It all starts in the way most things do: at a party.
(Most good things, anyways.)
Reggie Mantle still smells like cheap beer and cigarettes, and it’s not throwing Betty off in the way that it normally does.
That might just be because she’s completely, spectacularly wasted - the sort of drunk where the half-upside down world is starting to look a bit wavy at the edges, and it’s a strange mix of soothing and comforting and making her want to vomit. She hadn’t planned on drinking tonight, knowing that her mother would kill her if she was to come home with anything less than every single hair perfectly in place, but she’d walked right in on Archie with his hands up Cheryl Blossom’s skirt and that plan had gone directly out the window with her dignity.
She’d made him a fucking scrapbook of their friendship for Christmas. He’d reciprocated with one of those tacky snowglobes you buy last-minute at the dollar store and a first-hand demonstration of how far he could stick his tongue down another girl’s throat. It’s not even the betray that’s upsetting her the most - it’s the humiliation of the betrayal.
They’re not even dating, not technically, but everyone in Riverdale knows that they’re basically dating and isn't that almost the same thing?
“I don’t get why you fucking bother with him, Betty,” Mantle says, and it’s the way he says it - like he actually cares, not like he’s just doing this, talking to her on the front stoop of the house (whose house are they at, again? She can’t even properly remember) because she’s forcing him into it. “Andrews’s always been about as perceptive as a monkey. You gotta know that by now, man.”
She does know it. “Of course I know.” Her tone is assertive, but that’s all counteracted by the sniffles that punctuate the end of every sentence. “I’m not as naive as people think I am.”
(Part of her had been hoping he’d chime in there with something nice, a reassuring ‘I don’t think you’re naive, Betts,’ but she’s gotten especially good at not getting her hopes up, especially not with Reggie. It’s a little strategy of theirs, in all the years that they’ve known each other - she never expects anything from him, and he never lets her down.)
It’s just that...well, she feels stupid, because she should have seen this coming. The other day Archie had liked six of Cheryl’s Instagram photos in a row, all of them being bikini shots - as most of her photos were - and commented with a heart eyes emoji on one from the summer before. He hadn’t even had the good grace to try and be subtle, but then why would he? As obvious as he’d been, Betty still hadn’t even realized what was going on until it was too late.
He doesn’t tell her that he doesn’t think she’s stupid. Instead he moves a half an inch closer to her and slings his arm around her shoulders, and she doesn’t even have to place it there herself.
“You’re out of his league, Betty Cooper,” he tells her, and there’s such confidence in his voice that she actually believes him. That’s the magic of Reggie - no matter how ridiculous the things coming out of his mouth are, he says them with such unwavering faith that she can’t help but believe them. With the world as fuzzy as it is, for both Reggie and for herself, she thinks that the effect must be twice as powerful. "You've gotta know your worth, alright? It's fifty times his."
Betty still doesn’t even know why Reggie’s there, why he’d seen her crying on the stairway and had decided to do the exact last thing she’d expected him to. He’s not even trying to make fun of her - he’s listening, actually listening, and she doesn’t know if it’s the crappy vodka or the Christmas lights or the fact that the cold is making her brain a bit numb, but she thinks that he looks particularly beautiful right now. He looks soft softer than normal, and she wonders what it would feel like to lean over and kiss him.
Would he be a better kisser than Archie? After what she’d witnessed just a few hours ago with Cheryl, Betty doesn’t think that’s a high bar to meet.
“And, you know, if you really want revenge,” he pauses to take a sip of his beer, and if Betty didn’t know better she’d almost think he was nervous about something, something she can’t even identify, “I’m not opposed to us doing it.”
As it turns out, to both of their surprise, neither is she.
(After all, most good things start at parties.)
They don’t talk for a week after the party, and that suits Betty just fine.
She’s not embarrassed. That’s not the right word. She’s enough of a feminist to know that in the twenty-first century women shouldn’t be ashamed of their sexual exploits - so she doesn’t avoid Reggie, and she doesn’t avoid Archie, but she does avoid their entire group simply because she doesn’t have the energy to deal with the everything that comes after. The fallout. She’s mostly hoping that the longer she avoids it, the faster it all just fades into different memory.
When shuts Archie’s half-hearted, completely obtuse apology the next morning after he shows up on her doorstep with a pumpkin spice latte even though he knows she’ll turn it down because she finds them far too sweet (and that means he’ll get to drink it himself), she tells herself Mantle has nothing to do with it.
She tells Mantle the same thing when he shows up on her doorstep exactly seven days later, latte-free and a little bit covered in snow and a little bit high, asking if she hasn’t been around Pop’s because of him. “Andrews’s acting even more fucking annoying than usual, man,” he tells her, and somehow Betty can actually believe he’s telling the truth. “He won’t stop going on about how we’ve got to all band together as a gang or some shit to come and cheer you up, and it’s driving me freaking insane. You’re way better at getting him to shut the hell up than the rest of us are.”
He won’t meet her eyes. “You miss me,” she notes, and he shrugs but doesn’t say anything to counter her point.
Instead he says, “Kinda shitty revenge if you just run away and let Andrews win, isn’t it?” and Betty knows that he’s right, so she takes a step back from her door - because her mom’s working late tonight (she’s working late most nights, now) and her dad’s...well, she’s not really sure where he dad is anymore, not even sure if he’s still a proper part of their family, so she’s stopped trying to ask. Polly’s hanging out with Jason, and Betty - Betty’s letting Reggie Mantle inside her house, and she’s doing it without him even having to ask.
“You can’t tell anyone we’re doing this, okay?” she says, and Mantle says, “Wasn’t even aware we were doing anything, doll,” but his hand brushes against hers when he steps into her house, the mud on the cuff of his jeans a stark contrast against the near blinding light of thee too-white floors, and Betty’s almost ten percent certain that it wasn’t an accident.
Whatever it is that they’re doing - and now they’re certainly doing something - it’s working well for them.
She’s the sort of girl who likes to talk a lot but, for once, she doesn’t want to talk about this, and it works out pretty well considering that Reggie doesn’t like to talk about anything. It’s supposed to be her revenge on Archie except that concept doesn’t make a lot of sense, not really, because revenge is only revenge if the person you’re supposed to be getting revenge on actually realizes what’s happening. They make out in the back of Reggie’s beaten-up El Camino (he could afford a far nicer car but he keeps swearing he’s going to restore to its former glory, someday) and when the gang asks why they’re showing up to Pops together an hour later he tells them that Betty offered him twenty dollars for a ride.
It’s confusing - both the excuse, and them.
They still don’t talk about it.
He never actually sleeps over at her place - far, far too risky, with her mother always poking her nose in places where it doesn’t belong - but that doesn’t stop Reggie from sliding under her plush pink duvet as if he belongs there, and the juxtaposition of his dark hair against the white sheets and his leather jacket against the pastel lace, well, Betty doesn’t have the heart to stop him. They’re trying to keep boundaries in place, maybe, but he looks adorable all wrapped up somewhere he definitely doesn’t belong and she’s not completely heartless.
At some point along the way he becomes Reg, and neither of them comment on it the first time that it happens but he doesn’t correct her, either, and he starts calling her “Betts” when they’re in bed together like she’d imagined him doing that first night at the party, and she really doesn’t hate the way it sounds.
Sometimes after they sleep together they start going places, because Betty’s stomach always rumbles afterwards even though she swears she isn’t hungry and if they’re lying in bed together there’s all this pressure to talk about what this is, and the anxiety that comes with asking a question that neither of them can answer is far more horrifying than the two of them going out to eat, splitting a coke and fries because Betty always orders less than she wants since, despite the fact that they both know this isn’t a date, Reggie never, ever lets her pay.
So they sleep together and then they start going places to eat, just a little bit farther out of town where they know nobody will see them, and it an incredible relief when it just so happens that they’ve actually got a decent bit to talk about that isn’t about them.
Like the time he says to her, after she’s just gone on a half devastated, half frustrated tirade about Cheryl’s latest remarks at Vixens practice, “You know, if you hate it so much you could always just...quit.”
It’s not that she hasn’t thought about quitting before (she has). It’s the way that he says it, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, as if she’s ridiculous for not considering it, and it’s that sort of implication that pisses her off more than anything. “And then what, Reg? I know it’s a foreign concept to you, finding things that actually matter, but I actually care about the squad.” Maybe she’s taken it a bit too far, but Betty’s always been good at that, the real Betty, the one hardly anyone sees - she attacks before anyone else has the chance to, because biting hurts a whole lot less than being bit. “You might want to give it a try, you know, actually caring about something instead of just giving it up.”
“I give a shit about things,” he shoots back, but when Betty says “Like what, Reggie?” he just stares at her for a little while like he’s seeing her for the first time, or like he’s not really sure who he’s looking at at all.
“God damn it, Betts.” That’s how he breaks the silence, with a ‘God damn it,’ but for the first time since they’ve started doing whatever it is that they’re doing (and they’re most definitely doing something a lot bigger than they planned), he reaches across the table to hold her hand.
She’s still, only for a second, but then his thumb brushes against her skin so delicately, as if he’s afraid she might break, and it doesn’t even take her half a second to squeeze his hand back.
(And yeah, it’s something.)
He starts calling her every night before just before bed, the same time that Archie used to, but he never once wants to talk about himself. He asks her about her day, her classes, her practice.
And he always pauses right before hanging up, like there’s something else he wants to say but he can’t quite find the words.
So he goes with, “Goodnight, Betts,” every time, and she’s just foolish enough to let herself fill in the gaps.
It’s 11:05 pm when she sends Kevin the text - What do you think about me and Reggie? - and it’s exactly three minutes later when she gets a reply back.
“Is this your post-Archie revenge plan? Because it needs some work.”
She should go to sleep. Reggie went to sleep ages ago, but in his defense he’d been working even more often than usual lately; Betty’s got a suspicion it’s because of their dates (if that’s what they can even be called), but she doesn’t want to pry. She knows that his family’s got a lot more money than hers, but it seems like he’s been getting money from his parents less and spending his own more. His paying for the dates - it’s not a sexist thing, she’s sure, but a pride one. Reggie Mantle doesn’t ask for anything from anybody, no matter how willing she’d be to give it to him.
Betty looks at her phone again - rereads the disbelief in Kevin’s text, the disbelief that still mirrors her own after over a month of…this, and she doesn’t bother replying. Reggie’s got his arm wrapped around her waist and she’s comfortable, here, in this not-relationship that they’ve built out of less-than nothing.
(Or maybe it’s been built on more than nothing at all, on years of friendship and teasing and him tugging her ponytail almost gently when he walked by her locker every day, when he’d sat by her side that whole night at the party without her even having to ask him to be there, not because he ever thought he’d get anything out of it but because he was Reggie Mantle, and because he actually gave a shit about something.
How could she have ever thought otherwise?)
If she rolled over in her bed she’d be able to see out the window into Archie’s room, covered in almost comically stereotypical teenage boy posters with clothes thrown all over the bed. She’d look out the window and she’d see Archie, fingers absently strumming out chords on his guitar, playing a song that he can’t quite remember the words to with a voice so pretty that it doesn’t really matter, anyways.
She hasn’t looked out that window for weeks, now.
She doesn’t really need to anymore.
The next Monday he drives her to school, and he doesn’t tell anybody she offered him twenty dollars to do so, and it’s fine - it’s all normal - until they’re standing on the front steps and he reaches over to hold her hand.
They still don’t talk about it.
(She doesn’t really need to.)