John perked up when he heard his name from the other room. Peter was talking about him.
Meg’s voice suddenly came through. “I think it’s cute, and if they want to keep it a secret, well, that’s up to them.”
Peter laughed. “No, no. You don’t know my brother. John won’t ever say anything to Hero. That is, if he really does like her, like you say he does…” He trailed off uncertainly.
John stood up suddenly, ready to go fight. Or, at least, talk with Peter.
“No, I’m not positive he does,” Meg hastened to say, stopping John where he was, just out of sight. “But I think they would be really cute together. I mean, she’s so blonde… and small… and bright… and he’s such a contrast. And they are sort of friends now. Like, imagine…” She laughed. “It would be such a beautiful redemption story. And we could tell all of Ben’s fans, and imagine what they would do! It’d just be amazing all around.”
“No, no,” Peter argued. “No, it would just be weird. I mean, you remember what happened all those years ago.”
“It was, like, two,” Meg interrupted.
“It would be so awkward for them and for all of us, too. I don’t think it would make a good pairing. And the benaddicks would be so pissed, too.” Peter sighed. “They already hate John for what happened back then.”
“They don’t hate him,” Meg said, surprise in her voice. “What are you talking about?”
John hesitated before shutting his bedroom door. No more.
Hero went to knock on Beatrice’s door when she heard giggling inside. She hesitated and heard her name.
“So, if we could get Hero and John—”
She gasped slightly to herself and pushed the door open suddenly. “Ben, Meg, Beatrice, hi!” she said quickly, before they could recover themselves. “How are you?”
Beatrice gaped at her, mouth open, for a second before recovering herself. “Hero,” she said slowly. “Do you ever knock anymore?”
Hero winced at the tone in her voice. “I’m sorry,” she said softly.
Meg stood up, shot Beatrice an annoyed glance, and gave Hero a hug. “Darling, it’s lovely to see you,” she said, as dramatically as she could. “How are you?”
Hero hugged her back. “I’m okay. Do… do any of you want cookies?”
Ben’s head snapped up. “I would love some,” he said, a large smile on his face.
She laughed softly. “All right.” She nodded at the other two before leaving, shutting the door quietly behind her.
She heard Beatrice’s voice come through the door after a moment. “Do you think she heard?”
Hero was sitting in her favorite overstuffed chair at Cecily’s, her favorite coffee shop, when she felt someone standing over her. Tearing her eyes away from her book, she glanced up. “Oh!” she said, surprised. “John. How are you?”
John Donaldson was looking at her very intently before seeming to wake up. He sat across from her. “Hero.”
She raised her eyebrows and smiled slightly. “John.”
There was a long silence before John nodded. “I just wanted to let you know that our friends have been talking about… us,” he finished awkwardly.
“Oh?” Hero asked. “I heard something to that effect.”
“Oh, alright, good,” he said, obviously relieved. “I wouldn’t want you to not know about it. I felt bad keeping it from you.”
“It’s okay.” Hero smiled. “It’s weird, though, huh? I overheard them talking about us as…” She laughed suddenly. “It’s absurd.”
“No kidding.” John sighed. “Peter and Meg have been talking about ‘getting us together’ somehow. I don’t know how they would do it, but I really don’t want to fall prey to one of their schemes. I mean, they worked out for the other two couples, but for us…” He hesitated. “I think they’re crazy, honestly.”
Hero smiled. One of their resolutions that year within their friendship had been to be completely honest and communicate with each other more. She was glad he was upholding that end of the bargain. “I do, too. But you know them. Meg was explaining her scheme to Benedick and Beatrice, I think. Which means…”
“It’s already too late,” he finished for her.
They sat in silence for a moment, both trying to figure out what Meg and Peter could have cooked up.
“I have an idea.”
John glanced at Hero suspiciously. “What kind of idea?”
“We beat them to it.” Hero set her jaw and met John’s amazed expression with one of determination.
“…excuse me?” John asked after a moment.
“We start going out.” Hero nodded.
Hero tried to collect her thoughts. “They’re going to… do something awkward and ridiculous, and take time and effort to get us together. How about… we date, but not really, for a… a month? A few weeks? And then we can break up amicably and show them we’re not a good couple.”
John stared at her blankly. “Why?”
“Do you want them to come up with hand signals and a ship name and a giant plan for us?” Hero asked, exasperated. “Come on, John. Do this with me.”
He hesitated and Hero could see the battle he was having internally in his face. He used to be much better at hiding his emotions, but not with Hero, never with Hero. “Fine,” he said eventually. “Let’s do it. But let’s set a date to break it off. Okay?”
“Okay.” Hero smiled. “Let’s do this.”
Beatrice walked into Hero’s room and frowned. “Cousin of mine,” she said slowly, “I have heard something very disturbing from Benedick.”
Hero glanced up from her book and smiled. “Hey, Beatrice. When did you get home?”
“No, no, none of that,” Beatrice said. “No.” She plopped down on Hero’s bed. “So?”
“So…” Hero shrugged.
“Got anything to tell me?”
Hero’s face settled and she smiled happily. “Oh. Yes. I’m going out with John now. How does Benedick know?”
“Freddie told him,” Beatrice frowned. “And Balthazar told her. And Peter told Balthazar. And John told Peter. Hero. All those guys knew before I did. Come on. Why?”
Hero shrugged. “It happened today…”
“I just wish you would talk to me.” Beatrice mimicked Hero’s shrug. “I didn’t even know you liked him.”
“Me, either,” Hero murmured.
“What?” Beatrice asked, confused.
“Nothing.” Hero smiled.
Beatrice lay down on the bed. “So. Tell me how he asked you out.”
“How do you know I didn’t ask him out?” Hero asked.
“You didn’t!” Beatrice exclaimed.
Hero nodded, smiling mischievously.
“Good for you. Woman power.”
“Woman power,” Hero agreed.
Peter leaned back against John’s shoulder. “Okay, listen, mate,” he said, relaxing, closing his eyes. “This is how you love a woman.”
“Oh, god,” John muttered. “Why do you have to be so close to me?”
“I love physical contact,” Peter said, not missing a beat. “So, when it comes to wooing Hero, you need to keep in mind that she is sunlight itself.”
“Okay…” John said slowly.
“She needs warmth and kindness and also passion and interesting conversation and just be nice, okay? Just be nice.” Peter sighed happily. “Communicate with her at all times. Don’t let her down. Hug her when she needs it most.”
“Oh, my word,” John breathed. “Go to sleep, Peter.”
“I think I might.” Peter’s words were starting to run together. “I’m glad I’m here with you now, though.”
“Yeah?” John smiled. He couldn’t help it.
“You know, we were actually gonna make you and Hero get together,” Peter slurred. “It’s funny you did it before…”
“I know. I know.” John patted Peter’s head.
“Don’t touch my hair.”
John jumped and glanced over into Peter’s face.
He was asleep.
John stood up, putting Peter’s head down gently, and went to call Hero. They needed to have their first official date.
Hero tapped on John’s window.
He went over to the window and threw it open. “Come in,” he said softly. “We have to be quiet, though. They think we’re out somewhere.”
Hero climbed through the window and brushed off her skirt. “And why aren’t we out somewhere? Why are we here?”
John almost brushed the question off, but thought better of it. “Um…” He paused. “Honestly, if we were to go out anywhere, that would require money, something I don’t have right now.”
“Oh.” Hero seemed surprised.
“Yeah. Sorry. I just… communication, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Hero nodded. “Well, what do you want to do?”
“We could… eat popcorn… watch a movie?” John shrugged. “I don’t really know what you like. Probably rom-coms, huh?”
Hero smiled. “Yes, but I like other things…”
“Do you like… historical dramas?” John suggested. “I have a couple of those. Hey, actually, I have a really bad version of Faustus that we could laugh at if you want to do that. I really like plays that are turned into movies.”
“Do you?” Hero’s eyes lit up. “Have you seen Arsenic and Old Lace?”
“No… what is that?”
Hero sat on John’s bed and patted the space next to her. John sat tentatively. “It’s this awesome black and white movie that used to be a play… it’s about these two old ladies who kill people, and their crazy relatives.”
“Their relatives are crazier?” John asked.
“I… don’t know that you could say that. But it’s really good!”
“Let’s do that.” John smiled down at her.
They pulled up his laptop and found a version of the movie on YouTube. John popped some popcorn for them and they pressed play.
“Hey, John, are you…” Peter opened the door, followed by Balthazar. “Oh. Hey, Hero.” He smiled.
Hero stood up, suddenly aware of how close she was sitting to John. On his bed. “Peter,” she said, more nervous than she should be. They weren’t even dating, for heaven’s sake. “Balthazar.” She smiled and went to give Balthazar a hug.
“Uh… I guess I’ll leave you two,” Peter said, winking subtly at John.
“No, it’s okay,” Hero said, still holding Balthazar’s hand lightly. He gave her a subtle, odd look. She shook her head slightly at him and smiled slightly, hoping it would reassure him.
“Yeah, it’s fine. What’s going on?” John asked. He pressed pause on the video.
“I just wanted to know if you and Hero were doing anything tonight, and… I guess I have my answer.” Peter smiled. “We’ll leave you guys, though. Really.” He grabbed Balthazar’s other hand and they left, shutting John’s door behind them.
“Should we finish the movie?” John asked awkwardly after a moment of silence.
Hero cleared her throat and nodded, climbing back onto his bed. “Let’s do it.”
Hero heard her voice being yelled from somewhere in the store. She turned, scanning the aisles to see where she was. “Margaret?” she asked.
“Hey,” Meg said, suddenly moving into her field of vision. “Hero Duke. I just found out you’re dating someone. A certain someone. And you have been for over a week.” She made a ‘I’m-very-disappointed-in-you-but-also-very-proud’ face. “Were you going to ever tell me?”
“When we eloped,” Hero said.
“Oh, my god,” Meg exclaimed. “Don’t ever say things like that. So.” She linked her arm through Hero’s. “How’s that going?”
Hero shrugged. “It’s okay. It’s sometimes a little awkward, but we have a lot in common and we were basically always together anyway, so…”
Meg looked puzzled. “Hero. Are you just dating him because it’s convenient?”
“No! No, no,” Hero protested. “I would never do something like that to someone.”
“Because I never heard you mention you liked him before…” Meg trailed off and pulled away from her friend.
“I was… shy,” Hero said, hoping it sounded like a confession. Anything to keep Meg from finding out the truth.
“I guess,” Meg said reluctantly. “Now, tell me all the details. You haven’t mentioned a word to me! Why?”
Hero laughed and picked up her shopping basket. “Walk and talk, Margaret.”
“Yes, Miss Duke.” Meg linked her arm through Hero’s again. “We’re walking. Talk.”
It became a pleasant habit, going to John’s house, watching a movie, eating snacks, climbing out of the window again, going home. They spent time together studying in school, heads bent together over their books, saying nothing to each other. Every once in a while, Hero would take John’s hand, if someone important to their friends walked by, in the hopes they would be seen and the spread of information would happen.
It was comfortable.
One time, it was so comfortable Hero fell asleep on John’s bed as they watched Incendies on John’s computer. She yawned, curled up next to him, and fell asleep almost instantly, the French language washing over her, coming into her dream, a pleasant one where she and John were at the Eiffel Tower together, with no expectations and no drama in their lives, just Hero and John, at the top of the world.
It was so comfortable John didn’t even notice she was sleeping next to him until his mom came in and got weird about it.
(Maybe he did notice. Maybe he just didn’t think anything of it. Maybe that’s what being comfortable with a person is supposed to feel like.)
(Maybe their fake-dating idea wasn’t the best idea ever.)
“Is this weird?” John asked suddenly.
“Is what weird?” Hero asked softly, reaching over to pause the latest movie.
“We’ve been fake dating for, what, two weeks now, and all we ever do is sit on my bed, and watch plays. I mean… that’s weird, right?”
Hero glanced up and gave him a strange look.
“What does that mean?” John asked, exasperated.
“What would you suggest we do?” Hero asked.
“I mean…” He struggled to find the right words. “I feel like we don’t know each other at all. People ask how you’re doing now, because they know we’re ‘dating’, and I don’t know what to say. And people assume I know stuff about you now, stuff that they don’t know… It’s very confusing, but basically, we aren’t doing this whole dating thing right, I don’t think.”
“What do you suggest?” Hero asked.
“We should… talk?” John suggested.
“Um…” Hero hesitated. “About what?”
“Whatever you want.” He narrowed his eyes and studied her for a moment: her rigid posture, her wide eyes, her stillness. “You want to talk about whatever’s on your mind right now?”
“Nothing’s on my mind,” she replied. Too quickly.
“Okay,” John said pleasantly. “Whenever you want to talk about it, I… I guess I’m here for you. Because that’s what… boyfriends… do.”
“Do you think it’s weird we’ve never actually really talked? Ever?” Hero asked. She let her head fall back against the wall, relaxed.
“We talked…” John frowned. “I’m sure we must have. At some point. Yeah?”
“No. We’ve never talked.”
“You’re so sure about that. Like you’ve been keeping track.” His frown deepened. “Have you been keeping track?”
“You know, sometimes I think I’m actually a good person, and that I deserve to be happy and loved because I love others,” Hero blurted out without warning.
“Wait… what’s this about?” John asked, surprised by how fast she was talking.
“But really, I’m very selfish and when I don’t want to be nice, I’m not. I’m really not,” Hero continued, ignoring him completely. “And when I don’t want to forgive someone, I won’t, not even if it’s been years and we’re both moved on. Sometimes I get irrationally angry with people who I really shouldn’t be angry with at all, you know? Like, sometimes I think about hurting this hypothetical person in a similar way that they hurt me, or I want to, I don’t know, spread rumors that could destroy a reputation—that is, if the reputation isn’t tarnished already. I’m not really sure sometimes, because people who are not kind to me, hypothetically, usually somehow get bad reputations, and I’m not saying that’s my doing, I’m just saying it’s a trend that happens to people who I don’t really like. I still get angry when I think about what happened between us, and I don’t know how to deal with this, and I thought I could hang out with you all the time, watching these horrible, cheesy plays… I mean, I love them, don’t get me wrong; I watch Doctor Who, so… But I just don’t know how to breathe in the same room as you.” She was crying at this point, having made the transition from a hypothetical John to… John, without knowing, without realizing, only feeling what she had felt for so long bubble up and burst out of her for the first time in years.
“This… this is all about me?” John asked, surprised. He awkwardly reached out and patted her shoulder. “I had no idea you felt this way. But if you don’t want to be in the same room as me…” He hesitated.
Hero sniffed and turned her head away. “It’s just… sometimes memories come back to the surface after I spend time with you. It’s my problem, not yours. I’m sorry for springing it on you like that, though. Really.”
John kept his hand on her shoulder while she dried her eyes. When she turned back to him, he cleared his throat and leaned back, away from her. “Okay. Well… if you really feel this way, the last thing I want is for you to be uncomfortable.”
“Okay…” Hero said slowly.
“So here’s what we’ll do,” he continued. “We ‘break up’. I know it’s a week earlier than we had planned, but… Damn it, Hero, you’re crying.”
Hero sniffed again and nodded, averting her eyes. “I’m sorry…” she whispered.
“Don’t be.” John shook his head. “We tell everyone I couldn’t do it,” he added.
“What? No,” Hero protested, making eye contact suddenly, her jaw set. “It’s my fault we’re all in this, and they’ll blame you for breaking my heart; you know they will.”
“It’s okay,” John said.
“No.” She shook her head. “I’ll tell them I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship, especially not… not with a good friend.” She let out a breath. “Then nobody gets blamed for anything.”
John hesitated but agreed. “Okay. We’ll do that.” He reached out and placed his hand on her shoulder again. “Are you okay? Do you need someone to take you home?”
Hero stood up, shaking his hand awkwardly as she did so. “I’ll see you in school. Yeah?”
He blinked in surprise. “Okay. I’ll see you in school.”
She nodded and left John’s room through the door for once, running into Peter as she did so.
“Oh! Hero,” he exclaimed, reaching out and steadying her. “Are you leaving?” Peter took one look at her face and his features hardened. “What did John—”
“No, it’s okay,” Hero said, grabbing his arm. She wiped her face with her free hand. “Peter, it’s fine. John did nothing. It was me.”
“I don’t believe you,” Peter said indignantly.
John opened his door and peered out. “What—”
“What did you do?” Peter demanded.
John stepped back defensively. “I didn’t… I…” He glanced at Hero helplessly.
“I said this would happen.” Hero tried to get Peter’s attention on her again. “John did nothing. He’s fine. I was just…” She sighed. “Peter. Look at me.”
Peter turned to look at Hero slowly, anger marked on his face.
“I… you cannot tell Beatrice about this, but…” Hero said slowly, painfully.
Peter’s eyebrows moved slightly.
John shot a worried look at Hero.
“I… I’ve been having panic attacks.” Hero breathed out suddenly. “I have anxiety… and it’s been hard to go out with John because of it. So… We decided to break up. Mutually. We’re just friends.”
Peter just stared at Hero.
“I have to go,” Hero muttered, pushing past Peter and out the door.
She had been walking for maybe thirty seconds when she heard footsteps.
“Hero!” Peter called.
She shook her head. “Peter, do you know what your problem is?”
He slowed to a walk beside her and glanced down at her quizzically.
“You never stop and think before you assume someone’s done something. John was wonderful. He did everything I wanted him to, and never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to.” Hero sighed. “And you just about… I don’t know. You just need to trust your brother more. He’s more wonderful than you think.”
“And yet, you broke up with him,” Peter pointed out.
Hero glanced up at him before nodding, training her eyes on the ground. “I did, technically, I guess. I don’t regret that. But I think…” She stopped walking and turned to face Peter. “I think maybe we can finally have a new beginning.”
“What do you mean?” Peter asked.
Hero smiled. “Just that. A new beginning… for John. And me.”
Peter smiled. “You’re… quoting Balthazar?”
“It’s very fitting.”
“It always is.” Peter reached over and took one of Hero’s hands. “Are you going to be okay walking home alone?”
She nodded. “Thanks, Pedro.”
“You’re welcome, Hero Duke.” He saluted her and walked back to his house.
Hero stared off at the Donaldson house for a while before turning and walking back to her own house.
Hero was reading her book when she glanced up and saw a familiar figure in the school library. “John!” she whispered, as loudly as she could.
He turned and spotted her. He gave a tentative wave.
Hero waved him over, smiling.
John came over and stood at her table. “Yes?” he asked, smiling slightly.
Hero stood up and extended her hand.
John stared at her. “Are you okay?”
“Just take it,” she said impatiently.
John took her right hand in his and they shook.
“Hi,” she said, smiling.
“Hi…” he said, uncertain.
“I’m Hero Duke. I’ve seen you around, and have wanted to meet you for a long time.” Hero paused.
“I’m John Donaldson.” He hesitated. “I’ve done some shitty things in my past that probably make you not want to talk to me.”
“That’s okay,” Hero said, still shaking. “What you’ve done in your past, yeah, it affects you and the people you knew then, but you’re a new person now. Someone fully worth getting to know.”
John thought for a moment before smiling. “Friends?”
Hero nodded. “Friends.”
“Good.” John dropped her hand. “So, um, we never ended up watching that horrible Faustus movie.”
“Oh, yes, let’s watch that tonight,” Hero said enthusiastically. “And if Peter’s still in town…”
“We can make him watch it with us and laugh at him!” Hero grinned.
“Let’s do it.” John laughed suddenly.
The librarian appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and gave them both odd looks. “John, Hero, I’d love it if you could be quieter, please.”
They both nodded and waited for her to disappear around the corner, trying not to laugh.
“We should get out of here,” Hero whispered, trying desperately not to giggle.
John nodded. “Please. Let’s go watch some Faustus.”
Hero nodded and grabbed his hand spontaneously. “Let’s do it. Friend.”
John laughed out loud before remembering. “Friend,” he whispered.