And I walked off you
And I walked off an old me
Oh me, oh my I thought it was a dream
So it seemed
And now breathe deep, I’m inhaling
You and I, there’s air in-between
Leave me be, I’m exhaling
You and I, there’s air in-between
“Alaska,” Maggie Rogers
Betty didn’t know their last touch was their last until it simply—was. Sporadic, strained conversation stretched into months, into a year, and then her own cowardice sealed her fate. For seven years, no touch feels quite the same.
The hugs from her mother and her sister and niece and nephew are what tell Betty she has been touch starved. She flinches at first, causing Dagwood’s bottom lip to tremble and so she crouches down to engulf him, Juniper following suit, and it all at once is overwhelming and affirming.
It does not escape her that the last time she felt truly loved was when she had been held here, on this very front step.
It’s a secret thrill when he sits next to her in that booth, the booth that for so long had been one where, despite the space, they would sit pressed up against one another. Denim to denim, denim to the skin revealed by her skirt, hands over hands, hands woven together, lips on knuckles, on mouths.
There is this gaping chasm of red vinyl now. Jughead places himself carefully, then slouches down. Betty knows that the tips of his shoes are pressed against the base of the opposite seat; she remembers the days when they were that group of four, squashed in this booth with their friends, his toes tapping on hers simply to assure her of his presence.
His hair is longer—but then so is hers. She wants to brush it out of his eyes, straighten the glasses that now sit crookedly on the bridge of his nose; she wants to grasp his hands because god it’s been forever and she misses him more than she had thought, more than she told herself she was allowed to. She misses him so much she can feel her heart pounding out of her chest. But also she wants to hold them because there are black splotches on the pads of his fingers, a shape she knows so viscerally from the times they spent wrestling with the ink cartridge on his Underwood.
Does he still use it? Is it another model—one not tainted with memories?
Betty wants to ask how he is, how he’s been. His crossed arms and sullen face and echoes of a harsh voice through the speaker of her phone remind her that no word and no touch will break through.
He asks to walk her home, his voice barely above a whisper but ringing so loudly in the silence of the parking lot. Betty doesn’t trust herself with words, not right now. She nods.
“Why didn’t you reach out?” Jughead asks.
His voice wavers with thinly veiled hurt—even a bit of petulance, like when he used to whine that she didn’t order anything for him if she arrived at Pop’s first.
(You could have at least ordered fries, he would grumble. And then he would flash a wolfish smile, order his fries, and they would carry on.)
This Jughead doesn’t take it back.
You could have reached out, you know, is what it sounds like.
Why, though, Betty wants to cry. Why would I hurt myself like that?
Instead, “I didn’t think you wanted me to after you left me that voicemail.” She tries not to let her voice crack, because she has told herself that fact time and time again: Leave him alone, Betty. It’s what he wants.
When he remind silent, she prompts him. “On the night of your book launch?”
His eyes flicker in vague confusion and her next words weigh heavy on your tongue. “After that I just assumed you didn’t want to hear from me.”
Those words, harsh and sizzling with anger, still bounce around the confines of her mind. They echo amidst the nightmares of those two weeks. Betty can’t think about those weeks. She can’t think about Jughead, either, but thinking about him hurts less—however minutely—and so he has been on her mind more and more.
He says he didn’t intend for them to make her feel that way and Betty feels lost. How else would she have taken them? What else could they have possibly meant?
They have walked this path together a million times, the meandering walk from Pop’s closer into town, down the side streets until reaching Elm Street. They might have held hands or been so wrapped up in each other that they lean up against a street sign and kiss lazily, hungrily, happily.
A million and one now.
The sleeve of his jacket brushes against hers and it is an electric jolt to feel him that close.
An inch to the left would have them bump elbows, his hands pressed into jacket pockets and her hands clinging to Alice’s milkshake like a raft. Another inch, her hand uncovered, would have her perilously close. Would he do the same, she wonders, if she crosses that boundary and leaves her palm out for her fingers to twine through his? Are his hands fisted tight to avoid reaching for hers?
It would be stupidly easy for Betty to take hold of Jughead’s arm and plead for him to explain. What was your intention, then? Why didn’t you call again? Why did you come back here, if you’ve moved on?
The fear of him pulling away wraps around her throat.
It is easier, Betty decides, to live with this exact amount of pain than it would be to add more. She knows this pain, has become friends with it. The risk of unbalancing it is too great.
Two inches to the right, then. And a foot. Her quiet goodnight and then putting blocks between them.
Betty dreams of him that night.
She takes a chance and sidles up to him like nothing is amiss, like they aren’t playacting teachers in the lounge two doors down from the newspaper office where they fell in love. Like it hasn’t been eating her alive to see him in his element, sweater vests and glasses and leather satchel and talking animatedly about literature.
Like she doesn’t spend extra time in the morning to look as though she is holding it together, when her days consist only of grease and coveralls.
Veronica and Archie are pressed up against one another, poring over blueprints, and Betty hears Jughead say something in a sardonic tone that makes her chest ache.
She stands close enough that she can feel the heavy presence of him looking.
Betty smiles to herself, exhaling steadily.
He stumbles and there’s three of them on the couch, reaching to steady or catch him out of reflex. Betty barely grazes the rough fabric of his jeans before he reorients and is gone, slipping through her grasp.
Come back, she wants to beg. Come back, talk to me, hold my hand, let me feel you again, let me help.
Instead she sips her wine and blinks away the burn of tears when it’s someone else’s arm around him. Someone else to take him home.
It has to be romantic, she concludes. She remembers her own secret touches, gestures that were second nature, done without conscious thought; she watches him bump her away with his hip to get at the cash register, place his hand at her arm to move past, and Betty’s coffee sours in her mouth.
And then—it’s a non-ironic fist bump to Archie’s old Army friend and a friendly hand on Archie’s shoulder when he takes their order. A back-pat embrace to Sweet Pea and Fangs when they all settle grudges. An accepted hug from Veronica.
She overhears him jokingly offering Toni a foot rub.
“It’s mean to taunt a pregnant woman, Jones.”
“Who says it’s a taunt? I’ve been told I give stellar massages.” His tone is facetious, his expression is not.
Toni, too, seems surprised by this new Jughead, one who touches so casually when the prickly teenager they had both knew only ever let one person touch him—her.
And now it seems that he will give away these touches to whomever. Just not her.
A wide berth in the teachers’ lounge; at least three barstools between them at the Wyrm, where his arm rests loosely around the back of Tabitha’s chair if they’re all seated; places her check directly onto the countertop, her takeout bag, her coffee. Anything to avoid even the briefest contact.
How much can two people touch, even, in the passing of a coffee cup?
Betty watches Veronica and Archie flirt at the coffee pot in the lounge, pretending to people who know better that they aren’t back together, and sees that actually it could be quite a lot. Brushes of fingers as they pass off mugs, sugar packets, nudges of pinky fingers when braced against the counter.
All those little, purposeful actions.
She’s forgotten how those kinds of touches feel and aches to remember them with each of his careful avoidances.
And now: Whiplash.
He takes the debit card directly from her hand; they don’t touch but—they might have.
He’s smiling, even joking with her. It’s the most acknowledgement from Jughead that Betty has had in the month they have been back in town.
What changed? She needs to know but can’t bring herself to ask.
Perhaps continued proximity has worked as some sort of exposure therapy for him; more time around her lessens the anger, softens it to indifference.
Whereas her bottled up feelings rattle harder with each glimpse of him.
Betty isn’t sure whether it’s an olive branch, but she grabs for it anyway. She is desperate for the kind of support he once offered her.
Desperate people do stupid things.
It isn’t the same sherpa-lined corduroy jacket as the one from high school, not that she would expect it to be. But it is similar enough that the tactile memory of it beneath her fingers as she swings a leg over the bike behind him has her blinking back more tears.
The pins from his beanie—ones painstakingly cleared of soot and ash after burning their first host, to be fastened onto the new one, to be removed once more mere months later—sit on the lapel. She cannot see them from her seated position, but they are foggy shapes in her version, like when bright lights remain after closing your eyes.
Wrapped around him on this bike, Betty thinks she could crawl out of her skin— should to keep herself from making yet another bad decision. It feels so familiar to meld herself to his form and it would be so, so easy to give into the muscle memory: lay her cheek against his back, clutch her thighs together tighter, run her fingers up his thigh at red lights.
Instead she sits pinstraight—her posture so good, even Alice would approve—and keeps as much space between them as possible without being unsafe.
She expects Jughead to telegraph just as much discomfort as is radiating from her, but he remains relaxed.
Of course, she reminds herself. He doesn’t want you like this anymore, he has moved on. He is doing you a favor. No normal person would still be this fucked up about their high school sweetheart, long past it might be acceptable to be so.
He doesn’t love you he doesn’t love you he doesn’t love you, she chants in time with her racing pulse.
(Could he, though?)
He touches her.
A hand on her shoulder, like he’s done countless times before. To comfort, to draw her nearer for a kiss, in bed to hold her steady.
She is so startled that it takes her a moment to regain composure, to remember that there is a reason to be here. There’s purpose, urgency.
This is neither the time nor the place to be falling to pieces. Especially not over Jughead Jones touching her for the first time in over seven years.
Betty seats herself a full two yards away from his chair. It is the only way she trusts herself to stay focused.
Unsteady, she snaps herself out of Riverdale Betty and into FBI—trainee—Betty.
After hearing the phrase the mothmen, the only touch she wants in regard to Jughead is to flick the back of his head.
The annoyance makes the ride back more bearable.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t excruciating to pull away from his body heat, his genuine concern, his quiet, “I’ll let you know if I hear anything more substantial,” before rounding the corner to go back to his shift.
He walked out of his shift for you, Betty thinks.
She wants to scream it at his retreating figure.
Time and time again, when they were teens, they each found themselves pulling the other back from the ledge.
That point of no return.
Her toes hang over the edge, precarious. She is ready to leap off, into whatever comes next.
(Justice, she hopes.)
But there he is again, guiding her back. His voice on the phone is as good as a caress as Betty might ever get.
Another familiar warmth.
(He had kept her number, as well.)
The relief in seeing him, in seeing their student safe from harm, makes her body droop in exhaustion.
All that adrenaline leeches out of her.
Betty knows that, in this moment, he will not catch her if she falls.
They have been here before. Opposite sides of this exact booth, if she remembers correctly.
(Of course she remembers correctly. She remembers every detail of every moment with him, right up to when she made it all go wrong.)
They make an unspoken agreement to continue working on this. Together.
(This especially remains unspoken.)
They find him bruised and bloody and lost, a broken wrist and foggy brain. Betty falls to her knees and cradles his face, running on pure instinct. His cheek is streaked with dirt and blood and he looks so, so young like this. He looks like the Jughead she used to know.
“I knew you would find me,” he says, half-delirious. He must be, Betty decides, to be looking at her like this, like the past seven-and-a-half years never happened. “You always do.” Jughead brings his hand to hers where it rests on his face, which now contorts with pain from the movement.
“I forgive you. I forgave you. Thank you for finding me.”
Betty tells Tabitha to ride in the ambulance with him. He will want a friendly face when he comes to; Betty knows that hers is neither friend nor foe and tears may slip down her cheeks now, but they will waterfall in sobs if she sees his eyes go flat with disappointment to merely see her by his side.
He can’t see her cry like that. Betty refuses to ask that of him. She deserves this pain, he does not.
Tabitha lays a gentle hand on her forearm. Betty jumps. “For what it’s worth,” she says, in earnest, “I think you count as friendly again.” And then a sly smile, one shockingly close to Jughead’s usual expression, “More than that, probably.”
Betty swallows hard and nods, too worried about what emotions will come spilling out if she opens her mouth.
“Meet us at the ER.”
She does. Jughead isn’t awake, still knocked out from surgery to reset his broken wrist and hand, and this is the only reason she doesn’t second guess sitting by his side and holding his good hand.
His skin is rough, dry with split knuckles from defending himself. Betty feels how clammy her own are but doesn’t want to remove them for even the briefest of moments. She’ll lose her nerve.
“I’ll always love you, Jughead Jones.” They’re another set of words that often echo in her head, ones that she shoves back into their tightly packed box when they happen to break free.
They’re breaking free quite often since coming back to Riverdale.
They are no less true than the last time she said them.
She falls asleep crying onto her hand where it rests over his.
She comes to when the hand beneath her shifts to tug on the knotted ends of her messy ponytail. “C’mon,” a wry voice above her says. “You of all people should know I’m not that easy to kill.” Jughead smirks—and then winces when it stretches the cut on his face.
A lifetime ago, he had said something similar, in a room Betty thinks might be across the hall, and Betty made him promise not to do anything that stupid again. I’ll try, he’d said.
It had been good enough for the time and Betty crawled into the space next to him on the hospital bed.
They’re both adults now; there is no chance Betty would fit in there with him, even if they were in a position where she might have asked.
Betty can’t figure out where to look, too nervous to look him in the eye after breaching his personal space like this.
Neither of them move, sitting stock still in the busy hum of the hospital.
They realize in the same moment that Jughead’s fingers are still pressed together, pinching the lock of her ponytail between them. Jughead retracts his hand but Betty still feels the pinprick of yanked hair; a couple strands have caught on the plastic of his hospital bracelet.
“Thank you,” he says. He lays his hand flat against the bedding, so that the pinky overlaps hers where she is still frozen in shock.
She still can’t look up at him, but—“It’s the least I could do. I have a lot to make up for.”
He doesn’t dispute this.
He also doesn’t move his hand.