(AN: This story came about from two separate events. First, poisonivory on LiveJournal posted a ship manifesto for Arnold/Helga, which made me suddenly start watching Hey Arnold videos like there was no tomorrow. This surprised the crap out of me, because even though I certainly watched and enjoyed the show as a kid, I was always more interested in the crazy Nicktoons like Rocko's Modern Life, Angry Beavers, etc. I guess this just proves what I've always said about my muse: she is an unpredictable beast.
Second, for my Shakespeare class we had to, to my dismay, read that terrible play Romeo and Juliet and write an essay about how they embodied the ideal romantic couple. I was snarky as all get out in my essay, but I still felt I had some axes left to grind. At around that time, I watched the episode "School Play" and found a perfect vehicle to work out my issues with the play AND write some shippy fanfic. :)
I'm not used to writing in a popular fandom for a pairing that everyone else writes. I kind of feel like I have betrayed my crack-pairing credo. O.O At any rate, critique is appreciated as always. And yes, I know this story is long. I meant for it to be a one-shot, but I type too much. (This isn't the first time this has happened.)
Hey Arnold belongs to Craig Bartlett and Nickelodeon. If I owned the show, I wouldn't be writing fanfiction, now would I?)
This kind of thing didn't happen to her. The world around her rarely reflected what she was feeling inside. Sure, so sometimes a lightening bolt would flash across the sky when she gave an impassioned scream, but she had to be honest with herself—that was always planned; when the sky raged above her she allowed herself to brood over her love, feverishly imagine he was there when he wasn't, and finally work herself up to such a desperate, lovesick state that she let her voice wail with the pain of the harsh disparity between fantasy and reality, just as a bolt of lightening would illuminate her dark, lonely existence.
It was so amazing and weirdly poetic that she actually enjoyed it, emotionally taxing though it was.
But no, even that was the exception. She raged when the world raged, yes; but when the world was calm, she still raged. She stumbled while the world was at peace, and when it was in turmoil, she stumbled even more.
But today, things were different. Yes, of course she was tormented inside. When was she not? And today, more so than any other day in her life, she had the most reasons to be so.
And yet it wasn't registering. She sat staring at herself in the mirror that afternoon, after mechanically eating lunch amidst her chattering, excited classmates and hurriedly being herded backstage for costume fittings and rehearsals. The play opened that night, and she had only just gotten the part yesterday.
Well, duh, no wonder nothing's registering, she mentally chided herself. I was up until one AM last night pounding these miserable, cumbersome lines in my head!
"Oh, Helga, that dress really suits you," said Phoebe with a smile.
"Suits me if I'm going to a Halloween dance," Helga muttered, still staring bleary-eyed at her unresponsive reflection.
"Really, you look very nice," Phoebe emphasized.
"The dress is a little short on you," Sheena said, "but I don't think I have time to make any more adjustments to it. Hmm." She pulled down on the sleeve of the purple Renaissance dress, which didn't quite make it all the way down to Helga's wrist. "Could you stand up for me, please?"
Helga, with no small effort, pushed her way out of the folding chair and stood up, her shoulders hunched over in a groggy pose as she looked almost with disgust at the pathetic excuse for a Juliet that looked back at her. The dress, indeed, only went down to about an inch above her ankles.
"Where's the flood, Juliet?" she snorted, addressing her own reflection.
"It's really not that bad," Phoebe said. "I have lots of dresses that go up higher than that on me."
"Wait! I have an idea!" Sheena said. "I think if I let out the hem the dress should be longer, and if I add lace to the sleeves… it could work!"
"You get to it, then," Helga said, pulling the dress off over her head and handing it to Sheena. "And make it snappy! I don't want to be up there looking like I'm wearing my Halloween costume from first grade!"
As Sheena took the dress and ran off with it for adjustments, Phoebe asked, with a note of concern in her voice, "Are you feeling alright, Helga? You don't seem quite like yourself today."
"Of course I'm not," Helga muttered, straightening out her jumper-dress that had gotten a bit bunched up while she had pulled off Juliet's dress over it. "I didn't even get six hours of sleep last night because I had to learn all those sappy lines. And now I'm stuck running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to get everything ready for tonight when I feel like a zombie. All this for a stinkin' play!"
"But Helga," said Phoebe, with a small, careful smile, "I thought you wanted to be Juliet."
Helga had been prepared for someone to say that, however, and she had prepared an answer. "Duh. I want to act. I want people to see me up on that stage and focus all their attention on me just for an hour or two! But Mr. Simmons had to pick Romeo and Juliet for our play. And so the lead female role had to be this pathetic, whiny, stupid Juliet who can't shut her trap. But she's the only character in this rotten play that I can be and actually get recognition for."
"Well, just be glad that we're doing an abridged version of the play," said Phoebe. "The full Shakespearean text has a running time of three hours, whereas ours should only run for maybe an hour and a half."
"Really?" asked Helga, surprised. "What all did our version cut?"
"Oh, a few scenes of plot exposition here and there… some of the speeches have been trimmed… and a lot of the romance has actually been—well, toned down, shall we say."
"Toned-down romance? I thought this whole play was nothing but romance!"
"Well, true," said Phoebe. "But this version, tailored more for younger actors, has eliminated much of the more physical romantic elements. In Shakespeare's original text, Romeo and Juliet actually kiss five times, as opposed to the single kiss in—"
"Five times?!" Helga yelped.
"Like you said, it is a romance play," smirked Phoebe. "But seeing as it would not be completely appropriate for actors of our age to kiss so many times, this version chose to eliminate all but the final kiss."
"Well—well criminy, why didn't they throw out that one too?" Helga cried, trying desperately to steady herself. Being groggy and flustered was not a good combination. Of course, the real question she was asking was why, oh why couldn't we have used Shakespeare's full text? Oh Arnold, my love, I would memorize every play the man ever wrote, word for word, for the chance to kiss you FIVE times in a row!
"Well, gosh, Helga, what kind of romance doesn't have at least one kiss?" Phoebe smiled knowingly—almost too knowingly for Helga's tastes.
"Yeah, yeah, wipe that smile off your face, Feebs," she said abruptly. "I'll be able to handle one kiss, I think, but any more than that and I'm outta here."
"Wiping," said Phoebe crisply.
During rehearsal that afternoon, though, Helga soon realized that she would not have been able to handle Shakespeare's original five-kiss version… because she could hardly function properly with Arnold as Romeo's dialogue and limited physical touching as it was.
"It was the lark," he was reciting, earnestly enough for a boy playing the role, to Helga's Juliet, smiling at her and touching her hand slightly, causing her knees to shake (oh God please don't let anyone notice), "the herald of the morn, no nightingale. Look, love, what… uh, what…"
"'What envious streaks'," Mr. Simmons hissed from back stage.
"Right!" Arnold quickly regained his posture and looked back at Helga, who hadn't once taken her eyes off him. "What envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east. Night's candles are burnt out, and…" He faltered again. "Aw, man… line?"
"'And jocund day'."
"And jocund day… and… and jocund day…"
"Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops!" Arnold quickly finished. "I must be gone and live, or stay and die."
"Alright, could we stop there for a minute?" Mr. Simmons said, stepping onstage. Arnold sighed in slight irritation at himself, letting go of Helga's hand, which in turn shook her out of her trance.
"You don't know your lines yet?" she hissed angrily at him. "Criminy! I know mine better than you and I only got them yesterday!"
"I know them," protested Arnold, "it's just… it's just there's a lot of them, and they get mixed up in my head."
"You're doing great, Arnold, really," Mr. Simmons said emphatically. "I can tell that you know your lines. You just need a little more practice."
"I've been practicing constantly for the past two weeks," Arnold said, his voice disappointed. "If I haven't gotten them by now…"
"You're thinking in terms of words, Arnold. I need you to start thinking of your lines as phrases. Phrases of poetry. Think of how they connect together. I think that will help you remember them better."
"Uh, okay," said Arnold with a shrug. "Is it alright if I go look at my script really quick?"
"Go ahead," said Mr. Simmons. "I want to have a word with Helga."
"Me?" Helga asked.
"You have an interesting interpretation of Juliet," said Mr. Simmons as Arnold made his way backstage to his book bag. "It's very unique—"
"What do you mean, interesting?" Helga demanded.
"You're embracing Juliet's youthfulness, portraying her as a dazed and lovesick individual—and that's great! That's a big part of Juliet's character. But so is her passion. She is not merely distracted by Romeo, she loves him and shows it explicitly through her words and actions. Do you understand where I'm coming from?"
"I—uh—" Helga felt her face flush. She had had no idea that she had been acting so dazed. No idea! And if she had been unaware of how she had seemed just now, did that mean that she walked around in a daze every time she was near Arnold? Was she making her love for him that obvious? No, no, of course not—normally Arnold didn't say Romeo's lines to her, and normally he didn't touch her hand so gently, and normally he didn't look at her and smile at her so wondrously, so lovingly—
Focus, Helga, focus!
"I figured Juliet would be a silly love-blinded fool," she said quickly. "I mean, come on, only a complete sap would fall for this tripe!" Oh God, I really AM a sap, aren't I?
"It is not tripe, Helga. The words may seem silly and overwrought to you, and they do to most modern audiences, so there's nothing wrong with that. But the words are expressing the true and deep feelings that they have for each other. You're really doing great," he said sincerely. "I did have my doubts that you would be able to learn all your lines in such a short amount of time, but you've gone far beyond my expectations—which were high in the first place. Now I need you to go just one step further. Find the passion inside of you and mix it in with your Juliet. I know that it's there. Don't be afraid to let it out."
"What passion inside of me?" Helga scoffed, feeling her stomach knot up. He was seeing inside of her as if her skin were transparent.
"I've read many of your poems that you've turned in," said Mr. Simmons with a smile. "You have a passion and a fire within you that shines through in your writing."
"How do you know I'm not faking it?" Helga shot back.
Mr. Simmons kept his smile. "No one could fake poetry as good as yours."
Helga felt herself smile in gratitude before she could stop herself.
"You may find Juliet foolish, and that's understandable," Mr. Simmons continued. "But embrace the parts of her that are inside of you, and that's when you'll give your best performance."
Arnold came back on stage, and Mr. Simmons turned his attentions to him. "Have you been going over your lines?" he asked.
"Well, I was," said Arnold, "but I have a question about the last scene."
The last scene. The scene with the kiss. Helga's stomach did a cartwheel.
"My last line, right before I die, is 'thus with a kiss I die'. But I thought that the only kiss in this play was at the end, when she kisses me."
"Well, Arnold, in the original there are actually a number of kisses—"
"So…" Arnold sighed, looked down at the script, and looked back at Mr. Simmons. "So do I have to kiss her then?"
Helga would have fallen to the floor if the scenery behind her hadn't stopped her, instead making her fall back against a pillar and having to grasp on to it to keep herself upright.
Luckily neither Arnold nor Mr. Simmons noticed her. "No, you don't."
Helga's eyes bulged in both relief and disappointment.
"Since you've just drunk the poison at that point," Mr. Simmons was continuing, "it's perfectly acceptable for you to attempt to kiss her, but die before actually doing so."
Arnold again looked back at the script and then back at Mr. Simmons, strangely still not looking satisfied. "But that doesn't make any sense."
"What do you mean?"
"If I want to kiss her, but die before doing so, why would I finish my statement? I mean, wouldn't kissing her be more important than completing my thought?"
"Oh God…" Helga whispered aloud, trying desperately to stand up without having to rely on the pillar. The other kids were still milling around backstage and some were actually going to sit in the auditorium seats—they would see her—get a GRIP—
"Well, that's an interesting way of looking at it," Mr. Simmons admitted. "I suppose if you wanted to, you could kiss her hand or something."
"Yeah, I could do that," said Arnold with a nod. "I know this is kind of out of order, but could we run the end scene right now, while it's still in my head?"
"Well, I suppose it's alright with me," said Mr. Simmons. "How about you, Helga?"
They both turned and saw her clutching the pillar behind her, her legs so far stretched behind her that she was almost on her knees.
"Helga, are you alright?" Arnold asked.
"I'm just peachy, football head!" Helga snapped. "I'm just trying to hold up the scenery!"
"Hold up the scenery?" Arnold repeated, confused.
"Yes, hold up the scenery. This cheap junk is about two seconds away from tumbling!" She pulled herself up on her feet and let go of the pillar. "But anyway, so we're running the smoochie-face scene now?"
"If that's alright with you," said Mr. Simmons.
"Sure, let's get it over with," muttered Helga, moving over to where the tombstone that she had to lie on during most of the last scene was and positioning herself in her coma-induced sleep, but her mind running at a million miles an hour. He's going to kiss me. Just my hand, yes, but still HE'S GOING TO KISS ME. And then I'M going to kiss HIM… in front of all these people… and there'll be way more tonight… oh God, what was I THINKING?!
"Arnold, you can start from right after you've killed Paris," said Mr. Simmons.
"Okay." Helga could hear Arnold move closer to her. She took slow, deep breaths in order to both act as if she was in a coma like the play required, and to calm her rapidly growing anticipation.
"In faith, I will," Arnold recited, slowly while struggling to remember the lines but with more confidence than he had had earlier. "Oh, give me thy hand, one writ with me in sour misfortune's book. I'll bury thee in a triumphant grave. A grave? Oh, no! A lantern, slaughtered youth, for here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes this vault a feasting presence full of light."
Helga wasn't even looking at him, and she was still finding it harder and harder to breathe.
"Good job!" Mr. Simmons whispered encouragingly.
"Oh my love, my wife," Arnold continued. Helga felt him grasp her hand again, and it took everything in her power to keep from sighing contentedly. "Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath… hath no power yet upon thy beauty. Here, here I will remain with worms that are thy chambermaids. …Uh… oh!—Here will I set up my everlasting rest and shake the yoke of… of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh. Here's to my love. …Oh, wait, I don't have the goblet…"
"Just pretend to drink it for now, we'll get it later," Mr. Simmons prodded.
Arnold let go of Helga's hand, presumably miming drinking the poison. Helga allowed herself one shaky inhale of preparation. Steady, girl… you can handle this… just savor the moment while it lasts without turning into a complete and utter moron in front of the whole freaking school!
"Oh true apothecary!" Arnold cried out in anguish. Your voice is so beautiful, Helga thought and began to smile—no! No smiles! "Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss—"
Insides turn to mush in three, two, one—
He kissed her hand.
Her right hand, no, not really her hand but her fingers, almost the tips of them, gently and tenderly, just a soft brush of the lips, not really a peck, not lasting more than a second, and yet time stopped. Time stopped, her breathing stopped, her heartbeat stopped, everything stopped except her nerves, which were on fire. The surge that shot through her veins was greater than it would have been if he had actually stuffed those same fingers into an electrical socket.
Of course, time didn't actually stop. It was a mere moment, a blink of an eye, and no sooner had his lips brushed her fingers than they were gone, and he finished his line, "—I die," with such a pitiful, mournful croak that Helga's eyes automatically flew open just to make sure he was alright. Arnold crumpled to the ground, not too heavily and not too lightly, closed his eyes, and lay still.
"Wonderful, Arnold, wonderful!" Mr. Simmons said, clapping enthusiastically. All the kids watching in the audience were clapping too. "You do it just like that tonight and it will be perfect."
Arnold opened his eyes and smiled, ruining the dead effect. "You really think so?"
"Definitely! Now… now where's our Friar Laurence? Where's Stinky?"
Phoebe poked her head onstage from behind the curtains. "Um, he's having a little difficulty with his bald cap…"
"Man! This really bites!" Stinky's voice could be heard from the dressing rooms.
Mr. Simmons sighed. "We'll just skip ahead to Juliet's death. Helga, you can start at 'go, get thee hence'."
Helga, feigning annoyance, sighed, slid off the tomb, and knelt down beside Arnold. "Alright, here we go." She cleared her throat and took a deep breath before speaking. "Go, get thee hence," she said, in a monotone voice that sounded almost bored, "for I will not away. What's there, a cup, closed in my true love's hand. Poison I see hath been his timeless end. Oh churl, drunk all and left no friendly drop to help me after. I will kiss thy lips; haply some poison yet doth hang on them to make me die with a restorative." She took another deep breath, looked down at her beloved, his eyes closed so sweetly, his lips just waiting expectedly for hers to meet them, her entire class watching…
She jerked her head back up. "Do I have to do this?" she demanded to Mr. Simmons. What are you doing you're missing your CHANCE! her heart screamed back.
"Yes, Helga, you are playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet…"
"Arnold weaseled out of his kiss!" She pointed an accusing finger at him, whose eyes were open again as he was watching the scene unfold before him with interest. "Why can't I get out of mine?"
"This kiss is very important, Helga… not only is it a statement of your love, but you are also trying to suck out any poison that might be lingering on his lips…"
Helga made a face of surprise. "Are you saying you want me to lick him?"
The entire audience of students roared with laughter as Arnold made a face of disgust to match Helga's incredulous one. Part of her was slightly disgusted, too—disgusted at how appealing the other part of her found the idea.
"No! I mean—well, let's put it this way—you either have to lick him or kiss him."
"Fine!" Helga spat out decisively. "I'll kiss the little freak!"
And with that she yanked his head up to hers and forcefully kissed him.
Well… kiss might not have been quite the correct term. It was a more a smack—a loud, fast, wet smack right on the lips. She dropped him as abruptly as she had grabbed him, running through her last two lines at lightening speed: "Yea, noise? Then I'll be brief. Oh happy dagger, this is thy sheath—there rust and let me die." She quickly mimed stabbing herself and fell over in a heap.
Aw, crap, she thought to herself in despair. That wasn't the way I'd planned it—I thought our first kiss would be romantic and amazing and would sweep us off our feet—not some wet-lipped smooch of doom! Man, I'm such a screw-up!
"Uh, Helga…" Mr. Simmons began.
"What?" Helga snapped, sitting back up.
Her teacher gave her a reproachful look. "I want you to do it again, and for real this time."
"What's my motivation?" Helga demanded, crossing her arms.
"Close your eyes," Mr. Simmons said.
"Just go along with me for a minute. Close your eyes."
Helga groaned in irritation, but did so.
"I want you, just for the time being, to forget that you're Helga. Right now, you are Juliet. You are Juliet Capulet, thirteen years old, your family is feuding with the Montagues, and you are in love with Romeo Montague. Now open your eyes."
Helga did, finding that her anger (that had been mostly directed at herself) had nearly vanished.
Mr. Simmons pointed to Arnold, who was still looking a little befuddled at the strange show Helga was putting on. "I want you to forget that he's Arnold. Right now, he's Romeo. He's your motivation. He's your husband and he means everything in the world to you, and now you see him dead on the ground. You love him."
"I love him," Helga whispered, her voice quavering, gazing at Arnold but most certainly not forgetting who he was.
"Yes! Yes!" Mr. Simmons said enthusiastically. "You love him, and you find him dead! Everything right with your world has collapsed!"
Helga quickly shook her head, trying to focus on anything other than Arnold. "Alright, alright," she said, her voice back to normal, "I love him and find him dead, so I kill myself. Got it."
"Not just that. Say your lines with passion, Helga. Imagine that you love him and you've just discovered that he died." Helga quickly swallowed and turned away as she felt her eyes threaten to fill with tears. Mr. Simmons went on. "You're not going to just talk in monotone and give him a quick peck on the lips. Be tender, be passionate! Let's do your lines and the kiss again, and remember your motivation."
"Um, Helga?" Arnold said.
"What?!" Helga demanded.
Arnold flinched a bit before relaxing his shoulders and wiping off his mouth with his sleeve. "This time, could you try to make the kiss not so… wet?"
"You're in no position to be demanding, Arnold," she muttered harshly, scooting over to his side again. "You're just gonna have to take what you get."
As she said her lines this time, she didn't think about how she should or should not say them, how she needed to show this or hide that… instead, the only words running through her mind were I'm going to do it right this time. I'm going to kiss him like I've always dreamed of kissing him! …Okay, maybe not THAT passionately—but I'm not going to be afraid of what other people will think, because they'll think NOTHING! They think I'm ACTING!
"…to die with a restorative." Again, she leaned down over him, but this time slower, more thoughtfully, taking in all of his beautiful (albeit weirdly-shaped) figure. How, oh how could she have pecked him so unceremoniously just minutes before?
She was shaking. She could definitely feel it and she was sure he could feel it too as she grasped his shoulders. Her stomach was practically in her throat. Oh, wouldn't it just be PERFECT if I hurled all over him right now from nervousness—God no, I'm not going to give myself that chance!
With that thought, she quickly leaned down and pressed her lips against his, again. It was still forceful, yet this time she didn't pull away as quickly… this time she felt herself sighing inside, her heart doing cartwheels, her stomach plunging back down where it belonged… her lips moved against his, taking him in…
A whistle of approval broke out from the audience right at that moment.
Helga immediately tore away from Arnold, dropping him unceremoniously on the floor again. "Alright, what jerko out there did that?" she roared. The audience also roared—with laughter and more whistles. "Fess up!" Helga screeched. "I'm not up here kissing for your approval, you losers!"
She was interrupted by the bell ringing. The clock showed the blessed time: 3:15.
"Wait! Wait, students, I need to talk to you, I want to run over a few more things!" Mr. Simmons yelled, but it was for naught. The students were all already halfway to the door.
He sighed in resignation. "Be here at six tonight, then!" he yelled.
Arnold pushed himself up from the floor, rubbing his buttocks with a slightly pained expression. Helga was still glaring at the departing students, her fists clenched and her eyes burrowed.
"Wait, you two," Mr. Simmons said. "I need at least the two of you to stay after and get this scene right."
Helga spun around and stared at him, her eyes wide with pleading. "Oh, come on, Mr. Simmons, it's 3:15! School's over!" She had to leave. Too much was happening all at once. She felt like she was about to cry. From happiness, anger, love, nervousness, embarrassment, she didn't know—probably all of them. All she knew was that she was about to burst with emotions, and she sure as hell couldn't do it here.
"Helga, I know you don't like doing this," said Mr. Simmons, "but the sooner you get it right, the sooner you can leave."
Helga sighed in defeat. She was too flustered to fight at that moment. "One more, and that's it." She gave Arnold a shove. "Lay back down, football head."
The shove wasn't very hard, but Arnold still stumbled backwards before regaining his balance and sitting back down, giving Helga a reproachful look. "You know, you could be a little more careful about letting go of me this time."
"Butthurt, are you?" Helga muttered. She knelt by his side. "Close your eyes and play dead, you idiot." He did so. Helga didn't look at him this time. "Blah blah blah to die with a restorative," she said, tonelessly and yet breathlessly, that odd combination of emotions getting caught in her throat. She turned to him, unable to avoid looking at him anymore, and cradled his head in her hands, for the first time that day feeling truly sincere about her love for him. The auditorium had cleared out, being romantic with him was expected of her for this brief moment in time, her love for him was bubbling up inside of her like lava… this was it.
This was it. Probably her only chance to get it right.
And she already knew she would never get it right.
"Damn it," she whispered, and he opened his eyes.
She kissed him.
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, his neck, his head; her lips parted just slightly, just enough for his lower lip to fit between them, and she felt it there and savored it, tasted it, enclosed it in her lips, made it hers yet lost herself to it. Lost herself to him. He didn't struggle or even flinch. In fact, she could feel him relaxing against her; an involuntary twitch of his lip was like static electricity to her, and she felt him sigh, exhale with her, in her, with absolutely no repulsion.
It was perfect.
She pulled away. Her heart was pounding, rattling her ribcage; her lungs had seemed to have forgotten how to work; her throat had dried up; her eyes seemed to be frozen in a bulged expression of shock.
Arnold looked back at her, also surprised, but with a gentle confusion in his eyes as well.
Oh God, he had never looked at her like that before.
"I've gotta go," Helga said breathlessly, quickly standing up and backing up towards backstage.
"But Helga—" Mr. Simmons began.
"I said I've gotta go!" Helga snapped, feeling her body tense with rage once more. "For God's sake school's over and I ain't staying here anymore! And I'm sick to death of this disgusting kissing! I'll only do it one more time, and that's at the show tonight! I refuse to kiss him again! I refuse to rehearse this piece of crap play anymore! I'M GOING HOME!"
She ran backstage and out of sight before anyone could stop her.
"You did it right that time!" Mr. Simmons called after her. "That was great!"
"Yeah… it was great," Arnold said quietly, touching his lips, still completely taken aback.