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Seven Ways to Shed a Skin

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1.

People did not like having someone standing around, making a stink, knowing more than they themselves did.

Before he'd died, Grandpa had often explained this.

"Artie never minds," Thomas had always said. "Artie looks out for me."

Which was true. Thomas was short, stocky, with a wide face that always seemed to spit out a challenge.

Mess me up. Just try.

People never got as far as they wanted to with that, though, because Artie was always there to help him out. As far as Thomas could tell, Artie might not be like him, but they were friends.

And when grandpa died and they started the club, Artie said as much.

"Ain't we friends?" he said. "Can't I come? Haven't I always kept my mouth shut, when you go on about massacres and stuff? Come on. I thought we were pals."

At first the rule was just Uktena, just them. But Artie wore him down, and then Thomas wore down the others. Because they were pals. And when Thomas made a stink, and somebody else -- that Mason kid, or Dougal Doiley -- said, "You some kind of pinko, Topaz? You hate this nation?" Artie was always there helping.

"The Serpent has meaning," Thomas warned him. "It's not just a symbol, you know. In our tales, it was when a boy was rejected by his family that he became one. Rejected like we have been rejected by this town."

We, he meant. Not you. Or not you in the same way, anyway.

But Artie said, "Well, they sure did lay me off from the Shop 'n Save, didn't they? I know rejection. God, speaking of, you should see Louise, the way she's eyeing me, after she wouldn't give me the time of day. If I'm gonna get me a girl, she'd better not hoodwink me. I mean, she'd better show what she's willing to do for me, for my boys."

Artie was with the club long enough to make that a rule. That didn't come from them. That came from Artie. Grandpa wouldn't have liked it, so Thomas didn't vote for it, but he didn't vote against it either, and anyway Artie wasn't the first of his kind to join up. Artie just opened the door.

When Artie got into technical school, he quit the Serpents. But the damage was done. The original idea, a place for those people the town had rejected, the people the town celebrated rejecting every Pickens day --

Its time was over. Gone. The Serpents' ranks swelled with all kinds. Maybe it was good. Maybe there were different kinds of rejections. Thomas kept his head down and didn't complain much.

It did seem to him that people like Artie, not people like him, were always taking the reins and picking the rules, though. People like Thomas would speak up, and they'd get told, "Listen, pal. No one likes somebody standing around, making a stink, acting like he knows more than you."

-

2.

"You know what I think?" he'd snapped at her once. "I think it's not me you like. I think I'm just some canvas for you to put your dreams on. I think if you had to go for what I really am, you wouldn't."

Hal never said anything like that.

In Hal's world, trying to insinuate anyone was really anything -- well. That was just impolite.

"Is she ill?" Alice remembered asking, about a cousin who was always falling into depressive fits, who they'd sent to some nunnery or insane asylum somewhere to help her get over it.

"Who can say she's anything?" Hal had fired back, all ruffled blond fuzz. "How can we presume? Anyway, it's not appropriate to talk about, Alice, for god's sake."

Hal's world was crisp and impersonal like that. His people ran a paper. He would run the paper. Beyond making these facts clear, the Coopers hardly ever talked about themselves. Visiting only ever meant having magazine topics thrown at you.

Did you read the article about the economic crisis? Which was not touching the Coopers in any way. Did you read this one, about those women in that Southern church who feed their children snakeskin to keep the devil away? Nothing like anything the Coopers had ever experienced.

The Coopers talked briskly about places they had no interest in really visiting, people they didn't really think had interior lives, cataclysms that would never reach their house on Elm Street. The house and the family had an odd honeyed remoteness like that. Alice envied them how they failed to ever really feel anything, and wanted to emulate it. Only she also wanted to to be able to say what people really were, and the Coopers were always too polite to get into topics like that.

Alice's father, for example, was a drug addict. Her mother was barely there. Her sister, Joanie, had gone and gotten a boyfriend and new breasts. She couldn't discuss these things with Hal, because he would just go politely disinterested over them, so instead she'd visit the drafty mansion of the Forsythe Pendletons to discuss it, to measure out just what it was that kept her from being like Hal, like FP.

"I'm not like Hal," FP said.

"Just because your house needs a little work--"

"A little work?"

Alright, so the front stair was rotted through and the attic was unusable. So they didn't have real air conditioning because his father had sold off the air conditioners to pay some cult to reach the ghost of his mother or something. His father was a basketcase. So FP ran around with the son of an electrician and pretended he was run-of-the-mill-poor just because the Joneses didn't have money anymore. They didn't really not have money, because having money was baked into his crazy father, even if FP had never seen the money firsthand, even if it had been gone with those quack doctors that had been called in for his mother.

FP liked to pretend he was rough, he could run with the Southsiders. But he wasn't really like that. He could be redeemed, probably, because he was the kind of person lucky enough to be born with pedigree. If things fell through with Hal, if the relentless Cooper push to be honeyed and impersonal fell through, there was always the vivid, gloriously ghoulish lineage of the Joneses to take on.

But when she suggested this, he said, "Dream. A dream. That's what you're painting on me. Not what I am."

When she was arrested, he showed up to cajole them into reducing her bail. And then he pestered her for what she'd done, hounded her relentlessly, tried to get at the kind of girl inside her, the girl who'd commit a crime like that.

Hal and his family did nothing of the sort. They saw the article. They published the article. But when they saw her they only said, sunny, steely, "Alice! How nice to see you. Did you read the latest in National Geographic, the one about the man who moved in with an ape colony?"

-

3.

"I didn't get in," he hissed at Fangs.

It was stupid, because if they caught him hissing, then him and Fangs would get yelled at. Made to kneel on rice, maybe. Their parents had put them into St. Ignatius -- paying a thousand a year, and that wasn't nothing, especially on the Southside -- and at St. Ignatius they still took punishments seriously.

Anyway, Fangs wasn't dumb like he was. Fangs might be snaggle-toothed and made-fun-of for it, but Fangs had definitely gotten in. All the Fogarty boys, his mother always said admiringly, were so smart. Going places. They got made technical engineers, they had army colonels praising them for their know-how. All the Fogarty boys, from Felix on down, all the way down to the little one, the one that would be better-looking when he lost his baby teeth.

"Me neither," said Fangs.

He said it with a little bit of a lisp, because he hadn't lost his baby teeth.

"Who's whispering back there?" snapped Brother O'Hanlon.

They said nothing. But he snuck a fist out, tentatively, in the space between their desks, and felt Fangs' fist tap his.

"Joaquin," Fangs whispered. "Maybe Joaquin got in."

But Joaquin wouldn't have gotten in either. Joaquin wasn't smart, just soft and pretty.

"Those Desantos boys are handsome," his mother always said. "So sad, those handsome motherless boys. I'd like to have one that handsome, and they'd like to have a mother. Imagine that."

She'd been furious when she'd learned he hadn't gotten in. Hadn't passed the test. For fifth grade, you took a test, and if you were any good Riverdale Middle School took you, and he hadn't been any good.

He'd thought maybe he would have wanted Fangs to fail too, Fangs and Joaquin, but now he was finding that he didn't want that at all. Because Fangs had touched his fist so lightly. Now Fangs was sinking his head onto the top of his desk, even though Brother O'Hanlon would definitely notice that.

"Get up," he hissed at Fangs.

"I heard it's rough, at SMS," Fangs whispered.

"Maybe it's rough! We're rougher!"

"You're such a big boy," his mother always said. "I always have to buy more, more, more for you. I always wonder why. It's not like you get good grades. It's not like you try. And look at this school picture, at the face you made. I want to show the other women at the store your picture, but your face always looks like this."

He was in eighth grade, on his way out of SMS, to SHS, when he got the tattoo. They wouldn't let him be photographed with it.

"Why don't you have a picture?" his mother demanded. "Why don't you have a picture?"

And she cried when she found out, when she ripped his bandana off.

Fangs and Joaquin had learned about the tattoo before, the day before.

"You're so cool," Fangs had said enviously, kicking a rock and letting it skitter across the road. "My brother says you're the coolest."

"He is the coolest," Joaquin had agreed. "He is."

-

4.

Guys had to do the gauntlet. Girls got to pick between the gauntlet or the dance. Some picked the gauntlet, because they thought that made them more credible. Because the dance was what mere girlfriends did, not full-fledged Serpents. Because they didn't want to take their tops off. Because they had high ideals, or they had lots of opinions about the sacred nature of the horned serpent of a tribe which, frankly, Penny didn't give a shit about.

She picked the dance. It was easier. No snakebite, no one yelling in her face, no punches to the gut. Penny didn't invite violence into her life. She'd known from an early age that she wasn't into brute force.

Her story, she was aware, had all the shades of a casual supervillain. Daddy had worked at the plant until the meltdown. Daddy had been caught in the blast. Although his body had melted or something, probably into oozy green goo, probably in a vat, his face had gone up in the Register and on the nightly news. Her mother had cried. Penny, too young to feel grief, had picked up the tears like she was playing some kind of copycat game. Someone had snapped a picture.

Tiny Penny, crying on the lawn in front of their little Southside house. Tiny Penny, interviewed by the paper. It had been a delightful game, figuring out what to say to make the blonde reporter cry with her.

Daddy will never come home again, right?

But if I close my eyes and wish, do you think I'll be able to see him?

What. A. High.

And the dance, that was fine, that was more of the same. Byrdie bitched about doing it with a snake, but Penny wasn't a masochist, so nope. That was right out. She told Hogeye she was frightened of being bitten, told Hogeye she was just in this so she could make it through SHS okay, go to college someday, maybe. Put a flutter of lash in it, and a wry joke, too. She didn't want people to think she was a dumb, sad, feminine kid anymore. She wanted them to see the glint of cleverness even as she used their protectiveness against them. She was employing creative problem-solving, after all. She wanted somebody to notice she was doing it, somebody to tell her she was smart for it.

Hogeye vanished that damn snake on the day she was supposed to dance. She didn't know how he smuggled it away. She didn't care. The point was that he'd done it, period. So while Byrdie stamped her foot and complained, Penny touched up her lipstick, her hair, in the bathroom.

The song was shit. Something from that new show -- American Idol. Anyway, the song faded away. What came into focus were the hoots and jeers, which after all were supposed to be the real test. See, they thought this was like the gauntlet because they thought they could hack off your self-respect the way psychos hacked off limbs. So the trick was to look unaffected and hot, like they were hacking off nothing very important.

But god. How boring.

"Nice tits!" said a rangy, tall one.

He was really getting into it. He was really all about the dance. Well, that just told you everything you needed to know. It was a Serpent dance, but Penny had never played quite by the rules, so she got down and crawled to him like a cat, and when she reached him she grabbed his long hair and used it to slam his face on the stage.

The roar of approval from the others was deafening.

Maybe she was a little into brute force.

"You bitch!" he hissed. "You bitch!"

So she made an enemy, in order to get the room to respect her. Well, that was fine. She approached him after to see how to play him, how to get him to come around like the blonde reporter had.

"Fucking bitch, fucking worm bitch," he was muttering to his friend, shorter and darker and, if she was being honest, roughly seven hundred times better looking. But men with looks were a pain, and she wasn't here for the friend.

"Even a worm will turn, Tall Boy," said the friend.

Tall Boy kept muttering.

"Sorry," Penny said, sidling up and interrupting him mid-rant, watching his colorless eyes widen with shock or rage or whatever, didn't matter. You couldn't get too hung up on the current emotion. Better to focus on the emotion you wanted to generate.

You, Penny thought carefully. Are going to learn to either respect or fear me, and I don't really care which, but it will be one of those.

But she said, "Mind leaving us for a minute?" to the friend.

Their reactions gave her the lever she needed. More shock, a cascade of shock, first from the good-looking one and then a half-second later from Tall Boy, and then a look that passed between them. Like the good-looking one couldn't believe he was being dismissed by a woman, because he clearly wasn't used to it. Like Tall Boy wanted to believe that this could be the natural order of things. Tall Boy picked out. His better-looking, Henry-VI-quoting friend dismissed.

"Go on," Penny said, making a shooing motion at this friend, this chevalier of the gang. "This is between me and Tall Boy."

"Leave it," Tall Boy said gruffly.

The friend nodded and stepped away, stiff about it.

"He's got a big head," Penny said, jumping right into the script forming in her head. "God, is it such a surprise I'd want to talk to you after what happened? Explain? Or does every woman have to look at him?"

"You'd think it, the way FP carries on," Tall Boy admitted.

He hated her, but couldn't pass up a chance to drag FP through the mud. Nice. She could work with that. She leaned forward, as if to say something confidential.

"I don't think he even looked at me. If he'd looked at me, I'd have picked him to do that to. It had to be somebody who was looking at me, but I wanted it to be him because he wasn't."

She had no idea if FP had been looking at her. Didn't matter. He'd respect or fear her too. She only had to get to him, but Tall Boy came first.

Tall Boy was saying, "--thinks he's some kind of medieval knight, the way he talks about women. The way he thinks. Goes all soft about it, like those Ghoulie bitches don't give us hell the same as their men--"

"I should have shown him," Penny said, injecting a touch of mournfulness into her tone. "I shouldn't have picked you. Honestly, I don't know why I did."

"He irritates me sometimes," Tall Boy admitted.

"I can hardly blame you," Penny said, with a light shrug. "You know, at least you joined in properly. Him -- he obviously holds himself apart. Thinks he's too good."

Tall Boy looked at her assessingly.

"Fucked up, what you did to me, but you know what? You're a smart kid," he said.

Yes. She was. But she hadn't even needed to be especially smart with him. The fissure between him and his friend had been right there waiting, sitting between them, and all she'd needed to do was give Tall Boy the first opportunity to widen it. All she'd needed to do was spot it, really. Tall Boy did all the work. If you said two or three things to people, and you made sure they were the right things, other people would do all the work. Your chief tool was their propensity for chaos.

"You're a really smart guy," Penny told him. "Gosh, I'm sorry I did what I did to you. I wish it had been him."

Gentlemen, welcome to violence.

-

5.

"Hey, snake!" said a boy. "Snake! Come here. I'll show you my Southside Serpent, baby--"

"Thanks. I don't talk to boys who are dumber than me," Toni said.

This meant, basically, that she didn't talk to boys. She was aware that she would have to adjust her standards at some point. But right now she didn't want to. She was in ninth grade, and she was the granddaughter of Thomas Topaz, the niece of Todd Topaz, the sister of Trinity Topaz, the daughter of Tamara Boyce-Topaz, who was doing twelve years on a possession charge. It was understood that Toni, like all of them, would be a Serpent.

When it ran in your blood like that, it was understood.

The frustrating thing was how badly she wanted to say, Hi. Listen. No. It means something. The Uktena, the horned Serpent, that is an old, old idea. It has power. It has significance. It was every boy who was cast out, it was every girl you disdained and mistreated. It's the rejected, giving themselves new life. Taking back their dignity. Hi. Do you get that? Or are you stupid?

But her grandfather would say, tiredly, "Toni, people don't like having somebody around making a stink, letting them know they know a lot."

He didn't, she noticed, tell her not to go after her bloodline, not to be a Serpent. He wouldn't tell her that.

In the lineup of the Topaz family, her grandpa was the kindest, the gentlest, and the most damn tired of the world, too. To protect him, the rest of them all agreed to keep their bone-deep hatreds away from him, to keep any additional negativity from touching him. If Todd locked her out, Toni didn't rat. If Todd snuck some drugs in to her mom and her mom got in trouble, her older sister didn't rat.

Actually, come to think of it, the whole arrangement really benefited Todd, because ever since Toni's dad had died, Todd was the golden boy.

But this was life. Anyway, she wasn't going to become a Serpent because she was related to Todd, who liked to throw his weight around like a big man. She was going to become a Serpent to honor the Uktena. She was going to do it for reasons that felt real, that felt noble.

Even if the path, she knew, would not be pretty. Would not be noble at all. There was nothing noble about the Gauntlet. There was nothing noble about officially sporting that tattoo, about only being able to talk to the roughest and dumbest and worst, people like Joaquin Desantos, slick and jittery and into fucking with people's hearts. Or Sweet Pea. God, she hated Sweet Pea.

Is your name a joke?

It's what my mother never called me. Of course it's a joke.

She didn't expect to meet anyone like her, not really, and when she met another Serpent legacy he was in fact nothing like her, because he initially pretended he wasn't a Serpent legacy.

Until he built up a noble narrative in his head. Until he decided to walk the path of the Serpent. Slither the path of the Serpent, whatever. For stupid, made up, noble reasons, reasons that he thought let him act like he knew more than other people.

"I get what you mean now," she told her grandpa eventually, after watching Jughead play at this for a little while. "About people thinking they know a lot, making a stink about it, and that being really annoying."

"That boy who wrote the article?" said her grandpa. "He doesn't know so much."

"Do I?" Toni asked her grandpa.

Her grandpa closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, sighing heavily, which was a bad sign.

At school, her new school, the kind of school where the boys at least got a pat on the hand if they were too overtly disgusting, Jughead's stupid article was making waves. It had made waves with the Serpents, but Jughead had more or less handled it (he was learning!), only at Riverdale High it made Toni the Protest Girl.

"Protest Girl," said some jock. "What are you gonna do on July fourth? Stitch a bloody snake onto the flag?"

"Stitch your stupid mouth shut, maybe," Toni snapped.

She was sent to Weatherbee's office. He gave her detention, and told her that Riverdale High did not embrace guerilla student activism of any kind.

"Cool. Guess it's just like Southside High then," Toni said, and got another detention.

Cheryl Blossom sidled into the second detention. Toni eyeballed her. Cheryl sat nonchalantly down next to her.

"You don't have detention," Toni said.

"And how do you know that, barbed wire Bratz Doll?" Cheryl said, as though provoked into it. As though it didn't take just about anything to provoke Cheryl Blossom into treating people like garbage.

Toni rolled her eyes.

"Like they'd give detention to Riverdale High's own budding Ayn Rand."

From there it was supposed to escalate, but it didn't. Cheryl brought her white hands down onto Toni's desk, making them fluttery, agitated, dramatic things. Toni stared at them, unimpressed.

"I didn't come here to fight," Cheryl breathed out. "I came because -- because of the blood in the soil, because this town's earth is made of nothing more than my ancestor's propensity for murder. Oh, Toni--"

Oh god. Oh god. This was about the article. Which Cheryl was making all about herself.

"Thanks," Toni said, in loud voice. "But no thanks, Cheryl. I don't talk to people who are dumber than me."

Flutesnoot looked up at her sharply, and that was how she got a third detention.

Maybe she deserved that. She was lying, after all. Jughead was actually her friend now, really a friend. So was Fangs. So was Sweet Pea. Somehow the quiet, stupid little rebellion they'd fomented against Tall Boy had made them all like each other. Made them show up to protests for each other. When she told Jughead about the article making Cheryl Blossom flick her internal moral lightswitch from actively horrible to merely annoyingly horrible, he just silently dropped his head into his hands.

"Got nothing to say for yourself, Jones?"

"I'm aware that there's no excuse," he said, sounding like the entire world was trying him today.

"Correct," she told him.

But after that she had to let him off the hook, because, when all was said and done, she did actually like him as a friend. They were similar enough that if she hated his flaws, then she'd end up despising herself for her own, and she didn't want to feel like that.

Cheryl came to the third detention with tape on her mouth.

"Good look on you," Toni muttered. "Even if you're still annoying me. Still, this is better than your usual mindless temper tantrums and shock slogans."

Flutesnoot cleared his throat.

"Miss Blossom has actual detention today. She's lucky she didn't get criminal charges because of what it turns out she did to Josie McCoy."

Then he pushed his glasses up on his nose.

"But I have no idea what the tape is about," he admitted.

Toni knew about the tape, but not about the Josie McCoy thing, because all she knew about Josie McCoy was that Josie's mother wanted to evict her grandpa.

"Maybe I misjudged Cheryl Blossom," Toni told her grandpa later.

Her grandpa cracked an eye open.

"Maybe not," he said.

"I thought you thought I didn't know as much as I think I do!"

"I didn't say that," her grandpa pointed out. "You don't know as much as you will, but it doesn't matter. No matter the odds, you're always willing to make a stink about what you know."

That was true. She was loud and brusque, even when she was wrong. She always did end up making a stink. Sometimes you had to do that. You had to make that your weapon, turn it into a way of defending what was true, what was right.

God, maybe she was a more annoying person than she'd ever thought she was. Maybe there was a reason, beyond the mom in jail and the horrible uncle and the snakes-in-the-bloodline, that she'd never had all that many friends before. Too intense, too reactive. And the world was going to forgive Jughead Jones for that far more easily than it was ever going to forgive somebody like her.

Still, when she got detention a fourth time (for telling Reggie Mantle off), and Cheryl Blossom was there, and Cheryl passed her a note that said

Date Concept, Thumbelina of the Alleyway. You. Me. A cool, mist-banked cemetery covered in moss.

Toni wrote back,

Not until you fix literally everything about yourself, sorry. Not your ancestors. YOURSELF.

She might be intense and reactive, but these days she liked herself too much to settle for anything less than that from Cheryl Blossom.

-

6.

He'd thought he was doing alright lately. Not father of the year. He wasn't gonna pretend to be that -- that wouldn't fool anybody, least of all his boy. But alright.

The trouble was, you forgot to reflect on 'alright' when it was happening to you. Happiness wasn't large and grand like misery could get. Happiness was just hearing Jughead shoot off at the mouth to that damn sheriff and feeling like he could laugh about it.

Jughead had been going to school, and maybe hating it. He was holding down a job, and maybe hating it. They'd had a roof over their heads, even if it was a trailer roof. Call it squalid if you wanted. It was. But it was close enough to happiness that when it started to slip away, the spectacular instability that replaced it couldn't hold a candle to it.

All that spectacle did was enrage him, anyway.

There is no honor in doing what you did, he should have said.

I wanted you to shun the kind of men who would cut up a woman, he should have said.

But instead he'd said what had felt true, which was that Jughead had destroyed their brief visit to 'alright.' He'd been working a job, Jughead had been going to school, there had been presents at Christmas, there'd been a moment when he'd spoken to Jughead about that jacket, about being a Serpent, and even if Jughead wasn't any kind of Serpent FP had ever seen before, Jughead had understood.

Nothing big in that, nothing special. A man talking to his son, his son responding. But these days when he talked to Jughead he felt like he was fumbling through a soup of bitter fear, and that time he hadn't felt that way. So in hindsight, the moment had been as miraculous as it had been small. He'd carried it with him to Pop's where he scrubbed toilets and mopped up messes, a small square of light in his back pocket, that he hadn't even realized was there until he'd lost it.

After he and the guys dumped Tall Boy, sent Lodge a message, and scrawled a message for Penny, too, where she would see it, he came back to the trailer. The lamps were on in the front room. In the hallway, there was a hint of something flowery, like somebody had opened a door into a garden somewhere, or like Betty Cooper had just left. Jughead was in the bedroom, in boxers, changing the sheets on the bed.

FP paused in the doorway, thought about how when Jughead had gotten into high school, he'd stopped pretending that he didn't keep condoms in pockets and drawers. Partly to say, your mom and I. We haven't been alright. Can't say I've been doing what's right by her. And partly so Jug would know where to find condoms, just in case.

He wasn't gonna be named father of the year. But maybe that had been useful. He held onto it. Cleared his throat.

"That was good, what you did today, Jug."

Used his head. Asked questions. Didn't mutilate people, for Christ's sake.

He remembered, now, how when Jughead had been born the doctor had put that little form in his arms, and he'd thought about how frightening and unpredictable it all felt. But for sixteen years or so Jughead had grown up quietly tough, a soft dreamer, always questioning but never ugly about it, and so FP had forgotten about the potential for unpredictability. He'd just assumed --

Well. He'd hoped, maybe, that Jughead could keep on being that.

Jughead was tucking corners, military-style, the way FP had taught him. His, "Thanks, dad," was swallowed up by the ceiling fan. FP wondered if they should talk about Betty Cooper. She liked Jughead soft, he thought, and FP -- he liked that about her.

"Betty's pretty clever," he said now. "She help you out?"

"You wouldn't," Jughead said.

There it was. FP clenched his fist and breathed out.

"You think I didn't want to? You think it was easy for me, finding out you'd done something you couldn't come back from--"

Chopping up women. Dumping bodies. Shoving your kid against a wall. Being so young, and thinking you were so big, that you let your anger become a spectacle. Emotions, they could be a real circus. Jughead used to be better than that circus, used to drive all his dark into his stories and let it sit quietly there. FP had always admired him for that. Doing that was better than getting so drunk you didn't feel.

He was still talking, rambling, his old man coming out of his mouth. Maybe less crazy. He stopped talking. Swallowed.

"All I'm saying, boy, is that if you're gonna be a Serpent, be a smart one."

"I thought you said I'd always be a Serpent," Jughead shot back. "That I'd never stop being one."

He'd only said that because it was clear Jughead didn't want to stop. When you were that young, you wanted it to be forever. Getting angry and getting mean and getting drunk or having sex until you didn't feel those things -- that circus felt spectacular when you were young. It would get boring later on. You'd become someone who found it boring. Violence, darkness, and all of it banal. But life shouldn't be like that. That stuff should be extraordinary, and not in a good way, while the good times, they should be ordinary and simple and right.

"You're not on probation because you're any less a snake, boy," FP said. "Or because you opposed me. It's because you mutilated a woman."

It's to make sure violence never feels too easy for you, too consequence-free. It's to keep it from feeling normal. I want you to feel sick when you think about it. I want you to keep the smell of it. I could tell you about how I was deployed, how I wake up sick to my stomach when I remember it.

I could tell you how that's better than how easy, how ordinary it felt, when I dumped that dead boy in a river.

"You'd better drop whatever side of yourself made you do that, and quick. Some skins you're better off shedding," FP said, and he put an edge into his voice to make sure Jughead knew that was the end of it.

Or maybe not quite the end.

"You knew something was wrong, and you asked questions. Used your head. Found Betty to help you. That's a better skin to wear, Jug. That's who you should be."

"I didn't get there listening to you," Jughead retorted.

FP wanted to snap something back, but he held his tongue. Kept it stoic. No need to make this ugly and spectacular.

Did Jughead remember every time he got shoved against a wall? It hadn't happened that often, but did it need to happen more than a few times, before you woke up in the middle of the night because it was making you sick?

It was a small piece of violence, comparatively speaking, but most days FP couldn't even begin to rank violence. He'd lost all sense of proportion a while ago.

Jughead was sitting on the edge of the bed now, staring at his hands.

"You were right about the -- the thing I did to Penny," he said.

It was not a great admission, but FP clung to it. He went to sit next to Jughead, put a hand on his shoulder.

Jughead's face had crumpled a bit, the way people looked when there was some horror they were making themselves face, in order to remember it was a horror. FP kept holding onto his shoulder. When Jughead started furiously batting tears away, he said, almost on instinct, "Don't gotta cry about it, Jug," the way he'd always said when Jughead was a kid.

But maybe he did need to cry. So FP amended it.

"Well. Cry if you want."

Crying made a man squalid, made him small, he'd always been taught. But this crying he picked up and tucked in his back pocket. This crying was alright.

-

7.

Betty walked home in the dreamy dark.

Tonight, the wind was flaring and the bare branches were trying hard to rustle without their leaves. She was acutely aware of her body, of the way it could thrill and the way it could ache. She rattled her fingers against her thigh as she walked, like the rattling branches, moved by her own sudden giddiness.

There were pieces of tonight that she never wanted to let go. The soft dark of Jughead's hair, brushing her neck. The skinny, awkward strip of his ankle when he'd pulled off his ridiculous socks. The feeling of climbing onto him, thrumming and content, and wrapping her hand around his bare bicep.

You were wrong.

I was right.

I hope it confounds and impresses you.

I want you open and surprised and mine.

He'd complied. So, for once, the dark looked dreamy. She could take his darkness, showy and confusing as it was, all that Serpent business, all that business with cutting, whatever he meant by that. She could take his darkness. She wanted all of it, so she took it.

It was a little tangled up right now, whether she'd been counted among the Serpents tonight because that let her be with Jughead, or whether she'd been able to grasp Jughead because she had done something for the Serpents. It was a circular, coiling question. The two triumphs had knotted together, and she was too pleased right now to try and untangle them. She only knew that she was someone who had looked into his dark and grabbed it and made it hers. Not so long, now, maybe, until she could treat her dark the same way.

She ran into Archie at the corner of Elm, both of them walking back in the dark. He gave her one of those smiles that had used to make the sky fall, but tonight it didn't work that way. Those smiles had stopped producing any urgency in her, become as flat as they were dreamy.

"Betty, are you seeing anybody?" Archie had asked her after the Black Hood debacle.

It had felt like such a heady, horrible question. Like she was being asked to choose.

But then he'd followed it up with, "Because Ronnie, one time she told me I should see a therapist. I don't know. Maybe she was right."

And everything had begun to fold itself back into how it was supposed to be. Maybe she'd thrown the world off its course, but now it had folded back.

She would tell Jughead about the kiss in her own time. She would tell him when things didn't feel too delicate or fraught. When the moment wasn't urgent. When she could put her dark into words, the way he'd done with his, and not flinch from it.

And she'd faced down his dark, so now he had to face down hers. When you held secrets for someone like Jughead, who knew what it was to be fragile, he wouldn't turn around and drop you.

I trust you, she told Jughead. See? I trust you now, because you gave me all of you.

She'd been right. He'd been wrong.

"Betty," Archie said now. "Do you ever think that, underneath the town, there's something -- I don't know, something dark? My grandpa Artie always said life here would be simple, once I got old enough to understand it. But there's--"

"A pain and a wild decay. A weirdness."

"Right. I want to--"

"Take it on."

Everything that lived beneath the skin of Riverdale. And to take it off, to expose it.

"I just don't want people hurt, Ronnie hurt," Archie said. "Because things have been getting too weird, Betty."

She'd traced Jughead's tattoo. She'd pressed her fingers along his spine. She'd reminded him that he'd been wrong, to try and keep her away from the dark and weird.

They were at her house. Archie was still talking (I told her we kissed, by the way, did you tell Jug?) but she sent him off with a hand on his elbow, a nod.

"Soon, Arch."

Archie nodded back.

In her own time, she would tell Jughead. Soon, and at the right time. But soon, because now she had every honest part of him. She smiled at herself in the hall mirror, smiled at the memory of running fingers along his jaw and seeing him shudder.

Soon. But in her own time.

Then she turned and walked into a pool of blood.

-

When Jughead got her call and went out into the dark, he did not wear his jacket.

Probation. There were versions of Jughead Jones that would never respect a word like that, but he did respect the jacket. He'd pushed too much onto it, tangled up too much meaning in it, to not respect it.

Everyone put a different meaning on it. It sat there in the living room with the flickering light of the trailer park sign playing on it, maybe for the last time, and every time the light flashed blue or orange or green it looked like a slightly different snake.

Outside, people were crying, laughing, despairing, cursing, opening gifts. Briskly discussing how to dispose of bodies. This was life in a river town. The river coiled around all of them.