Hero lay down on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, softening her gaze to the point where she couldn’t see Beatrice clearly anymore.
“Come on, Hero,” Beatrice whined. “It’ll be fun, but not as fun without you.”
Hero just stared.
Beatrice waited for a moment. “I don’t know who else I would ask. Pedro says, ‘bring a friend’, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. I just have you! I mean, and Ben. But Peter is bringing Balthazar, so I obviously have to bring Ben.”
Hero looked over at Beatrice quickly.
She looked sad.
Hero flicked her eyes back to the ceiling before Beatrice looked at her.
“Ben didn’t really want to do it, but I told him I’d wear one of those outfits, you know, like they do in the professional matches.” Beatrice grinned. “I don’t know where I’d even get one of them, so obviously that isn’t happening, but it was fun to see how excited he was for me in that little skirt.” Pause. “Balthazar probably won’t play a lot, so you can sit out with him when he stops. Play a little ukulele music. Just hanging out, the music buddies again.”
Hero sighed. “I don’t want to.”
“Hero,” Beatrice started.
“I don’t. Want. To.” Hero stared at Beatrice for a moment.
“Hero.” Her voice was softer, more compassionate, even. “Why not?”
Hero laughed. “Really?” She sat up suddenly, pillows and blankets falling all around her. “Really? Why not?”
“You want me to pair with John Donaldson in tennis? Every month? For a year? My god, Beatrice.” Hero shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you would ever want that.”
Beatrice fell silent.
Hero started to get that itchy feeling that meant she should be guilty about something. “I’ll think about it,” she muttered before lying down facing the wall.
She felt Beatrice stand up and heard the footsteps retreating.
The door closed and Hero was left in peace.
It wasn’t that bad, honestly.
John was quiet for the whole time they were playing. He turned out to be surprisingly good at tennis and had a great backhand, which surprised everyone, including himself.
Hero was silent.
John felt really awkward. He and Balthazar got along really well, and Ben always made him laugh. Beatrice even attempted to make an effort, making small talk with him in between twirling for Ben – she had apparently promised him she would dress as Serena Williams for this match. And Pedro was Peter. His brother. They were getting along very well.
But Hero wouldn’t even look at him, which was very weird, since they were supposed to be playing as a team. That was what John expected, anyway. Pretty early on, it became evident that she wasn’t trying and didn’t care at all. She probably just promised Beatrice she would do it and showed up with no desire to be there.
Balthazar announced he wanted to sit out early in the afternoon and Hero promptly volunteered to sit with him, leaving Beatrice, Ben, and Pedro with him.
John didn’t mind. He wasn’t hurt. It was certainly not a problem.
“Why are you so mean to John?” Balthazar asked.
Hero looked at him in surprise. “I’m not.”
“You didn’t say one word to him the whole day,” Balthazar pointed out.
“That can hardly be seen as mean, since I didn’t say anything the whole day,” Hero shot back. “You can’t be mean nonverbally.”
Balthazar gave her a look.
She withered and looked sadder than Balth had seen her in quite a while. “I just…”
“You used to be okay with him,” Balthazar added quietly.
“Yeah, in high school.” Hero frowned. “Back when we had to coexist in a school where I had to see him in multiple classes every day. But now…”
They sat in comfortable silence for a while, watching the game. Beatrice and Ben were too busy arguing to play a good game. Peter and John were crushing them.
After a particularly tricky shot by John, Beatrice snapped at Ben, who yelled, “I couldn’t help it! John’s too good!”
“You have long arms!” she shouted back.
Balthazar chuckled slightly.
“What?” Balthazar asked.
“That was a clever shot,” she whispered.
Balthazar frowned. “Are you really still so affected by your birthday?”
Hero whipped her head around to stare at him, astonished. “Really? I—of course I am. That was, you know, a formative year, with the person I thought was the love of my life, and now whenever I see candles or hear a happy birthday song or think of going out with someone again, I just feel like I don’t know… how to be normal. I don’t know. Ignore me.”
Balthazar reached out his hand and Hero took it. “I’ll never ignore you,” he said.
She smiled. “Thanks, Balth.”
“Please don’t make me go again,” Hero begged her cousin. “Please.”
Beatrice frowned. “You’re your own woman, Hero. I can’t make you do anything.”
Hero almost cried with relief.
“Who should I get in your place?” Beatrice mused. “I could always ask Dogberry. He’d love it.”
Hero winced at the thought. “No, I guess I’ll do it,” she said, angry at herself for falling into the trap of guilt so easily.
Beatrice shook her head. “No, no, it’s fine,” she protested.
“Nah.” Hero picked up the tennis racket she had just dropped on the floor. “When else would I exercise?”
“Please don’t make me go again.”
Peter raised his eyebrows and laughed. “You were great! What was bad about it?”
“Hero?” Balthazar supplied.
Peter raised his eyebrows higher. “Was she mean?”
“She was nothing,” John said, suddenly tired. “She said nothing, she did nothing. She abandoned me as soon as she could.” He frowned and ran his hand over his face, through his hair. “You have a lot of friends. Could you take them?”
Peter glanced at Balthazar, who shook his head just a bit and shrugged. “Uh… I guess. If you really don’t want to do it anymore. It was nice to do it with you this one time, though.”
John nodded tensely before turning to walk away. He hesitated when he reached his bedroom door and turned back around slowly.
Peter was smiling hopefully at him.
“I guess I’ll do it next time,” John grumbled.
“Great!” Peter exclaimed. He grabbed Balthazar’s hand. “Do you want ice cream?”
“Sure,” John said, following them out the door.
It became a regular thing. They had six tennis outings over the next six months, making time and effort to all come together.
Hero and John never talked, except to say hello and goodbye.
The other four always looked worried before losing themselves in the game and forgetting all about it.
“Alright,” Peter said, rubbing his hands together. “Here’s the idea.”
Balthazar, Beatrice, and Ben all stared back at him, eyes wide.
“Team Love Gods, part three,” he announced.
His friends all groaned. Beatrice threw at pillow at him.
“This never works!” Ben exclaimed.
“It worked both times we tried it before!” Peter yelled back.
“Pedro,” Beatrice said, “why the hell are you trying to set up John and Hero? No. Just… No.”
“Think about it,” Peter insisted. “They would balance each other out nicely, and they really did used to have so much fun together. When they were young. You know? You and I would play,” he motioned to Beatrice, “and she and John would talk as we literally threw sand in each other’s faces.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea…” Balthazar said slowly. “It kinda sucks to get set up by your friends.” He smiled a little bit. “No matter how good the outcome.”
Ben and Bea groaned as Peter leaned over to give Balthazar a quick kiss. Ben threw his pillow at Peter’s head.
“I think we should do it,” Ben announced after that disgusting spectacle had ended. “It’ll be fun,” he added as Bea shot him a disapproving look.
“This is Hero we’re talking about, guys. Hero!” Beatrice protested. “She would hate it. She hates John.”
Peter’s eyes widened slightly and his face fell a little.
“I mean—” Beatrice tried to hastily add.
“No, it’s fine,” Peter sighed.
They all sat in silence for a while, awkwardness filling the room like a poisonous gas.
Finally, Beatrice spoke. “What’s the plan?”
Peter smiled slowly and nodded his thanks at her. “Here’s what I think we should do…”
“Beatrice,” Hero called out. “Are you ready to go?”
Beatrice poked her head out from behind her door. “Gosh, Hero, I’m running a little late. Please just go without me—don’t you look cute!”
Hero rolled her eyes. “If you’re running late, I’ll run late, too.” She shrugged. “No big deal.”
Beatrice shook her head. “Please, don’t be late on my account. You should just go.” She smiled. “I’ll be there about twenty minutes after you, probably.”
“But—” Hero protested.
“See you soon!” Beatrice shouted as she closed her door firmly.
Hero frowned before sighing. She pulled out her phone and looked at the time before picking up her bag and walking down the stairs and out the front door.
“Hey, I’m meeting Balthazar for coffee before we go play tennis.” Peter slipped on his jacket. “I’ll meet you there?”
John nodded, engrossed in his book. “See you there.”
Peter walked out the door to meet his boyfriend, a smug smile on his face. “Easy as pie,” he muttered to himself.
He was struck with a thought moments later.
“Is pie easy?”
Hero arrived first, to her surprise. She walked slowly, hoping that Beatrice would catch up to her at some point, but she never did. And Benedick, who was usually very early to everything, hadn’t shown up. Or Peter and Balthazar and John, who always came as a group. She sat down and waited.
A dark figure came into sight within a minute. She glanced up and watched as John Donaldson got closer and closer. Her heartbeat began beating faster the closer he got.
He came right up next to her and sat down. “Hi.”
“Hi.” She swallowed and gave him a quick smile.
John was quiet for a few minutes.
“Where are they?” he finally asked, pulling out his phone and dialing.
Hero watched him carefully out of the corner of her eye. His hair was blowing slightly in the breeze, cut closer than it used to be but still very curly. He looked very warm in his dark clothes – the sun was not particularly kind during January. He was nervously tapping the ground with his foot, waiting for Peter (presumably) to pick up.
John hung up without saying a word into the phone. He glanced over at Hero. “I guess we can wait a little longer.”
Hero nodded and remained quiet.
“They’re not coming,” Hero finally whispered.
“What?” John asked.
“We’ve been set up.” Hero sighed and shook her head.
John’s eyes lit up with understanding. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” Hero began to stand. “I guess… I’ll go home now, then.”
John stood with her and watched her begin to pack up and leave. “Wait, Hero.”
She turned slowly. “Yeah?”
His eyes were gleaming. “They set us up?” Hero nodded. “So let’s set them up. Yeah?”
Hero scoffed softly. “What the hell are you talking about?”
To his credit, John took it all in stride. “I say that we play a game of tennis. Pretend to have a shit ton of fun. Make them think that their plan worked and we’re, well, friends again. Have a bit of fun with their minds. Nothing too horrible, I promise.”
Hero winced slightly at the thought of John trying anything clever but nodded. “Okay.”
He looked surprised. “Okay?”
“Donaldson, you couldn’t beat me if you tried,” Hero laughed.
Hero was, quite honestly, shocked at how much fun she was having. At first, it was really stiff and awkward. John was attempting to talk to her, and she was refusing to talk. But after a while, it became easier and easier to forget what had happened, and he just became another friend. Another person to talk to.
It was surprisingly easy to talk to John Donaldson.
John laughed. “Maybe I haven’t really been trying at all.”
“Whatever.” Hero rolled her eyes. “You’re sweating.”
“It’s a hot day. It was bound to happen,” John pointed out. “Doesn’t mean I’m actually trying to beat you right now.”
“John Donaldson,” Hero said sternly, getting ready to serve. “I swear, if you let me win, I will kill you.”
His eyebrows flew up and he got into his ready stance. “Now I’m scared,” he said, eyes laughing.
Hero grinned and served the ball.
John swung and missed. “Hey,” he protested when she began to laugh, “at least I tried that time.”
She was too busy laughing to notice.
“We should do this again sometime,” John said nonchalantly as they went to leave.
Hero shot him a look and nodded slowly. “Yeah. I had fun.”
“Yeah?” John felt something in his chest that he hadn’t felt in a while – anticipation, maybe?
“Yeah.” She smiled. “What do we tell the others?”
“That we’re kicking them out of our tennis group?” John suggested. They both laughed. “I mean, if you’re okay with kicking your own cousin out of a group that she forced you to join.”
“She didn’t force me,” Hero argued.
John gave her a look.
“Yeah, okay, she forced me,” Hero admitted.
He nodded. “I could tell.”
“That obvious, huh?” she asked wryly.
“Yeah.” John hesitated. “That, and Balthazar might have said something to me.”
Hero laughed. “Thanks for your honesty.”
“I am nothing if not honest, Hero Duke,” he said softly.
Hero’s eyes flew up to meet his own.
John held her gaze for a moment too long before clearing his throat. “I should probably go, though. I’ll tell Peter that we had a lot of fun and he should have actually made it.”
“Okay. Oh! Wait. A selfie before you go?” Hero suggested.
John made a face before nodding, leaning over to get his face next to Hero’s as she pulled out her phone and snapped a quick picture.
“Thank you!” Hero said. “I’ll post that online. For validity purposes,” she added.
“Of course.” John smiled. “See you around, Hero.”
Hero smiled and went to post the picture on Instagram. She thought for a while about the caption before finally just typing ‘good to catch up with old friends xx’ quickly and throwing her phone back into her bag.
Beatrice glanced up when Hero walked in. “Hey.” She looked at Hero’s outfit and made a convincingly confused face. “Where were you? We canceled tennis today.”
Hero rolled her eyes. “Save it,” she said.
Ben’s eyes flew wide open and he suddenly looked nervous. “Uh…” he said, glancing between Beatrice and Hero. “I should go home.”
Hero smiled sweetly. “Bye, Ben. Say hello to Peter for me.”
Ben bit his lip and started to leave before poking his head through the door. “Hey, Hero?” he asked.
“Yeah?” Hero almost laughed at the sight but reminded herself to stay stoic.
“You’re not really mad, are you?”
Hero walked over to Ben and held out her hand. He slowly reached around the door and took it. “No,” she whispered.
“Good,” he said, obviously relieved, before withdrawing his hand and his head and shutting the door.
Hero turned back to Beatrice.
“Hey, Hero,” she said nervously.
Hero waved and smiled brightly.
Beatrice blinked in surprise.
“Did that throw you off?” Hero asked, still smiling brightly. “Am I freaking you out? Like you did to me today?”
“Nope.” Hero laughed. “It’s fine. I’m fine. But I would love if you didn’t try it again.”
Beatrice nodded before running up to her room.
Hero got a comment on her Instagram post about twenty minutes later.
beatriceduke: I’m glad you two had fun. Sorry about the circumstances
She stared at it for a few minutes, thinking about whether or not she should respond, when another comment appeared.
stanleybalthazar: you can blame me if you want
petedonaldbro: balthazar you cant take all the blame for everything oh my god
stanleybalthazar: I can try…
petedonaldbro: I love you
beatriceduke: oh my god gross
johndonaldson: This conversation is a mess.
Hero blinked in surprise. She didn’t even know John had an Instagram.
HeroDuke: I love you all. <3
The comments stopped after that. Hero wasn’t sure if she was happy about that or not. All of them talking like that, together… it felt like a flashback from her childhood.
When they were younger, John and Hero used to be friends. With Pedro and Beatrice hanging out all the time, it was only natural.
They didn’t do much together. They mostly just sat and talked, but it was nice, it was comfortable. They went everywhere with Pedro and Beatrice, to the beach, to the museums that Beatrice dragged Pedro to, to the coffeeshops. They were a squad.
Hero never realized that Pedro didn’t want John to come along.
She never realized that people actually could hate one another.
All she knew was she had a group of friends who she loved. It expanded and stretched, and suddenly Meg and Ursula and Balthazar and Claudio and Benedick were all added to the group, and then John dropped away, and she never noticed.
All she knew was she still had a group of friends who she loved.
“So are you going to hang out again?”
John glanced up and glared at Peter. “What?” he asked.
“You weren’t listening that whole time?” Peter asked, incredulous. “Are you serious?”
John held up 'The Well of Lost Plots' and shook his head. “When I’m reading, you have to make absolutely sure you have my attention.”
Peter sighed. “Okay. I was just talking about how you and Hero used to be such good friends…”
“Yeah, used to be,” John interrupted.
“And I wanted to know if you were going to hang out with her again.” Peter waited expectantly.
John frowned. “You mean romantically, right?”
Peter raised his eyebrows and grinned. “You said it, not me.”
“Probably not romantically,” John said decisively. “I don’t think about Hero Duke like that.”
Peter sat closer to John, practically pushing John over the edge of the bed. “John, you know you can tell me anything, right?”
John narrowed his eyes and moved away from Peter as he could. “I’m not gay, Peter.”
“Are you straight?” Peter asked. His eyes were laughing.
John snickered. “I’m tired.”
“You got that off the internet,” Peter accused him.
“Of course I did.” John held up his book. “Now, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, bro.” Peter nodded and stood. “Whatever you say.”
John watched him leave the room before picking up his phone and scrolling through his contacts. Sure enough, there was Hero’s contact information, complete with a little heart. He rolled his eyes and deleted the heart – Thanks, Peter – before opening a new text.
Do you want to maybe meet up and chat? I know a really great tea shop.
I love tea! When, where? I’m pretty much free any afternoon this week.
John smiled and texted back right away.
I’m ready to go when you are ^_^
John grinned and grabbed his wallet and jacket before heading out the door.
“Where are you going?” Peter called after him.
“Out,” John shouted before shutting the door on Peter’s next words.
“So,” Hero said nervously.
“Hi,” John said at the same time.
They both stopped before laughing awkwardly.
Hero took a sip of her tea and smiled. “I love lavender tea.”
John sighed. “Flower tea is not real tea.”
“At least it has flavor,” Hero argued. “Your tea has, what? Blackness? Nothing? It’s not real tea if it doesn’t have some taste and life.”
“But my tea is real,” John persisted.
Hero laughed before taking another drink of her tea. “Whatever you say.”
They were both quiet for a couple of minutes.
“How did Peter take it?”
“What?” John asked, surprised. “Take what?”
“The fact that we spent time together playing tennis, and now we’re spending more time together,” Hero continued. “Like, I’m sure this was his idea. It has to have been.”
John laughed softly. “I think he thinks we’re going to fall in love. He’s totally excited.”
Hero gave a short laugh. “Well, that’s… Interesting,” she finished lamely.
A couple more awkward moments passed, filled only by occasional sips of tea, before John cleared his throat. “This shouldn’t be so awkward.”
“It shouldn’t,” Hero agreed.
“I mean, we used to be friends,” he added. “Right? We used to talk all the time.”
“Yeah!” Hero nodded. “We were good friends.”
“We were!” John said. “What happened to that?”
Hero paused. “I… I don’t know.” She frowned. “What did happen?”
John shrugged. “I mean, we both grew up, right?”
She remained silent for a moment, clearly thinking through something. “I’m sorry for anything I might have done to make you-”
John held up his hand. “Stop. Nothing was your fault.” He smiled and took a sip of his tea. “Besides, we came back together in the end.”
“People always do,” Hero said, staring off into space. “In the end.”
John narrowed his eyes before whipping out a small notebook and a pencil.
“What are you doing?” Hero asked John in surprise, watching him write furiously.
“I just… that was lovely. I had to write it down.” John finished and put his notebook away. “For inspiration later.”
Hero smiled. “Okay.”
He picked up his mug and held it in front of his face, hoping it hid the smile that was growing over his face. “Okay.”
Can we talk?
Of course! Brunch tomorrow?
At Molly’s Diner?
See you then!
“Margaret!” Hero exclaimed when Meg entered the diner. “I didn’t know you were in Auckland!”
“Yeah, I just kind of spontaneously made a trip,” Meg said, smiling and sitting down. “How are you?”
“Good! Quite good, actually.” Hero grinned. “And you?”
Meg colored slightly but smiled. “Good.”
“Mhmm.” Hero raised her eyebrows and laughed. “I’ve been watching all your snapchat stories, and…”
“I know, I know. I’ve heard it all before. ‘When are you and Jaquie going to get it together’, blah blah blah.” Meg rolled her eyes but couldn’t quite hide her smile. “I don’t need to hear any more.”
“Okay.” Hero paused. “I do think you’d be so cute together—”
“Oh my god!” Meg exclaimed before bursting into laughter.
The waitress came over at that moment. “Are you two ready to order?” she asked, smiling down at the two very pretty young ladies who looked so happy.
“So I saw your Instagram photo about a week ago,” Meg said. “With you and John.”
Hero paused, her fork halfway to her mouth. “Yeah?” she asked casually.
“Yeah.” Meg took a bite before looking up to meet Hero’s eyes. “Is there something happening there? Because Jaquie says that Peter thinks there is.”
Hero sighed. “Peter tried to set us up, romantically, with the help of my lovely cousin and their significant others, and we decided to be friends again.”
Meg nodded. “Okay.”
Hero waited. “That’s all?”
“Is there more?” Meg asked.
“I just…” Hero hesitated. “I mean, I know he hurt you a lot.”
“In high school!” Meg protested. “Hero. Believe me. John Donaldson does not affect me. Not anymore. If you like being his friend, more power to you.”
“Did he ever apologize?” Hero asked quietly.
Meg blinked, surprised, before pulling out her phone. She scrolled silently for a few minutes before handing her phone over to show Hero a screenshot.
I know I never said it in person but I am a horribly shitty person and I hurt you just as much as I hurt Hero and I’m so so so sorry Meg. I’m so sorry. It’s fine if you never forgive me, but I just wanted you to know. This had nothing to do with you, and I’m sorry you got burned in my fire.
How did you get my number?
Pedro gave it to me.
I am sorry.”
Hero nodded and handed the phone back. “Good,” she said, quietly, strong.
Meg nodded back. “He’s a good guy. I don’t think I’ll ever really be friends with him—we’re so different. But he is a good guy.”
Hero nodded slowly.
“So tell me about Jaquie.”
“I will throw this food at you right here, right now,” Meg threatened her.
Both girls dissolved into laughter again, earning lots of smiles from the patrons and workers of the diner without their knowledge. They were just happy to be laughing.
Somehow John became a part of her life, integrating himself into many different areas. In between uni classes, they would find time to eat or study together. They traded books to read. They met up with other friends together.
At the next tennis date, they actually talked and laughed with each other.
Peter looked overjoyed the whole time.
Beatrice looked concerned.
“Can I talk to you?” Beatrice asked Hero after the tennis match.
“Sure.” Hero sat down on her bed and began pulling off her shoes and socks. “What’s going on?”
“I just want to make sure you know what you’re doing,” Beatrice said, sitting next to her cousin.
“What do you mean?” Hero asked.
“I mean… You and John. Are you two a thing?” Beatrice asked. “Because, I mean, I know we pushed this, and teased you, and made you think of the possibility in the first place, and I forced you two together with the help of Peter, and this was all basically my idea, but he did hurt you, you know, and I know you’ve spent a lot of time together in the past month, and I just want you to be careful.” She exhaled and stared at Hero.
Hero raised her eyebrows and laughed. “Beatrice, I am my own person, you know.”
Beatrice frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I know how to be careful.” Hero smiled and took Beatrice’s hand. “I know what I’m doing. And John, well, he’s just a friend.”
Beatrice laughed. “Right.”
“For now,” Hero amended. “Just a friend for now.”
“Okay.” Beatrice sighed. “Okay.”
“You don’t have to worry.” Hero smiled brightly. “I know what I’m doing.”
Beatrice squeezed Hero’s hand. “Okay. I’m going to go meet with my boyfriend.”
“Have fun.” Hero gave Beatrice a quick hug. “Tell him I say hi.”
“Of course,” Beatrice said. “Catch you later.”
I’m making dinner all for myself and would love some company. If you aren’t busy.
I’ll be right over
Hero smoothed down her dress and ran to open the door. “Hey, John!” she said brightly, leading him in. “How’s it going?”
“Good,” he said, taking off his coat. “Um… Where should I put this?”
Hero looked at his jacket in surprise. “Is it raining?”
“Pouring,” he grinned. “The best weather.”
Hero glanced out the window. “Huh. Um… I’ll hang it up.”
John watched her walk into the closet and smiled when she came back out.
Hero smiled back.
“To think, this all started with that stupid tennis idea.” Hero laughed and took another bite.
“What did?” John asked.
“This. Our friendship.”
John’s eyes rose to meet hers and he smiled slowly. “I guess it did. Go, Pedro.”
“All around great guy!” Hero exclaimed.
John shook his head slightly.
“Habit,” Hero said. “But really. He is great.”
John nodded and took another bite. “I mean, without him we’d still be ignoring each other completely and I wouldn’t have a friendship like this.”
Hero smiled. “Without him, I’d still have only six really good friends.”
John raised his eyebrows.
“Now I have seven.”
He smiled and reached over the table to take her hand. “I’m… I’m glad we’re friends.”
Hero smiled and squeezed his hand. “Me, too. I’m glad we’re friends.”