Beatrice finds Phil sitting at the kitchen table when she comes home from work. It’s after ten and Emily’s in bed, if not actually asleep. Phil has his homework spread out and is working diligently, a cup of tea in his free hand as he scribbles an equation in his notebook. He looks up when she walks in and stands.
“Hey, Mum, there’s still hot water for tea, and I made lasagne for dinner if you’re hungry.” He’s already moving towards the refrigerator.
“Thanks Phil, that sounds great,” she replies, falling into the empty chair opposite his. She accepts the tea and watches him scoop out the lasagne and pop it into the microwave to heat.
He sets the lasagne down in front of her and goes back to his homework. Beatrice makes short work of the food and leans back in her chair, studying the teenage boy with a considering look.
“Have you started thinking about college, yet?” she asks. She knows Phil gets good grades now, but he doesn’t do any activities after school, which she knows is her fault. She relies on him too much to take care of Emily and the house that he just doesn’t have the time. She can’t remember the last time he went out with a group of friends for the sake of hanging out.
“A little bit. I don’t think I’m going to go, though.”
She frowns. “Why not?”
“You can’t afford to send two kids to college,” he states, not looking up from his homework. There’s no repudiation in his voice, just a simple statement of fact. That just makes it worse, because it’s true. Beatrice works two jobs to pay their expenses and she sets aside what she can, but college is expensive.
“We can figure something out,” she says. “There are loans and scholarships you could apply for.”
Phil sets his pencil down and meets her eyes. Her eyes burn with sudden tears and she blinks them back. He looks like a little old man in a sixteen year old’s body.
“I’ve been thinking about joining the Army,” he says.
She stares at him, long and hard, taking in the firm set of his mouth and the wariness in his eyes, like he expects her to start yelling.
“Why?” she asks quietly.
“Because I want to protect people, and I want to see the world. The pay is shit for the first few years, but I’ll be able to put some money away for Emily.”
“Phil, sweetheart, that’s not your job,” she says, her voice pained. “You’ve done so much for her, you shouldn’t have to worry about that.”She know there’s more to it than that. The answer is too rote, something he memorized just to placate her. It makes her heart ache because she can guess at the real reason.
“I want to,” he says. “She needs--.”
Beatrice shakes her head and stands. She circles the table and pulls Phil into a hug, cutting him off. “This isn’t about Emily, Phil. What do you need?”
He’s silent, leaning into her embrace. “I need to be stronger. I need to take care of her,” he whispers, hoarse and quiet enough that she almost doesn’t hear him. “I need to make up for--.”
“No,” she snaps, holding him tighter. “You have nothing to make up for. Your father’s mistakes aren’t your responsibility.”
Phil doesn’t say a word and she just holds him, brushing her fingers through his hair. She silently curses James Coulson and hoping the jerk can hear her down in Hell.
They stay like that for a time, the only sound in the room is the quiet hum of the refrigerator and the soft tick of the clock in the living room. Phil moves first, drawing back and she lets him go, wiping the dampness from her eyes with her sleeve.
“Are you almost done?” she asks, taking her dirty dishes to the sink.
“Just need to finish this work sheet and write up a lab report for chemistry,” he replies. Both of them pretend that their voices aren’t cracking with repressed emotion.
She nods and cleans her dishes, setting them in the drying rack. “Don’t stay up too late. I should be home by five tomorrow, if you want to make plans.” She knows he won’t, but she always makes the offer anyway.
Phil shrugs noncommitally. “Maybe. Good night.”