A/N: I have no idea what this is. It just kinda came out. Reviews much appreciated :)
Returning the Favor
He's six years old when he first peers into the crib and sees a tiny pink bundle. It's wrapped snugly, all warm and new; a protective cocoon keeping the bad things out. The baby's cheeks are chubby and tinged with a rosy blush. Only a few wisps of downy hair cover her round little head, and she lays peacefully with her small fists clutching onto nothing.
He's unsure of his feelings towards her. She's made his mother tired and made the house not only more loud, but smell different. She's changed everything.
Admittedly, he had been excited at first. He even convinced his mother to name the baby Katie instead of Apple, because 'Katie' started with a K, just like 'Kendall.' That way they could match. Besides, apples were food. He didn't want a sister named after an icky fruit.
He cocks his head to the side, chewing on the inside of his cheek as he thinks. And he thinks he's not going to like this girl too much. She can't talk, can't move on her own. All she does is eat and sleep, and she can't even do that without help. His mother gives all the attention to the baby, and even forgot to tuck him in one night.
He doesn't want the responsibility his mother tells him he'll need to acquire. Mrs. Knight informs he's a natural leader; he'll be the best big brother in entire world. She assures he'll love this new baby, and once Katie gets older the two will be able to play together and have fun. He'll keep her safe and make sure no one harms her.
Kendall's not too sure about that.
When he's seven years old, he thinks maybe the baby isn't too bad. She cries a lot and sometimes she smells really bad, but there's good things about her. Like when she giggles. It's all bubbly and happy, and it makes him laugh too, even when he isn't in the mood to be smiling. When she lays down for a nap he'll watch her, eyes taking in every detail, from her long eyelashes to her cheeks, which are even more fat than they were when she first came home. He takes his finger and pokes the cheek. Katie just stares at him and makes a gurgling sound.
You're supposed to go to sleep, he tells her. But she doesn't listen. Her tiny hands grasp the air, reaching out to him. He frowns, and experimentally dangles an arm in the crib. The baby reaches up and curls her fist around his finger.
His mom says Katie loves him very much. He doesn't understand how Mrs. Knight knows that, considering the baby can't talk. But his mother says brothers and sisters always love each other no matter what. Besides, Katie always stops crying when he enters the room.
He decides to let the baby hold onto his finger for a little while longer, just until her eyes get heavy and she loosens her grip. Then he sneaks out and goes to his own room, so his mom can tuck him in like she does every night.
Katie gets older and figures out how to crawl.
He doesn't like it one bit.
If Mom ever has to leave the room for a few minutes, she tells Kendall to watch his sister. Watching Katie is easy, because all he has to do is place her in a spot on the carpet where he can easily keep an eye on her. Sometimes she plays with a toy to occupy herself, and remains perfectly content in the middle of the floor.
But one day he looks, and she isn't where he left her.
The moment of heart-stopping panic he feels only lasts a second or two, when he turns his head and sees her on the other side of the room. She smiles at him, then jabbers something he doesn't understand. Kendall asks her how she managed to get over there. She responds by promptly placing both pudgy hands flat on the carpet and beginning a slow but sure crawl to her big brother.
He's amazed she learned how to do it by herself, and wonders about all the other things she'll learn to do on her own. Maybe she can handle it. Now that she can move on her own, she probably doesn't need to be carried everywhere. Maybe she doesn't need him anymore.
He decides he'll be there for her anyway, just in case.
She's three years old when she's crying. Kendall comes into her room late at night when he hears the sound. When her teary eyes notice him enter from the shadows, she hides her face in shame. She doesn't like people seeing her weak.
He sits on the edge of her big girl bed and asks if he should get Mom. No, she says. Only him. So he gently peels the blanket away from her head and wipes those rosy cheeks with his thumb. Her brown hair pokes up in a disheveled mess of static, so he smoothes it out with his hand. When he leans forward, his sister grabs the sleeve of his pajama shirt and clings tightly. He doesn't mind.
She continues to whimper and sniffle when he opens his mouth to sing. It's a soft melody that his mother used to hum when Katie was still a fuzzy pink bundle. He recites the lullaby in a near-whisper, stroking her hair until her noises cease and her breathing evens. Her grip on his arm loosens, and he pulls away from her, smiling in the dark.
When he eases the bedroom door shut, he knows he truly is a big brother. She's the world to him, and he is certain he'll be watching out for her forever, ensuring she's safe. He'll be her pink cocoon, protecting her from the bad things in the world, like when she was a baby and there existed no wickedness to scathe her.
She's changed everything.
He's eleven years old when Katie's first day of school arrives, and it makes him nervous. It's the first time she'll be with strangers all day; away from him, away from Mom. He knows Katie can handle it, but doubts the other kids can handle her.
Mom makes both their lunches that morning, and he walks with Katie to the bus stop. He's not used to this. He's seen kids get bullied at school, and he knows he can't be there to save her when she's in a classroom on the other end of the building. He's never faced a situation like this, and it makes him feel helpless.
Her pink jacket reminds him of days when she was younger, and he inwardly hopes the jacket will somehow ward away all her troubles and keep her young and delicate, just for a little while longer.
The school bus pulls up with a roar, and Kendall can see the uncertainty on her face. She takes his hand as they ascend the stairs and board the vehicle. A few older kids tease and throw jeers at them. Katie's eyes widen in fear, but Kendall just squeezes her hand tighter.
When they find their seats and the bus begins to move, Katie expresses her unease. He has an idea. He finds a marker in his backpack and takes her hand. On her small palm he draws two big dots and one fat curve. She giggles at the smiling face he drew, and peeks at her hand continuously until they reach the school.
He sings her a lullaby that night, but he doesn't think she really needs it.
When she's eight, he tells her to go play while he helps Mom clear away dishes. He's taught her how to do everything Mom tells them to do, but when Mrs. Knight leaves the room, Kendall dismisses his sister from her chores. He likes it better this way.
He's slightly upset, though, because earlier when he asked her if she needed help with her homework, she denied his request.
She's never done that before.
The thought is on his mind until the dishes are washed, dried, and put away. He eventually wanders upstairs and finds Katie in her room, dressed in a red sweater and sitting with a deck of cards spread out on her desk. He asks what she's doing, and she replies it's a game called five-card stud. He leaves silently, knowing his heart is too heavy to play, because eight-year-olds should not know how to gamble.
Later that night they both find themselves in the kitchen searching for a snack. He prepares to lift her so she can reach the cookies in the cookie jar on the top shelf of the cupboard, but she doesn't need a boost anymore and leaves only one treat for him.
When midnight comes and she's sound asleep, he sneaks in her room and takes the deck of cards. He hides them under his bed where she'll never think to look.
A few days later they have a race from one end of the backyard to the other. He lets her win every time.
This time, he doesn't have to.
The following year, Kendall decides the best thing a big brother can do is let his baby sister grow up. Most of the time he looks at her and knows she doesn't need him, but like he promised when she was a helpless little baby without a scar marring her body, he'll be there if she ever changes her mind.
He never expected the situation to be the other way around.
He's fifteen years old and his friends have never seen him cry, and he plans to keep it that way. Everything bottled inside him, everything he needs to get out, he represses until he reaches home. Mom is still at work, and Katie is watching something on television that is much too mature for her age, even though she understands every word of the program.
He isn't sure what compels him to stumble into the bathroom instead of his bedroom, but he does, and leans over the sink. Tears are already streaming down his flushed cheeks, and he can't even stand to look at himself in the mirror. He's the older brother, the responsible son, the leader among his friends. This shouldn't happen to him. It never has, and he doesn't know how to deal with it.
Kendall pushes himself away from the counter and collides into the wall, his entire body racking with loud sobs. Needing something to prevent himself from collapsing to the floor, he gropes for the towel rack. The wall attachment becomes his standing aid, and he can't let go.
He cries until he can't tell time, until his throat and stomach ache and he's fairly certain something must be seriously wrong with his eyes, considering they won't cease their tear production. His body is shutting down and he's falling into the spinning abyss around him.
But the moment his most miserable thought enters him and he loses his grip on the one thing keeping him sane, a pair of arms wrap around his waist and keeps him on his feet. He's embarrassed at first, and certainly stunned. Unfamiliar to the comfort, it makes him jittery and clumsy. But when another countless amount of time passes and he feels refreshed and more at ease than he has ever felt before, he's far from mortified.
She doesn't know what's wrong and she doesn't say a word, and for that he's grateful. She merely holds him tight and returns the favor.
A few months pass, and she's talking with friends on the phone and having conversations about boys. He wonders when boys stopped having cooties, but decides not to ask.
Sometimes they argue, sometimes she calls him names, sometimes she helps him with homework, and every time they play poker she cleans him out.
He figures that means he raised her right.
Tonight, after a busy day of raising trouble in Los Angeles, his sister comes into his room with a request she hasn't made in years. He complies with a smile, and guides her back across the hall. He notices her blush when he tucks her into bed. When he sings to her she watches every movement of his mouth and catches every word his eyes are saying. She's eleven years old and acts twice her age, but when his song comes to an end the only thing he can focus on is the pink blanket pulled up to her chin.
He reminds her that she gives him more advice than he could ever offer her, and that it's okay to need a little help sometimes.
He wonders, as he kisses her head, when she went from being cute to beautiful, from little to grown, and from handling things on her own to needing her big brother again. As he leaves her room he realizes she never stopped; he just started needing her more. He remembers the day he peered into her crib and saw a tiny pink bundle, wrapped snugly, all warm and new, like a protective cocoon keeping the bad things out. He remembers how foolish that little boy had been, to think a baby would stay that way forever, and to think Katie would be nothing but an annoyance in his life.
But she did change everything, and he knows he wants to return the favor. So he'll be right across the hall, ready for another night like this, just in case.