Steven Wakefield winced in the wake of Joe Howell's rather loudly expressed disbelief. "Keep it down, will you?" he whispered fiercely, glancing furtively in the seemingly empty hallway they were standing in. "You'll have half the town here if you keep yelling like that."
"What do you expect me to do?"
Steven eyed his friend wryly. "You really don't want to listen to a long list, do you, now?"
Joe shook his head, rolling his eyes. "Whatever. But why didn't you tell me before that you were there when the gym collapsed… with Patman, of all people?"
"So that you wouldn't do in front of everybody what you're doing right now." Steven gave a distressed sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. "Listen… about the vice-captain position you hold on the SVH team?"
Joe's enthusiasm disappeared almost immediately, as if Steven had just flicked a switch off within his best friend. A suspicious light entered his blue eyes and he squinted at Steven. "Yeah… what about it?"
"Well…" Steven shifted his feet, as if he found whatever he intended to say extremely painful, indeed. "I'm going to have to… ask you to… give that position up."
Joe did not respond as Steven had expected him to. "Listen, man," he said, grinning, "I know you're not very good with jokes, and this might be your attempt to get better at 'em. But, man, even for a first attempt, that sucked."
Steven bit back a groan. Trust Joe to make this even harder… "This is not a joke, Joe," Steven said, trying to muster as much apology into his expression as possible. "I'm asking you to… er, resign from that position, and… give it to Bruce."
Joe narrowed his eyes. "This is not funny, Steven."
Steven's voice rose a few octaves. "That's my point, Joe – this is not a joke, and I'm not trying to be funny. I'm being bloody serious!"
A myriad emotions seemed to flick through Joe's eyes – from disbelief, surprise, anger to betrayal, before he asked simply, "Why?"
Why… Steven thought back to what had happened that fateful night, and how he had been unable to sleep afterwards, tortured by guilt, apprehension, and worry regarding Bruce's condition. He had phoned the very next morning, anxious to know the status of Bruce's health. The result of the phone call was rather… bittersweet, Steven mused.
Bittersweet as hell.
Bruce had replied that he was perfectly fine, thank you very much, and that he hoped that Steven would follow up on the promise that the latter had made back in the gym. His tone had been full of mocking laughter, and Steven regretted his possession of an overly large mouth and an equally bloated sense of honour and promise.
And so here he was now, asking his best friend to give up the position he had cherished for months.
"Well, I made a promise to him, and well…" Aw hell, I'm going to start twiddling my thumbs any moment now… "Hope you can forgive me, man – it's just that…"
"Wait." Joe put up his palms, effectively stopping Steven in his tracks. "It's okay, really. I mean, who cares about being a vice-captain, particularly on a basketball team, eh?" He laughed hollowly. "It's not like it's a special position or anything. Besides, it'll stop all those rumours regarding you showing favouritism."
"Joe, please –" Steven stopped suddenly, frowning. "Rumours? Favouritism?"
His friend just flashed him a weary smile, and exited the hallway, leaving Steven in a confused – and soul-burningly guilty – daze.
Something was going to happen.
Elizabeth Wakefield took a reluctant bite of her sandwich, frowning at her own paranoia. What had come over her lately? Had the gym incident affected her so much? Did she think that she had some kind of ESP, or something? Suddenly her lips contorted, and her eyes widened in horror and disgust.
One thing was for certain, at least.
The sandwich tasted terrible.
Swallowing the mouthful she had taken in with great difficulty, she examined the sandwich. Oh wow. I put yoghurt instead of butter. Her lips twitched. And mashed pickle instead of jelly. Eurgh. No wonder. Obviously she hadn't been paying much attention to her culinary pursuits on return from school. Also, obviously, she didn't want her taste buds to have the misfortune of being the victims of her absentminded carelessness once again, and so she set the sorry piece of bread down and sat back to analyse the cause of her paranoia. Surely, it had all begun the day when…
Her musings were interrupted by the front door slamming open, then close, and her very bedraggled looking older brother entering the kitchen. Normally, she wouldn't have bothered pursuing any sort of conversation beyond a greeting, but the downcast expression on his face aroused her curiosity.
And, of course, she couldn't ignore that.
"Hey Steve," she greeted. "What's up?"
"Up?" He laughed alarmingly bitterly, before practically throwing himself into a kitchen chair and leaning back. "Oh, nothing. Absolutely nothing." His voice was muffled by the arm that he had draped tiredly over his face.
Elizabeth nearly took another bite of her sandwich before stopping herself in time. Okay, so he didn't seem to be too keen on opening up to her…
"Hey, Liz," he said suddenly. "You alone here?"
"Y-yeah," Elizabeth said guardedly.
"Jess – "
"Mom – "
"And Dad – "
"He's not back from work yet."
"Oh. I see." Steven removed his hand from his face and looked across the table at her sandwich. Elizabeth immediately snatched it away and lobbed it into the wastebasket with an apologetic grin. "That sandwich isn't exactly palatable, you know…"
Steven raised an eyebrow.
Elizabeth shrugged. "Well, if you like yoghurt and pickle in your sandwich, I could make you another one."
Steven stared at her for a long moment, then burst out laughing. "Yoghurt and pickle? Liz, you sure you're not really Jessica?"
His sister grinned. "I'm sure. Hey, I worry about things too, rather like some people." She gave a pointed, very meaningful glance in his direction. Steven's eyebrows rose impressively once again, before something seemed to snap within him, and he settled deeper in his chair, seemingly folding in on himself.
Elizabeth frowned. "I'm expecting a more eloquent answer to 'What's up', now."
A couple of minutes passed in complete silence, before Elizabeth lost her patience. "Is it about your break-up with Tanya?"
Steven started, before stuttering, "Y-yeah, That – that's it. Tanya."
"You mean she hasn't talked to you yet?"
"No." Steven's voice grew stronger, more frustrated. "She hasn't said a word to me, not even after the 'gym incident', as the school has so infamously named the stupid thing." He ran a hand through his hair. "And now this problem with Joe…"
"I told him to resign from his position as vice-captain of the basketball team," Steven explained, starting to look miserable once again. "So that Bruce could take it up."
It was Elizabeth's turn to raise her eyebrows impressively. "I don't even want to ask." She sighed. "And about Tanya… this is the first time you two have had a fight, right? She'll eventually get over it. Besides," she continued before Steven could interrupt, "It's about time you had one. Pursuing a relationship with absolutely no problems is not only unnatural, it's scary."
Steven grinned ruefully, before realising Joe had said pretty much the same thing to him before. "You sure seem to know a lot about this."
Elizabeth smiled. "I'm tempted to say 'experience', but really, I don't want any unwarranted questioning."
"Hey, you're the reporter here."
"True." She laughed and rose from her chair. "I – I guess I'd better get going, then – I have that lab report I need to apply the finishing touches on, and of course, editing that article about your game for the Oracle…" She realised that she was blabbering here, but that wave of paranoia had suddenly washed over her once again, and she didn't want Steven to notice her discomfort, particularly when it largely concerned him…
Steven watched, bemused, as Elizabeth made an abrupt exit from the kitchen. Elizabeth, uncomfortable? Now I've seen it all… He rose as well, picking up his backpack from the chair on which he had carelessly slung it. He'd better be going too… boy, did he have a few things to say to Kal…
He found the little firsk sitting cross-legged on his bed, seemingly in deep meditation. Steven hadn't had a chance to speak to him the night before, and the fact that he had overslept that morning meant that he had to postpone his little 'conference' with Kal until that evening.
Suddenly infused with a new sense of irritated righteousness, Steven dropped his bag on his desk and sat down with much heaviness on the edge of his bed. The mattress bounced, unstable, but Kal continued to be deeply immersed in his meditation. "Kal," Steven called softly, before raising his voice in response to the firsk's quiet. "Kal!"
Still no response.
Frustrated, Steven held out his hand, feeling the influx of that delightful energy as a blue aura surrounded it. He focussed on the water in the jug on his bedside table, and with the improved dexterity and speed he had achieved over the past few weeks, hovered the globules over the firsk's head. "If you don't open your eyes now," Steven whispered, rather enjoying the childish petulance he was feeling at the moment, "I'm going to dunk this over your head."
"Fine – you asked for it." With a mock sigh, Steven released the tension in his muscles in his outstretched arm, and the aura flickered and wavered. Before the globules, now released of his power, could obey gravity though, Kal quickly twisted out of the way. Steven smiled smugly. "See? Knew it was a sure way to wake you up."
To his annoyance, Kal just smiled.
That irritating, tolerant, mentor-inwardly-laughing-at-the-student's-childishness sort of smile.
Steven hated that.
"See? Knew it was a sure way to make you practice," Kal said, in an uncanny imitation of Steven's voice. He ducked as Steven sent a pillow flying at his head. "You do not seem to be in a mood conducive to humour this evening, I see."
"Of course not." Steven sighed. "You know what happened last night, right?"
"Yes," Kal said, surprisingly casually. As if the thing happened every night. "You fought with your first Raydevil," he continued – ignoring Steven's "First…? It's not a game, dammit!" – "And though I still believe that you could have handled the situation slightly better…" – "What?" – "I must say I'm rather proud of how you did in the end."
"Proud?" Steven questioned sullenly. "I haven't done anything to be proud of. As I see it, I've just torn whatever life I had to shreds."
Silence, in which he could feel inexplicable tension rising in the air.
"Self-pity is not going to help you, Steven!" Kal boomed suddenly, anger escaping the humorous, gentle façade that Steven had begun to take for granted lately. "This was your first battle – you have but been doused with a drop of the ocean of danger that the Raydevils present to the hopes of the survival of the Magic Clan!"
Steven back-pedalled involuntarily, gaping at the furious creature, which ploughed on. "You have much greater – and infinitely more dangerous – battles yet to fight, and much, much more knowledge that you have yet to breach." Kal seemed to settle slightly at this point. "Angry girlfriends and broken friendships are going to be the least of your worries, now."
There was silence after that – Kal was obviously expecting him to say something. "I- I'm sorry, Kal," the boy finally mumbled. "I guess… guess that I was being rather self-centred…"
Kal's eyes inexplicably softened. "I should be the one apologising," the firsk said, its change of tone and mood even more frightening than the sudden anger. "I'm afraid I forgot…" Kal shook his head, and in a whirlwind of light, disappeared into his Book.
In spite of himself, Steven's eyebrows rose. I guess I'm not the only one with issues here…
With a sigh, he stood up and stretched, thinking over what Kal had said. Though he still believed that Kal had had no right to explode at him like that, there was some truth in his words. Maybe he was not seeing the bigger picture. Maybe he was being narrow-minded in his perception of the consequences of his new responsibility. Maybe he was making much ado about nothing. Maybe the fight with Bruce had been nothing more than a warning – a portent, informing him of direr times yet to come.
Steven flung himself back on to his bed (and immediately regretted it, for it was rather wet), and closed his eyes. He had had enough of thinking for one day. What was to come, will come.
He'd see to it when it did.
Not so far away, a cell-phone rang in a seemingly empty office, the shrill sound echoing within its confines.
Its owner picked it up – a hand grasping from the shadows.
"It has failed, am I right?"
The owner listened for a while, lips curving in a knowing smile, before speaking once again. "I see – I have felt that, as well. We will now acquaint him with what exactly he fears to face, yes?"
More silence, another smile, and the owner finally replaced the phone on the table. A red aura slowly developed over thin, delicate, exceedingly pale hands, intensifying many times over until the interior of the office resembled feverish nightmares of the pits of hell.
"This is just the beginning, Steven Wakefield."
A/N: And so, on that ominous note, we end the first part of the Rebirth series. I started this more than a year ago – at least six months before I even joined FF.N, and it's been a blast all the way. A million thanks to all those who've reviewed – though sparse, your reviews are very precious and great encouragement. Thank you.
The second part of this series, Rebirth II: Harsh Lessons, ought to be up, well, soon. I plan Rebirth to have six stories. In fact, Rebirth is only the first part of the huge trilogy I plan to write, each part having six stories each. Hopefully I'll be able to see it to its end.