Title: Illusions

Author: wyldheart

Disclaimer:  I don't own Hey Arnold, or the characters I am using. I'm just borrowing them for my own amusement…

Author's Notes: I figure most of you avoid the senseless rambling I call author's notes by now, so I'll try to keep this brief and stick to the important stuff. :) This story is a post-ep to "Helga's Masquerade" (the episode where Helga tries to act like Lila and goes to a costume party dressed up as her). To understand this fanfic, you should probably be pretty familiar with that episode.  Also, I'm going to warn you now that the story doesn't have the happiest ending I've ever written- it's certainly not tragic or horribly depressing, but as I said, it's not another one of those cuddly, fairytale endings I like so much.  So… I guess that's about it. I'm pretty "iffy" about this entire fanfic, so I really hope you guys don't think it's too bad…

"Great party, Rhonda!"

"Yeah… it was really fun!"

"Au revoir! Glad you enjoyed yourselves!" Rhonda, with her gracious hostess act and queen-like wave down to an art, bid goodbye to a group of guests on her porch step. Then she sauntered back inside, where the last few children lingered- the costume party was coming to a close.

None of the remaining guests noticed the long, paper-thin shadow that lay on top of the thick carpet in the well-lit entryway. That was fortunate for the figure that crouched in the closet, not wanting to be seen. It was slightly ironic, Helga Pataki reflected, that she had spent almost her entire life desperately trying to be noticed by various people, and now felt compelled to hide from them. She had been lingering in the safe darkness that the closet provided for what seemed like an eternity. Although the door was cracked open, the musty smells that every closet was bound to have- even the Lloyds' was no exception- filled her lungs like lead, and the tight, enclosed space that had seemed so protective a half an hour ago now felt merely claustrophobic. It was time to go, she decided, shifting her feet and waiting impatiently for everyone's attention to drift elsewhere, so she could slip out unseen. At first, she had darted into the closet to eavesdrop on a conversation between Arnold and Lila, but afterwards, she hadn't wanted to exit. It had been a safe refuge, when she had wanted to hide from the party, her classmates, herself, everything… Comments and curious glances, attempts at conversation, were the last things she wanted to deal with tonight. She did not want people to ask her why she had been hiding in a closet, why she had taken off her costume, if she had enjoyed the party… But now, the four walls that surrounded her felt more like a trap than somewhere safe- it was as if they symbolized her life and the fake, bullying identity she had built around herself. If not for the crowd of people outside, she could escape.

The minutes inched by slowly, Helga's feet falling asleep and the back of her eyelids burning. Talking and laughing filled the room, and the shrieks from a good piece of gossip or a quick game of tag. Shifting uncomfortably, she asked herself in a whisper, "Are they ever going to move? How much longer can they just stand there, talking?" Right on cue, a shattering sound could be heard from the other room, followed by Eugene's apologetic shout. Fortunately, Rhonda and the half-dozen guests remaining all went to see what had caused the noise with cries of, "Not again!" And Helga took the opportunity to slip out of the house and into the crisp, fresh night air.

Breathing deeply and glad to finally be away from the party, Helga walked down the street and gazed up at the night sky. The bright lights of countless buildings, all blending together to form one solid block of light, obscured all but a few stars that had the power to shine through. Her rumpled blond pigtails flapped slightly in the breeze, and with a thoughtful sigh, Helga started toward her house. Going home was not something she ever looked forward to, but the thought of her pink book, demanding nothing of her, but waiting to listen to her latest thoughts, experiences, and emotions, was welcoming. As was the thought of falling into bed, pulling the soft sheets and blankets over her head, and hiding from the world and everyone that inhabited it.

But did anyone in the world notice or care, anyway?

The warm, soft lights from the windows of buildings winked at Helga as she made her way down the road. From the light they provided, she saw a thin, red hair left over from the wig she had worn while she was dressed as Lila making a graceful swirl on her dress. As if it were on fire, she pulled it off and threw it to the ground as hard as she could. Despite how violently it had been thrown, it floated down to the concrete, gently, softly, gracefully. The breeze sent it drifting down the sidewalk and it disappeared into the night.

Her plan had begun simply enough- she had been shown over and over again that being Helga Pataki, and all that she was and wasn't, was obviously not enough to ever win Arnold's affections. Or to shine in her parents' eyes, to be admired and accepted by others… Convinced that was true and wanting so badly to change the fact, she had turned to the clearest answer- she had to become someone else entirely. And who better to become than the girl who was supposedly the nicest, prettiest, most popular in school, as well as the one who Arnold liked? If she could become Lila, a carbon copy of her, maybe everything would work out. Arnold would finally like her; the answers to the questions she had been asking all her life would make themselves known. Or so she had hoped.

Lila had been easy enough to come to for help; Little Miss Perfect was always eager to assist those who were not as "ever-so" lucky as she. And so, Lila as her teacher, Helga had learned everything she needed to know about being witty, charming, and sweet- as it turned out, fake smiles and compliments, paired with a display of good manners, were not difficult to achieve at all. But still, throughout the entire ordeal, she felt as if she were suffocating- this was just as fake, just as awful, as the bully facade.

Her role had been selected, the script handed out, the setting perfect- Rhonda was holding a costume party and it would be the perfect place to win Arnold over with her Lila act. Dressed in the mint green dress Lila wore, a red wig covering up her famous blond hair, pointless jokes and compliments so well memorized they felt almost natural, she could almost be mistaken for the object of Arnold's affection herself. It had been more wonderful, she discovered, than she had ever imagined, to bask in the glow of Arnold's attention. It was incredible just to be able to talk to him, without having to worry about preserving her "reputation"- for all of the years she had known and loved Arnold, they had never truly, really talked. Argued and occasionally helped each other out, for sure, but she could count on one hand the amount of actual conversations they had shared. At that moment, she knew he finally saw her as someone who was more than a bully- one he knew had a nice side, but an annoyance nonetheless. He hung on her every word, smiled at her… She felt as if she was floating on a cloud, high above the earth and everything she knew and had created for herself all these years. Outside on the porch with Arnold, she wished the night could last forever.

And then he had called her Lila.

An accident, an "easy mistake to make."

That brought her crashing down to earth with a shock she could barely grasp.

All the while, Arnold hadn't wanted to play pin the tail on the monkey or share his finger sandwiches with Helga Pataki, but with Lila Sawyer. He didn't want to spend an evening with her, but the illusion of someone that he loved unrequitedly that she projected.

She had known that all along.

But the instant he had actually called her Lila, it made it impossible to ignore.

And she couldn't keep up the masquerade anymore.

Suddenly, the costume felt like it was constricting her every breath, movement, and motion. Unable to go on with the act for another moment, she had gotten rid of the costume immediately, becoming Helga again and ashamed she had been foolish enough to wear it in the first place.

Of course, underneath that, was another costume, mask, and deception.

Was that all she had become?

Just as she had expected, Arnold left her to go inside as soon as she had reappeared without her costume, feeling cold and exposed, but free at the same moment. The scowl and harsh, angry tone she had shown him all these years missing, she asked him if he was still up for spending time with her. Telling her the night was getting chilly and he didn't want to be outside, he left his childhood bully to find the person he had wanted to spend his time with all along, Lila. Being Helga wasn't enough. Helga without the bully façade still wasn't enough for him. And even though he had admitted later on that he actually liked her when she was being nice, she still didn't have to love she desired and dreamed of.

And so, Helga walked down the road that night, and, not for the first time, she felt completely alone in the world.

Had it always felt this terribly cold?

She had tried being the girl Arnold liked, the type of person who she had spent her life in the shadow of, the one some bitter part of herself had always wished to be. In doing that, she had discovered that being shunned out of the spotlight by them was better than becoming them, something she would never attempt again.

But that left her as… whom? A playground bully with a big pink bow, terrified to be seen as anything but. Throwing off that comforting, familiar identity meant slipping into shadow- if she did, would she go completely unnoticed by everyone? They didn't want to know the true Helga, the hopelessly in love poet, did they? A memory surfaced in her brain, one of her first day of preschool, when it had all begun… One of Harold imitating the love struck expression she couldn't help but get when Arnold was around- he had come to her rescue twice that day, first with his umbrella and then to give her his snack. The laughter surrounding Harold had grown- they had been laughing at her. Their giggles had echoed loudly in her three-year-old mind, shutting out room for thought and making her feel helpless, small, and petty. None of which were emotions Helga liked, and her panicked brain had run wild. They'd make fun of her for years. Arnold, who had been the only one who had been kind and noticed her all day, would avoid her forever. She couldn't let that happen- so she had done the only thing she knew how to. Become angry, hopefully inject some kind of fear into her new classmates. It had worked. And so, she had become the bully everyone now knew. The illusion of some kind of power, of being unable to be hurt, was too comforting, too safe, to let go of.

Arnold would never love her. Hadn't what happened tonight shown her that? As long as there were people like Lila in the world, she didn't stand a chance with him, she decided. And yet, the stubborn, blissful hope that someday the fact would change refused to be banished from her brain. Even when things were as hopeless as they had seemed tonight, the optimistic, romantic part of her refused to believe that she was ever out of luck. She couldn't just stop loving Arnold, it was- he was- part of her she could not give up.

As she walked down the road that night, buses rushing past her unnoticed, each footstep seemed to be one that put her farther from Arnold, not just tonight, but forever. She was suddenly terrified that with every day that passed by, he was slipping farther and farther away- with every insult, every prank, she drove him to become angrier and angrier. She didn't think he was capable of hatred, but certainly of anger, and she couldn't fault him for ever being angry with her. Even if he was the most forgiving person on the face of the earth, could she honestly expect him to care about a person who had tormented him, day in and day out, for almost his entire life?

Could she?

Did he?

No matter what she told him, no matter what she tried to do, who she tried to become, it could not change the past. It could not change the fact that he had been her football-headed geek-bait for years. He had to resent her. Wounds turn to scars that eventually fade, but even with time, they do not disappear. If she ever found the courage to admit her feelings, would Arnold be able to overlook all that had happened between them and forgive her?

Arnold did not hate her; he had shown and told her that on many occasions. But if she kept this act up for years, who knew how he would feel about her…?

The thought made her stop abruptly, her feet seemingly unwilling to work anymore. Fear swam through her veins, making her limbs feel shaky, as if she had just ran a mile. Visions of Arnold rejecting at her, Arnold laughing at her, Arnold walking out of her life forever, swam before her eyes. She took a few deep breaths to steady herself. There was still time. She could still make things up with Arnold. She hadn't blown all of her chances, yet. "You're fine, Helga, girl. There's still time. Plenty of time." Repeating the words to herself over and over, she tried to accept them.

But would all of her chances be gone, one day?

No. Dr. Bliss had told her, more than once, that she didn't have to tell Arnold how she felt, or even change the way she acted toward him, until she was ready. She seemed confident that things would turn out all right between them. And all of those degrees, all of those books, had to mean she knew something about this type of thing, right?

Letting that thought settle in her brain like a warm blanket on a chilly day, Helga continued the walk back to her house. She was nearly there- she just had to turn the corner and walk down the road. The streetlight illuminated the corner in a yellow light, highlighting the narrow cracks on the sidewalk. How many times had she turned this corner, only to run into her true love? Arnold, on a skateboard. Herself, looking to the sky full of football-headed clouds instead of the scene before her. Him, apologizing and offering help, she, yelling and turning away. The scene played over and over again in her head, with few variations. It was something she knew so well she that could see it happening before her.

If this was a fairytale, she would turn the corner, and he would be there. They'd both go flying to the ground, as ever. But this time, when he offered to help her up, she would accept. As his warm hand grabbed her cold one, she would apologize for every spitball, every insult… because deep down, she had never hated him. She loved him. And then he would forgive her as if it were nothing, tell her he loved her as well, and they would live happily ever in a beautiful castle with singing mice…

Her heart and brain clouded by the dream, she walked toward the corner, her strides both purposeful and expectant. Her skin tingled with anticipation; all of the nerves within it were ready, waiting. Taking a deep breath, she rounded the corner, tense and waiting for the crash that would send her to the concrete.

If this was a fairytale, he would have been there.

This wasn't a fairytale.

And he wasn't.

Disappointment ran through her body, all of her energy draining and she felt like her limbs were about to give out. That was quickly followed by a wave of anger- how could she have been so stupid, thinking he would magically appear around the corner? That would never happen, now that she was expecting it, and she should have known that all along. She had just set herself up for another disappointment. He was probably at home, where he belonged, spending time with his grandparents and those wacky boarders, or looking at that picture of the ever-so wonderful Lila he had on his computer…

Feeling a lump rise in her throat, she desperately blinked her eyes and continued walking, her gaze intense on the sidewalk before her, swallowing frantically. Her feeble whisper made the empty street feel even more deserted as she tried to focus on anything, everything, but him. Studying her feet carefully, she said to herself, "One, two, three steps. Step over the crack in the cement. Three more steps. That's six. Two more- eight. Eight divided by two is four, four times five is 20. 20 minus six is 14." The game felt reassuring- there were no unclear answers, no room for debate, in mathematics.

With a sigh of relief, she reached her house and climbed up the steps. One hand on the doorknob, she paused and looked up at the night sky once again, the few stars not blocked out by the lights of the city shining dimly. Closing her eyes, a thought, a silent message, absorbed her. 'Arnold, I don't hate you. I love you. I'm really not a bad person- under this bully exterior is someone just as wonderful as Lila, someone who loves you. Loves you!' Maybe he could somehow hear her in his mind; maybe he could receive her message somehow, and finally understand…

But that, too, belonged in fairytales.

And this still wasn't one of them.

Helga turned the doorknob and entered the cool, dark house, the sound of the TV echoing through the stillness.

Outside, her elusive happily ever after danced through the night sky, waiting to be found.