"Defense" - A ClueFinders Story.
Pang. Pang. Pang. He could hear the diminished sound of rubber hitting concrete and knew he had to be getting close. Pang. Pang. Pang. At least she was consistent.
Owen rounded the corner, heading towards the park complex where he could tell the sound was coming from. He kept quiet, subconsciously comparing himself to a cougar about to sneak up on its prey. As he got closer he could see her tense, agitated movements and he rationalized that there was actually a decent chance of her fleeing the scene if he made his prescience known too soon. Joni remained focused on the basketball in her hands, trying to dribble it in precisely the same spot each time before she took a shot. Pang. Pang. Swoosh. The ball slid cleanly into the hoop with a satisfying sound and she visibly relaxed some, at least until she caught the ball again, and resumed the same loop of behavior with equal or still greater determination.
Owen sighed inwardly, remembering an earlier conversation with Leslie and Santiago. After the events that had transpired they had remained unconcerned, swearing up and down that Joni would be "fine," that they didn't need to check on her. Owen however remained unconvinced.
"If you're worried, you can go talk to her," Santiago had offered, with just the slightest hint of annoyance in his tone. He and Leslie wanted to continue working on a project at the treehouse, so the burden fell on Owen, who didn't usually consider himself the responsible one, to go and talk with their other female friend. He thought it was an important task at least, being more of a people person, to make sure that no potential problems within their group ever went overlooked.
Joni took a step back, bouncing on her heels a bit before she launched the ball into the hoop. It arched neatly in the air and descended precisely downward through the orange rim, almost entirely without disturbing the net; a good clean shot.
Having reached the edge of the court, Owen chose this time to clap loudly in support. Joni spun around, eyes flashing dangerously, her body language speaking of an anticipated ambush. It seemed to almost take longer than usual for her to recognize him, but when she did, she finally relaxed.
"What are you doing here, Owen?" There was a twinge of sadness in her tone. She jogged forward and picked up the ball as it bounced back towards her.
"Just passing through. In the neighborhood, you know," he tried to make it sound casual so as not to immediately push her onto the defensive. She turned the ball in her hands, eyes narrowed directly at him. She was clearly not fooled, but said nothing, then wandered away and resumed her dribble. "I wanted to check to see if you were okay," Owen breathed.
Joni stopped dribbling and held the ball in her hands with her back to him. He waited a moment, then as quietly as he could, stepped over to the side so he could get a better glimpse of her facial expression, which at the moment was locked in a bitter glare directed down at the pavement. She must have seen him out of her peripherals, because in the next second the glare faded in favor of a forced neutral approach. "Why wouldn't I be okay?" She asked, a hint of caution hanging in her voice.
Owen let out a loud sigh through his nose as he watched her sprint away from him to attempt a slam dunk. She missed. He stepped forward, trying to exert his way into her space. He thought about how to word his next remarks, then called out, "You know, no one's blaming you for what happened."
She reacted, looking not at him, but off to the side, her face a softened blend of surprise and concern. "I know," she responded mildly; while he thought maybe she was trying to sound careless.
Owen took another step forward, hoping that maybe if he placed himself in the middle of her space she would have to pay attention to him. She immediately took off towards the basketball hoop, aiming and launching several more shots as he continued to talk at her.
"They uh, they said that they'll be fine, Laptrap- those parts can be replaced... and none of us got hurt so..."
"Doesn't matter," she sighed with an audible release of tension, which told him that this particular remark had been sincere. She lined up for another shot, took it, and missed, then frowned as the ball rolled away. "I should've been paying more attention. None of that ever should have happened while I was in control."
"You made a call, that's what a leader does." he said simply- his attempt at shrugging the matter away.
"AND, I was up there on those wires before any of you could stop me. I didn't even wait to see if you were following me. I just was so sure that my way was the best... and then they got hurt. That should never happen." She stated drearily as she watched the basketball roll back from the wall, only to get stuck against a raised piece of concrete and start turning circles in the dirt. She walked over to it, picked it up and dribbled it back onto the court with a renewed intensity. "Leslie probably could have thought of something better, Santiago could have probably taken the whole thing apart, and you could have probably calmed those kids down, from the ground, but I didn't let you. It was a mistake."
Owen paused to reconsider the direction this conversation was taking. "Okay," he said slowly, "So you made a mistake. Happens. Yes we all probably could have done something, but it's over now."
He watched her carefully and thought that he saw her head shake a little before she started her next jaunt, as if she were disagreeing with him.
"We're so good with this kind of thing most of the time," she pronounced sadly. "I know we could've handled it better."
"We could've. But hey, at least you can learn from your mistakes, Jonesy. Just think! Maybe if we ever run into the same thing again, we can be twice as good at handling it as we would have been this time!" He finished this statement and grinned at her, expectant.
She wandered close to him, dribbling the ball absentmindedly. She stopped just short of where he was standing at used both hands to bounce the ball in front of her as she stared at him, seemingly lost in thought. "You're too nice," she finally announced, then caught the ball and started back towards the hoop.
Owen's reply was a soft chuckle, "You've got guts."
"And NO BRAINS, right?" Joni shouted back at him, though her voice was more cheerful now and lacked the self-derogatory intonation that should have been implied by the words. She made this shot, and as she turned around Owen saw that a flicker of her former laughter had returned to her eyes.
She was slowly coming around, and it made him hopeful. "You know, sometimes leaders need to be people who jump in and just do things, people who have good instincts... Joni, you've got heart."
Joni made a facial gesture that was half like rolling her eyes, "and guts."
"...and guts," he echoed, before continuing, "and that makes you a pretty good leader in my book." He finished proudly, making sure Joni could see the sincerity in his words.
Joni gazed at him with a curious expression, but he was pleased to see that this sentiment was getting to her. "Thanks Owen," she finally said.
Victory. Owen smiled. Then, something struck him, "You weren't... thinking of giving it up, were you?" he asked, feeling timid for a brief moment before Joni looked at him and lit up like a beacon.
With the first and biggest grin he'd seen on her all day she pronounced so loud that anyone around could have heard it, "Never."