It was not long after the wedding festivities that the cracks first started appearing in what should have been two happy marriages.
Helena was the first to learn just how prophetic her words had been when she'd called Demetrius “mine own, and not mine own”. They were in bed with their backs to each other, each holding on to their own thoughts about what had just happened - or rather, what hadn't happened, what should be happening right now. And it wasn't for lack of trying.
When they eventually turned towards each other again, the look on his face nearly broke her heart. Tears, she knew how to kiss away, had done so with Hermia many a time. This? This, she had no experience with, and she hated that there was nothing she could do.
“I love you,” she said and kissed him.
“I love you too,” he said, his voice catching in his throat.
“It's fine,” she continued, “we have the rest of our lives to fix it. We'll figure it out eventually.”
You could only really use that line so many times, and Helena felt like that limit had been exhausted some time ago, but Demetrius nodded and leaned in as he always did. She cradled him in her arms and closed her eyes. He buried his face in the crook of her neck and kissed the soft flesh there, and eventually she turned around so he could spoon her from behind. It was better not to look at him just now, but she could sense his unspoken reply in the heavy sighs behind her back: But what happens if we can't figure it out?
Helena was pleased when Hermia invited her to go out for a night, "without the boys". They had rather lost touch – no doubt because Hermia had rather disappeared from sight since her honeymoon. Helena slightly bristled at the thought of hearing about every detail of her happiness. It wasn't that she was jealous, or resented her friend's happiness in some way, but she did wish her own marriage could be just as delightful.
She dressed up for the night with Demetrius watching her in the mirror over her shoulder. He pressed a kiss on her cheek when she was finished. “You look amazing,” he said, and Helena smiled, grateful for the small things. Somehow, they'd arranged themselves to live in the happy space outside of the things that weren't working and leave that bit of darkness forever untouched. Except, of course, it was always there: his quiet sense of failing her, constantly, and trying very hard to make up for what wasn't working, and her guilt at receiving such attentions. They were sweet and came from a place of abject adoration, but they weren't compensating for what she wanted and needed. It was a pitiful state they had come to.
The ring of the doorbell interrupted her train of thought. She rushed to greet Hermia with a kiss on the cheek, while Lysander and Demetrius performed a complicated handshake they had taught to one another as boys.
“I swear, they add a move every year,” Hermia said and giggled. She tucked Helena's arm into the crook of her elbow to walk her out. “Don't wreck the place while I'm away,” Helena said in an equally playful tone. There was something about Hermia's presence that made everything seem easier.
“I've missed you,” she said with more feeling than she'd intended, and they walked out the door.
Lysander and Demetrius settled down to beer and putting the telly on in the background.
“So, what's the news?” Lysander began.
“We're doing grand, Demetrius. Still settling into the house. Hermia's picking colour schemes, and I get to do the painting. It'll be beautiful when it's done.”
“Great,” Demetrius said.
Lysander continued. “Looks like you've done well for yourself too,” he said and made a grand gesture with his arm to indicate the house.
“Yes,” Demetrius said flatly and sipped more beer, staring into the bottom of the glass before he set it down. Lysander's eyes were soft with concern when he met them again and Demetrius immediately looked down.
“Are you sure you're alright?”
Demetrius had no answer to that. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I...” he began, thinking frantically about the best words to use, “I feel like I haven't been myself since that night in the woods. You remember? When Theseus found us in the morning and none of us could remember what had happened since we went into the woods the evening before?”
Lysander laughed. “Yes, I do remember. I don't think I'll ever forget the morning the mayor found us naked in the forest.”
Demetrius smiled briefly. There had been something undeniably comical about the whole situation, and yet.
“Well. I know I wasn't in love with Helena before, but I know that I am now, and we're happy, but, it just doesn't... there isn't... there are problems.” It was difficult to say, especially as Lysander was doing so well in his own marriage. God, Demetrius hated him sometimes. For as long as they'd known each other, things had just seemed to fall into place for Lysander without him ever having to work much for it.
“Oh.” Lysander set his glass down in front of him.
“Yeah.” Demetrius looked at his shoes, then back up at Lysander, and exhaled heavily.
“My heart is not my own.” There it was, the thing that he'd been unable to name, the thing that vexed and tortured him in Helena's company. “It's... unnatural,” he added and leaned back, his eyes closed. “Something happened that night. I went with Helena, and then I slept, and then...” A memory came to him, of sleeping in the woods and waking to see two fair creatures coming towards him, and then only the overwhelming desire to be with one of them.
“And then I was in love.” He opened his eyes and looked at Lysander sideways.
“Did we... did I fight you for Helena?” Lysander bit his lip, trying to recall the events of the night.
“Oh, God,” Lysander groaned.
Demetrius looked at him, at the line of his neck as he leaned back in his seat, at his long fingers and clever hands, at the flush of colour that the alcohol had put into his cheeks.
He'd had it wrong the entire time.
Cautiously, he reached out and laid his hand upon Lysander's, stroked his fingers. Lysander opened his eyes and flinched.
“What are you – oh.” Lysander paused mid-movement when he saw the look on Demetrius' face.
“I slept in the forest. I woke up. I was in love. You were there.”
Demetrius uttered the words with conviction as he moved closer to Lysander, touched his fingers, then his face, his lips. There was something unstoppable about it that made Lysander freeze.
Demetrius dragged Lysander's bottom lip down with his thumb, then leaned in and kissed the half-open mouth with a mixture of shyness and deliberation. Lysander had the vague thought that letting things go this far might prove Demetrius wrong. There was a click of teeth and then his friend's tongue against his own, Demetrius' lips on his, and Demetrius' body next to his lighting up in unmistakable arousal.
So much for that idea, thought Lysander and gently tried to break the kiss. He pushed against Demetrius' chest until his friend relented. Their foreheads were touching. Lysander didn't want to meet Demetrius' eyes but forced himself to do so. There was so much hope there that it gave his heart a jolt of pain at not being able to give back what was needed, what Demetrius was clearly starving for.
“You can't replace one false thing with another,” he said gently, cupping Demetrius' face with his hands.
“Let me have this, please,” Demetrius said. His voice was shaking.
“How can I?” Lysander whispered. “And why should I?”
“No one else ever has,” Demetrius replied, and Lysander didn't have an answer to that.
Someone needed to be the adult here, Lysander thought; someone needed to deal with what
Demetrius was going through and there must be a better way than this.
But no one was coming for them. Demetrius had placed his happiness between Lysander's hands and given him impossible responsibility.
Except Lysander had had his fair share of wine, and the despair radiating from Demetrius was devastating, and the kiss had been sweet.
“This can't happen again,” he said, adjusted his position, and pulled Demetrius toward him.
Hermia wasn't quite certain what she'd wanted out of the evening, but she was fairly sure that steadying a drunk Helena against a wall as she howled at the moon about the unfairness of her life hadn't been on the list. It had all started very civil over food and wine, but the wine had loosened Helena's tongue and words and then sobs had fallen out of her piece by agonising piece. Hermia had heard all about the coldness of her marriage bed, about her and Demetrius' unhappiness, and by and by they had ended here, halfway home, with Helena sobbing into Hermia's shoulder.
It was obvious that Helena couldn't go home in this state, so Hermia led her friend to her own house gently. Helena sat on the couch in the front room while Hermia made tea.
“The world will look different once you've slept on it,” she told Helena over steaming cups, although she didn't quite believe it herself. Helena lay down to rest and Hermia left for Helena's house, to let Demetrius know his wife wasn't coming home tonight. Excess of wine and all the rest of it.
They'd always had keys to one another's houses and so Hermia unlocked the door with quick fingers and slipped in. “Hello boys,” she called out as she made her way towards the living room – and froze in the doorframe.
“What is this?” she asked. It was a superfluous question, really, as it was pretty clear what this was. Demetrius and Lysander, naked save for two pairs of boxer shorts, in one another's arms, was a fairly easy situation to read.
They sat up with sheepish expressions, like schoolboys caught in the act of pranking a teacher. Lysander reached down to hold a shirt up against his bare chest and Hermia almost laughed at the thought of him trying to cover up something she'd seen a dozen times.
“Hermia,” Lysander said, fingers twisting into the fabric of his shirt awkwardly.
“I can explain,” Demetrius said at the same time, and that was how far he got before Hermia's flat hand hit first his, then Lysander's face.
“Your wife is ill at my house tonight, I hope you have a good explanation for her too.”
“Can we put on some clothes first?” Lysander picked up his trousers from the floor to avoid her eyes.
“For God's sake, please.”
Hermia turned her back as they got dressed.
Between their hesitations and constant talking over one another, Hermia was able to piece together the story of the night: Demetrius' unhappiness, the night in the woods, Lysander giving in to a friend's despair.
“It won't happen again,” Lysander said at the end of it all and Demetrius nodded. Hermia was too exhausted to offer a reply. For a long time, no one spoke. Finally, Hermia took a deep breath.
“Your wife,” she told Demetrius, “is at my house right now. I said she was sick, and that is true. But she's sick at heart, and it looks to be from the same reason as you. So, I believe that part.”
She turned to Lysander, eyes asking him to speak.
“I love you,” he managed. “I'm sorry.”
She didn't doubt the truth of either statement.
“I believe that too,” she said softly and kissed him. “So what do we do now?”
“Fix this,” Lysander said, indicating Demetrius. “Go back to the woods, find whoever bewitched him.”
Hermia had her own memories of that night, although they were hazy and she had never given much thought to them since. But she did remember Demetrius and Lysander fighting for Helena, remembered too now the cruel sting to her heart at waking and not finding Lysander by her side. Perhaps there was something in this tale of magic. Of course, there were alternative explanations, but Hermia chose to discard them for the time being. So, all in all, this sounded as good a course of action as any. She nodded. “Sleep first, though, please,” she said, “I don't know that we can fix anything in the state we're in.”
Demetrius offered them the bed upstairs while he lay down in the front room. Lysander seemed not to know what to do with himself as he lay down next to her under the covers. She turned and kissed him, tasted beer on his tongue, and the bitter taste of tears held in too long.
“The world will look different in the morning,” she said again, half because the bitterness touched her more than she could express, half because she needed to convince herself that it would, that somehow the morning would bring clarity.
The morning brought hangovers, and to Hermia the task of going back to her own house for clean clothes, and to tell Helena what had happened. “It would explain things,” Helena said, her face worn out by the previous night's exploits, and Hermia thought that out of all of them, Helena needed to believe most that there was a solution somewhere.
They resolved to set out into the woods, to where it all had started. It was mid-afternoon the next day when they arrived at the clearing where Theseus had found them on that fateful day. It was different now, with autumn leaves beginning to fall and the wood in bright shades of yellow and red.
“So, what now?”
“I suppose we can try and invoke the spirits of the woods,” Helena said. She knelt down, drew symbols in the soil, rearranged sticks, murmured under her breath.
Demetrius raised his eyebrows at Hermia, mouthed “what is she doing?” Hermia smiled, remembering them pretending to be witches in their childhood days, making books of spells and their own strange rituals for dealing with the journey from girlhood to adolescence.
The air grew warmer around them as they watched. Time seemed to stop and then turn backwards as the clearing around them became lighter, airier, greener. Then the branches of several trees broke with a loud crash directly in front of them, and the Fairy King stood before them.
He was an imposing presence – radiating authority, and painfully beautiful to look at, although none of his beauty was human.
But Helena was determined not to let him overpower her. She stood up from where she had been weaving her incantation. Hermia took her left hand, Demetrius her right.
“You are cruel to us mortals, Fairy King,” she told him. “You made sport with our affections. You gave my friend back her Lysander, and she is grateful. But you have kept Demetrius' heart so that he cannot command his own desires. You gave him to me, but he is not himself. I pray you now, release him.”
“And what should be my reward for doing so?”
“You have had your entertainment, every night since you first bewitched us. Is not that enough reward?” There was a note of steel in Helena's voice.
Oberon was silent.
“There shall be more to come,” Hermia added and cocked her head. Oberon beckoned her and she stepped closer. She could hear her friends gasp behind her. Oberon bent his head and she whispered in his ear. Then she stepped away.
Oberon looked at Demetrius and waved his hand. Demetrius gasped, blinked, and looked around at his friends. He let out a relieved giggle, then rubbed his face like a man waking up from a deep slumber. Yes, something was now different about him, Hermia thought.
“Thank you,” she said and bowed to the Fairy King. “We're going home now if you don't mind.”
They made their way in silence. Hermia and Lysander walked hand in hand, with Helena and Demetrius behind them, walking each on their own.
Demetrius' heart felt heavy as he watched the feet of his friends in front of him. To Hermia, he owed his freedom, and that he could never repay. But to Lysander, he owed something else entirely: the awareness of possibilities he hadn't considered before. It felt strange and unusual to be the master of his own heart again after so long. Though it didn't make his heart any less confused, at least, it was now a confusion all of his own making, with no magic powers thrown in to further complicate things.
None of them wanted to be alone just now, and all were vaguely curious as to what Hermia had meant by her promise to the Fairy King, so they assembled around the kitchen table in Hermia and Lysander's house when they got back. Demetrius looked at Helena as though he were seeing her for the first time and his heart sank. Her face was worn from lack of sleep and from the worry of the last few months.
“I have put you through so much,” he said with tenderness, and she laughed, choking back tears.
“I'll go away, if that's what you want.” It was the least he could offer after everything.
She took his hand and held it, and her lips were thin for a long while until she finally spoke.
“No. Oberon has released you from the bonds of his spell, and that's good. We were both miserable when we were together.”
She let her head fall against Hermia's shoulder, and Hermia stroked her hair in a gesture of comfort. Demetrius felt very grateful, for he would have loved to comfort her, but as the one who had given her so much grief, he knew it was not his place.
He looked at Lysander awkwardly, but asking for comfort from that particular corner didn't seem quite right to either of them.
“Your heart is free now, Demetrius,” Hermia said. “What are you going to do?”
Now there was a question.
“Ah,” Demetrius replied and rubbed his hand across his eyes. “
“Stop being so darn cryptic,” Hermia said and hit her flat hand on the table. “Which of us is it and what's the problem?”
Demetrius figured that everyone at the table knew what he was going to say, and with Hermia being in the mood she was in, it was probably best to say it anyway.
“Lysander's yours,” he replied, “and I've nearly broken up your marriage once, so I don't see how it can work out.”
“It works out if you tell me,” Hermia said softly, “and if we all agree what's allowed and what's wanted, and if we're honest with each other.”
She kissed Helena gently on the cheek, then leaned over and planted a second, decidedly more heated kiss on Lysander's lips.
“The first person you should ask is him, I think.”
Lysander laughed nervously. Demetrius cleared his throat. It felt strange to do this in the presence of Hermia. A part of him still wasn't sure this wouldn't end in another slap in the face from her.
“Lysander,” he began, “would you...” He scrambled for the correct words in his head. Everything he wanted to say seemed embarrassing and foolish. Finally he took a breath and let the words fall out of his mouth, trying not to listen to how they sounded.
“I really liked when you kissed me last night. I'm no longer under the spell that possessed me, but I'd very much like to do it again, if that's okay with you.”
Lysander nodded. “If Hermia consents, of course.”
“I do,” Hermia said. “And before you ask, yes, if the kiss leads to something else, as long as you both want it, that is fine with me too.”
Both men nodded gratefully. Lysander put his hand over Demetrius' on the table.
“You know you want to,” Hermia said, and they both relaxed, smiled awkwardly, and leaned in shyly until their lips touched.
Helena's heart melted at the sight. She wished she could have given Demetrius such happiness, but he'd never been hers in the first place. She felt grateful for Hermia's arm around her shoulders, for the warmth of her friend's body next to her own. She reached up and laced her fingers into Hermia's, and Hermia kissed her on the temple.
“You'll have to ask me if I mind if that goes any further,” Lysander said.
“And would you?” Hermia asked.
“Can't see how,” Lysander said and turned to Demetrius again.
Helena smiled and looked up at Hermia. They'd been friends for such a long time that they both knew it wouldn't go further than this – they'd have figured that one out along the way.
“You're amazing,” Hermia said into Helena's hair, and for the first time in a long while, Helena felt like things were going to turn out alright in the end.