He remembers the first time it happened.

She called him up after school, the tone of defeat clear in her voice, and it was obvious that she'd been playing second fiddle to Veronica Lodge again... But Jughead Jones knew better than anybody that Betty Cooper was a fighter. Just because Archie Andrews wasn't prone to taking her out nearly as much as her best friend didn't mean that she was going to spend the evening soaking her pillow in tears and wondering what might have been.

…Not these days, anyway.

These days, she preferred to make dinner for two.

It wasn't as if Jughead were taking advantage of her—on the contrary, her love of cooking often overshadowed her love of the redheaded boy, when she got into the thick of it. So on days when she was down, she found that it helped to create a masterpiece dinner…the dinner Archie would never fully appreciate.

This was what Jughead was inclined to believe, after watching Betty chase his best pal around the table for over a decade. Since Archie wasn't going to, Jughead was the obvious and ever ready stand-in. Anyway, if anyone belonged at a kitchen table, it was certainly him.

Not just because he loved the taste of her chicken fricassee or how sweet her chocolate cake was- Jughead enjoyed her company, and he would never let her do all the work herself, even if she wanted to. It all depended on her mood though. Sometimes, when she was too down to do anything, Jughead would whip up a platter of burgers for them to share.

The best part was probably the conversation. The scene just didn't look right without Jughead leaning his whole body forward in his seat at the breakfast nook, long legs in black slacks and loafers poking out from the other side of the table as they talked excitedly about dinner as if it were their baby.

Not to mention, when they were alone together, you might say…

Oh, but he'd never admit that he even had the teeniest, tiniest crush on Betty Cooper. After all, it was Betty. The same girl who pined away for his best friend… Not to mention, she trusted and confided in him more than anybody. He believed nothing could force him to change their friendship. It didn't seem right to indulge in feelings like that, given the circumstances. There was just no reason to. He had a reputation to keep as the first class woman-hater, anyway.

But—

When he watched her move around the kitchen, it was impossible not to take in the finer details. The scholarly look as she poured over a cookbook, the first time he saw that unintentionally savage grin when she was tenderizing steak with a mallet, the sigh and smile that graced her face at the herald of an oven timer—the curve of her body as she balanced on one tip-toed foot to grab a serving dish from the top of the cupboard.

More than anything, he enjoyed the serenity that filled the kitchen when they were in each other's company. Watching her graceful movements, and often working alongside her made something in his heart itch relentlessly. They were a great team.

His heart leapt as she opened the door. Their eyes met, and he could see hers were glassy and red from tears, but she grinned through the heartache and held the door open further. He stepped inside, removing his scarf and depositing it in her hands.

"So what to have tonight, good sir Jughead?" She asked, and her voice cracked a bit in a laugh. The sound made him angry with Archie for putting the strain there, but he forced that bitter pill back down. They wouldn't get anywhere if he were upset too. His eyes roved the house as they immediately made for the kitchen.

"Well, if you're really asking me… I'm sort of feeling like some caviar and foie gras." Betty scoffed and threw his scarf over her shoulder as if it were a mink stole. "…Too bourgeois?" Her rich-girl antics earned a lopsided grin, and she returned it. She pulled a few cookbooks from a shelf and took a seat just as he did, their shoulders bumping.

"Really, the delicate palette of someone such as I requires more refined tastes, sir Juggie." She cracked the first thick tome, thumbing through the sections. She murmured thoughtfully, "Mmm, to be honest, I'm feeling pretty soupy today." The nearness of her, voice and body made Jughead swallow nervously. He grabbed another cookbook and buried his nose to hide his embarrassment.

"Well then let us see what we can find, madam Cooper."

The rich smell of French onion soup filled the kitchen as it simmered on the stove, nearly ready to be eaten. Betty dusted the flour from herself and turned the burner off with one hand as she put a lid on the pot with the other.

Jughead watched her in comfortable silence. She was very clearly in deep thought. Suddenly, he began to think of Archie—how at that minute he was probably snuggling up on Veronica's couch or out at a three star restaurant. His attention went back to Betty, and he noticed her fingers lingering on the metal handle of the pot lid.

"Betty!" It took three tries to get her attention, but burnt fingers brought her back to reality. She yelped and shook her poor hand. Jughead had already turned the cold tap on and was pulling her over to the sink by the wrist.

They stood close together. He could hear her faint breathing over the white noise of running water, and he couldn't bring himself to let go of her. She turned away, squeezing her eyes shut against tears. "Oh Juggie, I'm such an idiot…" She hiccupped miserably. She drew in a shuddering breath and roughly swiped the few stray tears with her other hand. She smiled a little bit, but it wasn't the kind Jughead was inclined to share with her. He searched her face, hoping she wouldn't break down again. If she did, maybe then he'd have to summon the courage to gather her in his arms, and then he'd be in a real mess. He turned the tap off.

"Better?" He asked as he took the towel from her shoulder and gently dried her hand. She beamed—a watery, wavering smile, and this time it was gracious and genuine.

Thank you so much you taking care of me.

No problem.

She excused herself to bathroom, and when he heard the door shut somewhere in the depths of the house, he leaned back against the sink. He pinched the bridge of his nose and groaned for the dull and smoldering ache in his heart. He couldn't say he hated being around her at all, but damn if it didn't make him feel sick and weak.

It was easier to get by when things were normal. When she was spending her attentions on Archie, all was right with the world. They didn't see as much of each other, then. He spent his time eating, or walking in the park alone. He was better off alone.

…But Betty needed him now, and he was ashamed to be proud of the fact that perhaps she didn't think she had anybody else to turn to when it came to Archie.

The first time she called him, she was a total mess. Her mother actually answered the door, and as he went with her up the stairs to Betty's room, she explained her daughter's condition. She was alright now, she slept for a little while and then she was crying again. Then she called for him.

He sat there for hours, talking to her occasionally, but mostly watching her cry. He felt helpless to do anything—it was new territory, but she thankfully did more than enough talking for the both of them, switching between anger and sadness.

"Do you think I should just give him up for good, Jug?" She wondered quietly the next morning, as they walked to school together. He was awfully tired, but this question surprised him enough to wake him up a little. She'd never entertained the idea before- At least not to him, or aloud. Maybe this really was it for them, after all.

Even so, he clapped a hand on her shoulder and looked in her equally tired eyes and said, "Betty, you're a good person, you're not bad looking, and you make a pretty good chocolate milk, to boot." Her face flushed a little, "Someday, Arch is going to get wise. I know it." They started walking again.

"Not bad looking? Really?" She asked. That was probably the best compliment any girl had wrested from him at that young age of eight. He made her promise not to go bragging to anybody about it. It just sort of slipped out. She understood, of course.

Then there was the first time she cooked for him. They were thirteen, and maybe it didn't go as well as she hoped it would, but after accidentally dropping a bag of flour on the floor and getting into a bit of a food fight, Jughead promised her that her cookies were even better than his Mom's… even if he was the one in his family who baked all the cookies.

He started to feel guilty at sixteen—last year, when he found out what it was like to be without her friendship. She wasn't even having him over because of an Archie-upset. In fact, they were watching television together over at his house on a hot summer day. A big fan was propped on the coffee table just out of the way of the screen, and he was slouched almost all the way down so that his face could catch the breeze as it moved back and forth. She lay with her head resting on the other side of the couch, and her legs were idly strewn across his chest. A bowl of potato chips was wedged between them, and he had just heaped a handful of them into his mouth when she spoke.

"So I have a date with Archie this Friday."

He chewed slowly, the salt stinging his tongue. "Hrrrrgh." Yep—that just about summed up how he felt about it all, at this point. She knew he was going through a rough patch with Archie, sick of his girl-crazy antics always getting him into trouble and that those troubles were always taking precedent over everyone and everything else in his life. They hadn't spoken for a day or two, but the apology was inevitable. Archie was pretty good about that. Betty itched her ankle with her big toe. "Wanna pass me the soda?" He asked curtly. The salt and the heat were overpowering.

"Ron's going to be out of town, so things should pretty much go off without a hitch." She sighed almost wistfully. He frowned. She sounded so pitiful, like she was glad to be getting her friend's leftovers. She handed him the two-liter they bought at the drug store on their way back from Pop's, and he drank straight from the bottle. "What do you think?" She asked. He couldn't help the involuntary tremor of resentment at the sound of the hope in her voice.

"I don't think you need my blessing, Betty." Her face fell, and he felt worse when it did. "I'm going to be completely honest, and I'm not saying this because of what happened between me and Archie the other day." He paused as the fan swung to the left and tousled his hair, "I really don't think it's worth it, in the long run."

She got pretty upset.

"This is the first date I've had with him in two weeks. You could at least be happy for me at getting the chance to try." She was sitting up now, and her legs slid from his lap to the floor. "I think this has everything to do with what happened between you guys."

"Oh come on, that's just stupid."

"No, no, I understand, just another girl for him to lose his head over, right?" She set the chips on the coffee table, and held out her hand for the soda. As she swigged from it, Jughead tried to defend himself.

"Betty, I know me and Archie are going to be friends again. We're going to be friends all our lives, same as you and me, and as your friend, I'm telling you that one night out is not going to be what it takes to get him away from Veronica, let alone all the other girls he chases around."

Maybe she was right. He had been so fed-up with Archie's reoccurring problems, and when she talked about how excited she was to be going out with him, he couldn't help but feel a little angry with the both of them. Why was she wasting her time and effort on someone who didn't even seem to care?

In the long run, he was right—after the date, Jughead and Archie made up, Veronica came back from Paris, and everything was back to normal. Almost.

He had to apologize to Betty.

After his speech, she stood and excused herself. "I'm gonna go. I have to buy a dress for Friday night." That stung a bit. Worse though, were the days that followed. Patching things up with Archie first, Jughead heard all his news of her through the freckle-faced boy… How their date went (as Betty said, without a hitch), when Veronica returned, and then finally—

"I can't believe it… I really messed this one up, Jug." Archie moaned, burying his face in his hands. Jughead watched his friend's agony shrewdly, but sat beside him in front of the school anyway. Banners for the annual back-to-school dance twisted in the wind behind them, painted blue and gold. The dance was that very evening. Not ten minutes after they sat there, Archie stood. "Alright, I guess I'm going to have to take Ron." It was amazing, just how much thought he put into the decision. "You know how she gets, Jug," Archie was beginning to rationalize, "Betty is a much better sport about this stuff. She'll understand."

No, she'd pretend to understand and then stay at home by herself crying. You are insane if you think you're making any sense right now.

Jughead shrugged absently when Archie asked him what he thought. What did it matter? He wasn't going to take Betty if he asked, not even if he demanded it. "Glad you've got things straightened out, Arch." He stood, stretching and cracking his joints. "Let's go—I'm staaaarving." Archie nodded and fell in step beside him back towards his house.

They spent a few passing minutes in silence, the wind in the trees hanging over the sidewalk and their footfalls being the only sound on the empty street. It was pretty quiet, for a Friday, but then again it was almost dinner time… Jughead's stomach grumbled softly. Probably casserole tonight. Archie's voice cut through his thoughts.

"Have you talked to Betty yet?"

Suddenly, his appetite was gone, and he jammed his hands in the pockets of his black slacks without a word. Archie sighed at him, shaking his head in pity. "I just don't get it. You guys were so tight a little while ago—I don't know what you fought about, but you're fooling yourselves if you think this is the right way to handle things." Jughead knew that, but thinking about it was just so much harder than doing something. It's not like he meant to put apologies off.

"It's not her fault … I said something pretty insensitive to her a while back. I don't know why I haven't faced her yet." He kicked at a stone and missed.

"Scared?" That pretty much hit the mark. Scared to face her after being so brutal. Scared that she would never turn to him again. Mostly scared that she would probably be all alone tonight, if he didn't apologize as soon as possible.

She didn't deserve that.

"Don't be." Archie said firmly, slinging an arm over the slumped shoulders of his best friend. "If there's anything that makes a person feel better, it's an honest apology. Betty's a fair judge… C'mon, she's let me off the hook so many times, even though I don't treat her as well as I probably should." There was vein of guilt in his last words, and for once, Jughead might have felt a little sorry for Archie and his dysfunctional romances. Maybe they were all just stupid…

"You're right." Was all he could manage before Archie continued.

"Go and see her tonight! It's not like you have any excuse!" he laughed, giving the arm around Jughead's shoulder a squeeze as they approached the front door. "I know she's my girl and everything, but it just doesn't make sense not to see you two together these days." It was an off the cuff statement, and he probably didn't think about what he was saying, but Jughead did. He thought about it through dinner, he thought about it as Archie left him sitting on the living room couch, eyeing the telephone warily and wondering if he shouldn't call before he went over. He thought about it when he had finally knuckled under and was standing at Betty Cooper's front door.

It was too late to turn back. He had already knocked.

Betty's mother answered the door. Jughead was surprised at her broad smile and sigh of relief. "I didn't think you were coming over tonight, Juggie." She had adopted her daughter's nickname for him long ago. "I'm glad you're here." He felt more confident and familiar with the situation as they reached the stairs. As she explained the events of Betty's latest heartache, he couldn't help but feel like a doctor getting a rundown on a patient's condition from a nurse on his way to the operating room.

When they stopped in front of her door, "I know you two haven't talked in quite a while, but she hasn't been the same since the end of August." Betty's mother took his hands and squeezed them gently as she spoke. "She'll be very glad to see you, too."

"Thanks, Mrs. Cooper." He looked down at his feet, the toes wiggling nervously in spite of her comforting words. She laughed, shaking her head as she put her hand on the doorknob.

"I should be thanking you… Good luck!"

And then she opened the door.

Betty was facedown in a mountain of pillows piled at the foot of her bed. As he got closer, he could tell she had recently fallen asleep… Or maybe she was just lying there like a rag doll. "Betty?" He forced out softly, but it felt like invoking her name cut through the awkward atmosphere like a spell. He smiled a little when she groaned rolled over onto her back. He sat down on the side of her bed. In the warm yellow glow of her bedside lamp, her eyes glazed dully with unshed tears as she regarded him. She rolled onto her side and curled into a ball.

"Oh Juggie…" She sighed painfully. He put a hand on her shoulder, trying to steady her while she teetered on the brink of tears, but she sat up instead. "Tissue?" She croaked, and he was more than happy to help. She shielded her running nose from his sight and quickly grabbed one from the Kleenex box he took from her dresser. He had to laugh at how embarrassed she was, in spite of the familiarity of the situation.

In the silence that followed, his eyes took her in. She was wearing a pair of Riverdale volleyball team shorts, and he was surprised to find that she was also donning a familiar black sweater with a large "S" on it—this belonged to him. It was the one she borrowed one night last year when they were walking home from a football game. She looked smaller, more vulnerable with the oversized garment on her trembling body.

Without a second thought, he pulled her to his chest, and there she stayed, her sobs muffled by the lanky arms that held her. "I'm sorry…" He whispered gently as he smoothed a hand over her hair—lumpy from the messy ponytail it was in. He pulled the elastic band loose and ran his fingers through, loosening the tangles he could manage.

Then, even as it felt wrong, he pulled her even closer, pressing his cheek to her head. His eyes drifted shut against the overwhelming and sickening reality of how good he felt. Her body shook his, and he could feel her hands come around his back and her fingers clutch at the fabric of his matching sweatshirt. "I'm so sorry…" His heart wrenched in guilt.

The feelings and thoughts he had back then didn't surprise him completely. They vexed him for a long time after, but he knew what was happening before he could consciously admit it to himself.

The next day, they were friends like nothing had happened between them. They were happy to be able to walk to school together. Jughead was happy to see her kneeling at the hem of a dress, looking up at him with a grin full of pins. Betty was happy to sit tables across from him in the library, pulling faces to try and make him laugh out loud, even if she was the one that eventually got in trouble for laughing… And of course, she didn't speak once to Archie for the following week. Things were back to normal.

Although, the next school year, she didn't go on so many dates with him. She got a little more distant from Archie with each weekend or school dance. "No, I'll just go stag." She said to Jughead once when they were talking about homecoming. He almost choked on his hamburger.

Driven by curiosity, he paid his ten dollar homecoming fee at the door to the gymnasium and entered through curtains of crepe paper streamers.

The dappled lights of a disco ball turned about the gym, and bass thrummed out from huge speakers positioned on either side of the DJ's table. Jughead paused just after the entrance, eyes adjusting to the mood lighting. Then a shriek of laughter startled him as a couple went past, bumping him forward hard as they scurried to join the dance. He frowned, straightening the clip that secured his thin necktie, rolled up the sleeves of his suit coat and pressed on.

As per usual, he began by walk around the edge of the party, keeping an eye out for people he knew, stopping to converse with Dilton, Reggie—even Big Ethel, at a point. He promised a dance and sidestepped her as she joined the throng of students again. Finally, he staked out his usual spot just at the side of the food table, cup of punch in hand. He felt unusually alert as he stood against the wall, watching as more and more people arrived.

"Who're you looking for?"

Jughead hadn't even noticed her—the music being too loud to hear approaching footsteps, and only when she shouted loudly, he noticed Betty standing there. Relief melted his flustered heart and they shared a warm smile. He shrugged, turning away to refill his cup. He handed it to her and poured himself another.

"To us stags." He proposed, raising his cup. Betty smirked and hooked her elbow around his, and he couldn't help but stare into her eyes as they drank their lonely toast together the way newlyweds would at their wedding reception. He tore himself away to fill their cups again, and they stood against the wall chatting for a half hour or so.

Then Archie and Veronica arrived, and the natural order or things resumed. Jughead watched as Reggie out pulled Betty onto the dance floor with a laugh and a twirl. Shortly after that, Ethel pulled him out for a slow number. She was a few inches taller than him—taller than a lot of guys at Riverdale High, so they looked cartoonish as they swayed back and forth together.

After the song ended, she stood away, wringing her hands together nervously. "Wanna get some air?" She blurted quickly.

"Nah, I'm good for now. I'm kind of hungry…" He tried to smile and turn away at the same time, but his retreat halted when her hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. Her eyes didn't hold the predatory glint that she usually sent his way.

"I—Juggie, we really need to talk!" She exclaimed just as there was a break in the DJ's music, drawing lots of unwanted attention. They both blushed hard as Jughead pulled her along to escape the teasing of many of their peers.

It was a full ten minutes before Ethel felt courageous enough to speak her mind. They sat on the front steps of the school, with the same blue and gold banners that the dance committee used months before fluttering in the early autumn night.

"We're through." She began, her voice tight with restrained sadness. He didn't know what to say, and she continued, "I mean, I'm not going to chase you around anymore… I've been doing it because I thought I'd have some sort of chance, but now that I see how you feel, there isn't any point." She drew a tired breath, Fingers tugging at the hem of her red on white polka-dotted skirt. Jughead blinked and removed his hat, passing a hand through his hair in a lengthy gesture.

"I… Haven't you always known I didn't want to date you?" He asked dumbfounded. Ethel snorted and rolled her eyes.

"That's not what I meant by how you feel." She said, "I know how you feel about her."

All thoughts were swept away with a lurching panic in his stomach. Jughead froze.

Suddenly, he was trying his best to laugh like she had been joking. "Come on, what are you talking about? Ethel, if you haven't heard, I'm the woman-hater. I treat all girls with equal distain and neglect." He proclaimed sarcastically with a dramatic sweep of his arm.

"That's not true." Ethel retorted, rolling her eyes. "I don't see you neglecting Betty Cooper these days." The mention of her name was like a fist clenching his heart. He was losing his resolve, remembering what Ethel might have noticed back in the dance, feeling sick when he realized she had probably seen him and Betty's toast… He had been so wrapped up in the moment. Ethel watched the emotions play over his ordinarily sleepy features.

"Has anybody else noticed?" He murmured vacantly as his thoughts sped along. Ethel shook her head in exasperation. Jughead grabbed her shoulders and looked at her with desperation that she'd never seen him convey in all the time she'd known him. "You can't say anything about this. Anything. Do you understand?"

Ethel stared back, her own heart racing and falling to pieces at the same time. He didn't often hold her, or even voluntarily touch her for that matter. This desperation and guilt he showed her in lieu of his feelings for Betty, and for all that they implied about his character made her pity and love him all the more… Made her pity herself, too.

She wrestled herself free from his grasp and stood, sighing disappointedly as she dusted herself off. "Yeah, of course your secret's safe with me." She griped, turning on her heel to escape back through the doors of the school.

"How did you know?"

His last question made her pause with the door half open, and beyond it she could hear laughter and music echoing down the hall to the right. She turned, slightly leaning on the doorframe with her hip and looked down at him still sitting on the stairs.

"I loved you. I've probably noticed more about you than your own mother has." She laughed, bittersweet. "Bye, Jughead." She slipped behind the door before he could say anything else. He wouldn't come after her.

She turned left down the hall in the opposite direction, where the sounds of the dance drifted off into the white noise of the empty school.

Somehow, she didn't feel like going back yet.

Jughead remained outside for a while longer. His thoughts would be harder to sort out if he went back inside, and the exchange with Ethel was still looming over his head.

He was guilty to have caused her so much heartache, and now he was even more self-conscious about the way he treated Betty. Maybe it was all so tangible now because Ethel had taken the time to spell it out for him, while all the time he thought he was acting normal, or at least burying any hint of favoritism deep inside himself.

Then again, as he looked back on the years past, maybe he just thought that the way he was with Betty was completely normal. He smiled sardonically at how stupid he was. At least now, in some capacity, he knew how Big Ethel felt while fawning over him all this time.

He was back at the gymnasium door, stopping to talk with Dilton, who'd been working his shift at the foldout table stationed outside. "I saw you leave with Ethel!" The brain exclaimed, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

"It wasn't like that, Dilt. Serious talk." Jughead made himself comfortable at the empty folding chair next to Dilton's behind the table. There was a pause where Dilton took some money and stamped a few hands with a big "R"-shaped stamp. "She's done with me." He stated as Dilton leaned back in his seat. The shorter boy's eyebrows shot up his forehead.

"What? Are you serious?" He exclaimed incredulously. Jughead nodded. Dilton looked on him with an expression of pity and shook his head. "That's the end of an era." He clucked his tongue, "Are you sad about it?" Jughead almost laughed.

"Do you think I was happy when she was hunting me down twenty-four/seven?" He grinned, feeling a little better about his previous exchange with the girl. "No… The only thing I'm sad about is that she wasted so much time on a guy like me." He removed his beanie and thumbed the zig-zagged edge thoughtfully. "You know, you could go find her and make sure she's okay, if you want to." He smiled at the bespectacled boy, "I could take care of things here. When does your shift end?"

Dilton checked his large calculator watch. "Eleven minutes and thirty two seconds… Are you sure?" He asked, but was already pushing back from the table. Jughead laughed and grabbed the shorter boy's jacket off the back of the chair, holding it out to him as he straightened his tie.

"Of course. Go on! Get out of here!" He exclaimed. They shared one more laugh, and Dilton was off down the hall. Jughead watched as he disappeared around a corner. Someone cleared their throat behind him. He turned, and his field of vision was full of a large belly in a red waistcoat and blue suit. Then his eyes traveled up, and the idiotic grin melted off of his face. "Well hi there…"

Mr. Weatherbee dropped into the seat Dilton previously occupied. "I didn't know you were volunteering, Jughead." His voice was stern—not in any sort of mood of good humor.

"For the rest of Dilton's shift, sir. He had something to take care of. Just playing good Samaritan and all that." Jughead said quickly, so the Bee didn't get the wrong idea, "But shouldn't you be in the gym, sir? This isn't really a chaperone's job."

"I have a special interest in the next 'volunteer' on duty." The principal's voice took on a note of sarcasm as he checked his watch. "…And if he doesn't want two more weeks detention, he better show up yesterday." Jughead laughed nervously, drumming his fingers on the table.

"Well, I better not distract you from your job." He slid out of his seat, backing away from the table slowly as if he were just sitting with a starving lion. Mr. Weatherbee just glowered off into space, leaning over the table, fingers laced in front of his tight mouth. Jughead felt a twinge of sympathy for the older man… Even the Bee didn't deserve babysitting whoever this bad apple was. He sighed and turned to walk into the gym, colliding head-on with Archie.

"Hey pal!" Archie grabbed him by the shoulders quickly and pulled him into the gymnasium, just next to the door. Looking extremely shady, he peered out through the crepe curtain at the principal. "God, I hope he didn't see me. He'll think I'm avoiding work." Jughead raised an eyebrow. Of course. The only person who could push Weatherbee's buttons so severely was Archie Andrews.

"Here's the deal," The red head began, straightening his posture, "I have to work the front table for an hour or two. Could you make sure Reggie doesn't get too friendly with Ron? I won't be able to keep an eye on her."

Somehow, Jughead managed to contain himself. His initial reaction would have put him on the floor, dying of laughter, but he hated to see his best friend's disposition go sour on his account. "Of course! I've got the eyes of a hawk and the stomach of a panda bear. So long as she is holding a plate full of burgers, that slimy snake won't get so much as one dance with your angel drawers."

A little under-the-radar sarcasm wouldn't matter much.

"Ah, stop kidding around… Thanks Jug! You're the best!" Archie clapped both hands on Jughead's shoulders again and walked past Jughead through the door. Jughead stood there for moment, and just as his eyes trailed thoughtfully to the food table, Archie poked his head through the curtain again. "I almost forgot! Betty's looking for you!" Then he was gone again, serving his time.

"…Thanks." Jughead murmured. His voice was drowned out as the DJ began a new set.

Minutes later, he was back, grazing from a bowl of chips sitting in the crook of his arm. Veronica and Reggie were sitting far down the gym, to the side of the dance floor. Reggie leaned in close to her ear, and her face predictably shifted from shocked, to angry, to laughing. Jughead shoveled another fistful of chips into his mouth and purposefully looked away. Their merciless flirting wasn't really his top priority, no matter what he promised Archie.

Were his feelings for Betty that obvious?

No. He shook his head. It was just Ethel. She said so herself… But then she probably didn't know for certain. Anybody could have noticed. Did anybody care that much? He racked his brain, ticking off names in his head.

Betty, for some miraculous reason, didn't seem to notice… Or else she might have noticed long ago and then avoided the issue for fear of spoiling what they already had.

Jughead set the chips down on the table in front of him. His appetite was gone, his stomach a tight ball of nervous nausea. He grimaced, folding his arms over his chest. He'd long since lost track of where Veronica was, and frankly, he didn't care.

Betty was standing at the edge of dancing couples, rubbing her bare forearms and very obviously rubbernecking. Her blonde ponytail swung to and fro, and she even stood on her tiptoes, fruitlessly looking around the room.

In spite of his sick feelings, Jughead smiled. Then panicked and moved against the wall, hiding behind a group of students as she turned to look his way. He took off his beanie and shoved it into his pocket for good measure.

Jughead had successfully avoided Betty by dodging and ducking and weaving around the gym without much regard for the time, or anything else, pausing occasionally to chat. His eyes were always watching out though. His obligation to Archie prevented him from leaving for the next while… If he could just avoid the blonde for that amount of time, he'd be able to go home and have at least a weekend to sort himself out.

"Jughead! Thanks!" Archie called out, standing near the door. Perfect.

Without thinking twice, he made a beeline for the exit, when there she was. He was stopped dead in his tracks, intercepted by the rather frustrated-looking blonde. As if she had already anticipated that he would wheel around and run in the opposite direction, Betty grabbed him by the hand.

"I've been looking for you everywhere! The dance is almost over!" She shouted. It wasn't just because of the volume of the music. Jughead's mouth tried to form words to explain, but before he could even trip over excuses, she shook her head, "Oh no you don't—" Then dragged him to an obscure corner of the dance floor just next to one of the huge speakers.

"Betty—"

"OKAY BULLDOGS! IT'S ALMOST TIME TO SAY GOODBYE. WE'VE GOT TWO SONGS LEFT FOR YOU, MAKE SURE YOU AND YOUR DATE MAKE IT HOME SAFE AND SOUND."

Given their position right beside the sound system, both were rattled momentarily. Betty quickly shook it off. "You heard him, Jones!" She shouted, the music picking up tempo, "We've got two dances. Better make 'em count!" Her dancing must have looked awkward as he stood there… But then she slapped him on the shoulder and his body twisted with hers. Their dancing really didn't fit the style of the music—some top forty song neither of them really cared about, Betty led them in dance moves that would have made more sense in an old folks' home. Gradually, Jughead forgot his troubles, grinning as he put a finger on her head while she spun like a drunken ballerina. She dizzily stumbled into him, laughing with her whole body as she jumped backwards so that she'd have enough room to do the cabbage patch.

They broke apart when the song ended, breathless in fits of giggles. Betty wiped a mirthful tear from her eye as the next song began to play.

Inevitably, it was a slow one.

She straightened, standing away from him, but looking up expectantly—waiting for him to take the lead. He swallowed hard.

"Well?" She shrugged.

"Just… Just give me a second. This is hard." He massaged his temples, "You may be a friend, but I'm still a woman hater." He attempted a joke, his face flushed from exertion and embarrassment. Finally gathering his courage, he turned to her, his hands reaching out for her waist.

It was just at this moment that Archie appeared.

"Here you are! I've been looking for you everywhere!" Jughead put his hands behind his back and immediately looked anywhere else. Archie leaned up against the speaker between him and Betty. "Last dance—how 'bout it Betty?"

Of all the situations Jughead had found himself in that evening, this one was the most surreal. It was obvious that Betty would accept, and he knew that he would be disappointed, and that he'd have to hide that from his two best friends and watch them from the side, like watching people eat at Pop Tate's when he didn't have a dime to his name.

He turned on his heel and walked away to the exit. The fluorescent light of the hallway momentarily blinded him as he swept through the curtain, but his feet carried him further, through the doors and down the stairs until he was striding across the parking lot.

The faint clip of high heels on pavement came from behind. "Wait!"

He was so surprised to hear Betty's voice that he turned around immediately. The skirts of her dress pressed against her legs as she trotted to a walk. She stopped in front of him, panting. Jughead blinked as she bent over to remove one shiny black pump after the other.

"Do you know how hard it is to run in these things? Why did you just take off off like that?" She walked over to a nearby curb and sat down, chucking her shoes beside her on the grass somewhere.

"Like what?" He raised his eyebrows, trying to play innocent. Betty just rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"You know what I mean, Jones. Don't think you'll slip out of this one!" She groused. He smirked—she only ever referred to him as "Jones" when she was pretending to be angry with him… Like she was trying to sound like a 1920's gangster. He sighed. Regardless, she was right. He had no excuse.

"Didn't you want to dance with Archie?" He asked as he removed his jacket, holding it out to her. She took it and pulled it on, tucking her hands in the pockets.

"No."

"But it was the last dance."

"So what?" She said flatly as she distracted herself with the contents of his coat—his wallet, a pack of gum, some loose receipts…

"It was a slow dance."

"What difference does that make?"

He just didn't get it. First, she doesn't even try to get Archie to take her, then she turns him down for a dance?

She looked up at him and smiled innocently. Jughead's brow knit with worry.

"None of it makes sense…" He raked a hand through his hair and sat down on the curb beside her, shoulders slumped in defeat. Betty shrugged, her hand coming up to rub his shoulders in an empty gesture of comfort.

"I know, I know, I just don't care anymore." She offered. They both fell silent, then the pause broke when she laughed to herself. Jughead merely observed. She seemed to be mulling over a secret. Then suddenly, she turned to him, her eyes bright and mischievous. He licked his dry lips.

"He could assume that I've fallen madly in love with you, for all I care."

That was probably what made Archie more determined to date her. Maybe not that he thought Jughead was stealing her away, but perhaps she was just playing very hard to get… Freezing him out real good. He asked her out almost as much as he did Veronica. She went out with him every once in a while, but it was almost always casual—she seemed to be avoiding 'date' situations with the red head. Maybe she just didn't expect that much out of him anymore. To her credit, she never once flaked out on him.

…But then there was tonight.

"Come on, Bets, I'll take you out! It's a big day, after all!" Archie nudged her with an elbow as he carried her books to history class.

"I don't know, Arch, I might already have plans" She hesitated, watching his smile slip prickled her with guilt. Betty sighed, "Okaaay, fine, fine."

."Great! I'll pick you up at seven! Wear something nice!" He held out her books to her. "Alright, doll, I'll see you later." She watched as he left, trying hard not to laugh as he practically skipped down to his next class… and she had to admit, there was a thrum of excitement in her heart.

The bathroom door opened again, and she was her fresh old self. She almost skipped to the bowl of cake batter she had left on the counter. "Feeling better?" Jughead asked, as she began to hum. She smiled at him warmly and pushed the bowl into his hands.

"Yeah… Could you keep mixing this for me while I butter the cake pans?" She asked. He nodded and stood there stirring slowly and thoughtfully. She was bustling around the kitchen when she said, "I've decided." peeling back the wax paper on a stick of butter.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah- I've had enough of playing around with Archie Andrews." She'd said that line many times before. "Don't give me that look, Jughead, this time I'm serious." She took the bowl from him, leaving the spoon behind for him to lick. She worked quietly, pouring out the batter in each pan. She lifted one in each hand and nudged him out of the way of the oven and he reached out to pull the door open so she could slip the pans inside. "I've tried all this time to wean myself off him. You know, it was working there for a while, but it'll never feel right unless it's a clean break." She stopped for a minute and stared directly into Jughead's eyes, promising, "Tomorrow, I'll tell him we're through." She turned back to her work. "Could you help me set the table?" She purposely shifted topics, and that was the end of it.

"I think I actually believe you." Jughead said as he laid placemats, "But I never thought I'd see the day." Betty scoffed like she did before and fanned herself as he set out two bowls and some silverware.

"Really? I mean—you've seen everything that's happened. It was just the natural progression of things." She shrugged. "I'll let you know something, Juggie. I wasn't sad tonight because I'd been ditched as one girlfriend for another. I was sad because honestly- what kind of jerk ditches his oldest friend for a date?" Jughead couldn't help but smile.

"Hey, I'll have to contest your position as 'oldest friend'." He feigned a haughty voice.

"Well fine then, you can go fight for custody with Veronica."

"Ooooh, wow."

Betty laughed, snatching his beanie off his head and placing it on her own. "What if today's their anniversary? That'd be pretty stupid and ironic." She mused, walking over to the darkened kitchen window to examine her appearance in the reflection. Her low ponytail and blunt bangs stood out against the dull grey of the crown. "Not bad…"

"On your birthday? It wouldn't really surprise me!" Jughead said, though his voice didn't really hold the ire it might have, if this had been a year ago. A year ago, Betty might not have been able to laugh off a forgotten birthday quite so easily… But then, times changed, he supposed. She threw him a teasing look over her shoulder. A year ago, his eyes wouldn't have been drawn to her as they were now. He cleared his throat and smiled fondly.

"So, you finally remembered!"

"I never forgot it was your birthday. I'm letting you wear my crown, aren't I?"

That earned a beaming smile. He could see it in the reflection of the window.

"I was hoping I could hang out with you tonight anyway." She confessed sheepishly. Jughead's heart swelled.

"Me too, Betty."

The soup, unsurprisingly, was delicious. Nobody could cook like she did. He ate most of the pot before she could get through her second bowl. He did try to leave her a little bit in case she wanted more, but she insisted he have it instead. Then the dirty dishes were cleared away and she went off to find some candles and matches for the cake. Before that though, she handed Jughead a bag of icing with a piping tool fixed on the end.

"I left the top blank. I'm not about to write my own birthday message on top of the cake I baked for myself. That's just too depressing." She joked. He laughed and turned to the cake on its little pedestal.

Thanks for being such a pal.

You're a free woman!

Good luck being single?

Happy birthday?

I love you.

He realized that he had actually piped this last thing onto the cake, and there his feelings were, laid bare in electric blue icing- an eyesore vibrating against red frosting. He stared at it blankly until he heard her coming back to the kitchen and then he frantically began to squeeze icing all over the top of the cake. She was looking over his shoulder at the scribble of decoration and wrinkled her nose.

"It's conceptual." He offered. He could no longer tell where he had written, thankfully. Betty scooped away a glob of blue from the top of the cake and poked him in the nose with it gently.

"Looks good." She made a pinched, teasing face at him. Flustered, but quick to retaliate, he squeezed a bit of icing into his palm and smeared it on her cheek. She gasped in feigned shock, and then lunged for the tube in his hands. She accidentally bumped the cake as she jumped for it, and they both stopped. Jughead panicked and grabbed the cake stand just as it was tipping over the edge of the counter... A close save. They chorused a sigh of relief as he pushed it to the center so that it wouldn't have a chance to fall again.

"Let's not continue." He remarked, pinching both of her cheeks gently. The corners of her mouth stretched as she grinned an unnatural smile.

She read his mind. "Don't want the cake to become a casualty?" He nodded gravely and she reached for some paper towel hanging from a dispenser just underneath the cupboard.

"Well, if we eat it all, we won't have to worry!" She exclaimed, punctuating it with a swipe of the paper towel to his nose. He set about the kitchen and she washed her face in the kitchen sink.

"Don't turn around! Just close your eyes for a second!" Jughead demanded as he fumbled with the box of candles. Five spilled out onto the countertop—they'd have to do. He set them in the cake and lit them. "Still closed?"

Betty laughed, "Yes!" Her feet stomped impatiently. Jughead laughed and walked over to flip the light switch.

"Okay, you can open them."

When she turned around, the room was dark but for the five candles that flickered atop the birthday cake. It looked even punier with the flames dancing weakly over the red and blue frosting. She drew closer to the counter, and in the dim light he could see a torrent of emotion flow through her eyes. A nervous lump formed in his throat. What if he…

His thoughts cut off as she forced an awkward chuckle. She rubbed the back of her hand against her cheek and whispered, "I hope you're not going to sing me 'Happy Birthday', too."

He straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat,

"Happy birthday to you,

Happy birthday to yo—"

The notes were stolen from him as out of nowhere, Betty grabbed him up in a tight embrace. He didn't even know what to think, only worried that his heart would betray him and she would hear it hammering in his chest. Her nose buried in his t-shirt, she almost seemed to smell him deeply. She sighed and murmured something soft.

"Uh… What?" Jughead was bewildered. She was still—just standing there with her face in his chest. He slowly reached his arms around her shoulders and took her closer to himself. She adjusted so that her cheek was pressed to him and spoke:

"Thanks for everything, Juggie." Her voice held a strange tone, "You've had to put up with a lot over the years… I'll never forget it." He pulled away to make she she wasn't crying again. She wasn't. Instead, a serene smile touched her lips as she gazed up at him.

His hands came up to either side of her face, the pads of his thumbs running across her cheekbones. Her eyes fluttered, and he felt her hands fist the back of his shirt. He bent his head closer, and could almost swear that she raised herself a little towards him. Her breath was a warm caress on his face, a magnet that made his lips ache to close the distance.

That's when they heard the key turn in the lock.

They flew apart, Jughead supported himself against the table. Betty's wide-eyed expression mirrored his own- like a deer caught in headlights, confused and flustered and breathing erratic. Did they really almost…? The front door opened.

"Betty? Are you home?" Her mother's voice broke through the tension; sounds of packages dropping to the floor came from the front hall.

"Yeah, Mom! I'm in the kitchen with Jughead!" Betty called out. She tore her gaze away from his face, smoothing her hair over. "Need help with anything?" She called as she brushed past him. Jughead's thoughts rushed a mile a minute in his head. He wasn't even sure if he was happy that Mrs. Cooper had returned when she lights flicked back on. Betty had returned to the kitchen with her mother, chatting idly.

"…Dinner was fine, your father just had to stop by the office to pick something up before coming home… Why Jughead, how are you?"

He tensed momentarily, but put on a front of normalcy as he turned around. "Jeez, Mrs. Cooper, you almost gave me a heart attack!" He laughed, holding his heart.

"Well, always good to keep you on guard." She joked before she continued on talking about dinner. Jughead's eyes strayed from her to Betty, who was busying herself with the cake. He watched her blow out the candles quickly and take them out one by one, and then he wondered what it was she had wished for when she thought nobody was paying attention, or if she had wished for anything at all. "How was your quiet birthday in, love?"

"Oh, it was just fine!" Betty said as she handed Jughead and her mother plates laden with cake. "You got back just in time for the best part!" Jughead nearly choked on the piece of cake he'd just swallowed. What part was she talking about?

"Well, I hate to spoil your kids' fun and all…" Betty's mother trailed, raising an eyebrow at Jughead. Betty rubbed his back soothingly, both of them beet red. "Are you okay?" Mrs. Cooper asked, eyeing them both warily. She was probably the only person aside from Ethel to notice the progression of Jughead and her daughter's relationship. Something had, or might have been about to happen just as she got home. She cleared her throat. "I think I'll turn in for the night… Hope you don't mind if I take the cake up?"

"Of course not!" They said in unison. Then they winced. Betty's mother laughed and drew them both into a hug.

"Happy birthday, honey. That crown looks good on you." She planted a loud kiss on her daughter's forehead and then looked at Jughead, "You two have fun. We're going to dinner tomorrow for her. You're more then welcome to come along!" She released them both. "Goodnight!" Betty and Jughead bid her goodnight, and then she was gone.

They were alone.

Jughead was terrified.

"Soooo." He hated that his voice sounded meek, so he forked some cake into his mouth, hoping the icing would cement his mouth shut. No luck. Betty handed him a glass of milk. He drank slowly and squirmed a little as she watched him. "Aren't you going to have any?" He asked as he fumbled with the plate and fork in his nervous hands. He set both on the kitchen counter.

She shook her head muttering "No thanks." Her gaze dropped to her feet, hands nervously playing with the hem of her dress. He watched as she seemed to be wrestling with words in her head when she finally stammered, "W-Would it be easier… If the lights were off again?"

His eyes widened at her suggestion. He all but scrambled to the light switch, covering them both in darkness again. The room was black as pitch without candlelight and his eyes weren't adjusting fast enough for him… But then her hand fell on his chest. Small and warm, it slid up to his shoulder to his neck, and then he felt fingers through his hair and a soft sigh against his lips as she eased his mouth down into hers.

He remembers the first time they kissed.

As he walks home with a paper bag full of leftovers under his arm, he remembers that just fifteen minutes ago, he had summoned courage he didn't even know he had. He remembers how warm and soft she was in his arms, the feel of her dress against him, and how just as they broke for air, her teeth caught his bottom lip, desperately hungry for more. He remembers the second time, and the chocolate cake left half-eaten and neglected on the countertop as he pressed her against the counter, as intimate as he'd ever been with a girl before.

It was a birthday full of surprises.

The grin that strains across his face is impossible to fight. His mouth wants to smile more than his face can handle. He laughs, the recollection making his eyes water at how lucky his is. More than anything, he wants to go back to her, to dream about her, to eat her leftovers as soon as he got home so that he could remember that she tasted like French onion soup and chocolate cake.

As he reaches his front door, he's mulling over the drastic changes that will inevitably take place when all their friends hear about all this. Then he realizes he neglected to tell her his feelings… That he loves her.

But then his grin returns and with a shrug, he lets himself in the front door.

Oh well.

There was always next time.


Next Time

By Naoko Asakura

Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. I just grew up with them.

Author's Note: This has been my love letter to my two favorite characters in the series. Thanks.