Kaelyn Paddock

Well, you’d like to think you were invincible

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Continued from here.

 

They ended up in the forest, just a stone’s throw away from the place where she had told him about hiring a private investigator.  The path they had taken was carpeted with leaves, and somewhere along the way, possibly out of habit, Kaelyn had reached out and taken his hand.  Nothing but trees and the cool, damp air surrounded them now.

 

The miniature sunflower had made it here as well, looking strikingly out of place amidst the muted tones of autumn. Kaelyn set it down on one end of a thick, fallen tree before pulling herself up onto it, leaving room for him to sit beside her.  In a way she was proud of herself for even being here at all; it would’ve been so easy for the old her to run in the opposite direction, content to ignore anything Toby had to say… but she was here.  Somehow she knew she’d been hiding from this a lot longer than she cared to admit, and it was time to face reality.

 

Not that it made anything easier.

 

She’d dropped his hand to hoist herself onto the trunk, and now that she was sitting she didn’t reach for him again, wrapping her arms instinctively, protectively around herself instead.  “Do you remember,” she asked, “what we promised each other, when we first got together?”

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Holding hands just felt natural. their fingers linked together as they walked, but then they'd been holding hands longer than they had been dating. Since they were little kids who had promised to be best friends, always. 

 

He only let go when they reached the fallen tree and even then, part of him resisted, his fingertips drifting over her fingers as she stepped away from him and pushed herself up to sit. He looked up at her for a few seconds, then, trying to commit to memory the image of her, right now, in this moment. Dappled Autumn sunlight fell through the canopy overhead, catching in strands of her golden hair. She was beautiful both inside and out, the kind of person he couldn't imagine ever not having in his life. 

 

Was this really the decision he wanted to make?

 

Rather than lifting himself up to sit next to her, he wanted to step between her legs and look up at her, to take her hand again in his and promise that things would get better, would be better. He knew, though, that it wasn't a promise he could make. Things had changed already, they'd started to drift away. Kaelyn was no longer the first thing he thought about in the morning or the last thing he thought about at night. She was a warm constant presence in his life, but she wasn't the sun. 

 

He stepped to the side and then pushed himself up to sit on the fallen tree next to her, careful to leave a little space between them. He placed his hands down on the tree and tilted his head up towards the sky. 

 

 “Do you remember,” she asked, “What we promised each other, when we first got together?”

 

"That it wouldn't change us."

 

He'd never forgot that promise. 

 

It didn't mean that he'd kept it. 

 

"We already broke it, though," he said. He still wasn't looking at her. "You changed me. I'm not the person I was, last year."

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In the distance a lone bird warbled a three note melody as Kaelyn quietly processed this thought, her fingers picking idly at a stray thread on her sweater - Toby’s sweater, actually.  A small smile crossed her face.  “No,” she agreed.  “I guess you’re not.  I’m not either.”

 

Would that had happened if they hadn’t gotten together?  She was proud of the people they’d become.  While she still had no grand visions of the future to come, Kaelyn had grown more confident and sure of herself, and more sure than ever of what she wanted in life.  Toby was still the same unpredictable, mischievous boy she’d once tried to push out of a tree more than a decade before, but there were things he was serious about now.  And he’d been serious about her, too, for however long they’d been a couple.

 

So why wasn’t that enough?  Why couldn’t that be enough?

 

It felt wrong to sit there beside him and be so closed and unfeeling, but Kaelyn just couldn’t let her guard down yet.

 

“I feel like… like we’re not even trying to make it work anymore, you know?  Like… it just is, and that’s it, and…” Kaelyn paused as she tried to figure out what she was trying to say.  “I still love you, Toby. You’re the only guy I’ve ever been able to say that to, but sometimes I feel like… maybe I’m not supposed to say it because… it’s not… it’s not the same.”

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It was strange. He hadn't wanted to change back then, though he knew that he should. He'd rebelled against it and thought that he was fine just the way he was, and Kaelyn had agreed, had loved him for that, and yet he had still changed. 

 

He didn't think his feelings for her had changed. He still loved her. Perhaps not with the intensity that he once had, but the feeling was still there and he couldn't imagine a world without her right there, at his side. He guessed that was what they had promised that day before they had decided to date, that they wouldn't stop being something to each other, even if it didn't work. 

 

Now, however, he was restless. He could feel it under his skin. 

 

He'd already skirted with danger, had talked to both Baby and Eloise at the end of the previous year. He had been good for so long, made the right choices, been the kind of boyfriend he had scorned before, but his constant need for excitement, the thrill of a risk, was starting to come back. He didn't want to hurt Kaelyn but he knew, if he continued the way that he was, that hurting her was going to be inevitable, and if it was, wasn't it better to get out now, before he had the chance to hurt her? 

 

(He did not consider changing his behaviour so that he didn't hurt her in the first place.)

 

He listened to what she had to say, and didn't know whether he was relieved or not that she felt it too. "I don't think you're supposed to make things work, either they do or they... don't. We work, it's just... this is how things are. You like me and I like you and that's... that's it?" It just wasn't as fun and exciting and new, now that they had been together for so long. "Maybe all relationships get like this." And maybe that was why he found it so hard to stay in one. 


Edited by Tobias Winchester

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And just like that, Kaelyn realized why it wasn’t working.  It wasn’t just about her stupid need for affection, or her irrational fears of being so crushed she might never recover.  It wasn’t about control, or being tied down, or any of the other number of things that might normally pose an issue with her.

 

It was her and Toby.  It was their differences.  He liked to roll with the punches, and maybe that  was something she’d always liked about him, that things didn’t need to be planned… but they weren’t just talking about another one of their adventures together.  They were talking about their relationship, and Kaelyn was realizing for the first time that maybe the things she wanted were just not the things that Toby want.

 

She thought about her parents, her grandparents, her aunt and her boyfriend, and she pulled the thread she’d been picking at loose, causing the sleeve of the sweater to start slowly unravelling.

 

“That’s… I don’t think…” Kaelyn started to say and stopped a couple of times, before sliding off the trunk of the tree and taking two backward steps away, standing just directly beneath him.  “I don’t just like you, Toby.  I love you.  This is exactly what I’m talking about.  Sometimes I say it to you and you don’t even say it back, and I know it’s not because you don’t, but-”  She looked up at the sky now, as if beckoning some greater being for help… or perhaps to hold back the tears she was sure would come sparking into being at any moment.

 

“Maybe you think we’re working, and maybe part of me thinks so too, but… but I hardly saw you over the summer, and… and quite honestly, I thought… I thought maybe you just didn’t want to be with me anymore, because I’m too much work, or whatever, and… and maybe I am, and maybe… I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’m saying.  I just… do you even love me?  Honestly?  Because this…”  She spread her arms out in front of her.  “This… isn’t how I… I don’t think… I don’t want to get mad every time you make something for another girl if it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s like… I get less and less and… I can’t… I - what am I supposed to think?”

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“I don’t just like you, Toby.  I love you-"

 

"I-" he stopped, held the words back. 

 

He loved her, he did. He knew it. It had taken him so long to say it because he had wanted to be sure that it was true, and once he had said it, he'd realised how big a deal he'd made it when it wasn't. He could say it easier, after that first time, and though it still made his heart skip the first few times, eventually it had just become normal. 

 

For the first time, he realised that maybe it was different for her. Did Kaelyn still find it life-changing every time she said it to him? Did her heart still skip a beat whenever she heard him say it or she said it herself? He hadn't felt that in such a long time. It was that feeling he was searching for again, the thrill of something new, something different. Was it why he was talking to Eloise and Baby, after such a long time?

 

He looked across at her, but she was looking up at the sky as she poured her heart out to him. Each word was true, something he couldn't deny. He had avoided her all summer, losing himself in the drama with Ronnie and the other wolves, then nights out with Silas until all hours of the morning, followed by too much time spent worrying about Irene, thoughts of everyone else pushed out of his mind when he remembered the pain in her eyes when she'd said that her mother was dead. 

 

There was, however, a part he didn't agree with. "You're not too much work, Kae. You're wonderful, and my best f--" he caught himself, but it was too late. Friend. It wasn't the word you were supposed to use with your girlfriend of over a year. "Were. Are. God." There was no getting out of this. "You're my best friend and I think the world of you, and I think... I think I love you. I've been serious about you. I've done stupidly romantic cringe-worthy stuff because of you and I've not cared, because it made you happy. I see fireworks and I think of you. I couldn't life without you. You're the best person that's ever been in my life. But..."

 

but but but

 

"God, I don't know." 

 

He lifted his hands to press the heels of his palms into his eyes. They stung at the corners. "I don't want to hurt you and I think that I will, and if I do, I'll never forgive myself, and you deserve better than that. You deserve someone who won't hurt you, who wouldn't even dream of it."

 

He lowered his hands again, pressing them together, twisting his fingers until the knuckles started to turn white. "I've been trying not to think about it because I don't want to hurt you. I thought if I just ignored it, if we just carried on as usual, everything would be fine."

 

 

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Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, Kaelyn silently willed herself.  It wasn’t that she cared about crying in front of Toby, who had probably wiped away more of her tears than she could count in the near-lifetime they’d known each other, but the minute she started crying it would become that much harder to stop the flow and continue talking.  They sparked in the backs of her eyes and she stubbornly blinked them away, swallowing down the lump in her throat that accompanied them, a stoic expression on her face.

 

In a way, Toby was saying all the things she wanted to hear - she was wonderful, he thought the world of her, she was his best friend - but there was something else laced between the words too.  I think I love you.  But.  He talked about not wanting to hurt her… but it hurt to be pushed away.

 

She raised her shoulders into a helpless shrug.  “I’ve heard all this before, Toby.  When we first got together, you were pretty much saying all the same things as you are now.  So… why is it that now it seems like… like you’re pulling away because of it?”

 

Kaelyn felt defeated all over again, the same way she’d felt when she saw Toby hand those stupid flowers to Irene.  Part of her wanted to step forward and take his hands in hers, holding them so he wouldn’t twist them the way he was doing now.  Part of her even wanted to stay up on her toes and kiss him, hips pressed against his knees, the way she’d done the first time he admitted to having feelings for her, in that park so many months ago.  They could kiss, and kiss, and kiss, and maybe all this would go away, and maybe she could go on ignoring it all with him.

 

She didn’t.  She just stood there as a gust of wind came blowing through, swirling the leaves around her feet and carrying her miniature sunflower away.  Kaelyn raised her eyes to meet his, the question on her face: now what?

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 “I’ve heard all this before, Toby.  When we first got together, you were pretty much saying all the same things as you are now.  So… why is it that now it seems like… like you’re pulling away because of it?"

 

The words cut through to him, sharp as a knife. 

 

He didn't know why it mattered now, why he was less convinced that he would be able to stay with her and be loyal, when they were the same doubts he'd had right at the start, she was right. Maybe it was because at the start he'd been determined not to hurt her, had focused instead on making her happy and doing everything that he could to be good enough for her, whilst in the last few weeks he had found himself straying and the desire to make her happy above all had started to fade. 

 

At the start, he'd been so afraid of losing her, had thought that she was falling away from him and into Silas, and that had mattered. He couldn't - didn't want to - imagine a world without her. Now she was his and...

 

"I don't know," he answered honestly, looking down at his hands. "Maybe I'm just... maybe this is me. Maybe I'm not meant to be tied down to just one person, maybe I can't stick it out." He'd tried for so long and it had seemed like things were working, but here she was saying that they weren't and rather than fighting her - fighting for this - he was using it as an escape. "I am like, the absolute worst, Kae." At least he was self-aware enough to acknowledge that. 

 

He didn't... he wasn't even upset by the conversation. If anything, he felt something close to relief. They were finally talking about what had been worrying him for so long and Kaelyn felt it too. That was wrong, wasn't it? That he wasn't upset. 

 

"Maybe we need to..." say it. He took a breath, forced the words out. "Maybe we need a break." 

 

He untwisted his fingers, turning to look at her finally. "Maybe we need to remember what it felt like, at the time. Maybe we're just comfortable and - and some time apart might make us realise how much we mean to each other and that this is worth fighting for." Or it wouldn't, and it could be further proof that they just weren't meant to be. He swallowed the words, not wanting to hurt her any more than he already had - already was. 


Edited by Tobias Winchester

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A break.  After everything they’d gone through together, and in spite of everything that they meant to each other, he wanted a break.

 

Finally Kaelyn was mad.

 

She stepped back instinctively, jaw tightening as she widened the distance between them.  In the back of her mind was their promise, and come what may, she still didn’t want anything to change between them, but it was growing increasingly harder to keep that in check now that the emotions she’d been bottling in all this time were finally flooding to the forefront.

 

“What use is that, Toby?  We were on a break.  Remember summer?  Remember that?  Well, I do, and you know what I remember?  I remember… before summer started, being terrified something bad was going to happen to us, because I’ve never had a good summer since being at Hogwarts.  Never, not unless you count the one where we got together, and that was only near the very end.  And then… and then when you started telling me you were busy, you know what I thought?  I thought… well, this is it.  It’s over now.  I guess it was good while it lasted.  And then I would see you, or we’d talk, and then I would just… I don’t know… hang on to this… this stupid shred of hope that maybe things were okay between us, and…”

 

She swallowed hard and threw up her hands in defeat.  “I don’t need to remember what it felt like, in the beginning, or what you mean to me, or anything like that.  I know.  And you know what?  I didn’t know for sure, at first, when we first got together.  It happened so suddenly, and… I don’t know… I guess I was confused.  But over time, when things got more comfortable, I actually knew because… I guess if I could feel all those things for you, when there’s nothing else going on, then they must mean something, right?”

 

Her eyes sparked again, more painfully this time, but Kaelyn continued to hold back her tears.  In a way it felt good to let everything out, even though she wasn’t even completely sure what she was saying, but the more that came out, the emptier she felt.

 

“I don’t… I don’t want a break.  I don’t want more weeks of… of sitting around, thinking… hoping… I don’t know.  I can’t do it, Toby.  Maybe you can, and maybe… I don’t know.  I don’t want you to feel like you’re tied down - being with you, it’s like… it’s the first time I don’t feel tied down, you know?  I just… I don’t know.  If you don’t understand all that, maybe it’s better if we… if we just… end it, for real.  Not… I don’t know.  I just know that… if this is going to be over… I need it to be over.  Now. It’s… it’s too much otherwise.  I… I can’t.”

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Of course she wasn't going to make this easy, she wasn't just going to go 'yeah, sure!' and they'd go on a break and everything would be fine. 

 

She threw her hands up instead and threw all her emotions at him and he couldn't help it, part of him wanted to smile, and his lips tugged up slightly at the side, an expression quickly repressed. 

 

Kae had always been like this. She bottled things up and kept them close and then when she finally let go she exploded. She was letting it all out now, telling him about how she'd worried whilst he'd been off having fun over summer, how she loved him and she was still holding out hope that things would be okay. Toby wasn't equipped to deal with this many emotions all at once. Finally, he started to feel something, and it wasn't what he expected at all: it was guilt. 

 

He jumped down from the fallen tree as the guilt twisted in his gut. Guilt for thinking this, guilt for making her feel this way, guilt for thinking it would be easier to just tell her that they could try and make it work because it would be the easiest option. 

 

She wasn't crying, but he could see the signs. They had been friends for as long as he could remember, and whilst he'd seen her cry before, he didn't think it had ever been like this, as a result of him doing something so that hurt her and made her feel like she wasn't good enough. This wasn't what friends did, this wasn't what people who loved each other did. He knew he would be fine with going on a break and doing other things but she wasn't. Either they broke things off properly or they made this work. 

 

 

And he...

 

 

She might not be scared any more but he was, he'd never stopped. At first it had been the terror of admitting that he liked her, of knowing that this was going to change their friendship forever, change who he was. Then it had been the fear of what came after telling someone that you loved them, of handing that part of himself over to another person and trusting them to treat his heart carefully. But his fears hadn't ever led to anything; they had worked, they did work - and that in itself was terrifying too, because it meant that he really did love her and was capable about being serious about someone, and maybe this was the rest of his life. 

 

And that had been fine, it was all fine, everything was fine. 

 

But it wasn't. 

 

Forever was such a long time and he'd always gone his own way. He hated the idea of being tied down in one place, yet he had done that - for her. He had been loyal to her and he'd stayed true, and he'd been the best boyfriend he could be, and then it had all just become a bit normal and he'd started to drift and that had almost been a relief in itself. If he was bored and his attention was wandering then this didn't have to be forever, it didn't have to be serious. 

 

If he hurt her now, it was better, wasn't it? If they broke up now, when it wasn't that serious, when they were already drifting and they were still just kids. Breaking up now was better. She would hate him he knew but there were worse things he could do. If they stayed together he was bound to do the wrong thing at some point, he was going to make it so much worse. Know thyself, that was what people said, right?

 

He hadn't wanted to make this decision, had been avoiding it all summer because he didn't want to hurt her or break up with her, but the decision had been made the moment she'd asked him to talk outside of the Transfiguration classroom. If they'd ignored it, they would have stayed together for long, but if they stayed together any longer he was going to do something irredeemable, something she would never forgive him for. 

 

So he said, "I'm sorry."

 

He stepped forwards then, unable to stop himself, and took hold of her hands gently, linking their fingers together. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, Kaelyn Paddock, and I'm a fool, but I want space and I don't want to hurt you, and no matter what I say, it's not going to make things better." He didn't want to let go of her hands, because letting go of them was letting go of her, and there was always the chance that she would never come back. 

 

But he had to.

 

They'd made a promise, but they'd changed.

 

Though some things, he thought, would always be the same. 

 

He wanted to be free. 

 

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I’m sorry he said, and with those two little words went the last ray of hope, flickering out at last.

 

The tears were harder to contain now.  As Toby stepped towards her and closed his hands gently over hers, their fingers looping together in that familiar way, a tear went trickling silently down her cheek.

 

It wasn’t possible.  It just couldn’t be possible.  How could Kaelyn care so much for one person, and be so willing to fight tooth and nail for him, and for that to not be enough?  How could he stand there and tell her she was the best thing that’s ever happened to him, and still let her walk away?  It didn’t match up.  

 

When Kaelyn loved, she loved with every fibre of her being.  It was how she understood love, too.

 

“So… that’s it, then?  I- I think we're making a huge mistake, Toby,” she told him softly as she lifted her gaze to meet his, but she didn’t stop to take it back.  He’d offered her a break, and she’d asked him to make it a clean one.  She was the one who had given him the ultimatum, making this every bit her fault as well was his.

 

Without even stopping to think about it, she lifted their twined hands to her lips and ardently kissed his fingers. Tobias was so tall and heartbreakingly handsome, her heart ached just to look at him, and she realized then she couldn’t hold him back.  Like every other untameable wild thing, he was more beautiful set free.

 

It hurt so bad.  Even if she could relate, recalling the many times she’d felt like a flightless bird, pinned to the ground by one burden or another, it didn’t make this any easier.  The worst part was thinking where he might go, or to whom…

 

“I don’t regret anything about this past year, you know,” she added, her voice soft from behind their fingers.  Then she was fully crying now, realizing they were really about to do this.  He wasn’t taking back what he’d said; she wasn’t either.  It was really over.

 

“We’re still Toby and Kae, right?” she asked him suddenly, remembering the other part of their promise.  “You’re still my best friend?”  But even that bit was confusing now, given their history.   That promise had been made in more innocent times, before many other things had been said and done.  How could they go back to the way things were, after the moments they’d shared since?

 

“I should go.”  She offered no other explanation, but let her lips brushed his knuckles one last time before she pulled her fingers away, ever so gently, and started to back away.  Just like that, Kaelyn did one of the bravest things she'd ever done: she let go of the boy she loved.

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“So… that’s it, then?  I- I think we're making a huge mistake, Toby."

 

"No," he said, as she lifted their hands to her lips, "I'm the one making a mistake." He was self-aware enough to realise that, but he also couldn't stop himself from doing it. It was as if, having made the decision, he couldn't now imagine anything else. 

 

“I don’t regret anything about this past year, you know,” she added, and then she was crying. 

 

Toby didn't regret anything either, he wasn't that kind of person. He did what he wanted, regardless of the consequences, and though the outcome wasn't always what he wanted, he never regretted the choices that he made. He was impulsive and wild, and it was feeling tied down to Kaelyn with his choices already made for him, that had him making this decision now. 

 

It didn't mean that he couldn't feel sad about it, however, as he pulled his hands from her grasp and stepped after her as she backed away. It was probably bad form to do this when he had just broken up with her, but he had never followed the rules when it came to Kaelyn. She was hurt and it was because of him and his instinct was to make it better, so he stepped after her and then wrapped his arms around her, pulling her forwards into him, into a hug, closer and tighter than anything they'd had in the last few months. 

 

He turned his head to rest his cheek on the top of her head, closing his eyes as he did so. "We're still Toby and Kae. You're still the best girl in my life... after Millie." Was it too soon for a joke? "And you deserve someone better." Someone who would love and cherish and protect her forever, who wouldn't see it as a negative thing to revolve their entire world around her, who would want to do anything for her, who would make every decision by thinking about what would make her happy. 

 

 

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Then don’t do this, Kaelyn wanted to tell him.  Don’t give up on me, on us - on yourself.  They were like two brooms about to collide in midair, both knowing the consequences of staying the course but unable, or unwilling, to change direction.  It didn’t make sense, but it seemed the right thing to do.  She didn’t want this to happen, but she wasn’t stopping it either.

 

Everything inside her seemed to wither away like the snapdragon had beneath her hand in class.  Even the wind blowing through the air, finding its way into the little hole she’d pulled in her sweater earlier and raising goosebumps along her arm, wasn’t strong enough to make her feel.  The way Toby was crushing her against him couldn’t bring back that little piece of her that died right there in the forest.

 

Would he change his mind, if she told him what this was like?  Would he trade her prison for his?  If it took being away from her for Toby to feel free, it took being with him for Kaelyn to feel the same.

 

But she couldn’t let him know that.  It wouldn’t be right for her to express this to him when she recognized the intensity with which he was holding her, and knew what it meant.  This was the way that he’d held her after her attack, and when her grandfather died.  It was the same crushing hug that came after the many times her parents disappointed her in the past or when she went through a failed relationship. She knew that he knew she was hurting, and she knew he thought that by holding her close he could somehow absorb some of that pain… but he couldn’t, not the way she wanted him to.  And she didn’t want him to think he had to either.

 

With that remaining ounce of strength, strength she didn’t even realize she had until there was no other choice but to summon it, Kaelyn brushed the tears from her eyes.  “Let go,” she told him gently, slowly but insistently pulling away from him, then let a little bit of laughter escape her.  For a moment she just stood there, swiping the corners of her eyes with her fingers, and then she blew out a shaky breath.

 

“Wow, I… didn’t think that was going to happen, when I woke up this morning,” she told him, then laughed again - a short, nervous little heh of someone who didn’t know what to expect anymore, or how to proceed.  Toby was still looking at her, and had they still been together, this might’ve been the moment where she curled herself into his lanky frame, took his face between her hands and pulled him close.  Instead she slipped both hands into his so they were standing the way they had been earlier, when they made their decision final, and gazed up at him in the same searching way as before.  Now what?

 

Breaking up didn't mean they were nothing to each other.  If anything Toby felt even more important to her than ever, but they weren’t… them, not the way they had been for the last year.  The tips of her fingers pressed into the backs of his hands.  “Want to go sit on the ledge for a bit?  With some hot chocolate maybe?”


Edited by Kaelyn Paddock

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