Notes: Set in senior year of high school, Arnold and Helga are reunited after the former spends four years in San Lorenzo with his parents. Equal parts fluff and angst with a splash of unresolved sexual tension. Switches between Helga, Arnold, and Phoebe's POVs (primarily Helga).
I wrote this two years ago and it was originally posted here, but now that I'm on AO3 as well, I thought I'd start out by editing and cross-posting some of my old fics. I added about 1,500 words to this and edited bits and pieces throughout, so if you've read this before, it's not precisely the same. Hopefully it's better now! I know I'm happier with it.
Disclaimer: As always, the characters are not mine. All places and people mentioned belong to Craig Bartlett.
"Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires."
- François de La Rochefoucauld
Helga didn't mean to overhear Gerald and Phoebe. It was an accident, really. She had simply been walking down the school hallway, about to round the corner, when she heard his name. After four years of being out of the country, he came up considerably less often in everyday conversation than he used to, so, naturally, she stopped dead. With her back pressed up against the lockers, just close enough to the corner so that they couldn't see her, she tried to catch more of their discussion. She kept her breathing to a minimum; if they heard her and found her lurking, they would surely drop the subject – it had been a long time since either of them had mentioned his name in her presence.
"Let me read the letter," Phoebe whispered breathlessly. Helga heard the crunching of paper. Silence followed for a brief moment. "I can't believe it! After all this time?"
"When I saw the envelope on my kitchen table, I knew it must be big, since he's only written me like, three times before this. I didn't expect it to be this big, you know?" Gerald replied, and the tone in his voice made Helga's heart skip. Something big... that could mean he's dead, or...
"Two weeks… but Gerald, the envelope is postmarked the thirtieth."
Phoebe sighed. Helga could almost feel her eyes rolling. Sometimes Gerald had a thick skull. He made up for it, though, as Phoebe had told her during one of their more… personal conversations.
"Gerald! Today is the fourteenth!"
"Aww shit!" Gerald groaned, realization dawning. Helga craned her neck. What? Two weeks what? "Man, his sense of timing has gotten pretty poor since he left."
"Perhaps he expected the letter to arrive sooner," Phoebe suggested. "Anyway… we should try to put something together to welcome him back. Get everyone together, like old times. I'm sure if we discussed it with his grandparents first we could have a party at Sunset Arms. I'd be willing to bet that everyone in the neighborhood would want to attend."
Helga's heart was trying to break through her ribcage. Welcome… back? Her fingers immediately went to grasp at a locket that was no longer hidden underneath her clothing and hadn't been for years. No. No no no. She had no warning. No time to prepare. This… this... no. She closed her eyes, willing a seemingly imminent panic attack away.
"Hold up, let me call Phil," Gerald said. She heard beeping. Then silence. "Hey, is Phil there?... Oh hey Grampa! It's Gerald. Yeah I just got the news last night…. A letter, yeah… When's he gettin' in? Nice… Listen, Phoebe and I were thinking we should have a welcome back party tonight… Okay great! We'll let the old gang know… Six sounds good… See ya later, old man!"
"He's picking them up at the airport at 5:30 and thinks it's a good idea to have a surprise party. He'll get the word out to the neighbors, so we just have to tell everyone at school."
Their voices began to trail off as they walked away.
Arnold. Coming back. Tonight? Suddenly, Helga had a splitting headache.
It had been raining when he told her he would be leaving with his parents to go back to Central America. They were thirteen, and had been dating since they shared that brief kiss in San Lorenzo when they were ten. It had been like a dream for her. Of course, it wasn't the passionate love affair of her fantasies, but the innocence of preteen love was perfectly fine; awkward handholding and chaste kisses on doorsteps were certainly better than nothing. In many other ways, their relationship was similar to the one they had before rooftop confessions and jungle kisses. They fought about little things, she called him football head, he rolled his eyes at her, and they were constantly getting on each other's nerves. Underneath it all, though, there was a layer of knowing and understanding. He could put an end to her angry tirades with a simple smile and she balanced his meddlesome nature with her own "live and let live" one. It worked. It was always meant to work, for them. Or so she thought.
But it ended that afternoon in the rain as they stood at the end of their dock, the same one they stood on that Thanksgiving in fourth grade when they were truly open with each other for the first time. The one they would always go back to, just to sit and talk. As she watched the rain drops hit the ocean water that day, she thought it was ironic – the dock that had come to mean so much to her and the rain that was present when they first met would now become symbols of their relationship's demise.
She felt her entire being slip into the ocean along with the rain, his words drowned out by the buzzing in her ears, and she refused to look at him. Eventually, he sighed and walked away. She stared intently at the water, even when he stopped and told her he loved her. She couldn't watch him go. Instead, she willed the rain to wash away the memory of him.
He left the next day. She always regretted not begging him to stay, but she knew it wouldn't have done any good. His parents had grown restless. Bored of urban living. They needed adventure, and this time he was old enough to go with them. She couldn't have asked him to stay behind, not after all they went through trying to find Miles and Stella three years before. She couldn't have given him that kind of ultimatum. Instead, she did the most selfless thing she'd ever done, looking back on it now – she let him go without a fight.
For him, it marked the day he left Hillwood behind to move on to bigger and better things, perhaps never to look back. For her, it marked the day she lost her inspiration and stopped writing. Her entire worldview and every dream she ever had were on a plane the next day.
"I have to get out of here," she said to herself, and headed for the school doors. It wasn't even lunch period yet, but the school felt suffocating all of a sudden. She didn't want to be around when Phoebe and Gerald started spreading the word about their party. Besides, no one would care – graduation was barely two weeks away and seniors could, essentially, do whatever they wanted.
She walked home quickly and entered the house unnoticed, as usual. She went upstairs to her room and headed, without thinking, to her closet. There were no shrines hidden behind her clothes now. There hadn't been for years. The day he left, she threw all that away. Every wad of gum. Every clump of hair. It all went in the trash. It had seemed so pointless to keep any of it; why should she worship a likeness of someone who would just abandon her like that? Building shrines to someone suddenly seemed so immature. Creative expression was for idealistic fools.
Her journals, she stowed in boxes, along with her locket, mementos from their three years together, and, of course, her pink bow. She couldn't bring herself to throw those things away, but she wanted them out of her sight all the same.
It was one of those boxes she found herself reaching for now, bringing it down from the top shelf of her closet. She sighed as she opened it. Witnessing the sheer volume of her collective poetry and musings for the first time in years was a touch overwhelming. She had forgotten exactly how much of her time she devoted to writing about him. And, she reminded herself, this was only part of the collection, and minus the volumes Miriam had burned (the memory of which still made her want to scream in horror).
She dug through the box, withdrawing the locket. It had been updated with his 8th grade yearbook picture. She wondered how different he would look now. Probably tall. Tan. Toned.
Images of him as Tarzan and herself as Jane were quickly invading her mind and she mentally slapped herself, cursing the locket's power over her. Fantasizing about "Jungle Arnold" was the last thing she needed to do. She reached into the box again, this time withdrawing a long, pink ribbon. She had worn it, in one way or another, every day since her first day of preschool, until the day he left. She saw no reason to wear it after that – who did she have to impress? And at any rate, he was never coming back, right?
She fingered the silky texture of the ribbon, contemplating her urge to wear it again. So what if he was back in town? It probably wasn't permanent. And he probably didn't even remember her. He probably had a girlfriend, or maybe even a girlfriend in every village of every country. She was sure he must have left a string of open-ended "I love you's" everywhere he went. She wasn't special, so why did she feel the need to bring back the bow, if only for one night?
Besides, she was over him…definitely. Had been for years. Obviously. It would be crazy not to be over him by now.
She sighed, knowing that was a load of bull. If she were truly over him, she wouldn't have stopped dead upon hearing his name. She wouldn't have reminisced so extensively about their breakup. And she definitely wouldn't have skipped school to come hide in her closet like she was nine again.
"I really shouldn't go to the party," she mumbled to herself with another sigh.
She knew if she went, she would come across a completely changed Arnold. And she knew she wouldn't be the center of his attention. And even though she knew these things, she also knew that if she did go to the party, she would be terribly disappointed if he was different and didn't immediately profess his love for her. So she just shouldn't go; it was probably healthier that way. After all, she had been making progress. So what if she was completely boring and her only friends were Phoebe and Curly, of all people, and so what if she had nothing to look forward to and life itself was meaningless? She didn't think about him all the time. Progress.
Oh who am I kidding? She thought, scoffing at her lame attempt at rationalizing her life. I should still be in therapy. Too bad Big Bob would never pay for anything not covered by the school.
She hadn't been doing that well, so what? She could always move forward. She had her whole life to get over Arnold. If she went to the party and saw him, or worse, talked to him, she'd be going backwards in her quest.
...Either that or they would live happily ever after and her quest would be null and void.
Leaning back against her closet door, she weighed the pros and cons of going to the party. On one hand, not going would probably make it obvious that she wasn't over him. If she went, everyone would stop thinking she was still pining for him. That would be nice. Maybe if she went and looked extra good, everyone would be so complimentary toward her that he would have no choice but to pay attention to her – and she would turn down his advances, proving once and for all that he had no hold over her. There was also the fact that if he was going to be in Hillwood for more than one night, which was surely the case, she would be forced to see him eventually. So she should just get it over with in a group setting.
"I guess I don't have much choice," she muttered resentfully to the shoe rack propped against the wall opposite her.
She took out her cell phone and looked at the time. It was only 12:30. Phoebe and Gerald had mentioned 6:00. She sighed. Passing over five hours was not going to be fun when all she could think about was the image of a tall, tan, rock hard version of Arnold stepping off a plane. She suddenly noticed how irregularly her heart was beating, but, no, she couldn't let herself get caught up in fantasies.
The good news was that she hadn't felt so emotional or, frankly, crazy in years. It felt nice, to care about something again. Sure she cared about her friends and, deep, deep down, her family – but not like this. Arnold was the catalyst that sent her into the height of euphoria and the depths of despair. No one and nothing else could compare. She didn't want it to be that way, but it always had been and she feared it always would be. So maybe she was some kind of masochist for wanting to go to the party – why fight feelings that were that persistent?
She took her time showering. Big Bob was at work and Miriam was passed out somewhere downstairs. No one would bother her. She made sure to use her favorite scent of body wash and was extra careful shaving. She wasn't expecting anything to happen, but it couldn't hurt to take care of herself today. After all, she read in Cosmo that if you do these things for no real reason, you exude confidence and sexuality more than usual. And she wanted to make Arnold believe she wasn't just a shell of the girl she used to be. It was a lie, of course, but it would be better for his do-gooder conscience if he thought she had moved on. She didn't want him to know that she continued to dwell on what was and fantasize about what could be. He'd think she was pathetic. Which, really, she was.
Only moments after she got out of the shower, her phone rang. It was Phoebe. She had final period free every day and had the school's permission to go home early. Helga envied her.
"Helga, were you sick today? I could have sworn I saw you this morning, but you weren't in English," she said. English was the only class they had together. Phoebe was in AP everything, whereas Helga only had English – which she was fine with.
"Oh, I uhh… felt dizzy and went home."
"Hmm." There was a moment of silence. Helga knew she knew. Phoebe was way too perceptive sometimes. "So... are you going?" she finally asked.
"Cutting to the chase are we, Pheebs?"
"I assumed you overheard something about… the party, and that's why you left. I felt I didn't need to pry about it. Thus, I am, as you put, cutting to the chase." A pause. "Helga…"
"I know, I know," she said, cutting her friend off. She didn't want Phoebe trying to talk to her about her remaining feelings for Arnold. It wasn't what she needed right now. "Yeah, I'm going."
"Y-you are? I would have thought… given the sudden nature of his arrival, that you would rather not. It's kind of a... delicate situation for you, isn't it?"
"Damnit Phoebe, do you want me to go or not?"
"I do! I think it will be good for you, and the best thing you can really do in this… precarious situation."
"How astute of you to think so."
"Helga…" she sighed into the phone, clearly annoyed with Helga's sarcasm. "Well, be there between 5:45 and 6:00, we're going to try to make it a surprise."
Helga knew it was rude to cut the conversation short like that, though in her defense, Phoebe was used to it. She just needed to be alone with her thoughts right now. Phoebe was pretty used to that, too.
After throwing on a tank top and pajama pants, she ventured downstairs to make herself something to eat. Perhaps carbs and TV would help her stay distracted until it was time to get ready. When she entered the kitchen, she couldn't help but let out an exasperated sigh. As per usual, the blender was used and there were open cartons of fruit and a half-empty bottle of Bacardi on the counter. Miriam was slumped over the kitchen table, snoring, with daiquiri in her hair and a knocked over glass next to her hand.
Helga was used to it. It was just the way her mother had always been. Still, she had hoped Miriam's alcoholism would decrease in severity when Olga moved back home. No such luck. In fact, it seemed to get worse. Olga moved in after graduating college and decided that she had found her calling in acting. She had posed nude for an art major boyfriend at some point and realized how much she loved being the center of attention, as if she hadn't been for her entire life. She was gut wrenchingly awful, but naturally she had no idea. Needless to say, Bob was disappointed (to put it lightly) and became more miserable than usual. And thus, Miriam began to drink more.
The upside to all of this was that Bob began remembering Helga's name more often. Olga falling off her pedestal evidently caused him to remember he had a backup kid.
After making some macaroni and cheese for herself, Helga moved to the living room and successfully wasted the following two and a half hours watching reruns of Law & Order: SVU. When 4:30 rolled around, she went back upstairs to get ready, feeling sick with nerves.
She couldn't look too good, she decided, or else people might get suspicious that she was specifically trying to entice Arnold. Her plan was to look amazing but in a subtle, almost flippant way that suggested she just looked that good all the time. So she settled on wearing simple makeup, dark wash jeans, black flats, and a flattering burgundy colored v-neck. Casual but attractive. Rhonda would be proud, if nothing else. She made sure to carefully touch up her eyebrows, so as to make it abundantly clear that she was no longer the awkward little girl with the unibrow, and finished her look by pulling her long, golden hair back in a loose ponytail.
As she used her pink bow to keep her hair in place, she wondered if Arnold still wore his hat. She looked at herself in the mirror, feeling satisfied with the look. She knew she was too skinny and not the prettiest girl in the world, but she had definitely grown up and filled out some.
After brushing her teeth, she left without waking Miriam and began to make her way toward the boarding house. With each step she felt her heart pound faster and her breathing become more erratic. She felt sharp pains in her stomach and worried the macaroni and cheese from earlier would force its way back up.
She was a block away from her destination when she suddenly turned and bolted toward the pier. She couldn't do it. Not tonight. Not after four years of attempting to push him out of the forefront of her thoughts. She wasn't the same girl he left on the dock that day. She was empty; completely void of the passion and conviction she once had. Everything he loved about her was gone. She had purged herself of that Helga years ago. That Helga died when he left Hillwood. And surely he was a different person now, too.
But what if he isn't? Well, that would just make everything worse. He would be expecting her to be unchanged too. He would look into her eyes expecting to see the fire of his childhood bully mixed with the unyielding adoration of his preteen girlfriend. But he would only see apathy – maybe a hint of sadness and regret if he looked hard enough. He would be disappointed in what she had let herself become, and she didn't think she could handle disappointment from him. Not ever.
She came to a skidding halt at the end of their dock, her lungs burning and her eyes blurred from tears. Why did she think it was a good idea to go to the party? She could just as easily jump into the ocean now, and then everyone would believe she coincidentally had a freak swimming accident right before Arnold's arrival. Then she wouldn't have to face him ever again.
"No," she said aloud. "You're being ridiculous, Helga. Get a grip. You're eighteen years old, for cripes sake. College is right around the corner. I mean, you got into Hamilton! Maybe it will help you get back into writing. Maybe all you really need is to get out of Hillwood. Maybe Arnold has nothing to do with this horrible, suffocating feeling."
Knowing she must look crazy pacing the dock and talking to herself, she stopped and instead looked out toward the horizon. "And besides, he probably isn't expecting anything from you," she continued, though she kept her voice down. "In fact, after the way you treated him before he left, he probably won't be surprised you're not there. If he's different, that's great! You can't develop feelings for someone who's not your Arnold. If he's the same… well, you'll be out of here by August so… so it really doesn't matter."
Her fingers subconsciously went for the absent locket again, her body denying the logic pouring from her lips. She heaved a sigh and sat down, removing her shoes and rolling up her jeans to put her feet in the water.
"Would it really be so bad if I were to see him and instantly melt like I did back then?" she asked her reflection, staring down into the water. "Maybe he's been waiting for the chance to come back and tell me he still loves me. Who knows what all those letters he sent said – for all I know they consisted of professions of adoration. I never even gave him a chance, really. I just tried to block him out. If I go to this party, and we fall back together like magnets… maybe that means my dreams weren't so wrong after all."
She found herself smiling slightly.
"Maybe… even if we don't get married someday… we could have a summer, or even only a few weeks, where it's just us again. Maybe it will be the magical end to my childhood, the closure I need after all these years of blind devotion. Maybe seeing him now, even if only to realize that I have no leftover feelings for him, that what I think I feel is only fantasy an nostalgia, is exactly what I need to move on with my life."
Suddenly her phone rang again, bringing her out of her musings. She dug through her purse and withdrew it, seeing Phoebe's name blinking on the screen.
"Helga, where are you?! The party has started, and you missed the surprise."
"Did you change your mind or something?"
"I ended up going to the pier. I… I needed to think."
"Are you coming?"
"I… I guess I…" she looked at the water again, her eyes finding the pink bow in her reflection. "I'll be there in ten."
Phoebe sighed. Was it with relief? "Okay, see you then."
Helga pulled her feet back, fixed her jeans and her shoes, and stood up. She looked at the sky and saw it was full of dark clouds. There was a low rumbling in the distance. Maybe it was a sign. She smiled a tiny bit; glad that she could still find symbolism in things. Maybe the poet in her wasn't dead after all.
"Alright, Helga, it's time to suck it up. No more wallowing and no more crying. You have to show no fear tonight. Do not let on that there is anything wrong with you," she said as she scrunched her face into a look of determination. "And whatever you do, do not treat him like he's anything more than a childhood friend who moved away."
Satisfied that she had successfully rebuilt her fortress of indifference, she took a deep breath and began to walk back in the direction of the boarding house.
Arnold was nervous. He hadn't been home in four years, naturally he was worried everything and, more importantly, everyone would be different now. He hadn't even seen his grandparents since he left in the summer after eighth grade, let alone any of his friends. He had a picture in his mind of what Hillwood was like before he left. Gerald Field, Mighty Pete, the park, the pier, his old schools, and especially the boarding house… he hoped they were all exactly as he left them. He knew, logically, things would be different, but part of him still expected Hillwood to be stopped in time.
And then there were the people. He hoped all the boarders were still together and as eccentric as always. From their letters it sounded like his grandparents were doing fine, but Grandpa was never fond of "wasting space" writing about the others, particularly Oscar. Abner had passed away at, the age of fifteen, not six months after he'd left the city, so his old pig's sweet face was one he already knew would be missing from the crowd.
He hoped Gerald was just as cool as always, and he hoped he and Phoebe were still together. He hadn't written to Gerald all that much over the years – writing letters, and especially finding a way to mail them, took up a remarkable amount of time and energy living in a hut in the jungle. There weren't exactly post offices around every corner. And cell phone reception was a laughable concept. Nevertheless, he felt guilty for not being better at keeping up with his best friend's life.
He looked out the window and could see the city start to appear through the clouds. They would be landing in mere minutes. He took a deep breath and looked across the aisle at his parents. They smiled softly at him, knowing the anticipation must be killing him. They were used to taking long trips away from civilization. This would be his first time experiencing how life in the city went on without him.
Yes, he knew life went on without him, as much as he wanted otherwise. Things would not be the same, no matter how dearly he hoped for them to be. An image of blonde pigtails and a devious smile swam into his mind just then; the one aspect of Hillwood he most desperately hoped would be there, frozen in time, waiting for him. The picture in his head was replaced by soaking hair and blood-shot eyes unwaveringly focused on the water below. He knew, logically, that Helga would have moved on. She must have hated him for leaving. She had no way of knowing if he would ever come back. Why would she have waited for him all this time?
He'd written to her the most out of everyone. He wrote lengthy play-by-plays of his adventures and sappy prose explaining how desperately he missed her and how some days he wished he never left her there on the dock, how he hadn't yet met anyone that could match up to her and doubted he ever would. But she never wrote back.
He let out a sigh as he felt the plane begin to descend, and smiled weakly over at his parents.
"Nervous?" his dad asked with a playful grin.
"You have no idea," he said, patting his hair down anxiously.
After they finally touched down and collected their belongings from baggage, they set off through the airport to find Grandpa and Grandma. For a few minutes he wondered if maybe his letters hadn't arrived in time, that maybe his coming back would be a complete surprise to everyone. It wasn't until he heard the unmistakable cry of "KIMBA!" and saw his grandparents that he felt a wave of security wash over him, and a lump formed in his throat. The first in a long series, he was sure.
"Oh, Arnold," Grandma said as she pulled him to her. She felt frailer than she used to, reminding him that they were both ninety years old now. "You've grown so much."
"Hey, Shortman! Dangit, you're taller than me now! Or am I shrinking?"
"I just grew, Grandpa," Arnold said weakly. He didn't expect to feel so emotional. Plenty of people went years without seeing their grandparents, after all; but then again, he had spent half his life in their home. He was allowed to cry, just a little, after being apart for so long, right?
He watched as more hugs, kisses, and greetings were exchanged between his parents and grandparents. Small talk had been going for a good five minutes before Grandpa suddenly exclaimed, "Oh would ya look at the time! We better get going! Come on, everybody, we don't want to be late!"
Late? For what? Arnold suddenly had a sinking feeling in his stomach. They didn't. As he was ushered out of the airport and toward the old Packard (which he couldn't believe still worked), he almost wanted to turn back. He could tell his grandparents had put together some kind of party, and he really hadn't planned on seeing everyone all at once on his first night back. Again, the image of sad blue eyes and a pink bow entered his mind. His mouth went dry.
As predicted, when he crosses the threshold of the boarding house he almost had the wind knocked out of him. Yells of "SURPRISE!" bombarded his eardrums and hands came out of nowhere to pull him into hugs and handshakes. He could barely register what was happening, he was so blown away by how many people showed up. Everyone from Dino Spumoni to Monkeyman to Mr. Green to Principal Wartz came. He knew he had an impressive resume of helping people back in the day, but this? It seemed like the entire city had come to welcome him home.
He felt a stinging in his eyes. God. Not now. He swallowed thickly as he smiled out at everyone, unsure of what to say beyond a simple "thank you".
"Hey man," he heard from his left, and turned to see the face of his childhood best friend, with the same tall hair and cocked eyebrow. He had a soul patch now, but otherwise Gerald's appearance had barely changed. They did their old handshake, the stinging feeling returning to Arnold's eyes as they did so, before pulling each other into a tight hug. A couple of tears forced their way down his cheeks, but he didn't try too hard to stop it. When they parted, hands still grasping each other's shoulders, he could see that Gerald's eyes were shining too. They grinned, both embarrassed to display such "unmanly" emotions.
"It's good to have you back, my main man."
A small sob erupted from Gerald's right and Arnold looked down to see Phoebe, who had grown into a beautiful young woman (of course, still sporting blue framed glasses). "Hey, Phoebe. Long time no see."
She nodded weakly as she pulled a tissue out of her pocket. Evidently, she came prepared. He smiled. Maybe everyone was more or less the same, after all.
But wait, if Phoebe was here, then…
He scanned the crowd for a flash of pink, a mess of golden blonde hair, any hint… but he saw nothing.
"She didn't come, Arnold."
He looked down at Phoebe, who was staring up at him imploringly, as if daring him to confirm who she was referring to. His smile faltered. So this is how it's going to be, he thought to himself sadly.
Gerald swung an arm around his shoulders and led him away from the foyer. As the adults swarmed around his parents, begging for tales of their travels, Arnold was led into the kitchen, where many of his old classmates stood waiting. He was first bombarded by Rhonda, who looked the same as always – raven-haired, stylish, and still favoring the color red.
"I must say, Arnold, you have managed to prove once again how fashionable you are. I thought that surely, what, with you being away from people and all, you would come here wearing some kind of… loincloth," she finished with a wrinkled nose.
"Uh, thanks, Rhonda. Good to see you, too," he said, suddenly very aware of his faded jeans and flannel button-down.
"Oh Arnold, it just brings me ever so much joy to see your face again," Lila said as she pulled him in for a hug. "I'm sure it's just been too, too long."
She looked, as Rhonda did, just like she always had. She had lost the braids, so her red hair fell over her shoulders, but her attire was still akin to her old style - conservative yet feminine. She was still beautiful, there was no denying that.
He was met with various greetings from each one of his classmates, who had all changed in noticeable, adult ways, but still seemed to be, overall, the same people he had left four years ago. They had no idea what a comfort that was to him.
After helping himself to a soda and chatting for a bit, he excused himself and set off to mingle with the other guests. He figured if they were all there for him, he should take the time to say hello to every single one of them.
He was standing in the foyer, telling Harold's parents about how he once helped build a schoolhouse in one of the villages he had been to, when he heard the door open. He turned to see if someone was leaving already, but he was met with a completely different picture.
She was standing there, stopped dead in the doorway and staring at him, her eyes wider than he had ever seen them. He felt like he couldn't breathe anymore. She was more beautiful than he could have dreamed. In his mind, she was forever the thirteen year-old she had been when he left. This… this was a woman. A woman who was still so undeniably Helga. Her hair was swept over her shoulder, held in place by her trademark pink bow. Her unibrow had been replaced by two neatly plucked eyebrows, resting over sky blue eyes. Her face was thinner, yet somehow softer, and her awkward preteen body had developed into perfect curves (at least in his opinion).
He seemed to float toward her, wordlessly leaving his conversation with the Bermans. He stopped in front of her, but neither of them spoke. They just stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. He couldn't help but notice that, for the first time in their lives, he was taller than her.
Her eyes were different than he remembered. They seemed strained... sad. Desperate, even, and angry. They looked how they did when they were children and everything about her life made her miserable. He felt his heart sink into his stomach. He didn't want her to look at him with such sadness, didn't want to be one of the things that made her feel that way. His hands twitched at his sides. He didn't know if he should hug her, but he wanted to. He wanted to hold her tight enough to break her, to smell her hair and tell her not to worry anymore, that he was back and everything was okay, that she didn't have to be sad because he could make her happy again... he could save her again.
But he knew he couldn't do that, or say those things. Not now. Not after the way they parted. Not after four years of silence from her. He lowered his gaze, unsure of what to do next.
"Hey… football head," she finally whispered, her voice hoarse. He looked back up to see her eyes shining with tears she obviously wasn't going to let fall, but she was smiling at him. He smiled back. Maybe she didn't hate him after all.
"Helga…" he breathed, pulling her to him. He wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her hair like he'd wanted to, letting himself take her in. He felt her arms reach around him, fingers lightly brushing the back of his neck.
When they parted, he stepped away from her and grinned. Cocking his head in the direction of the kitchen, he led the way back to his old classmates.
Phoebe wasn't listening to the conversation going on around her. She was too busy thinking about the way Helga had sounded on the phone fifteen minutes ago. She sounded tired. Distracted. Like she had been crying. Phoebe hated when her best friend got like this. But in a way, it was a relief. There was only so much apathy she could take – an upset Helga was certainly better than a Helga who was void of emotion.
She was also relieved to find out that Helga decided to come to the party after all, because the look on Arnold's face when she told him that Helga hadn't come was all she needed to know he'd never really gotten over her, just as she knew that Helga had never gotten over him (as much as she tried). Phoebe called her when Arnold was preoccupied with talking to his old classmates, and almost told her about how he looked for her in the crowd – but she decided it was better for Helga to find out for herself that she was still on his mind.
She couldn't help but smile to herself when they walked into the kitchen together. Arnold looked comfortable for the first time since walking in the door that night, and she imagined having Helga next to him had everything to do with it. Helga, however, looked unsure. Scared, even. Phoebe knew that Helga must have a deep fear of Arnold failing to live up to her memory of him. She also knew how hard it must be for her to be around him now, after such a long absence. Helga had tried so hard to forget about him, and now any progress she made had been tossed out into the wind – there was no turning back for her, no matter what resulted from seeing Arnold again. If nothing came of it, if they didn't end up back together – or worse, if something did happen and he just left again – she would be back at square one.
But, Phoebe was confident that the result could only be positive – at least, she desperately hoped it would be. She had always been of the opinion that the two teenagers now sitting beside her were soul mates, and it wasn't because she just supported her best friend's borderline psychotic obsession when they were kids. She honestly thought things would ultimately work out for them, even after Arnold all but fell off the face of the planet. If only Helga would allow herself to open up to him again.
As everyone asked Arnold about his adventures and took turns catching him up on life in the city, Phoebe sat back and simply observed. Whenever the attention wasn't directly on him, his eyes would unfailingly be on Helga. She would look at him, too, when it seemed like no one was looking. Phoebe could tell that what they had was far from dead. It was in the way they ever so slightly leaned toward each other and in the way Arnold's smile would change just a bit when he caught her eye. Phoebe couldn't help but notice, also, that Helga was wearing her pink ribbon for the first time in years.
Their hands touched accidentally during one of Rhonda's stories. They both jerked their hands back and stared at each other, just for a moment, before Helga stood up. To everyone else it seemed sudden, even rude, but Phoebe knew it had nothing to do with Rhonda. It was just that Helga simply couldn't take it anymore.
"Um, sorry," she said lamely, realizing she interrupted the story. "I just… have to leave."
She turned and walked out of the kitchen. Arnold stood up and followed her, without even noticing the appalled look on Rhonda's face.
"Helga, wait!" she heard him call, and she turned to watch him struggle through the crowd of people. When he finally met her at the door, she forced herself to smile and hug him. The familiar scent of his shampoo yet again forced its way into her senses, and she felt like fainting.
"I just came to see you… for old time's sake," she whispered into his ear after a moment. "But I can't stay."
He pulled away from her, his brows furrowed. "You practically just got here!"
"I just… can't," she said. He looked confused. She sighed. "I hope you can understand. You… you look good, football head."
"But I miss your hat," she cut him off and turned to leave. She walked down the steps of his stoop, mentally congratulating herself on her smooth departure.
"Wait!" he shouted, and within seconds he was blocking her path on the sidewalk. She was surprised; surely he knew it was rude to leave all those people in there just to come after her.
"Stay. Please. I just got back. Everyone's in there. You should be, too."
"No… I feel like going home. You should be in there mingling. We can catch up another day," she said as she tried to walk past him. He stepped back to block her again. The nine year old in her wanted to push him and shout 'Move it, football head!' but, unfortunately, things were no longer that simple.
"But I want to see you now. You… you were the one I was looking forward to seeing the most, out of everybody," he said nervously, and a slight flush crept onto his face.
It began to rain.
He looked up, briefly, and smiled at the sky before looking back at her. "Here we are, standing in the rain again. Should I run in and grab an umbrella?"
"Arnold, please," she said, sighing. Why would he say that? Does he know how significant that is, or is he just being nice? "…I knew coming here was a bad idea."
She stared at him, her eyes searching his. He looked… desperate? She suddenly found herself facing an age old decision: whether now would be a good time to spill her heart out or run like hell in the opposite direction. Finally, she decided she couldn't just walk away – she owed him some semblance of an explanation. After all, people don't normally flee from welcome home parties a mere fifteen minutes after arriving.
"I… was scared," she said, finally. There, are you happy now?
"Of what?" Guess not. Typical.
"Arnold…" she paused for what felt like hours, biting her lip, trying to come to terms with the fact that now she really had no choice but to tell him the truth. God, why does he have to be so dense? "You have no idea how hard this has been for me. You leaving so suddenly… you broke my heart. I – I wanted to forget about you. So badly. I tried really, really hard. And just when I thought that maybe I had a chance of… well, you came back, out of the blue. I figure… it might have been better if I just didn't come here and, you know, continued to get on with my life."
He stood for a moment, just staring at her, before his expression suddenly turned to anger. "Hard for you? I left everything behind back then. Yeah I wanted to go with my parents… but do you really think it was easy for me to leave you? To leave here? I know we were young, but I-"
"Oh come off it, Arnoldo," she cut him off irritably. He was not about to play himself off as the victim here. No fucking way. "You flew off into the sunset to explore the far reaches of the world, leaving me behind in the dust to pick up the pieces of my life. You know it. I know it. End of story."
"That's not how it was, Helga! I didn't leave you 'in the dust'! I wanted to stay in touch! You were the one who refused to listen to reason, or even look at me, that day on the dock! You were the one who never responded to any of my letters! Did you even read them?"
She looked away, angrily staring down the bench across the street. How dare he make her feel guilty about that?
"I figured as much," he said sadly. "Look… I didn't want to break your heart. Going away with my parents was something I just had to do. I thought you of all people would have understood that. You always got me."
She sighed, cursing him for pulling the 'we get each other' card on her. "I know. I know… that's why I didn't ask you to stay. I didn't want you to feel like you owed me anything."
They stood in silence for a minute, avoiding each other's gaze. It was pouring now.
"I thought you would be different," she finally said, so quietly that she wondered if he could even hear her over the rain.
"I was expecting… oh I don't know. A heroic adventurer. A connoisseur of some kind. A tall, dark and handsome traveler who left behind a broken heart everywhere he went. Maybe a treasure hunter or a pirate. I don't know, it sounds stupid out loud."
"You always did have vivid fantasies," he chuckled, and she shot him a glare, wanting to kick herself.
"My point is, I wasn't expecting the same old football head. I can tell just by looking at you… you haven't really changed. Just grown… And that makes things, somehow, so much worse," she said, her voice cracking slightly.
"Why? If I'm basically the same guy you've always known, how could that be bad?"
"Because… I'm not," she bit her lip again. "The same, I mean."
He didn't say anything; just waited for her to elaborate. She rolled her eyes. His silent urging never failed to send her into a tangent about whatever was bothering her. And he knew that.
"I'm not the girl you knew growing up, Arnold. After you left, it was like I… died inside or something. I know it sounds crazy. I don't feel anymore. I just go through the motions. I don't even have the energy to be mean anymore, not even to Brainy! For almost all of my young life my entire existence revolved around you in some way, so when you were gone, I felt so empty. Like I said on the FTI building back then… from the moment I saw you, I lived and breathed for you. I… I don't even write anymore. I'm a… a shell of the girl I once was," she said, but when she realized how stupid and dramatic it must have sounded, she quickly added: "Or some corny bullshit like that."
She felt a knot in her throat, and tears stung her eyes for what felt like the hundredth time that day. She hoped he couldn't tell.
"I thought maybe if you were a different person it wouldn't be as hard," she concluded sadly. "Maybe it would even give me closure, allow me to really move on, finally."
She observed him for a few moments, trying to take him in: Faded jeans and a red plaid button-down, dirty blonde hair weighed down with rain water, and deep green eyes that could so easily see through to the very core of her being. Arnold. My Arnold.
"But you're not different, are you? And I knew if that were the case… you would be so disappointed in me for letting myself get to this point. Because I knew if you hadn't changed, you would have expected me to stay the same, too."
"I don't believe for a second that you've changed, Helga," he said, and the firmness in his voice took her by surprise.
"You just don't get it –" she began, but he cut her off.
"No, I get it, Helga. I do. I left, and that pissed you off. It hurt me too, to leave like that. Believe me. But I thought you understood that I had to do it – you just said a minute ago that you did! I couldn't lose my parents again; I wanted to be a part of their life, but I couldn't just force them to stay in Hillwood when it obviously wasn't what they wanted. And I barely had three years with them, after spending my whole childhood not knowing if they were even alive. I couldn't give them up so soon."
"Criminy, Arnold! I did understand!"
"Did you? Because it seems like you're trying to make me feel guilty about something I had very little control over! And that's fucking bullshit and you know it!" he shouted. For a brief second she caught an apologetic look on his face, probably for swearing at her, before he regained his composure and went back to looking angry.
"You act like I left on purpose, to get away from you or something. Like I wanted to hurt you," he continued, his voice low and steady. "But you're ignoring that when we were on the dock that day, I told you I wanted to keep in touch. I wanted to try to make it work, long distance, because I honestly thought we could do it. I believed in us, Helga, even though we were only thirteen. But you just shut me out. You never even said goodbye to me."
She stared at him. He looked so… hurt. She vaguely remembered what he was talking about. Maybe he did say he wanted to try and make it work. She had stopped listening the moment he said he was leaving the next day. She had assumed that meant it was over between them, and starting willing the ocean to come up and swallow her. She suddenly felt guilty. Could it really have worked if they kept in touch, if she read and responded to his letters?
"So no, Helga, you don't get to play 'woman scorned'. You chose to give me the cold shoulder that day. You chose to ignore my letters. I wrote to you more than anyone else, even Gerald or my grandparents. I kept waiting for a response, but knowing you… you probably threw them away without even opening them. Or had someone else do it for you."
She hung her head. He was right. Of course he was right. But it was only part of her healing process. She never would have gotten over him if she had indulged in reading them. She never did get over him, but eventually it might have worked, right?
"You're right, I never read any of your letters. And in the beginning I wrote some myself but I never sent them; I threw those away too," she said, looking up to meet his gaze. "You know why though? The way I saw it, I didn't have much of a choice. You never gave me a timeline; you just said you were going away. How was I supposed to know you'd ever come back? If you did, when? When you were thirty? What if you died? Or got lost, like your parents? I couldn't spend my life wondering about all the 'what ifs', I had to try to move on. I know it seems crazy, coming from me, but I decided to be as mature as I could about it. I wasn't about to chase you to the ends of the earth like I would have when we were kids. I knew the smart thing to do was to just… try to forget about you."
He sighed and looked away from her, staring blankly at the shadows moving around in the lit windows of the boarding house.
"And you know what?" she said, glad to have the upper hand again. "I think it was really fucking selfish of you to expect me to wait for you."
"I didn't expect that," he said defensively, quickly turning back to face her.
"It sure sounds like you did, Arnold!" she shouted. "What did you expect would happen when you got here, huh? That I would be waiting for you with open arms, eager to have you rescue me from my horrible family and whisk me off to some brighter future?"
She was crying freely now, because it was a lie; that was exactly what she wanted, it's what she'd fantasized about since preschool. His face softened.
"A guy can dream."
She laughed, but it came out sounding like a sob. She supposed it was really half and half. He smiled fondly at her.
"My plan didn't work at all."
"I wanted to look really good tonight so you would want me. Then I would turn you down to prove how over you I was," she said, rolling her eyes. "It sounds so stupid out loud. Especially since I'm not even a little bit over you. I don't think I ever will be."
"Well, the first couple parts worked," he said, smirking at her, in that annoying way only he could pull off. "You could still turn me down though, if you want. I hope you don't, though."
"Fuck you, football head."
"See? You haven't changed at all."
"I guess. The real me must have gone into a coma or something," she said, grinning at him through her tears. "From boredom, I mean. Without you around to pick on, she must have found this place to be pretty dull."
"Whatever you say, Helga," he said as he reached into his back pocket and pulled out something small and blue. Even in the rain, she knew what it was before he placed the hat on top of his head. It looked even more ridiculous now that he was an adult, and she couldn't help but allow her grin to grow wider. He did the same, and reached for her.
She practically fell into his arms, her body molding into his so perfectly that she was positive her skeleton had left her. He wrapped his arms tightly around her as she grabbed his shirt collar, pulling him down into a kiss. It was exactly as she imagined it would be – as passionate and desperate as any kiss would be after four years apart. In some ways it was something completely new, as it was their first real grown up kiss, not the sloppy, awkward kind they shared when they were younger. At the same time, though, when his tongue swept against hers, she felt at home for the first time since he left.
It seemed somehow fitting that they would finally be in each other's arms again, standing in the pouring rain. She released his shirt collar and wrapped her arms around his neck and shoulders. It was true, in a way, that the 'real her' had been in a coma since he left, hidden away in the box in her closet with everything else that reminded her of him. She felt awake, alive even, standing here with him. Like she could finally breathe again. Her mind was suddenly so clear. Nothing, even her family troubles, seemed so bad now that Arnold was here to save her, to protect her like he always had.
As they kissed like there was no tomorrow, she kept wondering why she ever let herself doubt him. This was Arnold, after all. Her Arnold. The steady force that had always been there for her, no matter how desperately she tried to push him away. Even after she tried for years to push him out her life, he still came back. And she was so stupid to think he wouldn't have. Perhaps they were meant to be, like she always thought when she was a kid. Maybe her childhood fantasies weren't so farfetched after all.
They parted, after what seemed, somehow, like both an eternity and mere seconds. She gazed into his eyes, trying to will herself not to faint from sheer joy. He looked so perfect, soaking wet and grinning like a fool with that ridiculous blue hat on. She decided, then, that perhaps it was meant to be this way. He was meant to leave, and she was meant to ignore his letters, just so that, after being apart for so long, they could have this moment together.
Her hands slipped down to his arms and, sighing, she moved to rest her head against his shoulder. Her soaking wet clothes were uncomfortable, but she didn't want this to end yet. What if she let go of him and he disappeared?
"This is real, right?" she asked. He chuckled and tightened his grip on her.
"Yeah, I know how you feel."
They stood that way for another minute, neither wanting to let the moment go. It was Arnold who broke the silence first, when he let out a shiver.
"Maybe we shouldn't be standing in the rain like this," he said, his tone light. He stepped back and took her hand, and for a moment she was worried he would lead her back inside. She wasn't ready to, not quite yet. Instead, though, he pulled her over to the building next door, which had an awning over the front windows. "Here. Still soaked but better, yeah?"
"Yeah," she answered, though she didn't really mind either way.
"I kind of forgot about the weather here," Arnold continued, smirking as he casually moved closer to her. "It rains down there but it's never this cold. You'd think we'd be able to go without jackets in May."
"You just have to get used to it again," she said, grinning. "I thought a tough jungle hero like you would be able to tough out a little sprinkling..."
"Helga, it's pouring."
"Give it a couple months and this will seem like a drizzle to you," she insisted, though she was cold too and her feet were quickly growing uncomfortable in sopping wet shoes. It occurred to her then that she didn't actually know if he was going to be here in two months, and her smile faded. "Um. Unless you're leaving again... doi."
She laughed as flippantly as she could, but he moved closer still and took her hand again. "I'm not. I'm here at least until after college. Traveling is great but my parents aren't exactly qualified to grant bachelor's degrees." He smirked, like he thought he was really clever, and Helga rolled her eyes.
"So where are you going? Around here?"
"I came back a little late to apply anywhere now. I still have to get my GED and take admissions tests, all of that stuff that I really didn't miss having to do while I was away," he explained with a shrug. "I guess I'm spending the next year getting used to America again. Probably for the best. What about you?"
For a brief, insane moment, Helga wanted to forgo college for a year just to go wherever Arnold ended up going. She didn't have to go right now. Taking a year off with Arnold was far more appealing than escaping Hillwood, even though that was all she'd been focusing on for the last four years.
That sort of thinking was ridiculous, though. They'd kissed once since he returned and she was already planning her life around him, again. He'd run for the hills if he really truly knew what kind of affect he had on her.
"I don't know yet, haven't decided. I got into some good schools, but... maybe I'll go backpacking or something, you know, just to piss Big Bob off."
"Is he still a jerk to you?" Arnold asked, his face strained with sudden worry. It made her wonder if he allowed himself to forget what she dealt with at home, and she squeezed his hand reassuringly.
"Calm your tits, football head. He's... been better, lately. Olga's back home and failing at being an adult even though she's almost thirty, so she's the disappointment now. Suddenly I have potential, I guess."
"Oh. Well... that's good. For you, I mean."
She shrugged. Arnold looked like he was itching to interrogate her about her life, and it made her blush. If he only knew how boring she'd been since he left. "You - we - should get back your party soon," she said, cutting off his opportunity to start asking questions. "But there's one thing I want to know before we go back in."
"How many girlfriends do you have down there?"
He laughed, but quickly stopped when she scowled at him. "Helga, if you read my letters you'd know that every girl I met couldn't live up to you. My memory of you, I mean. I tried... it wasn't like I was, uh, unpopular down there, but I always ended up making comparisons. No one had as much spunk as you."
"Yeah, spunk. And fire, and passion. Or maybe I just have a thing for girls who think they're tough but cry over sappy movies when they think no one's looking."
Flushing red, she lightly punched his arm with her free hand. "You're one sick bastard, then."
"Maybe. But even if I wasn't, it was still kind of a problem that I couldn't even look at a girl without wondering if you were off, thousands of miles away, looking at a guy. It was like, this completely irrational thought that if I seriously dated someone else, you would know somehow and do the same. And I hated the thought of you looking at anyone else the way you used to look at me."
Slowly, she met his eyes, wanting to throw herself into him with such force that their souls would merge together. "Arnold..."
"Yeah, exactly like that," he breathed, tilting his head down and bringing his hand up to touch her face. This time, she was the one that shivered. "Did you ever, you know, see anyone else? It's okay if you did, I didn't want to make it sound like-"
"Shut up, Arnold. I didn't." Despite his last statement, the sigh Arnold let out sounded a whole lot like one of relief. She couldn't help but quirk her lips into a tiny, self satisfied smile. "You're the only guy I've ever liked, and I have a feeling it's going to stay that way. I know it sounds psychotic."
"Kind of, but I don't care."
"I told you it was selfish to expect me to wait for you, but I was totally waiting for you. I told myself I wasn't, but I was. I probably would have forever."
"Good thing I'm here then."
"Have you always been such an asshole?"
They laughed breathily, both relieved at the intensity of their feelings for each, and he pulled her closer. "Stay over tonight."
"Arnold," she hissed, surprised and suddenly worried, her mind flooding with images she sometimes allowed herself to picture when she was alone at night. She knew if he asked she would do any and everything with him, even after only being reunited for a few hours. But she also knew she shouldn't.
"No! N-no not... not like that, I didn't mean - uh," he stammered, releasing his grip on her. "I'm not like that. I don't think you of you that way - I mean, I do, especially now, like all night, because you - I just don't want you to go home, is what I meant. I don't want to do anything, just talk. You're really beautiful though, I didn't mean I don't think you are, just that I'm not a pervert. Sorry."
Laughing, she reached up and gave him a pat on the cheek. "You always did make it so easy to laugh at you," she said lightly, since mocking him was the only way she could keep herself from focusing on the fact that they were adults now, and could do adult things.
"So will you?"
The answer was obvious, given how appealing the thought of spending the night in Arnold's childhood bedroom was. "Sure. But now that we have all night to catch up, we should probably go back inside. I'm not one for being polite, but you're kind of the point of that party. And Rhonda's probably livid that we walked out on her story."
"Oh, right... well, you walked out."
"And you didn't have to follow me."
"Yeah, I did."
Helga grinned and stepped out from under the awning. "Well follow me back inside, then."
"Wait a sec," Arnold said as he moved toward her. He took her face in his hands and kissed her again; it was softer and slower than the first one, but no less perfect. Her knees went weak and when he released her, she had to catch herself from stumbling forward. "Probably won't get to do that again until everyone leaves, so..."
"We're going to go back inside and everyone's going to look at us and know. I hope you're ready to be embarrassed," she said, though she herself wasn't ready in the least, especially not for the inevitable 'I told you so' looks Phoebe and Gerald had probably been exchanging since she and Arnold left the kitchen.
"Looking forward to it, actually." They exchanged a grin, but just as Helga started walking again, he grabbed her arm, his expression serious. "I'm sorry for yelling at you before. And I'm really glad you don't hate me."
"Believe me, I tried to," she said, still surprised by how easy it was to be honest with him. She was never honest with anyone. For a moment she debated admitting the full, intense, crazy truth, but ultimately decided it could never come off any crazier than it did the first time she said it. "But... I still love you. I haven't built any shrines in a long time though, so you don't have to worry about that."
He laughed, having accepted her eccentricities with a surprising amount of grace all those years ago. He'd even asked to see the shrines and the poetry at one point, fueled by amused curiosity, but that request was shot down and he'd had the decency not to push it.
"I still love you, too," he said simply, naturally, like they'd never been apart. Helga felt like leaping into his arms, but she held back, and instead just reached for his hand as they finally made their way back inside.
And suddenly, predictably, she felt like writing again.