"People don't need forked tongues to tell lies," Jughead said, slamming his hand on the desk in front of him. "As Reggie and Cheryl and their ilk have proven--"
"Okay, but what you're saying right now is basically that lying would help," Toni said.
Sweet Pea, who was trying to focus on this week's bio lesson about fungi, said, "Yo, could you both shut up?"
They were going to have a test in a week. He itched with the need to not mess it up. First of all, because messing it up would only make him look stupider than Andrews, and he wasn't gonna take that risk. And second of all because not messing it up would be a nice screw you to the exactly the people Jughead and Toni were talking about.
Plus, he had finally been assigned the extra tutoring he'd been supposed to get at Southside High. That had been one of the worst things about Southside High. The one school psychologist who had toughed it out more than four months had said, "It's just a learning disability. Your IQ is in fact quite high. You should be able to get this." But all the tutors had kept on ditching him. No amount of money or deserving young minds had been able to keep staff at Southside High, not unless the staff were also dealing drugs or something.
Now, he was getting his tutoring and classes were starting to make more sense. So he was trying to study. With Fangs, who kept nodding off, but who would come to whenever Sweet Pea poked him. And with Poughkeepsie, Grit, Possum, and Beauty Whitford. But the little Serpent study circle kept being interrupted.
"I'm not telling you to compromise your own goals!" Jughead was saying, his voice rising. "I'm just telling you to look the beautiful flower, but--"
"--be the serpent under it?" Toni said, her voice rising back. "Oh no. Oh no. No, no, no. And it's innocent flower. Much as I appreciate the compliment, your Shakespeare needs work, Jones."
Sweet Pea was almost relieved when a knock came on the door, but his relief swiftly let itself out as Veronica Lodge and her crew let themselves in. She had that Northside girl thing, where she made too-made-up and too-perfect seem somehow natural, with her dark blue dress clinging to her like the expanse of night clinging to the moon. Her teeth, stretched in a smile, were the white stars. Kevin Keller, sheriff's kid, bobbed in after her, followed by Josie McCoy.
"Hey," Sweet Pea said abruptly, cutting Toni and Jughead off mid-argument (they hadn't even noticed Veronica come in). "This is Swords and Serpents. It's a gaming club. You can't be here."
But Kevin Keller held up a board game and said, "We know it's the gaming club!" Fangs jerked awake long enough to look pleased about this, but the others just exchanged glances. All the others -- Sweet Pea, Toni, Jughead, Poughkeepsie, Grit, Possum, and Whitford.
This was for Serpents. Half of them had pulled off their stupid polos and were in undershirts. Fangs had his jacket out of his bag to cover his knees from the cold of the excellent, and seasonally-inappropriate, Northside air conditioning. The welcoming committee had been nice and all, but this club wasn't for kids like them -- it was for Southsiders.
But Veronica just fluttered lashes and manicured fingers at them, breezy about this.
"As Kevin says, we die for the chance to join your club."
"Or die at people knowing we're in it," put in Josie McCoy. "I mean. Not that I think it's too nerdy or anything. I just -- I need to diversify my friends' group. Support is running a little low."
"Is that an overture of genuine kindness or some attempt to reject your mother's upcoming 'no cozying up to Southsiders' reelection platform?" Jughead said. "Because, you know, Veronica here consigned us to being marked as social pariahs by our very clothing--"
"Rooted in the most genuine of charitable impulses, I assure you," Veronica said sharply. "It occurred to me only that some of you might not be able to afford the raiment we go in for here at fair Riverdale--"
"So why not give Toni some of your Gucci blouses, Veronica?" Jughead said.
Toni's hand locked on his arm.
"Down, Jones. It's nice to have new friends who look after our interests, if only in a deeply misguided way," she said, with a look around at all the others. No one corrected her, not even Jughead, though he did look away with a glower.
"Gucci hasn't made a decent blouse since their 2015 spring collection," Veronica said mildly. "But I do have some pants that could do the trick for Toni. With your curves, girl? To die for."
"Thanks," Toni said. She said it with mildness too, a mildness that looked simple and quiet and grateful, but that wasn't. The real Swords and Serpents members knew it wasn't. Even Jughead knew it wasn't. He looked back at her, suddenly eager, but she shook her head imperceptibly.
She wasn't grateful. None of them were grateful for the uniforms. Those did suck. But they had to make this place keep them, that was the problem. That was the problem because, like Jones said, there was still the another problem sitting right next to it. How to make this place theirs.
The politics of theirs could get pretty confusing. But when something was really yours, it was harder for people to take it away from you. For example, try snatching Fangs' grin. Toni's adaptability. The fact that Sweet Pea could get bio, could really get it, if he was just given half a chance to get it.
"Hey," he said suddenly. "Keller. Over here. We broke off to study for the bio test, but maybe you could show us that game of yours."
Fangs straightened up in his seat.
"Yeah!" he put in.
But Toni and Jughead were just staring at them. Sweet Pea shot them a significant look. He didn't have any Serpent-themed quotes or dramatic declarations he wanted to communicate with that look. He just wanted to communicate shut up and trust me and wait. It seemed to work, even on Jughead, because they were quiet long enough for Keller to come and sit by Fangs and start setting up his boardgame, launching enthusiastically into an explanation that contained way too many druids and alliances and kingdom takeovers.
Veronica Lodge, Sweet Pea noticed, looked briefly very pained by this even though she'd claimed to be interested in the gaming club. But Sweet Pea put that out of his mind.
"Hey," he told Kevin. "So, like, wrestling practice is next week, right? You trying out?"
He scrambled for an appropriately Riverdale High way to grease the wheels here.
"...bro?" he added, tacking it on.
Kevin gave him a look like Sweet Pea had had him confused with someone else. Fangs also looked annoyed.
"I have something of an interest," Kevin began haltingly, "but--"
"You can't call him bro. He's not a bro," Fangs insisted.
"Thank you!" said Kevin. "Wait, did Joaquin tell you that?"
Fangs looked coyly away. Kevin seemed slightly taken aback.
"Okay, well, yes I am trying out even if I don't seem like the type. You don't seem like the type, either, though--"
"Hey," Sweet Pea put in, with another significant look at Jughead and Toni. "Maybe I want to look the innocent jock, and just be. You know, man. A Serpent under it."
They discussed the plan at Sweet Pea's place, because Jughead lived in a cramped trailer with his extremely touchy dad, Fangs shared a basement room with his mom and grandma and two sisters, and Toni was frequently holing up god-only-knew-where. So it was the ugly little wood-paneled attic room above the bodega, with its one window tucked in a tiny alcove. Sweet Pea sat on his bed and massaged his temples, because he was annoyed, because Jughead had the floor. Jughead knew the most about Riverdale High. And he was kind of annoying about it.
"The holy grail of high school espionage," Jughead was saying, every word snapping out so crisply that it made no effort to mask his revulsion, "is the Bulldog jacket."
"Blue, gold, worn by every affluent douchey fratbro in a twenty mile radius," Toni said, from her perch on the overturned plastic hamper that sometimes served as Sweet Pea's desk. "We get it."
"No," Jughead said, holding up a finger dramatically. "You don't. The Bulldog jacket cements status, but it isn't given out to just anyone. If you aren't around for fall term tryouts, and you don't want to wait and try to make a good showing at spring term junior varsity tryouts, there's only one way to get it, at winter term tryouts--"
"So just tell us the tryout schedule!" Toni said impatiently.
"I know the tryout schedule," Sweet Pea said.
This Monday, wrestling. This Tuesday, basketball. Wednesday, water polo. Thursday, something called squash that apparently wasn't a fruit. Friday, fencing. Riverdale High offered a panoply of fancy sports that Sweet Pea had never before been offered, but that didn't mean he couldn't memorize a simple one-week schedule.
"You don't get it," Jughead said, and the twitchy white finger leveled itself at Sweet Pea. "Bulldogs status is most easily gained by making a football team in the fall or spring, and varsity football season is over, while junior varsity won't give us an opportunity until March. But if you make tri-var at any other point in the year, Clayton, by policy, automatically recruits you to the Bulldogs, no questions asked. He even gives you the jacket. But you have to make tri-var."
"Tri...var....?" Sweet Pea said. He looked at Toni and at Fangs, sprawled out on the floor by the closet. They both shrugged.
"Triple varsity," Jughead snapped out. "The athletic elite, recruited to not one but three varsity teams, the school's social and athletic one-percenters. It's never been accomplished in a single term. Sure, Jason Blossom was on varsity water polo and varsity squash one winter. But no one else has ever made three teams and received a Bulldog jacket by dodging football tryouts entirely. You'd be the first one to do it."
"He could do it," Toni said automatically. But she looked worried. Even Fangs looked worried.
"Sweets is, like, big. And sporty," he said. "He always kicked my ass in basketball."
"I should hope he did," Jughead said, shoving his hands in his pockets and giving the dingy brown carpet a look of terrible foreboding. "Because if you haven't noticed, basketball is going to be one of the easy ones. Wrestling, basketball, and water polo? Those are our best bets. Once we get into squash territory we need to find a way to buy fancy rackets--"
"Please tell me they don't hit fruit with the rackets," Sweet Pea muttered.
"--and do a crash course on what the sport is," said Jughead. "And fencing? That equipment costs a lot."
"Also," Toni said thoughtfully. "I'm not sure Sweets should get a sword."
"Holy shit," Sweet Pea said. "You get swords?"
He wanted a sword. The espionage thing was fine from where he was sitting, given how many tricks Reggie Mantle had played on them this week. But now he was in it for the sword.
He kind of felt like, after all his years in the Southside school system, they really sort of owed him the sword.
Fangs would be their backup, and Sweet Pea's support in the field. Fangs was easily convinced of this by the fact that his first job would be to show up at wrestling tryouts and make Sweet Pea look really good by letting himself get pinned, and Kevin Keller was also trying out for wrestling, so Fangs was into this.
Mostly into it.
"I'm gonna kick everybody's ass who isn't you," he decided. "Because if we both make the team, that's even better for the plan."
"I want to make the team also to make the team," Sweet Pea clarified.
He did. He knew it wouldn't be WWE, which he'd loved as a kid, because for one thing it seemed to involve a lot more protective covering for the testicles and weird helmets and unitards. But all these sports -- it was like he'd gone years with only the shittiest of snacks (and he had. Stale graham crackers and expired grape juice was all they'd offered at Southside elementary), only to one day open the pantry and find a goddamn five-star restaurant buffet.
He was going to try everything he could.
"Maybe I won't pin Kevin," Fangs decided. Then, after a second of thought, "Maybe I will."
"What is your deal with taking Joaquin's ex, Fogarty? I thought Joaquin was your best friend," Sweet Pea said.
Fangs looked affronted.
"He was my best frenemy, dude. He always made fun of me for not having my stripes, and he kept stealing the guys he knew I had a crush on."
"Who?" Sweet Pea demanded. He'd never heard of this, and he'd hung out with Joaquin a lot after Fangs had first introduced them and Joaquin had agreed to be recruited into the Serpents.
Fangs just stared balefully at him from under his lashes.
Even with Fangs being cagey, though, wrestling tryouts went well. Even with Reggie Mantle sneering and declaring that Southside scum should be banned from the team. Even with the ignominy of being defended by Andrews. Andrews' idea of defense was just to half-heartedly tell Reggie to cool it, and that was lackluster enough that Sweet Pea didn't feel too bad pinning him in the most brutal way that the stupid rules of the game would permit.
"That's the ticket!" said Coach Clayton, pumping his arm in the air. "This kid's got the fire!"
"Only in school-board-approved ways," Sweet Pea grunted. His knee was drenched in Andrews' sweat and Andrews' face was drenched in his and it was kind of violent and that was good because that way he didn't have to think about the weird intimacy.
"Dude," Andrews gasped out. "I think you're gonna make the team. Let me up now."
Sweet Pea did, because the Northsiders were watching and he didn't want to look like a problem. Problems probably didn't make the wrestling team. He even offered Andrews a hand up, since that probably scored him points with the gaggle of Vixens watching from the stands. Cheryl Blossom wasn't there, but Jughead's ex was, and so was Veronica Lodge, wearing glasses for some reason. They made a perfect moon out of her face. The man sitting next to her scowling at the tryouts looked a lot like her, with the same perfect brows, and Sweet Pea blinked at him a few times.
Someone clapped him on the shoulder. It was Coach Clayton's son, one of these Northside kids just like Veronica or Josie, the kind that almost smacked you in the face with their movie-star-polished good looks. Sweet Pea blinked at him, too.
"Hey," said Coach Clayton's son. "I just wanted to say, man. You Southsiders are really turning over a new leaf. I get that and I respect it."
"Thanks," Sweet Pea said, trailing off.
"Chuck," Fangs hissed at him, from where he was now circling around on the mat.
"Thanks, Chuck," Sweet Pea said.
Kevin, meanwhile, was taking advantage of Fangs' momentary distraction to pin him. Fangs went down with an 'oof' and a grin.
"You trying out tomorrow for something?" Chuck was now saying.
"Basketball," Sweet Pea offered, keeping it low so Reggie Mantle wouldn't hear.
"Hey! Me too," said Chuck. "Man, let's go grab some water and talk our odds. I can tell you who's gonna definitely make it this year."
Insider info from the coach's son was too good to pass up. Sweet Pea nodded. As they passed the stands on the way to the water cooler, he caught Andrews and Veronica Lodge talking low.
"Who, exactly, is this person I saw you with at Pop's? This Agent Adams, as he seemed to be calling himself?" Veronica was saying, her voice frosty.
It was none of Sweet Pea's business, but for some reason the voice caught hold of him and whirled around and around inside his mind until he shook his head, hard, to force it out and focus on what Chuck was saying.
Basketball was a breeze. It was gonna be a breeze. You didn't need much to play basketball, just a hoop and a ball, so it wasn't like he and Fangs were learning it for the first time. They'd always kicked ass together on the court behind the old shuttered-up steak joint on the Southside. Now they kicked ass on a fancier court here. This time, Jughead and Toni watched from the stands, Toni lounging with her legs splayed out and her wild hair splayed out too, Jughead with his fingers steepled like some kind of would-be-villain.
"I've certainly had to take more of an interest in sports than I ever have before," he muttered later, in the Swords and Serpents room, like he was the one who'd tried out. Sweet Pea stopped toweling off his hair long enough to look at Fangs. Fangs looked at Sweet Pea. Something about their looks must have said everything, because Jughead sighed and said, "Sorry. Look. I'm reworking everything I know about myself in a desperate effort to keep up some of what we had on the Southside--"
"We had us hanging out with you even though you're a nerd," Toni said, looking at him sympathetically.
Jughead looked affronted.
"Oh, so all that Serpent prince stuff--" he began.
"You wouldn't hang out with us until you got beat up, and you tried to get your boy Andrews to back you out of the gauntlet for a hot minute, and you trusted Penny so that she got blackmail on you, so that we had to deal jingle jangle," Sweet Pea said, fast, so he couldn't argue.
"You guys seconded all my plans!" Jughead argued anyway, like this erased all those other things.
"I thought it was nice that you had plans," Fangs said. The others nodded.
The overall resigned despondency of the Southside had meant that Jughead, who was a gloomy trip sometimes here on the Northside, had looked like a comparatively hopeful go-getter on the Southside. Sweet Pea wondered what that was like -- being the exact opposite of wherever you ended up, no matter where you ended up. No wonder Jughead had so many problems. Sweet Pea almost felt bad for him for like a second.
Toni clearly felt bad for him for more time than that, because she put a hand on his shoulder.
"We're still going to hang out with you. You're our nerd," she told him.
Jughead pressed his lips together until they were thin and bloodless, but his eyes weren't as stupidly furious as they'd been a second ago.
"I do want to stay a Serpent now," he said. "Really want it. Okay?"
They all nodded. Backing out of the Serpents was a hazy proposition for all of them. Jughead would learn that too, and probably the hard way, but for now Toni was shooting the other two a look that said let's not be dicks about it, so they all just sat for a minute in companionable silence.
"I...have had friends who were jocks before," Jughead said eventually, like he was trying to convince himself the whole team tryouts thing would not lead to complete calamity.
"Yeah. Andrews. And we broke his ankles today, man!" Fangs hooted, and then Sweet Pea was laughing and high-fiving him, because they really had, and a bunch of times, too. Mantle had been irritatingly good, but Andrews had been easy to beat.
But then someone cleared her throat. It was Veronica Lodge, standing in the shadow of the door, holding a pastry box. Everyone stared at her. Josie McCoy and Jughead's ex -- Betty? Betsy? -- poked their heads into the room too.
"I came a little early for gaming club, bearing the greatest pastries from Patisserie Chanson, just flown in," Veronica said grandly, "for someone I hear is a perfect Hercules at every sport he sets his mind to, despite now playing for Riverdale and not Southside High. Such broad-minded achievement should be celebrated."
Then she was presenting Sweet Pea with the box, and the vision of her and the gift and her beautiful teeth in their beautiful smile was hitting him in a quietly glorious way, like a slant of pearl-white moonlight. He stared at her. He took the box.
Veronica perched daintily on his desk. Josie followed, and took the seat next to Fangs.
"So," Veronica said. "Shall we play one of the many games Kevin's left for us, or shall we discuss how all of you are settling into Southside High? Or both? Maybe both."
"Uh, Jug?" said Betty-Betsy, coming into the room now. "I thought I'd join too, if that's okay?"
Spots of color had appeared in Jughead's cheeks.
"Um," he said. "You don't have to. Actually, I thought I'd join the Blue and Gold again, but then I didn't know if that would be comfortable for you, so I didn't, but you don't have to join my club just to -- I mean--"
Veronica raised a perfect brow.
"Why presume she has an ulterior motive?" she said. "Maybe we all just want to play games."
Wednesday was a disaster.
It was safe to say that, by then, Reggie Mantle was onto them, because on Wednesday the Swords and Serpents room had been graffitied top-to-bottom with some very ugly snakes no Serpent would have made half so ugly. Cheryl Blossom arrived at school early, because of course she did, and made sure to be the first one to find the graffiti. She did this with a dramatic scream and great swoosh of red capelet and red miniskirt, swoosh swoosh swoosh from the classroom that served as clubroom all the way to Weatherbee's office. Her shrieks could be heard even in the student lounge.
"I will not tolerate trailer trash gutter punks making a mockery of Riverdale High any longer!" she screamed. "Just because they're destined to die in squalor doesn't mean the rest of us should have to live with their filth!"
She was white-faced and triumphant when they were all marched into Weatherbee's office, even though Josie McCoy was trying to calm her and Veronica was trying to talk over her, proposing something about the Southsiders perhaps requiring club chaperones.
"What?" Jughead said. "No!"
"Mr. Jones, please," said Weatherbee firmly.
"Please what?" Jughead snapped, practically vibrating with rage. "Please don't be poorer than Cheryl? Please don't be weirder than her? Please don't be one of the kids you barely bother with?"
"Mr. Jones!" Weatherbee said, reeling back, and now Sweet Pea had visions of being banned from all school and felt he had to step in.
"Jones, c'mon," he hissed. Toni and Fangs were hissing it too.
"There will have to be repercussions for this," said Weatherbee, his mouth thin. "The culprit will have to be found. Until the culprit is found--"
"Fine," Jughead snapped. "I did it. Not any of them. Me. I did it because of that time Cheryl hit me, over a crime it turned out her dad did, and you made sure she didn't suffer any repercussions while I did. So I figured, why not some payback?"
He drummed his fingers on Weatherbee's desk, like a madman. Weatherbee stared at him in horror.
Jughead was suspended for the rest of the week and banned from all extracurriculars, including Swords and Serpents, for the term. As Weatherbee escorted him from the premises, Cheryl Blossom produced a tissue and dabbed theatrically at her eyes. They were satisfied eyes. The rest of her betrayed no emotion.
"Well, that's today's first agenda item off the list," she said, smiling coolly at Toni. Toni lunged, and it took all of Sweet Pea's reflexes to hold her back.
"You're vile, Cheryl," Veronica said, shaking her head.
"Whatever. Come on, Josie," Cheryl said. "You don't need to join the strapped for cash club. Come with me."
She flounced out. Josie stared at the Serpents, appearing for all the world like someone who wasn't sure she wasn't in over her head.
"Oh, come on," Toni snapped at her. "You know we didn't do it!"
"Cheryl wouldn't lie," Josie insisted.
"You know Betty Cooper, right? Betty, on the Vixens with you? You were with her yesterday?" Toni said. Veronica stared at her with interest, like this was going in a weird direction. It was. Everyone else stared too.
"He was planning on joining her newspaper club to be with her," Toni snapped. "Remember? He talked about it all last night. Last night, when we stayed late, and left late, and you all walked with us to Pop's and saw us cross the tracks. So why would he creep back in the night and jeopardize his plans to join the Blue and Gold with some vandalism? Vandalism prompted by Frau Nightmare of all people?"
Josie's mouth was a perfect 'o.' She said nothing for a moment, then beat a hasty, confused retreat from the room.
"I believe you," Veronica told Josie seriously. "Jughead and Betty? Total soulmates, girl."
Toni just shot her a tired look. That look was exactly how Sweet Pea felt, and it wasn't even first period yet.
By last period, he wasn't any less tired. The day had dragged its feet, stumbling from the bio test to a free period studying for next week's pre-cal quiz to far too many ugly looks from the Northsiders to count. During lunch, a girl named Tina Patel had stood and proposed that the Southsiders go eat by themselves in their ruined clubroom, and though Weatherbee had shut that up on Veronica's urging, the whole day had felt tense as a result.
Arriving at the pool only made it worse.
It was a really deep-looking pool.
"Dude," Fangs hissed at him, as they shivered there in their ratty swim trunks, clutching their assigned blue-and-gold swimming caps and black goggles, "I, uh, I'm not that strong a swimmer."
"I know," Sweet Pea hissed back.
"You're not that strong a swimmer."
There were no fancy pools on the Southside. There was only Crystal Lake, with its grassy shores crawling with ticks, and a brackish sort of pond by the quarry. And sure, people swam in those places, but it was probably fairer to say that people were dared into those places and then they regretted taking those dares, but if they were lucky they maybe learned to float and doggy-paddle a little bit.
"What's up?" Toni said, coming up behind them. Veronica came up behind her, because Veronica had been patiently keeping an eye on them all day, sometimes directing her various minions like Kevin Keller and Melody Valentine and Ethel Muggs to be friendly and welcoming to them. Only it was starting to feel less welcoming and more patronizingly annoying.
"This pool is deep," Sweet Pea pointed out to Toni, trying to ignore Veronica. That was hard, because she was staring at his bare chest like it interested her very much. Sweet Pea wasn't inhuman. This was a staggeringly awesome thing to have happen, awesome like seeing his name on the Varsity wrestling and Varsity basketball lists had been this morning. Or maybe even better than that. The rest of the day had ruined the sense of victory there, but he wasn't sure anything could ruin that frank, unembarrassed interest of hers.
Toni, meanwhile, was staring at the pool with her arms crossed and her face pale.
"It's not that deep," she said. "It goes to nine feet! You're so tall."
"I'm not nine feet tall."
"Well, you can swim!" she snapped. "I can't, and Fangs is terrible."
"He's also terrible," Fangs pointed out helpfully. Unhelpfully. No, maybe helpfully. Sweet Pea didn't want to get in the nine-foot pool.
"Alright boys!" said Coach Clayton, strolling in. "Look alive, Fogarty! Zhang-Peavey!"
Sweet Pea didn't even try to look alive.
"Maybe we should just...not do this and try tomorrow for squash,' he suggested.
"Jughead said--" Toni began.
"No offense, but fuck what Jughead said."
Fangs nodded rapidly.
"Squash?" Veronica was saying, in the meantime. "I can help you with squash. I'm positively stellar at squash--"
"What, they kicked you off the cantaloupe team?" Fangs put in. When Veronica looked at him strangely, he said, "I don't want to get in the water! Okay?"
"Getting cold feet, scum?" Reggie Mantle shouted at them from the other side of the pool. He mimed diving into the deep end. "Just pretend there's food stamps at the bottom."
Then he dived in, and it was a perfect dive. An absolutely perfect dive. Sweet Pea almost growled at it. He wanted to kill Reggie, except that he didn't because it might mean expulsion, and it would definitely mean drowning.
"Just try," Toni said, shoving him and Fangs at the little ladder on the kiddie end, with an astonishing degree of strength. "What are we if we don't try? Nothing."
The water was freezing. Their swimming skills were abysmal. And Reggie Mantle had organized almost every other swimmer in the water -- with the exception of Archie Andrews, who seemed to be halfheartedly on their side -- against them. Really against them. Balls-to-the-face against them. Tripping-them-so-they-flailed-wildly-in-the-water against them. Punching-and-dunking-them-under-when-Clayton-wasn't-looking against them.
When it was finally over, not only was it clear that they weren't making the team, but even Andrews was looking grim.
"That wasn't cool!" he said to Reggie, but Reggie just laughed and said, "Whatever, bro."
Andrews turned to Fangs and Sweet Pea, who Toni was frantically trying to pat down with some blue and gold towels.
"That wasn't cool," he told them. "I don't think that was cool."
"Great," Sweet Pea told him, through chattering teeth.
Andrews looked like he would say something else, but now he caught sight of someone sitting a little beyond them. Veronica. It was like nobody else existed. The special ed teacher who tutored both Sweet Pea and Andrews during Tuesday free periods had mentioned that Andrews had a problem with hyperfocusing.
"Ronnie," he began now.
Veronica stood up and approached Sweet Pea and Fangs like Andrews hadn't spoken.
"Come on, boys," she said. "Reggie is plainly going to only get worse in the locker room. I think you need a cool dose of Veronica Lodge to pave the way for you to the showers."
"What?" Sweet Pea said. "No. Weird. We're gonna just put our clothes on in the bathroom and shower at home."
"Like real men," Fangs put in. "Not interested in stripping naked in front of a strange young woman and also all their enemies."
Veronica actually stamped her foot. Andrews, who was still hovering around them, said, "Ronnie--"
"Let's just leave the two of you to do your thing," Toni said hurriedly, and pulled the boys away from the two of them. They backtracked to their lockers, defeated and devoid of hope for the first time since they'd transferred here. Toni stood guard outside the bathroom while the boys changed. She was biting her nails when they got out, looking stressed to the point of committing a murder.
That was when Veronica caught up with them.
"Who are you going to put forward for squash?" she said.
"What?" said Toni.
Veronica waved a hand at her. "Squash! It's abundantly clear that you're all trying for some kind of olive branch via team sports -- not a bad idea, by the way -- and as I'm downright incensed about this school's failure to quietly integrate in the name of progress, I've decided to help you. I can probably get one of you out of class all tomorrow morning on some pretense, but two might be stretching it. So who will I be training?"
"Me," Sweet Pea said at once, at the same time Toni said, "Sweet Pea."
Then he realized that he didn't want it to be him, because he didn't want to miss class, because the whole point of school was to not flunk out of class if you got the chance to, like, learn something.
But also he did want it to be him. He couldn't even explain why. Maybe he could. Veronica's hair was glossy and black, which had always been his favorite color but he'd never known why, and looking at her he could finally see why. It offset everything perfectly. It fooled you into thinking there wasn't much to look at, so that the careful arrangement of her face smashed into you harder and beat your reservations to a pulp.
Sweet Pea swallowed.
"Can we make it the afternoon?" he said. "I, uh, don't want to miss pre-cal."
They had to get up at an unholy hour to meet Jughead at Pop's and brief him about making two teams and definitely not making the third.
"Reggie and Cheryl," Jughead spat out, hitting the tabletop. "You know, serpents may have poison in their fangs, but those two have entire bodies saturated with it. They always have. That's just the spirit of Riverdale High, not that they'll tell you that."
His father came by. The others stared up at him a little fearfully, because he might be wearing an apron but he was still FP, but FP just started dispensing everybody's oatmeal and fruit cups.
"You wanna talk poison, boy," he told Jughead. "Poison is what you inject into my heart when you get suspended twice in a month."
Jughead's only response to this was to look magnificently self-righteous.
"I took one for the team," he said. "Any of these three would have done the same for me!"
Toni nodded and so did Fangs. Sweet Pea said, "sure," because he would do the same in like ninety-nine-percent of all the scenarios out there, but he wasn't going to pretend that sometimes context might interfere with Jughead's dreams of perfect Serpent loyalty. But now FP had his turn smacking the table.
"You wanna tread the path of the Serpents?" he said. "You gotta have the cunning of the Serpents, Jughead! Serpents strike back--"
"In his defense, we're trying," Sweet Pea said, but FP talked over him.
"--we're tricksters! Not scapegoats and pawns, boy."
"What?" Jughead said. "We're totally treated like scapegoats and pawns."
He had a point, but his father wasn't listening, and also a new group of customers had just walked in.
"You find a way to strike at the heart of this mess, to twist it to your favor so you can stay in school, or you're not the snake you think you are, Jughead," FP said. Then he strode away to seat the customers.
Jughead looked at his oatmeal like it contained all the injustices of society.
"You have to make tri-var," he told Sweet Pea. "My dad acts like I'm stupid now! My dad always thought I was smart!"
"My dad always thought I was a good kid with a nice heart," Fangs put in. "Still says it sometimes."
Jughead stared at him.
"He's been in prison for armed robbery for, like, five years," Fangs explained. "He doesn't know."
Before Jughead could respond to this, Toni cut in.
"Look, he has to make tri-var because your plan could benefit us all in lots of ways. A pipeline to the Bulldogs is critical. 'Integrating'--" here she made air quotes, "or whatever people want us to do? That's not a bad idea. We all want to stay at Riverdale High. We all have to stay at Riverdale High. And I need a way to get back at Cheryl Blossom. She's in my art class, and like. Talk about painful."
Jughead leaned back, nodding. So did Fangs. She was making some sense.
"Cool, cool, cool," Sweet Pea said. "So it's all on me, then."
By noon, Veronica Lodge had plucked him out of class and gently stuffed him into a limo. There was a chauffeur, some guy with a stupid hat. There was also champagne in an ice bucket hidden behind a panel in the back.
"This is for me, not for you," Veronica told him primly, helping herself to it. "You need to be at the top of your game today."
"You got, like, JJ under the seat cushions or something?" Sweet Pea asked her.
"Don't be ridiculous. That has never been my drug of choice. Rural uppers of dubious provenance are worth trying once, perhaps, but after that no more."
Sweet Pea thought about being questioned by Keller over some Northside kids who had tried the JJ and claimed the Serpents had forced it on them -- they tried it only once, because they're good kids, unlike you, Zhang-Peavey -- and liked her a little less.
Just a little. It was extraordinary, how you could admire and dislike and want something all once. Veronica Lodge, Riverdale High. Kind of the same thing from where he was sitting.
"Now, tennis and squash are very similar," Veronica began.
"Don't know how to play tennis," Sweet Pea said.
"So I'll explain," she said, rolling her eyes. "Let me get a word out, please, Hercules."
She explained tennis, and then she explained how squash was different, and Sweet Pea pretty much got the rules and the idea by the time they'd reached their destination, but he also got that this was the dumbest sport in the world, maybe, because it was just fancy indoor tennis played inside a little box.
"We'll have to first get you in court shorts and a more appropriate polo," Veronica was saying.
"I have polos. You made me wear stupid polos at school," Sweet Pea said.
Veronica looked very cheated in a very beautiful way.
"I was trying to help you settle in!" she said, as the car pulled to a stop.
Sweet Pea considered this.
"You didn't help," he offered. "You just made all the poor kids look like the outcasts we are, and took away our chance to look like ourselves."
So Veronica looked troubled when she dragged him into the Riverdale Country Club. Which was fine, because Sweet Pea felt troubled. It was the Riverdale Country Club. There was a stupid woman looking judgmentally at him at the front desk, the hallways had fancy paintings and the kinds of lights that were so highbrow they only shined if you matched them up with gilded sconces, and before he knew it Veronica was passing him off to some guys who actually did wrestle him into a new polo. Entirely against his will. And they took his turtleneck.
"You can't wear a turtleneck on the court!" Veronica said, when she heard him protesting.
"I can't flash my tattoo at school! Because of you Northsiders!"
"I'll put concealer on it or something before the tryout!" Veronica said. "Now hurry up! You only have a few hours to practice, and squash isn't like wrestling or basketball. It's a game of finesse."
It was mostly a game of hand-eye coordination, but Sweet Pea had that, even if he didn't have Veronica's long years of practice. They played singles, then doubles with the guys from the club, then singles again, and at first Veronica was beating him, but then he beat her enough times to win a match, and then his luck took a nosedive.
"Oh, not like that," Veronica said. She put her own racket down and came up behind him, wrapping her arms around him to show him how to swing. It was a stupid, ridiculous position, because it made him feel like he had to be about eighty times smaller than he was. Her hands were very small and she had to crane her neck a lot, and her soft breaths against his bicep made his own breath catch in a weird way.
"Uh, move," Sweet Pea told her.
He disentangled himself from her and fixed their positions, him holding her hands now, him holding her from behind now.
"Uh, like this?"
"What are you doing?"
Trying to learn how to swing the racket while not being crab-conquered by a gorgeous ewok, obviously. So obvious he didn't feel he needed to say it.
"Are you still with Andrews?" Sweet Pea said instead.
He was big enough to crane his head around and get a good look at Veronica's face, and so he saw her lift an eyebrow like she was amused.
"We've had some differences. I'm maybe in the mourning period every girl goes through when the love of her life has broken her heart."
"Love of your life? Andrews?"
"He's an inherently good person!" Veronica said.
Then she looked troubled again.
"Or I thought he was."
"Yeah, founding militias, pulling guns on people. Moral Orel, that one."
"You're in a gang," Veronica said. She moved to push his arm away, but stopped. Sweet Pea held his breath. After a few seconds she just danced her fingers over his forearm. Every touch was the lightest Sweet Pea had ever felt, maybe, and yet they all seemed to reverberate through him.
"You know, I think lots of people in this town, people who seem nice, well. They break up with their boyfriends and then two seconds later they're kissing somebody else," Veronica said.
"Sure," Sweet Pea offered, not wanting to jinx anything.
"I mean, I reference this because I want you to know this doesn't mean anything. I'm a big city sophisticate of terrible morals myself, as everyone keeps implying, from my closest friends to complete strangers who sink their clutches into my ex, so I am looking, strictly, for someone to balance me. You don't balance me."
"Super cool. Don't have an interest in doing that. Kind of do want to make out with you, though," Sweet Pea pointed out.
Sometimes to-the-point was the right call. She turned in his arms, almost gracefully, dropping the racket. She had to step on his feet to get her arms even close to his neck, and he let her, bending down so she could wind those arms around his neck properly.
He'd struggled through a book in English class, once, where a guy had talked about a money tree. A money tree with dollar bills for leaves and diamonds for flowers and gold in the trunk. But it just attracted people who kept killing themselves for it, and they died around the roots and that was what fertilized the tree. He'd thought by looking at Veronica Lodge that she would taste like that story, tantalizing to start, but with something darker at the root.
There was, for lack of a better term, a prowl in the way she kissed. Something confident and hungry. But it didn't leave you horrified. It just robbed you of thought, of anything but want. And when they broke apart, panting, and he collected his thoughts a little, he thought that prowl -- it wasn't calculated.
That was the thing with her. Everything else about her felt a little calculated. A little fake. Sweet Pea realized that now. But not the way she kissed, so there was something honest in her.
"Concealer's gonna rub off when I sweat."
"I have to wear my turtleneck," he said impatiently. "It'll look stupid. Mantle'll have a field day. But maybe not. Not if someone else is wearing a turtleneck too. Not if it's Northside fashion."
Her eyes widened, and then he was tracing kisses down her neck and latching on there, hungry himself.
"Tell me if you hate this," he said, pausing before really applying himself to it.
"Hate the time and tested symbol of makeout dominance?" Veronica managed. "Please. I get to do you if you do me, though."
He wasn't a shoe-in for squash. He wasn't not a shoe-in, either. He honestly had no idea whether he'd make the varsity team, despite Toni and Fangs cheering him on and Veronica hissing at them to stop because one didn't shriek and cheer during squash matches.
Kevin Keller beat him twice, so Kevin was definitely making the team, but he was also so nice about it and so excited about hanging out later and playing games that Sweet Pea didn't see the point in getting mad about it.
Veronica did in fact wear a turtleneck, though Sweet Pea had no idea how she'd found one. And she looked at him appreciatively and raked her nails along the skin where his polo rode up above the waistband of his shorts. Toni and Fangs stared at him very pointedly over it.
"Well, I hope Veronica Lodge has been a help," she said breezily.
"She has," said Sweet Pea.
"Let me know if I can do more," she said.
There was a half-second before she walked away when he considered it, and another half-second when he shook his head at Toni and Fangs to keep them from considering it.
More help? No. No. He couldn't figure out why. He sort of could. He was thinking of that money tree, the one that the real Veronica wasn't like, probably, but then that was the problem. She wasn't being the real Veronica. He didn't know how he knew that, but he did know. The knowledge felt natural and familiar, like the blood in his veins.
"Sweets," Fangs said, after she'd walked away. "What are you -- you're gonna have to try for fencing, man, and we don't have fancy swords and stuff, and she probably does--"
"Actually," Toni cut in. "I think I know someone else who can help us with that."
Somehow, Toni had gotten through to Josie McCoy. Probably because Josie McCoy was desperate for friends, because her old friends had ditched her. Fangs explained this to them on the way to the music room on late Thursday night.
Jughead, who had snuck into school to join them, looked at Fangs oddly.
"How do you know all this?"
"Ethel Muggs," Fangs reported. "She's kind of my friend now. Well. Frenemy. I think she's into Kevin because I'm into Kevin."
"I know that, but Ethel seems to like hopeless causes. You don't even want to know who she had a crush on before," Fangs said, in a tone that suggested he really wanted to be asked about exactly that.
But Jughead just said, "Great, you're bonding with Kevin and Ethel, Toni's bonding with the daughter of the Mayor--"
"Hold up," Toni said, throwing up a snake-ring-bedecked hand, because they were after hours and could finally be themselves. "People make new friends. You made friends with us."
"Andrews called us thugs when he did, though. Andrews acted like a total dick about it," Sweet Pea reported, mostly just to make sure they were all on the same page about Northside connections being a blend of both good and bad.
But Jughead just went, "Exactly!" like Andrews was somebody to emulate.
"They all think we're thugs. We knew that coming in," Fangs said.
"I don't care that he thought I was a thug. I care that he said it like he doesn't tag people's property and wave guns around by their houses. The thug double-standard is what gets me here. I'm not being defensive. I'm being analytical of the implications of his position."
By now they'd reached the music room. Toni stopped before the door and whirled around to face the boys, hair flying. She clasped her hands together and stared at the ceiling for a few seconds before speaking.
"We are going to be nice to Josie now. Yes, she's the daughter of a power-hungry public failure to represent Riverdale's most vulnerable constituencies, a woman who literally had us arrested for no reason--"
"And we should say that," Jughead cut in.
"What?" Toni said. "No! No, Jughead. We should not say that. Her nice daughter, who isn't her any more than you are FP, is going to help us, so we should not say that--"
"All your social instincts are super bad," Sweet Pea told him.
"What -- because I'm honest?" Jughead snapped. But then he stopped and bit his lip, and said, "Right. Path of the Serpent. Cunning, not -- not merely truth-telling. Path of the Serpent."
"Path of the common sense," Toni said, patting his arm.
She turned to the door. Before she could open it Josie did so, from the other side. Her face was very uncertain, like she'd been standing there for a few seconds at least.
"Uh," Toni said.
"Hi," said Josie. She laughed uncomfortably.
Toni said, "How long were y--"
"Standing here? Oh. Um. Not long," Josie said, in a very unconvincing tone.
Jughead's face was mulish, like he was certain they hadn't done anything wrong, which was fine because they hadn't, but was also less fine because maybe he'd point out that they hadn't and then Josie wouldn't want to help them. But he didn't say anything as they trooped into the music room. And Josie had to be pretty lonely and desperate for friends, because she let them troop in and mostly just stood to the side for a few seconds, clasping her fine-boned hands together and looking at all the instruments, not at them, with huge eyes.
"You know, my mom went through a lot--"
She broke off when she saw Jughead's face. Actually, she broke off like she was gonna amp up her tone to a more snappish one, but then after Jughead's face she caught sight of Toni's face, and so she amended, went lower instead of higher.
"I did some JJ, okay?" she said. "I'm not proud--"
"Total gutter drug. Understandable," said Toni.
"Serpents are a JJ-clean squad, FYI," Jughead said, putting a leg up on a piano bench and leaning over his knee, the action somehow so theatrically menacing that it came back around and appeared un-menacing in the extreme. "Free of all hard drugs. That stuff rots the brain."
He pointed at his brain to emphasize the point.
Josie blinked at him. "Are you guys a gang or a DARE commercial?"
"If we do do drugs, we're not gonna tell the daughter of the mayor," Sweet Pea pointed out.
"I don't do drugs anyway," Fangs said. "I don't even smoke. That's why my skin's so good."
No one corrected him. His skin really was very good. After a few seconds of quiet, Jughead spoke up.
"So," he said. "Fencing tomorrow. Sweets is trying out for as many sports as he can, since we didn't get much of that at Southside High, and he just has his heart set on fencing. Really wants a sword. Toni tells us you can help with that. Assuming you aren't working with your old pal Reggie and planning to give us faulty equipment--"
Josie's hand flew up.
"Hold up. Old pal? Reggie Mantle and I are dubious makeout acquaintances at best--"
"Hate him, but that's the best kind," Sweet Pea put in, thinking of Veronica.
"--and I have no dog in this anti-Southside crusade, okay? I've literally spent my whole life making sure I have no dog in stuff like this. Because when I do JJ, my mom loses it, and other people suffer. I get it! I get where I stand, Jughead, because where I stand has to be above everything--"
"The very top of the social ladder. Nice place to have to be, even if it must get lonely," Toni said in a mild tone, from her place by a bookcase in the corner. She was turning a folded-up piece of paper over in her hands, something she must have picked up in the past few minutes.
Josie stared at her.
"Look, despite our evident class divides, we're not gonna go all 'sins of the mother' on you, okay?" Toni said. "Not even Jughead, I promise. I got my grandpa to vote for your mother--"
"I campaigned for her. In hindsight, not a great choice," Jughead said.
"But the best choice of a bad lot," said Toni smoothly. "Nobody likes the Southside. Not any mayoral candidate. Not anybody with the power to hurt us. That's what we're up against. So like. Please help us?"
She smiled a little uncertainly.
Toni wasn't like the rest of them. She didn't get into fights as much, she watched more. On the Southside it made her the odd one out, but now that they'd crossed the tracks it seemed to make sense to follow her lead. The Northside wasn't going to do them any favors if they didn't come at this carefully, smartly, sweet. Sweet Pea had never actually been sweet before, but he was starting to think he'd have to live up to his name for once.
"If you give me a faulty sword I could get stabbed and killed and that would suck so hard and my mom and stepdad would be really sad," he said.
That was more pathetic than sweet. Maybe he needed more practice. Damn.
"Stabbed?" Josie said. "Killed? Okay, do you know anything about fencing? Here, you --" she gestured at Fangs, "--pick up that bag. Yes. And the helmet. It's the beekeeper-y thing. And there's the rest of the gear over there in the corner. It might be a little small. It's my dad's--"
"See, she's giving us her father's equipment," Toni said, with a nod at Jughead.
"Yeah, well, I'd sign away my dad's organs if I could," Josie said. Then she seemed surprised that she'd said that, and looked a little anxiously around at all of them. Like they were going to judge her. Which they weren't.
"My bio dad skipped town," said Sweet Pea.
"Mine's dead and gone, and trust -- that's probably the best resolution," said Toni.
"I love mine, but he's doing ten-to-fifteen years," said Fangs.
"I also love mine." Jughead said, but he said it in a strangled kind of way. With a dad like FP it was probably hard to figure out where love ran into disappointment. Jughead could get almost manic about how FP was a king among the Serpents, but praising him as a gang leader wasn't exactly praising him as a father, and they all knew that.
"Didn't he--" Josie began.
"He's trying to be a good parent, even if he's not a great public figure," Jughead said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself.
"Well, that's how I feel about my mom!"
They glared at each other for a few seconds. This wasn't getting them anywhere.
"Princess McCoy," Sweet Pea cut in, desperate to get them all back on track. "Please teach me fencing. Please."
He got down on his knees, because Jughead wasn't the only one who could do outsized drama with a gesture, and clasped his hands.
"Look at him. Please teach him," Fangs said quickly.
"Yeah. He needs you," Toni said.
Josie was apparently not immune to flattery, because even if she'd been pissed a second before, now she smiled a little.
"Okay, well. Begging will get you everywhere. The first thing they'll probably drill you on tomorrow is rules for each of the three styles. See, the whole thing varies, based on whether you're going to be classed as a foil fencer, a saber fencer, or an epee fencer..."
She fell into demonstrations, which were pretty easy to pick up. Weirdly, Jughead joined in and picked up everything as quickly as Sweet Pea did, even if he was now banned from trying out for the team. Fangs tried and tripped over his own feet, so he ended up just leafing through some music sheets in the corner, apparently teaching himself to read music. Josie kept breaking off the impromptu fencing practice to assist him with that, like she just couldn't help herself.
Toni kept folding and unfolding that piece of paper, and looking wryly at Josie like she was trying to figure something out.
They called it quits close to midnight. Josie turned away from them at the school's main exit, heading towards the manicured terraces of Mayor's Row. Before she could vanish into the night, Toni put a hand on her arm.
"Hey, I think this is yours," she told Josie, holding up the piece of paper. It was a picture of Josie, a really good picture, but what was written on it was honestly terrifying.
"Woah," Jughead said at once. His eyes were now bright and feverish, crazed with a sudden need to find answers. Jughead took to creepy the way sharks took to blood. "Do you have some kind of stalker?"
"Mr. Svenson was supposed to get rid of that!" Josie said, looking dismayed. "Or give it to the sheriff or something--"
"Mr. Svenson? The guy the sheriff shot in the back even though he was unarmed?" said Toni, with a sideways glance at the others to show what she thought of that.
"He was the Black Hood!" Josie said.
"Right. Sorry. The guy you were all traumatized by when it turned out Weatherbee was employing a serial killer," Toni amended.
None of them mentioned that cops arresting you in your school for the sins of the Northside was at least as traumatic as that. Josie looked upset enough already. But Sweet Pea thought they must all be thinking it. It was kind of written on everybody's faces. Jughead especially seemed to be taking colossal effort to hold his tongue.
"I thought it was Chuck who'd drawn that, but maybe I was wrong," Josie was saying, wringing her hands. "Maybe it was actually Mr. Svenson--"
"I've seen this," Toni said abruptly. Josie stared at her.
"Not this-this," Toni amended. "But like. This exact style. I swear to god. I swear there's stuff in the art room that looks a lot like this."
"We need a list of everyone who takes art," Jughead said quickly. "Main office. We have to get the school secretary to give that up, or else shadow the art room until we have all our suspects."
He sounded like a completely different Jughead than their Serpent Jughead, more genuinely purposeful, just as dramatic but somehow less annoying. Sweet Pea stared at him. So did Josie.
She said, "If someone who takes art right now drew this, then maybe it isn't Svenson. Maybe it is Chuck."
"Chuck is the kid who spends every elective period in the religion and moral philosophy classroom?" Toni said. "Yeah, he tried to recruit me into his church on my first day here. It's not him. He doesn't take art. Trust me."
"Then the stalker could be anybody!" Josie said, voice climbing up fearfully.
Jughead pointed a finger-gun at her, the action ridiculous and yet somehow simultaneously passionate and committed.
"If you really are helping us, and you haven't thrown in any tricks to make Sweets look bad in front of Reggie Mantle? Then we'll find you your stalker, Josie. The Serpents -- Swords and Serpents club, that is -- we'll have your back if you have ours. Loyalty is our byword just as much as cunning is."
"You'll help me find out who he is?" Josie said. "Really?"
"For a nominal fee," Fangs said. When Jughead whirled on him, he said, "What? We're poor! She's loaded! And we have to study for the math quiz next week. This will take away from studying, so I want some compensation for it."
"One sec, Josie," Toni said. "We should have discussed this before putting forward the services of the whole gang."
She rolled her eyes at Jughead, and then the four of them fell into a huddle to hash out what felt like a fair compromise.
It was decided that the invite-only investigatory arm of Swords and Serpents (Citizen Roleplayers Involved in Making Enquiries, or CRIME, because Jughead's approach to subterfuge seemed to involve spitting in the face of subterfuge) would offer their services to first-time customers for free. Assuming those customers agreed to promote the services of the unit in a positive and friendly manner to other interested parties who could be brought around to the Serpent cause, and did not ever betray the Serpents to Cheryl or Reggie Mantle.
Josie, after a surprisingly short amount of deliberation, agreed to this.
She did not set them up to fail.
That was a relief, because making the fencing team -- that was probably their last chance to get Sweet Pea boosted into the Bulldog inner circle, the upper echelons of Riverdale High. But Sweet Pea didn't even process the relief because, for the first time this week except for in those scattered moments at the country club with Veronica, he was too busy enjoying himself.
Saber fencing was fast, aggressive, and relentless. It required split-second decision making. It was cool. Within two seconds of Coach Clayton divvying them all up for the first bouts, everybody could tell saber was the coolest, because it even sounded the coolest.
"Oh my god," Sweet Pea said, pulling off his helmet after besting Andrews, who did put up a good fight. "This is great. This is awesome. I want saber."
"Hang on, hang on," said Coach Clayton, coming up behind him. "You've got the lightning, Zhang-Peavey, but you strike me more as an epee man--"
"I'd rather die."
Coach Clayton waved him quiet.
"A good saber fencer can't transition, Zhang-Peavey. You've gotta think long term. Foil, epee, there's a lot more precision in that. You learn the precision, the cunning, and then you move to saber, and by the time you get there you need no introduction. You've made your name and honed your ability by working on skills, not just aggression."
He was making valid points, but Sweet Pea couldn't consider them fully, because Reggie Mantle was descending on them with a howl of rage, pulling off his own helmet.
"Why are you talking like he's already made the team?"
Coach Clayton looked at him guilelessly.
"Don't ask me stupid questions, Mantle," he said. Then something caught his eye and he was striding away. "Hey! Doiley! No aiming for the face!"
Sweet Pea was left between a furious Mantle and a panting Andrews.
"You know about the tri-var rule, you thug," Mantle said, shoving him. "Holy shit. Who masterminded this? Jones?"
Archie Andrews flicked his head up, a forelock of red hair falling into his eyes.
"That's what this is about, Reggie? You not wanting any of them to make Bulldog via tri-var? You're unbelievable."
"I'm Bulldog captain," Reggie said. "Not you. And if you think I'm going to ever play this Southside worm on the football field, you have another thing coming, Andrews--"
Andrews straightened up.
"You know what, Reggie? You're only captain because I turned it down, because I thought you deserved it more, but maybe I was wrong," he said. His reedy voice was suddenly going hard, the way Jughead's had when he'd considered investigation. It almost seemed to suggest that, just as there was a Northside Jughead inside their Southside Jughead, there was maybe a sleeker, meaner Andrews inside of Archie Andrews.
Sweet Pea blinked at him.
"Well, you did turn it down, Andrews!" Reggie hooted. "So what the hell are you gonna do?"
"You bench him without even giving him a chance to prove himself, you're not getting me on that field, and good luck keeping some of the other guys from following my lead," Andrews snapped out.
Sweet Pea couldn't exactly say that he didn't care about whether he played football or not, as long as he had an in with the Bulldogs. And he'd made out with Andrews' girlfriend like four seconds after they'd broken up, which in hindsight wasn't a move calculated to make him look like anything less than a dick if he now pretended to like Andrews. So he just stayed quiet as Reggie sneered at them both.
"Have fun setting up a conscientious objector crew of losers, then, Andrews. Your own little gang. You're no better than this trash--"
Okay. No. Now Sweet Pea was getting pissed off.
"He did set up his own gang, and you were in it," Sweet Pea snapped back. "Andrews is gonna tank you. I bet people like him way better than they like you."
Andrews looked at him, surprised.
"Thanks! Wait, it wasn't a gang--"
"I think I know more about gangs than you," Sweet Pea told him. "It was enough like a gang that I'm upgrading you from stupid shirtless assholes to gang. And I thought you were doing it to be a Northside prick, but you're not a Northside prick. You're like Jughead, an equal-opportunity prick. I respect that."
Reggie stared at both of them, his handsome features twisted with rage.
"Yeah, because you're both goth topic's little minions. Well, tell that weaselly walking bag of creep factor that he's got another thing coming if he's trying to infiltrate this school's time-honored tradition of team sports!"
He stomped away. Andrews stared after him.
"Infiltrate? What's he talking about? You're just good at sports."
"Ha," Sweet Pea said. "Ha. Ha. Yeah. Like all this is some kind of attempt at high school cross-class cross-clique spying. That's. That's so stupid, man. It's definitely not that."
The results for water polo were posted late Friday. Sweet Pea's name wasn't on any of those lists, not on JV and definitely not on Varsity, though Fangs by some miracle did make JV. He'd also made JV wrestling and Varsity basketball, which earned him some very appreciative looks from Northside girls that he completely ignored. He did grin like a loon when Kevin Keller said, "Not a bad showing, Richard Cromwell Fogarty."
Veronica said, "You too, Sylvester."
No one ever called Sweet Pea that. Sweet Pea had personally menaced every single other person over the age of thirteen who had ever tried. So now he tried to understand how he could be so annoyed at someone and yet simultaneously find them so magnetic. She knew his real name. Everybody knew his real name, because it was the name he was registered under and it had been going up on lists since Wednesday. But only this use of it felt significant, felt like a note played on a piano in a quiet room, suddenly throwing all the quiet into sharp relief.
You know my real name and I think I kissed a real you, he thought.
It had been a shitty thing to do to Andrews, maybe, not that he cared or owed Andrews anything. But it had not been a shitty thing to have happen to him. He thought about that all Friday night, and fell asleep thinking of that in his too-small bed, pretending he wasn't wondering what it would be like to have a too-small person in there with him, making it smaller.
They had to wait for the squash and fencing lists to be posted on Monday. That made the weekend anxious for all of the Serpents.
"What if Reggie does something?" Jughead said, when they were all gathered at the Wyrm during Toni's Saturday morning shift, which she usually spent gently pulling empty glasses out of the fists of passed out alcoholics. She was doing now. Jughead picked up the drunk's elbow with an ease that seemed borne of practice, so that she could get at the glass better while the drunk snored.
Then Jughead continued. "What if Reggie or Cheryl takes these next two days to do something? Something bad?"
"Okay, well, I thought of Cheryl," Toni said. She started washing the glass. It continued to look grimy despite her gallant efforts, because slightly grimy was unfortunately the whole Southside aesthetic. "Josie's friends are friends with her despite not being friends with Josie anymore, which is a weird little setup when you think about some of the stuff she tells all those girls about each other. So I may have suggested -- uh. Well. Let's just call it a Mean Girls campaign of three-way phone calls."
Jughead looked uncomfortably impressed.
"You're taking to Riverdale High politics quick, Toni." He grimaced, like he was holding something back. "All too quick, some might say, but I guess in my book the moral righteousness of your goals lifts you above judgment."
"Thank you," Toni told him, dipping the soapy glass in his direction. "Doesn't solve Reggie, though."
Fangs was eating a pack of sour candy for breakfast, but stopped long enough to say, "Mmm. I'm not worried about Mantle. Moose Mason told Kevin that Moose is gonna surprise Midge Klump with a birthday party at Pop's today, but Midge Klump told Ethel that she's going there at the same time on a date with Reggie. I told Ethel I was going to try and get Trev Brown to go to the Bijou with me, but I lied. I just want her focus on Trev. I'm going to Pop's with Kevin to watch the Moose-Midge-Mantle fiasco go down."
Everyone stared at him.
"This is why you make friends," he told Jughead, tossing him a sour candy. Jughead caught it, looking startled. Fangs continued. "Entertainment and information. This is why you make friends."
"Yeah, I feel like you want more than friends from Kevin," Sweet Pea put in.
Fangs turned an innocent look on him.
"He just broke up with Joaquin only a few months ago. I'm not gonna shove my tongue down his throat before I know he's over that. I'm not some kind of horny teen stereotype who jumps at the first opportunity to make out with somebody newly-single."
Sweet Pea looked away, and in his looking away he caught Jughead and Toni looking away too, which was fine because maybe if they all looked away then nobody would start asking questions about why his ears must be going red.
"So what are you doing today, Jughead?" Toni said, her voice high for some reason. "Betty? I mean, hanging out with Betty?"
"She needs some help obtaining some old records on a canceled adoption," Jughead said. "It's, uh, family stuff. We're going to be questioning some nuns. It's good practice for the McCoy case, since my skills have been getting rusty lately. You?"
"Well, I could go see if my cousins want me over tonight, or I could, I was thinking, take advantage of Riverdale High's excellent facilities and move in there for a bit--"
"My mom'll let you sleep in the stockroom," Sweet Pea said, at the same time Fangs said, "If we can take Sally to her dad's, we might have a bed for you," and Jughead said, "My dad doesn't care if you come by the trailer--"
Toni waved them all off. "Sleeping among cans hurts my neck, leave Sally at home, and Jones? I like you and your dad but the pall of overemotional masculinity that hangs over the both of you sometimes isn't gonna lift on my account, so thanks but no thanks. There's a hall closet I have my eye on that'll work for the weekend."
Jughead's face tightened.
"Under the stairs?"
"That's the one."
"It's not foolproof. People come in in the mornings, earlier than you'd think, so if you want to shower at school--"
"You guys know I tried out yesterday for girls' soccer, right?" Toni said. "Before running to catch you all at fencing. And I'm pretty sure I'm going to make the soccer team."
They all stared at her.
"If I shower at school, as far as anybody else knows, I'm just there early to get a leg up on practice," Toni said, smiling at them. Then she added, "Besides. If I'm at school more often, I can keep an eye on anything Reggie and Cheryl might try even despite all the drama they'll be facing this weekend. And I can watch the art room and maybe catch our stalker. I have an inkling of who it is, but I want the facts to be airtight."
She winked for some reason, and finally put her glass down. It was a cleaner glass than a dirtier one now and they all stared at it, probably all of them trying to decide if more clean than dirty constituted a win. That was what Sweet Pea was trying to figure out, anyway.
"Hello?" came a familiar voice, intruding into the gloom of the bar like birdsong breaking into a bunker.
Veronica. Navy tweed with a crisp white collar and a pearl droplet, painted in preppiness, the kind of presentation that probably let her walk into rooms and say, "I'll take the universe to go, please."
But the Whyte Wyrm wasn't much of a universe. Here she just looked attractively incongruous, a piece that didn't fit the scene, like she and her friends had been on the night of FP's retirement party. She blinked around at everything like she was trying to remember if she'd seen it before or if it was just too dirty to tell,
Kevin Keller had also walked in, but Sweet Pea almost hadn't noticed.
"Oh, hey, there's the creepy snake I remember," he said, pointing at the gang snake. "And all the other...other snake stuff."
Fangs pushed off his stool and stretched, satisfied and catlike, probably just to show off his body. "Hey, man. We've got like an hour until we were supposed to meet, I thought."
Kevin was enjoying the greeting too much to respond right away, so Veronica cut in.
"Kevin mentioned you were heading to Pop's. A definite hangout spot upgrade, I should say," she said, still taking the Wyrm in. "I thought I would come along with him to see how my favorite new transfers are getting along--"
"Very happy to be in our own clothes," Jughead said, picking up the bag of sour candy Fangs had left behind and absorbing himself in finishing it.
"I have to work," Toni put in now. "So I guess I won't be much company if we're going to try and talk roleplaying games or--"
"Kev and I should really go to Pop's now, before the lunch rush, bum some milkshakes off FP if we can," said Fangs.
"Can we?" Kevin asked, fascinated.
"Nah, we'll ask and he'll yell at us," Fangs said. "But it's worth a try."
"I'm with Betty today," Jughead said, in a tone that seemed to suggest that anyone pulling him away from Betty today would face a Jughead Jones meltdown of epic proportions.
"Well, then Hercules and I can hang out," Veronica said smoothly. "Can't we? You don't have plans today. You have to rest from this week's grueling Riverdale High Athletic Games, no doubt."
"I'm just gonna be helping my parents out," Sweet Pea said, shrugging.
Veronica clapped her hands together.
"Bonding among the elusive Zhang-Peaveys? Do take me along. I promise I'm quiet as a mouse and much less pesky, and I'd expire if I lost the chance to meet the people behind Riverdale High's newest athletic--"
"Bro," Jughead put in pessimistically.
"Jock," Veronica corrected. "And I mean that in a good way. I do like a good jock."
She held out a hand. Sweet Pea wanted to take it, and if it was just him he would have taken it, but it wasn't just him. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it wasn't just him. He was a Serpent. He looked at the others. Jughead looked nauseated and Fangs looked mostly at Kevin, but Toni had picked up a grimy glass and was turning it slowly in her hands. It took Sweet Pea a second to realize she'd traced words into the grime. She was trying to make sure he could read them all.
For now? An ally.
Jughead leaned over the bar now so that he was practically on top of Sweet Pea, a gesture bizarre enough that it looked totally normal for Jughead. He added his own message to the dirty countertop, making it look like he was just running twitchy fingers over everything.
Too friendly. It's weird.
Then he looked up, considered something, and added.
I'm not just saying that because I'm me.
He was right, though. Sweet Pea thought he was right. But you didn't extract yourself from the really puzzling problems by stomping away from them -- they just cropped up another day when you did that. So instead of moving away from Veronica Lodge he figured he'd meet her. He stood up and nodded at her.
"Alright mouse. Let's ride."
Jughead coughed something into his mouth. It sounded like, look the innocent jock, but be the--
But Sweet Pea was striding out, already doing just that.
Not much could be said to recommend the tatty upstairs apartment that housed the Montez-Zhang-Peavey clan. Not unless you liked broken window screens, peeling paint, uneven floors, and a strictly enforced shoes-off-at-the-door policy that kept the dingy carpets in the two attic bedrooms from becoming even dingier. Sweet Pea ushered Veronica inside, noting that she looked like one of those pulp heroines Jughead and Toni were always making fun of, the kind that posed on movie posters with expressions that indicated they were prepared to find something dreadful in the cave of Ten Thousand Evil Spider Gods.
She would, but not what she was expecting. There were only three evil gods, limbs too short and stubby and not numerous enough to count them as spiders, and they were rolling around on the living room's pull-out couch, which no one had bothered to put back into the form of a couch again.
"Off!" Sweet Pea ordered. "Off! What the hell, you three? You're supposed to start putting your bed away first thing in the morning."
They proceeded to scream and fight this process every step of the way, because of course they did. Veronica stood in the narrow entry hall and watched them yell and bounce and produce all kinds of questions like who's she? and is she your girlfriend? and why's she with you?, which Sweet Pea ignored because he was busy folding up the pull-out, putting the couch cushions back, and stacking the triplets' pillows inside the hamper on top of the dog crate. Sheriff whined at him. Sweet Pea's mother floated down the cramped stairway to the attic.
"Oh, Bruno was going to take her out," she said. "But I guess I have to. It's fine. You're here now. Dishes, okay?"
"Okay," said Sweet Pea.
"Dishes?" Veronica said, like she was attempting to process too much at once.
"That's this thing we do where we wash our dishes," Sweet Pea told her over his shoulder, as he folded a sheet that had Spongebobs all over it. He didn't know why he was explaining. It was a pretty simple concept.
"Who's this?" said his mother.
Veronica rallied admirably from her earlier bout of frozen shock at the sight of the triplets. Now she was painted in a radiant smile.
"Veronica Lodge, at your service," she said, holding out a hand.
"Veronica Looge?" said his mother, who had perfect hearing and even better diction, but who was now looking at Sweet Pea like something smelled off here.
"Lodge," Veronica corrected.
Sweet Pea's mother took her outstretched hand gently, briefly. She smiled back and said, "Violet Zhang. Make yourself at home. I'm sorry. I have to walk the dog. Sweets is going to be washing dishes, and then, Sweets, I have some beans I just rinsed, so."
She mimed breaking green beans. Sweet Pea nodded. He finished folding the sheets and then beckoned for Veronica to join him in the narrow kitchen. She had more trouble than he did getting over the baby gate.
"Sorry," he told her. "That's for the dog. And the triplets."
"How old are they?" she said, patting down her hair. The triplets were now screaming something at the TV, not at her, but she was reacting to them in the appropriate way, which was with consternation. Toni seemed to like them, despite calling them tireless little abominations, and that worried Sweet Pea.
"Five," he said.
"They're --" Veronica began, as he rolled up his sleeves and starting in on the dishes, "-- your mother is --"
"Small," Sweet Pea offered. His mom was Toni-sized. Bruno was Toni-sized. The triplets were even smaller than Toni-sized, but someday they would probably be the full-sized vicious gremlins the universe intended them to be. "I get all my height from my dad, I think, but I haven't seen him since I was younger than the triplets are."
Veronica nodded, and somehow her expression told him this was closer to what she had predicted for him, which, actually, was kind of insulting. Sweet Pea stared at her. She didn't seem to realize she'd given her thoughts away, though.
"I have to admit, Hercules, not quite what I expected. I thought the Zhang-Peaveys would be more like the Joneses."
"What?" Sweet Pea said. "White? Why would you think that?"
Veronica blinked at him like he'd said something incomprehensibly rude, which he totally hadn't.
"Possessed of a strong commitment to reptilian branding," she said, after a few seconds.
"You assumed my mom and siblings would be Serpents?" Sweet Pea said.
Of course his mom chose this second to walk back in, because Sheriff Keller wasn't a big dog and she hardly ever really wanted to walk, just pee in the lot across the way. Sweet Pea's mother let her loose among the triplets, despite the very high probability that they would terrorize her.
"Mom!" Sweet Pea said. "You've gotta put her in my room."
"I'm not putting Sheriff Keller in your room. You know what she does to carpet?"
"Sheriff Keller?" said Veronica.
"This bitch," said Sweet Pea's mother with relish, pointing at the dog. "Hey, I'm gonna go fold laundry. Bruno'll be up once Max gets in to mind the store. You can make him do the beans if he wants. He eats them too."
Veronica was still stuck on the dog.
"You named your dog after Sheriff Keller?"
Sweet Pea's mother looked at her quizzically.
"You know how many times that rotten scumbag has arrested my son? Just because he has some tattoos and likes leather jackets?"
"Okaaaaay," Veronica said slowly, "but your son is in--"
"A much better school now," Sweet Pea said quickly, shooting her a warning look.
His mom clasped her hands over her heart.
"Like he deserves!" she said. "You know why his friends all call him Sweet Pea?"
"Because I've always been so sweet," Sweet Pea parroted.
"Because he's always been so sweet."
His mother floated away.
"Oh my god, oh my god," Veronica said. "She has, like, no idea that's your gang name."
"Not everybody on the Southside is into the gang thing!" Sweet Pea said. "Some people just put their noses down and ignore all that."
"You didn't," Veronica pointed out.
"I went to Southside High. We get killed there if we don't pick a gang. Maybe if I'd won a fancy scholarship to St. Amaranthus, it would be different, but I didn't get that scholarship."
He thought that settled it, so he turned back to the dishes, but apparently things were not sufficiently settled for Veronica. She came up behind him and slipped her slender arms around him, fingers dipping below his t-shirt to trace the muscles on his stomach.
"You did this before, too, but you are so small I feel like I'm gonna topple over and break you," Sweet Pea said. He said it mostly to avoid the fact that all the tracing was having an effect lower down, an effect that was better confined to the comfort of his bedroom, not out here where the triplets could see.
"I find the power reversal of this position to be a potent aphrodisiac," Veronica told him. "And I have to say. Having discovered that the day will not give me what I expect, I've moved on to going instead for what I want. Do you have a spot just for you around here, or are we going to have to retreat into your parents' shower to find some much-needed privacy?"
Sweet Pea frowned and put the dish he'd just washed into the drying rack.
"Just one shower, for everybody. How many bathrooms do you think we have around here? But yeah, I've got a room."
He wanted to ask her outright, What's your deal with trailing us Serpents? With extending the gloved hand of Lodge friendship to us? We can't tell what's under that glove. Palm? Or claw?
But that was all stuff Jughead would say, and Jughead hadn't been Sweet Pea's friend for very long but Sweet Pea could tell that you didn't want to emulate him unless you were maybe in the kind of hyper-insane situation that required hyper-insanity. Jughead thought Andrews, the Teen Militia Ken Doll, was a milksop. Your first response should never be to reason the way Jughead did.
"Come on," Sweet Pea said, turning around carefully so he in fact wouldn't topple her. "I'll show you my room."
The only time the Southside educational system had ever taken him on a field trip, it had been to the Museum of Ancient Art in Centreville. The teachers had been harassed and too-punitive, the other kids had spent the whole trip screaming and crying, and so midway through their tour he'd run away ("elopement behaviors," the principal had later told his mother darkly) to get some peace and quiet. He'd ended up in some little room in the Egyptian wing, that'd had only a single statue in it. A coolly lovely, ebony bird, looking like it was about to take off. It was the finest thing he'd ever seen, even in low light, sitting there by itself in a dull grey display case.
After he locked his bedroom door, he turned and caught sight of Veronica Lodge sitting primly on his bed. And she reminded him of that bird. The want he felt was a lot more complicated now, but the appreciation was the same.
She turned her neck and brushed her hair back. He could see the zipper of her dress snaking a path down to what was -- honestly -- an ass Sweet Pea had thought way too much about for someone who'd only known her for two weeks.
"Unzip me?" she said.
"Power move," Sweet Pea informed her, because it was. It made him feel heady and messed up, dancing his fingers along her shoulders and back until he got to that zipper.
"Thank you," said Veronica, taking this as only her due. "Before we start, I should inform you that I'm a complete communication girl. If I want you to do something, I'll tell you and you'll listen. Archie had an excellent track record of listening to what I said."
Sweet Pea rolled his eyes and stopped the zipper halfway.
Because it occurred to him that maybe she really did love Andrews, with his Northside background and his Taj Mahal house, so maybe he was just some gutter trophy or something by comparison. Maybe that was what felt so fake about her. She didn't actually like him. This bothered him less than he'd thought it might. If someone had opened up the display case and handed him the ebony bird, he'd have appreciated the chance to hold it even if was never meant to be in his hands. That was just how he was.
"Shout all the orders you want, but less about Andrews," he decided.
"Shout?" said Veronica, raising an eyebrow. "Speak. Or don't you like my voice?"
"Shout, speak, sing, touch," Sweet Pea said. He passed a finger over the inside of her left wrist, over her pulse, where the skin was soft.
"Skin listens too," he told her.
Even though, no, it didn't always. Not when you didn't know each other. They didn't really know each other.
He wanted to take that dress off and give her the universe to go if she wanted it. But something kept holding him back. Money trees or display cases, or maybe, said the supremely irritating Jughead voice in his head, just that damn over-friendliness.
So he wordlessly zipped her back up. When she turned her dark eyes on him, they were surprised and a little betrayed. He pressed a kiss to her cheekbone, feeling kind of stupid but wanting to apologize somehow.
Sorry for not trusting you. Sorry for noticing you anyway.
He didn't know what Veronica was going to do after that, but she seemed to know. She was always the type to know what she wanted to do, maybe. Now she wound her hands around his neck, one manicured finger pressed softly to the snake there.
She pulled him in. He felt the press of her lips on his lower lip, then the warmth of her mouth. He'd been thinking of her as this pristine thing, but this kiss, while still real, was too airy and smoky for that. The kind of kiss that darted into him and seemed to fill up his whole lungs.
What was she? Good? Bad? Fake? Real?
The only answer he didn't like, he thought, was temporary. But that was the answer that felt the truest, because of Andrews, because of the way his mother had definitely had thoughts about Veronica's last name the second she'd heard it. Because of money trees, and exhibits you weren't supposed to see. How did you grasp things like that, anyway? How did you grasp them and not end up with a problem on your hands?
"Hold me," Veronica said into his mouth. "Tight."
He'd feel like he was breaking her.
She just ran a hand through his hair, though, and grabbed a whole lock of it, tugging gently. The sting of that balanced the want all throughout the rest of his body. He opened his eyes and found that hers were already open, dark and glimmering like the sky after it put on a dress of night.
"Hold me tight so I don't break, okay?" Veronica said.
After that, he could wind his arms around her and have it make sense. Have it make sense because she'd decreed it would.
All they did was hold and kiss, but when they stumbled out of his room his mom had taken the triplets out for exercise and Bruno was sitting on the couch, snapping beans, with Sheriff Keller by his side. Veronica blinked when she saw him. Bruno was darker than the triplets, way darker, and people usually didn't expect that from Sweet Pea's dad.
"No, don't introduce yourself. You don't need an introduction. You're a Lodge," Bruno said tiredly, when he saw Veronica. "Like the Lodge that now owns the Twilight lot across the street."
For some reason, Veronica couldn't seem to meet Sweet Pea's eyes. Her fall of black hair hid her face. That didn't work on her, didn't feel like Veronica Lodge.
Her voice was still airy, though.
"One and the same," she said.
"What's your dad gonna put there? A Whole Foods? A Gristedes?"
"Organic food for the neighborhood," Veronica said breezily. "It fulfills a different niche than your standard neighborhood bodega, you know."
"Yeah," Bruno said, voice flat. "Yeah, you'd think that. Bodega's -- what? More cultural? More ethnic?"
"Mas auténtico," Veronica said, like she was trying to prove a point.
"That's nice, huh, Sweet Pea?" said Bruno. "She thinks you're authentic."
Even though he and Veronica had exchanged phone numbers after their excursion to the country club, she didn't text him at all after she headed back to her side of town. Jughead texted instead, the next morning.
CRIME UNIT TO SUNNYSIDE, said his text.
Jughead hadn't been able to text until his dad had come out of prison and gotten a job and paid off his phone bill, but he was being as annoying as possible about his new ability. Sweet Pea groaned and climbed out of bed. He grabbed some tea from the kitchen and sipped it while racing the (screaming) triplets to the bathroom, where he barricaded himself in so he could wash up. Then he got dressed, pulling on his Serpent jacket. He wasn't as weirdly attached to it as Jughead was, but he did miss it during the week. Thankfully, it was Sunday, and Sunday still belonged to the snakes.
Fangs and Toni had beaten him to the trailer by the time he got there. FP was also there, with his Pop's apron hung up on a peg, reading the Register and laughing like it was full of private jokes and not weird conservative Northside propaganda. He waved at Sweet Pea, then waved at some fruit and eggs he'd laid out on his table. Toni and Fangs were already digging in.
Jughead stomped into the kitchen, stared at the food, and stomped back to the bedroom, muttering something. This was weird because Jughead wasn't one to pass up food.
"You know what snakes go in for in their meals?" FP said in a loud voice. "Protein. Come get your protein. You kids want some?"
That was when Sweet Pea realized the Serpents weren't alone in the trailer. Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper were sitting on the living room couch, with about a foot of space between them.
"Oh, no, that's okay, Mr. Jones," said Betty hurriedly. "I ate at home."
"I can't eat," said Andrews, in a strained voice. "Not until I get through this thing with Ronnie, FP."
Sweet Pea straightened up.
"Veronica?" he said.
Andrews shot him an puzzled look.
"She helped me with squash," Sweet Pea said, because that was true. Andrews didn't need to know anything else.
"That's good," FP murmured. "It's good to eat fruits and vegetables."
Betty Cooper squinted at him. Andrews just shook his head, looking miserable.
"That's the thing about Ronnie," he said. "She's so smart and so collected and so fun you think she's just -- just fancy. But she's not fancy. She's a completely good person."
"She's fancy too," Sweet Pea said, crossing his arms.
"Fancy and completely good," said Andrews.
"Nobody's completely good," Sweet Pea said, and it came out through clenched teeth for some reason.
Jughead stomped back, still looking like a raincloud in human form.
"Archie and Betty want to hire us. Same as McCoy. Pro bono for the first case, in exchange for good press and loyalty."
"They weren't giving you good press and loyalty before?" Sweet Pea said. He didn't want to be hired by Andrews. He didn't want that.
Now Toni cut in. "Is this the thing you two were doing yesterday? Adoption papers or whatever?"
Betty Cooper reached up and tightened her ponytail. When she spoke, her voice was very crisp.
"I can handle that on my own with Jug, actually, Toni," she said. "This is about a matter I can't handle. I can't even help Archie with it. I'm too close."
"Ronnie's mad at us," Andrews said in a rush. "Mad at Betty because I kissed her and she kissed me. It was after we'd broken up with Jug and Ronnie, but--"
Jughead's raincloud look suddenly made sense. Also, it got worse. It turned into maybe a category five hurricane look.
"Oh?" Toni was saying, voice odd. "You kissed?"
"Right," said Betty Cooper, voice steely now. "Just like you and Jughead, Toni."
Fangs stood up abruptly and crossed to the center of the living room.
"Wait, wait, wait," he said, breathing out hard. He started pointing at people, putting it all together with alarming ease.
"You kissed you after you and you broke up, and you kissed you after you and you broke up?"
"And Ronnie didn't kiss anyone," Archie insisted. "Because she's so good!"
Sweet Pea found himself backing away from Fangs' delighted eye, backing away into the kitchen area so fast that he backed into FP, still sitting at the table. FP shot him an offended look.
"In my day there wasn't half as much teenage kissing," he said disapprovingly. "In my day people played sports."
"We can't all be Sweet Pea," Jughead snapped. "Why are you even here? Listening to all our teenage conversations?"
"This is my house, boy," FP said, leveling a finger at him. "It may be a tin can, but it's mine. Now are you gonna help your friends out, or are you gonna glower all day? Snakes look out for their pack, Jughead."
"Actually, Mr. Jones, snakes can sometimes hunt in packs, but they normally--"
"I need some air," Jughead said in a strained voice. "The rest of you take down the details of the what needs to be investigated here."
He banged out of the trailer. Toni put her fork down and said. "Me too. This is on you, guys," and followed him.
And Sweet Pea also felt suffocated by all the vaguely-shifty kissing everyone was confessing to, like that was a thing you even needed to confess. So he said, "You take it, Fangs. Don't worry, Andrews. He's got a great memory for other people's business," and followed after Jughead and Toni.
Outside, they all stood around in a circle, looking at the grass trying stupidly to poke up into the January thaw. Jughead ran a hand over his face.
"I have to rebuild my entire relationship with my girlfriend," he said, "look out for us at school even though I've been banned from clubs, and my dad, I think, is trying to manipulate me into good-kid-complicity through snake metaphors." His voice became despairing. "And it's working."
"I found out who Josie's stalker is," Toni said. "It's going to be great for me, but it's also gonna suck for Josie. And I think it will make me less of an outsider girl, and more of an insider girl, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. My life ethos used to be to topple the existing power structure and let nothing take its place, but like. What if I take its place? I said I didn't want to infiltrate the inner circle, because we all know what happens when you do that -- I mean. I've seen Mean Girls. But what if evil girl popularity is my inevitable destiny?"
They both looked at Sweet Pea.
"I'm good at sports," he managed. "Just, like, good at like three whole sports, it turns out."
And that was all he was gonna say about that. For now.
"Well, at least we're all still marked as complete pariahs by our required uniforms," Jughead muttered, kicking a rock.
"Jones, that's a bad thing," Sweet Pea said.
Jughead threw up his hands, like he couldn't win with them.
Now his father stuck his head out of the bathroom window.
"Get in here, Jughead. What kind of man walks away? They need your knowledge."
Jughead's mouth dropped open, but then he collected himself.
"Need my what?"
"You listen to me," FP said. "You know what the serpent gave mankind? Knowledge."
He held up an apple.
"What the -- we're getting biblical now?" Jughead said, running his hands through his hair. "You have props now?"
"I'm turning my life around, Jughead," FP said, taking a bite of the apple and then speaking through a mouthful of apple. "And I'm being your damn father. Now get in here. You left your old friend and your new friend and your girlfriend all just sitting on my couch."
Jughead stomped back inside, Toni and Sweet Pea on his heels. They found Fangs smushed between Betty and Archie on the couch, looking thrilled.
"He's a spy!" Fangs said.
Sweet Pea's mouth dropped open. Betrayal sang through him. Betrayal from Fangs. From Fangs, the one he'd always secretly trusted most of all.
"Archie, I mean," Fangs clarified.
Sweet Pea calmed down. Toni and Jughead also looked relieved.
"What?" Jughead said, after a few seconds.
"I--" Archie began, but Fangs cut him off.
"No. Let me tell it. I want to tell this story. What I'm hearing from Archie--" he directed two hands at Archie like he was a flight attendant pointing out emergency exits, "--is that Veronica Lodge is mad at Betty for the kiss, but she's not mad at him for the kiss. She's mad at him because a man claiming to be from the FBI recruited Archie into spying on her family and their activities here in Riverdale. You know, hurting people, buying land, all that stuff."
Okay, Sweet Pea hadn't been expecting that.
"A man claiming to be from the FBI?" Jughead said. "What?"
"He was wearing a suit!" Archie said.
"That's...that's not a good defense, Arch," Betty Cooper said, shaking her head.
Fangs kept talking. "He was really good at sucking Archie in with threats and promises about his loved ones. Archie's dad, who he told Archie was probably a criminal too--"
From the recesses of the trailer, there came the sound of FP laughing like a maniac.
"--and Veronica, who he said was probably an accomplice of her parents' that they needed to keep an eye on--"
Sweet Pea exchanged an uncomfortable look with Toni and Jughead.
"She's not, though!" Archie said. "She's so good! I mean, look how hard she worked to welcome you guys!"
Everybody's uncomfortable looks solidified, started to take on an edge. Except for Sweet Pea's. He was pretty sure his had always had the edge. He was pretty sure he'd woken up with the edge. He kept thinking about how Veronica was always asking about the Serpents. And about that lot across from the bodega, the one they would put a Gristedes on.
"Well, spy movies have to have a lady spy. The evil one for the other side," Sweet Pea said, the words forced out of him.
"God," Toni said, waving a hand at him. "You mean the femme fatale? The most sexist of tropes. I'm with Andrews. Maybe Veronica isn't so bad."
But she said this in the mild, easy way that meant she didn't quite believe it.
"Arch," Jughead said. "What do you actually want from us?"
"This guy could hurt Ronnie and my dad if he's real FBI," Archie said. "So I have to keep working with him. But I want somebody to look into him, to figure out if he is who he says he is. And if not, what he really wants with the Lodges."
"We are not on the side of the Lodges, Andrews," Sweet Pea put in. "They're gentrifying the Twilight land."
"I know," Archie said, squirming now. "That's why you'll, like, tell me if they're the bad guys. I need to know that too. I love Ronnie, but she's in too deep with her parents, maybe,"
"They are the bad guys," Sweet Pea said slowly. "Like I said. They're gentrifying the Twilight land."
"There's still gotta be a way to be with Ronnie!" Archie said.
Sweet Pea wanted to punch him. Because it sucked, it really sucked, to hear the extremely stupid desire that he'd been avoiding all morning now come out of Archie Andrews' mouth.
"How do you even know you can trust us?" Toni said. "Since we are on the opposite side of the great Lodge land-grab."
"Of course they can trust us!" Jughead cut in now. "We have honor!"
His father wandered back into the kitchen area to get his apron from its peg by the door. Toni and Sweet Pea looked at him pleadingly.
"Don't look at me like that," FP muttered, as Jughead launched into the ethos of the Swords and Serpents' Citizen Roleplayers Involved in Making Enquiries unit, a creed he appeared to be making up on the spot for a group he'd made up on the spot for a club he'd made up on the spot for a gang he kept inventing completely new narratives about.
"I just used like six snake facts," FP told Sweet Pea and Toni, under his breath. "Okay? In one morning. I'm all tapped out of snake facts. He's gonna be wild as hell for the rest of the day, because I used up all my snake facts."
"Most of your snake facts are wrong. You should learn other ways to parent," Sweet Pea muttered back, momentarily forgetting himself.
FP looked so irate at receiving this completely sensible advice that for a minute he was indistinguishable from his son.
Given all the excitement of the weekend, Sweet Pea almost forgot about the fencing lists being posted.
Wrestling was fine. Basketball was easy. Water polo was a nightmare. Squash was fundamentally stupid unless you used it as an excuse to get handsy. Football he was barred from thanks to Reggie Mantle, and whatever, Mantle could shoulder all the inevitable brain injuries.
But he'd liked fencing. Honestly liked it. After Veronica had left on Saturday and after the CRIME unit meeting on Sunday, he'd practiced what little he knew using the equipment Josie McCoy had given him. Given? Lent? Unclear. Anyway, until she outright asked for all that stuff back, it was Sweet Pea's.
Josie was waiting by the lists with a group of other students, among them Toni and Archie Andrews.
"Top of the lists again," Toni said, when she caught sight of him. She was winding a pencil through her hair and looking so pleased that Sweet Pea didn't even check the boys' lists first. He'd let himself enjoy the hopeful anticipation for a few more seconds. He shoved Tina Patel aside, ignoring her shriek, and examined the girls' lists, where he found Antoinette P. Topaz just below Josie's name, third-slot on the Varsity soccer list.
"Nice," he said, clapping her on the arm.
"What's the P stand for?" Josie asked her.
"Phyllis," said Sweet Pea.
Toni shot him a dirty look.
"Phoenix," she decided.
Archie Andrews frowned like he was confused. "In the class register Ronnie set up when all you guys were starting here, I thought it did say Phyllis..."
"Yet another Veronica plan that doesn't seem to work out to our benefit," came Jughead's voice from beside them. He'd slouched in at some point and was now leaning against the wall, looking like he wanted to retreat into his oversized headphones.
"Sweets," he said, with a strange little edge that Sweet Pea almost took for pride. "Go on. Take a look."
So he finally did. He'd made JV for squash, but in fencing he was top of the lists. Actually at the top. Number one on the Varsity squad, which made no sense because his last name started with a 'Z,' so he was usually always last. He said as much.
"That might be a message to Reggie," said Archie. "Uh, I don't think Coach Clayton likes Reggie all that much. There was this thing a few months ago that a bunch of guys got in trouble for, Chuck Clayton too, but Reggie dodged it somehow, so maybe--"
"Tell Fangs. He'll get to the bottom of it if there's a grudge involved," Sweet Pea told him impatiently. "When do I get this whole tri-var Bulldog jacket whatever that's supposed to happen next? Oh, and Toni--"
He gestured at the pencil in her hair. Toni passed it to him without comment. Sweet Pea crossed out Sylvester Zhang-Peavey and wrote SWEET PEA in big blocky letters, just in case people failed to know who'd beaten Reggie to the top of the Varsity list. He was going to pocket the pencil on instinct, but Toni said, "No, no, no. I need that."
Then Josie cut in. Her voice was too bright, somehow.
"To the lounge?" she said.
"Oh, I think to the lounge," said Toni. "You guys will want to see this too. Not you, though, Andrews. Maybe you. Whatever."
As they headed to the lounge, she pulled her bookbag forward and began going over whatever she had stashed in there. Josie was striding in front of her, but Toni hung back with the boys a little. Sweet Pea figured this was part of the plan and didn't say anything about it. Archie had gone off to do whatever it was he did -- kiss girls who weren't Veronica, stand for halfhearted and shirtless justice, or spy for the FBI, apparently -- so Jughead took Toni's other side.
"Wait, okay, let's stop a sec," Toni said, right before they reached the lounge. She leaned against a bank of lockers and nodded at them, like she was trying to look unobtrusive.
"Why the delay?" Jughead asked her.
"Didn't you listen to Keller's Dungeons and Demons and Druids tutorial or whatever?" Toni said. "Waiting for the moment to strike is half the game."
And then she looked away very carefully, as Melody Valentine and Valerie Brown passed them and went in.
No sooner had they done this than Cheryl Blossom's voice assaulted the Serpents.
"Lounging outside the lounge," she declared, striding up behind Toni. Toni very carefully didn't turn to meet her, which was no deterrent to Cheryl, who sidled up in front of their faces anyway.
"This isn't the ideal resolution, as that would be your inevitable expulsions, but I'm feeling generous, so I'll take it for today. Better to have you lurking in the halls than to actually have to watch decent people socialize with all you cottonheaded slugs."
Then she whirled around, smacking Jughead in the face with her long red hair, and strode into the student lounge herself.
"Count us down," Toni said immediately.
Jughead looked confused, but Sweet Pea launched into it. "Five, four, three--"
"Forget the rest. I want to do this now. I've been dying to do this for like two weeks," Toni said in a rush, and then she was on Cheryl's heels.
Jughead and Sweet Pea stared at each other for a second, and then followed. They barely had time to find a space by the vending machines before the scene began to unfold.
"Toni!" Valerie said from a couch in the center of the room. "Hey, girl!"
Toni stopped. Her smile was wide and hungry, with just a touch of the demoniacal. Weirdly, so was Josie McCoy's, although Josie was sitting with Cheryl on the second couch. Each pair of girls seemed to be avoiding the opposite pair. Val and Melody appeared to be going over music notes. Josie was engaged in letting Cheryl examine her nails.
Toni, meanwhile, was now untucking her polo, a polo that had all its buttons unbuttoned to show a not-insignificant degree of collarbone and chest. And Sweet Pea realized she was wearing high heeled booties, the dangerous-looking ones she wore around the Southside. And she'd been pulling her hair out of its two wide plaits all morning with that pencil. She didn't look unkempt, because she was too hot to look unkempt, but the general effect was about as un-Riverdale High as you could get while still wearing the Southsider-required uniforms. Like Toni wanted to look suspicious for some reason, to look like a problem.
"Toni!" Valerie said again.
"I'm not even gonna talk to you unless you have it," Toni said coolly.
Valerie looked at Melody. Melody pushed herself forward on the couch and reached into her backpack, and then she was holding up a big wad of cash.
"Oh, we have it," said Valerie.
Of course with this they had the attention of the whole room, but they particularly had Cheryl Blossom's attention. She went very still for a second, and though Sweet Pea couldn't see her face from here he could bet it was both enraged and triumphant.
"What is this?" she shrieked. "Drug deals in the halls of fair Riverdale? I knew these wretched dumpster kittens would soon poison any school resident not strong enough to resist their filthy sway! What do you even think you're doing--"
"Cool it, Cheryl," Toni snapped out. There was a swagger in her step as she made her way to Melody, a swagger so pronounced and jerky that it almost reminded Sweet Pea of Jughead at his worst. When she put a foot on the coffee table and leaned over it, letting a lock of hair fall into her face, the picture of a suspicious Southside freak became so good it was eerie.
Sweet Pea said, "You know who this almost reminds me of? Yo--"
"I know," Jughead forced out, like he was seeing himself for the first time and it was slightly painful.
Cheryl stood up, crossed to Melody, and snatched the wad of money away from her.
"Hey!" Melody said.
"This will be the first piece of evidence I take to Weatherbee to convince him to clean out this school's Southside sewage problem!" Cheryl snapped at Toni. Then she turned on Melody and Valerie. "And who knows? Maybe he'll also listen when I put forward the names of you two Benedict Bengals--"
"Cheryl," Josie put in now. "You don't even know that they're buying drugs!"
"Yeah," Toni said, with jaunty, brittle menace. "I heard you'd be more my customer base if I wanted to deal the JJ, anyway, isn't that right, Cheryl? Unluckily for your clandestine drug habit, though, I'm not dealing drugs. I'm dealing art."
"We wanted her to do some posters for the New Pussycats," Valerie said.
Toni pushed herself off the table and went to crouch on their couch, dirty booties marring the upholstery. She pulled a huge sketchpad out of her backpack and pointed her pencil at Josie.
"A demonstration of my talents is in order. I'll use McCoy here as my model. Actually, McCoy, I've drawn you a lot. You're what the uncultured masses of jocks and dudebros at this school would call a regulation hottie."
"Is she a lunatic?" Sweet Pea heard Moose Mason ask Trev Brown. "Because she's acting like a lunatic."
"She's not!" Jughead hissed at him. "Shut up! Maybe we all are!"
But Sweet Pea thought it wasn't just the devil-may-care Southside weirdness that was making people pause. There was also the fact that, though Toni was lazily touching her pencil to her notepad, she obviously wasn't sketching anything. She soon pulled out a sheet of paper that she had clearly tucked into the back of the pad sometime earlier to pass off as her own work. This sleight of hand was so badly-done that Sweet Pea knew it was part of the act, too.
It wasn't even the same color paper. It was creamier and finer, more expensive. But Josie McCoy's face still beamed out at them, done in the the exact same style as the stalker picture.
Cheryl Blossom made an unholy, inhuman noise. Melody Valentine pretended not to hear it.
"Wow, that's great. I'll give you a hundred on the spot to do it again."
She didn't get the chance to give Toni anything, because Cheryl launched herself bodily at Toni, so that they both toppled back into the couch in a great conflagration of red-pink-brown hair. With a shout, Sweet Pea was at Toni's side, pulling Cheryl off. Jughead was there too, just as defensive, and in fact rather more offensive, like he relished a chance to hold Cheryl back.
When they did pull a struggling Cheryl off, Toni straightened up and pushed her hair out of her eyes.
"Again?" she told Melody, like Cheryl hadn't just tried to tackle her. "Sure. But like I said. I've done a million of 'em. Here, have one." She passed the first to Melody and then produced another from her backpack, which she gave to Val. She handed one to Josie -- the first one, the one with the weird message on it. Then she was up and around the room, handing one out to Mason, to Trev Brown, to everybody.
"Here's one for you, here's one for you. Oooh, this one also has Cheryl in it. Don't know why I did that. Here you. Here's one for you. Hey, maybe I should go to the art room and pick up some more, toss them off the staircase at people. But for now? Here, Josie, you take my last one."
Cheryl, who'd been struggling in Sweet Pea's arms the whole time, suddenly bit him viciously. Sweet Pea let her go with a yelp. He and Jughead rushed to put themselves between her and Toni, but it was Josie who Cheryl was staring at with horror.
Josie was comparing the original stalker picture with one that was near-identical to it.
"These are great, Toni," she said, her voice carefully blank.
"Thank you," Toni said. She pulled back and patted herself on the shoulder, like she also wanted to congratulate herself.
"What is this?" Cheryl said, in a choked voice. "Josie?"
Josie ignored her.
"It's weird that you haven't signed any of them," she said. "I wonder if any of these has a signature."
Cheryl gave a formless scream and stamped her foot. Toni talked right over this production.
"Who needs a signature?" she said. "I am willing to one hundred percent certify that if the Serpents did all the graffiti that's been going around, then I did these pictures. What do you think, Cheryl?"
"Yeah," Josie said, looking up at Cheryl with a strange little smile. "What do you think about both of those things?"
For a second, impossibly, Sweet Pea almost felt bad for Cheryl Blossom. Her face was normally cool and blank, cool and blank no matter how vicious she got. But now she reminded him of those English class Edgar Allen Poe characters, the girls who were posed in morgues or pulled out of rivers or whatever. She wasn't dead-eyed now because she was vicious. She was dead-eyed now because something in her was dead.
Josie seemed to think not dead enough.
She stood up fluidly and ran a hand through Toni's hair, settling it. The gesture was graceful, noble, and in control. Princess McCoy.
"I love your work," she told Toni. "I love it so much I think I found a new best friend, Toni."
With a sob, Cheryl Blossom ran out of the room. Silence filled up the space she left behind, before Josie McCoy collapsed back on the couch, exhaling hard, and Valerie and Melody crossed over to support her.
"Was that good enough for you?" Toni asked them.
"More than fine," Melody reassured her.
"What just happened?" Moose Mason asked Trev Brown.
But now Kevin and Fangs were walking in, both of them wide-eyed.
"Why did we just pass a sobbing Cheryl in the hall?" Kevin asked. As the Serpents took the couch the Pussycats had vacated, he perched next to Melody on the opposite couch, leaning forward enough so that his knees touched Fangs'.
"We missed something," Fangs said, sounding troubled. "I don't like missing things."
"You missed Toni going total teen movie villainess on the school's teen movie villainess!" Jughead said. "It was deeply terrifying!"
Toni, meanwhile, had pulled out a compact and started arranging hair and tucking in her polo and buttoning buttons.
"Snakes swallow their prey whole, did you know that?" she asked Jughead. "That's a real snake fact."
Jughead looked like he wanted to argue with this for some reason, but before he could speak they were interrupted by Veronica Lodge clearing her throat at the door.
"Excuse me, why is Cheryl crying?" she said.
Toni stared at her balefully.
"Is that what you came to ask? I thought you didn't even like her."
Veronica raised a brow, but didn't fire back. She'd never fired anything at the Serpents. She'd been constant welcome and constant social control -- that was the whole problem.
"I didn't come for Cheryl," she said, all politeness. "I came to get Sweet Pea. Coach Clayton and Principal Weatherbee want to talk to him."
When you were from the Southside, you got used to people taking good things away from you.
Their school? It hadn't been great to start with, but it had rapidly become a lot worse with the influx of JJ. Their drive-in? They hadn't taken great care of it, fine, but it had been theirs, and now it was going to belong to yuppies who shopped at Gristedes. And Sweet Pea could think of a million other examples -- Fangs' dad, half of Jughead's family, that cousin who'd wanted to look after Toni for a bit, but who'd ended up going missing and who Sheriff Keller had refused to look for, because she'd been a Serpent.
So when Jughead said, "He's not going to let you have it. Weatherbee's going to say the tri-var rule doesn't apply to Southsiders," none of them disagreed with him. And to Sweet Pea, Riverdale High suddenly looked just as hopeless and awful as Southside High had been. He felt tired, and somehow angry despite the tiredness. His heart felt too big for his chest, thudding dully there, like he needed to hit something to fire himself back up again. It took all his self-control not to lay into the nearest locker bay.
"You don't even know that tri-var is what Weatherbee wants to talk to him about," Veronica was insisting to the others.
She was trailing them down the hall, sticking as close to them as she ever did. Sweet Pea avoided looking at her. Naturally he wanted to. She was always there, even when she wasn't, a thought he circled back to because it seemed important. But even the thought of Veronica dimmed a little, lost its glimmer, when unfairness like this loomed.
That was the thing about unfairness. If it touched you enough times, you stopped thinking that anything good -- like meeting Veronica, like learning new things, like a new school -- you stopped thinking those things could count. Because they wouldn't. They didn't. You could work hard and try and unfairness would still snatch it away, so why try?
"I'll go in with him. I'll make sure it goes well for him," Veronica was saying, and now both Toni and Jughead were firing back with the same answer.
Sweet Pea didn't need them to ask. She wouldn't. Veronica marketed herself as a valuable ally, but none of her plans -- not the squash practice, not the welcoming committee, and definitely not the uniforms -- had really been a success for any of them. Maybe this was the Lodge in her. Maybe Lodges were the kinds of allies it was better not to have.
But even this, he thought, didn't get at the delicate, twisting way he felt about her. She wasn't a good ally, but he didn't want her to be. He didn't want an ally from her. What upset him about her was that unlike Toni and Fangs and even Jughead, she might never cross over from dubious allyhood into something deeper and stronger.
They were by now waiting outside Weatherbee's office, Toni and Jughead still arguing with Veronica. Fangs touched Sweet Pea's arm.
"Hey," he said. "I lost it when -- you know. With the stupid uniform thing. Jughead pulled me back, and he was right--"
"He lost it with the jacket thing," Sweet Pea said tersely. "And I'm pretty sure what we just saw with Toni was her version of losing it over the graffiti thing."
"So maybe you lose it over this," Fangs said, sighing. "But like. We'll pull you back, man. Ruffians?"
He held up a fist. Sweet Pea pounded it.
"For life," he told Fangs.
"Zhang-Peavey," came Coach Clayton's voice. "You can come in now."
It was good that it was Clayton who ushered him into the main office, not Weatherbee. Jughead seemed to hold Weatherbee in special contempt and might have started something, and also Weatherbee was bizarrely chummy with Veronica. He might have let her come in, like it was normal to treat the wealthiest sophomore at Riverdale as a de facto Serpent union representative that none of the Serpents had ever actually wanted or elected.
Clayton stopped her at the door.
"Come on now, you four," he said, waving at her, Toni, Jughead, and Fangs. "Class started a minute ago. You should all be at your desks. And you especially shouldn't be cutting cut classes, Jones. I was talking football with your dad at Pop's last night -- another disciplinary action would break his heart."
Then he shut the door on their startled faces. Sweet Pea found himself staring at two Weatherbees, the stern one with a pulse, and the equally stern one framed on the wall. It occurred to him that Weatherbee could give Sheriff Keller -- the rotten scumbag, not the dog -- some tips on interrogation room decor. Sweet Pea had never told Keller anything, but now he was halfway to lying through his teeth and confessing that he'd stalked Josie McCoy and made Cheryl Blossom cry if it would just mean he could stay on the fencing team. Just the fencing team. He wouldn't even push for anything else.
"Mr. Zhang-Peavey," said Weatherbee. "Coach Clayton tells me that you've broken a significant athletic record at this school."
"Triple-varsity in a single term!" Clayton said, slapping his knee. "And he made a JV team, too!"
"Not even Jason Blossom managed to do that," said Weatherbee gravely.
Sweet Pea didn't really know anything about Jason Blossom except that his dad had shot him, his sister was a lunatic, and the Serpents had been blamed for the dad and, for all he knew, for the sister, too. So he stayed quiet.
Weatherbee exhaled, hard. He brought a hand to his face and took off his glasses, then began to wipe them with a little cloth he pulled out of his blazer pocket. Sweet Pea got the sense that he was buying himself time for some reason.
When Weatherbee finally spoke, it was haltingly, thoughtfully.
"Your friend Mr. Jones mentioned something a few days ago. A kindness I told myself I was doing him, that I knew perfectly well, in my heart, was not a kindness. Mr. Jones could tell you, I suppose, that this school does not have a good track record of managing, guiding, or nurturing students like him. Like you."
Weatherbee looked at him expectantly. Sweet Pea wasn't going to rat Jughead out by offering up any of the extremely shitty Weatherbee-related events Jughead had furnished to prove exactly what Weatherbee was now talking about, so he continued to say nothing. Weatherbee sighed again.
"Students like yourself and Mr. Jones... Riverdale High has never been set up to properly respond to the degree of community need you all have. We did not attempt to rectify these deficiencies when we had just Mr. Jones to worry about. Now, we have so many of you, and so we're struggling more than ever. But your ability to thrive despite our inability to fully support you, Mr. Zhang-Peavey, has made it vey clear that I have perhaps not been entirely the principal I should have been to some of my students."
It was a lot of talk. There was truth buried in it. But still. A lot of talk. Like Weatherbee knew he'd done something wrong, but he wanted Sweet Pea to let him off the hook for it. Sweet Pea didn't want to do that. Maybe he'd do it for fencing, but he didn't want to.
When he still didn't say anything, Weatherbee began to look exasperated.
"I'm telling you that you've managed to make the staff at this school, myself included, look shameful!"
Sweet Pea stared at him.
"I'll drop the other teams if you want, but I wanna keep fencing," he said, after a few seconds.
Clayton turned to him, mouth falling open.
"Drop teams? Like hell you will, kid! You're a damn rocket. Give me two terms and I'll whip you into shape for every sport that doesn't put you in the water!"
Weatherbee, meanwhile, was picking his own jaw off the floor.
"I am not suggesting that you drop sports, Zhang-Peavey. I'm offering you the same opportunity Mr. Jones demanded when he came to me to set up your gaming club. I'm giving you a chance to be heard regarding the school's failure to properly welcome and integrate you."
Sweet Pea took a second to cut through all the verbiage.
"You want me to complain?" he said.
"In a manner of speaking, yes!" said Weatherbee.
Sweet Pea clutched the arms of his chair and pushed himself back, shaking his head a little.
"So, like, I say what I think, then you get mad and punish me--"
"I'm not going to punish you!" Weatherbee snapped.
"You suspended Jughead, and Fangs too, just for not wanting to wear the stupid uniform--"
"Mr. Fogarty I perhaps should have spoken to, explained things to better," said Weatherbee, going back to stern now. "But Mr. Jones confessed to a crime--"
"Oh, come on," Sweet Pea said, finally cracking. It helped that Clayton seemed to be on his side about the sports, so he could be freer with what he was saying, even if he didn't really believe Weatherbee wouldn't take it out on him. Still, he kept going.
"That whole thing with the graffiti made no sense, because that's the first time we had a space that didn't look like shit--"
"Language," said Coach Clayton hurriedly.
"Like crap," Sweet Pea amended, "and you were off listening to Cheryl Blossom when she tried to say we did it, even though that makes no sense. You listened to Reggie Mantle, too. You listen to, to--"
He knew exactly who else was the problem here. Even though she was a problem he wanted to admire. He wanted so badly just admire her, to have it not be complicated.
"Veronica Lodge," he said. "You listen to her just because she has money. Her rich dad donates a bunch of money and tells you to put all the poor kids in uniforms and you do it, just because Jughead messed up one time, like you can't wait to punish us all for one thing just one of us did--"
"Those uniforms are to help you fit Riverdale high dress code standards!" Weatherbee protested.
"That makes no sense," Sweet Pea said. "Andrews doesn't have to wear one! Mantle doesn't have to wear one! Just me. And you know what? When you said no gang symbols, I literally decided I would wear a turtleneck to school every day to cover my tattoo. Every day. Even when it gets hot. And that still wasn't good enough for you!"
He realized that he'd smacked the arm of his chair. He knew that didn't endear him to people, because when you were over six feet nobody cared if you were angry, you just looked threatening. This meant that he'd pulled a Jughead, practically. He almost didn't care, except that a part of him did care, still cared about not messing up here at Riverdale High, and that part was the hardest to deal with.
Weatherbee, meanwhile, was staring at him in shocked silence.
"You said you wouldn't punish him," Coach Clayton began.
"I know what I said, Harry!" Weatherbee snapped.
He began to massage his temples.
"Fangs told you the same thing before you suspended him," Sweet Pea muttered. "About the uniforms--"
"Yes, I can see the uniforms were a bad call," said Weatherbee, sounding strained.
He leaned forward and pressed a button on his intercom.
"Attention, students. Effective tomorrow morning, the Riverdale High standard dress code will be in effect for all students. I repeat, no member of the student body will be held to any uniform policy. All students will merely have to abide by the standard dress code."
Then he turned off the intercom and leaned back in his chair, breathing hard like he'd just run a race at the old folks' home or something. Sweet Pea sort of understood. He felt his own heartbeat racing, and a rush of something that was almost like euphoria.
"Really?" he asked Weatherbee.
"I did just announce to to the whole school, so yes," Weatherbee said. "You can wear just your normal clothes tomorrow. The tattoo is best -- best covered during regular school hours. I'm sure you can also use scarves, or a nice high collar."
"But I don't need to show up in khakis and with a stupid R on my chest?" Sweet Pea demanded.
Coach Clayton threw up a hand, as if to stall him.
"Now hold up, Zhang-Peavey. Hold up. Let's not get crazy."
He reached around to something he'd tucked into the corner of his chair, and then held it out to Sweet Pea. Blue. Gold. Already monogrammed with a name. Unfortunately not Sweet Pea's gang name, though.
"You're still wearing the R, kid!" Coach Clayton said, grinning widely. "You're a Bulldog now!"
All of the Serpents, even Jughead, had vanished for class, but Veronica Lodge hadn't. She was waiting in the student lounge, sitting on the couch with her legs tucked under her primly. She looked still, quiet. She looked beautifully accidental, like something he wasn't supposed to see.
Sweet Pea had somehow thought she might be in the lounge, because the lounge would let her see anyone coming out of Weatherbee's office. So he'd approached it slowly, peering around the doorway, and caught sight of her before she could see him.
"Yo. Lodge," he said.
He wanted to say mouse, but maybe that wouldn't do. Mice didn't get to set unfair school policies because of who their parents were.
Veronica blinked at him, as though startled. He didn't know why. He wasn't even wearing the jacket. He had it over his arm.
"I won't say I told you so," Veronica said, "but it does strike me that my prediction, not Jughead's, was the right one. Everything was fine. More than fine. Hercules has triumphed in his final trial, and even successfully argued to make this school more fashionably daring. A better result couldn't have been orchestrated by even Veronica Lodge."
"That's true," Sweet Pea told her, crossing to her and sitting beside her. Veronica regarded the jacket he was holding.
"Do put it on. I love a jock," she said mildly.
"It's not my favorite jacket I own," Sweet Pea informed her, but he shrugged it on anyway. Once he had, she was running a hand along his gold-covered bicep, like he'd almost known she'd do. It made his mouth go dry. He looked at his feet.
He was going to tank this, probably. Jughead-style.
Or, god, no. He didn't need to do it like Jughead. That was only for very extreme situations. He could do this like himself. That was better.
"Your boy Andrews," he told her, "hired the Serpents, hired us pro bono, trading on Jughead's weird thing for him, to try and get him out of this spy thing he's got going on. And to look after you. Even protect you from your parents if necessary."
"How gallant of you," she said, her voice cold. "To support your biggest fellow Bulldog supporter by so chivalrously casting him in a good light--"
"I wasn't done," Sweet Pea said, shooting a look at her. She appeared deliberately expressionless. Her hair was blue-black in the light of the room, making her features seem mistier and softer. He looked away. The last thing he wanted was to feel entranced.
"I'm not telling you that to make Andrews look good," he said. "Andrews is just a charismatic moron, and you'd think he's some kind of teen Jesus no matter what I say. I was setting up for what I really wanted to tell you. Andrews isn't the only spy at this school, okay? I know that. You know that. We both know it."
He didn't say, You're a spy. I don't know all your reasons, but I know you are one. I know you want to know about the Serpents, and you want to keep us quiet and controlled for some reason.
And he didn't say, I'm a spy. I'm gonna get every single one of these Bulldog punks to start giving up Reggie Mantle's car keys and locker combo, so we can take Serpent warfare to the next level if we have to.
Veronica turned her head away from him, flicking her hair over her shoulder.
"Is this about your familial antipathy to the Whole Foods corporation?" she said.
"Little bit," Sweet Pea admitted.
"Well. I guess it was stupid of me to think one person wouldn't see a Lodge before they saw me."
"I feel like I've gotta pull you out of you," Sweet Pea said. "Welcoming committee? Uniform policy? Pastries from New York? That's all Lodge."
One of his most persistent, recurring thoughts bobbed up now.
"Look," he said. "Think about, like, a tree. It's got money for leaves. It's got diamonds for flowers. But it gets watered by the blood of all the people who kill each other trying to get to that stuff. And you--"
"I'm an evil rich person tree?" Veronica said, whirling on him incredulously.
"You get to stand under the tree, your fancy heels keeping you above the blood, and pick the diamonds!" Sweet Pea retorted. "That's what you are. At the very top of the social ladder. Nice place to have to be, but it's dirty. And it's lonely."
"And being a Serpent isn't, Rocky Balboa?" Veronica snapped.
Sweet Pea considered this. He considered it because it felt like a real question, not like something she was asking him just to control him or tell her parents or whatever.
"Dirty, sure," he said. "But not lonely."
"Well, I don't need to recreate some kind of gang family for myself," Veronica told him crisply. "I have a family--"
"So do I. You met them."
"Mine expects a little more from me than washing dishes and snapping beans," said Veronica testily.
Sweet Pea decided he could pass that test. He said, simply, "Look, maybe I have a gang family and a really boring family-family, but at least they're separate. While you, you have gang and family all in one."
That was a shot in the dark, but from the way her eyes widened he could tell he got it right.
"You know, I think I almost liked you better when you were six-plus feet of humble decoration, gracing the Riverdale High scene as aggressively grateful new eye candy--"
"I wasn't grateful to you," Sweet Pea said, waving her off. "I'm not grateful to anybody here. I'm just finally really glad to get everything you guys've always had."
Almost everything. He examined the gold sleeves of his Bulldog jacket now, and decided that he wasn't especially glad about it. It was a means to an end, that was all. His Serpent jacket had started that way and become something more, but he didn't think life pulled a trick like that on you twice.
"And I suppose I'm the rich bitch demon who tried to use your gang," Veronica said now, voice hard. "Right? They all must hate me."
Sweet Pea snorted.
"If Toni hated you, you'd know it. Toni's got a lot of hidden rage. Her fuse goes off like an atom bomb. And I don't think Fangs hates anybody, which, trust me, makes him more dangerous than you'd expect. Jughead might hate you a little, but Jughead would rather be right about hating somebody he expects to hate than wrong and made to feel stupid about it."
He said all of that without really thinking about it, but as soon as he said it he realized it was true. Riverdale High thought it was getting a grab-bag of delinquents with bad records, and maybe it was, but the school's first mistake had been thinking that was all it was getting. Nobody was just what they appeared to be on the surface, after all. People got messier than that, got messy quick, so you couldn't trade on appearances alone.
He still didn't want to take in Veronica's looks, gorgeous though they were, so he kept staring at his hands, and when he spoke he addressed the thought of Veronica. Veronica without Andrews or Betty Cooper, alone now in a display case. Or maybe ankle-deep in tainted soil, holding her hands out to catch the fruit of the money tree.
"Maybe nobody hates you," he told her. "But all this sweetness and welcome from you isn't real, and we know that. Real you's totally different, I bet."
"Dark," Veronica retorted. "Mean. Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions--"
Sweet Pea rolled his eyes.
"I didn't say you were Cheryl Blossom. I just think you don't have to be totally good to not be bad, or maybe you can go bad and think you have reasons."
He and Andrews both wanted to be with her despite the bad, right? But he wasn't like Andrews otherwise. Andrews wanted to be with her because he thought the real Veronica was the dream Veronica, the Veronica who came across light and airy and above all other people. Sweet Pea liked the dream Veronica fine, but he also liked the Veronica who was unapologetic and direct and maybe even a little bitter. Who demanded whatever she needed. He thought he could understand that Veronica.
When he kissed her now, it was with full commitment to that Veronica. The full-communication girl, who'd tell him if he was doing it wrong, if he was being stupid. He couldn't totally trust her, but he thought he could trust that.
She kissed back. She grabbed his neck again and pulled him in, one thumb hooking under his turtleneck, finding the spot where his tattoo was. He was so much taller than her that the position was uncomfortable, but he didn't care. The kiss was making him practically growl with want, but that was fine. Anyone could walk in -- Andrews could walk in -- and yet even that was totally not worth caring about. Veronica was pissed off and sulky and she was kissing like she was, and Sweet Pea was fine with it.
Go on, sulk, he thought. It's fine. I sulk all the time. At least it's passionate.
The only thing that managed to pull him away was the bell, because it reminded him that he was cutting class.
"Shit," he said, pulling back.
Veronica stared at him.
"I'm sorry, excuse me, are you regretting a Veronica Lodge kiss?" she said. "No."
"I'm regretting missing pre-cal!" he said. "There's a quiz tomorrow! I'll kiss you whenever you want once the quiz gets turned in."
He stood and hurriedly picked up his bag, figuring he'd have to go apologize to the teacher or something. He didn't know how to say bye, so he settled for a wave, which was at least cool. Spy-on-me-if-you-want-whatever-I'm-doing-the-same-thing cool. Veronica frowned, but waved him out of the lounge too.
She flitted around the edges of his brain for the rest of the day anyway, because she would. She'd made it into his memory bank alongside the money tree and the ebony bird, something so fascinating that it lodged in his brain without him needing extra tutoring to keep it there.
Fangs, who was his boy, supported him when it came to using his new powers to obtain valuable information like Reggie Mantle's locker combo. So did Possum and Beauty Whitford. But the others, chief among them Toni and Jughead, were thinking bigger than that.
"Moose. Chuck. Raj Patel," Jughead said, under his breath, as they all watched Kevin set up a ludicrously complicated board that was paired with some ludicrously complicated rules. "That's who you focus on. You get in with them, get intel from them on what Reggie's doing and when and where, and our chances of finally catching Reggie at these so-called 'pranks' of his go way, way up."
Toni picked up three little druid figures (druids? Wizards? Unclear) and arranged them on the edge of Sweet Pea's desk.
"If the army falls, so does the commander," she said.
"I've seen Mean Girls," Sweet Pea told her. "I know who becomes the commander next. I do not want to be the commander next. I'm not gonna start throwing these people house parties."
Toni frowned, like she understood his reservations, but Jughead just buried his head in his hands and exhaled like he thought Sweet Pea was being unreasonable. Kevin Keller finally noticed what they were doing and came swooping down on them.
"Oh no," he said, scooping up his druid-wizards. "See, we only need these guys if someone enters the terror dimension and rolls more than a six."
"Oh, more than a six," said Toni. "Wait. What?"
Fangs held up a pair of dice that each had way too many sides. Kevin extended a hand to them, nodding at him. Then Possum put a game token in a dimension it didn’t belong in or something, and Kevin rushed to correct her.
“Suckup,” Sweet Pea told Fangs.
“Suckups someday get to suck face,” Fangs informed him, curling a fist around the dice.
“I’m reasonably sure you could just stick your tongue down his throat and he’d be fine with it,” Jughead said.
“Wow, excuse me for caring about romance,” said Fangs.
Sweet Pea didn’t stay for the game. Partly because he didn’t want to play the game. And partly because he had wrestling practice. Reggie Mantle complained that Sweet Pea was messing up the practice schedule for everybody, that Coach Clayton was booking practices just to make sure that Sweet Pea could make them, and this was probably true, but also -- fuck Reggie.
There was a line drawn down the middle of Riverdale High's jock elite now. Reggie fell on one side with most of the others, kids like Moose and Raj Patel. But Archie Andrews always made sure to second Sweet Pea when he had to, and Chuck outright liked him, although possibly that was just because after the Cheryl incident Weatherbee had rearranged electives for everybody. In an effort to separate Cheryl (still in art, which was deemed to be her only emotional outlet) from Toni (now in photography, which she preferred to art), Sweet Pea was taken out of photography and placed in religion and moral philosophy. He and Chuck spent a lot of time studying their ethics textbooks and sometimes had of debates that went like:
Chuck: "I think people can improve, but sometimes other people have to unleash bad things on them them to make them get there."
Sweet Pea: "I think improvement is a value-based judgment in most situations, and relying on others to course-correct your behavior just suggests that you feel they should sacrifice their morality to shepherd yours."
It was all very amicable despite both of them being mandated to receive school counseling. Chuck even seemed to feel they were friends or something.
Sweet Pea's Bulldog jacket also helped with that. It was, Jughead said darkly, a weird totem. It was like one of Keller's gaming pieces. Roll a six, put it on, and suddenly people acted like you were funnier and more charismatic and should get to cut ahead in the lunch line. Sweet Pea might have let it go to his head. But before he'd shrugged on the Bulldog jacket he'd grown used to wearing another jacket, one that worked the opposite way. One that sent you right to jail without collecting your two hundred dollars. So the sudden popularity boost, the fact that Tina Patel, who was two-faced, now smiled at him and tried to get him to sit with her -- it pissed him off more than it pleased him.
He tried to be careful about when he wore the Bulldog jacket. To practices, to matches and meets, fine. It made teachers act like he was extra-smart when he gave the right answer, which wasn't so bad. And it was a sure pipeline to a Veronica Lodge eyebrow raise. Those were good things, but he felt more himself, more victorious, if he could tease those things out of Riverdale High when he wasn't Sylvester Zhang-Peavey, in a jacket that had curlicue gold writing. When he was Sweet Pea, in black jeans and flannel and dog tags and silver rings. He and most of the others had come to Riverdale High ready to fall on their knees, ready to sacrifice whatever they needed to. Not out of gratitude, but just to get what they wanted out of the place. But now what they wanted was to be themselves.
Flannel and denim (if not leather). Weird flights into the ugly underbelly of the high school scene (first case pro bono, in exchange for good press and loyalty). Snakes. Not huge, ugly, graffitied snakes. But snakes snuck subtly into places people wouldn't think to look -- a pin on the back of Jughead's beanie, a ring Fangs turned in to face his palm, a doodle in sharpie on Toni's thigh, where her fishnets were most frayed.
"No gang signs," Cheryl Blossom snapped at her one day, across the lunch room.
Toni shot her an unimpressed look.
"Gang signs? That's just an 'S.' Sweets has his first official fencing meet this week."
Next to Toni, Josie McCoy continued to ignore Cheryl with all her might, ignore Cheryl loudly and in harmony with the other Pussycats. They'd decided to remix the Fair Riverdale song they were always singing, with some helpful suggestions from Fangs, by adding a verse about new transfers and school unity. Fangs had become their go-to 'lyrics in a pinch' guy, a fact that seemed to annoy Archie Andrews because Archie ran hot and cold, like, all the time.
Still, Jughead had a weird thing for him. So the Serpent table and the Andrews-Cooper-Lodge-Keller table ended up merging somehow, and then welcoming the Pussycats. This was good, because it kept Weatherbee kind of on their side. None of them trusted him, of course, but the more they were seen playing nice, the more likely Weatherbee was to let Jughead have all the weird clubs he wanted, to permit that Toni's photography go up in the halls. To pull Sweet Pea aside and say grave things about leadership and setting a good example.
That last thing was kind of annoying, actually. Leadership among the Serpents was a dubious business. Toni was the toughest, and Jughead knew the most about their environment. Fangs had the most dirt on everybody. But Sweet Pea -- he'd somehow become the face of the group, and that was that. He was the one whose picture got put on the school website, him and Betty Cooper and Josie and Trev Brown and Archie Andrews and Veronica.
"'Diversity and Inclusion at Riverdale.' True in so many ways," Toni said, looking over the webpage when Fangs pointed it out during a rare shared free period.
"How did they get you all laughing together?" Jughead demanded. "Is it photoshopped?"
"Jesus, Fox Mulder. Weatherbee just asked. Calm down," Sweet Pea said.
Weatherbee had asked Cheryl Blossom to join in too, mostly because the whole school extended special rules to Cheryl still, like she was Jason Blossom's vengeful, grieving ghost bride. But Cheryl had refused, which was maybe to be expected. Veronica had warned Toni that Cheryl had no 'off' button for her Cherylness.
"Be mean to her, she's mean back," she said. "Extend the olive branch of friendship? She's nice for two days, then back to mean. I know the Cheryl script, because I was the Cheryl script, and I warn you, girl. It's an exhausting script."
Toni looked at her coolly. Toni and the other Serpents didn't turn down Veronica's overtures of friendship, but neither did they exactly welcome them. It had become clear that Veronica was always acting for the Lodges, and that created complications. Now Toni said, "Yeah, I don't give in to teen terrorists. I mean, as of our transfer here, I was one of the teen terrorists. But thanks for the advice."
Cheryl struck after the fencing meet, because Cheryl was the type to strike when you were at your highest, so that when she kicked you down, you fell as hard and as long as possible. Sweet Pea and the others were walking home, celebrating, when suddenly they caught sight of her silhouetted in the road ahead. She was wearing thigh-high boots like a movie femme fatale, and a ribbon around her throat like that terminally ill witch-girl in the spooky story, the one whose head was in constant danger of falling off.
"Worms," she said, shining her flashlight in Toni, Sweet Pea, Fangs and Jughead's faces. Most of them looked away, but not Jughead, because aggression just made him hunker down and get snappish, so he did this now.
"Out for the witching hour, Cheryl? Better to drop it. Whatever you're fishing for, we won't bite."
"You will if my lure is set carefully enough," Cheryl said smugly. "A quick check-in, for the most undeservedly prominent of you creepy crawlies."
The flashlight beam attacked Sweet Pea right in the eyes. He blinked furiously, trying to shield himself by dropping behind the fencing bag Josie had given him. Cheryl was still talking, with furious relish.
"My minions may be lackluster in the advance reconnaissance department, but they are rocklike in their desperate devotion to me. They've--"
"Minions?" Sweet Pea managed.
"Like Ginger," Jughead said.
"Which one's Ginger? You mean Tina?" said Sweet Pea.
"Which one's Tina?" said Toni.
"I can explain," Fangs began, but then Cheryl pinned him with the flashlight and said, "Silence!" with enraged vehemence.
"You were spotted in the student lounge the day Weatherbee so foolishly permitted you all to revert to your tramp selves," she hissed at Sweet Pea. "You and Veronica Lodge! And though you're masquerading as a contender for Jason's former position, it will delight me to see how fast you topple once the whole school knows you played the Brutus to Archie's Caesar, with Veronica as the dagger!"
"What?" said Toni. "God, why does everyone on the Northside talk like this? Sweets, what is she on about!"
"He kissed Veronica!" Cheryl shrieked. "And I know about it!"
"So what?" Sweet Pea said, at the same time that Toni said, "So?"
"So, you ophidian oaf and herpetological harpy, I am going to destroy his credibility with the Bulldogs by severing the alliance between him and Archie!"
They all looked to Jughead, since Jughead seemed to understand the labyrinthine reasoning of Northsiders (and half the time displayed it himself), but Jughead was just shaking his head.
"You're grasping at straws, Cheryl," he said. "And I'm not sure why."
"She humiliated me!" Cheryl said, attacking Toni with the flashlight beam. This time Toni stood her ground, rolling her eyes.
"You humiliated us. You humiliate people every day. I get it, you've suffered. So what? So has everybody. I'm not sure why special rules apply to you, where you get to treat everyone like garbage and then we all have to feel sorry for you over it. Like, whatever."
Throwing up her hands, she brushed past Cheryl, ignoring the cacophony of confusing and offensive names Cheryl slung after her. The Serpents followed Toni, with only a few glances tossed Cheryl's way.
"You can weather breaking up with Andrews, man," Fangs said. "You're pretty established, you know. Ethel has a crush on you."
"Andrews isn't even my friend!" Sweet Pea said.
"He's mine and I'll talk to him, just to be safe," Jughead decided. "It's not like he has much of a leg to stand on when it comes to kissing people."
"Isn't he too caught up with his FBI thing, anyway?" Toni said. "Like, whatever happened to that?"
"Oh, Betty and I figured out that was a cultist from this place called the Farm. They seem to be very suspicious of the Lodges for some reason and have been making inroads into Riverdale for a while," Jughead admitted. "I was going to propose that we consider allying with them, only Betty wouldn't like it because they've stolen her sister and might have adopted her older brother for a three-year period in which they brainwashed him."
Everyone stopped, considering this.
"Huh," Toni said.
"Betty and you figured out all that? It's been like a week and a half since we took the case," said Sweet Pea. "I thought we were just gonna, like, do some investigating after midterms, maybe, when we weren't so busy studying--"
"I get whatever grades I get," Jughead said, shrugging. "But the truth does not wait."
Sweet Pea separated from the others at the bend by Sunnyside, where Jughead, Fangs, and Toni were headed. Jughead had coaxed Toni out of the hall closet at school with strict promises to be less dramatic, so for now she was holing up with the Joneses. As Sweet Pea understood it, there was a slight problem with this because FP kept trying to make her take the bedroom on the basis that a man always took the couch when a nice young lady demanded it, but Toni wasn't demanding because she felt that this assessment was gender-essentialist. The old Southside High Toni would have stayed quiet rather than question FP, but Toni wasn't that Toni anymore, and so she was proving to be a handful for FP. Jughead seemed secretly pleased with this, as it meant his father focused less on snake metaphors and more on trying to understand the teenagers of today.
As Sweet Pea started down Hastings Street in the direction of the bodega, he caught sight of lights up ahead. Southside High. No. Where Southside High had used to be. They'd razed it this weekend. The noise had woken up all the Montez-Zhang-Peaveys at an unholy hour.
Now, after the razing, the Lodges were throwing a party, with tents and huge generators to provide heating, with banners that said LODGE INDUSTRIES in big letters. Sweet Pea couldn't understand how they'd moved so fast. Or why people had shown up. That land was supposedly contaminated or something, though Jughead had offered up several conspiracy theories about how it wasn't.
Contamination or no contamination, for a second Sweet Pea considered breaking into the party and finding Veronica, warning her about Cheryl, and then maybe tagging a big snake on the Lodge Industries banner to make a point. But he hadn't tagged in weeks, because he was a Bulldog now and a Riverdale High student now, and because he didn't want to. Tagging was what you did when you had no real way to protect your turf, so you figured you'd try and frighten people off with an image, and he had to hope they could come up with better defenses against the Lodges than that.
"Hello, Hercules," came Veronica's airy voice, interrupting his reverie.
She wasn't in the tents. She was sitting on the stoop of the bodega, in a blue velvet coat and blue dress that only enhanced the glamor of her already-too-glamorous face. Sweet Pea had had a flashlight shining in his eyes just a few seconds ago, and he still hadn't blinked half as much as he was blinking right now, trying to process her.
Veronica examined his fencing bag.
"Congratulations on beating Baxter High's reigning men's epee champion," she said. "I fence myself, you know. Daddy and I used to fence all the time when I was younger. He and my mother still do, from time to time."
That wasn't really surprising, since fencing was cool precisely because it was the sport of classy sociopaths, but Sweet Pea didn't know what to say to it. Her father was that man who'd been at the wrestling tryouts, the one that'd had her whole darkly gorgeous look. Apparently while Sweet Pea had been deep in discussion with Chuck, Daddy Lodge had challenged, pinned, and humiliated Archie Andrews for no reason except that he could. He could humiliate any student he wanted. He was just that rich.
Sweet Pea didn't really want to talk fencing with the guy.
"Andrews is gonna find out we kissed," he told Veronica, rather than say he had zero interest in learning humanizing facts about her father. "Cheryl Blossom's friend saw us or something, so now she's gonna tell him."
Veronica raised a brow.
"I already told him."
"And he wasn't mad?" Sweet Pea asked disbelievingly.
"Of course he was mad," said Veronica. "But I'd already forgiven him for when he kissed Betty, and I told him he was on no account to issue the charmingly retro-sexist challenge for my hand that was his first response, and also I gave his father eighty-six-thousand dollars to pay medical bills, so even though I'm not sure I want to get back together with him, it doesn't matter. I now have a trump card for forever."
"You what?" Sweet Pea said.
Veronica looked at him severely.
"I didn't do it to have a trump card," she said, like this was important. "I wanted to give, give extravagantly! That's all I wanted to do when I first came here. I wanted to give away every ugly Lodge part of myself, every bratty piece."
She looked over her shoulder at the lights of the bodega.
"If I could--" she began.
"We don't want your money," Sweet Pea said immediately. "I mean, we want money. I don't even have a problem taking it from you. But if you pick a diamond from the tree and pass it to me, there's still blood at the roots."
Veronica reeled back, her expression so carefully perturbed that it was like people had taught her this, drilled into her that she should never get pissed off. He was learning fencing, but maybe she'd spent her life learning how to turn friendliness and politeness into a weapon, because she wasn't allowed to use normal weapons like anger. Sweet Pea sighed.
"Bruno didn't let you in?" he asked, because he wasn't sure if Bruno would, and he wanted to give her a chance to feel angry about something that wasn't totally her family's bad behavior.
"What?" Veronica said. "Oh. No. Your mother's the one inside. She said that if I decided to stay here all night she wouldn't try to move me."
Sweet Pea could imagine his mom saying that, because it wasn't the same as saying she wanted Veronica to stay. If his mom was minding the store, then she was probably looking out the window every three seconds, though, so they couldn't stay here. And Bruno would be upstairs with the triplets, so they couldn't go there.
"Hey," he told Veronica, running a hand through his hair. "You wanna get out of here? Do something?"
"If 'something' is not hob-nobbing with investors, it would be an improvement on my night so far, so sure," Veronica said.
"Great. Give me a second."
He went upstairs to drop his fencing bag in his room, with a brief hello to Bruno and absolutely no attempt to deal with the triplets' screaming. He also pulled off his Bulldog jacket and turtleneck, replacing them with his Serpent jacket and the cleanest t-shirt he could find before hastily slipping his rings on and mussing up his hair.
When he darted out again, the triplets demanded to know where he was going and why and with who, but Sweet Pea didn't tell them anything because he was experienced at surviving interrogations. Before he left he grabbed a clean sheet from the hall closet, already knowing it would be necessary, checking to make sure it didn't have Spongebobs on it.
He dragged Veronica to the Attic Addict, the secondhand store right behind the soup kitchen. Even though it was late, the racks outside still bulged with chipped glasses and old books, fifty-cent picture frames and costume jewelry. Inside, everything smelled like old cologne, and the aisles were so tight that you were always pressed up against whoever you were with. Every time Veronica shifted against him, the touch struck a match. He imagined he could feel the heat rising off of her. He tried in vain to ignore it.
He wasn't just here because he figured she could stand to see more of the Southside. He also wanted to find a cheap, decent shirt in his size, for school. He'd grown an inch in the past few months, something that everyone, himself included, felt was unnecessary of him.
"Thrifting," Veronica said. She had her arms crossed and was surveying the clutter, the high racks of army jackets, the deflated old leather shoes. "Not my preferred shopping experience, I have to say. Though I did once go with my best friend Katy to this place in Brooklyn that had this Louis Vuitton silk ready to wear v-neck. In cream, though, unfortunately, and cream is not my brand. I only bought it so Katy wouldn't get it."
Then she frowned, like she was judging herself, which was ridiculous, because Sweet Pea had bought tons of snake rings just so he could be the one to own them, and nobody else.
"This is a pretty popular place for us," he said. "When it's warmer we go to the quarry for if we want to get to know each other kind of on the one-on-one. When it's cold, we come here."
"Get to know each other?" Veronica said. "On the one-on-one?"
She said it like she knew exactly what he meant, so he just rolled his eyes at her.
"Up here it's cramped, but in the back there's two dressing rooms, and they're both pretty big."
"The Serpent makeout spots are a quarry and the back room of a consignment store?" Veronica asked incredulously.
"For the teens, yeah," Sweet Pea said. "FP doesn't let us get handsy at the Wyrm. Since Jughead joined, he won't even let us drink at the Wyrm anymore."
That had meant that Jughead's star, which had been rising among the Serpents before his father had gotten out of jail, had inexplicably tanked once FP had reasserted himself, which Sweet Pea kind of thought had been FP's whole plan all along. But he wasn't here to talk about Jughead. He grabbed a few shirts as a pretense and headed for the back, shooting a look over his shoulder to make sure Veronica was following.
Veronica was picking up a shirt, deciding it was ugly, putting it down, picking up another one, and then following.
She was discerning even when selecting a cover story. Sweet Pea guessed that meant this was pretty flattering, that she'd even be interested in him like this.
Both dressing rooms were clear, so he picked the bigger one, the one that he knew had a ratty couch in it. He beckoned her inside and closed the door after checking to make sure no one was watching. He locked it, then tossed the shirts he'd picked up in a corner.
"Well, the lighting in here isn't bad," Veronica said. "That's something. I mean, I've hooked up in some strange places before -- the cockpit of daddy's old jet, backstage at fashion week, on the desk in my old principal's office--"
Sweet Pea unfolded his sheet and spread it out on the couch, so she wouldn't have to touch material that, frankly, way too many Serpents had gotten intimate on.
"I'm not doing a thing in Weatherbee's office," he said. "I don't go near Weatherbee unless I have to. He comes to me."
Veronica blinked at him.
"That may be the most politically astute strategy for someone in your position, Hercules."
"Use my real name," Sweet Pea told her.
She started laughing, but it wasn't cruel. Her pretense shirt and the blue velvet coat joined his pile of shirts, and then she was shimmying onto the chaise lounge, the great poofy skirt of her dress billowing around her. Sweet Pea examined it. It was the terrain he'd have to cut through to do what he really wanted. If she'd let him do what he really wanted. He figured he'd find out soon. She'd tell him.
He dropped to his knees before the couch, rubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. Veronica eyed him interestedly, without a hint of fear.
"This is the first time I've ever seen the top of your head."
"Don't get used to it. I'm still growing. I grew an inch since the summer."
"God! Really? Very unnecessary of you," said Veronica.
Then she curled a hand around his throat. The touch made him shiver in a good way, especially when she started stroking the tattoo. All his blood was rushing lower down, and excitement was lighting up his brain.
"Can I pull up your skirt?" he asked.
"I thought I'd have to guide you to that myself," Veronica said mildly.
He growled. He wasn't Andrews.
He pushed back the layers of tulle skirt, all dark blue, midnight blue, so that it was like peeling away the night sky and bunching it all around her hips. Veronica had matching blue satin underwear, of course. He pulled that down, leaning back to tug it off of one smooth leg, then the other leg.
By then she'd let go of his throat and was stretched out on the sheet. This was kind of a shame because he wouldn't be able to look at her properly. But then this wasn't for him, so maybe it was fine.
"I trust you know what you're doing, or do you need coaching?" Veronica asked him briskly.
He scoffed. Maybe certain other guys she did this with needed coaching. Not him. He leaned in, pushing back the midnight skirt again, and found her sex. He began to rub her there, letting her gasps guide him. She was gasping a lot, and that was good. Common sense told him to pay attention to that, to the way he could see her chest rising and falling, and to how her hands crept down to guide his hand.
She liked when he pressed in gently, gently. When he kept rubbing all the way up to her clit. When he focused in there. He liked it too, inasmuch as it made him firm up faster. When he was hazy with his own want, panting a little, he figured it was time to put his mouth to better use.
The minute he got his tongue on her, those delicate hands closed on his throat again. It made him hum, growl almost, but that turned out to be a good thing, because she liked that. He was pretty sure he was messing up his jeans now.
He ignored that in favor of licking at her, getting her wet because he liked that and because she kept exclaiming things that said she liked that. Generally encouraging words, not that his brain could really parse them at this point. Anyway she communicated with more than words. Veronica was handsy, and when she wanted him to do something again he got her guiding him to it, which was fine by him. If she wanted him to focus on her clit, he could do that. If she wanted him to slow down, drag it out, he could do that too.
The only problem with dragging it out was that he could only get so hard before it was an effort to not want to turn attention to himself. He put his hands on her hips not just to pull her in closer, but also to keep from touching himself. He'd done it tons of times before when eating girls out, but this was Veronica Lodge of the classy, sulky Lodges. It seemed very necessary to prove to both her and him that a Southside boy could give her the five-star treatment, even if they were in a humble junk shop and not daddy's jet or, god forbid, the palatial Andrews house.
When she came, he hoped it was good. No way to tell from his position, except for the noise she made, which didn't help his efforts to control himself. After a few excruciatingly long seconds, she began to pet his hair and gently drag his head up.
Her eyes were bright. Two very faint spots had appeared in her cheeks.
"I guess the owner must have heard me," she said, bringing a hand up to massage her cheekbone in consternation.
"He's deaf," Sweet Pea said.
"Yeah. Were you holding back?"
The thought of her going louder and more riotous was a turn-on for him, though he didn't say that.
"Regrettably!" she said.
"Me too," he managed.
Now Veronica sat up, poofy skirts coming down, and craned her neck to get a look at the state of his jeans. She could see how he was straining at them. With a a quirk of her eyebrow, she gently patted the space next to her on the couch.
He got up, feeling like he was all limbs, and undid his jeans. He figured she would say something but she was just watching him with that damn eyebrow still arched, so he muttered, "I can do it, or you can do it. Whatever. I'd rather do it looking at you--"
"Archiekins and I have a game we play," she said, apropos of nothing.
He stopped long enough to give her a baleful look.
"You are so lucky you are gorgeous enough that talking about Andrews hasn't totally killed my boner."
Veronica just crossed her arms and shook her head, like he was disappointing her.
"It's not about him! It's about the game. Now sit down."
He got his jeans down and his boxers down, and then found himself physically dragged into the spot she wanted so that she could examine him. Length, girth. He knew he was fine in that department -- it kind of came with being big everywhere else -- so he didn't expect to feel this antsy, this excited over it. But Veronica Lodge could look at you with eyes that threatened to eat you. He liked that.
She looked at his cock and then, oddly, at a wristwatch he hadn't even noticed she was wearing. It was an expensive thing, with a solid gold band and yet a sleek, modern face. She fiddled with it a few times.
"This game is one of my -- peculiarities," she admitted. "But I always find it fun, and if a boy doesn't want to indulge me that tells me something."
"What do you want me to do?" Sweet Pea forced out.
Her response was to pull him in for a kiss. When she broke off, she spoke into his mouth.
"Endure for me. It's set for ten minutes. Archiekins almost never makes it."
And then her hand was closing around him, doing things that made him regret initially thinking Andrews was a wimp for not just trying to last the ten minutes. Because those minutes were slow, honeyed torture. Every time Veronica said, "Not yet. Hold on for me," like an order, she also did things that made that holding out close to impossible.
He ended up breathing into her neck, trusting her and adoring her and hating what she was doing, just trying to make it through.
When her watch beeped and she stopped, he finally came, it was a total rush. She tapped his tattoo lightly and said, "Well? Five stars for me? Or not?"
"Five stars," he agreed, panting. "For sure."
It came out that Archie Andrews had been fighting with him for like a week over the Veronica thing, and Sweet Pea hadn't even noticed.
"What do you mean, you didn't notice?" Jughead said, while discussing this in the student lounge one morning. "Archie's a nightmare when he's mad at you--"
"Archie's a nightmare when he's pulling a gun on you," Sweet Pea retorted. "He just spent a week looking constipated any time I walked in the room, and showing up to practice to say things like, 'You know, I thought you were better for a while, but I guess I was wrong.' I thought he was talking about wrestling."
"Me too," said Fangs.
"I knew he was mad," put in Kevin Keller.
"Right, but we're from the Southside," Fangs explained. "Like, we're not passive-aggressive. We're aggressive-aggressive. We can't read Archie's moods when he doesn't have a gun."
"Not that he should get another gun," Sweet Pea said hastily.
The object of their conversation chose this moment to walk in, along with Toni and Betty Cooper.
"What?" Toni was saying incredulously.
"It's true," Betty said, taking a seat next to Jughead and throwing her arms up like this was big. "The cult that took my sister and brainwashed my brother has some weird fascination with Blossom blood!"
"But how does that connect to the FBI, Betty?" Archie said, settling in on the other side of Kevin and Fangs, far away enough from Sweet Pea that maybe he was trying to communicate a great deal of Northside hatred, not that Sweet Pea cared.
"It's not the real FBI, remember?" Jughead said. "They're sizing up anyone in Riverdale with the slightest connection to the Blossoms. Family. Enemies. Mostly enemies, since there are more of those, among them the Lodges."
"Wow," Toni said, shaking her head. "While the rest of us were just, you know, going to sports practices and classes and stuff, the Jones and Cooper crime unit really took off with this dark enquiry, huh?"
Betty looked around at the Serpents, her face softening strangely.
"Sorry," she said. "I forgot that you guys wanted to take the FBI angle. Do you want to help me and Juggie--"
"What?" Toni said. "No!"
"Nope," said Fangs.
"I just want to go to school," Sweet Pea told her. "You guys can take the dark stuff."
"I'll help," Archie said, with a look at Sweet Pea that suggested this was maybe a competition for him.
"Great!" Betty said brightly. "You can distract my brother. I'll introduce you today, though it's not hard to pick him out. He's the creepy one."
Archie immediately began to look like he was regretting his decision to step in.
He cornered Sweet Pea right before class, by his locker. Ostensibly he did it because Sweet Pea had accidentally left his jacket in the lounge and Archie Andrews, golden boy, always had to be the one to restore things to his enemies.
"Look," he said tensely. "Ronnie and I...we're not back together. Are you two together?"
Sweet Pea couldn't figure out why Archie wasn't just asking her. Except maybe he was, and Veronica was just airily dodging the question. That seemed like something Veronica might do if she was still pissed about almost being sold out to a faux-FBI Blossom Blood Cult.
"We're just casual," Sweet Pea said, shrugging. "Why? You wanna fight about it?"
Veronica hadn't told Sweet Pea not to fight.
"I promised her I wouldn't deck you," Archie said, "so I won't. But if you hurt her--"
"Literally the only way I will hurt her will be when my boys and Toni and I find a way to destroy her family for them trying to destroy our neighborhood," Sweet Pea told him.
Archie blinked at him. He didn't seem to know what to do with that answer. After a few seconds, he passed Sweet Pea the Bulldog jacket.
"Well, just remember what I said," said Archie. "And you shouldn't leave that lying around, man. I swear Reggie came in and started sizing it up, like he wanted to do something messed-up to it."
And the lightbulb went off.
Because of Archie Andrews.
Sweet Pea got the locker combo, after a drunk late-night hangout with Chuck and Moose Mason. Toni went to the Attic Addict to find large quantities of unmistakably hideous green thread. She also spent an afternoon using some of the skills she'd learned in her brief exposure to art class and Cheryl Blossom, designing what she called a Cheryl Blossom special. Fangs made sure to spend two days telling everyone who would listen that Sweet Pea had lost his Bulldog jacket. FP, of all people, proved to have the skills to work on the jacket. And Jughead demanded the chance to do the actual break-in, because Jughead always wanted to be able to say he was most committed to the cause.
Sweet Pea insisted on doing it with him. It was fast, quick, and satisfying, just a matter of planting the thread in Reggie's locker, hanging up Toni's little art project and his modified Bulldog jacket, and then suffering an anxious, sleepless night.
Timing was important, so he got up early and met the others at school just as Weatherbee's car was pulling into the staff parking lot.
"Mr. Zhang-Peavey," Weatherbee said, nodding at him. "Mr. Jones. Ms. Topaz. Richard."
They all stared at Fangs.
"He's one of my best faculty friends," Fangs muttered defensively. "I haven't cracked the really cool ones yet."
They trailed after Weatherbee up the front steps. As Weatherbee was about to turn right into his office, Toni cursed loudly, right on cue.
"Ms. Topaz!" Weatherbee said, turning on her with a stern look.
"I'm sorry, principal Weatherbee," Toni said quickly. "It's just -- I was a total riverdud this morning. I completely didn't think about what I was wearing, and now--" she pulled off her denim jacket to show off a very skimpy halter top. It laid bare the snake tattoo on the back of her right shoulder. "I don't know what I'm going to do!"
"Just go home and change, Ms. Topaz."
"Can't," Toni said, frowning. "My uncle's out of town, so I'm holing up with Joneses, and Jughead's dad is already at work and won't be able to let us in."
"Well, then keep your jacket on!"
Toni made a face, visibly droopy.
"But I have biology today, and Mr. Flutesnoot makes the classroom so hot!"
"You know, I hate to suggest this because of what a horrible idea and an embarrassment to Principal Weatherbee and the whole school and also the very concept of public education those uniforms were," Jughead said, "but I think you're going to have to go change into a polo."
Weatherbee cast a terrible look on Jughead, one that said Jughead was not a child who endeared himself to adults, which was fine -- with the exception of his dad, Jughead wasn't.
"Don't they keep those old uniforms in the locked projection room above the auditorium?" said Fangs now.
"Hey," said Sweet Pea. "They totally do. Can you go get her a polo from the locked projection room above the auditorium, Mr. Weatherbee?"
"I'll get you the key," Weatherbee began, but the Serpents hastily demurred.
"We can't go in there!"
"Only A/V club members have that key! People will think we stole it from them!"
"People are always blaming us for things!"
"Can't you do, please, Mr. Weatherbee?"
"Fine," Weatherbee snapped. "I'll go to-- to--"
"The projection room above the auditorium," Sweet Pea said.
"I should look it over anyway," Weatherbee muttered. "Today's an assembly day, and we are going to have a very important video presentation on how to dress modestly and appropriately for this year's bizarre weather patterns. Not just for you, Ms. Topaz. For the whole school."
He went inside for the key and then emerged, heading in the direction they wanted. The Serpents followed after him, making sure to keep back a bit so that they wouldn't seem suspicious.
When he went up the stairs and turned left for the projection room, they only had to wait a few minutes.
"What is the meaning of this?" Weatherbee thundered.
The meaning was pretty obvious, but they still fell over themselves trying to get into the projection room to offer him help, and then pretending to be shocked at what they could clearly see hanging down on the stage. Actually, Jughead kind of overdid the shock.
"Hey, that's Sweet Pea's jacket!" he said.
"And that's a little doll of Sweet Pea with a noose around his neck!" Toni said.
"Hang on," said Sweet Pea, squinting dramatically and trying to sound as devastated as possible. "Do you guys see some weird green stuff on the front of my Bulldog jacket?"
FP had done masterful work, channeling the truest essence of immature jock humor. When Weatherbee called Coach Clayton and Flutesnoot to cut the doll and the jacket down before school assembly, he fixed a horrified look on Sweet Pea and said, "This is your jacket, Mr. Zhang-Peavey. But someone appears to be playing a prank on you. Of all the asinine--"
"That must be why your jacket went missing for two days," Toni put in. "Someone stole it for this."
"Yeah, he hasn't had the jacket since Monday. You can ask anybody," said Fangs.
"I believe you!" Weatherbee said. "Mr. Zhang-Peavey would never deface his Bulldog jacket to make it read 'Scumvester Snake-Peabrain.'"
"This extremely distinctive green thread is everywhere around here, though," Jughead said, pointing now at the stage they were all standing on. He and Sweet Pea had made sure to scatter a lot of it the night before, so now Jughead could say, "Our culprit isn't that careful, and you know it took somebody tall, probably another Bulldog, to get everything hung up from the rafters. I bet if we searched everybody's lockers, beginning with the Bulldogs, we'd find the rest of this thread."
Weatherbee stared at him, almost exasperated.
"Mr. Jones, if I could just--"
"Oh," Jughead said, sticking a hand on his hip and leaning forward, all attitude. "Oh, I see how it is! If you had even an inkling that the Southsiders had done this, you'd jump to profile us! But since it's your precious Bulldogs, they get special treatment--"
"I only want a minute to think, Mr. Jones!" Weatherbee snapped. "For God's sake!"
Then he was snatching the doll out of Flutesnoot's hands and striding down the stairs to the main seating area, then up the aisle. For a second they all held their breaths, but he stopped just as he reached the auditorium exit.
"Harry!" he shouted back at Coach Clayton. "We're going to have to search your Bulldogs' lockers. Now!"
By then, more students were arriving. A whole circle of them formed in the hall, around an irate Weatherbee who was still clutching the noose and the doll and the jacket. Jughead kept holding up bunches of thread dramatically, to punctuate Fangs telling the story to anyone who would listen. Archie's locker came first, but they didn't find anything in it except a lot of peppy Riverdale High pennants; three pictures of Jughead, Betty, and Veronica, respectively; a lot of smelly sports equipment, and a guitar.
"Oh, that's where that went!" Archie said. "Hey, I can finally get back to my music."
Raj Patel had far too many hair products and a binder of student secrets that made Fangs openly envious. Moose Mason had some pill bottles that caused alarm, but those turned out to be perfectly legal prescriptions from his doctor. Chuck had a blazer and a tie and some textbooks, and stood off to the side looking patiently up at the heavens, like he'd been through this merry-go-round before and would not be fazed. In Sweet Pea's locker, searched for fairness' sake, all they found was his squash equipment, which Veronica had given him and which he always left at school, because he didn't really care about squash.
They all tried not to look too excited when Reggie's locker was opened. This was hard, because Reggie was standing with his bros, making cracks about how it was time somebody put Sweet Pea in his place. So that made the ominous half-second of silence when Weatherbee first peered into the locker especially nerve-wracking.
"Mr. Mantle!" Weatherbee said, his voice dripping with contempt.
He stepped back, letting the locker door fall open. No one saw the thread at first, because a mountain of familiar, deceptively-cheery straws tumbled out.
JJ. All the Serpents' mouths dropped open. So did everyone else's.
"That's not mine!" Reggie yelled. "I stopped dealin-- I mean. That's not mine! They must have done it! That Southside scum!"
"No! Serpents are a JJ-clean squad!" Jughead shouted. "Not even Sheriff Keller could find a hint of it on us!"
"It was found in your locker, Mr. Mantle," said Weatherbee severely.
"I want a lawyer!" Reggie said.
"I'm assuming the Sheriff will call you one," said Weatherbee.
That, of course, meant the Sheriff and his deputies. And dogs. When they burst through the doors, all the Southsiders took a step back instinctively, and for a half-second Sweet Pea couldn't help the rage and dread that were tangled up inside him. For a moment, he thought it was him they were here for. Before, it had always been him.
But this time they cuffed another boy, much more nicely than they'd ever cuffed anyone at Southside High. Reggie was led away despite his loud protests, and an eerie silence settled on the hallway again.
"You have to go to class now!" Weatherbee told everyone tiredly, making shooing motions with his hands. "Shoo! This is still a school! To class!"
So they went to class, even if focusing was impossible and Toni kept tossing notes at him and Jughead that read, You didn't plant JJ on him? Are you sure? SWORDS AND SERPENTS MEETING DURING FREE PERIOD.
They convened in their regular meeting room and tried to go over what could have happened.
"That wasn't there last night when we put in the thread," said Jughead. "And, I mean, they did find the thread among all the drugs, so we did our job right."
"Maybe Reggie's just a drug dealer," Sweet Pea said. "Case closed."
"Okay, but hang on," Toni said. "Why would Reggie come in after you did last night, throw a bunch of JJ in his locker, and not pull out the weird thread? There were like seventeen spools there. I bought a lot. He would have seen it all sitting there."
"And where did he get the JJ?" said Fangs. "You have to have dark connections and, like, a total willingness to do any and everything to get JJ these days. I mean, it's all controlled by the Russian-Canadian mob of Greendale."
"Puzzled and bamboozled, my righteous ragamuffins?" came a cool voice from the door.
Their heads snapped up. Cheryl Blossom floated in and leaned against the teacher's desk, surveying them.
"Look no further for the collaborator at the heart of this little conundrum!" she said, with a snappy red smile. "That's right. I come to you with the humblest of my apologies, begging you to bury the hatchet, and--" she fixed her huge brown eyes on Toni, "--not in my back, if you please. Good old Reggie's takedown was a clever little plan on your part. But I added the Cheryl Blossom touch to convince you of my effectiveness as an ally. And of the sheer terror I can engender if I am your enemy."
They all stared at her.
"I'm sorry," Toni said slowly. "Is this a threat? Are you threatening to put JJ in our lockers if we don't, like, do whatever it is you want right now? Don't you think Weatherbee is going to catch on after the fourth or fifth time he finds a locker full of JJ?"
Cheryl took on an almost-hurt look. One white hand fluttered up to her breast.
"Toni, your inability to place your trust in me is perhaps understandable after my cruel campaign of classist calumny, but I assure you that I am genuine in my offer of support and friendship. Your little takedown of me is the first time since the arrival of Veronica Lodge that any girl has acted against me, and as Veronica can tell you, those who do not fall to my poise and power inevitably win my respect."
She batted her lashes twice at Toni, then held out an envelope. Toni took it.
"That had better not be a picture of Toni," Sweet Pea muttered to Fangs.
"In her defense, she's a very good artist," Fangs whispered back. "This could just be the way she communicates."
Toni shot them a weird look as she opened the envelope.
"An invitation to a slumber party with two plus-ones?" she said.
"Women only. My mother cannot be trusted around young men," Cheryl said. "And, lest you think I am trying to lure out one who I...unspeakably harmed, know that I will not hold it against you if you choose not to bring Pussycats. In fact, if you wish to invite some gamin Southside maids of questionable morals, I would entertain them as I would any Northsider."
With that, she raked her eyes over them all once more and then said, abruptly, "Ta-ta!" and exited the room.
"That girl is on another planet," Toni said immediately.
"You have to go," Jughead said, just as immediately.
Toni stared at him.
"And bring Betty!" Jughead urged. "So she can investigate the cult connection! You can take Veronica too. She really can keep Cheryl in line, I think."
Toni looked like she was about to argue, but before she could Josie McCoy poked her head in the door.
"Hey!" she said.
Toni smiled, but it was a little forced. Thanks to Josie's efforts, everyone at Riverdale High had realized that Toni was, well, hot, so there were now calls for her to join the Vixens, which Toni wasn't sure she wanted to do because of the whole Cheryl thing. Josie had also praised her work with the CRIME unit to Betty Cooper, who now wanted her to join the Blue & Gold, which Toni had confided in Sweet Pea was kind of weird, because she'd just be working with a friend she'd once kissed and his surprisingly territorial girlfriend. And Josie had heard Toni singing after stumbling in on her in the showers after soccer practice, and now the pressure was on to make Toni the fifth Pussycat.
Sweet Pea could have told her that she'd take to popularity like this, like a boulder running downhill and picking up more and more speed, but she seemed to find the whole process overwhelming.
"Get this," Josie said excitedly. "Midge Klump won Miss Teen Centerville Area last year, so this year Riverdale is hosting the competition! What do you think about signing up together to try out, huh? Me? You? Taking the pageant circuit by storm, girl!"
Toni stared at her.
"I couldn't even hack Ms. Congeniality," she said seriously. "And that's just what you win when you're so nice they want to give you an award for trying."
Josie made a pshaw sound.
"Have some confidence! Come on! Tryouts are the eleventh."
Toni examined the invitation in her hands and made a face.
"I have dark and terrible plans for that day, I think," she said. "So dark and terrible that if my other option weren't a pageant, I'd be trying to get out of them. I can explain them to you later at Pop's. We still on?"
"Totally. Like I'd miss the moment I've been dying for all week," Josie said. "Later! Love you!"
"Love you?" Jughead asked, when she was gone.
Toni leveled a finger at him.
"Do not screw this up for me, Jones," she snapped.
Eventually Weatherbee returned Sweet Pea's Bulldog jacket, after he'd made somebody pull out the green thread and sew the original name back on. Possibly Reggie. Sweet Pea was kind of disappointed, though. He would have preferred to mess around with it himself, get it to say snake.
But then maybe that would give up the game, and maybe they couldn't afford to do that yet. Reggie's parents were rich enough that Reggie would almost definitely be back, probably acting like community service was the most arduous punishment known to man.
Still, since Sweet Pea had outgrown last year's winter coat, once the January thaw dissipated and freezing temperatures hit, he was grateful for the jacket. If he layered it over his Serpent jacket, he didn't need a winter coat.
He did this one night when he had to take out the trash. It was freezing out in the alley behind the bodega, and he worked quickly, trying to get everything separated into paper, plastic, and regular trash, though he knew the sanitation company was owned by the Russian-Canadian mob after some deal of Mayor McCoy's, so. Really, who knew if trying to be green even helped. He only did it because Toni kept lecturing him about it.
He was almost done when a limo pulled up. One with a chauffeur in a stupid hat. Sweet Pea blinked at this. Veronica rolled down the window.
"Is this what we think of our Bulldog apparel?" she said. "What would Coach Clayton say?"
"What are you doing here?" Sweet Pea asked her.
"Want to go to the country club? We can fence."
"The country club's open at this hour?"
"It is for a Lodge," said Veronica.
Sighing, he went to get his fencing equipment.
They didn't fence in one of those stupid little box-rooms they'd used for squash. Veronica had them ushered to some kind of huge open studio, with mirrors everywhere, so that when she came back from changing into her gear he saw a Veronica from every angle. She'd pinned her hair up and it made her look completely different, older and more focused. He wondered if she'd ever shown this Veronica to anybody before.
"What are you doing?" she said. "You haven't even changed."
He'd been too busy wondering what the hell he was doing, almost midnight on a Friday and at the country club. The room felt too big for him, and that was saying something, because most of the rooms he'd spent his life in had been very literally too small. He turned for modesty, reaching down to unzip his bag, and Veronica stamped her foot.
"Oh please! Like I haven't seen a fair bit of you."
He looked over his shoulder at her. What he saw wasn't just her, but also the reflection of his back. On a whim, he cast the Bulldog jacket off. The Serpent underneath reared its fangs. He grinned at it, and heard Veronica inhale sharply.
"What?" he said, turning around properly now.
"Power move," was all she said, with an arch of her brow. "Now get ready. I can't wait to beat you. I love beating people with better reach than me. It's the ultimate test of skill."
He got ready. He figured she would beat him, for some bouts. But he'd win some, too. Anyway, maybe for tonight the point wasn't to win.
For tonight, the point was just to have this, something pretty good, something he wanted.