“He’s been back! He left me flowers at my last recital. He’ll probably get back to business fairly soon.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
“Did you ask?”
The second she’d caught wind that Phantom R had been spotted again, there had been no moment wasted on her part tracking him down. And tracked him down she did, on the rooftops along the Champs-Élysées, soccer ball and gusto in tow.
He seemed surprised to see her then, but delighted. Like he’d just been away on a long trip, and she was an old friend welcoming him home at the airport.
Charlie punted her ball right in her rival’s face.
“You’re asking too much of me, Marie.”
“I’m really not. He’s not nearly as bad as you think he is. Talking to him like a normal person wouldn’t kill you.”
“You don’t know that!”
“I know a lot of things. Like that you’re overreacting.”
“Charlie, you’ve learned some new moves! Keeping busy all this time?”
“Shut up, idiot!”
She’d been hoping to have caught him off-guard with that last pass; she wouldn’t admit to having practiced in other rhythms of the game, but it didn’t seem to matter. Like always, R seemed to be one step ahead of the game. Ahead of her. Mocking her.
It was nights like this she regretted picking a non-contact sport to focus on.
She’d lost track of how many beats had passed when she finally lost her balance. It was enough to bring her to her knees--certainly not the first time it had ever happened, soccer wasn’t a contact sport, but it still hurt. Regardless of whether or not Charlie would ever let that show.
Like she was… doing right now, unfortunately.
That last blow from R had been too strong--or, no, not too strong, she just hadn’t felt a kick like that in ages, and Charlie rolled over on her side, clutching her stomach where the ball hit her.
If this had been another day of practice with Urbain, it would have been nothing to even think about. That was her best friend, after all, he’d seen her at her worst plenty of time. R was not, however, Urbain, and from her peripheral vision she say those fancy dress shoes (actually, not that fancy? they looked old) tapping their way over to her. R surely had some witty retort on hand, just like he always did, and Charlie lifted her head up about to beat him to the punch--
“Are you alright?”
R was hunched over, offering Charlie a hand back up. He looked… concerned. Not worried, because Charlie couldn’t fathom him having that expression towards anyone but Marie, but concerned nonetheless.
This was confusing.
“...Charlie?” R repeated himself, with a twinge more uncertainty in this voice than he had before. It looked like he tried to crack a smile, but it came out more like a wince. “Charlie, you still with me?”
“Ah--” She must have looked as confused as she’d felt, to get a reaction like that out of her. Shame on her, showing weakness like that; Charlie was back on her feet without a second’s delay. “I--I’m fine.”
“Oh, good.” Now he sounded relieved. What was up with this? “I’m really sorry about that. Sort of forgot how hard we’d get into it. Heh. Guess it’s been a while for us both, huh?”
R laughed, a bit too sheepish from how he’d ever sounded before, and Charlie briefly considered the possibility she had entered the mirror dimension. She shook the thought away quickly, and retorted, “Speak for yourself, R! It’s not like you’ve ever been able to knock me down.”
“Hah! I guess that’s true, too.”
That laugh sounded a little more like the R she knew, if not more… casual? Charlie wasn’t sure if she liked it. She didn’t have long to dwell on it, though, because no sooner than he’d agreed with her, R turned away to the side of the building.
“I’d say we’re both done for the night, though, so, I’m gonna beat it. You head home and put some ice on your stomach, okay? À la prochaine!”
Charlie managed to get out the “w” in “Wait just a minute!”, but R was already gone, hopping off the rooftop they stood on, onto the next and onward.
“He doesn’t make any sense, Marie.”
“He doesn’t have to! He’s Phantom R.”
“He should make a little sense.”
“I just don’t understand where you’re getting lost on this. He was gone for a while, and he’s happy to his friends again.”
“I am not friends with him.”
“Mm. Aren’t you, though?”
Charlie was late for the next meeting.
The last game she’d had at school had bruised her right leg badly, and despite all efforts to not let it bother her, it was, as all things tended to do, bothering her. The swelling had gone down a substantial amount, and her limp was barely there anymore--but it was still there enough for her to notice it.
She would just have to favor her left for a while longer. Such was life.
When she arrived at their---dare she admit it---meeting spot, Phantom R was already there, as she’d expected. When he’d seen her coming, he’d raised an arm to wave, and opened his mouth to speak… but then, oddly enough, stopped, and lowered his arm, choosing instead to look at her quizzically.
“Charlie, are you alright?”
Charlie huffed, and placed her ball under her arm. “Of course I’m alright. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“There’s something wrong with your leg, isn’t there?”
“Wh--” She had to look down at her leg. The compression bandage wasn’t showing, was it? “How could you possibly know that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” He didn’t say it to be smart--she could tell that, by this point--and he scuffed one of his feet against the ground to illustrate his point. “Dancer. My body’s kinda my work, y’know.”
“...Huh.” That… actually made some sense. She supposed it was silly for a master thief not to notice a detail like that, but still-- “How could you even tell?”
R crossed his arms over his chest, and came over to inspect his claim properly. Charlie saw no reason to stop him, and let him come close. He’d figured out the bluff, after all. “You’re walking a little… not funny, exactly? But off. You’re favoring your left leg a lot more than you normally do.”
“And you actually noticed all that.”
“I’m a tricky one.” He tapped the side of his head--some manner of showmanship, no matter how subdued, but went right back to interrogating her. “How long ago did it happen?”
Charlie glowered at him for a good moment, be finally relented with a sigh, shoulders deflating. “Sometime last week. Thursday, I think. It’s better than it used to be. It’s not a bone contusion.”
“With how hard you play, that’s pretty lucky. But I guess that’s also just a show of skill.” R still sounded thoughtful, and the compliment didn’t feel backhanded. It was… could it be… genuine? “Are you walking alright? Still practicing?”
“I--Yeah.” R was being far too accommodating to her situation. Charlie wasn’t sure she liked it. “I was given the O.K. to start again a few days ago. Mostly back to normal.”
“My steps are still a little shallow. But that’s to be expected.”
“It is, but still, you got games to play. If you’re feeling off, you’re not playing your best.”
Charlie huffed. Thankfully it took minimal effort to will away the growing red in her cheeks. This time, at least. “You don’t have to remind me. But there’s not exactly much I can do about that now.”
R fell silent here, not looking at Charlie in the eye, but rather focused on her injured leg. His brows were furrowed deep in thought, and he let out a quiet hum as he contemplated something.
Really, this was just far too weird for Charlie to handle.
“...Well, I’m not gonna ask to look at your leg. I don’t think there’s anything I can add that you haven’t already done.” He snapped his fingers, pointing down at her legs. “But when you’re on the field, if you add another half-step to your lunges, that should help get you back on track.”
Charlie must have given him a skeptical look, because R held up his hands in defense with a grin. “Hey, hey, just trust me on it. It’s better than pushing through and making it worse, right?”
She didn’t have a response for that, but she did make a noise that sounded a rather lot like “hhhhhhh”.
“I’ll take that as a victory.” R pulled back the sleeve of his jacket, looking at a watch on his wrist, and hummed. “That said, we should probably cut it short tonight. Maybe you’re fine risking your health to punt me in the head, but I’d rather not actually give you the contusion.”
Charlie spun her ball between her hands. Was kindness a general cause for fidgeting, she wondered? “Well… I can’t really argue that.”
“Can you get down alright? Or do you need some help?”
“I came up along the fire escape. I’ll manage.”
“...Alright. If you’re sure.” He didn’t sound convinced, entirely, but with one foot on the roof’s edging, R turned back to face her. “Could you send Marie a message when you’re home? She’ll get it to me. It’d be nice not to worry.”
Worry. He was, in fact, worried. This was the mirror dimension.
Nevertheless, Charlie spoke without thinking, and she only distantly heard her own voice respond, “Fair enough. I can do that.”
R seemed pleased with that, and smiled at her. “I appreciate it. Take it easy, Charlie.”
Still on autopilot, Charlie waved him goodbye. “...Night, R.”
And so he was off.
“How does he know all these things?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“I… well, I suppose he did. But I didn’t think about it, at the time.”
“That’s understandable. You did just realize Phantom R is, in fact, a person with feelings.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“You could always ask him, you know.”
“Why is it dancing?”
At this point, these meetings were hardly anything antagonistic anymore. Despite Charlie’s initial and best efforts, meeting R for a rooftop match had somehow devolved into a nightly soccer drill. He’d insisted on helping her recover from that injury a month ago--and she was perfectly fine now, no bruise remaining, but the kicks and passes between the two of them still stayed… well, “gentle” wasn’t the word you’d use for soccer, but it was much more casual than they’d ever been with a ball between them. It almost felt like playing with Urbain, in a way.
It was… nice.
R caught the next pass to him, bouncing the ball off his chest and back to the ground. “Well, why is it soccer?” He passed the ball back to Charlie.
“That’s not what I mean.” Charlie lifted the ball up onto her foot, balancing it on the crook of her ankle before shooting it back. “Why make dancing your gimmick, of all things?”
“Lupin did a pretty good job establishing the phantom thief business, but we each need to do something unique about it, or else we’re just doomed to be copycats. Why do you think Kaito Kid’s a magician?”
“It’s annoying to the police?”
“Exactly. Being a public nuisance is part of the job.”
“Lupin the Third doesn’t have a gimmick, does his?”
“Lupin the Third’s gimmick is that he’s Lupin. He already won that jackpot.”
“What about the Phantom Thieves of Heart? In Tokyo? They seemed to stay pretty close to the formula.”
“Look, I’ve never spoken to any of them? But they had something potentially questionable going on.”
“Wha--” R was caught so off-guard by this assertion, he caught the next pass to him in his hands, momentarily stopping their banter. “That doesn’t count, Ladybug isn’t a criminal!”
Charlie snickered. “And you don’t think Chat Noir’s made a ‘cat burglar’ pun before?”
“Oh no, he’s absolutely done that.” R waved the matter off, very matter-of-factly, as though he’d spoken to Chat Noir personally himself. Charlie wouldn’t have doubted it. “But that’s not important. What’s your point here?”
“Why is dancing your thing? Was it just simplicity? Or was there just...” Charlie waggled her fingers in the air, trying to find the words. “...not. Much else, I suppose?”
“...Huh.” R said that in such a way the betrayed he’d given this exact question a lot of thought on his own time, and for a split second, Charlie almost felt bad for asking--but he gave the ball in his hands one quick pat, and tossed it back to her. “Can I answer that with a question?”
“You’re going to anyway.”
“Sure am!” There was something unidentifiable in his tone, just then. Something like pride, something like bitterness, something like loneliness. “Charlie, you… the hang glider stunts was all from your mom, right?”
Charlie snapped to attention to fast, R might have actually heard the whiplash. “How did you know that? I don’t remember telling Marie…”
“It was pretty dumb, actually. I saw an interview with her in the extras on the Bitter Grave box set, and I remembered her from your old man’s photo.” There was that weird, uncanny valley sheepish R again. Making Charlie come to terms with his humanity. The fiend. “I had no idea she was the lead’s stunt double.”
“She was the best at what she did.” Ah, yes. Emma Vergier. Devoted wife. Loving mother. Professional stunt-woman extraordinaire. “But what’s your angle there?”
“You went the extra mile and learned how to use a hang glider just because your mom did. Is that right?”
“Well, it’s a great ice breaker, you know.”
“Oh, I’d imagine. But think about it like this…” R clasped his hands together, rubbing them together as he put his words together carefully. “You’re doing all your hang glider stunts for the same reason I’m doing the dancing… does that make sense?”
Charlie didn’t gasp. Charlotte Vergier, Private Eye, does NOT gasp. She merely… gets surprised. And that was much more of a surprise than she was prepared to hear. A reason so simple. A reason so bittersweet. A reason… so much in line with her own way of thinking. That was really what was getting to her, more than anything else.
A hand on her shoulder snapped her out of her trance, and when Charlie looked back up, R was beside her. He still had a smile on his face, though there was more emotion behind it than she’d ever noticed. An air of understanding, if that.
“Same club?” He offered.
“...Same club.” She responded, and his hand slid off her shoulder. “Who was--your--what did she do?”
R just shrugged. “Ballerina. It explains a lot.”
“It really does, honestly. It’s a little bit scary how much all of you is making sense now.”
“Doesn’t it? It’s weird.” He laughed it off, though it was a tad more sad than she’d heard before. “We’re both just pretty simple people, it looks like.”
“I guess, but it… for stealing?” Something about that just… Charlie just couldn’t wrap her mind around it. Thinking of her own mother, and the legacy she’d left behind--why use those memories for crime? “R, that just doesn’t--”
“Believe me, Charlie, I know.” And the sudden seriousness to his voice certainly drove that home. So much so it made the words die in her mouth. “A part of me wishes she’s knows how I’m doing, but the rest of me is… sort of terrified thinking about it.”
“You think she’d be upset?”
“I mean… in fairness to the situation, she’d be upset about a lot of things that’ve happened lately.” He didn’t go into any further detail, and Charlie was too awestruck to ask further. “But also, I couldn’t say Cecile Bellrose would be thrilled at the idea of her son being a criminal.”
Charlie paused, to process the information, when a realization dawned on her in that last admission of his. “...Wait. R, did you just--”
“Whoooa, look at the time!” R’s voice suddenly shot high and loud above her own, and with an exaggerated yawn, he turned away. “I dunno about you, Charlie, but my dogs are barkin’! I’m turning in for the night!”
“Wh--you’re--you can’t just--!”
“Yes it was very nice seeing you again Charlie I will see you later byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” And before Charlie make move to grab him, R was already over the edge, vaulting off rooftops at a speed even faster for him.
“I don’t get it. Why did he just… let that slip?”
“Are you sure he let it slip?”
“What else could it have been?”
“We tend to call those ‘hints’, Charlie.”
“But what kind of a hint is that!”
“A clever one. We all know what you’re like. You like to work for your answers, don’t you?”
Once she had his mother’s name, everything else fell into place.
“Bellrose” had been a red-herring, in a sense. It was his mother, but it had been her maiden name, and she had never danced professionally under that name. Of course, it wasn’t hard then to follow the breadcrumbs that followed, beginning with a search within the deceased. Days of digging led Charlie to Cecile’s married name, her birthplace, her sudden, recent death and where she was buried… and her husband and only son, their whereabouts unknown to the public records.
So she had a name, potentially, to put to Phantom R’s image--and provided it was right, she could at least crack a joke at how uninspired his name was--but with this possible, dangerous knowledge, Charlie had a new conflict of interests on her hands.
Realistically, she knew she couldn’t arrest R on this alone. Her only linking R to this boy she’d found was by something R had told her himself, privately, and that just wouldn’t hold up in any embodiment of the law. But with this information, she could begin proper stakeouts. She could think and plan the best to prove the connection between the two, and knowing what she knew about him now, she was sure she’d be able to prove it.
Phantom R, by her hand, would go to jail.
But could she, in good conscience, do that now? Could she betray what trust he’d placed in her after all this time? Could she turn her back on a friend and be alright with that decision?
“You never told me your mom was a stunt double!”
“Yeah. It’s not a card I really know how to play, you know?”
“We should watch some of the things she’s in sometimes! Anything you’d recommend?”
“...have you ever seen Bitter Grave?”
He looked… well. He looked. Hands in his pockets, sigh on his lips, he turned to Charlie with a face of grim acceptance. Like he’d already come to terms with whatever she had decided to do long ago. He’d put his trust in her, and he’d pay whatever cost that meant. “...Yeah?”
He did his best to sound unbothered, but it was still very defeatist of him. Kind of funny, in its own way.
Charlie just grinned.
“Marie’s never seen Bitter Grave, so we’re having the movie night. You want in?”
He didn’t make a sound, but his mouth parted ever so softly in, what Charlie could only assume, but unbridled disbelief. This might have been the best night of her life thus far.
“You have to bring your box set, though. I lent mine out to a friend a while ago.”
He blinked… and then he smiled, and brushed back one bang from his face. Suddenly, Charlie understood why that sheepishness was so odd on R. It was because it wasn’t R at all. It had been Raphael.
“I need to warn you,” he said, and now that Charlie knew, the difference between the boy and the thief was like night and day, “I will fall asleep during any kind of show without fail. Marie can confirm this.”
“I know. She’s shown me pictures.”
“Of course she has.” And Raphael laughed a little, and Charlie laughed with him. “Can I bring Fondue back with me? He’s been whining about us hanging out without him.”
“Long as he doesn’t try and get at my leg.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him to aim for the one that didn’t get bruised.”
Charlie smacked her friend on the arm.