"May I speak to Betty?"
"Speaking. Who's this?"
... oh, that hurt. There wasn't an ounce of sarcasm in her voice. She really had no clue whom she was speaking with. Archie tried to sound cheerful, but even he could hear how dead his voice was. "It's Archie." He didn't even feel how tightly his stomach had knotted on itself until he heard the faint echo of pages rustling. She was studying as usual. Her life was going on. As usual.
He took a slow breath. "What's up?"
"Not much." There was no coldness in her tone, no wariness, no anger. But likewise there was no welcome, no friendliness. He might have been talking with a complete stranger—no. She treated complete strangers more kindly than this. "What's going on? Do you need help with the homework from class?"
Homework ... every assignment this week was either stuffed in his locker or crammed in his backpack, forgotten. He laughed weakly. "For once, no. Do you have time to talk?"
"Not really. I have a test on Friday."
"How about time to listen?"
He could hear her notebook snap shut. "Ten minutes, and then I've got to get back to Charlemagne."
He opened his mouth to speak, but the words stuck in his throat. He had become used to dealing with Betty and Veronica while they were on an emotional high or low, and her wooden tone frightened him. Trying to appeal to her at this point was eerily similar to pleading for mercy from the Bee, who didn't respond well to repeat offenses from the same person either. He had learned the hard way that the best way to get out of trouble fast was to admit what he had done was wrong, and not to make any excuses. But the awkwardness of the situation was so overwhelming that his stomach cramped again miserably, and the words went unspoken.
On the other end of the line, Betty waited in silence.
They sat there, one not speaking and the other unable to, until Betty finally said, "For someone who called to talk, you're doing a pretty bad job."
"I know. I just ... I never called anyone to have a talk like this. I feel like I'm going to my own execution."
"Are you going to talk?"
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread ... but at this point prudence was a non-issue. Time to spit it out. "I don't have an excuse. I said I would go to the dance with you, and I broke that promise. I'm sorry, Betty. I'm sorry for hurting you."
"Archie, do you have any idea how many dates you've broken with me? How many dances I've missed because I was too ashamed to go there and see you on Veronica's arm? How many times I've turned other guys down to go out for the evening, only to sit at home alone because you stood me up? Of course you don't. Why be sorry now? Just go to the dance with Ronnie and forget about it."
"I'm not going with her."
There was a deadly pause before Betty said "You're not?" Her voice was incredibly still, but it was the calmness of ice splintering.
"I guess you could say I got a taste of my own medicine. Actually, I got the whole damn bottle. We're done."
"No, we're done."
"Archie, you were done with her every week, remember? And on the weeks you weren't done with her, she was done with you. It'll never end. Maybe you like endless drama, but I'm getting tired of it. Going to have a milkshake with you shouldn't start a week of fighting between me and her. You going to dinner with her shouldn't be a reason for her to toss her hair in my face. If the two of you want to break up and make up until the end of high school, go for it. I just don't want to be part of it anymore. Okay?"
"So are you going with Jughead?"
"That doesn't have anything to do—"
"It does when I'm asking you to the dance."
Another loaded silence. Archie switched the receiver to his left hand—painfully, as he had been holding it so hard that the right one had cramped.
"Archie, what are you doing?"
"I ..." Had things really changed this much? The old Betty would have been bawling into the phone by now. "I'm trying to make things right. I'm trying to do what I should have done and go to the dance with you."
"But why? Why this time? Why this one and only time, when I'm ready to move on? Why couldn't you come back to me begging and pleading any of the hundreds of times I wanted you back?"
"Because I knew you would forgive me before," he blurted out, earning himself yet more silence. He took the phone away from his face to wipe the sweat from the earpiece and noted with some relief that they had been connected for over 12 minutes. It was a given that Betty was aware of the time, so at least she wasn't hanging up on him. "Because I knew that even if we couldn't work it out any other way, at least our friendship could survive. But now, I'm not sure if that's going to make it either. And that scares me, because you're one of my best friends. Seriously. Whenever I'm having a problem, don't I come straight to you? Don't you know just about everything about me, what I'm scared of and what I want to do later in life and all my dirty secrets? Don't you know stuff about me that even my parents don't know?"
"Call me crazy, but best friends appreciate each other's friendship without dumping on each other just because they expect forgiveness. Look ... oh, man, I'm late. I'm getting off the phone—"
"Betty, you mean so much more to me than this dance. Could you at least forgive me?"
"You're forgiven. Now I have to go."
"Just one more thing—are you going with Jughead?"
"Good night, Archie."
Jughead was too busy trying to decide between the "everything" breakfast bagel and a fancier, more expensive pastry to notice the line behind him, but the café's cashier saw the irritable people and groaned. Every time this guy came in, he stood there for nearly ten minutes, trying to "decide" between the two daily specials. Then he ultimately just bought both items anyway, leaving her to face the wrath of the other impatient customers. She tried to prod him along. "Erm, sir, don't you just want them both? As usual?"
"Dunno," Jughead mumbled. "What kind of fruit did you say was in the pastry?"
"Strawberries, idiot," a voice shouted from the line. "Just like it says on the sign. Hurry up, some of us have jobs to go to!"
"How rude," Jughead said with a tsk of disapproval. "Here, I'll have the bagel. And ... the pastry. Two of 'em."
He left the counter with pastry in mouth, oblivious to the dirty looks he was getting. So oblivious that he didn't even see who tripped him, but quite suddenly he found himself stumbling out of the door, his food flying everywhere. Behind him, several people laughed, and one rather large woman leaned against the exit, shutting him out of the store. It took him a minute to register the scrapes on his palms and the bagel, cream-cheese-side down in the dirt. The pastries were a total loss too; he had stepped on one while falling. The second had fallen victims to pigeons. "Great. All I need now is some rain."
But instead of rain, a hand reached out to help him up.
He hesitated, wondering if it was one of those jackass customers coming to rough him up. But the moment he saw the familiar powder-blue leather sleeves of a letterman's jacket, he relaxed. There was only one jacket in town stained with the grass from the football field, clay from the baseball diamond, and chalk dust from the track. "Hey, Archie."
"Hey. Lost your breakfast, huh? Wanna share some of mine?" He handed over a greasy sack full of hot muffins. "Help yourself, you probably want 'em more than I do."
They went a block in silence before Archie blurted out, "I talked to Betty last night."
Jughead swallowed audibly.
"Jug, ol' pal, I think you got yourself a date."
They walked another block just as quietly.
"You don't seem too happy," Archie observed.
"I guess I didn't imagine it coming to this," Jughead admitted. "Things always seemed to work out before ... it's kind of weird when you get the feeling that something might be over and done for keeps. Plus, I really don't know how I feel about trying to date a friend. Doesn't seem to work out too well for anyone."
"Well," Archie said, "the dance is in two days and as far as anyone knows, she's going with you. Take some advice from a guy who's been there. You better not stand her up."
Jughead nodded, wondering in the back of his mind if that was advice so much as a threat. But nothing else was said as they trudged on towards Riverdale High.