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How to Decay Gracefully

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He goes down in Pop Tate’s, without any warning. He grabs a table on the way down, but it doesn’t do much to slow the fall. And a second later he opens his eyes to the ceiling and to the face of Pop over him, and he can’t think over the grey noise, he’s lost under a wave of static.

It’s been a long while since he felt awake. Like genuinely awake. In the ring is something, high octane, tasting of blood, nerves lit on fire. But there, at school, in the kitchen eating breakfast with his dad, he feels like he is operating the artifice of Archie. A shambling creature of not-quite flesh.

It’s not a good thing to think of yourself as invulnerable. Teenagers are especially susceptible to that kind of thinking. On the other hand, it’s not a good thing to think you are already dead. Archie stood under the spray and watched blood run down the drain with the same emotion he’d feel rinsing mud off a car. His body was a corpse, just one that still moved and walked and talked.

He’s sitting up and the empty static slowly fades back into sound. Pop is handing him a glass of water. It’s silent in the diner, the only other people are a couple in a booth towards the back, and their conversation seems to be on hold. The radio is playing golden oldies. Archie focuses on the glass, on the water. He’s not really thirsty, but his saliva is too thick, and his mouth tastes like acid.

“Son, should I call an ambulance?” Pop asks. His face is contorted with worry, and this memory hits Archie, of ten years old and him and Jughead counting quarters on the countertop and coming up short, and Pop’s sly grin when he slid the milkshakes across the counter anyways. That memory seems like it should belong to someone else. In the span of the same breath he can remember the ceiling of his prison cell, he can remember how it tastes to crawl through a storm drain.

“I’m fine, I just got a little lightheaded,” he says. He knows he looks like shit. He’s aware, he saw the bruises before he left for FP’s birthday. But he won. For once, he took something back, some part of his life. Jughead wrapped an arm around him and Betty cheered—in that moment the Red Paladin was something he owned, someone worth being.

His dad cornered him for an explanation at the party. There wasn’t all that much to explain. He got the sense that his dad was… tired. Well, he knows he’s tired.

But lately it seems like he’s just had enough. Patching Archie up in the kitchen after Ricky slashed him, he looked so worn through, so wrung out. He tried to imagine being an adult, being a father, having a kid like him. He didn’t like thinking about it.

Leaving Pops isn’t that hard, and walking isn’t all that hard. Something unidentifiable aches, and he feels strange, like his skin is too tight. Like being angry? Maybe he is angry. There’s a haze in the ring, it came down over his eyes in the prison, the empty pit when he was trying to breathe through the blood, trying to see through the sweat. 

At twelve he came running off the field and his dad put a hand on his shoulder.

“Son, I’m so proud of you,” he said, ruffling a hand in Archie’s hair. He could almost remember thinking of himself as strong. Ice breaking beneath his fists, it hurt like needles driven through each knuckle and he felt the bones grind, but he pounded, and the ice gave way, and red hair like fire could still be seen under the water. There was still hope of retrieving Cheryl. Mixed with the flood or horror and relief as he carried her limp body towards safety, he remembers feeling strong.

He used those same hands to break someone’s nose a little over twenty-four hours ago. More than one person’s. One of the challengers sank their teeth into his shoulder. His fists had no purpose. They kept him alive, and nothing else.

At some point, walking becomes too tiring. He staggers for a while, and eventually sits down at a bus stop bench. He tips his head back and the empty grey sky spirals forever. It feels like there is some ball of poison bubbling in his chest, tar trapped below his esophagus, and it weighs so much he can’t get up from the bench, but instead of panicking he closes his eyes. It’s raining and the rain feels nice.

[ACP]

Pop Tate knows just about all the kids in Riverdale, but those three stick out to him. Betty, Archie, Jughead. None of them ever went to summer camp. Every summer they’d be there, feeding quarters to the jukebox and spending pocket change and birthday money on milkshakes and burgers. Jughead was always hungry and his parents were always fighting. Betty was more interested in engines than the dolls her sister played with. And Archie was just chasing after those two. He was wherever they were.

Five years back when Pop needed heart surgery, those kids organized the fundraiser. They went door to door with fliers, they staffed the counter while he was recovering. Archie couldn’t make a milkshake to save his life. Pop must have showed him three times, and Betty countless more. He was a sweet kid, and he was clueless, and he was utterly carefree.

Pop watches Archie walk stiffly from the diner, and he can’t reconcile him with the young boy who offered to shovel his walk in the winter. But at the same time, he couldn’t separate the two in his mind. He’s got the phone in one hand and the phonebook flat out in front of him, and he’s still debating what he should even say if he calls Fred Andrews. The door jingles open, and Jughead enters closely followed by Betty.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Betty says. Pop blinks.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” he begins. Betty and Jughead exchange a look before he can continue. “I shouldn’t have let him leave,” he adds. The conclusion isn’t doing anyone any good though.

[ACP]

Fred is neck deep in emails and he’s supposed to be meeting a sub-contractor in twenty minutes. So he ignores the call the first time. But on the second time he flips it over, and when he sees that it’s Betty, his guts turn to ice. Not that he dislikes Betty or anything. She’s a nice kid. Good neighbour. But in the last few months they haven’t exchanged many words that didn’t regard something awful. And he doesn’t know all that much about it, but he knows she’s been fighting with her mother. Knows something’s not right over there, and how could it be, what with Hal being a serial killer. 

It’s bizarre to think about someone you used to occasionally lend your mower to being a murderer. It’s weirder to think about one of your son’s best friend’s parents shooting you in the local diner. He deals with all this by not thinking about any of it.

“Mr. Andrews, are you at home?” Betty asks. It’s a valid question. It’s almost six, and he meant to be home. It’s hard not to feel like you’re falling down on your job as a parent when your son gets stabbed by a tween in your own kitchen.

“I’m at work Betty, what’s up?”

“We’ve been trying to get ahold of Archie...  um. Pop says he was at the Chocolate shop earlier and he fainted.”

There was a stretched moment of silence in the delivery room. A silence Fred doesn’t think about that much. Or he didn’t. But lately he’s been thinking about it. In that echoing silence when Mary cried out, and the little thing was passed from one set of hands to another, and he could not draw a breath, he was aware that he couldn’t. And then the cry, and that moment broke, and he had a son.

And from then, Archie grew like a weed. He was stubborn and bull-headed and incredibly alive. He seemed to have more energy than any other kid.

He meets up with Betty and Jughead. They start at Pops, searching the nearby area. Jughead won’t spill what exactly it is they were doing, but Betty gives it up. The gauntlet of the red paladin. There’s a second or two where he’s so angry he almost can’t see. But he recovers fast. Who’s he supposed to blame? The two sticking up for Archie, finding a way to get the target off his back, or the one that put it there in the first place.

“I tried to talk to him about it. He just said it was over,” Fred says. Betty’s shoulders tense, and she huffs a sigh. 

“He said he was fine,” Jughead says. Fred is thinking about the absence of sound, off-blue walls, Mary’s hair fanned out over the pillow. 

“Look!” Betty shouts, and the three of them break into a run. Through the spitting not-quite-rain, Fred can make out a figure on the bench at the bus stop, head lolled backwards. His clothes are soaked. He has red hair.

Betty makes it to Archie first, and Fred can feel his heart clawing up his throat when she puts a hand on her shoulder and presses two fingers into his neck to find a pulse. But Archie rouses immediately, his head snaps up and he coughs. Jughead pulls to a stop and staggers back a step. 

“Wha-dad?” Archie blinks up at him. The bruises don’t detract from the shadows under his eyes, if anything, they bring them out. His face is sallow and his lips are pale.

“You look like shit,” Jughead says.

“Jug,” Betty mumbles, but she presses the back of her hand against Archie’s cheek. “You’re burning up. What are you doing out here?”

“I dunno. I was just taking a walk,” Archie says. He won’t meet Fred’s eyes. He won’t really meet any of their eyes, his gaze is fixed on the ground, on his hands where they grip the edge of the bench.

They take him home. He sends Betty and Jughead off, after they’ve deposited Archie on the couch. Not up in his room, so he can hide and rot a little more. He spends a good five minutes at the kitchen sink, trying to decide if he made a mistake coming home, if he should have taken Archie to the hospital. He starts pulling out gatorade and pain meds and wets a towel. Then he goes upstairs and grabs dry clothes. Archie lists into the side of the couch. It’s unnatural to see him look so still.

“Jughead and Betty told me about your challenge,” he says, when Archie is exchanging his shirt for a clean and dry one.

“I was--” He stops himself, changes tones. “Sorry.”

“Arch, I’m not mad at you. I mean, I am, I’m just--god. You’re not a gladiator, Archie. You’re not the red paladin. You’re a kid. You’re my kid.”

“Some guy bit me on the shoulder yesterday,” Archie says.

“Jesus.” What other response can there be to a statement like that? Fred searches for something else to say, and Archie’s gaze drops down to his own hands. They look terrible, knuckles bruised and swollen.

“I really am sorry. I know this isn’t--” his breath hitches. “I dunno. I can’t imagine having me as a son. I think I’d be so disappointed.”

Fred doesn’t move, because he can’t. And he wants, he wishes there was a way to convey exactly what he felt, in that empty silence before his son first cried, or what he felt for all the rest of it, for every moment of being a father. But there’s no… he can’t put it into words.

“No, you wouldn’t. You’d think you were so lucky. That’s what I think, having you as my son. I think that I can’t believe how good you are. How much you care about people.”

They sit in silence after that, and Fred tries to think of something else to say, of the right thing.

“Thanks dad,” Archie says, so quietly he almost misses it.

“If your shoulder looks worse tomorrow we’re going to the hospital,” Fred says. Archie laughs. It’s not funny, but he laughs. Fred feels that sagging, like an iron band finally loosening from around his lungs.