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Lean On Me

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After becoming fast friends with Kevin Keller, Jughead quickly learned Kevin’s greatest flaw: his positively lousy taste in boyfriends (next was his chronic overscheduling, leaving himself no chance to relax). If there was a scumbag in the vicinity, Kevin was either interested in him, flirting with him, or already dating him. The prime example would have to be Jason Blossom, but there were plenty of others.

So when Jughead walked into Pop Tate’s with Betty and noticed Kevin all over some jock type in a leather jacket, he could only assume Kevin had found yet another loser to chase after.

And Good Lord, were they ever losers. Always and unquestionably, without fail. It wasn’t just a matter of Jughead being jealous that these guys were dating Kevin and he wasn’t; all of the gang agreed that Kevin somehow selected the absolute worst of the worst every time.

Kevin saw them and waved, a smile brightening his whole face. It was Kevin’s smile that he liked best, not that Jughead was much of one for romance. The expression always was so welcoming and genuine.

“Who’s that James Dean impersonator?” Betty asked as they joined their friends at the large round corner booth in the back. Reggie, Veronica, Midge, Moose, Dilton, Nancy, Chuck, and Shrill were present, but it looked like Valerie and Archie had yet to show. It was the last Saturday of Christmas break, and they had planned a night out to spend some time together before school began again.

“Yeah, and what misdemeanor did he commit to capture Kevin’s devotion so quickly?” Jughead added. He would never understand why Kevin always fell for the criminals and slimeballs that he did, but then again, some of Kevin’s favorite comic book characters were supervillains.

“His name is Nick St. Clair,” Reggie looked distinctly unimpressed as he checked the time on his Rolex, either because of his low opinion of Nick or his exasperation with Archie’s late arrival. “He’s the nephew of my neighbors, the Andersons. He got sent here because of trouble at his last high school. He also thinks he’s tough because he has a Harley, never mind that he can barely drive the thing. God, if I had a time for every time that jackass almost sideswiped when I was turning down our street, I’d have even more money than I already do.”

“So you know that Kevin’s probably already planning his wedding to Nick,” Midge said with a roll of her eyes. “Really, I have no idea why Kev feels obligated to get involved with every moron who drunkenly stumbles into his path. It’s not like he couldn’t get any guy he wanted with his looks.”

Inwardly, Jughead agreed with her. Normally, he didn’t pay much attention to people’s appearances, but Kevin was undeniably attractive, with blue eyes, golden blond hair, and smooth, fair skin. He had a runner’s body, wiry and slim, with lean muscles, narrow hips, and long legs. In Jughead’s opinion, he looked better than even the frothiest of milkshakes.

“Well, in this case, I think Nick’s motorcycle helped seal the deal.” Veronica was gazing into a compact mirror, meticulously applying mascara that probably cost more than the average pair of Nikes. “But in general, I think Kevin’s terrible boyfriends are his way of rebelling.” As one of Kevin’s best friends, she had been stuck putting up with more than her fair share of Kevin’s unscrupulous suitors.

“What’s he rebelling against?” Moose asked obligingly

Feigning disinterest in the conversation, Jughead pulling the shared basket of fries toward himself, listening closely all the while. He had never told Kevin about his feelings for him and really never planned to, reasoning that it was just a crush and it would disappear soon. Those feelings hadn’t vanished yet, but even if they never did, Kevin was one of his friends, and Jughead would hate to ruin a perfectly good friendship over something silly like romance.

“ ‘What have you got?’ ” Chuck quoted, ever the film buff.

“Bingo,” Dilton replied, glancing up from the app design he had been showing to Moose and Midge. “Like Marlon Brando in The Wild One , Kevin is trying to find a pursuit that lets him break away from the mundane. For Kevin, it just happens to surface in his dating life.”

“Exactly.” Veronica set down her mascara and began fluffing her hair. “Kevin is a dear friend to me, but honestly, I’d go crazy if I had his schedule. It’s so packed the gills he barely has time to breathe, and honestly, I get the impression that he hates it. All of those extracurriculars, honors classes, combined with basically raising his younger sisters since his parents are away ninety-five percent of the time—he hardly has any freedom to do what he actually wants. He has really nothing to enjoy on a daily basis.”

“But Kevin isn’t forced to do most of those things,” Nancy pointed out. “No one makes him be part of the yearbook or the cross country team or swim team or Amnesty International. He chooses to get involved.”

“That’s probably because he knows his parents would just make him devote an even greater percentage of his life to taking care of his sisters,” Veronica returned. “Filling up his schedule with other activities is the only way he gets a break from his family. It’s like they don’t expect him to have a life beyond them.”

“Be fair, Ron. Mr. and Mrs. Keller have to travel for their jobs,” Betty told her.

“True, but that doesn’t mean they get to use Kevin as a full-time nanny,” Jughead contributed. All too many times, he had tried to invite Kevin out to the movies, to his house for video games, or just out for a burger, only for Kevin to be stuck grocery shopping, going to parent-teacher conferences, or attending athletic awards ceremony for one of his younger sisters. Honestly, he thought it was ridiculous; Jughead’s parents expected him to regularly help out with his younger sister, but they didn’t leave him alone to care for her for weeks at a time. “Reluctant as I am to agree with Veronica, I do think Kevin should be allowed to have fun, even just once in a while.”

“Gee, thanks.” Veronica sent him a nasty look. “Trust me, Jughead, I’m just as surprised to find myself on the same side as you. But Kevin’s problem is that he sublimates. I learned about it in psychology class. Kevin doesn’t want to upset his parents, so he channels his anger into something else. He can’t outright rebel against them, so he rebels against them in small ways, by dating individuals they and the rest of society deem unsavory. Am I right, Dilton? Isn’t that what sublimation is?”

“Not quite,” Dilton began, but he was interrupted by Moose.

“Hey, Archie and Valerie are here!” He announced excitedly. “I wonder if Valerie can tell us when her next show is going to be?”

“I hope it’s soon!” Midge crossed her fingers. “I loved the Pussycats’ new album, and I can’t wait to hear those songs in concert.”

But when Archie and Valerie were walking towards their booth, Nick and Kevin were leaving their own table—and Nick ending up turning around and smacking straight into Archie.

“Watch where you’re going!” Nick snarled at him.

Kevin looked thoroughly taken aback by Nick’s response, and offered an apology to the couple almost immediately. “Hey, Arch, Val, I’m really sorry—”

“Let’s go, Kevin,” Nick snapped at him, quickly maneuvering Kevin under his arm and steering him out the door.

Instantly, this guy’s unwarranted aggression pinged Jughead’s radar as marking him somehow even further below Kevin’s usual brand of degenerate boyfriend, and he decided to act.

“Actually, gang, I’m going to double check if Kevin’s sure he doesn’t want to go to the movies with us,” Jughead said, standing and hurriedly grabbing his jacket.

“I’ll join you.” Shrill, a relative newcomer to their group, rushed after him. “I have a car,” she told Jughead as they exited the shop, her long lilac hair flowing out behind her. “We can invite ourselves along to hang out with Nick and Kevin if we need to.”

Jughead nodded. So Shrill had the same thought as he did—that Nick’s temper could mean he might not be the type of guy Kevin should be alone with.

They were too late, however. Before they even could round the corner to get to the parking lot, a motorcycle was already roaring past them and away from them, Nick driving and Kevin seated behind him, his face nearly unrecognizable underneath the helmet’s visor.

“Too late.” Jughead sighed.

Shrill rested a hand on his shoulder supportively. “You tried to help, and that already makes you a good friend.”

Even though he was troubled by Kevin’s abrupt departure with Nick, Jughead tried to give her a smile. “You, too.”

They rejoined the gang outside the restaurant to walk to the movie theater; finding parking spaces at the theater was such a pain that it was worth it to walk the two and a half blocks. Jughead sent Kevin a quick text, and was relieved when Kevin responded fairly swiftly and happily.

“So that’s Kevin’s latest boyfriend, huh?” Archie asked him on their way over. “He seems like a total tool.”

Jughead snorted. “Does Kevin have any other type? You should have heard Veronica’s psychoanalysis of his dating history before you got there. As delusional as she normally is, I think she actually might have been onto something.”

“Really? What did she say?” Archie seemed intrigued. “I always thought Kevin picked his boyfriends because he wanted a project, someone to fix. But remember when he was dating Jason Blossom? Jason would sit around insulting everyone and everything, and Kevin would just be sitting there looking annoyed or trying to get him to shut up.”

“Who wouldn’t be annoyed by either of the Blossoms?” Forget Veronica or Reggie, the Blossom twins were two of Jughead’s least favorite people of all time. “And the less time they spend talking, the better. But Veronica thinks Kevin is trying to get revenge on his parents for constantly giving him all sorts of adult responsibilities.”

“Yeah, their continual determination to put him into the position of a single teenage father is pretty freaking weird,” Archie agreed.

Later on, once they arrived at the theater, Jughead found that Archie and Shrill weren’t the only ones critical of Kevin’s latest romantic interest. Reggie gave his own opinion when Jughead was just about to pay for his snacks at the concession stand.

“Hang on, I’ve got it,” Reggie said resignedly as Jughead was just about to reluctantly sacrifice twenty-five dollars of his hard-earned cash. It was a difficult dilemma, because while Jughead loved to eat, he really hated to part with money, as it meant he would have to work to earn more.

“Why, Reggie! I never knew you cared!” Jughead mocked as Reggie pulled several crisp bills out of his Givenchy wallet.

Reggie shot him a scathing look. “Please. The only reason a solid ten like me would ever be interested in a negative seventeen like you would be out-and-out charity. And they won’t give me tax breaks just for going out with ugly people, unfortunately.”

Jughead gathered his pile of food, only managing to grasp his paper cup with two fingers. “Then I’d ask if you paid my way out of the goodness of your heart, but I know you only have a cold, empty black space where that vital organ should be.”

“Har, har,” Reggie retorted as they stopped by the soda fountain machine. Noticing Jughead struggling to work the touch screen with his hands full, he heaved an aggrieved sigh and took the paper cup from him. “Here, I’ll get your drink for you. What flavor?”

“Mello Yello with grape, please,” Jughead responded promptly. “So, why are you acting like a decent human being for once? Are you having an identity crisis?”

“I helped you out because I saw how you wanted to help out Kevin.” Reggie moved to give Jughead his drink, but seeing as he had no hands free, continued to carry it as they walked down the hall back to the theater where their movie is playing. “I was still sitting there, trying to process, and you were already out the door. Shrill, too—I bought her Twizzlers for her. I hate to say it, Jones, but you did a good job.”

“Oh, really?” Jughead’s eyebrows shot up. He himself was very close to Kevin, considering him his other best friend besides Archie. And while Veronica was Kevin’s other best friend, Kevin and Reggie were also pretty close. “I’m guessing you’re sick of Kevin’s ongoing parade of deadbeat boyfriends, too, then?”

“I was a long time ago,” Reggie admitted. “But I’m really not in any position to criticize others for their poor decisions.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Jughead commented.

“Shut up.” Reggie scowled at him briefly, but then his expression cleared as he gave a shrug of ambivalence. “You know, your friends are your friends. I can’t ditch Kevin just because I don’t agree with his romantic choices. And I wouldn’t want to. The best I can do is help him pick up the pieces after it’s over.”

“Did your heart grow three sizes over Christmas?” Jughead snarked. Truthfully, he was impressed by Reggie’s loyalty to Kevin, but Reggie’s ego didn’t need to be inflated any further.

“Don’t be a jackass,” Reggie told him with disgust, even as he held the door for Jughead.

“You’re right, you’re right.” They reached their seats with the rest of the gang, and Jughead set down his food and clapped Reggie on the shoulder. “You’re trying and succeeding in being nice. We should just celebrate this rare event.”

Even as the opening trailers started across the screen, Jughead’s thoughts remained on Kevin. Few forces were capable of uniting him with both Veronica and Reggie, but tonight Kevin’s involvement in Nick St. Clair had done so in less than an hour. If both of them agreed with him that Nick was bad news, Jughead was sure it could not bode well for Kevin.

Fortunately, upon their return to school, most of the student body and faculty seemed just as unimpressed with Nick. While Jughead didn’t have any  contact with him, as Nick was senior, it didn’t appear that Nick inspired anything but resentment and dislike in anyone who did.

“He’s an absolute pig,” Ginger Lopez angrily told Maria Rodriguez and Sheila Wu as they entered the shop classroom. Jughead was still there in the back supply room, tasked with organizing materials as a punishment for not paying attention during class.

“He asked me to go down on him in the men’s room, and when I wouldn’t, he called me a slut!” She went on. “Can you believe it? He wants me to help him cheat on his boyfriend, but when I say no, somehow I’m the ones who gets called names!”

While Nick’s lack of fidelity to Kevin was unsurprising, Jughead considered it part of his duty as Kevin’s best friend to break the news to him gently before it became school-wide gossip. But his efforts were fruitless: Kevin already knew. And, too occupied with trying to refill a prescription for his sister Patty’s asthma prescription in the absence of his parents, Kevin didn’t particularly care.

“I already heard,” Kevin said with a shrug after Jughead asked if he knew about Nick and Ginger.

“And?” Jughead pressed, quickening his pace to keep up with Kevin, who was striding down the hall to one of his various club meetings. Junior Engineering League, maybe. Or environmental club. Bio club?

Kevin glanced up from dialing a new number on his phone. “What can I say? Nobody’s perfect.”

“If he cheated on you once, or even just wanted to cheat on you, he’ll probably do it again,” Jughead pointed out.

“So noted.” Kevin hit the ‘call’ button on his phone. “Thanks for the information, Jug, but I have to procure life-saving medication for my kid sister.” He listened at the other end for a moment, then grimaced. “Ugh, they have me on hold. Listen, I don’t mean to brush you off. I really appreciate you telling me. It’s just that I can only handle so many crises at a time, you know?”

For a moment, Jughead was about to continue forcing the issue, but then he noticed the circles under Kevin’s eyes, the pallor of his skin. And his gaze, usually a vibrant blue, now just looked dull and tired. Kevin was obviously exhausted, and he didn’t need Jughead harping on him and reminding him of his various problems.

“Got it,” Jughead said, though he was unable to keep the half-heartedness from his voice.


When Jughead was loitering around the home economics hallway in hopes of scoring leftovers, and he once again found himself privy to a conversation about Nick.

“That St. Clair boy is absolutely careless,” Ms. Crouton huffed when Coach Pacer stopped by for a quick chat. “I warned him to be careful when he was chopping potatoes for the stew, but he didn’t listen and ended accidentally cutting Trev Smith on the arm. Luckily it was only a scratch, but Nick refused to apologize for being careless and insisted that it was Trev’s fault.

Coach Pacer nodded. “I noticed that when I subbed for Harry’s history class earlier this week.” Jughead knew that Harry was Coach Clayton’s first name. “Nick collided with Angel Angelino—Angel was leaving while Nick was entering—and you have though Angel declared a blood feud. I had to send Nick to the office for cussing Angel out.”  

Ms. Crouton nodded and opened her mouth to respond, but then she noticed Jughead. “Stop dawdling, Mr. Jones, and get to class,” she ordered him.

Jughead complied and found Archie waiting for him outside the classroom, a ferocious scowl on his face and faint bruising forming around the edges of his eyes toward his nose.

“What happened?” Jughead asked.

“Nick St. Clair happened,” Archie replied darkly.

“Don’t tell me: you and Nick got into a fight?” Jughead hazarded a guess.

“He’s much of a wimp for that,” Archie replied bitterly. “No, he elbowed me in the face during gym class. Gave me a bloody nose and then claimed it was an accident when Coach Kleats asked him what happened.”

“What a tool,” Jughead said contemptuously as they entered the classroom together.

“More than a tool. The toolbox. No, the entire toolshed.” Archie sighed. “Look, Kevin wouldn’t be able to find a decent boyfriend if the fate of the universe hung in the balance, but he’s really outdone himself with this creep.”

“Too right,” Jughead agreed unhappily. He resolved to try to talk with Kevin about Nick again. Maybe Kevin could fit him in between history club and swim team.

For study hall, he nabbed a pass to the library—not because he planned on doing homework, but the chairs in the library were more comfortable, easier to fall asleep in. An odd scene awaited him at the library, though. Reggie, Betty, and Dilton sitting at a table, huddled together conspiratorially. As Jughead paused for a moment to observe, he noticed that whenever someone walked past their table, they would go silent and sit back in their chairs, trying to pretend they weren’t having a conversation at all.

Curious, Jughead ambled over to them.

“Hey,” he said, sprawling into a chair at the table. “What are all of you talking about? Looks pretty intense.”

He did not miss the hurried exchange of glances between them as they floundered for an answer.

“We were talking about Nick,” Betty said quickly, as Dilton and Reggie sent her startled glances. “About what a jerk he is.”

“He’s a troglodyte,” Dilton added.

“Yeah, and he’s all wrong for Kevin,” Reggie contributed.

“Yeah, Nick’s really made a name for himself as Mr. Congeniality, hasn’t he?” Jughead remarked dryly.

Betty laughed, but Jughead thought he detected a hint of nervousness within it. “Sure has,” she answered and then quickly changed the subject to her plans for the community garden in the spring.

Frowning, Jughead quizzically scanned their faces, wondering what the big secret was.

For his part, Kevin didn’t seem blind to any of Nick’s many flaws during the various times Jughead raised them with him. But he also didn’t seem to be particularly worried about them, or at least, not enough to break up with Nick.

“I know Nick can be a callous bastard,” he admitted to Jughead as he pulled out of the school parking lot. For all Mr. and Mrs. Keller’s poor judgement, they had provided Kevin with a sleek Prius for him to use to chauffeur his sisters around town.

At the moment, Kevin was giving Jughead a ride home. Afterward, Kevin was going to the print shop to pick up the banners for the student government fundraiser.

A beat of silence passed between them as Kevin’s words hung in the air.

“This is the part where you add something to the end of that sentence,” Jughead advised. “Like, ‘I know Nick can be a callous bastard at times, but he’s a big help with running my household since my parents don’t.’ Or ‘He makes a kickass roast chicken, so I don’t have to worry about cooking dinner when I get home from my millions of sports teams and clubs.’ ”

Kevin did not say anything.

Jughead held up his hands. “Kev, I’m not trying to judge, but why date the guy if you can’t find a single redeeming quality about him? I mean . . .” Jughead’s mouth went dry, and he tried to ignore the pounding of his heart as he chose his next words carefully. “There’s got to be someone out there better than Nick.” Right here , he added silently.

“It’s, um, it’s . . .” Kevin swallowed.

Another silence stretched between them as Kevin searched for a response.

“It’s complicated,” he managed at last.

“That’s a copout,” Jughead said flatly.

A muscle in Kevin’s jaw twitched and anger flashed in his eyes, but his tone wasn’t anything but level and controlled when he replied. “Fine, then. Here’s your answer, Nick is an escape for me. Every day of my life, I act like the All-American for people at school. I’m a top athlete, national honor society member, junior class president, and a nice guy in general. For my sisters, I’m almost always the sole caretaker, the person who acts like their mother, father, and big brother. I have to be their role model and support system since my parents aren’t. And as for my lovely parents,” fury seeped into his voice, bringing Jughead’s eyebrows to shoot up, “I have to pretend that I don’t mind that they expect me to act like an au pair instead of high school student. But Nick doesn’t have any expectations for me. He doesn’t care what I act like as long as I put out.”

For a moment, Jughead simply absorbed the information. “So it’s really about your parents, then?” he then asked, watching Kevin closely. As unconventional as his situation was with his parents, Kevin was never one to complain, but just simply accepted their parental duties as his. Perhaps Veronica had been right with her theory about Kevin’s rebellion, after all.

Kevin chuckled, but there was an edge of desperation to it. “It’s about a lot of things.” He pulled the Prius to a halt in front Jughead’s house. “Your stop.” He tried valiantly to offer Jughead a smile, but only succeeded in looking ill and worn.

Jughead shouldered his backpack, his hand on the door, hesitating and unsure what to say. “You know I’m still your friend through whatever, right?” He asked finally. “No matter what type of scumbag you’re dating.”

A corner of Kevin’s mouth tugged upward. “Thanks, Jug.”

“Anytime.” Jughead offered what he hoped was an encouraging smile before exiting the car and waving to Kevin as he drove away.

Life at school continued, along with Nick’s persistence in angering everyone he came into contact with.  Rumors of about Nick swirled throughout the school; it seemed like his life was a non-stop barrage of fights, thefts, and romantic rendezvous.

“Like he lives in an action movie, or something,” Chuck said sourly to Dilton and Jughead as they arrived at their usual lunch table. “That kid would chicken out of fighting a middle schooler. He wrecked one of my paintings in art class—it was a landscape piece and he dumped purple acrylic paint all over it. Then when I challenged him to a boxing match during gym, he claimed he couldn’t risk it because of too many sports concussions. As if someone as untalented as him would ever get any actual play time to get concussed.”

“All talk and no substance seems about right for Nick,” Dilton remarked as they were joined by Midge, Moose, Betty, Veronica, and Archie.

“I saw him and the Andersons going into Principal Weatherbee’s office when I went there to drop off some permission slips,” Moose volunteered.  “None of them looked too happy.”

“I just came from there,” Shrill said, sitting down at the table. “Nick is being expelled for ‘numerous instances of fraudulent academic work.’ Cheating, I guess.”

“Is he?” A victorious grin swept over Betty’s face.

Shrill nodded. “Yeah. I’d never seen the Bee so serious before. It didn’t seem like it was an easy decision for him to make.”

“Yes!” Betty and Dilton exclaimed, exchanging high-fives.

Archie glanced back and forth between them. “Am I missing something here?”

A memory flashed through Jughead’s mind. “Was this what you two and Reggie were talking about that one time at the library?”

“Was what?” Reggie asked, arriving at the table.

“Nick St. Clair has been expelled!” Betty told him excitedly.

Reggie pumped his fist in the air. “Looks like he took the bait, then. Idiot,” he added contemptuously.

“Okay, you’ve got to let us know what’s going on!” Midge broke in.

“Well, we noticed what a jerk Nick was in general,” Betty began. “And we also really didn’t like how he treated Kevin.” Her usually cheerful face darkened.

“Reasoning that Nick’s level of integrity was fairly low, we decided to encourage him to fabricate his miscellaneous academic assignments,” Dilton continued. “We would leave essays, lab reports, and response papers in Nick’s vicinity, where he would be certain to locate them.”

“And he would white-out one of our names and then turn it in as his own.” Reggie scoffed. “Can you believe it? As if the white-out didn’t make it obvious the paper originally belong to someone else.”

“We knew if Nick got caught cheating more than once, and using various students’ work, he would be in serious trouble,” Betty told them. “And now he is.”

“Betty Cooper, that was positively devious of you all!” Midge exclaimed.

“Well done,” Jughead congratulated them.

“It was my plan,” Reggie informed Midge, straightening his Armani shirt.

“Of course,” Archie muttered, but he clapped Reggie on the back nonetheless. “You did good. Now if only Kevin would find an even somewhat decent person to date, for a change.”

“Oh, damn. Kevin.” Dilton froze. “It didn’t occur to me. But it’s only a week until Valentine’s Day. He’s going to be going through a breakup just before the most romantic holiday of the year.”

Betty looked stricken. “You’re right. I never thought about that. Kevin always does take his breakups really hard, and now it’s going to be even worse for him.”

Moose frowned. “You’d think he would be used to them by now.” He jumped as Midge dug an elbow into his ribs. “Ow! What was that for?”

Archie hesitated. “I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, but I honestly think he’s better off alone than with Nick on any day of the year. Still, it’s gonna suck for him to see a bunch of lovey-dovey couples when he’s alone.”

“He has us, and he has me,” Veronica said firmly. “I’m texting him now. Don’t worry. I’ll check if he’s okay. Even if it means cancelling my own plans, I’ll make sure he doesn’t spend Valentine’s Day on his own.”

“Veronica thinking of others? It’s a Valentine’s Day miracle!” Jughead joked, ducking Veronica’s hand that she swung to slap the back of his head.

Straightening, he quickly fired off a text to Kevin as well, just a friendly, “How are you?” But by the time lunch ended, Kevin still hadn’t texted him back.

Later that evening, Archie called him with bad news. “You know that fishing trip we were planning on taking?”

“The fishing trip we’re going on this weekend because it’s the first warm weekend we’ve had all year?” Jughead accepted the stack of Legos his younger sister, Jellybean, was offering him. He was watching her while their parents were out. He broke the stack back into individual blocks, handing them back to the toddler. “Don’t tell me: you can’t go?”

Archie sighed. “Yes. Because—”

“You already had something scheduled but you forgot and made plans anyway, so now you have to back out on one of them?” Jughead guessed.

“Not quite. I kept promising my mom I would clean out the garage, but I needed to put it off while I earned money for Valerie’s Valentine’s present.” Dismay was evident in Archie’s voice. “So now Mom and Dad tell me I have to do it this weekend, and since I work on Sunday—”

“That leaves only Saturday and takes away our fishing trip.” Jughead couldn’t contain his disappointment. After all the drama with Nick and Kevin, he was really hoping to get away from it all, even just for a few hours, especially now that Kevin seemed to be avoiding him.

“I’m really sorry, Jug,” Archie said. To his credit, his tone was very guilty.

“It’s okay,” Jughead told him. “There’ll be other fishing trips.” The chime of the doorbell rang from the front door. “Someone’s at the door. I gotta go. Seriously, Arch, don’t feel bad.”

Quickly stowing Jellybean in her playpen, Jughead went to the door and found Kevin, soaking wet from the pouring rain, waiting for him.

“Did swim team decide you needed practice on land as well as water?” Jughead asked. Granted, it wasn’t the best witticism he had ever come up with, but Kevin’s sudden appearance took him by surprise.

Kevin looked embarrassed. “Sorry. Nick ditched me at the restaurant after I broke up with him. My phone is dead, and since neither of my sisters can drive yet—”

“You walked here?” Jughead blinked. “Sorry, I didn’t realize. C’mon, get out of the cold.”

“Thanks.” When Kevin crossed the threshold into the well-lit hallway, it became apparent that dark bruises were forming around his left eye.

“Did Nick do that?” Jughead asked sharply.

“No. Yes. Well, he threw a Coke bottle at me, one of those twenty ounce ones. It caught me right in the face.” Kevin shrugged. “I don’t think it was intentional. But even if it was, we’re done for now. He’s being shipped off to military school.”

“Come with me.” Jughead walked into the kitchen, Kevin trailing behind him. He put the kettle on the stove and then rummaged in the freezer for a few moments, before extracting a bag of peas.

“Here you go.” He offered them to Kevin. “Put these on your eye. And I’ll get you something hot to drink once the water boils.”

“Thanks.” Even dripping water, Kevin gave him a gracious smile that sent warmth coursing through Jughead’s entire body.

“I’m sorry,” Jughead told him sincerely. “About you and Nick.” He was sorry, sorry that Kevin had ever wasted time on that guy, and sorry for whatever pain Kevin went through with him.

“It’s okay.” Kevin looked down at the table, studying the wooden surface as if it were the most interesting substance he had ever encountered.

Just as Jughead opened his mouth to speak again, Kevin continued.

“I think that one of the reasons I go for guys like Nick is that I know it will never last.” A humorless laugh emitted from his lips. “And as awful as I feel during the inevitable breakup, I always feel relieved, like I just escaped from being trapped somewhere.”

Again, Jughead found himself at a loss for words and struggling with how to comfort Kevin. His deliberately limited experience where romance was concerned now left him out of his depth. Luckily, the whistle of the kettle prevented him from looking like an idiot, and he leapt up to fix Kevin’s drink.

“Hot chocolate or tea?” He asked as he pulled out a mug.

“Tea, please.”

“Any particular flavor?” Jughead scanned the various boxes.

“Green is fine.”

Moving swiftly, Jughead poured the hot water and added the tea bag, bringing the steaming beverage over to Kevin. To compensate for his wordlessness earlier, he gave Kevin’s shoulder a tight squeeze as he set down the mug in front of him. That was when he noticed the pool of water that formed around the arm Kevin was resting on the table.

“Oh, jeez. I’m sorry, I should have offered you a towel,” Jughead apologized.

“You don’t need to offer me anything. I’m already intruding,” Kevin hurried to respond.

“You’re not intruding,” Jughead told him firmly. “How about this: you go upstairs and take a shower. I’ll get you some dry clothes, put your wet ones in the wash, and plug your phone in to charge. You okay with that?”

Kevin hesitated, glancing at his watch. “I hate to trouble you further—”

“You’re not,” Jughead insisted.

“—but could you call Reggie and ask him to pick me up in a half hour? We have a community service club meeting at my house at six,” Kevin explained.

Jughead chortled. “Since when is Reggie involved in community service?”

“Since I shanghaied him into labor,” Kevin replied with a smirk.

“Sure, I can. Don’t worry, it’s fine.” Jughead led Kevin upstairs. “The shower’s just down the hall. My parents aren’t home, so feel free to use as much hot water as you want.” Sorting through the folded laundry on his dresser, Jughead found an acceptable pair of jeans and nice enough shirt and sweatshirt for Kevin to wear. “Here you are.”  

“Thank you. For everything, I mean.” Some of the weariness seemed to have left Kevin’s face, a change Jughead was grateful to see.

“No problem.” Jughead held out a hand. “I’ll plug in your phone for you in my room, if you like.”

As Kevin showered, Jughead exchanged a few quick texts with Reggie, confirming Kevin’s ride and telling to forgo formalities and just walk in the door because of the rain. When Kevin returned downstairs, Jughead was feeding Jellybean her dinner.

“I feel so much better,” Kevin said as he walked into the kitchen. “Hey, Jellybean. How ya doing?” He tickled the toddler beneath her chin, and she let out a squeal of laughter.

He certainly looked better, as if he had been refreshed and reenergized. Gone was his look of defeat from earlier, as. The clothes Jughead lent him fit well; while Jughead was slightly taller, they had similar lean builds. A fluttering sensation flickered through Jughead as he realized he liked seeing Kevin this way, relaxed and shower fresh with damp hair, wearing his clothes, and could definitely get used to the sight.

“You deserve to,” Jughead said. “Feel better, I mean.” He intended to keep his tone light, but some of his conviction slipped into his voice anyway.

Kevin’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly, and just as he seemed about to reply, Reggie strode through the front door.

“Hey, y’all,” he drawled, closing the door behind with his foot and rapid-fire texting on his phone. “What’s happening?” He glanced up at them and did a double-take, a stunned expression shifting onto his face. “Oh, wow .”

For a second, Jughead wondered why, and then he realized Kevin was wearing his infamous “S” sweatshirt, the one all of their friends knew belonged to Jughead. The implication dawned on him, so he tossed a warning look Reggie’s way, though he needn’t have bothered. Reggie seemed rendered speechless with amazement.

Kevin laughed self-consciously, gingerly touching his eye. “I know, right? Nick threw a soda bottle at me when we broke up. I guess I’ll just have to tell people I joined a fight club, too.” He turned to Jughead. “I’m going to get my phone from your room, okay?”

“Stellar,” Jughead replied, still glaring warningly at Reggie.

As Kevin’s footsteps ascended the stairs, Reggie seemed to regain the ability to speak, and his opening line was snark—as if it would be anything else.

“Nice of you to bang him the night he breaks up with his boyfriend,” Reggie hissed at him. “I always knew you were a barbarian when it came to social graces, but seriously ? That is low .”

“Look who’s talking,” Jughead snapped back. “And just so you know, he walked to my house after Nick ditched when they broke up. He was soaking wet, so I let him shower here and wear some of my clothes. And that is all that happened.”

“Hmph.” Reggie crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, I believe you, but only because I don’t think you could ever land so much as hookup with someone as far out of your league as Kevin.”

Jughead scowled, but Kevin rejoined them before he could give an adequately scathing riposte.

“We’d better get going,” Reggie said, glancing at his Rolex.

“Thanks again for everything,” Kevin said warmly to Jughead.

Jughead waved a hand. “Don’t mention it.” An idea popped into his head. “Kev, you wouldn’t be up for a fishing trip on Saturday, would you? The weather is supposed to be really nice.”

Shaking his head, Kevin sent him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. As nice as it would be to get ouf of the house, I have to take Denise shopping for a new dress, Patty has a soccer game, and all of us have to clean the house before Mom and Dad get back on Sunday. They’re going to be home for the first time since New Year’s.” He nodded in farewell and exited. “See you.”

Reggie gave Jughead a consoling, if condescending, pat on the shoulder before heading out the door. “Better luck next time, champ.”

It took five rings for Reggie to answer his phone. “Don’t you know that people of our generation text, Jones?”

“Sorry, did I tear you away from gazing into the mirror?” Jughead retorted.

“Actually, no.” Reggie’s tone turned sour. “I was actually just fielding off gossip from the rest of the community service club that you scored Kevin because you’re some sort of sex god. Everyone saw him in that sweatshirt and assumed that the two of you shagged, just like I did.”

“Your commitment to the truth is admirable,” Jughead commented.

“I don’t want people to think Kevin is easily manipulated,” Reggie growled. “If they do, they’ll just try to manipulate him, and he already has enough to worry about.”

“Then maybe you’ll support my plan to help him relax.” Jughead knew that if he wanted to get Reggie to help him, he had to phrase it as aid to Kevin rather than himself.

“You want me to help you get with Kevin?” Reggie did not sound impressed.

“I wanted you to take his younger sister Patty to her soccer game on Saturday so Kevin and I can go fishing,” Jughead informed him. “Betty agreed to take his sister Denise to the mall to buy some dress for something, and Veronica agreed to lend a few maids over to help them clean their house.”

“Why does their house need cleaning?” Reggie wondered. “Aren’t his parents off screwing around somewhere else, like always?”

“I guess they must be visiting,” Jughead said. “I suppose they might want to see their kids, you know.”

“You’re giving them too much credit.” Reggie’s tone dripped with disdain for Mr. and Mrs. Keller. “I bet they just want to check on the house to see what they should declare on their taxes.”

“Talking to you is taxing me,” Jughead grumbled. “Are you going to help Kevin, or what?”

“I will, but only because I know Kevin could do much worse than you,” Reggie warned him. “I cannot emphasize enough how much I am not doing this to help you get laid.

Jughead rolled his eyes. “It’s not about that.”

Reggie snorted. “When is it not about that?” He hung up before Jughead could reply.

“Moron,” Jughead muttered, but he couldn’t hold back a grin when he said it. He had no doubt that across town, Reggie was referring to him the same way.

“So it’s all arranged,” Jughead told Kevin, trying to keep his voice casual. They were standing in the kitchen of the Keller’s upscale home; Kevin was cooking dinner. “You can go on the fishing trip now. If you want to, I mean.”

Kevin seemed astonished, but delighted. “You did that for me? Made all those arrangements, even begged Veronica for a favor, just so we could hang out?”

“Yeah.” Jughead tried to gauge Kevin’s reaction. “I wasn’t trying to be some Machiavellian mastermind. I just wanted to make sure you could have some fun.”

A smile formed on Kevin’s face, and Jughead once again felt his pulse quicken at the sight.

“Thank you,” Kevin said quietly. “To you and all of our friends. I don’t know how I deserve any of you.”

Jughead reached out and grasped one of Kevin’s hands. “It’s not a matter of you being worthy or not worthy. We just want to help.”

A startled expression overcame Kevin’s face at the action, and Jughead groaned internally, kicking himself for the gesture as he retracted his hand. His attempt at romance probably only made him look like some dumb soap opera protagonist.

“Well, I appreciate it.” Kevin did not remark on Jughead’s awkward maneuvers, and instead just gazed at him warmly.

Jughead’s heart began pounding. “You definitely want to go fishing with me, then?”

“If you’ll have me,” Kevin said.

“Then it’s a date!” Jughead said eagerly without thinking. His choice of words only crossed his mind when disbelief flitted across Kevin’s features. “Um, uh, I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s okay,” Kevin reassured him. “I’d actually like it to be a date, if you don’t mind.”

The unexpected response sent Jughead reeling, but he also couldn’t hold back a grin. “Seriously?”

This time, Kevin leaned forward and grasped Jughead’s hands, the motion both joking and sincere. “Yes.”

The beeping of the oven’s timer interrupted them, and Kevin jumped up to pull out the garlic bread.

Jughead checked the time, delirious happiness surging through him. “I’ve got to get home. My parents will need some help getting our own dinner ready.”

“Here.” Kevin quickly sliced him some garlic bread for the road, and walked Jughead to the door. “So, Saturday?”

“Seven AM,” Jughead confirmed as he walked outside. “Be ready to go.” It didn’t seem real, but Kevin Keller wanted to go on a date with him. Was going on a date with him.

“I was born ready,” Kevin replied, leaning in the doorway. He was still smiling, just as happy as Jughead himself.

“See you.” Jughead waved as Kevin closed the door, and once in the safety of his own car, fistpumped in victory. For once in his life, he was looking forward to waking up early on a weekend.