She put way too much effort in this. The costume, the curled hair, the make up. Melinda left over hundred dollars at the beauty shop just to look like someone else. She doesn't look like herself anymore. Everything's too soft. The flow of her hair, the silvery white dress with the puffy skirt. The white lace mask that covers her eyes.
She saw this ad in the newspaper, a few weeks back. It arrived the same day as the invitation to SHIELD's annual Halloween Masquerade Ball did. Melinda took it as fate. She never saw Phantom of the Opera, but the woman in the ad with the brown hair and the white dress looked like everything Melinda is not. Soft. Innocent. Hopeful and worthy of love. Worthy of a happy end.
Melinda gave up hers in Bahrain. She doesn't regret that. She doesn't regret saving her team. She doesn't regret saving Phil. She would act like this again without hesitating. But now she's empty. She's got nothing more to give.
And for a day she wants to be someone else. Not even a full day, just the two hours she'll stay at the ball. She never makes it much longer at these events. Too crowded, too loud and way too much small talk.
For another hour she'd be Christine, protagonist of Phantom of the Opera. Maybe Phil's here somewhere. It's a long shot. He's a great field agent and those barely have any free time, but she's trying to adjust her thoughts to the persona she pretends to be.
She hasn't seen Phil in almost two years. He's just so busy saving different parts of the world all the time. And ever since Bahrain it's hard for him to be close to her, she knows. He always tensed up whenever they met. He always fought so hard to fix her with his brightest smile and it just wouldn't work, for neither of them.
He still calls her sometimes. Usually he catches her voice mail. She's not sure if it's time differences or purpose, but she doesn't care. She loves hearing his voice. Last time they talked to each other was three months ago. He sounded happy as she answered him. They talked for an hour. Well, he talked. It was lovely. She misses him so very much.
Right now she dances with Agent Richfield who works one floor down from her. She hasn't danced since that undercover mission with Coulson seven years back. The dress itches. The high heels hurt. She really doesn't feel like herself. That's the only part she likes about this.
The song ends and Richfield, who's dressed as play toy soldier, pretends to kiss her hand while being extra careful not to leave behind any green traces of his face make up. She giggles. It almost sounds real to her. The costume is working, she hasn't acted this carefree in years. She hasn't acted this happy.
She turns around to get off of the dance floor and almost runs into someone wearing a very detailed Captain America costume. Phil.
A replica of Captain America's mask hides his face, but she recognizes his eyes. His mouth. It's him. Oh God. She smiles, her hands clench because she wants to touch him so badly.
“Hi,” he says. He smiles at her. His eyes light up.
“Hi.” She longs to touch him. Her stomach does a silly flutter.
He looks her up and down. “I'm sorry, but I don't recognize -” he starts and her heart skips a beat.
“I don't think we know each other,” she cuts in. Because he's smiling and she doesn't have to be herself and for just another minute she wants to be someone with hope for a happy ending. She loves him. She doesn't regret that either. She offers him her hand. “I'm Christine,” she says.
He takes her hand. His touch is warm and firm. “I'm Steve,” he says.
She grins at that. “How fitting.” Maybe she isn't the only one needing a break. She wants to ask him if something's wrong, but right now she isn't his former partner. She doesn't want to be. She wants to stay the woman he looks at like he wants to kiss her.
“Nice to meet you, Christine,” he says. His thumb glides over her hand.
She loves that he so obviously doesn't want to let go. She loves his touch and she wants more. “Would you like to dance?” she asks.
He nods happily.
The band plays something slow. It's almost fate. He swirls them around to the music with his hand on her back. She rested her left hand on his shoulder, while he holds on to her right. She loves holding his hand. She loves touching him. He looks at her with such admiration, it almost kills her.
Before Bahrain she sometimes caught him looking at her like that, especially during the last month after she and Thomas had broken up. Made her feel beautiful. Made her feel hopeful that they could be something. That it wasn't just her in love. She knows she's too broken for him now. Fortunately they're taking a break from herself tonight. His gaze jumps from her eyes to her lips and back.
His eyes widen, when she places his left hand on her waist before she glides her right one to his shoulder. They're barely dancing anymore, just swaying from side to side. His hands caress her back, she folds hers behind his neck. The mask he wears covers up his nape, keeping her from touching his skin, but she runs her fingertips over the dark blue fabric anyway. He takes a shaky breath.
They had moments like this before. Moments close to kiss. She never made a move. Because they were colleagues, because she had been in a relationship with somebody else, because he was too important for a fling.
They end up on the sidelines of the dance floor. The music is still playing, but they just stand there.
She wants to know how it'll feel to kiss him. The song nears its end and he tilts his head. He wants this kiss. He just doesn't want her. He wants happy, curly haired Christine.
This is cheating.
But she gives in anyway. Tiptoeing, she gently places her lips over his. She keeps it brief. This is a stolen kiss under false pretense, but his lips are soft and she can't bring herself to regret it. She moves away, but he groans and bends to follow her lips with his. He pulls her closer as he nibbles on her bottom lip.
She betrays them again by giving in, by opening her mouth to his and tasting him. And it's so very good. He's so very good. She loves him.
She breaks away. His eyes are closed, he smiles. She just wants to kiss him again.
So she walks away.
He catches up to her on the floor to the hotel lobby.
“Please wait,” he begs. He sounds concerned and confused.
She owes him an explanation and an apology. She turns to him and he raises his right hand to touch her arm, before he drops it to the side. This will hurt him.
“Did I do something wrong?” he asks. “Am I going too quickly? Because I can slow it down, I can -”
"Phil, it's me," she interrupts. She takes off the mask and waits for the shock to set in. For the expression of betrayal.
Instead he hides his hands behind his back and nods. “It's too much. I understand,” he says. He sighs and smiles sadly. “We can let this rest or forget about it or we could just.” He shrugs. “I just missed you so much.”
Oh God. She swallows hard. “You knew it was me?”
The mask covers up his frown but she knows him well enough to know it's there. “Who else would you be?” he asks like he has no doubt about the answer.
He knew the whole time it was her. He didn't look at Christine. He looked at her. Oh God. And now he seems to believe she's giving him the 'It's not you it's me'-speech.
He touches her arm again. “Melinda?”
“You said you didn't recognize me.”
"Still don't recognize the costume,” he says and grins. “Was the Christine thing a hint?”
She knows he's trying to lighten the mood, she can see the concern in his eyes. She feels even more like a fool. Of course he recognized her. She recognized him as soon as she bumped into him and his mask covers much more of his face than her mask did. She's an idiot. And he was looking at her all along.
“Are you sure you want me?” she asks. She has to ask. How could he possibly want her?
But he smiles and grabs hold of her hand. “I can wait. I'll wait for you until you want this, too.” He squeezes her hand and lets go. “Would you like to return to the party or would you like me to drive you home?” he asks. Because he's a kind man. A very good man.
And he still wants her.
She grabs his hand. “I want another kiss,” she says. It's true and she's tired of giving up on them. Maybe she can have this. Maybe she isn't as broken as she thought.
“You sure?” he asks.
She nods and squeezes his hand. “I want you.”
With a smile, he cups her face and bends down. This time she doesn't feel guilty as they kiss. She just feels good. They hold hands as they kiss. It's perfect. She loves his taste and how he strokes her cheek with his thumb. She places her free hand on his nape. she wishes she could touch his skin. She wishes she could run her hands through his hair.
“Why did you play along?” she asks against his lips.
He shrugs. “I figured you wanted a little break from SHIELD.” Then he grins. “And I take every opportunity to be Captain America I can get.”
She chuckles and he kisses her again. Quickly first, but again it grows into something deeper. With a groan she presses herself into him. She could kiss him like this for hours.
They break the kiss and he rests his forehead against hers.
“I'm serious about the costume,” he says. “You gotta tell me because I can't figure it out.”
“Ever heard of Phantom of the Opera?”
“Doesn't matter.” She kisses him. She can't get enough. Right now she's very happy just being herself.