arnold/helga, pg-13, ~3600
warnings for background adultery, some language
This is a snapshot of the life that is left after the fall (standalone)

cause that song that sent me swimming
is now the life jacket that burst

- florence and the machine

There are a handful of truths in his life, facets he had first glimpsed during his childhood but only discovered in full as an adult. The imperfections of his parents' love for him in the face of their devotion to their work, and the peace found only when he'd stopped believing he'd never find it. The ludicrously perfect marriage his grandparents had shared, not only those little touches he had never fully understood until so many years later (their weathered hands brushing naturally to touch one another's arm or shoulder in the shared chaos of their life) but the quick arguments and childish comments and easy forgiveness given moments later that he couldn't help but be confused by.

And the first (the last) truth is this: he desperately misses his wife.

Helga showers when she gets home from work.

When he gets upstairs from checking over the house one last time (as always touching the framed picture kept by the front door where he can see it as he comes and goes from their home) and from peeking in on the midget one last time, he's grown used to being greeted by the hammering of the shower behind a locked door. And he stalls tonight as he always does now, spending extra minutes tossing her dirty clothes in the hamper and laying out new for her on the chair by the bed.

Another ten minutes of waiting and Arnold turns off the lights; a minute and a half after that, and his legs are sticking out from under the sheet as he feigns sleep and she pads to the bed in the almost dark of their bedroom.

She climbs in beside him without much fanfare and she smells like the anti-dandruff shampoo she needs (too much stress) and vitamins she has to take (even more stress) and she sounds tired and worried as she sighs and gets as comfortable as she can without letting them touch under the covers.

He stays awake long enough to hear her breathing even out, to reach out and touch her hair in the dark, before he passes out as heavily as she does.

Benny refuses to let go of their hands, a cheery little stick figure standing happy and fearless.

He tacks the newest picture up on the fridge only a few minutes after she finishes it, and adjusts it while she's at the table eating the waffles and eggs waiting for her. Picture-Benny is wearing her favorite dark blue with white polka dots sundress and there's a dog (of course there's a dog) and in the picture both of her parents look happy and at ease, loopy-lined grins a promise.

"You know we can't get a dog."

"I know," she declares too casually— but gives him one hell of a heartbroken-glance-from-the-corner-of-her-eye face from the dining room table anyway.

"Of course she knows," Helga agrees as she shuffles into the kitchen before he can formulate a response, and her hair's been yanked up into that ridiculous-looking bob on the top of her head. It's wobbling already as she bends to press a kiss to the top of Benny's head and touch her shoulders, and Arnold has to keep from laughing as it wobbles and wobbles more. "We've talked about how we can't have a dog yet, right, baby?"

"I know," the girl assures, and gives up on him completely to tilt her head straight back and preen up at her mother, last two bites of food forgotten on her plate. "But you said I could go to Kaida's and Daddy wouldn't let me wake you up so we're almost late—" Off Helga's slight narrowing of the eyes: "I'll go get ready," Benny promises, and quite literally scampers off her chair and out of the kitchen.

He's smiling, can't help it, and keeps his eyes locked on the dirty dishes on the table.

Doesn't let himself look up when he hears Helga move for the cabinet, and manages to keep his mouth shut and his opinions to himself (and he misses hearing that, he does) until he hears plastic crinkle.

"I could make you something before you guys go out."

There's a jilted awkward silence before, Helga's voice sounding flat: "Nah, I got it."

Arnold looks up then, and Helga is staring back, and only the white-knuckled grip she has on the Pop-tart sleeve would give her away to anyone else. And he isn't anyone else so he notices the tension in her neck and the sick dread in her gaze, recognizes the stiffness of her back that promises she's about to bolt.

He says, "Helga" in a voice he doesn't care is rough, and touches her hand—

But her skin is gone almost before he completes the contact, and she's moving fast away from him.

One of the memories held safe in the back of his mind from years and years before: Helga curled around herself on the floor of the bathroom, shaking and trembling as she cradles herself carefully.

"I think this kid hates me," she mumbles, and her hair is sweaty as he smoothes it back from her face.

Arnold almost says, "We said we wouldn't talk about it like that" and then doesn't, doesn't care very much because Helga's suddenly leaning against him, and this is her and not her. She presses her forehead into his shoulder, a clumsy request for reassurance, and he rocks her without much thought for one minute, for two, for so long he stops worrying about how long he's holding her.

He only helps her from the bathroom and to the couch when he knows she's stable enough for him to go get her something to eat to replace her now-lost breakfast.

His memories of Berdine's infancy are weak, and her toddler years almost nonexistent.

But regrets have never fixed anything in his life and so he spends most of his free time with his daughter, only Helga's watchful eye keeping him from spoiling her past the point of no return. She does not get every toy she wants from him or from Santa, does not get every trip to Disney Land or every cartoon she just has to see. But she is never alone when it's time to go to the park or to the library, calls on him with the easy certainty possessed by a child who knows without doubt that she is loved without condition.

For all of Helga's bluntness inherited, for all her creativity, there is none of her loneliness, her bitterness.

It is something Arnold is more grateful for than he can ever express in words.

"—and Mikey has a dog and so does Gina – oh, she has two, actually, she has a spare dog but what if she can't keep him and they have to give him away, Dad? Can we take him so he doesn't get lonely?"

He chirps, "Nope" the way Helga wants him to right now, and hears her quiet muttering (recognizing this as a bitter defeat but refusing to accept it) before she bounces away from the bench again to scramble right back up into the playhouse. He can sense her squinting down at him from one of the towers, and would be mildly concerned by the focus if he weren't so taken with the sight of her mother.

Because hilarious and unpredictable as it might have been to everyone, every mother wants to be Helga.

His wife collects the other PTA moms like groupies and it's an acknowledgement she deserves, badly (she works too much, will not let him help, and she'd started to, once before, and he's lost that part of her again). She is as good at being a mother as she is at everything else once she stops fretting. Craft classes and soccer practice, holiday and birthday parties, fundraising for school— the list never ends.

And now she's standing in the middle of a group of women in similar clothing sipping similar cups of coffee from name brand coffee shops (Helga stands apart in her worn-out gray hoodie with her hair hastily done up with what no one else in the group would recognize as a stitch holder), her expression mildly intimidated and completely focused— and as awful as he is at lip-reading, he's pretty sure he can pick up "toes" and "cereal" and "what if his head gets stuck and the firefighters have to come again?" and then Helga's mouth opens and closes spastically— and just from that he's grinning, cannot stop himself.


Benny, a few feet away, peering at him curiously before she follows his gaze across the playground—

Her face lights up and she waves with the absolute joy Helga has never fully been able to give herself to, bouncing amidst the metal and wood like a loyal soldier greeting her returned queen to her rightful castle. The mother instinct is automatic, kicks in even before Benny's excitable "mommy!" rings out, and Helga returns the wave, is already turning to abandon the group with no hesitation at all, lines of her face smoothing as her focus settles on Berdine—

Her footsteps never falter but her gaze skips to him, and the smile slides off his face as the increasingly familiar look graces her face, the expression clear for a heartbeat before she hides it away.

The look says leave me alone (it says: you will never have me again) and there's a panic and a resentment and a fear coming closer to the surface every time it passes her face now—

This memory is not the worst of those he carries, but it marks him deeper than some others, lurks in his thoughts throughout his days and rises with stark clarity to the front of his mind each night before sleep:

Arnold does not know (except that he does, and that is why he doesn't) what he's doing parked outside the restaurant on the far side of town, twisting his wedding band on his finger once, twice, three times.

At home Benny is now big enough to pull her little body up to peer at the world fearlessly from her playpen, to shriek and bounce when he comes home from work each day, and Helga is happier than he has ever seen her, working hard four nights a week and exhilarated with the life she has fought for.

But he looks down at his hands in his lap, sees them trembling visibly, watches the street light reflect off his wedding band and cannot stop the trembling, cannot think and cannot stop thinking.

He thinks, idiotic and panicked, clinging desperately to his pedestal: this must be what poison feels like.

I'm smothered, he thinks with a solid kind of nothing in his chest (and feels the echo of Benny's weight on his chest when she murmurs contently at him while they watch an ancient repeat of Sesame Street) and then more stubbornly: happiness cannot be so quiet (and thinks of how it feels to doze in bed while he listens to the rhythmic click of Helga's needles, of Benny's awed breathing as she watches the knitting take shape from the circle of her mother's arms).

Another truth, one that he will not be able to take back: he is an idealist, and he is a stupid one at that.

The wedding band is dropped with an awful noise he refuses to hear into the cup holder beside him, and he stubbornly locks the doors of the car behind him as he heads alone into the restaurant—

—and Arnold watches Helga in his peripheral vision a half-hour later while Benny is rambling in the backseat as they drive away from the park, watches the quick movements of her fingers as she focuses too deeply on one of the hats she's always working on now (no big projects anymore, he can't remember the last big project he'd seen come off her needles, thinks it's been at least a year or two, and she'd always hated little projects, hated not being able to put herself completely into something and now that's all she knits) and patently ignores him so severely that he kind of feels like an awkward chauffeur.

He asks, "Do we want to grab something for dinner?"

But "I already have plans to cook," is all Helga says in the unyielding tone he remembers too clearly— and he misses the part of her that had started to stop being afraid of change that she hadn't caused.

The truth is this: he hasn't been a good husband.

By the time he's come around, lost interest in the other women and become vicious in his desperation to keep his wife, she's pieced it all together and met him in the driveway when he gets home.

She's crying, an awful ugly cry that has him jumping out of the car before it comes to a complete stop because it scares the shit out of him, has his heart pounding and his hands shaking because it has to be Benny, there has to be something wrong with Benny, that's why she's crying so hard—

But it's not Benny, not their baby asleep in her new big girl bed; he's why Helga has come undone.

And she's wrong about some of it, because he hasn't been with anyone else in months, just tries to and… loses interest, leaves them to drive around all night by himself—but she's not wrong. Her words come ragged, thin and rough in the night air as she informs him that she does not care, that Benny will not know, and he can only barely focus because she is shaking.

Not a tremble, not a shiver in the night air, she is shaking, violent and frantic and uncontrolled.

Arnold wishes in these long moments for her anger, for her rage, waits and hopes for her to come at him like a feral animal and only grows more panicked as her anger does not come, as she tries and fails to gather herself up, to greet this betrayal with destruction—

They can rebuild from nothing, it is what they need—

This time he will not doubt what she offers—

But there is no anger, no destruction—

Even as he watches she is beginning to collapse in upon herself, her body drawing back from his with nervous unsteady steps— he says "wait," a hard demand for retribution, for the old friend he'd had in her lifelong rage, and finds himself lunging forward— to pull her back or to hold her he doesn't know— but she makes a harsh ragged sobbing sound, and it almost brings him to ruin on the spot.

Helga says, "no" and then, "it doesn't even matter" and then she's walking away.

The door slams behind her, and he's alone outside, and he has not slipped off his wedding ring for a month now, cannot force it from his hand, and she will not believe him if he tells her this.

Arnold doesn't bother to speak to her for the rest of the night, and cannot meet her eyes for weeks.

By then Helga is settled into herself and is unreachable.

"I'm still full from dinner."

"I just wanted you to—"

His wife jerks to face him in the middle of trying to find something in her purse, swings to greet his loving care with a desperate kind of hostility. "I can grab something on the way," Helga enunciates, and his best attempts to help in the last few hours have only made things worse, set her teeth on edge.

"But this is better for you." Leftovers from the night before with a bottle of the iced tea she likes when she gets tired. "I know you get hungry, that's all."

The more he tries, the farther she drifts away.

"I really don't need it," and even she cannot hide the plea for him to give up in her voice.

Arnold half-drops the food down on the table by her purse, for a moment overtaken by how badly she does not want to forgive him, by how desperate she is to have nothing of him left in her heart. It's getting worse each day now, the weight on his back growing as the months grow and he doesn't know how he'd lost so much time, Benny's so big now, he misses the way Helga would drift towards him in her sleep, the way he'd always woken to find her touching him—

He does not know what he will do if she does not forgive him, if she stops loving him, but there is an awful aching dread inside him, a knot of panic at the distance he cannot cross. "Helga—" he starts, helpless past the point of knowing what to do, where to start— "I miss you, I miss you, I love you, Helga, please, I don't know how to—" and she trembles all over and jerks her face away and his words tangle, lodge in his throat and cannot be spoken—

No one had taught him this simple language, he doesn't know how his grandparents could love so easily—

Helga makes a noise, a smothered almost-sob that he almost cannot process, eyes swinging away from her form to look anywhere else because the tangled words are gone completely now that he is most desperate to speak—

His wife is smiling at him, framed so neatly where he'd carefully placed the pictures months and months before.

And it is his favorite picture, one half-dismissed years before but clung to desperately after he'd come home to her ragged sobs and broken eyes. He'd taken it without thinking, felt the urge and grabbed the camera despite how much he had been half-assing everything in his life by then, and it's his wallpaper as well, and there's another copy in his wallet beside the picture of Helga in the hospital, Benny still wet from birth but content in her mother's arms.

Now he reaches out to smooth fingers over it once, twice, three times, momentarily overcome—

Helga relaxed and at ease on their old couch inherited from his grandparents, impossibly pretty in the pajama shorts and old shirt, their daughter cradled to her chest, her then-new wedding ring glinting over Benny's heart. She'd been ten months old and clearly needing a bath (face smeared with mushed peas and dirty hands curled comfortably around Helga's fingers) as she stares wide-eyed at the camera, fascinated—

His wife smiles, the lines of her body long and loose, that ridiculous bun hanging lopsided off the top of her head, and he does not know how she had let go of all of her old awfulness when he can barely forget any of his.

The glass is cool under his fingers but the panic's eased, and he's breathing again, closes his eyes and breathes.

Movement beside him, clumsy and desperate, and he does not have the strength to even open his eyes until he hears the front door open and slam shut again, until he hears her car start up outside. A full minute, another, and she's finally backing out of the driveway— and finally gone, and he's alone.

The only sound now is Benny somewhere upstairs moving around, stalling in her homework.

He looks, finally, and blinks rapidly for a moment, considering.

The Tupperware has been left on the table beneath the picture, refused.

But it's not where he'd put it down, has moved a foot and a half away from him, is sitting where her purse had been sitting a few minutes before, in front of where she had been standing.

And the tea is gone.

Noise upstairs, Benny taking as long as she can to put away her toys, and he stands and stares.

After a minute and a half Arnold finally picks the food up, glancing at the picture one last time.

Hope, badly-beaten but lodged deep inside his heart— and he nods to himself and drops the leftovers in the fridge for her to eat when Helga gets home later (she's usually hungry after her longer nights) and heads upstairs to remind Benny that, no, she needs to do her homework now, thank you, and okay, fine, maybe she can watch a cartoon before bed as long as she doesn't lie to Mommy about it tomorrow morning and if she actually does her homework.

Arnold will wait for Helga to get home before he goes to bed himself.

He can wait.

an: no plans to continue this as of now, but had to finally just do it since it's been blocking my ability to finish my other fic for these two. and i know, really depressing, but adultery is pretty depressing and these two are, well, painfully well-written even when we all watched them as kids so... how could it not be depressing? but, you know, i'd like to think that it works out even in this universe, :-)