Clint wants to scream. He wants to throw things. He wants to go buy a cheap bow and nail Steve Rogers' smiling face to the wall with an arrow through the eye socket.
He likes to think it's a sign of character growth that he doesn't.
Also, Steve's just so fucking likeable, it's unnatural.
"You're moping," Natasha tells him after practice, when Clint's jumps and twirls along with the rest of the dancers had been less than enthusiastic.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Clint lies.
He goes back to the changing room, but there's no carefully folded note taped to his locker, or waiting in his shoes, or in his jeans pocket. There's nothing.
Clint's dancing sucked, but it seems the ghost isn't paying attention anymore.
Clint hadn't set out to become a dancer at the Paris Opera. He'd been an archer and an acrobat and occasionally an errand boy, but then Carson had decided to downsize and suddenly Clint had been fuck-all in the middle of Europe.
He'd made it to Paris to mope at Natasha – and maybe to see if he couldn't get an in with the Cirque du Soleil; he was pretty fucking good – but instead of getting him drunk on cheap vodka she'd used her position of lead soprano or whatever to get him a job as a fetch-and-carry boy at the Opera.
"You'll fit right in," she'd said, "lots of drama," and Clint had grudgingly accepted that apparently, he had an owner now. At least she'd kept him fed and occupied.
So he'd become a different kind of errand boy and he'd liked the work, sort of, until the day he'd taken a bored look at all the ropes and cables behind the scenes and decided that, fuck it, no reason to get all out of shape, yeah? He'd just stay until after lights-out and see if he couldn't swing around a little.
And he had. And it had been fun. Right until the moment he'd dropped down with a flawless triple backflip and landed on the stage, arms outstretched as if to take a theatrical bow... and found himself face-to-mask with the Opera Ghost.
"Um," Clint had said.
"You're very flexible," the ghost had said. His voice had been calm, distinctly American, and the blue eyes behind the white, unsmiling mask that covered his entire face had crinkled as if he was smiling.
"Uh?" Clint had said. His own voice was high-pitched going on ultrasonic.
"Have you ever considered a career in non-traditional dancing?" the ghost had asked. He'd been wearing a formal black suit. Clint would later learn that the ghost always wore a suit.
"Hfahzzz," Clint had said.
Two days later, he'd been part of the ballet corps.
The Phantom of the Opera, they'll tell you, is the one who runs the place. He influences casting and gives feedback with polite little notes, and if you listen to him and he likes you, that's your career made right there.
If he doesn't like you, he'll kill you dead.
Clint goes home. He contemplates the fridge, but he isn't hungry. None of the dvds seem appealing. French television sucks.
He drums his fingers on Nat's dining room table, presses his lips together until they hurt between his teeth, and then decides, fuck it.
He grabs a few things on his way out and stops at the bakery downstairs.
He heads back to the Opera.
Clint had never been in the habit of accepting charity, except when Natasha bullied him into it. So the evening of his surprise promotion, he'd waited for everyone to leave and then sat at the edge of the stage and let his feet dangle into the orchestra pit for what felt like hours.
Finally, a polite voice had asked, "Are you waiting for something?" with a clear note of amusement.
Clint had looked around, but the ghost wasn't anywhere he could see. "Look," he'd said, "thanks for the job or whatever, but I wasn't going to tell anyone. I don't need your bribery."
The ghost had been silent for a moment.
"And what is it you weren't going to tell?" he'd asked eventually. No amusement now.
"You're not a ghost," Clint had told him. "You're just a guy who's very good at hiding in the walls. Funny how everyone thinks 'floaty being' and nobody thinks 'secret passage.'"
"So if they really wanted to get rid of you," Clint had gone on, "they could just, I don't know, smoke you out." He took a breath. "But I'm not going to tell, so you just go on with your Phantom of the Night thing and stuff your little gifts where the sun doesn't shine."
The stage had been very, very quiet for a long time. Clint refused to hold his breath.
"I could kill you right now," the ghost had said, quietly.
Clint had smiled into the dark auditorium. "I really don't care."
He'd already lost his family, his job, the only home he'd known for years. Nat was great, but she didn't need anyone. Certainly not him.
There had been no reply after that.
The ghost isn't home. Clint tells himself he's not disappointed.
He's not a very good liar.
Besides, he knows where the ghost is: hiding behind the mirror in Steve's dressing room, teaching him how to use 'that beautiful tenor' to the best of his abilities. Clint's not jealous.
Still a bad liar.
He sighs, picks his way through the tiny not-really-an-apartment in the bowels of the Opera, finds four discarded suits in desperate need of dry-cleaning.
I don't know what you did without me, he scribbles on the block of notes that lives on the single table with the two questionable chairs. Then he scowls, tears off the note, crumples it and stuffs it into his pocket before he writes, Fucking eat something. He tears off that note as well and props it against the bag of croissants, baguette rolls, jam, butter and other stuff he brought. He picks up the suits, decides the ghost probably needs more vitamins in his life – he'll bring some fruit next time – and leaves, feeling even less satisfied than he did before.
It's only when he's home that he discovers the crumpled note is gone from his pocket, probably lost on the way to the dry-cleaner's.
Hopefully lost on the way to the dry-cleaner's.
He makes it through the next day in a cloud of grumpiness. His dancing's fine – at least he doesn't have to do those ridiculous ballet steps – but that doesn't do anything to lift his mood.
He returns to his locker to find a piece of paper taped to it, carefully folded but badly wrinkled. His heart plummets.
I don't know what you did without me stares at him in his own messy handwriting as he unfolds the note. Underneath, much neater, only three words.
Neither do I.
"Oh, fuck you," Clint says, but he's smiling.
The first note had appeared on Clint's locker the day after he'd more or less told the ghost to go screw himself.
"Ohh, the Phantom left you a note!" one of the other male dancers had squeaked – there really was no other word for it – and suddenly, Clint had been an island in an ocean of frantic whispers. Apparently, it was bad luck to peek at someone else's Phantom notes.
Clint had rolled his eyes but unfolded the note anyway.
You mistake my intentions, the note had said. I merely meant to encourage talent.
Even if your turns leave something to be desired.
"They do not, you fucker," Clint had snapped at the note after a second of stunned silence. The dancers around him had scattered, probably to escape the bolt of lightning that would surely strike Clint down.
He hadn't been struck, and after hours, he'd stood on the stage and said loudly, "My turns are fine."
"You put too much weight on your heel," the ghost had said from somewhere in the darkness.
It had taken Clint an hour to prove him wrong.
Steve Rogers is the nicest guy who ever lived, despite his wicked sense of humor. He's smart and funny and has the sunniest smile, and the hottest body, and one of the greatest voices in recent history.
He also has Tony Stark, but everybody needs at least one flaw to make them human.
The ghost hates Tony Stark.
"That man is a menace," he'd told Clint back when he still had time for him. Not that Clint's bitter or anything. "He'll put showgirls into Die Zauberflöte. He'll make Pamina dance around a stripper pole."
"Maybe he'll throw money at everything and make it better," Clint had said. "He only just bought the place. Maybe he'll bring someone famous. Not that anyone's better than Natasha," he'd added loyally.
Well, joke's on Clint because Stark brought Steve. The ghost loves Steve.
Then again, Clint's never been able to keep anything good in his life. Why should this be different?
Clint goes back to return the suits and bring a couple of apples.
The ghost isn't there.
Clint had become used to the ghost being around all the time. He'd stay behind after everyone had left and the ghost would criticize Clint's every move with more or less gentle barbs and a ton of patience until Clint felt like he might be an actual dancer instead of a displaced circus artist. Clint would pretend not to know a single piece of opera music – although he did; he wasn't completely uncultured – and the ghost would quietly despair. It had been fun.
And then the ghost had stopped showing up.
"Hello?" Clint had called into the dark auditorium, towards the empty boxes. "You there?"
He'd left that night, strangely disgruntled, and the night after that. On the third night, he'd decided that waiting around wasn't really his thing.
He'd felt his way along every wall, every decorative pillar, looking for the way behind the behind-the-scenes. When that didn't get him anywhere, he'd moved on to the auditorium seats. Finally, in Box 5, one of the grape clusters on the faux-Greek wall decorations had looked a little off, and when he'd pressed it a slim portion of the wall had swung open. With what had to be the ghost's emergency flashlight conveniently stashed behind it.
Clint had walked through narrow corridors, following the turns where the dust had been the most disturbed. The Opera had been eerily silent, his footsteps unnaturally loud. He'd managed to get lost twice, ending up first in the male dancers' changing room and then in the manager's office, but he'd backtracked and eventually found himself...
At a fucking lake.
Right under the fucking Opera.
"Fucking Europeans," he'd muttered.
Then he'd found the boats.
For the next two weeks, rehearsals are a complete pain. The choreographer Stark brought in doesn't seem to know what to do with Clint, if anything. She keeps moving him to the back, to the far right, to the sidelines. It sucks.
"I'm sorry," Steve says when Clint vents his frustration. He started hanging out with Natasha, two beautiful singers at the top of their career, and with Nat comes Clint and with Steve comes Bucky the stagehand and sometimes Stark, and sometimes Bucky brings Bruce the costume designer. Clint likes Bruce. His costumes are nice and stretchy. "I can talk to Tony, if you want," Steve adds.
It's a nice offer, but Clint still has this thing about charity. Steve isn't Nat.
Nat and Clint, they owe each other.
"Nah," Clint says, and takes another mouthful of the swill the French call beer. "I can always go join a circus if I get fed-up."
The others laugh, like Clint made the best joke, but he's serious. Carson may have miscalculated, but the Europeans love their circus shows. There's always work for someone like Clint.
Nat smirks at him over her glass of red wine. "If the Phantom lets you go."
Clint's own smile freezes, but Steve's already talking.
"Oh god, you too?" he groans good-naturedly. "That man is so weird."
"He's brilliant," Clint says, sharper than he means to.
"Well, yes," Steve agrees, "but I prefer to see my tutors. Although, Bucky, do you remember Mrs. Phillips, with the..."
Clint tunes him out, stares into his beer, and pretends he doesn't notice Natasha watching him.
The lake had been a mindfuck, but not as much as the unassuming door in the wall on the other side; the door that led into what Clint would have called an apartment if it had had a little more space and at least one window. There'd been a table with two chairs, a wardrobe, a sofa, a hot plate, a partitioned corner that had to be the bathroom, and a bed.
And on the bed, a guy in flannel pajamas with his back turned to Clint, fingers clumsily fumbling with the strings of the mask he must have hurried to put on when he'd heard Clint at the door.
"What are you doing here?" he'd rasped. His voice had been almost unrecognizable.
"You're sick," Clint had said dumbly.
"No heating," the ghost had said. He'd managed to put on the mask and was looking at Clint. "It happens."
"Right," Clint had said and looked around. No food that he could see. No water. No heating, Jesus, and the place was damp as hell.
"Right," he'd said again, more firmly this time. "What do you need?"
The ghost had stared at him, his blue eyes glazed with fever.
"What are you doing here?" he'd asked again, sounding plaintive and a little lost.
Clint had swallowed.
"Making sure you don't die," he'd told the ghost, and gone off to fetch tea, soup, paracetamol, and a better blanket.
The ghost had been sick for four days.
He hadn't asked again what Clint was doing.
The thing is, Clint kept going back.
The thing is, the ghost never told him not to.
The thing is, they got along fine.
The thing is, Clint fucking went and fell in love with a guy who never even offered his name.
The thing is, Clint doesn't think he wants to do this anymore.
Nat sits him down the night after they all got drunk.
"They're doing a modern interpretation of Der Freischütz in Florence," she says. "They're looking for dancers who can do other things than twirl and look pretty."
"Hey, I look pretty whatever I do," Clint tells her, grinning.
She doesn't smile back. "You could be one of the hunters, maybe Samiel if you show them your skills with a bow. You'd be working with the Odinson brothers. You know they're all about the visuals."
Now Clint doesn't feel like smiling anymore, either. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"No," she says, and leans forward to take his face between her hands. "But this place is eating you. I don't want to see you become another ghost."
He has no reply to that.
"How did you even find this place?" Clint had asked once, the closest he'd ever come to asking, why a ghost? Why the mask? What happened to you?
Who are you?
The ghost had crinkled his eyes in that near-invisible smile of his.
"Happenstance," he'd said.
Clint hadn't brought up the subject again.
He goes to find Steve during lunch break. The first posters announcing the upcoming production of Die Zauberflöte have come in and Clint has bribed Remy to slip him one.
"Here," he says to Steve, handing him a pen, "sign this for me, would you?"
"Uh, sure," Steve says, and signs his name with a flourish. "Should I add a note or something?"
He really is too fucking likeable.
"No," Clint says, "I'm done with notes."
"Got a new job in Italy," Clint says and holds out the pen. "Sign this."
"Nice," Nat says, though if she means the job or the poster is anyone's guess.
"Yeah," Clint says. He pockets the pen and hugs her. "Thanks, Nat."
He doesn't mean the poster.
She hugs him back and kicks him out of her dressing room.
Clint is very good at sneaking into Box 5 by now. He presses the grapes, shuffles down the corridors and stairs, rows across the fucking lake and knocks on the ghost's door. It opens.
The ghost looks like always, neatly-pressed suit – go French dry-cleaning – and warm blue eyes behind the unsmiling mask, and for a moment, Clint can't breathe.
He's such an idiot.
"Brought you something," he says casually as he hands over the rolled-up poster. "A little decoration. Those walls are depressing."
The ghost takes the poster and unrolls it with a few swift, careful movements.
And then he stares at the stupid thing so long that Clint's beginning to wonder if he made a tactical error.
"I know you're like, his number-one fan," he says when the silence gets too much. "Made Nat sign, too."
"Thank you," the ghost says. His voice is hoarse.
Clint clears his throat. "Get some damn heating down here," he says, and turns to leave.
"Wait," the ghost says behind him, "was that all?"
"Yeah," Clint says, not stopping as he walks towards the boat, "that was all."
He quits his job – to no protest from the manager – packs up his things, and is gone before Nat comes home.
Florence is amazing. The city is beautiful, the people are more relaxed, and the Odinsons make Clint shoot arrows at various targets as part of his performance as Samiel in Der Freischütz. Instead of magical bullets they now have magical arrows, so Clint teaches their Max how to handle a bow even if the guy doesn't get to handle any actual arrows.
The premiere is completely sold-out and a full success, and in his elation Clint even forgets the empty space behind his ribcage for a while; the part of him that misses arguing over Swan Lake: tripe or genius while the lake sends cool drafts through the not-really-an-apartment.
He returns to the dressing room sweaty and still grinning, only to find Armando, one of the other hunters, waiting for him with the biggest fucking bouquet of flowers Clint has ever seen.
"What the fuck?" Clint asks eloquently.
"Got a fan," Armando says with a truly shit-eating grin, and it takes Clint a moment to get that he means Clint. Clint's got a fan. "He's waiting at the stage entrance, if you want to go say hi."Armando lifts the flowers as if to show them off before he says, "I'll go find a vase or something," because he's just a decent guy.
"Wait," Clint says, his mouth suddenly dry for no good reason, "is there a note?"
Clint has never showered so fast in his life.
I hope you will forgive me.
Your turns were still atrocious.
The stage entrance is milling with people, but Clint's circus name wasn't Hawkeye for nothing. He sees the suit before he sees the blue eyes, smiling but cautious as they look at him. He'd recognize those shoulders anywhere, even if he's never seen the face – the scars – before. People around them are staring more or less openly as the man – the ghost – holds out his hand.
"Phillip Coulson," he says as Clint shakes his hand, dumbly. Clint can't quite read his distorted smile – though he wants to learn, god, he wants to – but the ghost's... but Coulson's voice is wry as he adds, "I'm afraid I failed to introduce myself before." His smile fades. "There are several things that I failed to do. To... make clear."
Clint's heart is pounding so hard it has to be audible in his voice as he croaks, "Yeah?"
Coulson nods. "Yes."
He's still holding Clint's hand. His eyes crinkle just the way Clint remembers when he smiles, when he says, "I'm sorry. I really don't know what to do without you."
And it's... Clint has been so unhappy for so long, he can't... He feels like he could take on the whole fucking world, how does that even...
He gives up making sense of the mess of feelings that's making his throat hurt, that's making his breath catch as he says, "I'm going to kiss you now," because fuck it, he's done waiting.
Coulson blinks at him.
"Are you-" is all he gets out before Clint brushes their mouths together, doing his best to learn the shape of Coulson's lips in whatever stretch of time Coulson will give him.
Turns out Coulson will give him however long Clint wants.
Steve fucking Rogers comes to sing in Florence. Clint doesn't put an arrow through his eye socket. Phil doesn't leave Clint in favor of his fanboy crush.
Life goes on.