[Author's Note: Reviews are cherished.]

Bereft of Hope, the Pink Bow Prevails

chapter one: presents and ruining it

"Helga?"

The familiar voice was startled, and it startled me. I jumped, embarrassed to be caught staring at myself in the mirror, and reacted in a way that was quite typical – a way I knew he would be used to. "Don't sneak up on me like that, football head," I snapped, but, as usual in times of late, the words lacked the bite that they'd once carried. I turned to face him, defensively crossing my arms over my chest. "What? You look like you've seen a ghost."

He blinked. As always, laying eyes on him was moderately painful for me; it was difficult, still, to get past the Arnold-is-standing-in-my-room-let's-swoon emotions that overcame me whenever he arrived on the spot...on the other hand, I was so used to this weird emotion that, at this point, I could stifle it fairly quickly. It was a lot to take in. It seemed as though every time I looked at him, I saw him in every phase of our lives: the three-year-old at preschool, the nine-year-old with bizarre tufts of golden hair, the awkward preteen boy – and now the football head who had grown into himself, who was taller than me (by only a few inches) and whose hair was moderately more tamed.

His facial expression a little less shocked now, his face split into a grin. "Nothing, Helga. You just look nice today."

I tried not to roll my eyes, but it happened anyway. The grin didn't melt from his face; he knew better than to let my outward displays of anger get to him. I really can't be nice, can I, I thought gloomily to myself. I can't just let him compliment me. Come on, Helga, thank him. "Well, thanks, Arnold." It was grudging, but at least it was acquiescence. "Though honestly," and an inward groan ripped through the secret delicate part of me as I turned back to the mirror, "I'm not really sure you're being honest. My hair still looks all wrong, somehow. I think I might have messed it up permanently by wearing those stupid pigtails." I squinted at myself in the mirror, trying to adjust the pink bow that neatly tied off my thick braid of blond hair. It didn't approximate the golden color of Arnold's hair in the least, but it was an okay variant.

"Here. Let me help." In the mirror, I saw him roll his eyes as he moved closer to me, setting down the package he was carrying in his arms on my bed. My heartbeat ticked upward momentarily, and then settled again uneasily as he undid the pink bow and, with an intense look of concentration, carefully re-tied the ribbon into a nicely symmetrical, less elaborate bow than the one I'd been attempting. "There. It looks fine."

I squinted at it again. "Yeah. I guess." I sighed and turned to face him again. "How'd you get up here, anyway?"

"Miriam let me in." He rolled his eyes, and I detected the slight sarcasm he was struggling to hide in his voice. "For seven in the morning, she seems pretty vague." There was a kindling light of concern in his eyes, but the look on my face dissuaded him from going any further. "Anyway, I wanted to give you your present before we got to school. So you won't have to carry it around all day."

I read into the hidden meaning behind this sentence: what he was really saying was that in past years, when he'd tried to publicly give me gifts on my birthdays, I had vehemently denied that the date was of any significance and stalked off before he could get another word in. I hated it when people knew it was my birthday. All that guilt, all that I-need-to-be-nice-to-her-even-though-we-don't-get-along-and-never-have nonsense. It didn't make any sense, and it just made me angry.

I didn't mind Arnold noticing, though. No, I couldn't say I minded him showing up in my room on the morning of my sixteenth birthday to give me a present. Not at all.

"Well...gee. Thanks, Arnold." I shuffled, uncomfortable, torn. If only I could gush affection to him the way I did to the stupid shrine in my closet. If only that were possible.

"Stop clenching. You're making me nervous." He lifted the package from my bed and sat down in its place, then held it out to me. "Go on, open it." Despite the shuffling and tense comments, he was still grinning.

I took the neatly-wrapped gift – criminy, wasn't everything of his always so well-put-together – and sat down beside him to untie the ribbon. It was small, and the paper came away easily. I lifted the lid from the box and ripped the tissue paper aside, and it was impossible even for me to conceal the grin that spread over my features as I laid hands on the thing within the package.

It was a picture frame, with a picture already inside it, one of me and Arnold from the last Christmas. He was carrying me piggyback style in the picture, and both of our faces were jubilant with laughter, flushed from a snowball fight on the streets outside his boarding house. Phoebe and Gerald were beside us in the frame, Gerald's arm around Phoebe's shoulders, both of them grinning at the camera, too. The Christmas tree was lit up in the background, the window revealing the softly falling snow just behind that.

It was slowly made known to me that Arnold was talking.

"I mean, if you don't like it, don't worry about it. You can toss it in the back of your closet and forget about it if you want. But, I thought, you know, it might be nice...having a...a picture of who your friends are. You never have pictures in here. It just seems so...I don't know, empty. Lonely. So..."

"Oh, can it, football head," I said, but with the stupid grin still plastered on my face. I couldn't seem to get rid of it. "It's great. Really. I like it." I leaned over and propped the frame – it matched my furniture well – on my nightstand, just to the right of my lamp, and continued to smile at it. "Thanks," I said, sincerely, and cheered for myself. Good job, Helga, old girl! You're doing great! Now just keep being nice and pretty and soon enough he's going to...

Arnold was grinning, too. "Great! I'm glad you like it. I know we don't always...you know...get along the greatest, but when we do, it's great, isn't it?" He put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close to his side in a hug. I felt smothered and dopey as I leaned into that good-smelling embrace. "I mean, I know we hardly ever say stuff like this, but, you're one of my best friends, Helga."

Oh, go and ruin it, why don't you.

I let my eyes fall shut and breathed in the scent of him as he hugged me, and nodded against his shoulder, because it was all I could do not to break down and cry and ruin the makeup I'd spent a good ten minutes perfecting. "You're my best friend too, Arnold," I said, and even if it might have been lost in the texture of his t-shirt, and the words were a little flat and disappointed, at least I'd said something.

"Helga! Happy – "

"Pheebs-shut-UP!"

" – birthday!" the tiny girl known as my best friend finished in a whisper. "Did you like what Arnold got you? He told me he was going to bring it to your house this morning before you guys caught the bus."

"Yeah, it was...it was really thoughtful." My voice sounded lame, and Phoebe looked immediately disappointed.

"Are you sure you're alright? You sound..."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm fine." At her continued look of suspicion, I glanced over my shoulder, lowered my voice, and muttered, "He just...pulled the best friend card again. It depressed me."

"Oh, Helga. I'm sorry." Phoebe Heyerdahl truly looked it, too, with her stack of books clutched to her chest and her backpack situated on her shoulders. The corridors of our high school were crowded with all of the pre-first-period traffic shuffling by the wall where we stood. "I was quite sure he wouldn't mention that this morning." She held out a present to me, which I sighed at and accepted.

"You were quite wrong." My voice was huffy, but when Phoebe looked even more sad at this, I tried to brighten up a little as I undid the wrapping paper. "It's okay. I liked the present, anyway. It's not a big deal." The warning bell rang. "Anyway, I'll see you at lunch, Pheebs. Don't worry about me." I finished opening the present. "Oh. Wow, Phoebe. Thanks! I really wanted this." I managed a genuine smile as I fastened the silvery necklace around my neck. There was a thin pendant hanging from it which fell neatly below the collar of my blouse. "Look, it's no big deal," I continued, when she didn't seem to brighten up at all. "Seriously. Don't worry about me. And thanks again for the gift." I turned and stalked off toward my first period, which thankfully I only shared with Tall Hair Boy; he never did question my dark moods. He was content to leave me alone. Well, we never exactly saw eye-to-eye, but we got along well enough, at least.

It seemed like I was saying that all the time lately. "Don't worry about me." Where was the scowling, brutal, tough Helga G. Pataki who had once existed? The childhood, explosive anger had worn off through the years, and while my sarcasm had never died, it still existed; it just seemed a little...well, repressed lately.

"Hey, Helga. How's it crackin?"

"Oh, just fine, Gerald-o." If he heard the morose tone in my voice, he didn't comment on it, though he did roll his eyes at the hangover nickname from our childhood. I took my seat next to him, dropping into the chair with a huff. He raised his eyebrows.

"I know it's your birthday and all, but don't act so furious. Here, here's a present." He pushed a small box, wrapped in a red bow, toward me. "It's not much, but I figure you'll probably toss it anyway, so..." He shrugged, looking a little sheepish.

"You've gone all soft on me." I snorted and pulled the ribbon open. There was a simple little pair of silver stud earrings inside.

Surprised, I glanced sideways at Gerald. He shrugged. "I figured it would go with what Phoebe got you." He offered a shifty smile.

"Well, thanks, Tall Hair Boy. They're great." I took the silver studs out of the box and fastened them into my ears.

"You look good today, by the way. Did Arnold say anything?"

I glared at him. "Not another word."

He looked mildly baffled. "Whatever you say, Helga."

I was left in peace for the rest of the period, free to veg out while I took notes about whatever strange version of Algebra we were currently examining. There was the periodic doodling in the margins, nothing that was at all sensible in any case, but mostly, I was dreading next period, when I would have to suffer the pleasure and torture of sitting next to Arnold for nearly two hours. After this morning, I wasn't particularly looking forward to it. At all.

The bell rang. I shoved my notebooks into my backpack, bid farewell to Gerald, and dragged my feet on the way to my history class, feeling unfortunate the whole way.

What was it about me that he found so impossible to love, anyway? It seemed that no matter what I did, he didn't notice. I could be as perfect as Lila – there she walked now, the little princess, with a vague smile on her face and her red hair flowing in the light spring breeze – and it wouldn't make a difference. At least he wasn't interested in her anymore, anyway. I would know if he was. I was one of his best friends, after all.

"You look a little down, Helga."

I jerked awake from my stewing thoughts. His puzzled green eyes were looking at me. I'd just about run right into him. "What? Oh. Arnold. I'm fine."

He joined my side as we walked toward our history class. "You don't seem fine. Look, you wanna get dinner tonight? Let's celebrate. My treat."

"Celebrate what, Arnold?"

"Did I say something? Did somebody piss you off? Look, Helga, cheer up. It's your birthday. Come out to dinner with me. We'll have a good time."

I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. "Oh, gosh, football head, if it eases your conscience. Where were you thinking?"

"How about Chez Pierre? For old times' sake. It'll be fun, I promise."

"Oi. That waiter will recognize me for sure. He'll spit in our food or something."

"We were nine, Helga."

"What about when we were thirteen? I can't believe I made the same mistake twice."

"Oh, relax. You're basically unrecognizable. What with the absence of the unibrow, your hair not in pigtails..."

"Oh please," I grumbled, "stop flattering me."

"...well, I'm just saying, you look a lot different from back then. I would be more detailed, but you'd hit me." He grinned sheepishly.

"What? How could I possibly be more insulted?" I snickered, feeling a little bit better about the whole thing at this point. "Out with it. Let's get it over with."

"Well, you're..." He hesitated, then shrugged. "I mean, you're beautiful. It doesn't take a genius to see that. And, you're nicer...a little." He laughed. "Not so much that it stifles your personality or anything, but it's a good balance. Go ahead...you can punch me now."

"Why would I punch you for saying something nice?"

He stopped dead and frowned as I took my seat at one of the back tables, staring down at me. "There really is something wrong with you."

I avoided his eyes.

"Well, we can talk about it at dinner. And you are coming, and you are going to look nice, and you are going to put up with me. It'll be fun."

I snorted. "There's nothing to talk about it, but sure, I'll come. Like I said, whatever floats your boat, football head."

He grinned as he took his seat beside me. "Well, this would. So be a good sport about it, okay? You never have a good time on your birthday. I want that to change."

I glanced down as I pulled my books out of my backpack. "Sure, Arnold. Whatever you say." When I looked up again, his eyes were still focused on me worriedly, but at my glare, he shrugged and pulled his own books from his backpack, deciding to let the subject drop rather than pursue it.

Maybe if he'd pushed a little further, I'd have told him. There had been so many instances over the years where I'd had the opportunity to just confess, but he always seemed to give up interrogating me at the last moment, as though content to let me suffer in silence. Well, if he was waiting for me to come out with it, he'd probably be waiting forever.

I'd already taken back an "I love you" once, even if it was practically seven years ago. I doubted I'd get away with it again.