He's there again when Phil comes in on Wednesday, looks settled in already, like he's been at it a while. Which he might have done, since it's ticking over to four o'clock -- Phil's classes run later on a Wednesday, so his shift at the city library's been pushed back to allow for it. He's just lucky that the head librarian knows his mom, or he wouldn't have gotten the job at all.
There are books on the table in front of the guy, piled high enough to obscure most of his face -- but not his eyes, never his eyes. They dart up when Phil passes him, like they have done for the past week or so, piercing blue pinning him in place more effectively than any words. The guy doesn't spare him more than a second before looking back down at--looks like Physics today. The guy's reading habits are more eclectic than normal for someone his age -- he looks about as old as Phil, maybe a year younger, Phil's not sure. He can't really tell very well, because staring is rude, and also he's not being paid to do that.
The guy is quiet and keeps to himself, and that's all that should concern Phil, not the dirty blond of his hair, or those broad shoulders stretching his light-blue t-shirt in all kinds of interesting ways. Phil puts his head down and gets going with the shelving that's been left for him, four carts full of books that had been returned earlier in the day. His job takes him all over the library, not just the second floor where the guy is camped down on the same table every day. Phil enjoys it -- it's a routine, he loves working with books, and no one minds if he stops to read a couple of pages here and there, because he's a fast worker and he does his job well -- there are never any books left for the next day, he works through closing time to make sure of it.
He's aware that the guy's eyes track him as he works, but he doesn't quite know what to make of it. He's not especially striking in appearance -- a bit on the skinny side, clothes well-worn and comfortable, nothing to merit much attention being thrown his way -- and he's mostly okay with that. Still, the fact remains that he feels an itch between his shoulders whenever he's in the guy's line of sight (he assumes, it's not like he checks to make sure of it or whatever, because that would be ridiculous).
The time passes in silence, like all of his shifts do. Phil likes it. It's soothing, the only silence he gets these days in between school and his baby sister at home, who is loud enough for three kids rolled together. It doesn't bother him -- he can study just fine with noise in the background, always has, really, considering she was born just as he was starting middle school. And since his mom is almost never at home, working two jobs to keep them clothed and fed and with a roof over their heads, it falls to Phil to take care of her in between Calculus and English essays and Physics labs. He's lucky his brain works as well as it does to keep on top of all that as well as the college applications that have been piled on this year.
When Phil makes his final walk-through, checking all the floors for stray books left on reading tables, the guy is gone. The books he was studying are stacked neatly by subject, which is a kind thought, and confirms Phil's theory of the guy paying attention to him for whatever reason. With no one around, Phil is free to check through the titles without fear of getting caught out.
Huh. Most of the books are on energy exchange, environmental physics. Phil glances at the title on one of them: Snow and Climate: Physical Processes, Surface Energy Exchange and Modeling. He shrugs. Maybe it's college research -- god knows Phil's been doing enough of that himself when writing his admission essays. So the guy's interested in climate studies. That's... pretty cool, Phil admits to himself, lets his mouth curve in a small grin. Hot, and an environmentalist? Yeah, that's, uh. Phil clears his throat, shakes his head. It's not like he stands a chance with someone who looks like that. For all Phil knows, he's some kind of jock asshole who's going to deck him for so much as thinking about asking him out.
He picks up the books, ready to put them away, when he notices the second half of the stack. Mythology? World creation myths. Oh, man. He swallows fitfully, because if there's one thing that turns him on more than anything, it's flexibility of thinking. The guy's clearly much smarter than he looks, and thinking outside the box if he's cross-checking climate theory against oral tradition, knowledge from ages long gone transmitted through myths to reach the present, in whatever garbled form.
This is doing nothing for the stupid crush Phil has been nursing, except blowing it out of all proportion. He picks up the books and turns, biting at his lip and berating himself silently. He can't quite check the instinctive jump back when that brings him face to face with the object of said crush, stealing closer on utterly silent feet. Phil feels his face flaming, no doubt the ugly red it always turns when he's been caught doing something he shouldn't have, no matter how rarely it happens. He opens his mouth, but he has no idea what he meant to say, because his mind is as blank as the look on the guy's face. They stare at each other for a long, tense moment, Phil bracing himself for whatever's going to get thrown at him, the guy completely still, eyes hard, assessing. Then something shifts in his face, and Phil can breathe again.
"I forgot my notebook," the guy says, pointing to a battered example of the same lying innocuously to the side of where he'd been sitting. Phil hadn't even noticed it. What he does notice is that the guy's voice is a little husky, whether from disuse or if that's its default setting Phil doesn't know. Either way, it's doing very uncomfortable things to his pants.
"Uh, sure. Sorry," he blurts, although he has no idea what he's apologising for. The guy doesn't take his eyes off him, edges around him like Phil is holding a bomb. Burning with embarrassment and humiliation -- the guy obviously thinks he's some kind of freak -- Phil ducks his head, clutching the books to his chest like they're his last defence against appearing like a complete idiot. He steps aside, doesn't look up when the guy’s muscled arm snakes past him and reappropriates his notebook, then waits for the guy to leave so he can die of mortification in peace. God, see, this is why he shouldn't let himself get to this stage. There's a reason he always shuts down his attraction to people when it rears its ugly head -- because he is useless at normal human interaction.
The guy doesn't leave. When Phil lifts his head to look at him, he's standing there with his head tilted to the side a little, like he's assessing him. Phil's face heats again, not like it ever stopped -- god, why is he like this?
"You work here, right?" the guy asks him, still in that husky voice, accent soft but impossible to pin down.
"Yes," Phil says, thankfully without stuttering. Up close, the guy's eyes are the light, serene blue of a tropical ocean. The intent look in them makes Phil's throat dry out.
"Can you help me find a book? I've been looking, and the computer catalogue says this place has a copy, but I haven't been able to find it."
Oh. Oh, okay, this Phil can do. He straightens, stops clutching at the books quite so desperately. "Could be that I've just shelved it, there were more returns today than usual. Do you know the title and the author?"
The guy's mouth quirks a little in one corner. Phil swallows.
"I'll do you one better," the guy says, looking him straight in the eye before flipping his notebook open. "I've got the reference number."
Once Phil hears it, he knows exactly the book the guy is talking about. "Yes, I've just shelved it, but it's on the floor above. Do you want me to go get it for you?"
The guy shrugs. "Nah, I'll come with you. Got nothing better to do right now."
Phil nods and leads the way towards the door, weaving through the bookshelves on the way to put away the books he's been holding. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the guy's eyebrow rising when Phil manages to neatly dispose of all of them by the time they're at the door. Phil straightens some more, lets some of his usual confidence trickle back. Yeah, he's damn good at his job, thanks.
They lope up the stairs together, the guy just behind him, which makes Phil a little self-conscious of the worn jeans he's got on -- he knows the cuffs are scruffed where his shoes kept catching them. Now that he's shot up another couple of inches, they're growing a touch short, too. All in all, he's pleased when he gains the next floor up and he can stop obsessing over it -- not like it would make any kind of difference to this guy.
The book is right where Phil left it, of course. It's in the history section this time, Ancient History, too. Phil tries to hide how impressed he is, isn't sure he succeeds. The guy takes it from him eagerly; his forefinger brushes against Phil's. Phil carefully doesn't allow himself to react at all.
"Cool, thanks--Phil, is it?" the guy says, making a show of peering at the badge that hangs from Phil's neck, which is how Phil knows that for whatever reason, this guy already knows his name. No one makes that much of an obvious effort -- they just ask him for it.
"Yeah, Phil Coulson," he says anyway, debates for a second whether to offer his hand to shake, does it anyway.
The guy takes it without hesitation, grip warm and tight. Phil shoves his instinctive reaction down, especially when the guy says, "Clint Barton," with a smile that makes Phil grit his teeth against letting out a damning groan.
Clint holds his hand a touch longer than necessary; Phil wonders whether it's his overactive imagination that makes him think Clint's assessing his strength, because he's really not that important. Still, the feel of those strong fingers gripping his is enough to make his breath stutter in his throat and his cock twitch in his pants. He lets Clint's hand go in a hurry after that, because this? Not wise at all.
"Is there anything else I can help you with?" he says, taking a smart step back, helpless to stop his blush from flaring up again. Clint's eyes travel over his face, making things so much worse.
"No, you've been very helpful already," Clint drawls, a hint of amusement weaving through his voice.
A strange thing happens to Phil then. Instead of curling up into a ball of embarrassment and whimpering helplessly, something inside him snaps. Okay, so he apparently wouldn't mind screwing this guy's brains out. Doesn't mean he's going to let Barton use it against him. It's not like he's ever going to act on it, anyway.
"Good. In that case, you'd better hurry up if you want to check that out of the library, because it's past closing time already," he says evenly, calmly. It's a strange feeling, almost like a rush, regaining control of a situation that seemed so far beyond it.
Clint's eyebrows rise, but he nods and steps back. Phil thinks he sees reluctant respect on Clint's face before he turns and walks away.
Then, of course, he has to go and completely ruin it by shooting Phil a look over his shoulder. "See you tomorrow," he says, winking, before he's out of the door and Phil can hear him trotting down the steps. Phil sags against the bookshelf at his back, taking deep breaths and willing his cock to settle down from the half-mast that wink has him at. It's beyond ridiculous; he knows nothing about Clint Barton -- besides his name, the fact that he's got a brain that makes him harder just thinking about it, the firm squeeze of his hand on Phil's...
Okay, so this isn't actually helping any. Phil forces himself to take deep breaths, recites the library classification to himself until he's got his body more or less under control enough to go say goodbye to Mrs Hadley and head on home.
And if he has more trouble falling asleep that night than usual, he resolutely ignores the reason behind it.
For the next few days, Phil avoids the second floor like the plague. If he's forced to go up there, he keeps his eyes straight ahead and does not allow himself to seek out a certain table, ignores the flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye. He's got to nip this in the bud, or it's only going to cause him grief in the end when he inevitably gets rejected at best, in trouble at worst (even though Clint doesn't look the type that will get violent about it. Still, better safe than sorry).
He's working a full day on Saturday, when he's allowed to help out at the checkout desk, and gets sent on errands for customers looking for certain books. It's a busy day for the library, and he revels in it -- he loves being useful, loves having lots to do even more, and he's barely had time to catch his breath before it's lunchtime and Laura sends him off to grab something to eat and take half an hour to clear his head. There's a small park near the library, teeming with moms taking their kids out for a walk to enjoy the late fall sunshine. Phil buys himself a sandwich, a can of Coke, ventures down the pathways in the hopes of finding a free bench. There isn't one, but the grass is dry enough that he can sit under the shade of a tree and read for a little while before it's time to head back.
He's just inhaled half his sandwich and opened his book when a shadow falls over him, disrupting the light that filters through the leaves overhead. He looks up, and somehow manages to swallow the sip of coke in his mouth without choking.
"Hi," Clint says, holding a thick textbook to his chest, the sleeves of his sweatshirt half-obscuring his hands. "Mind if I sit with you?"
Phil wants to say no--well. That's not true. Phil wants to tug him down by his belt and press his mouth against the edge of his unshaven jaw, nose over his cheek, breathe against his mouth until it opens for him.
"Sure," he croaks, has to clear his throat while his goddamned traitor of a face flames again.
Clint smiles and folds to the ground with a grace that leaves Phil breathless. He tucks his feet under his knees, drops his book in his lap -- it's the same Ancient History textbook Phil had helped him find on Wednesday. Awkward silence settles between them while Phil tries and fails to get back to his book. He shoots Clint a look from under his lashes, only to drop his eyes again when he finds Clint watching him curiously.
"You're a senior, right?" Clint asks after a moment, and Phil lifts his head to find himself studied by his too-blue eyes.
"Yeah, at Franklin High. What about you?"
"Oh, I'm not a student," Clint says dismissively, waving a hand. "Family moves too often. I'm home-schooled."
"Oh," Phil echoes, dropping his eyes to the book. "Looks like you're ahead of most of us," he ventures.
Clint follows his gaze, shrugs with a self-deprecating grin. "Yeah, my Ma's worse than any school teacher."
They fall silent again; Phil uses the time to debate with himself whether it's wise to engage Clint in a proper conversation, or if it's just going to make things worse. After a brief but vicious battle, his curiosity wins out.
"So you like environmental studies?" he asks, biting at his lip when Clint looks up in surprise. "I shelved your books, remember?"
Clint grins. The change in his face is remarkable; Phil has to catch his breath when his heart starts pounding in response.
"So you did," Clint drawls, sending him such an appreciative look that Phil feels the brief urge to run away -- because he might do something really stupid if he stays. "And yes. I do."
It takes Phil far longer than it should to remember what they were talking about. "Are you thinking of studying it in college?" he asks, recovering nicely, he thinks.
Clint's face, for a fraction of a second, looks haunted, despairing. It's gone so fast that Phil is sure he must have imagined it. "I'd like to," Clint says with a smile that, while it doesn't look forced at all, somehow makes him look smaller than a moment ago, younger, too. For the first time Phil wonders just how old he really is.
Before he gets a chance to ask, Clint reaches forward and plucks the book from his lax fingers. "Oh, American Gods. I've been meaning to read that for ages. What do you make of it?"
Phil lets him get away with it, falls into an easy conversation, the two of them arguing the merits of Pratchett vs. Gaiman, and when he looks at his watch next he sees he's about to be late. Clint senses the change in him immediately, face falling a little.
"I'm sorry," Phil says, surprised to find he means it. "I have to go back to work. Are you... coming in today?" he asks hesitantly, unsure of what he's hoping for more.
"Not today," Clint says, looking away. "I should be getting back myself, I have work at home."
Phil nods, resigned to the rest of his day being rather duller than the start of it. Just as he's gathering his things and making to rise, though, he's stopped by Clint's hand on his knee. It sends shivers up his spine; he looks up, startled.
Clint looks uncertain, but determined. Phil waits to hear what he has to say. "Are you working tomorrow?" is what Clint goes with, and when Phil shakes his head 'no', he bites at his lip before blurting, "D'you want to go someplace?"
Phil processes this for a moment, during which Clint actually fidgets -- which is when it dawns on Phil that he is being asked out, in the most awkward way possible. This doesn't do a thing to influence his answer either way.
"Sure. I'd like that."
Clint grins at him; it's excited, boyish. Kind of adorable. They make arrangements to meet back here tomorrow morning, and then Phil sprints off because by that point he is seriously running late.
It doesn't dawn on him until much later that 'adorable' isn't really an adjective he should be attaching to a guy he's been trying to avoid getting too involved with -- but by that time he can't remember why that is a bad thing at all.
Phil manages to dodge his mom and Lucy just after lunch, while they have their weekly Sunday grooming time, doing their hair, painting their toenails, having mom-daughter bonding time. He grabs his bag, stuffs his book inside it just in case, and double-times it out of the house, shouting that he'll be late.
"Not too late," his mom calls out of the window, while Lucy waves at him. He waves back, salutes his mom, and straddles his bike to the call of "Have fun!" He pedals off as fast as he'll go, and gets to the park with half an hour to spare; he's really not expecting to spot Clint's blond head immediately. Clint is sitting at one end of a picnic table, head buried in his book again. Every now and again, his head will lift, and he'll scan the area quickly before looking at his watch and down again. Phil feels a curious warmth bloom in his chest, melting away a good portion of his nerves.
He approaches, not trying to be quiet, but kind of hoping to surprise Clint all the same. He makes it within six feet of Clint's back before Clint tenses and turns. The way his whole face lights up makes Phil grin back at him helplessly.
"Hi," Clint breathes, delighted and just a touch shy.
"Hi," Phil says back. He lets his bike drop to the ground and throws a leg over the bench, sitting down facing Clint. He tries to ignore the way Clint's eyes skim his legs, follow his movements hungrily. He swallows dryly, looks back when Clint's eyes find his. Clint's eyes burn with something fierce, something Phil can't even pretend to understand, but can't deny that he wants.
"So," Clint drawls, looking down, then back up, like he can't help himself. "I was thinking maybe... do you want to go for a walk? And then the movies? If you like going to the movies, I mean--"
"I'd love to," Phil cuts in hurriedly, wanting to reassure. "I love the movies. What were you thinking of watching?"
"Um, The Matrix? I heard it was good."
Phil grins. "I've only wanted to see that for a month. That would be brilliant. And maybe after, we could get a burger or something?"
"It's a plan."
It's the greatest day of Phil's life. Clint walks next to him easily, ridiculously cut arm brushing his. Once in a while, Phil would say something funny (glory be!), and Clint would turn to look at him, blue, blue eyes crinkling in a smile, laughing along. He sits very close to Phil in the theatre, stealing his popcorn even though he's got a box of his own that Phil bought for him, fingers brushing Phil's between the kernels. There's a tingle running up and down Phil's spine every time they touch; he can hardly believe that someone as hot and smart as Clint Barton wants to spend time with him.
The movie is fantastic, but Phil barely registers most of it, concentrating on the warmth of Clint's body next to his, on not whimpering when Clint shifts and his thigh slides along Phil's. When the movie is over and they walk out, he can't take his eyes off Clint, who is so excited by what they just saw, so fascinated by the subjects explored. Once again, it's immediately obvious that he's incredibly smart, and impressively well-read in a variety of areas. Phil tries and fails to not sink even deeper under his spell, especially when Clint starts expounding on the allegory of the dream world and perception, what makes a thing real. The conversation doesn't lag even once; it carries them through most of a burger and fries at the local diner Phil likes to go to when he can. Phil watches Clint animatedly wave a fry he stole from Phil's plate, and he wants to kiss him so much it hurts, so much he has to squeeze his hands over his knees under the table so Clint doesn't see how they itch to tug him closer. Phil has never felt like this before; he's almost eighteen, and he knows that's not all that old, but no one has ever affected him like this, like he wants to take their hand and never let go, like he'd follow them anywhere, if they only asked. There's something intangible shimmering in the air between them, something about the way Clint talks like he's looking right inside Phil and lifting things out from his very soul, like all it would take is one look, one word, and Clint would know him, get him like no one else in the world. Like they're just a touch away from forging something... perfect. It's exhilarating, and scary, and it makes Phil feel so alive.
Phil walks Clint to his bus stop, and insists on waiting with him. Clint looks sad, drooping a little for the first time today. Phil barely dares to imagine it's because Clint doesn't want their date to be over, either. The bus stop is on a long, straight road in the city center; in the falling dusk it's mostly deserted, too late for the families, too early for the nightlife to get going. They see the bus rounding the corner a long way off; Phil doesn't know how Clint is sure it's the one he needs from that far away -- but he doesn't have time to ponder the mysteries of Clint's eyesight, because there's the sudden shock of lips on his, fierce and tentative at once, begging for a response. Phil kisses back, fists his hand in Clint's t-shirt, like it would keep him close. A moment later, the touch is gone, and Phil forces his fingers to unclench when Clint steps back, eyes dark. The bus is almost upon them; Clint throws out his arm, and it slows. Phil is hoping for a last look, something to show him how Clint feels about what just happened, but he's still surprised when Clint does turn, just as the bus comes to a stop, and smiles with a question in his eyes.
"See you tomorrow?" he says, climbing sideways up the steps.
"Yeah," Phil says as the doors swoosh close. Clint walks down the bus as it pulls away, keeping place with Phil as long as he can. "Yeah," Phil says again, smiling, and Clint beams at him through the back window as the bus takes him away.
Phil can feel the stupid grin on his face all the way home.
It's seriously hard to keep a straight face when Phil sees Clint sitting in his usual spot at the library the next day. He doesn't even think about complaining, though; there's a connection between them, a buzz that Phil feels beneath his skin, that he wouldn't give up for the world. Clint lifts his head, as if he felt the tug, too. He smiles when he sees Phil, which widens into a full-out beam when Phil can't help but smile back like a besotted teenager (which, okay, he kind of is. Shut up.) They don't speak, but there's a weight between his shoulderblades that Phil is aware of on and off throughout his shift. He doesn't let himself linger on the second floor, though, no matter how much he wants to. The day drags like never before; four hours feel like forty by the time Phil is done and ready to head home. He's hoping he knows why Clint stayed behind, and he heads over to the second floor again when he's done shelving the last book, a flutter of anticipation quickening his blood.
Clint is there, but he isn't alone. There's a girl about their age sitting opposite him at the table, an absolutely stunning girl at that, ringlets of long red hair flowing down over the shoulders of her black leather jacket. She is looking at Clint intently, a frown on her full mouth. Clint looks mulish and angry, fairly glaring at her. There's something in the slump of his shoulders that hits Phil in the gut, something he had first seen the other day, at the park: something haunted. Phil's hackles rise; he doesn't understand the urge to put himself between the girl and Clint, to tuck Clint behind his back, away from her. It doesn't make it any less strong.
Clint looks up, and his face tightens even more. Phil is aware of his own face falling, the eager anticipation of moments ago turning to ashes.
"I'm sorry, I have to go," Clint says shortly. Phil nods, because what else can he do? The redheaded girl looks at him with a penetrating stare -- like she's evaluating him, which is probably ridiculous. She's sitting with her foot casually resting on the edge of Clint's chair, right between his legs, and Phil can't help the hot churn of jealousy in his gut.
"Everything okay?" he asks, not really expecting an answer.
He isn't disappointed. Clint just shrugs, which Phil interprets as 'no, but I'm not going to tell you about it', which is fair enough. They haven't really known each other long, and he knows he isn't entitled to an explanation. Clint pushes to his feet. He looks unhappy. Phil wishes more than anything that he could just walk up to him, tilt his chin up and kiss that expression off his face; but then the girl slips her hand through the crook of Clint's arm, and Phil bites back whatever he'd intended to say.
"I really am sorry," Clint whispers when he walks past him. His eyes cling to Phil's for the briefest moment, and then Clint is past him, and Phil doesn't turn to watch him go. There's a cold, laden feeling in his stomach. He tells himself to stop being ridiculous -- they've been on one date together. He has no right to expect Clint to suddenly act like they're 'together', no matter how much Phil wishes he would. Phil should stop being so melodramatic and head home already. He has homework to do, and Lucy is probably ready for dinner, anyway.
He tries and fails not to think about Clint all the damn time, in the days after. His lips tingle when he thinks of their one kiss, and he zones out in the middle of class sometimes. This has got to stop, he tells himself, yet the thoughts creep up on him the second he loses focus on pushing them away. He's so distracted that it's getting to the point where he's sure someone (Clint) is nearby, only when he turns to look, of course there's no one there. Clint stops coming to the library, too. Phil refuses to pander to the spike of unhappiness his absence sends through him; he just wishes that buzz in his head would go away; that he'd stop looking for Clint around every corner. He's sure that's not normal, and he's sure as hell not going to mention it to anyone, no matter how many looks he's been getting. He's obsessing, and that's not right.
Phil is so determined on Not Thinking About Clint as he heads home from school one evening about a week after the non-altercation, on thinking of anything else -- what he's going to make for dinner, the Physics lab he has to work on, whether or not his mom will be too exhausted to talk to about colleges tonight -- that he only becomes aware of the silence when he's halfway down the side street he uses as shortcut to get home faster. It's between two busy roads, and the sound of traffic is usually heavy at this time of day -- it's only just past seven p.m. But there's a hush around him now that's just wrong; something about it has got the hairs on Phil's arms rising, sends a skitter of tingles down his spine, like a tiny spider tap-dancing away. Phil stops pedaling, bringing his bike to a slow stop. He looks around, but there's nothing, not the slightest movement to excuse the sudden waves of apprehension he's drowning in. He's not wearing brand-names, and his bike isn't new, or expensive, or worth the hassle of stealing. He's pretty sure he isn't about to get mugged -- yet there's something off.
And then it rises through the street: a huge, nebulous gray cloud that gives off the stench of sulfur, and starts to solidify into a vaguely humanoid shape. Immediately Phil feels terror claw up his throat, some instinct telling him to get as far away from this thing as he can. He looks back. The mouth of the street is a long way off, and he has no idea whether he'll be able to make it before this thing is on him.
He swallows past the pounding of his heart in his chest, focuses on making his shaking hand work, plunges it inside the front pocket of his backpack, and pulls out the canister of mace he always carries on him. He folds his hand around it, keeping it back as a last resort. The thing doesn't seem to have noticed him just yet, but it will soon -- there's no one else on the street but them. Phil starts cautiously inching around it, back pressed against the wall to take advantage of every inch of space between them.
He's almost, almost around it when it swivels in place and pins him to the spot with a pair of yellow cat-like eyes. Its approximation of a nose twitches, and it grins at him with a mouth full of serrated edges. It's the most terrifying thing Phil has ever seen.
He doesn't waste time thinking it can't be real, because whether or not he thinks it ought to be, it's right there -- and it's taking a step closer, and another, and another. Phil jumps back on his bike and hightails it out of there. He can hear a raspy, rhythmical sound behind him; the thing is still moving slowly, but somehow it's gaining, and it's laughing as it goes. Phil's insides try to crawl out of his throat in the haste to get away from it. How did he never realise how fucking long this damn street was--
--And then there's a whoosh of sound right past his ear, and when he stops and turns to look, there's an arrow sticking out of the thing's right shoulder, a fucking arrow, feathers and everything. The thing looks down, and lets out an angry bellow.
"Get moving, you moron," somebody yells. The voice is very familiar. Phil looks up, and sees Clint crouching on a third-floor balcony off a fire escape, bow strung in his hands. As Phil watches, Clint lets another arrow fly, this time sticking the thing through its stomach. The resulting roar makes the fillings in Phil's teeth vibrate.
"Fuck," Clint swears, and swings down, quick and nimble like he does this every day -- which, who's to say he doesn't? "Phil, come on, quick, before it--"
An arrow clatters at their feet, sticky gray goop congealing over the pointy end. Phil and Clint look up slowly. The thing is less than ten feet from them; Phil can see the way its pupils dilate, as if sensing victory.
He doesn't think. He distantly hears Clint swearing some more, at him to move, at the thing to just die, but it seems inconsequential. He brings up his arm, pulls his wrist up, and sprays the thing with a face-full of mace.
The roar this time is more of a screech, and the thing stops at last, clawing at its melting face. Phil spots a hint of yellowing bone before Clint slides sideways onto the central bar of the bike and yells at him to go. Phil obeys this time, legs pumping as fast as he can make them, taking them away from whatever that thing was.
Phil considers the possibility that he might be in shock, that he might have just hallucinated the whole thing, when he looks up and he's sitting across from his school again with no idea how he got there. Clint is still with him, though, letting go of his grip on the handlebar and sliding off the frame, turning to look at Phil with concerned eyes. Phil stares straight ahead helplessly, without the first clue about what to say, what to think.
"Phil," Clint says urgently. "Phil, look at me. You're okay. We're okay. You killed it," he adds, and the note of pride in his voice manages to snap Phil out of it at last.
"What the fucking hell was that?" he asks, probably a little louder than he means to, going by the way Clint flinches.
"It was a δαίμονας," Clint says quietly, sounding resigned.
"A... demonas?" Phil hazards, trying to repeat the strange word, without a hope of replicating the accent.
"Close enough," Clint says, smiling humorlessly.
"What's a demonas?"
Clint looks shifty. "I'm not really supposed--you're not supposed to know about them," he hedges, avoiding Phil's eyes.
"Clint. I just saw something that I have no way of explaining. I'm going to have nightmares for months as it is, and my boyf--uh, you just shot it full of arrows, which did nothing to slow it down, I might add; and then it melted when sprayed with oleoresin capsicum. I think you could make a good argument that I saw plenty enough to know that whatever-it-is exists. Now, suppose you tell me what the fuck it was?"
Clint still looks like he's doing something he shouldn't, but he does start talking, and that's all Phil wants.
"Δαίμονες is what they're called in Greece, where they originate. That's the plural. The singular you already know: δαίμονας. They are a species of demon, they tend to control atmospheric pressure, and apparently they are susceptible to pepper spray, which, thank you for helping us find that out. Each species has its own weakness, and often they just wave off things that would make their cousins expire on the spot."
Phil thinks about this. He's got so many questions, he doesn't even know where to start. "Why did it come after me?" his mouth says for him.
Clint shrugs. "Wrong place at the wrong time? They very rarely have a reason to go after the people they do."
"What would have happened if it had caught me?"
It could be just his imagination, but Clint shudders, hard. "It would have sucked your essence out of every single cell of your body. That's the reason they're nebulous -- they surround your body with theirs, and they drink up every drop."
Phil thinks that the shudder is entirely justified.
Clint's phone thrills just then, and he digs it out with a muttered curse. It's only then that Phil's brain replays Clint's words for him: 'helping us'. How many of them were there? Is that why Clint said they moved a lot? How is someone as young as Clint involved in something that sounds so ancient?
Yeah, Phil's got a few questions alright.
"Natasha," Clint snaps into his phone, and then keeps quiet, pressing his lips together. "Yeah," he says after a long moment. "Yeah, yeah; no. There's been a development. Yeah. I know. I know, okay. Just tell her I'm bringing him in."
He disconnects the call without saying goodbye, tucks his phone back in his jeans pocket. "You'll have to come with me," he says, looking uncomfortable. "I'm sorry about that, but rules are rules."
Phil knows what he should do is refuse, tell Clint 'no way', tell him he has to go home, that he's got responsibilities. What comes out instead is, "Who's Natasha?"
He shouldn't ask, much less ask in that tone of voice. This isn't something he should be concerned with. Knowing that doesn't make it any better that he is -- and how.
Clint looks away again, eyes darting down. He looks guilty. Phil's stomach drops in a way no monster can cause.
"She's... a friend," Clint says, after a pause that cements the impression. Whoever she is, she's way more than a friend, apparently. Phil wonders if that makes him 'the other woman', and feels sick.
They make the journey in silence to the outskirts of the city. It's still light, the school year is not that far gone, but it's getting cold earlier, and Phil finds himself huddling into his sweatshirt and wishing he'd thought to wear his coat. Clint looks perfectly comfortable, but then he has a jeans jacket over his hoodie, probably because he'd stowed his bow away under it, so he's using it as cover. Clint doesn't speak to him, but he keeps throwing him these glances, and his mouth is tight, and there are lines around his eyes that look out of place on someone so young. Phil finds himself thinking that whatever this is, it seems to be taking its toll on Clint.
On the edge of the city is a field, overgrown with tall grasses that have yellowed under the summer sun. It's probably only a matter of time before the City cuts them down, but for now they make a good place to put something you don't want found, and that's where they come upon a circle of trailers that look older than both of them combined. There is rust here and there on the paintwork, the chrome fixings. They are a drab gray color that seems determined to send a message: 'keep away'.
There is also a small circle of people gathered in the middle of the larger one, using the trailers as shelter from the strengthening wind. All the people look tough, determined -- like warriors. Phil spares a moment to wonder whether he's about to be made to disappear, before his focus is taken by the tall woman standing in the center, hair the black of a raven's wing, eyes the same piercing blue as Clint's. Phil swallows fitfully. They don't look much alike, but there's a certain kind of feel to them. He knows without being told that this is Clint's mother. He steps closer to Clint, feels their arms brushing, and it's not like Clint could (or would) do anything against his own people, but somehow it makes Phil feel better.
"Report," the woman barks. Her voice is a firm alto, used to command. Clint seems to snap to attention; he suddenly looks taller, and the illusion of youth fades away like it has never been. He looks like a soldier reporting to his commanding officer.
"I've been tracking the hostile across the city. It wouldn't settle, it jumped from place to place. Then suddenly it shot off like it had a purpose, and it resurfaced on a side street about thirty feet from this civilian. I shot it, but the arrows didn't seem to make an impression. The civilian had a canister of mace, which he deployed into the hostile's face. It made the essence melt away from it, made it solidify as its body disintegrated. I believe it was the oleoresin capsicum in the mix, it seems to bind to the molecules of the hostile's body and break them up -- and it doesn't leave behind a cloud of gas, so it's harmless to the deployer. It bears researching further, as it appears to make for a very effective weapon against them."
The woman listens with a fierce kind of attention, as do the other people. Phil spies the red-headed girl from a few days ago standing next to a short but dangerous-looking older man with the same wiry build and high cheekbones. Probably her father, then. Phil wonders if these are all families. He doesn't see any other children, younger or older, and he has a sudden inkling that he already knows what her name is.
"Is this the civilian you mentioned?" the leader asks, tilting her chin at Phil. For the first time, Clint looks uncertain.
"Yes," he says, almost like he would rather be saying 'no'.
The woman's face closes down, and her eyes snap with anger. "Would this civilian happen to be the reason you disappeared a few nights ago, when I specifically ordered you not to go anywhere without your--without Natasha?"
Phil blinks. He'd assumed--but actually no, he'd never thought to wonder whether or not Clint's parents knew where he was. He'd been too focused on other things, on Clint being so close to him, on the way Clint's presence had made him feel. The mention of Natasha in connection with their date is like rubbing salt into a cut -- it stings just the same.
Clint straightens his back and nods curtly.
The woman draws herself up, and if Phil thought she was imposing before, now she looks like some kind of warrior queen, furious and formidable.
"You are never to see this boy again," she declares, quiet words that nevertheless carry through the air. Phil's stomach drops, and dread curdles inside him. He turns to look at Clint, who looks abjectly miserable.
"Ma'am," he starts, but it's weak, the protest of a child.
"I have said my peace, and you will take that as an order, Clinton. You know what's at stake here. You took the oath. You made your choice."
For the first time, even Phil's fear can't stop him from speaking. "What choice?" he asks, can't keep the words from falling from his mouth, even though he is probably making things worse -- but this is it, Clint is being taken from him, and even though Phil knows he hasn't any rights in this, knows he barely knows this boy, a lot less than he'd thought he did, at that, there's a sense of urgency inside him that won't let him stay silent. It wants him to fight for Clint.
The woman looks enraged, but Clint turns his back on her, looks at Phil.
"She's right. I did make my choice, and I chose to do this, to be part of the order."
Phil looks up over Clint's shoulder, eyes locked to the woman's.
"She's your mother, isn't she?"
"And you don't think that your mother being the leader of the order influenced you to sign up for it? Did you even know what was involved when you did?" He's angry, he's so angry, and he doesn't know what it is that made him snap: that Clint would throw his life away so easily, or the pain of knowing that Clint obviously doesn't feel the same things that Phil feels for him -- the fierce kind-of-affection, the strange, inexplicable desperation to be by his side -- if he can walk away just like that.
Clint just looks at him, and his face is drawn, haunted again. "Maybe I didn't," he admits quietly. "But I still took the oath. No one forced me to, no one sugar-coated it for me. It was my choice, Phil. It still is."
Phil never knew you could feel your heart breaking. He always thought it was a stupid expression, something made up for the books and movies, but he feels it now, his heart cracking clean in two in his chest. He feels like he's losing something precious, something important, and there's nothing he can do to stop it. Clint looks anguished, but he's standing his ground, even if his hands are squeezed into fists so tight his knuckles are white. He's so close Phil can smell the lingering scent of him, something fresh and faintly salty. Behind Clint, his mother stands with her arms crossed over her chest, a forbidding expression on her face.
Phil wants to beg. He has never begged in his life, but he wants to now, wants to drop to his knees and cling to Clint's mid-section and beg to be allowed to go with them, anything. But he can see the decision in Clint's eyes, and he can see how useless any words would be, begging or not -- he doesn't have the power to change Clint's mind about this. It's like Phil had always known -- he just isn't important, certainly not enough to matter to Clint, no matter what Phil might have imagined there was growing between them.
And even if he was, he can almost sense his own mother and Lucy, like they're right there behind him, keeping him in place. He can't do that to them, and even if it feels like his insides are being torn apart, like he's leaving a part of himself behind when he turns and walks away, it's not something he can help. He has no choice in the matter. No choice at all. Clint has left him no other option. Better to cut this burgeoning connection now, while it's still fresh enough that the loss won't kill him.
"Goodbye, Clint," he says quietly over his shoulder, because there's nothing more that he can say that would make the slightest difference; because Clint is sending him away, and if Phil turns and looks at Clint now, it might just break him.
He hears a soft "Goodbye," from behind him, but it could just be the wind, or the sound of his blood rushing in his ears as he tries to keep the tears from falling.
He doesn't remember biking home. He doesn't remember much of anything, not the wind on his face as he travels the streets, not that it apparently rained heavily enough that he's soaked through when he dismounts outside his house. It's almost full dark now, and the lights in the house are on; he can see Lucy at the kitchen table, bent over her homework. It's a small slice of normality that lifts his heavy heart a little bit, enough that he can walk inside and not have to go and hide in his room until he can make his face look like it isn't going to crack if he smiles.
He takes a deep breath before he unlocks the front door all the same, and tells himself he's imagining the eyes on his back, eyes that have followed him home, the only thing he can remember from the ride back. It's done. It's over. Clint made that perfectly clear.
There's nothing for Phil to do but accept it and move on.