arnold/helga, assorted including gerald/phoebe
mature (background character death, violence, adult concepts, language, sexual content)
future-fic, spoilers through tjm, takes place in the 'the fire in your heart is out' universe, title from adele (duh)
'The Green Eyes, they believed that life always comes from death.' He has lost everything, all of his terror had been for nothing in the end.
The bow is missing now.
Sitting in front of him, face mashed to the bus window as she sleeps and they speed down the street, the blonde girl had at some point traded the old pink bow for a blue knit hat that she's got rolled down over her eyes right now. Phoebe's doing something beside her and the small girl's body language is unmistakable, a silent warning to let her closest friend get whatever sleep she can get during the ride.
Arnold watches it the way he has for the last two months.
And as always Helga is stirring as they take the last turn before the school, reaching up to push the hat off her face and mutter something tired in Phoebe's direction. "… can go later," is all Arnold can make out of the response and then Helga shrugs, pushing to her feet as the bus lurches to a stop.
After a long time (only a nervous awful moment), Arnold follows her at a distance.
Twenty-eight, and he's felt ancient so long he's stopped caring about the feeling.
But he feels absurdly young now, pulse jumping oddly under his skin as he searches the chaos of his room for Phoebe's number and it takes fifteen minutes, a full fifteen minutes, to remember that she lives with Gerald, she lives with her husband, and that Gerald is the first of his speed dials.
It rings and rings, rings some more and then snaps rudely into his friend's voice mail.
Arnold flings the phone down onto the desk and takes a circuit around his bedroom before he grabs the phone off his bed, smashing out of his room and down the hall.
It's as overly warm as it always is, sweat beading under his shirt already, and he's got the keys in the ignition before his car door closes, is pulling into the street moments later. Gerald's number is pulled up again, the connection made and then broken when the result is the same, and he throws the phone into the seat beside him, rubbing at his face as he tries to remember the way to the hospital.
His phone buzzes a good minute later and he grabs it immediately, heart jumping into his throat and almost answering before he sees MOM emblazoned across the small screen.
There's the familiar thought (I don't want to talk to you) but he's long since stopped guilty.
("I know you can make better progress than this," and Dr. King is staring at him with an almost-hidden hint of sadness in her gaze, all that she can do long since done and losing faith herself.)
He rejects the call without a second thought, and tosses the phone away again.
His eyes ache, the clock on the dashboard blinking to 3:28, and the night is oddly quiet.
But Arnold blinks the moisture away, and finally remembers to turn on his headlights.
His parents haven't left the States in a good five years.
Somehow the anniversary of their final homecoming just leaves him more lethargic, more tired.
They live with him now, fitting into the boarding house as well as he will let them, and they have not left his side and he's becoming tired, he thinks, of waiting for them to leave his side.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, a dozen holidays he wishes to be alone during these days.
Easier, less stressful, quieter, and they will not allow him to have it.
They love him too much, even more than the research they cannot force themselves to pack up, but they also stay with him because of guilt and fear and a nagging worry they cannot disregard.
They show him even now everything they have pieced together, so many discoveries that have them slipping off to panels and conferences every couple of years, and he cannot be bothered.
His old hat is somewhere in a corner, untouched since he'd tossed it away years before.
Arnold doesn't remember where.
Gerald finds a way to get him in the third day he's camped out in the waiting room.
He says only, "Come on, just do it" when Arnold glances at him in surprise and half-yanks the startled man beginning to stink in the jeans and shirt down the hall to room where Helga's still unconscious. "You have to be fast," the man orders, something tight and unhappy on his face, "fast, okay, but I can't just…" An odd hesitation then, Gerald's eyes murky and dark in a way Arnold's never seen, and then Arnold's shoved through the door with one last, "Make it count, man."
But Arnold's already lost interest in him, eyes snapping immediately to the figure tucked away into the white sheets, the beeping of the monitors a terrifying wonderful thing.
They'd seen each other at the wedding a few years before and he remembers starkly the dress she'd been shoved into, how the atrocious nest of tulle around her knees had left him almost teary-eyed with laughter (she'd looked so traumatized by the get-up) but she'd looked healthy, not happy but at least healthy.
She'd never looked at him once, and he hadn't attempted to even catch her gaze.
Other than that, other than those few hours in the same building, he hasn't seen her in nearly a decade.
Even being sure of what he'd been expecting, even knowing his weakness, he is devastated.
A nervous step, blind already, and then he's bent over her and pressing his lips to her hair, open palms hovering over her but afraid to settle, to touch, to do more damage to her body. "I can't," his lips brand into her hair, and he's sharply aware of how oddly strong his own voice sounds. Because that part of him is long gone but familiar, and he repeats the same words as he leans his weight carefully into the bed, finally smooths hair compulsively back and kisses her forehead, her cheek.
He doesn't want to know what she'd looked like two days ago but his nearly dead imagination flutters to life briefly, fills his mind with a half-dozen images that he knows are terrifyingly close.
"I can't say it," he admits, salt on his tongue as he touches her hand where a needle doesn't pierce, "I can't say it, Helga," and his hand drifts up to press against her chest, and he can feel the life pounding in her, shockingly strong despite the damage and— "I can't say it, but you know, I know you know—"
"Come on," and if Gerald sounds close to tears himself, it doesn't matter. Arnold doesn't know when he'd come in and then realizes that his friend might not have even left, and the thin fabric of the hospital gown wrinkles in his fist as he kisses her face again— and then he's laughing dully, stupidly, as Gerald pulls him away with a smothered noise of emotion, his own grief unmistakable.
"Jesus," Arnold hears, and then, "Jesus, man, I can't do this if you lose it now," and Arnold's laughing so hard he crashes into Gerald as they walk fast the way they'd come, his friend keeping him going.
"Our third kiss," Arnold manages past the increasingly rough laughter, and Gerald doesn't let him go. "What if we go too fast?" he cracks, and then, laughter splintering, heart torn to pieces inside of him: "I couldn't even say it now."
Jolting movement beside him, a snap of pressure on his arm, and Gerald's got him in a tight grip, the strength in his arms a stark promise of how badly rattled he is by Arnold's state. There is a long awful silence beyond Arnold's ragged noises and Gerald stands strong, and it is the first time Arnold has let himself be touched in too long for him to remember, he doesn't even like to be touched now—
"It's okay," Gerald promises him in a rough voice, "it's okay, you'll tell her soon, I promise."
Helga makes manager at the job she likes, and happily quits the job she hates.
To the surprise of no one but herself, she is frighteningly good at it.
She stays there as she completes her AA and her BA, and is promoted again as she works on her Masters.
Gerald brings it up once by accident one night when he brings a six pack (Arnold hates leaving the boarding house, and does it less and less, and even Gerald's stopped trying to get him out) and take-out and plays along with Arnold's carefully laid out emotional system.
"Phoebe's mother brags about her to everybody, can you believe that?"
There is a squeezing pressure inside Arnold, the familiar sensation that makes him want to bury himself deeper, and he stares carefully up at the night sky through the window of his old room and the paint smell never leaves now, colors flowing across the walls even in the dark.
Love shouldn't be so devastating, he thinks, and Gerald's gone silent, apparently realizing what he's just said and that it crosses the line that Arnold's never been able to define over so many years.
And he doesn't even know how many years now, doesn't know where one phase of his life ended and another began, doesn't remember when Helga wasn't some weight in his life. Crushing him or anchoring him, it doesn't matter, because she does both so well that the long dead idealist in him only feels small and helpless in the face of the truth that she must have been born to do it.
"You could call her."
Gerald's voice is careful and light— and the stars that spread above them line up perfectly with the ones that Arnold had grown up with, are the very same that they were twenty plus years before.
"I could," Arnold admits, and studies the stars as if they will change if he does not watch them.
Gerald— he knows it is Gerald— touches his arm, squeezes his shoulder.
Arnold wakes up facing the door of the waiting room, back strung tight after too many hours unmoving from his seat, and spends a few moments gazing at the door instead of Gerald.
"Arnold," he hears, and he closes his eyes tightly as Gerald crouches in front of him.
Because he can hear that his best friend's breathing is uneven, and knows that his eyes are red-rimmed and puffy, that his expression is uncertain and desperate. "Arnold, you gotta look at me—" and then he falls silent when Arnold does, his own eyes dropping to stare at his shoes, jaw tight.
"What?" His voice is thick already, something wild simmering beneath the word. "What?" he is half-demanding, and there is a stark moment of clarity, a sharp realization: he had not even known that he's already spent the last ten years mourning her as if she'd already been lost to him—
"They don't know what happened, they ran her into surgery but—"
He has spent the last ten years mourning— no, longer than that, a lifetime spent grieving for parents and then grandparents, and he doesn't know when he had begun to mourn for Helga and then doesn't know if it was only Helga he had been mourning, left wildly unsteady by the ugly suspicion that he has been mourning his life, their life, and someone is breathing heavily, beginning to hyperventilate—
"Oh shit," and then "shit" as if Gerald is suddenly terrified, his hands grabbing Arnold in an attempt to stabilize the man, and beyond him Arnold can see Phoebe and her mother just outside the waiting room, clinging to one another as if struggling to brave a storm.
There is a noise building in the air, a low frantic sound that should not come from a human throat, and Arnold has long since been swept away, not even Gerald strong enough to hold him, by the time the noise crests.
an: nope, not saying nothing.