A/N: So, here's the epilogue. I can't believe this is finally done. It got at least twice as long as planned, but then again that always happens to me. More A/N and sappy thanks at the end of the chapter.
It's all dark and there is nothing.
They are... they are. That's all that there is to know. They cannot tell where or when or who or what they are.
They cannot move.
They cannot speak.
They cannot remember.
Dark, dark, dark and silence. Deafening silence.
It's not complete silence, though, not all the time. There is something there from time to time, like an echo in the darkness, barely strong enough to be heard and to week to grasp the words. Two words, just two, over and over and over, like a broken record. Sometimes they think they can almost grasp them, almost make sense out of them, but then they're done and there is nothing but silence once again.
Until now, whenever now is.
Because now they hear something else, something difference, something coming from outside the void of darkness they're into. Something being moved. Hushed voices. Rustling sheets. Beeping.
They don't know how long they've been hearing this; there is no sense of time into nothingness. But it doesn't stop, it never really stops – nothing is entirely silent anymore.
And, after they start hearing, they can also start feeling.
The strong, overpowering smell of disinfectant. Someone touching them. Changing whatever they're wearing. Something being wrapped and unwrapped around their head. Something being pushed in and out of their arm. There is a sensation of being lifted and then put back down, and they can tell that what they're being lain back on smells fresher, cleaner.
And then the voices – no the one in their head, never the one in their head – become clearer, until they can tell different voices apart, until they can grasp the words, even though they mean little to them. But the words they're heating now are aimed at them, or so they assume, because whoever talks to them is washing their face with something wet and they're the only person in the room aside from them.
"You sure love keeping us waiting, sleepyhead," someone is saying above them. There is a pause, then the same wet thing is passed down his neck and chest. "I kinda hate waiting, though. Especially when it's the only thing I can do. Just wake up, will you?"
I can't, they want to say, but they can't will themselves to move or speak. And neither does the person above them, because they speak again right away. "C'mon, soldier boy. Open your eyes. I know you can do it."
They focus on these words, cling to them – because if this person is talking to them, then they tell them something about themselves. They called them a boy, so they must be one. He must be one. A boy. That's something, that's more than they – he – knew until moments ago.
Then the voice in his head is back, and this time... this time he can do it, he can grasp the words that have been there all along, whispering, mocking.
But that's not true, is it? They are someone – he is someone. He must be. He's a boy, or so the voice from outside says. Soldier boy, it called him.
I know you can do it.
… Can he?
Just wake up, will you?
But he's already awake, he reasons. He must be, or else he wouldn't be hearing anything. He wouldn't understand anything. He's awake. He's awake.
C'mon, soldier boy. Open your eyes.
He does. With a supreme effort of will, he does.
He has to close his eyes right away because light fills them and it's almost unbearable – so much light so much he didn't think there could be so much light in the world – but it's enough. There is an audible gasp and then the person who's there with him stops talking to him and calls out for someone else. Everything is a bit confusing from that moment on, noises and voices and movement all around him.
When he dares to open his eyes again – barely a fraction, squinting so that he can protect himself from the light – there is a woman in a white coat, looking down at him with a smile as though she's staring at a miracle. A doctor, he thinks, and that's all he can think before she speaks.
"Hello, little guy," she says, and he could swear her smile is widening. "It's good to have you back."
"Welcome back to the land of the living. Great to have you here. Enjoy your stay."
The Phantom shuts his eyes against the sudden light. The body bag he was in isn't quite enough to block out all light, but it still kept him in the dark for... for how long? He doesn't even recall being moved from the morgue. Actually, he doesn't remember anything past the moment he was lowered on the ground and he had to lie there, limp and motionless, eyes shut and holding his breath.
"Was I drugged?" he asks, sitting up. His head spins a little, but it doesn't stop him from taking a look around. He's in what looks a rather ordinary living room, half-sitting in the body bag he must have been carried there into. Kneeling beside him is a woman with short red hair and dark eyes – the woman he learned to know as agent Pine, no doubt. She looks different, but she made no effort to mask her voice as she greeted him back to the land of the living.
"Yes. It was while I was pretending to be checking on you to make sure you were dead," she says, standing up. "It took a moment. Bet you didn't even feel it prickling. No offense to your acting skills, but we had to make sure you'd look absolutely dead while in the morgue. Had pleasant dreams?"
I dreamed of the first time I came back from the dead.
The Phantom scoffs and finally stands. "Hardly," he says, taking a look around. "Where are we?"
She shrugs and stands, only to sit on a couch just a couple of steps from him. "A random apartment in a location you don't need to know," she says. "To stay hidden for a while. At least until the coffin with your body," she says, reaching up to make air quotes with her fingers, "has been buried."
"I see. What is in that coffin?"
Another shrug. "That's on a need-to-know basis, and neither of us needs to know. Maybe some sacks of sand. Maybe the body of someone the government of the United States wants gone. Who knows. Do you really care?"
"As long as you can grant me Blackquill will know nothing, not really."
She laughs as though he just said something especially funny, and the Phantom can only wait in silence until she's done. "Why, your concern for him is moving," she says. "Nice last words, by the way. You sounded all the world like you meant them. I could have thought you were really about to die."
LaRoche was, the Phantom thinks, but he refuses to dwell in the thought any further. He shuts down any emotion it may arise and hums. "I had to be convincing," he says. He cannot admit in front of her just how much he meant each word he said. She probably suspects as much – she already knows that the reason why he chose to await for the execution and fake his death rather than just escaping was giving Blackquill a chance to leave him behind and move on – but she cannot know it for a fact. He'd rather keep it this way.
"You sure were, Mr. LaRoche."
"Don't call me that," the Phantom snaps. Robert LaRoche is now officially dead – executed for his crimes, gone from this world, dead as dead can be – and he won't be called that again. He no longer has any claim on that name, on any name that's not assigned to him for a time. He's once again nameless. A ghost.
Only that he's not Blackquill's phantom anymore, or so he hopes. The thought Blackquill may move on – must move on – and erase him from his mind would hurt if he allowed himself to feel right now. But he doesn't; he knows he mustn't.
He expects her to laugh again, but she simply sighs. "Fine, fine. So, how do you want to be called?"
"Phantom will do," he says. "It's the name- the name I've been known by for a while. It will do until I'm given another one," he mutters, hoping she doesn't wonder about the brief hesitation.
It's the name Blackquill gave me.
Thankfully, she doesn't seem to have noticed. Or, if she did, she chooses not to remark on it. "Not really imaginative, but okay," she says, and he sees his chance to change subject.
"Which reminds me – how should I call you now?"
"At the moment I go by Carmen Sandiego."
The Phantom raises an eyebrow. "Are you serious?"
He stares at her with no expression for almost a full minute before she finally stops laughing. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he can't help but think that he'd be tempted to strangle her if he wasn't currently suppressing all emotion. "You're the one who's serious. Too serious. Do lighten up a little!" she snickers, but doesn't wait for his answer before she finally replied. "No, not really. It's Anna Grahme, for now. It will probably change soon enough, though. Whenever they see it fit."
"Speaking of them," the Phantom mutters. "Do you realize I still have nothing but your word that you – or any of the men who aided my escape, for the matter – truly work for the government of the United States?"
"Oh, for fuck's-" the Phantom grumbles, then he just sighs and waits in silence for her to stop laughing. He tries to pass time thinking of ways to make her stop that don't include violence, but he can't think of many.
"Hah! Why, I'm wounded," she finally says, still snickering, and then pouts at him. "Don't you trust me?"
"I trust no one," he says dully. "You even less."
She grins. "Fair enough. Don't worry, you'll get to talk to someone high up rather soon. I'm sure it will put your doubts to rest. Anything you'd like to ask meanwhile? I'm here to babysit you anyway."
The Phantom chooses to ignore her jab. A retort would probably cause her to laugh some more in any case. "Then tell me why the government would want me. Or you, for the matter. There is no shortage of spies to pick from; I know that for a fact. Why should they get two criminals – two compromised spies – out of prison to work for them?"
Her grin widens. "You surely don't think they would have done the same for just about anyone. We both have something – sets of skills – that would make our death a waste. That, and we have no other choice. No options, nowhere to go, no one to turn to. The organization I worked for no longer exists, and what's left of yours wants you dead. Working for the government is our one and only option. They basically own us, and that makes us convenient pawns. Then again, it's something you should be used to. You were chipped already, weren't you?"
The Phantom nods, lips pulled into a tight line. The previous week, following her instructions, he claimed to be feeling sick and asked to be brought to the infirmary; being able to throw up at will and with no effort was quite useful to be convincing enough.
The doctor in there gave him some pills to keep up the act before putting a tracking chip under his skin with a syringe-like device. A precaution so that he 'wouldn't have funny ideas', was all he had said before inserting the chip under the skin between his shoulder blades. It hadn't been pleasant – it was mildly painful, and he couldn't say he appreciated being chipped like a dog – but he hadn't let out a sound. When the other officers had come to escort him back to his cell, they seemed to suspect nothing.
"I was," he finally says. "I assume that so were you."
"Of course. They wouldn't have let me set foot outside that prison without making sure they could track me wherever I went. And that's how they'll track you down if they have to," she adds, leaning back on the couch and crossing one leg over the other. "If you think you can try tampering with that chip without them knowing, forget all about it now. They're very serious about this. One slip, one reason to even think you're dreaming of double-crossing, and you're as good as dead," she says, and pauses for a moment before speaking again. "I've seen it happening. He was a good spy, too; we worked together from time to time. But he got tired of the deal and decided to quit. Only that there is no quitting. He thought he was smart enough to get away. He wasn't."
The Phantom nods and turns away. "Rest assured, I won't take the risk. As you said, I have nothing to gain from double-crossing my new employee. I'll do my job. Who I'm doing it for makes no matter."
That's everything I can do, he thinks. It's the only life he knows.
"Wise decision. I must admit I'm curious to really see what you can do. And... not that I mind, but is there any particular reason why you're taking off your shirt?"
The Phantom snorts at her flippant tone. "The harness," is all he says, throwing the shirt of the prison uniform aside. The harness around his chest is starting to feel uncomfortable and he's not surprised to realize, as he takes it off, that there are bruises under the leather straps. Then again, it could have been worse. It could have been his neck.
She raises an eyebrow as he lets the harness fall on the ground. "Are you sure you didn't break a rib or two?"
"I'm rather sure I would have felt it if I did," the Phantom says, but he does reach to pass his hands over his ribs regardless. The harness could have been put on better, but there was little time to do so: he and the officer who put it on him – someone else from the government, he supposes – were left alone for only a few minutes before he had to be brought to the gallows. His shirt and shackles were just back on when the officers had come back to bring him to the gallows.
From that moment on there was nothing he had to do but play his part: when the moment came for the noose to be put around his neck, it had been a child's play for someone – the same officer who put the harness on him, he assumed – to hook the harness to an hook concealed in the noose.
After that, he only had to play dead like a good trained mutt. "What will happen once the coffin has been buried?" the Phantom asks, finally certain that none of his ribs are broken. "Will I be allowed out of here?"
He receives no reply – only the sound of a muffled laugh, and turns to look at her. She's keeping a hand pressed on her mouth in the clear effort not to burst out laughing. "What now?"
She pulls her hand away and, while she's thankfully not laughing, there is a wide grin on her face. "There's a mirror behind you. Why don't you take a look?"
The Phantom turns to the mirror on the opposite wall, not quite knowing what to expect – and then stills when he realizes exactly what is it she finds so amusing. Those left by the leather straps are not the only bruises that mark him: there are some more bruises on his collarbone, the base of his neck, on his right shoulder... none of which was left by a strap. It's glaringly obvious that those bruises are the result of either bites or suction, or both. It was both, as though Blackquill had wanted to leave a mark on him before-
The sudden pain his chest warns him not to pursue that line of thought any further. He hastily smothers that weak shudder of emotion and turns away from the mirror. "I still fail to see what you may have found so funny," he says. He reaches to pick up the shirt and put it back on.
A snort of a laugh. "So, who left those on you?"
"How I acquired them is none of your business," he says flatly. "Now, I asked you-"
She gives no sign of having even heard him. "Oooh, right. Blackquill got a special permission to visit you last night, didn't he? I did wonder if something was up with-"
"Which part of 'none of your business' eludes you?" the Phantom snaps, turning back to glare at her. He expects her to laugh, he's certain she will laugh, but she doesn't. She stares at him for a few moments, the smirk fading from her face, and her expression stays unreadable for a couple of moments before she shrugs.
"Fine, fine," she says, waving her hand. "As for your question, we also have to wait until our man in the police department has finished with the clean-up work before we leave."
"Like changing all of your DNA samples in the police's possession with someone else's. Just to be safe. Don't make a habit out of bleeding all over evidence, though. After that is done, plastic surgery is next."
This time, the Phantom is unable to keep himself from recoiling. He's known what awaits him since before his escape, since when he accepted her offer out of sheer terror of dying – even though he knew that a great part of him would have to die anyway, that only the shell he has been for years will be left. A ghost. A mockery of a life he was too much of a coward to let go of even after knowing what being a person means, even knowing how much he'd have to sacrifice to be able to keep breathing.
In the end, he couldn't do it. He couldn't face death as a man; perhaps he never truly was one. He chose to vanish like a ghost again because no matter of how the thought of leaving everything behind once again terrified him – his fear of true death was stronger. And now that his name is lost to him for good, he supposes it's only fitting that he must also erase his face once for all to keep living. Especially now that he insisted on staging his death before his escape, arguing that if everyone thought him dead then there would be no bothersome attempts to hunt him down from the police, the Interpol... and from Blackquill.
As long as Blackquill believes him dead, he is safe. From them, from him, and from himself.
Safe, and free at long last.
"The police knows your true face looks like," she's saying, her voice quiet. There is no hint of humor in her voice or expression now. "You know that. If you're ever caught again and the masks are taken away, you'll be recognized you. There will be questions. They cannot allow it."
The Phantom nods. "I know," is all he says before willing himself to change subject. "I'm tired. I should hope there is a guestroom in here."
"Aw, c'mon. Haven't you slept enough? I could use some company he-"
"I'm very tired," he cuts her off, his voice tight, and turns away from her. He's bracing himself for another laugh, but there is none: only a few moments of silence before she answers quietly.
"There's an hallway past the door on your left. The guestroom is straight on. There is also a bathroom should you need it. There are some clothes you can change in. Prison uniforms are an eyesore."
"Good," is all he says, and turns his back to her without another word, walking up to the door. He doesn't even have the time to touch the doorknob before she speaks up again.
He pauses and turns to glance at her from over his shoulder. "What is it?"
She shrugs. "Do lighten up. Look on the bright side: you're alive."
"Hmph. In a manner of speaking, I suppose," he says, turning away. He reaches up to touch his face, but then he realizes Blackquill's fingers rested on that same cheek and he pulls his hand away as though the touch burned him. What will he look like when they're done with the surgery?
"Still better than death," she says, sounding closer this time. He turns again to see that she's standing now, head tilted on one side "Think of it this way: death must be rather boring. So final. But life..." she pauses, and smirks. "Life is full of exciting possibilities. You can never know when you may start enjoying the ride."
"Simon? Simon! Oh, c'mon. You've got to be kidding me."
Athena huffs, finally giving up on knocking at the door of Simon's office. Looks like he isn't in, after all – which is annoying, really, because she has good news. Well, a surprise and good news. Which are both good news, really, and Simon could really use some good news.
Not that things have been that bad... not in the last couple of weeks anyway.
Admittedly, the first few days after the execution were bad. Simon had stayed with her through most of the first day, but he had barely spoken: he would just be there, a silent but reassuring presence beside her. Somewhat unfocused, lost in his own thoughts and grief, but there.
Athena hadn't tried to coax a response out of him; she could tell he needed time. So she hadn't bothered him, not then and not in the next days – when Simon would only show at the courthouse if he absolutely had to and avoided everyone he could while there, saying almost nothing. She could tell he was grieving and, again, he needed time; there was no point in trying to talk to him when he had no wish to talk.
Still, when Simon had started to return to normal a few days later it had been an incredible relief. The moment he had made one of his ill-humored jokes in court for the first time since LaRoche's own trial, Athena had almost wanted to get over to the prosecutor's bench and hug him. She had managed to hold back, though: she had a client to defend, and hugging the prosecution in the middle of the trial would probably be deemed inappropriate. She had given him that hug later, though, and while he had snorted he hadn't tried to pull back – nor he had asked what it was for. He had only said-
"I should hope you didn't assault anyone to make it to my office this time."
Simon's voice snaps her from her reminiscing, and she turns to him with a sheepish grin. He's standing right behind her, a folder under his arm – details of a case, no doubt. "Nope, not this time. They just let me through. I guess last time was enou-" she starts, only to trail off in surprise and stare at him for a few moments. "Hey, you cut your hair!"
Simon smirks, reaching up to rub the back of his head with his free hand. The mass of hair he kept tied back is gone, and aside from the white streak his hair looks much like he used to keep it back before... before it all happened. "Very observant of you. Have you been borrowing Justice's tricks?"
Athena sticks out her tongue at him. "Very funny. I just didn't expect it. I was getting used to the mane."
Simon chuckles. "So did I. But I figured it was about time to part from it."
She can sense some emotion coming from him, a mixture of sorrow and relief; it's not about the hair, of course, but she can tell that even the simple act of getting a haircut must have had a meaning to him. The emotion is not overwhelming, though: most of all, he is calm. If not quite yet at peace, this is the closest he's been in a long time. He's fine.
We'll be fine.
Athena can feel a huge smile spreading on her face. "It looks good. It makes you look younger. And hey, bet your head feels a lot lighter now."
"Hmph. Aura said the same, although it was more along the lines of sending me back to grade school," Simon says. "Speaking of which, Aura told me you just won the appeal."
Athena's smile fades into a pout. "Aw, and here I hoped I could give you the news myself," she mutters. "Yup, we did it! As in, Mr. Wright did it. That's three less years for her to go."
Simon smiles at her, and for a moment Athena feels like her heart missed a beat. It's not one of his smirks, nor one of the tired smiles he'd muster for her from time to time: it's the calm smile she recalls seeing on his face so often at the Space Center, the one she's been wishing to see again for seven years. "You have my deepest gratitude," Simon says, and Athena knows that unless they change subject now she's going to cry.
Good thing there is still the other good news up her sleeve.
"Hey, it's the last we could do. Also, look!" she adds, pulling out a couple of tickets and waving them before his nose. "We're going to Europe! "
That causes Simon to blink. "What? When?" he asks, clearly taken aback. It's clear he didn't expect her to get the tickets quite that soon. Now this surprised him, and it feels really good. She grins up at him.
"Next week?" Simon repeats. "I'm afraid that's too soon. I need to take a leave of absence with the Chief Prosecutor, and such things take ti-" he trails off as her grin widens. "... Don't tell me you-"
"Everything settled," she announced. "You have three weeks of vacation starting on Monday. It didn't take much to convince Mr. Edgeworth. And Trucy does the best puppy eyes anyway. Get ready to walk, because I'm going to show you everything I've seen in seven years. Gotta make up for the time you missed, right?"
Simon stares at her for several moments, still taken aback, then he nods and gives her that smile again. "I concede that the defense has a point," he says, and it takes all of Athena's willpower not to hug him again.
"On the bright side, it's not that bad of a face. I think it's better than your old one. Not that it says much."
The Phantom doesn't quite care to argue that point. He doesn't quite care to argue over anything at all, not even to ask why on Earth did she decide to come over and bother him into the clinic. At the moment his attention is entirely taken by what he's seeing on the mirror he was finally allowed to have, so that he could finally see what his new face is like now that the bandages are entirely off.
It is different alright. Higher cheekbones, narrower nose, different eye shape, stronger chin. The scar on his forehead is still there, but far less noticeable: it could pass by as a far less serious accident than being shot. All in all, the one thing he can still recognize is his eye color – such pale blue that it looks like dirty ice. He was told that they considered changing his eye color as well, a procedure that can only be done once, but they had decided against it: his pale eyes worked too well with colored contacts as they were for them to bother.
"It doesn't matter," he hears himself saying, putting down the mirror. "It's just a face."
Not mine. Not my face.
She doesn't remark on that, nor she says much of anything: she only says something about enjoying his vacation while it lasts and leaves, leaving him alone in the room once again.
The Phantom shuts his eyes and reaches to run a hand through his hair. His hair and skin are still his own, but not for long: he already knows he'll need to tan and dye his hair brown later on. He must look all the world like a different person. He is a different person.
He is whoever they want him to be. He is no one.
No, a part of his mind is whispering. That's not true. He is someone. He is.
Who am I?
He expects the thought to be painful, but somehow... somehow it's not. The loss of his face is causing a dull ache somewhere in his chest, sure enough, but calling himself the Phantom once again doesn't feel nearly as wrong as he expected he would feel.
It's the name Blackquill gave me.
"A phantom," he speaks up, and frowns. No, that doesn't sound right. He's not a phantom.
Who am I?
The more he thinks about it, the more it feels like a name. Not a proper one, perhaps – not like Robert LaRoche, not liker the one he lost – but that of the Phantom is feeling more and more like an identity of its own now. It's his name. He is the Phantom, and the Phantom was Robert LaRoche – something no amount of fake deaths and masks can possibly take from him.
The Phantom reaches under the mattress to pull out something, a folded piece of paper that's not supposed to be there at all – a folded piece of paper that may be his undoing should anyone ever find it on him, but that he can't being himself to destroy. A piece of paper telling him that someone called Robert LaRoche existed. Telling him that he was – is – someone. There is something he didn't have before now: a self, a core that no face he may wear can change and that he won't allow himself to lose ever again.
I won't let you forget yourself ever again, LaRoche.
Neither will I, Blackquill, the Phantom thinks, and smiles.
I am the Phantom.
A/N: Aaaand yeah. This is it. The end and stuff. Yay?
I have a half idea for a story that may be set after this, but that half idea is about all I have. So yeah, for now the whole thing is very high up in the air. I'm not sure if/when I may actually work on it, but hey. I'm leaving myself an open door just in case.
(Someone made a Frozen joke. I know someone did. Whoever you are, just know that you're predictable.)
Also, thanks a lot to everyone who read/reviewed/faved/followed this. It's been a fun ride. Hope it was good for you as well. Thanks!
EDIT: Guess who couldn't resist? I couldn't. Sequel is up. XD