"T...ten...?!" William's voice came out in a strangled gasp, as he stared blankly at Wesker. As brilliant as the young scientist might have been, for some reason his brain refused to wrap itself around this simple piece of news. This was one mathematical issue that his mind did not want to comprehend. "B..but that's..."
Impossible? Hadn't people said that when he'd made head researcher at the tender age of sixteen? That had been an impossibility, an outstanding achievement and testimony to his brilliance. He remembered that day, standing in his room in front of the mirror, and testing out the title on his lips. "Dr Birkin," he'd told his reflection, pretending he was speaking to his new staff, "Head researcher." It had seemed so terrifying, delightfully surreal, more than he'd ever contemplated and yet exactly what he deserved.. He had set his sights on making the post by the age of twenty, and that in itself would have been an incredible accomplishment. But sixteen...no, that was, and should have remained unparalleled.
Wesker had often told him that his competitive streak was unhealthy, and it was true. He had an almost obsessive compulsive need to dominate the intellectual sphere of whatever company he found himself in. This was the reason why it was always Albert, and not William, who attended board meetings. The investors didn't like it when a teenage boy sneered at their ignorance and spoke down to them.
But then, not many people did have a great deal of fondness for William. And with good reason...he was a brat. Even Albert, his best and only friend, would have been hard pressed to defend him against that allegation. He showed respect for only three people in the world. James Marcus, his mentor, he deferred to because he was well aware that Marcus had championed his rapid rise through the ranks of Umbrella, although that tentative hold that the older scientist had on his one-time protege had long since begun to wane. Spencer he was forced to respect, because he owned the company, and thus provided William with the means to advance his research. And of course, there was Wesker, a grudging admiration borne from his realisation that he needed someone in his life to stop him from continually shooting himself in the foot, a symbiosis which had developed into what William would have called friendship. Birkin had never had a friend before, especially not one of his own age, and so with Albert he behaved like any other socially ostracised and affection starved child: he was wide-eyed, needy, possessive and would have been unbearably clingy had it not been for Wesker's stern insistence on numerous occasions that he "get a grip". Luckily then, for them both, that William's obsessive work ethic took precedence over his infrequent forays into the world of social interaction.
"Like I said, William.." Albert was talking, and he was probably saying something sensible, but William's hands were shaking violently and he was barely listening. "...it's probably her family name that's got her this far. Really, I'm sure she's nothing special."
He looked up at Wesker desperately, his bottom lip trembling. "It's not...it can't..." He took a deep breath and the word tore from his throat in a little gasp. "How?"
Wesker patted him on the shoulder before gently but firmly placing the day's data printouts in his hands. "Forget about it. Get on with your work."
He stared mutely down at the paper, covered with figures, and his face was utterly blank. Somehow, the experiments which had been going so smoothly just a few hours ago, now seemed completely useless. No...useless wasn't the word for it. They were mundane. Something any idiot could have set up, ran and analysed. Fuck, he thought bitterly, the paper crumpling under his balled fist, a child could have done this. Literally.
"No..." William shook his head, and there was something slightly hysterical in the way his voice pitched, "Things aren't moving fast enough. We need to come up with a different tactic."
Even with his perpetually present sunglasses, Wesker's facial expression plainly revealed his chagrin at Birkin's reaction. "No. We've set out a schedule, it's been approved by the committee. Everyone is happy with your work, William. You don't need to change anything." Albert pried the papers from his white knuckled hands before he had the chance to tear them completely in his grip.
"But..." William felt a sudden rise of bile in his throat, and he looked at his colleague with the expression of a lost child, his face stricken with a kind of disoriented panic. "But this is ridiculous. We should have had this phase finished months ago. Just because those idiots on the board don't know the difference between a lab report and a sandwich, doesn't mean that we can just slack off. We have to...we have to..." he trailed off and got to his feet, his slightly-too-large labcoat flailing behind him as he began to pace the floor erratically.
Wesker pushed his shades a little more firmly up his nose, before folding his arms impassively. He sighed, but as usual, it was more of a gesture to catch William's attention, than a genuine loss of patience. "You're nothing if not predictable, William," he informed the teenager with an arch of an eyebrow. "But really, there's no need for this. What goes on in the South Pole has absolutely no bearing on our research here. And everyone knows that Ashford is just a name. Nothing will come of this girl, you'll see. It's more than likely she's a kid who's been thrust into this by her insane parents, trying to restore the family name. She'll probably crumble under the pressure within a couple of months." He shrugged in a deliberately nonchalant gesture. "The child is to be pitied, more than anything else. Her superiors are unknowingly setting her up to make a fool of herself."
"Isn't that what exactly everyone said about me?" Birkin countered. "That a sixteen year old could never handle the pressure of running his own lab? I'm not so naïve...I know that half the research staff were taking bets on how long it would be before I cracked up." He blinked rapidly, his eyes bleary and red.
And for a long moment there was an awkward silence between the two young men, as William churlishly refused to acknowledge, and Albert tactfully refused to bring up a valid, but uncomfortable point. That if it hadn't been for Wesker's level headed presence, William almost certainly would have lost it under the pressure.
"There's a big difference between sixteen and ten," Wesker said eventually.
"Don't I fucking know it!" William hissed back petulantly. "No wonder I'm a laughing stock."
"There's nothing funny about it." Albert chose his next words carefully. "The only reason that people are taking a schadenfreude delight in all of this is because your accomplishments make people feel threatened. If you're going to be at the top of your game, then you have to get used to people wanting to take a shot at you. They did exactly the same with me, until they realised it wasn't going to achieve anything. If you react..."
"It's not about them!" he spat back. "Do you honestly think I give a damn what those..cretins...think of me. I know that I'm above them."
"Then why do you care?"
And at that William was silent. Because there was a hundred and one reasons why he cared, and they all boiled down to the same thing. He'd lost, to a child, and to a girl, no less. And with this bitter taste of defeat, for the first time in his life, came a crippling self doubt in the one thing that he had always been so very sure of about himself.
Albert Wesker and William Birkin had always been monstrously arrogant, each in their own distinctive ways. Wesker was aloof, the faint suggestion of a sneer always lingering at his lips, and Birkin was volatile, vain and openly derisive of anyone he considered to be beneath him, but regardless of the manifestations, Wesker could understand William's need to be better than everyone else around him. Because it was a form of power, and as Marcus was so fond of extolling, power was life. It was the driving force behind just about everything in the world, whether people cared to admit it or not. If you had it, you were laughing, and if you didn't...well, you were fucked.
Although William had technically lost nothing, it was his perceived loss that would make him choke, turn the whole thing into a self fulfilling prophecy.
He watched William sit and visibly twitch for a few minutes, before he grabbed his friend's arm abruptly and propelled him out of the room, away from the maddeningly white washed laboratory environment. There was a faintly sour smell coming from his friend's woefully unlaundered clothing, and Wesker could feel the way his bone was all too palpable in his grip.
"You need to take a break," he said calmly, as they reached the elevator. He gave his friend a light little shove as the doors parted, and pushed him inside. "Eat. Sleep. Stay away from the espresso machine and have a goddamn shower, for crying out loud. This won't seem like such a big deal once you've had a break and calmed down."
His eyes met William's bloodshot stare as the door closed on them, and it struck him how painfully lost his expression was, as he looked at Albert in mute confusion, as if he was only half aware of how he'd managed to end up in an elevator, when only a moment ago, he'd been sitting in his lab.
Wesker didn't loosen his hold on his arm until they'd reached the door to William's living quarters which usually qualified as a biohazard in themselves, if memory served.
"I'll finish up for today. I don't want to see you back at work until tomorrow morning, is that clear?" he told him firmly. William's red-rimmed eyes gazed up at him, impossibly wide and sunken, his expression utterly miserable and wholly petulant, and Wesker arched an eyebrow, waiting for a response in the affirmative. It eventually came in the form of a shaky nod, and he patted his friend stiffly on the arm, before making his way back down the corridor, a deep frown creasing his pale features.