It’s a mistake. It’s a lot of mistakes, in fact, a whole pile of mistakes lumped together and wrapped up like a mistake burrito, but right now it’s a mistake burrito Jughead’s willing to eat. (as it were.) The past couple of weeks have been unseasonably warm, and he’s managed just fine on park benches, but he hasn’t had any time to find a better solution and this morning he woke up shivering. It was bad enough that he relented and broke into the school early (he was supposed to wait until Thursday) to escape, and it hasn’t improved since. He holed up in Pop’s as long as he could, but he really does need to sleep tonight.
It’s late enough that he shouldn’t disturb anyone breaking in (if getting the spare key from the same place it’s been for years and going in the front door counts as breaking in). His sleep schedule is fucked up enough that he’ll be gone well before anyone wakes up. It’s not like he hasn’t crashed here a hundred times before.
He unlocks the door and drops his backpack in the hedge. He puts the key back where he found it before slipping inside and closing the door almost silently behind him. The house is exactly the same as it’s always been, even in the dark: he knows this house, as well as he’s ever known a home. He knows the soft thunk of the deadbolt sliding back into place, the creak of the floorboards in the foyer, exactly where to grope for the coatrack in the dark. The world grows and changes around them, but this house is eternal. He unlaces his boots and leaves them on the floor; he slips into the living room, falls face down on the couch, and closes his eyes.
Then he rolls onto his side and opens his eyes and looks at the ceiling as his body slowly uncoils, nostalgia overruling paranoia. Despite everything, he feels safe here. The emotional equivalent of muscle memory.
Fred Andrews comes downstairs at five-fifty, aiming for the kitchen, but when he passes the living room he pauses. There is a lump on the couch, a lump that wasn’t there last night: Fred crosses the room and looks over the back of the couch, and the lump resolves into one Forsythe Pendleton “Jughead” Jones the Third, fast asleep. Even asleep he looks exhausted, and dirty, and his clothes are hanging too loosely even for his lanky frame, and said clothes probably haven’t been washed in weeks. But he’s here, and the rest can be dealt with. Fred looks him over a second time, walks around the couch and picks Jughead’s prized beanie up off the floor, and shakes him gently by the shoulder.
“Jughead,” he says. “Time to wake up, buddy.”
“Five more minutes,” Jughead mumbles in reply, and Fred smiles, but then Jughead’s eyes snap open and he lurches upright. “ Shit-- ”
“Woa, Jug, it’s okay,” Fred says, catching his shoulder again, and Jughead stops. Breathing rapidly, wide-eyed, he looks at Fred.
“Sorry,” he says. “I was-- I didn’t mean to-- overslept, I was supposed to be gone before you got up, I just needed a place to crash for a few hours--”
“It’s okay, Jughead,” Fred says. “Come on. Get yourself cleaned up before breakfast. It’ll just be a few minutes.” He claps Jughead on the shoulder and stands up. “You know where the bathroom is.”
He walks towards the door, and Jughead says, “I. I left my stuff in the hedge.”
Fred pauses, smiles, and says, “Well, go get it, then.” As he crosses into the kitchen, he can hear Jughead get up and mill around in the foyer for a moment before the door opens and closes. A few moments later, as he’s turning on the coffee pot, it opens and closes again. As Fred puts a pan on the stove and turns on the heat, water starts running in the hall bathroom.
Faced with the prospect of feeding two teenaged boys, Fred breaks out the pancake mix and gets to work as the pan on the stove heats up. Behind him, the coffee pot chuckles and puffs. Upstairs, floorboards creak as Archie gets up. The world is the same as it was when Fred fell asleep last night, except that Jughead Jones was sleeping on his couch and Fred doesn’t know where he’s been or why he looks like he’s been sleeping under bridges. Fred, for his part, is worried.
Jughead reappears in the kitchen doorway as the second round of pancakes is coming off the pan, and he’s changed his clothes and his hair is wet. “Coffee,” Fred says, and Jughead hums assent and stumps around the kitchen to the coffee pot. A cabinet door opens and shuts as Fred switches out pancakes and batter, and when he turns around again Jughead’s sitting at the kitchen island with a full mug and a wary expression. Fred puts the plate of hot pancakes in front of him and gets another plate from the cabinet. A drawer slides, and there’s the clink of silverware against plate. A few moments pass full only of the sounds of cooking and eating simultaneously, and then Jughead says,
Fred sighs. “There’s nothing to forgive, Jughead. I’m just glad you’re here. I know, with the situation your dad’s in, it must be tough.”
For another moment, there’s silence. Then Jughead says, “If this is about what I said-- about me, and my dad-- I didn’t mean it.”
Fred shakes his head. “It’s not about that,” he says. “I know you were just upset. This is about you, Jughead. And how by merit of you being my son’s best friend for god knows how long, I have come to care about you and your wellbeing for your own sake.” He turns away from the stove and sees Jughead with his hands wrapped around his coffee mug, tight enough to go white at the knuckles. Even having gotten cleaned up, his hands are still dingy. Fred wonders how well he’s been sleeping, what kind of work he’s been doing. What has made him so uneasy.
Jughead takes a breath to speak, and stops. He closes his eyes, breathes again, and says, “I haven’t been living with dad.”
“What?” Fred says, moving the pan off the heat. Jughead stares at the countertop.
“I moved out this spring,” he says. “After mom left with Jellybean. Bounced around for a few weeks, but I wound up staying at the Twilight. You may have noticed that living arrangement recently fell through.”
Fred’s lungs are tight. He braces his hands against the countertop, takes a deep breath. “Jesus,” he says. It’s barely loud enough to count as a response, but when he looks up Jughead’s shrugging, the movement jerky.
“He didn’t kick me out or anything,” he says, dismissive. “I left. I’m making it work.” The statement could have been made by anyone, but the stubborn tilt of his chin is all teenage boy, on the stile between child and man. Fred could cry for him. Fred is so very proud of him.
“I’m sure you are,” he says. “But as of now--” stop, think, what is the commitment he’s making here-- “you don’t have to.”
Jughead blinks and looks up at him, eyes deer-in-the-headlights wide. Fred makes his expression steady, decisive. Archie appears in the doorway and says,
“I smell pancakes, what’s the occasion-- Jug?”
and Jughead’s hands jerk around his mug, and coffee slops onto the countertop. Archie looks wide-eyed from his former best friend to his father, and Fred passes Jughead a rag from the sink.
“Come get breakfast, Arch,” he says. “Are you fine giving Jughead a ride to school?”
Archie nods, wide-eyed, and moves around the island to get a plate. He sits next to Jughead and they eat, the scene familiar but the silence uncomfortable. Fred puts the empty mixing bowl in the sink and leans on the counter across from them with the last handful of pancakes, and announces, “After school, Arch, you and Jughead need to turn out the spare bedroom upstairs. I’ll be a little late getting back, but I believe you two can handle yourselves.”
Archie frowns, more confused than anything. “Sure, dad. But-- what’s going on?”
Fred looks at Jughead, who meets his eyes uncomfortably. “How do you want to play this?” Fred says, and Jughead shrugs. “I can tell him?” Fred says. Jughead shrugs again, nods. “I’ll just give him the bare-bones version,” Fred says. “The rest you can disclose as you feel like it, okay?”
“Okay,” Jughead says, hoarse. Fred turns to Archie.
“Jug’s run into a bit of trouble,” he says. “He’ll be staying with us for a while. As long as he needs.”
Archie might be a bit obtuse even at the best of times, but bless him, he just sets his jaw and nods. He seems upset-- legitimate, considering the version of the story Fred chose to tell him-- but he’s dealing with it.
“Okay,” he says. “Jug, if you don’t mind hanging around during football, I’ll drive us back.”
Jughead shrugs. “Okay,” he says.
Fred can work with Okay.
When they get back in the car after football, they haven’t spoken all day and it’s making Archie sick with nerves. Jughead’s talked, sure-- he’s talked to Betty, he’s said the token six words to Veronica and Kevin, hell, he’s talked to Reggie, if a snide comment and a rebuttal count as talking-- but he and Archie haven’t said anything to each other short of see you at lunch. back in a bit. take care. And yeah, sure, whatever, for Jughead’s part. The ten-minute drive home seems to take hours, and the silence feels like a bomb waiting to go off.
When they get to the house, Jughead makes a detour to the living room to retrieve what appears to be the remains of his life crammed into a rucksack, and then they stump up the stairs together. Jughead heads for the spare room on the landing, but Archie says, “Hang on, I gotta get something,” and bounds up the stairs to his own room two at a time. His objective is still in the top of his closet where he crammed it after their big blowout mid-July; he pulls it out and shakes it out before re-folding it and jogging back down.
He finds Jughead standing in the middle of the spare room, staring at nothing. His rucksack is at his feet, unopened. He glances up at Archie as the door comes to the end of its axis and thumps against the wall, and when he sees what’s in Archie’s arms his eyes go wide.
“It’s not official until the blanket comes out, right?” Archie says, summoning a smile, and tosses it to him. Jughead catches it and lets it unfold, the light blue fabric patterned with hamburgers (a gift from Archie’s mom, before) clashing with Jughead’s all-black.
“Right,” he says, his voice hoarse and barely audible. Archie forces his own voice to be light when he says,
“I’m gonna go break into the linen closet. Be right back.”
He hears Jughead mumble okay as he hurries out the door. The linen closet only takes a moment to rustle through; he returns to the spare room with a pile of sheets, and when he pauses to fumble the door open he hears something inside: the muffled, snuffling breaths of someone who doesn’t want to cry but most certainly is crying.
Shit, Archie thinks, and “Jug?” he says, and then he’s pushing open the door open and crossing the room to where Jughead’s slumped on the spare twin mattress scrubbing at his eyes. “Shit, Jug,” Archie says, dropping the sheets and kneeling next to him, and when Jughead’s only response is a shaky breath and a blank look Archie reaches up and wraps his arms around Jughead’s shoulders. “Hey, buddy, it’s okay. I got you.”
“I’m fine,” Jughead mumbles, but his voice is wobbly, and he doesn’t pull away. Instead he rests his head in the crook of Archie’s shoulder and drags in ragged breath after ragged breath, and after a moment he doesn’t exactly relax, but he does settle, and wraps his arms around Archie's midsection. For a few moments there’s silence, as the shoulder of Archie’s t-shirt grows damp and he rubs his thumbs against Jughead’s shoulder blades, and then he speaks.
“I’m so sorry, Jughead,” he says. “I’m so damn sorry.”
Jughead huffs against his shoulder. “You owe me a lot of burgers, pal, but I’m pretty sure this one isn’t going on your tab.”
“No, I mean-- I’m sorry about whatever’s going on. Of course I’m sorry. But--” Archie stops, takes a deep breath of his own. “I’m sorry we’re like this. I’m sorry that I was too wrapped up in myself to realize you were struggling. I know it’s my fault we’re like this, and I-- I probably made you feel like you couldn’t trust me, and I’m sorry, Jug.” He takes another breath. “I’m so damn sorry.”
Jughead sighs. Then his grip on Archie tightens, and he slumps into him. Archie sways, but he isn’t thrown off balance; Jughead’s too light. “I’ve been on the street since the Twilight shut down,” he mumbles. “I broke in last night ‘cause it was cold, and your dad caught me.”
“I’m glad he did,” Archie says. “I’m glad you’re here.” He tightens his grip, too, and Jughead relaxes just a little more.
“Me too,” he says.