"We don't have to go," Hero insisted, curling into Leo's side. "It's just Claudio's dumb New Year's Eve party."
"You're too sweet sometimes. I went to my fair share of dumb high school parties, and this is kind of your last one. Enjoy it." He pushed her from her position on the couch.
"Are you sure? Because it will probably be awkward anyway."
"Yes! Let's go!" Bea agreed, opening the door and staring pointedly at her cousin.
Hero reluctantly rose and got into the car.
When they arrived at Claudio's house, the two girls seemed to instantly lose track of each other, and Hero resisted the urge to go immediately to find Bea. She had just graduated; she had plenty of friends here; she didn't need her cousin as a safety blanket.
Turning immediately to the right was a kitchen with bags of chips and soda lining every solid surface. She finally just placed the tray of homemade cookies she'd brought on a stool and continued further to the right where she thought she heard some familiar voices.
Tucked tightly into two chairs and a foot stool was Balthazar and Peter along with Ben and John.
It hadn't been long since she'd last seen them, but it felt as if she'd never gone to Wellington. The situation had been so intense, she hadn't even had the chance to enjoy their company. She broke into a grin.
"Don't smile, they're being gross." John rolled his eyes, but his own mouth was turned up almost imperceptibly at the corners. She found a place to sit on the floor by his feet.
"True love can't be gross," Ben insisted, turning away from Hero to again stare at Balth and Peter who were doing nothing more intimate than sharing an armchair. "Hey, wait, is Bea here?" He leapt from his seat as Hero nodded.
"I've missed this." She said, and Peter scoffed.
"Trust me, it's all better in small doses," he argued, twining his fingers into Balthazar's.
"I second that," John offered.
"I don't know; it looked like you were enjoying yourself from the vlogs," Hero leaned back against his chair, brushing ever so lightly against his leg as she did so.
"Appearances can be deceiving." But his formerly small smile was now spreading across his face as he looked down at the blond girl beneath him. "I like that dress."
"Thank you. I bought it yesterday, and I wasn't sure because it's a bit more revealing than what I'm used to, but I just went for it, growing up and trying new things and all that."
Peter and Balth exchanged a glance as Balthazar spoke up, "when did you two become so friendly?"
"I mean, when we left for uni, you weren't really best friends. To put it extremely lightly," Peter added.
Hero felt a flush running to her cheeks, and she tried not to think too hard about why. "I mean, you guys were in Wellington. And Ursula did a lot of travelling. Bea and Meg were around, but not at school. And we started hanging out."
"Okay, but there's a huge gap there in the middle. Like, why John?" Peter asked as his brother shot him a glare that quickly dissolved into laughter.
"Our families have been friends forever, so it’s kind of weird that we didn't hang out sooner. And we had a bunch of classes together this year, and neither of us had a really solid friend group around anymore."
"What about Cora and all of them?"
"Are you saying you want me to be friends with them?" John asked incredulously, growing serious again. "I just got tired of their shit. I mean, we just graduated. We're a bit old for scheming and drama."
“So did any of the other Jones come?” She changed the topic suddenly as if she had something to hide, reminding herself that she really didn’t. There was nothing wrong with her and John’s friendship.
“Rosa said she was too old to show up to secondary school parties,” Balth chuckled, rattling off siblings on his fingers, “Oliver’s probably hanging around Claudio’s football friends in the other room, and I think Charlotte might have attached herself to Meg and Ursula on the porch with Dogberry and Verges. She’ll be glad to know you’re here, though; I hear you’ve got yourself a bit of a year nine following.”
As if on queue, Balthazar’s small and curly haired little sister came bounding into the room to launch herself into Hero’s arms. “I was just meeting Ursula’s friend Meg, but then they both left to get a drink, and I didn’t want to be third wheeling, and I heard you were in here, so I came to join,” she explained in a single breath. “And Oliver’s being super boring. Stanley, why are you my only interesting sibling?” she heaved a dramatic sigh and settled herself against Hero who glanced up at John to roll her eyes in amusement.
“I have so many questions,” Peter started, “beginning with: since when do you call him Stanley?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she shook her head, full of seriousness, and Balth had to place his hand against his boyfriend’s mouth to prevent him from laughing out loud.
Peter leaned into his shoulder and pried off his fingers playfully. “Okay, question two: third wheeling who? Dogberry and Verges?”
“Didn’t anybody tell you? They’re together now.” John stated.
“What? I can’t….I can’t even imagine that,” This time, he did laugh out loud.
“Well not everyone takes six years to realize their feelings,” Charlotte glared at the boy currently wrapped up with her big brother. “And just so you know, if you change your mind at all about Stanley, I will track you down and kill you myself.”
Hero pinched her lips shut to keep from giggling, and John choked a laugh while Balth’s hand returned to Peter’s lips.
“I think I heard that Claudio has a guitar upstairs. Come look with me, Pete.” He stood, pulling Peter up alongside him.
“Ugh, now I’m just third wheeling again….” The small girl complained, just loud enough that she knew the exiting couple could hear.
Peter turned to lock eyes with his brother who gave a small head shake in response.
“Char, you know John and I are just friends.”
“So were Stanley and Peter. John,” she looked up to meet his gaze, “don’t make your brother’s mistake. Don’t let your past define your present feelings.” She stood to leave. “Just think about it.” Then she was gone and an endless silence stretched between Hero and John.
“Oh thank God!” Meg exclaimed. “Someone who actually knows how to play this fucking instrument.”
Claudio didn’t seem to be bothered by her criticism, gladly handing the guitar up to Balthazar. “Do you want a go?”
He nodded, taking a glance at the audience. Bea’s eyes were closed as she rested her head against Ben’s chest, their arms wrapped together.
Meg seemed to be tipping over even sitting down, but her face was lit with an ease that he hadn’t seen in too long.
Claudio was taking his seat next to Julia who was repositioning herself to be in his lap.
Ursula held her camera up in anticipation.
And Peter’s gaze was soft, watching as he took a seat, started strumming, the look he’d caught so often before, that the cameras constantly saw, the look he always doubted and questioned and ignored, now unwavering.
He lost himself in the music, in the company, in Meg’s drunk (but beautiful) harmonies until a pattering of steps up the stairs pulled him from the peace.
“11:56. We’re gathering for the new year,” Oliver announced with an unfamiliar girl following close behind and eying him like he was a piece of meat. Balthazar tried to ignore his fraternal instincts. The twins were old enough to make their own decisions.
He placed the guitar back in its case and started for the living room where the football boys were already starting some chant. He reached back for Peter’s hand and was quickly rewarded with the softness of his fingers against his own rough and calloused ones.
“Do you see my brother or Hero?” Peter whispered into his ear, wrapping his arms around Balth’s thin frame.
“Is this about what Charlotte said? You know how she can be; it didn’t mean anything.”
“Anyway, would it be so bad? They looked happy.”
“You’re right. I’m just being overprotective.” He planted a soft kiss against Balthazar’s neck, just below his ear and smiled.
“I know the feeling.”
“It’s 11:59.” The chanting grew louder until it turned to counting down and Balth and Peter joined at the top of their voices until the clock hit 12 and Balth pressed his lips against Peter’s, still a little surprised every time that he could, that after so long wishing and dreaming and writing passive aggressive songs instead of communicating, he could finally kiss Peter and hold his hand and fall asleep in his arms.
When they pulled away, he tried his best not to notice that Oliver was basically still attached to this random girl at every position two people can be touching, tried not to think about how literally just a few years ago, he’d still been playing with toy cars.
Hero had wandered throughout the different parts of the party for a bit, tried some of the buffalo wings and pizza rolls, listened to Balthy for a bit from the stairs, awkwardly thanked Claudio for the invite. Finally though, when she saw Robbie and Cora making their way through the house, she found herself on the now empty porch and pulled out her copy of Wuthering Heights.
She hadn’t even made it through an entire chapter when the door creaked open. Her eyes flitted from the page to see a tall silhouette against the bright window.
“Sorry,” John said. “I can go somewhere else.” Then he saw the book in her hand and smiled, holding up a torn The Sun Also Rises paperback. “It looks like we had the same idea.”
“No, come join me,” she patted the pillow next to her. “I’m not at all surprised that you brought Hemingway.”
“And you brought Bronte, also not the biggest shock of my life.”
She looked back to the page, but the words swam in front of her eyes, and she could not focus to make them make sense. When she looked up, John was watching her, not even trying to hide his stare.
“What Charlotte said,” she began, but he was leaning in before she had time to decide where she wanted to go with the rest of her statement, and on instinct, she leaned in too, painfully slowly, both giving the other every opportunity to change their mind.
His lips were a bit chapped, and they moved tentatively, risking nothing. Hero brought her hands to the back of his head, both pulling him in closer and allowing herself to comb her fingers through his hair. She couldn’t even recall when she’d started wanting to do that. She let her tongue brush against his mouth, seeking entry, and he willingly obliged. He tasted like grape juice, and she had to break away to smile before leaning back in.
“Ew ew ew ew no no no no ew,” Bea repeated covering her eyes and back away as Hero and John sprung apart. “NO,” she shouted through the door for extra emphasis.
The second she was back in the house, she started calling, “Peter! Peter, we have a situation!”
He joined her in the doorway. “What is it?” Then he saw the two Bea was looking at, and the clear expressions of guilt on their faces. Not to mention the way John’s hair appeared even more disheveled than usual and Hero’s lipstick was all but gone.
“You see?” She still refused to open her own eyes. “Peter, what are we doing about this?”
“Just a suggestion,” John interjected. “Fuck off because it doesn’t involve you?”
“I think I’m with John on this one. They’re old enough to know what they’re doing,” Peter agreed
“But no. Just no. I literally think I’m going to vomit,” Bea pretended to gag.
“That’s probably more about whatever drinks Meg’s been giving you,” John shot back.
Hero remained silent and bright red, eyes flooded with panic.
“Whatever, you missed the start of the new year. Happy 2016. I’m going to bed. Ben’s already staked us out a couch.”
In the living room, Meg was already passed out by herself on one corner of a couch. Bea and Ben were stretched out together on another. Claudio and Julia had disappeared into his room shortly after midnight, Charlotte and Oliver were still running around somewhere. All the footballers had gone home instead of electing to stay over, and Ursula had the armchair that Balth and Peter had been in earlier in the other room. Cora and Robbie had been in the basement for hours already, and Hero wasn’t really sure where everyone else had gone off to.
She intertwined her fingers with John’s as she tried to make her way through the piles of cushions and blankets to the last empty chair. Stumbling over an empty bottle, she suppressed a giggle lest she accidently wake Bea and face the wrath.
She let John lay down first, curling herself into the empty space he left behind, placing her head against his chest.
“We should talk about what this is,” he whispered, adjusting so that his arms were around her.
“This is a really comfy position,” she mumbled, already slipping into sleep.
He smoothed her ridiculously silky hair down. “Because, you know, our friends were always kind of shit at that, and it messed a lot of stuff up.”
Hero nodded so that he knew she was listening.
“And, I mean, we have, like a really terrible history. Basically as bad as it comes.”
Sensing his nervousness, she gathered the energy to speak, whispering, “that’s in the past. I’m not still mad.”
“Okay, but I’m still really not over it. Or anything really. Self hatred is in the Donaldson blood, I think.”
“We can work on that.” She brought her hand to stroke his cheek.
“And I’m so fucked up, a total disaster even now when I’m trying to pull everything together.”
“Are you trying to talk me out of this?” She turned her face up to meet his eyes. “Because I don’t think that’s possible anymore.”
“I’m just giving you all the warning labels. So you have time to run before I get invested in this if you’re going to.” He stared forward, like he couldn’t bring himself to look at her.
“John Donaldson,” She tilted his face down so it was lined up with hers, “I know you. And I’m in this. I’m here for you and with you, and I have been for so long. I am not running.” She kissed him softly. “Now can we sleep because I don’t think I’ve ever been this comfortable in my entire life.”
“Yes,” he smiled, “and I’m in this too.”
Meg woke with a start, her head pounding worse than it had in the entirety of her life. She pledged never to drink again.
When enough of the fog had cleared from her brain, she saw what had stirred her, tapping on the leg that was on top of her until a young face turned her way.
“Oliver, right?” She grumbled. “Babe, I have like the least shame of anyone here. I have literally had sex in Hero Duke’s bed. But when you are making out on top of an uninterested party, that, at least , should be the line you draw. Like, if nothing else, please stop there. Thanks.”
“What?” The boy grumbled.
“Get the fuck off me.” She closed her eyes as Balth’s brother and the girl relocated to the floor.
“John,” Peter shook his brother awake, “I’m heading home now. Do you need a ride or will someone bring you later.”
Hero gently blinked her eyes open, possessively laying her arm over him. “Later,” she insisted, smiling.
“The lady has spoken,” John agreed, gazing at her softly.
“Who’s gross now?” Peter asked, doing nothing to conceal his grin.