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Move the Stars

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Jughead stands up and wiggles his fingers to paint the picture before the assembled adventurers. “You are running low on time. The labyrinth closes in on all sides with monsters at your heels and before you - a light.”

Ethel eagerly shifts in her seat, eyes wide and buggy. “What is it?”

“You hear the cries of the Princess. Help me!

“I brandish my sword,” Dilton interrupts as if his might will save them.

Undeterred, Jughead crouches. “You hear the goblin hoard. My Queen, they screech.”

Ben tentatively raises a finger, waiting for Jughead’s nod before he speaks. “Can I use my ice powers to build a wall between us in the tunnel and the goblins behind us?”

“You may. Roll, please.” If it’s anything over a 13, it’ll be solid.

“18,” Dilton announces like the rest of them are blind.

“You are successful. You hear metal and claws clinking against the ice. It might not last long. The light glows, beckoning. The princess is almost within reach. You can hear someone singing.”

“We ward ourselves against hypnotism and go to her,” Ethel insists.

He nods, pacing, stony walls twisting in his mind for the next scene. “She sits in the middle of a strange, dropped-down room with warped moving staircases that seem to plummet to nothingness or side walls and corridors.”

“A labyrinth within a labyrinth,” Dilton says under his breath.

“How do you proceed?”

Ethel looks to the boys for guidance, at which point Ben turns to Dilton, who seems to be puzzling out the math of the room. “Can the princess come to us?”

“The princess seems to be fascinated by the singing.”

“What’s her name again?”

Peach,” Dilton chides, as if it’s a sin not to remember one named after such an adorable fruit, let alone another famous princess. Jughead chose the name after getting a surprise bunch of peaches in the house when his parents had forgotten to go grocery shopping yet again. A delicate fruit - easily bruised, super juicy, a little fuzzy on the outside so he had to peel and mash it to get Jellybean to eat.

“Peach, we are here to rescue you,” Ben tries, an expression rippling in the weird, unaffected way he has about him. “Listen to the sound of my voice.”

“She can’t just stop listening.”

“Well, she might not know we’re here. I’ll throw something. Shoot an arrow.”

Jughead rolls his eyes and leads them further into the scene. “The arrow hits the stone wall and bounces before laying flat against it.”

“Gravity!”

He nods.

“What about the singing?” Ethel implores petulantly.

“What about the singing?” he goads, glancing outside when he thinks he sees fluttering in the window. There’s nothing there, so keeps up with the scene.

“Perception check.”

They roll and he mentally marks some boxes. “You hear the heels of a boot but can’t see anyone else in the room.”

“I’m going to throw a stone first, and if no traps occur, I’m going to jump the platforms to the princess.”

“By all means.”

He lies in wait along with the shadow of his queen, rolling behind his divider to see how close she gets, annotating their experience. The players talk amongst themselves, shimmying and using abilities to traverse staircases with each successful roll.

At last, his queen gets it, the natural 20. The highest roll she can.

“Muscles tense, you leap as close as you can to the princess. She sees you, finally. The song stops, but a clear, shiny ball drops from one of the corridor openings and leads her, hypnotized, away.”

“Princess, no!” Ethel cries.

“Perception check,” Dilton barks, pushing at his glasses.

It’s a high enough roll that he gives them a hint about their surroundings. “You step to the edge of the platform. You hear and feel the echo of boots beneath you. As you look over the edge, you see the glory of the Gryphon Queen.”

Dilton swears and Ben’s eyes seem glazed over in awe. “Is she...naked?”

Annoyed, he shakes his head.

“History check!”

With a glance at the die, Jughead continues, having memorized her backstory beforehand. “The Gryphon Queen is a beautiful fae, ruler of the Underworld and beloved leader of creatures like the goblins and gryphons who’ve chased you throughout the labyrinth. This is her domain.”

“Seduction check?”

Jughead blinks, taken aback. “I’m sorry, what?”

“She’s fae, meaning she likes to sleep with humans. Seduction check,” Dilton repeats. The whole table stares at him.

Jughead’s palms feel sweaty around the dice. “I said she’s a fae. It’s not like the Gryphon Queen is a nymph. Although fae have a hard time with fertility and humans–”

“Have the most viable sperm and eggs.” Pushing his glasses up, Dilton rattles his dice. He’s about to throw them on the table when Jughead grabs his fist.

“Wait a minute. You can’t just throw a seduction down. You’re not going to talk to her first?”

“I guess he could strip,” Ben muses quietly.

They’re missing the point. “Not for the Gryphon Queen! Do you understand she runs a whole kingdom? She’s smart and gorgeous and has an army and magic powers. She could pluck lovers like daisies from the above ground. Even if you rolled a natural 20, she still wouldn’t be wowed by your magical dick. Besides, you already have the whole ‘trying to break down her kingdom’s defenses and looting her people’ thing going against you.”

“So? She hypnotized the princess. I’m trying to catch her off guard and barter our way into the secret passages.”

“She’s the fucking Gryphon Queen, Dilton. She’s an investigator, a planner, and she commands some respect.”

He rolls his eyes. “Fine, I’ll roll with a penalty.”

Blood boiling, Jughead’s jaw feels tight when he sits back down, ready for battle. “You fail. The Gryphon Queen is disgusted by your attempts to seduce her.”

“Someone’s sensitive,” he grumbles, gathering his dice. Ethel shoots him a look to shut him up.

A battle commences, one the Gryphon Queen is winning. She steps over them, taking advantage of her handle on gravity, magic, and the paths to use platforms as shields. She’s not usually a violent leader, but they approached her with weapons instead of words, so she’ll defend her kingdom.

“You’ll never earn your princess back trying to dethrone a Queen,” he says as the Gryphon Queen’s mouthpiece. “Surrender to me and I’ll show you mercy.”

“Never!” Ethel declares. “We’ve beaten everything you’ve thrown at us so far. It’s only a matter of time before you have to accept defeat!”

The Gryphon Queen smiles and so does Jughead. “You have no power over me.” Thunder booms and a bird coos outside. The whole sky looks like an ink spill cracked with fire. Someone says something about atmosphere. “Ah, shit! What time is it?” Automatically, he pats his pockets and lifts papers in search of his phone. All of their devices are supposed to be on silent and put away for the duration of their sessions, which is great for world-building, but it makes finding them a bitch.

Dilton frowns at his smartwatch. “7:40.”

“Shit shit shit. I gotta go. We’ll have to continue later.”

Amidst their well-wishes and recapping, he picks up their feedback and his notes. He got carried away again. World-building. Crafting. Shoving his G&G binder inside his jacket, Jughead sprints outside, thankful that his beanie somewhat protects his head. It’s only a couple of blocks home as long as he hops a few fences. A glimpse of white slashes through the sky. Then winks. Glides. He has no idea what’s happening outside of mud and puddles splashing up his jeans and cold seeping into his bones. The trailer park’s resident dog lumbers after him, panting.

“Shit, Hot Dog, didn’t anyone take you inside?”

He barks once, then runs in a circle before barking at a tree.

“Stop that! Come on, you can stay with us.”

By the time he makes it back, he’s radiating heat to compensate for the chill in his bones.

“What the hell is that? And where have you been?” Gladys demands, hair up and heels on.

He peels off his soaking sherpa and throws it on a hook with a satisfying smack. “Hot Dog needs a place to stay. Sorry his livelihood and my campaign made you late for karaoke night.”

Her cultivated messy smokey eye narrows at his venom. “Don’t give me that attitude. I needed you here at 7:30 to watch Jellybean.”

“I’m here now. Just leave the parenting to me.”

“These sets are important to me, Jughead.”

“Yeah, I know,” he snarks, contemplating the contents of the fridge and whether or not feeding Hot Dog a raw hot dog would be cannibalistic. “Joan Jett and Gladys Jones - two of the world’s rockingest karaoke singers.”

“You’re grounded.”

His head emerges from the dingy yellow light of the fridge. “What?”

Keys jangling, Gladys gives him a humorless smile. “That’s right. No campaigns. No motorcycles. You need a real attitude check. You can spend your babysitting hours cleaning up all this dog hair and mud.”

He throws the fridge door shut, following her. “Are you kidding me? I’m 18, you can’t just ground me.”

“When you start acting like a grown-up, I’ll start treating you like one. Your jobs at the theater and ghostwriting aren’t exactly raking in that rent money!”

“What, like your job is so great? You constantly stumble home at 3am, hours after you say you will, and you’re grounding me?” Jellybean screams from the other room, eager to join the ruckus. “Great!”

“Don’t wait up, kid. Your father and I will have a nice chat with you in the morning.”

“Don’t you mean evening? That’s the only time you vampires rise.” Gladys grabs his binder and might as well yank right on his plummeting gut. “Hey!”

“You’ll get them back after you’ve served your time. Now go take care of Jellybean. I have a date with a mic tonight.” With one last glance, Gladys pops open her umbrella and steps out into the black night.

He hates her. Just because she came back, he’s supposed to forget that she left? That she basically said, “Good luck, kid” and didn’t come back until his dad got sober with a better job and a new girlfriend? It’s greed, not love that brought her home. Jellybean’s wails continue in the bedroom and he tilts his head back in defeat.

“I’m coming, I’m coming, just shut up for a minute,” he chants, stalking across the trailer with a panting Hot Dog on his heels.

Jellybean might be shaped like a bean but she’s anything but sweet. Her face is red and wet like she’d rather scream than breathe. He identifies with the feeling.

“You having a rough night, Jellybean? Wherever Mom took you before had to be better than Riverdale. Maybe if you left again, I could finally get some sleep.” The weariness of the day settles into him as he rocks his sister against his chest, burping her, pacing. “Why am I given all this responsibility, huh? You think it’s easy being a teen? I have college next year and no way to pay for it. You don’t hear me screaming.” Jellybean is not having it. Her wails are grating on his nerves. “Bean, please, what do you want? Do you want to eat? Come on, let’s go see what we have.” He doubts there will be a secret stash of fruit like the surprise peaches. Lately, he has been finding bananas and berries folded in napkins in his backpack and the cupboards that FP must’ve gotten on his shift and forgotten about. That doesn’t help him figure out what to feed Hot Dog, though.

The three of them make their way to the kitchen where Jughead is not at all surprised to find fried chicken and nothing else in the fridge. Tossing a drumstick to Hot Dog, he takes the other for himself and bounces his sister as best he can.

“You’re almost old enough for solids, right?” Jellybean hates her high chair, arms raised, totally screaming every second he spends mashing her banana. “Stop! Stop complaining. Eat something.”

As he negotiates her feeding, his mind wanders back to the campaign. The Gryphon Queen offers wishes. Maybe he could work that in. Before the whole seduction thing, he was planning on having her strike a bargain, a favorite way for the fae to play. There’s this whole backstory he’s been playing with - one where the princess had been hoping to get away. A betrayal of a friend. It’s all so interesting. “I could use some wishes right now,” he muses.

A sick sound wrenches him out of his plans as Jellybean vomits pale yellow mash all over his bare forearm arm and her onesie. It’s enough to make him sick. Furiously fighting bile in the back of his throat, Jughead flicks the goo away and stands.

Hot Dog’s clearly upset by the wasted food and starts barking like crazy.

Shaking, Jughead stares his sister down. “I wish the Gryphon Queen would take you away from me - at least for babysitting.”

The storm rages outside, even Hot Dog cowed into whining softly at the thunder and lightning.

Seemingly shocked, Jellybean raises her gooey fist to her mouth in lieu of a pacifier. “Bean!”

He grabs her out of the high chair and bathes her in the kitchen sink. At least she’s not crying anymore and his flannel sleeves were rolled up so he doesn’t have to do the laundry on top of everything else.

Already exhausted, he redresses her and puts her in the crib. “Try not to bother me for a few minutes.” He boops her on the nose and she giggles, her whole body lighting up with squealing glee. Toddlers are like the fairies described in Peter Pan: so tiny, there’s only room for one emotion at a time. Total meltdown or glee.

Hot Dog starts crying from the other room. “Needy, needy.” He sighs, trudging back and noting all the mud throughout. There are tiny tracks on the paneling that seem smaller than the dog’s paws. “Hey, have you been bringing friends…?” Jughead stops short, staring at the marks in the light of the living room. Those are definitely not Hot Dog’s prints, nor his. What started as a joke has him trembling almost as much as Hot Dog.

“Jellybean,” he whispers, spinning on his heel and rushing back to the room, half expecting to trip over a raccoon with their freakishly hand-like paws.

Thrusting the lights back on, his heart drops through his stomach. “Jellybean!” She’s gone.

Someone’s snickering.

Then hushed by something else. A hiss.

Hairs standing on end, Jughead reaches for the switchblade in his back pocket. If it’s not an animal...it’s...a kidnapper?

He grabs his phone, ready to text his dad and have five cop cars pull up. But what if it is just some freakishly animated raccoons? Would FP be pissed and have him call animal control?

A flash of fabric has him swinging open the switchblade and turning. That’s Jellybean’s blanket. The next time something moves, he throws a building block at it, a small, furry thing wailing and tumbling back.

“Give me back my sister or I’ll–”

The windows burst inward, spraying him with wind and mist. Shocked, he covers his face, barely registering something forming out of the shadows.

Oh shit oh shit oh shiiiit.

Trembling, speechless, he lowers his hands. A blonde goddess stands before him.

She’s young. Maybe a little older than him. Immortal? Her eyes are finely detailed with dark purple and black liner, white powder and lavender seeming to be pressed in as eyeshadow. She smells better than rain, like spring, without the threat of asthma. A dark cape glitters with rain and jewels. Fists resting on her hips, she looks glorious enough to be a statue of victory.

“This can’t be happening,” he whispers. “I’ve gone crazy.”

Tilting her head, the woman’s smile widens, and he takes in the fluffy nature of her intricate hairdo. “Hello, Jughead.”

“Ah, good. So I have gone crazy.” Flexing his fingers around his switchblade, Jughead edges back from the room. “Where’s Jellybean?”

“She’s with my people.” Blondie edges further into the room and he’s almost certain she leaves behind a fuck-ton of glitter he’ll have to clean up later.

“Am I dreaming?”

Her eyes glint like jewels - emeralds, maybe. “Does it feel like you’re dreaming?” She flicks her fingers and rain speckles across his lips and chest.

“Wha–I don’t...where’s Jellybean?” he repeats, desperately clinging to the idea that he can just pretend this isn’t happening. It’s real. He knows it’s real from the tingling in all his extremities.

“I told you, she’s coming with me. You don’t have to worry about her anymore.” The sweetness of her tone and the way her breastplate and leggings seem to cling to every curve distract him and make his skin feel too tight. “The night is yours, as you wished.”

“Please,” he begs, not sure if he could actually harm her with his switchblade. Maybe. If she really kidnaps Jellybean. “I need my sister back.”

The woman stops, glaring at his blade, voice laced in confusion. “I don’t understand. You asked me to take her.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I wish the Gryphon Queen would take you away from me,” echoes in his head.

“That’s not what I meant,” he snaps. “I was...I was just upset. I didn’t actually want someone to break in and steal her from our trailer.”

She folds her arms across her chest. “But I’ve done everything you asked of me. I’m helping. Why are you...threatening me?”

“N-no. This isn’t helping.” His hand feels heavy as it falls to his side. Hurting her won’t do anything. She seems more indignant than crazy. Something keeps spiking in his brain - some niggle of familiarity. “What’s happening? Who are you?”

She quirks an eyebrow at him, waiting for something obvious.

Creatures peer out from behind Jellybean’s toys, crawling towards the woman’s glittering shadow. The one he hit with the block is rubbing its ass and glaring at him, disgruntled. They’re ugly, almost humanoid little things.

Goblins, he thinks.

Jughead swallows, half talking to himself as he puzzles it out. “As Arthur Conan Doyle said, ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’” She narrows her gaze on him, tilting her head with demanding elegance. His lungs feel small and feeble as he straightens his posture. “You’re...the Gryphon Queen.”

With a triumphant smile, she curtsies. “You can call me Betty.”

Mouth dry, he shakes his head, firmly stuck in disbelief. “Why?”

“It’s what my friends call me.”

“Friends?” he balks, bewildered. “No. Why...did you take Jellybean? It can’t have just been because I was asking–”

Wishing!” one of the runts yells at him.

Stunned, he takes a step back, then tucks his knife in his pocket. “We didn’t make a deal. I didn’t mean–”

“You called to me,” she insists, gliding forward ominously. The room darkens like the storm outside. “You wished for the Gryphon Queen. Earlier, you defended me!”

“I know!” he begs, hands up, trying to placate her. “I know, I did, but I need...I need Jellybean back. She needs me.”

“You don’t want your wish? You want to take it back?” There’s a tightness to her voice that’s unexpected, considering the circumstances.

Yes.”

Eyes wet, Betty rolls her lips inward and shakes her head. “I should’ve known better. You don’t - you didn’t understand.”

It makes his gut twist to see her so upset. He moves towards her. “I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it–”

“Appreciate it?” She laughs, a bitter thing punctuated by a rumble. “You’ve all but said you hate it!”

“Please. I’ll do anything to get my sister back.”

Trembling, frozen, and running on pure adrenaline, Jughead tries to ignore the buzzing and excited mumblings of her goblins, focusing instead on the intensity radiating off of the queen before him.

“Never say that.”

“What?” he breathes, every nerve ending tingling as she leans forward to caress his cheek, his neck.

“That you’ll do anything. Not to a fae. They could take advantage.” She pulls aside the collar of his flannel. Without even thinking, he offers her his neck. Maybe she’ll bite him and suck the juice right out of his veins. Anything. Whatever this closeness is, it’s intoxicating. His heart’s pounding so hard it’s like a war drum in his chest.

Her hair feels like cotton candy, tinsel, and silk all wrapped into something new as it brushes against the edge of his chin. He’s terrified and thrilled.

“You can...kiss me. If that’s…”

Seduction roll, his stupid brain chants.

Betty’s smile makes sparks fly in his head. “You want me to?”

Adam’s apple bobbing, he isn’t sure what to say. She’s a literal queen of the Underworld and the most beautiful woman he’s ever met. He’d be the Nick Bottom to her Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Despite his terror, he’s fairly certain something uncomfortable is happening in his pants. Kissing her wouldn’t be terrible. It’s...tempting.

“I can’t undo what’s been done,” she admits, letting his collar shift back. He flinches in disappointment. Still, Betty appears to have some kind of plan, removing a glove and stroking his lips. His joints could buckle at any second and part of him wants to just fall to his knees. Praise her. Beg. Make the goblins go away so he can taste her without observers knowing just how clueless he is on how to please a woman let alone take off her leotard. “I can’t bring her back.” Tears sting at his eyes, his lower lip trembling under her touch. Dark eyes fix firmly into his. “But you can.”

“Wh-what?”

She catches his tears as they drip, sucking on her thumb and closing her eyes like she’s savoring them. With a little moan, the room seems to shudder. Eyes brightly popping open, she floats back, procuring multiple glass balls that shine in her hand. It’s hypnotizing, the way she glides them around her palms while barely moving her hands. It’s not levitation. It’s...magic, but not...a spell? The light bounces off of them until he can almost see a pattern.

“If you can make it through the labyrinth, I’ll grant you another wish.”

"What labyrinth?" She smiles all-too-knowingly like he should be in on the joke. He sniffs, confused and wiping his face. “You can’t grant the wish now?”

“Greedy,” she tsks.

“Selfish brat!” A goblin shouts, a few others joining in the chorus until their Queen silences them with a glare.

Her nails crack into one of the balls, reality shattering around him. He lands on his feet on a dusty plateau, the wind knocked out of him. A wide expanse lays before him - the one he’s imagined in all his campaigns.

As he dusts himself off, he spins to her, bewildered. “This is…” Betty stares at him, arms crossed. “Magical.”

“I expected something more eloquent for the editor of the school newspaper.”

“I…” He’s lost for words. Lost in reality. How does she even know that? Glancing at the layout, he tries to take a mental picture and even his breath. He’s created lands and labyrinths in his head. This one can’t be that much different. “I’ll do my best.”

“Good. You have until midnight.”

Nodding, bouncing in his boots, he tries to psyche himself up. “Piece of cake.”

With a disbelieving laugh, Betty creeps up behind him, so near to him that when he turns his head he almost kisses her on accident. It makes him flinch. Having her so close makes him feel...inept. It’s a distraction. She twists the edge of his hair peeking out under his beanie, tugging playfully until his neck is exposed and his dick goes from six to midnight. As if he needs a reminder about the time. “It might be harder than you think.”

“I can manage,” he huffs, yanking himself out of her grasp and running forward to the stone enclosure. Dust swirls and settles, light shining brightly without beating down on him. At least he won’t die of heatstroke. If they’re underground, it can’t be the sun. He wonders what it is. As he turns to ask Betty, he realizes she’s gone. He’s alone. Just him and the labyrinth.

Taking a deep breath to bury his inquisitiveness, Jughead focuses on the task at hand. Getting in. He spends probably fifteen minutes running around the damn edge wall without any signs for entry. There has to be a mirage. He randomly touches bricks, kicks them, tries to climb. It’s too slippery. “It’s not really fair to start my time before I’m in,” he shouts to no one - or everyone.

Disgruntled huffs and a tinkling noise catches his attention. Lightly jogging, Jughead follows the sound. “Finally,” he breathes, thankful to find another living being, even if they are pissing on the wall. “What are you doing?”

“Takin’ a piss. What does it look like I’m doing?”

He raises his eyebrows, hesitant to lean against the brick. “How does the Gryphon Queen feel about the vandalization of her property?”

The guy’s scowl etches deeper on his face. “What? Are you gonna tell her? Say her name to have that eye of hers land right on my dick? No thanks.” He wiggles and hops, no doubt putting his business back in his pants. Jughead averts his eyes to the suspiciously blue and orange sky.

“Didn’t mean to cause any trouble. I just need help getting into the labyrinth.”

Suspicion leaks out with all the subtlety of a faulty water balloon. “Why?”

Quirking an eyebrow, Jughead gestures to the stone wall. “Wishes. The Gryphon–”

“Don’t! Say her name!” The muscular bit of rage insists.

“Sorry.”

Touchy, he thinks. He holds his hands up to indicate he means no harm. “I’m looking to get my sister back. Name’s Jughead.”

“Of course it is.” Rolling his eyes, the man turns and starts sauntering away.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“If you’re looking to get in with the…” He looks around, tense. “Blondie, I hope you enjoy scrambling at these walls. I don’t know what she sees in you. Above-grounders. Always think they know everything and then blame the labyrinth for not having enough hints.”

Envy brews unbidden in his chest. “Other humans have come through here?”

Kicking at some rocks, the man seems to be playing some kind of sport with himself. It looks like a mix of soccer and hacky-sack. “I’ve seen one or two. I don’t get involved in their gauntlets. Especially for people I don't know.”

"Well...I'm Jughead," he tries, in the off-chance an introduction means they'll know each other enough to get a hint.

"Oh, that's right." He looks him up and down, annoyed and unimpressed. "Of course you are. Juggie." The way he says it feels like he’s imitating something - some show Jughead hasn’t seen.

“Now that we know each other–”

He scoffs. “You don't know me, and even if you did, you couldn’t afford me.”

Sighing, Jughead looks at the indomitable stone walls. “What’s your price?”

The guy stops, eyeing him from head to toe. Obviously, Jughead doesn’t have any money, but in this world, people tend to trade, or at least they do in G&G.

He points to his chest. “That.”

Jughead looks down. “The flannel?”

“What the hell is a flannel?”

“The...shirt,” he explains, plucking at the material. “Sturdy hardware. Plaid.” At the guy’s raised eyebrows, he realizes that must be an overworld thing, too. “That’s the pattern. It represents...a certain survival instinct. Hardiness, if you will.” The guy’s already reaching out for it and licking his lips. “For this, you have to guide me all the way to the center - to the castle and to Jellybean.”

“Really?” The guy sniffs at his shirt, plucking it and admiring the pattern. “For a shirt? That’s...really…”

“Rare?” After a few seconds of contemplation on either end, Jughead puts out his hand. “Are we agreed?”

Dark eyes dart suspiciously over his frame before he slams his hand in for a slap and shake. “Agreed. Name’s Sweet Pea. Pleasure to be of service.”

He doesn’t even ask about the name, knowing his own is equally as ridiculous, if not more so. At least this guy is named after a plant. The slanted eyes and pointier-than-average ears indicate he’s probably some kind of fae, but asking what kind probably constitutes some form of being rude. He might even be human or some mix.

Jughead glances at the boy’s temporarily discarded sleeveless vest as he peels off his flannel and hands it over to rough, greedy hands. “Bare shoulders aren’t reason enough to get beheaded here or anything, right?”

Sweet Pea laughs, popping the plaid against his back, leaving it wide open for ab breeze before sliding his vest back over it. “Shall we?”

It's not particularly reassuring.

Chapter Text

It’s not his fault that his guide is a grumpy asshat. They bicker over everything. You’re not going fast enough. How could you not see the SLIVER of an opening hidden in the wall? Oh, another dead end - you must have a knack for this. No time for snack breaks if we only have a few hours, idiot. Why not take this shortcut? You couldn’t warn me about this trap? Don’t talk to worms!

Everything is exhausting. As Sweet Pea pauses for yet another stretch and drink, Jughead bends down to carve a directional arrow in the dirt.

“What are you doing?” Sweet Pea asks, eyebrow raised.

“Marking the stones so Jellybean and I can find our way back just in case Blondie is pissed at us.”

Sweet Pea bursts out laughing. “You’re a real idiot, you know that?”

Jughead’s been called many things, but an idiot is not one of them. He was under the impression his markings actually showed a lot of forethought. Ears burning, he gestures to the ground. “What the hell would you do, then? It’s not like I can memorize this in an hour! We’ve already turned around like fourteen times and there’s only so much anagramming I can do in my head!”

“There isn’t a set path. Look.” Cuffing him around the shoulder, Sweet Pea leads Jughead back a corner or two where a goblin is already giggling and spinning the stones he marked.

“Wha–that’s not fair,” he foams, rushing forward to punt the little bastard across the labyrinth.

“Of course it’s not fair, you landlubber.”

Landlubber? Is he a pirate, now?

“The point is you have to navigate. The labyrinth, as Blondie’s designed it, is organic.”

“If it’s constantly changing, how are you supposed to navigate it? How do you even know the way to the center?”

“Well if I told you that, you might steal your shirt back, and we can’t have that, now can we?”

Scowling, Jughead stomps along with his guide.

They get avalanched by rakes falling out of hedges and blocked by giant cement pots and all Sweet Pea has to say about it is, “I can’t be right all the time. Hold on, I have to go take a leak.”

“Is this some kind navigating thing? Marking things with your scent? Because I have to say, it’s inventive and rudimentary!” Sweet Pea’s already wandered around the corner for privacy, but that doesn’t stop Jughead from ranting. “Yeah, that’s fine. I’m not sure if Jellybean is in a potato sack or a bassinet, but hey - if she becomes adoptive royalty, I happen to know she’s a big fan of scenting all over things. My parents will murder me, of course, and I can be a nice little throw rug for the Gryphon Queen. Maybe she has a cat who will curl up on me–”

“Do you like cats? For dogs, I know you’re a softie.”

He chokes on his rant, flailing backward when he hears her voice. Betty’s bemused, glittering expression makes his head hurt. Maybe her title really does do something to summon her. A trigger.

Smoothing his tank top, he tries not to tense or flex. “What? Nothing good was on TV, so you had to come stalk me?”

Betty smiles enigmatically, procuring one of those glass balls effortlessly on the edge of her fingertips. “This is my TV. Would you like to see?”

No, he’d love to snipe, but shuffles forward in reluctant curiosity. Betty’s skirt brushes against his suspenders and something about the way the silk ruffles makes him want to touch it - to rip it and rub it on his face.

Her face is really nice. Not without blemishes, which is kind of surprising, but her jaw is sharp and her lips are smooth instead of chapped and...

“Look closer,” she urges kindly, fingertips ghosting over his spine through his tank top.

It’s just a glass ball. A shiny bubble she keeps spinning until there’s light...forming…

“Jellybean,” he breathes, gently grasping Betty’s wrist. The faint image of his baby sister giggling in a bassinet sets his heart on edge. Some goblins are putting on a puppet show of sorts and she looks safe and happy - human, at least.

“See? We take good care of our babies. We don’t get too many in the Underground.”

“Is that why you take them?” The ball spins on its axis.

For a moment, Betty’s face falls, and then she wrenches away, the bubble popping out of existence. “We wish for children. You wished her away. It was supposed to be...a win-win.”

She’s right. He knows she’s right, but he can’t admit it - can’t give in and fail his family, fail to live up to his responsibilities. Despair grows thick like quicksand in his gut. “Just...please, give me my sister back.”

The glitter on her cloak catches the light as she turns away. “You’ll solve the labyrinth, won’t you, Jughead?”

He’s not sure. Maybe.

If he’s lucky. If he’s smart.

“I’ll see you in a few hours,” she says mildly, her smile not quite reaching her eyes. “Goodbye for now, Juggie.”

“No, wait!” She slips through the cracks of the labyrinth, which is totally cheating, and he kicks the walls to try and break through to follow her. “Betty! Betty!”

“Stop clamoring for her attention like an idiot,” Sweet Pea chides, reappearing from around the corner. “And even if she likes you, she isn’t going to turn around. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or so she says.”

“Are you quoting Star Trek to me, of all things?”

Sweet Pea frowns. “What the hell are you talking about, landie? That’s Queenie’s philosophy.”

That’s...a coincidence, he thinks, that the Gryphon Queen would adapt a Star Trek philosophy from one of his favorite characters. The wise and logical one. Maybe that’s how she operates. From her expressions, though, and the way she lashes out against injustice in the manuals, he’d always assumed she ruled by emotions. He’s not sure how much logic is really built into the labyrinth. Enough that there’s always a way to get to the center for people who, unlike her, can’t flit in and out of places. Why even do that, though? Why make herself vulnerable to the whims of explorers and her subjects?

Regardless, he needs to be as focused as he can get to bring home Jellybean.

When they finally get to a building of sorts, Jughead feels like they’ve been hiking for at least an hour and stones are really the only thing he’s seen. “Not exactly a beautiful kingdom, is it?”

Sweet Pea raises an eyebrow. “What exactly have you been seeing?”

Taken aback, Jughead rests on a stair. “Um, rocks? Hedges? Dirt? Clear skies and...a few hobgoblins and worms?”

“This is the labyrinth.” Sweet Pea takes a knee, getting right in Jughead’s face. “This isn’t some fancy garden for your visual delight. That’s further in. This is a playground for puzzles and peasants who want to take advantage of time spent getting nearer to the city.”

Bristling, he adjusts his beanie. “I’m not trying to take advantage. Besides, why were you out there if not seeking puzzles and places to pee? Don’t you have a wish?”

Sweet Pea’s expression hardens. He folds his arms across his chest. “None of your business.”

“Wow. Great comeback.”

Nostrils flaring, Sweet Pea gestures to the maze. “Says the genius who didn’t even know how to find the entrance.”

“I think I’m getting the hang of it! Back home, I’m a Quest and Dungeon Master. I make these things all the time.”

“You keep a dungeon? And a labyrinth?”

“Well...no. I make up tasks and stuff.” At Sweet Pea’s baffled ‘what the fuck’ expression, he puffs up in indignation. “People spend hours listening to my stories because I’m a crafter. This is just a puzzle I need to figure out. Once I figure out what the challenge is supposed to test...what the person who made it wants, then I need to...get inside their heads.”

“Sure. Their heads.” He kicks a stone. “You pick the next path. Go on.” Sweet Pea steps aside, gesturing to the options ahead. “Lead us, oh great quest master.”

“Fine.” Wiping his hands, Jughead pushes himself up and strides ahead to a shady alcove where two redheads wrapped together are skinning and sharpening stakes and arrows with roots and branches from the hedge maze. The slick noise of bark peeled from flesh makes his skin crawl. “They’re not going to shoot me on sight, right?” He glances at Sweet Pea for confirmation, who offers him a noncommittal shrug. “Great.”

Shambling up to the building, he earns a disinterested glance from each of them, the boy twisting to cover his mouth and whisper in the girl’s ear. She laughs, all pale skin with a wide, bold, cherry-red mouth that hides no pretense that he and Sweet Pea are the butt of the joke.

His whole body prickles in irritation.

Batting her eyelashes and offering a bright, fake smile, the woman with the long red hair poses against her other half. Her dark red nails flash against the stark white clothes. Jughead can’t tell where one body ends and the other begins. “Are you lost, little boys?”

“We’ve got it.”

“Really?” Pale arms winding around one another, the two redheads stack so the smaller girl is on his back. “So you know which door to take?”

“We can open them both and eliminate the one that’s a broom closet,” he deadpans, glancing at Sweet Pea, who rolls his eyes.

“Open one door, the other one closes.”

“Isn’t it one door closes and another one opens?”

Sweet Pea sighs. “Not always. You can usually get to the path the other door led to at a later point, but...looks like this is an either passage, not an or. It’s a pain in the ass.”

“Why would the Gryph–ow!” He indignantly rubs at the spot Sweet Pea punched his arm.

“Don’t say it, man.”

“Something about some choices having consequences,” the redhead girl provides, studying her nails. “Jason and I think that’s a sham.” Her other half squeezes her arm. “It is.” She bends down, her hair a curtain for him to whisper behind. “Oh, I suppose we could help our cousin weed out her bad taste.” She crawls back to Jason’s side, fixing Jughead with a harsh glare. “Listen, land rat, one of us will tell nothing but the truth and the other will tell nothing but lies. You can ask us any three questions you want.”

“Will that guy answer for himself?”

Her teeth gleam white. “Yes.”

“Ah, shit.” Sweet Pea kicks the stone. “You wasted a question!”

Everything he’s known about himself as an intellectual crumbles before his eyes. “You’re right. Shit. Shit.” He paces, rubbing his beanie, violently trying to come to terms with how to fix it. He’s no closer to finding out who the liar is, nor how to get to the castle. “At least Jellybean’s...safe,” he mutters. Not that she’d know any better.

“Safe? Are you kidding?”

He glances up in alarm, catching himself before he asks what she means.

The girl pulls a mirror from her white satchel, winking at herself before drawing something on its surface. After a few flicks, music starts playing and he hears a beautiful voice.

My baby’s love had gone, and left my baby blueee. No-body knew!

As the redhead turns the mirror for him to see, JJ+Cheryl engraved in script around the frame, he forgets to breathe. Where a reflection should be, there’s an image of the Gryphon Queen and Jellybean. Betty’s got Jellybean propped up on her hips, gleefully dancing and singing with her around the room. His sister’s never looked so distracted and happy, not even sure where to look - the wily goblins or the beautiful, smiling Gryphon Queen.

What kind of magic spell to use?

“Slimes and snails!” the goblins chant. “Or puppy dog tails!”

Betty shoots them an annoyed look and holds up his sister like Simba in the Lion King without all the fanfare. “Well Jelly says–”

A garbled, gleeful gurgling makes them all cheer and continue their dance.

He’s flabbergasted.

“Wha–”

Sweet Pea slaps a hand over his mouth. “Keep your mouth shut until you’re ready to ask a real question, dumbass!”

Shoving him away, Jughead wipes the icky feeling from his lips. “I hope you washed your hands.”

“Yeah, yeah. Now use that supposed mastery to pick a good door.”

Taking a deep breath, Jughead tries to push out thoughts of how sweet Betty and Jellybean looked. She kidnapped her. Kind of. The semantics make his brain fizzle and he needs it to do an intellectual challenge in this puzzle.

There are infinite possibilities. If he asks which door they came from or which is the fastest way to the castle, it’d be easy for them to lie. It has to tie into the truth somehow. And Jason isn’t talking, just blinking at them with calm, haughty pride.

Adrenaline spiking, Jughead jabs a finger at the boy and glares at Cheryl. “Which door would he say to go through to get to my sister and the Queen?”

Cheryl glances over her shoulder, locking eyes with her companion before turning back to answer. “The right one.”

Jason smiles wider at that.

“You mean the one on the right or the correct passage?”

Jughead!” Sweet Pea cries, exasperated. “Stop wasting this shit! The labyrinth isn’t that complicated, yet all you landlubbers know how to do is ask questions.”

Delighted, Cheryl laughs and pricks the tip of her arrow with her nails. “I’ll have to tell Cousin Betty you said that.”

Surprisingly, Sweet Pea goes pale, but Jughead’s still trying to wrap his head around the riddle to focus too much on how the hell the Gryphon Queen could be related to them.

“I meant the passage on the right,” Cheryl beams, going for her bow. “Also, if you hurt her...we’ll kill you.”

“I don’t plan on hurting anybody. I’ll be careful, though, since I suspect you might be lying about the door but there’s no doubt you also have a thing about moving target practice,” he snarks, walking past all of them and approaching the door on the left. The less time spent with these overly-attached nutjobs, the better.

“I can do this.” His hands shake as he opens the door. A hall that leads somewhere indoors towards some lights and a garden lays out before him. He turns to grin at Sweet Pea, hurriedly stepping in. “I told you, I’m the quest mast–AHHH!”  The stones beneath his feet give way in a cruel trap door.

“I just felt like causing a little chaos,” he hears Cheryl announce, oh-so-cavalier about his impending death.

He refuses to give in to it. His stomach bottoms out and he rolls backward, slamming his limbs out like a starfish to try and stop himself from falling into a Mortal Kombat-style pit of spikes.

Choruses of “Ow! Ouch! Careful!” hiss out at him, his legs and arms bouncing off something strange that isn’t dirt or even stone. It jostles along with him, slimy and smooth to the touch.

“He-help!”

Ropes shoot out and curl under his limbs. Shocked, he tries catching his breath and looking around in the little light provided from where he fell.

“Thanks. I…”

A face of snakes emerges out of the darkness. Not a snake’s face. A human-esque face made of ironically faceless snakes. They loop into little outlines of eyes and a mouth, regarding him like one sentient being. Others slowly emerge.

“Is thissssss him?”

Don’t panic, he tries to warn himself. Nothing here has tried to harm him. Or squash him into tiny bits. Yet.

He cranes his neck up. “Um, I’m Jughead. Is this the quickest way to the castle?”

“Dependsss, can you fly?”

“Let’s drop him and find out.”

The snake limbs wobble, retreating until he falls, screaming, back into the pit.

“Be niccce to him!” Another being chides, white and pale and thick-limbed as it catches him in a hammock of snakey arms.

He clings to its smooth, scaled skin. “Thank you. Please - I need the path that’s the shortest distance to the castle.”

“We don’t measure distance.”

He frowns, confused. “Is that underground logic, or…?”

“We don’t have any feet!”

The faces erupt into hissing laughter, strange mouths moving open and closed with such enthusiasm he’s almost jostled to his doom.

“Oh, broth-ahhh!”

They swing him down, limbs slithering on all sides of him with such a rush he’s reminded of an amusement park ride: one with no safety belts and a very high, inhuman monitor.

At last, he’s able to maneuver enough to look down. A mattress seems to be at the bottom of this tunnel. Not quite a pit of spikes, but it wouldn’t exactly be a soft landing if he fell the whole way, either.

“‘Scuse me. One sec.” Grabbing onto one of the snake limbs, he swings himself feet-first into the open cavern and onto the bed. His knees bounce on sharp, hard springs. Groaning, he rolls over, slightly horrified when he looks up at what is essentially an entire moving tunnel of the snake beings.

“Nope.” He slides off to the side, cupping his mouth and shouting up to Sweet Pea. “You coming down, buddy?” The endearment sounds stupid to his own ears, but he doesn’t think sweet pea sounds any better. After a few seconds of silence beyond the occasional slithering, the light fades and the snakes recede. Apparently, these passageways close and shift, same as the outside hedges and fences. Jughead sighs, brushing off his jeans and massaging his kneecaps. Maybe it serves him right for being so cocky. He could’ve sworn he figured out the Blossom riddle. Cheryl could’ve doubled up on lying, he supposes. Still, he and Sweet Pea have a deal. He’ll just need to find another way to get to him to make good on that promise.

Murmurs and hissing echo through the walls as he meanders through, trying to guess and plot, to go with his gut. Down here there are a lot more roots and the creatures seem very chatty, with each other if not with him.

“Is that him?” some of them murmur, whilst others purposely seem to quiver their voices with, “Turn ba-a-a-aaaack.”

Probably false alarms. He ignores them.

For a while, at least, he decides not to ask for directions. Trust his instincts. Stepping through some dismembered beams, Jughead sees someone in a ratty cloak with a giant beak squatting against the wall and holding a mug.

In his games, he suggests always giving the needy a token. They usually have information. Plus, it’d suck to punish players for being helpers. But what does he have to give?

Patting down his pockets, Jughead approaches the literal squatter. “Hey. Um, is there anything I can do to help?” It’s the first time he’s offered anything since he started the labyrinth, and for a moment he wonders if he’s actually kind of an asshole.

Probably not.

He’s on a time limit and is on the verge of losing his sister to another world.

The beak catches the dim lowlight that seems to glow from certain roots and passages, but its owner says nothing. After a beat, he sits down next to them.

“Must be a hard life, always wandering.” They don’t say anything, but they angle their body towards him, listening. Exhausted, he rambles on. “Or maybe it’s fun. I don’t know. I guess hunger doesn’t happen down here. At home, I’m a monster. I eat everything. I kinda miss it. Food. It’s...comforting. Familiar, I guess. Do you guys even eat down here? Or is there a…?”

The squatter tilts their head at him, almost owlish in the angle.

“Sorry. Guess I’m curious. I’m a writer.” He hasn’t seen books here yet, either. Wondering what they have in common, Jughead leans back and looks around the wide, circular tunnel. There are a few forks. If there were tracks of any kind, it might kind of remind him of public transit tunnels in the city. “So I’m guessing from prior experience that the fastest route to the castle isn’t always the best way to travel. What do you think?” He points to two of the random tunnels.

Squatter takes their time, studying both, and shakes their head.

“Neither?” He laughs, exhausted, laying his head back against the stone. “Okay. What do you suggest? I’ve also got a guide somewhere…” He trails off, surprised when their gloves hand procures a long, elegant arrow, almost like the one the twins were making. Dragging it in the gravel, they write him a message.

Stay.

Eyes wide, Jughead looks up at them. “What do you mean?” He can’t see their face. Just a beak. A cloak. They tap the word again. “Stay?” They nod. Confused, he turns to them. “I have this time limit and I need to find my sister.”

“Are you still whining about your lack of direction to every stranger you meet?”

A weight lifts off his shoulders at the sound of Sweet Pea shouting down the side tunnel. “Hey!” Squatter’s heels drag against the gravel as they curl into themselves. “Don’t worry, this is my friend.” He waves Sweet Pea down, standing and playing with his suspenders. “Didn’t want to jump in after me, huh?”

“Follow no fools. My personal motto.”

“So you didn’t take the Snake Express?”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I got a helping hand.”

He’s not sure he even wants to know what that is. “Hey, do you have anything to help this fine…” He gestures with uncertainty to the cloaked Squatter. “Personage?”

“Help them? With what? Also, no. Like I said, I’m hired help,” he emphasizes, patting his chest and plucking his plaid. “So let’s finish the job.”

“Squatter said to stay.”

“Whatta?” Sweet Pea glances at the silent, cloaked figure on the floor. “You can’t just assign someone a name.”

“Well, they didn’t tell me, so–”

“Creator of worlds, thorn in my side, are we gonna go through this again or are you going to follow me to the castle to ruin Blondie’s plight?”

Ruin Blondie’s plight?” The bird-person chirps angrily. Eyes wide, Jughead steps back.

The Squatter flutters their arms and the cloak-like wings, the pulse shoving the boys against the stone wall. As they push their beak up, the whole cloak falls back in a shocking swirl of midnight and stars. Jughead feels like his heart tangles in his chest as she erupts - the Gryphon Queen.

Royalty in disguise. How could he not have recognized the signs of the tropes? Of course she’d want him to stray from the path - or better, give up his task. But to sit with him in silence? That’s…another level.

“Your majesty! What a, uh, lovely surprise,” Sweet Pea stutters, falling to one knee.

“What were you saying about ruining me?”

“Nothing, uh–”

“Nothing?” she repeats, fuming. Stones roll out of her path as she stomps towards them, crunching the earth under her feet. “Nothing? Tra la la?” She pins Sweet Pea’s shoulder against the wall with the heel of her boot. “What are you doing, Sweetie? You helping our dear Jughead leave?”

“No, of course not! I was...uh...leading him back to the beginning. Had to give him a scenic route, you know? Play the part, my Queen.”

“Hey!” Jughead protests, scrambling to his feet. “You promised me!”

“Oh, you promised, Sweets?” Her toe creeps onto his neck, the snake tattoo slithering uncomfortably as she presses in. The air seems to be sucked out of the room and Jughead feels like he should be doing something - grabbing the Queen or cursing out Sweet Pea. “How did you enjoy your relief? All over the labyrinth walls? You know better than that. I’ll have to send in the cleaners.”

“I’m sorry, your Majesty,” he gasps, seemingly afraid to even so much as touch her ankle. It’s weird to see Sweet Pea freaked out over anything. What’s even stranger is the curdling in his gut watching Betty focus on the other fae so intently.

“And what is this?” she demands, toeing open the plaid shirt.

“What? This?” Sweet Pea laughs humorlessly, arms open. “I don’t know where it came from.”

Jughead hates watching her fawn all over him, pick at his clothes, even stepping on him makes his nostrils flare. “Hey, let him loose! I gave that to him.”

They turn to him with such intensity that he prickles. Was she always so...powerful?

“Oh, Jughead,” Betty muses, pushing Sweet Pea away and sweeping her cape out behind her for a catwalk strut that seems more theatrical than intentional. “Was it a gift to a friend? Or was it payment? I don’t know how I feel about you playing with other fae.”

Unsure what the right answer is, he looks to Sweet Pea, who sits up, panting and nervous.

“He’s my friend,” Jughead decides.

Lip twitching, Betty quirks an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yes. He’s...we share things. I trust him, even though he thinks I’m an idiot. At least he calls me out on it. He’s my friend.”

“How nice.” Betty moves in, backing him against the wall and caging him in with her arms. Trembling for reasons he’d rather not uncover, he attempts to meet her level, green gaze. Up close, he can see each dark, crystalline eyelash. “If I thought someone betrayed me...I’d probably have to punish them.”

“How?” He squirms, not sure how she manages to make it sound hot, of all things.

“Oh, I might dip them into the bog of eternal stench.”

From the game guides, he knows that’s not really her modus operandi. “Wouldn’t that punish anyone who was around them?” She runs a gloved finger down the seam of his tank top. “Wouldn’t you want a punishment that served you as well?”

“Punishment is about justice, Jughead. Not pleasure.”

“I’m not sure I believe that,” he breathes, shocked that the words tumble out of his mouth.

Curious, Betty runs her fingers under the strap of his tank top, just shy of caressing his burning skin. “How would you punish a friend? Or a stranger who does something to hurt you? Does it matter who? Or why?”

He swallows thickly. “I guess it depends.”

“Do you forgive them?” She noses forward, studying every microexpression. “Or do you lash out for punishment?”

“Both, I imagine. Nothing...permanent, I guess.” He flexes his palm against the stone behind him, desperate for something to do with his hands.

A challenge flashes in her gaze before she pulls away. “How are you finding my labyrinth?”

Steeling himself, he tilts his chin and stands up straight. “Piece of cake.”

“Ohhh really?” He can’t stop staring at the sharpness of her smile. Breathe, he reminds himself. Don’t get distracted. “Well, things are always a little easier with friends. How about upping the stakes?”

“More than my sister’s life? That’s not fair!”

“You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.” She shakes her head, contemplative. “Your sister’s life isn’t on the table. Her location is. Such a dramatic one–and yet, such passion becomes you.” She brushes her nose against his, sparking fire up his spine, before turning to Sweet Pea, who nods at the sentiment. “My labyrinth is a piece of cake? I hope you enjoy this little slice.” She procures one of those glass balls, winding it up like a softball and pitching it into the dark. Before he can make out the image, Betty disappears in a flurry of furious feathers.

All he hears are clippers and gleeful yipping.

“Oh, shit, the cleaners!”

“Where’s Betty?”

“Run!”

Sweet Pea grabs his wrist and drags Jughead forward down the tunnels. Behind them, something churns and groans and Jughead can’t help but glance over his shoulder at the looming monstrosity. Tiny gremlins resembling boy scouts brandishing little knives and hedge clippers stampede towards them with savage intensity. “How do sharp objects help clean?!”

“They’re usually in the forest and the hedge maze! For fuck’s sake, move.” Sweet Pea tackles Jughead into the side wall just before a rabid mongrel gets him. The wall caves in like a theater or television set and Jughead’s so shocked that he just kind of rolls down the path with Sweet Pea bouncing down the painful path with him. They tumble to a stop in something very weed-like. Every part of him aches, but he doesn’t have time to rest, let alone wallow. The boys are coming after them.

Haphazardly tugging Sweet Pea to his feet, they stumble through the path until they get to a ladder.

Up seems like a good direction, maybe.

Neither of them knows who should go first and they end up climbing up on either side of the ladder, stepping on each other’s fingers and twisting. “Get up there, Sweet Pea!” He pushes him above, encouraging him and enduring the jabs from some prickly boy scouts below.

Thankfully, Sweet Pea clambers out fast enough that he can turn around and help haul Jughead the rest of the way.

“It’s a bunker?” Jughead huffs incredulously at the vault door in the middle of a forest, almost out of breath. “We need to stop them. Maybe we could pull the ladder up, change the path?”

Sweet Pea tightens the plaid around his waist. “Let’s just throw rocks at these little shits until they stop trying to climb the damn thing. Stop! Chasing us!

Not much for violence, Jughead looks for other resources. The little boys may have trouble reaching the bottom rung, but they certainly won’t be able to lift the thick metal door.

“Come on, help me.” Lifting from the knees, as his gym teacher always tells him, Jughead counts to three and heaves the damn door up with every ounce of energy he has left. Momentum carries them forward, stumbling over the wheel atop it, which is mercifully easy to spin and lock into place.

Once they’re certain no feral little scouts are coming after them, Jughead and Sweet Pea stumble back in what appears to be a wooded area.

“What? The? Hell?”

“What the hell? What the hell is right!” Sweet Pea paces, panicking. “You couldn’t just thank Blondie for a favor, fuck her brains out, and live in peace? You had to pull me into this labyrinth shit? And you called me your friend? Why would you do that?!”

“Because you are, even if you’re a terrible one!” Jughead sighs, rubbing his beanie and the back of his neck. “Thanks for saving me, though. You really...helped me out back there.”

“What do you mean I’m your friend?”

“You have my back, I have yours. It looked like she was going to squash you, so…I thought I’d step in.” Fuck her brains out repeats in his brain. That’s not...a thank you. Nor should he be enamored of someone who’s holding his sister hostage. Sort of.

Contemplative, Sweet Pea puts his hands on his hips. “I guess you’re right. Weird. I’ve never had a friend before.”

“Well. Congratulations.”

To his surprise, Sweet Pea offers him a hand up and even pats his back twice after hoisting him upright.

“Did you just take a one-second bro course or…?”

“Nah. Just felt like it. Now that we’re in the woods, those little Cleaner fuckers might jump out at us or rework paths. Oh, and beware of bears.”

Exasperated, he looks around. “Lions and tigers, too?”

“Nah. The bears are stealthy, though.”

None of this place makes sense,” he protests, hoisting his suspenders over his shoulders so they don’t snag on any branches.

“You’ll get used to it.”

He wonders if he will.

Chapter Text

It’s been maybe twenty minutes of trying to explain random things like Thunder Cats to Sweet Pea before they come to a bridge and hear a guitar twang precariously on the other side of it.

“What...is happening?”

“Probably some crazy loner–”

As if on cue, a yowl cries out into the air and a humanoid fox raises a boxing glove into the air, some kind of fencing sword swinging from a holster. “I am the Red Paladin, and you shall not pass!

“Lord of the Rings references? Really?” The fox clambers atop a golden lab and mushes him onwards, wearing some kind of claw marks on his chest like a badge of honor. The pair have surprising enthusiasm, considering how ridiculous they are, the dog’s jowls flapping joyously in the wind.

“Why are you attacking?” he shouts, diving out of the way of the straight lines that seem to be the only way the unit is capable of fighting things.

“I have chosen to protect the bridge. Anyone who passes must be challenged!” He urges his steed to turn to try again.

“You chose to protect a bridge?” Sweet Pea looks like he wants to ask more stupid questions with stupid answers, but the boxing glove breath knocks the breath out of him. The dog takes a second to sniff him to make sure he’s okay, licking something in his coiffed hair, much to his disdain.

“None shall cross without my permission!” The Paladin declares.

Jughead holds his hands out to his sides, looking around. “All right, can we have your permission?”

Mouth frozen open, the fox blinks at his dog friend, then the sky, deciding, “I guess?” The challenge is shockingly easy. Maybe the labyrinth really is a piece of cake as long as he has a grasp on how to approach things.

“Thank you.”

Sweet Pea scowls, decidedly less grateful as he pushes away the dog's snout and swipes his hair back into place. “Why would you charge random people, anyway? The bridge itself doesn’t need protecting.”

“I…” The fox Paladin furrows its brow, looking at its canine steed. “I’m being valiant! Anyone who’s ambled on this path must pass a test!”

“Throwing stuff at anyone who passes isn’t exactly heroic behavior, jackass,” Sweet Pea clarifies, kicking the grass as he rises. “You could be attacking innocent people. We’re on a rescue mission.” The fox’s ears perk up in excitement. “That guy lost his sister.”

“Lost her, you say?” Both he and the dog start sniffing the air as if they can pick up the scent of a kid they never met.

“She…” Jughead falters, not really wanting to retell the story. “The Gryphon Queen tricked me into bartering her away.”

“She tricked you? How?”

“I didn’t know I was wishing for something.” When the fox and dog seem equally confused, he isn’t sure how to explain things. “I didn’t know wishes came true.”

“But you did...wish it?”

“I was angry.”

“So she didn’t trick you?”

He flounders, reconsidering and remembering how upset she’d been that her wish-granting hadn’t been helpful. There really hasn’t been a moment that Betty’s purposely misled him. “I guess she didn’t. But I didn’t know she existed, let alone that I was entering a contract with her.” When the guys keep looking at him, he fiddles with his beanie and wonders if she enjoys watching him learn things the way he does when his group is campaigning. “She gave me a second shot to save my sister if I can get to the castle before midnight.”

“Ahhh, a redemption arc.” Elbow propped up on his dog’s head, the fox sighs. “I love redemption arcs, especially with happy endings.”

“Yeah, well knowing my luck, I’ll be stuck with the Grimm version of things.”

“Come on, freak. Let’s go save your sister.”

“Sir Archibald will lead the way!”

“Tell me we don’t have to be friends with that guy,” Sweet Pea complains.

Although he’s ridiculous, it’s almost endearing the way the fox and the dog harmonize and howl. He wonders if Betty sent them after chasing him and Sweet Pea away - because she does know he likes dogs, and this Archibald seems like an interesting character. “At this point, I’m not sure we can escape the acquaintance. So explain these cleaners to me.”

After some roundabout exposition and some colorful commentary from both sides, Jughead thinks he has a better grasp on things.

Archibald sniffs indignantly. “Most creatures are happy to clean wherever they see things need tending and leave be the places that don’t. The Gryphon Queen has enough to deal with.”

“Yeah, like those stupid babies,” Sweet Pea mutters, apparently giving up on policing the invocation of her name and title.

“She has...Betty keeps other babies besides Jellybean?”

“Not keeps,” Archibald clarifies, shooting a look at Sweet Pea. “She’s not collecting children like knick-knacks for the nursery. The Gryphon Queen has particular tastes and a fine sense of hospitality! Those babies are her family.”

“The way she’s hoping Jellybean will be?”

“No, no!” Archie’s whiskers twitch. “Genetically her family. Her niece and nephew, Juniper and Dagwood!”

Sweet Pea kicks some rocks unnecessarily. “Little monstrous royalty.”

Sighing wistfully, Archie resettles on his dog, Vegas, patting his head. “She loves those babies. Don’t worry. I’m sure Jellybean is in excellent hands.”

“Maybe.” He shoves his hands in his pockets, looking down at the dirt path. “Maybe she’s better off here than with me.”

“What?” Sweet Pea stops in his tracks, glaring accusingly. “You have the nerve to haul my ass all over the labyrinth and now you’re saying–”

“What can I give her compared to a Queen?” His insecurity slithers out like vines in the forest. “I don’t sing and dance, I’m always running on zero sleep. There’s no goblin horde to entertain her at my place - it’s just...me. I can...I can barely handle babysitting - putting food on the table, changing...everything.”

Swallowing hard, he stops walking.

“Jellybean might be better off without me.”

Gentle cooing wells up in the forest.

Archie’s and Vegas’s ears twitch, but shockingly, it’s Sweet Pea who reassures him. “You don’t have to handle everything to be a good influence.”

He blinks against budding wetness, turning his face away. It’s not fair, but that’s just the way it’s been.

Fluffy tail flicking from side to side, Archie readjusts on his perch in an attempt to get closer. “Jellybean’s lucky to have a sibling as loving and selfless and you.”

He lets out a bitter laugh, wiping his eyes. “I’m hardly selfless.”

“You’re a total pain in the ass.”

Jughead sighs. “Thanks, Pea. Yeah. I am. I like to think I’ve got it all figured out, but...I’m not...I’m not master of much. Can’t even keep the shirt on my back.”

Curling into the flannel, Sweet Pea backs away.

“Perhaps you just need help.” Archibald tugs on his hand with a little paw and looks up with soft brown eyes that hold every bit of hopeful optimism Jughead needs right now. Vegas seems to echo the sentiment by nudging his leg and whimpering lightly.

He thinks of the Gryphon Queen. Helping. “Yeah.”

“I don’t know much about babies or the above-ground, but I’m sure we could be of service in some way.”

“Speak for yourself, Archie.”

“I meant Vegas and me!” he yips irritably. “You can stay here and sulk all you want, but I’m going to be a good friend! A heroic one, at that!”

“You’re just volunteering as some ego stroke. Nobody wants to babysit kids. Blondie probably just did it to get human dick and have some fun. You’re so afraid of being useless that you throw yourself into a task–”

“Stop it,” Jughead snaps, silencing both of them. “This isn’t your responsibility and Betty’s not like that.” They stare, wide-eyed and waiting. “I’m sorry. I just...I need a minute.” He continues stalking down the path.

A collar tinkles and wings flutter. “Are we not...going to the castle then?”

“We are. I’m just debating what to do once we get there.”

Maybe he should wish for Jellybean’s happiness - give her the best environment he can. Wish for his parents to be around more. Wish to be better at being...whatever he is.

There’s something missing.

“What do you guys wish for when you reach the center? When you reach...her?”

Archie’s tail flicks like a question mark. “Wish? I don’t need to wish for anything. I have everything I need.”

Jughead and Sweet Pea share an exhausted sigh.

“You already have everything. This might come as a shock, Jughead, but not everybody gets a wish when they meet the Queen.”

The black lining around Archibald’s jaw quivers. “Don’t talk badly about her Majesty!”

“Of course not. From the crest on your dog’s collar, I’m betting you had a nice brush with royalty.”

“Maybe,” Archie quips, tail flicking anxiously. “The Queen has been nothing but kind and generous to me.”

“Yeah, well, if you grew up knowing other government systems and how monarchies tend to work in history, you might not be so keen on royalty.”

“Whatever kingdom you’re from is different, and the only reason you even know about it is that her Majesty encourages education of all sorts. The labyrinth is a joint effort–”

“So why do we have a Queen?” he protests loudly. “Everyone should be equal! Hell, I could be King!”

“Don’t be preposterous! You’d be a terrible King.”

“Why?”

“He’s right. You expect payment.”

“Well, why the hell would I want all that responsibility if I wasn’t getting compensated?”

"Not very equal then, is it?"

A flutter of a cape in the woods catches Jughead’s attention. It has to be her. He tries gesturing to his crew to get their attention. When they don’t stop bickering, he flexes his legs. “I’ll be right back.” Hiking and running has been a little rough on his knees, but he chases her through the forest as best as he can. It doesn’t feel like a trap. She’s not even facing him, really. She's just trudging down a path–routine maintenance, maybe.

“Wait up!” he calls.

In a quick movement, her arms raise and she sweeps into a blur. A bird shoots up and around the forest, circling to the trees. Stranger things have probably happened here. “Betty! Please!” There are too many trees, so many shadows and leaves. Slowing his run, Jughead spins, looking for the breaks in light. “I wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m not sure why...I don’t even know what happened when we met.”

After a beat, he locates her, sitting in branches, one knee up to her chest, her eyes downcast.

Heart pounding, he licks his lips. “The labyrinth’s not a piece of cake. It’s not meant...as a trap. I’m so used to everything being a trap - to picking up after other people’s slack and being the only one with a semblance of a plan. Here, with you, I just...I’m an idiot.”

Her reluctant laugh makes him feel the tiniest bit better. “You’re not an idiot. I’ve read your plans.”

“My...my tasks? For G&G?”

“Your writing.” Her legs look impossibly long, shimmering as she hops to a lower branch. “On your laptop, in your bag. Sometimes, I edit it.”

He lets out a disbelieving laugh. “How? Wouldn’t I notice…?” Her eyes glimmer with mischief. “Ah. Magic. Right.” Threading his thumbs through his suspenders, he tries not to leer at the leg dangling on a lower branch. “So you’re a fan?”

“I’m a fan.” She shrugs one shoulder like it’s no big deal that she’s infiltrated his life and head.

“Have you...been around in other ways?” Chewing his lip, Jughead wonders how much he should be embarrassed. It’s not like she’d have had a Jughead jumbo screen going on with those magic balls at the time. At least, he doesn’t think she would’ve. His life’s not interesting enough for that.

“Sometimes.” She straddles the branch, laying forward in a stretch. Every curve imprints itself in his mind, folding his tongue in on itself. “I listen to your games. I...I brought you trinkets.”

“You have?” He smiles, stepping closer.

“Fruit. A button, if I saw you were missing one. I wasn’t much, but…”

“Thank you,” he says, overwhelmed by her again. “I probably never said it - never even…” Shaking his head, he wishes he knew better. “Thank you, again. That’s very generous.”

With a shy smile, she nods her head. “You’re welcome.”

He doesn’t know where to go from here. “Do you, um, do you want a hand getting down from that tree? It’s the least I can do for all the times you’ve helped me, I guess.”

“I can get down fine,” she laughs. “And I never expected...you don’t need to pay me back. There’s no debt.” As she swings her leg over and pushes off the branch, he can’t help but move forward to catch her under her ass. She’s lighter than he expects–silky and firm in his arms, heaven to his senses.

“Betty…”

Hands delicately perched on his shoulders, Betty bats her eyelashes, glancing at his lips with a rueful smile. “You really do seem to prefer when I play hard-to-get.”

Dizzy with want, he leans his head back. “What? No, I just…I’m catching up, I guess.”

“Catching up? Is that one of your puns?” she teases, shifting up against gravity to wrap her legs around his waist.

“No. It’s a promise.”

His fingers wind into the hair at the base of her neck, one hand sliding under her upper thigh. She’s so firm and strangely willing, each of their movements urging the other person closer.

“Jughead...are we friends?”

Like they could ever just be friends.

Emboldened by her attention and the flick of her galaxy-eyes down to his mouth, he moves forward and kisses her. The shape of her lips spreads warmth through his veins with magic incomparable to any spell.

Brow furrowed, he tries to kiss her well. Forget everything else. He opens his mouth and follows his gut, pinning her to a tree with his body and kissing her as hard as he can.

He can feel her smile under his lips. Her warmth. Her joy. All of it.

“You really are an idiot.”

He jerks back, dropping her thighs. Her legs don’t fall right away like normal gravity would incline them to.

“You’re wasting time,” Sweet Pea reminds him from twenty meters away.

Shocked, Jughead licks his lips and wipes them with the back of his hand. He’s never done anything remotely like that. It must be the magic of the labyrinth.

But when he looks at Betty, the warmth pooling in his gut tells him it might be hormones. Attraction. Her hair’s a little mussed from their escapade and she looks sheepishly proud, touching her mouth.

His voice feels squeaky and rough. “Are you...would you like to join us?”

Stunned, her eyes widen. “What?”

“I know you can’t show us the path, but…” He frowns, not sure where he’s going with this. It’s something he’d never write into a campaign, but the rule books and best-laid plans have all gone out the window anyway. “If Jellybean’s okay, then maybe you could spare a few minutes?”

Teeth prying at her lip, Betty spares a glance at the upcoming parts of the labyrinth. “It’s rare I get to walk it these days...and since I can monitor Jellybean from the glass...”

Hand extended, he jerks his head back to the path. “C’mon, m’lady. We have a labyrinth to investigate.”

 

~~~

 

Vegas wags his tail and body so hard that Archie almost loses his grip. They’re beside themselves, fawning over the glorious Queen they admire. Sweet Pea makes no attempt at hiding that he thinks this is ridiculous, which it is, but Jughead’s not complaining, for once. Betty seems happy to skip along hand-in-hand with him, telling them stories about the labyrinth’s evolution and adaptations, which Sweet Pea mostly scowls at.

“Jughead’s curious. He plans and crafts.”

“Save the praise for the bedroom, okay? His overthinking is a pain in the ass.”

Betty’s ears and cheeks flush pink, gaze darting nervously to Jughead. He wonders why she’s embarrassed about that. Any time she lets go of his hand to pet Vegas, check her glass, or push her hair back he gets this needy impulse to touch her in some other way to reestablish their connection. If he gets the chance, he wants to pin her to a tree again, whisper how good she is and see if she glows more than glitters with his hand inside her–

“Stop that,” she whispers, hiding the ball.

“Was that to me or the glass?”

“Both.” She swallows hard, eyes trained straight ahead. “The glass connects me to people - kind of like your phone.”

“But magical, obviously. The cleaners were summoned and we teleported when you broke one.”

Sweet Pea shoots them an odd look and Betty bites down on her smile.

“Something like that, yes.”

“She can see your heart’s desire, you dick-led landlubber.”

Shocked, Jughead stops in his tracks. “Are you serious?” So many thoughts flit through his head. “Can you see everyone’s desires all the time?” She shakes her head. “Could you see what I really wanted when I wished the thing about Jellybean?”

“Your desire had nothing to do with that.”

“Oh, really? Was that about your desires? To populate the labyrinth with children?”

“That wasn’t my intention in becoming friends,” she insists, frowning at him.

“Well, we’re something a little more complicated than friends.”

Seemingly hurt, she edges away from him.

“I don’t mean we’re not friends,” he backtracks awkwardly. It’s too awkward to approach other terms like friends with benefits when he still doesn’t know what the hell is happening or what will happen with them and Jellybean.

Her gaze narrows. “How reassuring. In that case, have a nice walk to the castle.”

“Betty, no! I’m just - I still don’t get why you chose me. I’m...ordinary.” As she opens her mouth to protest, he grabs her wrist. “I know you like my stories and my brain, or whatever.”

“Your body’s nice to look at, too,” she adds. Almost preening, he hides his smile. “You’re special to me.”

The words sound so simple - so sincere. It’s a declaration he’s never heard before, not really, not even when Ethel made him valentines that said Be mine.

You’re special to me.

Betty is the magical ruler of a maze and somehow he’s special to her. “But I still don’t...get it.”

Sighing, glancing from the waiting crew to his face, she admits, “You seemed to understand me. At least, I thought you did, up until we actually met.” Shrugging her shoulders, she offers him a hesitant smile. “Maybe you’re not the only one with a fantasy.”

It’s the first time he’s struck by how human she is. Threading his fingers through hers, he squeezes her hand. “There’s nothing quite like unraveling a good mystery.”

“Or a labyrinth,” she adds, her eyes glimmering like gems.

“What if…” He glances at his friends, who roll their eyes at his chin gesture and pretend to wander off. “Could you show me your fantasy? Is that how those magic...balls work?” When she shakes her head, he inches closer, swallowing hard and licking his lips. “You could tell me. I’m a very good listener.”

She places her hand on his chest, clearly conflicted. “I’m not sure you’d understand it. My head...and my heart can be a scary place.”

“I’m all about the beast within,” he teases, grin widening when she giggles.

“Fine. When you get to the castle, I’ll show you everything.”

“When?” he repeats, eyebrows raising.

“Yes, when.”

“You’re that confident in my abilities?”

“I’ve seen you do many miraculous things already, Jughead,” she says with more earnestness than she has right to. “I know you can do this. It’s just a matter of how much time it takes.” She takes a deep breath, glancing longingly at his lips. “Have you thought more about your wish?”

He feels lost. Loved. “I don’t even know what I want anymore.”

“Excuse us for a minute,” she tells his friends, pulling him off to the trees for some privacy. Adrenaline pounds in his veins when he thinks she might ‘take advantage of him.’ Sweet Pea’s annoyed claims that they’re wasting time blend into the dissonant music that seems to beat in the heart of the forest.

His knees feel heavy and loose with every step they take off the path, hands sweaty, lips ready. He wants her. He wants this. A bit of bile gurgles in the back of his throat. He thinks is just nerves - nothing to do with Jellybean, nothing to do with leaving his friends.

Instead of pressing him up against a tree and devouring him, Betty procures a glass ball and spins it until it becomes a peach. Jughead stares at it, dumbfounded. It’s the first real fruit he’s seen in the labyrinth, the same kind that had been left in his trailer.

“A peach,” he murmurs, wondering just how often she used to pop in on him. “This isn’t like Persephone and the pomegranate, is it?”

Her eyes flash. “Who’s Persephone?”

“The goddess of–nevermind. She’s fictional. Pretty sure she’s fictional,” he amends, watching as she rolls it along her fingers, absolutely hypnotizing. “When she ate a pomegranate, it bound her to another location and she had to stay there for half the year.”

“Was she unhappy?”

“I don’t know. They never talk about that part - whether she knew, or wanted, or...it depends on who you talk to, I guess. A lot of people tend to romanticize it.”

“This peach will show you what you want, Juggie, but I’m still not sure you’ll be happy with it.” Her palm pops it up in the air so she can catch it with the other hand, presenting it to him with a sweet little flourish.

“Wow, way to motivate me.”

“It’s up to you whether you pursue your desire or not,” she says, stroking the fruit lovingly before relinquishing it to him. Her brow furrows like she’s not sure she likes that he has it.

He rubs the fuzzy skin under his fingers. In some ways, it reminds him of the fine hairs of a cheek. He wants to touch Betty’s, caress it.

Maybe he doesn’t need the peach.

“Betty…” Her bright eyes lock onto his. “Thank you for this, for...giving me another wish, for letting me explore the labyrinth and not sending hordes of scary cousins and boy scouts after me.”

She laughs, pushing his shoulder in a way that feels a little more like she’s rubbing it. “The cleaners wouldn’t have sliced you up.”

“And Cheryl?”

“Well, maybe,” she admits, smoothing the strap of his tank top. “She can get cranky.”

“Cranky...crazy. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.”

Giggling, she pulls on his suspenders until he moves forward, their hips pressed together. The denim seam contains the growing promise and urges within him. “You’re still here, aren’t you?”

“I am. I’m here.”

Who knows when he’d get another moment alone with her? With that in mind, Jughead places a hand on the curve of her cheek, smoothing his thumb over her smile and pulling her lower lip down a smidge to stretch the expanse of her plush, perfect lips. It’s too tempting to taste her. Pushing the peach into his pocket, he slides into her embrace. Kisses. Smooth skin. Open lips, a slick streak of the heat of her tongue. He’s ravenous and wandering, groping every inch of her he can get.

“See? I think we’re a bit more than friends,” he teases breathlessly, nipping her lip, kissing down her neck. It feels like his brain and nerves are simmering, then full-on erupting when she slides her hand up under his beanie to tug his hair, the other palming the front of his pants.

Letting out a gruff breath, he pushes into her, groping the fullness of her ass and bravely traversing up to her breast. He doesn’t know if she’ll bruise - if he’ll mark her. “Am I being too rough?”

Betty laughs against his lips, hoisting her leg up around his hip. He holds her thigh, grinding against her center. It’s so much. Placing her hand over his, Betty drags him along her breast, encouraging him to squeeze harder, to circle what he can only guess is her nipple by the way it rises under his touch. One pinch and she cries out. She’s sexier than he’s ever imagined. So warm. So wonderful. He wants to impress her, to kiss her so hard that their lips are the only pair that fit for each other.

“Jughead,” she moans, practically climbing him as he pulls aside the ruffles on her blouse to get to the warm skin underneath.

He’s holding her breast. The way she feels makes him dizzy. Drunk on desire. The bustier pushes her breasts up and he can even stretch her ruffled shirt to show the other one. They’re perfect. She’s perfect.

Completely overwhelmed, he finds a nice grassy knoll and lays her down on it so he can weigh those lovely things in his hands, so he can suck on her neck, make her eyes roll back in her head. He’s obsessed. He wants to know everything. He lowers his mouth to her nipple and sucks, still rolling circles around her other breast.

“Jug-Head!” His name is strangled in lust and he loves it. He wants to fuck her right here and memorize every way to make her moan his name. “That’s it,” she praises, rocking her pelvis up. Squeezing him between her legs, Betty manages to use her knees to hook under his tank top and edge it up.

Anxious, excited, he hurriedly untangles his suspenders and helps her drag the damn thing off. Everything shudders and goes deliciously dark when her nails rake up his happy trail.

He curses, muttering, before covering her body with his again. They swallow each other’s moans, chest to chest, rocking in an unfamiliar, miraculous motion that has him sweating, almost sparkling like the glitter she tends to shed.

Is it possible to become one with her? To be that close?

A yip, bark, and the sound of someone scrambling in the woods jerks him out of his reverie, although his dick is still pointed straight at Betty through their clothes.

“What was that?”

Betty strokes his cheek, gently urging him back to her. “Jughead, please.”

Although he’d love nothing more than to burn with her, he can’t just fuck her when people are shouting. “Come on.” Scrambling, he helps her up, making sure she’s covering her own breasts before yanking his shirt on and taking off after the sound.

“Drop him!” Sweet Pea’s shouting. “He’s a fox, not a Firey!”

A heavy ball drops in Jughead’s gut. Someone has Sir Archibald.

“Sweet Pea, where are y–” A glimpse of long, bright red, feathery limbs nearly makes him swallow his tongue. The creatures are wearing shiny blue athletic shorts, running easily through the woods. “Holy shit.” He reaches for Betty’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “I thought that nothing really dangerous was in the labyrinth!”

“They’re not dangerous,” she reasons, having the decency to blush nonetheless.

“We have to find him! Come on!”

They stumble through the underbrush in chase of the hooting and hollering. He catches a glimpse of Archibald scrambling on the shoulder of the feathered thing with giant fox ears, a beaked nose, and creepy, tapered hands. Vegas can be heard panting after them.

“I’m coming!” he shouts for Archie’s benefit.

“You wanna dance, landlegs?” The Firey rounds on him, striking his toes on the ground and igniting them in flames.

“You can’t start a fire in the middle of a forest!” he protests, only realizing half a second later that logic may not be the same in the labyrinth. Betty seems more worried about Vegas, who whimpers and scurries out of sight.

The creature waves its inhuman hand. “Come on, boys! Let’s play a game with our new friend.”

Archibald whines as they lift him up by the scruff of his fur. Sweet Pea stumbles onto the scene, snapping, “Where have you two been?”

“We were…” Jughead trails off, mutual parts fascinated and horrified by the way the Fireys stretch and bend, clearly playing a game or doing a dance.

One of them plucks their own eyes out like Mr. Potato Head and swallows them only to have them reappear where they should’ve been. “Nice one, Moose!” The pack congratulates each other on ridiculously stupid stunts - pulling off their own heads and bouncing them around, passing like it’s a game of basketball instead of dismemberment.

The one who’s taken a shine to Archibald strokes his tail, clearly winding it up to see if it’s removable. “What can you do, little friend?”

“Let go of him!” Jughead commands, releasing Betty’s hand to shove the Fireys back into the bonfire, which doesn’t seem to do much of anything. Flame-resistant feathers?

The creature cackles triumphantly. “You wanna dance?” He tosses a protesting, swinging Archibald to his friends. “I bet your girlfriend only likes you because of those tiny-man-hands. Let me try them,” he leers, reaching out with grubby, pointed fingers.

In a flurry of feathers, an owl swoops in and grabs the guy’s head with her talons.

“Wha–?!”

“Reggie!” His friends call out just as his head’s dislocated and carried up through the forest. “We’ll get your head back! Game on, Gryphons vs Fireys.”

“Hell yes!” Sweet Pea punches one right in the back of the head, launching it off in a spectacular fashion. Unsure of what to do in the chaos, Jughead avoids the Firey’s reach and runs for Archie, who’s already punched his captor in the face. Heads and long limbs are bouncing and fumbling all over the place. He kicks someone down the hill, their disgruntled hollers rising up like the flames. Every brush with the creatures feels like rubber or stringy fur on his skin. The Fireys run around like possessed rubber chickens. It’s the weirdest game he’s ever played. Football and basketball and keep-away all mixed into one. He thanks whatever force is out there that Betty has a flying advantage.

Eventually, the one called Moose reattached his head and yowls, “That’s it! That’s game! We’ll get you next time.”

“Next time?” Jughead pants, bewildered and still pushing off one of the creatures while Archie punches its leg.

The Fireys howl some kind of call and pad off into the woods saying things like, “Good game, man,” to one another in a way that leaves Jughead baffled. The far-away call must’ve been Reggie and he wonders if they should head that way to find Betty or not. He could just say her name.

“I hope Be–”

Sweet Pea slaps a hand over his mouth. “Until we get to the castle, keep your mouth and hands to yourself. Clearly you don’t handle the whole distraction thing well and we’re on a time limit, landie.”

Scowling, backing away, he looks at the fox. “You okay, Archie?”

He flexes his furry ears and paws, padding around in a circle. “I’m fine.”

“You were very valiant. All of you were.”

Sweet Pea scoffs. “Yeah, right. You would’ve done the same for any of us.”

“Guess we’re all friends, then?” he needles, wrapping his suspenders back up onto his shoulders.

Huffing, probably to put up a show, Sweet Pea crosses his arms. “Guess so.”

“Good. Now what do you say we try and find Vegas?”

“Come on, guys, it’s a dog; he can follow our scent. I can almost see the castle,” Sweet Pea insists, gesturing through the trees, where there does seem to be some kind of fortress emerging. “We have less than an hour left. Let’s get Jughead in and come back for Vegas if he hasn’t found us by then.”

“I don’t abandon my friends,” Archibald huffs, whiskers twitching indignantly.

“You’re not ditching them if they happen to fall behind or just - somewhere else! I found this one again when he fell into a pit - and I did it without jumping after him, I might add.”

“Congratulations. I’m still sniffing out Vegas.”

“You guys are the worst,” Sweet Pea growls. “Fine. I’m going to take a five-minute bathroom break. Jughead, you stay put. If neither Archie nor Vegas has returned by then, we’re moving on. Okay?”

“How do you have that much piss? Like, you haven’t drunk anything yet?” Jughead marvels.

“Mind your own damn business. I’ll be right back.”

“Be back soon, Jughead.”

With that, his friends bound into the forest. Jughead takes a deep breath and stares at the fortress in the distance. Betty and Jellybean will be there and he still doesn’t know what to do with his wish. As he makes to sit down on a log bench, something presses insistently against his ass. Once his fingers are in his pocket, he remembers. The peach.

His heart’s desire.

Glancing up at the castle, with nothing and no one to stop him, Jughead puts the fruit to his lips and sinks his teeth into its flesh.

Chapter Text

Music’s playing, something like a synthesizer plucking away at a fake harp like in his favorite 80’s guilty pleasure movies. People are clapping, riveted by his reading. They treasure his signature oh-so-haphazardly scrawled upon their books–his books, he realizes, looking closer. His hearing’s a little off - almost like he’s underwater. The people leave him alone because they know how he treasures his privacy, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to soak up his presence.

A flash of white is in the crowd. A girl in a mask.

Betty, he knows, even only by the glimpse of her sparkly gown and blonde hair.

He edges through the party-goers, forgoing the proffered mini burgers and milkshakes on trays to get to her. It’s a little fancier than he expected. Lots of suits. He’s in all black - slacks, a button-down shirt and he has white suspenders slung properly over his shoulders. Somewhere, he knows he has a blazer on the back of a chair, but he doesn’t need it right now. All he wants to do is get to Betty.

She slips away in the crowd with a glimmer.

Alarmed, he looks around. She has to be here. Somewhere.

As people discuss his latest work with deep, philosophical questions and insights, he works his way around the edge of the room. She’s singing. He can hear her above the warbled crowd.

“There’s such a sad love deep in your eyes - a kind of pale jewel, open and closed within your eyes. I’ll place the sky within your eyes.”

Her voice is beautiful, just as he imagined it when he was planning the dungeons and quests for his game. A makeshift  raised, rotating stage hosts his friends, who play backup to his Queen. She’s serenading him delicately fondling the mic stand in a way that makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

As the pain sweeps through, makes no sense for you. Every thrill is gone. Wasn’t too much fun at all…” Her gaze sweeps over him as she cradles the old-style box microphone closer, piercing him with her song. “But I’ll be there for you-o-o...as the world falls down.” She sways, head falling forward in their slow dance, even from across the room. “Falling.” She’ll need him to get down. “Falling down.” He stands in front of the stage, one hand extended to her as her wet eyes meet his. “Falling in love.”

He doesn’t want to be apart. Whether he's above or below her is a matter of the moment because all he longs for is her embrace.

She takes his hand, abandoning the microphone to slide into his arms, just like she did in the forest.

The forest...something whispers in the back of his brain.

Jughead leans forward to kiss her, surprised when she turns her head, his lips landing on her neck.

Someone pulls him back. His friends.

“Stop,” he urges, swatting at their hands.

“We just wanted to wish you congratulations,” they swear, and he can’t tell if it’s Dilton or Sweet Pea to his left. “To a very happy marriage.”

“Marriage?” He questions, distracted by a bookcase that Betty pops open like a secret passage. She offers him a playful smile before sliding behind it. “Where are you going?”

He hurries past, expecting it to be a small, dusty, dark bit of nothing, only to be greeted with a grand library. A personal one. Flashes of feathers poke out through the shelves. Glitter. White ruffles and silk.

Although she’s as strong as a gryphon, she’s as heavenly as an angel.

“Betty,” he calls sharply, earning a small giggle. It’s a game.

After dashing across a few more aisles, his heart's pounding with anticipation and playful, giddy adrenaline. Betty looks over her shoulder to grin at him, giving him enough time to catch her wrist and tug her into his arms. The impact is instant relief. Her mouth collides with his while hands scramble messily in his hair and legs hop up to wrap around his waist. He carries her to an armchair and sits, curling his palms around her ass.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” she confesses against his lips, pushing straps off of her shoulders and shimmying her dress down to her waist.

“I know, Betts.”

There might be tears glimmering in her eyes, or maybe she’s just that sparkling in the strange, glowing light of the library.

An orchestra swells in his head, throughout the library. They’re alone and he's certain her magic will make sure they won’t be disturbed. His hands snake up her thighs, silky as ever, to find she’s not wearing any underwear.

Yes,” he breathes, breaking from her lips to litter kisses on her chest. It’s not as warm as when they’d pressed together not-so-long-ago, but it’s close. The groove of her hip fits neatly into his palm as she grinds down against him. Such a good rhythm. “Such a good girl,” he praises before drowning in her kisses.

Despite knowing he’s in control, he feels like the room is spinning. She’ll do anything for him. His wish isn’t a command - it’s a gift she’ll bestow him with.

“Betty,” he moans, vaguely aware of things being moved and unzipped, his hands too full of her bare skin to form coherent thoughts. “Betty, yes.”

“Yes, what?”

Yes, I want this.”

Clutching him close to her chest, Betty rests, their bodies so in sync that he swears he can hear the faint thrum of her heart. “You can have it. You can have all of it, Juggie. Just love me. Trust me.”

Love. Trust.

Why was that so hard before? How could he ever look at her and think she’d want to hurt him or Jellybean?

Jellybean. Where is she?

“I love…” The words feel slurred coming off his tongue. Frowning, he pulls back. He’s heard of being drunk in love, but this is something else. The obvious reason is Betty, but there’s someone - something else? He’s firmly of the belief that this is the woman of his dreams. So what else does he need?

The Gryphon Queen...

How long has he known her? Things aren’t as clear as they should be. His memories and even the present are fuzzy, almost glowing, like they’ve been overexposed in a light booth. “Betty.”

“You love me?” she cooes breathlessly, stroking his hair, his dick strained in its search of her heat.

“This doesn’t feel real.” He massages her bare skin to ground him.

“It’s a fantasy.” Her hair brushes past his face, decorated with brilliant white gemstones and spun silver. It’s curlier than he’s used to seeing it, plush and silky in his fingers as she trails kisses down his face. A sweet suckling at the juncture of his neck has him keening up into her.

“I want...more than that,” he pants, his fingers digging into the skin of her waist.

“Then you can wish for me, Juggie. Wish for this.”

The wish.

Head spinning, Jughead lifts her off his lap before he’s tempted to do something crazy and selfish. “No.”

“Wh–what do you mean no? I thought you wanted this, that you wanted me.”

A clock on the mantle clicks at him. Four hours? Three? Two? No. Less than one, now, isn’t it? “There's someone waiting for me. I need to get to Jellybean.”

“But Jughead, I…wait! Can you just look at me?”

Her words don’t mean anything. She’s not even part of reality. Eyelids heavy, Jughead struggles to lift a chair, pushing her away so he can properly change things. A glassy glint peeks out behind the blown-up author's portrait of him in the library. If he looks at it just right, he swears a hologram of Betty is right behind him.

That's where the magic is.

He raises the chair, much like he's envisioned doing at home to vent out his frustrations, but this time, he's not angry. He's got a vision.

Panicked, Betty's eyes widen. “Juggie, no!”

He offers her a brief smile and chucks the furniture like it's a grenade. “See you on the other side.”

 

The glass shatters with a screech. Everything lurches like the impact of a car crash in slow motion - the walls disconnecting, everything floating up into fluttering feathers while he sinks back into reality.

“B-Betty,” he shudders, jerking awake on the forest floor, peach still in hand. It looks like someone else took a bite.

Thuds and scrapes catch his ear. When he rolls over, he sees Betty thrashing on the ground, coughing and retching.

“Betty!” Sitting up sends his blood rushing so quickly that makes him dizzy. She’s shivering uncontrollably, tears squeezing down her cheeks. “Betty, hey, wake up! Look at me.”

It feels like eating the damn glass he shattered to see himself reflected in the pain of her eyes. “You don’t love me.” She sniffles, lip quivering. “You broke the fantasy.”

Panicked, he strokes her face, unsure how to heal the stings and sores of the magical break. “That’s not–I didn’t think you were really there. I wanted to get to you here.” He holds her hands, chest constricting when he finds them dotted with glass and blood. Picking and throwing away the little rocks, he kisses her knuckles and tries to stroke her hair.

Goblins hurry towards them from the drawbridge, crying, “Queen B!”

“I’ll...I’ll be fine. I’m going to check on Jellybean.”

Reality shivers into feathers, scarves, and pretty blonde hair as she flaps into her owl form, pushing him back and escaping up into the air.

“Wait! Betty, I…” His throat constricts as he watches her struggle to fly. Those injuries were a result of his ignorance. “I do want…”

Growling, a goblin wearing pearls and a black glossy armor pokes his ass with a sharp stick. “You hurt my queen?”

“Yeah. It was an accident. It’s kind of my MO, I guess.” Closing his eyes in disappointment, Jughead buries his face in his still-glittering hands. Aches and frustration work their way through his brain. Feeling sorry for himself isn’t going to fix anything. It won’t change anything, either.

A sharp thwack on his thigh snaps him out of it.

What?”

“That’s for making her upset!”

“I’m not trying to. I’m going to make it better. I’m going to make her happy, okay?”

“You better! She’s done nothing but help your ungrateful, badly-dressed, mopey–” As Jughead stands, the goblin slaps his ass with the stick and stomps on his combat boots with a shockingly sharp heel.

“Watch it!” He swats the fiend away, but doesn’t actually want to hit the Gryphon Queen enthusiast. He’d probably be just as pissed at himself if he’d seen Betty laying in a heap because of someone else.

Crunching underbrush reveals Sweet Pea, who has a hard look on his face. The goblin rolls her eyes. “Oh, great! You brought a broody friend on the journey. If you make my B miserable, I will shove a stiletto, so far up your–

“Hey,” Sweet Pea says, unaffected as he snatches the stick up. The goblin dangles from it, face morphing from shock to fury as she tries to kick at him with high-heeled boots. “When you said you were going to make Blondie happy, did you mean you were going to leave Jellybean?”

Heart pounding in his ears, Jughead flexes his hands. “That’s not what I meant.” A growing part of him hopes Betty will keep him, instead.

“Okay. I just have to ask,” he starts, brow furrowed as he tries to shake the goblin loose, then tossing it with an oof when that doesn’t work. “If it came down to your sister or Blondie, who would you save?”

“Easy. Jellybean.”

“Because she’s more important or because you think Blondie can save herself?”

“Can’t she?”

Sweet Pea studies him with an intensity usually reserved for glaring rants.

“Of course she can!” The goblin declares, brushing off her armor and fixing her hair. “Besides, she has friends like me. It’s not like she needs some nerdy outsider wannabe–”

“I get it. I’m undeserving.” He sighs, trudging back to the path with Sweet Pea.

“Well, B didn’t seem to think you would be.”

Jughead pauses, contemplating how to categorize his feelings when everything’s so stupidly complicated lately. “Jellybean’s my family.”

“And Blondie is…?”

“Amazing.” A fantasy? A friend? “If there was a way to save them both and sacrifice myself, I’d pick that one. The bottom line is that neither of them really need saving. Just me.” An electric idea sizzles his train of thought. “Oh my gosh, am I the one who needed saving?” Baffled, Sweet Pea shakes his head while the goblin mutters something like, duh. “Is that what the lesson–I mean, Betty, she...shit, I’m such aand then she–

“Where are you going?” Sweet Pea protests, following after him for a change.

The goblin scurries to jab her spear at the back of Jughead’s knees. “Yeah! I still have a piece of my mind to–ooh!” She squeaks in surprise as Vegas bounds in, snatching the stick right out of her hands.

“Pardon me, Miss!”

“Vegas! Archie!” Jughead falls to one knee, wildly petting and squashing Vegas’s pleased, drooling face before reaching out to do the same to Archie.

“Stop that,” he protests sheepishly, his fur ruffled. With a shy glance at the confused goblin, Archie licks his paw and attempts to right his whiskers. “Vegas, give the lady her staff back.”

With a little whine, Vegas brings the stick back to its owner. Jughead preemptively winces.

“For you, m’lady.”

“Thank you, kind sir. It’s good to know this one has at least one decent friend.” Sweet Pea and Jughead exchange a look at that little dig. “I’m Veronica, B’s bestie.”

“I’m Sir Archibald and this is my steed, Vegas.” The big-eyed animals bow respectfully. That seems to appease the high-fashion goblin, who tuts and struts around the wagging tails of her new admirers, who both pant in her direction for very different reasons.

“Archibald–Archiekins, if I may.” Archie nods, tongue lolling out. “Do you think your friend is good enough for my darling B?”

Brow furrowed, Archie slides off of Vegas and pads around, sniffing Jughead’s boots and falling into step beside Veronica. “No one is as good as...B.” Nodding, Veronica preens. “But I think Jughead will make her happy and she’ll make him happy and that’s enough for me.”

Jughead almost stops short.

“Really?” Veronica asks, echoing his sentiments.

“The guy is trying to do the right thing, even if he’s bad at it,” Sweet Pea adds, even though no one had been asking. It sort of reminds Jughead of how he’d often have to pipe up in English class when people were being obtuse about things. “Responsibility isn’t exactly easy for teens. Or adults, really. My parents wished me away and none of us have ever looked back. We’re all responsible for ourselves.”

“You were–” It seems too horrible to repeat. Someone just left him in the labyrinth, knowing that they could try and find him instead? Or maybe they didn’t want to try - and that was worse - just accepting that a kid was gone, taking away his agency to choose the labyrinth. Everything felt so weird. “I get the feeling that my mom would feel similarly about me, maybe even Jelly. If we disappeared, she’d be free.”

“Yeah, but so would you.”

“I never thought about it that way,” he admits, tucking his hands in his pockets and trying to figure out which path to take. At his knees, Veronica’s sweet-talks Archie into letting her ride Vegas as a steed to save her from having to run in heels to keep up. “Not everyone would be happy if we just up and left, though.”

“I’d be sad if you were to leave,” Archie says surprising him.

“Really?”

“Of course! You’re a good listener, Jughead. You tell good stories and your heart is full of passion and loyalty. I can tell these things.”

“And you, Sweet Pea?” he teases, batting his eyelashes.

“I’ll be fine, whether or not you stay.” Sweet Pea bottles himself up, arms crossed, legs pressed together. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” Veronica announces, eyeing him. “But it does matter to B, and she matters to me. Do we really need to go through this whole ego thing?”

“No,” he laughs. “But I appreciate the honesty. I’d...want to come back, if I ever did leave.”

“If?” Veronica quirks an eyebrow.

“Oh. When.”

Without giving himself time to think, Jughead leads them forward, learning and weaving through the town, where people gawk the bizarre crew filing past.

“Is that the storyteller?”

“He’s cute!”

“No, his nose is too small.”

Too small?!

“There’s a first for everything,” he laughs to himself, shaking his head and hurrying towards the castle, towards Betty. On one of the verandas, he thinks he sees a glimmer of blonde and a baby.

Of course, he could be hallucinating. Wishing.

“You ready for this responsibility?” Sweet Pea asks as they arrive at the main gate. A small crowd loiters behind them like paparazzi. Vegas and Archie appear to be the only ones concerned by the extra attention, whimpering until Veronica scratches them behind the ears. They’re all being really good to each other. He can’t remember the last time the G&G crew was this affectionate with each other. They’d heal each other in-game, but there was no inherent loyalty.

“Yeah. Time I figured out some things.”

Slippery in a way that actually reminds him of Archie, Veronica slinks off of Vegas to stretch out her legs. “I’ll have to ask B for a lint brush. Or maybe I’ll just wish–”

“Are you...coming with me?”

Dark, curved eyebrows arch at him incredulously. “Of course I am. I have to make sure you’re sweet to my B.”

“I will be.”

“You should pledge yourself to her!” Archie insists, practically bouncing in his seat. “Like a knight. You can offer her a token of your loyalty.”

Feeling a little silly, Jughead blushes and tugs his beanie down. “I’ll...do my own thing.”

“Fine. But if you hurt her…” She wags a finger at him, gesturing to the stick she’s left caged in Vegas’s teeth.

“I know. Sharp objects. Uncomfortable places.” He turns to his friends. “I just want to thank you all again. I know I’ve made some mistakes–”

“But you did learn from them,” Archie insists.

Most of them,” Sweet Pea amends.

Chuckling, Jughead smiles at each of them, including Vegas. “Can you all come above-ground?”

Veronica’s eyes go shiny and hard, a worry line creasing between her brows. “It’s not that easy, Jughead. We can, but…”

“We don’t belong there,” Sweet Pea finishes for her.

He thinks he understands.

Whimpering, Archie curls his tail in front of his chest, almost looking redder. “Will you come back and see us?”

“Of course. Give me–let me talk to Betty and I’ll see what I can do. Thank you guys, again. You’re…” He looks them over, one by one. “Better than any character I could’ve ever created.”

“Ha!”

“High praise,” Veronica says dryly.

Hey,” he teases. “Get in here for a quick group hug and then I’ve got some ladies to see.”

He kneels, welcoming Vegas and Archie’s licks and furry warmth, first. Surprisingly, Veronica crowds them into the hug, one clawed hand tentatively on Jughead’s bare arm.

“Dog pile!”

“Wha–oof!” They exclaim, breath knocked out of them by Sweet Pea’s body slam of an embrace. Even though they falter, everyone holds tight for three extra precious seconds.

“Thank you,” he repeats softly and finally lets go.

 

Some innate sense draws him to where Betty is. Her room is exactly as he imagined it, yet somehow more impressive. Books, pages, and drawings seem to slither to life on a desk in the far corner. Even from afar, he’s certain she’s taken copies of some of his stories. Not that he’s the only thing in her library.

He wonders if she really does have...that library from the fantasy.

A King-sized bed with comfortable sheets and a tiny cat plushie take up a good chunk of the room. Maybe the size referred to as a Queen in this realm. It’s clearly stuffed with more than just her delicate feathers. Giant draping scarves decorate the place, giving it an airy, open feeling whilst still maintaining some air of privacy. Light trickles off of various crystals in a way that makes it seem like there might be more hidden passages and illusions than bookcases that lead into libraries. A glass ball shimmers on a windowsill. He supposes it serves as a photo frame as well as a phone if she can see into people’s hearts and presence. Curious, he goes to it, wondering if he can find her within it.

The image within shimmers and flicks the closer he gets. He tries to ‘zoom in’ like he would with his phone, focusing on Betty in his head. To his surprise, it works, like watching a movie where he happens to be a key player.

 

They’re back in Jellybean’s room, almost all the way at the beginning of their relationship. “After,” she promises him and kisses him with surprisingly determined tenderness. As their lips close over one another, she leads him back to his room, pushing him down on the bed. It’s not rough. She’s taking exactly what she wants - and it’s him.

As her kisses make their way down his chest, pausing over his crotch, Jughead panics and spins the glass for the next scene. How far did they go?

In the next scene, they’re at the entrance of the labyrinth, her breath hot on his neck, hand in his hair. She reaches around and helps him push off his jeans. Although he can’t hear the exact words, he knows she’s praising him, telling him how big he is, that if he’s a good boy she’ll sit on his face. The rhythmic ministrations on his dick start with him and end with her. This time, Jughead watches until he comes, marking the land.

Face flushed, he spins again. Scene after scene of sexual scenarios flash before him. Getting head and fucking her against the wall when Sweet Pea’s gone off for a piss. Making out and groping her in the tunnel. That’s the only one that doesn’t seem to escalate. For some strange reason he just...stays, like she asked him to. He lays his head in her lap and talks to her about everything and nothing while she strokes his beanieless hair. After a minute, he realizes he’s short on time and flips the scene forward, catching glimpses of their hand-holding and laughter in the woods with his friends, the kiss against the tree, the library...the library. After that, she has tears on her cheeks and he’s looking at her like she carries the stars in her eyes when he says, “Betty, I wish–”

“How you’ve turned my world, you precious thing.” In real time, he hears Betty’s voice behind him.

Jughead nearly drops the glass, whirling around to find her. All he sees is her silhouette, fragmented behind descending scarves and shadows. “Betty?”

“You wanted me glittering and gold for your games. The almighty Gryphon Queen - the liberator of those who have felt unwanted and unloved. Funny, isn’t it, that you’d shatter the dream of being both of those things - for you and for me.”

“Betty, I’m so sorry.” Something about the opacity of the scarves and her broken shadow makes him feel like he’s metaphorically standing outside her window with a boombox just hoping she can really hear him. “You are wanted. You are loved.”

“Not really.”

A breeze billowed through all the scarves, rearranging the hanging crystals until they tinkle and shine in blurs across the room.

“You are. Not...not like this.” He gestures to the glass ball. “Not right away. That guy doesn’t exist. He’d have to have superhuman powers to come that much and trust that easily. It wasn’t me, the same way the girl in the library wasn’t you.”

“Yes, it was.” A cold gust of wind disrupted the pattern once again, igniting goosebumps along his skin. “It was me. I’ve tried to do everything…” She shudders in the shadows. “Everything for you.” The crystals spin, wild and shimmering. “I move the stars for no one.”

Jughead tries to swallow against the lump in his throat. “I didn’t ask you to.”

Her voice catches in a weepy breath, her shadow fading on layers of the scarves. “You can’t...have power over me. Love shouldn’t be a war - a grand surrender. I want something real and clearly all I am is some fantasy you didn’t even want to enjoy–something to be dismissed at will.”

“Betty, wait! I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant. You...you did so much when I didn’t even know I needed you. You took so much upon yourself when someone else should’ve been doing it with you, for you.” He smooths his thumb over the glass, trying not to think of FP or Gladys or anyone, really. “I did, too. My family...I was doing everything. I resented it. I resented Jellybean.”

He rips off his beanie and wrings it in one hand, thumbing the slightly worn edges of the crown. Something in his stomach clenches at the thought of being without his safety blanket. Life would be worse without Jellybean and Betty, though. For now, he stuffs the beanie in his back pocket and anxiously runs his fingers through his hair. A cool breeze feels like crushed shards against his skin, but Betty’s shadow stays, something like a robe billowing out behind her.

“I care about you. I don’t want you to resent me because...because of my needs, because I failed to take care of myself and take care of Jellybean so you had to do everything.”

“You didn’t fail, Juggie. You made it back to me. You made it back to Jellybean.”

“Only because I had help, because I realized I needed it, even though you basically offered me...everything.”

“You cast me as a villain and temptress just as your friends did. You didn't want anything from me beyond that mask."

Heart pounding, Jughead steels himself and moves forward, summoning Betty through the scarf layers by what might be sheer willpower and magic. She’s magnificent and sad and shimmering, delicate down fluttering around them with the breeze.

“That's not who you are and we both know it. As for what you offered–I had to earn it.”

They let the statement sit between them for a few moments. Betty turns, circling him cautiously. “You’ve worked for so long, you’ve worked so hard.” Folding her arms across her chest, she sniffs. “Your eyes can be so cruel.”

Lip twitching, he fights the urge to disagree. He’s a hard person to get along with sometimes, he knows that.

“Just as I can be so cruel.” She twists her hand in a wavy dance, revealing another glass ball that spins, flashing through their first meeting and ending on Jellybean’s nearly hypnotized face.

“Jelly.” For a moment, he considers reaching for the glass, but pauses, glancing up at Betty’s pale face. “You weren’t...cruel.”

She tilts her head, spinning the glass again to show her slamming Sweet Pea into the tunnel walls, sending in the Cleaners, tempting Jughead at the beginning of the Labyrinth and leaving him worked up and desperate so he was too distracted to puzzle things out on his own.

“You may have your darkness, just like me, but you’re not cruel.” Betty doesn’t look convinced. “Sometimes when people are under a lot of stress or they don’t know how to handle everything, they lash out in strange ways, like both of us did. I’m sorry, again.”

“I’m sorry, too. I’ll have to apologize to your friends.”

“It’s okay. Friends forgive. They learn. Maybe that’s half the point of the labyrinth.”

Expression drawn, Betty holds the glass ball out to him. “I promised you a wish.”

It doesn’t feel like he’s won anything.

Before he can sink into the solemn silence, she tosses the glass ball underhand so it arcs. On instinct, he bends to catch and hold it along with the other one.

“You trust me to make the right wish?”

“I do.” Sparkling tears linger on the apples of her cheeks, the bow of her lips. “Yes, I do believe in you.”

Everything feels heavy as he moves towards her, like lead is in his legs, concrete boots strapped to his heart until it’s buried in the mess of his chest. “I…”

She steels herself, straightening. He’s never met anyone so strong and compassionate and...so entirely beloved. Mostly by him.

“I just want what’s best for Jellybean.”

“So do I.” Her sad smile doesn’t waver. Jughead can’t stop looking at it, the dark pink sheen that glitters under the crystal lights. “Well, I want a lot of things.” When he hesitates, searching her for an answer, she won’t meet his gaze. “You’ve already seen some of my wishes. They were selfish and saccharine. Sexy and...incomplete. Your world won’t be a better place just by playing with me, by sharing adventures and stories and...our bodies.” Pink blooms on her cheeks as she tugs the cloak tighter around herself. “My heart is a scary and wonderful thing. It shouldn’t belong to anybody.”

He dares to hope. “But does it...belong to me?”

Drawing herself up, Betty offers him a pained smile and recites the words he had her say in the latest campaign. “You have no power over me. Remember? A Queen’s heart must remain with her subjects.”

“But what about Betty’s?”

“Jughead, please.” Her feathered lashes cover the glittering resolve of her eyes, her hands curled tightly into fists. The tension makes him want to slip his hands into hers and protect her palms, to tell her this isn’t one-sided. “You have enough responsibility. You don’t need the added stress of catering to the desires of the Gryphon Queen, of worrying your love is the result of magical dealings or that you’re somehow unworthy. You’ve earned your wish. Your heart is strong, as is your love for Jellybean, and I’ll be satisfied with the knowledge that this time I will be granting you a wish that you mean to make.”

His heart feels like it’s swelling, strengthened by the bonds he made in the labyrinth. Part of him wants to toss the glass balls and just hold her against him.

“Clear your mind before you make your wish, and it will be yours.”

His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth as if it knows he’ll say something in a fit of feeling. “Promise me you won’t take my wish out of context - that I will have to refer to you as the Gryphon Queen before my official...request.”

“As you wish.” She bows, only half-teasing. It makes him wonder how many times she watched The Princess Bride with him through the trailer’s windows, where As You Wish meant I love you.

These are the moments that make him tremble. Without giving himself time to twist his thoughts against his happiness, Jughead tosses the glass balls onto the plush, giant bed and grabs Betty on either side of her face. She stumbles, bracing herself on his hips.

“Jug…” Glancing at his lips, she swallows. “Please, don’t make this harder–”

Not wanting to hear the rest, unable to convince himself not to do this, he kisses her.

It’s warm. It’s wonderful and strange, their lips almost tacky from whatever glitter’s holding her together. A little moan vibrates its way from her lungs into his gut and he has to chase it. Still fused at the mouth, he guides her back towards her own nest, sitting atop the mattress. They sink in, letting the bed absorb their weight before finally disconnecting enough to look at each other.

Eyes shining, brilliant prisms, Betty sheds the downy layer of her robe and places his hand at the cleavage of her leotard. Tiny feathers flit behind her like she’s just unhinged her wings, like she no longer needs them to possess him entirely.

The Gryphon Queen is no goddess and no angel, but she’s his, just as he’ll be hers.

Tonight.

Tonight, his brain chants, knowing he’s hungry for more.

Peeling away each other’s layers feels like entering a slick dance. The heat of her body feels so much more intense than he imagined in the fantasy. Not that it’s warmer - it’s just more intimate, more raw, more everything. His lips are chapped and his ass drags on the sheets in an attempt to move back and make room for her, but it’s perfect anyway with the way her nails graze his stomach when she lifts off his undershirt, the clink of his suspenders as he kicks off his jeans and underwear. Betty’s practically glowing, her clothes nearly melting away.

“You’re so good,” he murmurs, laying back, just barely propped up by some pillows as she crawls over him. Her eyes are gleaming like she’s hungry, but she doesn’t kiss him. She’s waiting. The curve of her waist fits in his very human, capable hands. He could do this. He could love her. He does love her. “You’re...Betty.” Overcome, he kisses the dip of her neck, then nudges his lips against her ear, her soft, silky hair draping over his cheek. “I love you so much.”

“Jughead.” She trembles, her fingers scraping against his scalp as she folds into his embrace. “You don’t need to thank me for...anything. It’s okay if you don’t–” She squeezes him tightly. “Feel the same way about me.”

“I’m saying it because I mean it. I love you. As a friend. As a person. As...this,” he emphasizes, caressing her smooth, bare backside. “I want to make love to you.”

Exhaling softly, her eyes light up with a glint of hopefulness. “That almost sounds like a wish.” Tensing, she sits up. “Or is this a parting gift?”

“Consider it my way of showing you instead of telling.”

The wrinkle between her brow is just so impossibly adorable that he’s swimming in endorphins. He kisses her, strokes her, rolls and rocks with her as she coats his mostly-unworthy self in her glittering gold. The show don’t tell seems to be taken to heart, because he starts to get an idea of what she likes, what she wants.

Him, obviously, but right now, he knows she wants it slow.

As her teeth linger on the edge of his lips, Betty edges down on his cock, sending his whole being to a heightened nirvana. His brain is flooded with light pinks and purples and golds - his Betty. His ecstasy.

To his disappointment, she lifts off him, scratching his scalp and waiting for him to come back into his body before sinking onto him again. The impact is like a body slam of heaven. This time, though, he has a modicum more of control.

He has to do more than thrust and rock to her rhythm. He knows that, he just doesn’t know what. Everything feels good, sparkling and crystalline behind his eyelids and glowing bouncing heat when he opens them. It’s only a matter of time before he falls apart. “Betty, I’m…”

She claws at his wrists, then his forearms. “Come to me.”

Confused, senses sharpening, he manages to sit up and hold her close to him. It’s harder to keep the rhythm this way, but it does hit a new section he thinks feels really good for her if the low panting is any indication. “I want...I want you to pretend for me.”

Pretend?

She wraps her arms around his neck, planting sharp kisses on his face. “Pretend you’re my King. Just tell me–ask me to be your Queen. Please.”

Is she asking him to pretend to marry her?

That they are married?

He stares at her gorgeous, distressed face.

Eyes glazed, she hones in on his lips. “I need–”

“Will you be my Queen, Betty?” A shiver wracks through her body and she nods, something clearly bursting within her at the seams. Lowering the octave of his voice, he presses his palm more firmly into her back to see if he can squeeze it out. “Your King needs you. I need you. I need your heat and smile. You can come for me, can’t you? You can come...like a good Que–en.” She tugs on his hair so fiercely that the words jilt in his throat, sparks flaring up his spine. He can’t hold out anymore. He’s gone. Hopefully, the tight way she grips him everywhere means she’s coming, too. “Come on. Yeah. Yeah,” he urges them both, trying to keep up his energy to work her through it, kissing and sucking her skin when he can’t use words.

Let me be good for you, he wants to beg.

As the world stops shaking, they wrap around one another like they’re sealing the heat in. Thoughts slowly start seeping in with every pulse of her breath against him.

Maybe he’s gotten her pregnant. Unlikely, but possible.

Maybe she liked this.

He did. Fuck, he loves it.

He loves that she can go soft in his arms, that he can let his mind go and not have to plan every move because it’s so easy to communicate with her.

That’ll make it easier to have a kind of hard conversation.

He’s never asked someone to stay, never been asked to stay before. It’s all new to him. It’s worth it, he thinks.

Once they’ve regained their breath, he unsticks his hand from her back and accepts the kiss she chases.

Tucking her soft hair behind her ear, he meets her gaze. “This is...amazing, but peaches, sex, and babysitting services aren’t going to lead to fulfilling relationship for me.” Betty blinks, confused and still high as she sits back. “That’s part of it. The caring, the intimacy - I feel like I know you. I mean, I saw your heart’s desires. I’m just kind of afraid that if I stay, I’ll only be here for making babies and telling stories.”

Looking thoughtful, Betty shifts in his lap until he’s no longer inside of her, leaving him slightly morose until she kisses his face. “My heart is complicated. I knew you were leaving, so I–I was thinking about what I could have done differently to make you happy, what might’ve prevented the fantasy from shattering.”

“But the fantasy wasn’t meant to be sustained.”

Stay.

The word lingers drunkenly in his brain. Absently, he kneads the flesh just above her ass. “You thought I would’ve been more...amicable...if we’d gotten to enjoy sex?”

Nodding, Betty slides off his lap to hug his side and rest her cheek on his shoulder. “Look again. Look for more, if you want to. I know it won’t change anything, but I just...I hope you know you’re not some...unattainable fantasy I’d want to keep in my room to make babies and stories with. I mean, that’s part of it, I guess, but...you’re your own person. You’re free to choose what makes you happy. I have my own responsibilities.”

“I know.” He turns to her, gaining momentum. “You’re running a kingdom–a labyrinth, for god’s sake. You’re a badass, Betty.”

She laughs weakly, fingering his chest.

“I don’t think I have my life figured out enough yet to really be of value to the labyrinth beyond being a companion. I want to be more than that.”

Biting her lip, Betty snuggles closer into his body. “You are. I wish you could see that.”

Snorting a laugh, he kisses her forehead. “If only I could grant wishes.”

“So what now?”

“Now…” He swallows, shifting. “I ask if you’ll be be with me anyway.”

“What?” She sits up and looks at him like he’s gone crazy.

“I can’t...live within you, but I don’t want to live without you, either.”

A broad, brilliant smile spreads across her face. “Yes! Yes, Jughead! Oh my…” She clambers back into his lap so fast it almost knocks him off-balance. He’s smothered in kisses and he can’t stop smiling.

“I just need to finish some stuff up. I don’t want to leave my dad, you know? Maybe we can work something out where I could adopt Jellybean, or…”

“We’ll figure it out. Together.” Her knees bobble against his hips like she wants to squeeze him until the world pops in celebration. “In fact, we could trade,” she offers salaciously, nibbling his ear and punching his gut with desire. “We could have a campaign.”

Groaning, he leans back. “My mom grounded me and took my game materials.”

“Oh, I made…” She bites her lip, looking the slightest bit embarrassed. “I made some copies of your notes specifically. I do have a library.”

“You do?” Desire sparks low in his belly. “Can I look at some of those sweet little fantasies you keep? I could probably learn something...”

Her forehead drops to his shoulder. “Don’t judge me.”

“Never,” he teases, kissing her shoulder and reaching for the glass again.

It’s sort of strange watching them with her. Besides the sex ones, which have repopulated, there are some images of them raising Jellybean and building their own family, of Betty reading next to him on the bed while he types away at his novel. There are a few where she’s an owl, one where she’s nestled in his beanie to get an excellent night’s sleep. He laughs at the strange, comforting imagery. “You’re really sweet.”

She covers the glass with her hand, soft and warm and glowing. “We could look at your fantasies, too.”

“You did. I’m sure they were totally embarrassing.”

For a few minutes, they just hold each other. It feels a little bit like blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

“Would you like to see Jellybean?”

They tug on the bare minimum of clothing and head to the nursery.

It’s sort of surreal to hold his sister after all this time. At school, of course, he’s gone longer without having to hold her, feed her, or anything else, but being apart during the labyrinth made the heart grow fonder, and she feels heavier, like they fed her and she’s growing.

“You took good care of her.”

Adorably proud, Betty smiles and looks down, absently fingering the archway to the nursery and holding up the sheets around her body with her other hand.. The pastel walls are full of images that must be retellings of stories. He thinks he sees the Hobbit and something akin to Dr. Seuss and he actually laughs when he sees the small mushroom plushie in her bassinet. Like Mario with Princess Peach. Thankfully, his princesses were in this castle.

He jostles Jellybean and hoists his suspenders up on his bare shoulders so his sleepy sister has a strap to hang onto. “Betty, can I ask you something?”

“Anything.” The way she bites her lip makes him want to get down on his knees.

“Would you...I mean, I know this is crazy, but would you be willing to maybe...take both of us on?”

Her smile spreads cautiously, much like the slow ripples in her golden hair. “What are you asking?”

Unsure how it’ll come off, Jughead mulls over his choice of words and paces towards his lover. “I graduate in a month. It’s Riverdale High, so it’s not much, but I did want to just...finish up. Make something of myself there.” Put on a stupid cap and gown and pose with a proud dad. It might be his only chance. “After that, I was saving for a post-grad trip and community college.”

“You want to go back.” Bare foot poking out from her makeshift dress, Betty looks like she’s counting her toes to try and relax.

“Not really. I mean, I want…” Exasperated, he takes a breath and meets her eager eyes. “Will you continue to see me and Jellybean?”

“Of course I will, if you want me to. I thought it was pretty clear I wanted that.”

“Yeah, but will you go on my post-grad trip with me? I know the above-ground isn’t particularly impressive or magical, but I wanted to see the Louvre or even go to Chicago to try deep dish pizza.” She laughs, shaking her head at him. “We could...maybe we could make a tour of the above-ground for a little bit, if they can spare you. I don’t want to put you out.”

“Yes!” She bolts forward, then stops, seeming to remember Jellybean, who drools in awe of the glittering ray of sunshine in front of them. Betty places a kiss to her head, then Jughead’s cheek, before rubbing his shoulder. “My family could keep an eye on things while we’re gone. What would happen after?”

“I don’t know,” he admits, rocking Jellybean gently and holding her close before placing her back in the bassinet. “I was...I don’t want to move too fast or be presumptuous, because like I said, I’m not exactly King material yet, but I was hoping we could move here. I know Veronica would kick my ass if I presumed to be worthy of a room in the castle, so maybe my friends and I–”

“Jughead.” The green of her eyes sets him adrift, her touch tender against the curve of his chin. “You’re a welcome addition to my life. Your hard work, your intellect, your passion - I have no doubt the labyrinth itself will find joy in your presence and that you’ll find a fulfilling purpose within it.”

Heart full, he kisses the rosiest part of her cheek, so warm under his touch. “You’re very convincing. I think it has something to do with you being so wonderful, warm, compassionate, brilliant...not to mention loyal, determined–”

“It took me about four hours, but I think I managed to get myself a date,” she teases, barely even clutching the sheets anymore so she can pull him close by the suspenders and neck for another kiss. Thankfully, Jellybean’s more fascinated by the crystal mobile above her head than her brother, so Jughead pushes Betty out of the nursery to give them enough privacy for more in-depth kissing.

Once they take a breath, he nuzzles Betty’s nose and tries not to moan at the delighted smile she gives him. They’re going to be real: a real relationship, a real family, with everything that entails. “Once we go above, will you - I know this is a weird time to ask, but would you meet my parents?”

With a perky bounce that lands a kiss on his cheek, Betty considers him with eager anticipation. “Are we making a deal? Dates and campaigns in exchange for the trip and visiting your family? I think it’s a win-win situation.”

“Me too. I give you my heart, you give me yours.”

A little boneless, Betty practically melts into him. “You think so?”

“Yeah. I think so.” All roads with her feel like they’d be wonderful. He trusts her. He loves her.

“What about the wish?”

He plucks at her sheet-dress, distracted. “Hm? Oh! Well, I was thinking of saving the ‘official’ wish for another time.”

“No hints?”

He smiles and grabs a feather from the air and sticks it behind his ear. “I considered asking to be able to travel with you, to be with you, as it were, but that came about sort of naturally.”

“How do you feel about being a nighthawk?” She musses with his hair until it’s sticking up enough to tuck more feathers into. The messy combination makes her grin. “I’ve always wanted to try that.”

“Sex as a bird?” He’s not sure how that would work. He likes being warm and human with her. She quirks a powerful eyebrow at him and fixes him with a look. “I’m not hearing a denial.”

“I don’t think you’re ready for all of my magic, yet.”

“No,” he admits, walking her back to the bed still wrapped in her embrace. “Just a taste of it.” They kiss. If he wasn’t so besotted and beguiled by the crazy turn of events, he’d probably be embarrassed by how unabashedly they’re showing affection. “So what do you say in a few minutes we go down and introduce ourselves to our friends as girlfriend and boyfriend?”

“Is that your wish?” Betty lays back on the bed, helping him unwrap her makeshift dress with patient anticipation. “Should I introduce you as a future monarch?”

He shakes his head. “Let’s test the King talk in the bedroom first.” Sighing, he takes in the sight of her laid out before him. “God, you’re fucking beautiful. ”

Losing patience, she plucks at his suspenders and pulls at the backs of his knees with her heels. “Get inside of me, please.”

“So polite, my Queen.” She grins up at him, almost feral, as he pushes the suspenders off and unzips his jeans. He’s half hard, but he’s not quite ready. “I want to hear you say it again.”

“Please?” Eyes dark and teasing, she rubs her heel along his hip. “My King?”

His jeans clatter to the floor so he’s bare and can kick them away. Heart beating fast, he glances down at the still-glistening center he felt so tightly not ten minutes ago. “Yes, my Queen.” He gets on his knees, hooks her knees over his shoulders, and does the only kind of worshipping that’s ever interested him.

The path to her orgasm has to be easier than navigating the labyrinth - especially when she so enthusiastically gives him directions. Maybe he will learn to fly.

As she groans, tilting her hips upward and murmuring how much she loves him, he looks forward to learning with someone so wonderful.

A new story. A happy journey.

A lifetime of navigating love and the labyrinth.