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One to ten. Forty-five or fifty-five. Seventy and eighty; what’s the difference?

Nine and nineteen, now that’s... less easy.

But, nine and nineteen becomes eleven and twenty-one, and opposite ends of a swingset become conjoined seats on a park bench, and soccer moms stop side-eyeing him, because they know who he’s there with. They don’t come together, and they go different ways, and if Ib arrives with a parent in either hand, Garry smokes behind one of the trees. She knows (on the level a child can understand; accepts it has to be, though she cannot comprehend why) he’s there if she needs him.

Thirteen (twenty-three) is a hard time for them. Ib takes interest in things Garry can’t reconcile with the nine year-old he knows. Mascara flakes speckle her acne-dotted cheeks, and she cries on Valentine’s Day when no one gives her anything. He doesn’t know what to say.

Garry quits smoking that year.

Ib blooms as she grows: body stretching skyward and filling out (not always in that order) while her mind sprouts her thorns. She can read any word put in front of her- some even Garry can’t- and can tell him everything there is to know about Van Gogh (and it’s pronounced “Van Khok” he’s been told a few thousand times). Garry makes sure her fourteenth Valentine’s is the last he spends wondering how to comfort her, because on her fifteenth, he’s the first to give her a red rose.

That’s when things get complicated. By sixteen, Ib’s too old for the playground, and when they go anywhere else, Garry knows the first thing that pops into strangers’ heads when he holds her hand. Ib’s parents work a lot more, in the recession. Her mother even volunteers on the weekends. Ib does too- but on summer days, she’s alone in a house that feels cold empty.

It’s kind of adorable; her room’s still done up in all these frills, doll-packed shelves above her bed, and she has a row of three dried roses, hanging above her window. He doesn’t get too close to that; her neighbours are hawkish.

That’s really the beginning of the end. Their relationship had become so comfortable, they forgot other people saw it differently.

They’re sitting on her bedroom floor, Ib talking about this jerk in her biology class while Garry deals for rummy.

He hears the door closing, feels it in his calves pressed to the floorboards, and looks up frightfully.

Ib’s eyes are wide; her father’s home. Garry can’t get downstairs without going through him, and all his teenage ideas of where to hide in a girl’s room should her parents arrive (which had come in handy all of never) turned out to be very subjective. She had a freestanding wardrobe, and drawers under her bed, bed made with one thin blanket for the summer. Ib jumped to her feet, and ran down the stairs, door flung wide open as she went to stall, and Garry twisted his ankle jumping out a second story window. Ran the whole way home on it.

They’d been avoiding his apartment, not only because it was a complete mess made by the complete pig he shares it with, but it felt... wrong. He never wanted to drag Ib out of her element, to make her uncomfortable in the slightest. He ends up being the uncomfortable of them- and he lives there.

Ib dances every inch of his carpet: plays the stereo loud (it was the first time she could) and twirls until her skirt stands out straight and she gets so dizzy, he’s the only thing keeping her from falling over. She takes him by the hand, and teaches him something like a tango as she makes it up. He mentions needing a rose in his mouth, and she says she’ll find him a blue one.

She does. It’s plastic, but that just lets him pop the head off and pin it to the side of his coat when she ditches the homecoming dance. Her date was getting fresh.

So, they dance in the park after dark, Ib singing improv and Garry counting steps for a waltz. Inevitably, she’s humming against his chest, and he’s kind of glad she picked a jerk.

At least the next one’s better: gets doors and calls her “sweetie”- and he knows because she’s introduces them. Pulls him aside while her date’s refilling her cup and asks what Garry thinks of her first boyfriend.

He despises him. He can’t find a reason why.

She dumps him. Says if Garry doesn’t like him, he can’t be the one. He warns her that’s going to be a very hard search indeed; she pecks him on the cheek and swears love’s worth waiting for. Garry thinks she’s right. Her lip gloss is sticky, and he doesn’t want to wipe it off.

Her parents love him. He can still pass for his early twenties, though he’s nearing the late end, and she’s old enough that’s acceptable. They make them sit in the living room, and inconveniently pop in whenever she rests her head on his shoulder. She gets mad about that. He doesn’t blame them. Ib’s precious to him, too.

Ib thinks all boys are stupid, and Garry tells her she’s right. Big dumb jerks, she says- and she’s nineteen, so he knows they are- why is he the only good one? He still thinks she’s nine years old sometimes, and says he’s not a boy. He’s a Garry.

Ib wants a Garry.

She’s already got one.

Her lip gloss is sticky, and he doesn’t want to wipe it off.