawned over by their respective parents. Cheryl loitered in the middle until Betty pulled her into the family hug.

Fred turned to Jughead when he was done with Archie. The lines on Fred’s face were more prevalent and gray had made his hair more slate than black, but the smile was the same. Jughead stuck out a hand, but Fred folded him into a hug.

“Look at you.” Fred pushed Jughead to arm’s length and took him in. “I can’t believe it.”

“That’s a popular sentiment from the Riverdale natives,” Jughead replied.

Fred shook his head and laughed a little. “Well, I don’t know how it happened, but I’m glad to have you here, son. I even put sheets out in the guest room. No need to sleep on that air mattress in Archie’s room now.”

Over Fred’s shoulder, Jughead mouthed “guest room?” to Archie, who shrugged. As they moved toward the house, Archie muttered, “It used to be Mom’s office. It took him years to clear the thing out after she left.”

Jughead darted a glance back at Veronica, but Betty had already taken care of the introductions and was leading her inside, Hal following with an armload of bags. Veronica caught Jughead’s look and rolled her eyes at him, but Jughead discerned that he was forgiven for his lapse in manners.

“We’ll see you fellows in an hour for dinner before the game,” Alice called from her front porch.

“See you then, Alice.” Fred waved before closing the door.

Archie rushed upstairs, muttering something about stuff he’d forgotten to take to New York, which left Fred and Jughead alone downstairs.

“Want something to drink?” Fred asked.

“Sure.” Jughead dropped his duffle by the stairs and followed Fred to the familiar kitchen. With the new couch and the flat screen TV, the living room had felt different, but the kitchen was exactly like Jughead remembered it. He paused by the tall chairs at the island, picturing how he used to have to clamber up too sit on them. So, almost the same.

Fred handed Jughead a can of Coke. “It really is good to see you, Jug. Thought about you a lot over the years. Wish I could’ve done more back then….”

Jughead waved his hand, the sentiment making him uncomfortable. “I was living with my parents. What could you have done?”

Fred accepted that with a nod. “Well, now that you’re back in our lives, you are welcome here any time. You and your girlfriend.”
“Betty’s not my girlfriend,” Jughead said hastily.

Fred smirked at him over the rim of his soda. “I was talking about Veronica, but good to know.”

Heat crept up the back of Jughead’s neck. “Veronica’s my sister. Foster sister, but as good as the real thing.”

“She’s the spitting image of her mama.” Fred’s gaze grew distant.

“Did you know Hermione?” Jughead’s brow furrowed. The idea of the impeccably high-class Hermione Lodge in Riverdale was still touch to picture, even though Ronnie had told him it was true.

“We might’ve gone out on a few dates,” Fred admitted with a half shrug. “That was before Mary and I got together.”

Fred turned toward a stack of mail and pulled out an envelope written in F.P.’s chicken scratching. “I got this from your dad last week.”

The soda can clanked as Jughead set it on the counter. “Ah, yeah… about that…”

Fred waved off Jughead’s protests. “It was a good letter. I’m sorry he’s in prison, but if that helped him turn things around, I’m glad.”

It looked like Fred wanted to say more, but Jughead was not ready to either walk down memory lane about life with his father or talk about his feelings on F.P.’s imprisonment. Not even with the only really decent male role model he’d ever had. It had been too long, and Jughead didn’t shift gears into sharing mode that fast. Instead, he moved back toward his duffle bag. “I’m gonna go upstairs and unpack before dinner. Thanks for the Coke.”

“Any time, Jug,” Fred called as Jughead took the stairs two at a time.

Chapter Text

Dinner at the Coopers wasn't too bad. Betty's parents were on their best behavior and refrained from making too many judgmental remarks. Alice seemed as if she'd even missed Cheryl, which was such a step forward that Betty was able to totally ignore Alice's pointed warnings about the freshman fifteen.

The game was actually fun. The five of them met up with Ethel, Josie, Kevin, Reggie, and Moose, and found a spot near the 50-yard line in the bleachers. The three former Bulldogs cheered their heads off and annoyed the townspeople around them with their loud barking noises. Cheryl and Kevin critiqued the River Vixen's performance, which delighted Veronica to no end. Ethel was her normal, sweet self, and through it all Jughead sat beside Betty with a somewhat bemused expression on his face.

During the halftime show, Betty gently nudged Jughead's shoulder and murmured under the cover of the marching band, "Is it everything you'd imagined?"

"It's amazing and horrifying all at once." Jughead smiled, taking any sting out of the words. "Like, I can totally imagine being here, but part of me thinks if I had been here I wouldn't have been caught dead at this kind of spectacle. I only went to the basketball and lacrosse games at Spence when Veronica made me."

Betty wrinkled her nose. "Lacrosse. Pfft. You would've been here just to support me and Archie, and you know it."

Suddenly, Veronica-who Betty had thought deep in conversation with Cheryl and Kevin on the bench above-leaned her head down in between them and said, "I bet Jay would've come just to see you in one of those flippy little skirts. Oh my god, Betty, you must've been gorgeous."

A flush crept over Jughead's neck, and he elbowed Veronica a little more harshly than he needed to. "Shut up, Ron."

Veronica just giggled, and Kevin added, "Betty was more than gorgeous as a Vixen. She was iconic."

"Hey!" Cheryl scowled. "I made the Vixens what they are today."

Archie took time out from rowdily catching up with Reggie and Moose to say, "The Vixens would've been nothing without you, Cher."

"Of course!" Kevin extended his arms in a gesture of peace. "You're a legend."

Slightly mollified, Cheryl stood up and announced, "Speaking of, I'm going down there to tell Sadie that their timing's all wrong on Who Rocks the House. When I allowed her to take over the captaincy from Betty, I thought she could actually keep a beat."

"I'll come with." Josie followed Cheryl down, and then Ethel excused herself to go visit some friends in the band during their third-quarter break.

"Come on, Jay." Veronica hauled Jughead to her feet. "If I'm going to get the true football game experience, I need munchies, and you're the resident junkfood expert."

"I do know my way around the concession stand." With a nod to Betty, Jughead allowed Veronica to pull him away, leaving Kevin and Betty alone, save for the football boys yucking it up way too loudly.

Kevin lowered himself into Jughead's vacated seat. "All right, Betty. Spill. What's up with you and the surprisingly tall, dark, and handsome Mr. Jones."

"Nothing." Betty shook her head hard enough that her ponytail swung back and forth. "We're just friends."

"I know Betty Cooper's friendship face, and this is not it." Kevin leaned his elbows back on the bleacher bench behind them and waited.

It didn't take Betty long to crack. "Ah, Kev. We hang out all the time, and I love talking to him. We totally had a moment, but it hasn't repeated itself. I'm starting to think I imagined the whole thing."

"He was sitting awfully close to you for 'just friends.'" Kevin quirked an eyebrow. "I will study the situation this weekend and give you my verdict on Sunday."

Betty wrinkled her nose at the idea of Kevin overanalyzing her and Jughead's interactions. "No worries, Kev. I'll figure it out myself. Jughead's a pretty private guy."

A few minutes later, Jughead and Veronica returned from the concession stand with armloads of goodies. Kevin vacated Jughead's seat as Veronica and Jughead passed out hotdogs, sour pickles, candy, and popcorn.

Jughead waved a plastic box of nachos covered with dripping orange cheese under Betty's nose. "I got these for you."

Betty took the nachos with a bemused smile. "How did you know?"

They were one of her favorites. Her mother loathed everything about them-the calorie count, the fried tortilla chips, the fake cheese-like product. Eating concession nachos tasted like rebellion.

"Archie's Little League games." Jughead shrugged. "You always spent your allowance on them and then pretended they were mine if your mother came by."

Betty laughed. "I'd totally forgotten that."

Jughead grinned at her and then ate half of his hotdog in one bite. Betty grabbed the cheesiest chip and crunched it with pleasure.

"Oh my god!" Veronica shrieked behind them. "This pickle is so sour."

"It did say so on the jar," Jughead mumbled around a mouthful of hotdog.

Betty turned around and giggled at Veronica's grimace. Her gaze fell on Kevin, who looked meaningfully from the nachos to Jughead and back again.

Stifling a groan, Betty turned around and focused on the game as she ate her cheesy goodness.

* * *

Maybe it was the echo of Two Bits, Four Bits in his ears or the harsh bite of the ref's whistle. Maybe it was that third hotdog he really shouldn't have eaten. Or maybe it was just his normal insomnia kicked up a notch, but at 2:37 a.m. Jughead found himself wide awake and staring at the Andrews guestroom ceiling.

Outside, a car motor turned over, and Jughead's whole body clenched. Cars in the middle of the night had never been good. This wasn't his twin bed in the trailer, but god it felt like his dad was about to stumble in.

A door down the hall creaked, and someone swore under their breath. Still halfway in the past, Jughead's breath caught in that way where he knew he'd have to decide between cleaning up the mess himself or hearing his mother scream about it the next day.

Suddenly strangled by the too-thick blankets, Jughead struggled out of bed. The guest room window looked out over the street. He needed to see the car. The rational part of his mind knew that it wasn't his dad's, but he had to see it anyway.

The car definitely wasn't his dad's. He couldn't see who was actually driving, but it was some kind of sleek model that F.P. Jones would never have been able to afford. Jughead's breathing slowed.

Red hair glinted under the street light as Archie appeared on the sidewalk. He made two little hop-steps as he shoved his feet into sneakers, and then he jumped into the passenger side of the car. Seconds later, the car rolled away.

Jughead watched it go, distracted from his mini-panic attack by wondering where Archie was going this late and why he felt like he had to sneak out to do it. If he had to guess, Jughead would say Archie was meeting a girl. Maybe rekindling a high school romance for the night?

It didn't make sense why Archie thought he had to sneak around, though. They were all over eighteen. Maybe sneaking made it fun, like re-living high school. Or maybe Archie just didn't want the questions.

No matter what Archie was doing, though, Jughead realized that he, himself would not be getting to sleep any time soon.

He wandered downstairs and snapped on the light over the kitchen sink, pondering whether to brew a pot of coffee and just push through. A familiar shadow in the backyard caught his eye, and all thoughts of beverages vanished.

At the back door, Jughead paused, smirking at his sudden instinct to turn the knob slowly and quietly. On purpose, he opened the door normally and stepped out into the back yard, though he did make sure it didn't slam.

The autumn night had bite, but Jughead had put a hoodie on over his T-shirt and sweats before coming downstairs. The ground dampened his socks, but he didn't really care. There was no going back in until he'd seen it with his own eyes.

It was still there-the treehouse nestled among the leaves of the oak tree in the far corner of the yard. A couple of the crooked boards they'd nailed on the trunk in lieu of a ladder looked like they'd seen better days, but most were sturdy enough to get him to the top.

Jughead popped his head through the trap door and levered himself into the wooden space. It was smaller than he remembered. He had to curl his legs up close to his body and crouch a little not to bump his head.

It still smelled the same, though-a little like the cedar used to build it, a little like dust, and mostly like freedom. He flicked the switch, and the little strand of Christmas lights they'd hung on the ceiling popped on. Amazing that it still worked!

It looked the same, too, except just older and crumblier. Tennis balls in the corner. A tub of markers and chalk. A pile of rocks that collected for some unknown reason.

One wall had three columns drawn on it in Sharpie, each headed with a letter-A, J, and B. That had been the summer Betty had challenged the boys to a book-off. Every check represented a book read, and the winner got homemade cookies. Archie's column was barely a third filled; he'd given up early after Betty declared it took five comic books to equal one real book. Jughead and Betty's columns, though, had been filled, extra checkmarks squeezed in wherever they would fit. In the end, Betty had won by a single book, but she'd brought the cookies anyway, declaring she didn't believe Archie and Jughead could actually make them.

Now the ghostly sounds were friendly rather than anxiety-ridden. He could still hear Archie debating whether he could climb down the longest limb and jump onto the roof. And then there'd been the time when Jughead called Cinderella a stupid girl's movie.

Cinderella is not stupid, Juggie! She had all those mice and birds doing anything she wanted. They sewed for her. They faced down a cat for her. She was like a super hero. Besides, did you even read the original fairy tale? Her stepsisters were hacking off bits of their feet to fit into that slipper. That's like a horror movie.

The trapdoor shifted, jerking Jughead out of his reverie. Somehow, he wasn't surprised when the head that popped through was blonde. He scooted over so she had room to climb inside.

"You're up late."

Betty huffed a little. "I could say the same about you."

"Yeah, but I'm the night owl; you're the morning person." Jughead rolled his eyes a little at the idea of someone actually enjoying the morning.

"Veronica," Betty announced, "talks in her sleep. Some long discourse on Tiffany and Cartier woke me up, and it wasn't until I replied that I realized she wasn't talking to me."

"Oh god." Jughead rubbed his face. "You didn't let her eat again when we got home, did you?"

Betty's eyes widened. "Was I not supposed to? Before bed, she declared she was starving and had to have a bowl of ice cream. I couldn't believe it after she put away all that food at the game, but I figured, who was I to judge?"

"Do you remember that movie Gremlins?"

Betty nodded.

"One of the rules for taking care of Ron is the same as taking care of mogwais. Never feed her after midnight. She doesn't turn into a monster, but she can get pretty freaking weird. Talking in her sleep, random philosophical interludes… once, she bought a leather jacket online and when it showed up, she didn't even remember ordering it."

Betty's soft laugh made something curl in the pit of Jughead's stomach. "I'll remember that for tomorrow. So, what are you doing up here all by yourself?" She looked over at him, and Jughead suddenly realized her hair was down around her shoulders. His breath caught.

After a beat too long, he managed to say, "Just garden-variety insomnia." He thought about mentioning Archie's nocturnal travels, but Jughead realized he didn't really want Archie here right now, not even in spirit.

"I was in the kitchen making tea," Betty said, "and I saw you climb up here. I just wanted to make sure you were OK. Being back here must be stirring up a lot of old memories and stuff."

"Yeah." Jughead reached up to tug on his beanie and realized he didn't have it on. Instead, he scraped his fingers through his hair, probably making it even more unruly. "Not all bad ones. Especially not up here. This was, like, my favorite place in the world back then. It felt like we were so high, trouble could never find us."

"Archie and I didn't play up here as much after you left. It wasn't the same." She scooted a little closer. "I'm really glad we found each other again, Juggie."

"Me, too." That feeling crept over him again-want, need-still strong but not quite so shocking the second time. His field of view narrowed until all he could see was Betty. She smelled like lemons, and her skin looked so oft. He wanted to kiss her more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life. Which was probably hyperbole, but damn if it didn't feel completely real.

Her mouth opened, and he heard her tiny gasp. His heart thundered in his ears.

This time, Jughead didn't freeze. Slowly, giving her time to pull away, he leaned forward. Betty didn't move, and at the moment their lips finally touched, both of them were smiling.

Chapter Text

Betty had never thought of the old treehouse as romantic before; now she would never think of it as anything but. When Jughead’s eyes softened and he leaned in for the kiss, Betty was afraid to move, as if that would make the moment vanish again.

Their lips finally touched. A tiny part of her thought finally, and then she wasn’t thinking at all. Warm lips, the light taste of minty toothpaste, and the slightly spicy scent that was all Jughead overwhelmed her senses, blocking out the rest of the world.

One of her hands buried itself in the dark hair she’d so wanted to touch. Beneath the other was the soft fabric of his sweats. His fingers skated past her cheeks and locked behind her head, holding them closer.

And then he was gone.

Blinking slowly, Betty’s eyes opened. She swallowed a giggle--sometimes she giggled when she was happy; it was kind of embarrassing--and then she really saw Jughead. He’d drawn in on himself, formerly loose posture tight, head against the wooden wall, eyes focused on everything but her.

The familiar, thorny feeling of anxiousness crept over her joy, like shadows over sunlight. Was the kiss a mistake? Did he regret it? Was her technique bad?

Her fingers clenched, the bite of pain against her palms calming her panic. With extreme effort, she managed not to ball her fist tight enough to break skin, but it was a near thing.

“Was that…” She cleared her throat and tried again. “Are you OK?”

“The eternal question.” His gaze skittered toward hers and then darted away again.

She wanted so badly to touch him, to pull him close and soothe that expression off his face, but his posture said no. Instead, she said, “You can talk to me. Or not. Whatever you need. No matter what, we’re friends.”

This time, when he looked at her, he really looked.

Betty smiled. “There you are.” Moving slow enough that he could stop her, she reached out and took his hand in both of hers. It was large and warm, smooth but not calloused, befitting a former rich man’s ward.

They were quiet for a long time. Betty leaned against the wall, keeping possession of his hand, and watched the play of moonlight through the tree branches outside the tiny, wooden window.

“This may… ah… sound weird.” Jughead cleared his throat. “I’m not… I don’t usually kiss people.”

Not what she was expecting, but Betty simply said, “OK.” This wasn’t an article; she wasn’t digging for the truth. It was whatever he wanted to say.

“I never really wanted to before; I thought maybe I would never want to. I tried a few times, but…” He shrugged. “There was this one girl, Paige… She was my only real friend at Spence aside from Ron. When she wanted to date, I figured why not try? She was a great person; I loved spending time with her. I thought the… the physical stuff would come with time. But it never did.

“Eventually I realized I couldn’t just fake it forever. She… she was devastated when we broke up. Of course, it didn’t help that, since the Lodges were untouchable, no matter what I said, everyone blamed her for our breakup. So, she had all that on top of… She ended up changing schools. It was… bad.” He scowled. “I… I never want the way that I am to hurt someone like that again.”

“So, this… tonight… wasn’t something you wanted?” Betty loosened her grasp on his hand, giving him the freedom to pull away if he wanted to.

“No!” Jughead gripped her hand more firmly. “I’m not saying this right. I really wanted to kiss you, Betty. It felt like my first kiss, because it’s the first time it’s felt like that.”

Betty’s residual tension melted away. She leaned her shoulder against his. “I really wanted to kiss you, too, Juggie.”

“I don’t…” He hesitated. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I never want to hurt you.”

Betty arched an eyebrow at him. “Well, that standard is ridiculously unattainable. No one can promise they’ll never hurt each other. Being open to any kind of relationship risks a little pain. What if we fight about Netflix versus Hulu or you insult my mother’s oh-so-fabulous peach pie?”

Jughead’s tight expression relaxed, and Betty caught a glimpse of that crooked smile she liked so much. “I don’t know in what universe I’d ever say anything bad about pie, Betts.”

This time, Betty knew it was her turn to be vulnerable, which was difficult, but it was Jughead—he’d made her feel safe when she had that mini-panic attack the first day of classes; she’d brought him home with her because she felt better facing Thornhill with him by her side; he’d taken her to see his dad; she trusted him.

“Juggie, thank you for being honest; I’ll be honest back. When I think about a romantic relationship, it does include kissing, and eventually sex, and--somewhere way, way, way down the road, when I know it’s right--even marriage and kids, but I’m not in a rush to get there.

“I know it’s different, but I’m not all that experienced either. When you’re the girl from that night with the crazy man, it can get weird. I don’t always trust people, but I do trust you, which means a lot. I’m willing to take it slow and see where it goes, but only if you want to.” She bit her lip and peeked up at Jughead.

He threaded his fingers through hers, interlocking their hands together. “Yeah, I… I want to.”

Betty thought back to the story he’d told. “We just have to promise each other that we’ll be honest--no pretending. Even if this doesn’t work out, I don’t want to lose you for another ten years.”

He shifted a little, and when Betty looked up again, he was right there. When he spoke, she felt his breath on her face.

“Me neither. OK--no pretending.”

This time, when his gaze flicked down to her lips and the air about them started to charge, Betty wasn’t scared or hesitant. She met him halfway.

* * *

They kissed forever. They kissed for, like, twenty minutes. They didn’t round any bases, and the love scene would be G-rated enough for a Disney movie, but, god, it was good.

Jughead felt like he was floating away on cloud nine. Or maybe higher. Cloud ten. Cloud eleven, possibly.

Even after they said goodnight to try and get some sleep before the next day’s festivities, Jughead’s brain felt like it was skipping on one single track: Betty, Betty, Betty.

He collapsed into his bed in the Andrews’ guest room smiling so hard it actually made his cheeks feel tight.

A few hours later, when the light of dawn had just begun peeping through the curtains, some thumps and a door shutting roused him just long enough to realize that Archie had come home from wherever his nocturnal ramblings had taken him.

Not really caring, Jughead rolled over, twisting himself more deeply into the blankets, and drifted back to sleep.