Disclaimer: I do not own Hey Arnold! or any of the characters.
A/N: I started this a few months ago when I was in a real Hey Arnold! mood. It was one of my favorite cartoons when I was a child. I guess it still is. I have another two stories in-progress for this pairing, Arnold and Helga, and if you enjoy this, I'll seriously sit down to start working on them. Hope you enjoy!
Helga could pinpoint the day it happened, the moment she broke. Broken, by the family that never cared; broken by the one boy who had always been there to put her together again. Now, he was with Lila – the pure flower had finally deemed him worthy of dating her – and Helga was with anyone who wanted her, desperate for someone to love her the way she needed to be loved. So, broken and used, she knew she wasn't worthy of Arnold's love, not that she ever had been.
With that knowledge embedded deep in her heart, she knew it was useless. She was worthless, too used for a decent man to look at her twice. So she continued to let guys use her. She no longer bullied anyone, or even stood up for herself. And Arnold was too busy in his perfect little world to notice his bully was drowning, unable to keep herself afloat.
She was demure, submissive, a woman who knew how to please men, on the outside. She'd let you do whatever you wanted, as long as you lied, as long as you told her you loved her. But on the inside, she cried out to be saved, cried out to be rescued, because she no longer had the strength to save herself.
. . .
Tonight, she found herself lying beneath a man who had no thought for anyone's pleasure but his own. His intention was to get in and get out, quickly. His name was Jake…at least she thought so. He was rough, and smelled terrible, like old socks. But he was a fantastic liar. He told her she was beautiful, even though she knew she wasn't. He told her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him, even though she knew that couldn't be. And he told her that he loved her, but she knew he only loved himself.
Yet she let him touch her, caress her, kiss her. And something that should have been beautiful and special was ugly, ordinary. Everywhere he touched felt dirty, but she needed the words. The words were what made this worth it. Every man who told her these beautiful, disgusting lies both saved her and slaughtered her, for they could never be the one person she wanted to hear them from, but some days, she could almost believe them.
So focused on the grunts and pants from above her, she failed to hear the door open until Arnold's voice was heard, complaining about getting dumped. Helga tried to hide her face, ashamed to be caught by the one man she had ever loved. Finally noticing the couple, he paused.
"Oh! Jack! Dude! I'm sorry, man. I – Helga!"
She saw his jaw drop and his eyes widen in shock before he turned and left, slamming the door behind him. Helga closed her eyes in shame, as guilt tore at her heart. Without missing a beat, Jack thrust exactly two more times before releasing into the condom with a loud groan. Spent, he collapsed to the side. Humiliated, Helga stood up and began putting her clothes on, not even caring that her needs had not been taken care of.
"Leaving so soon, babe?" Jack asked
"Yes," she replied, turning to level him under one of her stares. "And don't forget. This was a one-time thing. It never happens again." Helga could never sleep with the same guy twice; it made it seem like they were forming a thing, a connection. She didn't want to be connected to any of them.
He nodded before smiling cockily as though saying she would be back, begging for more. Dressed, Helga almost snorted before she walked to the door and left, heading to her room for a shower and a cry. This was the life she'd chosen, so why did it always make her feel so dirty?
. . .
Arnold raced across the campus, too upset to slow down, and too confused to consider where he was going. He'd just witnessed his roommate having sex with Helga! Sex! With Helga! Helga was his childhood friend! His personal bully. The girl he'd managed to befriend against all odds. It was weird, seeing her in that position.
Finally stopping under a tree, Arnold leaned over, panting, trying to catch his breath. His angry thoughts swirled in his mind. Finally realizing what he was doing, he shook his head to clear it. Why was he angry about Helga? Lila had just dumped him for Stinky! Why wasn't he upset about that? Why was he having trouble keeping his thoughts on Lila? Why could he only see Helga's panicked face? Why could he only hear Jack's grunts? Why did he have the urge to bash Jack's head in? Sighing, he sat down, resting his head on his knees. He couldn't go back to the room tonight. He would take a few more moments, then he would catch the bus home.
So, later that night, when Arnold trudged up the stairs to his room, his grandparents could only watch, saddened by the broken-hearted boy who didn't want to talk about it, before going upstairs to sleep.
. . .
It had been a month since Arnold had caught her with Jack. Helga saw Arnold around campus all the time, but he didn't even give her the polite hello anymore. He turned his eyes away and deliberately avoided her. She'd have supposed he was just embarrassed if she hadn't caught the disgusted expression more than once. Still, she continued her life as she had been. There had been more guys since Jack, though less than there might have been before Arnold's interruption.
Sighing as she sat gracefully in one of the numerous comfy couches the library had to offer, she opened her book and continued reading. She didn't look up until she heard Arnold's voice next to her.
She was hushed by the librarian and promptly lowered her voice. "What is it?"
Her voice was cautious, as though he was only here to torment her. If the situation had been less serious, Arnold would have laughed at the thought of him tormenting Helga Pataki. Wouldn't that be a reversal of roles?
"I just…uh…" He scratched the back of his neck. "Be careful, okay? With Jack I mean. He isn't-"
Helga cut him off. "Arnold, Jack was a…one-time thing. He won't be happening again."
Oh. Arnold hadn't expected that. Helga could tell that wasn't the answer he'd expected.
"What? Surprised? Don't be. This is who I am."
She stood up, unconcerned about whether he'd follow her or not. She made this choice as a response to a choice he'd made, but she didn't blame anyone for this life except herself. She just didn't see a way out of it.
But she should have known Arnold would follow her. He always had, before Lila. Before Lila, he'd always been there for Helga, though sometimes unintentionally, though neither could figure out why.
He followed her down the stairs, not talking until they were outside the library. "Helga, I just want to understand. I know we haven't talked a lot lately, but maybe-"
"Maybe what, Football Head?" There was the old Helga. "Maybe you can fix it? Not everything can be fixed! And you can't fix this! Not this time!" She turned her face away from him. She was done crying about this, done talking about it. She was done.
"Helga, I just want to understand. I don't know why you changed, or what happened, but we used to be friends. I thought we still were. Why can't you talk to me?"
"You know what happened." She sounded so tired, so defeated, that Arnold had the urge to wrap his arms around her and give her the biggest hug he could muster.
The old Helga would have pushed him away. He didn't know what this new Helga would do, but he knew he should risk it. He'd always trusted his instincts with Helga, and they had never failed to tell him when she was lying, or how she really felt. So, cautiously, as though she would run away if he moved too fast, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pulling her firmly to himself. When they were younger, he had noticed, Helga would make a weird sighing noise just before she pulled away from him. This time, she made no noise, merely stiffened in his arms. He hadn't realized he'd missed that noise. He hadn't realized a lot of things where Helga was concerned. But that stopped today. Today would be their fresh start, if she wanted one as much as he did.
Finally, she relaxed, cautiously wrapping her arms around his waist, as though one wrong movement would send him away from her, back to his senses. Only when her cheek was resting on his shoulder, and she didn't seem in danger of running away did he speak.
Resting his chin on her hair, grateful that he had eventually gotten that growth spurt, he spoke. "Helga, why?"
Without stopping to ask why it was suddenly so easy to talk to him, she told him almost everything. As she always had, she spilled her guts to Arnold without worrying that he would judge her, because he never had. Yet, she always left out that minor detail: that she loved him.
When her story about not feeling worthy of love, and not finding a guy who would love her for who she was concluded, she realized Arnold was very tense beside her. Pulling back to look in his face, she saw that his jaw was clenched and his eyes were hard. Momentarily frightened, she tried to back away, but he would not let her. Banding one arm around her waist, he used the other to tilt her chin up.
"Helga, none of that stuff is true. You're beautiful, smart, funny. Any man would be lucky to have you. You are compassionate, caring, and sensitive, when you want to be. At least," he paused, "the old Helga was."
Helga felt tears running down her cheeks. She was no longer worthy of any kind of affection from Arnold because she'd made the wrong choices. She knew that, so why would he try to rub that in?
"Helga," he softened his voice, wiping away her tears, still keeping his grip on her, so she would listen. "Helga, I know you're still in there. Somewhere inside of you is the woman you were meant to be, the woman I've always known you could be. You just have to make the choice to let her out."
And suddenly, though it wasn't what he'd originally wanted to confront her about, he knew it was true.
She shook her head in denial, trying to get away from him. "I'm not the person you think I am."
"Yes, you are. You are. And you know that too, deep down. Why would you let men use you, when I know you're stronger than that?"
"Because I'm not!" She was screaming now, desperate for him to understand. "I've never been good enough! Not for my parents! Not for you! So just let me go, Arnold! I'm not good enough to love you!"
Arnold was stunned. How could she say she wasn't good enough? His confusion gave her the opportunity to get away, but she didn't run. Her tears ran freely down her face, temporarily blinding her. But Arnold didn't notice. Her words echoed in his mind. I'm not good enough to love you!
That wasn't true. Helga had always been a good person. Even now, through her mistakes, he could still see the woman she was meant to be. How could he make her see that? She'd told him she'd loved him once, and maybe if he hadn't been so intent on denying his own feelings, he could have saved her from this. But now he could make it up to her, and spend the rest of their lives doing it.
He didn't know when he'd started seeing her in this new way. Maybe he'd finally needed to let Lila go before he could truly see his own feelings. Maybe he needed to see Helga with another guy before it truly registered that he might lose her. But a part of him had always known. He only knew that suddenly he could see clearer when she was around, as though a light was turned off until she arrived, and it was hard to catch his breath, because his heart had knocked the wind out of him as it tripped over itself to get closer to her. He only knew now that he couldn't imagine his life without her in it.
But he knew if he didn't say something, do something, she was going to walk out of his life forever. He stared into her teary eyes, his mouth moving silently, his heart screaming words his mind could not comprehend. Finally, as she turned to walk away, he managed one word, her name. He knew his heart had been the one to say it, because she stopped, and turned to face him. Tears were streaming down her face, but her eyes held hope and fear. If he rejected her again, it would destroy her.
Unable to form the words he wanted, he let his eyes speak for him as he moved to take her in his arms. Burying his face in her soft hair as her tears fell on his neck, he held her as though he would never let go. And finally the words came.
"I love you. I'm sorry."
And it was enough.
"I love you," she whispered.
He told her she was beautiful, and she was. He told her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and she believed him. He told her he loved her, and her eyes brimmed with tears as she whispered it back. Arnold never lied.