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this territory goes uncharted

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this territory goes uncharted

 

Moira & Finley

In hindsight they have probably known way before them. Moira had to practically talk him him into confessing his feelings to Hero, and Finley – well, there are barely any secrets between Mo and Fin. If the photo pinned on his wall is any indication, she had known as far back as April, when even he didn't have the faintest clue.

After their discussion on the exact name of the relationship between them is cut short on the Makara Walkway, they don't breach the topic again for quite some time. Maybe that's what it is, just something that is happening without needing a name, something that everyone probably has a different opinion on but nobody cares to discuss. John's and Hero's relationship just is.


That is, until one Wednesday evening, just before their Mid-Semester break at the end of August.

He's pulling on his jacket and slipping into his shoes while throwing glances at Moira and Finley who are bickering away in the kitchen. Mo's perched on the counter, waving a wooden spoon at her girlfriend and he can't help but smile, kneeling down to tie his shoelaces.

“Okay you two, I'm heading out”, he says after he's finished, leaning into the kitchen doorway one last time.

“Where you going?”, Finley asks, dropping some chopped bell peppers into a frying pan.

“Picking up Hero. She had a late seminar. We'll probably eat out, so you don't have to worry about saving some leftovers for me.”

“Oh.” Moira's face turns into an amused smirk. “Are you gonna pay?”

“What?”

“For dinner.”

“I guess? I mean, I just got paid for that commission...”

“So it's a date then?”

He stares at the both of them for a moment, wordlessly. “Yes?”, he finally manages to reply.

Finley and Moira are grinning from ear to ear now.

“Fuck”, he mutters. “Do I have to go change? I should've bought flowers. Mo, stop fucking grinning like an idiot! I am so going to- does Hero know? Does she think this is a date? What am I supposed to-”

“JOHN!”

Moira jumps from the counter and smacks his shoulder with the wooden spoon. It really hurts but it snaps him out of the slight panic he is having.

“Calm down. It's just a date.” She has grabbed onto his arms and is staring at him intently. “You're taking her out for dinner. You've had dinner probably a thousand times, nothing's different. Hero likes you, okay? You don't have to take her out to a fancy restaurant to impress her. Just go get something at Aunty Mena's or something.”

“Aunty Mena, got it.”

He takes a deep breath. Mo nods at him encouragingly.

“We're just really happy for you two, okay?”, she continues. “You deserve to be together. I'm sorry I teased you about it.”

She pulls him into a hug.

“Now go pick up Hero. Wouldn't want to leave her waiting.”


~


Mei (& Ella & Jo)

“Where were you last night?”

“Oh, John picked me up after uni. We had dinner at Aunty Mena's. You should go sometime, they have the most delicious Laksa-”

“Hold on, you and John?”

“Yes?”

“Dinner?”

“Yes?”

A shrill, high-pitched squeal fills the small student flat in Newtown.

“What the FUCK is going on?!”

“HERO AND JOHN WENT ON A DATE!”


~


Pedro, Take I

He's been getting closer to his brother but they're not that close. They talk occasionally but there's twelve hours time difference between them most of the year and it's kind of hard to find time to Skype when they both have their own lives and are doing perfectly fine.

Pedro knows that Hero and him are friends. It just slipped out during a conversation back in April when they were getting ready for their roadtrip to Timaru. No big confession and no questions asked.

But in reality, John couldn't care less if Pedro didn't know about his every move and decision and every change that happens in his life. And it's not like he blasts his personal life on the Internet for everyone to see. His Instagram only contains pictures of his finished work and he mainly has it so he can follow his friends.

So when Hero asks if he has told his brother yet, he gives her a curious glance.

“No... why?”

“Just thought you might, since he's your brother. You're getting along better, right?”

“As well as you can with being on two different sides of the world.”

Hero gives him a smirk.

“You forget that I have a cousin who lives in the same time zone as your brother”, she remarks. “It's not easy but if you can, you make it work.”

John sighs in response.

“No, I haven't told him and I'd rather not in the near future. Why are you so keen on letting people know anyway?”

She doesn't answer this particular question, just turns back to her book. He doesn't prod either, but she's already planted the thought in his head.


It pops up again during a night when he's haunted by insomnia, now more rarely than it used to be. It circles in his head, over and over again, echoing back at him. Why haven't you told Pedro yet? He's your brother.

And he knows the answer. It's because he's a coward. A coward who needs to jump over his own shadow. He just doesn't know how. Tread carefully? Rip off the plaster? Drop hints in the hope that Pedro is smart enough to piece everything together himself?

At 2:37 AM his fingers hover over his phone, he's staring at the Facebook chat that his brother and him have going on. He takes a deep breath and then he jumps.


[John]: So. Hero and I are sort of dating, I guess.


The three dots indicating that Pedro is typing are blinking. And blinking. For five painfully long minutes. Then they stop.

He knows he should've never tried. Four years is a short time when you're young and you have done hurtful things and people will always remember you how you spit venom in their face but not how you have tried to redeem yourself, over and over again, before finally settling on just being forgotten entirely.


[Pedro]: Got your mssg. Want to talk abt this? Skype or sth? Can't really right now bc I'm late for Balth's gig and I have to work after. Maybe tmorrow? I'll make it up to you, k?


~


Hero's parents

They're having dinner with her mum and mumma and she has finally managed to convince John that it would be nice to have him over, that it would be nice to just tell them . After all, if their reaction to her coming out as ace is any indication, she shouldn't be too worried.

But then she opens the door for John, pale-faced and tired with an inevitable look of dread in his eyes, and she knows something's off.


“I told Pedro about us”, he mutters.

She's taken him up to her room with an excuse to her mumma, promising to be back down in a minute so they can eat. Dinner is almost ready and it smells delicious.

He's sitting on her bed and she thinks back of one year ago, winter break, when they made a deal in this very same room. Friends. That's what they were supposed to be. That's what they are. Friends, and something more, something else entirely.

“Okay”, she replies, taking her place next to him, cross-legged, hesitating before reaching for his hand with hers. “What did he say?”

“He didn't- he said we should talk about it. Later. And then he had a gig to attend and work and of course there's time zones. I don't know, I think- I fucked that one up.”

“No.”

She lets go of his hand just to wrap her arms around him, pulling him close even though the position is awkward.

“You did nothing wrong”, she says, decidedly, her voice muffled by his sweater. “You're projecting your fears. That's okay. We don't even know what's going on in Pedro's head right now. Maybe he needs some time to… understand. Maybe you just took him by surprise, that's all.”

She pulls back to look at him but he's just staring down at the floor.

“No matter what, I'm with you”, she says, leaning forward to rest her forehead against his temple. “Are you okay to have dinner?”


Her mumma has cooked vegetable stir-fry with glass noodles and portobello mushrooms, one of her favourites (except for the mushrooms which she sneaks onto John's plate).

“It's so nice to finally have you around for dinner, John”, Imogen remarks, filling four glasses with wine before anyone can object. “How is uni?”

“I think I'm doing all right”, he says cautiously, looking over at Hero, as if she had anything to do with it.

She knows it's just nervousness. He's still worried about Pedro and then about her mothers, even though he does quite a good job at hiding it. She wishes she could reach out and offer him some kind of comfort but she's still unsure how he feels about public displays of affection, especially when her mum and mumma don't even know about them yet.

“I've started working on a few commission pieces to make some extra money”, he offers as a conversation topic.

“Oh, how wonderful! Hero has shown us some of your art on her phone.” Helena looks back and forth between them. “I hope that's okay.”

He looks surprised but then a soft smile directed at Hero graces his face.

“It's fine.”


The conversation flows surprisingly easy from then on, about university and their lives in Wellington and the current projects that they are working on. Hero does most of the talking but she's gotten so used to it now that she doesn't even mind, shooting occasional glances at John, smiling encouragingly when he tells a story from their recent hiking trip with Mo and Finley.

“I think that was our first date”, she says softly, without really meaning to.

John stops and stares at her. Helena raises her eyebrows and Imogen smirks.

“I mean, it was a double date, sort of”, Hero corrects hastily, blushing.

“Really?”, John replies quietly. “I thought that night we had dinner at Aunty Mena's-”

“Oh, yes, that was a date. Also a date. Just us.”

Helena clears her throat and both John and Hero turn to face her and Imogen.

“I mean, we had our suspicions...”

“...but is there anything you two would like to share with us?”


Hero knew from the start that they wouldn't have anything to be worried about.


~


John's parents

“Helena and Imogen are inviting us over for dinner on Friday night”, Ann mentions during their much smaller Tuesday night dinner. “I asked them if it was a special occasion and they told me to ask you?”

John almost chokes on his asparagus. He might have to reconsider his appreciation for Hero's mothers.

“Nothing special”, he replies after taking a gulp of water. He hesitates for a moment, before adding, deadpan: “Probably just because I am dating their only daughter.”

This time it's his father's turn to choke, cough violently and grab his glass of water.


“But I thought you were asexual?”

His father has finally found his voice again.

“I am”, John replies, a slight annoyance in his tone. “Asexual, not aromantic.”

The look of confusion on his fathers face only intensifies.

“I don't... understand.”

John drops his head in his hands and groans, but Ann, surprisingly, jumps to his aid.

“There's a difference between romantic and sexual attraction, Bill”, she explains. “Just because John doesn't feel sexual attraction doesn't mean he can't be romantically attracted to people. Some people might be aromantic, meaning they aren't romantically attracted to anyone. But since John is some kind of romantic-”

“Demiromantic.”

“- demiromantic, thank you, he is able to feel romantic attraction after a certain emotional bond has been formed. Did I get that right?”

“Yes”, John mutters, trying to hide his surprise at having his stepmother deliver a perfectly sound explanation about romantic and sexual attraction.

His father scratches his head, then nods.

“Okay, so you're... romantically attracted to Hero”, he says. “And she's okay with you being asexual and all that?”

John hesitates for a moment, then answers: “She's fine.”

No need to out his girlfriend to his parents, even if she is basically out to all her friends and family. He knows she probably wouldn't care but it's not his story to tell.

 

Later that night when they FaceTime to say goodnight, he mentions his parents finding out. After Pedro's dubious reaction, which was really more the non-existence of a reaction rather than a reaction, at least he's got some good news this time.

Hero, in her typical fashion, is more concerned about him being okay with it than Bill's and Ann's reaction to their being in a relationship.

He doesn't know how he'll ever make it up to her. So much caring she has done for him and so much harm he has done to her.

“Do you want to go get a coffee or something?”, he asks. “Tomorrow? Or whenever's good, really.”

Her smile is blinding, even over the small phone screen.

“Are you asking me out?”

“Maybe? Possibly? Yes.”

“I would love to.”


~


Bea & Ben, Take I

She always loves Skyping Bea and Ben. She misses them terribly, and if seeing them, even just on a computer screen, means getting up at 7 AM to Skype, she'll do it. Usually that's how it goes, because her cousin would never get up that early in the morning unless it were a life-or-death situation.

Hero on the other hand is an early riser most days anyway. That's how she finds herself wrapped up in a blanket with a fresh cup of green tea, tapping away on her phone while waiting for Bea to call. It's a particularly rainy day, grey and altogether looking not very promising

She sends a quick good-morning-text to John, who is probably still asleep, and then returns her attention to the laptop screen. She still hasn't got a plan on how to break the news to Bea and Ben.

Bea is who she is mostly concerned about, as her cousin took some time to warm to the idea of John and her actually being friends. At least she's not actually hostile any more but Hero can almost imagine the kind of reluctance that Bea would show when she finds out. Ben would be ecstatic if anything, but that probably won't be much help.

A chiming sound on her laptop indicates a new message.

[Bea]: You ready?

Hero knows she will never truly be ready for this talk. So she hits the call-button instead of typing out a reply.


The first ten minutes are just spent catching up and it eases Hero's tension to see Bea and Ben smiling and laughing, asking about her projects and life in Wellington.

“So, what else is new?”, Ben asks, more jokingly than not after he has just re-enacted a particularly embarrasing run-in with his Gaelic TA. (Bea still mocks him for trying to learn Gaelic but surprisingly he has stuck with it.)

“Well...”, Hero starts.

“Oh my God!”, Bea interrupts her before she can even say anything. “I knew it!”

“What?” Hero's and Ben's reaction comes almost in sync.

“We're talking about a boy, right?”, Bea asks. “Or girl. Whichever you prefer, not that I care.”

Oh but she does care, she cares a lot. Bea always does. Which is why Hero has only dropped hints to herself possibly being biromantic once – and then never again. It's not important to her, it's not something people need to know about her. She likes boys and girls – so what. She still doesn't want to have sex with either.

“You do know that there are more than two gender, right?”, Hero replies instead.

But this is not the right moment to educate her cousin on gender studies, even though Moira and Finley would kill her if she didn't.

“It's about John.”

There's only silence on the other side of the screen and for a moment Hero fears that Skype has chosen this exact moment to freeze up on their conversation. But then Ben raises his eyebrows and grabs his cup of tea from out of frame before nudging his fiancée.

“Oh”, is Bea's delayed response. “What about him?”

“I'm in love with him.”


She's never said those words to anyone other than him. She hasn't even fully adapted the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” back into her own vocabulary yet. But talking to Bea sometimes only works if you're direct and almost painfully honest.

The surprise on her cousins face quickly turns into a frown, while Ben's morphs into a wide grin.

“Okay”, Bea says, but it sounds more like a question than a statement. “I'm... Yeah... Wow. I- I did not see that one coming.”

Hero just bites her lip, not sure how to continue.

“Does he-?”, Ben pipes up into the awkward silence that is about to spread.

“We've been together for a little over two weeks now”, Hero clarifies. “Just thought you should know. Because you're my best friends-”

“So you and John are dating?”, Bea interrupts, still. “That's a thing then?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why? I'm in-”

“Well for starters he's John Donaldson, the guy who ruined your sixteenth birthday-”

“-that was four years ago! And we have talked about it, we've put all that behind-”

“This is the worst idea ever!”

“What?”

Hero stares at her computer screen, completely taken aback. She would have expected some reluctance from Bea, but not a complete step back. It's like all those months she's been friends with John, gotten along with him and gotten over their past, all that means nothing.

“Bea, if you can't support me in this, please... just go”, she says quietly, trying to hold back the aching feeling in her chests that forebodes tears threatening to spill. “I'm not having a discussion with you about my relationship with John, this was simply to let you know-”

Bea harrumphs and jumps up, storming out of the room, apparently completely forgetting that they are on a Skype call.


Staring at the blank wall over her bed, Hero lets out a shuddering breath, trying to keep everything from falling apart. She can't remember how she imagined this would go. Just that it would work out somehow better than it actually did.

“If it's any consolation, I'm happy for you.”

She almost forgot that Ben is still there, now moving in front of the laptop to face her.

“Thank you”, she mutters.

“You know Bea, she just needs some time to let things sink in. I'm sure she'll understand in time-”

“What if she won't?”, Hero asks. “You know Bea, she's so stubborn, so set in her ways, she's convinced that John will forever be the bad guy. And she doesn't even know him.”

“I'll talk to her. She'll come around eventually.”

Hero just sighs in response, racking her mind for a solution to this mess. How is she supposed to convince Bea that John isn't bad, that they're in love, that this thing between them has made her the happiest she's been in a long time? How indeed, with ten thousand miles and an eleven hour time difference between them?

“Look, Hero...” Ben's voice pulls her back out of her mind. “This is not your fault, okay? It's just Bea, you know how she is-”

“I know”, she says. “I'm sorry, I have to- I need to go.”

“Okay...”

“I'll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yeah, don't worry, we'll... we'll talk. And I'll try and talk to Bea, alright?”

“Thanks, Ben.”


She just sits in her room for a long time, trying not to give in to the pressing urge to cry, pulling her blanket closer around herself to keep warm.

Eventually she picks up her phone again, checking the time. It's not even 9 AM, John is probably still asleep. They are going out today, on an actual date, one where they are both actually aware that it is one. She's been looking forward to it but Bea's disapproval has put a bit of a damper on that.

Regardless, she types out a quick message to John.

[Hero]: Talked to Bea & Ben this morning. Didn't go as well as I thought.

His response a few minutes later comes as a bit of surprise. Maybe she woke him up.

[John]: Are you okay?

She hesitates before answering.

[Hero]: Not really.

[John]: Can I come over?

[Hero]: Please.


He shows up 20 minutes later with Ben & Jerry's Half-Baked and all four seasons of “Blackadder” on her doorstep and she almost wants to cry. It reminds her of the day he came over, after her breakup with Chris, a whole box full of freshly baked cake in hands just to cheer her up. It reminds her that he'll probably always be her friend first and her boyfriend second, that he'll let her cry on his shoulder and make sure she's okay, just like she does for him.

So she lets him in.


~


Claudio

John takes her to the same café they went to the last time they were in Auckland and she smiles at him, knowingly. He pulls out a chair for her at almost the same table they sat at last time and hangs up their coats before settling in across from her.

She looks a lot better after this morning, fresh-faced, no longer close to tears, instead an almost-smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. He'd offered to postpone the date but she'd insisted on going, claiming that wallowing in self-pity wouldn't help her emotional state any more and she needed to get out of the house.

“This is lovely”, she remarks, carefully tugging a wisp of hair behind her ear and reaching for the menu even though she probably already knows what she'll have.

“It's a bit strange, isn't it?”, he replies. “Last time we were here...”

“...I realised I was falling in love with you.”

Her forwardness doesn't fail to make him blush, but he's more surprised than anything.

“Really?”

She reaches across the table for his hand.

“Really.”

Without thinking too much about it he raises her hand to his lips and presses a soft kiss to her knuckles.

When he casts a glance at her she's blushing and he thinks she might be the most beautiful, precious person he has ever met, her hair in an ever-so-slight state of disarray from taking off her hat inside the café, her cheeks flushed, her lips a soft dusky pink from the lipstick she likes to use lately.

He's so distracted he almost doesn't notice the waitress approaching their table to take their orders until she clears her throat.

“What can I get you two?”


They turn their attention to blueberry cheesecake and conversations about Finley's upcoming birthday (and what to get her), their end-of-the-year projects and their plans for summer, carefully skirting the topic of Bea and her opinion on their relationship. It's better that way and if he can make Hero forget about it just for a little while, he's quite content.

When he looks up to glance at the customers waiting at the register for their to-go-orders, he almost does a double-take. Of all the cafés in Auckland, this had to be the one.

As if he could sense him, the young man in the dark grey coat looks over, right at him. He seems surprised at first, but then he nods at him. John can't help but nod back in recognition before lowering his eyes back at his coffee.

“Someone we know?”, Hero asks and turns to look as well. It only takes her a second. “Oh.”

John looks up just in time to see Claudio's eyes widen, probably even more surprised to see Hero here with him, before turning around to the cashier who rings him up and hands him a paper cup of some hot beverage.

“Well, that's unexpected”, Hero mutters and twists back around to face him. “I don't think-”

“Incoming.”


“Hi Hero. John.”

They look up in perfect sync at Claudio, standing next to their table, paper cup with his name on it in his hand.

“Hi Claudio”, Hero offers and it would seem like a perfectly polite greeting if John couldn't feel her leg twitching nervously under the table. “What brings you here?”

“Oh, you know, just getting some caffeine for those late-afternoon classes. I hear you're studying in Wellington?”

“Yes, we're- we currently have our mid-semester break. Thought it'd be nice to spend some days in Auckland again.”

Claudio's eyes flicker over at John.

“You're in Wellington too?”, he asks.

John nods. “Massey University, College of Creative Arts.”

“Arts, huh?”

“I'm doing Fine Arts, BA with Honors.”

“Ah, yeah, that's cool.”

Claudio's look suggests that someone studying Fine Arts is apparently anything but cool.

“I'm studying Business Administrations myself”, he continues. “Almost done now. Should be the same for you two, right?”

“I switched programmes during my second year”, Hero explains. “So it's one more year for me.”

“Spent a year in England”, John adds with a shrug. “One more year for me as well.”

He glances over at Hero and she catches his eye, a soft smile spreading on her lips. It's reassuring, to have someone on his side, supporting him and his decisions. Just as he's there for her, she's here for him.

“Ah, well...” Claudio seems a bit perplexed now, confidence wavering. “It- It was nice to see you again. I really- I should get going. Have a nice date- I mean, day.”

He blushes profusely now, adding a short “bye” before turning on his heel and leaving the café in full speed.


The two of them look at each other and then it's Hero who cracks first, resolving into fits of giggles. John doesn't even try to hide the grin on his face.

“That was the most awkward run-in with an ex-boyfriend that I have ever had”, she finally says. “God. I almost feel sorry for him.”

John's grin fades into a wry smile when she mentions the 'ex-boyfriend'.

“He probably thinks I broke you two up so I could be with you”, he mutters.

“What? John, that's not-”

“-what happened, I know. But people always perceive things differently.”

Hero falls silent, stirring her Chai Latte without looking at him.

“Did you?”, she finally asks.

“What?”

“Break us up so you could be with me?”

“No. I didn't even-” His voice falters for a moment. “You know as well as I do that we were barely acquaintances at the time. It wasn't about you, it was about Pedro-”

He pulls a face at the memory of what happened surrounding the events of Hero's 16th birthday.

“It's okay”, she says. Her fingers touch his wrist like she's afraid he'll snap. “I didn't mean to- It's in the past. And sure, it happened, but we've moved on. Look at us now.”

So he does. Look at her. Her blue eyes. Her soft lips turned into an encouraging smile. Her fingers still lingering on his pulse point.

“Yeah.”


~


Ursula & Meg

She still hasn't heard back from Beatrice a day later. She tries not to think about it too much as she prepares for an afternoon of baking and tea with Ursula, who's found some time in her busy schedule that is studying Screen Production at UOA.

Of course Ursula notices almost immediately that something is wrong. But she's Ursula, she doesn't press for answers, just hugs her and then talks about her new short film that she wants to enter in some festivals.

Somewhere between mixing together the ingredients and scraping the vegan chocolate brownie dough into the baking tray it slips out.

“John and I are dating.”

Ursula hesitates with the scraping for just a moment.

“Oh”, she finally says. “That's... not quite unexpected.”

“Really?”

“Hero, I'm not blind. Even if I am up here in Auckland and you're in Wellington.” Urs lets out a warm chuckle. “I might have been sneaking around just a little bit. Your friend Finley has a very lovely Instagram account.”

“Oh.”

Hero can't help but blush. Ursula throws her a smile before finishing the scraping and putting the brownies into the oven.

Instead of starting to clean the mixing bowl with her fingers like she usually would, Hero leans on the kitchen counter, brushing strands of hair out of her face. She's not sure what she was expecting, but it certainly wasn't that simple.

Ursula shoots her a quizzical look, then sets down the mixing bowl in the sink and leans next to her.

“You don't seem too happy about it. What's wrong?”

“Oh no, everything's fine with John”, Hero answers honestly. “It's... Beatrice. She's still hung up on what happened on my sixteenth birthday.”

Ursula nods.

“That sounds like her.”

“We had an argument about it, when we Skyped yesterday. And now we're not talking and I feel horrible even though it's just Bea being stubborn and... I don't know. I wish she would just listen to me. I wish I could show her what it's like, make her understand...”

Ursula just hums in response.

After a moment of silence, Hero looks over at her.

“Don't you always have a solution, Urs?”, she asks, her lips curling into a soft smile. “You used to be so good at this, fixing things.”

“It's a bit harder when your friends are scattered all over the world. You can't just gather everyone somewhere and give them a stern talk. And we're not going to fake your death again.”

That coaxes a laugh out of Hero.

“Although...”, Ursula adds. “I think I might just have an idea.”


When Meg comes around as well in the evening for pizza and a movie, Hero feels much more optimistic. Maybe it's just the fact that someone else, someone outside of John and her little bubble, knows what is going on and has their back.

She's still a bit wary about telling Meg though, because Meg has been hurt just as much by John as Hero. But if Meg finds out by some other way about John and her, she won't forgive her easily. It's best if it comes from Hero directly.

“Do I smell brownies?”

Meg greets her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She's just finished uni after a total of 7 hours of attending lectures and tutoring first semester students in physics and she still manages to look as flawless as ever.

“They're for dessert”, Ursula explains. “Fresh out of the oven.”

“You two are literally angels.”

Meg hugs Ursula as well and they settle around the living room table with the pizza that Meg has picked up on her way. Ursula pours them lemonade and it's almost like back when they were still in school, except that Bea is missing from their little party.

“I have something to tell you”, Hero says after they have had their first sips and should be deciding on a movie to watch.

Meg's eyes flicker up at her, surprised.

“You're pregnant!”, she blurts out, raising her eyebrows.

“No, why would you-”

“Engaged?”

“Meg, it's not-”

“DID YOU GET A TATOO WITHOUT CONSULTING ME FIRST?”

“I'm dating John Donaldson.”


The silence in the room is almost painful but Hero doesn't dare to move her eyes away from Meg, her fingers clutching at the seams of her sweater.

“O- Okay”, Meg stutters, obviously stunned by the news.

“I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier”, Hero adds quickly. “I just... we hadn't told anyone. I told Ursula this afternoon and Beatrice-”

“Sorry, it's just very strange.”

“I know.”

“You and John?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

They fall silent again and this time Hero lowers her eyes, staring at her fingernails as if they have suddenly become very interesting. Bracing herself for more dismissal. Although she wouldn't really be too surprised if Meg were to disapprove. At least Meg has a fair reason. Meg has been hurt too.

“I didn't even know you two were friends”, Meg says after a while. There's a slight pang of disappointment in her voice.

“We had a talk”, Hero replies carefully. “About everything... that had happened. Last year. And then we started hanging out more. I mean, he's the only one I know from Auckland who has moved to Wellington as well.”

Meg nods, then takes deep breath and puts on a smile.

“I really hope he treats you well”, she says. “Because you, Hero Duke, only deserve the best.”

Once again, Meg continues to surprise. Before she can add anything more, Hero has moved over on the sofa, pulling her into a fierce hug.

“Oh, okay- that's- Hero? Are you crying?”

“Just a little bit.”


~


Pedro (& Balthazar), Take II

Pedro doesn't reach out until Thursday. Thursday afternoon to be precise. John checks the time on the email and calculates that his brother must've been up late, just like he had been the first time he tried to talk to him.


Super late reply SORRY

Hey John,

sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. Classes just started again and I've been crazy busy with work lately and Balth had 3 gigs this week – excuses, I know. I'm really sorry though, not sure if that message of yours was just meant as a like FYI or if you actually wanted to have a conversation about that?

I mean, what would you want to talk about? Hero's a great girl, you know that probably better than I do. You seemed to get along well last time we were in Auckland. Are you asking for my approval? You and I both know you don't need anyone's approval. I certainly didn't ask for any from you when Balth and I started dating. (Tbf, you knew I was crushing on him and basically shoved me in his general direction so I would make a move. If there was any approval, that was it.)

Keep your head up, bro. And if you need any advice or still want to talk, let me know. I should be free to Skype Sunday night, that's Monday morning for you? Idk if that works for you, just give me a quick heads up if that's not for you.

Talk to you soon,

Pedro

P.S.: I passed the info on to Balth. His reaction: “Cool. Sweet. Have you seen my Ukulele? You know, the one with the signatures from- ah, there it is!” I'm sure he's very happy for you. ;)


It leaves him completely stunned. He reads the email once, twice, paces around the room for five minutes and then reads it a third time.

A misunderstanding. A misinterpretation on his side. Pedro never meant to dismiss him. Pedro simply didn't have time to give a long reply. Pedro hadn't even thought about the fact that such a message needed a long reply.

John leans back in his desk chair, nervously running his fingers through the mop of hair on his head. He's still not entirely sure of what's happening here. But apparently good things, in comparison to what Hero told him about her conversation with Beatrice yesterday.

He picks up his phone, twirls it in his hand for a minute, before finally opening up Facebook.

[John]: So we're cool?

Of course it's the middle of the night in Brighton right now and he's not expecting a reply, but ten minutes later, his phone buzzes to indicate a new message.

[Pedro]: course we're cool, why wouldn't we?

John raises his eyebrows and debates whether to reply with sarcasm or honesty. Given the situation that his brother is probably half asleep and wouldn't be in any mental state to truly appreciate sarcasm, he chooses the latter.

[John]: I have to say, I was expecting at least some comments. Beatrice certainly didn't hold back on that.

[Pedro]: bro it's your life do what you want

[Pedro]: you know what you're doing

[Pedro]: prob better than I do

[John]: Thanks Pedro

What follows is a bunch of emoticons, including a fistbump, a thumbs up, a peace sign and a hatching chicken emoji. Apparently Pedro's either too tired or too drunk to communicate in textual form.

[John]: Go to sleep

[Pedro]: *pizza emoji* *moon emoji* *party popper emoji* *flamenco dancer emoji*

[John]: Are you drunk?

[John]: Is Balth around?

[Pedro]: *heart emojis in all possible colours*

John can't help but chuckle at his brother's ridiculousness.

[Pedro]: Hi John this is Balth what's up?

[John]: Just wanted to make sure somebody's looking after my brother.

[Pedro]: Yeah we had a gig at this club and then Pedro decided to just fuck it and skip classes tomorrow and now we're just hanging with the band. I'll get him home safe, don't worry.

[Pedro]: He might've had a few too many shots with our drummer.

[Pedro]: He also wants me to let you know that he loves you.

[John]: Thanks. I'll leave you to it then.

[Pedro]: Okay good night.

[Pedro]: Wait it's noon over there isn't it?

[John]: 4 PM

[Pedro]: Well good day then

[John]: Good night


He gets up from his chair and immediately drops back on his bed, staring at the ceiling. After a moment of silence he lets out one pathetic laugh. Then he picks up his phone to send Hero a quick message about the whole situation. After the disaster with Beatrice yesterday, good news are probably a welcome distraction.

If he's being honest though, he's looking forward to being back in Wellington. No parents asking about dinner, wanting to know where you are every hour of the day. No-one bothering you when the door to your bedroom is closed. He misses Fin and Mo, their cooking and their snarky commentary of the movies they watch Sunday nights.

Most of all, he misses spending time with Hero that is not overshadowed by the opinion of other people on their relationship. He's doing this for her, mostly, because it's what she wants, because it might make her feel better. He couldn't care less what people think (even though a little voice in his head notes that it's nice to have some support in that department), but he cares about her. He cares about her so much, sometimes it hurts.


~


Bea & Ben, Take II

It's their last full day in Auckland, they're taking the bus back down to Wellington tomorrow and have to be back in classes the day after that. It's their last full day and somehow she's convinced him to come with her to a picnic at the park that Ursula is organising. They don't know anyone there aside from Meg and Urs, but she still has leftover brownies from their girls night a few days ago and she managed to bake cookies as well, which are happily accepted in the colourful mix of Ursula's uni friends.

It's a lovely day, almost spring, the sun shining for once, but they're still all bundled up in sweaters and scarves. She sneaks a glance over at John who's still standing over to the side with Meg, talking quietly. She knows he wanted to apologise to her again, probably spurred on by a talk they had earlier this week. She also knows that Meg will want to make sure that he treats her well.

“I don't think I've seen you pine like this since Claudio”, Ursula says beside her.

Hero turns to look at her friend and is faced with a camera. She can't help but smile.

“So you're gonna do this then?”, she diverts the conversation.

“I was going to film anyway. I try to make at least one short video a month. Not for practice, just, you know... It's nice making something you don't get graded on.”

“I've always loved your videos, Urs. You're very talented.”

“And that's on camera now, thank you very much.”

They both laugh and then Ursula turns her camera back on the other people in the group, to catch smiles and shots of snacks and the general feeling of the end of winter. Hero has already forgotten most of their names, but it doesn't worry her too much. She mostly leans back and listens in on the conversations about uni life in Auckland, nibbling on a cookie.

“Hey babes!”

Meg plops down next to her and she turns just in time to see John kneel down behind her. She shifts a bit so he can sit on her other side and then leans over against his shoulder. Meg coos as if on instinct.

“You're adorable”, she comments. “I still quite can't believe this, but whatever's going on with you two, it's adorable.”

“What about you then?”, Hero asks with a smirk. “Anything on your romantic horizon?”

“Well...” Meg grins. “There's this girl I've been talking to, her name's Freddie...”


Ursula sends her a link to a video a few days later with a note.

You can pass this on to Bea or I will. Don't think it'll be too forward coming from me. Just thought you'd might want to have a first look.

- Ursula

She's only in the studio right now, working on her end-of-the-year project, so she slips out into the hallway, finds a window seat that's a bit hidden and plugs in her earbuds before starting the video.

In typical Ursula fashion it's a montage of scenic and detailed shots, underlined with music and nothing much else. It's strange to see herself on camera again, videos are something else entirely than the hundreds of pictures that Finley has snapped of her in the past few months.

There's shots of Ursula's friends, of Hero talking to a dark-skinned girl with a bindi, of Meg laughing at something that John says. There's a moment where John's talking directly to the camera and you can't hear what he's saying but a moment later the shot cuts to one of Ursula grinning next to Hero and Meg and Hero vaguely remembers Urs handing off the camera to John at some point.

The video is light-hearted and if Hero ever worried about it seeming too forced, it's all out the window now. It's not just about John and her, as she originally had thought when Ursula had offered the idea to her. It's a video that shows how things are now, an update in the life of Ursula, nothing more or less.

She shoots a quick text to Ursula in response.

[Hero]: Congrats on a job well done. You're a brilliant cinematographer.

[Hero]: I'll leave the passing-on to you.

[Ursula]: Okay, keep me posted on how things are going with Bea, yeah?

[Ursula]: And I'll see if I can come down to visit you soon.

[Hero]: I'd love that. I miss having you around.

Hero sits for a few minutes more in the hallway, trying not to think about what her cousins reaction might be to this. Finally she pulls herself together and returns to the studio to finish her garments.


Bea's response comes exactly 5 hours and 37 minutes later in a text message.

[Bea]: Can we skype please?

They're currently hanging out at Moira's flat, just having finished dinner and setting up for a round of board games. Luckily, Mo also has one of the more reliable Wi-Fi connections, so Hero excuses herself upstairs into her friend's bedroom to talk to Bea.

Her cousin notices almost immediately.

“Where are you? That's not your room, is it?”

“I'm at Mo's flat”, Hero replies matter-of-fact. “We just had dinner.”

“Okay. So...”

Hero arches her left eyebrow quizzically. Maybe she's being just a bit snide, but Bea hurt her and she's tired of pretending like it doesn't affect her.

“I'm sorry”, Beatrice says. “Sorry that I said you and John being together was the worst idea ever. That was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction.”

Hero only arches her eyebrow higher. Bea groans in response.

“It was uncalled for”, she adds. “Better?”

“It's a start.”

“Should I send flowers?”

“I'd rather you actually mean what you're saying”, Hero replies quietly. “I don't care if you're supportive of my relationship with John or not. When you said that... what you said- I don't think you realise this, Bea, but you hurt me.”

She tries to read her cousin's face but it's always harder via Skype. Beatrice looks embarrassed and she can't seem to find the right words immediately, nervously wringing her hands. This is unusual, even for her.

“I know. And I am sorry, really”, she finally says. “I didn't mean to-”

“But you did.”

Silence falls between them.

“Fair point”, Bea admits after a moment.

“Good”, Hero retorts, a hint of a smile on her lips. “Then let's put that behind us and move on. How is-”

“Sorry, can I just-”, Bea interrupts her. “I wanted to ask, because obviously I watched the video that Ursula sent me- I'm trying not to question her intent behind that or anything- It's about John.”

“The video?”

“No, I mean, I have a question. About John.”

“Okay...”

“Because I know you're asexual and we talked about it a lot and with what happened with the jerkface...”

“Chris.”

“Yeah- I just wanted to know if things are... different with John?”

“You want to know if he's treating me well.”

“Obviously.”

Hero lets out a short laugh and shakes her head. Ever the protective cousin.

“Well...”, she starts. “It helps that he's asexual as well-”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Huh.”

“But we're still working things out.”

“That sounds... good.”


When she comes back down into the living room, the others are almost finishing up Settlers of Catan and it seems like Anaru is winning. Again. He's been the undefeated Catan champion for several months now and Finley is getting kind of moody about it.

Hero slips her phone into her bag that's lying in the hallway and then climbs onto the armrest of the sofa next to John, who turns to her with a smile.

“Everything okay?”, he asks.

She nods, curling her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck. A haircut might be sensible but she won't push him to it.

“Bea apologised”, she says.

He glances at the board game, then back at her.

“That's good”, he replies, although it sounds slightly like a question rather than a statement.

“It is.”

Anaru wins the game in the end, but Finley is close behind. They sit around the living room, eating leftovers from dinner until 1 AM, listening to Gwen strumming away on her guitar. It's a Tuesday night and they have classes tomorrow but for some reason nobody really cares about that. Maybe it's the mid-semester break that's still stuck in their minds, that they don't want to let go.

They try not to think too much about exams and dream of summer.


~


Hero

It's a random thing really, a missed call and a message he forgot to reply to. He's so busy with exams and projects to finish, he's not entirely sure where his head is at. He sees more of the studio space at uni than of his own room and he eats take-out most of the time and he barely talks to anyone.

An incessant knocking breaks him out of his workflow and he's surprised he hears it at all over the music coming through his headphones. He glances at his watch, it's half past eleven and even though technically he could probably pull an all-nighter, Finley will raise hell if he doesn't turn up at home by 1 AM. So he's got an alarm set for half past twelve and he's stuck to it so far.

The knocking starts again and he pulls off his headphones, brushes off his hands on a rag and gets up to check the door.

It's Hero, her hair tousled from the wind that's sweeping through Wellington most days, a frown etched on her face, fingers gripping onto the sleeves of her sweater.

“Sorry”, John mutters as he opens the door. “Didn't hear you, I had headphones on-”

“-and you didn't hear your phone either-”

“-because I turned it on silent so I could concentrate-”

“-and I tried to call you five times, I left you a message-”

“-I got your message... Fuck.”

He groans, brushing back the curls that are falling into his eyes.

“I wanted to reply, I swear, I must've been distracted or something, I forgot-” He looks at her and she stares back, a look he can't quite read. “I'm sorry, Hero. I've just been so busy-”

“Is this how it's going to be then?”, she asks quietly. “You'll just put me on hold whenever things get too much?”

“What?”

“John, I haven't seen you in almost two weeks.”

He opens his mouth and then closes it again, not able to find an explanation for his behaviour. Deep down he knows what he's doing. Closing off, blocking everything out, just another coping mechanism he acquired throughout the years. He's learned to keep to himself with his problems, deal with them alone. It works only some of the time.


“I miss you.”

It's so quiet he almost doesn't catch it. She flicks her eyes up at him and then shakes her head.

“I thought we were on the same page”, she continues. “You'd tell me when things get rough and I do the same. I have no idea how you're doing, if I did something wrong, if you're just ignoring me-”

“I wasn't, I just forgot-”

“And I'm tired of always being the one to go first. I'm tired of having to call first, over and over again. I never know with you- are you too scared to touch me or do you just not want to? Because it's always me who hugs first, it's always me who takes your hand. Would it kill you to lead the way for once? Because I'm not sure where I am going with you, sometimes I don't even know what you want-”

Her voice breaks and he can't stand looking at her because he can see the tears pooling in her eyes and it's because of him. He takes in her words, he sees what she means. I wouldn't want to date me either.

“And then you hide away back here and I have to hear from Finley, Finley, that you're barely home, barely sleeping as it is. This can't just be about exams and work! And I know it's not me either because Mo says the only times she's seen you in the past two weeks is the exams you had together and one time when she was sleeping over at your house. So please, please just tell me what is wrong so we can fix this?”

She takes a shuddering breath and wraps her arms around herself. He wishes he could do that to her, wrap her in his arms, comfort her. But he hurt her, unintentionally but nonetheless. He knows to well that she wouldn't want his comfort, not when they are like this – broken.

“You're right”, he says and then clears his throat because his voice sounds all hoarse and scratchy and there's a lump in this throat that won't budge. He tries to think of some explanation as to why he's been behaving like he has the past weeks, but he comes up empty handed.

I panicked. I didn't want to be a burden like last year. I was getting worse again and I didn't want you to worry . Things are spinning out of contro l and I can't pull you down with me. Again.

He looks at her and he can feel her slipping through his fingers. He's losing her and they've barely been together for two months. So he pieces together the closest thing he has to an excuse.

“I just thought with everything going on, exams and projects and all that- I wanted to focus on that. And you know how I get when I'm stressed- I didn't want to put that on you as well-”

“That doesn't mean I don't want to see you!”

Hero rarely raises her voice, let alone yells. The silence that follows is almost deafening. They are staring at each other and his heart is racing with panic, his hands curling into fists to stop them from shaking.

She's the first to speak up again. “What is wrong with us?”

“I am.”


~


John

“I am.”

She gapes at him. He can't be serious. Yes, of course she's mad at him but she had no intention of blaming every miscommunication that has piled up in the past few stressful weeks on him. She came to clear things up between them, not complicate them.

“Are you just giving up then?”, she asks. “Without a fight?”

“I don't want to fight you, Hero”, he replies. There's a quiver in his voice that wasn't there before. “I know it's my fault.”

“I don't want to fight you either”, she says. “And I don't know why you would think that it's your fault. This is something between the two of us and I still want to fight for this.” She gestures between them. “Whatever this is that we have.”

“Me too.”

“Do you?” She eyes him carefully. “Because lately I've been thinking that we might have been better at being together when we weren't- you know- together.”

“That makes no sense”, he mutters.

“Yes it does!” She tugs exasperately at the split ends of her shoulder-length hair. “Last year, exam time, we were constantly spending time together-”

“You were watching me, Mo and you both were! Just to make sure I wouldn't have another breakdown!”

He practically spits it out and it hits her like a jab so she stumbles one step back, her spine hitting the door handle uncomfortably.

“I'm sorry”, he says, more quietly, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I shouldn't have shouted. I should've responded to your message. I should've called you back. You deserve better than that- You deserve better than me.”

She feels like they're running in circles and she can't hold back the tears that are threatening to break now.

She knows that that's always been the thing in his head, even when they were just friends. That she is too good for him, that somehow he doesn't deserve her attention, her friendship, her love. He's good at self-destruction and she wishes she could change it but that's not her job.

Self-destruction. That's what this is.

“You need to stop”, she says, trying to calm herself as much as she can with tears running down her cheeks. “I love you and I care about you and I need you to stop this.”

“What?”


He doesn't look mad or angry or taken aback. Surprised is more like it, like she just said something he couldn't quite- I love you. There it is. I love you. I love you. I love you.

“Hero”, he gasps and then he's right in front of her, pulling her close, and she lets out a sob, wrapping her arms around his chest and hiding her face in his black sweater.

He still smells the same, as if that could change in a week, but it's so familiar and she realises with a shiver how much she has missed him and how much it hurts to fight and how all she wants right now is to never let him go again.

When he loosens his grip on her, she only holds him tighter. “No”, she mutters. “No.”

One hand runs down her back soothingly, the other smoothing over her hair. Then he starts pulling her with him- she doesn't know where until they hit something and he pulls her down with him, into his lap. She vaguely remembers a couch tucked in the corner of the studio space.

They stay like that for a long time, her curled up in his lap, his arms wrapped securely around her. She lets herself cry for once because she wouldn't know how else to deal with this situation.

Eventually she untangles herself from him, pulls herself up to look at him.

“We need to talk about this”, she says.

“Okay.”

“Is there something wrong with you?” She watches him carefully, as if that would help her determine the state of his mental health.

He lets out a deep breath, his left hand resting still at the small of her back. She doesn't know if he's aware of it, but it makes her feel safe.

“I'm stressing over exams, like everyone else”, he says without looking at her. “I don't sleep very well. I work better when I'm here, less distractions. So I'm here most of the time. If it weren't for Finley I would probably sleep here as well.”

She can't help but smile at that. Finley probably threatened him to enforce a curfew or something.

“Still, I'm not back on meds”, he continues. “You know I-”

“-hate meds. Yes, I know.”

He finally looks back at her and there's an unexpected warmth in his eyes. For a moment she thinks he's going to say something, but then he just leans forward until their foreheads meet with a slight brush of his nose against hers. Almost a kiss, but not quite.

“I love you too”, he whispers.

Her heart does an ever so quick jump before racing onward.

“That's good”, she replies, watching him as his eyes slide shut when she runs her fingers over the curve of his jaw. “That's enough.”


~


Epilogue

“John?”

Finley carefully cracks open the door to his room. His bike is leaning in its typical spot on the wall outside, so he must've come home last night. She always checks whenever she's fallen asleep early and hasn't woken up to the sound of him coming home.

John's room is remarkably tidy but that's probably because he's barely been home lately anyway. There's some clothes strewn across the floor, including a dark green sweater and some leggings that are decidedly not John's.

Someone's moving on the bed and Fin spots a hand, fingers darkened from working with charcoal sticks, tangled in blond hair. A relieved smile ghosts across her face and she closes the door behind herself.


She's in the living room nursing a cup of coffee and scrolling through the results of her latest photoshoot, trying to determine which pictures are most suited for her final product, when the door at the end of the hall opens and closes. There's some shuffling, the sound of the kettle starting in the kitchen.

“There's some coffee in the moka pot”, she calls.

“Thanks.”

Ah, John.

He appears in the room a minute later with a cup of lukewarm coffee.

“When did you get home last night?”, she asks, putting away her laptop.

John shrugs. “Didn't check the time. Were you sleeping?”

“You certainly didn't wake me.” She eyes him a bit suspiciously. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I'm... I'm taking today off, otherwise I'm going to crack under the pressure.”

He takes a seat on the far end of the sofa and props up his feet on the coffeetable made of old pallets.

“Good for you”, Finley replies with a grin. “Could've told you that weeks ago but I figured you wouldn't have liked to hear it.”

“Yeah, nah, I usually... I need to fuck things up first before I can pull myself together to make some changes.”

She snorts. “So what did you fuck up?”

He carefully traces the rim of his coffee cup with his thumb. “My relationship with Hero?”

“WHAT?”

“Almost.”

“JESUS, JOHN!” She looks around for a pillow or something to throw at him but them reminds herself that they both have cups of coffee in their hands and it might not be the best idea to spill coffee on the sofa when it could be avoided.

“You're a right little shit”, she mutters, but he only pulls a face in response. “So is everything okay with Hero?”

“Yeah, we're okay.”

“What did you do?”

“I was getting worse, mentally, and I pushed her away. Didn't want to hurt her but managed to hurt her more in the process.”

“Oh John...”

It is such a John thing to do and she hits herself mentally for not realising it sooner. Mo has told her about what happened last year and Finley knows about his regular trips to the therapists. It's never a big topic, just some casual chats exchanged during breakfast. She would have thought he knows better than isolating himself, especially when there are people so clearly worried about his well-being.

They're all busy at the moment but she figured he'd at least make time for his girlfriend. She sure does, even if it's just the occasional lunch or dinner together, falling into bed too exhausted for anything but some half-hearted cuddling. There's nothing she wants more than for this exam period to be over and spend the entire day in bed with Mo.


“She told me she loves me.”

Finley looks up at him. To her, saying those three words, I love you, is like second nature. She loves wildly, uninhibitedly, she's frank about it. She doesn't understand why people make such a big deal out of it. When you know you love someone, why would you hide it?

But she notices the look in John's eyes and adding it together with what she knows about him, he probably hasn't heard those three words in a long time. He still seems in awe about it, like it's too good to be true. To him, Hero's love is a miracle, something that might disappear if you look too closely.

“Do you love her?”, she asks, putting down her cup. Fin is pretty sure from her observations that John loves Hero more than he loves drawing or coffee.

“Yeah.” He doesn't even hesitate. This only bodes well.

“Did you tell her?”

“Hmm.”

“That a yes?”

“Yes.”

“Finally.”

A grin spreads on his face and he downs the last of his coffee before getting up. Without another word he returns to the kitchen and Fin's bet is that he's going to make the girl he loves a cup of tea and they won't leave his bed for another few hours. Cuddling and kissing, or whatever it is that asexual couples do. Nothing that Finley needs to know.


She picks her laptop back up and is ready to return to work, when John sticks his head around the corner one more time.

“Thank you, by the way”, he says.

“For what?”

“For looking after me.”

“Oh shut up with the sentiments, you nerd!”

This time she throws a pillow in his direction, but he dodges it with a laugh.

“I love you”, she adds. “In a purely platonic way.”

“Love you too”, he replies with a smirk. “Platonically.”