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Where it ends, where it begins

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At midnight, finally, the last of the stragglers made their way out of the Twilight Drive-In, leaving tire tracks, unfinished popcorn and rubbish in their wake.

Well, there you have it, folks, Jughead narrated bitterly in his mind, the last tatters of this town as we know it.

As he opened the movie projector and lifted out the final reel of Rebel Without A Cause , he had to stop and gave a bitter, hollow chuckle at the irony of it all - screening a film about the failure of the American dream on the last night of the drive-in, which, as far as he was concerned, was Riverdale’s funeral. Sure, the shooting of Jason Blossom was the death-knell for the innocence of this “town with pep”, but this night - in all its unabashed celebration of nostalgia - was its true farewell.

A lot of people had turned out, which was nice. But disappointingly (and predictably), besides everyone ooh- ing and aah- ing over young James Dean, no-one had picked up or appreciated the film choice. Everyone was entertained, sure, but in between all the high school kids making out in their cars and the Southside Serpents hollering at the screen, it was just like any other crappy night at the drive-in.

Betty, he thought. Betty would’ve appreciated it. It was her pick, after all, and the memory of it still enthralled him, made him smile. At the diner, when she’d half-jokingly suggested it, he’d given her no more than a nod and a smile. On the inside, he was screaming.

He shook his head in an attempt to shrug off these thoughts, which were disturbingly becoming more prevalent in the past few weeks. He’d never really paid heed to Betty Cooper that way growing up, because everyone and their dog just assumed that Archie and Betty were destined for one another. It didn’t matter how many other girls Archie hooked up with along the way - these were all momentary diversions in their long march towards Cooper-Andrews endgame. Betty would wait, ever-steadfast, until Archie eventually came around to his senses. They would get married, have three beautiful children and live in a charming house bordered by white picket fences. A true Riverdale fairytale.

Except... Jughead always thought that Betty was better than that. That she deserved more than just to be the final, decisive footnote in Archie’s romantic chronicles. It’s true that they’d become more distant as they grew up, but he still counted her as one of his closest friends. Jughead had been around her his whole life, and knew her well enough to see that one day she’d transcend the depressingly small dreams Riverdale held for her. She was strong, whip-smart, fiery and compassionate. When she got that literary internship, he rejoiced for her. She deserved it. Sure, he listened and empathised with Archie in bemoaning the loss of their friend over the summer, but privately, he was thrilled that she was getting out of Riverdale, even for a little while. Because she needed to know that there was more beyond the borders of their little town, and that perhaps she deserved a little better than what she - and everyone else - expected for herself.

Jughead had known all this, yet still managed to keep a friendly, platonic distance throughout their teenage years. So he couldn’t fully explain this sudden, recent spark in his consciousness of her. Why he was suddenly more aware of his body and the way his face moved whenever she was around. Or why a throwaway movie suggestion over milkshakes echoed more deeply than it should have. Maybe it was her extended absence that summer. Maybe it was even Jason’s murder, which had cast a cold, gloomy pall over Riverdale that made him and so many others want to reach for the warmth and inherent goodness of someone like Betty Cooper. All he knew was that when he saw her for the first time again after summer and she turned around in that booth at Pop’s, he looked and saw things that he hadn’t seen before.

For instance, he saw that Betty Cooper had grown up.

He saw that she held herself with a new steadiness, a steely confidence that caught him off guard. And that her hair looked really pretty in its careful curl and neat ponytail, but that it would also be interesting to see what it looked like when it was out and loose (perhaps when she woke up in the morning?).

More importantly, he saw that her eyes - greener and more arresting than he remembered - took an unusual trajectory away from Archie as they walked into the diner. For as long as Jughead had known Betty, her gaze always rested on Archie by default, whether she was listening to him intently, willing him to look at her, or upbraiding him for something he had done. This time, her eyes looked past Archie and at him. It was a small change, but it startled him, alerting him to a shift in the atmosphere. In his mind, he saw a weathervane turning, signalling the changing wind.

He was not silly or naive enough to think that he completely fell for Betty Cooper that day at Pop’s. He wasn't even sure that he was there yet, that he could define whatever he felt about her in certain, concrete terms. All he knew that was he was far more aware of her than he had ever been his entire life. And with Riverdale’s slow descent into darkness (and his family's own descent into brokenness) raging in the background of his life, she was a pinpoint of light that he was in no hurry to look away from.

A knock on the door startled him.

He tensed. Anyone knocking on the door of the drive-in’s projector room past midnight was bad news. He glanced around wildly, looking for a weapon, anything heavy he could defend himself with.

“Jug? You there? It’s Betty.”

Shit. He almost wished for the hostile intruder. This was decidedly worse. What the hell is she doing here?

Jughead opened the door. He felt his chest tighten. It was ridiculous and wildly unfair that she stood there, right where the light hit her best. Her beauty made him ache. Then he noticed a faint smudge on her cheek, a slight twitch in her jaw. She’d been crying.

She smiled wanly and held up an empty rubbish bag. “I figured you needed help cleaning up.”

“Hey. Betts.” He stepped outside and quickly closed the door behind him, aware that if she caught a glimpse of his bed and belongings, she wouldn’t let up until he told her the truth about his living situation. “Is everything okay?”

She gave a shaky, nervous laugh. “Um, yeah. It’s been… an eventful night.” His eyes searched her, silently willing her to elaborate. “Is it okay if I take my time talking about it? I’m still a little shaken up.”

“Sure, of course.” He indicated the rubbish bag. “So… this is...?”

“An excuse.” He smiled at her honesty. “A distraction, really. After tonight, I just felt the need to come out and do something helpful. And to pay tribute, of course.” Her arm waved out vaguely towards the screen, now blank, white, empty of imagery.

He couldn’t help but scoff good-naturedly at that. “So, you decided to distract yourself by coming out and cleaning up the drive-in that’s closing down? Polish the brass on the Titanic?”

She laughed. “Really? You’re making a Tyler Durden reference?”

Jughead leaned against the doorframe and cocked an eyebrow at her. “The girl knows her Fight Club quotes, I’m impressed.”

“It’s only one of my favourite movies.”

He smiled and gave her a skeptical look. “Fight Club? Really?”

“Yeah, well, when it’s contraband in your household and you have to sneak it into your room to watch it on your laptop, you kind of develop an odd little affinity with it.” She shook the rubbish bag at him, a little more certain and purposeful. “Anyway, come on, the Titanic’s not polishing its own brass.”

Jughead laughed. “Alright then, but we’re going to need some snacks.”

Jughead raided the leftovers from the drive-in snack bar. The kid who was manning it was supposed to have cleared it out by the end of the night, but clearly he thought it would be pointless, given that the drive-in was closing. Jughead grabbed a bag of popcorn, some chocolate bars and a couple of trash pickers for him and Betty.

They agreed to start at one end of the drive-in and walk across together to try and cover the grounds. With all of its lights still on and the signage still buzzing above their heads, the drive-in looked hauntingly beautiful in its neon-lit emptiness.

Betty turned to Jughead as she ripped a Snickers open. “How did tonight go, Jug? I’m really sorry I couldn’t make it. My mom sort of hijacked my plans.”

“It’s okay,” he said. And it really was. Alice Cooper was a piece of work. “It was bittersweet, to be honest. The whole town was there - Serpents included, but you know, still, it was great.” He sighed. “I just wish it didn’t have to take the drive-in closing down to get everyone here.”

Betty glanced at him. “You know the town cares about the drive-in, Jug. We all had great memories here. I did - I watched my very first movie here. I’m pretty sure we all did.”

“What did you watch?” he asked out of curiosity.

“It was a rerun of the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet.

Jughead laughed. “Wow, seriously?”

“Seriously.” She laughed at the memory. “I was 6, and… well, you know my mom. She had grand plans for me and my sister to become cultured. Polly was bored and ended up reading a book, but I actually ended up enjoying it.”

Jughead imagined it - six-year-old Betty Cooper, precocious and already smart beyond her years, her blonde head resting on her little hands as Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting declared their love for each other on the play’s infamous balcony. It was, he had to admit, adorable. “Little morbid for a six-year-old, don’t you think?”

“It definitely was, but I was more into the love story. The deaths and the gang warfare completely went over my head.”

“Are you kidding? That’s sort of the whole point of the story, Betts.”

“Was it really, though? The title of the play was Romeo and Juliet.”

“Yeah, but then it starts with this morbid prologue that basically spoils the love story for you. ‘ Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…”

Betty smiled and joined him, their voices echoing the over the empty grounds of the Twilight. “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean --”

“See?” Jughead broke off. “ ‘Civil blood makes civil hands unclean.’ It’s obvious, isn’t it? Shakespeare’s trying to tell us that that’s where the story’s at. The lovers are just a plot device to teach you the real lesson of the play, which is that senseless hatred is a vile force that can disrupt even the purest, most honest love.”

“Or,” Betty countered, “that even the briefest flicker of love, which lasted all of three days, can be enough to bury an ancient grudge. Remember, the Capulets and the Montagues actually made up in the end. And you didn’t even get to the good part of that prologue - ‘doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.’

Jughead smiled. This was the kind of literary banter that he could only have with Betty. Archie was his best friend, but the last book they discussed was a Spiderman comic. “Alright, I can concede that point. But you're an eternal optimist, Betty. I'm a cynic.”

“Cynics don't fight tooth and nail to keep an old-fashioned drive-in open, Juggie,” she said. Juggie. Her childhood nickname for him. It made him unreasonably giddy. “Or write novels in tribute to their hometown. Face it, you’re a romantic soul.”

Jughead rolled his eyes. “It’s not romantic to mourn endings, Betty. It’s just… human.”

Betty’s face fell. Jughead immediately regretted his scornful tone. Which was odd. He never usually cared how people reacted to his rougher edges. But seeing Betty’s vulnerability at his doorstep earlier opened something fierce and protective in him. He bent his head to catch her eye. “I’m sorry. That was a bit sour.”

“Oh, no, don’t be. I mean, you’re absolutely right - spot on, in fact,” she said. She smiled at him. “And don’t apologise for your sourness. I think I can handle some trademark Jughead Jones sourness.” She playfully poked at his beanie.

Jughead froze internally. She wasn’t normally this casually tactile with him; that was reserved for Archie. Come to think of it, how the hell was Archie still walking around when he’d been touched, so often and so tenderly, by Betty Cooper? The spot on his head where she’d poked him felt electrified.

Betty continued. “But like I said, you’re right. I am an optimist, but there’s still something about tonight that makes me feel like... I should be grieving. Grieving what, I don’t know.” She sighed and sat down on the grass. “Maybe that’s why I’m here.”

Jughead sat down next to her. They passed a few moments in companionable silence before he turned to her. “What happened tonight, Betty?”

In detail, she told him about what had transpired in the Music Room at school with Miss Grundy (or Jennifer Gibson, rather), Archie, Mr. Andrews and her mom. She withheld nothing. He raised his eyebrows when she mentioned breaking into Grundy’s car, was incredulous when she told him about the gun and the ID (he was borderline spluttering when she mentioned that she’d taken the gun home - how could she be so reckless?). She went over the fiery exchange between her mom and the Andrews men, and her subsequent threat to publicly rescind her story on Grundy and paint her mother as the villain. By the time she got to the part where Grundy announced that she’d skip town, Jughead was floored. The girl had guts.

“That’s one hell of a night, Betts. I can’t believe you actually got Grundy to leave town.”

“I didn’t - that was her choice. Admittedly a choice made under duress from my mother, the ultimate bad cop.”

Jughead laughed at that. “Still. You pursued the lead, you found the evidence, and you prevented Archie from getting caught up in a sadder, more tragic version of The Graduate. That's brilliant.”

“Thanks.” She smiled at him - a small, hesitant smile. “It was pretty good, I'll admit.”

They both fell quiet. He sensed that her heart wasn't in that self-congratulatory admission. He nudged her knee with his. “So what’s bugging you?”

“Ah. I don't know, Jug.” She wrung her hands. “I know I did the right thing but… it doesn't feel good, you know? It's not something I want to celebrate.”

“Well, let’s analyse. Why did you actually do it? Why'd you go after Grundy?”

“I did it because… I guess, because I wanted to protect Archie. I thought Grundy had him under some sexual spell that prevented him from seeing reason. I thought that he was incapable of thinking for himself because he was blinded by her. But…” She paused and looked out over the Twilight, deep in thought. “What I saw at the Music Room wasn't some child who couldn't reason for himself. What I saw was our friend Archie who we've known our whole lives, fully aware, making his own decisions, seeing how stupid and dangerous and reckless they are, and continuing to make them anyway.”

Jughead was quiet. It was odd hearing any sort of Archie criticism from Betty. Sure, she'd tell him off for chewing with his mouth open, or not studying for a quiz, but there was never anything like this - a full critique of his character and the decisions he made.

“I didn't know who that Archie was, Juggie. I felt so distant from him. I felt betrayed, but not by him. I felt betrayed by this illusion of him that I've held onto for so long. And it made me realize that maybe what I felt for him was an illusion, too.”

Jughead felt the air go still. As if Riverdale itself was holding its breath. As if the town couldn't believe that the dream it had concocted of its two golden children was disintegrating .

Betty sighed. “And tonight, this whole Grundy thing, just felt like a sign. That maybe it's time to let that illusion go.”

Jughead felt his chest tighten. His mind was a mess. He couldn't process what he was hearing. It felt unreal, like it should've been playing on the blank screen in front of them rather than right here, in a conversation with a girl that he could not stop thinking about. She was saying words that he'd never imagined her saying, and in turn, he was feeling things that he'd never thought he'd ever feel for her. He felt like he was floating out of his body.

“Jug?” She interrupted his reverie. “Come on, say something. I feel terrible that I'm sitting here saying all this to his best friend.”

Jughead was stumped. What the hell was he supposed to say to that? His mind went blank - blank as the screen before him.

The screen. In a flash, it came to him.

“Betts, you know I'm not great at talking about that stuff. But… I do know movies. And I know endings. Heck, I'm living through one right now.”

Damn it, why was she looking at him so intently? How was he supposed to concentrate on what he was saying? He looked away from her, determined to say what he needed to say.

“You know what I used to love about the drive-in? I loved that me, my dad, my mom and Jellybean could come in here, no matter how crappy it was at home, and suspend reality for two hours. Pretend that there was a better story than the one we were living. Pretend that we were this happy family, that dad wasn't drinking or screwing up our lives.”

Betty looked at him in sympathy, and reached out to put her hand on his. If he'd been jolted by a simple poke to the head earlier, this felt like an assault on the senses. He tried to ignore it as he went on.

“But then the movie would end. And I'd hate it, because then the fantasy would stop, and we had to go home. I think that's why I decided to work here. I wanted to preserve that feeling. I wanted my own illusions, too.”

Betty smiled in appreciation of how he neatly turned her own words into his.

“Tonight, I feel like that illusion ended. And you know, it does piss me off, but now I’m free of it. Now I don't have to stick around and pretend that my life is better than it is. You get what I'm saying?”

“Yeah, but that's depressing, Jug.”

“Hell yeah, it is. But it's real .”

She was quiet and thoughtful, seeming to turn that over in her mind.

“I guess my point is, sometimes the illusions can just be that - all smoke and mirrors. And sure, they look and feel good, but they stop you from engaging with reality. That reality sucks sometimes, but I need to deal with it at some point, right?”

“Yeah. Right.” Betty nodded, seeming to concede his point. “Maybe we both needed our illusions to end. Maybe now, we can go out there and make our own reality. A better one.”

He smiled. Hearing her say that gave him a sense of peace about the Twilight and about his living situation. He'd figure this out. He always did.

Suddenly he was struck with a flash of inspiration. He got up quickly. She looked at him with puzzlement. “Jug?”

“Come on. I've got an idea.”

They stood in front of the main circuit box of the Twilight. As the lone worker in the drive-in, Jughead was in charge of turning off the main switch after every show. In his mind, he had already seen himself playing something symbolic over the speakers (“Closing Time” by Semisonic, or maybe something more vintage and defiant, like “My Way” by Sinatra), while turning off the switch and watching the lights go out one last time.

But then he looked down at Betty - his very own Hitchcock blonde and by far the most interesting plot twist in his life - and he knew that he wanted her to be a part of that. Because something was ending for her, too. And she needed to mourn it and mark it as much as he needed to say goodbye to the Twilight.

She looked at the main circuit and understood immediately. “Jug, this is -- I mean, you should be --”

“Betts, this place means something to you. Maybe more than you realize.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. “You spoke of illusions earlier, didn’t you? Well, maybe this is where they began, at the Twilight, with Romeo and Juliet. Maybe, like you said, it's time to shut that illusion down.”

“Yeah, but…” Betty smiled and looked off into the distance, as if envisioning her future. “Just because Archie didn't fulfill that illusion doesn't mean it wasn't good.” She exhaled a long breath that she seemed to have been holding in for some time, then fixed her eyes on his. “It's still a good story, Jug. And I still choose to believe it. Maybe Archie wasn't meant to be Romeo, but that doesn't mean I don't get to be Juliet.”

It was then that Jughead knew, with a certainty that overshadowed everything else that was ambiguous and unsure in his own life, that one day, he would kiss Betty Cooper. Not tonight. Maybe not even tomorrow. But he made a quiet vow of it, promising himself that he would give himself the chance to write himself into her story. Not just as a friend, or a childhood memory. But as Romeo.

“Juggie?”

He snapped back into the moment. “Yeah?”

“We’ll do this together, you and me,” she said, indicating the switch. “It’s only right.”

Jughead could have fallen in love with her just for that. He was more than halfway there. He nodded and put his hand on the rusty handle. She brought her own hand up, her eyes jumping to his, suddenly conscious. Did he imagine it? A brief flash of awkwardness then her hand covered his - warm, soft, home.

“To endings?” she said, her voice small but assured, hopeful.

He paused, and thought of everything that was ending or had ended in Riverdale. Jason Blossom. The Twilight. The town’s false patina of innocence. His own stability.

And then he looked at her hand covering his, and all of that dissolved into the background, like the final frame of a movie fading to black.

“No,” he said. “To beginnings.”