Chapter 1: Prologue to Destiny
Betty first saw her in the library; a pale girl in a ruffled white night dress who walked between the shelves, light as mist. The girl peeked between books and stood in dark corners, never speaking, never completely seen. She was older than Betty. By how much, there was no way for Betty to tell, but the girl was taller, with hair ornaments better suited to a girl going on her teens.
The girl seemed faded. Smudged. And no one else could see her, but Betty was sure she was there, even if looking at the girl felt like watching her through a shroud. Sometimes she looked like one amongst a crowd, particularly when Charles’s house was filled with people, running between jeweled guests like a shade, casting shadows where no one looked, and tinkling crystal when it wouldn’t be noticed.
The girl liked to watch the ladies in their layered bustle skirts and feathery hats. She liked to touch the trimmings on their parasols and the bones on their corsets. She seemed endlessly fascinated by the men’s top hats and their tailored coats. And she always took the time to tip over a few jeweled canes.
Often, the girl looked unchanged by time, her features delicate and unmarred. But when the days were dark and dreary, marked by ill news or when the air was heavy with worry, the girl looked ghastly, with mottled green skin, a clot of blood matting her hair, and her fingers and nails brutalized, like she had tried to claw her way out of her coffin.
Betty had never seen anyone like her before, but even at ten, Betty understood what the girl was. She was a spirit, a spectral remnant of a young girl that had once lived.
Betty sometimes found her frightening, even when Betty told herself the girl seemed harmless enough, but it was difficult to stay brave when the girl looked like a rotting corpse.
Still, Betty tried her best not to dive under her sheets and hide.
And so one day, after having seen the girl haunting Charles’s library for weeks, Betty finally turned to her and spoke, “What’s your name?”
The spirit, having set herself on the other side of the bookcase to watch Betty, said nothing at first. She stood unmoving, silent as the dead.
“Do you have a name?” Betty asked again.
As the silence lengthened, Betty did not think she would get an answer, but just as she thought the spirit did not want to be bothered, that all she really wanted to do was watch the living, she spoke.
Betty looked at her through the books. She could only see Evelyn’s fathomless eyes, black as night and nothing else. “Did you used to live here, Evelyn?”
“No. Never. Here, I died.”
Betty thought that to be incredibly sad. She had imagined that Evelyn stayed on because the house was filled with memories she could not leave behind. She could not imagine the reasons a spirit would stay at the place they died in, if they weren’t happy ones, for when one died as young as Evelyn, the circumstances for which they lingered could not be good.
“How old are you?” Betty asked.
“I was twelve when it happened.”
“When you died?”
“When I was murdered.”
Betty was shocked. She was ten, and in her world, children were not killed. Children died, yes, of disease. Perhaps even of accidents. But they were never murdered. Who would murder a child? “Who would do such a thing?”
Evelyn did not flinch. “My betrothed. Lord Edgar Evernever.”
“Does anyone else know that he killed you?”
Evelyn shook her head.
Betty felt like she needed to do something. One simply did not get murdered and forgotten. If one had gotten murdered, justice ought to follow. “I should tell my brother.”
Evelyn’s lips tightened to a line. “The likes of him… don’t help the likes of me.”
Before Betty could insist, Evelyn disappeared, fading in the slant of the sunbeams streaming through the windows.
Betty didn’t see Evelyn again until several days later, when while waiting for sleep to come, Evelyn materialized at the foot of her bed.
It was the clearest Betty had ever seen her, far more solid than the times before. Her hair, fairer during the day, seemed to be made of shadow. The hues of her dress seemed deeper. Evelyn’s eyes looked even darker at night, if that were possible--two deep wells that swallowed light.
“Come with me,” was all Evelyn said before gliding backwards towards Betty’s bedroom door.
Betty did not ask. She jumped out of bed, never minding the shock of the cold floor against her bare feet. She pushed back the tangles of her blonde hair and threw her braid behind her as she raced out of the door.
Betty saw Evelyn’s spectral form materialize at the end of the hallway, disappearing behind the corner. Betty followed her, and next Betty saw Evelyn disappearing at the bottom of the stairs. Wherever Evelyn was leading her, it was downwards, and it was only when Betty pushed open the door to the wine cellar that the chase seemed to stop.
Evelyn stood at the edge of the room, where the brick wall behind her was old and untouched. The floors and shelves, often refurbished through the years, were free of the evidence of age that marked the cellar walls. The walls, she’d heard the house cook say, were perfect the way they were: old, but just right for housing the wines, so that they may be properly kept, or even aged.
Evelyn turned and glided her hand over the chipped bricks and mortar. “I’m here. Within this wall.”
And Evelyn disappeared then, like a candle in the wind, blown by an unseen breath.
Betty touched the stone where Evelyn’s hand had lain. It was cold as winter and bone dry. There could have been no means for anyone to have known that there was something behind those ancient walls, no indication that a young girl’s slain body had been bricked up and sealed, evidence of a murder that may have never been solved.
There should’ve at least been a blood stain, thought Betty nonsensically. Aren’t blood stains impossible to wash off?
It then occurred to Betty that Evelyn could’ve been killed by strangulation, where often such means shed no blood at all, though it would have been no less horrifying, where Evelyn could’ve stared into her killer’s eyes as he squeezed the life out of her, gradually, slowly, painfully.
She had to have been stabbed, or maybe bashed on the head. It must have been sudden, and Betty supposed that Evelyn hadn’t even seen it coming. There had been times Betty saw blood in Evelyn’s hair. Surely, that had something to do with her death.
She wondered then if it was polite to ask someone how they died. There was no prescribed etiquette for speaking to dead people.
As she turned away from the wall to head for the door, she saw Charles standing at the threshold, blocking the candlelight beyond.
His presence surprised her. She had not heard him following.
She said nothing, for she was at a loss at what to say. Should she apologize for being out of bed at this late hour? If she explained what had happened, would he think her a fanciful ten-year-old?
"Who were you following, Betty?" he asked.
The question startled her. She had expected a question along the constellation of, "What are you doing out of bed at this hour, young lady?"
Still, she was cautious about giving a truthful response. "No one, Charles. Just an imaginary friend."
His lips tightened to a grim line for an instant, then the look in his hard green eyes softened.
He had just turned 20 and his face was still fresh with youth, though sometimes his eyes made him seem older than he was. He had arms like a workman, even if he didn't appear to do much heavy lifting. He was a budding businessman, she was told, so manual labor was not in his daily routine.
She often saw him with a companion—a younger boy, whom he seemed to treat like an apprentice, apparently 14, as the boy once enunciated it in a very sarcastic tone to her clearly amused brother.
In spite of the sarcasm, he seemed to regard Charles with clear admiration.
Everyone else deserved nothing but his deep set scowl. She’d heard Charles call him Forsythe, but when the boy frowned at the name, Charles would laugh and call him Jughead, instead.
However responsible her brother was, Betty was never afraid of him, because he was kind and he cared about his family and other people.
Everybody loved Charles.
He sighed, coming towards her and placing a hand on her head. "Was it a spirit, sister?"
Betty felt instant relief. Such a question meant he'd believe her. It meant he somehow expected it. Did he see Evelyn too?
A small smile, a sad one, played on his lips. “I thought I had gotten them all to move on…”
Betty did not think much about what Charles said then, that it meant he had spoken to spirits himself. Instead, she touched the stone wall. "She said she's in the wall. Buried, I think."
Charles placed his own hand upon the wall. "Did she say who did it?"
"Her betrothed, Lord Evernever."
He shook his head. "Lord Evernever.... probably a previous owner of this house. Easy enough to find out more. It must have happened at least fifty years ago, for this wall was in place when we purchased this home, and the gentleman who sold it said the cellar had been untouched for at least forty years. Have you always seen this spirit?"
She shook her head. "Only in the last few months."
"Shortly after you turned ten, I'd wager. It usually happens thereabouts... that time. A woman, you said it was?"
"A girl. She's twelve."
"Gods, twelve. Who kills a child, honestly?" He seemed not so much shocked but resigned. He'd heard of this sort of thing happening before, even if he could never fathom why. "Well then, back to bed with you. Tomorrow, I'll give you something new to read, how about that?"
It was odd the way Charles spoke so easily of it all, as if it happened everyday one’s ten year old sister would communicate with the souls of the dead.
He led her back out of the cellar, up in the hallways and back to her room. He tucked her into bed and sat at the edge of it, smoothing the covers over her. "You might see more spirits from now on. When you do, come to me and tell me all about them. Understand?"
She didn't quite understand but she nodded anyway.
He left her then, bidding her goodnight as he closed her bedroom door.
The next morning, Charles gave her a book from what he called his personal library. She had never seen the book before, but it looked old and well used. There were notations on the pages of it with Charles's handwriting, and on the acknowledgements was written "With strength, we defend, but in kindness we set them free."
The book was entitled "Introduction to the Spirit Realm, Vol. 1"
She asked how many volumes there were and he said, "Ten."
It seemed so monumental a number at the time, but as she began to read, the subject matter had her spellbound. Ghosts and entities of various types graced the pages of the book, how to identify them, how to approach them, which of them were dangerous, how to trap them, and all sorts of extraordinary things.
She was so engrossed by her books that she barely noticed that Charles had contracted masons to refurbish his wine cellar. Barely heard it when Charles spoke of going to the country where one very old gentleman resided. Not until their mother, Alice, while at the dinner table, demanded to know from him what he intended to do with the corpse they had found bricked up in their cellar.
"The authorities would know what to do with it, I trust," he simply said.
The constabulary never showed any indication that they did, for they never appeared to collect Evelyn's bones.
Charles took her on a trip.
Just the two of them, with very little luggage and even less supplies. How he explained to Alice the purpose of a brother bringing his ten year old sister on a business trip, Betty did not care to know. All she knew was that she was leaving the house on a trip and that this was an adventure.
As they got off the train into a small village in the rocklands of Connecticut, they boarded a coach that brought them to a tiny villa further into the mountain range. There, Charles brought her to the forest and gave her weaponry.
“We will start with a bow and arrow,” he said casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He showed her how to wield it, and much to her surprise, her fingers were nimble on the string and fletch. The point of her arrow found the trunk of a tree without need of much practice.
Charles seemed pleased but unsurprised. Next he gave her a crossbow, and when she proved that she could manage that, he gave her a firearm, and it was with this firearm that she caught them a hart.
The hart was a young one, whose antlers were free of fuzz, but only just beginning to shape themselves into a crown of thorns. It would have been a beautiful animal, and as Charles hitched the buck upon his shoulders, she found that she regretted killing it.
When Charles saw the tears threatening to spill from her eyes, he smiled. “You have saved us from hunger, sister. You mustn’t be sorry for that.”
“We could have scavenged for berries or greens,” she said.
He smirked. “Berries are poisonous in these parts, and greens are scarce in the rocklands. We aren’t in a farm.”
“Perhaps a rabbit would have sufficed. Or a bird.”
“And you think their lives less than a buck’s?”
That caught her and she was sorry for what she said. She turned away, her tears now wrought with shame.
Seeing her distress, Charles relented with a sigh. “You, Betty, are a Peace Dealer. Only one who values life like you, can be one, and it is only in valuing life can you do your duty with compassion.”
She looked up. “What did you just call me, Charles?”
He smiled but did not reply. He began to make his way back to camp with the dead deer over his shoulders, “Let us not waste your regret. Let this buck sustain us while we bide our time to meet with our host.”
As of yet, she did not know who this host was. That evening, Charles taught her how to skin a deer and build a fire to cook it.
The next morning, he taught her how to fish and how to clean their catch. And the day after that, he told her to climb a rock. She knew without need of asking, that he was serious. And so she climbed the rock and found herself surprised at her success and the delight she derived from it.
Charles, watching her from the ground, smiled up at her as she scanned the land from her new vantage point.
The rocklands were vast, misty, and beautiful, unrelenting in the brutality of the rocks and landscape. And however overwhelming the isolation was, the last few days had taught her that she had absolutely nothing to fear.
From the tip of the rock, she stood on her toes, raised her arms and cried out that she was not afraid.
A week through their expedition in the wilderness, Charles finally brought them to their “host”. They had, Betty discovered, gone to the rocklands to meet with Evelyn's father, who was old and nearly senile.
The gentleman remembered little, but he remembered his lost daughter well, and Betty listened with tears in her eyes when Charles revealed to the old gentleman that Evelyn's bones were found in her betrothed’s former home. The gentleman never doubted that the man, Lord Evernever, could perpetrate such a crime of murder.
Long dead after a prostitute's pimp disposed of him for skiving on his brothel fees, Lord Evernever was never properly put to rest, for his body, after having washed up on the shores of the Thame, was never claimed from the coroner's. Such was the shame of his family.
“He was a charismatic fellow, and his father convinced us that it would be best if Evelyn and Edgar knew each other better before they became formally engaged when they came of age. I never believed them when they said Evelyn had run away and they knew not where she went, but I never thought that he could be murderous.”
Betty then realized that Charles never trusted the constabulary to know what to do, and she did begin to understand what Charles told her that night he found her exploring in the wine cellar. He saw them, too. He saw the spirits. He spoke to them, and he helped them “move on.” To where, she did not know, but whatever it was he did, he was teaching her how to do it, too.
She discovered that her mother was complicit in all of it and that Alice would do what was necessary to lay whatever spirits that asked for help to rest.
Evelyn came to her one last time, the night before her bones were to be collected by her father. "He hit me over the head with a bottle," she said in a dreadfully forlorn tone, speaking of the murderous Lord Evernever. "But I wasn't dead when he hid my body behind the bricks. I screamed and screamed, but no one heard me. Dying was agony."
It was revolting, this final tale. Betty would have nightmares about it for years, of being encased in a wall alive, her voice rendered soundless by stone. But she realized then that souls stayed on for a reason, that the restless dead was not synonymous with a peaceful passing, and that the more horrid the death, the more corporeal the spirit.
Only true resolution can give a troubled soul rest. Only in the dealing of peace can a spirit leave behind the land of the living for the land of the dead.
Charles continued to teach her what he had begun in the rocklands of Connecticut.
Alice watched on, interested in her daughter’s education but always deferring to Charles’s tutelage of her. Charles brought in the strangest instructors to teach her. Charles also taught a great many of her lessons: how to ride a horse, how to fence, how to swim, and how to run. He taught her how to defend herself, and taught her how to wield weapons. He brought her tutors so that she may learn things only sons were expected to learn, and he made her read books beyond the 10 volumes of "Introduction to the Spirit Realm".
In the course of all her lessons, she discovered that she had a strength and agility uncommon to women and men, and that none of this surprised Charles in the least. She always wondered how he became learned enough to teach her these things in the first place, but while she was constantly reminded by Charles and Alice that her lessons were secret, that she was to tell no one of them, she discovered that they had their own secrets and that they would not share them with her.
Charles formally introduced Betty to Forsythe Pendleton “Jughead” Jones III shortly after they came back from the rocklands.
Betty was reading one of her many assigned tomes in the family library when Charles walked into the room with a sullen, scowling boy trailing behind him.
Having only ever seen him from afar, she was surprised at how tall he was, but even then, his clothes were too big for him. His trousers bunched at the bottom in spite of the suspenders he wore holding them up higher over his waist. His jacket did not match his trousers and his vest hung open, the buttons missing. His shirt was the only thing that fit him well, and that was perhaps a result of having somewhat outgrown it. His grey boilerman hat, which he never seemed to take off before, was now rumpled in his hands. His work boots looked sturdy, but they were scuffed all over.
By contrast, Charles looked impeccably dressed, even without his coat on. His vest and blouse alone looked well-tailored and made from rich material.
“Elizabeth, this is Forsythe Pendleton Jones III,” Charles said without stopping to look at her. He was headed to one of the shelves, looking for something among the row of books. “He is… an apprentice of mine--for my business, you understand. He sees spirits, as well. You and he will occasionally be learning things together. Forsythe, I told you about my sister.”
The chair across from Betty scraped loudly against the floor as Forsythe settled himself on it. His blue eyes were sharp enough to pierce her skull, and she eyed him back, defiant, though she could feel her face growing warm with suppressed anxiety.
His fingers were long, and they nimbly held a notebook, which he easily tucked away in his coat.
She stood, smoothing over embroidery on her white pinafore. “Occasionally?” she asked, shoulders back and chin raised. “Why only occasionally? I am forced to read these books for hours on end--”
“He works for me,” Charles said, his expression weary of, no doubt, her dramatics. “He has a job, and I pay him.”
“Pay him? How come he gets paid and I don’t?”
Charles shot her a frown. “You don’t work for me. You cannot.”
“Why not? Because I’m a girl?”
“No, because you’re ten and the places I send him to will no doubt be the death of you.”
She looked at Forsythe for confirmation, and though he had averted his eyes, he did smirk, mostly to himself.
A pout blossomed from Betty’s lips. “What he can do, I can do as well.”
Forsythe scoffed and she dealt him a glare that he didn’t pay attention to. Charles came over to the table and placed several more books between them.
“When you turn fourteen, like Forsythe here, you very well may be able to,” Charles said, gently. “But right now, you will learn what Forsythe’s known since he himself was ten. Now read your text. Forsythe will read his.” He took the book at the top of the pile and gave it to Forsythe, who opened it without complaint.
Betty eyed the tome in his hands. It was one of the advanced volumes, one she was told she was years away from reading. The rest of the remaining books were just as advanced.
“I have some paperwork to attend to,” Charles said, cutting through her thoughts. “I will be back in a couple of hours. I’d expect you both to have gone through five chapters of your reading by the time I get back. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Forsythe said, though his eyes never left his text book.
Charles looked at her for a similar response.
She nodded, her chin set and her teeth pushing hard against one another.
Satisfied, Charles left, his footsteps fading and finally receding at the click of the library door.
The moment Charles was gone, Betty made a grab for one of the advanced books. It smelled like old parchment and well-worn leather, and when she opened it and skimmed its yellowing pages, she could feel the ink of its contents against the pads of her fingers. There were sigils and diagrams, computations and symbols, constellations and intersecting lines. None of it meant anything to her, but she felt good about defying Charles’s strictly enforced curriculum.
“You’re too young for that,” Forsythe said.
“Tisn’t a sin to look,” she shot back.
The corner of his lip lifted. “Tisn’t, but read the advanced text the wrong way and it will cost you dearly.” He pulled down one side of his coat from his shoulder and then pulled back the shirtsleeve inside. She saw a palm-sized scar on his skin. “It hurt for days when the mark came off.”
Her jaw dropped and she almost demanded him to tell her what happened, but she clamped her lips shut. The Mark. She’d heard Charles refer to “Marks”, but when she asked him about it, he always told her “not yet.”
She didn’t want Forsythe to think she knew almost nothing of it at all. He already called her “too young.” She didn’t fancy him thinking that she was “too ignorant” as well.
She closed the advanced book and slid it back into the pile. “Did Charles scold you for learning out of turn?”
“No. He didn’t think it necessary. Losing the mark was punishment enough. It wasn’t my Daemon mark, but I worked hard for the one I lost, had days I starved myself for it. I paid a lot to get that enhancement, and then because I was stubborn and impatient, I destroyed it.”
Her eyes widened at the word s tarved.
Charles took care of hers and her mother’s upkeep. She slept in a warm house, she had her own room, she slept in a soft bed, and she never went to sleep hungry. She tried not to think it, but Forsythe’s threadbare suit and worn out shoes made her. He’s poor.
That sort of thing never mattered to Betty. Perhaps she was too young to think of class and privilege, but she understood on a certain level how some families had more than others. How some children grew up with harder lives.
“Where does my brother send you that would have me killed if I went to it?” she asked.
Forsythe chuckled. “The Southside. It’s a nasty place, with hardened roughs and wiley thieves. They take little girls like you and toss them into ships to trade them to masters who live in far off lands. They size you up for the coin in your pocket and calculate the reach of their blade to your throat.”
Betty recoiled. What a terrible sounding place.
“It’s where I live,” he finished, shrugging. “I wouldn’t recommend it. Not even if you want to prove to your brother that you can do what I can do better.”
She felt her face warming from the neck up. “I didn’t mean that I can do things better. I just meant to say I can do what you can do.”
He gave a soft huff, but he was grinning. “I have no doubt you can. But not yet, Elizabeth.”
That he thought her such a child bit at her pride more than she cared to admit. “Call me Betty. Only my mother calls me Elizabeth.” She said this to be stubborn. To show him that she had a mind of her own. To seem more grown up.
It only served to amuse him more. “Well, Betty, call me Jughead, then. I don’t much care for my birth name, myself.”
At thirteen years old, Betty was well-acquainted with how the Southside was dark and full of shadows, thanks to her “occasional”—or rather daily studies with Jughead. As it was, she saw with her own eyes how the people who walked the streets around them were not well dressed and their shoes—which, Betty saw most as she tried to keep her eyes trained to the ground, were splattered with mud and dirt, so unlike the pristine and shiny footwear of Charles’s peers.
Charles walked in front of her, a cane gripped tightly in his hand. It didn’t look like any cane she had seen the other gentlemen carried. His was made of wood, shaped oddly with a curve to it. It wasn’t particularly decorative or fashionable, and she had never seen him carry it before. Sometimes it fell within the confines of his voluminous cloak, a cloak that covered most of him, as if to protect him. Yet he held this cane in his hand with purpose, much like a weapon. Perhaps being out here in this rough place, it was.
To the side of her, Jughead walked with a confident swagger. This was his home and here he walked like he was king. The suit he wore was better than most, for one. Over the last three years she’d known him, she was aware of how Charles had increased his pay, and how Charles’s old suits got handed down to him.
Charles had, at many times, made a gentleman of him, smoothing down the rough edges, if only temporarily, so that Charles may present him as a “distant cousin” during certain social functions. At seventeen, Jughead cut a fine figure, with his perfect nose and attractive blue eyes.
Her favorite feature was his hair, how it was so dark and silky, tumbling over his forehead when he got flustered and when it lost all semblance of poise as he ran his beautiful long fingers through it.
The girls twittered around him--she heard them, sighing and batting their eyelashes at him even while he scowled and paid them no heed. He talked only to Charles and to her during these functions, and Betty didn’t mind that exclusive attention at all, even if it was earned by default.
Betty, at thirteen, was yet to be perceived as a “lady” to society. She was still a child by most standards, but her crush on Jughead Jones increased with steady intensity.
She would die if he found her out, but it was surprisingly easy to hide her feelings from him, especially because he perceived her as a little girl. Sometimes she thought he may perceive her as a sister, though he claimed to have a sister of his own whom he referred to as Jellybean.
Still, she’d heard Charles refer to Jughead as his brother, and he’d told Betty time and time again—“I would trust Forsythe with my life and yours.” They were that close, and Jughead deferred to Charles almost to a fault.
She knew many things about Jughead Jones—about the things he liked, about the things he abhorred. She knew what books he enjoyed and what amusements he kept. He was heroic and brave and sullen. He was serious and protective. He liked a good meal and he seemed to like her company enough.
When a room full of men suggested leaving for the smoke room, Jughead always said he momentarily needed to “escort Ms. Elizabeth” to the refreshment table, at which point he would make his escape, opting instead to accompany and amuse her.
But at the moment, they were far from such niceties. This was not a fashionable soiree.
“Stop gawking, Betty,” Jughead told her, snapping her back to the present. “You look too obviously mystified.”
A hot flush rose up her neck, her shoulders tightening with tension. She wanted Jughead to think that she was capable of holding her own in an environment like this. “I don’t mean to…”
He sighed, taking her hand and draping it over the hook of his arm. “Look straight ahead and stay close. No one will bother you if they see you’re with me.”
Her fingers flexed in his arm. Again, she felt her collar grow warm.
She tripped and she held her skirt up desperately, hoping not to soil her clothing. The uneven ground was filthy and bug infested. She wanted nothing more than to leave the streets. Only Jughead’s strong hold on her kept her from falling and he stopped briefly to make sure that she was alright.
Betty saw some ill-dressed ladies nearby, laughing at her. Their teeth were blackened into rot.
Glass broke and foul language punctuated it. This was no place for her and Charles to be, and yet Charles walked deeper into it with confidence, knowing exactly where he was going. Jughead made no objections whatsoever.
The lights on the street were dim and the small alley they turned into was even dimmer, enlivened only by shifting bodies. There were candles, singular or in groups of two and three, and as Betty walked past them, she smelled an odd scent—like burning pickles.
“What’s that smell?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Don’t inhale it,” was all Jughead said.
They finally stopped in front of a wooden door. Compared to everything else in that alley, which was wrought with decay and overuse, this door looked sturdy and impenetrable. Charles rapped the head of his cane upon it.
When the door opened, light spilled into the alleyway and Betty had to squint at the woman who stood at its threshold. She did not look any older than Charles and her face, though perhaps lovely on its own, was made steely by the ferocity in her eyes. She was dressed in a simple ladies’ pinafore, with embroidered detailing and lace sleeves. Her pointy black shoes looked durable and shiny, but she could tell by the word down heel that she wore these daily, just that she kept them well-maintained in spite of its constant use.
“And the forsaken meet again,” she said with a grin tainted by bitterness.
Charles did not see the humor of her words. “May we come in? This street is no place for a child.”
Betty scowled. She was thirteen.
The woman’s eyebrow arched but she stepped aside and let them through. As soon as they stepped inside, the woman swung the door closed and slid three metal bolts through.
Perhaps seeing the surprise in her eyes, the woman told her, “You can never be too safe.”
“Thank you, Sabrina,” Charles said, taking his hat off and hanging it on a nearby rack. “For having us.”
In more gentle lighting, Betty saw that Sabrina’s face was not as steely as she first thought, and that the ferocity in her gaze had gentled. “I can never say no to you.”
Charles’s lips tightened to a line. Whatever that meant, it did not look like he was particularly pleased by what she said. “I thank you for this favor and wish to pay you handsomely.”
She shook her head, eyeing Jughead briefly as she told them to sit down. The furnishings were mismatched, though it was styled to make the room oddly cohesive in design. The small space was well furnished, overall. It was clean, and the décor was tasteful. This woman did not belong here, and yet here she was.
Betty noted that some art had been painted against one wall, though it looked unfinished.
“The Ink Masters would’ve done this to her for free, you know that, don’t you?” Sabrina said as she brought in a tray of tea.
“Of course I know that,” said Charles, quietly. “But I risk them taking Betty from me--from us . I am not ready to take that risk. She is only thirteen.”
Sabrina snorted. “Some may consider that old enough for marriage.”
“Well, luckily enough for Betty, she is under Charles’s protection,” Jughead muttered.
Jughead shot Charles an anxious look. Charles’s only response was a reassuring nod.
Betty wished that they shared their anxieties with her. Sometimes she felt like Charles and Jughead talked about her. She never heard them but sometimes one or the other would say something to her that seemed so parallel that they had to be colluding.
Sabrina huffed. “They have better tools.”
“None of them are as gifted as you.”
Sabrina did not argue that point. “She is a little too old to get the mark. She should’ve gotten hers when she was ten, like young Master Jones over here.”
Sabrina responded with a smirk. “Her Daemon will come to her slowly or never at all.”
“We’ll take that chance.”
Sabrina stared at Charles and probably saw no chance that he would change his mind. “Does she know what to expect?”
Sabrina looked at her and arched an eyebrow. “Best you don’t know, lass.”
When they finished tea, Sabrina began to lead her into another room. Betty clasped Jughead’s hand, resisting Sabrina’s summons.
“Oh, it’s no bother to me, Master Jones,” Sabrina said. “You can come along.”
Jughead looked over his shoulder at Charles, who nodded.
Betty was grateful that she didn’t have to go alone.
At the center of the workroom was a chair designed for stradling instead of sitting. It was designed to support one’s chest, shoulders, and chin, not one’s back.
Sabrina had Betty settle on it. Pressing Betty forward by the shoulders, she carefully fitted Betty’s chin on a rest, and guided her arms onto planks to rest her arms.
She pulled up another chair for Jughead to sit, close enough so that Jughead can keep holding her hand.
Sabrina loosened her own collar and began to fold up her sleeves.
Betty’s eyes widened as she saw the marks that covered Sabrina’s throat, chest, and arms. She had never seen a tattooed woman before.
Sabrina then crouched down to look her in the eyes. “You must trust me. Your brother does. Master Jones does, too, don’t you?”
Jughead shot her a withering glance but didn’t contradict her.
Betty nodded as much as her chin rest would allow.
Satisfied, Sabrina went behind her and Betty could hear her pulling up a stool and rolling a table closer to her. Sabrina began to undo the ties on the back of Betty’s dress and she made a sound of discomfort. The thought that she would be undressed in front of Jughead mortified her to no end.
“Settle down, child,” Sabrina said. “I will preserve your modesty. And Master Jones won’t look anyway, yeah?”
She could see his face turning red, but he nodded, looking Betty in the eyes. “It’s going to be alright.”
A cool breeze touched the entirety of her back and she felt Sabrina wipe the skin just underneath her nape with a damp cloth. It felt even cooler.
Sabrina lit a match and the room began to smell like lavender.
Betty felt Sabrina’s cool hands on her spine as Sabrina began to chant something under her breath. It was a rhythmic sound, in a language Betty did not know. Sabrina’s fingers pressed points on Betty’s back and this went on for several minutes. Betty began to feel sleepy.
When Sabrina stopped chanting, Betty blinked at the silence.
The silence stretched, and Betty craned her neck over her shoulder. She was horrified to see that her back was filled with long, almost hair-thin needles. And yet, she felt no pain.
“Stay still child,” said Sabrina sternly. She stood, heading for the door. “I will return. Do not move.”
Betty stifled her urge to cry and tried to do as she was told. She could hear Sabrina and Charles talking, but only if she listened very hard.
“Why did she leave, Jughead?” she asked, whispering.
Jughead shook his head. “I don’t know, but don’t worry. I’m not leaving you here by yourself. Now hush. I’m listening to what they’re saying.”
“Do you want this mark on her?” they heard Sabrina say.
There was a pause, then “She needs her mark,” said Charles in a firm tone. “She is a born Peace Dealer. We cannot deprive her of her Daemon.”
“I understand that, but this mark is bound to someone. I did not choose it—it chose her. I know not who she will be bound to, but—”
“Do we have a choice?”
“It’s either she gets this mark or she gets none at all.”
“She doesn’t need to seek the other half of the mark. You said the same thing of Jughead years ago, and yet he is fine. Betty will do what she is meant to do without the bother of this other half.”
“The other half might lead her down a path I know you don’t want her to take. Do you want this mark on her?”
“It is her natural mark, isn’t it? And it will be a fierce protector. That is all I can ask.”
“We give her this mark, you run the risk of them discovering her.”
Charles paused, then said, “I will prepare her. As well as I could.”
“It will not be enough.”
“It will have to be.”
Sabrina sighed. “Fine. I can do something with it now. Mask it so that the Kin can’t easily track her. It will make her difficult to find—even for you. To make the mask effective, I would have to ink an enhancement. She will receive two tattoos tonight, but it will cost you dearly.”
“I am aware. Do it.”
There was another silence, and finally, Sabrina came back into the room. She sat back down behind Betty. “Why do I always get the special cases?” she muttered.
Betty held very still, and she could hear the soft ring of metal against metal.
When that stopped, Sabrina took a deep breath and Betty heard the whir of something mechanical. Something was spinning very fast and Betty felt a little nervous.
“This will sting child,” said Sabrina. “You must bear it. It will be bearable for a while, but it will take time, and it may be less bearable later on. Tell me if you can bear it no longer, alright?”
And when it began, the tiny sting of a needle piercing her again and again tingled through her body. She grit her teeth and bit her lip, staunching tears until she could no longer hold them back. She whimpered and cried, but she held still, and Jughead held her hand tight, wiping her tears for her with his handkerchief.
That was the only thing that kept her from giving up in the face of unbearable pain.
When next Betty woke, she was at home, and she felt the bandages on her back and another on the underside of her left arm. Her mother stood by her bedroom door as she watched Charles press a cooling bottle over the dressing of Betty’s mark to ease the burning sting underneath.
Betty did not know yet what this mark looked like and her mother did advise to keep it covered for the meantime.
“It would be a week before it’s fully healed. Daemon marks aren’t like regular tattoos,” Charles explained. “It is threading its lines into your soul. You will feel weak most of the day, but you’ll feel better in the morning.”
Betty could hardly bring herself to care about anything Charles said regarding the state of her body. All she wanted to do was lie in bed and possibly drift off again, and she did, until dinnertime.
She felt slightly better when she woke, feeling strong enough to get out of bed and make herself presentable.
Jughead came for dinner most nights now and she always looked forward to seeing him, if only to stare at him when he wasn’t looking.
He was always so preoccupied with Charles’s instruction. Always heeding his advice on his lessons and training.
Of course, Betty had long cottoned on to the fact that Jughead’s “job” was two-fold.
Most days, Jughead was actually running errands for Charles’s steam engine manufacturing business. It was a small business compared to the titans running similar businesses from England, but Charles was optimistic it was a growing industry in America, and as far as return went, it appeared to be doing quite well, if the size of their house and the comfort of their lives were to be assessed.
Charles would often say, “Who knows? You may inherit this business one day, Forsythe. Know it well.”
Jughead would scoff and Betty always wondered if Charles was joking. Aside from the fact that she, as a woman, wasn’t allowed to inherit any kind of estate, she could fathom how Charles loved Jughead enough to give him everything.
Their mother, Alice, never contradicted him. She would merely sigh and roll her eyes. She never said anything about Jughead’s constant presence in their house and family functions, either, but she did seem to sigh a lot when Charles said something that enforced how well Charles thought of him.
When Jughead wasn’t learning the steam engine business, however, he was helping Charles find lost spirits and crossing them over. The Southside, from where Jughead lived, was rife with restless ghosts and it seemed that the only two people who cared about helping them along were Betty’s brother and his ward.
Betty wasn’t even allowed to accompany them. But for the one time they took her to Sabrina, Betty had never set foot on the Southside.
It was an experience she wasn’t sure she was quite ready to repeat, but as she brushed her hair up into a ponytail and saw the bandages peeking from her high collar, she wondered if her mark meant that things were about to change.
As she stared at the image in her looking glass, she noted how her neck seemed longer, how her green eyes seemed sharper. Her mother had allowed her to wear a hint of kohl and lip tint, enhancing what she considered to be her best features.
Her lady’s maid had mentioned that her breasts needed to be corseted. “You got them, that’s for certain. Gentlemen will notice, so let’s brace ‘em.”
There was only one gentleman she hoped would notice, but honestly, he didn’t appear to care.
She sighed, telling herself she ought to be content that he liked her conversation more than the way she looked.
At least she could enjoy his company almost everyday. He even had his own room in the house-- when he stayed in it. He still often went home to his Southside residence, telling them that he needed to make sure his father wouldn’t get himself killed.
She felt bad that he cared so much for someone who didn’t give him as much back, but that was how Jughead was. He loved to a fault.
Jughead was, as expected, seated at the dinner table when she arrived, and both him and Charles stood to receive her.
“Feeling better?” Jughead asked, pulling back a chair for her.
She thanked him as she sat, nodding as she unfurled a folded napkin and began to set it on her lap. “Yes, thank you. I did not expect to feel so tired.”
Alice reached for her wine glass. “Nobody does, but it’s old magic, and it’s powerful. If you’re tired, it just means it’s working.”
Charles nodded, picking up his fork and knife. “Of course it’s working. You’ll be up and about before you know it. I remember when I accompanied Forsythe--” he pointed his knife in Jughead’s direction “--he swore he wouldn’t pass out. You held out longer than he did, by the way.”
Betty turned to Jughead, grinning, and she saw Jughead rolling his eyes. “Miss Sabrina must have put something in the tea she gave me.”
Charles smirked. “You were always long and lanky, even at ten--Forsythe senior didn’t fancy carrying you around like a sack around those parts, his body incapacitated by your weight. The toughs would’ve seen naught but a wounded animal and robbed all three of us.”
Mention of Jughead’s father from Charles was rare among them, but everytime Charles mentioned him, it was always the three of them--Jughead, Charles, and Forsythe senior, as if it were some amusing memory. They were always quick mentions, never lengthy or nostalgic, like it had been edited down to the best parts, with the worst parts cut off.
Betty felt this keenly, especially since Jughead told her that his father was a worthless drunk most times.
“He was never the father Charles--I hoped he could be.” Jughead had once told her, a cigarette between his lips.
She would never forget how, at the time, she was seated on a bench in their gardens and how Jughead sat on the grass by her bare feet. She had imagined him to be her suitor on his knees, speaking tenderly to her as he looked up at her with lovelorn eyes.
The fact that he was smoking a cigarette without having asked her permission first, and how his back was mostly turned to her was something she could ignore in favor of her fantasies, especially when he had looked up at her from his vantage point, smiling his rare, open smiles. “Charles is father enough for me, I think, so I’m not so mad about pap anymore.”
Betty remembered pulling lightly at a lock of his hair, something he didn’t mind her doing because she knew he saw her as a child. “Maybe you can live here forever.”
Jughead had chuckled. “Maybe while Charles rules this home. But what if you marry and your husband inherits this place? What of, then? He won’t want riff raff like me lurking in his lady’s house.”
She did not like it when he teased her about husbands and being beholden to a stranger. She did not fancy the idea of marriage, especially since she realized that hers would be done for convenience, as so many other ladies have had to do in their society.
Seeing the look on her face, Jughead had laughed and turned his back on her again. He did lean against her knee, however, which was something she could work into her fantasies even as the the smoke he blew from his lips carried to her face.
“Do you mind ever so much?” she whined, waving the smoke away.
He laughed again, but to his credit, he did offer his apologies and he stamped the cigarette away. “I forget myself, Lady Elizabeth. No doubt, your husband-to-be would have treated you more dearly.”
She wished he would stop talking about this theoretical husband, especially because he never seemed to figure himself into that role, even for fun.
“Maybe if you married me, you wouldn’t have to be sent away,” she boldly said. “Ladies marry for convenience, anyway. I might as well put my marriage obligations to good use—ensure that you’ll always have a place here.”
He scoffed, shaking his head. “I doubt even Charles would allow that sort of arrangement. Not for his precious sister. I know, because he does mention looking for suitable bachelors for you when you come of age and I never figure in that list, so your plan is dead from the beginning. Besides, you are only eleven. You needn’t worry about it for at least another five years.”
Sixteen, for her, was a deathknell. That Jughead saw her as such a child felt like a knife in her heart.
She was eleven, as he pointed out, when they had that conversation. She wondered briefly if it would be different if they had that conversation now.
In spite of himself, Jughead did seem to treat her more like a lady, lately. She was 13 now, and according to her lady’s maid, developing. He certainly thought her lady enough to pull out chairs for, and she did notice that when he wanted to smoke, he asked her first now. Then again, he never shied away from holding her hand, which told her that he didn’t ever think unplatonic things about her.
“Did you see what the mark looks like, Jug?” she asked in the middle of dinner.
He reddened but never missed a beat, shaking his head. “I promised you I wouldn’t look and I didn’t.” He smirked. “Besides, you ought to be the first, I think. I wouldn’t take that away from you.”
He might never be romantic with her, but he was almost always so caring.
“I can’t wait,” she said.
Charles and Jughead exchanged amused looks.
Betty seethed. She wished she wasn’t always such an amusement to them.
When she planned to show Jughead her mark, she selected a lower cut dress and she let her hair down, just so she could pull her hair over her shoulders, like the heroines she read in her books, sweeping their hair aside for their lovers to fix the clasp of a necklace.
He was in the library when she caught him and showed him her mark. He had stayed silent for two heartbeats. “It looks like mine.” He finally said, his eyes never leaving her mark.
She laughed. “Silly. What do you mean?”
“It looks like mine.” His voice was soft, like his mind was racing with a million thoughts. “But for the broader silhouette of my mark’s shoulders, it looks just like yours…”
The warm touch of his finger on her skin surprised her, but when an unexpected wave of pleasurable warmth spread through her, she found herself closing her eyes, feeling boneless and bathed in hypnotic calm.
She breathed, realizing that Jughead’s hand was splayed in the crook between her neck and shoulder, and his finger, possibly his thumb, was tracing the line of her spine, or perhaps the shape of her mark.
She must have said something under her breath. She couldn’t quite remember, but in a moment, Jughead was gone, stepping away as he looked at his palm in slowly increasing shock. The tingle that spread through her body originated from her mark, and she gaped, wondering why she suddenly felt so completely removed from him.
“What just happened?” he asked, staring at his hand and then at her. “What just happened there?”
She didn’t know what to say, except that it felt good and it felt right. Maybe it was the opposite for him. “Was it terrible for you?”
Several heartbeats passed before he replied. “It was anything but terrible.”
She motioned to speak but he turned to leave. “I have to go. Father asked that I don’t stay out too late. That he wants me home by dinner.”
“But you just got here--”
“I just wanted to see how you were doing. You seem quite well. Say hello to Charles for me.”
He was gone, and Betty stood there, wondering if she had done something wrong.
Instinct told her that what happened between them was no common thing, and that the extraordinary was not always met with enthusiasm. Charles had taught them that people feared the unknown and would do all they can to preserve the status quo. This felt like the unknown. It felt like something they needed to keep between them.
Betty wasn’t sure if she could learn more, but there were still many books in the library that she hadn’t yet read. She may find her answers among the shelves, yet.
Then again, she could go to the person who inked her mark.
She had a feeling Sabrina knew exactly what happened to them.
The ideal course was for Betty to ask that Jughead escort her to Sabrina’s hovel. She understood the difficulties. Charles would never let her go without him and Jughead didn’t want to gainsay the man he looked up to.
To convince Jughead to do this in secret was hard enough, but to convince him that this should be done in the dead of night, where she can sneak out of her house to gallivant in the Southside was near impossible.
He refused, and he refused again.
“Don’t,” he said, forestalling her. “I won’t do it.”
“Then I’ll go alone,” she huffed, determined to do so even if the prospect terrified her.
“That is a spectacularly horrible idea,” he replied through grit teeth. “If you dare, I will tell Charles.”
“Don’t you want to know what happened? Doesn’t it make you wonder?” she cried.
His fingers ruffled his hair and ran down his face in frustration. “It does, but we seem fine. There appears to be no after-effects. It means nothing, Betty!”
He could be right. It could mean absolutely nothing. But what if it was something?
As frightening as it was, she made plans to steal out of the house in the dead of night. A carriage certainly wouldn’t be able to bring her to the Southside--not at that hour, unless she bribed their coachman, but if Jughead threatened to tell on her, the coachman would surely rat her out to Charles.
She could use a bicycle. They had a few stored in the carriage house for the errand boy. It was perfect for her midnight excursion. It would be a rather long and sometimes strenuous trip for her, but she was equal to it. Charles’s training of her gave her endurance. She would be perfectly capable of cycling to and from the Southside and make it back to catch a few hours of sleep before breakfast.
She needed a disguise, she realized. It would be folly to go out by herself at that hour. She would be found out in a second. She had to go out as a boy.
This, she realized, was the hardest part of the plan. She couldn’t possibly use Charles’s old things, if they were even wearable. They would look too expensive. She needed clothes that looked well-worn, handed down from master to servant. Something that would make her one among a crowd.
She bribed the errand boy for these clothes, telling him that she needed it for a lark--a prank for the coming all-hallows eve celebrations, which was more than a month away, but the errand boy perhaps could not have cared any less what her reasons were. He procured the clothes and shoes, took her money, and didn’t ask questions.
She was ready. She just needed to pick a night.
As she stared at her calendar, she realized that she had been so busy preparing for her mission that she hadn’t noticed Forsythe’s upcoming birthday. He was about to turn 18.
18 was such a significant number for their kind, Charles said. It was a time of change. It was when those of the Daemon Kin were awakened to their powers. It also tended to be a time of great upheaval, where decisions were made and paths were chosen.
Most of the time, it was also an occasion marked by celebration.
Charles made plans for Jughead.
“We can’t have a party, you understand,” Charles told her as they ran errands in town together. “I’d have to make up some lie for everyone to swallow--they gibber enough about Forsythe’s strange arrangements in our home as it is, and besides that, Forsythe would never forgive me if we threw a party for him. But I think he would appreciate a trip to the rocklands, something close to what you and I did all those years ago, but perhaps with a bit more style, a bit more preparation, so that our tents would be better, our sleeping bags more comfortable--a more glamorous camping trip, where you, he, and I could huddle in a tent, have a fire outside, hunt deer, and swim in the river. And then--well, it’s a surprise. Do you think he’d like that?”
Betty nodded enthusiastically. Jughead would enjoy a camping trip. The very idea that they would isolate themselves from society would appeal to a curmudgeon like him. And with his two favorite people, no less.
Charles had planned to tell Jughead about the trip the day before--Jughead’s schedule was always open for them. That, or he simply refused to socialize with anyone outside of their circle.
But when Jughead arrived at their home on the evening of October first, he caught her and Charles at the library.
He stood above them in the light of the hearth and said, “My mother’s come to town--has been in town, actually.”
Charles’s eyebrow arched and Betty scrambled to find the words. She knew that Jughead’s mother had left him when he was but 9, taking with her his little sister. Gladys Jones was never a welcome topic and whenever Jughead did bring her up, it almost always seemed to Betty like gouging out old wounds.
“Well, what does that mean?” Betty asked.
“Why, after all this time, Forsythe?” Charles asked, but before Jughead muster a response, Charles shook his head. “Nevermind that--it doesn’t matter. Would you like to live here for the duration of her stay? You know you’re always welcome here. You never need to ask--”
“She came for my birthday. She came to take us back.”
Charles stopped speaking.
Betty did the opposite of that. “Take you back? Take you back where? What--”
“Take back her family, she said.” Jughead’s eyes lowered then, but Betty could see that they were going liquid.
Anger filled her heart--for the woman who broke a little boy and never cared enough make up for it before. “How dare she? After all this time--”
“Betty,” Jughead interrupted, his tone firm. Resolved. “I want to give her a chance.”
This was like him. This was just like him. He was so brave and strong, but he was soft for his drunken father, clearly forgiving of his negligent mother. Neither of them deserved him.
“What did she propose, Jughead?” Charles’s tone was quiet as he placed a firm hand on Betty’s shoulder.
Jughead took a deep breath. “She wants to move us to the city. To New York city. She said she has a position with the Guild--has had it for the last two years. It has earned her prominence and stature. She has for us a house like this to live in, a life that we would be proud of.”
Charles’s lips pursed. “The Guild. That is Kin society, lad. Once you let yourself, everything I’ve ever taught you, everything you’ve ever learned from me will be rendered insignificant by their ways--”
“I can make a difference,” Jughead said, a rough edge to his tone.
“And find yourself Forsaken?” Charles hissed back.
They stood there, staring at one another.
Charles stepped forward. “That is not what I want for you, Jughead. You are my brother. I want for you to prosper. Do you believe her? Is there veracity to her claims?”
“She is a woman,” Betty blurted out. “How can she have a trade? How can she own anything?”
Charles cast her a sympathetic look. “The ways of the Imperium—the Kin, are different from that of the Daemon Locked.”
Betty stood mystified by all of these new words: The Guild, the Imperium, Daemon Locked, women who owned property. It was beyond her knowledge, and she was equal parts furious and confounded.
Jughead confirmed Charles’s question with a nod. “My mother is a great many things, but she was never a liar. She is telling the truth.”
It began to dawn on Betty that they were talking about Jughead living somewhere else. In a place she could not so easily go to. “Well, when are you coming back?”
Jughead’s gaze darted to her, and when she saw the tears, something inside her began to rip in two.
“You’re not coming back,” she whispered, her eyes growing achingly tight.
His breath hitched, and he seemed to be forcing a smile to his lips. “I would like to, Betty. So much, but--”
“He is going to live with the Kin,” Charles finished for him. “Once he is among them, he cannot associate with the Forsaken. He cannot write, he cannot come back, else they will find me and kill me, then they will take you, because you are underaged and they like to get you while you’re young.”
The Forsaken meet again.
“And then they will Forsake him, too,” Charles added. “Jughead deserves better than that.”
Betty’s resolve broke, and sobbing, she ran into Jughead’s arms, her tears soiling the front of his shirt. His arms held her tight, his lips falling upon the top of her head.
She stood huddled in his embrace, crying into his heart. In the background, she heard Charles say that after they were done, Jughead must come to his study.
Charles left, and only when they were alone did Betty thump her fist against Jughead’s chest.
“You are my best friend,” she cried. “You were to move here when you came of age, remember? You would stay here until my theoretical husband tried to kick you out and I had to fight him. How could you leave me so soon?”
The corners of his lips lifted into a painful smile, his own tears falling upon his cheeks. He held her face in his hands. “I will always be your best friend. No place or circumstance could change that.”
“But you won’t be here!”
“You are stronger than this,” he hissed. “Betty Cooper, didn’t you promise that what I can do, you can do better?”
She placed her own hands upon his. “Shut, you. I never planned to do that without you.”
He looked upon her with the fondest eyes, and she didn’t care if he never saw her as anything more than a little girl. She just didn’t want him to leave.
His thumb wiped the tears beneath her eyes. “You are destined for great things, Betty.”
He didn’t know that. He wasn’t a soothsayer, but it meant everything to her that he believed in her.
She wanted to tell him she loved him, but she was afraid that her eyes would give her away—that he would know that her love was more than familial.
“I was going to go to Sabrina,” she confessed. “By myself. To ask her about my mark.”
“Betty,” he said in a gently chastising tone.
“I may still go—distract me from your leaving.”
“Sabrina is gone. She left soon after she marked you. I know, because I checked, and I checked because you kept asking and I didn’t want you to get any fool ideas about sneaking out unaccompanied.”
She couldn’t believe he went behind her back. She couldn’t believe he so easily knew what she was going to do.
“You are the only person who understands me,” she told him in a plaintive voice.
“Charles understands you.”
“He is my big brother. I can’t tell him my secrets the way I tell them to you.”
His eye began to fill again. “I will miss you so, Betty.”
There were no words enough to tell him how devastated she would be by his leaving. So she sank back into his arms, relishing these last few moments she would have with him for a long time.
The day Jughead left was Betty’s first heartbreak.
She took a carriage to the train station, against Charles’s wishes, and rushed through the crowds to find Jughead’s train.
She was caught in a frenzy, realizing too late that she quite possibly may never see Jughead again, and the idea that he would never know how she felt scared her. It made so little sense, but she felt a real sense of urgency, and so here she was, her confession nearly choking her.
She saw him, already settled in his seat, the whistle of the steam engine loud and shrill.
Above the din of bustling travelers and the slow chug of the train’s engine, Betty screamed Jughead’s name as she bound towards his window seat.
He turned at her voice, which had miraculously cut through the noise, and when he saw her, he at first looked shocked, then glad, and then he looked so impossibly worried.
She pushed forward, determined, because his train was moving and she didn’t have a lot of time.
“Betty!” he cried back, leaning out through the window as she kept up the pace. He reached for her and their hands clasped. “You must stand back! You can get hurt!”
“I can’t let you go without telling you!” she said as loudly as she could. She didn’t care if anyone else heard.
“Betty, be careful!”
“I love you, Jughead! Do you hear me? With all my heart!” She didn’t feel like she needed to explain. She had no doubt that her eyes and her face conveyed exactly what she meant. He knew her enough to understand.
And when she said them, she could see his expression change from worry to wonder, then regret. His grip on her hand loosened and her fingers fell away.
He said nothing back. Nothing at all, and when the platform ran out, Betty had nothing except the image of him pulling away. Leaving. Disappearing into the distance.
She cried on the platform, alone and distraught, because Jughead Jones had not said the words back.
When Betty turned eighteen, her world turned completely upside down.
It had been tilting for many years already, slowly going askew as she helped wandering spirits find peace or whenever she delivered the living from the torment of the dead. She watched her life going sideways each time she put away a Wraith or sealed off the powers of a summoner. She did her duties behind a veil, because Charles told her to stay in the shadows.
When Jughead left, Charles intensified her training, and he told her that with Jughead gone, she was all that was left to carry out their work.
Charles was demanding, even difficult, but she bore it with steely resolve, and she handled the challenges it brought with the skills Charles made certain she had acquired.
She felt prepared.
Until she wasn’t.
It was an accident. Or so they claimed.
Betty and her mother were told that he had fallen off his horse and fell badly--broke his neck on impact. No one was with him when he died, only that he had been missing from the hunting party for hours, and that when they found him, he was already dead. Betty’s grief could only be measured by her bitterness. He did not even enjoy hunting by horse. He had only done it to entertain a client. It could have been avoided. Betty was inconsolable for weeks.
Charles, her teacher, her mentor, the only friend she had left, was lost to her forever, too. She had lived her life, to that point, believing that she would be at Charles’s arm her entire life, that his death would come at old age.
He was so full of life, so strong. Nothing could possibly kill him except a body grown aged and weary. And yet he had died in the prime of his life.
Betty did not think she could possibly go on. She mourned alone for weeks on end and not even her mother could console her. And when she had come out of her room and faced her life without him, she mourned him for months, in black.
And after she and her mother had to shed the black, she was finally forced to confront the realities and practicalities of the loss, of inheritance, or rather—the lack thereof.
It was only then she began to wonder, when Charles's spirit did not manifest--how he could rest peacefully when she and her mother had been left with nothing. Their home and their wealth, so indisputably Charles's, could not go to them by law, because women could not inherit in the realm of the Daemon Locked.
There was a will, they were told, but the properties had gotten bequeathed to someone else— someone, the solicitor said, who bore with him the keys to Charles’s vault. She didn’t even know Charles had a vault. All Charles left her was a timepiece. A watch, it seemed, that didn’t even look attractive enough to be sold.
How can he possibly think that the timepiece he left her, with a note as delivered by his solicitor,--valued so little that she could not even exchange it for money at the pawnshop--would be enough?
It wasn't enough, but there was no sign of his ghost. No sign that Betty and her mother's ruination troubled him at all.
If you have this watch, it means I perished. If you find yourself desperate and without hope, turn the dial. But beware, and remember everything I taught you.
That was all the note said.
So she turned the dial, half expecting that the world would stand still. But nothing happened, except that the watch started to run, and she grew all too aware that her life, without Charles, was going to be a bit more difficult than she anticipated.
Chapter 2: Deathly Inconveniences
There was a melody, faint like cobwebs, whistling through the cracks and nooks of the house.
As Betty stood at the threshold of her bedroom door, staring down the dark and chilly hallway, a copper coin lay, Britannia side-up, at her feet.
She picked it up and examined it. It felt colder than ice.
Betty wondered where this Queen’s halfpenny came from, as her mother was not in the habit of leaving currency--even foreign ones--lying around just for anyone, ghost or living, to take.
The trace sounds of a birthday song hung then waned in the air and Betty looked around the otherwise empty hallway.
The faded image of red silk and black lace bled into the darkness. The translucent mottled skin of the woman wearing it gleamed atop the low collar. It was riddled with brown veins and the trace mark of the rope that killed her just around her throat.
Laura’s blue lips hardly moved. “It was all I can manage.”
The coin would’ve been a herculean effort for one such as herself. Spirits could move things--a nudge here and a bump there, but to put an object somewhere specific--it required a great degree of emotion and energy.
That Laura was able to visually manifest at all tonight after that effort was a feat in itself.
“Thank you, Laura. You didn’t have to.” Betty pocketed the coin, letting Laura stay in the shadows.
Her birthday had been weeks ago—Laura wasn’t even dead at the time, but Betty must have mentioned it somehow in their brief conversations, and in Laura’s spiritual turmoil, that day could have been today. It was impossible for ghosts to keep track of time. They came and went, never knowing what day it was. Never understanding how many hours or days had passed.
“You are twenty and one, now?” Laura asked.
Betty chuckled. “Nineteen.”
Laura frowned. “Much too young to return to the place of my death.”
Betty tried not to laugh. “And how would you know that is where I’m going?”
“You look nothing like a lady.”
Betty knew that wasn’t meant to be an insult. “And have you remembered anything else of your place of death?”
Laura frowned, moving back into the shadows. “Brick, sky, and a pig. With spots. Stay home, Betty.”
She faded before Betty could ask for more clarification.
Laura had a strong sense of propriety, for a prostitute. She had a strong opinion in general, for a ghost. She objected to the misbehaviors Betty exhibited, telling her that if any man were to perceive what she had been up to, she would be rendered completely unmarriageable—a tragedy, no doubt, to most of the Daemon Locked. Laura held out hope that Betty could avert disaster--from the burgeoning threat of spinsterhood.
Betty didn’t have the heart to tell her that her last shred of marriageability waned with the reading of her brother’s will two days ago.
The proprieties set for her gender seemed insignificant given that their time upon this home and lifestyle were, in the banker’s turn of phrase, numbered.
She knew that Charles was not a big believer of banks. He had scoffed at the idea of handing over his money to strangers and letting them do with it as they will. He had an accountant to record every cent, but Betty was under the impression that he kept all his currency in his personal vault. It was only two days ago that she and her mother discovered that he kept a vault in the bank, too, the keys of which had been bequeath to an unnamed stranger.
The contents of Charles’s safe at home was what Betty and her mother have been living on since his death, and while they have been frugal in the depletion of it, they were ever aware of the waning pile.
Betty had, on several occasions, taken to exchanging her dresses for coin. Her wardrobe, too, was thinning. They were, as the saying went, hanging by the thread of her silk gowns.
The bankers, well aware of the contents of this supposed vault, even if they weren’t allowed to touch it, and they were already grumbling about government orders to seize possession of it, invoking federal powers to take what wasn’t theirs.
Alice made clear her thoughts on their insinuations. “Someone is in possession of those vault keys, gentlemen, and so long as that person lives, you have no right to take my dead son’s personal property. That would make all of you thieves, if you aren’t already by some other means.”
This “person” might as well be some fictional character in a novel. The only other clue the will left of this mystery, other than the key connection, was that the person was male and that he was a blood relative.
Betty knew not of any other blood relatives except her father, whom her brother and mother had said was lost at sea shorty after she was conceived. Betty’s older sister, had she survived her own birth, would not have made a difference, given her gender.
When Betty asked her mother if she knew of any blood relatives, Alice merely arched an eyebrow and said, “Well, of course I know of blood relatives.” And that was the end of that discussion. Alice would tell her no more.
Betty was somewhat holding out hope that this mystery man would let them keep their home and perhaps let them have all that Charles left behind. At the very least--help them sell the house so they could move into a more manageable apartment in town, living off the remains of Charles’s wealth until--she suspected, Alice found her a suitable husband.
Because honestly, that was the only recourse they had left. Betty could keep three shopgirl jobs at once and it still wouldn’t be enough to keep them out of poverty.
Betty was almost tempted to sell her ability to talk to spirits, mostly to the Daemon Locked who seem obsessed with the paranormal, but first of all, Charles did not raise her that way, and secondly, people seemed to have gotten it in their heads that one can summon dead relatives at will.
There were several things that could go wrong with that last bit.
Summoning dead people was certainly possible--Betty had read as much in the textbooks that Charles had made her read, but there was no summoning specific people, unless you were lucky enough to have them around, and summoning the dead meant the spirit had to be plane-bound in the first place.
A spirit that had crossed over needed a different level of summoning, and one can go so far as to summon someone specific then, but doing so also came with a great price that few people were willing to pay; all sorts of horrific acts and sacrifices like murder, severed limbs of any kind, the soul of another, the release of a Daemon--Betty would never perpetuate this practice, even if someone else was willing to do the killing, severing, or sacrificing.
With all these improbable scenarios that the Daemon Locked seemed to expect, the only recourse for anyone who talked to spirits (or those who couldn’t, really) was fraud.
Fraud would have to be employed to make the Daemon Locked believe that they could communicate with their dead loved ones, because it was that belief that would compel them to pay for your “services” and that was not the kind of business Betty wanted to run.
Charles would turn in his grave, and if Jughead were there, he would scold her for such shenanigans. Sometimes, she imagined hearing Jughead’s voice in her head, still, often when she was doing something questionable, or inappropriate, or most often illegal.
If she were a man, none of this would matter. Half the things she did now would not be considered questionable or inappropriate and she would be running the legitimate business Charles left behind. She would be the master of the house, and she would not have to marry anybody unless she wanted to.
Sighing, she looked up from her thoughts and did not see Laura’s spirit anymore. She could feel it, however. Her presence still hung in the air.
Laura’s body had been found hanging from a rope in a hovel and the constabulary ruled it a suicide, and yet Laura’s spirit insisted that she would do no such thing. Some ghosts remembered everything immediately, while some couldn’t remember a thing for weeks. The shock of death can befuddled ghosts. The more traumatic the death, the more confused they became and it was cases like these where Betty had to go out of her way to find the truth.
“I will find out what happened to you, Laura,” she said to the empty hallway. “I will give you the answers you seek.”
The slightest of breezes stirred her blouse and that was acknowledgement enough for Betty.
She stepped out in the hallway, making her way down the stairs and past the parlor, light on her feet and keeping to the shadows out of habit.
When the house was fully staffed, she was careful not to be caught escaping, but now they only had one maid and their coachman—the former being a heavy sleeper and the latter living elsewhere, only coming in for work in the morning.
Nowadays, she could come and go without fear of being caught and causing a scandal.
As she rounded the corner to head for the kitchens and the back door, she collided with an unexpected obstruction, their bodies knocking in the dark.
Betty bit her lip to stifle her cries while her mother hissed under her breath in surprise.
“Betty! What are you doing up at-- oh.” There was hardly any light to see by--they did not want to waste fuel, but there was some light filtering from the kitchen, and the faint glimmer of it fell upon Betty’s clothing.
Her graying and frayed knickers, men’s blouse, brown suspenders and worn-leather boilerman cap fit her well, but more importantly, it erased all manner of means to tell she was a woman in disguise. Her hair had been gathered up in a tight bun inside her cap--if her hat fell off, it would give her entire identity away, but she never engaged in activity that would put her in that position.
Alice took in her overall appearance and Betty could see her mother’s disapproval, but before Alice could say anything else, Betty shot back with, “Making your laudanum tea?”
This caused Alice to purse her lips momentarily. Her perfectly coiffed hair moved not an inch, so tightly wound that Betty could swear that her mother couldn’t undo it to save her life. “I tried it one time and you’d think I had set up a drug den in the parlor. Do not change the subject. Are you headed to the Southside?”
“I need to see Dr. Masters.” There was no way around such a direct question.
“He is a doctor.”
Alice waved her words away. “For you, or for the dead?”
Betty rolled her eyes. “If I needed to see the doctor for myself, I could do it in the light of day, mother. Why else would I do it in the cover of night?”
Alice scoffed. “Women have been known to go to doctors--particularly barbers, at night, my dear, but I suppose I ought to be thankful you don’t know that.”
Betty’s face reddened to a fine pinot noir. She knew why women went to doctors or--as the phrase went-- practitioners in the cover of night. She just didn’t think her mother would expect such a thing from her. “I know women do that, mother, but unless I have some unknown Kin ability for virgin conception, how did you even think that scenario possible with me?”
The exasperation rolled heavily in Alice’s eyes. “Isn’t it enough that you are past 18 and unengaged? Must you be so actively unmarriageable?”
If there ever was a topic so unappealing to Betty, it was this. She took a moment to breathe, quieting her temper. “I must go. The earlier I set out, the earlier I can return, and we have an early start to the day tomorrow. After all, the business of marriageability waits not for the tardy—”
“Oh, spare me your sarcasm. You’d think that making nice with eligible gentlemen would be more appealing to you than making back deals with hoodlums.”
“It is far more exhausting to play nice with gentlemen who pretend to like me for my personality when it’s Charles’s coffers that they want. You and I both know that a gentleman’s regard has the propensity to grow flexible in the face of fortune, or the lack of it.”
That Alice didn’t seem willing to argue the point was telling of the truth of Betty’s words. “Do you have money for this excursion?” she asked, instead.
Betty held up a bag and undid the ties closing it. The pink ruffled and rich material flounced out of its opening and Alice’s lips straightened to a grim line.
Alice’s soft scoff followed. “You are determined to deplete your wardrobe down to your ugliest pieces.”
“To my practical pieces. I am giving up my more frivolous gowns. It is as much trouble keeping them as selling them off, and as you may have noticed, nobody likes a woman past her salad days wearing too much pink and baby blues. Such audacity --”
Alice’s fan, which as far as Betty was concerned, had been plucked out of thin air, swatted the back of Betty’s hand. “Enough. The mouth on you. Say anymore and I will resort to laudanum. Run along and be careful. I swear it, Betty. If you manage to get yourself killed, I will be more than a little vexed with you.”
Betty adjusted the cap on her head, pulling it lower over her grease-stained face. The smell of her shirt was not becoming of a lady.
It was not unpleasant, but no French perfume freshened it. No sweet smelling soap masked the stench of unkempt Southside streets. And clean as her shirt was, it looked old, threadbare in places, and mended repeatedly. She had no doubt that it was a well-crafted piece of clothing--its good quality was evident at the seams, but like so many laborers’ clothing worn by the men all around her, it was a hand-me-down from its glory days.
Betty had to fold the sleeves to her wrists, lest the holes in the cuffs make her look too decrepit. Thankfully, the suspenders that held up her trousers were dependably durable. Those were new, but she had stained them to dull their sheen. Absolutely nothing should give away that she did not belong in this wretched place.
Her workmen’s boots were only slightly too big for her--to mask the smallness of her feet. Charles bought these for her special, and they were comfortable with two layers of knitted socks.
With her hair tied and hidden in her cap, she looked like a young man. With a scarf around her neck, it was even easier to hide whatever delicacy her coat could not mask.
Over her shoulder, her sack look filled to bursting--a parasol, gloves, and a divinely laced dress. It would fetch her a nice price—enough to get her the money she needed.
Southside, even so late at night, was abuzz with activity.
She walked its streets with assured strides, certain of where she wanted to go and utterly comfortable of her surroundings. She need not look at the shop signs to know what she was looking for.
She had been to this part of Southside countless times, many times alone. She knew her way around and she knew to whom she could go to for help--or at least whom she could pay for help.
The pawnshop was a familiar place. It looked like a proper establishment, were it not situated in one of the most unsavory parts of the city. It’s shop windows were littered with junk arranged to look like the treasure room of a rather decrepit sultan--beady-eyed dolls with bright red blush on its cheeks and gleaming, mismatched toy drums with yellowing batter heads were interspersed with intricately decorated hookahs and exotic jars. Embellished shawls, strung beads, and imitation jewelry served as backdrop.
The lettering on the marquee said Sweet’s Emporium.
This was not a candy shop.
The door chimed as she pushed it open, and the man behind the counter was better dressed than his customers. His floors were made of marble, and the glass cases lining the walls of his shop were filled with curiosities.
Behind him was his vault, guarded by two men, one armed with a club and another with a mace, both of whom were threatening enough without weapons. The shopkeeper himself was known to keep a gun within easy reach beneath his counter. She had heard it was always locked and loaded.
The pawnsmith himself was a polished looking man, with strong arms and a charming demeanor. His face was beard free, but the youthfulness of it was hardened by the arrogant smirk on his lips and the ruthlessness of his eyes.
Were it not for his notorious habits at the whorehouses and gambling dens, he might have been richer, but he appeared to rule this part of town--everyone owing him something. It was rumored that his pawnshop was his legitimate business, and that he was involved it much more unsavory transactions.
Everyone in town called him Sweet Pea, but there was nothing sweet about him, and perhaps that was the joke.
She cared not. His pawnshop was useful to her.
"Well," said the pawnsmith from his shop stool. "If it isn't the pretty boy, come to sell his stolen wares again."
"Stolen?" she said in a perfectly innocent, but perfectly altered baritone. "Not at all. I was given these. I would never pawn stolen goods and get you in trouble, Sweet Pea."
Everything she told him was true, and that was perhaps why Sweet Pea always looked upon her with suspicion and awe. He could not catch her lie. He could not catch her tells. Whether he knew she was a woman in disguise, he never let on if he did or didn’t. Perhaps he didn’t care so long as she was bringing him quality goods.
Sweet Pea left his stool and leaned on the counter. "Give it here, lad."
She swung her sack onto the counter and emptied its contents. The dress, the gloves, and parasol spilled out in a lovely array of lace and perfume.
Sweet Pea whistled. "How do you get such lovely gifts, boy? I can still smell the lady on them."
His toothy grin made Betty ill, but she showed none of her disgust and winked. "I'm a hard worker."
Which was only true if he knew that Charles had rewarded her academic and training efforts with all sorts of things once upon a time. She got the best of everything, because she lived a privileged existence that way. Sweet Pea, of course had a completely different take on it.
He laughed, eyeing her with barely veiled admiration. "Two dollars"
"What! This is Parisian . Worth at least five dollars for all of them!" And she very well knew Charles had paid more for the price of the dress alone.
"And what'll you do if I take this now and give you nothing back?"
I'd sneak into your shop and steal the damn things right back.
But she didn't say it, because if she did that, Sweet Pea would see her dead, whether or not he had proof that she did it. "Come on, now. I've never known you to be a dishonest man. I'll take four dollars. I'm sure you'll get a pretty penny for this ensemble."
Sweet Pea smirked. "Only because I like you, Chic." He counted out three dollars and smaller coins and said nothing more as he gathered the things to put them away.
Betty quietly gathered her earnings. She had hoped for more but expected this. If she wanted a fair pawn, she should have gone to the dressmaker, but that would have caused a scandal, whether she went as herself or as her boy persona, Chic.
"Nice doing business with you," she muttered under her breath as she scampered out of the shop.
Making her way through the grimy streets and noisy pubs, she soon came upon the old and ill-maintained coroner’s office, just a few blocks off the constabulary.
She approached the building and jumped the low wall that would allow her passage to the back entrance. The front door would have necessitated walking through a group of inquisitive body dealers that tended to loiter in the lobby, waiting for the next John or Jane Smith that they could sell to the medical school the next town over, or even just the local surgeons.
She kicked the rusty back door open and the stench of decaying bodies assaulted her immediately. Gagging, she whipped out a handkerchief and tied it around her face, hoping it would help her get through the hallways without emptying the contents of her stomach on the floor. On the third door on the right, she knocked and waited.
A small shuffle whispered from the other side, and moments later, a large man with dark skin and fine clothing opened the door. He wore an apron and rubber gloves, and both were stained with blood and other bodily fluids. The hard look on his face softened when he realized who it was.
"Chic. I should have known. Come in."
Betty nodded, her nose still hadn’t adapted to the smell. She always had a handkerchief over her face whenever she came here and she still couldn’t quite get used to the smell of the place. A hint of formaldehyde masked the rot, but it wasn’t enough to overpower the offensive stench.
"Thank you, Dr. Masters," said Betty with a tip of her hat.
He removed a soiled glove and barehanded, he reached for a jar perched on a table by the door. He did not, however, pick up the bottle. Instead, he took the porcelain rod dipped in its mouth and stirred its contents. As he pulled the rod from the container, he swirled the tip of it, gathering the substance on the end. “Hold out your finger.”
It was a filmy substance, thick and medicinal, but she did hold out her hand, and Dr. Masters shook a small drop of it on the tip of her finger.
“It’s eucalyptus compound. Rub it under your nose. It will help with the smell.”
Betty had little reason to distrust Dr. Masters. He was a physician whom many in the Southside relied on to heal them, but the poverty of his patients necessitated this second occupation as a coroner.
At night, they called him “The Barber”, where he signed for unidentified and unclaimed bodies, waiting for body dealers willing to buy human remains who would then sell it to the physicians’ academy in the next town.
Betty didn’t need bodies, but she did have questions about them on occasion, and while she didn’t have to pay him full price for autopsies, he did charge a fee for cutting up bodies before he sold them to body dealers.
“They pay less for pre-examined bodies,” Dr. Masters explained. “The academy will buy anything available, but the more pristine the corpse, the higher its value.”
The Southside was a hard place to live and she had been amongst its residents long enough to understand how they lived their lives, surviving in an environment where they had no one but themselves to rely on.
Betty rubbed the eucalyptus compound above her lip and immediately, its minty scent cut through the rot. It was a relief. “Thank you. It helps. Have you examined Laura’s body yet?” She took coins from her pocket and handed them to Dr. Masters.
He nodded, taking the money and putting it away without counting.
When she was Chic, pleasantries were minimal. “It is like the constabulary said--she expired by asphyxiation. The ligature marks around her neck told me there was a thick rope involved, but there were additional, unlikely marks that made me think that perhaps the rope was just used to hang her body.”
Betty noted the wording immediately. “Hang her body? It was hung after death? What killed her then?”
Dr. Masters motioned for her to follow him to an examination table, where a white blanket had been draped over a body. He carefully pulled back the sheet, leaving only the face and part of its shoulder exposed.
It was Laura as Betty knew her, pale and decomposing. If Betty weren’t talking to her spirit, her body seemed serene in repose, her eyes closed and her face free of agony.
Dr. Masters pointed to the deeply dark bruise at the center of her throat. Betty could make out the stitching from the doctor’s examination. “Do you see those darker knots just off the rope marks?”
Betty nodded, seeing the odd, misplaced spotting.
The doctor put his hands around Laura’s neck. “The marks approximately line up with the grip of hands, and those dark spots--those are rings. Three or four, you see? And when I examined her throat more closely, I saw that her hyoid bone was crushed, which can happen in a hanging, but more commonly for older individuals. Ms. Laura is young, so that is less likely the case here. It was more likely her hyoid bone was crushed by the vice grip of a hand.”
“Strangulation,” Betty whispered, unsurprised. “She would have been staring into her murderer’s eyes.”
“If the dead could speak.”
In Betty’s experience, they did. All the time.
Ghosts didn’t always have accurate memories. They forgot events, they remembered faces but not their names, they remembered places but not where they were. The trauma of their deaths often left them confused and distraught for days, even weeks.
Clarity came slow, but it didn’t do to wait too long for the dead to remember. The longer spirits stayed in the realm of the living, the more likely they could get corrupted and become a menace.
Spirits needed to be crossed over and the only way to do that was to undo the ties that held them on this plane.
When people die, a portal to the spirit realm opens for them and a spirit is expected to walk through it. It is when these souls ignore that portal that they became restless spirits. It is only when spirits feel ready to finally leave do the portals to the spirit realm open for them again.
Spirits stay because they are unable to let go of their lives for one reason or another.
Betty was raised to believe it was her duty to help them find that resolution before they became harmful to the living.
Laura could, at first, only remember seeing her body hanging from the rafters of a hovel, but talking with her in the hallway that evening, she also remembered sky, brick, and a pig with spots.
When Betty first went to where Laura’s body was discovered, she saw that the only window in the room looked out to the hovel next door. She could not have seen the sky in her last moments—the sky, not stars. Stars could have been a trick in her eyes as breath left her body.
And now Dr. Masters confirmed that someone had murdered her before they hung her body to make it look like a suicide.
That hovel was not where she died. She was outdoors when it happened.
Betty left the coroner’s the same way she went in, and as she pulled the door closed from outside, she tugged the collar of her coat higher.
It hadn't grown colder, but later in the night, she wanted to call even less attention to herself.
She walked the streets, tracing her steps back to the scene of Laura’s last known location.
Betty could only guess that the scene of the crime could not have been far from where they hung her body to be discovered.
Laura’s recollections, like many spirits before her, tended to come in spurts, sometimes in sequence, backwards, or sometimes in fragmented parts, but they were tied in proximity of time.
Perhaps she had been killed in an alley along the hovel. It would certainly be much easier to bring a dead body up the back way.
As Betty went to the back of the building, she looked down the narrow, dark alley, with rats skittering in the darkness. There was no throughway to the next street.
She could see the brick along its walls and as she looked up, the sky showed through the rooftops.
Betty touched the brick wall, feeling nothing but the rough material of masonry.
She closed her eyes, turning slowly and envisioning Laura’s dying seconds.
Someone strong would have been holding her by the throat, squeezing. Tightening.
Laura’s knees would have buckled beneath her as oxygen left her body.
Betty knelt on the soiled ground.
Laura’s murderer would have been standing above her, and she could've put up her hands, desperate to push him away.
Brick and sky. And a pig with spots.
That last bit was confounding. Livestock was not common in the Southside.
Betty lowered herself to the ground even more, swallowing her gorge at the thought of what refuse had flowed down that street.
Much to her disgust, she felt the moist cobbled floor against her cheek. And then she opened her eyes.
She let her eyes see what Laura saw, and there, from her vantage point on the ground, she saw the pub called “The Spotted Pig.”
The Spotted Pig was not, by any means a fashionable pub, but its patrons, though at times boisterous, tended to talk animatedly amongst themselves, never minding anyone who may walk through the door. The tables were filled, but the bar was sparsely populated.
Betty was able to grab a stool and situate herself where she could talk privately with the bartender without attracting too much attention.
She pulled some coins from her pocket and clicked it discreetly, as if counting what she had.
On cue, the bartender approached. "What can I get for you, lad?"
She clicked a 25 cent coin against the counter. "Just a beer, sir."
He paused ever so briefly before continuing with his task. He uncapped the bottle right in front of her. "Will that be all?"
"You have an interesting view from the bar. You've got the pub covered, and some of the street too?"
The bartender shrugged, wiping the counter in front of her while taking the coin she left there. "It keeps me amused."
"I’d imagine, what with the going ons in that alley over there. Prostitutes going in and coming out with fellas who clearly had their way…”
The bartender frowned. "I don't enjoy that sort of thing, but it occurs."
"Something happens probably every week, doesn’t it? I’ll bet the coppers came by asking if you saw something."
The bartender eyed her suspiciously even when she flashed coin again. He paused, perhaps hesitating to tell her, but he looked at the coin between her fingers again and perhaps decided it was worth it. "I saw the whore go in with one of those gangsters with the dandy jackets. Saw no one come out."
Betty nodded. “Whore was a friend of mine--God rest her soul. I’m surprised she was found in these parts. She had a more--refined clientele. Certainly never a gangster, unless he was a lover."
"This was no lover, by the way he mishandled her.”
Betty gave it a moment’s thought. There was more than one gang in Riverdale, but she knew which one wore the ‘dandy’ jackets: the Ghoulies. She left the 25 cent coin on the counter. “Do you have anything to describe this dandy?”
The bartender shrugged, taking the coin. "Maybe. Rather handsome fellow, long curly hair. Likes to wear chains around his neck."
She wasn’t sure if that was enough to pick him out of a crowd, but it would have to be enough. At the very least, she already knew a Ghoulie was behind it. She could start poking her nose in the gang and work her way to the perpetrator.
As she turned to leave, the bartender called her attention back.
"They are a dangerous gang and won’t talk to strangers, lad."
Betty stared at him a moment, trying to decipher whether the bartender knew the extent of her disguise. It would have been easy enough to deduce that she really wasn't a street rat. She had flashed enough coin to remove any doubt, but did the bartender know she was a woman?
"He prefers talking to gentlewomen of certain proclivities," continued the bartender. “They like to gather at The House of the Dead whenever they can—spending their coin on liquor and whores. You might find an opportunity there.” With that, he swept her untouched bottle of beer away.
Betty didn't stay another second. She stepped out of The Spotted Pig and made her way home.
The plane of the living was not conducive for the dead. Prolonged haunting corrupted ghosts, turning them into things that sought to exist by taking the energies of those alive. That energy was stronger in chaos. A chaotic and stressful home served a ghost that struggled to exist on the living plane. They became malignant when they needed that energy to survive.
Laura had another week or so before she was in any danger of becoming malignant, and once the signs began to show, there was no telling if the descent would be gradual or erupt to a sudden, full-blown corruption.
It was seldom, though, that spirits followed Betty home. They didn’t, usually, but this one clung to her--so desperate was she for answers. Alice had huffed and fumed when she first noticed Laura appearing in corners and she had warned Betty that if Laura grew corrupt in this house, there would be consequences.
Betty was close to her answers. She could feel it. She just had to keep Laura calm and focused.
Sometimes Betty wondered if she liked the company of the dead more than she did the living.
She knew how to be among the living--there was no want of skill there. She presented a proper demeanor, calm and collected. She’d heard them call her detached and cold, even as she tried to be more accommodating and social.
With the living she wore a facade. It was with the dead that she could be her true self.
She acknowledged that her true self would seem strange to other people, with her dark silks and laces, her odd herbs and jars, and her "manly" pursuits of fencing, archery, climbing and self-defense. Her brother and mother, who had supported her in these lessons took her skills very seriously. It hadn't been a lark for them, but no one could know. No one should suspect that she had these skills.
She had friends, but none she considered her confidante. Invitations to social functions were addressed to her mother, who was expected to attend, dragging her daughter with her, whom everyone thought was pretty but unwilling to let anyone get too close.
Her interactions with the dead did nothing to help her interactions with the living.
So her prospects for marriage were dismal—a handful of elderly men, maybe (she’d heard) who couldn’t care less about her oddities because her brother’s estate meant profitable connections. Not that she would want to marry in the first place. She would rather that she didn't.
“Do you think I can be a governess?" Betty asked her mother, once, when thinking about her earning prospects.
"Absolutely not," said Alice. "You haven't a maternal bone in your body, and no, that ghost boy you once took home doesn't count. He needed neither changing, feeding, nor did you have to worry about his safety. You are completely unsuited to caring for children of the live variety."
That put an end to that idea, but she wondered how well her mother would think of her maternal instinct when they were homeless on the streets.
As she sat at the dinner table with her mother, their simple fare telling of their thinning funds, Alice put her fork down and said, “The heir has made himself known.”
Betty paused in her chewing. “The heir?”
“To your brother’s fortune. The lawyer sent me a message and said an appointment has been made with him regarding Charle’s estate.”
Betty expected her to say more, when she didn’t, Betty had to stop herself from banging her knife on the table. “Well, did the lawyer tell you who it was?”
“Of course not. It isn’t our business.”
Betty fumed. “Not our business! It is our lives that they transact with!”
“It is how the Daemon Locked run their realms. I don’t make the rules.”
Betty often questioned the wisdom of living amongst the Daemon Locked, especially after Charles died. She hadn’t learned much more about Charle’s banishment from that society since she first learned about it, just that Charles hadn’t agreed with their ways, and that his questioning of it had caused him to be ex-communicated.
It was his family’s choice then to let him leave Kin society by himself or join him in his exile.
Alice chose exile, and here they were.
Betty would have chosen Charles over anyone when he was alive. The question of staying with him in exile or leaving him for the Kin never entered her mind, but with him gone, she had room to consider things that she never considered before.
She hated the Daemon Locked.
She hated living in this society that demanded her to act one way and expect her to sit and wait for luck to steer her. She hated that her gender forced her into a helpless existence, that she could not even earn a decent wage because she was born a woman.
“To the devil with this,” Betty hissed, throwing aside her napkin and leaving her seat.
Alice sighed. “Where are you going?”
“To the Southside. I have to meet with some gangsters.”
“I will be fine, mother.”
“I know that, you mule-headed girl. But don’t kill anyone. We have enough problems! If they haul you off to the clink, I will leave you in there to rot, I swear it!”
Betty stifled a grin. Her mother would never. “Those coppers couldn’t catch me if they tried.”
Alice gave a huff. “Be careful, nonetheless. If anyone recognizes you, I don’t think I’d be able to live the scandal down.”
Betty was not going to go as a boy, but she hoped that she looked different enough that she would be unrecognizable, by Southsiders and Northsiders alike.
As she was, she stole out of the house in a dark hood and cape, intent on concealing not just her face, but her entire appearance. When she wasn’t dressed as a boy, she couldn’t take her bicycle into the Southside like she normally did. In her present disguise, she needed mass transportation.
She couldn’t wait very late to make her way to the Southside, or she would miss the latest wagon out. If she didn’t join the rest of the working class, she would have to take a chaise into Southside and that was a cost she would rather not shoulder if she didn’t have to.
She would have to find a way back later in the night, but if she played her cards right, she might have enough extra coin to pay for a ride.
She made it to the wagon, joining more than a dozen late night workers leaving their northside jobs for their Southside homes.
Many of the workers with her were shop attendants, chimney sweeps, coachmen, lamplighters, accountants, and a maid or two. Each paid their share of the ride—much lower than a chaise, and let their transport take them.
Betty kept her eyes low and her hands hidden. Her hood and cape were of old material, making her nondescript in the crowd. The last stop was a long walk to the House of the Dead, but Betty didn’t mind that in the least. The time would serve her, since she needed the Ghoulies to be inebriated, and the later it was, the more liquor they would have consumed.
She heard the music and rancour coming from the House of the Dead several streets away. Live music filtered out into the busy streets, mixing with the shouts and cheers of the establishment’s patrons. Those who stumbled out of its doors were already drunk, a whore dragging them out.
As Betty drew close, she kept her hood on, hoping she could observe the crowd undisturbed for a bit. She managed to walk through the doors without calling attention to herself.
She made her way up the stairs, looking down on the active crowd. She found a group of whores leaning against the railings and looking down at their prospects. Betty tried to be among them without getting in the way of their view. They spoke bawdily of the patrons down below, some of whom were already partnered and dancing with other women.
She heard the two prostitutes beside her talking. “Would you look at Malachai? Easy coin. Don’t mind riding that for a discount!”
The women laughed loudly and Betty trained her gaze to where they were looking. She immediately knew who they were talking about.
Malachai was a handsome fellow, his wild curly hair framing his face. The thin mustache over his lip made him look dashing, and the white blouse under his vest was mostly unbuttoned, showing off a finely toned chest.
But it wasn’t his musculature that Betty was focusing on, it was his jewelry. He wore several chains around his neck, that was true, but she saw the rings on his fingers--multiple rings.
The marks approximately line up with the grip of hands, and those dark spots--those are rings...
Betty was certain this was her murderer, but she needed to know why. Was he Laura’s lover, jealous of her clientele and finally enraged enough to kill her?
But no. The bartender at the Spotted Pig told her Malachai was no lover--not by his observations. And the deliberate way Laura was brought into that alley, only to hang her body up in the hovel with a rope--it had been planned.
He was hired.
Betty popped open the small vial of perfume in her pocket and began applying its contents to herself, then she made her way down to where Malachai was. Slowly, she unraveled her cape and hood.
The effect was immediate. Gazes began to turn her way and her perfume wafted into their nostrils, causing some of them to inhale like bloodhounds.
Her hair was braided to one side, boldly draped over her shoulder to frame her generously showing decolletage. She had never worn her corset tighter or her collar so low, and as she sucked in her breath, all eyes fell on her bosom.
Her dress was of better quality than any of the other whores in the room, but she most certainly removed all manner of refinement and class it once had. This was the version of the dress that her mother would have locked her in the wine cellar for.
Malachi’s attention was caught, and he pushed through his crowd of subjects, observing her.
Betty wasn’t going to wait at all. She locked eyes with him and curled her finger to beckon him.
His toothy grin split his face in half and he swooped in, his arm looping around her waist and immediately sweeping her into the sound of the music.
“What beauty is this?” Malachai said in her ear, his feet barely keeping step. He smelled like liquor and by the way he moved, she could tell he was already inebriated. “I am almost inclined to think you don’t belong here.”
“I am exactly where I belong,” Betty replied in a breathy voice, trailing her finger along the skin of his open chest.
Malachai liked that, dancing her around even more. He engaged her in silly conversation and she obliged, flattering him and letting his lips touch her skin.
She snatched a goblet of wine from one of the servers, and with a quick sleight of hand laced it with a large helping of a compound she found in her brother’s books--truth elixirs were apparently part of the Kin’s tool kit.
Betty gave Malachai the wine and he didn’t even think twice about consuming it. He finished the wine in one long gulp, and as soon as his eyes began to droop, she whispered in his ear, “Are you alright?”
Malachai nodded slowly, smiling. “I feel so good--what’s your name again?”
“Dorothy,” he drawled against her shoulder. “I want to bury myself between your thighs, Dorothy.”
Betty cringed at the words, but this was the state she needed him to be in, exactly. “Do you have coin, good sir?”
Malachai produced a rather handsome pouch and Betty snatched it right out of his hand. “Take me to a bedroom, Malachai.”
He dragged her off the floor by her wrist and she grit her teeth at the roughness of him. His grip was painful and strong, but she wasn’t concerned. She knew she was stronger.
He brought her up the stairs and Betty could feel the eyes of many following them. As they passed the whores, she heard the words “cunt” and “bitch” hissed in her direction.
Malachai led her up another set of stairs and it grew quieter as they ascended.
There was only one door at the top of landing and he kicked it open.
Betty was assaulted by the sight of a naked man and woman engaging in carnal acts. The woman screamed, scrambling for cover as the man cursed.
“Get out,” Malachai ordered them, sluggishly picking up the gown at his feet and throwing it at the woman who barely caught it in her arms.
“But--” the man sputtered, his bits fully exposed.
Betty steeled her expression. This was not supposed to shock her and she held her poise, but she was screaming within.
Malachai gestured wildly to the door. “Out or I’ll slit your throat, Basher!” He produced a knife, which alarmed Betty to a great degree.
Malachai clearly had no compunction to kill.
“Y-Yes, boss!” Basher stammered, scrambling to pick up his clothes and dragging the woman with him. They hurried out and slammed the door as they left.
Malachai turned to her, still brandishing the knife. His grip on her wrist was like iron, and when he pressed the blade to her throat, she thought she had made a grave mistake.
She swallowed, ready to jump into action, but then he turned her, slipping off her hood and cape. He began, it seemed, to slice through the strings of her gown, pushing the sleeves of her dress lower. Her shoulders were exposed, but her corset kept most of her dress in place. He was clumsy with his hands, cursing as he became increasingly unsuccessful at his operation.
She breathed to calm herself, knowing that the full effects of the serum were taking effect. “Do you like using your hands, Malachai?”
He laughed, dropping his knife as it slipped clumsily from his grip. “On the likes of you… I do…”
She turned around to look at him and saw him wavering on his feet. He looked at her ravenously, grinning and leaning over, perhaps to press his lips to her skin.
She pushed him back gently and slowly began to back him onto the bed.
“Your coin pouch is heavy,” she remarked as he fell back on the mattress. “It appears business is flourishing.”
Malachai nodded. The truth serum was working. “Some politician... paid me to rid him of his whore. Needy cunt.” He laughed.
“You talk too much, Dorothy.” His eyes began to close and Betty was afraid she had given him too much. She jumped onto the bed to straddle him, slapping his face to keep him awake. “Which politician, Malachai? Do you have a name?”
“Dooley…” he groaned. “Now please, Dorothy… take off your clothes.”
Betty sat back, aghast at this revelation. The only politician she knew named Dooley was the governor. This was a great scandal if she could get proof of Malachai’s words.
There was a commotion beyond the door and it wasn’t as cheerful as it was, earlier in the night.
Betty needed a way out of this building without having to go through that door. Her eyes fell upon the window behind her, but just as she was about to calculate the height of the third floor window from the street, the door burst open, and Betty screamed, diving into her skirts for her knife.
The intruder slammed the door behind him and took out what looked like a steel enforced cane. He lodged it against the door and pushed a lever on the cane, which caused steam to hiss out of it and extend, effectively barring the door.
He was a well-dressed man, with top hat, a three piece suit, and leather gloves. When he turned to face her, she saw the startlingly patterned colors of his vest--a contrast to what might have been a well-tailored, but predictable suit.
His blue eyes fell upon her with growing shock and he immediately took off his coat, throwing it over her bare shoulders. “Betty, we have to go!”
It was the blue of his eyes that struck her first. They were intense and penetrating. His face remained as beautiful as she remembered it, but it was more refined by maturity. His shoulders were broader, but not by much—he was always more lean than muscular and it appears that hadn’t changed in the least.
But it was the way her heart beat for him that she remembered most, and she could match it rhythm for rhythm from memory.
“Jughead?” And as she finally said his name, the other memories came rushing back. The last one, in particular, grew vivid in her mind’s eye, when he left her on the platform heartbroken and alone. Her anger and mortification pushed her to action. She scrambled off the bed and shoved his coat off, dropping it unceremoniously onto the floor. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” he replied, his eyes distractedly going to the increasing commotion outside the door. “You are in a world of trouble, Betty.”
She frowned, inexplicably annoyed by his words. She hastily grabbed her cape and whipped it back on. “You are impeding my investigation! And did you cause that rabble downstairs? Everything was fine when I left that crowd.”
He picked his coat off the floor and only then did she notice how laden his body was with straps and holstered weapons. His forearms, in particular, seemed heavy with gear. Before she could think anymore on the strangeness of his wardrobe, he proceeded to put his coat back on, ignoring Malachai’s groans of frustration for Dorothy. “That crowd was getting restless and suspicious. Prompted by jealousy, no doubt, that the prettiest lady in the room wanted the attentions of no one but their leader.”
She glared at him, watching him aim his arm at the iron carvings of the bed. Something shot out of his sleeve, right through the railing. Barbs expanded from its steel body with a puff of steam, grappling with the iron and securing it.
She’d never seen such a thing before.
Jughead pulled his arm back and she saw the rope connecting the hook with his arm. “They were grumbling that you were a plant by the pawnsmith, Sweet Pea--they’ve never seen you before. Of course they’d be suspicious.” He made his way to the window, stepping on the chair, then the desk beside it. With his foot on the sill, he extended an arm towards her. “Come along. We haven’t got much time.”
A loud bang rocked the door and Betty hastened towards him, climbing the steps just as he had, and once she had her own foot on the sill, he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her close.
She looked over the window, saw how high it was, and cast Jughead an anxious look. Could the rope even hold them both? It seemed so thin and flimsy. The crowd couldn’t possibly hurt her the way they would hurt him. Maybe he should escape by himself. She could handle herself in dangerous situations. She was trained and ready, and this wasn’t the first time she’d had to get away from an angry crowd. “Perhaps you should go on your own. This rope--”
“I’m not leaving you here by yourself,” he told her, softly.
His words and the way he said it, it brought back memories. When all those years ago, she was scared and anxious on Sabrina’s chair and he told her the same thing. And then there was that look of his that made her think she was the only one who mattered. She surrendered now like she did then.
“Now hang on,” he added, his tone even gentler.
She took off his hat, watching the rich, black curls of his hair tumble over his brow. She gripped the hat securely in her hand as she tightened her arms around him.
He smirked, and together, they jumped off the ledge.
They didn’t run when they got to the street.
Jughead had simply dislodged the rope from his wrist and they walked smoothly back into the throng of people on the sidewalk as if they weren’t running away from a hoard of drunk gangsters three floors above the street. She gave him back his hat and he tucked it back onto his head as casually as anyone else.
Under cover of her cloak, she managed to pull what remained of the laces of dress together, keeping it in place.
Their brisk but silent walk gave her the time she needed to collect her thoughts and recall the hurt feelings his nonresponsiveness to her confession had speared through her. Suddenly, her humiliation felt like it happened yesterday instead of six years ago.
How dare Jughead come swooping in after all this time, acting like she needed saving, when she very well could have climbed down that wall? She’s scaled much more difficult rock faces than that. And really, she could have fought her way through that entire gang of thugs. Close quarter combat was something Charles had trained her in.
Jughead knew all this.
“I didn’t need to be saved!” she hissed at him over her shoulder. “Everything was going as expected!”
The arch of Jughead’s eyebrow was one she remembered well. “Except those drunks were incapable of logic and were champing at the bit for a fight—any fight.”
She rounded on him, furious. “Oh, is that what you think? That I am unable to handle it on my own?”
To his credit, his face reddened visibly. “That is not what I said, but I could not stand by and let you deal with trouble by yourself when I am clearly available to lend a hand.”
She huffed loudly at his words, turning to walk away from him. “Oh, clearly.”
She was unsure as of yet why she was so vexed with him. Yes, he hadn’t said the words back all those years ago, and the humiliation felt raw, but one could argue that wasn’t his fault. At the moment, the only thing fueling her anger was his treatment of her--the familiar way he had treated her like a child, in spite of the fact that the situation he had extracted her from had been very adult.
There were many things she wanted to say, but she bit her lip and instead focused on how she was going to get home. She dug into her pockets and found the pouch Malachai gave her. She opened it and checked its contents. There was coin, but half of it were pebbles. She grumbled a string of profanities.
“Well, that mouth certainly learned a thing or two,” Jughead grumbled back.
She shot him a glare. The audacity of him chastising her for her language pushed her irritation to boiling. “From the best, actually. Master Jones? You know him?”
He laughed, looking over his shoulder onto the street. She could see his breath in the cold night air against the dim light of the moon. “How were you planning on getting home, Betty?”
For a moment, she considered not telling him, but she was a practical woman. She had to be. “Catch a shared chaise at the edge of town--expensive but more manageable when split with another. Pay enough to get me across the bridge and get close enough to walk the rest of the way. Done it before.”
He nodded and she appreciated how he didn’t seem to find her plan amusing. “I have a carriage.”
As if on cue, the carriage rolled onto the curb behind him. Everything about it was black, from the horses that pulled its sturdy car and wheels. Even the coachman’s dress was black and Betty stared at this vision, wondering if it was real or if she was hallucinating. The last time she spoke with Jughead Jones, he was wearing hand-me-downs from Charles. Now everything he owned was new and sleek. She wasn’t surprised that he had become successful in whatever trade he was in, but she never pegged him for being ostentatious in his tastes.
“It is company transport,” he explained, as if hearing her thoughts. “The organization I work for provides it to all its employees and I have no choice in how it looks.” He pulled the carriage door open for her and held out his hand.
She accepted his explanation and climbed in without taking his hand. She heard him sigh as she settled in the richly upholstered seating.
Jughead settled across from her, securing the carriage door and rapping a fist against the ceiling. The carriage moved at the signal.
He took off his hat, ruffling his fingers through his dark hair as he set the hat aside.
She watched him and she didn’t care if he saw her doing it. He seemed to let her take him in, with his blue eyes staring back at her without the slightest hint of discomfort.
His eyes trailed to her wrists and only then did she realize how raw they were from Malachai’s rough handling. He appeared to be reaching for them and she tucked her wrists into her cape.
“Don’t. Just don’t. There are six years between us where you could’ve cared,” she said. “I know Charles said we weren’t allowed to contact you and that he had forbidden you to contact us, but I still expected--I don’t know what I expected, Jughead, but not the complete and utter silence. As if you--as if we didn’t exist.”
He sighed but didn’t argue and she felt less weighted having expressed her feelings, finally.
“How long have you been following me?” Betty asked in a clipped tone.
She scowled. That wasn’t an answer. “Why didn’t you make yourself known before you barged in on my investigation?”
He cocked a smile, then. “Curiosity. I wanted to see what you were up to.”
The thought that he had watched her flirt and seduce made her neck and face grow hot, like lava. At the same time, if he had seen all that and he let her, then he clearly respected her space--up until he intervened in the bedroom. “And what did you think I was up to?”
“Doing what Charles taught us,” he replied, in a more subdued tone. “Finding answers for the restless dead.”
He hadn’t forgotten and it was important enough that she felt the sting of tears behind her eyes.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” she managed to say, “but Charles passed away several months ago.”
The anguish in his eyes was clear, the blues shimmering liquid for a heartbeat before he blinked and gave a quick sniff. “I just heard, Betty. I am--” He sighed. “Devastated.”
She had expected him to say he was sorry, but she realized that “sorry” was for others. Sorry was for the neighbors who came to give their condolences. Sorry was for Charles’s business associates who paid them the obligatory visit. Sorry was for the coroner and the priest and all those who managed the funeral.
Sorry was not for Jughead. Jughead was family, and she remembered that, deeply. She realized that while she’s had a few months to come to terms with the tragedy, the tragedy was new for him.
She forgot her anger and her hurt. She wanted only to comfort him. On impulse, she took his hands in hers and he did not hesitate to cling to them. “Jughead. There was no way to tell you sooner. Charles always told me--we mustn’t try to reach out to you for your own good. I was hoping Charles was communicating with you in some secret way, but I couldn’t find anything, how did you--”
He swiped his sleeve across his eyes and gestured for her to still her words. He reached into his coat pocket and from it, he produced a watch, identical to the one that Charles gave her. It wasn’t working and the key needed to be turned. He did, and immediately, she felt the vibration in her pocket. She dug into her gown for the watch, and even with the hinged metal cover, she could tell that its face appeared to be glowing green. She pressed the clasp and the cover swung open. The gears turned and turned and turned. Only after she pressed the clasp again did the glow stop and the gears grind to a halt.
She ran her finger along the edge of the timepiece, appreciating the thought that Charles put into the device. He had chosen a plain design, knowing that if it was too pretty, she might sell it--he knew how practical she was.
That, along with the note, was proof that Charles had a plan for them after all. “When I wound the watch…”
Jughead nodded. “I knew. Charles gave me my half of the timepiece that night I told you I had to leave. He told me that should the watch ever work, it meant he was dead and that you needed me. I prayed every day that it never would.”
Betty couldn’t help her tears then. Charles was always taking care of her, and whenever he did, Jughead was right at his heels.
It made her smile amidst her tears. “Well, then. Unless you know who this mystery blood relative that Charles left his estate to is, the only help you can give me is to spirit me away to a foreign land, because otherwise, mother will marry me off to some stranger for our financial survival.”
“Betty.” He reached into his pocket and used his handkerchief to dry her tears. “Are you still on about being forced to marry?”
“It became a reality when Charles died. It is what keeps me up at night.”
“Well, you needn’t let it any longer.” He squeezed her hands in his. “I am the blood relative Charles left his estate to. I have the keys to his vault and you aren’t marrying some stranger under my watch.”
She stared at him in shock, her grief momentarily swept away at this revelation. “But that’s--did you forge papers to--”
He pushed some hair off her face and the touch surprised her into silence. “It isn’t a lie, Betty. My father was his father. Charles is--was my half brother.”
Chapter 3: Heir to the Legacy
It was far too late for any self-respecting lady to be out of bed, as it was, but for a strange carriage to come rolling through the cobbled ground leading up to the Cooper home, a home bereft of a master the past few months, this was either a scandal or a development.
Betty often told herself that she shouldn’t worry herself over the preoccupations of the Daemon Locked, but because she walked among them, lived in their laws, existed in their society, she was compelled to care, especially when her public behavior determined whether she would have to put up with a tolerably older man or a doddering septuagenarian for a prospective husband.
As she stared at Jughead Jones, who now claims to be the heir to Charles’s fortune, she wondered if it also meant she would be free of those concerns.
Jughead had certainly declared that she would not have to marry anyone she didn’t love--not if he could help it, and that was incredibly reassuring, but the Daemon Locked did tend to be creative about their spite against headstrong women. It offended their sensibilities when someone dared to defy the seemingly made-up societal rules that governed them, therefore, that someone should be shunned.
There were other things to think about, besides. Like the fact that Jughead confirmed that he was, in fact, related to Charles by blood, that they were half-brothers by virtue of Forsythe Pendleton Jones, senior.
“My mother had a child with your father,” she muttered beneath her breath. “Charles was not my father’s son.”
Jughead said nothing. She supposed the facts were indisputable.
She bit her lip, feeling a sense of dread in the pit of her stomach. Her feelings for Jughead in the past were rushing to the forefront of her mind in parallel to this familial conundrum, and she began to wonder, in horror, if her romantic feelings for him had been forbidden by the laws of nature. “So are we--are you my--”
“No,” Jughead interjected. Perhaps her thoughts were so clearly drawn in her eyes that he instantly knew what she was thinking. “We are not related at all, Betty. You were Charles’s sister and that was it. We aren’t even cousins, you and I. Though perhaps in our present situation, we should perpetuate that old lie. It will explain why I permit you and your mother to stay. Your mother’s reputation will fare better for it. I don’t think even Mrs. Cooper’s mettle would prove impenetrable in the face of a scandal such as that.”
He didn’t seem to be joking.
His eyes lowered to their hands, and she saw that his lashes were damp with tears. He wiped them away with his sleeve. Hardly refined, but a gesture so raw and familiar to a time when his clothes were not so tailored and when the bones of his face seemed softer.
“I sent letters, you know,” Jughead said, looking up to meet her gaze. “Dozens of them--to you. And to Charles, but mostly to you. And they all came back unmarked. As if I never dropped them off at the post. And when I tried to come back, to physically come back, I could never seem to get to the Elm. There was a force stronger than I that prevented me from finding my way.”
The Elm was the expanse of forest surrounding Charles’s estate and the handful of houses neighboring theirs. It was a distinct area, with manicured pathways and picturesque tree arches, where carriages rolled beneath the shade of leaves and ladies with their parasols could safely walk from one place to another. There were small shops and businesses throughout the area as well, often meant to service the Elm houses as well as other nearby communities.
That Jughead couldn’t even set foot in the Elm then--but was able to do so now, told them that Charles had warded the area well enough that only his death was powerful enough to sever it.
It must have been hurtful, when Jughead first realized that Charles had taken these measures to prevent him from coming back. But clearly it was the only way. That Jughead had tried to visit at all, in spite of Charles’s dire warnings of being discovered fraternizing with the Forsaken, was proof enough that it needed to be done.
Betty wished Charles had told her that he’d done this, and yet she knew why he kept it secret. Because if she didn’t think Jughead had ceased all contact with them deliberately, she might have taken that train to the city and sought him out.
He had shut them off from each other completely because he knew how stubborn both of them would be.
“Charles always said that we would be a blight to you and your new life,” she explained. She could not apologize for what Charles did. “He warned me that communication between any of us could ruin you if the Imperium discovered it.”
Charles told her that the only way she could ever see Jughead again was at the moment of Charles’s death, because then the ban on the Forsaken would be lifted from their family.
“I did miss you,” Jughead admitted. “I missed all of you--even Mrs. Cooper, though I doubt she missed me in the least.”
Betty did not dispute his claim and when they met eyes, they chuckled in unison, knowing that Alice’s affection was just as hard a burden to bear as her complete apathy.
At that moment, with his warm, strong hand holding hers, Betty was reminded of her romantic declarations to Jughead on the train platform anew, and she felt mortified once again.
Carefully, she extracted her hand from his, trying not to seem so obvious, but she failed and he was visibly embarrassed, which made it ten times worse.
“I apologize,” he mumbled. “I forget myself.”
She wished to melt through the floor. She did not want to hear him explain what that meant--did he forget that she was no longer a child? Did he forget that she was old enough to be considered a spinster? How could he?
She was so desperate to push back her humiliation that she clung to the other uncomfortable topic. “So quite plainly, Charles was a lovechild, wasn’t he? Did your father and my mother love one another?”
She could see his neck and cheeks turn visibly red. Clearly her tactic worked.
“That is not for me to say, Betty.” He did not deny it, nor did he confirm. It told Betty nothing of her mother and his father’s history, or the circumstances of Charles’s begetting.
She sighed, shaking her head--at her own audacity, perhaps. She was about to make it even more outrageous. “And to think she practically suggested that I wear a chastity belt going into the Southside at night. Twasn’t my legs that needed shutting, was it?”
Jughead pursed his lips. “I take it you’ve been helping Southside spirits more frequently.”
She paused, realizing that he was attributing her crass language to her otherworldly associations, and he wouldn’t be completely wrong. “I apologize. That was beastly of me. I have been keeping the company of a prostitute. Dead, of course. You should know, doing what we do, that our powers help us empathize with their plight by taking on some of their thoughts.”
His eyebrow arched, then, and he nodded, leaning back against the corner of his seat and draping his arm against the window sill. He looked over his shoulder to watch the road rolling by outside. “Yes, so don’t apologize. Then again, your mother also had a natural talent for pulling your levers.”
The corner of his lip was lifting, and she realized by the tension around his mouth that he hadn’t been chastising her in the first place. All this was amusing him.
She remembered that he used to look exactly the same way when she got in trouble with Alice in the past, and when she rebelled, he would do nothing to dissuade her, because she supposed it was far more entertaining to watch her and Alice argue over what was and wasn’t expected of a “lady”.
His expression reminded her yet again of how he had perceived her as a child, and if he thought the same way, still, in spite of the spectacle she made of herself at the House of the Dead, then there was no hope for her.
“Do you think mother will be shocked?” Betty asked. “About you inheriting Charles’s estate?”
He seemed thoughtful, his thumb between his teeth. “No. Your mother knew who I was. She tolerated me, at first because Charles demanded it, and then later when she got used to me. I believe she developed a more positive perception of me when it became clear that my presence delayed your involvement in field work.”
Betty forestalled the harsh words poised at her lips by taking a long breath. She despised the idea that Jughead had to leave for Charles to allow her on the field. “And what did you think of that? Did you agree with this arrangement?”
He laughed softly. “I was young and thought I knew everything, Betty. I thought I was protecting you--Charles’s younger sister; the most important person in his life, and his approval meant everything to me. You understand that, don’t you?”
She did. In her bones.
“But I always knew you would be good at it--at this. You were fearless, Betty, and no matter how young you were, I always admired that about you.”
Her heart fluttered lightly in her chest. “You did? Y-You didn’t think that bothersome and inappropriate?”
“Not in the faintest. I even think, perhaps, that you did your job too well tonight.”
His words meant the world to her and she worked hard to stifle a grin of triumph, until she remembered that she had played a prostitute this evening, and there were possibly more intriguing thoughts she could explore with regard to his statement, but the carriage came to a stop, and Jughead was swinging the door open to step out.
His hand reached back into the cab, offering it to her like a gentleman to a lady.
Unable to resist, she took it as she alighted the carriage.
Alice was furious at Betty’s appearance--with her low cut collar, tight corset, and superfluous bustle, and it did not require mental acrobatics to suss out the format of Betty’s mission, especially when a prostitute’s spirit was roaming their home.
Her mother’s lips were pursed so hard at the state of her daughter’s dress that all she did for several seconds upon arriving at the parlor was to breathe and bite the inside of her cheeks while she transferred her gaze between Betty and Jughead.
Jughead bowed graciously in greeting, waiting patiently for Alice to gather her wits.
Finally, she said, “Forsythe. Took you long enough to get here.”
He nodded, unfazed by her straightforward greeting. “I had to make arrangements. Get away without my mother asking too many questions.”
Alice scoffed, seating herself as she gestured to the teapot. Dutifully, Betty began to pour some for her in a cup. “I saw from the window that you have a Guild carriage--I imagine that would have broadcast your activities to the Guild, at least. Doesn’t seem to me like you wanted this to be too much of a secret.”
“Mother.” As much as Jughead’s arrival had caused Betty some form of chaos, she didn’t want Alice to drive him away. She wanted him to stay. She wanted to tell him, still, that she was so happy to see him back, for they hadn’t had that conversation yet amidst the more pressing concerns.
But Jughead didn’t seem put off. He looked like he was stifling a grin, his eyes rolling slightly at Alice’s interrogation. “The Guild assigned me here to work—at least that’s what they think they did. My trusted coachman and I traveled here by train on assignment. The carriage came from a nearby outpost, waiting for us at the station, which is why I had to do my job before coming here.”
“How convenient.” Alice sipped her tea.
“Well, when one’s father is your assigned Guardian at the Guild, he can… make certain arrangements.”
“Ah.” Alice’s expression betrayed nothing as she put her cup down. “Does he know about Charles’s passing?”
Betty’s fist tightened and her nails dug grooves into her palms. She recalled how in the past, mention of Jughead’s relationship with his father always made him sullen and sad. It made Jughead retreat into himself--his melancholy could last for hours or days. She wished she could tell her mother to speak of things other than that, but she would not be deterred.
The set of Alice’s jaw hardened. “I know he and Charles weren’t close—he didn’t know about Charles until years after he was born--until after Hal was lost at sea, but one would think that he could at least accompany you in your grief. He owes you that much.”
Betty shot Alice a daggered look. “That isn’t our place, mother.”
“Father wanted to come,” Jughead said without hesitation. “But we could not afford anyone thinking that this was anything more than Peace Dealer business.”
“And your coachman? Won’t he tell?”
Jughead shook his head. “Peace Dealers choose their coachmen. Marmaduke won’t tell.” He did not elaborate further. “I have a few days yet before I am expected back in the city, which gives us a bit of time to determine how we want to proceed from here.”
Betty’s jaw dropped. The handing over an entire estate could not possibly be so easy, and even if it were, there were many other things to talk about--six years worth, in fact. “A few days? We couldn’t possibly settle everything in a few days.”
The breadth of decisions to tackle was overwhelming. What was to become of Charles’s business holdings? Would Jughead take it up or would he sell Charles’s shares? What of the management of the house? And what of her? Was she to carry on as before, being who she was expected to be in the day and doing her duties as Kin by night?
There were so many questions. It couldn’t all possibly be determined in a few days time.
And besides that, even if their past was not romantic, she and Jughead were bosom friends, practically family. Did that not count for more than a few days before he left again?
“I would have to leave,” Jughead said. “But I plan on returning as soon as possible. You are right, Betty. There are far too many things to settle it all in a few days. But now that I can return, I intend to make full use of that liberty. You and I have a lot to talk about, as well.” He cast her a meaningful look and it warmed her, to have him acknowledge that their friendship still existed.
“Well,” Alice said after a moment’s quiet. “It is good to see that the years have made you steadier, Forsythe. What are you now, twenty and four?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Jughead frowned. “Not in the slightest.”
Betty bit back the joy this confirmation brought her.
Alice made a sound of disgust. “Ugh. How inconvenient. As the sole heir to Charles’s estate, you will now have to manage the constant barrage of matronly matchmakers that news of your arrival would no doubt encourage. The Daemon Locked have nothing but this to preoccupy them, it seems. You ought to see Betty’s card--an endless pile of eligible middle-aged men and widowers, half of which I have no doubt are unfit to marry.”
Betty wanted to tell Alice how little resistance she’d shown to such ongoings, in spite of her criticism on the quality of Betty’s prospects, but Jughead was looking visibly agitated by this topic.
“There will be an indefinite moratorium on all topics regarding future matrimony,” he said. “Eligible men or otherwise.”
Alice gave a harsh laugh. “It’s all well and good for a man to renounce marriage, but spinsterhood was and always will be harsher on women. Soon enough, Betty’s reputation will go from ‘eccentric’ to downright intolerable--all before they darken the door of this parlor. And as nice and comfortable as it is for you to cater to Betty’s whims, you aren’t immortal yourself. If you die, she will be too old for anyone to want her and she will be cast into poverty, or better yet, you will marry and your wife will want to cast her out.”
Betty could feel her face growing lava hot and her temper got the better of her. She stood, her fists tight on her side. “With all your dire predictions, I wonder where the reputation of a pregnant and unmarried woman fits. You ought to know. Perhaps my aged state does not make me unmarriageable enough! Let me test the boundaries.”
“Oh, please. With whom? But then again, there is no shortage of dark and dangerous men in the Southside--I should know. The pawn smith, maybe? Sweet Pea, I believe they call him. If his fondness for your gowns is any indication, he will do nicely for your experiment.”
“Gentlewomen!” Jughead cried, stepping between them.
It was his warm hand on Betty’s shoulder that caught her. Skin on skin, it was a wholly unfamiliar sensation. Perhaps he had forgotten that she was immodestly dressed.
“The night grows late,” he said in a gentler tone. “We are all of us exhausted and we can reconvene in the morning--at breakfast, if you’ll have me, Mrs. Cooper.”
By the loosening of Alice’s shoulders, her acquiescence was clear, but her eyebrow arched in mild surprise. “Have you? Forsythe Pendleton Jones III, you are the master of this house now. Not only do I expect you to sit at the head of the breakfast table, I had assumed that you would be taking Charles’s room tonight."
Jughead appeared startled, confounded by this reality than anything else.
Perhaps that was all Alice wanted--to have the last word, because when Jughead appeared to have lost all manner of speech, she simply nodded and said, “I shall see you tomorrow, Master Jones.”
And she left, in the dramatic fashion that Alice was so good at.
For all that, Betty was not amused. She stood fuming at her mother’s insinuations, even if she herself had provoked them, and no amount of Jughead’s touch could completely soothe her outrage. “She is singular and unbearable!”
Jughead finally tore his gaze from the door and perhaps realizing that he still had his hand on her, let his hand drop, though he did it gently, entreating her to sit back down by gesturing to the chaise lounger.
She did, breathing through her anger. When he sat on the ottoman beside it, right by her knee, and looked up at her face with growing amusement, she felt her anger wane. She was reminded of those summers in the garden, when they spoke of silly things as he lounged on the grass at her feet.
“I prefer my old room, if you don’t mind,” Jughead finally said. “I could not bear to be in Charles’s room right now. I would be too sad to get any sleep.”
She longed to run her hands through his hair. He was so close, but she wasn’t an eleven year old girl anymore. She was nineteen, a woman, and he was a grown man. Such intimacies belonged to lovers.
“You don’t have to do anything mother says,” she said, softly. They were close enough that she no longer had to raise her voice. “I am sorry you had to witness that.”
“Don’t be. It was riveting.”
She laughed and she was glad to see him smiling, too.
“And just to remove all uncertainty,” he added. “I would never marry anyone who would want to cast you out. I’d sooner cast them out. Which means, of course, that I would expect you to protect me in the same fashion, were our situations reversed.”
It was comforting to think that he envisioned them looking out for one another to the bitter end of a wedding aisle.
“So much for marital bliss. But I would venture to guess that neither of us care for that particular subject matter. I’d rather know what you intend to do.” She gestured widely. “About all of this.”
He sighed, leaning his elbow against the chaise’s backrest. “First, I must cancel my accommodations at the Four Seasons.”
Betty scoffed. “Why did you even think to stay there?”
“I wasn’t yet sure if the wards would let me. Charles wasn’t clear on the particulars when he gave me the watch, but I understand why he kept the wards secret from me. By the time I realized it, it was already too late to do anything. You believe me, don’t you? That I tried to communicate with you after I moved to the city?”
“I do. And what of your life there? Do you like it?”
He nodded, sheepishly. “All things considered, yes. My mother did not lie about our house, she did not lie about having a better life. I spent most of my days at Stonewall Prep, an academy for aspiring Peace Dealers, my father was employed by the Guild, in which he eventually rose in the ranks, and my sister, Jellybean--she is an inventor. I would like for you to meet her one day.”
She was happy that he led such a purposeful life, that leaving Riverdale had meant that he left the hardships of his old life behind. It was clear, in his dress and manners that this better life suited him, that he had earned everything Charles had wanted for him.
“I am certain that Charles would have been very proud of you.”
His grateful smile warmed her heart. “I never forgot what he taught me. I was the best in my class because of his tutelage. Charles should have been a professor. An instructor. He was better than anyone I had at the academy.”
Betty believed it. Everything she knew, she learned from Charles. Peace Dealing, for her, was a calling, but Charles had told her that in Kin society, it was the foundation of their existence. The Kin came to being for the very purpose of helping lost souls, bridging the often perilous path between the realm of the living and dead.
It was the Peace Dealers who were at the frontlines of the everlasting war between shadow and light, spelling the difference between maintaining the veil that held back the malignant spirits, the chaotic elementals, Daemon Wraiths, and the gates of Hades--these very forces that sought to tear it down.
Charles explained to her how Peace Dealers were held in high esteem in Kin society and she could not think of anyone more deserving of this respect than Jughead.
She understood how that meant he wasn’t about to give up his life in the city to manage Charles’s estate, where Charles’s Daemon Locked partners were likely to look down on him for his past, or his suspect relations to the Coopers.
Betty was a pragmatist, in spite of her passionate convictions about the limitations being imposed on her gender. She expected that Jughead would sell Charles’s shares. Whether he would take that money and invest it somewhere else for the upkeep of Charles’s home and the family he left behind, Betty would have to trust Jughead’s judgement, but it was imperative that she not be a burden to him.
It would have to be one of their many conversations in the coming weeks, but for now, she was willing to take the day-by-day approach, especially with the limited time they have.
“What is on tomorrow’s agenda?” she asked.
There was a moment that his eyes seemed to look to a more distant future, but when he lowered his gaze to his hands, he seemed resigned to the more immediate concerns, and perhaps he was measuring how much he could carry at the moment. “First order of business is to meet with the attorney--get this estate business settled, then over to the bankers, where I should assume rights to Charles’s vault, and I suppose your mother would want to update me on the management of the house.”
Judging by his expression, administrative matters in general ranked low on his list of favorite things. As avid a learner as he was--so eager and willing to sit down with a book and discover new things--it was always true that he was a man of action. He would sooner jump out of a third-story window than have meetings with attorneys, bankers, and Alice Cooper.
Still, there was something about his taking responsibility for these more mundane tasks that brought a new dimension to him--a reminder that he was more grown up than she realized, and that she liked it. Immensely.
“And then,” his shoulders straightened. “And then there’s the matter of your nightly adventures.”
She didn’t think he would bring up so soon, but she supposed now was as good a time as any to speak of it. “What of it? It isn’t of an urgent matter. As of yet, I am well-funded in undertaking it, so long as I mind my spending, which I have been very efficient at since Charles passed. I would eventually want to have this conversation--”
His hands pressed over hers. “I must ask you to stay home for the time being.”
“What?” This was beyond unexpected. “Stay home? You mean not go out and perform my sworn duty as a--”
“The wards Charles placed around you began to unravel the moment he died, but perhaps it held on for as long as it could, for otherwise, I’m not sure you would have survived these last few months without them--”
“I beg your pardon?” She rose to her feet, swiping her hands away from his. “I survived by my own wits and everything Charles taught me. You have no right to tell me what to do!”
“That isn’t--that isn’t what I meant.” He seemed flustered, no doubt displaced by the determination in her voice. “There are things in this realm, Betty, that you are yet to face and there is no doubt in my mind that Charles was able to protect you from them with his wards. But my coming here--I’m afraid it broke those wards completely and I know not what that brings, but it will most assuredly bring danger in one shape or another. At the very least, the Imperium will be alerted to your existence and they will want to bring you back to the fold. When that happens, you will want it to be on your terms, not theirs.”
Betty could hardly understand what the danger was at this time. All she could hear was Jughead telling her she couldn’t do what she wanted, what she had been doing without him the last 6 years.
“I will not be controlled by you.”
“And I am doing no such thing. I am protecting you, Betty. It is what Charles would have wanted.”
And there it was again.
She would give anything to have her dearest brother back, but if it meant she would be pushed back into the home, sat back behind books and settled to theory instead of action, she couldn’t bear it.
Is that what Jughead’s return meant?
He looked at her with his beautiful blue eyes, imploring, not demanding. And with his black curls tumbling over his forehead, he looked so unbearably handsome and so caring that it was hard to be mad at him. There was a fight here, but it wasn’t with Jughead.
Charles had been everything to him, just as Charles had been to her. Jughead felt it his duty to protect her and she understood as much. She couldn’t be mad at him, but six years later, he couldn’t possibly know what she was capable of. And perhaps that wasn’t his fault.
“I must go to bed, as should you.” she said in a quiet tone, turning to leave.
“Do you remember where you old room is?” She knew he remembered, but she wished to forestall anything he may say that might make her thoughts of him less understanding. “Of course you do. Well, goodnight. I shall see you at breakfast.”
Please don’t be angry.
It was always like that with him. Like she knew his thoughts by the language of his body, or the way his eyes spoke volumes when she listened just enough.
She wasn’t angry, but she was deeply disappointed with him. She cast him a final look before she turned and left Jughead in the parlor.
Betty went to bed with her head filled with a million thoughts. And when she awoke, those same thoughts flooded her mind once again. She dragged herself out of bed and prepared for her day wondering if she was doomed to be the eccentric, younger relation that no one could get rid of.
She had hoped that Jughead would at least treat her differently, hoped that he would understand her peculiarities and passions.
As she dressed, she looped the strings of her corset around her fingers and she pulled, tight. She breathed in deeply and let her bones settle against the pressure. Perhaps she meant for it to fortify her mettle.
She picked a more modest dress to wear, this time, with a ruffled high collar, frilly accents, long sleeves, lace cuffs, and a feminine bustle. The striped embroidery tracing the material of her dress was flattering, but relatively low key.
It was hot as Hades out, if she were to go by her constitution, but she was Kin, so a cool morning like this would almost always feel warmer to her.
When she was properly dressed, she braided her hair and draped its thick knot over her shoulder.
She looked at herself in the mirror. During the day, she played the part she was expected to play. Not quite like everyone else, for her oddness was too much a part of her to conceal, but acceptably quiet.
She grabbed her brown leather gloves, her hat, and her parasol. She was at least fit to be seen.
As she stepped out of her room, she almost ran into Jughead, who was himself just leaving his room.
He looked so dashing, with his dark grey suit, herringbone green vest, and matching grey tie. The suit fit him so well that she didn’t doubt that it was tailored for him. His jaunty top hat, the one she had held for him during their escape the previous night, was tucked firmly under his arm.
He seemed surprised by her appearance. “Betty.”
She straightened her shoulders and gave him a small curtsy. “Jughead. Good morning. I know it’s your house now, but I still live here, so don’t look so surprised to find me. It will take more than you prancing into this home to kick me out.”
“That’s not--” He pursed his lips tight when he realized, perhaps, that she was joking. Mildly. His cheeks were certainly flaming. “Your appearance… is a drastic difference from last night.”
She could not help but chuckle. “Did you think I had a closet full of the latest in harlot fashion?”
His eyebrows arched in mild surprise.
She continued. “I thought I might dress more modestly so as not to offend the gentleman on the premises.”
He looked even more taken aback, but he followed it with a soft scoff. “I see no gentleman here.”
She had gotten so used to people reacting negatively to her more sarcastic commentary that she had forgotten that Jughead Jones used to fill that void of avid banter specialist.
Some things, it seemed, never changed. She fought valiantly to stifle her smirk. “You are still a rascal.”
He nodded and offered his arm. “I am dependable that way.”
She took it and together they descended the steps.
“Are you still angry with me?” he asked all of a sudden. “About what I asked you to do last night?”
Did she owe him the truth? Maybe. Charles trusted him enough to leave his entire fortune and the care of his sister to Jughead. She should at least be willing to tell him the truth. “I am not angry. Just disappointed. I had expected you to understand me. We are both Kin. We both perform our sworn duty as dealers of peace, even if only one of us bear the power and authority of the Guild, as vested by the Imperium. But does that make you better than me?”
“Of course not,” he said in a somewhat tired tone. She did not blame him. She could be tiresome, she knew. “But I don’t know if you realize that the danger is real. Beyond Charles’s wards, there are things I cannot unsee.”
“And you don’t think I am equal to it.”
“Riverdale is a small, small town.”
It was an effort for her not to feel crestfallen by his words. “That may be, but time has taught me things, too. I am not thirteen anymore, Jughead. I have seen things, as well. Do you still think me a child?”
“No,” was his quick reply. He turned to her, one step beneath her on the stairs. “How could I?” He seemed poised to tell her more, but he did not go on, prompting them to continue their descent.
It was frustrating that he would say something and then nothing more. She always knew Jughead to keep his thoughts and feelings closely guarded. There were matters he could speak a storm of, mostly relating to academic and intellectual pursuits--that was the part of him he was willing to share, but emotions and his life story was reserved to his most trusted.
In the past, that was her and Charles. Now, she did not know if she held the same privilege.
They arrived at breakfast, the spread laid out on the table by the maid, likely with the assistance of Alice herself. Since they cut the staff, they had been without a butler for months, which Betty didn’t mind, but Alice hadn’t stopped huffing about.
Some days, Betty did her share of the housework. It was not her favorite past time, but she preferred it to fulfilling the social obligations that seem to arise in perpetuity.
As they sat for breakfast, Alice asked Jughead to apprise her once more of his plans, this time however, she prescribed several ways for him to go about it and about how she wanted him back at the house at a specific hour.
Jughead seemed more confused by the fact that Alice was speaking to him at such length regarding such adult matters. She had never done so in the past, where Charles was there to take up all her attention. He hardly ventured to recommend his own means.
When Alice was done with Jughead, she moved on to Betty, and it was an itinerary of never ending tea-times, pointers on how Betty should act, and how she should not act.
“Your mockery is one thing--” Alice began.
“It goes right over their heads,” Betty cried.
“But your gravity is worse.”
“Do you mean when I told them that society is better served by educated women? Was it not enough for them that I put ‘women’ and ‘serve’ in one sentence?”
Alice glared at her across the plate of cut fruit. “You nearly gave Mr. Hardgrave a stroke.”
“He is ancient. And he wants to marry me. It would serve me if he joined his fellow dinosaurs in extinction.”
“You should be so lucky to have an ancient husband. They are too old to demand anything in the matrimonial bed. If they even get past you removing your clothing, one stroke and they’re done for.”
Jughead choked ingloriously on his tea.
“Is your tea too hot, Forsythe?” Alice asked through gritted teeth.
“Unbearably,” he rasped. “Betty, perhaps I can accompany you when you make your rounds.”
She cast him a hopeful look, but her hopes were shattered by Alice’s “Nonsense. You have important meetings to attend to all day.”
Betty smashed a hardboiled egg with the flat of her spoon. She couldn’t quite argue, since Jughead was attending to their future.
She and Jughead met eyes across the table and the small shrug he gave her reminded her of the solidarity that so often served to tighten the bonds of their friendship.
After breakfast, they prepared themselves for their respective journeys.
Betty arrived at the foyer just as Jughead was heading out the door.
“Be careful, Betty,” he said. “Now that you’re exposed, the dangers won’t wait for nightfall.”
It was a little worrying, but she couldn’t imagine it being anything she can’t handle. “You must tell me all about the Kin when we’re back at home, Juggie. As dangerous as you make it seem, I’m sure there is a lot about it that is wondrous and exciting--you wrote me letters, as you said, and I am sure its pages are filled with stories of your new world.”
The corner of his lip lifted. “New… six years ago it was, and I never would have conceived of such a world in my wildest dreams. It surprises me still, but it isn’t perfect. I can perceive how Charles may have had disagreements with the way they conduct matters…”
He tucked his hat under his arm as hers and Alice’s carriage rolled onto the front carriage way. The Guild carriage came up right behind it.
Alice arrived, her hat a magnificent plumage, with the maid skittering behind her with her parasol and purse.
It was Jughead who hurried to open the carriage door for Alice, and Alice accepted his assistance without hesitation--as if that were always his purpose in their lives.
When Alice was settled in the cab, he turned to Betty, offering his hand.
She took it, gathering her skirts to alight the carriage. “We have much to talk about, Jughead. I will see you later. And you must be careful, as well.”
He laughed softly. “I always am.”
His laughter felt like a feather down her spine and she knew then that her feelings for him hadn’t waned in the least. He shut the door and tapped the side of it for the benefit of the coachman.
Their carriage moved and she looked over her shoulder, pushing back the small privacy curtain so that she could watch him grow farther away.
He seemed a marvel, poised and confident as he alighted his own carriage.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” Alice huffed. “If he is anything like his father, he is nothing but trouble.”
Betty scoffed, but for all of Alice’s posturing, it was Trouble that got them where they are now.
Jughead became the unlikely master of the Cooper residence and all its holdings by tea time.
He seemed, to Betty, exhausted by the handover, not because of the thick sheaf of documentation he said he had to read all at once, but because of the endless parade of Administrator of This and Representative of That stemming from the transaction. Jughead now had appointments with half a dozen new strangers, and as if that weren’t enough, the Introduction of the Daughters have begun.
Betty did not blame him for expressing his desire to head back to the city for a spell. Physically removing himself from all this seemed just the remedy to all the shenanigans.
As promised, Alice spoke to him at length about restaffing the house--how they needed at least the main staff: the steward, the butler, the housekeeper, the cook, the kitchen maid, the waiter, the housemaid, coachman, gardener, and footman.
“You may want to keep a valet--Charles never had one, but you might. Should you prefer to have one, I would advise that we combine the butler and valet, especially if you intend to commute between here and your home in the city.”
Jughead seemed confounded by the suggestion of a valet. “I can dress myself, thank you, and don’t I just have to authorize their salaries? The running of the household ought to be overseen by one who knows how, and I don’t--we keep a leaner house staff in the city; we have a butler, housekeeper, coachman, and cook, and only because none of us can be depended upon to take care of the house and the kitchen, especially since all of us have occupations to keep us out of it most of the day.”
Alice huffed. “We can be leaner, if you wish. The butler and steward can be the same person, the cook can do without a kitchen maid, and we may do away with a footman. I think I can do without a Lady’s Maid if the housemaid can do it--”
“I do not wish anything,” Jughead said, visibly distressed by Alice’s assertions that he held any sway in their home. “This is your home.”
“This was always your home, too.” Betty said it, plainly, but she realized the weight of it when he looked chastised for it.
He said nothing and she imagined that all this was overwhelming to him. Apart from the fact that he was now, in fact, independently wealthy, for Charles had been a good businessman, and in addition to the notion that both Alice and Betty were now his responsibility by the standards of the Daemon Locked, he had yet to deal with his grief. Charles’s death was still fresh to him.
After Alice left, Jughead’s shoulders visibly loosened and his gaze wandered to the grounds outside. He seemed lost and Betty admired his profile for a moment before she touched his arm lightly with her finger.
This seemed to wake him from his reverie and he tilted his chin in the direction of the garden. “You’re right. This was my home, too. Charles always said so, but I knew that the truth about us being half-siblings could never come to light, because it would ruin your mother. Even now, nobody can know the truth, but he made sure that I knew he meant it--that I was his family.”
Betty nodded, and this time, she laid her hand upon his shoulder. “There is yet another place you need to go visit, today.”
Betty took Jughead to Charles’s grave, and she stepped back, letting Jughead have his time with their brother.
She watched Jughead kneel on the soft grass, put his hand on Charles’s headstone, and shed his tears for the only brother he ever knew.
Betty understood deeply that it would be a while before Jughead’s grief would cease to follow him into his dreams, and later still before he could go a minute without thinking about Charles when awake.
He needed time, and perhaps going back to the city would be good for him, after all.
“How did it happen?” Jughead asked as he rose from the ground.
“Hunting accident. He fell off his horse and broke his neck.”
“And his spirit never--”
Betty shook her head. “He believed in you. He trusted that you would take care of us and he had no doubt whatsoever, which is why he moved on peacefully. I know that now.”
Jughead nodded, tapping the gravestone with affection and gravity. “That he did. And I will not betray his trust, Betty.”
He waited for a response, and without averting her eyes, Betty replied, “I am certain that you won’t.”
It was easy to slip past Jughead that evening, most especially because he wasn’t there. He left after dinner, claiming that he had assignments from the Guild to complete. And it was easy enough to make Jughead think that she would actually listen to him.
She needed to be out that evening, having learned from her tea-time rounds that certain esteemed members of the government liked to visit the Chinese tea-house in the other side of town.
Betty didn’t know what she was looking for, but she had to understand how it was possible for a governor to get in touch with a Murderer for Hire like Malachi. It was too much risk to send someone else to make the deal. If the governor wanted to keep his mistress a secret, it would serve him to keep his circle tight.
There was only ever one person who knew the secrets of their master more than their wives, and that was one’s personal coachman. It was Jughead who gave her the idea, having heard that he traveled with his coachman and trusted him almost unconditionally. Trust between the coachman and his charge were of the utmost importance.
As soon as he was gone, she transformed into her alter-ego, Chic, and made her way into town.
Betty had frequented the poorer streets of Riverdale in the last few years, but she had never quite been to the upper class pleasure district. There hadn’t been a necessity for it—not as Elizabeth Cooper, nor as Chic.
The Vice Quarter, as it was known in Riverdale, was a network of interlocking streets filled with pubs, gambling dens, and pleasure houses. On the surface, they were perfectly acceptable looking establishments, but it was no place for a respectable, unmarried woman. Its clientele were of specialized sort.
All the way up here, north of New York City, this was the place rich men, their mistresses, and their vices went, away from the big city eyes of society that may take their pleasures against them.
The Great Lotus, a well-known tea house in these parts, was owned by the man called the Luminary. It was said he had many businesses, from New York City to Connecticut. This was his stake in Riverdale.
The Great Lotus was a perfectly legitimate place, with a proper restaurant and proper amusements, but Betty’s reputation would not survive if she were to be seen here alone as an unmarried young woman. The Great Lotus’s lesser known entertainments did involve carnal perversions and a drug den for consumers of all known hallucinogenic elixirs. Access to these darker pleasures required a certain status--the higher the better.
It was brightly lit inside and out, with attractive looking young ladies in oriental clothing urging gentlemen from the street to join the festivities inside. There were a few smartly dressed women outside—not prostitutes, but mistresses, hanging from the arms of their wealthy lovers.
Even as Chic, Betty wasn’t assured of anonymity here, the way she was on the Southside. It was easy enough to be Chic where they didn’t know who she was as Betty, but here, where the wealthy played, she was in danger of being recognized. Here, invisibility was her best disguise.
Pulling her hat more securely over her head, she checked her pocket watch for the time. It was only a bit half past ten. There would be plenty of time to get back home before midnight. Shutting the timepiece, she made her way to the back alleys of the Great Lotus, where the coachmen and staff were likely to gamble as they passed the time, waiting for their masters.
If Pain were a person, she would be Jughead’s lady.
Pain could confound, bringing a man to his knees begging for relief. It woke a man in his sleep, nagging and insistent, and no matter how much one tried to ignore it, it wasn’t going away.
Jughead Jones could never ignore his pain. It was constant, and not his will, nor his guilt proved strong enough to fight it. The pain had won--several times.
The Healer’s recommendations for the pain in his bones were helpful. The bottle of relief were filled will pills, mild in its deliveries of medication. Jughead learned the manageability of pain through the gentle pellets of pain suppressants, and it became even easier when he was fitted with a brace in fashioned steel to help his damaged arm. His titanium sleeve, comfortably molded to his arm like a cast, restored his strength and vanished the pain like a wondrous scientific wand.
Yet Lady Pain remained in his head, waking him in his sleep with nightmares, squeezing his heart until it felt regret, racking his mind with thoughts of unworthiness and debilitating bouts of guilt.
The Bottle of Relief gave no relief at all. He needed something stronger, and the good doctor would give him nothing for it.
He had needed a Bottle of Happiness, or Forgetfulness, at least to a degree that he could function, however artificial, however much a recreation of that which should be real it was.
A doctor with a decent practice would offer no such false healing, nor provide quick means to fix what could be considered broken. Jughead felt overtired of words meant to soothe his impatience on the matter.
“These things take time,” the doctor had said. “Only a constant healthful regimen and behavioral exercises can heal the aches of the mind. Guided reflection is key.”
Long-term treatment seemed an impractical option, for it took an eternity, and Jughead did not believe he could stand another day of waking nightmares, or another restless night. The ache in his arm disappeared, but he was broken, and he only wished to be fixed.
He had joked through his failing recovery that his friend and work partner Trevor Brown always liked to up the stakes, and so he went and got himself killed to throw a wrench in Jughead’s otherwise steady life. But of course that was no laughing matter. Not when it was Trevor’s death that got him in this predicament, not when, in Trevor’s infinite recklessness, Jughead tried to save him from it.
Even as the same bullet pierced Jughead’s arm, he was thinking Trevor was a twat with his reckless ideas. And it might have been funny, in spite of it all, were it not for the force of the shot, which went straight through Jughead’s arm and into Trevor’s body. And when they both fell to the ground in a bleeding heap, Jughead called Trevor’s name and the reply was, “Fuck, this is bad, Jones.”
Jughead remembered pushing himself off the ground, nearly fainting from the pain of his injury, but he pressed his hands over Trevor’s wounds, trying and failing to staunch the blood as he called for Marmaduke--Moose, as they called him for he was an incredibly large and strong fellow, to get the carriage so that they may speedily transport Trevor to a doctor.
“Hold on, you rascal,” Jughead had hissed, fighting through his own pain.
Trevor still managed to laugh, but as the blood poured from his body, he told Jughead, “I don’t want to die,” just as the light left his eyes.
Jughead had tried and tried to push that memory away, but it would not stay quiet. Not when the pain on his arm waned. Not when he strapped his Peace Dealer gear back on. Not when he was back on missions to save the souls of the dead and the lives of the living.
Only when he retired for the night and had that shot of absinthe did he find relief. So when that began to lose its efficacy, he desperately sought something stronger and he knew what that remedy was.
He had never tried it before, but he’d heard whispers from the darker corners of New York of apothecaries who provided relief when physicians failed you. He had never tried to procure it before--he suspected Trevor might have partaken before, but he didn’t have his friend to turn to now that he wanted it. Not anymore. Not ever.
The apothecary in New York City was known as the Luminary and offered no other name. When Jughead sought a cure for his troubles, the tremulous uncertainty in his voice prompted the Luminary to reassure him.
“I will offer you a complimentary dose tonight,” he said in his quiet, undemanding way. “And if it works to your satisfaction, you may purchase more.”
“I have never tried this before.”
“The first time is always the best,” said the Luminary magnanimously.
Jughead, still a bit unsure, had said, “I don’t wish to lose consciousness. I do not wish to obliviate my mind. I need only to function.”
The Luminary shrugged. “You will need some rest, if only for a few minutes. To quiet your mind, you must allow it a quiet state.”
He was led to a surprisingly elegant hallway connected to a grandois, luxuriously decorated ballroom filled with lounge chairs, chaises, pillows, small canopied beds, and richly dressed men and women draped upon the furnishings in various states of rest. From the patrons’ french lace gloves and elegant beaded purses to the tailored coats, vests, and custom-made hats, this was no dime-store opium den. This was a place for members only--moneyed clientele. Some lay solitary, some in pairs, but all quietly behaved, each in their own states of bliss.
Well-dressed attendants flitted about quietly, sanitizing any mess that may have been made, picking up broken pieces, or washing off spills with scrubbing materials. By times they saw to the needs of their customers, removing needles, repositioning customers more comfortably, replenishing their medicines, refilling their glasses of preferred libations, or simply to help them out the door and into coaches to send them on their way.
Jughead had gazed uneasily upon this drug den and immediately thought to himself that this was a mistake, but the Luminary had been keen to his reservations.
“This will not be the company you’ll keep tonight,” the Luminary said.
The Luminary led him further across the room and through a chamber, and there they came upon a room like a gentleman’s lounge, a social setting with privacy booths, a bar, a small string orchestra, and ladies who flitted about carrying trays of what the Luminary called “herbs”.
“If you come back, you will be more familiar with what these herbs are,” the Luminary said. “But for now, I recommend you take one of these.” He pulled a pill from his pocket and led Jughead to a privacy booth. When Jughead sat upon its chairs, it felt cushioned and comfortable, perfect for lounging about in a state of relaxation.
Most of the booths were filled, and while many of its occupants appeared conscious and responsive, they moved languidly and with leisure, like they hadn’t a care in the world, with dreamy eyes and serene smiles on their faces, as if everything were right in their respective worlds.
Jughead longed for that inner peace.
There was a plate with a mirror on its face and the Luminary placed the pill upon it. He plucked a small sheet of metal with a handle, like a small pastry cutter, from inside his robes and used it to cut the pill in half, then in half again. Bending the metal sheet upon the pieces, the Luminary crushed them into bits and continued to cut upon the remains until they were ground to powder.
The Luminary arranged the powder into a thin line then raised the mirrored plate towards Jughead. The cutter had disappeared, replaced by a miniscule tube.
Jughead had never done this before, but he had seen others do it, so he was no stranger to the hows, but he took a moment to tell himself that he only needed this for a while, that once he had a better grasp of his emotions, he would be able to function without the help of the Luminary’s medications.
“It is but a mild mixture of my more potent formulations,” said the Luminary quietly. “You will need nothing stronger, I assure you.”
Jughead took the tube, rolling it between his fingers and feeling the small impressions against his skin. The intricate carvings on the tube was exquisite to behold. Exotic like the medicine it delivered.
Bending over the mirror, Jughead breathed in the line and let the medicine work.
That night at the Luminary’s New York opium den three years ago had marked the beginning of Jughead’s addiction, and ten months ago had marked the end of it--or so he hoped.
He had kept his growing addiction secret the first year, but a night’s drug binge left him unconscious and half-dead on his bed where his father discovered him, half-choking on his vomit. If not for his father, he might have perished in his sleep.
His first brush with an overdose hadn’t given him the full resolve to give up his addictions then, but it had given him pause, and he had been attempting detoxification since. His father, whom he had loathed as a boy for getting lost in his alcohol, was now his most important ally, helping him overcome his demons.
This was so far the longest Jughead had managed to stay clean.
So now Jughead Jones wondered if his father wasn’t leading him on a wild goose chase, or testing his sobriety.
The pleasure district, so near the Luminary’s Riverdale establishment, was no place for a recovering addict like him, but it was where Forsythe Senior, affectionately called FP by his nearest and dearest, told him the budding Wraith Lord would be.
So far, he was yet to spot the Wraith Lord, but the tracker confirmed that he was among them.
Jughead twisted a dial on the datamancer mounted within the carraige’s interior. He pressed on the row of keys that became available to him and entered the information necessary to give him the information he needed. His hope was eliminate the aether-noise being generated by the chaos outside, so he may isolate the location of the Wraith Lord, but there was too much interference in the aether. The datamancer could only do so much.
Trevor had often scoffed at the Guild-issued equipment. “Rubbish. All of it.”
It was a fundamental disagreement between them, for Trevor had grown up with such technologies and Jughead had only learned of it when he joined Kin society to be with his family. All technology, rubbish or not, was wondrous to Jughead.
Trevor wished for the old ways, tracking with the instinct innate in their kind. In a way, that was probably what made Trevor and Jughead such perfect partners. Jughead had been taught in the old ways, courtesy of Charles, and in that, Trevor respected him.
Jughead frowned, as he always did when remembering his deceased partner.
He pressed his lips together and willed himself to refocus. He plucked out his aural communicator, fitting it on his ear. He could feel the device’s ornate engravings scraping against the pads of his fingers. When it was in place, he checked his pocket watch. It was a little past eleven thirty in the evening.
He turned a knob in his aural communicator and crackle of aether preceded the voice of FP Jones. “What, now?”
“I wouldn’t have to keep contacting you if those Reaper reports were better detailed,” Jughead grumbled.
“You’ve worked with worse and have succeeded,” FP said. “So if you are upset about something else and cannot get past that, abort the mission and try again in the morning.”
Jughead scowled. There was no tomorrow morning with Wraith Lords. One rarely had the opportunity to spot the same Wraith Lord twice. If he missed this one, there was little chance that he would see it again. “I will do this tonight. You need not be short with me.”
“What is wrong with you, boy? Is the countryside displacing your constitution?”
What did that even mean, honestly? “I grew up here, father. Why would I be displaced?”
“It is your business with the Coopers, then, that has you fretting--Charles’s death. I asked you earlier if your grief--”
“You know nothing of my grief,” Jughead said. The last thing he wanted was to discuss such matters with FP, even if, or perhaps because he wasn’t far from the mark.
His grief for Charles was fresh and, if he let it, debilitating, but he had dealt with death before, and if there was anything his addictions and subsequent sobriety was teaching him, it was that staying busy helped take off the edge. He welcomed this mission--doing what he loved served as a therapeutic distraction. So the grief was fueling his drive. This was different.
What set him on edge were the newfound realities of his status.
He was now the sole heir of Charles’s estate, his holdings, and his wealth. But more importantly, Charles had entrusted both Alice and Betty to his care, and Jughead wasn’t sure he was equal to that, especially since it was proven that he wasn’t quite equipped to take care of himself.
Alice’s wants were straightforward--she needed a home to take care of, a reputation to keep, and a life where she could preside over tea, host and attend parties, and keep company with important people. So long as Jughead could come to an agreement with Charles’s partners on royalties with respect to Charles’s share of the business, Alice could live her lifestyle free of worry.
It was Betty’s situation that was far more complicated.
Jughead could tell that even now, matured and grown, Betty had no desire to play the part of a woman of leisure, even if she could with a snap of her fingers. She was almost offensively beautiful, with her golden hair, enchanting green eyes, and a figure he suspected was the envy of many. But it was clear she had no ambitions of marrying well and being someone’s wife.
She appeared to have no interest in making those vital connections and relationships the Daemon Locked craved. She took her duties as Peace Dealer seriously and never shied away from rougher demands of investigation.
He admired that about her greatly, but it made the management of his responsibilities more challenging.
He didn’t expect her to sit still at home and nor did he blame her for it, but he was sure Charles had made sure of her safety one way or another, in the same way Charles had assured his. In the past, when an investigation was known to be dangerous, Charles never made him go alone. Charles was both Jughead’s mentor and partner.
If he were to ensure Betty’s safety, he needed to be hers, but how could he when he had a life in the city? Did he, then, need to move back to Riverdale? It was both a distressing and tantalizing thought.
Distressing because he had found purpose and excitement as a Guild Peace Dealer, but tantalizing, because it would take him away from the temptations that have plagued him the last few years.
These were the thoughts plaguing him at the moment, even as he worked to catch this Wraith Lord.
“I just want to do my work,” Jughead said, making no move to explain all of it to his father. FP did not known that Charles had made him the sole heir to the estate, though he may suspect, or figure it out, for how else were the Cooper women expected to survive?
Gladys certainly did not know, or else his mother would apply enormous amounts of pressure on him to sell and liquidate all of Charles’s properties, Alice and Betty Cooper be damned.
He simply could not do that to Betty. Aside from the injustice of her being unable to inherit her brother’s wealth, the house in Elm was her home. It was where she grew up, where she formed and nurtured her most important relationships.
Earlier, when he looked out in the gardens, the pang of nostalgia he felt having spent hours of his youth there, a lot of times with Betty, was enough to make him want to stay in Riverdale for longer.
He could ask an extension from his father, he thought.
It was a plan quickly overpowered by reason. His mother would suspect. So would the Guild. It was true what he told Betty--the Imperium would seek her out soon enough, but he wanted it to be on her terms, not theirs. Charles had, in the past, referenced how he wanted Betty to be prepared for when they found her. He wasn’t sure what Charles was so wary of, but Jughead suspected it had to do with his ex-communication.
Jughead’s hints at finding out more about it had been overruled by Charles, many times, and he had warned Jughead that trying to find out from the Guild may put Betty in danger of being ex-communicated herself.
Because of that, Jughead hadn’t risked it--not when it was Betty’s future on the line.
Jughead was just about to pull on his goggles, hoping that enhanced vision would give him a more accurate measure of where he should be looking, when he felt the strong pull of aether beckon him. He looked through the window and saw, with certainly, Betty walking out of the Great Lotus’s back alley.
She was barely recognizable to anyone else. She was in workmen’s clothing, and her beautiful blonde hair was tucked into a leather boilerman’s cap. She had the collar of her jacket propped high around her neck and her hands were in her pockets. Her strides were gone of any feminine sway, practiced, no doubt, from years of having worn this disguise.
That he spotted her at all was nothing short of luck.
She was headed away from the Great Lotus and he wondered, nonsensically, if Betty liked to gamble. It was not unheard of that a lady would have such a habit, though he can’t imagine that a lady, disinherited, would spend what little she had left on such a vice.
No. It wasn’t in Betty’s constitution. Passionate though she was, her pragmatism was reliable. She was on an investigation, and he was only slightly incensed that she hadn’t heeded his warnings to stay at home and be safe.
Did you honestly think Betty would stay put? She has no reason to listen to you.
Jughead wasn’t sure if that was his own mind or his Daemon enhancing his earlier musings.
Jughead pushed out of the carriage. “Give me a moment, Moose,” he told his coachman. “I’ll be back, shortly.”
Moose, his rump leaning against the carriage wheel, tipped his hat. “I’ll be here, Jones.”
Jughead pushed the rim of his hat slightly higher with the handle of his umbrella and pulled irritably at his scarf. It was as hot as Hades, and yet he needed the scarf to conceal some of the equipment around his neck.
The streets of the Vice Quarter moved like the tide of Sweetwater, people and coaches milling by, bundled in their thick furs and wools. The wind, it seemed, had a nip to it that the Daemon Locked were not so quick to dismiss.
A wind blew and people around him shuddered at the cold, huddling deeper into their spring coats as they hurried to get where they were going and not bear any more of this chill.
“Let me get back to you, father,” Jughead said into his ear piece. He followed Betty’s figure as it made its way down the street. “I will catch this Wraith Lord, don’t you fret. If you have no other details to offer me--”
“As a matter of fact, the Reapers just detected a strong surge of aether activity. An unauthorized displacement of soul occurred a few minutes ago, and it appears to be within your proximity.”
Jughead could not help his feelings of irritation. Now they had better information?
“The Wraith Lord is moving,” FP continued. “Possibly in your direction.”
Jughead grew alarmed, frantically transferring his attention between Betty and the supposedly approaching Wraith Lord.
FP huffed. “You asked for a better report, you have it. Let me know when the assignment is done. Stay safe, boy.”
Jughead supposed that was the end of it.
He clicked off his earpiece, heading in the direction of Betty even as he kept an eye out for his supposed mark. It wouldn’t be very hard to spot a Wraith Lord. Just like Reapers, they gave off a faint dark glow, like the shadows around them devoured the light. But while Reapers preferred to skulk—perhaps it was the nature of their work—Wraith Lords liked to swagger, as FP called it, like a Peace Dealer.
Jughead did not like to call it a swagger. He had told FP that he did not swagger. Jughead felt he had things to do and perhaps that meant he couldn’t be bothered with being subtle about it.
He gave the crowd a cursory look for signs of a Wraith Lord. When he didn’t find one, he reverted his attention to Betty.
Adjusting his hat and straightening his coat, he moved, hurrying to cross the street to go after her. She was weaving easily through the crowd.
He dodged pedestrians, hurrying in the sea of bodies, his umbrella moving about like an oar.
She seemed to have mastered the current of people, deftly walking between the spaces with accuracy and speed.
He was surprised at how hard it was to follow her. He was almost running now and he was feeling the tiniest bit annoyed. She shouldn’t be this difficult to catch. It felt like a chase, and given that she was in disguise, he didn’t dare call her name and give her away.
She dodged another person fluidly and her steps had become unnaturally brisk.
It occurred to Jughead then—she was running. From him. Did she not know it was him? She hadn’t looked behind her. She must think he was someone else.
Frustrated, he quickened his pace, and it was then she broke into a run.
“Oh, for—“ Jughead sighed. He cursed under his breath, going right after her. He didn’t want to shout out her name, but there were other ways to call her attention. “Charles!”
She stopped in her tracks, then, her shoulders losing tension, and when she turned to face him, her eyes showed surprise, and then recognition. Surely enough, they were rolling soon after.
He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t going after her to haul her back home. It wasn’t the way he did things, and he wasn’t going to scold her, either. He was not Charles.
It was true when he said he admired her brass, but he was also concerned that his earlier musings about her safety were true. He had asked her to stay home as a precaution. There was no telling if his fears had any kind of merit.
Now that she was here, there wasn’t much he could do about it.
Her gaze was both accusory and resigned. Well, here we are.
They locked eyes, and Jughead felt a strange, yet familiar, sensation, one that he hadn’t felt in years. The last time he experienced it, he had touched her newly inked Daemon Mark.
Her eyes widened. He could tell by that look that she felt it too. The shock on her own face was unmistakable. She was transfixed and probably confused.
Swallowing, he willed himself to move towards her, thinking about nothing but her. It was as before, where it felt like belonging. Like coming home.
As the haze began to dissipate from his senses, their surroundings came into focus once more, and sure enough, it only took a second for Betty to recover.
He was about to go to her. Settle this situation once and for all, but there was a commotion on the street from behind her, where droves of people were desperately rushing to get off the road and onto the sidewalk.
A chaise came barreling through the crowded streets, its horses massive and strong.
Jughead’s instincts rose into full alert. His feet moved and his Mark flared hot and insistent.
Betty had turned to look at where the noise was coming from and she took a step back, probably frightened by the chaise that was going fast enough to run her over.
It took only a few seconds.
Jughead flipped the switch on his umbrella, pulling the blade out and aiming for the hands that reached out of the carriage door. But Jughead already knew he was too late.
His blade crashed against the metal door and Betty was yanked off her feet, a burlap bag draping over her head as she went.
The chaise sped off into the crowd and Jughead cried out her name, forgetting that he shouldn’t, his voice drifting in the wind.
Betty thought she couldn’t breathe. The bag, made of a thick, scratchy fiber, pressed against her nose and mouth, cutting off her breath as she took air in.
Her arms and legs were bound with what felt like rope. Her earlier struggles had done nothing but bruise and scratch her. Her screams were left unanswered, drowned out by the furious clopping of the horses’ gallop and the rattling of the chaise.
The floor, probably filthy from grime, pressed uncomfortably against her bones. It was cramped at the bottom of the chaise, greatly reducing her capability to fight back, even if she wanted to.
She felt the searing heat emanating from the mark on the back of her neck. It always acted like so when she was in danger, but she’d never felt it quite this hot. Perhaps the danger this time was extreme. It was times like this that she hoped that her Daemon would finally make itself known to her--moments of great need were known to encourage it. But she received her mark late, so it seemed logical to suppose that her Daemon’s quickening would come late as well.
The heat of her mark flared once more, then it waned back to nothing.
Her heart beat a steady rhythm in her chest, but strangely, it began to soothe her. The fear, instead of incapacitating her will, seemed to be fueling it, and she steadied her thoughts.
Jughead had seen her get taken and wasn’t going to stand by and let her fend for herself, but more importantly, what she felt when she met gazes with him was unearthly. She’d felt it in the past, years ago when she first received her mark, but now it felt even more profound. It was like she had a connection to him—as if she should have known this fact all her life.
Her nonsensical musings actually helped to calm her even more, and amidst her frenzied thoughts, she finally found her bearings. Even if she knew Jughead would come after her, it didn’t mean she needed to wait. She had to help him help her. She was never a passive player.
“I’m not afraid of you, you know,” she said in the haughtiest voice she could muster. She was surprised to realize this was true. Very little frightened her anymore. Charles made sure of that.
She felt hands falling upon her, roughly hauling her by her ropes like a sack of flour, and depositing her on the chaise seat. Her cheek banged against the metal fittings and she complained loudly, struggling stubbornly against her captor.
The only sign he gave that he was having any kind of difficulty was a short grunt, and then he had his hand on the back of her neck, shoving her face against the cushion of the seating.
She felt most undignified, with her arse in the air and her nose flat against her face. She was breathing through her mouth and she suddenly felt a draft on the back of her head when her coat was snatched away, as if he had sliced through the fabric.
She felt fingers, ungloved, run against the outline of her tattoo—the image of which she knew by heart. She knew he was tracing the wings, and then the face. The hairs on her arms prickled, her blood thudding through her ears.
His hand clamped down on her shoulder and she felt his grip tighten. “Tell me its name!”
She pursed her lips and tried to shrug him off. His strength did not waver.
“Tell me his name, Daemon Wielder!”
She couldn’t give him that information if she wanted to. Her Daemon hadn’t quickened, so she didn’t know its name at all, but she wasn’t going to offer that defense. Her pride wouldn’t let her. “Yes, of course! I’ll tell you its name. I would certainly give up that information easily!”
His hand pushed down hard and he gave a yell of frustration, demanding that she tell him its name in an unearthly, increasingly angry voice.
Again, she refused, which only served to make him even more frustrated. His grip turned painful, his fingers flexing to dig into her skin, as if he were trying to sink his nails into her, and the force of his desperation sent a bolt of awareness through her that filled her with horror.
He would force the information from her. He would do all he could to make her remember even if she couldn’t.
She moved, bucking roughly against him. She felt something hot and fast cut into her shoulder, and then there was a sharp pain.
There was a burst of profanity from her captor, words she had heard uttered only in the roughest streets of the Southside, but she relished it, because it meant she was making it difficult for him to do what he wished to do.
She hoped to shake off the burlap bag, thrashing her head to and fro while she kicked with her bare feet, but just when she thought she was buying herself more time, that same hand came down on her throat, pinning her to the chaise seat once more.
His iron grip had her choking.
“You are useless to me dead,” he said in a deep, rasping voice. “Tell me its name or I will have to use other means to extract that information from you.”
She found little comfort in that and it was not an option she was considering in the least.
She felt her resolve solidify once more and she was about to burst into another fit of struggles when the horses outside gave terrified neighs and the chaise came to an abrupt and violent halt.
She rolled forward and the bag must have caught on something, because it was ripped from her head as she was thrown against her captor in a bone rattling crash. Her body was an awkward weight on top of him and he struggled to push free of her, but she could see now, and when she put her mind to it, she could do damage with what she had.
She pulled her head back and smashed his nose with her forehead.
He yowled, in pain or in surprise, she could not tell, but he kicked her off him, his foot against her gut. It hurt, but she wore a corset even in men’s clothing, mostly to bind her breasts, but it also served as a sturdy protective layer around her body and she had room to fall back, weakening its impact. She crashed back against the carriage door and she stumbled outside the chaise.
Using her body weight, she let herself land on her back and used her momentum to roll smoothly to her knees on the hard cobbled ground. Another carriage had come in the path of her captor’s, which had likely caused the sudden halt.
She wasn’t quite sure how she was going to get away in the state she was in. Her arms were bound to her body, but her legs were free and there was no shame in escape.
She was just about to launch herself into a run when a spectral form exploded from within the chaise and out through the door.
It was bright, like fire. The creature had talons instead of fingers. Its arms were scraggly and long, its feet the size of half her body, and on its shoulder sat a head that looked like a cross between a skull and a crocodile.
It opened its maw and roared, the force of its hot breath sending her hair whipping all around her. She turned away, willing her mind to help her and not lock itself in a state of paralyzing confusion.
Now would be a spectacularly good time for my Daemon to quicken.
Her mark seared, but no Daemon save the one coming at her made itself known.
The creature raised its clawed hand and reached for her soul, and all she could really think about now was how utterly disgraced her mother would be should they find her murdered body in the filthy streets of the Vice Quarter, cause-of-death unknown.
But then the monster was suddenly knocked on its side by an immense ball of blue. The collision was so powerful, it sent both chaises sliding away several feet.
Betty watched as the blue ball took the shape of what she could only describe as a gargoyle.
Its powerful body sent the fire creature spinning into the deserted streets, and before the fire creature could get up, the gargoyle leapt atop it, taking its arm and ripping it off.
The fire creature howled and the Deamon’s luster waned momentarily. It should have been done for at that moment, but it summoned what little of its power was left and hurled a ball of spectral fire in Betty’s direction.
Betty jumped to avoid it, but it was too late. It would catch her and burn her soul to cinders.
But when, seconds later, she was still alive and was staring into the dark blue eyes of the gargoyle, its wings wrapped around them both like a shield, she could barely grasp the fact that she was going to live another day.
When the gargoyle unfurled itself from her, the fire creature was nowhere to be seen. She thought she might have heard running footsteps at its wake, but she wasn’t sure.
And then the gargoyle faded into the night, leaving in its wake Jughead in his disheveled suit. His black coat and vest were unkempt, but relatively pristine. His white blouse had come undone at the waist of his pants, and his knee-high boots, belted, buckled, and reinforced at the toes, with laces tied tight, were splattered with mud, and yet however unkempt his clothes were, however devil-may-care he seemed to wear his loosely tied cravat, his person, his skin, seemed untouchable by the Riverdale dirt.
He straightened himself swiftly, uncrimping his vest and coat with a swift tug, while adjusting the belt around his hips. She could see the guns and gadgets strapped to his hips, otherwise hidden by his coat had he not been so flustered. The goggles around his neck were unhidden, but she wagered a scarf should had been there, and she supposed any kind of vigorous activity could have swiped it off him.
This was not how Jughead looked leaving their house.
“Betty, are you alright?” he asked, going to her and helping her to her feet.
Slowly, cautiously, she nodded.
He brought out a pocket knife, and carefully, he lowered his knife to the ropes that bound her. He made quick work of it, and when the ropes fell free, she examined her wrists. Her skin had been rubbed raw.
He took her hands in his, turning them over to check her wounds. “You’ll need something for this.”
He looked up, and their eyes met again, but that earlier feeling of connection did not repeat itself. Perhaps she had imagined it.
“And that.” He nodded in the direction of her shoulder. She had a cut running just beneath her shoulder blade.
“That man--who took me. He cut me, but I suppose not on purpose. He wanted me alive.”
Her hat was gone, and her hair fell in a golden cascade. He pushed some of the hair back from her shoulder to look at the wound more closely. “Of course he did--at least until he could take your Daemon from you. He was a Wraith Lord.”
A Wraith Lord. Corrupted Kin, whose only desire was to collect the Daemons of others to gain power. It became, just like the abuse of any substance, an addiction. It required, of course, murdering the Kinsman--after torturing them at length, and then compelling the stolen Daemon to their will. Wraith Lords also acquired a taste for human souls, if only to maintain their strength between newly enslaved Daemons.
She didn’t realize there were any in Riverdale. Then again, the Kin were few and far between in these parts. Wraith Lords were more common in the big cities, where there were many Kin to steal Daemons from.
“He couldn’t, not even if I wanted him to,” she confessed, softly, as he examined her cut. “My Daemon is yet to quicken.” She was whispering because she was ashamed.
He paused and she could see the compassion in his eyes. “It’ll come. You received your mark late.”
She nodded, feeling her stomach tighten to knots the way it always did when she worried about the state of her Mark, at how she was afraid it would never quicken, and how it made her feel unwhole. “Well, I wasn’t expecting that this night would be quite as exciting as this.”
“Neither did I, to tell you the truth.” He reached into his coat and brought out a pristine and neatly folded handkerchief with the initials JJ sewn into a corner. He pressed it to her wound to staunch the flow of blood.
She scoffed softly. “Didn’t you? You warned me to stay indoors.”
“I suppose I did, but I never expect to be right.”
She cast him a sidelong glance, and while he kept his eyes firmly on the cut on her shoulder, the corner of his lip was lifting in a lopsided grin.
“How did you know where I was?” she asked. “How did you know I wasn’t at home like a proper, dutiful lady?”
He chuckled, gently taking her hand and pressing it to the handkerchief to replace his. “I didn’t. Know where you were, I mean. I was working and I saw you. And is that what ladies do at home? Being proper and dutiful?”
“It’s what men think ladies do at home,” she shot back.
He was about to say something when he stopped, pressed something in his ear, and signaled that he needed a moment. He turned away and she watched him intently, wondering if he was having a conniption fit.
Then much to her surprise, he started speaking into thin air. “No, it got away. It had a hostage and I had to assure the hostage’s safety… yes, I will file a report. When I can. I can’t hear you, father. The Feromonic field is rife with interruptions. I will have to call you back.”
He turned his attention back to her. “I’m sorry. That was my father.”
“If you say so.” She wasn’t sure if he was going mad.
Perhaps realizing that she was doubting him, he pulled an odd contraption from the side of his head. It was shaped to fit around his ear with a leather mold, with perceivable gears and copper coils. “It’s an aural communicator. It uses aether waves and feromonic fields to transport sound from one device to another.”
It was uncanny and beautiful, and she attempted to reach for it, but she saw that her fingers were soiled by her blood, and she pulled her hand back.
“And you are communicating with… your father with this?”
He nodded. “I am.”
A thought struck her, then. How Jughead seemed to have access to these types of technologies. The very properties of the watch Charles gave her had offered a taste of these trans-spacial communications. If such devices were available, then it could be accessed by anyone in the realm of the Kin. “These… feromonic fields and aether waves. Is that how the Wraith Lord found me?”
His eyes grew sympathetic. “That is the widely held theory, yes. That the Kin are connected by waves and fields, that while we exist unnoticed among many of our kind, like in the city, out here in the Daemon Locked countryside, we would be easy prey to a traveling Wraith Lord. And with Charle’s wards down, something was bound to come after you.”
She shook her head, peeling back his handkerchief to look at her wound.
“Keep pressure on it,” he prompted her, gently. “We should head back to your house--tend to your injuries.”
She briefly thought she might tell him no, that she came to the Vice Quarter on a mission--but there was no way she would be able to do more than what she’d already done. She had successfully engaged coachmen in the back alleys of the Great Lotus, had found information that may be vital to Laura’s crossing over. She was done for the night.
“My carriage is right there,” he added, nodding to the carriages behind her.
Betty was glad to hear that there would be transportation going home. Parts of her were already beginning to ache, no doubt bruised by her thrashing about in close quarters. She may need more treatment than she first realized.
Looking around her, she couldn’t for the life of her place where they were, for things were unexpectedly quiet. “Where are we?”
“Lorimer street,” he replied. “Just off Twilight. It’s harder to tell when we’re on the Other side.”
Betty nodded, breathing deeply. “Of course. The Other side.” She’d read about it. Knew what it was, but she’d never actually been in it. One needed to be in the presence of a Daemon to access it.
He began to walk towards the carriages.
As she caught up to his stride, she saw a hat just a few paces ahead, and as they came upon it, he picked it up, dusted it off, and placed it upon his head. She spied bright blue gargoyle wings peeking from the collar of his shirt, sinking beneath the fabric as he once again straightened his clothing.
“It seems we are leaving the Other Side.”
Betty stopped in her tracks watched as the shadows, like ghosts, slowly began to appear around her. None of them paid her much mind, passing her by as pedestrians did, intent only upon arriving at their destinations. The shades began to solidify, taking on more form and detail. They transformed, slowly, into translucent figures of discernible characteristics. A maid here, a banker there, a lush staggering from wall to wall, a horse pulling its passengers in mid-air, a child attached to his mother by the hand. The properties and material matter followed soon after—fruit stalls and carriages, carts filled with sacks of grain, and the ground sprouting the debris of unwanted or lost things. The street was alive with activity once more.
Betty watched it all like she had never seen it before. It fascinated her--always did, that a dimension could exist upon the one better known to most. It was the effect of the Daemons. Once they were summoned, the dimensions of reality folded over, taking the Kin and all the chaos they brought with them somewhere the Daemon Locked cannot be hurt by them.
They walked up to the carriage and it looked a little worse for wear this time. Its moving parts appeared to be intact, but one side of it was scratched and mangled where the other carriage had collided with it. It’s coachman’s seat was bent out of shape, and the beams that reigned the horses in line looked a little bent. The coachman, dusty on some parts of his coat, seemed unbothered by the state of his vehicle as he leaned against the door, smoking a cigarette.
Jughead gave him a nod. “Are you alright, Moose? Took a bit of a spill there.”
The coachman patted some of the dust off his jacket. “Good. You?”
“Very good, thanks. The Wraith Lord got away.”
The coachman nodded then slanted his gaze in her direction. “And you, Miss Cooper? How fare you?”
Betty was surprised at being addressed by the coachman at all in such a familiar fashion, but she didn’t mind it. “I am fine, thank you.”
The coachman eyed her a moment, perhaps to ascertain if she was being truthful about her condition, but he seemed satisfied enough. He hoisted himself up his seat. “Where to next, Jughead?”
“We head back to the Cooper home,” Jughead said. He pulled open the carriage door and he extended his hand to help her in. She took it and was surprised at the wave of warmth their connection caused.
They held hands, unmoving as they looked at one another in growing confusion.
It was Moose’s loud cough that shook them out of their paralysis.
She snatched her hand back, hastening into the carriage.
She faintly heard Jughead grumbling, probably at Moose, “What are you looking at?” but pretended not to hear it as Jughead climbed into the cab right after her.
This night, she concluded, was filled with the most unlikely surprises. And she quite hated surprises.
Chapter 4: The Talented Mr. Smith
There was a book upon Charles’s desk, with a feather marking a place within its pages. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne was engraved on its spine.
Betty could see Jughead eyeing it briefly as they entered Charles’s study and she instantly knew what he was thinking.
“The book is mine, not Charles’s. I read here sometimes. In his study. It helps with the grief.”
“Does it, now?” He proceeded to shrug off his coat to hang it on the rack, and she saw immediately the leathers that strapped his body, holding weapons and gadgets, some of which she recognized, many she didn’t.
There were straps on his arms, as well, and she would have watched him the entire time he was undoing the contraptions if he hadn’t turned to her as he did so. He hung up the leathers with his coat as she averted her eyes.
“Is Charles’s medicine kit still where I remember it to be?” he asked, striding across the room.
She nodded, letting him go through the cabinets. He found the box that held Charles’s medical supplies and placed it on the coffee table.
“Now, let’s take a look at those scrapes. And we can talk about tonight’s adventures, shall we?”
She frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. “Are you going to scold me like a child?”
He looked at her askance, folding the sleeves of his shirt to his elbows. She noticed the metal brace on his arm, and it irritated her that it served to fascinate her even more. Must she be so enamored of him that she couldn’t even be properly annoyed in his presence?
“I should, shouldn’t I? But no, I am not going to scold you like a child.” He worked the levers of the small pump at the water basin, using the water and soap to sanitize his hands, and when the dirty water was drained, he carried a bowl of fresh water and placed it beside the box. “I am not your father and you are not a child. You are an adult woman who makes her own decisions and dresses like a young man.” He gestured for her and she glared at him, flinching away defiantly.
Putting his hands up momentarily, perhaps to show that he had no tricks up his sleeve, he slowly motioned for the coat on her shoulders.
Sighing, she let him help her out of her ruined coat. She would have to get a new one--or rather an old one, which was harder to come by because she could not shop for it herself. “You think my disguise silly.”
“I think it ingenious,” he said, setting the coat aside. “It allows you to be everywhere you need to be.” He prompted her to sit with him on the couch, and mollified by his words, she did, sitting like a proper lady in her men’s clothing. She pulled her ruined blouse around her more securely, noting that some of her corset had shown through her shirt. She hoped to God Jughead hadn’t seen it.
He seemed focused enough on his box to have seen her underthings.
The box contained all manner of medicine and materials useful for more immediately treatable injuries. He selected a clean cloth from the small pile in the box and dipped it in the water. When it was properly soaked, he wrung it out and delicately pushed her hair back from her shoulder to get better access to her wound.
He began to clean the blood off with the cloth and she flinched, although he was light of touch.
“Although,” he continued as he worked. “How anyone is convinced that you’re a boy--even a pretty one--is beyond me.”
She felt warmth spread from her neck to her face and she knew he saw it, which only served to make it worse. “It isn’t just the look. It is the way I walk and talk. I make a convincing boy.”
“I suppose so. I know you too well, so I don’t believe I will ever be convinced.” His brows knitted. “This cut needs stitches and I cannot be depended on to do it with delicacy.”
“I know a physician at the coroner’s.”
He chuckled. “The coroner’s.”
“He is good!”
“I am certain he is, but his place of work is across town and here we have Moose, who is trained and experienced in treating injuries such as these.”
“You expect me to trust a man you call Moose?”
“Why not? You expected me to trust a man whose primary patients are all dead.”
“It’s a second job.” She knew she wasn’t going to win this argument, but she felt she had to defend Dr. Masters. “And they aren’t all dead. He heals the living during the day.”
His grin told her he wasn’t apologetic in the least. “Most of them are from the Southside, I’d wager, so they’re poor. We will go to him for real emergencies, then. For now, Moose will do.”
She nodded her acquicense as he continued to examine her cut.
“I can clean this before I call him in to stitch you up,” he said, taking out a bottle of clear liquid and a sterilized roll of cotton. “Phenol solution.”
Betty made a face. “I know it. Get on with it.”
He smirked, but as he poured some of the phenol solution onto the cotton, he asked, “What were you doing at the Great Lotus?”
Of course he had seen her come out the back. “Investigating.”
“For the same spirit?”
She nodded. “The prostitute. Graduated to mistress, actually.”
“She’s an interesting one, that.” He applied the phenol onto her wound and it stung with a fury of a thousand hellhounds.
She grit her teeth, biting her lip and breathing through the sting.
Jughead blew on it lightly, the touch of his breath on her skin soothed and distracted, incredibly. He was so close that she wasn’t sure if the heat she felt was from their bodies combined or just her, losing all reasonable sense. He did this for several seconds before he applied the phenol again. This time, it did not sting as badly, the skin around the wound having gone slightly numb, but he blew on it anyway, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to ripple.
Betty thought that if he didn’t stop, she was in danger of leaning over and kissing him.
He paused in his ministrations to look at his handiwork and seemed satisfied with his work. “What’s her name? Do you know?”
How she managed to regain her senses, she didn’t know, but as he set the cotton swab aside, she replied. “Laura.”
“Laura,” he repeated, his blue eyes darting to a corner of the room.
Betty followed his gaze and she saw, silhouetted against the window, was the dark visage of Laura’s spirit. She faded seconds later, perhaps realizing that Betty wasn’t alone.
Jughead sighed and shot Betty a pointed stare.
She knew exactly what he was thinking. “She followed me home. I couldn’t help it.”
“Of course you could help it. Charles taught us how to establish boundaries, you know.”
He wasn’t wrong. Betty could have easily told Laura to stay where she found Laura lurking around the coroner’s office, but she looked so lost and miserable that Betty couldn’t just tell her to wait there the whole time Betty was investigating her case.
“It just seemed wrong,” Betty explained, all banter gone from her tone. “I imagined that all her life, she had to survive and fend for herself, with no one caring and offering her comfort. She earned every bit of coin she had, and then she was punished for it at every turn, until finally they killed her. I couldn’t, Jughead. It wasn’t right.”
He sighed, but he nodded, squeezing her arm. “Let me fetch Moose.”
When Jughead left, Laura reappeared again, a shade by the door. She was looking particularly ghastly tonight. “Have you learned anything new?”
Betty nodded. “I did. The other night, I met Malachi. It was he who strangled you in the alley. You didn’t kill yourself, Laura, just like you said.”
Laura touched her own throat. “I knew it. I am a survivor, Betty.”
Betty’s heart went out to her, from one survivor to another. “You are. Malachi was hired to kill you, and then it was made to look like a suicide. Everyone believed the lie, because it is easier to suppose that a mistress would take her own life rather than have an esteemed member of government murder her.”
She looked crestfallen by this news. “Governor Dooley? He had me murdered? Did he have enough of me, then? He didn’t have to dispose of me. I would have gone away quietly.”
This happened, sometimes. When she filled in the holes, the spirits remembered better.
“Not the Governor. It was his wife. One of the coachmen--not the governor’s, but one who was jealous of him--revealed that he suspected the governor’s wife was having an affair with Malachi, handsome devil that he is.” Betty could not help but chuckle about this. Whether it was true that the governor’s wife was having an affair was beside the point. She recalled the pouch that Malachi had given her that night he “paid” for her services. It wasn’t a particularly distinct one. It wasn’t going to tie the governor’s wife to the crime, but it was a distinctly upper class item. Betty would bet her life that it was the vessel for Malachi’s payment.
Spectral tears began to slide down Laura’s cheeks, and as they did, her visage became less ghastly. Her mottled skin began to glow anew. The bruises and marks disappeared and her hair began to regain shine. Her soiled dress was washed clean of the back alley grime and she was back in her former glory.
A bright light bloomed above her, casting a glow over her spirit.
“Will you promise to make her pay for her crimes?” Laura asked, her eyes imploring. “I don’t expect justice, but I want her to pay . Do you understand?”
Betty didn’t know how she could make the governor’s wife pay.
“My flat,” Laura said, her eyes bright with the memories that were no doubt flooding her. “The floorboard under my bed.”
“Where did you live, Laura?” Betty aked, desperately. They didn’t have a lot of time. The light above Laura was already taking her with it. “I need your address!”
“My old pimp--Tall Boy. He would know. Promise me, Betty.”
Betty would have to find a way, later. She nodded. “I do. I promise, Laura.”
“Thank you, Betty.” Her spirit gathered with the light, and gently, she faded as she crossed the realms, where her spirit could find rest. Where she belonged.
By the time Jughead returned with Moose, there was no trace of the spirit left.
Jughead might have noticed that the dread had lifted from the room, because he said, “She’s gone.”
“Yes. She crossed over, but I promised I would make her murderer pay.”
Moose seemed astonished but Jughead barely blinked at this declaration. He removed his coat as well, and while he was not as heavily armed as Jughead, he too had weapons strapped to his body, and he did not remove them like Jughead did. He grabbed a small box from one of the straps and laid it on the table before making his way way to the water basin.
“Aye, well,” Moose finally said as he folded up the sleeves of his blouse and washed his hands. “I can think of better ways to spend my time, but that’s just me.”
Jughead began going through one of Charles’s cabinets. “You assume that Betty doesn’t enjoy this.”
She shot him a withering glance but didn’t deny it.
Grinning, Jughead seemed to have found some brandy and began to pour some in a glass. She thought the liquor was for him, but he didn’t drink it, and when he sat on the other side of her, presumably to make room for Moose, he placed the glass gently in her hand.
She began to push the glass back. “I don’t--”
“Hush. Trust me. You’ll want it.”
His voice was so soft and tender that she did not resist any further.
“I’ve never been one for liquid courage, you know that, Jones,” Moose said in a somewhat scolding tone. “It thins the blood. I’d much rather give her chocolate--to prevent her fainting.”
Jughead waved his words away. “Betty is not a fainter and there is no chocolate. I’d rather relieve her pain. This will have to do.”
She bit her lip, her heart fluttering at both his belief in her mettle and his care.
Moose scoffed, but didn’t argue. When Moose sat down to examine her wound, she got a closer look. He was certainly more massive than Jughead, if that served as any comparison at all. Jughead was never a particularly massive man to begin with. He was tall, but he was lanky, and that hadn’t changed, it seemed. Moose had broader, thicker shoulders, and his hands were large, like he could fell an ox with one punch. He wasn’t dressed like any other coachman, either. His boots and trousers looked closer to what Jughead was wearing--certainly not tailored from any Daemon Locked clothiers.
Moose leaned over to get a closer look but he did not touch her at all. “Push back your hair for me, will you, lass?”
Betty did, slinging her hair over her other shoulder. She realized that unlike Jughead, Moose wasn’t just going to do it himself because it would have been inappropriate.
Moose began to dig into Charles’s medical kit, pulling out some bottles, then he took the box he had laid on the table earlier and opened it. Inside were a set of instruments, three of which looked like scissors, one pair of tweezers, and some very fine thread.
Moose instructed Jughead to wipe away any excess blood while he worked.
She observed how Moose used the instruments. The one she thought were scissors weren’t that at all. They were forceps, and he was using both to hold the thread, at the end of which had an incredibly small and fine needle, possibly made of copper.
The needle was so small that she barely felt it pierce her skin, but the drag of the thread did sting, and Betty grit her teeth as Moose worked. He was careful and meticulous, but it was painful, and Betty found herself taking that gulp of brandy. The burn of the liquor down her throat seemed distraction enough, but the warmth of it did spread through her body and loosen the sting of the suturing.
Without thinking, she grabbed Jughead’s hand and gripped it, her fingers digging when the pain bit. When Jughead’s thumb began to rub the back of her hand, it served as an effective distraction.
When Moose tied the final knot, he made a sound of triumph. “What do you think, eh? My best work. It will barely scar when it heals.”
Jughead gave it a cursory inspection before tapping Moose’s shoulder and getting up to put the brandy glass away. “Good work, Mason.”
Betty examined it as best she could from her vantage point. The sutures were neatly done and very small. Hardly any more blood had spilled and she believed it would heal nicely. Moose did have a talent for this. “You ought to be a physician. Thank you, Mr. Mason.”
“Much obliged, Miss Cooper. Please call me Moose. And yes, that is the plan. Earn a wage at the Guild and make enough to go to the Physician’s Academy in France, where all the Kin learn the latest in medicine. The Daemon Locked know shite about healing--sometimes their methods do more harm than good.” He handed one of the bottles from Charles’s kit to Jughead. “Your brother kept a good supply of the Kin compounds. Dress her wounds with that--keep infection away.”
Moose said his goodbyes, claiming he’ll be in his quarters if anyone else needed him. He saluted her, like he would if he had a hat on, and left.
“He’s a little overqualified for his job as a coachman,” she remarked.
Jughead laughed softly, taking the seat Moose vacated as he began to clean the wound again before applying the antiseptic. “At the Guild, coachmen are a specialized breed. They have to be graduates of Peace Dealer Academies to be Guild Coachmen--he knows what I know, but he is, as you saw, also skilled in immediate medical care. Most importantly, he is a talented driver, and his Peace Dealer skills are used most frequently in warding spirits, pursuing targets, and exerting muscle--Moose isn’t called Moose for nothing.”
He was touching her skin again, covering her wound with dressing and using some of the adhesive in Charles’s box to hold it in place. She was ever aware of their contact.
“You trust him?” she asked.
“With my life.” He said as he gently pressed on her dressing and adhesive. “I knew him longer than my former partner. Moose and I were roommates at Stonewall. He likes Peace Dealing, but his true passion is medicine. I persuaded him to be my coachman so he can save up to go to medical academy.”
She arched a questioning eyebrow. “Persuaded?”
He nodded. “The position, however specialized, is not glamorous, and most Peace Dealers don’t desire it, but coachmen never have to worry about room and board because the Guild shoulders that for them and they are paid well, though perhaps not as well as Peace Dealers, but without the additional living expenses, he keeps more of his pay. He likes the job now, especially after he realized how much of his salary he was able to save.”
It was oddly soothing to her--to hear him speak so plainly of their working class lives. In her Daemon Locked world, the men had to be businessmen and bankers, and speaking of their daily toils and practical concerns was considered horribly unrefined.
She wished she could work like they do, but for now she was glad he was telling her all this, sharing with her his new histories and relationships. It drew them closer back together, she thought.
He was done dressing her wounds, but he hadn’t quite moved away. He pushed her hair back again, somewhat unnecessarily, and a pleasant tingle ran down her spine.
“I smell lilac,” he said, nonsensically. “From your hair, I think.”
Something in her stomach fluttered. “It’s my soap.”
“Not quite the soap of a boy, is it?”
She shrugged, shyly. “Just because I play a boy, I don’t have to be dirty like one.”
He cast her a sardonic smirk. “Boys are not dirty. I always kept clean, you know.”
She giggled quietly. She realized that they did not have to talk so loud. They were close enough to hear softly spoken words, and he was smiling, watching her in her mirth unabashedly. She liked how he seemed so open. Like old times. She wanted to know more.
“You had a partner, you said?”
The moment the question left her lips, she regretted it. Jughead’s shoulders visibly tensed and he moved away. He began to put away the medical materials, rearranging the unused materials in Charles’s box neatly. “Yes. Most Peace Dealers have one, but mine passed away in an accident. I haven’t had a new partner since.”
She bit her lip, her instinct for the change of mood immediate. “I am sorry he passed.”
“I am, as well. Trevor was a good man, but he was reckless. It matters little now… Moose has been a more than adequate quasi-partner, and some Peace Dealers opt to have their coachmen act as such. I am not the only one. How does your shoulder fare, Betty?”
He went from warm to cold so quick that it was like getting splashed in the face with ice water, but she was resilient and this should not affect her equilibrium.
“It fares well,” she replied, trying to act unaffected. “Sore, but the pain is bearable.”
He nodded putting the medical kit away. “And the pain will wane even more. We are Kin--we heal better. Quicker.”
That was true for their physical injuries. The Kin could get injured and they could be killed by deadly force, but Kin who survive injuries did so with a speed and resiliency improbable to the lost. Injuries that could cripple the Daemon Locked were easily recoverable for the Kin. Their bones, muscle, and skin knit more seamlessly and efficiently--faster still when the Kin summoned their Daemon to inhabit it.
The Kin could be subjected to maladies. They fell ill on certain occasions. Colds did beset them. Disease could penetrate their bodies. But they recovered. Always. The Kin have never had to lose their friends and family to plagues and epidemics.
But when injury struck deeper--when the shock of it reverberated through one’s mind and heart--there was no Kin advantage over that. There was no magical potion that the Kin had discovered to rid them of the nightmares of a traumatic experience. Horror, guilt, and despair could cripple a Kinman more effectively than a leg, neck, or back injury could.
Betty resisted the urge to ask Jughead about his former partner.
In the past, she would have without hesitation, but things were different now. While there were still bonds between them that remain unbroken, six years apart have created chasms that she needed permission to cross.
“I suppose there is no point in telling you that it is too dangerous for you to go out on your investigations,” he said, sinking into Charles’s desk chair.
She was aware that the distance between them now was considerable. “We’ve had this conversation.”
He nodded. “You can’t venture out on your own like you used to, Betty. Even the most seasoned Peace Dealer has a partner. I have Moose.”
She frowned. “And what would you have me do? Out here in Riverdale, the Kin are few and far between. Shall I go looking for one and train him or her, the way Charles trained you and I, to do this job?”
“Will you be going out tomorrow night? I can go with you--”
“And what shall I do when you leave for the city? Shall I stay home and wait for your heroic return?”
“Learn how to knit perhaps, to occupy my time?” The look of understanding on his face was making her even more furious. The very idea that he expected her to sit and wait, like some damsel watching for the return of her knight, made her want to scream.
He put up his hands to appeal for a moment to speak. “I won’t sleep a wink knowing you’ll be out there on your own, completely vulnerable to new dangers. Sabrina added a ward to your Mark that night, so that the others may not so easily find you, but make no mistake--that worked very well in the past because Charles’s wards protected you. There are ways around that ward on your skin, Betty. You will be found by the worst of them and if anything happens to you, I won’t recover.”
The way his words struck at the very core of her heart, her longing for him, only made her madder. “Oh, you are making this about you now?”
“Please listen. If Mrs. Cooper would grant permission, I would like to have you with me when I travel back to the city. You need a partner, Betty, and until you can find a permanent one, I would have to do for the time being.”
This was most unexpected. “What? You want me to--” She struggled for a few heartbeats, but reason took hold once more. “If this is your attempt at babysitting--”
His sighed, exasperation clear in his tone. “It is nothing like that. I am completely aware of your autonomy, Betty. Once and for all, I do not think of you as a child. If that was ever in my mind in the slightest, I was completely disabused of that notion when I watched you pretending to be a whore to seduce a murderous gang leader.”
Heat bloomed from her collar and she was caught unawares of the blatant implication that his realization of her maturity had come with her impression of someone else’s wanton sexuality.
He took her silence to mean that she was finally listening. “But regardless of the fact that you are a grown and capable Peace Dealer, no one doing this job should, under any circumstance, do it alone.”
It took her several more seconds to absorb everything he was telling her at once, and when everything did sink in, she could feel a tremble of excitement ripple through her. “I would--I would like--” love “--to go with you to the city. I would like that very much, Jughead.”
She could see the lines on his face smoothing over as the tension finally left his shoulders. “Good. And it would be an excellent way for us to make up for time lost--apart from all this administrative nonsense…”
“When?” she asked, her excitement bubbling to the surface. “When are we leaving?”
“In three days time. We’d have to purchase you a train ticket, and I’d imagine you’ll need some time to make other arrangements--”
“Hang arrangements. I can leave with you tomorrow if I have to.”
He was clearly astonished, but his smirk was tinged with affection. “Is Riverdale getting too small for you?”
When Charles died, it felt empty, like an expanding void that she could not escape. To beat back the chasm, she threw herself into work and the social obligations that came with living amongst the Locked.
Jughead was offering yet another chance for her put distance between her and that chasm. “Perhaps. After all that’s happened, I would welcome some well-managed change.”
“You and I, both.”
Jughead felt the exhaustion in his bones, but his mind was alive with thought.
He had dragged his old desk chair to the window and cracked it open. The cold breeze was nothing to his Kin constitution, but the silence of the countryside was slightly unnerving.
Even out here in Riverdale, he grew up and lived amidst the noise of the Southside. It was like the city in that, except everyone had some connection to one another, by some shady dealing or unwanted association. It honed his survival instinct. He understood the meaning of sound.
Living in the Cooper home had not rid him of the awareness of noise, or the lack of it. He learned to cope with it, but he still slept better with the hum of city life.
He lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke out and letting his thoughts take him, to everything that’s happened the last few days, and the probable future.
Charles’s estate was no longer an immediate concern. Ownership of the house and all of Charles’s assets had been transferred over to him, and while he was yet to negotiate the holdings of the business, there was time yet to come to an agreement with Charles’s partners.
The house was in good hands with Alice at the helm, that he was sure of.
None of the material matters were keeping him up at night.
It was Betty that was his primary concern.
Seeing her get taken that night was a rude way to be reminded of the reality of the danger she was in, now that she was fully exposed to the wider Kin world. She would be visited by beings and elementals that she never would have encountered before, and even the most seasoned Peace Dealer shouldn’t ever have to deal with that alone.
But that wasn’t the only thing that nagged him.
It was that sensation of belonging, of being bound to Betty, right before she got picked off the street, that he remembered distinctly. It was so fleeting that he could shrug it off as nothing, but he had wondered the last six years if there wasn’t something more. Some old Kin magic at work.
He snorted softly to himself.
It was entirely possible that he had mistaken a life-driven bond for some Kin-driven ambition.
He and Betty had always had a bond. The first time he saw her as a child, the curiosity in her eyes had drawn his attention, and when Charles finally introduced them so that they could be taught in the ways of the Peace Dealer together, it seemed logical at first, and then natural, to get along. They enjoyed the same things and talked freely to one another. He preferred Betty’s company to anyone else and she was the only person who could make him laugh.
Even six years apart, their bond was still strong. He felt it by the way they still laughed at the same things, by how they had an instinct for each other’s emotions, how they can soothe and comfort each other with a simple touch of the hand.
He wondered, too, whether her eyes had gotten greener over the years, or it was just the rouge she now wore on her lips.
So they were close even after all these years, and their closeness did not have to mean that they were Daemon Bound.
There were signs, perhaps. But one can never really be sure until the Alpha Sigils worked for them and at the moment that was impossible, because Betty’s Daemon hadn’t even emerged as of yet.
It just seemed like such a tantalizing thought--to be special, to be Daemon Bound when it was such a rarity in the world of the Kin.
Not impossible, nor extinct, but rare, and they were powerful. Only few were ever known to exist and all retired to the history books. If there were any Daemon Bound alive now, the Imperium would have registered them for monitoring.
The Daemon Bound, as they were called, were Kin bonded by mind and soul. Their Daemons were the half of each other’s whole. Their fates were intertwined by their duality. They’d been called by many names throughout history: Fated, Destined, Soulmates, but it was always their Daemons that tied them together.
Legend spoke of a time when all Kin were Daemon Bound, but throughout time and space, the line of the Kin thinned the ties of fate. Now the Daemon Bound were few and far between.
According to the textbooks, the signs were: Synchronicity in their Marks’ appearance, hearing each other’s thoughts, moments of pure, unbridled connection…
The only thing he could be certain about was the first one. Their Daemons looked almost completely alike, except his was male and hers female.
He’d wondered about it for years now, but the distance and wards between them had made his musings irrelevant.
Even if it were true, that they were Daemon Bound, it wasn’t as if they couldn’t exist apart. They were completely capable of being individual Peace Dealers. It didn’t prevent them from being their best selves.
Only, it does.
Jughead took a puff of his cigarette and closed his eyes as he blew out the smoke.
He wished things weren’t so complicated. He wished he didn’t keep second guessing himself.
He had no clue if his incessant need to keep her safe, to keep her close, was some old instinct from his days as Charles’s pupil and younger brother, or something that came with the very adult responsibility of inheriting an estate, or if this was something else altogether.
There was no point in worrying about it now.
He’d asked her to go to New York with him. He would have to speak to Alice and he didn’t expect it to be an easy conversation, but Betty’s face had lit up so much at the suggestion of coming to New York with him that her disappointment at not being able to go would likely haunt him to the end of his days.
“Absolutely not.” Alice had said. “Not without a chaperone, and it simply can’t be me, as the house needs tending to on a daily basis.”
When Jughead delivered this news to Betty, she gave it a moment’s thought and replied, “So it wasn’t a no.”
After all these years, the Coopers’ mother-daughter language still baffled him. “I’m quite certain ‘absolutely not’ qualifies as a ‘no’.”
Betty’s fingers were drumming against the armrest of a sofa chair, her stocking-clad feet crossed at the ankles on an ottoman. “There are conditions.”
She was plotting, no doubt.
He observed her, arms crossed.
As the older one in the room, he really should be telling her to listen to her mother, to be an obedient daughter, but he could never resist with Betty. She always had ideas. They were often bold and fearless, most times ingenious. He always liked to see what she would do. “Oh, is that what you call them? Conditions.”
She quirked a grin, marking the page on her book before shutting it with a pop. “It shall be dealt with. In the meantime, I have a bit of time yet to fulfill my promise to Laura.”
“The mistress. That said, I do need to see her old pimp.”
“I need a… partner.”
She smirked and approached him, that glint of mischief forewarning him. Her fingers fiddled lightly with his cravat. “Do it for a lark.” Her expectant look was both infuriating and tempting. “And my safety? Are you not all about that?”
He dealt her a sardonic glare, but it did not lessen the sheen of her guileless smile.
“Fine. But I’ll not stand for shenanigans, Betty. It would serve us both if we do away with angry mobs and bodily injury.”
“I’ll be like an angel,” she declared.
He shook his head, but his sigh of resignation was consent enough for her.
She clamped her hands together, her eyes bright with excitement. “This will be fun.”
He was slightly afraid that he might think so.
She went to Sweet Pea’s first, bringing with her one of her lovely pink gowns. Clearly she would have to stop giving them to Sweet Pea at some point, or she would run out, but she said she had a few other pink ones she could spare, yet.
Dressed as Chic Smith, her ruined jacket from the night before mended and her blouse replaced, she really was quite convincing as a budding young criminal eager to impress the steadily successful Southside crime boss.
Jughead waited outside the Emporium in one of Charles’s old coats, like a true hand-me-down. It masked the newness of his tailored suit. A lit cigarette hung from the side of his lip and his hat, drawn low on his face, helped make him less distinct.
He tried to be discreet, watching Betty through the windows. It wasn’t easy. The glass was smudged with age and the junk heaped behind it only allowed him slivers to see through.
Betty looked small amidst the towering men inside. It made him a little nervous, and he had to keep reminding himself that she’d been doing this for years at this point, probably months of it by herself.
It took several minutes, but when she finally emerged, she began walking down the street, and without losing step, Jughead followed behind her, neither of them speaking. It was only after they turned a corner that she whirled around and spoke to him.
“I got the information,” she said, grinning. “Tall Boy’s at the docks, gambling. Sweet Pea said I couldn’t miss him--tall as a tree, he said.”
“And how long is Tall Boy going to be there, we think?”
“Good. We’ll have Moose take us to the docks.” They walked another block down, rounding another corner where the carriage, even in the shadows, was transformed into an old, rusty contraption, easily dismissed as junk.
In the Vice Quarter, the carriage’s appearance would not have mattered, but in the Southside, where luxury is regarded with suspicion, or worse, intention, it was best to be inconspicuous when one was stationary.
He could see the wonder in Betty’s eyes, taking in the changed appearance of the carriage.
She was thinking, trying to piece together how this was possible. As they got closer to the illusion, Moose’s Daemon, a green, reptilian creature, with the face and feet of an iguana, materialized on the roof and the carriage’s real appearance began to bleed through the disguise.
“I’ve only read about this,” Betty said, breathless with awe. “How Daemons can alter perceptions of reality. I’ve never seen it. It is fascinating to watch.”
“The Locked don’t see the Daemon,” Jughead explained. “No matter how close they get. It is merely a more localized manifestation of the Other Side. Even the Kin might not notice it at first from afar, unless they have the equipment to perceive it, but there’s no deceiving the Kin up close. Not all Kin are as skilled at it as Moose, however. It takes a great degree of practice and skill to execute it this way.”
“It is my one claim to fame,” Moose drawled from the driver’s seat.
Betty scoffed. “Nonsense. Your medical skills are just as commendable.”
Jughead could see Moose’s ears turning a bright red, but Moose, to his credit, graciously tipped his hat and said, “Thank you, Miss Cooper.”
It took all of Jughead’s willpower not to laugh and hoot as he opened the door for Betty. Moose was never so genteel with him, and he supposed that was to be expected. Moose wasn’t a particularly boastful person to begin with, but if Jughead had given him that same compliment, Moose would have come back with a, “Go on and stick your lobcock in a hole filled with alligators.” Because really, when they compliment one another, it was surely meant to be sarcastic.
Jughead had barely offered his hand to assist when Betty hopped right into the carriage with fluid grace.
She was much more nimble in trousers, naturally. No lace or bustle, petticoat or heels, hat or parasol--less to think about altogether. It surprised him not that she liked being Chic, both for comfort and functionality.
Although she still wears a corset under that thing.
He had wondered why on earth she would bother, at first, until he realized that a corset can work as well to keep things in as it does to shape one’s silhouette. With Betty, a corset was necessary to unshape what was, essentially, shapely.
Dear God, Jughead.
He sighed under his breath and tossed his cigarette to the ground before climbing in after her.
As the carriage moved, he noted the slight change in her mood, how she looked pensive and almost sad.
“Sometimes I think my Daemon will never make itself known to me,” she said, staring out the window. “And it isn’t a tragedy by any means, for Charles lived the remainder of his life without one, but am I still Kin? If I couldn’t use my Daemon, then I would just be Daemon Locked like everyone else.”
Jughead wasn’t learned in the intricacies of Daemon assignation and behavior--he wasn’t an Inker. It could be argued that questions like hers should be directed at people like Sabrina, whose lifelong occupations were about finding the Daemon within each of them and painting a picture of them on their bodies.
He remembered hearing Sabrina caution that Betty’s Daemon may never emerge at all, with her getting it so late, but Charles never seemed to doubt Betty’s Daemon, and perhaps because of that, Jughead didn’t doubt it either.
He also believed that if they were bound, then it was only a matter of time. The fates would not permit a Daemon being deprived of their Other.
The universe didn’t make soulmates, have them meet, and then keep them apart, did it? It seemed like a preposterous notion.
He conveniently ignored the tiny voice in his head that argued that it was still possible that Betty wasn’t his Other. That theory could be explored at another time.
“You won’t be Daemon Locked,” he said with clear conviction. “You got your Mark years late. It will emerge when it’s ready.”
“I always wondered about that. About why Charles waited for so long. I used to ask him why, but all he kept saying was that he was afraid the Kin would find me too soon, and that he wanted me to be ready before they did.” She fished out the pocket watch that brought them back together. “He never spoke of his excommunication to me, or why he thought it so ominous if the Kin knew about me. He just said he didn’t agree with their ways and they didn’t like him disagreeing with them. That if they found me--and he said it was only a matter of time, he wanted me to fully understand how the Imperium, in all its power, wasn’t always right.”
Jughead had wondered about those same things, living with the Kin where the Imperium presence loomed large and all-consuming.
They didn’t seem like a bad lot. They had their flaws and politics, just like any other society. They seemed far more forward thinking in many things, still antiquated in others, but Jughead preferred the ways of the Kin to the Locked, ten-fold.
Betty would thrive in Kin society. Most Peace Dealers were still men, but there have been a handful of women Peace Dealers in the Guild. Not now, but she wouldn’t be the first in history.
“Did he tell you more?” she asked. “He always told you more…”
He noted the hurt in her tone and he couldn’t help himself, reaching for her hand to soothe her. “Charles didn’t keep things like that from you. He didn’t discuss you with me as if we conspired to manage you, Betty. It was never like that. He always told me to take care of you, make sure you were safe, but we didn’t keep things from you. What I know of you is what you know. I myself tried to find answers about Charles’s excommunication from the Guild, but all records were sealed. It was as if Charles never existed with the Kin. Even then, I hardly think it has to do with your Daemon’s readiness to make itself known.”
She sighed, her hand squeezing back. “If I never know my Daemon, I’d be half of a whole. Less. ”
His jaw tightened and he determined that she must never feel this way. “You are never less. Our Daemons do not make us who we are. We are not made of them. They aren’t even really sentient, or we’d constantly be having conversations with them in our heads. They are only ever as sentient as we want them to be, as mirrors within--they are excellent for self-reflection, and they are the most powerful tool we have as Kin, but they are not us. When you start thinking that they define us, that’s when you get the Daemon Wraiths and Wraith Lords. At the very least, know that there are people in this realm that think the world of you, whether or not you have a Daemon to summon.”
Her grateful smile wrung his heart. She shouldn’t have to be grateful about being told she mattered, but when her smile turned mischievous, he knew he had succeeded in making her feel better.
“‘People in this realm’ would be--oh,” she pretended to think on it. “You. I’m afraid that’s just you.”
He scoffed and she laughed.
It was then the carriage came to a halt and Moose told them they were at the docks.
The docks were relatively more quiet than the teeming streets of the Southside. Most of the activity was centered around the gambling shacks further inland. There, small clusters of people sat around the light of a lamp and gambled with dice and cards. In the far end of the dock, there was a prize fight, and it was the noisiest group, but it still did not overpower the general silence.
Betty, with Jughead beside her in his smart clothes, gave his appearance a critical look.
Handsome though she thought he was, this was not the sort of place a well-kempt man like him should be. She remembered a time when he wasn’t so buttoned up, when his clothes were ill-fitting and worn. She didn’t wish his old life upon him, but at this very hour, she needed his rougher self to re-emerge.
“You look like dirt bounces right off your skin,” she remarked.
His brow arched as he tossed his top hat back in the car. “That did not sound like a compliment.”
She frowned. “It wasn’t. I’m afraid you will stand out. I’m afraid you’ll get robbed and we’d have to make a scene. You’re too pretty for the docks.”
Jughead’s sardonic grin was maddening. “I’ve never been called pretty by a lady before.”
She shot him a glare. “Who are you calling a lady?”
His soft chuckle was followed by a shake of his head. “You’re good at playing the part of Chic, but you don’t exactly fit in this place, either. You lack scurvy, for one.”
“The trick isn’t to blend, it’s to seem un-threatening. I lack mass and I look soft--that’s good enough for these sailors. You’re tall. And your healthy glow certainly makes up for your lankiness--”
He barked a laugh. “Healthy glow? How dare you? These eyebags are legendary, I’ll have you know.”
His amusement was clear, but she was serious. “You won’t pass, Jughead.”
He smirked and shrugged off his coat, scarf, and hat, throwing all of them back into the carriage. He ruffled his pristinely combed hair, loosened his blouse from his trousers, and unbuttoned his cuffs. “You forget that once, my father ruled these streets as the reigning Serpent King. Your fellow at the pawnshop--”
“He is not my fellow.”
“--probably used to answer to him, and would have eventually answered to me if Charles hadn’t plucked me out of that life and showed me a better way.” He began folding up his sleeves and undoing the buttons of his shirt. Betty thanked the stars that he stopped at two. His weapons holsters began to loosen as he unbuckled them, and when they fell away, he took one of the firearms and tucked it into the back of his pants, where he could hide it beneath his blouse.
Even under the dim lighting, Betty could see the metal-braced arm and his Mark peeking out of the base of his nape. She wondered again at the similarity of it with hers. Did it mean anything or nothing?
She was immediately distracted from her own thoughts when she took in Jughead’s overall appearance.
With Jughead so unfettered, he still didn’t look like a street urchin, but he had shed all traces of the gentleman he first appeared to be.
He held his arms out. “Better?”
The truth was that all this only served to make him look more tempting, but that was just her. She affected a neutral expression. “Now you look like a penniless poet.”
“That should take care of any fool ideas about robbing me.”
She scoffed. “Now the sailors are just likely to beat you for a lark.”
He waved her thinly veiled insult away. “They’ll take one look at you and change their minds.”
She rolled her eyes but failed to stifle her grin.
To Jughead’s credit, he valiantly pretended he hadn’t just won that last round of words. “And how do you propose finding Tall Boy?”
“By watching out for a tall person.”
His deadpan expression had her laughing softly. Jughead never did suffer fools.
“There’s plenty of alcohol to loosen lips in those gambling shacks,” Betty added. “We work the crowd well enough and we can ask about Tall Boy. He’ll be well-known in these parts, offering up his product to sailors.”
He nodded, satisfied by this plan. He reached into the carriage and pulled out another gun. “You need one of these.”
She eyed it briefly. She generally never needed a gun. She knew how to use several, with great skill, because Charles had made sure she was competent in all manner of weaponry, but bullets cost money and she didn’t want to be so lavish, especially after Charles died. Also, it seemed so unnecessarily fatal, when most of the people she encountered in the Southside couldn’t afford to carry such a weapon. She could easily handle their blunt force objects and knives without killing them.
But this time, in a dock full of sailors, she thought it prudent to accept his offer. Besides, the Guild was paying for the bullets. She took the gun, checked its chamber, and tucked it into the back of her pants, just like Jughead did.
He nodded. “Lead the way.”
She did, heading for the first shack where voices rang out rowdily over a game of dice.
Betty shouldered her way through the crowd, scanning the line of heads for anyone who might be particularly tall.
She could see Jughead getting cursory glances from the others, probably assessing if they could get him to cough up whatever earnings he made selling a painting or some ill-written play.
Jughead threw some money in the game and the others gave him approving looks before minding their own business.
Pulling her gaze from him, she began to entrench herself in the game herself, throwing a bit of money into the pot and cheering with the rest of the crowd.
Soon enough, Jughead addressed her from across the table as a fellow bettor and they started to work the crowd together. Their combined miseries as losers in the game managed to get the crowd rooting for them both two more rounds later and when she felt supportive pats on her shoulder, she knew they had won the crowd. She worked the conversation towards the pimp, Tall Boy and where they might have seen him.
Sailors surrounding her, amused no doubt by his presumably carnal pursuits, laughed and spoke candidly about Chic’s body parts that wanted to be in a lady’s body parts. She wondered, then if she ought to be mortified by these attentions, or whether she should laugh with all of them unabashed.
Jughead’s wide eyed glare prompted her to laugh with them, though only halfway succeeding, because she truly was embarrassed by the crass and loud mentions of lady parts and what everyone wanted to do with them--violently in some cases.
It was determined that Tall Boy had been seen walking towards the prize fights at the end of the docks, recently enough.
“He’ll likely still be there. It’s the end of the week. He’ll be betting on the fights as much as working,” said an accommodating sailor.
She thanked the stranger jovially and left the shack amidst loud, unapologetically crass sexual advice. Jughead caught up with her moments later.
“Sailors,” she muttered. She refused to complain with any further detail.
He took out a cigarette and stuck it between his lips, lighting it as he spoke. “I’m glad you think it’s just them.”
“I don’t. And are you not even going to ask me if I mind you smoking?”
“Why should I? By your own admission, you aren’t a lady.”
She was surprised to note that she wasn’t offended by that at all. “You were quite impressive in the gambling den. Absolutely no one was suspicious that we were working together.”
He looked genuinely surprised. “Is it any wonder that I knew how to fit in? Might I remind you that this was closer to my former life than yours will ever be.”
He was right, of course, but he always did seem surprised by her good opinion of him. “I always knew you to be a gentleman, Jughead, no matter how rough you were. It didn’t matter what you were wearing or what you were saying--you were always gentle with me.”
He said nothing at first, but with the cigarette hanging from his mouth, he grinned lopsidedly. “I was always my best with you, Betty.”
She didn’t quite know if she should consider that a compliment or the opposite of that. She wanted to inspire, but she wanted his true self, too, and she knew from life that meant knowing both the light in their hearts and the darkness of their souls.
As they walked through the dim boardwalks of the dock, she could see parts of his mark glowing.
“Would mine be glowing like that?” she asked him. “My mark, I mean?”
He arched an eyebrow at her. A scarf was wrapped around her neck, so he couldn’t see her mark, but he nodded without hesitation. “It would. When you need to be invisible in the dark, it will not glow. Your marks will respond to what you need.”
“The one on my arm never did.”
“That’s not a Mark. That’s a ward.”
She glanced briefly at her arm, knowing that the tattoo existed under the fabric of her shirt and coat. She had taken careful note of his words. “You can have more than one Mark?”
“So to speak. You can earn enhancements for your Daemon. It makes one’s Daemon more effective.”
“I wish I could meet my Daemon already,” she said quietly. “I feel… inadequate.”
“Don’t. That is a pointless emotion.”
Betty wondered if he had truly learned to classify emotions so--to label them pointless and useful, and whether he knew how to channel them in that manner.
They made their way to the end of the docks where the fighting was. Shirtless men and men in their undershirts were scattered around the makeshift arena. There were fighters waiting their turn and others already beaten and bloody. She wondered momentarily if Jughead would be so bold as to jump into the ring, just as a means to get into the crowd.
Her thoughts must have been transparent on her face, because he shot her a look and said, “Don’t even think it.”
She tried to look innocent. “I’ve said nothing!”
He shook his head. “You are better trained than them, but you don’t want that kind of attention here, trust me.”
She paused, surprised, and then impressed, that he would think her completely capable of throwing her own hat in the ring for a round.
“Although,” he continued, “these blokes are scrappy. Scrappier than you, I’d wager.”
“Oh, you’d wager?”
He glared at her, sensing the challenge in her tone. “Come on. Let’s see if we can scout the crowd.” He led this time, and she followed closely behind him, scanning the audience for a towering man.
She surveyed the crowd, contemplating the notion of yelling fire just to get everyone on their feet.
“If you’re thinking of yelling fire,” Jughead said behind her, “I think that’s a splendid idea.”
“How did you--”
“I suppose I know you more than we both realize, even after all these years.” He was taking stock of the enclosed space. “But we can’t yell fire when there isn’t one.”
She frowned, speaking without turning to face him. “If we set something on fire, we can burn this whole dock to the ground.”
“The appearance of fire will do. Stay here, stay alert, and keep your eyes open.”
He disappeared into the crowd, going deeper into the enclosed area.
She didn’t have a chance to complain, so she waited and watched, wishing that Jughead had taken another second to tell her his plan, but it became clear in soon enough when smoke began to billow out from within.
No one had to yell fire as everyone began to pour out into the docks without prompting. She imagined the losing bettors filed out faster than the winning ones. And sure enough, a tall man with long dirty-blonde hair and a scruffy beard stood out from the crowd.
Betty kept her eyes firmly on him, discreetly following him as he cleared out of the smoke-filled area like everyone else.
Before Betty could turn around to look for Jughead, he was coming up behind her, asking her if she’d seen Tall Boy.
“I think so,” she said, indicating the towering figure of a man moving away from the shack.
Betty and Jughead moved together, hastening to intercept him.
As he reached the inner docks, where the crowd was thinnest, he looked up from his pocket notepad and spotted them coming.
Tall Boy gave Betty a curious look, but as his eyes fell upon Jughead, an expression of alarm exploded from his face and he immediately turned and bolted.
“What in the world--” Betty hissed, springing to a run and going right after him. He was fast, but she was up for the sprint, her feet pounding on the boards beneath her. She didn’t know if Jughead was following right behind her, but she felt that he wasn’t far behind.
She kept her eyes on Tall Boy, and as he wove through the docks, he grabbed ahold of anything he could as he went, knocking it down behind him to hinder her path.
Betty was not deterred. She climbed fallen crates with the grace and agility that her brother told her was her best talent. She leap frogged over the obstacles Tall Boy left at his wake, and when he climbed a fence she saw him falter. She gained ground but he was over before she got to him. She climbed and leapt over that fence much faster than he did and she saw that he wasn’t that far off. She picked up the cover of a trash bin nearby, threw it like a disk, and caught him right at the back of the head.
He spilled on the ground, crying out and clutching the back of his head. The lid hadn’t been that solid, so he wouldn’t be knocked out, but he would have a nice lump.
“Nice shot!” Jughead suddenly said behind her. He had kept up, which she was glad for, but all that jumping, dodging, and running had put her in a somewhat foul mood.
She strode quickly over to Tall Boy. He was groaning and in obvious pain, but she felt no sympathy.
She grabbed his wrist and planted a foot on his spine, twisting his arm behind him and pushing it in an awkward angle. He was a large man, and if he had better control of his faculties, it would take a lot for her subdue him. Certainly at any moment, if he managed any manner of leverage, he could buck her off him and possibly injure her, but she had a good angle at the moment.
She spoke above his cries of pain. “Why were you running away, Tall Boy?” she asked. “I just wanted to speak to you. Now I think you’re guilty of something.” She twisted his arm even more.
He howled in pain. “What do you want from me?”
“I just needed to know where Laura lives,” she said, calmly. “You know--tall lady, brown hair, very attractive… kept woman.”
“Is that all, lad? Let me up and--” he screamed again as Betty cut off his lie with a bit of pressure.
“Oh, you’ve lost any sort of leverage when you ran away.”
Jughead lit another cigarette. “Why did you run away, Tall Boy?”
“You,” Tall Boy cried. “You’re FP’s boy! You’ve come back to kill me, I know! I can pay him what I owe him, I swear it. You don’t have to kill me for it. You Marked lot are all the same--”
“Marked lot? What do you know of it?”
Tall Boy twisted on the ground and his strength did overcome her grip and her weight. He bucked her off him, kicking her right on her solar plexus. It felt like a stone had been jammed against her body, even with her corset protecting her. The impact of his foot was amazingly intense.
She felt the air getting forced out of her just as pain blossomed from where his foot connected. She gasped and stumbled backwards, doubling over and heaving to get her breath back. She cursed under her breath, her street drawl coming far too naturally than her upbringing permitted. Her eyes felt hot with tears and she tried desperately to get her breathing back into its normal rhythm, but she grabbed hold of his wrist again, this time putting her hips into it, and twisted his arm harder. A tendon popped and Tall Boy screamed this time, sobbing momentarily at the pressure.
“Care to do that again?” Betty rasped, tightening the twist and pressing her knee to his spine.
“No! Please, my arm!”
Betty could feel her ribcage throbbing and she eyed Tall Boy’s boot. It was not the boots she so often saw among the Riverdale clothiers. His looked closer to what Jughead and Moose wore. Not quite as equipped as theirs, but it was Kin-made, reinforced by steel. It was no wonder his kick had her bowled over and breathless.
“Alright there?” Jughead asked from the side. She detected that hint of concern, that tension in the air that told her he wanted to jump in and help her, but he didn’t, and she appreciated it, but her ribs hurt.
She bit her lip, resisting the urge to admit the need for help, but it appeared she didn’t need to tell him that.
Jughead, cigarette still between his lips, laid his foot Tall Boy’s neck. “Let him go, Betts.”
She did, stepping aside to let Jughead take his turn while she let herself recover from the blow.
As she stood to the side, breathing through the soreness, Jughead pulled out his firearm and aimed it to the back of Tall Boy’s head. The sound of Jughead cocking his gun was probably loud so close to Tall Boy’s ear.
“I urge you to keep still, Tall Boy,” said Jughead, his polite request bellied by the threat in his tone. “What do you mean by marked lot?”
“I can see ‘em,” said Tall Boy, his face pressed to the ground. “Those tattoos of yours that you do magic with!”
She looked at Jughead questioningly and saw that he was frowning and pensive.
“He’s a Seer.,” Jughead said. “He’s Daemon Locked, but he can see our marks. Some of them can even see our Daemons. Can you see spirits, Tall Boy?”
“I can see ‘em all,” Tall Boy replied. “I can spot your lot in a crowd, easy, all tattooed up the way you are. Your father, FP, wasn’t shy about scaring the rest of us with it. Said he could send us to hell.”
She noted the tightening of Jughead’s jaw and knew that being recognized as FP’s son wasn’t all that extraordinary. Charles had mentioned that Jughead got all of FP’s looks. She hadn’t realized then that perhaps it was more than just a casual remark. Charles got most of his features from Alice, which meant that there was hardly anything Charles got from his father.
“We’ll talk about all that at another time.” She crouched down on the ground to be more on level with him. Her ribs pinched but she ignored it. “You haven’t answered my question about Laura.”
“She lives up in Hastings street--those newer buildings for them Vice Quarter business owners. They makin’ good money up there…”
“I have it on good authority,” Betty began in a frighteningly quiet tone, “that the ‘light’ is for good people. Pimps like you who abuse their girls… go someplace else.”
Tall Boy stared up at her without a word, but he paled visibly and swallowed.
Satisfied that she had put some fear in him, she stood to full height. “We can let him go now.”
Jughead laughed, softly, removing his foot from Tall Boy’s neck and putting his gun away.
Tall Boy scrambled to his feet and dealt Jughead a scornful look.
“Remember that I let you live,” Jughead told him.
The fierce scowl that twisted Tall Boy’s face committed to Betty’s memory. On any other day, he was not a man to be trifled with.
Finally, Tall Boy turned and left, hurrying down the alleyway and disappearing around the corner.
“Were you going to kill him?” Betty asked, surprising even herself at her casual tone.
Jughead scoffed, pausing just a second too long. “Of course not. Father never mentioned Tall Boy and even if he did, I never would have killed him for money. I’d like to think my convictions ran deeper than that.”
Betty did note the distinction of killing for money and killing for something else. Having immersed herself in Southside life the last few years, she understood the rules people lived by in its streets. “Do you really think he could see our marks?”
Jughead nodded. “Seers exist. We as Kin do not operate in a vacuum. We have people among the Locked, exerting influence where we might need them, usually in law enforcement and government leadership. We have brought Locked criminals to their constabulary. With enough proof, they can get convicted.”
Betty briefly wondered if she could get Governor Dooley’s wife arrested, but she had to remind herself that Laura did not need her to be brought to justice. She needed Mrs. Dooley to pay, and that was a different matter. “I don’t need the governor’s wife convicted. There is another way.”
“Is there? And what might that be?”
Betty shrugged one shoulder carefully, her ribs still hurting for her to do much else. “I’ve yet to determine that, but I will find the answers. I always do.”
“Your ribs are nagging you,” Jughead said as they sat in the carriage.
The gentle rocking of the coach was sending small waves of pain through her body, but she wasn’t quite ready to admit that. “Excuse me?”
“Your ribs. Let me see.”
Warmth bloomed from her collar. “I realize that I make a convincing boy, but I assure you, I have lady parts. I am not about to show them to you!”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Betty,” Jughead said, sternly. “It is only me.”
She refrained from explaining to him that was the very reason she had objections to the notion. “You realize that I must undo my corset--”
“That is usually the logical process, yes.”
“--while you bear witness!”
Jughead rolled his eyes. “Daemon Locked rules of etiquette. The Kin are not so limited by such rules. It is nothing I have not seen before.”
She pursed her lips in growing outrage. “I care not if you’ve been in a parade of naked women. You have not seen me naked and that makes all the difference in the world.”
“I am not asking you to strip naked,” Jughead said, pertly. “I just need to see where he kicked you. Would you be more comfortable if Moose looked at it?”
“No. I would rather not at all.”
He sighed but fell back on his seat. “I won’t compel you, and it is likely your corset is helping with the pain, but once you remove that, the pain will set in.”
She shot him a glare. “Let us get to Laura’s apartment, first. I will find what I need, and then we can go home, where I will reconsider your offer to examine my injuries.”
“If you broke something or cracked something--”
“It can wait until later.”
He sighed and let the argument fade into the steady sound of the horses’ cadence outside.
The thought of having to bear this discomfort for very long made her faint with anxiety, but she had a job to do just yet.
Laura told her there was something beneath the floorboard, under her bed. That was where she would look.
When they arrived at the Vice Quarter’s most distinguished apartelle, Jughead put himself back together and distracted the establishment’s doorman and concierge as Betty made her way into Laura’s flat.
It was a modestly sized place, well furnished, and very clean, with pieces of Laura making itself known in the bold decor, the books lining the shelves, the quaint paintings, and the vegetables and flowers rotting in their respective baskets. The silence blanketed Betty in melancholy.
Laura did not deserve her fate.
Betty went straight to Laura’s bedroom, getting on her hands and knees. Her ribs did protest, but she bit her lip and forged ahead, knocking on panels to find one that may be loose from its fittings.
It didn’t take long. She found the loose board and with her pocket knife, wedged the panel off. Within the cavern she spied a lovely tin box, flowers artfully painted on its body. She brought it into the light, lifting the lid and quickly sifting through the folded documents.
A quick glance told Betty everything she needed to know. The ownership of the flat was in Governor Dooley’s name, and even if Laura’s name was left out of the official documents, the apartelle and its surrounding community offered a plethora of witnesses, from the name on the pigeonhole at the lobby, to the doorman downstairs, to the nearby grocer and florist, the artist she spied down the street, and perhaps even the antique dealer the next block over.
This would be enough to make Governor Dooley’s wife pay.
She secured the entire box in her possession and headed back to the coach. When Jughead saw her, he bid the doorman goodbye.
As he joined her in the carriage, he asked, “Got what you came here for?”
She nodded. “Yes. I have everything I need.”
They were back in Charles’s study in due time, and Betty was once more on the couch, only now she was laid out, the pain in her ribs uncomfortable, at best. She was still in Chic’s clothes, but she had removed her corset. Her breasts remained bound behind some linens, but it was strange to be in clothes not her nightgown and have no corset beneath it. She felt naked, even with her modesty so clearly preserved.
Jughead pulled the ottoman and situated it beside her on the couch. He looked at her askance, clearly amused.
“You find this funny?” she snapped.
“Not nearly as much as you think. Your hair’s come undone. It ruins the entire Chic effect.”
She had barely noticed. Her braided blonde hair was now draped over her shoulder in complete disarray. Her hat was on the table, probably deposited there by Jughead.
She sighed. “I wish I could cut my hair short.”
“And cause a scandal?” he teased.
“Don’t tempt me.”
He chuckled, setting aside his own hat and gloves. She watched his hands, liking the nimbleness of his fingers. “I’m sure you’ve contemplated it multiple times. Scandal aside, I’d imagine it would make the business of playing Chic easier.”
She nodded. “Everytime I walk into Sweet Pea’s emporium, I am terrified that someone would snatch my hat off and out me as a woman. I believe I can fight my way out, but I don’t relish the danger of trying.”
“Sweet Pea is a dangerous man for anyone.”
She didn’t argue the point. “I needed him to buy my things so I can do what I do without driving mother and I into poverty.”
He paused for a few heartbeats. “You didn’t have to Peace Deal, Betty.”
She scoffed, softly. “You know better than that, Jughead. What we do--it’s a calling. I could no more give it up than I can breathing. It’s true--from a practical standpoint, I might have saved myself the trouble if I had just resigned myself to our situations and married like a proper lady…”
Jughead smirked. “Which you aren’t.”
She smirked right back. “A lady or proper?”
“It’s perfectly alright to be a lady, you know. I think you might admire the best ladies I know.”
She sighed and threw an arm over her tired eyes. “I’d be hard pressed to believe you. People expect things of ladies, of which I cannot possibly live up to. Balls, gowns, art, embroidery, musical instruments--I can pretend, just like I pretend to be Chic, but what a life that would be--to be in someone else’s skin all of the time. I may go mad.”
“My sister is a lady. And she’s an inventor.”
“So you’ve said.” Betty would like to meet Jellybean, if everything Jughead has said about her was true.
“She researches alternate sources of energy, so that we can use portable devices that don’t have to be tethered to a generator. That’s one of her projects, at least. She has many of them.” He shrugged. “She doesn’t like balls, either. She abhors them. She calls it a waste of potential energy.”
“She sounds like a fascinating woman.”
“You’ll meet her soon enough.” He gestured towards her, indicating the area of her injury. He was asking permission, and having resolved that she would rather it be Jughead, as opposed to Moose, or worse, Alice, she gave her permission for him to examine her.
Gingerly, he lifted her shirt, just enough for him to see her ribs.
He seemed intent on her injuries. “Badly bruised. I’ll wager you cracked something. It will heal by itself, and I can give you something to dull the pain and bring down the swelling in the meantime, but for your sake, I would make excuses about doing away with the corset for the next few days.”
She cursed under her breath. There was work yet to be done and she couldn’t do it without being properly dressed.
“For your mouth I recommend soap,” he said.
She frowned at him. “Oh, please. As if you’ve never.” She tugged her shirt down.
He chuckled. “I like a good swear on occasion, I admit.”
The door to the office opened and Moose walked in with a palm-sized canister and a bottle of what looked round pellets. He handed the canister and bottle to Jughead while shooting him a look of reproach.
“This is not my fault, you know,” Jughead told him. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Moose cast him a withering look before turning his attention back to Betty. “It would be nice to see you in perfect health for once, Ms. Cooper.”
“One could hope,” she said.
He left the room and Jughead began to uncap the canister. “Lift your shirt up again.”
She did, her cheeks still burning at the notion of showing him so much skin. He scooped a substance from the canister. It had thick consistency, and gently, Jughead rubbed it on her bruise. It felt immediately cool, and then soothing.
“It’s camphor, with lavender and St. John’s wort. It will help relieve the pain.”
In spite of her embarrassment, she could not help but give a sigh of relief. “That helps.”
He nodded. “And if it gets worse, you can take one of these pills. It will knock you unconscious, honestly, but it will speed up your recovery, and you heal fast enough as Kin.”
She closed her eyes, letting his light touch ease her pain. “I should have kicked Tall Boy right back.”
“He was wearing a steel boot--Guild issued. Don’t quite know where he got it, but our clothing has been known to get handed down to Seers like him. If you kicked him in the ribs, your blow would not have hurt him as much. Now if you kicked him where it could hurt a man the most…”
“Stop!” she gasped. “It is agony to laugh!”
Jughead grinned. “I am glad to know you have not lost your sense of humor.”
“My sense of humor is durable for the most part.”
“I see that. And all this trouble for what? Laura’s spirit? It’s a good thing she moved on, too. There was a real danger of corruption there, Betty. You can’t bring spirits home.”
Betty touched her finger to her chin. “Hmm, have we not had this conversation before? Have we not established that I--wonder of wonders--know what I am doing?”
He huffed, pulling her shirt back down and using his handkerchief to wipe his fingers of any excess compound. “There is absolutely no way we can determine what can push these spirits to corruption. They can be perfectly fine one day then completely lose themselves the next without provocation. Some exhibit symptoms, some do not. And sometimes, we only know they were symptoms in the first place after they’ve gone and hurt the living. We only know that terrible people corrupt the fastest. The worst of the living--we prioritize their collection. And when they run--and they almost always do--Peace Dealers are dispatched in groups. This is why we don’t make friends with random spirits. The worst will lie to you as badly in death as they did in life. Unless you get the full brief from the Reapers, you won’t know who they were, alive. The Reapers have their profiling down to a science, so their briefs are highly reliable.”
“Ghosts hardly know anything about themselves at the beginning,” Betty said.
“Not so much in the first 48 hours, but corrupted spirits learn quickly how to affect the living. They become more dangerous to the Locked the longer they are uncaught. The Locked call it a Haunting, and when spirits start haunting the Locked, the first thing they usually learn to manifest are sounds. Phantom footsteps, tapping on walls, disembodied voices--it should never get to that point, because it’s only a matter of time before they learn to to knock objects down, that’s when they begin to get very dangerous. They can escalate from pushing doors open to pushing objects onto your head to causing you to fall down the stairs.”
Betty recalled Laura moving a coin, and maybe she was on the verge of corruption, but she refrained from telling Jughead about that. There were many things she knew of spirits, how they behaved and the theories about their corruption, but there was little she knew of how Guilded Peace Dealers operate, and that she wanted to more of.
“There have been spirits known to reach into our bodies--disrupting our blood flow, putting pressure on our hearts and lungs, cause us to choke, make us sick of body or sick of mind…”
“And there’s possession, too. Nasty business, that.”
“That’s a full-blown catastrophe,” he said, seriously. “It should never get to that point.”
She knew all this from her studies, but she was yet to encounter true hauntings in Riverdale, where the spirits began to manifest themselves to the Locked. Riverdale was perhaps as Jughead said--a small town.”
“Have you encountered all such things?” she asked. “In the city?”
He was quiet for a moment. “I have. The city is vast and filled with wonders, but there are many, many lost souls--from the dead and the living, both.”
That was a curious turn of phrase. “Do you think I’d like it in the city?”
“Among the Kin? I think so.”
“Do you think it will like me?”
His smile was the softest she’d ever seen, and she realized that he was idly twirling a lock of her hair between his fingers. “Without a doubt.”
Chapter 5: Meeting of the Minds
I encourage you all to take a moment and read my tumblr post Credit and Inspiration. It is a long post, but I think you should all read it.
It talks about the published work Disenchanted & Co. by Lynn Viehl, and about how that work did not inspire this story, but it is also true that Viehl's work and mine exists at the same time. I have not read her story, but please feel free to check her story out.
Also, Philip Pullman's Daemons and mine are the same only in name, but I could honestly say that the seed of inspiration for my Daemons were planted by Pullman.
Betty had dreams of Jughead.
She’d had them in the past, and it was never the kind of dream that she would be embarrassed to tell anyone about. Her dreams of Jughead were visions of companionship, trust, sometimes adventure, and from her--longing. The latter was always the most emotional ones, where she would see him from a distance, call his name, and he wouldn’t hear her. Or he would be leaving on a train and she could do nothing but watch him go.
That last bit was perhaps more a memory than a vision, she had surmised.
The closest she and Jughead had ever come to intimacy in these dreams was when they held hands, and something so deeply warm and loving would overcome her. In these dreams, Jughead would be gazing so intently at her that she was half convinced that he loved her, too.
Dreams with Jughead always left her more emotionally exhausted waking from them.
The latest dream was like nothing she’d had of him before.
In this dream, she was kissing him, and since she’d never kissed anyone, she could only suppose that her imagination was wildly off-kilter. But however wrong the mechanics of it was, she felt warm in the most secret places inside of her, and when she found that she was naked as she kissed him, she didn’t feel quite as bothered as she probably should have been.
It was only after they separated in this dream that she realized she was not herself. The skin of her arms had turned a luminescent blue, and as she moved her shoulders, she saw that she had wings.
Jughead was smiling at her, clearly unbothered by her inhuman appearance, and then he said her name.
Jughead prided himself on his inclination to observe.
He was entirely aware of his social shortcomings--his inability, or rather refusal to engage in pointless smalltalk and his marked lack of desire to please strangers, idiots, and authorities. He never considered it his obligation to make awkward situations easier and smiling in a group setting was purely optional.
In lieu of engaging in contrived conversation, he preferred to watch, absorb, and analyse. It was how he coped at gatherings and parties.
There was a time when his means of coping at such well-mannered inanities fell upon Betty. Her familiar presence in such unfamiliar surroundings assured him of interesting conversation, the occasional bouts of mischief, and often periods of comfortable silence--infinitely better than suffering conversations about business holdings and real estate profits over brandy and tobacco.
It was during such occasions that he realized that Betty always had a mystery to solve, a spirit to follow into an attic--ghosts seemed to think her approachable in this regard.
It was incredibly unlikely that Betty would have a “reputation” in the spirit realm. Spirits simply did not think that way. Their memories were short and they were always distracted by their own emotional suffering, and even if they did remember things, they did not make friends with other ghosts and gossip with them. There simply wasn’t room in their phantom minds to make social connections . But he did believe that people exuded auras that spirits could read, and where Betty was concerned, she was probably more open to spirits than most.
Betty was eager to help. She was an enthusiastic investigator, and as much as he wanted to play the Voice of Reason, the one to remind her of the Rule of Boundaries, he could never say no to her. He enabled her. Indulged her, even. Because it pleased him to see her animated, dynamic, and driven.
So when Betty was quiet, when he could not see the wheels of intent spinning in her brilliant green eyes, he noticed, and it worried him ever so slightly, because for all of her eagerness to help others, she was just like him, refusing to be vulnerable to anyone else, and for him at least, that state of mind had driven him to dark and lonely places.
The rock of the carriage was soothing. Their pace leisurely. This was not Moose’s carriage. This was the Cooper carriage. It was making him lethargic but no matter how relaxed he was, he would always be aware of Betty and her moods.
“You seem quiet this morning,” he remarked, tracing her profile with his eyes. He noted how the bones of her face were defined in the light, her jaw a marked shade against the smooth plains of her slender neck. Her golden hair was pulled into a twisted chignon and the hat atop her head was more decorative than functional.
She shifted her gaze from the carriage window to him. “Do I? I suppose I’m a bit preoccupied. My ribs are much improved from the medicine you gave me, but I’m still rather sore.”
“Give it another day.” He briefly considered asking her about her corset, but he bit his lip, noting how the shape of her dress definitely indicated that she was wearing one. He shouldn’t be inserting her intimates in casual conversation, really. She was nineteen, most assuredly a lady even if she professed not to be one, and he was a grown man who was, in spite of being raised in the hovels of the Southside, not a barbarian. “Should your discomfort persist, I am an expert at making swift but somewhat socially acceptable excuses.”
“One can’t be too exacting in a pinch.”
Her soft chuckle pleased him. “Mother always insists on carrying on. Neither boredom nor exhaustion was a good excuse. ‘We shall rest in our graves, Elizabeth.’ Sometimes I think she forgets we are Kin.”
He was fully aware that she had deflected the conversation from her pensiveness, but she appeared to be settled, not agitated. He would follow her cues for now. “You know I was never in the business of pleasing strangers, Betty. My priorities have and always will be oriented towards those I hold dear.”
She smiled at him with an endearing tilt of her head. “I know, but I shall bear the discomfort for now. I need to have this conversation with the Governor’s wife. We will need some time to get our message across--in a private setting. Are you sure you are up to the task?”
He was. He did not relish the given task, for unlike his dearly departed partner, he did not enjoy flirting for sport, but it was a dance he was familiar with. Flirting requires a strong mind and he was confident he had that strength in spades. That, coupled with the Governor’s wife’s rumored propensity for daring young men--he could very well do this.
“I understand that you’ve not met my most charming self,” he said in the silkiest tone he could manage. “That is because for your sake, I stifle it, otherwise I will be devastating.”
Her laughter was extra abrasive and loud. She held her middle as she doubled over. “Oh, it still hurts to laugh! But that was splendid. And ridiculous.”
Her laughter brightened her eyes. Her vibrance had always fascinated him. “It is, isn’t it? I need practice seducing the wives of powerful men.”
She drummed her fingers against her chin, her eyes seemingly pondering his appearance. She reached over, loosening his cravat and undoing the top button of his shirt. The slight brush of her finger against the hollow of his throat sent an unexpected bolt of sensation down his body and he felt that the grin on his lips grew frozen with panic. “What are you doing?
“I don’t think you need practice,” she replied in a tone he’d never heard her use before. “You have all you need, Jughead Jones.”
Her words penetrated his bones and scattered his thoughts.
What are you doing, Betts?
The question shot through his mind unheeded.
And the fleeting answer that crept through unexpectedly left him speechless and confused. Nothing you don’t want me to do...
The gardens were in full bloom for the annual Festival of Flowers at the Dales. It was held at the Greendale Open Market, where fruit stalls and vegetable merchants made way for an array of spectacular flowers and foliage, beautiful arrangements that ranged from the fanciful to the phantasmagoric. Plumes and sprays of color were a feast for the eyes, and while everyone from the three dales were invited to attend, there was a “nominal” fee that was in truth prohibitive to most of the poorer communities.
Visitors to the exhibit tended to be middle to upper class, and while that was socially abhorrent, it served Betty’s purpose, which was to find the Governor’s wife, who was expected to be there between the hours of 10 and noon.
There would be people there who knew Betty, perhaps remembered Jughead, but Governor Dooley’s wife hardly orbited their social circle. Measures needed to be taken to isolate Mrs. Dooley amidst the jockeying for her social currency.
Betty’s conversation with the coachmen at the Great Lotus implied many things about Mrs. Dooley, half of which Betty dismissed as untrue. She didn’t believe, for instance, that Mrs. Dooley had an illicit affair with Malachi. She may have very well contracted him to kill Laura, even possibly through another conduit--through someone else who owed her a favor, or someone who cared more about her than themselves, but Mrs. Dooley, once Miss Geraldine Grundy before she married the esteemed Governor, didn’t strike Betty as a woman who would wade too deeply into the brackish waters of a Southside affair.
She liked her luxuries and she came from a well-connected family, known to be ruthless, even predatory politicians.
She liked surrounding herself with beautiful young men and women of a certain standing--moneyed enough to have something to lose. That Betty believed. There were no true rumors of long-term lovers, but talk of momentary dalliances filtered through the noise. Nothing prolonged, but decidedly intimate, and it was that information Betty hoped to exploit.
It was imperative to separate Mrs. Dooley from her favorite lady friends and isolate her long enough for Betty to have a discussion with her. It was Jughead’s task to take her away where they would be undisturbed.
Betty shifted her parasol as she walked between colorful and fanciful displays.
Her eyes stayed on the figure of Mrs. Dooley, glamorous and tall. Her skin was flawless and not a single hair was out of place. Her white dress was resplendent in its pureness, her hat elegant and jaunty at once. She was sixteen years Governor Dooley’s junior, which made Betty think she must have been a child when she was promised and wed to the governor.
“Hardly the image of a ruthless murderer,” Jughead whispered in her ear, his hands clasped behind his back as they affected a leisurely pace.
Betty smiled at a familiar face, nodding as they passed before she tilted her head slightly to address Jughead’s words. “Oh, she works hard at this image of Venus, I can tell.” She shifted her parasol and twirled it to cover her face momentarily. “I may very well summon her murderous tendencies if I am not careful.”
Jughead huffed, his tone low as he said, “I hope you realize that is a real danger.”
Betty nodded as she leaned over a spectacularly large flower and sniffed its perfume. “I do, which is why we have this plan. Follow it and trust me. Are you ready to do your part?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
She gave him one final look. His dark blue eyes and the flattering drop of curl over his forehead would most assuredly be her downfall at some future occasion, but the loosening of his cravat and collar gave him an appropriately rakish appeal that was sure to catch the devil in every woman’s soul.
“Go, then. I will see you in the Sweetheart’s Labyrinth.”
He nodded, his focus already on Mrs. Dooley.
Betty surreptitiously watched him go, her face hidden in the lace of her parasol. Jughead’s gait was deceptively casual, but even after years apart, she could read the cues of his body, the way his chin tilted a certain way, or how, from a certain angle, she could detect the tension in his shoulders.
His approach was slow and as he got closer to Mrs. Dooley, Betty hastened through the animal shaped hedges to get a closer view. She saw him lean over Mrs. Dooley’s shoulder.
Mrs. Dooley was distracted by an arrangement and hadn’t noticed him come up behind her. Whatever he said to her got her attention, which was followed by an amiable smile. His smile in response was elegantly restrained, and the way he looked at her stirred an unreasonable ache in Betty’s heart.
She had never seen Jughead flirt with other women before and she had no basis of comparison, but even she could decipher the message in his look. How many nights had Betty dreamed of Jughead looking at her that way? Mrs. Dooley was certainly not immune to it.
What was, at first, Jughead in pursuit, slowly transformed into Mrs. Dooley walking in step with him. Soon enough, Mrs. Dooley’s companions melted back, letting her and Jughead walk off on their own.
He has her.
Betty’s jealousy could not help but make her wonder where Jughead had practiced this particular set of skills.
With that quick reminder, she made her way to the Sweetheart’s Labyrinth, a section of the exhibit fashioned into a maze of hedges and flowers, with “secret” coves meant for lovers to get lost in.
She and Jughead had managed to scout a cove earlier, and it was the nearest cove to the entrance of the labyrinth. It stayed empty solely on the logic that sweethearts who wanted privacy did not want to be so easily found.
For Betty, it would serve their purpose all too well.
She hurried ahead of their more leisurely pace, and once within the labyrinth, she hastened to hide around the first bend, waiting for Jughead and Mrs. Dooley to enter.
Mrs. Dooley’s soft voice slowly drifted into the narrow pathways of green. “Mister Jones. I hope you don’t think I am that sort of lady.”
“Believe me when I say that you couldn’t possibly predict what I am thinking of you right this moment.” He said this with the right amount of honey in his tone, and Mrs. Dooley laughed softly, slapping his shoulder lightly with her fan.
“I assure you that there is nothing you can think of me that I don’t already know.”
“We shall test this theory,” he said, taking Mrs. Dooley’s hand and leading her towards the cove entryway.
They disappeared from Betty’s view and it was much harder to follow their conversation from her vantage point, but she quietly went to them, and when she walked through the entryway, Jughead was just settling Mrs. Dooley on one side of the plush loveseat.
“The conversation was riveting, Mrs. Dooley,” Jughead told her upon seeing Betty step through the cove. “But I’d imagine the next one you have will be far more engrossing.”
As Mrs. Dooley turned in her seat and saw Betty, she seemed only confused, and then hopeful. “Well aren’t you both quite lovely. I don’t mind at all if we were to be a trio for our bit of fun.”
Betty took the empty side of the love seat and folded her parasol closed. “You will. When I am done with you. You will mind a great deal.”
Mrs. Dooley’s eyebrow arched. She might already suspect that this wasn’t the dalliance she was hoping for. “I don’t understand. Who are you?”
Jughead reached into his coat pocket and handed Betty folded documents.
Betty thanked him quietly as she began to unfold it for Mrs. Dooley to see. “You may call me Elizabeth. What I have here is a deed, Mrs. Dooley, for a property in Hastings street, just slightly off the Vice Quarter, and it states that Governor Dooley owns it. If you look here, his signature is plain as day, and if you go to the city hall, you’ll find a copy of this deed. It is filed in the public record as we speak. It is a pretty piece of real estate, where one Laura Shaw lived and thrived.”
At the mention of Laura’s name, something in Mrs. Dooley’s eyes hardened. The pleasant demeanor she had for Jughead completely evaporated. “And what does all this have to do with me?”
“I think you know. Laura Shaw is--was your husband’s mistress and I know you had her murdered by Malachi--”
“I don’t know these names,” she said in a clipped tone.
“I think you do. And I don’t need you to admit that you do. Your purpose here is to listen. I cannot prove you murdered Laura in the eyes of the law, but what I can do is make you pay for what you’ve done.” She plucked a card from her sleeve, showing it to Mrs. Dooley. “This is the address of Laura’s family--she has a mother and baby brother. You will compensate them for the loss of a daughter and a sister who provided for them and their needs. You will deliver to them a considerable sum that could get them through the next five years, for that is what time you would have served if you were convicted of this crime, and you will do this in three days. If you fail, I will know, and I will deliver this deed to the papers and explain to them that Governor Dooley’s mistress lived in this property. The papers will no doubt have little problem finding witnesses to support this claim. Scandal is a terrible thing for Governor Dooley’s chances of staying in power, isn’t that right? It is, after all, why you had Laura killed in the first place.”
Mrs. Dooley’s face was a picture of cold calm, even as her jaw visibly clenched and unclenched. “This is extortion.”
Betty shrugged. “I do what I can. The public cares not for a dead prostitute, but a murdered mistress makes for some compelling reading material. Nobody has yet made the connection of the property’s ownership versus the woman who was allowed to live there, but it is easy enough to send the tip to the newspapers. And who knows? Laura’s murderer might yet come to light.”
Whatever delight Mrs. Dooley had for them minutes ago had faded into a cold, hard glare. She transferred her gaze between Betty and Jughead. “You both don’t know who you are dealing with.”
If there was anything Betty was fully aware of, it was this. Mrs. Dooley had hired someone to kill her husband’s mistress. She could do the same for them. They needed to put the fear of God in her.
“We know exactly who we are dealing with. It is you who needs educating on who we are.” She looked at Jughead and he nodded.
His Daemon immediately emerged, its wingspan overtaking the entire space of their cove. It jumped atop a hedge, a blue gargoyle with fathomless eyes.
Mrs. Dooley was seeing none of this. She hadn’t the sight, but it wasn’t the Daemon Betty and Jughead needed her to see.
“There are things in this world that you do not understand, Mrs. Dooley,” Betty began. “Things of a spectral nature, where death and life collide, where the un- dead speak from their graves.”
Jughead’s Daemon began to work his illusion. In the same way Moose’s Daemon can make the carriage look old and rusted, Jughead’s Daemon can make it seem like the healthy flowers and foliage around them were withering and dying. It was this illusion that Mrs. Dooley can see.
“How do you think I knew about Laura’s murder?” Betty continued as their cove turned black and brown, the brilliant colors wasting away before Mrs. Dooley’s very eyes. “How do you think I traced all this information when you were sure that nobody would know?”
Mrs. Dooley didn’t even look like she was paying attention to Betty’s words. Mrs. Dooley’s eyes were filled with horror, her jaw dropping in what could be a soundless scream. They shifted from one end of the cove to another, caught in a nightmare of hellish decay. “Good God!”
Betty leaned over. “There are people like us who govern the realms of the living and the dead, Mrs. Dooley, and if you so much as cross us, extortion will be the least of your worries.” She looked at Mrs. Dooley’s hand, and sure enough, the smooth skin began to wrinkle. Liver spots began to spread, and Mrs. Dooley breathed to scream.
Betty clamped a hand on her mouth, holding her arm with an iron grip to keep her in place. “You do what I ask, or we will come looking for you again, Mrs. Dooley. Nod yes if you understand.”
Mrs. Dooley, gone of all her elegant composure, vigorously nodded her head.
Betty tucked the card into the collar of Mrs. Dooley’s dress. “Three days, and I’ll know how much you send them. You’d best impress me, Mrs. Dooley.” Finally, she let Mrs. Dooley go and not a second too soon, she was up and running, almost tripping on her way out.
As soon as she was gone, Jughead let the illusion go and the Daemon disappeared back into his Mark.
They were surrounded by the health and beauty of the flowers once more and Betty was stifling a grin.
“Do you think we got through to her?” Jughead asked, smirking.
Betty laughed and stood, popping her parasol open and settling it on her shoulder. “That was excellent Daemon-craft, Mister Jones.”
He tipped his hat graciously. “Your performance was inspiring, to say the least,” he replied, taking her hand and hooking it over his arm. “Good work. And does this mean we can put the Case of the Murdered Mistress behind us?”
She nodded. “I’ve sent a missive to Laura’s family, and should Mrs. Dooley fail, they will let me know. So long as Mrs. Dooley pays, and I think she will, then yes. We can put this case to bed. And then we can focus on convincing mother to let me go to New York with you. I have a few ideas already--I can hire someone to pretend to be my chaperone--”
Jughead laughed, which forestalled her words. “You see, I knew you would think up something like that!”
She tried to frown. How dare he accused her or predictability, but he knew her so well, still, that she couldn’t help but forgive him this slight. “And do you have a better idea?”
“I do. Reason.”
Until now, she always held Jughead’s judgement in high regard. “Reason. Have you lost yours? Mother is particularly unreasonable on matters pertinent to my life and reputation. You know this.”
Perhaps sensing her agitation, he covered her hand with his and squeezed lightly. “There was only ever one person whose reasoning your mother heeded.”
“Charles.” It still hurt to say his name, especially when she felt his loss so keenly in times of need.
Jughead nodded. “Charles. And so it is he who must convince your mother.”
When Jughead opened Charle’s vault at the bank, he found, first and foremost, a carefully wrapped box, meant to get his attention. The card attached to it said, “To Jughead”.
Within the box were all the signed papers necessary to bequeath all of Charles’s holdings to him. It was, it seemed, an addendum to Charle’s vague will, outlining the details of the actual heir, Jughead Jones, brother by blood. It was a document meant only to be shown to the public should Jughead’s right to the inheritance get questioned. The main will, which dictates that the holder of the vault keys would inherit Charle’s estate, served as the required legal document, but Charles made sure that all contingencies were taken cared of.
Jughead cherished these documents not for their monetary value, but for the intent. Charles was willing to let the world know they were brothers, and Charles trusted that he would use these documents with care, thinking about how such a revelation would affect Alice.
To Jughead’s mind, it would affect Betty, as well, so he was willing to take the secret of Charles’s lineage to his own grave, but it was important--this proof that Charles saw him as a brother in every sense of the word.
Tucked within the legal papers was a letter from Charles, telling him that he was proud of what Jughead had become, that he was a man Charles was only too glad to entrust his estate and family to. In the letter, he said he believed that what Jughead learned in the academy could be a great complement to what Charles taught him.
"I keep faith, that you will carry with you everything I taught you, that you will uphold the old ways of the Kin, of the Peace Dealers that came before you."
Jughead held these words close to his heart, more so when Charles wrote of Betty, about how Charles entrusted Betty in his care.
“She is brilliant and I am proud of what she has and can become. Take good care of her, Forsythe. By the time you read this letter, I’ll not know what her goals and aspirations will be, but if you find that the Daemon Locked world in which she exists has grown too small for her, I am confident that you will do for her what is necessary and with her best interests in mind.”
The letter was dated soon after Jughead graduated from Stonewall.
Sometimes, Jughead wondered if Charles saw into some future, writing this letter knowing that he was going to pass early in life. But the Kin were not soothsayers. There was no literature to suggest that they ever were.
What Charles was--was deliberate.
Jughead thought perhaps that Charles’s forsaken state made him ponderous of his mortality, in the way life upheavals tended to, and because of this, he prepared for the worst. At the time of Charles’s death, his estate was perfectly administered and ready to be passed on.
So when it came to obtaining permission from Alice to bring Betty to New York with him, it was Charles’s unequivocal trust that empowered Jughead to convince her.
Now, as he and Betty sat in the parlor with Alice, he patted that letter tucked within the pocket of his coat.
Betty endeavored to pour tea for them all, delicately holding the pot and its cover. She promised to hold her tongue at Alice’s sharp rebukes, to respond only with reason and not anger.
Jughead could not conceive of the amount of restraint that would take, but he had to trust that Betty would be equal to the challenge.
“Mrs. Cooper,” he began, as Alice slowly uncovered the small pot of sugar. “I thought it best to revisit the matter of Betty coming to New York city with me.”
Alice cast him and Betty a sardonic smile. “In case I change my mind? My answer is still no.”
Jughead glanced at Betty, checking her temperature at this first test. She seemed calm, her breathing unchanged. He went went on. “I realize that the last time we spoke, I failed to present a compelling argument.”
Alice slowly began scooping several teaspoons of sugar into her cup and Jughead watched as the granules fell into the hot liquid in a seemingly endless stream. “Do you mean to say that you provided no reason for me to consider ruining my unmarried daughter’s reputation by running off with her rumored cousin, whom could very well be a scoundrel for all anyone knows, to that most disreputable of cities, New York? Without a chaperone? I might as well send her off on a one-way train ride to the ninth circle of hell .”
Betty’s eyes rolled, but she said nothing, picking up her own cup and sipping it.
“From a strictly literary perspective,” Jughead began, his eyes shifting between Betty’s non-reaction and the stirring of Alice’s spoon. “New York only goes so far as the eighth circle. It is decidedly patriotic and loyal to the union and therefore far from treacherous…”
Alice and Betty both glared at him.
“... but that is not heavily relevant to this conversation…” he added, awkwardly. “Mrs. Cooper, we all wish to preserve Betty’s good name. If a reason is required to staunch any unfounded rumors, we can simply say that Betty is going to Finishing School.”
Betty’s cup landed heavily on her saucer in outraged silence and Jughead shot her a pleadingly contrite look.
Alice huffed loudly but was decidedly less hostile to this suggestion than Betty was, and Jughead, considering this as momentum, hastily continued. “If that is at all necessary, but that is but a fraction of this matter--what Betty and I hope is to reintroduce Betty into Kin society, to her people, where she belongs. Where her gifts would be celebrated and not ridiculed. Where she could find her way through open opportunity and not spend her nights running in the Southside to fulfill her calling there.”
“I see,” Alice said, sipping her overly sweetened tea. “You want me to allow her to go to New York so that instead of just risking her life and safety at night, she can do so, too in the light of day.”
Jughead quickly attempted to assuage Betty’s well-justified exasperation by resting a hand on her shoulder. “Mrs. Cooper, Betty’s safety is my foremost priority.”
“I know what you Kin do over there,” Alice said through gritted teeth. “You lot pretend that you care about things other than chasing down wayward spirits and violent specters. For sure, the Kin have developed a society all their own, separate from that of the Daemon Locked, with culture and sciences and even a government to hold it all together, but at your core, the Kin regale Peace Dealers as heroes. Its society works around the supreme calling of sending rogue souls into the light. It is the Peace Dealers that acquire positions of power, it is the Peace Dealers who still hold the greatest sway. Of course Betty will thrive in that society! She is a natural at this. She was born for it. It is what she will do to her dying day, but you know how dangerous the occupation is. And for what? Wealth? Prestige?” She set her cup down. “There is nothing wrong with living a simple life!”
“There isn’t, but only if you aspire for such a life,” Jughead said. “And Betty’s life is more complicated now living two of them, where she is expected to be a dutiful daughter during the day, but lives an incredibly different life at night. How is she safer then? Working alone, without the Kin’s more modern implements to help her along?”
“What you want for me and what I want are two very different things, mother,” Betty interjected. “And this life you want for me will bring me nothing but misery.”
Jughead unfolded the letter Charles left him and showed it to Alice. “Charles knew this, keenly. He knew that Betty wasn’t going to stay here forever. And he asked that when Betty was ready, I should be there with her on her journey.”
For several seconds, Alice only stared at the letter, refusing to take it, but she did eventually take it and read it. As she read the letter, her eyes began to fill, and Jughead could only offer her a handkerchief, which she accepted, dabbing it against her eyes. When she was finished, she folded the letter before handing it back to Jughead.
She turned her gaze on Betty. “I lost Polly once upon a time, and then your father was lost at sea. With Charles passing, you are my only family left. I fear that so far away, my prayers for your safety will not reach.”
Betty sighed. “Mother, you were never so pious.”
“I dabble on occasion,” she replied, tearfully. “The dead go into the light. It isn’t beyond one’s imagination to suppose there is a higher power watching over us. The point remains, you are all I have and you are a reckless hooligan of a girl.”
“I am not reckless,” Betty protested, weakly.
Jughead understood Alice’s pain. Saw it better, perhaps, than Betty did. He was, in this mother-daughter viewpoint, from the outside looking in. “I will watch out for her, Mrs. Cooper. And unlike my journey, there is nothing to keep you both from seeing one another when you want to. At any rate, we can always sell this property and you can move to the city--”
“Bite your tongue, you scoundrel,” Alice hissed, and the fire in her eyes flared back to life. “This house will remain in my care for as long as you or your heirs wish to keep it, and you know that when it comes to what I want, I can be very persuasive.”
“Mother,” Betty said, holding both of Alice’s hands. “Please. Please let me go to New York. If I stay here, I shall go mad and be increasingly unmarriageable.”
“Will New York have eligible bachelors, you think?”
Jughead realized that the question was being directed at him, and truly, he had never given this possibility much thought. Not for Jellybean, not for Betty. “That is for Betty to decide, Mrs. Cooper.”
Alice sighed, shaking her head. “And I suppose that’s always been Elizabeth’s privilege--getting her way. Charles always did spoil you, dear. Jughead will do the same.”
Jughead frowned. “I don’t spoil her.”
“Oh, that is right. You and she are more cohorts than anything else.” Alice threw up her hands. “And I shall never hear the end of it if I don’t give you my permission. Worse, Betty will likely go to New York, anyway, my permission be damned.”
Betty bit her lip, stifling her grin of anticipation. It was sounding more likely that Alice was giving in. “Mother, I would never.”
“Oh, please spare me. You refused to heed Charles half the time, me even less. I might as well pretend I allowed you to do this. So yes, you may go to New York with Jughead.”
Betty gave a yelp of excitement, clapping her hands and getting to her feet. “Juggie, I am going to New York!”
He could not help the broadness of his smile. She looked so happy, with her brilliant green eyes so bright and her smile radiant with possibilities. Her hair bounced upon her shoulders and he realized, randomly, that he’d never seen it so long. “Thank you, Mrs. Cooper.”
“I must run off and pack,” Betty said, her gaze far away, her mind likely listing the things she would need. “I don’t have much time. We leave tomorrow, don’t we?”
Jughead nodded, fascinated by the way her mind can shift from celebratory to practical in seconds.
“I shall see you at dinner, then. Or perhaps tomorrow morning. There is a lot to be done.” She hastily thanked her mother before she flitted out of the room, closing the parlor doors as she went.
Jughead looked at those doors for several moments, smiling, before he turned his attention back to Alice.
He was startled by the intensity of her gaze. “Sorry. I should be going as wel--”
“She’s grown since you first left Riverdale, hasn’t she, Mister Jones?”
An inexplicable heat spread from his chest and up his neck. It was so distinct that he felt sweat prickle from his brow. “I hadn’t noticed, really.”
“Oh? Well, my daughter is many things, but a wallflower, she isn’t. She tries to be, but wealth and eligibility notwithstanding, the smarter ones do notice her. Too bad most of those were either not rich enough or were not brave enough to gainsay their own parents--parents who weren’t likely to be persuaded to let their sons marry a brilliant and beautiful, but dowry-less girl.”
He could feel his collar getting even hotter. “I don’t think about it, really, but I agree that Betty is brilliant… nice to look at, I suppose.”
He swallowed. “Mrs. Cooper, if an eligible bachelor presents himself, it is entirely for Betty to decide whether or not to entertain him.”
“But you’ll scrutinize them, won’t you?” Alice asked in a mild tone. “Make sure they are good enough for her. That is your responsibility now. Charles would have agreed. You know how some of these rakes operate. They know how to charm their way into a woman’s good opinion, and Betty fancies herself worldly and cynical, but her experience with rogues is minimal, at best. You’ll make sure she isn’t taken advantage of, won’t you?”
Jughead could feel his shoulders start to tense, his lips pursing at the very notion that Alice was asking him to gate-keep Betty’s future suitors. Betty would be furious if she found out that he had come to any kind of agreement with Alice behind her back. “I am not her father, Mrs. Cooper. I am not Charles.”
Alice laughed, softly, and waved his developing outrage away with her hand. “Oh, I am sure you are keenly aware that she isn’t your sister, Mister Jones. I am merely asking you to see to it that she does not fall for the wrong man. I am certain that even without my asking, you would do this anyway, but I want to make it clear that you have my full support. Do you understand, Mister Jones?”
Alice had never been so aggravating.
“If you’ll excuse me, Mrs. Cooper. I need to speak with my coachman.” He stood with little ceremony.
Alice seemed completely unbothered by this mild slight. “Of course. I will see you at dinner.”
Jughead nodded, and taking his hat with him, he made his way out of the room.
Betty, Jughead, and Moose left at noon. It was the earliest trip they could get on short notice.
They boarded the train as it whistled on the platform.
“You didn’t bring much, Miss,” Moose said, easily lifting her trunk onto the luggage car.
“I brought what I need, and I don’t need much,” Betty replied, casting her gaze over that familiar platform. She was momentarily brought back to those years when she watched Jughead pull away, her love unrequited.
“And should she have need of that which she does not have,” Jughead said, hauling his own luggage into the car. “We shall procure it.”
Betty gave a soft huff. “I don’t like depending on anyone, even you, Juggie, but I haven’t a choice, do I?”
“Save your resentment,” Jughead said in an exasperated tone. “Unlike the Daemon Locked, women of the Kin have opportunities to earn a reasonable income. Should you have need of anything, you would be as capable as any man to buy it yourself.”
Betty was as of yet incapable of fathoming that which has so far been denied her all her life: Independence. “Truly?”
Jughead cocked a smile and she saw in his eyes kind understanding instead of amusement. “Truly. But before you can seek gainful employment, you’ll need to rely on what Charles left for your keep for a little while longer.”
“Besides,” Moose said, grinning cheekily. “You’ll find that Jughead is painfully practical of his coin.”
Betty took stock of Moose’s words before she threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, Jughead.”
He frowned. “I am practical, period. Not painfully so. That’s the Southside in me. I am lavish with my coin if I find value in spending it, and these men who keep women with gold are likely compensating for something they have smaller amounts of.”
“Oh, ho ho!” Moose hooted. “Size jokes! In front of a lady, too.”
Betty could feel a flash of heat radiating from her collar, but she refused to seem so innocent. “Don’t hold back on account of me.”
Jughead grinned. “Moose, how dare you suggest Betty’s sensibilities so delicate.” He offered his arm to her and Betty took it.
She liked the way he smiled at her, enjoyed how she felt seen not only when he spoke to her but when he spoke of her.
“It’s a long way to New York City,” Moose pointed out, tucking his hat over his head as he came up behind them. “I may offend you yet, Miss Cooper.”
Betty grinned. “I’d like to see you try.”
“I wouldn’t,” Jughead said, after which he directed his gaze at Moose. “Seriously, Marmaduke. I wouldn’t.”
“Don’t you worry, Jones. I wouldn’t dream of offending your lady on purpose.”
His tone had changed, all jest gone. The train’s whistle blew and crowds hurried to get on board. Jughead’s grip tightened on her hand as he ushered her up the steps and through the car, right to their assigned compartment. It was a well-ordered bustle, with the conductors pointing and leading the way.
Betty was yet to absorb the extraordinary fact that she was on a train, leaving Riverdale behind. She had never been on a train before.
“I’ve never gone anywhere else,” Betty said, more to herself than to her train companions as she settled into a seat. “I’ve never left Riverdale.”
As she looked up at them, she surmised that there must have been something arresting in her eyes, because Jughead and Moose looked at one another and by some wordless communication, seemed to have come to a quick agreement.
“I’m off to look for the concession cart. I need a snack and can’t wait for it,” Moose said. “I’ll be back shortly.” He tipped his hat and hurried out.
As soon as their compartment door closed behind Moose, Jughead settled beside her.
His eyes were the bluest she’d ever seen them, and she didn’t quite know what she was feeling at the moment, overwhelmed as she was by this strangely significant transition of breaking the town border of Riverdale with this train.
“I’ve been held back all my life, Jughead,” she said, letting the words pour from her lips. “And now that I find myself on the precipice of an entirely new world, a world where you tell me that the restraints that previously limited me would be undone, I realized that I am not sure I would know what to do with it--that freedom. I’ve never had it before.”
He took both her hands in his. “That’s not true, you know--that you’ve never had that freedom. Freedom seldom comes without a struggle. Each night you put on your disguise-- any disguise, you take a little piece of freedom to do with as you deem fit. You’ve had practice.” He pushed back some hair that had come loose from her ponytail. “In New York, you will have it in abundance, yes, but Charles prepared you well, just as he prepared me. And you won’t be alone. You’ll always have me to turn to.”
The anxiety that sat tight in her belly loosened just enough for her to breathe. She laughed, softly. “Until I learn my own way. I won’t be a burden to you for long.”
“You are not and never will be a burden to me, Betty.” He chuckled, rising to make himself more comfortable in the car and putting away their carry ons. “I’d sooner be your burden. Charles tasked me with your safety, and you’ll find that I’ll be very difficult to be rid of on account of it. You, Elizabeth Cooper, are quite stuck with me.”
She started loosening the ties of her hat as well. “In that case, it seems we’re stuck with each other. You’ll be quite tired of me before you know it. I don’t like balls or parties, if you recall. I’d much rather stay home--or skulk through the Southside, as you know.”
“Good. I’d much rather stay home as well, perhaps even more so than you, as I find so little joy in chasing down pimps, scoundrels, and murderers late at night.”
“Lying does not become you. You enjoy a good investigation as much as I do.”
He said nothing but his grin said everything.
The door slid open and Moose sauntered in. “I heard that. You both need to learn that investigating is no one’s idea of a lark. Live with the living, as it says upon Stonewall’s crest.”
She recognized the wisdom in Moose’s advice, and even she knew that spending too much time with the dead and their unresolved pasts was detrimental to one’s health and well-being, but she also recognized that she preferred a very select number of living people.
Betty locked eyes with Jughead and his soft smirk was reassuring. Moose meant well, but he didn’t know them like they did, each other.
Grand Central Terminal was nothing like anything Betty had ever seen. Wrought iron railings spanned the train platforms, symbolic gates to a city for the masses that crossed them from everywhere else. The spacious tunnels that herded thousands of passengers was a sea of bodies that Betty felt she had to fight against. People walked past her in a hurry, dodging her as they went, like she were a jutting rock shaping the tide.
She attempted to help Moose take their luggage from the platform to their cart, but Jughead requested that she hold his hat while he helped Moose himself. She shot him a glare and he shrugged contritely, though she suspected he wasn’t sorry at all for foiling her attempts at being useful.
When their luggage cart was loaded, Moose said something in Jughead’s ear and began to push their luggage in a different direction, maneuvering through the crowds. Before Betty could ask Jughead where Moose was going, Jughead was hooking her hand through his arm, and they joined the tide of people together.
As they emerged into the central station, Betty found her jaw dropping at the spectacularly vaulted ceilings, story-high beveled glass windows, and sculpted masonry. The gas lamps were lit to full brightness and the train schedules, displayed on Solari boards, energetically shifted its tiles. Lines formed at the various ticketing windows amidst the constant ebb and flow of passengers to and from the train gates.
Even the people waiting for their trains to board hardly stood still.
Betty practically felt the air crackling with energy.
They descended the steps, crossed the wide open floor, and then climbed another set of stairs.
Betty did not understand why they descended steps only to climb them again, but they weren’t the only ones doing it and she kept her questions to herself, absorbing everything that was happening.
The ceilings lowered, but the walkway was still vast, and at the end of it were a row of doors, cast iron and plated in glass. At the far end of the row was a single gilded revolving gate, which fewer people used, perhaps even deliberately avoided, just to use the door next to it.
It was this door that Jughead ushered her through, and as soon as she stepped into its revolving panels, she felt herself walk through a veil, and when she came out the other side, the wonder that was New York City left her breathless with wonder.
The first thing she noticed were the trains zooming by overhead in impossible structures--railways built high above the streets, above the traffic of people and carriages. Craning her neck, she stared at buildings built higher than she’d ever seen, lit like giant beacons against the moonlit sky. Atop these tall buildings, she could spy great vessels afloat, held aloft by giant balloons, beams of light streaming from their noses.
As her eyes swerved to street level, her eyes were drawn to a self-propelled vehicle that zipped by between horse-drawn carriages and large train cars attached to overhead cables.
But more astounding than all these technological marvels were the Daemons, so many of them walking and working in plain sight with their wielders, doing a myriad of tasks that helped and enhanced the work.
Betty turned one way and then another, her mind firing at every single sight and sound, unfamiliar and incredible.
In the distance, she spied a building higher than all the rest, with several ballooned vessels circling it. Amidst the balloons were tinier contraptions held aloft by some aerial force. The tower sitting atop it glowed varying shades of color, a never ending shifting of lights against the night sky. Judging by the size of the balloons, she estimated that the tower itself must be massive.
“That is the Menhir,” Jughead said behind her, gesturing to the tower. “The source of all energy in New Kin city. Every wonder you see here--the trains, the cable cars, the lights, the radio waves, and telegraphs, sources its energy from that tower.”
Betty could not fathom that amount of raw power. “What are those big balloons flying around it?”
“Dirigibles. They guard the tower from aerial threats of all kinds.”
“And the little things zipping about?”
“Ezekials,” said Jughead, his grin wide as he stared at the tower with her. “They are clever little airships, single manned, and much more agile than its slower, more powerful cousins.”
Betty looked around her, turning in place as her eyes scanned the city from her vantage point. “And the Daemon Locked never accidentally come through the doors?”
The corners of Jughead’s lips bowed downward for a moment. “Rarely. The Daemon Locked aren’t even supposed to see the Doors. It its place, they should see a wall. We have these portals in all ports of entry--advantage of being on an island, but when the Daemon Locked don’t pay attention, they might fall through the cracks. They are promptly ushered out and are likely to explain away what they’ve seen to themselves. Seers have been known to stumble through these doors, as well, but while Seers are relatively more common, very rarely do they actually see and stumble through our portals. Here, we thrive and live our Kin lives to the full extent of our existence.”
Betty took in this new world, breathing in the inexplicable street smells mixed with the scent of the more familiar--horse sweat, wood fire, sewer water, and grease.
A horseless carriage car pulled up on the curb, its body sleeker and shinier than any carriage she’d ever seen. On the door was a crest, emblazoned with a dragon holding up a coat of arms, with a profile of a woman on one side holding a watch and the grim reaper, holding his scythe and sand clock on the other. They stood back to back on the crest, separated by the words Noli Timere Mortis, Do not fear death.
Betty stared at it, confounded by its function.
When Jughead opened a door, she could only assume she was expected to step into it.
Gathering her skirts, she entered the vehicle. Jughead followed right behind her, settling on the opposite seat, much like a carriage, but more enclosed, quieter and with some internal lighting.
Jughead slid open the window behind him. “Thank you, Moose. Everything squared with customs?”
“They weren’t keen on the cigars, but it was nothing I couldn’t bribe them for.”
Jughead nodded, his expression one of infinite forbearance. “Very good. Let us contribute to moral decay in little ways.”
“Don’t ask me for any cigars when your supplies run short.” Moose slid the window shut before Jughead could say anything else.
Betty bit her lip to stifle her grin. She watched Jughead lean back on his seat, the tension from his shoulders melting away. His eyes closed for a moment, and she would wager that if there was no one there to see him, Jughead would be smiling with relief.
This place was home to him. Here, he was not other.
It made her a little sad to realize that her house at Elm had ceased to be that for him because he was prevented from being there, but she was twice as glad to see that he found belonging here.
As for her, she was still taking this wondrous world in. She had so many questions, such as: How did these vessels move on their own? How were there lights without a fire? What sort of jobs did women in this world keep?
But she did not want to pester him with these questions. Not yet.
She watched the marvels of this world pass them by, and while the streets and sidewalks never grew empty, they did grow less crowded, until they were turning on a street amidst a row of houses, not quite as vast or acred like her house at Elm, but impressively sized for the more compact homes that appeared to be common in the city.
They rolled into the carriageway of No. 12 on 86th street, between 2nd and 1st avenue. It was much quieter here, where houses were lined up along the road. As Betty was helped out of the vehicle, she couldn’t help but touch its glossy exterior, staring at this marvel of a contraption.
“What is this called?”
It was Moose, helping unload her luggage, who replied. “It has many names as of yet. Not many have one of these beauties. They are most commonly referred to as autocarriages. The engineers call it an autoactuator.”
“Auto- mobilis is my favored name,” Jughead said, assisting Moose unload Betty’s trunk.
Moose scoffed. “Latin. How boring. It will never catch on.”
Betty felt drawn to this piece of machinery, fascinated by its speed and power. She wanted to examine it more closely. “Auto-mobilis has a nice ring to it, I think. I would like to see what is inside it at another time, may I? Or is that too forward of me?”
“Not at all!” Moose cried.
Jughead sighed. “Now you’ve done it.”
“Pay no attention to this philistine, Miss Cooper,” Moose said, dropping his end of the trunk and completely ignoring Jughead’s glare. “Weaker minds see not the art in the machinery. It would be my honor to show you the belly of this beast. When so ever you find yourself available, do send a missive and I shall be along promptly to show you what this autoactuator can do--how fast it can go, how far, how quickly it accelerates--”
“Sounds fascinating,” Jughead grumbled.
Moose stepped right in front of Jughead, completely blocking him from Betty’s view. “You look like an individual who can appreciate the mathematics and science of a finely designed machine, Miss Cooper. It is because your brain has the capacity to understand such details.”
Betty tried her hardest not to laugh. “Ah, yes, of course. My brain.”
“Unlike some people, whose brains have no capacity for such disciplines.”
“There it is,” Jughead interjected from behind him.
Betty patted Moose’s shoulder. “I will let you know, Mister Mason. I really am interested in this machine and would be delighted to have someone with abundant knowledge of it to show me through its gears and cogs.”
“That’s right. Abundant knowledge,” Moose said, nodding and throwing Jughead a pointed look.
Jughead rolled his eyes.
Perhaps satisfied that he had made his point, Moose said his goodbyes as he secured the doors of the vehicle and stepped back into the driver’s seat.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Jughead.”
Jughead waved and Moose was off.
They watched him go before Jughead prompted them to head into the house.
When Betty turned towards the front door, she was surprised to find a young gentleman, looking towards the distance as well. He was a handsome man, with thick brown hair and chiselled features. He was dressed for sleep, with a luxuriantly patterned robe over his white nightgown.
“Hello,” Betty said, her instinct to be polite taking over.
The man smiled at her, even if she could tell that his eyes were still droopy from sleep. “Miss Cooper, I presume? You must excuse my appearance. I would have been better prepared if young master Jones here had the decency to warn me of your arrival at this very late hour.”
Before Betty could decide whether she should tell him his appearance did not bother her or whether she should apologize, Jughead sighed.
“I am sorry, Kevin, but I was hoping not to disturb you.”
“Nothing in this house happens without my knowledge, Forsythe,” Kevin said in a tight tone. “How many times must I tell you this? My beauty sleep means nothing if I am awakened unprepared for guests.” He took the other end of Betty’s trunk and together they carried her things as they lumbered through the doors.
“It’s almost eleven. You needn’t prepare for anything as we just want to settle in our rooms--”
“Precisely. I could have made up her room, put on a fire, scented and turned down her bed, readied some tea, a nice infusion--perhaps even get a bath going. I’ve no idea where you’ve been so she might want a relaxing dip in the tub. I swear, Forsythe, you’ve no idea how to treat a lady.”
Betty nibbled at her lip anxiously. “I would be perfectly happy with just a bed, Mister...”
“Betty, this is Kevin Keller,” Jughead said, “Our very brilliant and enigmatic butler. Kevin, this is Betty Cooper. You’ve heard me speak of her?”
Kevin scowled. “Don’t make fun of me. This household would be in complete disarray without my expert management. I am honored to meet you, Miss Cooper. I have heard nothing but good things about you and none of this is your fault. Honestly, this is my fault--for trusting young master Forsythe.”
Jughead groaned. “Oh, please.”
“Fortunately,” Kevin continued. “Your room is ready at its most basic--has been since yesterday. The sheets are new and the pillows are fresh. Aired it several times, too, and the furniture’s been dusted--it’s what happens when I’m told ahead of time that we are expecting someone. But it would have been perfect, like I said, if I’d had advanced warning of your actual arrival.”
“I’m sure it’ll be perfect as it is, Mister Keller,” Betty said. “Jughead has had many things on his mind the last few days. Administrative matters make little room for anything else, as you probably know. We’re old friends, he and I. He might have mentioned it. He took up where my brother, God rest his soul, left us too soon. Jughead has been such a comfort in my grief. Much of his time has been dedicated to that.”
He cast Jughead a withering glance. “He is lucky you speak so well of him, Miss Cooper. If you’ll give Forsythe and I a moment to put your trunk in your room, it would be a great favor if you sit in the receiving room for a moment. Forsythe will rejoin you once your luggage is in place.”
Jughead cast her an exasperated look, but he said nothing as he helped Kevin load the trunks into a dolly.
Betty fled into the receiving room, where she found herself drawn to the room’s decor.
The furniture was tasteful, but certainly more masculine than the feminine touches found in the Cooper household. Whereas many of the Cooper fabrics were lighter in shade, perhaps with the occasional floral pattern, the Jones household was awash in dark shades, from fabric to oak. The furniture was sparse with embellishment, with tall shelves lining its walls. It was not a large room, but it had high ceilings and long windows. Each area was functional, with a tea area to receive guests, a small conference table to one side, and a sitting area to warm around the fireplace.
Photographs decorated the walls--not of people, which was incredibly unusual, but images of busy tableaus--distinctly Kin with the surrounding technology and landscapes, and then there were photographs of strange but wondrous contraptions. It fascinated her, that Photography would be used for something other than capturing the dead pretending to be alive.
These images preserved something other than those who passed. And there was artistry to the images, as well.
Betty whirled at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, and her gaze fell on an older man, the spitting image of Jughead were it not for this man’s facial hair. He was not in his sleep clothes, but he seemed comfortably dressed in pants, a blouse with folded sleeves, and a vest. If she wasn’t mistaken, this was Forsythe Pendleton, Sr.--FP, as her mother called him. “Mister Jones?”
He nodded, a small smile on his lips. “Miss Cooper. I am glad to see that you and Jughead made it in safely.”
“I am sorry we came in so late--”
He waved her apology away. “Please. You have no influence over the train schedules. Where is Forsythe?”
“Oh, he and Kevin brought my things up to the guest room.”
“To your room,” FP said. “You are not a guest, Miss Cooper. You are family.”
Betty did not expect the emotions that came over her at that statement. She remembered, then, that this was Charles’s father. “In that case, please call me Betty.”
“Betty. I was glad to hear from Jughead that you were joining us in the city.” He sat on one of the sofa chairs and she made a motion to join him, but he stopped her. “Don’t sit on account of me. You were interested in the photographs? Please feel free to keep looking. Goodness knows, they are far more interesting than I will ever be.”
This was an FP she never conceived of speaking to. Any mention of FP in the past from Jughead had been one of scorn and anger. He never had a single good thing to say about his father, but this man was mild and accommodating. And to be fair, Jughead had said nothing untoward about him since Jughead showed up in Riverdale. People can change. “I’m sure that’s not true. The Joneses will be as much of a discovery to me as the world of the Kin. As you know--Riverdale is a much smaller town than this.”
FP shrugged. “I was drunk most of the time I was there. An entire world could have passed me by and I would not have noticed.”
Betty wasn’t sure she should say anything in response to that.
“I apologize,” FP hastily added, sighing. “I forget that I cannot joke about these matters to just anyone. And I was trying to work my way into a serious conversation. I suppose I was trying to get to the fact that I could have done better for my children--Jughead, Jellybean, and Charles. I am just grateful Charles was spared of me. I am sorry for your loss, Betty.”
She swallowed the tightening in her throat. “It is your loss, too.”
He made a soft sound. “My loss comes from regret, not true grief. I barely knew Jughead then, much less Charles. I cannot wish to completely redo the past, for if I had done right by your mother, Jughead and Jellybean--even you might never have existed, but I could have taken the time to know Charles when he made himself present for Jughead. I was a different man then--nothing to be proud of. Charles saved his brother, and their mother saved all of us. I can only repay Charles for what he did for Jughead by helping you find your own way. You have my full support, Betty. I promise you that.”
Betty hadn’t quite absorbed the possibilities of this new world, much less her own place in it, but she appreciated FP speaking to her this way, offering what he can even when he couldn’t possibly know what she needed.
The sound of Jughead and Kevin’s voices carried from the other hallway, their footfalls steady. When Jughead appeared at the door, he was alone. His gaze fell upon FP. “Father. I did not expect you to be up and about.”
“I thought it appropriate to extend a warm welcome to Betty. I am glad she is here. I trust her room is ready to receive her.”
Jughead nodded. “Kevin made what final touches he could. I expect that Betty will be retiring soon. Did you want me to bring up some tea to settle you after I escort Betty to her room?”
Betty could have assumed that this was how Jughead politely dismissed his father, but she could see the earnestness in Jughead’s gaze and the appreciation in FP’s. This was Jughead, a true gentleman at twenty and four, mindful of her while promising his father a few minutes to talk.
FP lightly waved his words away. “I am set to retire, myself. I just wanted to see you both settled. Take care of Betty and we’ll talk in the morning, you and I. Betty, it was a pleasure to see you again… pleasure to finally talk to you.”
“And I you, Mister Jones.”
FP left, patting Jughead’s shoulder as he left.
She did not want to talk about FP when he wasn’t in the room, and she wasn’t quite sure about Jughead’s feelings about his father, as of yet, so she diverted to the photographs on the walls. “These are fascinating images. Lovely perspective.”
“Thank you. I took them.”
She hadn’t expected that. “With a camera?”
He grinned. “That is usually the way photographs are taken.”
A brief heat seared from her collar. “Of course. I suppose I never quite thought of you as the type. Photography is such an unlikely medium for art…”
Jughead nodded, staring at one of an empty street, angled to frame the moon in the sky with building structures. “Naturally, my first introduction to photography had to do with the dead. It was a booming business in the Southside. Subjects were often young--taken from their families too soon. It was tragic, but also kind. The photographer was a sensitive man, mindful of the loss of the subject’s families, and he didn’t charge much. Just enough for him to live by. He told me he often used his equipment to capture beautiful things, too, in his free time. I thought that a lovely idea. When I came to New York, the Kin introduced me to equipment that captured images faster. Photography is a hobby for me and we hung some of my captures throughout the house.”
“They are fascinating. You must tell me about each one sometime.”
He looked pleased by the suggestion. “Sometime. Let me show you to your room. I’m sure you’re exhausted.”
She wasn’t bone tired. There wasn’t much they could do on the train except sit and snooze so she felt aptly rested. Her mind was alive with questions, and normally, she would be quite active at this hour, doing work in the Southside. He was probably more exhausted that she was. She could imagine that keeping her entertained was trying for him. Jughead had never been an incredibly social person. He needed time alone to replenish his energies, and he hadn’t had that time today, and getting back to the city--she could imagine that his body started shutting down the moment they got into the auto-mobilis, because all the sights and sounds that fascinated her was not new to him. For him, all of it was ordinary and not at all stimulating.
As he led her up to the third floor landing, she made plans to read by the fire. She had a book which she was yet to finish.
When they reached her door, Jughead smirked. “You aren’t tired, are you?”
Was there some spring to her step that he had observed? Had she grown predictable so quickly?
“You’re usually out of the house at this hour, that’s all,” Jughead added, perhaps in response to her look of surprise. “And our train ride offered nothing on the matter of vigorous activity.”
It occurred to her that he might suspect that she would sneak out. He had good reason to be suspicious since she was terrible at heeding anyone’s words of caution. “I am not sneaking out, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
He laughed, mildly. “I didn’t think that at all, I promise. Planning to read a book, perhaps?”
That settled it. She’d grown boringly predictable.
“Betts,” he said, the touch of his hand on her arm gentle. “I don’t think even death can make you predictable.”
She wondered then if he had read her thoughts. They had always been attuned to one another, having an astute instinct for each other’s requirements, but lately she’d been astounded by the accuracy of their intuition for each other, mostly because they had been separated for years. One would think that would have diminished their bond, and yet they’d been hyper-sensitive of each other’s thoughts and feelings since he returned. Uncannily so.
“I’ll give you a few minutes to settle in,” he said, opening her door for her. “Then I’ll join you by the fire. You and I have a lot to talk about.”
Chapter 6: New York, New Kin
Sit back and take in this 16,000+ word chapter.
Also, if you're wondering what Betty's dress will look like when she heads out in the city, it looks like this.
There was a saying: Hearts whither. Souls are forever.
If there ever was a bond stronger than love, it was the meeting of two souls meant to be one. Love was fickle, and one had to build on it to make it strong, to keep it strong. It was a living thing that needed tending to or it would weaken and die.
Soul pairs—soul mates , were fated to be one. It was how their souls began and it is how they would seek to keep existing, and once met, they were bonded forever, matter fused together and never torn apart. Neither love nor mortality mattered. The challenge, unlike love, was in tempering it.
It was so for the Daemon Bound.
Romantic love was not a prerequisite. It mattered, not at all, to the Bound.
Half the tales of the Bound did not speak of romantic partnerships, and Jughead always wondered about that. How did one explain to one’s significant other that they weren’t the most important person in the world to them? It seemed preposterous, but some of the Bound have done it—thrived, in fact.
It seemed unlikely, but when the Bound learned boundaries , it was the best way to live their lives.
The half that did give in to love wrote of tales rife with both glory and ruin. It seemed to Jughead that to the passionate Bound, everything was aflame. It read almost like a warning: Enter with caution. The benefits of the Bound loving their other was tremendous, but it was a double-edged sword—charged and unpredictable like lightning.
Jughead wondered if the Daemon Bound can pick a side, or if the Fates decided that ahead of time. His mind was inclined to insist that being Bound to Betty, if they really were, had proven to be beneficial specifically because they were exceptional best friends.
Very much so.
But he wondered too, as she sat by the light of the fire, whether they had agency on the matter of their relationship.
There was a time, long ago, when Betty chased his car down a train platform and declared she loved him. She was so young then, filled with unlimited dreams and possibilities.
He remembered thinking as she grew smaller and the train tracks between them grew lengthier, How can she? with his mouth hung open in disbelief.
He was a boy, perhaps newly a man at 18, from the Southside. He was a street wraith, living in a hovel with his drunken father. He was nothing, even when Charles was telling him he was something. He was already picking pockets when Betty was just learning to walk; he’d gotten beat on by a gang when Betty wasn’t even in corsets; and he’d watched his own father dump a dead body into a river before Betty got her Mark.
At that moment on the train platform, not only did he feel unworthy, but also that she was so young.
It wasn’t extraordinary, he knew, for a girl her age to be promised to a boy the same age as him. In Locked high society, it seemed to happen every day. Girls were given away the moment they turned 13, but Betty had always balked at the notion, and he, being from the Southside, did not grow up seeing 13 year old girls being married off.
He believed her wholly deserving of so much more because she said she deserved more, because she can do so much more. Her value was not tied to her romantic prospects, so at that moment on the train platform, watching her give her heart to him, he didn’t know what to do with it. He kept telling himself--it was her choice. Her decision, but at the time, he was quite focused on what he felt about it.
He couldn’t possibly. It felt disrespectful to love her back. It felt inappropriate, even. He hadn’t even had to think of such things until she told him she loved him.
But then as he settled into the city and tried to write his letters, he had wondered more than once about Betty.
He never wrote about the train platform. He didn’t feel it was necessary. His shortcomings on the matter of his self-worth was not her burden to bear, and no matter how much Locked society told him it was entirely acceptable for an 18 year old to have romantic relations with a 13 year old, he refused to go by that standard.
He had been young, himself. He didn’t quite know how love was given, taken, or turned away, and it seemed so patronising, anyhow, to tell her that she deserved better than him, even if it was both true and a convenient thing to say.
So he said nothing, telling her instead of the wonderland he had fallen into, the fantastic world of New Kin City, and how he wished she was there with him, because he missed her. Everyday.
All this was true, especially when he found himself in company he would rather not endure.
When, amidst the doldrum of lessons and formula at Stonewall, he dared to suggest investigating on the side, no one was adventurous enough to take him up in his suggestions. He felt her absence even more keenly
And while every letter he wrote and sent to Betty kept reappearing in his mailbox, he continued writing them, sending them in the post, and seeing them back.
It was only two years later when he began to suspect that his visions of Betty maturing and her soft voice in his head responding to his most ponderous questions, were no flights of fancy.
It was around the time that he began looking into the notion of the Daemon Bound.
He would eventually get distracted from his research, with Trevor getting killed and his addiction possessing him, but in his moments of lucidity, and then his improving recovery, he would see Betty in his mind’s eye again, and he would learn more.
Even now he wonders if he hadn’t just convinced himself that this was true when there was absolutely nothing supernatural about their bond.
It was a sentimental truth—if there ever was such a thing—that in any case, their bond was special. Daemon Bound or not, they knew each other better than they perhaps knew themselves.
Whether they were fated to stay friends or not was an outcome Jughead believed he had control over, so it should pose little concern. Right now, Jughead only knew one thing: they could hear one another’s thoughts and their Marks looked alike. They were possibly Daemon Bound and she had to know this was something he had in mind.
He had in his hand a book explaining in the most basic way what it meant. It would serve as a proper reference, for surely she would have questions.
Carefully, so as not to seem insane, he explained all this to her, and she listened so intently, it felt a little like he could tell her anything. She had that quality—that she was there to listen and hear one out.
She seemed hesitant, of course, for talk of bound souls or Fate Others were not subject matters brought up in casual conversation, and he didn’t push.
As she looked into the fire and he watched the light of flames dancing on her skin, he had to turn his gaze away, because the green of her eyes seemed so overwhelming against the soft glow of the fire.
“If it’s true,” she began in a quiet tone, “that we’re Bound, does this mean that everything I’ve ever—ever felt for you, everything we’ve ever felt for each other was a construct of fate?”
Her question struck him, for he’d never asked that, himself. “I can’t answer that question with authority. Nobody can. Does it matter?”
She seemed completely unsatisfied by that response. “I suppose not… I just--I don’t like the path of my life being written for me.”
Of course. Of course she would hate that, because she was a believer in doing things her own way and it was one of her best qualities, but what could he possibly say that would have any value? He knew no more than her on the matter of fate.
“You said you’ve sought answers,” she said, her eyes pleading for him to tell her something. Anything. “You know more than I. Tell me what you think.”
He sighed, feeling ill-equipped to respond, for he had not thought of this until now. He had been so focused on being connected to her that he hadn’t thought it important to consider the larger implications, but he did have immediate thoughts on the matter and it would have to be enough. “Other Daemon Bound have said: the Bound are like the pieces of a larger life, meant for a higher purpose that no one knows what of. The Bound can exist individually, be great in their own paths, but it always seemed that the Bound were greater together. Betty, I like to think that if we were Daemon Bound, we would have good things ahead of us, but if you read through this book, you’ll know that there are two sides to it, and that being Daemon Bound is not the magic key to a better world. Our lives are not predetermined by this. We make of it what we can and I think the possibilities are endless.”
She seemed surprised by what he said. “I never thought you so optimistic, Jughead.”
“I said there are two sides. The other side is rife with terrible outcomes.”
“Ah, there you are.” Half a smile tilted her lips. She took the book from him, finally, and she read the spine. “Is this the foremost authority on the Daemon Bound?”
He scoffed, softly. “In the ways one would call themselves the foremost authority on the constellations above.”
Her eyebrow arched pointedly in his direction.
“But this book is adequate,” he added, stifling a grin. “It is sensible. Others romanticize, some are more alarmist. I can get you those if you would like—you may prefer them, after all, but—“
Her quiet laughter gave him pause. “You know me, Jughead. I have no patience for nonsense. Poetry and literature have their place. When I want answers, I prefer a more straightforward approach. And it’s impressive enough that you came prepared to throw a book at me.”
He knew Betty. She had an ample amount of scepticism, and her trust had to be earned, but once both those barriers were surpassed, her mind was open to ideas and information. He didn’t think that she needed convincing so much as she needed to know. “So you think I may be right? That we are Daemon Bound?”
She grew quiet, her fingers skimming the letters along the book’s spine. “Over the years, I thought I might have heard your voice in my head. I thought I was imagining it. There was an entire year I barely heard you at all.”
He held his hand out for her and she clasped it. Her grip was tight and he could feel that this was as important to her as it was to him.
If he were to guess, that was probably the year he fell to addiction. “Our thoughts carry. It takes immense effort to create a clear conduit of communication, but for now we can bridge our thoughts when necessary. Our Marks look the same, so our Daemons will likely look the same.”
“Sometimes, I feel her,” Betty said. “My Daemon. She burns hot when I am in danger. Sometimes I dream of a winged creature. And I think I know her name.”
The Daemon’s name was important. It was the only way to call one’s Daemon out. Many Kin lived their entire lives without speaking their Daemon’s name to anyone else, because it was the only way to protect one’s Daemon from being taken. But the Daemon Bound shared Daemons. That was just one among the many things the Bound can do that the other Kin cannot.
“My Daemon’s name is Elemiah,” Jughead told her, softly. Only Betty can ever hear him utter those words.
Her eyes grew wide with surprise.
“When your Daemon emerges,” he continued, “we could find out for sure if we’re Bound, because you can summon my Daemon for help and I can summon yours, without need of the elaborate rituals the Wraith Lords perform to take your Daemon away from you.”
“I think my Daemon’s name is Sabathiel,” she said. “I can feel her, sometimes, but--”
“Then you have nothing to worry about,” he promised. “The signs are there. Your Daemon will emerge. This week, all you need to do is settle in. I will take a day to show you some of the city.”
He recognized that not only did the city look different, but it's lifestyle was worlds away from what she knew in Riverdale.
It wasn’t that Riverdale was a small town—that was not the challenge. Betty was a woman who left the safety of her home at night, disguised as a man, sometimes a prostitute, and held her own amongst ruthless gang leaders, murderous men and women, angry mobs, and prizefighting sailors and pimps. The criminal perils of a city would not faze the Betty Cooper he knew.
The bigger challenge was adjusting to the expectations of the Kin. They were not like the Locked. Here, the Kin lived as Kin. There was no hiding, nor pretending. Betty now had a different set of norms to abide by, one way or another, and Jughead wagered Betty wouldn’t be afraid of that, either, but it was important that he made her understand that the politics and pressures of this society could overwhelm her.
Unlike the ways of the Locked, Betty couldn’t ignore the demands of the Kin, because in this world, the accomplishments and goals they put value in fell right in step with hers.
One would think that was a good thing, but if Betty let herself get carried away in its torrent, it could thrust her forward or drown her into its dark depths.
Her smile, however, was broad and free of worry. “I would love to see the city, and it would please me if you were with me.”
He could think of nothing better than to spend a day with her in the city, both within the Kin boundaries and outside of it. There were wonders to be seen in both worlds, and he imagined that getting some days off work would present little problem for his father. “We will start the day early tomorrow--have a full day.”
“I count the hours.”
He prepared to leave, rising from his seat, but before he could bid her goodnight, she said, “Do you remember all those years ago, when you were leaving Riverdale for New York, the first time?”
Anxiety stirred in the pit of his belly. “I do.”
A small smile lifted the corners of her lips, but her gaze lowered to her hands, then she shifted it back to the fire. “I was young, then. You were the only true friend I had. You must have thought me silly and impossible.”
Betty had always struck him as self-assured and certain of the things she wanted, and to hear her so uncertain tugged at his protective instinct.
There was an ottoman between her seat and the fire, and he settled himself on it so he could look her in the eyes. She at first seemed surprised by this, and she seemed poised to look away, but he chased her gaze. “I never thought you silly for that. Or impossible. It was the first and only time in my life that anyone had ever said such a thing to me.”
She laughed, softly, but still her eyes flicked between his gaze and the fire. “Was it? No lovers the last six years?”
He couldn’t possibly say, and he was cheeky enough to throw the question right back at her. “A gentleman never kisses and tells. If you tell me yours, I might tell you mine.”
She bit her lip, her eyes suddenly shining mischief. “Oh, isn’t that exquisite? Quid pro quo?”
That he felt a hollowness in his gut at her words was jarring. What had he expected her to say? What had he wanted her to say? Did he expect vehement denials? Proclamations of innocence and inexperience?
But she had always been bold. Always adventurous. He should have been more surprised if she’d never.
The inklings of indignation began to take root, then. Where were these lovers now? Did they not appreciate Betty enough to stay and hold her dear? But he stamped down his outrage. It wasn’t his place. “Perhaps now isn’t the time.”
“Perhaps not,” she agreed. “And truly, I digress. Jughead, what I said to you--”
“Was heartfelt,” he finished. “And I thought about it for days. I didn’t know what to say, and at the time, I did not yet know my letters would come back unread.”
She sighed, looking away. “Isn’t that mortifying?”
“No. It was not like that.” He sighed. “I was different, then. I had cares that were beyond the constellation of romantic relationships. I was surviving, and I was grateful for my brother’s care, and for his sister, whose friendship I valued above all else.”
She nodded, sighing softly. “I often forgot that you were living a hard life, Jughead. You were always at Elm, and I hardly ever saw you leaving the house. I had to remind myself that half the time, you were still going home to the Southside, that you still had to live it. I suppose I was too young to be mindful of my privilege.”
“We were both young ,” he insisted, gently. “And you were… you deserved some landed Lord’s son. Someone with pedigree and refinement. Someone who had been educated his entire life. Betty, I came from the Southside and I lived in a hovel. Even then, knowing Charles was my brother, I never assumed he would entrust his estate to me.”
The touch of her fingers on his lips caught him breathless. “None of that mattered to me. But you’re right. I was young. You, however, were eighteen then.”
Her fingers slipped away and he felt their absence from his skin keenly. “Just turned. There is a world of experience between Just-Turned eighteen to your nineteen now, Miss Cooper, in case you were thinking to point that out to me.”
Her quiet laugh was soothing to his senses. “Some would argue that we were both the perfect age to be promised to one another.”
“Some would argue that would have been a tragedy. A boy of eighteen would have had time to enjoy his childhood, at least for a little while longer, and perhaps even given opportunities to know what they want in their lives, enough to know how to pursue it. Why were girls expected to give all that up? And for what? Matrimonial certainty? Were your dreams not as important as ours?”
“Perhaps that was why I loved you. Because I knew you looked at me and saw my dreams, outside of what everyone seemed to expect of me.”
He covered her hand with his. “I only know you to be full of aspirations, Betty. Meant for great things.”
“Then perhaps we are Daemon Bound. Fated to be there for each other. That is stronger than the bonds of romantic love, isn’t it?”
He nodded, mutely.
She stood and he rose with her.
As she showed him to the door and he walked behind her, he found himself resisting the urge to touch a loose strand of hair that had separated from her braid. And as he stepped out of her room, turning to give her one last goodbye, the way her eyes swiftly took him in, from head to toe, coursed pleasure through his veins.
She bit her lip briefly, and something in the pit of his stomach went wild with unwarranted anticipation. “Goodnight, Jughead.”
Say goodnight back.
He breathed to quiet the tremble in his voice. “Goodnight, Betty.”
The door closed and he fled, walking to the cadence of his swiftly beating heart.
It wasn’t heartbreak, she realized with surprise, that Betty slept with when she went to bed that night.
Maybe she should not have been so surprised. After all, she had spent years convinced that Jughead had not loved her back that day on the platform, so this friendship he claimed they had did not break her as it would have, had he said such a thing to her so many years ago.
Hope fluttered in the dim recesses of her heart, because of the way he looked at her the past week, at the way he so convincingly implied by word and deed that he saw her differently now, that he hadn’t clung to her childhood image, how he never expressed that he saw her as a sister.
And tonight, unable as she was to contain her desire for him, he had reacted with clear confusion and not rejection.
She laid her head on her pillow with her mind open to possibilities and an optimism that surprised even herself.
She dreamed, not of him, but of Sabathiel, staring back at her from the surface of a mirror.
She asked Sabathiel, “What is keeping you?”
But Sabathiel stared back silent, even as Jughead came up beside her to hold her hand.
When she woke the next morning, she felt rested and refreshed.
As she readied herself for the day, she was ebullient, giddy at the thought she would spend hours with Jughead in this fascinating new place.
She braided her hair and twisted it into a golden bun, liking how the style lengthened her neck and showed off her cheekbones. She selected one of her favorite dresses--a green puffed-shoulder top, its sleeves fitted nicely down her arms and scalloped at her wrists. The gray lace bust was secured around her throat, haltering and offering a small glimpse of skin along both sides of the cut. Her bustled skirt was a nicely shaded plum and beige.
With a few tugs of her corset, she felt she had a nice silhouette.
It was certainly not a dress for formal occasions. When she first wore it in Riverdale, Alice had frowned, liking the way it looked but, by Locked standards, risque and boldly unique, therefore more trouble than it was worth. But here in New York, from Betty’s quick observation of the city, it’s uniqueness just might be celebrated.
Jughead, in his infinite thoughtfulness and care, had perhaps been blinded to the notion of Bettty actually loving him, still. She would wager that he thought she had grown out of her feelings through the years.
Perhaps it was for the best. Ultimately, she would want to start from a place where he had forgotten her pigtails and pinafores.
She pinched her cheeks to pinken them, then as she applied a dab of perfume on her wrists, she bit her lips to redden them.
She grabbed her gloves and parasol and stepped out into the hallway. It was relatively silent, with the sounds of the busy city filtering through the windows even at this early hour. She wasn’t quite sure where everything was in this house, but she didn’t mind exploring in the least.
The stairs were winding, and the house had at least three floors, perhaps four. The vertical layout of the structure was uniquely urban, but in spite of its upward design, she recognized that it still had considerable horizontal space for a city home.
She was on the third floor, and the stairs wound up as well.
Ever adventurous, she climbed the steps, and when she reached the top, she saw that it led out to the open space of their rooftop, but before one could step outside, there was an enclosure. She could see through the door’s windows, noting unfamiliar equipment, perhaps some laboratory equipment, and on the writing desk, a figure was hunched over--asleep, likely. She might have been snoring.
Betty did not want to disturb her, so she turned to the doors leading outside.
As she stepped out onto the roof, she saw that it had a garden, cleverly structured to accommodate herbs, some vegetables, and a good array of flowers and foliage. There was a sitting area to one side, where tea could be taken in cool spring afternoons.
She walked through the aisles of vegetables, loving the colors of the harvest. She reached the edge of the rooftop and gazed at the skyline, with its tall structures and the ominous Menhir at the center. The aeronautic crafts buzzed and floated around it.
If she looked closely, a slightly green haze tinted the cool air, like a hint of fog, and it was most dense from the Menhir. From certain angles, it gave the sky a teal shade.
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it?”
Betty jumped at the voice, and as she whirled around, she dropped her parasol at her feet.
The girl, perhaps a little younger than her, had blonde hair, but her eyes were unmistakably blue. She wore jodhpurs, and that was about as much as Betty could see, since most of her was covered by a protective lab coat. Her hair was curtailed into two braids, pinned up in her head, presumably to keep them out of the way. This girl, Betty thought, was a scientist. An inventor.
“Did I frighten you?” she asked.
Betty summoned her voice. “Surprised me, more likely. Jellybean?”
She grinned, bowing with a flourish. “My reputation precedes me, it seems. And you must be Betty. Father mentioned you would be staying with us.”
Betty nodded. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. I saw the way you were looking at the city. Is this your first time here?”
Nodding, Betty glanced at the skyline once more. “It is more than I’ve ever dreamed of.”
Jellybean sighed and stepped up to the railing beside her. “Sometimes I still cannot believe I live here.”
Given Jughead’s history with his family, Betty could not help but wonder whether Jellybean experienced poverty, herself. It was also possible that she never did. She was young enough that their mother could have situated them better, wherever she had run off to, before Jellybean could remember how hard it was. She could have lived in some small town before this, like Betty.
“There are so many possibilities in this city,” Jellybean declared. “We are powered by the Menhir, I am constantly told, which is charged entirely by energies emitted by the perfect intersection of multiple vital aether veins beneath the earth and ribbons of thick feromonic fields in the air, but what of the other Kin cities in the world that were not so fortunately placed? Nobody else has anything like it, so it would be beneficial to those other cities to harness other sources or energy.”
Betty’s mind began to churn, inspired by Jellybean’s train of thought. “The Kin seem to use steam, too. Perhaps other Kin cities could utilize such a mechanism.”
Jellybean nodded. “Yes, but we only use steam on a small scale. Using steam to power a city such as this requires a massive infrastructure, the likes of which will take decades to build. A more expedient, less costly source of energy, in my opinion, would be lightning.”
Betty did not know that such a thing was possible. Lightning seemed so powerful and wild. She could not imagine it being contained. “How is it possible to harness lighting?”
Jellybean looked up in the sky. “Nikola Tesla has an idea.”
She’d heard of this name. “The mad scientist?”
Jellybean scoffed. “He is only mad because the coal barons say he is. Lightning energy would remove their power, along with it their wealth. Evil men will do anything to keep what they have, regardless of the harm it does to others. Coal requires the labors of men and children, inhaling toxic fumes everyday of their hard lives. If you see their corpses, their lungs are always black with soot. I wonder what scientist was paid to tell the masses that coal was a viable source of energy when it is irredeemably damaging to living human beings and the air we breathe. It does not take a scientist, honestly. Everyone can see the plumes of black smoke that rise from the factories. That cannot possibly be a good thing.”
Betty couldn’t remember the last time she had such an interesting conversation with a lady. “It behooves me to acknowledge the relevance of your observations, but how can lighting be contained to do for us what we want?”
The spark in Jellybean’s eyes was one of encouraged passion. “Like any other wild animal that you seek to domesticate, you learn its behavior. Lightning is nothing but charged particles, moving in the air, positive and negative ions separating by nature and--also by nature, actively seeking to find one another again. Apart, they are harmless and neutral, but together they are explosive. Lighting--pure, raw energy that can power the world.”
Betty was struck by her words, recalling her discussion with Jughead the night before, of souls divided but hurtling towards one another, fated to be united. “Particle fusion.”
Jellybean’s surprised expression was replaced by a broad grin. “Yes. I love that. That’s brilliant. Particle fusion!”
The sound of a door opening and shutting distracted them both, and they turned in the direction of a pathway.
“Jellybean,” came Jughead’s voice, emerging from the foliage towards the receiving area. He looked incredibly handsome in a suit of gray and black. It brought out the brilliant blue of his eyes. “Come down to breakfast, won’t you? I’d like you to meet--oh…” He stood at the pathway, momentarily taken aback. “Betty.”
The startled expression on his face, followed by his gaze taking her in, caused an unbearable flush to rise to her face that he was no doubt seeing. “Good morning, Jughead. I hope you don’t mind me exploring your home. I thought I heard spirits up here,” she said, trying to tease her way out of her awkwardness.
He didn’t seem particularly amused by it, but he went towards her, getting down on one knee. Her face grew hotter, especially when he stood and held out her umbrella. “You dropped your parasol.”
What she thought he was doing, she didn’t know, but she took her parasol back and thanked him, because that was all she could think to do.
“We introduced ourselves to one another,” Jellybean said, cutting through the threads of tension. “As you can see. She is as interested in harnessing energy from thunderbolts as I. She has coined the term particle fusion, smart lass. Soon enough, she and I will build an empire of modernised electricity.”
He cast Betty an apologetic look. “Well, if there ever was anyone to encourage mischief, Betty is the genius for you. Please don’t get her struck by lightning.”
Betty grinned. “Won’t that be exquisite?”
It was his turn to blush, and Betty wondered why for a moment, before she remembered that she said a similar thing last night with regard to their personal histories.
“God forbid,” he whispered, offering his arm. “Shall we go to breakfast? We have a busy day, Betty.”
She looped her hand around his arm, looking up at his downturned face. “We do.”
They smiled at each other and electricity skipped down her back at his lopsided grin.
“I have a busy day, myself,” Jellybean piped, prompting Betty out of her Jughead-induced haze. “If you two would like to know, that is. Or I can leave you two alone. Whichever you prefer.”
The heat rising from Betty’s collar was nearly unbearable.
Jughead rolled his eyes, emitting a soft scoff as he began to lead the way back to the stairwell.
As they went, Jellybean shed her coat and left it by her laboratory door. “Will mother be joining us?”
Betty could feel the muscles in Jughead’s arm tensing. “I don’t know. Will she?”
“She was at the dinner table last night. Unless she left very early or is sleeping in, she will be here for breakfast.”
Betty felt his hand cover hers and her fingers twitched in response.
His face, for the most part, remained impassive. “I did not realize she was back from Philadelphia.”
Jellybean nodded. “She returned yesterday. She was asking after you and father could barely look her in the eyes. What have you two scoundrels been up to?”
Betty eyed Jughead’s expression. They had not discussed his mother at any length or whether Gladys even knew she was arriving with Jughead. She began to wonder if Gladys knew Jughead had inherited a fortune.
Mother will have questions.
That thought was most certainly not hers.
She tugged gently at his sleeves. “I can stay in my room for a bit. Unpack my trunk--”
He shook his head. “Come down with us, Betty. I should like for mother to finally meet you.”
She looked for any sign that he was being compelled by manners rather than a true willingness to confront whatever hurdle she thought they were facing. Her inquisitive expression was met by the softening of his eyes.
“You are more than welcome here. I would like for you to consider this your home.”
“And your mother?”
“She is a complicated being, but she will be glad to have you here.”
Jellybean grinned. “People are afraid of her, and perhaps for good reason, but she is merely being protective of her own. She will like you.”
That remained yet to be seen. She turned to Jughead for his thoughts on the matter, but he stayed silent as they made their way back into the house.
Betty could see how people would find Gladys intimidating.
Her resting expression, it seemed, was not one of open acceptance and cheer. When Betty walked into breakfast with Jughead, Gladys had looked up from her daily broadsheet, a whiff of surprise arching her eyebrow.
She looked briefly at FP, who tilted his chin and stared her down--a challenge, no doubt, to say what she had to say of this development.
Gladys was by no means ordinary. She sat at the head of the table, for one--a place traditionally occupied by the proverbial man of the house. She wore a waistcoat and trousers, though she maintained a bit of a lacy bustle. Her boots that came up to her knees had thick silver heels. All this, but for her heel, was in pure, unrelenting black. Even her hair, black as night like Jughead’s, was barely tied back, broad curls allowed to spill down her shoulders.
She was magnificent and Betty was a touch terrified.
This was a woman who did not need alter-egos to express who she was and what she intended to do.
Betty found herself a stark contrast, all colors and gold, but she straightened her shoulders and kept her chin held aloft. She could tell, just by looking at Gladys, that she would not respect wilting flowers.
“You did not tell me we had a guest, FP. I would have asked Kevin to put out the fine china.” Gladys’s voice was bereft of the gentleness of a woman of her station. It was a flat drawl--sarcastic at best, and she eyed Betty with barely veiled suspicion.
FP lifted a shoulder, his crooked smile seemingly meant to shield him from her steely expression. “They came in late last night. I did not want to wake you.”
“Mother,” Jughead said, cutting through the tension. “This is Elizabeth Cooper, from Riverdale. Betty, this is my mother, Gladys Jones.”
At this, Gladys’ surly expression morphed into amusement, though Betty would hardly consider that a good thing, coming from her. “Elizabeth Cooper--Alice’s child. My goodness. Weren’t you a little thing before? Look at you now. A vision. Even more lovely than Alice ever was, and everyone went wild for her back in our salad days. Then again, perhaps your more genteel and sheltered upbringing obliterated any likelihood of your inheriting Alice’s rougher edges. She grew up in the Southside, did she tell you?”
She deferred from mentioning that she was not as sheltered as Gladys thought she was. “She mentions it on occasion,” Betty replied, instead. “When it suits her.”
Gladys chuckled. “That sounds like her.” She gestured to the seat beside her. “Please. Have a seat and join us for breakfast.”
Jughead pursed his lips, hesitating ever so slightly at pulling back the chair Gladys had designated for Betty, but he did it and she whispered her thanks as she took her place. He thereafter settled himself on the chair beside hers.
FP’s own eyebrow arched, and without a word, took what looked like a folder of documentation from the seat beside him and handed it across the table at Jughead. Clearly, that was Jughead’s usual place at the table, otherwise.
Sighing, Jughead took the folder and set it aside.
Gladys buttered her toast. “What did you have to do to get Alice’s permission to come here? Deceit? Blackmail? Murder?”
Jughead shot her a deadly look. “Mother.”
“Reason,” Betty said before Gladys could respond to him. “Jughead’s idea. I would have resorted to deceit, myself. Blackmail could have been an option, but I would have toed the line at murder. Mother is not so easy to kill.”
Gladys’ lopsided grin broadened and she wagged her butterknife at Betty. “Ah! There’s that Southside heritage! Not such a delicate flower after all. And your brother? Jughead’s revered teacher and sometimes father-figure--”
“He passed away a few months ago.”
Gladys did look genuinely sorry. “My condolences to you and your family. And to you, Jughead. I know he meant a lot to you, dear. Is that what sent you to Riverdale? News of his death?”
Jughead began to pile his plate with food. “Among other things.”
Gladys touched Betty’s arm lightly. “Forgive me for asking, but what of you and your mother? Have they found an heir to his fortune yet? I know the Locked would not allow women to inherit.”
Betty could only conclude that Jughead had not told his mother about what had transpired on his visit to Riverdale. “It has been dealt with. Mother and I are well taken-cared of.”
“Good. And I suppose Alice is plotting your bright future with some landed, wealthy baron.” She slathered her toast with jam. “Shouldn’t be that hard. You are positively beautiful and any man--”
“Mother,” said Jughead through grit teeth, piercing a slice of ham with undue force. “The hope is for her to get reintroduced to Kin society, so that she may do as she pleases and not be obligated to conform to what the Locked expects of her.”
Gladys seemed even more intrigued by this. “Is that what you want, Ms. Cooper? To be independent and to live amongst the Kin?”
Betty nodded. “It is. And please, call me Betty.”
“I shall. I’m afraid I might like you--much to your peril. My approval is not an easy burden to bear.”
“I’m sure.” Betty was not joking in the least. Gladys would not suffer fools, either. She had already developed a grudging respect for this woman who had been a polarizing figure in her memories. She remembered how Jughead had barely mentioned her, growing up, and it was only later that he told Betty about the mother who had abandoned him and left him, a child, to a useless drunk. She hated Gladys then, because she knew how Gladys’ leaving had hurt Jughead so badly, but then years later, coming back to rescue them from poverty and now seemingly fusing them back into this unit, flawed but strong, should at least be grounds for reconsideration.
Gladys tilted a grin. “Are you?”
“Mothers were never so easy for me.”
“Oh, child. Alice must’ve wept when you left her.”
Betty could not tell if Gladys was relishing Alice’s misery or if she was actually giving Betty a compliment. Gladys could very well know that FP at least had some sort of relationship with Alice before Gladys and he married, then again, Gladys sounded like she had a grudging respect for Alice, herself. Betty had to wonder what Gladys was thinking at this moment, appraising Betty like a prized horse.
FP chuckled, shaking his head as he cut into the eggs on his plate. “Gladys, I’d ask you to let Betty be. Jughead has her under his wing. That ought to be enough.”
“Yes. I suppose.” She sat back on her seat and finally went back to her paper, the interrogation over. “But you and I will speak again, won’t we, Betty? Without these boys to interrupt our fascinating conversation.”
The prospect of sitting down with Gladys alone both intrigued and terrified Betty, but it seemed Gladys had stopped circling Betty for now, and she could not help but breathe a soft sigh of relief.
“Mother holds a seat in the higher echelons of New Kin City’s government,” Jellybean said, brightly. Proudly. “She represents Guildsman Hall--essentially an ambassador for the Peacedealers, where Mayor McCoy holds office.”
Betty was incredibly impressed but Gladys scoffed and waved her words away.
“JB is overselling. I can hardly go straight to Mayor McCoy for anything. That privilege goes to Guildsman Lodge.”
Jellybean huffed. “He is not your manager.”
“No, but we all have to answer to him in one way or another.”
“He listens to you more than he listens to his wife,” FP pointed out.
Gladys tossed Betty a knowing wink. “That is what Mrs. Lodge wants everyone to think. Speaking of Hermione--she sent us invitations to her daughter’s birthday soiree, but there was a separate one for you, Jughead. Signed by her daughter, no less…”
Jughead gave a tired sigh but said nothing.
Betty wasn’t the least bit surprised that the daughters of powerful men and women might want to find favor with the son of the ambassador who had the Mayor’s ear. As much as it pained her to think about Jughead being matched with other women, she was glad of the caliber of ladies others thought he was fit for. He deserves to be regarded with respect. “Is she lovely? Intelligent, even?”
“Whip smart and beautiful,” Jellybean said. “I know that because she thinks Jughead ridiculous. Her mother probably made her sign it.”
Betty frowned. Jughead was not ridiculous to her at all.
“Oh, don’t say it like that,” Jughead said. “She does not think me ridiculous. She is a friend who would never take me seriously, thank God. There’s a difference. You might get along with her, Betty.”
Betty demurred from responding. She didn’t know if she was ready to have any friends outside of Jughead, just yet.
“Are you introducing her to people today, then?” Gladys asked.
Betty felt anxiety pool in the pit of her stomach, which was immediately eased by Jughead’s definitive, “God, no. I will show her the city--its most interesting qualities, at least, both from the Kin side and the Locked. There is much to see and appreciate. There is no need to throw Betty to the wolves, at least without some form of preparation.”
“Wolves,” Betty repeated.
FP nodded. “They can be. At the end of the day, the Kin are just as ruthless as the Locked. We are all made of the same stuff underneath.”
“I’d wager Betty would relish the fight, won’t you, my dear?” Gladys reached over and tucked a loose strand of hair behind Betty’s ear. “If you are anything like Alice, there is ferocity beneath that golden shine and your green doe eyes.”
Betty doubted that Gladys’ gentle caresses could be considered tenderness on any level. This was an assertion of dominance and Betty was not going to have it. She didn’t call it out, but she discreetly let her loose hair fall back where it once was. Nobody else noticed it, but Gladys might have, her eye twitching slightly at the challenge.
“You presume too much, mother,” Jughead said in a clipped tone.
Gladys shrugged but did not dispute it.
FP began to talk about New York’s attractions, places that he would recommend Jughead bring her to. Jellybean contributed her own recommendations and Betty gladly engaged. She noted how Jughead listened to it all in silence, acknowledging FP’s or Jellybean’s suggestions on rare occasions.
It was Gladys who first begged her leave from the table. As everyone stood on cue, Gladys gave Betty one last look.
“I am glad you’re here, Betty. Don’t let these troublemakers convince you otherwise.” Gladys flashed Jughead and FP a grin and Betty watched her leave the breakfast area.
As they all settled back down to continue breakfast, Betty looked over her shoulder to see Gladys go.
Kevin’s figure appeared, following her out and handing her a hat as tall as a man’s, which she tucked under her arm the same way Jughead did his. Their shadows faded into the hallway.
“Well, that went better than I expected,” FP said, dipping some toast in his egg.
Jughead shot FP a pointed glare. “Thanks to Betty. You hardly said a thing to curtail mother.”
FP scoffed. “Curtail Gladys? I wouldn’t dare. If I had been so bold, she would have intensified her efforts out of pure spite.”
Betty realized she hadn’t even started breakfast. She took her spoon and used it to crack an egg. “Her conversation was--” she searched for the word “-- invigorating.”
Jellybean grinned, obviously pleased by Betty’s positive take on it. “That is one way to describe it.”
“Mother likes to provoke,” Jughead said tiredly. “I apologize. I should have prepared you for that, but I was a little preoccupied by other concerns.” He exchanged meaningful looks with FP, who sighed and shook his head.
Betty could only suppose it had to do with Jughead inheriting Charles’s estate and not telling his own mother of it.
“It is what she is used to at work,” Jellybean said. “Diplomats and politicians are constantly sharpening their knives. They take every opportunity they can to collect information that they may use against each other.”
Jughead gave an irritable scoff. “I wish she would leave the knife sharpening in City Hall. She is home. We are family.”
“And your mother is your mother,” FP said. “It wasn’t City Hall that made her that way, it was the survival instinct she was raised with.”
“I was raised with that same instinct. You do not see me getting under people’s skins upon introduction.”
“You kept better company for longer than she did.” FP looked pointedly at Betty. “And so you learned to smoothen the jagged edges.”
Betty refrained from mentioning that she liked Jughead’s edge on many occasions.
They finished breakfast and FP said that while Jughead could take this day to show her the city, he may summon Jughead in a pinch should urgency necessitate it.
Jughead seemed resigned to the inevitable. “Of course. And exactly what do you expect Betty to do as I race off? Wander around Ladies’ Mile as I attend to my job?”
It was mildly off-putting, to be the subject of discussion as if she weren’t there, but she knew this wasn’t so much about her as it was FP’s intrusion into his supposed day with her. “There is no need to worry about me. I can find my way.”
“Someone will be sent to fetch you, Betty,” FP said, taking up the newspaper that Gladys had left behind. “You will be well taken cared of in such an event.”
Jughead simmered in silence and Jellybean went on to complain about their lab supervisor at her work place and how he kept asking her to fetch tea.
Betty had an infinite number of questions she wanted to ask Jellybean about working and getting paid, but she curtailed her excitement as she tried to be sensitive to Jughead’s mood.
At the end of breakfast, Betty told Jellybean that she would love if they can talk again.
“Being employed--it sounds enriching,” Betty told her. “I could listen to you talk about working all day.”
Jellybean tucked on her hat and smiled. “It loses its shine right quick, once you are required to attend and stay within the prescribed hours, but I am fortunate for doing what I love. We will talk again, Betty. Enjoy your day out in the city!”
Kevin appeared with a briefcase and Jellybean thanked him as she took it and she was escorted to the front doors, where a carriage was waiting for her.
Betty wondered if there were secret doors that Kevin slipped in and out of, for he always seemed to appear out of thin air and vanish without a trace.
FP prepared himself to leave as well. “Will you need Marmaduke to bring you around the city? You are on-call, after all.”
Jughead jammed his hat on his head. “We shall take our chances with public transport. When you see him at work, tell him I had matters to attend to. I know he has some papers to push, anyhow. Fancy a walk, Betty?”
“I’d be delighted.” Betty slipped on her gloves and held her parasol as Jughead escorted her out of the house and onto the sidewalk.
Carriages drove past in the street and people walked briskly by. Occasionally, a Daemon would be perched on someone’s shoulder, shrunken to fit, while sometimes, they were large and lumbered about, worn by their wielders, transporting what looked like spectral materials.
“There’s work to be done to harness aether and feromonic fields,” Jughead explained. “And it can only be done in Daemon form. It’s specialized work. Laborers such as these have learned to spend extended periods of time wearing their Daemons where most of us can only handle it in short bursts. Daemons are meant to fight malignant spirits, not do labor, but I suppose the human condition strives to adapt.”
Betty watched the Daemons work, relishing the open lives of the Kin around her.
Jughead led her to the street corner and turned left down Second avenue. “There is plenty to see in Locked New York City. We will start there, if that pleases you.”
Betty would be pleased by anything in this strange and wondrous city. She could stand on this very corner and spend hours watching the fascinating chaos around her.
A cable car stopped and Jughead held his hand out for hers. She fought down the bloom of heat that rose from her neck at such a public display of familiarity, but it appeared no one cared, and that he was merely holding his hand out to assist her onto the cable car.
Commuters piled out while Jughead firmly led her onto the transport, where he secured her a seat and he stood in the space in front of her, seemingly to shield her from the rough rush of bodies. She looked over her shoulder through the transparent windows.
“Where are we going?” she asked, containing the excitement in her voice.
He smirked. “You’ll see.”
The cable brought them three avenues across and some three blocks down, where Jughead brought them to a train station, its rail perched high above the streets. This, in itself, was a wonder to Betty. Getting into a train elevated above everyone for a relatively short ride, with stops in between, seemed so cosmopolitan.
They climbed the steps to the station and waited on the train platform. The brilliant rays of the sun prompted Betty to pop her parasol open. The rim of Jughead’s hat shielded his face, but she offered him some shade by stepping closer and holding her parasol high enough to accommodate his hat.
He acknowledged her care with a small grin, staying within the shade she offered, which kept them within close proximity of each other.
He dug into his pocket and brought out his watch, clicking it open with deft fingers. “The train should be by in a few minutes. You have not said much since we first rode the cable car.”
Her gaze continued to take in the sights. “What is there to say? There is so much to see and observe already. I thought it best to observe and say very little. I want to savor every moment.”
His eyes scanned the platform and for a moment, it looked like he was doing as she was. Observing.
She observed him , and she realized that they were close enough that she could smell that hint of soap on his skin. He didn’t, however, seem bothered by their proximity in the least.
“I remember having that sense of wonder,” he finally said. “When I first got here. And when I wrote you those letters, I described all of it in detail.”
She watched his lips move, momentarily. Indulging herself. “Did you keep those letters? Or did you discard them when you realized that they would never get delivered?”
“They are in a box under my bed. I never stopped writing them to you.”
Her heartbeat quickened at the notion that he never stopped thinking about her and she had to bite her lip to keep from grinning. “I would like to read them, then. If they were all for me, that is. I suppose you could have been writing to someone else at certain points.”
“No, they were all for you.” He said this softly, sighing as he looked back at the yet empty rails. “But perhaps some of them were rather bleak. Not all days were like this--cheery and pleasant. There were dark days and I felt like you were the only one I could talk to. Of course, at that time I already knew you weren’t going to get my letters so maybe there was a sense of safety in that.”
There was a haunted look in his eyes as he said this, and she felt instinctively that something terrible had happened to him. She was half certain that his dead partner and his metal-braced arm had something to do with it, but she wasn’t going to push. The last time she inquired about his partner, he had shut down. “I should like to hear about your good and bad days, alike. That is what I am here for.”
His gaze softened, and she would have pressed her hand to his heart had the train whistle not filtered through the air.
People started to step closer to the edge of the platform in anticipation of the train’s arrival.
“Here we go,” Jughead said, putting out his arm for her to take.
She immediately shut her parasol and braced for the rush.
The train took them some thirty blocks down, and Jughead had made certain that she sat by a window so she could see out of the train to the sights below. The scenery was always fascinating.
When they arrived at their stop, they joined the egress to the doors, and it was a steady pace to street level, where Betty had a moment to breathe on the sidewalk.
“I thought we should start at midtown,” Jughead said. “And work our way back up the rest of the day. We have a few hours yet before lunch. Depending on what we feel like, we may have a sit down or we may opt for something lighter.”
Betty could not help but laugh. “Jughead Jones, we just had breakfast and you are already making plans for lunch.”
“Now you know my secret.”
“That I am always hungry.”
The way he tilted his chin and grinned while saying it induced a hot flush within Betty, though thankfully, she did not feel it rise up her collar this time. “I should like to sit at a restaurant with you, but won’t that cause a scandal?”
Jughead scoffed. “New York is too busy to care about the affairs of a lady and her escort. Be that as it may, I know just the thing for when we are ready for lunch. But first, let us get ourselves to the Locked side of the city.”
He led her down the busy street, and one block down, she found herself at the top of a wide stairwell that opened up to the ground underneath.
She eyed Jughead askance as she stood to the side, letting the rush of busy Kin pass them by. “What is down there?”
“A gateway,” Jughead replied. “To New York City. There are several of them throughout New Kin. They were first established for the Peacedealers, so we can come and go where necessary to attend to our duties. Most of our work happens in New York amongst the Locked, but as the Kin grew in number and more and more of us took on more conventional work, even seeking employ with the Locked, these gateways became vital to the continued existence of our people.”
“And the Locked do not stumble through this?”
“Not unless they know where and how to look. There are sentinels at every port to watch out for any unauthorized crossers.”
Her investigative mind noted his terminology. “Unauthorized? Are there ‘authorized’ crossers that aren’t Kin?”
Jughead nodded. “A few--Seers, mostly. Locked, in some cases. You’ll see. Shall we cross?” He gestured towards the stairwell.
Nodding, she began to descend. As she sank into the crowd, she followed the flow of people, all headed in the same direction. The crowd loosened as the passageway opened up to a wide open space and the people spread out.
The subterranean chamber was larger beneath, with a row of revolving doors that spanned an entire block. They looked similar to the revolving door at the Grand Central station.
She could not see what was on the other side.
Jughead tapped her shoulder and led her to one of the doors, which he simply pushed into and disappeared. She followed after him through the exact same door, afraid that taking a different door might take her to a different place.
When she appeared on the other side, it looked exactly like it did coming in, where there was a passageway to a set of stairs going up to street level.
It was incredible to see just how many Kin were moving through this portal, doing their business amongst the Locked.
“There are so many of us,” she said in a breathless whisper.
Jughead nodded, offering his arm to her, which she took without pause in their step. “There are.”
It occurred to her that some men might find that fact compelling. She was surprised no one was trying to take advantage of the powers of the Kin to take control of the Locked. It took no stretch of the imagination for anyone to believe that the Kins’ way of life may be the better way, but it was also true that many of the Locked would be resistant to the notion that half the population may discover independent thought and income through the ways of the Kin.
She could think of many daughters of Locked men who would relish the concept of being able to plan their lives without the shadow of a marriage to hamper them.
As they climbed the steps, she saw through the wide opening at the top of the stairs the spectral veil shimmering in the air between the Kin and Locked worlds.
People walked through it without pause, and Betty supposed that when one did it every day, it became part of one’s routine.
Jughead led them through, and as they stepped onto the other side, Betty felt the difference immediately.
There were even more people on the streets of New York and the heat radiating from the ground felt thicker. She could spy plumes of dark smoke rising in the sky and the noise around her was discordant.
The crowds here were quite well dressed, but interspersed within the expensively decked men and women were the laborers who were either passing through or actively working to keep the surrounding area hospitable to the rich clientele.
“Come along. Let us take a chaise further down. Our destination is at 24th street,” Jughead said, letting a street footman hail their transport.
As soon as one pulled up the curb, the footman pulled open the carriage door, holding his hand out for Betty. Jughead flipped him a coin, which distracted him, and Jughead helped Betty up himself. As soon as the door closed, the carriage rolled.
Betty eyed Jughead questioningly and he cast her an apologetic smile.
“It is rougher in New York City. What may seem like a gesture to help may lead to the picking of your pockets.”
“You forget I’ve traversed the Southside at night.”
“Not as a lady of means.”
That did give her pause. It was enough for her to reorient herself to the situation. She admitted that she was slightly out of her element in both sides of her current reality. She needed time to acclimate and allow Jughead to help her in the journey.
There was much to see, with the chaise giving her a broader view of the streets and buildings surrounding them. Betty could not help but peer up in the skyline.
“Everything is so tall.”
“The buildings add height each year.”
Betty let her eyes sweep the streets, too. She watched children sell newspapers, their little voices piercing the air. Organ grinders filled the street with cheery music, while pretzel vendors held up their sticks and shoestring peddlers waved their wares at their casual audience.
Occasionally, a messenger boy would zip by on his bicycle, screaming at pedestrians who were in his way. Rag carters plodded along at an easier pace, dragging their carts of fat canvas bags, filled to bursting with both clean and dirty rags. There were young and old bootblacks, some working in tandem and others in competition, but there was no shortage of people wanting their shoes shined, so competition seemed friendly.
Betty could spot the chimney sweeps from afar, small children dark with soot, and crossing sweepers, with their distinct brooms.
She and Jughead never talked about his childhood at any length. Every once in a while he would mention details, often quaint stories about the small blessings amidst his poverty. It wasn’t a complete picture, by any means, but Betty had always refrained from asking because she could feel how careful he himself tread.
He was young, then. The self-assured man beside her now was better equipped to speak of his past.
“Did you have to do any of these jobs when you were younger?” she asked.
Jughead shrugged. “I shined shoes for a spell, but it was never as lucrative as picking pockets. I was a great many things before Charles found me. I worked for a resurrectionist for a while, helping dig those graves, collected bets on the streets, sold stolen goods, and I might have secured employment on a boat if Charles hadn’t taken me in.”
His past life seemed so far removed from what he was now, and she couldn’t imagine that Gladys secured her position by broadcasting their true family history. Betty would have to ask Jughead about that at another time.
As they rode past the 30th street into the twenties, Betty noted the thinning of laborers and a marked number of well-dressed women.
They drove past 25th street and Betty immediately knew that this part of New York was not meant for the poor. Even the street vendors were well-dressed and well-mannered, offering polite encouragement to their more affluent clientele.
Women were walking and traveling in groups, and men and women walking in pairs were common enough, often with intimidating chaperones walking behind them.
Betty took in the shops lining the streets--clothiers, cobblers, candlemakers, perfumers, stationary sellers, and restaurants. Many of them.
“Are you taking me shopping?” Betty teased as bright young women’s laughter filtered through the air.
Jughead chuckled. “Only if you want to. There are many fascinations along this row without need of buying anything, and you might like the bookstore, for instance, or the antique shop, but that can come after our first stop.”
They finally stopped at 14th street, where Betty found herself staring at a massive structure. She looked up at the carved masonry and the large arches decorating the facade. Men were coming in and out of the twenty foot doors.
“The Astor Library,” Jughead said behind her. “It is a building full of knowledge, yes, but there are so many curiosities and exhibits to see inside. There are lovely museums along 70th street, but I thought it practical to start from lower Manhattan and work our way back up. What do you think?”
“It is splendid,” she breathed. “I don’t see any women. Will I cause a scandal being here?”
He smirked. “Mayhaps, but the library is a reputable establishment. It will not ruin you.”
“Oh, hang my reputation. I wish to see books.”
Jughead gestured to the steps. “After you.”
Their walk through the library was wrought with curious stares and whispers, but Betty did spy women among the shelves and tables, and they would lock eyes with one another in defiant solidarity.
Betty stared at paintings and busts of distinguished gentlemen and the occasional stately woman whose father or husband likely gave a large sum of money to the establishment. Half the books were by permission only, but the other half they were allowed to touch offered a variety of topics.
Betty was well aware that she could not just take a book and start reading one, but the very notion of having free access to all of it was worth savoring. Rare books were encased and the map room was a marvel. There was a cabinet of curiosities deeper and higher up in the library, cheekily showcasing “cursed” objects and wares supposedly collected by wealthy adventurers from far-off lands.
Betty had her doubts about whether they were properly acquired or, more likely, pillaged.
They spent over two hours exploring all three floors of the establishment, and when they stepped out, Betty longed to go back in.
But Jughead claimed there was more to see, and having enjoyed the library, she could not wait to see more of the city.
They walked up to the twenties at a leisurely pace, and Betty found herself enchanted by emporiums filled with a multitude of merchandise, the likes of which she’d never seen in Riverdale. It was not about what so much as it was about how much. The variety was vast. There were cobblers and book merchants, perfume stores and stationery, watch peddlers and dressmakers, stores that specialized in various wares: hats, pens, coats, purses, fine china, and linens.
Jughead called it the Ladies’ Mile, a swath of New York blocks where women can safely shop, eat, and socialize in public, unaccompanied by men. Betty relished the loud laughter as well as the intimacy in which the ladies gathered in groups.
To be out in the open, unhampered by the pressures of men and their dictates seemed like such a luxury, and perhaps it was, for there was no doubt the women that walked these paved streets were privileged and rich.
Be that as it may, Betty did find the window displays and store arrangements fascinating. She indulged herself trying on some hats, which Jughead seemed to find amusing.
“Now you know where the wealthy come to replenish their wardrobes,” Jughead said, who had somehow managed to secure the duty of holding her parasol and purse. It delighted Betty that he didn’t seem to mind it at all.
She scoffed and said, softly, lest anyone heard her. “I highly doubt any of these women have actually ran out of hats.”
They glanced furtively at a group of ladies--whose hats were already perfectly fashionable and likely durable--happily selecting new ones to purchase.
“Trends are fickle in the city,” Jughead said, grinning.
Betty turned to the looking glass, readjusting her hat and sighing. “Do I look like a country bumpkin in mine? Should I find something more cosmopolitan?”
“You look perfect the way you are.”
It struck her that he’d given her a compliment and she was so astonished by it that she looked at him and saw his face grow red, as if he himself were surprised by what had spilled out of his mouth. He hastily turned away, grumbling that while his own hat did not need to be replaced, he might need a new scarf in the haberdashery next door.
“Winter is quite over,” she said, still breathless with her surprise.
“Which is why they sell such an accessory at more affordable prices,” he replied.
He was right about the scarves being cheaper, but the styles were not to his liking.
She did not, after giving it more thought than it warranted, believe he actually had need of one.
As they came in and out of shops, there were stores where Jughead wandered off on his own, which gave Betty enough time to find something for him--just a little token to give him for taking her out today.
She selected a fountain pen and a bottle of ink when Jughead was not looking and she felt extremely satisfied with herself for managing it in stealth.
There were rows of small restaurants and cafes for weary shoppers to sit and sup, and while Betty did not feel much like wasting her time sitting still, she did not want Jughead to be hungry. She asked if he would like to pause for lunch.
“I do, but there are better places to eat, and it is not here.”
Her interest was immediately perked. Food, she thought, was bound to be a different adventure. “What did you have in mind?”
“We can purchase pretzels, have them in the carriage ride back, then I have another thing to show you before we sit and sup. How does that sound to you?”
“Splendid!” It sounded so spontaneous, even if she knew that he had probably planned the entire day, but it was nothing like she’d ever heard, living among the Locked.
In Riverdale it was about basking in lazy boats, sunning on the riverbank, sitting around tea tables and watching young men sing while some young lady played an instrument. There seemed to be a lot of paint drying, as well, observing ladies as they showed off their artistic “talents” to an audience whose primary purpose was to select dutiful wives for their sons. The most exciting thing in Riverdale had been the yearly fall harvest, where the surrounding farmers laid out their spoils to show off and sell, culminating in a festive ball at the plaza.
While that had its moments, Betty felt Riverdale and its surrounding towns lacked a lot in variety.
As planned, they purchased their pretzels from the street vendor--Jughead bought three, because he wanted two for himself, and on the carriage back, had their snack. Betty had never had a pretzel before and she found it surprisingly filling. The bread was dense and Betty suspected, meant to feed a man doing heavy labor. What she couldn’t finish, Jughead polished off.
“Lord,” she muttered as he inelegantly chewed the remains of her snack. “Your appetite has not abated in the least.”
“Should it?” he asked, mouth full and refreshingly unbound by etiquette.
She missed this aspect of him--the one who wasn’t quite so polished. Some crumbs had stayed on his cheek and she delicately brushed them off. His eyes fluttered slowly at her touch, but he showed no surprise and he thanked her softly.
They stopped in front of what Jughead called the Metropolitan Museum of Art, housed as it was at the Dodworth Building.
“Or as I call it, New York’s love letter to Rome,” Jughead said, escorting her up the steps of the museum.
If Betty thought the library interesting, this exhibit was a marvel in anthropology and art. There was a Roman sarcophagus--a marble tomb cast with garlands of oak and what seemed to Betty to be angels. The description, however, described the four winged figures at each corner as Victories, and the two cherubic faces supporting the garlands as erotes, Gods and Goddesses of love and “intimate relations”.
She kept her comments about this description to herself, afraid that she could not speak of such things out loud without scandalizing the lady nearby. She did, however, comment at how the donor, one American named J. Abdo Debbas, must be so rich as to give such an artifact away so easily.
“The social currency, I’m told, is worth the extravagance,” Jughead replied. “I heard he will be appointed American Vice Consul at Tarsus.”
“Ah, so that is how one is appointed to such things.”
He laughed, quietly so as not to disturb the general reverence with which visitors seemed to conduct themselves. “Did you think such things determined by merit? Experience, mayhaps? Knowledge, I dare say?”
She giggled. “Silly me.”
He bit his lip to keep from laughing louder. He let her lead, which she took full advantage of, knowing he would not be far behind.
They came upon the works of Anthony van Dyck, a portraitist of wide acclaim, and Nicolas Poussin, an artists with a distinctly baroquian flair, his murals of Roman conquests and fantastical deities and demigods spanning entire walls. One Giovanni Battista Tiepolo preferred Biblical battles, earthbound and divine.
But it was in a much quieter section of the museum that Betty and Jughead found themselves staying the longest. They had descended two flights of stairs, the lights low and the floors seemingly devoid of sound.
Betty could hear voices coming from somewhere else, but this subterranean level seemed so vast that she could see no one else. Here the paintings and sculptures were that of the Kin and their Daemons.
The subject of each portrait, she realized, was accompanied by their Daemon, either small and perched on them like pets, or large and overwhelming behind them.
“Is this part of the museum sanctioned?” Betty asked, breathlessly, staring up at the names--the Gauxcavins and Armentiers, the McDougals and Featherstons, the Chimamandas and Ọyáwálés, the Fernándezes and Cabreros, the Buchsbaums and Dreyfusses, and the Zhāngs and Matsudas.
The magnificence and diversity of imagery was both astounding and enlightening. The Kin existed all over the world, and given the background scenery in many of the portraits, many of them were gathered in this city.
She turned to Jughead, awed by the display. “We are from all over the world. From so many cultures.”
Jughead nodded. “We are, and I wanted to show you this one, in particular.” He took her by the hand, and while Betty blushed at the familiarity, she relished it as well, gripping his hand tighter.
He led her to a painting of a Chinese woman in glorious battle, her men’s armor broadening her strong body, her short hair coming loose from its masculine ties, while her Daemon, a dragon, raged beside her.
“Hua Mulan,” Jughead said, his eyes taking in the details of the woman’s armor, weaponry, and the Mongol invaders she engaged in fierce battle. “She is a legend in China, and the Locked speak of her as a myth, when in fact, she was very real. She was Kin, and she was 18 when she joined the Locked army and steadily rose in the ranks. Her journals spoke of how she never knew her Daemon before her later battles with the armies of Genghis Khan, so that would put her at 20 or 21 before her Daemon emerged.”
Betty’s awe of this legend slowly got overshadowed by the burning feeling behind her eyes, but she blinked back her tears. She felt overwhelmingly loved by this gesture, because Jughead knew without her telling him how much the elusiveness of her Daemon weighed on her.
She managed to smile through the tightening in her throat. “Do you advise, then, that I march off to war against conquering invaders?”
“You already know how to dress like a man.”
She grinned up at him and he smiled down at her upturned face.
“Daemons come when you need them most,” he said. “You have been strong and capable of so many things that you have no need of her quite yet.”
“What if I never do?”
“We all will need something or somebody at some point in our lives.”
It was an interesting emotion, Betty thought, to be drawn so compellingly to a man who so openly admired her for her independence and strength, especially given that Jughead had to swoop in and save her and her mother from ruination.
His gaze flickered momentarily but he did not look away, his expression one of bewilderment and wonder. She could see his gaze taking her in, a question brimming from his eyes and moving his lips, but a sound cut through the intimate silence and Jughead immediately stepped a modest distance away, his hands clasped behind his back.
Betty felt the absence of his skin touching hers, the air cooling where his warmth used to be.
“This museum is in a park,” he said, quickly. “I don’t know if you noticed coming in here.”
She had to reorient herself to this new thread of conversation that seemed to emerge so awkwardly. “A park?”
Jughead nodded. “Above ground is a park. The Locked cleared a two and a half mile stretch of land to serve as a common area for the people of this city--and by that, of course, they meant the well-to-do, and mostly people of the same color skin as us.”
Betty mentally pushed herself to follow this new conversation, frantically unearthing her knowledge on the politics of ethnicity. The notion, she knew, was not as loud in Riverdale, where people of color hardly had a voice or were hardly even seen, but here in New York, the Kin were proudly diverse. “Are we then going to this park that excludes other people?”
Jughead chuckled, slightly distracted by the matrons nearby, but taking back what distance he had first put between them. “Never. When I said the Locked ‘cleared’ land, I meant they displaced an entire community of West Indians and Africans--schools, churches, homes. It was a travesty. I cannot stress enough how this pretty little park at the center of the city ruined lives to make the caucasians happy. So, in New Kin City, that park is the one place where we made an exception about admitting the Locked into our world. While their community was destroyed on the Locked side of the city, we, on the Kin side, were able to preserve some of what was taken away from them. We cannot take all of those displaced. The Kin cannot be exposed to the masses, but we were able to accommodate a good number, enough to keep them thriving. Enough that they have become a vital part of Kin society and have accepted those like us into their lives.”
As they walked to the other side of the vast exhibit, they came upon a new set of stairs, which Jughead gestured for her to take. She climbed the flight, several steps high, and when they emerged at the top, they were at street level again, back in the Kin side of reality, except Betty noticed a distinct change of atmosphere.
Exotic accents were around them, laughter permeating drumbeats and other string music. The air smelled of spices, and the merchandise sold by stalls took on broader color palettes and exotic vegetables.
It was a feast for the senses and Betty stopped in her tracks to take all of it in, first with her eyes and then when she closed them, she listened and took in the smells.
Jughead walked slightly past her so that he could lead the way. “This is a largely Haitian community, but I'm told by its residents that everybody is welcome.”
Betty’s mouth watered at the array of cooked food they passed by, as well as the fresh fruits and vegetables piled in carts being sold to pedestrians. Young children ran by with their slates and bags, like they came from school, and both men and women were preoccupied, busily living their lives.
Betty and Jughead came upon a small storefront, and on its windows, painted in green, yellow, red, and black, were the words Valerie’s Patties.
It was an incredibly small restaurant, and at this hour, there were only two people seated inside, but there seemed to be a constant influx of customers in and out of its narrow doors. There was a counter at the innermost end of it, where a lady around Jughead’s age stood attending, her orange and green Daemon of a gryphon perched on her shoulder, speaking into her ear while she barked orders to someone in the kitchen behind her.
“Valerie,” Jughead said to get her attention.
At first, she seemed annoyed at being disturbed, her Daemon taking flight above her, but when she saw who it was, her frown turned into a smile. The gryphon dove and disappeared into the Mark at the base of her neck. “Ah, Jughead Jones! Second time in two weeks!”
She was a beautiful woman, with piercing grey eyes and a wide smile. Her hair was pulled back neatly in a colorful scarf, with little tendrils escaping along the sides of her face in lovely curls. Her clothing was worn in the style of the Kin, with bold tints and cuts, and her ears and wrists were adorned with colorful beads set in dark gold. Her English was accented and almost melodic.
Valerie came around the counter, tossing off her apron to give Jughead a warm hug, which Betty was slightly flustered with.
“Are you tired of seeing me, then?” Jughead asked.
Valerie waved away his words with her hand and tutted. “Of course not. It is good to see you coming back on a more regular basis. And who is your lady friend? Or is she your lady, period?” She winked at Betty as she said this and Betty felt an inexplicable shyness come over her.
“This is Elizabeth Cooper, from my old town. We practically grew up together,” Jughead replied. “Betty, this is Ms. Valerie Brown, owner and chef of this exceptional establishment.”
Betty and Valerie exchanged respectable curtsies.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Betty said, politely.
“And I you,” Valerie replied. “Old town… Riverdale, is it? Trevor mentioned Jughead was from there.”
Betty remembered Jughead mentioning Trevor. He was Jughead’s deceased partner. Betty also recalled that the subject of Trevor’s death had evaporated any warmth from Jughead the last time it was brought up unprovoked. He seemed, however, more at ease now. Perhaps because Valerie was related to Trevor somehow? “Yes, Riverdale. This is my first time in the city and Jughead is kind enough to show me around.”
Valerie threw Jughead a sidelong glance. “Kind, is he? You must be special. He don’t just bring anybody here--too many things to explain.”
“You know I only bring my true friends here, Valerie,” Jughead chided lightly.
Valerie gestured to the tables and they fit in the small one in the corner. Whomever was in the kitchen had emerged to man the front while Valerie was busy.
“What an extraordinary business you have here, Ms. Brown,” Betty said, and she meant that completely. As small as the establishment was, the decor was exceptionally lovely and atmospheric. The smells from the kitchen were seductive, and the fact that Valerie owned and ran the place was extremely admirable. Betty was breathless with awe.
Valerie gave a mild scoff. “It could be better, but I have a Grand Plan.” Her accent thickened at this last bit, as if she were sharing her innermost thoughts on the matter. “When I open my shop in Guildman Street, my restaurant will be bigger, with tablecloths and Crémasse, and it will have a variety of Haitian dishes.”
It sounded fantastic and Jughead tilted a grin. “And have half my colleagues drunk out of their minds after lunch. Will I be welcome to walk in here without an appointment, still? Or will you close this shop?”
Valerie looked squarely at Betty. “Don’t listen to this scoundrel, Ms. Cooper. He teases something fierce when he gets in his sarcastic moods. Of course this shop will remain. My patties are legendary and they will stay affordable. My restaurant at Guildman Street will charge for the price of Guildsmen’s and Peace Dealers’ hefty wallets. I might lighten the spices a wee bit. Those delicate white boys might otherwise choke on the joumou.”
Betty did not know what joumou was, but she had no doubt it was spicy.
“Hey,” Jughead piped with a grin. “I seem to recall how you and Trevor were impressed at how well I can handle the spice.”
She scoffed. “That is because Trevor and I trained your tastebuds well.”
Betty laughed softly. “Well I am not sure I can handle the spice.”
Valerie put a reassuring hand on her arm. “If you can bear to be with this rascal, then I know that you have a saucy enough tongue to withstand it.”
“Valerie,” Jughead said in that stern tone he seemed to have mastered, but all Valerie did was laugh.
Betty could not help but join in her laughter.
Valerie served them her famous patties—a flaky pastry filled with a spicy savory meat. It was nothing like anything Betty had tasted, and while the spice did wake up her tongue, it was delicious and delightfully easy to eat. She could very well imagine how workers could take these with them for their lunches.
Betty heaped praises on the chef, while Jughead easily finished two in five short minutes.
Valerie stayed with them a while longer, emphasizing how pleased she was to see Jughead doing well and bringing his friends over.
She kept mentioning Trevor, which Jughead acknowledged quietly, but said very little about.
When Valerie asked Betty how long she was staying in the city, she hesitated in her reply, because she and Jughead hadn’t discussed it, but Jughead simply replied, “For as long as she likes. For as long as she needs.”
“Well, then,” Valerie said, unperturbed. “If having you here means we get to see more of Jughead—“ she showed the underside of her arm where a mark of a bull-like creature graced it “—then we must convince you to stay. If you need anything, Ms. Cooper—patties, an ear to listen, help with trouble, luck, fertility—“
Jughead shot her a pointed look and Valerie laughed before going on.
“—anything at all, come to my shop anytime.”
It was a generous invitation, one that Betty felt she had earned solely because she was Jughead’s friend.
As they reemerged on the street, Betty itched to ask her many questions. She paused only to consider which question should go first.
Betty decided on the easiest one. “How did you find this restaurant?”
“My previous partner at the Guild, Trevor,” Jughead replied, tucking his hat back on. “He used to bring these patties to work for his lunch, and when I asked about them, he made me try some. I have enjoyed various Haitian dishes since, but the patties remain my favorite. Valerie is his sister.”
He did not go on and Betty pondered his words. It made sense, then, that Valerie had shown the mark on her arm, referring to herself as a “we”. When relatives pass, the Daemon of the deceased can be hosted by a family member, until they are summoned one last time, after which they will finally pass. Often, such Daemons are never used at all, and they are released with the passing of the Kin who hosted them.
“Valerie knew Trevor was dead before I even realized it myself,” Jughead said in a quiet tone.
Betty nodded. It was because Trevor’s Daemon passed onto Valerie the moment he died.
Jughead and Valerie seemed comfortable with one another, but Betty could detect no romantic history, if any. Valerie seemed vastly fond of him, but she seemed nurturing. Welcoming, certainly.
“She expressed surprise at your immediate return,” Betty observed. “Were you never so regular?”
Jughead pursed his lips but nodded, leading her towards an open market. “I used to be, then I wasn’t.” The sights and sounds should have distracted her, but she was intent on learning more about Jughead’s life when he wasn't working.
“It was complicated.”
“Things got better. Valerie forgave me long before she cremated her brother’s body. It took longer for me to forgive myself.”
It began to dawn on her that his reluctance to speak of his partner was borne from guilt. It was just like him to shoulder the responsibility of everyone’s safety. It was his character, she knew, regardless of whether Charles took him in or not. She tried to find the words to soothe him, but it was impossible to say anything meaningful if she didn’t know the entire story, and before she could say anything, he had pointed to a stall that sold Trinidad barra--more food.
It occured to Betty that he had brought her to this place at the risk of revealing whatever tragic story was haunting him. In spite of the reality that Jughead did not wish to share that story, he had brought her here because he wished to share with her everything else--the sights, the sounds, the food, and perhaps his friends, too, because at each stall they stopped, they seemed to know him, and of course, Betty was immediately introduced.
This is his way.
He was bringing her in. He was sharing a part of himself, but as was Jughead’s wont, he was keeping something away that needed peeling back with painstaking patience.
A deliciously sweet smell permeated her nose and when she turned to look, she saw slices of cooked plantain coated in syrupy sugar being served in cones of newspaper.
She wanted some for them to share and she grabbed Jughead’s hand to pull him along with her, but a wall of a man carrying a large piece of furniture stepped in her way. She shrieked to avoid it and would have collided badly with him had Jughead not pulled her back and caught her in his arms.
She laughed with breathless relief, but the feel of his strong arms around her, neither loosening nor pulling away, had her staring into his eyes as the laughter died on her lips.
The steady rhythm of her heart picked up speed and she waited for what might happen next, but the strangest sound cut through the air, causing him to pull away and dig into his coat pocket.
He brought out what Betty recognized as the aural communicator, and as he slipped it on, he murmured a quick apology and request to give him a moment.
Betty stifled a sigh of frustration, focusing instead on his conversation with the person at the other end.
“Father, must you really?” His frown of displeasure grew deep. “Since when did you take orders from Cheryl Blossom? I cannot possibly be the only one in this area. Who told her that? Moose would never and he would set Cheryl’s coach on fire if she is telling such lies about him.” He ran his hand down his face as he gave a great sigh. “Why do you let her--“ He clamped his mouth shut, then he tore off his communicator angrily and stood with his back to her, breathing.
Betty nipped at her lip, hesitating to put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you alright?”
He turned at the sound of her voice, as if he had forgotten she was there. He transformed his displeased expression into a soft smile, which wrung her heart ever so slightly. “I am, but unfortunately, a call has come in and I need to work.”
This was not at all bad news to her. “Oh. Well, may I go with you?”
He scowled. “Absolutely not.” He began walking back in the direction of the main street.
She was not deterred. “Why not?”
He seemed flabbergasted by her question. “Why not? Because this is official Guild business and you aren’t licensed to practice—“
“I was never licensed. And yet I did it in Riverdale. You did it there without a license, either. Does this license give you special powers that is unavailable to me--”
“Betty,” he interrupted in a stern tone. “You know what I mean.”
“You know what I’m capable of. I can help. Is it because my Daemon hasn’t quickened?”
“No.” He waved his hand for emphasis. “No. I have no doubt of your capabilities, but reports have to get filled and how am I to explain your presence? In the eyes of the Guild you are a civilian--”
“Then don’t. Mention me, I mean. Come now. You may be the perfect gentleman these days, but I know those street smarts have not completely left you.”
He shook his head and he wasn’t smiling, but as they wove through the crowd, his lack of counter argument told her he was considering it.
As they emerged from the building alleyways onto Fifth Avenue, he said, “Betty, this isn’t a lark at a boring party.”
That he juxtaposed this with those wonderful times they set off together to find mischief told her that not all was lost. “You said it yourself once. Everyone needs a partner. I will be your partner for now. And no, this isn’t a lark at a boring party. We are leaving an extremely enjoyable afternoon for a higher purpose.”
They stood by the sidewalk, face to face, and the little crimp between Jughead’s brows made Betty want to giggle.
The black carriage reminiscent of the one they had at Riverdale pulled up beside them, Moose at the helm. This carriage looked even sleeker—newer than the Riverdale version.
“I didn’t tell Cheryl,” Moose cried without prompting, holding out a folder for Jughead to take.
Jughead frowned up at him and took the folder from his hand. “I am sure you did not, but she had reason to believe that interrupting my day off would incense me thoroughly, which she has. What did you say?”
Jughead sighed and rolled his eyes. “A sure way to clue her in. You could have said something just to throw her off.”
“I am a terrible liar, Jones.”
“When unmotivated, I’m sure.”
“Next time, prepare me for when you wish to have a day with your lady.”
Jughead fixed him with a deadly glare.
Moose looked at Betty. “Another carriage will be by soon to pick you up, Miss Cooper.”
She pulled her shoulders back and simply said, “I don’t need it. I am going with you.”
Jughead shot her a warning look. “Now, Betty—“
She didn’t wait. She pulled open the carriage door herself and stepped inside, sitting herself down on the cushioned interior. It was incredibly comfortable and also much more interesting that the one they kept at Riverdale.
The wall before her unfolded, revealing a row of buttons, some levers, and what looked like a blank picture frame against the wall. She made a motion to press one of the buttons labeled PROCESS.
“Please refrain from touching anything,” Jughead grumbled as he slumped heavily beside her. “How do you even know that isn’t to explode this carriage?”
She frowned. “As if there were such a thing.”
Jughead sighed and pulled down another lever, which opened a panel with a red button inside. On it was a warning: ALERT: Exerting pressure on this button affords you precisely 10 seconds to evacuate the vehicle before it detonates.
He turned to face her. “This is not safe.”
“Truly. You must close that panel immediately, lest we press it by accident.”
“I do not mean the detonator. I cannot let you go with me. If anything happens to you--” He stopped and took a deep breath, shaking his head.
“Nothing will happen to me, Jughead. I can help you and you know it. Remember when you refused to let me go alone before? I would like to be able to provide support to you as well. Besides, I am not leaving this coach. You will have to throw me out of it, which you would never do.”
A glint of mischief sparked in his eyes. “I can contain you in it. Tie you up and keep you here.”
She cast him a look of challenge. “You wouldn’t dare. And I’ll have you know that I pride myself at being quite the escape artist.”
Though he didn’t laugh, his sardonic grin did mark her triumph. “Somehow I do not doubt you. If you are to come with me, you must do as I say. Do you understand?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “I do! Now tell me--where are they sending you?”
He opened the folder that Moose gave him earlier. “To an abandoned pencil factory. This afternoon, a man was killed at the Edward Baker Pencil Company and his spirit refuses to leave this plane, and in doing so revealed that there are other ghosts hiding with him,”
“Seven. It is your lucky day, Betty.”
She eyed him pointedly as she replied. “Oh, I already knew that when I woke up this morning.”