"So what now?" I ask after Josie runs out of Thistlehouse's driveway and, by extension, out of our plan to rescue Cheryl from whatever hellhole her mother has shipped her off to. It's a question I commonly find myself asking when it comes to matters dealing with Cheryl Blossom.
A sobbing Cheryl throws her arms around me while soaking wet and in a locker room. What now?
I'm hugging Cheryl, a white dot in the middle of a sea of people dressed in black. What now?
The image of Cheryl's father pointing a gun at her brother is burned into the back of my eyelids. What now?
I'm clutching Cheryl's freezing form to my chest in the back of my mom's town car. What now?
My cheek is pressed against Cheryl's and she's crying, no doubt thinking about what could have been had we not pulled Nick St. Clair off her when we did. What now?
And now the notorious Cheryl Blossom has disappeared without a trace. One-third of our rescue squad has quit over some sort of... stalking debacle? Which, yes, I understand, but a moment of weakness fueled by a failed rape attempt pales in comparison to her suddenly vanishing. Where do we go from here?
Toni turns to me, "I don't know, Veronica. I truly don't. But I am not giving up, not now. Not when everyone has given up on her."
I take a breath. "Okay. Okay. So we find her then."
"How?" Toni says, her voice desperate.
"So her mother said that she needed to be fixed... was she referring to Cheryl's... mental issues? Because if so maybe we can check out local wellness centers. Rehabs, maybe?"
Toni bites her lip, "I don't think that's what she meant."
My eyebrows tighten, "What do you mean?"
Toni pauses for a minute, seemingly running something over for a few times in her head before opening her mouth, "Cheryl's a lesbian."
My eyebrows raise, "Oh?"
"Her mother's homophobic."
"Oh." Suddenly it dawns on me. "Oh... Oh God, Cheryl."
Toni's eyes well with something that looks dangerously close to tears and she turns to me, "We have to find her."
I nod, filled with a sense of conviction that I didn't have before. "We will."
And there are a million questions flooding my head about the desperation that lies in Toni's brown eyes and the nature of their relationship, but I squeeze Toni's arm instead of voicing them.
"We'll find her."
It's only while we're climbing through a disgusting and grimy tunnel that the weight of this situation fully hits me. Cheryl's mother sent her to conversion therapy. With the thought comes the worry that whatever they're doing to her in there will be too much to come back from.
But when we land I catch Toni's eyes, and the pure passion in them is enough to make me throw out any thought of caving. Because I know that if Archie was in a predicament anywhere near as dangerous as this, I'd walk through a million grimy tunnels for him.
"Okay. When we get to the main building, what happens then?" I find myself asking again.
Toni's eyes fill with conviction again, "We search each and every damn room until we find her."
She says it with such confidence, as if there is no other outcome possible than to find Cheryl and get her out of here, that all I can do is nod. Once we reach the main building where corridors of dimly lit rooms sprawl out before us, Toni turns to me.
"Okay, let's split up. We'll cover twice the ground."
And although this place creeps me out beyond comparison, although my heart is threatening to beat straight out of my chest, although a little voice in the back of my head is saying that we won't find her, I say, "Okay. But be careful."
And yelling Cheryl's name, I go out to find her.
When I find Cheryl, her lips are locked with Toni's in the middle of a heated kiss.
I do a double take, thinking back to all the feverish looks between Toni and Cheryl - at the drag race, at registration, at Toni's cheer audition, at the sleepover - and wonder when exactly this started. Wasn't it less than a month ago that I was trying to diffuse an almost fight between them at the registration desk?
Guess all that anger had a little more to do with sexual tension than class differences.
I can only think over the intricacies of Cheryl and Toni's relationship for a second before I remember the surprisingly intimidating group of nuns that had seen me running through the hallways.
"Cheryl, Toni. There are a bunch of nuns coming, we have to go. Come on."
And the look of sheer panic with which Cheryl turns to me before she realizes who it is makes my heart split in two. But I don't have time to think. I don't have time to ask what now? All I can do is run.
I register that Cheryl and Toni are following me, hands clasped together. Part of me thinks about how it would probably be faster if they let go, especially considering the height difference between them. But then I think about Cheryl's panicked, tear-stained face and I bite my tongue.
She's lost too much already. Toni's hand can be hers to keep.
Once we're outside and Toni is ramming a cane into the door to keep it shut, the pesky question comes back. So what now?
But then we're running to Kevin's car and I don't bother trying to think of an answer. Out of the corner of my eye I see Cheryl waiting until Toni grabs her hand to start running again. The New-York part of me wants to comment at the absurdity of waiting until your girlfriend (?) holds your hand to start running for your life. Most of me is just relieved that Cheryl feels comfortable enough to hold her hand after whatever they did to her.
When we get to the car, I ride shotgun while Kevin drives. Cheryl curls into Toni in the backseat, head tucked under her neck. Toni lays her cheek on the crown of Cheryl's head and whispers something that sounds like "You're okay. I've got you."
I quickly avoid looking at the rearview mirror, feeling like I'm bearing witness to something not meant for my eyes. I turn on some random mellow radio station to give us background noise while we drive back to Riverdale.
It's only when we reach the break between the Southside and the Northside that Kevin turns to me, panicked. Truth is, we had only thought this plan through pretty much to this point. Toni had a duffel bag full of overnight necessities in Kevin's car but no real place to go home to.
"Toni? Cheryl?" I find her eyes through the rearview mirror. "Where do you want to go?"
Toni looks down at Cheryl, who shakes her head and says something to her, before turning back to me. "I - I've been staying at the Wyrm. We can go there, or the trailer park. Cheryl's staying with me tonight."
I turn to Kevin, who gives me his classic 'I don't know don't look at me' face. I have to do everything myself for these gays. Sorry, guys. I take a deep breath, "Okay. Okay. Let's - I'll get you a hotel room for tonight."
Cheryl finally untucks herself from Toni's neck and says, "You don't have to do that."
A sad smile graces my lips, "I know, Cheryl. I want to. And hey, what better way to spend my father's dirty money than helping out some friends?"
Cheryl shoots me a tiny smile and then tucks herself back into Toni, who smiles down at her like she's the best thing that ever happened to her. Then Toni looks up at me, mouthing a silent "Thank you."
The next morning I roll over, eyes heavy. It takes me a moment to remember what happened last night, but when I do I'm scrambling for my phone and typing out a message to Toni.
hi, i hope cheryl's feeling better. just wanted to let you know that i charged the room on daddy's credit card, so you and cher can stay for as long as you need.
Less than a few minutes later my phone dings.
Toni: Hi, V. Thx for offering but Cheryl wants to go to school? I'll let her know the offer's out there tho.
All day I've been scanning the hallways for a glance of red hair.
It more than surprised me when I heard that Cheryl was back at school today. After what happened at the Sisters, I wouldn't have blamed her if she decided to lock herself in with Toni someplace and never come back.
A flash of pink hair tucks into the break room and I dash to find her. I see her attempting to shove a wrinkled dollar bill in the vending machine and walk up behind her.
"Hey, let me help you with that." I say, smoothing out the bill on my skirt before handing it back to her.
"Thanks, Veronica." Toni says, her eyes drooping heavy.
Toni punches in for some cherry gummies before turning back to me, "You could say that. We didn't really sleep much."
Eyebrows raised, I try and hold back a giggle. Toni scoffs, "Not like that, you pervert."
"Sorry, sorry. I've been spending too much time with Kevin."
Toni bends down to retrieve her candy when the mood suddenly gets darker. I have to ask, "How is she?"
Toni sighs, shrugging, "She's... surviving. I'm worried about her. She's trying to pretend everything's okay but she's not the same. Her hands are constantly shaking. I think she's lost weight. She gets nightmares. And there's bruising? Like on her wrists? I'm... I just... I don't really know how to help her and she's not really talking about it and - "
"Woah, T, take a breath. I get that you're worried. I'm worried too, but you're not going to be able to help her if you don't get yourself together."
"I'm sorry I just like - I don't know - for Cheryl."
I can't help but smile softly at the implications of Toni's words, "You care about her."
Toni lets out a breath, "Yeah. Yeah, I care about her."
"I'm glad she has you."
"I just don't want anything - I wouldn't forgive myself if something happened to her."
I narrow my eyes, my mind flashing back to last winter when the ice cracked and Cheryl fell through it. "She hasn't said anything worrying, right?"
Toni runs a hand through the ends of her hair, "Worrying?"
I let the silence stretch a bit, wondering if I should even bring up the incident. "I - has Cheryl told you about what happened at Sweetwater River?"
Toni's eyebrows furrow. "No?"
A long sigh escapes me, "Look, for the record, normally I wouldn't tell you this. I respect Cheryl's privacy, but her safety comes first and under the given circumstances I think it's pretty fair that - "
"Veronica." Toni interrupts me, her voice stern. It's moments like these that I remember that no matter how soft she is with Cheryl, this girl is no joke. The Serpent sewn into her leather jacket pretty much guarantees that.
"Cheryl tried to kill herself last winter. At Sweetwater River. She texted me what was basically the equivalent of a suicide note and we went to find her. Archie broke his hand and we got her out but - "
Toni's face has fallen, devastated. It's an echo of how it looked as she ran through the halls of The Sisters of Quiet Mercy trying to find her girl. "But?"
"Well, Archie's dad got shot. All the stuff with the Black Hood happened. And I don't think any of us ever really bothered to get Cheryl the help that she needed."
"Poor Cheryl..." Toni says, voice shaky.
"Yeah. I - so keep an eye on her, yeah?" I say, unable to keep my voice from shaking. I know I could have - should have - done more to help Cheryl after what happened at Sweetwater River. I made a mistake leaving her alone. But I was fifteen and stupid and my priorities were all messed up, and so help me God if I'm going to leave a friend in need again.
Then Toni's hand is on my arm and she's giving it a gentle squeeze. "Of course, Veronica."
I do a double take when I walk past the student lounge and see Cheryl and Toni curled into each other and playing with each other's hands. It's one thing for me and Kevin to know about this sapphic development, but gay scounts honor guaranteed that we wouldn't say a word to anyone. I wasn't prepared to see them go public so quickly.
And yet - there they were, staring into each other's eyes with a fondness that I didn't know either one of them possesed.
Jughead walks past me and stops abruptly. "What happened there?"
And my heart swells with pride when I think about how far Cheryl has come from the girl who latched onto me in that locker room so many months ago. How despite the hell she went through at the hands of her mother and the Sisters, Cheryl Blossom did not falter. How she manages to be open and proud in the face of a family who rejects her.
And I think about Toni. Because no matter what comes now, knowing that Toni will be there for it gives me peace of mind. Because no matter where she goes from here, Cheryl is going to be okay and loved and happy.
"It's pretty clear isn't it? I think they fell in love."