It was probably a testament to Malcolm's intellect, or to his uncanny perceptiveness when it came to family, that he noticed very nearly right away.
Which, considering the odds, must have been some sort of small miracle. It was not uncommon for the Wilkerson boys to show up with all sorts of cuts and bruises, scratches and scars. They were known, by name and reputation, by nearly every nurse and doctor at the local hospital. By the time Francis was shipped off to Marlin Academy, all of the neighbors on the street had stopped casting dirty glares at Hal and Lois when one of the boys showed up in public with a black eye or broken arm; some of the bitterer old ladies on the block even smirked in approval at the sight. Good, their judgmental stares said. The deviant probably had it coming.
So it wasn't the nasty cut above Reese's eye, or his bloody lip, or even the limp he was unsuccessfully trying to disguise that got Malcolm's attention. It was all of those things in conjunction with the look in his brother's eyes. Although one would have a tough time trying to make a case that any one of the boys got into significantly more trouble than the others, it would hardly be disputed, considering his inclination towards violence as a solution to conflicts, that Reese was the most likely to come home from school with physical souvenirs of battle. Three or four times a week, it seemed, he would walk through the kitchen with a shiner and smug smile after having beaten some kid to a pulp for stealing a frisbee, or having rode his bike off a homemade ramp into a neighbor's pool, or God knows what else. The point being that the family had long since lost its capacity for squeamishness. Even Lois didn't yell as much as she used to; a broken bone or a cracked skull was acknowledged with an eye roll and a deadpan, "I'll get the keys," rather than an earsplitting tirade of "What were you thinking?" or "How could you be so stupid?"
Apart from the limp, Reese didn't look too poorly off that particular day, so when Malcolm heard the bedroom door open and saw his brother's current condition, his first reaction, not especially cruel considering their typically rivalrous relationship, was to snort in amusement. Reese, staring blankly at the ground, raised his eyes to meet Malcolm's. They held each other's gaze for about five seconds, and Malcolm felt his grin slowly sliding away. Reese didn't look angry, or upset, or weary...or anything really. Just a blank slate. It barely seemed as though he registered Malcolm's presence at all. His eyes flickered briefly in recognition, and that was about it.
"Hey, man," he said softly, gently dropping his backpack to the floor. He turned and left and Malcolm was left staring at an empty doorway. A minute or so later, he heard the shower start.
Malcolm stood up slowly from his desk and started down the hallway. A cold chill came over him suddenly, growing in intensity with every step he took. It wasn't something that could be explained logically, but in his gut he knew that whatever this was, it was serious. He had seen that look in Reese's eyes once before.
Malcolm leaned against the wall opposite the bathroom door, boring holes in it with his eyes, running through plans of action in his mind. A large part of him wanted to just drop it and wait for the parents to come home from work, although he knew Reese would never talk to them, or even ride it out until morning, whereupon his brother would no doubt have had time to construct a mask of cheerfulness, choosing as per usual to process his pain internally (with, perhaps, the additional release of a casual schoolyard brawl). But as desperately as he didn't want to deal with...whatever this was, the voice in the back of Malcolm's brain kept reminding him over and over like a mantra: You owe him.
It hadn't even happened that long ago, no more than three or four months, right after Malcolm's 15th birthday. The family was trying to pull itself out of debt, so Hal and Lois were overworked and undersexed, and therefore twice as irritable as usual. Lois in particular was in a foul mood having to deal with the additional frustration of Francis, who was in town for the weekend. Dewey was in the middle of an frustratingly juvenile phase where he was certain the entire world revolved around him, and anyone who threatened this perception of reality was treated to earsplitting screeches and noisy tantrums. All of the pressures of academia, domestic tension, and social life had finally caught up with Malcolm and in a moment of impulse, he'd closed himself up in the bathroom with a box-cutter from the garage and sat in the empty bathtub with shaking hands, working up the courage to take that final plunge. It may have been fate, or luck, or simply the fact that the locks didn't work, but before he could make a single incision, Reese had barged in with the intention of finding a few minutes of privacy without having to listen to their mother screaming at the insurance company on the telephone.
Startled, the box-cutter had fallen out of Malcolm's grasp and clattered on the floor. Reese had frozen in the process of opening his mouth, probably to tell his brother to get the hell out, and stared at the weapon on the ground. After a few seconds, he'd looked up to meet Malcolm's eyes, and it was in that moment, in spite of every else going on, that Malcolm realized how badly he'd underestimated his sibling. Any other reaction wouldn't have surprised him; if Reese had seized the box-cutter and yelled at him and demanded to know what the fuck he was thinking, or if he had broken down in tears and begged to know why, WHY? would Malcolm do something like this. Anything except a blank stare, a glassy-eyed gaze with a just a bit of surprise and...understanding?
"Reese..." Malcolm had started, carefully. "I...I wasn't...I wouldn't actually-"
He was cut off by his brother's strong arms wrapping around him, wordlessly pulling him into a tight hug. They sat there for a full two or three minutes in silence, before Reese spoke, tonelessly, but clearly.
"I need you here. Okay?"
And that was the nail in the coffin. Malcolm had lost it and Reese had held him while he cried, just sitting there in the empty bathtub, sharing in that cathartic release of pain together. When he'd finally calmed down enough to dry his eyes and quiet down, Reese released him and picked up the box-cutter and slid it into his pocket. He'd turned back at the door and gave Malcolm a small, sad smile.
"We'll hang out tonight. I found some money in Mom's wallet, so we can order pizza or something."
And they had; and it was the closest Malcolm had ever felt to his Reese, or to anyone for that matter. Everything about that night surprised Malcolm. The way Reese didn't try to make him talk about what had happened earlier, but at the same time didn't dismiss it and pretend like everything was fine. The way he proved he was capable of interesting conversation when he put his mind to it. They'd stayed up all night talking, and in the morning at the breakfast table, their hands had met, reaching across the table for the box of cereal. And after just a moment's hesitation, Reese's hand had given Malcolm's the slightest of squeezes and then retreated back over to his own side. It was a small gesture, insignificant in appearance, but cosmic in its affirmation of a love and affection the boys had never expressed before. And it meant the world to Malcolm; it was that bond of unspoken understanding between them that kept him sane in the days that followed.
And that was pretty much the end of it. That single moment of weakness was all Malcolm had needed, and the thought never crossed his mind ever again. It wasn't until a week or so later that he remembered the look in Reese's eyes that day in the bathroom and realized that he hadn't been the only one suffering through something. But by that point things had, for the most part, calmed down. Dewey was still behaving like a pain in the ass, but the parents were considerably more cheerful since things were beginning to look up financially. Francis was back in Alaska, and the workload at school was on the decline. The family dynamic was back to its usual comfortably chaotic routine, and with their rivalry basically reestablished, Malcolm couldn't find it in him to question Reese.
But he knew something was off. Up until now, it wouldn't have been apparent to the casual observer, but Malcolm could sense there had been a fundamental change in his brother's personality. Ever since that day. Perhaps even before then. Reese was more reserved, quieter. Oh, he still got into trouble, and his reputation as the school bully was as intact as ever, but it wasn't the same. He just didn't go out of his way to create problems for others anymore, as if it were some incidental pleasure to savor in certain circumstances where the opportunity arose rather than an activity to pursue with the unfaltering determination he was once infamous for. Malcolm actually noticed him doing his homework unprompted several times.
Normally, Malcolm would just chalk all of that up to some elaborate, bound-to-fail con Reese was trying his hand at to trick their mother for some reason or another. But he couldn't shake the look he'd seen in his brother's eyes, that sense of understanding, that deep pain. Whatever Reese was struggling with, Malcolm knew none of them were prepared to deal with it.
And now, the moment had come. The look was back in Reese's eyes and Malcolm was not going to let the opportunity slip him by again. Hal and Lois were out with Francis and Piama, who were in town again for a couple of weeks, and Dewey was spending the night at a friend's house (allegedly), so he and Reese would have time to talk. He needed to know.
After about fifteen minutes, the shower stopped running and Malcolm sighed. Now or ever. He waited another minute or so, and when Reese didn't emerge from the bathroom, he knocked softly on the door.
"Hey...Reese? Is it alright if I come in?"
Malcolm knocked again, a little more forcefully. He only waited a few seconds before opening the door. Reese was sitting on the ground next to the shower, head pressed up against his knees, wearing nothing but a towel.
"Reese?..." Malcolm asked cautiously, closing the door and slowly squatting down beside him. "How...how are you doing?" Great.Terrificice-breaker,Einstein.Hesitantly, he reached out his hand to place on Reese's shoulder, but stopped instantly when his brother involuntarily recoiled from the touch. "Come on, dude...please talk to me...please?" Still nothing. Malcolm's knees were starting to get sore, so he moved into a sitting position next to Reese and focused on a spot on the wall in front of him, trying to think of the right words to make his brother open up. To make everything better. They sat there in silence for a while, and being in the same room with the same tense atmosphere, Malcolm could no longer help but think of how similar the situation was to his own breakdown. He turned his head back to Reese.
"I owe you, you know," he said softly.
And for whatever reason, that did the trick. Reese finally looked up to meet his eyes, a hint of mild surprise intermingled with an expression of profound despair. Malcolm felt the cold chill return and gritted his teeth, not wanting to reveal how much Reese's reaction disturbed him. He kept a cool, sympathetic gaze, patiently waiting. Reese opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to speak.
"I..." he started, and then, to Malcolm's horror, he burst into tears and buried his face in his hands. Instinctively Malcolm wrapped his arms around his brother, relieved that this time he didn't pull away. It was the second time in their young lives that they had found themselves in this position, the only difference was the reversal of roles. But Malcolm knew in his heart that, painful as it might be, he couldn't return Reese the favor of not asking why. He needed to know what was wrong.
Reese only cried for about five minutes, but they sat like that quietly for about thirty before Malcolm glanced over at the clock and spoke up.
"Hey, I think they'll be home pretty soon." After a few seconds he felt Reese nod. "Why don't you get dressed and...you know, we'll talk...okay?" Reese pulled away, not meeting Malcolm's eyes, but he nodded again. "Good," Malcolm said. "I'll tell Mom and Dad you're sick. Try to take a nap or something."
He was halfway to the door when he heard Reese's voice.
"Malcolm...I think...I think I was..."
Malcolm turned back around with a sinking feeling in his gut. Reese still wasn't meeting his eyes, staring determinedly at a spot on the floor.
"I think...I know..." He started breathing heavily and looked up pleadingly. "Please don't make me say it. That I was..."
Malcolm swallowed. "I know, Reese...You don't have to say it."
And he did know. He had all along, more or less. The possibility had even occurred to him before, several months ago when he first seen this new side of his brother. He'd simply repressed the thought, refusing to believe it for convenience sake. But nothing else fit. Reese could take a beating and walk away unfazed. Malcolm had seen him spit up a mouthful of blood with a grin. So it was the only explanation that made sense, the only thing Malcolm could conceive of that would be this emotionally devastating; he felt his stomach turn, realizing that Reese's limp probably had nothing to do with pain in his leg.
They stared at each other, unsure of what to say. Neither of them were prepared to cope with something like this. Reese's chest was rising and falling rapidly; he looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack.
Fighting back the desire to hug him again, Malcolm pushed forward. "It's happened before, hasn't it?" he asked in a voice low enough to be a whisper. "Back when...you know. Back then?"
Reese looked away again. "Yeah," he responded. And looked back. "But just that one time...and this time, too, I guess."
Malcolm bit his lip, deep in thought. "Alright," he said after a minute, "I'm not going to say anything to Mom or Dad yet. But we're not done talking about this, understand? We can't ignore it. We have to figure this out."
Reese nodded, looking somewhat relieved; definitely a little calmer and breathing more evenly. Clutching the towel around his waist, he got up slowly, wincing a bit. "I'm going to get dressed." Malcolm turned and left, shutting the door gently behind him.
Dinner was a haze. Hal bought the sick story without batting an eye, and Lois seemed satisfied after poking her head in the bedroom and seeing Reese asleep under a pile of blankets. Malcolm ate his dry meatloaf as quickly as possible while Lois and Piama engaged in one of their painfully unsubtle verbal sparring matches and Hal and Francis desperately tried to change the subject. With Dewey absent there was no one keeping Malcolm at the table, so he excused himself with surprisingly little resistance.
"Where do you think you're going?" Lois snapped, her attention diverted for the moment.
Swallowing the urge to respond with sarcasm, Malcolm replied evenly, "Bedroom. I promised Reese we'd hang out tonight."
Lois's glare softened, although she still looked slightly suspicious. "Alright then...I'll be in to check on you boys later. Don't go anywhere, you hear me? Stay inside. None of your shenanigans, understand?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Malcolm noticed Francis frowning quizzically at him for a second, but his curiosity morphed back into weariness once Lois and Piama's bickering resumed.
Malcolm backed out of the kitchen slowly and, satisfied that everyone was ignoring him, slipped off to the bedroom. He opened the door and saw Reese sitting awake, waiting for him. His eyes were still a little red, but he seemed to have calmed down. And that haunted look in his eyes was thankfully absent. His expression now was more exhausted than anything else. Malcolm closed the door and walked to the bed. He tapped Reese's shoulder.
Reese obliged, and Malcolm sat down next to him, draping an arm over his brother's shoulder and pulling him closer. He wasn't totally surprised when Reese leaned into the embrace, placing his head in the curve of Malcolm's neck, cheek against his chest. But it still felt a little strange, not just because of the unusualness of the situation for them specifically, but because of the intimacy of the gesture. Strange, but somehow nice. In spite of everything. It was moments like this that reminded Malcolm that regardless of how they conducted themselves in everyday interaction, he and Reese were probably closer to each other than anyone else. He knew Reese didn't have many, if any, real friends, and while Stevie could be fun to hang out with now and again, they had never talked about anything that really mattered, or shared deep secrets, or had anything even close to that moment of love and respect when Reese touched his hand across the breakfast table all those months ago.
Malcolm felt a lump growing in his throat, and stroked his brother's hair affectionately. They sat without speaking for about minute or so, then Malcolm took a deep, steadying breath.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Reese shuddered slightly. "Why should we? It's probably not much different of a story than anyone else's."
"Okay, fair enough. But we can't pretend it didn't happen."
"I know, you don't have to keep telling me that!"
Malcolm gripped him tighter. "Sorry. But there's stuff...I have to..." He sighed. "Look, there are questions I have to ask you, and I know it's hard, but please just bear with me for a few minutes."
Reese lifted his head up and stared off at the window. "Alright, fine," he whispered after a second.
"Okay, firstly - and I need you to be honest with me about this - is there any chance that this might happen again? You said it happened once before, so unless it was unrelated to today...which I don't believe for a second, by the way...then I have to assume it's someone you know." Reese's jaw tightened, his focus still directed out the window. "Which is the second question," Malcolm continued carefully. "Is it someone you know?"
Someone WE know? being the underlying subtext.
"You don't want to know that," Reese said shakily.
"No, seriously, I mean it. The relationships in this family are fucked up enough as they are without-" he cut off suddenly, horror materializing in his eyes. He looked at Malcolm fearfully.
Malcolm felt numb. The relationships in this family.
He stared slack-jawed at his brother, barely registering Reese insisting that he had misspoken, that he hadn't meant it thatway, that they should just pretend like he'd never said anything.
"Stop it," he interjected. "You have to tell me. Who was it?"
Reese's eyes narrowed. "I'm not telling you, alright? Just drop it!"
Ah. That was more like Reese. Infuriatingly stubborn even in the most serious situations.
"Dude, this is too important. I mean...it wasn't...Dad? Right?..."
"No! Stop guessing!"
And Reese looked so distraught, he shut his mouth. "Okay, I'm sorry." And he let it go.
Because he didn't need to guess anymore. It didn't take a genius to narrow the possibilities down. And now that he knew their father was uninvolved, the pieces fell into place pretty easily. So while they talked for the next few hours about doctors and therapists and when/if they should talk with the parents, Malcolm was forced to hide the fact that his world was crashing down around him behind a mask of control and calm. And when Lois came in and said goodnight and shut off the lights, leaving the two of them lying together in bed in the dark, Malcolm was wide awake long after Reese had fallen asleep against his body.
He was going to have to play this out carefully. And he would not, could not, fail.
He wasn't going to let his brother down.
AN: And that's Chapter One. I promise I'm the type of person who finishes stories, so if at least one person who reads this enjoys it, I'll be sure to finish it just for them.