"Toni? Toni, are you there? " Jughead's wheezy voice insists on the phone.
"Jug. " She swallows hard.
"Damn it, Toni, where's your head? " He grunts. "Do as I say, you and Sweet Pea stay in the hospital with Fangs until second order. Cheryl warned us about the sheriff's plans and all the Serpents are now in danger. I still don't know how to get us out of Whyte Wyrm or where we'll get shelter, but you have to stay and protect Fangs until we find out, do you understand? "
"Copy that. " She doesn't want to talk too much, afraid to fall apart. "Cheryl... Is she at the Wyrm, Jughead? "
The fear in her voice makes him understand very quickly.
"Toni, listen, you have to focus on yourself now. Cheryl's fine. Archie and I will protect her if necessary. Stay with Fangs and Sweet Pea. Wait for my signal. "
The phone had been silent for almost two hours and Cheryl isn't answer her texts. And Toni, after wandering in circles fiercely, flushed with concern, finally slipped into the chair beside a sleeping Fangs, feeling the tears build up in her eyelids and her throat close. Crying is not a common tract for her, for any of the Serpents, but she doesn't think she can avoid it.
Her gang is shattered. Her home is taken. Her friend was shot. Her girlfriend is in the middle of a war in which her side has no chance of winning. She didn't even take enough time to recover from the commotion at the police station, or from her flashing kidnapping, or the news that Cheryl was attacked by the Black Hood.
She is losing everything, shattering herself with no chance to stop.
She wants to go to Cheryl. She wants to be with her every minute and promise never to leave her vulnerable again, guard her from all the horror that constantly chases them. Thinking about Cheryl involved in one of the ever-violent clashes with the Ghoulies wraps her stomach and her first instinct is to run back to the South Side for her.
However, Toni chooses to stay. Toni chooses to believe that Cheryl can fight and Jug and Archie can protect her. Toni chooses consciously, but no coherent conscience placates the feeling that she is neglecting Cheryl as everyone did with the redhead throughout her entire life.
"Hey, Toni, keep it together. " Sweet Pea kneels before her. "She's Cheryl Blossom, A.K.A. Cheryl Bombshell, isn't she? She didn't hit the Black Hood with an arrow and saved you from the Ghoulies? She can take care of herself, you know that. "
"It's not just her. " Toni shudders, shaking her head in denial. "It's about everything, Sweets, everything is... falling apart. "
"Come on, T, I'm the grumpy one here, remember? " He tries to laugh. "Fangs is the joyful optimist, you're the balanced responsible and I'm the impulsive pessimist, right? And now we've added this unpredictable, redhead creature with a killer vocabulary and a good heart, right? "
Toni's heart may fire for a few moments with the friend's statement, the most reluctant of them all when it comes to Cheryl, a Blossom, bringing her as part of the family.
"Right. " She nods. "I just want to protect her, Sweets. I don't know what I would do if something happened to her... again. "
"The Serpents will take care of her. We always take care of our people, even those who haven't gone through the ceremony yet, and by ceremony I mean they didn't taste my knuckle. "
Toni frowns and Sweet Pea knows he's found the perfect distraction.
"You've lost your mind if you think I'm going to let you put a finger on her. "
"Is that so? " He stands up, moving to a safe distance. "Would you rather she to do that stupid dance in front of everyone, to covet and cheer on you Cherry Bomb? You should be ashamed, Topaz ... "
"I have another option. " The weak voice awakens Sweet Pea from his mockery and Toni from her threatening posture. Fangs sits uneasily on the bed and smiles dizzy, crossing his arms carefully. " We let Red in without participating in any of these follies, because if someone caught Toni's heart, they could only be worthy enough to enter. "
"Fangs! "Toni smiled relieved, approaching to touch his smiling face.
"Back from the dead, mate. "Sweet Pea messes up his short hair.
"The doctor said I'll be fine and I can walk short distances, Fangs Fogarty will not be knocked over so easily, my friends. And soon we'll end up with the Ghoulies and Penny. "
"Of course ... You don't know. "Toni's smile falls. "We've lost, Fangs. We've lost the South Side. We're homeless, persecuted by the police and the Ghoulies. "
The boy opens his arms to shelter her and Toni does not hesitate to hug him.
"I don't even know if the Serpents will continue to exist, guys. " Sweet Pea rests his fists on his waist, resuming his usual realism.
"It was just a losing battle. " Fangs determines. "As long as there's one Serpent standing, we exist and resist. "
"Jeez..." Toni walks away, wiping away the fugitive tears. "We're supposed to be comforting you. "
"Nonsense. " He takes one of her hands. "Now, where's our Bombshell? Why didn't she came to see me? Why isn't she taking care of you? "
Toni thinks for a second that she will fade, but Jughead's words echo and override her concerns with her girlfriend.
"Cheryl is saving the Serpents, Fangs. She discovered Hiram's plans and went to Whyte Wyrm with Jughead and Archie to warn them. "
"I bet she's giving orders to everyone right now! " He applauds slowly, contentedly.
"Like I said, a good heart. " Sweet Pea says proudly.
"But... Guys... Sunnyside? The trailers? Our homes? " Fangs grieves, remembering what happened on the South Side, the truth being absorbed in his fears.
Toni and Sweet Pea share a stern glance, but the thud of the door opening abruptly stop them from making a sad and necessary reply to their wounded friend. Kevin Keller invades the room, panting and agitated, looking for them with his big eyes.
"Kevin ...? "Toni hisses, panic twisting inside her.
"You stayed..." The boy breathes in relief. "Good. I talked to the doctor about the situation on the South Side, Fangs, and you can come with us as long as you stay resting and don't get in trouble. "
"Go to where? " Sweet Pea suspects. "If we're going to hide in some dirty hole in the city, Fangs stays here until he's fully healed. "
"You need to come to Thistlehouse. " He straightens, knowing that Toni would be alarmed. "Jughead will explain everything when we get there. "
Toni, however, can't wait.
"Where is she? " She whispers.
"Cheryl is safe, I promise. " He explains with regret. "But the sheriff keeps looking for Serpents around the town, and Cheryl pretty much ordered me to pick you up before he decides to remind that a Serpent was shot in front of the police station. "
"Come on, guys. " Fangs tries to get up, gritting his teeth in the process. "We have to see Red and the others. "
"Fangs Fogarty, you're going to take the doctor's directions seriously! " Toni scolds him for his imprudence, standing like a crutch on his left side. "Be patient. We'll be here in a few minutes. "
On the inside, however, Toni is desperate.
She left her.
She left them.
All of them.
All the Serpents and Cheryl. She left her alone and now Kevin Keller mysteriously summons her to Thistlehouse and Toni has never been so terrified.
"Sweet Pea, drive. " Kevin throws the keys and Sweet Pea catches them in the air. "You're less prudent than me and something tells me you want to get there fast. "
Sweet Pea strides through the hallways to get the truck ready. Kevin takes the other side of Fangs and they both help him walk to the exit, the bag with his belongings hanging on Toni's shoulder.
"If you wanted to stay and touch me, Keller, you just had to ask..." Fangs teases him with a gallant laugh, receiving a roll of his eyes.
The two boys share provocations while Sweet Pea honks horn and Toni makes an absolute effort to not think about why Cheryl didn't pick them up instead of sending Kevin, wanting to blink and meet her before fear drives her crazy.
For the sake of Toni's nerves, Kevin was right. Sweet Pea rips the city breaking all traffic rules, Fangs' fragile body protected between her and their messenger. Accustomed to escapes and clandestine races, the Serpent makes daring curves in alleys, taking unimaginable shortcuts.
Toni's heart speeds up only when they climb the Blossom properties hill.
But nothing could prepare her for what they find when they park in the stone fountain.
She jumps out of the truck as the two boys help Fangs down and she can't believe the extraordinary sight. In the barn, in the window of the never-inhabited edicule, in the lawn, around the pool between Thistlehouse and Thornhill. Motorcycles and tents. Lamps and moving leather jackets.
All of them. All the South Side Serpents and their loved ones.
Some have bloody bandages, others carry food plates, others talk amicably, and even laugh, almost casually, all of them, all together, sheltered in the lands of Cheryl Blossom.
"Toni! "Jughead runs to the group, a glaring bandage on his eyebrow.
"Jughead. " She stays composed. "Everybody is here. "
"Cheryl brought us here. " He nods. "It was a carnage, guys. We fled from Whyte Wyrm in time, but we were ambushed at Sunnyside. "
"Our families ..." Fangs swallows, leaning firmly on Kevin.
"We've all brought it, I promise. But we had to fight. "
"Have we lost anyone? " Sweet Pea goes straight to the point, clenching his fists.
"No losses. " He ensures. "Cheryl set up a tent and took care of everyone's wounds and her Nana is keeping us fed with Betty's help. Veronica and Archie fetched blankets and clothes for those who couldn't pack on the run, and my father assigned some to watch over the property. For now, we'll be fine. "
As if guessing the anguish that petrified Toni to the point that she couldn't even express her need, Sweet Pea took a step forward.
"Jones! Where is Red? "
"Cheryl is still tending the wounded in the tent on the other side in the gardens. "
"What?! " Kevin practically growls. "I was here almost an hour ago and Cheryl was almost falling apart from fatigue, are you're saying no one took her place?! "
Toni is about to scream when Jughead argues.
"She insisted that she was the most qualified. Honestly, I think she is. I don't even feel the cut of the fight anymore. Cheryl has been through a lot, do not underestimate her. "
Toni doesn't underestimate her.
Toni just doesn't want her to have to go through anything else.
No horror. No pain. If she has, not alone.
"She fought? Is she hurt? " Fangs is genuinely concerned.
"She is fine. A bruise in her right hand when she struck a Ghoulie who was trying to get into Grandpa Topaz's trailer. "
Cheryl. Her Cheryl.
Her sensational, dazzling, invaluable Cheryl.
Toni can't breathe or move.
The fear that consumed her now imprisons her.
"Breathe. " Sweet Pea touches her shoulder. "You can handle it. Go see her. "
It's like an explosive device on Toni's head. Her feet automatically runs across the camp, ignoring compliments. She invades the house and stumbles upon her grandpa helping Nana Rose fill plates and distribute cups, stumbles in suitcases and boots on the way, staggering into the gardens.
One last Serpent is leaving the tent with a splint on his right leg and Toni launches into the small structure as if her life depended on that moment, finding her, holding her.
Toni remembers the day she saved Cheryl from the sisters. How she felt overwhelmed with much pain and much relief at the same time when she finally found her in that filthy, dark movie room.
Cheryl is sitting on a crate, breathing heavily and repeatedly, her head bowed, her shoulders shaking, her hands clutching a cloth with blood, and her right hand with purple and swollen knots from the bruise Jughead denounced. The hair is tousled, barely tied in a braid on the left shoulder.
"Cheryl ..." She murmurs weakly, almost giddy.
Cheryl's large, beautiful brown eyes immediately rise to her, exhausted and dejected, her face paler than ever, her lips devoid of her marked red.
Cheryl smiles and Toni feels as if nothing bad has happened to any of them, as if the world is a beautiful and starry nook, no problems, no pain, no challenges, as if she swept away all the evils that surround them with a simple smile. Cheryl's smile.
Cheryl's arms wrap around her neck and her taut body smashes against Toni before the Serpent can reach her, and Toni accepts her, embraces her in hier arms with a force with no measure, with no brake, whole again, finally.
Toni feels numb, as if reality is still hovering in her mind, unbelievable, too surreal. She doesn't know if it's the fact that each Serpent and their families are in a Blossom's backyard, or it's the dreadful remembrance of the fear of having lost her redhead moments ago, or it's simply that smile Cheryl offers, as gently as if she hadn't gone through hell since she bravely went to Jughead to warn about Hiram Lodge's trap.
But guilt is a inescapable feeling, it has shame, it has regret. Toni relied on Jughead and complied with his request, but even now, with Cheryl in her arms, she can't convince herself that it was the right choice.
She doesn't notice the tears until Cheryl pulls it away, exhausted, but affectionate, and stops the warm stream with her thumbs still stained with blood.
"I'm fine. " She whispers.
And Toni can't help but squirm, the simple sentence echoing inside her as if it were an acquittal. Her girl, who has seen enough blood and pain for a lifetime, embraces her again in her arms, cradling her, comforting her as if it were nothing serious.
Urgent steps and a relieved sigh causes them to detach themselves and look out of the tent. Sweet Pea, with Fangs leaning on his shoulder, watch them with strange reluctance, as if they didn't want to interrupt the meeting, but they couldn't help but approach. Jughead following them with his hands in his pockets, a soft expression for the first time that night.
"Red..." Fangs smiles like a child at Christmas, opening his arm.
Cheryl pulls away from her girlfriend and walks up to the two of them, holding Fangs's waist like a falling baby, her eyes wide with unexpected dread.
"What in Earth do you think you're doing?! " She growls, turning to slap Sweet Pea's arm. "Both of you! He should be resting! "
"Chill out, Red." Sweet Pea snorts. " He is fine. No whining. He is a Serpent. "
"He could be Werther forced to watch Charlotte marrying Albert, it doesn't change the fact that having been shot for less than three days ago demand absolute rest. "
"Who is Werther? " The tallest boy is confused.
"Goethe ...? "Jughead intrudes, frowning.
Cheryl rolls her eyes and prepares for an acid reply, but a warm, gentle fingers pick up her swollen, sore hand, and her eyes fall on the object of the argument that was still silent. Fangs, again, smiles at her.
"I wanted to see you, Red."
It's at least unusual for Toni when Cheryl hugs Fangs and sighs with her chin resting on his shoulder, his head falling on her neck comfortably. No less surprising is to see Sweet Pea snorting before joining in the hug and Jughead, hesitantly, holding Cheryl's hand and whispering an almost silent thank-you.
Toni doesn't dare to approach.
For the first time since Cheryl disappeared without a trace, locked up by Penelope in that hideous asylum, Toni feels weak and unworthy.
"I said to keep it together, Toni. " She wakes to the sound of Sweet Pea's voice. "I said she could take care of herself. Now get out of your head and drop it. "
Cheryl frees herself from the tight embrace and Jughead's hand to glance at the two Serpents who are facing hostility, confused by the reproach in the boy's tone.
"You know nothing, Sweet Pea. " Toni defends herself, a gleam of hurt in her eyes.
"Toni? " Cheryl comes closer, lovingly touching her face with the sore hand. "Baby, what is it? "
"She was blaming herself. " Sweet Pea denounce, ignoring Fangs's reproachful look and Jughead's wary.
"Sweet Pea ..." Toni warns.
"Blaming herself? Why would you blame yourself? " Cheryl furrows her eyebrows, her palm curling firmly into her girlfriend's jaw. "Answer me, Antoinette. "
"She deserves to know. " Sweet Pea insists. "You can't keep everything in there, Toni, you have to share it, you have to let her in, or it will destroy you. "
"Answer me, Sweet Pea, I demand to know immediately! " The redhead commands afflicted.
"Toni was blaming herself for leaving you alone, staying in the hospital. She blames herself for leaving you and blames herself for not being there to protect you when the Ghoulies attacked. "
Toni doesn't respond to the last wire.
"Who do you think you are, Sweet Pea?! You don't understand, neither of you could even begin to understand how I feel! "
Cheryl's hand that held her was still suspended in the air, and the Serpent advanced quickly, stretching the small body in bravery against Sweet Pea no intimacy at all.
"We all love someone, Toni, it's not that hard to keep up. "
"If you love someone, then you know you can't abandon them, never, no matter what! " She points an accusatory finger at his chest, pulling him away. "I did it, Sweet Pea, I can't pretend I didn't! "
"Toni..." Cheryl presses her fingers into her own temples, closing her eyes, muttering too low to be heard.
"You did what you had to do, it's what Serpents do, that's our life. Our world doesn't change because you fell in love, it doesn't change for any of us. "
He slows his tone, but it's too late. Because it has never been more wrong, farther from the truth that Toni has with herself and doesn't even dare to contest.
"That's why you wouldn't understand, Pea. " There is pain in her eyes as she drops the arm that was pressing against him, weakly. "Because it changes. Cheryl changes everything. "
Kevin's voice echoed in panic, making Toni and Sweet Pea turn around. A pile of blankets lie crammed at his feet and Archie bends to pick them up before the garden land makes them unusable as Veronica rushes over to the sheriff's son to assist him.
Kevin holds Cheryl in his arms, preventing her from falling to the ground. Veronica takes her face in her hands, calling her, the redhead's eyes cloudy, her body unsteady, dizzy and weak, murmuring inconsistently.
"Cheryl...! " Toni's heart bursts into her throat and the Serpent runs to her, almost running over Veronica on the way.
"I told you she was exhausted! " Kevin exasperates.
"I know I know. " Sweet Pea scolds, feeling stupid. "We're sorry. "
"I'll take her. " Toni takes her in her arms, bending over with the effort.
"You're exhausted too, Toni. I can do this. " Kevin offers it seriously.
"I can take care of her. " She sounds pleading and defensive.
"I know you can. " Surprisingly, he smiles. "But you've been struggling in the last few days and I'm a friend who wants to help. I'll take her up and you both can rest. "
Toni nods reluctantly and Kevin carries an almost numb Cheryl again. The redhead immediately reaches out her trembling hand, the blood now dissipated, accumulated under her nails, her eyes trying to open to see her.
"Hey, Pumpkin Pie..." The Serpent whispers softly. "I'm with you. I'm here, okay? "
The determined statement seems to convince her and Cheryl lets herself curl up on the shoulder of the friend who holds her. Kevin begins to walk, followed by Toni, leaving the group worried under the orders of an unquestioned and angry Veronica Lodge for their letting Cheryl get to that point.
Kevin complies with his word and puts delicate her on the red sheets bed, her hand immediately searching for Toni's.
"Fangs ..." Cheryl mutters. "Kevin, don't let him up the stairs. Order Sweet Pea and Archie to take JJ's bed downstairs... "
"You can barely stay awake and still want to give orders? " He laughs. "Don't worry, Bombshell. We'll take care of that restless Serpent. "
"And Kevin ..." She orders him again before letting him go. "Thank you for bringing her to me. "
Kevin smiles as he closes the door behind him and the silence spreads across the room, leaving only the muffled sound of the camp coming from outside. Toni is kneeling at the foot of the bed, caressing the messy threads of hair that invade Cheryl's finally peaceful face.
"TT ..." Her brown eyes open and Toni could cry with their softness. "The blood... "
Toni understands and begins to move. The first aid kit is left on the bed, the towels cleaned on the door and the tub is filled with the warm water. She takes Cheryl in her arms, smiling for the lovely way the redhead slips her nose into her neck, inhaling.
It's not surprising the silence that holds. No jokes, no provocations, no gallantry or foolishness. Toni take of her clothes gently and ignores the warm water dripping into her own clothes as the puts her in the tub, the sigh in peace of the redhead beginning to calm her. Kneeling by the tub, Toni slides the damp towel over the bruise in Cheryl's hand like a feather, almost just hovering over it, her blood draining to show the wounds, beginning to swell.
When she finally wiped her wounds, Toni hoped to see her asleep, yielding to exhaustion, but Cheryl's eyes remained wide, watching her movements closely. In the suspense of not saying a single word, Toni knows she's thinking about what Sweet Pea confessed.
Nothing holds up her task, though. Toni frees her of all the blood and vestige of the battle with the Ghoulies and helps her to dress like a clumsy and sleepy child. She would give anything to feel her balance coming back firmly, but not even the sublime image of Cheryl curled up again on the bed, the red sweater making her more familiar, analyzing it with pure affection, is capable of ceasing the immeasurable despair.
"I'm sorry, Cheryl." Toni admits with imbroglio on her throat, kneeling at the bed again, bandaging the redhead's wounded hand. "I should've been there."
"Why do you regret it, chérie?" Cheryl whispers.
"It was my duty, I should..."
"Toni ..." she pleads. "I don't know if I can face a quarrel with you tonight. Tell me the truth. People lied to me my whole my life. Not you. "
"That's exactly the point, Cheryl!" Toni surrenders, releasing her hand to clench fists furiously. "I should've been there when you needed to be cared for and was not, just like everyone else in your life. I should've been around even though I knew you could defend yourself. I left you, Cheryl, like everyone else one day left. " Tears comes back before she can think of restraining it, the startled, almost incredulous look of Cheryl disarming her. "I wanted to be... Different from all of them..."
"You are different from all of them, Antoinette Topaz." Cheryl furrows her eyebrows, bending over to catch the tears in her face. "Don't you know I've never been as happy and safe as I feel in your arms?"
"You call it safe?" Toni sobs, lifting her bandaged hand gently as a reminder. "You did all this..." She waved one of her arms, pointing to the bedroom window as if they could see the camp outside. "You've finally beaten your mother and got a safe place to live with Nana Rose and now you've brought a war to your gates, Cheryl, a war that will get much worse before it ends. You saved my grandpa and my comrades, healed them, warmed them and fed them and I... I wasn't there for you. "
Cheryl contemplates her in a silent and frustrating instant, now holding her hand intact like a soft shell on the trembling face undoing before her.
"The serpents have raised you..." She starts again in a whisper. "And realize something like that, that something like you exist, me striving to absorb how someone like you gave your heart to someone like me..." She caresses with absolute tenderness the pink hair, her eyes enchanted in hers. "They're good, despite how Riverdale treats them and the risks they face every day to survive. And I can't be selfish or pusillanimous in the face of this truth. "
"Cheryl..." She swallows.
"If I was able to fight, Toni, it was because you and all that made you it's worth it. You believed me, you said I was good. I'm trying to be. On my own terms. For myself. "
"The risks you faced... "
"Risks that you and everyone on the South Side face every day, TT, in this cursed and classicist town, a life of wars and prejudices imposed by people like my family, as even I inflicted on you someday. I'm aware that I'm looking like Lucy Westenra languishing in a Victorian disaster in this bed, but you have to believe that everything I feel now is happiness for us being alive and together in a safe haven, that all I desire is touching you and reminding me that you it is the only and most wonderful existence that matters in the chaos we are experiencing. "
This time it's the Serpent who reaps her tears.
Toni has always prided herself on being very insightful in dealing with every kind of risky, embarrassing or challenging situation. Tonight she lost her balance, her ability to act in the face of adversity and now, burning under Cheryl's dismayed eyes, she also loses her words.
In the internal conflict, Toni can't help but smile, remembering when the literature teacher opened Bram Stoker's Dracula and Cheryl and Jughead, the only ones who had read, fought a battle over the concept of romance versus horror throughout the period.
"Lucy Westenra would wish to be as beautiful as you after a battle, Cheryl Marjorie Blossom."
Cheryl opens her most splendid smile, one that Toni absorbs as the balance point, the center in which they finally meet and recognize themselves, the Serpent with the gallant and affectionate tone and the HBIC pleased and proud to be praised.
"You were protecting a friend in need. I was not helpless, all your loyal companions fulfilled the promise of Jughead Jones. I was safe. I am safe now. All of your family is."
"You are." Toni nodded, appeased.
Cheryl's eyes, satisfied, close.
"Can you stay with me? "
"I'll never go anywhere again."
Toni keeps her promise.
Cheryl breathes gently in her neck, and Toni, with her arms around her, keeps her eyes open, unable to sleep. One by one the lights go out and the voices cease at Thistlehouse. It looks like a transient and somewhat unstable state of peace to all of them.
Toni can't deny the emotional baggage she carries on her shoulders, neither can Cheryl. But she still hadn't sized up her own. Both shared their traumas and fears, and went through horrendous nightmares together in a very small space of time. But this is the first time that Cheryl sees, in furious shooting, the vulnerability of the Serpent.
She doesn't know what terrifies her the most: Realizing how inevitable it is to fall apart in front of Cheryl or the fact that she feels comfortable and closer to the redhead than ever when she does. It's easy, for there are no judgments and charges, there's no fear in undressing with pain and guilt for her, before the penetrating and valiant eyes of her.
So, when the first light of dawn strikes the horizon, Toni breathes in the scent of the red waves beneath her chin and finally falls asleep. Hopefully, she will dream of those same red waves, where neither Ghoulies nor Hiram Lodge or Penelope Blossom can reach her.
Cheryl awakens as the sun invades the curtains of her bedroom, narrowing her eyes to the light, almost disoriented, until she senses the projection of a soft, calm body beneath her. Toni is sleeping with her arms loose around her and Cheryl sighs to see her finally pacified since last night's events.
Carefully she leaves the bed to fix the disorder of her long hair and change the bandage over the wound, the knuckles still purple, but finally without blood and without swelling. As old habits never die, she provides herself with appropriate clothing and the striking red lipstick, as if she were about to face another hard day, as most others are.
This time, with the memory of Toni's desperation hours ago, she has something real to confront, walking down the stairs with steady steps from her heels, ignoring Betty's call from the table where an awakened Serpents happily make their breakfast.
She needs to find her target.
When she finds him, she takes a deep breath before she goes.
The older Serpents lifted a tent with a table in the center, extending over it the city map and a plateful of hamburgers, debating how to reclaim their territory. FP is leaning with his hands on the tabletop, listening to Jughead's reports as Sweet Pea devours a cup of coffee, leaning over in the wheelchair that Nana Rose gave to Fangs, the only one who sounds good-humored among the four, though he was shot a few days ago.
Cheryl invades and feels all eyes on her, carving hers on the intended target.
"Make me a Serpent. "
Sweet Pea chokes on his coffee, Jughead interrupts the speak and Fangs smiles to himself.
"You don't know what you're asking, kid. " FP sighs. "I thank you for all your efforts so far, but it's not easy being one of us, you witnessed it last night. "
"Easy? " She almost laughed at the leader's impertinence, folding her arms. "Are you implying what, that I see your gang as a holiday colony to mitigate the dramas of my opulent family? I was in the crossfire last night, Forsythe Pendleton Jones II, I was an informant, a combatant, and a nurse for your Serpents. Where were you while the South Side perished in the hands of those unsophisticated amphibian demons with hygiene issues? "
"Unsophisticated amphibian demons with hygiene issues..." Fangs mumbles to himself, enumerating the titles on his fingers, rambling, although Sweet Pea and Jughead are tense and alert beside his wheelchair, fearing that the two will start a clash.
To their astonishment, FP simply smiles.
"You're brave. " He sounds almost convinced. "Walk with me. Alone. "
Cheryl follows him in silence, leaving Sweet Pea and Jughead distraught in the tent, suddenly agitated, suspicious and confused.
"My dad can't submit Cheryl to some test to show what it takes to be a Serpent, Toni would kill us all and then run the corpses down with her bike. "Jughead shudders, picking up a hamburger to calm himself.
"None of us ever dared to speak in that way to the King. What does she think she's doing? Red, Red, you need to stop getting in trouble... " Sweet Pea impatiently beats the cup on the table, worried.
"Hey, Ronnie? " Fangs's voice comes from below, from the wheelchair, ringing gracefully on the phone. "It's me, Fangs. Did you and Andrews get to sleep? Well, that's very good. " Cordially he laughs, making the other two look at each other. "Actually, I need a favor. About the piece we were working on, did you finish the details? Yes, the jacket. Can you bring it to Thistlehouse as fast as you can? "
"Jacket? "Jughead frowns.
Fangs pushes the phone away as Veronica's voice echoes scandalously and enthusiastically on the other side, making him laugh again. "Of course you can stay to see, it will be a moment in eternity and someone needs to provoke Toni about it beyond us. See you soon. "
"What was that, Fogarty? " Sweet Pea crosses her arms.
"Veronica is coming with Cheryl's jacket. " He shrugs. "FP will let her in for sure and I'm looking forward to seeing Toni's face when the King announces the new Serpent. "
"Since when are you working on it? What if FP doesn't allow? "
"Since she and Toni started dating. And come on, guys? " He rolls the wheelchair to the table to steal Jughead's hamburgers. "Do you guys have any doubt that Cheryl is already part of the family? Besides, Veronica has a collection of awesome molds and leather, I couldn't miss the chance to make a unique jacket for the unique Cheryl Blossom. "
The trio remains silent and awaits for the King's sentence.
FP finally stops as he reaches the outskirts of Thornhill's ghostly gray structures, pulling them away from the camp, leaning on the small bridge over the crystal clear lake and waiting for she to joins his company willingly.
Cheryl can't help but stare at the ruined mansion for a moment before turning back to him.
"Last night I was drinking in some dirty place on the North Side, one suspect enough to attract only the worst guys. " He starts. "I was trying to forget that I failed with my people and my son. "
Cheryl doesn't hide her surprise.
"Oh ..." She nods. "I'm sorry. "
"Do you? " FP smiles. "I believe. But don't. You weren't wrong. And it's not shameful to admit the truth when you are ready to never let it happen again. "
"And are you ready? "
"I hope so. " The King keeps his temper. "We'll leave it to destiny to count. It's you I want to talk about, kid. "
"I'm ready. " She determines in advance, crossing her arms again, like a combat armor.
"You know, despite what happened to us in the past, I never knew much about you. I knew Clifford, I knew Penelope and I met Jason. But I've never really known you, only from Jughead's complaints about you being very... Harsh in high school. "
She doesn't bother to show regrets.
"However...? " She examines her fingernails impatiently.
"Suddenly, there it was. Blossom, Red, Cheryl Bombshell. Every time, in the Whyte Wyrm, whispers about the girl who stole Toni's heart. The South Side talking about the girl I've never met. But I'm the King, kid, and there're no secrets in the territory for me. The Mansion you burned, the Sugar Man's name you ripped from Penelope, how you kicked out your uncle and your mother, the Black Hod attack, Toni's rescue, everything. "
The shrewd smile on his face, a proud and incomprehensible countenance, makes her interrupt him in discomfort and confusion.
"What are you suggesting, Forsythe Pendleton Jones II? "
"I'm saying, kid, that you're worthy to enter. You're brave, resourceful and protective of who you really care about. You're clever, whether with good insults or with a bow and an arrow. "
He smiles again in a way she doesn't understand.
"What else do you expect from me?"
Finally the right question.
"I want to know why you want to join."
Cheryl is ingenious and too cunning to pretend not to assimilate.
"You think it's for Toni." Accuses.
"I don't know. Elizabeth Cooper once told Jughead that she tried to join to be closer to him, from his world. Is that what you want with Toni? "
"I'm not my cousin, how dare you?" She doesn't hide the offense, though she doesn't wish to disparage Betty this time.
"You must understand." He remains calm. "I said thank you for your efforts, but this was only a night in the life of a Serpent. Maybe the scariest of all, but not so different from what we're used to. If you join us, kid..."
"You helped my brother with countless packs of drugs in the dead of night, and then spawned his body on the Sweetwater River when my father threatened you." She interrupts him firmly and with less resentment than she expected of herself. "Jughead was coerced by a traitor and had to forcefully expel her to save himself, which brought her back to Riverdale to revenge, resulting in Toni's kidnapping and the Ghoulies' attack that almost killed him. The clashes with fists and pocketknives, the constant vigilance necessary, the disputes and sacrifices for survival. "
"I'm not! " she growls. "If you see me as a child, undoubtedly you don't know me in any way, you were right about this. No one in this malevolent town never knew what we were dealing with inside Thornhill's walls, the abuse, the violence, the prohibition, the punishment, the demand, the contempt. The damage inflicted, the nightmare that intensified into a private hell when Jason was murdered. I was subordinated to facing every day for survival, with no gang, no family, completely alone. "
"I'm not saying ..."
"No!" She replies with the same ferocity, determined to finish. "Toni is the light of my life, the only light, and it wouldn't be surreal if she were the reason why I want to be a Serpent. I will not tolerate you or anyone daring to censoring me for this."
There are tears in her eyes, her arms folded tightly across her chest, and FP finally gives up his smug, an unarmed smile surging in strange compassion.
"But ...?" He tries, curious about the outcome.
"But Toni is not the reason, not the only one." She takes a deep breath. "The Serpents and the South Side don't deserve what Riverdale decrees to them. I want to fight for them, for the right to live above the need to survive. I want to..."
Her eyes close in reluctance.
"A family. " The smile he show now is subtle. "You want a family, kid."
"Don't call me that. " She looks up at him again.
"It doesn't matter how cruel the world has been, you're still a child. You all are and shouldn't have to fight so hard. It's not right, it is what it is, but it's not right. I know I was never a good father and I know I have failed as a leader many, many times, but one thing I do know. " Surprisingly, he unwraps her arms cautiously and takes her wounded hand between his, big and rough. "With family, it gets easier. "
Cheryl almost recoils with the unexpected touch. It's rough, in fact, but also warm and protective. It's not like Toni's protection or even one of her friends, it doesn't look anything like the touch of her beloved lost brother.
Clifford and Penelope have never made her feel that way. She wonders if this is the cherishing gesture of a paternal adult. Wise in some way, confidant in another way, greater than her, greater than circumstances.
"I want that. " She whispers to his weary eyes. "I want a family."
"And...? " FP can't help playing with her, finally making her smile.
"I want to protect Toni and bring her peace. "
"Come on, kid." He smiles. "Let's go back to ours. "
Toni staggers out of bed when very loud voices invade the room, coming from the camp outside. For a moment it's like the fact that they were all safe in the Blossom estates had been erased from her mind and the Serpents were struggling far from her. But Cheryl's room, her belongings, her scent, her colors, pacify her, as always.
Clutching her boots and jacket, going down the stairs, she suspects in finding the empty rooms, the kitchen, the living room, the winter garden, no soul in sight. The excitement that woke her continues to rage and Toni follows cautiously, confused as she crosses the lobby and strolls to the camp sheltering all the Snakes and their families, plus Josie, Archie, Veronica, Kevin, Betty and Alice Cooper, all of foot, facing an open circle in which FP waves his hands to silence them.
"There she is, who we've been waiting for." The King smiles.
"Hey, sleepyhead!" Fangs nods from the wheelchair, holding a purse sealed next to FP, excited.
Toni wants to ask where Cheryl is. Suddenly she doesn't care about why the whole gang met on the courtyard, suddenly nothing else matters besides being with Cheryl, she is not ready to stay away from her so soon.
Before she can express her wish, there she is.
Her hair is fluttering, her clothes are dark, her boots too tall, her smile is dazzling. FP's hand landing proudly on her shoulder.
"The last Serpent is here!" FP proclaims. "I will be democratic. Those in favor of making Cheryl Blossom an official member of the South Side Serpents, show yourself now."
Toni takes her eyes off Cheryl only to see their arms rising like a wave in the crowd. There isn't a single present with lowered hands, rising quickly. Even her grandpa, Nana Rose, and the North Siders. The vote is affirmative and her heart explodes with the vision.
"I'm waiting." FP also raises his free arm. "One more vote only... "
She doesn't know how she was able to move. Her skinny arm stands between the others and immediately the applause and whistles are echoing. Sweet Pea unzips the bag in Fangs' lap and reveals the brand new red jacket, the Serpent symbol shining on the back, handing it to Jughead. The young Jones takes off his hood in respect and smiles, extending the jacket so Cheryl can receive it.
Cheryl doesn't expect greetings from the leader or from anyone. Her eyes glow to the little Serpent in front of her, and when Toni finally manages to smile, captivated and incredulous, Cheryl rushes towards her, urgently, the very tight embrace turning into a clumsy and happy whirl.
"Cheryl ..." Toni's voice wavers.
"There's no more escape, chérie," Cheryl teases, laughing on her shoulder. "You are officially mine."
"There would be no place or situation in this time and space where I'm not yours, Cheryl Blossom."
Toni smiles and holds her jaw tight, kissing her passionately, oblivious to the jokes all around, filled with the full sense of triumph and tenderness in her arms after all the horror. For Toni knows how much Cheryl wanted a family, but she also knows she's one of her reasons. Toni knows that Cheryl also did it to guarantee her her safety and full protection for the Serpents and their code.
And no one ever offered her such a genuine gift.
Despite the lingering remembrance of guilt, she can't help but embrace this happiness and never let go.
Sweet Pea, still whistling mockery at the enchanted bubble in which Toni and Cheryl got involved, tilted his head at the distant eyes and crossed arms of Josie McCoy, who's watching the scene in silence.
"Are you okay?" He asks softly.
"Cheryl is my best friend, I worry." She smiled guiltily. "No offense. "
"None taken." He chuckles. "We'll take care of her. I promise. And you know what? You need a drink to relax. Leave it to me. "
"A drink? I thought Toni was the expert." She teases him unpretentiously.
"You're not wrong." He shrugs, playful. "I was just going to get a beer, and I must say that Toni makes good drinks, but she can't open a bottle with her teeth, an endangered art."
Josie smiles as the boy runs into the house.
She feels less worried. The Serpents will protect her friend. She knows that.
Veronica is about to toast Cheryl's beautiful jacket with Fangs when Kevin rips the beer bottle from his hands, getting the look of a helpless puppy.
"No sir. " Kevin holds out a glass of water and painkillers. "No alcohol for you."
"Oh, Kev, that's so romantic and careful." Veronica dramatically joins her hands over her chest.
"I-I ... I was not ..." The sheriff's son blushes.
"He's a prince charming, isn't he?" Fangs adds with a pedantic smile.
Fangs accepts the pills and turns to a very sweet smile when Betty drags Veronica to another place and gives them privacy.
The Serpents are still celebrating and toast, but Cheryl and Toni remain entwined in the same place, their foreheads together, their eyes closed.
"Take me away from here?" Cheryl whispers the request as if it were a secret.
Toni doesn't have to answer. They intertwine their fingers and run through the crowd like lovers on the run, ignoring the confused calls, jumping on the motorcycle, forgetting their helmets, reckless and overflowing with a new freedom.
The engine rumbles as they cross the quiet town at full speed. Cheryl has one hand firmly at her waist and the other stretched out against the wind, her eyes closed, red waves dangling over her face and her huge smile.
Toni thinks she has never felt so full.
Her world is whole again.
No more falls. No more fears.
Toni remembers warning Jughead about how his world would never fit into Betty's and how, in the end, he would have to make his choice. However misleading she was at the time, fear turned to her as Cheryl entered her life, trampling over and impacting everything she recognized as truth. And again, as much as the fear was wrong and she trusts Cheryl her life and what she mean to the redhead, any trace disappeared upon seeing her smile with that red jacket made especially for her.
For a moment she wonders if this will not cause an irreparable damage to Cheryl, a life in a gang defamed and scorned by the entire Riverdale, specifically Cheryl, who has always been recognized by all as a promising young woman, the best grades, the best performance, the bright future to leave the small city, commanded from the earliest days by none other than the Blossoms themselves.
The thought is gone as soon as it came.
Because Cheryl is not that girl of Riverdale's eyes. And Toni is not either.
They aren't villains destined by a childhood of neglect and traumas, but they aren't declared heroines reborning from the ashes of these same neglects and traumas either.
You are different from all of them, Antoinette Topaz.
They're Toni and Cheryl, made to find each other at some point on the tortuous path that surrounded them and stay together. Once found, the world suddenly became vast and extraordinary.
Because it changes. Cheryl changes everything.
Toni parks on the Sweetwater River banks, Cheryl's shady, winding alcove that together they've turned into a haven when they still raced across each other's universe, gently taking her hand to sit on the big stone under the fresh pines.
FP, although declared himself a flawed father and leader, was right. Because it gets easier.
When someone takes your hand and doesn't let go, it gets easier.
Cheryl snuggles over her and sighs deeply, the silence flooding them gently, away from the camp, away from enemies and away from allies. Just the two of them.
Toni and Cheryl.
Made to live beyond survive.