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We Can't Say Goodbye (Part 3)

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When Jughead's fourteen a strange thing happens. 

And he's not talking puberty related, he's talking about the fact that one day he's sitting in the cafeteria feasting on a giant burger in his flannel and his suspenders that people give him weird looks for, when a very pretty girl stops in front of him. He looks up at her, burger dripping grease down his fingers, and he looks pointedly around the cafeteria. There's plenty of seats around, seats where she would probably be more comfortable. Sure, his table is empty, but...he's at it, and that's typically enough to keep people away. Besides, as he takes her in, he gets more confused. She's a Vixen, and her hair looks soft as silk and she's holding a lunch tray with salad and fruit so she's definitely a popular girl. Tall and with relatively perfect skin. He's fourteen. He's old enough to know how social dynamics work, so he hunches over defensively and waits to be the butt of the joke. 

"Uh, Jughead?" She asks, and he nods at her, shoving the burger into his mouth. Delicious last meal. "Can I...can I sit here?" 

He shrugs. "Sure."

She does so with a relieved smile, and he's a little put off because it seems so...genuine. He takes her in, and faintly recognises her from his History class. He doesn't know her name. "Thanks. I just..." she sighs, shoulders slumping. "I'm kind of completely sick of fake friendships and pretending to be something I'm not." 

He blinks in surprise, before setting down his burger and half wiping his hand on some tissue. He holds it out for her, and she takes it warmly. "Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life," he teases, "people often have to compete in arduous battles to be my friend."

She laughs, and it makes him relax even more. "Polly Cooper." She says, and reaches over to steal a fry. 

He falls a little bit in love with her. 

 

When he's introduced to all the Coopers, he's a little in awe at them. The perfect family on the perfect street in the perfect house. Alice Cooper looks cutthroat and professional but somehow still beautiful, and Hal is soft and kind around the edges, and claps Jughead on the back. Polly's little sister Betty looks almost like Polly's clone, and he wonders if that blonde hair is dominant in their gene pool. He's never been close enough with someone to come over to their house, but he and Polly just fit. He never would have guessed considered how different they are, but whenever he tries to pull away from her in the face of her nearly obscene niceness, she's there the next day. Doggedly determined and almost viciously insistent that they're friends. 

He learns, fairly quickly, that he's not in love with her. It's weird. It's weird because he's nearly in love with her. He could picture himself marrying her and them making their jokes until they were old and grey but it isn't love, he doesn't think. He loves her, of course, as his best friend, but he's not sure he's in love with her. Most important, because she's definitely in love with Jason. He sits over at the popular table too, but from what Jughead has seen he doesn't seem to be an awful person. Besides, he's definitely definitely not in love with Polly if she's in love with Jason. She can hardly speak when she's near him, and she goes so red he thinks she might burst. He doesn't do that when he's near her, so....that makes sense. 

They sit in the library one day, nestled on low armchairs in their own private nook, and study for Peterson's exam. "You know something," Polly says, breaking their silence, and he looks up from the page; his thumb keeping place. "I think you might be really handsome when you grow up."

He snorts, blowing his hair out of his eyes. "Sure." 

She just shoots him that Cooper smile, and shrugs. "I don't know. I'm pretty certain."

He rolls his eyes and turns back to his book. "You're the biologist," he says, referencing the essay results they'd got back yesterday. It doesn't matter how much he revises, a 94 is his best and Polly gets 100 every time. She should be a biologist, or something, he thinks. 

 

Jughead's gliding down the smooth streets at 6am on a Friday morning, getting his paper route done. He tosses a bundled broadsheet across a frown lawn and digs in his bag for another, when his phone rings. Panting, he stops and props himself and the bike up with one leg. It's Polly. Worriedly, he answers it. "Yeah, Pol?" He asks, and she sounds exhausted. 

"Sorry, Jug. You know I have that violin recital tonight?"

He groans, massaging his temples. "Do I have to come to that?" He asks, "not that I don't love hearing you play, but four times in a week-"

"No, no," she laughs, "my parents want to come for some reason, but Betty's sick. We'll only be gone for a few hours, but it would be amazing if you could help us out?" 

"Tell him we'll pay him." He hears Alice whisper in the background.

He smiles. "Yeah sure, Polly. Give me the details in school, and I don't require money. Just make sure your fridge is fully stocked."

"You're the best,  Juggie," 

"I know." 

 

As he heads over to the Cooper Household at 5pm, he's pretty relaxed. He knows little Betty, she's the cutest, sweetest, probably smartest kid he's ever met. He marvels over the fact that she even needs a babysitter. She wouldn't ever do anything wrong. He adjusts his backpack a little, and knocks on the door, beaming when Hal answers it. "Hey, Mr C," he greeted, saluting him with two fingers, and Hal plucks at one of the suspenders on his shoulders. 

"Jughead. You get any grief for these at school?"

He grins remorselessly. "That's exactly why I wear them." He chirps, following as Hal gestures him in and ruffles his hair. Alice is getting herself together in the kitchen and she smiles upon seeing him. 

"Forsythe. Betty's asleep upstairs, okay? You just make sure everything's fine, our numbers are all on the fridge. I've also made some of my peach cobbler."

He groans loudly. "You are the best, Mrs C,"

She shrugs sweetly, and pecks his cheek. "I know, dear." And then she calls up the stairs, "Come on, Polly! I want to get a good seat!" 

Polly trudges down the stairs and Jughead laughs. She glares at him and when her parents are looking, flips him in the bird. He just waves cheerily, and then they're gone. He takes the cobbler out of the fridge and eats it; relishing the silence for a moment. It's cold and gooey and fantastic, and he shovels it into his mouth. After he's done, he starts unloading his backpack. Though he's sure that Mrs Cooper could make the best soup in the world, he also has his own remedy. He tugs out the soup he's made and reheats it on the stove, whilst taking out all the books and movies he's brought. Betty's a lot like him, and she reads everything he used to read, and he's fairly certain she'd love the cartoon versions of Nancy Drew. 

He shoves the ice-cream in the freezer, and then places the books and the soup on a tray (is there anything the Cooper household, doesn't have?) Before heading upstairs. Betty's room is slightly ajar, and he steps inside. She's curled into a tiny, adorable ball on her bed, covered with blankets and a little nightlight is glowing in the corner. The faces of disney princesses beam at him, and he grins. "Hey, Betty?" He murmurs quietly, not sure he should be waking her up, but wanting to give her food all the same. "Little bee?"

She blinks, rubbing her eyes, before she focuses on him. She frowns; face scrunched up in confusion. "Jug?" 

"The one and only." He assures with a smile, "I made you some soup." She looks better at the sight of him, and he thinks she was probably lonely cooped up in this room by herself. He sits down beside her, and places the tray over her lap. Her eyes widen at the sight of the books, and she reaches for them greedily. He blocks her hand, guiding it towards the soup. "Ah, ah, ah, buttercup. Soup and then books." 

She looks so happy he's there it's a little unnerving, and he presses the back of his hand against her forehead. It's hot. He frowns concernedly, and rubs his thumb back over her hair. She sighs a little; her eyes are so wide and blue he thinks that she could probably be a child actress. She has the discipline for it too. "Thank you," she smiles, and he bops her nose. 

"No problem, kiddo. I was thinking soup, movies and then some secret ice cream I manage to smuggle in?" 

She nods so enthusiastically that the bed shakes a little. 

 

It turns out that Polly's right.

He does grow up to be reasonably attractive, and when he's lounging on the grounds of the student common at college one sunny afternoon, a shadow falls over him. He opens one eye languidly, and there stands a girl with pink hair; haloed by sunlight. His hands are tucked under his head, so he offers her a small smile as greeting instead. She's pretty- beautiful even, with a large camera hanging around her neck. He faintly remembers her as the photographer for the student paper. "Jughead Jones," she grins, equipped with all of the effortless cool of being a hipster at college, "I'm beginning to think you might be an oblivious idiot."

He hums contemplatively, and blinks against the sun to better take her in. "I don't think you'd be the first."

"I've been trying to tell you for three weeks now that I'm into you. Are you gonna take me on a date or what?" 

He grins. 

He's had girlfriends before, never serious, but he's 21 now and Toni is pretty much perfect. He loves her. He skypes Polly that evening to let her know, and she's so happy for him. Insistent on double dates even though her already rigorous schedule makes it difficult for her to see her own boyfriend. Jughead sees Jason more times than Polly does, some months. So he assures her that it's fine, that he misses her and that he's definitely coming to crash at hers for a week or so near the end of term. 

He's fine. He's got Toni. 

They graduate together and things become a hectic blur of motion. He's scouted, actually scouted, and now he's working for the best archeological company in the US and suddenly he has an apartment- apartments, and he and Toni live in the one in Washington. She's got a job photographing weddings, and it's not where she wants to be right now, but she's happy enough. He's happy enough. 

But when his boss says, "Hey Jug, we're digging up a site by Sweetwater, what do you think about heading back to your home town for a year?" He's all for it. 

Toni, is not. 

"You can't make decisions like that without telling me, Jug," she cries, waving her hands. "What am I suppose to do? Just sit in your apartment whilst you go off? I'm suppose to keep doing my shitty job without you?" Her voice breaks, and he reaches out for her; his heart paining. He draws her in for a tight hug, and she collapses into his chest. "Juggie. I need you here, babe. You know that." 

He kisses the top of her magenta head, and shuts his eyes. "I know. But...there's something telling me I have to do this. Something's saying I need to go back there, and I don't know why but," he pulls away, hands on her arms and stares her in the eyes. "If you don't want me to go Toni, I won't. And that's the end of it. I love you, and I won't ever resent you for anything that you ask of me. I just want you to be happy." 

She stares up at him, before leaning up on tiptoes to kiss him; softly, sweetly. "Okay." She whispers, voice quiet. "I guess we'll try for long distance." 

 

He buys a car once he gets to Riverdale. It's the first time he's ever really had money to spend on himself, and suddenly- he doesn't know how, he has a lot of it. He buys a nice one, he doesn't know much about cars, but it has leather seats and a sound system and he's pretty happy. The first few weeks are good, lonely but good. He goes to Pop's again, he drives by the school and remembers being young and spotty and hating athletics. He works busily at Sweetwater, and watches old classics on his laptop most evenings. Toni skypes him, and he misses her. Misses how she feels cradled against him. She misses him too, and some nights he goes to sleep with the phone still clutched to his ear; listening to her breathing. 

And then one evening; dark and rainy, he's driving home when he spots a flash of vixen blue on the street. He frowns glancing through his windshield wipers at the sky. Who the hell would be out walking now? He nearly brakes when he spots the blonde hair and for one absurd moment he thinks it's Polly. He slows down, creeping towards the curb and rolling down his windows before it hits him. "That's not my Betty Cooper walking home in the rain, is it?" He calls, and sure enough, she stops and beams at him. Jesus. When did she grow up? He feels so old. She looks around sixteen now, and she's soaked to the skin. He remembers helping her with her math homework and telling her that high school wouldn't be that bad if she were anything like her sister. And it turns out she is. A cheerleader. "Come on it, I'll give you a lift," he offers, popping the locks. 

She gets in, still dripping, so he fiddles with the heater. He doesn't want her to get sick. "Hey Jug," she says, and oh god, she sounds like a grown up. "Long time no see." 

He grins in delight; suddenly feeling right to be back here in Riverdale. He feels like something missing in him for a long time is suddenly whole. He feels content and it makes him assuredly happy. "Yeah, it's been busy and adulty which is gross," he teases, "I've missed you loads, Betts. I don't get to see your sister as much as I'd like either." He sighs, he'd last seen Polly about two months ago. Nursing is difficult as fuck, it seems, and she's handling it with a grace that only a Cooper could manage. "She's always off saving someone. Damn nurses." He beams at Betty's laugh, god, she looks so much like-"You look so much like her," he says wistfully, "the hair, the cheerleading outfit, gah, I feel sixteen again. I feel like someone's gonna come out from behind the door and tell me I've got an algebra test." But as he says it, he really looks at her in his peripheral. She does look like Polly, the likeness is remarkable, but there's difference to her too. Her face is more oval and the curve of her shoulder, the dip of her waist- he drags his eyes back towards the road in shock and horror. Jesus fuck. Is he some sort of pervert now? He pushes the thought out of his head. 

"I don't always do my homework." She blurts, and Jughead shoots her a fond look. She's a little bizarre, he thinks to himself. He likes that. 

"That's good," he agrees with an amused smile. "You're a rebel at heart. Ooh," his ears prickle as he hears a familiar song on the radio. He reaches out to turn it up and laughs delightedly at the beat. "I love this song. You like MKTO, Betty?"

She surprises him by singing the lyrics. She has a wonderful singing voice. He wonders if the Cooper girls can do everything. He's having such a fantastic time that he does what he used to do with Polly. He goes the long way to her house so they can spend more time together. It's amazing and he feels so happy it's a little obscene. When he pulls up to the house the deja-vu he experiences is off the charts. It's just the same. Just the same as when he used drop Polly off home after cheerleading practise. He's relieved, relieved at heart to see that Betty's just as kind hearted as her sister. There must be some gold in those Cooper genes. They swap numbers and he offers her pick up's whenever she wants, and as he watches her dart up the drive, he hopes she takes him up on it. He hasn't had such good company in a long while. 

He forgets to call Toni that night. 

 

He keeps thinking, on repeat, that Hal is definitely going to kill him. He rifles through his plaid shirts desperately, keeping one eye on the drunk teenager on his sofa. Jesus, Hal is going to kill him unless Alice gets her hands on him first. He racks his brain furiously, trying to remember if Polly ever went through a phase of going to parties and not wearing much, but he comes up empty. It must be a little-sister thing. He lifts out a splash of red triumphantly, and tugs her over to him. It's a relief, a pure visceral relief to cover up her skin. It feels wrong to see her like this; skimpy outfit and alcohol-tinted breath. He feels a little like her father, and hopes he can get her to sober up a little before he takes her home. Sure, her parents might kill him, but he knows that they might do worse to her. For as wonderful as Hal and Alice are, they overact. 

He's so happy, so frickin relieved, that she's okay. That he called her, and that she isn't with some guy or lost somewhere or freezing cold. He's so content that she's safe, that as he adjusts the collar on her-his, shirt, he doesn't react for a while when she presses her lips to his. Then his entire body goes haywire, and he yanks away from her in horror. "Betty?" He cries, resisting the urge to wipe his mouth. "What the hell?"

She stands before him, drunk and oblivious. "I like you." She says simply, and he's rooted to the spot. Frozen in terror as she slides her hands up along his tee; leaving flames of pure uncomfortable torture in her wake. "I've always liked you, Juggie," Oh god. Oh god, his child is kissing him. That's his life now. Now, he's a paedophile who's cheating on his girlfriend. He's going to get fired; he's going to be locked up in jail, and- he gasps wantonly when her fingers tangle in his hair. Oh god. He likes that, he's always liked that, and he yanks away from her. Yeah, it feels good, but he's not attracted to a sixteen year old. 

He can hardly breathe. Oh god. People in town have seem them around together. They're gonna think he's hurting her, that he's molesting her or-or manipulating her, and Toni's going to find out and- a wave of clarity cuts through all of that when he sees Betty crying. He turns to her instinctively; his own pain forgotten, as he wraps her into his arms. It's his fault, that she feels like this. Now that he thinks back, he can understand how a sixteen year old may have been led on by his actions. He's a jerk. "I'm sorry." He whispers, hoping it's enough. "I'm so sorry." Should he even be hugging her? He's not sure, but it's the only way he knows how to make her feel better. It always used to work when she was young. 

She's not a little girl anymore a voice pipes up in his head, but he ignores it. Yes she is. She's small and she's hurting, and she's here in his arms. 

"S-sorry," she stutters, and his heart breaks. He holds her tighter for as long as he can, before realising with burning intensity that he needs to make sure she knows something. Because he knows Betty. He's always known Betty, and she's insecure and self conscious and she has to know. 

"Don't you ever think it's because you're not wonderful," he whispers sincerely, "because you are beautiful and clever and funny and any guy would be lucky to have you. But you're sixteen. You shouldn't even have been drinking at that party. I'm twenty two." he pulls away from her a little, to look down at her face. "Do you get that?" She nods, but her eyes are trained on his lips and he squirms uncomfortably, before letting go. "Let me drive you home," he says instead, because he's not sure what to do. 

 

Being back home in Washington with Toni is a bit of a relief. 

He still feels so guilty about Betty, and he wishes they'd been able to talk it out, but he knows she needs time. He meets up with Polly, who seems to know nothing about her sister's crush, so Jughead keeps it to himself too. He wonders how long Betty's felt that way, and winces whenever he remembers her big blue eyes when she was only up to his hip. He tries to put it behind him, but it doesn't really work. Toni notices, of course, and tries to pull him out of the slump but she can't. 

He isn't even sure why he's so messed up for the next few months. 

Until, of course, he and Toni are having sex. And then, there in the throes of orgasm, instead of magenta; he sees gold. 

He vomits in the toilet, and Toni perches on the edge of the bathtub, rubbing his back. They're both stark naked, but the light is off and darkness seeping in from outside cloaks them in shadow. "There's something wrong with me," he insists weakly into the toilet bowl, his words echo strangely, resting his head on his arm. Toni shakes her head, now massaging his shoulders. 

"There's nothing wrong with you, Juggie."

"I just fantasised that I was having sex with a seventeen year old." He snaps, "how the hell does that mean there's nothing wrong with me? I need to be locked up. I have to be put away."

"Girls mature faster than boys." She points out, and he throws her a glare.

"Oh, that'll hold up in court. Why didn't I think of that?" He retorts scathingly. 

His girlfriend laughs, which he supposes is a rather mellow reaction. "You need to relax, Juggie. From what you've told me, you've known this girl forever. Have you ever been attracted to other underage girls? Or is it just this one? And you've never done anything, and it's not exactly like she wouldn't want you to, oh Jug," Toni stands up, and hugs him from behind, her hair tickling the back of his neck. "You're just in love." 

Even through the haze of murky bile, he knows she's right, and he winces. "I'm so sorry, Toni. I love you too, you know," 

She kisses his shoulder. "I know you do." 

 

Life without Toni sucks for a long time. 

They'd had some amazing experiences together, which he keeps tucked into a box in a drawer, and he loves her so much. But he loves someone else more. He travels with his work, wherever they want him to go, he goes. He sees more of the world in a year than he has in his whole life. He distracts himself with excavations because he's waiting; waiting, waiting ever waiting. 

And then when he's 24, he knows that Betty is eighteen and he feels like he can do this. 

He makes the long drive into Riverdale and arrives just after dark. He buys the biggest bouquet of flowers he can find, and rakes his hands through his hair nervously as he walks slowly; turning down onto the long lane of houses that the Coopers live on. The stars are shining brightly, and he practises the words in his head. Betty, I love you. Betty, I want to take you on a date, a real date- 

He stops short, eyes wide when the door to the Cooper's household opens spilling warm honeyed light into the darkness. Out steps Betty and- his knees nearly give out. She's wearing a dress of silver, that hangs down around her shoulders. Her hair is swept to one side and she looks...she's beautiful. And, his heart clenches, she's with someone. A guy with dark skin, a friendly smile and an afro is by her side, and Alice and Hal are behind them, waving goodbye.

Jughead takes a shaky step back as he takes it all in. Of course. Of course, why wouldn't she? It's her prom, he realises dully. With a small laugh of disbelief, he spins on his heel and walks back down the street. He places the flowers in a hedge he passes, and spends the rest of the night walking with the stars. He's not broken, he surmises. Just melancholic. If she's happy, and she seemed happy, then he's happy too. 

 

Dating Betty is everything he dreamed it would be. 

Every time he feels a touch too old, he just calls up Toni who complains with him about having a younger girlfriend who already wants to stay up doing stuff when you just want to sleep. He's twenty-eight years old, and she's only twenty-two but she's so mature. He feels like he's done a lot of growing up the past couple of years whilst they've been apart. He's seen even more of the world, he's gone inside mountain passes and tombs in Egypt and had flings along the way. He feels like he has a better check on his emotions, and that finally, after stumbling about life for so long, he finally knows where he is and where he's going.

He's going anywhere Betty wants to go.

Dating Betty is...a lot of cold showers, at first. He nips at her nipple with his teeth, whilst his fingers in her panties work her closer and closer to the edge. Her hands are fisted just the way he likes in his hair and he licks a wet stripe from her breast to her neck whilst she climaxes; biting hard at the junction of her collarbone to leave a deep, blue bruise. As she lies panting on the bed, he grins down at her, and kisses her lips. She's only in her underwear, but he still has his jeans on and he's aching. "I love you," he whispers, and she caresses his face. "I'll be right back, just let me shower." 

A flash of guilt crosses her face and he kisses it away immediately.

"No," he insists, "you're crazy if you think I didn't enjoy every second of that just the way it was."

Her smile is shy and gorgeous, and he thinks about it in the shower just before he splatters his release against the wall.

 

He sits nervously on the sofa, knee jumping as Betty explains to her mom, dad and sister. Once she's done, silence falls, and he just stares at the coffee table between them feeling as if he's sixteen again. Polly already knew, though she's doing a fantastic job of acting surprised. They told her a few months in, and she'd been wary at first. A little uncomfortable with the whole thing, before she'd seen them together. She'd threatened both of them equally, Jughead, if you hurt her, I'll kill you and to Betty sis, he's one of the best men I know. Don't mess with him. But at the end of the day, Polly's a wonderful human being, she's a Cooper after all, and she was happy that her best friend and her sister were dating. 

Hal, on the other hand, doesn't seem so keen. He glares at Jughead. "You know, Jug, one of the reasons I liked you so much was because I thought you were gay." 

Jughead frowns, unsure what to say. Betty squeezes his arm reassuringly. "Well, Mr C, I-"

"Mr Cooper." Hal corrects, and Jughead can't help but crack a smile. 

"Mr C," he continues pointedly, because he's called this man that since he was fourteen years old. "I'm not gay. And I've never loved anyone as much as I've loved your daughters. Your family's always been...well," he shrugs bashfully, "I'm thrilled to be a part of it." 

Hal doesn't seem to know what to do with his face, but Alice beams with pride. "Well, Jughead," she says, and he gapes, because that's the first time in history that she's not called him Forsythe, "I'm glad you finally pulled your head out of your ass." 

Betty scoffs and Polly claps her hands with tears of joy in her eyes. Hal looks a little warmer, but he's still wary, and Jughead can't wait to win him over. He's gonna be the son the Cooper's never had. 

They all look up when Jason walks in, and he laughs in confusion at the different emotions in the room. "Hey," he greets, setting down his luggage. "What did I miss?"