Make-belief

It’s not lying if he believes it.

The heat that had built up underneath his thick layer of clothing was a stark contrast with his icy hands and face. Garry tried to catch his breath as he rang the doorbell to the Lowell’s residence, cold winter air scalding the inside of his nostrils and hurting his throat with each breath drawn. His heart was booming against his eardrums, and the sweat beading at his forehead was making the chilly wind all the more unbearable. A particularly strong gust got him bundling himself up in his trench coat and pulling at his scarf.

He was counting the seconds, anxious to be let in, but not because of the unfavorable weather.

There was a muffled rustling of the knob from the other side, before the door opened inward and revealed Ib’s mother, Alysha, at the threshold, beckoning him inside.

“Good afternoon, Garry. Thank you for coming on such short notice,” the woman said as he shuffled past her, still gasping for air.

“No problem at all,” he muttered between heaves, bending down to dislodge his socked feet from his worn sneakers. “How’s Ib?” After depositing his shoes to the rack, he followed Alysha into the house and towards the stairs.

“It’s just the common cold, really. Her fever is making her delirious, and she keeps asking for you…among other things.” A brief look of worry flashed across Alysha’s features, but the woman quickly tucked it away and led him up the curved stairwell. “Her father’s with her right now.”

“My my, I see.” He didn’t put much thought into her demeanor as he shed his coat and muffler, folding them over his arm after shaking off some paltry flakes of snow. Over the years, they had come to a tacit agreement that certain things should be left alone, as neither he nor Ib was keen on explaining their first meeting. Whenever Ib broke down into hysteria, he was the solution, and that was all that mattered to the parents. “I’m sorry I let her stay out so late last night,” he added at the top of the stairs.

“No no, I should apologize. Knowing her, she probably troubled you yesterday.” The mother gave him a helpless chuckle.

But she was a reckless teenager, he thought, and he was supposed to be the adult. He was supposed to know better. Her fever had gotten to this point was because of him. They’d been out in the snow, and while the warmth of her skin when they held hands should have alarmed him, should have made him send her straight home, Garry had given in to her large, pleading eyes instead. Ib was stubborn, and too aware of the pulls she had over him, and he never did know how to say no to her.

He was a terrible adult in that aspect. Every time, she would win before the conversation even started, and afterwards, seeing the small smile she had on when she thought he wasn’t watching, or a certain smugness to the sway of her gait, yet feeling no grudge over the fact, he could only admit to himself he was, in all truth, whipped.

As they neared the half-open door at the end of the corridor, sounds of sobbing floated to his ears, and he could already hear his heart break. Fever dream or otherwise, she was suffering; he of all people knew how tenacious a grip the gallery had on a person. The nightmares still left him in cold sweats, and it gave him no relief knowing that, underneath all the unflappable façade and deadpan sarcasm, she was so much more fragile, so much more vulnerable than he was.

Ib was lying in her bed, hair all knotted and disheveled, perhaps from tossing and turning. Nathan was by her side, wiping the sweat that matted brown bangs to her forehead. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes half-lidded in some agonizing haze. With a quick greeting, he took her father’s place on the bed and gathered her head onto his lap. She struggled at first, but then, as though somehow sensing it was he, settled against him readily.

“Shh, I’m here, sweetie. You’re gonna be fine,” he crooned, feeling her face, her temperature almost scalding against his cold knuckles.

“Garry…” she whimpered, small hands curling into his shirt. And she repeated his name a few more times. Each time, he reassured her he was here to stay. She hadn’t been like this in a very long while; so needy, so dependent. Grew out of it, she’d claimed. He was proud of his little girl, but at the same time felt his purpose around her waning.

Was it twisted that he felt remotely happy about this development?

Her parents soon left them alone after seeing that their daughter had calmed down.

Garry continued to rub her back, watching as the frown slowly leave her features, and felt the labored rise and fall of her shoulders evening out into sleep. A smile crept onto his lips. With great care not to stir her, he reached for one of the spare pillows and cushioned it behind his back so that the bedpost wasn’t digging into his bones. When he was more comfortable, he resumed the circles on her back.

There was only the sound of her breathing now.

“Remind me again, Garry, how old are you now?” Her father had asked him a few weeks ago.

“Twenty-seven, sir.”

“Indeed? Time flies, doesn’t it?” The older man had had a faraway look accompanying his smile as he set down his teacup.

Age had always been a sensitive subject between them, at least for him. The parents might have accepted him into their life without many questions asked, not the important one anyways, but he knew they continued to gauge him even now. A veiled question here, a discreet nudge there. They were worried about her affections for him, and wary of his for her. But he only saw her as a friend, a little sister that he just had to spoil and could not leave well enough alone. So every time the parents seemed to hint at it, he would reassure them just as subtly about the nature of his feelings.

Platonic, and nothing more.

He felt Ib stir against him and looked down, brushing some stray strands away from her cheek. Her eyes fluttered open, precious orbs of red peered up at him with sleep still in their depths.

“Garry, I’m sorry I hit you so hard…” Garry blinked at her mumbling as the girl snuggled closer to him, hand tugging tighter at his shirt. “I’m sorry, okay? You weren’t listening. And I felt you were slipping…away…from…the rose. I was scared. I didn’t want you to leave. You just weren’t listening, and the rose…took the rabbit…”

He held back his amusement. She was still out of it, and it was adorable how she wasn’t even coherent. Garry ran his fingers through her hair, his other hand placed over the death grip she had on him.

“Rest, Ib. There is nothing you can do that’ll drive me away.” As she drifted back to oblivion, he couldn’t contain the happiness rising in his chest, but wholeheartedly wanted it to stop. He kissed her cheek, felt the heat radiating from her, could almost taste the cough medicine in her sigh. He felt his heart picking up that unwelcomed pace, felt his palms dampen, felt a knot forming in his throat, felt something primal coiling in his stomach.

Garry closed his eyes and drew in a shaky breath. He schooled his heart to hush, dried his palms and swallowed the knot away.

To the snoozing girl, he whispered so that only she may hear. “I promise you, Ib, I’ll always be by your side.”

And if being a brother to her meant that he could stay by her side, then, please, let him say that these feelings weren’t love.

 

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