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Tethers

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They were alone, young, and utterly meant for each other. Unfortunately, while soulmates exist everywhere, they usually pass each other by for one reason or another, and most of them continue living apart for the rest of their lives, letting go of each other without even knowing what they lost.

---

Lee Eun Bi feels warm and soft in his arms.

She has the body of tomboy with the face of a princess. Sometimes, when she’s in the sun, that dark brown hair of hers shines dark gold, like a crown upon her head.

But he sees the sadness behind her eyes. Her wide stare confesses without words that she’s never looked or been anything like a princess. That even if she ever did wear a crown, it is now a shattered mess, its pieces buried under the weight of the lies and truths of her life. It makes him want to be her knight, digging and adding up the pieces. She’ll know how to put them back together herself-- he just wants to help her find them.

For all of his track record of mistakes, all of his getting into fights and being labelled the class clown... if you put all of that aside, Gong Tae Kwang is a bright boy, who is much smarter than he pretends to be.  For instance, he knows the exact number of seconds Lee Eun Bi’s deer-in-headlights hesitation will last before she finally graces him with an answer to whatever he has just said. That, or he knows she'll just stare at him at a loss, in total silence.

He hates that. Without a doubt, he prefers her words to her silence.

He hears everything in her silence: Her fears, her hopes, her losses; it breaks his heart, makes him want to hold her and never let go.

He came because the conversation with his father had shattered something inside of him, and then waiting for her outside he just felt hollow, unable to hold anything inside of him. He had to tell her that she was the one person who was still keeping him together. Her quiet presence and kindness, the way she just understands him without even trying-- falling for her was as inevitable as it has been painful.

That’s why he has to let go before he sinks-- or worse, drags her down with him. He’ll do anything to protect this girl who had become a precious friend, no matter how he wants her at his side forever. Hurting her is the last thing he wants to do.

But she is now hurt; she's sorry that he likes her.

Not that that changes anything. His feelings are his alone to hold onto. Lee Eun Bi can stare at him with shock all she wants.

Like now, after he's quietly told her, ‘I know it won’t make a difference, but still… I like you.’

Like? he wonders. Is this what this is? It feels deeper. Teenage emotions catch like wildfire, but this moment burns too hot, too painfully not to last. Gong Tae-Kwang is a bright boy and his memory is good. He’s held onto the harshest memories since he was young, and he doesn’t think he’ll be able to let go of this memory of holding her before she says goodbye. It’s already branded into his mind. He’ll never forget the image of this girl, small enough to fit into his pocket, turning down her head, hiding her eyes from him. This girl really is nothing like her sister; she doesn’t stare straight into his eyes with confidence like that girl would have. To him, though, that cruel ability to look away makes her stronger and more human. Somehow, it makes him like her even more.

 ‘I like you’

While looking away, she'd apologized.

‘I’m sorry, Gong Tae-Kwang,’ was all that was said.

He grabbed her like a lifeline, then. Pulled her by the wrist until her head was against his chest, holding her before she could leave, though still he made sure he held her as softly and gently as he could.

‘Just for a moment,’ he requested.

She acquiesced.

Now he embraces her close to his heart, her head nestled into the crook of his neck where he can feel her soft, careful breaths--and still she feels far away, in a place beyond his reach. He closes his eyes, too late to stop a single tear sliding down his otherwise solemn face. His throat feels tight and hot.

He could just take her and run away again, he briefly imagines. For good this time. It doesn’t have to be like this. He could tuck her under his arm, this tiny girl, and run away into the night; hitch a first class airplane ride courtesy of his golden credit card and the rest will be history. No more disappeared twin sisters, mistaken identities or mermaid boys with shoulder injuries, no more half-baked schemes from that nasty and pitiful transfer student, no more of his ice king father-- just the two of them, free.

But even he knows that’s too crazy, even for him. It's likewise selfish-- who said she wants to go with him? No, it’s just that he just wishes he could keep protecting her until he knew she could protect herself.

If only he could hold her tighter -- bury his face in her neck and never let go. If only she suddenly decided that she liked him too. He would be ecstatic. He would just look and look at her, like she was the brightest, most beautiful treasure he had found - - because she was. And he would slowly, softly kiss over the sides of her face, one, two, before crushing her against his ribcage, he imagined hugging her dearly close, to let her listen to his heart beating. The rhythm of the feelings she stirred in him. He would let her know just what she did to the crazy class clown of room 2-3. Then, if she let him, he would to lean down to kiss her forehead carefully, reaching out his wrists so he could sweep his thumb across those long pretty eyelashes she had, then holding her soft cheeks before asking finally if he could kiss her over her lips and call her his.

But he's not her lover, and he can’t do any of that.

And he won't try, no matter how much he wishes to. Because he doesn’t want to hurt her any more than he already has, telling her things that will just burden her. There's already a lot on her plate right now; she doesn’t need him falling in love with her, nor acting on the affection he feels for her. All he could ever do for her was protect her and make sure she wasn’t alone. He probably won't even be able to do that much now that she knows how he feels about her.

He wants to tell her that he owes her for being kind to him so easily, for being his friend, for understanding him like he was a tricky math equation ready to solve, not a crazy broken boy beyond help. He wants to tell her so many things. Like how, more than anything, he wants to see her smile brightly under the blazing sun, no shadows in her laughter, no more of that pain that comes from living a lie.

Of course, he doesn’t say any of that to her.

Instead he stands there in front of the house she lives in, holding her in his arms, breathing in the night air tinged with her perfume. Her hair tickles his face. The outside air is turning chillier and chillier. It's getting late. He’ll have to let her go.

A shaking breath. A second shaking breath. Gong Tae Kwang lets go of his princess.

--

He doesn’t believe in soulmates. He doesn’t know that they are, in fact, soul mates, walking away from each other. There’s just the feeling of losing something precious that lingers later. All alone, he wonders if she’ll one day come back to him. If maybe one day she’ll tell him that he never needs to let go of her again, and she'll be smiling softly at him, looking strong and brave, with her shining golden crown put back together as though it had never broken at all.