Arnold doesn't cope. Helga moves in. Arnold continues to not cope. Or, the year after the year after high school.
pg-13/t, arnold/helga, ~3400
future-fic, spoilers through tjm, background character death
an 1: yes, people, i wrote it. don't be hating, you all know who i am or at least you should by now ;_;
an 2: yes i took the title from oasis. the fucks i give, they are none.
Arnold remembers Helga's wildness, the constant motion of her, hard words and sudden movements that he now understands were a wounded animal's desperate fight for survival.
More than anything else, more even than his grandparents in some impossible way he still can't understand, the absence of her from his life had been devastating while he had been gone. He had come back oddly sure that this simple truth of his life hadn't changed while he had been away from her, and then he had become quietly eager for it, the comforting return of Helga's harsh emotional swings.
But he remembers the quietness of her when he'd returned with his parents after they'd learned of his grandfather's passing, the new tightness in her back as she left school each day to walk and bus her way to her job— and how that new stillness had left him disturbed about what felt like another loss.
Grow up or get out, and she'd finally done both.
He knows from Gerald who knows through Phoebe that she'd run away to live the last six months before her eighteenth birthday at the Heyerdahl's and that they had let her stay past that because she'd grown so much on them while she'd been with them. No money from Big Bob, no calls or visits from Miriam, and there's a sick knowledge inside him that Helga could have saved herself far sooner.
That no one would have tried to bring her back.
Arnold doesn't let himself think of whatever must have happened to have her finally get herself out.
Now, looking so much calmer than he can ever remember, she sleeps three doors down from himself, plays no loud music and leaves no mess— no, no signthat she's even there at all.
Arnold misses the noise and the motion, has missed it since he'd come home to Grandpa's funeral and refused to leave his home again, and misses it more and more as the last few years of school pass and Helga quiets more and more and he watches her tuck herself away, finally able to catch her breath. But he misses the impact of her body against his, and the assurance that she will always be there even if it's not always easy to ride out the waves that make up her day to day life, and, yes, he misses the bow just a little as well.
But Helga has already survived the worst that the world has thrown at her so far, and the anger's been burning away as there no longer seems to be any need for it.
His fingers itch to prod the embers back to life.
Helga had only brought two boxes, both strangled with too much packing tape and neither labeled, and an ancient purse with her. Phoebe had shown up the same day with bags of food from home and a few boxes of moving gifts (new sheets and a new purse from Reba and a bag with colored fluff sticking out of the top from Phoebe herself) and the two young women were tucked away into Helga's new room for the next twelve hours. The ancient purse had been out with the trash for him the next morning.
And that's that, and months later she's somehow even less a part of his life than before.
She's gone most mornings before sunrise and back long after the sun's fallen, and she pays Arnold every month without any problem and without engaging him in conversation despite his attempts to force one ("you look tired" "yeah, okay" and he waits to hear a nickname in a tone once made hard with emotion). He knows she works two jobs, one she likes and another she doesn't like nearly as much, and he knows about the night classes at the community college on the other side of town, and he waits up some nights only to slip away in a moment of panic when he hears her coming up the front steps.
And he sees Phoebe now more than Helga, the petite woman greeting him at Gerald's side out of the boarding house and beaming a smile at him when she comes to pick up Helga.
Mom calls a few times a week, Dad calls a few times a week, and Arnold keeps up the boarding house.
The Packard sits comfortably out back, stubbornly still kicking, refusing to leave him.
The drought's still going on the way it has been for a few years, the summer heat easing but never completely leaving (it's been years since this area's been right, weather-speaking, at least not since he's gotten back) and now winter is as cold as ever and it's also so dry it burns a little. No snow, little rain, but the cold sets in the way it does every year, and he frets as soon as it does.
He had bought her a coat the year he'd come back to Hillwood, and she had stared at the box he'd passed her on her front step like she had no idea what she was supposed to do with it. "I know it's too early for Christmas," he'd assured, and he remembers her blinking slowly, expression wary like she was sure he was about to knock her out and toss her in the trunk of a car he didn't have, "but I want you to have something warm to wear," because you're always cold, I see it.
The outside had been a warm brown, the inside a smoky pink, and she'd stared down at it and then up at him and then back down at it and… just kept staring.
Finally she'd simply said, "I was already saving up for one," and he still remembers the odd twitch inside him, the stinging sensation of his care dismissed, and how she'd added, as if sure he needed to hear something else but not sure what it was, "but at least it's not ugly, right?"
And that had been that, she'd graced him with that grimace that passed as her usual smile, patted his shoulder like it was all she could manage, and closed the door in his face like the whole thing was over.
But she'd worn the coat, he remembers that, and he's never seen any other coat on her after that.
And now, like every winter that he's spent with (apart from) her, he hopes she still has it, is already prepared to find something similar if that one has worn out for this Christmas—
But Helga comes back to the boarding house (home) the first night the chill hits the air bundled up in it and an old knit hat, the now-familiar white and pink buds tucked into her ears and the cheap polyester uniform peeking out from underneath, and he breathes a sigh of relief as she heads up the stairs without a back-from-work greeting as if he doesn't exist.
Arnold goes shopping the next day and her gift is wrapped and ready a good three months before Christmas (the boots will join the heavy scarf and mittens he's given her the last two years).
She works a twelve-hour shift on Halloween, and gets home late that night as he uses the annual leftover candy binge as an excuse to wait up for her. "How was work?"
"Like work," she mutters and she's half-asleep already as he helps her shrug off her coat and then stands frozen as she grabs his arm to support herself as she toes her work shoes off her feet. She smells like sweat and salt, her hair fallen out of its loop to hang as a heavy ponytail down her back— and he blinks as she suddenly pauses to stare at him, mouth opening and then closing.
It's all very comfortable and easy and it's awkward because of that, and she says, "I'm going to bed," and it's as much a warning as the splashes of red and yellow on a snake, and he steps back.
Helga says nothing else, pointedly ignores him, and he only silently watches her carry her shoes and coat upstairs to get a few hours of sleep before her ten-hour shift tomorrow.
"We're having a dinner here—"
"I usually do the Thanksgiving thing at Phoebe's house," Helga informs him as she grabs the grape jam out of the fridge (he doesn't keep strawberry in the house) and reaches past his shoulder where he's washing dishes to grab the peanut butter down as well. "Reba will cry if I miss it again."
Arnold doesn't know when Phoebe's mother had begun to mother hen Helga but he knows it couldn't have happened unless Helga had allowed it to, and it's oddly disquieting how she has so completely formed a small but protective little family with no opening for him in it.
She makes her breakfast, eats it, and drops the plate by the sink.
There is no cruelty in her lack of invitation to join their Thanksgiving dinner.
Helga gets him a gift card for Christmas, and then works on New Year's Eve.
He types up a message, HAPPY NEW YEAR, three hours before midnight and keeps it open but still hasn't sent it by the time three a.m. has rolled around and he knows she's on the way home from work.
Arnold doesn't send it but he saves the draft.
It's hot already by the time her birthday rolls around, and he has her gift waiting the night before, passes it to her when she gets home from a late class looking pleasantly relaxed.
"Your other one isn't on your key chain anymore," he explains when he catches the genuine surprise and pleasure that lights up her face when she opens the box with only a lightly curious glance.
"It broke," she admits as she runs her fingers over the Swiss army knife, looks impressed with its weight, and he remembers when she'd saved up enough of her money to get her first one when they'd been kids, the way she'd never been without it for so many years of their childhood.
After another minute: "Thanks," she says, and that is enough.
It is on her keys by the time she's off to work the next day.
The Packard stops running, and he stays calm.
The second day and the third is the same and Arnold is panicked already but controls the fear, tries all of the fixes that have always worked before. There is no change on the fourth day, and he tries the list of fixes again as the summer heat that's already here in spring grows worse and the air begins to burn his lungs (that's the source of the agony in his chest).
(and he stubbornly ignores the figure that watches sometimes from a window, and refuses outright to notice the way she presses a palm to the glass, studies him like he's something she's sad to see again.)
He doesn't know what happens when his fifth day of effort yields the same nothing as the first four but something inside him… just kind of… gives way.
He hits the car once and twice, three times and then four— and then someone is screaming, the noise high-pitched and hysterical as sobs break the air and he pounds at the ancient metal with his open palms, striking it away as viciously as he is trying to bring it back.
Someone says his name, says it again in a voice that almost pierces the chaos, and the screaming gets louder as he tries to rip the metal right off of the car like he can do it and like that'll help.
Warmth impacts his back, startlingly strong arms wrapping around him before his hands are drawn away, gripped tight by someone pulling him with frightening ease away from the car and towards the house and the screaming has stopped, has collapsed into hoarse sobs that scrape at his chest roughly.
He's only vaguely aware of motion as he's half-carried up stairs and across carpet, as he's folded into a chair and hears quick movement, and then he jolts, shuddering, when something cold and wet slaps him right across the face, wipes hard across his cheeks. The wildness in him shifts, the switch snapped off as quickly as it had been flipped, and he's left blinking stupidly when the cloth is taken back.
Helga, of course it's Helga, now leaning over the kitchen sink as she wets the towel again and then he stares at the ball of string on her nightshirt as she comes back to him, closes his eyes as she wipes his face again, a little gentler this time. "The one day I actually get to sleep in, you have a conniption and try to beat up the iron giant," she mutters, real exasperation in her voice heavy with an echo of sorrow. He can only shudder lightly, reaching up blindly to touch her. His fingers find her wrist, circle and lock tight, and his barely audible apology just gets a sigh in response, before Helga is swaying closer to stand between his legs— pressure begins to build inside him again, already.
The cloth is finally pulled back the final time and Arnold has a glimpse of sharply intelligent eyes, lips quirked with sadness, before he pointedly looks away, focuses on the table beside him.
Helga touches him anyway, swiping wet hair back and then thumbing his cheek, and he wants to shove her away even as the hand still gripping her wrist tightens helplessly, trembles to draw her closer.
Except he can't, because—
Because the contact is as steadying as it is dangerous, and Helga is the eye of a storm he's too afraid will overwhelm him to even get close, and he feels emotion working up inside worse than before.
He smoothly pushes her back and she doesn't fight it, and he closes his eyes in defeat as she turns away, heads to the sink and then just… stands there, her body language tolerant, lenient.
After a minute the faucet is twisted on again, and she's too focused on cleaning the towel.
The Packard sits quiet and empty downstairs, and the sky outside is a little dark with storm clouds, with the promise of rain that almost looks like it might actually fall, and he has more than enough money to get a new car from all that his grandparents had left him even with everything he's done for the house already (as if a fixed house will fix the last five— ten— nineteen years of his life) and he knows Helga is saving up for a car, too, that they could—
But the Packard sits alone, and pain has made him weak.
"I'll fix it," he announces to the world, and something changes just slightly in the air.
A heartbeat later the faucet twists off.
"The car's dead, Arnold."
"I can fix it," he assures and something flutters dangerously inside Arnold's chest, a terrible weight shifting and he cannot look at Helga, he cannot lift his head, he cannot let himself slip under the surface because if he does he will never get his head above the water, he won't be able to get out—
"Welcome to reality," and if her voice isn't cruel, isn't heartless, it also isn't coddling, Helga as unforgiving in her perception as she has ever been, "your grandparents are dead and now their car is dead too."
The flutter continues and he fights his instinct, love (and it is love, he knows this as clearly as he refuses to acknowledge it even now and nothing else could survive like this other than this) warring against survival. The weight of his grief is sharp now, more real than he can remember it, but he knows that she's the only one who can take care of him and just like that he needsit.
Because she will cook dinner and tuck him into bed and pretend not to see him cry a half-decade's worth of tears and she will stay, with him, because she craves as much as he does a home and a quiet night's sleep and she will not leave him for a hundred strangers, because their dreams have always been achingly similar and they will work and struggle together and be happy together—
But then she starts, tone too close to hopeful, "We can look for a new car—" and it happens before he can stop it (the regret has dropped into his gut already) and his voice is already cracking when he snaps without being able to stop himself, "You have to leave."
Not I want you to leave, because that's a lie, the lie, and she needs to do the leaving, he can't even do that anymore, taking the steps are too tiring for him—
Helga doesn't move, doesn't even seem to be breathing and if he were braver he would look, would search her face and he wants to, knows the expression would fix him right now, would cause him to break and beg for forgiveness that he already knows is waiting for him. And then they'd both break down, he knows it, tears and snot and hysterical sobbing like some soap opera couple reunited, and all he has to do is look, just look—
He does not, and she says nothing, but Arnold feels something move away and is left frozen by the terror it causes in him as the last of his gravity is torn away, as some invisible string is snapped.
"I can be gone in a few days," she informs him flatly as she slaps the wet rag into the sink and pushes herself from the counter, and when he looks up, finally, she is already disappearing towards the stairs.
Outside the storm is passing them by as always and the heat is harsh, the air burned dry.
When he is strong enough to walk, he steps out of the boarding house and goes back to his grandfather's beloved car, settling in for however long it will take to fix it.
Gerald says, voice irritated over the phone as Arnold sits on the front step with the cordless pressed too tightly to his ear and the heat now a flat weight in the night air, "You're a fucking idiot."
All Arnold can really think to say is, "You'll make sure she's taken care of, right?"
Like Helga can't take care of herself, like she accepts care from anyone else like she does from him, like she has not survived by herself and become all the stronger for it while he has left himself behind because he is tired, exhausted, worn down and worn out and too afraid of spending what energy he has left because what if nothing will be left of him?
Gerald releases a ragged breath on the other end of the connection, and Phoebe's voice is unmistakable in the background, quietly furious but knowing how useless it would be to actually tell him any of it (and she's already tried and that's why they're so pleasant with each other, because she's such a genius that she knows when not to kill herself trying) and finally, tone accepting and tired and still loyal, "You know I will, man."
Helga moves out only two days later with two marked boxes ("CLOTHES" and "STASH" scrawled in heavy black marker) and the now-worn purse that had been a house-warming gift nearly a year before (he knows that she has no problem sleeping on Gerald and Phoebe's couch, knows that they have been a little family for years and that the bond will only continue to grow).
Arnold's last image is of her coming downstairs in her jeans and old t-shirt, her keychain jingling with the pocketknife she is so protective of, the white and pink buds tucked into her ears and hair tugged into a lopsided knot high on her head and walking easy in the boots he'd given her just months before (because her old ones had been falling apart, because she can get by just fine but he hates when she just gets by).
Her lips are moving as she mouths the lyrics of whatever she is listening to, and her gaze is alert but relaxed as it skips over him with a tired glance, and he watches her start down the street alone with one last, "make sure you eat something."
Arnold does not say goodbye, he refuses to.
He is still struggling to save the Packard, and he does not remember to eat until his head is pounding.